'The Heron's Cry' Chapters 25-27
AFTER DROPPING JANEY MACKENZIE IN INSTOW, Jen Rafferty made her way back to the police station. She tracked down the registered owner of the vehicle which had blocked Janey in the afternoon before and gave him a call. He was belligerent, blustering.
‘The council should have reserved parking for locals. All those people coming from outside, taking up our spaces, when we just want to take the kiddies to the beach. I didn’t know I was doing any harm.’ He had a Brummie accent. Not so local himself. But he’d confirmed Janey’s story. She hadn’t driven into Barnstaple the day before. Not using her own car at least.
Jen wanted to talk to the mother of Luke Wallace, the teenager who’d committed suicide in London, the lad whose death had forced Roger Prior to resign from his high-profile post in Camden. She’d contacted the woman through the ‘Love Luke’ Facebook page, and they’d arranged to talk on the phone. Matthew Venn was still out and Jen used his office to take the call. This wasn’t a conversation to be had with the noise of the open-plan room in the background.
‘Detective Sergeant Rafferty.’ The woman sounded calm, normal. Jen wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting. A nutter perhaps. Someone hysterical. Or greedy, just desperate for compensation. ‘Thanks for getting in touch. How can I help?’
Jen had planned how to approach the woman carefully. It wouldn’t do to suggest that Roger Prior was a killer. Or even to link him to the investigation. Jen might not like the man, but she couldn’t be the person to ruin his career without evidence. For one thing, Cynthia would never talk to her again and Jen was already missing her support and friendship.
‘We had another suicide, much like Luke’s, here on the North Devon coast. Our officers were involved. We want to prepare them for any possible future case, perhaps put together a training package to help them deal better with people with severe depression. I hoped you might be able to help, to give the signs to look out for.’ And all that, Jen thought, was true. She’d be prepared to put together a training module herself. She knew what depression felt like.
‘But that’s brilliant!’ Jen hadn’t been expecting such an enthusiastic response and felt a little uncomfortable. The woman went on: ‘Of course, the police have to be at the front line when it comes to mental illness these days. The health service has been cut so much the police have to take up the slack.’
‘You felt your son was let down by the NHS?’
‘He was! I don’t blame any individual, but there just wasn’t anyone there when we most needed the support.’ She paused. ‘There were other influences. He’d found his way onto one of those foul suicide websites.’
‘What are those?’ Jen looked on Venn’s desk for a pen to take notes. They were lined in a row next to a neat pile of scrap paper. Of course they were.
‘There are chatrooms where people come together to celebrate dying, to encourage members to take their own lives,’ Luke’s mother said. ‘That was how it seemed to us at least, though they say they’re just offering support.’
‘Is there any way I could find out if the local young man who died here had accessed one of those?’
‘I don’t know.’ The woman sounded uncertain. ‘I can send you the link to the one Luke used. It was called Peace at Last. You might be able to trace the information through that. But the sites change and move, and they’re not illegal.’
‘I understand that the head of the trust resigned soon after your son’s death. He must have felt some responsibility.’
‘He was forced to leave.’ Now the woman’s words were harsh and bitter. ‘And he moved almost straight into another cushy, well-paid post in a different part of the country.’ There was no mention of where Prior had taken up his new post. Perhaps she hadn’t cared enough about the details to find out.
‘Has anyone else been in touch with you?’ Jen asked. ‘We’ve been working closely with an organization called Patients Together and their senior officer, Dr Nigel Yeo, was looking into the young man’s death here.’
‘Yes! Soon after Luke died, we had lots of enquiries, more than I could remember, but that was a recent one.’ ‘Was Nigel in touch by phone?’
‘By email first and then we had a phone call. I told him what I’ve just told you.’ For the first time in the conversation, the woman sounded uncertain. ‘If you’re working together, can’t you just ask him?’
‘He died,’ Jen said, ‘very suddenly. That’s one reason for my call.’
There was a silence. ‘Oh,’ the woman said. ‘I’m so sorry. We only had that one conversation, but he seemed such a lovely, caring man.’
Jen wandered back into the main office. There was still no sign of Venn, but Ross was there. Of all the team, he was the most tech savvy. She explained about the suicide forum and Luke Wallace. ‘If we get hold of Mack’s laptop, would we be able to tell what he’d been into?’
‘You think that might be relevant?’ Ross, as ever, seemed dismissive of any idea that wasn’t his. Or Joe Oldham’s.
‘Yeah, I do. What if Nigel Yeo had found out, in the course of his investigation, that Mack had been encouraged to kill himself on one of those sick sites? You told me Mack’s psychiatrist said Yeo was furious the afternoon before he died. Discovering that Mack had been provoked to suicide might have made him even angrier than if he’d thought it was down to the hospital’s negligence.’ Jen thought for a moment. ‘According to Janey, Mack’s suicide note said he was looking for peace at last. That’s the name of the chatroom Luke had accessed.’
‘It could be a coincidence …’
‘Yeah, it could. But it does fit in with all the facts.’
‘You believe Yeo might have traced this suicide site to someone local?’ Jen could tell that Ross was more interested now. She thought if she wasn’t careful, he’d claim the idea as his own.
‘I hadn’t thought that far, but maybe.’
‘It’d have to be some nutjob, provoking a kid to kill himself. Can you think of anyone involved who might be that wacko?’
Jen shook her head. She suspected Wesley might have looked at the site, not because he was suicidal but because he’d always been curious about the strange and the perverse. He said it fed into his art. Wesley was dead too, though, and that didn’t fit with the theory. ‘It’d be great if the tech guys could check Mack’s laptop, if I can persuade the family to hand it over to us. Luke’s mother sent me a link to the site he was using. Wouldn’t it be interesting if Mack had accessed it too?’ She paused. ‘Nigel Yeo had phoned Mrs Wallace the week before he died. One coincidence too many, do you think?’
Ross was just about to answer when Jen saw Joe Oldham approaching. The superintendent was a big man. Once he might have been fit; he was the leading light in the rugby club after all. Now he was flabby, with a florid face suggesting a heart attack about to happen. He could have retired months before, but Jen thought he liked the status, the power. He’d have nobody to bully at home.
‘Where’s Venn?’ The superintendent didn’t hide his distaste.
‘At Westacombe following up an inquiry with Mr Ley.’ Jen paused. ‘He’ll be back in an hour for the briefing, if you’d like to join us.’ Knowing Oldham was on his way out for his first drink of the evening and that it was a compulsion he’d not be able to resist.
‘Nah,’ Oldham said. ‘Don’t want to interfere. Don’t want it said I don’t trust my team. Tell Venn to keep me updated.’ He waddled away. His breathing was so poor that Jen almost felt sorry for him. Almost, but not quite, because he was a poisonous sod.
She waited until he’d left the room before speaking again. ‘I’ll phone George Mackenzie, see if he’ll let us have Mack’s laptop.’
‘I’ve got a friend in tech. A wizard. You get it, I’ll make sure he does it himself and fast-tracks it. We can sort out the budget later.’
She smiled. She enjoyed these moments of collaboration with Ross, thought he might not be such a dick after all. She got out her phone to call Mackenzie. By the time she’d finished, Venn was back and the meeting was about to start.
Venn was unusually informal, with rolled-up shirtsleeves, no jacket. He looked flushed, as if he’d been in the sun. He stood at the front, beside the large whiteboard, and as always, they quickly fell silent. Jen wished she had that authority.
‘It’s been a busy day,’ he said, ‘though I’m not sure how far we’ve got. More questions than answers, I think. Ross, can you take minutes, and get them out to the team as soon as possible? There’s too much information to take in at a sitting.’
Ross nodded and got out his iPad. Throughout the briefing, Jen heard him tapping on the keypad, a background rhythm to the conversation.
‘Shall I start?’ As Venn leaned back against the desk, Jen saw that there were grass stains on his pale summer trousers. She was astonished. She’d never before seen him anything but immaculate. ‘Ross and I met the team at the hospital this morning. Their head of comms was very much in charge and she seemed more concerned about the hospital’s image than providing any useful information. Mack’s psychiatrist, Ratna Joshi, was more forthcoming when we saw her on her own, though, and implied that something had disturbed Yeo later that day. Jen, could you go and see her tomorrow?’
Jen nodded and Venn continued. ‘Patients Together, headed up by Yeo, seems to have been pretty dysfunctional. I had the impression he was easing out the dead wood—the woman in charge of finance had taken redundancy—and that Lauren was the only staff member he trusted.’
‘Sounds pretty ruthless,’ Ross said.
‘Maybe. Or maybe he took his role seriously and wasn’t prepared to tolerate hangers-on.’
Matthew paused and looked around the room again to check that he had their attention. ‘I had a quick visit to the Woodyard. Lucy Braddick says Wesley was in the cafe on Sunday afternoon and waiting for someone, who didn’t turn up.’ He glanced around once more to make sure they all recognized Lucy’s name. They did. Lucy was a hero to the team. ‘Usually he met one of his middle-aged lady friends there, apparently. I’d like to get a handle on who those women were. Wesley might have confided in one of them.’ A pause. ‘Ross, that’s for you.’
‘Start with Cynthia Prior,’ Jen said.
‘Yeah, she was his biggest admirer. And of course, she’s linked to the case because her husband’s head of the trust. And Roger Prior was in charge of the trust where Luke Wallace killed himself. An interesting coincidence.’
‘I met Prior at this morning’s meeting.’ Ross paused. ‘A cold fish.’
‘Arctic,’ she said.
‘Finally,’ Venn said, ‘I went to visit Frank Ley. While I was waiting for him, I found a shortcut to the main road between Barnstaple and Instow. It goes through his garden and over a bit of common land. We can’t assume that just because a Westacombe resident didn’t pass through the checkpoint at the farmyard, they couldn’t have killed Wesley Curnow.’
Jen thought Venn had finished and would ask her to take over, but he went on:
‘It seems that Ley has been the target of a hate campaign over one of his developments. I’m not sure how that can be relevant, but if his connection to the murders comes to light, it could be an excuse for the press to start thinking conspiracy theories and cover-ups. I’ll check it out.’ Now, he did nod towards Jen to continue.
She described her visit to the Mackenzies’ house in Instow. ‘They’re much angrier about the way Mack was treated than I’d realized.’ She turned to Venn and again explained what she’d learned from her call to London. ‘Dr Yeo had phoned her too, not long before he was killed. Ross and I wondered if Mack Mackenzie had used the same site. In his suicide note, he wrote that he was finding peace at last, and Peace at Last was the name of the group Luke had joined. We wondered if there might be a connection.’
‘There were almost five years between both deaths,’ Venn said. ‘It seems a little unlikely.’
‘We don’t know how many other suicides linked to the site there have been.’
Venn considered for a moment. ‘You think that Nigel Yeo had tracked down someone who was provoking these young people to kill themselves?’ He looked out at the room. ‘Why would anyone want to do something like that?’
‘Power?’ Jen said. ‘Control?’ Some strange form of art? She could imagine Wesley dabbling in the site, manipulating the members for his own amusement. But Wesley was dead.
Venn didn’t answer and she continued. ‘I think it’s worth investigation, and George Mackenzie has just given permission for us to take his son’s laptop. Ross has a mate in IT who’s willing to fast-track it.’
‘Let’s give it a go, then.’ Jen couldn’t tell what Venn was thinking, whether he was humouring them or if he thought it was really worth following up. The inspector paused for a beat. ‘I want to know where Yeo was on Friday afternoon. We know he had a meeting in the hospital in the morning with Roger Prior and his colleagues and he was there again at close of play, but he seems to have gone AWOL for the rest of the day. Let’s find out where he was and what he was doing.’
They drifted away then and Jen walked home, through the evening streets. People had spilled out of the pubs onto the Newport pavements. At home, her children were in their rooms, each on a screen, each preoccupied and scarcely responding when she looked in on them.
How can I tell what they’re looking at? Would I know if they were depressed? If some sick bastard was persuading them that suicide is a grand gesture, a final escape?
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MEL WAS ON AN EARLY SHIFT but Ross got up before her. He’d seen little of her since Nigel Yeo’s murder and he had an ill-defined, worrying sense that she was unhappy. When he’d got in the night before, she’d already eaten and was ready for bed, sitting in the living room in her nightie and the silk dressing gown he’d bought for her last birthday, watching television. There was cold meat and salad in the fridge and she set it out for him and put a jacket potato in the microwave, but seemed reluctant to talk. When he joined her in bed, he tried to take her in his arms, but she turned away, tense and silent. Now, he went to the kitchen while she was still asleep, before the alarm clock had woken him, made tea and brought it up to her.
‘That’s kind.’ She seemed more herself. He loved her like this, tousled, bare-faced. She’d pulled herself into a sitting position and her nightdress had slipped over one shoulder.
‘Is everything okay?’ He wanted to reach out and stroke the shoulder, but her coldness of the night before made him reluctant. He didn’t know how he’d feel if she pushed him away.
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘Everything’s fine. Sorry if I seemed a bit grumpy last night. It was a long day. One of my residents died. We were expecting it, but she’d been with us for years.’
‘Oh, I’m sorry.’ But still he didn’t touch her and still he wasn’t entirely reassured.
Ross found Cynthia Prior in the magistrates’ court. He arrived just before the morning session ended for lunch and slipped in at the back. Cynthia was chair of the bench and Ross heard her sentence a young woman to probation for shoplifting. He knew the woman and the family she’d come from and thought she was bloody lucky not to have got at the very least a suspended prison term. He stood with the faded solicitor and the scattering of the defendant’s relatives, as the magistrates left the court, then went to wait in the lobby.
Cynthia Prior emerged on her own. She was wearing an orange linen dress and carried a big straw bag. She recognized him immediately and wasn’t pleased to see him.
‘Detective Constable May, do you have a case this afternoon? I thought it was just traffic for the rest of the day.’
‘I was hoping to talk to you.’ The lobby had cleared of people now, and a shaft of sunlight caught motes of dust. ‘About Wesley Curnow.’
‘Ah, poor Wesley. I’ll miss him so much.’ She turned away from him, perhaps to hide her distress, and continued to walk to the entrance. ‘I was just going to lunch. I don’t have a lot of time. If you must ask your questions, why don’t you join me?’
He followed her around the corner of the street and into a little tea shop where she was clearly well known. A small table furthest away from the window had a reserved sign on it and she sat there. When the waitress came, she ordered smoked salmon sandwiches and Earl Grey tea without looking at the menu. Ross was hungry, but he wasn’t sure about the etiquette of eating with a potential suspect, who was also a member of the magistracy. In the end he went for coffee and a teacake. He couldn’t see a teacake as proper food.
‘Wesley was a good friend,’ Cynthia said, once the waitress had left them. ‘What would you like to know?’
‘When did you last see him?’
‘The Friday night of my party. He was one of the last to leave. I did speak to him, though, on the Sunday that he died. He phoned me in the morning, obviously upset about Nigel’s murder. He asked if we could meet up.’
The waitress arrived with a tray, then had to return with cutlery. She was elderly and slow and Ross struggled to contain his impatience.
‘Did you agree to see him?’
Cynthia cut her sandwich into smaller pieces. ‘No. Of course, I wanted to. I could tell how upset Wesley was, but Sunday’s our family time. Inviolable. And my husband’s not finding things easy either at the moment; you’ll know all about Nigel’s witch hunt. I didn’t feel I could desert him. So, I cooked a proper lunch, which we ate mid-afternoon, and we opened a bottle of good wine, and then another, and that was our Sunday.’
‘Why did you invite Nigel to your party, and arrange for him to meet Sergeant Rafferty, if you thought his investigation was a witch hunt?’
She shrugged. ‘I wasn’t sure why exactly Nigel wanted to meet Jen. If he’d seriously thought Roger and his team had committed a crime, he’d have made a more formal approach.’
‘What did your husband make of your relationship with Mr Curnow?’ Ross knew he would never be able to cope with Mel hanging out with another bloke, trips to London, meals in restaurants where all their friends could see what was going on. Making a tit of him.
‘Oh my God, it wasn’t that sort of relationship.’ Cynthia gave a choking burst of laughter. ‘I didn’t fancy him! I didn’t even like him that much. It was a friendship of convenience. I don’t enjoy going to the theatre or to exhibitions on my own. What’s the fun in that! And he did know about art. He could be entertaining too if he set his mind to it. Roger was just glad that he didn’t have to turn out unless it was really something he enjoyed.’
‘What about Wesley’s other lady friends?’ Ross asked. ‘Did they have friendships of convenience too?’
‘Oh, I think some of them imagined they were in love with him. He could be charming and he had a way of making them feel special. In return for a free meal and a few glasses of wine. He had rather expensive tastes in booze. But it would have taken a very classy offer—a Scottish castle or a New York apartment—to persuade him to give up his freedom. He was genuinely a free spirit and he did love his art and his music.’
‘Would he have called one of his other women on Sunday morning, do you think? As you were unavailable?’
‘He might have called Eve. They might not have been close friends, but they respected each other’s work. Really, he saw the other, older women he hung out with just as meal tickets.’
‘What about Janey Mackenzie?’
She gave another little laugh. ‘I think Wes was finally coming to realize that Janey was a bit beyond him.’
‘She went with him to your party.’
‘She did, but she made it quite clear all night that she was bored out of her skull. Wesley’s closer to her parents in age and I think she saw him as a family friend, a kind of quite hip uncle, rather than a potential partner.’ Cynthia looked at her watch. ‘I’m sorry, but I really should get back to court.’
‘Did Wesley ever discuss Alexander Mackenzie’s death with you? Wes was a friend of the family and he lived and worked with Eve at Westacombe. He must have been curious.’
Cynthia got to her feet. She’d already paid the bill, for his share as well as her own, which had made Ross feel uncomfortable, as if he was playing the role that Wesley once had, of kept companion. He thought Matthew Venn would never have allowed himself to be put in this position. She stopped, poised by the table, for a moment.
‘Wesley didn’t really do curiosity. Not about things like that. He really only cared about himself, his own interests and his own comfort.’ She pulled her bag onto her arm. ‘Perhaps we’re all like that when you come down to it. But some of us are better at hiding our selfishness than others.’
JEN TRACKED DOWN RATNA JOSHI TO the psychiatric unit in the grounds of the general hospital, where Matthew and Ross had spoken to her the day before. When she finally got through on the phone, after forcing her way through a series of receptionists and a medical secretary, the doctor sounded busy, distracted. ‘Is this really necessary? I talked to your colleagues yesterday.’
‘More information has come to light,’ Jen said. ‘I do need your help.’
‘I’m on a long shift today. I won’t be free until eight this evening.’
‘Why don’t I come to you?’ Jen could sense Joshi dreaming up excuses and continued before she could speak. ‘I’ll be there at ten.’
Gorsehill, where Mack had been treated, was a modern building not far from the main hospital building. It was run by the same trust. Jen wasn’t sure what she’d been expecting: locked doors, mad people howling at the sky. Instead it could have been any health centre in the country. There was the same wide entrance, with the trust’s logo on a sign outside, the same reminder about parking charges. Outside, a group of men in tracksuit bottoms and T-shirts stood smoking. They ignored her as she walked in.
Ratna Joshi came to reception to collect her, and they walked together along a corridor to her office, past a nurses’ station, where a woman in her thirties was in tears, apparently inconsolable. As they passed, grief seemed to turn to rage and the patient started yelling at the staff, her words incomprehensible. Ratna approached her and put her arms around her. ‘Hey, Lizzie, take it easy. We’ll get you home soon. I promise. But you’re not quite ready yet. Let’s get you back to your room.’ The woman sobbed into the young doctor’s shoulder and Ratna held her until she grew calm. At last the patient pulled away and looked around her, blank-faced, suddenly completely unemotional. She walked off, straight-backed down the corridor away from them, without another word.
‘What was wrong with her?’ Jen had found the encounter, the transformation, shocking.
She didn’t expect an answer, but as the doctor stopped to unlock her office door, she responded. ‘Postnatal psychosis. She was so unwell that she threatened to stab her two-month-old baby. We had to admit her for her own and the baby’s safety. She has a toddler at home too.’ She stood aside to let Jen in. ‘We have a limited number of beds and community care is stretched. Those are the decisions we have to make every day: do I admit Lizzie or a young man with severe depression and a family to support him?’ She nodded for Jen to take a chair. ‘I assume you are here about Alexander Mackenzie and Nigel Yeo.’
‘I am.’ Jen tried to order her thoughts, still shaken. ‘But not to criticize. I don’t know how you do this. People think police officers have it tough, but I wouldn’t be in your shoes for a day.’
‘I’m going to make coffee,’ Ratna said. ‘Only instant, but better than nothing. Would you like one?’
Someone walked down the corridor outside singing. The noise was loud, tuneful and joyous. Patient or carer? Did it matter? Somehow, Jen thought, within these walls, it felt as if they were all in it together, all maybe a little bit crazy and a lot under pressure.
‘So, what was so urgent?’ Ratna asked.
‘Nigel had been in touch with the mother of another young guy, Luke Wallace, who committed suicide. Mrs Wallace was convinced that her son was failed by the medical staff who should have been caring for him. He lived in Camden and at the time the trust was managed by Roger Prior.’ A pause. ‘Mr Prior was the subject of a social media hate campaign and vilified in the local press there.’
Ratna was listening—Jen supposed a psychiatrist would have to be good at that—but she said nothing.
Jen went on: ‘I spoke to the woman too. She’d told Nigel that her son had accessed a website that encouraged patients to kill themselves. I wondered if Mack had admitted to doing that too. If he had, it might explain Nigel’s anger when you saw him on the evening before his body was found. Perhaps his fury wasn’t directed at you and the trust, but at the people behind the website.’
‘You believe that was why Nigel Yeo was killed? Because he’d discovered the identity of the individual who persuaded Alexander Mackenzie to jump into the sea that day?’
‘I believe it’s one explanation.’ Jen took a sip of the coffee. ‘What do you think? Might it be feasible? Could Mack have been using a site like that?’
Silence. Ratna was frowning, thinking. Nothing she did was hasty or ill-judged. The office looked out onto a courtyard, with a square of green space in the middle. A group of women sat on the grass, chatting. An older woman with a lanyard and a pass seemed to be leading the conversation. Some sort of group therapy session? Jen couldn’t hear the words, but was fascinated all the same. She was glad that Ratna was taking time to consider the question seriously.
‘He might have done, but I’m not sure if any of us would know if he’d been getting those kinds of messages through a group on the internet. If he was determined to kill himself, he’d have lied, pretended, made up the stories he thought we’d want to hear so we’d discharge him. Or let him discharge himself.’ She paused. ‘I was taken in. I honestly didn’t think he was so sick. He was severely depressed, but he told me he wasn’t having suicidal thoughts. He was lying and I should have pressed him.’
‘He could have done that? Pretended he was less ill than he really was?’
This time the answer came more quickly. ‘Sure. He could have created a narrative in his head that we were the bad people, the people who were trying to stop him finding peace or rest. Or whatever he’d been persuaded by the group that death would bring for him. If he’d bought into that story, he’d see it as his mission to mislead.’
Jen tried to process that. ‘Why would anybody do that? Get other people to kill themselves?’
‘Not all the websites are persuasive. Some are there genuinely to give support to people with suicidal thoughts, to take the ideas seriously and not to judge. Others might be more dangerous. They could attract people who are very sick themselves and see it as a God-given mission to help sufferers into another world. A messiah complex isn’t unusual in psychosis.’ She nodded towards the door and gave a little smile. ‘Any number of my patients think they’re Jesus. Some might join because they’re teetering on the edge of suicide and hope the group will help them find the courage and the means.’ Ratna paused for a moment. ‘I suppose there might be occasional individuals who get off on the power over life and death. Who aren’t ill in the sense that we understand the word. Who are just there to provoke another person’s death.’
Jen felt winded, as if she’d been punched in the gut. If you could target a vulnerable individual in that way, wouldn’t it be murder? An almost perfect murder. ‘That would be evil.’
‘Yes,’ the doctor said. ‘Truly evil. But not, I understand, against the law.’
‘Have you come across any patients who have admitted to using one of the suicide forums?’
Ratna shook her head. ‘But I probably wouldn’t. As I said, if someone’s that serious about killing themselves, they’re not going to discuss it with one of us. We’d be seen as restrictive, part of the conspiracy preventing them from having the freedom to make their own choices.’
‘Did Mack have any special friends while he was here? Any of the staff members he was particularly close to?’
‘He was only here for one night before he died, so there was no real chance for him to make friends. And it’s hard for severely depressed people to connect with other individuals, especially if they’re ill too.’
Jen remembered Mack as Janey had described him: the restless pacing, the incomprehensible muttering, the isolation in a world of his own. She’d called Mack self-obsessed too. Of course, real friendship with another person would be impossible for someone that ill. If Mack had turned to the internet suicide forums, with their wild ideas, they would give an impression of community, permission to be entirely selfish. He could take in the comments and the encouragement without needing to give anything in return.
‘Was there a staff member he connected to?’ Jen asked the question without expecting any positive response and Ratna shook her head.
‘This is an acute hospital. Most patients aren’t here for long enough to form useful relationships. We’re stretched. Impossibly stretched.’
‘One last question,’ Jen said. She was starting to sense Ratna’s impatience. ‘When you saw Nigel Yeo on Friday as you were leaving for the day, did he give you any idea where he’d spent the earlier part of the afternoon?’
The doctor shook her head. ‘No idea at all.’
Jen’s car had been parked in full sunlight and she got the air con blasting as she got in. She sat for a moment before deciding to drive to the coast and to the Mackenzies’. She couldn’t think why they might want to hide Mack’s laptop or computer, or delete his browsing history, but she didn’t want to take any chances.
Martha was just where Jen had seen her on the previous visit, standing on the balcony, looking out at the beach, cigarette in hand. She waved at Jen. ‘You’re becoming a regular!’ Her tone was ambiguous. It didn’t make Jen feel that she was welcome.
‘I’m sorry to disturb you again. I’m hoping you might be able to help me.’
‘George and Janey are working. They’re both busy and I wouldn’t want to call them home.’ Again, the actress managed to give the impression that Jen was intruding. ‘But I’ll see what I can do. Just wait there and I’ll let you in.’
Once more, Jen was led into the sunlit kitchen, but this time the place was tidy, almost sterile. It was hard to imagine the family together here, eating a late breakfast, as they’d been when she’d visited on Sunday. The found objects on the yellow shelf seemed out of place, relics of former days. Martha sat at the table. There was no offer of coffee. ‘What is it?’
‘Before he was killed, Nigel Yeo spoke to a mother whose son also died from suicide. We have no exact record of the call, but they discussed a website chatroom where people considering suicide were given tips and encouragement to carry it out. Do you know if Alexander visited a similar site?’
Martha shook her head. ‘By the end he’d stopped talking to us, to his father and me. At least, he stopped making any sense.’ She was no friendlier, but she looked broken, exhausted. No longer the glamorous actress performing for an audience.
‘He did have access to a computer? A smartphone?’ ‘Of course. We all do now, don’t we?’ Again, it was hard to tell whether the weariness was real or manufactured. ‘Do you still have his devices?’ Martha looked up. ‘Not his phone. That was lost when he drowned. He always carried it in his jeans pocket. He was always losing the bloody thing. Or sitting on it.’
‘That’s in his room.’
‘Would you mind if I took it away with me?’
There was a pause. ‘And that would help your investigation how?’
‘It’s a theory,’ Jen said. ‘If someone Mack knew was part of the suicide chatroom, and encouraged him to take his own life and then Nigel found out, that could be a motive for murder.’
‘But my son didn’t have any suicidal friends. Everyone he’d gone to school with was upbeat.’ Her voice turned hard and was tinged with envy. ‘Normal.’
Jen remembered Ratna’s theory about a participant in the group being turned on by the power over life and death. ‘Perhaps one of his friends was curious.’ She hesitated. ‘Or evil.’
‘You think someone might have encouraged Mack to take his own life for fun?’ The woman looked physically sick.
‘As I said, it’s just a theory.’
‘Of course, take his laptop. It’s in his room. The small room at the front on the second floor at the top of the stairs.’ She looked at Jen. ‘Do you mind getting it? I haven’t gone in there since he died. George said we should clear his stuff. Move on. But I can’t bear the thought of it.’ She paused again. ‘I slept in his old rugby shirt for the first week after he went missing. I thought it smelled of him.’ ‘Of course.’ At the door, Jen looked back at her. ‘Would you mind if I had a quick look through his things? I won’t take anything away without your permission.’
Martha stared at her and Jen thought the woman would refuse. ‘Of course,’ she said at last. ‘He was a very private person. None of us was allowed up there. But I suppose it’s not going to bother him now.’
After the first floor, the stairs narrowed. There were two rooms on the top floor, a bathroom and a bedroom. As Martha had said, the bedroom looked down over the beach. There was also a view of the balcony beneath, and on it, Jen saw an overflowing ashtray besides an old-fashioned striped deckchair. She thought Martha must spend most of her days there, separate from the world, reminded of her glory days, whenever passers-by recognized her. It was a sort of stage.
The bedroom was neater than Jen had expected, certainly neater than her children’s rooms, even Ella’s, and her daughter was a tidy soul. There was a double bed under the window, with a purple duvet cover. A couple of white-wood cupboards containing folded clothes, a desk and an Anglepoise lamp against one wall. On the desk, a laptop, still plugged in. It was hard to believe that someone with the chaotic mind and racing thoughts described by Ratna would keep his room so ordered, but perhaps he needed that. Perhaps he needed this clear space when he was contemplating taking his own life. The decision would be spiritual, almost religious. Perhaps if he was so convinced that it was the right thing for him, he hadn’t needed any encouragement and it was a decision he’d taken in a moment of clarity and reason.
Jen unplugged the computer and put it in her bag. She walked down the stairs and paused at the kitchen door. Martha was still sitting there, her face set, apparently lost in thought.
‘I’ve got the PC,’ Jen said. ‘I’ve not taken anything else. Was Mack always that tidy?’
‘Yes,’ Martha said. ‘It was one of his obsessions.’ She looked up. ‘I hope you get to the bottom of it. All of it. At the moment we’re stuck as a family, in the roles we had, before our son died. George is still playing the jovial “mine host”, Janey is still the perpetual student with a holiday job, while she should be thinking of a proper career. And I’m still the actress waiting for a new role. We go round and round as if we’re on a giant carousel. We can’t move on.’
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