'The Heron's Cry' Chapters 28-30
AS HE DROVE INLAND, TOWARDS THE moor and Spennicott, the village where Frank Ley was considered an enemy, Matthew Venn felt like a wicked schoolboy, bunking off school. As a child he would never have done such a thing, and might even have reported other kids who were behaving so badly. He’d been too scared of the world to be a rule-breaker. But today he could understand the joy, the freedom of running away from everyday responsibility.
The guilt, which was a backdrop to his life, added spice to the feeling of escape, the sense that he was on the verge of adventure. This was the place that Nigel Yeo had visited in the week that he was murdered, but Matthew couldn’t really justify the expedition. He could have sent one of his team or talked on the phone to the leader of the campaign to keep the care home open.
Spennicott was in a valley bottom; beyond it the hills began to rise into Exmoor and the heat haze. It wasn’t very far from the farm where Jonathan had lived with his adoptive parents. At first sight the village was unprepossessing: just one road with a narrow pavement on each side and a line of grey houses. There was nothing obvious here to attract tourists. No thatched cottages with roses round the door. No easy, picturesque footpath leading to the moors. The village centre was more appealing — a slow river was crossed by an ancient stone bridge and the garden of the pub led down to the bank — but Matthew could see why the place had needed Ley’s help to bring people in.
Although it was too early for lunch the pub car park was more than half full and a sign outside said it sold artisan coffee. One of the outbuildings had been turned into a shop and post office and there was a queue leading into the street. A woman came out with a basket of fresh vegetables — carrots with the green fronds still attached, courgettes and loose, ripe tomatoes — and climbed into a new four-by-four.
Venn went into the building and ordered coffee at the bar. ‘I’m looking for the old people’s home. Do you know where I can find it?’
‘The Mount? Past the school and then take the track on your right. It’s a bit overgrown. You might miss it.’ The voice was local, so Frank Ley had provided this man, at least, with a job. His was the only North Devon accent Venn heard when he was drinking his coffee, and Venn was the youngest customer. The others were older, early retirees on holiday, or second-homers escaping the city.
But, after all, what was wrong with that? Matthew thought. He was lucky to have been born here. Why shouldn’t other people enjoy the place and sustain the communities which might otherwise die? Still, he understood the permanent residents’ feeling that they’d been invaded and that a traditional way of life was under attack. Perhaps Jonathan had been right about the dangers of rural gentrification.
Matthew had decided to visit the care home before talking to Paul Reed, the writer leading the campaign against its closure. It would be good to understand what had led the man to such a violent reaction. He went back to the car and crossed the bridge. It was playtime in the school on the opposite bank, and through the open windows he heard children’s laughter.
The overgrown track led up a slight rise through woodland. Earlier in the year there would have been a pool of bluebells, and some of the dying blossoms remained under the trees. The drive ended in a gravel parking circle by the side of a large Victorian house, all gables and chimney pots. At the front of the building there was a paved terrace, where six elderly people were gathered with a carer in a blue uniform. Two of the residents were in wheelchairs and all wore white cotton hats to protect them from the sun. Now that he was here, Venn wasn’t sure what to do. He’d thought just to see the place, but his car had been noticed, and he didn’t feel he could just drive away. He got out and walked towards the group.
‘Hello, my dear!’ The woman in the wheelchair waved and shouted across at him. ‘What’s a handsome fellow like you doing here?’
He was still a little way from the terrace, taking a shortcut across overgrown grass, so didn’t feel the need to answer. Through open French windows leading onto the terrace, he saw a shabby lounge with a threadbare rug over scratched wooden floors and sagging armchairs. It would be hard to lever a frail elderly person out of one of those. There was the sound of a hoover from deep in the house.
The carer got to her feet to greet him. ‘If you’re considering the Mount as a home for a relative, I’m afraid we’re not taking any more residents just now.’
‘They’re trying to close us down,’ the woman in the wheelchair said, ‘but we’re not bloody having it.’
‘This is Viv Reed.’ The carer was laughing. He thought she probably laughed a lot. ‘She’s the Mount’s shop steward.’
‘Used to be a Labour councillor,’ Viv said. ‘And there weren’t so many of those around here. I’m still keeping up the fight. Along with my son Paul.’
‘He’s leading the campaign against the closure?’
‘He is!’ She sounded inordinately proud.
‘Won’t do no good, though.’ The speaker was a little, shrivelled man. ‘That Francis Ley will do just what he likes. Folks think he’s a saint, but it’s all about money with him.’
Venn thought that Steph Bull in the Patients Together office had said exactly the same about Nigel Yeo. He wondered if he’d got both men wrong. Had they somehow generated their own propaganda, cultivated the image of being good and generous men, while being as selfish as everyone else?
‘I’m not looking for a place for a relative,’ he said. ‘I’m a detective investigating the murder of Dr Nigel Yeo. I understand he came here last week? He was looking into the closure of the Mount.’
‘We heard that he was dead,’ Viv said. ‘We thought, That’s it. Our last hope gone.’
‘You had the impression that he was supporting your cause?’
‘He came for tea,’ Viv said. ‘He saw how happy we all were.’
Matthew thought that didn’t quite answer the question.
Before he could say anything more, the carer joined in the conversation. ‘The doctor talked about his wife,’ she said. ‘The early onset Alzheimer’s. He said that he’d been lucky enough to be able to care for her at home, and that she’d lived a full life, even when she was very ill. He said that everyone should have that right.’ A pause. ‘Unfortunately, we don’t have facilities to look after patients with severe dementia here. We couldn’t cope. I wonder if that might have influenced his impression of the home.’
There was a silence, broken by the call of woodpigeons in the trees in front of the house.
Venn turned back to Viv.
‘Was your son here when Dr Yeo visited?’
‘Of course he was here. He’d invited the doctor to visit.’
‘Did the doctor come back the following day? The Friday afternoon? Perhaps for another look? We’re trying to trace his movements on that day.’
The carer shook her head.
Venn left them then and walked back to the car. He wondered again what he would do if ever his mother couldn’t manage on her own. He was the only child and the responsibility would lie with him. Wouldn’t she be happier here, with the laughing carers and friendly residents, than in a clinical building with easily cleaned floors and specialist equipment? Perhaps she would, until the winter came and the roof started leaking and the bedrooms were cold at night. In the sunshine, it was easy to be romantic about such things, and besides, his mother had never been sociable, even when she was young.
Reed’s house was beyond the school, with a view of the river. It was a rather ugly villa, almost suburban, out of place in the rural setting. Venn had made an appointment and the man was waiting for him. He was unprepossessing too, a grey man in his fifties with strange hairy growths on his face, giving him the appearance of a weasel. His voice was educated, pedantic.
It was hard to believe that the joyous Viv had given birth to him.
This was clearly not a family home. There was no sign of children or a partner. The door opened onto a corridor, stacked on one side with bundles of newspapers and cardboard boxes, everything dusty. There was brown lino on the floor. Reed led him through to the back of the house, to what must have been intended as a dining room, but which was now a large, cluttered office. There was a view over an unkempt garden and the river, but the window faced north and the place was still dark.
‘A bit of an overreaction this, isn’t it? Sending a detective all the way from Barnstaple. As far as I know, I haven’t broken the law. As always, it seems to be one law for the rich and another for the rest of us. Francis Ley makes a complaint and I’m under investigation. He ruins the lives of a dozen elderly people and nothing happens.’
‘Mr Ley hasn’t made a complaint of any sort. I’m investigating the murder of Dr Nigel Yeo. We’re tracing his movements for the last week of his life. You did meet him on Thursday afternoon?’
‘Oh!’ Reed sounded deflated. It seemed he’d worked himself up for a battle only to be disappointed. ‘Yes.’
‘Can you explain how Dr Yeo came to be involved with your campaign?’ Venn paused. ‘I’ve been looking at the press you’ve generated. Very impressive. An article in the Observer. Even, I understand, a question in the House.’
‘That was all very well,’ Reed said, ‘but our publicity seemed to have little impact on Francis Ley. He was still determined to go ahead with the closure. I thought if I could get a group like Patients Together on board, someone official, Ley might start to take us seriously.’
‘This seems very personal,’ Venn said.
‘Of course it’s personal! It’s about my mother’s future.’
‘I visited the Mount before coming here. Your mother seems remarkably adaptable. I’m sure she’d settle perfectly well in another home.’ Venn paused for a moment. ‘I wondered if you had another reason for taking on Mr Ley.’
‘The decision to close the Mount was a final straw,’ Reed said. ‘He owns this village like some sort of feudal lord. We’re not in the Middle Ages.’
Venn thought that still didn’t quite explain the antipathy. ‘You’re a writer?’
‘Yes.’ Reed looked at Venn with suspicion. ‘A travel writer and essayist. I freelance for the press and I’ve had a couple of books published by mainstream houses. Not huge commercial successes, but well reviewed and the most recent won a rather prestigious award.’
Venn wasn’t quite sure where this was going.
‘In one of my articles for a Sunday paper, I explored the ethics of a wealthy man buying up a village, changing its character, excluding local people. Of course, Ley took exception to the piece. His lawyers claimed there were inaccuracies and threatened to sue. I would never have been able to fund a court case, so I was forced to make an apology.’ He paused. ‘It was humiliating.’
In those three words, Venn thought, lay the background to the campaign to keep open the Mount. Reed needed to show that he’d been right all along, that he was a downtrodden purveyor of truth. That Ley was a fat cat who cared nothing for the people of the village.
‘What did Dr Yeo make of the Mount?’ Matthew asked. ‘Did he support your view?’
‘I don’t know.’ Reed turned away. ‘I suspect he wouldn’t have had the guts to stand up to Ley. The man’s all-powerful and he seems to have everyone in his pocket. Planners, politicians, councillors.’
This was starting to sound like paranoia. Venn imagined Reed on his own here in the dark and dusty house, becoming obsessed with Ley, his wealth and his power. Brooding. Jealous. Resentful.
‘Dr Yeo didn’t feed back his impressions to you?’
‘No!’ Reed was still bitter. ‘He was pleasant enough when we were shown around the Mount. He engaged with the residents. He said he’d call in to see me here the following afternoon to give me his response.’
Venn thought that seemed beyond the call of duty. Perhaps Yeo had felt some sympathy for this sad, lonely little man and had wanted to let him down gently.
‘Nothing! I got a phone call on Friday cancelling the visit. Yeo was very apologetic. Apparently. And very melodramatic. A matter of life and death, he said, which was obviously an excuse.’
Venn could sense the conspiracy theories swirling around in the man’s mind, and moved towards the door.
‘Dr Yeo didn’t go into any more details about why he had to cancel his meeting with you?’
‘No,’ Reed said. ‘Yeo had gone through the motions, but clearly he wasn’t prepared to waste his time any further on me.’
Venn thought there was more to it than that. Something had happened after Yeo’s meeting in the hospital with Prior, Radley and Joshi to make him decide not to make the trip out to Spennicott. Something which might have led to his death.
Venn drove back across the bridge and parked by the pub. It was full now with people who’d come to take lunch. They were spilling out into the garden with their drinks. He phoned Lauren Miller.
‘Just a quick query. Nigel went to Spennicott to investigate a complaint about an old people’s home. Was that normally something he’d get involved in?’
‘No,’ she said, ‘but the whole case was so high profile, and the relationships had become so fraught, so venomous, that he thought a visit might take the heat out of the situation. Reed had made a formal complaint on behalf of the whole community.’
‘And of course, Nigel couldn’t be seen to be siding with Ley, who was his daughter’s landlord and benefactor, without taking the matter seriously.’
‘Well,’ Lauren said, ‘maybe there was something like that going on too.’
Venn thought she sounded faintly amused. ‘What was the outcome of the visit?’
‘Oh, he thought Frank’s judgement had been perfectly sound. The home needed so much work to bring it up to scratch that the residents’ lives would have been disrupted even more than if they’d been forced to move to another local facility. He was hoping to mediate. Perhaps to persuade Frank to offer compensation to the residents to make up for the inconvenience. That way it might be possible to bring about some reconciliation.’
‘I see.’ Matthew thought Reed would just see an offer like that as a form of bribery, but, worded properly, he might view it as a victory. ‘When did you discuss this?’
‘We met up on Thursday evening,’ Lauren said. ‘He was planning to visit Paul Reed, the activist behind the campaign, the following afternoon to sound him out. He thought Francis would agree to anything that would speed up the process of converting the place into a hotel, but he wanted Reed’s agreement at least to consider the offer first.’
‘But he never went,’ Venn said, almost to himself. ‘Something happened and he had to cancel. You really have no idea what that might have been?’
‘I’m sorry, Inspector, I don’t.’
Venn was about to drive off when he saw that there’d been a voicemail from Jen. She must have called while he was talking to Lauren. Her voice was urgent, a little breathless.
‘I’ve picked up Mack’s laptop and Ross will get it to his techie mate. Roger Prior just phoned for you. He’d like to talk to you. He said he’s working from home this afternoon, if that would be convenient.’
Oh yes, that would be very convenient. Matthew looked back at the pub’s customers, sitting in the sun, waiting for their meals, and felt only a brief moment of envy.
Renew your membership today and save 25% on your next year when you sign up for Automatic Renewal. Get instant access to discounts, programs, services, and the information you need to benefit every area of your life.
THE PRIORS’ HOUSE WAS VERY CLOSE to Nigel Yeo’s in geography, but grander, larger. Venn thought the couple must rattle around in it. According to Jen, they’d never had kids. But then he supposed that selling a house in north London would have given them enough cash to go for something palatial.
Roger Prior led him into an office just off the hall. He seemed uneasy, pale, his skin almost white against the dark, rather oily hair. Venn could understand his discomfort. If the man had been hounded by the media previously over the suicide of Luke Wallace, he’d be anxious about being linked to another controversial case. This time to a double murder.
The office was functional, but strangely old-fashioned. It seemed designed to give the impression of a library in a country house. One wall was lined with books and there was a low leather chesterfield against another. An impressive desk and chair stood under the window. Venn wondered if the room was supposed to intimidate, but then Prior wouldn’t often see colleagues here. Perhaps the man needed reassurance about his own status.
‘How can I help you?’ Matthew waited for a moment. ‘Or perhaps you think you can help me?’
‘No, nothing like that.’ The man paused, and Matthew saw now that it wasn’t anxiety that was causing the pale face, the tremor, but rage. Roger Prior was one of those men who simmer, feed their resentment in the privacy of their own minds and then blow up. ‘One of your officers went to see my wife this morning. In court.’
‘He did.’ Prior might be hovering on the verge of losing control, but Venn felt very much in command of the interview, confident. ‘I asked DC Ross to talk to her.’
‘That seems like an intolerable intrusion, Inspector. I’d like to know how you can justify it.’
‘Mrs Prior was the close friend of a murder victim. Of two murder victims. That makes her a very useful witness.’
‘It would perhaps have been polite to make an appointment. Not to appear suddenly at her place of work.’ Prior was struggling to keep calm now. Venn could sense the tension like a smell. The man’s voice was shrill, fraying at the edges.
‘Two men have been murdered. Stabbed and left to bleed. I think we’ve moved beyond a need for politeness.’ Venn kept his voice deliberately calm. Until now they’d been standing, with Prior in front of the desk. Matthew took a seat on the chesterfield. ‘Now I’m here, I have some questions for you. Why don’t you have a seat? This might take a little while.’
Again, he thought Prior might explode. It hadn’t been a conscious tactic to provoke the man, but Matthew wondered now if he’d been hoping for such an outburst since entering the room. Had he taken the lead in the man’s house, given him orders, just to goad him to a response? It wasn’t his usual way to conduct an interview, but he wasn’t often called on to interrogate entitled and wealthy men.
For a moment, he thought Prior would demand that he leave — he stood very still, his eyes wide and staring — but instead the man walked round the desk and sat.
‘You were involved in an inquiry into a young man’s suicide in your former post.’ Venn’s voice was low, conversational.
‘I was cleared of all responsibility!’
‘I think it was suggested that you resign, which isn’t quite the same thing.’ Venn paused for a moment. ‘But the details aren’t really important, are they? The point is that, having settled into a new place and with a new role, the last thing you’d want would be more adverse publicity.’
‘It was a dreadful coincidence. I felt as if I was being haunted by my past. That the circumstances of the previous inquiry were following me and there was no escape.’ He looked directly at Venn. ‘I still have nightmares about that time.’
Venn was going to say that he imagined the dead boys’ families still had nightmares too, but he restrained himself. He thought now that Prior wasn’t just on the edge of fury, but on the edge of a breakdown, and he didn’t want that on his conscience.
‘Nigel Yeo had found out about the Luke Wallace case?’ Matthew made his voice friendlier, more sympathetic.
‘Oh yes, Nigel was extremely thorough.’ From Prior’s mouth the word didn’t sound like a compliment.
‘He brought it up at the meeting you had on the Friday, before his body was found?’
‘We’d discussed it a number of times before that. I think I’d convinced him that the connection was coincidental. Except in public relations terms.’ Prior half stood in his chair. ‘You have to understand, Inspector, that I had no reason to kill Nigel Yeo. He was doing his job and I was doing mine. We’d come to an understanding about changes to the trust’s procedures around supporting people suffering from mental ill health. It would have cost us money, but nothing is more important that a young person’s life.’
Or a prominent man’s reputation.
‘He hadn’t threatened to make your relationship to the Luke Wallace case public? In order to get the trust to change its policy?’
‘No.’ Prior returned to his seat. ‘He wasn’t that sort of man, Inspector. Not the sort to stoop to blackmail. We fell out on a number of occasions, but I admired his principles and his courage.’
‘At that last meeting,’ Venn said, ‘did Dr Yeo mention the possibility that Alexander Mackenzie had accessed a website promoting and encouraging suicide?’
‘No!’ Prior seemed shocked by the suggestion. ‘That was never mentioned on any of the occasions when we met, and it didn’t appear in any of Dr Joshi’s notes.’
‘How well did you know Wesley Curnow?’ The change in tack threw Prior for a moment. ‘Not well at all. He was an acquaintance of my wife’s.’
‘But he came to the house at times?’
Prior shrugged. ‘My wife’s a sociable woman. She works for a number of charitable organizations and hosts many fundraising events. People come to the house all the time.’ He seemed to feel the need to explain. ‘We’re not the sort of couple who lives in each other’s pockets. We live our own lives. It means we have something to say to each other when we finally get together.’
Venn wondered if the man was protesting too much, if Prior had felt belittled by his wife’s choice of friends, but he didn’t push the point.
There was a minute of silence. Matthew was wondering what this conversation had achieved. He’d gained no new information. But he thought he did have a greater understanding now of this man: powerful, used to authority, but stressed and with the potential to crack and splinter under the slightest further pressure.
Prior had regained a little of his poise, his dignity. Perhaps he realized that Venn was less of a threat than he’d first thought. He pushed himself to his feet. ‘If there’s nothing else, Inspector, I’ll see you out.’
Matthew nodded and followed him to the front door. Outside, the air was still and there was the smell of a barbecue in a neighbouring garden.
The team was gathered in the ops room when he got back to the station, waiting for the evening’s briefing. They shared their experiences of the day. Ross described his conversation with Cynthia Prior.
‘You really think she didn’t have any romantic feelings for Wesley Curnow? It was as she said, a friendship of convenience?’ Venn was close to few people outside work. In contrast, Jonathan seemed to have hundreds of friends, people he greeted with joy and hugs, and invited to their house for supper and drinks. He opened his arms and let them into their lives.
‘Yeah, I do. She hardly seemed devastated by his death.’
‘You know her, Jen,’ Matthew said. ‘Does that sound right to you?’
Jen nodded. ‘You’ve met Roger. Uptight and wedded to the job. Not an arty bone in his body. She needed someone who could share her interests. Really, I don’t think there was any more to it than that.’
‘I’ve just come from their house,’ Venn said. ‘I was summoned by Mr Prior.’
‘What did he want?’
Venn thought about that. ‘Honestly? I’m not sure. To find out what we know? To lay down a marker? He’s certainly stressed, but that’s understandable after the press he got following the Wallace case. It doesn’t mean he’s a killer.’
He went on to describe his visit to Spennicott and the old people’s home. ‘So, we have another connection between Yeo and Francis Ley. I can’t see how Nigel Yeo’s investigation into the closure of the Mount can be relevant to the investigation, but we do need to know where he went on Friday afternoon.’
Matthew looked around the room and saw that they were all as tired as he was. It would be fruitless to rake over the points of the case again. At this moment all he wanted was to be at home, with Jonathan in their house by the shore. A life that was simple and less fraught was overwhelmingly tempting. ‘Let’s call it a day. Come back tomorrow with fresh ideas. We’re exhausted and there’s a danger that we’ll just go around in circles.’
The light had almost gone when he drove past Braunton Great Marsh and through the toll gate towards Crow Point. There was a red blur on the horizon where the sun was setting, so the gulls and the egrets, disturbed into the air by the sound of his car, were flushed rose. Perhaps because he’d been thinking of friendship, he had a fear, driving to the house, that Jonathan might have friends there. He pictured the house lit up, people spilling out onto the terrace with drinks, but, as he approached, he saw that the only vehicle on the drive belonged to Jonathan.
He’d been gearing himself up to be pleasant, to put on a show, and was flooded with relief. There was a light on in the kitchen and he saw his husband sharp and clear, putting a pan into the oven. He was holding it with a bright yellow folded tea towel, and his feet were bare. Matthew opened the French doors from the terrace and went in. Jonathan turned and smiled.
‘I heard the car. I thought you’d be starving. I made a veggie shepherd’s pie.’
‘Could it wait for a while? I wondered about a walk into the marsh. There’s still enough light.’
‘Sure. Why not? I’ll just turn the oven down. It’ll be ready when we get back.’ Everything for Jonathan was that easy.
They took the track inland, away from the shore and along towards the toll gate. When they came to the marsh they stopped and looked out. There was the silhouette of a heron, tall and stately, dark grey against the paler grey of the water. It stood quite alone.
‘I’m sorry I blundered into your investigation.’ Jonathan was leaning against a fence that was pockmarked with lichen. ‘I should have been more careful.’
‘You were just thinking about Eve.’
Jonathan nodded towards the heron. ‘Those birds always remind me of you. So patient. Just willing to wait. Entirely focused on their prey.’ A pause. ‘I wish I could be more like that. But I jump in, all splash and noise.’
‘I’ve never heard one call,’ Matthew said.
‘That’s like you too then. Silent. I’m never quite sure what you’re thinking.’
Matthew didn’t know what to say. He wanted to tell Jonathan that he loved him just the way he was, but it would have sounded trite, and even now, he wasn’t entirely sure that was true. He linked his arm through Jonathan’s. By the time they got home, all the colour was gone and the only light came from the moon.
ROSS MAY GOT HOME TO FIND that picked up his call almost immediately. He could hear voices in the background and was aware of his body relaxing. She was out with her mates, nothing wrong with that. Nothing for him to worry about. To obsess about.
‘Where are you?’ Despite his relief, the tension he’d felt when he’d arrived in the house and found it empty was still there in his voice. He could hear it and was about to apologize. He didn’t want to be one of those men who couldn’t trust their wives, who wanted to control them.
But she answered before he could explain. ‘It’s Joanne’s birthday. I told you we were all going out straight from work.’ There was that hint of resentment, of the defiance that he’d picked up over the weekend.
‘Oh, of course. Sorry. It’s this case, sending everything out of my mind.’ Now the apology sounded forced and lame. ‘Have a brilliant time and send her my best wishes.’ He didn’t think he could ask her now what time she planned to be back.
In the end, she wasn’t late. He’d been listening out for her all evening, for the footsteps on the drive through the open window, for the key in the lock. He’d stuck a ready meal in the microwave and opened a beer. He’d finished the meal but was still nursing the bottle when he heard her. He’d limited himself to one, because Mel might need a lift. He’d hoped she might text him, asking him to pick her up, or to come out to join them.
He’d switched on the television before she came into the room. He didn’t want her to know he’d been waiting for her. She must have changed at work for the evening out because she looked gorgeous, in a sleeveless cotton dress and sandals, with a small wedged heel. Simple and classy. ‘Good night?’
‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I’m knackered, though. It was another crazy day at work. I might just head up to bed.’ She didn’t seem drunk. Not even a little bit tipsy.
‘Why don’t you have a quick drink with me before you go? I haven’t seen you properly for days.’
‘Nah,’ she said. ‘I’m on earlies again tomorrow.’
‘Just one drink!’ That tone in his voice again. Bossy. Controlling. Where had it come from? ‘Please.’
She hesitated and he thought she might refuse. He was already feeling the shame of having a simple request turned down. From Mel, who claimed to love him, who, in the past, would have done anything for him.
In the end, she smiled. ‘All right then. There’s a bottle of white already open in the fridge. I’ll have a small glass of that.’
He jumped to his feet and went to the kitchen to pour it for her. When he came back, she’d slipped off her sandals and was sitting with her feet curled under her on the sofa. She took the glass of wine and leaned against him when he sat down beside her. Of course, he was pleased that balance and order had been restored, but there was a seed of anger in his mind, because he was her husband, and she shouldn’t have made him feel like that, so anxious and so impotent. So needy. In bed, she put her arms around him, but he was the one to turn away and pretend to sleep.
The next morning, everything seemed back to normal. They had breakfast together and chatted about everyday things: putting the bins out, what he might like for dinner, when they might go to see Mel’s family. Ross found himself hyper-alert, though. It was as if he was on a case, looking out for any discrepancy in the evidence. That germ of anger and suspicion was there even when he was smiling and when Mel bent down to kiss him before she rushed off to work.
When he got to the station, Ross found he’d already received an email from his friend Steve Barton. Steve was a digital forensic expert, registered with the police service; he’d worked for a forensic science company in the Midlands on cybercrime, but recently he’d come home to keep an eye on his dad, who had chronic arthritis. They didn’t live together — Steve always said he needed his own space to work — but at least he could help out.
Ross was proud to be mates with such a brainbox, happy to bask in the reflected glory of his success. They’d known each other since school. Steve had been a geek even then, a demon gamer and maths nerd. They’d got on okay and had stayed in touch after Steve went to London to university. Now he was back, Ross had put some work his way and when that had turned out well, he’d persuaded Joe Oldham to spread the word county-wide. Barton was known now as someone who could deliver on anything cyber-related. Ross made sure that all the approaches to Barton went through him: He’ll rush it through as a favour. Otherwise you’d be waiting for weeks. Making himself indispensable.
Barton’s email was brief:
I’ve had a quick look. If you want to meet up, I’ll talk you through it. I can do a report but you won’t get that until the end of tomorrow. Lots of other work on.
Maybe that was boasting, playing a kind of hard to get, but Ross didn’t want to take the risk by saying he’d wait. He imagined standing in front of the room at the evening briefing, passing on a vital piece of evidence. He emailed:
Where and when?
The reply came straight back.
The Dog and Ferret at one. You can buy me lunch.
The Dog and Ferret was classic Steve Barton. Eccentric. An old man’s pub where the customers sat with their pints of mild reading yesterday’s free newspaper and grousing about the young. Pasties were the only food on offer. Steve had always haunted bizarre places, making friends with people Ross would never be seen dead with.
He was already there when Ross arrived, at a table in a dusty corner. The pub was almost empty. Two elderly women were sitting in the window, drinking big glasses of white wine. One had her little finger raised, a mockery of a posh person drinking tea. They stared through the smeared window into the street, and for all the time Ross was there, neither of the women spoke.
Steve could have been a surfer. His blond hair was too long and he needed a shave. He wore a loose T-shirt so well washed that any logo had faded, and frayed jeans. He had a friendship bracelet on his wrist and sandals on his feet. Anywhere else, Ross would have been embarrassed to be seen in his company, but nobody he knew drank in the Dog and Ferret.
‘What have you got for me?’
‘At least you can buy me lunch. I’ll have a pasty and another pint of the bitter.’
‘I thought you were snowed under.’
‘Hey! A man’s got to eat.’
Ross came back with the pint, an orange juice and two pasties.
Steve started talking while his mouth was still full. ‘Your guy never saved much on his system and he deleted everything before he topped himself.’ He wiped a spray of pastry from the front of his shirt. ‘I suppose you would, wouldn’t you? I mean, you wouldn’t want your family seeing all the dodgy porn sites you’d been on.’
‘It’s not the porn sites I’m interested in. Are you saying you can’t access his accounts?’
‘Course not.’ Steve beamed. ‘These days we can access anything. Last month I destroyed a defendant’s alibi by showing he’d used a smart app to start his washing machine remotely. His neighbour had said he must have been in that evening because she could hear the machine going, but in fact, he was thirty miles away.’ He paused, a stand-up waiting for applause that never came. ‘Digging around on your guy’s laptop was a piece of piss.’
‘So, let’s hear what you got.’ Steve had always been a smartarse. ‘I’m in the middle of a murder investigation. I’m not like you. I can’t spend all day in the pub.’
‘You said you were interested in the few weeks before Mackenzie died. The man had a Gmail account and from that he sent stuff to his close family and did routine transactions. Pretty boring: happy birthday to his gran, some purchases from Amazon. The day before he went missing, he’d sent a photo of himself in a garden to his mum and his sister.’ Steve paused. ‘The wider Google account’s a bit thin, to be honest, but then most of the family communications would get sent by text these days.’ He looked up. ‘I could check out his phone if you have it?’
Ross shook his head. ‘We think it drowned with him.’
‘That’s more difficult then. His service provider will be able to give you contacts and the length of calls, but I don’t think you’ll get much else. Not the content of texts, for example, and he’d probably be sending photos by WhatsApp and that’s encrypted end-to-end.’ He paused. ‘Are you sure the phone is gone?’
‘It wasn’t at the top of the cliff where he left his note, and the family say it’s not in the house. I suppose a passing walker could have nicked it, but more likely, I think, that he had it with him when he jumped.’
‘Because I might be able to track it down otherwise.’ Steve had already almost finished his second beer. ‘I could use cell site analysis. If you give me the details, it should be possible to map any journey the phone’s taken too. At least then you’d know the guy’s movements on the night he disappeared.’
‘Cool.’ But Ross thought they already knew that, because they’d found the man’s outer clothes and his note, and Venn, a stickler for detail, had had the handwriting analysed. It had definitely been written by Mack Mackenzie. Ross thought about the emailed photo sent to Janey and Martha. ‘The picture of the garden in the email attachment. Has it got a house in the background? A red-brick farmhouse?’
‘Yeah, that sounds about right. He’s standing there with an older guy. Fat. I’ll send it across with the report.’
Ross thought about the pictures of Nigel Yeo’s contacts, the ones posted on the board in the ops room. It sounded as if Mack had been standing next to Frank Ley. ‘When was that photo sent?’
Steve fished in his jeans pocket and pulled out an envelope with some scribbled notes on the back. ‘The day before you told me he’d died. It was a selfie. The two guys standing together.’
‘Is that it?’ Ross was disappointed. When he’d got the call from Steve, he’d hoped for more than that, for revolutionary news to break open the case. They already knew that Mack had worked for Ley as a jobbing gardener and that he’d visited Westacombe to see Wesley Curnow in the days before his suicide.
‘No! What do you take me for?’ Steve made out he was hurt. ‘I told you, I’m the best. Mackenzie had a separate email account, one that he used for a completely different set of contacts. People that he’d met in a chatroom. That was harder to track down. Even for me.’
‘A group promoting suicide?’
‘Well, supporting people considering it. They use the hashtag PeaceAtLast and that’s the name of the chat group.’ Steve looked up. ‘But within the Peace at Last forum, there seems to be a core group who call themselves the Suicide Club. Pretty sick, if you ask me. Images of people who look as if they’re about to do the deed. One picture of a woman, a noose round her neck, claiming she’s only minutes from hanging herself. Another giving a list of over-the-counter meds and the amount you’d need to take to finish yourself off. It could all be fantasy. Like, if you’re sharing all that stuff, maybe that’s enough, you know. You’re telling the world, or the members of the Suicide Club at least, how much you’re hurting and getting the sympathy in return, so you don’t actually need to do it.’
‘Alexander Mackenzie did it,’ Ross said. ‘Late at night or early one morning, he jumped off a cliff into the sea and drowned. His body was washed up on Lundy a week later.’
‘Shit. Of course he did.’
They sat for a moment in silence. One of the women by the window went to the bar and ordered two more large glasses of wine. Ross wondered if they were as miserable as Mack, and were killing themselves slowly. Perhaps the booze was giving them Peace at Last.
‘Can you send over a list of contacts? The other individuals who were in the same group?’
‘Sure.’ Steve’s mood had suddenly switched, become sombre. He finished his drink and stood up. ‘Sure. I’ll get onto it now.’
Walking back to the station, Ross phoned Mel. He wanted to tell her that life was too short for misunderstandings, that they needed to spend more quality time together, and to get back to how they’d been when they were first married. That he was sorry. But she didn’t answer, and all he heard was a recorded message of her voice.
Free for AARP members and available in their entirety online.