Read The Shroud Maker Online

Authors: Kate Ellis

Tags: #Fiction, #Crime, #Mystery & Detective, #Hard-Boiled, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #General

The Shroud Maker (4 page)

As soon as the builders began digging the foundations for the proposed extension, they’d uncovered the remnants of some stone walls and Butcher, having a keen interest in such things, had started to research the history of the site. He’d been unable to contain his delight when he’d discovered that John Palkin’s house and warehouse had stood on that very spot so he’d halted the building work for the time being and called in the County Archaeological Unit to conduct an excavation. He was funding the whole thing himself and Neil couldn’t quite believe his good fortune. Many wealthy men he’d come across in the course of his career would have instructed his builders to destroy the medieval walls and carry on so he’d found himself liking Chris Butcher before he’d even met him. Especially now that recent budget cuts had placed the Unit’s future in jeopardy.

Neil pushed his fair hair behind his ears. Most of his contemporaries had tidied up their appearance years ago, but Neil still regarded his worn combat jacket and stained cargo pants as a badge of office. Maybe in a couple of years he’d adopt an Indiana Jones hat, just to complete the look, he thought as he trowelled the soil away from the remnants of a wall.

He could hear music in the distance, drifting over from the fairground on Tradmouth’s main car park. He’d experienced the Palkin Festival in previous years and knew it was an event to avoid if possible; full of kids in fancy costumes using Tradmouth’s most famous son as an excuse for overindulgence.

‘I think I’ve found a cobbled floor surface – could be medieval.’

Neil looked round and saw his colleague, Dave, squatting on his haunches a couple of yards away, a frown on his face and the trowel in his right hand poised in midair. Dave was a large man with a prominent beer gut. Like Neil, he wore his hair long, only Dave’s was thinning on top which gave him the look of a dissipated monk.

Neil straightened himself up and walked over to have a look at Dave’s discovery. ‘All the documentary evidence points to this part of the site being Palkin’s warehouse so a cobbled floor would make sense. The house would have been nearer the road – probably where the present bungalow stands.’

Dave scraped away more soil. ‘Looks as if it would have been a good dry floor in its day,’ he said. ‘But if he was a merchant bringing in wine from France, he’d have wanted a decent warehouse to store it in. It must have been tacked on to the back of the house.’

‘People lived over the shop in those days.’

Dave nodded, adjusted his kneeling mat and returned to work. The other diggers, a couple of PhD students and a trio of undergraduates glad of the experience, were working away nearer the bungalow. The late May weather was being kind to them and so far things were going well.

Neil spoke again. ‘I saw Chris Butcher going out before, all dressed up in his medieval finery. They really go for this Palkin thing round here, don’t they.’

‘Any excuse for a party,’ Dave said dismissively. ‘Have you seen that ship moored on the embankment? It’s a replica of Palkin’s flagship the
Maudelayne
apparently.’

‘I know. There were bloody great queues to go on board earlier or I might have treated myself.’

Neil stopped digging and felt a twinge of pain in his back. Perhaps, he thought, it was nature’s way of telling him to be a little less hands-on. Some retired archaeologist had once said that when middle age begins to creep up, you should retreat to a nice warm office to carry out desk-based assessments, write reports, process finds and dispense your expertise to your devoted followers. Trouble was, Neil lived for the thrill of the dig and devoted followers were thin on the ground. Still, there was always the option of paying a visit to an osteopath.

‘Wasn’t Palkin supposed to be some sort of pirate?’ asked Dave.

Neil looked out over the river, teeming with yachts and pleasure craft. Sailing as a leisure pursuit would have been unthinkable back in Palkin’s day. Handling a ship with its rigging and sails, pitting yourself against winds and storms, wasn’t something to be taken lightly.

‘That’s one way of looking at it,’ Neil replied. ‘He made his fortune from trade then he was licensed by the King as a privateer, attacking the vessels of enemy countries and getting a share of the proceeds.’ He paused. ‘And he was supposed to have sold his soul to the Devil in return for great riches.’

Dave smirked with disbelief, shrugged his broad shoulders and focused on uncovering the cobbled floor. These were tales to scare the gullible.

 

John Palkin was the son of Ralph Palkin, himself a well-to-do Tradmouth merchant who first appears in the town records in 1338. Ralph Palkin and his wife, Alice, were granted a piece of land on the shore between Baynard’s Quay and Battlefleet Creek where he built a quay for use by his trading ships, a house referred to in contemporary documents as Palkin’s Hall. There was also a warehouse on the site where he could unload and store his lucrative cargos.

Ralph Palkin’s cogs sailed up the River Trad to Neston where they would load up with woollen cloth before sailing across the Channel to sell the cloth in France and return with a rich cargo of wine from Bordeaux. It was a lucrative trade and when Ralph died in 1358, John inherited the house and ships and the enterprise flourished.

However, John’s younger brother, Henry, resented his brother’s success. He too worked in the family business, in charge of the ropeworks, a vital but workaday part of the enterprise. How Henry’s bitterness towards his older brother must have grown and festered as John prospered.

 
 

From ‘The Sea Devil – the Story of John Palkin’ by Josiah Palkin-Wright. Published 1896

 

An incident room had been set up at Tradmouth police station and Wesley had sent a team of officers out to make inquiries amongst the festival crowds. Others trawled through missing persons reports and attempted to trace the origin of the dinghy that had served as the dead woman’s floating coffin.

It took less than an hour to confirm that no one answering her description had been reported missing. And so far nobody with a boat moored in Tradmouth had admitted to missing a dinghy, a common type stowed aboard many of the vessels in the harbour.

The yachtsman who’d reported the body had been interviewed but he’d come upon it by chance and could tell them nothing more. By seven thirty Wesley was becoming impatient for some snippet of useful information to come in. A dead woman in full medieval costume cast adrift in a flimsy boat. If the yachtsman hadn’t seen her when he did, the dinghy would most likely have carried her out to sea where it would have capsized, taking her down into the depths with it. He was as sure as he could be that this had been her murderer’s intention; only she had been spotted before this convenient disposal could take place.

There was nothing much they could do until the team’s inquiries began to bear fruit so Wesley seized the opportunity to acquaint himself with the Jenny Bercival case. Ever since the dead woman had been discovered so soon after their visit to Jenny’s mother, the two cases had become entwined in his consciousness and he couldn’t banish the thought that the dead woman might be Jenny. After all, the physical description was similar.

He spent ten minutes comparing the latest crime-scene pictures with photographs of Jenny: a smiling graduation picture provided by her mother and a more casually posed holiday snap. When he’d finished he walked into Gerry’s office. The DCI looked up from the reports he was reading and his eyes lit up, as if he was grateful for the company.

‘Do you think our dead woman’s Jenny Bercival?’ Wesley asked as he sat down.

Gerry frowned. ‘To tell you the truth, Wes, it’s the first thing that occurred to me. I’ve sent Rachel to tell Mrs Bercival that a body’s been found. I didn’t want her to hear about it on the news.’

‘So you do think it’s her?’

Gerry looked uncertain. ‘There is a resemblance but…’

‘Is it worth getting Mrs Bercival to identify her? Or maybe a DNA test would be better. Then we’ll know for sure without the poor woman having to go through the ordeal of viewing the body.’

‘Good idea, Wes.’

‘I’ll arrange it tomorrow.’

‘What’s come in so far?’ Gerry asked.

‘Nothing much but it’s early days. It’ll be on the TV news tonight so someone might come forward with information.’

‘Either that or tomorrow we’ll have every nutcase and timewaster in the West Country queuing up at the door.’ Gerry gave a loud yawn. ‘Why don’t you get off home, Wes, and we’ll make an early start in the morning?’ He glanced at his watch. ‘I’ve got to leave at nine anyway ’cause it’s Rosie’s performance tonight.’ He gave a coy smile. ‘She said she didn’t want me there but… Well, you’ve got to show your support, haven’t you.’

‘What is it she’s doing?’

‘She’s in an early music group. Palkin’s Musik they call themselves. Musik spelled with a “k”. It’s medieval music played on original instruments. Sackbuts and hurdy-gurdies, that sort of thing.’

Wesley could tell that the boss was brimming with pride in his talented daughter. ‘Enjoy yourself,’ he said, edging towards the door. He’d already rung his wife, Pam, to say he’d be late and she’d sounded resigned rather than annoyed; then again she’d had long and bitter experience of his working hours during a murder investigation. There were times when he was afraid her patience would run out, though that was something he tried not to think about.

He often walked back home up Albany Street so retracing Jenny Bercival’s last journey wouldn’t take him out of his way. As he left the police station he wove through throngs of festival-goers, all dressed as if it was the year 1400. Wives, maidens, jesters, merchants, knights, peasants and kings and a fair few portly bearded Palkin lookalikes. The whole of medieval life was there in Tradmouth and on every street corner buskers played the greatest hits from the Middle Ages on strange and ancient instruments.

The crowd appeared to be making for the waterfront where there was entertainment and an ale marquee and Wesley noticed large groups of teenagers with black-and-white ship badges pinned on to their elaborate costumes. He had assumed that the most enthusiastic participants in the Palkin Festival would be the type who were into real ale and morris dancing and this lot didn’t fit his mental stereotype at all.

Once he’d reached the market and pushed past the drinkers spilling out of the Porpoise, he made for the flight of old stone steps that led up to Albany Street, the old packhorse route into Tradmouth with its wide, shallow steps leading up to St Leonard’s Church at the top of the town. Jenny Bercival had last been spotted near here by the off-duty barman. But where had she gone? She might have cut down the back street leading back to the waterfront or she might have retraced her steps into the town centre. Without witnesses there was no way of knowing. And if it was Jenny in that dinghy, where had she been in the intervening year?

As he walked up Albany Street he found himself looking at each small, pastel-painted house. Had Jenny visited one of them? Many were let out as holiday homes so the population was transient and when house-to-house inquiries had been made nobody had admitted to seeing her. But why had nobody except the barman spotted her that night a year ago when the festival had been in full swing? Where could she have gone?

Pondering the possibilities made the journey home pass quickly and before he knew it he’d arrived at his modern house at the top of the town. It was almost dark and Pam had switched the front-room lights on but hadn’t yet drawn the curtains. The scene inside looked warm and inviting. And he was hungry.

Pam greeted him with a quick absent-minded kiss. She was wearing a short cotton skirt and a pink vest top, dressed for good weather although as sunshine had been scarce so far that year her bare limbs were pale.

She pushed back her shoulder-length brown hair and took his arm. ‘I heard about the body in the boat on the news so I wasn’t expecting you back so soon,’ she said as she led him into the kitchen. ‘They said it was suspicious. How did she…?’

‘Colin’s doing the PM first thing tomorrow but all the signs are that she was strangled.’ He took her hand and squeezed it. ‘There wasn’t much we could do tonight until more information comes in but it’ll be a long day tomorrow.’

She didn’t try to hide her disappointment. ‘This would have to happen when I’m off work for half term. You couldn’t have arranged it better.’

He gave her an inquisitive look, unsure whether this was a joke or a rebuke. ‘Where are the kids?’

‘Michael’s staying the night at Nathaniel’s and Amelia’s round at your sister’s cooing over her new cousin. She wanted to stay the night and Maritia said it was fine by her. Mark’ll bring her home in the morning.’

Wesley sat down at the table. All was well and he felt a warm glow inside. His sister, Maritia – a GP and the wife of a local vicar – had recently given birth to a baby boy called Dominic who, during his short life, had managed to charm all around him, including Wesley’s nine-year-old daughter, Amelia. Spending the night in such close proximity to the object of her devotion would be a major treat for her. Wesley’s son, Michael, seemed to have got over the rocky patch he’d gone through last term when he’d been the victim of bullying and had had a slight brush with the law. Pam approved of Michael’s friendship with Nathaniel and she was delighted that the two boys would be going to the same school next term. The jagged rocks of negative peer pressure had been narrowly avoided this time. As a teacher she’d seen many a child come to grief on those rocks in the past.

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