Blake Hollow stood in front of the bay windows, watching thick clouds heavy with rain roll in from the English Channel. Three floors below to her right, the Prince of Wales Pier was cold and lonely looking, its rows of Cornish flags and colourful bunting flapping above empty benches and Victorian lamp posts. The grey-green water of Falmouth inner harbour was restless, swelling and frothing, toying with the fishing boats and visiting yachts moored on its surface.
A storm was coming. Blake felt its approach in the jagged scar over her right shoulder and the deep ache in the joint within. A year ago, her entire arm had been rendered useless when the blade of a butcher’s knife had snapped her collarbone and sliced through her brachial plexus. After months of intense physiotherapy, she had regained much of her arm’s movement and feeling. The numbness that remained in her thumb and index finger, and the ache in her shoulder were a constant burden, but she gladly accepted them in exchange for stopping a psychopath in his tracks.
Blake turned away from the window to stare at her office. She had just enough room for a desk, a filing cabinet, and a coat stand in the corner. The door to the left led to a cramped kitchenette and the door to the right, a broom cupboard containing a toilet. The centre door in the far wall had a smoked glass window with the words ‘Hollow Investigations’ stencilled across the middle.
She had been renting the office for a year and had only got around to decorating it three months ago. The Magnolia paint did little to disguise the dilapidation. The crack that ran from the centre of the ceiling down to the corner had grown exponentially, and since winter had returned, spots of mildew were slowly multiplying on the windowsill. Which was more than her client list.
Returning to Cornwall was always going to be a challenge. Even though there was less competition, the pool of people requiring the services of a private investigator was a drop of water compared to Manchester. She had taken on a few jobs for a criminal defence lawyer who occasionally needed help uncovering case-related evidence, and she had a semi-regular insurance fraud investigation gig. Together they covered the bills but not much more. Any other money was earned from walk-ins off the street, people looking to find missing loved ones or to expose cheating lovers. It wasn’t much of a living, and the positive reputation that Blake had earned in Manchester was apparently non-transferable. As for preventing a serial killer from taking more lives right here on local soil, well, that had earned her mild acclaim. The Cornish were a tough lot to please, but Blake understood why—she was one of them.
Turning back to the window, she pressed her forehead against the glass and peered down at the swelling seawater below, then shifted her gaze across the harbour towards rolling green hills and the isolated village of Flushing, which was best reached by ferry. The ache in her shoulder intensified as the first specks of rain spattered the windowpane.
A loud buzz shattered the silence. Blake flinched. She had been meaning to replace the intercom tone to something less traumatic. One day she might even get around to it. Crossing the room, she pressed the speaker button.
“Hello?” Her voice was husky from hours of silence.
A male voice, deep and uncertain, crackled through the speaker. “I’m looking for Blake Hollow? I’m not sure if I pressed the right number.”
“You did. Come on up. Third floor, first door on your right.”
Blake hit the door release button, then hurried over to her desk and sat down. She felt a surge of excitement, as she always did on the occasions when synchronicity occurred. She made a mental note to complain about a lack of work more often.
Her desk was immaculately tidy. As the dull thud of the man’s feet on the stairs reached Blake’s ears, she rifled through her desk drawer, removed a bunch of papers, and spread them out in front of her. A busy desk gave the impression of being in demand.
The footsteps grew louder. A tall shadow appeared at the frosted glass, followed by a soft knocking. Blake got up and opened the door.
The man was six feet tall and looked to be in his early thirties. His hair was dark, his eyes the colour of cherry wood and filled with such sadness that Blake found herself taking a slow step back. Despite the grief emanating from the man, his crisp pale blue shirt and navy chinos were crease-free and professionally tailored.
He stood for a moment, a frown rippling his brow. “Blake Hollow?” he asked.
Blake forced a smile, even though she hadn’t felt like smiling for a long time. “Let me guess, you were expecting a man?”
“I apologise. It was the name.”
“I get that a lot.”
She stepped to one side, then shook his hand as he introduced himself.
“Campbell Green. I was hoping to talk to you about—well, it’s about my fiancée.”
Blake invited him to sit down. It was possible this was another case of a cheating spouse, but she didn’t think so. The sadness in his eyes suggested something much worse. She slipped into her own chair and placed her hands on the armrests. The rain outside grew heavier.
“What can I do for you, Mr Green?” she asked.
“Please, call me Campbell.” His eyes were flooded with sudden pain, and he turned his head for a moment to stare out the window. He swallowed once, then twice. “I’m sorry. This is difficult for me.”
“Take your time. Can I get you something to drink?”
Campbell Green shook his head. The fingers of his right hand twisted the silver band on his left index finger back and forth.
“Two months ago was my wedding day,” he began. “My fiancée, Kerenza, we were meant to be getting married at Saltwater House, her family home in Frenchman’s Creek. It’s a grand old building. Or it used to be. It’s been in the Trezise family for generations. Have you heard of them?”
“I don’t think so. Should I have?”
Green stared blankly at her. “I suppose not. Anyway, the guests were all there, the string quartet was playing, and we were all waiting for the bride to make her grand entrance. Ten minutes passed. Then twenty. Some of the guests started to whisper. Kerenza’s family seemed unbothered. But I was getting nervous, convincing myself that she had succumbed to last-minute jitters. To be honest, I think her family was hoping that she had.
“They had never approved of our relationship. The only reason we were getting married at all was because Kerenza had threatened to estrange herself from them if they continued to make things difficult. Her father reluctantly conceded. He even offered to pay for the wedding on the conditions that we married on the family grounds and I agreed to a prenuptial contract stating that I would get nothing from Kerenza’s share of the family fortune if she were to die first, or if we were ever to divorce.”
Blake arched an eyebrow. “And you signed the contract?”
“Yes, I did. I loved her,” Green said. He paused, taking a moment to temper his grief. “Originally, the ceremony was to take place inside the house, with the reception to be held in the old ballroom, but a week before the wedding Kerenza’s father decided that we were to have an outdoor wedding with a marquee on the lawn. Kerenza was upset and accused him of changing the plans out of spite. There was some truth in that, but I believe his decision had more to do with the state the house had fallen into.”
Blake had more questions, but she waited for her visitor to continue.
“Kerenza was thirty-three years old and still lived at home. Her bedroom was at the rear of the house on the second floor and overlooked the lawn. Anyway, the music was coming to a crescendo and my nerves were completely shot, so I was about to send someone to look for her. But then there she was, dressed in her wedding gown and looking like something out of a fairy tale. Except she was up on her balcony instead of down on the lawn, where we were all waiting. Where I was waiting.
“Everyone went quiet. I remember thinking: what the hell is she doing? And then suddenly, she hitched up her wedding dress and climbed onto the balcony balustrade. She stood there for a moment, fighting for balance, as people gasped and someone, I can’t remember who, started running towards the house. I was completely paralysed. I couldn’t even breathe. And then . . . Kerenza jumped.” Campbell’s voice cracked. Tears spilled down his face. “She jumped and she didn’t even look at me.”
Blake remained silent, feeling his pain and horror.
“They say she was killed instantly. Snapped her neck in two when she hit the steps. Everyone was screaming, running to her. But I didn’t. I just stood there, not believing my eyes. I mean, would you?”
“I’m so sorry for your loss.” Blake slid a box of tissues towards him. He took one and dabbed his eyes. “I’m sorry to ask, but do you know why she did it?”
“No, I don’t. And I don’t understand because until that day she seemed perfectly happy. There were no signs of depression or anxiety. Nothing seemed to be bothering her. I mean, there was tension with her father, but it wasn’t enough to make her do that.”
“Why didn’t he want her to marry you?”
“Because he hired me to manage his accounts, not to fall in love with his daughter. And he wasn’t keen on having his lineage soiled by someone of lesser breeding.”
“What about the rest of Kerenza’s family? Do they have any idea why she took her own life?”
“You’re asking the wrong person.”
“They won’t talk to me,” Campbell explained. “It’s like they think it’s my fault Kerenza is gone.” He leaned forward, deadly serious. “That’s why I’m here. Because one of them must know something, and I want you to find out what it is. That family had a hold on Kerenza. Their claws sunk right into her flesh. She told me that as much as she loved them, she couldn’t wait to get away from that house. She said she couldn’t breathe in there. So you see, it doesn’t make sense. What she did doesn’t add up.”
Blake was quiet as she contemplated Campbell Green’s tragic story. It truly was awful yet intriguing enough to have her curiosity well and truly piqued. But was it a case she should take on?
Across the desk, Campbell sensed her hesitation. “I know it’s an unusual request. I know I’m asking a lot, but Kerenza and I, we had a whole life planned together. Our wedding was meant to be day one. We were talking about having children within the next few years, maybe travelling first. She wanted to see Cambodia, Thailand, go to all the places her father had never allowed her to go. Does that sound like someone who would jump off a balcony in front of the people who loved her, without a care of what it would do to them? To me?”
The truth was that many people who took their own lives worked hard at the pretence of living a happy, normal existence. Pretending to make plans. Pretending everything was fine. Until they couldn’t take it anymore. But it did strike Blake as odd that the one person who should have known Kerenza was in trouble hadn’t noticed what was really going on beneath the surface.
“Mr Green,” she said.
Campbell held up his hands. “Please. Before you turn me down, let me tell you what that family did to me. After Kerenza’s body was released by the coroner, they took her back to Saltwater House and buried her in the family plot. But they didn’t tell me. They buried the woman I loved and refused to let me say goodbye to her. Now they won’t even let me past the gates. What kind of monsters are these people?”
Pity swelled in Blake’s throat. And now she was more intrigued than ever. Saltwater House. It sounded old and grand. A family burial plot on the grounds insinuated wealth and a rich history, neither of which came without controversy and questionable choices.
“If the Trezise family members are as hostile and close-knit as you say, what makes you think they’ll allow a stranger like me into their home to rifle through their drawers and their deepest, darkest secrets?”
“Oh, I don’t. But that’s what you’re good at, isn’t it? Digging up people’s secrets whether they want you to or not?”
“You make what I do sound sleazy.”
“That wasn’t my intention. Anyway, that family isn’t as close-knit as they sound. Some of them positively hate each other. Maybe that’s how you do it: talk to the right one and find a way in.”
“Have you contacted the police?” Blake asked.
“For what? To complain they won’t let me trespass on their property? To accuse them of killing Kerenza when we all saw her jump?”
“What about Kerenza’s friends outside of the family? Have you talked to them?”
“She didn’t have any, or at least none she ever mentioned or invited to the wedding.”
“But she must have gone to school. What about university friends?”
“I know she studied Art History at Oxford years ago,” Campbell said. “But she had to drop out early to help care for her younger siblings after their mother died. She never talked to me about those days, and she certainly never mentioned any friends from that time. Before that she was home-schooled.”
“What about a career?”
“The Trezise family are Old Money, Ms Hollow. They don’t need careers.” Lines creased Campbell’s brow as he clasped his hands together. “The thing about Kerenza is that she lived an incredibly sheltered life, rarely leaving Saltwater House. When we met and fell in love, it was like watching a butterfly emerge from its chrysalis. I’m not saying I set Kerenza free, because God knows I didn’t. But she saw an opportunity to create her own path away from her family, where she could be anything she wanted to be. All she had to do was take my hand and walk out of Saltwater House together. But she didn’t. Something or someone stopped her.” Campbell reached out a hand then withdrew it. “Please Ms Hollow. Not knowing is destroying me. Could you at least try?”
Blake fixed her gaze on her desk. Of course she could try, but that didn’t mean she would find anything. Cases like this, when there was little evidence and a multitude of hurdles, were always the most intriguing. But they were also the easiest to fail. And Blake hated failing. It wasn’t good for her reputation or her pride. Yet turning down the opportunity of money right now seemed just as foolish as saying yes.
She looked up again and saw the desperation in Campbell Green’s pleading eyes.
“I have two conditions,” she said, watching relief wash over her new client. “First, that you have a clear understanding that I may not find the answers you’re looking for, especially if the family is unwilling to cooperate. Second, I will be paid in full, regardless of the outcome. Time is money with or without answers.”
“Of course. Even just a hint at why Kerenza did what she did will be worth every penny.”
“Then I’ll do my best to help you. But first, you need to help me.”
Campbell leaned forward, nodding emphatically. “Whatever you need.”
“Good. Then tell me everything you know about the Trezise family, starting with Kerenza. And don’t leave out any detail, no matter how insignificant it may seem.”
As Campbell Green talked and Blake took notes, the rainfall became more urgent. In the distance, thunder rolled across the sky, drawing ever closer.