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'The Long Call' Chapters 3 & 4

the last call chapters 3 and 4

Illustration by Stan Fellows

Chapter Three

THE WOMAN HAD THE DOOR OF the toll keeper’s cottage open almost before they’d got out of the car. There was something hungry, desperate, about her need for information.

‘I’m DI Venn,’ Matthew said. ‘This is DS Rafferty.’ ‘Hilary and Colin Marston. You’re here about the body.’ She looked them up and down. ‘You’re detectives. Unexpected death, your chap out there said, but this isn’t natural causes, is it? Not just a heart attack or an accident. There wouldn’t be all this fuss for an accident.’

‘Perhaps we could come in and ask you a few questions?’ ‘Of course.’ She backed away and they were let into a hall.

A pair of wellingtons stood at the foot of the stairs and a waxed jacket hung on a peg next to a smart black coat, which seemed out of place in the cottage.

It was hard to age her. The hair had been dyed almost black and she was wearing make-up. Late fifties? Matthew wondered. Early sixties? She was big-boned and strong, taller than the man who stood behind her in the passage. She wore black trousers and a black jacket over a white top, office wear for a middle-manager, Matthew thought. The coat must belong to her. Again, out of place, here on the edge of the marsh.

Her husband seemed more at home. He was short and round, a woollen jersey stretched over his stomach. Matthew thought they must have moved in recently; there was a hint of a Midlands accent and he’d seen the previous residents – an elderly couple who’d come out to collect the toll and have a chat – at Christmas. Perhaps the automatic barrier had been installed because the couple had retired. Or one of them had died. It seemed all he was thinking about today was death. The woman led them into a living room and the man followed. The room was cluttered, a little untidy. Uncared for. It was as if they were camping out here. Matthew wondered what had brought them to the house. They all sat awkwardly for a moment, staring at each other across an orange pine coffee table.

It was Jen Rafferty who spoke first while he was still taking in the surroundings. ‘If you could just repeat your names for our notes.’

‘Hilary,’ the woman said. ‘Hilary Marston, and this is my husband Colin.’ Then she started speaking again and Matthew’s curiosity about the couple’s background was answered without need for any questions. ‘Colin took early retirement, redundancy really. He worked in the legal team for a car manufacturer; that’s all changed of course. Everything’s outsourced these days, nobody has any pride in British industry now. And our area had changed – people from outside moving in. One time, you knew all your neighbours. Not any more.’

Matthew broke in. Jen leaned so far to the left that she’d only recently become reconciled to the Labour Party. She couldn’t cope with intolerance, and he could tell that she was already a bit prickly. ‘What brought you to North Devon?’

‘We’d been here on holiday,’ Hilary Marston said. ‘Loads of times. We thought: That’s the place for us to end our days. We never had any kids to think about and we loved it to bits. So quiet and so clean.’ A pause. ‘No foreigners.’

‘Well, it’s certainly very quiet here.’ Jen had an edge to her voice that only Matthew picked up.

‘Yeah, well,’ Hilary said. She shot a look at her husband. ‘Sometimes you can have too much of a good thing. We’re only renting here – it certainly wouldn’t be our choice of furniture – and it wasn’t the best decision we ever made. Maybe we saw the cottage through rose-coloured glasses when we viewed it in the summer. Colin’s a birdwatcher. The marsh is his idea of heaven. It’s not mine. We won’t be staying. We’ve put an offer in on a house in Barnstaple, where there’s a bit more life.’ She paused. ‘A bit more culture. And it’ll be closer to work for me.’

‘What is your work?’

‘I’m a mortgage advisor with a bank in town. I was planning to retire too, but this job came up. Only part-time, but the extra cash is always useful.’

Matthew turned to Colin Marston. ‘Were you out on the marsh birdwatching today?’

The woman, her resentment palpable, didn’t give her husband the chance to answer. ‘He’s out there every day.’

Colin Marston ignored her. Perhaps her sniping was so common that it had become no more than background noise for him. ‘I do a daily census.’ He spoke with a quiet pride. ‘Real ornithological research is about regular counts of common birds. I’m not just a lister, interested in rarities.’ The last sentence was spoken with a sneer.

‘Does your research take you onto the beach too?’

‘That’s part of my census walk. I end up there. I count the gulls on the shore and come inland at Spindrift, then back along the toll road home.’

Spindrift. Our house. Matthew thought now he might have seen the man walking past, anonymous in the waxed jacket and wellingtons they’d seen in the hall, binoculars round his neck. Out in all weathers.

‘What time were you there today?’ Jen asked.

Colin Marston left the room. Through the open door, Matthew saw him take a soft-back notebook from an inside pocket of the jacket. He sat down again and opened it.

‘Twelve thirty-five.’ He looked up. ‘I note the time at every watch point. My own way of working. Citizen science in action.’ In an armchair in the corner Hilary rolled her eyes. Matthew thought it must be a strange marriage if they had so little in common, if she could be so dismissive of her husband’s passion.

‘Did you see anything unusual while you were walking today?’ He was aware of a silence and stillness in the room. An awareness of danger or, more likely, excitement. Perhaps it was a shared passive voyeurism that kept the couple together. ‘I didn’t see a body on the beach,’ Marston said. ‘I asked your constable where it was and I know that I’d walked that way. I would have seen it.’

‘But did you notice any strangers? You’d know the regulars if you’re out every day.’

There was another silence, broken by the sound of a car pulling up outside. Matthew recognized it as belonging to Sally Pengelly, the pathologist. The barrier was raised and the car drove on.

‘Who was that?’ Hilary was on her feet.

‘Just one of the team.’ Matthew turned back to the husband. ‘So, Mr Marston, any strangers?’

‘There are always one or two people I don’t recognize. Even at this time of year, there are visitors. And I don’t take much notice unless they’ve got a dog that disturbs the birds while I’m counting.’

‘But today.’ Matthew was a patient man. ‘You must be a good observer, used to registering detail.’

The flattery appeared to have worked. Marston looked back at the notebook and seemed to be reliving his walk on the shore. ‘There was a couple, a man and a woman. He was in a suit, not really dressed for the beach. She was a bit younger and she was wearing jeans.’ He paused. ‘I was watching something I thought might be a little gull and they flushed it.’

Matthew was thinking the man in the suit seen by Marston couldn’t be their victim because the clothes didn’t tally, but Marston was still speaking.

‘They were walking hand in hand and they stopped once to kiss. Not just a peck, if you know what I mean. As if they’d not been together for a long time.’ He stared out of the window. ‘I wondered if they might be having an affair, because they came in two cars and there was a sense that they were doing something dangerous. Exciting.’ His voice was wistful.

‘You saw the cars?’

‘Yes. They climbed the dunes and after a bit I followed them.

I wanted a better view of the birds near the tideline.’

Jen shot Matthew an amused glance. Yeah right! Not that you were hoping to catch them making out.

‘I saw them getting into their cars. I didn’t get the reg of either of them, though. Pity, they might have been useful for you.’

‘But you do remember the make of the vehicles? The colour?’ ‘Of course!’ Marston almost sounded offended that the question had been asked. ‘As Hilary said, I used to work in the car industry. Behind the scenes, working on contracts, but it’s still in my blood. One was a red Fiesta. A few years old.

That was the woman’s. And a black Passat.’ ‘You saw them drive off?’

Marston paused for a moment. ‘I saw the man drive off. The woman was still in her car, looking at her phone, when I dropped down onto the beach.’

‘Did you see anyone else?’ The low sun must have been streaming in through the window all afternoon and the heat had been trapped in the small room. It seemed airless.

‘One guy in the distance.’ A man, it seemed, held less interest for Colin Marston than a couple.

‘Could you describe him?’

‘He was a long way off, close to Crow Point.’ Colin set his notebook on the table in front of him.

‘And he was on his own?’

‘Yeah. Though maybe he was waiting for someone. He didn’t seem to move while I was there. He was still on the beach when I headed back towards Spindrift.’ The man looked up sharply. ‘You live in the house there, don’t you? I thought I knew you. I’ve seen you in the garden and going through the toll.’

Matthew didn’t answer. Instead he asked another question of his own. ‘How many cars were parked there when you made your way inland?’

‘Just a Volvo. They’re regulars. An older couple.’

Matthew nodded to show he understood. Those would be the people seen by the constable on duty outside. It was so warm in the room that it was an effort to move. He stood up and thanked the couple for their help.

‘What happens now?’ Hilary was on her feet too, leaning forward, desperate for more information.

‘We continue with our enquiries,’ Matthew said. ‘Someone will be in touch if we need to speak to you again.’

As he stopped to unlock the car he saw both the Marstons at the window, staring out at them.

The CSIs’ vehicle passed them as they were getting into Matthew’s car, and they must have worked quickly because by the time he and Jen arrived at the scene, the tent had been erected and a white-suited team were doing a finger-touch search of the surrounding sand. Ross was standing well away, still pacing.

‘Any ID?’ Matthew was hoping they could inform relatives before the press got hold of the story. He was surprised they hadn’t already arrived. He could imagine the Marstons spreading the news. They’d enjoy their fifteen minutes of fame. Perhaps the long walk from the toll gate had put the journos off, or perhaps the couple hadn’t known who to contact with the story.

‘No wallet or credit cards,’ Ross said.

‘You’re not thinking a mugging gone wrong? Not all the way out here?’

Ross continued. ‘There was this in the back jeans pocket.’ He held out a scrap of paper: a pulled apart envelope with a shopping list on the blank side. Tomatoes, eggs, rice, bin bags. On the other a printed address. No name. The Occupier, 20 Hope Street, Ilfracombe. Some form of junk mail. The name of the street rang a faint bell for Matthew, but he couldn’t picture it. ‘Should we check it out?’ Ross was bouncing on the balls of his feet, eager for any form of action.

Matthew relented. ‘Both of you go.’ There might be a wife, kids or an elderly mother and Jen was brilliant with families. ‘Give me a ring when you’ve got something.’ He looked at his watch. It was gone six and the light was already fading. A buoy in the estuary was flashing. ‘Let’s meet at the station at eight thirty this evening and we’ll pull together all we know.’

He stood outside the gate to Spindrift and waited for a moment. The curtains hadn’t been closed and he could see the kitchen, fully lit, like a stage set. An orange pan was on the stove and a jug of daffodils stood on the green oilskin cloth that covered the table. Matthew had bought them the day before as buds and they were nearly open. And as if this was a piece of theatre, a single actor stood back-on in front of a chopping board. Hair so blond it was nearly white. A T-shirt with a logo that urged support for whales or dolphins or the entire planet. There was a chest of drawers full of the shirts and Matthew was too far away to make out the detail of the design. Jonathan, his husband and love of his life, the endless optimist, who had lifted him from depression and brought him to what felt like home. He still wasn’t sure what Jonathan had seen in him, how they could be so happy.

Matthew lifted the latch on the gate and walked into the garden. Perhaps Jon heard the noise, because he turned and he must have seen Matthew’s shadow, or a movement at least, because he waved. Inside there was the smell of good soup and new wood. Jon was replacing rotten window frames. The house was his project and once the day job was over, he spent his spare time working on it. Unlike Matthew, he had boundless energy, the build of labourer. There was sawdust in his hair and on his shoulders.

‘Good timing. I was just about to have a beer.’ Jon approached, the knife still in his hand, to kiss him.

‘I can’t. I have to go out later. Work.’ Matthew explained about the body on the beach and thought he hated work coming so close to home. ‘Weren’t you stopped at the toll gate on your way in?’

‘I took this afternoon off to get on with the window in the bedroom. Lieu time. I was home not long after midday. There was nobody on the gate then.’

‘Did you see anything unusual?’

‘Am I a suspect?’ A big grin. The question was intended to lighten the mood. He could sense Matthew’s stress.

‘A witness, maybe.’ He wasn’t in the mood for jokes. A pause. ‘Oh fuck, I’m sorry. I’d forgotten. It was your dad’s funeral.

Did they let you in?’ ‘I didn’t try.’

‘Oh, Matt. I knew I should have gone with you.’

Jon was brave. He would have faced out the relatives and the Brethren. He would have stood at the front, singing his heart out, and then charmed the old ladies afterwards. Matthew was a coward, more scared of embarrassment than breaking up a fight in a bar or facing an addict with a knife.

‘Dad would have hated a scene,’ Matthew said. ‘Staying away was the least I could do for him.’

‘They would have been the ones causing the scene. Not you.’ But he gave Matthew a hug to show this wasn’t something they’d fall out over.

They shared a meal – soup and freshly baked bread, cheese and a salad. Jon’s competence astounded him. How could one man be so good at so much? Where had his confidence come from? In contrast, he felt endlessly incompetent.

‘I should go,’ Matthew said. He’d loaded the plates into the dishwasher. At least he could do that much. ‘I’ve sent Ross and Jen to track down the relatives. We still don’t have a name for the man.’ He pulled on a jacket. Outside it was clear and still, with a slice of moon and stars sharp in the night sky. The only lights came from Instow and Appledore on the far shore. ‘Don’t wait up. It could be an all-nighter.’

And Jonathan wouldn’t wait up. He’d potter with his projects and go to bed when he was tired. Matthew, however, couldn’t settle when Jonathan was out. He’d fret, watching out for the headlights sweeping past the bedroom curtain. Sometimes Jon would go to the folk club in the pub in the village, drink too much and walk home, arriving almost as it was getting light. Then Matthew would pretend to be asleep and say nothing. His mother had nagged and his father had hated it.

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Chapter Four

JEN LET ROSS DRIVE THE FEW miles to Ilfracombe. He took it for granted that he’d be behind the wheel and sometimes she couldn’t be arsed to make a fuss. Besides, it meant she was free to text the kids and check they were both in, doing homework, and that they’d foraged for something to eat. They were old enough to fend for themselves now and they’d always been resilient and self-contained; they’d had to be.

She still got anxious, though. Guilty because she wasn’t there, cooking something nutritious, making intelligent conversation as they ate together. But they weren’t the perfect family you saw in TV sitcoms and they never would be. She’d tried doing the selfless wife and mother thing when they lived in Merseyside and it had nearly killed her. Literally. That didn’t mean that she didn’t wish she could be better at it, more organized, there more for them. It wasn’t that she liked work better than she liked Ella and Ben. Not exactly. But work gave her life structure and meaning and she needed it. Without it she’d go crazy.

They texted her back. Yes, they were both in. Yes, they’d found pizza in the freezer. No, they weren’t planning to go out again. When they’d first moved to Devon and they were younger, Jen had found a string of childminders for them, but the women she’d employed had been used to polite kids and parents with regular hours. Despite their professional smiles, they’d struggled with Jen’s rackety Scousers, their bad language and their independence. In the end, Jen had made do with Adam, a sixth-form lad, who was happy to babysit for pocket money as and when needed. It wasn’t ideal. Often, Jen had come home to chaos, Adam on the sofa, engrossed in his phone, while the kids ran riot upstairs. Or the three of them squabbling over the controls of a computer game. They’d survived. Adam had headed off to university and still came back to see them when he was home, though the kids were independent now. Occasionally she had sexy dreams about Adam, who’d turned into a very fit young man.

She was still thinking about Adam, the tight bum in the skinny jeans, when they crossed the roundabout on the high ground at Mullacott Cross. It felt like a bit of Exmoor up here, even though they were so close to the town and the descent into Ilfracombe. There were hedges, bent by the westerly wind, and lambs. Once Ilfracombe had been a grand seaside resort, with elaborate gardens and hotels and a paddle steamer that carried passengers along the Bristol Channel to Somerset and South Wales. With cheap flights to the Mediterranean available so readily, it had faded, lost its purpose. The tourists had fled to Spain and the Greek islands instead. Now, the place was trying to find a new role.

The town was surrounded by hills and the lights of the place seemed held in a deep bowl directly below them. They drove past big villas, which had been turned into guest houses called Sea View or Golden Sands. Most had ‘No Vacancies’ boards, not because they were full but because this early in the season their owners had decided it wasn’t worth opening. Ross followed his satnav into the town centre, stopped at the top of a long, steep street of three-storey terraced houses, beautifully proportioned but decaying now and turned into flats and bedsits. Some had boarded-up windows. An empty can, which had once held strong lager, rolled down the pavement.

‘Hope Street,’ Ross said. ‘Otherwise known as addicts’ avenue. I thought I recognized the address.’

Jen liked Ilfracombe, the mix and edginess of it. A few of her friends lived here and she’d considered moving herself because the houses were cheaper, the parties wilder and more her style. But the kids were settled at school now and the drive to work would be a bit of a drag. Like other former holiday towns, it pulled in transients and misfits, people lured by the prospect of seasonal work in the big hotels. When the trippers went home the workers stayed, because they’d found friends, or out of inertia, or because they had nothing left to return to. Some of the guest houses had been turned into hostels or bedsits, others rented out rooms for the winter, not caring that they had no real facilities for a long-term let. Hope Street contained those sorts of premises but there were signs of gentrification too; some houses had bright new paint and coloured blinds, window boxes and shrubs in tubs in the tiny front gardens. At the bottom of the street, Jen saw the silhouettes of two men, hunched together in conversation.

They found number twenty halfway down the hill. A black door, freshly painted. No sign that it was a place of multiple occupancy, no separate doorbells or letter boxes. No doorbell at all, so Ross knocked. Jen thought she heard someone moving inside. Ross knocked again and the door was opened to reveal a generous front hall, the floorboards stripped and patchily varnished, and a young woman who wore jeans and a long sweater in kingfisher blue, a slash of red lipstick.

‘Hiya.’ She looked them up and down with interest. ‘Sorry, if you’re selling something, I’m skint. And if you’re selling religion, I’m an atheist. The resident God-botherer is out. So, there’s nothing for you here.’

Jen thought she’d remember that next time she got cold callers at the door. ‘We’re not selling anything. We’re police officers.’

‘Is it about my bike?’ Her face lit up. Expressions flew across her features like the shadows of clouds on a windy day. The face was never still. ‘Don’t tell me you’ve found it after all this time. We’ve got a new lock on the door into the back alley so we haven’t had anything nicked since.’

‘Not the bike,’ Ross said. ‘Perhaps we could come in.’

The woman led them into a large room at the back of the house. Jen, who was an expert on these things, thought all the furniture had been upcycled or freecycled. Seating was a huge squashy sofa in purple velvet, cushions on the floor, a couple of armchairs that looked as if they’d been newly upholstered, but not quite finished. It seemed the craftsperson had become bored with the project. A long, low table had been formed from a plank door. On the walls posters and original paintings. A small black wood burner, dirty and unlit, and a wicker basket full of logs. A single patio door led out into a tiny yard, where huge ceramic pots provided a garden. Daffodils were already coming into bloom. There was a high wall with a rickety doorway, through which, Jen assumed, the stolen bicycle had been taken.

‘Could we have your name?’ Jen had chosen one of the armchairs. Ross was still standing.

‘Gaby. Gaby Henry.’

‘Do you own the house?’

‘No, that’s Caroline. Caz. Well, theoretically she owns it. It’s mortgaged to the hilt. And of course, she was helped out with a deposit from the bank of mum and dad. Or just dad actually, because her mum died years ago. Helped too by the rent from her lodger. That’s me.’ A flash of a smile and a pause, as if she was a stand-up comedian waiting for applause after the punchline of a joke. Her voice was southern but not local. London maybe.

Jen leaned forward. ‘A man was found dead on the beach at Crow Point this afternoon. There was something on his person to connect him to this address.’ She paused. There was no response from the woman. For a moment Gaby stood very still. Jen looked at her, then continued. ‘Do you have a husband? A partner?’

Now Gaby did speak. ‘I’m fancy free. Caz has Edward. A curate. But he’s not here at the moment. He doesn’t live in. They don’t believe in that sort of thing. No sex before marriage. They’re Christians of the happy-clappy arm-waving variety.’

‘Any male lodgers?’

There was a pause before she answered. ‘Simon Walden. He’s been here since October. Caz brought him in. He’s one of her lost sheep.’

Jen thought that might be important; she’d come back to it. ‘Could you describe Mr Walden?’

‘He’s a bit older than us. Pushing forty. We’re planning a party for him in a few weeks’ time. If he decides to behave himself.’

Jen was intrigued, but again refused to allow herself to be distracted. ‘Weight? Height? Any distinguishing marks?’

‘A bit taller than him.’ Gaby nodded towards Ross. ‘But about the same build. He has the tattoo of a bird on his neck. An albatross. He says he carried guilt round with him like the Ancient Mariner, so he had the tat done to remind him.’

Now Jen allowed herself to be distracted. ‘Do you know what he meant by that?’

Gaby shook her head. ‘After a few drinks he can get like that. Maudlin. Or angry.’

‘But you let him stay?’ This was Ross. He lived with his perfect wife in a tidy little house on an estate on the edge of Barnstaple. He must be hating this place, the muck and the clutter. He certainly wouldn’t share his home with strangers. Gaby shrugged. ‘He doesn’t often lose it. Caz can manage him. Besides, he cooks like a dream.’ She stopped speaking and stared at them. ‘Are you telling me Simon’s dead?’ ‘We don’t know yet. It’s possible.’

Gaby turned away from them. Jen thought she might be crying but when she looked back, she was quite composed and when she spoke her tone was still light, brittle. ‘Shit, if he’s dead, there’ll be no more amazing Friday night feasts.’

‘Have you got a photo?’

‘Just a minute. We took a joint selfie a couple of weeks ago. I put it on Facebook, but I’ll still have it on my phone.’ Gaby flicked through her phone and then passed it across to Jen. There were three faces crammed into the image. Two women — Gaby and a short, round woman with big specs — then in the centre of the picture a man. Simon Walden. The body on the beach. In the photo his head was turned slightly and Jen could see the tattoo.

‘I’m afraid that’s him,’ Jen said. She passed the phone to Ross, so he could see for himself that they had an ID for their victim.

‘Did he kill himself?’ Still the tough, flip shell didn’t crack. ‘Why? Would that surprise you? Had he talked about suicide?’

‘He had really dark moods sometimes. That’s how Caz met him. She works for a mental health charity. And she’s too bloody soft for her own good.’

‘Is this Caroline?’ Jen took the phone back from Ross and pointed to the short woman with the glasses.

‘Yeah, that’s her. My landlady. My mate now too. We’re as different from each other as chalk and cheese, but I love her to bits. I’m not sure she can quite cope with the chaos I’ve brought into her house ...’ She waved her arm at the recycled furniture and art. ‘She knows she’d be bored without me, though. And it’s a bit cheerier than the place where she works: an ancient church hall filled with suicidal addicts and depressives.’

‘What about you?’ Jen asked. ‘What do you do?’

‘I’m the artist in residence at the Woodyard. I help horrible adolescents with behavioural problems to find themselves through art. And teach bored middle-aged women who want to dabble in watercolour. They got funding for me for three years.’ She looked at Jen to check that she didn’t have to explain the Woodyard Centre. Jen nodded to show she recognized the name. ‘That’s the day job. But mostly I paint. Painting’s my true love. I went to art college when I left school and the Woodyard gives me my own studio space.’

‘You must be very talented.’ Jen sensed a slight sneer in her own voice. Jealousy perhaps. She’d have loved to be able to paint. ‘How do you and Caroline know each other?’

‘Through her father, Christopher. He’s on the board of the Woodyard and he was one of the people who interviewed me for the residency. I’m not local and when they appointed me, I needed somewhere to live. He put me in touch with Caz, who’d just bought this place and was looking for someone to share. Then Simon came along.’ There was a sudden edge to her voice.

‘You didn’t get on with him?’ Jen said.

‘We were getting on fine without him. I suppose it changed the dynamics. I’m sad he’s dead of course. But honestly? I won’t be sorry to go back to the way it was before he turned up.’

Jen stared at the photograph again. For the remainder of the investigation this would be how she would remember the residents of Hope Street: Gaby, the arty one with the dark eyes and red lipstick, Caroline, the religious one with the big specs.

‘Does Simon have any family? We need to inform them.’ ‘There’s a wife,’ Gaby said. ‘She threw him out. I think she

lives in Bristol but I don’t have a name or address.’ ‘Work?’

‘He spent last summer as a chef at the Kingsley House Hotel, here in Ilfracombe. When the season ended he lost his accommodation too of course. That’s the gig economy for you.’

Jen nodded.

‘Since then he’s done a bit of volunteering at the Woodyard — he works in the cafe there, Caz or her dad got him in — but he’s had no paid work.’

‘How does he pay his rent?’ Ross was less sympathetic to the troubles of seasonal workers. He thought they should get a proper job.

‘I don’t know,’ Gaby said, ‘but according to Caz, it landed up in her bank account every month. I hope she doesn’t struggle without it.’ A pause. ‘Her father’s loaded, though. I expect she’ll survive.’

‘Could we have a look at Mr Walden’s room? It’ll need to be sealed for a proper search, but we’d like a quick look now.’ Gaby nodded and got to her feet. They followed her to the first-floor landing, where she stopped. ‘Simon’s room is on the top floor at the back. I’ll leave you to it, if that’s okay.’

Jen thought Simon Walden had been given the smallest and darkest room, the one that nobody else had chosen. He was a lodger, a charity case and not a real friend. It was in the roof and faced up the hill looking over the yard and other houses, not to the sea. It was bare and impersonal. There was a single bed under the small dormer window. A white-painted wardrobe held a sparse number of clothes. No TV and no computer. A radio on the bedside table. No photos.

‘He’s someone who travelled light,’ Jen said. ‘It could be a monk’s room.’

Ross was standing beside her, his back against the closed door. ‘Or a prison cell.’

They found Gaby in the kitchen. An old-fashioned airing rack hung from the ceiling and she was taking towels and pillow-cases from it and folding them on the table, smoothing the pillowcases so they wouldn’t need ironing. Jen recognized the technique. The woman stopped what she was doing when they came in. An opened bottle of wine and a half-full glass stood on the scrubbed pine table.

‘What time are you expecting Caroline back?’ Jen could have fancied a glass of wine herself. God knew when she’d get home to have one.

‘Not until nine. I think I explained: she’s a social worker for a mental health charity, attached to the church where her boyfriend’s a curate. This is one of her nights for an evening session. She’s passionate about it.’ A pause. ‘Her mother committed suicide. Maybe that’s why she’s so dedicated to the cause.’

‘And Mr Walden was one of her clients?’

‘Yeah,’ Gaby said. ‘Like I told you, one of her lost sheep.’ ‘Isn’t it a bit unusual, inviting a client into your home?’ Jen thought social workers were trained to keep their distance. All the professionals she’d ever met had been detached to the point of not caring.

‘Well, I didn’t think it was a good idea.’ Gaby paused. ‘When I first met him, I thought he was odd, creepy. I wanted him out. Caz said if I knew more about him, I’d be more supportive.’

‘Did you find out any more about him?’

Gaby shook her head. ‘Caz said she couldn’t tell me any more because of confidentiality, so that didn’t help much.’ A pause. ‘In the end, it’s her house. I guess she can have whoever she wants to stay.’

‘We’ll need to come back tomorrow to speak to your friend.’ Jen looked at her watch. The briefing would start in half an hour and she didn’t want to miss that. ‘When would be a good time to catch you both before work?’

‘About eight thirty? Neither of us start early.’ She walked them to the front door. Jen thought she could be an actor as well as an artist. She gave nothing of herself away.

The police station in Barnstaple was concrete, ugly, built next to the civic centre that was already empty and earmarked for demolition. It looked out on the green space of Castle Hill. There was no castle now, and the hill, round as an upturned cup, was all that was left of the earthworks that had supported it. It was grassed over and covered with trees and bushes. Barnstaple stood inland from Ilfracombe. Once it had been a small market town, and the centre still felt like that, with its pannier market and busy high street, but the town had spread, sprawled. It had council estates and retail parks on the outskirts. Tourists coming for the first time might be disappointed by the initial impression it gave. It could have been any other English town. Apart from the river. The river, tidal still at this point, changing with the moon and the weather, made the place wilder, hardly a town at all. In good weather, Jen ate her lunchtime sandwiches on the green and sometimes walked to the top of the hill. Even from there you could smell the salt of the estuary and there was the special light you only find close to the sea. She’d always loved the sea.

She knew she was lucky to be here. There were colleagues who would have given their right arm for a posting to Devon; she’d jumped to the top of the queue because she’d been daft enough to marry a bastard who’d knocked her around. She was grateful for the transfer and she loved the place, but sometimes she missed the buzz and challenge of city policing. And it felt like an escape, a cop-out. Why should she be the one who’d had to move? And why had the CPS cocked up the prosecution of her smooth-talking, brown-nosing accountant husband? He was still there, living it large in her patch, telling the world that she was a psycho, that the police had moved her to Devon because she couldn’t cope with the stress of real policing. She’d been in Barnstaple for five years, but it still rankled.

On her way up the stairs she phoned Ella. Jen knew Ben would have headphones on and he wouldn’t hear his phone. ‘All okay?’

‘Yeah.’ Ella was a swot. She’d be lost in an equation. Or a chemical compound. Jen could tell she was distracted.

‘I should be home by ten. Get yourselves to bed if you’re tired, though.’ Matthew Venn despised meetings that dragged on. He said there was nothing that couldn’t be decided and achieved in an hour.

‘Cool.’ And the line went dead.

The room was full; there were volunteers who’d stayed on after their shift. Murder wasn’t common in North Devon and Jen sensed affront as well as excitement. She wondered if the team would be so keen on justice when they knew that the victim was an incomer from upcountry and not one of their own. Ross had bounded up the stairs ahead of her. He’d bagged the desk with the fastest computer and was obviously checking out the name they’d been given by Gaby Henry in Ilfracombe, digging the dirt on Simon Walden. Jen heard the whir of the printer. Ross would want to present any information he could find about the victim to the team. He’d probably take the credit for the ID too. Sometimes, Jen thought, she found him tricky to work with because he reminded her of her former husband. Competitive. Controlling.

Matthew called the room to order, but before he could speak, the DCI appeared. Joe Oldham was a big, lumbering man, but none of them had heard him coming. He had the ability to walk silently; Jen had looked up from her desk on several occasions to find him there, looking down at her, listening to her chatting to a colleague. Now she took care that he was nowhere around before she passed on any gossip that she wouldn’t want him to hear. He’d moved to Devon as a constable but he was still a proud Yorkshireman, a sports fanatic, chair of the local rugby club. As different from Matthew as it was possible to be.

Oldham nodded to the group. ‘I won’t keep you. I know you’ve work to do.’ He was wearing a sports jacket that had seen much better days and his shirt wasn’t quite tucked into his belt. That was his image: the rugged old-fashioned copper who’d have nothing to do with media types. In contrast, Matthew looked as if he never left his office, smart, suited, closely shaved. His skin was pale as if it never saw sunlight. He could be a banker. Or an undertaker.

Oldham looked around the room. Jen thought she saw him wink at Ross. The son he’d never had. ‘I just wanted to let you know I’m with you on this. Matthew here will report to me and you’ll have all the resources you’ll need.’

Then he disappeared as quietly as he’d arrived. To get in a couple of pints at the club before closing, Jen suspected. Ross, who was the rugby club’s star fly half, would probably join him later and fill him in with all the details of the evening. Oldham didn’t need to eavesdrop when he had a mole like Ross in the ranks. Once, Oldham would have wanted to take over the investigation, but he was on the long slide to retirement and his red face and big belly were signs that he was getting in practice for when the day finally arrived. Ross gave him the confidence that he still had a finger on the pulse.

Matthew took Oldham’s place and waited until the DCI had left the room before speaking. He gave a brief summary of the discovery of the body and stuck photos of the locus on the board. ‘Dr Pengelly has confirmed cause of death as a stab wound to the chest. The killer was facing his victim. No weapon was found at the scene.’

Ross stuck up his hand. ‘Time of death?’

‘Impossible to say with any accuracy. Sometime today. We might have a little more information after the post-mortem tomorrow.’ Matthew paused. ‘There was no ID on our victim, but we found an address in his pocket and I hope that Ross and Jen can shed a little light. You’ve been to Ilfracombe to track it down?’

Ross was on his feet before Jen had a chance to answer. He’d printed out a photo and pinned it to the board. ‘Simon Andrew Walden. Date of birth thirty-first of May 1979.’ It was a classic mug-shot photo. Walden was looking directly at the camera. ‘Joined the forces straight from school. Left the army in 2010 and ran his own business – a restaurant in Bristol – until 2013 when he was convicted of causing death by careless driving. He drove from a junction straight into the side of a passing car and a child was killed. Alcohol in his system, but just under the legal limit.’

Jen stared at the face and understood the albatross, the guilt. ‘He served three months in prison. No contact with the police since that date as far as I can tell.’

‘And we are sure this is our man?’ Matthew looked at Jen and she answered immediately.

‘We saw a photo and the tattoo is clearly visible.’ ‘Any more information?’

‘The house is owned by a young woman, Caroline Preece. She lets out rooms to cover the rent. To a friend of hers and to Walden. The remaining tenant is Gaby Henry. She works as something arty at the Woodyard.’ Jen paused because she understood that might be a complication for Matthew. Jonathan worked at the Woodyard; he ran the place. Maybe it would be seen as a conflict of interest. ‘No details but it seems Walden had mental health problems and Preece was his social worker. He also volunteered in the Woodyard.’

‘Have we checked out Henry and Preece? Either of them known to us?’

Jen shook her head. ‘Not even a parking ticket. Caroline Preece wasn’t there so I’m going back in the morning.’

Matthew nodded, but said nothing. Jen thought that was classic Matthew Venn. He was a man who never opened his mouth unless he had something useful to say.

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