The disappearance of two French girls in a Staffordshire beauty spot signals a tough new case for Detective Joanna Piercy.
Cécile Bellange is a worried mother. Her eighteen-year-old daughter Annabelle and her friend Dorothée left Paris for a summer hitchhiking holiday in England, but it’s now September and the only contact from them is a postcard sent from the picturesque setting of Rudyard Lake in Staffordshire three months ago.
Meanwhile, in England, brothers Martin and James Stuart find a note from two French girls, inviting the finder to meet them at Rudyard Lake. Their enquiries lead them to Mandalay, an upmarket guesthouse where the girls stayed just before their disappearance, and its owner, the creepy peeping tom, Mr Barker.
Arriving in England, Cécile Bellange meets Detective Joanna Piercy, who is looking into the girls’ disappearance. Soon Joanna must answer two important questions: what is the anxious Mr Barker trying so desperately to hide, and where are Annabelle and Dorothée?
About the Author
Priscilla Masters is the author of the successful ‘Martha Gunn’ series, as well as the ‘Joanna Piercy’ novels and a series of medical mysteries. She lives near the Shropshire/Staffordshire border, works part-time as a respiratory nurse in the Royal Shrewsbury Hospital and has two grown-up sons and one grandson.
Read an Excerpt
By Priscilla Masters
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 2014 Priscilla Masters
All rights reserved.
Sunday, 19 May, 2014
He spotted the picture at a car boot fair on a rainy day in May. Amongst the piles of outgrown toys and racks of clothes, bric-a-brac spread out randomly on plastic sheets, Barker spotted a framed print leaning against a trestle table looking straight at him, seduction in her eyes. As though pulled on a string he moved towards the exoticism which beckoned him across the muddy field. Pushing a few people out of his way he strode towards her, quickening his pace as he grew nearer. It was her. He knew her. He recognized her.
It was Supi-yaw-lat. The girl from the poem – the very poem he had named Mandalay after. Right down to the ground. Petticoat yaller. Little cap green. Well, she'd left that off today to show her lovely thick black hair.
He picked it up and studied it closer, almost smelling her exotic perfume – oleander, patchouli, musk. He liked everything about her, from the shining, embroidered gold of her exotic costume to the pensive look on her face. Her foreign features, full red lips, dark, dark hair. She looked ... Barker put his head on one side. Burmese, of course. She had to be. There was only one strange thing about her that jarred: her skin colour. It was a sort of unhealthy blue/green. It was not realistic. What had the artist been thinking of to distort such a beautiful face? Why had he painted her skin tone that strange, dead colour, as though she was not from Burma but from somewhere else, maybe another planet? Barker narrowed his eyes. It was the only thing that annoyed him.
But he still had to have her, to take her home, as it were, to live with him. He held the picture at arm's length and studied her closer.
'It's a bargain that,' the vendor put in, standing far too close behind him, trying to push the sale with his smoky breath. 'Most popular picture of the sixties.' He had a slight cockney accent which made him appear a bit of a spiv, a wide boy. A cheat. Barker turned to look at him, took in the mean, grabbing little eyes, the thin mouth, the hands wafting him towards a purchase. And the man rattled on: 'Practically an icon of the sixties.' When Barker said nothing in response he continued with his spiel, walking around him to stand next to the picture. 'That's more than fifty years ago, of course. Now she's practically an antique.' He glanced slyly at Barker. 'Maybe I should put a nought on the end of the price.'
Barker stiffened. He wasn't paying a hundred pounds for her.
The vendor looked affectionately at his picture. 'Know what they called her?'
Barker shook his head, mesmerized by the dark invite in the girl's slanting eyes, so dark they were unreadable, and contrasting almost glaringly with the gleaming richness of the yellow shawl that half-covered the red dress.
The guy laughed through tobacco-stained teeth. 'The real title is Miss Wong but they call her the kitsch Mona Lisa.' He giggled and Barker eyed him, puzzled. What was funny about that? It was ... insulting. He looked curiously at the woman. She didn't seem kitsch to him, although she was a sort of inviting, exotic Mona Lisa. He felt almost protective towards her. He wanted to defend her against that horrid description – kitsch.
The vendor's mouth was open wide and he was still laughing, which made Barker want to punch him. He bunched up his fists but kept his arms rigidly by his side. He was not really the fighting sort.
The vendor hadn't finished with him yet. 'Want to know something else, mate?'
Barker's hostility was compounded. This man was certainly not his mate.
The dealer picked up the girl and held her at arm's length, his hands gripping the frame so hard his knuckles showed through, knobs of blue/white bone. He put his face close to Barker so he could smell his breath. 'It's the most reproduced painting in the whole world.'
Barker eyed the girl with suspicion. He wasn't sure he was pleased she had put herself around quite so much. He frowned. It sounded ... well ... cheap. The dealer saw the frown and continued hastily, studying both the picture and his potential customer hard, trying to find the right words to complete the sale. 'Yeah. She's popular, Miss Wong.'
Barker's face tightened. 'Oh, no,' he said clearly and with dignity. 'Her name is Supi-yaw-lat.'
The vendor gaped at him. Was this guy for real? Was he even sane?
But Barker knew she was not Miss Wong. That wasn't her name at all. He knew exactly who she was. And now he had identified her, when he looked at her he felt conspiratorial. Oh, what fun, what adventures they would have together, he and Supi-yaw-lat. What sights they would see together! There was only one thing he didn't know. 'Who painted her?'
A couple had approached the stall, which was little more than a flimsy plastic gazebo to shelter potential customers from the gusts of rain, and were peering over his shoulder at the picture. Barker panicked. What if they liked her too? What if they knew the poem and her real name?
The vendor was losing interest in him and was eyeing up the couple, sizing up their purchasing potential and comparing them favourably with the weirdo in front of him. He didn't even look at Barker when he answered the question. 'Don't know, mate. There's some sort of name in the corner. Looks Russian or somethin'.'
Barker felt resentful. People did this to him all the time: got bored with him, turned their attention to someone else. Anyone else was better to speak to than Barker.
The vendor was talking quickly to the couple now. Trying to sell the girl to them.
'Frame's nice too, ain't it?'
The frame was, in fact, horrible. Chipped white gloss paint on a narrow, mass-produced sliver of wood. Cheap as chips, Barker thought. Cheaper even. And an insult to her. He would have painted the frame gold.
He eyed up the vendor, wondering how much he would have to pay for Supi-yaw-lat. The vendor was short and plump with a lazy, lardy face. He was wearing ill-fitting jeans looped below a beer belly and a thin brown fleece that was slipping off his shoulders and he shrugged back up when he thought about it. He had pale brown eyes, almost the same colour as the fleece. His hair was sparse, grey and wispy and he had very bad teeth, a missing incisor and a mean look to him, as though he would squeeze every penny out of Barker. 'It's just a print,' he said dismissively, tossing the words over his shoulder, 'but a very famous one.'
Barker nodded again, sure that she would rather come home with him than stay here on this seedy stall, on this muddy field crowded with tat. He was already apologizing to her for what he was about to do. But sometimes bad things had to be done. She had a role but she wasn't his yet. He fingered his purse and peered ostentatiously at the label – £10, it read. And now he had a quandary. At car boot fairs it was his policy always to bargain. It was expected of you. That was what people came to car boot fairs for – to bargain away as though you were in a souk. Arguing over the pounds and the pence was part of the fun. But she was watching him. He couldn't bargain right in front of her, treating her no better than if she was on parade at a slave market. He pulled his purse out of his pocket and took out a ten-pound note, looking at it reluctantly as he handed it over, feeling the loss as keenly as a bereavement. Barker worked hard for his money. He disliked waste and tried to justify every penny he spent.
The man grabbed the tenner. 'Wanna bag?'
Barker shook his head. 'No, thanks.'
'You be careful,' the man said, pocketing the money and widening his grin to display almost all of his gaps and horribly stained teeth. 'She has a way with men.'
Barker didn't reply. Supi-yaw-lat was safely tucked underneath his arm as he strode across the field, back towards his car. She was his. He put her carefully, face up, in the boot. 'I'm so sorry,' he said to her as she watched him suspiciously. 'I'll try not to hurt you too much.'
In her face he had already read forgiveness.CHAPTER 2
Barker was home in less than half an hour.
Home was a large, Victorian house within sight of Rudyard Lake, today rain-spattered and grey. The house had originally belonged to his mother and father, but his father had died years ago, leaving him alone with his mother. It had seemed too big a house for the two of them and money was tight, but neither had wanted to abandon it so Barker's mother, Dora, had hit on the bright idea of opening it up as a guest house. That had been ten years ago, when they had rebranded Laurel Lodge as Mandalay and marketed it using Kipling's image both as their logo and their icon. The thick moustache and rimless glasses looked good on their business cards and even better on the website Barker had perfected five years ago.
Of course, they had needed to carry out some alterations over the years. Tastes in décor had changed radically. People these days expected en suite bathrooms, the highest standards of cleanliness and a good breakfast to send them on their way. But this had been no problem to either Barker or his mother, and they had made a tidy profit until his mother had had a stroke three years ago and died shortly after, leaving Barker to do all the cleaning himself plus all the cooking – breakfasts only, mind – as well as keeping Mandalay in reasonable condition. He also did all the laundry and acknowledged it had been a struggle, but all in all it was a very satisfactory business. Many of the people who stayed were Kipling fans who appreciated the relaxed atmosphere and prints of colonial India as well as the framed printouts of his better known poems. 'If' was always going to be popular and featured in four of the rooms, but 'Mandalay' was Barker's favourite. Most occupants were either couples or climbers. Holiday makers mostly, and a few families, though he didn't encourage children. Truth was he didn't like them.
At the moment he had a young couple from Berkshire and a teacher from Holland, who appeared to be travelling around the country on her own in a small red Citroen. She spoke such excellent English that Barker found it hard to believe she was Dutch. However, luckily, both the young couple and the Dutch girl were out for the day and not due back until this evening. At the moment he had Mandalay to himself. Himself and Supi-yaw-lat.
He opened the front door to the empty house then, returning to his car, he lifted Supi out of the boot, carried her inside and placed her, face up, on the kitchen table. He felt guilty as she eyed him with her two slanting eyes. She must be wondering what he was about to do to her. He evaded her gaze and trotted out to his garden shed, returning with a Stanley knife then carefully, very carefully, oh so carefully, apologies bubbling out of his mouth like water from a spring, he cut around the outline of her left eye, the blade slicing easily through the backboard. Then he picked the picture up, turned it around and put his own eye to the hole. Now he and Supi-yaw-lat could watch their own peep show together. He took her upstairs into the small twin-bed room, next to the box room, and hung her on the wall that stood between them. With a gimlet, he marked the spot where he needed to drill a hole through from the other side. Ten minutes later? Job done.
He stood back. There was one problem that worried him. His own eyes were blue, whereas his lady's eyes were dark. Very dark – almost a black hole in her oriental face. It was possible that his eye, peering through, would look too bright. He would just have to hope that no one noticed.
Four months later Saturday, 7 September, 10 a.m.
On the outskirts of Paris, in the suburb of Vincennes, Madame Cécile Bellange was looking at the mantelpiece on which stood a very fine Japy Frères boulle clock. A postcard was propped against it. For the umpteenth time since she had put it there she picked it up and studied the picture. It looked such a nice place, a pretty lake, a few boats sailing. A train in the background. People in the foreground all looking happy. She smiled. Happy families. Children, dogs, all running around, throwing balls, enjoying themselves. The English at play at a lake called Rudyard. She turned the postcard over and read the back. Again.
Maman, it read, c'est beau ici. Les gens sont très sympathiques et nous avons trouvé un endroit propre agréable où séjourner. Se détendre. Il n'est pas trop cher. Nous avons encore de l'argent de côté. Vous nous verrez, quand nous aurons dépensé tout notre argent. J'ai découvert le letterboxing. Je t'embrasse, Annabelle XXXXXX
It was clear the girls were having a good time, Annabelle talking about how beautiful it was there, how friendly the people were and how they'd found a clean, nice place to stay which wasn't too expensive. They still had money left, and Cécile would see them when it ran out. Her daughter had discovered letterboxing. She had signed off by sending her love.
Madame Bellange frowned. The postmark on the card was July. Now it was September. Since then, nothing. Not a word, written or telephoned. She had rung Annabelle's mobile many times, leaving messages, but had heard nothing back, and now she was worried. Her ex-husband, Armand, was not concerned. He was too busy with his new amour, Juliette, and had told her (nastily, she thought) that she was over-possessive of Annabelle, that she should learn to treat her as a normal seventeen-year-old and that the girl was simply enjoying what all young women should – a little bit of freedom. She had slammed the phone down on him after shouting that both Annabelle and Dorothée should be starting their college courses next week. Madame Bellange's face hardened. She had been to the National Police, whom she still thought of as the Sûreté. They had not been interested. 'Two teenage girls,' they'd said scornfully, 'hitchhiking around England. What do you expect? A letter every day?' And they had laughed.
'But Dorothée's mother has heard nothing either,' Cécile had insisted.
They'd shrugged. 'And is she worried?'
'Not like I,' Madame Bellange had said with dignity, and repeated, 'but next week they are due back at college.'
'Then they'll be back. You'll see,' the police had said, still exchanging amused glances between themselves.
Madame Bellange had grown angry. 'But their mobile phones ...' she'd insisted.
'Run out of credit, I expect,' the policeman had said, touching his moustache to hide his amusement, which was turning towards impatience.
'Or maybe lost,' the other one had suggested. 'I have an eighteen-year-old daughter, madame. She has lost four mobile phones – so far. And she never has any credit.'
'Girls,' the other one had chimed in.
'Both of them?'
This had provoked a shrug and Madame Bellange had been even more annoyed then because the balding Sûreté man had winked at his colleague. Winked. Without trying to hide it. They were making fun of her, she realized.
She went home.
But the walls of the flat seemed to press in on her; accuse her of neglect. Annabelle's lilac bedroom, completely cleaned, curtains, duvet, bedding all washed, ironed and sprinkled with lavender water, seemed to emphasize how long it had been since her daughter had inhabited it. It didn't even smell of her any more.
She moved back to the lounge, picked up the postcard again and looked even closer at the picture on the front. The people looked so happy. It seemed like an innocent, pretty, old-fashioned sort of place. The girls would surely have been safe here. That was where she should start her search.
Excerpted from Guilty Waters by Priscilla Masters. Copyright © 2014 Priscilla Masters. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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