‘Do we know what was the matter with her, Becky?’
Becky had done her research. ‘We’ve contacted the hospital, but of course patient confidentiality prevents them from saying anything. Anyway, you’ll be meeting her in a couple of minutes - because we’re about to turn off for the airport. We’ve made good time, so she probably hasn’t even picked up her bag yet.’
‘Let’s just hope the airline staff have done their stuff’
Laura indicated left, and swung her car abruptly from the main road onto the unlit lane that approached Ashbury Park. Slamming her foot hard on the brake, the car slowed to a crawl as she stared nervously at a strange white glow, lighting up the sky above the trees ahead. She cautiously turned the final bend towards the gates of her home, and was met with a shattering sight.
‘Oh, dear God,’ she whispered.
There was no escape. The hordes of press, hearing the deep hum of her Mercedes coupé, rapidly whipped their cameras round towards her. The television teams swiftly adjusted their arc lights to point at her approaching car, the bright beams penetrating the interior with their harsh glare, momentarily blinding her. It wasn’t unusual to see photographers at these gates, and she could practically taste their excitement. After all, Hugo’s fame and near celebrity status had virtually been built by these very same individuals, as he skilfully fed them just enough information about his work to maintain their interest.
But this was different. This was a feeding frenzy.
And there was only one way that she could gain access to her home. Hugo had insisted that the electric gates had a keypad opening system rather than a remote control. That way, he could change the code regularly. Remotes could be lost, or even sold to the highest bidder.
As she drew to a stop, she could do nothing to prevent the ruthless flashing of cameras from exposing her anguish, and as her window wound smoothly down so she could type in the entry code she heard frantic shouts from the press, each one trying to secure the best picture.
‘Look this way, Lady Fletcher.’
‘Have you been told the news yet, Lady Fletcher?’
‘Do you have anything to say, Laura?’ as if use of her first name would elicit a more favourable response. Yet nobody actually said what the news was. This in itself spoke volumes.
A multitude of cameras caught her look of utter despair as she wound up her window. She felt certain that this image would feature on the front page of several newspapers the next morning.
Manoeuvring the car as quickly as possible between the overgrown shrubs towards the front of her home, she was almost overcome with nausea. She knew the police would be waiting. They had the code to the gate for security reasons, and she was certain they would be at the house. What would they expect of her? It had been a long time since Laura felt that she could simply react instinctively to life.
So it was with a sense of surprise that she saw a solitary policeman standing as if on guard on the steps to the front door of Ashbury Park. He seemed small against the huge black doors. Glimpsing his face in the headlights, she could see he looked wary and uncomfortable, and was speaking urgently to somebody on his radio. It was evident that he was not expecting to have to do this job himself.
She pulled up in front of the steps. The policeman pocketed his radio and rushed down to open the door for her, but he was too late.
‘Lady Fletcher? I’m so sorry ma’am but we weren’t expecting you yet. At least, I was here just in case, but the senior officers are on their way. They went to meet you at Stansted, but ..’
Taking a deep breath, Laura interrupted in a voice quivering slightly from tension.
‘It’s okay, officer. Just tell me what’s happened.’
‘We tried to keep the animals at the gate at bay, your ladyship. There’s a press embargo until you’ve been told, and they know not to say anything. They didn’t say anything, did they?’
‘Enough. Enough for me to know that this is very serious. Tell me.’
‘Do you think we should go inside, ma’am, and perhaps wait for the senior policemen to arrive?’
Laura just wanted to get this over, and then to be alone as quickly as possible. She tried to control her mounting panic.
‘It’s my husband, isn’t it? If it were anything else, he would have called me. And he hasn’t. The reality can’t be any worse than I’m imagining, so for God’s sake just tell me. Please.’
The young policeman took a deep breath.
‘All I know ma’am, and I’m really sorry to have to tell you this, is that your husband was found dead at your London home some time earlier today. I realise that this must be deeply distressing for you. Would you like to go inside? Surely that would be for the best?’
Laura couldn’t trust herself to speak. She stared mutely at the policeman for just a few seconds, and then turned her back on him and walked towards the house without a word. It wasn’t his fault, but she couldn’t bear the thought of anybody being with her now. Forcing herself to place one foot in front of the other, she climbed the steps to the front door as if her legs knew what had to be done, even though her mind seemed to be a total blank. She felt as if she were somehow outside of her body, looking down and watching a performance - and a bad one at that. The policeman clearly hadn’t known what to say, and she hadn’t known what she should do, or how she should behave. A scream was hovering just below the surface, but she somehow prevented it from breaking through. She couldn’t fall apart yet.
As she reached the top step she heard an unwelcome sound. The press at the gates were out of sight, but a steady throbbing noise growing in volume indicated that a helicopter was fast approaching, and as she inserted the key into the front door lock, to her horror a huge overhead spotlight flooded the area, illuminating both her and the hapless policeman. The spell was broken.
She hurriedly turned the key, and pushed the door open, relieved to escape the probing lenses of the television crew overhead. Slamming the door with force, she leaned back heavily against it, and only then did she let the tears come. They flowed in relentless channels down her cheeks, but her weeping was soundless. Slowly, her legs gave out and she sank to the cold stone floor, her back still pressed hard against the door. She bent forward and rested her forehead on her knees, her arms tight around her head, trying desperately to stop herself from falling apart completely.
Her mind was filled with images of Hugo and how he’d looked the very first time she had seen him. How handsome and self-assured. And she had been as bright as a butterfly, flitting through life without a care in the world, loving her job, her family and her friends. How had it ended like this?
The silent tears turned to deep, wrenching sobs of regret, and she was still huddled by the door fifteen minutes later when she heard the unmistakable sound of a car racing up the drive, its door opening practically before the car had stopped. She heard muffled voices consulting with the policeman, but she couldn’t make out the words. Hastily she pulled a sodden tissue from up her sleeve - a habit that she had never been able to break even though Hugo always thought it was the height of unsophisticated behaviour - and wiped the tears from her face. She pushed herself shakily to her feet, and before the new arrivals had a chance to ring the bell, she opened the door.
Standing before her was a man who she guessed was around forty, dressed in a leather jacket, black tee shirt and jeans. She vaguely registered that he was tall with dark blonde hair that was slightly messy. She didn’t know how she expected a senior policeman to look, but it certainly wasn’t like this.
Having parked the car on the far side of the drive, a young dark haired girl in a conservative black trouser suit was quickly making her way across the gravel to the front steps.
As she stood in the open doorway, Laura felt herself swaying. The policeman leapt up the last two steps and grabbed her forearms gently but firmly.
‘Come on, Lady Fletcher. Let’s get you sat down.’
She saw the policeman signal with a flick of his head to the girl, who gently eased past them and disappeared down the hallway.
‘I’m so sorry,’ Laura said. ‘I’m not usually so pathetic. I’ll be okay in a moment.’
‘You’re not being pathetic. You’ve had a shock. Which way to your sitting room?’
Laura felt oddly relieved to hear a northern accent. It felt like a million years since everybody in her life had spoken like this. It was a reminder of an untroubled life.
With the policeman holding her right elbow, obviously fearing that she was about to keel over, she led the way across the stone flagged hallway to the drawing room. This had never been her favourite room, with its gloomy dark panelling and drab furniture, but it seemed the most appropriate to the occasion. The young woman had clearly found the kitchen, and was hovering with a glass of water in her hand.
The policeman guided Laura to a sofa and waited until she was seated, and the glass was placed on the table at her side. She was so cold, but although the fire was made up and ready to light, she felt no inclination to make the effort.
‘Lady Fletcher, I’m Detective Chief Inspector Tom Douglas, and this is Detective Sergeant Becky Robinson from the Metropolitan Police. We’re expecting Detective Chief Superintendent Sinclair to join us, but he got stuck on his way to the M40. He’ll be with us in about ten minutes.’
The two police officers sat down on the facing sofa, and Tom Douglas took a deep breath. It was clear that he wasn’t enjoying this moment.
‘I’m so very sorry that we weren’t here when you arrived home, and that you had to run the gauntlet of the press out there. It must have been a very stressful experience, and I’m not at all surprised that you’re feeling a bit shaky. I know you’ve heard that your husband was found dead this afternoon in your London home, and you have our deepest sympathy for your loss.’
Laura closed her eyes and clamped her top lip between her teeth to stop it from trembling. She dropped her chin to her chest in a vain attempt to hide her lack of control. The tissue that had remained clutched in her hand was somehow torn to shreds in her lap. She had no recollection of doing that, and now her nose was starting to run. Bundling the bits into a ball, she attempted to wipe her eyes and nose. She felt a clean tissue being pressed into her hand, and knew she was being rude to not thank the thoughtful young sergeant. But she couldn’t bring herself to look at them, or to speak. She just held the tissue to her streaming eyes and nose.
The Chief Inspector began to talk again, and she tried to concentrate on what he was saying.
‘Police officers were called to the apartment in Egerton Crescent at around two pm following a call from a Mrs Beryl Stubbs, who had discovered your husband’s body about an hour earlier.’
She looked up sharply, her hands dropping to her lap.
‘Beryl? What on earth was
doing there on a Saturday afternoon?’
The sergeant answered.
‘She came to pick up her purse, but it was helpful having her there to be honest. She told us how we might find out where you were. We did try to catch you at the airport - there was supposed to be an announcement on your flight, but I gather you didn’t come forward. I’m sorry we missed you. We could perhaps have saved you some distress.’
Laura managed a barely audible response.
‘I’m afraid I slept all the way home. I didn’t hear any announcement.’
At that moment, the shrill peal of the doorbell shattered the quiet of the house.
‘I’ll go.’ Becky said.
Laura could feel the Chief Inspector’s eyes on her. But she said nothing. Not even when the sergeant and the DCS entered the drawing room did she feel able to speak. She simply gave a fleeting look at the new arrival, and then returned her gaze to her hands, which were tightly clasped around the now soggy ball of tissue.
‘Lady Fletcher, I’m James Sinclair. I do apologise for my delay in getting here. May I offer my sincere condolences on your loss. Your husband was a great man, and was much loved in this country and elsewhere in the world.’
Laura felt her body jolt at the policeman’s words.
‘I’m also sorry to say that the minute you drove through the gates it provided a signal to the media to go public. Given your husband’s profile, I’m afraid it’s bound to be given priority coverage. We’re informing Sir Hugo’s former wife, but is there anybody else that you would like us to notify on your behalf?’
Laura knew she should respond, but somehow the words just wouldn’t come. All she could do was shake her head.
‘I know that my two colleagues here have hardly had a chance to talk to you, but we will need to ask you some questions, I’m afraid.’
The DCS paused and glanced at his colleagues.
‘We still don’t know exactly how your husband died, but we do have to treat his death as suspicious. We’ll have to wait for the results of the post-mortem, but some new evidence has just come to light that strongly suggests foul play. You’re probably aware that the faster we act in such a case, the more chance there is of finding the perpetrator of this monstrous crime.’
Fighting hard to keep her feelings in check, Laura glanced up briefly. She was conscious that both the other police officers were looking at the DCS with interest.
At that moment, a woman officer pushed the door open and brought in a tray of tea. The conversation paused briefly whilst the tea was poured, and she was grateful for the respite. She needed to retain some vestige of self-control until they left, but at least the shaking had stopped.
James Sinclair was the first to break the silence.
‘I’m sorry Lady Fletcher, but we also need to ask you to identify the body. This is just a formality, but it has to be done. The post-mortem is scheduled for tomorrow morning. I would prefer you to see him beforehand, but that would mean you coming in first thing.’
‘I don’t sleep much, Chief Superintendent. Just tell me where and when.’ Laura felt herself fading. The stress was wearing her out. She was keeping her emotions under control, but just barely. She just needed them to leave.