Authors: Kate Ellis
Tags: #Fiction, #Crime, #Mystery & Detective, #Hard-Boiled, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #General
Wesley hesitated. ‘Of course she might have been abducted.’
‘Or she might have chosen to disappear. Trouble at home and all that. What do you make of the anonymous letter?’
‘Could be someone playing mind games. Some sick people get a thrill out of things like that.’
‘I don’t know how her mother thinks she’ll find the truth at this bloody festival. Only thing she’s guaranteed to find here is a load of drunks and show-offs who like dressing up and making fools of themselves. And the sailing of course. The regatta attracts the crowds.’
‘But I can understand why she’s grasping at any glimmer of hope,’ said Wesley. ‘She’ll want to feel she’s doing something.’
They entered the office. DS Rachel Tracey was sitting at her desk and as soon as she saw them she stood up, an eager look on her face, as though she’d been waiting for them with important news. She’d lost weight recently and now she was slim, almost to the point of thinness, and her dark trouser suit and recently cut fine blonde hair gave her a businesslike appearance. Wesley had preferred her hair long, although he hadn’t commented on her new style. At one time there’d been a frisson of attraction between them. But he was a married man and the diamond solitaire ring on Rachel’s wedding finger announced to the world that she was engaged, although her enthusiasm for the wedding arrangements had hardly reached bridezilla proportions. Wesley briefly found himself wondering why he found her apparent lack of interest in her forthcoming nuptials so gratifying.
‘I was just about to call you,’ Rachel began. ‘Bloxham lifeboat’s been called out to a dinghy drifting near the mouth of the river. It contained the body of a young woman. Looks suspicious.’
‘Where’s the body now?’ Wesley asked, looking at Gerry.
‘The lifeboat’s towing the dinghy round the headland to Bloxham. In view of the Palkin Festival they thought it’d be best to avoid Tradmouth.’
Wesley nodded. In normal circumstances, Tradmouth would have been the obvious destination but the lifeboat crew had shown initiative. ‘We’d better get over there,’ he said.
‘Just hope we can get on the car ferry,’ Gerry said with uncharacteristic pessimism. ‘Good job this bloody festival only happens once a year. Robberies, disappearances, dead women in dinghies. What next?’ he added to nobody in particular.
Wesley caught Rachel’s eye and she gave him a coy smile. He almost asked her how Nigel, her fiancé, was. However, the discovery of a body made social chit-chat seem somehow inappropriate.
As he drove out of town with Gerry in the passenger seat, the crowds were thronging on to the embankment to watch a rowing race on the river, the participants in an approximation of medieval clothing. A couple of the vessels had painted dragon prows more in keeping with Viking longboats. But the festival spirit allowed a few historical mix-ups.
‘Wonder where they get all these costumes from,’ Wesley pondered, steering the car away from the thronging river. ‘And what are these black-and-white badges people are wearing?’
‘No idea,’ Gerry replied as they passed another park-and-ride bus crammed with passengers.
‘Shouldn’t be hard to find out.’ Wesley frowned, concentrating on the crowded road. ‘Medieval ships. Mrs Bercival said Jenny had a tattoo in the shape of a medieval ship. Might be worth looking into.’
‘Might be, Wes. I’ll leave it to you. Did you know there was a special service at St Margaret’s yesterday evening – I was singing in the choir. A thanksgiving to commemorate the life of John Palkin. I reckon an exorcism would be more appropriate. The old bugger still haunts the place, bringing all sorts of trouble with him.’
‘We don’t know that this body in the dinghy has anything to do with the festival.’
‘If I was a betting man I’d put good money on Palkin being involved somewhere along the line.’
The queue for the car ferry wasn’t as bad as feared and they were soon driving past fields and woods down the network of narrow lanes that led to the fishing port of Bloxham. He’d been told that the pathologist, Colin Bowman, had already been summoned, along with the crime-scene team. Once the body had been photographed and carefully removed to the mortuary for the postmortem, the inflatable dinghy would be minutely examined in the hope that it might yield some useful information.
When they arrived in Bloxham they found that the lifeboat had towed the dinghy to a quiet part of the harbour, well away from the fishing boats and the bobbing yachts. Normally tourists would be milling around the waterfront but the Palkin Festival had lured everyone away into Tradmouth, leaving the quayside almost deserted. This wasn’t a bad thing because gawping sightseers would have impeded the work of the team gathered around a wooden jetty that had been sealed off with police tape, most of them wearing what Gerry described as snowman suits.
The lifeboat was tied up at the end where four lifeboatmen in bright orange clothing were standing around talking to a trio of uniformed officers who’d been assigned to take their statements, glancing nervously at the crime-scene team a few yards away. They were used to dealing with danger, and occasionally death, but Wesley sensed that what they’d just witnessed was new to them.
Gerry, the experienced sailor who’d served in the merchant navy before joining the police, strode down the jetty ahead of Wesley who trailed behind. The salty tang of seaweed hung in the air mingled with the smell of fish from that day’s catch, and the gulls cried overhead like lost souls as the police photographers went about their work, capturing every detail from every conceivable angle.
Before Gerry and Wesley could get to the focus of all the attention, they were handed their white suits. In his, Gerry’s expanding middle gave him the look of a plump goose as he waddled amongst the assembled CSIs. When he reached the edge of the jetty he stopped and stared ahead. The high tide had raised the dinghy almost level with the landing stage and Wesley, standing beside the DCI, felt that if he wanted, he could squat down and touch the dead woman in the boat.
The first thing he noticed about her was her dress. It was blue velvet with a high waist and squared neckline and its voluminous folds had been neatly arranged. She had been laid out with apparent reverence, her hands crossed over her chest. Her long auburn hair was carefully spread out like a halo around her head. She wasn’t particularly tall and she fitted perfectly in the dinghy. On her feet she wore fashionable black leather ballet pumps, the kind you could see in any high-street shoe shop, the dead woman’s only concession to the present day.
Lying there in the bottom of the boat, she might have conjured a romantic image if it wasn’t for her face, gull-pecked and contorted in agony. Her neck too told of violence and bore the angry mark of some kind of ligature.
‘Whoever killed her took some trouble to arrange her like that,’ Wesley said.
Before Gerry could reply Wesley heard Colin Bowman’s voice calling a hearty greeting. The pathologist, tall and thin with a freckled face, receding hair and a genial expression, made his way down the jetty carrying the bag which contained the mysterious tools of his trade. Wesley knew that Gerry was relieved to see him. There’d been a chance that his colleague Dr Jane Partridge might have turned up in his place – and she and Gerry had never really seen eye to eye.
As always with Colin, social pleasantries had to be exchanged before he got down to the serious business of examining the corpse. So, after inquiring about the detectives’ respective families and commenting on the popularity of the Palkin Festival, he donned his crime-scene suit and stooped to make his preliminary examination.
He asked whether the photographers and CSIs had finished, and after a while permission was given for the body to be moved on to the quayside so he could carry out his task more thoroughly. Getting the dead woman out of the small, rocking craft proved a challenge but eventually she lay like a sunbather on the wooden planking. At last Colin could work unimpeded and his preliminary verdict came as little surprise. The woman was in her early to mid twenties and his initial conclusion was that she’d died of strangulation. He would be able to tell them more after the postmortem which he would perform first thing the following morning.
The discreet black van was waiting in front of a quayside pub to take the dead woman away and Wesley watched as the stretcher was placed carefully in the back. He bowed his head. They didn’t know who she was yet – the CSIs had found no identification on the body – but her costume had been rich and elaborate, chosen with care. And she was somebody’s daughter, somebody’s lover: surely she would be missed.
Rosie Heffernan rarely told anybody what her father did for a living. She’d discovered long ago that being labelled a policeman’s daughter created some kind of invisible barrier between you and your fellows. Not that her friends and colleagues had any criminal connections – but there were always the minor transgressions; the smoking of the occasional spliff; the purchase of the latest phone at an unfeasibly cheap price in a pub; or some swapped responsibility for a speeding ticket. It was useless protesting that her dad was a DCI dealing with serious crime and was unlikely to concern himself with such relatively minor sins. It was easier not to mention his job at all. If anyone asked, she told them he worked for the local council.
The school half-term holiday had just begun and she’d grabbed the chance of the break from her job teaching music at Morbay Comprehensive School – now renamed Morbay Academy, a specialist arts college – to embark on a musical adventure of her own. Medieval music had always interested her and she’d been flattered when she’d been asked to join Palkin’s Musik, the ad hoc group formed especially to perform at the festival.
If it had rained, they would have played in the main marquee in the Jubilee Park but as that evening was forecast to be fine they would perform on the floating stage that had been built on the boat float for the festival. Palkin’s Musik was headlining that evening, entertaining the revellers with music from the Middle Ages played on replicas of original instruments. Angelus and Virginem, a jaunty pop tune from the age of Chaucer, and swirling Italian dances from the time of Boccaccio. She liked the catchy melodies and bouncing rhythms that set audiences tapping their feet whenever they performed. Sometimes they even danced, swinging around like barn dancers.
Dan Hungerford had assembled the group by using his contacts – a mixture of former music students and those with an interest in early music. Rosie had met Dan when he’d visited her school to give a talk on the benefits of studying music and she’d found his single-minded enthusiasm infectious. This same enthusiasm united the clashing personalities that formed Palkin’s Musik.
Rosie herself played the recorder, which made a change from her usual range of instruments but presented her with no particular problem. Then there was Kassia on viol, Ursula on rebec and lute, Harry on shawm and sackbut and Dan himself on percussion and hurdy-gurdy. Kassia also sang. She had a lovely voice, pure and angelic, a voice that Rosie envied, as she did the attention Kassia’s beauty brought with it. If pushed, she might have confessed that she didn’t much like Kassia, but for the sake of musical harmony she’d kept her mouth shut.
It was time for rehearsal. Like most other people taking part in the Palkin Festival she’d dressed up for the duration. So many people had made the effort with costumes this year that she would have felt a little out of place in her everyday clothes – like a teetotaller at a boozy party. She wore a high-waisted brown gown – plain, not like Kassia’s princess outfit. During performances she donned a conical headdress, a hennin to give it its proper name, with a gauzy veil billowing from the back, like a puff of smoke from a chimney. It was a clichéd accessory, like something from a pantomime. Dan had said it looked right, though, so she didn’t argue.
Before the rehearsal Harry had picked her up from her flat in Morbay. He drove a battered and unreliable Skoda but, as she had no transport of her own, she had little choice but to trust herself to the vagaries of the ageing vehicle. Fortunately they had reached the rehearsal venue just in time: St Leonard’s Church Hall on the edge of Tradmouth, available to them between the morning’s toddler group and the evening’s pensioners’ whist drive.
When Rosie had first arrived she’d feared they were slightly late – then she’d realised that Kassia wasn’t there and felt a frisson of satisfaction that she’d put a foot wrong.
Dan Hungerford was looking at his watch anxiously, asking everyone whether they’d heard from Kassia. Someone said the traffic was bad and she might have been delayed. But when half an hour later Kassia still hadn’t shown up, people began to worry.
Neil Watson was used to taking part in digs that were accessible to the general public, digs where he had to field the same questions over and over again. So when he’d received the phone call out of the blue inviting him to excavate the site of John Palkin’s house, he hadn’t much liked the idea of being on display during the Palkin Festival. Too many tourists. Too many idiots in fancy dress. Too many potential drunks and ignoramuses around who might interfere with his precious excavation.
However, it turned out that he’d misunderstood. This particular dig was strictly private. The owner of the site, Chris Butcher, had made his fortune from the internet – Neil was vague as to the details – and had bought a bungalow on the edge of the river as a second, or maybe even a third, home: a pied-à-terre in one of the most eye-wateringly expensive spots in the West Country.
The bungalow itself stood in a large and neglected garden that led down to the water’s edge, hidden behind a tall stone wall. The place had been built in the late 1940s and was in sore need of renovation.