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'The Heron's Cry' Chapters 37-39


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Chapter Thirty-Seven

 

ROSS FOUND THE WHOLE MACKENZIE FAMILY together in the Sandpiper. Venn had asked him to notify them of Frank Ley’s death:

‘They were friends and another suicide will hit them badly. It’ll bring back the details of their son’s death.’

By the time Ross got there, it was late afternoon and the cafe had been closed to the public. Inside, they were preparing for the evening’s event. Posters on the wall advertised a play, a performance of Waiting for Godot by a small Cornish touring company. Ross had heard of Beckett but knew nothing about him, except that he was obscure. He was put off by anything that reminded him of school. When he pushed open the door, he walked into darkness. There were heavy blinds on all the windows. A loud woman’s voice shouted at him from the gloom.

‘Sorry. We’re not open, not even for the bar.’

It wasn’t Janey. Someone older. A loud, confident, superior woman’s voice that rankled. Her mother, perhaps.

‘It’s DC Ross May. I need to talk to the Mackenzies.’

Just as his eyes got used to the shadow inside, a spotlight was turned on and blinded him. He wondered if that was deliberate and, again, he felt awkward.

‘Sorry.’ This time the apology did come from Janey. ‘We’re just getting ready for this evening’s play.’

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The house lights came on and he saw that the cafe was being transformed. They’d built a low stage at one end of the room and rows of chairs faced it. The counter which had served sandwiches and cream teas during the day was now set up to provide wine and cocktails. Ross thought Mel might like it here. He should bring her here one evening, though not to see a piece of theatre they would probably both struggle to understand.

Janey was wearing a black T-shirt, with a Sandpiper logo, and frayed jeans. Her parents were at the back of the room, working on the lighting. Ross recognized Martha Mackenzie because his mother was a fan of her TV soap. She shouted out to him again, the voice slightly too loud, slightly patronizing.

‘This is really not a good time, Constable. And we’ve told your colleague all that we know.’

‘I have some news.’ Then he repeated with more authority. ‘I need to talk to you.’

The older couple moved from the back of the room. Janey pulled three of the chairs into a semicircle and they sat, looking at him. Again, he felt a little daunted. Martha was wearing a silver tunic over wide black trousers. Her make-up was dark and dramatic — heavy black eyeliner and mascara, with dark red lipstick — but still she seemed to glow, to pull his eyes towards her. ‘Well?’ she demanded. ‘What do we need to know? Have you found the killer? Is that it?’

‘I’m afraid there’s been another death.’ It wasn’t how he’d planned to tell them. He’d put together some words driving from the farm. I know Mr Ley was a close friend and this will come as a shock.

‘Who?’ This was Janey. She seemed horrified by the news. In the strange theatrical lights, her face seemed very pale, her eyes wide and large. Like something from a cartoon. Not real at all. None of this seemed quite real.

‘Francis Ley.’

‘Not Frank!’ George Mackenzie’s response seemed the most genuine. ‘No.’

‘He was found on the common near to his garden this morning.’

‘How did he die?’ George demanded. ‘Was he stabbed like Nigel and Wesley?’

‘We won’t confirm cause of death until after the postmortem, but it seems that he committed suicide.’

There was complete silence.

‘He had everyone round for drinks the night before last,’ Janey said. ‘The Grieves and Eve, and us. A kind of commemoration of three lives lost. That was what he said.’ She paused. ‘But perhaps it was his way of saying goodbye.’

‘How did he seem?’

Now Martha did speak. ‘Bloody sad! As we all were. We were mourning three people close to us. And now, it seems, he was contemplating taking his own life too. And you ask how he was! Good God.’ She stood up, pushing back the chair so violently that it fell over. ‘I’m going outside for a fag, and to look out for those actors.’

She left and the room seemed very quiet. ‘Please forgive my wife,’ George said at last. ‘She’s very upset.’

Ross was thinking that this whole conversation could have come straight out of a play. Everyone’s response seemed stilted and unnatural.

George shifted in his seat. ‘Look, we should be getting ready for the evening’s performance. You don’t think we should cancel? We’ve got a full house.’

Ross thought for a moment. ‘No,’ he said. ‘No need for that.’

As he was leaving the bar, a battered minivan drew up outside and half a dozen people climbed out. Martha was there, greeting them, hugging them as if they were all old friends. Ross presumed they were the actors. As he walked away, he heard her loud voice carrying down the street. ‘Come along in. We’ve had a bit of sad news today, so we’re not quite as organized as usual. But of course, the show will go on.’ He thought she sounded desperate, as if she was trying too hard to convince the world that she was in control.

***

At the evening briefing they concentrated on the possibility that Ley had been a member of the Peace at Last forum.

‘We need your friend to come up with that information,’ Venn said. As if it was Ross’s fault that Steve hadn’t yet provided the goods.

‘Could Ley have been the killer?’ This was Jen. ‘His suicide wasn’t triggered by a very different kind of guilt?’

‘Superintendent Oldham has already suggested that theory.’ Venn’s voice was bland but they could all tell he didn’t think much of it. ‘It would be very neat, of course, but really, I don’t see it. What motive would Ley have for killing Nigel and Wesley?’ He looked up at them sharply. ‘And I refuse to blacken a dead man’s name without real cause.’

It was just the core group tonight. Venn had bought in pizza, and they’d pushed a couple of desks together and sat around pulling the slices apart with their fingers. No plates and no napkins, though the boss had found a roll of paper towel somewhere. If there’d been beer, it could have been a student party.

‘Could Ley have been provoked to kill himself?’ Jen asked. ‘If he was a member of the Suicide Club?’

‘It’s something to consider.’ Venn carefully wiped his hands. ‘I presume the Grieves will inherit his estate.’

‘According to Sarah Grieve, Ley didn’t believe in inherited wealth,’ Jen said. Her mouth was full of pizza. Not a good look. Mel would never speak with her mouth full. ‘She wasn’t very hopeful that their family would get anything. She thought it might all go to charity.’ A pause. ‘You might be interested to know that John Grieve claimed to be in Spennicott yesterday afternoon, boss.’

‘Very interested. A coincidence, do you think?’

‘He wasn’t visiting the old folks’ home. And he claimed he’d never heard of Paul Reed. He’s interested in taking over a farm on the edge of the moor there. He’d hoped Francis might invest in the venture, because he’d bought most of the village already.’

Ross could see Venn considering that. ‘So, if anything, that family might actually lose out by Francis’s dying?’

‘I suppose.’ Jen hesitated and Ross saw there was more to come. ‘John Grieve seemed very tense to me, jumping between anger and depression. Moody. Sarah says he spends a lot of time on the computer.’

‘You think he might belong to the Suicide Club?’

Jen shrugged. ‘It’s certainly worth checking out.’

‘I visited Lauren Miller yesterday,’ Matthew said. ‘It seems probable that her rejection of Ley was the trigger to his suicide.’ A pause. ‘She’d learned a little about the Suicide Club from Nigel. She’s technically competent and had found her way into the chatroom. Apparently, the moderator, the person who seems actively to be advocating suicide, calls themselves the Crow. Lauren couldn’t get beyond the nickname, though.’ He looked up at Ross. ‘Could your friend Steve do that? It’s really urgent that we have that information.’ Again, his voice was disapproving, as if Ross was the person causing the delay.

‘If anyone can, he’ll be the one to do it. I’ll call him as soon as we’re done here.’

‘How were the Mackenzies?’

‘I don’t know,’ Ross said. ‘They’re a weird kind of family. But maybe it was just shock. I couldn’t take to the mother, Martha. She seems like a real drama queen.’

‘Didn’t you say that Francis had invested in their business?’ Jen asked. ‘Could that be significant?’

‘According to George, it was a loan,’ Venn said, ‘not an investment and they paid it off after the first year. I’ll make an appointment with the solicitor in the morning. We’ll have more to go on then.’ He stood up. ‘Let’s get home at a decent time. It’ll be a busy day tomorrow. Jen, can you go and see Lucy Braddick, show her some photos of Wesley’s lady friends? Try to catch her at home rather than at the Woodyard. She’s moved into independent living and wanted to show it off. Ask if she remembers seeing any of them on Sunday afternoon. She thought Wesley might be waiting for someone, and she might have seen him with his killer. I promised to call in but I haven’t squeezed in the time.’ Venn paused. ‘Ross, I’ll leave the tech to you. Sit with your mate until we can get an answer. I don’t want anyone else to jump ahead of us in his queue. And I’ll see the solicitor to find out just how much of a fortune Francis Ley had left, where it’s going and who might have a financial motive for killing him.’

***

Out in the car park, Ross called Mel. She answered immediately:

‘Hiya, love. How’s it going?’ She sounded tired, but it was the old Mel. He’d been letting his imagination run away with him.

‘There’s been another killing,’ he said. ‘Another death at least. But we’re all done now.’

‘Okay then. See you soon.’

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And that was all it took. A few seconds’ conversation, and his heart was singing. It seemed to him that he could have been taking her for granted, that all they needed was some quality time together.

He phoned techie Steve, but there was no reply and he left a message. ‘I’ll be at yours tomorrow at eight. It’s urgent. I’ll bring breakfast.’ He set off for home.

Chapter Thirty-Eight

 

EVE ONLY REALIZED AS SHE ATE supper in her flat that she was alone in the big house. No Wesley and no Frank. Frank had never made any noise at all, but here in the attic the walls were thin and she’d often been aware of Wesley’s presence. His music. His women. The very occasional sound of a hoover. She imagined herself as a pea rattling around in a huge drum, surrounded by space. The Grieves were only across the yard in their cottage, but Eve didn’t want to see them.

She reran the conversation with Lauren. It had been strained and awkward at first. The two detectives had left them alone to talk. Lauren had sat, gripping a mug of tea that never reached her lips.

‘I loved your father very much.’ The first words spoken.

‘So did my mother.’ Eve’s words had been cruel and hard. They’d seemed to echo around the empty space like bullets.

‘I know. Really, I know.’

More silence. But before Lauren drove back to Appledore, they’d been crying together, and Eve had found comfort in the fact that there was someone to share her grief.

By the time Lauren left, all the police officers had drifted away and Eve had retreated upstairs. So much had happened in less than a week that her brain seemed overloaded, heavy. It was a physical sensation. She could feel the weight of her head on her shoulders, down her back and through to her feet. How could she carry so much without collapsing? She sat by the window and watched the sky become darker, richer, until it turned black. Despite the tiredness, she knew she wouldn’t sleep, and still she remained in the chair she’d picked up in a charity shop in Bideford, thinking of the people involved in her father’s life and her life, the living and the dead, and what could have strung them all together and brought them to this.

Her window faced east, away from the sea, and she was still sitting there at the first grey light of dawn. She might have dozed a little, but her mind hadn’t stopped racing. Snippets of remembered conversation were threaded to images: faces, places. A giant necklace of memories.

And then she thought she knew. It started as a suspicion as faint and insubstantial as the pearly light she could see from the window. A memory of the early morning before she’d found her father. Another approaching dawn. A sound filtered through sleep, forgotten in the shock of discovering his body. She got up and made tea, because tea was real and prosaic, and her ideas were fanciful. She needed to stay grounded. Through her window came the dawn chorus, at first a few stray notes, then the full choir of birdsong, impossibly loud. The noise sounded like a validation of her theories.

Now Eve wondered what she should do next. She couldn’t imagine talking to Matthew Venn, with his polished shoes and his perfectly ironed shirts. He’d expect facts and logic. She wasn’t even sure that Jen Rafferty, who was much more on her wavelength, would understand. Besides, how could she accuse someone of murder with no evidence at all after a strange wakeful night of dreams and fantasies? It could ruin a life. It occurred to her that Lauren Miller would listen to her theories, and would help her sort through them. She had a logical mind and a clear vision. But Eve was still confused about her relationship with the woman. To confide these midnight ramblings would imply an intimacy that Eve wasn’t quite ready for.

Then she thought of Jonathan Church. He was married to the police inspector and he was a friend. A real friend. She remembered him bringing her back to the flat the evening that Wesley had been killed, sitting on the floor and drinking wine with her. That was what she needed, someone she could confide in, who wasn’t official, who wouldn’t see every word as a formal statement.

She’d make another cup of tea and then she’d text him, ask if it was okay for her to call into the Woodyard for a chat. The idea of sitting in his office with the bustle of the art centre going on all around them, of the man himself, solid and square in his cotton T-shirt and his baggy khaki shorts, was reassuring. Jonathan had always reminded her a little of her father. It was his ability to listen, to take her anxieties seriously, but somehow to take them onto his own shoulders, to share them.

She made the tea and got out her phone. Jonathan must be up early too because he replied soon after. Of course. Busy all day, but what about coming over to the Woodyard for an early supper. Five thirty?

She wished she’d been able to see him earlier and felt a moment of impatience. Perhaps she should talk to somebody else? Then she thought that there wasn’t really any rush. She’d probably got the thing all wrong anyway, losing perspective after her sleepless night. It would be good to spend some time in the studio making glass. In the meantime, there might be a way to check if her night-time imaginings had any truth in them at all. To prove to herself and to others that she was still quite sane.

Chapter Thirty-Nine

 

MATTHEW AND JONATHAN ATE BREAKFAST together. Jonathan had already been outside for his daily swim. He’d come back exhilarated, his hair still wet, his sandy feet leaving marks on the kitchen floor. He squeezed fresh orange juice and made coffee, and by then Matthew was up too, amazed that his partner could have so much energy.

‘How’s it all going?’ Jonathan hadn’t asked the evening before and Matthew had been grateful for that. When he’d arrived home exhausted, he’d preferred to hear Jonathan chat about normal things: an art exhibition at the Woodyard, the touring theatre company bringing a new play, Maurice Braddick’s adaptation to life without Lucy, Bob’s new menu in the centre cafe.

‘It’s muddled,’ Matthew said now, drinking the last of the coffee. ‘Too much going on. Too many connections. Too many motives.’ He paused. ‘After the early briefing I’m meeting Ley’s lawyer. That might throw a bit of light.’

‘Eve texted.’ Jonathan was spreading homemade marmalade on thick, brown toast. ‘I’m meeting her for supper tonight in the Woodyard.’

‘What does she want?’

‘I guess a bit of support and a shoulder to cry on. She’s lost three people very close to her.’ Jonathan paused. ‘And even that’ll be light relief after the trustees’ finance meeting, which is happening for most of the rest of the day.’

Matthew smiled. The arts centre thrived under Jonathan’s care, but figures seemed too abstract a concept for him to grasp.

***

Ley’s solicitor had an office in Barnstaple, in an elegant terrace looking out over the River Taw. With its long windows and decorative shutters, it wouldn’t have looked out of place in a provincial French town. Matthew had walked from the briefing through the town centre and along the riverbank. Above the tideline the mud had been baked hard and edged white with dried salt.

The solicitor was waiting for him in reception. He had the easy manner of an old-fashioned country doctor, confident and competent. ‘We don’t open to the public until nine thirty, so there’s nobody in to man the front desk. Come along to my office.’

It was upstairs at the front of the building, one of the rooms with the shutters. The long window was open, letting in a little air and the sound of traffic below and exhaust fumes. Peter Mason, the solicitor, closed it and half pulled together the slatted shutters, so the light was filtered through the bars.

‘Poor Frank,’ he said. ‘He was more than a client. He was a friend. I’ll miss him.’ Mason looked up. ‘You said on the telephone that it was suicide?’

‘Yes, we’re waiting for the post-mortem results but we think it was an overdose of antidepressants. He’d been prescribed them during a previous bout of illness. Does that surprise you?’

‘It does rather. I think he might have considered suicide rather an indulgence.’

‘You’d known him for a long time?’

‘Since we were eleven. We were in school together.’ He paused. ‘He was an odd little scrap even then.’

‘In what way?’

‘He was fascinated by figures, patterns. Money, not for what it could buy, but for the way the market worked. He was the only teenager I’ve ever met who read the Financial Times. He didn’t go to university. He was bright enough but couldn’t see the point, joined a City trader and worked his way up. I was more conventional, and didn’t stray so far from home. I went off to Exeter to read law.’

Matthew decided to let him continue without interruption. He found the story of Ley’s youth fascinating. There was a gap in the conversation while Mason collected his thoughts and Matthew heard the gulls on the river against the background rumble of traffic below.

‘He was an only child, of course,’ Mason said, ‘and Westacombe seemed a bit old-fashioned even then. The family scraped a living from the land. He was very much a loner. Now, I think you might say Francis was somewhere on the autistic spectrum. He found social contact a bit tricky. He was happier with his numbers and couldn’t understand people who were less logical, more emotional in their response to the world around them. I was really his only friend at school, but he didn’t care.’

Matthew thought about that. It made sense and perhaps it explained Ley’s decision to close the Mount. It was rational, inevitable, and he hadn’t quite seen how it would have a personal impact on the residents.

‘You kept in touch as adults?’

‘We weren’t close when he was working in London, but we’d meet up when I was back during university holidays, and he was home to visit his mother.’ Mason smiled. ‘Perhaps we were both misfits. I was a bit of a geek too. We shared a love of cricket, so we had that in common. Then when we both moved back to North Devon, and he asked me to look after his legal affairs, we saw more of each other.’

‘Did he ever have a partner?’

‘There were women that he fancied, lusted after at a distance, but he didn’t have the confidence or the skills to approach them, to get close to them. I’m not sure that he ever had a proper relationship.’ Mason paused. ‘There was one woman he’d worked with. She was married to someone else but recently the marriage broke up and she turned up here in North Devon. I think Frank hoped something might come of it.’

Matthew felt a fresh stab of sympathy for Frank. How galling it must have been! He’d worshipped Lauren from afar for years, invited her for a meal in his home and she’d fallen for Nigel Yeo, one of his other guests. And then, when Frank had shared his true feelings, she’d rejected him.

‘Had you seen Mr Ley recently?’

‘We met up for dinner about a month ago.’ Mason paused. ‘It was a regular arrangement. Frank was a very generous man. He always took me to his favourite restaurant. It was a treat and I looked forward to it.’

‘How did he seem? His usual self? Not particularly low or depressed?’

The solicitor shrugged. ‘No. I don’t think so.’

‘Had Mr Ley made a will?’

‘He had.’ Mason went to a filing cabinet and pulled out a manila envelope. ‘I’m his executor as well as his lawyer.’

‘If he hadn’t made the will,’ Matthew said, ‘everything would be left to his next of kin?’

‘Yes, a woman called Sarah Grieve, who was the granddaughter of his mother’s sister. There was no other close living relative.’ Barton pulled the will from the envelope. ‘Would you like me to explain the major points, then I can give you a copy to take away?’

‘Please.’

‘You have to know, Inspector, that while Frank was still a wealthy man, he’d been a philanthropist since making his fortune, and much of his money had already been given away. However, of course, he still did have considerable assets.’

Now Matthew was tempted to hurry him along, but after all, Mason had already given useful information and he might still have more to pass on. Best to let him give the details in his own way and at his own speed.

‘Westacombe Farm, the house and all its land, was bequeathed to Sarah Grieve and, in the event of her death, to her heirs.’

‘Ah,’ Matthew said. He thought the Grieves should be pleased, relieved. ‘Francis had told them that he didn’t believe in inherited wealth and they were anxious about their future.’

‘There is a stipulation,’ Barton went on. ‘The land should not be sold for commercial development and the family should live in the house and continue to farm traditionally.’ He looked up from the desk. ‘He’d grown up there and had been very fond of his mother, who died there. He had an uncharacteristically emotional attachment to the place and was concerned that its character shouldn’t change.’

Matthew wondered what John Grieve would make of that. The man had clearly wanted a fresh start away from Westacombe, but perhaps being allowed to farm independently, without an onsite landlord, would be enough for him.

Barton was continuing. ‘The freehold of the studios and workshops created from farmyard outbuildings have been left to Wesley Curnow and Eve Yeo respectively, along with twenty thousand pounds each to support their businesses.’ He looked up. ‘Of course, that’s no longer relevant now that Mr Curnow’s dead, and that workshop will revert to the rest of the farm estate.’

‘Is there any specific mention of the Spennicott project and the properties Francis owned there?’ Matthew remembered his visit to the old folks’ home and wondered if there would be any reprieve for the residents.

‘Indeed, yes. That’s one of the more complex and unorthodox stipulations, added relatively recently. Frank left the cottages, public house, shop and the Mount, currently in operation as a care home for the elderly, to a community trust of villagers and stakeholders, yet to be formed.’ Mason gave a grimace. ‘My firm was charged with setting that up. I must say, I’d rather hoped that Frank would outlive me, or that I would have retired before that became necessary. I’m not looking forward to the inevitable endless wrangles and the committee meetings running into the night.’

Matthew smiled in sympathy. ‘And the rest of his investments and savings?’

‘A quarter of a million to the Spennicott Trust, seed money to see it through its set-up. After that it would be expected to live off the rents and profits of the various businesses. Any excess to be invested for the good of the village.’

‘I suppose that makes sense.’

‘Another two hundred and fifty thousand goes to the organization Patients Together.’ Mason looked at the paper on the desk in front of him and read the exact words. ‘To allow this valuable organization to continue to hold the North Devon health trust to account.’

‘So, another of the inheritors is no longer alive to benefit,’ Venn said. ‘Nigel Yeo, who ran it, was our first victim.’ He wondered what Roger Prior would have made of the bequest and the wording.

‘Oh, that sum didn’t go to any individual, but to the organization. The money will still go to Patients Together.’

‘Had he told any of the beneficiaries that they were mentioned in his will?’ Venn remembered his last conversation with Lauren. She’d told him that she was considering applying to run the NDPT. He wondered if the information that she wouldn’t have to scratch around for funding, at least in the short term, could have influenced her decision. He thought it unlikely.

‘That I don’t know.’

‘Were you involved in Mr Ley’s investment in a family business in Instow, the Sandpiper, owned by the Mackenzie family?’

‘Not personally,’ Mason said. ‘Not my area of expertise. But one of my partners drew up the contract.’

‘As I understand it, the money was an interest-free loan rather than a formal investment and it has already been repaid. Could you confirm that?’

‘I’d need to check with my colleague, but it’s the sort of arrangement Frank might have made.’ ‘Very generous.’

‘As I said before, Inspector, Frank was a very generous man.’

Mason put the will back into its envelope. ‘The remainder of his wealth will go to a number of national and international charities, but I don’t think there’s anything else relating to your inquiries.’

‘When will you inform the people who’ll benefit from Mr Ley’s will of their good fortune?’

‘Letters will go out today to the individuals and organizations involved. Of course, probate will take a while and they won’t receive the money for some time. But it’s important that the Grieves continue to manage Westacombe, and they’re more likely to do that if they know they have a stake in the place.’

Venn nodded and got to his feet. Mason walked down the stairs with him to show him out, and shook his hand at the door. Outside, the air felt a little different. The sky was still clear but it was humid and sultry, as if soon the heatwave would break, as if they were on the brink of a thunderstorm.

 

NEXT: Chapters 40-42

 

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