Read (2011) Only the Innocent Online

Authors: Rachel Abbott

Tags: #crime, #police

(2011) Only the Innocent (8 page)

‘Well, I could hardly help slaves, and as this all came to light when my father was alive, he thought of the idea and I’ve developed it from there. I called it the Allium Foundation.’

I love alliums. Then Hugo told me that they are part of the onion family. Did you know that?

‘I like the analogy,’ he said. ‘What starts off as a rather pungent, multi-layered bulb forces its way out through the ground with a strong and straight stem, culminating in a glorious and complex flower. I like the parallel with the girls’ families - what’s beneath the surface is not very sweet, but given some appropriate cultivation it has the potential for a beautiful result.’

I can only conclude from everything that he said that he is not only charming, but he is sensitive and compassionate. At this point, I was beginning to feel that I really shouldn’t have come. It was dangerous.

We set off for the restaurant, and it was all that I thought it would be; discreet, sophisticated and subtly decorated in relaxing stone colours. We were shown to our table, and Hugo quietly moved the waiter aside so that he could personally pull my chair out, making sure I was comfortably settled before he sat down himself. The waiter came back to the table with menus, but Hugo waved them away.

‘Tell me what you like, Laura? What sort of food gives you pleasure, and what wine do you enjoy the most?’

Nobody’s ever asked me this before, and I didn’t know where to start.

‘All right, why don’t you tell me any types of food that you don’t like?’

That’s a pretty short list, as you know, but as I talked I felt that Hugo was really interested in me. So I told him about the meals I’d eaten that I’d enjoyed the most. He prompted me from time to time with ideas, and after about ten minutes he called the waiter over and placed an order - without further reference to the menu.
impressive stuff. I was bowled over.

‘I’m glad you let me order for you, Laura. I consider it an honour to look after a lady, particularly one as beautiful as you are. I find these days that there are fewer and fewer women who are prepared to relinquish control.’

I have to admit that the idea of him controlling me flashed through my mind in rather lurid detail. Then I brought myself up short when he mentioned the dreaded two words…

‘My wife - and I am sure you are aware that I am married - considers it a personal insult to allow me any sort of influence over her decisions, and will disagree with me on principle solely to provoke me.’ He gave a slight smile.

Then he told me his secret, and it’s the reason that I can’t tell anybody - not even you. He’s getting a divorce, but he doesn’t want it to be public knowledge. He’s got a little girl called Alexa who he obviously adores, but the soon-to-be ex has agreed to joint custody. He’s already moved out. His mother died recently so he’s been able to return to the family home.

I didn’t know whether to appear sympathetic for the loss of his mother or regretful for the failure of his marriage. I did know, however, that I should try to hide the rush of excitement I was feeling. But his next words made it impossible for me to disguise my feelings.

‘I’m telling you this, Laura, because although we have only just met I feel very drawn to you. I was dazzled by you at the awards dinner, and you look absolutely beautiful today. I love your hair like that.’

I just looked into his eyes (dark blue, as I predicted) and I felt as if bubbles were racing through my veins. I didn’t speak. Obviously I’d stopped recording him as soon as we’d moved on from talk of the charity, but I think I can remember every word he said. At least, those that were about “us”. I think they’re etched onto my brain!

‘I would like to continue to see you, Laura, if you would permit it. Our meetings would have to be private, and it would have to be just between us for the time being, until the situation is a little less sensitive. But please be assured that I will treat you with the utmost respect and consideration.’

So that’s why I can’t send you this, Imo. Maybe you’ll never get to read it - it all depends what happens next - but I can tell you that for the first time in my life, I would have been happy to take a man home after our very first date!

With love, as always



Imogen reached the end of Laura’s letter.

She’d known all the facts, of course. She knew when and how they met, and she knew that Laura had been completely besotted with Hugo. But it was all so long ago, and so much had happened since. She was glad Laura had let her read this letter first, because it put everything that happened later into perspective.

For the moment, though, she didn’t want to read any more. She just wanted to sit back; to remember and to think. About the past, about Laura, about Will - but most of all, about Hugo.


There was no doubt in anybody’s mind that the body in the mortuary was indeed that of Hugo Fletcher, but the formalities had to be adhered to. Laura had quietly done as she had been asked, with no outward display of emotion. Having confirmed what they already knew, Tom had suggested that she come back to headquarters with him for a while before making the return trip to Oxfordshire. It seemed callous to send her away without so much as a hot drink.

Tom gently guided her into the shoebox that passed as his office, and took a seat facing her on the other side of his relatively tidy desk. There was a quiet knock on the door.

‘Ah, here’s the tea. It’s not particularly wonderful tea, I’m afraid, but it’s hot and wet. We do need to ask you some questions, but I’m sure you’d like some time to yourself so I’ll leave you in peace. DS Robinson, who you met last night, will come and take some background from you in a while. I’ll need to ask some more in-depth questions, but we’ll arrange a car back to Oxfordshire for you, and we’ll follow on later today, if that’s okay.’

Laura spoke quietly.

‘Could we start the questions now, please? I’d rather get it over with, if you can spare the time.’

‘Unfortunately, I have something else that I need to do at 8 o’clock and I’ll be a couple of hours.’

Tom was surprised at the directness of the gaze that Laura Fletcher gave him. Although wearing glasses today, Tom could see her eyes were no longer red from weeping, and whilst she was still quietly spoken there seemed to be a new determination in her demeanour.

‘Detective Chief Inspector, as you appear to have about fifteen minutes before you must leave - I presume to attend my husband’s post-mortem - do you think we could spend that time going through what you already know, please? I was too shocked last night to respond, and I want to help in any way I can.’

‘If you’re sure you don’t want a few minutes alone, Lady Fletcher?’

‘No, thank you. What I’d really like is for this all to be over as quickly as possible, and if you don’t mind I would prefer it if you would call me Laura. I never really wanted a title, and now that Hugo’s dead I’d really like to rid myself of the formality of it all. Not too many years ago,
called me Laura - from the milkman to my clients. Now it’s the most difficult thing in the world to get past the bloody title.’

Slightly surprised by Laura’s tone of voice, Tom decided to give her some time whether she believed she needed it or not. Why was she so different today? he wondered. He could only imagine it was because she wanted to get any questions out of the way to give herself space to grieve.

‘Okay, Laura it is. Please call me Tom. I’ll go and find DS Robinson - Becky - and we’ll spend the next ten or fifteen minutes filling in some gaps. Excuse me for a moment.’ He left her with her cup of tea and went to have a quick word with Becky to discuss interview tactics, but also to alert her to the change in Laura’s manner.

But by the time he returned to the office with Becky, Laura’s veneer of determination had seeped away, and she seemed to have retreated into herself once again. She was sitting perfectly still, gazing at nothing, her mind clearly miles away. Tom moved around to the other side of the desk and took his seat, while Becky pulled up a chair to the side. Laura turned to look at Tom, and for a moment seemed surprised that there was anybody else in the room. She appeared to mentally shake herself, straighten her back and square her shoulders, as if to do battle.

‘Okay, Laura. I’m going to bring you up to date with what we know at the moment, and please feel free to interrupt. When we come to Oxfordshire we’ll need to look through Sir Hugo’s things, and try to see if there is anything that would point to a motive.’

‘That’s fine - but please just refer to him as Hugo. He would hate it; titles were something of a family obsession. But he’s not here to know any different, is he?’

If he thought she was difficult to read last night, today it was impossible. It was as if she’d built a wall around her grief, which she determinedly reassembled each time it started to crumble. And now she was using antagonism against her dead husband to strengthen her defences. But anger against the deceased was a natural reaction in the early stages of grief, and Tom was more than happy to drop all formalities if that made her more comfortable.

‘We know that Beryl Stubbs found your husband - Hugo - at about 12.45. That’s an approximation, but she was too upset and shocked to phone it in until about 1.45. The local police arrived on the scene just before 2 pm. We estimate the time of death to be between 11.30 and 12. Mrs Stubbs probably arrived less than an hour after your husband died, and if she hadn’t missed the first bus because of an argument with her husband, she would probably have interrupted the scene.’

Tom smiled to try to take the edge off things a little.

‘Beryl likes to blame her husband for just about everything, but on this occasion he may possibly have saved her life.’

Laura had once more gone very pale, the hard facts of her husband’s death no doubt breaking through her carefully constructed barricade.

‘Do you want more tea, Laura,’ he asked with concern.

‘No, I’m fine thanks. Please carry on.’

‘Okay. We have one eyewitness, a neighbour who saw somebody leaving the house.’ Tom paused. This was never an easy thing to tell a wife. ‘I’m sorry, but this might be a little painful for you. The person he saw was a woman. She had long red hair and was wearing a black leather skirt, carrying a large shoulder bag. Do you have any idea who this could be?’

He paused and looked at Laura. She tilted her head back and looked at the ceiling, biting her top lip as if to prevent it from trembling. And it was about to get even more difficult.

‘I’m sorry to tell you that there are indications that the murder may have been sexually motivated, so finding this woman is crucial. I know this must be very difficult for you, Laura, but any suggestions you might have would be really useful.’

‘You know about my husband’s charity work. He dealt with a lot of women, so perhaps it was one of them. It doesn’t sound like anybody I know. I’m sorry. I can’t help.’

She hadn’t been able to look Tom in the eye when she answered, choosing instead to lower her head and stare at a pile of files on his desk. Which was worse? he wondered. To know exactly who it might be and not be surprised, or to have no idea at all, perhaps not even realising that other women - or at least another woman - featured in her husband’s life.

It was Laura who broke the uncomfortable silence.

‘Have you discovered how he died?’

‘We’re not certain yet, but we’ll know more later this morning and I’ll certainly keep you informed.’

Tom paused as he considered how best to phrase his next question.

‘Your guest last night, Laura - if I remember rightly she is your sister-in-law. Is that correct?’

‘Ex sister-in-law to be precise. She was married to my brother, but they’ve been divorced for a long time now.’

Tom nodded.

‘You seemed very shocked and angry at her appearance.’

This wasn’t the time for closed questions. He wanted more than a monosyllabic answer, but he could see that Laura was considering her words with care.

‘Imogen and I were the closest of friends for many years. But we argued when she and my brother were divorced. She hadn’t been to Ashbury Park since that time, so she was the last person that I was expecting to walk through the door. She lives in Canada and I had no reason to expect her. It was a surprise, that’s all.’

Tom knew it was more than that, and he wasn’t about to let it drop. But he would choose his moment, and this wasn’t it. There was a lot of other ground to cover.

‘Earlier you mentioned your husband’s charity. Anything you can tell us about any aspect of your husband’s life, in particular the charity side, would be really helpful. We’ve managed to track down the staff from the office in Egerton Crescent. We’ve spoken to Rosie Dixon and Jessica Armstrong, and one of my colleagues met a Brian Smedley, who we understand is the Chief Financial Officer of the property company. I know he is based in the offices in East London, but I gather he came to Egerton Terrace to see Hugo a couple of times a week. We need to interview all of them in much more detail of course, but it would be really useful to hear about the charity from your perspective.’

‘I’m afraid that I didn’t have much to do with his charity work. I tried to offer my services in the early days of our marriage, but Hugo preferred me to be at home looking after the house, so I can only give you an overview.’

‘It seems a pity you weren’t involved more,’ Tom said. ‘I’m sure you would have been a very valuable asset.’

‘I thought so too - but there we are. It wasn’t to be.’

‘An overview is fine, then’ Tom said.

‘Hugo’s father originally started the charity many years ago, but only locally in Oxfordshire. Initially the aim was to help young girls who had to leave home as a result of family abuse and who had ended up on the streets. They saw prostitution as the only way that they could survive. The charity focused on girls who were technically old enough to leave home with their parents’ consent - although most of them actually didn’t have it. They investigated each case, but if the girls really couldn’t return home the charity arranged for the necessary parental permission - I’m not sure what subtle threats were issued if the abusive parents were difficult about it. Then the charity would find families for the girls to live with, and jobs too - as home helps, or in cafés or hotels. It gave the girls time to get back on their feet, and the families that took them in were helped financially too. Then the girls were given a lot of assistance to make them strong enough to make their own way in the world.

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