'She was spread-eagled on the ﬂoor of the adjoining room, blood pumping out of a hole in her chest.'
With one leap Muriel managed to grab the phone, and taking cover beneath the desk, feverishly dialled 999.
Some four hours later Detective Inspector Roy Longhurst was sitting beside Muriel as she lay wrapped in a blanket on the couch in one of the upstairs consulting rooms. Downstairs the forensic team and police photographers were doing their work. All the other staff and patients who had been in the building at the time of the shooting had been in shock when Longhurst arrived, and a few were hysterical, but as none of them had actually witnessed what happened, almost all of them had been taken home now. Muriel had witnessed everything, however, and he was deeply concerned for her. She was close to sixty, and her grey hair and lined face reminded him of his own mother.
Taking one of her hands in his two large ones, he chafed it gently between them. ‘Now, Mrs Olding,’ he said. ‘ Take your time and try to tell me exactly what you saw and heard this morning.’
Longhurst was forty-ﬁve, six feet two, and sixteen stone of sheer muscle. Even in civilian clothes, or on the rugby ﬁeld, he still managed to look like a policeman, something that amused his mother who had always said he was born to be one.
Whilst not handsome, Longhurst was an attractive man with thick dark wavy hair, olive skin and soulful dark eyes. He belonged to the old school of policemen, scrupulously honest, but with ﬁxed opinions. He had no patience with thugs who pleaded a troubled childhood. He’d had one himself and survived without resorting to villainy. He would bring back hanging and the birch if he could and he thought prisons should be much harder than they were. Yet for all this he was a compassionate man by nature, saving his sympathy for those who deserved it, like victims of crime. Mrs Olding, even though she wasn’t physically hurt, was a victim to him, for she was clearly devastated by what she’d seen that morning.
Dowry Square in the Hotwells area of Bristol had been built in the 1800s for wealthy merchants wishing to live away from the stink of the city’s docks. But unlike neighbouring Clifton, which had mostly managed to maintain its select image for two centuries, Hotwells had ﬂoundered. A huge network of busy roads, including a massive ﬂyover, had turned it into an undesirable area several decades ago. But since the mid-1980s, when smart new complexes of ﬂats and townhouses had been built along the river, it had been on the up-and-up.
The property which now housed the medical centre reﬂected all these changes. First an elegant family house then a disreputable boarding house and ﬁnally a surgery, it had seen a vast variety of owners and tenants. The patients of the practice ranged from down-and-outs in bed-and- breakfast accommodation to the owners of houses valued in excess of half a million, with students, council tenants, old hippies and young yuppies in between.
The centre still maintained its private-house image, however, with the consulting, waiting and treatment rooms all leading off a long central hallway. There were further consulting rooms upstairs too. From the reception desk with its sliding-glass windows to the front door was a distance of some ﬁfteen feet.
When the ﬁrearms squad had arrived that morning, they knew that two people were already dead and there were some ten people in the waiting room, plus doctors and nurses. They had anticipated a hostage situation and were keyed up for it. They assumed, because they hadn’t been told otherwise, that the person who had carried out the shooting was male, and they expected it to be drug-related.
Yet when Longhurst had arrived a little later, he was told by the ﬁrearms squad that they had found the front door wide open, and a woman sitting on the hall ﬂoor. Their ﬁrst thought was that the gunman had already ﬂed, and this woman was too deeply shocked to move or speak. But after staring silently for a moment or two at the armed police officer in the doorway, she ﬁnally spoke. ‘It was me who shot them,’ she said, and indicated the gun on the ﬂoor beside her, partially concealed by her coat.
The officer ordered her to move away from the gun, which she did by shuffling sideways. After the gun was retrieved, she stood up of her own volition, pointing out where her two victims lay.
'When asked why she’d shot them, her cryptic reply was, "They know why"'.
Longhurst had been responsible for arresting and cautioning the woman before she was taken to Bridewell. Although he was only with her for some ten minutes or so, he found her puzzling. She didn’t react at all to the hubbub just the other side of the door of the room she was being held in. Whilst she again admitted it was she who had shot the two people, she refused to give her name and address, and her down-and-out appearance was curiously at odds with her soft voice and digniﬁed bearing. The gun, according to one of the armed squad, was a service revolver, almost certainly a relic from the Second World War.
‘I didn’t see her come in,’ Muriel said, her voice quavery with shock. ‘I was in the room beside the reception desk, well, it’s not so much a room, more a cubby-hole. The door through to the hall is in there, but there’s no window. All I heard was Pam raising her voice to whoever it was. She said, ‘‘You can’t come in here out of the rain, or to use the toilet, so clear off or I’ll call the police.’’ ’
‘Who did you think she was talking to?’ Longhurst asked.
Muriel shrugged. ‘I didn’t really think about it, though I suppose I imagined it was some kids or something. I did think that it was no way to speak to anyone, though, whoever it was.
‘Then I heard a woman’s voice. She said something like, ‘‘You don’t recognize me, do you?’’ She didn’t sound rough or anything. I was curious, and that’s why I opened the door to the hall. Just as I did, I heard the bang. I thought someone had let off a ﬁrework.’
‘What did you see in the hall?’
‘Vinnie, that’s what we called her.’
‘You knew her then?’
‘Yes, she sits outside in the square almost every morning, she has for at least eighteen months. But she’s never come into the centre before, at least not as far as I know.’
She ﬁnished telling Longhurst what she saw, and how she ran back into the office and called the police. ‘I was so scared,’ she said, beginning to cry again. ‘I’ve worked here for ﬁfteen years, and nothing like this has ever happened before.’
Longhurst had been told that when the armed squad came into the centre, Muriel was still cowering under the reception desk, just feet away from the other woman’s body. She was rigid with terror, and deeply ashamed of herself for not thinking of the patients in the waiting room while she’d been taking cover.
It took some little while for the policeman who found her to convince her that immediately ringing the police and staying put had been the right and sensible thing to do. He had reassured her that none of the patients were hurt, as a nurse in the treatment room on the other side of the waiting room had ushered them all in there to safety. But Muriel still seemed to think she should have done more.
‘How long had Pamela Parks been working here?’ Longhurst asked.
‘About eight years, I think,’ Muriel said, and fresh tears sprang into her eyes. ‘Her poor husband and children! What are they going to do?’
Longhurst patted her hand again and waited for the tears to subside. ‘Were you and Pamela friends?’ he asked. ‘I mean, aside from working together.’
‘Not really,’ Muriel said, looking up at him with brimming eyes. ‘We didn’t have much in common. She was very smart, not a bit like me.’
Longhurst had already been told by one of the nurses that there was some friction between Muriel and Pamela. According to her, the older woman had been pushed on to the sidelines by Pamela because of her superior knowledge of computers. The nurse had said that Pamela was a little too officious, she wanted to streamline the whole running of the practice.
He had seen the dead woman before her body was taken away. She was very attractive, in her early forties, with blonde highlights in her hair and carefully manicured nails. He had already discovered that she lived in an expensive townhouse in Clifton, drove a BMW, and that her husband Roland Parks was a successful businessman. Very different to dumpy, middle-aged Muriel.
‘Was this woman you all called Vinnie a patient?’ he asked.
‘I don’t think so,’ Muriel replied. ‘She might be actually registered with us of course. Lots of people are that we never see as patients. We only get to know the regulars. But she’s never come in here before as far as I know.’
‘Tell me, then, when you used to see her sitting out in the square, what did you think of her?’ he asked.
Muriel shrugged. ‘Nothing much, only to wonder why the poor soul sat there every day. She did sometimes have a bottle of wine with her, so I suppose she was a drunk, but she wasn’t ever weaving around or shouting or anything.’
‘Did Pamela ever pass any comment on her?’
‘Yes, she was a bit hard on her.’ Muriel sighed. ‘She would say the woman ought to be put away somewhere. I suppose she was right after all.’
‘Might Pamela have had a run-in with her before this then?’ Longhurst asked.
Muriel frowned as if trying to remember. ‘I don’t think so, well, she never said that she had. Anyway, if it was that, why did the woman go and shoot Dr Wetherall too?’
‘Perhaps that was just because he came out of his room,’ Longhurst said.
‘Well, I came out too, but she didn’t shoot me.’
Longhurst had already pondered on that one. He couldn’t make up his mind whether Muriel was just lucky or if the gunwoman had set targets.
‘Tell me what you know about Pamela,’ he asked gently. ‘Anything. How she was with people, with you, the doctors, her interests, that kind of thing.’
‘I told you, she was smart.’ Muriel sighed. ‘In her appearance and her ways. Expensive clothes, she got her hair and nails done every week. She didn’t need to work, she did it because she liked to. She and her family went on holiday to places like Africa and Japan, they live in a posh house. I don’t know about her interests, other than cooking. She was always having dinner parties, she’d talk about stuff like sun-dried tomatoes as if I was supposed to know what they were.’
Longhurst guessed by the bleak note in Muriel’s voice that she considered she and Pamela were at the opposite ends of the social scale.
‘So tell me about you then,’ he suggested.
‘About as different to Pam as you could get,’ Muriel said dourly. ‘Me and my hubby, Stan, live in a council place in Ashton. Stan works for the railways. Only time we’ve been abroad was to Spain, none of my four kids even got any GCEs, let alone places at university like Pam’s.’
‘I expect you are more understanding with the patients though,’ Longhurst said, trying to draw her out more.
‘I try to be,’ she said, her eyes full of anxiety. ‘I know what it’s like when you’re worried about your kids being ill, you want to see the doctor straight away. Pamela could be a bit sharp with folk, especially the poor ones and the old people. But then she really wanted to make this practice the most efficient in Bristol, and she did manage to cut down on some of the time-wasters, and weeded out people who didn’t really need home visits. She was doing a good job.’
Longhurst looked at Muriel, noting her grey skin colour and that she was still shivering despite the blanket around her. She wasn’t up to any further questions today.
‘I’ll get someone to take you home now,’ he said. ‘I’ll have to come and get a statement from you in a day or two. Perhaps you’ll remember more once you’ve got over the shock.’
‘I don’t think I ever will get over it,’ Muriel said sorrowfully. ‘I’ve seen the practice grow from just two doctors to the busy place it is now, it was a safe, nice place. I never thought I’d ever see something like that! It’s like something you hear of happening in America, isn’t it?’