CRIME AT THE HALL

Prologue 

 

When she set out for Old Carton on the morning of Sunday 12 December, Annette Sullivan had no expectation that her weekend shift at the Hall would yield anything other than the usual humdrum routine.

  Situated on the outskirts of Bromgrove, Old Carton was a sleepy little hamlet of no great merit apart from the fact that it boasted Old Carton Hall, ancestral home of the Twiss family, along with the up-and-coming Old Carton Artisan Centre which was tucked within the north-west boundary of the estate.

  Annette never failed to experience a thrill at the sight of the medieval timber-framed manor house with its hotchpotch of Georgian and Victorian mock-Tudor embellishments, especially now when a December snowfall transformed the chimneys and battlements into spun-sugar filigree confections worthy of a Disney production.

  She always got excited at the approach of Christmas. Even now after the recent death of her dad, the familiar surge of festive anticipation would not be repressed, bubbling up inside her like an unstoppable outbreak of childlike optimism.

  Dad had loved the parlours and ‘withdrawing rooms’ of Old Carton Hall, together with the strange little follies and mausoleum in the manor house grounds. And the ghost stories never failed to transfix him. Especially the tale of the lady in black who allegedly glided about the place in the run-up to Christmas, eternally mourning those still-born children and estrangement from her embittered husband who was forced to watch the estate pass to a second cousin. Ghost-hunters said the light changed in Lady Mary’s boudoir when she was about to make a visitation. But no matter how tightly Annette screwed up her eyes in hopes of an extra-terrestrial happening, she had never yet beheld the unloved chatelaine.

  Which wasn’t to say that it might not happen. It was a question of being receptive to local vibes, so Annette hadn’t entirely given up hope of a supernatural apparition.

  She hardly ever came into contact with Sir Simon and Lady Twiss – remote god-like figures only glimpsed at a distance – but Christopher Hassett the Hall’s assistant curator was pleased by her enthusiasm and had promoted her to occasional tour guide when regular staff were absent. Catherine Metcalfe, the events manager, hadn’t been keen, but Mr Hassett fought Annette’s corner. ‘She’ll appeal to younger visitors,’ he insisted, and it was true. Somehow, she wasn’t tongue-tied when it came to telling tourists about the history of the Hall down the ages – as though the Twiss family had mysteriously ventriloquised her for their purposes. Talking about priest holes, hidey holes and secret closets, she found that her shyness vanished, as though she was the repository of an ancient legacy, fated to bequeath it to posterity.

  Annette didn’t have much to do with the Artisan Centre or the commercial side of the Hall’s operations, but there was always the possibility that one of the family might call in to the shop to review its stock. Mister Michael, the eldest son, was rarely seen, but Richard Twiss and his showbiz friends sometimes dropped by, creating a ripple of excitement amongst the staff that lasted for days, especially when the likes of Greg Wise and Anton Du Beke put in an appearance.

  She loved seeing the shelves festooned with festive cards, decorations and gifts. Nothing gaudy, naturally. Miz Hoity Toity Metcalfe was adamant about that. But the dainty Christmas tree ornaments, stationery and stocking-fillers (what her mother called ‘geegaws’) never failed to lift her spirits. And somehow, she felt her dad would approve. His favourite poem for the festive season was John Betjeman’s Christmas, with its reference to ‘tissued fripperies’ and ‘sweet and silly Christmas things’. So it was as if the encroachment of baubles, bath salts and monogrammed novelties brought her closer to him. She certainly had every intention of using her staff discount card to splurge on treats for the little brothers and sisters so lately bereaved. And if Horseface Metcalfe had a problem with that, well for twopence she’d tell her where to stick it. If ever there was a time to spread some good cheer, Christmas was it. Mr Hassett said you couldn’t put a price on that.

  Not that she’d say no to a pay rise, of course. The Twisses paid just over the minimum wage to staff on the lowest rung. If she was being honest, she’d even be prepared to do it for less than that on account of working in such historic surroundings. Not many employees got to wander through stately picture galleries and boudoirs in their breaks. Annette could almost hear the rustle of petticoats and farthingales whenever she explored the cordoned off private quarters, mentally disappearing into a bygone world of shadowy plots and intrigue as she traversed dim shuttered passages and musty alcoves.

  Plus, there was always the chance of bumping into someone glamorous.

  Someone like Charles Larrain who ran the aromatherapy concession in the Artisan Centre.

  Hayley who worked alongside her in the shop scoffed at her crush on Mr Larrain.

  ‘He’s just a jumped-up ponce, luv,’ she told Annette. ‘A tuppenny toff. An’ no more French than I am.’

  But to Annette there was something wondrously alluring and exotic about the dark-eyed perfumier with his languorous drawl and come-to-bed expression. Something thrilling about the heavily accented tones which had enquired about the ‘fresh little girl with the beautiful eyes’. Hayley insisted this was his standard routine, but Annette felt they had somehow made a connection…. nothing so crude as sex, but something indefinable and mysterious…. something to do with the Hall itself. As though echoes from the past reverberated down the centuries, reviving ancient gallantries from an armorial age.

  ‘Too much Georgette Hayer,’ was Hayley’s sour verdict on such romantic flights of fancy, but Annette was nevertheless loath to relinquish them….

  She crunched through deep snow to the basement tradesmen’s door on the right-hand side of the building, beneath a pillared portico known as the Carriage Entrance, on account of its being reserved for quality folk who came in their grand equipages.

  The staff locker room was a cramped untidy space, half storeroom half common room, with a service lift up to the shop on the ground floor. As she tugged off her duffel coat, beanie, ugg boots and mittens, Annette speculated on the likelihood of her being able to take a peek at The Power of Poison exhibition in the Tapestry Room on the first floor. Curated by Margaret Twiss, who lectured part-time at Bromgrove University and took a kindly interest in Annette and her fellow workers, this had attracted considerable local interest, with a two-page spread in the Gazette alongside flattering pictures of the family and senior staff, Catherine Metcalfe’s ‘pearly whites’ being displayed to particular advantage.

  Annette breathed a silent prayer of gratitude that La Metcalfe didn’t come in on Sundays. Cosy Miss Evans, her immediate boss in the shop, and Mrs Irene Clark, Sir Simon’s devoted PA, took a benign attitude to her fascination with the Hall’s nooks and crannies. Even Carmel Scarron the sharp-tongued housekeeper turned a blind eye when she found the youngster ‘stargazing’ in front of the Twiss family portraits. Annette had the impression that the Twiss retainers took an indulgent view of her interest in those illustrious forebears, as though it demonstrated appropriate fealty to the dynasty.

  She glanced at her wristwatch.

  A quarter to nine and no sign of anyone around.

So no reason why she shouldn’t take a quick look at the Tapestry Room.

She had heard Miss Evans speaking in awestruck tones about the engravings which depicted Ecartelage, a fearsome medieval punishment that involved poisoners being tied to four horses and then ripped apart as the horses galloped away in different directions. The drawings were really packing in the punters, according to her supervisor – only she had put it more genteelly – along with a new collection of astrologers’ spell books and horoscopes on loan from the Reynolds Museum in Oxford. And Mr Hassett had enthralled them with his description of the cabinet devoted to an Italian witch who sold potions to women who wanted rid of their husbands, finishing off some six hundred men with toxic brews disguised as holy water in glass flasks with the images of saints or hidden in makeup compacts.

  And now she badly wanted to see these treasures for herself. Her old history teacher at Hope Academy had told them stories of Elizabeth I giving herself lead poisoning cos of the gunk she slathered on her face, and she knew all about Rasputin and his cyanide-laced wine, but frankly that wasn’t a patch on Black Widows running amok in sixteenth-century Italy. Her little sisters would go mad for stories about wicked noblewomen bumping folk off, so fifteen minutes checking out Miss Margaret’s latest finds would be time well spent.

  Annette decided to go up by the service stairs at the far end of the basement. Less chance of being spotted that way.

  On the East Wing landing, she paused to contemplate the snow-clad lawns and shrubberies which stretched towards Old Carton Clough in the distance. The contrast of trees, hummocks and hedges showing black against the powdery mantle, gave her a curious pleasure, as though the vista formed part of some faery woodcut with the Hall as its enchanted centrepiece.

  Standing there, looking out at the winter landscape and the cold clear sky overhead, Annette suddenly became aware how still everything was.

  So still, it felt as if she was in the belly of some slumbering beast, breathing in time with its heartbeat….

  She felt a prickle of unease.

  But everything was just the same as usual, right down to the familiar scents of beeswax polish and lavender and the steady ticking of the mahogany longcase clock next to the State Anteroom, so called because James I had apparently refreshed himself there on a royal progress to the North. The chamber housed the death masks of various Twiss magnates along with wooden and wax effigies used in funeral processions to the Pavilion, as the family mausoleum was known, and beyond this lay the Tapestry Room with its mementoes of brutal times past.

  Suddenly, from nowhere, Annette felt an overpowering repugnance which rooted her to the spot.

  As though some unseen presence eerily forbade her to proceed further.

  She shook herself, baffled by the unexpected feeling of revulsion.

  The anteroom had always struck her as mildly disagreeable with its funerary models and dummies, so that she generally averted her eyes whenever she was obliged to cross it. But this morning was subtly different, the still close air of the ancient building momentarily clogging her throat with a sense of menace.

  She shook her head again to clear it.

  At this rate she’d be caught lurking like some loony ghost-hunter instead of making the most of her opportunity!

  She forced herself forward, keeping warily close to the panelled wainscotting as though for protection.

  It sent her reeling backwards as soon as she entered the anteroom. 

  A crusted puddle of puke next to the periwigged figure of the Seventh Baronet whose haughty lips seemed almost to curl at the disgusting affront to family dignity.

  And next to the congealed vomit a body stretched out, the congested complexion and foam-flecked features so distorted that it was some moments before Annette registered the identity of the man who lay before her, frozen in his death agony.

  Charles Larrain. Rake, lothario and one-time epitome of glamour.

  As long as she lived, she would never forget the sight.

  The tall, elegant form was arched in a spasm so violent it made her think of pictures she had once seen at school of the contorted victims of Pompeii, arms and legs flexed in their ashy graves like demonic prizefighters.

  The Alley of Skeletons they called it.

  And now Old Carton Hall had something to rival it.

  The Anteroom of Death.

1

A Terrible Coldness

 

It occurred to DI Gilbert (‘Gil’) Markham, sitting on his favourite bench in the terraced graveyard of St Chad’s Parish Church on Monday morning, that he was on the same page as Annette Sullivan when it came to Christmas.

  There had been some sad Christmases in his early life, but time was a great healer and now when he thought of the past he travelled back to the years before the family unit was irrevocably disrupted by the arrival of a stepfather and it was just him, his mother and brother draping their modest artificial tree with winking lights and squabbling amicably over where to place the garish felt santas and furry reindeers. He smiled as he recalled the sinister santa face which always went on top of the tree instead of the more traditional star or angel. Something about the floppy red hat, limp white beard and unnaturally radiant features unnerved him. But the peculiar little puppet had been passed down the generations, so his protests were to no avail.

  His reminiscent smile faded as he recalled those other puppets at Old Carton Hall in the anteroom where Charles Larrain had been discovered the previous day….

  ‘S’like Madame Tussauds,’ DS George Noakes pronounced. ‘Only creepier.’

  The gloomy oak-panelled room held a range of effigies, some life size but others just the head and torso, along with a collection of death masks in glass cases.

  Noakes, predictably, didn’t care for the Twiss squirearchy.

  ‘The blokes are all pigeon-chested,’ he declared. ‘Probl’y from the wigs an’ all that furry clobber they dressed up in.’

  ‘Not to mention the velvet and ermine,’ Markham observed, noting the extravagant robes on the full-size mannequins.

  ‘The women are a bit scary,’ the DS continued, eyeing a haughty hook-nosed noblewoman clad in richly embroidered brocade. ‘Mebbe that’s why the fellas look like they’ve been squashed in the sack.’ Since their investigation into an obesity clinic, Noakes’s eyes had been opened to new aspects of gender warfare.

  The pathologist Doug ‘Dimples’ Davidson, a bluff countryman and dead ringer for Tristan Farnon in the original All Creatures Great and Small, laughed at this.

  ‘I’m not sure the Twisses would care for that interpretation, Sergeant’ he said. ‘The effigies were meant to convey refinement and aristocratic breeding.’

  ‘Inbreeding you mean,’ the other grunted as he stooped to examine the effigy of a young child on its plinth. ‘Most likely that’s why this poor little bleeder never made it to his teens.’

  He squinted at the decorated oak tester on the wall above the child’s head and then at the adjacent museum-style plaque.

  ‘It’s supposed to show a pair of monkeys,’ he said rumpling his salt and pepper thatch so that it stood comically on end. ‘King James kept ’em as pets an’ gave one to little whatshisface when he came here on a visit cos the lad took a shine to it…. called it Bombadil. Hey,’ he brightened, ‘ain’t that the name of some bloke in Lord of the Rings?’

  ‘Yes, but I don’t think they were into Tolkien back then,’ Dimples observed wryly. ‘Anyway, it would seem the boy didn’t live long enough to enjoy it.’

  ‘Yeah, says here the chimp pined away an’ died after the lad got smallpox an’ snuffed it.’ The shrewd piggy eyes were suddenly compassionate as he contemplated the wistful wax figure in its full-length crimson robe with tiny lace jabot. ‘Poor little bleeder,’ he repeated before turning back to the pathologist.

  ‘So what did ole Charles Aznavour die of then?’ he demanded, his gaze roaming over the corpse bent in its fearful boomerang-like death throes.

  ‘Charles Larrain,’ Markham corrected him mildly. Noakes’s chronic tendency to rechristen victims and suspects had on occasion got him into serious hot water, but the DI knew no-one was more tenacious than his untidy, uncouth wingman when it came to tracking down a murderer.

  ‘Well, the way that young lass talked about him, you’d have thought he were some frog pop star ’stead of jus’ a shopkeeper,’ the DS retorted.

  It was certainly true that Annette Sullivan had spoken of the dead man with an ardour that suggested a teenaged crush. Noakes – father of perma-tanned Natalie who was the apple of his eye – refrained from open raillery until she had been shepherded away for a cup of tea but now saw no reason to hold back. ‘Sounded like the bloke thought he were god’s gift,’ he insisted.

  ‘To answer your question, Sergeant,’ Dimples interjected with heavy forbearance, ‘I believe Mr Larrain was poisoned.’

  ‘How come?’ The DS looked round the museum-like antechamber in bewilderment. ‘I mean, how’d it get into his body?’

  The pathologist held out a slim pouch in his gloved hand.

  ‘I’d say someone tampered with his vape kit or whatever they call these e-cig contraptions these days.’ He pursed his lips. ‘Mercury vapour….’

  ‘So he inhaled it then?’ Markham asked, startled.

  The medic smiled. ‘It’s not unheard of these days,’ he told them. ‘One of Vladimir Putin’s critics made the mistake of calling him “the new Stalin”. Next thing you know, he died of a heart attack they think was caused by someone spraying poison on the reading lamp next to his bed…. The heat from the lamp vaporised the poison, see, and he was sitting right next to it. His bodyguards just stuck their heads in to say goodnight, so they got sick but survived.’

  ‘Yeah, but that’s the Ruskies,’ Noakes declared. As much as to say, what else can you expect. ‘Stuff like that don’ happen here.’

  Dimples knew Noakes’s xenophobia of old. ‘It’s more creative than other methods, I grant you,’ he allowed patiently, ‘but I’m pretty sure that’s what you’re looking at in this case.’ He gestured at the body. ‘Mr Larrain also had a hip flask in his pocket, so if the murderer contaminated that as well as the e-cig – with something like a pesticide, say – then we’re talking a powerful double whammy.’

  ‘But how the chuff could they count on Charlie boy wandering round the château?’ The question was put with scornful emphasis on the last word just to show that the DS wasn’t over-awed by his surroundings.

  Dimples smothered a smile. ‘I gather from that nice woman who was in here before…. Sir Simon’s PA…. that Mr Larrain was in the habit of calling round at weekends.’

  ‘But he’s jus’ someone from that poncey shopping centre – the artisan wotsit,’ Noakes said crossly. ‘What business did he have making free with the place an’ strolling around without so much as a by your leave?’

  The pathologist made a tutting sound.

  ‘Now, now, that’s not very democratic of you, Sergeant,’ he said with a mischievous gleam in his eyes. ‘The people at the Hall think of themselves and the Artisan Centre as one big happy family.’

  Noakes jerked a pudgy forefinger at the body. ‘Not that happy by the looks of things,’ he glowered.

  Nothing abashed, Dimples continued smoothly. ‘And in any event, Mr Larrain was a good friend of Richard Twiss. Took a keen interest in The Power of Poison exhibition too…. Pretty much had carte blanche to go wherever he wanted.’

  ‘The security here’s gotta be pants.’ Noakes was not to be defeated.

  ‘Fairly relaxed, yes,’ the pathologist admitted. ‘It appears the live-in staff set the alarms at the weekend, but family and friends have their own keys and know the codes.’

  ‘So everyone an’ their dog could’ve come traipsing through,’ the DS concluded indignantly.

  Dimples raised his hands apologetically. ‘There hasn’t been a burglary here in the last umpteen years, so the system worked pretty well.’

  Until now, said Noakes’s expression.

  ‘Time of death, Doug?’ Markham asked.

  ‘Late Saturday night…. around ten or eleven, but don’t quote me on that.’ The medic’s face was sombre as he contemplated the body. ‘The poor man died hard.’ Unexpectedly he added, ‘It’s a coward’s choice, poison.’

  ‘They say it’s a woman’s weapon,’ Noakes ruminated.

  ‘Well, those Medici and Borgia dames were heavily into it,’ Dimples agreed. ‘But in our own times there’s the likes of Crippen and Graham Young getting in on the act.’

  ‘Oh yeah, Young was the bloke who knocked off his workmates.’ Noakes never missed a true crime documentary on CBS Reality. ‘Practised with weed killer when he were a kid an’ then moved on to thallium…. Always carried poisons on him cos it made him feel powerful, the sick git.’

  ‘He was a sexual sadist apparently,’ Dimples added mischievously, aware that the DS had a surprisingly prudish streak.

  Noakes shook his head. ‘Dunno about that,’ he replied. ‘But he were screwy right from the off…. his cousin said he sniffed her bottles of nail varnish to get high.’

  ‘Well, there you have it, Sergeant. Inhalation of toxic vapours.’

  The DS looked dubiously at the corpse. ‘But I mean, tampering with an e-cig….’

  ‘And most likely contaminating that hip flask,’ Dimples pointed out. ‘Perfectly doable if Larrain had put his jacket down somewhere.’ A shadow crossed his face. ‘I’d say the killer enjoyed doing this…. really wanted to make him suffer.’

  The pathologist gestured to two paramedics who had arrived with a gurney and awaited his signal. ‘You’re looking for a seriously troubled individual.’

  ‘As if we needed telling,’ Noakes burst out crossly after the sheeted stretcher had departed. He glanced round uneasily at the effigies and busts. ‘An’ if they’ve got a taste for this poisoning malarkey, they ain’t going to stop at one victim, no sirree!’

  Now as Markham sat contemplating the white-clad tombs and monuments, Noakes’s prophecy came back to him.

  They weren’t going to stop at one.

  He was struck with a terrible coldness that had nothing to do with the winter weather.

  A coldness that came from knowing there was a deranged enemy out there…. the more deadly for being unafflicted by conscience or remorse.

  There had been no question the previous day of their being granted an interview with Sir Simon and Lady Twiss, the family GP having attended so quickly that it was fair to assume they had him on speed-dial. In the meantime, Markham was prepared to wait until Dimples came back with the toxicology report.

  The DI’s thoughts turned to his team.

  He had been startled during their last case when Noakes had bruited the possibility of quitting CID and setting up as a private investigator. There was no doubt that DCI Sidney – or ‘Slimy Sid’ as he was known to the rank and file – would sing a Te Deum at the prospect of his bête noire heading for pastures new, Noakes’s chronic inability to follow the politically correct playbook (or ‘woke bollocks’ as he called it) and habit of saying just what he thought making him decidedly persona non grata with his superiors.

  Personally, Markham relished his wingman’s lack of any filter, valuing this quality as being increasingly rare in an environment where people would do or say literally anything to climb the greasy pole. Noakes was an old-style copper with old-style values. ‘Scrotes’ and ‘lowlifes’ got zero sympathy, but there was a wellspring of tenderness for those who had no-one to fight for them, coupled with a ferocious tenacity in bringing malefactors to justice that matched Markham’s own. He also had a strain of poetic susceptibility in his makeup that was strongly at odds with his battered appearance and terrible dress sense, creating a mysterious psychic affinity with Markham whose troubled early life he had intuited without anything explicit ever passing between them on the subject. The DI had a feeling that the younger brother he had lost to drink and drugs would have liked Noakes.

  Certainly his partner Olivia Mullen found Noakes a ‘kindred spirit’, her roguish streak responding to the grizzled veteran’s honesty and subversive resistance to the fashionable shibboleths espoused by DCI Sidney. She and Noakes shared a visceral dislike of Slimy Sid, whom she had rechristened Judas Iscariot on account of his jealousy of Markham and tendency to hog the glory at every opportunity. For his part, Noakes responded to the pre-Raphaelite allure of Olivia’s flaming red hair, willowy grace and musical contralto with a reverence to equal that of any medieval troubadour at the Courts of Love.

  Noakes’s formidable wife Muriel was markedly less enamoured of Olivia, sighing gustily to fellow members of the local WI that ‘poor dear Gilbert Markham was so easily imposed upon,’ the implication being that her husband’s boss, whose old-world courtesy and handsome mien were very much to her taste, had fallen victim to unspeakable sexual wiles.

  Muriel and Noakes had met on the ballroom dance circuit, both being surprisingly proficient exponents of the art, with a chemistry which belied the prosaic reality of more than thirty years marriage.

  There had been a crisis during the notorious Bluebell investigation when Noakes discovered that he was not in fact Natalie’s biological father and nearly chucked away his career as a result. To this day, Markham remained ignorant of what had transpired between the DS and his wife behind closed doors. But the couple had somehow weathered the storm, and Markham detected that Muriel had softened around the edges, though Olivia still mocked the older woman’s social climbing and archly coquettish mannerisms.

  For all Noakes’s devotion to his bossy wife, she had signally failed in her endeavours to smarten him up – except for those occasions like church when he was ‘on parade’ – and his migraine-inducing wardrobe choices had passed into legend.

  At least Markham could count on DI Kate Burton to look the part.

  Earnest and politically correct where Noakes was outspoken and tactless, she had experienced strong family opposition when it came to her choice of the police as a career. But she made a triumphant success of it, progressing through the ranks as a fast-track psychology graduate who was clearly ‘going places’. The fact that she was now engaged to Professor Nathan Finlayson, a criminal profiler at Bromgrove University, failed to allay Olivia’s jealous fear that Burton had never ceased to carry a torch for Markham. And it was undoubtedly true that their bond had only strengthened over the years, with the result that Burton’s transfer to London had lasted a mere matter of months in the face of her professed desire to work with her former boss. Technically speaking, they were now the same rank, but she always deferred to him as her skipper. From time to time he wondered if his selfish enjoyment of such flattering hero-worship had impeded Burton’s professional development, but the pleasure of having such an intelligent and loyal subordinate made it easy to banish any lingering qualms.

  Noakes and Burton were initially highly suspicious of each other, since they were by temperament, upbringing and education as far apart as it was possible to be. But each had mellowed with the passage of time and shared the same dogged devotion to Markham, as well as an insatiable appetite for true crime documentaries. Noakes was always very sniffy about his colleague’s academic leanings – there was no danger of him dipping into her beloved Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders – but he enjoyed chewing the cud with Burton and Nathan Finlayson, hoovering up all that the latter could relate about the psychopathic personality. For his part, Finlayson had grown fond of CID’s resident curmudgeon, not even objecting when Noakes christened him ‘Shippers’ on account of his marked resemblance to the serial killer Harold Shipman.

  Where Burton went, DS Doyle followed, the ginger-haired young detective having early hitched his star to hers. Armed with his newly minted criminal law degree, Doyle was undoubtedly another highflyer, but there was nothing obsequious or servile about him and he had remained devoted to his mentor Noakes, displaying a loyalty that showed he was his own man. Markham suspected he had never truly acclimatised to Southampton Row, secretly pining for Bromgrove, Noakes and the distinction of belonging to what station wits had designated Markham’s ‘Gang of Four’.

  Well, the ‘gang’ was together again, and he had no doubt Sidney would agree to its deployment.

  Provided, of course, that he got results.

  The cold clear day was bracing, and Markham was reluctant to exchange it for the fug of CID.

  But he forced himself up from the bench, causing a squirrel to whisk out of sight behind a neighbouring tombstone.

  Even though covered by snow, he knew the lines inscribed on it by heart:

  Man is a single pilgrim, fighting unarmed amongst a thousand soldiers,

  Therefore enlist ye under the banner of thy God.

  A misappropriation of Victorian doggerel, according to Olivia, but somehow the words resonated with him, like an irresistible call to arms or a regimental quick march.

 Dimples had said that poison was a coward’s choice.

  In that moment, he vowed he would force this hidden enemy to take the field.

                                             ----------------------------------------------

CID was very quiet as Markham headed for his poky office with its unrivalled view of the station carpark.

  Somebody – probably one of the civilian staff – had sorted a smattering of Christmas decorations, though he didn’t give much for the chances of the little fibre optic tree, streamers and garlands making it unscathed through the festive period. The sprightlier members of the department would most likely use the tree for target practice, he thought with an amused shrug.

  On the other hand, god help anyone who made off with those chocolate santas he spied dangling from the lowest branches, Noakes regarding anything of the kind as his personal prerequisite.

  The DS was notably keen on ‘Crimbo’, and his boss had literally seen the cogs turning as Noakes calculated the domestic brownie points to be earned from a cull of ‘posh smellies’ at the Old Carton Artisan Centre. It was also useful to the investigation that daughter Natalie, in her capacity of upwardly mobile freelance beautician, would automatically have an entrée to the centre’s various homeopathic and cosmetic outlets. Something of a man-eater in her salad days, Natalie was no longer the doyenne of Bromgrove’s nightclubs, being respectably affianced to the son of a local entrepreneur who had briefly come under suspicion in a previous investigation. However, like her mother, she was well disposed towards her father’s handsome boss, which meant she would be highly amenable to the prospect of a role as unofficial intel-gatherer. The DI knew he would have to play his cards carefully, given Natalie’s brush with danger during the Bluebell case and Noakes’s protectiveness, but he suspected her nose for gossip was second to none.

  Markham was amused to note that the door of Kate Burton’s minuscule glassed-in domain – ‘office’ was stretching it for what was little more than a cubicle – featured a tasteful natural wreath (no tinsel, in keeping with her eco credentials) with a robin redbreast centrepiece. Was it his imagination, or was the bird cocking a wary eye at Noakes’s frowsy desk nearby? If so, there was nothing to fear, the DS thoroughly approving of robins as being ‘nice an’ proper’, reserving his wrath for politically correct ‘winter festival BS where it could be anyone’s birthday’ and Christ was conspicuous by his absence. ‘Like Hamlet without the prince,’ Olivia chuckled at Noakes’s perennial gripe, but Markham guessed his wingman – indelibly marked by a Sunday School Methodist upbringing – was genuinely outraged. ‘Same with Easter,’ the DS groused. ‘That’s why you’ve got kids who think it’s all about some freaking Bunny.’

  Needless to say, Muriel Noakes’s eminently tasteful Christmas card had already been delivered to CID by her proud spouse. Reflecting the good lady’s recent flirtation with Catholicism, it depicted Our Lady Undoer of Knots, with a sweet-faced Madonna whom Markham privately considered a vast improvement on some of the whey-faced precocious she-hypocrites and pasty Infants of previous years. Perhaps Muriel’s choice of painting could even be considered a favourable omen in light of the decidedly knotty conundrum posed by this latest murder.

  A minor commotion outside his door signalled the arrival of the threesome who he had no doubt were avid to get their teeth into the Old Carton murder.

  Noakes certainly lived down to expectations in an eye-wateringly awful combo of chunky crimson bobble jumper, decorated with what looked like capering penguins, bottle green cords and the ubiquitous George boots (‘if it’s good enough for the Paras, it’s good enough for me’). Sidney would blow a gasket if he caught sight of this ensemble, Markham thought with an inward groan, though on the other hand Noakes might away with it if they pretended he was involved in a local Save Arctic Wildlife campaign…. On balance, it might just be safest to keep him well away from the higher-ups. If the worst came to the worst, he could always pacify Sidney by dangling the prospect of Noakes’s imminent retirement (without mentioning his plans to branch out as a gumshoe).

  DI Kate Burton, nut-brown hair swinging in its trademark bob, looked immaculate in a sharply tailored navy trouser suit, black roll-neck jumper and suede ankle boots. Her slightly squashed, tip-tilted features were redeemed from absolute plainness by the intelligence of the brown eyes which were magnified to the size of enormous lollipops whenever she whipped on her high-prescription reading glasses.

  DS Doyle, lanky but highly personable in his tweed jacket, slim-fit dark button-down and neat chinos, looked alert and eager. If he was a dog, he’d be wagging his tail, Markham thought indulgently as the trio arranged themselves on the other side of his desk.

  Seeing Noakes rummage in the big paper bag with McDonald’s logo, Markham resigned himself to the fragrance of his wingman’s usual grease-fest. And sure enough, out came the breakfast muffin, fries and coffee, causing Burton to wrinkle her nose fastidiously as her colleague proceeded to wolf down his supplies. Doyle merely grinned at this evidence of his mentor limbering up for the festive blowout. ‘You gotta pace yourself, lad,’ as the other invariably put it when it came to building stamina for the Main Event.

  The DI knew better than to interrupt his wingman’s fuelling up, but the latter made short work of the foodstuffs, enquiring with unmistakeable eagerness, ‘Are we in on this one then, guv?’

  ‘Yes, I’ve got the three of you for the Old Carton Hall murder, Noakes.’ He frowned. ‘And I have to say, it looks like being our most challenging yet.’

  Seeing that Kate Burton had whisked notebook and glasses out of her brown leather conference folder, Markham swiftly marshalled his thoughts.

  ‘Right,’ he said. ‘The victim is Mr Charles Larrain, forty-five, perfumier from the Old Carton Artisan Centre and friend of Richard Twiss who’s the second son of Sir Simon and Lady Edith.’

 ‘As in “friend friend”?’ Doyle asked, looking awkward as well he might with Noakes leering knowingly at the enquiry.

  ‘We don’t know if Mr Larrain and Richard Twiss were romantically involved,’ the DI answered evenly. With a quelling glance at Noakes, he added, ‘However if that should turn out to be the case, we will approach the issue with due restraint and discretion.’ As opposed to anyone trampling all over local sensibilities with their size twelves.

  Burton nodded approvingly.

  ‘The Twisses have other children, isn’t that right sir?’ She invariably addressed Markham as her superior and he had long since given up pointing out that they were now equals in rank. Deep down, he knew he liked her all the more for this mark of respect. ‘That’s cos you’re her household god’ Olivia had commented waspishly, and he supposed there was truth in this but still refrained from correcting the misnomer, telling himself It is what it is.

  ‘That’s correct, Kate. Michael Twiss, the eldest son, is in line to inherit. Then there’s the youngest brother Philip Twiss who acts as the estate manager. And a sister, Margaret, who lectures part-time at the university.’

  Burton busily scribbled away while the other two exchanged eloquent glances across her glossy head.

  A university angle. God, she’ll be in clover if there’s a bunch of clever dicks involved.

  ‘Sir Simon’s brother Gerald Twiss and his wife Stella own Old Carton Farm,’ Markham continued. ‘Then there’s Miss Isobel Farquhar, Lady Edith’s sister, who lives in Old Carton Dower Cottage with her unmarried daughter Frances.’

  ‘Worse than Downton Abbey,’ Noakes grumbled, poking around in his McDonalds bag in the forlorn hope of finding stray fries to gobble.

  ‘What about staff at the Hall, sir?’ Doyle asked.

  ‘I’m not totally clear about the set-up as yet…. I gather there’s a Christopher Hassett who’s the assistant curator…. helps arrange exhibitions like this latest offering…. The Power of Poison.’

  Burton looked even more enthralled on hearing this.

  Noakes scowled. That’s all we need. Her going all misty-eyed over a load of medieval twaddle the lah-di-da lot have cooked up to get the punters in.

  Perfectly aware of his wingman’s malevolent inner monologue, Markham suppressed a smile.

  ‘I believe there’s also an events manager who divides her time between the Hall and the Artisan Centre…. name of Catherine Metcalfe. In terms of household staff, Sir Simon has a PA…. Mrs Irene Clark…. There’s also a housekeeper, Carmel Scarron, whose son Patrick acts as a sort of groundsman.’

  ‘Doesn’t sound all that lavish.’ Burton was clearly disappointed.

  ‘That’s the way with so many so-called stately homes these days, Kate. Pretty much run on a shoestring,’ Markham told her. ‘The family’s well embedded locally, so I imagine they get extra help from the village when they need it. They’re pretty thick with a clutch of local worthies – the vicar and his wife, churchwardens and so forth.’ He grinned, the austere features softening in a rare, charming smile. ‘I believe Mrs Sidney serves on Bromgrove’s Heritage Committee with Lady Twiss.’

  ‘Oh well,’ Noakes said with heavy sarcasm. ‘You can say bye-bye to fingering any of the poshos, guv.’ The DS stuck out his pinkie in a parody of teatime gentility. ‘Can’t be having any of the Downton Abbey brigade in the frame, dontcha know.’

  ‘Get that chip off your shoulder, Noakesy,’ Markham told him. ‘We’re going in with no preconceptions, and I think the DCI appreciates that.

  Noakes looked thunderous. Yeah, like chuff he does.

  Actually, Markham had seen another side to the DCI in recent investigations. A willingness to park his undoubted predilection for social standing and celebrity – the product of a difficult start in life – in favour of giving Markham a decent run. He couldn’t flatter himself that Sidney had suddenly conceived some sort of personal regard for him. Resentment of his Oxbridge credentials and meteoric rise in CID were too deeply ingrained for any such volte-face. But something had brought about a transformation, and Markham was simply grateful for the positive consequences. Maybe it was just that the instincts of a decent copper were not entirely crusted over with the corrosive effects of high office. Olivia scoffed at the notion of Markham’s boss having had any such Damascene conversion, but he felt nonetheless that it was so.

  ‘So, what’s next, sir?’ Burton asked simply.

  ‘A recce of the Hall this afternoon,’ the DI replied. ‘I want to get a feel for the family and staff while we’re waiting for Dimples to report

back about the toxicology.’

  Seeing that Burton regarded him expectantly, Markham explained the pathologist’s theories.

  His fellow DI thought hard. ‘He really thinks it’s cyanide and –’

  ‘Rat killer,’ Noakes interjected peremptorily.

  ‘Or possibly hydrobromide of hyoscine,’ Markham amended. ‘Either way, fatal poisons administered by means of Mr Larrain’s e-cigarette and hip flask.’

  ‘Sneaky,’ Noakes declared.

  ‘Indeed,’ Markham agreed. Repressing a shiver, he added, ‘There’s something devious and deliberate about the way in which Mr Larrain was dispatched.

  ‘A highly intelligent coward,’ Burton said solemnly, unconsciously echoing the pathologist.

  ‘An’ a freaking sadist.’ Noakes wanted no-one to be in any doubt about that.

  ‘Which is why we need to move fast,’ the DI told them.

  No need to add: Otherwise, we’ve got a serial on our hands.

2

The Italian Solution

 

Monday afternoon found the team back at Old Carton Hall. Family and staff, however, were nowhere to be seen, except for Christopher Hassett the assistant curator of The Power of Poison exhibition.

  A tall, slightly stooped man who looked to be in his early fifties, Hassett was nonetheless attractive in a donnish sort of way, horn-rimmed spectacles and dark hair streaked with silver lending him a certain distinction. His cultured voice added to the impression of refinement, and he had the air of one comfortable in his own skin. With fine instincts, after the introductions had been performed, he said nothing about the previous day’s discovery other than to express his shock on hearing of the murder.

  ‘I’ve arranged with family and staff to make themselves available for interviews tomorrow morning, Inspector. I hope that’s agreeable to you,’ he continued. And then, on Markham confirming that it was, ‘Perhaps in the meantime you’d like to explore the Hall.’

  ‘The Power of Poison exhibition appears to have attracted favourable publicity,’ the DI said courteously. ‘If it’s not too much trouble, perhaps you wouldn’t object to our taking a look.’

  The curator was clearly pleased by the request and escorted them through the State Anteroom, where paper suited SOCOs were still at work, to the Tapestry Room.

  ‘Hey, that’s the same thingummyjig picture we saw in Sherwin College,’ Noakes declared on spying a tapestry at the far end of the room. ‘The Field of Wotsit where Henry the Eighth an’ the Frenchies had this big picnic.’

  ‘Well spotted, Sergeant.’ Hassett smiled approvingly. ‘Yes, it’s a Flemish depiction of The Field of the Cloth of Gold where Henry and King Francis tried to outdo each other.’ He chuckled, ‘Henry even brought along a pair of monkeys covered in gold leaf, and Francis took such a shine to them that he wanted them in attendance at every banquet.’

  ‘King James liked ’em as well,’ Noakes threw a triumphant look towards Kate Burton as though to say, I can do the boffin stuff too. ‘An’ he gave one to that little beggar next door…. the lad who died young.’

  ‘Right again, Sergeant.’ The curator was pleasantly surprised by the response of the big  detective who stood rumpling his bushy hair so that it sprouted rampantly erect in little prongs as though to reflect unbridled enthusiasm.

  Hassett proved to be an agreeable guide, with a gift for imparting quirky nuggets of historical lore.

  ‘It says here that Henry the Eighth’s people had to kiss all his bedsheets an’ pillows to prove they hadn’t smeared ’em with poison,’ Noakes exclaimed delightedly, peering at a wall display.

  ‘Oh, that’s nothing, Sergeant,’ Hassett laughed. ‘Edward the Sixth’s courtiers were even more paranoid, so they used to dress a boy of the same size in his clothes and wait to see if he cried out in pain. There were conspiracies everywhere…. You couldn’t even be sure of the doctors. There was a famous case where a gentleman at King James’s court died in agony after his enemies bribed a doctor to give him a sulfuric enema.’

  ‘I remember that!’ Kate Burton exclaimed. ‘James had all these male favourites. One of them called Robert Carr had affairs with men and women…. When Carr eventually decided to settle down, some ex-boyfriend kicked up a fuss and began badmouthing the woman he wanted to marry. James imprisoned this awkward character in the Tower of London on some pretext or other, and that’s when Carr and his lady friend saw their chance and got the dodgy doctor to finish him off.’

  The curator was openly admiring. ‘Well remembered. Yes, Sir Thomas Overbury died an excruciating death.’

  ‘I bet the doc copped it while Lord an’ Lady Muck got off scot free,’ Noakes put in with lugubrious satisfaction.

  ‘Well, King James conducted some sort of show trial but essentially yes, they tap danced away from it while the doctor and the other conspirators ended up being executed.’

  Noakes shook his head sorrowfully, though Markham reckoned he was secretly gratified to have his prejudices confirmed.

  Hassett wasn’t averse to a little moralising. ‘What goes around comes around, Sergeant,’ he said. ‘The guilty couple had no joy of their marriage, and the wife died in unbearable pain at forty-two, riddled with cancer.’

  Doyle had no intention of allowing his colleagues to make off with the intellectual laurels. ‘Weren’t the Italians supposed to be experts at bumping people off with poison?’ he asked.

  ‘After the Overbury case, it was the English who carried that stigma for a time,’ Hassett replied. ‘But it’s true that skill with poisons was considered practically an Italian birthright.’

  ‘Presumably that’s why Catherine de Medici looms so large in the exhibition,’ Markham observed, admiring a life size mannequin dressed in mourning with a black head dress and flowing gauze veil, the sombre effect relieved only by a huge white cartwheel ruff.

  ‘Ah yes, the original Black Widow…. Wore perpetual mourning as a sign of devotion to King Henri who died after a joust went wrong.’

  ‘But didn’t he have affairs with other women?’ Burton asked the curator.

  ‘Correct, but she was still crazy about him,’ Hassett replied. ‘Even went so far as to drill holes in the floor of her apartment so she could watch him being pleasured by his mistress in the room below and pick up some lovemaking tips.’

  Markham could tell that the curator rather enjoyed the effect of this revelation on Noakes who regarded the mannequin with a distinctly disapproving expression.

  ‘Wasn’t she the one behind a big massacre in Paris?’ Burton enquired hastily.

  ‘Yes, the St Bartholomew’s Day Massacre when the Catholics set about killing as many Hugenots – Protestants – as they could lay their hands on. Some playwright said that because of it her memory would be wrapped in bloody crepe till the end of time.’

  Burton was on a roll now.

  ‘There were rumours about her committing incest with her sons too, weren’t there?’

  Noakes looked more po-faced than ever, eliciting a chuckle from the curator.

  ‘Oh, Catherine was up to all sorts…. black magic, astrology, voodoo…. You name it, she’d had a go…. When she was trying to get pregnant, she drank urine from pregnant livestock and wore a locket stuffed with a cremated frog.’

   ‘Eeeeugh!’ burst from Doyle.

  Hassett grew expansive. ‘The sons were tubercular and downright weird…. the youngest was a pockmarked hunchback, while the middle one turned out to be a religious maniac when he wasn’t having affairs with the best-looking male courtiers…. And you might be right about the incest given that she told the middle son if she were to lose him, she would have herself buried alive in his grave.’

  Observing Noakes’s look of extreme distaste, the curator added, ‘They were brutal times and Catherine resorted to any number of tactics to wield power. Poison was one method. Sex was another.’

  ‘How come, seeing as she were so bad at it?’ Noakes asked, intrigued despite himself.

  ‘She had what was called her “flying squadron” of beautiful ladies-in-waiting and used them to seduce noblemen for political ends.’

  ‘Wasn’t there a daughter?’ Burton interposed swiftly.

  ‘Yes, Marguerite. But Catherine never had much time for her, just the sons.’ Hassett gave a thin smile. ‘In the end none of them lasted long on the throne and the crown passed to Marguerite’s husband whom Catherine hated on account of him being a Protestant.’

  ‘Sounds a wrong ’un,’ was Noakes’s trenchant verdict on “The Italian Woman”.

  ‘She was very superstitious…. Always consulting soothsayers and the like. One of them told her to beware of Saint-Germain if she wished to live for a long time. So she avoided the chateau of Saint-Germain like the plague. But the prophecy caught up with her, because the priest who gave her the last rites was called Julien de Saint-Germain.’

  ‘Got her just desserts then,’ Noakes grunted.

  ‘Well, she lived to seventy-one… The autopsy showed she had rotten lungs, a blood-soaked brain and an abscess in her left side. Something went wrong with the embalming, and she began to smell so bad that they decided to bury her at night in an unmarked grave…. Later on, she was moved to the traditional mausoleum, but during the French Revolution a mob dug her up and chucked her bones into a mass grave along with all the other royals.’

 

  ‘Serves her right for being a witch,’ asserted Noakes in the tones of a modern-day Torquemada.

  ‘As I say, she was a product of her times, Sergeant. Palaces back then literally heaved with poisons of all kinds. And medicine was a case of kill more than cure. Whenever one of the Spanish royals fell ill, the doctors would dig up saintly body parts and entire corpses from churches and monasteries and put them in bed with the invalid…. That’s when they weren’t using unicorn horn or rooster dung as prophylactics.’

  Noakes was beginning to feel that maybe his breakfast muffin hadn’t been such a bright idea. ‘She looks like a toad with them bulging eyes,’ he muttered with a last baleful glance at Catherine de Medici.

  ‘Not a looker, certainly,’ their guide informed them. ‘One wit said that she was a beautiful woman when her face was veiled.’

  Noakes guffawed appreciatively before moving along to the cabinet containing engravings of the punishments for poisoners, including the fearsome Ecartelage. Meanwhile, as Burton and Doyle examined a display about Nostradamus, Markham wandered over to another mannequin whose label proclaimed her to be Henrietta Stuart, daughter of Charles the First who became the exiled Duchess of Orleans after her father’s execution.

  ‘Now her husband really was a toad,’ Hassett said coming up alongside him. ‘Bisexual and all-round bastard who made her life a misery. He was jealous of her popularity too and thrilled when one of his tame astrologers predicted that he would have more than one wife. By the end, he was pretty much exclusively homosexual… widely suspected of having poisoned Henrietta, but nowadays they think she had a perforated ulcer.’

  ‘And did he end up marrying again?’ Markham asked curiously.

  ‘Yes, that prophecy turned out to be true.’

  ‘I don’t see any modern poisoners in here,’ the DI observed looking around him. ‘No Dr Crippen or William Palmer…. The focus seems to be predominantly Renaissance.’

  ‘Ah, that’s down to Margaret Twiss.’ Markham was interested to note a slight tinge of colour in the man’s sallow cheeks as he said her name. ‘She’s a Renaissance specialist, very highly regarded in her field.’

  ‘And what about you, sir?’ The DI was interested to know more of Hassett’s background.

  ‘Lecturer in art history at Goldsmiths College followed by a stint at Sotheby’s. I’m a native of these parts, so when I tired of the London jungle and heard about a position at Old Carton, I jumped at it.’ A self-deprecating shrug. ‘I inherited my parents’ house in the village when they died, so it looks like I’m here for the long haul.’ There was a faint undertone of dissatisfaction as he said this, which made Markham wonder if the position at the Hall had somehow failed to deliver, but it was a fleeting impression.

  An agreeable interlude followed, with his colleagues proving insatiable for stories of horoscopes, spells and Black Masses. And for all his disapproval of the juicier anecdotes, Noakes was visibly hooked on details of powders and potions.

  Absorbing the splendours of the exhibition, Markham wondered if this was where their killer had conceived the plan to murder Charles Larrain. Was there something in the very air of Old Carton Hall conducive to plotting death by poison?

  As though aware of what the DI was thinking, Christopher Hassett wound up the tour with an allusion to the ghost of Lady Mary and the story that she had been poisoned by her husband.

  ‘Do you believe it, Mr Hassett?’ Markham asked.

  ‘I’m not sure that I do,’ the other replied after a thoughtful pause. ‘He was a well-known lothario with many enemies, so fomenting rumours was one way to make trouble. And nothing was ever proved against him.’ A sudden puckish grin. ‘But it’s great box office, so we’re happy to talk up the legend.’

  At that point, Hassett tactfully melted away so that the detectives could explore the premises at their leisure. ‘There’s refreshments for you in the housekeeper’s room when you’re ready,’ he told them. ‘You can’t miss it – off the corridor behind the Great Hall.’

  The building exhibited a fascinating mixture of historical styles, from Tudor carved oak furniture and intricate Jacobean ceilings through to the Victorian Gothic of the library and main parlour. Noakes was delighted to detect the motif of monkeys repeated throughout the various rooms and even in the stained glass of the tiny chapel, though Markham disliked their simian capering, especially those images which showed the creatures with mouths stretched wide and teeth bared. They made Burton uncomfortable too. ‘Like wicked little gargoyles,’ she said uneasily.

  While charmed by the monkeys, Noakes was warier of the astrological and magical items which turned up in just about every room, together with death masks, witch bottles and cunning little memento mori such as coffin-shaped snuff boxes. The many allegorical paintings which featured gurning skeletons cavorting with assorted nobility also ‘creeped him out’. However, he was quite taken with a series of Pre-Raphaelite illustrations of the tomb scene from Romeo and Juliet, somewhat to the surprise of his colleagues who recalled his scathing denunciation of Pre-Raphaelite paintings in a previous investigation as ‘S&M for Victorians’. However, the DS stuck to his guns. ‘Them lasses we saw last time looked like they’d had too many pies,’ he declared, mastiff’s head on one side like a connoisseur. ‘But she’s okay,’ he pronounced, pointing to a Frederic Leighton reproduction. ‘Ackshually, she reminds me of your Olivia,’ he told Markham, ears turning slightly pink as he offered this insight.

  Doyle smothered a grin. God, what was it with Noakesy’s crush on Olivia Mullen…? It had to be the worst kept secret in CID…. Anyone’d think she’d cast a spell on him or something.

  Impenetrably grave, Markham acknowledged the compliment with his usual cast-iron courtesy. ‘A flattering comparison, Sergeant.’

  Burton shifted impatiently.

  ‘Maybe all this points to the killer being someone who works here…. or a regular visitor…. someone who developed a fixation with poison,’ she said. ‘After all, that’s how Romeo and Juliet die, right?’

  ‘What was it they took?’ Noakes asked, temporarily diverted from his perusal of willowy nineteenth-century heroines. ‘I mean, Shakespeare never said, did he?’ He scratched his bristly chin. ‘Had a bit of a thing about poison, though, ole Willy Shakes…. I remember from O level…. someone pouring stuff into his brother’s ear….’

  ‘That’s Hamlet,’ Doyle piped up. ‘Most likely hemlock or deadly nightshade.’

  ‘Deadly nightshade’s the same as belladonna,’ Burton informed them. ‘I read somewhere that Elizabethan ladies used drops of it to make their eyes sparkle.’

  ‘Let’s find the housekeeper’s room,’ Markham said firmly. ‘Then we can thrash this out in comfort.’ He also wanted to take the conversation somewhere more private, since he could not rid himself of an impression that the wainscoted walls had ears.

  Or maybe it was something about those omnipresent primates which reminded him of the flying monkeys from The Wizard of Oz….

  Nothing loath, the team made their way down to the corridor behind the Great Hall, easily locating the housekeeper’s room next to the kitchen where they found tea and coffee urns along with a freshly baked Victoria sponge.

  ‘Looks like Mrs Mop knows how to make folk feel welcome,’ Noakes said appreciatively, losing no time in tucking in.

  ‘So, what do we reckon the killer used on poor Charlie boy then?’ the DS asked through a mouthful of cake.

  ‘Dimples should have the toxicology results back by tomorrow morning,’ Markham said. ‘Unofficially, his money’s on mercury for the e-cig and insect powder in the hip flask.’

  ‘How did the killer get hold of the mercury?’ Doyle mused. ‘I mean, it’s not like you can just pop along and ask the chemist…. Isn’t there a Poisons Book and all that palaver?’

  Burton frowned. ‘There’s mercury in all kinds of products…. ointments, disinfectants, fungicides, stuff like that.’

  ‘In thermometers too,’ Noakes chipped in.

  She nodded slowly. ‘You’d be able to pick up liquid mercury from a chemical supply store…. They have it in all kinds of places…. school chemistry labs and industrial sites…. I think you can even get it off Amazon.’

  ‘Mercury poisoning…. that’s what the Mad Hatter had in Alice in Wonderland,’ Noakes told them solemnly. ‘Cos hatmakers used mercury on the felt an’ then breathed it in.’

  Markham joined the debate. ‘Apparently liquid mercury’s most dangerous when it vaporises,’ he said. ‘The fumes are odourless and very quickly absorbed.’

  ‘So Mr Larrain could’ve been puffing away without realising the risks?’  Doyle asked.

  ‘Precisely.’ Markham’s face was grave as he added, ‘It’s a neurotoxin that can trigger psychosis and pulmonary failure.’

  The young DS thought for a moment. ‘Okay, so he’d be at risk of hallucinations and his lungs packing up, but the killer couldn’t count on the mercury being fatal.’

  ‘They could if Larrain knocked back paraquat or something toxic from the hip flask,’ Burton observed. ‘Even a tiny sip of weedkiller can be fatal.’

  ‘They still couldn’t be sure someone mightn’t come across Larrain in time to get medical help,’ Doyle persisted.

  ‘I’d say the risk of outside intervention was minimal, Sergeant,’ Markham countered. ‘The killer knew the Hall was pretty much deserted on Saturday night and had either lured Mr Larrain there or was aware he had plans to visit his favourite rooms, given that he pretty much had the run of the place as Richard Twiss’s close friend.’

  ‘At some point beforehand, they must’ve tampered with the vape kit and hip flask,’ Burton speculated. ‘Most likely when he was at the Artisan Centre…. perhaps at work with his jacket hanging up, so the killer had time to doctor his gear –’

  ‘Or substitute identikits,’ Doyle ventured.

  ‘Nah, flash gits like him would have everything custom made an’ monogrammed,’ Noakes objected. ‘The killer would’ve had to sneak off with his jacket an’ get it back without anyone seeing.’

  ‘We’ll need to plot Mr Larrain’s movements on Saturday and establish precisely who had access to him,’ Markham said. ‘If we’re finished,’ with a meaningful glance at Noakes who had just sneaked a second slice of cake, ‘I want to get an incident room set up.’

  ‘Here, boss?’ Burton asked eagerly, visibly delighted at the prospect of working in such historic surroundings.

  ‘Well, if Mr Hassett can find us a suitable corner, I think that might be best. The Hall will be closed to the public this week while the SOCOs finish up, so at least we won’t have to worry about tourists and rubberneckers.’

  Like Burton, Markham relished the idea of basing themselves at the Hall.

  There was something theatrical and magical about the place, from the old-fashioned handsome furniture and faded Persian carpets to the high windows which presented such an agreeable contrast to the cramped claustrophobia of their shabby quarters in CID. And whereas there was little opportunity to appreciate the snowscape from Bromgrove police station with its slush-covered pavements, here every view offered an aesthetically pleasing prospect of unsullied white brilliance thrown into sharp relief by the black-branched trees of neighbouring copses.

  Later that evening, over a Chinese takeaway with Olivia, he tried to sum up Old Carton’s appeal.

  ‘Architecturally, it’s rather bizarre,’ he said. ‘The Tudor part has lots of geometrical timber patterning – very romantic and picturesque – and then there’s these extensions dating to the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries tacked on.’

  ‘We used to do trips there each year,’ Olivia said. ‘That was before Call-Me-Tony and Old Mother Lipscombe started pushing their woke agenda and banned any visits to places that were “culturally suspect”.’

  An English teacher at Hope Academy (popularly known as ‘Hopeless’), Olivia regularly found herself at odds with the insufferably right-on Headteacher and Assistant Head whose antipathy for imperialist antecedents hobbled her ambition to expand the school curriculum.

  Markham chuckled. ‘Ah, I take it the Hall has a connection with colonialism.’

  ‘Pretty tenuous, if you ask me…. Some distant cousin owned slaves.’ She speared a pork ball as intently as though it was a tender part of Anthony Brighouse’s anatomy. ‘It made no odds to the gruesome twosome that the Twisses who owned Old Carton Hall actually supported the abolition of slavery. Once they got a whiff of the plantation in Jamaica, it was goodbye to any more extra-curricular outings that might,’ she air quoted savagely, ‘“cause offence”.’

  ‘In fairness to them, I suppose they’re trying to be inclusive and redress the balance, so that youngsters have some idea of the bigger picture.’

  She punched his arm mock-indignantly. ‘Whose side are you on?’ And with a distinctly acid undertone, ‘Sounds like you’ve got a bad case of Kate Burton.’

  He chose to ignore that. 

  ‘Cheer up, Liv. One day they’ll get promoted out of Hope and you’ll be free of Cancel Culture.’

  ‘The local authority will probably foist another pair of zealots on us,’ she said gloomily. Then more brightly, she continued, ‘I like the sound of The Power of Poison exhibition, Gil…. There’s something fascinating about the Renaissance and all those courtiers at each other’s throats.’ She giggled. ‘A bit like CID.’

  ‘Maybe that’s why the team went a bundle on it,’ he replied drily. ‘You should have seen Noakesy…. he really had a ball.’ With a reminiscent smile, he added, ‘He couldn’t get enough of Catherine de Medici…. Loved the story of the poisoned gloves.’

  Olivia’s eyebrows shot up. ‘Oh?’

  ‘Catherine whisked this visiting Protestant royal off for a shopping expedition. The lady in question loved perfumed gloves –’

  ‘That figures, with everyone in those days stinking to high heaven, and folk needing to cover it up,’ Olivia laughed. ‘I remember reading that Elizabeth the First took a bath once a month whether she needed it or not!’

  ‘Precisely. Well, Catherine took her guest to buy gloves from this perfumier who secretly doubled as her poisoner. Like everyone else in those days, the poor woman wanted her gloves strongly scented to obliterate body odour and disguise the reek of the dog dirt tanners used to make gloves supple. She knew the perfumier Master Bianco had a bad reputation, but she shrugged off the rumours.’

  ‘Uh-oh, somehow I think you’re going to tell me it ended badly.’

  ‘Yep…. She died shortly afterwards. The post-mortem showed the rupture of an abscess on her lungs, but most people believed Catherine had arranged for the gloves to be poisoned.’

  Olivia rolled her eyes. ‘Isn’t there a saying “One must suffer to be beautiful” …. Sounds like that poor doomed princess or whoever she was took it to extremes!’

  ‘She was a queen apparently. The queen of Navarre.’

  ‘Where’s that?’

  ‘Oh, it doesn’t exist now. In those days, it was some tiny state sandwiched between France and Spain.’

  Markham helped Olivia to more chow mein and poured himself another generous glass of his favourite Châteauneuf-du-Pape.

  ‘Poison was an occupational hazard for all kinds of folk,’ he observed, ‘not just the nobility. Kate told me painters used a white paint made of lead mixed up with arsenic. So when they sucked on their brushes to create a more pointed tip, they were actually poisoning themselves…. She said that’s most probably what happened with Caravaggio, and it didn’t help that he smudged painted canvases with his fingers or rags without washing his hands afterwards.’

  As he dished up some more sweet and sour pork, Markham missed the slight narrowing of Olivia’s eyes at the mention of Kate Burton.

   But her voice was level when she said lightly, ‘Musicians too.’

  ‘How so?’

  ‘Well, you know everyone thinks Mozart was poisoned by his jealous rival Salieri…. like in the film Amadeus…. There’s a new idea doing the rounds that says he might have caught a streptococcal infection from horses because he was always dashing around in carriages.’

  ‘Intriguing.’ Markham smiled with a tenderness that would have astonished the detractors who called him ‘Lord Snooty’ because of his aristocratic aloofness. The hawklike features softened still further as he went on to give Olivia an account of his day.

  ‘So we’re going to base ourselves at the Hall for now,’ he concluded.

  ‘I suppose it has the advantage of keeping George well away from Judas Iscariot,’ she observed. ‘By the by, what news of his plans to retire?’

  ‘I think there may be some resistance from Muriel to the idea of him setting up as a private investigator.’

  Olivia flashed him a grin of complicity. ‘I’ll bet.’

  ‘But I reckon it’s definitely on the cards….  I even have a feeling he hopes to persuade Doyle to come in with him.’

  ‘Any chance of that happening?’

  ‘I doubt it. Doyle’s very thick with Noakesy, but it’s too much of a gamble.’ Markham sighed. ‘I suspect this may be our last outing together in CID.’

  She reached for his hand. ‘Better make sure George’s career ends on a high. Fab Four Solve Poison Riddle.’

  He returned the pressure with interest, but his face was shadowed.

  ‘It’s the most baffling case I’ve ever encountered, Liv.’

  Later that night in bed, with Olivia curled up next to him, Markham found himself restless. In his nostrils was the scent of Old Carton Hall with its patina of centuries of beeswax overlaid with a faint overlay of must and damp. A sweet and sour fragrance all its own.

  There had been a surreal quality to the events of the day, as though he and the team were themselves effigies being manipulated into position by an invisible hand.

  His last conscious thought was the memory of Catherine de Medici’s black mourning veil and the waxen countenance of the Poisoner-Queen.

  Wrapped in bloody crepe till the end of time.

3

Borrowed Likeness

 

Markham rose very early on Tuesday 14 December, taking strong black coffee into his study so as not to disturb Olivia.

  Their apartment at the upmarket complex known as The Sweepstakes overlooked Bromgrove North Municipal Cemetery, a vista he never tired of contemplating.

  Now as he regarded the snowy counterpane that coated the graves and monuments under a pewter sky faintly streaked with red, he thought how strange it was that the dead should lie so perfectly still while the planet spun on its axis like a plaything of God.

  Yet, however strong his awareness of human insignificance in the cosmic scheme, Markham never forgot the individuality of murder victims, the proximity to graves and monuments helping him to keep their memory close. At this time of the morning, with the landscape outside the bay window so blindingly white, he could almost imagine the walls of the flat falling away and the ceiling opening to give him a glimpse of that other world with its special kind of life that did not exist on earth at all….

  There was something about it in the Bible – words that he had heard recited at innumerable funerals and memorial services down the years…. Something about souls who wore glistening white robes and carried palm branches…. who walked, mingled, and sang a special heavenly language, totally at peace, all striving gone.

  Noakes, curiously, never scoffed when Markham dropped hints of this obscure yearning after a better existence for his murdered dead. His own unshakeable religious faith – that sturdy Methodism – was part of his DNA, and he experienced no such supernatural apprehension. But he showed great respect for the guvnor’s ‘otherworldly side’ and was manifestly proud of having a boss so far removed from the common run of CID supremos. Perhaps too he remembered the boss’s younger brother, long since lost to drink and drugs – the sibling Markham had been unable to protect from their abusive stepfather – and understood the DI’s preoccupation with another world free of clouds and bewilderment.

  Markham knew that Slimy Sid took a dim view of feyness – what he was pleased to term ‘Markham’s Oxbridge airs and graces’ – and was therefore careful to curb any imaginative impulses when briefing the DCI. But it was difficult to remain unaffected by the strange ambience of Old Carton Hall which he suspected somehow played a part in the psychological makeup of their poisoner.

  At least there were no next-of-kin to be contacted, Charles Larrain being an only child whose parents had died in Canada many years previously. Markham never shirked the condolence visits – never shunted them on to his subordinates – but on this occasion could not help feeling a guilty relief at being spared that task.

  His mind turned to the team’s tasks for the day.

  He and Noakes would interview family and staff while Kate and Doyle took Old Carton Farm and the Dower Cottage. He could only hope that his wingman’s notorious dislike of forelock-tugging wouldn’t tip over into outright truculence, but he sensed that Noakes too had succumbed to the eerie, almost unearthly, allure of the Hall and was on that account less likely to antagonise the Hunting Shooting Fishing Brigade.

  God only knew what kind of attire his wingman would fix on for interviewing the Twisses. Something tweedy and porridge-coloured no doubt, as being most suitable for a rural interlude. Not forgetting the trusty regimental tie, to underline his patriotic credentials and general reliability.

  The problem being that the DS was bound to ruin the overall effect with an appalling deerstalker or some other dubious accessory. With any luck, he could be passed off as endearingly eccentric rather than downright offensive. At least the Twisses were unlikely to spout any of the ‘woke twaddle’ guaranteed to bring out his combative streak. And Noakes’s genuine interest in the Hall – from coalholes to trapdoors and closets – was surely a passport to acceptance. To say nothing of his fascination with The Power of Poison exhibition.

  Markham shifted uneasily at the memory of last night’s dream. He could still feel the heavy folds of that Italian woman’s mourning weeds dragging him down. Could almost smell their choking mustiness….

  He gulped down his rapidly cooling coffee and took one last look from the window.

  Snow-laden trees in the cemetery, white and stark, reared up against the leaden sky. There was something almost supplicatory about their heavy-laden boughs, as though like him they sought to reach up to heaven and penetrate its secrets.

  Perhaps it was a trick of the light, but he fancied he saw a pale smudge against the thicket of black-branched birches on the graveyard’s far periphery. Then the wedge moved and was gone. It gave him a disagreeable sensation. The watcher watched. In that instant, he recalled the team’s last investigation at an Oxford museum devoted to polar exploration, when they had learned that travellers at the South Pole were often haunted by the feeling there was an extra person walking beside them….

  The daylight was getting stronger. Time for another coffee before he drove to Noakes’s, having arranged to give the DS a lift to Old Carton.

  Padding out to the galley kitchen, he wondered how the dynamics of the team would shift once Noakes finally cashed in his chips. Sidney would most likely see if as an ideal opportunity to foist some dynamic whiz-kid, fluent in politically correct psychobabble, on him. Said wunderkind would also no doubt be recruited to spy on Markham’s unit and report back to ‘the gold-braid mob’. Not at all an inviting prospect, though he knew he could count on loyalty from Kate and Doyle….

  He shrugged off such depressing thoughts as an unnecessary distraction given that they had a deranged poisoner on the loose. A late-night call from Dimples had confirmed the cause of death as myocardial infarction following mercury inhalation combined with ingestion of strychnine. ‘Now here’s the thing,’ the pathologist had concluded. ‘According to his medical records, Larrain was highly allergic and would have had significantly decreased resistance to toxic agents. A double hit of that kind was always going to be catastrophic.’

  ‘Assuming he was disorientated from the effects of the mercury, couldn’t he have spat out the weedkiller or pesticide or whatever it was?’

  ‘The gag reflex didn’t kick in,’ was the blunt response. ‘Even if someone had been on hand to induce vomiting, it would most likely have been too late with him going into shock like that…. His whole system shut down practically immediately, so if the heart attack hadn’t killed him, organ failure would have done the job.’

  Neither man had commented on the appalling image of Larrain spasming uncontrollably and writhing in agony while his killer stood feet away watching and waiting.

  Now as he showered and dressed, Markham wondered anew about The Power of Poison exhibition.

  Had it acted as inspiration for the murderer?

  Were they looking for someone who had a deep-seated affinity with the poisoner’s art, or had the exhibition merely afforded a convenient opportunity to dispatch Larrain in circumstances that satisfied some sick quirk of personality?

  Either way, it added up to a killer quite unlike any they had hunted before….

  Noakes’s bucolic wardrobe was indeed of the porridgy variety, Markham reflected a short time later as the DS crunched his way over to the car. But he supposed it could have been infinitely worse and was grateful that the oilskin fishing hat didn’t strike too discordant a note when taken with the overall ‘winter grunge’ look.

  Driving carefully along ruts and ridges that sparkled dangerously in the weak early-morning sun, the DI brought his subordinate up to speed on the post-mortem findings.

  ‘So poor ole Aznavour weren’t the strongest to start with,’ Noakes commented. ‘Most likely the killer knew he’d go into anaphylactic wotsit an’ peg out soon as the poisons got into his bloodstream…. thrashing about like he had rabies or summat.’

  As ever, Noakes had the gift of painting a picture with a few well-chosen words, the canine comparison reminding Markham of Larrain’s froth-flecked features and the corpse arched in its death-throes. All under the implacable gaze of a torturer who watched from amongst those strange effigies of the State Anteroom which looked fiercely nowhere and stared with extraordinary intensity at nothing.

  ‘There’s a cold-blooded deliberation about it all,’ he agreed.

  ‘What tack are we going to take with the twisted Twisses?’ his wingman enquired jocularly.

  ‘Well, for starters we need to ensure they don’t get straight on to the blower and complain to the DCI about any want of courtesy on our part,’ Markham said with a dead-eyed sidelong glance. ‘Remember, Mrs Sidney and Lady Twiss both serve on that Heritage Committee.’

  ‘The missus’d be good at that,’ Noakes ruminated evasively. ‘National Trust an’ flower arranging an’ all that jazz.’

  It seemed as though Muriel Noakes’s social aspirations were the surest guarantee of a housetrained DS, Markham thought suppressing a chuckle. By the sound of it, there would be no sideshow of the Revolting Peasants variety. A part of him realised that he was almost disappointed at the prospect of Noakes reining himself in, but the sensitivities of the local community required careful handling.

  However, the DS wasn’t totally squelched, defiantly whistling All Things Bright And Beautiful as they juddered along to Old Carton.

  Markham’s lips quirked at the well-remembered lyrics:

  The rich man in his castle. The poor man at his gate. God made them, high or lowly. And ordered their estate.

  One way or another, George Noakes always had to have the last word.

  After this, they travelled for a time in companionable silence.

  Eventually Noakes broke the tranquillity.

  ‘I’ve jus’ seen a robin redbreast,’ he said. ‘Thass meant to be lucky, right?’

  ‘I believe so…. Or it can symbolise a visit by the dead.’

  ‘There’s a story about it being red cos of getting its chest burned when it was fanning the fire to keep Baby Jesus warm.’ It was very apparent that Noakes preferred this legend to any notion of ghostly revenants.

  ‘I like robins on Christmas cards,’ he continued inconsequentially. ‘The missus likes ’em too…. it’s tradition, see.’ Unexpectedly he added, ‘The Twiss Family Robinson had a decent crib in that big fireplace downstairs.’

  ‘I hadn’t spotted that, Noakes.’

  ‘Oh aye, it were there alright…. a miniature cave with the ox an’ ass an’ everything…. better than a stable in my book.’

  ‘How so?’

  ‘Well, they used caves for the animals back then…. Plus, it shows Jesus were badly off… Didn’t even get to be born in the city…. an outsider from day one…. Stands to reason he were always dead keen on poor folk.’

  Markham found himself oddly touched by this observation, shedding as it did new light on his sergeant’s inveterate compassion for the underdog.

  ‘Our Nat played Mary when they did it at primary school,’ the DS reminisced happily. ‘They had live animals an’ everything.’

  The DI had a sudden disconcerting image of Natalie Noakes, former pneumatic doyenne of Bromgrove’s less salubrious nightclubs, wearing a long blue veil, with her eyes cast down and her hands plastered together, finger to finger…. Joseph and the Shepherds would have been cast quite in the shade.

  At least these pious recollections served to put Noakes in good humour.

  Now they had passed through the lodge and approached the long winding path to Old Carton Hall.

  As they got out of the car, it seemed to Markham that the silence of the snow-covered countryside fell more heavily on his ears than the town’s noisiest traffic hum. Inhaling the bitingly cold air which set his lungs on fire, he felt suddenly light-headed, almost drunk, as though he stood outside himself.

  But the sensation passed, and Noakes trudged ahead of him to the entrance, depressing the great brass door pull with his customary impatience.

                                            ……………………………………….

Markham wasn’t sure exactly what he had been expecting with the Twisses. Something Downton Abbey-ish and fruitily squirearchal if he was honest.

  In the event, Sir Simon and Lady Edith were almost nondescript. The former, in well-worn tweeds, had a surprisingly youthful pink scrubbed face (‘like Pigling Bland, or a peeled prawn’, as Noakes put it to Doyle afterwards), and sensual, good-natured features that were somewhat at odds with the swept-back thinning white hair. He projected a slightly helpless, absent-minded air, as of the world being too much for him, but Markham suspected this was an affectation. His wife, whippet-thin with sharp angular features and hooded eyes, gave nothing away, merely echoing her husband’s conventional expressions of surprise and shock.

  Richard Twiss was swarthily handsome with a well-tended black moustache and long dark hair, artfully dishevelled, that gave him the appearance of a rock star. Markham noticed that he had long, elegant hands with tapering fingers, like those of a musician. His striking appearance was marred only by a large mole between his right eye and nose. Chain-smoking and tense, he gave the appearance of one whose emotions were very close to the surface. His eyes kept swivelling to his mother, and Markham wondered if some covert message had passed between them. Certainly the youngest son Philip – also handsome with curly dark hair, brown skin somewhat pitted by acne and lustrous black eyes, though a runt by the side of Richard – likewise kept a wary eye on his mother, as though waiting for her to feed him his lines. Margaret Twiss, on the other hand, seemed to be outside the charmed circle of mother and sons. Also very striking with long black hair, dead-white complexion, a generous mouth and doe eyes, she said little and stood somewhat apart from the rest of the family wearing an expression of ironical forbearance. The eldest son Michael, who arrived after the others, did not share the good looks of his siblings. Tall and sallow-cheeked, with lustreless brown hair and a reedy voice, he had a listless hypochondriacal air which was in marked contrast to the vitality of his brothers and sister.

  Unsurprisingly, when it came to alibis, all of the family claimed to have been virtuously abed, though there was a tell-tale slither of Richard Twiss’s eyes towards his mother that did not go unnoticed by Noakes.

  Afterwards, installed in a bow-windowed room at the front of the house, with lots of furniture of a faded blue and any number of thin-legged chairs and tables, the DS lost no time in fingering his prime suspect.

  ‘Ricardo weren’t telling the truth about Saturday night,’ he grunted. ‘An’ you could see his ole mum knew it…. God, she’s a real hatchet-face. Amazing how she an’ Baron Hardup managed to produce a looker like the daughter. Did you see the state of his lordship’s jacket!’ Noakes contemplated his own donkey-jacket with some complacency. ‘All frayed an’ falling apart at the seams.’

  Markham refrained from pointing out that the well-worn look of “shabby gentility” was invariably favoured by families like the Twisses in a species of inverted snobbery that deplored any appearance of trying too hard or putting forth one’s best. Better to encourage his wingman’s belief that he had put one over on the aristos from the outset.

  ‘Yes, judging by his demeanour, I’d agree that Richard Twiss most probably wasn’t tucked up in bed. Though we’ve got nothing to break that alibi as things stand.’

  ‘The bloke’s a ponce, guv. He had an earring an’ all.’

  Markham supposed it might be considered progress that Noakes hadn’t immediately unleashed his usual dithyrambs about homosexuals.

  ‘The fact that the man has an unconventional appearance is neither here nor there, sergeant,’ he said repressively.

  But Noakes has the resilience of india rubber.

  ‘If him an’ Aznavour were at it, then we could be looking at a lovers’ quarrel.’ The DS’s lower lip shot out, giving him the look of a mutinous child. ‘Crime passionel,’ he added in an execrable allez-oops accent. ‘Plus, Lady Hatchet-Face said,’ this in a ninnimy pinnimy voice, ‘“Mr Larrain had a colourful private life”. Colourful as in he weren’t choosy about who he shagged.’

  ‘Spare me the scatological language, Noakes. The fact that Mr Larrain may have been bisexual does not incriminate Richard Twiss, and certainly not based on his looks.’

  The DS changed tack.

  ‘You could tell the rest of ’em didn’t like Aznavour. An’ another thing.’ Markham braced himself, but the other merely pointed out, ‘They weren’t surprised someone murdered him.’

  ‘Which suggests that the man had his fair share of enemies.’

  There was a diffident tap at the door and Christopher Hassett appeared.

  ‘Good morning, gentlemen. I hope the room will suit.’ He must have detected something in Noakes’s expression because he added apologetically. ‘It’s a bit over-feminine and cluttered, I know.’

  ‘Think nothing of it, sir,’ Markham reassured him courteously. ‘Inspector Burton will be arranging computers and phones, so it’s just a case of keeping my team fed and watered.’

  Hassett’s expression cleared. ‘Oh, Mrs Scarron will see to all of that, never fear.’ He smiled shyly. ‘When it comes to hospitality, she always takes the view that the honour of the house is at stake.’

  Noakes looked as if he thoroughly approved such laudable sentiments.

  ‘She’ll be along shortly, and I’ll send Sir Simon’s PA down once she’s sorted the morning mail.’

  ‘Excellent, thank you Mr Hassett.’

  As the curator seemed disposed to linger, Markham brought up the woman who had haunted his dreams the previous night.

  ‘I found it difficult to get those poisoning royals you showed us out of my head,’ he said waving the other to a chair.

  Hassett grinned, suddenly looking much younger.

  ‘Catherine de Medici tends to have that effect on visitors,’ he said. ‘’Of course, she lived in an age of eclipses, comets and other unusual sights, so it’s not surprising she had such a fascination with the black arts.’

  ‘The voodoo woman, right?’ Noakes said, piggy eyes alert with interest.

  ‘The very same. She was rumoured to have second sight… regularly woke screaming in the night and prophesying the death of a loved one…. She foresaw her husband’s death…. begged him not to take part in the fatal joust…. dreamed that he lay wounded, bleeding in the face. And then hey presto, his opponent’s lance shattered, and splinters went into his eye. Once the infection took hold, the king was doomed.’

  ‘Did they cut off the other bloke’s head?’ Noakes asked eagerly.

  Hassett chuckled.

  ‘The gallant knight begged the king to cut off his head and hands, but Henri said he hadn’t committed any offence. Mind you, the court doctors went and got hold of the decapitated heads of criminals who had been executed the day before to see if they could reproduce the king’s wounds on the skulls and work out a way to cure him.’

  ‘Chuffing Nora.’ Noakes was visibly enthralled. ‘Mebbe the king dying like that was a punishment cos of his missus getting up to witchcraft.’

  ‘She was a sinister woman and no mistake.’

  ‘No oil painting neither.’

  ‘True, Sergeant. When it was late and getting dark on the day she made her entry into Lyons to be crowned, unkind people said the king wanted the coronation to take place under cover of night so that no-one would notice her ugliness.’ Hassett paused, eyeing Noakes’s portly frame. ‘She was a chronic overeater and got very stout…. one reason why she developed gout.’

  ‘Yeah, well it were probl’y wall to wall banquets in them days,’ the DS said a trifle self-consciously.

  ‘It didn’t stop her hunting and hawking…. all the usual royal pursuits.’

  ‘An’ perving,’ Noakes interjected beadily.

  Hassett looked startled.

  ‘I believe my sergeant is referring to the rumours of incest,’ Markham clarified.

  ‘Ah, I’m with you now. Yes, that’s right, those stories dogged her all her life. She was obsessively protective of her children – always consulting astrologers who performed tricks with pentacles and crystal balls. One of them summoned the spirits of the sons and told her that the number of times their faces circled a mirror corresponded to the number of years they would reign.’ A harsh bark of laughter. ‘Actually, they were spot on in predicting that her line would die out…. That’s why she was so ruthless when it came to punishing traitors – having them sewn into sacks and dumped in the river Loire to drown or turning beheadings into a spectator sport. Her sons were cruel as well, and all of them were disfigured in some way; the eldest was so bad, he was said to be leprous while the middle one had a suppurating fistula on his face and the youngest was practically a dwarf.’

  ‘What about the daughter?’ Noakes enquired.

  ‘Oh, she was beautiful, but being a girl meant she didn’t really count…. ended up becoming something of a nymphomaniac.’

  ‘S’like the Kardashians or summat,’ Noakes observed with relish.

  Again, there came that charming grin which took years off the man.

  ‘A very apt comparison, Sergeant. I imagine that’s why our visitors can’t get enough of these medieval misfits.’

  A soft knock at the door announced the housekeeper’s arrival.

  She smiled indulgently at the curator. ‘Giving them the talk are you, Mr Hassett?’

  ‘You know me, Carmel…. The merest whiff of an audience and I get carried away.’ He gestured expansively at Markham and Noakes before adding, ‘I’ll leave you in Mrs Scarron’s capable hands, gents.’ And with that, he melted away.

  Carmel Scarron was a wiry no-nonsense little woman who put Markham in mind of a 1920s housekeeper. Janet MacPherson from Dr Finlay, or something of the sort. He suspected she played up to the stereotype of the faithful retainer – indeed, had absorbed it so faithfully into her DNA that her own personality had become subsumed in the role. Despite the grey old-lady pin curls, her energetic manner suggested that she was younger than she looked.

  ‘Tight as a clam,’ Noakes lamented after she had departed to arrange some refreshments. ‘No chance of getting her to dish the dirt.’

  ‘It was more than that,’ Markham said slowly. ‘I had the impression she was holding something back….’

  ‘What, you mean you thought her alibi were dodgy, guv?’ Noakes enquired doubtfully. ‘Seemed kosher to me…. I can see her getting stuck into the Horlicks an’ News at Ten like she said.’

  ‘No, not that…. It was just a flicker…. something behind her eyes when I mentioned the poison exhibition.’ Gone so quickly, that Markham couldn’t be sure he hadn’t imagined that look of furtive apprehension, as though a lightbulb had gone on.

  ‘Well, they all know from the lass who found the body that Aznavour puked his guts out right next door to the exhibition…. So most likely they’re freaked about some screwball running around putting cyanide in their drinks.’

  ‘Hmm.’ The DI still felt that niggle of unease. ‘No doubt that’s it.’

  Another rap at the door interrupted these speculations.

  This time it was Catherine Metcalfe, the events manager from the Artisan Centre. Attractive and well-groomed, with aquiline features framed by a frosted blonde bob and startlingly blue eyes, she gave the impression of being pure state-of-the-art Sloane right down to the clipped vowels and strangulated accent. But something about it didn’t ring entirely true to Markham…. as though she was trying too hard.

  To the detectives’ surprise, it transpired that she was Michael Twiss’s girlfriend. ‘Punching above his weight,’ as Noakes put it after the interview.

  She had apparently spent the night at her own flat in Bromgrove Town Centre, which in terms of an alibi was as unsatisfactory as the rest.

  Unlike the rest, though, she was frank about not liking Charles Larrain, though it appeared this stemmed primarily from his interference with her remit, specifically his attempts to ‘sissify’ the Artisan Centre with ‘new age tat’. The DS threw Markham a glance of triumphant vindication on hearing this.

  ‘Wonder how Burton an’ Doyle are getting on at the Farm and Dower wotsit,’ Noakes mused as the door closed behind the events manager. Scratching his paunch lazily in a fashion that was singularly ill-suited to the elegant surroundings, he added, ‘At least Mister Curator were worth listening to…. But as for the rest of ’em….’ An eloquent shrug said it all.

  The DI sighed.

  ‘We need to speak to Sir Simon’s PA,’ he said. ‘And then, once we’ve heard from Kate and Doyle, I want to check out that Artisan Centre.’

  ‘Not before we’ve had our elevenses,’ Noakes cut in anxiously.

  ‘Oh, I’ve no doubt you’ll do full justice to Mrs Scarron’s hospitality.’

  Sarcasm was wasted on the DS.

  ‘Thass alright then,’ he said jovially. Wandering to the bay window, he declared, ‘It’s snowing again, guv.’

  The two men stood side by side watching fat flakes falling from sullen skies that seemed to press up against Old Carton Hall.

  The winter landscape had an air of brooding anticipation that unsettled Markham.

  Stiff and stark and cold…. in the borrowed likeness of shrunk death.

4

Pitiful Day

 

In the event, Mrs Scarrons’s elevenses proved eminently satisfactory, with home-made shortbread and two types of cake. Markham normally ate sparingly on such occasions, but for once found himself both hungry and thirsty, doing full justice to the excellent coffee and decadent chocolate fudge cake.

  ‘Them Twisses should be right lardbuckets with grub like this,’ Noakes observed ruefully. He sounded as though there was no justice in the world. ‘But there’s not a pick on any of ’em.’

  Markham grinned. ‘Must be the aristocratic metabolism, Sergeant.’

  ‘Well, Mrs Thing’s wasted on ’em, the DS grunted.

  Replete (for the time being), he betook himself once more to the window.  

  Despite the housekeeper having lit a fire, this didn’t entirely keep out a keen draught that nipped round their ankles.

  ‘S’no wonder they all wear them quilted jackets,’ Noakes muttered. ‘Must be brass monkeys in a place like this.’

  ‘I imagine there’s central heating in the private quarters,’ Markham pointed out, ‘but we’re in the historic part of the building.’

  ‘Oh aye,’ the other grouched, looking as though he could have dispensed with medieval authenticity.

  At that moment, the door opened to disclose Burton and Doyle, their faces pinched with cold. They brightened visibly at the sight of the refreshments, thawing out over hot drinks and cake.

  Kate Burton, predictably, wasted little time in bringing them up to speed on the other branches of the family.

  ‘Gerard Twiss is in his early seventies, but very spry and dapper,’ she said. ‘The wife, Stella, is a good bit younger – pretty in a faded sort of way. Comfortably off by the look of things…. typical farming couple really…. they’re each other’s alibi for Saturday night.’

  Noakes groaned theatrically. ‘Wouldn’t you jus’ sodding know it…. It’s the same here,’ he groused. ‘Like some toff version of The Waltons…. Nobody out on the razz ’cept mebbe  Rikki-Tikki-Tavi.’

  Accustomed to Noakesian invective, the DI turned expectantly to Markham for a translation.

  ‘Mr Richard Twiss didn’t appear entirely comfortable when the subject of alibis was under discussion,’ the DI explained.

  ‘Too right,’ the DS snorted. ‘Kept looking at Mommie Dearest…. dead shifty.’

  Burton didn’t appear to think this was much to go on.

  ‘Did Gerard and Stella open up about the family dynamics?’ Markham asked.

  ‘They were pretty cagey,’ Doyle replied, long legs tucked somewhat awkwardly under his spindle-legged Hepplewhite chair. ‘Sounded quite fond of the younger ones…. Philip and Margaret… Reading between the lines, Lady T spoils the boys and doesn’t have time for her daughter…. They didn’t say much about Michael and Richard.’

  ‘Anything about Mr Larrain?’ Markham pressed.

  Doyle pulled a face. ‘You could tell they weren’t keen…. Said the polite stuff about terrible tragedy blah blah, but it was just the way they carefully didn’t look at each other.’

  ‘Stella’s an antiquarian,’ Burton said.

  Noakes looked underwhelmed. ‘What’s one of them when it’s at home?’

  ‘Into history and all that.’

  The DS cast a meaningful look towards Doyle.

  Wouldn’t you know she’d sniff out the local egghead.

  ‘She did an MA in Renaissance Studies at the university. It’s one of the reasons she’s close to Margaret,’ the DI continued.

  ‘Mebbe it’s more than that,’ Noakes said consideringly. ‘When you think about how Aznavour were killed…. the poisoning…. them effigy thingies an’ that creepy exhibition….’ In his experience, “intellectual types” were capable of anything.

  Burton blinked at ‘Aznavour’ but carried on gamely.

  ‘Well, Stella and Margaret are certainly into Catherine de Medici and Co,’ she agreed. ‘Stella was a fount of information. Apparently Catherine was known as Madame La Serpente or the Black Queen… but,’ she eyed her colleague warily, ‘there was a fair amount of racism in the mix on account of her being an Italian.’

  ‘Oh yeah,’ Doyle was interested. ‘The curator guy said the Italians had a bit of a reputation.’

  ‘That’s right…. for hiring assassins and poisoning their enemies,’ Burton said. ‘Actually, Stella might’ve kept shtum about her in-laws, but when you were out in the yard with Gerard,’ she nodded at Doyle, ‘she opened up about the Hall and its treasures.’

  Noakes grimaced. ‘You mean all the black magic hoojah?’

  ‘Stella said the Black Queen had this sorcerer who made life size bronze effigies of people she wanted to kill.’

  The DI could tell Noakes was hooked.

  ‘It was all very realistic,’ she went on. ‘right down to the long hair…. Anyway, there were these screws that allowed their limbs to move and their chests and heads to be opened up…. The sorcerer locked himself away to cast their horoscopes and did stuff with the screws based on what he found…. Apparently when various folk turned up dead, there were these strange marks on their bodies that nobody understood.’

  Noakes stared at her. ‘So, the queen were calling up supernatural powers or summat?’

  Burton nodded solemnly. ‘Yes, something like that.... It’s one reason Margaret got so interested in those wax effigies people had at funerals.’

  The DS shuddered. ‘Jesus.’  Markham being notoriously touchy about blasphemy, he hastily amended, ‘Chuffing Nora…. Talk about a freaky family.’ He rumpled the salt and pepper hair so fiercely that the thatch stood bolt upright, giving it the appearance of a bizarre crest. ‘What did Auntie Stella reckon to Ricardo an’ Aznavour then? Were they,’ he groped for an acceptable form of words, ‘an item?’

  ‘She wouldn’t be drawn on Larrain,’ Burton sighed. ‘Fobbed me off with some historical rigmarole about “favourites” in great dynastic families.’

  ‘Eh?’ Noakes clearly felt out of his depth.

  Burton pursed her lips. ‘She called them mignons –’

  ‘Gangs of pretty boys that the aristos liked to have dancing attendance,’ Doyle interrupted eagerly. ‘Nobody was ever sure if things got sexual…. The Frenchies were into it big style, but it caught on over here too.’ He turned to Burton. ‘Didn’t you say James I was always slobbering over some young bloke or other, ma’am?’

  ‘That’s right…. the Overbury poisoning involved one of James’s favourites.’

  ‘Do you think Stella was suggesting the intimacy between Mr Larrain and Richard Twiss was all about image, Kate?’ Markham asked. ‘An affectation to whip up interest in them and the Artisan Centre…. ramp up the bohemian vibe?’

  ‘Yes, guv, I reckon that could be it. She and Gerard seemed pretty strait-laced…. It was obvious they knew what I was driving at when I asked about Richard’s close friendship with Larrain…. That’s why Stella tried to distract us with the historical flim-flam.’

  Doyle was struck by a thought. ‘There was one thing, though.’

  His colleagues waited expectantly.

  ‘When I was outside with Gerard, he implied that Lady Twiss always saw off anyone who threatened her relationship with Richard….  He said something like, “My sister-in-law likes to rule the roost. Gets rid of hangers-on in double quick time.”’

  ‘Interesting.’ Markham was thoughtful. ‘But nothing explicit?’

  ‘Well, underneath all the fruity harrumphing, I had the feeling he didn’t like Edith,’ Doyle replied. ‘But maybe it’s the women who didn’t hit it off and the husbands got drawn in.’

  ‘Anything new from Dimples, sir?’ Burton asked.

  As Markham updated them on the toxicology, Doyle’s brow puckered.

  ‘It’s weird when you think about it…. If the murderer wanted to finish Larrain off at the Hall, they couldn’t be sure he wouldn’t have a vape or swig from the hip flask while he was still at work….’

  ‘They definitely wanted it to happen up here,’ Noakes pronounced with conviction. ‘Wanted him choking an’ jerking an’ whatnot in that creepy effigy room…. cos they were staging it, see,’ he added surprisingly.

  ‘I think you’re right, Sergeant,’ Markham concurred. ‘It fits with the sexual sadism that Dimples talked about…. the warped egotism of a truly complex criminal.’

  His wingman tried not to preen but failed entirely.

  ‘So, how’d it pan out then?’ Doyle tried to picture the scenario. ‘Did the killer arrange to meet Larrain up here….  then tamper with the vape kit and hip flask just before he headed out? Or did they hold off until he was at the Hall and then somehow manage to doctor the stuff behind his back?’

  ‘They couldn’t be sure Larrain would leave his things lying around once he were at the Hall, so my money’s on ’em doing the dirty right before he left the centre,’ Noakes declared with conviction.

  Doyle considered the case from all angles. ‘But what was to stop Larrain vaping or having a nip from his flask on his way here? I mean, the murderer couldn’t necessarily count on him collapsing bang on cue in the effigies room like that….’

  ‘Maybe they walked up to the Hall with him,’ Burton surmised. ‘Kept Larrain under observation the whole time.’

  ‘Too risky, Kate,’ Markham said. ‘There was always the chance of being spotted.’ His expression intent, he added, ‘And I’m pretty sure this killer wanted to stay in the shadows.’

  ‘Gerard Twiss said Larrain was always round here,’ Doyle commented thoughtfully. ‘“Mooching round the place”, was how he put it.’

  ‘Only nobody saw him that night,’ Burton said exasperatedly. ‘And there’s no CCTV or anything like that to go on…. So we’re pretty much stuffed.’

  ‘If Mr Larrain’s habits were well known, then the murderer must have been confident that he wouldn’t vape or resort to his hip flask until he was at the Hall,’ Markham reasoned.

  ‘Mebbe they knew he liked to save it for that room with the weirdy statues…. cos it spiced things up,’ Noakes suggested. ‘Kind of like a ritual. If Azanvour were a bit kinky that way an’ the murderer knew his routine, well….’ There was a wealth of meaning in the DS’s expansive gesture.

  ‘Do you know, I think you’re on to something there, sergeant,’ Markham said slowly, revolving the picture in his mind. ‘From what we’ve learned about Mr Larrain, I believe he may indeed have resorted to nicotine and alcohol when he visited the waxworks…. The killer must have been familiar with his habits…. knew it was what he liked to do.’

  ‘Like Harold Shipman.’ This being Noakes’s lodestar when it came to necrophiliac dysfunction. ‘When the old folk were dead in their armchairs, he sat an’ watched ’em an’ gloated cos he got off on it being like some creepy picture show.’

  ‘Don’t forget, Larrain’s the victim here,’ Burton protested.

  ‘True, Kate. But at least it gives us a working hypothesis for his death,’ Markham told her gently.

  ‘At least with Shipman they didn’t die in agony. Strychnine’s a horrible way to go,’ she said weakly.

  ‘Mercury ain’t a bundle of laughs neither,’ Noakes pointed out morosely.

  ‘I know…. But,’ her complexion acquired a rosy glow, ‘Nathan and I were talking about it last night.’

  Probably what passes for foreplay with those two, Noakes thought sardonically.

  ‘Larrain would’ve had violent convulsions,’ she said. ‘It’s called tetanus…. Your body thrusts into an arch while your head and heals stay on the floor….  and the eyes practically come out of their sockets…. There’s this Joker-type grimace…. risus sardonicus…. You lose complete control of your body and it’s like someone’s sitting on your chest crushing the breath out of you….’

  ‘Not counting the burned throat,’ Doyle put in faintly.

  Markham preferred not to imagine the oesophageal trauma. Privately, he was thankful it had been Noakes and not Kate Burton who attended in the immediate aftermath of the discovery at Old Carton Hall. Backward and chauvinistic no doubt, but he had this desire to shield her from the worst depredations that humans inflicted on each other. Strange, seeing as she was now a seasoned detective inspector, but there it was….

  He suspected that Noakes entertained similar sentiments.

  ‘That heart attack were probl’y the best thing,’ the DS said gruffly. ‘Put the poor sod out of his misery.’

  But not before the killer had enjoyed the spectacle of Larrain being ushered into eternity with strychnine twisting every joint of his body.

  Now Doyle asked, ‘Would the strychnine have been enough to do for Larrain without the mercury?’

  ‘Dimples said you get paresthesia with about forty milligrams of mercury vapour,’ Markham replied. ‘The burning sensation would’ve made him thirsty.’ And thus the more inclined to reach for a drink.

  A grim silence fell. Eventually, Markham broke it.

  ‘Did you visit Lady Edith’s sister at the Dower Cottage?’ he asked Burton.

  Burton pulled herself together with a visible effort, the neat pageboy swinging as she sat up straighter on the matching Hepplewhite to Doyle’s.

  ‘That’s right, sir. Isobel Farquhar…. Big-boned horsey lady with pudding bowl haircut, red cheeks and a booming voice.’ A wry smile. ‘No great harm in her, though.’

  ‘Loud and bossy,’ Doyle qualified. ‘Massive bust, dyed hair and this shiny blue dress. Like some kind of throwback to Queen Victoria or a pantomime dame. You could see the daughter had a rough time of it.’

  ‘When we called, they were on their way out to the Artisan Centre,’ Burton took over the narrative. ‘Shopping trip followed by some homeopathic appointment for the old lady…. There wasn’t much to be gleaned from them…. It didn’t sound like they were regulars at the Hall and only saw Charles Larrain at the centre…. His workshop or studio or whatever they call it is a few doors down from the alternative medicine centre.’

  ‘How come a dotty old bat like that were into alternative medicine?’ Noakes’s pug nose wrinkled in a way that suggested he had no very high opinion of complementary remedies.

  ‘The daughter, Frances, talked her into it,’ Burton explained. ‘Some treatment or other for rheumatoid arthritis apparently…. Isobel was on to her fifth session and seemed to think it had helped with the symptoms.’

  ‘What do you reckon to Frances then?’ Noakes sounded resigned. ‘Any chance of her being involved with Larrain?’ He thought of Muriel’s library books with their blurbs about dried-up spinsters turning out to be dark horses. ‘Still waters an’ all that….’

  ‘Don’t see it, sarge,’ Burton answered promptly. ‘Retired teacher…. quiet and sensible.’

  ‘Not totally past it, mind,’ Doyle said condescendingly. ‘Some decent clobber and war paint would work wonders.’

  Burton shot him a quelling look at this casual misogyny.

  ‘I had the impression her life was just the way she wanted it,’ she said. ‘Sure, the old lady’s cantankerous, but it’s a comfortable set-up…. living there at a peppercorn rent and plenty of money between them.’

  ‘How about alibis?’ Noakes grunted.

  ‘They turn in early,’ Doyle said in an ironic tone, declining to be squelched. ‘Cocoa followed by a good book. Didn’t stir from the cottage till church the next day.’

  ‘So we’ve got sweet FA,’ The older man grumbled. ‘Jus’ crocodile tears all round an’ everyone making the right noises…. but all of ’em secretly glad that Aznavour’s copped it.’

  ‘Something of a sweeping generalisation, Sergeant,’ Markham said austerely. ‘Shock takes people in different ways, remember, and Richard Twiss looked pretty traumatised from where I was standing.’

  ‘Yeah, guv, but what have we got?’ Noakes began ticking them off on his pudgy fingers. ‘There’s Sir Simon an’ Lady Edith…. He comes over like Colonel Blimp an’ she’s this stuck-up prune-face…. with summat iffy going on between her an’ Ricardo,’ he added darkly.

  Markham sensed that Burton was exercising heroic restraint as she listened to the lurid summing up.

  ‘Then there’s the in-laws at Cold Comfort Farm down the road.’ Noakes produced this literary pearl with a flourish, proud of having remembered it from a conversation with Olivia. ‘Sounds like Gerard’s more on the ball than Baron Hardup…. Auntie Stella’s cosy with Margaret Twiss an’ the runty younger brother, plus she an’ Mags have bonded over history an’ all that jazz…. But neither of ’em came up with owt useful ’cept for Ger saying Lady Edith’s dead possessive about Ricky.’ He scowled. ‘No dice with the Dower whatchamacallit …. Izzy Wizzy might be Lady Edith’s sister, but it don’ look like they’re great chums. As for Frances, she’s under the ole bat’s thumb an’ wouldn’t say boo to a goose. So no chance of getting owt from her.’

  As the DS paused to get his second wind, Markham observed drily, ‘You’ve forgotten Michael. The son and heir.’

  ‘Thass cos he looked like a bleeding waxwork,’ Noakes retorted. ‘Ready to go in a glass case like all them other effigies. Hardly said a word an’ looked like he wanted a lie-down.’

  Markham smiled. ‘Not exactly a power-house,’ he agreed. Remembering Margaret Twiss’s full mouth and cloud of dark hair, he added, ‘His sister, on the other hand, was most striking…. very enigmatic.’

  Noakes didn’t know what ‘enigmatic’ might mean, but he wasn’t sure he liked the sound of it, one of his quirks being jealousy on Olivia’s behalf whenever Markham’s beauty-loving gaze alighted on another woman.

  Perfectly aware of this idiosyncrasy (and secretly liking the quixotic loyalty it displayed), Markham continued levelly, ‘Her curatorship of The Power of Poison exhibition is most impressive.’

  ‘That bloke Hassett probl’y did most of it.’ Noakes shot back, clearly reluctant to relinquish his prejudice against the glamorous chatelaine.

  Burton’s mind was running along a different track.

  ‘Come to think of it, the Twisses are a bit like the Valois dynasty,’ she mused.

  ‘Come again?’ Noakes gaped at her.

  The DI looked embarrassed, as though she hadn’t realised she had spoken aloud.

  ‘That was the name of Catherine de Medici’s family,’ she told them. ‘When her favourite son died, the line died out with him.’

  ‘Wasn’t there another son?’ Noakes enquired beadily. ‘The hunchbacked one with terminal acne…. shouldn’t he have become king when big bro snuffed it?’

  ‘He was the youngest…. died of tuberculosis before his brother.’ Burton could never resist a pedagogic opportunity, a trait she shared with Olivia Mullen. ‘They were always at each other’s throats and plotting. But being the youngest, he got the worst of it…. pretty much a pawn in Catherine’s plans for French domination…. Catherine even tried to marry him off to Elizabeth I when he was fifteen and she was thirty-seven. She’d already tried to get the older boy – her favourite son – married off to Elizabeth, but he wasn’t having it.’

  ‘Gross.’ Doyle couldn’t help being intrigued. ‘Wasn’t the other one – the favourite son – that way inclined?’

  ‘Most likely, yes,’ Burton replied cheerfully. ‘But personal preferences didn’t count for anything back then – not with the nobility at any rate.’

  ‘And you think that the Twisses resemble the Valois clan, Kate?’ Markham asked curiously.

  ‘Sort of, guv,’ she replied with a faint blush. ‘There’s the same kind of hothouse repressed emotions…. strong matriarch fixated on the sons and ignoring her daughter.’

  ‘When you put it like that….’ Markham nodded thoughtfully.

  Noakes was not to be gainsaid. ‘Not to mention perviness…. favourites an’ stuff going on behind closed doors.’ He smacked his lips lubriciously. There was nothing better calculated to get the Noakesian juices flowing than scandal in high places. ‘If Aznavour an’ Tricky Dicky had summat going, then that could’ve caused all kinds of problems….’

  ‘Not so much The Waltons then, Sergeant,’ Markham said, recalling his wingman’s previous epithet. ‘What we’ve got here is potentially far murkier than that.’

  ‘Makes Princess Di an’ the Royals look like Enid Blyton,’ the other agreed happily. ‘Mebbe Aznavour were blackmailing ’em…. Mebbe –’

  ‘Whoa, Sergeant,’ Markham interrupted. ‘Let’s not get ahead of ourselves.’ A quick glance at his watch. ‘Let’s get Sir Simon’s PA in followed by the lady from the shop…. After that, I want to check out the Artisan Centre.’

                                      ……………………………………….

By the time they had finished interviewing staff, the weather had turned increasingly raw, with sleet as sharp as needles coming down in blustery squalls. Although only early-afternoon, it was growing dark, the remaining light fading as twilight encroached.

  Mrs Irene Clark, Sir Simon’s widowed PA, turned out to be an eminently presentable woman with handsome features and silvery hair that fell in waves to her shoulders. Markham guessed that she was in her late fifties and from higher up the social scale than the housekeeper, the latter’s rounded vowels softened in this case to a barely perceptible northern accent. Like the family, she gave little away, so that Markham once again felt he was up against a conspiracy of silence. There was a warmth about the woman’s manner when she spoke of Sir Simon that did not extend to his wife or sons, though she was animated when praising Margaret Twiss’s achievements in putting Old Carton Hall on the map. Competent and efficient, she talked them through the running of the Hall and staff responsibilities. When it came to her own alibi, it was the old story: safely abed in her terraced house at Old Carton Clough.

 

  ‘I’m sick of these old family retainers an’ their blasted discretion,’ Noakes muttered when she was gone.

  Markham suspected the disenchantment was mutual, having registered the PA’s startled surprise at the big barrelsome detective whose regimental tie as the day wore on came to resemble some sort of noose round the neck of a convict about to mount the scaffold or a would-be suicide unsure whether to go through with it.

  Kindly Miss Evans from the shop yielded nothing useful, though at least she offered the first viable alibi having stayed with her married nephew on Saturday night. More garrulous than the rest, like Annette Sullivan she seemed somewhat star-struck by Richard Twiss, Charles Larrain and the ‘celebrities’ who occasionally appeared on the premises, though Noakes declined to be impressed. ‘Two-bit C listers,’ he muttered, as she chunnered on happily about Strictly Come Dancing and ‘that lovely Mister Du Beke.’

  ‘Christ, you don’ reckon we’ll have to interview a load of poofy dancers,’ he said afterwards to Doyle as they huddled over the fire. ‘Margot Fonteyn over there can do that,’ he added, jerking his head towards Kate Burton as she earnestly made notes.

  Doyle grinned as he recalled their colleague’s raptures during the investigation of a ballet company some Christmases previously. ‘Hey, here’s a joke for you, sarge…. What kind of train is a ballerina? Tu-tu, geddit!’

  As the other two chuckled conspiratorially, Markham and Burton drifted across to the window, mirror images of discouragement.

  He was surprised when his fellow DI leaned her forehead against the cold pane, eyes shut as though summoning up the spirits of the Hall.

  ‘Do you ever think old buildings and gardens are like stoppered bottles, sir?’ she said wistfully. ‘With all these strange fragrances from the past inside…. as if the place doesn’t really belong to the people who live here now…’

  Suddenly aware of his wondering gaze, she caught herself up with an apologetic laugh.

  ‘Sorry, sir.’ She rubbed her eyes. ‘I’m maundering.’

  ‘Not at all, Kate.’ A wry smile. ‘The DCI would say I’ve infected you with my “feyness”.’

  Their eyes met as they enjoyed a moment of amused complicity.

  But not for long. As though scenting danger, Noakes lumbered over.

  ‘What next, boss?’

  ‘Well, we need to get this place,’ the DI gestured at their incongruously genteel surroundings, ‘set up as our incident room.’

  Burton glanced at her watch.

  ‘We’re waiting for the tech guys and some uniforms,’ she said. Moving away from the window, she reached for her mobile. ‘I’ll see where they’ve got to.’

  A knock at the door heralded the arrival of sandwiches and more drinks wheeled in on a trolley by two overalled girls who sidled in with downcast eyes, hardly daring to look at the CID hotshots.

  ‘There was some problem back at base, guv, but the techies are sorted now,’ Burton announced. ‘They said to give them an hour or so.’

  ‘Fine.’ Markham noticed Noakes circling the refreshments. ‘We can break for lunch, though after those elevenses it feels like overkill.’

  ‘You don’ know when we’ll manage to snatch a bite later, boss,’ the DS asserted cannily.

  The DI looked at this walking antithesis of a Lean Mean Fighting Machine.

  ‘Somehow I think you’ll always manage to improve the shining hour, Noakesy,’ he said drily, ‘one way or another.’

                                                …………………………….

With lunch long over and the support team in situ, the detectives – who had lingered awhile, engrossed in their various theories – were preparing to depart when the door crashed open and Christopher Hassett confronted them, all urbanity fled.

  ‘What is it, Mr Hassett?’ Even as he asked the question, Markham felt a sinking dread.

  ‘Something’s happened…. at the Artisan Centre…. an accident…. It’s Isobel Farquhar.’

  Burton stared at the curator.

  ‘How come?’ she demanded. ‘We were with Mrs Farquhar earlier and she was fine.’

  ‘I don’t have any details…. But the local police need you down there.’

  ‘Tell them we’re on our way, Mr Hassett,’ Markham rapped.

  And with that they were out into the brumous dusk, sleet having given way to soft wet flakes of snow which swirled about them like frozen tears dropping from the skies.