JEN RAFFERTY WAS IN THE HOSPITAL. It was evening and the lights had been switched down. Christine had had a barrage of tests. She was fine but the consultant had decided to keep her in overnight. The nurses at their station spoke in whispers. Jen was keeping vigil with Christine’s mother and Matthew’s mother, Dorothy Venn. Christine herself was deeply asleep, troubled only by an occasional loud snore, which startled her for a moment but never really woke her.
The two older women sat on one side of the bed on the easy chairs provided for patients and visitors and Jen was on the other side on the hard, orange plastic seat she’d dragged from the corridor. The curtains had been drawn around them. Despite the discomfort, Jen found herself drowsing. Matthew had said she should leave if it seemed that Christine would be unlikely to pass on any useful information — she could always come back in the morning – but Jen stayed out of inertia. And because she was earwigging on Susan and Dorothy’s conversation. They seemed to have forgotten that she was on the other side of the bed.
‘I don’t understand what Chrissie was doing all the way out there,’ Susan said.
‘It’s not so far from your Grace and Dennis’s place.’ Dorothy Venn was furthest away from Jen and her face was in shadow, but her voice was clear. ‘Not as the crow flies. We used to walk from Lovacott up to the pond when we were children for the summer picnic with the Brethren. You remember those picnics, Susan. What wonderful times we had! There was the three-legged race and hide-and-seek and our mothers had all baked, the fields were covered in buttercups and clover, all pink and yellow.’ She paused as if lost in her memory, before continuing more sharply: ‘It’s hardly any distance, even the little ones kept up.’
‘What are you saying? That Dennis did take her back to their house after all, and Chrissie ran off? That would make him a liar.’
There was a silence that dragged on so long that it became uncomfortable. In the end it was broken again by Susan.
‘Grace won’t hear a word said against him.’
‘Grace is a loyal wife,’ Dorothy agreed. There was another pause before she continued. ‘Matthew says you shouldn’t let Chrissie back there. Not until the investigation into the dead man is over.’
‘I won’t,’ Susan said. There was no hesitation this time and her voice was fierce. ‘I won’t be letting her out of my sight, whoever wants to care for her. She’ll be staying with me from now on.’
That was when Jen decided she could leave the women to it. Susan would be there for Christine in the unlikely event that she needed protecting. She could talk to Christine tomorrow, when the woman had had a good night’s sleep and when she was back in her own home. She’d have more to tell them then. She said her goodbyes and left. It wasn’t until she got home that she remembered seeing Colin Marston marching into the Woodyard when she was there that morning handing out the flyers about the missing woman. It was midnight, too late to call Matthew Venn now. It would save until the morning.
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ANOTHER MORNING AND MATTHEW WAS preparing for another briefing. It was grey outside and not long past seven, so he’d had to switch on the lights. He stood in the empty room trying to order his thoughts, planning for the day. The priority was to find out what had happened to Christine Shapland. At the moment, they couldn’t eliminate her disappearance from the murder investigation because of the Woodyard connection. That was distracting, so it was important to know if the woman had wandered away or had been taken, and if she’d had any real involvement with Walden. He felt the weight of responsibility for all that was going on and worried again that he might be the wrong man for the job. The stress was growing; tension made his muscles ache and shortened his temper. Soon it would be an effort to keep it under control.
The team started to arrive, early. Keen. Sniffing the possibility of a result. Matthew wasn’t so sure. Optimism had never been his default setting. Ross was laughing and joking with a colleague. Jen slipped in at the back at the last minute. She looked tired, a bit dishevelled. Matthew wondered if she’d been hitting the wine when she got in from the hospital the night before. He wouldn’t have blamed her.
‘Christine Shapland.’ He leaned back against the desk at the front of the room and thought he must look like one of the older teachers at his school, jaded, a bit of a joke. ‘We need to find out what happened to her as a priority. Even if there were no murder inquiry involved, she’s a vulnerable adult and if there was an abduction, we need to find the perpetrator. I’ve just phoned the hospital and she’s fine. She’s going to be allowed home this morning. Jen, I’d like you to wait until she’s home and go to see her. Jonathan’s offered to go with you. He’s known the woman for years and the mother trusts him too. She wants him there for the interview. You met Susan at the hospital and I don’t want to introduce someone new at this stage.’
Jen nodded. Matthew thought she’d rather be a part of the main Walden inquiry but she could see the sense in what he’d asked. He turned back to the room and raised his voice a notch. After all this time he allowed himself to show his impatience. ‘Ross, where are we on Walden’s finances? That missing two hundred grand? It can’t just have vanished into thin air.’ ‘I’ve already left a message for the human resources guy at the Kingsley Hotel. I’ll try again now, find out how Walden was paid when he was working there.’
‘I’m sure you find this kind of detail tedious, Ross. Not as exciting as you’d like, but it’s important and I have asked you to treat it as a priority.’
There was a shocked silence in the room. Matthew never criticized a colleague in public. Ross blushed and shifted in his seat, but Matthew was running out of patience with the man; this inability to find Walden’s money was becoming ridiculous. ‘The solicitor who dealt with Walden’s will is coming in this afternoon. If all else fails, he might have some idea about the finances.’
‘I’ll sort it out.’ Ross sounded moody, resentful.
‘Please do.’ Matthew turned his attention back to Jen. ‘Once you’ve spoken to Susan, I’d like you to go back to St Cuthbert’s. Have any of Caroline’s clients suddenly come into money? Or dropped out of the programme unexpectedly? Let’s see if we can find the person who searched Walden’s flat.’
Matthew was about to send them on their way when Jen raised her hand. ‘When I was canvassing the Woodyard service users yesterday, Colin Marston from the toll keeper’s cottage came in. He looked as if he might be there in an official capacity. I didn’t speak to him and I don’t think he recognized me, but it seemed an odd coincidence.’
Matthew drove to the Marstons’ house immediately after the meeting. From the beginning he’d had a niggle of suspicion about the couple who lived on the edge of the marsh; their interest in the case had seemed disproportionate and they lived not far from the Shaplands’ cottage. There was no reply at the door and their car had gone. He stood, uncertain what to do next, thinking he might just call into his own house for a snatched cup of good coffee and a moment’s peace, when he saw Marston in the distance on the ridge of the bank that separated the marsh from the river. It was a still day, misty and overcast, and the man was little more than a silhouette from here. Marston was staring out towards the estuary, not moving, with his back to where Matthew was standing. Matthew pulled his car further down the track and parked close to his house. There was a moment of panic when the man disappeared out of his sightline, hidden by one of their outbuildings, a crumbling boathouse. Matthew worried that Marston might have moved on. He could have walked away towards the point. Matthew thought it would be ridiculously undignified to chase after the man, to arrive breathless and sweating to ask his questions.
When he got out of the car, however, he saw that Marston was still there, still staring out over the water. The outline of the opposite bank was blurred by drizzle. Any birds that flew out of the mist would only be silhouettes. The man turned when he heard Matthew climbing the bank towards him.
‘I’m glad I saw you,’ Matthew said. ‘I went to your house but nobody was in.’
‘Hilary’s at work.’ His focus was still on the shore. ‘That’s okay. It was you I wanted to talk to.’
‘Oh?’ Now the man gave Matthew his full attention. ‘You were at the Woodyard centre yesterday morning.’
‘Yes, that’s right. I’m there every Thursday. Unless we decide to do a field trip, but those are only once a month.’
‘What is it you do there?’
‘I teach a course for the U3A, the University of the Third Age. Natural history. Mostly ornithology, but I’ve become more interested in botany recently, so I can cover that too.’ Marston paused. ‘I’m rather enjoying it. Sharing my knowledge, you know, to interested beginners. I only started at Christmas. The original tutor was taken ill and I was asked to take over.’
Matthew could picture him at the front of a class, showing his images of birds, explaining plumage details and distribution, a little pompous, getting the validation for his hobby that he never received at home.
‘Did you ever see Simon Walden at the Woodyard? He’s the man who was killed here on Monday afternoon.’
‘We’ve been watching the news of course. It’s of special interest because it happened so close to home. But I didn’t know him. He certainly wasn’t a member of our group.’ Marston paused. ‘We’re all over fifty in the U3A and most of my students are considerably older.’
‘You didn’t see him elsewhere in the centre? Mr Walden was a regular. He volunteered in the cafe kitchen. You never saw him there?’
There was a moment’s hesitation before Marston shook his head. ‘I seldom use the cafe. It always seems noisy and a little overpriced. I take my own coffee in a thermos flask.’
It was the sort of thing Matthew’s mother might have said. Thrift came very close to godliness in her book. Matthew wondered if that was why he found Marston so tricky. He was a man who’d turned his personal likes and dislikes into a moral code; because he didn’t enjoy spending money in the Woodyard cafe, there was something morally suspect about the people who did. The Brethren had been much the same. Matthew thought they’d created a God in their own image, hard, cold and inflexible.
‘And that was your only contact with the Woodyard? You just ran the natural history course?’ Matthew was looking out over the estuary. It was low tide and the mist was clearing a little to show the far shore, the ridged wave patterns on the sand. He couldn’t see what possible motive Marston might have for killing Walden, but this seemed another coincidence, one too far.
‘For the time being. I have given some informal legal advice to the trustees and I hope to become more involved when we move to Barnstaple.’ Away from his wife, he seemed more confident, and Matthew decided he liked the man less because of it. Pity had turned to active antipathy. ‘I think they could possibly use my organizational skills and Hilary’s always telling me to find more useful ways of spending my time than birding.’ He turned towards Matthew Venn. ‘Really, the administration there is a total shambles at the moment. If anyone came to do a proper audit, the place would probably be shut down.’
‘And you think you’d be able to help with that?’
‘Well, yes. Actually, it would be a challenge to sort out their systems. Their invoicing at the moment is a nightmare. All those different organizations renting rooms, employing staff. Different pots of money coming from social services and a variety of arts and welfare charities. I’m sure that the Woodyard itself is missing out. The whole thing needs to be simplified.’ Matthew wasn’t quite sure how to respond to that. He thought Marston was probably right, but it seemed like a betrayal to Jonathan to agree.
Marston must have picked up on the ambivalence. ‘Oh, I’m sorry. That was tactless, wasn’t it? I’d forgotten that your … ’ he hesitated, looking to find the right word ‘… partner runs the show.’
He didn’t sound sorry and Matthew thought it unlikely that there had been a lapse of memory. There had been something snide, accusatory about the comments. Matthew wondered if the whole conversation had been a second-hand pitch for the role of administrator. Perhaps Marston was missing the status he’d had when he was working or the couple had run out of money and he was looking for employment again. Matthew could understand the man wanting an escape from Hilary.
‘My husband. Yes. But he just runs the centre day to day, tries to keep all the different organizations happy. A board of trustees manages the show, as you call it.’ He forced a smile. ‘I’m sure they’d be delighted if you volunteered your services on the administration front, and they’re always looking for board members with specific skills.’
‘Well, that has been mentioned.’ But still, the man seemed pleased. He looked at his watch. ‘I have to move on. It’s time for the next census point.’
‘Just a moment.’
Marston paused, turned back. ‘Yes?’ Impatient now.
‘Do you know the Shaplands? They live in one of the cottages on the creek close to the nature reserve. You must pass it most days while you’re out birding. Christine is a woman with Down’s syndrome. She goes to the day centre at the Woodyard.’
‘She’s the person who went missing?’ Marston said. ‘Yes.’
‘I’m sorry, Inspector, Hilary and I keep ourselves to ourselves. As you’ll have realized, we don’t have a lot to do with our neighbours. I’m afraid I can’t help you.’ He was already moving away along the bank. ‘Do get in touch again if you have any more questions.’ He slid down the bank to the beach and walked off towards Crow Point. Soon, he was no more than a shadow in the mist. Matthew stood for a moment looking out at the water.
In the car again, he checked his phone. There’d been a call from Maurice Braddick. An awkward message, as the man stumbled over his words. ‘I wonder if you’d mind calling to see me. There’s something I should have told you when you were here the other night. It’s been troubling me.’
Matthew called him back. ‘I got your phone message. How can I help?’
‘It’s not something I feel I can talk about on the phone. I wanted Lucy to stay at home until all this has been cleared up, but she’s as stubborn as her mother was and made sure I took her over. I dropped her at the Woodyard and I’m home now, but I could come back to Barnstaple if you like.’
‘No,’ Matthew said. ‘I’ll come to you.’ Because he thought Maurice would speak more easily in his own home, and besides, when he was on the move he felt he was making progress, on his way at least to achieving a result.
They sat as they had before in the kitchen, looking out on the long back garden, with its neat vegetable plot and the chicken run at the end. The hens had been let out to forage. Tea was made and poured, before Maurice started speaking.
‘You were asking about Dennis and Grace Salter.’
‘Yes. The night before she went missing, Christine Shapland was staying with them. Do you have something to tell me about them?’
Maurice was clearly anxious, but Matthew saw something else on his face. Discomfort? Fear? It could simply be prejudice triggered by members of a small religious community, who kept themselves apart, who held views that seemed odd and outdated. Matthew had experienced fear and ridicule from his peers when he was growing up. He knew how that felt. But is seemed that Maurice’s antipathy was based on more than the distrust of the other.
‘Can you tell me anything about them?’ Matthew repeated. ‘Anything that might us help find out who took Christine?’
‘This is difficult,’ Maurice said. ‘And I hate gossip. Everyone in Lovacott says that Salter is a fine man. He has that way about him that makes you believe in him. Whenever he speaks, people listen. If I meet him in the street, he greets me as if I’m an old friend, as if I’m special.’
Matthew nodded. ‘I knew him when I was a child. He always did have that skill. A kind of warmth. An empathy.’
‘I think that he hits his wife.’ Maurice looked up, challenging Matthew to believe him. ‘I know he hit her at least once.’
Matthew tried to make sense of that, to match it with the Salter he knew, the man who greeted everyone with an embrace, arms wide open. The man who’d made him laugh and given him confidence as a teenager. The man who’d rejected him when he could no longer believe in Salter’s version of God. ‘Tell me about it.’
Maurice was staring at him, still troubled, still reluctant to speak. ‘Grace Salter turned up here one night when my Maggie was still alive. Tears running down her face. No coat, though it was the middle of winter. Maggie sent me out. Why don’t you have a drink in The Fleece, Mo? Don’t come back until closing. So out I went.’ He flashed a quick smile at Matthew. ‘I always did as I was told where Maggie was concerned. She knew best.’
‘And what had happened?’
‘I don’t know,’ Maurice said. ‘Not in any detail. But the bruise was already coming out on her eye when I left the house and there was dry blood on her nose. Maggie had promised Grace she wouldn’t tell anyone and she never did. I feel awkward talking about it to you now. As if I’m letting Maggie down. That’s why I didn’t say anything when you were here before.’ He paused. ‘And because of Salter’s reputation as a kind man, a good man. I wasn’t sure I’d be believed.’
‘I do need to know as much as you can tell me.’ Matthew thought Maggie was still a part of the man’s life, a voice in his ear, a hand on his shoulder. Although Matthew had lost his faith years before, he’d been brought up with a belief in the afterlife. Perhaps this was as near as it got, influence beyond the grave.
‘When I got back from the pub, Grace had gone. Maggie was as sad as I’ve ever seen her. I think she tried to persuade her to leave her husband, but it would have been hard for the woman. They belong to this odd religious group. Strict. Maybe, if she’d left her man, she might have been forced to leave that too. And all her family.’
Oh yes, I know how that feels.
‘And nobody else in Lovacott knows about that night?’ Matthew thought in a place like this, there’d surely be rumours. Maurice shook his head. ‘I don’t think anyone knew that Grace Salter ran away from her husband and came here. It was dark so there wouldn’t have been many people about. And I’ve never heard any gossip about him being cruel to his wife. Grace always seems a shy sort of woman. Quiet. But Dennis has such a big personality, you can see that she might be overshadowed. I wonder if she’s scared of him, though, and if she’s so quiet because she doesn’t dare speak.’
‘You did the right thing,’ Matthew said, ‘telling me what you know.’ He thought this was all getting too complicated. There was too much coincidence. Too many people circling round each other, without quite touching. They had no evidence that Simon Walden had known either Christine Shapland or Dennis Salter. The only connection was the Woodyard, and again that was too close to home.