As ever, to read all previous chapters, please click here.
And to read the first part of chapter 29, click here.
Tuesday 12th November 1985: 14.30 – 15.30
‘Now remember — try not to stare,’ Ernie said.
Meredith gave him a look that usually shrivelled his subordinates and sent them seeking the nearest darkened corner in the hope he might forget they existed. Unfortunately, on Ernie, the effect of the look could be registered somewhere on the low side of a scale running backwards from ‘negligible to non-existent’.
‘I know how to control myself, Sergeant,’ he said stiffly. ‘I trust you can too.’
The tone of voice failed every bit as successfully as the expression. ‘Oh, perfectly, sir. Ten gets you one you can’t help being impressed, though.’
There was the click of a latch being disengaged, then the slightest of squeaks as the door opened.
The first thought that entered Meredith’s head as he stared into the face of the young woman who stood in the doorway was that: yes, Ernie had won his bet with large brass knobs on.
However — and he had extremely good peripheral vision, something that had been of enormous benefit in his rise to his high-ranking position — of the promised chestal pyrotechnics there was no sign. Yes, it was very shapely, he had to say. But unlike Ernie’s rather anatomically-detailed description of his first meeting with the woman, it was at least covered with more than the dazzling white blouse that offered a modest — but still not all that substantial — first defence against probing eyes.
He breathed an internal sigh of relief. It was difficult enough interviewing women as it was — trying to get the balance between firmness and gentleness — without having some Bo Derek distracting you with her all-and-sundries hanging out.
‘Mrs Rawlings?’ he said, dismissing the star of such classics as Tarzan the Ape Man from his mind very quickly.
The woman nodded. ‘Yes.’
‘My name’s Detective Chief Inspector Meredith, Camtown police. This is Sergeant Bulstrode.’
‘Oh, yes.’ The smile that was on the woman’s face broadened. ‘The sergeant and I have met before. A couple of times. How are you, Sergeant?’
‘Not so bad, thanks, Ma’am,’ Ernie replied. ‘My feet aren’t having the best of times with all this plodding about I’m havin’ to do.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry. I perform a very good foot massage, if you’re interested.’
There was a prolonged bout of spluttering from Meredith’s right, as if the sergeant’s engine had just died and he was having trouble bringing it back to life. Much as it was satisfying to hear Ernie so discombobulated, it wouldn’t be the best start to an interview to have his Number Six drop dead of ecstatic thought-processes on the doorstep. ‘We’d just like to ask a few questions, if you’d be so good,’ he said quickly.
Hang on! Number Six? And in capitals?
‘Oh. Of course,’ Mrs Rawlings was saying, and he wrenched his head away from the odd mathematics. ‘Please come in.’
They passed through into the hallway. ‘May I take your coats?’ the young woman asked.
‘Most kind, but we won’t keep you long.’
‘Okay.’ She led them a couple of yards down the hallway. ‘Funnily enough, I have one of your colleagues here already,’ she said.
‘Really?’ Meredith frowned. Who the hell —?
She opened a door, and he got a good look at the couple sitting rather stiffly together on the sofa diagonally opposite.
‘Oh!’ The female half of the duo sprang to her feet like a jack-in-the-box that had just had its lid unclipped. ‘Chief Inspector! I — I —’
‘Good afternoon, Constable Chowdhary,’ he said.
There was a pause that was somewhere high on another scale, that being the one labelled ‘awkward’. To possibly everybody in the room’s relief except Meredith’s, who was hoping for enough embarrassment on the constable’s part to warrant an explanation as to her presence there, Clarissa Rawlings broke it by saying, ‘Can I offer you some tea, Chief Inspector?’
There was another spluttering, this time from the young man next to the seat Amita Chowdhary had just sprung from. Meredith, not moving from his position just inside the doorway, gave him the benefit of an even, friendly stare. ‘Mr Makumbo. Nice to see you. I hope you’re okay?’
The ‘Erms’ came in a series of several this time, adding up to precisely no information about the state of Joseph Makumbo’s health. ‘No thanks, Mrs Rawlings,’ Meredith answered the question that had causes the convulsions. ‘As I say, we won’t keep you long.’
He gave Amita Chowdhary the same even stare, only this time he made it not quite so friendly. He could see that a rather deep flush had come to her cheeks. He raised an inquisitive eyebrow. And waited.
‘I — er —’ she began. Then, as if a cartoony lightbulb had sprung into life above her head, she raced on: ‘Clarissa, Joseph and I were just sitting around chatting about their church, sir. Very interesting. We were comparing their religion with my own. Hinduism, you know? Quite a number of similarities. As well as differences, of course.’
Out of the corner of his eye, Meredith saw the vicar’s wife give the two on the sofa a very distinct look. Aha, he thought. I bloody knew it.
He had to admire the quick thinking, though. Ernie was right about young Chowdhary being one to watch.
‘That’s right,’ Clarissa Rawlings said — rather too hastily, in Meredith’s opinion. ‘Amita and I are old friends. And Joseph, of course,’ she added even more hastily.
‘I see,’ he said, keeping his voice on the same even keel as his expression.
There was a pointed throat-clearing from behind him. ‘If you don’t mind me saying, sir,’ Ernie’s voice followed, ‘it’s a bit cramped out in this hallway. And my dogs are barkin’, like I said before.’
Meredith glanced over his shoulder. The sergeant was giving his own meaningful look, and he nodded back. ‘Of course, Sergeant. If we may, Mrs Rawlings?’
‘Yes, please, do.’ Waves of relief crashed into him from the woman, as if she knew she’d just been saved from a situation that might have been labelled ‘just a tad tricky’. Though a good portion of those waves were probably emanating from his detective constable, too.
He made his way further into the room, and lowered himself into an armchair Mrs Rawlings indicated. Ernie followed and, finding only one chair left empty, and presumably guessing it was the vicar’s wife’s own, grinned and perched himself on the arm of the sofa. ‘Don’t mind?’ he asked, staring down at a Joseph Makumbo who seemed to be trying to bury himself into his seat in two different directions, downward and backwards.
‘Actually,’ Meredith said, ‘I’m afraid that I’m going to have to cut short your chat, Constable Chowdhary, Mr Makumbo.’
‘Oh?’ Rather than being from one of the two addressed, this came from Clarissa Rawlings, who seemed to be staring at him with more than the usual concern of somebody interrupted in a friendly tete-a-tete-a-tete.
‘Yes, Mrs Rawlings,’ he told both her and, in case they missed the point, the other two. ‘I’m afraid that what we need to discuss is of a sensitive nature, pertinent to our enquiries. As Mr Makumbo is heavily involved in the case, and Constable Chowdhary —’ he threw a special glance in her direction to doubly emphasise the point he was about to make ‘— is suspended, neither of them can be party to it. I’m sure you’ll understand.’
There had been a faint, but distinct, intake of breath at the word ‘suspended’. Uh huh, he thought. Definitely right.
Already, Amita Chowdhary was bustling to the door, almost dragging Joseph Makumbo after her, having virtually hauled him up from the sofa as the first stage of the process. ‘Very well, sir,’ she said in more of a gabble than a cohesive sentence, ‘we’re on our way. Nice to have seen you, Clarissa — erm, seen you again, Clarissa; don’t worry — we’ll show ourselves out.’
And with that, she and the bemused-looking Makumbo — whose legs were performing a remarkable impersonation of a cartoon character who’d discovered he’d just run off the edge of a cliff, and was now desperately trying to get back before gravity took over — were gone. Meredith couldn’t help noticing a lingering look at the doorway they’d bolted through from the vicar’s wife. Ah, he thought. That’s the way of it. Sweet on young Joseph, are you, Mrs Rawlings?
It suddenly occurred to him that he had no idea if young Chowdhary had a boyfriend — or even, indeed, if she was that way inclined at all. Being stuck in an office all day was doing him no good when it came to knowing his staff beyond their capabilities (or lack of them) in the detecting stakes. He made a mental note to do something about that as soon as was practicable.
Slowly, as though a part of her life’s energy had departed with the young black man, Clarissa Rawlings lowered herself into the armchair opposite the sofa. Her gaze was somewhere distant, and for a brief second he could have sworn he saw her lips move as though she was in an argument of some kind.
Then, she seemed to haul her attention back into the room, and again gave him and Ernie the benefit of the smile she’d been wearing until a half-minute ago. ‘Now,’ she said, and as if to spite her face, her voice was as sad as a young woman who seemed to have everything in life going for her surely had no cause to be, ‘how can I help you, Chief Inspector? Sergeant?’
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