The Burning

Free The Burning by M. R. Hall

Book: The Burning by M. R. Hall Read Free Book Online
Authors: M. R. Hall
rows. But this dull December morning she felt light and unencumbered. She had a man at home who, through his actions at least, was expressing
something akin to devotion. Michael had volunteered to not only go to the supermarket, but to deal with the peeling paint on the bathroom ceiling and to have dinner ready for her. In the twenty or
so months they had known each other, he had never stayed at Melin Bach more than two nights in a row, and she had only ever spent single nights in his tiny rented house outside Stroud. It was
difficult not to let her imagination run away with what it might portend. Was this the beginning of real commitment? She scolded herself –
Stop it, Jenny!
– but she
couldn’t help it. She was desperate to know.
    The snowploughs had cleared the main streets of the city, but any roads smaller than major thoroughfares remained treacherous rivers of frozen slush. It was 29 December, a Friday, and Bristol
seemed to have sunk into a torpor from which it would only awake on New Year’s Eve. There was no traffic, the shops were shuttered, and along the entire length of Whiteladies Road the only
signs of life were a vagrant pushing a heavily laden shopping trolley, and a postman. She had no trouble parking outside her office in Jamaica Street, but the cafe where she bought her morning
coffee was shut up for the rest of the week, and even the convenience store that she had never once seen closed for business had given up hope.
    There was a reason all sane people abandoned their workplaces between Christmas and New Year, and as she strained to turn the key in the frozen lock of the heavy front door, Jenny remembered
what it was. The inside of the Georgian building felt even colder than it was outside. She could see her breath as she made her way along the ground-floor passage to the entrance to her modest
offices. Inside the reception area a vaguely damp smell hung in the air. She switched on the heaters and went to the kitchenette in search of instant coffee, which in the absence of milk she would
have to drink black. She hoped she could make it a short day.
    Films of ice had formed on the panes of the large bay window overlooking the pavement, making huge snowflake patterns that stretched the entire width of the glass. Jenny’s room felt as if
it had lain abandoned for years rather than days. Eager to make progress, she huddled at her desk still wearing her coat and ski-hat, and lifted the phone to call the number for Kelly Hart that
Ryan had jotted on the file. After six rings there was no answer and Jenny was ready to give up, when she heard a quiet female voice.
    ‘Hello?’
    ‘Good morning. This is Jenny Cooper. I’m the coroner for the Severn Vale. Am I speaking to Kelly Hart?’
    There was a momentary silence. ‘Yes. That’s me.’
    ‘I don’t know if you’re familiar with what a coroner does—’
    ‘The police explained. Inspector Ryan told me you’d call.’
    Kelly spoke with a soft Gloucestershire accent, but Jenny also detected a subtle hint of her London origins in her vowels. It was an oddly distinctive voice, and after hearing her speak only a
few words, Jenny knew that she wouldn’t forget it.
    ‘Did he tell you I’d like to talk in person?’
    ‘Yes.’
    ‘Would midday suit you?’
    ‘Where?’ A note of alarm sounded in Kelly’s voice.
    ‘Why don’t I come to you?’
    ‘No, I—’
    ‘That’s all right.’ Jenny appreciated her concern: the police would have promised to keep her whereabouts strictly confidential. ‘Are you able to come to my
office?’
    ‘Can we meet outdoors somewhere?’
    Jenny wondered if perhaps the fire had left her phobic about confined spaces.
    ‘Where would you like?’
    ‘The Observatory.’
    ‘That’s fine,’ Jenny said, confirmed in her suspicion. The old Observatory stood on the edge of the open parkland of the Downs high above the Avon Gorge and commanded a view
across the entire city. Nowhere in Bristol was less

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