She said, “It’s gone!”
I was sitting on her red, fern-embroidered sofa, a cup of tea in my hand. On the small coffee table in front of me lay a china plate piled high with enough biscuits for ten guests. Bookcases towered around me, wall to wall and floor to ceiling, each one stacked with books by the thousand; vintage cloth-bound editions rubbed shoulders with lurid paperback thrillers; ancient, moth-eaten novels sagged between modern, glossy hard-covers. She had not lied when she’d said she was a great reader. To me, it seemed like she must do little else. How she’d managed to read every word of every book, and still have time to eat was a mystery.
On every other conceivable surface, where there were no books, there were frogs. Frogs in china, plastic and glass; frogs in tin and brass and porcelain; frogs painted and collaged and carved in wood. Small frogs, large frogs, frogs of green and yellow and striped; frogs with national flags on their backs; frogs in boats and frogs on skates; they were everywhere I looked. I was scared to move in case I dislodged one.
She collected frogs, she’d told me with sheepish pride. Her collection had started in quite a small way. Only then her friends had started buying them for her at birthdays and Christmas, her family too. They’d made a point of it, of searching out new and interesting frogs on her behalf. Her son had worked for years for an oil company. He’d gone all over the world and every time he came home he brought her a new frog. Friends on holiday did the same. She had frogs from Malta and New Zealand, from Alberta and Armenia. She hadn’t the heart to tell them to stop, she said, they looked so pleased with themselves. Made quite a thing of it, her son did, presenting her with a new frog for her collection. Took an awful lot of dusting, she confided; but she just couldn’t say no, could she?
Her name was perhaps the most unlikely thing about her. It was Lavinia Loveday. “Blame my parents for the first and my husband for the second,” she’d told me. “Makes me sound like I write Romances don’t you think? The kind with day-glow covers.”
Now she was standing in the doorway, telling me she couldn’t find the bit of paper that held the details of Avocado, another one with an unlikely name. She was very anxious. Her eyes were wide and worried, and she was holding the door so tightly so that the bones showed white at her knuckles.
“It’s gone. I can’t understand it. I know I put it there. I distinctly remember putting it there.”
“Oh,” I said. I guess I could see why she was so anxious. Once past seventy people worry about forgetting. I imagined that even something small could loom large, not for the thing itself that was lost, but as a sign; a sign of increased forgetfulness; the possibility of dementia or Alzheimer’s disease; an omen of things to come. I understood and could sympathize. “It’s ok,” I said, “really. Don’t worry about it. I expect it’ll turn up.”
She waved this away. “No, honestly, I remember putting it in that drawer. I know I did because I remember how it looked, how the things were lying. All the other bits and pieces are still there but the bit of paper he gave me is gone. Vanished.” She shook her head. “And I know you’ll probably be thinking, ‘poor thing, she’s lost it’, but I know it was there.”
“Right,” I said. I meant to sound sympathetic but she took it the wrong way and frowned, sitting down in the armchair opposite and taking a bite out of a biscuit in a dejected manner.
“Truly, it’s gone. If I had a bible in my hand I would swear on it. What do you say to that, detective? The case of the missing insurance details.”
“I believe you,” I said. “Honestly.” Perhaps she had lost it, perhaps not. The night before I’d been beaten until I could hardly stand by a gang who then disappeared from right in front of me. If they could manage it then why not everything else? “Mrs. Loveday, maybe there’s another way you can help me find this man. Do you have a directory? Maybe, if we look through the ‘A’’s, you might see the name. Would you mind?”
She didn’t mind, so we got the phone book and poured through it. There were not many names that began Av.
“Avern, Avery,” she muttered. “Avon. No, I’m sure Avocado was nearly it. Because I straight away thought of the pears. And it was Italian or maybe Spanish.”
“Axtel, Axworth, Awad, Ayad, Ayers, Aystell…” I said. “Maybe it’s not listed. Are you sure it was Av? Could it have been an ‘f’ or a ‘ph’ even? Mrs Loveday?”
“I’m thinking,” she said sharply. She closed her eyes and I sat motionless, hoping she’d remember something, starting to wonder if it was all just a waste of time. The phone book was useless. I should go back to the hotel and start searching on the laptop.
Her eyes snapped open. She was smiling.
“Elm Mews House,” she said triumphantly. “That was the address.”