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Authors: Clare Curzon

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BOOK: A Meeting of Minds
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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,
callers
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.
‘Now
that
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.
BOOK: A Meeting of Minds
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