When Paul arrived at Naomi’s house the next morning, he had an odd feeling, almost as if someone was waiting for him there, checking him out and sizing him up. He checked his back carefully while he was locking his car and found he was right – out of the corner of his eye he saw a shadow move very fast and disappear into the alley between the houses opposite. He decided to do some reconnoitring once he was done interviewing Downey and rang the bell.
Naomi was glad when she opened the door and found only the younger detective on her step. He had seemed nice yesterday, not as hostile as his older colleague, plus he had the nicest light green eyes she’d ever come across. However he didn’t look too friendly this morning, in fact he looked distinctly grumpy and in need of sleep.
She tried what usually worked with men in this mood: “Good morning, detective, I’m just having breakfast, would you like to join me?” She looked lovely in the morning, Paul had to admit, her curly dark hair slightly tousled in an untidy bun, her violet eyes clear and fresh. No, concentrate! Now she was moving the door ever so slightly, bringing the scent of toast and fresh-ground coffee to the door. His stomach growled.
She smiled. “That sounded like a yes. This way please.” She led him to the kitchen that was part of the biggest room in the house, covering most of the ground floor at the back of the building.
When they had picked her up the day before, they hadn’t gotten past the hall, so Paul was curious about the house. His first impression of the room was light: not only was the back wall facing the miniature garden almost completely made up of windows and French doors and the floor a light greyish brown wood, but the dominant colour in furniture was also white. White wooden bookshelves made up the wall opposite the windows and white shelves also framed the fireplace above which she had hung a painting – probably a Bloomsbury original from the look of it. The only spots of colour apart from the painting were provided by the two small antique pieces and the most striking feature of the room – a big square oriental carpet in blues and greens. A comfortable light coloured sofa was the only other bit of furniture in that area.
The room’s other main feature was a huge cherry-wood dining table with a series of mismatched antique chairs, that took up the middle of the room. She had laid a place for her own breakfast there, but half of the table was covered with stacks of paper. Apparently she liked inviting people for dinner. This impression was confirmed by a well-equipped kitchen, which also looked as if it was not for decoration purposes only.
Naomi was at the stove. “How do you like your eggs, fried or scrambled? I don’t have any bacon, I’m afraid, vegetarian, you see, but you can have mushrooms and tomatoes.” She raised an enquiring eyebrow at him, one hand one the fridge door.
“Sorry, didn’t catch that.” A sweet smile.
Paul cleared his throat. This was not going as he had planned it – at all. He shook his head, trying to get rid of the charm of her violet eyes. “Just a cup of coffee, please.”
“Don’t be ridiculous, I heard you, you must be starving. Do you think I’m going to poison you? Like that’s going to clear me from suspicion of killing Jeff with my bare hands!” She held up her hands to him, small and white.
His head started swimming and his answer came with more force than he’d planned. “Can we come to the point, Ms. Downey? And, yes, since you raised the subject that was exactly what was on my mind.”
She looked at him incredulously. “Do you mind if I continue breakfast while you accuse me of foul murder then? By the way, poison would be easier to hide in black coffee than in mushrooms and eggs, you know. How do you want your coffee?”
“With milk and two sugars”, he growled, then started to laugh. It was hard to stay angry with her looking like a rather fierce kitten about to explode.
“Take a seat,“ she offered and sat down herself to start on a bowl of muesli with yoghurt and fresh fruit.
Another noise made its way from Paul’s stomach – traitor! – and his bad mood came back.
“You know, Stan will dismiss anything you get from talking to me without him present as police harassment?” She said conversationally, taking a sip of coffee.
That raised Paul’s hackles. “Ok, Ms Downey, you must have quite some experience with situations like these, what with so many “accidents” happening around you, don’t you?”
“What do you mean?” That was a new approach. What had he found?
“Oh, come on, surely you must have noticed something, what are you, some kind of Typhoid Mary?” Paul felt as if he was watching himself from afar. Whatever was going on with him, this was not an accepted interrogation tactic as taught by Quantico.
“Are you quite sure you’re not suffering from low blood sugar? You’re not making sense!” Wary.
“Well, let’s see, shall we?” He pulled his notebook from his pocket. “’92, you’re in Oxford, two boys from your hall go mysteriously missing only to turn up… rather dead after two months.” Those injuries that could be told after the long interval had been similar to Lynd’s.
“So? Lots of students were in Oxford at the time, so were 90,000 other inhabitants, checked all their alibis? I had nothing to do with those jerks, didn’t even have a single tutorial with them.”
They had been living on the same floor with her and one of them had started chatting her up, but she hadn’t liked the look of him. Besides she had just been recovering from a bout of love-sickness and was not prepared to get into trouble again at the time. When they disappeared, and later again when they were found dead the police had questioned everyone in the hall, including her. That had been her first experience with the police. She hadn’t liked it.
“’94, your supervisor turns himself in as a paedophile and hangs himself in jail after going out with you for a year.”
Yes, she remembered that. He had rather suddenly broken off the relationship, which had been better anyway; it had definitely been unprofessional. She had been deeply embarrassed when the police had questioned her, but she could tell them nothing about any unusual sexual preferences of the man. The accusation had been as damning as it was surprising. But why did that come up now? She was irritated. “First, he went out with lots of students, second, we’d already stopped going out together and third, do I look like a child to you?”
Paul sighed silently. Not at all, but I don’t want to be thinking about that right now. He pushed on: “’96, Ithaca, you’re the only girl who survives a date with the Cornell Ripper, who dies in a crash when chased by the police.”
“Eh, I was not in the police car, I can assure you of that.” That incident had been the strangest so far. The man had been absolutely charming, had taken her out on a date to a fancy restaurant – his usual method, as the police told her later – but then never even called her back, which definitely was not his method with his other victims. After the car chase all her friends had been joking about her guardian angel doing overtime and had told her to take it easy on the dating for a while. She had complied, deeply shaken. Stan had been livid – she could hear that on the telephone when she told him the story – telling her that that’s what she got for not having her dates vetted by him first.
While she was still reminiscing Paul Usher continued. “Things quieten down for a while, you get married, only to return with a vengeance at you husband’s death in 2003.”
Not again. She reacted quite forcefully to this remark. “That’s ludicrous! Are you mad? How am I supposed to have anything to do with that?”
Paul was all non-committed charm. “I don’t know. All I’m saying is I find it pretty surprising the insurance paid up with your history of people dropping dead around you. I assume it’s the insurance money you live on and not your wages as a university teacher.” He looked around pointedly. King’s College wages did not usually cover this kind of accommodation in South Kensington and the top of the range kitchen equipment he saw around him.
“Hey, can you rein in your wild fantasies? You should be writing fiction. I was widowed in an accident, and yes, I got a lot of money from the insurance – which was actually a good thing, being as my husband’s firm was about to go bust. For your information: we both had equal policies out, so he would have profited the same had I been the one who died.”
Which at the time had seemed the far more likely option: weakened and depressed from two failed pregnancies Naomi had been on the point of killing herself quite often. She had been taking lots of medications without any results, and basically it had been Robert’s death that had shaken her out of her almost catatonic state and served as a springboard to restart her life.
“Yes, I was just coming to the policies. Maybe it would interest you to learn that soon after the insurance agent, who sold them to you, was found missing and – when he turned up again half a year later in the Caribbean – spouted some strange tale about how he’d won the lottery and decided to go for the good life of rum punch and beach.”
Naomi looked at him pityingly raising her eyebrows. “What are you saying? I bribed an insurance agent into selling phoney policies and then climbed on top of a crane in a thunderstorm to make sure that when the weight came down it would squash my husband whom I’d somehow conveniently hypnotized in staying put under the contraption?”
Paul shrugged his shoulders. “All I’m saying is that there are a lot of coincidences happening around you, all of them connected to rather violent death.” He had to admit to himself though that the insurance company’s internal investigation had proved that R. Downey’s death had been an unfortunate accident with which his wife could not possibly have had anything to do and that the policies had been in good faith. There had even been a memo – confidential of course – stating that the whole investigation would have made a lot more sense if it had been the wife who died.
Naomi was lost in thought. She was remembering the rainy autumn evening years ago when the insurance agent had come to their house. Robert had called him and made the arrangements, but even through the haze of the drug-induced stupor of those months she could recall how oddly nervous the little almost bald man had seemed. He had brought along not only the papers Robert had asked for but also the policy doubling the sum in case of accident. She remembered with disgust his sweaty handshake. In fact, he had seemed frightened out of his mind and she had been very reluctant to sign her name to anything this man proposed. It was really ridiculous to imagine Mr. Green enjoying himself in the Caribbean. She chuckled.
“Why? What’s funny now?” Paul was all ears. She had a nice laugh.
“Nothing really, but if you’d ever met Mr. Green, the insurance agent, you would find the idea of him on the beach funny too. If you don’t have any further questions though, I’d rather be leaving for work now. Just out of interest, why do you suppose I murdered Jeff?”
Paul shook his head at her. “You tell me.”
“Sorry, I can’t do that, my solicitor would kill me for ruining his job. Have you contacted Jeff’s parents about the funeral yet?”
“No, the body’s not ready to be released anyhow,“ Paul was trying to think of a way to prolong his stay. “Do you need a lift to anywhere?”
Naomi blinked. This man was really irritating: Aggressive and hostile one minute, then going out of his way to be friendly the next and confused like a schoolboy.
“No thanks,“ she was gathering her bags together to get ready to leave.
“Are you moving?” Paul eyed the two shoppers, backpack and laptop.
“No, not really. The university just doesn’t give you much room to work if you’re a mere lecturer, so I do most of my marking here and my research in libraries in town, hence the flight to Egypt scenario. Oh, could you catch… sorry!” The laptop had just hit Paul’s shin. She flinched. Now she had gone and attacked a Scotland Yard detective.
“Don’t be silly, I’ll drive you to the Strand.” Paul picked up part of the baggage and started moving.
It was a quiet drive to King’s College, and only when Paul’s stomach started growling again, did another chuckle erupt from Naomi.
“So, am I not supposed to leave town at the moment?” she asked innocently when they had almost arrived.
“Why, were you planning that?”
“Not really. Thanks.” Naomi got out of the now parked car. “You ought to drive off right away, the traffic police around here are quite punctilious,“ she warned him with a smile and left, walking purposefully toward the building shouldering her considerable baggage without problems.
Paul frowned, then turned the car and made his way to the Yard.
In an office in another town the telephone was answered impatiently. “Have you found them?”
“Why are you calling then?”
“Bad news. We’ve just heard that a detective called Paul Usher is involved in the investigation. Could that be a relation of George Usher?”
“How should I know? Who is he?”
“I better check that then. Do we still have our contact inside the Yard?”
“Of course. Don’t you have better things to do with your time?”
“Trust me. If he is, we have a serious problem called MI6.”
“I don’t understand.”
“That is because you’re new at the firm and you did not really pay attention to what Lynd said he had found. Think, then you’ll understand the problem.”
His partner did not like being talked to that way. “You’re paid for solving problems, not for enumerating them.”