JEN STAYED AT HOME LONG ENOUGH to have breakfast with the kids. Since Nigel Yeo’s murder they’d all been working ridiculous hours and no way would the overtime budget stretch to cover it all. She was due a bit of time off, and it felt as if she’d hardly seen them for days.
Ella was up, showered and dressed without any prompting, but Ben was still in bed when Jen had everything on the table. She knocked at the door of his room and went in. It was a small room, always dark. He never drew the curtains. It smelled of teenage boy, unwashed sheets and stale pizza. On the desk next to the bed, his computer seemed more alive than her son. Something was flashing. He’d probably been on it for most of the night. Some game with his friends. Killing people for fun. Or checking out unsavoury chatrooms? She was tempted to look, but he woke, looked at her, grunted.
‘You’ll be late for school.’ She couldn’t bring herself to be cross. He looked very young, half asleep. ‘Breakfast is on the table.’
When they were both on their way to school, Jen made herself more coffee, then followed Matthew’s suggestion and arranged to meet Lucy Braddick in her new flat in River Bank, a small complex of apartments for learning-disabled adults. She phoned Lucy’s dad, Maurice, to find out when would be a good time to visit.
‘Well, really,’ he said, ‘you should be phoning our Luce. The social workers say that I should be letting her make those sorts of decisions. She should be speaking for herself.’ His voice was slow, his accent as rich and broad as his daughter’s.
‘I don’t have her phone number, though.’ Jen left a pause. ‘I was hoping you might be there, Maurice. She’ll be a bit more confident with you around, and I don’t always understand her speech so well.’
‘She’s not on shift at the Woodyard until this afternoon,’ Maurice replied. ‘I suppose I could phone her and ask her to stay in this morning, warn her that we’ll be calling by.’ Jen could tell that he was delighted to have an excuse to visit his daughter. ‘I was planning to come into Barnstaple to do a bit of shopping anyway.’
While she was waiting until it was time to visit Lucy, Jen pulled together images of the women Wesley Curnow had known. She was reminded of the Simon Walden investigation, another occasion when she’d shown photographs to a woman with Down syndrome, but then Lucy had been a potential victim, not a witness. Jen found pictures of Martha and Janey Mackenzie; they’d appeared in the local newspaper at the time of Mack’s death. Both women were wearing black and looked gaunt. Even Martha was looking away from the camera, not playing up to the crowd. George was there too, and the article used his words, as he’d railed against the system that had let his son down. Cynthia was easy to find. Jen chose an image of her friend wearing a vivid red and pink silk dress. She looked at it for a moment and experienced something akin to grief because the friendship they shared was slipping away. It felt like a kind of bereavement.
Lucy lived in a three-storey block of new flats built on land which had once been owned by the timber factory. The building itself had been transformed into the Woodyard Centre, but the land had been released for development and the independent living apartments were part of the site. They stood next to a small estate of family social housing and looked out over a children’s playground. Jen used the Woodyard car park and walked past the centre to reach Lucy’s place. Just as she was passing the Woodyard entrance, she saw Cynthia approaching from inside. She was carrying a rolled-up yoga mat. It would be impossible to avoid bumping into her.
‘How’s it going?’ Jen thought no f---ing way was Lady Cynth just going to march past with her nose in the air as if they didn’t know each other, as if they hadn’t once been best mates.
Cynthia stopped and shrugged. ‘Pretty dreadful.’ It sounded like an admission of failure. This wasn’t the old Cynthia of high energy and endless optimism. ‘Roger hardly speaks. He’s working twelve-hour days and when he’s home he locks himself in the office. He seems to be awake most of the night.’ She looked straight at Jen. ‘I’m worried about him. Even when things were really bad in London, he wasn’t this low.’
‘You think he’s depressed? I mean, clinically depressed?’
‘Yeah, I do.’ Cynthia was on the verge of tears. ‘I’ve said he should go to a doctor, but he tells me to leave him alone. There’s this anger. I mean, if he was just sitting in a corner weeping, I could handle it, but there’s a terrible rage. Against the world and me. For some reason he blames me for all that’s happening to him.’ A pause. ‘We were never soulmates, you know. We never lived in each other’s pockets. But in a way, that was why it worked. We were so different that we learned from each other, there was something new to discuss when we did come together. But now? I feel as if I’ve lost him.’
Jen thought this was one of the unconsidered effects of two murders; stress and suspicion were causing individuals, relationships and even communities to fall apart. She looked at her watch. She should be chatting to Lucy. ‘Will you be around all morning? I’ll call in, shall I? You can make me one of your spectacular coffees.’
A moment of silence. Jen thought that if the offer was rejected, the friendship would be over for good. No way back. But Cynthia smiled. ‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘I’d really like that.’
Maurice was already in the flat when Jen got there, but it was Lucy who let Jen in, proud as punch. She held her arms wide. ‘Welcome.’
The place gave out the vibe of a student hall of residence, but Lucy had her own living space—a sitting room with a kitchen at one end—as well as the bedroom and a shower room. She insisted on showing Jen round, before putting the kettle on and carefully spooning instant coffee into three mugs.
‘There’s a care worker onsite,’ Maurice said, ‘but Luce manages everything, don’t you, maid?’
‘Yep.’ She beamed.
‘We need your help again,’ Jen said, ‘but there’s no danger this time. Honest.’ The last statement was aimed at Maurice, not Lucy. ‘I just need you to look at a few pictures. Let me know if you saw any of these women on Sunday after Wesley had been in the cafe. If you finished work soon after, you might have noticed someone while you were walking home.’
‘Sure,’ Lucy said.
Jen thought she was proud to be asked and desperate to help. She worried that Lucy would try too hard, would convince herself that she recognized one of the faces just to please. ‘It’s not a test, Luce. It’s just as important you tell me if you don’t see anyone you know. Just as useful.’
But in the end, when Lucy just stared blankly at the pictures, even at someone like Cynthia, who was a regular in the cafe, they all had a sense of disappointment.
‘I just don’t remember seeing anyone,’ she said. ‘When I left work, a bus came in to the stop in front of the Woodyard and people got off. I knew two of my friends from River Bank had gone to Bideford to see their families and I was looking out for them. They’d texted to say they were on their way home. I thought I could walk back to the flat with them. I saw them get off the bus and I waited for them to join me. There was a car coming in and for a minute they couldn’t see me, even though I was waving. The car blocked their view.’ She paused for a moment. ‘That’s a bit weird, isn’t it? Because the centre was closing, so why would anyone come in?’
‘What sort of car, Lucy?’ Jen tried to keep any sense of urgency from her voice.
‘I don’t know anything about cars.’ Now she was starting to sound anxious and upset. Jen could tell that Maurice was about to call a halt to the whole conversation. He fidgeted in his seat and wiped his forehead with a large, white handkerchief.
‘Oh, nor do I.’ Jen jumped in before he could speak. ‘Nothing at all. But you might remember a colour.’
‘Yes!’ Lucy was triumphant. ‘It was black! A big, black car.’
‘I don’t suppose you could tell if it was being driven by a man or a woman?’
Lucy shook her head. ‘I didn’t see. I was looking out for my mates getting off the bus, and then we were chatting.’ Jen left Maurice and Lucy sitting together and drinking more coffee. She was thinking that the father needed the company far more than the daughter did.
Jen went through the garden gate and round to the back of Cynthia’s house, so she didn’t have to go into the house past Roger’s office. Even if Cynthia wasn’t outside, she’d be in the kitchen, and Jen could knock on the back door. In the end, Cynthia was in the garden, in the chair where they’d had their last conversation. There was a bottle of Pinot Gris in an ice bucket and she’d already poured herself a glass. No chance of a fancy coffee, then. ‘You’re starting a bit early.’ Jen took a seat beside her. She thought this was like being in an entirely different country or continent. The rainforest or some maharaja’s garden in India. She’d never been to either, but despite the drought, there was something exotic about the bright colours and the lush vegetation. ‘It’s lunchtime,’ Cynthia said. ‘It’s civilized to have a small glass with lunch.’ On the table, there was a tray of cheese and cold meat, salad, French bread, a bowl of grapes and strawberries. Two plates, two knives and another glass. ‘You will join me?’
‘Are you joking? Of course! I’m starving!’
Cynthia pushed across a plate and a knife, then poured Jen a glass of wine. She seemed more composed than when she’d bumped into Jen outside the Woodyard, more in control. She’d prepared herself for the encounter.
‘I shouldn’t have the wine. You know the boss. A stickler.’ But Jen took a sip all the same. This was more important than Venn’s rules. ‘What do you think’s going on with Roger?’ She pulled a piece of bread from the loaf and cut a slice of oozing brie, gave all her attention to the taste. Re-establishing a friendship was important, of course. But so was eating when you were given a chance in the middle of an investigation.
‘Well, I don’t think he killed Nigel Yeo and the others.’ Cynthia was prickly again. The tension made her voice shrill.
‘I’m here as a mate,’ Jen said. ‘Not a cop.’
‘You’re always a cop.’
There was no real answer to that and it was Cynthia who spoke next. ‘He’s so stressed. I’m worried about what he might do. I know he would never harm other people. He’s given his life to the NHS, to saving lives. He might not be a medic, but he’s supported them, fought for them. Battled with the government for more resources. More staff. It was that passion that made me fall for him.’
‘Do you think he might be so depressed that he’d consider taking his own life? Is that what you’re saying?’
There was a moment of silence broken by the raucous call of a magpie.
‘Yes,’ Cynthia said. ‘You know, really, I think that he might.’
‘Do you know what he’s doing when he’s spending all that time in the house in his office?’
‘What do you mean?’ Cynthia had drunk her wine. She poured herself another glass.
‘We’ve been investigating Mack Mackenzie’s browsing history. He was a member of a chatroom called Peace at Last. It’s a support group for people considering suicide. Within that, there’s a core group who call themselves the Suicide Club. That seems to be made up of more desperate members. We’re worried that one or more of those people are actively encouraging or provoking people to kill themselves.’
‘You think Roger might be a member?’ Now soundless tears were running down Cynthia’s face. ‘That he could be considering suicide?’
‘I’m worried that it might be possible. He was in touch with the professionals treating Luke Wallace, as well as those looking after Mack. We know that both young men were members of the group.’
‘And they both killed themselves.’
‘Yes, they both killed themselves. And Roger might have had access to enough information from the medics treating them to find the site.’ Jen paused. ‘It could have started off as professional interest, a way of proving that something other than healthcare negligence had contributed to the suicides.’
‘I don’t know what to do.’ The tears were still streaming down Cynthia’s face. She’d turned from a confident, competent woman into a child desperate for reassurance, looking for someone to make decisions for her.
‘Do you have the passcode for his computer? We could get in and look.’ And I could find out whether or not he calls himself the Crow.
‘No!’ Cynthia said. ‘The office is his personal space. I never go in when he’s not here.’
Jen was forming an argument in her head. If you’re anxious about his safety, don’t you think that’s more important than intruding on his personal space? But she didn’t have time to speak, because the phone in her pocket buzzed. A text from Matthew Venn, asking her whereabouts and requesting that she come back to the station as soon as possible.
‘I’ve got to go,’ she said. ‘Work. Sorry.’
Cynthia stood up. ‘Of course. It always is work, isn’t it? There’s no escape for you.’ The words sounded like an accusation. She was still crying. It was as if all the liquid in her body was leaking through her eyes, as if she might drown in it.
Jen took the woman into her arms and squeezed her tight. For a moment, Cynthia relaxed enough to allow herself to be hugged.
‘See if you can keep Roger away from the office when he comes in tonight,’ Jen said. ‘If he’s found that website, I can see it could become a kind of obsession. An addiction. It’s probably as compulsive, as exciting, as it gets: watching someone deciding if they’re going to live or die. Then deciding yourself if it’s your turn next.’ Or if you can persuade them to take the final step.
Cynthia nodded, but Jen could tell she wouldn’t stand up to her husband and she wouldn’t ask him about the website or his mood. The couple had got into the habit of leading separate lives and had forgotten how to talk about anything important.
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.
TECHIE STEVE HAD A FLAT ABOVE a florist’s shop in a lane just off Boutport Street. The smell of the blooms soaking in the buckets outside hit Ross as he waited to be let in. Next door there was a rowdy pub and even this early in the day there were a few people in the beer garden. Ross couldn’t think why Steve was still living here; the noise late into the evening would have driven him crazy, especially in this weather when everyone wanted to be outside. Steve didn’t seem to be bothered by it, perhaps because the flat was long and thin and the rooms got darker and quieter the further in from the street it went. As Ross remembered, it was like moving to the back of a cave.
At the top of the steps that led up from the nondescript door off the pavement, there was a kitchen littered with pizza boxes and foil containers from takeaway restaurants. Empty beer cans. A smell that would set alarm bells ringing with environmental health. This is where Steve was waiting after Ross had pressed the buzzer and climbed into the gloom. The cyber expert was wearing a filthy fleece dressing gown. Nothing else as far as Ross could tell. He stood, blinking.
‘F---, man, what do you want? This feels like the middle of the night.’
‘It’s mid-morning and this is urgent. Where have you got with tracing the Suicide Club members?’
‘Something else came in,’ Steve muttered, still half asleep. ‘Something well paid.’
‘Well, this is a matter of life and death.’ Ross looked at him with something close to disgust. How could someone who was so bright—and so minted—live like this? ‘And you promised you’d stay on it.’
‘I was up all night on the other case.’ Steve turned away. ‘That was urgent too. I need some sleep.’
‘Get in the shower and put some clothes on. I’ve been told to stay with you until we have an answer. So, if you want any kind of life, you’d better get one for me.’ A pause. ‘And we’ll pay your going rate for a quick turnaround.’
Ross wasn’t sure how he’d be able to honour that promise, but it seemed to have the required effect. Steve disappeared down the corridor and Ross heard the sound of the hot water boiler firing up for the shower. He couldn’t bear waiting in the chaos all around him—it made his skin crawl—and he found a black bin bag, began to fill it with the fast-food containers and banana peel. There was a small dishwasher and he stacked that too. By the time Steve returned, dressed in jeans and a black polo shirt, the worktops had been wiped down. He seemed not to notice any change in the kitchen and didn’t thank Ross for his efforts. He went to the fridge and took out a can of Coke, offered one to Ross, who, in the absence of tea or coffee, took it.
‘Okay then, let’s get working.’ Steve had always relished a challenge. His focus had shifted back to the Suicide Club and away from his other, possibly more lucrative, project. He seemed almost pleased that Ross was there, pushing him to action.
The corridor led past a living room. Ross had spent boys’ evenings of beer and footie on the telly there on previous visits. It went on past a bathroom, and a closed door, which must lead into Steve’s bedroom. This was the furthest Ross had ever been in the flat, but Steve walked on and into a room right at the end of the corridor. Inside, there was a dense darkness. No windows and no external sound. Ross thought someone could go in there and disappear forever. Steve probably did go in there and disappear for days. Steve switched on a lamp that provided a pool of light on a desk and shone on more tech than Ross had thought could possibly be contained in one room. Unlike the kitchen, it was clinically clean. There was no dust on the keyboards, no smears on the screens. There was only one chair, a grand leather affair, and Steve sat there, looking, Ross thought, like the captain of the Starship Enterprise. They shared an affection for clunky science fiction and Ross suspected that the impression was deliberate. There was nowhere for him to sit and he leaned against the wall.
‘An officer for Patients Together got into the Suicide Club and discovered that the moderator had a user name of the Crow,’ Ross said. ‘What we really need is his real name and contact details. The woman couldn’t get those for us.’
‘Well, an amateur wouldn’t know where to start.’ A pause. ‘Surprised she got that far.’ He turned to face Ross. ‘Look, I’m on it. Why don’t you piss off and come back in a couple of hours? I can’t concentrate with you looking over my shoulder.’
Ross looked at his watch. It was already nearly lunchtime. ‘An hour.’
Steve was focused on the screen and seemed not to hear. ‘Take a key. It’s hanging on a hook in the kitchen. This is soundproofed and I won’t hear you ringing.’
Ross decided to go home for lunch. On impulse, he bought roses for Mel from the flower shop before leaving the street. They were pink like the ones she’d had in her wedding bouquet. He wasn’t given to romantic impulses, but he felt the need to express his feelings for her. He thought again that he’d taken her for granted recently. Perhaps that lay at the root of this strange intermittent tension between them. He didn’t dig into the real fear: that she’d found someone else who was giving her more attention, who appreciated her more. When he got to the house, it seemed unnaturally quiet. He switched on local radio, put the flowers in a vase and made himself a sandwich.
That was when he saw that Mel had left her work diary at home. It sat on the worktop, tempting him. He knew he shouldn’t look, but it was work, wasn’t it? Not private. This wasn’t him stalking or being controlling. He’d gone on a course about coercive control before Christmas and then a case earlier in the year had brought the reality home to him. Before that, he’d been inclined to dismiss the new law as an overreaction. He’d understood that physical abuse was evil and hated the pathetic men who beat up women, but weren’t women who allowed themselves to be told what to wear and who to see to blame too? After being involved in the case where extreme coercive control had led to violence, to murder, he’d seen how wrong he’d been. All the same . . . This wasn’t real controlling behaviour, was it? It was taking an interest. He stood, staring at the diary.
He was about to reach out and pick it up when the door opened and Mel came in. She looked flushed and flustered, surprised to see him.
‘I wasn’t expecting you to be here.’
‘I bought you flowers,’ he said.
‘Oh!’ It wasn’t the response he’d been expecting or hoping for. It was surprise, not pleasure. And there was a kind of guilt in there somewhere, as if she thought she didn’t quite deserve the gesture. She must have realized that more was expected, because she smiled and touched his shoulder. ‘That’s lovely. Really lovely.’
‘I’ve just made a sandwich. Can I get you one?’
‘No,’ she said. ‘I’ll grab something at work. I must have left my diary behind and I can’t function without it.’
He wasn’t sure if she’d seen him about to reach out for it, feeling guilty that he’d even contemplated reading it. ‘It’s there on the bench. I just noticed it.’
‘Oh yeah.’ She gave him a little peck on the lips and grabbed the book. At the door, she turned back. ‘Thanks for the roses,’ she said. ‘They’re beautiful.’ A pause. ‘There’s something I need to tell you.’
‘What is it?’ He felt suddenly terrified. All that he’d known, taken for granted, seemed to be sliding away from him.
‘Nothing dreadful,’ she said. ‘Honestly. I have to get back to work, but you will be in?’
‘Yeah,’ he said. Because he couldn’t shout at her, could he? He couldn’t force her to talk to him now. ‘See you tonight.’
‘Yeah, see you then.’ She gave a little wave and hurried away. Her scent lingered for a moment in the room and then that disappeared too.
He let himself back into Steve’s flat, glad to focus on work again. The kitchen was as he’d left it. He took a can of Coke from the fridge and carried it through to Steve’s office. The man didn’t seem to hear him come in. He was leaning forwards, his nose almost touching the screen, muttering to himself:
‘Steven Barton, you can bloody do this.’
Ross put the Coke on the desk in front of him.
‘He’s clever. I’ve got details of the Suicide Club’s membership, but not of the Crow himself. That’ll take a bit longer.’
‘Oh.’ Ross was disappointed. He’d imagined himself standing in front of the room at the evening briefing, the killer already in custody, taking the glory.
Steve looked briefly away from the screen. ‘Look. I’ll get there. I’m on it.’
And Ross saw that Steve was totally involved in getting a result now. This was a challenge and there was nothing the man liked better. He wouldn’t eat or sleep until he’d identified the leader of the group.
‘You’ll give me a ring as soon as you’ve got it?’
‘Yeah, sure.’ His eyes still fixed on the screen, he slid a sheet of paper across the desk to Ross. ‘I printed out the members’ details for you.’
Ross looked at the list. There were twelve names there. He recognized one of them.
‘I’ve got to go.’
‘Oh, all right.’ Steve was lost in his digital world again. ‘Pull the door to on your way out.’
Ross was the last of the group to arrive in the ops room. Even Vicki Robb was there before him, with a ballpoint in her hand ready to take notes.
They all stared at him. They could tell that he had something important to share.
‘Steve hasn’t got the identity of the Crow yet.’ It was best to limit expectations. ‘He should have it by the end of the day. But he did find a membership list for the Suicide Club and one of the people involved in the case is there.’
Ross paused for effect then saw that Venn was irritated by the delay.
There was a moment of silence. ‘So, the words of his suicide letter weren’t coincidental,’ Venn said. ‘He must have been considering the act for some time if he was a member of the inner circle.’ A pause. ‘Perhaps Mack passed on his contact details to the moderator. We know they were close.’
‘Could Frank have been provoked by the Crow?’ Jen asked. ‘As we suspect Mack was provoked?’
‘Perhaps.’ Venn seemed lost in thought. It was as if he’d known the dead man well. Ross thought he should be more detached. Joe Oldham always said it was wrong to get too emotionally involved with a case, and Ross agreed.
Jen stuck up her hand. ‘I know it’s a bit left field, but do you think John Grieve could be the Crow? He spends a lot of time on his computer and he seems very stressed, very low. He knew both suicide victims and could have lured them into the site.’ A beat. ‘He could be our killer.’
Again, it took Venn a while to answer. These periods of silence made Ross uneasy. He felt himself get tense and fidgety, the bad boy at the back of the classroom again.
‘I don’t know Grieve well enough to tell. Go and talk to him, Jen. It could make sense if Mack killed himself because Grieve goaded him into it, and Nigel Yeo found out and threatened to tell Frank. The man would have a lot to lose: his home, his livelihood. It might be a factor in Ley’s suicide too, if the family are set to inherit. Grieve certainly has motive.’
‘Sure.’ Jen pushed her red hair away from her face. ‘I’ll go now.’
Ross was left with a faint sense of anticlimax. It was unfair that, yet again, he was being excluded from all the action.
JEN DROVE TO WESTACOMBE ON HER OWN. Matthew didn’t want anyone to go with her, in case they freaked out John Grieve or upset the man’s family. He’d sent Ross in his own car to wait in the lane, though, just in case she needed support later. Jen thought that was Venn’s style all over. Understated. No dramatics, not overreacting. But assessing the risk, all the same.
All the way there, she was planning scenarios. Would it be better to speak to Grieve on his own, without Sarah present? She thought it probably would. If he was the Crow, he’d be reluctant to admit it to his wife. He’d felt impotent at Westacombe, the subject of her relative’s benevolence, unable to take his own decisions about the farm or the dairy. If he was the leading member of the Suicide Club, he might have believed he had the power over life and death, and that would have been heady, intoxicating.
Sarah was in the front garden of the cottage, picking mint that had been planted in an old enamel sink, when Jen drove in. A domestic scene, which made her plans for the encounter with Grieve seem an overreaction, slightly ridiculous. Sarah called across to her as soon as Jen got out of the car. ‘Hiya. I was just about to put the kettle on if you fancy some tea?’
‘I was hoping to chat to John if he’s around.’
‘He’s upstairs in the office doing the accounts.’ By this time Jen had joined her, and Sarah lowered her voice. ‘At least, that’s what he says he’s doing.’
‘How does he seem today?’
Sarah shrugged. ‘Still pretty low. I haven’t wanted to leave him alone. He was on his own when I took the kids to school, but apart from that I’ve been around. I even went with him to bring the cows up for milking. I said I fancied the fresh air and the exercise.’ She was speaking very quietly though there was nobody around to hear. ‘Come on in. I’ll call John down.’
‘Where are the girls?’
‘It’s one of their friends’ birthdays. They’ve all gone to the leisure centre in Barnstaple for swimming and tea.’
One piece of luck.
Sarah switched on the kettle, then stood at the bottom of the stairs and shouted up to her husband. There was no reply.
‘I’ll go up to him,’ Jen said. ‘You should be putting your feet up, this stage of the pregnancy. Make the most of having the girls out of the way and enjoy some tea in peace.’ She was halfway up the stairs already and pretended not to hear Sarah shouting after her that this really wasn’t a good idea.
John was in the little room that they’d already started decorating as a nursery. He was sitting at an Ikea desk with headphones on. As Jen had imagined, there was a mobile hanging from the ceiling close to his left ear. Penguins with bright red beaks. A polar bear. He didn’t hear when Jen tapped at the door and only noticed her when she was right inside the room and standing beside him. There was nowhere else for her to sit so she perched on the edge of the desk. He reached out to shut down the computer, but she took hold of his arm before he could touch the keyboard and gestured for him to take off the headphones.
‘Who are you encouraging to kill themselves today?’ The words were fierce, but her tone was calm, curious, even friendly.
He stared at her.
‘I don’t know what you’re talking about.’ The surprise seemed entirely genuine.
She sat on an easy chair and for a second imagined Sarah sitting here, nursing her new baby in the early hours of the morning.
‘Have you ever felt like killing yourself, John? There are people who could help, if you have.’
He stared at her as if she were crazy. ‘No! I couldn’t. I have responsibilities.’ Something in his voice made her uncertain, though, and she waited for him to continue: ‘Besides, haven’t we all felt like that at one time or another?’
‘What are you doing up here on the computer all the time?’
He put his head in his hands and she saw he was shaking. He looked up, straight at her. ‘I play,’ he said.
‘What? Computer games?’ Trying to keep the judgement out of her voice. Maybe he was one of those grown men who play computer games.
He didn’t answer.
Still no answer.
‘Perhaps we should continue this conversation at the police station.’
‘I gamble!’ The words came out as a scream. ‘When I’m up here, I’m betting online. I know it’s a problem. I keep meaning to stop, but then I’m sucked back. Bigger prizes, free bets. And I’ve lost so much. How can I tell Sarah when she works so hard?’
‘She hasn’t guessed?’
He shook his head. ‘She’s always left the financial side of the business to me. She always said I was good with money.’
There was a silence. He looked out at the garden, at the swing hanging from the tree where his daughters loved playing. For a brief moment, Jen imagined Grieve hanging there too, his body limp. She wondered if, despite his earlier denial, he’d ever contemplated it.
‘It crept up on me.’ Grieve’s voice was whining, grating. ‘It started as a bit of fun. An adrenaline rush after a boring day. It’s an addiction. An illness. You don’t understand.’
‘No,’ Jen said, ‘I don’t.’ His self-pity was making her angry now. She knew she should contain it, but she wanted to shake him. ‘You’ve got a lovely wife and two kids. Another on the way.’
‘You don’t understand.’ Grieve said again. ‘That was how it started. Thinking I might make enough to give them the sort of life they deserve.’
‘You need to get professional help.’ She was seriously losing patience. More than losing patience. It was the man’s apathy and self-delusion that got under her skin. She imagined slapping him to bring him somehow to his senses and found herself enjoying the image. She nodded to the computer screen. ‘Getting caught up in that nonsense is just pathetic.’
She thought he was going to lash out then, but he gripped the sides of the desk until his knuckles were white and he said nothing.
‘Did Nigel Yeo find out about the gambling and threaten to tell your wife?’
‘No!’ Again, the man just seemed confused. ‘What would it have to do with him?’
If John Grieve was lying, Jen thought, he was good. He might be a gambler, losing money he couldn’t afford, deceiving his wife about his obsession, but she didn’t see him as a murderer. She couldn’t imagine him sticking a weapon into a person’s neck and watching the blood spilling out. And then doing it all over again. He was too weak. He might lash out in a rage, but could he organize all the details around Wesley’s murder? Could he have been sufficiently ruthless to lure Curnow to the Woodyard and then send the text to Eve? It seemed unlikely.
‘John!’ It was Sarah calling from the bottom of the stairs. ‘John, what’s going on?’
Sarah Grieve was just where Jen had left her. There was anxiety in the tension of her body, the face, which was pale despite weeks of sunshine, the protective stance. Her relationship to Grieve was almost maternal. There’d been no attempt to follow Jen’s suggestion to put up her feet and rest with some tea. Now, Jen might not have been there.
‘What’s happening?’ The question directed at her husband.
‘Are you going to tell her, or am I?’ Jen knew it wasn’t her place to interfere, but she hated to see this family falling apart.
‘Is it about these murders?’ Sarah’s voice was squeaky with stress.
‘No!’ He was yelling. ‘What sort of man do you both think I am?’
Neither woman answered.
‘I’m going outside,’ Jen said. ‘I need to speak to a colleague. I’ll be back in a couple of minutes. Give you two a chance to talk.’
She stood outside the fairy-story thatched cottage, with its clematis on the wall, and the swing hanging from the tree, and phoned Ross.
‘Grieve’s not the Crow. He’s been holed up in his office gambling online, not provoking poor depressed souls to kill themselves. You might as well go back to the station.’
She expected him to say something scathing about her having jumped to conclusions during the briefing, but he was almost sympathetic. ‘No worries. You had to check it out.’
Back in the cottage, Sarah and John were sitting at the kitchen table. Tension fizzed between them. Jen joined them. ‘Do you need to pick up the girls?’
Sarah shook her head. ‘They’re getting a lift back.’
‘Grand.’ One less thing to worry about.
The question, domestic and ordinary, seemed to relax the situation a little. Sarah looked up at her, glad to be distracted. ‘Have you got kids?’
Jen nodded. ‘Two. It was a nightmare when they were younger. I felt like a taxi service.’ A beat. ‘Has John told you about his problem?’
The woman nodded. ‘Some problem! Thousands of pounds in debt when I’ve been working every hour there is.’
‘I don’t think he’s very well.’ The two women might have been alone in the room.
‘I didn’t know what he was doing up there, all those hours on the computer.’ The words flashed back. Sarah was flushed. ‘I thought it was porn, okay? I’m not up for sex much these days. Not with this weight and this heat. So, I thought, just let him get on with it. Don’t ask. Enjoy the peace.’ She pushed her hair away from her forehead. ‘I thought he was just being moody and I let it go. I had enough on my plate with the dairy and the kids and looking after Frank’s house. I thought we were going through a tough time and everything would get back to normal once the baby was born. But it won’t, will it? Things will never get back to normal again.’
On the other side of the table John Grieve sat in silence, his head in his hands. It was as if he was trying to make himself invisible and the conversation was going on without him.
‘Really,’ Jen said. ‘There’s no reason why not. Now you know and John can get help.’ She paused. ‘Frank had made a will. He left all this, the house and the farm, to you. But you won’t be able to sell it for development. You’ll have to farm it traditionally, as you have been doing.’
There was another longer silence as Sarah seemed to be assimilating the news. She looked at her husband, then back at Jen. ‘So, the cottage and the farm will be ours?’
‘And the big house. As long as you meet those conditions. Eve would still keep her workshop and her flat.’
‘You’re joking? We’d have all that space?’ She seemed astounded. ‘John, do you see what this means?’
He lifted his head. Jen wondered if he was thinking he’d never escape from Westacombe now. He’d never have that farm on the edge of the moor he’d been dreaming of. Gambling on.
‘It’ll be a whole fresh start!’ Sarah said.
Maybe. Jen didn’t think it would be that easy. She’d never quite believed in simple happy endings.
‘You really didn’t know what Frank was intending?’
Sarah shook her head. ‘No idea at all. Frank was always ranting about inherited wealth: worthless people who had power just because their parents had made a fortune.’
‘Perhaps he didn’t think you were worthless,’ Jen said. ‘Perhaps he thought you both deserved it.’
God, she thought, that sounds like one of those quotes that my soppy friends spread around on Facebook. Along with the images of their perfect families. The ones that make me want to throw up.
Sarah, though, seemed to buy into the idea and to take the words seriously. She was probably the sort to share deep and meaningful words of calm and meditation all over her social media.
‘It’s horrible that Frank killed himself. Of course it is. But it’s like he’s giving us a second chance.’ She got up from her seat, walked behind her husband and put her arms around his shoulders. ‘We can get through this. Together. Can’t we?’
John stood up too and held his wife close to him. But he still didn’t answer.
Walking across the yard to her car in the rosy evening light, Jen thought the air seemed heavy. It felt hard to breathe. She reran the conversation with John Grieve in her head. Her response to him had been unprofessional and out of proportion. He was clearly addicted to gambling. Police officers had been trained to be sympathetic, controlled and he’d got under her skin. She’d almost lost it. The memory of the interview triggered another idea, a possible explanation for Nigel Yeo’s murder, which was so unlikely that she wasn’t sure she could share it yet with Matthew. She’d reached her vehicle and was wondering if she should do some private investigations of her own when the phone rang. Matthew Venn could read minds, it seemed, even at a distance.
‘Where are you?’
‘Just walking back to the car. Did Ross tell you? John Grieve was spending all those hours on his computer because he was betting online. His wife had no idea. That was why he seemed so secretive and ashamed.’
‘Yes. Did you believe his story?’
‘Absolutely. He was shit-scared of telling Sarah about it. We can get someone to look at his browsing history, though.’
‘Could you go back and check something out for me?’
‘I suppose so.’ Jen knew she didn’t sound enthusiastic, but she thought she’d escaped the farm and its inhabitants for one day.
‘Could you go to Eve Yeo’s flat and her studio? It seems that she’s gone missing.’
Free for AARP members and available in their entirety online.