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Authors: Kate Ellis

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BOOK: The Plague Maiden
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As things were quiet Wesley took a stroll down to the station basement where the old case files were kept. He was looking
for 1991 – the Shipborne case. If he was going to pay a call on Mrs J. Powell it would be wise to familiarise himself with
the details of what had gone on all those years ago. With the help of a ginger-headed young constable who seemed to know his
way around the station’s records, two large and dusty box files were found and Wesley made his way back upstairs, bearing
his trophies. When he reached his desk he let go of them and they fell with a loud thud.

Rachel looked up when she heard the noise and wrinkled her nose at the musty smell that was wafting towards her. ‘What are
you doing with those?’ she asked, her curiosity getting the better of her.

‘I thought I’d look up that case. The vicar who was murdered back in 1991.’

Rachel shrugged and returned her attention to a statement from a witness to a more recent crime. If Wesley wanted to waste
his time on yesterday’s wrongdoings it was up to him. He was the inspector and she was the sergeant, although to give him
his due, he never used the fact to his advantage and always behaved towards her with polite propriety. She glanced up at him.
There were times when she wished he were less of a gentleman.

Wesley, unaware that he was the focus of Rachel’s thoughts, began to flick through the files, giving each sheet of paper a
cursory read. As Gerry had said, it seemed to be an open-and-shut case. An intruder forced the French window of the Reverend
Shipborne’s study. The vicar, a widower, was found dead on the floor by his cleaner, a Mrs O’Donovan. He had died of severe
head injuries inflicted by the traditional blunt instrument but the weapon was never found. Mrs O’Donovan made a statement
to the effect that a silver chalice and paten – vessels used in the communion service, given to the church by some wealthy
medieval benefactor and carried to the vicarage after each service for safe-keeping – were missing, along with the
vicar’s wallet. The stolen silver was found hidden at Chris Hobson’s flat a week later after an anonymous tip-off. Hobson
was a known burglar and it was assumed by everyone concerned that he had panicked after being disturbed.

Hobson couldn’t explain how the silver came to be in his flat. He had admitted that he was in Belsham on the night of the
murder but he claimed that when he had come out of Belsham’s only pub, the Horse and Farrier, he had gone straight home to
his flat in Morbay where he had spent the rest of the evening. Even Hobson’s defence barrister reckoned this tale was a bit
feeble and played it down in court. Witnesses had come forward to say that a man answering Hobson’s description had been seen
drinking alone in the Horse and Farrier. And according to these witnesses he had seemed nervous and had left the pub around
the estimated time of the murder.

Hobson had offered no explanation for his presence in Belsham and no alibi for the time of Shipborne’s death. Then, later
on, he had tried to change his story, saying that he’d met a woman in Belsham on the evening of the murder but, as she was
married, he hadn’t wanted to involve her. However, when he said that the woman had conveniently left the country – whereabouts
unknown – nobody took the story very seriously. The stolen silver had been found in his flat and the evidence against him
was overwhelming. Wesley closed the file slowly. Gerry had been right. It did seem to be an open-and-shut case. No question
about it.

The telephone on his desk rang and he picked it up. Perhaps it was a good job the Chris Hobson case looked so clear cut. Although
the criminals of Tradmouth and district were suffering an attack of communal sloth this week, they were bound to start working
at their usual frantic pace soon enough.

‘Wes?’

Wesley recognised the voice at once. ‘Neil. I hope this is a social call.’ He spoke softly, not wishing his colleagues
to overhear, especially Steve Carstairs, who was looking in his direction disapprovingly.

‘Not exactly. We’ve found a couple of skeletons. I’ve let the coroner know and I’m just reporting it to you. Okay?’

‘A couple?’ Wesley’s heart sank. He thought of undiscovered serial killers; overtime; not getting home till all hours and
Pam turning into a vengeful harridan with a down on the police force. Would Michael forget what he looked like? And the new
baby due next month … would he ever see it? These thoughts flashed through his mind in a split second, then Neil answered,
confirming his worst nightmares.

‘Well, it’s only a couple so far but I shouldn’t be surprised if there were more down there.’

‘Where?’

‘Place called Belsham, just outside Neston.’

‘Sure you’re not digging up the graveyard?’

Neil didn’t dignify Wesley’s flippant question with a reply. ‘It’s a field on the edge of the village. Huntings supermarkets
have bought the land and we were just investigating the site prior to the concrete going in. Routine stuff.’

‘Are they proper burials?’

‘Not exactly. They look as if they’ve all been chucked in.’

‘Is it near the church? Could it be an old part of the graveyard that’s fallen into disuse over the centuries?’

‘It’s not that near the church and they’re certainly not in individual graves.’

‘Any idea how old they are?’

‘There’s a bit of medieval pottery around but not much else. Do you want to come down and have a look? Bring Colin Bowman
with you.’

‘Is there any chance they could be modern?’ Wesley closed his eyes, hoping, praying, that the answer would be no.

‘I can’t rule it out at the moment.’

Wesley’s heart sank. ‘Great.’

‘Don’t be like that, Wes. Could be worse.’ Neil sounded inappropriately cheerful.

‘Could it? Look, carry on excavating the bones and seal off the site. I’ll come down and have a look and I’ll let Colin know.
Okay?’

He put the phone down and sank his head into his hands. If Neil had accidentally stumbled on the mortal remains of some serial
killer’s hapless victims, leisure time would soon be a distant memory.

‘Anything wrong?’ He looked up and saw Rachel looking at him, concerned. ‘Is it … is it your wife? Is everything all right?’

‘Neil … you remember Neil?’

She nodded. Wesley’s scruffy, long-haired friend from his university days wasn’t the sort of person who was easily forgotten.

‘He’s found some skeletons.’

‘Isn’t that what archaeologists do?’

Wesley smiled patiently. ‘Yes. But they weren’t expecting to find any human remains and there’s nothing to date them at the
moment. They could be old, of course. They could be the victims of some battle or …’

‘Or there could be a crazed serial killer about.’

‘Let’s not jump to any conclusions. I’m going down there to see for myself. Fancy coming?’

He glanced to his right and saw that Steve Carstairs was listening intently to their conversation. Wesley turned away.

‘I’ll get my coat,’ Rachel said, standing up.

Steve watched them go, a knowing smirk on his lips.

Edith Sommerby didn’t like supermarkets. But you didn’t have much option nowadays and Huntings was very near the bungalow
she had shared with her husband, Fred, since his retirement. But walking through the vast carpark was a nerve-racking experience
for someone of her age, with the
cars coming at her fast from every direction and everyone so impatient, blasting their horns and revving their engines when
she stepped into their path. Fred didn’t realise what it was like.

She had to go every other day, of course. Not like those who could pack their car boots with a week’s worth of provisions.
Edith’s tartan shopping trolley didn’t hold that much and the only freezer she possessed was the small compartment at the
top of her fridge, large enough to accommodate a couple of packets of frozen vegetables but little else. The visits to Huntings
were part of Edith’s routine; part of her life. She even knew the checkout girls well enough now to exchange a few pleasantries
about the weather when there wasn’t a queue behind.

Edith began to unpack her trolley, placing her purchases carefully on the small kitchen table. Bread and milk, of course.
A tub of margarine. And two nice slices of gammon for their evening meal – a bit expensive but Fred was partial to gammon
– which would go nicely with a slice or two of tinned pineapple. A bottle of tomato sauce – Fred insisted on his tomato sauce.
And sausages for tomorrow: his favourite. He would only allow his favourites in the house – never hers: not in the forty-five
years since their wedding. It was his house and he laid down the law.

She looked at the open door and stood quite still for a few moments, listening. Then she reached into the depths of the trolley,
brought out a small jar and held it, examining the label with a sly smile on her face. It was the first time she had bought
jam in ages and she had popped it into her basket on impulse, feeling like a naughty child indulging in some secret mischief.
She liked a bit of bread and jam; it reminded her of her childhood – of the time when she had felt safe and loved. Fred would
be angry if he ever discovered her little indulgence: he would say she was wasting their pension money on stupid rubbish.
But with any luck he’d never find out. It was Edith’s little secret … and everybody needs secrets sometimes.

She put the jam carefully back in the trolley and surveyed the purchases lined up on the table before sinking down on the
wooden kitchen stool. She took her purse from her coat pocket, emptied the coins on the table and counted them, her face solemn.
Money didn’t go far nowadays. Especially in places like Huntings.

She heard a shuffling outside. Fred was crossing the hall slowly in his carpet slippers. She thrust the purse back into her
pocket and glanced at the trolley, reassuring herself that the jam was well hidden. Then she held her breath, waiting.

The door burst open to reveal a big man with snow-white hair. He stooped slightly and leaned on a gnarled stick. ‘Make me
a cup of tea, woman. Did you get my gammon?’

Edith nodded, glancing at the tartan trolley.

‘And make sure you stir the sugar in this time.’

He raised the stick slightly and Edith slid off the stool and made for the sink.

As Wesley Peterson stood in the muddy field he wished he had worn something more substantial on his feet. He had studied archaeology
at Exeter University and had taken part in many digs, wet and dry. He really should have known better, he thought as his shoes
began to sink into the damp Devon earth.

Rachel stood beside him and said nothing. At least the drizzle had stopped falling from the low, grey sky, but she just wanted
to be out of there. Her new black leather boots, bought on a shopping trip to Plymouth the previous week, were probably ruined,
and she wondered why she had agreed to come. Perhaps it had been the prospect of spending time alone with Wesley, she thought
fleetingly, before dismissing the idea from her mind.

Neil Watson was walking over, sensibly dressed in sturdy wellingtons, mud-caked jeans and combat jacket. He looked cheerful.
But then Neil usually did when he was up to his armpits in mud.

‘We’ve found three complete skeletons so far …’

‘You said two.’ Things were getting worse.

‘Matt’s found another since I called you. And there could be more. It looks like some sort of burial pit.’

‘How big is it, do you reckon?’ Wesley asked.

‘The geophysics results showed up all sorts of strange anomalies that look like pits or ditches. There could be loads of bodies
down there.’

‘Any thoughts?’ If Neil said they were Civil War battle victims he and Rachel could go back to the office, have a warming
cup of tea and dry their feet. A chilly breeze blew across the field, making him shiver. He zipped up his jacket and made
a valiant effort to look professional.

Neil turned and looked at his colleagues, who were scraping away at the soil down in the trench, their faces set in concentration
as they uncovered the bones carefully and recorded their finds. ‘We’ve found a small amount of medieval pottery, mostly dating
from the fourteenth century. Of course, there’s one possibility we haven’t mentioned.’

‘A plague pit?’ Wesley suggested tentatively.

Neil nodded, assuming a suitably solemn expression. ‘Devon was hit badly by the plague in 1348 and it’s possible that there
was no room in the churchyard for all the dead so …’

‘So they just dug a pit in a field and buried them? Like … like the animals during the foot-and-mouth outbreak?’ Rachel shuddered.
Coming from a farming family she had an almost superstitious aversion to the words ‘foot-and-mouth’. They conjured too many
horrors.

‘Something like that,’ said Neil. ‘About a third of England’s population died and this area was particularly badly hit. Tradmouth
was an important port so the disease would have come in there and spread to the surrounding countryside. Do you know that
half the clergy in Devon died between 1348 and 1351?’

Rachel looked puzzled.

‘The parish priests would have tended the sick, giving
them the last rites and so on, so they were bound to bear the brunt of it. I’ve read they used to gather up the corpses in
carts and …’

‘Thanks, Neil. I think we get the picture,’ said Wesley. He looked over to the trench, the focus of activity. It was time
he had a look at what had been found.

As Neil led the way several of the diggers stopped and stared at Wesley, but when Matt looked up from the pelvic bone he was
uncovering and greeted him cheerfully, they resumed their work.

‘What’s the score so far?’ Neil called out.

Matt put down his trowel and squatted on his heels. ‘Three so far but when we extend the trench I’m sure we’ll find more.
In fact you can just see a bone protruding from the side there.’

‘There could be dozens of them,’ Rachel said, matter-of-fact.

Wesley squatted at the edge of the trench, staring down at the emerging bones. ‘How long would you say they’ve been down there?’

It was Matt who answered, scratching his head with a filthy finger. ‘At the moment I’d guess they were old. But I’m no bone
expert.’

BOOK: The Plague Maiden
13.3Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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