Small Town Suspicions (Some Very English Murders Book 3) (10 page)

“I did go on a package trip to Spain with the lads once,
though.”

“Was it fun?”

“It was … messy. Quite literally. It was before
camera-phones, though. So that’s a relief.”

“Ahh.”

They ordered, and started on the wine while they waited for
the main course to arrive. Both had skipped starters, on the mutual
understanding that this allowed more space for pudding.

“Is this nestling, do you think?” Drew said when his steak
arrived. “The menu said it would be nestling in the micro greens.”

Penny peered at the blood-red meat. “That looks fairly
nestley. Speaking of nettles, which we’re not, sort of … how is work? Are the
foraging courses going well?”

“Oh yes, and I’m really looking forward to autumn because
that’s when the really interesting plants grow. I’ve got some great fungi
courses lined up. I suppose it’s because I’m such a fun guy.”

She groaned and stabbed into her lamb. “Your clients don’t
come for the jokes, do they?”

“No. To be fair, they don’t. Anyway, I promised you news.
I’m surprised you haven’t been at my throat dragging it out of me already.”

“Ha.” She dangled her fork nonchalantly. “I wouldn’t
flatter yourself that you are
that
interesting.”

“Ouch.”

She smiled and leaned forward. “But come on, come on, come
on. I am dying to know.”

“It’s about Barry Neville.”

“Oh.” She sat back. For some reason, she thought he was
going to tell her about Alec Goodwin. “Barry, the guy that rents a – well, it’s
a shack – on Alec’s land?”

“The same. Is he being considered a suspect in the case?”

“No. He doesn’t have any motive, as far as anyone knows.”

“Really?” Drew said in surprise. “Barry and Alec didn’t get
on, you know. In fact, I heard they hated one another.”

“But Barry lived next to him.”

Drew shrugged. “Maybe that’s why he hated him. I don’t
know. Anyway, because I thought he’d be an obvious suspect, I did some digging
on him. You know I’ve been doing some sessions down at The Acorns, right?”

“Yeah, that school for naughty kids, is that what it is?”

“I’m learning a lot about so-called naughty kids,” Drew
said, suddenly quite serious. “These kids aren’t just acting up. They have
issues. I mean, in many cases, it goes back to how they were brought up, their
home lives, even medical problems, all sorts of things. It’s really quite sad.
They have such low self-esteem, some of them. There’s one lad, just a scrap of
a thing, looks twelve but he’s fifteen. All he’s ever been told is that he’s
worthless, you know? At home and at school. He’s not, but now he doesn’t
believe it if anyone praises him. He was on my navigation session last week,
and he did really well. I told him so. And then he smashed up my compass.”

“He did what? The little…”

“No, no, you see, it wasn’t out of spite. The teachers
explained it to me. He couldn’t match it up in his head, see. The worthless
thing he
knows
he is, against the clever young man that I told him he
was. He’s started to trust me and believe me, but if he does trust and believe
what I say, it means the other stuff he thinks about himself is a lie. Do you
see?”

Penny sipped at her wine as she thought about it. “I am not
sure, but I’m interested. Poor kid, though.”

“Exactly. Being a teenager is hard enough without your own
family and your own head messing you up from the inside. And this brings me to
Barry Neville.”

“He’s not a kid.”

“Nope. But when he was, he was a pupil at The Acorns.”

“When? And why?”

“He’s only in his early thirties. He was a pupil there
fifteen years ago or so, and some of the staff remember him. There are such
small classes that the teachers get to know the kids very well. Apparently he
had really bad literacy issues. They’d call it dyslexia now, of course.
Although some of the teachers reckoned that kids don’t get enough help even
these days. I tell you what, Penny, some of those teachers can’t half rant when
they get a cup of coffee and a head of steam up.”

“I’ll bet. What does it mean for the murder of Alec Goodwin
though? I would hate to suggest that someone with literacy problems was more
likely to be a murderer. That’s offensive.  He still doesn’t have a proper
motive, does he?”

Drew deflated. “No, he doesn’t. I don’t know. Barry needs
looking into, though. I would be asking why he lived there when he didn’t get
on with Alec, and what he saw when Alec died, and also … why he hangs around
with that Steve, too.”

“Oh yes. I’d forgotten about that. They had been drinking
together the previous night, hadn’t they? And Steve claimed to have left his
phone there.”

Drew nodded. “You see? There’s something going on.”

“Time was when you tried to put me off from looking into
these things,” Penny said and laughed as she pointed her fork at him. “Now look
at you. You’re as keen as I am.”

He smiled, but ducked his head sideways and looked down.
“Yes. And no. I am still concerned for you. Last time you went dashing off,
following people, and ended up in all sorts of bother. I would rather that
didn’t happen again.”

“I promise I won’t randomly follow people. Or meet strange
men in dark fields. Or get death threats.”

“Good. So, cheesecake?”

“Sounds good. And, thanks, Drew.”

“For the insight and information?”

“No, for paying. You were going to, weren’t you…?

 

Chapter Ten

 

 

 

Penny slept in late on Saturday morning, and when she woke
up, she felt groggy and disorientated.

She never usually slept in late. Not since taking on a dog,
at any rate. But when she turned her head, the familiar big brown eyes were not
there.

She sat up and listened intently.

Nothing.

She had had quite a bit to drink the previous night, that
was true. Her head was feeling thick and woolly. She didn’t drink as regularly
as she had done in London, so her tolerance levels had slipped, too.

She swung her robe around her shoulders and padded down to
the kitchen, expecting to see Francine sitting at the table with a coffee,
entertaining Kali, but the room was empty. There was a note on the table, from
Francine.

“I’ve gone shopping. Surprise! I walked Kali. Hope you had
a good night. X.”

Surprise? That boded ill. Penny put the note down and
peeped around the door into the front room. There was a small, furry black
shape on the sofa. It was amazing how the dog could curl into the tiniest of
balls, but when you wanted to sit on the sofa too, she would somehow expand and
stretch out and take up three seats to herself.

“Morning, Kali.”

The dog’s eyes opened slightly and her tail gave one thump.
Then she went back to sleep.

“Oh, lovely to see you, too,” Penny muttered with a hint of
bitterness.

The unexpectedly free morning was an ideal chance for Penny
to get on with her craft work. But she couldn’t get into it. She hated the idea
of being a temperamental artist who could only work when the inspiration was
right –
plumbers didn’t wait for the bathroom muse before they picked up a
wrench, so artists shouldn’t wait for the painting muse,
she thought. And
yet she stared at a sheet of doodles for half an hour, and got nowhere.

It was almost a relief when the front door slammed and
Francine shouted “hellooooo” from the hallway. When Penny got to the door, she
saw that Kali was on her feet, tail wagging, greeting Francine with exuberance.

Disloyal dog.

Francine was wearing a hat so wide it knocked against
walls. She hung it up on a hook and kicked off her sandals, coming down to the
kitchen in her bare feet. “It’s going to rain,” she said. “The sky is almost
black.”

“Ahh,” Penny said. “I can blame my headache on the changing
weather, then. And not the vast amount of alcohol I drank last night.”

Francine looked sceptical but she didn’t correct her.
She
never did
, Penny realised.

Maybe that was why she listened to loony theories about
everything. She was so open and honest that she didn’t like to criticise anyone
or anything.

As a test, she said, “You know that some people think that
everything in the world is controlled by eight-foot-tall lizard men?”

“Really?” Francine said. “We’d notice that, surely. Where
do they live?”

My point is proved
, Penny thought.
Most people’s
first reaction would be to say “what nonsense” but Francine is too nice.
It
was kind of sweet, though.

“I don’t know,” she said in reply to Francine. “I think it
sounds barmy. Don’t you?”

“It does sound rather unlikely. I wonder what made them
think of it in the first place, though? They must have had some … well, not
quite evidence, but some reason. Anyway. Lizards, ugh. I’ve bought you
something! I can’t wait to show you.”

They went back into the kitchen and Francine emptied out
her carrier bag onto the work counter, as the table was now covered in sketches
and pencils.

“Look!” Francine said dramatically.

Penny looked. “Oh. Oh, you really shouldn’t have…”

“There’s eyeshadow and some wonderful matte foundation and
I thought this glittery eye liner was really you. What do you think?”

Penny suppressed her sigh. “I don’t really go out often
enough to justify all this… but, thank you. How much do I owe you?”

Now it was Francine’s turn to sigh. “Nothing. It’s a gift,
from me to you!”

“You really don’t need to. I appreciate all the things
you’re doing for me, but…”

“It’s nothing! I owe you, I really do. I must not be a
burden here. Come on. It’s fine.” Francine gathered it all back into the bag
and left it on the counter. “Now, let’s get the kettle on and I’ll tell you
what I saw in the market this morning.”

“And what was that?” Penny asked, trying to sound
interested. She assumed Francine had spotted a particularly clever kitchen item
on Mop Woman’s stall, or a new range of nylon overalls.

“You told me about Ginni the florist’s nephew, Steve,
right?”

“Yes.” Penny perked up instantly.

“I think I saw him. He’s tall but a bit gangly, with lank
hair, right?”

“Yes, but that’s most of the lads around here, isn’t it?”

“Not really. He’s the only one with hair hanging down like
it does. Haven’t you noticed the fashion is for short hair with longer on top,
and symbols razored into the back? Even out here, the kids want to be trendy.”

Now Francine pointed it out, Penny had to concede it was
true. “My powers of observation definitely need some work.”

“Well, I did some observing for you. This lad, Steve, he
was arguing with a stallholder in the market, you see.”

“What about?” Penny asked.

“He was just buying a second hand dvd. Then he started
going on to the man at the stall that he had been overcharged. It was stupid
really, because the prices are all on the stickers, so he knew how much it was
going to cost. He handed the money over and then acted all surprised when he
didn’t get change. I’ve seen people do it before, and it makes them look
foolish. He started saying how he could get it for cheaper and brand new
somewhere else.”

“What did the stallholder say?”

“He told him he was welcome to go somewhere else, then.”

“Did he get his money back?”

“No, he shouted a bit and then walked off. I saw him
afterwards, sitting on a wall, smoking a cigarette. His hands were shaking.”
Francine beamed at her observational prowess. “I noticed that specially.”

“Hmm.”

“Hmm? Don’t you think this makes him more of a suspect?”

“What, because he is a consumer activist on a crusade
against overcharging?” Penny shook her head.

“No, because it shows he’s angry and impulsive.”

“We all have days like that,” Penny said. “But I’ll make a
note. Thank you.”

Francine looked crestfallen. Penny picked up the bag of
unwanted make up. “I’m going to go and try that eyeliner,” she said, and was
rewarded with a smile.

 

* * * *

 

 

Penny sat in her bedroom and stared at herself in the
mirror. The eyeliner was pretty good. It made her feel sad.

Because it was time to have that talk with Francine.

She found her in the back garden. The grey, leaden sky was
oppressive but the rain had not yet started. Francine was dead-heading some of
the flowers in the borders, and Kali was sniffing the lawn, looking for the
very best – or, indeed worst – place to dig a hole for fun.

“Francine. We need to talk.”

Francine looked up and she seemed startled, wary and almost
scared. “What about?” She didn’t come forward. She remained by the flower bed,
the secateurs hanging loosely in her hand.

“We need to talk about you staying here,” Penny said. “This
is difficult because I don’t want you to feel unwanted. It’s not that I don’t
want you here, but…” She tailed off, hoping that Francine could fill in the
blanks.
Don’t make me say it
, she pleaded.
Don’t make me actually ask
you to leave. Gosh, I am such a coward.

Francine folded. She crumpled slowly so that she was
kneeling on the lawn, and she rested her hands in her lap. “I’ve tried to be
nice,” she whispered.

“No one could be nicer than you.”

“That’s what
he
said.”

“Who?”

“Darrell. Well, he didn’t say it to my face. It’s what I
overheard. He said other stuff, too. They all did. All the production company.”

“About you?”

“Yes, about me. About how wet and silly I was. How easy I
was to fool just because I want to see the best in people. But I’m not fooled,
Penny, and I never was. I
choose
to think good things. I wanted to think
good things about Darrell, but he was laughing with them about how he’d …”

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