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'The Long Call' Chapters 11 & 12

glass being topped off at bar with soda water

Illustration by Stan Fellows


Chapter Eleven

In the Woodyard kitchen, the working day was nearly over, the pans clean, the stainless-steel surfaces scrubbed. It was open to the cafe, separated by a counter, tiny with an oven and a hob on one side and a sink on the other. Matthew had been to the cafe often with Jonathan. The coffee was good and the cakes were better. A few lingering visitors were finishing tea. They passed Matthew on their way out as he was taking a seat at the table nearest to the counter. The chef, Bob, was a large man but nimble on his feet. Jonathan had once said that watching him at work was like seeing an elephant dancing. Miraculous. Bob hung a tea towel over the hob and looked at Matthew. ‘I expect you could use a coffee. I’m ready for one myself.’

Once the coffee was made, they moved to a table looking out over the river. ‘Is this about Simon?’

‘You heard?’ Matthew wasn’t surprised. Of course, the news would have spread through the place by now.

‘Saw it on the telly this morning.’ ‘He worked with you?’

The big man nodded. ‘As a volunteer. He was a lovely baker.

They taught him that in the army. Apparently, he did a couple of tours to Afghanistan. Soldiers have to eat like the rest of us.’

‘Of course.’ Again, Matthew’s perspective on Simon Walden shifted. Had the man been suffering from PTSD? Would that account for the mood swings and obsessions? ‘How did he come to be working with you?’

‘Caroline Preece asked me to take him on. Her dad’s on the board of trustees of this place and it’s not wise to upset Christopher.’

‘Why?’

Bob shrugged. ‘He’s a wealthy man and he’s used to getting his own way. He runs the board. And he dotes on that daughter of his. But Simon was okay. Not like most of the volunteers, who are pains in the arse. Chatty bloody women. He just did what was needed. I could leave him to get on with it. Some days he’d come in early — no fun on the bus from Ilfracombe — to start the bread. We do all our own baking. It would pretty well be ready when I got here. Saved me a bit of work.’

‘He didn’t drive?’

The cook shook his head. ‘He killed a child once. He never got behind a wheel again. You can understand it.’

Matthew thought Walden had confided in Bob more than he had the women with whom he was living. That made sense. They were men together, closer in age. ‘Lucy Braddick works here too?’

‘Only a day a week at the moment.’ Bob showed no curiosity in why Matthew was asking. ‘Her group at the day centre take it in turns. Not in the kitchen but waitressing, clearing tables. She’s one of the good ones, Lucy. A great little worker. And sunny. Always smiling. The customers love her.’ He paused. ‘I’m thinking of taking her on properly, paying her a living wage if the day centre is up for it. It only seems fair; she’s every bit as good as the regular staff.’

‘Would she have met Simon Walden?’

‘Well, we keep the day centre chaps this side of the counter. Health and safety. You know how it is. Anyway, no room to swing a cat back there. But yeah, they chatted to each other. Simon was brilliant with all the regulars from the centre. I think Lucy was a favourite.’

Matthew nodded and thought that was one mystery cleared up. Lucy had recognized Walden from the kitchen. It didn’t explain, though, why she’d seemed so vague about where they’d met or why he’d made the trek to Lovacott on the days before he’d died, making a point of sitting next to her on the bus.

 

 

By the time Matthew had finished talking in the cafe, it was late afternoon. Outside, there was still a bit of heat to the sun. Matthew could feel it on the back of his neck as he walked to his car. He crossed the bridge and drove into the town, planning to get to his desk at last, to catch up with what had been going on at the station, to put Ross out of his misery by allowing him to show off what he’d achieved during the day. But at the last minute he changed his mind and headed towards his old school and the big houses that looked out over Rock Park. He’d been given Christopher Preece’s address by Jonathan. He was interested to meet Caroline’s father, the man whose money had given birth to the Woodyard.

The house was detached, built in the arts and crafts style, with mellow brick and mullioned windows, small dormer windows to break the roofline, not very old but traditional. A row of trees marked the border of the garden; there was a small pond and a terrace. A pleasant garden, slightly left to run wild. Wrought-iron gates stood open but Matthew parked outside in the street. He rang the bell and the door was opened almost immediately by a middle-aged man, tall, attractive, healthy-looking, in jeans. Matthew realized he had seen him a few times before: in their old flat in Barnstaple and at Woodyard social events. He and Jonathan usually kept their working lives separate, but occasionally he was dragged along to meet the great and the good, councillors and potential donors.

‘Hello?’ It was clear that Preece wasn’t accustomed to strangers turning up on the doorstep, but this was a smart stranger so he didn’t just close the door. And perhaps there was a brief moment of recognition too. He smiled, like a politician, anxious not to alienate a voter whom he might have met before.

‘Matthew Venn. Devon Police.’ Matthew held out a card. ‘I’m here about Simon Walden. He was murdered yesterday. He was living in the same house as your daughter and her friends.’

‘Of course. I heard about it. And I’m sorry, of course I should have recognized you. You’re Jonathan’s partner. Do come in.’ A serious frown, followed by the same politician’s smile and a good firm handshake. Preece led him into a back room. A long window looked out onto a lawn, shrubs. Inside, there was an upright piano, comfortable chairs gathered around an open grate. Lots of photos of Caroline, framed music exam certificates, pony club rosettes. It seemed it had been a comfortable childhood. Until her mother had died. Matthew looked for a picture of the mother, but there was just a wedding photograph, formal. Preece and a fair, willowy woman standing on church steps. She wore traditional white and carried flowers. Nothing more recent. ‘Can I get you something? Coffee?’

Matthew shook his head. ‘Did you know Simon Walden?’

‘I met him a couple of times,’ Preece said. ‘Caroline asked me not to interfere, but I wanted to judge him for myself.’ 

‘Did you see him at the house in Ilfracombe?’

‘Not the first occasion. I saw him in the house a few times later when I’d calmed down.’ Preece paused. ‘I’m afraid I lost my temper when I heard she’d invited him to stay there. It seemed such a very reckless thing to do. But Caroline made it clear that her tenants were none of my business. I might have helped provide the deposit for the place but she said it was her house, her decision who lives there.’ Another of the smiles, self-deprecating, confiding. ‘You see, Inspector, it seems that I’m only welcome if I’m invited. And perhaps that’s as it should be. I still think of her as my little girl, but I do understand that she needs to be independent.’

‘So, where did you meet him first?’

Preece took a while to answer. ‘I asked him to come here. I was worried about a stranger with apparent mental health problems moving into my daughter’s home.’ Matthew wondered what Preece made of Caroline’s career choice — after all, she spent every day working with people with mental health problems — but he was still speaking. ‘As I told you, at the very least, I wanted to make my own assessment of the man.’

Preece stared into the garden. ‘I didn’t want to see Walden in the Woodyard where he was a volunteer. That would have been too formal, too complicated. I’ve always tried to leave the practical business there to the professionals. I wouldn’t want them to think I was meddling. In this case, I was, of course, but in my daughter’s affairs, not the Woodyard’s.’

‘You did get him the place in the Woodyard cafe.’ Surely, Matthew thought, that was interference of a sort.

‘The volunteering was Caroline’s idea, Inspector. Nothing to do with me.’

Matthew imagined Walden here, summoned to this calm and comfortable house. Surely it must have been an intimidating encounter. ‘What did you make of him?’

Preece thought about that. ‘He wasn’t quite what I expected. I liked him.’ He paused for a moment. ‘He told me he’d killed a child. A road traffic accident. He’d been drinking. Not enough to be over the limit but enough to lose concentration for a moment. I was impressed by his honesty. He told me he’d carried the guilt around with him ever since. We had that in common. The guilt. Survivors’ guilt. If you’ve been to the Woodyard, you’ll have heard about my wife.’

‘As you said, Jonathan Church is my husband. He explained that she’d taken her own life. I’m very sorry.’

‘Becca had suffered depression on and off since soon after we met. It was much worse in the last five years of her life. I didn’t understand it. I wanted to help but I couldn’t see how and that was a nightmare for me. I’m a control freak. I make things right. But I couldn’t make her right. And there was nowhere to go for help. The medical profession was completely useless. I think I took out my frustration and irritation on her. We had a row the night that she died. My last words to her were that she was selfish. I said if she cared at all about Caroline, she’d pull herself together and give more time to her daughter.’ He stopped and turned away. ‘That was unforgiveable and I’ve been punished ever since because that conversation is the last memory I have of her.’ He turned back to Matthew. ‘I went out to calm down, walked along the river for an hour. When I got back she’d hanged herself.’

‘And that happened in this house?’ Matthew didn’t think he’d be able to stay here with such dreadful memories. He wasn’t sure what to make of Preece. The story seemed to come easily. Was this something he’d repeated many times before so he’d become distanced from it, or was he confiding in Matthew because he was a stranger?

‘Caroline wasn’t here when her mother died,’ Preece said. ‘It was a weekend and she was at a festival. Something for young Christians. She’d developed a strong faith even before her mother’s death. Afterwards, she didn’t want to move, so I didn’t think I had the right to make her.’ He was still for a moment, lost in thought. Matthew could tell there was more to come. ‘I hadn’t expected the guilt when Becca died. I expected the grief. Missing her, missing the woman I’d loved and married. But, you see, part of me was glad she was dead. I walked into the house and saw her there, hanging from the bannister in the hall, and there was a brief moment of relief. It had been such a strain living with her, the moods and the anger, the days of total withdrawal, the helplessness because I couldn’t help her or make her well. And it was that moment that caused the guilt. That was what prompted me to get involved in St Cuthbert’s and in setting up the Woodyard.’

There was the same smile, implying that Matthew was easy to talk to, that just in those moments the two had become friends: the politician’s knack of making a person feel special. Dennis Salter, the Brethren elder who’d preached at his father’s funeral, had the same ability, the same warmth.

Matthew understood what Preece meant about guilt, though. Perhaps because of the memory that had conjured up Salter, his childhood mentor, he found himself back in the cemetery. He was watching the service to mark the death of his father from a safe distance. The crocus at his feet and the drone of the organ in his ears. He wondered if he’d felt a moment of relief too when he’d heard his dad had died? Perhaps. Because any decision about whether or not he should visit the hospital had been taken away. It made things cleaner, easier. And now he was feeling guilty again, because he hadn’t had the courage to visit, to make things right. Because he hadn’t walked round the pool of crocus to stand with his mother in the chapel of rest.

In the silence that followed there was the sound of birdsong, loud and clear, from the garden.

‘I’d grown a number of businesses in this area,’ Preece said. ‘Becca was a local girl, but I grew up in London. We met when I was here on holiday with some friends. I only moved down when we married, and perhaps, as an outsider, I could see the potential for development better than the locals.’ He was still standing, his back to the long window, the new green of the garden behind him. ‘And I’ve always been a risk-taker. I didn’t think the British love affair with cheap package holidays would continue. Not for the discerning young middle classes. I built an estate of luxury holiday flats in Westward Ho! and took on a run-down caravan park in Croyde, turned it into an upmarket chalet and glamping site. Later I diversified into bars and restaurants.’

Matthew nodded to show he was listening. Let the man explain in his own way.

Preece continued. ‘When Becca died, I’d already been thinking of selling the businesses on. I enjoyed the start-up phase, the planning, the negotiations, but found myself rather bored once they were up and running. I’m not really a details man and I was ready for a new challenge. So, being active in the charity sector wasn’t as altruistic as it might have seemed.

I started the drop-in centre at St Cuthbert’s soon after Becca died, but we needed something more professional and Caroline has made that happen. The project has developed beyond my wildest dreams. Then I was ready for something more demanding and I got behind the Woodyard. I got a buzz out of being part of a completely new organization, finding my way round charity laws and the way NGOs operate, helping to recruit a set of trustees. We’ve got a good team there now with a mix of skills: an accountant, a lawyer, a couple of senior social workers and a former building society chief. It fended off the guilt and the grief, at least for a while. And it made Caroline proud of me. That was important.’ He paused. ‘I know it’s an old-fashioned thing to say, but my reputation is important to me, and I see the whole of the Woodyard as my baby now. My legacy. I’ll always be associated with it.’

This, Matthew thought, was the politician talking again. ‘You say you liked Walden. Was there anything about him that made you anxious about the fact that he’d be sharing the house with your daughter and her friends?’

‘There was an intensity about him that I found a bit unnerving. As if he didn’t have a protective skin of any description. Perhaps he was too honest for his own good.’ A pause again. ‘Actually, after meeting him, I was more worried about how he’d fare in that house with two confident young women than whether he’d be any kind of danger to them. Gaby Henry has a sharp tongue and I’m not sure I’d be able to live with her. She’s entertaining for an evening but I know she’d exhaust me after a while.’

‘When did you last see Walden?’

‘About ten days ago. Caroline invited me to have dinner with them.’

‘Ah,’ Matthew said. ‘One of the famous Friday feasts?’ ‘You know about them?’

Preece smiled. ‘Yes, Simon was a great cook. If I’d still been working in hospitality, I’d have employed him like a shot as a chef.’

‘So, it was a good evening?’

Preece took a while to answer. ‘It was a strange evening. Tense. Simon cooked the meal but then he was reluctant to eat with us. Caroline persuaded him. She has a knack of getting her own way. It was clear that he didn’t want to be there, though. Perhaps I was being paranoid but I felt that his resentment was directed at me. I can’t think of anything I’d done to upset him. As I told you, I’d never seen him at the Woodyard.’ 

‘Was Walden drinking that evening?’ Gaby had spoken of

Walden getting maudlin drunk on occasions.

‘No, and perhaps that was all it was. He was trying to clean up his act and maybe he found it hard to be social without alcohol, especially when everyone else was drinking.’ Preece paused and gave a little wry smile. ‘Caroline’s friend, Edward Craven, was there too, and he makes rather awkward company. I know she’s very fond of him, but I find it hard to be entirely natural with a cleric in the room.’

Matthew could understand the awkwardness — he’d spent his life surrounded by people of religion — but he wasn’t going to confide in Christopher Preece. He stood up. ‘Thank you for your time.’

After leaving the house, he sat in the car for a moment, wondering if he’d gained a clearer sense of the man who’d died. But all that remained from the conversation was the notion of guilt hanging over Walden, clouding his judgement, taking over his life.

The sun was still shining. Matthew thought Lucy Braddick would be finishing at the Woodyard. Her father had decided to spend the afternoon in Barnstaple and would give her a lift home. There would be no need for her to take the bus that had carried Simon Walden to Lovacott every day in the week before he’d died.

Perhaps it was the sunshine or the uneasiness the interview with Preece had provoked, but Matthew couldn’t face the grey box of the police station yet, or Ross’s repressed energy. He’d have to be there for the evening briefing, but that would be soon enough. So instead, he drove into the town centre and left his car there, then he walked towards the bus station. If he was quick, he’d get to it just in time for the Lovacott bus. In the end, he was there with five minutes to spare and he waited until a line of elderly women laden with shopping bags and a couple of mothers and babies had boarded. He showed the driver his warrant card and a photo of Walden. ‘Do you recognize him? He took this bus every afternoon last week.’

The woman shook her head. ‘I’ve been off on maternity leave. This is my first day back. You’ll need to talk to the depot.’ Matthew hesitated, but instead of jumping back down to talk to a supervisor, he pulled his wallet out of his pocket and bought a ticket to Lovacott. He’d follow the route Simon Walden had taken and see what happened. The front seat was vacant and he sat there. He’d never bunked off school, but he thought it would have felt like this. He sent a message to Jen and Ross saying he probably wouldn’t be back at the police station until the evening briefing.

The bus went back across the bridge to the stop where Lucy would usually get on. A middle-aged woman boarded. They were just across the road from the Woodyard and Matthew had a good view of the tall, red-brick building. Life there would be continuing, Jonathan would be holding things together with good humour and efficiency. Nobody was waiting at the stop where Walden always joined the bus. Why had he walked the little way up the bank to catch it? So he couldn’t be seen from the Woodyard? Matthew wondered why he’d felt the need to keep his visits to Lovacott and his encounters with Lucy Braddick secret.

Looking back on Barnstaple, Matthew saw the curve of the river widening towards the estuary, the town sprawling away from it. The bus circled the suburb of Sticklepath, called at the Further Education College at the top of the hill and picked up a handful of students, before heading inland on roads that scarcely seemed wide enough for a vehicle of this size.

Matthew thought he should be canvassing the passengers, showing Walden’s photo, but what would they say? ‘Yes, a guy looking like that got on. He sat next to a woman with Down’s syndrome and he offered her some sweets. They chatted.’

Because Lucy had said that nothing else happened and her father had believed her. But the man who had made Lucy happy, had made her giggle and stand by the bus stop in her village the day before, waiting in case he should turn up, sounded nothing like the dour and angry Simon Walden described by the women in the house in Ilfracombe. So, what had been going on here? What motive might Walden have had for this trip into the countryside, for gaining Lucy Braddick’s confidence? Why had he wanted her to trust him?

The bus stopped less frequently now and only to drop off passengers. It was overheated and Matthew found himself struggling to stay awake, in almost a dream-like state. He hadn’t travelled by bus since his father had taught him to drive while he was still at school, and he’d forgotten how much better the view was. He was high enough to see into the upstairs window of a cottage standing next to the road. A bed with a yellow candlewick cover and a heavy mahogany wardrobe. A woman with her back to them. They moved on before Matthew could make out what she was doing. Over the hedge, there was a glimpse of water, a pool or a lake; two grand pillars formed the entrance to an overgrown track that disappeared into nothing but woodland and a buttery patch of celandines. The bus stopped, apparently in the middle of nowhere, to let off an elderly couple.

The road climbed steeply and then they were looking down at the village of Lovacott: a group of houses clustered around a small square, which was hardly more than the main street widened. A shop that seemed to sell everything, a pub. There was nothing picturesque here. No thatch. It would never have featured in an episode of Midsomer Murders. The houses were sturdy and pleasant enough, but unremarkable, unlikely to pull in tourists. Beyond the square the road wound on to the row of 1950s council houses where the Braddicks lived. The bus stopped, and the passengers climbed out. The driver stayed in her seat and pulled out a paperback book. This was the end of the route. There was sprayed graffiti on the shelter. A group of the students who’d got on in Sticklepath lingered on the pavement, smoking and chatting. Matthew pulled out the photo of Walden.

‘Have you seen this guy on the bus?’

‘Yeah.’ This was a slender girl with dyed yellow hair and dark roots, wearing a white print dress and canvas tennis shoes. A pretty face, huge dark eyes. She looked like a character in a Japanese cartoon. ‘He sat next to Lucy Braddick. It seemed a bit odd. She’s a sweetie and we’ve all grown up knowing her, but most strangers avoid her.’

‘Was the man a stranger? He never stayed in Lovacott?’

‘Why do you want to know?’ The boy had lurid acne and wore a hoodie. A wannabe baddie. Suspicion in his voice and the way he held his body.’

‘He’s dead. Murdered. I’m a police officer investigating.’

There was a shocked silence. A thrill of excitement. Matthew thought the police presence in Lovacott would be all over social media as soon as his back was turned. If they’d had the nerve, they’d have taken a photo of him on their phones.

‘I’ve never seen him,’ the girl said. ‘Except on the bus.’ She turned to her friends. They all nodded in agreement.

Matthew left them and walked into The Golden Fleece. It stood proud and imposing at the head of the square. An attempt was being made to bring it back to its former grandeur, to attract tourists passing through on their way to the coast. There were pictures on a board in the entrance hall: refurbished bedrooms, a dining room gleaming with polished wood and glasses, wedding guests gathered on the lawn at the back of the hotel. The bar smelled of fresh paint and varnish. Most of the tables were laid for meals, with cutlery wrapped in paper napkins, small vases of flowers, and there were menus on the counter. This was a pub with aspiration.

A leather sofa and a couple of easy chairs had been placed near to the fireplace. A woman sat there with a latte, looking at her laptop. This didn’t seem Simon Walden’s natural habitat. Behind the bar stood a middle-aged woman, in a simple black dress, the sort of make-up that made her look as if she wasn’t wearing any, neat silver earrings. She smiled. ‘What can I get you?’ She liked the fact that he was wearing a suit.

‘Coffee, please.’ 

‘Americano?’

Of course, there would be a choice of coffees. ‘Yes please.’ There was a fancy machine behind the bar, a little homemade biscuit on the saucer when it arrived. Matthew showed her the photo of Walden. ‘Do you know him?’

‘Why do you want to know?’ Now she seemed less impressed.

‘He’s dead. I’m a police officer.’

‘I think I heard about it on the radio this morning. He was stabbed at Crow Point?’

‘Yes. Has he been in here?’

‘Yes. Most days last week. He never stayed long, though. It seemed to me that he was waiting for someone. When it’s quiet here, I make up stories in my head about the customers. It passes the time. I thought he might be waiting for a woman, but she never turned up. Each night he’d come in, just off the bus like you. He’d sit by the window and he’d wait. But whoever he was hoping to meet never appeared.’

Matthew thought about that. ‘Do you work in the bar every day?’

‘My husband and I own the hotel. I’m usually here in the afternoons when it’s quiet.’

‘And he never talked to anyone?’

She shook her head. ‘Not while I was here. The last time I saw him he just seemed to disappear. I’d gone to the kitchen to order sandwiches for a customer and when I got back he’d gone. It was earlier than usual. I hoped that his woman had finally turned up.’

‘What was he drinking?’

She paused for a moment as if the question had surprised her, but she seemed sure enough of the answer. ‘Diet Coke. Two pints, each time.’

Outside on the square, he stopped to get the feel for the place. It was dusk now and there was a chill in the air. In the houses grouped around the square, lights were being switched on. Matthew saw children doing homework at kitchen tables, meals being prepared. The teenagers had gone. There was more traffic, commuters on their way home from Barnstaple, Bideford and Torrington, but there were no longer pedestrians on the pavement. Matthew made his way through the square and down the road towards the cul-de-sac of houses where Lucy and Maurice Braddick lived. He wasn’t planning to call on them, but he was interested. Beyond the necklace of house lights, there was nothing, a black expanse of open countryside. This was only six miles inland from Barnstaple, but it could have been the edge of the world.

If a woman had arrived here, as the landlady had imagined, surely someone would have noticed. She hadn’t come with Walden on the bus. The mysterious lover was all speculation, of course, but if Walden hadn’t been here to meet a woman, what had brought him to Lovacott? Why had he wanted to stay completely sober and in control?

Matthew took out his phone to call Ross for a lift. Without the stops and detours, it would only take fifteen minutes to drive into Barnstaple. Suddenly the bus’s headlights went on and it revved into life. Of course, it must go back to the depot; it wouldn’t stay here all night. Matthew waved at the driver and climbed aboard.


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Chapter Twelve

Jen had a chance to get home to check on the kids before the evening briefing. They lived in the district of Newport, on the edge of Barnstaple and close to the school where Matthew Venn had been a pupil. Her place was squashed into a terrace of mismatched cottages, three storeys so it was bigger than most of the houses in the street, but very narrow and too small for a woman with a hoarding problem and two growing teenagers. She parked in the alley at the back and walked down the strip of garden. It thrived despite months of neglect. The daffodils were just coming out and soon there would be tulips. The first nice weekend she had off she’d tidy it, get rid of the dead leaves. She didn’t care if her house was a mess, but she loved being out in the garden.

The door led straight into a tiny kitchen. Ella must have loaded the dishwasher and she felt a glow of gratitude because she wasn’t walking in to the usual chaos. The living room was dark and cold. The room looked out onto the street, and the window was so small that it scarcely got any sunlight. She’d tried to brighten it with throws and pictures, and it was cosy enough in winter with the fire lit, but now it just seemed dusty and cluttered. The stairs led up from a corner of the kitchen. She shouted up.

‘Kids. I’m home!’ Her voice was very loud because their rooms were in the attic. It seemed to echo. There were footsteps on the stairs. Ella appeared, still in her school uniform sweatshirt, a ballpoint pen tucked behind one ear.

‘What’s for tea?’

Jen couldn’t answer that. ‘Where’s Ben?’

‘At Max’s. His mum said he can eat there.’ Ella walked on down and sat on the bottom step. ‘I can’t find any food in this house.’

‘Oh God, I’m sorry. I meant to do a shop yesterday on my way home from work and then there was that murder. Do you fancy a takeaway?’ Jen looked at her watch. ‘If I go now, I should have time to eat it with you before I need to go out again.’

‘You’re out again?’

‘Yeah. Final briefing of the day. Shouldn’t be late back, though.’ Jen thought that these days her life was all about compromise and never doing anything well. She was guilty that she couldn’t put all her energy into work because she was distracted by what might be going on at home, and guilty that her kids might be turning into tearaways because she gave them so little attention. Ben was feral, seldom at home, and Ella seemed perpetually stressed and anxious. Sometimes she worried that Ella, after being a monstrous pre-teen, was becoming too conscientious, too straight and boring. She’d been hanging around with the same lad for months and their idea of a good night was watching the telly in the front room. The last thing Jen wanted was for her daughter to marry early without experiencing any kind of life. She’d made that mistake, fallen for the dream of the perfect man and the perfect life, and look what had happened.

‘No worries. I can work better in an empty house anyway.’ Ella stood up. ‘Look. I’ll go and get the food. You grab a shower, sort yourself out. Want your usual?’

‘Yeah, fab, thanks.’ Jen’s head was so filled with ideas about Walden and the women in Hope Street that she couldn’t even begin to think about what she might want to eat.

 

 

The room was already full when Jen arrived at the police station and she’d made an effort to get in early so she could catch up with Ross before they started. She’d felt a flutter of excitement as she climbed the stone steps to the door. A relief at escaping the house and the demands of the family. Matthew Venn was there at the front, chatting to the crime scene manager. Ross was hovering beside them, obviously trying to get a word in, not realizing that he’d just piss them both off by interrupting. He had the social skills of a worm, but because he was Oldham’s favourite nobody had the nerve to tell him. Jen went up and tapped him on the shoulder, got him to turn around so he wouldn’t seem to be hassling them.

‘Any news on the phone call?’

‘Yeah, it’s just come through. I was going to tell the boss.’ He shot a glance over his shoulder.

‘Well, now you can tell me.’

Ross was just about to speak when Venn called everyone to order. The room fell silent so quickly that the inspector seemed a little shocked, as if he was surprised by the authority he had. Jen loved that about him: his lack of macho bullshit, his courtesy.

He stood in front of them and spoke just loud enough for them all to hear. He knew there was no need to shout. They’d all be listening. ‘Let’s get through this as quickly as we can, shall we? We’ve all had a long day. Ross, I know you’ve been doing the detailed work here in the station. Anything worthwhile from the callers after this morning’s media?’

‘We managed to phone everyone back. I’ve left a report with the contact list on your desk.’

‘Anyone been in touch admitting to owning one of the cars Colin Marston saw parked by the dunes the afternoon of the murder?’

Jen thought that interview with the Marstons in the toll keeper’s cottage felt like weeks ago. That was how it was at the beginning of a case: so many people and ideas crammed into just a couple of days, time seeming elastic.

‘Two,’ Ross said. ‘The elderly couple with the Volvo. But it doesn’t sound hopeful — they said they were walking the other way, down the river and away from the point. They’ve left contact details, and I said someone will be in touch.’

‘Anything else?’

‘A few possible leads. A woman called Bale claims to have seen Walden in conversation with a woman in a cafe in Braunton yesterday.’

‘That could be significant and needs following up,’ Jen said. ‘According to Caroline Preece, Walden didn’t need a lift into Barnstaple yesterday morning because he was skipping his group therapy session. He’d told her there were things he needed to sort out. She thought he was going to Kingsley House to discuss his return to work, but we know now that couldn’t have been true. They weren’t prepared to have him back.’

‘And he’d have had to go through Braunton to get to Crow Point,’ Matthew nodded, agreeing it could be important. ‘We know he doesn’t drive any more, but he could have walked it from there, just about. So that’s an action for tomorrow: get the witness in to make a statement. She can give us a description of the woman Walden was with, and if we’re lucky, she’ll have overheard them talking.’ He paused. ‘There was also a phone message left for Walden. Jen, you heard it on the landline voicemail at the house in Ilfracombe.’

‘I took a recording.’ She got out her phone and played it. The male voice sounded thin and tinny in the big room. ‘It could just be an old friend, trying to get in touch, but I don’t know ...’ She looked around the room. ‘It might be my imagination, but I think I can hear a threat in there.’

Nobody spoke; they were unwilling to commit themselves. ‘Do we know who it is?’ Matthew asked.

Ross stuck his hand up, too eager, too desperate to impress.

Jen wondered if she’d ever been like that.

‘It came from a mobile phone registered to a guy named Springer. Alan Springer. He lives in Bristol.’

‘That makes sense — after all, it’s where Walden comes from. Of course, it could just be an old friend, but it would have taken an effort to track Walden down at the Ilfracombe address. He must really have wanted to speak to him. I think you’re right, Jen. There’s something a bit odd about it.’ Venn looked at Ross. ‘Do we know anything about Mr Alan Springer?’

‘No police record. I haven’t got much beyond that. The phone company only got back to us half an hour ago.’

‘That’s something else for tomorrow then. Let’s see what there is to know about him. Find out if he can account for his movements. And even if we can rule him out as a suspect, he might be able to give us some information about Walden. I’m still curious about how a married man, running his own restaurant, ended up sleeping rough and throwing himself on the mercy of the Church.’

‘He killed a child,’ Jen said. ‘That would do terrible things to you.’

‘You’re right. Of course it would.’ A moment of silence. ‘How did the child’s parents react at the time of the accident? Did they swear revenge? Demand compensation? It might be a possible motive.’

‘No,’ said Ross. ‘I’ve looked the story up online.’ He paused. ‘They said they forgave him. The papers made a big deal of it.’

‘Perhaps that was their reaction immediately after the child’s death,’ Matthew said, ‘but things change over time. Families break up under the stress of bereavement. Resentment grows. I’d like to know if the family is still together.’ He looked sharply at Ross. ‘I suppose their name wasn’t Springer?’

‘No!’ He looked at his notes. ‘Sally and James Thorne. I think we can dismiss them from our enquiries. They emigrated, moved to Australia to be close to her family. She grew up there. I’ve checked and they’re at home in Adelaide.’

‘You spoke to them?’

‘They were at work. I spoke to Sally’s mother. She was going to tell them about Walden’s death, but she seemed unfazed by the news, as if somehow it wasn’t a big deal for them. She said they’d all moved on.’

Jen thought that was a weird thing to say. How could you move on so easily after the death of a child? But perhaps people survived in different ways.

Venn considered this for a moment, then he nodded. It was dark outside now. One of the strip lights in the room was faulty and flickered, but nobody moved to switch it off. ‘Jen, fill in the rest of the team on Walden’s housemates. We know a bit more about them now and about how he fitted in there.’

Jen stood up again. She’d never minded being the centre of attention; she just didn’t crave it like Ross. She tried to capture the atmosphere of the house in Ilfracombe, described the two close friends who’d found a way of living together despite their differences. ‘They’re bright women, confident, good at what they do. Then Walden came in and threw the household out of balance. They thought he’d be leaving at Easter, but his boss at Kingsley House told me there’d be no way they’d have him back. So, unless he’d found another job, they were stuck with him.’

‘Why wouldn’t the hotel employ Walden again?’

‘The chef didn’t like him. I don’t think there was any more to it than that. And Walden was a moody bastard, not prepared to play their games.’

‘He got on well enough with the chef at the Woodyard,’ Matthew said. ‘They seem to have confided in each other. And I spoke to Christopher Preece, Caroline’s dad and one of the trustees at the Woodyard. He used to work in hospitality and said he’d have employed him.’

‘There’d be less pressure at the Woodyard, perhaps. It’s high-end dining at the Kingsley. The sort of place where they charge you an arm and a leg and you still come out starving.’ The room was quiet for a moment. They were waiting for Venn to speak. ‘Our Mr Walden seems a complicated character,’ he said at last. ‘Moody and aggressive, according to some witnesses, yet when he travelled to Lovacott he sat next to Lucy Braddick on the bus and made her laugh. Made her day. Even Gaby Henry, who took against him, admits there was something about him that attracted her. She painted him in the hope of understanding him better.’

‘Any idea what he was doing in Lovacott, boss?’ The question bordered on rudeness. Ross wanted to make it clear that he didn’t see the point in the character analysis, couldn’t understand how it could help them to find the killer. He wanted them to move on and to stick to the facts.

‘According to the landlady of The Golden Fleece, he was waiting for a woman,’ Matthew said. ‘But that was just guesswork. It sounds as if he was waiting for someone who didn’t show up, though.’

He leaned back against a desk. ‘We’ll continue the enquiries in Braunton and Ilfracombe. Let’s track Walden’s movements from the moment he left the house that morning. How did he get to Braunton? Did he take the bus, or did the person he was meeting there give him a lift? There’s CCTV in Ilfracombe high street and at the bus station, and we might find something in Braunton too. But I want to know more about our victim and to do that we need to speak to the people close to him.’ He paused and looked at Jen. ‘How would you be fixed for a trip to Bristol tomorrow? I’d like you to speak to Walden’s wife. And while you’re there, to arrange a meeting with Alan Springer, the chap who left the message on the landline in Hope Street.’

‘Yeah, sure.’ As she answered, she was thinking that it would be another early start and late finish, that the kids would have to get themselves to school again, but there was no hesitation.

‘Take Ross with you,’ Matthew said. ‘It’d be useful to have two perspectives.’

Oh great, she thought. Bloody great.