Authors: Kate Ellis
Tags: #Fiction, #Crime, #Mystery & Detective, #Hard-Boiled, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #General
‘What was it?’
‘She said she’d met someone from the past and that she was going back in time. I presume she meant someone she knew from school or university.’
‘Possibly,’ said Wesley.
‘And then there was the tattoo. That was completely out of character, not the sort of thing I thought she’d do at all. But she was an adult so I felt I couldn’t say too much.’ She frowned. ‘Did I mention that at the time? I don’t remember.’
‘Yes, you did tell us, love.’ Wesley saw Gerry lean forward. ‘Wasn’t it a ship tattooed on her shoulder?’
‘That’s right. An old-fashioned ship. Medieval. Like that one on the waterfront.’ She looked at Gerry with hope in her glistening eyes. ‘I couldn’t really understand it because she’d never shown any interest in that sort of thing. I asked her what it was but she wouldn’t tell me. Do you think it’s important?’
‘It might be,’ said Gerry.
Wesley knew she was clutching at any possibility, any clue as to why her daughter had vanished on that late May evening a year before. When he’d returned from his course he recalled Gerry saying that the girl was probably dead, fallen in the river after having a few too many drinks during the Palkin Festival and swept out to sea by the River Trad’s lethal currents. The anonymous letter had raised the mother’s hopes. And he wasn’t entirely sure whether that was a good thing.
Mrs Bercival continued: ‘When she disappeared I searched for her phone but she must have had it with her.’
‘The phone never turned up,’ said Gerry gently.
‘But that’s good, isn’t it. It means she still has it.’
‘It’s been switched off. Impossible to trace. I’m sorry.’
Mrs Bercival didn’t seem to have heard. ‘She knew several people in Millicombe but no one in Tradmouth, as far as I’m aware. But that doesn’t mean she hadn’t met someone here, someone she went off with. Oh, I wish to God she’d confided in me.’
Gerry looked down at the envelope in his hand. ‘I see you still live in London?’
‘My former husband allowed me to keep the house in Hampstead but the holiday home in Millicombe had to go. That’s why I’ve had to rent this place,’ she added with a hint of bitterness. ‘I need to find my daughter.’ She looked Gerry in the eye. ‘I know you failed last time but now we have this letter… Will you help?’
Gerry bit his lip and Wesley knew he was torn between uttering comforting words and spelling out the truth. ‘We’ll do our very best, love, but I can’t promise…’
‘She’s still out there somewhere, Mr Heffernan. I know she is.’
The small inflatable dinghy bobbed in the shadow of the cliffs. At first it had floated near the river-mouth for a while, weighed down by its grim cargo. But now, with the tide turning, the currents had started to transport it out into the open sea.
The young woman had been laid out with some reverence in the bottom of the flimsy craft, her hair in a halo of auburn curls around her head and her wide, unseeing blue eyes gazing upwards at the cloud-specked sky and the circling gulls. In a short time the birds might gather the courage to peck at those eyes but for the moment they wheeled around the boat, keening their mourning song.
Her blue velvet gown was neatly arranged and her hands were folded across her breast. If her face hadn’t been contorted in agony and her tongue hadn’t protruded from her cyanosed lips, she might have come from a Tennyson poem – the tragic lady floating away to some distant Camelot. But this death had nothing to do with poetry; it had been savage, the cruel curtailment of a young life.
The dinghy floated smoothly past the cliffs, out into the cold, frightening world.
Many say that John Palkin was Tradmouth’s greatest son. Three times mayor and buried before the altar of St Margaret’s Church in the heart of the town, he presided over one of the most prosperous periods in Tradmouth’s history, revered in life and honoured in death.
However, I have found no evidence that John Palkin was a good man. In fact it was said of him during his lifetime that he sold his soul to Satan for riches and a fair wind to carry his ships back to port.
His symbol, later to feature on his coat of arms, was a cog, the ship that was the seaborne workhorse of the medieval period, used in the port of Tradmouth to carry cargos to France and return with fine wines from Bordeaux. Cogs had a large square sail and a rudder attached to the stern post. They were also built up at bow and stern into ‘castles’ where sailors could take shelter to shoot arrows during the sea fights that were so frequent at that turbulent time. Palkin was the owner of a number of such vessels and they brought him the wealth that enabled him to control the town in the late fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries.
John Palkin married the daughter of another prosperous merchant in 1375. Her name was Joan Henny and they had a son, Richard. Joan died in childbirth as was common in those days, and the fact that John failed to marry again until many years later at a time when custom dictated that, after a respectful wait of a year, a wealthy man would be bound to seek another wife, may indicate that he held her in some affection. Richard himself was to die tragically at the age of eighteen leaving John’s brother, Henry, as sole heir to the Palkin business interests.
Throughout his life Palkin had a reputation for an almost supernatural amount of good fortune in business. While his rivals lost ships to French privateers and the merciless storms that blow up around the Devon coastline, John Palkin’s cargos always arrived safely in port and his wealth grew.
Perhaps it was because of this that he was habitually surrounded by dark tales. But, in the opinion of one who can claim descent from the great man, I consider that verdict does him an injustice. John Palkin was a genius.
From ‘The Sea Devil – the Story of John Palkin’ by Josiah Palkin-Wright. Published 1896
The coastguard received the call from a yachtsman who’d spotted the body of a woman floating in a dinghy near the mouth of the River Trad. By the time the Bloxham lifeboat was scrambled, along with a rescue helicopter, the tide had caught the tiny craft and was carrying it out into the English Channel.
When the youngest member of the lifeboat crew was attaching a towing line to the little boat, he caught sight of the dead woman’s twisted features. He stared for a moment at the pecked-out eyes, the bloody holes in a face that had once been beautiful, before leaning over the side to vomit into the calm grey water.
As Wesley and Gerry walked back from George Street to the police station the crowds were pouring into Tradmouth, dropped off by the park-and-ride buses that were working overtime for the festival, shuttling to and fro between the town and the car park. When Wesley had first moved down to Tradmouth from London, the festival had been a half-hearted affair. But over the past three years or so more people had made the effort to dress up in costume, especially the teenagers – just the group he would have expected to avoid anything that smacked of the uncool. And it wasn’t just the locals and the organisers who seized any opportunity to do so; people whose accents and behaviour marked them out as tourists, outsiders, joined in with equal enthusiasm.
Some of the young people were wearing badges – a black medieval-style ship on a white background – and Wesley wondered fleetingly if they belonged to some sort of society. But he had other more pressing things on his mind, like the meeting with Mrs Bercival. He asked Gerry what he made of it.
Before the DCI answered he sidestepped around an overweight couple and their two corpulent children who were licking large ice creams with studied concentration. ‘I find it hard to believe that Jenny Bercival would have disappeared of her own accord without telling anybody,’ he said once he was back on the pavement.
‘Her mother said she was in a fragile state.’
‘But even if she was upset by the break-up of her parents’ marriage, surely she’d have let her mum know she was safe. According to Mrs Bercival Jenny had always been a considerate girl.’
‘Parents usually think the best of their kids. Maybe Jenny Bercival wasn’t the paragon of thoughtfulness her mum liked to imagine she was.’
Gerry shook his head, as though he couldn’t quite bring himself to believe it.
‘She’d had a tattoo; her mother thought that was out of character too.’
‘Lots of people have tattoos,’ said Gerry. ‘It’s probably irrelevant.’
‘Jenny was a student, wasn’t she?’
‘She’d left London University the year before she disappeared. She’d studied English and she’d been hoping to go into publishing. She’d done an unpaid internship but nothing had come of it so she’d taken a series of temporary jobs in bars and cafés, filling in until something came up. Back then her family still owned a holiday cottage in Millicombe where they spent every summer and she’d come down to join her mother there a couple of weeks before she vanished.’
‘Not short of a bob or two if they can afford a second home in Millicombe.’
‘Mr Bercival was a banker who traded his wife in for a younger model about six months before Jenny went. He must have had a conscience because the wife got the house in London, even if she wasn’t allowed to keep the holiday cottage.’
‘Remind me what happened on the night she disappeared?’
‘She’d arranged to meet some friends at the Palkin Festival on the Friday evening.’
‘A few rich kids who spent most of their summer holidays at their parents’ second homes in Millicombe. Jenny hung around with them but, according to Mrs Bercival, they weren’t particularly close. Jenny was crazy about the whole Palkin thing and went to the festival every year. She borrowed her mother’s car to come over to Tradmouth and she left it in the park and ride. There was some kind of rock concert at the boat float and once it was over she parted from the friends and made her way back to the bus stop. But she never got there. And the car was still in the car park the day after.’
Wesley frowned, puzzled. ‘But the park-and-ride stop is almost next to the boat float and there must have been crowds of people about. Surely someone saw her.’
‘That’s the thing that doesn’t really add up, Wes. A witness saw her walking towards the market square. What she was doing there, I’ve no idea. That was the last sighting though.’
‘Who was the witness?’
‘A lad who’d just finished his shift serving behind the bar at the Tradmouth Castle Hotel. We put an appeal out at the time and he answered it because he recognised her. She’d been in the hotel bar earlier that evening with her friends. She was in costume – a green dress. Quite distinctive.’
‘He was sure it was her?’
‘He seemed pretty sure at the time but who can say.’
‘Any chance he might have had something to do with it? Saw her, fancied her, tried his luck and things got out of hand?’ Wesley sometimes regretted the fact that his years in the police force had caused him to think the worst of his fellow human beings.
‘Immediately after he saw her he met some mates in the Porpoise by the market. Stayed there with them till after midnight and staggered home with a couple of them. His story checked out.’
They had just reached the police station. Wesley glanced up at the hanging baskets decorating the façade that some wit had created out of old-fashioned policemen’s helmets. The chief super had considered it a good PR stunt. Showed the force had a sense of humour.
As he made his way up the stairs with Gerry trailing behind him, he tried to visualise Jenny Bercival’s journey. To get from the boat float to the market square Jenny would have had to make a detour past the Memorial Gardens and then take the side road past the Butterwalk up to the market. If she was supposed to be heading to the park and ride it didn’t make sense, unless she’d arranged to meet someone there.
He stopped on the stairs and waited for Gerry. ‘Were the friends from Millicombe eliminated?’ he asked.
Gerry halted to catch his breath and it was a few seconds before he spoke. ‘Oh yes. They all went off for a drink immediately after the concert. One lad we talked to had known Jenny for years because their families were always down here at the same time, and to give him his due, he did offer to walk her to the park-and-ride stop and wait for the bus with her but she refused.’
‘He didn’t know if she’d arranged to meet someone else?’
‘She didn’t mention it. But he did say she’d been acting strangely, as if she had a secret. I think she was up to something.’
‘Possibly. If you ask me, she was good at keeping her cards close to her chest. When she didn’t arrive home that night, Mrs Bercival thought she’d probably spent the night with friends – or a boyfriend – so didn’t report her missing till the following evening. An appeal was put out and a few witnesses came forward but, apart from the sighting near the market, there was nothing much to go on and no useful CCTV once she’d left the town centre. The market area was searched and we made house-to-house visits to all the properties in the streets round about but we drew a blank, Wes. It was as if she’d vanished into thin air.’
When they reached the CID office they stopped by the door.
‘So what do you think happened to her?’ Wesley asked.
Gerry sighed. ‘Suicide maybe. She’d been fragile since her dad left home so she might have chucked herself in the river or she might have fallen in by accident and her body never turned up. As you know, it happens from time to time. The currents are lethal around here.’