Read A Place of Safety Online

Authors: Natasha Cooper

Tags: #UK

A Place of Safety (3 page)

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Outside, the pavements around Leicester Square were almost as crowded as the wine bar.
‘Shall we go to the Garrick?’ he said, shivering and driving his hands down into the pockets of his dark-blue overcoat. He pulled a cashmere scarf out of one and thick leather gloves out of the other. ‘It may be a bit stuffy but at least no one flings wine over you there.’
This time Trish did look at her watch. ‘I wish I could, but I’ve got to be at the National Theatre in half an hour.’
‘Oh. Pity. Well, why don’t we walk in that direction? We can talk on the way.’
‘OK.’ Trish pulled the sides of her long black coat together and did up the buttons. It didn’t help much. The cold seeped up under the sleeves and through every seam. Stuffing her hands in her pockets, she wished she’d brought a scarf and gloves like his.
‘You must have asked your director why the trust needed the five million pounds,’ she said through clattering teeth.
‘Of course we did,’ Buxford said. ‘And at the relevant meeting, all the trustees accepted his answer – probably too easily – that there were a lot of unexpected costs coming up. It was only afterwards, when I looked at the bank statements, that I realized how much money there already was in the trust’s accounts. So then I asked him, privately, for a few more details.’ He paused again.
‘So,’ Trish said, ‘what did he tell you this time?’
‘That I was right and there was no immediate need for extra funds, but that the painting was a second-rate work the gallery didn’t need because we have a much better one, which is insured for ten million. He’d heard of a rich foreign buyer, who was in London for only a short period and was thought to be
prepared to pay over the odds for a de Hooch. His interest would undoubtedly push up the price of ours if it were to be put into the next old master auction at Goode & Floore’s, and it would have been madness to miss such an unusual opportunity. I’m not exactly quoting, Trish, but that was the gist of it.’
‘It sounds quite feasible to me. Why didn’t you believe him?’
‘Because it wasn’t the story he’d given us at the meeting. And because I’ve never seen a man look so frightened.’
‘Ah. I see.’
‘Yes. All the blood drained out of his face when I put my question, and his voice shook like an old man’s as he answered. He’s up to something, Trish, and I have to know what it is.’
‘Where’s the five million now?’
‘Still sitting safely in the trust’s account. I know, I know,’ Buxford said, although she hadn’t made any kind of protest. ‘If it’s still there, he can’t have stolen it, or used it to pay debts he’s been hiding from the trustees, or anything else of a nefarious nature. But he wouldn’t have been so scared if he wasn’t doing something he was ashamed of.’
‘Like what?’
‘I’ve no idea. And I need to know. I should have been more challenging at the meeting when Toby first told us about the proposed sale. It’s too late to do anything about that now, but if there’s trouble coming, I need to know so that I can deal with it before it blows up in our faces. I can’t have Ivan’s last years ruined by any kind of scandal.
Will
you help, Trish?’
‘I’d like to, but I’m not sure that I’m qualified. I know nothing about old masters or the art market. Not at that level anyway.’
‘Perhaps not, but you can spot a gap in documentary evidence quicker than anyone except Antony Shelley, and I’ll send you all the paperwork.’ Buxford smiled. ‘You can also make almost anyone talk to you, and without scaring them. Unlike me.’
‘Thank you. But I can hardly waltz in and ask your director questions about his Pieter de Hooch sale without letting him know that I’ve come from you and scaring him in spite of myself, can I?’
‘Of course you can, if you drop into the gallery early one weekday morning, when no one else is around. He’s bound to show you the paintings himself, because he loves doing that. You could get chatting that way.’
‘And while we’re chatting, I just casually drop in a question about what he’s planning to do with his five million pounds?’ Trish said. ‘Come on, Henry. He’d smell a rat at once.’
His eyes crinkled up again as he laughed. ‘I know you can be a lot more subtle than that, Trish. Don’t forget, I watched you in court with Nick Gurles last year. But if there’s a problem, you could always use your personal connection.’
‘What? I’ve never even met the man.’
‘His younger son is in your brother’s class at Blackfriars Prep. Didn’t you know?’
This time Trish didn’t even try to stop the frown.
‘They call him Mer, short for Meredith,’ Buxford went on cheerfully. ‘If you were to organize a joint family expedition, I’m sure you could get all sorts of stuff out of Toby without letting him have any idea I’m involved.’
‘No,’ Trish said, stopping in the middle of the pavement. ‘I can’t take that sort of risk.’
Buxford had walked three paces beyond her before he realized she wasn’t following. He wheeled back to stand in front of her. The light from a street lamp shone on his face, making it look glowingly innocent.
‘There’s no risk here, Trish. It’s only money. What are you afraid of?’
‘Anything that might make David’s life more difficult than it has to be.’
He looked so puzzled that she realized she was going to have to explain and tried to keep it short.
‘I only have him living with me because his mother was murdered last year and there isn’t anyone else to look after him.’
‘Trish, I’m so sorry. I had no idea. The poor child. Did he see it happen?’
‘No, thank God. She had a kind of warning and got him away in time. But that doesn’t stop the world looking like a very frightening place. He’s only nine.’
‘I understand. You don’t have to plead. All right, forget the idea of using him to get to Toby, and see what you can do just by going to the gallery. You will, won’t you? There’s no one I’d rather trust with this than you, Trish. And it’s important.’
They had reached the Aldwych now, and both stopped on the edge of the pavement.
‘Oh, OK,’ she said at last, looking up at him. ‘I’ll have a go.’
‘Thank you.’ A taxi lumbered up the Strand towards them, and Buxford summoned it with a brief, imperious gesture. ‘Let me know as soon as you’ve got anywhere,’ he said just before he slammed the door.
Trish’s face was tingling as she watched his taxi drive away. It wasn’t the cold, she thought, that sent the blood prickling under her skin, but the sense of having been dismissed as soon as she’d given him what he wanted. The lights changed and she stalked across the road, making her way towards the river.
London looked even more glorious than usual in the frosty darkness. If George hadn’t been waiting, she might have dealt with her crossness by idling along the edge of the Thames. But not tonight. He hated people being late. He’d once said in a burst of fury that it was the worst kind of selfishness. If she made him miss the first act of tonight’s play, he would go berserk.
 
 
Helen watched until Jean-Pierre was out of sight. The sun was a huge, bright orange disc in a sky that looked almost white. He had waited here at the inn until she came off duty again and then held her in his arms, barely moving, while she fell into sleep. Only when she’d woken of her own accord had he told her that he had to leave today. She had clung to him for a moment, then forced herself to let go. Now she had only her own body to wrap her arms around.
Jean-Pierre had told her that there was very little chance he would be able to get any messages to her while he was away. When she’d asked him where he was going, he’d laid his fingers across her mouth. His black eyes had been as gentle as his voice when he’d said:
‘You know I cannot tell you that,
ma mie.
But what I can tell you is that I have never loved a woman as I love you, and that nothing and no one will keep me from coming back as soon as I am able.’
Staring down the road after him, listening to the guns, she shuddered.
‘You’re a nurse,’ she told herself the next instant. ‘Control yourself.’
It did not take too long. Her eyes were dry again and her head was up as she walked into the ward to smile at her frightened patients.
‘And if it hadn’t been for the longbows, Trish,’ David told her on the way to school next morning, shouting against the wind that was roaring up the Thames from the sea, ‘the English would have been beaten hollow at Agincourt. But they were just so much more flexible than the French crossbows. And as for those knights with all their armour! Well, they just got stuck in the trees.’
‘Oh, I see,’ Trish said, wishing he wouldn’t offer her these streams of adult-sounding information whenever they were alone together. Was it to make sure she didn’t ask intrusive questions?
She had plenty of those, rattling around in her brain, but she had seen how much they distressed him when he had first come to live with her, and she’d stopped voicing them months ago.
The wind forced its way through the fabric of her clothes and slapped her face. She shuddered. David didn’t complain, but then he never complained about anything. He was the most cooperative child she had ever encountered, and it scared the wits out of her.
‘It sounds as though you’re liking this project better than last term’s Greek myth one,’ she said hopefully.
‘Yes, I do like it much more.’ He looked up with a shy, earnest smile that made her long to tell him he didn’t have to try so hard. There were tears in his eyes, but she knew they were
only the result of the wind. He had never cried in front of her since she had taken him to live with her, even when George shouted at him. ‘War’s much more fun than all those stories about families.’
That’s one way of looking at the Greek myths, she thought. Procrustes had no counterpart in her family, but David had seen things and felt things that were right outside her own experience.
He stopped to lean over the edge of the bridge, calling back against the wind: ‘Look, Trish. Look!’
She peered over his shoulder, to see three River Police launches bouncing around on the wind-stiffened waves. One uniformed officer was leaning over the side of his launch, apparently shouting, while two others conferred on the leeward side.
‘Something big must have dropped off one of the barges,’ Trish said. ‘They’ll have to get it out before it sinks one of the other boats.’
‘What if there’s already been a shipwreck?’ He hoisted himself up against the balustrade, showing enviable gymnastic skill, then turned to look at her. His eyes were huge. ‘D’you think they all drowned?’
‘No, of course not. Don’t lean over too far, David. There’d be bits of wood floating about, wouldn’t there? If a boat had already been damaged.’
A head bobbed up through the water, sleek and dark as a seal’s. Then a naked hand pushed up the diver’s mask and its owner said something to the nearest policeman. Trish and David were too far away to hear anything. After a moment the diver tipped himself down again. David laughed to see his flippers wave above the surface. Trish was glad to see his ideas about drowned bodies hadn’t spooked him.
‘He must be freezing. Did you see? He didn’t have any gloves.’
‘Come on,’ Trish said, tugging at David’s sleeve. ‘We mustn’t be late for school.’
‘No. I’m sorry.’ He dropped down from the parapet at once, bouncing a little as his feet hit the pavement, and he sped off towards the far end of the bridge.
She hoped it wasn’t just obedience that made him keen to get to the school she’d picked with such care. George kept telling her that the boy would be safer, and probably happier, at boarding school, but she didn’t believe it. She’d seen – and felt – enough of the emotional suppression George had had to impose on himself to deal with the shock of being sent away from home at the age of eight to want that for David. He suppressed far too much as it was.
‘Here we are,’ he said cheerfully. ‘Thanks for bringing me, Trish.’
‘I enjoyed it. And I like the sound of your new project. Maybe we should go to the Imperial War Museum one weekend. It might be useful.’
‘That would be great,’ he said. For once the black eyes that were so like her own showed real excitement. ‘I’d like that a lot. They’ve got a dugout, you know, from the Blitz. You can go in it and hear the sirens and the bombs. One of my friends was telling me. And a trench, too, from the First World War.’
‘We’ll definitely go, then.’
When she had seen him safely inside the school’s stout gates, Trish turned her back on her usual route to chambers, and set off for the Gregory Bequest Gallery. The sooner she got Henry Buxford’s odd little enquiry out of the way, the better.
She found the place without difficulty, a tall double-fronted eighteenth-century house, sandwiched between two hideous 1960s brown-glass-and-concrete office blocks. Originally it must have been part of a street or square of matching buildings, but there had been a lot of bombing round here in the Second World War and now it was the only one of its kind.
An engraved brass plate told her that the gallery was open on weekdays from half past nine until half past five, which meant there was still more than half an hour to wait. It was much too cold to hang about out of doors. Retracing her route to the nearest coffee shop, she ordered a large latte and took it, with one of the newspapers the place provided, to a deep leather chair.
Warmth soon transferred itself from the thick mug to her hands. Steam from the coffee also made her cold nose drip, which was less satisfactory. She sniffed, wishing she had a handkerchief, and opened the paper.
Half past nine came and went. It seemed mad to go out into the icy bluster again when she could stay here all morning. She remembered the police diver’s bare hands and told herself that if he could plunge into the water on a day like this, she could certainly walk a few hundred yards.
The glossy black door was still shut when she got back to the gallery, but that could have been to conserve heat. She banged the knocker and heard footsteps almost at once.
The woman who opened the door must have been in her early twenties. Her thick blonde hair was caught back in a velvet hairband and her black trousers and pink twin set looked expensive. She had ordinary little gold studs in her ears and a single baroque grey pearl hanging from a slender chain around her neck.
Sleek was the word for her, Trish decided. Sleek and rich. But then you had to be rich to work in places like this. The pay was always awful.
‘Come on in and let me shut the door,’ the woman said, shivering. ‘I don’t want to lose all the heat.’
Trish bought a ticket and an expensive catalogue to the exhibition.
‘I’ll just tell Mr Fullwell you’re here,’ the young woman said. ‘He likes to take people round himself, especially on their first visit. This is yours, isn’t it?’
‘Do I look that lost?’ Trish asked with a smile.
‘No. But I recognize most of the regulars.’ She giggled. ‘There aren’t all that many. If you go through that door on the right, you’ll find the Dutch pictures. I’ll get him down, and he can join you in there.’
‘Thank you.’
The large light room must originally have been the house’s main drawing room, Trish thought. Its walls, shutters and austerely carved cornice were off-white, and the floor was a warm honey-coloured parquet. Everything had been subdued to display the magnificence of the paintings. She was impressed.
She was even more impressed a moment later to see what looked like one of Rembrandt’s self-portraits. In spite of her careful disclaimer to Henry Buxford, she knew enough about the art world to be aware of the recent downgrading of a lot of supposed Rembrandts. There had been plenty of deliberate copyists, as well as artists choosing to work in his style, for centuries. Maybe this was a copy, too.
Peering at the label, she saw that the Gregory Bequest’s director was claiming the work as genuine. He had given the painter his full name and dates, and there was no suggestion of ‘school of’ or ‘after’ to water down the attribution.
Trish stood back again, to get a better view, and wished she knew more. This was an effective portrait of an elderly man, looking out at the world with a mixture of pity and dread. He had the familiar bulbous nose, brown stuff gown and soft white cap of other self-portraits she already knew from illustrations and exhibitions.
‘Wonderful, isn’t it?’ said a light male voice from behind her.
Trish swung round and saw the director smiling at her from the doorway. He was quite tall, maybe a couple of inches more than she was, which would have made him about six foot, and good-looking in a slightly droopy way. His well-cut pleat-front
flannel trousers were topped with a mid-blue sweater over a crisp white shirt. Large horn-rimmed spectacles balanced on the end of his nose completed the picture of elegantly casual European scholarship. As he moved, his dark-brown hair flopped against his broad pale forehead.
‘Marvellous,’ she agreed, wondering whether an image-consultant had advised him on his clothes. ‘I can’t think why I’ve never come here before. You’ve been open quite a few years now, haven’t you?’
‘Three. How did you hear about us?’ he said, giving her the perfect opening.
‘I read all the stuff in the papers at the beginning, when the collection was rediscovered,’ she said, ‘but somehow never got round to coming to have a look. It was the reports of the sale of your Pieter de Hooch that reminded me you were here. It must have been an awful wrench to sell something like that, even though all those millions must come in handy.’
‘Oh, absolutely,’ he said, showing no sign of anxiety, let alone the kind of fear Henry Buxford had described. ‘Now what would you most like to see? The collection is far too big to hang in its entirety, so there’s only a selection here. Even so, it’s probably too much for one visit. One can only take in a few pictures at once. This is obviously the Dutch room. The Italians are upstairs and the French across the hall. Where shall we start?’
He had a good smile, Trish decided, genuinely humorous and friendly.
‘Why not here? I had no idea there was so much. How could anyone have forgotten they owned it all?’ she asked to edge him back to what she needed to know.
He shrugged as he came further into the room. ‘It does seem extraordinary, doesn’t it? But it’s a wonderful story, you know. Jean-Pierre Gregoire, the man who built it up, was French.’
‘So I’d heard.’
‘His life’s work was to create a collection that would represent all the major developments in European art, and he scoured the Continent for the best examples before the First World War. How he beat Berenson and Duveen to some of them, I’ll never know. It’s tragic that they remained hidden for so long – and that he was killed before he could see them exhibited. There’s no justice, you know; there really isn’t.’
‘Except that the paintings did survive,’ Trish said. She was enjoying herself, which she hadn’t expected. ‘And, when you think about it, that’s amazing, given how much bombing there was round here. The whole lot could have gone up in flames in the Blitz, with no one any the wiser.’
‘Oh, don’t,’ Fullwell said, putting a hand over his heart as though to calm its racing beat. ‘I can’t bear the thought. Now would you—?’
A mobile phone began to ring with an irritating little jingle. His pleasant smile twisted into a grimace. Trish sympathized: she hated the endless interruptions of mobiles herself. Then she realized it was her own phone that was ringing and apologized at once. She grabbed it out of her bag and was about to switch it off when she recognized the chambers’ number on her screen.
‘This is one I have to answer. I’m so sorry. I’ll go outside.’
‘There’s no need,’ he said coldly and turned his back.
She wasn’t sure whether he was giving her privacy or signalling his detestation of the mobile menace.
‘Yes, Steve?’ she said into the phone.
‘We’ve had a call from your brother’s school,’ her clerk told her in a voice loaded with disapproval. ‘He’s been involved in a fight and they want you to call them straightaway. D’you want me to give you the number?’
‘I’ve got it, thanks. I’ll ring them now,’ Trish said. If David were hurt, Henry Buxford’s job would have to wait. ‘Mr Fullwell, I’m really sorry, but I’m going to have to go now.
May I come back another time, if I promise to keep my mobile switched off?’
‘I very much hope you will,’ he said, smiling again, as though to show that he’d forgiven her solecism. ‘There’s a lot here you would enjoy, and you haven’t had full value for your ticket. If you bring it with you when you next come, Jo will let you in again.’
‘How kind! I’ll see you again, then.’
Trish hurried out of the building, already pressing in the code for the school. The secretary answered before she’d reached the street and she was through to Hester More, the head teacher, a moment later.
‘Is he hurt?’ she said, without any kind of greeting.
‘David is no more than bruised,’ Mrs More said with her usual careful formality, which always sounded as though she was reproaching the rest of the world for its sloppy speech.
‘How did it happen?’ Trish couldn’t believe the gentle, cooperative child she knew could have got into a fight with anyone.
‘Neither of the adversaries is prepared to tell me, and it seems that no one else saw the fight start. I have, therefore, no alternative but to keep David in for a detention this afternoon.’
‘Only David? That doesn’t sound quite fair.’ Trish knew how hard he worked to stay out of trouble, and how much he would hate this. ‘What about the other boy?’
‘Unfortunately he has had to go to casualty.’
Shock made Trish stop moving. ‘David hurt him
that
badly? I don’t believe it.’
‘I am afraid you must. He’s had to have two stitches just above his left eye. It could have been very nasty indeed if David had caught the eye itself.’
‘But he didn’t.’ Trish had enough real worries without letting anyone implant this kind of retrospective anxiety in her mind. She walked on with the phone clamped against her ear. ‘And two stitches doesn’t sound too bad.’

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