CRIME AT HOME
Shona Townley had to admit she quite enjoyed the build up to Christmas even though, at sixteen and a half, she affected profound indifference. Seriously uncool to look like you bought into all the cheesiness….But she liked seeing gaudy decorations appear in the town centre and little market stalls pop up in the unlikeliest places…..And things were more chilled at school….It was obvious the teachers switched off the nearer it got to breaking up for the holidays. Out came the ‘fun quizzes’ and DVDs, though officially they were supposed to be hard at it right up until the end of term. Well, bollocks to that….
The only cloud on Shona’s horizon was her volunteering, or ‘community service’ as they called it at Hope Academy. She’d skived last week and felt bad about it. Mrs Bussell was a nice old biddy who’d taught History at Hope. Always got the tea and biccies out….sometimes there was cake at well….And it was a laugh hearing her talk about what Hope was like in the olden days….All the staff wore batman gowns (come to think of it, Doctor Abernathy still did), and it was dead formal with prayers every morning. Nowadays there was just one assembly a week – usually Mindfulness or some rubbish like that – and most sixth formers didn’t bother with it. Apparently the teachers smoked like chimneys back then and went down the pub at dinnertime….not like the current lot….always banging on about Healthy Living and Emotional Housekeeping. It gave her a headache.
But community service was okay. Better than camping and shivering in fields like they did in other schools. She got to sit indoors and have a chat with the old folk…..quite enjoyed it, though it wouldn’t do to say so….
Which brought her back to Mrs Marian Bussell. She’d skipped their session last Monday afternoon in favour of Costa and a catch-up with the gang from Medway High. Told herself she’d swing by later in the week but somehow never got round to it.
Shona bit her lip. The old lady would have been looking forward to that cuppa and a natter. She had the feeling Mrs Bussell was lonely…there weren’t any pictures of family in her ground floor flat and she never mentioned her husband so he must be dead…..
The sensation of guilt intensified. Mrs Bussell wouldn’t snitch on her to school, but that only made it worse……She vowed to stay twice as long this time round, make it up to her somehow….And next week she’d bring some of her mum’s mince pies and a prezzie. Maybe she could even lend a hand decorating the flat…there was that much tinsel at Hope, they were drowning in the stuff.
Slightly out of breath (too many Quality Street, she told herself grimly), Shona rounded the corner into New College Close, a mixture of three storey stone-fronted terraced flats and townhouses which curved round a communal garden. Alright if you liked that sort of thing, she supposed, but not exactly cutting edge. Mind you, it looked picture postcard in the snow – everything white and fleecy and perfect. There were no tracks other than hers this quiet Sunday afternoon and nothing stirred save for a little robin redbreast hopping in front of the frosted bushes. Made her feel quite poetical….Her spirits rose. Mum always said it was lucky to see one of them…
It would be okay, she told herself. Mrs B was bound to appreciate her coming round in her free time (on a weekend!). Maybe there’d be some more stories about Hope….she’d mentioned keeping a scrapbook or album …..perhaps there’d be something she could use for that social history project she was supposed to be doing in General Studies….
It was getting a bit nippy now the sun was going in, gilding the white landscape with vermilion shafts. Shona took a last appreciative survey of the garden. Much nicer than the undercroft car park and bins round the back with the lonely playing fields behind them (the college to which the development owed its name being long gone).
New College Close was much posher than Shona’s estate in Medway on the other side of Bromgrove. No gettoblasters blaring. No kids skateboarding, smoking and squabbling. No doors banging off their hinges while adults bickered and bellyached. No druggies and smackheads….But she knew which she preferred. The Close was somehow too quiet, and she’d never clapped eyes on any of the neighbours….apart from once in the garden when she saw a man in a wheelchair talking to some bloke who looked like a vicar….any road he was wearing one of those white collar thingies…..It was the kind of place where folk most likely kept themselves to themselves and didn’t go butting in….retired people and professional types…..Genteel….yes, that was the word for it. But somehow not very friendly.
Mrs Bussell lived in number 7, a ground floor flat in the corner terrace. Number 8 on the other side of the communal hallway was for sale and currently empty. The door into the building was generally propped open during the daytime for deliveries and visitors. Otherwise it was left on the snib. Appparently, some residents had complained about the lack of security, but the management company didn’t want to know. ‘We could be murdered in our beds before they’d get off their backsides,’ was her elderly friend’s frequent complaint.
The entrance lobby had a dank, musty kind of smell which made Shona wrinkle her nose disdainfully. Wouldn’t hurt to give it a spritz with some air freshener, she thought. As it was, you half expected to see mushrooms growing out of the walls. With the price of these flats, you’d think they’d want to give a better impression….
To her surprise, she noticed that the door to number 7 was slightly ajar and for the first time felt a stirring of unease.
That wasn’t like Mrs Bussell. She was paranoid about security. Always said these days you couldn’t be too careful. Even when she knew it was Shona, there was the click of the deadbolt and her eye at the spyhole.
Now that Shona thought about it, she remembered that Mrs Bussell had seemed twitchy the last time she visited….nervous….as though something was bugging her… watery gaze skittering from side to side, almost as though she suspected someone might be hiding in the walls….Losing her marbles, poor old thing, she’d thought at the time….But now she wondered….had the old lady been afraid….
Shona felt an overpowering reluctance to go into the flat on her own.
Perhaps she should have telephoned before coming. What if it wasn’t a good time….
But she couldn’t just slope off….Mrs Bussell might be in there sick or injured for all she knew…
‘Mrs B,’ she called in a voice quite unlike her usual chirpy tones. ‘Mrs B, it’s Shona….Y’know, Shona from Hope….’
She licked lips that were suddenly dry. ‘Er, I’m sorry I didn’t come last week….something came up….but I c’n stay for my tea today….’
Still no response.
Nervously, she pushed the door open and went in.
It was a compact apartment. Two bedrooms – one a box room really, which Mrs Bussell used as a study – living room, galley kitchen and minuscule bathroom. Laminated wooden flooring throughout gave the flat a modern streamlined feel which was somewhat counteracted by all the knick knacks and ornaments which clustered on every available surface. A nightmare to dust, as Shona had often thought. There was no separate dining room, but Mrs Bussell generally took her meals on a tray in front of the large flat screen TV, an arrangement of which her youthful visitor thoroughly approved.
The living room’s heavy damask curtains were drawn back, but white lace nets beneath screened the interior from the rear courtyard. Pity she didn’t have a garden view, thought Shona inconsequentially before padding softly through the flat.
Everything seemed pretty much as usual.
Except for the smell.
She’d noticed it even at the front door. Really knocked you back. Sweet and almost fishy.
Shona was used to number 7 being fusty. The central heating was usually on full blast. Could give Center Parcs a run for their money, as she told her mum. But today the radiators were stone cold.
No, this was something else. Something that made the chips from lunchtime roil and churn uneasily inside her. Taking shallow breaths through her mouth, she went into the master bedroom whose main window also overlooked the rear of the close. A funny little porthole on one side of the room offered a view of Bromgrove Old Road along which she had just trudged.
Here too nothing looked out of place. Simple oak chest and dresser. Pine wardrobe. The ottoman sleigh bed of which Mrs Bussell was so proud dominated the room, mattress raised high on its wooden storage plinth. Shona couldn’t see it was anything to write home about. Personally, she’d have preferred a waterbed for comfort….That vast box reminded her of a coffin.
The smell seemed to be getting stronger. Like when she’d found two dead cats on the estate. God it was putrid.
The girl suddenly became aware that her hands were slick with sweat. She felt as though the walls were closing in on her.
She lurched to the casement window and, after some mad fumbling, wrenched it open. Cold clear air poured into the room and she gulped it down gratefully.
Afterwards, she told her mum it was as if everything happened in slow motion and she was looking down on the bedroom from above. ‘I had to see inside that wooden box,’ she said, ‘but it didn’t feel real…..like I went somewhere else in my mind.’
Instinctively, she reached for the gas-lift lever which raised the neatly upholstered mattress away from its wooden platform. As though in a trance, she heard Mrs Bussell’s confiding tones. ‘You get so much more storage with one of these.’
Oh God. So much more storage.
Lying on their backs, hand in hand in the base of the bed in an obscene parody of romantic bliss, were Marian Bussell and another woman she had never seen before. She would never forget those shrivelled half-mummified remains – the half-open eyes, opaque and filmy in death, and mouths slightly agape as though stopped up mid-scream.
The stench of death was now overpowering, blocking her throat and nostrils.
Shona knew only that she had to get out and stumbled blindly back through the living room towards the door. Once outside, she had an insane desire to lie down in the freezing snow…as though to decontaminate herself.
And then suddenly the spell was broken and she began to cry.
Like Shona Townley, DI Gilbert (‘Gil’) Markham had a bit of a thing for snow.
At 6 am on the morning of Monday 9th December, he sat on ‘his’ bench round the back of Bromgrove Police Station, heedless of the damp seeping through his overcoat, lost in wonder at the sight of the filmy skeins which had turned St Chad’s cemetery and the neighbouring Holingworth Park into a filigree wonderland. And like the teenager, he too had a sudden urge to lie down in that inviting powdery whiteness and make snow angels as though he was a child once more. He could just imagine the reaction of DCI Sidney (or ‘Slimy Sid’ as his boss had been christened by the rank and file) if he were to be caught in the act. The DCI would be only too happy to file away such symptoms of Galloping Eccentricity with a view to exploiting them at Markham’s next appraisal.
The DI too saw a robin redbreast, the little creature contemplating him shyly from behind the cemetery railings. ‘It symbolizes the souls of the dead,’ his girlfriend Olivia Mullen was wont to say….As if Markham could ever forget them! Sometimes it felt as though wherever he went he was stalked by by a legion of shadowy figures, dense as the leaves that strewed the park at the first frosts of winter, pleading with him in sibiliant whispers for justice.
And now two more were added to that ghostly roster…
Despite the cold of the morning, his forehead prickled with sweat as he recalled the appalling discovery at New College Close….
Even the pathologist Doug ‘Dimples’ Davidson had struggled for composure at the sight of those two semi-mummified figures entombed in the base of Marian Bussell’s ottoman bed. It was one of the few times Markham had seen him lost for words.
‘Mother of God,’ he breathed finally. ‘What kind of sick bastard does this?’
‘How long have they been in there, doc?’ As ever, DS George Noakes had cut to the chase, swallowing hard as he peered down at the ghastly leathery faces fixed in their rictus of terror.
‘Possibly some days.’
‘An’ they died of suffocation….is that it?’
‘Asphyxiation seems the most likely bet….though they were probably slipped a sedative or something of that kind to make them….more pliable.’
Noakes looked as though he was going to be sick and Markham didn’t feel much better. Despite the freezing air pouring into the flat from the open bedroom window, waves of nausea swept over him.
The DI had a phobia about confined spaces, the legacy of an abusive stepfather who used to lock him and his brother in the cupboard under the stairs. He offered up a wordless prayer for the sibling long since lost to drink and drugs….at least Jon had been spared the sexual predations which he had been unable to escape….
‘What’s the white-haired one got in her hand?’ Noakes wanted clues.
Using tweezers, the pathologist’s gloved hands prised a small object from the claw-like grasp.
It was a cheap enamel school badge.
‘That’s Hope Academy.’ The DS squinted at the trinket. ‘Yeah….my Natalie had one like that….tole me the bird on the front’s meant to be a phoenix….summat about rising up an’ renewing yourself…used to be the school motto until they started with them trendy slogans….like polishing a turd’s gonna make any difference.’
‘They call it “aspirational branding” these days, Sergeant,’ Davidson observed mildly. He could tell Noakes was badly shaken and the rant was his safety valve.
‘D’you think when they came round they held hands to…well….comfort each other?’ Noakes’s voice was hoarse. ‘Christ….d’you think they were lying there all that time jus’ whispering to each other in the dark…..knowing no-one was gonna come an’ get them out…?’
It was a terrible thought.
One that had also occurred to the hysterical teenager who greeted them at the scene.
‘I was supposed to come last week,’ she sobbed, her pert little face swollen and distorted with grief. ‘If I’d come when I was supposed to, maybe they wouldn’t have died.’
The pathologist was what they called a ‘dry old stick’ down at the station, but even he had softened in the face of Shona’s overwhelming distress.
‘Don’t take on so, m’ dear,’ he said gruffly. ‘We don’t know exactly what happened here….Whoever did this wanted them to be found….’
‘Took a chance though, didn’t he?’ Noakes observed after the distraught girl had been escorted away by a family liaison officer. ‘I mean, he couldn’t be sure someone wouldn’t turn up….wouldn’t clock the stench an’ raise the alarm….’
‘Oh, I’d say he was fairly confident about that, Sergeant….Knew Mrs Bussell’s routine…had likely watched these flats for some time….Didn’t you say the one across the hall’s unoccupied….for sale?’
‘Yeah.’ The DS was thoughtful. ‘That flash git from the management company said on the second floor it’s a couple of Ph.D. students an’ a lecturer….They’ve broken up for holidays so likely gone home for Christmas.’ Noakes’s tone made it abundantly clear what he thought of the “dossy” set up that prevailed at Bromgrove University.
‘Well, there you go….ideal from the killer’s point of view.’ The pathologist contemplated the two bodies in their improvised coffin. ‘Mark my words, he had it all figured out.’
‘What about on the third floor?’ As ever, Noakes was stubbornly determined to have the last word. ‘I mean they must’ve noticed summat was up….the freaking awful smell for one thing…’
Markham consulted a piece of paper. ‘Retirees on both sides. Don’t get out much according to the management….wouldn’t necessarily have been alerted…’
‘So this block’s Coffin-Dodger Central, right?’ groused the DS.
‘We’ll have less of that thank you, Sergeant.’ But Markham spoke mildly. Like Dimples, he could see his subordinate was thoroughly unnerved. And indeed, this whole scenario was unlike anything in his experience.
Two bodies immured in an air-tight tomb behind the net curtains of a perfectly ordinary flat in a perfectly ordinary housing complex.
As though the shadow of Edgar Allan Poe had suddenly fallen across this quiet corner of Bromgrove.
Even after the pitiful remains – rigid as carvings on a medieval catafalque – had been stretchered away under the pathologist’s supervision, leaving a team of SOCOs to commence their silent rituals, a pall hung over the apartment.
‘Who’s the second vic?’ Noakes enquired as they stood awkwardly in the living room.
‘Her name’s Dawn MacAlinden. Nurse at the Newman.’ The DI referred to the psychiatric facility, situated in the quiet suburb of Medway, which had featured in previous investigations.
The DS’s pug-like features were a picture of dismay.
‘Uh-oh, here we chuffing well go….That means Sidney’ll be mad keen to pin this on a nutter.’
There was no denying it, the DCI being legendarily predisposed to lay all social ills at the door of the mentally deranged. Not least because this made it considerably less likely that any civic institution (including the local constabulary) would be tainted by association.
‘Mrs Bussell was a retired teacher from Hope.’
‘Not again!’ Noakes scowled ferociously. Like the Newman Hospital, the local comprehensive had featured heavily in earlier cases.
‘Ms MacAlinden was one of her former students.’ The DS’s gloom deepened at Markham’s words. ‘She lived at number twenty seven….same kind of flat as this one, on the other side of the garden.’
‘Fuck.’ The DS looked alarmed. ‘D’you reckon we’d better get over there and check the place out?’ He forced a nervous laugh. ‘See there ain’t anything lurking under the bed….as in one of the neighbours!’
‘Take it easy, Noakes,’ the DI chaffed him. ‘I’ve got uniforms on it….But I don’t think there’s some Crippen lookalike marauding round the close.’ He looked round him. ‘No…this was a one-off…Very deliberately planned and executed.’ He shivered. ‘There’s real evil here.’
‘But….I mean….what could them two women have done that was so bad?’ Noakes’s bewilderment was palpable. ‘You heard that lass Sheila – ’
‘Whatever.’ The DS ploughed on. ‘You could tell she really liked the old woman….Mrs B wouldn’t hurt a fly, that’s what she said.’
‘Well someone bore her a grudge, Sergeant.’
‘Mebbe it was really the other one he was after…Dawn wasserface…’
‘How do you mean?’
‘Well, mebbe she was the target an’ Mrs B got in the way so the killer had to finish her off while he was at it….collateral damage, like.’
Markham shook his head. ‘Far easier to dispatch Ms MacAlinden in her own flat or some time when she was on her own…..anything else would involve unnecessary…mess.’ He shivered again. ‘And this killer is the opposite of messy.’ His voice softened. ‘I know it’s hard to take in, Noakes, but whoever it was wanted to kill them both.’
The DI’s thoughts travelled again to those recumbent figures on the stretcher as they began their supine voyage to the mortuary. Suddenly, he found he could hardly bear to think of the pathologist proving that desiccated flesh. The ultimate indignity.
‘This was all so calculated….so deliberate,’ he said slowly. ‘It may even be that he purposely posed them hand-in-hand like that.’
Noakes’s normally beefy complexion looked almost green in the winter light.
‘Jesus,’ he muttered, looking at Markham with a kind of desperation in his eyes. ‘It was bad enough imagining them lying in the dark clutching at each other so they wouldn’t….die alone.’ He loosened his shirt collar with a vicious wrench. ‘But the idea of some sicko arranging ’em like that…..Jesus.’
Normally Markham loathed profanity, but on this occasion decided to cut the DS some slack. ‘Yes,’ he replied quietly, ‘we’re dealing with something peculiarly wicked here.’ He glanced at the other’s stricken face. ‘Try not to dwell on it, Noakesy.’ Futile advice. ‘All of this is just my theory….For all we know, it could have happened like you said and they reached for each other at the end.’
They moved into the hallway.
Noakes screwed up his face, much as Shona had done a short time earlier.
‘Bit manky out here,’ he grunted, sniffing the air. ‘Kind of a fertilizer smell…’
‘I believe the residents and management are somewhat at loggerheads over exorbitant service charges…..Laneside – they’re the facilities people – plan to spruce up the communal areas.’
‘Well they need to get a chuffing move on….folk don’ want eau de compost when they come to visit.’ The DS looked rather pleased with himself for this sally.
‘Helped mask the odour of decomposition, though,’ Markham mused. ‘From our killer’s point of view, it was very useful.’
On that sobering note, they left the building….
The DI shook himself. He couldn’t lurk on this bench forever, but felt curiously reluctant to stir despite the cold. The pristine snowy landscape looked as though new-baptized, which made the discovery at New College Close somehow even uglier….
As he emerged from the lift into CID, he heard a familiar voice uplifted in complaint.
‘You’d think they could do better’n that poxy tree…We oughta have a decent one….proper deccies an’ all….like them chocolate santas…..’
‘You know you’d only scoff them, sarge,’ came the reply followed by a gale of laughter.
Markham grinned, his spirits lifting.
The Christmas season, or ‘Crimbo’ as the DS called it, was Noakes’s favourite time of year during which he always offered ample testimony to the “eternal child in every man”. Having come through a health scare earlier in the year, he was clearly anticipating the annual blow-out with Dickensian relish.
The DI knew only too well that the mere presence of George Noakes at his side brought Sidney and the gold-braid mob out in hives. ‘Uncouth’, ‘ignorant’, ‘insubordinate’, ‘slobbish’ and ‘walking timebomb’ were some of the kinder epithets that he had heard bandied about. What was said behind closed doors or committed to those ‘confidential reports’ in HR didn’t bear thinking about. Certainly his refusal to cut Noakes loose was bound to count against him when his appraisal came round. He could hear Sidney’s nasal honk now. ‘Holding you back, Markham…Creates an unfortunate impression…Out of step with modern policing….diversity…..minorities….time for a new broom’ yada yada yada.
But the DS was one of his non-negotiables. The handsome, hawkish DI with his seemingly impenetrable reserve repelled many of those in CID. But he and Noakes shared a subterranean understanding that existed at a level beyond words. They rarely shared personal confidences, but he knew the grizzled warhorse had somehow guessed the trauma of his early years and understood the scars this had left….And that was the thing about Noakes. The slobbish exterior and tactlessness concealed an unexpected wellspring of sensitivity which meant he instinctively knew how to handle people, be they hardened villains, inarticulate teenagers or traumatized victims. However deficient he might be in those attributes so prized by Sidney and the CID honchos – silver-tongued diplomacy and adroit politically correct antennae – he had a humanity which meant he never dropped a clanger with those in crisis, somehow making them feel that the muddle of their lives was safe with him.
Markham’s girlfriend twitted him about the ‘bromance’ with Noakes, but he knew she too had a soft spot for the big lumbering DS. And despite Noakes’s much-vaunted contempt for ‘arty-farty types’, he had fallen hook, line and sinker for flame-haired Olivia’s willowy charms and happily listened to her witty repartee with an attentive devotion to match any medieval troubadour. ‘A voice like music,’ he said when his bossy wife Muriel taxed him with this misty-eyed reverence. ‘Like when they sing in the cathedral.’ To which ‘the missus’ responded with a brittle laugh. Noakes was fiercely loyal to his overbearing other half, but on some issues he would not be budged and she had learned to tread carefully where Olivia Mullen was concerned. ‘She’s bewitched my husband,’ Mrs Noakes pronounced to members of the Women’s Guild, with a long-suffering air calculated to convey the impression that charity precluded any confidences on the subject of conniving hussies. Privately, she consoled herself with the reflection that her husband’s boss – whose cultivation and handsome looks caused something of a flutter in the redoubtable lady’s breast – was cruelly imposed upon but would no doubt come to his senses in time.
Outside work, Noakes was a keen ballroom dancer, being surprisingly light on his feet for all his bulk. To watch him cha-chaing and fishtailing as if his life depended on it was to realize he possessed hidden depths….Not that his pursuit of the county glitterball was likely to raise him in DCI Sidney’s esteem.
As he listened to the DS holding forth to his captive audience in the outer office, Markham resolved anew to resist any defenestration of his team at all costs. George Noakes was his wingman and that was that. Having been in many tight corners with him, he knew he could trust the other with his life. The man was family.
Lingering in the corridor, the DI’s thoughts turned to the other two members of his team, or ‘Markham’s gang’ as they were resentfully dubbed.
DS Kate Burton should have taken her Inspector’s exams by now but showed no inclination to leave him. ‘Joined at the hip,’ as Sidney put it in his unpleasantly insinuating way. ‘Looks like you’re a habit the lady just can’t break.’
Burton was Noakes’s polar opposite. Smart as a new pin where the other was a sartorial disaster, she had faced a struggle to join the force due to parental resistance (‘no job for a woman’ had been her father’s initial response), eventually joining CID by way of a degree in Psychology. Earnest, diligent and decidedly right on (‘tree hugger’ as Noakes put it), the combination of Burton and her fellow DS had got off to a distinctly rocky start. Over time, however, a wary truce had broken out, with Burton learning to give as good as she got and exhibiting a certain dry humour in the process. Gradually too, Noakes came to appreciate her tenancity, doggedness and loyalty to the DI whose meteoric rise in CID and natural hauteur meant he was by no means beloved by all. Markham’s bagman had long since figured out that Burton carried a torch for her boss but never betrayed her secret, watching compassionately as she wrestled with her feelings before finally getting engaged to a stolid but unexciting DS in Fraud. The DI had no idea of Burton’s ever having looked in his direction. The possibility simply never crossed his mind, though Olivia had intuited the hopeless infatuation. Like Noakes, she too said nothing.
Though he might not have picked up on any romantic signals, Markham valued the professionalism and physical courage that had not been found wanting. He sensed also that Kate Burton was wistfully envious of the easy complicity that existed between himself and Noakes and yearned to gatecrash the party. With the start of this new investigation, he silently vowed to ensure she had her full share of the action….
The final member of the unit was DC Doyle, or the ‘ginger ninja’ as he was affectionately known on account of being a gangling carrot top. Keen to get ahead, he was currently mid-way through a distance-learning degree in Criminal Law. Where once his sessions down the pub with Noakes had revolved around football and matters of the heart, he was now quite as likely to ask the latter to quiz him on PACE or other esoterica from the Law Enforcement Training Manual. ‘Worse than bleeding Mastermind,’ the older man grumbled, but Markham could tell he secretly plumed himself on the newly-acquired role of academic mentor.
Yes, he and his team – The Four Musketeers, as Olivia called them – would crack this case, though it promised to be more daunting than any they had yet encountered.
Two bodies. Two women, one middle-aged, one elderly. Two neighbours…
In the case of Mrs Marian Bussell there were no next-of-kin to be notified. Dawn MacAlinden’s husband, a customer service manager at Bestway Cash and Carry, had collapsed when Markham and Noakes broke the news of his wife’s death and had to be sedated. At least there were no children to compound the misery.
‘Poor bugger jus’ didn’t take it in,’ said the DS afterwards, looking badly in need of a stiff drink. ‘Seemed to think it must’ve been some kind of accident….’
Better by far the bereaved husband should believe the entombment was random happenstance than have to confront a refinement of cruelty that had left seasoned detectives speechless….
The DI squared his shoulders and took a deep, steadying breath.
Time to get the briefing underway.
The hunt for a killer had begun.
The Cast Assembled
‘There you go, folks.’ DC Doyle was characteristically upbeat. ‘An espresso for you, sir. Then we’ve got a soy caramel macchiato plus a gingerbread and cream hot chocolate. And a decaff cappuccino for me.’
The DI shot Noakes a quizzical look.
‘Gingerbread and cream hot chocolate, Sergeant. Correct me if I’m wrong, but aren’t you meant to be on a health kick?’
‘Cutting out treats jus’ encourages cravings.’ The other’s response was suspiciously glib. ‘Anyway, I’ve got quinine an’ salad…the missus does me a packed lunch, see.’
Markham’s lips twitched. ‘I believe that’s quinoa, Noakes....foodies go wild for it.’
‘Whatever,’ the other said gloomily. ‘Looks like a pile of bird droppings to me.’
DS Kate Burton made a strangled sound as though her macchiato had gone done the wrong way, while Doyle grinned at her discomfort.
As ever, Burton and Doyle looked dapper – suited and booted as behoved ambitious young detectives keen to make their mark in CID. Noakes, by contrast, would not have been out of place in a remake of Moby Dick, sporting some sort of fisherman’s gansey topped by a mustard windslicker that finished halfway up his back. A truly hideous bobble hat decorated with capering reindeer completed the ensemble, though he now rolled this into a ball and stuffed it into the back pocket of baggy oatmeal cords that had clearly seen better days.
Mercifully there was no risk of the DCI joining them, since he was sequestered in a breakfast meeting with Superintendent Bretherton. Markham shuddered to think how he would react to Noakes’s Captain Ahab look….but with any luck the team would be safely out of the station before Slimy Sid came prowling.
Burton smoothed her brunette bob into place, took a pristine pocketbook from her leather satchel and whipped on a pair of rimless reading glasses which magnified her eyes, transforming them into huge brown lollipops. Her button-nosed face turned towards the DI with an air of alert intelligence.
Doyle and Noakes exchanged wry glances.
‘Right,’ the DI said. ‘Let’s get on with it.’
Carefully and succinctly, he talked Burton and Doyle through the events of the previous day.
‘Two bodies.’ Doyle had difficulty taking it in. ‘Under a bed….I mean,’ he struggled to visualize it, ‘where would they fit?’
Markham came to his rescue. ‘I believe they call them sleigh beds, Constable….Old-fashioned and ornate…..often come with large bases….wooden and very heavy.’
‘There was a case about some woman in America who was kidnapped and kept locked under a bed for years,’ said Burton, her tone preoccupied. ‘It was a husband and wife who took her…they were in it together….sort of brainwashed her, so when they let her out from time to time she was too frightened to run away….’
‘Wow.’ Doyle was intrigued. ‘She got away in the end, right?’
‘Oh it went on for years…sometimes she was locked in the box under the bed for twenty-three hours at a time….But eventually the wife cracked and turned her husband in…’ She blinked owlishly. ‘The point is, it’s perfectly possible to imprison someone under a bed.’
‘Dimples thinks they were most likely put there some time on Thursday evening –’
‘After the killer slipped ’em a Mickey Finn or summat.’
‘When did they came round, then?’ Doyle was pale beneath his freckles.
‘The doc thinks a few hours later.’
‘Christ.’ The young DC’s complexion was milk-bottle white. ‘And they weren’t found till Sunday….’
‘Dimples is doing the PM this morning...but, unofficially, he thinks Mrs Bussell – the older lady – suffered a cardiac arrest soon after she came round.’
‘What about the other one?’ Burton’s voice sounded small and lost.
‘Asphyxiation and shock, but he can’t be sure about the time frame till later.’
‘So she lay next to her friend’s corpse and suffocated.’
‘That’s the most likely scenario, Constable.’
‘Too frightened to cry out in case she used up oxygen….Fucking hell…’ The DC suddenly realized what he’d said and flushed to the roots of his hair. ‘Sorry, sir.’
‘That’s alright, Doyle.’ The DI’s face was grim. ‘An unimaginably horrible way to die…Self-locking steel hasps made it impossible to escape….though from the condition of the younger lady’s fingernails it would appear that she tried…. ’
‘And no-one had a clue?’ Doyle’s voice was the merest thread, and he looked like he had lost all enthusiasm for his frothy cappuccino.
‘It sounds almost incredible, but in that block of flats it’s just retirees – pretty much housebound – and some university people who’d already broken up for the holidays.’
‘Plus the hallway was all scruffy an’ smelly cos the management company couldn’t be arsed to look after the place,’ put in Noakes. ‘The walls were rank….like they had fungus growing on ’em…With it being like that, folk likely wouldn’t have noticed any extra stink for a while…..’
Burton wanted to get off the subject of decomposition.
‘Were there any signs of a struggle, sir?’
‘No, Kate. I’d say Mrs Bussell knew the killer…There was no indication the place had been turned over.’
‘He’d put a school badge in her hand.’ Noakes prepared to enjoy the effect of this revelation on the other two.
‘What! A badge! Which school?’ they burst out, practically in unison.
‘Hope Academy,’ the DS told them with lugubrious relish. ‘You might know that place’d turn up again like a bad penny.’
‘Mrs Bussell taught History there,’ Markham clarified. ‘And Dawn MacAlinden was one of her former pupils as well a being a neighbour.’
‘Guess where MacAlinden worked?’ Noakes’s triumphant expression alerted the other two that the coincidences were not yet at an end. ‘Yeah….that’s right….the pigging Newman Hospital….like we haven’t seen enough of that shithole to last a lifetime!’
Burton could be quite prissy about language, but when she recollected the history of the team’s association with Bromgrove’s psychiatric facility, she was obliged to concede that ‘shithole’ pretty well summed it up. Lightning couldn’t strike twice, could it?
‘You said they were found holding hands, sir?’
‘That’s right, Kate.’
‘As in posed...?’
‘It’s possible the murderer was making a point, yes.’ Markham’s keen grey eyes were steady on her face. ‘Or it could be that they reached out for each other.’
Silence fell on the little group. From the outer office came sounds of boisterous whooping and cheering. Probl’y one of the lads messing about with that mistletoe, Noakes thought brightening momentarily…..DI Chris Carstairs hoping to strike lucky with the blonde bird from Vice….
Burton’s voice jerked him back to reality.
‘Any likely suspects yet, sir?’
‘I’ve drawn up a list of residents we need to interview as soon as possible,’ the DI said handing each of them a photocopied sheet.
‘On the side nearest to Bromgrove Old Road the close has two blocks of flats, with six apartments in each spread over three floors,’ he continued. ‘Then there are six town houses, and facing towards Chapel Street a further two blocks with five flats on two floors.’
‘That’s a lot of people.’ Doyle was dismayed.
‘I’ve narrowed it down.’
Noakes looked sharply at the boss. So Markham had gone door-to-door with the woodentops last night after sending him home…which explained the violet shadows under his eyes. Typical, the DS thought, with reluctant admiration.
‘There are twenty-eight addresses,’ the DI said. ‘But a significant number are rented to postgrads and staff from the university the majority of whom are away from Bromgrove for Christmas…..Then there are several retired couples where serious health issues would appear to preclude any murderous enterprise. Of course, this is not to say we won’t be checking out all the residents, but thanks to the university and social services, we can rule out a fair number.’ He paused, pinching the bridge of his aquiline nose, a characteristic mannerism at times of extreme fatigue. ‘These are the names I want to focus on,’ he continued, gesturing to the list he had given them.
‘Did they know the victims, sir?’
‘They were members of the Residents’ Association along with Mrs Bussell and Ms MacAlinden, which strikes me as a useful starting point, Kate.’ He smiled at her kindly. ‘Also, I believe they all had contact with the victims in varying degrees.’
His team scrutinized the list.
‘So, first up we’ve got Brian and Mary-Jane Ledwidge. Retired vicar and his wife. Then there’s Penny Callaghan –’
‘She’s that weirdy woman from the council,’ Noakes interjected. ‘Almighty pain in the arse. Allus banging on about equal opportunities an’ diversity.’
Burton looked as though she was about to say something then thought better of it.
‘Correct, Sergeant. Though I think we’ll stick to “Councillor Callaghan” as opposed to “pain in the arse”, if you don’t mind.’
‘Sure, Guv,’ the other replied sheepishly.
‘Jeff Coleman’s a retired writer….Mills & Boon, apparently.’
‘Hey, I recognize that name.’ Noakes was quite excited. ‘The missus is allus getting his books outa the library.’
Markham suppressed a grin. He suspected Muriel Noakes would prefer not to have it known that the writer of The Panting Savage and Between The Covers was her go-to author, as opposed to the Pulitzer Prize Winning variety.
‘Is that so, Sergeant? I look forward to consulting with her in due course.’
‘Coleman’s in a wheelchair, ain’t he Guv?’
‘That’s right, Noakes, though I don’t have full background on the medical condition.’
He returned to his notes.
‘Sinon Gailey’s a retired solicitor….Doctor Lucy O’Connor works as a registrar at the Newman. Her partner Martin Henley is a staff nurse there….I believe he’s also had some input into delivery of mental and health wellbeing at Hope Academy.’
There was an audible groan from Noakes. Not that bloody school again!
‘Then we’ve got Stacey Macmillan…middle-aged neighbour, divorced, used to work in the newsagent’s round the corner….Kenneth Dowell…retired psychologist from The Anchorage.’
‘Christ, this is like feaking déjà vu,’ muttered Noakes balefully.
‘Yep, I know Noakesy.’ His boss’s tone was mild. ‘Ghosts of Cases Past and all that.’ The coincidences were starting to feel eerie, his team remembering only too well the role the private psychotherapy centre had played in an earlier investigation. ‘You’ll just have to approach this investigation with a clean slate,’ he added bracingly.
The DS grunted and returned to slurping up the last of his hot chocolate. Burton’s face wore a distinctly pained expression, but she had long learned to avert her eyes from Noakes’s matitudinal rituals. She supposed it could have been worse. Doyle could have brought burgers….
‘Mary Atkins….,’ she ruminated, returning to the list. ‘That name rings a bell….Doesn’t she work at Hope?’
‘Correct, Kate.’ There was a mischievous glint in the tired eyes as the DI added, ‘Noakes and I had the pleasure of consulting with her during the community centre case.’
Noakes’s thunderous expression at this piece of information would have done Captain Ahab proud.
‘Oh gimme a break!’ he exploded. To Doyle’s interrogative glance, he replied, ‘She’s that assistant head from Hope….fat bird….ever so caring.’ He made it sound like a communicable disease.
The DC smirked. ‘Got off on the wrong foot with her did you, sarge?’
‘She’s one of them clipboard johnnies….dead smarmy….talks bullshit like you wouldn’t believe….’
‘Ms Atkins is typical of the new breed of executive heads,’ Markham said reasonably. Then, with a hint of steel, ‘Not to everyone’s taste, granted –’ There was a muffled expletive from Noakes. ‘But no doubt in a position to give us a good deal of useful information.’
‘Yeah,’ came the riposte, delivered with a sly grin. ‘Got the feeling she wouldn’t mind a one-on-one with you, Guv.’
Burton didn’t doubt this was true. Women tended to fall like ninepins before the handsome DI’s lethal blend of old-world courtesy and reserved charm. But no-one ever got past first base. Markham had an air of untouchability that enveloped him like an invisible forcefield. Only with Olivia Mullen did his guard come down….
Abruptly, she registered the gleam of lascivious speculation in Noakes’s eye.
‘What about the last name on the list, sir?’ she enquired, keen to turn the discussion away from Markham’s sexual magnetism. ‘Julian Hoskinson?’
‘I believe he runs a charity shop in the town centre…..also a committed fund-raiser for various community projects….environment, wildlife, LGBT and the like.’
Noakes looked as though his day couldn’t get much worse, activists and tree-huggers being guaranteed to bring him out in a rash.
‘What’s the plan then, Guv?’
The DI consulted his papers.
‘I want Kate and Doyle to set up an incident room in the management company’s office….it’s a little bungalow to the rear of the complex, next to the car park….You need to report to Gary Coslett from Laneside Properties….he’ll get you sorted with keys and anything else you need….Requisition whatever technical support you need from CID….I’ll clear everything with the DCI in due course.’
Burton felt a little wistful. That meant the DI would be doing an initial recce with Noakes….Then she gave herself a mental shake. Admin and practical stuff were her forte whereas spreadsheets and computers were anathema to her fellow DS. It was a miracle he ever squeaked through the annual appraisal given his dogged resistance to all forms of technical innovation. But that was likely down to some fancy footwork on Markham’s part. His cast-iron loyalty to CID’s resident pachyderm was unfathomable, but as yet no-one had yet succeeded in shoehorning Noakes out of the department….
‘Never fear, Kate. You’ll get your chance at interviewing.’ She blushed at the ease with which the DI had read her thoughts, self-consciously shuffling pocketbook and reading glasses back into the smart leather satchel to hide her confusion.
‘You too, Doyle.’ The austere features held genuine affection. ‘We need to throw everything we’ve got at this case.’
‘What about the DCI, sir?’
‘I believe he’s in meetings for most of today,’ came the bland reply. ‘But of course I’ll be briefing him as soon as the opportunity arises.’ Mentally the DI resolved to square things with Sidney’s long-suffering PA Miss Peabody. For all her resemblance to a dormouse or other diminutive marsupial, past favours meant she could be counted on to run interference and keep Sidney off his back. At least for the time being, while he got the lie of the land.
‘What’s New College Close like, sir?’
‘Well, Kate, at the moment it looks pretty magical blanketed in snow. Picture postcard in fact.’ He produced some photographs from a folder. ‘These are some estate agent’s particulars, just to give you an idea.’
‘Hmm…..quite nice,’ she said, contemplating yellow stucco walls and quirky porthole windows which gave the terraced cement properties a cosy feel. ‘Looks like it’s been done up recently,’ she continued, taking in the trim window facings and concentric terracotta tiles radiating out from the portholes.
‘Lemme see.’ Noakes lurched to his feet and peered over her shoulder. ‘Yeah, not bad….decent garden too. Mind,’ he said beadily, ‘the hallways in them flats are another story....right tatty, if you ask me.’
‘True,’ Markham agreed. ‘Some of the communal areas are on the dingy side…. The place is a mixture of rental and privately owned properties with some social housing, which may account for issues in terms of facilities management.’ Crisply, he added, ‘That’s something I’d like you to go through with Mr Coslett, Kate. See what tensions may have arisen on the estate.’
‘You don’t think this is summat to do with a neighbours’ vendetta do you, Guv?’ Noakes plonked himself back down, rasping his bristly chin. ‘Rolling pins at dawn….’
‘Unlikely, Sergeant, but we need to explore all eventualities.’
‘Coslett’s a twat an’ no mistake,’ the DS observed.
‘Would that be a term of art, Sergeant?’
The other grinned. ‘C’mon, boss…reckon you didn’t take to him neither.’
The DI recalled the facility manager’s ferrety features and sharp-elbowed manner.
‘Well, he was definitely spivvish, but in fairness to the man it was a godawful shock ….two women found entombed like that.’
Burton shivered. ‘Buried alive,’ she mused. ‘Everyone’s worst nightmare.’
‘Didn’t the Victorians have safety coffins and things?’
Noakes stared at Doyle.
‘Yeah, sarge.’ The young DC was animated. ‘Folk were so scared about being buried alive that they had strings attached to their bodies…The strings were connected with bells above ground….if the bells rang, it meant they were still alive.’
Doyle was pleased with the effect he had produced.
‘Straight up, sarge. They used stuff like glass panels too….you know, to check if there was condensation from someone’s breath.’
‘Freaking paranoid, if you ask me.’
‘Well they weren’t so advanced back then. Couldn’t be sure the medicos would get it right.’
‘Dawn MacAlinden tried to scratch her way out,’ put in Burton, recalling them to the matter in hand.
They fell silent once again. The outer office was quiet now, sounds of revelry having subsided. Beyond the DI’s window, with its unrivalled view of the station car park, large cottony snowflakes swirled and drifted against pewter skies.
‘Feels all wrong, don’t it,’ Noakes said finally. ‘Happiest time of the year....Mistletoe and Wine an’ all that…Then two dead women turn up under a bed….’ He scratched angrily at his head, causing frowsy tufts to spring upright like so many spines on a stickleback. ‘I mean, what harm did they ever do to anyone….jus’ two harmless old biddies having a nice cup of tea an’ a bit of a chat…..an’ next minute it’s Hammer House of Horror….’
‘The answer lies somewhere in their past, Sergeant,’ Markham said decisively. ‘Highly unlikely this a random attack.’ His mouth twisted. No need to add, ‘whatever the DCI may think.’
‘Are we gonna start the interviews today, Guv?’
‘I’ve arranged to call on Mr and Mrs Ledwidge first, Noakes.’
‘That’s right.’ Markham stifled a yawn. ‘Apparently Mrs Bussell was quite friendly with them. Brian Ledwidge has some pull with the current incumbent of St James’ Church –’
‘That sooty looking building at the bottom of Chapel Street?’
‘The very same, Sergeant. They’ve agreed we can use the church hall for interviews – hopefully some time this afternoon.’Anyone we don’t manage to see today will be on the list for first thing tomorrow morning.’
‘Any point checking in with Dawn MacAlinden’s husband, sir?’
‘You can try, Kate, but I doubt he’s fit to be interviewed. See what the GP says.’ He sighed at the recollection of the sandy-haired little man’s devastation. ‘I want you and Doyle to prepare preliminary profiles on the victims ready for tomorrow.’
‘You don’ think….well, they couldn’t have been…..I mean, it’s not likely they were….’ Noakes’s face was brick red.
The DI gazed at him in mystification.
‘Spit it out, Sergeant.’
‘The killer wouldn’t have been trying to say they were involved….in a relationship, like….what with them holding hands an’ that…?’ Suddenly the cynosure of three pairs of eyes, he became even more tongue-tied. ‘It’s jus’ that after the last investigation….there’s nowt so queer as folk….’ Realizing what he had said, the DS turned even redder.
Time to put him out of his misery.
‘Ah, I see your point, Sergeant,’ Markham said levelly. ‘Quite right. We definitely need to be sensitive to the full sexual spectrum.’
Noakes’s colour subsided, his complexion reverting from full-on coronary to its usual corned beef hue.
Doyle was more nonchalant. ‘It’s not likely though is it, sir? I mean they’d have been well past that kind of thing, wouldn’t they?’
Oh the casual cruelty of youth.
‘I don’t think we can make any assumptions at this stage, Constable,’ the DI said gently, to Noakes’s evident gratification. ‘Right, you and Kate can shoot off now. Any problems with Gary Coslett, just ring my mobile. Noakes and I will take the Ledwidges, then round up as many residents as possible for interviews. Get the incident room set up and join us at the church hall as soon as you can.’
Saluting smartly, the pair hastened to comply.
Left alone, Markham and Noakes contemplated each other across the DI’s desk.
‘This one’s got you worried, Guv.’
It was a statement.
‘And then some, Noakes.’ The DI crossed to the window and stared bleakly across the station car park. ‘It was the sense back there in Marian Bussell’s flat of someone deriving exquisite pleasure from that ghastly tableau….like some sort of wicked impresario…..Revelling in the thought of them fermenting in the dark….toughened like cured meat….mummified for us to find….’
‘Yeah.’ The DS nodded his massive head. ‘He musta known we’d find ’em....No amount of Febreze’d get rid of that pong.’
‘They were like those bog bodies they dug out of the peat….but somehow fleshy,’ Markham shuddered, ‘…with a half-digested look as if the maggots had got started on them.’
It occurred to Noakes that there was such a thing as having too much imagination. The half-formed request to swing by Greggs for a breakfast roll died on his lips.
The DI was still locked in his own morbid reflections. Unable to indulge his feelings in front of Burton and Doyle, he knew he could safely let down the portcullis with Noakes.
‘I’ll never forget those twisted faces, Noakes,’ he muttered. ‘God knows what agonies they must have endured at the end.’
‘He wanted ’em to suffer alright…But,’ the DS asked with honest perplexity, ‘what could they have done that was so bad they had to die like that….?’
A secret in their past…A crime….An unavenged wrong….
The DI shook his head as though to dispel the murk from his vision.
‘Whatever it is,’ he said determinedly, ‘we’re going to drag it into the light.’
He turned from the window. ‘Come on,’ he said, ‘Let’s be on our way.’