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People who thought theatres were dead romantic should take a shufti backstage, thought Jake Porter, assistant stage manager of the Bromgrove Royal Court, sniffing grimly as he inhaled a pungent potpourri of smells: over one hundred years of dust; horse glue; fire-retardant spray; methylated spirits; rotting costumes; plus an all-pervading smell of sweaty feet and bodies which seemed to seep through every crack, joist and beam in the building. To say nothing of additional aromatherapy provided by the under-stage canteen whose last week’s lasagne, carrots and cabbage came wafting up through the dip-traps, where innumerable cables were plugged safely out of the way under the stage floor.

  And yet, blinking mole-like in the gloom of the unlighted theatre, Jake felt the familiar excitement. A curious sense of wonder and mystery, as though the powdery labyrinth of scenery, props and makeup boxes were the portals to an enchanted kingdom.

  He had never expected to feel like this when he applied for the job on completion of his HNC Diploma in Performing Arts at Bromgrove University. Saw it as a stepping stone to a career in corporate events management – more ‘blue-chip’, as his trainee solicitor girlfriend put it. But something about the outwardly unprepossessing little red-brick theatre behind the council offices in Bromgrove town centre had seized hold of his imagination, so that the peacock-blue and gold auditorium, its tiers rising trimly like some celestial confectionary, whispered to him of bewitched palaces, princes and princesses – a world utterly removed from the grey reality of everyday. And then came the dancers whose steps seemed to grow out of their bodies as if they had drawn them on the air.

  The theatre was home to two companies, Bromgrove Ballet and The Bromgrove Players, which shared its facilities (more or less amicably) on a rotating basis. For the next fortnight, in the run-up to Christmas, the ballet company would be preparing The Nutcracker as its seasonal offering for the good burghers of Bromgrove. It was a safe bet for the festive period, thought Jake, with all the fantasy toys and animals. The kids were bound to love it, especially the bit where the Rat King and his mice fought the Nutcracker Doll. He gave a pleasurable shudder as he recalled the sinister be-whiskered headdresses created for the production by students at Bromgrove College of Art. Harry Potter, eat your heart out!

  Come to think of it, he should check the inventory for the Sunday load-in, now that the removal lorries had disgorged the Nutcracker props and scenery through the dock doors. Better get down to the basement and crack on, otherwise it would be evening before he knew it. He didn’t much fancy the idea of being alone with the Royal Court’s resident ghost – a doorkeeper who, so the story went, murdered the young ballerina with whom he had been infatuated and would nightly haunt the upper circle to watch her perform. ‘It’s a load of old bollocks,’ was Jake’s invariable response to reports of a ‘cold spot’ or icy draughts, but he nevertheless tried to avoid late nights on his own.

  Making his way to the side door at the front of the auditorium, Jake ascertained that it was already dark outside. After the mustiness backstage, the cold crisp winter air made him feel giddy, like wine that had gone straight to his head. He took two or three deep breaths and then slipped back inside.

  Then it was round to the basement via the infamously named ‘back passage’, and along twisting corridors painted institutional green and cream, avoiding caged-in belching hot pipes, till he came to the docking area.

  Incredible to think that from this forest of painted flats, endless wicker baskets and rail after rail of costumes, there would emerge a magical dream world of incredible effects. At that moment, the dingy subterranean space felt more like a mortuary.

  Unfortunate comparison.

  Jake was suddenly acutely aware of the silence, broken only by the hollow percussive rattling and creaking of assorted pipes and rafters.

  Clearing his throat, he squinted at his clipboard and sighed.

  God, it would take forever to work through this lot. For all that he badly wanted to impress his pernickety superior Ted Murphy, Jake’s enthusiasm took a sharp nosedive as he surveyed all the paraphernalia of the new ballet … wigs, shoes and box after box of accessories. All in marked white canvas bags, like schoolkids’ luggage at boarding school. The thought made him grin. That’s what some of the dancers were like. Big overgrown kids. He’d never forget his shock when one tiny bejewelled ballerina came off stage swearing like a trooper. ‘If your fucking boss can’t sort out that fucking scenery how I fucking want it, then him and me are gonna fall out.’ And with that she splay-footed her way crossly up the wings before floating ethereally back onstage, the perfect incarnation of a swan princess. The memory made him laugh out loud and he suddenly felt better.

  A low thrumming made him start.

  Just some black relay speakers humming quietly.

  No cause for alarm.

  Jake returned his attention to the clipboard.

  Hold on.

  Mannequins. What was that all about?

  Then his brain cleared. Oh yeah, that must be for the Land of Sweets in the second act. Life-size lollipops … liquorice allsorts or some such…

  But where were they, these mannequins?

  Wait a minute … wasn’t that a dummy propped up against the rail with the drapes and cloths for the masking flats?

  Jake frowned. The figure didn’t have the right headdress… It looked like it was wearing the Rat King mask…

  He felt an unaccountable repugnance creep over him at the sight of the eerily lifelike costume, coupled with a strange reluctance to go nearer.

  Come on, lad, get a grip, he told himself. It’s a kiddies’ fairytale, not Nightmare on Elm Street.

  And still he stood there, irresolute.

  Above, in the auditorium, he thought he heard a door slam. But he knew he was the only one left in the building. Everyone else had gone for the night…

  Bracing his shoulders, Jake returned to the matter in hand. Time to check out these mismatched props.

  One foot nearer. Two feet nearer. And then his heart stopped.

  The dummy wasn’t a dummy.

  Some bloke was sitting there wearing the Rat King’s fibreglass head.

  God, he’d kill the lads for this. Nearly gave him a coronary. Bloody stupid stunt to pull.

  ‘Okay, mate,’ he said hoarsely, looking around as though expecting a bevy of sniggering stagehands to emerge from the shadows. ‘Joke’s over. You’ve had your fun.’ He cleared his throat. ‘Take that thing off. I’ve got work to do here.’

  No answer.

  Tentatively, he reached out a hand.

  At his touch, the figure toppled over, the massive head piece splitting in two as it crashed to the ground.

  Jake’s gaze was riveted to the face released from its balaclava-like prison. He realized that somewhere deep inside, he had known all along he was looking at a body, not a living breathing human being.

  George Baranov. Bromgrove Ballet’s resident choreographer. Nicknamed ‘Rat’ because of his funny habit of sniffing and twitching his upper lip at the same time, a tic which exposed his pointed front teeth.

  How sickeningly appropriate that he was dressed for his maker as the Rat King.

  Then Jake saw the paperknife protruding from the dead man’s back.

  With shaking hands, he reached for his mobile.


Another World


As he sat on his favourite bench behind Bromgrove Police Station at 6 a.m. on Monday morning, DI Gilbert (‘Gil’) Markham was feeling distinctly ambivalent about the forthcoming festive season. When he was growing up, Christmas was always the bleakest time of the year. It was his stepfather’s winter, and he froze the teenager out … except for the times when he lurched home from the pub and climbed the stairs to Markham’s room, plunging the boy into a world of abusive secrets that no-one dared acknowledge. Even now his stomach muscles roped themselves into double knots at the memory…

  With an effort, Markham forced the malign genie back into its box and looked about him.

  Bracingly cold and still, there was something in the air that promised snow… He decided he would like it if the town turned white, transforming the blackened Victorian Town Hall and ancient terraces of St Chad’s cemetery into aerial masterpieces of delicate tracery, the familiar landmarks somehow newly baptized.

  Despite the biting chill, the DI lingered, his breath steaming in the air, thinking about the previous night’s call out and the acned thin-faced lad who had met him at the Bromgrove Royal Court.

  Markham had rather taken to Jake Porter, but felt an immediate distaste for his boss Ted Murphy – self-important, rotund and piggy-eyed with a ginger comb-over through which his balding pate shone greasily under the police arc lights. Murphy showed more concern for his own credentials as stage manager than compassion for the murdered choreographer who had met such a grotesque end. ‘How could something like this have happened?’ he rapped at the hapless Jake, his voice shrill with resentment, as though he held his youthful subordinate personally responsible. Altogether an unattractive character whom Markham was glad to consign to one of the SOCOs while he gently talked the assistant stage manager through his discovery, moving on to speak easily of general things until Jake had recovered his composure.

  There had been something oddly moving about Jake’s star-struck reverence for the dancers.

  ‘They’re ever so disciplined,’ he had hiccoughed. ‘Stamina like you wouldn’t believe.’

  Gradually, almost inconsequentially, Markham brought the talk round to the stage manager’s role.

  ‘Oh, he starts a performance and makes sure everything happens at the right time.’

  ‘And during the show?’ Markham prompted.

  ‘Then it’s all about pressing buttons and cueing in the sound, lighting, music an’ all that… I usually sit in the prompt corner and give directions through a microphone.’

  The DI was willing to bet that Ted Murphy ensured the youngster did most of the donkey work and took the flak for any prat-falls.

  As though reading his mind, Jake said apologetically, ‘Things do go wrong sometimes.’ He gave a watery grin. ‘Last year when we did The Nutcracker, one of the lads dancing a toy soldier leaned against the proscenium arch – that’s the wooden frame that goes round the stage – and an old lady in the front row reached over and tapped his knee to see if he wanted a sweet. He got such a shock he actually told her, “No, thank you”.’ The smile faded. ‘After that, Ted … Mr Murphy was dead strict about front-of-house checks. Said he didn’t want us looking like amateurs.’

  ‘Presumably he couldn’t police the dancers, though.’ Markham chuckled. ‘I mean, it must get quite busy in the wings with all the performers and stagehands.’

  ‘Oh yes.’ Jake nodded vehemently. ‘It’s like Piccadilly Circus, but acoustics mean the noise doesn’t carry.’ He ducked his head shyly. ‘I’ve seen all sorts. Last year one bloke came off saying his partner had nearly strangled him. Another lad came off and was sick all over the girls’ shoes. And there’s lots of swearing … all down to nerves, you see.’ Markham raised his eyebrows. ‘Straight up. They may look light as a feather on stage, but you should see them when they come off – drenched in sweat and winded … almost punch drunk.’ The young man blushed. ‘I remember one time I had to help a girl by holding her hands above her head so she could breathe more easily. Otherwise she couldn’t have gone on and done her next solo.’

  ‘And Mr Baranov?’ Almost imperceptibly, Markham had brought their conversation round to the murder victim.

  Jake swallowed hard. ‘Mr Murphy dealt with him mainly.’ No doubt there was a clear division of labour, thought Markham grimly, bigshots receiving Murphy’s personal attention while lesser mortals were palmed off on his deputy.

  ‘Mr Baranov split his time between us and ENB – that’s the English National Ballet – and he went abroad to work for other companies as well,’ the assistant stage manager said with touching pride. ‘It’s like everyone wanted a piece of him.’ His eyes suddenly bright with tears, he hiccoughed again. ‘“Don’t rape me. Everybody rape me. I must have cup of tea first.” That’s what Mr Baranov used to say when folk were pestering him… He could be really funny… Someone said he’d trained his cat to do jetés and jumps … all kinds of stuff…’

  The DI knew delayed shock when he saw it and swiftly summoned the paramedics.

  ‘People said he could be really difficult, Mr Markham.’ Jake Porter almost whispered the words, as though guilty of some appalling heresy. ‘But it was just cos he cared so much... He was always telling the dancers, “Every time you perform, you must give your life-blood.”’ A disturbing analogy in the circumstances.

  Markham dragged his thoughts back to the present, feeling the familiar rush of adrenalin that always accompanied the start of an investigation.

  The ballet’s moonlit atmosphere of love and enchantment wouldn’t blind him, he vowed, wouldn’t stop him revealing whatever festered in the shadows beyond the spotlights. Sometimes he felt that the souls of all those violently snatched from life danced at his heels, as though he was the Pied Piper of Death. And now there was one more added to their number. If he could track down Baranov’s killer, perhaps the Russian maestro would reconfigure the pattern – transpose the mournful music to a different harmony and set Markham’s ghostly pursuers free…

  The DI shivered. Wouldn’t do to start getting fanciful, he told himself. This case had the makings of something very nasty. There had been something deeply personal – something mocking and insulting – in the way the corpse had been posed with that macabre headdress. Passing for normal amongst his or her neighbours, the murderer nonetheless marched to the beat of a different drummer. Which could mean that this was just the beginning…

  Markham shivered again.

  Jake Porter’s sketch of George Baranov, slight as it was, had brought the dead man momentarily to life. A quirky temperamental character so devoted to his art that even his cat was a performer. No doubt such a man had his enemies.

  There had been affection and admiration, as well as genuine grief, in the assistant stage manager’s broken little tribute. Markham was glad of it, being in no doubt that before the day was very much older his investigation would likely be swamped by a tidal wave of gossip, innuendo and self-serving tittle tattle. Jake’s self-important boss certainly looked the type to dish the dirt, the DI thought with a spasm of disgust.

  He recalled Baranov’s face. Handsome, delicately boned and slightly oriental with high cheekbones and a hawk-like nose, thinning silver hair and a bald spot. The choreographer’s expression was shuttered, peaceful, as though he had travelled deep inside himself to another country. Markham hoped that it might be so.

  The cold was getting to his bones. Time to make a move.

  There was nothing particularly Christmassy about the station entrance foyer, unless one counted a few forlorn tinsel streamers and a miniature, gaudily decorated tree sitting at a drunken angle on the reception desk. Jean, the motherly front counter clerk, gave him a cheery wave as he headed for the lift which would take him up to CID.


At least it was toasty warm, Markham thought with satisfaction as he walked through the open-plan outer office to his own glassed-in corner cubicle with its unrivalled views of the station car park. The temperamental heating system which no-one seemed able to turn off spring or summer, with the result that the place felt like some sort of tropical rain forest, undoubtedly came into its own at the fag end of the year.

  As he passed DS George Noakes’ frowsy workstation, Markham did a double take.

  The old devil had swiped reception’s advent calendar and prised open the little windows to fish out the chocolate treats. Such bare-faced larceny would no doubt have Jean on the warpath before long.

  The DI grinned as he settled himself behind a desk dotted with piles of manila folders and paperwork.

  Typical Noakes, he thought as he awaited his number two, steeling himself for the olfactory assault which invariably announced the DS’s arrival with a cholesterol-laden Christmas Feast from McDonald’s. 

  Better keep him well away from the DCI, he reflected. DCI Sidney – or ‘Slimy Sid’ as he was irreverently known by the troops – looked on Noakes with an increasingly jaundiced eye, having little time for the latter’s slobbishness and notably un-PC approach to modern policing which had so far proved stubbornly resistant to any amount of diversity training.

  In vain had Sidney and Superintendent Collier, like a pair of pliers, tried to bend Markham’s ear about Noakes in endless little chats. The DI could recite the litany by heart. ‘Holding you back.’ ‘Drawback to promotion.’ ‘Creating the wrong impression.’  ‘A negative image.’ Essentially it all added up to Guilt by Association. 

  But George Noakes was one of Markham’s “non-negotiables”, his outspoken tactlessness and obdurate disregard for the force’s shibboleths somehow curiously reassuring in a world where all around him were furiously climbing the greasy pole.

  More than that, the DI felt he wasn’t complete without Noakes. As though his shambling sidekick – a copper’s copper who ‘jus’ wanted to nab villains’ – was the yin to his yang. None of which went down well with his superiors for whom the partnership constituted a big fat blot on his copybook.

  How could he explain to them that his rough diamond DS understood him at a level beyond words? Granted, the man could be unreasonable, exasperatingly capricious, boorish and rude. He had a tendency to sulk and grumble, coupled with a natural suspicion of those with a university ‘educashun’. But for all that Noakes was instinctively untrusting and often prejudiced, he was also utterly candid and incapable of lying, qualities which Markham had learned to prize above all else. Simultaneously shrewd, cynical and easily hurt, it was as though the sensibilities of a forest pygmy were preserved in a hard-bitten member of Bromgrove’s finest.

  ‘People talk about natural sympathies,’ Markham’s ethereal red-haired girlfriend Olivia Mullen was wont to laugh. ‘That’s you and Noakes. The Odd Couple!’

  Strangely enough, Olivia had taken to Noakes from the first. And he reciprocated with a tongue-tied devotion which rankled somewhat with his redoubtable wife. ‘I believe she’s cast a spell on George,’ Muriel Noakes was wont to declare at the Women’s Guild in a tone that was decidedly brittle.

  The DI had never spoken to Noakes of his childhood domestic trauma and the wasteland of his private life before Olivia. Theirs wasn’t the easy commerce of police canteen culture. But he sensed that Noakes knew, deep down where it mattered. And their many adventures had convinced him that there was no better companion than George Noakes when it came to fighting one’s way out of a tight corner.

  As far as personal grooming went, the man was naturally a walking disaster. The DCI,  having recently issued a briefing note regarding ‘appropriate standards of dress’, Markham was really quite curious to see how Noakes would rise to the occasion.

  And here he was.

  Markham had a quick peek through the half-closed louvered blinds which screened his office from the outer area.

  Oh God.

  The DS looked more like a downmarket country and western singer than one of CID’s elite, his outfit of checked plaid shirt and string tie finished off with mustard tweed jacket and superannuated George boots. Emphatically not what Sidney had in mind.

  Markham could only imagine Mrs Noakes’s mortification. While he normally didn’t have  much time for his DS’s snobbish, overbearing wife, he felt a sneaking sympathy for her unavailing attempts to smarten Noakes up. Otherwise more or less firmly under the marital cosh, Noakes was impervious to her efforts with the result that she had washed her hands of his day-to-day wardrobe, insisting only that he did not disgrace her when they were jointly ‘on parade’. The shaky bargain had somehow held good, but Markham daily lamented Muriel’s retirement from the sartorial lists.

  Of course, part of the problem was Noakes’s poundage. He was what he would himself call ‘a good armful’, being at least two stone overweight. Together with his pouchy pug-dog face, haystack shock of salt and pepper hair and high colour, he was no-one’s idea of a thrusting homicide detective. And yet, with the DS’s arrival, Markham felt an indefinable sense of wellbeing. The cornerstone of his team was there.

  ‘Morning, Guv.’

  Noakes plonked himself down opposite Markham, busily excavating the contents of his McDonald’s takeaway bag and tucking in with the air of a man for whom a turkey stuffing and cranberry muffin represented the summit of gourmet bliss. The DI tried not to look too closely, but the greasy booty made his stomach lurch uneasily.

  As Noakes chomped away, Markham pondered how his DS would respond to the challenge of an investigation in the ballet world. Amongst the many mysteries of Noakes’s protean personality was his passion for ballroom dancing. For a large man, he was surprisingly light on his feet and had met ‘the missus’ at Bromgrove’s Palace Ballroom. Possibly his hobby would overcome an ingrained mistrust of ‘arty types’…

  Noakes’s opening gambit dispelled any such illusions.

  ‘Hear we’ve got a dead Russian poof down the Royal Court,’ he volunteered through a mouthful of festive McMuffin.

  The DI winced perceptibly. It was a sign of things to come.

  ‘For God’s sake, don’t let anyone else hear you talking like that, Sergeant.’

  ‘No disrespect intended, boss,’ the other said equably, ‘but isn’t he one of them Rusky ballet dancers? You know, like that Randolph Neveroff? At least that’s what they’re saying over in Vice.’

  ‘Then your intelligence is defective, Sergeant,’ came the tart response. ‘George Baranov was a noted ladies’ man and a distinguished choreographer.’ At least he didn’t have to explain to Noakes what choreography was, whereas that lot in Vice would doubtless take it to mean dirty pictures.

  ‘Ah,’ the DS replied thoughtfully, clearly recalibrating his mental landscape. Markham suspected, however, that Noakes would still hold Baranov’s nationality against him, such concepts as Glasnost and Perestroika being unlikely to have engraved themselves deeply on the policeman’s consciousness. No, as far as DS George Noakes was concerned, the Cold War was far from over.

  ‘Morning, Guv, Sarge.’

  DS Kate Burton’s well-scrubbed face, bare of makeup and framed by a shiny conker-brown pageboy, radiated enthusiasm for the start of a new case. In her crisply tailored pin-striped trouser suit – its severity softened by a white slim-fit T-shirt – and carrying a black leather briefcase (sardonic comment on which gleamed in Noakes’s eye), she was the epitome of an ambitious young CID officer. Newly minted as a DS, she was perennially anxious to better herself, not least because she had faced stiff parental opposition when joining the force and therefore had something to prove.

  Her degree in psychology and right-on credentials (recently burnished by an MA in Gender Studies from Bromgrove University) had initially inspired a degree of apprehension as to how she and Noakes would rub along since they were hardly natural soulmates. Indeed, for a long while Markham had felt as though he was conducting a scientific experiment, in which two substances had been placed in a test tube while he awaited the outcome of some potentially explosive chemical reaction.

  In the event, despite the twin handicaps of Burton’s university education and eager beaver ways, Noakes developed a grudging regard for the new recruit’s dogged tenacity while, for her part, the young DS became increasingly adept at taming the grizzled veteran.

  Unacknowledged by both was the fact that Burton had reason to be grateful to Noakes for his unexpectedly sensitive reaction to the discovery of her hopeless crush on Markham. Hopeless, because Olivia Mullen was the DI’s lodestar and “ever-fixed mark”, leaving him with no eyes for anyone else. With a keenness of perception which belied his lumbering exterior, Noakes saw straight to the heart of the matter but never breathed a word to his boss; nor did he make his colleague’s infatuation the butt of any jokes. Instead, he kept Burton’s secret with an impenetrable discretion which had somehow made them allies.

  Of course, now she was engaged to a DS in Fraud, that unhappy time was behind her. Gilbert Markham – the gentle, melancholy detective who was so different from every other policeman she had ever met – was still her ideal of manhood, but this was something she kept very much to herself. A career savvy young detective could not afford to go sighing for the moon…

  ‘Morning, all.’

  With this cheery greeting, DC Doyle – or the ‘ginger ninja’ as Noakes called him on account of his auburn hair – joined the group, his gangling six-foot three frame filling the doorway. Not long promoted to CID, he prided himself on being a snappy dresser, his “put together” stylishness in marked contrast to the dishevelment of friend and mentor Noakes. Likeable and keen, though occasionally distracted by affairs of the heart (requiring frequent medicinal analysis over a pint), he was always a welcome addition to the team.

  ‘Well-timed, Doyle. Get another chair from outside, will you. One day the powers that be will give me an office fit for purpose. Until then…’ Markham rolled his eyes expressively.

  Once the three of them were squeezed round his desk, the DI filled them in on overnight developments at the Royal Court.

  ‘George Baranov…’ said Burton thoughtfully. ‘Wasn’t there a big feature about him in the Gazette earlier this year?’ She nodded her head vigorously. ‘Yes, I remember now. It was a piece about him and Alexandra Fairlie when Swan Lake was on.’ The DS looked at her colleagues’ blank faces. ‘They called her “Ballet’s first lady of sex”.’

  Bemusement was suddenly replaced by interest.

  ‘Bit of a goer then, this dancer?’ Noakes asked with heavy casualness.

  ‘Well, Baranov made her a star at the English National Ballet when she was just fifteen. Apparently, he was infatuated – choreographed loads of ballets for her, even wanted to marry her … but she didn’t care for him in that way and married a young soloist when she was nineteen. Baranov was so bitter about it, they ended up leaving the company.’

  ‘Fair dos,’ put in Doyle. ‘I mean, there must’ve been a massive age gap between her and Baranov.’

  ‘Hmm … yes, he was sixty-one when they rowed, but they made up eventually and she returned to work for him five years later. Mind you, he wouldn’t let her husband back.’

  ‘Dirty old man,’ said Noakes succinctly.

  ‘No, I don’t think it was like that,’ Burton replied earnestly, her pageboy swinging with the vehemence of her denial, button-nosed features screwed up in concentration. ‘She talked about it being a love affair without scars – said they had something special but the relationship would have been spoiled if they’d taken it to another level … the real romance was onstage, you see.’

  Noakes’s expression was eloquent in its disbelief, but Markham was intrigued by this concept of an artistic-emotional time frame which made age and carnality completely irrelevant.

  ‘That’s very interesting, Burton. See if you can look up that article for me.’.

  Burton, head down, was already scribbling in her spandy new notebook.

  Noakes and Doyle exchanged looks.

  ‘A controversial figure by the sound of it,’ Markham mused, remembering the expressive, hollowed-out Slavic face under the Rat King’s mask.

  ‘Oh yes.’ Burton was on a roll. ‘He was very temperamental. Nearly ended up in court for slapping a corps de ballet girl who got in his way on stage.’ Observing her colleagues’ mystification, she translated kindly, ‘The corps de ballet are the ones who aren’t soloists.’

  ‘Like a backing group?’ Doyle wanted to be clear.

  ‘Exactly,’ Burton responded brightly.

  ‘What’s with the foreign lingo?’ Noakes enquired belligerently. ‘Why not use ordinary English?’

  ‘Oh, ballet terms are always given in French.’ Markham could see that the DS was enjoying herself. ‘That’s because ballet began at the court of Louis XIV – the one called the Sun King.’

  The only response to the impromptu history lesson was a grunt.

  Noakes returned to the attack.

  ‘Dancing’s no job for a bloke,’ he said defiantly as though daring his colleagues to contradict him. ‘I mean, men in tights prancing around and pointing their toes… I ask you!’

  ‘Times change, Sergeant. It’s not prissy and effeminate these days. You need tremendous stamina and power.’ Markham recalled Olivia, who was something of a ballet fan, telling him that in Russia ballet had always been regarded as an honourable profession for a man, so much so that in the heyday of the famous Mariinsky Theatre, students rode to school in court coaches emblazoned with the czar’s personal emblem with liveried footmen in front and behind. Since Noakes and Doyle looked as though they’d had quite enough history for one day, he contented himself with adding mildly, ‘Think of dancers as being like athletes.’

  Unexpectedly, Noakes said, ‘Our Nat had ballet lessons when she was little.’

  Markham looked at him encouragingly.

  ‘Dead good she was.’ The DS frowned. ‘But, all that jigging up an’ down was a no-no once she, well, you know…’ Awkwardly, he mimed an hourglass figure.

  Natalie Noakes’s embonpoint being one of the wonders of Bromgrove nightlife, the DI struggled to envisage her as an anorexic swan princess, though clearly her ever doting parent fondly regarded it as a major loss to the arts.

  ‘Anyway,’ Noakes barrelled on. ‘The missus belongs to the Friends of the Royal Court.’

  ‘How’s that work?’ asked Doyle.

  ‘They’re like, well, sponsors of the theatre … get to sit in on rehearsals and have meet ’n’ greets for the dancers and whatnot.’

  ‘It’ll be useful to have Mrs Noakes on the inside track, Sergeant.’

  Noakes bridled with pleasure, transparent as a child, Markham thought with amusement.

  ‘Right,’ he said briskly, ‘Kate and Doyle, I need you to get things organized here and dig up everything you can on George Baranov and the ballet company. Keep the media team briefed, as I’m sure the DCI will want to set up a press conference. Noakes and I will head over to the theatre and get the lie of the land.’

  Snapping her notebook shut with a purposeful air, Burton suppressed a pang. Mystified by the complicity between the DI and Noakes, she yearned to be admitted to Markham’s charmed circle but did not know how to crash the party. No room at the table, she thought sadly as she headed to the outer office, softly clicking the door shut behind her and leaving Markham alone with his thoughts.


This promised to be an investigation unlike any they had ever experienced, the DI reflected once his subordinates had gone.

  From what he had heard, the world of ballet tended to be a claustrophobic hothouse with its own gods and worshippers – a specialist field from which the general public had always been pretty much excluded.

  And now he was about to let daylight in upon magic.

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