Things to Do Before I’m Thirty
- Set up my own detective agency.
- Buy my own flat.
- Find a boyfriend I’d like to settle down with.
- Forget Noel Conway.
Lucy Ogilvy paused before adding the fifth and final goal to the opening page of the stylish journal her best friend Rhian had given her for her twenty-ninth birthday. Just writing the word ‘boyfriend’ had made her think about Noel Conway and wonder what he was doing right now. She’d spent all last night thinking about him after she’d left the pub, where she’d been having birthday drinks with friends, and returned, as she always did, to an empty flat. Feck it, she’d spent every bloody day thinking about Noel Conway since the night she walked out on him three months ago. And every day before that, for the four months of their relationship. In fact the last time she hadn’t spent every frigging hour thinking about Noel Conway was the day before she met him. God be with the days when she’d never heard of him.
Noel – or rather his absence from her life – had single-handedly wrecked her summer. She’d spent a couple of weeks visiting her parents in Spain, taking Rhian with her. But her mum and dad had constantly talked about Noel. “You seemed so happy with him,” her mum had sighed, over and again. “He seemed a nice chap,” her dad had said, his standard comment about every man Lucy had ever introduced them to. Her parents were desperate to see her settled; after all, Lucy was heading towards the big three-oh now, surely it was time she’d met Mr. Right? Even Lucy’s brother Adrian had been disappointed with the break-up. He’d met Noel when he’d come down to London on business, and had liked him. Though that liking was mainly to do with Noel being a sports reporter on the Clarion and knowing all the Premier League gossip. Adrian was mad about Manchester City.
Her family’s collective disappointment and the fact that she couldn’t begin to explain the break-up – after all, how did you tell them you’d left your boyfriend because he’d spanked you with his slipper for putting your life in danger at work? – had meant that Lucy hadn’t really enjoyed the holiday in Spain. It had been good to feel the sun on her skin, though. It was bucketing down now, as it had been for most of this dismal British summer. Sighing, Lucy wrote down her final Thing to Do.
- Become a domestic goddess!
She glanced around her cluttered rented flat. It was tiny – no, poky, consisting of a living-room-slash-bedroom-slash-kitchen and an absolutely miniscule bathroom. It should have been easy enough to keep clean and tidy, but there were clothes strewn on the floor and Lucy couldn’t remember when she last converted her sofa-bed to sofa mode. If Noel had dropped by and seen the mess, she’d have been in for a trip across his knee. Just thinking of Noel’s masterful discipline made Lucy horny. She slipped her hand between her legs and fantasized that he was here, in her chaotic flat, pinning her across his lap, pulling down her knickers and spanking her until she cried.
Already item number 4 on her Things to Do list wasn’t going very well.
Next day, Lucy was back at work at Brian Dallow Detective Services, just round the corner from her flat in southeast London. The private detective agency consisted of four people: the owner, Brian Dallow, a gruff, overweight man in his late fifties, with flyaway grey hair and a penchant for brown suits; Pat Martin, long-time administrator, in her early fifties with dyed long red hair and a wealthy husband; Mike Berryman, a thirty-year-old would-be crime novelist, who claimed he worked at BDDS only for ‘research’; and finally, Lucy herself – a law graduate who had dreamed of being a PI since childhood. Her family and university professors had been horrified when she shunned a career in law or academia to become a private investigator. “But it’s what I’ve always wanted to do,” she’d told them, and they’d shaken their heads in disbelief.
To be fair, the cases she’d worked hadn’t been as exciting as those solved by Nancy Drew, Miss Marple or VI Warshawski, but she’d still enjoyed her eight years at BDDS. Tracing missing teenagers, spying on spouses suspected of having an affair, working undercover investigating fraud… She was always out and about; better than being stuck inside all day. And today, when Brian called her into his small and shabby office to brief her for a new case, she was thrilled to discover that the details bore more than a passing resemblance to the cases in the novels that had inspired her.
“Marilyn Carter, fifty, suspected of having been deliberately pushed off a cliff in Cornwall in April this year,” she said, poring over the notes that Brian had given her. “Are you serious, Brian? We’re investigating a murder set in Cornwall?”
“I am and you are.” Brian, sitting behind his old battered desk drinking latte, smiled at the prospect of an intriguing case. “This Marilyn Carter was away on a church retreat in Cornwall when she died. Apparently, she went off walking along the cliffs on her own in the middle of the night.”
“Crazy,” said Lucy.
“I said ‘apparently’. Her father, Leonard Wheatley, says she wouldn’t have done that. She was scared of heights.”
“Ah,” nodded Lucy. “What was the inquest verdict?”
“Misadventure. And that’s what it’ll most likely turn out to be.” Brian shrugged. “But Leonard Wheatley’s willing to pay our rates and we’re not exactly inundated with work at the moment. He asked for you especially, by the way. He remembered that article on you in the Clarion…”
‘A suitable job for this woman’ had been the headline on the article, a play on the title of a well-known PD James murder mystery novel. Noel had set up that interview with the Clarion‘s leading feature writer on the day he’d met Lucy, back in February. At the time, Lucy had just finished working undercover at Crystal Palace Football Club. She’d been there for months, trying to find evidence of fraud by one of the directors. When she’d finally found damning proof and the director had been arrested, Noel had attended the resulting press conference. They’d got chatting afterwards over drinks and nibbles, and he’d suggested his colleague might like to write a story about her. The published article had been great for business for BDDS in general and Lucy in particular. Lucy had called Noel to thank him, he’d asked her out for a drink, and their relationship had started from there…
Lucy hauled her thoughts back to the present.
“Anyway, I’ve given you all his details,” Brian was saying. “See what you can find out.” Bugger; she’d missed what he’d been telling her; she’d need to do some internet research for basic details about Marilyn.
Lucy made her way back to the dimly lit ‘detectives’ office’ she shared with Pat and Mike. Pat had brewed coffee to accompany some cakes that Mike had brought in, and Lucy joined her two colleagues at Pat’s desk.
“Good night on Saturday,” Mike said, referring to Lucy’s birthday drinks. “Had a bit of a hangover yesterday, though. What about you?”
Lucy grinned. “What do you think?”
Pat passed them both coffee and cakes. “What did you do yesterday, Lucy?” she asked.
“Oh, the supermarket shopping, cleaning, stuff like that,” Lucy said, trying to sound nonchalant. Pat, a self-styled surrogate mother to Lucy and Mike, had also been disappointed when Lucy finished with Noel, and worried that she spent too much time on her own. Which, Lucy admitted to herself if not to Pat, she totally did.
Lucy finished her cake and coffee and returned to her desk to do some internet research. Marilyn Carter, she quickly discovered, had been an elder in Antioch Christian Fellowship, an evangelical church that met in a school in Peckham, just down the road from the BDDS office in East Dulwich. Around this time last year, Lucy had tracked down a missing nineteen-year-old, Graham Richmond, who’d left his parents’ home in Sheffield eighteen months previously. He’d turned out to be a member of Antioch and the reunion with his parents, from what Lucy had seen, had been a happy one. Maybe he’d known Marilyn or knew people who did – pleased to have a contact, Lucy ran her eyes down the other relevant Marilyn Carter entries (she seemed to have been a very popular speaker on the church circuit), then keyed in Marilyn’s maiden name.
“Wow,” she said.
“What’s up?” asked Mike from his desk immediately behind Lucy’s.
“Brian’s given me a case involving a local woman who died falling from a cliff in Cornwall. Her father thinks she was pushed. But here’s the interesting thing – from 1984 to 1996, she served time in prison for bumping off her boyfriend,” said Lucy.
According to old newspaper reports, Marilyn had been in an abusive relationship for four years. After an altercation during which her partner, Donovan Winter, had broken her nose and she’d ended up in hospital, she had left him and returned to live with her parents. Two months later, when her parents went away for a weekend, Donovan had telephoned Marilyn to apologise, saying he’d changed and he wanted to make things up to her. She’d invited him round. They’d argued; he’d attacked her, and she’d grabbed a knife from the kitchen bench and used it in self-defence. “At her trial, the prosecution said she could have rung for an ambulance and saved his life but she didn’t… She just sat there on the floor horrified by what she’d done, until her parents got home,” Lucy told Mike and Pat. “She served her sentence in Holloway Prison.”
“I’ve got an ex-girlfriend who’s a prison warder in Holloway,” Mike said.
“You’ve got an ex-girlfriend everywhere,” said Pat, rolling her eyes.
Mike grinned. “We dated at uni and still keep in touch. She’s only been at Holloway for a couple of years, but she might have a colleague who was there back in the day. Do you want me to check that out for you, Lucy?”
“That’d be awesome, Mike,” said Lucy, pleased. Marilyn Carter would definitely have made dangerous enemies among her boyfriend’s family and friends. But would they have waited nearly thirty years for revenge?
Marilyn’s father Leonard Wheatley lived in a spacious flat in Wimbledon. Lucy had called him before driving across south London, and he answered the door so quickly that he’d clearly been waiting for her to arrive. He looked to be in his late seventies, was tall and of military bearing. He shook hands stiffly with Lucy, invited her to sit down in the living room and disappeared into the kitchen to make a pot of tea. Lucy sat on a sofa by the window, looking round at the spick and span living room. The décor and furniture looked old and tired, but there was nothing out of place.
Leonard returned, setting the teapot and two china cups down on the coffee table. “Thank you for coming,” he said. “I was worried the agency wouldn’t take on the case. I know that the police supposedly investigated Marilyn’s death thoroughly, but given she served time in Holloway…” He sighed. “Well, I have my doubts as to whether they’d care about someone they regarded as a criminal. Milk and sugar?”
“Just milk, please.”
Leonard returned to the kitchen for the milk jug and a packet of chocolate biscuits. Once he’d poured Lucy’s tea and she’d taken a biscuit, he settled into an armchair. “Marilyn came to visit me the week before she died. She was speaking at a church here in Wimbledon and had tea with me before the meeting. She was very happy. Very busy with her work.”
“What sort of work did she do?”
“Oh, she travelled all over the country speaking about her faith. In churches, at conventions and rallies, to women’s groups and youth groups. She was writing a book about her life as well. A Christian publishing house had commissioned it and expected it to sell well in the religious market. I think it’s important you understand how happy she was so that you can discount the idea that she might have jumped off that cliff.”
“And you don’t think it was an accident?” Lucy checked.
“Absolutely not! She was scared of heights. No way would she have gone out on the cliffs on her own. I told the coroner she was scared of heights and so did her husband and some members of her church. But Eric – that’s her husband – and the church members also said that Marilyn was ashamed of her fear and thought it showed she didn’t trust God to look after her. By going for a walk, she was trying to prove to God that she did trust him.” Leonard shook his head. “I just don’t believe that.”
“When did Marilyn become a Christian?” Lucy asked.
“While she was in prison. Some visiting speaker inspired her – I can’t remember his name, sorry, but Eric will be able to tell you. It’s some fellow who’s well known in the church.”
Lucy jotted down contact details for Eric Carter and asked Leonard if any of Donovan Winter’s family or friends had ever tried to contact Marilyn since her release from prison.
“Not that I’m aware of,” he said. “It would be worth asking Eric, though.”
“And did she finish her book?” Lucy queried. Marilyn’s memoir, she thought, might include useful details that could yield clues.
“No – Eric is finishing it off for her. I’m not sure how well he’s going with it. Marilyn had a ghost writer to begin with, but then they fell out, and Marilyn continued with it herself.”
Interesting. “Do you know who the ghost writer was and why they fell out?”
“I don’t remember the writer’s name but she was a journalist. She’s a religious correspondent for the Clarion.”
Lucy grimaced. It would be the Clarion. The reporter would no doubt know Noel.
“They fell out because Marilyn thought the woman was a Christian and it turned out she wasn’t,” said Leonard. “Marilyn was very fussy like that. She wanted the book to give the right message to people – that however bad your life is, you can turn it around if you follow God. I’m not a believer myself,” he added, “but Marilyn’s faith did turn her life around. Her whole life revolved around the church. She met Eric through it too. And goodness, he was a big improvement on her previous taste in men.”
“Marilyn was very young when she met Donovan Winter, wasn’t she?”
“Too young,” he said ruefully. “She was sixteen, still at school. She dropped out, of course, and went to live with him. Mary – that’s my wife – and I did everything we could to talk her out of leaving home and leaving school. She was a bright girl, could have gone to university – but she threw everything away for Winter. And he never treated her well – the first time he hit her, she was still living with us. She was out with some friends and they ran into Winter. He didn’t like the way she was dressed and he slapped her across the face, right there in the street, in front of her friends. We told her then: if a man hits you, you leave him. Straightaway. But she wouldn’t listen…”
The first time Noel had slapped Lucy, she’d enjoyed it.
It had been a stinging slap on her thigh, delivered after she’d turned the cold tap on him when they were sharing a candlelit bath. She’d clambered out, but he’d remained in the bubbly bathwater, eyes closed, chillaxing. Shocked out of the tub by the cold blast of water, he’d grabbed her and whacked her. Then he’d turned off the tap, pulled the plug on the water, and declared that she was going across his knee.
“Like fun I am,” she’d said, looking down at the bright palm print on her thigh.
But over his knee she’d gone and it had been fun. He’d smacked her bare, wet-from-the-bath bottom twelve times, then rolled her onto her back and given her what had at that point been the best shag of her life. Afterwards, they’d lain contented on the bed, her head tucked under his left arm.
“Now that,” she’d said, “was amazing sex.”
“Sex is always better after a spanking,” he’d declared.
“Who for? Me or you?”
“Both of us,” he’d grinned. “You were drenched and I’m not talking about the bathwater.”
“Bastard!” Half annoyed and half-embarrassed, she slapped his arm.
“Stop that,” he said, stern. “That’s my job.” He sat up, hauled her across his lap and gave her backside another six sharp smacks.
“Ow,” she said. “This is so unfair.”
“But you’re enjoying it,” he said. “Aren’t you?”
It was too embarrassing to admit it, but yes, Lucy was. Spanking had been something she’d fantasised about for years. Schoolteachers had been the imaginary spankers in her childhood, followed by boys she’d fancied in her teens and later the handsome young men she’d met through work. She’d fantasised about being spanked by Noel, too, and the fact that he actually did spank sent shivers down her spine. Not that she could bring herself to admit it. Instead, she wiggled her bottom, hoping that would serve as the answer that she couldn’t pluck up the courage to give voice to.
He’d chuckled and stroked her smarting buttocks and thighs. “That was just playful,” he’d said. “You wait till you get a real spanking from me. I can guarantee you won’t enjoy it at all.”
At that moment she couldn’t imagine not enjoying a spanking from Noel. But down the track she’d realised he was as good as his word.
After she’d left Leonard’s flat, Lucy sat in her car and dialled Eric Carter’s mobile number. He sounded horrified when she told him she was a private detective investigating his late wife’s death on the instructions of his father-in-law.
“I wish he’d let it drop,” he said. “He just can’t accept she’s gone. Hiring you isn’t going to help him get over Marilyn’s death.”
“Well, it might if I do find something,” Lucy said.
“With respect, you won’t. Still, it’s not your fault – you’ve been hired to do a job, I understand that. But it’s a waste of everyone’s time and Leonard’s money.”
Still, he agreed to talk to her and said he’d be home by four-thirty. Lucy glanced at her watch – it was two o’clock already. There was just about enough time to grab some lunch before beginning the long drive back to East Dulwich.
Eric’s home was as messy as Leonard’s had been tidy. There was a patina of dust on all the surfaces and he had to move a pile of newspapers and magazines off an armchair so Lucy could sit down. He offered her a cup of tea; Lucy declined, worried he wouldn’t find a clean cup.
Eric himself also looked untidy. He was in his late fifties with a shock of blond hair and wore paint-spattered jeans. On the mantelpiece was a photograph of him and Marilyn on their wedding day. Marilyn had been small – short and very thin – and looked older than the late thirties she’d been when they married. But then, twelve years in prison was bound to age you.
“How did you meet Marilyn?” Lucy asked gently.
He smiled reminiscently. “We met at Bible College. We hit it off straightaway and she started coming to the same church as me. We got married only six months after we met.”
A whirlwind romance, just like Marilyn’s previous one. In Donovan Winter’s case she’d come to regret it, but from what Leonard had said, Marilyn had been happy with Eric.
“Can you tell me about the day she died? It was during a church retreat, wasn’t it, in Cornwall?”
“Well, I suppose if you don’t hear it from me, you’ll keep badgering everyone else who was on the retreat,” Eric returned, rolling his eyes. “Yes, it was at Tregenna in Cornwall – we went down on the Friday night and it was supposed to finish up on the Sunday afternoon. It was cut short, obviously, when Marilyn was…found.”
According to online newspaper articles, Marilyn’s body had been found at low tide early on the Sunday morning, by a man walking his dog.
“When did you realise she was missing?” Lucy asked.
“When I woke up on the Sunday morning, she wasn’t in the bedroom with me. I thought she might have got up early, maybe to pray or read the Bible. She didn’t turn up to breakfast, which didn’t concern me too much, as Marilyn never had much of an appetite.” No wonder she’d been so thin. “But when she didn’t turn up for the morning talk, I was worried,” Eric said. “Marilyn might skip a meal, but she’d never have skipped part of the program.”
“And that’s when you called the police?”
“Yes, when I realised nobody had seen her.”
“So when was the last time you saw her?”
“During the evening session. I went up to bed straight after it. I’d been working very hard leading up to the retreat, and was very tired most of the weekend. I fell asleep straightaway and didn’t wake until the following morning.”
“Did you agree with the verdict at the inquest?” Lucy asked.
“Misadventure? Yes. Marilyn had always been scared of heights. In fact, a few of us had seen for ourselves just how scared she was that very afternoon.”
Asked to expand, Eric told Lucy that there had been free time between lunch and dinner on the Saturday of the retreat. Eric, Marilyn, and four other Antioch members – Graham Richmond, Heike Thummler, Jon Elgood and Sybil Baxter (Lucy jotted down their names, pleased that her contact Graham was among them) – had decided to walk down to Tregenna village from the retreat house, along the cliff path.
“Marilyn didn’t want to go, but I persuaded her to…” Eric wrung his hands together and frowned. “If I hadn’t insisted, she mightn’t…” He sighed. “Anyway, part of the way along the track there’s a lookout. The views from there were breathtaking – you can see right over the harbour. I asked Marilyn to pose for a photograph, but she got very upset. I thought she would be okay about being closer to the edge if I had my arm around her, so I asked Graham to take the picture. It was no use. I couldn’t get her to stand close enough to the edge so that he could get the harbour in the picture as well.
“Sybil tried taking Marilyn’s other arm, but even with two of us holding her, Marilyn was terrified. She got so distraught that Sybil and I walked back to the house with her instead of finishing the walk.”
“So, if two of you had to walk back with Marilyn during the day, doesn’t it strike you as odd that she went out there on her own at night?” Lucy pressed.
“No. The evening session was all about fear and how it stops us from doing the things God wants us to. Marilyn got upset and talked about how her fear prevented her from appreciating the beautiful world that God had made. I think that’s why she went out on her own that night – to prove to God that she trusted him.”
“Can you tell me who else was on the retreat?” Lucy asked.
She scribbled down the names he gave her.
“Just a couple more questions before I go,” she said. “Did Marilyn ever hear anything from Donovan Winter’s family or friends?”
Eric shook his head. “Nothing.”
“She’d have told you if she had?”
“And she fell out with a journalist not long before the retreat?”
“Yes,” he said. “Niamh Sullivan was co-writing Marilyn’s memoir. Niamh had been attending Antioch for a while, but Marilyn discovered she was behaving in an unchristian way, so she decided to drop her as ghost-writer.”
“That must have annoyed Niamh?”
“Yes, but it was Marilyn’s book, Marilyn’s decision. Niamh stopped attending church after that.”
“Do you think I could read the memoir?” Lucy asked. “It might help.”
“Help who? You or me?” Eric shook his head. “No, you can’t see it.”
“Do you have contact details for Niamh?”
“No. You’ll have to contact the Clarion. Though she’s not a staffer, she’s freelance.”
Which meant Lucy wouldn’t be able to call Niamh at the paper. And they definitely wouldn’t give out a freelancer’s number…. Lucy could try emailing Niamh, but if Niamh didn’t respond it would be hard to track her down.
But there was someone who’d be able to get Niamh Sullivan’s home number for Lucy if she asked him.