Short story – Death in Memory or Not?

Dafydd Gethin relaxed behind his desk in the Harkingthorpe hospital, satisfied that his day was finished.  The small town in the fenlands of East England produced little excitement and the prospects of a golf game on this fine June evening filled his head.  His train of thought was broken when Nurse Gibbons rushed in with a perplexed look on her face.

‘It’s Mrs Atkins, she’s dead’

‘What?  Apart from her dementia she seemed perfectly fine when I saw her this afternoon’

‘The ambulance service radioed from her house.  The Police doctor has confirmed the death and the body on its way to the mortuary’

Dafydd rose quickly and made to leave the office.

‘No! Mr Gethin, when they radioed in on the way to her house her file was there at reception for return to the filing department and Mister Beard, the Medical Director, picked it up to take a look.  When he saw that she had an appointment with you today he said that it would not be proper procedure if you got involved’

Dafydd had suffered previous run-ins with James Beard due to his officious manner but realised that his hands were tied in these circumstances.  He postponed the golf and waited in his office. It was not long before James, knocking politely, entered the office.

‘Well, Dafydd, preliminary examination by the Police doctor could not find any obvious cause of death and he will not sign a death certificate. Is there anything you can think of?’


Dafydd considered before replying ‘You’re probably familiar from reading her file, she has or had been suffering from dementia for a long time with a few periods of lucidity.  She was physically fit for a woman of sixty eight and even seemed a bit happier than normal today.  Her daughter was with her, as always, and she looked tired and anxious but then that is always the way for the carer’  ‘Umm’ replied James ‘So, nothing to go on there.  There will have to be a post mortem, but that is up to the Coroner now, of course.  We must give them all the help we can.  The medical profession has been coming under flak recently and we must be seen to be doing the right thing’ Dafydd was a little shocked, as such an action was not necessarily mandatory in recent times especially for a woman of her age, but understood the Director’s concern.


When the sudden death report was passed to the local Police office, the desk sergeant followed procedure of informing the CID and detailed a uniformed officer to go to the Coroner’s office to record the events.  Detective sergeant Dave Wilkins received the report and was inclined to forego the need for CID presence but a glint came into his eye.  Detective constable Colin Phelps had started a few days ago for the first time in plain clothes having completed the obligatory two years in uniform.  He was a bright lad but still a bit naïve.  ‘Right, young man!  I think we’ll go and have a look at this one’


The younger man paled but said nothing as they went to the car.  In the two years before, he’d had very little exposure to dead bodies and when he had, he found it unpleasant.  ‘Mrs Atkins was quite a well known woman locally, wealthy landowner with a son and a daughter neither of whom had married.  The daughter has been looking after her, for quite a while.  Dementia, I’ve been told’ explained Dave.



When they got to the mortuary a constable was already there and busying himself placing the woman’s clothes in a bag and affixing a label.  The body was on a trolley and covered with a sheet.


‘Hi, Joe, anything for us?’  Dave asked the constable.

‘Nothing amiss here, Sarge, don’t think we need to tax the intelligence of CID’

‘Probably not’ but Dave pulled on some surgical gloves and lifted the sheet off the old lady’s head, watching his fellow detective shrink slightly backwards. She looked peaceful and surprising unlined for her advanced years.  He examined the neck and behind her ears.  Her hair looked like she had just been to the salon but was flattened on either side.  Probably when she slept Dave thought.


‘Doc says no marks or bruises anywhere’ the constable added.  ‘Indeed’ Dave muttered covering the head again and lifting the sheet to look at her perfectly manicured and painted fingernails and he peered under the nails.  The other hand was the same as were her toes on both feet.  ‘Looks as if she was well prepared to meet her maker’ he said.  He appeared to tire of his inspection. ‘Let’s see what the Coroner has to say when he gets round to his turn.  I think it must be your turn to buy the beer, Detective Constable.  Let’s go!  Going to join us, Joe?’  ‘Naw, thanks anyway, Dave.  I’ll finish here and get home to herself and a nice dinner’


The rookie detective had to force himself into not running out of the examination room but had recovered by the time he got to the car.


The Standard Inn was the preferred watering hole for the local police in Harkingthorpe and the two detectives sat outside in the afternoon sunshine nursing their beer.  Across the green a children’s party was in full swing outside a marquee.  They both watched as a helium filled balloon let loose from a careless hand soared high into the sunny sky. ‘I think Joe was right, there was nothing for us to get involved in’ said Colin ‘you only did that to wind me up’


‘Well I think you’re only right about one of your two statements.  I succeeded with the last one, but the first one I’m not so sure about.  I don’t do hunches but there is something niggling at me here’ he drained his glass and Colin followed his example. ‘One more beer and we’ll go back to the station’ Colin held up his glass ‘None for you, mind! You’re driving’ Dave got another pint and sat down again.  Colin re-opened the conversation.

‘I can’t see where you’re coming from.  I know you’ve had experience with CID in London but this is Harkingthorpe.  The last major crime here was committed by the Vikings.  Midsomer it is not and neither are you John Nettles.  Sarge’


Dave took no notice of this. ‘When we get back, you run a check on Agnes Atkins, her finances and her will etc. it will give you a bit of practise if nothing else.  There will be more details on the Coroner’s initial report to help you track the info down.  While you’re at it check out the son and daughter as well.  The electoral roll should give you enough to work with’


For the rest of that day and most of the next Colin slaved over the computer and late in the afternoon came back to Dave.


‘It appears that there is nothing there regardless of your hunch’ ‘Not a hunch’ said Dave ‘I’ve told you that already.  I’m just feeling uneasy about this but I don’t know why’  ‘Well’ said Colin ‘whatever, Agnes Atkins had nothing, everything had been transferred to her kids a long time ago.  They had nothing to gain by her death’


‘So no death duties, then?’  ‘No’ said Colin.  ‘When was everything transferred to them?’ Dave continued ‘I can’t remember but I’ll find out’ said Colin


‘Have you not logged all you’ve done?’ asked Dave ‘You haven’t, have you?  You dick! Right, go over it all again and document everything and make sure you start case notes, there’s no need to put anything in  HOLMES yet’  Referring to the Home Office Large Major Enquiry system,  ‘Without that computer system we are back in the dark ages maybe later we will need it.  We would have caught the Yorkshire Ripper in primary school if we had kept proper records’


The next morning the chastened Colin came back.  ‘The transfer of all the assets was made seven years ago last week.  There is nothing on any of them.  All taxes have been paid, no outstanding parking or any other vehicle tickets, no criminal records, no overdrafts.  The daughter claims a carer’s allowance and does not work, just looked after her mother.  The son manages the land and the farm and they all live together happily together in the big house.’  All the information has been correctly logged on paper and in the computer


‘Nothing else? asked Dave ‘No pastimes?  Have you checked Facebook? Bebo? LinkedIn? I thought you kids were into all this stuff?  Well?  What are you waiting for?’


Dave smiled to himself as the disgruntled Colin trudged away.  He’ll make a good copper one day, he thought.  A few hours later Colin returned.  ‘You were right guv, both are on Facebook they have few friends but they are friends with each other.  Nothing out of the ordinary there.  They are not signed up for anything else.’


‘Well, let’s pay them a visit.  Our story is that we’re just checking details, standard procedure and so on before the post mortem.  So, no waving your rubber cosh around the place just quiet and peaceful. Okay?’ warned Dave ‘I still can’t see why we’re bothering but you’re the boss’ said Colin raising his eyebrows!


They drove up the gravel driveway and parked in front of the impressive house.  The doorbell rang quietly in the depths of the building and it was about two minutes before Sonia Atkins answered the door.  ‘Sorry!  I was out the back of the house.  Can I help you?’


Colin was immediately taken with the slim attractive woman.  The detectives produced their warrant cards.  ‘Detective Sergeant Wilkins and Detective Phelps, we would like to discuss some details about the post mortem for your mother.  It’s okay, just standard procedure, things we need to make the Coroner aware of, prior to the examination.  May we come in?’


She stepped back and opened the door wide.  ‘Please, go into the sitting room, second on the right.  Make your selves comfortable and I’ll make some tea’ She pushed open the sitting room door and spun on her heels allowing them to enter and sit down.  Colin sat down and leaned back as Dave walked round the room taking in everything.  He heard footsteps approaching and quickly sat down.  She entered the room and placed a tray with an elegant tea set and a plate of digestive biscuits.


Once they had been served she sat down.  ‘So, what can I help with?’ she asked.  Colin as instructed in the car took out his notebook.

‘Was your mother on medication?’ he asked.

‘Yes’ she replied ‘but surely the doctor’s records could have given you that’

‘Yes but we need to corroborate that with you as the carer.  Sometimes other medications are used despite medical advice’

‘Oh!  I see.  She was taking Namenda, 21 mg per day’


A series of nondescript questions followed and Colin dutifully noted down the answers until it exhausted his imagination.

The sergeant tried surreptitiously to study her mood and expressions which became more relaxed as time went on.  She had seemed on edge when they first arrived.

When he saw that Colin was flagging Dave said ‘I think that will be all for now, we will leave you to get back to what you were doing when we arrived’

They got up to leave and as they got to the front door Dave turned and said

‘There is one other thing, could we see where your mother died just to ensure no environmental factors could have had an effect.’ Sonia looked startled but quickly recovered.  ‘Yes, of course’ she said and she led them down the hall ‘She slept on the ground floor to make looking after her easier’ and she opened a door to let them in.

Dave slowly walked round the room and examined the windows and curtains, wallpaper and an old but defunct fireplace.  The bed was placed in the middle of the room with a bedside table either side.  Dave looked under the bed while Sonia looked on with a puzzled expression.

‘No, there is nothing out of the ordinary here’ he said ‘Thanks, Miss Atkins, I hope we have not disturbed you and we would like offer our sympathy for your loss’


They got back into the car and drove slowly down the driveway pulling over to allow a Range Rover to pass with a young man at the wheel. ‘That’s the brother, I remember the registration from my extensive research’ said Colin looking sideways at his senior officer.  ‘Extensive research! When were you going to tell me that they were both sub-aqua divers and he had a motor launch on the coast here’ asked Dave.  Colin looked sheepish ‘I didn’t think that the diving was relevant and I didn’t know about the boat. How do you know about that?’  he asked  ‘I will decide what is relevant, when I ask for info I mean everything.  In the sitting room there were photographs of them both in wetsuits and one of him aboard a boat named Kraken, at Skegness yacht club’


‘So what was that pantomime about in the old girl’s bedroom?’ asked Colin ‘Aah’ said Dave ‘You just never know what could turn up when you wrong foot someone.  Now drop me off at the station house, I’ve had enough for one day.  You can go back to your flat with your pretty little policewoman’ Colin looked stunned. ‘Don’t look so surprised.  You’re in the police force you can’t have secrets.  Anyway, your private life has no interest for me.  At least most of the time’


Dave ate desultorily in the station house and took himself off to his room to surf the Internet through the evening.  In the morning he appeared back in the Police office and when Colin arrived he said ‘Don’t get settled you’re going solo today.  Get yourself a packed lunch and go to Skegness marina and see if you can check out the ‘Kraken’.


Dave sat at his desk and logged on to the police computer.  After an hour of research he resignedly logged off and went for a walk outside to clear his head.  Suddenly his mind was made up and he took out his mobile phone and dialled a number from his notebook.  The number rang for quite a while before a female voice answered.


‘Miss Atkins?  It’s Sergeant Wilkins.  I was wondering if it would be possible to talk to you and your brother at some point today.’

Sonia replied hesitantly ‘Yes, we are both here now and will be here for a few hours.  What do you want to talk about?’

‘I’ll explain that when I arrive.  I’ll be there in about half an hour.’

He ended the call walked back to the station and got into his private car.  He drove slowly and carefully to the Atkins house considering and re-considering what he was about to do.

When he arrived at the house he was met at the door without the bell being rung.  Paul Atkins stood full square in the doorway.

‘What is all this about?’ he demanded.

‘Don’t make this any more difficult.  It is hard enough for me as it is.  May I come in?’

Begrudgingly he stepped aside and Dave walked in.  He could see Sonia standing nervously in the open sitting room door.  She walked into the room and Dave and Paul followed her in.  Paul closed the door behind.

‘As far as I can see this is not proper procedure even if our mother’s passing was a case of sudden death’ said Paul

‘I think we should all sit down’ Dave said and lowered himself on to the settee.

Paul and Sonia each sat in an armchair and looked at him.

‘As a policeman it is my job to look for anomalies that might indicate a crime..’

‘What crime?’ Paul burst out.

‘Please wait, I appreciate that the quality of your mother’s life and of yours was not a pleasant experience, one from which there was no possibility of recovery until death intervened.  Your mother’s health did not indicate any condition that would threaten her life at present.  She provided for your future by transferring her wealth equally to you both over seven years ago.  Had she died during that seven year period you would have been subjected to a considerable levy of death duty tax.  The doctor has said that she did still have lucid periods and I presume that options were discussed between the three of you..’  He noted that Sonia had begun to cry.

Paul started again ‘You presume?’

Dave stopped him with a wave of his hand.

‘Let me finish, a few weeks ago your credit card was used to purchase a large cylinder of helium gas online’

Paul slowly fell back deflated into the chair.

‘You are both divers I can see from the photo there but research has shown that you are not deep sea divers requiring helium and certain not from the purchased cylinder.  You are, however, familiar with breathing apparatus.  There is sufficient information available on the Internet on Exit sites regarding the use of helium for assisted suicide in a swift and painless manner.  It will also go undetected in a normal post mortem examination’

He put his hand into his pocket and carefully removed a long strip of tissue.  He dangled it in front of him.

‘I think if this was checked in the laboratory it would have your mother’s DNA on one side and traces of rubber from a mask seal on the other.  I picked it up from under the bed when I was here the other day.  When I examined the body, her hair, although newly done was flattened strangely on either side of her head’

He allowed all this information to sink in.

‘Sonia, say nothing until I get a solicitor here’ Paul instructed, as he got up to go to the phone, but Dave stopped him.

‘There will be no need, sit down’ said Dave quietly

Slowly, Paul looking puzzled returned to his seat.

‘The world is full of very nasty criminals, vicious serial killers and child molesters.  There is such a thing as responsible policing and some of the evidence I put to you today has been illegally obtained.  That the pursuit of an investigation would not be in the public interest is a decision normally considered by the Crown Prosecution Service.  I understand what you have been through and I believe it was in collusion with your mother that your recent actions were made.  I don’t think you will be repeat offenders and I am deliberately here on my own having sent my young friend on a fool’s errand.  I’m sure that you must be doubly shocked, one by what I have told you and two by the fact that I intend to take it no further action.  I could have kept all this to myself but you would have spent the rest of your lives looking over your shoulder.’  He balled up the piece of tissue and threw it into the empty fireplace. ‘I’ll show myself out, I’m sure you’ve got a lot to talk about.  Please try and get on with your new lives’


He quietly closed the sitting room door behind him and left the house.  Getting into the car he drove to a quiet spot in the woods near the Atkins home.  He parked the car and sat for a few moments before leaning forward and cried softly to himself.  All the memories of his mother and her suffering flooded back, he was angry again with his father for running away from his responsibilities while Dave  had been sentenced to years of looking after her, with the aid of some hired help, while he worked for their upkeep which had precluded girlfriends and hence marriage.  He had thought along the same lines as the Atkins but had never had the nerve to carry it out.


Gradually he composed himself until he was fit to return to the station.


Colin Phelps was there when he arrived.  ‘Well? What did you find?’ asked Dave.  ‘Well you were right, guv. It’s a boat but I couldn’t get on board so what more could there be to this?’


‘Well done, Sherlock!  Anyway, I’ve thought this through and for once I have to agree with you there is nothing in this case for us.  Just this once, mind you, don’t get cocky!’


Over the rest of the week the Coroner’s office machinery went through its normal procedures and the post mortem did not uncover any possible cause of death.  The recommendation to the Coroner for issue of the death certificate was that the death was from natural causes and Agnes Atkins could be laid to rest.

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