Another fickle June day was ending. The stubborn rains had let up at last, and the streetlamps were lit when Lawrence Kingston pulled up facing the shoebox of a garage he rented on cobbled Waverley Mews, Chelsea.
With the handbrake on and the engine running, he swung open the door of his pampered 1964 TR4 and extricated his long-limbed body from the cramped driver's compartment with practiced agility. After disabling the alarm, he opened the door and got back in his car. The garage was so small that as soon as the TR was inside, there was barely enough space to open the driver's-side door. It was all he needed, though--spotlessly clean and secure. Long gone were the days when he would do his own car's maintenance. Minuscule as it was, the garage cost him a small fortune every month but he didn't begrudge a penny of it. The only alternative was a resident street parking permit, which, for his of all cars, would be a gilt-edged invitation to thieves and yobbos whowould think nothing of vandalizing it or ripping off parts. The car safely inside, he turned the key in the jimmy-proof deadlock, reset the alarm, and in ten minutes was walking across Cadogan Square to his two-story flat.
He went into the living room, picking up the mail from the doormat on the way. Dropping the letters and junk mail on the coffee table, he took off his jacket, draped it on the back of the sofa, and crossed the room to the butler's table that served as a bar. Opening a bottle of Macallan single malt whisky, he poured a liberal measure into a crystal glass, topping it off with an equal amount of water. On his way back to the worn leather sofa, he pressed the PLAY button on the answerphone, put his drink down next to the small stack of mail, and sank back into the bosom of the sofa. He sat, legs outstretched, staring at the ceiling, waiting for the tape to rewind.
"Hi Lawrence, it's Sally." Kingston tilted an ear to the machine. "Just a reminder about Andrew's birthday dinner Friday night. Benihana, seven thirty, okay? Bye."
Kingston took a sip of the whisky and reached for the top envelope. A short beep and then a young man's voice: "It's Dave at Bell's Appliances--Tuesday, 'bout three o'clock. Wanted to let you know we got the part for your vacuum. Okay?"
Kingston opened the envelope and pulled out the letter. It was from the Royal Botanic Gardens, Kew. He read the first couple of lines then stopped abruptly. Engrossed in the letter, he caught only the tail end of the next message. At first, the woman's voice was not familiar.
" ... The police have been round to see her and she's worried stiff. You know him as well as any of us, Lawrence--it's not like Dad at all. I'm going down on Friday. Could you call her, please--as soon as you can? I know she would want to talk with you. Thanks, Lawrence. Bye for now."
Kingston dropped the letter on the table, got up, reached for the answerphone, pressed REWIND, and remained standing while listening to the full message.
"Hello Lawrence, it's Sarah, Rebecca's daughter. Sorry to bother you but something awful has happened." Her voice was oddly subdued. It certainly didn't sound like the bubbly young woman he knew. "Mum called me about ten minutes ago. Dad's gone missing. Apparently he left three days ago to attend a conference in Bristol and she hasn't heard from him since--he never got there. The police have been round to see her and she's worried stiff.You know him as well as any of us, Lawrence--it's not like Dad at all. I'm going down on Friday. Could you call her, please--as soon as you can? I know she would want to talk with you. Thanks, Lawrence. Bye for now."
Kingston glanced at his watch, it was nine-thirty; not too late to call, given the circumstances. He picked up the address book next to the phone, found Stewart and Rebecca Halliday's entry, picked up the phone and punched in the numbers.
Becky Halliday answered after the second ring. She was clearly glad to get his call but her voice quickly lost all its energy. He listened without interrupting as she recounted, unable to hold back a sob now and then, a drawn-out version of Sarah's message. The upshot: still no word from Stewart, and the police, who had been in contact with her since day one, had no further leads. Stewart had simply disappeared.
"I think I'd better come down," said Kingston.
"I'd like that, Lawrence. I really do need someone to talk to." He heard another muffled sniffle, and this time it brought a lump to his throat. It pained him to imagine her, usually so self-composed and in charge, being thrust into such desolation. "I'm going round the bend here by myself." She hesitated. "Sarah's driving down from Shrewsbury on Saturday and my sister Margaret was supposed to come down," she said, her voice now a littlemore like the Becky he knew, "but wouldn't you know it, she's got the flu and doesn't know if she can make it now."
He could tell she was trying to put on a brave front. "I'll drive down tomorrow morning first thing," he said.
"Thanks, Lawrence, you're an angel."
"If you like, I can pack a bag, just in case you want me to stay over."
"Yes, I'd like that."
"That's settled. Should arrive about noon, I would imagine. Remind me--just after Fordingbridge, I make a left turn by the pub, as I recall."
"The Cricketers, that's right. We're about a half-mile up on the left. White roses over the front gate."
"Good. Until tomorrow, then."
He put the phone down and stood by the table for a moment, weighing the enormity of what had just happened, wondering what logical explanations there could be for Stewart's disappearance.
Stewart Halliday and Kingston had been colleagues and friends for more than thirty years. They had first met at the University of Edinburgh where, in the early days, both of them were teaching undergraduate courses in plant science. In later years both had served on the board of the Royal Botanic Garden, Edinburgh. In those days, Becky and Kingston's wife, Megan, had also become close friends and the four of them had shared many wonderful times together--on one occasion, a ten-day vacation in Cornwall. Later, when Megan was killed in a freak boating accident, Becky had been Kingston's proverbial pillar of strength. Without her ability of being able to fuse compassion and resolve, his recovery would have taken twice as long. When Kingston moved to London,the three of them had drifted apart but more recently, whenever Stewart came up to London to visit his older sister, who was in a nursing home in Putney, they would get together for lunch.
When Stewart had retired, some three years after Kingston had packed it in, he and Becky had moved to an early-nineteenth-century farmhouse called The Willows, near Fordingbridge on the edge of the New Forest. Becky made no secret that they'd spent a mint in restoring it and would chide Stewart in a playful way for being so penny-pinching about the remodel. He was good about it, though, letting her have the final say on most of the decision making. When it was all finished, even he agreed that it was money well spent.
Like many retirees, and fitting for one who had spent the best part of his life teaching and lecturing on plant biology, gardening quickly became the center of Stewart's new life in the country. Over the years he had transformed the original barren space at The Willows into a showplace. With its central lawn, wide perennial borders, roses, box and yew hedging, vine-covered arbors, a small orchard tucked in one corner, and good-sized pond, the one-acre garden was typical in its "Englishness." The garden was Stewart's domain, the house, Rebecca's--a seemingly happy arrangement for both.
On the drive down, Kingston tried to recall when he was last at The Willows. It had to be at least three years ago. Or was it four? He hadn't seen either of them since then. It had been Stewart and Becky's thirtieth anniversary, that he did know. He remembered giving them an antique Meissen porcelain figure of a drummer boy. The weather had been quite dreadful that weekend but one of the unforgettable highpoints was Stewart's collection of hellebores in full bloom--huge clumps of them. The dusty red, cream, and pink blooms of the Ballard strains with their starry bright yellow stamens were show-stoppers. Those and the ruby-blossomedflowering quince were the only color in the garden at that gloomy time of year. It would be interesting to see how the garden had matured since that time.
Kingston slowed to make the turn at the Cricketers and in a couple of minutes pulled up and parked alongside the arbor gate festooned with snow-white clusters of Iceberg roses. It was mid-June and from what little Kingston could see of the garden, everything appeared to be going full bore. He got out of the car carrying his leather overnight bag, opened the gate and started up the path. Becky was waiting at the porch. She must have been watching for his arrival. They met at the front door.
"It's so good to see you, Lawrence," she said, with a wan smile, as they embraced. Kingston brushed her cheek with a kiss and then held her at arm's length, looking into her lackluster gray eyes. They said it all--a sad reminder of why he was there. "You, too, Becky," he replied.
Average in height, she was slight and fine boned, her hair shoulder length, dark and shiny, longer than he remembered. She wore little makeup and her only jewelry was a plain gold wedding band and a single strand of pearls that rested austerely on her black turtleneck sweater. She had changed little since his last visit. He followed her along the entrance hallway where the roughhewn beams brushed the top of Kingston's head, obliging him to stoop a couple of times. Passing a row of engraved botanical prints on the wall, he could smell coffee brewing, reminding him that Becky was, without question, the best nonprofessional cook he knew. She was one of those enviable people who made everything in the kitchen look so effortless. Stewart had once mentioned in passing that she had taken a Cordon Bleu course at the London Culinary Arts Institute. Pricey, but worth every penny, he had said with a wink, at the time.
With coffee, and scones baked by Becky, they sat across fromeach other in a sunlit conservatory off the living room, separated by a glass-topped coffee table. Painted antique wicker seating was plumped up with assorted pillows in a mix of understated colors, the limestone tile floor partly covered by oriental throw rugs. Anduze planters with arching palms added a leafy tropical look and a brass-ornamented baker's rack displayed Becky's collection of glazed terra cotta confit and oil jars. The open French doors gave them a full view of the garden.
For the best part of five minutes, clearly reining in her emotions but handkerchief at the ready, she related the events of the past three days. Kingston listened attentively, saying nothing until she had finished.
"This conference you mentioned, what was it about?" asked Kingston.
"I understand it was something to do with the ecology. Global warming, that sort of thing. I wrote it down somewhere if you'd like to know."
Kingston nodded. "Yes, I would--later, perhaps."
She paused to reach for her cup and saucer, and then, after a sip of coffee, she continued. "Since Stewart retired, I regret to say I never paid much attention to his academic activities. Not that there were many. To tell the truth, he's been called on less and less over the last few years. Ninety-nine percent of the time I could count on him being in the garden," she said, smiling wistfully, taking another sip of coffee. "Except when he was at the garden club, that is."
"Do you know if the police contacted the event organizers in Bristol?"
"They did. Yes." She shrugged and bit her lip to hold back the tears. "He simply didn't show up. That was all they said."
"If it's too painful to talk about it right now, I understand, Becky."
Her attempted smile quickly withered. "No, I'm fine," she said.
Kingston slowed the conversation by taking a longer than usual sip of coffee, lowering the cup gently to the saucer. "What about Stewart's office, phone numbers or messages, his calendar ?" he asked.
"I've been through his things and so have the police, and very thoroughly, I might add. They were here for a good three hours." She paused, resting her cup and saucer on her knee. "Not much in his datebook, which doesn't surprise me. A dental checkup, lunch with a friend, as I recall." She looked away momentarily. "Oh, yes, a service for the Jag and a reminder about repairing some plaster." She looked back at Kingston, frowning. "If the meeting was important, you would think he'd have made a note of it, wouldn't you?"
Kingston thought for a moment. "He could have had it committed to memory, I suppose."
She shook her head. "It's unlikely. Even Stewart would be the first to admit that his memory wasn't up to snuff. As a matter of fact, he was forever writing notes to himself. It became a joke between us, I'd find them in the damndest places, scribbled on those horrid, colored sticky things."
Kingston continued asking questions, trying to be solicitous and to not make it sound as if he were interrogating her. He knew he was probably going over the same ground the police had done already but there was always the off chance that, speaking to him, she might recall something now that she had overlooked earlier.
"Had he been acting any differently of late, any subtle changes in his behavior or habits?" he asked, at the risk of sounding like a shrink.
She returned her cup and saucer to the table. "No. The inspector asked the same question. Everything's been perfectly normal, as far as I can tell. Boringly normal, I might add."
She shook her head. "Lawrence, I didn't mean Stewart was boring. Though we both know that he's not exactly the life of the party. What I meant was that there's not much going on down here. One day is much like the next. So any changes, even small ones, tend to be even more noticeable."
"I understand, Becky."
"With me being gone three days a week, I was even less aware of what Stewart was up to."
Kingston raised his considerable eyebrows. "Are you working part time, again?"
"No. Last year I joined a local ladies' auxiliary--originally, more for something to do than anything else. We're part of the hospital here. I find it very rewarding."
"Well, good for you."
Her expression became pensive. "I suppose if I'd been home on those days and a trifle more attentive, I might have sensed that something was wrong."
"Hard to say, really. You can't blame yourself."
"I suppose not," she said wistfully. "Would you like some more coffee?"
"No thanks, I'm fine."
There was a brief lull in the conversation and when Kingston next looked at Becky, she was frowning.
"There was one thing--I didn't mention it to the police, I saw no reason to--but Stewart had mentioned a couple of days before he went missing that he was going to give you a call. He asked me to remind him."
"Did he say why?"
She shook her head. "No. It was just a casual remark. I didn't think much of it at the time. Why would I?"
"Hmm. This conference--how many days was it supposed tolast?" he asked, rubbing his chin. "I mean, did Stewart tell you how long he was going to be gone?"
"I believe it was three days but he said he was only going for the one day. Apparently, most of the lectures, panel discussions--you know, whatever they were talking about--were of no interest to him, only the one on Friday."
"We should find out the agenda for that day."
"I'm sure the police know by now."
"So, the last time you saw him was ... early on Friday morning?"
"Yes. He left at seven thirty saying he'd be back in time for dinner, which is usually around seven. We discussed how long it would take for him to get there. I said it was at least a two-hour drive but he thought he could do it in a lot less at that time of the day."
Kingston smiled. "If he's still driving the XK140, he probably could."
She nodded. "I worry about him driving that thing sometimes."
"After ... what? It has to be at least ten years he's had that car. I wouldn't worry if I were you. In any case, the police will certainly have checked all the hospitals along Stewart's route by now."
"They told me they already had."
Kingston leaned forward, placing hands on his knees. "At the risk of appearing nosy, Becky, would you mind if I took a look at his desk?"
"Of course not." She paused, then with a knowing smile said, "I see you haven't changed, Lawrence."
Getting up from his chair, he returned the smile. "As the saying goes, 'Man changes often but seldom gets better.'"
She led him from the living room down a short hallway to a small room that could only be a man's refuge. One entire wall was book-filled shelves. Books, magazines, folders, and sheaves of paperswere stacked on every available surface. Multicolored Post-It notes were stuck on a scarred oak roll-top desk that had its share of clutter. On the wall behind the desk were three framed diplomas and a couple of watercolors, all slightly askew. Kingston, a stickler for orderliness, was tempted to straighten them but held back. He looked more closely at one of the paintings. It was dreadful, even worse than it looked from a distance. He turned to Becky. "Did Stewart dabble in watercolors?"
"Yes, those are his."
"Hmm, he has a good feel for it. Yes, quite a nice touch."
Standing by the door behind him, Becky sighed. "It's quite a mess, isn't it?" Kingston nodded, taking in the small space. Even if he started poking through Stewart's things, what could he possibly hope to find that could further explain Stewart's whereabouts or what had happened to him? He turned to Becky. "Did you go into his computer?"
"Me? Good Lord, no! I wouldn't even know how to turn the damned thing on. The police did, however. Apparently, they didn't find anything worth mentioning--at least for now. One of their technical people is coming back to take out the hard drive--whatever that means."
"That figures," he mumbled.
Becky watched, saying nothing, as Kingston--more to give the appearance that he was at least doing something--picked absently through the pieces of paper strewn across the desk, glancing at some, discarding others. He opened the top drawer of the desk to reveal a mishmash of pencils, pens, paper clips, pads, Polo mints, and assorted office-type stuff. He closed it quickly and continued to poke around. After a minute or so he gave up and was about to join Becky at the door when he glimpsed the edge of a folded newspaper tucked under two magazines. It wasn't so much the newspaper but the all too familiar black-and-white checkerboardsquares of a crossword puzzle that grabbed his attention. Not any puzzle, though--he knew, without unfolding the paper, that it was The Times Saturday jumbo puzzle. He had been doing the mind-bending cryptic puzzles for as long as he could remember. What's more, so had Stewart. At one time they used to call each other every weekend to see who had solved the most clues. Rarely did either of them complete an entire puzzle.
Out of curiosity, he pulled out the paper to see how many answers were filled in. Not many--fewer than a dozen. He gazed around the small space one more time, not knowing where else to look or even what he was looking for. Remembering Becky's remarks about the entries in Stewart's datebook, he flipped through the pages for June:
Thursday, 1: Dental Appt.
Saturday, 3: Lunch with Jeremy--the Cricketers.
Tuesday, 6: Oil change/lube.
Friday, 9: Plaster needs fixing.
Then, scribbled directly under that: Fork.
Kingston stopped, his hand resting on the page: Friday, June 9, the day Stewart went missing. What did "Fork" mean, he wondered? It looked somehow odd, on its own.
"Any idea what 'Fork' means, Becky?" he asked. "You didn't mention it."
"Sorry. Yes, I saw that. The policeman asked me, too. I've really no idea. Maybe he was going to buy one--for the garden, I mean."
"That would make sense, I suppose," said Kingston. "How about Jeremy? Who is he?"
"He's our accountant. The police said they were going to talk with him."
Kingston took one last glance at Stewart's untidy office before closing the door behind him. He was wondering whether they should check to see how many forks Stewart already had in the garden shed, then dismissed the idea.
They went out into the garden. It was warm, though with the slightest murmuring of a breeze, and all around them was a heady confection of color and fragrance. "I must say, Stewart's done a marvelous job knocking this place into shape," said Becky. "I don't think you saw it when we first moved in. It was a wilderness, a total shambles."
"I didn't, no. It's exceptionally beautiful, there's no doubt about it. I wish now I'd brought my camera."
They walked in silence for a moment, Kingston admiring Stewart's well-chosen selection of plants overtaking the gravel path on both sides: catmint, lamb's ear, cottage pinks and several hybrids of hardy geraniums intermingled with other perennials.
Crossing the new-mown top lawn, its distinct grassy whiff still in the air, they passed under the long wisteria-covered pergola and down a shallow flight of stone steps to the lower lawn. Kingston looked up at the hanging clusters of lilac-blue flowers. "Gorgeous," he said.
"It is," Becky replied. "I only wish it would last longer."
Kingston nodded in agreement as they continued across the lawn, the pond on their left, demarcated by a curve of weeping willows. They stopped at the bottom of the garden, on the edge of the ha-ha, a deep ditch spanning the width of the garden intended to keep the neighboring sheep from straying into the garden, while at the same time maintaining an uninterrupted view of the landscape. The bucolic scene across the sheep-dotted pasture to the golden fields beyond made conversation seem superfluous. Becky broke the spell.
"That's the village of Stoke Magna, way over there," she said,shielding her eyes with her hand. "It won a prize several years ago as the prettiest village in Hampshire. We walk there, across the fields, for Sunday services, sometimes." She glanced at her watch then turned to face him. "Goodness, it getting quite late," she said. "I haven't even shown you your room. We redecorated it since you were last here. You'll be pleased, it's not quite so frilly." They turned and headed back to the house. "By the way, I booked the table at the King's Head for seven o'clock," she said. "The food's excellent. I thought we could have a drink here before leaving. We still have that bottle of your favorite whisky."
"Becky," he said, taking her hand. "I don't want you to go out of your way on my behalf. You have enough to worry about already."
She looked up at him with a forced smile. "We do have to eat, you know. I'm just sorry I'm not up to cooking right now."
Their table was ready when they arrived at the King's Head. Each with a glass of Vouvray, waiting for the first course--both of them had ordered the Waldorf salad--they continued to speculate about Stewart's disappearance and his odd behavior. Kingston did most of the talking, using his considerable way with words and soothing manner to try to convince Becky that there had to be a simple explanation for everything and, most of all, for her not to give up hope so early in the game. Soon, he became aware that he was starting to repeat himself and by the time the salads arrived, an unspoken consent was reached: Further discussion on the subject served no useful purpose. Throughout the remainder of the meal, Kingston kept the conversation from flagging with a recounting of the year that he had spent in Somerset, restoring a large garden for a young American woman who had inherited an estate there. Becky, of course, had read all about it in the newspaper but with Kingston's telling, it became another story entirely. The dinner ended with coffee and an updating of their respective daughters' lives and careers: Sarah and her new baby in Shrewsbury,where her French husband owned a successful restaurant, and Kingston's daughter Julie, who lived in Seattle and worked for Microsoft.
The next morning, after a tentative hug at the front door, they said their good-byes and Kingston drove off. Just before the turn at the end of the short street, he looked in his rearview mirror. Becky was still standing there waving.
He eased back into the leather bucket seat, ready for the drive home, and shook his head. He was none the wiser now than he had been when he'd arrived yesterday, as to why her husband should have suddenly disappeared without a word or trace.
THE WATER LILY CROSS. Copyright © 2007 by Anthony Eglin. 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. Martin's Press, 175 Fifth Avenue, New York, N.Y. 10010.