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Daily Archives: 27/02/2011

HIDING THE ELEPHANT Chapter 7


Chapter 7

They sat in the car and actually waited for the song to finish when Simon drove her home from the vet’s on Monday night. The best part of her wanted to stay on and luxuriate in the dark and warm, slightly unreal seduction of the forbidden and the unthinkable. The other, more urgent and piercing, compelled her to return to the Willows, to Phil and the invisible barrier that had been growing between them ever since the visit to Dr. Lighburn’s consulting rooms.

Phil had been against her going over to Unsworths’ that night in the first place.

‘You’re all done in. The last thing you want to do is run over there and tell Lennie and John that Fran was nearly decapitated.’
‘They probably know that already,’ she protested hotly.
She and Phil may not have been the closest of friends with John and Helena Unsworth, but failing to turn up at a time like that would have amounted to a breach of Hallbrook etiquette. Mother would have gone, and that in itself was reason enough.
‘Peter Bailey’s been earning his pints all day by feeding the details to all and sundry at the “Farmers Arms”. She was John’s stepdaughter and Lennie’s best friend. I can’t just ignore them, can I?’
How was she to know Simon was going to be there already? And even if she did, would it have really mattered then?
John was in his surgery, isn’t he always, but no Lennie.
‘He’s taken on so, poor lamb.’ Mary Bates opened the door for her for it was after hours. ‘Lennie left with her aid convoy on Friday morning and John can’t get in touch with her now.’ The nurse’s whisper could have awakened the dead.
‘I thought Lennie went with the September convoy.’
‘She lost her bottle last month. Such terrible stories coming out of Bosnia, you can understand, can’t you. But then she thought about it some more, you know what she’s like, stubborn as a mule. John tried to stop her and poor Fran did her best, but she went on and on about her sense of duty. You’ve seen her, little Fran, this morning, haven’t you? How was she…?’
‘Least said, soonest forgotten, Mrs. Bates.’ Emma moved towards the stairs. ‘Is John upstairs?’
‘Yeah, you see yourself up. Do you take sugar?’
The veterinary nurse didn’t say John had a visitor. Maybe she thought Emma knew about it.
John reached the door in one step to greet her, winding his long arms around her for mutual comfort. ‘Lennie’s gone… I’m finding it a bit difficult…is Mary making you a drink?’
‘I’m very sorry, John.’
The handsome, thin face with its beautiful hazel eyes was strained. ‘I know. Thanks for coming. Did you have a problem with the press people? They’ve been besieging the surgery all day. As has everyone else. Murder is good for business. Each and every pooch for miles around seems to have suddenly developed a sudden and life-threatening complaint. I thought of closing for the day but couldn’t. For the sake of the genuinely ill,’ Unsworth shrugged helplessly. ‘But the press got to me. Can’t cope with them. Had to draw the blinds in the surgery to stop them flashing their cameras at me through the windows.’
‘Lynda Fraser from the Evening Echo and her photographer are sitting on your front wall. I cut through the back garden, couldn’t see much else from there. Can’t you do something about that, Simon?’
‘Afraid not. A downside of living in a free country.’ Simon resumed his seat once she was ensconced into hers by Unsworth, and smiled at her as if she was the first good news of the day.
‘If you two are busy, I can come back later.’ She actually meant it, she really did, but there was a temptation as well to stay and watch Simon at work. She allowed herself to be persuaded. The two men seemed ill at ease with each other in the small, overfurnished room.
‘Mr. Grant’s been looking at the photographs.’ John Unsworth pointed at two silver frames on the table.
Emma thought it funny that someone from her own circle should talk about Pippa’s husband as Mister. She picked up the photographs for a closer look. Lennie stared back with a cheeky smile, the top half of her triangular, high cheek boned face shaded by the wide brim of a straw hat that allowed only a few wisps of short, blonde hair to show. The other photograph reminded Emma just how pretty Frances Swan used to be. It had been easy not to notice the extraordinary symmetry of her face, the almond shape of the brown eyes, the fullness of the generous, perfectly shaped mouth when she was alive. The girl never seemed to give her appearance much thought. Good clothes, simple hairstyle, but not what you’d call making the most of herself. The photograph may have just as well been of a different person. The dark hair was pulled back, showing off the gentle outline of a smooth chin and neck, a low cut elegant black evening dress emphasised an attractive, youthful bust. But the face, the expression, the glint in the eyes ….
‘She must have been very happy that night,’ she started, then checked herself. What could she say that would be even remotely appropriate? She was the medical examiner who’d attended the crime scene. That had somehow put her on the wrong side of mourning. Simon’s side. Maybe Philip was right. Maybe she really shouldn’t have come.
‘You are thinking of this morning, aren’t you. Couldn’t have been easy for you.’ John quietly removed the picture from her hand and stared at it for a moment before placing it back on the table.
‘May I keep this?’ Without waiting for permission Simon deftly released the picture out of its frame. ‘You wouldn’t happen to know where it was taken? ‘
‘No, Inspector, I don’t. Probably some Riverside do. Is it important? I could ask someone.’
‘Was she into amateur dramatics? Riverside is an amateur dramatic society, isn’t it?’ Emma smiled to herself. If Simon was conducting an investigation, it wasn’t showing. He was casual, relaxed, wasn’t writing anything down, and displayed no sign of purpose. He even helped Mary with her tea tray when she finally turned up, and held the door opened for her on her way out.
‘I think she wanted to stay,’ said Emma, handing John the cups.
‘I think she did.’ Simon winked into her smile. ‘The Riverside, Mr. Unsworth. Frances was a member?’
‘Yes, she was. Lennie, too. Mostly for Fran’s sake, I think.’ Unsworth looked uncomfortable. ‘Not much else to do around here. A bit dull after London.’
‘A boyfriend? Did Fran have a boyfriend there?’ Emma thought she knew what John was getting at. Father looked like that, uncomfortable and peeved, every time he was forced to refer to one of Pippa’s numerous unsuitable boyfriends. After all, in spite of only fifteen perhaps sixteen years difference in age, John had been almost like a father to the girl.
‘No! No boyfriend!’ Unsworth shouted.
She must have touched a sore point. Her eyes slid over to Simon. Did he notice John looked angry? It was hard to tell. Simon was still looking at the photograph. She wished she knew him better.
Unsworth turned to Simon, calmer and shamefaced for his outburst. ‘Forgive me. It’s all just so… Well, you know… I’m not myself, Mr. Grant. Emma can vouch for me, can’t you Emma…,’ he cast a quick glance in her direction but gave her no time to respond. ‘There have been some rumours, Lennie mentioned them from time to time, rumours that Fran had an affair with their director. Not true, but that’s never stopped anyone gossiping. The man is married and, if you ask me, a twit. Fran wouldn’t look at him twice. I know she wouldn’t….’ John was speaking quickly as if afraid of losing his thread. ‘There’s been no one in particular since she broke off with Roderick Masters. That was two years ago. At the time Lennie and I got married. This would have never happened if she stayed with him.’ Unsworth buried his face in his hands. ‘He would have looked after her.’
Roderick Masters! Probably the last name she would have expected to crop up. Emma hadn’t seen Roddy in years. He’d inherited his father’s business since and expanded it, rebuilt the Boulders after old Mr. Masters’ death and got married as well, she’d heard. The van collecting her medical waste every Friday was brand new and the driver wore a bright orange uniform, but it still bore the name “The Masters of Hygiene” as it did in both his and her own father’s days.
‘Are Masters collecting your waste as well?’ she asked. If Simon didn’t like the turn the conversation was taking, he could always interrupt. But, he remained silent.
‘Yeah. I’ve been with them ever since I’ve started out on my own’ John rubbed his temples and straightened up. He lifted the teapot with both his hands, and yet it was shaking. ‘More tea?’
‘Yes please.’ Emma had emptied her first cup in a gulp. ‘Roddy’s expanding and modernising the old incinerator. His father would have been very proud of him. But, all the furnaces will be out of action for a couple of weeks.’ If they talked about Roddy, John may find it easier to say something about Fran’s current love interest, she thought. It had to be someone John didn’t approve of but there was very little chance that he wouldn’t have known his identity. A veterinary surgery is as much a hotbed of gossip as a doctor’s surgery. And with Mary around… Oh, yes. If there was a boyfriend, John would certainly know about it even if Lennie conspired with Fran to keep it a secret for whatever reason. Then it struck her as odd that she herself had never heard any gossip about Frances Swan at all. True, the girl wasn’t on her list but that wouldn’t have stopped Mrs. Dunn, the receptionist, to hear about it and pass it on between Mrs. Whatsit’s recurring ovaries and Mr. Whatsit’s troublesome hernia.
She became aware that John was staring at her, a look of shock and annoyance clearly written all over his face. ‘Masters has closed the incinerator? I had no idea. When did that happen?’
‘Last Thursday.’
‘They never said. They should have let us know.’ John seemed affronted, taking it personally. Normally, a quiet, gentle man like him wouldn’t have taken the slightest bit of notice. But this wasn’t John as she knew him.
‘Mary must have forgotten to tell you. I’m sure you’ve been sent a letter like everybody else. Don’t worry about it. They’ll carry on with collections. There’s enough refrigerated storage space for twice that time. The letter says so.’ C’mon, John, never mind the incinerator. Tell us about Fran’s love life. Tell us about XY. Surely, you must know something.
‘It’s easy for you to say,’ Unsworth countered stubbornly. ‘Your only concern is that your waste is safely stored and destroyed, but I’m talking quantities. Bulk. I may have to put down a cow and two sheep next week. Hopefully not, but I can’t be certain … I’ve got to be certain … that’s what I pay for. Reliability.’
Simon leaned forward. ‘If the collectors say they can handle it, they can handle it,’ he said soothingly. ‘If anything goes wrong, it’ll be their lookout.’
‘Yes,’ Unsworth shook his head as if waking himself up from a bad dream, ‘yes, of course. Sorry. I don’t seem to handle surprises very well.’
Emma moved over and put her hand on his arm.
‘We have reason to believe,’ Simon cut in smoothly in the ensuing silence as if he’d just remembered something, ‘we have reason to believe that Miss Swan had a secret love affair. Secret enough to call him XY. Not so secret to you, I expect?’
So, Simon was thinking along the same lines as her. It was a bit like earlier on that evening with Phil, the two of them, her and Simon on the same side, backing each other up, reading each other’s minds. It was exciting.
John’s long, thin frame straightened. ‘XY? Fran? You must be joking. Must be something to do with the Riverside again. Their director, the one I’ve mentioned before, he’s also their scriptwriter and if you ask me… Best ask Dominic Hale. Sounds like something he’d come up with.’
Dominic Hale! Another name from the past. And an even more surprising one than Roddy who was at least local. Unless there were two Dominic Hales in the world, which was unlikely. Girls at Emma’s boarding school used to go gaga over Dominic Hale. Not quite her type, a bit too smooth and good looking, but something to look forward to at joint dances and sporting events. Dominic Hale had been destined for great things. Fame and fortune. How had he ended up in the backwaters of Wellingborough? She was about to ask when the phone rang.
John Unsworth grimaced. ‘I know people mean well, but I could do without these today. And if it’s the press again….’
But once he lifted the receiver, his expression changed from reluctant forbearance to visible excitement.
‘Lennie! Lennie! You’ve got there safely?’ He turned to Emma. ‘It’s Lennie. She’s in Split. That’s an Adriatic port in Croatia.’ He listened intently, making small encouraging noises, nodding his head. ‘It’s a very bad line, my love. No, no nothing’s wrong. You’re just imagining it.’ Than he listened again. ‘No, I’m telling you. Everything’s fine. Here, have a word with Emma…. She’ll tell you.’ Unsworth handed the receiver over to Emma. ‘I can’t tell her. Not like this,’ he whispered, covering the mouthpiece with his hand. ‘And don’t mention anything yourself.’
The line was atrocious. High frequency whistle-like interference was hurting her ears. Emma could just about make out a voice at the other end, Lennie struggling to shout over the noises and someone else’s conversation that sounded Russian but wasn’t.
‘Hi,’ said Emma. ‘John will be much happier now that you’ve called.’ What the hell does one say in a situation like this?
‘What’s going on there?’ That came through quite clearly. The voice was reaching the fever pitch. Lennie certainly had a sense of the dramatic. Or she may have just grown hoarse from shouting.
‘Nothing, Lennie, nothing at all. I… I just happen to be visiting. Here, I’d better put John back on.’ That was cowardice. ‘Nice talking to you.’ There was a response, nothing Emma could make out, then the line went dead. ‘Hello? Hello?’ she repeated into the continuous buzzing sound, then gave up. ‘Sorry, John. The line’s down.’
‘What did she say?’ Unsworth stared at the phone, ready to pick it up if it rang again. ‘She’s picked up the vibes. She knew something was wrong from my voice. Now, she’ll be upset. All on her own in that God forsaken place and upset.’
‘She may ring again,’ Emma said dubiously. John was in a state and hardly likely to reassure his wife.
They stayed on for another quarter of an hour.
Simon asked a few more questions, but mostly had to repeat them because Unsworth’s attention was elsewhere.
‘I’ll talk to you some other time, if you don’t mind, Mr. Unsworth. We’ll need your statement,’ he gave up and rose to leave.
Emma added the usual if-you-need-anything, anything at all.

* * * * *

‘I’ll give you a lift home,’ Simon offered.
It was only a ten minutes walk down the footpath but she was dying to know what Simon had learned before she arrived. And she wasn’t in a hurry to return home. She’d left Phil in the garden, pruning. ‘Pruning in the dark, pruning in the dark,’ she’d been singing to herself all the way to Unsworth’s surgery to a simple nursery rhyme tune that she couldn’t remember the name of.
‘I hope you’re not getting any ideas. John wouldn’t hurt a fly,’ she started immediately Simon backed the car out of the small car park.
‘I’m sure he wouldn’t. Can’t say the same about moles, shrews and such. Bloody Mary is cutting them up for him by the dozen. He told me in great detail about the thesis he’s working on. Something about the effect of fertilisers on small wild life. A costly business.’
‘Sarah, his first wife, Fran’s mother, must have left him something. I know she bought him the surgery as a wedding present. There was quite a big age difference between them and people were saying he married her for her money, but I don’t think so. They seemed perfectly happy together. What else did you get out of him?’ She smiled cheekily, a just-between-us smile.
Simon grinned back ‘A talkative chap if I’ve ever seen one. More from nerves than inclination, I’d say. Not someone you’d normally take out for a pint, is he? For a start, he was there on Friday night. Actually at the Old Mill. You did say, didn’t you, the Swan girl may have been lying there all weekend. As early as Friday night?’
Emma shrugged ‘Can’t be positive. It’s possible.’
‘The stench alone … Stirling and Pinder are working on it as we speak. I’ve got to narrow the time down as soon as possible. Unsworth apparently took his wife, Lennie … what sort of a name is that…?’
Simon certainly wasn’t breaking any speed limits. Emma half expected him to stop the car at the side of the road any minute. ‘Helena.’
‘Oh. Yes, he said she was foreign. Anyway, he took her up to the Old Mill on Friday morning to take leave of Frances and to borrow some clothes before leaving for London and on to Bosnia. I told you ski jackets were missing.’ He seemed very pleased with himself. ‘Fran asked him back to dinner that night, so he could tell her how Lennie got on. He said he went, she wasn’t there, the door was locked, and he returned to the surgery. No witnesses as far as he knows.’
‘Don’t be silly. Why would John want to kill Fran? And so horribly as well?’
‘Don’t know, but I’m sure you’ll help me find out.’ Without moving an inch in their seats, the distance between them was getting smaller. He pushed the cassette in with his finger and the voice of Jennifer Rush came on, distinct in spite of the low volume. ‘You will, won’t you?’
‘Try and stop me.’ It was meant to be jocular, but it didn’t come out quite that way.
Simon stopped the car by the Willows’ gate. ‘I don’t think he’d have had the time.’
‘Sorry?’ She could see Phil near the garage. He was dragging something behind him.
‘Unsworth. He left for a weekend seminar at Lancaster at ten o’clock on Friday night. A colleague from Leighton Buzzard collected him. Returned Sunday night. If she really was killed on Friday night, he just wouldn’t have had enough time to kill and mutilate the girl, turn the room around, get back, change and be ready for ten.’
‘No. Highly unlikely.’ What was Phil up to? Whatever it was he was pulling at had to be dragging along the ground. Had he seen the car?
‘What’s that great friendship between his present wife and his ex-step-daughter all about? Not your usual set-up.’
‘Lennie and Fran were friends while Fran was doing her Business Administration course in London. Met through amateur dramatics, I think. Lennie is a vet as well and after graduation she was looking for a placement. Fran introduced her to John and things went on from there.’ As Simon turned to face her, his broad shoulders blocked her view of the garden. She thought she could hear water running.
‘Hmmm, yes. He’s worrying himself to death about her. Apparently, she’s a wrong nationality to go to Bosnia.’
‘Oh, that’s Lennie’s doing. She’s a Serb by origin and the convoy is heading for Moslem areas, as she informed an entire supermarket check-out queue a few weeks back.’ It was easier to concentrate now that she couldn’t see Phil move about in the background any longer.’ Personally, I’m amazed she went, to tell you the truth.’
‘Do I get a feeling you don’t like Helena Unsworth much? I thought you were friends.’
The intimacy of the low voice made the car feel a much smaller place. Pippa was such a fool. ‘She’s all right I suppose in small doses. A bit of a drama queen. As for being friends, you know how it is. We are the local pillars of society. Martins, the Hallbrook doctors comfort the Unsworths, the local vets in their hour of grief.’ Emma rubbed her face with her hands. ‘Sorry. It’s been a long day.’
Simon nodded.
‘Lennie’s got it into her head that we are sisters under the skin because I can read her native alphabet,’ Emma added to break the sudden silence. Such silences can lead to just about anything.
‘Can you?’ asked Simon without too much interest.
She shrugged. ‘Serbian Cyrillic is similar to Russian alphabet. Bonner considered itself very progressive and unconventional because it offered Russian as an optional foreign language. Lennie says she’s never met anyone in person who can actually read it.’
‘I like that one. The Power of Love. Listen.’ Simon turned up the volume on the cassette player a little and laid his hand on her arm to secure her attention, then left it there.
‘That’s the only one of hers I’ve ever heard.’ Jennifer Rush wasn’t quite her kind of music. I hum nursery rhymes to myself, she thought, and quickly smothered the thought with a smile.
Theatrically, Simon joined the refrain ‘…for your are my laaady, and I’m your maaan….’
‘Don’t leave your day job just yet. Coming in for a bite to eat?’
He shook his head. ‘Maybe later, if that’s all right. There’s something else I want to look into. That white Mercedes in her garage, it turned out that was the car that had hit the Silcock boy. I don’t think the Swan woman had anything to do with the incident, it was probably driven by a man who was staying with her, but the Silcocks may not know that.’
‘I may see you later then?’ Emma groped for the door handle in the dark.

 
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