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Authors: Clare Curzon

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BOOK: A Meeting of Minds
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‘Surprise me, then.' Did he expect a commendation because the National Police Computer had accessed the information for him?
‘Barry Childe.'
For a brief instant it meant nothing, then Yeadings recalled canteen black humour at the name. There had been little that was childlike about the man, pulled in some years back for a particularly brutal case of GBH. He'd been lucky to escape a murder charge. The young prostitute he'd attacked had lingered in coma for over a month. Childe must have served half of his seven year stretch and been released on parole.
‘So what are you waiting for?'
‘He's moved from the last-known address in Reading. I've been round there but no joy. The local nick says he's reported in on time but not informed his parole officer of any move. I guess we'll have to wait for Monday to get anything more. Meanwhile, the Prof's willing to do the post mortem this afternoon at 3.30 since his weekend's ruined anyway.'
Yeadings, shivering despite the central heating, considered this. He guessed there were two reasons for Littlejohn's eagerness to tackle the job at once. One was that the body interested him; the other, that he disliked working on half-frozen and re-thawed flesh. ‘So he found something unusual?'
‘That depends on what you take for normal these days. It certainly wasn't natural causes or suicide. Even from where I was standing 1 could recognise multiple stabbing. And the black mink coat isn't going to be of much use to the charity shops. It's pretty sliced up. That, incidentally, was all she had on.'
Back in the bath foam, with a liberal addition of hot water, Yeadings lay thoughtfully regarding the hump of his own belly. Nan was right: his muscles needed toning. But that, like tracing Childe, was for another day.
The present observation exercising his mind was that not only was Littlejohn being economical with information, but his sergeants were also waging a two-man war of non-intercommunication.
‘So that welcome dinner of Beattie's was your first real meeting with Sheila Winter,' said Yeadings. They were side by side on her kitchen window-seat, drinking the promised coffee. Behind them the November sky loured felty grey. The midday sun was making a blurred effort to penetrate the fog, which by now had lifted enough to be recognisably low cloud.
‘I didn't gather much about Sheila as a person,' Z considered. ‘She seemed total business-woman. Even at the dinner she talked about nothing but her precious Greenvale garden centre. Her thank-you to Beattie for the dinner party was an offer of cut-price houseplants over a period. Apart from that nothing really struck me, except that she did seem anxious about her mother, who went on a drinking spree and was flirting outrageously with Max.',
‘Who naturally took it in his stride,' Yeadings guessed. ‘That was over six weeks ago. What about after that?'
‘As Beattie intended when she launched the social thing, it took off. The hall is ideal for get-togethers. Sheila Winter gave a drinks party there a week or so later for her workers at the Centre and various suppliers. We residents were automatically included. I stayed on for about fifteen minutes on my way indoors. Upstairs front people have to come and go by the main entrance, you see. Owners of the three rear flats have a back door, and they can reach the hall through the communal utility room. I don't know who else of our residents turned up. Beattie told me later that she hadn't gone.
‘While I was there Sheila was busy acting hostess and seemed quite normal. I didn't notice her spending more time with any one person than another.
‘Then, about ten days ago, the Winters gave a small dinner party in their own flat. It was just for what she called “us
upstairs people”. Max was away so, ostensibly to even up numbers, she'd invited her new assistant manager from the Centre. Actually I'd noticed him circulating at the earlier drinks party. I decided she'd really meant the dinner to welcome him, with me thrown in as the handy extra.'
‘And her demeanour then?'
‘What you'd expect of a boss permitting a limited sight of her home life. Her mother stayed subdued throughout and was only poured mineral water. I wondered at the time if she'd taken a mild sedative. The conversation was general chatter, tabloid front-page stuff: favourite television shows; speculation on private lives of people famous for being famous, and on how many years the Diana factor would make heavy demands for cut flowers at her funeral anniversaries. I felt Sheila was talking down in a way, for the man's benefit, but she wasn't patronising.
‘I asked how they found the CCTV, and got the usual answer: that a run-through of the tapes later revealed a number of thefts, but losses were definitely down. They had the same moan as everyone else: that there weren't enough staff on busy days to have someone sit watching the monitors.
‘Sheila seemed competently in control of the conversation and quite impersonal. I didn't learn anything more about her than at Beattie's dinner-party.
‘Which had been almost negative too.' He sounded regretful.
‘Yes.' And yet. She caught his glance and knew that he'd picked up on her hesitation.
‘I had the impression afterwards …'
‘ …that I'd missed out on something.'
‘But its source wasn't Sheila Winter?'
‘No-o-o.' She closed her eyes, switched back to that first occasion and saw them again seated round the table: Beattie's flushed pleasure; the homosexual couple's silent communication punctuating exchanges with herself. No, there was nothing
in that to cause special unease. Nothing, that was, beyond the sudden personal attraction she'd felt for Martin Chisholm. Which she certainly preferred to keep private.
Leaving whom as the disturbing factor? Had it been Vanessa, with her instinctive actress's need to upstage, leaving Max and herself half entertained, a quarter sceptical, and a quarter watchful – but not watchful enough, it now seemed? Or young Neil Raynes, unexpectedly hostile at first, and later sentimental, almost weepy? Then there was Paul Wormsley, the dimly smiling barn owl, giving nothing away. Was he covertly laughing at everyone? – enjoying some private joke at their expense? Did that make him an enigma? A Mystery Man?
While she pondered, Yeadings appeared to have moved on. ‘We'd better see Mrs Winter now and break the sad news to her. Come along as a concerned neighbour, to introduce me. There's no need yet for anyone here, apart from Beattie, to know that we're connected professionally.'
‘Right, sir. The Winters' door is at the far end of the gallery, opposite mine. So far as I know, she's at home.'
That misty Sunday had begun miserably for Vanessa Winter. On waking late she'd stumbled to open the curtains and looked out on a shrouded countryside. It reinforced the confused sense of her personal world all awry. Resentful, she determined to milk it of every atom of agony.
Last night had been bloody; initially because of some upset at work that Sheila had brought home magnified. So they had quarrelled. Badly. God knows what about, but there was always something.
Yes, that had been last night. Or she thought it had been. Couldn't be sure because afterwards she'd rather mixed the drinks. Before going out, Sheila had hidden the bottles away, though in a place this size it didn't take long to unearth them.
Then, as she roamed the flat this morning, it was obvious that Sheila's bed hadn't been slept in. There'd been no warning,
no apology, and she was left high and most appallingly dry. Which was even more bitchy of Sheila than usual.
Was she meant to worry over the stupid girl; picture her grotesquely coupling with some quite unsuitable man all last night? Like that Childe person she had brought home last week. No culture, no conversation, so that they'd had to scrape the bottom of the barrel of tabloid gossip or they'd have been silent from terrine through to cheese-board. It wasn‘'t enough that Sheila had only peasant ambitions, but she must have her bit of rough outside her career as well.
Disagreeable girl. And a bully!
She went on protesting silently, her insides churning. Why must you do this to me? I knew moving out here would never work out. Where is there to escape to?
There are no shops, no galleries, no beauticians, no hotels.
She slunk into the bathroom, put in the plug, turned on both taps.
I could slit my wrists, she thought self-indulgently, and lie in the warm water staring at the white ceiling; just slip away.
But she wasn't sure Sheila would grieve; and she knew it for a role she wouldn't take on. Not now. Perhaps never. Not the fragrant April Fenner.
But to be honest, if one must be, she was still Joan Winter. Such a bleak name, as though right from the start her puritanical parents had been determined she should have nothing that was pretty. So, marrying early, she'd exchanged Winter for Fenner, and for her burgeoning stage career she'd chosen to be April, all sunshine and showers – plenty of scope there for a young actress, turning on the charm and the tears. Admitting she was past juvenile romantics, she'd then matured into ‘Vanessa'. She'd known the right people and achieved a handful of good roles, because, despite her harsh mother and the reclusive father, she'd turned out a beauty after all. So she'd had her successes: two decades of almost-fame.
No; ending it just wasn't on. Someone must be there to take the curtain calls.
She started to open the bathroom casement but slammed it shut as cold wisps of fog started to curl in. The real world was more chilling than past dreams.
Reality? – she wasn't sure what it amounted to any more. What was she reduced to, living here under Sheila's management? Going on going on, with nothing to look forward to? If you can't make plans any more, can't fill up the diary pages ahead, you're no longer alive. Not fully. When was it that she'd last been conscious of
A vital dimension had simply vanished, like the surrounding fields into today's mist.
She shrugged off the silk robe and un-stoppered the perfumed bath oil which Sheila complained was hard for the daily to clean off. She upturned the flask, watched the thick globules hang suspended a moment from its lip, then fall at arm's length, drop by calculated golden drop, into the water. She was Agrippina dispensing poison for her decrepit emperor husband. Clever, incestuous Agrippina, the greatest viper of them all – a better role for her than Cleopatra's immortal longings and her finale with the asp.
Agrippina, yes, she comforted herself as the warm, scented water slid over her shoulders. She could do that superbly. But she'd lost out on the TV part which had gone to Fiona Walker. And that had somewhat curdled her passion for Jakobi.
Central Casting seemed to lose interest in her at about that time. Which was when she'd started to accept second best, taken some singing parts, even done a few charity jobs, joined the amateurs. Ultimately – and this long years after her marriage too had fallen apart – well, ultimately
She mouthed the word wryly, turned over in the bath, flopped heavily on her breasts, throwing water out on the floor; became a sea lion, whiskery face dunked in the water. It seemed to soothe her pounding head a little. Should she leave it there? Breathe in Lethe's calm?
Who would mind? Not Sheila, for sure.
The unwelcome visitors arrived at lunch-time; or what would have been lunch-time if she'd felt at all like eating. As it was, she still had a towel wrapped round her streaming hair and went to the door in her bathrobe with patches of damp showing through where she hadn't properly dried off.
It was the Rosemary girl, Beattie Weyman's by-blow, and a rather interesting-looking man in his forties, big – as she'd once liked them – and with strong character lines on his rugged face. He'd have made a Roman senator, not hawky enough for a Pilate.
She realised she'd been staring too long and missed what he'd said. ‘Look, come in,' she invited. ‘Have a drink. Sun must be over the yard-arm. Wherever that is.'
Yeadings held the door wider for Z and followed her in. Vanessa waved them through to the drawing-room, waited for them to be impressed by its splendour.
‘Well, sit down,' she ordered, when neither spoke. She walked across to the drinks cabinet, shakily poured three generous scotches – less bother than asking them their preference, and anyway this was the last bottle she'd managed to unearth, hidden behind the kitchen disinfectant. Her head was pumping again. She wondered what they wanted, how long they'd take explaining.
The girl asked her to sit down. In her own apartment! Such impertinence.
She stayed standing, complained, ‘Someone'll need to carry these across for me.' There should have been a tray, but she rather thought it had been left on her bed.
Rosemary brought her drink to her and then she did sit down. The others left their tumblers untouched.
‘Mr Yeadings is a policeman,' Rosemary said. ‘I'm afraid he's brought bad news.'
Bad? She was used to that. ‘How bad?' she demanded, crossing her legs and sipping. She could see that she was making an impression. He couldn't take his eyes off her.
Then the big man told her.
She didn't believe him. No. Not Sheila. She wasn't the sort that – that things happened to. ‘No,' she said almost firmly. And then, after an eternity, ‘But how?'
He explained that her daughter had been attacked. He didn't know who was responsible, but they would find out. In the meantime was there anyone who could come and stay with her? A friend? Her husband?
‘God, he'd be the last …'
‘He will have to be informed, Mrs Winter. If Sheila was his daughter he needs to know. Do you have his address?'
It would be somewhere around. ‘Sheila knows it.'
Rosemary stood up and walked across to a rosewood davenport. ‘Is this her desk?'
‘Yes, she leaves some personal stuff in it. The rest is in her office.' Vanessa seemed to have withdrawn. She nodded rigidly when the girl asked for permission to search.
Z came up with a blue leather address book and handed it to Yeadings. He inserted a thumbnail in the W index and read the names rapidly through. ‘There's no Winter in this,' he said.
‘Fenner,' Vanessa told him sharply. ‘Winter's the maiden name I went back to after I left him. I had Sheila's changed at the same time. ‘He's Dr Gabriel Fenner. His subject's Archaeology. He lives somewhere in Cambridge.'
Yeadings had another look. ‘Fenner. Yes, the address is in here.'
‘I'll get on to it,' Z offered.
Yeadings frowned. ‘I'd rather you found Beattie first. She'll know what to do.'
‘Right, sir.'
Vanessa echoed dully. The implied respect struck her as odd, but she didn't pick up on what it might signify. Rosemary left and the two of them sat staring at each other across the room.
BOOK: A Meeting of Minds
13.74Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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