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'The Heron's Cry' Chapters 1-3


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Illustration by Stan Fellows

Chapter One

JEN HAD DRUNK TOO MUCH. They were in Cynthia Prior’s garden, lounging on the grass, and it was just getting dark. The party had moved outside, become quieter and less frenetic. Jen could smell cut grass and honeysuckle, the scent intense, heady and oversweet. She found herself mesmerized by the rhythm of the flashing fairy lights that Cynthia had strung along the high brick wall and woven between the ivy and climbing roses.

Cynthia’s place was the kind of gaff to have a wall around it: a large detached house looking out over Rock Park, only a few hundred yards from Jen’s narrow terraced home, but a million miles in terms of class. Jen was a Liverpudlian and carried the idea of class with her like a badge of honour. Her dad had been a docker and her mother still stacked shelves in a supermarket.

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Although it was dark, the air remained hot and the fire in the pit was there for effect, and to toast marshmallows, not because it was needed. They’d had an early heatwave. It was only the end of June but already there were calls for water rationing, talk of standpipes if the weather didn’t break soon. In North Devon, they weren’t usually short of rain.

Earlier, inside the house, there’d been loud music and, despite the warmth, dancing; Jen loved a good dance and could move like a demon. Her husband had disapproved, but she no longer had to care what he thought. Now they’d all drifted outside and Wes, one of Cynthia’s arty mates, was playing guitar, something moody and slow. Nobody could do moody like Wes. Jen had fancied him like crazy when she’d first met him, but then she fancied most of the single men she bumped into. She was a tad desperate. Wes was brooding, dark-haired and fit, the stuff of Jen’s dreams. Later she’d decided that a weed-smoking musician, who lived with a bunch of hippies in the hills, and supplemented his income by making weird furniture from driftwood, wasn’t the best fit for a woman with sole responsibility for two teenage kids. Who was also a cop.

Next to the wall a table had been set up and covered with a cloth. The cloth was Cynthia all over, and showed how classy she was. With the general exodus, Cynthia had brought out all the bottles and put them there, proving to the world that she was still organized and in control, though she must have had just as much to drink as Jen. Jen poured herself another glass of red and sat on the grass too. She told herself, and everyone else within earshot, that it had been years since she’d been to such a great party. Bloody years.

Later, only a small group was left close to the fire. Jen found herself talking to a middle-aged man, one of Cynthia’s neighbours. She’d seen him inside earlier, before they’d turned up the music, working the room, chatting politely to the other guests. He was small and sturdy, built like a troll from a fairy story, with a square head and short legs, and a wide smile that just prevented him from being ugly. Jen didn’t fancy him in the slightest, but everyone else seemed to have paired off, and she hated that sense of being the only single person in the group. Since her divorce the world seemed made up of happy couples. She even envied the ones who weren’t so happy. This man wore a checked shirt and walkers’ trousers, lightweight, easily dried. Jen could imagine him a member of a ramblers’ club. She thought he might be an accountant or a lawyer. Cynthia was a magistrate, sitting in the lower court, passing judgement on the petty criminals, the misfits and saddos, whom Jen was trying to convict, and she knew lots of lawyers. She and Jen had first met in court. Despite their different roles, they’d always got on. Cynthia’s husband was something important in the local hospital trust and she didn’t need a paid job.

Now, Jen was at that stage when she knew she’d had enough to drink, but she couldn’t quite stop. Her ex-husband had always said she had an addictive personality, the words spoken with a sneer and an edge of pity, just before giving her a good slap, and then blaming her for provoking him.

She thought Nigel had been holding the same glass of dry white for most of the evening. 

‘So, Nigel. What do you do for a living?’ He’d already told her his name, slightly apologetically, as if it wasn’t a name to be proud of.

Nigel. Nigel Yeo. Yeo being a local name means he’s obviously from the West Country. Nigel ages him though. Who calls their kid Nigel these days?

Now she smiled, her best flirty smile. He might be older than she usually liked her men and was probably a boring sod, but chatting to him was better than sitting here on her own like a Billy No-Mates. Although Cynthia always said she shouldn’t try so hard and that the right man would come along eventually, Jen couldn’t bear the idea of being lonely for the rest of her life. Soon the kids would be flying the nest and she imagined her little house, as silent and cold as a grave, when she got in from work.

‘I work in the health sector.’ His knees were bent and she could see his shoes. Good quality, recently polished.

‘Oh, a medic?’ That made him more interesting. Jen might never want to think of herself as a snob, but she liked the idea of hanging out with a doctor.

‘Not any more.’ He smiled too, as if he knew what she was thinking, and again, there was something lovely about the smile, something that made up for the troll-like stature. ‘You could say I’m in the same line of business as you. Sort of. Though I’m more of a private investigator at the moment. In fact, there was something I wanted to discuss, but I’m not sure this is the right place after all.’ He seemed distracted for a moment. ‘Actually, it’s probably time for me to head home, I think.’ Nigel got to his feet, the movement smooth and easy, and wiped a few grass clippings from his bum. It was rather a nice bum too.

He hesitated when he was on his feet. ‘Is it okay if I get your number from Cynthia and call you?’

‘Yeah,’ Jen said. ‘Sure.’ She thought he might be suggesting a date and was flattered, almost excited, but it seemed he had something more formal in mind. 

‘Work contact details will be fine if you don’t want to give me your personal number.’

She watched him walk away to say a polite goodbye to Cynthia. She felt ridiculously bereft, and that she’d missed an important opportunity for friendship.

The evening went downhill from there. She sat alone for a while with a beer, staring into the flames. When she saw Wes dancing slowly to music that he was humming and nobody else could hear, his arms round a woman young enough to be her daughter, she stumbled to her feet and walked home.

Chapter Two

JEN WOKE TO HER DAUGHTER BANGING on the door and shouting. She’d undressed the night before, but not bothered taking off her make-up; she could feel the mascara spiky on her eyelashes, see foundation and lipstick smeared on the pillowcase. So, she’d had a good night, but she hadn’t disgraced herself. Going to bed fully clothed was always a bad sign. Waking up with a stranger was even worse, but she only did that when the kids were in the Wirral with her ex’s parents. She’d never sunk so low as to bring a bloke home when Ella and Ben were here.

‘Yeah, come in, love.’ She pulled herself into a sitting position and looked at the clock by the bed. Ten o’clock, but it was a weekend and she wasn’t on duty, so no need to panic. She’d even been to the supermarket on her way home from work the evening before, so there was bread and milk for breakfast and they knew well enough by now how to scavenge. At least, she always thought when guilt stabbed her in the gut, more painful than heartburn, her kids wouldn’t grow up to be snowflakes.

The door opened and Ella came in. Sixteen, specky and skinny, at ease in her own skin. A science nerd, already in love with another geek, Zach, a lad from school, who bored the pants off Jen.

‘Don’t you want to go out and have fun?’ Jen would ask. She’d married too early and hated the thought of her daughter settling down too soon.

‘We are having fun.’

And they’d disappear off to Ella’s tidy room in the attic, not for drink, drugs and illicit sex, but to pore over chemistry homework or to watch some strange fantasy series on Netflix.

This morning Ella looked very young, still in her nightie, but the disapproval was obvious as she crossed the room to open the window. ‘It stinks in here. You need some fresh air.’ She could have been the parent.

‘Yeah.’ Jen ignored her thumping head. ‘Everything all right?’ 

‘You left your phone downstairs. It’s been ringing since I got up. Matthew Venn.’

‘Shit.’ Matthew Venn was the boss. The best boss she’d ever had, but he wasn’t much into fun either. He was a man of principle, still haunted, Jen thought, by a strict evangelical childhood. He could do disapproval as well as her daughter. ‘I stuck some clothes in the dryer before I went out last night. Can you fish them out while I jump in the shower?’

‘It was sunny yesterday. You could have put them on the line.’ More disapproval. Not content with saving her mother, Ella wanted to save the world too.

‘I know, but they don’t need ironing when they come out of the dryer. That saves power, doesn’t it?’ Jen pulled a face, which she knew would make her daughter laugh. There was an element of ritual to this exchange and El quite liked being superior.

Jen was already out of bed and on her way to the bathroom. She turned her voice into a wheedle. ‘And could you stick on the kettle, make some coffee? I bought some proper stuff yesterday.’  

***

She phoned Matthew while she used the coffee to swallow two paracetamol. Ella had made toast too. There was no sign of Ben, who only ever emerged at lunchtime at weekends. Jen buttered the toast while she returned Venn’s call. If this was a shout, who knew when she’d next eat? ‘Sorry, boss. It’s my day off and I’ve only just picked up your call.’

‘We’ve got an unexplained death,’ Matthew said. ‘Ross and I are already at the scene. Westacombe. A group of craft workshops in the grounds of a big house.’ He gave her the postcode. He hadn’t said murder. He was always careful when he spoke.

‘I’ll be there as soon as I can.’ As soon as I’ve finished my breakfast.

‘You are okay to drive?’ She could hear him trying to keep the judgement from his voice but she knew what he was thinking: If you had a skinful last night, you might be over the limit.

‘Sure,’ she said. ‘Sure. See you soon.’

***

At least Westacombe was inland, and she was driving against the flow of the tourist traffic. She’d lived in North Devon for five years now and she’d become used to the narrow, twisting lanes, the high banks and hedges, which could hide sneaky tractors and oncoming traffic. She’d never quite got used to the summer traffic, though, to the endless streams of huge cars carrying children, camping gear and surfboards. The road climbed away from the coast and at one point, as she pulled into a lay-by to let a Land Rover and horse box go past, she had a view over the whole estuary — the two rivers, the Taw and Torridge, spilling into the Atlantic, glistening in the sunshine. This was her patch now, but she still missed the Mersey, with its ferries and the view from Birkenhead of Liverpool’s astounding skyline, with a passion that felt like bereavement. Classic soppy Scouser, she thought. You live as close to paradise as you can get but you’re still not satisfied, still dreaming of home.

The satnav on her phone directed her down a single-track lane; there was no room even for two small cars to pass. Grass grew in the middle of the road. She turned a corner and she was there. The lane fizzled out into a yard. There was a rather grand house, built of warm red brick, the same colour as Cynthia’s wall, but older, crumbling in places. It had two storeys and, above them, what must be attic bedrooms, with little dormer windows built out of the slate roof. To one side of the yard a cottage. On the other a large barn. There was a row of smaller outbuildings with stable doors. This was one complex, but with multiple uses, all converted from the original farmhouse and farm buildings. Jen knew this because as she’d driven into the yard, she realized she’d been here before. Westacombe was less than three miles from the busy seaside village of Instow, but felt entirely cut off, a world of its own. That was what she remembered: the sense of having wandered into somewhere a little magical and not quite real.

She’d only visited once, but she hadn’t forgotten it. The visit had felt like an act of transgression, but also a celebration of freedom, of getting her life back. She’d never had a wild, irresponsible youth and this was as close as she’d got. Wes had brought her one Easter when the kids had been staying with their grandparents in Hoylake. Jen had been fretful and tense, anxious that her ex’s mother and father were poisoning her lovelies with stories about her fecklessness, her inability to look after them properly. Not that Robbie, her former, unmissed husband, had wanted them full-time. He’d never made a claim for custody. He liked his new, single life too much for that. Ella and Ben never stayed in his grand apartment in the old Albert Dock during their increasingly irregular visits, but instead with Reg and Joan in their Victorian villa by the coast in the Wirral. Robbie deigned to call in occasionally to meet his children. When work and his private life allowed. Sunday lunch was a favourite time. Nothing much happened in his world at Sunday lunchtime and his mother was a decent cook.

It was the first time she’d met Wes. Cynthia had invited her out. ‘You can’t stay at home brooding when you’re free from parental responsibility at last.’ She’d taken Jen to a bar right on the beach in Instow. ‘There’ll be jazz. I’ll introduce you to a few people.’ It had been small, dark, crowded, owned by a middle-aged Scot called George, who introduced the musicians as if they were all his best friends. Checked tablecloths and candles in bottles. A fishing net hung from the ceiling. Kitsch, but in a self-conscious sort of way. Jen had been intimidated by the music and the people, who, in the silences between songs, talked about books she’d never read and films she’d never seen. So of course, she’d drunk too much, become too loud, too chatty. Wes had been in the audience that night, not playing, though Jen had been able to tell he was a regular; he knew all the bar staff, and George treated him indulgently, as if he were a son who’d gone slightly off the rails. When Cynthia and her chums talked about heading back to Barnstaple, Wes had taken Jen’s hand.

‘Stay for one last drink. We can get you a taxi home.’ They’d walked on the beach in the moonlight and her head had been spinning as they’d looked up at the stars. When the taxi had arrived, it had taken them to Wes’s place, to this house, where he had a couple of rooms in the attic. Jen, of course, had paid the fare. It only occurred to her now, as she climbed out of the car, that the unexplained death might relate to Wes.

Matthew and Ross were standing in the yard, suited and booted like the CSIs, but recognizable, even in their paper suits and masks. Matthew was upright, almost military in stature, and his eyes were as grey as granite. Ross May was as skinny as a whippet and fidgeted like a child. She joined them, took a suit for herself, and while she was climbing into it, spoke to Venn.

‘Male or female? I’ve been here before and know one of the guys who lives here. Or who used to live here. He might have moved on. It was a couple of years ago.’ It was best to let Venn know how things stood before the investigation developed.

‘Male,’ Matthew said. ‘What was your friend’s name?’

Jen was going to say that he wasn’t a friend, not really, but that would have been protesting too much. Besides, Matthew liked straight answers. 

‘Wes,’ she said. ‘Wesley Curnow.’ She hesitated for a moment. ‘Actually, I saw him last night.’

Matthew shook his head. ‘That’s not the name.’ He looked at her. ‘What do you know about this place?’

Jen shrugged. ‘I only came here once.’ The morning after hooking up with Wes, he’d made her breakfast in a large, untidy communal kitchen on the ground floor. Flagstones on the floor and an Aga pockmarked with grease. Another hangover. More coffee and bacon sandwiches on fresh white bread, dripping with fat. A couple of other people had drifted through, but she’d not taken much notice of them. Wes had been the focus of her attention. He’d been barefoot, in tatty jeans and a loose T-shirt. Even with the hangover, she’d been smitten. He’d been a kind and thoughtful lover, and that had been a novelty for her. Even now, she found a smile drifting across her face as she remembered the night. ‘It’s a kind of artists’ commune. The owner lives in most of the house, but he rents out a couple of flats in the attic to crafts people and they have their workshops here too.’

Ross sneered, seemed about to say something cutting about artists or communes, then thought better of it in front of the boss. He was learning.

Jen went on: ‘The guy I know makes recycled furniture, driftwood sculpture, that sort of thing. He’s a musician too. Jonathan will probably have come across him.’

Matthew nodded. Jonathan, his husband, managed the Woodyard, a large and successful community arts centre in Barnstaple. He mixed in such Bohemian circles. The Woodyard wasn’t Matthew’s natural home, but he was learning too, and making more of an effort to get on with Jonathan’s friends. Perhaps because of his evangelical upbringing, Matthew found it hard to consider an activity that was fun, creative or exciting as real work. He’d joined the police service because it provided the sense of duty and community that he’d missed when he left the Brethren. Jonathan sometimes mocked him because he took himself so seriously. He turned his attention back to his colleagues. ‘Shall we see what we’ve got, then?’

Jen tucked her hair inside the paper hood, pulled on her mask and followed him. A row of farm buildings had been turned into studios and workshops.

‘Who found our victim?’

‘His daughter, Eve. She lives and works here. She’s a glass blower. She found him in her studio at eight thirty this morning.’ Matthew paused. ‘The cause of death is obvious enough apparently, but Doctor Pengelly is on her way.’ 

There was a stable door leading directly from the yard into one of the outbuildings, a long, low room. Jen was expecting the space to be dark and claustrophobic, but much of the roof had been replaced by a skylight and sunshine was flooding in. It was almost unbearably hot. The heat seemed to be coming from a furnace in the corner. Jen wondered why nobody had thought to switch it off, but of course, nothing could be touched until the CSIs had finished their work. Getting closer, she realized that the furnace wasn’t lit, but must still be hot from the day before. On the wall there were racks from which a series of long metal pipes, a steel shovel with a square, box-like end, and a flat-bladed shovel dangled. There were shelves containing devices and objects which could be instruments of torture: pincers and tongs, and a couple of blowtorches.

The whole place had the air of a torture chamber. Jen thought it resembled an image of hell, as described by one of the more imaginative nuns who’d taught her. A man was lying on his back in front of a polished workbench, caught in the sun’s rays. He was surrounded by shattered glass and a shard, as long and sharp as a knife, had pierced his neck. There was blood. A lot of blood, spread all over the floor and spattered on one of the walls.

‘So, it seems that he was killed where he was found,’ Matthew Venn said.

Jen hardly heard her boss speaking. ‘I know him,’ she said. ‘At least, I’ve met him. Last night. I was at a party at Cynthia Prior’s place and he was there. His name’s Nigel Yeo.’ She paused. ‘He works for an organization that monitors the health authority. Something to do with investigations. He wanted to talk to me, but said it could wait.’

‘He wanted to talk to you professionally?’ The workshop door was still open and they were standing just inside. Matthew had turned towards Jen.

She shrugged. ‘That’s what I thought he meant. But it was a party. I’d had a few drinks. You know what it’s like ...’

But Matthew wouldn’t know what it was like. He drank very little and certainly would never lose control. Jen tried to imagine him going to bed, too drunk to take off his clothes, but the idea was ridiculous. She looked again at the body, remembered the heavy smell of honeysuckle in Cynthia’s garden, the kind smile, and found herself feeling a little faint. ‘He seemed like a kind man.’

‘His daughter, Eve, is in the kitchen. If you’ve been here before, you’ll know where it is. Go and take an initial statement, while things are still fresh in her mind.’

Jen nodded and went out into the yard. She stood for a moment taking deep breaths. The sun was already hot. The kitchen was cooler, though. There were still stone flags on the floor but the range she remembered from her previous visit had been left to go out. A new electric cooker stood in one corner, and the room seemed cleaner, tidier; otherwise, little had changed. A woman in her late twenties or early thirties sat at the table. She was wearing dungarees and a striped T-shirt, red sandshoes. To Jen’s relief she was alone. There was no sign of Wes. 

‘Eve?’

The woman turned around. She was still crying. Jen thought she’d been crying for hours, since she’d found her father. ‘I’m so sorry,’ Jen said. ‘I met him. Only once — last night, in fact — but he seemed lovely.’

‘He was the best.’

‘I’m a detective. I need to ask some questions. Is that okay?’

Eve nodded.

‘Can I get you something before we start? Tea? Coffee?’ Jen thought she could do with a coffee herself. There was still a dull ache in her forehead.

‘Just some water, please.’

Jen filled two glasses. Even straight from the tap it was clear and cold. 

‘It comes from a borehole.’ Eve looked up. ‘Dad said it was the best water in the county.’

‘Did he live here?’ Jen found it hard to imagine. Nigel had been tidy; he’d stuck out at Cynthia’s party because he was so straight, so obviously respectable. And she was certain Cynthia had introduced him as a neighbour, but it was as well to be sure.

Despite her grief, Eve gave a little laugh. ‘No way! He had a house in Barnstaple. It was where I grew up. But he visited me lots.’

‘Does your mother live there?’ Jen had assumed the man was single when they’d met, but it seemed more likely that there would be a wife. Someone competent and caring. She knew Matthew would have asked, that the woman would have been notified of Yeo’s death and that someone would be with her.

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‘Mum had early onset Alzheimer’s,’ Eve said. ‘She died two years ago.’ The words were flat, hard. Don’t ask me about that. I can’t bear it. Not now.

Jen wanted to reach out and take the woman in her arms. ‘Do you have siblings?’

Eve shook her head. ‘Just Dad and me. We were so close.’ A pause for a beat. ‘And now I’m on my own.’ She was speaking quietly, but still it sounded like a cry of desperation.

Jen was going to ask about friends, a partner, but she could tell that friends wouldn’t be any comfort yet. ‘It was quite late last night when I met your father. Were you expecting a visit?’ 

‘Not last night. We’d planned to meet this morning. Dad helped me to make the glass. You need an assistant for most of the work I do. It’s skilled and it takes practice, but before Mum died, he asked for an unpaid sabbatical from the hospital and took a course just so he could help out. And have more time to care for her. That’s the sort of father he was. The idea was that we’d be at it all day. I’ve got a commission from a gallery in London, someone Frank put me in touch with, but the deadline’s very tight.’

Jen wanted to ask who Frank might be, but thought that could wait.

‘He didn’t work at the hospital now, though?’

‘No, he headed up North Devon Patients Together. It’s a kind of watchdog, monitoring the NHS trusts locally, representing users.’ She paused. ‘He’d been thinking of leaving medicine for a while. The shifts didn’t fit with him wanting to spend more time with Mum. But the NDPT is usually nine to five, and more flexible. He could pretty well set his own hours.’ She paused. ‘Mum died just as he was appointed, but he decided to leave the hospital all the same. A new challenge, he said.’

‘You have no idea why he might have come to Westacombe last night? Why he would be in your studio without telling you?’

Eve shook her head. ‘None at all. We had planned quite an early start. Seven thirty. I came in at seven to get everything set up.’

A moment of silence. From outside there came rural sounds, still unusual for Jen: birdsong and sheep.

‘You live here as well as work here?’ Jen asked. 

‘Yes, I’ve got a flat in the attic. Small. Two bedrooms — though one’s so tiny I’m not sure you’d be able to sleep there — a bathroom and a living room with a little fridge and a hob in the corner. I share this big kitchen with Wes, the other artist on site. But the views are beautiful and it’s good to be so close to the workshop.’

‘Who else lives here?’

‘There are four of us tenants, plus a couple of kids. Wes Curnow has a flat in the attic too. It’s even smaller than mine.’ Jen gave no sign that she knew the name. ‘And then there are Sarah and John Grieve, and their twins, who live in the cottage on the other side of the yard. John manages the farm and Sarah’s uncle owns the place. He lives in the rest of the house.’

‘What’s his name?’

‘Francis Ley.’ Eve looked up. ‘You might have heard of him. The economist. We all call him Frank.’

So that’s the Frank who arranged the commission. Jen nodded. She recognized the name. Ley had been all over the news at one time. Not courting the limelight himself — he was notoriously shy — but celebrated by journalists and commentators. He’d predicted the financial crash before it happened, had somehow survived it and made a fortune. Out of other people’s misery, Jen thought. Somehow the bankers and money-makers came out unscathed. She’d never lost the politics of her childhood.

‘How did you come to be here?’

‘Through Sarah, who lives in the cottage. We grew up in the same street in Barnstaple and when the workshop and the flat became available, she suggested I meet up with Frank. He seemed to like me and my work, so I moved in.’ She paused for a moment. ‘He was actually here yesterday evening. He travels a bit, but when he comes to stay, he invites us all in for drinks. A ritual.’ 

‘This isn’t his permanent home?’

‘He still has a place in London, but he’s talking of selling up. He likes it here best.’ Eve’s voice was warm, affectionate. She could have been talking about her own favourite uncle.

‘Is he still here?’ If so, Jen thought Matthew could do that interview. He was good at being polite, even to people he disliked. She’d never got the knack.

‘Oh, I don’t know. I presume so. He didn’t say anything about leaving when we talked to him last night.’

‘You haven’t seen him this morning?’ Jen thought the man must surely have been aware of the fuss in the yard, the cars, the white-suited CSIs.

‘No,’ Eve said. ‘He doesn’t come into the yard much. He doesn’t need to. He uses the main entrance to the house, looking out over the estuary, and his garage has a separate exit straight onto the lane. Wes and I get to our flats through the back door here and through the kitchen.’

Jen excused herself. ‘I’ll be back in a moment. We’ve not finished, I’m afraid.’ Outside, Sally Pengelly, the pathologist, was making her way to the workshop. She was short, plump, red-cheeked. Jen had once heard a fancy barrister describe her sneeringly as ‘that pathologist who looks as if she works on a farm’. But while Sally Pengelly might look like a farmer’s daughter, she was sharp and brave enough to stick her neck out on occasion. The team liked her. Matthew was standing in the yard, checking his phone. He looked up to greet them both.

‘One man owns all this.’ Jen waited for Sally to move inside the studio before she continued speaking, then waved her arm to take in the yard and all the buildings. ‘He lives in the big house but he’s not a permanent resident.’ She paused again. ‘It’s Francis Ley.’

Matthew raised an eyebrow, but said nothing. 

‘I thought you might want to catch him in case he decides to disappear,’ Jen said. ‘He has his own front door on the other side of the building.’

‘Have you done talking to the daughter?’

‘Nah, she’s deeply upset. They were very close and her mum died a couple of years ago. I’m taking it gently.’ Another pause. ‘She wasn’t expecting to see her dad until seven thirty this morning — apparentlyhe acted as a kind of assistant when she was making glass — and she can’t explain why he might have been here earlier this morning or late last night.’

Venn nodded. ‘I suppose he could have been here to see one of the other tenants. We need to check possible relationships. Or he could have arranged to meet Ley. I’ll find out what the man has to say. If you’re still tied up, I’m happy to see him on my own.’

As she turned back towards the kitchen, Jen smiled. That was just the response she’d hoped for.

Chapter Three

WHEN JEN LEFT HIM, MATTHEW STOOD for a moment, thinking. He wasn’t a man for rushing into encounters without a plan. He liked to be in control of an investigation, in control of himself. His husband, Jonathan, was creative, impulsive, but Jonathan could read people and situations easily; Matthew didn’t have that skill. His face to the sun, he trawled through his memory for information about Francis Ley. At one time, the economist had been featured in all the newspapers, set apart from most financiers by his West Country accent, the fact of being an outsider. Ten years after the crash, there’d been a television documentary about him, but he hadn’t appeared himself. Former friends and colleagues had appeared, speaking of the prophesies that had been ridiculed, the warnings that had been ignored.

‘If he’d been to a different school, a first-class university, people might have taken notice of his warnings,’ one had said. ‘We might have avoided the worst of the crash altogether. But he was never really a City person. He never fitted in.’

The impression was given that Ley was now rather eccentric, a recluse, disenchanted by the world that had made him a fortune. He’d inherited his father’s farm — this farmhouse presumably — and returned to his roots, then set about regenerating the surrounding villages, buying up failing businesses and working his magic behind the scenes. There were a couple of pubs, now thriving and famous for their food; a fish restaurant in Instow with a Michelin star; a handful of village shops, saved from extinction, along with their post offices, but transformed into delis, artisan bakers or potteries and galleries. Not all the changes had been popular. Gentrification, as Jonathan, who’d grown up on a farm on the edge of Exmoor, was fond of saying, especially after a few glasses of wine, wasn’t only a problem of the cities. Locals could feel alienated in the countryside too.

Matthew Venn couldn’t think what connection Nigel Yeo, who’d worked for an obscure organization linked to the NHS, might have with Francis Ley, but Eve, Yeo’s daughter, lived and worked on Ley’s property and her father was a regular visitor. Matthew would have liked more time to explore possibilities, to do some research. But Ley was here now, and, as Jen had pointed out, he might leave at any time. Matthew left the row of workshops and walked round the house to find the man.

The door into Ley’s part of the building was reached by a gravel path leading around the house, and it faced not inland, but out to the estuary. There was a garden — a lawn with old-fashioned herbaceous borders — and a view of the Taw all the way to Crow Point, and of the Torridge and the towns of Appledore and Bideford. To the far side of the house stood a newly built garage, from which a paved drive led to the lane, avoiding the yard.

Matthew stood for a moment to look at the house and thought the building was strangely schizophrenic. This side was well proportioned, classic Georgian, with the original sash windows, symmetrical on each side of the door. The brick glowed in the morning sunlight. Once it must have been the home of a gentleman farmer, and it had been restored here to its former glory, the door freshly painted black, the brass knocker gleaming. It seemed very different from the buildings which looked out at the yard, and the flats in the attic. Jen would have put the difference down to class: the cottage and the scruffy outhouses for the workers, and the grand facade, looking out over the estuary, for the owner. Matthew saw it rather differently. He saw one portion as arty and slightly disreputable; this side of the house, from the outside at least, seemed the height of respectability. It was hard to see how the two groups might co-exist. He knocked at the door.

After a while, Ley opened it himself, and stood, framed in the entrance, blinking. He was a big man, round and soft. His size was what people remembered. Before disappearing from public view, he’d made awkward, self-deprecating jokes about being fat. About how his chefs should be less skilful so he wasn’t tempted to sample so much of the cooking, and how he would never settle with a woman if he didn’t lose a little weight. As far as Matthew could recall from the rumours locally, Ley had never found a woman.

He was wearing an old-fashioned tartan dressing gown over striped cotton pyjama bottoms, and a pair of leather slippers, which flapped as he walked. The dressing gown hardly met across his waist and was held together by a plaited cord. His bare chest was pink and almost hairless. Something about the outfit made Matthew think of a 1950s schoolboy. Billy Bunter or Just William. 

‘Yes?’ Ley seemed flustered, a little anxious, but not angry at being disturbed by a stranger.

Matthew introduced himself. ‘Perhaps you’ve noticed my team in your yard.’

‘I’ve just woken up. I haven’t had a chance to notice anything yet.’ He was still blinking. His eyelashes were sandy and fine. The voice was slow and pure North Devon. It was hard to imagine him doing hard-headed deals in a high-pressure financial market.

‘One of your tenants found her father dead in her studio this morning.’

‘What?’

He stared at Matthew as if he was talking a foreign language. ‘I don’t understand. Eve’s the only woman with a workshop. Are you talking about Nigel?’

‘I’m afraid I am.’

There was silence. Ley shook his head as if he was still struggling to make sense of the words. Again, Matthew wondered how someone so slow to respond could have become so powerful. 

‘How did he die?’ Ley asked at last. He stepped back into the hall behind him, assuming that Matthew would follow. ‘He seemed so fit. Some sort of heart attack?’

‘He was murdered. We can’t discuss the details yet.’

Ley seemed to stumble, and put a hand against one wall to steady himself. He turned back to face Venn. ‘I can’t believe anyone would want him dead. Nigel was a good man. You’ll discover that for yourself when you make your inquiries. You’d better come in. Give me a couple of minutes to make myself decent and I’ll be with you.’

The hall was shady; impressive but not intimidating, with a scratched oak floor and faded rugs, a large chest against one wall. Ley opened a door and showed Matthew into a big sitting room. More wood, more rugs. A fireplace with a vase of flowers on the hearth; the vase so wide at the rim that it was more of a bowl. A window seat with cushions in hand-woven covers. The furniture might have been there since Ley’s childhood: a worn leather chesterfield and a couple of sagging armchairs. The art on display was quite different, though. There were huge abstracts, shocking blocks of colour. In one corner a life-sized sculpture of a curlew made from driftwood. Venn supposed these had been created by the Westacombe tenants, past and present. He looked again at the vase containing the flowers: blue swirling glass, made perhaps by the murdered man’s daughter. It seemed Ley wasn’t only the craftspeople’s landlord; he was also their patron.

The only sign that he’d hosted a drinks party the night before was a single glass on a coffee table. The other debris must already have been cleared away. Venn wondered if there was a housekeeper, or if Ley managed the place by himself.

The man returned more quickly than Matthew had been expecting, but still he’d found time for a shower. His hair was wet. He was dressed in large, wrinkled grey trousers, which made Matthew think of an elephant’s legs, and a baggy black T-shirt. Surely, he thought, Ley wouldn’t have dressed like that when he was a City trader. Matthew liked to hide behind the uniform of a suit; even his casual clothes were freshly laundered and well pressed.

‘I’m making coffee,’ Ley said from the door. ‘I’m afraid I can’t function without it. Would you like some?’ He seemed diffident, as if he was the visitor, not the host.

Matthew could smell the coffee and was tempted. The kitchen must be close by. ‘Please.’ 

Ley disappeared and came back with a mug in each hand. ‘No milk,’ he said. ‘I don’t take it. I can probably borrow some from the tenants’ kitchen ...’

‘Black’s fine.’ Matthew stood up to take the coffee, then returned to his seat by the window.

Ley stood for a moment, looking out of the window, before landing on an armchair close by. ‘You’re saying that Nigel Yeo’s been murdered?’

‘Yes.’ Matthew paused. ‘I’m afraid that I am.’

‘Shit!’ The reply was explosive, more personal than might have been expected if Yeo were simply an acquaintance, the father of a tenant. The word and the emphasis were unexpected. Ley gave a quick, shy smile. ‘I’m sorry ...’

‘Dr Yeo was a friend?’

‘No.’ A pause. ‘Well. I suppose he was in a way; becoming one at least. Eve came here a couple of years ago after finishing her Master’s degree.’ Matthew said nothing. Silence, he’d found, was an ally and a weapon.

At last, Ley continued: ‘Nigel worked for North Devon Patients Together, NDPT. It represents patients’ views to the trusts. It’s a small organization but very efficient, I thought. Important and well respected. Since Nigel took over as boss, he’s widened the brief to look into anomalies, and to explore patients’ complaints.’ 

Venn nodded. That chimed with what Jen Rafferty had said.

Ley looked up at him, weighing his words. ‘A young friend of mine suffered from depression. Nothing major — at least, that was what I thought. Not life-threatening. I’ve had bouts myself. It didn’t suit me being in the public eye, and then I was low again when my mother died — but I took the drugs and came through it. We talked about it, the two of us, and shared experiences. I thought Mack’s illness could be as easily treated.’ Ley was staring at the flowers in the fireplace. ‘I blame myself for not realizing it was more serious, perhaps a different illness altogether, and then I was away in London when the real crisis happened.’ He paused and pulled a grubby handkerchief from his pocket and wiped his eyes.

Matthew said nothing. He knew there was more to the story. In the garden, blackbirds were singing. Joyous. Inappropriate.

‘Mack killed himself. He was talented, bright and he had a family who loved him. But he went out late one night, walked along the cliff path above Seal Bay and he jumped. He left a note by the path. In a little plastic bag, in case it rained, weighed down by a stone. Everything planned. A couple of ramblers found it the following day. His body wasn’t discovered until three days later, what was left of it, washed up on the north end of Lundy Island.’

‘When was this?’ Matthew asked. He couldn’t remember the case, but he wouldn’t have been involved officially in a suicide.

‘The autumn. The end of October.’

‘And his full name?’

‘Alexander Mackenzie. Known to us all as Mack.’ A pause. ‘His parents, George and Martha, run the bar on the beach at Instow. The Sandpiper.’ Matthew nodded his head slowly. Details of the case were coming back to him. Jonathan knew the family and had been horrified by the boy’s death. 

‘It should never have happened.’ Ley’s voice was raw with emotion now. ‘His parents knew how ill he was. They called the hospital, but nobody would do anything. He was just nineteen and, caught between children’s and adult services, he seemed to fall into the gap. They ended up calling the police because Mack was paranoid, imagining all sorts. The police took him to A&E, and he was sectioned, taken to the psychiatric hospital in the grounds of the General, but after a night, there wasn’t a bed or for some reason the clinic let him out. There was supposed to be community support, but that didn’t happen either. Mack was desperate, still paranoid apparently, dreaming of conspiracies and strange men following him. He even believed that his family were against him. In the end, I suppose, he couldn’t stand it so he just walked off the cliff and into the sea. A way out. Some kind of peace.’

‘You were very close to him.’ It was a statement, not a question.

‘I know the family. Mack was almost like a nephew, or maybe a surrogate son. I understood him because he didn’t fit in. As I said, we confided in each other. There’s a daughter. Lively, pretty. Very bright. Not long out of university. Mack was more challenging. More troubled.’ Ley looked up. ‘More like me.’

‘And Dr Yeo was involved in the case professionally?’ Matthew was trying to see how this all hung together.

‘Yes. George and Martha made a formal complaint against the health trust. Nothing was happening. All they got was a standard response. It could have been written by a computer. It probably was written by a computer. I talked to Nigel, and he got involved.’ Ley paused. ‘The family are not going to sue. Nothing will bring their boy back. But they need to know what happened. To know that it won’t happen again.’ Another pause. ‘We trusted Nigel. He was conscientious. No stone was left unturned. I’m not sure any of the medics or officials within the trust will be so diligent.’

There was a moment of silence while Matthew processed the information. Outside the window, the morning light made the colours in the garden shimmer, turned the view into an Impressionist painting.

‘Had Nigel reached any conclusion about what might have happened?’

‘I don’t know. He was very careful about what he told me. Very professional. I saw him recently about another matter entirely. I asked him how his inquiry was going, but he didn’t say anything. Of course, I could understand that, the need for confidentiality.’ 

‘Do you know why he was here last night? It must have been late when he arrived. We know he was at a social event in Barnstaple until ten thirty.’

Ley shook his head. ‘I assume he was here to see Eve.’ A pause. ‘I didn’t see him; we hadn’t arranged to meet.’

‘You had a party yourself, yesterday evening?’

‘Not really a party. I’d been away for a few days and I invited the tenants in for drinks. I like to keep in touch with them. But that was earlier. We kicked off at seven o’clock and everyone had left well before nine.’

Ley sounded rather sad. Matthew wondered if he was lonely here, without his mother. Did he resent the young people, who’d come for the free drink and then disappeared?

‘Did everyone come?’ he asked. ‘All the people who live here?’

‘Yes, they all showed up. I think they see it almost as a duty. Wesley didn’t stay for long. He said he had another engagement in Barnstaple.’

‘That would be Wesley Curnow?’ 

‘Yes.’ Ley got to his feet and pushed open the window, letting in a burst of birdsong.

‘Can you give me details of the other residents?’

‘Sarah and John Grieve have the biggest space, the cottage, which you’ll have seen at the other side of the yard. They’ve got twins. No one else has kids. John manages the farm for me. Not that there’s much land these days, we rent most of it out, but we have a small herd of dairy cows.’

‘Sarah’s your niece?’

‘Not really a niece. I don’t have brothers or sisters.’ The thought seemed to sadden him. ‘I suppose she’s a kind of second cousin, but she’s my only relative. We’ve grown very close. She’s turned one of the outhouses into a dairy and makes traditional clotted cream and ice cream.’ Ley gave a slow smile and patted his stomach. ‘Delicious, but not so good for the figure. She looks after my house while I’m away too. There are two smaller flats in the attic. Wesley has one and Eve the other.’

‘And they also have studio space?’

Ley nodded. His attention seemed drawn to the scene outside, the lush garden and the sea beyond.

‘What made you decide to open your house to these young people?’ The question came unbidden, without Matthew’s usual consideration. It had been at the front of his mind since walking through the door. If he had a property as beautiful as this, he wouldn’t want to share it with so many people. And if Ley was as rich as everyone said, he didn’t need their rent. 

At first, Ley didn’t answer the question directly. ‘They’re not so young,’ he said. ‘Wes must be forty, even though he behaves like a teenager.’

‘All the same. You know what I mean. Do you enjoy the company?’

Ley turned back into the room and gave Matthew his full attention. ‘No,’ he said. ‘I don’t need the company. I’ve always been happy enough on my own.’ He paused, took a breath. ‘It’s guilt. All that money just dropped into my lap. I didn’t have to work for it. Not really. I’ve always enjoyed figures. Logic. I didn’t mix with the flash young traders and didn’t get swept up in the hype. I could see which way the market was going and sold at the right time. It was luck as much as anything. But I know what it’s like to struggle. The house looks very grand now but it was falling to bits when I was a kid. We only lived in the kitchen and a couple of the bedrooms. It makes me feel a bit better about myself to share my good fortune.’ He smiled. ‘I expect you think I’m bonkers.’

Matthew shook his head. He knew the power of guilt. He’d lived with it throughout his childhood and was still haunted by it.

Ley continued speaking. Now he’d started, it seemed he felt the need to continue. Matthew had the sense that this was a sort of confession and the man had nobody else to confide in.

‘When I first came home,’ Ley said, ‘I thought the answer was to build more thriving communities, to rescue post offices and shops, take over pubs and restaurants. But it hasn’t really worked. Not everywhere. In some of the villages, it pushed up house prices, brought in the tourists and the second homers. And it made me money. More money. More guilt.’ He smiled again and again Matthew was reminded of an honourable schoolboy, naive and struggling, attempting to do the right thing and somehow always failing.

‘So now you support individuals?’

‘I still give to charity,’ Ley said. ‘Of course I do. But somehow this is more meaningful. Less demeaning. Investment, not handout.’ 

‘And more of a sacrifice?’ Matthew said. ‘To be sharing your beautiful home with people who need the space, even though I’m sure you’d rather have it to yourself.’

‘A sacrifice?’ It seemed he hadn’t considered the idea before. ‘Yes! Of course, you’re right. After all, I’m not really being altruistic. Providing homes for other people just makes me feel better about myself.’

Matthew would have liked to ask Ley if he had a faith, but that was none of his business. How could it possibly be relevant to finding out who had killed Nigel Yeo? Instead he pulled himself back to the investigation. ‘What did you do after your guests left the house at nine?’

‘I sat in the garden for a while, watching the sun setting over the water.’ He paused. ‘And I drank too much. It’s become rather a habit, I’m afraid.’

‘Did you hear a car in the lane?’ He shook his head. ‘I didn’t stay outside for long. Once it was properly dark, I moved inside.’ He paused. ‘And carried on drinking. Hence, the lateness of getting out of bed.’ He turned back to face Matthew. ‘I told you that I don’t need company, Inspector, and in general that’s true, but last night, when the others had gone, I felt overwhelmed by a sense of loneliness. It was almost unbearable.’

Again, Matthew felt that he was listening to a confession, almost in the religious sense. Few people would share their pain with a complete stranger. He didn’t know how to reply. But it seemed that no response was needed. Ley became suddenly more formal, distant.

‘If that’s all, Inspector, I’m expecting a call from London. But of course, if I can help in any way at all, do come back to me.’

They walked together to the front door. From somewhere inside the house there was the sound of a phone ringing. Ley nodded sadly and turned away.

 

NEXT: Chapters 4-6

 

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