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CRIME IN THE ALLOTMENT

Prologue 

 

Ninian Creech was in a foul mood as he stomped along one of two parallel grass avenues that ran between the plots of Beauclair Drive Allotment Association at the edge of Hollingrove Park.

  It was a grey, dank New Year’s Day, the dreary weather matching his disgust with the world in general. Thank god he was at least able to escape the cramped little terraced house on Bromgrove Rise and escape to his caretaker’s shed where he was free from the interminable reproaches of his wife.

  The shed was initially a cold, dark space when Ninian took it over, but over time he had made it quite cosy with a second-hand rattan armchair, along with odds and ends from home that he had managed to smuggle out without his better half noticing. He had introduced a little heater and primus stove too, though technically people weren’t supposed to cook on site and no doubt that almighty busybody Mrs Margaret Cresswell would have something to say about it when she chaired the next meeting of the allotment committee.

  Well the old bat can stick her objections where the sun don’t shine, Ninian thought crossly as he unlocked the shed and hung up his coat on one of the pegs he had fixed between two narrow Perspex windows positioned at right angles to the left of the door. He was pleased to see that the winter jasmine he had put in a jam jar on the little fold up table was still looking fairly jaunty, like a burst of sunshine in his cramped little den.

  Ninian did not exactly resemble a poetic soul, being a prematurely aged man who had a bald pate with a fringe of white hair and drooping moustache beard of the same colour. Wrinkled, stooped and weather-beaten, he wore the air of one who had always worn a domestic yoke, but even a yoked creature can have its own whims and fancies.

  Flipping the convector heater on, he set about making tea and then, with his well-sugared beverage and a shortbread biscuit from the tin he had got for his birthday, he sank into the rattan armchair with a sigh of satisfaction and some amelioration of his previous grumpiness. Eyeing a padlocked cupboard under the sink (for the shed benefited from running water), he debated adding a nip of Scotch before deciding against it. While not exactly subscribing to poncey notions about ‘Dry January’, he could do with cutting back a bit.

  Mind you, he hardly knew how he would have survived the festive season without illicit stiffeners. It had been their turn to host his know-all brother-in-law Steve, who the wife persisted in saying worked ‘in oil’ when he was nothing more than the owner of a garage in Birmingham. Those solar-powered fairy lights Steve had brought for the bushes in their front garden were a bleeding nuisance. Not only did they give up the ghost at the first sign of rain, but he had been endlessly criticised for ‘doing it wrong’, to the point where he fantasised about wrapping them round the throats of his nearest and dearest. Bad enough that the neighbours had a ringside seat as he stumbled about in the pitch dark alternately jabbing at useless rinky-dinky remotes and repositioning those poxy panels every which way in the boggy flowerbeds, but Steve giving himself airs when any fool could see the decorations were duds was the giddy limit. Needless to say, he’d copped the blame for the whole fiasco. Steve could do no wrong and that was that. The only blessing being that there weren’t a wife and kids in tow…. a battalion of monstrous Mini-Mes would have been pretty much the last straw. As it was, they were stuck with golden boy till the sixth, which meant he would have to be pretty inventive with excuses for dodging the obligations of hospitality. The missus had been downright suspicious when he said there was stuff he had to check out, but she was distracted by having their guest to fuss over and coddle.  

  He didn’t think much of the hideous garden gnome which was Steve’s Christmas present to him (‘I know how you green-fingered types like to put on a show’, Ho Ho), leaving the ceramic figurine shrouded in its carrier bag. There was something creepy about the goblin’s leering expression, as though it knew something to his disadvantage. And the garish colours offended his eye. It looked like something Steve had picked up at a car boot sale, whereas his hostess hit the jackpot with what looked like a bloody flask of Chanel No. 5. Oh yeah, Stevie Boy knew which side his bread was buttered.

  Christmas was a right pain in the backside when all was said and done. All the fake jollity and feeling you had to join in for fear of being called a Grinch. That Secret Santa bollocks the allotmenters insisted on was one big cringe. He was almost certain whoever had got him that stupid whoopee cushion did it out of spite. Like they didn’t know he was hoping for a new tool bin!

  Ninian’s thoughts turned to the allotment.

  All in all, it wasn’t a bad place to have ended up after those years as a school caretaker. No more shrieking hooligans to contend with, for one thing. Though there was no escaping teachers, with a few of the Hope Academy crowd being conscientious horticulturalists and proud possessors of various greenhouses, huts and polytunnels scattered round the site.

  What was it Hope’s deputy head Elsie Parker was always saying? Oh yeah, all that about having an allotment being great for mindfulness and mental equilibrium, or Yin and Yang as youth worker Hilary Probert called it.

  He supposed there was something in it…. having green space to breathe and engage with nature, especially if you lived in a flat and didn’t have your own garden. Mind you, it didn’t mean you got away from all the aggro of folk not getting on and bitching about each other, seeing as the allotments were a kind of miniature society with factions and rivalries, gossip and rumours to beat all get out. Plus, people could get pretty steamed up about their radishes and runner beans, especially if they thought someone was stealing a march or nicking stuff.

  The allotmenters themselves were fairly possessive about the place, turning down the council’s invitation to host ‘allotment therapy’ programmes in conjunction with Bromgrove Mental Health Services. Ninian kind of understood where they were coming from. You didn’t necessarily want some nutjob with god knows what mental issues waving a hoe around and only a very small path between you…. just wouldn’t feel safe.

  Speaking of safety, he supposed he ought to give things the onceover. It was only a small site, with thirty full and ten half-plots, but the proximity of Hollingrove Park meant there was a waiting list. At this time of year, he had the place all to himself, given the miserable weather and the fact that even the most die-hard fresh air fiends were probably too stuffed or hungover to wield a spade.

  Sighing virtuously, he retrieved his coat and headed out, passing the grey concrete hut where the committee held its meetings and kept the communal lawnmower along with assorted communal odds and ends.

  The majority of plots at this time of year comprised freshly tilled patches of brown soil, with overwintering vegetables covered by layers of newspaper or protective fleece and little heaps of compost and manure dotted around. Mostly the place looked neat and well-maintained, the sheds and greenhouses securely padlocked and equipment stowed tidily away. Trellises and canes stood stiffly to attention, looking bare and forlorn after their winter pruning, but he spied the odd splash of colour here and there where allotmenters had opted for winter-flowering clematis, hellebores, honeysuckle and pansies.  

  Ninian gave the new waterless compost toilet a wide berth. Nothing wrong with the old septic tank setup in his opinion, but these trendy eco-warriors had to have it their own way. Well you wouldn’t catch him using it. This was one issue where he and Margaret Cresswell were in complete agreement. He grinned at the recollection of her expression when that bloke from the council gave them his spiel on how to keep the rats out…. looked like she was going to puke when he talked about them liking human waste so you had to get out the old chicken wire and sawdust. But hippy-dippy Hilary Probert had loved it. Ninian snorted, reflecting that if that one got her own way, they’d be overrun with ponds and frogs and god knows what else…. chickens most like…. As it was, her plot was starting to look a tad overgrown with those brambles, untamed blackberry bushes and overhanging fruit trees. Madam Cresswell was sure to be on Hilary’s case about it, not to mention her ramshackle shed which looked as though it was about to fall down.

  Catherine Leckie, headteacher at Hope Academy (popularly known as Hopeless), was another one keen on wildlife and all that environmental jazz. Even wanted them to keep bees and run ‘nature detective’ programmes for local kids. But the association shot her down in flames. Valerie Shipley had been particularly snotty about it. Not surprising really seeing as it was Leckie who got Valerie’s brother chucked off the allotment for being a Peeping Tom. It had all been hushed up pretty quickly, so Ninian never got to find out exactly what had happened or who it was Dave Shipley was supposed to have been spying on. He couldn’t imagine anyone looking for action amongst the beets and pumpkins – not exactly a turn-on in his book – but he remembered watching that Lady Chatterley series on telly, the one with Sean Bean and some posh blonde bird…. there was that scene with them chasing each other starkers in the rain and doing it up against a tree, so maybe there was some sort of Adam and Eve vibe going on. The wife had pronounced it ‘disgusting’, but then she would……

  Reluctantly pushing away thoughts of pulchritudinous Joely Richardson, Ninian continued on his rounds.

    It was such a compact site, there wasn’t really all that much for a caretaker to do. But Cresswell and the rest of them no doubt figured having a salaried ‘supervisor’ gave the association more of an exclusive cachet than if they used a rota of volunteers. Plus, the allotmenters had plans for expansion and an eye on the redundant kitchen garden (relic of the old Hollingrove estate) that adjoined their acreage. With such a prize in prospect, it made sense to talk up their security consciousness.

  The pay was bobbins really, but the allotment had a curious charm of its own and there was something soothing about the sense of symmetry and order…. about being in this miniature suburban neighbourhood, with plots in front of sheds instead of lawns in front of houses. When it was peaceful like this – not even birdsong to disturb the hush – and the air smelled clean and sharp, it felt almost as though there was an unseen presence untangling the snarled threads of his life and whittling his domestic fetters apart…. as though the allotment was a piece of magical blotting paper designed to soak up all the everyday frustrations.

  His mouth twisted ironically.

  Shame the allotmenters had to come clodhopping around and spoil it.

  Well, for now the place was his. All his.

  Despite the fading light and increasing chill, he lingered, feeling for some reason impelled to do another circuit.

  He frowned as he passed Donald Kemp’s patch. Just because the bloke was the son of Councillor Frank Kemp, he seemed to think it gave him the right to carry on like he was on the set of Steptoe and Son…. that grotty- rain-damaged sofa with springs sticking out, for god’s sake…. and those rickety chairs…. plus the broken windowpanes in his shed…. At this rate, he’d be another one for Cresswell’s shit list. The thought gave the caretaker no small satisfaction, as he cordially disliked Kemp’s arrogant manner. The jumped-up so-and-so couldn’t even keep a civil tongue in his head, invariably referring to Ninian as ‘Wossname’. That lad’s comeuppance was well overdue.

  Ninian’s expression cleared as he contemplated Catherine Leckie’s pristine plot. Okay, so she might be a Countryfile type always banging on about respecting mother earth and all that nonsense, but there was no denying she was organised. And her stylish shed, with its red pine cladding and the little lean-to for coats and muddy boots, looked like something straight out of Grand Designs.

  He was about to pass by when something caught his eye.

  Her garden shed padlock was off and the door of the shed slightly ajar. He’d been so lost in his own reflections, that he hadn’t noticed the first time around.

  Ninian felt the first stirrings of uneasiness. That wasn’t like Catherine Leckie, he thought. She was one of those who never lost her keys to the site and was meticulous about everything to do with security, even kicking up a fuss about needing to open and close locks with clean hands because particles of soil had a propensity for jamming them.

  She would never have left her shed unsecured.

  Suddenly he was struck by the murkiness of the twilight and the loneliness of the place, his previous feeling of wellbeing snuffed out as though by an invisible hand. Nonetheless, the caretaker reluctantly made his way to the shed by a little path that ran down the side of the plot.

  Feeling foolish and self-conscious, he knocked hesitantly on the door and called out, ‘Miss Leckie…. Er, anyone at home?’

  No answer.

  He felt an overpowering repugnance to push the door open…. The sensation was so strong, his arms hung like lead weights at his side. And now the blood was singing in his ears so that he was momentarily dizzy and lightheaded.

  Almost as though he knew what awaited him…..

  Catherine Leckie lay curled on her side like a child asleep.

  But this was no natural slumber and death had not come to the allotmenter as a kindly friend, the flex knotted tightly round her neck and eyes bulging out of their sockets telling their own pitiless story.

  Ninian shrank back and, blindly, drunkenly, staggered away to raise the alarm.

  What became known in Bromgrove as the allotment murders had begun.

1

Serpent in Eden

 

Monday 2 January found DI Gilbert (‘Gil’) Markham deep in thought on his favourite bench in the terraced graveyard of St Chad’s Parish Church round the back of Bromgrove Police Station. He always felt it was crucial to have this time of reflection at the start of a major investigation before being plunged into the hubbub of CID.

  The weather was unusually mild and clear, in contrast with the murky drizzle of the  previous day, and he allowed himself to savour the tranquillity of the Victorian cemetery with its soft vernal tints of lichen and cypresses amidst serried ranks of blackened headstones, vaults and monuments. The grey squirrels were out in force, frisking around with a vigour that suggested they were strangers to any sort of festive slump or sluggishness.

  There was always something vaguely penitential about the New Year, Markham thought wryly, as though the hedonism of Christmas somehow had to be expiated via endless ‘health targets’ and ‘wellness goals’. Just another commercial racket, was his partner Olivia Mullen’s conclusion, though she had been pleased with the Fitbit Smartwatch he had given her for Christmas.

  Markham’s feisty red-haired partner, who taught at Hope Academy (‘Head of English as a second language’, as she caustically put it) had left him for a time the previous year and become involved with a colleague at the school. However, it appeared that Mathew Sullivan ultimately preferred men to women, though he and Olivia remained friends. Markham was never sure exactly how deeply Olivia had committed herself or how far she had gone with the other man, but the breakup with Sullivan resulted in her returning to their apartment at The Sweepstakes, a complex of ultra-modern apartments off Bromgrove Avenue. Things had undoubtedly shifted between them; certainly, on his side, some of the trust had gone. The sex was passionate…. as good as ever…. but he could not shake off the sense of being a shelter for his clever, highly strung lover, though from what exactly he could hardly say…..

  Part of the problem was his closeness to DI Kate Burton, second in command in the tight little unit that waspish colleagues had christened ‘Markham’s Gang’. The earnest psychology graduate was engaged to Professor Nathan Finlayson of Bromgrove University’s criminal profiling department but showed no particular haste to get her fiancé to the altar. This procrastination did nothing to allay Olivia’s jealous suspicion that the DI held a candle for Markham, despite Noakes insisting ‘her and Shippers’ – the nickname having been bestowed on account of Finalyson’s startling resemblance to serial killer Harold Shipman – ‘were bound to get hitched in the end, even if it turned out to be the longest engagement on record.’

  Noakes.

  Markham’s haughty aquiline features broke into a smile at the recollection of his former sergeant. Upon retirement from CID, Noakes had taken the job of security manager at Rosemount Retirement Home only to embroil himself more thoroughly than ever in the affairs of his former colleagues, wangling a role as occasional civilian consultant much to the ill-concealed chagrin of DCI Sidney (‘Slimy Sid’ to the troops) who abhorred his appalling dress sense, resolutely un-PC approach to life and general uncouthness. It had passed into CID legend how the portly sergeant, well-refreshed at his leaving do, had nudged rubicund Chief Superintendent Ebury-Clarke in the ribs and declared, ‘Life depends on the liver’ before demanding a pint of Drambuie Shandy. Even worse was when he declined an invitation to become an Honorary Life Tangent of Bromgrove Police Club on the grounds that with his luck it was probably a secret society for elderly transvestites ‘like the one Prince Philip belonged to’. DCI Sidney, an ardent fan of the Royals, was outraged even after Markham had explained that his friend was thinking of the Freemasons.

  Noakes’s detractors found Markham’s ‘bromance’ with the pug-featured, jowly veteran unfathomable, but the DI valued his friend’s disdain for station politics, sympathy for the underdog and a strangely poetical strain in his makeup which was markedly at odds with his slobbish exterior. Noakes was the only one apart from Olivia who knew that Markham was a survivor of childhood abuse by a stepfather and had lost his brother Jonathan to drink and drugs. He was doggedly loyal to his former boss and cared nothing for the baleful resentment of Bromgrove’s high command, a quality which had endeared him to Olivia. He and Olivia, indeed, formed something of a mutual admiration society, Noakes regarding her with a chivalrous devotion that was decidedly aggravating to Muriel, his bossy social-climbing wife and former shining light of the amateur ballroom dancing circuit where they had (somewhat incredibly) first met.

  Back in the day, when Noakes was still in CID, he had enjoyed chewing the cud with Markham in St Chad’s cemetery, awakening much trepidation in the soul of the Reverend Simon Duthie (a late recruit to the priesthood after a career with Lloyds Bank) who simply did not know how to take this bizarre relict of an earlier era. Theological sallies, in particular, caused much consternation, since Noakes always threw them out with a perfectly straight face. Markham had long cherished the memory of Duthie’s poleaxed expression when his friend enquired ‘where the vicar stood on having the theme from Star Wars as a recessional cos his daughter fancied it for her wedding.’ Buxom, perma-tanned Natalie Noakes was no nearer making it up the aisle than Kate Burton, but it was an excuse for her father to badger the priest about ‘pop in the pews’ until the poor man didn’t know where to put himself. Continuing with the nuptial theme, Noakes had proceeded to regale Duthie with the one about an elderly Mancunian who said, ‘I grew up in a two-bedroomed terrace with twelve brothers and sisters. I didn’t know what it was like to sleep in a bed all by myself until I got married.’ Noakes chortled happily over the punchline, however the clergyman – founder of the Bromgrove Marriage Encounter movement – was less convulsed. Unsurprisingly, the incumbent of St Chad’s now gave the graveyard a wide berth lest he should be ambushed by the Incorrigble One, so Markham knew he was guaranteed a peaceful interlude.

  At least the other two members of his team were thoroughly unexceptionable, he thought with satisfaction. DS Doyle, a gangling easy-going young detective whose auburn hair and freckles had earned him the sobriquet The Ginger Ninja, had been Noakes’s protégé and the two men were still close, not least on account of their shared passion for the Beautiful Game. There had been a time when Doyle was distracted by his somewhat tempestuous love life, but he was in calmer waters now that he had settled down with teacher girlfriend Kelly. Ambitious and the proud possessor of a degree in criminal law, Markham had no doubt the youngster would one day make inspector.

  Roger Carruthers, the other DS, had taken longer to bed in. Strangely anaemic looking, with his prissy horn-rimmed specs, sibilant speech and penchant for black leather trench coats, there was something of the Gestapo officer about his appearance, leading the rank and file to call him ‘the Nazi’ under their breath. Noakes, predictably, initially failed to warm to the Oxbridge graduate (like Burton a fast-track detective) whom he called ‘Roger the Dodger’. The fact that Carruthers was the nephew of Superintendent ‘Blithering’ Bretherton and initially rumoured to be DCI Sidney’s spy didn’t exactly help matters. However, over time he had somehow gelled with the team , sharing Burton’s fascination with psychology and the others’ fanatical devotion to Bromgrove Rovers. More importantly, in the long run he had proved himself to be no snitch and well able to give as good as he got, with a wry sense of humour that served him in good stead. Twitted by Noakes about his decision to take up golf, he had replied deadpan that he wasn’t sure of the rules and didn’t even know how many bats he was allowed to carry in his case. The day they were in their favourite pub The Grapes squabbling amicably over the menu and Markham heard Carruthers wisecrack, ‘If you can’t pronounce it, we can’t afford it!’, he somehow knew everything would be alright and the newbie was going to fit in just fine. Even Noakes had come round in the end, once he realised that Carruthers admired Markham and intended to remain loyal no matter what blandishments were held out by the top brass. For his part, Carruthers gradually got used to Noakes’s unusual role and now called him ‘sarge’ like the rest.

  It was pleasurable to ponder the merits of his team, Markham thought.

  Unlike the ghastly discovery to which he had been called out the previous day.

  But now it was time to do a quick mental recap before heading in to CID, so he cast his mind back to the scene……

  He had been quite taken with the Beauclair Drive allotments which, even on a drear January day with the plots stripped back to their essentials and SOCOs swarming over the site, possessed a peaceful charm as of somewhere secret and inviolate.

  Once he had donned his paper suit, the police pathologist Doug ‘Dimples’ Davidson, back from his sabbatical, was waiting for him at Catherine Leckie’s shed. Davidson, a bluff countryman with the air of a rural vet (the spit of Siegfried Farnon in the classic BBC series All Creatures Great And Small) looked grave as he greeted Markham.

  ‘Our victim’s the headteacher from Hope,’ he said without preamble. ‘Quite young to have snagged the job, but very capable and a real dynamo…. I remember being impressed by her during the interview process.’

  Recalling that Dimples was a school governor, Markham now understood the medic’s unusually serious mien. He remembered too that Olivia had spoken warmly of the new broom, though in truth she was so relieved to see the back of ultra-PC Tony Brighouse (“Call Me Tony”) that just about anybody would have ranked as an improvement in her book.

  Catherine Leckie must have been an attractive woman, he thought, looking down at the slim form and the long chestnut hair that partially obscured her features. But there was no escaping that ugly garotte, darkened complexion and glazed protruding eyes. At least there was nothing equivocal about cause of death.

  ‘I’ve done the preliminaries, Inspector,’ the pathologist said gesturing towards two paramedics who waited discreetly with their gurney. ‘I’ll put a rush on the PM and give you a call as soon as we’re finished. As to time of death, judging by rigor I’d say around nine or ten o’clock last night.’

Since the tweedy medic could be miserly with such information, he was clearly keen to catch the perpetrator. ‘What the hell was she doing out here so late?’ he muttered. ‘Some kind of romantic assignation or what?’ He gestured towards the shed’s interior. ‘She’s got strip lighting in there and it’s nicely kitted out…. quite the home from home…. but even so…..’ There was bewilderment in his tone and Markham suppressed a smile at the thought that Mrs Davidson was not the kind of woman for al fresco high jinks.

  ‘New Year’s Eve and all that,’ he murmured.

  ‘I suppose so.’ Davidson shook himself. ‘Right,’ he said briskly as the paramedics came forward. ‘Time to move her.’

  The DI bowed his head respectfully as Catherine Leckie left her little earthly paradise for the last time. He tried to think of an appropriate prayer, but somehow the words just wouldn’t come. Then, clear as a bell, he heard Olivia’s voice quoting Francis Bacon. ‘“God Almighty first planted a garden and it is the purest of human pleasures”,’ she had recited teasingly when he baulked at getting window boxes for their apartment.

    So now he prayed that the murdered headteacher’s soul had been transplanted to a realm untroubled by winter rain and storms where seeds of love would flower again. And he vowed that he would call her killer to account.

  A raucous burst of hilarity on the far side of the allotment made the DI’s head shoot up.

  The laughter died abruptly as though cut off by some invisible signal, Markham being known to lash out at subordinates who were so ill-advised as to attempt anything approaching gallows humour. Legendarily chilly, austere and quietly spoken (which inspired the nickname ‘Lord Snooty’), he rarely showed what he was feeling, but respect for the dead was one of his red lines no-one cared to cross.

  Aware that forensics were impatient to process the scene, he contented himself with a brief survey of the shed. It was high-spec and indeed quite the home from home, he thought sadly, being furnished with a quiet good taste that spoke of a gentle and cultured character. Botanical prints and engravings adored the walls, while the simple rustic furniture – including a wooden rocking chair, dining table and chairs, bookshelves (several Jane Austens, he noted) and vibrant braided mat – was harmoniously arranged to soothe the eye. A little home office squeezed beneath one of two double-glazed windows showed that the dead woman used her shed for work, while a full-length potting bench with sink bore a watering can, seedlings and garden implements all meticulously arranged and spotlessly clean. There was a pleasant woody smell which awoke nostalgic memories of trips to the garden centre with his flower-loving mother as a small child.  The shed felt warm and cosy too with no hint of damp or mustiness, no doubt thanks to a slimline space heater in the corner. A huge chrysanthemum plant, all russet and golden blooms, wrapped in cellophane, stood on the floor next to the door. Altogether it was a delightful retreat.

  There was no sign of any disturbance or struggle, which suggested the allotmenter was taken by surprise…. had maybe welcomed someone she knew without realising that she was in mortal danger…

  Could it have been, as Dimples suggested, a romantic assignation? There was no card with the flowers, but the bouquet seemed to betoken some sort of gift – though nothing to say it couldn’t have come from grateful parents or a friend as opposed to some admirer. There were tealights and candles on one of the shelves along with a bottle of red wine. So perhaps this was all about a lovers’ rendez-vous that went tragically wrong. Or maybe Catherine Leckie simply fancied seeing in the New Year by herself in this little sanctuary that clearly meant so much to her.

  With one final look, Markham left the SOCOs to their work….

  Now reluctantly, he got up from his bench in St Chad’s cemetery, squaring his shoulders as he wended his way down through the picturesque terraces towards the gate at the bottom. The sky turned suddenly overcast as though to reflect the enormity of his mission.

  Time to put the investigation in motion.

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

CID always looked stale and forlorn in the New Year, with tatty tinsel and bedraggled decorations trailing from the ceiling and across workstations. But from tomorrow, when the cleaners were back at work after the bank holiday, all traces of frivolity would be eradicated.

  It was high time the department had a refurb, he thought with mild irritation as he settled himself in his small office with its unrivalled view of the car park. Something high-tech and Line of Duty with lots of chrome and plate glass….

  In his dreams.

  ‘Happy New Year, sir,’ DI Kate Burton greeted him softly from the doorway.

  He wondered if he would ever be able to cure her of deferring to him like this, seeing as they were now the same rank. But part of him (the misogynist part, no doubt!) appreciated the courtesy.

  Once upon a time Burton had favoured neutral-coloured Chairman Mao trouser suits that swamped her curvy frame, but today she was wearing a charcoal-grey jersey dress that clung in all the right places. The severe schoolmarmish bob was a distant memory, superseded by a layered hairdo with blonde streaks a la Emily Maitlis. But the intelligent, shyly eager eyes that were magnified to enormous brown lollipops whenever she whipped on her glasses, were the same as ever.

  As they chatted lightly about the holidays, Markham detected a reticence regarding her home life. Ostensibly she and Nathan Finlayson, after going through a rocky patch, were ‘back on’, but he sensed a strained wariness that belied her account of domestic bliss. The DI liked Finlayson, with his self-deprecating manner, lack of pomposity and dry wit, and hoped they could sort it out. In the final analysis, whatever the affinity with his colleague, he felt that he was bound to Olivia. And although, with a certain dog-in-the-manger contrariness, a part of him resented another man attracting Burton’s devotion, he knew in his heart that the situation was best left as it was.

  After some five minutes, Doyle and Carruthers arrived, in high spirits at the prospect of being part of a murder investigation. Doyle brought brownies from home, while Carruthers carried almond croissants and a tray of hot drinks from the neighbouring Costa, it being something of a (Noakesian) tradition that meetings should feature eats and treats. DCI Sidney had more than once commented acidly on their preoccupation with ‘provisioning’, but it made no difference to the team’s rituals and Markham secretly liked the sense of homely camaraderie that characterised their briefings. Burton’s preference for wholefood was not forgotten (‘Are Vegans the ones with the pointy ears?’ Doyle had asked mischievously the first time she held forth about the health benefits of clean eating, in an echo of Noakes’s insistence that he had never met a sane vegetarian). Carruthers dutifully produced a granola bar and soy macchiato for her while the rest of them enjoyed their daily sugar rush.

  ‘Right,’ Markham said finally when they had fuelled up and swapped anecdotes about their festive experiences, ‘let’s see what we’ve got.’

  Burton needed no further prompting, crib sheet and glasses at the ready.

  ‘Our victim is Catherine Leckie, headteacher at Hope, ‘ the DI commenced. ‘She was found in her garden shed at Beauclair Drive allotments by the caretaker Ninian Creech around four in the afternoon on New Year’s Day –’

  ‘What do we reckon to the caretaker then?’ Doyle interrupted eagerly, mindful that the discoverer of a homicide victim always merited close examination.

  ‘According to uniforms at the scene, he’s an unlikely contender… seemed a bit decrepit and genuinely shocked,’ Markham replied, ‘but of course, it could’ve been an act.’ They knew only too well that appearances could be deceptive. ‘He used to work at Hope, so that’s a connection to the victim.’

  Burton frowned slightly before continuing with her recital.

  ‘It’s a small site over by Hollingrove Park,’ she said. ‘No CCTV.’ Her colleagues groaned at this. ‘The place is leased from the council by Beauclair Drive Allotment Association…. The Chair is one Margaret Creswell…. she’s a governor at Hope, so that’s another connection. A couple of the teachers from Hope have plots there.’ She checked her list. ‘Elsie Parker, one of the deputy heads… and Rebecca Atherton who runs the Pupil Referral Unit,’ or “sin bin”. ‘There’s a youth worker name of Hilary Probert and some local business people…. Raymond Cotter… he owns a couple of fashion outlets over in Old Carton and there’s a rumour that Catherine was seeing him –’

  ‘As in romantically?’ Carruthers cut in.

  ‘It’s not clear how far it had gone, but it seems they were pretty friendly,’ came the careful reply. ‘Moving on, there’s Donald Kemp,’ she cleared her throat, ‘as in Councillor Kemp’s son.’ Cue more groans. ‘Then we’ve got a brother and sister…. Valerie and Dave Shipley… some bad blood there apparently…. he was chucked out of the association after a complaint by Catherine, so that needs checking out…. Oh, and there’s a Michael Oddie who paid her quite a bit of attention…. In terms of the allotment, those are the names that cropped up, but obviously there are a number of other members. As I say, it’s a small site and several people were travelling or away for the holidays, which narrows down the pool of suspects.’

  ‘You’ve done well in such a short time, Kate,’ Markham said approvingly, causing her to flush with pleasure and her male colleagues to exchange knowing glances. ‘Do we know anything about folk who might have grudges against Ms Leckie?’

  ‘There was some sort of family feud with her brother Greville, guv. Something to do with their mum’s funeral and will.’ Anticipating his concern for the next-of-kin, she went on, ‘FLOs are with him and I’ve arranged for us to see him tomorrow.’

  ‘Excellent. Anyone else with a potential motive?’

  ‘A troublemaking sixth-former called James Daly…. Catherine expelled him last year after claims about bullying and sexual harassment. And apparently Raymond Cotter’s ex-wife Bernadette Farrelly wasn’t a fan.’ Folding her crib sheet, she concluded, ‘So there’s a dozen or so who look promising one way or another…. something to work with at any rate.’

    ‘I’d like to take another look at the site, Kate,’ Markham said. ‘Soak up the vibes, so to speak…. We can do that this afternoon while Doyle and Carruthers get everything set up here and co-ordinate the house-to-house enquiries. Church Avenue and Rockbourne Close are nearest to the park, so it’s possible the locals noticed something unusual.’

  ‘What about interviews, guv?’ Doyle enquired.

  ‘You can get started chasing folk up right away. I want to see as many members as possible tomorrow evening in St Bruno’s Parish Hall,’ Markham instructed. ‘The church is practically next door to the allotments, so that might help to jog memories.’ He paused. ‘George Noakes used to have an allotment at Beauclair.’ The others grinned as though to say, Wouldn’t you just know it! ‘I’ll swing by Rosemount in the morning and see what he can add.’

  ‘Is sarge coming on board then, guv?’ Doyle asked innocently.

  ‘I believe there’s a good case for saying Noakesy’s insights will prove invaluable,’ the DI replied smoothly, not without an inward qualm at the prospect of broaching this with Sidney. He would have to choose the right moment…. and bring Burton along for the ride, since she was a dab hand at dealing with the DCI, distracting him with news of the latest developments in psychological profiling and the like. Somehow she managed to do with his without coming across as either sycophantic or insincere, which only increased Markham’s regard for her.

                                         ……………………………………………………………

‘Have you heard much from Noakesy then?’ he asked Burton as she drove them out to the allotments with her usual scrupulous attention to the speed limit.

  ‘Last time we spoke, he was sounding off about Morrisons putting Easter eggs out on Boxing Day. It really got his goat. He was muttering about kids having no idea about religion…. thinking it’s the feast of the Easter Bunny and that kind of thing.’

  He chuckled, recognising one of his friend’s perennial hobby horses.

  ‘And he was grousing about the services at St Mary’s Cathedral…. Said he can’t stand the new Dean or Archdeacon or whoever he is…. Apparently last Sunday he started out by telling the congregation what the gospel was going to be. Then he read the gospel. Then, for the sermon, he told everyone what the gospel had been.’

  ‘I believe they call it reinforcement learning.’

  ‘Well, whatever it is, Noakesy was well fed up… Apparently, Muriel thinks this bloke is the bee’s knees, but sarge thinks he’s patronising…. like when it comes to the Last Judgment, instead of all that about sheep and goats, Jesus is going to say , “Right, I want you all to break up into small discussion groups and report back after purgatory.”’

  ‘Sounds somewhat reminiscent of our Diversity and Inclusion training sessions.’ And he knew just what Noakes thought of those.

  Burton smiled. ‘He likes the clergy to give it to him straight…. Be loyal to the Church, Stick to tradition. Keep the Commandments, otherwise you’ll be cut off and might end up being burned.’

  ‘Yes, it’s that Methodist upbringing and Sunday School indoctrination.’ And a sort of Englishness, Markham supposed…. If cycling from the pub to Evensong, past the cricketers on the village green, had passed into folklore and the old customs were no longer what they were, there were still certain enduring signs of what it meant to be Made in England. And George Noakes was just one such example.

  ‘I didn’t know sarge used to have an allotment,’ his colleague interrupted his thoughts.

  ‘Oh, that’s way back in the mists of time…. but it should play well with Sidney,’ he added cynically.

  ‘Noakesy’ll definitely want to be in on this case.’ Burton hesitated. ‘I don’t want to speak out of turn, boss, but I got the feeling something’s wrong at home.’

  Markham’s antennae twitched. ‘Oh?’

  ‘More than his usual Anti-Christmas Syndrome kicking in or anything like that,’ Burton observed wryly. ‘Something else….. but I didn’t want to push.’

  ‘Perish the thought, Kate.’ Markham knew his fellow DI was the last person to try and force confidences. ‘I’ll try and winkle it out of him tomorrow,’ he reassured her.

  The allotments, cordoned off with police tape, were deserted save for the uniform posted at the gate who saluted smartly as they passed through.

  Markham hadn’t expected anything to jump out at him, but he was curious to see how his fellow DI responded to the place.

  ‘My dad would have liked this,’ she said wistfully as they surveyed the various plots. ‘He had his hen house, of course…. but the local allotments didn’t let people keep poultry back then…. I think these days it depends on the council or the committee, so it’s not a no-no anymore.’

  Markham knew that his colleague had struggled badly when her father died.

  ‘He was green-fingered then?’

  ‘Oh yes,’ she said with an effort at lightness. ‘A bit like King Charles…. was convinced you just have to talk to plants and they respond.’

  They paced up and down in companionable silence, totally at ease with each other. Privately, Burton felt absurdly happy as she stole sidelong looks at her colleague’s chiselled profile, but her demeanour was phlegmatic as usual.

  ‘There’s some sort of legend attached to this place,’ she said suddenly.

  ‘Really?’

  ‘Yes…. something about the ghost of a dead baby…. they found the body in an old glasshouse.’

  ‘When was this?’

  ‘Oh, it was the nineteen-sixties…. Someone at the council mentioned the story when I was checking out the background…. It happened at Christmas… the parents were never traced.’

  ‘Any signs of foul play?’

  ‘Bruising, but the autopsy was inconclusive.’ She shivered. ‘Poor little thing, dumped out here like rubbish.’

  Markham detected an unusual intensity in Burton’s tone. For some reason, the fate of that abandoned infant had got under her skin, the pert features looking quite forlorn.

  ‘One more circuit and a quick look at Catherine Leckie’s shed,’ he said briskly, ‘and then it’s back to base.’ He smiled at her. ‘I know you’ll want to check that the tasks have been divvied up properly and chase up Dimples.’

  ‘D’you think we could be looking at a crime of passion, guv?’

  A one-off, was what she meant, as opposed to something more sinister.

  The words ‘serial killer’ hung in the air between them.

  ‘It’s a distinct possibility,’ Markham said slowly.

  Something in his gut, however, told him he was clutching at straws.

  If this was Eden, a serpent lurked in the undergrowth.

  And he had the feeling its poison was not yet spent.

2

The Inconstant Gardener

 

Everywhere was dripping and dank when Markham called on Noakes the following morning, even the flowers in Rosemount’s immaculately tended beds looking dejected and flattened by sporadic gusts of rain. The tall pines and cypresses which lined the winding driveway reared up bravely against a leaden sky, while a lone gardener toiled up and down pathways diligently clearing mulch and soggy leaves that had drifted down. Rosemount’s brochure boasted that its landscaped grounds, including a knot garden and lake, ‘held the suspended stillness of a Constable landscape’. But today it felt more like being in a gloomy Rembrandt, Markham thought as he crunched across the gravelled forecourt to the porticoed front door.

  Inside the white stucco Georgian mansion, however, all was warmth and comfort, with the delightful subtle scents of an old country house and none of the antiseptic ambience one traditionally associated with nursing homes.

  The personable young clinical supervisor greeted Markham like an old friend (given the frequency of his visits to Noakes, the DI supposed that’s what he was fast becoming). ‘You’ll find Mr Noakes in the residents’ lounge, Inspector,’ she said. ‘He wasn’t sure the painting of Nelson was hanging straight.’

  Markham smiled as he made his way across the hall to the right-hand side of the house.

  Noakes was very keen on patriotic art (the more un-PC the better). General Charles Gordon, the defender of Khartoum, had previously held pride of place in his pantheon of warriors, but it sounded like naval heroes were now in the ascendant. Despite being troubled by the whole “Kiss me Hardy” story, he had settled it in his mind that this legend definitely didn’t mean there was ‘anything dodgy going on’ and chosen a striking reproduction of Turner’s The Battle of Trafalgar to adorn the lounge, much to the satisfaction of his new assistant, a cheery eighteen year old called Brian who belonged to the Bromgrove Sea Cadets. Rosemount’s Board readily allocated funds for such ‘beautification’ on the grounds that it not only enhanced the building’s impressive interior but formed a striking backdrop to meetings of Bromgrove History Society and other local groups which held cultural gatherings on the premises.

  Of course, Noakes’s freelance curatorship was hardly part of his job description, but the old villain had somehow carved out a unique role for himself at Rosemount in much the same way as he had insinuated himself back into CID after collecting his carriage clock.

  It amused Markham how his friend’s sartorial eccentricities were far better suited to his new environment than to the world of policing, though what the staff and residents made of today’s startling combo – baggy turquoise chinos, striped shirt topped with a red Pringle sweater, and his beloved George boots (the only footwear an alumnus of 2 Para would countenance) – was anyone’s guess. As usual, his regimental tie was skew-whiff as though it was strangling him, and a tweed jacket heavily patched at the elbows hung discarded from the back of a Chippendale chair. As the DI watched from the doorway of the lounge, Noakes stood in front of his new acquisition squinting furiously with a spirit level clutched in his right hand.

  ‘Looks straight to me, Noakesy,’ Markham said advancing further into the room.

  The lounge was a gracious space, even if it contained far too many poufs for Noakes’s liking.

  There were comfortable furnishings with deep seat armchairs and rolling vintage bookshelves, along with strategically placed coffee tables and charming engravings on the walls. Pastel blue painted walls were offset by rich crimson upholstery and cushions, so that the overall effect was one of understated luxury – unsurprising given that Rosemount’s intake consisted primarily of well-heeled private patients, though the home also took some NHS overflow by way of a nod to ethical nostrums. The room, together with a little annexe used as a writing room, was agreeably scented by pots of winter honeysuckle and its bay windows looked out onto an enclosed courtyard that might have graced the pages of Country Life, with trailing ivy and delightful stone sculptures of pouting cherubs that made the DI suddenly think of that tiny abandoned corpse found at Beauclair Drive allotments. It was an uncomfortable memory.

  Forcing down thoughts of the dead baby, he crossed the deep pile carpet to join his friend.

  ‘Very impressive,’ he observed appreciatively.

  ‘It ain’t bad,’ Noakes replied with elaborate casualness, as befitted a connoisseur.

  ‘Is General Gordon going to join him in here?’ Markham enquired with a gleam of mischief. ‘Or are you keeping him in the staff room to put the fear of God into any slackers.’

  ‘Reckon it’s all about getting the balance right,’ his friend said with dignified complacency. ‘The old folk might freak out a bit seeing Gordon in his fez an’ the natives ready to chop him into bits.’ Which was one way of putting it. ‘Whereas with this one, there’s nowt to make ’em fret about voodoo an’ cannibalism an’ stuff…. They c’n jus’ imagine old Horatio on deck doing his heroic bit.’ Bleeding to death from a sharpshooter, thought Markham wryly, but each to his own.

  ‘Excellent,’ he said heartily. ‘Are we going to use your office or what?’

  ‘Let’s stay here, it’s nice an’ cosy,’ the other replied. ‘No-one’ll be along for a bit cos it stands to reason they like their lie-ins. I’ll have a word with Bri about the elevenses.’ Nothing like getting your priorities right.

  Noakes promptly disappeared on his errand, leaving Markham to sink into a red velvet wingback. The peace and comfort were so seductive, that he momentarily closed his eyes.

  With a clatter and bustle, Noakes reappeared trailed by his ruddy-cheeked subordinate who was carrying a tray and looked comically out of place in these plush clubroom surroundings. It was obvious the two of them got on, the older man adopting a fatherly tone that indicated he was well pleased with his apprentice. After an exchange of pleasantries, the youngster departed, leaving them to their excellent coffee and shortbread.

  ‘No need to ask if it’s going well for you here, Noakesy,’ Markham commented, eying his friend shrewdly.

  ‘Yeah well, they’re nice folk an’ the boss man don’ interfere too much.’ High praise in Noakes’s book. With self-conscious pride he added, ‘Asked if I wanted to live in…. there’s a flat going if we fancied it.’

  ‘What does Muriel say?’ Markham could imagine Mrs Noakes being tempted by the chatelaine-like possibilities. Whereas Olivia found the woman’s snobbery and social pretentions exasperating to the nth degree, he compassionated the insecurity that he sensed was at the root of her posturing. The psychologists would probably label it a type of Imposter Syndrome…. whatever the cause, he found it poignant more than anything else. In fact, it had struck him that the same was true of DCI Sidney who was mellower these days, as though the prospect of his own retirement in the not-too-distant future was slowly releasing him from the straitjacket of corporate ambition and professional jealousy of Markham….

  Noakes’s voice cut across his thoughts.

  ‘Well, the missus thought about it…. executive perks an’ all that. But in the end she decided it wouldn’t be fair on the community, seeing as she’s so…. involved with lots of local stuff…. Then there’s the neighbours an’ everyone to think of….’ Proudly, he added,  ‘I’m always telling her, “You’re so busy coming an’ going that one day you’ll meet yourself coming back!” But she just says, “If you want something done, ask a busy person”!’

  Markham felt a lump in his throat as he contemplated his friend’s beaming expression, the pouchy, jowly features creased with admiration for his formidable spouse. And if Muriel did have a finger in every pie, who was to say she wasn’t a force for good? He stifled a grin at the thought of Natalie’s likely impact on the sedate environs of Rosemount. While Noakes’s daughter was these days less inclined to rock the mini-skirts and leather trousers that she sported during her reign as the doyenne of Bromgrove’s less salubrious nightclubs,  her brassy charms would undoubtedly have sent residents’ collective blood pressure skyrocketing (to say nothing of her effect on impressionable Brian).

  As Noakes’s face suddenly clouded over, Markham had the conviction that Kate Burton was right and something was bothering his former wingman. Best to come at it circuitously once they’d had a chat about the latest investigation. 

  Noakes, predictably, was fascinated by details of the allotment murder and listened attentively as Markham ran through the details.

  ‘I’ve heard Mu,’ Markham could never get used to this diminutive as applied to Muriel Noakes, ‘talk about Margaret Cresswell,’ he said. ‘Widowed for yonks, but the missus reckons she might be on the prowl.’

  It sounded like this was a case of “frenemies”, the DI thought sardonically. Surface friendship concealing a rich seam of cattiness. No wonder Oscar Wilde had it that true friends stabbed you in the front!

  Aloud, he said, ‘What makes Muriel think that?’

  ‘Jus’ a glint in her eye kind of thing,’ Noakes said vaguely. ‘Plus she’s got cosy with some old boy who lost his wife a few years back.’ He scratched his head. ‘Think he’s got an allotment at Beauclair….’ His face cleared. ‘Yeah, Peter Barlow…. seventy odd if he’s a day…. his wife was a teacher before she ended up in a wheelchair…. motor neurone or MS or summat like that,’ he declared, throwing out medical conditions with blithe disregard for accuracy.

  ‘What was it like at Beauclair when you had your patch there, Noakesy?’

  ‘Oh dead relaxed. But the missus heard that nowadays they’re all properly up thesselves…. there’s a bossy-boots committee always banging on about rules an’ regs an’ all that.’ He scowled. ‘It’s meant to be somewhere you can potter around an’ chill…. But now there’s lots of nit-picking an’ the eco-mob getting steamed up about all sorts… Swampy types,’ he added darkly. ‘I’m glad I got out before any of that palaver.’

  ‘Hmm, that’s interesting…. So people can get quite territorial and obsessive?’

  ‘You better believe it. Yeah, I’m well out of the whole shebang,’ Noakes repeated emphatically. ‘Besides,’ with marked complacency and an expansive gesture, ‘I’ve got the grounds here for when I want to do a bit of digging.’ A pause and then, ‘How’s Slimy Sid with all of this…. got his twisters in a nick in case some nice respectable customer’s decided to go on a killing spree?’

  Killing spree.

  So Noakes too foresaw the possibility that this murder might be the start of something…

  ‘I’ll be seeing the DCI later today,’ Markham said evenly.

  ‘Will he let you bring me in on this one?’

  ‘If you behave yourself, I’m sure I can swing it, Noakesy.’

  Had the other been a cat, he would have purred. As it was, meaty hands cradling his paunch, he contemplated his old boss with ineffable satisfaction.

  ‘How was your Crimbo?’ he said at last.

  ‘Quiet…. We enjoyed Midnight Mass at the Cathedral.’

  ‘Oh aye, us an’ all…. But I didn’t like the way that fella quoted Latin in his sermon…. a bit Papist if you ask me.’

  As one whose Latin scholarship doubtless consisted of ‘Amo, Amas, Amatitagain,’ Noakes clearly resented such imprecations.

  Trying not to laugh, Markham changed the subject.

  ‘Ebury-Clarke will be looking over my shoulder on this one, Noakesy, so we need to be careful…. tact and discretion our watchword.’ Neither of which had ever much troubled his former sergeant.

  ‘Sure thing, guv. Hey,’ with an evil grin, ‘d’you remember when he did that speech to the council an’ I joshed him about it afterwards…. said he was applauded in an’ then at the end clapped-out, geddit?’

  ‘Indeed.’ Markham prayed the Chief Superintendent had a short memory for such delightful banter.

  ‘It was Chris Carstairs’ joke but I nicked it.’

  DI Chris Carstairs in Vice was generally regarded as the station wit, his deft word-mongery much admired by Noakes.

  ‘Let’s hope Ebury-Clarke appreciated the, er, subtlety,’ the DI replied faintly.

  Seeing that his friend was now in high good humour, he felt he could risk an enquiry about Natalie.

  Noakes was a doting father, albeit he was not in fact Natalie’s biological parent. Discovering this during a previous investigation had sent him temporarily off the rails – so much so, that he had nearly committed professional hara-kiri as a result, in addition to endangering his relationship with Markham. But he had weathered the storm, being a man who, no matter how many times he was knocked down, always got up again (not the least of the attributes that had won Markham’s esteem).

  ‘She’s in the family way,’ was the completely unexpected reply.

  ‘Are you sure?’ he asked, though Noakes’s glum face was all the confirmation he needed.

  ‘I assume it’s Rick’s,’ he continued hesitantly, referring to Natalie’s on-again, off-again fiancé, the highly eligible heir to a fitness empire whose hard-as-nails mother made no secret of the fact that she thought he could do better.

  ‘Yeah,’ though the piggy eyes slid away from Markham’s.

  The DI cleared his throat.

  ‘How does she feel about it?’

  ‘It ain’t the right time,’ Noakes said unhappily. ‘They hadn’t planned on starting a family till later, see…. once they were established with their careers an’ all that.’

  Markham heard an echo of Mrs Noakes.

  ‘What does Muriel think?’

  ‘Well now that Nat’s just started on her part-time degree, it’s a bit of a bummer really.’

  The DI was reasonably sure Muriel would have expressed it differently, but got the drift. The Noakeses had been inordinately proud when their ‘late developer’ offspring – a beautician and ‘holistic practitioner’ –  retook her A levels before signing up to do a part-time degree in History at Bromgrove University where she was now in her second year. Muriel in particular derived considerable kudos from what Olivia termed the rebranding of Natalie. No doubt the idea of her daughter’s upwardly mobile trajectory being thrown into jeopardy was pretty much intolerable.

  ‘Of course, she’s going to have the baby, no question about that,’ Noakes said stoutly. ‘We’ve been pro-life in our family from time immoral.’

  Markham bit his lip, unable to smile even at one of Noakes’s notorious malapropisms.

  The whole subject was somewhat fraught for the DI owing to the fact that a botched abortion Olivia had undergone meant she could never have children of her own. But he didn’t betray his discomfiture by a flicker.

  ‘An unplanned pregnancy isn’t the end of the world, Noakesy,’ he said gently. ‘Not these days.’

  ‘I quite fancy being a granddad,’ the other said wistfully, as the DI recalled his friend’s invariable clumsy gentleness whenever confronted with juveniles in past investigations. ‘But it’s the wrong time,’ he repeated sadly. ‘Nat’s looking at adoption an’ that side of things.’

  ‘You and Muriel wouldn’t feel able to….’ Markham’s voice trailed off. What was he thinking of? Muriel would metaphorically clutch her pearls and run for the hills at the bare idea of late-night feeds and puke down the front of her Ted Baker dresses, quite apart from  distaste at the prospect of her daughter having a shotgun wedding.

  ‘Nat don’ want us stepping in…. she thinks it’d cramp our style,’ Noakes said loyally.

  Hmm, Markham thought. Muriel’s maybe, but Noakes and Style didn’t belong in the same sentence!

  ‘Things will sort themselves out,’ he reassured his friend, aware that it was a weak platitude in the circumstances.

  ‘Oh aye.’ Noakes sighed gustily before asking, ‘Whass your plan for today then, guv…. in terms of the green-fingered brigade?’

‘I’m taking Burton to see Catherine Leckie’s brother Greville,’ he said. ‘Out in Old Carton…. They had a quarrel when their mum died…. some sort of row about the funeral and her will.’

  Noakes nodded sagaciously. ‘Families often fall out over the loot.’ He wrinkled his nose. ‘I heard the poor lass were doing well at Hope…. didn’t put folks’ noses out of joint like “Call Me Tony”.’ He and Olivia were united in their scorn for the former headteacher. ‘I mean, people said she were dead modern an’ full of whiz-bang ideas…. but nice with it…. not hell bent on giving anyone who didn’t agree with her their P45.’

  ‘Anyone special in her life?’

  ‘As in romantic?’

  Noakes thought about it, rumpling his salt and pepper hair into little quills and making a porcupine of himself in the process.

  ‘I think mebbe some businessman…. one of the Brylcreem tendency…. smarmy…. designed women’s frocks or summat. ‘ His mouth turned down at the corners. ‘Muriel liked him.’ That figured.

  Brian the apprentice popped his head round the door, ‘The Health and Safety guy’s here, boss.’

  Noakes frowned prodigiously. ‘He’s half an hour early…. bleeding typical.’

  Markham got to his feet.

  ‘Time for me to be on my way, Noakesy,’ he said. ‘I’ll give you a ring later…. we can meet up in The Grapes and I’ll bring you up to speed then…. how about tomorrow evening?’

  ‘Champion.’ Noakes waved a pudgy hand at Brian. ‘Sort Mister Clipboard a cuppa while I see the inspector to his car.’

  Outside, Markham patted his friend’s shoulder. ‘Happy New Year, Noakesy,’ he said. ‘Try not to worry about Natalie.’ Fat chance of that. And, with a wink, ‘Good luck with the artwork… I’ll expect to see The Fighting Temeraire next time I come.’

  ‘Cheers, guv,’ the other said alertly, now sounding far more chipper.

  There was a light in Noakes’s eye which suggested he would check the historical reference in Rosemount’s library before turning his attention to the far less enthralling topic of drains and plumbing. Nothing fired him up like patriotic and imperial history, particularly as he never paused to question if he was influenced by “unconscious bias” or “colonial privilege” or ‘any of that bollocks’. And with the alluring prospect of the allotment murder to get his teeth into, Markham’s visit was bound to have done him good.

  Now for Greville Leckie and the rest of Markham’s suspects……..

                                             ……………………………………………

Markham and Burton didn’t get much out of Greville Leckie when they called at his large, white house in Old Carton. An imposing residence with generous, tall windows and large, high-ceilinged rooms, it was not unlike Rosemount though on a far smaller scale. Markham was willing to bet that the former “captain of industry” would need deep pockets to keep the place up, with signs of its having known better days in the overgrown front lawn and somewhat faded furnishings.

  Leckie himself was a tall handsome man with a fine head of silver hair and patrician features including a decidedly Roman nose. Impeccably clad in well-worn country casuals, he was courteous but steely, giving little away.

  ‘My sister was much closer to our mother,’ he said in answer to Burton’s careful enquiry about rumoured family differences. ‘My wife Deirdre died some years ago and we had no children, so it was really just down to us siblings when it came to organising the funeral.’ His mouth tightened imperceptibly. ‘I was unhappy at not being consulted…. It seemed as if she was trying to shut me out from the arrangements.’ He shrugged. ‘It’s a common enough story these days… bad feeling after a death.’

  ‘What about the financial side?’ Burton enquired delicately. ‘Probate can be very stressful too.’

  ‘She was the executor…. I had nothing to do with it…. only got a few hundred and some antiques but,’ with a proud lift of the head, ‘I didn’t have expectations  or anything like that… Besides, I’m no dog in the manger and,’ with a slight curl of the lip and barely perceptible note of contempt in his voice, ‘teaching in this country isn’t a well-paid profession, so she’s likely to need some sort of nest egg in the future.’

  ‘Yours sister was a headteacher,’ Markham said quietly, finding the superciliousness distinctly unattractive. With the memory of that well-appointed shed in the allotments fresh in his mind, he added, ‘I’d say she was likely to have been well remunerated.’

  The other merely raised his eyebrows. ‘I defer to your greater knowledge, Inspector,’ he said urbanely.

  ‘Did you notice he never once used her name?’ Burton asked indignantly once they were back in the car. ‘It was “she” all the way through…. When you offered condolences, he had this really strange look on his face…. almost like he was sneering…. And there was that weird comment about her being too trusting and impulsive…. you’d have thought he was blaming her for being stupid enough to get herself killed.’

  ‘Grief affects people differently,’ Markham pointed out. ‘But you’re right, there was something very cold and clinical about his responses.’

  ‘Had a decent enough explanation for staying in on New Year’s Eve, though,’ Burton conceded reluctantly. ‘Sounded like he really cares about his dogs and wanted to stay in with the one that had been sick, the black lab…. what was her name….’

  ‘Meg,’ the DI prompted. ‘Yes, he was like a different man round his pets.’

  ‘One of those who prefers animals to humans,’ Burton agreed.

  ‘We can check discreetly with his vet to confirm that story about colic,’ Markham said. ‘As things stand, it sounds credible.’ He started the engine. ‘Now to see about alibis for the rest of our suspects.’

  ‘With Catherine being killed on New Year’s Eve, we should be able to bump anyone “home alone” to the top spot,’ Burton said happily.

  St Bruno’s Parish Hall was a rather soulless and utilitarian gabled red brick building, though the church next door, red sandstone in the perpendicular style with an impressive bell tower, looked like a striking example of Victorian architecture. Perhaps the money had run out when it came to the church hall, Markham thought as he took it all in.

  However, there was little time to contemplate the architecture with a list of interviewees to work through.

  ‘They’re all here except for Dave Shipley, Donald Kemp and Bernadette Farrelly,’ Doyle told him. ‘Carruthers has arranged for you to see Shipley and Kemp tomorrow. Farrelly’s coming in to the station later today.’

  ‘Excellent,’ Markham said approvingly. ‘Now let’s see where they all were on New Year’s Eve. It’s a sociable time, so hopefully no shortage of witnesses to pin down people’s whereabouts.’

  In the event, however, the suspects turned out to be what Carruthers witheringly called ‘party poopers’, virtually all of them claiming to have settled for a night in.

  Peter Barlow, a barrel-chested but vigorous looking man in his seventies with a fussy manner, told them he had his sister-in-law over for a celebratory sherry to ring in the new year. Doyle and Carruthers exchanged eloquent glances as though to say they didn’t think much of that for a rave-up but it was consistent with the man’s age and character.

  Margaret Cresswell, a crop-haired large-boned woman with a booming voice and exuberant manner, waxed lyrical on the subject of allotments in general – ‘places where you could get peace from the bustle of the modern world’ blah blah – before getting down to brass tacks. ‘I’ve got no time for raucousness and people getting drunk,’ she said firmly. ‘I’m quite happy with my own company thank you very much.’ She had hunkered down with a good book and turned in around eleven o’clock. Declining to be drawn on personalities and fallings-out, she said that of course there were sometimes minor disagreements, but these generally revolved around issues to do with ‘allotment etiquette’: people borrowing each other’s tools and not putting them back: not taking care of rubbish; forgetting to lock the gate; failing to cut back brambles or overhanging branches; forgetting to return equipment to the communal bins; leaving the main water tap running. Markham had the feeling that, as Chair of the Allotment Association, she took a tough line with offenders.

  Rebecca Atherton, manager of Hope Academy’s Pupil Referral Unit, was an attractive woman with curly red-gold hair to her shoulders and laughing hazel eyes that crinkled when she smiled. Not that there all that many smiles given what had happened to her friend. ‘We were planning to go out on New Year’s Eve,’ she told them forlornly. ‘But Cate cried off at the last minute, so we decided to do something together later in January.’ Asked why Catherine Leckie had cried off, she said she had no idea. ‘I live on my own and it was too late to hook up with anyone else…. In any case, I didn’t fancy all the hoopla, so it was a good excuse to veg out and watch TV.’

  Valerie Shipley, a hatchet-faced character with harshly dyed black hair, too much makeup and the raspy voice of a confirmed smoker, likewise claimed to have given ‘all the noise and fireworks’ a wide berth in favour of a night in with her husband, a scrawny doleful looking man whose resigned expression that suggested he might have preferred it if his other half had decided to go and whoop it up. Something implacable about her expression when Burton brought up the subject of her brother and ‘issues that arose between him and Ms Leckie’ confirmed the rumours that there had been some sort of incident. But all she said was, ‘You’ll have to ask him about that. It was a load of trumped up nonsense, but these days men are sitting ducks for these #Me Too types with an agenda.’

  Something sexual then, Markham thought as he politely thanked her. In which case, Dave Shipley was looking good for the top spot.

  Elsie Parker, a deputy head from Hope, was an ordinary looking middle-aged divorcée with wavy dishwater blonde hair to her shoulders and discreet make up. Pleasant and business-like, she commented that Catherine was a dedicated colleague and would be a great loss to Hope before moving on to say she had planned to spend the New Year with her son and daughter in Old Carton before coming down with a bad cold and being obliged to cancel.

  ‘God,’ Doyle muttered sotto voce to Carruthers. ‘Apart from the old bloke, not a decent alibi between the lot of them.’

  Hilary Probert was next. Thin to the point of emaciation, with wavy black hair to her waist and striking blue eyes outlined heavily in black against her gaunt, pale face, she came across as intense but sincere. ‘Cate was so special,’ she told them. ‘Saw the good in everyone and had no time for bitching and pettiness.’

  Was it Markham’s imagination, or had the youth worker shot a sidelong glance at Elsie Parker and Valerie Shipley as she said this? Certainly the older women were in sharp contrast to this dungaree-wearing girl who looked like the epitome of grunge. Margaret Cresswell was eyeing her with some disapproval, as though she didn’t have much time for “free spirits”.

  ‘I hung out with friends in The Grapes on New Year’s Eve,’ Hilary said. ‘By about nine, I’d had enough so didn’t stay till the end…. got home around quarter to ten.’

  Michael Oddie too had been in The Grapes, though he claimed to have bailed out early on account of needing to be up early the following day so he could drive to his parents’ in Leeds. Tall and well-built, with the body of a sportsman, he had keenly intelligent eyes behind thick, black-framed glasses and a silver-grey short back and sides. With his frank gaze and pleasant speaking voice, he looked more yuppie than allotmenter but spoke enthusiastically about the lifestyle benefits of Beauclair Drive. ‘It’s kind of cut off – cut off from the world,’ he said earnestly. ‘Quiet and private…. almost secret, like a hiding place.’

  An interesting choice of words.

  Oddie, like Hilary Probert, had clearly been fond of Catherine Leckie, though whether it had amounted to anything more than friendly admiration was difficult to determine.

  Raymond Cotter, on the other hand, freely admitted pursuing her.

  Markham could see why Noakes had referred to the businessman as being  ‘one of the Brylcreem tendency’ given the man’s Mediterranean good looks (Italian ancestry, Markham would have guessed) and easy charm.

  ‘It was early days, but I was making headway,’ he said with what appeared to be genuine sadness. ‘She was a lovely girl…. looked on me as a bit of a Flash Harry to begin with…. But we discovered we enjoyed the same things, and the barriers came down when we were at the allotment, like we could just be ourselves and not have to put on an act for anyone.’

  ‘What do you mean by not having to put on an act?’ Carruthers pressed.

  ‘Well, she was a headteacher, which meant she was pretty much always on stage,’ he replied. ‘And my line of work – fashion and design – means cultivating a kind of persona…. larger than life, if you know what I mean…. Grubbing around at the allotments…. dirt under the fingernails…. it felt kind of authentic by comparison.’

  Markham thought he understood

  ‘Had you arranged to see Catherine on New Year’s Eve?’ he asked.

  ‘We planned to meet up on New Year’s Day… have some food and wine down at the allotments. Cat knew I had to work late at the Artisane Centre in Old Carton because of problems with a customer’s order…. there was only me to see to it…. But she understood. She was good like that.’ Again a slight tremor in his voice. ‘Never pushed…. Never made me feel guilty.’

  ‘Poor sod,’ Doyle said afterwards. ‘Sounded like they really had something going.’

  Ninian Creech, with his small hooded eyes, thinning hair and bulbous nose, could hardly have presented a greater contrast with Catherine Leckie’s boyfriend. But the ferrety caretaker appeared genuinely shaken and subdued. Apparently his wife and brother-in-law had gone out to their local to ring in the New Year, but he ‘hadn’t felt up to it’ since he was nursing a cold.

  ‘More like he was trying to escape the brother-in-law,’ was Carruthers’s verdict, and Markham was inclined to agree.

  By the end of their interviews, it didn’t feel that they were a great deal further forward.

  ‘What about James Daly?’ he asked.

  ‘Coming in to the station later,’ was Burton’s prompt reply.

  ‘Good.’ Markham turned to the two sergeants. ‘Anything from Church Avenue and Rockbourne Close?’

  Doyle shook his head. ‘Not so far, guv,’ he answered. ‘Everyone was too busy getting hammered,’ he added ruefully, almost as though regretting those bachelor days when life was one long party.

  ‘What about other allotment holders… the ones we haven’t rounded up yet?’

   ‘They’re the ones who were away for the holidays,’ Carruthers told him. ‘So far that all checks out.’

  ‘Good.’ The DI realised he had been holding his breath, bracing himself for another round of interviews. ‘At least we’ve got a manageable suspect list.’

  ‘Even if none of ’em has a halfway decent alibi,’ Doyle grumbled before subsiding at a sharp look from Burton. She noticed that Markham hadn’t raised the subject of the allotment ghost with any of their interviewees and wondered if he felt as squeamish about the story as she did.

  ‘Let’s get back to the station and review what we’ve got,’ Markham told them. ‘Then it’ll be time to have a crack at Bernadette Farrelly and James Daly.’

  He wondered what Noakes, the one-time allotmenter, would make of it all.

  Hopefully by the time of their catch-up at The Grapes tomorrow, he would have something concrete to report.

  But as things stood, the field was wide open.

3

Dark Secrets

                                                   

Tuesday felt like it had gone on forever, Markham thought wearily as he let himself into his apartment in The Sweepstakes that evening. Olivia was making the most of her last day of freedom before school started and wouldn’t be back from her friend Katie’s till later, so there was only his own supper to worry about.

  First things first, he told himself. After the day from hell, a glass (or three) of Chateauneuf-du-Pape was called for. Then he would think about food.

  He took his wine into the living room and set it down on the side-table next to his comfortable tartan check wingback over by the bay window before turning his attention to the wood burner. Once that was settled to his satisfaction, he sank into his armchair with a sigh of satisfaction and savoured his drink.

  When they had this room redecorated in baroque red and gold vintage wallpaper, Olivia teased him about wanting to return to the womb, but she had come round to the rich dark colour scheme which was very comforting in winter. It worked in milder weather too, turning the room into a blaze of glory whenever the sun came out. Today, though, was increasingly sombre and windy, and he was glad to draw the heavy damask curtains against the gloom.

  His thoughts travelled back to the team meeting back at the station once they had concluded their preliminary interviews….

  ‘Maybe we’re just looking at a maniac on the loose,’ Doyle suggested. ‘I mean, maybe it was some nutter who got into the allotments and there she was….’

  ‘In the wrong place at the wrong time,’ Carruthers finished for him.

  ‘Mr Creech said he unlocked as usual on Sunday. So they’d have to have shinned over the gate,’ Burton pointed out. ‘And it’s quite lethal with those pointy spikes on top.’

  ‘Maybe they came in via Hollingrove Park or sneaked through one of the back gardens on Church Avenue or Rockbourne Close,’ Doyle hazarded.

  ‘It’s possible,’ Burton said consideringly. ‘But that doesn’t quite fit the random nutter theory…. feels to me more like it must’ve been someone who knew what they were doing or came prepared.’

  ‘A stalker?’ Carruthers asked.

  Burton nodded. ‘If they’d been following Catherine or knew she was going to be at the allotments that night, it was the ideal opportunity.’

  ‘Yeah…. and no risk of anyone catching them,’ Doyle said eagerly. ‘Even the oldies could’ve managed it,’ he said eagerly. ‘With a torch and stepladder, it would only take minutes.’

  Carruthers pursed his lips. ‘Bit risky in the dark,’ he said. ‘You’d need a head for heights to try breaking in that way.’

  Doyle wasn’t prepared to relinquish his scenario.

  ‘There’s sheds along the walls, right? So it wouldn’t have been that big a drop on the other side…. They’d just have to get onto the roof of one of those huts and let themselves down that way, then pull the ladder or whatever they used after them and hide it somewhere with all the other gardening clobber – rakes and wheelbarrows and all the rest of it.’

  ‘I don’t see anyone faffing around in the dark,’ Carruthers said stubbornly. ‘More likely she arranged to meet someone that night and let them in using her key.’

  ‘Okay.’ Doyle was thinking hard. ‘But there’s nothing to say it was any of the allotment crowd. Could’ve been someone who had a quarrel with her from outside…someone unconnected to Beauclair Drive.’

  ‘I’m with Carruthers on this,’ Markham interjected, smiling at Doyle to take the sting out of his words. ‘Catherine’s murder has the feel of…. something intimate…. deeply personal.’

  ‘Could’ve been a passing crackpot, guv,’ Doyle reverted to his initial hypothesis. ‘New Year’s Eve always brings the crazies out in force.’

  Something told Markham this wasn’t a passing homicidal maniac, but he gave the young detective’s theory due consideration.

  ‘We can’t rule that out, Sergeant,’ he said. ‘But still, with this one there’s the sense of it being someone from Catherine Leckie’s allotment network rather than just an individual who bore a grudge…. The choice of her shed feels significant to me.’

  DCI Sidney had precious little time for his ‘hunches’ or ‘intuition’, so they would need to come up with something concrete fairly quickly.

  ‘Okay then…. someone at Beauclair Drive who had got it in for her,’ Carruthers pondered lugubriously. ‘Someone who felt she had somehow done them down…. The problem being, it’s such a respectable setup…. boring even…. cauliflowers and revenge crime don’t really mix,’ he added facetiously.

  Burton frowned. ‘Think of all the issues and rows that break out when people live in close proximity,’ she pointed out. ‘Allotments are a bit like that…. people falling out over rules being broken…. or just getting on each other’s nerves…. clash of personalities, that kind of thing.’

  ‘Yeah, but it doesn’t usually end in murder!’ Carruthers countered.

  ‘It can do,’ she said unexpectedly. ‘There was a case at Colindale Allotments a few years back where an eighty year old woman – I think she was the secretary or treasurer, something on the committee – was strangled by a fellow plot holder after a falling out.’

  ‘What did they argue about?’ Doyle wanted to know.

  ‘It was all very sad,’ Burton said reminiscently. ‘The killer turned out to be a Kurdish-Iranian in his forties who’d come to Britain after suffering torture in Iran. He claimed political asylum and ended up at the allotments via a psychotherapy group helping people who had PTSD.’

  They waited expectantly.

  ‘Anyway, to cut a long story short, it turned out there had been some sort of argument at a meeting where he shouted at the victim and she told him to shut up… Getting told off like that must have offended his sense of status and made him snap…. He strangled her with the starter cord of the communal lawnmower and left her body in the shed where it was kept.’

  ‘How did they narrow it down to him?’ Carruthers asked.

  ‘Well, his DNA was all over the shed, but there was nothing odd about that because he usually mowed the lawns. However, there were only a limited number of keys to the shed and the other keyholders had solid alibis. Plus, there was a history of bad blood between him and the victim and his account of his movements was seriously iffy. As Colindale CID saw it, there must have been another argument when he lost it and beat her in a rage. Then, after he realised this meant he was going to lose his allotment, which meant everything to him, he dragged her into the mower shed and killed her meaning to hide the body later. His plan backfired because her family panicked when she didn’t turn up to a meeting and got the police to search the allotments…. They were calling her mobile when they heard her ringtone coming from the mower shed. The poor woman had a fractured spine and ribs, as well as severe bruising on her face, so it was clear she’d been savagely assaulted before being strangled. ’

  ‘Blimey,’ Doyle exhaled heavily. ‘Did the bloke ever confess?’

  ‘The jury didn’t reach a verdict the first time he was tried. The second time round, he got life with a minimum of nineteen years. He insisted he was innocent and there were some doubts – another plot holder said he wasn’t brave enough to kill anyone – but Colindale were sure they’d got their man. The creepy thing is, his plot hasn’t been touched or entered since then and apparently his possessions are still there in his shed.’

  ‘And he really lost his rag just because this old biddy told him to button it?’ Carruthers demanded incredulously.

  ‘She was apparently quite a strong-willed character…. a bit brisk and bossy, in the mould of Margaret Cresswell…. super-efficient, took no prisoners, made sure people paid their fees…. The killer had got indefinite leave to remain in Britain and been involved with the allotments for around eight years with no trouble at all…. quite the model citizen.’

  ‘But he had a dark side, right?’ Carruthers prompted.

  ‘Well, once the psychotherapy people cut their ties with the allotment, he got more confident…. cockier and more competitive…. wanted to be on the committee…. wanted more of a role…. needed status within the allotments….’

  ‘Perhaps his background meant he didn’t like being bossed around by a woman,’ Doyle speculated. ‘Misogyny, culture clash and all that,’ he suggested diffidently, aware that Burton didn’t approve of stereotyping immigrants and refugees.

  But the DI nodded. ‘It could have been a factor. He wanted a Portuguese allotment holder evicted for keeping chickens and rabbits in his shed and that’s when she told him to wind his neck in… He’d got it into his head that she was in a conspiracy to stop him seeing bank statements and stuff like that, so there was obviously some kind of paranoia going on. He’d been through an awful lot back in Iran – it left him with a wonky eye – so not surprising if he was battling demons…. The victim was originally from Belgium and her husband was Indonesian, so racial tension could’ve played a part….. Quite a few people gave up their plots after the murder, which was hardly surprising. But they’ve got CCTV now and they’re back to full strength with a waiting list. So at least the place is still going.’

  ‘The guy was obviously obsessed with the allotments,’ Carruthers concluded. ‘Possessive and territorial.’

  ‘Well, that’s the thing,’ Burton said. ‘In some quarters, having an allotment amounts to a status symbol. These associations and clubs always have waiting lists.’

  ‘D’you reckon that’s what was going on here?’ Doyle demanded. ‘Jealousy cos Catherine Leckie had that fancy pants Grand Designs shed…. plus, she was a headteacher… pillar of the community…. two blokes sniffing around her…. looked like she’d got it made.’

  ‘Jealousy is at the root of so much evil in the world,’ Markham agreed. ‘But we’re going to have to consider the possibility of this being a random attack.’

  ‘Dimples says she wasn’t interfered with,’ Burton told them, ‘but that doesn’t mean it wasn’t sexually motivated.’

  ‘Yeah, if they came on to her and she turned ’em down,’ Doyle surmised.

  ‘Or they got their kicks from killing because it make them feel powerful…. like Shipman.’ Carruthers turned suddenly self-conscious as he recalled Nathan Finlayson’s nickname of ‘Shippers’, but Burton merely said coolly, ‘Of course, we can’t rule out some sort of coercive sexual disorder or an associated algophilia.’ Doyle’s expression on hearing this suggested he was apprehensive that they were in for some kind of psychological exegesis courtesy of her beloved Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but the DI shelved such discussion for the time being. ‘According to Dimples, she didn’t put up much of a struggle. Which suggests she was taken by surprise or at any rate never saw it coming.’

  ‘Wouldn’t there have been signs of a struggle if some nutter rocked up?’ Doyle wondered. ‘I mean, wouldn’t she have tried to get away….make a run for it…. grab her mobile or put up a fight?’

  ‘It might have happened so fast, there was no time to react,’ Markham replied gravely. ‘Or possibly she just froze… The SOCOs processing Catherine’s flat found her laptop there…. but there was no sign of her mobile or handbag in the shed…. looks like whoever killed her made sure to take those items with them.’

  ‘That would point to them being worried about anything that showed they’d been in contact with Catherine or arranged to meet her ?’ Carruthers asked.

  ‘I think that’s the most likely explanation,’ Markham agreed. ‘Though we can’t rule out them just grabbing it on the way out…. an impulse theft, if you like.’

  Carruthers grimaced. ‘Or if they were fixated and screwy, they could’ve just wanted something personal of hers…. kind of like a trophy.’

  ‘What about those flowers in her shed?’ Doyle demanded. ‘They could point to her having a “Secret Admirer”.’

  ‘Raymond Cotter says he didn’t send them,’ Burton interjected. ‘Uniform haven’t turned up anything from local florists and garden centres…. needle in a haystack really.’

  ‘The caretaker guy said she looked like a child asleep,’ Carruthers mused. ‘So it was more a case of her being posed rather than the killer just throttling her and leaving her splayed every which way…. I mean,’ he groped for the right words, ‘with strangulation, it’s usually ugly and untidy, but this one looks kind of prettified if you get me.’

  ‘Yes, I think I do, Sergeant,’ Markham helped him out. ‘There was the sense almost of a tableau, which seemed somehow at odds with a random ambush.’

  They digested this in silence for a few minutes.

  ‘Who IDed the body?’ Doyle asked suddenly.

  ‘Her brother Greville, but the FLOs said he wasn’t giving much away,’ Burton replied. ‘When the boss and I called round, he was well in control of himself…. I thought he was a cold fish…. but, like you said guv, people sometimes react weirdly.’  

  It was undoubtedly true, Markham thought grimly, recalling how he had heard one of the SOCOs at the scene sounding off about how Catherine Leckie was ‘bloody stupid’ to be hanging around the allotments by herself at that time of night. ‘Just asking for trouble,’ he had declared before catching sight of the DI’s thunderous expression and breaking off mid-diatribe.

  Needless to say, the passing homicidal maniac was DCI Sidney’s preferred theory. When Markham and Burton were admitted to the inner sanctum by his dragon PA, Sidney had been adamant about that. Anything to avoid the shadow of suspicion falling on Bromgrove’s pukka citizenry.

  ‘New Year’s Eve always triggers the, er, mentally disturbed, Inspector,’ he honked. ‘And there she was,’ in an echo of DS Doyle, ‘a sitting duck.’

  ‘With lunatics, it usually turns out to be an isolated incident, sir,’ Markham conceded inscrutably. ‘But if we’re looking at a serial with some sort of connection to the allotments, then we could well be looking at escalation.’

  Sidney’s eczema, having briefly receded on Noakes’s retirement, suddenly looked as angry as ever.

  ‘A serial killer!’ he barked. ‘I need hardly tell you the impact on our regional statistics.

  ‘Sir,’ Markham said stolidly. He didn’t give a flying fajita for Sidney’s crime data but knew he needed to ratchet his boss’s blood pressure down pronto.

  ‘We’re covering all the bases,’ he continued soothingly. ‘DI Burton is running all the usual checks with the council and local mental health facilities.’

  ‘Well, I suppose that’s some reassurance,’ Sidney muttered grudgingly. ‘Not like you with your mania for “nuances” and “hunches”, eh?’

  Such was the DCI’s jealous resentment of Markham, that Olivia had nicknamed him ‘Judas Iscariot’, her dislike only intensified by learning that Sidney sneeringly referred to her as ‘Markham’s lady friend’ in a manner that suggested he didn’t hold out much hope for their long-term prospects.

  ‘Oh well, sir,’ Markham said with charming self-deprecation, ‘thanks to you, I know better than to jump in with all guns blazing.’

  Pass me the sick bucket, as Noakes might have said on hearing this. But Markham wanted to fend off outside interference, in the shape of Superintendent Ebury-Clarke, for as long as possible. If that meant shameless obsequiousness going forward, then so be it.

  His eyes wandered to the Hall of Fame, as the photomontage in Sidney’s office was irreverently dubbed by the lower ranks.

  Yep, there she was….. Sidney’s favourite royal – Sophie, HRH The Countess of Wessex, newly appointed Patron of Bromgrove Horticultural Trust. Seeing Sidney’s bald bonce bobbing up next to HRH, with Mrs Sidney – aka Brunhilde (for her resemblance to a Valkyrie) – making it the perfect threesome, Markham  understood all too well how distasteful his boss found any prospect of blood amongst the beetroots. For once, he actually had some sympathy with Sidney’s position. Whatever their mutual antipathy, it was understandable that the boss didn’t want his retirement overshadowed by some kind of horrendous local scandal.

  And it looked increasingly to him as if a local imbroglio might well be at the root of Catherine Leckie’s murder, particularly since the house-to-house enquiries and a trawl of neighbourhood CCTV footage had failed to turn up sightings of suspicious characters lurking around the allotments on New Year’s Eve. Nor had local agencies identified any “person of interest”.

  Having crossed swords with Chief Superintendent Ebury-Clarke on more than one occasion, Markham reckoned that Sidney was definitely the lesser of two evils and knew he needed to keep the DCI onside. Over time, indeed, he had come to feel if not affection, then a certain compassion for the DCI’s thin-skinned sensitivity about his red brick university antecedents, social insecurity and baldness (though he did his best to look like the corporate equivalent of Pep Guardiola, having ditched the desperate millennial-style goatee and gone all out for “bald and proud” ). Sidney might have called him ‘DI Heartthrob’ behind his back, but the DCI nonetheless possessed a certain intrinsic decency that meant he was prepared to back him up within reason.

  Within reason being the operative words.

  Sidney took it quite well when Burton cunningly insinuated Noakes into the conversation by a casual allusion to their former colleague’s ‘familiarity with allotment culture’, as though his involvement with the investigation was a fait accompli. Nobody could do owlish earnestness as well as Burton, Markham thought admiringly. In the DCI’s book, her girl guide rectitude simply had to rub off on the old reprobate. Remembering Noakes’s waggishness the last time he had been around Sidney – ‘You can’t fool me, I’m an idiot!’ was just one of many side-splitting gems from that encounter – Markham wasn’t so sure. As Chris Carstairs was wont to misquote mischievously, if the road to Hell was paved with good inventions, then George Noakes’s rehiring as an “outside contractor” possibly came out somewhere near the top.

  ‘Thanks, Kate,’ he said afterwards when they were well out of earshot of the dragon PA. ‘I think you swung it for us with Noakesy.’

  ‘Oh, the DCI’s bark is worse than his bite, guv,’ she said diplomatically. ‘It must be lonely at the top…. I almost got the feeling he was a bit, well, envious of our camaraderie… I mean to say, the team’s,’ she added hastily with a slight flush.

  ‘That’ll be you one day, Kate,’ he smiled. ‘Ensconced in lofty eminence as a DCI.’

  She blinked hard. ‘I’m happy with things just the way they are, boss.’

  Which didn’t necessarily bode well for Burton’s relationship with her erstwhile fiancé….

  Now, jerking out of his reverie, Markham padded into the kitchen and poured himself another drink before taking glass and bottle through to his study.

  This was far more simply decorated than the living room, dominated by his desk with its back to the picture window that took up almost the whole of one wall. As far as he was concerned, the neighbouring municipal cemetery was all he required to keep him focused on an investigation, being a reminder of numberless murdered dead who were never far away, like an invisible host imploring him to win them justice beyond the grave.

  It was dark outside, but he didn’t draw the curtains, turning his comfortable swivel chair round from his desk to face the window, content to know that this sprawling charnel lay close at hand, like a mysterious slumbering creature whose heartbeat somehow beat in time to his own…..

  Markham grinned ruefully as he imagined Sidney’s reaction to such flights of fancy (‘maudlin’, ‘histrionic’ and ‘befuddled’ were the kindest epithets when it came to un-policemanlike philosophising), but he knew Noakes would understand. His friend liked contemplating the statues and obelisks next door, though from a relentlessly optimistic perspective. ‘Death is swallowed up in victory,’ he intoned with Christian certitude and the air of one fully determined to be on the winning side.

  As he sat there feeling curiously lethargic, his thoughts turned to the final two interviews he had conducted with Burton….

  Bernadette Farrelly, Raymond Cotter’s ex-wife, was a glamorous middle-aged woman with delicate features and a sweep of ash-blonde hair that fell in a perfectly layered side-fringe bob to her shoulders. Elegantly dressed and well spoken, she presented the picture of equanimity, exhibiting no resentment or pique when Markham asked about her acrimonious divorce from Cotter.

  ‘Neither of us behaved particularly well, Inspector,’ she said levelly. ‘And I did my share of shouting and throwing things.’ Her mouth twisted. ‘Of course I resented Catherine Leckie…. But looking back, I can see that she wasn’t the cause of our breakup. If we’d had a strong marriage, Raymond wouldn’t have been tempted to play away in the first place.’ A shaky breath. ‘I suppose I didn’t make enough effort to share his interests.’

  ‘Like the allotments?’ he prompted.

  ‘Yes…. It was quite funny the way he got so obsessed with all that back-to-nature stuff. But I was at a different place…. busy with work and two teenagers…. And one day, phut, that was it. I discovered our marriage had somehow gone down the drain.’ For a moment she suddenly looked much older before the mask was firmly back in place. ‘These days it’s all very civilised and Raymond has a good relationship with the children.’

  ‘She seems to have her head screwed on,’ Burton observed afterwards. ‘No crying over spilt milk or anything like that. Quite unneurotic really.’ The DI looked at her notes. ‘Sounds reasonable enough that she fancied a night in since her kids were at sleepovers. Yeah, her story hangs together.’

  James Daly was a very different proposition.

  A tall gangling youth with startlingly blue eyes, a tangle of curly black hair and features pitted with acne, he displayed a smouldering resentment towards Catherine Leckie. ‘She never gave me a chance,’ he mumbled. ‘Just took those bitches’ word for it.’

  ‘So you’re saying you weren’t involved in bullying and sexual harassment?’ Burton asked sternly.

  ‘Look it was banter…. and the girls were well up for it…. they only pointed the finger at me when it looked like their grades were slipping…. The other guys held their hands up and spouted all that feminist crap about respect and trust.’ Burton’s face darkened at this. ‘But I thought Leckie wasn’t being fair and said so. Plus, Mikey and Jason come from posh families headed for uni while I’m this grease monkey from the Hoxton,’ he added bitterly, referring to a notoriously troubled council estate. ‘Dead easy for everyone to make me the scapegoat even though I wasn’t the ringleader… and then after I got a bit mouthy with her, that was it, she didn’t want to know…Until she ratted me out, I thought she was cool….on the level. But in the end she was just like all the rest.’

  It sounded decidedly messy, but the eighteen year old’s burning sense of injustice seemed genuine enough. Perhaps it was just that the youth reminded Markham of his dead brother Jonathan – nascent good looks marred by surliness and an attitude of ‘Me Against The World’ – but there was something engaging about him underneath all the truculence. It wasn’t difficult to imagine either how Catherine Leckie, relatively new in the job and eager to demonstrate her credentials as a disciplinarian, might have zeroed in on Daly as the likeliest candidate for exclusion when his friends were better at covering their tracks.

  The youth told them that he had spent New Year’s Eve in The Duck And Olive pub before heading back to the Hoxton shortly after nine. ‘I didn’t have enough money to go clubbing with the others,’ he mumbled, Markham concluding that he was too proud to ask for a sub.

  ‘D’you think there was anything personal  going on between him and Catherine?’ Burton asked frowningly after Daly had slouched out of the interview room.

  ‘Sexual?’ Markham prompted.

  ‘Well, that stuff about her being cool and on the level till she “ratted him out”… it was a bit intense.’

  ‘There could’ve been some kind of crush,’ Markham conceded. ‘Or it might just have been that he was hungry for her approval given his background on the Hoxton.’

  ‘If he knew she would be at the allotments and took it into his head to confront her there…. well, easy to see how things could have got out of hand. I mean, he’s obviously got a bit of a temper, and if he’d been drinking….’ Burton gestured expressively.

  ‘I’ll take Doyle along to Hope tomorrow morning,’ Markham told her. ‘See if his boyish charms will help me persuade Catherine’s colleagues to open up.’

  Burton laughed and rolled her eyes.

  ‘You and Carruthers can tackle Dave Shipley and Donald Kemp. I’ve arranged to meet up with Noakesy in The Grapes, so hopefully he’ll have had his ear to the ground.’

  Now, the rumbling of his stomach recalled Markham to his surroundings with a reminder that he needed to eat and mop up some of the alcohol.

  He was in the kitchen dispiritedly surveying the contents of the fridge when Olivia arrived, flushed and glowing from the cold.

  ‘I knew you wouldn’t be up to cooking, so I got us some takeaway from The Lotus Garden,’ she said happily, decanting foil trays and various paper bags from her capacious holdall. ‘I had an enormous pig-out with Katie but still fancied some of their chow mein…. at this rate, I’m going to be the size of a house.’

  There was no danger of that, Markham thought affectionately as she chatted on, amusing him with mildly scabrous gossip from her workplace spiced with the irreverent wit that was her trademark.

  ‘So there you have it, Gil,’ she concluded, tucking in to her food. ‘They’re all buzzing about Doc Abernathy and his toyboy…. I mean this one’s only in his twenties and Abernathy’s ancient!’

  ‘I always thought he was a nice old boy, Liv. Good that he’s found someone to share his life with. And besides, late fifties is hardly ancient.’

  ‘It is when you’re like Abernathy… Honestly, Gil, I really thought these days the only bloke who did it for him was John Donne.’

  Markham chuckled. ‘Well, being Assistant Head, I’m sure he’ll ride out the storm and then you’ll all move on to the next scandal.’

  The vivacious features clouded over.

  ‘Sorry, it’s insensitive of me burbling on like that about Abernathy after all this with Catherine Leckie,’ she said biting her lip. ‘I suppose to some extent we’re distracting ourselves from what happened to the poor girl…. it hasn’t really sunk in yet.’ Agitatedly twirling a strand of long red hair round her finger, she urged him. ‘Tell me about your day. Is anyone in the frame yet?’

  She listened avidly as he recounted the day’s events, careful to leave Kate Burton out of it in much the same way that she avoided any mention of Mathew Sullivan.

  ‘What was your impression of Catherine Leckie, Liv?’

  ‘Super-efficient and not one of those dreadful micro-managers like “Call Me Tony”. Trusted us to get on and do the job.’

  ‘Fair minded?’ he asked.

  ‘She seemed so to me…. I was so taken up with exam moderation and department schemes of work, that I never really tuned in when the bullying thing blew up with Daly and his chums….. He wasn’t one of mine but I quite liked him…. had the feeling things were tough at home.’

  ‘Any vibe between him and Catherine?’

  ‘Not that I saw. Mind you,’ she pulled a face, ‘my reputation for infallibility when it comes to sniffing out workplace romance has gone for a burton with this Abernathy business.’

  Workplace romance.

  She shifted awkwardly as the words hung in the air between them, doubtless recalling the affair that very nearly did for her relationship with Markham.

  Adroitly, he turned the conversation to Noakes’s revelation of Natalie’s pregnancy.

  His partner was dumbfounded.

  But once she had taken it in, he noticed with a twinge of unease how vehemently Olivia reacted to the news that Natalie was looking into adoption.

  ‘Surely George won’t be happy if he can’t be a part of the child’s life,’ she insisted.

  ‘Noakesy will go along with Natalie and Muriel on this,’ he said quietly. ‘He’ll want the best for them as well as the baby.’

  Colour flared up under the pale skin, like red wine under glass.

  ‘Muriel!’ she spat. ‘Don’t tell me, Gil….An illegitimate grandchild isn’t the right accessory…. won’t strike the right note when Hyacinth Bouquet has the coven round for tea.’

  ‘That’s not fair, Liv. Remember, Natalie was the result of an unplanned pregnancy…. It turned out alright in the end, but understandable if Muriel carries scars. And besides, Natalie herself isn’t ready to embrace motherhood.’

  Unlike Olivia, he thought anxiously. Whereas in the past his partner had rejected any suggestion that they themselves might adopt, now it appeared the tide had turned.

  But he didn’t want a baby used as some kind of sticking-plaster in the wake of the Mathew Sullivan affair, or to set the seal on their reconciliation. Somehow that felt dishonest.

  Lightly, he asked about her day with Katie and, after a moment’s hesitation, she followed his lead.

  In no time at all, she was delighting him with anecdotes from Katie’s job as a district nurse.

  ‘There’s this family on the Hoxton, Gil,’ she confided. ‘Mum’s just come out of hospital and there isn’t much money, so Katie bought her a nice bed jacket… really pretty, with lovely fancy embroidery. But when she visited last week, guess what… the dog was propped up in bed wearing it. Can you imagine…. she nearly died when she saw their flipping Dachshund wearing this lacy number with frilly ribbons and all the rest of it!’

  ‘Good to know they take animal welfare seriously,’ he laughed.

  The earlier tension evaporated and, as he watched her dancing eyes alight with mischief, he felt the stirrings of desire.

  ‘D’you fancy an early night,’ he murmured coming up behind her a short time later as she stood tidying up at the sink.

  ‘You’re on. Race you to the bedroom!’

  Their sexual passion was as strong as ever, he reflected later in the darkness with his arm around her, thinking that she looked more than ever like a pre-Raphaelite heroine as she lay there with her abundant red hair spilling over the pillows. Despite the Guinevere-like ethereality of which Noakes was so enamoured, she had made love with the fervour of a maenad… as though trying to exorcise something… or someone.

  And yet with Olivia, despite all the misgivings and doubts about where her affections truly lay, he felt somehow complete.

  For one night at least he had banished the dark secrets of Beauclair Drive.

4

Factions

 

Wednesday morning brought DS Doyle, bright and bushy-tailed, to The Sweepstakes. Olivia, who was fond of the lanky young sergeant, insisted that he come up and have a coffee rather than ‘skulking round outside’.

  ‘There’s toast as well, if you want it,’ she called out before disappearing to ‘do my war paint and strap on the old Kevlar Vest’.

  ‘Take no notice,’ Markham said with a smile. ‘She loves Hope really…. just likes to give the impression it’s right up there with Waterloo Road,’ he added, referring to the TV series about a comprehensive school in Rochdale where riots and general mayhem were the norm.

  Fancy the guvnor being up on soaps, Doyle thought admiringly. His boss was chiefly notorious for unorthodox interests – visiting mouldy old churches and tossing out obscure references that got Burton looking all misty-eyed and moonstruck – but this showed he wasn’t quite such an old fogey.

  The youngster’s thought processes were so transparent, that Markham could read him like a book. ‘Olivia keeps me up to speed with all the plotlines,’ he laughed. ‘If it weren’t for her, I’d have no street cred to speak of.’

  ‘Is that you taking my name in vain?’ Olivia bustled back in having clearly applied the “war paint” in record time.

  ‘Go on, sit down,’ she urged the detective as he hovered awkwardly before turning to Markham. ‘Buck up and do the honours, Gil,’ she instructed her partner who obediently complied, not remotely abashed at being ordered around.

  Markham rarely had his subordinates back to The Sweepstakes (only Noakes was an habitué), so Doyle was decidedly self-conscious at being waited on.

  Olivia Mullen was definitely a looker, he decided admiringly, shooting her shy sidelong glances. Tall, pale and willowy, though on the scrawny side, with all that red hair and the witchy grey-green eyes he could see why Noakes thought she resembled those women in the Pre-Raphaelite collection at the art gallery. She certainly didn’t dress like a teacher, the Jacquard tapestry dress, tassel boots and some kind of ethnic poncho only enhancing her unconventional allure.

  Things had gone wrong between her and the guvnor – he knew from canteen gossip that it had something to do with that nerdy deputy head – but you could tell from the way he looked at her that she and Markham were back on…. The lads might sneer that Lord Snooty looked like he was dead below the waist, but it was just jealousy. Unsettlingly, Doyle had a feeling that no-one knew the half of it and the DI was very hot stuff indeed….

  Olivia’s musical tones interrupted these mildly salacious musings.

  ‘Obviously I’m going in to school separately,’ she said cheerfully. ‘And I’ll pretend not to know the two of you should we run into each other this morning.’ More seriously, she added, ‘There’s going to be some sort of special assembly about Catherine…. I only hope the senior leadership team don’t come over all sickly and insincere.’

  ‘Just wait till the local press gets stuck in,’ Markham said coming over with Doyle’s coffee and toast. ‘From the Gazette’s obituaries, it’s obvious most people think eternity consists of reading excruciatingly bad doggerel verse. Whatever your SLT comes up with, it won’t be half so glutinous as that.’

  She grinned. ‘Who’s getting the third degree this morning, then?’

  ‘Elsie Parker and Rebecca Atherton,’ Markham replied promptly.

  ‘Hmm…. I don’t see you getting much out of Elsie, but Becks is alright.’

  ‘Parker’s one of the deputy heads, right?’ Doyle said through a mouthful of toast. ‘I just can’t get my head round all these deputies and assistant heads and pastoral mentor types…. In my day it was just the headteacher and one deputy head…. Me and my mates turned out alright,’ he concluded somewhat defiantly.

  Markham laughed. ‘Don’t get Olivia started. It’s her pet peeve.’

  His partner tossed the long mane that fell round her shoulders like a vibrant cloak.

  ‘What I can’t stand is all the touchy-feely psychobabble and freaking obsession with slapping labels on kids,’ she told Doyle crossly. ‘That’s why there’s so many clipboard toting right-on social worker types swarming around encouraging students to see themselves as victims or medical case studies instead of making sure they get a decent education and leg up. When I was out for lunch with my friend Katie who’s a district nurse, she told me about this one time she was visiting a young mum about something or other…. It turned out one of the kids’ friends was off school, and when Katie asked what was wrong, this little tot sitting at the kitchen table said – without missing a beat – that her mate “had mental health”…. I mean, for god’s sake, what are we coming to when no-one bats an eyelid at five year olds casually writing each other off as basket cases?  Seems to me like it’s bleeding heart liberalism run mad…. some kind of creepy cottage industry where there’s a trendy cover-all for every eventuality….  when half the time, it boils down to poor parenting and personal irresponsibility.’

  ‘Now you can see why she never made headteacher,’ Markham put in ruefully. ‘A reactionary to the hilt.’

  Privately, Doyle thought Olivia might be on to something. His partner Kelly was a teacher and fed up to the back teeth of all the carey-sharey bollocks instead of being allowed to get on with her job. By the sound of it, these days in schools the indoctrination was worse than Mao’s Cultural Revolution.

  ‘Isn’t Rebecca Atherton one of the “touchy feely” brigade?’ Markham continued inscrutably. ‘Runs the Pupil Referral Unit or inclusion department or whatever it’s called these days?’

  ‘Yeah, but she’s quite sane actually,’ Olivia shot back. ‘Not endlessly spouting PC esperanto and navel-gazing garbage…. Got a sense of humour too. Doesn’t try to shut you down for being ideologically unsound.’

  ‘Are we to infer that Elsie Parker is less simpatico?’ Markham pressed. He hadn’t probed too closely the previous night, since the whole subject of staff relations was a delicate one given Olivia’s involvement with Mathew Sullivan. This morning, however, the tension seemed to have lifted.

  ‘I suppose Elsie’s not the worst,’ she conceded. ‘A bit stodgy and very PC. She was acting head before Catherine was appointed…. probably figured she had the headship all sewn up, so it must’ve been galling to watch a youngster swan in and charm the pants off everyone. To be fair, she’s a hard worker – ’

  ‘But you’re not keen,’ her partner observed shrewdly.

  ‘We’re chalk and cheese,’ Olivia sighed. ‘And she’s got a habit of flagging up people’s weaknesses to make herself look good…. bit of a humble-bragger too.’

  Markham was mystified. ‘What’s one of those?’

  ‘Kind of like false modesty, guv,’ Doyle was pleased to impart information. ‘Advertising how brilliant you are without actually coming right out and saying it.’

  ‘Exactly,’ Olivia said approvingly, dazzling him with the radiance of her smile. ‘Teachers are more prone to it than most people for some reason.’ She grimaced. ‘Including me, if I’m being honest.’

  ‘But Elsie and Catherine worked well together?’ Markham asked.

  ‘There were rumours about the odd “personality clash”, and I had an idea either Catherine or Becks – or maybe it was both of them – went to the governors with some gripe about her. But it must have been smoothed over cos I never heard anything else. Wouldn’t read too much into it if I were you…. that kind of stuff happens in schools all the time.’ Olivia’s expression suggested that she found such jockeying for power thoroughly unattractive. ‘Becks was close mates with Catherine, so Elsie probably felt squeezed out of the picture, something like that.’

  ‘The three of them were connected through the allotments, though,’ Doyle mused.

  ‘Yes, that was a bond of sorts…. Apparently Elsie lightened up away from Hope, though she was still quite competitive…. She’d been an allotment holder longer than the other two, so she was able to lord it over them a bit. Look,’ Olivia sounded slightly shamefaced, ‘Elsie’s a bit of an apparatchik, but I’m sure she’s as upset as everyone else over this. And Becks will be devastated. Headteachers aren’t supposed to play favourites, but Catherine and Becks just got on so well…. same goofy sense of humour.’ She smiled indulgently. ‘They used to laugh themselves silly over some of the stuff that came out of the governors’ meetings…. not to mention loony directives from the DoE.’

  Doyle’s ears pricked up at this. ‘Don’t a couple of the governors have plots at Beauclair?’

  She nodded. ‘Yep, that’s right. Margaret Cresswell and Peter Barlow. They’re old-fashioned and a bit officious but nice with it….like Dimples Davidson…. Some of the others are absolute horrors…. can’t wait to jump on every trendy initiative going, and so far up themselves you wouldn’t believe it…. Talking of which,’ she grinned wickedly at the chance to take a swipe at Markham’s boss, ‘how’s Judas Iscariot doing…. still going for the football manager look, or is he channelling Charles Dance and Stanley Tucci these days?’

  ‘Behave yourself, Liv,’ Markham said in a tone of mild reproof. Then, to Doyle, ‘Olivia’s convinced the DCI fancies a career in media punditry after retirement, but I reckon he might settle for being a “Gentleman Who Lunches”.’

  ‘Not on your life,’ Olivia snorted. ‘Brunhilde will never let him slide into the shadows – especially not while you and George are still grabbing the headlines with your, er, “unconventional partnership”!’

  ‘Hmm….. Methinks the less said about that the better,’ he retorted in a deeply sardonic tone. ‘I’ll be catching up with Noakesy later in The Grapes…. very much low profile.’

  Doyle looked sceptical about his old mentor’s ability to maintain anything resembling a low profile but wisely held his peace.

   After Olivia had left, the two men discussed the prospects of their learning anything useful at Hope.

  ‘Maybe someone’ll tell us more about that hoo-ha with the Daly kid,’ Doyle ventured hopefully. ‘Let’s say Catherine had been doing something she oughtn’t –’

  ‘Like what?’ Markham rapped, never comfortable with aspersions on a murder victim’s character, even though his subordinate was merely voicing concerns he himself had raised with Olivia the previous night.

  ‘Like leading him on, guv… making him think she had feelings for him or he was somehow special…. then when he got nasty or threatened to tell, that stuff about bullying and being a sex pest gave her the perfect excuse to chuck him out…. if he ever accused her of anything, no-one would believe him because he was just this badass who was trying to get back at her.’

  ‘Badass?’ Markham assumed his most quizzical expression at the Americanism.

  ‘A no gooder, boss, that’s what I meant.’

  ‘Relax, Doyle, I’m with you. Right,’ Markham got up from the table, ‘we should be on our way.’

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

It was decidedly awkward that Mathew Sullivan was now acting head, Markham thought as they sat opposite Olivia’s colleague (and one-time lover for all he knew) in Catherine Leckie’s office at Hope Academy.

  However, Sullivan, a charismatic drama teacher whom he and Noakes had always regarded as ‘one of the good guys’, showed a lightness of touch that Markham admired, enquiring after the former sergeant with an affection that was evidently genuine.

  ‘I’ve missed some five-a-side fixtures, Gil. Got myself knocked out so often, I should’ve been awarded the Sputum Cup of the Year Award.’

  Somehow this broke the ice, and in no time at all the two men were chuckling over their un-politically-correct friend in a manner which totally perplexed Doyle.

  Wasn’t Sullivan meant to be the bloke Markham’s missus went and had a fling with?

  So how come they were laughing away like old buddies?

  The DS felt like he would never in a million years understand Markham. But somehow him and Sullivan were managing to put a good face on things, so it was a case of going with the flow.

  Not that Sullivan gave them anything particularly helpful about James Daly other than readily agreeing to hand over all internal school documentation to the police. It seemed like the school had nothing to hide on that front, but of course these days you could never be sure.

  Elsie Parker turned out to be just as dreary and humourless as Olivia had indicated.

  ‘Made me think of Theresa May,’ Doyle told Markham afterwards as they sat in his car by the school gates mulling things over. ‘You know, when they nicknamed her the Maybot cos she was like some kind of android.’

  ‘Ms Parker gave us one interesting nugget, though.’

  ‘Oh yeah. ‘ Doyle was keen to show that he hadn’t missed it. ‘That about the leftie youth worker having a thing for Leckie.’

  ‘Yes,’ Markham said thoughtfully. ‘She rather made a point of getting that in.’

  ‘Seemed to me….,’ Doyle hesitated.

  ‘Go on, Sergeant.’

  ‘Well, it sounded almost like she was hinting Leckie an’ Probert could’ve been lezzers…. er, lesbians,’ he amended, belatedly remembering Markham’s pronounced dislike of canteen speak.

  ‘A “king size crush” was how she summed up Ms Probert’s feelings,’ Markham responded austerely. ‘But she struck me as the kind of ultra-conventional woman who would be quick to disparage a relationship that didn’t fit the mould or one she didn’t understand.’

  Doyle turned his thoughts to their suspects’ movements. ‘Leckie and Raymond Cotter couldn’t party on New Year’s Eve cos of that fashion order or whatever it was he had to get sorted…’

  ‘Correct. So she arranged to go out with Ms Atherton but then texted her around eight o’clock to cancel because something had come up…. Possibly she planned to see someone at the allotments. Or it could just be she felt tired and fancied some time to herself.’  

  ‘Yeah, if she planned to spend New Year’s Day swinging from the chandeliers with Cotter, then she could’ve wanted to get some beauty sleep ’stead of clubbing,’ Doyle pronounced with a mature, man-of-the-world air that made Markham smile inwardly. ‘These days, me and Kell don’t have time for going out and getting hammered just cos you feel you have to.’ Was it Markham’s imagination, or did the youngster sound ever so slightly wistful as he endorsed the Generation Z puritanism? ‘Not very classy, Kell says,’ it being clear that ‘Kell’ was the oracle in such matters. ‘We just had a nice meal and watched telly.’ Markham duly made approving noises.

  ‘Leckie had to be something special,’ Doyle continued. ‘There’s Cotter and the Oddie bloke sniffing about….looks like she had Atherton and Probert dangling on a string too.’

  ‘I think she was one of those generous, open-spirited women to whom people were naturally drawn,’ Markham replied slowly. ‘Both men and women.’

  ‘Parker implied she was dramatic and OTT…. the type who liked to get down with the kids,’ Doyle mused. ‘But Atherton said she was really quite shy.’

  ‘The two aren’t irreconcilable,’ the DI commented. ‘According to Olivia, you have to be a bit of a thespian…. almost play the clown to win kids over –’

  ‘Yeah,’ Doyle interjected eagerly. ‘I remember my form tutor Mr Hart from Medway High. He was brilliant. Didn’t bat an eyelid when I said Socrates was a sweeper from Brazil.’

  ‘Indeed,’ Markham said, hiding his amusement. ‘Well, it sounds as if Catherine Leckie was very much of that ilk despite being more of an introvert in her private life.’

  ‘Atherton’s a bit of a joker too,’ Doyle reflected. ‘Parker didn’t like it when she said the school motto should be ‘Hit Him Again’ rather than that Latin quote on Hope’s badge.’

  ‘They’re coming at school discipline from different angles, Doyle,’ the DI commented. ‘And don’t forget the generation gap…. Catherine and Rebecca did their teacher training a couple of decades after Ms Parker, so it’s understandable they’re poles apart.’

  ‘Anyroad, I liked Atherton,’ Doyle said decisively, ‘and when we were walking around, you could tell the kids rated her. It was cringe when Parker boasted about knowing all the students personally and then she called that big lad Darren when his name was David…. What a bleeding pseud!’

  ‘You’re sounding more like Noakesy with every passing day,’ the DI sighed. ‘And no, I wouldn’t necessarily take that as a compliment.’

  As they drove out of the carpark, Doyle observed, ‘The buildings at Medway are crummy, but Hopeless is much worse, guv…. reminds me of a bunker… an FBI facility or something like that.’

  It was true. Markham thought. No wonder Catherine Leckie had craved grass and apple trees and the great outdoors. It would be pure bliss after that three-storey brutalist cement building, its submarine-like corridors aggressively plastered with day-glo laminated posters like something out of an Orwellian nightmare. Big Brother Is Watching You.

  He glanced at the manila folder on his knee. ‘I have a feeling there’s nothing particularly illuminating about James Daly in this lot.’

  ‘Yeah,’ Doyle agreed. ‘HR were happy to hand it over, which means we’ll get FA,’ he added cynically.

  ‘Maybe the other two are having better luck with Dave Shipley and Donald Kemp,’ Markham said as they picked up speed, Doyle curbing his boy-racer tendencies despite an inviting stretch of open road.

  ‘Shipley…. he’s the bloke who got chucked off the allotments for perving, right?’ Doyle rather begrudged his colleagues bagging that one. It sounded a whole lot spicier than their session with the two schoolmarms.

  ‘Well, we don’t know what was at the bottom of it, but it’s a fair inference given the venomous way his sister quoted #MeToo at us when we did the initial interviews.’

  ‘He sounds more promising than Kemp, guv…. I mean, it’s hard to imagine a councillor’s son strangling the local headteacher.’

  ‘Let’s not make any assumptions, Sergeant,’ the DI replied heavily. ‘It was obvious Ninian Creech didn’t care for Donald Kemp one bit.’

  ‘Probably afraid Kemp will set the council on him for something,’ Doyle concluded sagely. ‘Creech looks the type to be up to all sorts. Wouldn’t be surprised if it turned out he got off on peering through shed windows and that sort of thing.’

  ‘Well, he’d have been disappointed if he was spying on Ms Leckie the night she died,’ Markham observed drily. ‘She wasn’t dressed for a romantic encounter…. if you recall the crime scene pictures, it was jeggings and a sweater.’

  Doyle repressed a shudder. Leckie wasn’t much older than his Kelly, but the bastard murderer had turned her into some sort of gargoyle with bulging eyes…. horrible.

  With a pang of compunction, it occurred to him that the guvnor never referred to victims by their surnames, being scrupulous about according them full respect in death. He didn’t reprimand his subordinates for doing so, however, as though he understood their need to detach themselves from the despair and ugliness.

  Hastily, he turned their conversation away from the subject of crime scene photographs.

  ‘Sullivan didn’t seem to know anything about a bust-up where the governors got involved.’

  ‘Well, Olivia didn’t seem to attach much significance to it.’ Markham laughed. ‘I don’t think Dimples would appreciate Mat saying that most of them were “nice old buffers”…. reckon he thinks he’s got a bit more going for him than the likes of Margaret Cressington and Peter Barlow.’

  Doyle sniggered appreciatively, having been on the receiving end of an occasional withering put-down by the pathologist.

  ‘No,’ Markham said reflectively, ‘it didn’t sound as though there was anything to that…. Ms Atherton looked blank when I mentioned it, so maybe it was just Catherine who had a personal issue with Elsie Parker…. and in the end, it didn’t cause any ripples.’ With a mischievous gleam in his eyes, the DI added, ‘I’ll leave it to you to review the minutes of the governor meetings just in case.’

  ‘Cheers, boss.’ Glumly, Doyle concentrated on the road.

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

While Markham and Doyle visited Hope Academy, Burton and Carruthers were tackling Dave Shipley and Donald Kemp.

  It turned out that Shipley, a driving instructor employed by BSM, was living in a one bedroom flat above a chip shop a short distance from Hollingrove Park. Which presumably accounted for the pervading smell of grease, Burton thought as she perched gingerly on a shabby armchair in the poky living room. Despite his surroundings, however, the man wasn’t entirely unprepossessing, being well muscled with a boxer’s build, a head of wavy brown hair and lop-smiled smile (he was clearly self-conscious about a chipped tooth which presumably awaited the dentist’s attention). Like his sister Valerie, he had the voice of a smoker, but little of her raddled venom. There was even a curious dignity in the way he insisted that Catherine Leckie had got the wrong end of the stick. ‘Sure I liked her,’ he told them. ‘I went round to her shed now and again for a chat. She even made me a cuppa if she was brewing up…. But there wasn’t anything else to it. I knew she had a fella… and anyway,’ his voice was regretful, ‘I was way out of her league.’

  ‘Why did you get chucked off the allotments then?’ Carruthers asked unsympathetically, taking the lead as previously agreed with Burton.

  ‘Catherine got it into her head that I’d been spying on her…. peering through windows, leaving notes by the door of the shed, that kind of thing.’

  Carruthers looked up alertly. This was something new.

  ‘What kind of notes?’ he asked.

  ‘I never knew. Must’ve been poison pen or something like that. Anyway, apparently Margaret Cresswell,’ he gritted, ‘told her to flush them down the loo and forget about it.’

  ‘And?’ Carruthers prompted.

  ‘Well, the notes petered out but then there was all this about someone watching her.’ He hesitated. ‘I wondered if she wasn’t doing it to get Raymond Cotter to pay her more attention…. y’know, pull the damsel in distress number so he’d feel he had to dance attendance.’

  ‘Rather strange that Mrs Cresswell didn’t tell us about these notes and the stalking or whatever it was,’ Carruthers commented suspiciously.

  ‘She’s a great one for respectability and appearances,’ the other said bitterly. ‘Plus, deep down I’m not sure she totally believed Catherine’s histrionics…. Of course it wouldn’t do to say so, and there I was – this divorced bloke who’d been hanging around her….’

  ‘You weren’t the only one. What about Michael Oddie?’ Burton interjected.

  ‘Get real!’ Shipley said contemptuously. ‘The respectable accountant from a nice home counties background! As if he was ever in the frame! No, I was the best bet for a stitch-up. Besides, Cresswell and my sister don’t get on. Val wasn’t mates with Catherine either, so it was one way to stick it to her…. keep her down.’

  God, the guy sounded like he was developing a full-blown persecution complex, Carruthers thought wearily.

  ‘Doesn’t the committee have to hold a meeting or a hearing or something before they chuck folk out?’ he asked.

  ‘I knew it was a foregone conclusion. There are eight of them on the committee, but basically they do whatever Cresswell says. So I jumped before I was pushed.’ With a note of satisfaction, he said, ‘Plonked my resignation on the table before Cresswell had a chance to open her beak. It was almost worth all the aggro to see the look on her face.’

  ‘Do you reckon he was perving, ma’am?’ Carruthers asked after the interview as they made their way back to Burton’s car.

  ‘He looked a bit of a saddo,’ was the reply. ‘But he was convincing enough when he talked about the injustice of it all…. seemed genuinely indignant and upset.’ The DI sighed. ‘We’ll have to check up on this “lady friend” he says he spent the night with on New Year’s Eve.’

  ‘If it was a case of them drowning their sorrows,’ Carruthers’s lips curled, ‘he could’ve sneaked out to the allotments once the girlfriend was three sheets to the wind…. she wouldn’t have noticed him disappearing for a bit. The allotments are only minutes away, and he’s easily fit enough to scale the wall.’

  ‘Shipley and his sister aren’t the most attractive pair,’ Burton said thoughtfully. ‘But that doesn’t mean they aren’t telling the truth.’

  ‘Valerie Shipley was a school secretary at Hollingrove Primary back in the day,’ Carruthers mused. ‘Probably didn’t like teachers queening it over her…. Margaret Cresswell’s a retired head…. St Gregory’s in Calder Vale…. That might be why she took Catherine’s side –’

  Burton frowned. ‘You mean because she thought teachers should stick together?’

  ‘Yeah, closing ranks or something like that…. It’s hard to see how the Shipleys managed to wangle their way into Beauclair Drive in the first place, seeing as they stick out like sore thumbs.’

  ‘Presumably they were on the waiting list…. that’s down to the council, so Mrs Cresswell and her well-heeled chums don’t have it all their own way.’

  Carruthers rolled his eyes. ‘There’s something downright incestuous about the whole set-up, if you ask me. Like a dysfunctional family, the lot of them.’

  ‘Come on, let’s see if we fare any better with Mr Kemp.’

  Donald Kemp could hardly have presented a greater contrast to Dave Shipley, being a tall, fair-haired young man with what might be called classical good looks, were it not for a prominent, slightly hooked nose and an expression of petulance about the mouth. His minimalist flat in the centre of town spoke of an affluent lifestyle and, as Carruthers pointed out irritably afterwards, he made sure they didn’t miss the fact that his father was Councillor Kemp.

  ‘His alibi seems airtight,’ Burton mused.

  ‘Yep, you can’t really argue with “supper chez the parentals”,’ Carruthers said in a mock Hooray Henry accent . ‘Though, seeing as this is murder, his parents aren’t likely to mention it if boyo happened to slope off early.’

  ‘Doesn’t look like your typical allotment holder,’ the DI went on thoughtfully. ‘And Mr Creech said his plot’s an absolute tip.’

  ‘Probably just a gimmick,’ Carruthers retorted scornfully. ‘Some kind of Marie Antoinette shtick…. playing at farmers and all that…. eyeing up the talent while he’s at it.’

  ‘Maybe… but I don’t see him as Catherine Leckie’s stalker…. too conceited to waste time on someone unless he got encouragement.’

  ‘Yeah, he looks more the type to chat up dolly birds in town…. then back to his place for a quick legover.’

  Burton winced at the vulgarity, but she had to admit it fitted her impression of the man.

  ‘What’s his game, I wonder,’ she murmured.

  ‘Drugs? Underage girls?’ Carruthers suggested helpfully. ‘And maybe Leckie got wind somehow and threatened to dob him in the same as she did with Shipley. If her and Cresswell were on some kind of moral crusade – rooting out undesirables and pervs – it could’ve meant she was cramping Kemp’s style.’

  ‘Or someone else’s.’ Burton knuckled her eyes. ‘God, it feels like we’re going round in circles. We should get back to the station and check if the boss has done any better at Hope. While we’re at it, we can have a word with Chris Carstairs and see if anyone from the allotments is on his radar.’

  ‘Kemp was pretty shifty about what he does for a living. I mean “entrepreneur” covers a multitude,’ Carruthers grunted as he looked back at the mansion block. The guy probably had daddy’s solicitor on speed dial. If that was their man, he’d be a tough nut to crack.

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

Noakes was decidedly intrigued to hear Markham’s account of the day when the two friends met up that evening at The Grapes.

  Their favoured hostelry was a delightfully quirky establishment which, despite its recent renovation by fearsomely bee-hived proprietor Denise, retained an old-world charm that held little appeal for Bromgrove’s chattering classes. Markham found the pub a very cosy place to unwind, its multiple nooks and crannies, nautical curios (Denise had seafarers in her family tree) and creaky, sloping floorboards in the back parlour like something out of Hornblower or The Onedin Line.

  The menu was good too, and they tucked into their toad-in-the-hole (Noakes) and chicken schnitzel (Markham) with gusto. ‘The other day in Sainsbury’s, this kid pointed to a kiwi and asked what it was,’ Noakes commented, eyeing the vibrant salads that accompanied their mains. ‘His mum said “Them’s what posh people eat”. An’ now bleeding kiwis are everywhere!’

    Markham grinned. ‘An interesting barometer of progress,’ he said, reflecting that Muriel doubtless wouldn’t like it to be thought that a kiwi was anything out of the ordinary at her table.

  ‘So you got fobbed off at Hopeless then,’ Noakes pronounced with the gloomy satisfaction of one who could have predicted such an outcome. With unusual circumspection, he refrained from mentioning Mathew Sullivan but looked pleased when Markham said that Sullivan sent his regards. ‘He ain’t the worst. You c’n have a laugh with him. I loved that story about the time he found that note on his desk from the kid in detention: “Sir, I have wrote one hundred times, I have gone home, and then I have went home.” Priceless, even if he did make it up.’

  ‘I wouldn’t be too sure about that, Noakesy. I’ve heard real howlers from Olivia.’

  ‘How’s your girl doing then?’ Noakes enquired affectionately. ‘Putting some manners on ’em, I hope.’

  ‘When she’s allowed to,’ he grimaced. ‘Apparently, it’s all woke snowflakery these days, so she feels increasingly like a square peg in a round hole.’

  ‘Mebbe she should have a shot at being head,’ Noakes suggested with his head on one side. ‘Then she’d get to make the rules.’

  ‘All the politics and jealousy and petty backstabbing would drive her mad,’ Markham rejoined decisively. ‘Not to mention the SLTs.’ Despite himself, he smiled on recollecting that his partner invariably called them STDs.

  ‘D’you reckon that poor lass snuffed it cos of some school quarrel?’

  ‘I honestly don’t know what to think…..   I’ve got Kate checking the digital media angle to see if there was any online harassment or trolling going on, but nothing’s come up as yet.’

  ‘I bumped into Peter Barlow the other day.’ Accidentally on purpose, if Noakes’s past form was anything to go by. ‘He were proper discombobulated by it all…. Leckie an’ another teacher had the odd whinge about the Parker woman. Said she was always talking herself up at their expense.’

  ‘Olivia says it’s a bitchy profession. That’s what gets her down sometimes – colleagues preaching to the pupils about kindness while going for the jugular!’

  Noakes scratched his head. ‘My lot were all pretty decent.’

  ‘Yes, I had a good experience too, though of course a fair number wore dog collars so kindness was part of the job description…. And Doyle seems to have happy memories.’

  ‘P’raps the bitchiness is cos there’s more women than men,’ Noakes said warily, knowing that Markham disliked anything that smacked of misogyny.

  But the DI merely nodded. ‘Men can be as bad, though,’ he said ruefully, thinking of Sidney and some of the top brass. ‘And I suppose these days schools are like pressure cookers – all that competition to get the best results –’

  ‘Or be most liked by the kids,’ Noakes put in sarcastically.

  ‘There’s probably a fair amount of gallows humour in the mix too, with folk being contentious or un-PC to let off steam.’

  His friend looked somewhat self-conscious at this. ‘Could be it’s jus’ the playground rubbing off,’ he muttered.

  ‘Well, even if there are undercurrents and cliques at Hope, so far we haven’t made a connection with what happened to Catherine.’

  ‘What about the Daly lad? I’ve heard he’s not the worst on the Hoxton. Ackshually –’

  Whatever he had been going to say was interrupted by Markham’s mobile.

  ‘I’d better take this, Noakesy. Kate may have turned up something in the background checks.’

  The other finished off his lager, watching closely as a range of expressions chased each other across Markham’s face.

  Apprehension. Concern. And finally, Horror.

  ‘Not good news then?’ he said at the conclusion of the call.

  ‘The worst.’ Markham’s voice was suddenly hoarse, as if the thing he dreaded had suddenly grappled him by the throat.

  ‘Raymond Cotter is dead. He collapsed a short time ago at the allotments.’

  ‘Heart attack…. on account of the grief?’ But Noakes knew even as he asked the question that this was clutching at straws.

  ‘It appears that he was poisoned…. Kate says she’ll be with us in five.’

  Noakes lumbered to his feet, much gratified at Markham’s use of the first person plural.

  So Catherine Leckie wasn’t a one-off.

  Their shadowy killer had struck again.

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