Read The Shroud Maker Online

Authors: Kate Ellis

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

The Shroud Maker (5 page)

‘Just the two of us then,’ he said.

‘You hungry? I’ve made a chilli.’

He caught her hand and stood up. ‘I can eat later.’

She grasped his meaning at once and began to lead him out into the hall. With the children out of the house it was almost like old times, and as it was the school holidays Pam was a different woman to the stressed-out, snappy creature of termtime when juggling child care, teaching, and paperwork took its toll. During the holidays their marriage seemed solid but in termtime Wesley sometimes felt things were more fragile. Pity retirement was years away.

They reached the foot of the stairs and kissed, first tentatively, then with more passion.

The doorbell rang. Pam swore under her breath.

‘Don’t answer it,’ Wesley said.

‘We can be seen through the glass in the door. Besides, it might be important.’

She wriggled out of Wesley’s arms, kissing him lightly on the lips. The moment was lost. When she opened the front door he saw Neil standing there on the doorstep, grinning.

‘Hope I’m not disturbing anything.’ There was a suggestion in Neil’s voice that told Wesley he’d picked up on the situation. However, he’d known Neil since they’d studied archaeology together at Exeter University, long enough to dispel any embarrassment.

‘I wasn’t expecting to see you. I’ve only just got back myself,’ he said as Pam stood aside to let Neil in. ‘Have you eaten?’

‘Yeah. But I wouldn’t say no to a drink. I was in town earlier. Word has it some woman’s been murdered.’

‘Her body was found in a dinghy floating out to sea. We’re treating it as suspicious.’ Wesley felt like changing the subject. When he turned and made for the kitchen Neil and Pam followed.

Wesley fetched his food and a bottle of Rioja. He needed it. Pam had already eaten but she sat at the table, taking charge of the wine glasses.

‘What are you doing in Tradmouth?’ Wesley said before he took his first mouthful. ‘I thought you’d be in Exeter.’

Neil leaned forward, as if about to share a confidence. ‘We’ve started working on the site of John Palkin’s house and warehouse. Down by the waterfront beyond Baynard’s Quay. There’s a bungalow there now and it’s just been bought by Chris Butcher, the internet millionaire. He’s going to renovate it and he’s letting us stay there while the dig’s on. It’s hardly the lap of luxury but it’s better than a lot of places I’ve stayed in, believe me. We’re getting as much digging done as we can before his patience wears thin and he tells the builders to get started.’

‘What’s Chris Butcher like?’ Pam asked.

Wesley excavated a forkful of chilli con carne from his plate and listened to Neil’s reply with interest. He’d heard a lot about Butcher too and he was curious.

‘He’s in his fifties but he looks a lot younger. Very charming. Charismatic, I guess you could call it. Mind you, money helps. He must have made a bloody fortune from his websites. He had a go at digging yesterday. Not that he stuck it out for long. Got bored when nothing turned up in his trench.’

‘What have you found so far?’ Wesley asked.

‘The foundations of a substantial building – probably a grand town house, although we think some of it must be under the bungalow. And we’re pretty sure we’ve found the site of Palkin’s warehouse nearer the water. There’s a section of cobbled floor that could be medieval.’

Pam took a long sip of wine. ‘Is Butcher married?’

‘Yes. His wife watches him like a hawk whenever she’s there and shoots him dirty looks if he talks to any of the girls.’ He smirked. ‘I get the feeling she’s had trouble with him in the past, if you know what I mean.’

‘Where are the Butchers staying until the house is finished?’ Wesley asked.

‘They’ve got a house in London but they spend a lot of time down here. Butcher mentioned that his wife has relatives nearby so that’s probably why. They’re living on board his yacht until the house is finished; not that that’s much hardship ’cause it’s a bloody great gin palace parked by the Marina Hotel. Butcher’s mad on medieval history and he comes down here every year for the festival.’

‘Why is Palkin still such a big noise in Tradmouth?’ To Wesley, the life of John Palkin was still a mystery. During his years in Tradmouth he’d been aware of the festival – it was hard to avoid it – and he’d heard snatches of his story here and there. But he was vague about the details.

‘Apparently he made his fortune from exporting cloth to France and bringing back cargos of wine. He was Mayor of Tradmouth three times and he built fortifications up by the castle to defend the town against the French during the Hundred Years’ War. He also attacked and robbed foreign merchant shipping with the backing of the King, so he was probably little better than a pirate gone legit. He’s buried in St Margaret’s. Posh tomb in the chancel.’ He tilted his head to one side. ‘I imagine him as a cross between a dodgy businessman and a Mafia boss.’

‘No saint then,’ remarked Pam, draining her glass.

‘Doubt it,’ Neil said as he watched Wesley finish his meal. ‘I’ve been researching him in various local history books but I’m trying to get hold of a book by a nineteenth-century historian called Josiah Palkin-Wright which went out of print decades ago.’ He paused. ‘I did hear one odd local legend, although I haven’t found anything to support it.’

‘What’s that?’

‘It’s said that he murdered two of his wives and when he died they dug him up and drove a stake through his heart.’

 

The audience applauded enthusiastically but Rosie Heffernan felt that the performance had been a shambles. Kassia had let them down badly by not appearing.

Rosie had spent the entire day in the closed bubble of rehearsal and performance. She had seen or heard nothing but the music, and the concentration required to take in Dan’s changes to the repertoire to accommodate Kassia’s absence meant that the group was oblivious to the rumours flying around the town about the discovery of a woman’s body on the river. Even if she had heard, she probably wouldn’t have associated the discovery with Kassia. Every year the Palkin Festival seemed to bring trouble of some kind in its wake. And the fact that Kassia irritated her meant that she didn’t automatically cast her in the role of victim. She was a flaky madam who’d most likely not turned up because she had a better offer.

All the members of Palkin’s Musik apart from Dan Hungerford went for a drink after the concert. Tradmouth’s pubs were packed but they’d managed to find an unoccupied corner in the Star next to St Margaret’s Church – usually a locals’ pub but now filled with people in costume in search of refreshment after a long day at the festival. Rosie didn’t feel like making the effort to get back to Morbay; besides, she’d had a bit to drink so she was planning to stay the night at her father’s house on Baynard’s Quay which couldn’t be beaten for convenience. She’d left a message on his voice mail earlier to say she’d be there at some point but she hadn’t been specific. She just hoped that Joyce, his girlfriend – if that was the right word for a woman of her father’s age – wouldn’t be there.

She left the Star, pushing her way through the drinkers, cradling her recorder case carefully against inadvertent bumps and shoves. The sudden change of temperature from the fuggy pub to the chilly May night made her shiver. Once outside in the narrow street, she hurried past a small knot of smokers hovering around the door, intent on their shared vice, and made her way down the street past the crooked quaintness of the Angel, also heaving.

A flight of steps ran beside the little half-timbered pub, leading to the street below. Tradmouth was a town of crazy levels, a builder’s nightmare, and with the dark passages and hidden stairs there were shadows, unlit places where a lone woman was wise not to venture at night. But Rosie had been raised here and familiarity quashed any fear of the unknown. She picked up the hem of her skirts and tiptoed down the steps with the confidence of one who knew the geography of the town as well as she knew her own flat. It wasn’t till she was halfway down the steps, caught between the Angel on one side and the side wall of a souvenir shop to the other, that she heard footsteps behind her ringing on the stone, getting closer. She speeded up but so did the footsteps.

She felt the hand on her shoulder and the adrenalin coursed through her body as she prepared for flight. Then she turned, breathless.

‘I’ve already told you I don’t want this anymore,’ she whispered. ‘Leave me alone.’

 

When Wesley left home the next morning Pam told him she was thinking of taking the children down to the festival later. It was Sunday so things might be quieter. Wesley suspected this was optimistic.

He walked into the town with some trepidation. Colin would be performing the postmortem first thing and he and Gerry were obliged to attend. Some people he knew became hardened over the years, but however much he tried, Wesley could never detach himself from the proceedings, never forget that the thing on the slab was a human being who had lived, loved, laughed and cried like he did. Some mother had borne and loved him or her. He or she had been to school, made friends, taken lovers, maybe had children of their own. Each was an individual.

Then there was the press. They’d got wind of the story the previous day, before Gerry and the press officer had had the chance to make a statement. Wesley knew that once word got out that the victim was wearing a medieval gown and had been cast adrift on the river like some tragic heroine from an ancient poem, they’d be besieged by slavering journalists in pursuit of the story of their careers.

There was no sign of Gerry when he arrived at the CID office. Normally when they were due to witness a postmortem he was there at his desk bright and early, raring to go. He asked Rachel if she’d seen the boss. She answered in the negative and returned to her computer to check through all recent missing persons reports, as though she wasn’t in the mood for talking. She hadn’t come up with any potential names for the dead girl yet, apart from the obvious one of Jenny Bercival.

When Gerry finally arrived he looked distracted. And as he marched straight into his office he didn’t greet his underlings with his usual repertoire of Liverpudlian witticisms, Wesley knew something was wrong. He followed Gerry in and sat down in the visitors’ chair, noticing that his boss’s eyes were bloodshot as though he hadn’t slept.

‘Something the matter, Gerry?’

Gerry sat down heavily in his swivel chair and put his head in his hands. After a few seconds he looked up. ‘I don’t know.’

Wesley waited for an explanation. Eventually it came.

‘Rosie took part in that concert last night at the boat float. I went to watch her.’ He lowered his eyes, suddenly sheepish. ‘Stood near the back of the crowd so she wouldn’t see me. I mean, I didn’t want to put her off, did I. Anyway, she’d rung home around teatime and left a message on my voice mail to say she was planning to stay the night ’cause she was going for a drink with some of her mates after the concert. Only thing is, she didn’t turn up. I’ve tried to call her mobile but there’s no answer. I’ve left messages but…’

‘She might have decided to go back after all, or to stay with a friend, and she didn’t think to let you know.’ He couldn’t say he knew Rosie Heffernan well but he had the impression that she wasn’t the most thoughtful of daughters.

‘You’re probably right, Wes.’ Gerry let out a long sigh and Wesley could sense he was trying hard to conceal a niggling worry, the sort that burrows like a worm in your mind, impossible to get rid of. ‘Joyce was going to stay at mine last night but she changed her mind because she didn’t want to upset Rosie. You know how things are.’

Wesley knew all right. He also knew the animosity was one-sided. Joyce, a plump middle-aged divorcee who worked at Morbay’s register office, had made every effort to be Rosie’s friend. But for some reason, perhaps out of loyalty to her dead mother, Rosie had seemed intent on making the woman’s life awkward. Her brother Sam got on well with Joyce. Sam, a vet, had inherited his father’s easy-going nature. Rosie, on the other hand, was highly strung and temperamental – not a comfortable person to be around. Wesley sometimes wondered what his own children would be like as adults. But he knew that it was hard to predict these things.

‘I’m sure she’s fine,’ Wesley said with as much reassurance as he could muster. He looked at his watch. ‘Time for the postmortem. Colin said nine thirty.’

Gerry stood up. Wesley could see the signs of strain on his face; the deepening of the lines around his mouth and the shadows beneath his eyes. However old your kids are, you still worry. Think the worst.

They walked to the hospital along the esplanade. The cog was still in port, tied up by the quayside. Her timbers and rigging looked quite new, just as the originals would have looked way back in the Middle Ages. A gangway had been placed between ship and shore and a small queue was forming; couples with children as well as people in costume. Gerry stopped to look at it and Wesley almost cannoned into him.

‘Fine replica,’ said the experienced sailor. ‘She was built in Bristol, so I’ve heard.’

Wesley said nothing. Maritime matters were more Gerry’s territory than his and besides, if they didn’t hurry, they’d be late for the postmortem. But he guessed Gerry was right. Whoever had built the
Maudelayne
had taken great pains to ensure the vessel’s accuracy. The one thing that surprised him was the noise, the loud creak of the timbers as the ship rocked gently on the water. For a moment he visualised the medieval harbour when the quayside would have been packed with wooden ships, scuttling to and fro from France and returning to unload the rich cargos that had made Tradmouth wealthy at that time. The sound of creaking wood must have been deafening. All that trade had brought prosperity with it, however, so Wesley doubted if anybody would have complained about the noise.

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