'A beguiling author who interweaves past and present' The Times On a summer evening, Robert and Greta Gerdner are shot dead at their home in the Devon countryside. DI Wesley Peterson suspects the execution-style murders might be linked to Robert's past police career - until Robert's name is found on a list of people who've been sent tickets anonymously for a tour of Darkhole Grange, a former asylum on Dartmoor. Wesley discovers that other names on the list have also died in mysterious circumstances and, as he is drawn into the chilling history of the asylum, he becomes convinced that it holds the key to the case. When his friend, archaeologist Neil Watson, finds the skeleton of a woman buried in a sealed chamber dating back to the fifteenth century at his nearby dig, Wesley wonders whether there might be a connection between the ancient cell and the tragic events at Darkhole Grange. With the clock ticking, Wesley must solve the puzzle, before the next person on the list meets a terrible end . . . Whether you've read the whole series, or are discovering Kate Ellis's DI Wesley Peterson novels for the first time, this is the perfect page-turner if you love reading Elly Griffiths and Ann Cleeves.
Release date: August 5, 2021
Publisher: Little, Brown Book Group
Print pages: 400
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The Stone Chamber
Charlie Maddox keyed in the code and pushed the door open. As it swung shut behind him, he heard the lock engage. He would be trapped in there until he entered the override code, which he knew off by heart.
He pressed the switch concealed behind the painted panel in the wall, and the hidden lighting flickered on, casting shadows on walls decorated with hieroglyphics and images of animal-headed gods. The statues stationed in each corner stood tall as a man, the painted eyes of the jackal heads focused on the massive sarcophagus in the centre of the room. The stone finish looked convincing, but the lid was made of fibreglass, light as air and easy for the punters to shift to get at the clues hidden inside. The lid was lying askew, revealing the mummy, its bandages half unwrapped and draped over the side of the tomb like the entrails of some long-dead creature. The hen party had really gone for it.
The models arranged around the room had been lovingly copied by an artist friend from examples in the British Museum. But now they lay scattered, and there was an empty Prosecco bottle balanced on a replica boat as though it was about to be ferried down the Nile by the wooden oarsmen.
Charlie secretly enjoyed this time on his own at the end of the day, when he’d sent the others home and he could gather his thoughts, taking his time before the homeward journey. And since his visit to Darkhole Grange, he’d had a lot to think about. The memory of what he’d seen there made him uncomfortable. But was he really responsible for the sins of his forefathers?
He pushed the thought from his mind and made a start. Another group was booked in the following morning, so the clues had to be laid again. His head throbbed as he went round dropping the litter into a bin bag, silently cursing the giggling hens who’d wreaked so much havoc. Stag and hen parties, he’d found, were always the worst.
As he lifted the mummy from the sarcophagus and began rewrapping the grey bandages around its plastic torso, the thing slipped from his grasp and he clutched the side of the tomb. His head was swimming and he was hit by a wave of nausea, and as the strength left his body, he slumped to the floor, struggling for breath. This wasn’t right. He must have eaten something that disagreed with him. That pasty he’d had at lunchtime perhaps.
He fumbled for the phone in the back pocket of his jeans before remembering that there was no signal in the Tomb. He needed to get out, but the room around him was turning black. He was vaguely aware of vomiting as he crawled towards the door. At least he thought it was the door.
The paintings and cartouches swam in and out of focus until he collapsed at the fibreglass feet of Anubis, the god of the dead. The last thing Charlie Maddox saw was the god’s dog face smiling at yet another triumph.
A week later
The doorbell rang. A cheerful bing-bong.
Greta Gerdner had been engrossed in a wildlife programme on the small TV next to the wood-burning stove. She looked at her husband and rolled her eyes, irritated at the interruption. It was a stupid question. They rarely communicated with anyone in the immediate area. Why would they? They’d moved into Hawthorn Barn less than a year ago and had made no attempt to get to know anyone who lived nearby. Not that they had many neighbours, because they were a mile from the nearest village and as isolated as you could get. That had been the appeal after the milling crowds of London. Peace and quiet in the Devon countryside. Away from noise. Away from the constant threat of the kind of crime Robert had dealt with all his working life. They’d kept a pied-à-terre in the capital, of course, somewhere to stay when they went up to visit the galleries and theatres Greta loved so much.
Robert Gerdner grabbed the remote and lowered the volume on the TV before rising slowly from his seat, holding onto the arm of the chair. Greta thought he’d gained a new zest for life since his retirement from the Metropolitan Police, probably because of his new project.
She’d allowed him to hang onto one fragment of his old life, although she refused to have any reminder of it in the house, insisting that he rent an office so it wouldn’t taint her new existence. Before Greta’s own retirement she’d held a responsible and well paid post in the Civil Service, earning considerably more than her husband. But that old life was behind her now and she was determined that these were going to be her golden years.
In spite of Robert’s little business, the thing she knew he’d always dreamed of undertaking, she insisted that they were there to enjoy the best the stunning Devon countryside had to offer. But so far the dream hadn’t worked out quite as she’d imagined. The neighbouring farmer’s vehicles always churned up mud in the lane. Then there was the noise of the animals. And the terrible smells that drifted their way if the wind was in a certain direction. Things would have to change. She would insist on it.
‘It might be that farmer,’ Robert said, glancing at Greta nervously. ‘You were very abrupt with him yesterday.’
‘Well you’d better go and see. And if it is him, make sure you don’t stand for any nonsense.’ She pressed her lips together in annoyance. When she’d planned her retirement down to the last detail, she’d forgotten to take into consideration the hell that was other people.
She heard Robert opening the door, followed by the sound of muffled voices. Then a shout, ‘What the hell—’ suddenly cut off by a sharp explosion, like the crack of a whip, followed by a whimper; the desperate, puzzled sound of a wounded animal. She didn’t trust the locals, but she’d never expected them to turn violent. She stood up, ready to confront the visitor and put him or her in their place.
She marched into the entrance hall, adrenaline coursing through her body, ready for a fight. But the sight that greeted her made her freeze.
Robert was lying on the flagstone floor with an expression of mild surprise in his staring eyes and a neat black hole in his forehead.
Her limbs paralysed by shock, she was unable to move from the spot as the dark, hooded figure in the open doorway began to glide slowly and silently towards her. She could see something in its black-gloved hand. Something the shape of a gun. And it was pointing straight at her.
Detective Inspector Wesley Peterson snatched a surreptitious glance at his watch, wondering if he should have postponed meeting his old university friend for a lunchtime drink in the Tradmouth Arms – soda water in his case, because he was still on duty. But it was May, the start of the tourist season, so things were likely to become a lot busier in the foreseeable future as the local villains emerged from their winter hibernation in the hope of rich pickings from the newly occupied holiday cottages.
‘Drones,’ said Neil Watson. He took a bite from his tuna sandwich, and a thin slice of escaped cucumber tumbled down onto the plate. ‘They’re wonderful things, you know. A few years ago we would have had the expense of getting hold of a light aircraft and a photographer. We’ve had a lidar survey of the area too.’
‘That’s progress for you.’
Neil leaned forward, his eyes glowing with untold news. With his ancient combat jacket and long fair hair, thinning a little now, his sartorial style hadn’t altered since he and Wesley had studied archaeology together at Exeter University. Wesley, in contrast, was black, good-looking, and neatly dressed in a jacket and open-necked shirt. Neil often teased him for looking like a chartered accountant.
‘I’ve been interested in the site since last summer’s drought revealed crop marks. We knew right away we’d found the lost village of Long Bartonford, because of old records and an entry in Domesday Book. The uni’s using the site as a training dig and we’re planning to get the community involved too at some point. It’s a big site, so we’ll be there for a few seasons. You’ll have to pay us a visit.’
‘Certainly … if I’ve got time.’ Wesley might not have pursued a career in archaeology as Neil had, but he still maintained a keen interest in the subject that had enthralled him for three happy student years. He checked his watch again, knowing he needed to return to the station in twenty minutes.
‘Make time. It’s not often you find a deserted medieval village clustered around the ruins of a church dating back to the twelfth century. Annabel’s looking for material in the archives. Am I tempting you, Wes?’ Neil’s grin widened.
‘Yes, but it’s a temptation I’ll have to resist for the moment.’
‘We’ve got a couple of your old customers helping out.’
‘What old customers?’
‘A couple of ex-offenders from a hostel in Morbay. It’s part of an initiative. The powers-that-be think a spot of archaeology is going to keep them on the straight and narrow.’
‘What powers-that-be are these?’ Wesley asked, curious.
‘It was all arranged by a charity for ex-prisoners – I spoke to a woman with purple hair who goes by the name of Pixie.’
Wesley raised his eyebrows. ‘Hopefully it’ll stop them troubling us for a while. How are they getting on?’
‘They keep their heads down and don’t say much. To give them their due, so far they’ve been doing what’s asked of them – when they haven’t been taking cigarette breaks,’ Neil added with a knowing look. ‘Someone picks them up in a van at the end of the working day, so they don’t get a chance to socialise in the pub. We’re told not to ask them what they were inside for. Hope it was nothing violent.’
‘They wouldn’t have released them if they posed a danger to the public – or at least that’s the theory.’ Wesley took a sip of his soda water, wishing it was the best bitter advertised on the pump clips ranged along the bar. ‘Who knows, the dig might give them a whole new purpose in life.’
‘Let’s hope so,’ Neil said as though the subject was closed. Wesley guessed his mind was more on his dig than the principle of rehabilitation. ‘There’s not much information about the site at the moment apart from some old maps and a few mentions of the manor house nearby. I contacted an antiquarian bookseller who wrote a local history booklet about Long Bartonford a while ago, and he promised to dig out his notes for me. I’ll pay him a visit when I find a moment.’ Neil took a leisurely sip of shandy. ‘Hey, I never told you about Chris’s stag do the Saturday before last, did I?’ he said as he put his glass down.
The sudden change of subject took Wesley by surprise. He’d met Neil’s fellow archaeologist a couple of times; an earnest young man who hid his prematurely balding pate beneath an Indiana Jones hat, trying to look the part.
‘You mentioned you were going. How was it?’ Wesley took out his phone and scrolled through the messages, hoping nothing urgent had come in while he’d been away from the station.
‘It was cancelled. Someone died.’
‘Not one of your team?’
‘We were booked into an escape room in Morbay. Escape from the Pharaoh’s Tomb, which seemed appropriate as most of us are archaeologists. We thought it’d be a bit of fun before we went off for a few drinks, but as it turned out, the Tomb was occupied by a fresh dead body rather than a mummified pharaoh. Not that we ever set foot inside the place. As soon as we got there, they told us the whole thing was off.’
‘Who was it who died?’ Wesley asked. The incident hadn’t come to the attention of Tradmouth CID; it was something he would have remembered. Which meant the death must have been natural or accidental, probably dealt with by uniform or Morbay’s local station.
‘It was the guy who owned the place – name of Charlie Maddox. Someone said he was checking the escape room at the end of the day when he collapsed. Most likely a heart attack or something. He was locked in there alone and wasn’t found until the next morning. It put a bit of a dampener on the stag do, I can tell you. We’d been looking forward to the Pharaoh’s Tomb and nobody felt much like going on the pub crawl we’d planned for afterwards.’
Wesley’s phone began to ring and Neil slumped back in his seat, resigned to the interruption. Police business came first.
After a brief conversation, Wesley killed the call. ‘Got to go, I’m afraid.’
‘Couple of suspicious deaths near Chabliton. Gerry’s already set off. I’d better join him.’
Neil finished his sandwich and drained what remained of his pint of shandy. He was driving too. ‘I’m going that way. Want a lift? I’d better get back to the dig – check how it’s going.’
‘If you could drop me off, it’ll save me going back to the station to pick up the car. Thanks.’
As they walked out of the Tradmouth Arms, Wesley fell silent, thinking of the call he’d just received. A double shooting – and it looked like murder.
21 August 1956
They’ve shut me in and I’m bored. I want to get out to the village and see human faces. My family are human – sort of – but they don’t count.
We live in the manor house, which means my father’s the lord of the manor. That’s still an important thing in Chabliton, even though things have changed a lot since the war. The most interesting thing about our house is the old legend about a girl being walled up somewhere for sleeping with her brother. My parents say the story’s rubbish, but I wonder if it might be true. If it is, she was even worse than me. I used to tell them at school that I lived in a haunted house, and some people believed it. I enjoyed the looks on their faces. Priceless.
People in the village hang on Father’s every word and nod to him respectfully in church on Sunday, but the truth is, my mother controls everything he says and does. She’s in charge and she’s the one who really cares what the world thinks. And she knows the world doesn’t think much of me. The names she calls me make me smile: little whore; trollop; a disgrace to the family name. But I don’t care what anyone thinks, because I know everything will be all right in the end.
Then there’s my mealy-mouthed sister. The golden girl; the Oxford undergraduate. My mother thinks she’s still a virgin, and she might be for all I know. Ursula never does anything wrong. Ursula’s a saint. Wasn’t St Ursula a virgin martyr? But my name means ‘lost’.
I’m not allowed to go into the village any more, but I still have the freedom of the house for the moment. Mother says she’ll lock me in my room when I begin to show, because she wouldn’t want the housekeeper and the cleaners to find out. She says it’s for my own good, because gossip spreads like a disease around here.
So while I have this small slice of freedom, I’ll do my best to keep my mind occupied. There’s a room off the kitchen corridor that is always kept locked, and I’ve often wondered what was in there. I think I’ll try and find the key. When you’re a prisoner, the smallest things can be diverting.
DCI Gerry Heffernan was waiting for Wesley beside the wooden garden gate. He was a big man, carrying too much weight according to the posters on display in most doctors’ surgeries. His excuse, pronounced with relish in the Liverpool accent he’d never lost in spite of living in Devon for over twenty years, was that he was ‘a growing lad’. As soon as he saw Wesley emerging from Neil’s car, a cheerful smile lit up his face.
‘Wes. What kept you?’
‘Sorry,’ Wesley said, offering no explanation. A lunchtime drink with an old friend was no excuse for lateness, and he felt a nag of guilt that he’d been so readily distracted from his duty. His strict but loving upbringing by parents from the Caribbean had endowed him with a strong sense of right and wrong – something his wife, Pam, brought up by a feckless New Age mother, found quaint and faintly amusing.
‘What have we got?’ he asked, trying to focus on the new case.
‘Two bodies. Man and woman in their late fifties. Both shot in the head.’ Gerry looked round. The pristine barn conversion stood beside a copse of trees, well away from the road and accessible only by a narrow track. ‘Nearest house is a farm a quarter of a mile away. We need to speak to whoever lives there.’
‘Who found them?’
‘Postman noticed the front door ajar, so he pushed it open and saw the man’s body lying in the hall. He’s been interviewed and sent on his way. Poor man was in shock, so I don’t think the old theory that whoever finds the body is the killer applies in this case.’
‘Do we have an ID for the victims?’
‘According to the postman and the electoral register, they were a Mr and Mrs Gerdner – Greta and Robert. Moved here last year.’
Wesley sighed. ‘I suppose we’d better have a look.’
‘Colin Bowman should be here any minute to give his verdict, but from what I’ve heard from the CSIs, the cause of death is pretty obvious. Shot in the head at close range. Neat job.’
Wesley took a deep breath. His parents had come to London from their native Trinidad in the 1970s to attend medical school; once qualified, they’d stayed in their adopted country and carved out successful careers. His sister too was a GP, so, being squeamish by nature, he’d always felt like the odd one out in his high-flying family. During his archaeological training, all the dead bodies he’d encountered had been reduced to dry bones, but unfortunately this hadn’t always been the case over his police career.
After reporting to the plump uniformed crime-scene manager and donning the white paper overalls Gerry always referred to as ‘snowman suits’, they made for the front door, solid oak with frosted glass panels either side. It stood open, and Wesley could see the CSIs milling about inside, working in silence as they recorded the scene with cameras, dusted for fingerprints and took samples.
He heard a cheerful greeting, and when he turned his head, he saw Dr Colin Bowman, the pathologist, approaching down the garden path with a genial smile on his face. After exchanging the customary pleasantries, he let Colin enter the house first, and watched the doctor’s expression switch from amiable to deadly serious.
Wesley and Gerry stood together in the doorway as Colin squatted down next to the body on the floor. The dead man’s eyes were wide open and his expression was one of astonishment. Wesley could see a neat hole in the forehead, and blood and brain from the wound left by the bullet’s exit stained the flagstones beneath the head.
‘Someone mentioned there were two,’ he said to a CSI who was doing something mysterious with tape on a nearby door frame.
‘Through there,’ the young woman said, nodding towards an open door to Wesley’s right.
Wesley caught Gerry’s eye. ‘Better see what we’ve got.’
The two men gave the man’s body a wide berth, keeping to the stepping plates placed on the floor to protect any evidence the perpetrator might have left behind on the stone flags. Beyond the door was a large living room with exposed pine ceiling rafters, a remnant of its days as a working farm building. The room was tastefully decorated, with two large white leather sofas arranged around a wood-burning stove at the far end of the room. The floor was stone-flagged like the hallway, and a gallery ran around the top of it, accessed by a wide wooden staircase at one side. Wesley could see doors at the far end of the gallery, presumably leading to the bedrooms. It was a desirable residence; the sort of place Pam dreamed of owning – if their salaries as a police officer and a teacher could ever stretch that far.
The second body lay in a far corner, half concealed by a sofa and the living bodies of the CSIs working around it. A portable TV chattered away next to the stove. Nobody had bothered to switch it off.
When Wesley edged closer to get a better view, glad of Gerry’s comforting presence close behind, he saw that the second victim was a woman, tall in life with well-cut steel-grey hair. She was wearing trousers and a Breton top, and again there was a neat hole in the centre of her forehead. The attack on both these people had been clinical, almost professional. And Wesley couldn’t help wondering what had led up to it.
‘A burglar high on drugs? Someone they’d annoyed who lost control?’ Gerry mumbled as though he was thinking aloud.
‘Any sign of a break-in?’ Wesley asked the CSIs.
‘Nothing obvious,’ was the reply from a young man who was busy taking samples from the nearby sofa. ‘The killer didn’t force entry, so they must have let him in. Probably someone they knew,’ he added with satisfaction.
‘Any valuables missing?’
‘Her purse is still in the bedroom full of cash and credit cards.’
‘Not a burglary gone wrong then,’ Gerry muttered as they picked their way back over the stepping plates to the hallway, where Colin was still conducting his examination of the man’s body.
‘What can you tell us, Colin?’
‘Shot at close range. No other injuries that I can see. At a guess he answered the door and his attacker shot him right away. Took him by surprise. I understand there’s another one.’
‘A woman in the living room,’ said Gerry. ‘Probably shot once her husband was dead or dying. Can you give us a time of death?’
Colin wagged his finger. ‘You should know better than to ask that. Have all my years of training you been in vain?’ he added with a grin.
‘A rough estimate?’ Wesley tried.
‘Some time over the weekend. Possibly Saturday afternoon or evening. But that’s just a guess. I’ll do the post-mortem in Tradmouth at nine thirty tomorrow if that suits you, gentlemen.’
‘Looking forward to it,’ said Gerry with inappropriate enthusiasm. ‘But anything you’re able to tell us now will be useful.’
Colin thought for a few moments, staring down at the body as though he was willing it to give up its secrets. ‘There seems to be something … ’ he searched for the right word, ‘controlled about this, don’t you think? Looks almost like an assassination.’
Wesley nodded. Colin was right. There appeared to be a cold-blooded calculation behind the double killing.
‘We need to nail this bastard before he decides to kill again,’ said Gerry as they walked slowly back to the car.
‘Do you think that’s likely?’
‘I’m not sure,’ said Wesley. ‘This smells personal to me. Whoever did it wanted these particular people wiped from the face of the earth.’
‘We need to speak to the neighbours,’ said Gerry. ‘I saw a farm sign on the lane we came up. Farmers are out and about at all sorts of weird times when the rest of us are tucked up in our beds, so someone might have seen something or heard shots. Shall we pay them a call?’
Wesley looked at his watch. ‘I’d like to ask Rachel to come with me. She might get more out of them – one farmer to another.’
‘Good thinking, Wes.’ Gerry looked round, frowning. ‘I’ll get a patrol car to take me back while you wait here for Rach.’
As Wesley watched the patrol car drive off with Gerry in the passenger seat, he took his phone from his pocket to call DS Rachel Tracey. He felt a little nervous. Rachel had been unusually quiet in recent months – ever since she’d discovered she was pregnant with her first child. She and Wesley had been so close at one time, but now he sensed that an invisible barrier had developed between them. Although it was possible he was imagining things.
He waited for her outside, making conversation with the crime-scene manager, who seemed to assume the murders were drugs-related. Rival gangs, he reckoned. Wesley said nothing. He was keeping an open mind.
As Rachel drove down the narrow, high-hedged lane, Wesley spotted a swinging sign beside the metal gate boasting of Lower Kington Farm’s prize-winning herd of Friesians. The evidence of their presence was all around, and he suddenly regretted not bringing his own car, because he kept a pair of wellingtons in the boot – something he’d learned to do when he’d first transferred from London to rural Devon. It had only taken one pair of ruined shoes to teach him that particular lesson.
Rachel, however, daughter to one local farmer and now wife to another, had come fully prepared, and she waited impatiently for Wesley to pick his way gingerly across the farmyard, avoiding the cowpats and muddy puddles. As soon as he’d caught up with her, she raised the door knocker and let it fall three times, setting the dogs barking inside the farmhouse. Then she waited, resting her hand on her swelling abdomen, avoiding Wesley’s eyes.
The door was opened by a woman in her mid to late thirties, around Rachel’s own age, with tousled ginger hair and freckles. She wore jeans, a baggy blue T-shirt and a harassed look on her round face. Her expression changed to a worried frown when Wesley and Rachel introduced themselves and showed their ID.
‘What is it? What’s wrong?’
Wesley broke the news that there had been an incident at Hawthorn Barn, down the lane. He didn’t elaborate on the bare statement and asked if they could come in and have a word.
The woman, who introduced herself as Claire Fulford, looked uneasy as she led the way into a large, shabby living room where a toddler was playing with a set of plastic bricks, engrossed by the colourful tower he’d created. When Rachel said she was sure they’d met before, at a farmers’ social, Claire relaxed a little, and once Rachel’s credentials as part of the local farming community had been established, she offered tea and home-made flapjacks. Because of this rapport, Wesley decided to leave the talking to Rachel, who swiftly discovered that Claire lived there with her husband, Andy, who had recently taken over the farm from his parents. Claire’s in-laws now lived in . . .
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