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'The Long Call' Chapters 15 & 16

for sale sign in front of a home

Illustration by Stan Fellows


Chapter Fifteen

MAURICE BRADDICK HAD DECIDED he’d keep Lucy at home until Walden’s killer was caught. The police obviously believed the Woodyard was involved in some way in the murder and he wasn’t going to put his daughter in danger. No way. Maurice thought it would be good for the two of them to spend a day together in the garden. Lucy could get some of that exercise the social worker was always talking about and since the weather had improved he’d been itching to get out there, to get his hands covered in soil and some fresh air in his lungs. Then they could treat themselves to tea in The Golden Fleece. Lucy would like that; she was always glad of an excuse to dress up.

Lucy, though, had other ideas. She was up and ready just the same as usual, and she had her bag with her when she came in for breakfast.

‘Morning, maid. I thought we’d give the Woodyard a miss today.’ Maurice tried to sound bright, in control.

‘Why?’ She reached out for the box of cereal, filled her bowl to the rim, then stared at him, demanding an answer.

‘We could have a day here and then go to The Fleece for our tea. A bit of a treat.’

‘We could go to The Fleece when I get back from the Woodyard.’ She started to eat, as if the matter was already settled. Maurice thought she got that from her mother: a stubbornness, a refusal to listen to a good argument. But he knew she also loved routine. Anything different threw her.

Still, he gave it one more try. ‘But that man from there was killed.’

‘Not in the Woodyard, Dad. On a beach.’ And he had no answer to that.

‘I’ll give you a lift there and back then. See you safe inside.’ Of course Lucy agreed to the lift because it would save her the walk to and from the bus stop in the square, and the bus ride was no fun any more, without Walden to chat to and feed her sweets. She gave him one of her lovely smiles.

 

The wind was stronger. He could see it gusting on the river as they drove down towards Barnstaple. He thought the weather was changing and though he’d lost the heart for it now, he should still spend a bit of time in the garden before the rain came. He parked at the Woodyard and walked with Lucy to the door, then followed her at a distance until she was safely through the glass tunnel and into the day centre. He knew that was ridiculous. What could happen to her here, with all these people about?

But even in the day centre, there were sometimes accidents. Perhaps Lucy’s friend Rosa’s parents had had the right idea taking her away and keeping her safe at home. Maurice thought this notion of giving people like Lucy more independence was going too far. Of course they shouldn’t go back to the Dark Ages when folk were locked away in institutions, as if there was something shameful about them. But they needed to be protected. Properly cared for. In the past he’d seen the day centre as a place of safety. Now, he wasn’t so sure.

Maurice couldn’t face driving home straight away; he knew he’d be too restless to settle to anything. Instead, he went to the cafe, ordered a sausage toastie and sat there, staring out of the window, watching the scudding clouds reflected in the water, until the place filled up and they needed his table.


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Chapter Sixteen

They had an early start. Jen pulled rank and insisted on driving because she’d get paid the mileage and she needed the cash. When she got to Ross’s immaculate little house on a smart new estate on the edge of town, Melanie let her in.

‘Come and wait for a moment. He’s nearly ready. You know what he’s like in the morning, he spends more time in the bathroom than me.’ Melanie rolled her eyes in mock-despair, but Jen could tell she’d forgive Ross anything. Jen wished there was something to dislike about Melanie. She was as immaculate as the house, with flawless skin and hair already styled for work. But she was kind too. She worked as a manager in an old people’s home, had started as a care assistant straight from school at sixteen and still took her turn at wiping bums and laying out the dead when they were short-staffed. As far as Jen could tell, her only fault was her taste in men. She and Ross had been going out together since they were teenagers, but Melanie still worshipped him.

He appeared at the bottom of the stairs, gave Jen a quick nod that might have been an apology for keeping her waiting, and hugged his wife. A real hug, full of affection but sexy too. At that moment Jen realized what she really felt for the couple was envy. All the way up the M5 Ross was talking, rambling about the previous weekend’s rugby match against a Cornish team, about his moment of glory, saving the day with a last-minute drop goal. Jen’s ex had been into football and the story didn’t sound so different from the ones she’d been forced to fake interest in at home. This was different, though, because Ross was just a colleague, and she was different. She didn’t have to pretend to care. When he paused for breath, she broke in. ‘You do know I don’t give a flying fuck about this sporting crap?’

He stopped, shocked and offended, and they spent the next few miles in silence. Then she thought this was ridiculous. Ross wasn’t Robbie and they had work to do. She should make more of an effort to get on with him.

‘So, you made appointments with Walden’s wife and Alan Springer. Who are we seeing first?’

‘Springer. It was hard to pin him down. He didn’t want us going to his home.’

‘Has he got something to hide, do you think?’

‘Maybe, but I didn’t think I should push it. We don’t want him disappearing and all we have at the moment is that phone call. There’s no record from the GPS on his mobile that he was anywhere near North Devon when Walden died.’

‘So, where are we meeting him?’ Jen indicated and pulled off the motorway.

‘The local nick. Bedminster. I’ve booked an interview room. The boss knows an inspector there and pulled some strings.’ ‘Stringer preferred to come to the police station rather than talk to us at home?’

‘Yeah.’

Jen hoped the man wasn’t messing them around, buying time. She hoped he’d turn up.

 

In the end, Springer was there before them. He was waiting when they walked in and the officer on the counter nodded towards him. Tall and well-built, muscular, sandy hair and blue eyes. In the interview room, he sat on the other side of the table from them, apparently easy and relaxed.

‘Thanks for agreeing to meet us.’

‘No worries. I was sorry to hear about Simon.’ A Bristol accent, the one Jen had heard on the answer machine.

‘How did you know him?’ They’d decided she’d take the lead on the interview.

‘We were in the army together. We became friends, both from the same neck of the woods. You know. Got married at about the same time and I left the forces soon after he did. When he set up the business with Kate, his ex, I put a bit of money in.’ He looked straight at Jen. ‘Big mistake. Never do business with a mate.’

‘Tell us about that.’

‘Kate was the driving force behind it. She’d worked in hospitality. When Si left the army, she said she wanted to see a bit more of him. She hated being a forces’ wife, left behind, moving every few years. So, when he came out, they bought a little restaurant. He’d be the chef and she’d do the admin and front of house. A partnership.’ Springer paused. ‘Si wasn’t so fussed about the idea. He’d have been happy working in a kitchen somewhere, finish at the end of the day. No responsibility. He wasn’t ambitious and he needed time to settle back in civvy street. The last thing he needed was more stress.’

He paused, stretched his legs. ‘It worked well at first, though. Si was a good cook and they built up a local following, then things started to fall apart. Maybe the business grew too quickly, maybe it was the pressure of being in charge. He started drinking. Often the way old soldiers deal with pressure.’

‘He started drinking because he killed a child.’

Springer shook his head. ‘The other way round. He killed a child because he’d been drinking.’

‘Not over the legal limit.’

‘Yeah, well, he must have been bloody lucky because I was with him that day and I wouldn’t have driven home.’

Silence in the room. Someone was swearing in the corridor outside.

‘What was the phone call about?’ That was Ross, impatient, jumping in. Jen wanted to know about the day the two men had been drinking, but Springer had already started his answer.

‘I wanted my money back. Needed it back.’

‘The money you’d invested in the restaurant?’

He nodded. ‘I went to see Kate, but she said they’d sold the business and the house and split the equity. She refused to pay me, said Simon had the cash, that it had been a private arrangement between me and Simon.’

Jen thought that explained how Walden had been able to pay his rent for twenty Hope Street. She wondered where he’d stashed away the rest of the money, but one of the team would be already checking the bank accounts. They’d soon know.

‘How did you track him down?’

‘That was through Kate too. She said she’d heard from him. He’d rung from a landline and she’d made a note of the number. Worried about him, maybe, or wanting to keep track.’ He paused. ‘She’s found another man. More her kind. Runs his own software business, big flat in Clifton. Mummy and Daddy would approve.’

‘Her family didn’t approve of Walden?’

Springer shrugged. ‘That was the impression I got. Si always felt he had to prove himself. He was never quite good enough.’

‘Did he call you back after you left the message for him?’ ‘Yeah. A little while later.’ Springer snapped his mouth shut. ‘And did you get your money back?’

Another silence. ‘He promised he’d get it to me, but there was something about the way he spoke … I wasn’t sure I believed him. He said it was tied up in a project. Something he really had to do. I’d get it back but I might have to wait.’ He paused. ‘I told him I couldn’t wait. My wife wants a baby. I mean, we both want a baby, but she’s desperate and it’s just not happening. We only get one shot at IVF on the NHS. I’ve told her we’ll go private, but she’s a teaching assistant and I work in a gym and money’s tight.’ He looked up at them. ‘We were mates, served together. He knew how much I needed that cash back. He knew what my marriage means to me.’ He paused. ‘He said he’d get it back. That he understood.’

‘But he didn’t deliver?’

Springer shook his head. ‘No, he didn’t deliver. At least he hadn’t. Not before he died and I guess I’ll never get it now.’

‘Did you go and see him? Kate will have given you his address.’

He looked up. ‘You think I killed him? For twenty grand?’ It was Jen’s turn to shrug. ‘People have killed for less.’ ‘But I haven’t got the money.’ He stood up, finally exasperated. ‘I have no idea what he did with it. And now I’ll never know.’

 

Walden’s wife Kate had never taken her husband’s name. The flat where she lived with her new partner was one of a number in a grand stone crescent in Clifton. She stood at the door and held out her hand.

‘Kate Dickinson.’ Cool and polished. Long legs in skinny jeans, a white linen shirt. Her hair looked polished too. It was hard to imagine her hooked up with the itinerant cook.

Bedminster had been busy, the pavements crowded with shoppers, pushchairs, cycles ridden illegally to avoid the busy road. Express supermarkets and pound shops. Chuggers and buskers. This seemed like a different world. Calmer. Lighter. The apartment was on the first floor, and the living room spread the width of the house, with views of the Downs to the front and over the city roofscape at the back. Polished hardwood floor and classy furniture. Little colour and no clutter. The palette various shades of grey.

‘You’re here to talk about Simon.’ She offered them coffee and Jen caught a glimpse into the kitchen, which was just as she would have expected. Granite and chrome, without a mucky pot in sight. Again, as different as it was possible to be from the arty house in Hope Street. Or her house in Barnstaple. The coffee came from a machine that hissed in a genteel, upmarket sort of way. Jen felt an overwhelming desire to scribble on the wall with wax crayon.

‘When did you last hear from him?’

She and Ross were on a sofa and Kate sat in a chair opposite, legs curled under her.

‘Months ago. Before Christmas, certainly.’

‘Could you be more specific?’

She looked up with a little triumphant smile as she remembered. ‘Yes! It was the end of October. There are Americans living in the flat next door and they’d put pumpkins outside for Halloween. I remember seeing them on my way out. I was going to the theatre with Guy, my partner. I’d not long moved in.’ She paused. ‘Then my mobile started ringing. It was Simon, in a dreadful state. Pissed of course. I was used to that, but he was distraught. Suicidal. I didn’t know what to do or how I could help.’

‘Was he genuinely suicidal?’

‘I think so. He said he was weighed down with guilt and he couldn’t live with himself. The only way to stop the pain was to kill himself. I tried to talk to him, but he wasn’t listening. I knew I wasn’t doing any good.’

And your flash new partner was waiting for you. You wouldn’t want to miss the first act. Then Jen told herself that was unreasonable. What could Kate have done? And what right did Walden have to guilt trip her?

‘So that was the last time you spoke to him?’

‘No!’ Kate said. ‘No! I should have explained. He phoned a few weeks later. I’d been trying to get in touch with him on his mobile, but he said he’d lost it that night when he was on a bender. He called me from a landline.’

‘And that’s the number you passed on to Alan Springer when he came to you for money?’

The question seemed to throw her. Perhaps she didn’t want to be seen as mean or uncharitable. Not in this grand apartment, with its spectacular views. ‘You know about that? Yes. Simon got a very good deal out of the divorce. I thought it was his responsibility to pay back his friend.’

‘Even though he’d invested in your joint business?’

‘It wasn’t like that. There was nothing formal. It was a loan to a former colleague, a mate.’

‘Tell me about that second phone call. The one from the Ilfracombe landline.’

She paused for a moment. ‘It was as if I was talking to a different man, the man I first fell for. He sounded well. Peaceful. He said he’d started to put his life together. No more self-pity or anger and he’d pulled back on his drinking. He’d found somewhere to live. Nowhere grand, but it would be fine until he got himself sorted. He was cooking again, volunteering in a cafe in a community centre.’ Another pause. ‘He said I wasn’t to worry about him.’

‘Quite a transformation.’

‘Maybe. Though, like I said, it was almost as if he was himself again and the angry, self-loathing Simon was the man who’d changed.’

‘Where did you first meet?’

‘At school. We were childhood sweethearts. He was a couple of years older than me and I fell for him. Worshipped him from afar for a while and couldn’t believe my luck when he noticed me.’ She sipped her coffee, seemed lost in memories. ‘There was something frail about him even then. Emotionally, I mean, not physically, but I thought it was attractive. That vulnerability. I felt that I was strong enough for the two of us. I thought I could look after him.’ She looked up. ‘The arrogance of youth, right?’

Somewhere in the distance, schoolboys were playing a ball game. It would be rugby probably, here in Clifton. Jen could hear cheering, boys’ voices shouting. She waited for Kate to continue, glared at Ross so he wouldn’t jump in. Sometimes people had to tell their stories in their own time.

‘Simon joined the army straight after school. I couldn’t understand it. I mean, he was never a macho kind of guy. But I can see now that he was probably looking for security, a family. His mum was on her own, pretty dysfunctional. She died a couple of years ago. He and I kept in touch, though, and I saw him whenever he was home on leave. I started at uni, dropped out after a year. My parents blamed Simon for that, said it was an infatuation, but it was nothing to do with him. He was encouraging me to stay and complete the course. The academic life just wasn’t my thing. I got a management trainee post with a boutique hotel chain and worked my way up. Then Simon asked me to marry him. It was what I’d been dreaming of since I was sixteen. Of course I said yes.’

‘But it wasn’t quite what you expected?’ Jen knew about marrying too young, what it was like to be caught up with the romance of the idea, to blink away the solid reality of the man.

‘Not quite.’ Kate gave another little smile. ‘Simon was an officer in charge of catering for his regiment. He was sent to war zones, went with the men when they were away on exercise. They have to be fed wherever they are. He was often close to the front line. He might be chatting to a fellow officer one day, drinking to him the next because he was dead or invalided home. And while he was away, I wasn’t there to support him. I had no role in his life. I couldn’t be the dutiful army wife, staying in quarters, waiting for my man. I carried on working. It was no wonder we drifted apart.’ She paused. ‘We hadn’t actually spent very much time together since we were at school. It’s hardly surprising he seemed like a stranger when we did meet.’

‘So, he decided to leave the army.’ Jen thought she’d misjudged this woman when they’d first met, had her down as hard and cold because she had a smart home in a classy neighbourhood. People were always more complex than she realized and she was always too quick to jump to conclusions. ‘Yes, we decided to set up in business together. A little restaurant. Simon’s cooking and my admin skills. Where could we go wrong? I’d saved a bit and we found nice premises in Redland, here in Bristol. Perfect, we thought.’ A pause. ‘And it was at first. Bloody hard work, mind, but we were in it together. It was only when we started to get successful, the reviews and the queues at the door, that the splits started to show. Simon couldn’t handle the stress. As I said, he’d always been a bit emotionally frail.’

‘But this time you couldn’t fix it?’

Kate looked up at her, hollow-eyed. She wouldn’t be used to failure. ‘No. He tried to fix it himself. He self-medicated with drink. Easy enough in our business.’

‘And then he killed a child.’

‘Yes!’ Now there were tears in her eyes. ‘I’ve never felt the slightest bit maternal. But a child like that. So helpless and young.’ She fumbled in her pocket for a tissue. ‘It was Simon’s decision to leave. I would have stood by him. I went to see him in prison. But as soon as he came out, he disappeared. I don’t know where he went.’

‘To North Devon to work in the hotel?’

Kate shook her head. ‘No. That came later. Like I said, he disappeared for a while and I had no idea where he was. He did come back to Bristol briefly while we sorted out the separation. The restaurant had still been a going concern and we got a reasonable price for it. I didn’t want to run it on my own; I’m in corporate hospitality now. My own little business. I sold our house.’ She looked up. ‘Then I met Guy. He hired me to run a party for his clients. He hasn’t swept me off my feet, but he’s kind. Reliable.’

‘And you shared the profit on the house and the business with Simon?’

‘Absolutely. Fifty-fifty.’

‘How much would that come to?’

‘Well, the house was still mortgaged, so it was just under two hundred grand.’

‘Between you?’ Jen wondered what on earth Simon Walden had done with his hundred thousand pounds. How was it tied up, so he couldn’t give Alan Springer back the money he was owed?

‘No!’ the woman said, as if that was a crazy idea. ‘Each.’

 

Jen pulled Ross across the road so they could walk on the Downs with the elderly dog-walkers and the runners. She needed fresh air before they started the drive home, and the air here was fresh, westerly with the smell of rain in it.

‘So, what do you think?’

Ross looked at his watch. Jen thought he’d probably promised Mel he’d be back at a reasonable time. Then she thought again that she should be more tolerant. Ross was young and keen and happy. When she spoke her voice was more joke than recrimination.

‘Your attention, please, DC May. This is a murder we’re investigating.’

He had the good grace to look sheepish. ‘We need to find out where all his money’s gone. If he really meant to pay his mate back, where has it disappeared to?’

She gave a little clap of her hands, mocking him. ‘So, get on that phone of yours and call that in. Let’s get someone at the station to push for an answer. Find out why they haven’t already tracked it down.’