2 Laura

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I

The moment they entered those stables again, Frank cried out savagely and swore, Miles just stared at his wife’s face. There was a second bullet hole, this time in the forehead and more blood was dripping onto the hay on the stable floor.

‘You fucking bastard,’ screamed Frank, searching every corner of the stable, craning out of the far window, racing back, beside himself. ‘You fucking fucking bastard, you fucking bastard,’ was all he could say.  And then: ‘You bitch!’

Miles grabbed his arm. ‘They’re not around now, Frank, let’s take her down.

‘Frank! Enough.’

There was always a folded camp bed in the stables for when there was a sick animal and someone had to remain, they took it and loading her on was gruesome – that lifeless finery but also the lightness of her body.

The double doors to the stable were opened and they carried her down the gravel pathway, blood still dripping, leaving her in state in the hallway on the tiled floor, Miles closed her eyes while her father went for her duvet, came back and draped it over her.

They went to the front room again – another two whiskies were poured and downed.

‘Killer’s still up there,’ muttered O’Brien, standing in the bay of the window.

‘No Frank, no way, whoever it was has gone. We need to bring the police in now.’

‘I wouldn’t trust them not to bungle it and then we’d never know. Killer can’t stay up there forever, he can’t hide, except one place I know – no one outside family knows of it. He can’t cross the fields in the light, as you know …’

On a hunch, Miles bounded for the door, crossed the gravel path and looked into the gully running from the outhouses behind the stable, down to the front fence of the property.

There were indentations but they seemed to stop left and right of where  he was standing now, they continued down to the lower fence. There was something like a hard earth bridge across the gully just here, showing no prints.

He turned and went back to the living room. ‘Are you going to call them or am I?’

‘I’ve called them. They’re on their way.’

II

It was dusk on the island three days later, Chloe brought the dinner through on the tray, he poured the wine.

‘I have to break my silence,’ she said. ‘We haven’t spoken about it for days. We really should.’

‘I know.’

‘Neither of you caught or saw anyone, the police looked at those tracks in the gully but couldn’t match them to anyone. You know what I’m thinking, Miles?’

‘It might have been Frank – I can’t see it though. When I went through the double doors, I was leaping up the steps to the stables and at the top, I could see anyone going back down the driveway. I heard nothing – I would have seen someone on the roof too because it’s quite low at that point. While I was in there with her, nothing moved and then I went straight down to the house where he was. That second round was put into her forehead while we were down there …’

‘And you didn’t hear that either?’

‘I’d say the second pistol was compressed, like the first one. Police were clear they were two separate guns. The first shot must have been the instant she got through the door, before I was even running up those steps, the second obviously while we were down in the house.’

‘You left Frank in there with her.’

‘Yes but firstly, she was dead, not a doubt of it.  So for what would Frank do that, incriminating himself?’

‘Who stood to benefit?’

He looked across at her. ‘She had no claim on the island, Chloe, there was a pre-nup saying that anything we jointly built up – that did include the dotcom – was half and half but the law of this land changed that and I don’t know where things are that way now. There was a specific clause that if we parted – not divorced, just parted – that anything after that which either of us built up, the other could not claim on that. If there were children though, that altered the picture. If I re-married, that also altered the picture.’

‘How?’

‘If you and I go ahead and marry, I’ll tell you after we’re married, it benefits you in some ways.  I know you think me secretive but there are reasons why, reasons which protect you, in case anyone official asks you.  Miles never told you.’

‘Why? How?  Explain!  Not what you are keeping to yourself but whyit must be so.’

‘The law is interested in this just now and it’s better at this moment that you know nothing of my provisions for you, it would not help your case. When the police interview you in the next day or two, I want you to be able to tell all you do know, freely.’

‘Why would they interview me?’

‘You were there.’

‘Pardon?’ She placed her drink on the table.

‘You were there, Chloe. I don’t know if you were at the house itself but you certainly came to the mainland, you travelled by sprinter and you took the main line to the town. You were booked in at the Travellers Arms, I think you knew I was at the Hatter’s Arms.’

She never attempted to deny it. ‘I don’t know how you know that. Look, I knew none of this was right – the way you told me nothing and just disappeared but of course I knew what must have been behind it and yes, someone was going to play hard ball with you and you’re not hard that way. And yes, I was looking after my own interests too – we built this island together.’

‘Did you think you’d be cut out?’

‘I was making sure I wouldn’t have been.’

‘How?’

Laura kept me up with what was happening, that’s how I knew you were going. She didn’t like what was happening either. As his de facto, she knows most things about that family, she heard you were coming because she was listening in and heard a row between Frank and Melissa. At least, Melissa seems to have been the one going ballistic at Frank.’

‘Which really does seem to put him in the frame.’

‘He’s not an idiot, he knew Laura would have heard, he didn’t trust her of late, he wanted her to go to Durham, to get her out of the way.’

‘Durham?’

‘Her sister’s.’

‘Ah.’

‘She went to Durham all right, as she suspected someone would have been posted there to see her go in but she then took a taxi and rang me back to say she’d be at the Travellers mid-morning and could we talk it through.’

‘A taxi? Around what – £400 or so?’

‘What’s that to her? Frank was paying, it was his card which paid for the trip over, she knows the three numbers on the back.’

‘Bloody hell. And then?’

‘She didn’t say but I felt she was going up to the house.’

‘You do understand how vital that evidence is you’ve withheld.’

‘She was with me that afternoon, she was not accused by anyone, why should I have introduced that?’

‘Why are you protecting her, Chloe?’

‘Look, you know I know Laura from the online days, you’ve had dealings with her while I was your PA. I like her. She likes me.’

‘Have you ever made contact with Melissa before?’

‘Yes.’

‘You amaze me. So close, so secretive.  And you think me secretive.’

‘Yes I do think that, Miles, there are many things you don’t divulge. You have no evil purpose but you also like to know … just in case, like. And before you ask – I don’t know in case of what – just in case of anything.’

‘OK, OK. How? Where? When?’

‘King’s Nympton station platform. You’d sent me down there for the insemination, she was there about the Tarka Line and stock – for her father of course.’

‘And you recognised her?’

‘Not hard, is it? She recognised me – that little smile on her lips, we talked. She was non-committal about you, not angry, not upset but that did upset me and she saw it. We spoke more about her and she gave little hints that Laura’s the key figure in what goes on at that place. That also came over when we talked at the Travellers.’

‘When did she reach the Travellers exactly?’

‘Just after 11:00. She went out late afternoon, then came back late evening and slept with me and I can confirm she’s AC/DC. She made the moves of someone quite used to it all – I allowed some of them. I’m not but it wasn’t nauseating. In fact, that was the moment I decided it had to be all or nothing with you and me.’

‘We haven’t talked that out yet.’

‘Funeral’s in three days. Do you want me there?’

‘Do you want?’

‘I’ll go if you want. I wasn’t exactly fond of Melissa but if you need my presence, I’ll be there.’

III

Chloe got a text from Laura about ten days later. She’d left Frank.

‘When you met her at the funeral,’ mused Chloe, ‘did she give any indication?’

‘It was a funeral. Let’s get her over here, Chloe, send her a text, tell her we’ll put her up for a couple of days.’

‘Are you crazy? She’s trouble.’

‘Meaning you have something to protect now. You’d agree not everything’s kosher?’

She looked at him. ‘I don’t want to go this route, Miles.’

‘’I think she killed my wife and I want to speak to her.’

‘To accuse her.’

‘No, to observe, to talk.’

‘I don’t like it. I agree there’s something wrong with the business but I can’t see it being her. I’d prefer you to leave her alone.’

‘There’s a hell of a lot wrong, Chloe, even officially, even the way the police have laid off. It’s as if everyone wants Melissa excised from the landscape.’

‘And you think Laura will open up to you?’

‘I don’t know but I’m not happy, Chloe and I need to speak to her about things. This was my wife, you know.’

‘I understand that but don’t say I didn’t warn you.’

IV

They’d made enough out of the gites that when one of the inmates, as Miles called them, had suggested a helicopter, which they’d spring for, for the mutual use of all ‘islanders’, it had seemed a logical move.

They’d sent the copter to the mainland today to pick up Laura and here she was now, climbing out onto their island, hunched down under the rotors, looking a picture.

The face was not what many would have called beautiful but she was pretty with that short, spiky hair and certainly hard to resist – there was just this manner about her, the way she moved, so light on her feet – everything about her was sharp and light, from the black trainers and the dark-navy jeans to the fur or fake fur coat, whatever, he was no expert – she had this fixed stare she gave you.

All this within moments.

She’d brought wellies in stylish multicolour which worried the sheep, she held them disdainfully in one hand. He watched while she changed to the wellies, still a short distance away.

Then she came over, a smile on her lips. ‘Miles.’

‘Laura. This way.’

They walked up the hill to the house, Chloe came out, Laura’s things were put just inside the door, the two women embraced.

.o0o.

Not a lot had been said over lunch and Chloe knew the score. ‘OK, go for your walk, you two.’

They rugged up, wellied up, went outside and took the slope for the east side of the island. The steam from the nostrils of a hundred Loaghtans, plus them, was a curious sight, the two hundred horns were simply daunting.

‘We never saw much of each other, Miles,’ she said, dodging a couple of sheep, ‘except at the -’

‘You were preoccupied, so was I. Plus you like women, Laura – according to Chloe.’

‘Ah, the Travellers, she told you that? No, I’m straight as a general rule.’

‘You went out early afternoon from the Travellers.’

‘’What makes you say that?’

‘Chloe.’

‘Did she now? Why the third degree?’

‘You knew the script before you arrived and still you came.’

She shrugged. ‘I didn’t kill her, it might have been a professional. Silencer.’

‘One of Frank’s friends?’

‘You’re quick, Miles, I like that in a man.’

‘What are your plans now? You know you’re welcome here as long as you would welcome Chloe if you were mine.’

‘If I were yours.’ She grinned at that and repeated it. ‘If I were yours.’

Miles just looked into those mischievous eyes. ‘You had a hand in Melissa’s death, Laura, I don’t know how exactly, it might even be that you did nothing physically but you knew what was going down all right. You’re the sort of woman who would always know.’

‘Hostile.’

‘All right, I accept you didn’t actually kill her.’

‘Melissa wasn’t right for you, Miles. Sorry. I’ve no right to play God over your marriage but she wasn’t right. I didn’t poison her mind against you if that’s what you’re thinking, I swear to it.  In fact I told her to go to you to sort it out, to get it finished one way or the other but I know things about her which you can’t know and she was not loyal to you. I don’t think she cared about lovers much or anything like that – I mean she was loyal to Melissa alone.’

‘You think I don’t know that?’

‘May we go back? I’m getting chilly.’

Along the track back to the house, not rushing, step for step, something definitely unspoken between them, he asked, ‘Why did you leave him?’

‘He thinks I did it, I think he did it. In a way, this island is sanctuary.’

‘He thinks, you think. Explain.’

‘Frank told me to stay away, he sent me to Durham. I went and came back.’

‘The taxi,’ he smiled for the first time.

‘Well yes, no need to go into that. But I was at the house, I observed but from a distance. So yes, Miles, I was there as you say, early afternoon.’

‘And Chloe lied to cover you. Question is – why admit it now?’

‘Let me explain something to you, Miles, about myself. I always work on the basis that the truth is best to tell, not from any moral superiority but because lies become webs. Some lies need to be told now and then, in certain situations, but as far as possible, when it’s possible to tell the truth, I always do. It’s easier in the long run and you don’t need a perfect memory.’

‘I do the same.’

She felt a better explanation was due. ‘The thing was, I found out Frank’s bankrupt, and no, that’s not why I left – let me explain that one too. Frank has a finger in many pies – he can earn pretty quickly across his projects, I can earn too if I have to. It’s seriously not the money for me in his case, he’s always ventured, risked, most times with it coming off, sometimes it’s gone pear-shaped. It doesn’t worry him, he bounces back, he knows he’ll make more – might take some time but he’ll make it again. The reason I left was deeply personal.

By the way, we’re near the house now, shall we stop here a minute? If I asked you to, would you kiss me?’

‘Yes.’

‘Don’t do it. It’s not that I don’t want but I need Chloe’s friendship more at this moment, if you see what I mean.’

‘And the bankruptcy? I don’t think you finished about that, I think something changed, yes?’

‘It was the way he went bankrupt this time, the manner, the way he raided the larder in a way he never would have before, as if he were panicking – that’s a bad sign in a man, Miles. He raided Melissa’s trust fund until there was nothing left. If a business or two, a project or two had gone to the wall, I’d have sympathised, he’d done that before, but this made me think no one was safe at that place any more.  There was a definite, sniffable change.’

‘I think Melissa found out.’

‘She did. I don’t know for sure how she found out – not from me, I assure you. There was a row between Frank and her and she made certain – threats, threats to expose him for things I never knew he’d even been into. So you see, I know about those too now.

These are deep waters, Miles, we’re both in them but in two different places – all of us are in danger, including Chloe. I can’t promise to be your ally because I’ve made commitments and my own safety depends on those but you seem a straight sort and I’ll be straight with the straight, so to speak – as far as I can. Things are about to start happening, Miles, I’ll give you that one for free, and you need to keep eyes in the back of your head, I really mean it – keep those eyes wide open, that’s about all I can say to you. It’s whom you can trust now.  It always was but it’s critical now to know whom you can and can’t.  Shall we go back in?’

Once inside, the woodfire on, using the logs imported from the mainland, he asked, ‘Won’t Frank come after you if you’ve left him?’

It was Chloe who answered. ‘He doesn’t know yet – Laura’s left him in her mind. He thinks she’s here to pump you for information.’

He looked hard at Laura.

‘Yes, that’s what I’m here for – Frank wants to know the lie of the land, he wants to plan his moves. Me telling you this shows I’ve left him.’

.o0o.

They all went for a wander during the afternoon but the drizzle had started and that curtailed it, they hastened back and had supper, there were towels and things for Laura in her room at the end, they retired early as there was really nothing more to discuss as three people.

.o0o.

Chloe immediately began in bed. ‘Well?’

‘So many anomalies, Chloe. If Frank killed his daughter, he’d need to have had a very good reason. Do you know what she’d found out, what she had on him? Do you think Laura knows?’

‘Well clearly you don’t, I don’t either. It’s obviously something he’d done, maybe to his late wife, Melissa’s mum, who knows? I don’t think it matters. She was going to ruin him, Melissa was, unless he did as she wished, it seemed to be some agreement.  Enough to kill her? Not sure about that. Laura stood to gain nothing, she wasn’t yet married to him and there were no plans, Laura’s interest was in keeping Frank onside and protecting him from outside threats.’

‘As any partner would. But you do understand you’re obliquely accusing her.’

‘Not at all. I’m just saying her interest was in keeping Frank bubbling along. Melissa’s interest was only ever money – I mean look at her lifestyle, Miles, her expenses. She didn’t work, the trust fund wasn’t due for some time, she depended on Frank but she also had a hold over him. Any daughter does over any father but Melissa believed in insurance. What do you really want?’

‘For all this to die away, for you to marry me …’

‘Is that a proposal?’

‘It will be, once this matter is done with.’

V

Laura awoke at 07:15, scrambled for her phone and there was an SMS, she turned on her back and punched in the reply. Then she sent a second message, to which she got a reply in under a minute.

Then she got up and was out of the house in just under ten minutes.

.o0o.

At the other end of the house, a quick look at the bedside clock showed it was 09:30, Miles woke Chloe, she rubbed her eyes, yawned like a kitten and looked at him. It looked dull out there.

Then she looked at the clock. ‘Oh no, hope Laura’s had breakfast.’

He went to the washroom and did what was needed, she took her turn while he dressed and checked the kitchen. Nope, she hadn’t eaten – probably still asleep.

Wandering down to her end of the house, he called her name but there was no reply.

Reaching her open door, it was clear no one was in there, he went back to their bedroom and said he was going for a wander, which she tumbled to quickly.

On the patio, he looked out over the island with its obstacle course of hundreds of sheep – a misty morning, maybe 5 degrees all up. You’d have to really love sheep, he thought.

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