CRIME IN THE AGENCY
There was something very agreeable about an Indian Summer, Marjorie Poole reflected on the morning of Saturday 19th September as she trudged up Dunsdon Road towards Castor Hill Park…. something that made you feel you’d got one over on Nature for a change.
Not that she was getting much benefit from it though, she thought sourly.
Bloody Jayne Padgett and that evil-looking moggy…. Why the hell was she always saddled with feeding Jayne’s cat whenever Hope Academy had one of its blasted INSETs or CPD or whatever they called teacher training these days….
Marjorie herself was a primary school teacher at Our Lady Help of Christians. But somehow Jayne seemed to be the one who was forever flitting off on courses and ‘refreshers’.
Not that it was likely to save her from the chop in the long run…. It was well known that Hope’s senior management had the knives out for anyone over fifty, which meant her friend was firmly in the danger zone.
‘I’m on the upper pay scale now,’ Jayne had told her ruefully. ‘They can get a couple of newly qualifieds or support staff for what they’re paying me…. It’s all about the bottom line these days, so they’d be ecstatic if I decided to retire.’
Marjorie knew what Jayne meant. Long-in-the-tooth types might as well have a target pinned to their backs (though fifty was hardly old, for god’s sake). But it wasn’t just about the money, she reflected. Teachers in their twenties, gagging for promotion, were far more ‘pliable’ whereas the likes of Jayne took no prisoners and told it like it was. Headteachers and senior managers who got their kicks from undiluted sycophancy were bound to have a problem with her down-to-earth and honest friend. Whatever else you might say about her, Jayne’s overriding concern was the kids. At fifty-one, with a multitude of interests outside school and no ambition to climb the greasy pole (‘the higher up you go, the further away from the classroom,’ as she put it), Jayne Padgett was not the kind of teacher to be chewed up, bullied and then spat out. Which meant she was on Hope’s Shit List.
Marjorie was panting as she crested the hill and arrived at the entrance to the park. Time to get back on the old SlimFast, she told herself. Just a few years younger than Jayne, she knew her own school managers were champing for a cull, in which case she would surely be in their crosshairs. Why the hell couldn’t they appreciate the value of teachers with maturity and life experience? Unbelievably short-sighted. But that was the bean counters for you… Education these days was all about data and spread sheets…. precious little to do with child welfare.
Jayne’s house was a two bedroom first-floor apartment in a semi-circular chocolate-brick development set on the fringes of Castor Hill Park within easy walking distance of Aldbourne Village on the outskirts of Bromgrove. A bus stop directly outside the complex took Jayne straight to her job as an English teacher at Hope, so she had no need of a car. All in all, it was the ideal set-up.
Except for the pigging cat…. or Jayne’s ‘familiar’ as Marjorie thought of it in her less charitable moments. And to think of her christening it ‘Wordsworth’…. made Marjorie feel a right wally hallooing after it whenever Jayne had her on cat-sitting duties. At least the complex was pet-friendly with a caretaker who doted on animals. So with any luck, she’d be in and out in no time at all. The park beckoned invitingly, and she had Elly Griffiths’s latest Dr Ruth Galloway mystery burning a hole in her capacious shoulder bag…. An hour or two on a bench in the walled garden would be just the ticket….
Normally she would have met up with Jayne for their usual ‘girlie’ Friday evening taco-fest, but this time around her friend had been oddly constrained, mumbling something about having ‘stuff to do’. Marjorie could only hope she’d finally summoned up the courage to give that waste-of-space boyfriend his marching orders. Richard Keogh was the type who required endless propping up and Jayne didn’t need any more of that. She’d cared devotedly for her mother before Margaret had to move into the Nazareth care home and now it was time for her to decompress… assuming that witch Judith Lipscombe from Hope didn’t put a spanner in the works.
Marjorie’s face darkened at the thought of Hope Academy’s new assistant head. A bossy woman built like a Sherman tank, Lipscombe was so far up management’s backside it was a wonder she ever saw daylight. And kind, down-to-earth, honest (expensive) Jayne was the sacrificial victim most likely to appease the current Headteacher, Anthony ‘Call-me-Tony’ Brighouse.
Marjorie knew Jayne hosted meetings of Hope malcontents at her flat. ‘It’s a safety-valve,’ she’d insisted when Marjorie questioned the wisdom of such a manoeuvre. Jayne was also on the books of a local tutorial agency Top of the Class, a move guaranteed to fan the flames of managerial ire.
‘You’ve only got to keep punching the timecard for a few more years, Jay,’ Marjorie had counselled. ‘Top up the old pension and then vamoose…. No point giving them ammunition in the meantime.’
But Jayne’s response was, unusually for her, flintily obdurate.
‘I don’t give a stuff how the top brass feels about me,’ she had said defiantly. ‘And why shouldn’t I boost my income with some tutoring? … It’s a free country and no reason why I can’t help special needs kids whose parents want my input.’
‘Management might feel a mite touchy about it, particularly after failing their Ofsted inspection for the second time running.’
But Marjorie’s words fell on deaf ears.
‘Tough titty. If they’d listened to some of the old guard, they wouldn’t be in this mess.’
Well, Marjorie could only hope her friend was lapping up whatever pearls of wisdom came her way from the local authority guru… At least Lipscombe and her cronies wouldn’t be able to say Jayne wasn’t interested in the latest educational gobbledygook….
Punching in the code that let her into the immaculate lobby of Cabot Court, Marjorie reflected that Jayne had it sorted.
Why make waves, Jayney? she pleaded silently, thinking of her plump grey-haired friend whose kindness was a byword with Hope’s more troubled pupils.
Now, where in the name of all the saints was that dratted cat?
Despite Jayne calling herself ‘an old fuddy duddy’, her apartment was all stripped back pine flooring and minimalist décor. Marjorie invariably developed a bad case of kitchen envy whenever she swung by her friend’s abode.
But not this time.
Entering the stainless-steel wonderland that was Jayne’s kitchen, her heart skipped a beat at the sight which met her eyes.
Jayne was slumped across the granite island in the centre of the room, half standing half sitting, her ample form hunched over so as to hide her face, strands from the grey chignon spiralling down on either side like a cloak of invisibility. A pool of crustily congealed vomit marred the perfection of the otherwise spotless floor.
A bottle of Domestos stood on the worktop at her elbow.
Marjorie knew instantly that her friend was dead.
Oddly enough, she felt no apprehension on her own account.
Whoever had done this was long gone.
Like a thief in the night.
Marjorie sank onto the bar stool opposite Jayne’s body.
At that moment, Wordsworth appeared from nowhere, slithering and slinking about her ankles in a manner that would normally have seen her delivering a well-aimed kick at the tiresome feline.
But on this occasion, she bent down and rubbed the old warrior’s moth-eaten fur.
Who did this to her, Wordsworth? she said silently. Was it Hope’s bloody Stasi? Did they come for her at last?
Abruptly, she chided herself for being melodramatic. Most likely it was a burglary gone wrong….
And yet… Jayne must have let her killer into the flat. There was no sign of a break-in. Her friend’s handbag reposed next to the bread-bin on the wraparound countertop with her black leather purse clearly visible on top.
Sunlight streamed into the kitchen as Wordsworth padded about mewling softly, contentedly oblivious to his mistress’s inanimate form.
Don’t touch the body, she told herself as though in a trance. Mustn’t contaminate the crime scene.
It was beginning to sink in.
Jayne Padgett was dead.
Marjorie wandered into the living room whose Juliet balcony overlooked the park.
Sightlessly, she plonked down on the black leather armchair opposite Jayne’s top-of-the-range massive Samsung TV.
Outside, a chirruping from the late-flowering cherry tree in the communal back garden was the only sound to break the peace.
Time to take stock.
Jayne had never made it to the LEA’s latest training bonanza.
Instead, she had died right here in her own kitchen. Forced to drink bleach.
It occurred to Marjorie that she wasn’t surprised.
She knew her friend – ‘Mrs Pepper Pot, that’s me!’ – had made enemies at Hope and further afield….
Wordsworth was weaving restlessly in and out around her feet, almost as though he sensed from her demeanour that something was wrong.
Marjorie got up and walked back into the kitchen, trailed by the cat.
Her heart was bursting as she contemplated Jayne’s body.
Trailing clouds of glory do we come from God, who is our home…
So much for the cat’s namesake. There was nothing remotely glorious about that flaccid middle-aged corpse and the sheer banality of the Domestos bottle.
As if in a dream, she reached for her mobile.
All she could do for Jayne Padgett was to set the wheels in motion.
999. She made the call.
DI Gilbert (‘Gil’) Markham felt curiously indolent as he sat on the bench that he had come to think of his in the terraced graveyard of St Chad’s church overlooking the back of Bromgrove Police Station. Basking in the September sun, long legs stretched out in front of him, he savoured the Sabbath tranquillity – the lull before the machinery of the latest CID investigation cranked inexorably into gear.
The vicar gave Markham a friendly nod as he headed from the church towards his rectory on the other side of the cemetery but knew better than to disturb his reflections. He was by now familiar with the Inspector’s habits and had heard about the police activity at Castor Hill Park. Apparently a teacher had been murdered. Which meant Markham would be girding his loins – buckling on his spiritual armour – for the battle ahead.
Others might have scoffed at this description for being over the top, however the Reverend Mr Dodwsorth suspected the darkly handsome but austere looking policeman had a mystical streak in his makeup. A lapsed Catholic, Markham was nonetheless a regular visitor to churches in and around Bromgrove. A devout Urinitarian, that uncouth Sergeant of his had sniggered on the one occasion the vicar had encountered him lurking outside the church and made the mistake of alluding to the DI’s ecumenical spirit.
Mercifully, there was no sign of DS George Noakes on the present occasion. Just as well, thought Mr Dodsworth smiling benignly at Markham. As far as he was concerned, there were limits to Christian charity.
Happily unaware of the vicar’s sentiments regarding his wingman, Markham was indeed summoning up his reserves of strength. It was always this way at the outset of an investigation. However ‘wet’ it might seem to his colleagues in CID (and Markham was under no illusions about the jealous resentment that attended his growing reputation as CID’s wunderkind), the DI saw himself as a foot soldier in the eternal battle between Good and Evil, bearing arms on behalf of all the murder victims he had ever known – ‘absolute for death’ as his lover Olivia Mullen, an English teacher at Hope Academy, liked to put it.
His thoughts turned to yesterday’s discovery of Jayne Padgett…
It was interesting that Marjorie Poole hadn’t for a second entertained the possibility that her friend could have killed herself, concluding immediately that this was murder.
Even before the pathologist Doug ‘Dimples’ Davidson got to grips with the body, he agreed with this verdict.
‘A horrible way to go,’ he muttered grimly on surveying the scene in the victim’s designer showroom kitchen. ‘Can’t have been suicide.’
The bluff medic always put Markham in mind of Siegfried Farnon as played by Robert Hardy in the original All Creatures Great and Small – more country vet or harrumphing farmer than police surgeon. But the caustic, cantankerous exterior belied his deep compassion for victims. ‘That disinfectant would’ve burned her insides out…. agonizing…. Someone must’ve forced it down her.’
After a further examination, from which Markham and Noakes averted their eyes, Dimples plonked himself down on one of the sleek tubular bar stools that Marjorie had so admired, ample buttocks spilling over the sides as he wriggled onto the fabric seat.
‘Yes,’ he sighed. ‘Bruising on the throat and petechiae point to her having been attacked…. and half-throttled into the bargain.’ An awkward clearing of the throat. ‘Looks like she’s been interfered with too.’
‘But she’s a granny.’ The DS was stupefied.
Dimples was used to George Noakes, a Yorkshireman who didn’t mince his words.
‘Clearly you haven’t absorbed the latest mantra, Sergeant.’
‘“Fifty is the new Thirty.”’
‘Get out of it, doc. This one’s a dead ringer for Hetty Wainthropp.’ Not as insulting as it sounded, thought Markham, given Noakes’s admiration for the retired busybody of the television series.
But from the way Noakes’s fists were balled in the pockets of his grubby chinos, Markham could tell there was a slow burn of anger. His gaze trained on the straggling grey bun, as though afraid to linger on the foam-flecked lips and bulging eyes, the DS muttered, ‘She’s a teacher for chuff’s sake…. jus’ minding her own business…. There’s a bag of books an’ folders over there in the corner…. looks like she fancied a brew or summat before getting stuck in…. I mean, why would anyone…. ‘
Dimples too was angry beneath his countryman’s manner.
‘I’d say there was an unconsummated sexual assault of some kind,’ he said gruffly. ‘Her underwear’s been removed and there’s bruising…. looks like he stopped short of rape.’
‘Poor cow.’ Noakes’s tone was bleak. ‘Planning a nice quiet afternoon marking essays on Lord of the Flies or whatnot an’ then this.’
The pathologist was surprised. ‘Lord of the Flies hey, Noakes? Very observant of you.’
‘Recognized the cover cos it was our Natalie’s GCSE book…. sort of stuck in my mind,’ came the gnomic response.
Markham allowed himself a moment of amused speculation about the teenaged Natalie Noakes’s reaction to William Golding’s fable of masculine degeneracy. It certainly hadn’t sufficed to turn the pneumatic perma-tanned beautician off the male of the species, he reflected wryly before reproaching himself for being uncharitable. After the poor girl’s experience during the Bluebell investigation, it would be no wonder if she never went on a date again. Certainly any potential suitors would have a hard time getting past her protective father.
‘Where did the victim teach?’ Dimples asked.
‘Hope Academy,’ the DS replied glumly. ‘Reckon it must be Fate the way that place gets dragged into every bleeding murder.’
Even allowing for the exaggeration, Markham shared Noakes’s dismay. The last thing he wanted was Olivia being drawn into another murky investigation, especially given DCI Sidney’s dislike of his ‘lady friend’ (an antipathy that was entirely mutual).
And this case looked like getting very murky.
‘Not a random sex attack, though.’ Dimples looked round the pristine kitchen and back towards the flat’s little hallway with its cheerful vintage rose design, a homely contrast to the high-spec modern kitchen and state of the art utensils. ‘She let them in… the lock hadn’t been forced.’
‘Yeah,’ Noakes agreed. ‘There’s an intercom buzzer to let folk in from downstairs…. So she would’ve been able to check who it was…. musta known ’em…. Hey,’ he caught himself up, ‘didn’t that teacher friend of hers…. the one who found her…. didn’t she say Janet were meant to be off on some training course an’ that’s why someone had to come over…. to feed the cat or summat?’
‘Jayne,’ the DI corrected mildly. Noakes was notorious for misappellations and malapropisms. His displacement device, Dimples called it behind the sergeant’s back. ‘Jayne Padgett…. But you’re right, Marjorie said Jayne told her she was away on a training course at Quickswood Lodge – that’s the council’s training centre at the university –,’ Markham added for the pathologist’s benefit, ‘and asked if Marjorie could swing by to check on the cat….’
‘What was she doing home then?’ Noakes demanded. ‘Playing truant from the conference or what?’ His voice suggested that their murder victim’s distaste for CPD was a mark in her favour.
‘It looks like a spur of the moment thing.’ Markham said thoughtfully. ‘Someone must have asked to meet up and she told them to come to her flat…. She most likely figured it would be okay to miss the opening session at Quickswood and slip in afterwards…. You know how it is with these things…. the introductory stuff’s usually a waste of time.’
Eloquent grunts from both Noakes and Dimples greeted this assessment.
‘She had her mobile out,’ Markham went on. ‘It’s on the counter over there next to the microwave. And she had begun a text to Marjorie saying no need to drop round after all because she was going to see to Tiddles or whatever he’s called.’
‘Wordsworth.’ Ironically, Noakes had no trouble whatsoever recalling the name of Jayne Padgett’s pet.
The DS prowled the immaculate kitchen, reflecting how impressed his missus would be by the designer finish and whizzy gadgetry…. Bit of a waste for someone on their own, mind.
‘Looks like she got off on playing Mary Berry,’ he said eyeing a Daewoo blender. A thought struck him. ‘Did Mrs Thing say whether there was a boyfriend in the picture?’
‘Ms Poole said there’s a man friend,’ the DI replied patiently. From the tone of her voice when she spoke of him, Marjorie Poole wasn’t a fan. ‘Works in sales… apparently he was supposed to be in Birmingham this weekend.’
‘Thass no distance….’ The boyfriend sounded promising to Noakes.
‘Family liaison are on it and we’ll be seeing him in due course. Kid gloves,’ the DI added beadily, only too aware of the way his sergeant’s thoughts were tending.
He became aware the pathologist had sunk into a brown study. ‘What is it, doc?’ he asked.
‘The overkill…. excuse the pun.’ Dimples looked troubled. ‘She was grabbed around the neck and half-throttled, so why force her to drink bleach…. Why not just strangle her and be done with it?’
Noakes tugged at his salt and pepper thatch with unnecessary vigour, rumpling it into the haystack dishevelment that attended intense cogitation.
‘Mebbe the killer wanted to send a message,’ he suggested.
‘Like what?’ Dimples sounded mystified.
‘Wash your mouth out…. You’ve got a mind like a sewer…. I dunno…. summat to do with cleaning her act up…. Mebbe that’s the point of the Dettol.’
‘Domestos,’ Markham and Dimples said in unison.
‘Whatever.’ The DS cudgelled his brains. ‘She could’ve gossiped about ’em….’ Noakes nearly said it was the sort of thing women did but checked himself in time. Didn’t want the guvnor deciding he needed to go on another of them daft diversity courses where everyone sat around pretending to be PC. ‘Happen there was some sort of vendetta going on…. school politics, that kind of thing….’ From all Noakes knew of Hope – ‘the swamp of fear and loathing’, as Olivia Mullen was wont to call it – such a scenario was eminently feasible.
‘You think a teacher could have done this?’ The pathologist sounded scandalized.
‘Oh, that lot’d cut your throat soon as look at you,’ the DS retorted cheerfully. ‘Remember the Ashley Dean case.’
The other two looked as though they would rather not take that particular trip down memory lane.
‘Wouldn’t making her ingest bleach inhibit any sexual interaction?’ Markham enquired fastidiously.
Noakes made a face. ‘Yeah, it ain’t exazacly an aphro-thingy.’
‘An aphrodisiac. Quite.’ Dimples’s face was a picture of concentrated distaste.
‘Mind you, he might be up for all of that…. y’know get off on ’em thrashing about in agony.’ The DS warmed to his theory. ‘Like that poisoner bloke they thought was the Ripper…. George Chapman…. he had a thing for potassium or one of them chemicals…. gives you vomiting and convulsions.’
The DI bit his lip at the look on the doctor’s face as Noakes shared the fruits of his latest discoveries from Sky Crime.
‘He may simply have wanted to degrade Ms Padgett.’ The DI was noted for his scrupulous respect in referring to victims, and woe betide any subordinates who attempted levity or gallows humour. ‘Demonstrate contempt for her as a woman.’
‘Or mebbe he wanted to send us on a wild goose chase…. get us looking at local sex offenders or summat….’
‘I’m sure DCI Sidney will want us to cover that angle…. no stone unturned,’ Markham said heavily.
Dimples grimaced sympathetically. DCI Sidney (or ‘Slimy Sid’ as he was more popularly known) was guaranteed to prefer just about any line of enquiry which by-passed the local comprehensive school and ‘respectable’ citizenry in general. News of this murder would have him reaching for the sex offenders register in a flash. Better still if the trail led to a mental health outpatient clinic…. Markham was willing to bet Sidney had the Newman Psychiatric Hospital on speed dial.
No way would the DCI want the spotlight to fall on Hope Academy, Bromgrove University or any other civic institution likely to be tainted by murder.
The DI foresaw trouble ahead but kept his expression neutral.
‘Time of death, Doug?’
‘Tsk, tsk…. You know better than that, Inspector.’ But the pathologist’s tone was indulgent. He held Gilbert Markham in high esteem, although there was almost a force-field about him that repelled familiarity. No Entry. Odd that the star of CID appeared to find that old scoundrel Noakes more congenial than everyone else, but there was no accounting for tastes….
‘I’d say she died around ten-ish, not long before her friend arrived. Rigor hadn’t started.’
‘Taking a risk weren’t he…?’ Noakes resumed his pacing. ‘I mean, who’s to say ole Marj wouldn’t rock up an’ catch him right in the middle of it…. She had keys, so nothing to stop her barging in.’
‘The arrangement was that Marjorie would come at eleven because that’s when the cat had his daytime feed…. Ms Padgett made a note on that calendar she has on the fridge…. Also, her unfinished text mentions the time so the killer knew they wouldn’t be interrupted.’
‘Right.’ Noakes screwed his face up, digesting this information. ‘She most probl’y told ’em there was plenty of time for a cosy chat…. Bastard.’ Then he appeared to cheer up. ‘But we’re talking Saturday morning…. One of the neighbours had to have noticed….’
‘I wouldn’t count on it,’ Dimples said. ‘It’s mainly over sixties and retirees…. the wife’s aunt lived here for a while…. quite exclusive, no riff-raff allowed.’
Privately, Noakes thought it sounded like prime curtain-twitching territory.
The DI had a pretty good idea what his subordinate was thinking.
‘You mean residents keep to themselves, doc?’ he asked.
‘Pretty much, yes…. easy enough to slip in off the road without being spotted.’
‘And no CCTV,’ Noakes observed glumly. ‘You’d think with it being wrinklies…. er, sorry, senior citizens…. they’d have better security.’
‘Well, Cabot Court’s only a small development,’ Markham observed, ‘just sixteen flats…. no doubt all with entryphone…. communal gardens…. in one of Bromgrove’s safest neighbourhoods…. arguably no real need.’ He looked the other two in the eye. ‘Mind you, after what’s happened here, I imagine the management company may want to reassess their priorities.’
Dimples heaved himself down from the bar stool.
‘Right you are, gents, I need to get her down to the mortuary. Okay to get the paramedics up here?’
Markham nodded assent and the pathologist headed for the downstairs lobby.
Noakes’s gaze travelled to the stiffening corpse at their feet. In life, the deceased had been a well-respected member of society – no high roller, just a kind, comfortably plump teacher whose very ordinariness no doubt offered reassurance to generations of parents and children. In death, she had no dignity, her features distorted to resemble a hideous gargoyle.
‘Who’s looking after the cat?’ The DS was gruff. ‘Wordsworth…. Who’s gonna take him?’
‘I had a word with Marjorie. She’s getting it sorted.’ The gentleness of Markham’s tone would have astonished the lower echelons of CID who had christened the aloof inspector His High Mightiness. ‘Why don’t you get the SOCOs in, Noakesy.’
In no time at all, the paper-suited forensic team was combing every inch of the flat…
Now Markham returned to the present, drinking in all the drowsy autumnal beauty that Jayne Padgett would never again behold in the flesh. In that moment, the gravestones and monuments which bordered the crooked paths of St Chad’s cemetery seemed like unearthly witnesses to his pledge that he would catch whoever had dashed the cup from her lips.
A soft breeze rustled the foliage overhead. Soon it would be time to go and meet his team in CID.
His team. ‘Markham’s Gang’, the envious sniped.
He and Noakes had somehow got their partnership back on track after it had almost been derailed by the Bluebell investigation when the DS discovered that Natalie was not his biological daughter. After that domestic crisis, his wingman had arguably acquired new powers of empathy…. or at least, so Markham had hinted to Sidney during Noakes’s last appraisal. The DCI was openly derisive. ‘Empathy! Your sergeant,’ with a distinct edge to his voice, ‘doesn’t know the meaning of the word, Markham. A walking affront to the service and well past his sell-by-date. He should be thinking of retirement.’
The DI was having none of it. A mysterious alchemy bound him and Noakes together, based not only on a shared distaste for the kind of back-scratching and politicking at which Sidney and his ilk excelled but on some intuitive recognition that they shared a hinterland beyond words. For all his reputation as a supremo of slobbishness, the DS had a strangely romantic, poetic chord in his nature that made him almost psychically sensitive to Markham’s inner depths. Though they had never spoken of it directly, Noakes had somehow assimilated Markham’s lonely history as a survivor of childhood abuse with a natural sympathy that quite understood it. The DI would have been at a loss to define the precise nature of their bond. He knew only that Noakes always had his back and was the only person apart from Olivia whom he allowed behind the emotional portcullis erected in his youth.
And there was the thing. Olivia adored Noakes who reciprocated in kind, exempting her from the swingeing contempt with which he generally regarded ‘arty-farty types’. Perhaps it was her resemblance to the ethereal heroines he recalled from childhood picture books. Perhaps it was the disarming roguishness that somehow got past his defences. Whatever the nature of her allure, it certainly irritated Mrs Muriel Noakes whose rampant enthusiasm for ‘Gilbert’ did not extend to his partner. While the two couples occasionally socialized together (Olivia complained the forced smiles gave her lockjaw), Noakes’s ‘missus’ invariably spoke of her husband’s boss in condoling tones as one who had been snared by mere sexual attraction and thereby forfeited a true meeting of minds. ‘Such a charming man…. so easily imposed on.’
Notwithstanding his susceptibility to Olivia’s charms, the DS was utterly devoted to his redoubtable wife. They had met through ballroom dancing, both being surprisingly light and elegant on their feet despite a hefty combined poundage, and it had apparently been love at first sight for Noakes. ‘She were standing under this glitterball with her head thrown back laughing…. I wanted to make her smile at me the same way,’ he said simply when Olivia ventured an enquiry on the subject. If she had difficulty visualizing Noakes’s bossy, snobbish spouse in the light of winsome enchantress, Olivia managed not to show it.
Markham’s thoughts turned to the two other members of his team.
Kate Burton was the absolute antithesis of Noakes – earnest, conscientious and always smartly turned-out. The psychology graduate had to overcome parental opposition before joining the police (‘no job for a woman’, was her father’s verdict) but was now on the fast track to success. There was a time when Burton seemed to have lost her mojo – a broken engagement played its part – but she now planned to take her promotion board in the New Year and was currently an Acting DI. It had taken Markham a long time to accept that Kate carried a torch for him (Olivia called him an ‘emotional clodhopper’ in consequence), but he was confident she had long since overcome any such feelings. ‘Nah, guv, she’s still hung up on you,’ Noakes pointed out slyly from time to time but more from habit than anything else.
Burton and Noakes had taken a long time to shake down together as members of Markham’s team, her politically correct sensibilities and head-prefect rectitude continually assailed by the grizzled veteran’s total indifference to anything resembling twenty-first century professionalism.
But they had come to appreciate each other’s qualities, not least the cast-iron loyalty to their guvnor. Noakes still looked as if he had a bad case of piles whenever Burton proceeded to quote from her beloved Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, while she in turn could look boot-faced at the endless breaches of decorum and good taste which were her colleague’s stock-in-trade (her Queen Victoria face, as Markham thought of it – We Are Not Amused). But the old antagonism was long gone. Indeed, the DI suspected that nowadays the sparring was almost a matter of form because the rest of CID expected it.
The final member of the team, the former DC Doyle, was now DS Doyle, having sailed through his sergeant’s exams. Not that this in any way affected his relationship with Noakes who as well as being Doyle’s mentor seemed at times to stand almost in loco parentis, so regularly did the younger man pour out his romantic woes to the old warhorse over a pint or four in various hostelries (when they weren’t charting the progress of their beloved Bromgrove Rovers). An easy-going character and snappy dresser, with a degree in criminal law under his belt, the gangling ‘ginger ninja’ was like Burton on the fast track but Markham hoped to hang on to him for a good while yet.
Yes, the DI was well satisfied with the little unit which, despite Sidney’s best efforts, had become his very own ‘flying squadron’ with several notable successes to its credit.
He looked wistfully back at St Chad’s, wishing there was time to take a stroll around the cool depths of the church.
It was a squat little edifice – almost dumpy in its undistinguished soot-stained architecture – but Markham loved it nonetheless, in particular the vivid red, blue and green wood panels in the side chapels with their trefoil and fleur de lys decorations, almost like a medieval solar. There was an emphasis on majesty – on the kingship of Christ – which always made him feel oddly exultant as though the legions of Evil had already been vanquished
Battle is over, hell’s armies flee;
raise we the cry of victory….
He grinned at the thought of DCI Sidney’s likely reaction to these musings.
‘None of your poetizing, Inspector…. Save it for your first novel.’
Sidney had never forgiven him that Oxbridge pedigree and First in PPE. ‘An officer of your rank can’t afford to be fey.’ He made it sound like a communicable disease. ‘Good honest down-to-earth legwork, that’s what we need.’ Markham could almost hear the nasal honk breaking through the tranquillity of the graveyard, birds twittering in the canopy overhead as though Sidney had suddenly materialized at his elbow.
With a last regretful look at the church, Markham squared his shoulders and headed for the station.
The station looked even more tired and drab than usual when Markham came in out of the sun, though he was amused to note that the miniature Zen garden Kate Burton had bequeathed to CID, with little bonsai tree, gravel, rockery and tiny rake, appeared as well tended as ever.
His corner glass-walled office with unrivalled views of the station carpark felt stuffy and stale. Yanking the sash window open as far as it would go (a measly few inches) made precious little difference, but it felt like a gesture of defiance against the penny-pinching powers that be and thus afforded some small satisfaction.
Noakes was already installed across from Markham’s desk, dividing his attention between a bag from Dunkin’ Donuts and the executive pendulum toy – a stress-busting present to her lover from Olivia – in whose cradle mechanism he delighted.
Acting DI Kate Burton followed swiftly on Markham’s heels, freshly washed brunette pageboy swinging and youthful button-nosed face alert with interest. Her charcoal trouser suit was immaculate, and it looked like the new glasses she whipped out of her executive briefcase – magnifying her eyes to the size of enormous brown lollipops – were a designer brand, a vast improvement on the NHS specs of yore.
The contrast with her colleague was almost comical, though Markham noted Burton’s look of horror at the DS’s ‘casual wear’ was swiftly suppressed.
Noakes was clearly losing the battle of the bulge, and it looked as though Muriel had washed her hands when it came to sartorial standards (only intervening when the threat to her social standing was too egregious to be ignored). The mismatched clobber was simply horrendous, as Markham told Olivia later. Off-white t-shirt topped with moth-eaten mauve sweater over baggy brown cords which barely contained the swelling paunch. Little wonder that Sidney claimed he could easily be mistaken for one of Bromgrove’s down-and-outs.
At least with its being Sunday, Sidney was safely on the golf course therefore unlikely to suffer a spasm of corporate dyspepsia at the sight of Markham’s wingman.
DS Doyle followed hard on Burton’s footsteps. Less formally dressed than the Acting DI, he was nonetheless equally dapper in off-duty drainpipe jeans, skinny rib black sweater, Skechers trainers and linen jacket.
His gaze gliding over the oblivious Noakes, Markham supposed two out of three wasn’t bad.
When they were finally settled – soy macchiatos for Burton and Doyle, doughnuts and cappuccino for Noakes and black coffee for the DI – Markham summarized the facts of their latest case before crisply running through the roster of suspects.
‘Ms Padgett was an English teacher at Hope Academy,’ he said.
Noakes’s hangdog features worked convulsively but he held his peace.
‘It sounds as though there were issues with Hope’s Assistant Head Judith Lipscombe,’ the DI continued.
‘The new witch on the block,’ Noakes muttered to no-one in particular.
‘Ms Padgett also did work for a private tutorial agency…. Top of the Class…. Proprietors are Pauline and John Thornfield.’
‘There’s a boyfriend,’ Noakes said mutinously.
‘Indeed there is.’ Markham was unruffled. ‘Richard Keogh, a sales executive…. though I understand from Jayne’s friend Marjorie Poole that this was something of an on-off relationship.’
Kate Burton was scribbling away in a manner that had Noakes and Doyle exchanging resigned eye-rolls.
‘There was a somewhat complicated family background,’ the DI continued. ‘Ms Padgett was adopted but had recently sought out her birth mother…. According to Marjorie, her ex-husband Bill Travers wasn’t very happy about this… There’s a couple of half-sisters in the mix too apparently.’
Noakes’s massive shaggy head lifted from his Dunkin’ Donuts bag.
‘Yes, he’s Head of Science at Hope…. Now in a relationship with an NQT from the Modern Languages department, name of Christine Bickerton.’
‘NQT being a Newly Qualified Teacher,’ Burton translated punctiliously, eliciting further expressive grimaces from her colleagues.
‘Anyone else who might’ve hated the vic?’ Noakes enquired with heavy sarcasm.
‘It seems there may have been problems with another teacher on the agency’s books,’ Markham replied.
‘Problems?’ Burton looked up from her notebook and frowned.
‘She fell out with a colleague…. Gill Dacre….also on Top of the Class’s books.’
‘Wouldn’t you jus’ know it,’ Noakes growled. ‘That bloody school again.’
Markham seized the bull by the horns.
‘There were a couple of parents too…. John and Shona Restorick…. I gather they complained about Ms Padgett while she was still teaching at Hope…. It got awkward because she and the Restoricks were fellow-worshipers at St Jude’s in Aldbourne Village.’
‘Lovely.’ Noakes’s scowl was something to behold, accentuating his resemblance to a St Bernard almost beyond the point of caricature. ‘So we’ve got school management,’ he almost spat the words, ‘a weirdo family set-up and this tutoring agency or whatchamacallit in the frame.’
‘Correct.’ Markham looked his colleagues in the eye.
‘What next, sir?’ Kate Burton asked politely.
Markham felt some relief at settling into the familiar groove.
‘I want you and Doyle to get the incident room up and running,’ he said evenly. ‘Noakes and I are going to take another look at Ms Padgett’s flat and then deal with the next-of-kin.’
A snort from Noakes.
‘As in Jayne’s birth mother Margaret Crompton – she’s in a care home – and the biological half-sisters,’ the DI amended. ‘Then there’s her adoptive mother Marian Padgett… It’s a trifle complicated.’
And then some!
‘After that, we’ll look in on the boyfriend… see what he’s got to say.’
‘Got it, sir.’
Once upon a time, Burton would have resented Markham’s choice of Noakes to accompany him on the initial interviews. But there was a new air about her these days, as though she was done sighing for the moon.
‘We need to be ready to brief the DCI,’ Markham added tonelessly.
Three faces met his deadpan.
Yeah, good luck with that!
‘Right team,’ he said, ‘let’s crack on.’
Heading for the door, Burton turned back.
‘Who broke the news about Jayne to Marian Padgett and the boyfriend?’
‘I did that yesterday afternoon,’ Markham replied evenly.
After you sent me home to the missus, thought Noakes.
That was the guvnor for you. When it came to the godawful jobs, he never palmed them off on anyone else. Which was why the team would always go through fire for him.
Without further ado, they dispersed.
The case that became known as the agency investigation had begun.
Reviewing the Field
Later that afternoon duly saw Markham and Noakes back at Jayne Padgett’s flat.
The other residents turned out to be ‘worse than useless’, as Noakes said witheringly, having seen and heard nothing unusual. ‘Not even a woman getting murdered next door…. Jesus wept.’
Markham famously hated profanity.
‘Sorry guv, but you gotta admit they’re a waste of space…. I mean, what happened to looking out for folk?’
‘It was Saturday morning, Sergeant,’ Markham observed mildly. ‘No reason to clock comings and goings, especially with Ms Padgett buzzing her visitor in.’
‘My missus wouldn’t have missed summat like this,’ the DS insisted. ‘What’s the point of Neighbourhood Watch if nobody gives a monkey’s?’
Grimly, Markham reflected that precious little was likely to escape Muriel Noakes’s gimlet eye. Especially not if there was the faintest possibility of scandal in the mix.
Jayne Padgett’s computer had been removed for analysis, but the DI didn’t anticipate any earth-shattering discoveries in that direction. Given that she was a teacher, the victim had most likely been highly discreet about what she shared on social media, indeed may have been a thorough-going Luddite like himself and ignored Facebook and the rest of it altogether.
‘It’s a bit…. well, impersonal,’ Noakes said after wandering through the flat. ‘Like a show house.’
Number 8 Cabot Court was undeniably somewhat sterile, especially the living room with the black leather recliner which bore a disconcerting resemblance to a dentist’s chair.
To Markham, that armchair and the three-piece suite in front of a huge flat screen TV, with combined CD and DVD rack to the side and Ikea rug precisely aligned in front, spoke of a woman who strove to keep her life neat and tidy. Compartmentalized.
It was a technique he understood all too well.
The bathroom and two bedrooms – the master with terracotta-tinted walls, bookshelves and built-in-desk – were equally pristine, as though ready for inspection at any time. Perusing the bookshelves, Markham saw their contents was heavily weighted towards the classics – Austen, Dickens, Trollope, Hardy – with a smattering of historical biography. Sadly, he reflected that he and Jayne Padgett would likely have found each other congenial company.
‘She liked the Royals by the look of things,’ Noakes said approvingly, fingering a hefty tome with a picture of the Queen and the Duke of Edinburgh on its spine. ‘My missus is the same…. can’t get enough of Princess Di…. reckons her dying like that were all a conspiracy cos of her having a thing for Indians…. Buck House didn’t want William an’ Harry having a black stepdad.’
Markham could only breathe a silent prayer of gratitude that Kate Burton was spared Mrs Noakes’s highly-spiced insights into the Windsors’ dynastic arrangements. On the other hand, these days Kate would most likely take such digressions in her stride having long since recognized that her colleague was incorrigible. Something of her ‘wokeness’ must have rubbed off on him, since he at least refrained from any reference to ‘wogs’.
There were only two photographs in the flat, displayed in Habitat frames on the oak monks bench beneath the television in the living room. One showed an elderly lady between two unremarkable middle-aged women, both running to fat, but well-dressed with expensive hairdos, while the other was a stiffly posed family portrait with a recognizably teenaged Jayne Padgett in dowdy school uniform – navy blue A line skirt, matching sweater over a white shirt and striped tie plus oversize blazer (of the ‘she’ll grow into it’ variety) – sitting between a stodgy-looking couple.
Noakes picked up the latter for closer scrutiny.
‘Yeah that’s her alright…. Not ’xactly the class raver, was she?’
Under the DI’s cool regard, he hastily qualified, ‘Mind you, that get-up don’ do anyone any favours.’
The DS thought complacently that their Nat had made Hope’s school uniform look like the height of fashion, though this reflection was attended with some slight misgiving as to all that glamour having adversely affected her scholastic record. On the other hand, Muriel said university was overrated these days whereas a beautician would always be in demand….
Markham interrupted these paternal musings.
‘Marjorie Poole should be here shortly. I want her to take another look around in case she notices anything significant…. something we may have missed.’
Noakes looked about him. Now denuded of police tape and crime scene markers, the flat looked totally unremarkable.
‘It’s a nice gaff,’ he conceded. ‘When you think of some places…. Remember the scuzzy caretaker at Hope an’ the state of that basement…. I couldn’t wait to have a shower afterwards.’
Markham’s skin crawled at the memory of their previous investigation.
‘Ms Padgett was clearly comfortably off… a good job…. no money worries by the look of it…. only herself to worry about….’
‘D’you reckon she were lonely, guv?’
Markham recalled those bookshelves. A mental traveller is never truly lonely, he thought. Not with an inner world available to supply all the life, fire and feeling that might be lacking in everyday existence.
Aloud, he said, ‘I think she was self-sufficient…. a woman who had come to terms with the hand she was dealt.’ With a pang he added, ‘Her life was the way she wanted it.’
The DI wandered into the master bedroom overlooking the rhododendron-lined paths of Castor Hill Park, now bathed in a now pale-beaming sun which brought out all the mellow tints and golden gleams of autumn. The old mansion house owned by the Castor family was long gone, but the main entrances to the twelve-acre site were guarded by delightful lodges of various sizes once occupied by the gardeners and outdoor staff. The cottage on the western side nearest to Cabot Court harked back to the Arts and Crafts era and was clearly visible in all its gingerbread-house glory, Virginia creeper half-covering the sandstone and mock-timber façade. Markham made a mental note to have Kate Burton check out all park personnel…. perhaps something on that Saturday morning had been picked up…. some sign that all was not right at Cabot Court….
Back in the living room, Noakes was peering at the contents of a white-painted glass cabinet which stood against the eau-de-nil wall behind the three-piece suite.
‘I like these china animals,’ he said. ‘Beatrix Potter or summat.’
‘They’re Herend,’ the DI observed, wandering round to join him. ‘Very collectable these days, I believe.’
‘But they weren’t nicked.’
‘No…. And our killer didn’t bother with the mobile phone or her purse,’ Markham continued. ‘So this definitely wasn’t a burglary.’
‘Why didn’t they take the computer or the mobile while they were at it?’ Noakes asked. ‘I mean, how were they to know she hadn’t got summat incriminating on there?’
‘Good question.’ The DI’s gaze travelled thoughtfully around the small space. ‘Whoever did this might have been confident there was nothing for us to find. No evidence on her devices.’
‘Or they could have given ’em the once-over jus’ to see if there was owt iffy.’
‘Yes, these days that would be child’s play…. and there was time…. they knew Marjorie Poole wasn’t due till eleven.’
‘Couldn’t be sure they wouldn’t leave a shadow behind on the hard drive, though,’ Noakes pointed out with an air of superior knowledge. ‘That’s what did for Shipman, remember – cocky git forgot about clues in the software an’ the teccies were all over him.’
‘It wouldn’t matter about traces of activity on the hard drive, sergeant…. Not if it was Ms Padgett who was forced to log on.’
‘Chuffing Nora…. so you reckon they made her do that before the bleach…. an’ the rest of it…’ Noakes was back to the hair-tugging. ‘But if there was stuff about ’em on there an’ next thing she turned up dead with a bellyful of cleaner… they couldn’t claim it was all a coincidence….’
‘Any halfway competent CPS lawyer certainly could.’ Markham’s voice was flinty. ‘Especially if said legal hotshot portrayed Jayne Padget as a neurotic woman having a crisis…. pretty much anything she did could be explained away as irrational behaviour or fantasy and nothing to do with the suspect.’
‘D’you think Padgett had issues then, guv…. change of life an’ all that?’ Noakes was always notably squeamish when it came to talking about “women’s things” or anything remotely connected with the climacteric. Markham, not for the first time, wondered fleetingly about the intimate side of his sergeant’s marriage, before deciding that some doors were best left firmly closed.
‘There’s nothing here to suggest Ms Padgett was in the throes of a personal meltdown,’ the DI replied.
‘No stash of tinnies an’ no booze in the fridge,’ Noakes concurred. ‘Mind you, the SOCOs found some HRT tablets in the bathroom cabinet.’ The queasy tone was back.
‘Nothing remarkable about that, but we’ll need to check out the medical history with her GP.’
The DS was huffing and puffing in a manner that suggested considerable perplexity.
‘Lemme get this straight, guv… You think whoever did this could’ve made her go on the laptop an’ moby so they could see if she’d put anything about ’em on there?’
‘I think they were callous and cruel enough, certainly.’ Markham’s features seemed carved from marble. ‘Alternatively, they were sure that there was no risk of any digital trail leading back to them.’ Restlessly, the DI raked the thick black locks which – much to DCI Sidney’s chagrin – as yet showed no signs of a receding hairline. ‘They wouldn’t want to leave the flat carrying anything…. less chance of a quick exit –’
‘Or someone remembering ’em.’
‘Precisely.’ Markham’s gaze returned to the cabinet and a playful dolphin figurine whose joyful exuberance was in such sad contrast to its owner’s fate. ‘For what it’s worth, Noakes, I think our killer ruled out any possibility of detection via the electronics.’
‘You think she was killed cos of summat that happened out of the blue then, guv…. I mean just lately…?’
‘More that she strikes me as having been a very private person, sergeant…. discreet, circumspect…. not the type of woman to use her devices for personal stuff….’ Markham smiled at the other’s expression. ‘Oh, I know that’s unusual these days when most people are obsessed with sharing their lives on social media.’ Natalie Noakes being no doubt of their number, he thought before adding, ‘But Jayne Padgett’s more old-style…. not like generation Y or Z or whatever they call the “In” crowd these days.’
Mastiff’s head on one side, Noakes considered this argument.
‘Yeah, you could be right, guv…. going by them Jane Austen books an’ the frumpy clothes.’ Clearly the victim’s sensible wardrobe hadn’t impressed him. ‘Hey, what about a diary…. She’d go a bundle on all that scribbling malarkey.’
‘I think you might be on to something there…. One of the SOCOs said it looked like someone had gone through her desk in a hurry. All her stationery and other paraphernalia – bills and papers – were jumbled up any old how, which doesn’t fit with the rest of the flat.’
‘So you think there were summat personal she wrote down that might’ve landed him in it,’ Noakes said with satisfaction.
‘It’s a strong possibility.’
At that moment, they were startled by the shrill sound of the buzzer.
While Noakes went to admit Marjorie Poole, Markham wandered over to the living room window with its little Juliet balcony. This had a view of the park’s delightful walled garden with floral cuckoo clock, cobbled arbours and geometric flowerbeds where asters, phlox, buddleia and late-blooming anemones jostled in a riotous profusion of colour. On the wall next to the balcony was a framed picture that Markham had somehow overlooked previously – an elaborate botanical sampler whose motto struck him as unbearably poignant: If you chase butterflies, you may never catch them. If you rest quietly, they may light upon you.
He wondered if Jayne Padgett had held fast to that injunction – visualized her waiting patiently for some future epiphany when death came calling instead.
The lost metamorphosis made him all the more determined to catch her killer.
There was a bustle behind him and Noakes ushered Marjorie Poole into the living room.
‘The SOCOs have finished in here, Ms Poole,’ he told her. ‘Let’s go into the kitchen and we can have a cup of tea.’
The homely thick-set woman visibly relaxed.
‘It’s allowed then…. the flat’s not a crime scene any more?’
The DI smiled at her. ‘With this being largely a retirement complex and Ms Padgett’s flat in such good order, we aimed to keep the disruption to a minimum.’
Back in the kitchen, Markham signalled to Noakes to take a bar stool and did the same himself, realizing that Jayne Padgett’s friend would derive some reassurance from being allowed to make the tea. The DS brightened considerably when a plate of chocolate digestives also materialized before them.
‘We haven’t yet had an opportunity of speaking to Ms Padgett’s ex-husband Bill Travers,’ the DI began. ‘I understand his father’s ill in hospital, so it can wait till Monday when we speak to the staff at Hope Academy…. Obviously, he’s been informed what’s happened and Family Liaison are in touch.’
Noakes wasted no time getting down to the nitty gritty. ‘How’d she get on with her ex then, luv?’
Marjorie Poole looked steadily at them. Physically unprepossessing, her unnaturally dark pudding bowl haircut with large patches of white gave her the appearance of a piebald pony. Yet there was nonetheless something pleasing about the intelligent honesty of the woman’s broad bespectacled face.
‘Jayne and Bill got divorced a year ago,’ she answered with a slight compression of the lips.
This wasn’t lost on Noakes.
‘Didn’t like him, then?’ he enquired, munching and slurping with gusto.
‘He’d traded her in for a younger, sexier model,’ came the reply with some asperity. ‘Oldest cliché in the book.’
‘What’s his new bird like?’
Marjorie didn’t take offence at Noakes’s bluntness. Indeed, as so often with members of the public, there was something about the uncouth lumbering sergeant that seemed to put her at ease.
‘Attractive, pushy, brilliant at brown-nosing…. ruthless at getting what she wants…. Jayne didn’t stand a chance.’
‘There was bad blood over the divorce, then? Ill-feeling between Jayne and the two of them?’ Markham enquired.
‘Jayne was pragmatic about things…. aimed to move on with her life and not harbour bitterness.’ Marjorie’s bottom lip trembled. ‘“No point crying over spilt milk,” she used to say.’
Noakes’s piggy eyes took it all in. ‘Great cuppa, luv,’ he said warmly. ‘Can I have another? They don’ spoil us like this back at HQ, I can tell you.’
She bustled about making fresh tea, gradually composing herself.
‘An’ your mate was seeing someone, yeah?’ Noakes made it sound the most natural thing in the world.
‘That’s right.’ She had herself well in hand now. ‘Richard Keogh. Works in pharmaceuticals…. Greeners in Calder Vale.’
‘Was it working out for her with this fella?’ The DS was very casual, but his glance was keen. ‘Sounds like she deserved a bit of happiness.’
‘I didn’t think he was half good enough for her,’ Marjorie replied. But then,’ with a wry smile, ‘I would say that wouldn’t I?’
‘Was he like the other one then…. a skirt-chaser?’ This should have sounded salacious, but the gruff kindness in Noakes’s voice took the sting out of it.
Marjorie gave a shuddering laugh.
‘Oh, Jayne really knew how to pick them! She had low self-esteem, which meant she ended up with the selfish ones…. Look,’ she pleaded, ‘I don’t want to prejudice you against anyone before you’ve even had a chance to speak to them… doesn’t seem fair somehow.’
It was confirmation of Marjorie Poole’s decency that she didn’t want to put the knife in.
‘Was Jayne happy at work?’ Markham changed tack.
‘They were gagging to get rid of her,’ was the forthright response.
‘Why was that, luv?’ Noakes was a picture of mystification. ‘Experienced teacher…. Aren’t they crying out for folk like that?’
‘Experienced…. That was the problem, Sergeant…. Experience equals expensive at a time when schools are strapped for cash and all they care about is balancing the books…. For what they were paying Jayne, they could have had a couple of cheap young NQTs…. the plan being to spit them out when they hit forty and start again,’ she concluded with a touch of venom.
Noakes screwed up his hangdog features. ‘Jayne wouldn’t play ball, right?’
‘She wasn’t the type to go quietly…. But they’d have got her in the end.’
‘How’s that then?’ The DS was curious.
‘Performance management…. capability procedures…. It was already starting…. endless informal drop-ins and observations…. hints about “support” programmes.’ Marjorie’s plain face flushed unbecomingly. ‘Total garbage all of it, but the idea was to wear her down so she’d give in and resign before being pushed.’
‘Nasty scam,’ Noakes observed. The DS had a feeling that Slimy Sid had a similar plan for him only the guvnor kept banjaxing it.
‘Yes, nasty’s the word.’ Markham could tell Marjorie Poole was warming to his big untidy subordinate.
‘You said she had low self-esteem, but it sounds as though your friend took quite a courageous stand,’ the DI observed quietly.
‘Jayne felt it was a matter of professional integrity, Inspector…. She told me that over the years she’d got sick of watching colleagues “disappear” because they were the wrong age or their faces didn’t fit.’
‘What do you mean by people’s faces not fitting,’ he pressed her, though he had a pretty good idea what she meant.
‘Oh…. anyone with a mind of their own…. not afraid to stand up to management or speak out if they thought something was wrong or unfair.’
‘Bit like trade unions,’ Noakes surmised.
‘Exactly like that,’ she agreed. ‘Only no-one wants to be the union rep at Hope cos you might as well have Come and Sack Me tattooed on your forehead.’
The DS grinned. Ole Marj might look like a bag of washing but she was a straight shooter and no mistake. Quite a refreshing change from the usual smarmy bullshit-merchants he’d encountered previously at Hope.
‘So there were issues with management,’ Markham summarized.
‘Well,’ Marjorie bit her lip but then decided to take the plunge. ‘The new assistant head, Judith Lipscombe, had it in for Jayne…. I don’t know all the details, but she was looking to make her name as some sort of efficiency or cost-cutting tsar –’ At this, Noakes snorted with derision. ‘So she was after someone’s scalp and Jayne fit the bill…. There were trumped up incidents and complaints…. plus Lipscombe had a coterie of biddable parents ready to back her up.’
‘Anything official?’ the DI asked.
‘No, but plenty of low-level stuff aimed at making life difficult…. Jayne said Lipscombe was working up to something big but so far she’d managed to dodge the bullets.’
‘Musta been wearing,’ Noakes sympathized.
‘Yes, I think it was starting to take its toll…. And she was doing tutoring on the side…. building up a side-line so she had something to fall back on.’
It made sense, thought Markham, given the poisonous situation at Hope. ‘Was that working out well?’ he asked.
‘She was with Top of the Class…. They’ve got an office in Aldbourne Village…. Pauline and John Thornfield…. I got the feeling she wasn’t mad about them, but the work was regular and they paid well.’ Marjorie hesitated. ‘The agency had another teacher from Hope on its books…. It was a bit awkward because she decided Jayne was muscling in… you know, trying to poach students…. sorry, I can’t remember her name…. I think it was all smoothed over in the end.’
The woman looked suddenly white and wretched, as though it had suddenly hit her that any number of people might have wished her friend ill.
With the intuitive sensitivity to an interviewee’s mood which was one of Noakes’s hidden strengths, the DS leaned in cosily. ‘How’s Wordsworth doing?’ he asked.
The effect was immediate and soon they were swapping feline anecdotes, Noakes cheerfully admitting that his missus couldn’t bear to have another cat after their Siamese ‘Duchess’ had to be put down.
Eventually returning in his own roundabout way to the matter in hand, Noakes asked casually about the photographs in the living room.
With a certain wariness, Marjorie replied, ‘That’s Jayne’s birth mother and half-sisters…. The other one was taken with her adoptive parents when she was still at school.’
‘Sounds like summat out of Long Lost Family,’ Noakes said affably. ‘Never easy with them kind of set-ups.’
‘You’re right, Sergeant. The family situation was complicated.’
Seeing her uneasiness, Markham said gently, ‘We appreciate you want to respect Jayne’s privacy, but any background you can give us would be a help.’
The DI already knew the essentials, but he wanted to hear what Marjorie Poole had to say.
‘Jayne was a foundling…. Left outside the park gates over on the south side…. just off Lassiter Road…. Her birth mother had her when she was very young, but it wasn’t until Jayne was in her late forties that she went looking for her.’
‘I take it that’s the elderly lady,’ Markham prompted.
‘Yes, that’s Margaret Crompton, Jayne’s biological mother…. She’s in Nazareth House now.’
Noakes’s expression suggested a degree of bafflement at this exotic family tree.
‘Her adoptive dad Des died two years ago,’ Marjorie continued. ‘Her mum Marian Padgett lives in Aldbourne Village.’
Dad looked okay but mum had a face like a nutcracker, thought Noakes.
He grasped the nettle. ‘How’d Marian react when Jayne went searching for her birth mother?’
Marjorie pleated her peasant top with restless fingers.
‘She was very hurt… Bill wasn’t happy about it either…. He got on well with Des and Marian, you see.’
‘What about Tricky Dicky?’
Trust Noakes to start nicknaming the suspects. Markham shot him a look. ‘My sergeant means Richard Keogh,’ he said.
‘Oh, he wasn’t best pleased either…. thought the whole thing was undignified and resented the time she spent on it.’ Defensively Marjorie added, ‘But Jayne had a right to explore her roots…. And she tried to be sensitive about it…. made it clear to Des and Marian that as far as she was concerned, they were still her mum and dad.’
What about the Ugly Sisters, wondered Noakes recalling the other picture.
‘The two women in the picture with Margaret are Jayne’s biological half-sisters Angela Studholme and Valerie Holmes,’ Marjorie explained, almost as though she read his mind.
Something about the way she spoke suggested to Markham that they hadn’t exactly fallen on their long-lost sister’s neck. But, sensing Marjorie’s discomfiture, he steered the conversation into more general channels.
‘Nice woman that,’ said Noakes afterwards as they stood in the downstairs lobby. ‘But you could tell she were dead uncomfortable talking about the biological family…. Don’ reckon them two sisters killed the fatted calf when ole Jayney came calling…. No Way Jose!’
‘Well, you’ll have a chance to judge for yourself, Sergeant…. Family Liaison has arranged for them to join us at Nazareth House.’
‘Triffic,’the DS grunted.
A door slammed somewhere in the building, making the two men jump.
‘Think he’ll come back here, guv? Y’know, unable to stay away,’ Noakes speculated uneasily.
‘No, his work here is done,’ came the sober response. ‘But I’ve got drive-by patrols arranged.’
Cabot Court slumbered peaceful and blank-eyed in the autumn sun as though the terrible events of the previous day had never been.
‘Jayne was a lovely person.’ Olivia contemplated their takeaway from The Lotus Garden, the Chinese local that was her particular favourite. ‘Chow mein or sweet and sour pork…. or do you want some of each?’
‘Some of each would be great, sweetheart.’
Sunday evening at their apartment in The Sweepstakes, an upmarket complex off Bromgrove Avenue, had come to be the couple’s ‘treat night’ when they ate off trays in front of the television. But tonight, Olivia wanted to hear about developments in her lover’s latest investigation, not least as she knew Jayne Padgett from Hope.
Outside it was dark with a steady relentless drizzle, but their kitchen was cosy and aromatic from the takeaway.
Markham watched his lover with amusement as she sat at the pine table decanting noodles and pork balls from foil trays onto plates, happily munching on prawn crackers while setting out their feast. Tall and willowy, it was a wonder to him how she never seemed to put on an ounce despite a hearty appetite.
Olivia caught his eye.
‘With something as horrible as this murder, I shouldn’t really want all of this,’ she said with compunction. ‘’But if anything, I’m hungrier than usual.’
‘Life goes on, Liv,’ Markham said gently, ‘and I know how it is for you teachers eating on the hoof all week…. Nothing wrong with having a blow-out.’
‘You’re right about eating on the hoof,’ she agreed. ‘Our lunch hour at Hope has shrunk to about ten minutes if we’re lucky…. And as for loo breaks, well you can forget it.’
He was relieved the subject of Hope Academy had come up quite naturally.
‘From the sound of it, Jayne Padgett was one of the good guys,’ he said. The food was hot and the noodles deliciously crispy, and Markham felt his own jaded tastebuds begin to revive.
Olivia’s expression was affectionate. ‘Jayne looked prim and old-fashioned – she laughed at herself for being like Mrs Pepperpot…. the old woman with the bun from the children’s series…. But she was good fun…. no interest in promotion or anything like that…. just a hardworking classroom teacher who really cared about the kids.’
Markham recalled what Marjorie Poole had implied, about Jayne being measured for her professional shroud. ‘Did it count against her, not caring about career development?’
‘Oh, don’t get me wrong, she wanted to be the best teacher she could be…. she wasn’t a chalk-and-talk merchant, and she welcomed new ideas…. But she was different from so many of them at Hope – the ones desperate to strut round with a clipboard, boss everyone else about and stay as far away from the kids as possible.’ Olivia contemplated her glass of pinot grigio meditatively. ‘And she was kind, Gil…. I remember she kept Kit Kats and biscuits in her room for students who missed breakfast club, and she had a reward box with little prizes for the weaker ones… kids were always turning up at her door – and it wasn’t cupboard love, they really liked her because she listened.’
‘Her friend Marjorie suggested the knives were out for her,’ Markham said carefully.
‘Once staff get to a certain age, schools want shot of you so they can employ cheaper people.’ Olivia flashed him a grin before taking an enormous swig of her wine. ‘They’ll be targeting me too any day now.’
Markham would back his lover against the apparatchiks any day.
‘The name Judith Lipscombe came up.’
Olivia pulled a face, putting down her forkful of baby bok choy and mushrooms as though she had suddenly lost her taste for them.
‘Lipscombe and Tony Brighouse – he’s the new Head – are pretty ruthless…. They didn’t like Jayne because she couldn’t toady to save her life…. and she spoke up about stuff that was wrong…. rubbish behaviour policies, excessive workload, bullying, health and safety.’ Her face darkened in a manner that suggested she was running through a similar inventory of her own.
Markham interrupted these reflections. ‘Did things get ugly, then?’
His partner looked troubled.
‘I’d heard rumours about allegations,’ she said, ‘but they couldn’t have made it stick otherwise Jayne would’ve been out on her ear.’
‘Could have been anything, Gil…. I wouldn’t put it past that pair to plant porn on someone’s computer if it meant they had an excuse for sacking them.’
‘I take it Jayne hadn’t opened up to any of you about what was going on?’
‘She didn’t confide in me, Gil…. I think there came a point where she just decided to keep her head down and build up her tutoring outside school.’
‘Ah yes, the tutoring….’ Markham helped himself to a barbecued spare rib from the plate of “extras”. ‘Apparently there was a colleague who felt Jayne was queering her pitch…. one Gill Dacre.’
Olivia raised her eyes to heaven. ‘That woman’s an officious so-and-so…. bossy, loud, opinionated and thinks she’s god’s gift to teaching…. Also, I reckon she was jealous of Jayne’s popularity with the kids. Wow, this prawn toast’s seriously good.’ Now she was tackling the extras with gusto. ‘But Dacre’s well in with the leadership team and there’s a clique of parents in her corner…. I think she stirred them up to make trouble for Jayne.’
‘Would that be a Mr and Mrs Restorick by any chance?’
‘My you are well-informed, Gil.’
‘Matt was helpfully indiscreet.’
‘Ah, now I get it.’ Matthew Sullivan was also an assistant head at Hope (‘too many chiefs an’ not enough Indians in that place,’ Noakes griped, bemused at the number of managers). Always close, the trio had become still closer during the notorious Ashley Dean murder case when Sullivan himself had fallen under suspicion. Cheerfully un-PC, he had grown on Noakes, a process materially assisted by their mutual love of The Beautiful Game.
‘D’you fancy some of this dim sum, Gil? Come on, you need to save me from myself. Otherwise I’ll be waddling into class tomorrow.’
‘No you won’t.’ He regarded the flushed, vivacious face admiringly. ‘You’ll glide in there with your usual balletic grace so no-one could possibly imagine the scale of tonight’s pig-out!’
She grinned then returned to the subject in hand. ‘Did Matt have any idea about who could have done this to Jayne?’
‘He was knocked for six, especially when I told him about the bleach.’ Markham refrained from telling Olivia that there might have been a sexual motive. The case was horrific enough as it was.
She shuddered. ‘I can’t begin to imagine the pain.’ Suddenly she had no trouble resisting the dim sum.
‘She was strangled too…. would have been unconscious very quickly.’ It was small comfort, for Markham too could hardly bear to visualize Jayne Padgett’s death throes. ‘She bit her tongue almost in half,’ Dimples had told him in a terse phone call from the morgue. ‘Wasn’t raped, so the sex looks like an afterthought…. either private gratification or to get you haring off in the wrong direction.’
Olivia’s voice broke into his thoughts.
‘Do you have any leads, Gil?’
‘I’m ruling out the residents at her flats. It’s a small block, all elderly retirees…. There’s a caretaker, but he wasn’t there on Saturday – part-time reservist with the Territorials and off on some team-bonding exercise.’
‘Isn’t there cover for when he’s not there?’
‘The management company normally sorts it, but for some reason there was no-one on that day.’ Markham smiled grimly. ‘Presumably heads will roll.’
‘Would it have made any difference if they hadn’t screwed up?’
‘Probably not.’ He sighed. ‘Anyway, Cabot Court’s a dead end.’ He bit his lip. ‘Sorry, poor choice of words.’
Olivia reached across the table and squeezed his hand.
‘Don’t beat yourself up. It’s early days.’
‘Try telling that to the DCI.’
‘How is the Slimy One?’
‘We’re due to brief him first thing Tuesday morning.’
She chuckled. ‘Get George to wear something suitably eye-catching by way of distraction.’
‘It’ll take more than Noakes’s dubious sartorial choices to keep Sidney off our backs…. He’s probably got some whizzy profiler lined up to blind us all with science.’
‘Kate’ll like that.’
‘She always gets on with the boffins…. The rest of us just find them a bloody nuisance.’
Markham toyed with his dim sum. ‘I should warn you, we’ll be down at Hope tomorrow morning doing interviews with Jayne’s ex and the powers that be.’
‘Don’t forget Bill’s lissom young girlfriend.’
‘I take it you don’t like Christine Bickerton.’
‘Don’t much care for either of them,’ was the blunt response. ‘Bill Travers is a pompous git and she’s always got an eye to the main chance…. runs snitching to management at the drop of a hat with a view to making herself look better. Yuk! Anyway,’ her voice was ominous, ‘you’ll be able to judge for yourself.’
Markham felt it best to leave the subject of Hope Academy for the time being.
‘Jayne’s family background is somewhat complicated,’ he continued.
‘Did you know she went on Bromgrove Roundup when it was still going?’
‘What’s that when it’s at home?’
‘Honestly, Gil, you’re hopeless…. Don’t you remember…. a sort of TV magazine programme…. more upmarket than Jeremy Kyle, obviously.’
He quirked an eyebrow. ‘That wouldn’t be difficult.’ Then, increasingly intrigued, ‘What was she doing on there, then?’
‘Well, it was a Nick Critchley piece –’
‘That name rings a bell…. Oh yes, wasn’t he the bloke who got into trouble for sensationalism…. exploitative reporting or some such?’
‘That’s the one…. People who’d been on the show complained he twisted things and misrepresented them to boost the ratings.’
‘But that’s par for the course isn’t it?’
‘You’re such a cynic.’ But Olivia’s tone was indulgent. ‘Actually, now I come to think of it there were parallels with Jeremy Kyle….’
‘Wasn’t Kyle’s show axed over something similar? I seem to remember a contestant committed suicide and then all these folks came out of the woodwork with horror stories about how he’d manipulated them….’
‘That’s right. The mental health charities made a huge hoo-ha about it.’ Olivia poured herself another glass of wine. ‘Help me out here, Gil, otherwise I’m going to feel like a lush. Bad enough I’m such a chav that I have it with ice cubes.’
With a wry smile, he complied.
‘Was Jayne one of the people who complained about Critchley, then?’ he asked.
‘Well, hers was the last “family feature” he did, and the show bit the dust not long after that.’
‘Did you watch it, Liv?’
‘No,’ she said regretfully. ‘But I believe it was a bit of a hatchet job…. made it appear like Jayne’s blood relatives resented the upheaval in their lives when she showed up…. felt displaced in their mother’s affection, that kind of thing…. The biological mother looked like some vulnerable old dear who wasn’t firing on all cylinders, while the adoptive mum came across all bitter about being thrown over for someone else.’
‘Phew!’ he whistled. ‘What a mess.’ Then, ‘That explains it….’
‘Why Noakes and I got zilch from the next-of-kin.’
‘Who did you meet?’
‘Well, it turned out her biological mother Margaret Crompton wasn’t well enough to see us – she’s in Nazareth House with advanced Parkinson’s – so we had to make do with the half-sisters….’ Markham grimaced. ‘I couldn’t track them down yesterday – apparently there was some family shindig in Blackpool – so today was the condolence visit.’
‘What were they like?’
‘There wasn’t really time to judge. Margaret’s condition had suddenly deteriorated, so they were preoccupied with that.’
Angela Studholme and Valerie Holmes had struck Markham as two well-coiffed women with the self-assurance of the comfortably off. Both were somewhat overweight, but on closer inspection it was apparent that Valerie had once been very pretty, the frosted blonde hair to her shoulders and a certain doe-eyed soulfulness making her more attractive in the flesh than the woman they had seen in the photograph at Jayne’s flat. Angela, with her dark chignon and spectacles resembled a school librarian, but it turned out her air of competent efficiency was the legacy of her career as an administrator at the Newman Hospital. Both women exhibited a certain wariness and were difficult to read, but that was probably not to be wondered at given the circumstances.
‘If they were in Blackpool yesterday, surely they couldn’t have had anything to do with Jayne’s murder, even if there was ill-feeling over the Critchley business.’
‘They didn’t set off till midday, so there was time for a visit to Cabot Court.’
‘You don’t think they could have done something like that to her do you, Gil?’
‘Noakes says poison is a woman’s weapon.’ Markham tried to keep his tone light. ‘He was full of George Chapman to start with, but it didn’t take long before he was regaling me with Florence Maybrick and black widow killers in general.’
Olivia giggled. ‘Sky Crime’s got a lot to answer for…. So which of them does he have down as Bromgrove’s answer to Lucrezia Borgia?’
‘I think he was stumped, to be honest. They were hard to read.’
‘Anybody else in the mix?’ Olivia looked wistfully at the pinot grigio, but no, even with the prospect of 9T on the morrow (T standing for ‘Thick as mince’, as Noakes would doubtless put it), she really couldn’t justify polishing off the bottle.
‘Jayne had an on-off boyfriend.’
‘Oh yes, Dick something or other…. more off than on by the sound of it….’
‘Yes. Richard Keogh…. or Tricky Dicky as Noakes insists on calling him.’
She chuckled. ‘That figures.’
‘He’s what you’d call a long drink of water…. lean and lanky…. not bad-looking if you like the undernourished type.’
Olivia thought for a moment. ‘He’s younger than her by a few years…. Might have appealed to her maternal streak…. she and Bill didn’t have any children.’
‘Did you ever meet Keogh, Liv?’
‘She kept him under wraps most of the time… I saw him at a school concert once… didn’t make much of an impression.’
‘He was quite defensive with us.’ Markham exhaled heavily. ‘But given the way Noakesy was larding on the innuendo about cougars and younger men, perhaps that isn’t so surprising.’
Olivia burst out laughing, the full-throated peal which had first attracted her lover’s notice.
‘Oh no…. Did he really call Jayne a cougar?’ Overcome with mirth, she nearly overturned the remains of the takeaway.
‘Well, actually it was jaguar, but let’s just say Keogh got the gist.’
‘God, Jayne wasn’t exactly a Sex in the City type,’ she spluttered.
‘Quite.’ Markham took a large gulp of wine at the remembrance of their conversation with Richard Keogh.
‘I imagine he clammed up after that.’
‘He was supposedly in the office at his pharmaceutical company yesterday morning.’
‘On a Saturday?’
‘Catching up on paperwork apparently, though there’s nobody to vouch for him.’
‘Ah.’ Olivia began tidying up, but her mind was still busy with the case. ‘Did he say anything about Jayne’s family setup?’
‘He and Bill Travers have one thing in common,’ Markham said levelly. ‘Neither of them approved of the quest to find her birth mother. In Keogh’s case, I’d say he resented another claim on her attention…. he’s the needy sort and whatever the dynamic was between them, it suited him to have her undivided attention…. sounds like that changed once she started investigating her roots.’
‘What was Jayne’s adoptive mother like?’
Markham’s visit to Marian Padgett had been curtailed by the arrival of her GP and a neighbour. No time to form a clear impression.
‘Nondescript and pinched-looking…. had some sort of nervous tic which made me glad Noakes wasn’t with me.’
‘Enough for one night!’ Olivia had detected a note of despondency in her lover’s tone. ‘I’m going to clear up and then we’ll see what’s on the box…. maybe sample Sky Crime so I can impress George with my prodigious knowledge of serial killers.’
‘He said something about there being a documentary about Dennis Nilsen on this evening.’
‘Perfect… That’s the charmer who flushed body parts down the drains, right? Dyno-Rod here we come!’
But beneath the flippancy, Markham could see she was badly shaken.
He wandered through to his study where the curtains were drawn against the damp autumn night. The room overlooked Bromgrove North Municipal Cemetery, a place he had come to love with its ranks of old weathered headstones and monuments interspersed here and there with grotesquely baroque examples of Victorian funerary art.
But tonight he was relieved that view was screened from sight….
The sound of his mobile jolted him back to reality.
It was Noakes.
‘I thought you had a date with Dennis Nilsen, sergeant.’
‘S’alright…. there’s plus one, see,’ came the oracular reply.
‘What’s up then?’
‘Got a call from uniform…. suspected break-in at Cabot Court…. sounds like one of the residents freaked out an’ made the caretaker call it in.’
‘Anything in it?’
‘Nah, guv. The patrol boys thought they saw some kid legging it towards the park but that was all.’
‘Is there any way of getting into the building without being buzzed in?’
‘They’ve all got individual numbers for the keypad downstairs.’ Noakes sounded uneasy.
‘What if the killer forced Ms Padgett to tell them her user code?’
‘You mean so they could come back later?’
‘Maybe they wanted to have another look round the flat.’ Markham’s mind was racing. ‘One of the SOCOs said it looked like someone had been rooting through her desk, remember.’
‘Or p’raps they were worried they’d dropped summat…. left us a clue…. But the exhibits boys parcelled everything up after we’d finished with Marjorie…. there weren’t owt like that knocking about.’
Markham pictured the grizzled DS scratching his chin.
‘The patrol definitely didn’t see anything significant?’
‘Jus’ this kid going like the clappers…. But there’s a group of tearaways from Aldbourne knock about at night near the park…. most likely it was one of them. Had his hoodie up so they didn’t get a look at his face.’
‘What about security at Cabot Court tonight?’
‘I’m sorting a static unit, guv…. parked out the front so everyone gets the message an' the coffin dodgers c'n sleep easy.’
Markham chose to ignore the irreverent reference to Jayne Padgett’s neighbours. ‘Good.’ Suddenly he felt light-headed with fatigue. ‘First thing tomorrow I want a look at the crime scene photos in case there’s anything that seems out of place…. plus I need to see an inventory of the flat’s contents.’
‘Right, boss.’ A gargantuan yawn told him the DS was equally weary. ‘How’s your Olivia?’
Markham smiled to himself at the unwonted bashfulness.
‘Thanks to your pep talk earlier, I’ve been enlightening her on the subject of famous poisoners.’
Doubtless this would make Noakes’s night, if not his entire week.
‘Right, guv.’ A portentous clearing of the throat. ‘Happen I’ll let you get back to it.’
‘George probably thinks we were swinging from the chandeliers,’ Olivia commented when he reported this exchange.
‘Not at all. He’s got us down as Dennis Nilsen aficionados,’ he said. ‘A romp with you doesn’t compare!’
She threw a sofa cushion at him as they dissolved in laughter.
Then, more seriously, she asked, ‘How’s it going with the forensics?’
‘DNA samples are only valuable if they fit profiles on the database, Liv.’
‘And there wasn’t anything like that in Jayne’s flat?’
‘Unfortunately, no. Plus, whoever killed her was forensically aware, so we’re on a hiding to nothing…. And even if we do turn up evidence of family members or colleagues, cross-contamination or any one of half a dozen crime scene scenarios can explain it away.’
‘So basically, you’re stuffed.’
He echoed his lover’s mantra from earlier in the evening. ‘Early days, sweetheart, early days.’
Olivia reached for the remote.
‘Right,’ she said, ‘Dennis Nilsen awaits.’ With a guilty glance at her lover, ‘Bit of a busman’s holiday for you, Gil.’
‘Who knows what I’ll glean, Liv…. Right now, I need all the help I can get.’
With that, they curled up together on the sofa, the agency investigation temporarily banished from their minds.