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'The Long Call' Chapters 21 & 22

hand on doorknob opening door

Illustration by Stan Fellows


Chapter Twenty-One

MATTHEW WAS VISITING ROSA HOLSWORTHY and her parents when news came through that Jen had been right about Simon having another home of his own. He’d gone to visit the Holsworthys on impulse, because he’d forgotten to ask anyone else to do it the night before. Besides, it was close to the police station, in the terrace of houses that had once looked out towards the cattle market that had long gone, and he was glad of the chance for a walk.

Rosa was younger than Lucy Braddick, thinner, dark-haired. Less mature. Matthew wouldn’t have known she had a learning disability apart from a vague look of anxiety in her eyes, the sense that the world was a mystery to her and not somewhere she felt at ease. Her legs jiggled as if she found it impossible to keep still. She flashed him a grin when she was introduced to him. ‘Are you all right?’ As if she needed to make sure that everyone around her was settled, comfortable. As if she wanted to please them. Or it could have been a verbal tic. Her parents were both at home with her. Ron Holsworthy walked with a stick.

‘Arthritis,’ his wife said. ‘He’s had it since he was a young man. He had to give up his job and he’s in terrible pain. The social took his benefit away; they say he could work if he tried. I do nights in an old folks’ home.’

‘It must be a struggle.’

They were wary of him and had only asked him in when he insisted. Matthew thought their whole life had been a struggle: against bureaucracy, doctors, social workers. They would have been suspicious of anyone in authority turning up on the doorstep.

‘You took Rosa out of the Woodyard.’

‘She never really liked it,’ Ron said. ‘Not in that big old place. It wasn’t the same as the centre they had before.’

‘Nothing happened? To make you take her away?’

‘No, there was nothing like that,’ Janet, the mother, said. ‘We’d just rather have her at home. She’s company for Ron when I’m working and she’s a good girl. She looks after him, makes him a cup of tea, helps him to the bathroom when he needs to go.’

Matthew nodded. He could understand why the couple had decided to keep their daughter at home. She was as much a carer as someone who needed to be looked after. ‘She was a friend of Christine Shapland, in the old day centre. Christine’s gone missing. I wonder if you have any idea where she might be.’

The couple looked at each other in horror. And vindication perhaps that they’d made the right decision in keeping their daughter at home.

‘No,’ Ron said. ‘We haven’t seen Christine since Rosa stopped going to the Woodyard. We keep ourselves to ourselves mostly. I hear from Maurice Braddick occasionally and he’s been over for tea with his daughter. But that’s once in a blue moon. Usually I go days without seeing a soul. Janet has to catch up on her sleep. There’s only Rosa. I’d be lost without her.’

Matthew was thinking again that the Holsworthys had their own reasons for keeping Rosa at home when the call came through that they’d tracked down Walden’s secret accommodation.

 

Now, Matthew stood with Ross outside the betting shop, looking out for Jen. Ross had picked Matthew up at the police station and they’d travelled to Braunton together. They must have looked like reluctant punters, hanging around on the pavement. Ross was all for going inside and asking if the bookies’ manager had a key to the flat above, but Matthew decided to wait for a while — he wanted to get a feel for the neighbourhood first — and moved them down the street a little so they wouldn’t draw attention to themselves. This was a still a place for locals and they were already attracting attention. There was a convenience store on the corner and a hardware shop, a bakery selling cakes with brightly coloured icing. Nothing healthy. Nothing here for the tourists. The breeze was still westerly and mild. Matthew imagined Walden living in the flat, letting himself out occasionally to buy food and booze. Because he’d been troubled here. Depressed and guilty, drinking heavily. Otherwise, why would he have turned up at the church in Barnstaple looking for salvation? Why would he have moved into the house in Hope Street?

He walked into the convenience store, leaving Ross outside. The place was almost empty; it was too late for schoolkids buying sweets on their way to school, too early for people looking for lunchtime snacks. On the shelves behind the counter were jars of old-fashioned confectionary: sherbet lemons, rhubarb and custard chews, humbugs. This must have been where Walden had bought the sweets he’d given to Lucy. Matthew showed the man behind the counter Walden’s photo.

‘Do you recognize him?’

The shopkeeper was of South Asian heritage, shiny-haired, handsome. He looked up from his phone and considered the picture. ‘Yeah. He was a regular for a bit, then he didn’t come in for a while. I thought he’d moved away from the area. But he’s been back again a few times more recently.’

‘He’s the guy that was killed out at Crow Point. We think he used to live round here.’

The man shook his head, as if this meant nothing to him. There was a pile of North Devon Journals on the counter, the headline — Man killed at local beauty spot — was large and dramatic. But it seemed that he sold the papers; he didn’t read them.

‘Can you tell me anything about him? Did he have any friends round here?’

‘I’m sorry.’ The shopkeeper sounded genuine. He was giving Matthew his full attention now. ‘When I first met him, he came into the shop every couple of days, that’s all I can tell you.’

‘What did he buy?’

The man could answer that. ‘Tea, milk, bread. And booze. Always booze.’ A pause. ‘I think he must have given up drinking, though, because he’s been back a few times recently and now he’s just buying sweets. Perhaps it helps. Like when people give up the fags.’

Through the glass door, Matthew saw Jen walking down the street towards them. She was wearing a long raincoat, reaching almost to her ankles, and pulled it round her to keep off the drizzle. Her head was bare and the red hair was a blast of colour in the greyness. She stepped off the pavement to let an elderly woman with a shopping trolley walk past. Matthew thanked the shopkeeper and went outside.

‘Sorry to keep you waiting. I’d been talking to Caroline at St Cuthbert’s and I couldn’t just dash away without saying goodbye.’ Jen pulled the key from her pocket, like a conjuror lifting a rabbit from a hat, with a flourish and a grin. ‘I hope it works after all this. I’ll look a right twat otherwise.’ She held it out so they could see the albatross key ring. ‘Gaby Henry found it in a pile of washing Walden had left in their machine.’ It did work. The key turned easily and smoothly in the lock.

The door to the flat went straight from the pavement and was right next to the entrance to the betting shop. Inside, a narrow, bare staircase. They stood just inside the door to pull on scene suits, away from public view, struggling in the cramped hallway. The space was lit by a bare bulb that swung above them.

‘Hello!’ Matthew shouted up the stairs. He still had the irrational idea that they might find Christine Shapland here, and he didn’t want to scare her. Three police officers looking like something from a horror film in suits and masks would look like aliens, hardly human. There was no response and he went up.

He’d been expecting a bare, clear, organized space, like Walden’s bedroom in Ilfracombe. The man had been in the army. Even at times of distress it would be his habit to be tidy. But they walked into chaos. The stairs led straight into the living area, a kitchen and living room separated by a breakfast bar. The floor was scattered with cutlery and broken crockery, drawers had been turned upside down, dry food had been emptied from packets and there was a blue snow of washing powder on the grey lino. Beyond the breakfast bar there was a small sofa and a cupboard on which a television stood. The cushions had been pulled from their covers, the base of the sofa had been slashed and the contents of the cupboard now lay on the floor. The detectives stood where they were.

‘What do you think?’ Ross said. ‘Did Walden lose it? Have some sort of psychotic episode and trash the place?’

‘I don’t think Walden did this.’ Because although it seemed like random mayhem, Matthew thought this was a search. Someone in too much of a hurry, or too desperate to be careful and quiet had been through the place. They’d been thorough. If they’d been looking for something specific, it would have been found. It would be unlikely that a police search would find anything now. He tried to keep his thinking slow and methodical, but the senseless mess jangled his nerves and made it hard for him to think straight.

He walked through to the bedroom, aware of Ross and Jen following. It suddenly hit Matthew that Walden would have hated this. The intrusion. The disorder. He hoped the man hadn’t seen it before he was killed. That led on to the question of when the place had been ransacked. Surely after Walden’s death, Matthew thought. There’d been no sign of a break-in. Perhaps the key found in Walden’s laundry had been a spare and one had been stolen from his body, along with the phone, wallet and credit cards they’d never found. Unless the women in number twenty had been involved and were very, very clever, and Gaby had pretended to find the key in the washing machine after they’d already used it.

Walden had kept all his photographs in his bedroom, but they’d been left untouched. It seemed the searcher had been looking for something bigger than a slip of paper that could be hidden behind an image. The glass hadn’t been smashed. Another indication, Matthew decided, that this was a search, not an act of revenge or hatred. There were pictures of a woman, in various stages of maturity, growing from a schoolgirl to a smart businesswoman, standing proudly in front of a restaurant. ‘His wife?’

Jen nodded. ‘Yeah, that’s her. Seems as if he was still a little bit in love.’

There were only two other photographs: one of an older couple and another of Walden in uniform surrounded by a group of soldier friends. They had their arms around each other’s shoulders and they were laughing.

Jen pointed to one of the men in the picture. ‘That’s Alan Springer, the guy we spoke to in Bristol. The one who claims Walden owed him money.’

The rest of the room was a heap of clothing and bedding. In the small bathroom, the bath panel had been ripped off and the lid of the cistern had been removed. There wasn’t much else to damage there.

‘We’ll lock it again and get the CSIs in.’ Matthew thought there was little point adding to the confusion by doing a search of their own. ‘I doubt that the person who did this left their fingerprints behind, but it would be interesting to see if anyone else involved in the investigation has been in here.’

They stood outside while Ross called it in. It was proper rain now, not a downpour but deceptive, insidious. Matthew felt it seeping into his skin down the neck of his shirt. He pushed open the door of the bookmaker’s and went inside. A middle-aged woman was behind the counter. A couple of men stood in front of the machines and another was glued to a television showing a horse race. All glanced at him briefly then turned back to what they were doing. Except the woman at the counter. She turned towards him. ‘Hiya!’

He felt as if he’d wandered into a different and seductive world. Of course the Brethren had been hot on the sin of gambling, a vice on a par with adultery, sodomy. And not wearing hats to meetings. It was warm in here and welcoming. As a child, he’d scuttled past the doors of betting shops, anxious that he might be drawn into temptation. Even now, he experienced something of the thrill of a guilty pleasure, just by being inside. The manager had a badge that named her as Marion. He introduced himself but didn’t explain his true interest in the flat. The last thing he needed was her talking to the press. ‘It looks as if there’s been a break-in upstairs. I wonder if you heard anything.’

‘No!’ She was interested but he thought she hadn’t linked the tenant to the dead man at Crow Point. ‘You’re not safe anywhere these days, are you? Did they take much?’

‘It’s hard to say.’ He paused while the horse race came to an end and the punter tore up his slip in disgust. ‘So, you didn’t hear anything?’

She shook her head. ‘I wasn’t even sure if anyone was still renting. You never see anyone going up. I just thought they must be out at work all day.’

‘And no one hanging around outside?’

She laughed. ‘Anyone hanging around outside would be my punters having a fag.’

He smiled back and was about to leave when she called him back. ‘Hang on, there was a letter for him. It arrived a couple of days ago. It was too big for the letter box and it had to be signed for, so the postie brought it in here. One of the juniors was on and took it. If I’d been around, I’d have told them there was no point because we never saw the tenant and we didn’t have a key.’

Another question answered.

She disappeared into a room at the back and emerged with a large white envelope. He took it from her and left the warm, comfortable room. Ross and Jen were still on the pavement, miserable now. He put his hands on both of their shoulders, felt that their coats were sodden. ‘Come on! What are we waiting for?’

 

They sat in his office. He made them coffee, because he’d never wanted to be the kind of boss who demanded that his minions wait on him, and anyway, he knew he’d never get a decent brew if he left it to them. He’d sent Ross and Jen ahead of him in her car, and had sat in the one Ross had been using in the car park at the end of the lane until he got the text from the CSIs saying they were there and needed to be let in. Now he set the envelope, still unopened, on the desk between them. ‘This was left for Walden in the bookie’s. I’ve checked the post mark. It was sent just over a week ago.’

He took a paper knife and slit it across the top of the envelope rather than pulling it open at the flap. These days most envelopes were self-sealing, but if it had needed licking there could be DNA in the saliva on the gum.

The bulky content was an A4 brochure, glossy, explaining the services provided by a firm of solicitors called Morrish and Sandford based in Exeter. With it was a letter on thick, cream paper, written by Justin Cramer, one of the solicitors in the firm.

 

I write to confirm the appointment made today by telephone and enclose some details of our services. I look forward to discussing your concerns and to seeing you on March 11th at 10.30 in our offices.

 

The date of the appointment was less than a week away. There was no explanation of the concerns that had prompted Walden to contact the lawyer. Matthew was wondering why Walden would have needed a solicitor. Perhaps Walden had decided to buy a property with all his money. But why would he choose a solicitor in Exeter, at least an hour’s drive away? Part of a fancy firm who provided potential clients with glossy brochures? Matthew was about to phone the number on the letter to find out, when Vicki, the young PC, who’d taken responsibility for the search for Christine Shapland, knocked on the office door. She looked flushed, excited.

‘I thought you’d like to know. There’s been a sighting. A passenger on the Lovacott bus thinks he saw Christine. Might be nothing. He said it was just a glimpse as the bus went past. There’s a patch of woodland near a pool. There was a big house there once but it burned down years ago and nothing much is left. Someone was sitting there, next to the water. It was too far away to see the face but he recognized the clothes, described them exactly.’


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Chapter Twenty-Two

THE RAIN STOPPED AS they drove towards Lovacott. The clouds ripped apart to let through shafts of sunlight when they climbed out of the vehicle. It was wet underfoot, though, water dripped from the trees and Jen’s coat was still damp after she’d stood outside Walden’s flat in Braunton. She was starving, couldn’t remember the last time she’d eaten. She’d wanted to stop to pick up some chocolate or a sandwich from the canteen, but the boss had said there was no time. Jen thought he cared about this missing woman in a way that was personal for him. They’d parked by the side of the road, pulling the car right into the verge on the long grass so traffic could still pass. Matthew had got her to drive and sat beside her, an OS map on his knee, shouting directions. He was old-fashioned that way and never trusted the satnav. They’d left Ross back at the station to phone the solicitors’ in Exeter and they’d all been pleased with that arrangement. Matthew had said they shouldn’t go mob-handed; if Christine Shapland was really there, she’d be terrified enough as it was.

Now they were outside and everything was glistening and strange; the sunlight through the holes in the cloud seemed brighter than usual, more focussed, features of the landscape seemed spot-lit. They climbed a five-bar gate and walked down an avenue of trees to the pool. Once this would have been parkland, an artificial setting to provide a bucolic view from a grand house. Now, it seemed pointless, a bit crazy. Surreal.

Jen thought as soon as they’d pulled up that this would be a wild goose chase. How would a woman like Christine Shapland make her way all the way out here? It was miles from her home. And if she’d been brought out here, no good would have come of it. There were people who took pleasure in humiliating those who were different, trusting. They were easy prey. If Christine had been targeted by a man who needed to dominate, who got off on cruelty, they could be looking for a body not the woman, alive and hungry and grateful to be found. Jen realized with a jolt that this search was personal for her too. It had been hard enough for her to fight back against a controlling man with such a pathetic ego that he needed to hit a woman to prove his strength. It’d be worse for a woman like Christine, confused and already accustomed to being diminished and patronized.

Matthew was striding ahead and had already reached the pool. The avenue continued into an area of untended woodland and a blanket of celandines, startling, almost unpleasant, in the yellow light. The pool had been created to please the eye, though. At one end there was a stone bridge across the narrowest stretch of water. It served no purpose. The lake was fringed with iris and there was a small wooden jetty, with a rowing boat still attached. It was only as they got closer that they saw that the planks of the jetty were rotting and that the water itself was clogged with weed, green with algae.

‘Christine was seen by the bridge,’ Matthew said. ‘I can’t see how the witness could have made it up. He described it perfectly. I came past on the bus myself on Tuesday and there was a good enough view.’

Jen could tell he was trying to convince himself, not her. ‘Let’s walk round there then, shall we?’ she suggested. ‘Even if she’s not still here, there might be some trace of her.’

‘Well, someone’s certainly been here recently.’ Once there’d been a path around the water, but it was overgrown, grass pushing through the paving stones. In places the grass had been crushed.

‘Could be anyone. It is a bit special here. You can see how it would attract walkers, locals.’ She didn’t want him to build up his hopes, then be disappointed.

Jen saw her first. There was a bench just beyond the bridge, hidden by the stone walls that flanked it. The bench was wrought-iron; it had once been black, but it was rusting now and the paint was flaking off. The woman was lying back in the seat, her face turned towards the sun, as if she was enjoying its heat. She was wearing the clothes that had appeared in all the descriptions that had been sent to the press: navy blue trousers, purple knitted cardigan, black anorak. On her feet, blue socks and white trainers. The trousers were a little short for her and they could see six inches of white leg. Everything wet, the shoes and the trousers spattered with mud.

Matthew had run ahead and was crouching beside her, holding her hand, feeling for a pulse. ‘She’s still alive.’ He stroked the damp hair away from her face. ‘Christine. It’s Matthew Venn. Do you remember me? We used to go to meetings together.’

Jen got out her phone and punched in 999 to call an ambulance. ‘No reception. I’ll go back to the road, see if there’s anything there.’

Christine opened her eyes and slowly pushed herself up into an upright position. Not frightened at all, it seemed, but frail, shaky.

‘You came,’ she said. ‘They said that you would.’ Then she shut her eyes again and they couldn’t tell if she was asleep or unconscious.

In the end Jen stayed where she was and they carried Christine to the car between them. She seemed so cold and confused and the pulse was so weak that Matthew was worried she wouldn’t survive the wait for an ambulance. ‘There’s no guarantee that you’ll get phone reception even at the road and if she was out here all night, she could get hypothermia.’

They laid her on the back seat, covered her with their jackets, switched on the heater and blasted out hot air. Jen drove again back to Barnstaple, very fast, while Matthew called 999 and asked for instructions. ‘We’re to take her to A&E at the North Devon District Hospital,’ he said. ‘They’ll be waiting for us.’

Jen wanted to ask him what Christine could have meant. You came. They said that you would. Who could she have been waiting for? But there was no chance because Matthew was turning away from her, checking on their passenger, making sure she was still breathing. Then he was on the phone again. ‘Mother? Is that you?’

Jen knew this was a big deal because Matthew never spoke to his family, who belonged to a weird sect and had cast him out as an unbeliever. Matthew had told her that in a joking manner once, when she’d asked him about them. Flip, as if he hadn’t cared. But she knew that he had cared, by the way he always asked about her family, the looks of anxiety when she came into work hungover or with tales of a new, unsuitable man. He’d been thinking that wasn’t the way a good mother should behave; she should always put her children first. Wait until you’ve got kids, she’d wanted to say. They drain your energy and personality and sometimes you need time for yourself. I feel bad enough without you doing the guilt-trip thing.

Now she was driving like a maniac down these twisting, overgrown lanes, trying to listen in to the exchange between the boss and his mum, but pretending not to. Just as well she was a woman and good at multitasking. And just as well that Matthew’s mother came from the generation who thought you had to shout into a phone to make herself heard, because Jen could make out every word, both sides of the conversation.

‘We’ve found Christine,’ Matthew said. ‘I wanted to let you know.’ As if it really wasn’t a big deal, as if he hadn’t been haunted by the search since he’d realized the woman was missing.

‘Alive?’ One word. A demand and an accusation. The woman couldn’t believe that her son had succeeded in this.

‘Yes. But she’s very cold and a little confused. We’re taking her to A&E.’

‘At last!’ He wasn’t to be congratulated for finding Christine then, just blamed for not finding her sooner.

‘I thought you’d like to let Susan know.’ There was no resentment in his voice. ‘Tell her that we’ve found her daughter and she’ll be at the hospital.’

‘Yes, I can do that.’

Of course you can. You’ll get the gratitude, the vicarious praise.

This was a huge gift he was giving.

Matthew’s mother was still speaking. ‘I’ll call one of the Brethren. They’ll pick her up and take her to the hospital. I can meet her there.’

There was a moment’s pause. Jen could tell that Matthew was choosing his words. ‘Don’t ask Dennis Salter to collect Susan. I don’t think that would be a very good idea. He’s too close to my investigation.’

A silence at the other end of the phone. Jen could sense that Matthew was tense, that he was expecting his mother to question his request. The hand holding the mobile was shaking slightly. But when Dorothy Venn spoke, it was to agree with him. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I can see that would probably be best.’ Another pause. ‘I’m sure we can find someone who lives closer than Lovacott to go out to Braunton to fetch Susan.’

‘I’m sure that you can.’

It seemed that the conversation was over. They’d reached the outskirts of the town. Matthew was about to switch off the phone when his mother spoke again. Two words, sharp, almost curt. ‘Thank you.’

 

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