Best known for her Wesley Peterson mysteries, Kate Ellis writes intelligent, intricately plotted detective stories that will have you hooked from cover to cover. 

Kate has written this Christmas short story exclusively for The Crime Vault, so pour yourself a mug of mulled wine, open up that chocolate box and settle down to this intriguing tale . . .

Dorothy W

Edith B

Frank & Elsie

Prudence Banks took a deep breath. Who else?

Jenny, Elizabeth, Bill, Gerry, John, Betty (choir)

Pat, Ginny, Alan, Anthony, Wendy (Garton Hall)

James & Carla (upstairs)

The list was growing longer because Prudence had become a busy woman since her retirement. The church choir; the charity shop; the local animal rescue shelter. She liked to feel useful. However, it was being on the committee of the Garton Hall Restoration Trust that occupied most of her time and allowed her to indulge her interest in history.

She extracted the ten identical cards – sold in aid of the Garton Hall Restoration Fund – from their thin cellophane wrapper and examined the scene on the front. The hall in the snow with a plump robin in the foreground. It didn’t snow often in her part of South Devon but everyone’s allowed some poetic licence at Christmas, she thought, holding one of the cards at arm’s length to get the full effect. The image had been painted by a local artist who, by coincidence, was Prudence’s neighbour. The proportions were a little over-imaginative but, aside from that, Prudence thought she’d done a pretty good job.

Prudence had her address book and pen to the ready in preparation for a long session. If she wrote her cards now and posted them first thing in the morning she’d be able to beat the rush. These days too many people left it till the last minute, she thought, shuddering at the lack of foresight and self discipline that had become so common in the modern world; a world she found increasingly puzzling.

She walked to the window and as she was preparing to pull the curtains across, she paused to look at the damp scene below. The Christmas lights were on; thin ropes of glittering stars strung across the narrow street; a wonderland in the gathering Devon mist. She shut the night out and began work.

Once she’d inscribed seasonal greetings in the first three cards and addressed the envelopes carefully, she checked the time. Eight o’clock. The sun was well over the yardarm as her late father always used to say, and writing Christmas cards was an arduous task so she felt she deserved a small reward. A snifter – another of her father’s favourite words.

She poured herself a sherry from the new bottle on the sideboard and when she flicked the switch on the radio she was delighted to hear a Christmas carol. ‘Once in Royal David’s City’. One of her favourites. She began to sing along in her quavering soprano and as soon as the final notes had died away she took a sip of sherry and savoured the warm sensation as it slid down her gullet. Things always felt better after a couple of sips. She sat down at the bureau and sealed the envelopes she’d already written. Only twenty seven more cards to write.

But ten minutes later Prudence Banks was dead.

*

‘Prudence Banks. Sixty five years old. Lived alone.’ The constable studied his notebook as though he feared he’d missed something out.

‘Who found her?’ The speaker was a plain clothes detective; dark skinned with intelligent brown eyes. Detective Inspector Wesley Peterson was a good looking man although his unassuming manner suggested he was barely aware of the fact.

‘The upstairs neighbours – James and Carla Wordsworth.’

‘Like the poet?’ Wesley said.

The constable, a new recruit who’d daydreamed his way through English Literature lessons at school, looked at his superior inquiringly.

Wesley studied his surroundings. The first floor flat stood above a gallery on one of Tradmouth’s main shopping streets; a pedestrianised thoroughfare where the shop fronts belied the venerable age of the buildings behind. In the smaller second floor flat above lived the Wordsworths, Carla and James, who had found Miss Banks’s body.

‘Mr Wordsworth said the dead woman’s radio was blasting out all night so first thing this morning he knocked on her door to make sure she was OK,’ said the constable. ‘When she didn’t answer he was worried so he broke the door down. He found her like that.’ He nodded towards the corpse. She’d clearly been sitting by the old fashioned bureau, open to create a desk, then as death claimed her, she’d slumped off her chair onto the floor, a grimace of agony on her blue-tinged lips.

‘Anyone back up his story?’

‘His wife, Carla. And the next door neighbour heard the radio too. The walls are pretty thin.’

Wesley could see a pile of Christmas cards on the desk, a few were already sealed in neatly addressed envelopes, but the majority awaited a seasonal greeting from the deceased. The cards he could see bore a picture of an old stone house set in a large, snowy garden with a slightly sinister-looking robin in the foreground. The house looked familiar but Wesley couldn’t recall where he’d seen it before.

‘Mr Wordsworth called the doctor but she’d obviously been dead some time,’ the constable said. ‘The doc suspected poisoning so he called us. Said he thought he could smell bitter almonds, whatever that means.’

Wesley heard a familiar voice outside on the landing. His boss, DCI Gerry Heffernan, was complaining about the cold weather in his loud, Liverpudlian accent. However, as soon as he entered he fell uncharacteristically silent and stopped in his tracks, staring at the dead woman.

‘I know her,’ he said after a few seconds. ‘What’s the story?’

Wesley tore his gaze away from the body. ‘Locked room. Door bolted on the inside. Neighbour had to break in. Doctor suspected poisoning and called us.’

‘Poisoning?’ Gerry shook his head in disbelief. ‘If it was, it must have been accidental. She’s hardly the type to have enemies.’

‘How do you know her?’

‘She sings in the choir at church – soprano. I only saw her last Friday at a carol service rehearsal. She was a nice woman who did a lot of voluntary work – charities and all that. Before she retired she worked in the council offices – hardly MI5. Who’d want to poison her?’

‘Any family?’

‘Someone mentioned she had a relative in Australia or Canada – can’t remember which – but I think they’d lost touch. As far as I know she never married and I’m pretty sure there are no kids.’

‘Maybe it was suicide? Perhaps she was lonely. Christmas can be hard for people on their own.’ The suggestion was tentative. It was something Wesley didn’t like to think of.

‘You don’t settle down to write your Christmas cards if you intend to kill yourself a few minutes later.’

Wesley knew Gerry was right. He hadn’t thought it through. ‘Well, if it was poison, there’s only one way she could have ingested it.’ He nodded towards the bottle of sherry and the glass that had been knocked to the floor, the spilled drink staining the carpet. From the look of the bottle, it had probably been her first glass.

‘Better get it sent over to forensic.’

Wesley gave the order. It was a suspicious death so procedures had to be followed.

*

Prudence Banks had died of cyanide poisoning. The sherry, however, was innocent. No trace of poison was found in the bottle or the glass. Nor had any traces been found in the flat’s small kitchen; not in the unwashed tea cup in the sink nor in the remains of the meal for one – shepherds’ pie – that was found in the waste bin. Neither was there anything to suggest she’d received a visitor around the relevant time. According to the pathologist she’d eaten her ready meal and died a couple of hours later. Everything seemed to suggest that Miss Banks was locked in her flat alone when she met her untimely end.

On the day of her death she’d been to a meeting of the Garton Hall Restoration Committee which had finished at five. The upstairs neighbours heard her come in at five thirty and her radio had been switched on around eight and played all evening . . . and then all night. Classic FM. She’d been slightly deaf so she was in the habit of turning up the volume but this hadn’t bothered the Wordsworths as their TV drowned out the noise and, besides, she usually retired to bed at ten. The neighbours also claimed that her doorbell was loud and piercing so if anybody had called, they would certainly have heard, even over the TV.

Wesley was puzzled. Cyanide is fast acting so Miss Banks couldn’t have ingested it before she arrived home. He decided there was only one thing to do; he had to speak to the Garton Hall Restoration Committee. He called one of the numbers in the victim’s address book – an Anthony Peveril who had the words Garton Hall in brackets beside his name – and arranged to meet him at the hall itself.

Garton Hall stood on the main road between Tradmouth and Bereton at the end of a long, laurel-lined drive and Wesley was curious to see the place for himself. According to his old friend Neil who worked for the County Archaeological Unit, it dated back to the fifteenth century and had been rescued from certain ruin by a committee of dedicated volunteers who’d consulted his Unit about an archaeological survey of the building before the restoration work began.

Wesley parked near the gate and walked towards the house with Gerry by his side. As they emerged from the overgrown laurels he saw a lovely stone manor house with mullioned windows. He recognised it from the Christmas cards Prudence Banks had been writing before she died, but today there was no snow and one wing of the building was half concealed by scaffolding; hardly appropriate for a festive picture.

He was approaching the front door when he received a call from the station. Someone had gone through the dead woman’s bank statements and had found substantial amounts of money being paid in and then vanishing from her account shortly afterwards. But before he could share this intriguing snippet of information with Gerry, a man emerged from the door to greet them. Anthony Peveril was in his sixties with a military bearing, a shock of white hair and an eager expression on his face. The good citizen ready to help the police in any way he could. As Wesley shook Peveril’s hand, he glanced up at the initials carved into the ancient stone above the doorway: WM with the date 1623 beneath. He had a momentary feeling that something was wrong, out of place. But he couldn’t think what it was.

‘Sorry, it’s in a bit of a state.’ Peveril said as he led them into a panelled hallway that resembled a building site. ‘We’re aiming to open to the public in the spring so there’s a lot of work to do,’ Peveril said with forced jollity. Then the bonhomie suddenly vanished. ‘It’s terrible about Prudence. I presume she . . . er . . . took her own life?’

‘Did you know her well?’

‘We were on the committee together. She was passionate about our project. Gave a lot of her time . . . and money.’

‘I heard she was very generous to the church roof fund too,’ Gerry chipped in.

‘When did you last see her?’

‘It must have been Monday. She attended a committee meeting here and we both left around five. Before she left she bought some of the Christmas cards we’ve been selling to raise funds. Actually she managed to get the last two packs: she asked for three but we’d sold out. They’re designed by a local artist and they’ve proved so popular that we’ve had to have more printed. The new batch has just arrived so perhaps you’d like to buy some,’ he said hopefully.

Peveril disappeared into the house and returned with a thin blonde woman in her forties, stylishly dressed in a faux fur coat, who greeted them with the usual expressions of shock and sympathy. Wesley thought she looked vaguely familiar. Perhaps she lived in Tradmouth and he’d seen her around. She was carrying a box of Christmas cards which she held out to Wesley and Gerry who felt they had no choice but to buy a packet each.

‘This is Ginny Bartlet,’ Anthony said by way of introduction. ‘She’s in charge of the cards.’

‘They’ve sold really well.’ She looked down at the box as if it contained something precious. ‘I had to order more so these are hot off the press – only arrived today.’

Wesley turned to Peveril. ‘You say Miss Banks donated money to the Restoration Fund – how much?’

Peveril suddenly looked embarrassed. ‘Far more than I’d have expected from a pensioner. She was a very generous lady.’

When Wesley requested a detailed breakdown of her donations, Peveril looked as though he was about to object. Then he nodded and hurried from the room, leaving them alone with Ginny who looked awkward, as if she found the situation embarrassing.

‘Interesting place,’ said Wesley, making conversation.

‘Yes.’

In spite of the monosyllabic answer, Wesley persisted. ‘Did you know Miss Banks well?’

‘Not particularly. No.’

‘The cards are very . . . nice. I like the robin.’ He was casting around desperately for something to say and he wished Gerry would take over.

The subject of the robin, however, seemed to do the trick.

‘According to legend if a robin enters this house it means there’s going to be a death. I really can’t think why the artist put it in.’

‘Probably thought it was Christmassy,’ said Gerry. ‘Where does this legend come from anyway?’

At this point Peveril returned and took up the conversation. ‘A former owner of this house was murdered and before he died a robin was seen hopping about in the hall and it was taken as a portent of doom. All nonsense of course but the story’s often included in the more lurid local history books.’

Peveril handed Wesley a folder containing the promised details of the victim’s charitable donations and Gerry said his farewells, as though he was eager to leave.

‘Do you think this is about money then?’ Gerry asked when they were walking back to the car.

Wesley stopped and consulted the folder. ‘I’ve no idea,’ he answered. ‘But, as Mr Peveril said, she was a very generous lady.’

*

On examining the Christmas cards he’d just bought Wesley suddenly realised why the carved initials above the door at Garton Hall had bothered him. Instead of WM, the initials on the card were an entwined monogram – FC – and the date beneath was 2015 rather than 1623. The signature of the artist perhaps.

As soon as they returned to Tradmouth he obtained the key to Prudence Banks’s flat from the police station and walked the short distance feeling a tingle of anticipation as ideas formed in his head.

When he arrived at his destination, he noticed a trio of oil paintings in the window of the gallery below. The style was familiar, as was the signature – or rather the monogram in the corner. FC. Whoever had painted these had also designed the Christmas cards.

He tried the gallery door but it was locked so he opened the side door and climbed the carpeted stairs to the first floor flat. After lifting aside the police tape that had been placed across the door since his last visit, he let himself in and examined the bolts and lock James Wordsworth had smashed to gain admittance. He shut the door carefully behind him and made his way to the bureau where the body had been found.

The Christmas cards were still there and he saw he hadn’t been wrong. There were definitely three packs. According to Anthony Peveril she’d only bought two after the committee meeting so he couldn’t help wondering where the third had come from. Unless Peveril had lied for some reason.

He picked up her Christmas card list and counted twenty nine names. Then he put on his crime scene gloves and sorted through the few she’d already written; only three in all, sealed but awaiting a stamp.

He pictured her there sitting down to write her cards with cheery Christmas carols playing on the radio. But there was no tree in the flat, no signs of celebration, so how had she really felt about the festive season – the time when those alone could feel most isolated? For a moment he almost found himself believing the suicide theory but how had she done it with nothing sinister in her dinner, her tea cup or in her sherry? Where had the cyanide come from?

He secured the flat door and descended the stairs only to find that the gallery was still shut. Which was frustrating because he had some questions to ask.

*

Wesley had returned to Prudence Banks’s flat to bag up some evidence and take another look around. He’d sent the new evidence he’d gathered there to the lab and now it was a case of waiting for the results.

It had now been confirmed that the payments into the deceased’s bank account had come from various investments which she’d promptly given away to good causes. Prudence had indeed lived up to her name and it appeared that she’d led a blameless and charitable life. Which made her death even more puzzling.

He’d feared that, with the recent cutbacks, the lab results would take a while but, to his delight, they came back the next day. And they confirmed his suspicions, as did the enquiries he’d asked one of the DCs to make at the gallery below Miss Banks’s flat.

As soon as he explained his findings to Gerry he agreed to obtain a search warrant and a few hours later they were knocking on James and Carla Wordsworth’s door. It was Carla who answered. She was dark haired, Australian and wore a paint stained Breton smock which flattered her slim figure in spite of its bagginess.

Wesley came straight to the point. ‘They sell your paintings in the gallery downstairs.’

‘Sure.’

‘The monogram…’

‘My initials – CF – Carla Foster. It’s the name I paint under. Why? Would you like to buy one?’ A spark of hope appeared in her grey eyes.’

‘That’s not why I’m here I’m afraid. What does your husband do for a living?’

‘He works for an electroplating company in Plymouth. Why?’

‘Is cyanide used at his place of work?’

She looked away. ‘How should I know? I’m an artist. So is James but he’s had to take that crappy job.’

‘You designed the Christmas cards for the Garton Hall Restoration Fund.’

‘So?’

‘The cards had sold out but your neighbour Miss Banks wanted some more. Did you give her a pack?’

Carla nodded. ‘Yeah. I met her in the hallway and she was wittering on about how much she liked them and how stocks had run out at Garton Hall and she needed another pack. I had a few spare so I let her have one. It was my good deed for the day. So what?’

It was at that point Carla Wordsworth was arrested on suspicion of murder.

*

‘The cyanide was found on the gummed section of the envelopes. As soon as she sealed her Christmas cards that was it. But I can’t understand why Carla Wordsworth would want to kill Prudence.’ This was something that had been puzzling Wesley ever since they’d made the arrest.

‘Prudence had been lending money to the Wordsworths. Presumably it was something to do with that.’

‘But James doesn’t have access to the cyanide at his work. It’s been checked.’

‘I’m sure he could have got hold of some if he’d been determined enough. Then Carla could have doctored the envelopes in the pack she gave Prudence.’

‘Or it could have been James.’

‘He’s being questioned as well.’

Wesley fell silent. He’d spoken to Carla at length and she’d seemed bemused by the accusation, as did her husband. They both kept asking the question that was on his mind. Why would they want to kill Miss Banks when she’d been so kind to them? It had been her who’d offered the loan of several thousand pounds to tide them over during the tough period when James was unemployed. Carla was adamant that they hadn’t asked her for the money and now James had a regular income, they’d started to pay it back.

Wesley looked through his case notes again. There was something he’d missed but he couldn’t think what it was. Then when he examined a copy of Miss Banks’s will, provided by her solicitor, he had an idea.

Something was nagging at the back of his mind. Laurels and poison. And an old murder heralded by a robin. He consulted the internet and found what he was looking for. Then he made a long distance call before telephoning the victim’s solicitor.

Now he knew how Miss Prudence Banks had died. And who had killed her.

*

It was a bright crisp winter day and the workmen on the scaffolding were singing carols. A rousing chorus of ‘Oh Come all ye Faithful’ followed by a spirited rendition of ‘Hark the Herald Angels Sing’.

Anthony Peveril greeted Wesley and Gerry at the door wearing the concerned frown of the helpful citizen and when Wesley asked if Ginny Bartlet was there, they were led through the house into a small back parlour lined with dusty oak panelling. A kettle and mugs stood on a makeshift table, along with a half full plastic milk container.

Ginny looked up as they entered. ‘I’m making coffee. Would you like one?’

For a moment Gerry looked as though he was tempted but Wesley declined the offer.

‘A couple of hours ago we obtained a warrant to search your address, Ms Bartlet. I’m afraid the officers had to break in but they tried to keep the damage to a minimum.’

The colour drained from Ginny’s face and she stared at them, lost for words.

‘I’ve seen lots of laurels here at Garton Hall and in your cellar we found evidence that someone’s been soaking laurel leaves and evaporating the extract.’

When she didn’t answer Wesley continued. ‘You studied biochemistry at University in Toronto didn’t you, Sheila. Your real name is Sheila Banks, isn’t it. You’re Prudence Banks’s niece, her only relative and the sole beneficiary of her will. I asked the police in Canada to send over a photo of Sheila Banks. You might have dyed your hair but I recognised you at once.’

He heard Gerry behind him muttering something about the Mounties always getting their man but he ignored him and carried on.

‘You have a criminal record don’t you, Sheila, but I don’t expect your aunt knew about that. You travelled to the UK on a false passport two years ago and, with a change of identity and losing your Canadian accent, you set about finding the woman you hadn’t seen since you were a little girl and when you found her you moved nearby and insinuated yourself into her life. Then you discovered she was giving all her money away to good causes so you had to act quickly before it all disappeared. Or did she mention she was going to change her will in favour of some charity or other?’

‘Prove it,’ was the only thing the woman said as Anthony Peveril looked on, dumbstruck.

*

‘How did you know?’ Gerry Heffernan asked once Sheila Banks had been taken down to Tradmouth Police Station’s custody suite.

‘To tell you the truth, I thought she looked familiar when I first saw her. Then I realised I hadn’t seen her before – it was just a family resemblance to the victim. And when I began to consider who benefitted from Miss Banks’s death I wondered whether Sheila Banks, the distant niece named in the will, might not be so distant after all. Then I made enquiries in Canada and it all started to fit – the expertise to make the poison, the laurels around the hall and the access to the Christmas cards. She had a special pack set aside for her aunt of course.’

‘So it wasn’t the pack Carla gave her?’

‘No. But it was Carla’s card design that gave me the idea. The robin in the foreground reminded me of that old legend. The murder Anthony Peveril mentioned really did happen. In the nineteenth century the lady of the manor poisoned her husband using laurel leaves from the garden. She was hanged in Exeter. It’s all on the Internet.

‘The wonders of modern technology.’ Gerry sighed. ‘I’ve got to write my cards tonight.’

‘It’s a rotten job,’ Wesley replied solemnly. ‘But it has to be done.’