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'The Heron's Cry' Chapters 22-24


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Illustration by Stan Fellows

 

Chapter Twenty-Two

THE SANDPIPER WAS CLOSED ALL DAY ON MONDAYS. ‘Our one day of rest,’ George said when Jen called to make an appointment. ‘Yes, we’ll all wait in to speak to you. Come to the house. That’s where we’ll be.’

The house was whitewashed and, like the cafe bar next door, it faced the sea, only separated from the beach by the narrow road. There was a wrought-iron balcony on the first floor, and that was where Martha was standing when Jen parked outside. She was leaning against the rail, holding a cigarette in one hand, blowing the smoke towards the shore. Martha Mackenzie had been part of Jen’s childhood — the soap she’d acted in for more than thirty years had been required early evening TV viewing — and, despite herself, Jen was aware of the woman’s celebrity. There was a thrill in meeting someone so famous.

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‘You must be the detective.’ Martha’s voice was deep and it carried. A woman walking past with a buggy turned to stare. She recognized Martha too and gave an excited little wave. Martha waved back. Graciously. ‘Just a mo and I’ll be down to let you in.’

The young mother looked at Jen with a touch of envy and walked on.

Jen had seen Martha before in the bar, a glamorous presence with a small crowd around her, but they’d never been introduced. It seemed Martha recognized her, though. ‘Of course, you’re Wesley’s chum. Poor Wesley. You must be devastated. We all are.’ She reached out and gave Jen a hug, surrounding her with the smell of cigarette and expensive perfume. Jen wondered what Venn would say about an interview beginning with such informality. But then he’d told her to put the family at their ease.

Eventually, Martha pulled away. ‘Come on through. The others are still finishing breakfast but I was desperate for a ciggie.’

The kitchen was long and narrow and ended in double glass doors leading onto a patio garden, with terracotta pots and rough stone walls covered with climbing plants. One shelf ran right along the room’s longest wall. It had been painted yellow and held strange trinkets, bits of brightly coloured pottery and glass, shells, tiny carvings that might have been made by Wesley. The doors were open, so the kitchen and the garden seemed like one space. George and Janey sat inside at a light-wood table. There was a jug of coffee, a plate with a remaining single croissant.

‘We have a late breakfast on Mondays,’ Martha said. ‘It’s become rather a ritual.’

Janey looked up and gave a little smile. Jen thought she might be about to say something, but in the end, she continued to stare into her mug. She seemed exhausted, blank. George stood up and held out his hand. ‘Jen,’ he said. ‘How lovely to see a friendly face. I worried they might send a stranger.’

‘This isn’t a formal interview,’ Jen said. ‘That will probably come later because you all knew both victims, and I won’t be allowed to take part in that. This is an initial chat to see if you might be able to help.’ Her attention was caught again by the yard outside. ‘You’ve made it so beautiful here.’

‘That was Mack,’ Janey said. ‘His design; his work. You should have seen it when we first moved in! We’re trying to keep it going for him but none of us has his green fingers.’

George was still on his feet, pouring coffee. ‘Would you like anything to eat? That croissant won’t be so nice now, but I can make you toast. Eggs, maybe?’ Speaking with the Scottish accent that had always set him apart.

Jen shook her head. ‘I’m afraid I have questions.’ ‘Of course you do, darling,’ Martha said. ‘That’s why you’re here.’

‘Did either of you see Wesley yesterday? You were friends. Perhaps he called in?’

‘I didn’t see him,’ George said. ‘One of my chefs was off sick and I was in the kitchen for most of the day. I hardly went into the bar at all, except to cover for Janey when she went off to speak to your colleague.’

‘Your staff will be able to confirm that?’

‘You’re asking if I have an alibi?’ He sounded amused, unoffended. ‘We close early on a Sunday. There are so many places here serving Sunday lunch and we don’t feel the need to compete. So, our regulars come for breakfast or brunch and we close in the early afternoon. I have an alibi until then, and one of your officers came to talk to Janey. After that, no.’

‘Where did you go?’

‘I drove inland,’ George said. ‘I wanted to get away from the crowds for a bit. There’s a place near Torrington where Mack loved to walk. He was a great walker. Seal Point was his favourite place, but I knew that would be packed on a Sunday afternoon so I headed inland instead. I got back at about six.’

It seemed a long explanation to a simple question, but George had always been garrulous. Jen turned to his wife. ‘You didn’t want to go too?’

The woman smiled. All her features were large and her smile was generous, wide. She was wearing lipstick. Jen thought about that: the effort of putting on make-up just to be in the house. Every day a performance. ‘Walking’s not really my thing. Not in this heat. I went and lay on the bed. Dozed for a while. The idea of a siesta is very civilized, don’t you think? I didn’t wake until George came back.’

Throughout the exchange, Janey had been silent, unresponsive. Now she looked up. ‘I suppose you want to hear about me.’

‘Please.’

‘When I came off shift, I had a shower, changed, then I headed out. I wanted to escape this place too. It’s crazy in the summer. Sometimes, I long for grey days, a storm from the west, just to keep people away. Pouring rain. I wonder why I ever came home. But I couldn’t drive. I’d parked in the lane by the side of the bar and some bastard tourist had boxed me in. I was really, really pissed off, wrote a note and stuck it on his windscreen, made a record of his registration number, thinking I’d dob him in to the parking guys. I never did, of course. Couldn’t be arsed and it seemed a bit petty. In the end I went for a walk. Out past the cricket club towards Fremington Quay. It was a bit quieter there. Still lots of people about, but not crazy busy.’

‘Do you still have a note of the car’s registration number?’

‘Nah,’ Janey said. ‘At least probably not.’

‘You might want to look,’ Jen said, ‘just in case.’ There was a moment of silence while the implication of that sunk in, but there was no response. No righteous indignation. Janey just nodded in agreement. ‘I’m sure I can dig it out.’

‘And the family just has two vehicles? You don’t have your own, Mrs Mackenzie?’

‘No,’ the woman said. ‘If I need a car, I use George or Janey’s.’

‘You all seem to have been close to Wesley. How did you meet him?’ Jen thought the more general question might put them at ease, start a natural conversation.

‘He was a regular in the bar,’ George said, ‘and he had a way of making you feel like a friend. Of wanting to be his friend. We run a business but I found myself buying drinks for him. Just as well he was one of a kind because we’d have gone under if I treated all my customers as drinking pals.’

‘I’m not sure how close we really were,’ Janey said. ‘I think at heart he was an actor. It was subconscious. Like you, Mummy. He became the person we all wanted him to be. He was great to have in the bar because he could lift the mood. He’d walk in and suddenly he made everyone feel cleverer, more amusing. But what lay under the charm?’ She shrugged. ‘I don’t think we’ll ever know now.’

‘Had he upset anyone recently?’

Another silence. ‘This is going to sound very petty,’ Martha said. ‘Not something that could ever trigger murder.’

‘All the same,’ Jen said, ‘it would be useful to know. That’s why I’m here drinking coffee with you and we’re not taking statements. I’m after background, the gossip.’

‘He had a way of charming middle-aged women.’ Martha sounded dismissive. Maybe she didn’t consider herself middle-aged. ‘Perhaps he made them feel younger, though he was no spring chicken himself. Wherever he went, they were around him, giggling, buying him meals and drinks. But he had one special admirer. Cynthia Prior. Of course, you know her.’

Jen nodded.

‘Her husband’s a dry old stick who doesn’t share any of her interests. Cynthia considered Wesley a sort of cultural companion. She’d think nothing of taking him to London to see a show that interested her, or dragging him round an exhibition. All expenses paid, of course. First-class rail and a fabulous meal at the end of the evening. In return for his company. But recently, he’d been seeing a lot less of her. It’s possible that Roger finally put his foot down. I don’t know him well, but I imagine he’s a man who would care about appearances. But I had the impression that Wesley was the one who’d started to keep his distance.’ Martha turned to her daughter. ‘What do you think, Janey? You probably knew Wesley better than the rest of us.’

Janey shook her head as if she had no answer. ‘I don’t know what was going on. Like I said before, nobody really understood Wesley Curnow. He was a mystery to us all.’

‘Was he close to Mack?’ Jen thought that might be another link between their victims. If the two were friends, Wesley could have been supporting Nigel’s campaign to investigate the young man’s death.

‘Wesley didn’t really like people who made demands on him,’ Janey said. ‘It was always the other way around. And depressed people can be very demanding. I think Mack was hurt because Wes kept his distance during that last episode of illness. When they let him out of hospital, he got in touch with Wes, and asked to see him. When there was no reply to his texts and calls, Mack walked up to Westacombe. He was so restless at that time, so impatient. He was pacing, talking to himself, hearing strange voices. Wes just didn’t know how to handle a madman landing up on his doorstep. All that real emotion was too much for him. In the end, he phoned me and asked me to take Mack away. Mack was crying all the way home in the car. I suppose it must have seemed like the worst kind of rejection from someone he’d admired and considered a friend. That was the day before he killed himself.’

‘You must have found that very hurtful.’

And yet you still hung out with Wesley. You were dancing with him at Cynthia’s party.

‘Not really. I could understand how Wesley found it uncomfortable. I’d probably have reacted in just the same way if Mack hadn’t been my brother.’ Janey paused. ‘We’re all supposed to be open about mental health these days. Very sympathetic. But the reality of the bloody thing, the person’s self-obsession, the relentless movement, like they’re constantly wired, the tedious repetition of paranoid thoughts, that hasn’t changed. You can’t know just how exhausting severe depression can be for other people until you’ve experienced it.’ She looked up. ‘I’m sorry. That sounds callous. But it was incredibly painful to deal with. That was why we needed the health professionals, partly just to take over some of the responsibility, but to give us hope that they could make Mack better and keep him safe. We couldn’t do it any more. And the health service let us down.’

‘Did any of you feel that Wesley was responsible for Mack’s death?’

‘No!’ George’s response was immediate. ‘That was the health service. They mismanaged the whole case. I phoned them when Janey brought Mack back from Westacombe in such a state. I phoned his consultant. His secretary said he’d phone us back, but of course, he didn’t. I phoned the community support team. Again nothing. Apparently, my son wasn’t sufficiently suicidal to warrant immediate intervention. And he had family support. The hospital had prescribed medication to help Mack sleep and we gave it to him that evening and made sure he was in bed. We thought he was asleep. The next day was Monday — our day off — and the rest of us were later getting up than usual. As Janey said, we were all exhausted. When we woke up, there was no sign of Mack. Maybe he hadn’t swallowed the pills or maybe they weren’t as strong as we’d imagined. We all went to look for him. Frantic. You can’t imagine what it was like. I still have nightmares … Then we discovered that he’d taken his car.’

‘Who found his note?’

‘Some holidaymaker,’ Janey said. ‘Dad called the police when we realized Mack’s car was missing and they found it outside our chalet in the dunes. His body didn’t turn up until several days later, washed ashore on the north end of Lundy, pulled out by the tide.’

When George turned to face Jen, there were tears running down his face, and when he spoke, the words were sharp and jagged. ‘That wasn’t Wesley’s fault. He wasn’t trained in mental health. It wasn’t even the fault of the poor sods who let him discharge himself too soon, and then were too overstretched to respond when he had a crisis. It was the system. And I want the whole world to know how it let my son down.’

Jen didn’t know what to say. She’d been in the bar a couple of times since Mack’s death. George had been his usual urbane self, accepting the condolences of regulars with a hug of thanks, a few grateful words. There’d been none of this anger. Now, she thought he must be as fine an actor as his wife, to have persuaded them all that he’d accepted the death of his son with grace.

She got to her feet. ‘I don’t want to disturb you all any further, but I wonder if I could chat to Janey?’ Jen turned to the woman. ‘It sounds as if you were as close to Wesley as anyone. We could go into Instow. Get a coffee.’ She thought there were things she’d never want to say in front of her parents.

‘Sure,’ Janey said. Then after a moment’s thought she added, her voice tentative, ‘Could we go to Seal Bay? Have a little walk on the point? It was Mack’s happy place. I was planning to go this morning. It won’t be so busy today.’

Martha put her arm around her daughter’s shoulder. ‘Are you sure, darling? Won’t that just bring everything back?’

Janey tensed under the touch. ‘Don’t you think these murders haven’t brought it back already? The nightmares. The flashbacks? I kept waking up last night. I’d drift back and then be haunted again.’

Her voice was angry, bitter and Jen saw that the young woman’s hands were trembling. She couldn’t imagine what it must be like, to be reminded over and over of the loss of a brother.

‘There’s nothing I’d like better than a wander by the sea in the line of duty,’ Jen said, ‘and we’ll get an ice cream. My treat.’

***

They parked by the Mackenzies’ chalet, but they didn’t go inside. The building was made of wood and the paint was peeling; it was less grand and impressive than some of the others, but Jen could see how it would appeal to a couple of kids. It would be the best kind of den.

Janey led her through the dunes, across the beach and onto the coastal path. They didn’t start talking until they were on their own, facing out to the sea. It was as smooth as oil, glittering in full sunlight. As Janey had said, the path was relatively quiet.

‘Tell me a bit more about Wesley,’ Jen said. ‘How close were you?’

But Janey had stopped where the cliff was closest to the water and was looking out towards Lundy on the horizon.

‘This is where they found the note that Mack left for us.’

‘What did it say?’

‘That he needed to find peace at last.’ Janey looked back at Jen. ‘I feel like that now. These murders. It’s like blow after blow. As if you’ve been mugged and someone’s kicking you, over and over again. Just as you think it’s all over, they come back to hit you.’

‘You’re not feeling suicidal, though?’

There was a moment’s hesitation before she answered. ‘Nah. Don’t worry. I’m a survivor. Poor Mack wasn’t.’

‘So, tell me about Wesley, if you feel that you’re up to talking about it, if it’s not one kick too many.’ ‘Yeah, I’m okay. It’s good to get away from the house. We’ve all been affected by Mack’s death in different ways. Mum and Dad are all, like, we’ve got to keep the show on the road. It’ll get to them sometime, though.’

‘I think it’s already got to them. They just have different ways of dealing with it.’

‘Maybe.’ Janey was still staring out to sea. Lundy was shimmering in the heat haze on the horizon. ‘Wesley was a bit of a drifter. High-achieving parents, with plenty of money, but not much time to give to their son. That was how I read it at least. He always said that his grandmother was more like a real mum.’ She gave a little laugh. ‘I think she spoiled him rotten. Perhaps that’s why he liked her so much. And why he got on so well with all his middle-aged female groupies.’

‘How did he seem at the party?’

‘Just as he always did. Pretty chilled. Making sure he got more than his fair share of the food and the wine. That was classic Wesley.’

‘He didn’t seem anxious or worried?’

Janey laughed again. ‘Wes didn’t really do anxious.’

‘Did you notice if Nigel Yeo spoke to him at the party?’

‘Nigel spoke to everyone when he first came in.’ She looked back at Jen. ‘But you were there. You’ll have seen as much as me.’

‘Ah,’ Jen said. ‘You were sober. I very much wasn’t.’

They walked back to the car then, stopping for the ice cream on the way. In the car Janey started scrabbling in her bag. At last she pulled out a scrap of paper. ‘There you are! That guy’s registration number. The one who blocked me in.’ A brief moment of triumph.

Jen wasn’t sure how useful the conversation had been but when she dropped Janey back in Instow, the younger woman gave her a quick hug. ‘Thanks,’ she said. ‘Really, you’ve helped a lot.’

***

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On the way back to Barnstaple, Jen stopped at the filling station on the edge of Instow. According to CCTV, Nigel had stopped here for fuel on the way to Westacombe after leaving Cynthia’s party. She introduced herself to a faded, middle-aged woman, who was perched on a tall stool behind the counter.

‘I don’t suppose you were on duty on Friday evening?’

‘Yeah. The graveyard shift. Eight until we closed at midnight.’

‘CCTV shows that a man called in. Dr Nigel Yeo. He was murdered up at Westacombe Farm later that night or early the following morning.’

The woman brightened. This was a moment of excitement, as close to fame as she was likely to get. ‘I heard about that on the radio.’

Jen got out a photograph and set it on the counter. ‘Do you remember him?’

‘Yes! The last customer of the night. He said he was glad we were still open. He hadn’t realized how low he was on diesel. I told him it wouldn’t do to run out at that time of night and he said especially as he was heading out into the wilds.’

Jen thought that all made sense and it was exactly as they’d suspected. ‘Thanks.’ She paused, and thought she’d throw the woman a little titbit to make her day. ‘You were probably the last person, other than the killer, to see him alive.’ When she walked out onto the forecourt she turned and saw the woman was already on her phone, spreading the news to all her friends, basking in a strange sort of glory.

Chapter Twenty-Three

THE PATIENTS TOGETHER OFFICES WHERE Nigel Yeo had been based were in Ilfracombe, not far from Hope Street. That was where Simon Walden, the victim in Matthew’s first North Devon murder inquiry, had lived and images of the case — the chaotic, quirky house and its bright, articulate residents — returned as he parked and looked down over the town.

Matthew made an effort to refocus his attention on the present inquiry. He’d been allowed to take Alexander Mackenzie’s notes from the hospital and had read them before setting out. He’d found little new there. There was nothing that might suddenly have triggered a need for a cover-up surrounding Mack’s death. Nothing to explain a good man’s murder. Or the death of an engaging ageing hippy.

Matthew wasn’t puzzled by Yeo’s involvement in the Mackenzie suicide. Nigel had been friends with the Mackenzie family, and he’d probably have seen Mack’s suicide as a test case, an example of how the trust might have mishandled other patients who were suffering acute depression. It could be useful ammunition in his attempt to push mental health further up the agenda.  

No, it was Nigel Yeo’s dramatic murder which was so startling and inexplicable. Matthew couldn’t quite see how it could relate to Mack’s death. Yeo’s investigation had been ongoing. There was nothing in these notes which suggested new information. If Nigel Yeo had discovered something new, it seemed he hadn’t shared it with the medics or the team at the hospital. He might, though, Matthew thought, have shared it with his colleagues at NDPT.

He’d started walking down one of the steep roads leading to the high street when his phone buzzed. An unfamiliar number.

‘Inspector Venn. It’s Fiona Radley.’

The head of PR, who was so protective of Roger Prior. 

‘I’ve checked with my colleagues here. Nigel had a meeting with the end-of-life team last Friday. It started at four p.m., though he was a little late arriving. It was all perfectly routine. They were talking about the transition between hospital and social care. Something we’re determined to improve here at North Devon.’ Still sending out the corporate message, even in a call to the police.

Matthew continued down the steep street. It was empty apart from a cat sleeping on one of the doorsteps. Tourists didn’t wander this far from the harbour. He found the office in a converted domestic house, part of an Edwardian terrace. On one side was a dentist’s surgery, on the other a family home. A brass plaque on the door announced its presence and told visitors to walk in. Matthew hadn’t made an appointment and wasn’t even sure if anyone would be there, but a plump woman in her forties, wearing a sleeveless yellow top and a yellow skirt, was sitting at a desk, fanning herself with a manila file. On the desk was a woman’s magazine, which from the front cover had the sole purpose of celebrating the scandals of celebrities. The room was very warm. She seemed surprised to see him. He introduced himself.

‘You’ll be here about poor Nigel.’ She wore large, heavyrimmed specs, took them off and wiped her eyes. Matthew could see no tears. ‘I wasn’t sure what I should do this morning, but I thought I should come in anyway. I phoned one of the board members and he said to keep things ticking over until they find a new boss.’ ‘What’s your role, Ms … ?’ Matthew paused.

‘Bull. Steph Bull. Admin officer, they call me. But really general dogsbody. I answer the phone, man reception, do the filing and printing, make sure everyone’s diaries are up to date, take minutes at meetings.’ 

‘How many other people are employed here?’

‘Three more. Julie, Tony and Lauren. They’re all part-time, and nobody else is in on a Monday. Julie and Tony work mostly with community groups. Lauren does the fundraising and finance, but she seems to have become Nigel’s right-hand woman, working with him on his pet projects.’ From her tone, Matthew guessed that Steph and Lauren Miller were not best friends.

‘I’m not entirely sure what the NDPT does.’ Matthew sat in the chair on the public side of the desk. ‘Perhaps you could explain.’

‘We’re here to represent the patients’ views to the medical institutions.’ A pause. ‘We work with local authorities and patient groups, as a kind of co-ordinating body, and feed our findings back to the hospitals and primary health trusts.’ 

‘And does investigation into individual negligence cases usually form a part of your work?’

‘Not until Nigel arrived.’ She snapped her lips shut as if frightened she might reveal too much. Perhaps she didn’t want to appear to be speaking ill of the dead. ‘Before he retired, Philip was in charge. A lovely man. He saw his role as different, more supportive to the medical trusts, providing information to improve their services. His style was more …’ — she paused again — ‘… collaborative.’

‘And Nigel wasn’t collaborative?’

Matthew thought he knew what was going on here. The previous boss had been after a quiet life in the run-up to retirement. He’d disliked confrontation. Then along came Nigel, with his medical training. More energy and more confidence. Generating more work for the staff, who’d had a very easy life under the old regime. 

‘He said our role was to shake things up. Look at better ways of doing things, represent the patients more actively. He left Julie and Tony doing the routine community engagement, and took on the more active inquiries.’

‘What about Lauren Miller?’

‘Oh, she was brought in by Nigel and she was a true believer. I suppose she said all the right things to get the job. Before her, we had Millie. She took redundancy after the first month. She’d been here for years and couldn’t adapt to the new ways.’ Steph looked over her glasses. ‘I did say she should stick it out, because she only had a year to retirement, but she couldn’t face the pressure. She said the stress was getting her down.’

‘And the stress was about Nigel suggesting the organization take on a more challenging role?’ 

‘No, Millie wouldn’t have had much to do with that, except making sure we had the funds to cover it. No, it was Nigel getting an auditor in to look at the books. A legal requirement apparently, though Philip hadn’t seemed to see the need.’

Matthew nodded. He suspected that Millie had been incompetent rather than fraudulent, but it wouldn’t hurt to talk to Lauren again. ‘If you could let me have the other staff ’s contact details ...’

Steph looked at her phone and rattled off mobile numbers and email addresses. ‘Julie and Tony live locally, but Lauren’s out in Appledore.’ From her tone, the town could have been at the other end of the country. ‘She uses it as an excuse to work from home one day a week.’ This was obviously another niggling resentment.

Matthew wondered how Nigel had survived the poisonous atmosphere of the NDPT office. He found it tricky enough to manage his own team: Ross May with his allegiance to Superintendent Joe Oldham, and impulsive Jen Rafferty with her flashes of temper. Steph turned her attention back to the magazine and to fan herself again with the file. The flab beneath her upper arm wobbled as it moved. He found himself fascinated by it and forced himself to turn away. 

‘We came across a number in Nigel’s diary,’ Matthew said. ‘8531 or 8537. Does that mean anything to you? Could it be a reference for a case? A file?’

She shook her head. ‘It doesn’t mean anything to me.’ She’d given the matter very little thought.

Matthew persisted. ‘On Friday morning Nigel had a meeting in the hospital. He was there later in the day. I understand it was a routine session.’

‘Oh yeah. That was another of his particular interests. End-of-life care. I suppose it was personal because of the way his wife died. Tragic.’ There was no evidence in her voice that she’d shared Yeo’s sadness or his interest in the subject. ‘He’d started looking into care homes too. As if we didn’t have enough to do.’ 

So, that confirms Radley’s phone call. The later meeting had nothing to do with Alexander Mackenzie. Nigel had bumped into Ratna Joshi by chance in the hospital, just as she said.

‘And what was he doing between those meetings?’

‘No idea.’ She shrugged. ‘We were expecting him back in the office but he never turned up. He didn’t even bother ringing in.’

Matthew stood up. All the other people in Yeo’s life had been devastated by his death, but this woman seemed not to care. He’d reached the door when she spoke again. ‘He wasn’t a saint, you know. Not the man everyone thought he was. It’s all very well having principles, but not everyone’s as bright or driven as him. We got the impression that he cared more about his ideals than he did about us.’

 

Chapter Twenty-Four

ON HIS WAY BACK TO THE POLICE station, Matthew stopped at the Woodyard. The back of the building was still taped off and a constable stood there, red-faced and bored, but the centre was just opening after a morning of shutdown. Matthew went in with the elderly ladies carrying yoga mats. He overheard gossip about the killing:

‘Liz said it was Wesley Curnow that got killed. Such a gentle soul. I bought some art from him at the Christmas craft fair.’

‘Makes you think, though. Maureen cancelled this morning. Just in case.’

‘I doubt if a killer’s going to come into the yoga class.’ There was a ripple of laughter.

‘Well, you never know. I thought twice about coming.’ This voice was anxious, almost panicky. ‘And after what happened here earlier in the year. It’s a strange sort of coincidence, isn’t it?’

The women moved on through the building and then the entrance hall was almost empty. Emptier than it should have been on a weekday morning. That was something else for Jonathan to worry about, Matthew thought. He ran the Woodyard on a shoestring, and couldn’t afford for freelance classes to cancel. It hadeen hard enough recently to keep the place going.

He found his husband in the cafe, chatting to the staff. The night before there’d still been a tension between them, but now Jonathan looked up and gave one of his wide, wonderful smiles. Lucy Braddick was there. She’d been wiping tables and there was still a cloth in her hand. She was anxious, agitated and Jonathan was trying to calm her. ‘Nothing bad will happen to you, Luce. I promise. It’s not like last time.’

‘Wesley was my friend,’ she said. ‘I’m sad. Not worried about me.’

‘When did you last see him?’ Matthew knew Lucy well and they too were friends.

‘Yesterday. He was in here yesterday, waiting for someone.’ She looked at Bob, the cafe manager. ‘Wasn’t he?’

Bob shrugged. ‘I didn’t notice him, but it was manic busy until mid-afternoon.’

‘Did you see him with anyone else, Luce?’ Jonathan asked. She shook her head. ‘He went off on his own.’

‘How do you know he was waiting for someone?’

Lucy thought about that. ‘He often met people in here. He’d sit and wait with the free newspaper and sometimes he’d get a coffee, and then someone would come and buy him lunch.’ A pause. ‘Or a cake. He liked Bob’s cakes.’

Matthew smiled. ‘And these people he met, were they all women?’

She nodded, as if the idea was new to her. ‘Yeah! All women!’

‘Did you recognize any of them?’ Lucy frowned.

‘Some of them were regulars, but I don’t know their names.’

‘If I show you a photo, would you recognize them?’

‘I don’t know.’ Matthew saw that the anxiety was setting in again.

‘It wouldn’t be like a test,’ he said. ‘More like a game.’ He paused. ‘You could have your dad with you, if that would help.’

‘I don’t live with my dad now.’ She gave a beam; for a moment the anxiety was forgotten. ‘I’ve got my own place.’

Jonathan smiled. ‘It’s in River Bank, isn’t it, Luce? Supported living.’

‘Home, sweet home.’ Another big smile.

‘I bet your dad misses you.’ Matthew had come to know Maurice Braddick too. He was in his eighties, a widower, and he loved the bones of his learning-disabled daughter. Loved her enough, Matthew thought now, to let her go.

‘I sometimes go and stay at his house at weekends,’ Lucy conceded. ‘He likes the company.’

‘So, I might bring in some pictures for you to look at.’

‘You can come to my flat if you like,’ she said. ‘I’ll make you a cup of tea.’

***

After leaving the Woodyard, Matthew drove on to Westacombe. He felt unable to settle, and hated the thought of going back to his overheated office in the police station before he needed to be there for the evening briefing. It was late afternoon now and the roads were quiet, everything washed with sunlight. The fields were so dry after weeks of drought that they were white, as if they’d been treated with lime. Matthew thought of Frank Ley. When Matthew had broken the news of Wesley’s death, he hadn’t told Ley that they suspected the murder weapon was a piece of glass, which, only the day before, had stood in the comfortable living room in Westacombe House. Perhaps now, it was time to do that.

As he drove into the farmyard, he saw the Grieves twins. They were playing on a swing hanging from a tree beside the family’s cottage. One girl was sitting on the swing and the other was standing behind her, rocking, so it jerked from side to side. They were shrieking with laughter. He thought how idyllic their childhood seemed. He’d been an only child, growing up in a family where laughter was in short supply. His mother had usually disapproved of his friends, so he’d grown up with the notion that he was different, even superior in some way. No wonder the other kids in the class had disliked him and stayed clear.

He moved round the house to Ley’s front door and knocked but there was no answer. Matthew had asked him to stay in Westacombe for a few days, rather than going to his London home, but of course, that had been a request, not some form of house arrest. The man could be working, visiting one of his other businesses. But his absence made Matthew uneasy, jittery. Again, he couldn’t face going back to the police station in Barnstaple, especially while he was so anxious, so jumpy. He thought he’d wait for a while to see if Ley returned.

He walked towards the end of Ley’s land. Jonathan would have been able to name the shrubs, the swathes of blooms in the beds, but they were mysterious to Matthew and he felt that he’d wandered into some strange and secret garden. Like the Grieves’ cottage, it was the stuff of fiction. The sweet smell of the flowers and the sound of insects had a dreamlike quality and Matthew thought that the police officers in the farmyard seemed to belong to a different narrative altogether. If this was Alexander Mackenzie’s work, the young man had been a skilled gardener. Beyond the more formal borders, Matthew came to a wild flower meadow. It was past its best now, but still covered with buttercups, clover and tall, white daisies. There was a path through the middle, where the grass had been flattened. In the distance was the sea, impossibly blue.

He followed the track to a patch of heathland, separated from the meadow by a low dry-stone wall. Matthew assumed that this marked the edge of Ley’s land. There was a stile over the wall and he stood for a moment with his foot on the wooden bar, feeling a sense of freedom and adventure that he’d never experienced as a child. The closest he’d got had been the memory he’d shared with his mother of the picnics on the beach, but he’d been closely supervised then and called back if he wandered too far into the rockpools at the side of the bay. He imagined that the two girls on the swing would be allowed at least as far as the meadow by themselves. He pictured them picking armfuls of flowers and taking them home for their mother.

Beyond the wall there was rough open land, covered with huge clumps of gorse, startingly yellow, but the path led on and was easy to follow. It came eventually to a five-bar gate which opened onto the main road on the outskirts of Instow. A hundred yards away Matthew could see the unmarked turning into the paved track, which led back to the farm. The road was busier with traffic than it had been; it was the end of the working day.

Matthew thought it would be perfectly possible for any of the Westacombe residents to have taken this shortcut the day before. They would have avoided the notice of the police officer at the farm entrance. They’d have needed a lift into Barnstaple or to have borrowed a car to get to the Woodyard to stab Wesley Curnow, but perhaps the killer had an accomplice, knowing or unknowing.     

Walking back through the garden to Westacombe Farm, Matthew wondered what he’d do if Frank was still absent from the place and considered the implication of such a disappearance. Might Ley be the murderer? Or a third victim? He knew that planning ahead was his skill and his weakness. He spent too much of his time responding to disasters that never happened. Jonathan said that he had a vivid imagination: That’s why you’re such a brilliant detective, but you could be an artist. Or a writer.

When he emerged from the formal garden and onto the lawn, he saw that Ley was there, and he felt relieved and shocked at the same time. It was almost as if Ley was part of the mirage the garden had created in Matthew’s mind, a fantasy figure from a piece of fiction. The man was sitting close to the house on a sun lounger, with a glass in his hand. He wore a straw hat, which had the look of a boater: Billy Bunter in summer issue uniform. He lifted the glass in greeting to Matthew, and didn’t seem surprised to see him.

‘I hope I wasn’t trespassing,’ Matthew said. ‘I called earlier but you were out.’

‘Yes, a meeting with the team in the Golden Fleece in Lovacott; it’s one of my businesses. They’ve just won an award for their hospitality and I wanted to share the good news with the staff.’ Despite the celebratory nature of his visit to the pub, his tone was reflective, a little sad. ‘It was good to get away from all that’s happened here.’

‘You’re still hands-on then.’

‘Well …’ Ley gave a little laugh. ‘I share the glory and they do all the hard work. You know how it is.’

‘I’ve been exploring,’ Matthew said. ‘I found the shortcut down to Instow. Is it a public right of way?’

‘Not across the garden, though I don’t mind if any of the Westacombe residents use it. Beyond the wall and the stile, it’s common land and free to anyone.’ He looked at Matthew. ‘Do you think an outsider came in that way and attacked Nigel Yeo?’

Matthew didn’t like to say he was more concerned that one of the residents had left by the path to kill Wesley. ‘I’m not sure what I think yet,’ he said.

Ley swivelled his body so he was more upright and his feet were on the ground. ‘Do you have any news, Inspector?’

Venn sat on the low wall which surrounded the terrace. At least now he wasn’t looking down on the man and they could have a proper conversation.

‘When Eve found Wesley’s body, she identified the weapon that killed him.’ He paused. ‘It was a shard of glass from the vase she’d given you. The large blue vase that held the flowers which were standing in your fireplace when I first came to visit you. Of course, she might be mistaken. You might be able to find the vase for me.’

‘I can look,’ Ley said, ‘but I’m sure I won’t find it if Eve has identified it. She’s an artist. Each piece of glass is individual. It holds her signature.’

‘You said that Sarah might have come in to tidy the house this morning, but she said she wasn’t here.’

‘Really? I must have been mistaken then.’ He gave another little smile. ‘I’m getting very absent-minded in my old age.’

‘Would you have any idea how the glass came to be in Wesley Curnow’s workshop at the Woodyard?’

‘Do you think I killed him?’ Ley’s mood was quite changed now. He was suddenly sharper, more alert.

‘I don’t think anything. But I need to know how a piece of glass from your living room ended up in Wesley Curnow’s neck.’

‘Any of the residents could have got in. There’s a door from their side of the house, and the key hangs in their ground-floor kitchen. None of us is exactly security conscious.’

‘There were lots of tools in the shed at the Woodyard, potential weapons. I’m wondering why a killer would risk coming into your space and stealing the bowl. It seems unnecessarily complicated.’

‘Some sort of message, do you think? Or perhaps the killer wanted to implicate me?’

Perhaps. Or Eve. Or either of the Grieves.

‘Is there anyone who might have a reason to do that?’

There was a moment of silence filled with birdsong.

‘I’ve always tried to do the right thing, Inspector. I explained that when we first met. But I haven’t been popular. Some of my projects haven’t worked out as I would have wished.’ He paused.

‘There was one scheme ... It caused a negative reaction. I had hate mail. Threats.’

‘What was the scheme?’

‘There’s a hamlet on the edge of Exmoor called Spennicott. The school was about to close and they’d already lost their shop. The nearest post office is five miles away. The community was dying. So, I bought it.’

‘What exactly did you buy?’

‘All of it. Well, as much as I could. There were already a number of cottages for sale, too expensive for the locals. Some of them I let out at a reasonable rent to young people from the village. A few I hung on to for holiday lets to provide an income. I took over the pub and put in a manager to bring it back to life. And everyone went along with me. They knew that the new businesses would bring jobs and that would attract families into the area.’

‘But things changed?’ Matthew could see how the story was moving forward.

‘Yes. Perhaps I moved too quickly. Too dramatically. There’s a big house on the edge of the village, which had been turned into an old people’s home years ago, and it was obvious that the business wasn’t viable. Social services couldn’t afford to pay the fees to keep the place running and nor could individuals. I put in an offer. A change of management wouldn’t make the care home any more profitable — the model just doesn’t work — so my plan is to turn it into a boutique hotel.’

Matthew thought about that. Ley had said he was motivated by guilt, not profit, in his development projects.

‘Couldn’t you subsidize the care home, to save the residents from disruption, at least for their lifetimes?’

‘I’m not sure that I could,’ Ley said. ‘It doesn’t meet any of the regs. A recent inspection rated it as excellent on care but in need of substantial improvement when it came to hygiene and facilities. The old people might love staying there, but it’s probably not safe.’ He paused. ‘Imagine how I’d feel if one of them had an accident? Or there was an outbreak of food poisoning? Besides, I don’t think it’s right to prop up a failing business. It gives a false sense of hope, if it’s not going to be sustainable in the long term.’

So, Matthew thought. Perhaps you’re not such a philanthropist after all. ‘And it was the closure of the care home that prompted the hate mail and the threats?’

‘Yes, there was a campaign, not just in the village but more widely.’

‘Did the campaign have a leader?’ Matthew couldn’t see how this could be relevant. Ley hadn’t been murdered and he couldn’t believe that someone with a grudge would kill two strangers just to implicate the financier. But he was curious.

‘Yes, a writer called Paul Reed. His mother was one of the care home’s residents. I’m not quite sure why he was so venomous in his response.’ Ley paused. ‘Guilt perhaps because he wasn’t prepared to look after his relative himself.’ He looked up. ‘As I said before, guilt is a terrible thing. Or he could just have been looking for a good story, another reputation to trash.’

There was a moment of silence. Matthew could tell that there was more to come. ‘I should probably have told you this before, but Reed involved Patients Together in his campaign. He said that most of the residents of the care home were NHS patients too.’

‘So, Nigel was investigating your role in closing down the home?’ Steph Bull, the admin officer, had said that Yeo had been passionate about the transition from hospital to social care. Matthew could see how he might get pulled in to this project.

Ley nodded. ‘Unofficially, I think. I can’t see how it was really part of his brief. Perhaps he felt he had to follow up the complaint just because the two of us were friends and he couldn’t be seen to show any favouritism. He went to visit last week. The Thursday before he died.’

Venn waited for Ley to give more details, but the man remained silent.

‘What were his findings?’

Ley turned back to face him. ‘I don’t know,’ he said. ‘How could I? Nigel didn’t have the chance to make his report.’

NEXT: Chapters 25-27

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