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'The Heron's Cry' Chapters 31-33


spinner image illustration of a woman, seen from the back, holding a metal pipe with a globe of molten glass at the end in a fiery furnace
Illustration by Stan Fellows

 

Chapter Thirty-One

 

JEN RAFFERTY GOT PERMISSION FROM VENN to go back to Westacombe to visit Eve Yeo. ‘I just want to check she’s okay. I know a family liaison officer has kept in touch, but she’s had such a tough time.’

‘Good plan.’ Matthew was sitting at his desk, shirtsleeves rolled up, tie slightly loosened. Jen knew Jonathan teased him about the tie. Eventually, Jonathan had told her, he would persuade Matthew to come to work without it, but she couldn’t imagine it happening anytime soon. Matthew looked up. ‘Talk to the Grieves too. It’d be interesting to know if they were friendly with Mack. As we’re following the line of inquiry that Yeo was threatening to expose the suicide chatroom, it’d be good to check out all Mack’s contacts’ browsing histories.’

‘Sarah doesn’t strike me as suicidal!’

‘Nor me. But belt and braces. You know how I like to work.’

Oh yes, she thought. I know.

‘Her husband seems less straightforward, though,’ Venn went on. ‘And talk to Frank Ley. I’m the only person he’s had contact with so far. I’d like your opinion of him.’ Venn paused.

‘He might find you less intimidating than me, easier to talk to.’

Jen smiled. She thought there were few people less intimidating than Matthew Venn. It was one of the reasons he was such a good interviewer. Witnesses felt they could confide in him. But he was the boss. ‘Okay,’ she said. ‘Sure.’

***

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The farmyard had been opened again. No tape. No officer on the gate. Jen squeezed her car past the milk tanker and parked by the workshops. Wesley’s studio was shut and padlocked, but the door to Eve’s was open. Jen knew that Sarah Grieve had been in to scrub the floor and the walls, a sign of real friendship, and Jen could smell a faint trace of disinfectant. Eve was working with her back to Jen, twisting a metal pipe with a globe of molten green glass at one end, shaping it with a gloved hand. Jen could feel the heat of the furnace from where she was standing by the door.

‘Hiya!’

‘Who is it?’ Eve didn’t turn around. ‘Sorry, this is almost impossible to do on my own. I need to concentrate.’

‘Jen Rafferty. I can come back in a bit. Or help?’

‘Give me twenty minutes then I’m all yours.’

 Jen went back into the yard and walked round to the front of the big house. She knocked at the door. No answer. Ley’s garage was open and she saw his flashy Range Rover inside; he couldn’t have gone far. The vehicle was black, like the car Janey had noticed racing through Instow. Jen made a mental note to tell Venn in case he hadn’t noticed the vehicle’s colour, waited a moment then knocked at the front door again. There was still no response, so she walked to the long window and looked in. She’d always been nosy, always loved these glimpses into other people’s lives. Her favourite time of year was early autumn, when people put their lights on, but forgot to draw their curtains. She’d walk down a street and each window held a moment of domestic drama. There was still no sign of Ley. Jen thought she’d talk to the Grieves and come back later.

Sarah was working in the long, low building she used as a dairy. She shouted out as soon as Jen opened the door. ‘You can’t come in! You’re not properly dressed for food prep.’ She was wearing a white overall and hairnet, and looked very like one of the CSIs in their scene suits. Jen had a glimpse of stainless-steel counters and bowls.

‘Sorry!’ Again, it seemed that she was intruding, interrupting the useful activities of others. This might be a wasted morning. She took a step back into the yard and raised her voice. ‘Have you seen Mr Ley?’

‘Not since yesterday evening. He had us all in for drinks. A sort of belated wake for Wesley and Nigel. He invited the Mackenzies along too, because he wanted us to remember Mack at the same time. He said the negligent treatment that Mack had received made his death a kind of unlawful killing too. Look, can you come to the cottage in a bit? I’ll be stopping for coffee in half an hour or so.’

‘Cool.’ Jen thought she might just sit in the sun for a while to catch a few rays, because she hadn’t stopped working for days, and anyway, who would know? She was looking in her bag for her sunglasses when Eve stuck her head out of the workshop.

‘I’m all yours.’

A low wooden bench stretched along the front of the workshops, and Eve sat there, with her back to the wall. She tapped the top of the bench with her hand.

‘This is one of Wes’s creations. I helped him carry the plank up from Instow. It was driftwood, washed up on the beach. He found it early one morning and called me down to bring it back.’

Jen sat beside her. ‘I just wanted to see how you are.’

‘Better now that I can get back into the studio. The work I’m making’s crap, but it’s an escape. You have to concentrate so hard, especially if you’re working solo, that there’s no space in your head for anything else.’

‘You’re okay working there?’ Meaning: where you found your father’s body.

‘There was a moment of silence. ‘Yeah,’ Eve said. ‘In a way, it’s comforting. There are so many happy memories of us here together. That last image just feels like a nightmare, not real.’

‘And you don’t mind staying at Westacombe on your own?’

‘I’m not on my own, though. Not really. Sarah’s like a mother hen and the twins are very sweet. She lends them to me for company and cuddles. Then Frank had us all in to his place last night.’

‘Sarah said. A kind of wake. Were you all right with that?’ Jen thought it must have been weird, a repeat of the evening before she’d found her father dead in her workshop.

Eve shrugged. ‘He did ask me first. And yeah, I was in the mood to get pissed. I thought it was probably better to do it in company than on my own. I wish he hadn’t asked the Mackenzies along, but it would have been churlish to object or to stay away. In the end, they were okay, really supportive.’

‘Do you know where Mr Ley is now? I need to speak to him.’

‘Probably sleeping off a hangover. He had even more to drink than me.’ Eve paused, squinted into the sun. ‘And that wasn’t really like him. It was quite sweet really. He got a bit emotional, made a little speech about the three dead men.’

There was a moment of silence. Sarah came out of the dairy and looked as if she was about to approach them, then thought better of interrupting and headed for her cottage.

‘I have nightmares,’ Eve said, ‘about finding them both. Every night it’s the same. The glass and the blood. And do you know, it’s not the bodies that upsets me – in the dream, I mean, of course, not when I wake up. It’s the broken glass. The wasted art.’

‘We can help you find someone to talk to. Someone who’s used to working with victims, people who’ve been through trauma.’

‘I know, the family liaison officer said. And I will take up the offer, but I’m not ready yet.’ She nodded towards the workshop. ‘At the moment, this is all the therapy I need.’

Jen stood up. ‘How well did you know Alexander Mackenzie, the lad who killed himself?’

‘He did Frank’s garden, so I saw him around and I got to know him quite well over the years. Sometimes I’d take him out a coffee or a cold drink, and we’d chat while he took a break. I liked him. He was a gentle soul. Open. Like a child but in a good way. Wesley knew the rest of the family better than I did, though.’

Something about her voice made Jen ask, ‘You don’t like them? The others? You said you weren’t happy that Frank had invited them to the do last night.’

‘I just don’t think they were as happy as they all made out. They present this image: the devoted couple, arty and a bit glamorous, then there’s Janey who went off to Oxford, the perfect daughter, brainy and beautiful. But underneath, it feels a bit rotten. Like the image is all that matters to them, and there’s something festering that nobody’s willing to talk about.’ She paused. ‘I’ve always had a vivid imagination, though.’ She gave a little smile. ‘Perhaps it isn’t like that at all.’ There was another moment of silence. ‘Besides, I shouldn’t be so unkind. They’ve lost a son, a brother.’

***

In the cottage, Sarah had already made coffee. She slid a mug over to Jen. She was sitting back in her chair with her hands on her belly and Jen felt a moment of envy. She’d loved being pregnant, and the early months of being a mother. It was only as the kids had grown into toddlers, demanding and impossible to keep still, that life had become difficult. Robbie had hated the mess and the disruption to his routine, the fact that he could no longer be the centre of her attention. He’d grown tense and angry and her life had become a battle to keep him happy, to prevent the increasingly frequent outbursts of temper. She wondered for a moment what it would be like to have a child with somebody calmer. Robbie had always called her a crap mother and she’d believed him, but perhaps it could be different. Then she remembered the teething and the screaming, the sore nipples and having absolutely no time to herself and she set the idea aside.

‘When are you due?’

‘Oh, I’ve got a couple of months yet. I’m just a fat cow.’

‘You’re not having twins again?’

‘Oh God, no! Imagine!’ But she didn’t seem so horrified by the idea, and gave a little complacent laugh. Jen thought Sarah would never consider herself a crap mother.

‘Did you know Alexander Mackenzie, the young Instow man who killed himself?’

‘Handsome Mack? When he started working for Frank, I had a few fantasies about him. Of the Lady Chatterley variety. But he was hardly more than a boy and really a very troubled soul. Frank was so fond of him, and desperately upset when he killed himself. I guess that’s why he asked the family up last night.’ She paused. ‘He did kill himself? You’re not linking his death with these murders?’

‘No, nothing like that. But Nigel Yeo was investigating a complaint from the family, who think he was let down by the health service. We’ve found out that Mack was using a suicide forum on the internet. You don’t know anything about that?’

Sarah shook her head. ‘We certainly never discussed anything personal; we weren’t on those sorts of terms. He seemed very shy to me. Cut off from the real world. He only came alive when he was talking about plants and the garden. He might have talked more to Eve. He seemed to treat her almost as a big sister.’ She paused. ‘He was really poorly the last time I saw him. He’d come up to talk to Wesley and he was in such a state. Tears running down his face. He was banging on the door of Wesley’s workshop, but Wes was in his flat. Wes did come into the yard to see what was going on, but he was never very good with dramas like that, and in the end, it was Frank who calmed Mack down. They sent for Janey and she took him home.’ Another pause. ‘It was a terrible tragedy, but I wasn’t surprised when he killed himself. He was let down by the service which should have been there to protect him.’

Jen thought this confirmed everything she’d been told by the Mackenzie family. It was useful but it provided nothing new. She changed tack.

‘How do you sell your dairy produce, if you don’t have a shop?’

‘We supply local delis and restaurants,’ Sarah said, ‘but we’d have a much better profit without the middle man. Hence the idea for the tea shop.’

‘I suppose Frank Ley would have been useful providing those retail contacts, though, because he’s set up those kinds of outlets all over the county.’

‘Yeah,’ Sarah pulled herself upright, ‘but we don’t want to depend on Frank. Like I said before, John’s got this thing about us being independent. In the meantime, we’re building up a great online profile and we’re doing more and more sales by mail order. John’s a bit of a computer whizz. He set up the site and spends most evenings in the upstairs spare room, sorting out the orders. I’m not quite sure what he’ll do when the baby arrives and we have to use the space as a nursery. He was grumpy enough when I booted him out for a few days to paint it.’

Jen considered that, and wondered what else John Grieve might be doing online. Was he the sort of man who might enjoy power at a distance? She could see that he might, when he was so dependent on a benefactor in his everyday life. Could John Grieve be sitting each night in a cramped small bedroom, listening to desperate people planning to end their lives, pushing them occasionally to make the decision? Could that be his idea of entertainment? Of fun?

‘Where’s John now?’

‘I’m not sure,’ Sarah said. ‘He went out straight after breakfast. There’s always something to do on the farm. He’ll be back when he’s hungry. It’s already gone his usual lunchtime.’ She got to her feet, collected the mugs and set them on the draining board. ‘I should get back to work too. I think I’ve got hours at the beginning of the day, then in no time I have to rush off to collect the kids from school.’

 Jen nodded. ‘Of course. Thanks for the coffee.’ She was wondering if she could find an excuse to go up into John’s makeshift office, but surely there’d be nothing for an untrained eye to see. Only a room painted ready for a baby, perhaps with a mobile hanging from the ceiling, and a Moses basket in one corner.

***

Once again, she walked round the farmhouse to Ley’s front door. It was early afternoon and the heat seemed to bounce from the red brick. She thought the man must surely be awake by now, even if he’d been drinking heavily the night before. When there was still no answer, she peered through all the windows she could find. The living room was tidy, so unless Sarah had been in early to clean for him, he hadn’t been in such a bad state the night before. That was another of Jen’s markers for judging the extent of her inebriation: the ability to load the dishwasher before going to bed. She moved on and looked in another of the windows facing the garden. A large office, very high-tech, jarring with the architecture of the house. A sleek desk had been built along one wall and it was filled with devices: computer, printer, scanner. Perhaps Frank Ley, single, wealthy, entitled, was a more likely candidate for the person playing God on the suicide chatroom.

Now she was losing patience. She went back to the door and thumped on it. Then she turned the handle and went inside.

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‘Mr Ley!’

The house felt shady and cool after the blasting heat. She pushed her head through the doors of the rooms she’d already seen from outside. On the office desk was a mobile phone. Surely the man couldn’t have gone too far if he’d left that behind. She moved on through the house, all the time expecting Ley to appear, angered by the intrusion. There was a kitchen, which must back onto the kitchen used by Eve and Wesley. It was dark, with a small window looking out to the side of the house, but again very streamlined and full of gadgets: a high-end coffee machine, a juicer and a sleek stainless-steel fridge.

Upstairs there were four bedrooms. Three apparently were scarcely used, and had the feel of an upmarket boutique hotel. One had probably belonged to Ley’s mother, because here there were a few personal touches. A faded wedding photo. A cross-stitched sampler of the alphabet. Ley’s bedroom was big, with long windows looking over the garden and out to a glimmer of sea in the distance. The bed had been slept in but not made. He’d had a shower; there was a damp towel folded on the rail. Clothes had been put on an elegant blue chair, but presumably Ley had been wearing those the day before. There was still no sign of the man himself.

Jen went outside again and walked across the lawn and past the borders as far as the boundary wall. It had occurred to her that someone who’d shared Mack’s passion for gardening wouldn’t be indoors on a day like this. She found a wheelbarrow half full of weeds, but they were dry and shrivelled, and had obviously been there for some time. Ley himself seemed to have disappeared.

Chapter Thirty-Two

 

MATTHEW VENN WAS IN HIS OFFICE, chatting to Ross, trying to make sense of the information the DC had gleaned from his techie friend. The space felt like a sauna and he could feel sweat running down his back; he’d brought in a spare shirt and wondered when he might find a moment to change.

‘So, Mack had accessed one of these suicide sites?’

‘Yes, something called Peace at Last.’ Ross paused. ‘And we know those were the words Mack used in his suicide note. Luke Wallace had been a member too, so it’s a well-established forum. The chatroom seems relatively supportive but Steve came across a core group who call themselves the Suicide Club and Mack had been sucked into that too. They seem more actively determined to encourage members to kill themselves.’

‘Do we know who pulled him in?’

Ross shook his head. ‘Steve says tracking down the other individuals will take time.’

Venn forgot his embarrassment, the heat and the sweat, and felt a wave of pity for the people who’d been desperate enough to consider suicide. He’d had a kind of breakdown after losing his faith. He hadn’t just lost his God, but his community, cast out by his parents and the Brethren. He’d even had a fleeting longing for the peace that death might bring, but that had been different from taking active steps to kill himself. He couldn’t quite imagine that desperation.

He turned back to Ross. ‘It would be most helpful if Barton could give us the names of other people using the site. Especially the person moderating the Suicide Club.’

‘He said he’d work on it this afternoon.’

His office door opened. No knock. And a shadow blocked out the light. Superintendent Joe Oldham, Matthew’s boss.

‘Ah.’ Oldham leaned against the door frame as if the effort of walking down the corridor had been too much for him to remain upright. ‘Two birds with one stone.’ The Yorkshire accent had remained unchanged and was a matter of pride. ‘How’s it going then? I’m getting pressure from above. Always piggy in the middle, that’s me.’ His voice was an unpleasant whine.

‘Ross has come up with some very useful information,’ Matthew said. ‘We’re about to follow it up.’ He’d learned that praising Ross and being vaguely optimistic was the best tactic where Oldham was concerned. The superintendent considered Ross a protégé. And although Oldham insisted that he liked to be on top of a major operation, he’d never been much interested in detail.

‘I can tell Exeter we’re near to an arrest then?’

‘We’re hopeful.’

‘Grand.’ The big man levered himself away from the door frame and walked away, once more letting in sunlight. ‘Keep me informed.’

They watched the large back disappear into the corridor.

Ross’s phone rang. He listened for a moment then passed it to Venn. ‘It’s Jen. She’s been trying to get hold of you.’

Venn felt for his phone, realized he’d left it in the pocket of the jacket he’d carefully put over the back of a chair in the main office.

‘Sorry, Jen. What’s the problem?’

‘I can’t find Ley. The door to his house is open, but there’s nobody in.’

‘And nobody’s seen him?’

‘Not today. He had a gathering in his house last night — a kind of wake for Nigel and Wesley, and apparently for Alexander too, because he invited the rest of the Mackenzie family to Westacombe to join them. I’ve been into the house. He definitely slept here last night, but neither Eve nor Sarah Grieve has seen him since.’

‘What about John Grieve?’

‘I haven’t tracked him down either. According to Sarah, he’s out on the farm somewhere.’

‘I’ll be over.’ Venn ended the call and went to retrieve his jacket and his own phone. There was a missed call and a voicemail. From Frank Ley. It had been made more than an hour earlier.

‘If you’re coming to Westacombe this morning, Inspector, I wonder if you’d call in and see me. I’d welcome the chance for a chat.’

The man sounded very tired, a little old. Venn called him back but there was no reply. He remembered his previous anxiety when he’d not been able to find Ley, the sunlit walk across the common from the Instow road, the strange panic as he imagined some tragedy at the farmhouse. He wondered if he was overreacting again by rushing off to Westacombe, but still he checked that his phone was in his pocket and he hurried to his car.

***

Matthew found Jen sitting where Ley had been on that earlier encounter. She was flushed from too long in the sun. She had a redhead’s pale complexion and her nose was peeling; the skin reminded him of flaky pastry, the remains of a croissant on a plate. ‘I had another look round the garden, away from the paths, in case he’d fallen. I haven’t been back to the workshops in case you didn’t want them knowing that Francis has buggered off.’ She paused. ‘I suppose he only has one car? He couldn’t have driven off in another vehicle.’

‘Only one car registered,’ Venn said.

‘Do you think he’s done a runner? He could have hired a car or got a taxi to the station. No vehicle’s been into the yard while I’ve been here, but it could have come earlier or driven up his private drive.’ She paused. ‘His mobile’s in his office, though. Surely he wouldn’t have left that behind.’

‘He phoned me earlier,’ Venn said. ‘I missed the call. Can you get on to the provider? Treat it as urgent. Find out who else called him this morning.’

Jen nodded. Venn tried to think his way through the possibilities. ‘Why would he be running anyway? Why now, I mean? What’s happened in the last couple of days to spook him?’

‘You were sniffing round the old folks’ home in Spennicott.’

‘But according to Lauren, Yeo had agreed with Ley that bringing the care home up to standard would cause more disruption to the residents than moving them. It was clear to me that Reed, who made the complaint, had his own reasons for stirring up the campaign against Francis.’ Venn reran his visit to the model village in his head. Venn couldn’t see that Ley would be particularly disturbed by the news that the police had been following Nigel’s movements in the week before his death.

‘Ley held a wake here last night,’ Jen said. ‘A celebration of the lives of Wesley and Nigel. And Mack. He invited the remaining Mackenzie family to join them.’

Venn thought that was more interesting. ‘How did it go?’

‘Frank got pissed and made a sentimental speech about all three blokes, according to Eve. But no rows or accusations. At least, if there were, she wasn’t letting on.’ She looked at her boss. ‘But a bit odd, don’t you think? Throwing a party at a time like this.’

‘Perhaps none of them wanted to be alone.’ Venn considered for a moment. It was too early to panic, to call for a full search. Ley was an adult. He could easily have changed his mind after making the phone call to Venn’s mobile when there was no reply. If he was troubled, there were surely other people in whom he might confide. He took out his phone and dialled Lauren Miller’s number. It went straight to voicemail. He left a message.

‘This is Matthew Venn. If you pick this up, please could you call me back.’

He imagined the two of them, Lauren and Frank, friends from London days, sitting in a smart Appledore restaurant, eating a late lunch. Frank would be leaning forward, earnest, sharing his sadness at the loss of two people close to him. There were, after all, very few people close to him.

‘Can you check local taxi firms?’ he said to Jen. ‘See if anyone picked him up?’

‘Sure.’

He was walking away from Jen when his phone rang. It was Lauren Miller.

‘Inspector. I’m sorry I missed your call. How can I help you?’

‘I just wondered if you’d heard from Frank today?’

There was a silence at the end of the line. ‘Yes,’ she said. ‘Yes, I have.’

He was about to ask for more details when she continued talking. ‘If it’s not too inconvenient, perhaps you’d have time to come and see me. This isn’t an easy conversation to have on the phone.’

‘Of course. I could come now?’

‘Thank you.’ She was as calm and measured as when they’d met previously, but he heard relief in her voice. ‘That would be very kind.’

Chapter Thirty-Three

 

LAUREN WAS WAITING FOR HIM. She was wearing a cotton dress that reached to her ankles, and looked as cool as she’d sounded on the phone. Her feet were bare, long and brown. She made him fragrant tea in a china pot, poured it through a strainer and offered little sugary biscuits.

‘Thank you for coming,’ she said. ‘Mother’s out with a friend. We won’t be disturbed.’

‘You said you’d heard from Frank today? Did he come here to see you? He seems to have disappeared and I thought you might have an idea where he might be.’

‘No, he didn’t come here, though perhaps I should have suggested that we meet.’ There was a pause. She looked more uncomfortable than he’d seen her. ‘There were two phone calls. The first was in the early hours of this morning. I sleep very lightly and though my mobile was on silent, the vibration woke me. Frank was drunk. It was all very awkward.’

‘What happened?’

She looked up, her cup still in her hand, and gave a little smile. ‘I suppose it was a declaration of love.’ She shook her head as if the notion was ridiculous. ‘I told him this wasn’t a conversation that I needed in the middle of the night and I asked him, very politely, to call me back later in the morning when he’d had a few hours’ sleep and a couple of mugs of strong, black coffee.’

‘Did he take your advice?’

‘He did.’ She took a deep breath. ‘The call came at nine o’clock this morning. He was very apologetic for waking me the night before. Very sweet. He told me that he’d always admired me and that Nigel’s death had made him re-evaluate things. Perhaps it was time for him to be braver emotionally, to express himself more openly.’ She paused again. ‘He asked if we might become closer. If perhaps one day, I might consider being his wife.’

She looked up. ‘At least I didn’t laugh! It took a lot of control, but I managed to keep serious. But really! It sounded ridiculous, like something from a Regency romance.’

‘What did you say?’

‘I thought the kindest thing was to be clear. I told him I’d always value him as a friend, but that I could never consider him as a partner.’ She sipped her tea and replaced the cup on the saucer. ‘I told him about Nigel and me. I said that Nigel would always be the love of my life, and I couldn’t contemplate the possibility of anyone replacing him.’

‘How did he respond?’

‘He was very quiet,’ Lauren said. ‘Rather cold and formal. He apologized for disturbing me and he replaced the phone.’

Venn thought that explained Ley’s disappearance. He’d gone away somewhere to lick his wounds. He’d been fantasizing for so long about this woman that she’d become a part of his life. This would feel a little like another bereavement. Would it explain Ley’s phone call to him, though?

‘Would you mind if I ask some more questions, while I’m here?’

‘Of course. I’m happy to help in any way I can.’

‘Did Nigel discuss Alexander Mackenzie’s suicide with you?’

‘A little.’

‘We think he was interested in Mack’s membership of a chatroom that brought together people contemplating suicide. Do you know anything about that?’

Lauren didn’t respond immediately. ‘I overheard a conversation between him and the mother of another victim of suicide. His side of the conversation at least. Later, I asked him what it was about. He was reluctant to tell me — he was always very careful about confidentiality even where Patients Together was concerned — but I’d picked up most of it anyway.’

‘What did he tell you?’

‘That he’d discovered this group. They called themselves the Suicide Club. He said it wasn’t a group where people with severe depression could share their experiences and support each other. It was a place where people were actively encouraged to kill themselves.’

‘He was angry?’

‘Angry and sad.’ She looked at the huge seascape hanging on the wall and Venn thought she was losing herself in it again, remembering Nigel Yeo, the love she’d found in middle age. ‘Angry that the major providers refused to close the chatroom down, and sad that people were so desperate that they felt the need to use it.’ She looked up. ‘I’ve researched them since and found my way into one or two.’

‘What about the one used by Mack?’

‘Yes, I found that one. Its official name is Peace at Last, but there’s a tight group of a few individuals and a moderator within it. They call themselves the Suicide Club.’

Venn nodded. He already knew that much. ‘Did you get the name of the moderator.’

‘Only the name he or she uses online. They call themselves the Crow.’ She paused. ‘I didn’t have the expertise to track down the Crow’s real identity. You’d need a security expert for that, and even then, I’m not sure it would be possible.’

That would be forRoss’s friend Steve.

‘Did you pass all this information on to Nigel?’

‘Of course.’

‘Was that soon before he died?’

‘Not immediately before. Perhaps a couple of weeks.’

Venn wondered about that. If Yeo hadn’t only recently discovered the impact of the Suicide Club, what had made him so angry on the Friday afternoon before his body was discovered? Ratna had described his mood as changing dramatically in the course of the day. Still they had no idea of his movements that afternoon, except that he’d told Reed that it was a matter of life and death. Nothing quite made sense.

‘Had Nigel learned anything new about the Mackenzie case on the day that he died?’

‘I don’t know,’ she said. ‘I didn’t see him. He’d asked if I wanted to go to Cynthia’s party. He said he wanted to chat to her friend, the woman who’s a police officer. I told him I’d rather wait until we’d told Eve we were a couple.’ She looked up at Venn. ‘I think I explained all that when you were last here. In the end, Mother and I went out to dinner instead to a rather nice new restaurant in Appledore. I did have a text from him that Friday lunchtime, but there was nothing work-related. It was only catching up, just saying he was looking forward to seeing me over the weekend.’

‘We really need to track his movements that Friday afternoon. He had a meeting at the hospital in the morning and then another there at four thirty, but we don’t know where he was in between. Do you have any idea where he went?’

Lauren shook her head. ‘Sorry, I’m afraid I can’t help.’

‘Nigel had told Paul Reed, the Spennicott campaigner, that he’d go there that afternoon, but he called him to cancel. Do you know anything about that?’

‘Ah.’ She looked out of the window and into the garden. ‘Nigel got involved in the Spennicott old people’s home against his better judgement. In the end, he considered that the decision to close the Mount was justified, though he said Frank could have been less hasty and should have involved the residents earlier.’ She paused. ‘Nigel was sure he’d be able to negotiate a compromise, some sort of deal which would make everyone happy. He said that the writer, Paul Reed, was a poisonous little man, stirring up trouble out of spite. But really, I have no idea why Nigel cancelled the visit.’

‘Do you know why Mr Ley was in such a rush to convert the place?’ Matthew wasn’t quite sure how that could be relevant to the investigation, but Frank’s disappearance made him a potential suspect.

Lauren thought for a moment. ‘I think Frank saw Spennicott in the abstract, almost as a mathematical equation: the boutique hotel would benefit the community more than the old people’s home, so that was the route to take.’ She looked up. ‘He was looking at the greater good. If he’d actually visited the home and chatted to the residents, his perspective would probably have changed. He was passionate in his support for the campaign to get justice for Mack’s family because he’d known him. I think Frank just didn’t have the ability to make the imaginative leap, to put himself in the place of people he’d never met, like the care home residents.’

Venn nodded. There were people like that in the police service, people who understood the abstract better than the personal. He could well be one of them.

They sat in silence for a moment. The shadows thrown by the trees in her garden were already lengthening. It would be a little cooler there. Soon, he’d have to go back to Barnstaple to meet up with the team and to see if Ley had reappeared.

‘Have you heard that there’s been another death?’ he asked.

‘Yes. Wesley Curnow. I read about it earlier this week.’

‘Did you know him?’

‘I’d met him a couple of times, when Frank invited me to one of his Westacombe gatherings.’ She paused and looked up. ‘But really, I can’t think why anyone would want to kill him.’

‘What did Nigel make of him?’

‘Not very much. It wasn’t in Nigel’s nature to dislike people. He tried to understand them. But I think Wesley rather irritated him.’

‘Did Nigel try to understand the other staff at Patients Together?’

Lauren laughed out loud. ‘Perhaps not as hard as he should have done. But Steph and her cronies are very set in their ways. A lot of gossip goes on in that office, and not a lot of work. I think Nigel was frustrated because he thought the organization could achieve so much more.’ A pause. ‘And all the doctors I know have a confidence, a certainty that can make them appear arrogant.’

‘What will you do now? Will you continue working for them?’

‘I still have to decide,’ Lauren said. ‘I might even apply to take over as CEO. It’s Nigel’s legacy in a way. I’d hate it to slide back to the way it was, to become a self-satisfied talking shop again. I couldn’t remain in my present role with another boss. I’d find that impossible.’ She gave a little shake of her head.

‘I do have to ask,’ Matthew said, ‘because you knew both victims. What were you doing on Sunday afternoon, the afternoon Wesley died?’

‘Of course you do, Inspector.’ She gave the matter a moment’s thought. ‘Mother and I went to visit a National Trust garden near Torrington. She might not be able to see, but she loves a garden, the scents and the touch of the plants. We had afternoon tea in the cafe there and arrived home at about six o’clock.’

So, it would be impossible, Matthew thought, for Lauren Miller to have stabbed Wesley Curnow in the shed behind the Woodyard. He was pleased to have the confirmation, but he couldn’t imagine the calm, thoughtful woman sitting opposite him as a killer.

It was dark by the time Matthew arrived home. Driving back, he was thinking of his husband, picturing the peace of the house, hoping that the tension of the previous day had disappeared. He found Jonathan just where he’d imagined, sitting on the wooden bench outside the kitchen door, a glass in his hand. He would have heard Matthew’s car, and there was a glass of very cold, white wine waiting on the table beside him. The tide must be low, because there was no sound of water from the beach or the river. They sat without speaking, looking out at the stars.

 

NEXT: Chapters 34-36

 

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