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'The Heron's Cry' Chapters 10-12


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Chapter Ten

SALLY PENGELLY WAS WAITING for Matthew in the mortuary, gowned and booted.

‘Thanks for doing this so speedily at a weekend.’ Matthew knew she had a family: a husband who was head teacher of a village primary school, and at least three children. He and Jonathan had been invited once to a barbecue at their home, a rambling place with a garden and orchard, a paddock with ponies. There had been a lot of children there, all running wild, and he hadn’t quite worked out which of them belonged to Sally. It had been a chaotic and good-humoured evening. Jonathan had loved it; Matthew not quite so much. There had been insects and they’d had to sit on the grass.

‘This suits me better than tomorrow morning,’ she said. ‘Finn’s got running club and Jo’s at youth orchestra. Freddie says the surf’s looking good, so he has to be at Croyde. Bloody kids rule our lives.’ A pause. ‘And we didn’t want to leave Dr Yeo at the locus longer than necessary. That poor young woman, with her father’s dead body on her doorstep. In her workplace.’

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Matthew nodded.

‘You don’t need to stay throughout.’ Sally was already focused on the body on the stainless-steel table. The mortuary technician moved quietly and efficiently beside her. ‘Cause of death is pretty clear and, of course, we have an ID.’ She looked back at Matthew. ‘You’ve had quite a day. You’ll be glad to be home. So, let’s get on with it, shall we?’

Her assistant started cutting away Nigel’s clothes and Sally provided the running commentary:

‘In the trouser pockets, we have a handkerchief and two sets of house keys. No car keys.’ She turned again to Matthew, a question.

‘They’d been left in his car,’ Matthew said. He wondered if that was significant. Had Yeo been distracted when he arrived? Did he trust the Westacombe residents not to steal the vehicle? But wasn’t locking a car automatic? Matthew kept a running log throughout an investigation, and now he opened the blue, hardback notebook and wrote a reminder to check with Eve if her father usually left his vehicle unlocked when he was at the farm.

Sally was still speaking. ‘The cause of death is a stab wound to the neck, and severing of the artery and critical nerves controlling cardiac and brain function. Bleeding will have been brisk, at least until the blood pressure dropped, and we noted the pulsatile nature of the spatter on the workshop wall.’

Matthew closed his eyes for a moment and pictured the crime scene, the blood. It was hard to imagine that one man could produce so much.

Sally continued. ‘The murder weapon was this piece of glass. The axial strength meant that it didn’t shatter, though there is evidence of deformation where it hit the bone.’ She turned to Matthew. ‘Really, this is all as we thought at the locus.’

‘I did wonder,’ he said, ‘if the glass was window dressing, there for effect.’

She shook her head. ‘Glass can be remarkably strong. I did part of my training in Aberdeen. Plenty of glassings in pub brawls there.’ She paused for a moment. ‘Go home to your husband. I’ll get my report to you as soon as I can, and I’ll be in touch immediately if I come across anything unusual.’

For a moment he hesitated. Duty had become a habit, almost reassuring, an excuse to avoid the personal. But Sally was right. There was nothing more for him to do here.

***

It was dark when he got home, but Jonathan was still in the kitchen, music playing. Something cool and bluesy that Matthew didn’t recognize. Jonathan was at the sink, peeling vegetables. He turned and took Matthew briefly into his arms. No words until they’d separated.

‘I met Eve today. She told me what had happened.’

‘Will she hold it together, do you think?’ Matthew took a seat at the long table.

‘Yeah, in the end. But to lose her father so soon after her mother ...’ Jonathan paused. ‘I invited her to come and stay. I don’t think she should be on her own there, so close to where her father was killed.’

Matthew looked up sharply. For a moment he couldn’t quite believe what Jonathan had said. ‘She’s a witness to a murder. A potential suspect. You can’t see that it would be impossible to have her here?’

‘You really believe that Eve could have killed her father?’ Jonathan’s face was set, stubborn. ‘And that protocol is more important than kindness?’

‘The rules matter!’ Matthew was aware of his voice rising, that he was almost shouting, and made an effort to remain calm, reasonable. ‘Sometimes they’re the only thing between us and chaos.’

They stood staring at each other in silence. Matthew broke it first. He nodded towards the sink. ‘I’m sorry but I’m really not that hungry.’

‘This isn’t for tonight,’ Jonathan said. ‘I’m getting prepped for tomorrow. Your mother’s grand lunch.’ His voice was brighter. In his mind, at least, the tension between them was over; he was clearly looking forward to the occasion. He put his arm around Matthew and kissed him lightly. That was Jonathan all over. He hated confrontation and never saw the point of letting an argument drag on. He thought that a moment of tenderness could make everything better. Matthew felt the old dread settle like a headache, but said nothing.

Chapter Eleven

ROSS AND MEL HAD A ROUTINE for Sundays if neither of them was working. Sometimes she had to go in; she was manager of an old folks’ home and took her job seriously. It wasn’t fair, she said, for the care staff to work shifts if she didn’t take her turn. She’d started working there when she was sixteen, fitting it in around taking the care qualification at the FE college on the edge of the town. They’d already been going out then. Childhood sweethearts. She’d worked her way up from care assistant, from wearing the ugly pink tabards to her own clothes. Always smart. Ross hadn’t liked to think of her wiping the old men’s bums, had been a bit embarrassed about her job, but he was proud of her now.

Mel and Ross had met at school. She had always been the prettiest in the class and not just good-looking, but easy-going and even-tempered too. Not one of the stuck-up girls who thought it was clever to bad mouth or tease. Not pushy or overly academic either. Despite her looks, he had never found her intimidating. They’d first started going out when they were fifteen and had been married in their early twenties.

Ross’s parents had been through hard times, and he didn’t want that for himself. He’d already mapped out his life before Mel walked down the aisle to be his wife. Security was important. He and Mel had bought their own home while their friends were still renting or spending their cash on travel and flash cars, instead of investing in their future. Ross had grand plans for his future: promotion, a bigger house. That would be the time for fancy holidays.

Sunday morning started with the Park Run. Ross liked his sport. In the winter it was rugby; Joe Oldham had introduced him to the club when Ross was still a boy, and the superintendent came along to cheer at most of the important matches. Though he usually retired to the bar at half-time. This time of year, Ross still wanted to keep fit. He had a horror of ending up like his dad: flabby, his belly hanging over his belt, taking no pride in his appearance.

Mel was a good runner too and went out with her mates some mornings, coming back glowing, laughing just with the pleasure of the exercise. Ross thought that was when he loved her most. She was a credit to him. He’d tried to persuade Jen Rafferty along to the Park Run, but she’d looked at him as if he was crazy. Are you joking? On a Sunday morning? Ross wished Jen would take him more seriously — everything was a joke to her — because he only had her best interests at heart. At her age, she could use more exercise and it wouldn’t hurt if she cut down on the booze. Not that he said anything about that. Jen had a way with words that made you wary, that could cut into you like a knife. With one sentence she could slice away his confidence and his self-belief. If he’d known her at school, she’d have been one of the girls he’d have avoided like the plague.

After the run, Mel always did a cooked breakfast. It was the high point of his week. Some of their running mates went out for brunch in a cafe close to the park, but Ross could never see the point. It all cost money and, anyway, the food wasn’t great; there was nowhere decent to eat in Barnstaple. And Mel was a great cook. Today, it was scrambled eggs and smoked salmon on sourdough toast. Afterwards, she made a pot of real coffee — on weekdays, they made do with instant — and they took their mugs out into the garden. He sat with his face to the sun and thought this was all he’d ever wanted: to be a good cop and a good husband. Maybe a good father when the time was right. Mel got up from her deckchair and began to pull a few weeds from the flower bed next to the path.

He looked at his watch. ‘I’ve got to go in to the station. We’re working on that murder out at Westacombe and the boss has decided he’s got something important on at home. Who knows what Jen will be up to?’ He rolled his eyes. ‘One of us has got to be there.’

She was still crouched, and turned to face him, her eyes screwed up against the sun.

‘No worries,’ she said. ‘I’ll do the washing-up, shall I?’

He thought he caught an edge to her voice, a touch of sarcasm. ‘Is that okay?’ He wouldn’t want to upset her for the world.

‘Yeah.’ She stood up and smiled. ‘I know how important your work is.’

There was a moment of relief. He should have known she wouldn’t have a go at him. He was overreacting. ‘I won’t be back until late-ish. I’ve got to take a witness statement out at Instow, then there’ll be the briefing.’

‘That’s all right. I might go out for a drink with the girls.’

Again, he thought he caught an undercurrent of resentment, but when he looked at her face, she was still smiling.

***

The police station was like a sauna; the sun was streaming through windows that had never been opened and, of course, there was no air con. Ross looked again at the list of the calls Nigel Yeo had made in the previous week. Besides those to Eve and to Lauren Miller, everything seemed work-related. He must have been a sad bastard. Not much social life at all. There was a text sent at six o’clock on the evening before his death by Cynthia Prior: Look forward to seeing you later. Nothing else that day. So, Ross thought, any meeting at Westacombe had been arranged previously. Or Nigel had been contacted on his landline. Or he’d turned up on the spur of the moment. That was speculation, of course. Ross had learned from Joe Oldham to be suspicious of speculation, but Matthew Venn thought it was a useful tool. Our job is all about What if? No harm creating a number of scenarios and seeing if the facts fit. The danger comes when you twist the facts to fit the theory.

It was still a bit early to be heading out to Instow, but Ross left the station anyway. He thought he’d call in at the house, surprise Mel. They might go to bed. Sex in the afternoon had always been his favourite, and, somehow, they’d got out of the way of it. Too busy both of them. He was excited, a schoolboy again, planning illicit jaunts with his girlfriend, as he drove through the new executive estate, past the men washing cars and the kids playing out. But when he got there, Mel’s car wasn’t in the drive. Perhaps she’d popped round to her parents’. He rang her, but when she didn’t reply, he decided not to wait. The moment of uncharacteristic spontaneity had passed.

There were more cars heading away from Instow as he drove there than were making their way to the coast. Family Sunday afternoons were a time of preparation for the week ahead: homework, hair wash, the ironing of school uniform. At least, that was how it had been when he was a boy. And this wasn’t yet prime grockle season. A few people were still in the Sandpiper, but they were lingering over coffee, relaxed. Ross had never been in here. It wasn’t his sort of place. Most of the customers were his parents’ age. A young woman was drying glasses at the counter. Blonde hair. A white blouse, the cotton thin enough that he could see her bra. She moved out to clear a table and he saw she was wearing skinny jeans and Converse sandshoes.

‘Janey Mackenzie?’

‘Yes.’ She seemed to see him for the first time. ‘Oh, you must be the detective. Dad said someone would be coming.’

‘Yes, I need to talk to you about Friday night.’

She was still carrying a tray. ‘Just a minute. I need to get rid of this.’ She disappeared into the kitchen and returned soon after with a middle-aged man. ‘This is my dad. He’ll cover while I talk to you. Do you mind if we walk on the beach? I’ve been stuck in all day.’

She looked at him, waiting for his agreement.

‘Of course, if that’s what you’d prefer.’ She gave him a smile and he followed her out of the door.

Outside, it was early afternoon, even hotter, and despite the cars heading back to Barnstaple, the beach was still heaving. Kids were running in and out of the water, splashing and screaming. Janey took off her shoes and made her way to the sea’s edge, then walked away from the worst of the crowd towards the far end of the beach. He wasn’t sure what to do. He was dressed for work, not for the shore. In the end he followed her, but stayed on the dry sand, just about close enough to speak to her without shouting.

‘Friday night you were at a party with Wesley Curnow?’

‘Yeah. Not exactly my idea of fun.’ She pulled a face that made him smile.

‘Why did you go then?’ Ross wasn’t sure where the question had come from. How could this be relevant to the investigation? But something about her intrigued him. He’d expected her to be confident, arrogant even. She’d been to a fancy university, was good-looking in a way that would catch attention wherever she went, and she had a mother who was a minor celebrity. Ross was always suspicious of people who were better educated than him. He sensed they were judging him. Janey didn’t give that impression, though. There was something of the little girl about her: nervy but precocious. He thought she’d say the first thing that came into her head, no filter, no matter how that might seem to the listener.

She shrugged. She was wearing big sunglasses now and he couldn’t really see her face, couldn’t tell what she was thinking. ‘I was bored. I thought anything would be better than staying in or working. And Wes is a mate. He asked. He didn’t quite tell me what I was letting myself in for.’

‘Did you see Nigel Yeo there?’

She turned her back to the sun. It was white and bright and she was almost a silhouette.

‘Yes. He didn’t stay very late.’

‘Long enough for you to speak to him?’

‘We had a quick chat. He and I were probably the only sober people at the party.’ She gave a little laugh. ‘Middle-aged drinkers. What are they like?’

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‘I know!’ They walked on for a moment, in almost companionable silence. ‘How well did you know him, Dr Yeo?’ Ross was trying to put himself into Matthew Venn’s shoes, to ask the questions the boss might ask. He hadn’t wanted to like Venn when he’d first arrived, but the way the new detective had dealt with the body at Crow Point, and all the drama of the aftermath, had earned a grudging admiration.

‘Not well at all,’ Janey said. ‘He was a friend of my parents. At least, a kind of friend. He was trying to find out what happened to my brother, why he was allowed out of hospital to commit suicide.’

‘What do you think happened to your brother?’ Another Venn-like question.

It seemed to surprise her and she paused for a moment. ‘I think he was ill and he killed himself. He had pretty shit treatment from the NHS, but I don’t think anyone could have stopped him if he’d wanted to do it. He was really quite stubborn. I think my parents feel guilty because they couldn’t love him. Not really. He was so f----up and so different from them. So, they’re looking for someone else to blame.’

‘Could you love him?’ For a moment Ross was afraid she’d laugh at him. If anyone had asked him a question like that, he’d have been embarrassed and covered it up with laughter. But Janey considered it seriously. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘I loved him. He was demanding and self-obsessed, and there was no protective wall between him and the universe, so he made everyone around him believe they had a duty to look after him. But he could be joyous and gentle, and he looked after me too. He was my little brother.’ She seemed lost in thought.

‘We came on holidays to North Devon, before we moved down for good and took over the business. Mum spent her first big repeat fees from TV on a little chalet in the dunes at Seal Bay. It was magical. Like something out of a kids’ book. Mack and I ran wild, rock-pooling and surfing. Picnics and ice cream. Long walks on Seal Point. Mum was never really a hands-on parent, and most of the time she was learning lines for the next ep. Dad wasn’t there much. He still had his permanent job in IT. So mostly it was just the two of us. Mack was a weird little scrap even then, but I don’t remember any arguments or sibling rivalry. Nothing like that.’

‘Seal Point was where he killed himself?’

‘Yeah. I guess it was his happy place.’ She looked at Ross. ‘Somewhere he felt at peace.’

They walked on. Ross could feel sand in his shoes, gritty between his socks and his skin, but it didn’t seem the time to take them off. What would that look like, when Janey was so at home on the beach?

‘On Friday night, you gave Wesley a lift home, but not all the way?’

‘I dropped him at the end of the lane leading towards the farm. He was pissed and I thought the walk would do him good. Besides, he didn’t have anything to wake up for and I knew I’d be working on breakfasts.’

‘This is your full-time job? Working in the cafe?’

‘For the moment.’ She walked out of the shallow water and joined him. ‘I’ve got a degree. From Oxford. But there’s not much call for students of Victorian fiction in contemporary Britain.’ Ross didn’t know what to say to that.

‘Wesley says a car passed him, going very fast, coming down the lane from Westacombe, but he was quite vague about it.

As you say, he was drunk, so he wasn’t terribly convincing. No details. Something about that might come back to him, but it’s not very helpful at the moment. You didn’t see a speeding car going up towards the farm when you dropped him off?’

‘Not then, but later there was some maniac driving through the village much too fast.’

‘Can you describe the car?’

‘Black. One of those MTBs.’

‘MTB?’

She smiled. ‘Much too big. For the lanes and the roads round here.’

He smiled too, though he wouldn’t mind something solid when he could afford it. A Range Rover. Something of that kind.

‘Did you catch the registration number?’

‘No way. It just flashed past.’

‘Is there anything else you can tell me about Dr Yeo? Any reason why someone might want him dead?’

She didn’t answer immediately and he thought Janey might have something, some little bit of information to make sense of the killing. But as they walked back to the road, she shook her head again.

‘No,’ she said. ‘Nigel was a lovely man. Everyone will tell you that.’

Chapter Twelve

ON SUNDAY MORNINGS, IF SHE WASN’T working, Jen usually stayed in bed until lunchtime. In the past, she’d tried to do the good mum thing and attempted a roast — meat, veg, Yorkshire puddings, the whole deal — but it hadn’t seemed worth it since Ella had decided she was mostly veggie, and Ben made it clear he’d rather be talking to his friends online, playing some computer game. All that effort, she’d thought, for a meal nobody really wanted to eat! She’d given up, and now Sunday was her day for a lie-in.

Today, though, she was up before the kids, and on the phone to her friend Cynthia, who was always awake early. In a way, it seemed to Jen that Cynthia’s party had been at the start of the whole investigation.

‘You’ll have heard about your mate Nigel. Can I come around for a chat? It’s official.’ Though, as Matthew says, gossip has its place too.

‘Of course.’

Jen heard Cynthia take a breath, and knew she was about to fire off a load of questions, so she cut off the conversation quickly. She didn’t want to get into details on the phone. ‘Get the coffee on then. I’ll be there in twenty minutes.’

Cynthia’s husband opened the door. Sometimes Roger Prior joined them when Jen went to visit, but more often he hid himself away in his office. He was a tall, dignified man, unremarkable except for a head of very dark, almost black hair, which Jen was convinced must be dyed. It seemed a strange vanity for someone so reserved. Only now did it occur to Jen that, when it came to the investigation, Prior might be an even more useful contact than Cynthia. He worked as something vague but important for the local NHS trust, and, of course, she should have made the connection before.

‘Cynthia’s waiting for you in the garden,’ he said. They were standing in an entrance hall bigger than Jen’s living room, all pale wood and family photos. ‘We’re both rather shaken. The man who died in Westacombe was a neighbour of ours.’

‘I’m on the team investigating his murder.’

‘Oh,’ he said. ‘I suppose you can’t discuss it then. I understand all about confidentiality.’

‘Nigel must have been your colleague at one time. And he was still looking into a case which involves the trust. You might be able to help.’

‘I don’t think I can,’ the man said. ‘You’ll need to contact the hospital about that.’ He gave a tight, sad smile. ‘I’m governed by confidentiality too, I’m afraid.’ There was a moment of silence. ‘Why don’t you go on through? Cynthia’s waiting for you.’ He disappeared through a door. Jen had a brief glimpse of an office, a desk, a wall of bookshelves, then the door was firmly closed. She’d been to the house many times, but she’d never been inside that room.

In the garden, Cynthia was sitting on a white wooden chair, her head tilted back, her eyes closed against the sun. She was wearing a long silk tunic in blues and purples over white linen trousers. Silver sandals and silver toenails. This week her hair was purple too.

Jen had never thought of herself as a jealous woman, but she envied Cynthia her garden. It could have come out of one of those magazines she read occasionally in the dentist’s waiting room. Everywhere there was colour, and the lawn was as smooth as a carpet, without moss or weed. The beds a mix of exotic flowers and vivid shiny-leaved shrubs. Of course, the Priors could afford a gardener and Cynthia merely supervised. A jug of coffee and two mugs stood on a white wrought-iron table. Cynthia heard Jen approaching and turned to face her. She looked as if she’d hardly slept. The purple circles under her eyes were real, not cosmetic to match the hair.

‘I can’t believe it,’ she said. ‘Wesley phoned me yesterday evening. He thought we should know.’ There was an implied criticism. Why didn’t you tell me?

‘I’m part of the team investigating his murder,’ Jen repeated the words. ‘We were pretty tied up.’ Sometimes Cynthia forgot that other people had kids and full-time jobs.

‘Oh, I can understand. But it was just such a shock.’

‘He was here on Friday night.’ Jen poured coffee. ‘The party didn’t really seem his kind of thing.’

‘It wasn’t! He was only here to see you.’

‘What do you mean? I’d never met him before.’

‘He called in on Friday afternoon. He knew we were friends.’

Cynthia looked up and for a moment she was herself again. ‘It’s quite something having a mate who’s a detective sergeant. A bit of a talking point, a kind of vicarious celebrity. He asked if I’d be able to set up a meeting. Rather urgent, he said. I told him you’d be coming to the party, and he’d be welcome. I wasn’t sure if he’d come along, but there he was.’ A pause. ‘I thought the two of you might get on. He lost his wife to early onset Alzheimer’s, so he was on his own too.’

Jen ignored Cynthia’s implied matchmaking. After the man’s death, the idea seemed hugely inappropriate. Grotesque, as if Cynthia was suggesting she should hook up with a corpse.

‘What time did he arrive here on Friday?’ It might not be important but Venn would want to know.

‘I’m not sure. Five-ish. Maybe a bit later.’ Cynthia paused. ‘He seemed a little out of sorts.’

‘Did he say why he wanted to talk to me?’

Cynthia shook her head. ‘No, it was all very mysterious, very secret squirrel.’

‘How well did you know him?’ ‘Well enough to have had him round for dinner a few times. His wife, Helen, was my real friend. I got closer to Nigel when he cut back his hours to care for her. When he started at Patients Together, he could work a lot from home. I went sometimes to sit with her, to give him a break, and so he could work with Eve on the glass. He was taking some kind of course.’

‘He and Roger must have been colleagues, though, when he was still working at the hospital. That must have been another point of connection.’

‘Oh.’ Now Cynthia seemed deliberately vague. ‘I don’t think so. Roger’s just an admin person, really. Nigel was on the front line.’

‘Until he took up his new investigative role with Patients Together. He must have come into contact with Roger then. Nigel had taken up the case of the Mackenzie boy, hadn’t he? He had some idea that negligence by the trust had led to his suicide.’ A pause. ‘That must have been difficult for Roger.’

There was a moment of silence. Jen had always thought that she and Cynthia were close friends. Very different in lifestyle, of course, and Cynth, with her monthly trip to the hairdresser and her exuberant, expensive clothes didn’t seem to have a clue about the real world until she sat in the magistrates’ court. Then she seemed to have an unusual understanding of the offenders who stood before her. Occasionally, Jen wondered if Cynthia’s family had been dysfunctional too. Perhaps the woman’s empathy came from her own experience.

‘Honestly, Jen, I can’t talk about Nigel’s role in the Mackenzie case. I think there’s an ongoing investigation within the hospital and you’ll have to ask Roger about that.’ Now the woman sounded uncomfortable.

‘I just did. He ran away into his office without answering.’ Another silence. In the distance a neighbour was mowing a lawn. There was the scent of roses and cut grass. It was all very perfect. At this moment, Jen didn’t quite believe in perfection.

She hoped she hadn’t offended Cynthia, but she had warned her friend in advance that this conversation would be official. Jen thought her work would always come before personal considerations. Her husband had never quite realized that; it had been one of the many matters of contention. It was his view, often stated, that she should be a wife first. For a woman, work should come way down the list.

‘Actually,’ Cynthia said at last, ‘Nigel was becoming a bit of a thorn in the authority’s side. A bit overreaching. The brief of Patients Together was traditionally quite narrow, but he extended it.’

‘In what way?’

‘In the past it represented patients in a more general sense. They advised on policy, provided feedback on services. Nigel seemed willing to become involved in more personal disputes between patients and the health authority. Roger thought it was a little unprofessional. He felt it almost as a betrayal. He said that Nigel was acting like a sort of private detective, not a former employee of the NHS.’

‘And it was the Alexander Mackenzie suicide that was causing the particular problem?’

Cynthia, usually so composed and confident, seemed to squirm a little in her seat. ‘Nigel had taken an interest in other cases previously, but he appeared to have got a bee in his bonnet about the way George Mackenzie’s son had been treated before he committed suicide.’ She looked directly at Jen. ‘You can see how awkward that was. For me, as well as for Roger. George is a friend. I’ve been going to the Sandpiper since he started doing music there. I sympathized. But Roger’s my husband and he needed my support through it all too. The last thing he wanted was a press witch hunt about the trust’s mental health provision. Nigel wasn’t a psychiatrist and he should never have involved himself in something so close to home. There was a definite conflict of interest.’

‘Is that why Nigel wanted to see me on Friday night? To discuss Alexander Mackenzie’s death?’ ‘I don’t know.’ Cynthia gave a quick glance back at the house. To make sure her husband isn’t listening in? ‘To be honest, I didn’t want to know.’

‘I didn’t speak to Nigel for very long.’ Jen had never seen Cynthia quite so jumpy, not even when a guy out of his head on spice had threatened her with a knife when she was coming out of court. ‘Did you talk to himbefore he left?’

‘He came to say goodbye,’ Cynthia said. ‘Of course he did. He was a gent. He wouldn’t have just wandered off.’ She was speaking very quickly, like a kid rattling off an excuse to a teacher. Too much coffee? She’d already topped up her mug and she liked it black and very strong. Or was she hurrying to move the conversation on in a different direction?

‘Did Nigel say where he was going when he left here? We found his car at Westacombe, so we presume that he drove himself there, either that night or early the next morning.’ Jen tried to keep her voice even, but she was losing patience. And she was hurt because she’d thought they were friends. Proper friends. And here was Cynth treating her like some sort of moron who could be lied to.

There was no answer.

‘Cynthia. Someone stuck a shard of glass, half a metre long, into his neck. We’re not f---ing about here. This isn’t a couple of lasses shoplifting from Markses.’

‘He said he was meeting someone. Polite as always. “Brilliant party, Cynthia, but I’ve got to go, I’m afraid.” It seemed a bit weird. I mean, why would you arrange a meeting so late?’

Perhaps, Jen thought, he’d realized I was in no fit state for an intelligent conversation, and he just made an excuse to leave. ‘So,’ she said, ‘he was expecting someone at his house?’

‘That’s what I thought he meant. He might have had guests coming to stay; he’s close to Helen’s parents. I suppose he could have been waiting for a phone call.’ Cynthia looked up, part defiant, part pleading for Jen to believe her. ‘You know what it was like here on Friday night. Music, background noise. I can’t really be sure what he meant.’

‘He didn’t mention going to see his daughter? A trip out to Westacombe?’

‘I don’t think so. Honestly, Jen, you spoke to him as long as I did that night. There were lots of other guests and I wanted to make sure everyone had a good time.’

The lawnmower in the neighbour’s equally perfect garden chugged on. A blackbird sang. But Jen thought Cynthia wasn’t being straight. She was keeping a secret — or secrets — and things would never be the same between them again. Jen pushed herself out of the chair and stood up. Cynthia stayed where she was, eyes closed.

‘Where was Roger on Friday night?’ The question came out more loudly than Jen had expected.

The eyes opened. ‘He stayed out for the evening, keeping out of the way. You know he has to be in the mood for a party.’

‘But where was he?’

Cynthia stood up too, slowly and carefully, making a point, and they stood, staring at each other. ‘What’s this about, Jen? Do you think he needs an alibi? Should I be phoning for our lawyer?’ Her accent was even more upper class than usual. Don’t mess with me, pleb!

‘I only asked, Cynth.’ Now Jen just felt tired. She wished she could have had her usual lie-in and a proper breakfast. ‘I just need to know where everyone who had any dealings with Nigel Yeo was that night. It’s my work. Like it’s Roger’s work to protect the health authority.’

‘He stayed in the office at the hospital,’ Cynthia said, each word spoken a bit too clearly, a bit too slowly. ‘He was working late. It’s a stressful job, keeping the show on the road with too little money, too few nurses, too few doctors. He often works late.’

‘What time did he get home?’

Cynthia shrugged. ‘I haven’t got a clue. I was out in the garden with half a dozen guests who stayed on until about twelve. Wes was playing music. Janey joined in singing, until she got bored. It was all very chilled, all very ordinary. When I went to bed, Roger was already there. Fast asleep.’ She turned to face Jen, and her words became hard, sarcastic. ‘I suppose he would just have had time to drive to Westacombe and stick that piece of glass in Nigel’s neck, if Nigel headed for the farm as soon as he left here. But I’d have thought there would have been blood. Roger’s work suit was hanging in the wardrobe and his shirt was in the linen basket. I put it in the washing machine this morning. There were no stains. I can promise you that.’ She gave a harsh little laugh. ‘You do see how ridiculous this is?’

Jen didn’t answer. She thought there was nothing faintly funny about the violent death of a good man.

Normally they would have hugged before they left each other and made some arrangement to meet up soon. Today Cynthia marched ahead of Jen, around the side of the house to the front gate, assuming that the detective would follow. It seemed Jen wasn’t even to be allowed to take the shortcut through the house, through the kitchen with the shiny granite worktops and the hall with the pale-wood panels, past the firmly closed door where Roger was working. Or hiding. She was being treated like a tradesman, the gardener or the window cleaner. At the fancy wrought-iron gate, they paused for a moment. Awkward, both of them prickly. Two strong women facing off.

Ridiculous, Jen thought. She opened her arms. ‘It’s just my work,’ she said. ‘It gets in the way of friendship.’

Cynthia hesitated, and Jen thought she would come in for that hug, but in the end, she didn’t move any closer. ‘Let’s hope this gets quickly sorted. Then maybe we can be friends again.’ The magistrate turned and walked away, the long silk tunic floating behind her, leaving Jen standing, her arms still outstretched, waiting for the embrace.

NEXT: Chapters 13-15

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