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HIDING THE ELEPHANT Chapter 26

05 Mar

Simon ended up quarter of an hour late, mostly on account of parking. Whatever possessed him to take the car into Soho, Pippa asked with her mind so obviously on other things that he didn’t have to answer. She had ordered crisp fried noodles and Peking duck with bamboo shoots and water chestnuts for both of them before he’d arrived and they rushed their way through the meal as the Chinese waiters dismantled the tables around them and brought in aluminium buckets and grey-headed mops.

Simon took a deep breath. ‘So, what’s this unilateral separation all about?’

‘I thought it would do us good. Things were not going too well, were they?’ Pippa helped herself to some more vegetables.

Her hair was shorter, flicked back off her forehead and freshly styled. The make-up, flattering, warm coloured, accentuated the eyes and the lips above a turquoise silk blouse. She was perfect. Emma’s hair would have been all over the place and she’d be moving it out of the way, playing with the ends, twisting them around her fingers. And her clothes … Simon couldn’t remember any of Emma’s clothes other than jeans and shirts or jumpers. Yes, she had something tweedy as well, a skirt and a coat and of course there was that black silk dress she always wore with her mother’s jewellery on special occasions.

‘Well,’ Pippa repeated, ‘were they?’

‘No, not too well. Sorry, it’s this murder case ….. a lot on my mind. Sorry.’ She deserved better.

The waitress picked up the teapot and re-filled their cups. Then hovered not five feet away.

‘They want us out of here,’ said Pippa. ‘Have you missed me?’

‘Yes, of course I’ve missed you. You never answered any of my messages. Or Emma’s.’

‘Emma wouldn’t understand. She thinks the sun shines out of Phil’s backside and the other way round. Let’s go to the flat.’ She pushed her plate away and the waitress picked it up immediately.

Simon handed his over to the woman as well. ‘I promised Emma to take a box of medicine to some charity outfit across the Thames.’ He slid his credit card into a smart, leather looking wallet that contained the bill, then produced some change out of his coat pocket for the tip. ‘I mustn’t forget to ask about fostering. Emma thinks those people bring Bosnian orphans over for fostering.’

‘Ah,’ Pippa frowned. ‘I’ve been wondering about that.’

‘Wondering about what?’

‘Never mind. Emma will tell me when she’s ready.’

Once in the car, it became less awkward. The unfamiliar territory south of the river provided an illusion of a common purpose. It was still raining steadily. With the help of a small torch Pippa was peering into the A-Z, trying to navigate. They seemed to be going in circles.

‘All these streets look the same. I think you should turn left at the next crossing. Yes, I am sure. Turn left. Don’t you just expect Fagin to walk past with Artful Dodger in his wake? I didn’t know there were still areas like these in London. May be we should turn back?’

‘I wouldn’t dare face Emma if I failed to deliver. Remember, she’s been the chief provider of my meals recently. She and Phil are deeply convinced that a twentieth century man can’t possibly feed himself adequately without female assistance. Emma insists on  standing in for you. When she can find the time from solving my murder case for me, that is. What’s that further down the street?’

They turned into the brightly lit forecourt of a derelict warehouse. Several figures were moving about, hooded and oblivious of the rain.

‘They are hardly more than children.’ Simon clicked the boot open from inside the car.

‘Food, medicine or clothes?’ asked a young voice.

‘Medicine.’ The pool of water under the car door was deeper than Simon thought. It seeped into his right shoe and the sock soaked it up, quickly spreading freezing cold damp up his leg. That was a coincidence, it had to be, but it served the purpose. The cosy, sheltered world of the heated car was abruptly replaced by that of need without frills. He could have thrown a few food tins in, Grant realised belatedly. God knows, there was enough of them in the rarely opened kitchen cupboard at home.

‘Over there.’ the boy pointed to the stack of cardboard boxes under an awning behind him.

Simon took the box containing Emma’s medicines where he was ordered. That done, he looked around for the boy who seemed to have lost every interest in him.

‘Excuse me,’ Simon tried to regain the young man’s attention.

‘Donations upstairs,’ a wet thumb pointed towards the dimly lit windows on the first floor gallery.

‘Thank you. We want to ask about orphans… fostering, you know.’ Pippa was gathering the collar of her coat tightly round her neck.

‘Ask upstairs when you take your cheque.’

The desks in the office, each equipped with a weak table lamp of its own for there was no central lighting, looked like islands of light in the sea of shadows. A hand written piece of cardboard on the desk closest to the entrance read DONATIONS AND ENQUIRIES so they headed there. The young woman behind it was arguing fluently over the phone in some mysterious language.

‘Cheque or credit card?’ she asked in English, abandoning her heated conversation for a moment.

‘Cheque, I suppose.’ said Simon. It took longer to fill in a cheque. More chance to make casual enquiries.

She pointed to a smaller notice informing the public to make the cheques payable to Road Aid and not to forget to write the number and expiry date of their cheque guarantee card on the back. Simon filled in his cheque according to the instructions and placed it in front of the girl. Still listening to someone on the other end of the line, she nodded, mouthed ‘Thank you’, fixed the receiver under her chin and started entering the donation into the logbook.

Everyone else was busy. The phones, turned to low, rang incessantly. The soft murmur of voices answering them was mesmerising.

‘How do we find out about fostering?’ Simon whispered as people do in churches and empty art galleries.

Pippa shrugged, then produced a credit card from her bag. The young woman quickly terminated the conversation and wheeled her chair over to a desktop cash register. ‘About fostering. We wondered…’.

‘Fifty? A hundred?’ The girl’s fingers hovered impatiently over the keys.

‘Fifty. Orphans. You do bring orphans into the country, don’t you?’

‘That’s the Red Cross, actually, not us. You can fill this in if you want.’ There was a faint trace of a foreign accent. The pale green form materialised on the desk simultaneously with the credit card slip.

Simon picked up the form while Pippa was signing the receipt. The application was covered in small, tight lettering and at least ten pages long.

‘A friend of ours went out there with the last convoy. The one that left on Friday. Any news from them? Are they all right?’ He was tempted to cross his fingers.

Emma never needed to know. Pippa was unlikely to tell her that he had reasons of his own for this visit. Unsworth could be more of a problem. He’d go ballistic if he knew his wife was told about the death of her best friend casually, over the phone, all alone thousands of miles away and in some danger herself. But a ten minutes interview with Helena Unsworth could have saved weeks and weeks of investigation. It was worth a try.

‘There are problems with all the convoys, Mr. Grant.’ The girl must have remembered his name from the cheque.

‘What’s up this time?’

‘What’s the name of your friend?’ she answered with a question.

‘Helena Unsworth.’

‘It would be.’ The young woman said it under her breath, then bit her lip. ‘You’re not relatives, are you? We only give information to relatives.’ Her accent, much stronger now, made her sound hostile.

That wasn’t what Simon was after. He was hoping for something simple and friendly. This wasn’t even his territory. The last thing he wanted to do was to flex his muscle about. But the chance was there, just a slim one, that Lennie Unsworth and all her wealth of knowledge were sitting at the other end of the phone. He pulled out his ID.

‘Wait a minute, please. I’ll be right back.’ The girl dived into the darkness.

Simon tracked her progress to the back of the long room from one lamp to the other, some shining onto her long hair pulled loosely together at the nape of her neck, the other colouring her drab cardigan reddish brown or catching the movement of her blue-jeaned legs.

When she returned a few minutes later she was accompanied by a stout, white haired man in his seventies.

‘My name is Leroy Saytee. I’m the volunteer co-ordinator. Office staff only. There’s someone else dealing with the convoy volunteers. Senada tells me you’re asking about Helena Unsworth. Is this a coincidence, Detective Inspector, or do you know something? Are you investigating the case already?’ Saytee’s English was correct, but the accent was much stronger than the girl’s. Jamaican rather than African, at a guess. Was everyone here foreign?

The girl, Senada, went back to her own desk to answer the phone.

‘Just tell me what’s happened, Mr. Saytee.’ When in doubt, turn officious.

‘We do not know very much as yet, Detective Inspector.’ The man pulled over a couple of chairs stacked against the wall and invited them to sit down.  ‘As you may be aware the young lady actually originates from what was Yugoslavia. There seemed to have been some anxiety as to her safety from the start. That’s not unusual. Our volunteers are in danger regardless of their ethnic origin or nationality. Most come back unharmed, some get hurt. Two have been killed so far. Regrettable, but that’s the kind of business we are in.’ He took a deep breath. ‘Mrs. Unsworth disappeared.’

‘When?’ asked Simon.

‘Was she kidnapped?’ asked Pippa.

‘Tuesday. Yesterday morning. That’s when her disappearance was discovered, at any rate,’ Saytee lowered himself onto the desk. His shirt sleeve shone very white under the patchy light. ‘But we received the fax only a few hours ago. The lines were down. We had no contact for thirty six hours.’

Simon nodded. That would have been about the time when Emma and Unsworth talked to Lennie in Unsworth’s surgery.

‘That’s a regular occurrence, Inspector. The Croatian port of Split is up and down all the time. The convoy was meant to leave for Bosnia in the early hours of yesterday morning. But there was heavy fighting on the way and they had to wait. Janet, a New Zealander, is the convoy leader. She’s very good. Very responsible. She’s run many a convoy for us. They moved on today. The fax was eventually dispatched by someone else.’ Saytee handed over a curled up sheet of greyish, limp paper.

Split, Croatia

Tuesday, 20 October, 1992

 

Leroy, my old mate,

I don’t know how to tell you this, but we’ve lost a volunteer. Helena Unsworth, a veterinary surgeon from Hallbrook, has been missing since this morning. Or, I should say last night because no one’s seen her since about ten p.m.

 

I saw her in the queue for the phones straight after dinner along with everyone else. The lines went down soon afterwards and I don’t know if she’d managed to get in touch with her folks back home or not. Somebody thinks they saw her talking. That will need checking out at the other end to see if she said anything that could provide a clue to what’s happened.

 

The camp was full, the whole world and her husband are here. There was no room at the inn so we slept in our vehicles. Unsworth was lucky to drive a camper and could use one of the beds if she cleared the boxes away a bit. I was on my way to the washroom this morning when I saw a neat looking man coming out of there. Disgraceful I know, especially under the circumstances, but I couldn’t help wondering where her stamina came from. I was also a bit envious. He was nicely blond and clean, designer clothes, nothing like our usual bearded sandalwearers with dirty fingernails. If he were taller I wouldn’t have minded a bit of that myself. What the hell, he didn’t even have to be taller. I know, I should be ashamed of myself. But, while I’m at it, tell Alex to make sure he’s there when I return.

 

Back to the mystery man.  He asked if his sister, Helena Unsworth, was about, so I suppose I jumped to conclusions anyhow. I had no idea the woman was meant to meet up with her brother in Split, but then there’s a lot I don’t know about my fellow-travellers. There are at least three of them whose very gender is  unclear to a casual observer and quite a few who could easily belong to entirely different species from an entirely different planet. The man had the same eyes and nose as our Helena, and a very similar jaw line, even though that was obscured by a short stubble, so I had no reason to doubt him. I told him to look in the canteen and that was that. Now, of course, I regret that I didn’t at least ask him his name, but it’s no use crying over spilt milk, is it.

 

I had my breakfast and coffee on the hoof because I had to see the UN captain. I got the “we admire your work but you put additional strain on our scarce resources” all over again from him. But he agreed to give us protection through western Herzegovina. After that we’ll be on our own.

 

By the time I returned to the camp it was official. The Unsworth woman was missing. The police was already there and the local commander of the British troops is involved. So, it’s all down to them now. We’ve all been interviewed but what can we tell them? We’ve been driving hard and sleeping by the roadside for the past three days. There was no time for chats and socialising. We hardly know each other’s names as yet.

 

One interesting thing, though. The police suspect foul play. (I’ve always wanted to use that phrase.) They found no fingerprints in the camper. NONE AT ALL! What do you make of that? They’re looking for the Englishman who’d said was her brother. They can just as well look for the proverbial needle in this beehive.

 

I haven’t typed this much in months. My two fingers are going stiff. As usual, you don’t need to do anything. It’ll all be handled through the official channels, but I wanted you and Alex to know.

 

Right, I’d better be off now. Somebody will send this through when the lines are back. Talk to you in two or three weeks, with luck.

 

Take care and get yourself some sleep on occasion.

 

Love Janet

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Posted by on 05/03/2011 in Uncategorized

 

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