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'The Heron's Cry' Chapters 16-18


spinner image illustration of a woman and her shadow in the doorway of a large shed with two large doors and small windows, and part of a red car visible outside
Illustration by Stan Fellows

Chapter Sixteen

MATTHEW LEFT LAUREN MILLER’S HOUSE IN Appledore and drove back to Barnstaple. Dorothy Venn was waiting for him at her home. Matthew could see her peering through the window of the bungalow where he’d grown up as a child. It had always felt like an old person’s house, even when his parents had been in early middle age. It was as if his mother, at least, had always been anxious, always planning for some disaster, which had never occurred until her son, her only beloved child, had renounced his faith publicly at a meeting of the Brethren and brought shame upon her whole family.

It had been a murder which had brought them together again, a body on a beach and the kidnapping of a woman with a learning disability. Matthew supposed he should be grateful for the resulting awkward reconciliation, but sometimes he thought life had been easier when there’d been no contact. Contact brought responsibility and he could see now in the gaunt, sharp face looking out at him that his mother was getting old. He was the only son and the only person who would care for her.

There was no sign of weakness, however, when she opened the door. ‘I thought you were going to be late.’

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He was five minutes earlier than they’d arranged but he said nothing. He opened the car door for her and helped her in. ‘Happy birthday!’

‘It’s only another day. Nothing to make a fuss about.’ ‘Have you been to the meeting?’ He meant the meeting of the Barum Brethren, held in a dusty community hall on the edge of the town. He remembered the smell of rising damp, disinfectant and elderly women. ‘Of course! Brother Anthony gave me a lift and brought me home.’

Of course. The Brethren might have been riven by scandal and corruption, but she’d chosen to maintain her loyalty. Matthew could understand that. It had been hard enough for him to break away as a young man and the community was all that his mother had known. Like him, she’d been born into it.

They drove the rest of the way in silence. She sat with her handbag on her lap, her knees firmly together. She was still in the clothes she would have worn to the meeting: a green skirt and a long-sleeved white blouse. Despite the heat, she had on a green, hand-knitted cardigan. She had removed the hat, something woollen and mushroom-shaped, which seemed to be required dress code at Brethren worship. She spoke first.

‘Where exactly do you live?’ 

‘In the house close to the shore at Crow Point. Do you remember, we had picnics on the beach there sometimes?’

She nodded and for the first time gave a little smile. ‘Your father loved a picnic.’ A pause. ‘I could never see the point. Sand gets everywhere. But he loved the open air.’

‘You must miss him a lot.’

For a while, Matthew thought he’d overstepped some virtual mark, become too personal, but at last she answered. ‘I do. All the time. If it weren’t for the brothers and sisters, I think the loneliness would kill me.’

The comment took his breath away and a wave of guilt swept over him. He’d thought his mother had stuck with the Brethren out of stubbornness, or because her faith had remained despite the drama surrounding it earlier in the year. But of course, these people were her friends. They’d been there for her when her husband died and when Matthew had stayed away.

They came to the traffic lights in the centre of Braunton. There was already a queue of cars leading to the coast and the lights changed twice before they could get through. A group of bronzed, scantily dressed young women crossed the road in front of them and he sensed his mother’s disapproval, but she didn’t speak. They crawled along the road until the turn-off by the Great Marsh. This was a place for locals; most holidaymakers didn’t realize that it was a way to the beach, to the other end of the long sweep of Saunton Sands. Matthew threw change into the basket at the toll keeper’s cottage, the gate lifted and he drove through. He pulled into their drive and switched off the engine.

‘This would be a bleak sort of place in a gale,’ his mother said. He opened the car door for her and offered her a hand to get out. She stood for a moment looking around her. ‘You’ve made a lovely garden, though.’

‘That’s Jonathan’s work,’ Matthew said. ‘He’s the practical, creative one.’ Again, she took a while to answer.

‘I don’t know about that. You were always creative when you were a boy.’

Matthew smiled. The words felt like a vindication. Of himself as a boy and of the relationship with his husband. Perhaps, after all, this would work out. ‘Come on in. You’ll see he’s a brilliant cook too.’ 

She sniffed. ‘No need to have gone to any trouble.’

Jonathan had heard the car and was at the door to meet them, arms wide in greeting. ‘Come in! And happy birthday, Mrs Venn!’ He gave Matthew a light kiss on the cheek.

His mother pretended not to notice and was looking round the kitchen. ‘This is very fancy.’

‘We love it,’ Jonathan said.

The table was laid and there were two vases filled with deep red roses from the garden. The window was wide open and the curtains stirred in the breeze. It was as close to eating outside as Jonathan could make it.

Jonathan took off his apron and hung it on the back of the cupboard door. He was wearing black shorts and a black T-shirt with the name of a craft brewery on the front. Dorothy wouldn’t recognize the name. On his feet he wore flip-flops. His toes were wide and flat. Matthew called them hobbits’ feet. A silliness and intimacy he’d allowed himself with no other person. His mother stared at Jonathan for a moment, as curious as if he were a being from another planet.

‘Are you ready to eat?’ Jonathan asked. ‘Or would you like a tour of the house first?’

‘Why don’t we have lunch now?’ Matthew couldn’t bear the idea of showing his mother around the house: another bedroom with two dressing gowns and another bathroom with two toothbrushes. And Jonathan wasn’t the tidiest person. Who knew what might be left out? Matthew wanted to check first. ‘I might be called back to work. We’re in the middle of a murder investigation.’

‘That makes sense.’ Jonathan rolled his eyes at the mention of work, but only Matthew could see. ‘And of course, I have champagne!’ 

Dorothy still hadn’t spoken. The room with its flowers, the copper pans hanging from a rack on the ceiling and the art on the wall — mostly posters for exhibitions Jonathan had held at the Woodyard — seemed to overwhelm her with its space and its colour. She appeared almost breathless.

Jonathan went to the fridge and pulled out a bottle. Only the supermarket brand, but real champagne all the same. ‘Let’s have this with the starter.’

Matthew expected his mother to refuse. Alcohol wasn’t forbidden by the Brethren and his father had enjoyed a whisky most evenings after work, but Dorothy never participated. More, Matthew suspected, because she enjoyed the martyrdom of denying herself pleasure than through religious conviction. Now she stood in the middle of the room, gripping her handbag, looking around her, and he saw that she was nervous. He’d never known his mother be anything other than confident in her certainty.

‘There’s orange juice if you prefer,’ Jonathan said very gently. She might have been one of his clients at the Woodyard day centre. ‘It’s your day. Whatever makes you happy. Why don’t you sit here with your back to the window, then you’re not squinting into the sun?’ He took her arm and led her to the head of the table.

Matthew watched, moved, as she took her seat. She smiled. At Jonathan, not at him. ‘I might try a glass of champagne,’ she said. ‘I had some at a wedding for the toasts and I did quite enjoy it.’

Jonathan turned, winked at Matthew and opened the bottle.

The phone call came late in the afternoon. Dorothy had complimented Jonathan on the tenderness of the beef, the way the Yorkshire puddings had risen. ‘I was never very good at batter. Not for Yorkshire puddings or pancakes.’ The cake, with its candles and elaborate decoration, had been a huge success. After a lifetime of healthy eating, it seemed to Matthew that his mother actually had a very sweet tooth and she had been persuaded to have a second slice. He and Jonathan had sung happy birthday, Jonathan taking the lead. The whole afternoon had a strange surreal tinge to it. It was hard for Matthew to believe that this woman, who had haunted his life and had been the subject of earnest discussions with his therapist, had become elderly, lonely and powerless. Someone who was willing to compromise in return for kindness and company.

By now she was rather pink and had removed the cardigan. Her handbag had been put under her chair. She looked younger, more relaxed than Matthew could remember. Jonathan had been collecting plates. There were two empty coffee cups on the table. Dorothy had asked for tea and Jonathan had made it for her in a small pot. She’d liked that; she still disapproved of teabags. Matthew had switched off his phone, but he could hear it vibrating in his pocket.

He looked at it. ‘Sorry. I really have to take this.’ He walked out into the garden and heard gulls, the tug of the tide on the shore. 

‘Boss.’ It was Jen Rafferty, calling on his mobile. ‘I’m sorry to disturb you. I know you were busy today.’

‘What is it?’

‘I think you need to come in. There’s just been a 999 call. The report of another body.’  

Chapter Seventeen

EVE HAD TAKEN HER TIME DRIVING back to Barnstaple. When she arrived at the huge, converted sawmill on the River Taw, which had become the Woodyard arts centre, the place was almost empty. The day centre for adults with learning disabilities was closed at the weekend and there were no classes on a Sunday. No Pilates or community choir. No middle-aged women learning to paint with watercolours. The cafe opened to serve Sunday lunches, but soon that would be closing too. In the quiet of a hot late afternoon, she imagined the timber yard as it had once been, the workers and the machinery, overpowering with its noise. Today, the silence sang out.

There was a marked car park at the front for the centre’s visitors, but she made her way through the big open wooden gates to the back, to the rough concrete yard where the staff left their vehicles. This was close to where Wesley stored his found and scavenged material.

Wesley’s shed was as large as a good-sized barn, built from wood, but solid. He’d once held a party there, after hours, and Jonathan had gone ape. Someone must have told him it was happening, and the centre manager had turned up, genuinely furious, yelling about Wesley taking the piss. ‘We’re not insured for this kind of thing. Someone gets hurt or you start a fire and we’re f---ed. Not just me, but my day centre clients and the women who sing in the choir and the artists who are supposed to be your mates. Just f---ing grow up, Wesley!’

Yet, Wesley was still here, still using the place. Eve thought he slid through life on charm and the goodwill of others. He was amiable, good to be around. He lightened the mood wherever he went, so they all put up with him.

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The shed had double doors, wide enough to let a forklift in. Wesley usually left them open if he was inside, but today they were closed. Not locked, though. The padlock had been left on the hook. She slid the doors open. The windows were small and high in the walls, too dusty, smeared with decades of grime and countless spiders’ webs, to let in much light.

‘Wes!’ It would be typical of him to summon her here and then to be late. But he must be here, otherwise the doors would still be padlocked and, besides, she’d noticed his white van, parked in a corner away from the sun. She walked further into the space and her eyes got used to the gloom. One of the windows had a clear patch in the middle and the sun shone through like a spotlight. There was a pile of pallets, roughly stacked at one end. Wes used them a lot in his art. He painted on them, produced shop signs and quirky notices to go into restaurants and bars, frames for menu blackboards. Presents for friends. He’d made a painting for her of a vase that had been selected for an exhibition at the V&A, with the date. It hung now in her flat. Perhaps, after all, it was those moments of kindness that forced them to tolerate the fact that he used them. This was more than a storeroom. He made his larger furniture here and there was a workbench in the centre of the space.

She could see the man now, and moved slowly towards him, frightened already of what she might find. Because Wes wasn’t a quiet man. He’d have responded to her shout, jumped to his feet, called out a greeting in return. Put his arms around her. And she was scared because she still had an image of her father, lying on her studio floor in a pool of blood. There was blood here too, and a shard of glass, her glass, not green this time, but blue, was sticking in his neck. A blue vase had been shattered here — she remembered making it and giving it to Frank Ley as a present — and there were pieces of glass scattered across the bench, reflecting the single beam of the sun. Blood had spattered across the bench and as far as the nearest wall. She pulled her gaze back to the pieces of glass, which looked almost decorative in the shaft of sunlight, and wondered how they had got here — anything rather than to look at Wesley, who was still and white, stark against the red pool of blood, already dried and dark in the heat — and was deciding she should phone 999 when there was a sound outside. The screaming of sirens and the thumping of boots, loud and rhythmic as soldiers’ drums, on the uneven concrete, and half a dozen police officers ran in through the doors, yelling for her to get on her knees and put her hands on her head.  

Chapter Eighteen

 

WHEN MATTHEW ARRIVED AT the scene, Jen Rafferty was already there. He’d left Jonathan to get his mother home in a taxi.

‘You can’t drive,’ Matthew had said. ‘You’ll be over the limit.’ Always the cop, but then Jonathan had finished most of the bottle of fizz.

Jonathan had nodded, was already calling the local minicab when Matthew left. ‘After we’ve dropped her off, I’ll come on to the Woodyard. I’ll see you there.’

Matthew’s mother had been confused by the change in mood, the sudden rush to action. There’d never been much drama in her life. Not that she’d been aware of, at least, until the kidnapping of her friend’s learning-disabled daughter, and she’d seen little of that investigation. Before that, even his father’s death had been expected and managed, a slipping away, not a sudden event. But when Matthew had hurried away, she’d created no fuss; there was no recrimination that the birthday celebration was being cut short. In old age, she was making fewer demands. Loneliness had changed her.

Matthew was confused too. He’d received garbled stories about the 999 call and the discovery of the body. Initially, it seemed that the first officers at the scene had assumed they had their perpetrator. A woman crouched over the body, a piece of glass in her hand. Blood on her clothes. But the glass in the woman’s hand hadn’t been the murder weapon. That was still in the victim’s neck. And this was Eve Yeo, who had just lost her father. Matthew couldn’t see her as a serial killer. The idea was ludicrous.

When he arrived at the Woodyard, Jen got out of the car to talk to him. Matthew thought she looked drained and white. This had hit her personally. He wondered if she’d had a closer relationship with the victim than she’d let on.

‘No way could it have been Eve,’ Jen said. ‘The caretaker saw her drive in at four twenty. The 999 call was made ten minutes before that. Curnow had been dead for a while before she got here.’

Matthew saw now that Eve was sitting in the passenger seat of Jen’s car. She was frozen, her face too drained of colour. Was this another woman who’d been taken in by Curnow’s charm? He considered the logic behind Jen’s statement. ‘I suppose she could have made the call before coming to kill him, but I agree that it’s unlikely.’ He paused. ‘Was the call made by a man or a woman?’

‘You can hear the recording. Hard to tell apparently. The voice is muffled, disguised. We’ll need to get it analysed.’

Matthew nodded towards the car. The glass maker was as still as stone, staring ahead of her. ‘What did you get from Eve?’

‘Not much. She’s still in shock. I’ll take her home and we can chat again there. I asked if she’d prefer to go back to her dad’s house now the CSIs have finished there, but she said she’d rather be at the farm. The house in Barnstaple has too many memories. That’s about her mother, I guess.’

Matthew nodded. He looked at the group of uniformed officers standing close to the main building of the Woodyard. Ross May was with them. ‘I suppose our eager young DC led the charge.’

‘Yeah,’ Jen said. ‘You can’t blame him, though. I was in the office when we got the shout from emergency services. You get a call, apparently from a witness, saying that someone related to the Westacombe murder has been attacked, you don’t hang about. The guy could still be alive, the attacker could still be at the scene.’

Matthew didn’t respond immediately. You could hang about long enough to consult the officer in charge of the case. But then Matthew had said he shouldn’t be disturbed unless it was urgent. His team. His responsibility. ‘Did he talk to you before gathering the troops and setting out?’

Jen gave a quick grin. ‘Yes, but he took charge on the ground. I stayed behind for a moment to call for back-up and to phone you.’

Matthew nodded to show that she, at least, had got it right. ‘Did Eve tell you how she came to be here?’

‘She got a text. Apparently from Wesley asking her to meet him here. But his phone’s not on his body.’

‘So, someone set her up. The killer sent her the message using Wesley’s phone?’

‘Looks like it.’

Matthew was suddenly furious. These changes of mood hit him sometimes, scaring him with their ferocity. Not a red mist, but a clear flash of white light, a lack of control, a rush of energy and aggression. Calling Eve to the murder scene seemed wilful, almost playful. The killer must have known that the police would check the voice on the 999 call and the timing of the text. This wasn’t setting the woman up as a realistic suspect. It was cruel. A child pulling the wings off a living fly. Matthew took time to breathe slowly, counting the seconds, trying to release the tension in his body. ‘Did the caretaker see anyone else in the yard this afternoon?’

Jen shook her head. ‘No. He had the afternoon off and only came back to check the place was empty before locking the main gates into the centre car park. This yard is always left open in case staff want to use the place after hours.’ A pause. ‘There’ll be CCTV, though.’

‘Maybe.’ Matthew wasn’t so sure. Jonathan was running the place on a shoestring. He’d maintain the security in the main building and the areas surrounding the day centre, but perhaps not here. He was about to pull on his scene suit, then thought he should give Eve some reassurance, and the last thing she’d need was some anonymous figure in a hood and mask. The suits made his kindest officers look sinister. He opened the car door and sat beside her, perched sideways, his feet still on the cracked concrete, not wanting to crowd her. ‘I’m so sorry,’ he said, ‘that you had to go through this again. I can’t imagine what it must be like.’

Eve turned to face him. ‘It doesn’t hurt yet. It’s unreal. As if I’ve wandered onto a film set.’

‘Of course. One shock too many. We’ll need to hang on to your car, just for the moment, but we’ll get it back to you as soon as we can. It’s just routine. Nothing to worry about.’

‘The blue glass vase, the one that was in there.’ Eve made a vague gesture with her hand, but couldn’t look at the shed. ‘It was one of mine. I gave it to Frank Ley as a birthday present. He’d filled it with flowers on the evening we spent with him, the night before I found my father in the studio.’

‘Are you sure?’

‘Oh yes!’ She sounded offended. ‘They’re all slightly different, my pieces. Individual. I can recognize each one.’

***

Brian Branscombe, the crime scene manager, walked Matthew round the locus. He was middle-aged, diffident, unwilling to commit himself without reason, meticulous. He had a reputation for being slow, but Matthew would rather have slow than impulsive. They stood for a moment at the wide sliding door into the shed and looked in. The pathologist hadn’t yet arrived and Wesley’s body still lay in the middle of the space next to the workbench. Shattered blue glass glinted in the shaft of sunlight. The room could have been a piece of installation art.

‘So, we assume he was killed here?’

‘Oh, I think so.’ Branscombe was local. The accent somehow comforting. ‘All that blood.’

‘It looks staged somehow. More staged than the Westacombe stabbing.’

‘Maybe they had more time.’ Branscombe stepped through the doors and stood next to the wall. A CSI was moving through the space, a fingerprint powder brush in his hand. Matthew assumed it was a man, but it was hard to tell. More would turn up soon, but this was a Sunday, the county was big and the team was small.

‘I don’t think I’ve heard back from you.’ Matthew thought he should be used to wearing the mask by now, but it felt uncomfortable and the scene suit seemed to trap the heat and made him feel unbearably hot. ‘Did you get any workable fingerprints from the green glass, the piece used to kill Yeo?’

‘Only a smudge, which came from the daughter.’ Branscombe moved closer to the body. ‘And you’d expect that. She made the thing.’ He sounded distracted. All his attention now was on this locus. ‘I think our victim was standing here at the bench. Look, he’s wearing headphones, so he was probably listening to music. He might not have heard the killer approaching. Not until it was too late at least.’

‘But he’d have heard if the perpetrator smashed the vase on the bench, and seen what was happening too.’ Matthew was trying to picture the scene. Wesley had been focused on his work. There was a plank of timber, which could have been part of an old roof joist, lying across the bench and held by a vice. A handsaw lying on the floor looked as if it had fallen out of his hand when he was killed. In headphones he might not have heard the attacker approaching, but the shattered vase was in his line of sight.

‘The vase could have been prepared in advance,’ Branscombe said. ‘Smashed elsewhere and brought in in pieces. One used for the stabbing and the rest left here for effect.’

And to point us back to Westacombe.

‘Wesley would have been listening to music on his phone’ — now Matthew was talking to himself — ‘and we haven’t found that.’

‘There’s a chance of DNA. In this weather our killer could have been sweating. Even if he was wearing gloves, droplets might have fallen from his forehead onto the surface or the glass.’

‘If it’s there, I know that you’ll find it.’ This wasn’t flattery. There was no need for Branscombe to answer. He knew how good he was at this.

Matthew went on, putting his first thoughts into words. ‘I have a sense of someone overconfident, willing to take risks. The general public don’t come to this part of the Woodyard, but he could have been disturbed at any time. The killer might not have been so cautious or careful this time.’

‘Let’s hope.’

‘If your theory works,’ Matthew said, ‘and the killer came up behind Wesley and surprised him, we’re looking for someone who’s right-handed, aren’t we?’

‘Yeah.’ Branscombe was definite now. ‘They must have been.’

‘Thanks. I’ll leave you to it. You’ll give me a shout if there’s anything important?’

Branscombe remained silent as if the answer was too obvious to be worth speaking.

***

Outside, there was a slight movement of air, but still it was hotter than they were used to. Matthew stripped off the scene suit. A taxi pulled up in the road outside and Jonathan was there, dressed as he had been at the lunch, in shorts and T-shirt, flip-flops on his feet. For a moment, Matthew wondered what that must be like: to dress for comfort, to be so loose and easy. But he felt more comfortable in a shirt and tie, real shoes, highly polished. His clothes gave him confidence, support. He went over to Jonathan, partly to stop him wandering into the area, which still hadn’t been completely taped, partly because his husband’s presence was always calming, a reassurance that in the end all would be well.

‘I got your mother home okay.’

‘Thanks.’ He paused for a beat. ‘And thanks for looking after her so well, for making her feel special.’ Jonathan shrugged. ‘It’s easy, isn’t it, when you’re not too close. You’re better around my parents than I am.’ He nodded towards the activity, the officers in their white zombie suits. ‘Who is it?’

‘Wesley Curnow.’ Matthew waited for a reaction, but there was none. ‘Of course, you’ll have known him, if he rented the shed from you.’

‘We never saw much in the way of rent!’ Matthew was surprised by the coldness of the response. This was Jonathan, who had sympathy for losers, drifters and dropouts of every kind. ‘You didn’t like him?’

‘Perhaps I liked him too much and that was the problem. I should have turfed him out ages ago.’ Jonathan paused. ‘I knew he was taking the piss. He used people, but somehow, they didn’t mind. He was like a spoiled kid, desperate to be loved. Charming, but in the end entirely selfish.’

Matthew didn’t say anything. He knew his husband well enough to realize there was more to come.

‘An example. Wes would wander into the day centre sometimes if he’d been working here at the Woodyard, and he’d chat to our learning-disabled chaps there. He’d sit and listen to them and make them laugh, appear to be giving them all his attention. I thought it was kind. Then I saw he only came in the afternoon, and on the days when they were baking. He came for the tea and cake. It was that simple.’

‘Maybe he came for both.’ Matthew wondered how such a small act of selfishness could have got under his usually tolerant husband’s skin. Had Wesley provoked such a response in everyone who’d known him?

‘Yeah, perhaps I’m just being cynical.’

Matthew knew that was unlikely. Jonathan thought the best of everyone. The insight was useful. ‘I’ll be late back,’ Matthew said.

Jonathan turned and saw Eve in Jen’s car. ‘What’s Evie doing here?’

‘She found Wesley’s body.’

‘Oh no!’ Jonathan said. ‘Not again. Not after finding her father. Can I take her back to our house? Really, she can’t go back to Westacombe on her own tonight.’

‘Of course not!’ Now Matthew was impatient. ‘I explained. She’s a witness. A possible suspect.’

‘It’s a strange sort of job you have. Eve wouldn’t hurt anyone.’

There was a moment of silence.

‘When this is all over,’ Matthew said, ‘we’ll have her to stay then. You can work your magic, feed her up, bring her back to life. That’s when she’ll need a friend.’

‘She needs a friend now. I’ll go with her back to Westacombe and stay with her there until she’s ready to be alone.’

Matthew thought for a moment and nodded. ‘Jen can drive you both.’

NEXT: Chapters 19-21

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