Previous Challenge Entry (Level 4 – Masters)
Topic: Write in the MYSTERY genre (04/05/07)
TITLE: Happy Days
By Helen Paynter
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‘Oh happy day!
That fixed my choice,
On thee, my Saviour and my God.’
The small congregation sang with genteel impatience. The sermon was over, just four verses and the benediction to go. Mrs Forrester’s fingers flew over the keyboard.
A clatter at the back made her miss an F sharp. She winced and bashed on. But the congregation had fallen silent. This was unprecedented! She stopped playing and turned around.
A tall black man in uniform was marching down the aisle, bearing the wasted form of a child. Clearing the altar with one motion, he laid her softly down and backed away, his face haunted.
Pastor Henderson’s mouth was flapping like his cassock, his accustomed eloquence quite fled.
The intruder turned to him politely. ‘Sergeant Melaku of the Addis Ababa police. Excuse the intrusion, sir. I am investigating a death.’
Pastor Henderson found his voice. ‘In case you haven’t noticed, Sergeant, we are a long way from Addis Ababa.’ Encouraged by a titter from Miss Pettigrew, he smirked and folded his arms.
‘Exactly so.’ The Sergeant was unruffled. ‘But my investigations have narrowed the field to three prime suspects.’
‘Then you had better proceed with your enquiries.’ Henderson glanced at his watch.
‘Very well. May I?’ Melaku straddled a chair. ‘This is Desta. Yesterday she died on the streets of Addis. She was eight. Her killer is in this room.’
A murmur rippled around the church.
Melaku consulted a notebook. ‘First, Ethel Pettigrew.’
She rose in bewilderment, the cherries on her bonnet shaking.
‘You are a one-woman campaign for cut-price groceries -yes?’
‘Well, yes, Sergeant. Everyone likes a bargain.’ Recovering a little, she preened herself.
‘And who did you imagine absorbs those price cuts? The supermarkets?’ Angry words bounced off the rafters. ‘The cuts are passed down the supply chain to the farmer, of course. So, on the 15th September 1994, you wrote demanding cheaper coffee. Am I right?’
She stared with a pale face.
‘Five weeks later, Desta’s father’s coffee crop was devalued overnight. Your work was successful. Sit down.’
Dazed, she obeyed.
Melaku resumed the story. ‘As a result, he left his family to find work in Addis. He was away for three years. Previously a faithful husband, this long separation proved too much, and he had a brief, guilt-ridden affair.’ Indifferent to the gasps, he proceeded, ‘From this liaison he contracted AIDS. When he finally returned home he infected his wife and fathered a child – Desta here. So we continue to our second suspect - Margaret Forrester.’
The organist rose slowly to her feet, holding on to the instrument with white knuckles.
‘You work for the pharmaceutical company Zadopen.’ Scarcely pausing, he continued. ‘In what capacity?’
‘I am secretary to the patents manager.’ She spoke in a sullen whisper.
‘I have here,’ he flourished a document, ‘two memos you typed in February 1998. Please read the sections marked.’ He handed it to her.
‘Provision of single dose antiretrovirals to pregnant women prevents transmission of HIV to most fetuses…’ She turned the page. ‘We must ensure that cheap versions of our patented drugs are not made available in the developing world, as this would be against our commercial interest…’ She looked up petulantly. ‘But I didn’t make the decision.’
‘Neither did the commandant of Auschwitz.’ He spat the words dismissively. ‘Sit.’
She sank back onto the organ bench, weeping.
‘On the 15th March 1999, Desta was born, infected with a time bomb. Her father was already dead. Her mother died five years later. For three years she has been existing on the streets of Addis like a feral animal. So to our final suspect. James Henderson, stand up!’
The clergyman blanched, but rose meekly.
‘I have here a letter, written by you, dated 3rd July 2004. Please read the part highlighted.’
Henderson put on his glasses and peered at it. ‘I am unable to help…. I do not support AIDS charities, as AIDS is God’s judgment on this generation of homosexuals and fornicators.’
‘The request was for a donation to an AIDS orphanage!’ Melaku shouted. ‘An orphanage of homosexual children, presumably.’
Henderson subsided to a chair, shaking.
‘And so she died.’ The Sergeant shrugged and turned towards the tiny corpse. ‘Who killed her? Decide for yourselves. I have a funeral to arrange.’ The doors swung briefly and were still.
An appalled silence hung for a moment. Then Mrs Forrester collected herself and began to play.
‘Oh Happy Day
Oh Happy Day
When Jesus washed my sins away…’
With apologies to J B Priestly
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