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Authors: Clare Curzon

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BOOK: A Meeting of Minds
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They had walked right through the covered part of the centre and now stood looking over gently sloping terraces set out in squares, with paths between long benches of potted plants and tubs of greenery. Along the right-hand side was a large heated glasshouse with vivid, exotic blooms on show. An arrow indicated that through this was the entrance to the restaurant, closed today except for the vending machines with the staff's hot drinks and sandwiches.
‘In summer,' Fenner said, ‘the terrace beyond there is opened for meals too, with a view of the trial fields below where they grow things like roses, delphiniums and carnations. It's very popular for parties and weddings.'
He stood, hands deep in jacket pockets, staring gloomily. ‘Everything is so like she described it. I feel as though I've been here before.'
‘Are you sure, sir, you weren't?'
He turned to meet the superintendent's eyes and his own were cavernous. ‘No,' he said simply. ‘That wasn't the way we were.'
But perhaps, Yeadings thought, he wishes now that they'd done things differently.
‘I think I'm ready to see where she lived,' said Fenner, forcing himself to a new briskness. ‘It should be possible, since you say Vanessa's away in a neighbour's apartment. I've one thing to ask you first, though. Sheila must have been caught at some time on these security cameras. Perhaps, when you've examined the films, you would save me a photograph of her.'
 
Montague Lane, Marlow, was little more than a mud track. It trickled gently downhill, with scrub land towards the riverside, and a short row of Victorian cottages on the other. Number eleven was the last before the lane petered out into a rutted field. A Yamaha motorbike was leaning against the front wall of yellow brick.
Beaumont reversed his Toyota and left it blocking the escape route. When he could see nobody through the poky
front window he applied himself to the bell. And kept his finger there. After a short wait the door was snatched open and Childe's belligerent face scowled down at him.
‘Bloody hell!' he was greeted.
‘Yes, me again. Can 1 come in?'
The man wavered, then past Beaumont's shoulder glimpsed a uniformed officer inside the Toyota. He drew back and allowed Beaumont to squeeze past, heading for the rear quarters. There was a light on in the poky kitchen. A laptop computer was open on the table beside a plate of congealing beans on toast.
‘Brought your work home with you, then,' Beaumont remarked amiably.
‘Little chance of getting any done, if your lot were coming to swarm over everything.'
‘A pity, though. It left nobody in charge at the centre. There were decisions to be made, questions answered.' Hands in pockets, Beaumont leaned over the computer screen. ‘You don't seem to have got very far with it. Perhaps that's because you don't have Ms Winter's password. It is her personal laptop, I imagine?'
Childe looked uncomfortable, hesitated, then opted for bluff. ‘Of course it is. I need to take over where she left off. It's all up in the air without someone to direct the business. How otherwise will suppliers' accounts get paid or orders flow?'
‘You weren't in total control then? What exactly was your function as manager?'
‘I had charge of landscaping contracts. Once the garden plan was agreed with the customer I costed it; made out the order for stonework, decking, building materials, plants, trees, water features; collected the stuff; arranged for the labour and transport; then oversaw the work. Then there was all the jobbing our gardeners do for private customers. You know: lawn trimming, pruning, planting, tree-lopping. And there's council work we've taken on besides, now that everything's going out to private tender.'
‘Very impressive. I suppose all of that is on the computer I saw Miss Dunster using when I arrived?'
‘Most of it, but …'
‘You were saying?'
‘I didn't cover the ordering or opening contracts. You saw what chaos it was this morning, with all that stuff coming in and her not there.'
‘You mean Ms Winter? She kept the money-handling side of the business in her own hands?'
‘All the paperwork for it, and the correspondence, yes.'
Beaumont's wooden puppet-face took on a look of innocent wonder. ‘D'you know, I find all this fascinating. Perhaps you'd like to show me how you would tackle it. I've often thought I ought to do a course in computer skills.'
‘I can't.' Childe tried to conceal his frustration. ‘I need the right password to access the programme.'
‘Which only Ms Winter would have known? I see.' Beaumont allowed enlightenment to spread across his features. ‘So her being dead is a bit of a nuisance. But she'll have told it to someone, for safety's sake. Who at Greenvale, do you think, would have had that confided to them? Miss Dunster? No? Well, who was the unfortunate lady closest to?'
Childe scowled. ‘Nobody. She wasn't one to have close friends.'
Beaumont was regarding him with the baffling insouciance of the host of a million-pound quiz programme asking, ‘Do you want to ask the audience?'
He let a silence build between them, then, ‘I just happen to know a computer expert,' he said at last. ‘A policeman. Which is lucky. We'll take the laptop to him. And as I said, there are questions to be answered.'
He closed the computer and tucked it under his arm. ‘I can give you a lift to the nick. Your motorbike will be quite safe here, if we leave the constable to look after things.'
It seemed for a moment that Childe would object as the
uniformed man climbed out of the car and at a nod from Beaumont strolled in through the open front door.
‘All right, Mr Childe?' Beaumont invited perkily.
He had no choice.
At Ashbourne House the Winters' flat had been left open. As Yeadings and Fenner reached the upstairs gallery DS Zyczynski appeared, framed in the doorway. ‘I was just going to close up. Can I leave the keys with you, sir?'
‘Yes, but don't go. Dr Fenner would like a word with you. Sir, this is another of my sergeants, Rosemary Zyczynski, your daughter's neighbour. Let's go inside.'
Z led the two men into a large, square room furnished as a lounge in peach, pale green and white. The sofas and chairs were covered in soft, ivory leather, their voluptuous lines exaggerated by the addition of shiny satin cushions – square, round and cylindrical with gold-tasselled bolster ends. At the two long windows on the front wall and a third on the adjacent one, swags of peach-coloured taffeta dipped with heavy, corded fringes. The matching curtains were looped back by thick, silk ropes.
Fenner stood under a crystal chandelier, his lanky frame just clearing its lowest cut-glass drops. ‘Vanessa's empress style,' he commented with a little twist to the lips. ‘Some things never change.'
Which included his austerity, Yeadings guessed. But at some point there must have been a break in it, or he'd never have become involved with Vanessa. The man obviously regretted that lapse now, perhaps was ashamed of the brief weakness. Yet could a little of the original tenderness remain? Perhaps there would be a chance to find out.
He went across to look out at the verandah and nodded, taking in the stone bench, the tubs with twin miniature cypresses, bay, lavender, hebes and pungent-leafed dwarf chrysanthemums. ‘This was Sheila's part,' he said. ‘And where is the looking-glass?'
Yeadings looked blank.
‘There's a mirror at the end,' Rosemary explained, unlocking the window and stepping through. ‘There, before my balcony starts. Sheila had it fitted to the dividing screen, to double the garden effect.'
He paced both ways, examining the pots and creepers, then peering over to get a glimpse of the arched pediment above the central front entrance, faintly smiling as if he recognised objects he was familiar with.
‘This is her writing-desk,' Z told him when he came in and locked the window behind him. He went across to open the lid. ‘Tidy, of course.'
‘We tried to put everything back as it was. But we've kept her address book.'
‘Yes, I suppose you would need to go through things. Did you find anything that could account for what happened?'
Z glanced across at the superintendent. ‘Disappointingly little,' he admitted. ‘But then we are hoping that any personal information will be kept in her laptop computer. Z, did you ever notice Miss Winter carrying one in from the car, or out to it again?'
‘Yes, she usually had one with her. It was as much part of her as the business suit.'
‘She was a power-dresser?' Fenner asked, faintly smiling, but Yeadings was frowning over Z's answer.
‘If she nearly always had it with her, why was it left at the garden centre when she came home that last evening?'
‘Possibly because she intended going out. She knew she'd have no time to work. And anyway on Sunday she'd be back in the office. That was the centre's busiest time of the week.'
‘That seems a safe assumption,' he said, nodding at the girl. ‘Now you have only to find out where she went. And with whom.'
‘Would you like to see the rest of the flat?' Rosemary asked. ‘There are two bedrooms and a third which Sheila turned into her study, plus the kitchen and bathroom. Our experts have finished looking around here.'
‘Just her bedroom and study.'
Both rooms were quite severe, which hadn't surprised Zyczynski. She remembered Sheila at Beattie's dinner party talking of little but her work; and again when she entertained Childe here, bringing the conversation down to levels he might be more comfortable with. She hadn't seemed a complicated person and, although brusque, not unkind. It couldn't have been easy still to be tied to her mother, particularly since the older woman was more than a little dotty. Or was that a harsh assumption, and she was perhaps just eccentric?
As if to illustrate her question, there came a sudden, theatrical interruption.
‘Why,
may I ask, this
invasion
of my
home?'
And Vanessa was there in the doorway, rigidly outraged, her voice rising in scale and passion to the tragically broken final syllable.
‘Joan,' Fenner greeted her laconically, ‘how are you? But perhaps I don't need to enquire.'
For a brief instant she was deflated by use of the despised name but she rallied magnificently.
‘You!
I should have known you would come to – to
mock
me in my grief
. I – have – lost – my – daughter!'
He was looking at her with a kind of distanced pity. ‘I too.'
Yeadings made a little throat-clearing noise and moved between them. ‘Why don't we sit down and talk? It must be some time since you both met. Mrs Winter, would you like Miss Zyczynski to make you some tea?'
Vanessa swung her head to take in the two spectators. Her mouth tightened like a drawstring purse. She closed her eyes. ‘Coffee,' she said faintly but firmly Then she swept across her drawing-room, sank on a sofa and lay back among the cushions.
‘Everything all right?' demanded an abrupt voice from the corridor as the two men were finding seats. Beattie stomped in to stand there, hands on hips, staring at the other woman. ‘You went off without a word. I wasn't sure you'd make it upstairs on your own after downing all that gin.'
‘Rosemary's gone to make us all coffee,' Yeadings said to cover Vanessa's recoil.
Beattie picked up the hint. ‘Right, love. I'll take over in the kitchen and send her back in.' While Vanessa moaned gently Beattie and the DS exchanged places. Then silence fell.
When eventually the tray arrived with a large cafetière and cups for them all, Vanessa sat upright and waved a gracious hand at Zyczynski. ‘You pour, Rosemary.'
She turned on Fenner. ‘You see what I am reduced to.' Her arm swept widely to include the room and the world outside. ‘I am utterly alone, with my lovely home sold to strangers. I am abandoned here in the country among aliens who cannot care whether I live or die. And, indeed, by now neither do I.'
‘Sugar and cream?' demanded Beattie looming over her with a second silver tray, smaller than the other.
‘Both.'
‘Give it to her black,' Fenner advised. ‘Now that I'm here we need to talk. Properly. Not drivel.'
Vanessa gave a sob and glanced helplessly at Yeadings as if to say,
you see how he behaves to me!
‘So,' her husband said, leaning towards her, ‘what was Sheila up to, that someone had to kill her?'
It had the intended shocking effect. Vanessa ceased acting and shook her head. ‘How should I know? She never confided in me. And there is no call to be so crude. If you had fulfilled your part in her life and been there for her as a father, we might have been a normal, fond family. And I should not have lost my two darling children.'
He stayed impassive. ‘We needn't waste time on all that again. You know we are both impossible to live with. Sheila was the only good thing to come from our misalliance. And now she's gone.'
He remained silent a moment then addressed her squarely. ‘I am determined to find out exactly what happened, and I expect you to do all you can to help.'
‘Well, if you are asking for my
help …'
Fenner didn't reply. ‘We're all asking,' Z said gently. ‘Nobody must be allowed to get away with brutality like that.'
Vanessa looked genuinely crushed, then her mouth took on a petulant twist. ‘How can anything I say be of any use? I had no idea where she went or who she was with. She could have had a dozen lovers and she'd never have said a word about it to me. I only know that she left me alone here all day, every day, and sometimes of an evening too. I have to use taxis to go shopping or to a film or the hairdressers. And it isn't like London where we could always find something interesting going on, and amusing people to be with.'
She turned violently on Fenner. ‘I shan't stay!' She almost screamed it at him, as though he was forcing it on her.
An embarrassed silence was broken by Yeadings clearing his throat. ‘It must have been quiet for you,' he offered, ‘but your daughter did invite people here. Was there anyone you got to know quite well?'
She stared back at him, affronted. ‘They were all people from
work.
I had nothing in common with them.'
Fenner was regarding her sardonically, suppressing the temptation to remind her that the stage too was a workplace and she'd deigned to grace that in her more active days. But he said nothing.
Yeadings caught Z's eye and gave an almost imperceptible nod. She picked up on it. ‘Mrs Winter, Vanessa, would you tell us how Sheila was the last time you saw her. What time of day would it have been?'
Vanessa looked startled. ‘Well, evening, of course. It was just the same as usual. She would come home after work, have a meal …'
‘You would eat together?'
‘In the dining-room, yes. Mostly she would bring something in, which one of her chefs had prepared. She seldom bothered cooking since it was just for her and me.'
‘But that last evening – Saturday – was there any difference? What did you eat?'
Vanessa put a hand to her head. ‘I don't remember. How can you expect it of me? Some meat or fish, and salad, I expect. She was always bringing back salad. Or vegetables.'
‘There was some leftover pineapple gateau in the fridge,' Beattie said. ‘Did you both have some of that?'
‘I suppose so. Yes, I remember the pineapple.' But she sounded uncertain, almost fearful.
She shook her head. ‘Look, I'm not sure now that Sheila ate anything. I had mine in my bedroom.'
Yeadings took up the questioning again. ‘We need to know what your daughter was wearing when she left here Saturday night.'
Vanessa looked stricken, turning her head away and covering her eyes with a trembling hand. Her attempt to control herself appeared genuine. She fought for words. ‘All this – has been a terrible shock. I'm not up to being pestered. Can't it wait until tomorrow? I need to rest. Not that I'm likely to sleep at all.'
Fenner stood up. ‘Superintendent?'
They filed out, with Zyczynski at the rear, murmuring their goodbyes. Only Beattie remained beside the woman, who lay back with closed eyes. ‘I'll fetch your nightie and a glass of water. Then you can take one of those capsules the doctor left with me.'
‘No!' Vanessa shouted, starting up. ‘You can't
all
leave me alone. I need somebody here. Run after my husband. He can have Sheila's room tonight. He doesn't have to go back to Cambridge right away.'
Beattie had her doubts, but went after the others to speak to him. When she returned to report that, unsurprisingly, he declined the offer, she found Vanessa nestling up to her mobile phone. She frowned as Beattie gave her the message. ‘It doesn't matter. I think I shall be better on my own after all. Just leave the sleeping pills. I'll take some later. Goodnight, Mrs … er, Mrs …'
‘Weyman,' Beattie said firmly. ‘I'm Beattie Weyman, as you well know. And I'll leave just one, like I said.'
Beaumont was taking Barry Childe into the nick at Henley-on-Thames, and with every mile was able to appreciate in his driving mirror how the man's unease took firmer grip. Once arrived there he arranged for an interview room to be made free and left him to stew under the observation of a uniformed constable.
He helped himself to an unidentifiable hot drink from the vending machine and required a personable young WPC in Control to contact the man he'd left at the Marlow house. ‘Anything of interest?' he asked hopefully when they were connected.
‘Not so far as I've seen so far. There's not much furniture here: the minimum for getting by. I've looked around downstairs; just started on his bedroom and it's pretty bare, like you'd expect for someone recently out on parole.'
‘What about the other upstairs rooms?'
‘Second bedroom's stripped, except for some DIY equipment and a load of electrical junk.'
‘What kind of electrical?'
‘Several convector heaters, cables, ducting, lights and so on. Funny thing is – '
‘Go on. I'm ready to laugh.'
‘Well, there are eight separate double sockets. Looks like they're new. And there's a smell. Sort of disinfectant, Everything's very clean.'
BOOK: A Meeting of Minds
5.61Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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