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Authors: Clare Curzon

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BOOK: A Meeting of Minds
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Now
Sir
was turning his attention to Z. ‘I'll be there, sir,' she assured him, cool almost to the point of indifference.
‘Time we were all away home,' Yeadings remarked conversationally. ‘I left Littlejohn and Nan capping each other's gruesome anecdotes. God knows what excesses of necrophilia they'll have reached by now.'
He caught the uneasy glance Salmon shot at him. He smiled back. ‘My wife was a theatre sister,' he explained.
‘So,' Beaumont said heavily as he and Zyczynski headed for the mist-shrouded car park, ‘after that little scene do we get drunk, laid, or go for early retirement?'
‘Retirement certainly.' She grimaced at her watch. ‘And it's not all that early. Why not go straight home? You may find some scrumptious uglies waiting for you.'
It was a thought. Since his wife had taken up baking for a freelance catering firm there were consolations in having her back. It was three years now since Cathy had flounced out to ‘get herself a life' and made a right hash of it. He and their teenage son Stuart (more intent on self-discovery than high exam grades at present) had enjoyed their period of freedom and bachelor fry-ups. Then without warning she was back, disillusioned and embittered. He had ungraciously granted her a made-up bed in the box-room on condition she respected his equal right to independence.
Since then all three had endured a state of cold war until the miracle advent of a white refrigerated van in their driveway, and a breezy young woman caterer whose enterprise was expanding into banquets and sophisticated dinners. Since the one thing Cathy had been good at was fancy cooking, he had walked in one night to ambrosial fragrances, oven-flushed faces and a wife's excited announcement of a new home-based career.
Since then all less than perfect products were for family consumption and had even led to occasional contact between converted box-room and ex-marital chamber.
Beaumont wished Z goodnight and set his car firmly on the road for home, hopeful of profiteroles or pecan pie.
 
On Monday morning Superintendent Yeadings had no intention of taking life easily simply because the upper echelons at Kidlington had whipped a new DI out of their conjuror's hat. If Salmon expected the others in by 7.30 at the local nick the superintendent would be there himself half an hour before.
This morning the fog was, if anything, thicker and more throat-searing than on the previous day. It was as though time had gone into reverse and they were back in the pea-soup era of Jekyll and Hyde.
‘Still a bit grey,' Sally had said, peering past him as he opened her Pocahontas curtains.
‘It's more than a bit.' But maybe he was making too much of it, still spoilt by the azure skies of Madeira. This was Thames Valley, autumn moving into winter. Get real, man.
‘I miss the flowers,' she said, as if reading his mood.
‘I tell you what,' he promised. ‘Next Saturday, if you're a good girl, we'll all go to lunch at a garden centre which I've just heard of. How's that?'
But Sally looked unsure. ‘How good must I be? More good than ever before?'
He gave her a bear hug. ‘No, just ordinary good will do, sweetheart.'
The car seemed sluggish starting but he soon found that the fog was patchy. The radio, reporting on travel conditions, said it was clearing in the western Home Counties, but there were tailbacks in both directions after a multiple pile-up on the M40.
There could be delays too on Fenner's route from Cambridge. He'd most likely come come by way of Luton, then M1, M25 and m40; unlikely to arrive before ten at the earliest. He'd sounded the laid-back type. An academic after all: scarcely Action Man.
Dr Fenner was in fact already on the road, having made arrangements the previous evening for his Monday lectures and seminars to be farmed out among the department's tutors. This morning he had made better progress than expected and, finding himself with time in hand, looked for a convenient place offering breakfast to long-distance lorry drivers.
The pull-in he chose, just after Chalfont St Peter, served up a generous plate of scrambled eggs, back bacon rashers, baked beans and Cumberland sausages, all washed down by two large mugs of very strong tea. He felt, at its end, that he had missed out on not taking an HGV licence and following a less intellectually demanding career.
‘OK, mate?' The man who, uninvited, was unloading a piled tray at his table struck him as typical of his kind; large, heavy-shouldered, beer-bellied, lumbering, perhaps not very bright. The don watched him demolish his gargantuan meal and settle back to read a newspaper produced from inside his leather jacket. It was a little startling to discover it was the
Times
and that the Neanderthal had already half-completed the crossword puzzle.
It was still only 08.23 and Fenner had time to spare. ‘Have you driven far this morning?' he asked.
‘Eathrow,' the other said simply. ‘Mondays it's Eathrow to Bucks and Berks. Western International, ‘olesale veg and plants. That's where they're flown in to, see? From ‘Olland mostly.'
‘Oh really. I imagined it all went to Nine Elms.'
‘Most does. But big dealers get it direct from us. Like my next stop. They stock up Mondays after the weekend trade. Gotta lotta exotics on board. ‘Ot'ouse stuff.' He rose to go, leaving the
Times
on their shared table.
‘Don't you want that?' Fenner asked hopefully. His own copy hadn't arrived before he left.
‘You ‘ave it. I only get it for the crossword. It's got me beat today. I get all me news from the
Express.'
The academic thanked him.
“Ave a good day, mate,' the other replied. Fenner doubted he would.
For the first time that morning he faced up to what must be done: find out just what had happened to his daughter; identify her body at the morgue. That gruesome task should have fallen to Sheila's mother, as being more familiar with her recent appearance, but Yeadings had thought it inadvisable due to her state of shock.
His breakfast lay heavy on his stomach. He wasn't sure now that he should have come. There would be Vanessa to confront. Or, more precisely, she would confront him.
It was grim enough, without her histrionics. Somewhere in the paper under his hand there would be a headline about a woman's murder. And perhaps two or three paragraphs on an inner page. That's what his only child's life was reduced to.
 
DI Salmon had covered the briefing competently enough, steely-eyed and untrusting of his audience. Yeadings doubted that any of those present who were used to Mott's painstaking precision and openness to others' ideas, would warm to the present treatment.
‘I'm expecting a visit from the dead woman's father,' he told the DI as they broke up. ‘Would you care to be in on it?'
‘I've read what the mother said about him. They've been estranged for nearly thirty years. He'll have nothing relevant to offer.'
‘A civil gesture,' Yeadings murmured.
‘Just as you like,' meaning the opposite.
Clearly the new man would expect his SIO to deal with the niceties while keeping his hands off the active operation.
Beaumont, overhearing the exchange, grinned fiercely inside. The Boss's mildness wouldn't fool anyone who knew him. He'd put money on him giving Salmon enough rope to tie them all in knots, and then come along with his Houdini
fingers to sort it good and proper. It would be quite some entertainment to watch.
‘Can I sit in on the interview?' he asked innocently.
‘Don't forget I need you on hand when Childe's warrant turns up,' Salmon answered, overriding Yeadings.
‘You heard what the DI said,' the Boss cautioned. Not by a flicker of an eyelash would he give cause to think he undermined the new man's authority.
The espresso machine in the superintendent's office had just begun its burble when a PC knocked at the door and asked leave to usher in their visitor. ‘A timely arrival, sir,' Yeadings greeted him.
He introduced himself and his DS. ‘Have a seat. Do you take cream and sugar?'
Dr Gabriel Fenner was tall and spare of flesh, his gaunt features grey under a bare, domed forehead. The deep-set eyes were shadowed by bushy brows, and harshly etched lines double-bracketed a beaky nose above an unruly, grizzled beard. He was dressed slackly, like a gentleman farmer who has seen more prosperous days. A craggy man in shaggy tweeds was how Yeadings mentally filed his physical appearance.
He folded himself on to the chair indicated, and even then there was still a lot of him left protruding. He must, Beaumont reckoned, be six feet four in height. If, as it seemed, with brains as well, then Nature had been generous indeed.
Yeadings had already expressed condolences over the phone, and the visitor expected now to get down to action. Yet he still hoped for a let-out. ‘Is there no chance of mistaken identity, superintendent?'
‘I'm afraid not, sir. One of my sergeants recognised Miss Winter. Over several weeks they've been near neighbours. But we still need you for the official identification.'
Fenner nodded. ‘I should like to speak with him afterwards.' He looked questioningly at Beaumont.
‘It's DS Rosemary Zyczynski you need then. She's elsewhere at present, working on the case. I'm sure she will value any information you can offer her concerning your daughter, sir.'
‘Ah, a woman. But I'd been thinking of what information she could give
me
. I knew little enough of Sheila: only what she chose to tell me in her annual letters, and now the opportunity is – has passed.' He moved stiffly in his chair. ‘Superintendent, I should prefer to get this business at the mortuary over as soon as possible.'
‘Of course, sir. I'll take you there myself.'
A phone rang. DI Salmon announced that the search warrant had been procured, so Beaumont should proceed to the garden centre and serve it on Barry Childe. Reluctantly the DS detached himself.
In the car park, as Yeadings advanced on his Rover to activate the door lock, Dr Fenner admitted flatly, ‘I couldn't locate a visitors' area. Will my car be all right where I left it?' He indicated an ancient but well-kept Riley saloon.
Despite the vacant spaces for lesser mortals, Yeadings observed that he had chosen to take the place clearly reserved for an Assistant Chief Constable. ‘Perfectly,' he told him, hiding a smile. It seemed the visitor had no false modesty.
On arriving at the hospital Fenner made no move to leave the car, although previously impatient to have the distasteful business over. Yeadings, acutely aware of how he too would feel in the circumstances, allowed him time. Eventually the man reached for the door handle and got out.
Warned ahead by phone, the hospital chaplain was waiting for them inside. Fenner darted a sharp glance at the man's dog collar but bit off the remark that it almost provoked. The clergyman saw this and stepped back into anonymity.
The chapel itself was interdenominational. A simple beech cross on one wall was balanced on the one opposite by an illuminated crescent. Yeadings wondered if behind the blue velvet curtain there might lurk a Buddha, or Shiva, or Ganesh the Hindu elephant god. Inclusiveness was today's ruling political virtue.
There was no need to pull back any sheet. Sheila Winter's body lay on its back under an embroidered coverlet that reached to the base of her throat. There were no visible injuries. Her blond hair was tidily dressed over the flat pillow, her face calm. She might have been asleep in bed. Yeadings walked away and left Fenner alone with her. His nod and the tight-voiced ‘yes' had indicated all the superintendent needed to know.
Fenner emerged into the grey morning light some ten minutes
later and crossed to where Yeadings waited in the car. ‘Now what else do you want of me?' he asked harshly.
Yeadings made no answer, turned the car towards the Caversham road and made for Ashbourne House. Dr Fenner sat forward as they came up the drive with the house in clear view against a background of misted trees. ‘Yes,' he said. ‘Sheila mentioned last year that she intended to sell the London place. She needed to be nearer her work, and believed it would be safer.'
‘Safer?' Yeadings was alerted by the word. Had she been conscious of impending danger?
‘Safer for her mother.' He didn't elaborate on this.
‘It's a beautiful house,' Yeadings said to fill the gap. ‘I remember when it was a family home. Later it was turned into a private school, but that closed down after six or seven years. It was briefly a nursing home. Since then it's been quite sensitively converted, into four single-bedroom flats downstairs and three larger ones on the first floor. Your daughter's is up there, facing south and east: front and right side as we look at it.'
Fenner nodded. ‘Is she still here – Vanessa?'
‘With a neighbour downstairs. I have a key if you would like to go in and see your daughter's rooms. My men will have finished there.'
‘Later, I think. I want first to visit the garden centre. It was so much her special creation. She wrote to me in detail about her plans for it.'
Yeadings had no idea how far the intended search at Greenvale had progressed, but he called up Control and was told that Beaumont's men were there and the management co-operating.
‘I've never been there,' he said, ‘but I'll be glad to take you.'
They found the place closed down, with tubular steel barriers padlocked across the entrance. In the car park several lorries and vans had been allowed so far and their further access blocked. Among the drivers wrangling with a security officer,
Fenner recognised the man who had shared his table at breakfast.
‘Are your men halting deliveries?' he demanded.
‘The centre's own security men, it seems.' Yeadings called Beaumont on his mobile phone. ‘We're out front. Meet us inside the checkouts.'
As Yeadings showed his ID the barrier was opened. Behind them a surge of protesting delivery men with a sprinkling of reporters was waved back by the man on duty.
‘Their stuff is perishable and they need to make further deliveries,' Fenner reasoned. ‘Why can't they dump it all in a cleared space and get back on the road?'
‘Why not indeed? We'll have a word with the manager.' He turned to Beaumont who appeared from beyond the checkouts. ‘Is Barry Childe here?'
The DS was smouldering. ‘No. He left straight after my earlier visit and he's not been back. It could be that he's removed files from the office. I'm trying to get sense out of his secretary.'
‘So who's in charge?'
‘Supposedly I am, but there's nobody to represent the business side.'
‘As family,' Fenner said slowly, ‘I'm willing to authorise acceptance of the deliveries, under surveillance. Can you get somebody trusty here to oversee movements and check invoices? If the superintendent has no objection, that is.'
‘None, provided that nothing is removed,' Yeadings allowed. He left Beaumont to organise it and led Fenner through a vast glasshouse full of gardening merchandise. An arrow pointed towards the Greenvale office. Inside they found a plump young woman whose flushed face witnessed to the tussle she had just had with the DS.
‘Can I help you?' she demanded in a challenging tone.
Yeadings explained who they were and that Dr Fenner wished to see round his daughter's garden centre.
Immediately she softened. ‘Well, her private office is through
there. And can I say how very sorry I am. We all are. I can't think what it must be like for you. Here we're just knocked all of a heap.'
Fenner thanked her and declined her offer of coffee. He grasped the doorknob to his daughter's office, then released it. ‘Someone's been at the lock.' He pointed to the splintered woodwork. ‘When did this happen?'
The girl's face coloured afresh. ‘About three quarters of an hour ago. Mr Childe needed some papers and he didn't have a key. Apart from the cleaners', Miss Winter's was the only one to her private office.'
‘So he broke in?'
‘I'm afraid so.'
‘And did he find what he was after?' Yeadings asked mildly.
‘I couldn't say, sir. I wasn't here at the time.'
‘Why was that?'
‘I went for Mr Childe's cappuccino.'
‘You went or were sent?'
‘Mr Childe said he needed it early because he had to go off and see a local grower. But he must have been in a terrible hurry, because he didn't stay to drink it. It's still where I left it, on Miss Winter's desk. I told all this to the sergeant.'
‘Are we to understand that you didn't see Mr Childe leave?'
‘No. I mean yes, you are to understand. No, I didn't.'
‘Thank you …' Yeadings glanced at the name-tag on her lapel.' …Miss Dunster,' he added as Beaumont reappeared in the doorway. ‘That's all. Can you find something to do, across where the deliveries are being made? Invoices to collect, and so on. We need to check that everything is as it should be in here.'
Fenner uneasily watched the girl leave. ‘Don't you need her to go through the files and see what's missing? The man obviously was up to something in here on his own.'
‘I don't think he bothered with the files. He didn't need to,'
Yeadings said. Hands in pockets, he was peering at the surface of the polished teak desk. In its centre stood a vase with an arrangement of small, star-shaped dahlias. A light dusting of pollen from them was smeared as if some object had been dragged forward beside it, leaving a clear rectangle where the wood was bare.
‘I think Miss Winter had a laptop computer. Did she write to you with a pen, in type or print, sir?'
‘Always in printed form,' he said. ‘That's how my students turn their work in to me now. I use one of the things myself for my lectures.'
‘Yes, it's almost universal. Let's hope your daughter used a password and that Childe wasn't a party to it. Beaumont, try opening up the company computer in the outer office. I doubt if Miss Dunster had time this morning to fiddle with denying access.'
They all went back to the outer office where they found the screen-saver blinking away with shooting stars.
‘What do I go for?' Beaumont asked. He seated himself and a single click brought back a list of accounts for garden furniture and barbecue equipment.
‘Hit Save and bring up Personnel,' Yeadings ordered. ‘I want Childe's present address; not the phoney one his parole officer's got.'
Beaumont flicked at the keyboard and they all leaned forward as the cursor started running down the alphabetical list of employees. ‘Here we are. Childe, Barry, entry dated three months back. Address – 11 Montague Lane, Marlow. D'you want me to pick him up, sir?'
‘Him and whatever he's got that he shouldn't have,' said Yeadings grimly. ‘Put him in an interview room. He can cool his heels until I get back to base. Dr Fenner and I will stay on for a little while longer. There could be quite a lot that's of interest here.'
They walked back to where Miss Dunster was watching the unloading at Goods Inwards. There was everything from
winter pansy plugs, for potting up, to full-grown ornamental trees; plastic tunnels; reels of hosing; cultivators and motor-driven hedge-trimmers. ‘There's a lot of capital expenditure here,' Yeadings remarked. ‘Was your daughter a wealthy woman?'
‘Comfortable, I'd say, though she never discussed figures. She worked strictly to season, avoiding overstocking, which meant being slightly ahead of the market and clearing goods by deadlines which she set up herself. She had a good brain for business.'
‘So whose will all this be now?'
‘There's bank involvement, of course. It's a limited liability company and she held twelve per cent of the shares. I have forty. That dates from way back when she needed help to get off the ground. Originally there was a small-holding here which produced vegetables and cut flowers. She waited to buy that out until she'd already taken over the adjacent timber yard when the owner went broke. There was some opposition from his family when they realised how she meant to develop the land, but she got permission to build and expand.'
‘You know a lot about someone you haven't seen for nearly twenty years.'
‘I told you. She wrote about her plans in detail. She needed a sounding-board and maybe it helped that in a way I was a stranger, yet trustworthy. We neither of us went in for cosy relationships.'
‘I was wondering about that. She never married. Do you know if there was anyone special in her life?'
‘Nobody close that I know of. But she wasn't celibate, superintendent. Any more than I am.'
‘Thank you. Did she confide whether she had ever made a will?'
‘It wasn't a subject that came up; but knowing how she was, I'm sure she wouldn't overlook precautions to protect her world. In her life this project took the place of a child, you see. An only, and very cherished, firstborn.'
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