The discovery of a damaged vase takes Hennessey and Yellich back to a twenty-year-old murder case, with consequences for the present.
A chance sighting of a vase for sale in an antique shop leads Detective Chief Inspector Hennessey and his team to take a fresh look at a twenty-year-old unsolved murder case. As the investigation opens out and links are made to other unsolved murders in the Vale of York and beyond, the net seems to be closing around a mysterious gang of killers and a vow of silence that’s been kept for two decades.
But when a new body is discovered in a local wood, is that pact about to be tested?
About the Author
Peter Turnbull is the internationally successful author of many crime and mystery novels. He lives in Yorkshire, England, where many of his books are set. He is the author of the acclaimed Hennessey and Yellich series and the Harry Vicary series.
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A Dreadful Past
By Peter Turnbull
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2016 Peter Turnbull
All rights reserved.
Tuesday, 3 May, 16.30 hours – 17.35 hours and Wednesday, 4 May, 09.15 hours – 22.00 hours.
In which a man is arrested and Detective Chief Inspector George Hennessey is at home to the gracious reader.
It was the only word which the man could think of, both then and later, to describe the effect of the sudden visual impact he experienced. He felt himself arrested. It was an arresting moment. An observer would see him as being tall and distinguished in appearance. The man was clean-shaven with short, neatly kept silver – but not grey – hair, and had been strolling quite calmly and contentedly along narrow Stonegate towards York Minster one late afternoon near the end of spring, midweek, when he paused outside a small antiques shop and began to cast his eye with nothing more than idle curiosity over the items on display in the curved, multi-paned window. As the man glanced at the antiques on display his mind was suddenly cast back a few years in time and to another city, and indeed to another country, when he had entered a similar shop in order to spend a modest inheritance. He had once – sensibly, he had always thought – been exhorted to 'earn your beer money but use your inheritance, or spend it wisely'. The small inheritance in question, being just a few hundred pounds, had been bequeathed to him by an elderly distant relative, and so he had felt it appropriate to use it to buy something antique and had further decided upon buying an antique clock. The man had on that day settled into a pleasant conversation with the antiquarian and they spoke together at length about ancient timepieces, during which discussion the antiques dealer had produced a gold gentleman's pocket watch and chain from a purple velvet bag which, he informed the man, dated to the early or mid-eighteenth century. The man was permitted to hold it for a brief period and had then returned it to the antiques dealer, declaring it to be probably the oldest man-made object he had held though perhaps not seen. He had then purchased a late-Victorian mantelpiece clock which, over the years, had kept tolerably accurate time, chimed pleasantly nearly upon the hour and had come to occupy a permanent place on a shelf in his study, surrounded by his books. The clock was, he had always believed, a suitably appropriate use of the modest but very thoughtful inheritance, and he had thus followed the sensible advice he had once been given.
On that late afternoon in the early May of the year, when the man stopped at the antiques shop in a street in the medieval centre of the city of York and glanced with idle curiosity at the items on display, his gaze came to fall upon a vase, and as it did so he felt a chill run down his spine. His forehead and his scalp seemed to contract and he felt a sudden hollowness in his chest as he was transfixed, completely arrested by the sudden and wholly unexpected sight of the item.
The man felt unsteady on his feet as he struggled to collect himself. He made a slight gasping sound and then eventually recovered, though not before he felt his heart miss a beat. There was, he realized, no doubt about it. Not the slightest doubt at all. It was the vase. The vase which had been, and still was, unique. There was no other.
He entered the shop, causing the black-painted door to push against a spring-loaded bell which made a loud jingling sound as he opened it, and found, despite his growing sense of urgency, time to reflect on how appropriate such a Victorian device was for an antiques shop. The man discovered the interior of the shop to be equally appropriate and it was, he thought, quite like stepping back in time. The interior was dimly lit, with only the natural light from the narrow street illuminating the shop. It had a musty but calm atmosphere – quite settled, the man reflected – with the only sound being the measured steady tick from an unseen clock. The man stood still and patiently until the antiquary came bumbling unhurriedly from the back room of the shop and stood facing his prospective customer, there being no counter as such, just a small floor space amid a collection of items of varying size, shape and age, but all clearly antique, there being nothing that the man could see or date as being later than 1900 A.D. The man thought the antiques dealer to be something of an antique himself. He was short and balding, with round-rimmed spectacles which seemed to be perched on the end of his nose, and he appeared to be approaching, if not beyond, state retirement age. The antiques dealer wore a loose-fitting grey woollen cardigan, brown corduroy trousers and heavy-looking black shoes. A little unkindly perhaps, the man thought that the image the antiquary presented made him think of an illustration he had once seen of Mr Mole in The Wind in the Willows. It had been in a copy of the book he had once been given, by a doting maiden aunt, for a birthday gift, given to him, in fact, by the self-same elderly relative who, in the fullness of time, had left him a modest amount of money which he had used to buy a mantelpiece clock and had put gratefully and reverently in his study among his books.
'The vase in the window ...' the man began. He had a soft speaking voice. 'May I have a look at it, please? It is the one on the very left side of the window display as viewed from the pavement.'
'Yes, yes,' the bumbling antiquary replied, revealing a pronounced sibilant manner of speaking, 'the Wedgwood? Yes ... yes.' He turned slowly and shuffled to the edge of the window. He took the vase gently in both hands, turned back and carefully handed it to his customer. 'Quite a rare piece – a very rare piece, in fact,' he hissed. 'As you can see, it is a dark blue Wedgwood Jasperware fumigating ribbon pot vase, made in the 1860s for Piesse and Lubin of London,' he explained, pronouncing 'a' as 'ha' and 'as' as 'has'.
'Fumigating?' The man smiled his question and glanced at the antiques dealer. 'What does that mean in this context?'
'Ah, yes ... you see, sir, it was designed to hold flowers to scent a room in order to smother an unpleasant odour arising from illness or poor sanitation perhaps, rather than a vase to be used to display flowers for the purpose of decoration.' The antiquary continued to hiss his words, pronouncing 'order' as 'h-order' and 'unpleasant' as 'hunpleasant'.
'I see; thank you.' The man turned the vase slowly in his hands, examining it in an almost loving manner.
'It is of reduced value, sadly,' the antiquary explained. 'It has clearly been broken into a few pieces at some point in its life and has been glued back together, really most painstakingly so. It was evidently most valued by its owner at the time. Other people would have probably thrown the pieces away but the owner clearly thought much of the vase and glued the pieces back together as best as he or she could. It would have taken a lot of time and patience.'
'Yes ...' The man nodded gently. 'Yes ... yes.'
'The substance of the vase has been glued back together, but as you can see, some of the trimming is missing here and there. You see the bowl mounted on a tripod, which is being entwined by a snake' – the antiquary pronounced 'entwined' as 'hentwined' – 'and part of the snake's body is missing, and there is a darker area beside the tripod, you see ... Well, a figure – a human figure – would have been positioned just there but it has sadly gone, most very probably lost in the accident.' The antiquary paused and took a deep breath. 'The rarity of the piece makes it acceptable on the antique market. Anything less rare with that degree of damage would not be at all acceptable. As it is the vase is worth about one quarter of what it would be worth if it was in pristine condition. If the good gentleman is interested in acquiring the piece, I would willingly and happily sell it for two hundred pounds. I could not go lower. Two hundred pounds is fair and reasonable.'
The man upturned the vase and examined the base. He noticed the initials C.M. had been deeply inscribed thereon.
'Yes, that really was so very naughty of someone,' the antiquary commented, pronouncing 'naughty' as 'h-naughty'. 'Whoever C.M. was he was very naughty to do that. It took much value from the vase even if it had not been damaged in the way it was damaged.'
'So ... two hundred pounds?' the man confirmed.
'Yes, sir,' the antiquary hissed, 'that is, as I said, quite fair and quite reasonable. "A false balance is an abhorrence to the Lord but a just weight is his delight," as the Book of Proverbs says. I am permitted to make a profit but I do not cheat my customers; I cheat neither those from whom I purchase, nor do I cheat those to whom I sell.'
'Good for you.' The man smiled. 'Credit card all right?' The antiques dealer gave the man a pained look. He clearly, like the goods he sold, belonged to an earlier era.
'I see ... I see.' The man handed the vase back to the antiques dealer. 'I'll go and find a cash machine in that case. But I really must have this vase. Could you put it on one side for me?'
'Delighted, sir, most, most delighted.' The antiques dealer turned and placed the vase on the shelf behind him. 'I will keep it out of the window for a full twenty-four hours – perhaps longer if the gentleman so wishes?'
'Oh, heavens,' the man smiled broadly and warmly, I'll be back within thirty minutes. 'Just keep it there ... where it is ... but I must have that vase, I really must have it.'
'Does sir collect Wedgwood? If sir does I have a few other items ...' the antiquary offered, '... very similar to the vase.'
'No ... no, I don't,' the man explained. 'Thank you, anyway ... but I must have that vase. The missing figure you mention, it was in fact a depiction of a small child playing a flute, and the initials C.M. on the base belong to my father, Charles Middleton – he was the very naughty person who did that ... and it was me who broke the vase. I was ten years old at the time. So you see it is essential, absolutely essential that I buy it. You must keep it for me.'
'Oh ... I see. Yes, of course, sir,' the antiques dealer bowed his head. 'You may rest assured. It will be here when sir returns. Rest assured.'
'My name?' The man sat in a slightly reclined manner on the thinly upholstered chair in the interview suite at Micklegate Bar Police Station, York. He noted the room to be painted in a gentle shade of brown up to the waist height of an average-sized adult and a gentler shade of pale yellow above that to the ceiling which was painted white. The floor was covered by a hardwearing carpet, also in brown. The four chairs were covered in a dark orange-coloured fabric, set in pairs either side of a low wooden coffee table. The room was, the man estimated, quite small, measuring, he thought, fifteen feet by fifteen feet, but quite adequate for its purpose. The walls were only about ten feet high, the man noted, thus making for a low ceiling. Two of the chairs were vacant; the fourth chair was occupied by Detective Constable Thompson Ventnor. 'My name, as I gave to the constable at the enquiry desk, is Noel Middleton.'
'And the vase ...' DC Ventnor held the blue vase delicately in his hands, leaning forward as he sat in his chair. 'It's a Wedgwood, isn't it?'
'Yes,' Noel Middleton leaned back in his chair, 'it is mid-nineteenth century, and it is definitely the same vase that once stood on a table in the window of my parents' house, which was just on the outskirts of York. I knocked it off and broke it into many pieces when I was running wildly round the house. My father dealt with the matter in the way he thought best, but he was a man of the old school. My mother came up to see me later that evening when Father had gone out and she did her very best to comfort me, but she did remind me that I had been well warned about running around inside the house, and if I ignored warnings it would only court disaster ... which it did. So I only had myself to blame. I confess I never ran about the house after that,' Noel Middleton added with a smile. 'Anyway, my mother glued it together as best she could but some of the white decoration was too delicate and had broken into just too many pieces to be recovered, as you can see. But that is how I know it is the vase, and when I saw his initials C.M. on the base then the identification was not in doubt.'
'The initials are quite deeply scratched,' Ventnor noted.
'Yes ... that was just my father. He was very heavy-handed. Most any other person would have been content to superficially scratch their initials there but my father gouged his. That was just like him. It was his way,' Noel Middleton continued. 'So when it had all been glued back together as much as it could be it was put back on the table and there it remained for a few more years until it was stolen in a burglary which took place about twenty years ago.'
'So what you are saying, Mr Middleton, is that the vase is part of the proceeds of a burglary?' DC Ventnor was a man in his mid-twenties. He was dressed in a dark blue suit and wore a police officer's tie depicting a candle burning at both ends.
'Yes,' Middleton nodded briefly, 'it was one of a number of items that were taken. The burglary was quite a serious one. Quite serious indeed.'
'I see.' Ventnor carefully handed the delicate vase back to Noel Middleton. 'Well, sir ... I'll take a statement from you, of course, but I have to make it plain that the chances of us apprehending the culprits after a period of twenty years is ... well ... it is slim to zero, but, yes ... I'll certainly take a statement.'
'Oh, if only it was that simple.' Noel Middleton sat forward and rested his elbows on his knees and clasped his hands together. 'If only that were the be all and end all of the matter.' He sighed. 'If that was the extent of it I wouldn't be here. I wouldn't have called upon the police, I promise you. I would have been more than content to have recovered possession of the vase and left it at that, even if I did have to pay for it. I would gladly have left it at that. It is, however, far, far more serious than that. I said it was a very serious burglary indeed; in fact, it was more than a burglary, sadly. Much, much more.'
'Oh?' Ventnor held eye contact with Noel Middleton, whom he was finding to be learned and urbane. 'More serious? In what way?'
'Yes, as I said, much more serious.' Middleton paused. 'You see, my parents and my sister were murdered by the intruders. The perpetrators were not able to be traced despite the case being given much publicity, and the items stolen in the burglary never surfaced. Until now, when just one item, the Wedgwood vase, has finally appeared.'
'Murder!' Ventnor echoed. 'I see ... I see ... that does indeed put a different perspective on the matter.'
'Yes, multiple murders. It was one single explosion of violence and it took the lives of three people. It is, after all this time, what I understand is called a "cold case". A cold case of multiple murder,' Middleton emphasized. 'Very cold but also very multiple. Now, I would not dream of presuming how to tell you your job ...'
'Thank you.' Ventnor smiled and inclined his head to one side. 'We always appreciate that attitude from members of the public.'
Middleton returned the smile at the gentle rebuke. 'But I would have thought the ownership of the vase might be able to be traced back from owner to owner until the police identify the person who obtained it from the persons who burgled my parents' house.'
'Yes,' Ventnor nodded in agreement, 'that would be a definite line of inquiry. It is exactly what we would do.'
'The antiques dealer seemed to me to be above reproach,' Middleton added. 'You see, I am aware that, like the motor trade, the antiques trade can be a conduit to crime, but I did not think the dealer from whom I bought the vase to be in any way suspect. I am sure he would have kept a record of the purchase.'
'Good.' Ventnor nodded. 'We'll certainly interview the gentleman. Which shop was it?'
Middleton told Ventnor, who wrote the address of the antiques shop in his notebook. Then Middleton added, 'I should also inform you that it was and still is my impression, and was also the impression of the police at the time, that the incident was a burglary that had gone badly awry – what I mean is it was a burglary that escalated into multiple murder. I am certain that my parents and my sister were not the targets of premeditated murder which was then made to look like a burglary. That was not the case at all. I am quite sure of that.'
Excerpted from A Dreadful Past by Peter Turnbull. Copyright © 2016 Peter Turnbull. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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