Read on for an extract from the first Vida and Slater novel, Between The Lines.
A couple were sat huddled together along one side of a small meeting table. They seemed nothing like the wealthy donors that she’d met in the past, perfectly polished and well groomed. These two were worn down by what Vida quickly identified as grief. Both had red-rimmed eyes that spoke to tears and sleepless nights, and while Mrs. Donaldson’s hair was obviously expensively coloured, it barely looked brushed. Mr. Donaldson looked slightly more together, but there was a slight disarray about his suit, the tie not quite aligned, a smudge of dirt on his shirt collar. Myfanwy was bustling around in the corner, a capsule coffee machine whirring and clunking as it distributed an array of coffee styles. She introduced Vida to the Donaldsons, smoothing over the faux pas as Jane Donaldson firmly corrected her title to Doctor. Coffees were distributed to the Donaldsons, all accoutrements present as though it was the finest coffee shop in Sheffield: a saucer, a teaspoon and that all important coffee biscuit. Vida got a matching set, only strangely without the biscuit. How would Myfanwy respond if she pointed it out?
‘Now, where were we?’ Myfanwy asked, looking around at them. ‘Peter, do you want to explain a little more to Dr Henrikson about your problem.’
‘Yes, please,’ Peter said, smoothly mannered despite his and his wife’s obvious distress. ‘It’s about our daughter, Maggie. She died in May of last year. They’ve just held the inquest and they recorded a verdict of suicide.’
‘But it wasn’t!’ burst in Jane, suddenly, her voice harsh. ‘It wasn’t. She couldn’t. She just wouldn’t have killed herself.’
Peter lay a comforting hand on his wife’s knee and she subsided, retreating physically. ‘Jane and I both feel that the verdict was a mistake. We can’t believe that Maggie killed herself. She had absolutely everything she ever wanted. Her whole life was in front of her. She was bright and beautiful and…’ He took a shuddering breath. ‘I’m sorry. We just still find it so hard. And we thought the police investigation and inquest would give us answers but instead we have more questions than ever before. We just can’t accept it.’
‘I’m so terribly sorry for your loss,’ Vida said, ‘but I’m not quite sure where I come into this?’
‘It’s the note,’ he said. ‘Maggie supposedly left a letter. But it was typed and only her name was signed. Is that normal? We don’t understand why she typed the letter. Don’t people take the time to handwrite their suicide notes?’ He seemed bewildered and it was Jane’s turn to rest a soothing hand on his knee.
‘Not always’ Vida said. ‘Not now, when more and more of our communication has been moved online and onto computers. I bet that virtually all your communication is online these days? ‘
‘Well, yes. But surely a suicide note is different? Anyway, it’s not just that it was typed. We just don’t think it sounds like Maggie. She was always a beautiful creative writer, and so expressive but this letter is just dull, and we were having dinner with Philip, Dr Lacewing,’ he said, naming the university’s Vice-Chancellor, ‘and he mentioned that he’d got this Forensic Linguistic whizz who was working with the police and specialised in authorship matters. He said that you’d worked on suicide notes before and could tell whether or not the person who is supposed to have written them did write them.’
Vida sipped her flat white and wondered whether it would be social suicide to use her finger to get the froth out. Shrugging, she opted for partial humiliation and used the teaspoon to scoop it up. ‘I think Dr Lacewing may have been a little kind with that introduction,’ she said gently, swallowing her mouthful of foam. ‘I have worked as part of a team in the US for a few weeks looking at suicide letters but I would by no means call myself an expert. And the science itself is inexact. We can draw some conclusions by comparing different writing styles but they are by no means definitive ones. The science is at its best with volume texts, where we can really build up a body of style markers. It’s difficult with a single letter.’
The Donaldsons’ faces dropped even further and Vida felt like she’d just stamped on their puppy.
‘Is there nothing you can do?’ Peter asked, desperation lacing his voice.
Vida sighed. She sent pleading eyes towards Myfanwy, hoping that she could extract her from this situation but she was scrupulously avoiding her gaze. This wasn’t going to go well. ‘I can take a look for you,’ she finally conceded, ‘and presuming you’ve got other texts that Maggie wrote, I can compare them to see if there are any recognisable markers of Maggie’s style in the suicide letter. But I can’t promise I will find anything and I also can’t promise that I will find something that suggests Maggie’s suicide note wasn’t written by her. All I can do is look at what the evidence tells me.’
Peter leaned forward eagerly. ‘That’s all we want Dr Henrikson. That’s all we want. Just take a look please.’