Circle Of Bones: A Gripping Serial Killer Thriller
"Creepy and gripping... Richards returns with another nail-biter set in Cornwall."The Bookseller
When private investigator Blake Hollow finds the body of a missing teenager on the moors of rural Cornwall, a deep-seated childhood trauma is reawakened…
For over 18 years, the veteran private eye has been tormented by the disappearance of her best friend. Now, reluctantly back in her hometown, Blake is shocked to learn that the daughter of another old school friend has vanished.
Troubled by painful memories, Blake is determined to find Lucy Truscott alive. But her search takes a tragic turn when she stumbles upon the young woman’s mutilated corpse.
As local police detectives hunt for a cold-blooded killer, Blake is convinced that Lucy isn’t the first victim and launches her own murder investigation.
But is she wasting precious time by trying to connect the disappearance of her childhood friend to Lucy’s murder? Or has Blake uncovered a secret serial killer whose grisly intentions are about to reach terrifying new heights?
Circle of Bones is the first book in a gritty and fast-paced British crime thriller series featuring tenacious private detective Blake Hollow.
Release date: April 13, 2021
Publisher: Storm House Books
Print pages: 314
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Circle Of Bones: A Gripping Serial Killer Thriller
The front door flew open and crashed against the wall as Blake Hollow came hurrying in. Her face was pulled into a scowl and her shoulder muscles ached with tension. Setting her mother’s carry case on the floor next to the coat stand, she stepped to one side as her father struggled to get the wheelchair over the front doorstep.
“Careful, Dad,” Blake said. “Mum doesn’t need another broken leg.”
The wheelchair came over the threshold with a bump and Mary Hollow’s extended left leg almost smacked against the wall.
Blake’s mother held up her hands. “Honestly, will you leave your father alone for one second? He’s doing the best he can. And were you born in a barn? Close the front door before we lose all the heat.”
Blake did as she was told, then watched her father awkwardly wheel her mother into the dining room. Mary had reached the age of sixty-one with a vibrant youthfulness and just a few silver strands that were only starting to peek through her dark brown hair. But the accident and her time in hospital had aged her. ‘You can’t sleep in those places,’ she had complained on the journey home. ‘All those sick people moaning and groaning, it’s any wonder you don’t die from exhaustion.’
Two weeks ago, Mary had been carrying a basket of dirty laundry downstairs when she’d slipped on the top step and tumbled head-first to the hallway, snapping her femur in the process. The injury had required surgery, and now her leg would be in an immovable cast from hip to toe for at least two months, which meant upstairs was off limits and someone else needed to take care of the household. Dressing, bathing, and just about any practical act of self-care would also require assistance.
Blake had done her best to convert the dining room into a temporary bedroom for her parents. She had dismantled the table and propped it up against the wall, stacked the chairs neatly in the corner, and then single-handedly dragged the sofa-bed from the living room into the dining room. Now, her gaze settled on the sofa-bed, which was still upright, the sheets and pillows draped over one of the arms.
“Dad, you were supposed to make the bed! That was the one thing you were meant to do.”
Ed had positioned Mary in front of the window and now he stared out at the rear garden. At the age of sixty-two, he was developing a slight stoop. His skin was lined from years of outdoor work. His hands were still strong, but starting to show telltale signs of osteoarthritis. Even so, at just over six feet tall he was still an imposing figure. He rolled his shoulders and let out a deep sigh, before settling his icy blue eyes on Blake.
“There wasn’t time. I had paperwork to finish.”
Blake crossed her arms over her chest. “So, I’m supposed to do everything, am I? I literally got here six hours ago and I haven’t sat down for a second.”
“It doesn’t matter,” Mary said. “It won’t take five minutes now. Ed, why don’t you make a cup of tea while Blake makes up the bed?”
Ed’s face softened as he leaned over to kiss the top of his wife’s head. He left the room. Blake’s eyes burned into his back. A moment later, running water could be heard, followed by cupboard doors opening and mugs clinking together.
Snatching up cushions and dumping them on the floor, Blake reached inside the sofa and pulled out the bed frame. She grabbed the cotton sheet from the arm and shook it out.
“Oh, bird,” Mary said. “You’re so short tempered these days.”
Blake shot a glance over her shoulder. Since she’d arrived that morning, her father had barely lifted a finger in preparation for her mother’s return. Blake had cleaned the house from top to bottom, converted the dining room, and even scrubbed the toilets. All she had asked of her father was to make up the sofa-bed. She knew she could have done it, but it was the principle of it all. And yet he’d failed.
Blake grabbed a pillow and stuffed it inside a pillowcase.
Mary rubbed her plaster cast, as if it would somehow soothe the pain. “Anyway, I’m glad you’re here. Are you sure you can afford the time off work?”
“What work?” Blake said. “I’ve had one case in the last six weeks. One. It’s a good job I have savings or I’d be shafted.”
“Do you have to talk like that?”
“Yes, I do.”
“Have you tried getting more work?”
“You don’t just go out and find private investigator work, Mum. You advertise or you’re hired. It comes to you.”
Finished with the pillows, she set them down on the sofa and started on the duvet.
“Maybe it’s just a quiet patch,” Mary said.
“I don’t think so. Since Axis Investigations arrived on the scene, they’ve been snapping up every job in the city. Even my regular insurance gigs. I can’t compete with their prices.”
“But a place as big as Manchester, surely there’s —”
“There isn’t. A big agency like that will eat us independents for breakfast. Anyway, I’m here for a few weeks and it’s fine. Maybe I can use the time to think about a career change.”
She threw the duvet on the bed and brushed out the creases.
A career change. The idea of it filled Blake with horror.
She was thirty-seven years old, and had been a private investigator for most of her adult life. What else could she do? She was sure she had transferable skills, even if she didn’t know what they were. What she did know was that she enjoyed the solitary nature of private investigation and the unsociable hours. The work for hire she did for criminal defence lawyers was varied and sometimes even exciting. The routine insurance jobs not so much, but there was the occasional case that involved more than sitting around in a car for days, slowly destroying her spine.
Then there were the private cases. Men and women who suspected their spouses of cheating. Missing person cases when initial investigations had dried up and families were desperate to find their loved ones. And very, very occasionally, a years-old cold case, such as an unsolved murder. They were so infrequent that each time one landed on Blake’s desk, her pulse would start to race. She knew she should turn them down, but the client was always desperate and out of options. For Blake, a cold case was always a challenge to test her skills. A challenge that she had so far failed every time.
She wasn’t a bad private investigator. In fact, she was a damn good one. But if the British police force couldn’t solve a cold case with entire criminal investigation departments and forensic specialists at their disposal, not to mention a vast arsenal of computer technology, including the famous criminal database HOLMES, then how was Blake going to solve it when all she had was an internet connection and her own ingenuity?
Blake glanced at her mother, who had grown a shade paler since they’d arrived home.
“Have you heard from Alfie?” she asked.
A smile lit up Mary’s face. “Dear of him. He called the hospital yesterday morning. He feels terrible he hasn’t been able to visit, but you know what those city jobs are like. He works all hours, and with the baby on the way and Violet about to go on maternity leave, he’s got his hands full, bless him.”
Blake turned away and rolled her eyes. Her brother could take a weekend out of his busy London life if he wanted to. Besides, there were still two months until the baby was due. But as usual, it was Blake who had come to the rescue, driving down from Manchester to Cornwall, and giving up her life for the next few weeks. She tried to remember the last time she’d talked to Alfie. A month ago, maybe. It wasn’t as if he ever called her, either.
“So,” she said. “You want to get into this lovingly made bed?”
“Not just yet. I’ve been in bed for days. Besides, I need to keep this leg elevated.”
“Do you need the toilet?”
“Heavens, Blake. Stop fussing. Anyway, you need to go to the supermarket.”
“I thought Dad was doing that.”
“He’s got to go into work.”
Blake clenched her jaw. “He’s meant to be taking the whole day off.”
“It’s just for an hour. One of the boys called this morning. Something about building materials not showing up. They can’t build houses out of air.”
“So, I just leave you to fend for yourself? What if I wasn’t here at all right now? What if you have an accident?” She crossed her arms again. This time she couldn’t stop shaking her head. “Why can’t Dad pick up the shopping on the way home?”
“Honestly, the way you talk about your father it’s like he’s some sort of monster. He tries his best, you know.”
“Well, his best isn’t good enough.”
As if on cue, Ed returned carrying a tea tray.
“There you go, love.” He put it down on the side table next to the sofa-bed. Blake stared at the single mug and the spilled tea pooling on the tray. “Let’s get you into bed before I head out.”
“Mum said she’s had enough of being in bed for now.”
“I’m fine, Blake. Stop fussing.”
She watched her father scoop her mother up as if she were made of paper, then gently deposit her on the bed and bolster her plastered leg with pillows. Mary smiled at him. Ed brushed a strand of hair from her forehead.
Blake glowered at them both. If there was one thing that she had learned about people over the years, it was that they were creatures of habit, governed by rules and routines. Ed and Mary Hollow were stuck in their ways and nothing would ever change them. It didn’t mean that Blake had to like it.
Pulling her car key fob from her jeans pocket, she expelled a deep breath. “I guess I’ll go to the supermarket, then.”
“There’s a list on the fridge,” Mary said.
Of course there was.
“What about you, Dad? You want a lift to work?”
“I’ll take the van,” he said, then smiled at Mary. “I’ll be an hour. Two at most.”
Blake glanced at her father, who was still avoiding her gaze, and headed for the front door.
A weight pressed down on Blake’s shoulders as she drove into town. Now that she had confessed her lack of work to her mother, she couldn’t stop thinking about the future. She had never bought her own house, so there would be no missed mortgage payments to worry about, and her rent was paid in advance for the next six months. Despite having lived in the same tenth floor flat at the heart of Manchester’s metropolis for eight years now, she didn’t feel particularly attached to it. That was the downside of renting; it never truly felt like home. The same could be said about Manchester. Blake liked the city well enough and enjoyed living there, and although she’d never established any deep-rooted friendships, she knew enough passing acquaintances to not feel lonely. But there was an emptiness at the centre of it all. A pit needing to be filled. With what, she didn’t know. At least her lack of emotional attachment would make it easy to leave if work continued to dry up.
Her parents’ house stood alone in half an acre of land. The nearest town was Wheal Marow, which was a ten-minute drive along a winding, tree-lined road flanked by fields and meadows. As a teenager, Blake had found living on the peripheries difficult. The bus to Wheal Marow would stop just once an hour on a good day, or longer on a bad day, which left Blake at the mercy of her parents’ schedules whenever she wanted to meet friends. By the time she’d reached womanhood boredom had set in, and she’d had her suitcases packed and ready to go before her university application had even been accepted. Now, driving along in her dented blue Corsa, she was amused by how perception shifted with age and experience. Eighteen years ago, Blake would have barely looked up. Today, she glanced at the crisp blue sky, which was a rarity for winter in Cornwall, and at the flashes of fallow fields flitting between the trees. She smiled, momentarily forgetting her worries.
With a population of just eighteen thousand, Wheal Marow was a small town. Located inland, it went unnoticed by millions of tourists flocking to Cornwall during the holiday season. Growing up, Blake had envied the coastal towns and villages that buzzed with energy and a multitude of fresh faces come the summer. Wheal Marow remained insidiously quiet. No one wanted to come to a dying town, even if it did have a rich history connected to mining.
As Blake drove through the one-way high street, she noted closed-down shops and boarded-up windows. Pedestrians milled up and down, most of them in their later years. It was a far cry from the busy streets of Manchester. Pulling into the supermarket car park at the far end of town, Blake switched off the engine. The weight on her shoulders grew a little heavier.
Well, she thought, let’s get this over with.
Grabbing a shopping trolley from outside, she made her way through sliding doors and squinted in the harsh glare of the overhead strip lights. The supermarket was reasonably busy, with food shoppers trawling the aisles and toddlers stuffed into trolley seats. Adjusting her jacket collar, she took out her mother’s handwritten shopping list and headed for the fruit and vegetable corner. She shopped quickly and strategically, heading down each aisle at a brisk pace and throwing items into the trolley. She had managed to get a third of the way down the list when a sing-song voice called her name.
“Blake, darlin’? Is that you?”
Blake brought the trolley to a halt, then let out a breath. “Hello, Mrs Moon. How are you?”
“It is you! I thought it was, after all this time. And what’s all this Mrs Moon business? You know well and good you call me Tina.”
Tina Moon was a large, squat lady, with an apple-shaped face and grey-white hair that was gloriously unkempt. She smiled widely and planted a kiss on Blake’s cheek. “It’s good to see you, flower.”
Blake smiled. Sometimes she missed the host of affectionate terms the Cornish used to greet each other. Flower. Bird. Me luvver. My ’ansum. And it wasn’t just reserved for friends and family. Go into any shop and the chances were you’d be addressed just as warmly by the shopkeeper. Unless you weren’t born in Cornwall. Then you were just an emmet.
How’s your mum.” Tina asked. “She get back home all right?”
“Oh, yes,” Blake said. “She’s currently propped up in bed and hating every minute of it.”
Mary and Tina had been friends since school, and they had run the textile shop in town together for decades, until Mary had taken an early retirement. Although they saw less of each other these days their friendship hadn’t waned.
“You come home to take care of her then, have you? Dear of you. I expect she can’t do much for herself right now. How long are you here for?”
Blake shrugged. “Until the cast comes off, I suppose.”
“Well, I’m sure Mary will be happy as pie to have her girl home for a bit. ’Ere, you should give Judy a call. She’d love to see you.”
Judy was Tina’s daughter. Just like their mothers, Blake and Judy had gone to school together and grown up as friends. But unlike their mothers, their friendship had grown distant over the years.
“Judy still working for The Cornish Press?”
Tina smiled proudly. “Writes the farming news now, you know, and an occasional feature. A few weeks ago, she even got to write the front-page story!”
“Good for her,” Blake said.
In truth, the front-page story of The Cornish Press was never more salacious than ‘Pair of Spectacles Thrown from Car’ or ‘Sheep Attacks Man’. Not that she was knocking Judy’s success, but Blake did wonder at times why Judy had never aimed for one of the big newspapers in the city because she was more than qualified. But that was small town folk: some couldn’t wait to get away, while others were happy to stay put. Blake had been the former. She glanced down at the shopping list in her hand, then at the items in the trolley. But Tina wasn’t quite ready to let her go.
“How’s Manchester? Still being a fancy private detective? It sounds so exciting!”
“Believe me, it really isn’t.”
“Judy’s been married for seven years now. There was a minute there I thought she would end up on the shelf, until she met Charlie. He’s a lovely lad, even if Judy refused to take his surname. Mind you, can’t say I blame her: Judy Cock doesn’t sound too good, does it?” Tina laughed. “Don’t even get me started on her girls’ last name. Moon-Cock, indeed! But they’re beautiful angels and growing up far too fast.”
Blake smiled. The last time she’d seen Judy’s daughters, the youngest had still been a toddler. She was five years old now. Maybe even six.
“Did you know Charlie’s thinking about running for mayor next year? People say he’s too young, but I think he’d do a brilliant job. No wedding bells for you yet?”
“I’m married to my job, which is how I like it.”
“Bet your mother has something to say about that.”
Blake cleared her throat and waved the shopping list.” Speaking of my mother, if I don’t get the shopping done, I’ll be the one with a broken leg.”
Tina cackled and waved a hand. “I’ll tell Judy you’re home. I’m sure she’d love to catch up.”
Smiling, Blake waved back then wheeled the trolley around to the next aisle. A scowl returned to her face. So now she was not only bordering on jobless but was apparently on the shelf and hopelessly barren. She just loved coming home.
She continued shopping, wrenching tins and packets from shelves and crossing them off the list. Every so often, she would see a familiar face—someone from school or a friend of the family—and duck in the other direction. Finally, with the trolley full, Blake joined a queue at the checkout. A mother and young son were in front of her, the boy slotted into the seat in the trolley. Blake smiled at him. He pulled a face.
And then there was a sudden commotion on her right. Over at the customer service desk, a woman was talking animatedly, her hands gesturing wildly at the young female assistant, who flinched and stepped back.
Pushing her trolley to one side, Blake left the queue and headed towards the customer service desk.
“Christine?” she called. “What’s the matter?”
Christine Truscott was the same age as Blake. Like Judy Moon, Blake had gone to school with her and the two had remained friends into adulthood, albeit from a distance. But as Christine stared at her with wild, panicked eyes, Blake barely recognised her.
Christine shook her head, sending tears into the air. “Lucy didn’t come home last night. She didn’t turn up for work today and she’s not answering her phone.” She stared at Blake, a frown momentarily pushing through the fear. “I didn’t know you were back in town.”
Lucy Truscott was eighteen years old; just a year older than when her mother had fallen pregnant. Christine had been in her final year of her A-levels and was planning to go to university to study English. But when she’d found out about the pregnancy, she’d decided to keep the baby and her life had gone in a very different direction. Lucy’s father, a blond-haired surfer whose name Blake had long-since forgotten, hadn’t stuck around for more than a minute.
“Have you checked with Lucy’s friends?” she asked, placing a gentle hand on her shoulder.
“That’s what I’m doing right now.” Christine shot a glance at the customer service assistant.
“I’m sorry,” the teenager said in a small voice. “Like I told you, me and Lucy haven’t hung out in ages.”
A line was forming behind Blake and Christine. A man at the front cleared his throat loudly and glared at them. Blake glared back then gently guided Christine to one side.
“No one’s seen Lucy except her best friend Jasmine,” Christine said. “They were together last night. They went for a drink at the Badger Inn. Jasmine told me they left just before ten and went their separate ways.”
“Have you contacted the pub? Maybe someone there knows something.”
“They’re not answering the phone.” Christine trembled and more tears ran down her face. “Lucy knows to call me if she’s going to be out late. She knows I’ll worry if she doesn’t. And it’s not like her to miss work. She loves the pet shop.” Christine paused, staring at Blake with wide eyes. “Should I call the police? It’s not been twenty-four hours yet.”
“The twenty-four-hour thing is a myth. If you’re worried, you should call them. But are you sure you’ve tried all of Lucy’s friends? What about a boyfriend?”
Christine shook her head. “She’s in the middle of applying for nursing college next year. She says there’s no point in getting involved with anyone.”
A memory pulled at Blake’s mind; a strange sense of déjà vu that made her feel like she was falling.
“Can you help me, Blake? I mean, you’re a private investigator. Can’t you help me find her?”
“I’ve got to get the shopping back to mum,” she said, weakly. “I’ve left her alone and she’s only just back from the hospital.”
Over by the checkout, a skinny teenage shop assistant was eyeing Blake’s abandoned shopping trolley.
“Please, Blake. I don’t know what to do.”
“I’m sure Lucy will be home soon. You know how teenagers can be. We weren’t exactly angels ourselves at that age, were we?”
Christine flinched. Her jaw went tight and her tears stopped flowing.
“It’s easy for you to say that because you’re not a mother,” she said, her lower lip trembling. “Lucy is all I have. There’s this invisible connection between us, and I can always feel it. But it’s gone, Blake. I can’t feel her anymore.”
Blake reached out and took her hand. “Call the police and tell them Lucy didn’t come home. Tell them it’s extremely out of character. At the very least they’ll file a report and hopefully send someone out. But if Lucy hasn’t come home by this evening, then you call me. Dad will be home. I’ll come over.”
Christine nodded and started crying again. Blake gave her hand a soft squeeze then pulled away, heading back to the shopping trolley.
She had an uneasy feeling in her gut, like something was terribly wrong. It was the same sensation she’d felt years ago, back when she and Christine and Judy Moon had all been friends and their futures had lain ahead of them like an open road. Until the night Demelza disappeared.
Blake glanced over her shoulder and saw Christine hurrying through the exit doors. She had been wrong in her hopes back then. She hoped that she wasn’t wrong now.
By the time the phone call came that evening, Lucy Truscott had been missing for twenty-two hours. The police had sent an investigating officer to take a statement. He asked questions, searched Lucy’s bedroom, and took a list of friends’ names and numbers, including Jasmine Baker, who was the last person to see Lucy before she vanished. The police officer told Christine to continue calling around and to use social media to ask if anyone had seen her daughter. In the meantime, he would make his own enquiries, assess the level of urgency and report to his superior to receive further instruction. For Christine, who was already starting to fall apart, it wasn’t enough.
Blake tried to assure her that the police would do everything in their power to find Lucy. But she also knew that police numbers had been dwindling in Cornwall in recent years, with government budget cuts forcing several stations to close. With a population of half a million people living in remote clusters across almost fourteen hundred square miles of rural terrain, there just weren’t enough police officers to go around.
Now, on a chilly, overcast Tuesday morning, Blake was back in Wheal Marow and sitting at a corner table at the Honey Bee Café, nursing a watery black coffee that was so far failing to wake her up. The single bed she had attempted to sleep in last night was a relic from her teenage years. On her occasional returns to Cornwall, she had begged for a replacement and had even offered to pay for it, but she was always met with the same answer: ‘That room’s too small for a double. Besides, you’re lucky your father hasn’t turned it into an office.’ Alfie’s bedroom had a new double bed—he and a heavily pregnant Violet couldn’t possibly sleep in a single—but the room was currently half-painted and covered with plastic sheeting. Ed and Mary’s way of welcoming the arrival of their first grandchild.
Straightening up, Blake felt her lower spine pop. It was a little before nine. Tables were filled with regular patrons who drank steaming mugs of tea and breakfasted on toast, muffins and bacon sandwiches. The aroma of sizzling fat made Blake’s stomach heave. She was a breakfast skipper, even though it was allegedly the most important meal of the day. Besides, she was sure coffee fell into one of the major food groups.
Most of the customers were elderly, but that was because it was an ageing town. Adults in their twenties and thirties had mostly left to make their fortunes elsewhere. There were still some young families left behind, whose bored-looking teens hung around the town square at weekends and invariably got into trouble. Blake knew that small-town teen life could sometimes feel like a life behind bars, so they had her utmost sympathy. Of course, what the youth of Wheal Marow had yet to learn was that adulthood came with its own kind of cage.
Blake sipped her coffee and thought about Lucy Truscott. She didn’t know her well, only that she was a kind, gentle soul, who loved to help and whom everyone liked. Blake should have known Lucy better. After all, her mother had been one of Blake’s closest friends. She had tried to keep in touch with Christine after leaving for university, visiting her and baby Lucy whenever she’d returned home at the end of each semester. But as Blake settled into Manchester life, her visits home grew fewer and shorter. There was only so much time in the day, she would tell herself, when she’d visit her parents but not Christine or Judy Moon. Besides, Christine was always busy with the baby and Judy was always working. And then, of course, there was what happened to Demelza.
A bell tinkled as the door opened and a young woman entered. She stood for a second, scanning the tables. She was tall and thin, with a nest of red curls and a sprinkle of freckles across her pale white skin that gave her an impish look.
“Jasmine?” Blake waved a hand.
The other customers turned in her direction, then towards the young woman who was still standing in the doorway and letting out the heat. Shutting the door, she crossed the floor and nervously glanced at Blake, before slipping into the opposite chair.
“Thanks for agreeing to see me,” Blake said, holding out a hand. Jasmine stared at her outstretched fingers, then awkwardly shook them. “You want something to eat?”
“I have to be at work in half an hour,” she replied. “Maybe just a coffee?”
Blake signalled to the silver-haired waitress at the counter, then pointed at her coffee cup and held up two fingers. The waitress arched an eyebrow.
“So, this is about Lucy?” Jasmine asked. “She’s still missing?”
“Christine, Lucy’s mother, she asked me to talk to you. You and Lucy went for a drink at the Badger Inn on Sunday night?”
“That’s right. I met her there just after seven. We hadn’t seen each other in a while.”
“You two are good friends?”
“We’ve been best friends since school. We haven’t seen each other as much since we left college because we’re both working now.”
“That’s why you met for a drink? To catch up?”
Blake noted the worry lines on the young woman’s brow and the way she was twisting the silver ring on her left index finger.
“I don’t understand,” Jasmine said. “We were only out for a few hours. We said goodbye outside the pub just before ten, then I went home. Lucy said she was going home, too. She only lives down the road. How could she have gone missing?”
“You didn’t walk home together?”
“We live in opposite directions. I’m on Lavender Street, near the petrol station.”
“It’s Jasmine Baker, isn’t it? Who are your parents?”
“Dan and Melanie.”
“Did they grow up here? I don’t recognise their names.”
“Mum’s from Helston. Dad’s originally from Coventry. His family moved to Cornwall when he was ten. We moved to Wheal Marow six years ago.”
Blake couldn’t imagine why anyone would purposely move to Wheal Marow. The waitress brought over two mugs of coffee and set them down on the table along with a small pitcher of milk.
“All right, Jasmine, darlin’?” the woman said. Her name was Elsie, Blake remembered. She was a familiar face, and no doubt related to someone she probably sort of knew.
Jasmine nodded. “Yes, thanks. You?”
“Yeah, not bad.” Elsie hovered, smiling at Blake. “How’s that mother of yours? Heard she had an accident.”
“She had a fall and broke her leg. And she’s fine, thank you. At home recovering.”
“Well, you tell her Elsie said hello, won’t you, darlin’? She must be glad to have you home. Staying long, are you?”
“A few weeks.”
Blake smiled politely at the waitress, waiting for her to leave. But Elsie continued to hover.
“I hear Christine Truscott’s girl didn’t come home. It’s a worry, isn’t it? You’re friends with her, aren’t you, Jasmine? No sign of her yet?”
Jasmine silently shook her head.
“Hope nothing terrible’s happened. But you never know these days, what with immigrants and unsavouries hanging out on every street corner.”
“Do you like history, Elsie?” Blake asked, staring at her.
The waitress leaned in and squinted. “What’s that now?”
“I do. It’s full of all sorts of surprises. For instance, did you know that, according to a recent study of ancient DNA, the original population of Britain was almost completely wiped out by climate change and disease? It’s true. And they were replaced by newcomers from Europe. So I suppose that makes you, me and everyone else in this country descendants of immigrants. Fancy that.”
Elsie’s smile faded. “Well, can’t leave the customers waiting. Wish your mother well, and I hope Christine’s girl comes home safe.”
They watched the waitress return to the counter. Then Blake said, “If there’s anything you can tell me, Jasmine. Anything at all that could tell us where Lucy is.”
“I don’t know anything apart from what I told you.”
“How was Lucy feeling on Sunday evening?”
“She was fine. I mean, she was a little distracted I suppose.”
“In what way?”
“She kept losing track of the conversation, like she wasn’t really listening at times. I asked her if there was something on her mind, and she said it wasn’t important. Just that she was a bit tired.”
“She didn’t seem upset to you?”
“No, not upset.”
“Did she mention anyone else or tell you anything out of the ordinary?”
“We just talked about work. Life. You know, the usual boring stuff.”
Jasmine glanced down at the ring on her left index finger. “I got engaged recently, so we talked about that.”
“Is Lucy seeing anyone right now?”
“She hasn’t mentioned anyone. She’s never been that interested in relationships.”
“Her mum said she’s applying for nursing school.”
“She mentioned it once, but I think she changed her mind after the hospital job.”
“I thought she works at the pet shop.”
“She does. She cleaned at the hospital before that.”
“Her mum definitely told me Lucy’s applying for nursing school. You don’t think she is?”
“Maybe she told her mum that just to keep her happy. All I know is that Lucy said staying in Wheal Marow is not in her future.”
Blake picked up her mug and sipped more coffee. “Lucy’s planning on leaving . . .”
“Eventually, but not right now. She said she has to save money first, and she still hasn’t decided what she wants to do.”
Blake frowned. No relationship issues. Big plans for the future, even if they were currently unknown. Lucy didn’t sound like she needed to run away from anything except small-town life. And even that didn’t sound imminent.
Jasmine stared at her coffee cup, which was still untouched. “I’m worried about Lucy. What if something’s happened?”
“Like what?” Blake asked.
“Like something bad. Like someone hurt her. But nothing like that ever happens around here. It just doesn’t.”
Blake caught her breath. That wasn’t true. Bad things had happened in Wheal Marow. Which was why the unease clawing at her stomach was getting harder to ignore.
Jasmine was staring, trying to read the worry on Blake’s face.
“You know the police still haven’t been to see me yet?” she said.
“I’m sure they will today. Christine only reported Lucy missing last night, and there’s a process they have to follow.”
Removing her wallet from her jacket pocket, Blake took out a business card and handed it to Jasmine. “Call me if you think of anything else. It doesn’t matter the time of day.”
Jasmine stared at the card. “An actual private investigator?”
“Believe me, it’s not that exciting.” Blake put money on the table and they both stood up. “One more question. Who else was in the pub on Sunday night? Anyone you know?”
Jasmine’s eyes shifted to the right as she tried to remember. “It wasn’t that busy. There were a few older couples there. Some old men sitting at the bar . . .”
“Anyone else? Maybe someone hanging about on their own?”
“Well, there was that guy. Kenver something. I don’t really know him, but I think Lucy does. She said hello to him when we sat down.”
Blake stared at her. “Kenver? As in, Kenver Quick?”
“I think so, yeah. I don’t know much about him, only that he’s come back to live here after a few years away. Sounds like a bit of a loser if you ask me.”
“Why would you say that?”
“Because he was already drunk when we got there at seven. And who would want to come back to this dump, anyway? Me and my fiancé, we’re moving to Truro as soon as we can.”
Blake thanked Jasmine and they both walked to the door. Leaning over the counter, Elsie waved and watched Blake closely.
Outside, pedestrians meandered along the paved street as pasty smells wafted out from Helen’s Bakery. Thanking Jasmine again, Blake told her not to worry and that hopefully Lucy would be home soon. She watched the young woman cross the road and enter Birthdays, the gift and card shop where she worked.
Jasmine may not have known who Kenver Quick was, but Blake certainly did. And she knew exactly where to find him.
Kenver Quick lived alone in a two-bedroom Victorian terraced cottage on the outskirts of town. Rental prices in Wheal Marow were dirt cheap in comparison to the extortionate sums of money that Blake knew he’d been paying for his one-bedroom studio in East London. She also knew that he’d left urban chaos behind eight months ago for a quiet life in the country, which was highly unusual for an unattached twenty-eight-year-old.
Blake knocked on Kenver’s door, and as she waited for him to answer, she thought about her conversation with Jasmine Baker. Two points stood out to her. The first, that Lucy had been distracted that evening and had played down Jasmine’s concern. The second, that Lucy had lied to her mother about applying for nursing college. It was possible that the latter was nothing more than Lucy feeling pressured to please Christine, while still trying to figure out what she wanted to do with her life. Whatever it was, it wasn’t going to happen in Wheal Marow. As for the former, Blake was hoping that Kenver might be able to shed some light. Only Kenver wasn’t answering the door.
Blake knocked again, louder this time. It was 9:17. She knew that Kenver worked from home these days as a freelance data analyst. She also knew he wasn’t an early riser.
Pulling her phone from her pocket, she called his number. As the line connected and started to ring, she crouched down and flipped open the letterbox. A tinny ringtone jingled from somewhere inside then fell silent as the call connected to voicemail.
“I know you’re in there!” Blake shouted through the letter box. “It’s me. Open up!”
Behind her on the road, a car shot past at a dangerous speed, heading in the direction of the bypass.
“Kenver, get that lazy backside of yours out of bed—it’s important!”
Blake hammered on the door again.
“All right!” A gravel-filled voice barked from inside then swore loudly.
Bolts were pulled back. Locks were unlocked. The door swung open a crack and Kenver’s pallid face peered out.
“I didn’t know you were back in town,” he muttered, peering at her through half-open dark eyes.
“Surprise,” Blake said. “Are you going to let me in or what?”
Kenver peered back into the house. “It’s a mess. I don’t want a lecture.”
“I’m your cousin, not your parent.”
He opened the door and stepped to one side, wincing as the daylight rushed in. Blake entered the cottage and wrinkled her nose.
“When did you last open a window? 1842?”
She glanced at Kenver, who had hastily pulled on a pair of black skinny jeans but had left his lean, pasty torso bare. A nest of curly black hair sprang up from his scalp. Tattoos ran up and down his arms in intricate patterns of branches, leaves and large-winged ravens. A small silver ring pierced his septum.
He closed the front door, and the room was plunged into shadows.
“Brace yourself,” Blake said, as she pulled back the curtains. Kenver winced and shielded his eyes. “You really have gone full vampire, haven’t you?”
Surveying the living room, she took in the carnage. A coffee table was covered in empty beer cans and wine bottles, while junk food wrappers littered the sofa and dirty plates and glasses lay on the floor.
“I thought the whole reason for leaving London was to clean yourself up,” Blake said. “Looks like you’re making good progress.”
Kenver rolled his eyes. “I thought we agreed no lectures.”
“I lied. Go and put some clothes on. I’ll make coffee.”
Sighing, Kenver shuffled from the room as Blake waded through the mess towards the kitchenette in the corner. She filled the electric kettle with cold water, then selected two mugs from the pile of dishes in the sink and gave them a rinse. While she waited for the kettle to boil, her eyes returned to the mess in the living room.
“I’m not cleaning this up,” she muttered, a warning to herself more than anyone else. Her hands were already itching, desperate to grab the waste bin and a dustpan and brush.
By the time Kenver returned, he had dressed in a black hoodie and had attempted to neaten his hair. Blake handed him a mug of coffee. She had already removed the debris from the coffee table and cleared a space on the sofa.
“You didn’t have to do that,” Kenver mumbled.
Blake sat down next to him. “I didn’t want to catch tuberculosis. Anyway, this isn’t a social call. I take it you’ve heard about Lucy Truscott?”
Kenver nodded. News travelled fast in towns like Wheal Marow.
“She hasn’t turned up yet?”
“No. And it turns out that you were one of the last people to see her.”
“Me? When did I see her?”
“Really? Exactly how drunk were you on Sunday night?”
Kenver shrugged a bony shoulder.
“Bloody hell, Kenver. I hear you were drinking alone that night as well.”
“So, what happened to cleaning up your act?”
“Yeah. Well, it’s work in progress.”
“I can see that.”
They were both quiet, Kenver nursing his coffee and Blake frowning at the carpet.
“How’s Aunt Mary?” Kenver asked.
“She’s home. Getting bored already. It would be nice if you went to see her.”
“Good. Maybe have a shower first. You really don’t remember anything from Sunday night?”
Kenver narrowed his eyes. “How come you’re in private detective mode, anyway?”
“Lucy’s mum has asked for my help. And you haven’t answered my question.”
“Let me have a minute to think.”
Blake waited, drumming her fingers on her knees. Her eyes kept wandering over the living room, finding things that needed to be tidied away. She glanced at Kenver, who had lost more weight since she’d last seen him. He didn’t look well, or like he’d encountered daylight in a long time. She supposed his pallid appearance suited his neo-punk Goth leanings, or whatever it was he identified as these days. But still, she worried about him.
“Anything?” she asked, growing impatient.
Kenver rubbed his eyes with the back of his hand. “I kind of remember being in the pub. I vaguely remember Lucy being there with someone. Was it Jasmine?”
“Jasmine said Lucy spoke to you. She said hello.”
“Oh yeah. I vaguely recall that.”
“How do you know her, anyway?”
“I don’t. Not really. Just from being out drinking or the odd party. I think she thinks I’m cool.”
Blake pulled a face. “You didn’t notice anything unusual that night? No one strange hanging around the pub?”
“Only me.” Kenver smiled.
Blake leaned back on the sofa. “It doesn’t make any sense. Jasmine and Lucy left around ten, and then they both went their separate ways. Which means Lucy disappeared somewhere between leaving the Badger Inn and the seven-minute walk home, which is mostly through the town.”
“How long are you back for?” Kenver asked, clearly not listening. He was starting to look a little more awake now, the coffee working its magic.
“I don’t know. Until Mum’s a bit more able, I suppose.”
“I guess Uncle Ed is too busy with his job to help out, right?”
Blake rolled her eyes. “Don’t even get me started.”
“And Alfie? Haven’t seen him in a while.”
“Me either. He’s apparently too busy being a high-flying London businessman to even visit his injured mother.”
“That brother of yours does like to talk about his job.”
“Speaking of working, are you right now?”
Kenver glanced at the floor. “I’m between projects. What about you, Miss Private Eye? Can you afford to take the time off to look after your mum?”
Blake looked away. “It’s fine. I needed a break anyway.”
They were both quiet again, contemplating their misfortune.
“Listen, I don’t know about Lucy,” Kenver said, at last. “But there’s a party tonight, out in the sticks. I’m sure half of the town’s young people will be there. If Lucy hasn’t turned up by then, maybe you’ll find some answers there.”
“A party?” Blake said. “On a Tuesday evening? And you’re going?”
“It would be rude not to. Besides, I’m still establishing myself in this town. I left all my friends behind. Got to make some new ones, right?”
“You’re twenty-eight, Kenver. Maybe you should be making friends with other twenty-eight-year-olds?”
“And I would, except they’ve all gone away.”
Blake couldn’t deny it.
“So you want to be my party date?”
The last thing Blake wanted to do was go to a party on a Tuesday night with a bunch of teenagers. But Kenver was right; it was possible that some of Lucy’s friends might be there and able to shed some light on her whereabouts.
She stared at Kenver, narrowing her eyes. “I’m not babysitting you tonight. I had enough of babysitting you when you were a kid.”
“No one’s asking you to.”
Sudden movement caught Blake’s eye. A figure appeared in the doorway, a woman in her early twenties, wearing nothing more than one of Kenver’s oversized T-shirts. Blake gaped at the woman, then at Kenver, who shifted his weight on the sofa.
“Sorry,” the young woman said. She disappeared again, heading back upstairs.
Kenver smiled sheepishly. “I told you, I’m making new friends.”
Blake got to her feet and headed towards the front door. She stopped and turned on her heels. “If you get wasted tonight, I’m leaving you in a corner to rot.”
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