As he passed the sandbags at the hospital entrance, Stratton thought of the rumours hed heard about the local authorities stockpiling thousands of papier-mâché coffins, and thought: soon. Middlesex Hospital, emptied the previous September of most of its patients to make room for as yet non-existent air-raid casualties, was still quiet. Strattons footsteps echoed on the stone stairs as he descended to Dr Byrnes underworld - the mortuary, lavatory-tiled, harshly lit and smelling of decay and chemicals. The pathologist was seated at his desk, writing notes. Is this an official visit?
Stratton shook his head. Curiosity.
Wont take long, will it?
Just a few minutes. Stratton neither expected nor received the offer of a seat. Hed met Dr Byrne a couple of times, and the mans manner was as chilly as the corpses he filleted. He even looked dead - not cadaverous, but there was something cold and doughy about his pale skin that suggested a freshly washed corpse.
Its about Miss Morgan.
The suicide? Bodys at the police mortuary. Dr Byrne paused to knock out his pipe before shuffling through a stack of papers. What do you want to know? he asked aggressively.
Isnt it unusual, a woman throwing herself out of a window?
No. Women do it. Didnt she leave a note?
Worried about the invasion. Ive had a couple of them in the past month. Neurotic types.
I was wondering about where the body fell. It was the fourth floor, and the areas not that wide . . . I was surprised she didnt land further out, in the road.
Byrne shrugged. Depends how she jumped.
What about her underclothes?
What about them? Byrne looked at him with distaste.
Were they clean?
Ive no idea. She hadnt soiled herself, if thats what you mean.
Would you say she took care of herself?
She was reasonably clean. Byrne glanced at his notes. Lot of scarring on the face . . . Burns. Shed had a skin graft. Not a very good job, by the look of it. He looked up. Lot of paint. Prostitute, was she?
Stratton tried not to sound as annoyed as he felt. I imagine she hoped that heavy cosmetics might hide the scars. As a matter of fact, shed been in films.
There you are, then. Artistic type. Highly strung. As I said, the injuries were quite consistent with the manner of death. Now, if theres nothing else . . .
Stratton marched back upstairs, irritated at the mans way of reducing everyone to a type. Just as well he didnt have to deal with living patients. Stratton wondered if Dr Byrne was married, and then, firmly suppressing an image of him in fumbling coitus atop an equally corpse-like wife, went out into the street.
As he strolled back along Savile Row - even after years out of uniform, his internal pacemaker was still set at the regulation 2½mph - Stratton thought about his first suicide, a young man whod put the muzzle of a gun under his chin and blown most of his head into the walls of his outdoor lav. He remembered the drops of blood falling from the wooden ceiling onto his back and neck as hed bent over to look, and a larger one on his hand that turned out to be a piece of brain. Thered been chips of skull embedded in the boards all round the toilet, pink and white, like almonds on an iced cake. Stratton had been twenty-five then, the same age as the poor bastard whod killed himself. Theyd found a note saying he was suffering from an incurable disease. Turned out he was homosexual - hed gone for treatment, but it hadnt worked. Stratton remembered what one of the older coppers had said about it being unusual for a nancy to use a gun. They normally do it like women: gas or pills, and clean underwear. The same officer had told him that the most violent way women did it was with carbolic - bloody painful, burns your insides out. Everything Stratton had seen since had confirmed these rules, until yesterday. Clearly, female jumpers werent as uncommon as hed thought, and the underwear was inconclusive . . . Nevertheless, the feeling that something wasnt quite right continued to nag at him. Not that there was much he could do, it wasnt his case. It wasnt anybodys. As far as his superiors were concerned, the thing was over and done with.
Excerpted from The Innocent Spy by Laura Wilson Copyright © 2009 by Laura Wilson. Excerpted by permission of Minotaur Books, a division of Macmillan, 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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