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'The Long Call' Chapters 37 & 38

a green armchair with a purple jacket laying on it

Illustration by Stan Fellows


Chapter Thirty-Seven

MATTHEW WAS SURPRISED WHEN HE RETURNED to the police station, to find that only forty minutes had passed. It still felt as if time was stretching, allowing him the chance to recover Lucy. Giving him hope that he’d find her well and alive.

Ross was in the police station, waiting for him. ‘We’ve only got Preece so far. Jen’s with him. She hasn’t started on him yet, she was holding him in the interview room until you got back. No sign of Salter or Marston or their vehicles. We haven’t been out to Marston’s place yet, though.’

‘Leave that for now.’ Matthew didn’t want Marston scared off until he’d worked out the details of the case in his own mind; he certainly didn’t want to send a patrol car out, siren blaring. ‘Let’s see what Preece has to say for himself. He might know where Lucy is. Even if he wasn’t involved in the abduction, he was a part of the original conspiracy.’ He described his conversation with Janet Holsworthy.

‘Why would they do that? Cover up the sexual assault on a vulnerable woman?’ Ross looked sick.

‘Because their reputations are dependent on the success of the Woodyard. Because they’re powerful, entitled men and they could. And then the cover-up became more toxic than the original assault. They were all involved and they all had a lot to lose, but Preece is Caroline’s father and Caroline is Craven’s girlfriend. Perhaps he was protecting her reputation too.’

‘Should we get Craven in?’

‘Yes. Let’s lean on him about Lucy Braddick. The rest can wait until morning.’

 

 

Christopher Preece looked unflustered, but he’d done tricky business deals in the past and he’d be used to presenting a cool face to the world. Jen sat opposite him, waiting. If she’d been hoping to ratchet up the tension with her silent presence, it seemed that she’d failed.

‘We know about Rosa Holsworthy.’ Matthew had just come into the room and was still standing.

‘I’m sorry?’

‘We know that you paid off her parents to stop them pressing criminal charges against one of your volunteers.’

‘Ah,’ Preece said. He gave his slow, politician’s smile. ‘I’m afraid that’s not quite how I remember it.’

‘How do you remember it?’

‘The woman’s parents were reluctant to put their daughter through the anxiety of a trial. There’d be the issue of consent. As I understand it, Rosa had the reputation within the day centre of being a little …’ he paused ‘promiscuous.’

‘She’s a woman with a learning disability and she was assaulted by an adult whom she trusted, whom her parents trusted, in what they considered to be a place of safety.’

Matthew felt himself grow angry. The tension that had been building all day was turning to fury.

Preece looked up at him and affected surprise. ‘I’d have thought you’d be as unwilling as we were to have any complaint made public. That you’d be grateful for the position we took. Your husband also holds a position of authority within the establishment.’

‘Although he was away at the time and was never consulted.’ Matthew forced himself to stay calm. Preece was playing games. Trying to wind him up. ‘Lucy Braddick, another of the day centre users, went missing this afternoon. Do you have any idea where she might be? We’re extremely concerned.’

‘I’m afraid I can’t help you, Inspector.’ The man leaned back in his chair. His arms were folded.

Matthew took a seat next to Jen Rafferty. ‘Your daughter supports your work at the Woodyard. Did you tell Caroline about the assault on Rosa? Or did she already know? Did she ask you to make the scandal involving her boyfriend go away?’ ‘No! Of course not.’ He seemed a little rattled now. ‘It was a management decision. Nothing to do with her.’

‘Do you think she would have approved of the way the matter was handled?’ Matthew thought he could play dirty too.

There was a moment of silence. ‘Possibly not, Inspector. But Caroline is young and idealistic. She probably doesn’t understand that if news of what happened became public knowledge, especially if there was a court case concerning Craven, all public and most private funding for St Cuthbert’s mental health centre would dry up. He’s a curate at the church that sponsors her work. She’d be without a job. And her friend Gaby would find herself unemployed too, because the incident happened at the Woodyard Centre and that’s dependent on charitable donations too.’

Matthew leaned forward across the table. His voice was clipped and precise. ‘You do realize that if you’d dealt with Mrs Holsworthy’s complaint appropriately at the time, Simon Walden would still be alive? Two women would have been saved the trauma of abduction? Events have run out of control, Mr Preece. They’re still running out of control and I hold you responsible. Please think about that.’ A pause. ‘Now, is there anything more you can tell me?’

He thought he might have got through to the man. There was a moment of silence. Then Preece spoke again.

‘I’m very sorry, Inspector. I’m afraid I can’t help you.’

Matthew left the room. He needed to clear his head, to get fresh air, space to think. He stood outside for a moment. On the wooded mound of Castle Hill, against the background noise of Saturday night partying, someone was playing the guitar. The sound, plaintive, floated across the concrete towards him.

 

 

Back in the open-plan office there was still no news of the Salters or the Marstons. Ross looked up from his desk. ‘They’ve got Craven, though. They’re bringing him in now.’ His phone rang. Ross picked it up.

‘It’s probably Maurice,’ Matthew said. ‘He’s desperate. He was phoning all afternoon when I was here.’

Ross spoke briefly, a few words of thanks, then replaced the receiver. Matthew could tell from the man’s face and from the overheard conversation that Maurice hadn’t been the caller, that this was important.

‘There’s been a 999 call,’ Ross said. ‘The woman who rang gave her name as Lucy. No other name and she rang off before the emergency handler could take more details. She didn’t even have a chance to say what service she wanted. But the guy in the call centre had seen all the publicity about the missing woman. He thought we should know.’

Matthew was thinking that when all this was over he’d track that man down and send him a bottle of very good Scotch.

‘He must have a record of the phone number.’

‘Yes. It was a landline and he’s already found the name and address.’

‘Come on, Ross! Is it someone known to us?’ For the second time that day Matthew wanted to strangle the man for holding back information.

‘Colin Marston,’ Ross said. ‘Toll keeper’s cottage.’


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Chapter Thirty-Eight

THEY PULLED JEN OUT OF THE INTERVIEW room, and left Preece alone with a uniformed officer. Matthew thought they’d need a woman with them. On the drive to the coast, he was swamped with guilt, and couldn’t escape thoughts of the mistakes he’d made earlier in the day. He should have sent a team out to the toll keeper’s cottage earlier. He’d been misled, obsessed with the Salters. The cottage was close to where Walden had died and it should have been an obvious place to look.

He was overwhelmed with admiration for Lucy too. Somehow, she’d managed to get to a phone and to call 999. He thought she must have been interrupted; he hoped she’d cut the call herself, that her captors hadn’t realized what she was doing. If they had, it would be unlikely that she’d still be in the cottage.

Ross was driving. He was in an unmarked car, no lights, no siren, but taking them down the narrow roads like a maniac. In other circumstances Matthew would have told him not to be so ridiculous, but now, in his head, he was urging him on to more speed. At the toll gate they slowed down.

‘Go through,’ Matthew said. He slipped Ross some coins. ‘Park near my house. They won’t be so suspicious then. We haven’t given Preece any opportunity to make a phone call so they might not realize we’re after them. Jonathan and I have visitors all the time. We can walk back.’

The curtains in the cottage were drawn. The Marstons’ car was still there. It was possible that the couple were still in the building. That Lucy was there too. At Spindrift, all the lights were on and Jonathan’s vehicle was in the drive. Matthew thought how good it would be to be in the house, just the two of them, in the long room by the fire, this nightmare over.

The detectives walked back towards the toll gate in silence, using the torches they’d brought from the station until their eyes got used to the gloom. An owl, flying low over the marsh, was caught in the beam. At the cottage, Matthew sent Ross to the back door and then rang the bell. No reply. There was a crack in the curtains and he looked into the front room. It was much as it had been when they’d visited on the day of Walden’s death. A bit cluttered. Books and files on the shelves. A couple of dirty mugs on the low table. Nobody inside this time, though. He rang the bell again, but harder, leaning on the button. There was still no reply and, leaving Jen at the front door, he walked around the rest of the house, trying to look inside whenever he came to a window. Ross was still waiting at the back door.

‘This frame is completely rotten.’ His voice was so low that Matthew had to bend towards him to hear. ‘We’ll have no problem forcing an entrance if we need to.’

All the other curtains were shut tight and Matthew made his way back to Jen. She was peering through into the living room and waved him towards the gap in the curtains. ‘Look. Wasn’t Lucy wearing that when she went missing?’

Across the threadbare armchair was thrown a purple cardigan.

He led her to the back of the house and to Ross, who was still waiting for them, pacing, impatient for action.

‘She’s definitely been in there.’ Jen’s voice was high-pitched, panicky.

Ross put his shoulder to the door. There was the creak of splintered wood and it fell inside, almost intact.

Matthew pulled the door out of the way. ‘Hello! Police!’

The back door led straight into the kitchen. The kettle was warm but not hot. Dirty plates on the draining board. In the bin the remains of takeaway fish and chips.

Jen had moved through to the living room and was looking at the cardigan. She showed Matthew the label of the cheap high street chain where Susan had said they’d been shopping in Plymouth. ‘I’m sure this is Lucy’s.’

On the hall table there was a phone, a landline. Matthew pressed the redial button and got through to emergency services. ‘That confirms that she made the call from here.’ He shouted up the stairs: ‘Hello, Lucy.’ Silence.

Matthew went up. He told the others to stay where they were; he’d already be contaminating any possible scene. There was a narrow landing, with a bathroom ahead. A stained enamel bath. Surely a man who’d been a lawyer would be able to afford better accommodation than this. Perhaps Marston had conned them all, including the Woodyard board, and lied about his qualifications and experience. Or had the pull of the wildlife on the marsh really been the big draw?

Every muscle felt tense, and his heart was racing. He wondered if this was the onset of an anxiety attack. He’d suffered from them when he first went to Bristol as a student but hadn’t had one for years. He wasn’t sure what he was expecting to find in the upstairs rooms. Another stabbing perhaps. Blood. He thought he wouldn’t know how to tell Maurice if anything had happened to his daughter, found himself groping already for the words to explain. For a story. The bathroom was empty. A search team would come in later, but now he just wanted to find Lucy, to get her back to her father.

He pushed open one of the bedroom doors. A spare room, barely furnished with a single bed and clothes rail. Still no sign of the woman. Nowhere to hide a body. The last bedroom obviously belonged to the Marstons — Colin’s clothes were neatly folded on a chair, Hilary’s thrown on the floor. He pulled back the duvet, but there was no blood-soaked mattress, no Lucy. He was hit by relief and an overwhelming sense of anticlimax. In the ceiling of the landing, there was a small plyboard hatch that would lead into the loft, but Matthew could tell that Lucy was too big and too physically unfit to get through it. He shouted down to the others:

‘She’s not here.’

They gathered in the cramped hall.

‘What do we think?’ This was Jen. ‘That they caught her ringing out to the emergency services and realized they had to get her out of the house? They’d know we’d be on our way. Their car’s here, so how did they move her? Taxi? Did they get someone to come and give them a lift?’

‘Maybe.’ But Matthew wasn’t sure the Marstons would have waited for someone to drive from the town. They were city people and they’d expect an immediate police response. ‘Or maybe they just walked her out. They hoped we’d find nobody at home. They might not have realized she’d given her name or the call-handler would be bright enough to pass the message on to us. They could be hiding, waiting for us to go away again, so they can bring her back. Marston knows the marsh and the shore. He’d be aware of the places to hide her.’

 

 

They separated. Jen and Ross went inland, following the road that ran along the marsh. That was the more likely place for the couple to have taken Lucy. She would find it hard to walk quickly over soft sand, and they’d want her to move quickly. Matthew headed to the shore towards Crow Point. That was his territory. He thought he’d know it as well as Marston. It was where Simon Walden had been found dead.

There was a half-moon, covered most of the time by cloud, misty, hardly giving any light. Matthew climbed the bank of dunes. Home lay to his right, brightly lit. He thought he could smell woodsmoke. Jonathan would have lit the log burner, would be waiting, restless and anxious. On the far bank of the river, a string of lights marked Instow, and beyond the mouth of the Torridge more lights: Bideford and Appledore. The map of his patch.

The tide had been low when they’d left Barnstaple but it had turned now and was on its way in, the water inching its way up the shore. He could make out the thin line of foam, white against a grey beach, where the waves were breaking, but little else. He checked his phone to make sure he had signal, that Jen and Ross would be able to call as soon as they had news.

He was starting to think that this was fruitless and he should already have called in more officers through headquarters and the coastguard rescue team. This search was going to take more than three people. Behind him, he heard a rustle in the dunes. Shifting sand. Some small animal sliding home with its prey. Then a heavier step. Ross and Jen had already walked all the way to the road perhaps, and had come to join him here on the shore. Or maybe they’d found Lucy, but there was no phone signal where they were, so they’d come to tell him. He turned to call to them, though he thought they should be able to see his silhouette on the ridge of the dunes, even in this light. But before he could shout there was another sound, then a sharp pain. Then everything went black.
 

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