Colin Dexter

The Wench Is Dead

The eighth book in the Inspector Morse series, 1989

Chapter One

Thought depends absolutely on the stomach; but, in spite of that, those who have the best stomachs are not the best thinkers

(Voltaire, in a letter to d'Alemberi)

Intermittently, on the Tuesday, he felt sick. Frequently, on the Wednesday, he was sick. On the Thursday, he felt sick frequently, but was actually sick only intermittently. With difficulty, early on the Friday morning – drained, listless, and infinitely weary – he found the energy to drag himself from his bed to the telephone, and seek to apologize to his superiors at Kidlington Police HQ for what was going to be an odds-on non-appearance at the office that late November day.

When he awoke on the Saturday morning, he was happily aware that he was feeling considerably better; and, indeed, as he sat in the kitchen of his bachelor flat in North Oxford, dressed in pyjamas as gaudily striped as a lido deckchair, he was debating whether his stomach could cope with a wafer of Weetabix – when the phone rang.

'Morse here,' he said.

'Good morning, sir.' (A pleasing voice!) 'If you can hold the line a minute, the Superintendent would like a word with you.'

Morse held the line. Little option, was there? No option, really; and he scanned the headlines of The Times which had just been pushed through the letter-box in the small entrance hall – late, as usual on Saturdays. 'I'm putting you through to the Superintendent,' said the same pleasing voice – 'just a moment, please!'

Morse said nothing; but he almost prayed (quite something for a low-church atheist) that Strange would get a move on and come to the phone and say whatever it was he'd got to say… The prickles of sweat were forming on his forehead, and his left hand plucked at his pyjama top pocket for his handkerchief.

'Ah! Morse? Yes? Ah! Sorry to hear you're a bit off-colour, old boy. Lots of it about, you know. The wife's brother had it – when was it now? – fortnight or so back? No! I tell a lie – must have been three weeks, at least. Still, that's neither here nor there, is it?'

In enlarged globules, the prickles of sweat had re-formed on Morse's forehead, and he wiped his brow once more as he mumbled a few dutifully appreciative noises into the telephone.

'Didn't get you out of bed, I hope?'

'No – no, sir.'

'Good. Good! Thought I'd just have a quick word, that's all. Er… Look here, Morse!' (Clearly Strange's thoughts had moved to a conclusion.) 'No need for you to come in today – no need at all! Unless you feel suddenly very much better, that is. We can just about cope here, I should think. The cemeteries are full of indispensable men – eh? Huh!'

'Thank you, sir. Very kind of you to ring – I much appreciate it – but I am officially off duty this weekend in any case-'

'Really? Ah! That's good! That's er… very good, isn't it? Give you a chance to stay in bed.'

'Perhaps so, sir,' said Morse wearily.

'You say you're up, though?'

'Yes, sir!'

'Well you go back to bed, Morse! This'll give you a chance for a jolly good rest – this weekend, I mean – won’t it? Just the thing – bit o' rest – when you're feeling a bit off-colour – eh? It's exactly what the quack told the wife's brother – when was it now…?'

Afterwards, Morse thought he remembered concluding this telephone conversation in a seemly manner – with appropriate concern expressed for Strange's convalescent brother-in-law; thought he remembered passing a hand once more over a forehead that now felt very wet and very, very cold – and then taking two or three hugely deep breaths and then starting to rush for the bathroom…

It was Mrs Green, the charlady who came in on Tuesday and Saturday mornings, who rang treble-nine immediately and demanded an ambulance. She had found her employer sitting with his back to the wall in the entrance-hall: conscious, seemingly sober, and passably presentable, except for the deep-maroon stains down the front of his deckchair pyjamas – stains that in both colour and texture served vividly to remind her of the dregs in the bottom of a coffee percolator. And she knew exactly what they meant, because that thoughtlessly cruel doctor had made it quite plain – five years ago now, it had been – that if only she'd called him immediately, Mr Green might still…

'Yes, that's right,' she heard herself say – surprisingly, imperiously, in command: 'just on the southern side of the Banbury Road roundabout. Yes. I'll be looking out for you.'

At 10.15 a.m. that same morning, an only semi-reluctant Morse condescended to be helped into the back of the ambulance, where, bedroom-slippered and with an itchy, grey blanket draped around a clean pair of pyjamas, he sat defensively opposite a middle-aged, uniformed woman who appeared to have taken his refusal to lie down on the stretcher-bed as a personal affront, and who now sullenly and silently pushed a white enamel kidney-bowl into his lap as he vomited copiously and noisily once more, while the ambulance climbed Headley Way, turned left into the grounds of the John Radcliffe Hospital complex, and finally stopped outside the Accident, Casualty, and Emergency Department.

As he lay supine (on a hospital trolley now) it occurred to Morse that he might already have died some half a dozen times without anyone recording his departure. But he was always an impatient soul (most particularly in hotels, when awaiting his breakfast); and it might not have been quite so long as he imagined before a white- coated ancillary worker led him in leisurely fashion through a questionnaire that ranged from the names of his next of kin (in Morse's case, now non-existent) to his denominational preferences (equally, alas, now non-existent). Yet once through these initiation rites – once (as it were) he had joined the club and signed the entry forms – Morse found himself the object of considerably increased attention. Dutifully, from somewhere, a young nurse appeared, flipped a watch from her stiffly laundered lapel with her left hand and took his pulse with her right; proceeded to take his blood pressure, after tightening the black swaddling-bands around his upper-arm with (for Morse) quite needless ferocity; and then committing her findings to a chart (headed MORSE, E.) with such nonchalance as to suggest that only the most dramatic of irregularities could ever give occasion for anxiety. The same nurse finally turned her attention to matters of temperature; and Morse found himself feeling somewhat idiotic as he lay with the thermometer sticking up from his mouth, before its being extracted, its calibrations consulted, its readings apparently unsatisfactory, it being forcefully shaken thrice, as though for a few backhand flicks in a ping-pong match, and then being replaced, with all its earlier awkwardness, just underneath his tongue.

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