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Authors: Clare Curzon

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BOOK: A Meeting of Minds
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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?'
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.
BOOK: A Meeting of Minds
5.68Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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