'Perhaps she came down to get something, felt a pain in her chest and sat down for a moment to regain her breath.'
'Of course not. Ruth had absolutely nothing wrong with her heart.'
That's why you came to see me, thought Bryant. You can't accept that she might just have sat down and died. 'You'd be surprised,' he said gently. 'People often pass away in such small, unready moments.' He approached the old woman's body and noted her swollen, livid ankles. Ruth Singh's blood had already settled. She had been seated there for some hours, probably overnight. 'Doesn't seem to be any heat in here.'
'It's been hot for so long. There's a storage heater for the winter. Oh dear.'
Bryant watched his old colleague. 'Go to the back door and take a deep breath. I think it will be better if you wait outside while I take a quick look at her. It isn't really my job, you know. I'll only get told off for interfering.'
The room was cool enough to have slowed Mrs Singh's body processes down. Bryant knew he would have to bring in Giles Kershaw, the unit's new forensic officer, for an accurate time of death. The rug beneath the old woman's boots looked wet.
'There's no one else left now, just us,' murmured Mr Singh, reluctant to leave. 'Ruth never married, she could have had her pick of the boys but she waited too long. She shamed her parents, being so English. All her life she was fussy and independent. My sister was a headstrong woman, my daughters are not. It seems the generations can no longer teach each other. Everything is out of place.' He shook his head sadly, pulling the door shut behind him.
The room was so still. It felt as if even the dust in the air had ceased to circulate. Bryant drew a breath and gently exhaled, turning his head. Watery light filtered in from an opaque narrow window near the ceiling, at the pavement level of the bathroom. Perhaps it had opened once for ventilation, but layers of paint had sealed it shut.
Ruth Singh looked as if she could have died watching television, were it not for being in the wrong room, and for the odd position of her legs. She had not suffered a heart attack and simply sat down, because her hands were carefully folded in her lap. Something wasn't right. Bryant absently stroked the base of his skull, leaving the nimbus of his white hair in tufted disorder. With a sigh, he removed a slim pack from his pocket and separated a pair of plastic anti-static gloves. He performed the obvious checks without thinking: observe, touch, palpate, listen. No cardiac movement, no femoral or carotid pulse, bilateral dilation in the clouded eyes. The skin of her arm did not blanch when he applied pressure; it was cold but not yet clammy. Setting the candle closer, he slipped his hand behind her neck and gently tried to raise her head. The stiffness in the body was noticeable, but not complete. At a rough guess she had been dead between eight and twelve hours, so she would have passed away between five-thirty pm and nine-thirty pm on Sunday night. Kershaw would be able to narrow it down.
When he tried to remove his hand, he was forced to raise the body, but the cushion slipped and Ruth rolled sideways. Next time I'll leave this to a medic, he thought, trying to upright her, but before he had a chance to do so, she spat on him. Or rather, a significant quantity of water emptied from her mouth on to his overcoat.
Excerpted from The Water Room by Christopher Fowler Copyright © 2005 by Christopher Fowler. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Blood at the Root
"A gripping, timely, and important examination of American racism."
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