Read The Shroud Maker Online

Authors: Kate Ellis

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

The Shroud Maker (6 page)

Gerry walked on and Wesley saw him take out his mobile and check it for messages. Rosie still hadn’t been in touch. Wesley, tempted to tell him that there was probably nothing to worry about, knew the words would sound trite and unconvincing so he said nothing.

They arrived at the mortuary and made straight for Colin’s office. He was waiting for them, writing up notes. When Gerry greeted him he smiled.

‘You managed to navigate your way through the crowds then.’

‘It’s not as bad out there as it was yesterday,’ replied Gerry.

Colin looked straight at Wesley. ‘What do you make of our strange customs?’ His expression suddenly changed, as though he’d realised the question might have been construed as racist. ‘Coming from London, that is,’ he said quickly. ‘You must think all this business about John Palkin’s a bit…’ He searched for a suitable word. ‘Obsessive.’

Wesley hadn’t taken offence. He recognised racism when he encountered it and he knew that was the last thing on Colin’s mind. ‘It brings a lot of visitors into town,’ he said. ‘Bit of a nuisance for the locals though.’

‘You can say that again,’ Gerry muttered.

‘I’m just amazed at how the young people enter into the spirit of the thing,’ Colin continued. ‘Some of them make a real effort with the clothes. I include our corpse in that, by the way. Her dress seems elaborate, to say the least. It must have been expensive. I take it we haven’t got a name for her yet?’

‘Not yet,’ said Wesley.

Colin stood up. He was already wearing a green surgical gown, half-prepared for his gruesome task. They followed him out of the office, down the corridor to the postmortem room. Unlike the new facility at Morbay Hospital a few miles away, there was no glass screen here to shelter behind. Nothing to separate them from the reality of what was going on, from the smells and sounds associated with Colin’s painstaking dissection of the body on the table.

The dead girl had been undressed and her blue velvet gown lay on a nearby steel trolley, packed up in a large paper evidence bag. According to reports, Jenny Bercival had been wearing a similar green gown when she’d vanished. If this was Jenny, perhaps she owned two. Wesley examined the packages. One for the gown. One for the shoes. One for the underwear; through a clear window in the bag he could see a black lacy bra and matching pants which looked decidedly twenty-first century.

‘There’s a label in the gown, by the way,’ said Colin as he watched Wesley pick up the package. ‘A company called Bygone and Sons, theatrical costumiers.’

‘Thanks,’ said Wesley. ‘I’ll get someone on to it.’

Colin turned his attention to the woman on the slab and began to speak into the microphone which dangled above her body. He made his first observations. A well-nourished young woman in her early twenties. As for distinguishing features, there was a tattoo on her left shoulder blade which was about two inches across and appeared to be a depiction of a medieval ship.

Colin nodded to his assistant who slid a gloved hand underneath the shoulder and lifted it for Wesley and Gerry to see. It was a ship all right, almost identical in shape to the cog moored not a hundred yards from the hospital entrance.

Wesley’s heart began to beat a little faster. ‘Jenny Bercival had a tattoo like that.’

Gerry nodded and Colin gave him an inquisitive look.

‘A girl went missing last year at the last Palkin Festival. According to her mother, she had a tattoo exactly like that on her shoulder,’ said Gerry.

Colin raised his eyebrows. ‘You think this might be her?’

Gerry frowned. ‘I spent hours staring at that girl’s photo when she vanished last year. I admit the hair’s similar and she’s the same physical type but…’ He hesitated. ‘I can’t be sure.’

‘Even if this isn’t Jenny Bercival, the tattoo suggests there must be a connection,’ said Wesley.

‘I’ve seen a lot of people around during the festival wearing badges with a similar image,’ said Colin. ‘I did wonder about their significance. Whether it was some club or…’

‘It shouldn’t be hard to nab someone and ask them what it means,’ said Wesley. ‘If we don’t manage to do it on the way back to the station, I’ll get someone to check it out today.’

If nothing else, it was a starting point. If this wasn’t Jenny – and in spite of Gerry’s misgivings, he felt pretty sure that it must be – this dead girl might still be connected to her in some way.

‘Do we have a time of death, Colin?’ asked Gerry.

‘Early on Saturday morning. Probably about five to seven hours before she was found.’

Colin began to study the angry line around the dead woman’s neck where the ligature had been pulled tight. ‘Whoever killed her came up on her from behind. He must have put the ligature over her head and crossed it over at the back like so.’ He raised his hands and performed a demonstration using gestures.

‘What do you reckon he used?’ Gerry asked.

Colin examined the area closely with a magnifying glass. ‘Not a rope. Something flat and smooth and just over an inch wide judging by the mark on her neck. There are tiny traces of something that could be leather on the flesh but I’ll send them off to the lab for analysis. If I’m right, it could be a belt or some kind of strap.’

Wesley thought for a few moments. ‘If this does turn out to be Jenny Bercival, where has she been for a year?’

‘And who with,’ said Colin. ‘Find that out and you’re halfway to finding her killer.’

 

There is no doubt that John Palkin made enemies throughout his life and perhaps these enemies are responsible for some of the more colourful stories that have been passed down over the centuries.

In the town records of Tradmouth there exists a letter written by Palkin complaining of the machinations of someone called the Shroud Maker, although the accusations are not specific. It has been surmised by historians that this shroud maker was most likely his younger brother, Henry Palkin, a rope maker who equipped Palkin’s ships, shrouds being the ropes that support the masts. Tradmouth’s lengthy rope walk is still just visible in a wooded terraced area above the town and the manufacture of rope for shrouds and other rigging was a major and essential industry during the port’s heyday.

It may be that John Palkin had some dispute with his brother, and yet on the death of Palkin’s only son, Richard, Henry became his sole heir.

 
 

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

 

It felt good to be digging there on the bank of the river on a fine day, watching the boats as the small white clouds scuttled across the blue sky. Neil didn’t mind working through the weekend. On a day like this he loved his job, although over the past couple of years when he’d been stuck in a muddy trench in driving November rain that love had begun to lose its lustre. But you can’t be a fair-weather archaeologist in the British Isles. He’d accepted that long ago.

He adjusted his kneeling mat and started to tease away the earth again. Dave had just opened up a new trench a few yards away in what Neil had calculated to be the interior of the warehouse, the very place where all that Bordeaux wine had been stored all those centuries ago.

The diggers worked silently now, intent on each new discovery, and the only sound Neil could hear, apart from the lapping water and the vociferous seagulls, was the scraping of metal trowels on the newly uncovered stones.

‘How’s it going?’

Neil looked up. Chris Butcher was standing at the back door of the house. He had abandoned his medieval costume today and was wearing shorts and a polo shirt. His greying hair was tousled by the breeze blowing in off the water and the tan on his face and limbs suggested a recent holiday somewhere with plentiful sunshine. The look was one of effortless prosperity, as though he’d been sprayed with some invisible golden lacquer.

Neil stood. ‘We think we’ve found the floor of Palkin’s warehouse.’ He pointed at the spot where a female student was digging. ‘In a few places you can still see the old cobbles and the position of what’s left of the walls indicates that this is an interior space rather than a courtyard.’

‘That’s fantastic,’ Butcher said enthusiastically, like a child with a brand-new and exciting toy. ‘How do you know it’s the warehouse and not his house? Weren’t they next to each other?’

‘A very early map of the town actually shows the building. The structure just here jutting out from the main house is labelled as “Palkin’s warehouse”. Besides, the warehouse would be nearest the river so the goods could be hoisted in from the ships. Not dressing up for the festival today?’

Butcher shook his head. ‘I’m going later. Astrid wants to visit a gallery in Tradmouth first. She’s seen a picture that she says would be perfect for the house when it’s finished.’ He nodded towards the run-down bungalow that would soon, no doubt, be transformed into a palace of luxury and good taste, and gave Neil a conspiratorial smile. ‘Between you and me, she doesn’t share my enthusiasm for all things Palkin.’

‘You’re really into all this Palkin business, aren’t you?’ Something about the man’s zest for the subject intrigued him.

‘Absolutely.’ He sounded like an old-fashioned schoolboy discussing the latest comic. He wondered if Butcher, like many people, had a rose-tinted view of the violent and foul-smelling past. But Butcher was paying for the excavation so he smiled back indulgently. Never let cold facts get in the way of someone’s harmless passions.

After a brief discussion of the dig’s latest finds – several large sherds of medieval pottery and a coin dating to the reign of Edward II – Butcher left Neil to resume his work.

As he returned to his trench he noticed that Dave had stopped work and was staring at a newly uncovered section of bare earth with a frown on his face.

‘How’s it going?’ he called across.

Dave turned to look at Neil. ‘It looks as if the soil’s been disturbed in this area. But I guess it might have been done when the bungalow was built.’

Neil stood up and squinted at the place where Dave was digging. The ground certainly looked different here, and as it wasn’t particularly near the bungalow he found it rather puzzling. He tilted his head to one side and stared at the ground. ‘It’d liven things up a bit if we find a body,’ he joked.

Dave rolled his eyes and carried on digging.

Neil looked round. Near the boundary with the next property the wall between the garden and the road was lower and from time to time passers-by stopped to watch them at work. The old man with the weather-beaten face and the old Breton cap had been there on and off since the start, watching, staring as if he was waiting for something. But as soon as he saw Neil looking in his direction he vanished like a ghost.

 

If you’re looking for something, you can never find it even if you’ve seen it hundreds of times before. So it was with the black-and-white ship badges. As Wesley walked back to the police station by Gerry’s side, he scanned all the people he passed but none of them was wearing the badge. He’d thought it would be easy but now it turned out that there was nobody to ask.

They returned to the station via the waterfront and as they walked the postmortem was still on Wesley’s mind. According to Colin, the victim’s stomach contents revealed that she hadn’t eaten since the evening before she was found. But she’d been drinking whisky around five to six hours before death and she’d also had sex, probably consensual as there were no signs of violence. Samples had been taken and now it was a case of hoping for a DNA match. Wesley could tell by Gerry’s expression that he was optimistic about identifying the lover who might also be her murderer. If his DNA wasn’t on the database, though, Wesley knew they might have a struggle.

Rachel had been sent to get a DNA sample from Mrs Bercival, assuring her that it was just routine. Mrs Bercival had refused to believe that the dead woman could be Jenny, but Wesley wondered if she was deceiving herself. Sometimes the only way to deal with pain is to deny that it exists.

They turned left to walk through the Memorial Gardens where craft stalls were crowded into the little square by the bandstand. People were hovering around them like wasps at a picnic, examining the colourful goods for sale: paintings, ceramics, cushions, preserves, jewellery, driftwood sculptures – the usual items on the tourist wish list. The stalls held no interest for Wesley and Gerry so they strode past; the police station was in sight now and they needed to get back.

Apart from complaining that he needed a strong coffee, Gerry had been uncharacteristically quiet. Wesley guessed he was preoccupied by Rosie’s lack of contact and he felt for him.

They had just passed the last stall when Wesley heard a familiar voice calling his name. This was all he needed.

He was torn between the temptation to ignore Pam’s mother, Della, and his ingrained belief that any greeting demanded a civilised response. He blamed his upbringing and his parents who had always insisted on good manners, whatever the situation. Nurture got the better of him and he stopped and turned round.

Della was standing behind one of the stalls, an array of garishly coloured pottery ranged in front of her, most of it hideous. She was waving enthusiastically. Wesley always felt uneasy when Della was enthusiastic.

‘I’ll go on. Don’t be long.’ Normally Gerry would have made some witty comment but he sounded serious. Before Wesley had the chance to reply Gerry had gone, weaving his way through the crowd.

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