CRIME IN RETIREMENT

Prologue 

 

Normally Chloe Finch felt very flat after Christmas. Too many mince pies. Too much enforced jollity. Too much everything, including the in-laws.

  But on the morning of Saturday 22 January, she felt her spirits lift.

  Perhaps it had something to do with the clear blue skies and glorious sunshine after days of unrelenting grey drizzle. In such conditions, the Rosemount Retirement Home always looked its best.

  As she sipped her coffee in the staff room, Chloe told herself that all things considered, this was a cushy berth and she had been lucky to get it. Healthcare assistant at Rosemount was a cut above working for Bromgrove General Hospital or any of the local authority providers thanks to the home’s ‘celebrity’ cachet, with just a dozen rooms available for illustrious citizens who had distinguished themselves in some field or other and those who possessed the financial resources to spend their twilight years cushioned by comfort that most could only dream of.

  Situated on the town’s outskirts, with a commanding view over Bromgrove Clough, the home was a two-storeyed white stucco Georgian mansion with gently curving wings either side of a portico entrance. Mantled in ivy, the building’s aspect was modestly unpretentious, but on closer inspection there was no mistaking the air of exclusivity and quiet luxury.

  The long winding driveway to the house, bordered by tall pines and cypresses, was dotted with quaint pergolas and latticed arbours, affording a vista onto vibrant bougainvillea in summer changing to banks of crocuses and fragrant narcissi in spring.

  In front of the house, down a flight of shallow steps, was a simple knot garden, its old-fashioned box hedges, symmetrical flower beds and classical lines in keeping with the restrained elegance of the main façade.

  At the rear, however, things were more lavish. To the right was a rose garden, its concentric circles separated by low hedges of dwarf myrtle and gravelled walkways. The central area comprised a courtyard whose granite flags formed an interlocking pattern of grey and white, dominated by a three-tiered baroque sculpture, rather like a wedding cake, topped by a semi-nude Venus combing her hair. On the left, through an archway, a walled herb garden soothed and charmed even in January with its ranks of dainty snowdrops, cyclamens and Butcher’s Broom. Steps from the courtyard led to a red sandstone path, bordered by well-established topiary, which meandered gracefully down past manicured lawns on either side to a lake surrounding a small island with a willow oak in the middle. Beyond that, was a wildflower meadow at the boundary of the home’s grounds.

   Rosemount’s brochure said that its setting held ‘the suspended stillness of a Constable landscape’. All very la-di-dah, but after looking at some of the painter’s pictures online, Chloe got the point. It was the kind of magical countryside setting – all beautiful and calm – that made you just want to sit and stare.

  Sitting and staring was pretty much all that most of the residents could do these days, since virtually all were elderly with varying medical issues and levels of dependency.

  But there was no sense inside Rosemount of physical unpleasantness or the indignities of age and infirmity. The place had the feel of an ultra-genteel private members’ club, with the faded elegance of tea-stained chintz and worn Aubusson carpets. ‘None of those awful Modernist prints and everything decorated to the nines,’ as Mrs Clark was wont to say with a contemptuous sniff.

  Chloe’s expression softened at the thought of Andrée Clark OBE, former ballerina, television personality and grande dame of Bromgrove’s cultural scene. She knew Mrs Clark had been head judge on some sort of TV competition and a big noise in the Arts once upon a time. One of the nurses said she’d even been on The South Bank Show with Melvyn Bragg, and all kinds of folk were always wanting her to do stuff, but these days she preferred to take it easy.

  Chloe liked Mrs Clark with her dyed black hair coiled into a dancer’s chignon, green eyes, false eyelashes, over made-up features and smoker’s rasp. She had to be in her sixties, but there was something very youthful about her energy and high spirits. ‘Like Tennyson’s Mariana, I’m surrounded by dilapidation and decay,’ she was in the habit of proclaiming theatrically, but there was nothing pitiable about her, even though the remorseless advance of the MS that had ended her dancing career prematurely now forced her to use a wheelchair increasingly often.

  The only thing about Mrs Clark that did creep Chloe out was those weird dolls in her room. What the heck was that all about?

  Apparently Mrs Clark was a serious collector, but how many dolls did one person need? Her bedroom was always a nightmare to dust, but that wasn’t what unnerved Chloe. No, what spooked her were the figurines in bisque porcelain wearing velvet, lace and taffeta ballet costumes, some with their limbs extended in unnatural-looking positions while others perched atop musical box contraptions which you wound up to make them dance. Chloe hated their pebble-flat black eyes and pursed-up prissy little mouths painted rosebud pink. ‘They’re by Jumeau, and some even have musical recordings inside,’ Mrs Frost the home’s manager said reverentially, but then ‘Frostie’ was mad about ballet and all that jazz so no wonder she lapped it all up. Personally, Chloe didn’t care if they were worth millions, she just couldn’t get rid of the feeling that the dolls were somehow evil. Equally strange was Mrs Clark’s toy theatre for which she was always ordering miniature stage sets and accessories – right down to figures in the orchestra pit – as though by this means she could somehow recapture the glories of yesteryear.

  ‘She’s got to have autism or Asperger’s,’ Chloe’s daughter Margaret, a nurse at Bromgrove General, insisted. ‘Some kind of mental health thing.’ But Chloe didn’t think that was it. Mrs Clark was just unique…. eccentric, a one-off.

  To be honest, for all that she was freaked out by Rosemount’s very own ‘Valley of the Dolls’, Chloe felt somehow obscurely proud that most of these residents who passed through the home weren’t your common or garden patients, with many having led fascinating lives out in the world, so there was some truth in Mrs Frost’s oft-repeated mantra that it was a ‘privilege to look after them.’

  Of course, now Chloe came to think of it, not everyone at Rosemount was seriously loaded or famous. She knew there were a few publicly funded patients who had passed through the home over the years under various arrangements with the local authority, but they blended in so seamlessly that she and the other staff had no idea which residents were fee-paying and which were what Mrs Clark called ‘non-pukka’. Despite Mrs Frost being in thrall to her Dancing Queen (as the staff called Andrée when the manager was well out of earshot), she didn’t gossip about such matters, so Chloe was willing to bet Mrs Clark was as much in the dark as everyone else.

  She was relieved that it was Hafsah Peri’s day off, since she didn’t particularly care for the nurse who had overall responsibility for Bluebell Corridor’s three residents: Mrs Clark, Mrs Linda Merryweather (well-known author of romantic fiction) and Mr Mathew Gower (theologian and biblical scholar).

  It wasn’t racism or anything like that which made her uncomfortable around Hafsah. It’s just that the woman was so starchy and such a Goody Two-Shoes, as though she considered herself far superior to the likes of Chloe. On the other hand, Mrs Clark loved her, so there had to be something special about the woman. She had found it difficult to stifle giggles when Hafsah came out of her patient’s room one day clutching a velvety black doll with large gold earrings, a stiff cotton petticoat and pantaloons. ‘She’s called Belinda,’ the nurse confided rapturously. ‘Very special…. from Egypt, so Mrs Clark wanted me to have her as a reminder of home.’ There wasn’t a ban on gifts – not that Andrée Clark would have taken the slightest notice of any such prohibition – but in this case Chloe suspected that it was more a question of paring down the doll menagerie (most likely to make room for further purchases) than any particular mark of favour.

  Linda Merryweather wasn’t too bad – at least provided her sciatica wasn’t playing up and nobody challenged her pre-eminence as chair of the Residents’ Committee. Short, plump and bespectacled, with her white hair styled in a symmetrical perm like the Queen’s (‘circa 1950’, as Mrs Clark acidly observed), there was nothing in her appearance to suggest she was the best-selling author of steamy bodice-rippers, but so it was. Chloe had never read any – it just wouldn’t feel right somehow – but Margaret said they ‘weren’t bad’, which was high praise coming from an avid consumer of Penny Vincenzi and Danielle Steel.

  Mathew Gower was a total sweetie, just like someone’s grandad even though he too was a writer – ‘an expert on the Turin Shroud’, as Mrs Frost had explained in an awed whisper. Chloe wasn’t sure too sure what that was. Something to do with Jesus leaving his face on a tea towel, Margaret explained later, which sounded even freakier than Mrs Clark’s dolls. But Mr Gower had a string of letters after his name and priest types writing to him from all over, so it was dead high-powered and respectable. Chloe thought Mr Gower looked a bit like Pope Benedict – the one before the bloke they had now…. something about his shy lopsided smile and the way he looked too holy for words.

  The large high-ceilinged staff room with its two bay windows overlooked the grounds at the back of the building. It was comfortable, albeit somewhat lacking in character when compared with the rest of the home (‘very Trusthouse Forte’, according to Mrs Clark). On the other hand, since visitors rarely saw it, there wasn’t the same need for lavishness. Even so, it was a pleasant place to snatch a breather, though the armchairs ranged in a semicircle in front of the ornate marble fireplace gave it the feel of being in a prayer meeting. Chloe always preferred to perch on one of the cushioned window seats from where she had a view of outdoors and could tuck herself behind the heavy green damask curtains, the better to observe without being observed.

  Mrs Frost’s office was separate from the staff quarters (for which Chloe was devoutly thankful), so there was none of the usual paraphernalia of a business room, the rolltop Chippendale desk and chair over by the right-hand wall rarely used except for letter-writing and the like. The glass-fronted bookcases with assorted leather-bound volumes (never consulted by anyone in living memory), various small oil paintings of Bromgrove Clough, herringbone patterned red Axminster carpet, low oak coffee table and a few high-backed leather chairs ranged round the walls, all contributed to the impression that this was the reading room of some modest country house hotel. Above the fireplace hung a head and shoulders portrait of a moustachioed man incongruously sporting a fez and a sort of quilted Nehru jacket festooned with blue sash and an array of military decorations. ‘General Charles Gordon,’ Mathew Gower had confided when she asked him about the picture. ‘Victorian hero killed at Khartoum,’ which left her none the wiser. ‘They said he always went into battle with a cheroot, his cane and Christ,’ Mr Gower added with a twinkle. ‘Bit of a matinée idol in his day.’ With that face and whiskers, Chloe couldn’t imagine him being anybody’s pin-up, but she didn’t like to say so for fear of sounding rude. One reason why she preferred a window seat to any of the armchairs, was the way General Gordon’s eyes seemed to follow you round the room. He was worse than Mrs Clark’s dolls when it came to that.

  Enjoying the morning sunshine, Chloe stretched languorously, feeling curiously disinclined to move. She glanced at her watch. Nearly eight o’clock, so time to go and relieve the night shift.

  Suppressing a groan, she made her way through to the tiny staff kitchen cunningly hidden behind a door in the wood-panelled wall that opened on a spring when the right spot was touched. Chloe always felt a childish thrill – as though she was the heroine of an Agatha Christie story – when she passed through the concealed door.

  Not that there was anything mysterious or glamorous about the kitchen, which held all the basic conveniences and was immaculately clean and tidy; Mrs Frost insisted on that, though it caused some grumbling in the ranks – ‘like we’re always on bleeding parade’. Given the brooding presence of General Gordon in his gilt frame next door, it wasn’t an inappropriate analogy.

  Chloe rinsed her mug and returned it to the cupboard, then headed for the hall and the stairs to the first floor. There was a lift with Art Deco cast iron grille, but this was strictly for moving patients and anyway she needed to fight the flab. Margaret had given her a fancy Fitbit tracker for Christmas, but she felt self-conscious about using it until she’d shifted a few pounds, otherwise God only knew what unflattering statistics the gadget might reveal.

  The house was very peaceful, all sound muffled as though it lay under an enchanted spell, waiting for the day’s machinery to be set in motion.

  The beautiful oak staircase would have been treacherously slippery without its plain mint-green stair runner, but in any event, residents rarely descended the stairs unattended. There was no trace of disinfectant or stale food or any of the other odours traditionally associated with a nursing home. Just the subtle scent of an old country house, vast ceramic bowls of pot pourri on an antique dresser in the hallway and in the window recess halfway up the staircase contributing to the delightfully old-fashioned ambience.

  Chloe vastly preferred the jewel-coloured medieval knights and ladies in the stained-glass window to gloomy old General Gordon of Khartoum. They all looked like they were having a high old time and not sitting in judgement on other people.

  On the Bluebell Corridor, to the right at the top of the staircase, she made her way to the nursing station at the far end. Bearing little resemblance to the usual hospital nursing station, this was a comfortably appointed bedroom-cum-office with monitoring console tastefully recessed within a walnut desk.

  ‘Nothing to report,’ was the laconic greeting from stocky Nurse Barbara Callaghan, obviously eager to take her leave. ‘Claire should be along any minute,’ she added, referring to the weekend agency nurse, ‘but I can hang on if you like.’

  ‘No, that’s alright,’ Chloe replied to the other’s evident relief. ‘I’ll just check on them and let the kitchen know about breakfast.’

  Padding along to Mrs Clark’s room, she wondered ruefully if her patient had made any more auction purchases lately. Another troupe of flipping munchkins with their beady peepers would be the giddy limit….

  The room was in darkness as she slipped in and went straight over to draw back the heavy maroon blackout curtains that the patient insisted on ‘for her beauty sleep’.

  Turning back towards the bed, Chloe’s cheery greeting died in her throat at the sight before her.

  Andrée Clark lay on her back with her hands fastened on the counterpane like claws. The former ballerina’s gamine features were twisted in a grotesque grimace that seemed like a horrible parody of the geisha-like glance she had once flicked towards adoring fans. Staring at the congested features on the swansdown pillow, with bloodshot eyes protruding from their sockets, the dazed healthcare assistant wondered if her patient had suffered a fit or stroke.

  Then her eyes wandered down to a livid weal around the neck and the appalling truth began to sink in.

  This was no natural death.

  Andrée Clark had been strangled.

  On the bedside table stood Mrs Clark’s favourite doll, a figurine in white porcelain with candyfloss blond hair to its shoulders, wearing a tutu with a crimson bodice and pink ballet slippers. The jointed arms were always extended high above its head in a ballet pose. But with a shock, Chloe saw that this time something was different.

  One arm was lowered, a dainty finger pointed towards the woman in the bed.

  As if the doll had come to life and pronounced a curse.

  Never taking her eyes off the taffeta-clad toy, Chloe backed towards the door.

1

New Beginnings

 

As DI Gilbert (‘Gil’) Markham lounged on his favourite bench in the graveyard of St Chad’s Parish Church overlooking the police station, according to his invariable habit at the start of a new investigation, he kept a wary eye out lest the new vicar ambush him for a spot of pastoral ‘outreach’, by way of building bridges with the local constabulary.

  The Reverend Dodsworth, St Chad’s previous incumbent, was a retiring individual who had instinctively understood the DI’s need for reflective solitude. However, his successor – a former bank manager before he ‘received the call’ – had none of the same finesse, being in no way put off by Markham’s aloofness and apparently determined to bring the handsome detective out of his shell (if not into his flock).

  ‘Whass all that about a call?’ Markham’s former wingman, DS George Noakes had muttered after their last encounter with the vicar. ‘Makes him sound like the Avon Lady.’

  ‘He means his vocation,’ the DI replied patiently. ‘As in the call from God.’

  ‘The last geezer was much better,’ was Noakes’s nostalgic verdict. ‘Doddy always knew not to get in your face.’ The fact that the Reverend Dodsworth gave Noakes a wide birth owed much to his nervousness at the other’s jokes about ‘sky pilots’ and his decided preference for calling a spade a blunt instrument. However, Markham chose not to disillusion his sergeant, who continued to bewilder the unfortunate clergymen with witticisms such as ‘Fighting’s against my religion cos I’m a devout coward, geddit.’ The Yorkshireman’s psychological makeup was as much a source of mystification to the holy old man as it was to DCI Sidney (‘Slimy Sid’ to the troops), their boss in CID. Markham’s hawkish features relaxed into a reminiscent grin as he recalled Noakes’s memorable retirement party, when the DS had produced notes for a speech and regaled the room with jokes specially chosen to enhance the occasion.

  ‘“Crime doesn’t pay.” “No, but the hours are attractive.” … “Do you know one man is murdered every six hours in Manchester?”  “I’ll bet he’s getting ruddy fed up with it.’

  There were anecdotes too. And since, as DI Chris Carstairs observed sarcastically, there was nobody like Noakesy for cutting a long story to pieces, the expressions on the faces of the top brass grew increasingly frigid as the evening wore on. The high point as far as Markham was concerned arrived when his wingman – well refreshed at this stage – jovially hailed a senior late arrival, who sported a somewhat savage new haircut, with the immortal words, ‘You can sue him you know’.

  God, he was going to miss Noakes. The worst dresser in CID. The man whose verbal atrocities and malapropisms were legend. The man who never ate on an empty stomach.

  The man who, ultimately, always had his back.

  And now instead of Noakes he had been saddled with this anaemic protégé of Sidney’s, DS Roger Carruthers, who had been greeted with a notable lack of enthusiasm by the other two members of the team, both wearing expressions of the ‘Hell, they’ve landed’ variety. At least DI Kate Burton and DS Doyle had been scrupulously polite, If Noakes had been there, no doubt he’d have scanned the newcomer’s face and then essayed an opening gambit such as, ‘How long were you on the operating table?’ All in the interests of breaking the ice, of course.

  That was the best thing about George Noakes. He was refreshingly un-PC in a world obsessed with wokeness, and utterly undeferential in the backstabbing careerist atmosphere of CID. Kowtowing to no-one, his loyalty to Markham was absolute.

  Which wasn’t to say that Markham understood the half of what went on in Noakes’s mind nor in his marriage to overbearing, snobbish Muriel Noakes (‘the missus’) whom he had met, of all things, on the ballroom dancing circuit. There had been a crisis, both professional and personal, during the Bluebell investigation when he discovered that perma-tanned beautician Natalie – the apple of his eye – was not his biological daughter, but the Noakeses had made it through and his partnership with Markham had weathered the storm.

  There were hidden depths to the porky bulldog-featured detective who, by some mysterious alchemy, was in tune with Markham’s mystical, poetic streak (or ‘Markham’s fey side’, as the DCI called it) and understood without the need for words the scars left by childhood abuse that had eventually seen Markham’s brother die young from drink and drugs.

  Most surprising of all, Markham’s high-strung English teacher partner Olivia Mullen adored Noakes whose chivalrous devotion to the willowy redhead, along with his tendency to regard her as a star which shone high above the world, was a source of considerable irritation to his redoubtable wife.

  Olivia.

  She had moved out just before Christmas in the wake of a quarrel whose origins he barely understood.

  Markham knew that Olivia resented his affection for DI Kate Burton, the earnest, politically correct DI who had been his protégé and was superficially everything that Noakes was not – a university-educated, ambitious ‘intelleckshual’ – but who yet, like Noakes, stuck to him through thick and thin (thanks to DCI Sidney, there was always plenty of the latter) and with whom he shared a largely unspoken telepathy that made them as comfortable with each other as an old pair of slippers. The fact of Burton’s engagement – to Nathan Finlayson, professor in clinical psychology at the university – hadn’t defused Olivia’s jealous fears, and her resentment of his job had only intensified with each investigation, resulting in their pre-Christmas bust-up. It had been a lonely holiday and Markham badly missed his sparky, albeit acerbic and neurotic, lover, not least the sexual compatibility that made them a perfect fit. He didn’t know how to bridge the impasse short of, God forbid, deploying Noakes as some kind of go-between. His former wingman’s desolation at the split was little short of Markham’s own, but he had told the other firmly, ‘Liv will come round in her own good time, Noakesy.’ One thing in favour of an eventual reconciliation was the fact that George Noakes had lodged himself in both their hearts. Each knew that the other liked Noakes, and that he loved both of them; so he was what no-one else could be – a link between them. Which wasn’t to say that Markham wanted to encourage any overt Sancho Panza-style meddling by his ex-sergeant, not least as Olivia in her current frame of mind was likely to resent it.

  And besides, there was an investigation waiting for him to get stuck in.

  The timing was unfortuitous, given that it was barely a fortnight since Noakes had taken up his new job as security manager at Rosemount, resplendent in a new suit chosen by Muriel to reflect his ‘executive’ status – a Harris Tweed number that made him look like a rubicund farmer, but undoubtedly a vast improvement on the down-at-heel combinations (reminiscent of a bookies runner) that he had sported in CID. Whatever the implications of this murder for the longevity of Noakes’s position at Rosemount, at least it comforted Markham to have his old ally on the spot as a pair of eyes and ears.

  Markham’s thoughts travelled back to the events of the previous day….

  The retirement home had struck him as a pleasant place in which to see out one’s declining years, from the entrance hall with its remarkable stained glass and a striking old red tapestry depicting Saint George slaying the dragon to the elegant comfort of the residents’ suites upstairs. Not a single discordant note….

  His lips twitched.

  Apart from moustachioed General Gordon in the staff room where he and Noakes met with the pathologist Doug ‘Dimples’ Davidson after he had conducted his preliminary examination and overseen the removal of Andrée Clark’s birdlike corpse.

  Normally a great fan of the Army, Noakes wasn’t at all keen on the general. ‘Reckon if folk saw him hanging up in the hall, they’d take one look and take their old mum right back home again,’ was his verdict. ‘Fricking creepy…. Mr Gower says he were one of them Born Agains. Charging round all over Egypt with his bible asking where he could find the Garden of Eden an’ giving folk the heebie jeebies….’

  ‘If God is for us, who can be against us,’ the bluff pathologist Doug ‘Dimples’ Davidson quoted mischievously.

  ‘There were all these boys he kept having round to his house after he’d done stuff in China an’ came home for his holidays,’ Noakes bulldozed on. ‘Called them his “Wangs”, like he were this Victorian Jimmy Savile.’

  ‘A dreadful thing to have one’s motives misunderstood.’ Dimples said, winking at Markham. ‘And anyway, I seem to remember that Gordon died a hero in the Sudan, helping to fight against the slave trade and some native despot who had twenty-three wives.’

  ‘Yeah, the Mahdi an’ his dervishes,’ Noakes replied. ‘They jus’ kept coming while soft lad sat on a rooftop reciting his bible at the camels an’ yammering about God’s plan for the universe…. managed to get his head cut off.’ Which presumably put an end to the bible-bashing.

  It occurred to Markham that Noakes had a sneaking sympathy with the gallant general’s opponents. With a wry smile, the DI suggested, ‘Perhaps Rosemount hung Gordon’s portrait in the common room to remind staff about the values of service and self-sacrifice.’

  ‘Nah.’ Noakes was having none of it. ‘Frosticles jus’ wanted to put everyone off their coffee an’ snacks.’ Mere weeks into the new job, his ex-wingman was gleefully ringing the changes on the manager’s nickname.

  It was an odd conversation to be having in the wake of a violent death but, though he deprecated gallows humour and could be savage towards subordinates who displayed any want of respect towards the dead, Markham knew that the other two were badly rattled by this murder and a sense of something uncanny in the air. Something that defied ready explanation. Something quite out of the normal run of homicide investigations.

  ‘It’s the same with them dolls upstairs,’ Noakes commented uneasily. ‘Like that poor lass Chloe said, their eyes follow you round the room.’ He shuddered. ‘Mrs C seemed like a nice normal woman…. arty farty an’ head in the clouds like all them ballet types, but not the kind to go in for voodoo or owt like that.’

  ‘She was a serious collector apparently,’ Dimples mused. ‘Plus, the memorabilia were a reminder of her glory days.’

  ‘Nothing was stolen,’ Markham put in. ‘So they didn’t come for the dolls.’

  ‘When that young lady – the healthcare assistant, was it? – found Mrs Clark, she hadn’t been dead long,’ Dimples told them. ‘The trickle of blood under her nostrils wasn’t dry…. Given the warmth inside that bedroom, it would only have taken around thirty minutes to coagulate….’

  ‘Yeah, it were like Center Parcs in there,’ Noakes said, ‘or the Amazon or summat. Don’ know how she could stand it like that.’

  ‘It’s not uncommon for elderly folk to feel the cold,’ Dimples observed. ‘And her health was precarious, remember.’

  Noakes’s expression darkened.

  ‘Cowardly scum knocking off a helpless old woman,’ he rumbled. Then, anxiously, ‘They do half hour checks here…. The nurse on the night shift said she looked in on Mrs C about twenty minutes before Chloe rocked up –’

  ‘Which means there was a narrow window of opportunity for the killer to make their move,’ Markham finished sombrely. ‘And they seized it.’

  ‘I’d say you’re looking for someone familiar with the home’s routines,’ Dimples said quietly.

  The words An Inside Job hung in the air.

  ‘A cool customer too,’ the medic continued. ‘Even with well-established patterns, there was no guarantee they wouldn’t be interrupted…. or Mrs Clark might’ve screamed and raised the alarm that way.’

  ‘Do you reckon she fought back?’ Markham asked.

  ‘No, I don’t,’ Dimples said decisively. ‘One small mercy is that it was all over in minutes. She wouldn’t even have had time to be afraid.’

  Recalling the ghastly countenance on that pillow, Markham could only hope it was so.

  ‘A cool customer or desperate,’ he mused. ‘Someone who needed to kill her for some reason.’

  ‘Cos they’re loony tunes?’ Noakes speculated.

  ‘Possibly, but I doubt we’re looking at some random act of madness,’ the DI replied. ‘An act of revenge seems more likely, or the removal of a threat…. maybe both.’

  ‘Chloe’s positive that dancer doll next to the bed always had its arms above the head…. fifth position thingy.’ It was surprising how much lore Noakes had retained from their previous investigation into Bromgrove Ballet. ‘But when she came into the bedroom this morning, one arm were stretched out pointing at Mrs C,’ he shuddered again, ‘like it were gloating or summat…. chuffing horrible.’

  If it was true, then that interference with the doll spoke of malice.

  If it was true.

  The manager Maureen Frost, a plain high-coloured woman with an unbecoming crop, had been anxious to downplay that side of it, insisting Chloe must have been mistaken about the bedside table, though the healthcare assistant had looked pretty sure from where Markham was standing….

  Looking back now, as he savoured the quiet of St Chad’s terraced graveyard, Markham supposed he could understand Rosemount’s manager wishing to control the narrative. The retirement home had an exclusive clientele, and its reputation was hardly likely to be enhanced by a murder which took place literally in the interval between shift handovers.

  He had scheduled a tour of the home tomorrow with DS Doyle while Kate and the new recruit, on whom Noakes had bestowed the sobriquet ‘Roger the Dodger’, set to work researching the residents and staff. Ideally, they could do with having an incident room on the premises, but he would play that by ear. Hopefully ‘Frosticles’ would at least be amenable to the police presence.

  Markham grimaced as he thought of the DCI’s likely reaction to hearing that this latest homicide had taken place practically on Noakesy’s doorstep. Sidney’s ecstasy at the retirement of his bête noire had been embarrassingly obvious, so he was unlikely to be enthralled at the news that George Noakes was back on the scene so soon. Doyle, by contrast, would be delighted to have his mentor close at hand. Markham had been worried about the easy-going, gangling ‘ginger ninja’ whose fiancée Paula had forced him to choose between a future with her and his career in CID, leading to a period of dejection that not even the drinkathons and heart-to-hearts with Noakes seemed able to assuage. When the youngster had temporarily lost interest in their beloved Bromgrove Rovers, the older man had become truly alarmed, devoting himself wholeheartedly to a campaign of regeneration. It would appear to have paid off judging by Doyle’s cheerier demeanour these days. The proud possessor of a criminal law degree, with ambition to equal Burton’s, Markham hoped to find him once more on top form. Besides, he was counting on the sergeant’s good looks, frankness and a certain boyish vulnerability to work their magic on Mrs Frost. ‘You need to soften her up’, as Noakes had put it, confiding to his former boss that the manager had more than a touch of fire and brimstone about her and entertained (in which she resembled General Gordon) startling notions about taking Christianity literally.

  Leaving aside thoughts of DS Doyle and the likelihood of his lethal charm scoring a hit with Maureen Frost, Markham returned to his impressions of Rosemount….

  Mr Mathew Gower, whom Markham had met briefly since his room was next door to Andrée Clark’s, was certainly a devoutly religious individual, though his gentle bespectacled manner, with its quizzical half-effeminate diffidence, made him a far more congenial character than Maureen Frost. The elderly man, with ascetic features that were both shrewd and kind, had heard nothing unusual, and the same was true of Mrs Clark’s neighbour on the other side, Linda Merryweather or ‘Mrs Fifty Shades of Grey’ as Noakes persisted in calling her. Like Chloe, Markham discerned a distinct resemblance between the romantic novelist and the Queen, and there was something undeniably regal in her testy insistence that she too had been aware of nothing ‘untoward’.

  Their rooms, like Mrs Clark’s, were generously appointed and expensively furnished with large en suites, though a closer inspection would have to wait until his tour of Rosemount on the morrow.

  The former dancer’s room, however, was characterised by a striking individuality and the lavishness of a stage set, the wall behind her bed being covered in golden silk damask and the rest of the room wallpapered in delicate chinoiserie patterned with oriental trees and birds. Antique prints and lithographs of romantic ballerinas, in costumes that floated like clouds, mist and dew, adorned the walls. Portraying sylphs, undines and other supernatural creatures, their unearthly and ethereal beauty made it seem as though the room was thronged with fairy godmothers keeping watch like sentinels over one of their own. The dolls, ranged in two glass cabinets and along the dressing table, were another matter and Markham had found them distinctly sinister. Noakes too shared his discomfort. ‘They’re like them little trolls that folk used to have on key rings…. all stumpy with weirdy hair like candyfloss,’ was his verdict. The dolls’ blond mohair wigs were more sophisticated than the retro trolls’ strange backcombed bouffants, but Noakes was right about their shapes, oddly robust and stocky under the tulle petticoats and sticky-out costumes. And the glazed porcelain faces with their fixed glass paperweight eyes possessed an inscrutability that he found unnerving.

  ‘Reckon we could be looking for a leotard chaser, guv?’ Noakes asked, falling naturally back into the groove of their former professional relations. ‘Some sicko with a thing for ballet dancers?’

  ‘A fixated stalker might be more feasible if Mrs Clark were younger,’ he replied. ‘But she’s an elderly lady with intermittent MS in the twilight of her life.’

  ‘Yeah, but that wouldn’t matter if they’re some kind of fetishist who used to go and watch her dance,’ the other persisted. ‘Y’know, hung up about how she looked onstage. Burton said back in olden times you got poshos taking their binoculars to the theatre so they could look up the dancers’ tutus…. He could be one of them pervs who never grew out of it.’

  Markham was amused to hear Noakes quoting Kate Burton’s history lessons from the Baranov murder investigation at Bromgrove Royal Court. An unhinged celebrity chaser was obviously a possibility, but he sensed darker, less easily fathomable undercurrents at play.

  The toy theatre was an amazing affair which had intrigued both men. ‘Mrs Clark was focused on every detail, however minute,’ Maureen Frost told them. ‘She was incredibly meticulous about it and liked to move the figures through different ballet productions, changing the backdrops and accessories to suit…. The latest one was La Bayadere…. It’s an Indian-inspired setting, so she wanted to get the sets and little costumes just right.’ As she said this, their eyes wandered to the tiny outfits hanging like roosting bats along a sort of clothesline hooked to either end of the dressing table’s newel posts.

  Out of earshot of the manager, Noakes ventured the hypothesis that Andrée Clark might have ‘gone a bit cuckoo,’ escaping into a fantasy world through an inability to cope with real life.

  Now Markham found himself wondering if that was true – if the former ballerina had been some sort of modern-day “Boo” Radley, retreating from a world that had the power to hurt. And if so, did the clue to her murder lie in an experience that had scarred her? Or was this simply a case of a woman whose artistic sensibilities sought a fresh outlet? Could the obsession with dolls and her toy theatre be connected with some obscure sexual kink?

  As his head buzzed with possibilities, the DI realised he would have to put the woman’s life under the microscope. Luckily this was the kind of exercise at which Kate Burton excelled. No doubt his fellow DI was even now busily building a profile of their victim along with a roster of suspects.

  Thinking about Burton, his well-moulded lips curved upwards in the rare, charming smile that the station’s junior ranks rarely glimpsed.

  He knew she secretly missed Noakes, her old sparring partner, more than she cared to admit – even his disparagement of her beloved Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (which, as a psychology graduate, was her go-to for any case that threw up behavioural conundrums) and habit of calling her fiancé ‘Shippers’ on account of his startling resemblance to the serial killer Dr Harold Shipman.  A protective avuncularity had gradually crept into Noakes’s attitude towards her and, having come through various tight spots together, she was used to the grizzled veteran, right down to the anti-woke pronouncements which brought senior management out in hives.

  Yes, Burton missed Noakes alright, and Markham was able to detect that, for all her impeccable courtesy towards Roger Carruthers, she did not care for the newcomer one bit. He felt pretty much the same, feeling fairly sure that part of Carruthers’s brief was to act as the DCI’s spy. Even though ‘Markham’s Fab Four’ had been reduced to three, and even though Sidney had mellowed somewhat in recent times, his prickly jealousy of CID’s wunderkind giving way to a more congenial working relationship, the DI knew that many of the top brass resented his meteoric rise and high profile – would not, in short, mind if he fell flat on his face. Which meant that the stakes with Rosemount were high.

  Time to make a move. He would feel more confident about Monday’s operations once he had a preliminary briefing with the team under his belt.

  Before he left the graveyard, Markham wandered over to a grotto with a statue of the Madonna that had been created in a leafy corner of the cemetery. Touched to see the little posies and tealights that decorated it, and suspecting these adornments had little to do with St Chad’s low-church successor to the Reverend Dodsworth, he paused to say a prayer for Andrée Clark’s soul, trusting that the former dancer now enjoyed the exhilaration of something even more wonderful than the magic of her earth-bound performances.

  A launch into ballerina space.

2

Scoping the Territory    

 

CID felt staler than ever after Markham’s early-morning sojourn in St Chad’s, its tired scuffed workstations and poky glassed-in cubicles a reminder of the council’s indifference to the comfort of those who kept Bromgrove’s citizenry safe.

  The DI felt a sharp pang as he passed Noakes’s old desk, transformed by DS Roger Carruthers from a frowsy lair into something altogether neater courtesy of what looked like a raid on the local branch of Ryman, with colour-coordinated stationery, letter trays and pen holders dominating the space formerly covered by Curly Wurly wrappers, takeaway containers and unwashed crockery.

  Needless to say, Carruthers was already lurking by the water cooler next to Markham’s corner office with its unrivalled view of the carpark.

  ‘Come in, Sergeant,’ he said, making an effort to sound cordial. Hopefully Burton and Doyle would be along any minute, sparing him the necessity of protracted conversational feints.

  On the face of it, he and Carruthers should have had plenty in common – both grammar school boys who made it to Oxbridge, joined the police and ended by being fast-tracked into CID. Unlike Kate Burton who had overcome stiff parental opposition (‘No job for a woman,’ her father had said), Carruthers enjoyed the advantage of being a superintendent’s nephew, though Markham somehow doubted that being related to ‘blithering Bretherton’ had endeared the newcomer to the rank and file.

  He supposed Carruthers could be described as personable, but the almost albino pallor, prissy horn-rimmed spectacles and black leather trench coat put him irresistibly in mind of that comedy Gestapo officer Herr Flick in 'Allo 'Allo! There was also something profoundly disconcerting about the young man’s sibilant, carefully modulated vowels, which added to the impression of foreignness.

  ‘He can brown-nose for England that one,’ was Noakes’s uncompromising verdict when he heard about his replacement. ‘Always sucking up to Slimy Sid an’ he’d stab you in the back soon as look at you. The get-up’s well creepy too. I reckon them specs are clear glass an’ he wants folk to think he’s M15 or summat. All he needs is a bleeding homburg.’ Pithy and prejudiced as ever, it wasn’t a reassuring prognosis.

  There followed a few minutes of polite small talk, which merely had the effect of making Markham even more nostalgic for Noakes’s unabashed authenticity, the product of what felt like a lifetime of familiarity with each other’s habits. The DI reminded himself to give Carruthers a chance and not be constantly measuring him against the Noakesian benchmark, since this was hardly fair in the circumstances. There was bound to be awkwardness when someone joined such a tight-knit unit, though Carruthers was perfectly self-possessed, almost irritatingly so.

  Then Burton and Doyle arrived, and the DI felt easier, as if they were the blotting paper that absorbed his tension around the newcomer.

  Though casually dressed in off-duty garb of jeans and sweatshirt, Burton had a glow about her – a kind of luminosity which gave Markham his second pang of the morning. It wasn’t just the fact that she sported a new sleek club cut, with subtle highlights, that had superseded the chestnut brown pageboy. Nor was it the skilfully applied makeup that enhanced her retroussé features. It was the perception that his sober little colleague looked as though, romantically speaking, she had the wind in her sails. Happy and replete, while he felt achingly empty and rudderless after the split from Olivia.

  Inwardly reproaching himself for mean-spiritedly grudging Burton her contentment, he was reassured by her gently deferential ‘Ready when you are, guv’ and the warmth in those intelligent brown eyes.

  Was it his imagination, or was Doyle’s regard also warmer than usual, as though the youngster sensed how keenly his boss mourned the passing of the old order? Toting a paper bag and a tray of hot drinks from McDonald’s rather than his usual breakfast from Costa, it seemed almost like an obscure homage to Noakes and the grease-fests of yore.

  Carruthers managed to decline a bacon roll without shuddering, though Burton loyally tucked in while no doubt secretly pining for granola or what Noakes liked to term ‘that birdseed crap’. Markham also declined breakfast but readily accepted a coffee, being only too familiar with the watery brew masquerading as the real thing in the vending machine outside. Besides, it gave him a chance to compose himself and attempt to banish the ghost of George Noakes before the briefing began. Carruthers was watching him closely, and it wouldn’t do for him to report that CID’s wunderkind was having a personal crisis. As he rearranged papers and files, Markham wondered whether news of the rupture with Olivia had got out. If so, the leak certainly hadn’t come from Noakes who he knew was desperate for a reconciliation.

  Finally, it was time to start.

  Quietly, Markham summarised the facts and then asked Burton – who had passed round a crib sheet – to start them off on potential suspects.

  Whipping on a pair of smart new fashion glasses and notebook at the ready, she did so.

  ‘Andrée Clark was a well-known ballerina with Bromgrove Ballet and English National Ballet, before going on to guest with other companies and becoming a TV pundit,’ she told them. ‘There was a messy divorce from the conductor Frederic March at around the time when she first began to show symptoms of MS.’

  Burton was always generous when it came to sharing the professional limelight, and now nodded to Doyle who was visibly champing at the bit.

  ‘March played the field while they were still married and there was a fight over money,’ he said. ‘The Gazette couldn’t get enough of it. Their Arts editor back then kept stirring the pot…. name of Honor Calthorpe.’

  Doyle cast an apprehensive glance at the DI. ‘She was Ned Chester’s boss, guv.’ Chester being an old friend of Markham’s whose involvement in a previous murder investigation had ended in tragedy. But the DI’s face was impassive. ‘Go on, Doyle,’ was all he said.

  ‘Calthorpe always seemed to have it in for Clark…. had an axe to grind because her niece was a dancer but dropped out because of bullying and then went abroad –’

  ‘Was Andrée the one who bullied Calthorpe’s niece?’ Carruthers interrupted.

  ‘We haven’t got to the bottom of what happened yet,’ Doyle answered, with an unconscious emphasis on ‘we’ that amused Markham, as though the DS was asserting an axis that excluded Carruthers. ‘According to the rumour mill and gossip in the press, there were complaints about abusive behaviour – stories about “fat shaming” – and Clark might have been mixed up in it.’

  Now Burton picked up the baton.

  ‘After Mrs Clark retired, quite a few people came out of the woodwork to have a go,’ she continued. ‘Her former professional partner Toby Lavenham dished the dirt big style about how she threw him over for Vadim Montgomery…. said it was because Montgomery was box office gold whereas he was yesterday’s man. Lavenham was very bitter about the way she treated him. Then after she moved into teaching, there was trouble with a former pupil Rosa Maitland who attacked her teaching methods on the grounds that they were physically and emotionally abusive,’ Burton pulled a face, ‘whatever that’s supposed to mean. Maitland also hinted that Clark turned a blind eye to her husband’s inappropriate behaviour.’

  ‘Sexual abuse?’ Carruthers asked.

  ‘The police investigated Frederic March, but nothing came of it,’ Burton replied. ‘He threatened to sue Maitland but eventually backed off when Andrée wouldn’t support him…. There was a deafening silence from her side, and the word on the street is that he never forgave her for that because it cast a cloud over his career.’

  ‘Yeah, his reputation took a real battering,’ Doyle added.

  Markham took stock. ‘Okay, in the mix so far there’s a mischief-making journalist, disgruntled professional partner, aggrieved former student and embittered ex-husband.’

  ‘That’s right, sir.’ Despite being his equal in rank, Burton was as ever punctilious when it came to affording Markham proper respect. If anything, she was even more scrupulous about it these days as though reminding Carruthers where her loyalty lay. ‘Actually, Rosa Maitland wasn’t the only person who kicked up a stink about Mrs Clark’s teaching methods. One of the coaches at Bromgrove Ballet – a bloke name of Ray Franzoni – also made waves but the ballet trustees basically told him to get back in his box.’

  ‘So, she was well in with management then?’ the DI asked.

  ‘It wasn’t all hearts and flowers, guv,’ Doyle chipped in. ‘There were stories that she was planning a Kiss ’N Tell memoir that might’ve been embarrassing for Sir Edward Hamling… he’s the trust’s chairman…. She knew where the bodies were buried… had all kinds on him.’

  ‘Anyone else?’ Markham enquired, with a comically resigned expression.

  ‘A guy called Richard Buckfast,’ Doyle said promptly. ‘Resident choreographer at Bromgrove Ballet…. that’s the person who works out the movements and stuff,’ he explained to Carruthers who didn’t look best pleased at the assumption that he was a cultural philistine.

  ‘Buckfast’s going through a dry patch right now,’ the DS continued happily. ‘Andrée had sheaves of notes and designs that he wanted to take a look at, but she kept everything close and wouldn’t let him have so much as a peek.’ Doyle once again consulted the briefing sheet. ‘That’s pretty much it, guv…. Oh yeah…. Plus some woman called Tania Sullivan who was a ballerina alongside Andrée. She works as a teacher in town now, has her own little studio.’

  ‘No rifts or ruptures with Mrs Clark?’ Markham asked.

  ‘Not that we know of, sir,’ Doyle replied. ‘Though if you believe what the papers said, they were at daggers drawn back in the day. Load of moonshine,’ he added, assuming a languidly knowledgeable air which amused Markham immensely. The DS showed every sign of turning into a dance aficionado, which was bound to please Kate Burton who had taken lessons as a child and enjoyed every minute of her exposure to the ballet world during the Baranov investigation.

  It seemed to Markham that Burton and Doyle had somehow become allies, and that the old quartet including George Noakes survived intact even in that worthy’s absence. Certainly the body language of both, as they sat slightly turned in towards each other, suggested a wish to maintain the former dynamic and exclude interlopers, specifically Roger Carruthers. Despite being touched, the DI knew that it was his responsibility to weld them into a team. The trouble being, at the moment he had precious little enthusiasm for the task.

  Now Carruthers joined the discussion. ‘What about the staff at Rosemount?’ he asked. ‘Surely they’re the people who had the most opportunity, seeing as they knew the home’s shift patterns and that kind of thing.’

  ‘It wouldn’t have been difficult for other people to find out the timetable,’ Burton objected. ‘The regime’s very relaxed…. more like a top-end hotel than a nursing home. Plus, there were always visitors in and out, so pretty much everyone would know the score.’

  ‘Hmm.’ Carruthers didn’t appear convinced. ‘What about security…. CCTV?’

  ‘They only have that on at night,’ she said. ‘It gets switched off in the morning along with the alarms, so the murderer won’t have been caught on camera.’ She frowned, ‘Again, that’s the kind of information staff might’ve let slip.’

  ‘How about entrances?’ Carruthers pressed. ‘Some way of getting in without being spotted?’

  Markham took over. ‘There’s a kind of tradesman’s entrance round the side of the building which the staff sometimes use. It’s got a cloakroom and backstairs which go straight up to the bedrooms.’

  Like Dimples Davidson the previous day, Carruthers was struck by the killer’s sheer audacity. ‘Someone could easily have seen them,’ he mused.

  ‘The manager Maureen Frost said weekends are always very quiet,’ Markham countered. ‘They could’ve been straight in and out and nobody the wiser.’ He paused. ‘But I agree with you…. If this was someone from outside, then unlike staff, they wouldn’t have had an excuse for prowling around the building at that time of the morning. In which case, they must have been very confident of pulling it off.’

  ‘Either that or they were desperate,’ Burton put in quietly, echoing Markham’s previous conclusions.

  ‘What did you make of the staff, sir?’ Carruthers persisted.

  ‘Maureen Frost’s short on charm,’ he told them, ‘but married to the job, apparently, and a byword for efficiency.’

  ‘Not that efficient seeing as how one of her residents wound up strangled,’ Doyle blurted out. Under Markham’s cool regard, he shuffled in his chair. ‘Sorry sir, but their security’s gotta be pants for that to happen.’

  ‘The previous caretaker was past it,’ the DI told them. ‘He’d been there for donkey’s years but they had to let him go on health grounds.’ With a wry smile, he added, ‘Mrs Frost wanted to beef up security, which was why they hired DS Noakes.’

  ‘Bad luck it happening when he’d just started there,’ Carruthers murmured in apparent sympathy.

  ‘Rosemount was just about to implement Noakes’s security audit,’ Markham said. ‘If our killer got wind that the new broom planned to tighten things up, it might have pushed them into making a move.’

  He recalled Noakes had been upset over the notion that his appointment might have signed Andrée Clark’s death warrant.

  ‘How about the nursing staff?’ Carruthers’s question broke the silence.

  ‘Well, technically Maureen’s the administrator as opposed to being the clinical lead,’ Markham continued. ‘But she appears to be in overall charge of the nurses and healthcare assistants.’ The DI turned to Burton. ‘We’re going to need CVs and profiles for all of them,’ he said. ‘However, in terms of people likely to have wished Mrs Clark harm, her enemies appear to come from her personal and professional life as opposed to anyone at Rosemount.’

  His stuffy office was giving Markham a headache, even though he had yanked the sash window up as far as it would go. Needless to say, the radiator which never functioned properly in winter was now burning hot despite the mild weather and stubbornly resistant to any twiddling or thumping of valves. He wanted to get out of CID and go for a walk to clear his head. Not back to his apartment at the Sweepstakes, though….  nor anywhere haunted by Olivia’s presence. The primroses were out early on Bromgrove Rise. He could go there….

  Markham became aware that Carruthers was watching him. There was something decidedly catlike and stealthy about the man’s expression. In that instant, he found himself missing Noakes more than ever.

  ‘I’ve made an appointment with Mrs Frost to have her show me round the home tomorrow,’ he said, endeavouring to sound upbeat and positive. ‘I’ll take Doyle along for that…. you and Carruthers can crack on with those staff profiles, Kate.’

  It was difficult to say whether Burton or Carruthers was the more dismayed on hearing this proposal, but they put their best face on it.

  ‘Then I want you to arrange interviews with everyone on the list of suspects… okay, so it’s probably a forlorn hope that we’ll get anywhere with alibis –’

  ‘They’ll all say they were having a weekend lie-in,’ Doyle concluded.

  The DI nodded. ‘Indeed, but I want everyone’s movements accounted for…. And I want to know about visitors to Rosemount…. any contact they may have had with Mrs Clark or any of the other residents.’

  Carruthers was struck by this reference to the OAPs. ‘Hey, we never considered whether any of them could’ve had it in for Andrée Clark,’ he exclaimed.

  Doyle, who was devoted to his Nan, looked queasy.

  ‘They’re old and frail,’ he said uneasily. ‘Wouldn’t have had the strength to strangle her.’

  ‘It wouldn’t have required excessive force,’ Markham pointed out gently. ‘Not given the element of surprise.’

  The DS looked sick.

  ‘I think it’s unlikely,’ the DI told him, ‘though we can’t rule anything out.’ He consulted his pocketbook. ‘I’ll have a better idea once we’ve spoken to Mrs Clark’s day nurse Hafsah Peri. She spent the most time with her and knew her better than anyone else.’

  Carruthers’s head came up as though here was something interesting.

  ‘There’s stuff like undue influence…. abuse of trust,’ he speculated. ‘If Andrée was dependent on her day nurse, maybe there was something fishy going on.’

  ‘Like what?’ Doyle demanded rudely, evidently finding the notion of a rogue nurse even more unpalatable than a homicidal OAP.

  ‘Like the nurse had extorted money or gifts from her,’ Carruthers said patiently. ‘But then the old lady threatened to blow the whistle, so this Hafsah woman decided to shut her up.’

  ‘Judging by what staff said, I don’t think Mrs Clark was easily cowed or mentally confused,’ Markham said. ‘Eccentric yes, but easily manipulated no. The healthcare assistant who found her – Chloe Finch – called her “sharp as a tack”, and Mrs Frost said she could be “formidable”. Which doesn’t sound as though she was a likely target for extortion. On the other hand,’ he added, with an encouraging smile, ‘it’s certainly something to be investigated. Do some discreet digging and see if anything like that has ever come up in connection with Rosemount…. check out CQC inspection reports, that kind of thing.’

  The DI had a feeling that ‘discreet digging’ would be right up the newcomer’s street.

  ‘Even if one of the residents didn’t have the strength to finish her off, maybe they could’ve arranged for someone else to do it,’ Carruthers said.

  Doyle snorted.

  ‘What, as in they hired a hitman…. like a contract killing?’ he burst out. ‘Get real, mate. We’re talking an old people’s home here, not The Sopranos.’

  Carruthers’s lips tightened at this.

  Burton looked equally askance but was quick to smooth ruffled feathers. ‘I suppose it’s possible,’ she conceded cautiously. ‘A bit of a stretch, though.’

  Despite her scepticism, Markham was willing to bet that before the day was very much older, his fellow DI would be boning up on geropsychiatric symptoms in her trusty Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Just as well Noakes wasn’t around to chime in with deeply un-PC observations about ‘crackpot coffin dodgers’.

  Carruthers noted the wry smile, as though Markham was enjoying some private joke.

  Unusually for him, he couldn’t get a handle on the famously chilly, enigmatic inspector whose bizarre bromance with that ‘neanderthal’ DS George Noakes baffled the top brass. Of course, it merely served to stoke the Markham legend and make him a talking point.

  Well, the DS told himself, Noakes was history and now there was a vacancy for a talented detective to hitch his wagon to Markham’s star.

  As far as he could tell, Doyle was a lightweight. Plus, the friendship with Noakes was bound to count against him. So, no reason why he shouldn’t be the one to step into the former wingman’s shoes. Kate Burton might require some work before he managed to get her onside. Word had it she and Noakes were quite chummy towards the end – God knows why, given that the old horror was beyond the pale and didn’t seem to have the gene for shame – which meant he would have to take it slowly.

  Markham wasn’t exactly Mister Popular with the higher ups. Too austere and hoity toity. On the other hand, the inspector achieved results and commanded respect, as well as being a pseudo-celebrity in the community. Carruthers decided he would just have to “play both sides against the middle” and see how far that got him. Of course, there was the matter of keeping Sidney sweet too. The DCI would require careful handling but had shown himself susceptible to a judicious mix of respectful subservience and flattery, spiced with the occasional barb about Markham whose lustre rather cast his boss into the shade.

  Kate Burton interrupted Carruthers’s agreeable speculations.

  ‘Are you okay to set up interviews?’ she asked him. ‘We can come into the dance school and the arts centre if that’s what people prefer.’

  Carruthers knew the earnest DI had the reputation of a culture vulture and liked nothing better than boring the bejesus out of folk about ballet and all that jazz. Personally, he’d never found having your feet up round your ears particularly normal, but at least dancers were easy on the eye. A hell of a lot better than trailing round the desiccated specimens in Rosemount at any rate. As far as that went, Doyle was welcome to it.

  ‘No problem,’ he said easily. Then, ‘Maybe, if you’ve got the time, you could give me the gen on elder homicide, ma’am. I know your background’s psychology.’ A self-deprecating shrug of the shoulders and diffident smile. ‘My Politics and Economics isn’t going to be much use here.’

  For a moment, he wondered if he wasn’t laying it on a bit thick, but then Burton smiled at him. ‘Excellent,’ she said approvingly. ‘We can start working on a profile.’

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

‘Honestly, sarge, you should have heard Roger the Dodger,’ Doyle said to Noakes the following morning over coffee and biscuits in the staff common room at Rosemount. ‘He was buttering Burton up good-o. Came out with some bollocks about Einstein calling dancers athletes of God…. And she just lapped it up.’

  ‘I ain’t your sarge anymore,’ Noakes replied gruffly, with a sheepish glance at Markham.

  ‘It’s alright,’ the DI said resignedly. ‘Old habits die hard.’

  It was a beautiful Monday morning outside, with the home’s landscaped grounds showing to great advantage. As the sunlight struck Markham’s finely etched features, Noakes decided the guvnor (as he always thought of him) was looking haggard. The sooner him and Olivia made it up the better. Maybe he could fix it so they both came round for a meal…. Muriel had told him not to interfere, but it was somehow against nature the guvnor brooding in that block of flats while Olivia rented a poxy one-bed in town. Someone had to make them see sense, so why not him….

  But in the meantime, there was a murder investigation underway, and he was Markham’s man on the inside.

  ‘What did you make of old Periwinkle then?’ he enquired, keen to know their impression of Andrée Clark’s day nurse.

  ‘I wouldn’t let Mrs Frost hear you use nicknames like that,’ the DI advised. ‘She might find it disrespectful.’

  ‘Oh, I can manage her, guv. Bark’s worse than her bite. Got quite a good sense of humour underneath all that starch.’

  ‘Hmm.’

  Markham cast his mind back to the encounter with Hafsah Peri….

  The Egyptian nurse was a swarthy, compact woman with glittering dark eyes and luxuriant black hair streaked with grey. She had an air of quiet dignity which he imagined was well suited to an exclusive facility such as Rosemount. There was a certain possessiveness in the way she spoke about Andrée Clark – referring to her as ‘Madame’ – along with undeniable pride in her patient’s illustrious background. There was no overt demonstration of grief, but Markham guessed that such self-containment was part of her professional persona so no inferences could be drawn from the lack of visible emotion. The nurse was clearly highly regarded by Maureen Frost, though their manner with each other appeared formally correct as opposed to manifesting any great cordiality.

  At least it had been possible to rule out personnel and residents on the home’s Daffodil and Honeysuckle Corridors, since the patients in those bedrooms received ‘ambulatory’ as opposed to ‘intermittent’ monitoring. The administrator explained it meant that whereas Mrs Clark and her two neighbours were checked at half hourly intervals, the home’s frailer occupants received more or less constant attention.

  ‘Mrs Clark, Mr Gower and Mrs Merryweather are our less clinically vulnerable residents and can still do a great deal for themselves,’ Maureen Frost explained. ‘Our other residents are equally distinguished…. leading lights in the arts and sciences,’ she positively bridled as she mentioned their exalted pedigree, ‘but mobility and other issues mean they require more intensive clinical care. There are two nurses covering those rooms at all times.’

  Now the DI said slowly, 'I'm reserving judgment on Ms Peri for now. As regards the rest.... going by what Mrs Frost said, unless the intensive care personnel have cooked up some kind of conspiracy, allowing one of them to nip downstairs and murder Mrs Clark, then those staff and their charges are in the clear.’

  Unwillingly recalling Roger the Dodger’s hypotheses from the previous day, Doyle ventured, ‘There’s no chance any of those critical patients could be pretending they’re not able to walk?’

  Noakes boggled at him.

  ‘Get out of it! They’re absolutely kosher. Old mother Frost’s right about that. No way, no how.’

  Doyle was transparently relieved. ‘It’s just that Carruthers wondered about it.’

  A harrumph of contempt. ‘He bleeding well would.’ Then, ‘Whatcha reckon to Holy Joe and Mrs Fifty Shades of Grey?’

  Noakes was incorrigible, the DI reflected, only grateful that Burton was back at base bonding with Carruthers over psychology.

  ‘Mr Gower is certainly a very interesting man –’

  ‘A dead ringer for Pope Benedict, ain’t he? All scholarly an’ dreamy.’

  ‘I’m not sure about the dreaminess, Noakes. I remembered him from a BBC documentary on the Turin Shroud a few years back. He did a scorching demolition job on the so-called experts who bungled the carbon dating. Not at all your usual talking head.’

  ‘’S a bit creepy when he wears them funny bifocals. Says the lenses are light-sensitive cos he buggered his eyes doing so much reading. You can’t see where he’s looking…. like he’s Blind Pew or summat… y’know the geezer in Treasure Island.’

  ‘Indeed,’ Markham replied gravely, trying not to laugh. Only Noakesy could compare someone simultaneously to Pope Benedict and a notorious pirate.

  ‘Mrs Merryweather doesn’t exactly look like she writes bonkbusters,’ Doyle opined.

  ‘I believe they’re more Jean Plaidy than Jilly Cooper,’ the DI said. ‘But according to Mrs Frost, the lady has a huge following and made a lot of money.’

  ‘She looks all sweet and harmless,’ Doyle continued. ‘Said all the right things too. But you could tell she didn’t really like Mrs Clark. There was…. oh, I dunno…. kind of like an undercurrent…. When she talked about her being an “acquired taste” and having a “colourful career”,’ air quoting for emphasis, ‘it made you wonder.’ The youngster tried to sum up his misgivings. ‘Steel underneath the marshmallow, if you see what I mean.’

  Noakes wasn’t sure that he did.

  ‘She’s a diva, same as dancing girl,’ he grunted. ‘They were always going to clash. Probl’y Gower had to keep the peace between ’em.’

  All in all, thought Markham, it didn’t add up to the proverbial hill of beans.

  ‘My Nat comes in here now an’ again,’ Noakes said unexpectedly. ‘Reiki an reflexology an’ stuff.’

  Natalie Noakes had trained as a beautician straight from school, since her A levels weren’t enough to get her into university. Muriel affected disdain for the benefits of higher education (‘vastly overrated’), but Markham guessed that she and Noakes were secretly disappointed their pride and joy had opted out of academe. She had recently become engaged to the son of a local entrepreneur who owned the Harmony Spa, however Markham suspected the course of true love had hit some obstacles recently, chief amongst these being Natalie’s bolshie temperament and the fact that her prospective mother-in-law ruled both her business and her son’s life with a rod of iron. Noakes hadn’t said anything about it directly – Muriel would have a coronary at the idea of him giving his former boss an inkling that life was anything less than idyllic at Chateau Noakes – but Markham hadn’t missed the shadow that crossed his friend’s face when he asked after Natalie.

  Now, all he said courteously was, ‘I remember how useful Natalie was to us in the Old Carton Hall investigation, Noakesy. I’ll be interested to learn her impressions of the setup at Rosemount.’

  The other’s expression brightened.

  There was a knock at the door and Maureen Frost’s face appeared.

  ‘Sir Edward Hamling is here, Inspector – one of our most generous donors.’ Which translated as Mind Your Ps and Qs. ‘He wonders if it might be convenient to have a word.’

  ‘Certainly, Mrs Frost.’

  Markham had only the sketchiest recollections of Hamling from the occasional civic event and found himself curious to see the man who rumour had it was the subject of Andrée Clark’s potentially explosive Kiss ’N Tell memoir.

  Their suspects were stacking up.

3

School for Scandal

 

Sir Edward Hamling was an imposing man in late middle age with iron grey hair swept back from a broad forehead, aquiline nose, high cheekbones, penetrating blue eyes and a strong jaw. Heavier than Markham remembered, he carried the extra poundage easily, while the newly cultivated sideburns and five o’clock shadow hinted at a persona more complex than the usual corporate patron.

  Maureen Frost certainly seemed suitably overawed as she served the distinguished visitor coffee before sidling out of the common room.

  After the conventional platitudes, Markham got down to business, establishing that Hamling was chair of the Bromgrove Ballet Trust in addition to serving on Rosemount’s board of directors. Having made his fortune as a venture capitalist, and being without wife or family, he devoted himself to a wide range of philanthropic activities foremost amongst which were ballet and the arts.

  The deep, resonant baritone, with its attractive hint of Irish brogue, fell agreeably on Markham’s ears. He could easily imagine an audience falling readily under Hamling’s sway, primed to open their wallets for any number of worthy causes.

  He gave the man credit for refraining from fulsome insincerity. Instead, Hamling confined himself to a brief and apparently sincere expression of regret that a distinguished resident should have met a violent end.

  Noakes as ever went for the jugular. ‘You an’ her didn’t always get on,’ he said bluntly.

  ‘That’s correct.’ If Hamling was surprised to find Rosemount’s new security manager turning detective for the occasion, he didn’t show it, though Markham thought he could detect a slight hardening of his tone.

  ‘I followed Andrée’s career almost from the beginning,’ he continued. ‘She was a standout from the word go…. It was obvious she was never going to stay long in the corps de ballet playing a jolly peasant or blade of grass.’

  Noakes grinned at this, remembering the daft plotlines they’d come across during the Baranov investigation…. Nutcracker and all that stuff with the magical mice and gingerbread soldiers.  Mind you, it should really have been called Nutbuster given the blood, sweat and tears that went on behind the scenes….

  ‘She was fiercely ambitious,’ Hamling elaborated. ‘Came from an impoversished background. The mother was a tartar. Andrée told me that once when she wouldn’t eat her dinner, her mum said, “Well you can wear it then” and slapped the whole lot over her head.’ A craggy smile of genuine amusement. ‘It was tripe and onions, so you can just imagine….’

  Indeed Noakes could, taking it all in wide-eyed. Tripe!

  Hamling’s smile faded. ‘That tough start left its mark. Let’s just say, she wasn’t the type to tell a rival, “May the odds be ever in your favour”.’ He held his hands palms upwards in a curious gesture, almost as though inviting them to understand. ‘There was an eating disorder and outbursts of rage that made her career a minefield of emotion.’

  ‘She were probl’y jus’ hungry,’ Noakes said sympathetically.

  ‘Quite possibly. Certainly she found it difficult to shift from dancing back into civilian mode.’ A careful pause. ‘It took a toll on her marriage.’

  ‘Didn’t her husband, er, sleep around?’ Doyle asked.

  ‘There were lapses on both sides, but her volatile temperament didn’t help.’

  Lapses.

  Markham probed further. ‘Did Mrs Clark turn to you for comfort, sir?’

  The other’s mouth twisted. ‘Tactfully put, Inspector. We had a brief fling, but I was too staid for Andrée… too tame.’

  ‘How do you mean, too tame?’ Noakes wondered what the chuff Hamling was getting at. Did he mean S&M or kinky stuff like that?

  ‘When you do something so intensely physical for a living, there are barriers that go down,’ Hamling said elliptically. ‘Not everyone can match that level of disinhibition. With the benefit of hindsight, her MS could have been a factor.’

  The man was suave, thought Markham, but nonetheless skilful in suggesting that Andrée Clark had been unbalanced and sexually voracious with a side order of Miss Havisham.

  The DI wasn’t sure that he bought it.

  ‘And then Mrs Clark reinvented herself later on as a teacher and pundit,’ Markham prompted.

  ‘That’s right. The balletic equivalent of Judge Judy. There were masterclasses for the BBC, and she was a consultant on some high-profile documentaries about ballet companies…. Agony and Ecstasy: A Year with English National Ballet was one.’

  Noakes and Doyle looked blank, but Markham remembered. ‘Ah yes, the one with the bullying ballet master who told an older ballerina she was “too old, too knackered, past hope”.’

  ‘I’m impressed, Inspector.’

  ‘It was quite an eye-opener.’ Markham didn’t say it had been Olivia’s fascination with the world behind the greasepaint that had drawn him in despite himself. But he felt the now familiar tightening of his throat and a stab of pain deep inside as he recalled his partner’s pithy running commentary on the series.

  ‘The performing arts can be a brutal world,’ Hamling said slowly, ‘and ballet in particular. Onstage, graceful and ethereal as mist, but once the pointe shoes and tutus come off, it’s a whole different story. Downright Darwinian. If you’ve seen the film Black Swan, you’ll know what I mean.’

  Olivia had raved about that too, but Markham forced himself to suppress the remembrance.

  ‘I had the impression Black Swan focused on misogyny and male objectification of female dancers,’ he said.

  ‘Oh, there’s definitely always been plenty of that around.’ Hamling’s voice held increased respect as he considered the inspector’s ascetic features. ‘I mean, Balanchine gave each of his ballerinas a specific perfume to wear so he could smell them coming or going…  definitely crossing over into a grey area there.’

  ‘But was Mrs Clark abusive?’ the DI pressed.

  ‘As I say, ballet’s a world where so-called “normal” values are reversed. Brutality is seen as a gift, fear as devotion…. sadism as love. Touch is a special language, if you like.’ A pause. ‘What might seem dangerously close to abusive behaviour is par for the course. Look,’ another expressive gesture of the large solid white hands, ‘Bromgrove Ballet Trust investigated two complaints about Andrée, but in the end, there was insufficient evidence to corroborate the allegations. I recused myself from the HR proceedings due to our friendship.’

   Noakes’s expression said Very Convenient.

  ‘There were stories about inappropriate behaviour by Frederic March,’ the DI said evenly. ‘Also, reports that Mrs Clark turned a blind eye…. Were you aware of anything like that?’

  The finely moulded mouth twisted with distaste.

  ‘If anything did go on, I doubt it went further than lingering glances or clumsy admiration, that sort of stuff. There are lots of men with a thing for adolescent girls who never do anything about it…. They see them as half dolls who will never rebuff them or criticise…  as opposed to adult women who are too threatening…. It’s a kind of arrested development.’

  Noakes’s ears pricked up at the mention of dolls.

  ‘D’you reckon that’s why Mrs C collected them weird toys an’ fussed over that little theatre then?’ he asked. ‘Cos she had a thing about being in control…. kind of all-powerful?’

  Hamling considered this. ‘I think she saw the dolls as protective talismans… there to ward off evil spirits.’

  ‘They weren’t much cop at that,’ Noakes grunted.

  ‘It could’ve been a kind of escapism,’ Hamling said uncomfortably. ‘Or born of some acquisitive instinct – the dolls are valuable, after all…. Or perhaps it was down to loneliness.’

  ‘But Mrs Clark had visitors here, didn’t she?’ Doyle put in. ‘I mean, you kept in touch, sir,’ he added pointedly.

  ‘Oh yes. Rosemount isn’t just a gilded cage. It hosts talks and various events throughout the year, though these have dwindled lately…. deaths and sickness have taken their toll, but there’s a waiting list for admissions.’

  ‘So you think Mrs C was happy enough, right?’ Noakes asked.

  ‘Well, she seemed to have come to terms with her situation…. She had the relapsing form of MS, so there were periods of remission when she could do a great deal for herself… And all kinds of people from the arts world sought her out.’

  ‘Including a choreographer who wanted to get his hands on her private papers,’ Markham slipped in. ‘Dance notations, designs, that kind of thing.’

  ‘Richard Buckfast,’ Doyle added helpfully.

  Hamling looked wary. ‘I’d heard something about that,’ he said. ‘But I’m sure he would have accepted any decision of Andrée’s with good grace.’

  ‘What about the ones who hoofed it with Mrs C?’ Noakes demanded. ‘Did they swing by?’

  Hamling looked taken aback at the reference to “hoofers” but answered readily enough. ‘Oh yes, she certainly had callers.’

  ‘Including her ex?’ Doyle asked.

  ‘I believe he came to see her…. once the dust had settled on their divorce.’ And now a hint of testiness crept into his voice. ‘Rosemount isn’t a prison, you know. There’s a very comfortable sitting room on the ground floor if residents want to meet their visitors downstairs. It’s used for lectures and cultural gatherings too. That’s very much at the heart of the company’s ethos. Talking of the company,’ he assumed a brisker tone, ‘the CEO, Lord Howth, is away in Singapore at the moment on a fact-finding trip – healthcare models, plans for expansion, donor development, that sort of thing. Mrs Frost has contact details for his deputy who can fill you in on the organisational side.’

  Markham nodded politely, though he felt reasonably certain the answer to Andrée Clark’s death had nothing to do with Rosemount’s command structure.

  Hamling was starting to look restive, but the DI hadn’t finished.

  ‘I understand Mrs Clark was contemplating a new career as a writer,’ he said.

  ‘Oh yes?’ Hamling was politely non-committal, waiting for the DI to spell it out.

  ‘An account of her life, warts and all.’

  The other’s expression was unreadable, but he spoke calmly enough.

  ‘That type of misery memoir is distinctly passé, Inspector. Old hat. After Gelsey Kirkland brought out Dancing on My Grave – blaming all her addictions on an abusive patriarchy – then the next thing you know, every little ballerina in town jumped on the bandwagon. Nothing left to say really.’

  Noakes leaned forward intently, his prize-fighter’s appearance comically incongruous against the armchair’s chintz upholstery. ‘What about you, though?’ he demanded. ‘Reckon it could’ve been embarrassing…. stuff about the two of you swinging from the chandeliers back in the day…. especially if things were a bit, well, unconventional.’

  Noakes hadn’t said ‘pervy’, but there was no doubting his meaning.

  A faint crimson streak stained the high cheekbones, but Hamling answered levelly, ‘No doubt a publisher would want to ramp up the sensationalism, but I don’t imagine our youthful exploits would raise many eyebrows these days……. Her husband’s double life, and the way he abandoned her when she contracted MS, makes a far better story. Shades of Daniel Baremboim and Jacqueline du Pré….’

  ‘My Nat saw a film about them two,’ Noakes said slowly. ‘He were a conductor an’ she played the cello. They got up to all sorts, including her messing about with her brother-in-law. Fell out then moved back together, only she took ill an’ never played again.’ He frowned. ‘Later on, he had this secret family in Paris an’ poor old Jackie never had a clue.’

  Hamling’s urbanity was firmly back in place. ‘Well remembered, Mr Noakes. Yes, they were the golden couple who had it all…. and then everything turned to ashes when Jackie developed MS. Later on, her sister Hilary spilled the beans about the sexual high jinks, and it was turned into a film.’ A brittle laugh. ‘It’s always the Eternal Triangle that pulls in the punters…. Throw Frederic March’s interest in young girls into the mix and you might have something saleable…. But, as I say, when it comes to lifting the lid on what goes on in artistic circles, that path’s well-trodden…. hardly a serious commercial proposition.’

  Unless there was something potentially explosive, Markham thought.

  ‘Given the fuss that blew up that time when March threatened legal action, publishers would be afraid of getting their fingers burned,’ Hamling pointed out. ‘Andrée would have had to be sure she could make it all stand up.’

  Shortly after that, Markham terminated the interview. The whole experience had felt vaguely unsatisfactory, though on the face of it Hamling had been amenable and reasonable.

  At the door of the common room, the philanthropist turned back. ‘Her real name was Andrea,’ he said lightly. ‘But she thought it sounded too ordinary and working class. That’s why she Frenchified it. If you scratched the surface, she was just a small-town girl made good.’

  ‘No chance of scratching his surface,’ Noakes groused as the door closed behind Hamling. ‘He weren’t giving anything away.’ He tugged at the startling maroon tie which, as was customary with his neckwear, had the appearance of being permanently askew and knotted somewhere under his left ear. ‘An’ that about Mrs C’s name were dead sneery. Like deep down she were really a jumped up nobody.’

  ‘Hamling was on the defensive because of the Kiss ’N Tell stuff,’ Doyle pointed out. ‘Didn’t like you mentioning that one bit.’

  Noakes looked pleased at having “put one over”.

  ‘Did any of the staff say anything about Mrs Clark writing a book, Noakesy?’ the DI asked.

  ‘Nah…. I reckon she probl’y jus’ dropped hints to visitors to make herself feel important…. like she had this steamy past an’ could tell all kinds of secrets….’ Compassionately, he added, ‘She looked like a waxwork gone off, with that yellowish face under all the dyed hair an’ her lips painted purple…. croaked something terrible thanks to all the fags…. But she were a game old bird.’

  ‘Hamling seemed quite fond of Mathew Gower,’ Doyle observed.

  Noakes gave a prodigious yawn. ‘God, for a moment back there he turned into Burton… yakking on about “botanical breakthroughs in biblical archaeology”,’ he air quoted viciously, ‘like that shroud thingy were some kind of detective story.’

  Markham smiled. ‘Well, in a sense it is,’ he demurred. ‘Quite possibly the most important detective story of all time.’

  ‘Don’ get me wrong, guv, I understand about relics.’ In a recent investigation, Noakes had latched on to that aspect of religious faith with a tenacity that had surprised and amused Markham. ‘But the way Hamling told it, the old fella’s spent half his life squinting at slides with pollen samples an’ still not solved it. An’ another thing,’ with a portentous sniff, ‘Jesus never said anything about us needing microscopes or carbon dating an’ all that jazz. .He jus’ said you gotta have faith.’

  Doyle grinned. ‘It’s an academic challenge for blokes like Gower,’ he pointed out. ‘Gives them a chance to get high on Hebrew and Aramaic.’

  ‘Chuffing intelleckshuals.’ But then Noakes’s voice softened. ‘He’s a nice old git, even if he does live on Planet Zog. Miles better than Mrs Fifty Shades of Grey at any rate. She’s a proper bossy boots an’ no mistake. Wanted to queen it over Mrs C, only she weren’t in the same league.’

  ‘What did they fall out over?’ Doyle asked curiously.

  Noakes yawned again. ‘Stuff about the Residents’ Committee. Nowt important ’cept to them.’

  ‘What’s your impression of this place, Noakes?’ Markham genuinely wanted to know, given his former sergeant’s infallible “nose” for when things weren’t quite right.

  ‘Nursing care for rich folk,’ was the blunt response. ‘Apparently they’ve taken in the occasional ordinary type over the years, but this ain’t your usual bedpan motel, no sirree.’

  Notwithstanding that her exposure to unadulterated Noakes over the years had inured his fellow DI to un-PC colloquialisms, Markham felt grateful that Kate Burton wasn’t around for such gems as ‘bedpan motel’.

  ‘According to Sir Edward, Rosemount has a long waiting list,’ Markham mused. ‘To say nothing of its connections to the great and the good.’

  Noakes flashed him an evil grin.

  ‘You know Sidney, guv…. He’ll want this one pinned on some oddball gardener. Deffo not any of the nicey-nice crowd.’

  ‘Do you have any such useful “misfit” in mind, Noakes?’

  ‘Well, I ain’t been here long enough to suss which ones are screwy.’ A shrug, ‘So far, they all seem okay to me.’

  ‘What about the nurse…. Hafsah Peri, the one who was close to Mrs Clark?’ Doyle asked. ‘Hamling seemed to rate her, but maybe it was an act.’

  Noakes considered it.

  ‘She came across as kind and devoted. Besides, I don’ reckon it’d be easy to fool Frosticles…. If there were any funny business going on, she’d have clocked it.’

  Markham agreed that this was a fair assessment but decided to have a final word with Andrée Clark’s day nurse. In heavily accented English, Hafsah Peri insisted that the patient knew her own mind and was no pushover. ‘Madame was maybe a little eccentric, but nobody could make her do anything she didn’t want to do. Yes meant yes, and no meant no.’

  Questioned again, Chloe Finch disclosed something of interest. ‘Mrs Clark was nervous the last time I saw her,’ the healthcare assistant told them. ‘I took her down to the residents’ sitting room and she was jittery…. kept looking around as though she expected someone to jump out at her…. About a week before that, I saw her upstairs ripping some paper into tiny pieces. She looked angry and scared at the same time.’

  Doyle leaned forward eagerly. ‘What did you think it was, this paper?’

  ‘It looked like a letter. I’m pretty sure there was an envelope with a stamp.’

  Markham’s antennae twitched. ‘Did you ask her about it?’

  ‘Yes, but she brushed me off…. said she’d always had to deal with jealousy…. people resenting her for being famous…. I just assumed it was some crank. Celebrities get used to poison pen types, don’t they…?’ She looked uncertain. ‘I didn’t connect it with her being all jumpy that day she was downstairs…. But now…. maybe she was afraid of someone.’ Chloe bit her lip. ‘Perhaps if I’d reported it….’ Her voice trailed off.

  ‘No point crying over spilt milk,’ Noakes said philosophically once she had left. ‘Them bits of paper went out with the recycling…. An’ the lass could be reading too much into it. No-one else mentioned Mrs C getting spooked.’

  Markham nodded slowly, though he had a niggling sense that the incident was significant.

  After despatching Doyle back into town to see if he could round up the various dance professionals (‘They’ll know she was strangled but stick with “suspicious death” for now’), Markham lingered a while, having noticed that his former wingman looked decidedly down in the dumps at the prospect of being outside the investigation with his nose pressed up against the glass.

  ‘You landed on your feet with this job, Noakesy. It’s a beautiful place.’

  And indeed, the graciously proportioned parquet-floored rooms – including a Jacobean style panelled library, airy dining room with William Morris wallpaper and music room where a Bechstein baby grand piano held pride of place – possessed an indefinable charm that placed Rosemount far outside the usual run of care homes.

  ‘Money talks,’ Noakes acknowledged sagely. He wrestled briefly with his tie before admitting. ‘The place runs like clockwork, though, so it don’ seem like there’s all that much for me to do.’

  ‘There is now,’ Markham assured him.

  Noakes brightened considerably on hearing this.

  ‘We could’ve managed at home on my pension,’ he confided, ‘but I’m not past it yet…. Plus me an’ the missus need our own space.’

  Markham had no doubt about that, Muriel Noakes being one of those women about whom it might be justly said that she married for better or worse but not for lunch.

  ‘Keep your ear to the ground and I’ll hook up with you tomorrow once I’ve tracked down Honor Calthorpe from the Gazette,’ he said. ‘She’s got a flat in town, so if you fancy a coffee in Waterstones, that gives us a chance to talk away from here…. Think of yourself as my civilian consultant on this one.’

  ‘Sidney won’t like it.’

  Then he’ll just have to lump it. No need for Markham to say the words aloud.

  ‘How’re you getting along with General Gordon?’ the DI asked mischievously, gesturing at the framed portrait as Noakes rose to see him off.

  ‘There’s this book about him in the library,’ the other replied. ‘Reckon I came down a bit hard…. The politicians hung him out to dry an’ he just had to make the best of it. They were all jealous, see, on account of him being glamorous an’ full of hisself.’ He cast a beady look at the picture. ‘Jealousy’s one of the seven deadly sins an’ that’s what did for soldier boy in the end.’

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

As he manoeuvred himself into a bay in Bromgrove Dance Academy’s car park, Markham felt a guilty relief that there were no next-of-kin to be visited, Andrée Clark’s sister and parents having predeceased her. He never shirked such tasks nor shuffled them off onto his subordinates, but he invariably felt wrung out after bereavement visits and was glad to conserve his energies for interviewing suspects.

  Suspects.

  So far, there was what he thought of as the Rosemount contingent: Maureen Frost, Hafsah Peri and Sir Edward Hamling from the management side, then – however improbably – Mathew Gower and Linda Merryweather on residential, it being pretty much a given that he could rule out other personnel and patients (though he had asked Noakes to track their movements).

  And now there were Mrs Clark’s former fellow ‘hoofers’ to consider.

  The ghosts from her past.

   Ghosts because Ballet was somehow not “real life”.

  Meeting Doyle in one of the smaller studios, he inhaled the unforgettable aroma that he recalled from the Baranov investigation: warm, damp air smelling of resin, sweat and soggy leotards.

  But there were no students sprawled on the floor in geometrically impossible poses, hammering the shanks for their pointe shoes or wadding their toes with lambswool to cushion blisters and bunions.

  There was just a man who looked to be in his early sixties standing with three women, two middle-aged and the other in her late-twenties.

  Doyle lost no time in rattling off introductions.

  The man was introduced as Andrée Clark’s former partner Toby Lavenham, now ballet master at the Academy and Artistic Director of Bromgrove Ballet. He must have been very handsome in his day, Markham thought, taking in the height, excellent bone structure, sensual lips and thick silver hair that curled over the back of his collar, giving him a faintly raffish air that contrasted with the all-white outfit that made him look like Mr Clean: white stonewashed jeans, white sweater, white trainers. Even now, he exuded the commanding presence of one used to instant compliance. Markham noticed that he frequently checked himself in the huge mirror covering one wall, but this appeared curiously without vanity, merely the reflex of an artist focused on visual perfection. He had surprisingly large hands and feet which contributed to the impression of latent power, with tinted glasses completing the enigmatic look.

  The youngest woman was Rosa Maitland, a willowy dancer in leotard and practice skirt whose delicate features, soft full lips, unmade up alabaster skin and chestnut ponytail gave her an air of vulnerability that was accentuated by a slightly pouting overbite and huge pale blue eyes.

  So here was the girl who had made allegations about Andrée and her husband Frederic March, Markham thought, appraising her carefully. The limpid gaze held a candour that belied his preconceptions about a spoiled theatre child – an innocent unselfconsciousness about her beauty that was like the freshness of springtime.

  The taller of the other two women wore a soft cashmere cardigan in fawn and a pleated skirt of the same colour, with low-heeled sandals completing the look. She had a fine boned face dominated by enormous dark eyes and prominent cheekbones, her appearance somewhat parched as though from a lifetime of watching what she ate. This was Clara Kentish the ballet mistress and a former contemporary of Andrée at ENB. Slim as a sapling and very erect, with her silvery hair parted in the centre and drawn onto the nape of her neck in glossy wings, she retained the allure of the old-fashioned Romantic soloist she had once been.

  The other woman, Tania Sullivan, was also a former contemporary of Andrée. Equally striking, with dyed jet-black hair and the same beautiful carriage, she had a stockier, curvier physique, which made it a surprise to learn she had risen higher up the ranks than her colleague, eventually attaining the coveted position of ballerina with Bromgrove Ballet where she and Andrée vied for top honours. Now working as a freelance dance coach, she gave private lessons at the Academy from time to time. Attired in black practice leotard and skirt, fishnet tights and soft unblocked ballet shoes, there was something vibrantly carnal about her which contrasted with the nunlike sexlessness of Clara Kentish. However, it was clear the two women got on well, exhibiting an almost maternal solicitude for Rosa Maitland whom they were coaching in preparation for her debut in Giselle later that season.

  The three older members of the quartet spoke affectionately of Andrée, with Toby Lavenham insisting that the brouhaha over her chucking him as a partner in favour of the Roumanian dancer Vadim Montgomery – currently based in Australia – was ‘all in the past’ and ‘blown up by the media’. Chuckling over her having nicknamed him ‘spaghetti arms’ for allegedly deficient port de bras, he displayed little resentment. ‘Sure, it stung back then,’ he told Markham, ‘but we were just kids, and anyway I went on to forge partnerships with other top-flight ballerinas which helped me get over it.’

  Clara Kentish and Tania Sullivan were likewise scornful of the media for making mischief. ‘Of course we were all in competition with each other,’ Sullivan laughed in her throaty contralto. ‘But there were lots of incredible people around and we needed the rivalry to spur each other on. The way the press carried on – calling us “the School for Scandal” – was ridiculous.’

  ‘Competition is perfectly healthy,’ Kentish insisted, her voice lighter and more refined than her friend’s northern twang. ‘And anyway, we had our own styles…. Certain choreographers have a preferred physical type, so that’s a factor. And dancers can opt for different spheres…. Classical, Dramatic, Romantic…. so it’s not all about favouritism or dancers sleeping their way to the top.’

  Which was an interesting turn of phrase, thought Markham, since no-one had so far accused Andrée Clark directly of sexual machinations, albeit Edward Hamling had hinted at some such shadowy backstory.

  Rosa Maitland was composed when Markham raised the issue of abuse. ‘I’ve put all that behind me,’ she said softly. ‘And anyway, I was just a teenager… didn’t know how to handle myself when Mrs Clark kept whacking me with her cane and pulling me about every which way… besides always telling me I was too fat and needed to go on a diet.’

  The older women exchanged looks.

  ‘It’s very much in the Russian tradition to give dancers physical correction, but we rather frown on it these days,’ Clara Kentish said quietly.

  ‘Cos this ain’t the bleeding Bolshoi,’ her friend added.

  Markham had the feeling Noakes would have warmed to the diminutive ballerina if he could have heard her, though her fellow teacher looked somewhat askance.

  He decided to hold off mentioning Frederic March until he had done further research, something warning him it would be unprofitable to press Rosa Maitland further at this juncture.

  They struck him as a tight little group who seemed banded together against outsiders, but he could detect no unusual undercurrents or anxiety. None had an alibi, but this was hardly surprising given that the murder took place early on a Saturday morning. Doyle had taken details of visits to Rosemount, most recently when Lavenham and his teacher colleagues had paid a New Year call. It occurred to him that whatever their past differences, the trio had been reasonably assiduous in maintaining contact. Perhaps the bonds forged during their arduous career were indissoluble. Or was there some other reason why it might have been important to keep the former ballerina sweet? His reference to a possible writing project had elicited merely blank looks, but this might all be artifice. It was important to remember that these were performers skilled at manipulating their audience.

  Clara Kentish volunteered to see him out, pausing in the lobby at his mention of a previous visit during the Baranov investigation.

  ‘Toby and I only joined the company recently, but it’s still a talking point,’ she said with a shy smile. ‘When I tell people where I work, they always ask about it.’

  Markham admired the vast collage of famous dancers and choreographers down the centuries which took over the whole of one wall.

  ‘Where’s the infamous Mr Balanchine?’ he smiled back at her. ‘I take it you had to include him?’

  She pointed to a middle-aged man with swept back thinning hair, hawklike profile and penetrating eyes, his wiry, lithe body folded in on itself, knees crossed, elbow on knee and head in hand, as he watched a group of dancers. 

  ‘He’s the one who said, Don’t think, just do,’ she breathed reverentially.

  It struck Markham that there might be a message there for him. As in a warning to stop brooding over Olivia and immerse himself in the job.

  Almost as though she had seen into his mind, the teacher continued in the gentle silvery voice that matched her hair, ‘Balanchine fell in love with one of his muses and wanted to marry her, even though there was a big age difference. When she married another man, he was devastated…. lost his creativity for a time. But they made it up in the end and he went on to make marvellous ballets for her.’

  ‘What about the man she married?’

  ‘He never made it back into the fold…. banished to the performing equivalent of Siberia.’

  ‘Didn’t Balanchine have a number of wives?’ Markham enquired.

  ‘Oh yes, the last one was struck down with polio and ended up in a wheelchair. Balanchine felt terribly guilty about that because early in her career he’d cast in the starring role of a child paralysed by polio. He was a superstitious man and never got over the feeling that he had doomed her by creating that role.’

  Encouraged by Markham’s obvious interest, she continued, ‘It was a ballet called Resurgence and he danced the role of the Threat of Polio himself, wearing a large black cape that he used to cover her. She dropped to the floor when he touched her and reappeared, later in the dance, in a wheelchair using her arms and upper body to respond to the music.’ Clara Kentish sighed. ‘She was run down and overworked and skipped having a polio shot. Later on, Balanchine divorced her to marry his new infatuation, which is why he was hit so hard when the girl he was infatuated with chose someone else.’

  The woman fell silent, and he guessed she felt suddenly uncomfortable at the parallels with Andrée Clark, another wheelchair-bound woman whose husband had abandoned her.

  ‘It’s a strange world, Inspector,’ she said, echoing Edward Hamling’s observations. ‘You might say it’s littered with damaged souls whose lives never worked out the way they planned.’

  ‘Was Andrée damaged?’

  ‘She fought hard to make it to the top… and then one’s shelf-life is so very short….’ Her voice was sad, and he had the sense of a repressed sisterhood prepared to tolerate untold miseries in the furtherance of a beautiful illusion.

  They moved towards the foyer doors.

  ‘Balanchine once said that Ballet is a woman and man the gardener,’ she said lightly as he turned to go.

  Who cut Andrée Clark off at the stem?

  That question hammered in his brain as though on an anvil all the way back to the station.