Table of Contents
Also by Lauren St John
The White Giraffe
The Last Leopard
The Elephant’s Tale
Laura Marlin Mysteries 1: Dead Man's Cove eBook
LAUREN ST JOHN
AN ORION CHILDREN’S EBOOK
First published in Great Britain in 2010 by Orion Children’s Books. This eBook first published in 2010 by Orion Children’s Books.
Text copyright © Lauren St John 2010 Illustrations copyright © David Dean 2010
The right of Lauren St John and David Dean to be identified as the author and illustrator of this work has been asserted.
All characters and events in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to real persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.
All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system or transmitted in any form or by any means without the prior permission in writing of the publisher, nor be otherwise circulated in any form of binding or cover other than that in which it is published without a similar condition, including this condition, being imposed on the subsequent purchaser.
A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.
eISBN : 978 1 4440 0280 5
This eBook produced by Jouve, France.
Orion Children’s Books
The Orion Publishing Group Ltd
5 Upper St Martin’s Lane
London WC2H 9EA
An Hachette UK Company
THEY CAME FOR
her at 6.47am. Laura made a note of the time because she’d been waiting for this moment for eleven years, one month and five days and she wanted always to remember it - the hour her life began.
It was still dark but she was already awake. Already packed. The sum total of her possessions had been laid out in her suitcase with a military neatness - two of everything except underwear and books, of which there were seven apiece. One pair of knickers for each day of the week, as ordered by Matron, but not enough novels by half. Then again, Laura wasn’t sure how many would be enough. When you spent your whole life waiting, books became like windows. Windows on the world; on the curious workings of the human mind; on shipwrecks, audacious jewel thieves and lights that signalled in the night. On giant hounds that roamed fog-wreathed moors, on magical tigers and savage bears, on incredible feats of survival and courage.
Laura sighed and pulled back the curtain beside her bed. Her real window didn’t open onto any of those things. Once it had faced the rolling, flower-filled landscape that had given the Sylvan Meadows Children’s Home its name, but that was before a Health and Safety official decided that nature presented a danger. As a result, Laura looked out onto a car park and a tarmac playground with a couple of swings.
Beyond the hedge was a suburb of identical brown brick houses, now covered in snow. It was a vista of unrelenting dullness. Sometimes, when Laura was absorbed in a book, she’d glance up and be startled to find that she was still in a factory town in the far north of England; that she hadn’t been spirited away to a forest of dark secrets or to the Swiss Alps or a poppy-strewn meadow.
But it wasn’t about the meadow or the forest. Laura had been to some foster homes which had gardens the size of football pitches, packed with roses, ancient oaks and decorative features like birdbaths and loveseats. One had even had a swimming pool. She’d been to houses run like army units and another that smelled of incense and had a mum who sprinkled patchouli oil everywhere and a dad with hair down to his waist. And yet none of them had felt right - not even the last one, which was actually Laura’s favourite because the dad loved books as much as she did. It was he who had given her four Matt Walker detective novels, Agatha Christie’s
Murder on the Orient Express
by Charles Dickens.
‘Apart from the books, they were boring,’ Laura told Matron when she returned after only two weeks. ‘They spent a lot of time talking about recycling.’
The shortest time she’d ever lasted in a foster home was half a day, but that was because she’d refused to spend a night in the house of a woman who kept a chihuahua in her handbag.
‘You’re too fussy,’ scolded Matron. ‘Life is full of compromises. You have to give people a chance. It’s her choice if she wants to keep her dog in her bag.’
‘Yes,’ said Laura. ‘And it’s my choice not to be around people who treat animals as if they’re toys with no feelings. It’s also my choice if I don’t want to eat tofu seven nights a week.’
Matron put her hands on her generous hips. ‘What is it you’re wanting? What’s going to make you happy? A castle on a hill with a Rolls Royce parked outside?’
‘What I want,’ said Laura, ‘is to have a life packed with excitement like some of the characters in my books.’
‘Be careful what you wish for,’ cautioned Matron.
‘Why?’ asked Laura, because she knew that nothing raised grown-ups’ blood pressure faster than challenging their stated truths. They hated inconvenient questions such as: ‘What is the reason for that rule?’
Or: ‘Why has it taken Social Services eleven years to find that I have an uncle living by the sea in Cornwall who is willing to adopt me?’
In her short time on the planet Laura had only ever come across one person who truly had answers to life’s many questions and that was the hero of her favourite novels. Detective Inspector Matt Walker was taciturn, eccentric and moody and in reality would have driven clients up the wall with his brusque manner and curt replies, but if there was one thing the great detective was never stuck for, it was answers.
When faced with an impossible puzzle, such as how a man came to be murdered in a locked room with the key on the inside of the door and no sign of forced entry-a situation in which anyone could be forgiven for feeling baffled - Matt Walker would come up with a dazzling explanation, usually involving wax or a fake wall. He had an uncanny knack for spotting inconsistencies. A murderer could plan the perfect crime and Matt would catch him out because he’d made an error regarding the migration habits of the Long-Tailed Skua bird.
Sadly, Matt was a fictional character. When faced with a question that left them blank, such as, ‘Why do I have to go to bed at 8pm while you stay up till midnight, when I’m young and full of energy and you’re old, stressed and have big bags under your eyes?’ (out of consideration for people’s feelings, she didn’t usually say the last part out loud), the men and women in Laura’s life were most likely to reply: ‘Because I said so.’
The funny thing about grown-ups was that they frequently didn’t have answers. They just pretended they did. They fudged things and hoped they could get away with it.
For instance, if Laura asked why she had to eat porridge, which she loathed and detested - particularly since the Sylvan Meadows cook watered it down until it tasted like prison gruel - she was told it was good for her. But if she asked exactly why the vile grey glue was good for her and chocolate was bad for her, they were flummoxed. Because they themselves usually had no idea. Somebody had told them years before that oats were nutritious and chocolate was fattening and they’d been parroting it ever since.
Even people who were supposed to be experts in their field were unable to answer the most basic questions. When Laura asked her doctor why men could fly to the moon but there was no cure for the common cold, he became quite agitated.
The same happened when she asked her teacher, Mrs Blunt, to explain how the universe began. Mrs Blunt had begun a stumbled explanation of the Big Bang theory and atoms joining together and evolution.
Laura had interrupted her to ask, ‘Yes, but what was there at the beginning?
the Big Bang? How did everything start?
At which point Mrs Blunt pretended she had an urgent appointment and made an excuse to leave the classroom.
‘Most children grow out of the “why” phase when they’re toddlers,’ said Matron, who often declared herself worn down to her last nerve by Laura’s questioning. ‘They learn to accept the answers grown-ups give them. They understand that we know best.’
Laura stared at her unblinkingly. ‘Why?’
Laura had difficulty accepting that grown-ups did know best. In fact she sometimes thought that the average ten-year-old was a lot more clued up than almost any adult you could poke a stick at.
As far as she was concerned, if grown-ups were as smart as they liked to believe they were, then her mother would have remembered to ask for the contact details of the handsome American soldier with whom she’d had a brief romance. So brief that history had not recorded the name of the man thought to be Laura’s father.
If they really were the fonts of wisdom they claimed to be, doctors might have been able to save her mother from dying on the day she gave birth to Laura, and Social Services would not have taken eleven years to discover that Laura had an uncle, her mum’s brother, which meant that Laura wouldn’t have had to spend more than a decade stuck in Sylvan Meadows or shuttling between foster homes, living her life through books while her real life ebbed away.
She wouldn’t have spent hours of every day waiting.
Now, it seemed, the waiting was over.
There was a knock at the door. Laura lifted a silver-framed photograph off her bedside table. It showed an elfin young woman with a cap of fine, pale blonde hair, peaches-and-cream skin and grey eyes. She was smiling a serious smile. People who saw the picture always told Laura she was the image of her mother. Laura kissed it, packed it carefully between her clothes and closed her suitcase.