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Authors: Clare Curzon

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‘I am so very sorry,' Yeadings said.
If he was, why didn't he come across and take her in his
arms? She needed comforting. Couldn't he see she was now utterly alone? Unconsciously she reached out a dimpled hand and hugged a cushion close, burying her face for minutes in its shiny softness.
To Yeadings it looked as if she had fallen asleep, her body was so relaxed. They stayed silent until Z came back, alone.
‘Beattie not there?' Yeadings asked quickly.
‘She's cooking. A sponge cake. It's just rising.'
He couldn't believe that she'd refused to help, but Z wouldn't admit in front of Vanessa that the news had struck Beattie like a slap in the face. It echoed too closely her sister's tragic end.
‘Take over here,' he ordered Z, and went out on the misted balcony to use his mobile phone. As he came back there was a tap at the door.
Beattie let herself in and went straight across to Vanessa. She plumped herself down on the sofa and took the other woman in her arms. They began slowly rocking together, not a word spoken.
After a minute or so Vanessa's head lifted and she stared at Beattie almost blindly. ‘Why don't you come downstairs with me?' Beattie asked gently.
Yeadings nodded. It would leave them space to have Sheila's room searched.
As if hypnotised, Vanessa let herself be led away. When Z went down later with a selection of clothes from her wardrobe she was seated on a kitchen chair beside the oven, blankly staring ahead. The flat was warm and filled with the cosy smells of baking.
As she watched, Vanessa put out a tremulous hand to Beattie and asked in a small voice, ‘Can Joanie have a bikky?' Her face suffered a nervous tic. She seemed to cower away from an expected rebuff.
‘Pretty please,'
she whispered.
Z nodded to Beattie. ‘I found her doctor's phone number in the desk. He's on his way.'
Upstairs Yeadings had walked through to her bedroom,
observing the disordered bed with a tray of used dishes on the floor nearby. There were croissant flakes on the rumpled under-sheet and spilt stains of red wine beside an overturned glass on the bedside table. Last night's clothes were abandoned on or around a Victorian nursing chair upholstered in rose satin. Two paperback novels had silk markers in their pages, one halfway through, the other at page twenty-seven. Vanessa's reading glasses were on the floor, their bridge bent as though she had walked on them.
He went through to the bathroom and, without touching, inspected the contents of the wall cabinet. There were various pain remedies, cures for indigestion and two bottles of prescribed drugs. Their labels were printed with Vanessa's name and the address of a High Street pharmacy. He would ask Dr Barlow about them when he arrived. Not that he hadn't already guessed at their usage.
There was nothing here with her daughter's name on. If the dead woman had used medication it was kept elsewhere.
There was, however, a little screw of plastic in the far corner of one shelf, and this he opened to reveal a green substance with a familiar odour. Definitely not prescribed, that one. Was this also the older woman's? He wondered if she got it from a dealer on the streets or relied on someone else to pick it up. Not that he felt any need, for the moment, to press her about it. For all he knew she might have some physical ailment that she believed it could ease.
Back in the lounge – he guessed she would refer to it as her drawing-room: it was impressive rather than cosy – he picked up the address book again and used his mobile phone to try a second time for the Cambridge number.
‘Fenner,' a languid voice answered him. He could imagine the book-lined study; the Sunday after-lunch torpor of a well-wined don.
‘My name is Yeadings,' he said. ‘I'm a Detective-Superintendent with Thames Valley Police.' He was loath to break the news
without seeing the man's face; or knowing something of his relationship with the dead woman.
‘Could you tell me, sir, when you last saw your daughter Sheila?'
There was a silence which his imagination failed to fill. Was the man occupied by doing something else; astonished; or working out a reply suitable for a policeman?
‘No I can't.' Fenner said at length. It was cool, considered, utterly impersonal: an academic fact given for an intrusive question.
‘An approximation would suffice,' Yeadings said stiffly.
‘I saw her shortly after her eighteenth birthday. She would be thirty-seven by now. So roughly almost twenty years ago, I suppose. Is that of any use to you, Superintendent?'
‘Thank you, sir. So would you say your relationship with her was not close?'
‘If it concerned me sufficiently to remark upon, I would do so.'
‘I ask,' Yeadings explained, ‘because I have to tell you of your daughter's death.'
He went on as baldly as the other man had spoken. ‘Last night she was the victim of a brutal murder and I am the Senior Investigating Officer for the case.'
‘Dead?' There was genuine horror there, but then the voice became sardonic.
‘Dead …and never deigned to call me father.'
‘I believe you are separated from your wife, sir.'
‘Both my wives.' His voice was brittle. ‘The first, who was delicate, died some thirty years ago, and I was persuaded to “make an honest woman” of my young daughter's mother. You follow the chronology, Superintendent?' His tone was becoming increasingly astringent. He was, after all, a lecturer, and probably one impatient with slow learners.
Yeadings sighed. With Vanessa an actress, they must have been at odds over who should hold the stage at any one moment, both accustomed to demanding the full attention of
their audience. What kind of parents would they have been for the child?
‘It was not …' Fenner remarked bitterly, and for Yeadings superfluously,' … an ideal match. April, as she had started to call herself then, was as little enchanted with her life of social bondage as was I. It was for the child's sake as much as anything, that I endured it for a tedious eight years, when a financial agreement was drawn up and my wife returned to her maiden name. I learned later that my daughter's name had also been altered by deed poll.'
‘And on, or after, her eighteenth birthday you went to see her.'
‘I was curious to meet the new adult. It was no more than that. I found she was unsuited to an academic career and had distinct preferences of her own. She was also independent enough to have set up a programme for training in practical horticulture.'
He paused. ‘At least she had inherited my passion for digging. She made it clear to me that she didn't need my help, and went her own way. So you see, if you wish for information about the circumstances of her everyday life and contacts, I am not the person to help you.'
‘Thank you, sir. Just a final question. Although you didn't meet later, did you communicate in any way?'
There was another short silence; then, ‘Congratulations, Superintendent. I had expected you to miss out on that one. Yes, we have kept in touch, once a year after that. On the occasion of her birthday she would always write to thank me for my gift and to give a concise but comprehensive account of her activities.'
‘Indeed?' Yeadings hesitated to ask for access to those letters.
‘So, you might say,' the man went on, ‘that I hold a diary of sorts, which allowed me to form my own opinion of her character and interests. Even a distant father can take some pride in a child who makes her own way in the world. And is now gone.'
This last phrase was an admission of loss. The carapace was split momentarily, to reveal the soft flesh underneath.
‘When would it be convenient,' Yeadings said slowly, ‘for me to come and have a word with you in Cambridge?'
There was a moment's silence. ‘I should prefer,' Fenner said heavily, ‘to make the journey myself. Next Saturday, perhaps. I doubt the funeral will be before then, given the circumstances you mentioned.'
‘Thank you, sir. I can be available from 9am at Reading police station.' Yeadings waited a moment for some further reaction, and wasn't disappointed.
‘Damn it!' the man exploded. ‘There's nothing here of such importance that I can't arrange a substitute. I'll be with you tomorrow.' And with that he put down the phone.
Yeadings, far from satisfied with the interview with Vanessa, was pleased with the outcome of his ringing Sheila's father at his Cambridge college. He turned back as Z saw him to the door. ‘Since you've already met Miss Winter's manager at Greenvale in your private capacity, I'll get Beaumont to interview him. What did you say his name was?'
She hadn't mentioned it. ‘Childe,' she told him. ‘Barry Childe.'
He stared at her, momentarily startled. ‘You didn't …? Of course, the name would mean nothing to you. It was before your time. But Beaumont does remember him.'
‘Childe has a criminal record?'
‘Given seven years for GBH, just short of manslaughter. He's out after half that time. What you also didn't know is that Beaumont has traced the black Vauxhall Vectra back to Childe.'
He frowned at her. ‘See to it in future that you and Beaumont share all information immediately on receipt.'
‘Sir, I wasn't to know that Childe was in anyway involved.'
Yeadings remained stiff-featured. ‘Just as DS Beaumont wasn't to know that the dead woman was identified as Sheila Winter, the man's boss. I'll see you both at the post mortem; 3.30 sharp.'
 
Professor Littlejohn was talking on the telephone when Yeadings came in, shucked off his waxed jacket and dropped it in a corner on the scrupulously disinfected floor. After the outdoor gloom the brilliance of the overhead lights was dazzling. Mirror-backed globes were reflected in polished steel surfaces, white walls, glass vessels. Sounds in that harsh-surfaced area were equally brutal. The body lay covered by a coarse cotton sheet, only the feet exposed, one big toe tagged.
Yeadings observed that both his sergeants were present and deep in conversation together. That indicated an improvement. He walked across.
‘When I met Sheila with her mother,' Z was explaining, ‘there was tension between them. Sheila seemed anxious for her; afraid of what she might do, overstep some agreed mark. And, for all that Sheila was the practical one, Vanessa constantly upstaged her, having the more robust personality.
‘Vanessa's so …' Z paused, frowning as she searched for the right word.' … self-sufficient, extrovert, sometimes a bit over the top. She can make rather a fool of herself. If she does realise that, it doesn't appear to bother her.
‘Sheila was the opposite, anxiously watchful. Even on her own she was tense, as though she didn't dare let herself go.'
‘You get that sometimes between parents and children,' Yeadings remarked, having joined them. ‘It's the fear of inherited genes – “Dear God, don't let me turn out like Mother!”'
‘Inherited jeans,' Beaumont offered wanly. ‘It was my big brother's I got handed down. The tie-dye kind, baggy bum, spindly thighs.'
The other two ignored his misplaced attempt at humour. ‘What we need is an opinion on Sheila from someone at her place of work, when she was away from her mother's influence,' Yeadings said.
‘I'll get on to that after Littlejohn's finished with the body,' Beaumont intoned in a wounded voice. ‘Now that the right info's to hand.' He darted a sour glance at Zyczynski.
‘Sunday's usually the busiest day at those garden places. Childe should be on hand to oversee closing up at the end. Especially with his boss gone missing.'
‘Right!' Professor Littlejohn sang out, hurrying across.
‘A table, mes enfants.
Let us settle round the Sunday joint.'
Two of them in a mood of tasteless humour, Yeadings regretted. But the pathologist was less flippant than he'd appeared. The tune, when he started to hum over his work, was Pagliacci's lament.
He broke off to murmur into the mike pinned to his plastic apron. ‘The body is female, aged approximately 35 to 40 years. Height – 'He looked over his half-lenses at his assistant who supplied the measurement and weight.
‘Splendid,' said Littlejohn. ‘Now let's see what we can find. Exterior first.'
He hadn't far to look to confirm that she had multiple stab wounds. ‘Clothing?' he demanded.
‘It's been bagged and sent to forensics lab,' Beaumont provided. ‘You saw it on her. There was only the one item. A fur coat. Hobbs is working on it.'
‘Well, I need it now,' Littlejohn insisted. He was far from gruntled, as Beaumont would say. ‘We can't have slip-ups.'
Yeadings recognised it was his own ultimate responsibility as Senior Investigating Officer. But he'd left Beaumont in charge; who had allowed SOCO to whisk it off. Only a few hours into the investigation, the absence of a controlling DI was already screwing up the works.
‘I'll see that they report directly to you and return it.'
‘Three distinct stab wounds,' Littlejohn continued without comment. ‘And two slashes from a right-handed direction, assuming, as we must, that the attacker stood in front. I think we dare say that those two were preliminary. The killer can't have avoided being splashed by blood.'
He inserted a probe into the largest wound, under the left side of the ribcage, pulled the edges of the flesh apart like a snarling mouth, waited while his assistant washed them clean of blood with a concentrated jet of cold water, hummed a few bars of something unrecognisable, then consulted a steel rule. ‘The weapon was a knife, single cutting-edge, at least six inches long, or 15.3 centimetres if you prefer. At its widest it measured 2.5 centimetres. The sort found in most kitchens, I imagine. Do we have the weapon?'
‘It had been removed,' Beaumont said promptly.
‘Not by us this time,' added Yeadings mildly, and was rewarded with a knowing look over Littlejohn's half-moons.
He returned to an examination of the body. ‘Recent scarring of the left knee. Four small abrasions, loose scabbing and the remains of wider bruising. Let's take a look at the left palm. Yes, more rapid healing here, but I would say she had a fall some twelve to fourteen days back. A trip, not a collapse. She flung out a hand in the direction of the fall. No marks on shins to indicate a tripwire; so some snag at ground level, possibly a rutted path or a tree root. There would have been gravel rash.
‘Nothing very significant in that. So let's look elsewhere.' He plunged his hands into the woman's hair.
‘Ah, now here's something more recent. Surface occiputal lump. She fell backwards.'
‘At the time of the attack?'
‘Most likely. Bruising has yet to show properly under the hairline. No serious damage, but she'd have been momentarily confused. Which could account for the absence of defence wounds on the hands and the angle of the stabbing. So much for the exterior.'
The onlookers endured the sneer of the electric saw as the pathologist went into the chest cavity. He started severing and lifting out organs, which his assistant weighed and secured in labelled containers.
‘Contents of stomach,' Littlejohn began, then shook his head. ‘Not a lot. The lady died peckish. There was, as I recall, a half-eaten ham sandwich in the car beside her. I think analysis will find that we have caught up with the missing portion. Its condition suggests that death occurred very shortly after ingestion. Not hours; minutes only.'
The post mortem continued, providing nothing that was at all startling. Sheila Winter's body had been in a very healthy state. She was not
virgo intacta,
but one should assume little from that. She had not recently been sexually active and was not pregnant. She had never been delivered of a child.
‘How recent is “recent”?' Beaumont demanded, before Z could ask the same.
‘Hours, depending on her habits of hygiene. To state a bald fact, there was no semen present or natural lubrication.
‘As for time of death, there are wide parameters because nothing's known about length of exposure to outside temperature or indoor heating. We need to know place of death and under what circumstances she was moved. Until you can give a lead on that I can get no closer than between seven pm yesterday and three this morning. Death almost certainly occurred elsewhere and she was later placed upright in the driving seat of the car. Rigor had begun. Post mortem changes could account for her slumping. Alternatively that could have been caused when the body was disturbed by the potman when he opened her door.'
‘Eight hours,' grumbled Beaumont under his breath and sucking his cheeks in.
‘Cause of death,' Yeadings prompted, knowing that Littlejohn in his present prickly mood wouldn't volunteer the all-important item without some kind of supplication.
‘Provided that chemical analysis later rules out a toxic substance in the blood-stream, we can accept that the deepest stab wound, made upwards under the left ribs and penetrating the right ventricle, was responsible. The lady was certainly alive when the wound was made. Undoubtedly dead when the knife was finally removed.'
‘And place of death?'
‘Your guess is as good as mine. We don't know how much blood soaked into the missing fur coat. If the knife was left in place for some period that could have accounted for the car being clean. However, stasis indicates that the body was moved after death, so I believe the killing took place elsewhere. But that's your puzzle, gentlemen and lady. Not mine.'
With that, Littlejohn detached the microphone, snapped off his latex gloves and binned the apron along with them. ‘Well now, Mike' he said in an altogether more amiable voice, ‘Where are you taking me for dinner? I think I deserve
somewhere rather special after sacrificing my raunchy weekend, don't you?' His eyes were puckish under their shaggy, grey brows.
What about my lost Sunday with the family? Yeadings silently asked himself, then instantly relented. Kill two birds with one stone. ‘You're coming back with me,' he told him. ‘Nan hasn't set eyes on you for months, and she'll be delighted.'
And don't tell me that that's not ‘somewhere special', his inner monitor warned.
Beaumont prepared to move off. ‘You want to come along to interview Barry Childe?' he invited Zyczynski.
‘There's a problem. Nobody at my new place knows what my job is. I'd rather keep it under wraps for as long as possible. They'll give more away then. I met Childe as a fellow-guest of Sheila Winter's; nothing more.'
‘But when you broke the news to her mother you had to declare yourself.'
‘The Boss was there. Mrs Winter barely noticed my presence. Accepted me as a sympathetic female neighbour. She's of a generation that assumes men are the only ones that count.'
‘So how did she take it?'
Z shook her head. ‘God only knows. Dumb at first. Incredulous. Then she started groping for sympathy, appealing to the Boss. She used to be an actress, you know. Still pretty heavy on the histrionics. And plays up the helpless little woman role. Even in shock she was doing that. I suppose that in her profession it's almost second nature to project a forceful reaction.'
‘Made a meal of it? Probably a tough old boot under the feminine vapours.'
‘A robust ego, certainly; but I'm not sure how she'll cope later. She must be in her late fifties, and it's doubly traumatic when your child dies before you. There's survival guilt to get through.'
‘And this one didn't just die. How did Mrs W react to the idea of murder?'
‘The Boss was careful; led gently up to it. I think we left her believing it was a mugging that went too far. She wasn't able to take in where it happened or the circumstances. Didn't enquire. She wasn't fully dressed when we called, and this was about 12.30. I'll drop in this evening and see how she is. Beattie Weyman took her downstairs. She's had experience with stage-folk and she's more than capable of handling her.'
They had been walking from the morgue to the hospital car park. Now Beaumont glanced at his wristwatch. ‘Better shove off if I want to catch Barry Childe. It'll be interesting to see what tale he spun to get himself a job like that. I'll get a lift off a patrol car, then pick up my own. If it'll start.'
Fog had crept up again and slid into the blue Ford Escort along with Zyczynski. She sat a while with the engine running while the car warmed up. She hadn't told the Boss everything she knew. Or, rather, guessed. There was that later occasion she had preferred to ignore.
It had been only five days back, on Tuesday afternoon. When she came home she'd had her arms full of shopping and so hadn't picked up her mail from the hall. Upstairs she packed away her groceries, switched on the kettle and went down again to fetch the letters. The day's mail was still in the wire box on the back of the entrance door, unsorted. She was busy over that and never turned to see who came out of the utility room and went upstairs behind her back.
There were several letters for Beattie and she decided to take them through, but the old lady was out, so she left them on the floor outside the ground-floor flat, propped against the door jamb. To save Mrs Winter negotiating the stairs, she collected the mail for her apartment too, tucking her own letters under one arm. Half way up she heard her kettle click off, went into her kitchen and poured boiling water on a tea bag. It was after it had cooled enough for the milk to be added that she remembered the Winters' mail.
BOOK: A Meeting of Minds
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