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'The Long Call' Chapters 13 & 14

a sandwich on a table

Illustration by Stan Fellows


Chapter Thirteen

Matthew was in his office early the next morning. The sun was shining again on the mound of Castle Hill, making the grass look new and impossibly green. He’d woken to a high tide; the sound of the water outside the bedroom window had invaded his dreams. Even on waking, he’d still believed for a moment that he’d been in a boat and had a brief sense of drowning, of disappearing under a black wave, high as a cliff. Then he’d realized where he was and that it was his turn to make the coffee. Jonathan was barely moving and only sat up in bed when Matthew came back into the room with his hands cupped round the mug. Poised in the doorway, Matthew stared at him for a moment: blond-haired, bare-chested. Beautiful.

At his desk, Matthew looked at the contact list Ross had left for him the night before. There were a few people to follow up and he’d pass them on to other members of the team. He looked at the details of the woman who’d seen Walden in the Braunton cafe on the morning of his death. Her name was Angela Bale and there was a mobile number. Matthew phoned it.

‘Hello?’ She sounded suspicious because she didn’t recognize the number.

‘Miss Bale.’

‘Mrs.’

‘This is Matthew Venn. I’m a police officer working on the Simon Walden case. I wonder if you could come into the station to give us a statement. You said you saw the victim on the day he was killed. In a cafe in Braunton.’

‘I can’t come today,’ she said quickly. ‘It’s not convenient. I’m working.’

‘Where do you work?’

‘For the Landmark Trust. In the booking office for the Oldenburg at Ilfracombe Harbour. The season has only just started and we’re very busy.’

The Oldenburg was the Lundy Island ferry. He and Jonathan had spent a few days in a tiny cottage on Lundy in the autumn. It had been wild and rainy. He’d been sick on the boat across but Jonathan had loved the stormy sea. They’d spent most of their stay hiding from the weather, either in bed or in the Marisco Tavern, the island pub. Or arguing to relieve the boredom and then making up.

‘You’ll have a lunch break, though? Perhaps we could speak to you then.’

There was silence at the end of the line. ‘My husband said I shouldn’t have spoken to you, that I might have made a mistake. That I shouldn’t get involved.’

‘What do you think?’ Matthew asked. ‘Do you think you made a mistake?’

Another silence before she spoke. ‘No.’

‘Then it would be very helpful if you’d make a statement.’

‘Would you be the person I’d be speaking to?’

‘If you’d find that easier.’

‘Meet me at work then. Twelve o’clock.’

He felt a moment of joy at having an excuse to leave the office. It occurred to him that he should call into Chivenor on his way to Ilfracombe. The dog-walker who’d found Walden’s body still hadn’t made a formal statement. He’d have to leave soon to allow himself time to speak to her, and thinking of that, he felt as if a weight had lifted from his shoulders. The claustrophobia that overwhelmed him sometimes in the office had become almost pathological. He’d need to deal with it; he couldn’t spend his working life on a bus or drinking tea in witnesses’ houses.

 

When Matthew had been growing up, Chivenor had been an RAF station and the yellow search and rescue coastguard helicopters had been based there. He remembered one Christmas, during a brisk post-lunch walk on the beach, seeing an officer dressed as Father Christmas being winched down to the sand to the delight of the other children. He’d been carrying a sack full of sweets. Matthew had been entranced. He’d wanted so much to believe that Santa was real despite his parents’ telling him otherwise. His mother had been horrified and had muttered loudly about blasphemy and filling children’s heads with dangerous nonsense, while other parents had glared at her for spoiling the magic.

Now, the base was still there, but much of the land had been sold off for housing. Sharon Winstone, the woman who’d discovered Walden’s body, lived in a cul-de-sac of raw, red-brick properties, detached from their neighbours by barely more than six inches. He was early and when he arrived, loud music was playing. Through the living room window, he saw that she was watching a keep-fit DVD and exercising violently to pumped-up music. Although her face was red and she was sweating, her hair, which looked rather like a brown helmet, hardly moved. He rang the bell, but there was no response. He leaned on it and at last she heard the ringing over the noise. She turned, gave him a little wave, switched off the screen and came to the door. She was wearing purple floral leggings and a long T-shirt.

‘Sorry, I thought I’d have time for a shower before you got here.’ She seemed bothered by her appearance and he thought she was going to ask him to wait while she changed. In the end, she led him straight into the room where she’d been doing the workout. ‘I saw about the poor man at Crow Point on the TV. I thought you’d be in touch.’

She offered him coffee and brought in a couple of mugs of instant, put a coaster on the pale wood table before setting it down for him. She’d told Ross she had a boy at school but there was no sign of him here. Any toys in the place had been hidden away. The house was spotless, a show home, bland. A small dog lay in a basket with a floral print cushion to match the curtains. It had lifted its head when Matthew came in, then went back to sleep.

‘I know you spoke to my DC,’ Matthew said, ‘but could you take me through what happened on that day? I’ll make some notes and ask you to sign a statement.’

‘Sure.’ Any upset she might have felt at coming across a dead man on the beach had long gone. He thought she was enjoying the attention, perhaps even the company.

‘You don’t work?’

‘Not at the moment.’ A tight smile. ‘Taking a career break.’

He wondered what that was all about. Had she been recently sacked? Given up work because of stress? She didn’t seem the anxious type, though there was something driven about the exercise. ‘So, you were walking your dog on the beach at Crow Point. Had you taken your car down the toll road?’

‘Yes. I parked close to the house by the shore, crossed the dunes onto the beach and walked towards the point. I was on my way back when I saw the guy lying on the sand.’

‘You were on your own?’

There was a pause and he could tell she was wondering whether she’d get away with a lie.

‘We’re told all sorts of things during an investigation. Not all of them are relevant and not everything comes out in court. But we do need the details.’

‘I was meeting a friend on the beach,’ she said. ‘A man.’

‘I’ll need his contact details.’

‘Okay.’ She looked up at him, a kind of challenge. ‘But he’s married, so can you catch him at work?’

He nodded. ‘We’ll try. Where did you meet him that day? Did you park together?’ He was thinking of the evidence Colin Marston had given.

She nodded.

‘And he drives a Passat and you drive a Fiesta and he’s older than you?’

‘Yes!’ A look of total astonishment. ‘He was my boss at work and it came out that we were seeing each other. So embarrassing. I had to leave my job.’

No, you didn’t have to leave. He could have been the one to go. Matthew thought he should get Jen Rafferty to bring her statement back to be signed. She might talk some sense into the woman.

Sharon looked at him. ‘My husband doesn’t know. He thinks I left work because I was bored in the office. He doesn’t mind. He likes me at home to keep on top of things, to be around for our son.’ A pause. ‘Nothing happened that afternoon on the beach. We’re not kids. We didn’t make passionate love in the dunes.’ Another moment of silence. ‘But I’d been missing him. I love his company.’

‘Did you see the body when you were on your way to Crow Point?’

‘No, not until we were on our way back.’

‘And you would have seen the man if he’d been there?’

‘I’ve been thinking about that,’ Sharon said. ‘We were talking, catching up. We hadn’t seen each other for a few weeks because Dave had been away with his family for the half-term holiday. But I think we would have seen the body. It wasn’t hidden in any way and we followed the same tracks back in the sand.’

If that was the case, Walden had been killed while Sharon and her lover were walking out to the Point. That had been risky. Perhaps Matthew should be looking for somebody reckless, who enjoyed danger. Or somebody desperate.

She was staring into the empty coffee mug. ‘I didn’t want to be left there on the beach with the dead man. Not on my own. I know I should have stayed with the body, but I just couldn’t face it. So Dave walked with me back to the cars and then he drove off to work. He had a meeting. I phoned the police from there and waited.’

‘Can you give me some timings?’ Matthew asked. ‘When you arrived, when you saw the body?’ Because that would pin down a time of death much more accurately than any information the pathologist could give him.

‘I was supposed to meet Dave at midday, but he was a bit late.’ Matthew imagined her sitting in her car, getting more and more anxious that her lover wouldn’t turn up. ‘It was probably nearer half past when he got there. It was ten past two when we first saw the body. I checked my watch.’

‘Did you see anyone else on the beach?’

‘Nobody that I was aware of. We were talking, you know, making plans for the future, for when our kids are old enough to understand.’

Matthew nodded. He suspected the guy was stringing her along, making promises that he had no intention of keeping. Would she enjoy the affair, anyway, if it stopped being illicit and exciting? But relationship counselling wasn’t in his job description and it wasn’t his place to give advice. He stood up and told her how helpful she’d been and left the house. As he unlocked the car, he heard the music again, compulsive and manic, and thought she was trying to dance away her boredom and her demons.

 

In Ilfracombe the breeze was stronger and eddied through the narrow streets. He knew it was a westerly, because he’d heard the shipping forecast that morning, but whichever way he walked it was in his face. He was early here too — punctuality was a curse, inherited from his mother who thought it was a sin to be late — so he left his car at the top of Hope Street and walked down the hill, along the high street, then on towards the harbour. There was a smell of fried fish. A couple of optimistic cafes had opened early in the season. A gift shop owner had stacked all his goods to one side and was mopping the floor.

Verity, Damien Hirst’s sculpture, stood at the end of the pier. A huge pregnant woman. Triumphant, one arm raised. From one side all her internal organs were showing and Matthew was reminded of a body on the pathologist’s table, the skin peeled back. In the Lundy Island ferry offices, there was a short queue of people booking tickets. A woman sat in the waiting room, her coat wrapped round her for protection, looking out of the window.

‘Mrs Bale?’ But he knew it was her without asking. She looked so nervous, so mousy, so scared of the world.

She jumped to her feet. ‘I’ve only got half an hour.’ ‘That’s okay. It won’t take longer than that. Perhaps I could buy you lunch.’

‘Oh no. I always bring my own sandwiches. I’ll eat them at my desk later.’

In the end, they sat on a bench, looking out over the water, wrapped up in their coats. Angela Bale seemed happier outside where they couldn’t be overheard.

‘What were you doing in Braunton when you saw Mr Walden?’

‘It was my day off,’ she said. ‘I always meet my mother on my day off. She lives in Braunton, so I get the bus. Then she buys me coffee. The least she can do, she says, because I’ve made the trip over to see her. That place we went to, the cafe by the stream where I saw your man, is our favourite.’

Matthew nodded and saw that this trip to Braunton to see her mother was the highlight of her week. She was still talking. ‘Then I do a bit of supermarket shopping for her and carry it home. She’s got arthritis in her hands and she can’t manage heavy bags these days.’

‘What time do you usually get to the cafe?’ Matthew thought it would be the same time each week. There would be an element of ritual in her days out.

‘The bus gets in at ten forty-five and I walk straight there. Eleven o’clock? Mum was there before me and she’d bagged our favourite table.’

‘You’d caught the bus from Ilfracombe?’

Angela Bale nodded.

‘I don’t suppose you noticed Mr Walden on the bus? We think he came from Ilfracombe too, you see.’

‘No,’ she said, certain now. She’d lost her shyness. ‘He was there before me. Sitting at the table next to ours.’

‘What was he wearing?’

‘Jeans. A denim jacket.’ She shut her eyes for a moment. ‘He was eating a bacon sandwich. I thought it looked very good, but Mum and I always go for a milky coffee and a scone.’

‘And the woman next to him?’

‘I didn’t see her so clearly because she had her back to me.’ ‘

What sort of age?’ Matthew was careful not to prompt, not to let his disappointment show.

‘Young. Well, everyone seems young to me these days.’ Angela appeared more confident now. ‘Dark hair. A green coat. I don’t think I saw her face at all.’ A pause. Matthew could tell she was trying her best to remember. She wanted to please him. ‘She was drinking that herby tea. I could smell it. I’ve never seen the point. And she wasn’t eating anything. Not even a bit of toast or a biscuit. It always seems a waste to me, going out to a cafe, if all you choose is something you could have for much less money at home.’

‘That’s really helpful. Who left first? Them or you?’

She didn’t have to think about that. ‘Oh, them. We don’t rush, Mum and me. We like to take our time.’

‘Did you see who paid? The man or the woman?’

This time she took a while to answer. ‘They didn’t pay at the table. They paid at the counter on their way out. I think it was her.’

‘I don’t suppose you noticed whether she paid with cash or a card.’ Matthew kept his voice light. He didn’t want to put her under any pressure. But under the table he was crossing his fingers. If the woman had paid with a card, they’d have a name for her.

Angela shook her head. ‘Sorry. I didn’t see.’ She looked at her watch. ‘I should probably go.’

Matthew stood up. ‘You’ve been very helpful.’ That was true because it was possible the woman had paid by card. Most younger people did.

Outside on the pavement, Angela Bale hurried away back to the ferry offices. Matthew stood for a moment. He was trying to remember if he’d seen either of the women from Hope Street in a green coat.

He stopped at the cafe in Braunton where Angela Bale had seen Walden on his way back to Barnstaple. He and Jonathan were regulars; the place did a terrific weekend brunch and on a Saturday morning you had to queue for a table. It was quieter now. A couple of women were taking an early afternoon tea and a businessman engrossed in a laptop was eating a sandwich. Lizzie was at the counter. She owned the place and did most of the front of house.

‘Hi there, Matt! What can I get you?’

He was tempted to order another coffee, but he’d been out of the office for long enough. ‘Sorry, Liz, this is official.’ He put Walden’s photo on the counter. ‘Do you recognize this man?’

She squinted. She wore specs for making up the bills but was too vain to put them on for serving. ‘He’s not a regular.’

‘He’s the guy that was killed on Crow Point on Monday afternoon. We think he had coffee in here on Monday morning.’

Now she did take her glasses from a pocket in her apron to look more carefully. ‘What time?’

‘About ten thirty. Maybe a bit later. We think he was with a woman wearing a green coat.’

‘I don’t remember. You know what it’s like here in the mornings. Pretty manic and people move through really quickly.’

‘He had coffee and a bacon sandwich and she had herbal tea, nothing to eat.’

‘Yeah, I do remember them.’ She was triumphant. ‘At least not them, but the order. I can’t give you any more than you’ve already got, though. I can’t describe them.’ She took off the glasses. ‘You know what I’m like without these.’

‘Did they pay by card or cash?’

‘I’m not sure. Want me to check?’ Without waiting for an answer, she went to the machine and stuck her specs on her nose again. ‘Sorry, it must have been a cash transaction.’

‘No worries. Can you ask the other staff? They might remember something useful.’ He pushed across his card. ‘Give me a shout if you remember anything.’

 

In his office at the station, someone had left a note on his desk. The writing was rather beautiful and he spent a moment wondering which of his team might have written it. Then he read the contents: Your mother rang. Can you visit her at home? She says it’s urgent.


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Chapter Fourteen

His mother lived in a neat little bungalow on a tidy estate of seventies houses at the edge of the town. It was set on a hill and there was a view all the way down to the estuary. The bungalow looked as if it belonged to an older person, but the family had lived there even when Matthew was a boy. His parents had bought it when they were first married. Matthew wouldn’t have been surprised if his mother hadn’t already been planning ahead for the time when they might not be able to manage the stairs. She’d never discovered the knack of living in the present.

Matthew sat outside in the car for a moment, worrying. His mother had said it was urgent that she see him, but if there had been some medical emergency, she would have called a friend from the Brethren and not him. He’d only found out that his father was ill through a third person. Now he was nervous, wondering how he would react to her if she let rip again, if that was why she had phoned him: to accuse him again of killing his father.

He wondered how it had come to this, replayed again the moment when faith had been replaced by a different kind of certainty and his life had fractured. It had been his first year at university and he’d come home for the Easter holidays. His parents had taken him to a meeting on his second night home, wanting to show him off. The bright boy who’d got into Bristol University, who was a credit to them all. But things had already started falling apart, his confidence unravelling, anxiety taking hold. He might have been considered bright in a comprehensive school in Barnstaple, but there’d been gaps in his knowledge and understanding. He’d struggled to make friends in Bristol, knew people laughed at him behind his back, felt ill at ease, not right in his own skin. And he’d been forced to think for himself, to challenge the belief system he’d grown up with.

The meeting had been held in a hired village hall, somewhere on the edge of Exmoor. It had felt damp and dusty, and there was a smell of paraffin from the heaters. There’d been quite a crowd, perhaps fifty people. Brethren from all over the county were there, not to see him, but because it was one of the quarterly sessions when decisions were made. He’d sat near the back with his parents. Dennis Salter, who had conducted his father’s funeral, had been taking the service. He’d been younger then, of course, but still the acknowledged leader. Dennis had welcomed them as they came into the hall, had taken Matthew into his arms and held him for a moment. ‘I couldn’t be more proud, son.’ As if he wished Matthew really was his son.

Looking at the assembled group, the families and the ardent young converts, Matthew had had a sudden understanding, as the early evening sunshine shone through the dusty glass, a vision close to a religious experience: this was all a sham.

The earnest elderly women in their mushroom-shaped hats, the bluff good-natured men — they were all deluding themselves. They were here for their own reasons, for the power trip or because they’d grown up with the group and couldn’t let go. Through cowardice or habit. With the understanding there’d come a liberation, a sense that he was now free to do what he wanted and be who he wanted to be.

Perhaps it had been youthful arrogance or perhaps he’d been suffering some stress-related minor breakdown, but he’d needed to speak about this sudden new insight, to spread the word. He’d felt different, lit-up, excited. To sit there, listening to the worship, knowing he didn’t believe a word, had made him want to yell at them all; he couldn’t just sit there pretending. At the end when Salter had asked if anyone wanted to share with the group, Matthew had raised his hand and got to his feet.

‘None of this is true. I’m sorry, but I don’t believe any of it. You must be mad if you think it’s true!’

There’d been silence. He still had an image of faces turned towards him in horror and disbelief. His mother had given a little gasp. After that, he could remember little detail. There were muddled memories of confusion and embarrassment. His mother and father shepherding him out of the hall. Dennis Salter standing at the door, sad and stern-faced. ‘Are you sure, boy? You’re turning your back on the Brethren?’

‘I can’t lie.’ He’d still been a little defiant then.

‘You’ll always be welcome back when you see the light, but until then, you’re a stranger to us.’ Then the door had been shut on them and they’d driven home, his mother weeping all the way.

The next day he’d left for Bristol, seen his tutor and told him he was leaving university. The day after he’d got a job entering data for an insurance company, because he needed to earn a living. The following week he’d applied to join the police. He’d realized that he still needed rules and the idea of justice, that chaos made him panic. He’d tried to communicate with his parents, but half-heartedly, through birthday cards, a present at Christmas. There’d been no response. In the beginning, his father had phoned occasionally, begging him to reconsider his denial of faith. ‘Can’t you just go along with it for the sake of your mother? She’s in pieces.’

But Matthew was stubborn. ‘She taught me not to bear false witness.’ He’d dropped them a note when he moved to Barnstaple, but they hadn’t got in touch. The separation had gone on for so long that neither side had known how to bridge the gap.

When he’d heard about his father’s condition from a neighbour, Matthew had called his mother immediately. She’d been almost speechless with rage.

‘I don’t know how you’ve got the nerve to speak to me. You do know it’s your fault, the heart attack? We saw it in the North Devon Journal. Marriage to a man.’ The last phrase explosive, as if she was spitting into the telephone. Spitting at him.

He’d wanted to visit his father in hospital, but had never been brave enough to go, anxious that there might be some truth in her accusation, or that he might bump into her in the hospital ward. She’d never minded making a scene. But he’d longed to see his father, to chat about football and music as they had on those summer days when Matthew had gone with him visiting the coastal farms, to hold his hand.

The net curtain at the window moved. She’d seen him. He got out of the car and rang the doorbell. She wouldn’t want him to know that she’d been looking out for him, so it was best to pretend he hadn’t seen the twitching curtain.

He hadn’t seen her for twenty years, except a couple of times by chance recently, at a distance, in the street. She hadn’t changed so much. She was small, fit for her age. The obsession with healthy eating might not have saved his father, but it had worked for her. She still walked most days into town to get her own shopping. She’d never learned to drive. She stood aside to let him in quickly, so ashamed of who he was, it seemed, that she didn’t want the neighbours to know he was there.

‘I was expecting you earlier.’

‘I’ve only just been given your message. I was out working.’ He tried to keep the fight out of his voice and to remember the good times: her reading to him when he was very small, putting on silly voices to make him laugh, her cheering him on at sports day, telling him how well he’d done even when he came next to last. Telling him, and everyone else who would listen, that he’d grow up to be a great preacher.

‘Susan Shapland’s here,’ she said. ‘She’s out of her mind with worry.’ It sounded like an apology of sorts.

They were standing in the hall. There was the same wood-chip wallpaper. His father had put on a fresh coat of paint every two years. It still looked clean and bright so perhaps he’d done it just before he became ill. His mother continued speaking in a whisper. ‘She came here because she didn’t know what else to do. She thought you’d be able to help.’

Susan Shapland was a widow, his mother’s closest friend. She would have been by her side at the funeral, taking Matthew’s place. He didn’t know what to say.

‘Come on through,’ his mother said. ‘She’ll explain herself.’

He stepped into the front room and back in time. This wasn’t a Proust madeleine moment. Memory here was triggered by a series of objects, not taste or smell. There was the paperweight with a dandelion seed head trapped in the glass, the wooden solitaire set on the coffee table, the beads smooth and in their place, his parents’ wedding photograph on the mantelpiece, next to the picture of him in his uniform, his first day at the Park School, a mug he’d made in pottery class when he was eleven. Susan was sitting in the easy chair next to the gas fire, where his father had always sat, and Matthew felt a moment of affront. But the woman had been crying and the feeling passed quickly.

‘It’s Susan’s Christine,’ his mother said. ‘She’s missing.’ Only then did Matthew remember that Susan had a daughter, about the same age as himself. They’d played together occasionally when Brethren meetings dragged on, the members lingering to discuss esoteric points of dogma and practice. Should hats be worn or not worn at meetings? What was really meant by the virgin birth? As he recalled, both questions had been considered equally seriously.

Christine had been a quiet little thing, dark-haired, brown-eyed, with an awkward gait and slow speech. As he’d matured, started to grow up, she never had. She’d always looked different. When she was thirteen she still brought a doll with her to meetings, still sucked her thumb. His mother had explained that she’d never grow up, because she had Down’s syndrome and had been born that way. A cross that Susan and Cecil had to bear, but a blessing too, because she’d always be innocent. As Matthew remembered, Christine had never left home.

He took the seat next to Susan’s. ‘Why don’t you tell me what happened?’

‘I didn’t want Christine to be at your father’s funeral. She gets bored and I was worried she’d start wandering around, upsetting people, getting in the way. My sister lives in Lovacott and she said she’d have her to stay. You remember Grace? My sister? She’s not the most sociable of people and she didn’t mind staying at home. She said Dennis would be there to represent them both.’

Matthew nodded. Of course he remembered Grace, but more because she was Dennis Salter’s wife than in her own right. She’d been kindly enough, but shy, happy to stay in Salter’s shadow. Dennis Salter had a huge personality, and a warmth that held the Brethren together. Until Matthew’s outburst at the meeting, he’d taken the young Matthew under his wing, encouraged him. It was not surprising perhaps that Matthew’s memory of the woman was sketchy. Occasionally she’d brought sweets along to meetings for the children, secretly slipping them from her bag when she thought none of the adults were watching, but he remembered little else about her now. ‘Of course.’

Susan continued:

‘So, Dennis came to collect my Christine on Monday morning and the idea was that she’d stay with them until last night. I was expecting her back before bedtime. When they didn’t bring her home, I assumed they’d decided to keep her an extra night. To give me a break, like. I tried phoning, but Grace don’t always answer. They go to bed early. I thought if there’d been any problem they’d have let me know.’ As the story continued and she became more upset again, Susan’s accent grew stronger. ‘I phoned first thing this morning and Grace told me Christine wasn’t there.’

‘When did she go missing?’ Matthew thought this was the last thing they needed. A vulnerable missing person while they were working on a murder inquiry. He was making links too, wondering about coincidence, because Lucy Braddick lived in Lovacott, and she had Down’s syndrome too.

‘Well, we don’t know that. Not exactly.’

‘Perhaps you’d explain.’

‘Well, she goes to the Woodyard three times a week, to the day centre. To give me a break as much as anything.’

Matthew nodded but felt his pulse racing.

‘Dennis brought her in yesterday as normal. And he came back in the afternoon to wait for her, but she never came out with the others, so he just thought she’d taken the minibus home.’ Her voice suddenly warmed. ‘Poor soul, he’s in such a state. He’s blaming himself for the fact that she’s missing and for not calling me to check. But he got caught up with another emergency. One of the Brethren was taken poorly that afternoon, so they went straight out again when they got back to Lovacott. They were in A&E with him when I phoned them at home last night.’

‘You’re saying that Christine could have gone missing anytime yesterday?’ Matthew paused. ‘Have you checked with the day centre?’ I was there for most of the day. She could have disappeared while I was sitting in the sun, chatting to my husband. He remembered his walk through the day centre and thought that Christine could have been in the kitchen when he passed, peeling potatoes at the sink.

‘I haven’t done anything!’ Susan said. ‘I didn’t know where to start. I just came here to Dorothy’s, because I knew you were a detective. I thought you’d know how to find her.’

He was going to ask why she hadn’t called the police as soon as she’d realized Christine was missing, but the woman felt bad enough. No point making accusations now. She was here and so was he. Back in the family home and making himself useful at last.

‘Have you got a photograph of Christine?’

‘Not here.’ She seemed so distressed that he worried she’d start crying again. ‘I never thought.’

‘I’ll drive you home,’ Matthew said. ‘Mother can come with you, keep you company. You want to be there, don’t you, in case Christine finds her way back.’

‘Oh yes!’ She looked up, horrified. ‘I never thought of that.’ He saw that panic had overwhelmed her; she was drowning in it.

‘In the meantime, I’ll phone the station and get things started.

Let’s see if we can find her for you.’

 

 

Susan Shapland lived in a little cottage, the middle of a terrace of three on a creek running in from the Taw, on low-lying land close to Braunton Marsh. It was only a couple of miles from Matthew’s house, and from the place where Walden’s body had been found. Susan must have called a taxi to Matthew’s mother’s house as soon as she realized Christine was missing. An impulse because she knew she couldn’t cope with this crisis on her own. When Matthew had been a boy, the creek had been neglected, overgrown, with remnants of its industrial past: staithes and the rusted remains of a small crane. In the nineteenth century, boats bringing coal to the county had tied up here, and had taken away the clay, which had been dug close by. Now, it formed part of a nature reserve. Colin Marston probably walked along the bank every day while he was doing his bird census.

The Shaplands’ cottage was low and damp. Susan had given up her battle with the wet that seeped in from outside, and there was mould on the window ledges and crawling across the ceiling. Matthew wondered if anyone had suggested that she and Christine should move. Some incomer would buy the place, and make it habitable, but it was barely that now. Perhaps the husband, Cecil, had been the person holding things together. He wondered too when his mother had last come here. He imagined the delight she would take in throwing open windows and spraying the place with bleach, scrubbing until it shone.

They sat in the cluttered living room while Susan hurried away to find a photograph.

‘A man came to the Woodyard a couple of months ago and took the pictures.’

Christine was still recognizable as the girl he’d once played with. Short, dark-haired, a little dumpy. He thought it was the woman he’d seen helping to cook in the Woodyard. She was smiling shyly at the camera.

‘That’s very useful. How old is she now?’

‘Forty-two,’ Susan said. ‘But not in her mind. In her mind she’s still a little girl.’

‘Has she said anything recently about someone hurting her or asking her to do something that made her feel uncomfortable?’

Jonathan had occasionally brought home anxieties about the sexual abuse of service users in his care. Allegations against relatives, carers. Matthew had never been able to proceed with a prosecution. It was one person’s word against another and often the victims didn’t have the words to explain what had happened to them. A court case was intimidating enough at the best of times and would be so much worse for someone like Christine, with a limited understanding of what was going on.

Something unusual was happening here and ideas and possibilities skittered through his mind, unformed and difficult to catch. Lucy Braddick was brave and she’d been clear that nothing untoward had gone on with Walden. But his behaviour could have been seen as grooming, stalking even, and perhaps Lucy viewed the world through an innocent’s eyes. Although the man hadn’t sounded like the sort of person who’d be excited by having sex with a vulnerable adult, Matthew had never met him. If he’d been close to a breakdown, perhaps he’d find something almost reassuring in being with a woman who’d be compliant, easy to dominate. Walden couldn’t have abducted Christine; he was already dead when she went missing. So, what were they talking here? A circle of abuse with other people involved? And if an adult with a learning disability had been assaulted by Walden and the family had found out, wouldn’t that be a motive for murder?

Susan still hadn’t answered. She was staring at him in horror. At last she spoke. ‘My Susan’s a good girl. She wouldn’t do anything like that.’

‘She wouldn’t be responsible,’ Matthew said. ‘It wouldn’t be her fault at all. You do see that? There are men who take advantage of vulnerable women. Has she seemed herself recently? Happy?’

There was another long silence.

‘We didn’t really talk,’ Susan said. ‘Not about things like that. Feelings. Chrissie was closer to her dad. I think they talked. With us it was practical, like. What she wanted for tea and did she have anything that needed washing. Then we watched telly together. We were used to each other. We had a routine. The only time she got upset was when the unexpected things happened. She hated that. She’ll hate what’s happening now. Missing the routine, her days at the Woodyard, Coronation Street on the television.’ She looked up. ‘You’ve got to find her.’ Matthew nodded. He said he’d get off and make sure his officers knew how important it was. He left Susan in the small, dark front room, but his mother followed him to the door to see him out.

‘Would you like me to come back later?’ he asked. ‘I could give you a lift home.’

‘No,’ she said sharply. ‘I might stay over and if I need to go back to Barnstaple, I can always get a taxi.’ Making it quite clear that he hadn’t yet done enough to be forgiven for his loss of faith, for abandoning the Brethren.