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Authors: Priscilla Masters

Smoke Alarm

Table of Contents

A Selection of Recent Titles from Priscilla Masters

Title Page

Copyright

Dedication

Prologue

Chapter One

Chapter Two

Chapter Three

Chapter Four

Chapter Five

Chapter Six

Chapter Seven

Chapter Eight

Chapter Nine

Chapter Ten

Chapter Eleven

Chapter Twelve

Chapter Thirteen

Chapter Fourteen

Chapter Fifteen

Chapter Sixteen

Chapter Seventeen

Chapter Eighteen

Chapter Nineteen

Chapter Twenty

Chapter Twenty-One

Chapter Twenty-Two

Chapter Twenty-Three

Author's Note

A Selection of Recent Titles from Priscilla Masters

The Martha Gunn Mystery Series

RIVER DEEP

SLIP KNOT

FROZEN CHARLOTTE *

SMOKE ALARM *

The Joanna Piercy Mysteries

WINDING UP THE SERPENT

CATCH THE FALLEN SPARROW

A WREATH FOR MY SISTER

AND NONE SHALL SLEEP

SCARING CROWS

EMBROIDERING SHROUDS

ENDANGERING INNOCENTS

WINGS OVER THE WATCHER

GRAVE STONES

A VELVET SCREAM *

 

*available from Severn House

SMOKE ALARM
A Martha Gunn Mystery
Priscilla Masters

This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

 
 

First published in Great Britain and the USA 2012 by

SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD of

9–15 High Street, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM1 1DF.

This eBook edition first published in 2012 by Severn Digital an imprint of Severn House Publishers Limited

Copyright © 2012 by Priscilla Masters

The right of Priscilla Masters to be identified as the author of this work has been asserted in accordance with the Copyright, Designs & Patents Act 1988.

British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data

Masters, Priscilla.

Smoke alarm.

1. Gunn, Martha (Fictitious character)–Fiction.

2. Shrewsbury (England)–Fiction. 3. Detective and mystery

stories.

I. Title

823.9'2-dc23

ISBN-13: 978-1-78010-308-2 (epub)

ISBN-13: 978-0-7278-8199-1 (cased)

Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.

This ebook produced by

Palimpsest Book Production Limited,

Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland.

With thanks to Mel, Ruth and Debbie – a very profitable lunch at the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital. Thanks for the idea, the inspiration and ultimately – the book. You've earned your free copies! And also to Rosie Morris, whose informative book brought events to life.

PROLOGUE
24 February, 1968

T
he end of the day was worst, when the nurses locked the door and she was shut in with all the others. Incarcerated. There were so many steps she must go through properly or she would not sleep and instead spend the night shouting and screaming like all the others, begging to be allowed to go through the necessary ritual again to find the elusive Sandman, the one her mother had told her about, who ensured oblivion right through the night. If she could find Him there would be no nightmares or screaming fits, no visitations or bed-wetting. Nothing. Simply nothing. These nights all she wanted was for the black velvet curtain to hang in front of her eyes and block out the terrifying visions; the visions which were shared in one form or another with the other occupants crammed like cattle into the ward. She moved her eyes to look, keeping her head and neck rigidly still. None of them liked to feel they were being watched. And yet they were – all of the time. There was no privacy. It was a poor illusion. Around her she heard the others shuffling through their own personal rituals, each one muttering to herself, reminding her of the order of things. They all wished for oblivion. It was their happiest state. Their only happy state. But though she found it difficult to be quiet, screaming didn't help. Instead of indulging her and letting her try again to find the perfect sequence that looped towards that special, hidden place, the nurses would tell her she was too noisy and disturbing the others, and then they held her down to give her an extra injection. It made her swim into a dreadful and uncertain place full of mists and spirits. It was a black, squelching quagmire into which she sank, drowning in the thick sludge. It was the worst place, a sucking, vampire place from where she could not escape, a place where she knew all around her was awfully wrong but was powerless to do anything to right it; she could only snivel and cower from her fear. So she made sure not to break the ritual but to keep quiet and still. And hope that the welcome black velvet curtain would drop across the stage.

Soon after arriving (how long ago was that? She didn't know), she had worked out a system of perfect ritual. The first step towards tranquillity, or karma, was to enter her bed area with her arms straight down by her side as though glued to her thighs. This ensured that the fibrous membrane which protected her from the others was not pierced. It was equally important that she entered her magic space still wearing all her clothes.
All
her clothes, mind, coat too. Sometimes a hat, even gloves, if it was winter and she had worn them throughout the day. No matter how much the others laughed at her
they
were on the outside,
she
on the inside. Now she was safely alone, in her protected environment, as long as
no other patient
crossed that invisible line which marked out
her
space. As long as no one pierced the bubble. Step one completed. But she couldn't relax. Not yet. Once inside things could still go wrong.

She slipped out of her cardigan, sliding it down her arms very, very slowly, making sure none of it touched the floor because that would contaminate it and mean she would not be able to wear it tomorrow. Safely.

She only had the one cardigan so if she couldn't wear it she would be cold. Still, if it touched the floor at all it would have to be washed. Twice. By her. The nurses would not wash it for her. They would refuse to indulge what they saw as an ‘illness'.

So she had worked out a way to be absolutely sure that the cardigan was not contaminated. It was not allowed to go any nearer than two inches from the floor. Two inches which she measured herself with her eyes.

Tonight she managed it all very well and was pleased with herself, allowing herself a mental pat on the shoulder, glad that Nurse Gowan had cleaned the black plaster marks off. They would insist on sticking a plaster on when she had had one of the blood tests to check the levels of drugs in her body were not too high. And removing the plaster left an unsightly black mark which she was conscious of. But the mark had been removed. She would sleep tonight, she was sure. She hung the cardigan on the coat hanger and looped it over the hook on the wall before slipping her feet out of her shoes and placing them, side by side, heels to the back, only the tips of their toes peeping out from underneath her chair.

So far so good. She heaved a sigh of relief.

Although the ward was overcrowded with patients' beds along the walls, top to toe as well as down the middle, she was barely conscious of the others around her, all completing their own nightly dance, except to be aware that this was a very quiet night.

Her nightdress lay on her pillow, carefully folded, its short sleeves splayed out so they would not crease, the pillow with its open end facing the wall. That, too, was important. And again it had something to do with the Sandman. It kept her good dreams inside it and stopped nightmares from entering, firstly through the pillow and after that, climbing her hair and knocking on her skull. Finding a way, somehow, along the roots through her scalp, into her head and infecting her brain with more awful terrors. To try and lock out this train of thought she started breathing more deeply, more slowly, as the doctor had shown her. In, hold, out. In, hold, out. She smiled, again rather pleased with herself. It did help. He was right. She would tell him so – tomorrow. It did help her gain control. She removed her blouse and folded it symmetrically so the buttons were dead centre, three buttons done up and exposed and the cuffs folded up – just a little. Not too much. She performed the next task very, very quickly, removing her vest and brassiere and tucking them underneath the dream pillow, out of sight but ready for the morning when she awoke.

The look of worry never quite left her face. It always looked strained and unhappy because she was always waiting for the next thing to go wrong. And there were many things that could go wrong. Too many. But all this anxiety had left its mark. She was a thin, stooped woman, prematurely aged, with a permanent, deep frown line, straight, greying hair and small, anxious eyes which never really looked at anything. What she always prayed for was to be invisible, to blend in so perfectly with her background that no one actually saw her. She wanted to be a wraith. Insubstantial.

Around her the other women were shuffling into their beds, lying end to end because of the overcrowding. But there was no contact between them. No words spoken, no gesture – friendly or hostile. They were all beings separated by their perception of the world around them. And yet they were too near for any of their strange comfort. Some reacted badly to this forced convergence by screaming or kicking the nurses. Some chattered to themselves – nonsense, mainly. Others, like her, were watchful and silent, locked in with their own fears.

She slipped her nightdress over her head then unbuttoned her skirt and slid that down her thighs in perfect time with the nightdress descending, so no sliver of flesh was exposed. She stepped quickly out of it. She had not wanted it to touch the floor and had tried pulling it over her head, but that didn't work either. Her body felt too vulnerable. Naked. When the skirt was folded she sat on the side of her bed to remove her tights, which must then be tucked underneath her skirt, out of sight. It was all right for her outer clothes to be on show but not her undergarments. This was important.
Everything
was important.

She stood up so she could fold the sheets back in a tidy, triangular shape, then sat down on the edge of the bed, swivelled round and pulled the sheets and blankets up to her shoulders in one skilled sweep. Then she was ready to sink back against the pillow and hope that tonight would be one of the good nights.

When she first lay down the lights were still on so she did not dare close her eyes but kept them wide open and fixed on a small mark on the ceiling. A mark which could also indicate whether she would have a peaceful night because it could change, looking one minute like a fish or a hound, a bloodstain or a cloud, or anything else, sometimes changing every second. After the lights were turned off she continued to fix on the spot where the mark was. The lights were supposed to be turned off at nine o'clock precisely. It upset her very much if the lights were extinguished either earlier or later than this formally agreed time but tonight was a good night, the nurses punctual in switching them off.

So far so good, she thought again. At her head she heard another patient breathing slowly, practising the same relaxation techniques that the doctor had shown
her
. It annoyed her that he shared her therapies with others. They should be only for her. A personal plan. At her feet was another woman, already snoring noisily after her medication. She lay against the pillow, relieved that tonight she had got it all so right and wondering what shape the mark would assume in the dark.

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