Read Changelings Online

Authors: Jo Bannister

Changelings

Stacking shelves at the Castlemere branch of Sav-U-Mor was the best job Tracey Platt had ever had. It was regular, it paid well – well, better than most jobs available to an unqualified sixteen-year-old – there was overtime, and as long as you didn't actually do the damage yourself there were perks in the form of dented cans and battered boxes. Plus, Sav-U-Mor was an American supermarket, so shelf-stacking here was the closest Tracey was ever likely to get to working abroad.
Moving steadily along the cool cabinet, bringing forward the unsold goods and stacking the new ones behind them as she'd been taught, Tracey Platt didn't see much wrong with the world. For a girl from The Jubilee, who had neither the ambition nor – Tracey believed in being honest with herself – the intellect to succeed as a criminal, she thought she was doing pretty well.
Until, reaching mechanically to bring to the front the last of the weekend's unsold yoghurts, she saw something that shouldn't have been there. Tracey stopped in her android progress and, frowning, leaned forward for a closer look.
Tracey's vocabulary didn't stretch to the word ‘botulism', but if it had been a regular ingredient of yoghurt it wouldn't have been written in thick black letters on a sticky label. Tracey could recognize a threat when she saw one. She took a rapid step backward and called for help. ‘Mr Woodall. Mr Woodall! Mr Woodall!!' she cried, shriller and shriller until he appeared at her shoulder.
The under-manager leaned forward until he could see what was bothering her. Then, too much a gent to shake her, he squeezed her hand and said, very calmly, ‘That's enough, Tracey. Now, let's both walk away – very carefully …'
 
 
It was October now so the photographs in the tourist brochures were no longer legally binding. The canal was brown. The buildings on Broad Wharf were brown, and brown clouds lowered out of the sky and dropped their cargo like celestial tankers dumping toxic waste while God wasn't looking. Even the swans, those without the foresight to swallow a fish hook and get themselves sent to a sanctuary for the winter, had a khaki tinge.
It was ten o'clock on a Monday morning so the last unwilling schoolboy had trudged through the gates of Castle High and on all the long stretch of towpath between Mere Basin and Cornmarket only three living souls were in sight. Undaunted by the weather or lacking the wit to get out of the rain, depending on your point of view.
Detective Inspector Liz Graham, who was one of
them, inclined to the latter. She saw nothing admirable about defying something as relentless as the British autumn. It was weather for staying inside whenever possible; for fighting over the parking space nearest the door; for sending lower ranks out for the morning doughnuts.
It was not a day for taking your house for a drive.
For as long as she'd known him Donovan – the second living soul – had done this at intervals: disconnected his power supply, coiled up his warps and taken his narrowboat
Tara
off into the inland waterways. It was the only kind of holiday he took. He was a canal buff: he knew where all the locks were, how they operated and how long it took to negotiate each one. He came back with photographs of sluices and windlasses which were so devastatingly boring they acquired a kind of fascination.
This trip, though, he was avoiding locks as much as possible. He was still creaky from the bullet that carved a finger-deep trench below his ribs four months earlier: he didn't need to pit himself against tons of black timber every few miles. Also, he had a cold. With the black hair hanging in rats' tails in his dark angular face, his bony shoulders shrugging the collar of his black oilskin coat up around his ears and a cough rattling in the depths of his chest, he was as good an advertisement for the joys of boating on the Castlemere Canal as. Yul Brynner was for hair tonic.
‘You need a sou'wester,' Liz observed judiciously.
Donovan barked a laugh. He wasn't into headgear. He wore a motorcycle helmet because he had to; Liz couldn't remember seeing him in any other kind of
hat. It was a small grief to her that she hadn't known him as a beat copper in a woodentop. Frank Shapiro reckoned Donovan was transferred to CID precisely because he was so unconvincing in uniform. CID was the only branch of the force in which not looking like a policeman was an advantage.
‘All I need,' said Donovan heavily, blowing his nose and swigging fiercely from a little brown bottle marked ‘Philbert's Cold & Flu Remedy: Use Sparingly', ‘is for the frigging rain to stop.' His voice was thick with phlegm, but thicker still with the mid-Ulster accent he was determined to carry to his grave.
‘Have you seen a forecast?'
He nodded grimly, raindrops splashing from his nose. ‘More of the same.'
‘Well, for heaven's sake,' said Liz, running out of patience, ‘tie the damn boat up and try again later. You're supposed to be looking after yourself. They won't clear you for work until you're fit.'
‘They cleared the chief,' growled Donovan.
Liz hid a smile. Donovan had been deeply offended that Superintendent Shapiro – fat, fifty-six and recovering from a bullet in the back – had been considered fit for duty by the same doctor who had rejected him. ‘The chief does his best work sitting down. You do yours at the run. It makes a difference.'
The other difference, that she didn't mention, that she wasn't sure he'd been told about, was that no question had arisen over Shapiro's psychological state. Division was concerned that Detective Sergeant Donovan had taken too many injuries in too short a time; that if it wasn't a psychological problem getting
him into all this trouble he must have one as a result of it. Either way, they wanted him a hundred per cent before they'd let him tackle so much as a second-hand car dealer suspected of clocking. Take a trip, said the doctor, try again when you get back.
Liz thought the break would do Donovan good too, but not for that reason. She had no reservations about his mental well-being. Donovan was passionate about his job, would go on doing it day in and day out until someone made him stop. Sometimes it was her, sometimes Shapiro; sometimes Fate dropped a heavy hint in the shape of a broken bone. It wasn't a psychological problem, it was just the way he was: a natural extremist. He did everything to excess. Division had him down as a loose cannon; Liz knew that the only thing wrong with Donovan was that he tried too hard. But in a grindingly hard and dangerous situation there was no one she'd sooner have at her back.
And because she wanted him back where he belonged she was here to see that he did as he was told and took his holiday. She'd rather have been waving him off on a charter flight to Greece, but sun and sand weren't Donovan's native habitat. If cruising the fens was the jolliest thing he would contemplate then it would have to do.
But she still didn't know why it had to be today, in drenching rain and with a man-sized habit in paper handkerchiefs.
Of course there was a reason, even if it made sense only to Donovan. If he started today he could have his holiday and get over his cold at the same time; then he could say he'd been on a cruise, pass
his physical and be back at work by mid-October. There was nothing magical about October, he just didn't want his sick leave dragging on into another month. He didn't know how Queen's Street had managed without him this long.
But Liz Graham was his superior officer; they had an easy relationship these days but not easy enough for him to say as much aloud. ‘Get on your way, boss, there's no point both of us getting soaked. Er …'
When he didn't finish Liz looked at him through the veiling rain and saw embarrassment on his gaunt features. ‘Sergeant?'
‘Look out for the chief.'
She didn't actually need telling. Three months earlier there'd been some doubt if Frank Shapiro would walk again. He'd made an excellent recovery, but this first week back at work was bound to find weak spots that hadn't bothered him at home. There would be a period of readjustment, and if he needed someone to lean on Liz's was the shoulder of choice.
‘I will,' she said softly. ‘I'll look after him, you look after yourself, and I'll see you next week.'
‘If you need me before that,' Donovan began hopefully.
‘It'll be just too bad,' Liz finished briskly.
‘I'll be going up the Castlemere canal to Posset, by the Thirty Foot Drain as far as Sinkhole Fen, then across by the Sixteen Foot Drain to join the Arrow at Foxwell Dam and home by the river. You can leave a message at the Posset Inn, at Sinkhole engine house or at Foxwell lock.'
He might have been speaking in Sanskrit. ‘Or I could dial your mobile number.'
He scowled. ‘It's on the blink again. I don't know why everyone else's works and mine's always acting the lig.'
Liz glanced around but refrained from stating the obvious: that they weren't designed to work under water, that if he lived in a house and drove a car his phone would work as well as hers. ‘Donovan, I shan't need you; but if I do I know where to find you. If you're going, go. But for pity's sake, don't be too long before you tie up, dry out and get a hot meal. You won't pass your medical if you come back with double pneumonia.'
He gave her his saturnine grin. Then he whistled to the third living soul out of doors that inclement morning, and the great black dog bounded back up the towpath and hurdled the rail on to
Tara's
forepeak. Leaning down Donovan engaged the engine and the note deepened as the screw bit into the brown water. Liz stood back and watched him steer the unwieldy craft out into the canal like Charon setting off across the Styx. But after a couple of minutes
Tara
was no more than a blur viewed through the closing curtains of rain, and she turned away and strode up the walkway to where she'd left her car in Brick Lane.
Even when the time came for looking back, she had no sense of premonition – no awareness as she saw him off that she might not see him again.
 
 
Superintendent Shapiro, back in his office at the end of the second-storey corridor, looked up at the sound of her step and beckoned her through his open door. ‘Come and look at this.' He was studying a yoghurt pot in a plastic bag.
She looked. ‘Lunch?' she hazarded.
His rumpled face, uncharacteristically brown from having the time to sit in his garden, spread in a grin. He'd missed her. He'd missed the job, but also the relationships that went with it. His friends were all police officers. ‘Do I look like a healthy eater?'
The simple answer was no: he looked like a man who snacked on chip butties. ‘I thought perhaps you were coming out.'
Shapiro shuddered. All he knew about health food was that it was brown. ‘It isn't my elevenses, it's a Clue.' Somehow he managed to pronounce the capital letter.
Liz's interest quickened. ‘To what?'
‘Ah,' he demurred. ‘I haven't actually got a crime yet; but I expect one'll be along soon.'
He'd succeeded in confusing her, which was an achievement for his first day back. ‘Perhaps if I go out and come back in again …?'
Shapiro waved her to a chair, passed her the yoghurt pot. The plastic bag was marked ‘Evidence'. ‘A shelf-stacker at Sav-U-Mor found it this morning.' He also managed to invest the name of Castlemere's biggest supermarket with his disapproval of its spelling.
Liz took it carefully. ‘Is the yoghurt still inside? In fact, was it yoghurt inside?'
‘No,' said Shapiro. ‘And yes, but not exclusively.'
The pot contained – or had done – natural unflavoured yoghurt with a sell-by date three days hence. The foil top had been partially lifted. ‘Forensics did that,' said Shapiro. ‘When we got it the lid was intact.'
Turning it in her hands Liz found what had alarmed the shelf-stacker. An address label tacked to the back of the pot bore the legend, in large black felt-tipped letters: ‘This could have been botulism.' She put it down, a little more quickly than she meant to. ‘Could have been?'
Shapiro nodded. ‘In fact it was lime jelly. All it would have given you was a nasty shock.'
Liz frowned. ‘But if the lid was intact, how …?'
‘You tell me.'
She kept looking. Finally she saw it: a pin-prick hole in the bottom of the plastic pot sealed with a bead of clear material. ‘Hypodermic?'
He nodded. ‘And?'
‘Superglue.'
He nodded some more, approvingly. ‘I don't know why we need a laboratory. A good eye can tell you as much as anyone in a white coat.'
‘It couldn't have told you if the lime jelly was contaminated with botulism,' said Liz. The thought of it made her shudder. Every week – twice if she couldn't get Brian to do some of it – she brought home a car-boot full of groceries. It never occurred to her that any of them could have been tampered with. A hypodermic of lime jelly had destroyed that confidence for ever.

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