Ghost Virus: Chapter 32


When they met Dr Fuller at St George’s the following morning, all three of them were in a ragged mood.

A thick white dressing was stuck to DI Saunders’ left ear with Elastoplast, and he had also cut his upper lip shaving. Jamila’s eyes were swollen as if she had been tossing and turning all night, while Jerry had a dull thumping headache because he had drunk three bottles of Stella before he had gone to bed. At least he hadn’t had any nightmares about the walking dead – none that he could remember, anyway – and he hadn’t woken up until his alarm went off at 7:00.

Dr Fuller was irritable, too. The bodies of Mindy’s father and mother hadn’t been brought into the mortuary until just before midnight last night, so that he had only been able to give them a cursory once-over. He was still waiting for the latest radiographic results from Block B at Lambeth Road and although he had seen Mindy he hadn’t yet attempted to remove her jacket. She was still under heavy sedation in a private room, with an officer posted outside.

‘We’re a long, long way from finishing all of our tests, detective inspector,’ he said, picking up reports from his desk, frowning at them, and then putting them down again. ‘Days, if not weeks. And of course I’ll have to initiate some new tests once I’ve managed to take off this young girl’s jacket.’

‘I just need to know if you’ve come up with any feasible theories,’ said DI Saunders. ‘I’ve got the whole bloody world on my back expecting some realistic progress with this case but there’s bugger all I can do until I have at least some idea of what we’re dealing with.’

Dr Fuller looked at him over his half-glasses. ‘I’m afraid that I’m still as much in the dark as you are, detective inspector. However, I can give you one item of positive news. Lambeth Road got in touch with me late yesterday afternoon and confirmed that the fibre samples that I extracted from Sophie Marshall are an exact match for the fibre samples that I extracted from our nameless drug-addict. Because of that, I can confirm that when they committed their offences they were both wearing the same coat.’

‘What about the DNA?’ asked DI Saunders. ‘Does that match, too?’

‘Yes, although it didn’t belong to either of them. So far they haven’t been able to trace who it did belong to.’

‘And what about that headmistress who threw those kids out of the window – what was her name?’

‘Laura Miller. Again, we found DNA on the fibres from her coat. It wasn’t her DNA, but again we’ve had no luck in tracing whose it was.’

‘And the sweater?’

‘Aha, yes. The sweater. It was hand-knitted, and we found traces of DNA on that, too, but they may belong to whoever made it, and not a previous wearer. His wife didn’t knit it for him, that’s all we know so far.’

DI Saunders was silent for a moment or two, his arms folded, staring at Dr Fuller as if he expected him to know by telepathy what his next question was going to be. Sensing the tension, Dr Fuller looked up from his paperwork and poked his half-glasses back onto his nose.

‘Did you find anything in David Nelson’s fibres that could have enabled his sweater to move?’

‘I’m not sure I understand the question,’ said Dr Fuller.

‘Well, let me put it this way. There are some drugs, aren’t there, which can give you involuntary spasms?’

‘Some strong diuretics like furosemide can give you severe muscle cramps, and that could induce spasms. Or donepezil, which is used to treat Alzheimer’s. But there was no indication that David Nelson was taking either of those – or any other medication, for that matter.’

‘So there was nothing in those fibres that could have caused them to move independently of David Nelson himself?’

‘Static electricity, perhaps, but I’m still really not sure what you’re asking me.’

Jerry tried to change the subject. ‘All these different fibres that you took samples of – do they have anything in common? You know, like a virus? We all seem to be coming around to the conclusion that this is some sort of minor epidemic, don’t we, so there must be something that’s spreading it.’

‘Well, as I’ve told you, we’re far from completing all of our tests,’ said Dr Fuller. ‘Up until now, however, there’s no indication of any viral or bacterial infection, or the presence of any mind-altering substances. That was one of my earliest and strongest suspicions – that the fibres might have been somehow impregnated with LSD or ayahuasca, or in particular with PCP. But no, they’re not.’

‘Is that it, then?’ said DI Saunders, impatiently. ‘Apart from telling us that Samira Wazir and that stupid druggie were both wearing the same coat, which we pretty much guessed already, you haven’t found out anything? You can’t even tell us how Samira Wazir’s coat disappeared from her house – or how Sophie Marshall’s jacket disappeared, either.’

‘No, I can’t,’ said Dr Fuller. ‘I run a pathology laboratory, not a lost property office.’

DI Saunders closed his eyes for a moment and took a deep breath. Then he said, ‘Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that nobody took them. Let’s suppose for the sake of argument that somehow they left the crime scenes under their own steam, as it were.’

‘Is that why you were asking me if the fibres were able to move by themselves?’

‘Yes,’ said DI Saunders. Jerry could tell that he was mortified by having to ask this question, and that he was very close to losing his temper.

‘I would have to say undoubtedly not, no, they couldn’t have moved of their own volition. It’s possible that they could have been highly charged with static, but that would only have had the effect of making the fibres stand on end. You can see the effect yourself if you rub a balloon on your hair. It certainly wouldn’t have given a sweater the ability to get up and walk out of the door, if that’s what you’re suggesting.’

‘And you can’t work out how those clothes might have affected the mental state of the people who were wearing them?’

‘They seem to have induced some kind of schizophrenia, I agree. They may be able to tell you more at Springfield. But from my point of view – so far, no.’

‘All right,’ said DI Saunders. ‘When will you be taking the girl’s jacket off?’

‘Later this afternoon. I need to take a blood test first.’

DI Saunders stood up, and so did Jerry and Jamila.

‘Listen, doctor, I can’t tell you how bloody urgent this is,’ said DI Saunders. The way he said it made it sound like a threat, as if he would send somebody round to Dr Fuller’s house to throw a brick through his window, or worse, if he didn’t come up with an answer by the end of the day.

Dr Fuller looked up at him, and although he said nothing, the expression on his face said that he thought that DI Saunders was an irritating ignoramus. Clothes that moved of their own volition? No, DI Saunders, the clothes goblins carried them off.

 

*

 

As they walked back to the hospital car park, DI Saunders looked at his watch and said, ‘You two are going off to the nut house, aren’t you, to interview our suspects again?’

‘You’re not coming with us?’ asked Jamila.

‘No – I think I’ll shoot up to Lambeth Road and have a word with the Borough Forensic Manager. It’s not Bob Johnson any more, is it? This investigation needs an urgent kick up the jacksie and we won’t get it from Fuller. I know he’s supposed to be the great I-Am when it comes to forensic pathology, but he’s too bloody hair-splitting for my liking. And too bloody slow. We’re going to have to cut some corners if we don’t want this clothing fiasco to get totally out of hand.’

‘OK, guv,’ said Jerry. ‘We’ll see you when we get back. I can’t honestly say that I’m looking forward to this. The last time I interviewed anybody at Springfield it was some basket-case who deliberately shat his pants so that the smell would drive me out of the room.’

‘I’ll have to remember that next time Callow starts to get sarky with me,’ said DI Saunders, although his expression remained totally deadpan.

He climbed into his Insignia and drove off. Jerry looked at Jamila and shrugged and said, ‘Right-o, skip, let’s do it.’

They crawled through painfully slow traffic to Glenburnie Road, and at last turned into the grounds of Springfield University Hospital. The original building had an impressive red-brick frontage, built in mock-Tudor style in 1840 when it had first opened as a mental asylum, but their suspects were being held in a modern two-storey extension. They parked and went inside, and an orderly pointed them the way to Ward 3.

In the day area they found Dr Dorothy Stewart the consultant, talking to Cherry Mwandi the ward manager. The day area was light and modern, with chunky beige armchairs and a huge flat-screen television. About fifteen patients were sitting watching Antiques Roadshow, both men and women. A young woman with wild black hair was humming to herself and repeatedly tapping her fingers against her cheeks as if she were applying moisturiser, and a man with lobster-claw tattoos around his neck kept throwing his head back and staring open-mouthed at the ceiling, but most of the other patients seemed to be lost in a world of their own.

Dr Stewart came forward to greet them. She was a tall, smart woman in her early forties, with a short brunette bob, a grey tweed suit and large Alexander McQueen glasses. Jamila took out her ID, although Dr Stewart recognised Jerry from his previous visits.

‘I’m afraid that none of your three are doing at all well,’ she said. ‘We’ve carried out some initial examinations, but so far we haven’t been able to make a conclusive diagnosis about their mental stability. What’s particularly puzzling is that they’re all complaining that they feel very ill, even though physically they have absolutely nothing wrong with them.’

‘As far as you can tell, do they all share the same mental condition?’ asked Jerry.

‘Yes, we think so. They’re all exhibiting symptoms very much like schizophrenia, but the balance between their dopamines and their serotonin is absolutely normal, which is not what we usually see in schizophrenics. They’ve also acted aggressively from time to time, especially when they’ve been questioned by our cognitive behavioural therapist. I know the popular perception of schizophrenics is that they’re violent, but in fact most of them are extremely docile and withdrawn.’

‘They’re conscious, though, and able to speak?’ asked Jamila.

‘They’ve been sleeping a great deal, but yes. Cherry will take you to see them now. All I ask is that you don’t over-excite them.’

Cherry Mwandi was a chubby but pretty black woman with criss-cross goddess braids. If she hadn’t been wearing a pale green nurse’s uniform Jerry would have had her down as a singer or a TV chef rather than a mental health ward manager. She led them out of the day area and along a corridor until they came to a locked door with a sign reading SECURITY WING: AUTHORISED PERSONNEL ONLY.

‘That Sophie, we’ve had so much trouble with her,’ she said, as she tapped out a four-digit code. ‘One minute so sweet and calm, the next minute she’s leaping up and trying to take a bite out of my neck.’

Jamila held up her right hand, still covered in a navy-blue cotton glove. ‘You don’t have to tell me what she’s like. She almost chewed off my thumb.’

‘Well, you’ll be relieved to know that they’re all restrained now,’ said Cherry Mwandi. ‘But like Dr Stewart said, please try not to get them worked up. Until we know for sure what’s causing their behaviour, we need to keep them placid. It’s possible that if they get too agitated they might suffer a TIA. A mini-stroke,’ she added, looking at Jerry, although he already knew what a transient ischemic attack was.

A young police constable was sitting at the end of the corridor, reading a copy of the Daily Mirror. He stood up as Jamila and Jerry approached.

‘All quiet?’ Jamila asked him.

‘Bit of shouting and screaming now and again, sarge,’ said the PC. ‘But nobody’s tried to get out – or in, for that matter.’

‘Let’s see Sophie first,’ said Jamila. ‘She’s the one who interests me the most – well, her and David, but of course David is no longer with us. What she did was so calculated.’

Cherry Mwandi led them to a door further along the corridor. She peered inside through a small window before she unlocked it.

The room was bare except for a bed with two red plastic chairs next to it and a bedside table. There was a single small window, high up out of reach. The only decoration was a reproduction of a David Hockney view of the ocean.

Sophie was lying on the bed facing the wall. She was wearing a plain white nightdress and white bedsocks, and a blue restraint belt around her waist which was fastened to the bed-rail.

‘Sophie, love,’ said Cherry Mwandi, touching her gently on the shoulder. ‘You have visitors.’

‘Go away,’ said Sophie. Her voice was thin and wheezing, as if she were finding it difficult to breathe. ‘Let me die in peace.’

‘Sophie, you’re not dying. You’re perfectly well. Now why don’t you say hello to your visitors?’

After a long pause, Sophie turned around. She stared at Jerry and Jamila and it was obvious that she didn’t recognise them. Her face was deathly white but her lips were red and swollen and blistered as if she had been chewing them.

Jamila sat down in one of the chairs next to the bed. ‘Sophie, don’t you remember us? My name’s Jamila. My friend here is Jerry. We’ve come here to try to help you.’

‘You can’t help me now,’ said Sophie. ‘Nobody can help me. I’ll be dead by morning.’

‘What do you think is wrong with you?’ Jamila asked her.

‘Pneumonia. I caught it here, in the hospital.’

‘Sophie, where do you think you are?’

‘St George’s, of course. But why do you keep calling me Sophie?’

‘I’m sorry. What’s your real name?’

‘Varvara. But most people call me Val.’

‘And why were you admitted to hospital?’

‘’Flu. But it got worse instead of better. You come to hospital to get well but instead they kill you.’

Jamila looked up at Cherry Mwandi, who was standing at the end of the bed. Cherry Mwandi shook her head to indicate that in spite of the hoarse, strained way in which she was talking, Sophie had no symptoms of streptococcal infection in her lungs.

‘Val, do you remember what you did to Michael Brent?’

‘I did nothing to him. I didn’t touch him. It was her.’

‘When you say her, who do you mean?’

‘It was Sophie, who do you think? Why are you asking me all these questions? I’m dying. Can’t you leave me in peace?’

Jerry sat down next to Jamila and said, ‘Where’s Sophie now, Val?’

‘She’s gone. Where do you think she is?’

‘Gone where?’

‘Nowhere. She doesn’t exist any more.’

‘What do you mean by that? Do you mean she’s passed away?’

Sophie frowned at Jerry as if she couldn’t make up her mind if he was joking, or stupid, or simply trying to provoke her.

‘No – she’s gone. There’s no room in one body for two people, is there? But now I’m going too and the nurses won’t feed me so I’ll be dead by morning.’

‘The nurses won’t feed you? I can’t believe that.’

‘They won’t feed me what I need,’ said Sophie, and started to cough. She coughed and coughed until her chest started to heave.

Cherry Mwandi came around and poured her a tumbler of water. She helped her to sit up and held the tumbler to her lips. Sophie took two or three gasping gulps and then spluttered water all over her gown.

‘I think that’s enough questions for Sophie,’ said Cherry Mwandi. ‘Perhaps we should go and talk to your other friends now.’

Jerry and Jamila stood up, and Cherry Mwandi ushered them outside. Back in the corridor, Jamila said, ‘What did she mean about the nurses not feeding her what she needs?’

‘She wanted to eat them – the nurses,’ said Cherry Mwandi, as she locked Sophie’s door. ‘Whenever they came to wash her or to help her to use the bedpan, she kept saying, “Give me a bite of your breast, or your thigh… You won’t miss a piece of your thigh, will you?”’

‘Blimey,’ said Jerry. ‘That puts a whole new perspective on hospital food, doesn’t it?’

They followed Cherry Mwandi along to the next room. As they walked, Jamila said, ‘Calling herself Varvara… I think that’s proof enough that she and young Mindy were both wearing the same jacket, don’t you? And that’s three of them now with an appetite for human flesh. Well, more than appetite – a craving. They seem to believe that if they can’t have it, they won’t be able to survive.’


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