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'The Heron's Cry' Chapters 34-36


spinner image illustration of a white-suited figure with a gloved hand holding an envelope addressed in script to Detective Inspector Matthew Venn, and a pair on legs lying below in the grass
Illustration by Stan Fellows

 

Chapter Thirty-Four

 

JONATHAN WOKE EARLY AND HAD BEEN for a swim before Matthew got up. It had become a ritual in these hot, heavy days, a quick run into the sea, a kickstart to the morning. It set him up for the meetings that filled much of his time at the Woodyard. Today, there was a gentle swell, and after ten minutes of vigorous crawl, he’d lain on his back, held up by the saltwater, looking at the sky until the cold had eased into his bones and sent him home.

Back at the house, Matthew had made coffee and seemed to be waiting for him.

‘I thought you might already be in town.’ Jonathan knew how much work, how much this particular murder, meant to his husband. He’d expected him already to be in Barnstaple, at his desk.

Matthew didn’t answer directly. ‘Are you busy this morning?’ So, Matthew didn’t want to talk about the investigation. He was shutting Jonathan out again. Jonathan tried not to care. ‘No, I thought I’d go in a bit late. I’m owed masses of time.’ ‘I wondered if you’d come back to Westacombe with me.

I’ve just phoned Jen and it seems Frank Ley still hasn’t turned up, and there’s been no sighting of him. We can’t justify a big team to look for him—he wasn’t a major suspect in either murder—but I’d like a proper search of the grounds around the house. It was dark before we could do it properly yesterday. You’d be on public ground. A volunteer. We sometimes ask volunteers to help in searches. It would be nothing official.’

‘Of course.’ Jonathan knew this was a big deal. A kind of peace offering.

‘He phoned me yesterday morning and sounded a bit low,’ Matthew said. ‘I’d hate it if he came back to a major fuss, uniformed officers doing a fingertip search, when all he needed was some time on his own.’

‘I understand.’

‘I didn’t answer his call,’ Matthew said. ‘Perhaps it was my fault that he went off on his own.’

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Dump the guilt, Jonathan wanted to say. Just dump the guilt.

***

Jen Rafferty was already there, waiting for them. Despite the heat, it was still early. The rest of the farm was quiet.

‘How far did you go yesterday?’ Matthew asked her. ‘We can carry on from there.’

‘Only as far as the wall. I didn’t want to trespass.’ She looked sheepish. ‘Besides, there might have been cows in the field.’

Jonathan couldn’t help teasing.

‘You’re scared of cows?’

‘I’m a city girl. Freaked out by any animal bigger than me.’

‘It’s common land,’ Matthew said. ‘There’s a public right of way and there were no cows when I was there last time.’ A pause. ‘But you go and check the garden properly. We’ll do the common and the wilder areas beyond the wall.’

They waited until she’d made a start before setting off.

‘I’ll take the path down to the Instow road. Can you check the fields on either side? You find anything, you just call me. You don’t touch anything.’

Jonathan nodded. He watched Matthew set off along the path through the garden before following. There was a hedge of lavender and the scent made him giddy, almost faint. In the wild flower meadow, he slowed his pace. The path through was clear, but the clover and buttercups had grown so high that they might hide evidence that Ley had been here. At the stile across the wall leading to the common, Jonathan paused. Standing on the wooden frame, he had a better view. He could see the roof of the Westacombe farmhouse behind him, the ribbon of road below him, and Matthew, straight and purposeful, marching towards it.

On the other side of the wall the grass was shorter. Perhaps animals—sheep or horses—were allowed in to graze, but no animals were here now. The gorse was a sunburst of colour, so bright that it hurt his eyes. Jonathan crossed the common horizontally to his left, following the line of the wall. Soon he came to a barbed wire fence, with a field of cows beyond. This land must be part of the farm. He retraced his steps to the right and came to a crumbling wall, much less well maintained than that separating Ley’s garden from the common. On the other side of it was a patch of deciduous woodland, shadowy and inviting.

With the geography of the common fixed in his head, he began a proper search, moving backwards and forwards over the grass, peering into gorse thickets. All the time, desperate to find something. Knowing it was ridiculous, childish, but wanting to prove to Matthew that he could be useful. It almost felt like some sort of weird treasure hunt, with Matthew’s approval as the reward.

In the end, the man was lying not far from the footpath, but he was hidden by one of the thickets of gorse. He was lying on his back, staring up to the sky, just as Jonathan had done earlier, when he was floating in the sea. He was about to feel for a pulse but remembered what Matthew had said. And this man had clearly been dead for a while. No need to touch him. Standing upright, he felt faint again for a moment, a little nauseous. It was the heat, the sound of bees on the blossom, the sweet honey smell of the gorse. He made a mental note of the position of the body and ran to find Matthew, shouting down the hill at him until he turned and began to walk back, knowing that nothing he could say to his husband would make him feel better about Francis Ley’s death.

***

They stood together at a distance from the body. Matthew had already been on the phone, calling his team, the pathologist, the crime scene manager. The police officer taking over.

‘No glass,’ Matthew said. ‘If it’s murder, it’s not the same MO.’ He was talking to himself. No intelligent answer was expected.

‘Do you want me to go?’ Jonathan didn’t want to cause Matthew embarrassment by being here.

‘Of course, if you’re busy, if you should be at work, but you’ll probably have to make a statement later.’

‘No,’ Jonathan said quickly. ‘No, there’s no rush.’

Matthew kept at a distance from the body, but he began to take photos on his phone of Frank Ley, the surrounding gorse thicket, and a wide shot of the common. He was entirely concentrated on his work.

‘He looks very peaceful,’ Jonathan said. He’d never been very good at silence.

‘Yes.’ Matthew turned to look at him as if he’d said something of deep significance. ‘You’re right.’

Jonathan was about to walk back to the house when Matthew’s phone rang. Matthew rolled his eyes as he answered, then put it on speaker phone and mouthed, ‘It’s the boss.’ Oldham’s words reverberated around the valley:

‘You told me you were close to making an arrest. And now we have another bloody body.’ The man seemed to pause for breath. ‘And not any bloody body. Some high-profile wanker. The press will be here in swarms. Wasps round a bloody jampot. Mosquitos round a f---ing open wound.’

Jonathan had met Oldham a couple of times and had taken an instant dislike. He pictured the man, tomato-faced, with as little self-control as a toddler in the middle of a temper tantrum, yelling into his phone.

Oldham was still shouting. ‘So, get on top of it, Venn! When I took you on—which was against my better judgement—they told me you were clever. So, prove it! I need a result.’

The last sentence came out as such a scream that Matthew held his mobile away from his ear. Jonathan heard the line go dead. He felt fury on Matthew’s behalf.

‘How can he speak to you like that?’ When you’re already feeling guilty about missing the call from the man.

Matthew shrugged and put his phone away. ‘He won’t be there forever.’

‘Good.’ Jonathan looked up and saw a white-suited figure heading towards them. ‘Good.’

‘Brian Branscombe,’ Matthew said. ‘The crime scene manager.’

‘What have we got?’ Branscombe was a local, his voice relaxed, easy.

‘Not sure yet. I’m not convinced this is murder. Can you have a quick look, check his pockets? See if there’s anything that tells us what’s happened here.’

Jonathan watched Branscombe bending over the body. He felt like a voyeur or that this was a piece of theatre. He thought again that he should go, that he was only in the way, but something held him at the scene. This was exciting. Distasteful but compulsive.

Branscombe reached into an inside pocket and pulled out an envelope. He held it up so Matthew could see what was on the front. ‘I think this is for you.’

In old-fashioned script and written with a fountain pen: Detective Inspector Matthew Venn.

‘And then there’s this.’ Branscombe held up a plastic medicine bottle. It was empty. He looked at the label. ‘Amitriptyline. Regularly prescribed antidepressants. And I think Sal Pengelly will confirm that taken in sufficient quantity, they can kill.’

***

They sat together in Jonathan’s car while Matthew opened the letter. Jonathan had offered again to go back alone to Barnstaple, to leave his husband to work in peace. He knew Matthew had always lived his life in compartments, and although his worlds had clashed big style in the previous investigation into the death of Simon Walden, his husband hated bringing together the personal and the professional. Asking Jonathan to help him look for Ley had been a gesture of reconciliation, a small step to allow their worlds to mix. Neither of them had expected the search to end like this: with a body and a letter from the dead man. Now Jonathan wanted to be here to offer support—he knew Matthew was obsessed by the fact that he hadn’t spoken to Ley the day before—but he hoped Matthew wouldn’t later regret the bending of rules.

Matthew slit the envelope carefully along the top and he pulled out a single sheet of heavy, high-quality paper. The letter had been written with the same pen and ink as the name on the envelope. Matthew held it with gloved hands and read it out loud.

‘Dear Inspector Venn, I must apologize for confusing your investigation with this act of suicide. I’d hoped to explain in person, but when I couldn’t get hold of you writing seemed more appropriate after all. Life isn’t worth living. My acts of generosity are no longer sufficient to make me less guilty and the people that I cared for and felt I could help—Mack, Nigel and Wesley— no longer need my support. I’m glad that I have the courage to find peace at last.’

Then there was a signature.

‘He doesn’t mention Lauren Miller,’ Jonathan said. ‘You said she’d rejected him. Wouldn’t that have been a trigger to his suicide?’

‘Of course. But he wouldn’t have wanted her to feel the guilt that had haunted him.’ Matthew was quiet for a moment and the next words were spoken almost in a whisper. ‘How will I tell her?’

Then he was out of the car, suddenly strong and decisive again. ‘You should go,’ he said. ‘Of course, you won’t discuss this with anyone. I need to make that phone call.’

Chapter Thirty-Five

 

EVE WAS WALKING FROM THE HOUSE to her workshop when Jen Rafferty appeared around the side of the farmhouse. Something about her face, and the way she was hurrying, made Eve certain that there was bad news. Another blow. After believing that life couldn’t get worse than this, she’d be battered again.

‘Can we go inside?’ Jen’s voice was breathless.

So, they were once again in the big ground-floor kitchen, sitting almost exactly as they’d been after her father’s death, and the whole episode came crashing back into Eve’s head. She was paddling in blood again, staring at the shard of glass, feeling the heat of the furnace.

‘What?’ she demanded. ‘What’s happened now?’

‘We’ve found Frank. I’m really sorry, but he’s dead.’

At least, Eve thought, Jen had come straight out with it. None of those awful euphemisms people had used when her mother had died. Passed on. Passed away. Passed. As if, her father had said dryly after the visit of a particularly gushing neighbour, Helen had been asked to give a urine sample. The image of her father came bright and sharp into her head and she had a brief moment of gratitude. She’d worried that she might lose a clear picture of him.

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‘Did a piece of my glass kill him?’ Eve thought she couldn’t bear that. The strange sense that she was somehow complicit. That the victims would still be alive if it weren’t for her work.

Jen shook her head. ‘We’re not entirely sure about the cause of death yet. We don’t think that it was murder.’ She paused. ‘When did you last see him?’

‘The night before last. At that peculiar party.’

‘You didn’t catch a glimpse of him yesterday? Not even in the distance?’

Eve tried to remember. These days, events seemed to run together and felt unimportant, irrelevant, overshadowed by memories of violence. She shook her head. ‘Where was he found?’

‘Near a gorse thicket on the common.’

‘I wouldn’t have seen him then. He’d have gone straight from his side of the house, through the garden, and I didn’t go anywhere near.’

‘Did you see anything unusual yesterday? Any strangers around the place?’

‘No,’ Eve said. ‘Nothing unusual happened at all.’ Except that my father and my neighbour have both died and nothing will be the same again.

There was a gentle knock on the kitchen door and Matthew Venn walked in. He came and sat opposite Eve. Jen Rafferty got to her feet and muttered something about making tea. She disappeared from Eve’s line of sight. Venn sat on the wooden chair across the table from her. Again, Eve braced herself for information she didn’t really want to hear.

‘I wanted you to know,’ Matthew said, ‘before the rumours start flying. We’re pretty sure that Frank killed himself. He took an overdose. He left a note.’

‘Why would he do that? He had all this. His work.’ Eve found it hard to imagine jovial Frank being so desperate.

‘He was depressed,’ Matthew said. ‘He told me himself he had a history of the illness. And then all the chaos and the violence here ... He found it hard to deal with all that on his own.’

‘He had us!’

‘Perhaps that wasn’t quite enough.’

In the background Eve could hear the kettle coming to the boil, the clink of mugs.

Matthew seemed to be reaching a decision to speak again. Eve thought there’d be more information about Frank Ley’s death, but the question was quite different.

‘Do you know someone called Lauren Miller?’

‘Yeah, she worked for my dad.’

Another silence. Again, Matthew seemed to be hesitating, uncertain whether to continue speaking.

‘I phoned her about Frank’s death. She knew him very well. They worked together in London. Frank introduced her to your father. She and your father were very close. She’s here and she’d like to talk to you.’

Eve struggled to understand what the detective was trying to say, then it became clear. A flash of understanding that explained her father’s recent moments of light-heartedness, how he’d started singing to himself again, his words when he’d offered to spend that last day working with her: Something rather wonderful has happened. I want to tell you all about it.

‘She and Dad were lovers!’

‘Will you see her?’ Matthew asked. ‘No pressure at all. She’ll quite understand if not.’

No! What does she think? That she can replace my mother? Or that she can possibly feel as deeply as I do about my father’s dying?

But then the old politeness and a new curiosity took over. Eve nodded her head and Matthew went off to call the woman in.

Chapter Thirty-Six

 

AFTER SHE’D FINISHED TALKING TO EVE, Jen made her way back to the Grieves’ cottage. The yard had already filled up with vehicles. She recognized Sally Pengelly’s car and waved to her. Sarah was standing at the cottage door, looking out.

‘What’s going on?’ She sounded anxious. ‘Is there a new lead? Do you know what happened to Nigel and Wesley?’

Jen shook her head but didn’t answer. ‘Where are the girls?’

‘At school.’ As if the answer was obvious. Jen thought she was losing all sense of time.

‘And your husband?’

‘He’s just come in.’

‘I need to talk to you both.’

A van full of uniformed officers drove through the gate, pulling Sarah’s gaze back to the yard, but she turned and went into the house. Jen followed.

John Grieve was standing at the sink, washing his hands. He was still in overalls and stockinged feet. The sink was under the window and he nodded outside. ‘What on earth’s happening out there?’ He turned away and took a towel from a hook behind the door. ‘It feels as if we’re under siege. How long do we have to carry on like this?’ There was an edge of aggression, even threat, under the voice, which made Jen wary. She recognized the danger signs.

‘For as long as it takes for us to catch a murderer.’ She wanted to add something sarky. Sorry for the inconvenience. But after all, these people’s lives had been turned upside down and two of their friends had died. Now she had to tell them that there’d been another death. But not yet. First, she needed some information.

‘Where were you all day yesterday, Mr Grieve?’ Jen kept her voice pleasant, polite.

‘Out working. The place doesn’t run itself.’

Jen sensed Sarah tense beside her. The woman was worried about the impression John was giving. Jen knew all the excuses. He’s tired. Stressed about the business. It’s a bad time. Jen had had to explain her husband’s moods to her friends for years. Before things had become really bad and he seldom let her out.

‘Where exactly? Honestly, I’m not being deliberately intrusive. I do have a good reason for asking.’

Grieve looked at his wife and then back at Jen. ‘I went for a drive,’ he said. ‘After milking. I needed to get away for a bit.’

‘You didn’t say.’ This was Sarah, trying not to overreact. She wouldn’t want to make a fuss in front of a stranger. Jen knew how that felt too.

‘I wanted to look at that farm we had our eye on. The one on the edge of the moor, beyond Spennicott.’ He paused. ‘I thought if Frank wants to create his grand model village there, he might support us, invest. We’d still be part of his empire, but at least we wouldn’t be right in his backyard.’

‘It would have been nice to know what you were doing.’ No apology now. No anxiety about embarrassing themselves in front of Jen. The words were sharp and fierce.

So, she could fight back when she needed to. She wasn’t as oppressed as Jen had been. Go, girl!

‘Yeah,’ he said. ‘Look, I’m sorry. I can’t explain how tough I’m finding this. All living on top of each other. No kind of space or privacy. And having the police marching all over the place, the press lurking in the lane, just makes things worse.’

Jen was tempted to ask if he was depressed, if he’d contemplated using a suicide chatroom, but she’d save that question for when she had Grieve on his own. ‘Did anyone see you this afternoon?’ she asked. ‘I mean, did an agent show you round the farm? Or the landowner?’

‘No.’ A pause. ‘I just wanted to get a sense of the place. Its potential.’

‘Do you know a writer called Paul Reed, who lives in Spennicott? He’s been running a publicity campaign against Mr Ley.’

‘I’ve never heard of him!’ Grieve was losing his cool now. ‘Why do you want to know? What’s going on? Why are all these people turning up in the yard?’

‘There’s been another death.’ Jen watched their faces, tried to gauge if the information was new to them, but they both stood staring at her, blank and impassive. Shock, she thought. Perhaps.

Sarah spoke first. ‘Who?’

‘Frank Ley. It seems he went missing yesterday and we found his body on the common beyond his house this morning.’

John spoke first. ‘I wonder what will happen to this place? To us?’

Jen had been wondering about that too. She’d considered it while she was talking to Eve, though she’d thought the glass blower would be okay. She’d inherit her father’s house in Barnstaple and wouldn’t be left homeless and without funds. And that might happen to this family. ‘I suppose it depends if Frank had a will and who he left all his land and his money to.’

But Sarah was in tears. ‘We shouldn’t be thinking of that now! We’re talking about Frank. I’ve known him since I was a baby. I loved him.’ She turned on her husband. ‘How can you be so selfish?’

‘Because we have two daughters and soon there’ll be another child to feed and clothe. And because we have no savings and no pension plan. I’m just worried that we won’t be able to hold all this together.’ He made a sweeping gesture to take in the clutter, the piles of children’s clothes, the toys in a plastic box in the corner. For the first time since they’d started talking, Jen felt sorry for him.

‘Did Frank have any other close relatives?’ she asked. ‘If not, I suppose at least the house and the farm will come to you.’

‘Really, I don’t think it will.’ Sarah blew her nose and wiped her eyes, with what looked to Jen like a tea towel. ‘Frank always said he didn’t believe in inherited wealth. It’ll probably have gone to one of his charities.’

‘Do you know if he made a will?’

 ‘No!’ Sarah said. ‘Of course not. It’s not the sort of conversation you have with a relative, especially a relative who’s your landlord.’

‘Did he have a solicitor?’

‘Yes.’ This was John Grieve. ‘He drew up a contract when we took over the management of the farm for Frank. It’s a chap called Mason based in Barnstaple.’

‘Thanks.’ Jen made a quick note. She couldn’t see how the disposal of Westacombe Farm could be relevant to Ley’s death. It would have been hugely significant if Francis Ley had been murdered and the first victim, but surely not now. She turned back to the couple. ‘Did either of you see Frank yesterday?’

‘I didn’t,’ Sarah said. ‘I haven’t seen him since his party the night before.’

‘John?’

‘He was up and about first thing yesterday morning, when I went out for milking. I walked the cows up the lane, but took the shortcut through Frank’s garden to get to the field. He was drinking coffee on his terrace. Still in his dressing gown. He looked a bit rough.’

‘Did he speak to you?’ Jen was thinking this was probably the last time Ley had been seen alive.

‘He waved. I don’t think he said anything. Nothing important anyway. “Lovely morning.” Something like that.’

‘Did you see anyone else?’

‘No.’

‘And later?’ Jen thought this was like getting blood from a stone. She wondered if Grieve was being deliberately obstructive or awkward. ‘You must have walked back past the farmhouse. Didn’t you see Frank then?’ ‘He wasn’t sitting on the terrace,’ John said.

‘He might have been in the house, but I didn’t see him.’ He paused. ‘And that was when I decided to take off, to head over to Spennicott and get a look at the farm there. I was planning what I’d say to Frank, thinking of the business plan I could put together. It would have made sense for him to invest. Real sense. We could have fed our meat into his shop, the pub and the hotel he was planning. Sarah would have had more space for her dairy. But we’d have had some independence. A proper place of our own, away from the coast and all the trippers. And now it’ll never happen.’ The anger and depression that had seemed to haunt him when Jen had first come into the house appeared to have returned.

‘You don’t know,’ Sarah said. ‘He might have left us something. Enough to buy the place on our own. You know how much he loved the girls. I can’t imagine he’d not have remembered them.’

‘We need more than an old painting or a bit of costume jewellery from his mother!’ Grieve turned and left the room.

The women were left staring at each other. ‘He’ll be upstairs on his computer for hours now,’ Sarah said. ‘It’s all that calms him down when he’s in one of his moods. I’d best get the girls down, so they don’t disturb him.’

‘Is he always as tense as this?’

There was a slight hesitation before she answered. ‘No. It’s such a stressful time, isn’t it? Three deaths connected to the place where we’re supposed to feel safe. He just wants to protect us.’

Jen wasn’t sure. She thought again that Sarah was so used to defending him, to herself and outsiders, that it had become a habit. The woman went on:

‘I feel it too. It’s as if we’re in some sort of siege, that there’s an enemy just outside, waiting to get us. You know that childhood nightmare, when you wake up, convinced that there’s a monster hiding in a cupboard or under the bed? The dream’s so scary because it’s like something evil has invaded your personal haven, the place you retreat to when you’re anxious or upset. Westacombe has always been my safe place, but in the past few days I’ve gone to bed scared. I get up in the night to check the kids are okay. And whenever I get up, I see that John’s awake too, lying there, watchful, listening for strange noises in the dark. I don’t think he’s had more than a couple of hours’ sleep since Nigel died. In the morning, we act as if everything’s normal. We get the kids off to school and we talk about work. But it’s not normal, is it? And it’ll never be normal again.’ She paused and looked dry-eyed at Jen. ‘John’s right. Whatever happens, we’ll have to move, even if it means shifting into town and doing something boring just to earn a living. At the moment boring seems bloody brilliant.’ She stood up. ‘I’m sorry, I need some air.’

Sarah opened the door and a beam of morning sunshine flooded the room with light. Jen wasn’t sure what to say now. She thought her own experience of an abusive marriage might be colouring her picture of this relationship. Earlier, she’d been planning words of reassurance and encouragement: You don’t have to stay with him if he’s being a shit. Get out while you can. Here’s my personal number. Give me a call and I can help.

Now, she thought things were more complicated than that, or very much simpler. As Sarah had said, the couple were living in the eye of a storm and all around them was tragedy and chaos. No wonder their nerves were frayed and John had wanted to leave for a while, to plan a future away from Westacombe. Which didn’t mean, of course, that Jen wouldn’t be searching out CCTV records for the roads leading towards Spennicott, to check that his story was true.

The women stood together for a moment just outside the cottage door.

 

NEXT: Chapters 37-39

 

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