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Authors: Clare Curzon

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BOOK: A Meeting of Minds
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Along the gallery the door at the far end from her own stood unlatched. A gleam of light showed in a vertical line. She knocked gently but there was no answer. Rather than disturb the woman she went in to leave the letters and a small package on the antique settle in the hall.
An olive green silk scarf lay on the floor, and just beyond it a snaky-pattemed silk dress she'd seen Sheila wearing the previous week. She reached to pick them up and heard laboured breathing. Someone in the throes of an asthma attack? Or angina?
The drawing-room door stood ajar. She pushed it further open as the sounds became little cries accompanied with animal grunts.
But no serious medical condition. She saw the white ankles linked above the man's shoulders, and his naked buttocks thrusting and mounting as he drove into her.
They were too involved to see or hear anyone. She crept out, picked up the mail again and left the apartment, closing the outer door on a reassuring click. Nobody need learn that there'd been an audience. At least she'd spared Sheila that.
As for the man, whoever he was – she made no claim as a connoisseur of buttocks – at the time he remained anonymous.
Now it could be vital to identify him.
It was early for Sheila to have come home that afternoon. Had she brought someone with her, specifically to make love? Or arranged to meet someone from inside the house? That could have been the person she heard come from the utility room and go quietly upstairs while she sorted the letters.
If he'd come in by the front door she would have seen him. From the house's rear, three apartments had access through the utility room: Beattie's and Wormsley's on the ground floor, and that of Chisholm and Raynes via the former service-staircase.
So, as Sheila's lover couldn't be Beattie, that offered a choice
of three from among the residents. Of whom two were supposedly gay. Or perhaps bi-sexual? Z would have to get to know them better.
Sundays might normally be the busiest time of the week, but the weather had slowed things down at Greenvale Garden Centre. This evening there were few people wandering the dank, outdoor aisles, and in the covered part the only interest being shown was in an early display of Christmas glitter. Even then the numbers loitering under the gilded cherubs and illuminated star-bursts didn't account for the tightly-packed car park.
Beaumont wandered over to the bulb bins, helped himself to two paper bags and filled one with hyacinths, the other with tulips. At the checkout he asked for Ms Winter, was told she hadn't been in today, but would the manager do?
‘Guess he'll have to. Where'll I find him?'
He was pointed towards the office, where a brisk young woman redirected him to the restaurant. That, he discovered, was the honeycomb of the hive, swarming with three generations of enthusiasts for pizzas, omelettes and home-made soups, chocolate cheesecake, apple pie and dollops of whipped cream. He queued for a cappuccino and carried it with his paper bags on a tray to the corner table just vacated. Immediately a waitress whizzed up, collected the used crockery, sprayed and wiped the melamine surface for him; actually smiled.
It seemed that Ms Winter had access to a superior kind of staff. Why, then, pick on the unalluring Barry Childe?
Staring around, Beaumont recognised him three tables away. He had put on weight since being sent down, and grown his sideburns into mutton-chop whiskers, which made him look Victorian and substantial. His mid-grey suit, however badly cut, was a distinct improvement on the string vest, nairy armpits and flashy medallion of his previous persona. He was looking mildly pleased with himself. To change that,
Beaumont lifted his tray and carried it across. The glance he got was wary, as if expecting a customer complaint.
‘You don't remember me,' Beaumont told Childe, ‘but then I was in uniform when we last met. You'd come across so many coppers by that point that you never noticed their faces.'
It didn't shake the man. ‘It's a face I do remember, though,' he admitted. ‘Anybody would.'
Beaumont grinned. He would enjoy cutting this one down to size. ‘Fallen on your feet, have you?' He produced his warrant card and repeated the name.
‘I've been very fortunate, Mr Beaumont.'
‘Is Ms Winter, though? It makes one wonder.'
‘She's had no cause for regrets. She took me on trust, recommended by the governor.'
‘Your dad or Wormwood Scrubs's gaffer?' he goaded.
Childe ignored him. ‘The only digs that interest me nowadays are in the soil. I'm in my final year horticulture, get my external degree next summer. That's good enough for her. If you went to Chelsea Flower Show or Hampton Court instead of to the dogs, you'd know that the lags do a nice line in competitive gardening these days.'
‘Reflected glory from the Leyhill lot? You're not telling me you actually showed her your genuine CV?'
Childe didn't have to answer. His smirk told all. ‘I'm a different person, Mr Beaumont. Born again, Sally Army, teetotal.'
‘They've got you banging a tambourine? How come you work Sundays then?'
‘Every day's the Sabbath, Mr Beaumont, when you've got the faith.'
The DS was tiring of this vaunted respectability and his own name monotonously repeated. It was time to introduce the business in hand. ‘So what do you make of your lady boss?'
‘That's what she is. A real lady. Not that she's a softie. Runs
a tight little ship, as the expression is. Expects me to jump on any slackness. And if you'll excuse me, I don't care to overrun my tea-break. Perhaps we can continue this in my office. If there's anything worth continuing, that is.'
‘Oh, believe me, there is.' He watched the other for a flicker of reaction, but Childe turned on him wide, round eyes the colour of brown Windsor soup, and waited for him to explain.
‘I just want to know why you killed her,' he said simply, pushing back his chair.
He carried away with him a brilliant image of the man's amazement, horror, incredulity. Never had he seen a jaw drop so literally. It was if the screw was right out of the hinge and only skin held the lower face together. It had to be genuine; or else Childe had also achieved miracles in dramatic art while he trenched and sowed and pruned in the prison gardens.
They had gone to his office, and there the man asked all the right, concerned, innocent questions of how and when and where. He knew enough about the lengthy and convoluted ways of police work not to demand, ‘Whodunnit?' The nearest he approached was to ask, ‘Have you got him?'
Beaumont stared back. ‘The body was only found early this morning. It could have happened sometime after eleven last night.'
‘Somebody saw her at that time?'
‘That's when the pub closed. Give another half-hour for the car park to clear. Hers was the only car left there. Only, of course, it wasn't hers, was it? It was yours.'
He watched realisation dawn. ‘No!' Childe shouted. ‘No, you're not going to stitch me up! She borrowed the Vectra yesterday. We did a swap. I drove her Alfa to get the bumper fixed where she'd backed into a tree. I was going to pick it up later and run it home for her, only the garage hadn't a replacement part.'
‘Of course, you knew where she lived, having gone there for dinner sometime before. Convenient. Very friendly, your
boss; close. Almost intimate, you might say. Did I mention she was short of some clothes when we found her?'
The man's face had taken on a sickly pallor. ‘For God's sake! It wasn't like that.'
‘Like what? You were sent away for GBH. On a woman. That's what this was, only this time it went just too far. But, understandably, it had to. If she didn't die, your boss could name and shame you, then we'd have you for attempted murder. End of a promising earthy career; end of your newfound liberty.'
He pointed a finger. ‘You couldn't afford to let her live. So you finished her off.'
Childe rose out of his seat, pushed the desk bodily away from between them and loomed over the shorter man, fists bunched, face now flaming. ‘You ain't gonna get away with this!'
‘Ain't I?' – goading him to violence: possibly assault on a police officer. Just let him try!
Childe made a supreme effort to contain his anger. ‘You're fishing. You haven't got anything on me or there'd be two of you here. You'd have to read me my rights.'
The trouble was, Beaumont brooded, that nowadays the villains swotted up on PACE better than the coppers themselves. They used the Police and Criminal Evidence Act to shackle the legitimate guardians of the peace. In this unfair world law-makers and law-breakers played a screwy kind of ball-game together; but the police were hobbled, reduced to pig-in-the-middle.
‘Perhaps not today,' he mocked, ‘but I'll be back. You can bet on it. So have a better story ready. Meanwhile try to remember, if you can, exactly where you were yesterday evening.'
‘I went out clubbing,' snarled Childe. ‘And before you ask me, yes, I was alone. I don't have an alibi because I bloody well don't need one!'
Belting himself into his car Beaumont reflected ruefully that he hadn't got anything on Childe, apart from a probable lie about going teetotal. But that was no reason why he couldn't enjoy taking a rise out of the vermin. It hadn't gone too badly for a start. With luck Childe would go haring around to set up an alibi for too narrow a period.
Sheila Winter's body had been ‘cold as a slabba marble', to quote the unfortunate potman who'd found her this morning. Littlejohn had yet to work it out exactly from heat loss and rigor, but the clientele of the Bat and Ball wouldn't have ignored a fur-coated doll sitting alone in her car. She was certainly dumped there after closing time, but the killing had taken place earlier and elsewhere, with the pub car park a random choice for disposal, to divert suspicion from the actual murder scene.
He called Control with a message for Superintendent Yeadings who would have left for home.
‘What's wrong with your radio?' the duty sergeant asked sourly. ‘Try switching it on sometimes. We've been calling you for near on an hour. Mr Yeadings wants all you lot in his office in seven minutes. You'll need to be near to make it on time.'
So something urgent had come up to curtail the Boss's wining and dining of Littlejohn. As he drove, Beaumont sorted his report for a debriefing. They'd need a warrant to search the garden centre. There was CCTV at the entrance, in the car park and at several points inside the complex, although not in the office. That last might have struck clerical staff as a bit too much of the Big Brother treatment. Even without it, there could be a comprehensive record of who came closest to the dead woman at work, and with luck it might throw up some very personal contacts.
He wanted to commandeer those films before Childe beat him to them. And the sooner the Fraud experts went over the last quarter's accounts, the sooner he could start to take Barry Childe apart and make him sweat some more. Not that he was a medal-winner in the brains department, so scarcely
likely to start up as a swindler. By nature Childe was more of a vicious thug, but there was no guessing what other courses than agriculture he'd been taking in the Institute of Felonry.
The Boss might need some persuading that they had enough on the man to justify a search warrant, but ownership of the Vectra and his connection with the dead woman's business could be reason enough for some magistrates he knew. They wouldn't hesitate to produce the necessary paper work.
He flicked a glance at his wrist on the steering wheel. Four minutes to go, and he'd be late if he took note of speed cameras on the way. Better assume they were empty of film than risk the Boss's sarcasm. If he was picked up for burning rubber he could plead an emergency. Keeping his nose clean at this critical point in his career certainly qualified as that.
The others were already assembled as he slid in. He slung his Barbour over a nearby chair and eased his tight collar. He kept his head down. Running the last fifty yards had given him a flushed face and he was conscious of the others' eyes turned on him.
Z made a grimace, nodding towards his feet. One of the brown paper bags had burst from his Barbour pocket and half a dozen Delft Blue hyacinth bulbs were smoothly rolling over the floor like giant marbles thrown under a police horse at a demo. They were dry, casting crinkly purple skins which crackled as he tried to shepherd them together with the toe of one shoe.
‘When DS Beaumont has concluded his soccer practice, I should like to introduce DI Walter Salmon,' Yeadings announced. ‘From tomorrow morning he will take over everyday running of the present case, and all reports should be passed to him.'
That was all. The bottom fell out of Beaumont's world. He caught Z's wintry smile and knew she was feeling much the same.
Yeadings nodded and the newcomer stepped forward to address them. At least they hadn't brought in that sour,
coffin-faced Jenner from Bicester, but this one didn't look reassuring. He was big, built like a brick loo, as the saying was. The width of his shoulders and the short car coat made a cube of him. The head on top was of much the same shape, with fairish hair close-cropped like a Victorian convict's. His large, knobbly features were all squashed into the lower three-eighths of his face, and the coarse-lipped mouth stretched almost the full width of his heavy jaw.
Not a pretty sight, Beaumont warned himself, but the man didn't appear to concur with that opinion. He had, in fact, a mighty conceit of himself.
. The DS ran the name through his mind, and recalled hearing it in canteen gossip. He was ex-Met, from West End Central. A recent newcomer to Thames Valley, he'd been tried out in Reading and created a shindig with a Paki which caused him a reprimand, but not down-ranking or public scandal. So maybe the Brass in their godlike wisdom now thought it safer to let him loose on the natives of rural Bucks.
Beaumont switched his eyes to Yeadings but could read nothing on the superintendent's face. Had he been a party to selecting the man, or had his wishes been overridden?
Beaumont sighed audibly. It looked as though his own chances, dammit, (and Z's) had been flushed down the pan and far out to sea on this one.
‘OK.' Salmon addressed the two DSs as though they were a reinforced posse. ‘Tomorrow we meet at eight sharp in my office. Have your reports on today's interviews typed up and submitted to me by 7.30am. A full briefing in the Analysis Room for all Area CID, together with uniform sergeants and above, at 8.15.' He stared at them as though they might retaliate or protest.
‘Understood,' said Beaumont with forced amiability.
Salmon prompted sternly.
Beaumont considered this. ‘Sir,' he conceded. Anything but call him Guv. That title had been Angus Mott's.
BOOK: A Meeting of Minds
4.44Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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