Malice in Cornwall: An Erskine Powell Mysteryby Graham Thomas
On the north coast of Cornwall, residents in the quaint seaside town of Penrick report a terrifying phenomenon--an eerie, glowing apparition that rides the surf at night, adding a weird fascination to this place of picturesque streets, secluded beaches, and abandoned
ERSKINE POWELL OF SCOTLAND YARD IS BACK--INVESTIGATING THE STRANGE RIDDLE OF PENRICK SANDS.
On the north coast of Cornwall, residents in the quaint seaside town of Penrick report a terrifying phenomenon--an eerie, glowing apparition that rides the surf at night, adding a weird fascination to this place of picturesque streets, secluded beaches, and abandoned mines. Yet Chief Superintendent Powell soon learns that Penrick already harbors unsolved mysteries. For, thirty years ago, someone killed a teenager and left her body to wash up on Penrick Sands--precisely where the apparition now appears. In fact, Powell faces not one but two strangely intertwined puzzles and a double-edged sword of menace. . . .
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Detective-Sergeant Black turned right off the B3300 just before Portreath onto the minor road that led to Penrick and to Porthtowan beyond. Powell interrupted his travelogue momentarily to lower the passenger-side window.
He took a deep breath. The air was bracing with the faint but unmistakable astringency of the sea. He lit a cigarette. The road undulated over scrubby fields punctuated by occasional roofless engine houses with crumbling chimneys, abandoned mines with names like Wheal Faith and Wheal
Bounty. Stark reminders of the Duchy's past riches.
"It's amazing to think that Bronze Age men were streaming and smelting tin here three thousand years ago," Powell remarked.
Black grunted with apparent interest. "You seem to know a lot about
"During my annual summer pilgrimages to Bude with Marion and the boys I've found ample opportunity to dabble in the local history. I'm not much of a beach person, I'd rather be poking around some old ruins."
"I'm the same way, sir."
"By the way, what did you think of our session with the locals yesterday?"
After arriving in Camborne they'd spent the previous afternoon being briefed by the local superintendent.
"Well, sir, I get the impression they're not exactly thrilled about our being here."
Powell smiled. "Superintendent Harrison and I go back a long way. It's only natural to protect one's turf, of course, but I suspect he's secretly relieved to get the file off his desk. And he was good enough to loan us a car."
"They seem to think it's a fairly routine job."
"Perhaps. But I have a hunch there may be more to it than meets the eye;
I'm hoping that Chief Inspector Butts in St. Ives will be able to fill in some of the blanks. All, no doubt, will be revealed in the fullness of time."
The road began to rise slightly, then dipped abruptly into the grassy valley of the River Teal.
"Wasn't it Chesterton who wrote that the rolling English road was made by the rolling English drunk?" Black observed casually.
"Something like that." Once again Powell was taken aback. It seemed there was indeed another side to his old colleague that he had hitherto not recognized.
As they descended, the valley gradually narrowed to a steep ravine with small white and cream houses clinging to its sides above a burbling stream, the roadside ditches alight with yellow primroses. After a few hundred yards the valley opened up again to reveal a fetching prospect, a fine stone church with the sparkling blue sea as a backdrop. Having delved into his collection of travel guides before leaving home, Powell knew that the church had been built in the fourteenth century and dedicated to St.
Penrick, who had arrived at the estuary of the River Teal in a coracle from Ireland in the sixth century. His was a grimly ascetic order who,
amongst their many rituals of spiritual purification, would stand immersed to their necks in ice-cold water amidst the granite megaliths erected by the ancestors of their newfound congregation, reciting psalters and praying for the conversion of the heathen. Powell supposed that the current vicar, in his own way, still labored in the same fields.
"Pull over here," he directed.
The churchyard afforded a fine view of the village below and the surrounding stretch of coastline. A stone bridge crossed the stream at the foot of the steep hill below the church. A mile-long arc of tawny sand confined by two steep promontories--the larger, Towey Head, to the southwest--encircling the bay like two claws. The narrow river channel marked by straggling poles, a few brightly painted fishing boats propped up on the sand waiting for high tide, and color-washed cottages piled tier upon tier up the hillside, with the church set like a beacon on top. A
spiritual lighthouse for the lost souls of Penrick.
"Lovely," remarked Detective-Sergeant Black, who was not usually given to such outbursts.
Powell could only assume that his companion was at a loss for a suitable quotation, so he stepped into the breach:
"Thy shores are empires, changed in all save thee;
Assyria, Greece, Rome, Carthage, what are they?
Thy waters wasted them while they were free..."
Without missing a beat, Black continued solemnly:
"Unchangeable save to the wild waves' play,
Time writes no wrinkles on thine azure brow;
Such as creation's dawn beheld, thou rollest now."
Then he smiled equably. "I quite like Lord Byron."
Any lingering suspicion that Sergeant Black was a mere literary dilettante was dispelled once and for all. Powell's casual serve had been expertly returned; he realized he would have to place his shots more carefully in the future. "We'd better get settled in," he said. "I understand our accommodation comes highly commended by Butts."
Amongst the cottages ran a maze of streets and alleys barely wide enough for a car, but Black eventually negotiated a route down to the water's edge. Powell experienced a sinking feeling as a closer inspection revealed that the village center consisted of a few unremarkable shops and guesthouses clustered around the tiny harbor. More promising was a plain but elegant Georgian pub, the Head, which was painted, appropriately enough, pink. There were a few people strolling along the front, taking the morning air.
They soon located the Wrecker's Rest Guesthouse, the premises of George and Agnes Polfrock, straight out of Fawlty bloody Towers, as
Detective-Sergeant Black was later to remark in the Head over a pint. The best thing that could be said for the Wrecker's Rest was that it had come recommended by Chief Inspector Butts, but this turned out to be a dubious distinction indeed. Powell had to admit that its whitewashed facade with flower boxes and mullioned windows looking out over the quay, cluttered with lobster traps and crab pots, the sweep of yellow sand and the wide blue Atlantic beyond, possessed a certain superficial charm--picturesque chic was the expression that came to mind. However this notion was quickly dispelled by the pervasive aura of the proprietors, which permeated the premises like a pungent odor.
"Ooo, Chief Superintendent Powell! It isn't often we have guests from
Scotland Yard," Mrs. Polfrock gushed. She was a squarish, lumpy woman with improbable red hair. "And this must be . . ."
"Detective-Sergeant Black, madam," Black volunteered.
"Yes, of course. We've prepared the Smuggler's Suite for you, Chief
Superintendent, commanding a fine view of the Sands and Towey Head. And
Sergeant, er, I'm sorry . . ."
"Black, madam," Black prompted between clenched teeth.
"Yes, of course. We've put you in the back. Now if you'll just sign the guest registry I'll have my husband, George, show you to your rooms.
Buttie didn't say how long you would be staying," she added, as if by way of casual chitchat.
Powell cocked an eyebrow. "Buttie?"
"Alf Butts, my brother-in-law."
"Chief Inspector Butts, oh I see!" Powell was beginning to wonder if their being maneuvered to the Wrecker's Rest was simple nepotism or Buttie putting the boot in for being muscled off his turf.
Mrs. Polfrock clucked disapprovingly. "All this publicity is bad for business, although I don't believe a word of it myself, and even Buttie says it's a load of codswallop. Don't you agree, Chief Superintendent?"
"That's what we're here to find out, Mrs. Polfrock."
She smiled fixedly, her mouth a thick red smudge of lipstick. Then without warning she let out a bellow. "George!"
Powell swore he could feel the roof slates rattle.
George Polfrock came scurrying, a little man much smaller than his wife,
balding, with nervous, darting eyes. "Yes, my sweet," he panted, catching his breath and sizing up his new guests. He reminded one of a Pekingese,
eager for a treat.
"Show Chief Superintendent Powell and, er, the sergeant to their rooms."
It was clearly an order, not a request. "By the way, will you gentlemen be taking lunch?"
"I think not, Mrs. Polfrock. Thanks all the same. We had a late breakfast in Camborne and we're anxious to get started."
Her eyes narrowed suspiciously. "As you like, but please remember that I
require at least four hours' notice to reserve a place for lunch and the evening meal."
"We'll bear that in mind, Mrs. Polfrock. Do you get many guests this time of year?" Powell inquired innocently.
A grudging shrug. "Besides you two, there's just that person from the press." She looked as if she had just swallowed something nasty. "But in a month's time we'll be full up right through the season."
Powell picked up his suitcase. "Splendid. Lead the way, Mr. Polfrock."
Fifteen minutes later Powell and Black fled the Wrecker's Rest and made a beeline for the pub.
"Bloody charming," Black said as he tucked into his fish and chips.
They had the place to themselves and Powell, having reluctantly eschewed a selection from the surprisingly extensive wine list, savored his first pint of Cornish bitter since the previous summer. He smacked his lips appreciatively. "Ah, well, I trust we won't be spending too many cozy evenings with our hosts gathered together around the hearth." He poked at his ploughman's. "Still, Butts has got a nerve, don't you think? Although he probably didn't have much choice, considering--"
He was interrupted by the publican, who had come over to introduce himself. Tall and wide and beginning to bulge in the wrong places, the man looked like a rugby player gone to seed.
"Tony Rowlands at your service," he said heartily. "Is everything all right?"
"Excellent, thank you." Powell introduced Black and himself. "Very nice place you have here." Always wise to open with a platitude.
Rowlands smiled. "We try to add a little class to the neighborhood. I've lived here for over thirty years and I'm still working at it." He pulled up a chair and sat down. "Just passing through?"
"We're staying at the Wrecker's Rest for a few days."
Rowlands smirked. "There's an odd couple if ever there was one. She's a horrible old shrew and he's a raving pervert. Spies on the young girls at
Mawgawan Beach with a telescope."
Powell wasn't quite sure whether he found this display of candor refreshing or slightly off-putting. More the former, he decided, as it confirmed his own first impression of the Polfrocks.
"What brings you gentlemen to Penrick--business or pleasure?" Rowlands inquired easily.
Powell explained that they were policemen and had come to investigate the so-called Riddle.
Rowlands was suddenly tight-lipped.
"Mrs. Polfrock says it's bad for business," Powell ventured.
"That depends on how you look at it. After all, I've just got two new customers, haven't I?"
Powell raised his glass. "Soon to be regulars, I think."
"Well, you've come to the right place, Chief Superintendent," a feminine voice piped in. The sturdy blonde barmaid, who looked like she was genetically predisposed to pull pints, came over to their table. "I
couldn't help overhearing that you gentlemen are from Scotland Yard, here to investigate the sightings. I was the first to see it, wasn't I, love?"
Rowlands rolled his eyes but said nothing.
Powell reached over and pulled a chair out from the table. "Please sit down, Miss, er ... ?"
"Thompson. But you can call me Jenny."
"Right then, Jenny, why don't you tell us all about it?"
"It was a week ago last Monday after closing time--two weeks ago today that would be," she began breathlessly. "I went for a walk along the
Sands, down toward the Head. The tide was in, so there was just that narrow strip of beach to walk along. I was just coming around a small point of rock when I saw a faint light at the water's edge, sort of a greenish glow. I wondered what it was, so I went a little closer. Well, I
nearly fainted on the spot! It was someone or some thing trying to crawl out of the water. It was all furry and wrinkled, with a strange halo all around and"--she shuddered--"it didn't have a head!"
Detective-Sergeant Black cleared his throat politely.
Powell ignored him. "Are you sure, Miss, er, Jenny?"
She nodded earnestly. "I know she didn't! I swear to God, her neck just sort of ended and--"
"You said she," Powell interjected.
Jenny seemed slightly taken aback, as if it had just struck her for the first time. "I don't know why, exactly, but I'm sure it was a she."
"You said it was trying to crawl out of the water," Powell said gravely.
"Are you certain it was moving of its own accord?"
She looked indignant. "I wasn't about to stick around to find out, was I?"
"No, I suppose not. What did you do next?"
"I ran back here as fast as I could to tell Tone. Didn't I, Tone?"
"That's right," Rowlands said. "The poor girl looked like death warmed over--"
"Tony!" Jenny admonished.
He smiled. "Sorry, love, figure of speech. Anyway, I grabbed a torch and my twelve bore and went back to look for it. I'm pretty sure I found the right spot, but I'm damned if I could find anything. At the time I thought that Jen was seeing things, but the next night it was spotted again by somebody else. Isn't that right, love?" He gave her a sharp slap on the bottom.
A gesture of familiarity or admonishment? Powell wondered.
Jenny looked none too pleased. "That's right, Tone."
Rowlands shrugged. "That's the goods. It's been seen on the Sands several times since, between here and the Head, always at night."
"What do you make of it?" Powell asked.
Rowlands regarded Powell shrewdly before replying. "The damn thing gives me the creeps, if you want to know the truth, but I think it's pretty obvious, don't you?"
"It's something drifting in and out with the tide. It turns up here and it turns up there."
"Yes, but what?"
Rowlands shifted uneasily in his chair. "You tell me."
The surf crashed riotously against the rocks and Nick Tebble pulled smartly, expertly timing his strokes so that the tiny skiff rode the swells as smoothly as any Malibu surfer. Gulls clamored overhead, wheeling and plung-ing as if harrying a school of herring. He stayed his oars momentarily. "Bugger off, yer greedy bastards," he shouted above the din.
The birds took no notice so he began to row again, straining at the oars now and making for a small cove, perhaps fifty feet wide and twice as deep, that had suddenly opened up in the looming cliff face. A dozen more pulls and the skiff was deposited abruptly on a patch of shingled beach in front of a gray stone house that looked like it had grown organically from the surrounding rock. Above the door, carved in the granite lintel, were the words the old fish cellar and, underneath, dulcis lucri odor. A lane behind the house climbed steeply to the turf-covered heights above.
He clambered out and dragged the boat a few feet farther up the beach.
Trailing the bow rope behind him like an umbilical cord, he trudged toward the house. The shingle gave way to shelving rock slabs up to the base of a stone wall taller than a man, encrusted with barnacles and stained black with lichens above the tide line. The wall was surmounted by a narrow set of steps. He tied the line to a rusted iron ring set into the wall and then looked back down the beach with squinting eyes. There was one more thing he had to do, but it could wait until he'd had a drink.
Hadn't his grandfather been a fisherman in these waters during the heyday,
and his young father a huer, directing the boats from the clifftops to the vast shoals of pilchards that had once filled all the bays and coves along the Cornish coast? "Heva! Heva!" they'd cry when the fish were spotted,
then the boats would encircle the schools with their seines--countless thousands of them flashing silver like precious coins. On a good day they'd haul in a million or more. Then one year, mysteriously, the pilchards vanished, never to return again. Caught by the Frenchies, Tebble reckoned. Nothing left but a few mackerel and sharks for the tourists to catch and the ghosts of once bustling harbors up and down the coast.
And what about the foreigners that had knacked the mines when the ore ran out with never a thought for Cousin Jack? Now they returned by the thousands every summer like vermin, plugging up the lanes so you couldn't move in the village. (Just last year, one of them had got his car wedged tight in Plover Street, demolishing old Mrs. Vivian's flower boxes and launching her geraniums like red rockets into the street.) They threw their money around as if to mock every Cornishman who'd ever tried to make an honest living in the earth or on the sea. And the only ones to profit by it were the scum that lived off them.
He drew himself up. But wasn't he a fair-trader, just like them that had gone before him? He spat and grinned slyly. And he had all the time in the world. Or so he thought. Hunched and careful, he made his way up the slime-coated steps.
From the Paperback edition.
Meet the Author
Graham Thomas, a biologist by training, lives in British Columbia with his wife, their two children, and a Gordon setter named Laddie. His first mystery featuring Detective-Chief Superintendent Powell was Malice in the Highlands.
From the Paperback edition.
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