Sandstone Press

On the blog: Death at the Plague Museum on tour

We've reached the final days of the Death at the Plague Museum blog tour, and it's finally our turn to post. If you like to try before you buy, you're in luck! We're delighted to be sharing an extract of Lesley's latest Health of Strangers thriller, but first, a bit about the series, the book and the author.

The Health of Strangers thrillers:

The Health of Strangers thrillers are set in a world where a deadly flu virus has left Edinburgh in a bureaucratic nightmare.

Death at the Plague Museum:

Three senior civil servants are dead or missing. As their brief is management of the deadly Virus, Bernard, Mona and the rest of the hard-pressed Health Enforcement Team are fighting not just a pandemic, but government secrets.

Lesley Kelly:

Lesley Kelly has worked in the public and voluntary sectors for the past twenty years, dabbling in poetry and stand-up comedy along the way. She has won a number of writing competitions, including the Scotsman’s Short Story award in 2008. Her first novel, A Fine House in Trinity, was longlisted for the McIlvanney Prize. Her latest novel, The Health of Strangers, is the first in a series of thrillers.

You can find out more about Lesley and her writing on her website.

Read on to catch up with the North Edinburgh Health Enforcement team!

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Chapter 1

The man fell, his hands clutching wildly at the air, grabbing at imaginary handholds like a desperate climber reverse mountaineering his way to the earth. The jacket of his suit flapped as he fell, an ineffective parachute that did nothing to slow his inexorable journey toward the ground.

As he passed the second-floor balcony the screen went hazy for a second, before another shot of the body appeared.

Cameron Stuttle, Chief Executive of the Scottish Health Enforcement Partnership, paused the recording. ‘The boys from IT edited the whole thing together. The museum’s got CCTV on each floor, apart from the very top one. We thought it would be useful if the four of you from the Health Enforcement Team saw his entire downward journey.’

From this angle, the camera was pointing at the man’s face. Mona winced at his horrified expression, both fear and confusion writ large. She’d be replaying that image in her head, she knew, probably just as she was falling asleep tonight. At least she’d be able to put tonight’s insomnia down to work, rather than her usual concerns about her love life, or her mother’s health.

The screen went fuzzy again, and a third camera angle kicked in. This time, the screen was empty apart from a plastic model of something large and scientific. A foot appeared in the corner of the picture, rapidly followed by the rest of the body, which crashed at speed into the sculpture.

‘Ooh,’ said Maitland. ‘That’s got to hurt. What was the thing that he landed on?’

‘It’s a 3-D model of the H1N1 virus,’ said Bernard, his eyes tightly closed. ‘It’s part of their standing exhibition.’

‘How come you know so much about it?’

‘I’m a member.’ Still without fully opening his eyes, he dug into his wallet and produced a small card. Mona took it from him and she and Maitland examined it. It proclaimed the bearer of the card to be a full member of the Edinburgh Museum of Plagues and Pandemics. The flip side highlighted the benefits of this, which included free access to all the exhibitions, and a 10% discount in the café and shop.

‘Can we see it again?’ John Paterson, the HET Team Leader, was staring thoughtfully at the blank TV screen.

‘OK,’ Stuttle pressed a button and the recording started again, ‘once more with feeling. You might want to look away now, Bernard.’

Mona watched again as the man fell fearfully to his death through the central internal stairwell of the museum. Something about the whole recording unsettled her. ‘Is it just me, or does he look mighty panicked for a man that’s opted to end it all?’

Paterson nodded. ‘Yeah, he’s flailing about a lot for a suicide. Don’t jumpers just let themselves fall?’ He frowned. ‘What makes you so sure this was intentional, Cameron? How do you know someone didn’t tip him over the top?’

‘A couple of things. First of all, as far as we can make out he was completely alone in the building. There’s no evidence on any of the CCTV cameras of any movement other than his, and, like everywhere else these days this building has secure Green Card technology. Nobody gets into the building without entering their Green Card in the machine.’ He paused, as if waiting for someone to challenge him. Satisfied that they were all in agreement on this, he carried on. ‘And secondly, he left a note, of sorts.’

‘Of sorts?’ Maitland looked intrigued.

‘It’s a little bit ambiguous. Could be a suicide note, or it could be a resignation letter.’

‘From what? What was his job?’

‘I’ll come back to that in a minute. Bernard, did you have a question?’

Bernard was sitting patiently with his hand raised. Maitland nudged her in the ribs. ‘Probably wants to know what was going on while he was too scared to look.’

‘Shut up.’ She tried not to smile.

Bernard looked put out but kept going. ‘It’s more of a comment really. I think it’s a strange place to choose to commit suicide.’

‘Jumpers often choose somewhere that is significant to them . . .’ said Mona.

‘Yeah, maybe he was also a member.’ Maitland smirked. ‘Probably wanted one last 10% off at the shop. Check his bag for souvenirs.’

Bernard’s cheeks were scarlet. ‘That wasn’t what I meant. I was trying to say that it was an odd place to choose to jump, because there is no guarantee that you would actually die. You’d end up horribly injured but depending on where you landed, you might survive.’

‘A very valid point, Bernard,’ said Stuttle.

If possible, it appeared that Bernard’s cheeks turned even redder.

Particularly as in this case, the fall didn’t immediately kill him,’ Stuttle explained. ‘He’d probably have splattered if he’d landed on the marble floor at reception, but the plastic model thingy cushioned his fall.’

‘So what did kill him?’

‘We’re not sure yet,’ said Stuttle. ‘The pathologists are running some tests even as we speak, but the initial indications are that there was something in his bloodstream that shouldn’t have been.’

‘Like poison?’

Cameron shrugged. ‘Possibly.’

There was a small ripple of interest, which Paterson raised his hand to quell. ‘Fascinating as this is, I don’t see what it has to do with the HET. We search for people who have missed their monthly Health Check. If this guy is overdue for a Health Check he’s got a really, really good excuse for missing it.’

‘I’m aware of all that.’

Paterson still looked suspicious. ‘This isn’t one of those scenarios when you need some dirty work doing, and you’re intent on press-ganging us into helping you?’

Mona’s mind went back to her recent trip to London with Paterson to search for a missing professor. The words ‘press-gang’ and ‘dirty work’ had all been entirely applicable to it.

‘I’m hurt that you would think that of me, John,’ said Cameron, smiling. ‘Let me explain . . .’

He was interrupted by a knock on the office door. Their heads all swivelled round to see Ian Jacobsen from Police Scotland appear. Mona felt a wave of fury rising up from her feet. She tutted loudly, and turned to glare at Stuttle, who was busy not catching her eye.

‘Ian, perfect timing. I was just explaining to our HET colleagues about the unfortunate incident at the pandemics museum.’

‘Morning, all.’ Ian smiled round at the company. Only Bernard smiled back, then looked slightly panicked when he realised none of his colleagues was extending similar pleasantries. ‘I’m hoping that the HET and Police Scotland can work jointly on this.’

‘No way.’ Mona couldn’t believe what she was hearing.

‘Mona—’

‘No, I’m sorry, Mr Stuttle, but I’d rather resign than work with Ian and his colleagues.’

A look passed between Stuttle and Paterson.

‘Seriously, Guv, last time we worked together I nearly got shot.’

It was Ian’s turn to tut. ‘Last time we worked together I was under the impression I saved your life . . .’

Mona’s jaw fell open at this flagrant rewriting of history.

‘Mona,’ Stuttle’s tone was at its most conciliatory, ‘just listen to what Ian has to say. I’m sure we can accommodate everyone.’

She was torn between continuing to make her point, and having her curiosity satisfied about the body. She ended up not saying anything, which Ian took as a signal to start talking.

‘I have to stress to you all that everything from today’s meeting is confidential . . .’

‘Of course.’ Paterson responded for all of them.

‘The gentleman that you just watched take a tumble was called Nathan McVie.’

‘I recognise that name,’ said Bernard.

‘You should. He is – was – Head of Pandemic Policy for the Scottish Government. Which made him probably the second most important civil servant with regards to the Virus. Not, it has to be said, a particular fan of the HETs. He regarded them as largely window-dressing, with limited actual impact on the Virus.’

‘Always nice to meet a fan,’ said Paterson. ‘But I still fail to see what this has to do with us. He’s dead, not missing.’

‘True. And if that is all there was to this I wouldn’t be imposing on your time. But let me tell you about Mr McVie’s last day. At 10am last Friday, he turned up here for a meeting—’

‘With the museum staff?’

‘No, they’d no involvement in the meeting at all. The museum rents out conference spaces on the top floor, and McVie had booked one late on Thursday. Although we are wondering why Mr McVie couldn’t find a meeting room anywhere in Victoria Quay, St Andrews House or any of the other Edinburgh buildings owned by the Government. Anyway, four people attended the meeting: Mr McVie, Carlotta Carmichael MSP—’ He broke off in response to the low growl of dismay that was coming collectively from the HET staff.

‘The same Ms Carmichael who was recently spotted at the North Edinburgh HET office, complaining about the standards of housekeeping and threatening to establish an Inspector of HETs post, if my sources are correct?’ Ian grinned.

‘Shut up and get on with it,’ said Paterson.’

‘OK, so McVie, Ms Carmichael, and two other civil servants were at the meeting: Jasper Connington, Director of Health for the Scottish Government, and Helen Sopel, Head of the Virus Operational Response Team.’

‘Still not seeing what it has to do with us.’

‘At 8.30 this morning, Helen Sopel failed to turn up for her monthly scheduled Health Check. As you can imagine for someone in her position, missing a Health Check is unthinkable. She didn’t turn up for work this morning, and her colleagues couldn’t get any answer from her mobile. While her staff were wondering what they should do about her unexpected absence, her sister phoned looking for her. Apparently she was worried as Helen stood her up for a cinema trip on Sunday night.’

‘That’s not good.’

‘Quite so,’ Stuttle concurred. ‘The four most important people in Virus policy in Scotland had a meeting here on Friday morning. At 11.30pm on Friday night, one of them kills themselves, and at some point over the weekend, another one goes missing.’

‘Carlotta Car—’

‘Carlotta Carmichael was absolutely alive and well as of an hour ago, so don’t get your hopes up, John.’

‘Do we know what the meeting was about?’ asked Bernard.

‘No, we don’t. But we need to get Helen Sopel found and into a Health Check before anyone notices she’s gone. Because these are the people at the very top of Virus policy, these are the people who are continually popping up on TV telling us that everything is under control, these are the people who are supposed to be making everything all right. If word gets out that they are going crazy, there’s going to be panic on the streets.’ He looked round at them all. ‘There’s going to be bloodshed.’

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Catch up with the rest of the blog tour for (excellent!) reviews and interesting interviews with the author.