Skip to content
 

'The Long Call' Chapters 17 & 18

bird flying in sky carrying a key

Illustration by Stan Fellows


Chapter Seventeen

When Matthew left his mother and Susan in the damp little cottage by the marsh, he drove back to Barnstaple and parked outside the police station. Inside, he checked the progress the team had made in their initial attempts to trace Christine Shapland.

‘It’s important. She’s a vulnerable adult, she has a learning disability and the mental age of a child.’ He thought Christine was different from Lucy, less confident and more sheltered. ‘She’s been missing for at least one night. And her disappearance might be linked to the Crow Point murder.’ He added the last sentence to make them take the matter more seriously. The young officers saw murder as exciting, sexy. In their eyes, a middle-aged missing woman with a learning disability certainly wouldn’t be. ‘She lived in one of the cottages on the marsh, not far from where Walden’s body was found. She wasn’t there that day — she was with her aunt in Lovacott — so perhaps that’s a coincidence, but I need to find her.’

‘We’ve checked the hospital and her GP practice. Nobody’s heard from her.’ This was Gary Luke, the oldest member of the team, relaxed, fatherly.

‘Anyone been in touch with the Woodyard?’

‘Yes, Christine was definitely there all day yesterday. Her uncle dropped her off in the morning and they assumed he’d be picking her up. She wandered out with the others to the reception area of the centre and when she didn’t come back, they assumed she’d been collected or gone home with the minibus as usual. The centre’s trying to encourage a degree of independence, so they didn’t actually accompany her to the car.’ Vicki Robb was young, keen. Matthew was already impressed.

‘Has anyone spoken to the aunt and uncle?’

‘Not yet,’ Vicki said. ‘I could go if you’d like me to.’

‘No, I’ll do it. There’s another call I need to make in Lovacott anyway.’ It would be interesting to catch up with Dennis Salter after all these years. And this was a good excuse to leave the office. Walking back down the stairs to collect his car, he wondered if his mother would see his job differently if he managed to deliver Christine back to Susan. And if he failed to find the woman, would his mother see that as just another example of his failure as a man?

Matthew was on his way out when Oldham appeared at the top of the stairs and called him into his office. ‘If you’ve got a moment, Matthew …’

Oldham’s office was like its owner: shabby, untidy. Matthew had always been wary of the man. There was something about his attitude to Matthew that wasn’t dislike exactly, but more akin to distaste. Something Oldham couldn’t help and tried to control, but a prejudice that was always there under the surface. Matthew wasn’t sure if he was a homophobe or he just didn’t like the idea of a new inspector on his patch. He also found the DCI an object of pity. His wife had died of cancer a couple of years before and rumour had it that he’d started to hit the bottle then, that the beer with friends in the rugby club each evening had taken priority over work. They’d had no family. Ross, the son of a good friend, was the closest thing he had. ‘This Crow Point murder.’ Oldham leaned back in his chair. ‘I understand the victim worked at the Woodyard?’ ‘He was a volunteer there.’ ‘And your partner runs the place?’

‘My husband. Yes.’ A moment of silence.

‘And it seems that the woman with Down’s syndrome who’s missing was abducted from there.’ 

Matthew took a deep breath. ‘I wondered if I should withdraw from the case. I obviously have a conflict of interest. Perhaps you should take over as SIO.’

Another silence. Oldham closed his eyes for a moment, then opened them very slowly. Matthew watched the lids slide up and was reminded of a lizard, or perhaps a crocodile. ‘No need for that,’ Oldham said at last. ‘I trust my team. Just keep me in the loop.’

So, Jonathan had been right and idleness and a need for a quiet life had won, but as Matthew was leaving the office, Oldham spoke again: ‘Just don’t cock up, eh? If you cock up, we’ll both be in the shit, and that’s the last thing I need.’

 

Matthew carried on down the stairs, collected his car and took the same route as he’d travelled with the bus the afternoon before. The light was fading and the weather was changing. It was still warm but the air felt heavy with rain. He arrived in Lovacott more quickly than he’d expected, surprised to be suddenly there, dropping down to the village. He hadn’t noticed any of the landmarks that he’d glimpsed from the bus. Christine’s aunt and uncle lived in a tall, straight, confident house right on the square. Once, Matthew thought, a merchant might have stayed there, trading in wool, spreading prosperity. Now it was the home of Grace and Dennis Salter, stalwarts of the Barum Brethren. He’d known them since he was a child. Salter’s rejection of Matthew, after his statement of independence at the final meeting he’d ever attended, had hurt. Before that, Matthew had liked the man. He’d been one of the few Brethren to take Matthew seriously when he was a child, to answer his questions. Grace he hardly remembered at all.

He hadn’t phoned ahead, but there was a light on in the front room and he stood for a moment looking inside. He’d been in that room with his parents. Occasionally meetings had been held there. Dennis had led the worship and Alice Wozencroft, the most elderly member of the Brethren, had played a squeaky keyboard so slowly that the singing was always a few bars ahead. There was dark varnished panelling on the walls, a long, polished table. His parents had always found it a little intimidating; it was also where the elders met and decisions were taken.

As Matthew remembered, the Salters spent most of their life in a room at the back, next to the kitchen, and he’d been taken there too on more social occasions. That had been their private space, more comfortable and more welcoming. He rang the doorbell and Dennis appeared, older of course, but recognizable. A generous lion’s head, made even bigger by a mane of white hair, large features.

Matthew held out his hand. ‘Matthew Venn. Perhaps you remember me.’

‘Of course I remember you. Come on in, man, don’t stand out there on the doorstep.’ The arms wide now in greeting. Matthew was astonished by the response. Did Salter think he’d returned to the fold? Or had time mellowed him? Perhaps he was less dogmatic now than Dorothy, Matthew’s mother, despite his position of authority. Perhaps he welcomed sinners into his home as well as the chosen. ‘You’ll be here about Christine.’

‘Yes, she’s still not turned up and we’re getting concerned.’

Of course, Dorothy would have phoned Dennis Salter and told him that she’d called the police in the form of her son. She would probably have asked his permission first. Matthew’s visit wouldn’t be any kind of surprise to the man.

‘You were taking care of her so Susan could go to my father’s funeral?’

‘We were. At least Grace was. I was at the funeral of course. I couldn’t miss that. Dorothy wanted me to lead the service. I can’t tell you how distressed we are about the confusion. I’m still not quite sure how it happened.’ He showed Matthew into the dark front room; this was official, then, rather than a family matter, despite the man’s apparent contrition.

‘Is Mrs Salter at home? If so, it would be useful to talk to her too.’

‘Do you really need to speak to Grace? She feels as dreadful about this as I do, though she wasn’t responsible. Not at all. It was all my fault.’ Salter paused. ‘She’s not a well woman, and the unexpected can throw her off balance. I’d hate this to make her ill again.’

Matthew remembered the whispers surrounding Grace Salter now. There’d been times when she hadn’t been to meetings; there’d been talk about ‘nerves’, a spell in the psychiatric hospital at the other end of the county. Women had been glad to look after Dennis Salter, delivering food parcels and casseroles. Matthew couldn’t remember anyone offering to visit Grace.

‘I won’t keep her for long, but I’d like to ask her a few questions. Christine’s been missing for a day and a night. We’re taking this extremely seriously.’

‘Of course. If you think it’s important to speak to her …

‘We all want Christine found.’

Matthew sat on his own at the long table, while Dennis disappeared to fetch his wife. This house was very different from the little cottage on the edge of the creek and Matthew wondered how Christine had settled here on the night of his father’s funeral. The Salters had never had children and when Matthew knew her, Grace had never worked away from the home. Her only sense of the outside world would have come from Dennis when he returned from his office, and from the other Brethren. How would she have coped with her niece? Matthew wondered how many younger people still belonged to the community and thought Grace might not be used to dealing with people different in age from herself and her husband. He suspected members were all of his mother’s generation now, slowly dying off. In twenty years, the Barum Brethren, which had seemed so powerful in his childhood, would no longer exist. The couple returned. Grace looked like a scarecrow, tall and stick-like, very thin, with wild grey hair. Her eyes were grey too. She wore trousers and a hand-knitted jumper that swamped her. It seemed she’d been crying and she twisted a handkerchief in her hands.

‘It’s such a terrible thing to have happened.’ Her voice was a surprise, more educated than her sister’s, precise. The three of them sat at one end of the long table, as if they were part of a committee, waiting for other attendees to arrive.

‘Could you talk me through the events of the last few days? I understand that Dennis picked Christine up from her mother’s house before the funeral.’

‘Yes, she doesn’t go to the day centre on a Monday.’ Dennis did the talking. ‘She spent the day and the evening here.’

‘And how did she seem?’

‘She has a learning disability,’ Dennis said, ‘and I’m never quite sure how much she understands. Perhaps I’m not sufficiently patient. We didn’t have any real conversation the evening after I got back from the funeral. She loves television so we put it on for her, though we don’t tend to watch much ourselves. She seemed settled enough, didn’t she, Grace? She knows us and she’s spent time with us before.’

‘You’ve known her since she was a baby,’ Matthew said. ‘You’d be able to tell, wouldn’t you, if something wasn’t quite right?’

‘She was missing Susan,’ Grace said.

‘Well, of course she was missing her mother.’ Dennis sounded as if he resented the line of questioning. Perhaps he’d thought he’d be able to control the conversation as he always had with Matthew in the past. Or perhaps guilt at not making sure Christine had arrived back in Lovacott safely had made him defensive. ‘Since Cecil died, there’s just been the two of them. They’re very close. Christine hasn’t stayed overnight here since she was a young child. Susan is very protective.’

‘Was she happy to go to the Woodyard on Tuesday morning?’ ‘Oh yes,’ Grace said. ‘She loves the Woodyard. I thought she might not enjoy it so much when her friend Rosa stopped going, but she loves it just the same.’

‘Could Christine have gone to Rosa’s house?’ Matthew asked.

‘If she and Dennis missed each other at the Woodyard and she wasn’t sure where to go?’

There was a silence while Grace thought about that. She shot a quick look at her husband before answering. ‘Oh, I don’t think so. Rosa lives on the other side of Barnstaple from the Woodyard. Christine would never be able to get there by herself.’

Matthew nodded but he thought he’d get Rosa’s address from Jonathan and ask one of his officers to check.

‘She wasn’t reluctant or anxious to go to the centre that morning?’

‘No.’ Grace looked at her husband. ‘I don’t think so. You took her in, didn’t you, Dennis? You didn’t think she was upset?’ It was as if she couldn’t answer even a simple question without her husband’s agreement. But that was the way it was supposed to be within the Brethren. The women always deferred to their men.

Except in our house, Matthew thought. My mother was always the boss there.

‘She seemed perfectly fine to me.’ Dennis appeared to have recovered his composure. Perhaps he no longer felt he was being accused of being responsible for Christine’s disappearance. ‘Really, Matthew, no different from normal.’

‘And the plan was that Dennis would pick her up and bring her back here to the house until later, so that Susan would have an evening to herself?’

‘Well, we thought that was the plan,’ Grace said. ‘But when she didn’t come out Dennis assumed that she’d got the centre minibus back to Susan’s cottage as usual.’

‘You didn’t go in to the Woodyard, Mr Salter? To find her.’ ‘Not until later.’ His face was very red now. ‘I lost track of time and when I went to look for her they’d all gone. The day centre was empty.’ There was a silence, the bluster had gone and there was a sudden confession. ‘I was listening to the cricket on the radio in the car. The test match in Barbados. But I was there, parked right outside. I don’t see how she could have missed me. She knew the car. Susan doesn’t drive and I go a couple of evenings a week to take them shopping. Of course I should have been more attentive. I feel terrible that she’s gone missing.’

Matthew almost felt sorry for him. He could understand how that might happen.

There was a rather awkward silence, broken by Grace. ‘When Dennis got home we had to go straight out. A friend, one of the Brethren, needed a lift to A&E. We were there all evening with him. That’s why we didn’t get my sister’s phone call. We didn’t realize Christine was missing until Susan rang again this morning.’

On his way out, shepherded to the door by Salter, Matthew remembered something that Christopher Preece had said. ‘Weren’t you a manager of the Devonshire Building Society before you retired?’

‘I was.’ An obvious matter of pride. ‘Of the branch here in Lovacott.’

‘Are you on the board of the Woodyard?’

‘Yes. I knew Christopher Preece through the business community. He asked if I would join them and I was delighted that he thought my skills would be of use.’ He paused for a moment and then thought he should add a further explanation. ‘I was rather vocal in my opposition to the development of the Woodyard at first.’ He gave a wry smile. ‘A useless palace for arty hippies, I think I described it as in one of my lectures. Not something the council should be supporting when there are so many other demands on their resources. I’m afraid I believed what I’d read in the local press.’

‘But you changed your mind?’

‘I did, once I understood the range of activities that would be going on there, and that the day centre would be a part of it. There’s nothing wrong with admitting when you’re wrong. I knew Christopher had a sound business sense and of course Grace and I have been a part of Christine’s life since she was a baby. It seemed a very worthy cause.’

 

Standing outside on the pavement, Matthew could understand why Christine might have chosen not to spend another night with her relatives in Lovacott. The cottage she shared with her mother might be dusty and damp in comparison, but it was full of her things. She and Susan would watch television together and share a meal. There’d be warmth and companionship. In this house, there was a tension between husband and wife that Matthew still couldn’t quite understand. The relationship seemed tight and cold. Christine might simply have decided she didn’t want to spend another night there. If Dennis was sitting in his car, concentrating on the cricket, she could have walked past without his noticing and got the minibus with the other service users, making her own decision. He’d need to check with the driver. If she’d headed out towards Braunton, that would help narrow down the search area. He phoned Jonathan and explained.

‘I heard.’ Jonathan sounded fraught. ‘If she went missing from here, it’ll be a nightmare. We’ll have a safe-guarding issue. Inquiries from the press and other parents. There’s resistance as it is to the policy of encouraging greater independence.’

‘But it was Dennis Salter’s fault for not looking out for her, surely.’

‘Unfortunately, I don’t think the press will see it like that.’ Matthew had rarely heard him sound so tense. ‘Can you text me the address of a woman called Rosa? Apparently, she and Christine were friends. It’s an outside possibility but she might have gone there.’

‘Yes, sure. That’ll be Rosa Holsworthy. It’ll still be on file.’ ‘And could you ask the minibus driver if he saw Christine?’ ‘Yeah,’ Jonathan said. ‘Of course.’ Then: ‘I do hope she’s okay. Christine’s a sweetie. I’ve known her for years.’

Matthew left his car where it was and walked down the road towards the crescent of council houses that he’d seen the evening before. The street lamps had come on.

Maurice Braddick opened the door. There was a smell of cooking. Fish fingers and chips.

‘I’m sorry,’ Matthew said. ‘I’m interrupting your meal.’

The old man shook his head. ‘You come on in. We’ve just finished. We always eat early. Lucy’s ravenous when she comes in from the centre. I say she could put away a horse.’ He moved away from the door. He was wearing slippers that had seen better days, a frayed sweater. He’d changed since getting in from Barnstaple. ‘We were going to go out to The Fleece for our tea, but we thought we’d save it for the weekend.’ A pause. ‘There’s a show Lucy likes on television tonight.’

‘I was hoping to speak to her.’

‘That’s all right. I don’t think it starts until later and she can get it on catch-up anyway. She knows how to work that machine better than I do.’

Lucy was in the small living room, on the sofa, a mug of tea on the low table by her side. Comfortable and very much at ease. The television was on but she looked up when he came in. ‘Hello.’ As if he was an old friend.

‘Is it okay if I talk to you again?’

‘Is it about the man on the bus? Have you found out who killed him?’

‘No,’ he said. ‘This is about someone I think you know.’ A pause. ‘Can we switch the television off for a bit. We’ll put it back on soon.’

She nodded a little reluctantly and pressed the remote. ‘Do you know Christine Shapland? Dark hair.’

‘Yeah. She comes to the centre. But not every day. Not today.’ A pause. ‘She’s my best friend.’

‘Did you see her at the Woodyard yesterday? That was the day that I came in and talked to you and your dad.’

Lucy thought for a while and then she nodded. ‘We did cooking in the morning.’

‘Christine’s missing, Lucy,’ Matthew said. ‘We don’t know where she is. She seems to have disappeared from the Woodyard yesterday afternoon when everyone was on their way out. Did you see her?’

‘Couldn’t they keep her safe?’ Maurice’s voice high-pitched with anxiety. ‘We send our kids there and expect them to keep them safe. You’re not going back, maid. Not until all this is sorted out.’

‘Lucy?’ Matthew understood Maurice’s anger, but now he needed information. ‘Did you see Christine when you were coming out of the Woodyard yesterday?’

‘No,’ she said. ‘I saw my dad. He was waiting for me, just like today, and we came home in the car.’

‘Christine left the centre with you, though? She walked with you through the glass corridor to the big entry hall where your dad was waiting?’

‘I don’t know.’ Lucy seemed to be losing concentration now. Her eyes drifted back to the blank screen of the television. It seemed she just wanted Matthew to go so she could watch her programme in peace.

He persisted all the same. ‘How was she yesterday? If you remember, I came to the Woodyard and I talked to you about the man on the bus. You and Chrissie were cooking together. Did she tell you she’d been staying with her aunty and uncle here in Lovacott the night before?’

Lucy shook her head. Matthew sensed he’d get little more from her and turned to Maurice. ‘Could we have a chat?’

They sat in the kitchen and without asking Maurice switched on the kettle, made tea in a pot.

‘It’s not right. That woman’s parents will be going out of their minds with worry.’

‘She’s only got a mother. Susan Shapland. Do you know her?’

‘I met her a few times. While they were in the old day centre. And at the Christmas party at the Woodyard. All the relatives were invited to that.’ He’d calmed down a little, but Matthew could still sense the outrage. Because this could have happened to his daughter, he was shaken, horrified. But there was relief too because it was someone else’s child who was missing. Lucy was safe, watching television, drinking tea. ‘My wife knew her better.’

‘And Christine?’ Matthew asked. ‘Had you met her?’

‘Yes, her and Lucy have known each other for a while. Not when they were kiddies. Christine went to a special school. Her parents thought she’d be better off there. And Susan didn’t have the fight in her that my Maggie had when she battled to get Luce into mainstream education.’

‘You were there yesterday afternoon, waiting for Lucy, to bring her home. Did you see Christine? Or anyone waiting for her?’

Maurice Braddick thought for a moment. Matthew could tell that he was desperate to help. ‘I don’t know,’ he said at last. ‘I was just looking out for Luce, you know. I wanted her to know I was there for her. Because of all that had gone on earlier in the day. Her being so upset because the man she’d met on the bus was dead. Then speaking to you. Her day was turned upside down.’ Another pause and then a kind of confession. ‘I know it’s daft, but I’d been worried about her. Imagining all sorts. It was wonderful when I saw her, coming out of the room, her bag over her shoulder.’ He looked up at Matthew. ‘I don’t know what I’d do if anything happened to her. Since Maggie died, she’s all I’ve got left.’

Matthew nodded and realized that, with those words, Maurice was making him responsible for Lucy. You just make sure she’s safe, boy. I’m relying on you.

He stood up. By now Jen Rafferty and Ross May should have returned from Bristol. They should have more information. But he couldn’t lose the image of Christine Shapland as a thirteen-year-old girl, clutching her doll, looking lost.

‘Can you talk to Lucy again, see if she remembers anything?’ Because he thought now that Lucy hadn’t seemed sufficiently concerned about Christine’s disappearance. They were friends after all. But surely the idea of Lucy Braddick being part of a conspiracy to hide Christine Shapland was ridiculous.

‘I’ll try,’ Maurice said. They walked together to the door. ‘I’m not letting her go to the Woodyard tomorrow. Not until this is all over and I know it’s safe there. Will you tell Jonathan for me?’

Matthew nodded. Outside it was very dark and mild, and  a gentle rain had started to fall. He walked back to the centre of the village and his car. He stood for a moment outside the Salters’ grand house. The curtains had been drawn and there was nothing to see.


Renew your membership today and save 25% on your next year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.


Chapter Eighteen

Gaby Henry arrived in from work before the others and was glad of the time to herself. The house felt different without Simon. Empty. Quieter. It wasn’t that he’d made much noise, except when he was cooking and those had only been good sounds: the rhythmic beat of a knife on the chopping board, the sizzle of searing fish in a pan, the rattle of pots. He’d given up drinking quite so much recently and so even those noises had been calmer, less frenetic. He’d been a fierce presence, though, even when he had nothing at all to say; there’d been something about him that demanded attention. She felt suddenly bereft.

It had been a weird day at the Woodyard. Jonathan had come to find her in her studio with a tale of one of the day centre clients having gone missing. Although he was the boss, he called in sometimes, not to talk about work, but to drink coffee and look at her art.

‘Christine Shapland. Gentle soul. Down’s. Very quiet. A bit shy. She just seemed to disappear.’

‘Sorry. I haven’t seen her since last week.’ Gaby thought Jonathan had come to the studio to escape the panic in the rest of the building, to have a few moments of calm. He wouldn’t really expect her to have seen the woman recently. Gaby had nothing to do with the day centre, except for running an art class there once a week.

‘There seems to have been some kind of breakdown in communication. Her uncle thought her mother had picked her up and Susan, her mother, thought the uncle was doing it. Nobody’s seen her since yesterday.’ Jonathan had been standing by the window, the light catching one side of his face, turning the blond hair to silver thread. ‘It’s a bloody nightmare. Her uncle is Dennis Salter. He’s on the board of trustees and should have known better. He should have gone in for her, or at least looked out properly. It’ll be the Woodyard that gets the blame, though. The press will have a field day.’

He’d turned towards Gaby then and she’d thought she’d never seen him so tense, so fraught.

‘Why don’t you talk to Christopher Preece? He must be good at handling the media.’

‘Yeah, maybe.’ But Jonathan hadn’t seemed too sure. ‘I just want her found safe and well. This, on top of the murder of one of our volunteers, seems like a nightmare. I always thought of the Woodyard as a kind of sanctuary. Not a place where terrible things happen to the people who belong here.’

 

Now, in Hope Street, she could understand Jonathan’s unease. The disappearance of the woman from the day centre was unsettling. In Gaby’s mind, it had become twisted together with Simon’s murder, two strands of the same piece of rope, though she couldn’t see how there could be a connection. The only link was the Woodyard. What else might Simon Walden and a woman with a learning disability have in common?

Gaby went upstairs and collected a pile of dirty laundry from her room, picking up stray items from the floor. She considered changing the sheets on the bed but couldn’t be bothered. In the utility room in the basement, the machine was already full of someone else’s washing. Damp, not wet, so it had probably been done a while ago and forgotten. Gaby pulled it out into a plastic basket, not too irritated because usually she was the person who left her stuff there.

That was when she realized the clothes had belonged to Simon Walden. He must have put them in the machine the morning of his death or the evening before. Underpants and socks, a couple of shirts and pairs of jeans. She began to fold the damp clothes. It seemed the right thing to do, almost a mark of respect. She wondered what she should do with them next. Would the police want to see them?

She shook a shirt and something fell from the breast pocket. A Yale key on a key ring with a plastic tag shaped like a bird. Like the albatross he had tattooed on his neck. It wasn’t to this house; they’d had back and front door keys cut for Simon when he moved in and they were quite a different shape. She set it on the washing machine and was staring at it when she heard footsteps on the stairs to the basement and Caroline was there, standing right behind her. She took in the damp washing, saw immediately what it was, and then noticed the key.

‘What’s that?’

‘It must be Simon’s.’ What else could she say?

‘You’ll have to show the police,’ Caroline said. She used that bossy, big-sister voice that usually Gaby didn’t mind. Today it grated on her nerves and made her want to swear. ‘It could be important.’

‘I suppose it could.’ Gaby felt helpless standing there with the washing half folded in the basket. She’d railed against Simon and now she felt like weeping.

‘I’ll take it.’ And Caroline tucked the key into her little black handbag before Gaby could reply.