Laura Marlin Mysteries 1: Dead Man's Cove eBook (5 page)

It happened so fast and the three of them continued their walk as if nothing had happened, the boy perhaps walking a fraction more proudly than before, so that afterwards Laura was never sure if it had been her imagination.
4
‘MORE A GHOST
than a boy, I sometimes think,’ Mrs Crabtree told Laura a little over a week later. ‘Hardly surprising the way Mr Mukhtar has him working all the hours the Lord sends in that shop. Free labour is what he is. Should be in school or throwing a frisbee on the beach, in my opinion, but Mr Mukhtar says he’s being home-schooled by Mrs Mukhtar. Goodness knows how she finds the time. Whenever I pass Hair Today, Gone Tomorrow, she’s in there getting a coconut oil treatment, or extensions, or whatever the trendy people do these days.’
Mrs Crabtree lived at number 30 Ocean View Terrace. It was her curtains that twitched whenever Laura left the house. Though in her sixties, she was as fashion conscious as the shopkeeper’s wife, bleaching her hair blonde and dressing exclusively in shades of pink, purple and orange. ‘No point in growing old gracefully when you can do it disgracefully,’ she liked to tell people.
She’d cornered Laura on her way home from St Ives Primary School, which Laura had been attending for nearly a fortnight, with the words: ‘Back from the dead, so I hear.’
Laura stifled a giggle. ‘No, just from school.’
Mrs Crabtree found this hilarious. ‘You mustn’t mind my turn of phrase,’ she said when she’d recovered. ‘I only mean that your uncle was unaware that you existed all these years and yet here you are, pretty as a picture. Not every enigma at number 28 is so easily solved, let me tell you.’
Laura put her school bag on the ground and wrapped her scarf more tightly around her neck to shut out the cold wind. ‘What do you mean?’
Mrs Crabtree laughed again. ‘Oh dear, there’s my mouth running away with me again. What marvellous colouring you have. Such wonderfully creamy skin and hair like sun-bleached wheat. You’ll tan up a treat in the summer. How are you settling in with your uncle? I’ve been away on holiday or I’d have stopped in to welcome you to St Ives sooner. I don’t mind telling you we were all agog when we found Calvin Redfern had an eleven-year-old niece living with him. What with him being practically a recluse. And as for that housekeeper . . .

She made a dismissive gesture with her purple mittens. ‘But what do I know. Anyway, how are you finding it?’
‘I love it,’ Laura said loyally. ‘School is okay. I’m still getting used to it. There is one very annoying boy in my class, but I just ignore him. As for my uncle, he and I have a great time together and Mrs Webb is a fantastic cook. She bakes the world’s best Victoria sponge cake.’ She didn’t mention that Mrs Webb had not improved on acquaintance and alternated between fake friendliness and a sullen silence. Laura kept out of her way as much as possible.
Mrs Crabtree’s golden curls quivered with disappointment at this news. ‘Well,’ she said, ‘I’m pleased to hear it. No doubt it’s nice for your uncle to have a bit of company after all this time.’
‘All what time?’
A giant seagull landed on the stone wall surrounding Mrs Crabtree’s garden and she ran at it like a crazed flamingo, arms flapping. ‘These wretched gulls get bigger, noisier and greedier every year,’ she complained. ‘It won’t be Olga Crabtree who’s surprised the day one carries off a small child. Now where was I?’
‘You were saying that it’s nice for my uncle to have a bit of company. Has he been alone long?’
‘Well,’ said Mrs Crabtree, ‘I don’t know about that. All I know is he arrived here in the dead of night nearly a year ago. Wild-eyed and dishevelled he was. By chance, I was looking out of the window at the time. He’d driven down from some place in the north. Aberdeen, Scotland, people say, but then he doesn’t have the accent.’ She winked. ‘You’ll have to ask him and pass it on.’
Laura, who felt a bit uncomfortable discussing her uncle with a perfect stranger, was about to retort that under no circumstances would she be doing anything of the kind when she remembered that Matt Walker often found village gossips to be extremely useful in his investigations. For every ten pieces of misinformation they passed on, there was the occasional gem.
‘Mm-hm,’ she murmured vaguely.
Mrs Crabtree was shaking her head at the memory. ‘Would you believe, your uncle rented number 28 sight unseen and fully furnished, right down to the pictures? That’s what the estate agent told me. And from what I’ve witnessed when I’ve had occasion to call on him, nothing’s changed since.’
‘What, not even the pictures?’ said Laura, thinking of the ugly seascape in her bedroom.
Mrs Crabtree gave a triumphant smile. ‘Not even the pictures. Apart from the books and now yourself, it’s as if it was freeze-framed the day he walked in.’
Laura had been telling the truth when she informed Mrs Crabtree that she loved living with her uncle and had a great time with him. What she hadn’t mentioned was that her uncle had as many moods as the sea and that those great times were few and far between. They were five minutes here, or the occasional meal there.
He was unfailingly kind to her; that could not be argued. He saw to it that she wanted for nothing - not that Laura asked for much. When he did focus on her, as he did when he escorted her to the gate on her first day at school, presenting her with a lunch box full of treats to help her through it, or on one magical morning when they went for a dawn walk on Porthmeor Beach together and he’d asked her to tell him stories of Sylvan Meadows and related some of his favourite childhood stories about her mother, she felt a strong feeling of kinship towards him, as though he were her father rather than her uncle.
He was different from every other grown-up she’d ever met. He had a different way of thinking. When Laura had nervously confessed that she’d taken herself out for breakfast with the money he’d given her, he’d replied: ‘Did you really? On your first morning in St Ives? That takes guts.’
He said no more about it, but she sensed that by doing something that required a degree of courage, even something as small as going out for a meal by herself, she’d earned his respect.
But he was rarely home. He worked long hours and odd hours. Laura saw more of Mrs Webb, which was not something she’d have done out of choice. Once, Laura went downstairs at 3am to get a glass of water and noticed that Calvin Redfern’s bed had not been slept in. When she asked him about it the next day, he laughed and said something about being ‘Overworked and underpaid’. Even when he was at home he might as well have not been there for all the hours he spent in his study. On a couple of occasions, Laura had come across him sitting in the darkened living room with a book open on his knee, staring out of the window with an expression so haunted she’d had to restrain herself from rushing to throw her arms around him.
After her conversation with Mrs Crabtree, Laura had thought a lot about her neighbour’s description of Calvin Redfern’s arrival in St Ives a year before,
‘in the dead of night’
and looking
‘wild-eyed and dishevelled’
.
Even allowing for the fact that Mrs Crabtree was, in all likelihood, prone to exaggeration, it did make her curious.
What was her uncle running from? Was he running at all?
Laura’s imagination, always fertile, went to town on the possibilities. She had a different theory for every day of the week. One day she’d decide he was a master criminal who’d staged the biggest heist in Britain and was waiting for the fuss to die down so he could start selling off his gold ingots. The next, she’d persuade herself that he’d abandoned his wife, or that his wife had run off with another man, and that he’d moved to St Ives to get over his broken heart, or help her get over hers. Not that she knew whether he’d ever had a wife.
What she hoped to discover was that he was an MI5 spy or an SAS commando gone AWOL, but the chances were that Mrs Crabtree had an imagination as overactive as her own. In all likelihood her uncle really had come to Cornwall to work for the fisheries department, as he claimed. He was innocent, his move to St Ives was innocent, and he’d merely been weary from the long drive the evening he got to town.
Of course, that didn’t answer the question of why he’d rented a house full of somebody else’s furniture and pictures and never changed any of it. However, Matron had often talked to Laura about the hopelessness of men when it came to decorating or keeping house, so maybe it was simply that.
The obvious thing would have been to ask her uncle directly, but the first time she’d tried he’d looked at his watch, put a lead on Lottie, and said with a sad smile: ‘There’s a saying: Yesterday is history; tomorrow is a mystery. Let’s enjoy today, eh, Laura?’
And Laura, who loved her new life in St Ives and was already quite fond of her uncle, in spite of his eccentricities, was inclined to agree.
5
THE NORTH STAR
Grocery was on Back Road West, the narrow road that ran parallel to Porthmeor Beach. On a Tuesday afternoon in mid February, two and a half weeks after the dog fight, Laura was on her way there with a list from Mrs Webb in her pocket (she’d volunteered to do the shopping in order to have an excuse to see the Asian boy) when a seagull as big as an albatross swooped down and snatched one of the clotted cream and strawberry jam scones she held in each hand. It happened so unexpectedly and the gull’s talons were so huge that Laura let out a little scream. She quickly stuffed the other scone into her mouth.
That’s how she was, cheeks bulging like a hamster, when she looked up and saw the Mukhtar boy laughing at her. He wasn’t laughing out loud, but his eyes were dancing and his shoulders shook slightly. Then a shout came from inside the store and it was as if someone had thrown a bucket of icy water over him. The shadows returned to his face. He flung down the broom he’d been using to sweep the pavement in front of the shop and disappeared from view.
When Laura walked into the North Star Grocery, he was standing behind the counter and Mr Mukhtar was hissing something into his ear. Whatever it was must have been unpleasant. Mr Mukhtar had to make quite an effort to compose himself when he glanced up and saw her.
Much to her astonishment, the housekeeper’s note transformed him. His moon face stretched into a radiant smile. ‘Ah, the wonderful Mrs Webb,’ he cried. ‘Please to give her my very best regards. Alas, I am on my way to a business meeting, but my son will be pleased to help you. He can read and understand a little English, but at eleven years of age he cannot yet write it or speak it. It is as if he has a mental block about it - ’ he paused to glower at the boy, ‘as if he is afraid of the language. My poor wife has been driven to the brink of despair by his obstinacy and laziness. She is his teacher, you know, and a very fine one. God willing, with faith and perseverance we will overcome this challenge.’ He checked his watch. ‘But what am I doing talking to you when I am late for my meeting? Greetings to Mrs Webb, my dear.’

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