Read Palmer-Jones 01 - A Bird in the Hand Online

Authors: Ann Cleeves

Tags: #Literature & Fiction, #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #British Detectives, #Teen & Young Adult, #Crime Fiction, #Cozy, #Private Investigators

Palmer-Jones 01 - A Bird in the Hand

hidden talent rediscovered

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Ann Cleeves
A Bird in the Hand

Ann Cleeves is the author behind ITV’s VERA and BBC One’s SHETLAND. She has written over twenty-five novels, and is the creator of detectives Vera Stanhope and Jimmy Perez – characters loved both on screen and in print. Her books have now sold over one million copies worldwide.

Ann worked as a probation officer, bird observatory cook and auxiliary coastguard before she started writing. She is a member of ‘Murder Squad’, working with other British northern writers to promote crime fiction. In 2006 Ann was awarded the Duncan Lawrie Dagger (CWA Gold Dagger) for Best Crime Novel, for
Raven Black
, the first book in her Shetland series. In 2012 she was inducted into the CWA Crime Thriller Awards Hall of Fame. Ann lives in North Tyneside.

Chapter One

It was a warm May evening, a Saturday, and a small boy was playing with a home-made model boat at the edge of a pool. The land was flat; water and reeds and marsh stretched to a shingle bank and beyond that to the North Sea. Everything was quiet and the village seemed a long way off. The sun was low, so when the boy stood up to reach across the water with a stick to untangle his boat from the reeds, the long shadows made him look very tall. He was playing very intently, and his father, dozing with a paper in the sun, watched and only smiled as the boy waded into the pool until the water began to spill into his wellingtons, poking further into the reeds with his stick.

The boy watched a lot of television, liked American thrillers, and it was with certainty that he had turned to his father, his Norfolk voice not showing excitement, even if he felt it, to say:

“Dad, there’s a body in the marsh.”

His father rose to look, not believing, still dazed by the sun. When he saw the figure, surrounded by rushes like an animal in its nest, disgustingly, obviously, dead, he could think quite calmly:

At least it isn’t one of us.

He did not need to look at the face to tell that the young man lying in the shallow water at the edge of the pool did not belong to the village, because on the mud beside him, the strap still around his neck, lay a pair of binoculars.

“Dad,” said the boy again, very quietly. “It’s Tommy.”

Tom French had known that something would happen on that Saturday, that it would be a special day. He had planned it, prayed for it. He had planned it the day before, as he listened to the shipping forecast on his radio. He had decided then that he would go out early on to the marsh, well before he was due to start work at eight. He knew that he often made plans to get out early, but that he rarely carried them through. More often than not he was shaken awake by Dennis, the breakfast chef at the White Lodge. Tom had no incentive to get up for work: he was employed as vegetable chef, but worked as kitchen porter, cleaner, sometimes even as waiter. He hated the White Lodge. It kept him away from the marsh. He lived in a tiny room at the back of the hotel. In the mornings he would move silently about the kitchen, boiling water, setting tables, while Dennis, huge and tattooed, swore at the waitresses and sang Led Zeppelin loud. Often hung-over, sometimes still drunk, Tom would move in a dream. Only between breakfast and lunch, as the kitchen grew hotter and the noise of singing and pans louder, would he begin to become alive. Then he would regret his failure to get out on to the marsh before work.

But on the Friday night he knew that he would go the next day. He was a twitcher, and as he listened to the shipping forecast he knew that he would go. He claimed that he had given up twitching, retired because of his work and his commitment to Sally. But he was still a twitcher. At one time he had travelled all over the country to see rare birds. He collected the sight of them as other people collect stamps or train numbers, but the pleasure in the rarities was not only in the collection, in the addition of a species to a list, but in the beauty of the birds themselves, in the delicate differences between them. He told himself, and other people, that for him bird watching was an aesthetic, almost a spiritual, experience. He did not travel far now to see rare, birds, but his passion for them was as deep as it had always been.

It had begun, when he was a child, living over his parents’ grocery shop in Kentish Town. He could remember vividly his first awareness that the world was inhabited by anything other than humans. He had been seven and a half, and he and some other boys had broken into a derelict house, still frightening and empty after the war, but showing no actual sign of bomb damage. There was only one piece of furniture in the house a wooden cupboard which stood in the corner of the living room. Inside it was a stuffed kestrel. He had known that it was a bird, but he had never before seen a bird like it. It had fascinated him and he had fought off the other boys for possession of it. He had taken it to his school teacher who had named it, magically, and had introduced him to the local natural history society, where she made him a junior member.

Birdwatching became a secret passion, shared only with other birdwatchers. He could never have admitted at school, especially at his grammar school, what he did at weekends. As it was, he never quite belonged there. It was a relief to find other people who were as interested, as fanatically interested as he was, and he spent more and more time watching birds or travelling to see rarities. His only close friends were birdwatchers.

Then he had found Rushy. He had come there first, of course, to see the birds, hitching most weekends from London in the spring and autumn, sleeping in the hut near the putting green or in the ladies’ toilets. But he liked the place too. He felt that it was his place. It was small enough to know well. He made trips to Shetland and the Scilly Isles, but there he always felt a tourist. He always came back to Rushy. It had always been known as a good place to see big numbers of common migrants, but Tom found rarities, occasionally he found spectacular rarities, and the reputation of the village grew and spread. Rushy became the property of every bird club and Young Ornithologist group. The dudes and the RSPB members, the wealthy amateurs of the bird watching world, who stayed in the hotel where he worked, did so because they hoped to see golden oriole and woodchat shrike, the rarities for which he had made the place famous. He felt that it was a responsibility and he missed the old freedom.

Now, ironically, he only ever saw other people’s birds. It was true that when the last guest had finished lunch and only Terry was left in the kitchen, and he walked into the Blue Anchor, just on closing time, all the twitchers knew him; gathered round him to ask his advice, to tell him what had been seen. Very rarely did he miss anything good—someone would leave a message for him at the hotel if there was a bird in the area which was known to be new for him. Very rarely did he have to buy his own drinks. But at every rarity there would be a gaggle of birders with tripods, telescopes and cameras; he was always one of a crowd. He missed the excitement and the glory of being the first to see a rarity.

Now it was May and the wind had been blowing from the south-east all week. A wind from the south-east in spring brings migrants from Europe and Africa and Siberia, and it brings vagrants, birds with no reason to be in this country, arriving only by accident and because of the wind. Even on the bad days, when he worried about Sally and money, and worked overtime in the afternoon, making tea for the children, Tom knew which way the wind was blowing. On the Friday night, listening to the shipping forecast on his cheap transistor in his small and dirty bedroom, as he heard the bland, objective voice report the possibility of mist and fog patches at dawn, he knew that the next day would be special. It mattered more to him that night than anything else that he find a rare bird, more than caring for Sally and Barnaby, more than finding work that he enjoyed.

He phoned Sally in Fenquay, explaining that he would not be across to see her. He had tried to be tender, sympathetic, but she had been off-hand and indifferent. He had considered cancelling his plans, because she frightened him more when she was distant and cold than when she was hysterical. When she had taken the overdose, she had been deadly, icily calm. But even while he thought about taking the bus to Fenquay, staying the night in the cottage with Sally and Barnaby, he knew that he would not do it. Because the wind was blowing from the south-east, and the night migrants reaching the coast at dawn would meet and be grounded by a bank of fog, and there was nothing more compelling than spring migration in perfect conditions.

The night porter saw Tommy leave the hotel at five forty on the Saturday morning. It was very foggy, and although the porter was watching, he could not see which way Tom went once he left the building. He was a nervous man, and was more worried about his drive home in the fog than about Tom’s destination. Later he was to tell the police that Tom waved and called to him, but did not mention that he planned to meet anyone. He guessed that Tom was going bird watching because he was wearing wellingtons and carried binoculars and telescope. He did not know that under his anorak Tom was wearing a thick, striped sweater, not really suitable for birding, which he always wore on special occasions, because Sally had knitted it and he thought that it was lucky. The porter was the last person to admit to seeing Tom alive.

When Dennis called for Tom at seven forty-five, the room was empty. He swaggered swearing into the kitchen, and shouted to Terry (mentally subnormal, brought to the hotel from a hospital ten years before and still paid the same wages as when he started):

“You’ll have to start on the teas. Tom’s still in Fenquay.” Terry grinned dutifully. Despite himself, Dennis smiled back with a vague, rude, envious gesture.

When the Fenquay bus went past at eight thirty and Tom was not on it, Dennis shouted to one of the Spanish chambermaids to phone Sally’s home to find out where he was. He had been late before. He was too soft on that temperamental bitch. The girl returned to say that there was no reply. When Mr. Yates, the manager, discovered—despite the kitchen staff’s attempt to hide the fact—that Tom had not turned in to work, he was not surprised. Casual staff were so unreliable.

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