Ahead, twenty-nine Edgestone Road loomed. Once, its grounds had stood alone; reluctantly, over time, it had been forced into the lesser company of others. A caste within a framework of its own making, the grandiose dwelling’s pores had once oozed with majesty and pomp. Its lustre vanquished, the building’s chinked outer skin was now snarled in unkempt vine. The elites who had played, lived and eaten behind its walls would have become, for the most part, invisible scratches in footnotes to history had it not been for coin paying curious who walked in their past.
The Wolseley came to a stop in front of the museum. A woman who was weeding and planting in one of the front flower beds stopped what she was doing and looked up.
It had been a very long time since he had either spoken to or seen her. Still, Collier knew that the woman was her. Taking in a deep breath, he let it out slowly and sat back in his seat.
To say the surroundings had changed would have been an understatement. The long, winding, tree-lined drive to her home no longer existed. In its place was a residential neighbourhood packed with housing.
Collier had been aware of the financial short-falls that had short-circuited the rising star of the Moodie household. Except for the patch of land where the home stood, the City of Bournemouth had expropriated the remainder for an undisclosed amount.
Exuberant sounds of children from the nearby school grounds were refreshing to his ears as he exited the vehicle. There’s something soulfully cleansing and hopeful about their sound, he thought, while he waited for the others to join him.
“Ah? Yes, Captain Hall?” he replied, distracted. His gaze attended the route along which they had just travelled.
“Is there something wrong?” she enquired.
Collier’s reply was hesitant and thoughtful. “I hope not…but…I think we may have been followed. The car at the far corner, it parked shortly after we arrived and no one has exited.” The troubled expression on Captain Hall’s face forced him to look at her in an askance manner.
“Sorry, it’s not like me to mess up like this. Quite honestly, I did spot it when we exited the pub. But, I never much gave it thought,” she lied.
“Should I check it out, Gov?” Sergeant Snowden volunteered, moving in the direction of the vehicle.
Captain Hall’s outstretched hand stopped him. “I think it better we carry on with our business,” she interjected. “Don’t you agree, Inspector?”
“Can I assist you with anything?” Louise called out through the iron-rod fence. Tilting her head toward the sign on the gate she continued. “As you can read, we’re closed today.”
Collier glanced at Captain Hall and whispered. “Do you have any idea why Klaus Becker would have left the package here?” She shrugged. “We’re here on official business, Miss Moodie,” he shouted back before returning his attention to Captain Hall. “Don’t you think…considering the uninvited visitors…it might be wise to give me the rest of the code?”
“Planning for the worse, are you?”
“I recognize that voice. Official business, is it? And, what kind of official business would you be up after all these years, Sandy Collier?” chortled Louise, opening the gate and waiting for his arrival.
About to turn away, Captain Hall grabbed Collier’s arm. “The first five lockers touched only twice. That is, prime numbered lockers touched only twice.”
Collier smiled. “Got it. You don’t trust many, do you?”
“I don’t trust anyone?” she retorted with a cold stare. “The Sergeant here should stand guard.”
Collier nodded and he could see that the Sergeant agreed.
“Nothing’s changed,” commented Louise as she ushered them through the opened gate.
Astonished by her remark, Collier replied: “Louise, everything’s changed.”
“I meant…” Quickly, she dropped what she was about to say. “Follow me, then.” She led them along a path to a nicely appointed patio at the rear of the building and encouraged them to sit at one of the wicker seating ensembles that had an umbrella. “If the sun’s bothersome don’t hesitate, “she encouraged, indicating the closed umbrella. “I’ll tidy up and join you. I won’t be long.”
Collier watched her as she entered through a door that at one time only servants had used. Life takes curious twists and turns, he mused. He couldn’t deny, there was a part of him that wished he had stayed in touch. A tinge of sadness grabbed him when the door closed behind her.
Twenty minutes later she joined them carrying a tray of tea and goodies. She wore sandals and a flowered summer dress that rippled in the gentle breeze. This was in stark contrast to the boots, cover-all and headscarf under a wide rimmed hat she had worn earlier.
As she approached, the sun’s rays danced off the golden sheen in her freshly groomed hair. Barely a wrinkle creased the delicately formed features of her face. A pearl beaded necklace adorned her neck.
For a surreal moment, time stretched backwards for Collier. He could not take his eyes off her.
Placing the tray on the table in front of them, she sat in the wicker loveseat opposite. “I made those,” she said proudly, pointing to the cakes on the plate. “I guess a lot has changed, wouldn’t you say, Sandy?”
He smiled and nodded. “Gardening, too, I thought you’d be the last…”
“I know,” she interjected, “the last to be caught dead doing such a thing. Me too. But, my gardener got up and quit before Christmas.”
“Who was he? Maybe I can have a wee chat with him,” Collier replied. He could feel her eyes scrutinizing him.
“Your civility is insulting to me. And from what I know about you, and it’s quite a lot, demeaning to you. So, enough of your small talk, let’s get to why you are here,” she insisted. “You said earlier it was official business.”
Captain Hall, sensing Collier’s sudden discomfort, shifted forward in her chair and asked, “Klaus Becker, how do you know him?”
For a moment, Louise said nothing as her gaze shifted between them. “It’s best that I show you. Come inside.”
They followed her along a narrow hallway, past the washroom and bedroom, to an open area that contained both living-room and kitchen.
“Did you see where she went?” he asked.
Collier and Captain Hall glanced at each other in disbelief as they surveyed the room.
“I’d ask you to sit,” Louise called out, “but I think you’d need a map to find your way in and out of this labyrinth of furniture and what-nots. Stay where you are, I won’t be long.”
“I think…her voice came from somewhere over there,” Captain Hall chuckled, pointing in the direction she thought it came from. “Did you know she was a hoarder?”
“Not a sausage,” he replied. “I just hope you’ll have easy access to the vault.”
Louise’s hand appeared from behind a wall of mahogany furniture and Indian rugs waving some papers. “Got it!”
When she joined them, she handed Collier a dog-eared old photo. “As you can see that’s me and my brother, Reginald. Do you recognize the person beside him in uniform?”
Collier took the photo for closer scrutiny. Shaking his head, he handed it back.
“I’m not surprised. Quite dashing, don’t you think? I had a big crush on him, then. That’s Klaus Becker except I knew him as Peter Townsend. Before my brother, Reginald, passed away, he visited a lot. I guess that’s why Reginald did this.” She handed Collier a deed to the property in which Reginald had signed over ownership to Townsend. “The week before Klaus…I mean Peter…died in that explosion he signed it back to me.” She handed him the second document. “Now that surprised me. Mind you, our home had long since been turned into a museum and not much of the original property remained. As you can see,” she continued, sheepishly, “I attempted to save as much as I thought prudent to preserve the Moodie legacy.”
“Is there a vault or safe on your premises?” Collier enquired.
“In the museum section there is,” Louise replied. “Why?”
“Do you have access?” Captain Hall asked.
“Not to the safe but I do to the museum. It’s in the Co-ordinator’s Office. My key opens both.”
“Would you mind getting it and giving it to Captain Hall?”
A mischievous smirk appeared on her face and she said: “It’s right here tucked warmly and safely between my peaks.” She undid her necklace and handed the key over.
When Captain Hall left, Louise turned to Collier holding out her necklace. “Do you mind?”
“I’ve never been very good at doing this,” he said as he fumbled a few times before successfully placing it around her neck and closing the clasp.
“What happened to us?” she asked.
“Me. Lila. Everything. Do you remember telling me “focus on what you love doing, the rest will follow”?”
“I do. It was out on that patio in the loveseat where I was just sitting.”
“What I wanted to do wasn’t what you or your family wanted me to do.” He took her hands in his. “And, you didn’t see it. Or, didn’t want to see it. How could I have expected anything different?” He sighed and let go of her. “Like all youth, you were rebellious against your family. As was I against mine. We were just instruments in each others flight to independence. Our love…our infatuation…was its vehicle.” Movement outside the window distracted him. “Are you expecting someone?”
She shook her head.
Collier ran down the hall and outside onto the patio. Captain Hall’s voice yelled his name from inside the house. He had no time to react. The pain in his head was crippling. And he fell, uncontrollably, into a dark, inky deep well.