Don't Leave Me

A Superintendent Mike Yeadings Mystery

Superintendent Mike Yeadings Mysteries (Volume 15)

Clare Curzon

Minotaur/Thomas Dunne Books

Don't Leave Me
One
A little over eight years later, something occurred to bring the case back into prominence. Mike Yeadings, now a detective superintendent responsible for Serious Crimes, puckered his brows as he worked on recall.
His right hand fondled the pint tankard from which he'd gratefully downed a foaming third. Towards the end of a relentlessly hot day, almost literally stuck at his desk, his feet had outgrown his shoes. He already regretted agreeing to meet the long-winded DI Dawson after work. No matter how pleasant this beer garden, he silently longed for short sleeves and sandals. He could be cooler and more relaxed at home.
He grunted at the man opposite him. 'Winterton. Daniel Winterton, you say. It does sound familiar.'
'Apparently he's a successful fiction writer.'
'Got him,' Yeadings pronounced. 'His wife went missing. It must be at least eight years back. I was waiting to be made up to DI myself, with hopes that the right result might speed the process.'
'But no joy there?'
'It turned out that she'd run off with a lover.' Careerwise it had been disappointing. At first it had seemed to be a possible case of abduction or murder, but then a young man's disappearance on the same day had scotched police suspicion of violence. They had managed to trace the couple as far as the Canaries, then the trail went cold. So no corpse to meet senior police expectations; just prolonged heartache for another little family deserted by a philandering woman.
He recalled that Winterton had had a small daughter of the same age as the Yeadings' own.
'Julie,' he recalled aloud.
Dawson nodded. 'Yeah. Jude, she calls herself. Kids go for the androgynous these days. Last seen by the cleaner when she left at eleven this morning. School holidays. It seems the kid raided the fridge, then took her boat out, a dinghy with an outboard motor. We found it moored downstream about half a mile away, near a path to the main road. Her father was working in his study. He never noticed she'd scarpered. He'd planned they'd go out for lunch later, but it seems the kiddo had other ideas.'
'History repeating itself,' Yeadings commented absently. 'An unlucky man: first the wife disappears, then the daughter. Took out her boat, eh? So they're still living at the same place? Gentrified cottages out by the old Charbridge Mill?'
He remembered their little boat from the first occasion that he'd met the child. With only negatives to report back to Winterton, he'd been waiting on the jetty when it came puttering round the bend in the river, the father red-faced at the tiller, a knotted handkerchief over his head against the burning sun. The tiny girl had been perched in the bows under a makeshift awning, her whitish fair hair tied up in two bunches. A very pretty little three-year-old with fine features, quite unlike the puppy-blunt Down's syndrome face of Yeadings' own Sally.
The thought, as ever, roused a dull, hard pain inside him, and instantly he condemned himself for the disloyalty of that moment all those years ago; self-disgust at the remembered comparison.
His Sally was very precious, had a generous heart and her own special kind of beauty. He couldn't say he wouldn't have her different, but he loved her fiercely the way she was. He and Nan were proud of the way she was growing up to face her difficulties.
'She'd be eleven now,' he said for Dawson's benefit, meaning the other child, measured by his own.
'Yeah. Eleven years old, last seen at eleven on the eleventh of August. Odd, that coincidence. To be perfect it should have been November.'
'She'd be less likely to go boating alone in winter.' Yeadings' voice came over distant and chilling. The man from Juveniles was reminded of seniority and the need to show some instant efficiency.
'What I wanted to pick your brains on--'
'My memory.' The superintendent wasn't going to allow any flattery.
' ... was whether you thought the mother was likely to have come back and be hanging around aiming to snatch the kiddo. The point is that, before skedaddling, Jude helped herself to more food than even the greediest kid could stomach at a sitting.'
'So you're thinking she took enough to share with someone else, or planned on being away for quite a time?'
'It looks that way.'
'You're already treating it as a Misper?'
'We're acting cautious because of her age. Too many kids lately have ended as nutters' victims. So - a local scour today, and begin the full-scale search at first light tomorrow if she hasn't surfaced. Her father's already jumping on everyone's back, including the Chief Constable's.'
Yeadings recalled Winterton: fortyish, sandy, moustached, dapper and erect, thus looking taller than his actual medium height; lean, but not inconsiderable; a closed, rather unmemorable face. He'd demanded that every stone should be turned, every reported sighting, however wild, be scrupulously followed up in the search for his wife.
It had left him desolate when at first all avenues led to dead ends. In police eyes he was prime suspect for a possible murder because statistics pointed that way, he being her nearest if not dearest. Then proof had come of her flight to Lanzarote and the case had cooled. Some inquiries had continued, seeking confirmation about the woman's whereabouts, her lover and themissing money, but there was less urgency, and no police heartache when the trail died out. By then it was no longer their concern. Adult runaways had every right to freedom of action, provided they weren't guilty of crime. Broken marriages didn't qualify as such: joint bank accounts permitted legal access by either spouse.
Only moderately well-to-do then, and badly hit by the emptying of their shared bank account, Winterton had still been willing to offer a tempting reward for any information leading to discovery of the couple's whereabouts.
It had disturbed the tenacious young Sergeant Yeadings. The husband's offer was unexpected, a bit freaky, as though the wife
- Caroline, he remembered now - were a valuable piece of artwork, or as though he was anxious to deal with her possible ransomers; or as if Winterton gambled on the greed of the womanising young man who had gone off with her. In that last assumption, according to local opinion, he might not have been so far off the truth.
But Yeadings knew that if Winterton were obliged to pay up and the wife came back, it wouldn't have been to the same well-heeled lifestyle which the three had enjoyed until then.
As a family man himself Yeadings had been left uneasy; not that any rising CID officer could afford a bleeding-heart tendency over those met in the line of duty. Not becoming involved was an integral lesson in the job. He had come close to crossing the line only because in a wild moment he'd imagined himself in the man's position. Fleetingly, because Nan and this Caroline were never two of a kind. No way would Nan have walked out on him and little Sally.
Winterton could well be overwhelmed by this second loss. It was something Yeadings didn't care to dwell on.
'I don't see,' he said to Dawson, 'that I can be of much use to you. I never met the woman, so I can't speculate on what she might have done. She didn't display any great consideration for the child when she upped and went off with her lover.'
And as far as that concerned him, it must be the end of thematter. A case for Juveniles, hopefully never to qualify for Crimes of Violence.
Later, at home, though, sockless and in sandals, at ease in the garden hammock where he'd replaced Nan scurrying indoors to answer the cooker's buzzing, Yeadings was left to rebuild the missing-wife case in his mind.
There had been albums of family snapshots, mostly taken in the garden, on the river, or on holidays in brilliant sunshine. Little Julie was there in many of them, right from babyhood, shawled in Winterton's arms as they left the nursing home after the birth. But most often she was the single subject, and Caroline too usually appeared alone; which made Winterton the photographer.
He recalled clearly the enlarged photograph Winterton had offered him, removing it with trembling fingers from a silver frame on his writing desk. Caroline was beautiful, a willowy blonde with high, Slav cheekbones and wonderful teeth. She had been caught from above by the camera, about to climb the river bank from the mooring, one arm raised to brush away willow wands that trailed towards the shaded water. Her smile was something special. If directed at me, Yeadings had thought then - wow, better not think of it.
If he had to sum her up in one word it would be 'fetching'. Which was why, once they started probing, quite a list had grown of those who'd been fetched, including her own doctor (from whose practice she had suddenly and discreetly transferred a few months earlier, presumably to save him from accusations of unprofessional conduct) through various clients and artists whom she met as manager of the art gallery, to this latest toy boy they'd unearthed from right next door: her husband's tenant and, according to Yeadings' boss then, the long-retired DI Calthrop, her 'bit of rough'.
As the picture emerged it had seemed that the eclectic lady had played a very wide field, possibly looking for what she had not found at home. Where Winterton seemed colourless these others were the reverse. How, Yeadings had askedhimself at the time, had such a woman ever come to marry the man?
He remembered asking Nan and she had chortled at the question, then turned deadly serious as she considered the implications. 'How and why are very short words,' she'd said, 'and they take a lifetime to answer in full. Why did I marry you, for instance?'
'Momentary madness?'
'Well, of course. But there must have been something else, don't you think? Sex, naturally; the kind of loneliness that a busy career gives rise to; availability; your persistence; an intuitive knowledge that we were right together, complementary but both sharing the same standards and ambitions; fondness. All of that, and also things I'm only beginning to understand after all these years that we've shared.
'But I know a virtue of yours that I couldn't have accepted any man without; and that's kindness. Just simple kindness. That could be one thing a dull man might offer too. Something such a woman could feel safe with, so that she could afford her adventures and still get away with everything she wanted.'
'Am I dull?' he'd asked, appalled.
'Heavens, no; any more than I'm promiscuous. We're talking types, not us.'
Anyway, however complaisant the husband, Caroline Winterton hadn't chosen to come home and be forgiven, so Winterton had never parted with his reward money. She had either settled finally for her toy boy or travelled on to pastures new. The kind man - if that's what Winterton was - had been left with a small motherless child to devote his loving care to. Until now.
At the sound of children's voices Yeadings removed his gaze from gently swaying leaves above him. Sally made her way down the sloping path from the house, pushing her little brother on his tricycle with total concentration. Yeadings watched their unsteady progress as Luke, feet short of thepedals and still not co-ordinating eyes and steering, made wild zigzags into the grass verge to either side. The little girl heaved him back and sorted him straight. This was his Sally, at the missing child's present age, with her younger brother.
That was something Dawson had neglected to mention and he to ask: what other children were there? In the years after his first loss, had Winterton divorced the runaway, married a second time and provided siblings for his little daughter? If not, who did she talk to, run to when she was unhappy? What had happened to that nice nanny who'd helped both her and her father through the bad times?
DI Dawson would surely know. Grumbling silently at himself for being unable to let a question rest unanswered, Yeadings rolled out of the hammock and padded in through the patio doors to reach for the telephone. Nan, watching for the number he pressed out, sighed. Couldn't the man ever forget his blessed work for even half an hour?
The nanny - Katy Anson, he learned from Dawson - had married, and was now Katy Bisset, with two little ones of her own. Dawson hadn't needed to scout it out because George Bisset was himself in the Thames Valley force, an Area uniformed PC and a fellow member of the local darts team which Dawson seldom got enough time for. After a tournament he'd once joined others for supper at the Bissets' semi and been well received by Katy. Nice girl, devilish good cook.
And no, Winterton had never remarried, Caroline not being assumed deceased, and he never having tried for a divorce on the grounds of desertion. There was no gossip locally about the man. Either he was unusually discreet or had given up on the idea of women. A tad pathetic really.
So it would be her schoolmates that young Julie spent most of her leisure time with?
Have to go into that tomorrow, Dawson agreed. Interview the headmistress and staff, get a list of close friends from them and the child's father. Probably wouldn't be the easiest thing to contact the children, since school had broken up a couple ofweeks back and everyone could be off on vacation. Still, the kid could yet turn up unharmed.
Dawson's tone changed from grumble to apology. Look, he was sorry to have set up a hare for Yeadings. No need as yet to think the case would be passed on to Serious Crimes. He'd never meant more than to ask casually if the Superintendent recalled anything special from the previous case, et cetera.
An appeal to coppers' gossip, Yeadings acknowledged. It had its values, something he never underestimated. Many a missing link had been provided from words unthinkingly dropped in the canteen by some beat or patrol man not involved in a case.
At least now he'd had one question answered. Katy the ex-nanny was kept busy enough these days without maintaining a close connection with the Wintertons. Not, he admitted to himself, wandering back to the dappled shade of the apple trees, that knowing that was ever likely to be of any use to him. Instead his mind slipped into past tense, into himself as an ambitious younger copper; easy enough, since it was so much the same kind of day.
 
'Sergeant,' old Calthrop had addressed him, with grim conviction, 'we'll be looking for a body here.'
Yeadings knew why: because the DI didn't like the look of Daniel Winterton, who, despite the modestly converted cottage, had kept a couple of decent cars in his double garage, and whose accent was clearly the outcome of a privately funded education. And quite another reason was that the DI was due for retirement in no more than three weeks, and was suddenly determined to go out on a high trumpet note.
A murder classification meant he could draw on anything up to fifty extra men and women from over the force, provided that his super accepted his assessment. He took Yeadings along as a supposed ally when he went to put his case.
'Possible murder,' their super had cautiously allowed. 'Get all other options eliminated fast and then we'll see. I don't want alot of yahoo and expense if the lady's simply gone home to mother.' He glanced enquiringly at Yeadings who kept his mouth tight shut and his gaze on the ceiling.
'There isn't a mother,' Calthrop enjoyed telling him. 'And we've drawn blanks with the woman's special cronies.'
'I'll see what uniformed branch can do to expedite matters. House-to-house enquiries and so on.'
'There aren't any neighbours either, except a young couple renting the adjoining cottage.' Calthrop spoke with evident satisfaction.
Next morning Yeadings had taken a young WPC along when he went to question the nanny and child. Winterton sat in on the interview, sunk in an armchair, virtually catatonic but occasionally stirring to agree with some statement from Katy.
It was Katy who had seemingly been the last to see Caroline Winterton before she left. She had been supervising little Julie's morning bath before taking her out for the day and hadn't noticed whether Mrs Winterton had luggage with her as she went downstairs. There had been none waiting in the hall. She couldn't say about the car. It was possible any packing and loading might have been done between Mr Winterton's departure and her own arrival.
'Did Mummy have a big bag, a suitcase, with her, lovey?' the policewoman knelt to ask, but Julie hid her face against Katy's knee. All that could be got out of her was a wretched whisper, 'I weed in my 'jamas.'
Katy was gently rubbing the child's back. 'Never mind. We popped them in the washing machine and watched the bubbles go round, didn't we? Accidents do happen. We can't stop them every time.'
'Mummy squashed me.'
Yeadings assumed she'd been holding the child close to say goodbye. So maybe the mother was emotional, preparing not to see her baby for some time? He turned to the nanny. 'Can you give me a rundown on everything that happened here yesterday morning?'
'Well, to begin with, I was later than usual. Twenty minutesactually, due to the bus times, though Mr Winterton had given me the half-hour off. Because I'd stayed a bit later the evening before.'
'Why would that be?'
'Well, Mrs Winterton was out and he wouldn't risk cooking his supper while Julie was running loose in the kitchen.'
'I'm always scared she'll reach up and burn herself,' Winterton said. 'I was frying liver, you see, and it spits.' He sank back into silence.
'What time was that?' Yeadings asked.
Katy took over again. 'Sevenish, I suppose. Julie goes to bed between seven thirty and seven forty-five as a rule. Her daddy, or sometimes her mummy, will read her a story and then draw the curtains.'
He didn't miss the 'sometimes'. It seemed Julie was Daddy's girl. That could be some compensation for the child if he was left as the single parent.
Yeadings turned back a couple of pages in his notebook to Winterton's statement about Caroline's return at eleven fifteen that night. She had not struck him as unduly excited. She had supposedly been to see a film with an old schoolfriend (though later this Helen Masters had denied the fact). On arriving home Caroline had said she was tired and gone for a shower before turning in.
The interview came clearly back to Yeadings' memory. 'I made her a thermos of hot chocolate,' Winterton had broken in suddenly, as though it had happened ages ago. 'She was thirsty, and she often likes to have something by her if she wakes in the night.'
Thoroughly domesticated, Yeadings had noted; but then Winterton was a book-writing house-husband while his wife went out earning. It was hardly the same situation as with himself and Nan. More often than not when the job overran so much that Nan had already gone to bed, his supper was waiting in the fridge for him to reheat and he'd have to creep upstairs to kiss Sally as she slept.
'Could I see the bedroom?'
It turned out to be Caroline's room exclusively, large and lavishly furnished, the colours pastel, the bed and drapes softly swagged. The husband's was next to it, with the communicating door at present wide open.
Through there the style was simpler, almost austere, a man's room with a single bed under a tailored cover. Again Yeadings found himself thinking: not our lifestyle at all. He wondered about Winterton, whether after the child's arrival sex had taken a back seat.
Caroline's walk-in wardrobes, their mirror doors opened, appeared as full of empty hangers as clothes. 'There's a lot missing,' Katy whispered. She had accompanied him upstairs, leaving Winterton to take care of Julie below.
'She had heaps of wonderful clothes. It does look as if--'
Calthrop would point out that the husband could have removed them. He'd had time enough before the police visit. They would need to get a SOCO looking for snagged threads in the boot of his Mercedes. Caroline's car was gone, of course, not sighted since she'd driven to work on the Friday. A pale blue BMW, its licence number had been notified throughout Thames Valley, but no sightings had so far been reported.
'Do you know what luggage she had?'
Katy shook her head. 'I'm not sure, but I know where the bags ought to be. I went up in the loft once to bring a grip down for Mrs Winterton. She had a number of cases up there.'
'Let's have a look then, shall we? Is there a ladder?'
Katy fetched the pole used to spring the trap open, and they watched an aluminum ladder begin automatically to descend in two stages.
'That's crafty,' Yeadings appreciated. 'Something like that appeals to the couch potato in me.'
'Mr Winterton fixed it up. He's clever like that, very gadgety. It's pressure-triggered, like the light in a fridge. He showed me once how it works.'
Yeadings, already halfway up into the roomy loft, could seethe little motor for himself. A set of ceiling lights had also come on, worked from the same sensor. He checked by pressing the stud which the ladder's removal had released, and the place was instantly plunged into darkness. He let go and the lights came back on.
The fully floored room was tidily stacked with unneeded items of upholstered furniture, four white-painted wooden chests, and matching shelves along one wall which were filled with paperback books arranged alphabetically by author.
On his way to the luggage Yeadings opened each of the chests in turn. Three held an assortment of household china, curtains and bric-a-brac. The fourth was crammed with electrical components, several old-fashioned table lamps, ceiling roses, spare fuses, light bulbs, extension cables and fitments. But no body, despite being capacious enough to take a good-sized man when folded.
Katy had climbed through the trap and now stood beside him. 'The cases are over there. I'm not sure how many there were, but I'm pretty sure some are missing now.'
She went closer. 'Yes, there was a matching set of three, a sort of honey colour with maroon braid straps. They've gone.'
'Would they all fit in the boot of the BMW?'
'I should think so. Mr Winterton would know for certain because he carried them out to her car last time Mrs Winterton went off to an auction up north.'
Yeadings' ears pricked up. 'When would that have been?'
'Back before Easter. I'm not sure of the date. He could tell you.'
'Then I'd better go down and ask him.'
He stood below in the corridor and waited for the ladder to disappear, but it didn't. 'How do you make the thing go back?'
'There's a button on the far side.'
Yeadings found and pushed it. Accompanied by the whirring of the invisible motor the contraption started to slide up into the roof space. He had to assume that when it was again in position the lights would be extinguished, it being the sort of thing you must take on trust, again as with fridges. As acomfortingly non-hi-tech finish, Katy was obliged to shut the trap with the pole she'd used to open it.
'I've just been checking on the luggage in your loft, and I'm impressed,' Yeadings told Winterton when he regained the lounge. 'You're a talented electrician. Was that your original line of work?'
Winterton seemed momentarily to shake off his lethargy. 'No. As a young man I spent a couple of years training to become an architect, but decided I couldn't stand the accountancy and law involved. I wanted to get to grips with the houses themselves, being more a handy sort of person, so I dropped out. Without a proper job, I turned to mapping out some ideas for a story I'd had in my mind for a while, and actually got it published. Then the writing bug really bit me.
'My early books didn't make much at first, but then I wrote one that went down well in the States, and my name caught on with the public. Which justified my staying home and working from here. I did all the alterations to the cottages as a sort of hobby, with help from a plasterer. I enjoy DIY. It gives me a breather from the written word.'
'Have you done any renovations lately?'
'Not indoors. But I've made a start on a rockery for - for Caro. Not sure now that I'll ever finish, though the site's been prepared and some of the stones are delivered.'
'I'd like to see it. I'm a bit of a gardener myself.'
It didn't deceive the man. He gave the detective a bruised stare. 'Of course, Sergeant. But I haven't buried my wife there. You'd better come and check.'
Yeadings glanced away. 'I'm sorry, sir. We have to cover all possibilities. So while we're on the subject can you show me the cellar?'
'There isn't any cellar.' Winterton's tone was bitterly distant. 'There was one when we first came but I had it blocked off. It was under the enlarged kitchen, and the floor there's been covered with ceramic tiles for a matter of years. We'll go out by the back way and you can see for yourself.'
'Thank you, sir.'
He was quite right. There had been no recent disturbance to the sealed floors anywhere in the downstairs rooms, and this included all cupboard space.
The mechanically dug site for the rockery was something else. It was extensive and the soil freshly turned.
DI Calthrop, Yeadings knew, would relish having every inch of it excavated, by sweating, spade-wielding coppers.
DON'T LEAVE ME. Copyright © 2001 by Clare Curzon. All rights reserved. No part of this book may be used or reproduced in any manner whatsoever without written permission except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles or reviews. For information, address St.