Read a meeting of minds epub format

Authors: Clare Curzon

a meeting of minds

Table of Contents
Title Page
Chapter One
Chapter Two
Chapter Three
Chapter Four
Chapter Five
Chapter Six
Chapter Seven
Chapter Eight
Chapter Nine
Chapter Ten
Chapter Eleven
Chapter Twelve
Chapter Thirteen
Chapter Fourteen
Chapter Fifteen
Chapter Sixteen
Chapter Seventeen
Chapter Eighteen
Chapter Nineteen
Chapter Twenty
Chapter Twenty-One
Chapter Twenty-Two
Chapter Twenty-Three
Chapter Twenty-Four
Chapter Twenty-Five
Chapter Twenty-Six
Copyright Page
Chapter One
Costa del Silencio, Tenerife, August 20
The boy in the frayed straw hat reeled in, detached the flapping fish from his hook and inspected the prize. It wasn't unlike one of those displayed last night at the restaurant at Los Abrigos. But smaller, of course. Anyway a catch.
He threw it behind him on to seaweed where it continued its desperate contortions. Sickened, he reached back and struck it with a rock. It lay instantly still, spoilt now. The boy grimaced. He lifted it by the tail and threw it back in the waves.
Hunched, he sat brooding over the sea's reflected glare. His lips tasted of salt, his shoulders were beginning to peel. He'd forgotten the barrier cream.
He un-stoppered a plastic bottle of water, warm to his hand, and drank, then let the liquid trickle down his face, splash on to his naked chest. God, it was hot. Why must Marty pick on August to dump him on the Canaries?
Although he hadn't so much picked as been picked. It was for a job, and jobs meant bread. They kept him and in circumstances to which he'd always intended to become accustomed. Marty went where he had to go, but chose when the opposition was most vulnerable. He, Neil, was the little woman left behind, this time having to pretend, for other eyes, that a stomach upset had prevented his sailing too.
It was six days since
had puttered single-handed out of Puerto Colon on its Volvo pentas, ostensibly on a tour of the islands, to fetch up at Lanzarote. The weather had stayed calm. By now Marty would have reached Agadir, trekked inland towards Marrakesh and located the isolated Moroccan farm.
That was the point where things could go bottom-up. If
they did he'd never learn how it happened, or why. There'd be an unendurable wait, then notification from the harbourmaster at Agadir of an abandoned twenty-seven-footer registered to a marine hire firm in Tenerife. By then Neil Raynes would have scarpered to the UK and a new address. And an unfaceable future.
Damn him, why couldn't Marty do a nine-to five job like anybody else – sell expensive cars like he pretended to, or get his highs on some trading floor in the City? If he must chase risks, why sail single-handed, refuse back-up?
The boy – twenty, but looking like a young Tom Sawyer in the frayed trousers and battered straw hat – collected his fishing things, slung the empty water bottle in the sea and picked his way, barefoot, back over the rocks. A golf buggy wheezed past as he climbed over the barrier to the cinder path. He slid his sandals on to trudge uphill towards the hired apartment in the row of villas that faced the tenth hole.
Cinders pricked between his toes. When he was little they used to scatter the stuff to stop him sliding on ice. Here it was the natural surface of the south end of this volcanic island, coming in all sorts of weird shapes and chemical colours. Walking on it was like crunching over a vast furnace floor. Except, of course, for the cactus flowers and butterflies.
He dumped his line, box of bait and empty creel on the doorstep and continued up towards the clubhouse for the mail, stopping off at the mini-market for more bananas and coffee. Pointless stocking up until Marty got back. It was too hot to cook, or to eat.
The dark little shop, stinking of overripe pineapples and melons, was full of ghastly English parents being pestered by kids for ices. He shouldered his way through to pick up a hand of green bananas. He'd learnt already that if you bought them yellow they'd be black next day. There was a banana tree in their diminutive garden but it hadn't picked up the idea of fruiting. Wrong sex, he supposed: the sort of balls-up that could happen to anyone.
He tucked a packet of ground coffee under one arm and doled out the despised euros. Then he padded into the clubhouse and peered into their mailbox.
There was a thick, official-looking envelope with Isle of Man stamps. His heart lurched as he recognised the name of Marty's solicitor printed on the reverse. But the letter was addressed to himself.
God, what now? Was this the final pay-off? Had something really dire happened this time? Marty taken a risk too many?
He carried it unopened back to the apartment, stood shakily on the cool tiles of the kitchen floor and steeled himself to face the worst.
Unbelievable! Nothing of any importance. A few clippings from estate agents' catalogues, and a covering letter informing him that owing to a withdrawn offer it was now possible to acquire the desired first floor apartment at Ashbourne House, near Mardham, South Bucks. Would Mr Neil Raynes, as representative for Mr Martin Chisholm, authorise a bid for the said property up to the value previously agreed?
Better than that, Neil decided. He should have a firm commitment faxed from the hotel in Los Cristianos where the young duty manager was open to financial persuasion. The signature would appear to be Marty's, admirably forged after long and meticulous practice (as also by previous agreement.)
He was glad of the chance for positive action, however minor. His part in the project to date had been totally negative: not stepping out of line; not getting drunk or stoned, not laid locally or depressed. That last was the really dodgy bit, and would be until news came through.
Ten days later there was a fax waiting for him at the clubhouse: ‘A great journey. See you soon. Hope you're feeling fitter.'
The message started with A, which was code for Albufeira in the Algarve. So Marty had pulled it off, got away unscathed, and was anchored off the south coast of Portugal. (Omit the
indefinite article, and
Great journey
would have meant Gibraltar. V
– ‘Very good crossing' –
was to indicate Valencia. The simplest codes are the safest.)
Now Neil had to phone a number in England, advise that the flight tickets to Faro were the ones to use. Marty would meet the client there, hand over the goods and be free to sail back.
Relief flooded Neil. A day or two more, then he could pick up where they'd left off. He unlocked the apartment safe and removed the spare photograph of a heavily bearded Marty, as shown in his fake Egyptian passport.
Over the kitchen sink he set light to the photograph and watched it curl to fall in ashes, which he swilled away.
Another venture accomplished. By the weekend
would have eased back into its mooring at Puerto Colon with Marty on board, clean-shaven and once more a British subject. With a satisfyingly swelled bank balance waiting for him back home.
Chapter Two
Four weeks earlier
Plump, sixtyish and cheerfully flaunting garishly hennaed curls, Beattie Weyman was riding cloud nine. She had never bought anything so enormous, so enrapturing, in her life. Never had the money to do it, of course.
The other house, three-storeyed and wedged into a modest Victorian terrace, was constructed round a windowless stairwell which amplified sounds and smells from her lodgers' illicit fry-ups and after-hours partying. Buying the property on retirement seven years back had celebrated her lump-sum pension pay-out. That purchase had been in recognition of achievement. This new project was thanks only to a twist of fate.
It meant going upmarket; and she'd reached the time of life when acting out of character, being frankly eccentric, pepped one up with an illusion of youthful dash. The fun of
crowned it: it was heady, looking forward when you'd grown accustomed to looking back and thinking, ‘life's not been all that bad, but if only …'
So however often the builder – chummily she called him Bob – said, ‘Leave it all to me, hinny. I know what I'm doing,' she'd had to be in there with him, encouraging, suggesting, checking, commenting, at every stage of the conversion into seven flats.
At an early point on a glorious Tuesday in July, observing Ashbourne House from the gravel driveway, their interest had switched from the near completion of its interior to centre on the elegant front balcony.
‘With separate apartments,' “Bob” reminded her, ‘you gotta consider privacy. So I'll hafta put a screen between the owners' walkways out there.'
‘I'm not daft,' she told him. ‘Course there ‘as to be a screen. But your plan ‘as it plonked dead centre.'
‘For balance; he explained, weighing a weathered, upturned palm to either side of his shirt's straining buttons. ‘This here house is Regency, symmetrical. So the partition goes right over the front entrance. I'll see it's not obtrusive.'
‘But you know we've made those front-facing upstairs flats different. That one – ' and a plump index finger stabbed towards the left – ‘extends over part of the ‘all. Think of its size. The way you've shown it, ‘er right-hand window could be overlooked from'er neighbours' balcony.'
‘Bob' (real name Frank Perrin) considered. ‘See what you mean, hinny. But if I shift the divider along it'd look cockeyed from out here. Spoil the front elevation, like.'
‘Nuh. The folks I'm selling to aren't going to spend all their time out ‘ere looking up. They'll be inside,
it up. ‘Ow's she to ‘ave any privacy if the new people can walk past and peer in any time it suits them?'
Beattie had made her point. They then agreed on a wrought-iron arabesque screen because solid walls belonged to the tower-block tenements of their separate child-hoods, which both had firmly shucked off.
‘Come in ‘n ‘ave a cuppa,' Beattie invited, to celebrate her fresh victory.
Frank grinned at the cheery little body topped with a fuzz of hair which a Japanese Koi carp might have been colour-matched to. She caught the direction of his eyes and patted it proudly. ‘All me own, and nacheral too,' she boasted. ‘The curls, anyways.' She chuckled, her heaving shoulders bouncing ample breasts in a way that raised his hopes of loose-sewn buttons.
Munching his lunchtime cheese and pickle sandwich in his pick-up cab later, Frank Perrin considered what Beattie had let slip. Jobwise he'd known the old girl for quite a number of years, and they'd gossiped enough for him to guess that they'd had much the same kind of early life, she born into
London's war-shattered East End; he from a part of Tyneside which slum-clearance had relegated to history in the seventies. Both had risen through hard work and a refusal to be put down. Frank, having relocated south to catch the boom-years' redevelopment, now ran his own reputable firm with fifteen skilled workers to call on. Beattie, starting out as assistant dresser to the showgirls of the old Windmill Theatre, had scraped to save for a college course and qualified as a beauty consultant. Ability and a bouncy personality had finally found her managing the toning and cosmetic department of an Oxford Street store.
All the same, Frank knew, however successful a career, it didn't account for setting her sights on Ashbourne House. That had to be thanks to her recently deceased, childless sister who had emigrated to South Africa, twice married money there and twice been blessedly widowed.
With the sceptical outlook of a confirmed bachelor, Frank guessed that, for all the implied luxury, that too might have involved the poor cow in a lifetime of hard labour. He'd worked enough for the rich, had an eyeful of life behind the scenes. Nobody, he knew, got anything for nothing.
What tickled his curiosity now was Beattie's use of the word ‘she' as purchaser of the larger flat; still just two bedrooms, but easily the most roomy of the seven apartments. It hadn't been ‘they', which you might expect. And the other upstairs front apartment, although with a less spacious reception area, was to have multiple residents. ‘They' mustn't be allowed to peer through ‘her' windows. Which reminded him to reach across for the copy of his plans and pencil in the alteration to the balcony partition, three of the long French windows being ‘hers'; two for the ‘new people'. He sketched in the exterior detail to match the interior conversion.
The apartment Beattie had retained for herself was on the ground floor, a compact unit of three medium-sized, square rooms plus kitchen and bathroom, towards the rear on the east side. ‘I don't want it fancy, but I must ‘ave the sunrise to
shoot me out of bed ev‘ry morning,' she'd explained. Having a fondness for the old girl, he'd taken care to ensure that everything built into that unit was of the best quality obtainable.
The west side had a corresponding set of rooms, and the ground floor front contained two smaller apartments, one to either side of the house's original hall. The seventh flat ran across the rear upstairs. While the two front ones used the hall's grand staircase, No. 7 had access by the back door and the onetime servants' stairs.
Two days later the ‘new people' for the front-east upstairs flat arrived to view progress while Frank was on site. They slid noiselessly up in a silver Alfa Romeo; two well-built, fleshy blondes, obviously mother and daughter, Mrs and Miss Winter. The older, shorter one was a right royal Queen Mum; the daughter handsome and pleasant enough but, to Frank's mind, somewhat subdued.
The plasterer was just finishing inside, so they discussed colour schemes. Mother hankered after lilacs and pinks with brocade-patterned wallpaper. The daughter preferred ivory shades and vinyl matt paint. ‘Still, you'll be spending more time at home than I shall, Mother,' she conceded, ‘so choose what you like, except for my bedroom and office.'
Assured of that crucial concession Mother waved away consideration of the balcony. She viewed the newly fixed screen with little interest. Her suggestion was offhand: ‘You could grow a vine or something up it. That fancy clematis you go in for.'
‘Right.' But Daughter already knew what she wanted. ‘Fit a mirror on our side,' she commanded Frank, as she saw her mother into the car. ‘Get good quality hardened glass, and I'll add a
trompe l'oeil
archway. The reflection will extend the effect of the verandah.' She paused. ‘And I'll need to know what weight it can take. For plant tubs and so on.'
‘Right,' he said, stolidly, in his turn. So much for frontal
symmetry. It seemed this lot was aiming for a Chelsea Flower Show. He wondered what ‘she'on the far side of the mirror would do to retaliate. Be a bit of a joke if he put in a two-way mirror like they had down the cop-shop for identity parades. Nice idea, but Beattie wouldn't be on for it, and he couldn't risk upsetting a good customer.
He'd had bother enough from the single chap in the ground floor rear apartment on the west side. With a Fort Knox fixation about security, this Mr Paul Wormsley had ordered Spanish wrought-iron grilles fitted over lockable casements which opened inwards. Beattie had agreed, since those windows weren't visible from the road, and such extras would be at Wormsley's expense. He'd also ordered electronic surveillance covering the rear. Less a home than a fortress, in Frank's opinion.
Central to the ground floor was the huge, two-storied entrance hall, with its galleried grand staircase, behind which a modern laundry and utility room was now discreetly housed, replacing the original domestic offices. All apartments had separately-fired gas central heating.
Frank had yet to meet most purchasers. Which reminded him: he'd need a list of all their names from Beattie before Charlie, his electrics man, completed the phone-entry and doorbell system. He waved a hand at the ladies leaving.
Pulling away, Sheila Winter had clipped on her seat-belt, checked the rear-view mirror, switched on and put the car into gear. It would have to be the van next time. There'd be stuff to bring back: plants for the balcony and something easy-care for Mother's room.
Mother, she thought, and a shadow stirred in her mind. How long must it last, her zigzag, but inevitable, slide into premature senility? She was only just over menopause.
Her mood changes were painful to endure. Sheila was aware, in theory, of the clinical symptoms of dementia, but unsure each time whether she recognised the stages in real life. One moment it seemed certain, but Vanessa was such an
actress. The gushes of enthusiasm and the plunging despair might not actually be her, but some leftover memory of roles she'd once played. At times her mind drifted off entirely. Then, next moment, she came out with some shrewdness that made you wonder just how disturbed her sense of reality was. Of course her drinking didn't help. If only there were some reliable way of controlling her intake.
Sheila resented being forced into spying and recording, but for safety's sake someone must remain wary. It fell to her because there was nobody else: a frightful responsibility here at home when at work the new project was just taking off and needed her full-time attention.
Hang on a little longer, she told herself (or telepathically commanded her mother). At some later stage – but when exactly? – she would have to advertise for a full-time carer. A clinical gaoler.
At least out here Mother would be less a prey to danger. She'd never cared for the country, so was more likely to stay indoors and play at housekeeping with the new apartment. Thank God they'd managed to off-load that great house in Putney. Its removal had cut down the chaos and, she hoped, brought Mother closer under control.
Chaos: her mind nudged her with the word. Yes, there was that at work too, but only of the manageable, practical sort. She switched into business mode and settled more firmly in her seat, preparing to deal with the CCTV people about the garden centre's security system.
In a rear seat Vanessa (or April, as she sometimes liked to call herself) complained, ‘That's a very common old woman we've bought the place from. I hope you've checked that there's nothing dubious about the purchase.'
‘I had our solicitor look into her, Mother. She bought the house with money inherited from family.' She watched in the rear-view mirror how Vanessa appeared either not to hear, or chose to ignore, her words.
She sighed. It was as well Mother had made that remark
because for a moment she'd almost forgotten she had her there in the back seat. She'd heard that sometimes when you live with one you can get to be the same. If she didn't pull herself together people might wonder which of them it was whose mind was adrift.
Chapter Three
With the entry-phone requirements in mind, Frank Perrin gulped the last of his coffee, stowed thermos and mug under the pick-up's passenger seat, wiped his mouth with the back of a horny hand and set off for the ‘old house' where he knew Beattie would be busily making preparations to move out.
Rosemary Zyczynski was in the kitchen shelling peas on her free day and looked up as Frank was ushered in. So this was Beattie's wonder-worker, kept under wraps until now. On a tall, gangling frame his rounded head with its weather-beaten features sparsely topped with coarse, wispy hair of much the same ruddy brown, gave the impression of a large and shaggy coconut.
She rose to leave them together. ‘When Max arrives would you send him up?' she asked Beattie, halting in the doorway
‘Right, ducks,' she was assured. ‘Get ‘im to bring down your stuff for the charity shop then, will yer? It'll save us time later.'
‘That's my Rosemary,' Beattie explained fondly as the door closed behind her. ‘She's coming with me. Gonna ‘ave the upstairs front.'
In her bed-sitter Detective Sergeant Rosemary Zyczynski rested her elbows on the gritty windowsill and sniffed in the familiar scents of the outer neighbourhood. The ceaseless sound of traffic from the main road was a constant drone. Even in the early hours there was always movement out there, bringing sounds like the sea with waves approaching, receding, washing up again. Out at Ashbourne House she would find country silence. At most the cry of a fox or hunting owls.
Someone nearby was frying onions, and above the dusty bitterness of town-bred evergreens there crept the pervasive
odour of cat. Today something new: not far off a road surface was being re-tarred. Appreciatively she drew in the hot metal scent of the burner. This was her feet-on-the-ground world.
She was going to miss this place, cramped as it had become now that Max expected occasionally to spend the odd night here. It was the sleeping part of sleeping together that was the trouble: the rest was wonderful. But Max had the cat-nap habit, and would get up at odd hours to boil a kettle for drinks, then boot up the computer to knock out a few paragraphs of mint-fresh ideas; climb back into bed to read for twenty minutes; sigh, set a leather marker in his book; extinguish his bed-lamp; and be asleep within seconds.
Z, by contrast, required her log-like eight hours, and he invariably disturbed her however mouse-like his intentions. She would lie awake, unmoving, pretending to be asleep until, long after his performance, wearily, she was.
In her new flat, offered by Beattie at a suspiciously low price – ‘You might as well ‘ave it now as wait until I'm gorn, girl!' – she and Max could do the sleeping part in separate rooms, as they did when she stayed over at his house in Pimlico.
Downstairs, Frank Perrin was grinning. So Miss Weyman had a daughter she hadn't admitted to. A nice-looker, and no wedding ring; living at home with Mum although she'd be well into her twenties. And Beattie could still go on playing mother hen, with young Rosemary given a sweetener of the bigger upstairs apartment at the new place, which had ample room for a live-in lover. Cunning old Mum: keeping her kid close by giving her a generous rein.
‘I've dropped in for the residents' names,' he announced. ‘So's we can get on with the entry-phone list. Just the surnames' ll do for now. They can make any fancy changes to the cards later.'
‘Right. Wormsley you know, ‘im downstairs across from me. And I'm Weyman. The other folks upstairs, front, are
called Winter. All of us starting with a W. You‘da thought I'd chose them for it, only I didn't. And the upstairs rear lot are'Ubbles. Nice little fam‘ly. A Mum, Dad and a kiddy about four.'
‘Hubble, like the telescope, right? And then your Rosemary, upstairs front. We'll need to put her initial R on the bell card, to keep your – er,
apart.' He'd been going to say ‘mail', but remembered in time that there was to be a communal letterbox; all post to be sorted indoors and left on the hall table. A bit too matey for some folks, that. Beattie might be compelled to rethink that one.
At first Beattie didn't get the gist about the initial, thinking he somehow knew how jealously Rosemary guarded her privacy. That was her one condition on taking the flat. If anyone asked what her job was, no mention of police. Beattie was to say civil servant.
Then it clicked, that Bob-the-Builder took the girl for a Weyman too. Which made Beattie feel quite warm inside for a moment. Undeservedly, though. Not that she was gonna correct him and give him the girl's real name; not without Rosemary's say-so. Anyway, leave it the way it was.
‘Then downstairs front, in the one-bedroom flats, it's a Miss Barnes, who's a schoolteacher. She's on the east side, and Major Phillips on the west.'
Beattie watched him make a note, slide his carpenter's pencil back above his ear and close his notebook. ‘You'll stop for a bite of lunch, won't you?' she invited. ‘There'll be just the two of us. The young folks are going out.'
That was the first time Z set eyes on Frank Perrin, later to be encountered often enough in Beattie's kitchen at the new house. After he'd left, the old lady had made quite a show of wiping down the draining-board after washing-up. ‘Nice feller, ain't he?' she demanded over-casually. ‘Got very good taste.'
‘He must have. So watch yourself, Beattie. Unless he's a widower or a respectable bachelor.'
The corners of the old lady's mouth puckered. ‘Ain't that one of them fancy things you told me about? “Respectable bachelor”?'
‘Oxymoron?' Z laughed. ‘You're getting cynical, Beattie.'
They took up residence on the first Saturday in August, sharing a self-drive van for the few items of furniture they intended keeping. Max Harris and an off-duty constable from the local nick came along to handle their heavy stuff.
On the Sunday Paul Wormsley took possession of the ground-floor flat opposite Beattie's, his belongings arriving in a plain white van and delivered by a trio of large, uncommunicative men in brown overalls. Wormsley himself remained seated in his sand-coloured, three-year-old Peugeot with all windows lowered, and declined Beattie's offer of refreshments. When the move was completed he sidled in, blinking through round, heavy-framed lenses which, together with his thick, centre-parted hair, gave the impression of a slightly bewildered barn owl.
The Winters were due the following morning, Monday being when Greenvale Garden Centre remained closed to the public for restocking, after the locust invasion of horticultural enthusiasts over the weekend. A Pickfords' van was only the second vehicle to follow them in, sandwiched between the electrician and gas-fitter.
The purchasers of the two downstairs front flats arrived later in the same week. Miss Marjorie Barnes, who was the plump Deputy Headmistress of the local girls' secondary school, arrived in a self-drive van and shared all the humping and lumping of modern black ash, chrome and smoked-glass furniture with a large, simple-seeming man who wore a butcher's apron.
Major Phillips, tall, thin and silver-haired, with a weathered face that resembled grainy teak, was driven by a smaller and slightly younger, straight-backed individual whom he addressed as ‘corporal'. Their transport was an ancient
Triumph convertible, bright yellow. They too declined Beattie's offer of refreshments, set up camp in the empty rooms and drank milky tea prepared on a camper's stove until the removals van appeared, closely followed by the electrician.
Both new people promptly disappeared into their respective domains after dismissing their assistants, the corporal leaving, with a smart salute, on a Vespa which had materialised from inside the pantechnicon. The following day a garage delivered Miss Barnes's freshly valeted green Rover.
There was the expected delay in connecting everyone's telephones, but by Friday of the following week things had settled to surface normality. Only one of the seven apartments remained empty: that of the upper floor rear.
‘Them ‘Ubbles ‘ave gom and let me down,' Beattie declared. ‘Sumpthink about their own buyers pulling out. Well, I'm sorry, but I can't afford to ‘ang about. Gotta bridging loan from the bank as it is, and don't that manager jest know ‘ow to shovel the interest on.'
‘So what will you do?' Rosemary Zyczynski asked.
‘Sell to the next lot. My agent said all along ‘e'd keep a waiting list. ‘E's jest rung up to say first one on it is a Mr Chisholm. Gotta younger live-in partner, it seems. If she's a nice girl you might be pleased to ‘ave someone of your own age next-door, ducks.'
Maybe not, Z thought. And her doubt was confirmed when correspondence proved the ‘younger partner' to be male.
Beattie, mildly surprised at this, wasn't displeased. ‘Poofters' she announced with total disregard for political correctness. 'Metta lotta them sort in the beauty business. Easy to get on with, I always found.'
For the present that remained to be seen, because Martin Chisholm and Neil Raynes were conducting all arrangements via the agent from a hotel in the Canaries. Negotiations weren't hung up by any need for a mortgage, but it still wasn't until early September that they returned to England.
Over the first few weeks at Ashbourne House Z saw little of the other residents. Few alien sounds reached her; perhaps an occasional voice under her open windows and the departure and arrival of cars between driveway and lock-up garages in the converted stables behind the house.
She saw less of Beattie than in the hugger-mugger conditions of their former home, yet was aware of her unseen on the periphery, lurking like some watchful spider at the web's edge, keen for the rewards of her intricate creation. Not that the residents were to be prey, bound and sucked dry of their substance, but she certainly expected something of them, prepared to allow time before they provided her with it.
Not until her characters were all assembled did she make any move to draw them in and activate the drama.
Or would it be comedy? Zyczynski wondered. When the engraved invitation card arrived she went down to sound her out.
‘How will you manage?' she asked, surveying the old lady's well-equipped but relatively modest-sized dining-room and kitchen.
‘I'm ‘aving caterers in,' Beattie declared. ‘They'll bring it all in a refrigerated van, set up the table in the main ‘all; do the ‘ole lot. I want a real ‘ouse-warming and get-together.'
Then it became clear why she'd taken such care over furnishing the house's neutral ground. What had until then been no-man's land, visited only to pick up the mail, was to function as the pulsing heart of a community, a mixture of hotel foyer and club lounge. Beattie was seriously into social engineering.
Perhaps, Rosemary thought, she should offer to design a community flag to run up the virgin flagpole which projected from her balcony above the front entrance.
Whatever immediate reactions followed the invitations, acceptances duly arrived for Beattie from all six other apartments. The chosen date was a Friday; the intended hour 7.45
for 8pm. Rosemary, amused and intrigued – since Beattie had given no hint of her detailed arrangements – was almost late home, delayed by paperwork arising from drugs thefts from pharmacies throughout Thames Valley.
The others were about to take their places at table. She made her excuses – ‘kept late at the office' – and found her name card between Martin Chisholm and his partner Neil Raynes.
They were, she decided after a rapid survey of the entire company, the most promising there, her dear Max excepted. The young man on her left looked no more than eighteen or nineteen, while Chisholm was in his mid forties. Neither was high camp but their relationship required a frequent exchange of glances across her as she tried to make conversation. It struck her that they'd agreed in advance a permissible menu of topics, and presumably edited their CVs. She managed to imply that her own work was clerical, and no it wasn't particularly interesting: pretty dull really. Which was why she relied on a more lively social life.
I can more readily accept,' Chisholm purred, ‘than your choice of work. I should have guessed you were involved in a much more dashing occupation.'
‘Such as?' she invited.
‘Travel courier; something rather intellectually challenging in medical research; a barrister; a marketing manager for cosmetics; even a rally driver.'
‘You're having me on,' she accused him. ‘Actually, at the last deadly party I went to I claimed to be a brain surgeon, but at least two other people had got there before me. So I changed to a Member of Parliament. Now, what do you do?'
It emerged that he sold expensive cars in London's West End. (Con-man, she translated this.) His appearance bore him out. It was a strange face, suave, dark-skinned, economically fleshed over a strong framework of bone, with wide-slanting cheek-bones, angular jaw, cleft chin. He had the added sleek maturity of silvered temples, although at the back his nape-long
hair was almost black. There was something about him she found elusive, but compelling. His ears – she was still avoiding the cold, slaty eyes – his ears were flat, precisely sculpted; the nose large, slightly hooked and dominant. Which for her meant sexy.
He made her slightly uneasy. This was a man who counted. Counted: her choice of the word was Freudian. She guessed he counted in the transitive sense too: counted costs, counted gains, reduced people to statistics.
For a while neither had spoken. She was aware of him watching her, and wondered how much he saw. Simply his own impact? Or had he curiosity enough to penetrate her surface? How much in this short moment of encounter had she given away?
Deliberately she turned back to the young man on her left. ‘Are you a student?'
She sensed a stiffening in the other man and knew he'd sent a silent warning over her head.
‘Was once. But I chucked it in. I'm a hospital porter.'
So he'd accepted the hint to be polite, but there was something about his voice that wasn't quite right. It was as though the adolescent surliness was put on, and his natural way of talking could be more refined. She guessed he had been expensively educated, but preferred to be thought a roughneck. Now that was interesting. Unless, of course, interesting was what he set out to be.
She picked up her spoon and applied herself to the starter, which was excellent: ripe avocado, its scooped-out contents mixed with shredded Bramley apple and onion, the whole topped with Cheddar cheese and gently grilled. However many calories?
‘This is good,' said Max with enthusiasm from his seat almost opposite. Beattie had found that nine placings left the table unbalanced, so Max, as occasional resident, had been invited too.
Chisholm leaned across and clicked his fingers. ‘I knew I should have recognised you. You're
Max Harris: the columnist. Not that the cartoon portrait they give you is exactly flattering.'
‘I like to think mine is a unique kind of beauty,' Max claimed solemnly, then swiftly turned interest on the other. ‘Do tell me; as a specialist, what kind of car do you choose for yourself?'
She should have known that he'd been listening. Max didn't miss much. Many a dinner party such as this had provided copy for his mocking pen. She listened now to find what raw material he'd be drawing out of the self-confident Mr Chisholm; but it was mainly technical talk, magnetos and bearings and zero-to-sixty in
seconds. It was as bad as a night out with a rookie from Traffic branch.
She grinned at her other neighbour. ‘Working in a hospital do you ever feel you'd like to take up nursing?'
He stared at her as if she were some weird kind of insect. ‘Nah,' he said again.‘Less I see of all that the better. I don't mind chatting up the old biddies that get parked on trolleys. It's true what the papers say. They're left in corridors for hours some days, no matter how scared or ill. Makes them fret. Still, the men can be worse.'
With that scornful observation his flow of conversation dried up. He reached for the little tasselled white card that was their menu, read out,
‘Medailles d'agneau, Artichauts Farcis, Pommes Frites,‘'
in acceptable French and declared, ‘So long as there's
I guess that'll do.'
Max grinned across at her and started refilling her wineglass. ‘Beattie's really gone to town on this.' He nodded up-table to where their hostess was conversing animatedly with the younger Winter woman.
Between them the owlish Wormsley sat with his elbows nipped in and his napkin tucked between the second and third buttons on his dark jacket, which he'd not thought to undo. He seemed totally switched off except that she caught
his eyes flitting between the others as they fenced with the business of enforced socialising. She guessed from his unnatural solemnity that he was secretly laughing at everyone.
‘What does Mr Wormsley do?' she asked Chisholm, who had broken off his sales talk to savour the scents of the plate of lamb just deposited in front of him.
‘Not a lot, I should imagine,' he said lightly. ‘I'm told he'd very little luggage.'
Unlike yourself, Z silently commented. Beattie hadn't missed logging his computer and work station, wide-screen television, exercise bike, music centre, surfboard and skis. Doubtless he was making good use of the loft space above his apartment.
Beyond Chisholm the middle-aged schoolteacher, Miss Barnes, was deeply in conversation with Major Phillips, his narrow, silver head inclined to catch her low voice. Z, watching them, wondered if Beattie had been matchmaking there when she accepted them on interview. There had been no shortage of local people eager to buy into the property.
Max succeeded in getting Mrs Winter alive. She had sat there like a gift-wrapped sack of potatoes until he hit on the sesame words that opened her up. Now she was becoming increasingly animated, waving her claret glass as though leading the
Student Prince
drinking chorus. Z strained her ears to catch what she was saying. And yes, it was operetta, but actually
The Desert Song.
As a child Z had been taken by Auntie to various amateur productions and remembered a particularly hilarious presentation of
Rose Marie
when the corpulent local postmaster had taken the lead. The Mountie's tight uniform had accentuated his unfortunate pot belly, and for weeks afterwards Z had waddled about in the privacy of her bedroom, singing ‘When I'm calling
It wasn't easy to guess Mrs Winter's age. A lot of money had gone into her preservation, but she could hardly go back as far as the original shows. The stage successes she was archly
recounting to a transfixed Max Harris were probably at amateur level.
Distanced from her by Max, her daughter was casting anxious glances in her direction, while Beattie still persistently invited more details of the management scene at Greenvale Garden Centre.
By the time the dessert arrived everyone else appeared relaxed and comfortable. Z had expected Beattie to order one of her favourite steamed suet puddings and was agreeably surprised at the caramelised pears in lemon syrup, sprinkled with toasted almonds.
The wine had done its work. When they left the table for coffee there reigned a sense of real camaraderie. Sheila Winter had offered to keep the house's public rooms – mainly the hall – in fresh-cut flowers (at an equally cut price) and complained of recent difficulties at the garden centre over break-ins and thefts. She had been advised on several monitoring systems and was having CCTV installed to deal with this.
Martin Chisholm was dryly recounting his farcical adventures at an international car dealers'convention in Toronto, and Vanessa Winter was waltzing with majestic uncertainty with Max to Strauss and Lehar from a CD player she'd insisted he should bring down from her apartment for the purpose. The party looked as if it could go on all night.
Beattie came across to the sofa where Z was sitting and laid a hand on her knee. ‘Seems to “ave gorn off all right,' she said as a question.
‘It's been perfect, Beattie. Thank you.'
Neil Raynes, stretched out on his back on a bearskin rug at their feet, suddenly sat up, clasping his hands about his knees, and demanded thickly, but in his natural, cultivated voice, ‘Why can't everyone be civilised like this all the time?' There were tears in his eyes.
‘Neil, old son, time for bed,' said Chisholm, breaking off in mid-anecdote and rising to his feet. He smiled at Z, watching
the youngster weave towards Beattie to thank her before leaving. ‘I'm afraid wine mixes badly with his medication.'
The move signalled their break-up. Vanessa Winter performed her final staggering swirl, gave a last wave of her floating chiffon scarf and permitted Max to see her upstairs to her door. Miss Barnes and Major Phillips wished everyone goodnight and let themselves into their own apartments. Paul Wormsley, grinning fatuously, followed Beattie out to the nether quarters, leaving Rosemary Zyczynski and Sheila Winter to gaze around at the desolation of dishes and cutlery which the caterers had abandoned.
‘She should have booked the still-room staff from my restaurant,' Sheila said. ‘They'd have cleared it all overnight.'
Z saw to the lights and followed her upstairs. They parted on the gallery.
‘Good food,' Max said affably as she entered her bedroom. He was throwing off his clothes and expecting her to follow suit.
‘And food for thought,' she said after a slight pause. ‘Did you get the feeling there's more going on under this roof than readily meets the eye?'
Chapter Four
Nine weeks later: November 10
It was the sort of grim morning when you half-wake to realise that it's Sunday, shiver, burrow deeper into the mattress, pull the duvet up over your ears and experience a rush of gratitude for the invention of the Christian Sabbath. It was plainly November.
Freshly tanned after a family week spent in Madeira, Detective Superintendent Mike Yeadings accepted he was totally out of practice with cold; especially the greasy, raw, damp, throat-catching kind that now clung to his windows. Fog, he decided, he did not do.
So the ringing phone was intolerable just as he was again sliding over the edge of sleep. ‘Shop,' Nan announced with hurtful brightness, passing the instrument across the bed. And today seniority permitted no escape, because the team was still short of a DI, Angus Mott's transfer to Kosovo having suddenly come through before the top brass had named a replacement.
While a brace of detective sergeants attending a possible suicide should normally be more than enough, Yeadings wasn't happy to leave it to them. Any other two perhaps; even Beaumont and Rosemary Zyczynski at any other time; but at present there was too much tension between them, each over-conscious of an acting-inspectorship hanging above like a shared Damoclean – though welcome – sword.
Both had done well in the promotion exam. By length of service it should be Beaumont to receive the accolade, but he hadn't Z's dependability: a regrettable case of a quirk too far. Maybe, Yeadings thought, it should be decided on the outcome of today's call-out. Best perhaps if he was on hand there to watch both respond.
So, as pitch dark yielded to phlegmy grey, his intended rest day found him wrapped as for an Alaskan winter and driving down from the rolling, silver Chilterns into ever more densely swirling mist in the river valley. Ahead and below spread a thick sea of white from which the tops of trees jutted black like the broken masts of stranded ships. Even inside the heated car the air had a reedy tang to it. He could already taste the wintry Thames on his tongue.
Arrived in Henley he was waved on by flashlight to the site. It was a pub yard. As yet there had been no enthusiastic turnout; just a pair of uniformed PCs in their jam-sandwich patrol car, plus a sickly-looking civilian who'd discovered the body, and an unfamiliar young medico identified only by the stethoscope hung round the upturned collar of his British Warm. His car, a red Jaguar, was parked at a respectful distance across the car park from the deceased's, so one might hope he would co-operate in preserving the scene.
As Yeadings stepped out into the dank chill, his breath coiling to hang in minute, visible globules, a police van from Traffic drove up and began to unload screens, bollards and rolls of plastic tape to secure the site.
A pub yard. The information relayed from the nick at second-hand had given no details beyond Henley-on-Thames, query female suicide, down near the bridge. So Yeadings had been expecting the riverbank, with a drowned corpse hauled in on a boatman's pike.
Nostalgically his memory retrieved a day in high summer – Henley Regatta: jostling boats; bright college blazers with white slacks; ladies lazing in floaty silks; local girls grilling themselves lobster-red in tank tops and hot pants; a cheery, beery crowd of spectators hanging over the water.
But today that was all gone: there were no corporate hospitality marquees dispensing champagne and strawberries with cream for the would-be toffs. This was a quite different scenario.
At least the river wasn't involved. He wasn't required to
gaze on the waxen bloating of long submersion, and the obscene ravages of fish. But it would be bad enough. He would never grow accustomed to the sight of life suddenly and violently destroyed. Each new body was that of someone's son or daughter.
On first sight this one in the black Vauxhall Vectra appeared decent: well-preserved, female, thirties, fleshy but not obese, fully – and rather stylishly – wrapped in a black fur coat. She was seated in the driving seat, fallen half-sideways, her face partly hidden in the deep collar, the fingers of both hands splayed across the fabric of the passenger seat.
Could it yet be a natural death, or something else? Whatever had been implied in calling him out, he had experience enough to wait for the doctor to climb out from the far side, straighten and smooth down his hair.
‘Death confirmed at 08.13,' he offered. ‘I guess that's all that's expected of me. I'm Sam Newbury, by the way. I've disturbed the body as little as I could. Anything further needed?' His accent wasn't native; perhaps Australian or New Zealand.
Yeadings identified himself. ‘Air and anal temperature readings?' he suggested mildly. ‘Professor Littlejohn will be here in his own good time, which, given the fog, may not be all that good. He'll want to view her in situ, but he'd appreciate some statistics from square one.'
‘Then I'll see what I can do.' Newbury came round to the driving side, blocking off the doorway with a powerful pair of shoulders. Yeadings waited, leaving him space. A few minutes later, the young doctor emerged again, grim-faced. He offered no cause of death and Yeadings demanded none. Nevertheless the young man quizzed the detective: ‘Are you expecting suspicious circumstances?'
‘You think I should?' Yeadings's furry-caterpillar eyebrows rose as he watched him snap the latex gloves fastidiously off his fingers. ‘I'd certainly consider the set-up needs a little explaining: why here? why now? why her?'
The police surgeon grunted. ‘That's your business. I've finished mine, so – happily – back to bed, which someone quite gorgeous is keeping warm for me.' He grinned cockily, but Yeadings wasn't deceived. The lad was covering up distaste at a still unfamiliar job. A local practice might not offer him much violent death, beyond the occasional drunken brawl that went a tad too far.
Uniformed men were erecting a plastic tent to screen off the car, and not before time, because lights were beginning to show in windows all around and at any moment someone might come out of the pub and demand to know what was going on.
While Dr Newbury was occupied a blue Ford Escort had drawn up in the road opposite, and now DS Zyczynski got out, wrapping a silver-grey sheepskin coat tightly round her. She hurried across to Yeadings. Her head was bare, and almost immediately little beads of moisture started to collect and glint on her cap of brown curls. ‘Morning, Boss. What've we got?'
From the corner of his eye the superintendent saw DS Beaumont struggling to climb out of her front passenger seat, still buttoning his coat. Z followed his gaze. ‘I picked him up,' she said quickly, dispelling any inference that they were cohabiting. Which never would have entered Yeadings's mind. He knew the car-sharing wasn't to conserve fuel. Either Beaumont's own wouldn't start on this damp and cheerless morning or he was still fragile from last night, compelling him to beg a favour, however it might show up as a bum card in his hand.
‘Just as well to have you both together,' he said comfortably. ‘Let's hope it won't keep us here for long. From where I'm standing it's still possibly an accident, though the doctor's manner implies otherwise. I leave it to you.'
Zyczynski had sense enough not to dive in, but stood alongside, hands deep in her coat pockets. Since the subject was certified dead they could wait for the photographer to finish before touching the body.
He caught the question in her eyes and pointed. ‘Half-eaten ham sandwich near its plastic wrapper on the passenger seat. Plus a hip flask that's leaked on to the floor. It could be she choked on her picnic. But ours not to reason why, nor even how, at least until Littlejohn's taken a look. SOCO team's on its way.'
Beaumont had joined them in time to get the final sentence. He grunted, looking the worse for wear, slumped whey-faced in a dark waxed jacket. He was saved from any effort at conversation by arrival of the Scenes-of-Crime van and the simultaneous emergence of the landlord of the White Swan in dressing-gown and slippers. Yeadings moved away and left it to the others to make the regulation police noises.
From a nearby stanchion at the car park's entrance the civilian witness rose groggily to his feet and moved off towards the pub, until Yeadings challenged him.
‘I take it you discovered the body?'
The man, small, weasel-like and unshaven, shook his head in confusion, but apparently meaning yes. ‘Can't believe it. Give me a real turn, it did. Never expected to find anyone in the car. There's often one or two left over from a Sat'dy night. Their pals takes their keys off of them if they're too tanked up to drive, see. I jes' went across to have a shufti in the window, make sure there wasn't no valuables left inside. So then I sees this bird. Thought it was a tart'd spent the night in some punter's car, didn't 1. Only then I opened the door and tried to shake ‘er awake. Cold as charity she was. Worse, she was a right slabba marble.'
Now that he'd started to talk he seemed unable to stop. Yeadings was familiar enough with the symptoms of shock, but he had one question more before the man slunk off indoors. ‘Why were you up and about so early?'
‘Gotta clean the public rooms, ‘aven't I? Sunday's a big day. Roas' beef and three veg, winters. Barbecue in summer. Getta lotta people turn up midday.'
‘So we'll be as quick as we can, letting you get on with it.'
Yeadings signalled to Beaumont to come and take over. ‘Get him inside,' he ordered. ‘Check the driver's door really was unlocked. Find out how much he disarranged the body. And have a word with mine host about last night. It's all a little unusual, so give it a good shake out. I'm off home now. You can ring me there when you're through.'
He made it back before Sunday breakfast was cleared. Nan promptly produced her cholesterol-reduced version of the fry-up he felt the weather owed him, and he was half-way through it before the phone rang.
It was Zyczynski. Her voice was sombre. ‘Photography's done. Prof L's arrived and we're still waiting to hear what he's found. But why I'm phoning – I've got a name for her, sir. She's my neighbour at Beattie's: Sheila Winter. Owns that big garden centre,
out on the Caversham Road.'
He observed her use of the present tense. She'd known the woman; was momentarily shaken. ‘Get back home now,' he ordered. ‘Beaumont's fit enough to see this through.'
‘I'd like to stay on, sir. We'll clear it more quickly together.' She hesitated. ‘I'd have guessed at once who it was if she'd been in her own car. This is a new one on me. I didn't see her face until Prof Littlejohn straightened her out. Sir, do you want me to break it to her mother? She'll be needed to identify her later.'
‘That would probably be best eventually, but don't push yourself. It comes hard when it's someone you know. And leave SOCO to wind it up there. It's no weather to stand around in. It wouldn't help to have both my sergeants down with bronchitis.'
A thought struck him. ‘Will you be at home later, Z, say twelvish?'
‘Apart from seeing Mrs Winter, I'd not intended going out.'
‘Good. You can leave it until I arrive.' He made an attempt to lighten his tone. ‘You know how I like my coffee.'
He nodded and replaced the receiver. It was Z he would
recommend to stand in for the missing Angus Mott. She'd finally satisfied him on the main count this morning; plus the possible bonus that she'd some slight knowledge of the dead woman.
It was several months ago that Z's landlady had launched out to buy Ashbourne House, had it converted into flats and given the girl first refusal of the best apartment. It was a distinctly upmarket move, which Z had described as Beattie's attempt to script, cast and direct a real-life soap of her own. She'd complained that those currently on TV were getting drably predictable and failing on the family front. Yeadings, amused, had a mental image of the old lady as a motherly ewe nosing round the lambing field for orphaned or cast-off subjects to foster.
Beattie Weyman, irrepressibly good-natured cockney and retired beautician, no longer had any family of her own, and the more modest house she'd owned before was haunted by the bloody ghost of her dead sister propped up at the table in her basement kitchen. She'd ridden the shock waves of that murder like a Trojan wife, but she didn't need to face another sudden death; certainly not one connected with the new house. It was as much to check on the old lady as to hear any developments from Z that he'd invited himself round for coffee. Meanwhile a long soak in the tub should be next on his Sunday agenda.
He was barely – in both senses – immersed when his mobile phone, just out of reach, bleated. He resisted the temptation to slide under the water and ignore it. As he stepped out, the dank November fog seemed suddenly to seep through the steamed window and clasp him in an intimate embrace.
‘Yeadings,' he snapped.
It was Beaumont. ‘Thought you'd like to know who the car belongs to.' He sounded smug.