Read the previous chapter, Chapter 6, here first.
Chapter 7 of Delirium, London Psychic #1. Click here for buy links to the full book.
Jamie pulled up into the quiet street. The bike was her sanctuary, but it had the added benefit of making her journey through the winding streets of London a lot faster. As she dismounted and pulled off her protective gear, Jamie realized she was fully engaged with this case. For the first time in months, she could feel that spark of enthusiasm, her mind processing details, eager to discover more about the key people of interest. Missinghall had remained back at the station, pursuing the leads on some of the others, while she had come to see Petra Bennett. Jamie rang the bell on the basement flat, taking out her warrant card as she heard footsteps inside and the door opened.
Petra Bennett's face had the curious look of a deep-water fish: all lips and heavy cheeks, her body drooped as if gravity pulled more heavily on her than others. But her eyes were a vivid blue, almost turquoise, and her face was alive with an inquisitive, watchful expression.
“Detective, come on in. The place is a bit chaotic as I've only just got back from the Fun Run. So much to do! But I've just made coffee if you'd like some.”
“That would be great, thanks.”
Jamie followed Petra into the small downstairs flat. Boxes were piled up in one corner, bunting and banners in green and gold spilling from the top. There were two large photographic canvases on the wall flanking a fireplace in an otherwise sparse room. The canvases depicted stone sculptures, rocks piled high into towers that seemed to perch like miracles on the edge of the sea. One spiraled into itself, a multi-hued grey, and the other reached to the heavens with almost impossible balance.
“What is it you do, Ms Bennett?”
“Oh, please call me Petra,” she said, pouring black coffee from a percolator into a bright red mug and handing it to Jamie. “I teach Spanish to private students. Business Spanish, and some conversation. But I'm also an artist.” Petra gestured at the canvases. “These are my offerings to the gods of the sea, temporary sculptures on the edge of the tide. Even with these photographs, I fear I take too much of their power. They're meant to be ephemeral, lost almost as soon as they're completed.”
Petra held her head to one side, gazing into the frames. “Stone is the earth's gift to us, and perhaps our ancestors were right to believe they hold the partial spirits of Gaia. When we hew them apart, when we take them for our own and shape them to our purposes, they become husks with no power, only aesthetic.”
“They're beautiful,” Jamie said, trying to read the complex emotion held on the horizon of blue and grey.
“I write my confessions in stone, Detective. But they're not to be understood by all.”
“And what do you have to confess?” Jamie asked, eyebrows arching at the words.
Petra shook her head, her mouth twisting into something that could have been a smile.
“My own obsessions perhaps, but certainly not the crime you're here to investigate.”
Jamie turned to look at the room, as she waited for Petra to speak into the silence. Pebbles of all sizes were piled in plastic boxes in one corner. Some had shapes carved into the surface, others were painted in the contours of the stone, all smooth with rounded curves.
“I've collected those from beaches all over the world,” Petra said. “The figures on them represent the journeys I've taken, or those that others have traveled.”
Jamie remembered walking along Lyme Regis beach with Polly, telling her stories of the dinosaurs that had once lived there, the ancient bodies that were crushed and preserved within the rock strata. Polly had been fascinated, picking up the stones to examine them for fossilized remains. She had been in a lot of pain from motor neurone disease by then, but she had remained deeply curious about the world around her. Jamie's chest tightened at the precious memory of the time with her daughter, now locked in the past.
“Most people will pick up stones when they walk along a beach,” Petra continued, her voice mesmerizing. “It's a human fascination. Pebbles fit within the palm and their touch is an element we crave. My interest started when my Gran used to paint flowers on the stones she found on the beach when I visited each summer. It gave me something to watch, and then to learn, and now I create them for others.”
Petra's eyes were fathomless, like the places close to land where the continental shelf dropped off to the deepest parts of the ocean. She was at once unknowable depths and light waters in the shallows. Jamie felt the woman was somehow wiser than her years – an old soul – but wisdom didn't necessarily prevent murderous rage.
“Stone is the medium that calls to me,” Petra said. “Its reputation is to be hard hearted, grey and strong, building cathedrals that last for generations. But stone can be smoothed by water, its surface rubbed into something else. That same stone can be decorative, or used as a weapon, for each stone has its own message. Once I discern it, then I paint. Sometimes the message just calls to me.” Petra bent to the pile and held out a small grey stone when she straightened. “Here, Detective. I think this one is for you.”
Jamie couldn't help but reach for the stone, something compelling her to take it. A tiny dancer spun alone, the folds of her dress artfully rendered in just a few strokes of black paint, her passion contained within the frozen moment. Thoughts of the tango milonga flashed through Jamie's mind, a passion she had developed as Polly had become sicker as a way of sublimating pain and grief into the intensity of dance. Petra couldn't possibly know of this secret interest: it wasn't something she shared with work colleagues, and she even used a different name. She hadn't been to tango since Polly's death, as the thought of celebrating physical movement seemed sacrilegious. Perhaps it was time to return. Jamie held out the stone.
“Thank you for the kind thought,” she said, handing it back. “But I can't take anything from you, even as a gift. As my colleague told you on the phone, I'm here as part of the investigation into the murder of Dr Christian Monro.”
Petra sighed and her eyes darkened as she took back the pebble. “I can't say I'm surprised at his death. He was superior and condescending, treating patients as evidence for his pet theories. But I also needed him and his … special brand of therapy. The man was a bastard, but he was actually helping me break through some of my own creative blocks.”
“Did he handle your medication?” Jamie asked, thinking of the drugs in the large cupboard.
Petra shook her head. “I'm not on medication, Detective. I don't ascribe to the labels of mental illness or the drugs the establishment tries to control us with. That's why I work with Psyche. Some may say that I have a form of depression, but I just call it life. It's those people who look at the world and don't feel overwhelmed sometimes that I worry for. There's so much darkness, isn't it natural to retreat into despair sometimes?”
Jamie thought of the pills in her own bathroom cabinet, and how she counted them out every day, holding that deadly dosage in her hand before counting them back into the bottle. She understood the pull of oblivion all too well.
“Did you know of the room behind Monro's main office?” Jamie asked.
Petra smiled, her eyes flashing with memories that clearly gave her pleasure.
“Yes, and I went there willingly, Detective.” Her tone was unapologetic. “You have to understand that some of us need restraint in order to find true freedom. In temporal pain, there is a release of pressure, a way to keep the desire for more harm at bay. Monro understood that, although sometimes I think he studied us as aberrations.”
“Yes, of course there were others. We saw each other in the waiting area sometimes, and there were men as well as women. I don't even think it was sexual for Monro, he really did believe in restraint and punishment as an efficacious treatment for mental illness. Perhaps we deviants proved some part of his pet theory. But, let's face it, if you start offering spanking and physical relief as part of your therapy, then word will get around and certain types of people will seek it out.”
Jamie raised an eyebrow. “It seems an unusual form of therapy for a psychiatrist.”
“Humans are unusual, don't you think?” Petra indicated the pile of painted stones. “Each one of these is similar in some ways and totally different in others. What one person thinks is strange, another embraces. The problem with society is judgement, so much of what is experienced stays underground and repressed. Shame is another form of repression, of course, one our society excels in, and those of us labeled as mentally ill are particularly aware of that.”
“Do you think others who went to him were ashamed of what they did?”
“Perhaps.” Petra nodded. “But there have been many therapists who strayed into the physical realm. The great Carl Jung was rumored to have had an affair with a young client, Sabina Spielrein, and she admitted in her letters to being aroused by beatings from her father. Some think that became the basis of her sexual relationship with Jung. And, of course, the vibrator was invented by doctors in the Victorian era whose arms were tired from manually stimulating women as part of treatment for hysteria.”
Jamie made a couple more notes to follow up.
“But surely Monro must have kept that aspect of his practice secret and for select patients only, so how did you find out about him?”
“Through another client of his, Lyssa Osborne,” Petra said. “Of course, I know Matthew Osborne through Psyche, he's just amazing, tireless in his campaigning. I've known him a number of years, even before he was an MP. But I actually met Lyssa for the first time at a life drawing class, or should I say, death drawing, because the models were posed as corpses.” Jamie raised an eyebrow and Petra smiled. “Macabre, yes, but a new way to look at the body. Lyssa was brilliant at everything she did and the lines on her paper evoked a sensuality in death that I couldn't capture on my page.”
Petra's eyes focused on a point beyond the stone gateway on the wall. “In the end I just watched her sketch, the curve of the woman's breasts, the darkness between her thighs, the way Lyssa licked her lips as if she would devour what she saw. We had a drink afterwards and she told me that she was in love with death and she was seeing a psychiatrist to try and fall out of love with it, to reconnect with her physical self.” Petra paused, her voice quieter now. “I too find myself drawn to death, to die perhaps like Virginia Woolf, weighed down with my own painted stones in my pockets. Monro had ways of sublimating those desires and after our sessions, I was renewed and could go another week without wanting to rush into death's embrace. Perhaps you may call his treatment some kind of perversion or abuse of trust, but I didn't wish him dead, Detective. In fact, his death brings my own that much closer.” Petra laughed, a brittle sound with little joy in it. “‘Beneath it all, desire for oblivion runs.' That's from Philip Larkin. Poets always say it best, don't they?”
There was no trace of concern in Petra's voice at the talk of suicide. Once Jamie would have been shocked, even appalled at the woman's words, but now she understood. Every day she woke alone in the flat without Polly, she wanted to take that one last step into oblivion. It wasn't hard to die, it was only hard to live.
“Do you know of anyone who wanted Monro dead or who threatened him in any way?” Jamie asked.
Petra fell silent for a moment, biting her lip a little.
“He would talk of suicide as the ultimate control,” she said, “as the moment when you exercise the last freedom any of us have in this life. But he would also caution not to use that power lightly, for once it's used, it's finished and spent, the power is gone. For someone to murder him, it would be to take that ultimate power of choice away. He wasn't allowed to meet death on his own terms, and that would have been torture for him. But no, I can't think of anyone specifically.”
“Can I ask where you were last night?” Jamie asked.
“Of course. I was here, Detective. Alone with my stones.” Petra smiled. “I have no alibi, but then I really have no motive, either.”