The Mercer's House (Northern Gothic Book 1) (5 page)

‘Nobody ever came before.’

‘No, but in my case that was because I didn’t even know she existed before. Now I do, and I’d like to know where she is.’

‘I wish you hadn’t come. It upsets my dad,’ he said. ‘He’s been doing his best to forget it for years, and the last thing he needs is for someone to come digging it all up again.’

‘Of course I didn’t mean to upset him,’ she said. ‘I had no idea she was missing when I first wrote to him, but he was the one who invited me. It wasn’t my suggestion.’

‘But why did you come at all? You could have done it all by email.’

‘I could, but I wanted to get away from London for a while, and this seemed like a good opportunity.’ She realized she sounded defensive, and was annoyed at herself. She had a perfect right to come here if she wanted. ‘There’s no need to be so hostile. I’m only here for a few days, and I didn’t come up here to fight with anyone, so if I really offend you that much I’d rather you just ignored me.’

He gave a half-smile.

‘That would be difficult,’ he said. ‘This is a small place, and newcomers tend to stick out a bit,’ he went on, in reply to her questioning look. ‘I’m sorry if I seemed unfriendly. I just don’t like this whole thing being stirred up again.’

‘But wouldn’t you like to know where they are?’ said Zanna.

‘Why? Do you think you’ll find out?’ he said. ‘Nobody else has ever managed.’

‘Where do you think they went?’

He shrugged.

‘I think if they’d stayed in Britain they’d have been found by now,’ he said. ‘I guess they went to Canada, like Helen said, and they’re not interested in contacting us. If they’d wanted to get in touch they could have done it easily enough.’

‘Helen, maybe. But would Rowan remember his life here? Perhaps Helen kept it from him. After all, he was very young when they went away and he might have no memory of it.’

‘He was four, so he must remember something. I can remember stuff from when I was four—not much, but enough. And he’s old enough now to have researched his past if he wanted to. He could have found us in ten minutes on the internet. It’s not like we’ve moved around. If you want my best guess, I think Helen probably found another stepfather for Rowan, so he doesn’t feel the need to keep in contact with this one.’

He said it lightly, but there was something in his expression which belied his tone.

‘I’m sorry,’ said Zanna.

He shrugged again, but didn’t reply.

‘That picture you painted,’ he said suddenly. ‘Have you got any more? I take it you’re not an amateur.’

‘No,’ she said. ‘Goldsmiths. Fine Art.’

‘Who do you sell through?’

‘Myself, at the moment,’ she said. ‘Not very successfully, though.’

‘Do you have a website?’ he said. ‘Can I see?’

She took out her phone and brought it up on the screen for him, and watched him curiously as he flicked through her work, frowning. He looked up unexpectedly and she felt herself going pink, but he didn’t seem to notice, and merely seemed to be assessing her.

‘These ones,’ he said, indicating four or five of her more recent works. ‘You were unhappy when you painted them.’

It was not a question, and she was glad he didn’t seem to require an answer. He turned his attention back to the screen and scrolled down to her older paintings.

‘Have you won any prizes?’ he said at last.

‘Yes, but nothing famous. One or two awards for up-and-coming artists just after I graduated. Why?’

‘It’s a good selling point,’ he said. ‘I part-own a gallery in Edinburgh. If you like I can show your site to my partner. She’s the one with the business brain. I just do what she says.’

He glanced at her, and there was the merest glint of humour in his eye.

‘Are you sure?’ said Zanna. ‘That’s very kind of you.’

‘It’s not kind, it’s business,’ he said.

Well, that was clear enough. Zanna tried not to feel deflated.

‘I’ll send her the link, see what she says,’ said Will, and handed back the phone. ‘Where are you going now?’

‘To do some more painting,’ she said. ‘I’d like to get a view of the town from the beach.’

‘It’s a popular subject,’ he said. ‘I look forward to seeing what you make of it. See you later.’

And with that he turned and went back into the house.

T
HE BRIGHT, late-morning sunlight had bleached all the colour out of the buildings of the town, so Zanna gave up any thoughts of putting down anything useful in paint at that time of day. Instead, she went back to the Coach and Horses and fetched her sketchbook, then sat down on a soft patch of sand on the beach and let her mind and her pencil roam free. She remained there, engrossed in her task, until she became aware of someone standing over her, and looked up to find a man there, wearing an amused and half-exasperated look.

‘They said you’d gone to the beach,’ he said. ‘I should have known you wouldn’t be sunbathing like normal people.’

‘Garrett!’ said Zanna. ‘What on earth are you doing here?’

Garrett Price threw himself down on the sand next to her.

‘Looking for you,’ he said. ‘I was up in Newcastle on a
very
boring corruption-in-local-government story, and Adam said he’d heard you were in this neck of the woods, so I thought I’d better come and make sure you weren’t getting into trouble. I gather you’re looking for this long-lost granny of yours.’

‘She’s my aunt,’ said Zanna. ‘But yes, I thought it was about time I did something about it, and I had a few days free, so here I am.’

‘A few days free,’ he repeated, eyebrows raised in sympathy. ‘I heard about that. I’m sorry you lost your job.’

‘Thanks. They cancelled the course at the last minute. Budget cuts, they said. Nobody can afford to offer adult art classes any more.’

This was a lie, but there was no need for Garrett to know that, no need for him to know that her contract at the college had not been renewed because of her erratic attendance and behaviour last year. It was just lucky that her father had left her enough to live on for a little while. London was far too expensive for an unemployed young woman with a costly paint habit, and she would have to find a job soon if her pictures didn’t start selling.

‘Who’s that?’ said Garrett, looking at her sketch.

‘No-one,’ said Zanna, in some embarrassment. ‘Just someone I met this morning. He’s a gallery owner, and he said he might be interested in my pictures.’

‘So you thought you’d do a portrait of him to butter him up,’ said Garrett. ‘He looks a bit miserable. Maybe you should have done one of him smiling instead.’

‘He doesn’t smile much,’ said Zanna, and put the pad away.

‘Tell me about this aunt of yours, then,’ said Garrett. ‘Maybe I can help.’

‘I thought you were chasing up a hot story,’ said Zanna.

‘Already filed. And now I’ve got a few days off, so I’m all yours. It’s a nice place, this, isn’t it? I had no idea.’

‘Nor did I,’ said Zanna. ‘It’s beautiful.’

‘I can see why she might have come here, if she wanted a bit of peace and quiet. So she married some guy from Elsbury, yes?’

Zanna told him the story and he raised his eyebrows again.

‘You’re saying she just ran off with this little boy twenty-five years ago, and nobody’s seen them since? Didn’t anybody start a manhunt?’

‘Well, yes, they did, but Alexander says there was no custody dispute as such, so there wasn’t much they could do.’

‘He sounds a bit slack if you ask me. What kind of man lets his wife and stepson run off without doing something about it?’ said Garrett.

‘He did do something. He hired a private detective,’ said Zanna. She felt oddly compelled to defend Alexander, even though she had to admit to herself that Garrett was right: he
had
been slack. ‘He’s not really the active type. I just think he’s one of these dreamy people who lives in his own world and doesn’t notice when things are happening right under his nose. He didn’t even realize his own wife was unhappy until she ran away.’

‘I wonder where she went, then,’ said Garrett. ‘Strange that they both disappeared so thoroughly. I mean, you’d think they’d have turned up by now. I can’t believe Rowan at least isn’t on Facebook or wherever.’

‘Maybe he is. I only found out about him this morning so I haven’t checked. Although I’m sure Will must have looked, even if Alexander hasn’t.’

‘I’ll have a look myself in a bit,’ he said, lying back on the sand and closing his eyes. ‘Right now I just want to lie here and get a suntan. I can’t believe it’s nearly October, can you?’

‘You’re not really staying, are you?’ said Zanna. ‘There’s not much I can do to find her while I’m here. I only really came up here to get away for a few days and because Alexander was so insistent. I doubt there’s much you can do to help.’

‘Call it moral support,’ he said. He opened his eyes and turned his head towards her. ‘We’re friends, right? Friends help each other. You’ve had a bad time and I just want you to know I’m still here if you need me. I’m sorry I made things harder for you. I know I was stupid.’

‘No, I was the stupid one,’ she said. ‘I’m sorry too, but I’m glad we’re still friends.’

‘Have you spoken to Adam lately?’ he said after a pause.

‘Not for a couple of months, I think,’ she said. ‘Why?’

‘Ellie’s pregnant.’

Zanna was silent for a moment, as this sank in. Had things gone according to plan, that would have been her, but she was surprised to find that the news didn’t affect her as much as she might have expected. Children would have been the next step after the wedding, she supposed, but she wasn’t sure she was ready for that. She was still trying to figure out her own life, and the last thing she needed was someone else to look after.

Garrett was watching her to see her reaction. She smiled.

‘That’s nice,’ she said. ‘When’s it due?’

‘Early next year, I think.’

‘I’ll have to buy them a present,’ she said. ‘How’s Ellie? Is she sick?’

Ellie, who had been her best friend until Adam had decided that he wanted to marry her instead of Zanna. Ellie, who was now having Adam’s baby.

‘No idea,’ said Garrett. ‘I only heard it second-hand, so I don’t know any details.’ He gave her a searching look. ‘You all right?’ he said.

‘Yeah,’ she said. ‘Really, I am. But, you know—what might have been, and all that.’

‘There was no excuse for what they did. They both treated you pretty badly.’

‘I don’t know,’ said Zanna. ‘What can you do? They fell in love. It was just unfortunate he happened to be engaged to me at the time. It’s not their fault I went off my head.’

She said it lightly and he laughed, as he was meant to.

‘Well, you’re obviously on the mend,’ he said. ‘And you’re looking good too. But then you always did.’

‘Thank you,’ she said. ‘I really do feel much better. I’m definitely ready to move on and forget the past.’

‘Excellent,’ he said. ‘So, then, what say I go and speak to the police for you and see what they can tell me about your Aunt Helen? I could go to the station at Alnwick this afternoon if you like.’

‘Would you?’ she said. ‘I don’t suppose they’ll tell me much, but you’re press so you might get more out of them. I’d just like to know how far they went to find her. My dad didn’t say anything about them contacting him, so it doesn’t sound like they did very much. I don’t think they even launched a missing persons enquiry.’

‘I’ll see what they say,’ he said. ‘Do you want to come with me? We could have lunch in Alnwick. My treat.’

‘Maybe not this time. I didn’t sleep very well last night, and I’m supposed to be going to the Devereuxes’ for tea at four, so I thought I might lie down for a bit, if that’s all right.’

‘OK,’ he said easily. ‘I’ll see you after, then. I’m staying at the Coach and Horses too, by the way. You don’t mind, do you? They were so pleased to see me I couldn’t say no when they asked if I wanted a room.’

‘That sounds like Ewan,’ said Zanna, laughing.

‘Is that his name? Listen, if I’m going to get anything out of the police it’ll help if they think I’ve got some new information to give them. There’s nothing you can tell me about Helen that they don’t already know, is there?’

‘I don’t think so,’ said Zanna. ‘Anyway, I don’t know what they already know. More than I do, I imagine.’

Even as she said it, she wondered whether that was true. Perhaps she did know more about Helen than anyone. Nobody else seemed to know much about her past—not even her own husband. But after all this time, was it a good idea to set the cat among the pigeons? Perhaps it was better to let some things lie.

Garrett got to his feet and held out a hand to help her up.

‘You realize the two of them are probably dead and buried under the patio, don’t you?’ he said, keeping hold of her hand. ‘I bet this Alexander guy is really a homicidal maniac.’

‘The police looked into it at the time and concluded that he wasn’t. Besides, he had an alibi.’

‘Alibi, schmalibi,’ he said. ‘People don’t just disappear like that.’

‘You’ve been a journalist too long,’ said Zanna. ‘It’s made you a cynic.’

‘I’ve always been a cynic,’ he said. ‘About some things, anyway.’

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