Vera O’Brien liked things to be in order. Especially things like shopping. If you didn’t have everything nicely laid out, it made it so awkward to unload at the other end. She had an important job to do today. She was Chief Assistant Tea Pourer for the pier opening this evening. She wanted to make sure she got it just right. Last time she had been involved there had been that nasty moment with that dog who had upset the tea trolley at a crucial moment and she didn’t even want to think about the mess that had happened after that and how Julie Webb had shouted at her. She shuddered. Today, though, today was going to be different. Today, everything would go to plan.
Julie had run out of tea and her hands were getting cold. Her new boots were beginning to get marked despite her spraying them three times with leather protector and her hair was more like a bird’s nest than she would like. She wasn’t getting any further getting information out of any of the officials, and she still had all the preparations to do so it was time to go home. She also thought that a stiff whiskey wouldn’t go amiss. It had been such a trying morning, with so many memories surfacing as she stood there on the beach, very near the spot where Moira’s scarf had washed up in the days after her disappearance. She wondered if what they had found was… she couldn’t even think it. She could feel herself suppressing a sob so she quickly waved at Pam, who was trying to give the last of the cake to the particularly distinguished-looking inspector, and headed for home before her emotions got the better of her. She saw Robin coming along the path towards her, and wiped her eyes before he reached her.
“Got to get things ready for the ceremony this evening,” he said when he met her. “Chop-chop! Time is ticking on.” He tapped his wrist pompously.
“Yes,” she said. “I was just going back to get things ready now.” She walked on before he could talk to her any more. Robin thought he ruled the roost around here, and maybe he was right to think so, but she didn’t like him, and didn’t like some of the things he was up to. One day Robin’s actions were going to catch up with him, and she hoped that it would be soon.
Dave was struggling to get hold of Sid. He had tried the arranged number, and the other number, and on both occasions he had rung twice, hung up, rung twice, hung up again and then rung and rung and so far nothing. Sid was not answering, and despite the calming effect of the spliff, Dave was stressed out. He was due to meet and greet the boat after dark tonight, and before that he was going to be busy doing the microphones for this event or whatever on the pier, so he needed to get hold of Sid now if he was going to get the drop cancelled. It might already be too late. He didn’t know how long it took to get a boat across the sea from the Netherlands in one of those inflatable jobbies? Chances are they had set off already and he wouldn’t be able to stop them or warn them.
They’d always known about the pier opening event, that had been planned for ages and they had agreed that Dave would stand out less amongst the crowds than if it was a quiet night, but they hadn’t reckoned on police presence. Dave decided that he’d better go and see how many he could spot. Perhaps he could get something to eat at the pub too. Their chips looked lovely and he was going to need all his strength for what was going to be a long night.
Back at the carpark Robin strolled over to the tiny shed where Boz the attendant sat.
“Afternoon. You coming along to the event tonight?” Robin’s voice boomed out. Then he leaned in as Boz sat in a folding chair and whispered urgently.
“We need to talk….”
“Can’t you see I’m on duty? Whadaya bothering me for?”
“Don’t make me laugh – there’s hardly anybody here and I need to know what you’ve been up to lately. What’s happening about the drop? Who’s taken over? I’ve heard nothing!”
This was a different tone of voice from his public pomposity. He was gabbling and panicky.
“I mean I don’t care if I never hear from those people again, but I’ve had no payments for months now. How can I promise to turn a blind eye if nobody tells me when to turn it?”
“Stop it, go away, I don’t know anything anymore since……oh my god I’ve been trying to forget about the night she…ficking hell… please don’t ask me… I don’t get paid anymore… I’ve washed my hands… I don’t know what’s going on either.. I can’t cope with this… the police… what do you think they know? “
“Yes well forgetting is not an option. I get the late night jitters too you know, the nightmares. Wake up thinking it’s all a ghastly dream to find it fucking isn’t. And you dragged me into this. I wish we’d never spotted them doing their meet and greet, wish I’d never bloody taken their money for the pier. They must have made other arrangements though – do you think? If we keep our lips buttoned they may never bother us again. You think?” Robin sighed heavily and Boz looked up at him. The older man looked shattered, ashen, close to tears.Boz thought they bloody would be bothered, weren’t likely to trust these two to never spill the beans.
“Yes well you go back to running the village and I’ll go back to my birds…old chum”
“Well thank you for that wise advice. Old chum.” He spun on his heel and marched off, heading for the safety of his cottage but horrified to see that Swedish busybody pop out from behind the shed. She held an ice cream cone bought from the van by the river.
“Hello again sir.’ She said, smiling coldly, turning and walking away. Fast.
Joan and the Arch Rivals, otherwise known as Jenny, Barry and Lyle, were standing on the windy pier, being briefed by Robin. Robin, who had been late to meet them and was looking somewhat flustered, was consulting a clipboard. Jenny looked around. Three middle-aged but well-dressed women were setting out tables and hanging bunting up and down the length of the pier, which was wooden and weatherbeaten, with some pillars that were obviously new standing out in their new varnish. An elderly lady was bending over one table carefully laying out cups and saucers in exact rows, standing back every now and again with great difficulty to ensure that they were straight. Several local shop owners were setting out their own wares on stalls on the path, and Jenny could see a variety of candlesticks, hand-carved wooden signs, fresh lobsters and local chutneys all making their appearance. Jenny sighed. It had been a late night last night, playing a gig in Sheffield, and then driving all the way down here in Barry’s rickety old van to take part in this village event. They wouldn’t have taken the job but Robin was Lyle’s cousin and the money was good and, let’s face it, who would ever know that one of their gigs involved a pier opening?
“So, then I will join in on the trumpet,” Robin was saying. Jenny tuned back in.
“Join in?” she asked.
“Well, yes,” said Robin, “that was always the arrangement.” He puffed himself up to his full height and looked sternly at Lyle, who nodded.
“Yeah, babe, that was always the plan.”
Jenny couldn’t see Lyle’s expression because he was hidden behind a large pair of sunglasses, but she frowned at him and then turned back to Robin.
“So, let me get this straight,” she said. “We will be on the boat in this river with the ferryman.”
“Bob,” Robin added.
“Bob, right. So Bob will row us on the boat into the harbour and then when we get halfway up the channel you will join in from your position on the pier?” They all looked dubiously at the muddy stretch of water that this local Village Big Man called a river and tried to picture it.
“That’s right. It’s the big finale. When I start playing everyone will walk up onto the new pier carrying flags to welcome you. I thought it was very moving and symbolic. It’s been planned for months. I had to get very special permission from the Harbourmaster and that took a great deal of work. Now, we don’t have a great deal of time, so why don’t you rehearse with the P.A. that we’ve set up over there, and we can discuss again later. I have a lot to do.” Robin bustled away importantly to polish the plaque that was being mounted on one of the pillars. The band gathered their instruments and went to find the boat.
Julie was checking things off on her list. The tables and stalls were in place, Vera was on the teas, the cakes were looking good, the band were wobbling about in Bob’s boat in the middle of the harbour, trying to look cool, and Robin was practising his speech. She took another swig of the whiskey stashed in her handbag and glanced over at the tent on the beach. It had been a month since Moira’s disappearance and she couldn’t stop wondering about what had happened. Mark had been no help at all, it’s like he didn’t care that her only sister had just vanished, said that perhaps she’d run off to be an actress like she’d always wanted. He didn’t understand that Moira would have said, or sent a postcard or phoned. And then that scarf had washed up on the beach and Julie had been sure it was one that Boz had given to Moira… Julie took another swig of whiskey.
Dave tweaked the knobs on the portable mixer, and the sound of the band rehearsing on the boat got louder. It was a tricky job with radio mics and he didn’t think he’d ever done one on water before, but the band sounded pretty good and he just hoped that he’d be able to join the fat trumpet player in at the right time. Or maybe he could just leave the trumpet out and blame the equipment later. No, better do things properly. He plugged the final microphone in and checked the time on his phone. Too late to call Sid again. He’d just have to go ahead as planned, and hope that the police were too stupid or preoccupied to notice. Customs and Excise knew this coast was rife with smuggling, but how could they stop it? Perfect spot to land an inflatable dinghy in the night, either dump the boat or hand it over to a bloke or two paid to meet and greet, then away into the night with a few very valuable parcels of cannabis resin wrapped in cling film and tape, like purchases off eBay. Few snoopy residents kept sweet with backhanders. Once they’d nearly been ambushed by Customs, but dropped the bags and fled leaving lucky walkers to spot packets of dope on the beach for days afterwards. All kinds of unlikely beachcombers appeared that week.
But drops had been less frequent with the pier out of action. Now that it was repaired there was going to be lots more work for him, if he could just get this drop right.
Four cups and saucers down and seven across. Vera flicked a bit of sand out from under a fingernail and stood back to admire the tea table. Almost perfect. She adjusted a tea cup. Ok, now perfect.
Back on the beach, Inspector Langley was briefing Sergeant Ferry.
“I have sent the skull off for testing at the lab. It is the weekend so we have to wait until Monday before they get to it. In the meantime, the team are making slow but careful progress digging for further parts, taking photographs as they go. We don’t know if we’ll find anything else, but we have to be thorough.”
“Do you think it’s a murder, sir?”
“One can’t tell at this stage. We don’t have enough of the body to be able to ascertain the cause of death but until we do we need to treat it as suspicious. I want you, Sergeant, to go along to this event at the pier this afternoon, and just keep your eyes peeled for anyone acting strangely. You must keep your wits about you and do not leave until everyone else has gone. I will stay here and keep an eye on the team. You are my eyes and ears at the pier, though, Sergeant, and I want to know about everything that you see. Best get going now, the event is due to start soon.”
“Yes, sir,” Sergeant Ferry responded. He saluted and set off across the beach towards the entrance to the pier. This was much more exciting than his routine work, which mostly involved catching teenagers doing things they shouldn’t and sending them back home to their parents. There might be a promotion in this yet, if he did it properly.
The crowd started gathering just before 2pm, coming along the harbour paths in ones and twos, couples and families, many with dogs on leads who sniffed each other and wagged their tails excitedly. The people greeted each other and browsed the stalls, taking cups of tea from Vera’s table and chatting away. The bunting flapped cheerfully in the breeze and the atmosphere grew festive as the space filled up.
Robin clapped his hands and coughed into the microphone to get everyone’s attention. The amplifier shrieked and the crowd took a step back.
“Hello? Hello? Can everyone hear me?” he asked.
“Yes!” shouted a couple of voices from the assembled crowd.
“No!” shouted one bright spark. Robin ignored him.
“Well, first I would like to welcome you all and thank you for coming to the grand opening of our new pier. As many of you know this has been a labour of love for me for a long time, and I am sure that my wife Sally is grateful that it is finally over.”
A few crowd members tittered politely. Sally nodded her acknowledgement.
“The pier has been a central part of this community for over 100 years, used by working fishermen and pleasure seekers alike. When I arrived in this village as a young man…” Robin droned on with some anecdotes that seemed mostly designed to make himself look good, and had very little to do with the pier at all.
“Get on with it!” shouted one heckler from the crowd. A couple of people wandered away to look at the stalls.
“Of course, I thought that raising the money was going to be the most difficult challenge after sorting out the health and safety requirements, but due to an unexpected anonymous donation, we were able to complete the project on time and including everything we wanted. If everyone could raise their glasses to ‘the anonymous donor!’”
The crowd raised their glasses and toasted as suggested.
“And so, without further ado, I would like to pronounce this pier… OPEN!” Robin cut the ribbon and everyone walked onto the pier cheering. Bob, taking his cue, rowed the boat into the harbour, the band on board playing a cheery jazz number. Robin hurried to pick up his trumpet and join in.
Linnea had enjoyed the spectacle of the pier opening, it was all very English she commented to Julie, and said she was looking forward to telling her colleagues and choir mates about it later. She took another sip of her drink and watched the crowd.
Julie hadn’t been able to concentrate at all on the opening. The idea of that skull in some forensic department, waiting until Monday to know whether it was ancient or not, kept preying on her mind. She punctuated her thoughts with little tots of whiskey from the flask in her handbag. The flask was nearly empty and during that time she had covered the skull in her own personal imaginative photo-fit. Now she knew for certain who it was. It was time to act.
She weaved her way unsteadily to the car park. Boz had his binoculars trained on the activities on the beach and was shocked when they were suddenly snatched from his eyes, causing the strap to scratch the back of his neck very unpleasantly.
“ Ow… what the fuck….?”
“Tell me what you did to my sister Moira, you bastard!” Julie screamed at him, pulling open the door of the hut and stumbling drunkenly in, arms flailing. “She trusted you!” Boz held her back, gripping her shoulders as she sobbed. “She trusted you to take care of her – that night I called her a slut and told her to get out. But I could see her getting her claws into you… and she was with you wasn’t she? Wasn’t she? Tell me once and for all what happened?!”