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.