About the Author
Frank Smith has always been fascinated by language. He worked as a journalist in many countries before beginning formal academic studies in Australia. This led to a Ph.D. at Harvard University and further world travel researching, lecturing, and writing on thinking and learning. He has been a professor at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education; the University of Toronto; the University of Victoria, British Columbia; and the University of Witwatersrand, South Africa. He has published many articles and books.
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A DCI Neil Paget Mystery
By Frank Smith
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2008 Frank Smith
All rights reserved.
Monday, March 10
'Morning, boss. Good to see you back,' Detective Sergeant John Tregalles said cheerily as he entered the office bearing two mugs of coffee. 'Looks like DI Travis left everything shipshape for you,' he continued, nodding in the direction of the almost empty in tray. He set one of the brimming mugs in front of Paget, took a sip of his own as he moved back toward the door. 'Can't stop. Got to be in court later on this morning. Shoplifting. Petty stuff, but I've probably spent more time on the paperwork than this kid will serve – that is if he doesn't get off altogether because his mum smacked him when he was two. How was the course? Nice change, was it? Straight hours. Nine to five. Bit of a holiday?'
Paget shot a hard glance at the sergeant. He was in no mood for jokes, not this morning. But there was nothing in the sergeant's manner or expression to indicate that he was being flippant. He swallowed the sharp retort that had risen to his lips, but before he could form a more reasonable response, the sergeant glanced at his watch and said, 'Got to run.' He raised his mug in mock salute. 'Coffee's on me this morning. Sort of welcome back. Brewed specially for you in the canteen.' And then he was gone.
Paget picked up the steaming mug and sat back in his chair. Nice change? Bit of a holiday? Hardly. Seconded to Training with less than forty-eight hours' notice, and even less for preparation time, he'd had to step in to run a course on race relations and sensitivity, when he'd only just finished the course himself. There hadn't been much sensitivity in the way they'd handled that!
'They're short-staffed,' Superintendent Alcott had said as if that explained everything.
'And we're not?' he'd shot back. 'God knows we're barely keeping up with things as it is. Why can't they use some of their own people? There were two instructors on the course I took, so why can't they use them?'
'Because,' Alcott explained, 'it's been decided that in order to demonstrate how important this course is, and how seriously it is to be taken by everyone, they are going to start at the top and work their way down. The next four courses will be attended by senior officers only: some of our own, some from West Mercia, and there'll be some from Dyfed-Powys as well. Which means that the instructor has to be a senior officer. So, to put it bluntly, Paget, you've had the course; you are a trained instructor, so I'm afraid you're it.'
Alcott leaned forward and adopted a conciliatory tone. 'I wasn't aware of it at the time, but I've now been told that the course you were on was a shakedown course, a trial run if you like, and you, along with several others, were being evaluated. And you,' he continued as he sat back and pulled a cigarette from the packet on the desk, 'came out on top. And the fact that you've had previous experience in Training clinched it. Sorry, Paget, but there it is. I don't like it any more than you do, but I haven't been given any choice.'
A flicker of annoyance and disapproval crossed Paget's face as the superintendent lit the cigarette and blew smoke into the air. Alcott saw the look and ignored it. It would take a lot more than that to convince him to give up his cigarettes, no matter what the regulations. Neither was the superintendent going to give ground on this course assignment, so there was nothing to be gained by arguing.
'So, when do I start?' he asked.
'First thing Monday morning,' Alcott said, avoiding Paget's eyes as he pushed a thin folder across the desk. 'Course schedules are in there.'
'This Monday? And you're telling me at four o'clock on Friday afternoon?'
The superintendent had at least had the grace to look uncomfortable as he said, 'I know it's short notice, Paget, but you'll have the weekend, and I'll have DI Travis keep an eye on things while you're away.'
Travis had kept an eye on things all right, thought Paget sourly, but that was about all he'd done. The DI had left a note on his desk, and a batch of marked folders in the file cabinet, with only the briefest of explanations before taking off last Friday night to spend three weeks' leave in Spain. If Paget hadn't suspected that something like that might happen, and come in on Saturday, he would have been snowed under this morning.
'Just going in to check,' he'd told Grace, although he would have much preferred to spend the time with her after being away in Worcester five days out of seven every week for the past month. 'Be back in time for lunch.' Instead he'd wound up spending most of the weekend at work clearing the backlog and bringing himself up-to-date.
Paget sniffed at the coffee, then set it aside. Tregalles had lied. As he'd suspected, this foul-tasting brew had come straight from the machine down the hall, and it smelt more like tar than coffee.
The phone rang. 'Good morning, Chief Inspector,' Alcott's secretary, Fiona, said crisply when he answered. 'Welcome back, sir. Superintendent Alcott asked me to call and say he would like to see you in his office as soon as possible.'
Paget glanced at the long list of notes he'd made of things he should look into, and sighed. Alcott always wanted everything 'as soon as possible'. 'Look, Fiona,' he said, 'I've got a lot of catching up to do. Unless it's really important, tell him I'd like to put off whatever it is until after lunch.'
'I can tell him if you wish,' Fiona said, lowering her voice, 'but I believe it has something to do with a call Mr Alcott received from Chief Superintendent Brock a few minutes ago. His actual words to me were, "Get Paget up here on the double", sir, so I rather doubt if he will consider the time negotiable.'
He groaned inwardly. It would hardly be good news if Morgan Brock was involved. 'In that case,' he said with an audible sigh of resignation, 'you can tell Mr Alcott I'm on my way. And thanks for the warning, Fiona.'
'I have the month-end reports for February,' Fiona said as she entered Superintendent Thomas Alcott's office and dropped them in his in tray. 'They have to be in today, so if you could sign them as soon as possible, I'll make sure they're sent over to New Street this morning. And Mr Paget is on his way up.'
'Good, but don't leave them there,' Alcott told her. 'I don't have time to deal with them right now. I have to get this business with Paget done straightaway, and then I have a meeting at ten. You deal with them, Fiona. You know what to look for. Just mark any questionable ones, and I'll look at them when I get back.'
'Just as long as you don't expect me to forge your signature on them as well,' the matronly woman said tartly as she picked up the reports again. She and the superintendent had been together a long time, and it was on occasions such as this that Alcott sometimes wondered which one of them was really in charge.
'Morning, Fiona. Morning, sir.' Paget stood to one side to let the secretary pass as he entered the office. He was a tall man, broad-shouldered, lean-faced – although not as lean as it had once been, thought Alcott. He hadn't realized until recently how much the DCI had changed in the last two or three months. He certainly looked a hell of a lot better than he had after his encounter with Mary Carr. Even the scar was fading, although part of it was still visible above the collar. But more importantly, his temperament had changed as well; he was more relaxed, less intense. But that, Alcott decided, probably had more to do with Grace Lovett and the DCI's new lifestyle than anything else.
Alcott waved Paget to a seat, then leaned back in his own chair and locked his fingers behind his head. 'Courses go all right, did they?' he asked, then answered his own question. 'I have the report from Training here. They were impressed. They say the critiques were most favourable, so congratulations. Reflects well on all of us over here.'
Paget had a horrible feeling that this was leading up to another secondment to Training. 'Thank you, sir, but if you are even thinking about sending me back there ...'
'No, no, no. Absolutely not!' Alcott assured him. 'No, you did a commendable job over there, but that's the end of it, so you have no need to worry on that score.'
Despite the assurance, warning bells continued to ring in the back of Paget's mind as he said, 'So what, exactly, did you wish to see me about, sir?'
'Ah!' Alcott pursed his lips and frowned as if to emphasize the importance of what he was about to say. 'I had a call from Mr Brock this morning, regarding a young man by the name of Mark Newman, who seems to have gone missing. Newman was last seen on Thursday morning when he went off to work in his van – he does odd jobs, window cleaning, a bit of carpentry and such – and he hasn't been seen since. Normally, no one would have thought much about it, but when he failed to turn up for his own twenty-first birthday party on Friday night at the local pub, his friends became worried about him.'
'So why are you telling me this?' Paget asked. 'From what you've said so far, this barely qualifies for a Missing Person report. You say this chap is an itinerant worker. He has a van, so he probably goes wherever there's work to be had, and he's been held up somewhere. He's young, possibly met a girl, decided to stay on wherever he happens to be, and didn't give a thought to letting his friends know.'
'You may well be right,' Alcott conceded, 'but whether you are or not, Mr Brock has asked us to look into it. He's arranged for you to meet with a young woman by the name of Emma Baker in Whitcott Lacey at three this afternoon. She's a mature student at the Whitcott Agricultural College there. She has all the details.'
'He's arranged ...?' Paget shook his head in disgust. 'Does he really think we're that short of work that we have time to go running off to talk to some girl who goes all a'twitter when her boyfriend doesn't turn up? I'm trying to catch up after being away for a month, and I have cases sitting there that —'
'Believe me, I'm well aware of the situation, thank you, Paget,' Alcott broke in sharply, 'and so is Mr Brock; I made sure of that. But this is not a request. It comes directly from the chief constable. It seems that this young woman, Emma Baker, is Sir Robert's niece, and she spoke to her uncle because she didn't think she was being taken seriously by Missing Persons.'
'When did she report him missing?'
Paget stared at Alcott. 'Two days?' he said. 'And she goes running to her uncle? Does she have any evidence that would indicate Newman is in trouble?'
'None, other than the fact that he missed his own birthday party, and Baker insists that he would have phoned or got in touch with her somehow if he was held up somewhere.'
'So why doesn't the chief constable talk to Missing Persons instead of dumping it in our lap?' Paget growled.
'Look,' said Alcott wearily, 'you're not going to win this one, Paget. I've been through all this with Brock, so let's get on with it, shall we? You will go out there this afternoon and you will meet with Emma Baker. Just go out there and show the flag, so to speak. Take Tregalles with you, listen to what the girl has to say, make the right noises, then let Tregalles pick it up from there. This lad will probably turn up by the end of the week, anyway.'
He pushed a single sheet of paper across the desk. 'As I said, she's a student at the Whitcott Agricultural College, but she's leaving there early today to meet you at the house she shares with several others, including this chap, Newman. It's called Wisteria Cottage. Shouldn't be too hard to find in a village of that size.'CHAPTER 2
Wisteria Cottage was not exactly Paget's idea of a cottage, but rather a very solid-looking two-storied house, with its mellow stonework almost hidden by thick, leafless vines that looked to be as old as the cottage itself. No doubt they would look much more attractive when they were covered in blossoms later in the year, but on a cold and cloudy day in early March, they looked like thick skeletal limbs clinging to the stones.
Emma Baker must have been watching for them, because she opened the door before they had a chance to knock. She was a tall, slim, fresh-faced young woman with auburn hair and hazel eyes. Older than Paget had imagined; mid-to-late twenties, perhaps? It was hard to tell. She was wearing a faded old cardigan over a sweatshirt and jeans, heavy woollen socks and Birkenstock sandals.
'Detective Chief Inspector Paget?' she said with surprise in her voice, and grimaced guiltily. 'I had no idea ... I mean I hoped Uncle Bob would take me seriously, but I didn't expect him to send someone like you.' She saw his puzzled look. 'I remember you from the pictures in the paper a few months ago, when you were attacked by that woman,' she explained. 'I'm Emma. Please come in.'
She led them down a narrow hallway to a large kitchen at the back of the house, and like the hall, it had a flagstone floor. 'We could use the front room,' she told them, 'but this is the only truly warm room in the whole place.' She directed them to take a seat at a long wooden table in front of an old-fashioned Aga cooker, then went on to explain that the house had been made over into flats.
'At least, that's what they call them. They're really nothing more than bedrooms, and not very big ones at that. Shared bathroom facilities, of course, which can be a bit of a pain, but it's affordable – just, and we can walk to the college.
'There are four of us living here,' she continued. 'Tom Foxworthy is the oldest; he's studying farm management. Sylvia Tyler is the youngest; she's into animal husbandry, and I'm here to study organic farming. Mark is the only one who isn't attending the college.'
'And the last time you saw him yourself was Thursday morning?' said Paget as they opened their coats and sat down on hard wooden chairs. 'We've read the report you filed with Missing Persons, and as I understand it, Mr Newman's work does take him off to different locations, so I can't help wondering why you are so concerned about his absence after such a short time. You say you spoke to him as recently as Thursday, yet you filed the report on Saturday morning. Would you like to tell us why? Isn't it possible that he decided to stay on somewhere, perhaps because there was work for him there, and it wasn't convenient to return?'
Emma Baker spread her hands and shook her head slowly. Paget could almost see her mentally digging in her heels.
'That's almost exactly what Uncle Bob said when I spoke to him last night, but you're both wrong. I know Mark; he wouldn't do that. I'll admit he's still just a kid in some ways, but he would have let one of us know. All he had to do was give us a quick call. He has a mobile phone. He knew about the party we had planned for Friday night, and he was looking forward to it. Besides, I'm sure he was up to something. I've no idea what it was, but he's been acting strangely lately. He was excited about something. He kept dropping hints of a sort, but nothing specific, if you know what I mean. And then there's the fact that my camera is missing, and I'm sure he took it.'
Paget glanced at Tregalles. Emma Baker didn't strike him as someone who would panic easily. 'I think you had better start at the beginning,' he told her. 'Give us some background on Mark Newman, who he is, his job, how long you've known him, and most of all why you are so convinced that something may have happened to him.'
Emma's dark eyes held Paget's own for a long moment, as if trying to assess whether he was merely humouring her. She nodded slowly, and the tension seemed to drain from her face. 'I'll put the kettle on,' she said as she rose to her feet. 'The water's hot. It will only take a few minutes to bring to the boil.'
Mark Newman, she told them a few minutes later when they each had a steaming mug of tea in front of them, had come to live at Wisteria Cottage about three months ago. He had come into the local pub one evening after doing a job in the village and asked if anyone knew of a cheap place he could rent for a few months, because he knew he could find enough work in the area to keep him there for a while.
'I work part-time behind the bar of the Red Lion to help pay for my tuition and my room here,' Emma explained, 'and he couldn't have come in at a better time, because Tania, one of the original four of us, had just packed it in and gone back home after failing one of her exams And that had left us in a bind. You see, the rent here remains the same whether all the rooms are rented or not, so with one person gone, it meant the three of us had to make up the difference. So, Mark was something of a godsend.'
'What, exactly, does he do for a living?' Tregalles asked. He had his notebook out.
'Almost anything that pays,' Emma told him. 'He cleans windows, he's quite good at painting, and not a bad carpenter. He'll paint your house, clean out your attic, take rubbish to the tip, or walk your dog if there's a bit of money to be made. He's a willing worker, and he's not doing badly. His aim, of course, is to get enough money to take his next year of journalism. He took one year on a scholarship, but he ran out of money, so he decided to work for a year and make enough to continue his studies.'
Excerpted from Breaking Point by Frank Smith. Copyright © 2008 Frank Smith. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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