The Quid Pro Quo by A.L. Lester

Part 1: Day 1

Chapter 1

Walter was drawn from the kitchen by a hammering on the front door. He glanced at the grandfather clock in the hallway as he hurried to answer it. It was still very early, not yet six. The sun was already well advanced though, the bright morning rays coming through the glass panes to either side of the door and throwing coloured patterns across the black-and-white floor tiles.

Sylvia was poised at the top of the stairs as he reached for the big brass doorknob, hastily pulling on her dressing gown. She and Lucy used the room over the portico for just this reason, so night-time emergencies could wake her easily.

“I’ll get it,” he threw over his shoulder to her, stumbling over the cat as he took his eye off where he was going. “Bugger, Jasper, get on out of it, will you?” He shooed him away as he regained his balance and made for the door.

“It’ll be for me, anyway,” Sylvia said. “I’ll go and get dressed.”

Walter was already up and in his clothes. He slept in his own quarters over the old stables although he spent most of his time in the house.

He yanked at the door in the face of another bout of frenzied hammering. “Hold your horses, it can’t be that bad,” he said with some asperity as he pulled it open. “What’s going on?”

It wasn’t a scared youngster come to fetch the doctor to their labouring mother as he’d expected. It was Reg Parsons, the teenage son of Mr and Mrs Parsons who ran the village shop. “Reg!” he said in surprise. “What’s the matter? What do you need?”

“Mr Kennett!” he exclaimed. “Please, can the doctor come? There’s a body! Dead! A lady! In the duck pond! They’re pulling her out now!”

He felt his mouth fall open. He shut it again. “What?” he said. “Dead? In the duck pond?” The duck pond was at the edge of the village green that formed the centre of the village.

Reg nodded. “I saw her floating, when I went to feed the ducks.” He swallowed. “I’m sure it’s a woman, Mr Kennett! Please can the doctor come?”

Sylvia was already coming down the stairs behind him, clothes hastily thrown on and hair still tugged back into her night-time plait instead of her usual smooth daytime bun.

“I’m here,” she said. “A body? In the village?”

“Yes, Miss. In the duck pond. Father and Mr Simmons are pulling it out now. They sent me to get you. Although, she looked dead, Miss. She was floating. Face down, with all her skirts around her.” He pulled a face of distress.

Sylvia flung a glance at Walter. “I’ll come too,” he said, taking off the apron he’d donned over his suit to fry the bacon.

“I’ll get my bag,” Sylvia said, diving into the surgery next to the front door as she spoke. “We’re coming, Reggie, you go on back and tell them. We’ll be right behind you.”

Walter hung his apron on the coat stand, swapping it for his cap and remembering to grab his suit jacket from the kitchen. Sylvia emerged from the surgery, fussing her bag closed. She wouldn’t have needed to check it, it was always packed and ready, but she was a perfectionist. She too grabbed her hat from its hook and jammed it down onto her untidy hair, shoving her long plait up underneath it.

“Let’s go,” she said, grimly, pulling on her coat. “Walking will be as quick as getting the car out.”

They hurried down the lane in the bright sun and the cool morning air, high hedges bobbing with cow parsley and campion and stitchwort and vetch, no breath to talk. They weren’t running exactly. But Sylvia was a brisk walker at her slowest and she was pushing on. The flower-covered hedges gave way to cottages and houses and as they rounded the curve into the centre of the village, the vista opened up to include the church, the vicarage, the green…and the duck pond.

There was a small crowd of people gathered around, mostly men. Reggie was in conversation with his father, who was standing over something on the ground. Mr Simmons was crouched on the grass at their feet, beside whatever it was.

Who was Walter kidding? It was a body.

“Doctor’s here,” he heard someone say, and the little crowd turned toward them as one.

Sylvia speeded up and he had to lengthen his stride even more to match her pace.

Mr Simmons looked at her and then up at Walter.

“Doctor Marks! It’s Mrs Fortescue,” he said. And added, unnecessarily, “She’s dead.”

Sylvia stopped as if she’d run into a wall.

Hadn’t she and Lucy been to a party at Lilac Villa last night? Walter had taken himself to his bed in his cosy room in the eaves of the old coach house about nine and hadn’t heard them come back. They’d walked over to the engagement. It wasn’t far and had been a nice night.

What was the woman doing in the duck pond?

Walter watched as Sylvia joined Simmons on the grass and did a perfunctory examination, establishing there was no hope of revival.

“She’s gone,” she said to the crowd in general, pulling off her light coat and laying it over the woman’s pale face as she spoke. “Did anyone see her go in?”

There was a general murmuring and muttering from the dozen or so people gathered round. No-one had seen anything before Reggie had come to let out and feed the ducks at half past five.

“She has friends staying with her,” Sylvia said, standing up. “Could someone go and rouse them? They’ll need to know. And her family will need to be called…they’re in London.”

“Poor lady,” Walter heard someone in the crowd mutter. “Losing her husband like that. And then drowning herself…” The voice trailed off.

“Where’s Constable Chamberlain?” Walter asked.

Simmons shook his head. “Away to visit his sister for a couple of nights,” he said. “He went yesterday.”

“I’ll go up to the house.” Mrs Simmons stepped up beside him. “Come on, Simmons, you come as well. We don’t want them down here though, do we, Dr Marks? There’s no need for them to see her like this?”

Sylvia shook her head. “No need at all,” she said. “Walt, can you go back and get a stretcher for me? There’s one in the left-hand cupboard in the examination room. We can take her back up there. We’ll need to call the police and get someone up here from town, I think. And someone should wake up the vicar and Mrs Downs to look after Maria and Clara. I’m sure they’ll need it.” Her voice was dry.

What had happened last night at the party to give her that expression?

She effortlessly took charge, slipping faultlessly into Hospital Sylvia without a thought.