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'The Long Call' Chapters 9 & 10

phone message machine I told you I would escape

Illustration by Stan Fellows


Chapter Nine

The Woodyard was a monument to Jonathan’s confidence and competence and Matthew regarded it with a mixture of pride and envy. He was a good detective, but he’d never achieved anything quite as great as this. This place would still be a derelict timber yard with a decaying warehouse at its heart if it weren’t for his husband. After his travels, Jonathan had returned home to Exmoor, taken a low-paid job as carer of a man with learning disabilities and loved it. He had the right mix of humour and compassion and worked his way through the system, without really meaning to, no end goal in sight, until he was managing a day centre. He’d loved that too and that was when Matthew had met him.

Matthew had been policing in Bristol then, the big city, only two hours from where he’d grown up but a world away: culturally diverse, buzzing, alive. He’d felt as alien there as he had in Barnstaple, but anonymous. Nobody cared that his family were religious bigots who’d disowned him because he could no longer believe in their God, or that he’d dropped out of university, because the academic pressure had stressed him almost to madness. He was good at his job and that was all that counted. He’d met Jonathan at a conference about working with vulnerable adults. There’d been a three-line whip from management that someone should attend and nobody else in Matthew’s team had been interested. It had been his fortieth birthday and Jonathan had been his present.

They’d kept in touch, spent weekends together, mostly in Barnstaple, quietly, under the radar. Not a real couple, Matthew had told himself. He couldn’t be that lucky. This was a phase that would pass. Jonathan would set off on his travels again or find someone more interesting. Instead, he’d found a new project. The Woodyard. It had been a time of local authority cuts and the day centre where he’d worked had been under threat. Jonathan had been transformed from a laid-back guy, who moaned about the restraints of his work but left it behind at the end of the day, to an activist, passionate, consumed, organized. Matthew would arrive from Bristol to Jonathan’s tiny flat in the oldest part of the town, tired at the end of a busy week, to find it full of people. Earnest people talking money, funding applications and lobbying, and arty people like Gaby from Hope Street, painting posters and planning social media campaigns. Businessmen in suits and radical activists all in the same place. Matthew had been intimidated and retreated into work. He’d been certain that Jonathan would find someone more interesting to spend his life with.

Matthew had been thrown by the change in Jonathan, the fact that he could be so serious. Until then he’d been the serious one, the worrier. Jonathan had drunk beer and sat in the sun. He’d always slept at night. In those days of planning and activism, every waking hour had been spent thinking about the Woodyard project. And he’d made it happen. Here it was, just as the planning committee had hoped. A glorious community hub bringing people together. Jonathan was general manager of the place. It was overseen by a board of trustees, but he was the man on the ground. With his assistant, Lorraine, he ran the centre.

Matthew had feared that once the Woodyard was up and running, Jonathan would become bored and restless again. That he’d run away. So, Matthew had kept his distance. No point getting too close. No point setting himself up to be hurt. Then, one Sunday afternoon in early autumn, Jonathan had taken him to meet his parents. The first time and Jonathan had been nervous, jittery. Not at all his usual self. They’d sat around a kitchen table scattered with farm accounts, wary dogs at their feet. Matthew had been reminded of the visits he’d made with his father to the customers who had never been able to pay on time. There’d been the same shabbiness, a sense in the air that was almost desperation. This couple, Matthew could tell, might live in a beautiful place, but they were poor. Like the dogs, the family had been wary. He’d had no real idea of what Jonathan’s parents made of him.

On the way back to Barnstaple, where Matthew would pack his bag before returning to Bristol, Jonathan had pulled into a layby near a little stone bridge. It was at the edge of the moor where the landscape became gentler. They’d got out and stared into the water. The trees on either side were changing colour and were reflected in the stream.

‘What did you make of them?’ Matthew hadn’t known what to say.

‘They’re not my parents. Not really.’ This wasn’t the confident Jonathan. The hand on the stone parapet was shaking. ‘I’m adopted. They didn’t tell me, though. I found out by chance when I was sixteen.’

‘That’s why you left home?’

Jonathan had paused for a moment. ‘Among other things. I got angry. A bit wild. Got thrown out of school.’ He’d been looking out at the hills, but turned back to Matthew. ‘Will you marry me?’

It had been the last thing Matthew had been expecting and it had taken him a while to realize this wasn’t a joke. Even then it had occurred to him that Jonathan wanted a father as much as a husband — although there wasn’t so much difference in their ages — but he hadn’t cared. He’d have agreed whatever the terms.

‘Yes!’ He’d shouted it so loud that they’d have heard it back at the farm, so loud that they were both shocked by the sound. He was, by nature, a quiet man. ‘Of course I will.’

The next day he’d asked for a transfer to the Devon force. Miraculously there was a vacancy and they were desperate for someone to start quickly. The following weekend, they’d gone to look at the house by the estuary, and they’d bought it, despite the danger of flooding. Matthew, so cautious and risk-averse, had decided it was time to be reckless.

Now they were in the Woodyard garden, eating lunch. It was odd to be here in his own right. Matthew had been to the Woodyard before, with Jonathan, to see plays and to attend exhibition openings. But only occasionally and only after he’d moved to Barnstaple permanently. They still weren’t much recognized as a couple in the town. Their worlds were very different. At first it had been an ordeal, presenting himself in public as Jonathan’s partner, smiling and shaking hands. After all, what did he know about art or theatre? Sometimes the anxiety that he would say the wrong thing or express an opinion that was foolish swallowed him up, made him want to run away or lock himself in the lavatory. Now he was here as Inspector Matthew Venn, investigating a murder, and he had to take centre stage.

They’d bought coffee and sandwiches in the cafe and were sitting on one of the benches outside the building. There was a view of the river and the tide coming in, that distinctive smell of salt, mud and decay. A group of older volunteers was tidying, sweeping up debris that had gathered on the grass over the winter, but nobody was near enough to overhear.

Matthew spoke first. They were close enough to hold hands, but he was here as a police officer and not as a husband and his words sounded oddly formal. ‘You think Lucy Braddick is a reliable witness?’

‘Absolutely. I’ve known her for ages. Since when the old day centre was still going.’

‘Jen’s just phoned with confirmation that Walden worked in the kitchen here. That must be where Lucy first saw him.’ Matthew paused. ‘How well do you know Christopher Preece? I didn’t like to ask in front of Maurice.’

‘He’s on the Woodyard board and without a donation from him, we probably wouldn’t have got match funding to renovate the place. You must have heard me talk about him and you’ve met him a few times. He was there at the beginning, at those first meetings in the flat.’ Jonathan paused. ‘He was behind the mental health project at St Cuthbert’s too. There’s something of the passion of the convert about him. The ruthless businessman who suddenly found a social conscience. Sometimes he can come across a bit arrogant. As if he has all the answers.’ ‘I met Christopher’s daughter, Caroline, this morning. She seems pretty driven too. She shares a house with one of your workers. Gaby Henry?’

‘Gaby’s amazing. We appointed her as artist in residence, but she’s brought the whole place to life. Her work’s stunning. One day it’ll put this place on the map.’

‘You, this, it’s all too close.’ Matthew felt the words come out as a cry. ‘You do see now that I’ll have to declare an interest?’ ‘Of course you should. But don’t withdraw from the case just yet. You’re better at your work than anyone I know and your investigation might lead you in an altogether different direction. Surely the answer is more likely to lie in St Cuthbert’s than here?’ Matthew could understand the sense in that, but he thought this case was complicated, twisted, the threads unlikely to be quickly untied.

 

Gaby Henry had arranged to meet him in one of the meeting rooms. She’d been running an art appreciation class and had obviously been showing a series of images on a screen. The group reminded him of the friends Jonathan sometimes brought home — they had intelligent, earnest faces. The women wore loose floral dresses, the men jeans and sweaters. Informal but at the same time a uniform. Matthew watched through the glass door as Gaby wrapped up the meeting. ‘That was fabulous,’ she said. ‘Thanks so much for your attention.’ She stood at the door as they drifted out and waited until they were out of earshot before speaking to Matthew.

‘Thank God that’s over for the week,’ she said. ‘I’ve never met such a boring, pretentious bunch!’

He couldn’t help smiling. He often thought the same about Jonathan’s arty friends.

Gaby led him back into the room. ‘Do you know what happened to Simon yet?’

‘Not yet.’ Matthew paused for a moment. ‘We have discovered that for the last week or so he’d been taking a bus to Lovacott every afternoon. Did he have friends there?’

Gaby shook her head. ‘I don’t think he had friends anywhere. I realized he’d been home late a few times, but often we were back late too, so we didn’t notice. We just assumed he was in.’ She seemed to be thinking. ‘We didn’t see him much, poor bastard. Only Friday nights when he cooked for us both. Other evenings he disappeared into his room. Caz might know if he had pals in Lovacott. She sometimes gave him a lift into Barnstaple.’

‘He never had any visitors?’

‘I never saw anyone.’ She paused. ‘Someone phoned for him once. We’ve got a landline but we hardly ever use it. We’ve got our mobiles. One day, I decided to check the landline messages and one had been left for Simon.’

‘Can you remember any details? The name of the caller? A number?’

‘Nothing like that. It was as if the guy on the other end of the phone assumed Simon would know who he was. Hi, Si! How’s this as a blast from the past. But I tracked you down in  the end. I told you I would. You can’t escape your old buddies after all.’ She turned sharply, so she was facing him. ‘It sounds a bit sinister now, doesn’t it? But the tone wasn’t like that. It was friendly. As if they were old mates.’

‘When was the call made?’

‘I picked it up a couple of weeks ago. It could have been made a few days before that, though. Like I told you, we don’t use the landline much.’

‘Did you save the message?’ Matthew thought they needed to trace the caller whether he was a friend or an enemy. They knew so little about Walden’s past.

‘Of course! Because I told Simon it was there so he could hear it. He might have deleted it afterwards, though.’

‘Were you there while he listened to it?’

‘No!’ Gaby was firm. ‘None of my business.’

There was a moment of silence. Matthew texted Ross to get a trace on the phone and to pass a message to Jen to listen to the call. She might still be on the coast. He’d asked her to go to the hotel where Walden had worked once she’d finished with Caroline and he’d send her back to the house. Gaby had given them a spare key the night before. He felt a bubble of excitement rising in his stomach. The phone call might be an important factor in the investigation. This was why he loved the work.

‘Where were you yesterday afternoon?’

‘I was out on the coast,’ she said. ‘Making sketches for a painting I was doing.’

‘Where exactly on the coast?’

There was another moment of silence. ‘Not far from where his body was found. I wasn’t there to kill him, though. He bugged me, but it wasn’t as if he planned to stay in Hope Street indefinitely. According to Caz, he was starting back at the hotel once the season had started. He’d be living in.’ She stared at Matthew. ‘Come with me!’ Her voice was insistent and demanding. ‘I can prove what I was doing on the shore.’ She stood up. Without comment, he followed her.

She led him up two flights of stone steps to the top of the building without speaking. Refurbishment had ended at the lower floors and the steps were bare and uneven. When she threw open the door to a large room, he saw stained floorboards, crumbling plaster and old brick. It was flooded with light through sash windows on two sides. There was a filter coffee machine on a window ledge with a few dirty mugs, an easel, a pile of canvases leaning against one wall. Otherwise the space was empty, echoing. She nodded to the coffee machine. ‘Do you want one? I made it this morning, though, and it’ll be stewed by now.’

‘I’m caffeined out, thanks.’

She seemed a different woman in this space. The flip, easygoing Gaby of Hope Street was gone. She showed him the painting on the easel. A seascape, with a shimmering promontory of land. Crow Point, not where they’d found Walden, but seen from the other side of the marsh. There were bare patches of canvas.

‘It wasn’t going well,’ she said, ‘so I went back to do some sketches. I didn’t go through the toll road. I parked by the marsh and walked from there.’ She got out her sketchbook and held it out for him to see. Rapid pencil drawings that captured the movement of waves, the wingbeat of gulls. He recognized the shape of Crow Point in the distance.

‘These are very good.’ The words came out without thought. ‘That’s why I’m at the Woodyard. Because it gives me the time and the space to paint. The work is mostly mind-numbingly dull, like the class you just saw. A bunch of bored middle-aged and middle-class people, who think they have talent or that they understand art.’

‘Why did you accept the residency if you feel like that?’ ‘Because it pays.’ She spoke as if the answer was obvious.

‘I don’t have a rich daddy like Caz — my mother brought me up on her own — and I don’t make any money from my painting yet, so I do this. It’s better than stacking supermarket shelves or pulling pints. Just.’

He nodded back at the sketches. ‘Of course, this doesn’t prove anything. You could have done them anytime.’

‘But I didn’t.’ Her frustration was obvious.

‘Why did you dislike Simon Walden so much?’

‘I didn’t dislike him.’ She turned away. ‘I just didn’t see the point of him. If you don’t mind stepping over the needles in the morning or being harassed by the neighbourhood drunk, Hope Street is a pretty cool place to be. It’s the best house I’ve ever lived in. And I don’t mind those things. I didn’t need a man to protect me.’

‘Did Caroline?’ Matthew was surprised. He’d had them both down as strong, independent women.

‘Nah, but that was one of the excuses she gave for letting him stay. That we’d be safer with a man in the house. Which was pretty daft. We could have been letting in a maniac.’

‘Was he a maniac?’

Gaby didn’t answer immediately. ‘He was pretty screwed up. Especially at first. Depressed, I suppose, but no, I didn’t think he was dangerous. I just found him unsettling.’ She looked away for a moment and when she turned back, the words sounded like a confession. ‘I painted him.’

‘Can I see?’

She shrugged and pulled a canvas from the stack by the wall and propped it on the easel. Matthew looked. He thought he should say something intelligent but he was embarrassed again. What did he know about art? The embarrassment got in the way of an honest response this time, but he couldn’t take his eyes off the painting. It was just of Walden’s head. The likeness was there at first glance, then everything seemed to shift under Matthew’s gaze. There were blocks of colour that he had never seen in human skin. Matthew took a few steps back and looked again. Walden was staring into the distance, frowning.

‘Did you do this from a sketch too?’ Again, Matthew felt the ignorance seep into his face like a blush. Growing up with the Brethren, he’d learned so little of the world that his brief time at university had been an act, a performance. He’d pretended to understand the references to bands he’d never heard of and films he’d never seen. At school, he’d considered himself an intellectual, but every day since there’d been the fear of being found out as a fraud. It had taken him a while to be open with Jonathan. There were still times when he felt the need to pretend.

Gaby didn’t seem to think this was a stupid question. ‘No, I did this from a photograph.’

‘Why? I mean, why did you want to paint him? Did he have an unusual face?’

‘No, not at first glance, at least. You wouldn’t look at him twice in the street. I suppose I wanted to understand why he’d got under my skin.’

‘Did you find him attractive?’ Matthew thought this was one of the oddest interviews he’d ever conducted. Gaby had pushed to have Walden excluded from the house but there was something about her obsession that felt like a teenage passion. He’d expected an angry response to the question. No, of course not. He was a creep. But she was thinking about it, deciding how much she wanted to tell him.

‘Perhaps,’ she said at last. ‘Perhaps I did. There was something about him, despite the moodiness and the occasional bouts of anger when he’d had too much to drink. Something compelling. I’d never thought about it until I started painting him.’ She stared at Matthew. ‘Crazy, huh?’

‘Did he ever talk to you about his life before he ended up at the hotel in Ilfracombe?’

There was a pause and again he thought she was choosing how much to say. ‘Once. Indirectly. It was after one of the Friday meals. Simon always cooked for us on Fridays. He said he was keeping his hand in. He’d throw us out of the kitchen early in the evening and tell us only to come back when he was ready. Usually we went to the pub. It was the one night of the week that Caz was prepared to let her hair down. Sometimes Ed was there, though I was always glad when he wasn’t. I can be a bit of a potty mouth and I could sense disapproval oozing from every pore whenever I spoke. We’d rock back to number twenty after a couple of beers and the table would be laid and there’d be the most amazing food. It was what Simon was born for, cooking. Like painting is what I was born for.’

She stopped for a moment. The coffee must have been cold but she sipped it to provide a pause in the story, a beat. ‘That night it was paella. The most amazing seafood. We were drinking something light and white that slipped down like lemonade. Caz and Ed decamped to the sitting room. Usually Simon did all the clearing up himself, but I’d had enough of playing gooseberry and I stayed behind to help. We’d both had a lot to drink and we started to talk.’

She stopped again, but Matthew didn’t prompt her. He sensed this was worth waiting for.

‘He asked out of the blue if I wanted kids. I said I was too selfish. Nothing mattered more than my work. I made some crap joke, like That’s why I’m still single. He said he’d always wanted to be a dad, but that would never happen now. He didn’t deserve a happy family. He’d had a wife that he’d loved but he’d let her go. By that point we’d loaded the dishwasher and he was washing the pans that were too big to go in. He turned away from the sink with a scourer in his hand. Sometimes I think I’d be much better dead. I said something crap again. Something like But you can’t kill yourself. We’d miss the Friday night feasts. He said suicide wasn’t an option. Not yet. He still had work to do.’

‘What sort of work?’

‘I don’t know. I was pretty pissed by then, but he was seriously weirding me out. Like he had some kind of Messiah complex. Like there was something he was meant to achieve and nobody else could do it. I left him to the pans and went to bed. The living room door was open and I could tell Caz and Ed were having a deep and meaningful and I didn’t want to intrude.’ She set down her mug. ‘But I could almost believe it, you know. That he was special. He had a kind of charisma, a lack of bullshit and compromise. I could imagine him as one of those gurus that gullible people follow without question. I could really believe that he had a mission in life and he didn’t care what other people thought; nobody was going to get in the way.’

Matthew suddenly pictured Walden as a very different man from the helpless, hopeless rough sleeper described by Caroline Preece. He wondered which view was the more accurate. ‘I don’t suppose you saw Simon at all on your travels yesterday afternoon?’ His voice was light.

There was a brief hesitation, hardly noticeable.

‘Of course not. I think I might have mentioned it, don’t you, if I’d seen him just before he died?’ She’d turned away before speaking to look out of the long window, so he couldn’t see her face.


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Chapter Ten

When Jen left Hope street, she tried phoning Matthew but there was no reply. The sharp sunshine and the daffs blowing in the little garden next to the car park made her think of new beginnings. Spring. They also made her remember that time was passing and she wanted a man in her life before it was too late. Sometimes Ella brought a lad home and although the pair were well behaved when Jen was around, she sensed their adolescent lust. The touching and the easy intimacy provoked an envy that shocked her. She thought she could kill for that: a good man to hold her hand when they were out walking, to stroke her neck when she’d had a bad day, to lie next to her at night and screw her senseless as the dawn came. She knew she tried too hard with the men she met, was too desperate and she scared them off. And she still hadn’t met a good man, at least not one who was right for her, who could keep her interest after a couple of nights.

She sighed and phoned Ross. ‘I’ve just finished with Caroline Preece.’

‘Anything?’

‘Only that Walden liked yoga and meditation. He volunteered in the caff at the Woodyard. In Caroline’s eyes that made him next best thing to a saint.’ Jen hoped that Matthew Venn had made better progress in Barnstaple than she had here in Ilfracombe. ‘But it also seems that he liked a pint or five to keep him going. What about you? I’ve tried phoning the boss, but he’s not answering.’

‘Seems Walden took a bus trip to Lovacott, that village up the Taw Valley, every afternoon for the couple of weeks before he was killed. Something, at least.’ Ross paused. ‘I’ve been digging around a bit. I’m trying to prise Walden’s army records out of the MOD.’ Jen heard the trace of a whine in his voice. Sitting in the office and working the phone wasn’t his idea of fun.

‘Perhaps the boss will let you out to play tomorrow.’ Or you could go to your best mate Joe Oldham and pull a few strings.

‘You could come back now and take over, at least help shift some of the calls that came through after the broadcast on breakfast TV.’

Ross would think that was women’s work, sifting through the recorded messages, phoning back the callers. And she would be better at it than him, more patient, more sympathetic, but she knew better than to start giving in to a man’s blackmail or flattery. She’d been caught that way before.

‘Sorry,’ she said. Sharp and tight. She needed to keep her temper. ‘I’m off to the Kingsley House Hotel to talk to Walden’s former employer. I’ll see you at the briefing tonight.’ She clicked the phone off before he could answer, before she allowed herself to be persuaded.

She sat for a moment in the car and told herself she shouldn’t let Ross bug her. He was young and brash and it wasn’t his fault that he reminded her of her bastard ex-husband. As far as she knew, he’d never punched a pregnant woman in the stomach. It probably wasn’t even his fault that he was the son of Oldham’s best buddy and the DCI had taken him under his wing.

Kingsley House was on the edge of the town, a grand Victorian pile, with gothic turrets and steep terraced gardens leading down to a small private beach. Jen drove down a shingle drive through trees just coming into leaf. In the distance, the island of Lundy looked improbably large on the horizon. The sun was high and the sea glittered. If you were forced to move away from your family and friends, Jen thought, there were worst places to be exiled.

The hotel had a reputation for understated luxury and the best food on the coast. Once it had been the holiday home of a minor royal and its marketing talked of its still having the atmosphere of a country house party. The entrance hall seemed dark and cool after the sunlight. There was a stag’s head on one wall and three huge leather armchairs were gathered around a low mahogany table. No reception desk, but a grey-haired woman in black appeared as if by magic through a door. No name badge and no uniform. Nothing as tasteless as a credit card machine in sight.

‘Yes? Can I help you?’ A flash of a smile. She wasn’t rude, because Jen could have been an eccentric guest. Most people staying here didn’t look like Jen, but the hotel might entertain a few ageing rock chicks. Wealthy ageing rock chicks.

Jen dropped her bag on the marble floor. ‘Could I speak to someone in HR, please?’

‘If you’re applying for employment, we ask you to enter your contact details and CV online.’ The woman’s voice was still kind but a little patronizing; her judgement had been spot-on. This was some chancer looking for work.

‘I already have a job, thank you.’ Jen dipped into her bag, opened her warrant card and laid it on the table.

The woman only lost her poise for a moment and Jen couldn’t blame her for the brief lapse. Police officers weren’t supposed to look as she did. ‘Just a moment, Sergeant, I’ll fetch Mr Sutherland.’ She went back through the door and returned almost immediately with a tall young man in a suit. ‘Please.’ He held out his hand for her to shake. ‘Peter Sutherland. I look after staffing here. Come into my office.’

The voice was educated Brummie, the accent well-hidden. A young fogie with pretensions.

She thought of the sunshine, the smell of newly cut grass that had followed her in on her walk from the car. ‘Perhaps we could talk in the garden.’

He seemed surprised but maybe he’d been inside all day too. Or perhaps he’d been trained to please. ‘Of course. That’s a splendid idea.’ Out in the light she realized he was even younger than she’d thought.

He led her away from the building down a narrow path to one of the terraces and a pond, sheltered by laurels and rhododendrons. The shiny leaves reflected the light, but the water was in shadow. They sat on a white wrought-iron bench with their backs to the sun, looking down at the sea. This was miles away from the grey houses in Hope Street, youths lurking at the end of the road, the Big Issue sellers and the homeless guy blank-eyed in his tatty sleeping bag. This was like a secret paradise.

‘How can we help?’

‘Have you seen the local TV news today?’

He shook his head. ‘We’re gearing up for the new season. I’m afraid I haven’t stopped since I came on shift at seven.’

‘A former employee of the hotel was found dead yesterday afternoon. We’re treating his death as suspicious.’ Jen couldn’t believe that word hadn’t got out through social media, through other colleagues.

‘Oh God! Who was it?’

‘A man called Simon Walden. He worked in the kitchen.’ She turned towards him but couldn’t read anything from his face. ‘Do you remember him?’

‘Simon. Yes.’

‘Well? Can you tell me anything about him? Like why someone might have wanted to kill him.’

He didn’t speak for a moment. Jen could hear waves breaking on the sand below them.

When he did speak, the old-fashioned politeness and gentility had disappeared. ‘There were times when I would have gladly killed him myself.’

‘Why?’

‘He was moody and people took against him.’ Another pause. ‘Managing the guests here is easy compared to managing the staff. When we took Walden on, I thought he’d fit in well. He’d been in the forces and people are thrown together in the army, aren’t they? It’s all about being part of a team.’

‘But Walden wasn’t a team player?’

Sutherland gave her a brief smile. ‘Unfortunately not. Some days he’d never speak. He seemed to suck the energy out of the kitchen.’ A pause. ‘And he was a drinker. That’s not unusual in this business. Your body clock gets thrown by the strange shifts, so it doesn’t seem wrong to keep drinking when everyone else is just about to wake up. He functioned, still turned up for work every day, but there was no attempt to get on with his colleagues.’

‘Did anyone specific take against him?’ In the distance, Jen heard a child laughing. She thought next time she had a free weekend she’d drag the kids away from their screens and their school work and bring them down here for a picnic.

Sutherland didn’t speak for a moment. He’d be reluctant to point suspicion towards an individual employee. She didn’t blame him. He was relatively young to hold a position of such responsibility. Some of the kitchen staff would be older, intimidating. Not the sort you’d want to offend when the hotel’s reputation depended largely on the quality of the food.

‘I could come in, demand to see all your staff records.’ She kept her voice reasonable. ‘That would be time-consuming just as you’re preparing for the season. Or I could check through Revenue and Customs ... That would go down well with your employees.’

Sutherland shrugged. He knew when resistance was no longer an option. ‘It’s the chef. Danny Clarkson.’ He paused as if Jen should know the name. ‘He’s a celebrity if you know anything about this business; gets reviews that some people would die for. He’s the reason the restaurant is fully booked, even in the winter when we have fewer guests. Walden wound him up. Clarkson’s got a temper. He’s one of those quiet men who suddenly lose control if things aren’t right or what they expect. A genius but close to the edge. It’s Clarkson’s kitchen and he’s boss there. Maybe they were too similar to work together happily.’ Sutherland got to his feet. ‘I’ll take you through.’

‘Just one more question first. If Walden was such a nightmare, why did you agree to employ him again this season?’

Sutherland shuddered as if the idea was anathema. ‘But we didn’t. There was no way we would have had him back.’

 

Clarkson was small, wiry, a head shaved so closely that he looked almost bald, the skull obvious beneath the stubbled skin, gingery eyelashes. Chef’s whites that seemed as crisp as when they’d come out of the laundry. He was bent over a pan, intense as a priest at communion. The kitchen was all stainless steel and gleaming, unexpectedly quiet. The lunchtime service had yet to begin. In the background, acolytes moved swiftly and silently about their work.

Sutherland approached him warily. ‘This is a detective, chef. She’d like a few words.’

‘Not now.’

‘Yes,’ Jen said. ‘Now.’

The man looked up. His eyes were blue and hard. He took the pan off the heat. ‘What do you want?’

‘Simon Walden,’ she said. ‘He’s dead. He was murdered.’ ‘He stopped working here in the autumn.’ The voice was unexpectedly pleasant, a light tenor. ‘I know that.’

‘So why are you bothering me?’

‘You worked with him all season. I was hoping you’d be able to tell me something about him. Something that might help us find his killer.’

‘We weren’t friends. I didn’t know anything about him and I wasn’t interested. He was a decent baker. Reliable enough, but no real attention to detail or presentation. And he couldn’t take instruction.’

‘He didn’t like being bossed around.’ Jen thought she’d struggle to take instruction from this man.

‘He had an attitude problem. Passive aggressive. He thought I didn’t trust him. This is my kitchen. I don’t trust anyone. It caused a negative atmosphere and it affected my work. I couldn’t have that.’ Clarkson’s attention was pulled back to the pan. ‘When did he die?’

‘Yesterday. Sometime in the afternoon.’

‘I was here all day. From mid-morning. We were catering for a wedding. You’ll have to look elsewhere for your killer.’ He moved the pan onto the heat again and turned his back to Jen.

 

Jen stood outside the hotel. In a large conservatory with a view of the sea, well-dressed women sat drinking coffee. Through the glass she couldn’t hear what they were saying, but the painted nails and occasional flashes of silver as the sunlight caught bangles and earrings made them seem exotic, glamorous. Brightly coloured birds in an aviary. It was hard to imagine Simon Walden working here. She thought he’d probably hated it, and wouldn’t have come back, even if he’d been offered the chance again.

So, who had lied? Simon or Caroline? Caroline had said that his stay was temporary and soon he’d be moving out of Hope Street. It was one thing to have a strange lodger for a few months, quite another to have him lurking there indefinitely, a reminder that not everyone was as lucky as they’d been. Haunting them, like the albatross he’d had tattooed on his neck.

Jen thought he’d been unlucky at the hotel. The chef was obviously a sociopath. She couldn’t imagine getting on with him either; she’d have clashed with him as Walden had done. She was beginning to feel some sympathy for the man. She walked back to her car.

She phoned Matthew again. There was still no answer, but there was a voicemail from Ross asking her to go back to Hope Street to check the recorded messages on the landline there. By the time she arrived at number twenty, it was mid-afternoon and school chucking out time. Groups of schoolkids wandered down the high street at the bottom of the road. She let herself into the house with the spare key she’d been given. The CSIs were still working in Walden’s bedroom, and she shouted up to them to let them know she was there. She could tell by the powder on the handset that the phone had already been fingerprinted; she lifted it and dialled 1571 to pick up the message. It seemed the messages hadn’t been checked recently. There was a list of cold calls: charities seeking donations, insurance companies, one from a dentist reminding Ms Preece that her appointment with the hygienist was due. Nothing personal. The women at number twenty were of the generation when texts were more common than phone calls, certainly more common than phone calls to landlines.

Then there came the message that Matthew had been most interested in. It had been left fifteen days before. First the usual pause that came once the caller realized he wasn’t speaking to a real person. Then a male voice, jaunty, friendly. Jen thought she could catch an undertone of threat, but that could be her imagination; after all, she was looking out for it.

‘How’s this as a blast from the past? Bet you never thought I’d track you down. I told you I would, didn’t I? You can’t escape your old buddies after all.’

She got out her phone and set it to record, then replayed the message. The boss would be eager to hear the recording. They should be able to trace the originating number from the phone company. She played it again and tried to place the accent. It was southern and she found southern voices hard to pin down. Walden had come from Bristol, so perhaps that was it.

Out on the pavement she hesitated for a moment then walked to the corner of the high street. Although the rough sleeper had moved away, a different man stood almost in the same place. He waved a copy of The Big Issue in front of her and she felt in her pocket for change.

‘This your regular spot?’ He nodded.

‘Do you know the people who live at number twenty? Two lasses and a bloke?’

‘You a Scouser?’

‘Yeah, you?’ She’d been able to tell just from those three words and wondered what his story was.

‘Birkenhead,’ he said.

‘What brought you here?’

‘A woman,’ he replied. ‘It’s always a woman, isn’t it?’

She didn’t know what to say to that. ‘I was asking about the people at number twenty.’

‘You a cop? You don’t look like a cop, but I can smell them.’ He touched the side of his nose. Not hostile, just telling it like it was.

She gave a brief nod up the hill towards Caroline Preece’s house. ‘Investigating the murder of the guy who lived there.’ She thought he’d know about that, even if he didn’t have access to morning television. ‘I heard he’d been having a rough time before he moved in there.’

‘What was his name?’

Jen thought the man was buying time, planning his response.

He knew already. ‘Simon Walden.’

‘Yeah, I’d seen him around. Bit of a boozer. Seemed to have landed on his feet. Nice place.’

‘Not landed on his feet now, though, has he?’ There was no reply.

‘Any reason why he should have been killed? Had he made any enemies round here? Owe any money?’

‘He wasn’t dealing.’

‘Using?’ Though they’d find out soon enough once they got the post-mortem toxicology report.

The man shook his head. ‘The drink was his poison. He drank in The Anchor at the other end of the high street.’

‘Anything else you can tell me?’

‘I don’t know that he’d ever been sleeping rough. He was one sad bastard, though. I never saw him smile.’

The Anchor was a locals’ pub, small and dark. There was nothing to attract tourists. No food, no fancy ciders. If strangers did walk in, they’d be stared at, a matter of interest and curiosity rather than resentment. Most visitors found the attention off-putting and left after one drink. At a table in a corner a middle-aged couple were holding hands. They looked as if they’d been there since lunchtime. Behind the bar a little man, thin as a whippet, was cleaning glasses.

Jen held out the photo of Simon Walden. ‘I hear he used to drink in here.’ When the man didn’t answer immediately, ‘I’m a police officer. We’re investigating his murder.’

‘I’d heard he was dead.’

‘Killed,’ she said. ‘Stabbed on the beach at Crow Point. Sounds as if he’d upset someone. Any idea who that might have been?’

The man shook his head. ‘He wasn’t a social drinker. He always turned up early and on his own. Five-ish. Not every night and I hadn’t seen him the last few weeks. I thought he’d moved on. Most of the people who come in at that time are here for the company. A game of dominos, a chat. Older people or guys stopping for a quick pint on their way home from work. He would come with a paper, sit with his back to the room, drink solidly for an hour and then go away. I never even knew his name until I saw his picture on the telly.’

 

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