The machines swished and thudded like amniotic fluid around Trish as she sat, watching her father. Outside, the sun was dazzling and the air clogged with pollution. In here, blinds covered the windows; the artificial light was dim, and the air cool. The nurses' shoes squeaked against the vinyl floor as they moved from bed to bed, checking, soothing, making sure all was well.
Each bed was like an island protected by its private reefs of machines. The still, silent patient lying in it might be desperately ill, but he wouldn't die if any care could save him. A sensation of absolute competence lapped around Trish.
Paddy Maguire slept on. His jowly face was much paler than usual and the black stubble stood out a good quarter-inch from his skin. Trish should have realised that his old rich colour was as much a sign of the heart-attack to come as his smoking, the gargantuan plates of bacon and eggs he liked, and the floods of cream he poured over every pudding. But she'd never thought about it. There had been too many other things.
He shifted a little under his sheet, his black eyebrows twitching, as though he was dreaming. Trish didn't know how you dreamed when you were on the edge of dying. She hoped it wasn't fear that twisted his face. His head moved sharply to one side and then back to the other. Trish looked for his nurse, who nodded reassuringly and came to check his machines.
Her expression melted into genuine relief. Trish sank back in her chair, letting herself watch again. The dream, if that's what it had been, seemed to be over; Paddy was back to the pale stillness she now recognised as normal for his condition.
He had deserted her, and her mother, before she was half-way through junior school. For years she wouldn't speak to him. When she had eventually allowed herself to meet him, as an adult, she had found a lot to like, against all her instincts. There were his quick jokes, his sly perceptive comments on sacred cows of all sorts, and the hot anger that was so like her own and, like her own, usually triggered by injustice.
She approved of his cussedness, too; his refusal to do and be what everyone else thought he should. Trish pulled herself back from the abyss that opened there.
His Irish voice charmed her, these days, and she liked his flashing eyes and his secret cleverness. Bluff joking Paddy was how people were supposed to see him, and him with a mind like a razor; and a closed mouth when it mattered. She hadn't expected that.
He was like no one else she'd ever known. He was her father. In a weird kind of way she was proud of him these days.
And now here he was, laid out in front of her after a heart-attack, still in danger, and she'd never told him what she felt. Sixty-two. Twenty-five years older than she was. He'd gone before he'd reached the age she was now.
He mustn't die, she thought; not yet. Not before we've clawed back a bit more.
The machines pumped and churned, and Trish waited for a sign that they might get a chance. She felt a hand on her shoulder and looked up, expecting the nurse.
Her mother was smiling down at her. Trish smiled back. She had always admired Meg for her steady courage and her unshakeable kindness, but she hadn't expected this. It wasone thing for Paddy's only child to come and watch over him as he lay between life and death, but for the wife he'd dumped in favour of some fly-by-night floozie from the typing pool was something else entirely.
'I'll take over, Trish.' Meg wasn't whispering, but her voice was pitched to suit the soft security of the ward. She was a doctor's receptionist these days and knew all about hospitals and how to behave among the dying.
'It's all right. I ...'
'No. He's in the best hands here and you've got work to do. They'll be screaming for you in chambers, and it won't do your father any good if you screw up the great career.'
Trish felt her smile broadening.
'That's better,' Meg said. 'Go on now. Hop it, Trish. Bernard's coming to collect me later. He'll drive me home.'
Trish quietly put her papers in her briefcase, eased down the locks so that they wouldn't snap, and stood up. Meg kissed her, then patted her bum to urge her away. Trish went, looking back when she reached the doorway to see Meg leaning down over her erstwhile husband, smoothing the hair away from his forehead. The tenderness in her face made Trish turn back fully to watch.
Meg looked up. Her expression reverted to its more familiar, half-mischievous, wholly confident smile. She nodded, mouthing, 'Hop it.'
Outside the building, Trish paused to breathe normally and fit herself back into her usual role of crisp, efficient member of the Bar, not the yearning, uncertain daughter of a half-known man, who might not survive to talk to her again or answer any of her questions.
It took a moment or two. When she was sure of herself, she felt in her shoulder bag for her mobile and rang for her messages.
There was one from Dave, her clerk, wanting her to getstraight back to chambers to hear about an urgent brief she must accept if they were to help a child in need of protection from a potentially abusive parent. Trish felt her jaw clamp shut like a vice.
The next message was much easier. It asked her to call Heather Bonwell, who had recently been appointed to the High Court bench. Trish had often been led by Heather in her years as a silk and admired her. After her message came one from Anna Grayling, an old friend who ran an independent television production company. And after her, Dave again, nagging for an answer.
Trish rang him as she walked towards her car. His description of the case made her ears ache. The child's parents, far too well-educated and endowed to have the remotest excuse, seemed to be using their four-year-old son as a means of punishing each other for the failure of their marriage. His father had been given a residence order at the divorce because the mother's job took her abroad at very short notice and she clearly hadn't wanted to be bothered with maternal responsibility. Now she had lost the job and seemed to think repossession of her child might do something for her shaky self-esteem, or so her husband's solicitor believed.
'And the child?' Trish said into the phone, as she unlocked the car. 'At four, he could be old enough to express a preference. What does he say?'
'That he wants to stay with his father. But the mother's claiming he's been terrorised into saying it. When it's pointed out to her that he shows no sign of terror, she then says he's been bribed. Or brainwashed. Anyway, they need counsel fast. Will you do it? It's for Thursday next week.'
'OK. I'm on my way back now. The traffic looks vile, but I'll see you when I can.'
'Great. And how's your father?'
What an afterthought! Aloud, she said, 'Holding his own, they say. Thanks, Dave. I'll see you.'
Switching off the phone and letting it drop on to the passenger seat beside her, Trish drove out of the car park and into a seething mass of cars and buses. One day, she thought, it'll be possible to be beamed up, Scotty. And one day the sky will snow diamonds and white chocolate truffles into our upturned faces. One day.
As soon as the traffic stopped moving again, she phoned Heather Bonwell. It turned out that she thought Trish ought to apply for silk.
'Oh, come on,' she said at once. 'I'm not nearly there yet.'
'Thirty-seven, Trish. It's by no means unprecedented and we still need a lot more women. Your income's getting to the point where it should be virtually automatic, and you've a good reputation these days. Think about it.'
'I'm flattered,' Trish said. 'But I think it's a bit soon. I'm not sure I want to be turned down, and I think I would be.'
'Don't leave it too long. Now, will I see you at the next SWAB dinner?'
'Definitely. I'm looking forward to it.' Secretly Trish still preened herself whenever she thought of her invitation to join the exclusive women-only dining club. It had no secretary, no constitution, and no specific objects, but it had become the most powerful source of networking for women in legal London.
The traffic was beginning to shift ahead of her, so she waited to call Anna Grayling until she was stuck again.
'Trish, fantastic!' Anna's voice was extravagantly bright. I wonder what she wants, Trish thought. 'You are such an angel to ring back so quickly. How are you?'
'Fine.' Trish decided to hold the news about her father until she knew how the conversation would progress. 'What's up, Anna?'
'Could we meet? I've got a terrifically interesting proposition to put to you.'
'Can you give me some idea what it is? I've got a lot on just now.'
'It could wait, but I do want to get cracking in the fairly near future. You see ... It's quite complicated. Have you got a second now for me to give you just the barest smidgeon of an outline?'
'Sure. I'm stuck in traffic.'
'Thank God for mobiles, eh? OK. Here goes. I'm working on a film at the moment, a kind of Rough Justice sort of thing, about a woman who's serving life for the murder of her father, and I need a legal adviser.'
'I don't do much crime these days, Anna.'
'But you have done some, and this isn't really about crime. The way I see it, it's about a family on the edge and the dynamic that went awry, horribly awry. Two people are dead, another's incarcerated for life, and one is living in slightly bizarre triumph.' There was a short pause, then Anna's voice again, coming wheedlingly out of the phone: 'Interested yet, Trish?'
'Curious anyway.' Wariness made Trish's voice cool, but it didn't seem to bother Anna.
'You see, families being what you're so good at, and what always get you going, I thought you might enjoy being involved - as well as helping get an innocent woman out of prison.'
Film would be a new experience for Trish. She couldn't stop a tingling of interest.
'Who's the woman?'
'Deborah Gibbert. D'you remember the case? She was convicted partly on the evidence her own sister gave against her.'
'Euthanasia, wasn't it?'
'Not really. If it had been, in the current climate, poor Deb would probably have got off with a suspended sentence for manslaughter.'
'So what was it? How did she do it?'
'She didn't. That's the point. She found her father dead one morning when she was staying at their house to help her mother look after him.' Anna paused, as though to allow a question, but Trish didn't have any to ask, yet.
'She did that whenever she could, which wasn't all that often because she's got four kids, a husband, and at that stage she had a part-time job of her own, too.'
'Then I'm amazed she had any spare time for her father.'
'Oh, she's one of those good women. You know the sort, Trish, they try to do everything for everyone, run themselves ragged, short-change everyone, and end up being foul to the very people they most want to help.'
Trish had come across one or two like that and always sympathised with their victims.
'How did the prosecution say she killed him?'
'Used a polythene bag to suffocate him while he was asleep, knowing he wouldn't wake because she'd given him an overdose of antihistamines.'
'That sounds much more like suicide, Anna. Plastic bags almost always mean self-harm.'
A breathy giggle down the phone made Trish's eyebrows lift. It didn't sound as though Anna was quite as desperate to right an injustice as she'd suggested.
'The seriously tricky thing for Deb,' she said, struggling to control the giggle, 'is that the plastic bag wasn't found on the body. The SOCO unearthed it - screwed into a ball - from Deb's wastepaper basket, not even in the same room, you see.'
'Oops.' Now Trish understood the giggle. Black comedy, perhaps, but comedy all the same.
'Exactly. But even worse, anyway from Deb's point of view, is the fact that the lab found her fingerprints on the outside of the bag, but not her father's, and traces of his saliva inside.'
It was the mention of saliva that brought the picture alive. Trish lost all interest in even the blackest comedy. Her head was full of the thought of an old man's panic. Had he woken in time to see through the bag? To know who it was choking him to death?
'What's your friend's explanation?' she asked stiffly.
'Bit too long to go into now, but convincing when you get it from the horse's mouth. At least, it convinced me. If you do decide to help us, you could maybe do a spot of prison visiting and hear it for yourself.'
Something was stirring in Trish's memory: 'You know, I think I do remember the case, and the silk who defended her. Phil Redstone. He's good.'
'Not this time, he wasn't.'
'I'm sure euthanasia came into it,' Trish said, paying no attention to Anna's bitterness. 'Someone wanted the old man rescued from misery and illness. Isn't that right?'
'In a way.' Anna's voice was slower now, as though there was some kind of doubt dragging at it. 'Redstone conducted his case on the basis that Deb's mother confessed as soon as the doctor refused to sign a death certificate. Later on, she told the police she'd smothered her husband because she couldn't bear to see him suffer any more.'
'I knew it.'
'The tricky thing was that a couple of other officers were searching the house and finding the bag at the precise moment Deb's ma was dictating a statement about how she'd used a pillow.'
'Ah. Pity.' Trish held the phone a few inches away from her ear, hoping she wasn't boiling her brains, or whatever it was mobiles were supposed to do.
'Yes,' Anna said quickly. 'And to add to Deb's problems, everyone involved agreed that her mother was not physically strong enough to have done it, besides having such iffy balance that she needed a stick even when she was standing still.'
'So the assumption was that the mother confessed only to protect her daughter?' At least the mobile didn't seem to have affected Trish's ability to reason from A to B. That was something.
'Exactly. Reading the trial transcript, I think that's what did for poor Deb more than anything else; you know, that even her mother thought she was guilty. And now she's dead, too, so there's no way of unpicking the mess.'
'Dead? When? How?'
'Oh, even before the case came to trial. She fell, broke her hip and never came out of hospital.'
So, thought Trish, not suicide. Then maybe the daughter did do it after all.
In her experience, most elderly men and women who killed their spouses then went on to commit suicide - or at least tried to. Darby-and-Joan murders, the police called them. They were surprisingly common, almost always the result of desperation as the needs of the weaker half of a devoted couple outgrew the carer's capacity to cope. It was one of the saddest results of old age that she'd come across.
'Which is why,' Anna was saying, 'there weren't any witnesses for Deb. The prosecution had her bitchy sister - giving evidence of how she'd always hated her father - and the doctor, who claimed Deb had ordered him to end her father's life.'
'Hm. If it's true, that sounds a trifle inconvenient for your friend. Did anyone challenge it?'
'I wish you wouldn't keep calling her "your friend" in that sarky way. Yes, it was inconvenient, but it wasn't true.'
'OK. I'm surprised the judge allowed the jury to hear about the mother's confession. But, given that he did, I'm amazed they convicted Deb.'
'She went down because she was a stroppy, outspoken woman, who wouldn't put up with arrogant men ordering her about, or play the game they wanted. And you know how the establishment hates women like that. They were sure she was guilty and wouldn't believe any evidence to the contrary.'
Trish had to smile. Through the sticky windscreen, she could almost see Anna's face, more pug-like than ever in rage. Ever since she'd thrown her unfaithful, financially irresponsible husband out of the house, she'd been battling to empower bullied women. Anna believed it was every woman's right to give full expression to her anger, instead of funnelling it out in psychosomatic illness and tears, ceding her sovereignty to other people in the hope of happiness, and ultimately destroying herself. This case sounded tailor-made for her. For Trish, children took precedence and she liked to reserve most of her efforts for them.
'Look, Anna, the traffic's clearing. I'm going to have to go. I'll phone you later. We might be able to meet tonight. OK?'
'Yes, but, Trish ...'
'Got to go, Anna, sorry.'
'Deb's innocent, Trish. I'm sure. She didn't do it. She's not the kind of woman who could.'
'We'll talk later,' Trish said, more gently.
In her years at the Bar, she had met far too many people who were utterly convinced that their friend or relation was incapable of the cruelty they'd hidden so successfully. She had often wondered how they recovered enough to trust anyone else again. But then she wasn't very good at trusting people at the best of times, so what did she know?
PREY TO ALL. Copyright © 2000 by Daphne Wright. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.