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It was a chilly but bright autumn morning in late October. Detective Chief Inspector John Shadow strolled out of Bettys Tearooms into St Helen’s Square. He was feeling unusually cheerful. The full English breakfast he had just consumed had been delicious and he had successfully completed this morning’s Yorkshire Post crossword. All was well in the world. Or at least it was until he stepped through the main doors of York’s police station. Suddenly it seemed as though he had been transported into a strange dreamland.
Behind the reception desk Tom, a young constable in uniform, and Detective Sergeant Jimmy Chang, Shadow’s deputy, were trying – and by the look of things failing – to control a colourful cast of characters from English history and folklore all clamouring for their attention. There was King Richard III, Robin Hood, Guy Fawkes, Dick Turpin, a nun dressed in grey, a Victorian gentleman in a top hat and a distressed-looking Elizabethan lady. All were complaining, arguing and generally talking over each other. Shadow could barely hear himself think. He clapped his hands together loudly and raised his voice.
“Thank you, ladies and gentlemen, quiet please.” The characters all fell silent and turned to look at him.
“Good morning, Chief Inspector Shadow,” Jimmy called out from behind the desk.
“Morning, sir,” chimed in Tom. There was a general murmuring from the crowd between them, a recognition that someone in authority had arrived.
“Is there a problem, Sergeant?” Shadow asked, but before Jimmy could reply Richard III stepped forward.
“Yes, Chief Inspector, there most certainly is. Sabotage! One of this unholy rabble has been removing my leaflets,” he said, nodding in the general direction of the others.
“It’s not only you, Malcolm. We’ve all had our leaflets stolen this morning and somebody’s taken down my posters,” declared the nun, glaring at Robin Hood.
“Don’t look at me, Celia,” retorted Robin Hood, pointing at Dick Turpin and Guy Fawkes, “it’s these two who are responsible for hacking our website and stealing all our ideas.”
“Ideas,” scoffed Dick Turpin in a surprisingly upper-class accent. “Robin Hood isn’t even from York.”
“There appears to be some disagreement between the ghost walk guides, Chief,” Jimmy explained before anyone else could complain.
“So, I see,” said Shadow. Well that accounted for the costumes.
York was reputedly the most haunted city in Europe and every evening the streets were busy with tourists enjoying spooky stories on one of the many guided tours around the city. At this time of year, so close to Halloween, it was more hectic than ever as the different guides, or ghost walkers vied for business, but things were clearly getting out of hand.
“Look,” he continued firmly, “all of you form an orderly queue and calmly report your grievances to Sergeant Chang. Any more disruption and I’ll be on the phone to the council and have the lot of you shut down.”
With that he stalked away, followed by the sound of grumbling from the ghost walkers. He made his way along the corridors and up the stairs. The station was strangely quiet. He couldn’t see another officer anywhere. The canteen was in darkness and every room he passed was empty. Never mind the ghost walkers he’d left behind, today this whole place felt like a ghost town.
When he reached his own office, he flicked on the light, took off his battered old wax jacket and hung it on the back of the door. Despite moving in over fifteen years ago, there was nothing in the office to show it belonged to Shadow. No photographs, pot plants or mugs with amusing slogans. It only contained the desk with a telephone, two chairs and a filing cabinet. Usually his desk was covered in a clutter of notes and Post-its hoping for a response, but mostly ignored. However, this morning it was completely clear. With nothing to do and nobody clamouring for his attention he stood at his window for a moment and took in the view.
The police station was housed in what was once the city’s Medieval Guildhall and stood next to the River Ouse. The sun glistened on the water below and today it was quiet enough to hear the honk of the geese flying low beneath Lendal Bridge and the rhythmic splash of the rowers’ oars as they glided by. If he turned his head to the left, he could see Ouse Bridge and beyond that Skeldergate Bridge. A little further along the riverbank from there, Florence was waiting for him. Florence was the red and black narrow boat that had been his home for almost thirty years. She had been moored in the same spot since the two of them had left London and the Met behind and returned instead to Shadow’s home city.
With a sigh he turned away from the window and back to his desk. He began rummaging through the drawers in the hope of finding an unfinished crossword to occupy him. He may as well make the most of all this peace and quiet.
After closing the third drawer without any success he paused and listened. He could hear the soft, quick sound of trainer-clad feet jogging down the corridor. They stopped outside his office and there was a cheerful rat-a-tat-tat on the door.
“Come in, Jimmy,” Shadow called out. Sure enough, the door opened and in stepped the tall, dark floppy-haired figure of Sergeant Chang. As usual, he was dressed in jeans and a black leather jacket and was holding his electronic notebook under his arm and a takeaway coffee in his hand.
“Did you manage to get that rabble downstairs dealt with?” Shadow asked, as he began searching through the last drawer.
“Yes and no, Chief. They’ve all gone, but I think some of their complaints are valid and will need to be investigated.”
“Fine, fine, hand all the information over to uniform,” replied Shadow dismissively.
“Ah well you see,” began Jimmy.
“Where is everyone anyway?” interrupted Shadow, closing the drawer with a bang.
“They’ve all gone on a two-day team-building exercise in the Dales. It was the chief constable’s idea. She thought it would be good for morale and this seemed like the quietest time. The races have all finished, it’s just before Halloween, Bonfire Night and the balloon festival. Then after that we’ve got the start of St Nick’s Fair and the busy run-up to Christmas.”
“Thank you, Sergeant,” replied Shadow irritably, “I am well aware of York’s calendar of events. I am, however, surprised that nobody bothered to mention that practically the whole station was planning to disappear off to the countryside for two days.”
Jimmy shifted uncomfortably. “The chief constable did email you several times about her plans, I believe.”
“What was the point of that? She must know by now I don’t read those damned things. I take it I wasn’t invited on this jolly?”
“I think it was probably assumed team building wasn’t really your sort of thing, Chief,” replied Jimmy with a shrug. Shadow grunted but couldn’t in all honesty disagree. In his opinion, police officers bonded when they investigated and solved crimes together, not when they tried to cross a river with an imaginary fox, chicken and bag of grain.
“So, who’s left?” he asked.
“Well you and me obviously, Chief, and George couldn’t go because of his dodgy knee. He’s down in custody dealing with a drunk who was brought in last night, and Tom.”
“What’s wrong with Tom?”
“Nothing, he just drew the short straw.”
“I see, and all this means…”
“It’s down to us to investigate the ghost walkers’ disappearing posters and leaflets,” replied Jimmy cheerfully. “Hey, I’ve just had a thought: it’s so close to Halloween you could say we only have a skeleton staff!” The sergeant laughed at his own joke.
“Don’t plan on giving up your day job any time soon, Sergeant,” replied Shadow scathingly. He stood up with a heavy sigh. So much for enjoying the peace. He reached for his old wax jacket and pulled it on.
“Come on then. I suppose we’ll have to crack on with it,” he said., “You had better fill me in on what’s happening in the weird and wonderful world of the ghost walkers.”
“Absolutely,” said Jimmy tapping at the screen of his notebook as they both left Shadow’s office and walked along the corridor and down the stairs to reception. “So first of all, I get the impression that there has always been healthy competition between the ghost walkers. I thought we could shorten it to GWs to make it easier, Chief?”
“Let’s not,” growled Shadow. Initialisms and acronyms were among his many pet hates.
“Okay, well recently the competition has got out of hand. Malcolm Webster, the one with the crown and dressed in black.”
“Richard III,” interjected Shadow.
“If you say so, Chief,” replied Jimmy, who didn’t have the strongest grasp of history. “He is adamant that someone has been taking the flyers he puts out every night. Most of the ghost walk guides have advertising boards placed around the city with a section for leaflets telling customers their prices and what time the tours start. Celia Palmer, the nun, and the Wests both say their A-boards have been turned around and posters taken down. Steve and Matthew West work together. You might remember Steve – he was dressed as Robin Hood and helped us out on the Susie Slater case?”
“Vaguely,” muttered Shadow. Unlike Shadow who shunned the company of others, Jimmy seemed to make friends easily wherever he went, even when he was investigating a murder.
“Well they say false negative reviews have been put on their website as well as leaflets disappearing. And the whole lot of them seem miffed with Andrew Gill and Nick Cooper AKA…” Shadow groaned, so Jimmy hurried on: “…also known as Guy Fawkes and Dick Turpin. They arrived in York fairly recently from Oxford and it sounds like they have made a bit of a dint in everyone else’s business.”
The two detectives had now walked out of the station and into the sunshine, but Shadow’s previous good mood had failed to resurface. They paused next to the noticeboard that stood between the ancient arched entranceway to the police station and the Lord Mayor’s Mansion House.
Amongst the flyers for the forthcoming firework display and balloon festival there was a noticeable gap and scraps of paper attached to four evenly spaced drawing pins. Jimmy took a photo using his digital device and then began tapping down notes.
“Celia Palmer said this is where one of her posters was taken from, Chief.”
“I find it difficult to believe so many people in this city make a living peddling such nonsense,” Shadow grumbled.
“I take it you don’t believe in the spirit world then, Chief Inspector?”
Shadow and Jimmy both turned to see the Grey Nun standing behind them.
“And I’m very pleased to see you are taking my complaint seriously, Sergeant. Chief Inspector Shadow, I am Celia Palmer,” she said holding her hand out. Shadow shook it politely.
“Good morning, Miss Palmer. I’m sorry to hear you have been having problems.”
The nun fixed her bright green eyes on him.
“It’s Ms Palmer, Chief Inspector. If you would be so kind, Sergeant Chang.” She handed Jimmy another poster from the leather satchel she carried on her shoulder. Jimmy obligingly began to pin it to the noticeboard, clearly reading it at the same time, which left Shadow feeling like it was incumbent on him to make conversation with Ms Palmer.
“And is business good aside from this issue with the posters, Ms Palmer?”
“I don’t see what I do as a business, Chief Inspector. I feel it’s more of a vocation. A calling. My tours are educational and not merely for the purpose of entertainment. I want to make people aware of how women have been oppressed over the centuries. The poor creatures who were drowned and burnt at the stake, falsely accused of witchcraft. After all I am a practising witch.”
“Really? That’s amazing. I’ve never met a proper witch before,” said Jimmy turning around as he pinned up the poster and sounding impressed. Shadow sighed to himself – trust his sergeant to encourage her.
“Have no fear, Sergeant Chang. I’m a white witch and I promise not to curse you or your cynical chief inspector.”
Shadow bristled. Surely not believing in the supernatural made him sensible not cynical.
“So why don’t you dress up as a witch?” asked Jimmy.
“You mean with a pointy black hat and broomstick?” Cynthia’s face crinkled into a grin. “No, Sergeant, I shall not sully the name of witch by adhering to society’s stereotypes. When conducting a tour, I prefer to dress in a way that represents the women this city has betrayed over the years. Margaret Clitherow, Alice Smith, Isabella Billington – all misunderstood and all cruelly put to death here in York. Today, I am the Grey Lady whose spirit is said to linger at the Theatre Royal. She was a young nun, whose only crime was to fall in love with a nobleman. Her punishment? To be bricked up inside a windowless room with no hope of escape. Ironically, her appearance is now said to bring good luck to any production staged there, so she clearly bears no malice.”
Shadow couldn’t think of anything to say in response and even Jimmy was standing in dumbfounded silence. She gave them an understanding smile.
“I shall leave you now, Sergeant, Chief Inspector, and wish you both a happy All Hallows’ Eve or as I prefer to say, Samhain.”
The two detectives watched as she disappeared down Coney Street, handing out leaflets to tourists and shoppers as she went.
“I don’t think Celia’s tour sounded like it would be much fun. What about you, Chief?” asked Jimmy, as they turned and crossed St Helen’s Square towards Stonegate.
“I’ve always thought most people have very strange ideas of what constitutes fun. Personally I’ve always found it overrated,” muttered Shadow. “That it should come to this,” he continued, “over thirty years in the police and I’m roaming the streets on a wild goose chase to track down the torn posters of a woman who thinks she’s a witch.”
“Don’t be like that, Chief,” replied Jimmy as resolutely upbeat as ever. “Look on the bright side it’s a nice sunny day, we are out in the fresh air and nobody has died.”
Shadow sighed wearily. He was sure many people found his sergeant’s enthusiasm and unfailing optimism infectious; he mainly found it exhausting. It was nearly as irritating as all the pumpkins, black cats and fake cobwebs that were adorning every shop window and pub doorstep. He tutted quietly to himself.
“I don’t know when we started to be invaded by pumpkins either,” he grumbled.
“Don’t you like jack-o’-lanterns, Chief?”
“In my day we used swedes.”
Jimmy looked blank and Shadow tutted again.
“You know, Sergeant, swedes, round turnips.”
“Weren’t they really hard to carve? Pumpkins must be easier and more colourful.”
“That’s not the point. Swedes were traditional.”
“I don’t know; it sounds weird to me. You know what else is weird? Why aren’t there more female ghost tour guides?” Jimmy pondered as they approached the Minster, which towered over the rest of the city.
“They’ve probably got more sense.” Shadow grunted. Despite his boss’s apparent lack of interest in the subject, Jimmy pressed on.
“I think Celia is the only one I know of.”
“What about that Elizabethan lady?”
“Which Elizabethan lady?”
“She was standing by the reception desk this morning with all the others.”
Jimmy scrolled through his notebook’s screen. “Um…no sorry, Chief, nothing about her here. Maybe she didn’t have anything to report.”
“Fine, well let’s go and speak to Richard III, see if we can get any sense out of him. What’s his real name again?”
“Malcolm Webster. His office is only around the corner on College Street.”
End of Excerpt