Authors: Kate Ellis
Tags: #Fiction, #Crime, #Mystery & Detective, #Hard-Boiled, #Thrillers, #Suspense, #General
He walked over to Della, trying his best to hide his impatience. She was in costume but the overall impression was more tavern wench than medieval lady. She wore a long black skirt and a black bodice tightly laced over a white blouse, low cut to reveal a crinkled cleavage.
‘You skiving off? No wonder there’s so much crime,’ Della said in a voice that was all too audible to anyone passing by.
‘I’ve just been attending the postmortem of a murder victim.’ He hoped this answer would shut his mother-in-law up. He’d only been with her a minute and she was beginning to irritate him.
‘Not the woman in the boat? “The Lady of Shalott” the papers are calling her. Know who she is yet? If she’s a tourist it won’t be good for the festival. I mean —’
‘Sorry, Della, I’ve got to get back to the station,’ Wesley said.
‘Suit yourself. I’m just looking after this stall for a friend. I was thinking of calling round tonight to see my grandchildren. They’ll be in, I take it?’
‘Why don’t you ring Pam and find out?’
He’d been so anxious to get away that he hadn’t been looking at her closely. Only now did he notice it – a small black-and-white badge pinned to the front of her bodice. A black cog sailing on a stark white sea.
‘That badge you’re wearing…’
‘What about it?’
‘Does it have any significance?’
He could see distrust in her eyes. Why did he want to know? What was he after? She taught at a further education college and prided herself on her right-on credentials, which didn’t include getting cosy with a member of the police force. When she’d found out her daughter’s black, archaeology-graduate boyfriend had joined the Met, she’d been horrified.
‘What’s it to you?’ she asked.
‘I’m just curious. I’ve seen a lot of people wearing them.’
She touched the badge protectively. ‘It’s just something my students are into. It’s called Shipworld. It’s an online blog. Fantasy, that sort of thing.’
‘What sort of fantasy?’
She shrugged, as if she couldn’t be bothered to explain. But Wesley persisted and repeated the question.
‘It’s a story set in a medieval port. There’s merchants and pirates and invaders. The usual sort of thing.’
Wesley looked at her expectantly, waiting for her to continue. As Della had never been able to resist filling a period of silence with chatter, she obliged.
‘There’s a character called Palkin. Must be based on the real one; the one the festival’s about. He’s in charge of Shipworld. He raises an army and sends out the ships. Then there’s the Lady Morwenna – she’s the beautiful young wife of the old Lord of Shipworld, the one usurped by Palkin, but I don’t think she really existed. There’s also a dark figure called the Shroud Maker – he’s really bad news.’ She hesitated. ‘If you want to know more I suggest you have a look at the website yourself.’ She looked down at the gaudy wares on her stall. ‘Look, I haven’t got time to stand here chatting even if you have.’
Wesley ignored the rebuke. She was right. Shipworld was something he could discover for himself. But he still had another question to ask. ‘So the Palkin Festival is a big event for Shipworld fans?’
‘Oh yes. The whole thing’s gone viral. A lot of my students are into it. There’s talk of someone publishing the blog as a book. Ready-made fan base, you see.’
Wesley glanced at his watch. ‘Have any of the fans had tattoos of that ship symbol?’
‘Wouldn’t surprise me. Some of them are quite obsessive about it.’
‘That badge of yours – where did you get it?’
She looked down at the badge as though she was almost surprised to see it there. ‘Someone gave it to me.’ She looked at him defiantly. ‘And before you ask, I can’t remember who it was. And I’m not sure I’d tell you even if I could. I wouldn’t want to get anyone into trouble.’
Wesley resented Della’s assumption that he was a representative of some oppressive state, intent only on persecuting the innocent, but he kept his expression neutral. He was only glad that Pam hadn’t inherited her mother’s myopic nature.
Della’s eyes lit up. ‘So why are you asking all these questions? It’s about the Lady of Shalott, isn’t it? She was wearing one of the badges, wasn’t she?’
Wesley didn’t answer; confiding the details of the case was several steps too far. He gave his mother-in-law an insincere smile and walked away.
They were awaiting the results of the DNA tests and until they proved otherwise, Wesley knew they had to consider the possibility that the victim was Jenny Bercival. Had she lain low somewhere for a year, only to return to Tradmouth for the Palkin Festival? Or perhaps she’d been in Tradmouth all the time, maybe living under an assumed name. An e-fit picture of the victim in the dinghy had been produced and given to the local and national press and Wesley had to admit that the image didn’t look much like Jenny, although science would confirm it one way or the other.
DC Trish Walton was going through all the missing persons reports to see whether the dead woman matched any descriptions. There was also a team out making door-to-door inquiries, hoping someone would recognise her as a neighbour or friend, and the chief super had persuaded Gerry to make a statement on the local TV news that evening which, it was hoped, might persuade someone to come forward. Until they knew the victim’s identity for sure and learned about her life and her last movements, Wesley felt they were working in the dark.
He brought up the Shipworld website on his computer and spent ten minutes scrolling through pages of elves, ethereal maidens and dashing knights. Fantasy had never really been his thing. His search was interrupted when Gerry emerged from his office, still with the careworn look of a man with major worries. He’d been trying to contact Rosie since he got back and had had no luck.
‘I’ve managed to contact one of the people in this early music group Rosie plays in,’ he said as he sat down by Wesley’s desk.
‘And?’ Wesley wondered what was coming.
‘It’s a girl called Ursula Brunning. She hasn’t seen or heard from Rosie since the concert last night. But the group are rehearsing at St Leonard’s Church Hall at one thirty so I’m going along. Either she’ll be there or one of them might know where she’s got to.’
Wesley had an uneasy feeling that Gerry was overreacting. From what he knew of Rosie, she was unpredictable and, in Wesley’s opinion, this was probably the kind of stunt she’d pull. But perhaps he was judging her too harshly.
Gerry paused for a moment then he spoke again. ‘This Ursula told me that another girl in the group’s gone missing. Her name’s Kassia and she never turned up for yesterday’s rehearsal or the concert last night. That’s worth checking out, isn’t it?’ He looked at Wesley eagerly as though willing him to agree.
‘Did you get her description?’
Gerry shook his head and Wesley guessed he had been so concerned with Rosie that he’d forgotten.
‘We’ll ask when we go up to the church hall later.’ Wesley’s mind was working overtime. The dead girl had been wearing an elaborate costume, the sort a professional performer might wear rather than some improvised outfit like Della’s. He looked at Gerry and felt a sudden pang of sympathy. No amount of reassurance, no repetition of the fact that most people who go missing turn up again within a short time, can calm the fears of a parent. He was one himself. He knew.
The two men had lunch in the office, a sandwich brought to the desk by one of the DCs drafted in from Neston to help out. They worked on, allocating jobs, receiving reports and examining any statements the junior officers thought worth bringing to their attention. A huge whiteboard took up one wall of the office. On it were pictures of the dead woman and the dinghy which had served as her floating hearse. Gerry had scrawled lists of things to action: missing persons reports; house-to-house inquiries; interviews with local and visiting yachtsmen and anybody else who used the river. Someone must have seen something.
One of the detective constables had been given the task of contacting the theatrical costumiers who’d made the victim’s gown but it was Sunday so there had been no answer. Wesley told her to try again tomorrow.
Gerry didn’t fancy walking up the steep hill which led to St Leonard’s Church Hall so they drove there in one of the pool cars. Gerry said nothing during the short journey. Rosie hadn’t even been gone for twenty-four hours; officially, it was far too early to start worrying. But since there was a killer about, a killer who had already strangled a young woman and set her dead body adrift on the river, Wesley understood his concern. In spite of outward appearances, he knew Gerry was as vulnerable as the next man. Perhaps more so at times like this because, since his late wife Kathy’s death, he already knew what it was to lose someone he loved.
They arrived at the church hall just before the rehearsal was due to start. It was quiet up there at the top of the town, away from the throngs of people and the boats jostling on the crowded water. When they emerged from the car all they could hear was birdsong and faint traffic noise from the main road nearby.
The double doors of the church hall were unlocked and Gerry went ahead and pushed them open impatiently. Wesley knew he was hoping Rosie would be there, perhaps a little annoyed that her father was making a fuss. But when they stepped inside there was no sign of her, only a pile of instrument cases lying on a long table and three people – two men and a small young woman with unruly dark curls – sitting at the far corner of the room by an open refreshment hatch. They looked as though they were waiting for something. Or someone.
The doors swung closed behind the two policemen and the people in the corner looked round.
‘Can I help you?’ The man who spoke was in his forties, older than the others, tall and athletic with thick steel-grey hair; he wore a striped shirt and chinos and an air of effortless authority. His dark eyebrows were raised inquiringly. It was obvious he thought these intruders would apologise and leave, but they were about to disappoint him.
Wesley walked into the room, holding out his warrant card. ‘We’re looking for an Ursula Brunning.’
The dark-haired girl stepped forward, giving the older man a nervous glance. ‘That’s me. Have you come about Kassia?’
Before Wesley could answer the question, Gerry posed one of his own. ‘Has anyone heard from Rosie Heffernan?’
Wesley could see his professional shell was cracking. He was looking at the group anxiously, willing them to come up with the answer he wanted.
‘Not since last night.’ The older man looked at his watch. ‘She should have been here by now.’
Gerry hesitated. Then he drew himself up to his full height. ‘I’m her dad. She was supposed to be staying at mine last night but she never turned up.’
The man’s lips curved upwards slightly. ‘She probably had a better offer. She is a grown woman.’
Wesley saw Gerry’s body tense, as if he was fighting the temptation to land a punch. Knowing it was up to him to calm the situation, he touched the boss’s back gently. ‘I don’t know whether you’ve heard but a young woman was found dead yesterday. We’re treating her death as suspicious.’
The group exchanged looks.
‘Kassia’s been missing since yesterday.’ Ursula sounded anxious. ‘She never turned up for rehearsal. Or for last night’s concert.’
Wesley addressed the man who was obviously in charge. ‘What’s your name, sir?’ He made a great show of taking his notebook from his pocket.
‘Dan Hungerford. I’m the musical director,’ he answered, more subdued now that things were on an official footing.
Wesley turned to Ursula. ‘When did you last see Kassia? What’s her full name by the way?’
Ursula looked at him gratefully, as though she was glad someone was taking her seriously. ‘It’s Kassia Graylem. And we last saw her at the opening concert on Friday night.’
‘She’s let us down badly,’ said Hungerford quietly.
‘Has Kassia done anything like this before?’
The group shook their heads, as if in unison.
‘Did she mention that she might be going somewhere? Meeting someone?’
It was the young man who answered. He had fair hair that flopped over his forehead and looked like a relic of the 1920s in his cricket jumper and corduroy trousers. ‘I’m Harry Treves by the way. To be honest we don’t know Kassia that well.’ He looked at Hungerford accusingly. ‘You took her on, Dan. Wasn’t she a student of yours?’
All eyes were now on Dan Hungerford. Wesley usually tried to keep an open mind; he of all people knew the downside of prejudice. Nevertheless there was something about Hungerford he didn’t like. An arrogance maybe, or perhaps it had been his sneering response to Gerry’s questions about Rosie.
Hungerford cleared his throat before replying. ‘I teach music and music history at Morbay University. But I’ve never actually taught Kassia. In fact I spotted her when she was busking in Neston. She was playing a viol, which is unusual to say the least. I was looking for musicians for Palkin’s Musik at the time and I persuaded her to audition. She’s never studied music formally but she has a remarkable talent and a good voice.’
‘Do you have an address for her?’
‘She lives outside Neston,’ said Harry. ‘In a squat. Not sure of the exact address.’
‘How do you contact her?’
It was Hungerford who answered. ‘She gave me a mobile number but it’s not hers. Belongs to someone else in the squat, she said.’