CRIME IN THE BALLROOM

Prologue

 

Bluebell! What kind of daft lah-di-da name is that!

As she plodded grumpily down Bromgrove Rise on the morning of Saturday 4th January, Natalie Noakes’s thoughts were none of the pleasantest.

  It was a cold bright day with a sharp tang in the air, but she was too focused on her internal monologue to take in the heathery beauty of the Rise, which offered a scenic shortcut into the town centre and the bustling amenities of the High Street.

  She must have been mad telling her dad she was hooked on Strictly Come Dancing. Mad or trolleyed. That was all it took for him to shoot off and buy her a course of lessons at this crummy little outfit where he and mum went when they were (shudder) going steady. Christmas present sorted!

  Obviously, her policeman father DS George Noakes was a long way from suspecting the main attraction of Strictly was that snake-hipped soap star whose sizzling samba made everyone sit up. She’d fallen madly in lust – along with half the female population – and thereafter tuned in religiously to follow her idol’s progress. It was strange. He’d been a right ugly git when he played Kevin on Elmtree Farm – real serial killer material – and now look at him…. totally ripped…. a real babe magnet.

  For a moment, Natalie lost herself in a pleasurable reverie before her sense of grievance reasserted itself.

  Fat chance of meeting any buff guys at this Bluebell place. More likely it’d be wall-to-wall coffin dodgers doing the foxtrot or whatever cos the doctor said exercise was good for them and they couldn’t be arsed playing bowls.

  Worst of all was when her dad said his boss’s girlfriend would be taking dance lessons too. DI Gilbert (‘Gil’) Markham was dreamy…. well, for an older guy at any rate…. Had to be in his late thirties, but tall, dark and handsome with it…. And he was always respectful…. even after that incident at The Krazyhouse when he could have dobbed her in…. Not like DI Carstairs with his knowing smirk….

  Yeah, Markham was alright. But Olivia Mullen was another matter with all that red hair flying about and the arty-fartiness. Natalie and her mother Muriel rarely saw eye to eye, but were united in their dislike of Markham’s girlfriend, a feeling only increased by the fact that in George Noakes’s eyes she was practically perfect. Her father’s ‘weak spot’, Muriel called it with heavy meaning.

  Anyway, Olivia Mullen was bound to take to the waltzing and all the other stuff like she’d been born to it, thought Natalie savagely. The woman never seemed to put on an ounce whereas she only had to look at a sodding mince pie for it to show on her hips. Mind you – she glanced complacently down at her spray-tanned Cheddar Gorge of cleavage – at least she had curves in all the right places whereas the other had no figure to speak of…. it’d be like dancing with a stepladder.

  Her voucher thingy specified ballroom, but if she was lucky she might be able to swap it for street or freestyle. She just couldn’t imagine herself doing the kind of Downton Abbey cripcrap her parents favoured…. fishtails, pivots and reverse spins FFS…. she’d look a right wazzick if she tried any of that in Bromgrove’s nightclubs….

  It wouldn’t surprise her if her parents were in this together, she thought darkly. All part of some grand plan to stop her seeing ‘Jakey Jake’ and the rest of them at The Krazyhouse. Deep down, she knew they were disappointed she hadn’t gone to university (Big Yawn to that) and was content with her job as a beautician (with prospects, she reminded herself). So, mixing with the DI’s girlfriend and other grade A misfits probably represented a step up. God, she could almost hear her mother at the Women’s Guild. Of course, Natalie and Gilbert Markham’s partner are “like that”. Yuk.

  Natalie had now reached the bottom of the Rise where she took the shortcut through Badgers Copse to the town centre. The exercise had done something to alleviate her ill humour and her scowl softened as she felt the warmth of the sun’s rays through her Calvin Klein puffer jacket (the real thing, mind, cos she didn’t do knock off). It was unusually mild for winter.

  If this is climate change, bring it on. Greta Wasserface and that Attenborough bloke don’t know they’re born!

  The town centre was quiet, but then Bromgrove wasn’t exactly a retail hotspot and most folk were likely sleeping off their hangover from the night before. Since Natalie and her latest romantic interest had split up in a noisy recrimination-fest two days earlier, she had spent a moody New Year’s Eve with her parents and the neighbours, inwardly vowing this would be the year she bought her own place and showed Cazza and the rest of them a thing or two.

  Feeling better for this laudable resolution, she turned her footsteps towards Heathfield Close a few streets behind the High Street.

  And there on the corner, set well back from the road with a neat tarmacadamed forecourt, was the Bluebell Dance Studio.

  In a former incarnation, the dance school had been a red-brick Victorian church and still possessed something of an ecclesiastical air. Needless to say, this did not act as a recommendation to Natalie whose prejudice against the place deepened by the minutes.

  It had the Hansel and Gretel lumbago-ridden look of such buildings, with wonky gables and walls that seemed almost to bulge with damp. A two-storey annexe at the back gave onto a long garden which had a certain overgrown charm with rustic stone bird baths and little arbours counteracting the overall neglect.

  Altogether, it wasn’t a perspective to make youthful spirits soar. But at least there was a Costa around the corner, so she had somewhere to hide if things got too bad.

  She’d expected the interior to be dark and mildewed, but in fact on passing through the front door she found herself in a light bright reception area with sun streaming through a skylight. Double glass doors showed a vista of well-polished parquet flooring with more doors on either side.

  There was nobody at the front desk and she couldn’t see anyone in the corridor beyond the glass doors. Mind you, it wasn’t nine o’clock yet. She’d deliberately arrived a full forty minutes early, resolved on scarpering if she got an attack of the willies.

  All the same, there was something oppressive, almost unnatural about the heavy silence.

  Surely someone should be around to…. well, welcome people. It was customer service values, she told herself with a smug consciousness of the well-oiled routines at Tanfastic.

  Suddenly, a woman burst through a side door to the right of the front desk. There was nothing glamorous about her, Natalie noted sourly with a self-conscious toss of her own peroxide blonde mane. Just a middle-aged brown smudge of a woman with an unbecoming pudding bowl haircut and slightly buck teeth.

  But then she noticed the woman’s fringe was plastered to her forehead with sweat and her face was greenish-white.

  For all her Love Island bodaciousness, Natalie Noakes had a good heart and she could see something was terribly amiss.

  She put out a steadying hand. ‘What’s wrong, luv?’

  ‘It’s Shirley.’ The other clutched at her convulsively. ‘My mum.’

  WTF?

  ‘You mean your mum’s had a turn?’

  Wouldn’t you just know it. Five minutes in the place and some wrinklie was having a heart attack. Too much bleeding cha-cha-cha like as not.

  The woman looked a sight, face streaked with tears and snot.

  Natalie tried again.

  ‘Have you called an ambulance?’

  ‘No, you don’t understand,’ the other gasped. ‘She’s dead.’

  Little swimming curls of fear spiralled down Natalie’s back. She turned icy cold, then the instincts of a policeman’s daughter took over.

  ‘Show me,’ she said.

  They went through the side door into a narrow sort of conservatory or lean-to with flat Perspex roof which appeared to run the length of the premises. At the far end was another door which opened on to some cement steps leading to the garden.

  Natalie couldn’t see anyone collapsed on the ground, or indeed anyone at all for that matter.

  But then, following her companion’s gaze, she saw at the bottom of the steps just to the left an ornamental barrel or water butt with…. oh fuck…. a body half in half out of it.

  It was a woman’s body, the lower portion clad in a long dark skirt and the feet shod in black low-heeled sandals with strap fastening. A dance teacher’s practice shoes, thought Natalie. Most eerie of all, it seemed to her that the feet were flexed in first position.

  ‘Don’t touch her,’ she said hoarsely. ‘We need to call 999.’

  With clumsy hands, she found her mobile and made the call.

 

What came to be known as The Bluebell Case had begun.

1

Slow Beginnings

 

 

While he had a higher opinion of eco-warriors like Greta Thunberg with their Cassandra-like prophecies than did Natalie Noakes, DI Gilbert Markham was not averse to enjoying the unseasonably mild weather.

  The morning of Sunday 5th January found him walking meditatively in the terraced graveyard of St Chad’s which overlooked the back of Bromgrove Police Station. As he strolled up and down, he felt a sense of new life stirring, of Nature putting out shoots and tendrils in all directions, as though mysteriously eager to heal the broken-hearted and comfort those who mourned the dead.

  He pulled a wry face at the thought of DCI Sidney’s likely reaction to such philosophizing. His superior officer (known to the troops as ‘Slimy Sid’) had no patience with what he was wont to dismiss as ‘Markham’s ESP’. At his last appraisal, indeed, ‘Feyness’ had featured high on the bill of indictment. ‘Don’t want senior officers going all wobbly, do we,’ the DCI had pronounced, ‘wobbliness’ presumably covering a multitude of sins including any subversive challenge to Sidney’s diktats.

  Markham sensed there would be a tussle with Sidney over this Bluebell case.

  His thoughts turned to the events of the previous afternoon….

  For all her blonde pulchritude, Natalie Noakes had shown herself to be no airhead and somehow restrained the victim’s distraught daughter from tramping all over the crime scene.

  Crime scene. Is that what it was?

  The pathologist Doug ‘Dimples’ Davidson carried out the usual rituals with customary phlegm, his hearty countryman’s face giving little away.

  ‘I’d say she was one over the eight…. went wandering…. somehow toppled in and drowned.... We’ll know more once I get her on the table.’

  ‘But there’s only a few inches of water in that…. thing.’ DS George Noakes clearly had no very high opinion of the Bluebell’s horticultural furniture.

  ‘If she got it in her lungs…. an inch, a gallon, an ocean…. the effect would be the same.’ Dimples was trenchant. ‘Easiest thing in the world…. You could commit suicide by sticking your head in a bucket of water if it came to it.’

  ‘Right little ray of sunshine, ain’t he?’ Noakes muttered disgustedly as they watched the doctor marshalling the stretcher party towards the lean-to. ‘D’you think that was it, then…. The poor cow had New Year blues or summat, got blotto an’ decided to end it all?’ He gazed after the sad little procession and observed almost plaintively, ‘She looked kind of peaceful….’

  It was quite true. With her long dark hair, wet blouse and cardigan clinging to her like a shroud, Shirley Bastin – for that was the woman’s name – looked tranquillity itself, her face smooth as an onyx cameo, the features bearing no look of misery or desperation.

  Suicide.

  And yet, standing in respectful silence as the body was borne away, Markham felt an upsurge of uneasiness…. of suspicion.

  And he felt the presence of evil too in that nondescript little corner with its funny ornamental barrel. Felt it very strongly, as though something malign oozed up through the concrete flags that paved the patio.

  A memory of long-ago history lessons came to him…. They drowned witches, didn’t they? Called it “ordeal by water” or some such…. trussed women up and chucked them in the river…. or sealed them in a barrel and sent it out to sea…. If they managed to work themselves free, that meant they were innocent of wrongdoing….

  Was there a hidden message in the manner of Shirley Bastin’s demise? Was she accused of some unknown malefaction? Was her drowning intended as retribution for some ancient sin?

  Noakes’s imagination was troubled by no such lively apprehension.

  ‘S’pose that musta been it…. got stuck into the vino…. felt depressed an’ decided it was a good idea to check out.’ Then, struck by Markham’s absorbed expression, ‘What…. You’re not buying it, Guv?’

  ‘There were bruises on her arms, Sergeant. Recent from the look of them. As though someone had gripped her tightly…. held her pinioned’

  The other’s hangdog features contracted in a thoughtful scowl.

  ‘Yeah, but Dimples thought she’d likely bashed into things…. y’know, crashed into the furniture an’ whatnot…. It’d make sense if she was pissed…. or mebbe she took pills or summat to get the party started.’

  ‘Hmmm…. The daughter…. Cathy Gould….  She was adamant her mother wasn’t a drinker and insisted she wasn’t depressed or on medication. Got hysterical when one of the uniforms asked if there was any chance she’d taken something. They shared a flat, so she would have known.’

  Noakes assumed a look of impenetrable gravity.

  ‘Denial, Guv, denial…. S’only natural…. wanting to show the best side.’

  ‘I’m not so sure about that.’ Markham had been struck by the vehemence of Cathy’s reaction to any idea of her mother succumbing to a mid-life alkie crisis.

  ‘Why’d they have different names?’ Noakes liked everything cut and dried. ‘Gould and Bastin…. How come? Is the daughter married?’ His tone suggested he thought it unlikely.

  ‘Shirley owns…. owned the dance school. Proprietor and Principal as I understand it. Ex-dancer, so she used her maiden name for professional purposes. She was formerly Mrs Gould but got divorced a while back.’

  ‘Right, I’m with you now.’ Noakes revolved things over in his mind. ‘That Cathy doesn’t take after her mum.’ He blushed as though aware he might be guilty of bad taste. ‘I mean, Shirley was probl’y a good-looking woman…. when she were alive…. but she didn’t pass it on…. What I’m saying is –’

  Before the DS could tie himself in further knots, Markham interjected. ‘It’s okay, Noakes, I get it…. You’re right, Cathy Gould didn’t inherit those dancer’s genes.’ She was a plain girl, stocky and thick set, whereas Shirley Bastin retained a certain coltish grace and sinuousness even in death.

  Clearly relieved, Noakes pursued his cogitations.

  ‘Well if you’re thinking foul play, Guv…. nine times out of ten it’s family.’

  ‘Indeed.’ The DI’s keen gaze raked the building behind them. ‘Which is why we’ll have to tread very carefully on this one if the forensics are inconclusive.’

  Noakes scratched his chin. ‘Dimples seemed pretty sure it was an accident…. Middle-aged woman knocked herself out and ended up in that bird bath thingy…. Or worst case scenario, she topped herself during a binge.’

  ‘It seems that way admittedly, Sergeant.’ Again, Markham looked down the long, overgrown garden bordered on its left-hand side by the dance studio’s two-storey modern annexe which abutted on to a kind of ha-ha before dropping to a lower lawn. Again, he had that curious sense of evil…. of something fermenting and festering unseen, waiting to be brought into the light.

  ‘I want a rush on Ms Bastin’s PM,’ he said decisively. ‘Something here just doesn’t feel right, Noakes.’

  His rugged DS had the resigned look of a faithful Saint Bernard.

  ‘Let’s have a briefing tomorrow morning,’ Markham continued. ‘With it being Sunday, we should have CID to ourselves.’ No need to point out that there was every chance the DCI would be on the golf course and thus unlikely to nobble proceedings.

  They headed back into the main building, Noakes leading the way.

  ‘By the by, Sergeant, full marks to Natalie…. I thought she kept her cool very well.’

  Previous encounters with the pneumatic Natalie having been largely confined to fishing her out of Bromgrove’s more insalubrious nightclubs, Markham was pleased at being able to utter this sincere tribute.

   Noakes visibly swelled with paternal pride.

  ‘Got her head screwed on right has my Nat,’ he replied gruffly.

  ‘How did she happen to be here…. is she a dance student?’

  ‘Gave her a course of lessons for Crimbo,’ the DS said happily. ‘What with her being into Strictly an’ all that.’

  ‘Ah, I see.’ And Markham did. All too well.

  ‘Plus there’s your Olivia being so keen an’ all.’ The tips of Noakes’s ears turned pink as he said her name. ‘They c’n encourage each other…. sort of new kids on the block.’

  Markham suspected that Noakes’s rapture at the prospect of Olivia and his daughter becoming bosom pals far exceeded Natalie’s. But he wisely kept his counsel. ‘Nothing like the New Year for new beginnings.’

  ‘Xactly what my missus said.’

  And with that the two detectives found themselves back in the front lobby where paper-suited SOCOs were already setting up…….

  Thinking back over it all, Markham resolved to stay with this Bluebell business and see where it led. Call it “copper’s nose” or a “hunch” or whatever, he couldn’t shake the feeling that there was more to it than appeared on the surface. The DCI wouldn’t like it, but he’d cross that bridge when he came to it.

  He cast one last wistful look round the quiet graveyard. Over in the lee of the old stone church some wildflowers clustered shyly next to a sunken headstone. Not bluebells surely – it was far too early for them to bloom. But the sight felt like an omen, a blessing on the decision to follow his instincts. Squaring his shoulders, the DI headed for the steps which led back to the world below.

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

The outer office in CID was deserted as he passed through it to his own sanctum with its unrivalled view of the station carpark. The absence of bodies only highlighted the department’s tired-looking fixtures and fittings. As he contemplated the sea of grey and beige (enlivened only by a sad Christmas poinsettia expiring of terminal neglect), Markham toyed with fantasies of a corporate makeover then, sighing, gave it up as a lost cause.

  Oh God.

  There on his desk, confronting him balefully, was a file headed DS G Noakes: Interim Appraisal.

  He’d forgotten about Noakesy’s appraisal, but he was willing to bet the DCI hadn’t.

  The DS having proved stubbornly impervious to hints about its being ‘carriage clock time’ or ‘the Costa del Sol waiting now he’d done his thirty’, clearly the gold braid mob had decided the situation called for drastic measures.

  But Markham had no intention of giving up George Noakes, though he was well aware the retention of his wingman counted heavily against him.

  How to explain what Noakes meant to him? The big lumbering sergeant had no filter, delivering his distinctly un-woke views with cheerful indifference to the sensibilities of others and, in particular, the ‘clipboard johnnies’ who ran CID.

  But dammit Noakes suited him. The DS’s unvarnished honesty and tactlessness were just so refreshing by comparison with the right-on PC double-speak that literally made his teeth ache.

  There was a humanity about the man. A sureness of touch when dealing with the vulnerable and disenfranchised that so few of the shiny new recruits with their ‘interpersonal skills’ and ‘empathy’ genuinely possessed. Without a word on the subject having ever passed between them, Markham knew his sergeant had guessed the trauma of his early years – a stepfather’s abuse that had for many years made his emotional life a wasteland.

  Noakes was shrewd too, with an inbuilt bullshit-detector which had proved invaluable time and time again. And he had no compunction when it came to pointing out inconvenient facts that Markham did not care to hear. You could not put a price on that kind of integrity. It was the more precious because his meteoric rise through the ranks as Bromgrove’s police wunderkind had made him a target for flatterers and brown-nosers.

  He could hear Sidney in his inner ear, droning away like a malevolent Greek Chorus. ‘It doesn’t do to be sentimental, Markham…. time to move on…. embrace the zeitgeist…. look to the future…. modern policing…. no room for backward attitudes…. diversity…. minorities…. customer-facing values….’ He could write the script in his sleep.

  The DI’s jaw set and his expression became flinty. Noakes was going nowhere and that was that. And anyway, he’d be lost without the job. Muriel, or She Who Must Be Obeyed as Olivia had christened her, would likely banish her husband to the garden shed to avoid him ‘getting under her feet’. It would be death by a thousand cuts, the cruellest being a requirement for his heightened participation in the provincial ‘social scene’.

  Noakes was practically family, given the sympathy that had sprung up between himself and Olivia. How it came about that the slobbish policeman and Markham’s highly-strung intellectual girlfriend had ‘gelled’ was something of a mystery to the DI, but they were devoted to each other, Noakes regarding her with the reverential attitude of a medieval jongleur and Olivia drawing him out with her teasing and quips in a way that nobody else quite managed. Small wonder that Muriel was so prickly about it.

  Actually, it occurred to him that Muriel’s insights might possibly be useful in this case. Unlikely as it seemed, she and her husband were champion ballroom performers who demonstrated a near miraculous affinity on the dance floor. While he had never quite fathomed the chemistry between Noakes and his overbearing snobbish wife, the DS was touchingly proud of ‘the missus’ and convinced of her essential superiority to the rest of womankind. Only with Olivia was there that suggestion of a poetic hinterland.

  Talking of miracles, the DI knew he would have to box clever if he was to circumvent this ‘interim appraisal’ wheeze. He’d get Chris Carstairs on it. See if the junior DI could wangle a sympathetic senior officer or help Markham to somehow ventriloquize Noakes through the process. At least the DS had passed his latest physical and had cut down on junk food after the previous year’s health scare. So if they could just fix it so he bluffed his way through this damned mumbo jumbo….

  Kate Burton would be a useful ally, he knew. The smart-as-paint young DS and old-timer had started out at daggers drawn, Noakes classifying her as ‘one of the liberal mob’. And while it was true that her earnest millennial’s puritanism and eager beaver ways were an acquired taste, she had mellowed to the point where she could fight her corner with good humour and, on occasion, guile. Burton’s path into the force had not been strewn with roses, since her parents considered it a waste of a good degree (in Psychology) and unsuitable in every way (‘no job for a woman’ as her father put it). But she had persisted and risen to become a valued member of the DI’s tight-knit team, demonstrating an indefatigable commitment and unswerving loyalty to Markham which earned her the grudging respect of contemporaries who had never made it into his inner circle. It bothered him that she appeared to have put her Inspector’s exams on the back-burner, and he had heard rumours that her engagement to that boringly stolid DS in Fraud was on the rocks. So he would have to find a way to get her to open up…. He knew she envied his camaraderie with Noakes – the understanding that somehow existed between them without the need for words – whereas her own attitude was almost painfully correct. Capable of soaring, her confidence needed a boost and the DI mentally vowed to omit no opportunity of demonstrating that she had his trust.

  At least all appeared to be well with DC Doyle, the final member of the unit. Gangling and ginger-haired, he was enjoying his distance-learning degree in Criminal Law and was champing at the bit to take his sergeant’s exams. Noakes was his mentor in matters of the heart and football punditry alike, the two men enjoying an easy friendship which revolved round their beloved Bromgrove Rovers and passion for real ale. Occasionally they tolerated Kate Burton as a “third wheel”, but she tended to steer well clear of carousing in the pub….

  He heard voices in the outer office.

  ‘There’s no brown sauce on my bacon butty.’

  ‘Sorry, sarge, that dopey cow must’ve forgot.’

 The next moment, Noakes and Doyle hove into view, preceded by a pungent whiff of grease.

  Clearly any New Year’s Resolution about healthy eating had bitten the dust.

  Markham cranked the sash window open as far it would go and regarded his colleagues with long-suffering fortitude as they settled down with their picnic on the other side of his desk.

  A polite tap and Kate Burton joined the party. ‘Happy New Year, sir.’

  ‘And to you, Kate.’

  The other two grunted amicably in her direction through mouthfuls of toast.

  With a thin smile, she slipped into the third chair, setting her soy milk latte primly in front of her.

  There might be ‘trouble at t’mill’ as Noakes put it, but Burton looked immaculate as ever in bootleg trousers, skinny ribbed roll neck and hacking jacket. Her neat chestnut bob gleamed and the alert brown eyes held their usual expression of hopeful candour. Perhaps there was a hint of shadows under those eyes, but out came the reading glasses to conceal any ravages.

  Noakes’s ensemble was simply horrendous. Granted it was the weekend so they were all in civvies, but he was giving a passable impersonation of a down-and-out, the mismatched fisherman’s jumper and straining cords giving the impression of having been pitchforked on in the dark. Muriel had long since abandoned the battle to inculcate some kind of sartorial finesse, digging her heels in only when it came church and occasions where there was the risk of social disgrace, but Markham devoutly hoped he could induce her to enter the fray once more in the interests of eliminating at least one cause for complaint before that appraisal. Otherwise, CID’s very own Worzel Gummidge would have a target on his back.

  With a sensation of relief, the DI took in Doyle’s dapper appearance. He might have the complexion and loose-limbed ranginess of a farm-boy, but his dress sense was all that could be desired. Today it was neatly pressed dark blue jeans and striped button-down shirt.

  Markham supposed two out of three wasn’t bad….

  ‘So, what about this Bluebell malarkey then, Guv? Are we going after it or what?’ Having swallowed every last crumb and licked his fingers with a vigour that made Kate Burton wince, Noakes was ready to hear the boss’s assessment. Disconcertingly, his fellow DS now had her pocketbook out, pen poised like an executive secretary.

  ‘Dimples says Shirley Bastin probably died sometime between midnight and one o’clock,’ he began. ‘There was alcohol in her blood – she was over the drink drive limit – but no sign of drugs.’

  ‘An’ he’s sticking to her having drowned, yeah?’

  ‘Correct, Noakes.’

  Burton was watching him closely. ‘You’re not convinced, sir?’

  ‘Her arms and the back of her neck had bruises.’ Restlessly, Markham twirled a fountain pen between his fingers. ‘But she was a dance teacher…. and her daughter says that was nothing unusual, especially if she’d been working through routines.’ With a wry smile, he added, ‘Apparently, you wouldn’t believe how performers suffer for their art.’

  ‘I would,’ Burton observed with feeling. ‘Remember the Baranov case, sir…. those ballerinas were covered in bruises from head to toe. And as for the state of their feet!’

  It was true, recalled Markham, casting his mind back to their investigation of Bromgrove Ballet at The Royal Court.

  ‘Well there you go then,’ Noakes said magisterially. ‘Case closed…. She drowned her sorrows an’ then did a swan dive into that bucket.’

  ‘Water butt,’ Burton amended punctiliously.

  ‘Whatever.’ The pug-like features were intent. ‘The point is she got plastered an’ was prob’ly staggering all over the shop…. could even have fallen over a few times.... an’ then ended up keeling over…. either that or she tried to end it all by sticking her head under water….’

  Watching his subordinate’s contumacious expression, it occurred to Markham that his sergeant would be happy to see this one squared away as accidental death…. on Natalie’s account, perhaps? Was Noakes fearful that his daughter might be caught up in a fully-fledged murder investigation with its attendant danger?

  Gently but firmly, he said, ‘I want to take a closer look at the Bluebell Dance Studio. For my own piece of mind.’

  Noakes sighed gustily, causing Burton to shift uncomfortably as her nostrils were assailed by the aroma of greasy spoon.

  ‘Sidney won’t like it. Specially if Dimples won’t play ball.’

  ‘Leave Dimples to me.’ The DI smiled at them. ‘There’s not much on at the moment, so we can afford to check this out.’

  Noakes was now wearing his martyr-at-the-stake face, but the DI ploughed gamely on.

  ‘Here’s our dramatis personae, for want of a better word.’ He handed each of them a piece of paper with what appeared to be briefing notes. ‘Basically, a list of key staff and people we need to speak to…. Feel free to see what else you can google before we make a start tomorrow morning. Let’s meet here at eight sharp and divvy up the interviews between us. We can start with the family – Ms Bastin lived with her daughter and elderly mother – and take it from there. The Studio will be closed to students all this week, but the English Language college next door has agreed we can meet staff there.’

  ‘When’s the PM?’ Doyle looked somewhat apprehensive.

  Markham turned to Noakes.

  ‘Tomorrow afternoon, Guv. Dr Death’s bumped it up the list.’

  ‘I’ll take that, sir.’

  ‘Are you sure, Kate?’

  Doyle visibly sagged with relief, thanking God for Burton. Medical textbooks were her idea of light reading, so at least he didn’t have to feel too guilty about it.

  ‘Well, you did more than your fair share last year.’ Markham’s gaze rested lightly on Doyle who squirmed self-consciously. ‘So let me know if you change your mind.’

  ‘Righto sir,’ came the stoic response.

  ‘So it’s spangles an’ sequins.’ Noakes scratched his bristly chin. ‘Talk about bleeding déjà vu…. It’ll be like them poofy ballet folk all over again.’

  ‘Oh, I had the feeling you were quite into all that by the end, sarge’ Burton rejoined with a sly twinkle. ‘Rattling off the lingo with the best of them.’

  ‘Yeah well….’ Noakes looked embarrassed and shuffled his feet as Burton and Doyle grinned knowingly. Markham was pleased to see to the moment of amused complicity between them. He refrained from pointing out that his DS was a proficient ballroom dancer, sensing that such a reminder would not be welcome. Cultural philistinism was the order of the day in CID, so Noakes generally kept his extracurricular pursuits well under wraps.

  ‘Right,’ the DI said. ‘That’s it for now. Go and enjoy the rest of your weekend.’

  He noticed Burton dragged her feet as she left the room.

  ‘Looks like she’s lost a pound and found a penny that one,’ Noakes opined.

  The old warhorse knew his colleague’s relationship was in trouble. And he guessed that her longstanding crush on Markham had something to do with it. It was a source of never-ending amazement to him that the DI hadn’t twigged, but then for all his sophistication and book-learning the man was curiously unperceptive about women. On the other hand, Noakes had recently caught Markham looking solicitously at Burton, which suggested he might have some inkling…. He knew Olivia had figured it out but would keep shtum. Best to keep his mouth shut…. unless of course Burton availed herself of his superior wisdom in such matters….

  ‘See you tomorrow, Guv,’ he said. He waved the sheet of paper which was already looking crumpled and dog-eared. ‘Happen the missus’ll know all about this lot.’

  ‘I’m counting on it,’ came the reply.

2

A Difference of Opinion

 

‘The place has been going for donkey’s years,’ Noakes pronounced on Monday morning at the briefing. ‘They offer everything. Classes in tap, ballet, ballroom, musical theatre…. You name it, they do it. Toddlers right through to codgers.’ He chuckled. ‘Y’know. One-two-three, ooh-me-back, four-five-six.’

  Burton was wearing what Doyle privately termed her prune face, but Noakes was cheerfully oblivious.

  ‘Got a good reputation.’ He drew himself up proudly. ‘Quite exclusive, like…. That’s why we got our Nat a set of lessons.’ His face fell, ‘Though now she’ll have to wait till it opens again.’

  The DI suspected Natalie wouldn’t exactly be devastated to learn of this development. ‘A pleasure deferred, I’m sure,’ he murmured tactfully.

  Burton had her notebook and fountain pen out.

  ‘There’s just six permanent members of staff,’ she said briskly. ‘Shirley and Dave Gould –’

  ‘Weird that…. working with her ex,’ interjected Noakes.

  ‘The divorce was amicable and they were on good terms apparently.’ Burton found her place once more. ‘Both former professionals…. Then we’ve got Clay Clifton –’

  ‘Where do they get them daft names.’ Noakes rolled his eyes. ‘Like summat out of Dallas….’

  ‘He and Anton Bhaer,’ this time it was Doyle who raised his eyes to heaven, ‘are the senior instructors…. and under them there’s Robyn diAngelo and Vivienne Sansom.’ She scanned the jotter. ‘DiAngelo – that’s a woman by the way, Robyn with a ‘y’ – came to them by way of the exhibition circuit. Vivienne was a former student…. had all her RAD and LAMDA qualifications,’ Burton was never happier than rattling off acronyms, ‘but got herself injured, which meant she went into teaching instead of going professional.’

  ‘An injury?’ Markham said quickly. ‘Something that happened at Bluebell?’

  ‘Well, she was one of Shirley’s pupils,’ Burton said thoughtfully, ‘and reading between the lines it sounds like maybe they let her dance when they shouldn’t have….’

  ‘What was up with her?’ Noakes asked curiously.

  ‘Torn ligaments, crepitus, something like that.’ Burton frowned. ‘It’s all a bit vague really, but dancing with that lot most likely caused permanent damage…. I’m just going by what’s on-line.’

  ‘Negligence, then?’ Doyle’s law student antennae were twitching.

  ‘Could be.... But they must have settled it between them, with her ending up on the staff.’

  ‘Very cosy.’ Distrust was written all over Noakes’s face. ‘Better’n having to buy her off.’

  ‘Let’s not make any assumptions until we know the facts,’ the DI said. ‘Plenty of cases are settled without any aggro.’

  ‘If her career went down the swanee cos Shirl ballsed it up, then that’s a big fat reason to hate the boss.’

  Markham was amused to see how quickly Noakes shifted gear into homicide mode once he caught a whiff of potential skulduggery. ‘It’s certainly something to bear in mind,’ he said smoothly. ‘Anything else, Kate? Anything on Ms Bastin’s personal life?’

  It was noticeable that the DI rarely used first names when referring to the deceased. As though to restore the dignity stripped away by violent death. He had a notoriously low threshold for anything approaching gallows humour, which led junior colleagues who had been quenched by his freezing hauteur to dub him ‘that narky bastard Markham’. But Kate Burton understood where he was coming from and respected him for it.

  ‘He’s not on the list, sir, but there was an on-off boyfriend…. Name of Fred Stroud…. Drama teacher at Hope Academy.’

  ‘Oh, gimme a break,’ Not that place again.’ Noakes’s groan was heartfelt and Burton grimaced sympathetically, their most recent case having reached a shocking denouement on the school premises.

  ‘It was just the boyfriend worked there, sarge,’ she said soothingly before her colleague could burst a blood vessel. ‘No other overlap with Hope.’

  Fingers crossed.

  ‘Hmm…. Stroud,’ mused Markham, ‘I’ve heard that name before…. If it’s Drama, then Olivia will be able to fill me in.’ His lover taught English at Hope Academy and he always enjoyed her descriptions of battles between staff and “the Stasi”, as she categorized the school’s managers. Recalling the horrific notoriety achieved by Hope in previous murder investigations, he could only pray that this time round Olivia would not be imperilled. From the way Noakes’s expression had darkened, it was clear the DS was thinking along similar lines. Where Olivia was concerned, his knight-errantry was always at full throttle.

  ‘That pretty much covers it in terms of key personnel, sir,’ Burton continued hastily. ‘There’s some sort of PTA –’

  ‘Eh?’ Noakes couldn’t be doing with all the abbreviations.

  ‘Parent Teacher Association,’ she explained patiently.

  ‘Oh aye…. So where do they fit in?’

  ‘The parents help with performances, fundraising, that kind of thing….’ An odd little smile quirked the corners of her mouth. ‘Bit of a coven really…. The chief witch is one Aline Hosking…. Got a daughter on one of the competition teams…. mum doesn’t hold back when it comes to mouthing off about favouritism…. you know, talented kids not getting the breaks….’

  ‘Sounds like you’ve been busy sleuthing, Kate.’

  There was a strangled sound from Noakes and the usual exasperated semaphore passed between himself and Doyle.

  Burton blushed. ‘Oh, just stuff like Mumsnet and some of the local chat sites. It’s surprising how indiscreet people can be, especially pushy parents.’ Another reminiscent smile. ‘I had  ballet lessons at primary school…. No talent…. Mum always said I had two left feet and the other kids called me Nelly The Elephant cos I was podgy.’ She blinked as though suddenly recalling where she was. ‘Anyway, there were always folk who kicked off about unfairness and that kind of thing.’

  ‘Yeah.’ Confirmation came from an unexpected quarter. ‘It were like that with my Nat’s  lessons when she was little. The missus said the way some parents carried on was freaking unbelievable.’ Muriel Noakes being no shrinking violet, Markham had difficulty imagining what type of behaviour qualified as being beyond the pale. ‘S’like that programme Child Genius innit?’ Noakes was now warming to his theme. ‘Y’know, the quiz show for freaky kids with massive IQs…. there’s allus some parent squawking that their sprog was distracted or penalized when they shouldn’t have been.’ He shook his head more in sorrow than in anger. ‘Bloody awful …. Makes you wonder how they’ll cope when Little Einstein brings his first girlfriend home….’

  Despite this welcome outbreak of amity, the DI felt they were in danger of being side-tracked.

  ‘So we need to bear parents in mind too,’ he said decisively. ‘And check out the Studio’s finances.’

  ‘It seemed to be doing well, sir.’ Burton again. ‘Apparently there’d been an offer to buy…. Doug Callaghan wanted to develop the site and turn it into chi chi apartments, but Shirley turned him down.’

  ‘As in Mister Councillor Callaghan.’ Noakes’s mouth was well turned down at the corners. ‘I mighta known.’ He was no fan of Bromgrove’s elected representatives and loathed Councillor Penny Callaghan, the other half of the town’s “power couple”.

  ‘The plot thickens.’ Markham spoke lightly but felt somewhat dismayed. How many more of them with an axe to grind?

  ‘That’s the lot, boss.’ Burton tapped her pearly whites with the fountain pen. ‘Apart from Cathy Gould and the grandmother.’

  ‘What grandmother?’ demanded Noakes rudely. ‘Nobody said owt about a grannie.’

  Burton rewound the reel.

  ‘Sorry, sarge. I should have said…. Shirley’s mum Enid lived with her and Cathy…. There’s a basement flat leading off the main building…. all quite separate, so they had their privacy.’

  ‘Is she bedbound or doddery or what?’

  ‘She’s got some form of Parkinson’s, so pretty much an invalid…. There’s a care package in place…. apart from that, Shirley and Cathy seem to have managed things between them.’

  ‘Cathy’s the daughter, right?’ Doyle clearly felt it was time he brought something to the party. ‘Is she a dancer too?’

  ‘Drudge more like,’ Burton said with some asperity. ‘She’s front desk and all-round dogsbody. Wanted to train for a dancer but,’ she shrugged her shoulders, ‘it never happened. So she ended up as the receptionist.’

  ‘She’d never’ve made it,’ Noakes pronounced with the sublime assurance of a Diaghilev. ‘A real thunder thighs an’ one of them rabbity faces.’ He thought for a minute. ‘Her mum looked the business, though…. like the other Shirley….’

  ‘Other Shirley? Sorry Sergeant, you’ve lost me.’

  ‘Shirley Ballas.’ As much as to say Keep Up At The Back. ‘The head judge on Strictly…. The classy one with the black hair.’

  ‘Ah yes, I’m with you now.’ Markham smiled. ‘It’s true, Heredity didn’t count for much in Cathy’s case.’ His tone reflective, he added, ‘It sounds as though she was somewhat “under the cosh” …. But,’ with a meaningful glance at Noakes, ‘let’s not jump to any conclusions.’ Family dynamics were complex and you never knew what went on behind closed doors.

  ‘Any other instructors or staff we need to know about?’ he asked Burton.

  ‘Only the permanent people had their own keys. There’s a couple of supply instructors come in from Medway Stage School as and when needed. And they use Fresh As A Daisy Cleaning to look after the building. But in terms of ready access, we’re only talking the ones on your list, sir.’

  ‘We’ll need to check out all the casuals,’ the DI said heavily. ‘But hopefully we can rule them out early on.’

  ‘Are we really going with this then, Guv?’ Noakes burst out. ‘Murder?’

  ‘I’ve done an initial report for the DCI and will be speaking to him tomorrow morning once the PM’s out of the way and I’ve had another word with Dimples.’ He sighed. ‘Obviously there’ll be an Inquest in due course, and as things stand it looks like the forensics are going to be inconclusive. So –’

  ‘We jus’ have to wait for the killer to try again.’

  ‘Correct, Noakes.’

  Such was the universe they inhabited, he told himself ruefully. A world where their best chance of avenging murder was to hope that the predator they hunted would slip up.

  A uniquely unpleasant perspective.

  ‘D’you think he will, Guv…. try again?’

  ‘Something tells me yes, Sergeant.’

  How to convey what he had felt standing in that corner at the back of the Dance Studio…. that sense of evil…. and something else too…. the feeling of there being a cold spot in that angle between studio and garden where they had found Shirley Bastin’s body?

  ‘Bad vibes, boss?’ enquired Noakes eyeing him shrewdly, always surprisingly sensitive to what their superiors dismissed as ‘Markham’s mystical streak’.

  ‘Something like that,’ the DI admitted. ‘Though I doubt it’ll be enough for the DCI…. at least, not unless I can dig up some criminal antecedents.’ He paused, struck by the other’s sudden expression of unusual absorption. ‘What is it, Noakesy?’

  ‘Ackshually, Guv…. now I come ter think of it, there was summat went on with a dance school way back….’ He rumpled his salt and pepper thatch so it stood on end, giving him the look of a startled porcupine. ‘Dunno if it was the Bluebell though….’

  Burton and Doyle looked at him expectantly.

  After a few minutes’ cogitation, the DS thumped Markham’s desk, making them jump.

  ‘Got it!’ He patted his paunch complacently. ‘Mickey Willett,’ he said gnomically.

  Doyle leaned forward eagerly. ‘Who’s he?’

  ‘Missing teenager…. Did a vanishing act long before your time, lad… Giggsy from the cold case team was talking about it in the canteen the other day…. it’s one of the unsolveds…. They’re bringing Jim McLeod out of retirement as senior review officer on Willett an’ there’ll be three under him.’

  ‘What’s the connection with a dance school?’ the young DC pressed him.

  ‘Willett fancied himself a bit of a twinkle toes….’ Noakes leered after the fashion of a pantomime villain. ‘Or at any rate, he tried to cop off with lasses who went to the Saturday Night Hops…. Did some deejaying down at the Astoria when it was still in business…. Hung round various joints with a bunch of Teddy Boys or Rockers.’ It was clear from his tone that George Noakes had never been part of the Brylcreem Boys.

  Markham felt a faint hope flair.

  ‘Was the Bluebell on his patch then?’

  ‘Yeah that’s right, Guv. Last sighting was somewhere round Heathfield Close…. One of his mates reckoned he was going steady with a bird who went there for dance classes…. well, tap or drama…. summat like that…. Heathfield must mean the Bluebell, right?’

  ‘Yeees,’ the DI answered slowly. ‘But this must have been well before Shirley’s time.’

  Burton piped up. ‘That was likely when her aunt Rose was running the studio.’ She frowned. ‘Rose is dead now…. cancer…. about ten years ago…. So, no way of checking with her.’ She fell silent for a moment then brightened. ‘But there’ll be the case files for Willett…. Rose will have been interviewed as part of the investigation.’

  ‘Aunt Rose.’ Markham mulled it over. ‘The Bluebell’s a real family affair then….’

  ‘Yes, sir. What you might call a dance dynasty…. A cousin ran it before Rose, and they go quite a way back…. bought the old church from Bromgrove Diocese in the 30’s and made a go of it ever since.’

  The DI turned to Noakes.

  ‘They turn up anything that tied Mr Willett to the Bluebell?’

  More head scratching.

  ‘Not that I recall, boss.’ Momentarily, he looked downcast but then rallied. ‘But you c’n sell it to Sidney as going joint dibs on McLeod’s review…. a “new angle” or “fresh pair of eyes” …. some bollocks like that.’ “Bollocks” being Noakes’s shorthand for corporate-speak.

  Markham suppressed a smile. You just couldn’t keep a seasoned copper down. His wingman had the resilience of an India-rubber ball. All the Sidneys in the world couldn’t squelch him.

  ‘Worth a try,’ he agreed.

  ‘So, what’s the plan, sir?’

  As ever, Kate Burton was raring to go.

  ‘I want you and Doyle to visit the family…. That’s Cathy, Enid and the ex-husband Dave Gould. Kid gloves mind.’

  ‘How much do we tell them, boss?’ The DC sounded anxious.

  ‘As little as possible.’ Markham’s mouth twisted. ‘It goes against the grain not to be frank, but so far all we’ve got is what looks like a tragic accident…. I’ll be along shortly, but in the meantime I want you to get the lie of the land…. see what you make of the background…. check out any undercurrents…. any domestic ill-feeling.’ He smiled reassuringly. ‘I’ve got great faith in your instincts.’ At this, the gangling DC Doyle sat up straighter in his chair and Burton too looked like she had received a welcome shot in the arm.

  Two minutes later, Markham and Noakes had the DI’s office to themselves.

  ‘What about Dimples?’ the DS asked bluntly. ‘You know what that one’s like when he digs his heels in…. Won’t like us second-guessing him.’

  ‘Leave the doc to me, Noakesy. I’ll make it alright with him. The PM’s not till later today, so we don’t know what may turn up.’

  His wingman grunted.

  ‘Whatcha want me to do about Willett?  Hook up with Big Jim an’ come up with summat to knock the socks off Sidney?’

  The DI raised a quizzical eyebrow. ‘I doubt we’re going to do that…. But there may be enough for the DCI to give us a few days’ grace.’

  He got up and strode across to the window, looking towards the town centre where cash tills were no doubt ringing as the New Year sales got underway. His idea of hell, though Olivia assured him he underestimated the benefits of “retail therapy”.

  Noakes sat contentedly, accustomed to the DI’s moments of brooding introspection. He could tell this Bluebell thing had got under Markham’s skin. Reckoned the boss was haunted by the carnage of that last investigation. Probably imagining another queue of ghosts conga-ing behind him like he was some bloody Pied Piper….

  The DI came back to his desk.

  ‘Look up DS Giggs and the DCI,’ Markham always accorded retired Jim McCleod his full title, ‘and get me some preliminary on Mr Willett,’ he said. ‘But be discreet about it…. No treading on anyone’s toes and no suggestion we’re trying to outflank Sidney.’

  Even though they were.

  ‘I’ll sweet talk Dimples,’ he continued, reaching for the telephone on his desk.

  ‘You c’n allus go for the Sympathy Vote, Guv.’

  ‘How so?’

  ‘Let Dimples think you’re still…. er, traumatized or whatnot over them killings in New College Close.... Not so you get Occy Health pitching in or owt like that,’ Noakes qualified hastily, ‘but nuff to make it look like you’re dead set on covering all the angles for this one…. y’know, kinda like it’s therapy….’

  For such a blunderbuss of a policeman, the DS possessed surprising reserves of guile. Enough to make Noakes’s boss overlook the latest sartorial atrocity consisting of baggy sweater, crumpled chinos and string tie knotted somewhere under his left armpit.

  ‘Excellent advice, Sergeant. It shall be attended to.’

  The other heaved himself up, hitched up his trousers and headed for the door.

  ‘Y’know me, boss.’ He turned at the threshold and tapped the side of his nose conspiratorially. ‘There’s nowt gets past George Noakes…. Give it the violins with ole Dimples an’ he’ll be putty in your hands.’

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

Shirley Bastin’s private quarters at the Bluebell Dance Studio were situated at the rear of the converted Victorian church which formed the main building, her basement flat being accessed by a staircase which led from the Wardrobe Room.

  The upside-down layout meant that the living room and Enid’s en suite were on the upper level with the other rooms beneath. Steps outside the living room French windows led up to a low-walled minuscule courtyard with a gate into the garden. So it looked like the apartment’s residents could come and go without having to traipse through the school.

  Kate Burton found the flat pleasant enough albeit distinctly old-fashioned with swirly patterned carpets whose psychedelic vibrancy harked back to the 70s. Plain wooden flooring would have opened the space up.

  Everywhere was clean and tidy with none of the bohemian squalor she had been half expecting. Full marks to Cathy Gould then, since she looked to have been the most likely candidate for getting out the Marigolds. Everywhere was stiflingly hot, perhaps owing to Enid’s invalid status. Looking at DC Doyle, Burton could tell he found it thoroughly claustrophobic. Too bad, she thought grimly, we’ve got a job to do here….

  In the end, however, it was what Noakes would have called ‘slim pickings’, the three family members appearing shell-shocked to the point of muteness…. or could it be they were on their guard? At any rate, it felt like pulling teeth…. No, they couldn’t think of anyone with a grudge against Shirley…. No, she hadn’t seemed unusually depressed or as if there was anything on her mind…. No, there hadn’t been rows with anyone…. 

  Dave Gould appeared to be in his late-sixties. A mild-looking man with what looked like dyed hair, drooping moustache and an air of the world being too much for him. His eyes were bloodshot but for all they knew, Burton reflected with a twinge of self-loathing, it could have been from booze as much as grief. He explained that he and his ex-wife should never have got married, ‘but it often happens that way when you’re on the circuit with someone…. what with the long hours and partnering being so intimate, folk kind of fall into it…. easier all round.’ Not the world’s greatest romantic then, but there was a certain candour about the admission. ‘We got along miles better after the divorce,’ he concluded.

  Cathy Gould seemed close to her father, confirming what he said between hiccoughs and sniffles. There was something off-putting about the woman and Burton felt an instinctive revulsion without understanding why. Then it hit her. Cathy Gould reminded her of one of the civilian clerks back at the station…. Totty, that was her name, the sly one who listened at doors and was always dropping people in it with the top brass….

  Easy, she told herself. The woman’s had a tough time of it, so a bit of compassion wouldn’t go amiss. On the other hand, she wouldn’t take anything for granted.  Those unprepossessing looks and the fact that she was her mother’s slavey could have stoked who knew what hidden fires. Even Cathy’s passionate insistence that Shirley’s death ‘didn’t make any sense’ could be a double bluff. Whenever Burton thought back to the team’s last case and the New College Close murders, she never failed to remind herself that evil was often hiding in plain sight….

  Grandmother Enid, was clearly not all there. Beshawled in an armchair, with orange and grey streaked hair and emitting the occasional manic cackle, she resembled a bedraggled parakeet. Most disconcerting of all, was the way she kept repeating, ‘I knew you’d be along soon enough…. couldn’t keep it hidden forever…. these things always come out in the end….’

  ‘What things, ma’am?’ Doyle tried to coax a coherent response out of her.

  ‘She’s having one of her bad days,’ Cathy Gould hissed out of the corner of her mouth.

  The old lady looked medicated up to the eyeballs and Burton resolved to follow up with the family’s G.P.. If they could catch her in a lucid interval, she might have something for them…. She could swear there was a look almost of supplication in the rheumy depths of Enid’s eyes…. As if there was something she wanted to communicate could she but find the words to do so. There was no appearance of abuse or neglect, and she seemed comfortable enough round her family, but there was definitely something….

  Cathy beckoned them out and gently closed the living room door, leaving her father to settle the old lady whose querulous ramblings rose and fell in a babbling stream.

  ‘We can go in the kitchen, if you like,’ she said.

  ‘No, you’re okay.’ Now Burton too was feeling a prickling claustrophobia as she stood on the narrow landing. ‘Inspector Markham will be along later…. to, er, pay his condolences personally.’ That sounded alright. ‘Really, we’re just here to see you’ve got everything you need…’ A useful catch-all.

  The landing was dark even with spot lighting.

  ‘Where are we in relation to the annexe?’ she asked, suddenly disorientated.

  ‘That was built over the old cellars,’ came the reply. ‘There was a priest’s house…. presbytery or whatever it’s called.... at the back of the church originally and the storerooms were still underneath when it was demolished. You can get to them from the annexe theatre – there’s props and stage sets and other stuff down there – and they back onto this flat.’

  ‘Is there any access to your flat from the annexe?’

  ‘No. You can only get in from the Wardrobe Room in the main building or through our living room doors.’

  ‘And no access from the conservatory?’ Burton probed, thinking of the lean-to or corridor along which Cathy Gould had led Natalie when Shirley Bastin’s body was discovered.

  ‘No…. You see, that’s over on the right of the building. Completely separate. We’re on the left-hand side.’

  Burton narrowed her eyes in the gloom, visualizing it…. the paved corner area on the other side of the building basically replicating the flat’s little courtyard.

  ‘Mum kept to her own side,’ Cathy insisted, her eyes glittering with overwrought emotion. ‘She was a stickler for that…. Wanted to keep work and home separate.’ Fiercely, she added, ‘There was no reason for her to be round that side…. None.’

  ‘Maybe after a few drinks….’ Doyle prompted delicately thinking about that alcohol reading. ‘Maybe just trying to unwind….’

  ‘No way. And that’s another thing…. she liked to be in control…. hardly ever drank…. Just ask my dad.’

 

‘Phew!’ Doyle exclaimed once they were outside, gratefully gulping down cold fresh air. ‘Poor cow’s not having any of it.’

  His colleague glanced at her watch.

  ‘I have to shoot off to the PM before long,’ she said glumly.

  The DC looked at her guiltily. ‘C’mon, sarge,’ he said. You’ve got time for a coffee, my shout. There’s a Costa just round the corner.’ She hesitated. ‘Oh c’mon, sarge. We’ve earned it and anyway,’ he added craftily, ‘we can talk over the case.’

  That settled it. ‘Right you are,’ she said.

  Doyle smiled to himself. George Noakes wasn’t his mentor for nothing.

3

Spoiled for Choice

 

At 8 a.m. on Tuesday 7th January, Markham and Noakes sat closeted in the DI’s office deferring the evil hour when they would have to beard the DCI in his lair.

  Noakes’s stubby fingers drummed on a slim manila folder on the desk between them.

  ‘If we bung him this stuff on Willett, we should be okay for a bit, Guv…. give it the ole “joined-up policing” hoojah.... inter-departmental cooperation…. pooling our expertise an’ all that jazz.’

  Desperate straits called for desperate measures, and the DS was clearly prepared to spout whatever gobbledygook it took to lull Sidney’s suspicions.

  ‘Olivia tells me the Bluebell Studio’s something of an institution in Bromgrove,’ Markham said thoughtfully. ‘And according to DI Carstairs, half the top brass has connections with the place one way or another – either their children went there for classes and competitions or the wives did sponsored bakes to raise funds.... or they mix with the cha-cha-cha set.’ He gave an exasperated laugh. ‘You could call the place a “community hub” …. And, just to top it off, apparently Sidney’s lady wife swears by Clay Clifton’s rumba lessons!’

  ‘Christ, she’s built like a Sherman tank.’ Noakes was suitably awe-struck. ‘Reckon that’d be worth seeing.’

  ‘Yes, well –’

  ‘Houston, we have a problem.’

  ‘Quite. And after New College Close –’

  ‘Sidney’ll tell us to Foxtrot Oscar if we go snooping round Bluebell.’

  ‘Precisely.’

  ‘Wants us to focus on ringers an’ shoplifters ’stead of the pointy-toe brigade.’

  ‘Got it in one.’

  The two men contemplated each other gloomily before Noakes fell to playing with the executive pendulum toy on Markham’s desk, smacking the LED-light balls so hard it seemed he would sweep them from their cradle.

  Eventually the DS came to a halt.

  ‘Bugger Sidney,’ he said. Then, ‘Any joy with Dimples?’

  ‘He’s hedged his bets in the PM report…. “Cause of death not established pending further examination”, the usual pack drill.’

  ‘I s’pose that’s summat at any rate.’

  Markham flashed his rare charming smile. ‘I softened him up like you suggested, Noakesy. It was a good strategy…. I reckon he was busy diagnosing Overachievement Disorder by the time we finished talking.’

  Highly gratified, Noakes cradled his paunch in the manner of a Confucian philosopher.

  ‘Well, if Dimples is on-side, that’s gotta carry some weight.’ He tapped the manila folder emphatically. ‘As for Willett, Jimbo McLeod was never happy with the way Bretherton steered ’em away from the Bluebell.’

  It came as no surprise to learn that Blethering Bretherton (now Superintendent Bretherton) had tap danced away from offending the respectable burghers of Bromgrove.

  ‘What, pray, was Bretherton’s theory?’ Markham enquired wearily.

  Noakes grinned evilly.

  ‘Drug feud…. Tried to pin it on Nick Carter who went down for a load of other stuff…. Only problem being, Nick coughed to any number of TICs ’cept Willett…. Wouldn’t be budged, so they left that off in the end…. couldn’t make it stick an’ the CPS weren’t having any.’

  Remarkable,’ the DI observed drily, ‘given the way they usually fall over themselves to go after hopeless cases.’

  ‘Willett was a scrote an’ no mistake…. clever an’ good-looking too by all accounts…. A real Flash Harry…. Could’ve had his fingers in all sorts of pies.... but he hung round that dance school alright, though no-one was sure which bird he was banging.’

  ‘When was all this, Noakes. What about dates?’

  ‘1999, Guv. Willett was nineteen…. I was new in CID an’ Bretherton was SIO,’ he scowled, ‘givin’ it large.’

  ‘What about Jim McLeod?’

  ‘DI same as Bretherton…. He was the senior DI, but you wouldn’t have known it from the way Bretherton muscled in.’

  ‘Did Mr McLeod find anything to place Willett on the premises…. as in actually physically there in the dance school?’

  ‘Not in the building,’ Noakes admitted, ‘but some of the local kids placed him outside…. One of the oldies from the ballroom classes thought he looked familiar an’ a part-time teacher recognized him too, but they’re both dead now an’ Bretherton stuck to the party line that it was nowt to do with Glitterball Central.’

  Nothing changes, Markham thought, suppressing an almost hysterical desire to laugh.

  He got to his feet. ‘Come on, let’s get it over with,’ he said, adding with a wry smile, ‘Afterwards, we can treat ourselves to a fry up downstairs and work out next steps.’

  Noakes beamed at this unwonted concession to the needs of the inner man.

  ‘Champion. Doris allus saves me the crispy bits.’

  ‘A Girl in Every Canteen, that’s you Sergeant.’

 

Twenty minutes later, they sat opposite each other in the rather dreary station canteen. Not that the uninspiring ambience troubled Noakes, who savoured his fried egg, sausage, hash browns and baked beans with something akin to ecstasy while Markham tackled a bacon and cheese toastie with coffee.

  ‘Could’ve been worse,’ the DS mumbled through a mouthful of egg. ‘That Gavin Conors did us a favour for once.’

  It was true, thought Markham. The Gazette’s recent denunciation of the local force for its obsession with ‘woke’ hate crimes as opposed to ‘traditional policing’ currently preoccupied Sidney to the exclusion of all else, so the anticipated thunderbolts never came….

  When they arrived in the Holy of Holies, he noticed the DCI’s eczema had flared up, detracting somewhat from the executive charisma of buzz cut and goatee (why was it that baldies so often cultivated beards?). Irritably tugging at the latter, Sidney appeared distracted, his gaze passing restlessly from glossy paperless desk (sporting framed studio portraits of Mrs Valkyrie Sidney and assorted well-scrubbed offspring) to the photomontage which covered one wall and was irreverently known by the hoi polloi as The Hall of Fame. No doubt the DCI was planning which of his celebrity cronies could be called on to assist with a PR counterstrike and mitigate the bad press. The dreaded cross-examination about Bluebell failed to materialize, and even the presence of Noakes – whom Sidney regarded as little better than the village idiot – elicited no more than the automatic glower he was wont to bestow on Markham’s acolyte.

  Of course, the DI knew this was merely a temporary reprieve and they had got off lightly. There was the usual mini-lecture about the perils of relying on ‘flair’ and ‘getting carried away’, but that was pretty much par for the course with Sidney whose resentment of his fastidious, self-contained subordinate’s meteoric rise was poorly concealed. There was a sticky moment when the subject of Shirley Bastin’s PM came up, but Markham flannelled away about ‘further tests’ and ‘second opinions’ and the moment passed. Finally, ‘There’s to be no re-run of New College Close,’ Sidney admonished in his disagreeably nasal honk. ‘No persecuting pillars of the community.’ Somehow managing to refrain from pointing out that nothing of the sort had occurred and Bromgrove’s chattering classes were not magically immune from criminal impulses, the DI murmured the deferential nothings that were the surest guarantee of emerging unscathed. Noakes said nothing but watched admiringly from the side-lines. You really had to hand it to the guvnor, he thought. He managed to be polite while making Sidney look a total knobhead. Priceless.

  Even the long-suffering Miss Peabody, the great man’s PA, looked less oppressed than usual. Guiltily stuffing a copy of the Gazette under some files as the two men emerged from Sidney’s office, the staid little secretary – who looked more like Father Brown’s housekeeper than a lean, mean typing machine – turned pink as Noakes joshed her. ‘What’s new with News of the Screws, luv? C’mon, give us the goss.’ Fingering her pearls nervously, she eyed the open door nervously. ‘Don’t worry, your secret’s safe with us, Miss P,’ Noakes winked as they made their escape….

  Now the DS marvelled, ‘Sidney didn’t even mention my appraisal.’

  ‘Oh, he will, Sergeant, he will,’ Markham replied grimly. ‘Which is why we’ll keep our heads below the parapet for the time being…. Tact and discretion the watchword when we interview Bluebird staff, okay.’

  ‘Sure thing, Guv. Pass the ketchup will you.’

  The DI stifled a sigh and pushed his unfinished bacon sandwich away.

  ‘Did Kate and Doyle come up with anything yesterday while I was tied up at the Town Hall?’ He frowned at the recollection of the utter tedium of the previous afternoon’s Police Liaison meetings. Another four hours of his life he would never get back.

  ‘Not specially, Guv. Burton’s done a report.’ Noakes wrinkled his nose dismissively. ‘Drawn you a diagram thingy as well…. Bastin’s flat was separate from the school…. Jus’ her, the daughter an’ gran…. Nice enough but pokey.... a whiff of care home if you get me.’ Markham was willing to bet that his sergeant was quoting Doyle, since Kate Burton’s summaries were invariably punctiliously correct.

  ‘What about the ex…. Dave Gould?’

  ‘S’got a flat in Orrell Terrace, but looked like he helped out with Enid an’ stayed over sometimes…. Seemed they all got on…. daughter said deffo no way her mum would’ve gone on a bender.’

  ‘Hmmm.... So, nothing useful from the family?’

  ‘Well, gran kept burbling ’bout knowing we’d come…. stuff being hidden an’ you couldn’t keep everything under wraps forever.’

  ‘Was she wandering?’

  ‘Couldn’t be sure…. Burton’s gonna follow up with the GP in case there’s any chance of talking when she’s not doped up…. had the feeling there was summat the old girl wanted to tell her.’

  ‘Good idea.’ Markham thought hard. It occurred to him Enid Bastin might not talk freely if her family were around. ‘Let’s get something fixed up with the nursing team…. see if we can have a word in private.’

  ‘With Parkinson’s, there’s delusions an’ paranoia, boss.’ Kate Burton had clearly imparted some medical knowledge. ‘So, most like she’s imagining stuff.’

  ‘You’re probably right, Noakes.’

  But still…. knowing the police would come.... stuff being hidden…. you couldn’t keep everything under wraps…. The phrases reverberated in his mind. The old lady might not be lucid, but what if there was something lodged in her consciousness…. some clue to Shirley Bastin’s fate…. Markham recalled the creeping sensation of revulsion he had experienced standing behind the nondescript little dance school, the gut feeling of something wrong…. something off-key. Evil is banal, he thought uneasily. Isn’t it why that crime writer called his biography of Rose and Fred West Happy Like Murderers? On the surface, nice and commonplace and ordinary, but underneath a nest of maggots.

  Over the years, despite Sidney’s cavilling, he had learned to take notice of such feelings, hopeful that his inner promptings would lead him to the truth before it was too late.

  He became aware that the DS was watching him speculatively.

  ‘Don’t worry, Noakesy,’ he said, ‘I’m not going all telepathic on you.’

  ‘S’alright,’ came the surprising response. ‘That psychic who told us things on the New College case…. the one we called Mystic Meg…. she got some stuff right.’

  ‘Mrs Shaw, yes I remember,’ Markham said slowly. She certainly hadn’t been the stereotypical crystal ball practitioner, appearing almost boringly conventional, but the images she conjured up eerily prefigured developments in the case. ‘I reckon we could do with her now,’ he went on with a shaky laugh. ‘To give us a paranormal nudge.’

  ‘You didn’t like that garden did you, Guv?’ the DS observed shrewdly. ‘They dug it up, y’know, when Mickey Willett went missing.’ A shake of the head. ‘Nada.’

  ‘It had a bad atmosphere.’

  Only to Noakes could Markham make such a bald admission, it being a strange feature of their relationship that the older man respected his out-of-body communion with victims of violent death. Sidney might call it ‘fey’, but the DS never disparaged, never sniggered. Without the need for words, he knew his boss had been formed by haunting childhood experiences and carried that legacy down the nights and days, wherever there were lost souls calling out for justice.

  Now Noakes nodded. ‘Mebbe there’s summat,’ he said simply. ‘Summat they missed first time round…. When we’re done with interviews, me an’ Doyle c’n take a gander.’

  ‘Right.’ Markham gave himself a mental shake. ‘Let’s get over there.’

  He needed to put the Willett case out of his mind for the time being and focus on the job in hand.

  ‘Who’ve we got lined up?’ he asked as Noakes hitched up his trousers with a last regretful glance at the canteen hotplates where Doris and co were preparing to dish up ‘Stew of the Day’.

  ‘Burton an’ Doyle are doing that Viv bird…. the one who got herself injured.’

  ‘Oh yes…. Vivienne Sansom…. The one who had to go into teaching after an accident….’

  ‘Yeah, her…. An’ Burton said they’d hook up with that bossy mum cos it sounded like she’d be happy to dish the dirt.’

  ‘Aline Hosking…. Excellent. So, who does that leave for us?’

  ‘I said we’d do the woofters.’

  ‘Noakes.’ There was a world of meaning in it.

  ‘Alright, alright, Guv. But I mean, Clay Clifton an’ Anton Bhaer.... Like they’re not gonna be a bit light in the loafers!’

  They should have a fun time when it came to completing the Diversity Objectives section of Noakes’s appraisal, his boss reflected with a sinking heart.

  ‘If I catch you so much as looking sideways at them, Sergeant….’

  The DS sniffed eloquently. ‘No way was I leaving ’em to Burton. It’d be the usual Yak-Fest…. her wanting to know ’bout being a dancer an’ banging on like Melvyn Bragg.’

  Markham grinned despite himself. There was no denying Kate Burton’s sponge-like thirst for facts and knowledge.

  Noakes put down his cutlery with a clatter. ‘At least they won’t try an’ pull the wool with us.’

  ‘That remains to be seen.... Just those two, then?’

  ‘The other teacher too. The Robyn woman with the Wop surname.’

  ‘You know, there is such a thing as a “stage name”, Noakes. So for God’s sake, don’t go in there shouting the odds and being obnoxious.’

  ‘Wouldn’t dream of it, Guv.’

  ‘Yes, you bloody well would and remember, we need to keep Sidney sweet for the foreseeable…. or at least till the appraisal’s done and dusted.’ The DI headed for the exit, trailed by his wingman. ‘What about Doug Callaghan and Fred Stroud?’ He recollected himself. ‘No, never mind about those two for now. We’ll make arrangements to interview them tomorrow.’

  Curious eyes followed them as they left the canteen. The elegant chilly DI and his shambling sergeant. ‘Batman and Robin.’ But the words fell on empty air.

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

 

It was late afternoon by the time the team reassembled in the Principal’s office of Bromgrove English Language College in Heathfield Close. Quietly spoken and efficient, Mrs Seddon saw to it that they were comfortably settled with tea and biscuits then left them to review the ‘events’ of the day.

  ‘More like non-events,’ rumbled Noakes as the door closed behind her. ‘Don’ know about you,’ he thrust his massive head challengingly across the table at Burton and Doyle, ‘but we got frigging zilch. ‘Bill ’an Ben were useless.’

  ‘He means they were discreet,’ Markham qualified wearily.

  Clay Clifton and Anton Bhaer were attractive specimens of manhood, the first in his late forties, the other his mid to late fifties.

  Clifton was tall, dark and well-built with gelled hair, eyes like dark molasses and a retroussé nose that he admitted was the result of ‘having work done’. He drawled his words and was undeniably languid in manner, but there was nothing effeminate about him and Markham suspected the drawled vowels and arch theatricality were a well-honed act that had come to fit him like a second skin.

  His colleague was more the David Niven type. Also dark, but slender and fine-boned where the other was burly, with clean-cut features, piercing blue eyes, expressive hands and sensitive mobile mouth. Although quieter and more restrained than Clifton, it was clear that the two men got on well. They even performed an impromptu soft-shoe shuffle for Markham that made Noakes’s shaggy eyebrows rise as far as they could go. ‘I notice you didn’t mention your own dance credentials,’ the DI observed afterwards. ‘Didn’t want to be there all night,’ came the response, but it was clear his sergeant had been in no hurry to claim kinship with such an exotic pair.

  They seemed genuinely upset about Shirley…. no appearance of dissimulation or laying it on thick. ‘She was a good boss,’ Bhaer said, ‘and a damned hard worker…. The place was her life really.’

  ‘Sure, she could be a bit volatile sometimes,’ his fellow instructor admitted frankly. ‘But all of us in the profession are a bit like that…. It’s the artistic temperament, dah-ling.’

  Neither man would be drawn on drink or drugs, presenting a carefully blank façade to questioning. ‘You can hardly blame them,’ Markham said now. ‘They’ve got their jobs to think about…. blabbing might cost them dear if it gets back to the management.’

  ‘Who takes over the dance school, then?’ asked Doyle.

  Burton riffled through her notes. ‘It’s left to the ex and her daughter.’

  ‘Musta rated him,’ Noakes observed thoughtfully.

  ‘Looks like it,’ she concurred. Restlessly, she twiddled her pen. ‘Did they say anything about squabbles or jealousy, sir? I mean, there’s bound to have been the odd tiff surely.... It’s that kind of environment…. everyone wanting to hog the spotlight.’

  ‘The “odd spat” was all they would admit to…. Artistic differences….’

  ‘See what I mean, freaking useless.’ Noakes’s piggy eyes held a malevolent look that suggested he would happily have skewered Clifton and Bhaer on their own dance canes.

  ‘What about alibis?’ Burton asked. More riffling. ‘Dimples says she died in the small hours….’

  ‘Both of ’em were tucked up in bed like good little boys.’ Her colleague sounded disgusted, as though dancers might have been counted on for some nocturnal debauchery.

  ‘Any luck with the other one…. DiAngelo?’ Doyle asked hopefully.

  ‘Not really. Bit of a cat, though,’ the DI replied.

  There had indeed been something feline about Robyn diAngelo with her narrow rapacious face and scrawny frame. She looked at the guvnor like she wanted to gobble him up, Noakes told Doyle later over a pint. With a sharp gamine haircut, sultry eyes and drooping lids, she exuded sexuality but with an undercurrent of danger.

  ‘I could jus’ see her bashing someone over the head if she got a cob on,’ was Noakes’s verdict.

  ‘Like the other two, she says she was at home in bed, Sergeant…. And then what about motive?’

  ‘Like you said, Guv…. bitchy…. got her claws out about Shirl.’

  ‘Well there was no false modesty about her, that’s for sure.’

  ‘How come, sir?’ Doyle was curious.

  ‘Said she was the better dancer but didn’t have Ms Bastin’s luck with partners…. or the financial support someone like Dave Gould could provide.’

  ‘Miaow.’

  ‘Quite, Constable. Plus, she implied Ms Bastin snaffled opportunities that should have been hers.’

  ‘Jealous then,’ Doyle concluded hopefully.

  ‘The thing is, she didn’t mind us knowing.’

  ‘Maybe she thought it’d come out somewhere along the line and decided to get it in first…. otherwise her not having mentioned it would look fishy.’

  ‘Yes, it could have been a pre-emptive strike, Kate….’

  ‘Any chance she had her hooks in Dave Gould, boss?’

  ‘That’s an angle worth checking out, Constable…. See what you can get on his personal life.’

  Markham thought about the brief visit he had made earlier to offer his condolences. He hadn’t picked up on any vibes to suggest it wasn’t simply a grieving family, but they would need a fuller picture of Dave and Cathy Gould.

  ‘DiAngelo…. What a load of old cobblers!’ Noakes exclaimed. ‘She’s no more Italian than I’m Brad Pitt!’

  ‘From her colouring, I’d say there’s Mediterranean blood somewhere in the background,’ the DI surmised. He thought of the watchful way she had of looking out of the corners of her eyes without turning her head. Something about her had made him uncomfortable, but he would be hard pressed to say precisely what.

  ‘How old d’you reckon DiAngelo is?’ Noakes asked. ‘I mean she looks like a stick insect, but them anorexic dancer types live on lettuce leaves.’

  ‘Early fifties, but very well-preserved,’ was Markham’s verdict.

  ‘Shirley was fifty-three,’ Burton informed them.

  ‘There you are then. She and Ms DiAngelo were contemporaries –’

  ‘And rivals.’

  ‘Indeed, Kate.’

  The DI got up and walked over to the bay window of the Principal’s office. Outside a semi-circular drive was bordered by a neat privet hedge precluding any view of the road beyond. The afternoon had turned dark and still, with just a faint hum of traffic in the distance. Briefly, his back to the others, he shut his eyes…. for some reason, the image of those delicate wildflowers in St Chad’s cemetery came into his mind…. what were they…. winter aconites…. irises?

  The rustling of papers interrupted his reverie. The others were growing restless.

  ‘Right then.’ He resumed his seat. ‘How did you do with Vivienne Sansom and Aline Hosking?’

  ‘The Hosking woman was poisonous!’ Doyle burst out.

  ‘Really?’

  ‘Yeah, a real bitch on wheels’

  Markham raised his eyebrows interrogatively and turned to Burton.

  ‘Ex-dancer, sir,’ she said. ‘Gave up when she married and never went back to it. Well-to-do, pampered…. One of those women who live through their children.’

  ‘They call them “helicopter parents”,’ Doyle put in. ‘Cos they’re always hovering over the kids and smothering them.’

  ‘She was convinced Shirley had it in for her Monica because she kept passing her over for shows and competitions, that kind of thing.’

  ‘The reason being?’

  ‘Who can say, boss.’ Burton shrugged. ‘Reading between the lines, I’d say the kid didn’t have the talent and mum took it personally.’

  ‘Mmm.’

  ‘I’ll know more once I’ve tapped into the “Mummy Mafia”.’

  ‘Good. Doyle can help with that…. perhaps his boyish charm will work its usual magic.’

  Noakes made a noise that sounded very like someone blowing a raspberry.

  ‘Anything else from our stage mom?’

  ‘She threw out some dark hints alright. Said Shirley gave her teachers “a dog’s life” and “flirted with anything in trousers”’, Burton air quoted vigorously. ‘but I think even Hosking felt awkward about having a mega-bitch what with the poor woman’s body being barely cold.’

  ‘Sounds promising.’ And distasteful.

  ‘Yes, sir. I thought I’d let her sleep on it and then have another crack tomorrow.’

  ‘Sounds like a plan.’ Markham was pleased by her enthusiasm. ‘What about Vivienne Sansom?’

  ‘Lady-like and very pretty.’

  ‘Reminded me of that Darcey Bussell,’ Doyle added.

  ‘Well what did Darce have to say for herself?’ Noakes was impatient. ‘Or were you too busy checking out her vital statistics?’

  The DC grinned lazily, too used to the old warhorse to rise to the bait.

  ‘She seemed nice,’ he said. ‘No side to her…. Teaches the little ones…. working towards some higher qualification or other.’

  ‘What about the injury?’ Noakes persisted, ‘the one that was Shirley’s fault?’

  ‘It was an ankle injury,’ Burton took over. ‘She should have had physio and rested up, but Shirley persuaded her to take part in a matinee…. Worst thing she could have done, apparently…. put the mockers on a career on stage.’

  ‘So, it was down to Ms Bastin?’

  ‘Well it never went to court or anything like that…. They “worked out a package”,’ more air quotes, ‘and she took a job at the dance school.’

  ‘Bitter, would you say?’

  ‘If she is, she hides it well, sir.’ Burton thought for a moment. ‘She said Dave Gould felt bad about it cos she was his protégée, but not Shirley.’

  All very interesting, thought Markham. No obvious connection with the Mickey Willett investigation, but certainly enough to reinforce his suspicions that someone had it in for Shirley Bastin.

  Looking at their jaded faces, he decided it was time to call it a day.  

  ‘Well done team. Noakes and I will chase up Doug Callaghan and Fred Sroud tomorrow morning, Kate, while you and Doyle crack on with the Goulds and the Mummy Mafia.’

Class dismissed!

 

It had been a tiring day.

  Markham decided to reward himself with an outing to ‘Doggie’ Dickerson’s Gym. And then home to Olivia.

  As far as potential suspects went, it was beginning to look as though he would be spoiled for choice.

4

Breakthrough

 

‘Doggie’ Dickerson was an army veteran and the proud proprietor of Bromgrove Police Boxing Club where Markham liked to come and unwind.

  As far as the DCI was concerned, his predilection for Doggie’s was yet another of ‘the Inspector’s bizarre whims’.

  ‘You do know half the villains in Bromgrove go there?’ he had snapped in a recent encounter. ‘And as for that character who runs the place…. unsavoury in the extreme.’ Not the least of it being the infamous moniker.

  There was no denying that Doggie bore not the remotest resemblance to the ‘my-body-is-a-temple’ brigade. Physically, he was quite alarming thanks to a crooked jaw, tombstone teeth and nicotine-hued leer which made him Bromgrove’s answer to Quasimodo. An eyepatch (covering a pupil-less eye, so the rumour went) and extraordinary horsehair wig did nothing to mitigate this sinister impression, though Markham suspected he played it up for all he was worth.

  It was also true Doggie’s club was popular with criminals and coppers alike, the two sides declaring an unofficial armistice that allowed them to spar away quite happily together and even imparted a seedy glamour. The Council frequently tried to dislodge Doggie using health and safety, but he somehow always managed to save the day in the nick of time and keep his ‘no frills’ show on the road.

  The DI stuck to the place for the same reasons as he stuck to Noakes. He liked the lack of pretention and had become unaccountably fond of Doggie, with a sneaking admiration for the old reprobate’s point-blank refusal to emulate the antiseptic spa culture that predominated elsewhere.

  Even the euphemistically entitled ‘sauna’ (in reality a locker room of dubious salubrity with showers in urgent need of regrouting) now felt like a “home from home” if not an alternative to Markham’s office.

  DI Chris Carstairs from Vice now sat next to him on a rickety bench panting hard.

  ‘I can always tell when you’ve had a barney with Sidney,’ he observed, ‘cos you get in that ring and pummel seven bells out of me.’ He grinned resignedly. ‘’S like I’m a frigging substitute or something.’

  ‘You said it!’

  Markham stretched pleasurably, feeling muscles and tendons unknot.

  ‘How come you get away with visiting this den of iniquity, Chris?’ he asked. ‘Sidney’s always on at me about coming here…. “sending the wrong message, bad example, dragging the force into disrepute” blah blah.’

  His fellow DI smirked. ‘That’s cos “We’re the Sweeny, son, and we haven’t had any dinner”,’ he recited in an affected Mockney.

  ‘Oh, I see…. Alright for Vice and the Flying Squad but not the likes of me.’

  ‘Something like that.’ Carstairs chuckled. ‘You’re meant to be a posho, mate. On the inside track. Destined for higher things.’ He began towelling himself off with cheerful vigour. ‘Can’t have you rubbing shoulders with lowlifes like Vinnie Macdonald and Johnnie Molloy.’

   ‘Very funny.’

  ‘’Course it’s far more likely Sidney’s just shit-stirring cos he’s jealous.’

  ‘Hmm.’ Olivia shared the same opinion of his boss, invariably describing him as ‘first cousin to Judas Iscariot’.

  The young DI eyed him shrewdly.

  ‘Word has it you’re sniffing round the Willett case,’ he said.

  ‘Ah, I take it Noakes has been making waves.’

  ‘Well, he wouldn’t be the only tec uneasy about that particular investigation.’ Carstairs’ tone was casual but his glance was keen.

  ‘The one that got away…. thanks to Bretherton,’ Markham said stonily.

  ‘You think maybe it’s got something to do with this death at the Bluebell?’

  ‘Early days, Chris, early days.’ Where different departments were involved, it paid to be circumspect.

  ‘Let me know if you need anything from my end.’ Carstairs was pulling on his clothes. ‘Willett was a scrote, but when he disappeared like that it practically did for his mum…. She was never the same afterwards. Died of a broken heart by all accounts.’ He flashed a wolfish grin. ‘If Sidney runs true to form, I’m guessing he’ll cut up rough about anything that upsets the nice middle-class mummies and daddies.’ 

  ‘More than likely.’

  ‘In which case, you might want to bung him some intel about mispers in the noughties…. get him looking at the broader picture, yeah?’

  ‘Got you. Thanks, Chris.’ Markham smiled mischievously. ‘That’s pretty much what Noakes suggested. “Give it the ole joined-up policing bollocks”, or words to that effect.’

  ‘Christ, it’s a bad lookout when me and the old villain are on the same page!’ He whistled. ‘Talking of old villains….’

  The club’s proprietor hove into view, preceded by the pungent aroma of Jack Daniels and wearing the weird permanent smile that was a consequence of his broken jaw (‘an old war wound’), his lopsided ugliness more pronounced than ever.

  ‘Gotta love you and leave you, Dogs.’ Carstairs made good his escape.

  Doggie greeted his ‘fav’rite ’spector’ with great affability, to which Markham responded in kind.

  ‘I see you’ve ditched the kaftan,’ he observed after the usual pleasantries.

  The DI wondered if this portended trouble on the domestic front, since it was through Doggie’s latest girlfriend Marlene (bingo caller at The Pavillion, celebrated for her stupendous cleavage) that he had become enamoured of the supernatural world, to the point where he took to wearing flowing cloaks of which Gandalf might have been proud.

  ‘Marl said better keep it for when we’re private,’ he said solemnly, ‘’case folk think I’m weird.’

  Hmm. Pretty much a case of shutting the stable door after the horse had bolted.

  ‘Fair enough…. So you’re still into astrology and all the rest of it?’

  ‘Oh yes, Mr Markham.’ He hitched up the grubby gansey. ‘I’m wearing crystals next to my skin, see.’

  ‘Excellent.’ Frankly, Markham would have been happy to take this on trust.

  ‘What else have you been up to?’ he said heartily, averting his eyes while Doggie readjusted himself.

  ‘Well, Marl thinks I should branch out,’ was the startling reply. ‘Offer summat extra…. classes, p’raps….’ He trailed off uncertainly.

  The DI boggled at the prospect of Bromgrove’s yummy mummies rolling out their yoga mats next to Vinnie Macdonald and Johnnie Molloy.

  ‘That’s interesting, Dogs.’ He swallowed hard. ‘Perhaps it might be worth doing some research first…. see what kind of thing people want.’

  ‘Marl can teach dance,’ the other said with a kind of defiant pride that reminded Markham of Noakes’s encomiums to ‘the missus’.

  ‘Indeed,’ he said politely. ‘You’ll be off to a head start there then.’

  ‘Yeah…. She took lessons at the Bluebell back in the day…. Didn’t hit it off with the woman in charge, though. Said she were a snotty bitch…. shouting at the teachers an’ sucking up to anyone with a bit of money. That’s when she wasn’t flashing her bits at the fellas. Like one of them cheetahs.’

  Doggie had worked himself into quite a state of virtuous indignation, though the DI presumed he meant cougars.

  ‘Uh-huh.’

  ‘Marl really liked some gay bloke with a daft name. The boss woman was allus on his case…. used to say he was drunk or had a hangover….’

  No impediment to doing one’s job as far as Doggie was concerned.

  Markham tutted sympathetically. It sounded as though it had not been sweetness and light under Shirley despite what they had been told.

  ‘Sounds like a bit of a perfectionist,’ he said non-committally.

  ‘Marl said the husband and daughter got it in the neck too.... But then,’ Doggie shook his head sagely, ‘it don’ do to ’ave family on the payroll. Asking for trouble that is.’

  All hail the Alan Sugar of Bromgrove’s wellness sector, Markham thought with detached amusement. Clearly Doggie figured himself something of an industry insider.

  ‘You may well be right,’ he agreed, since some sort of affirmation was clearly required. ‘But by all accounts, the place is doing well.’

  ‘That’s as may be, Mr Markham. But,’ invoking the Oracle again, ‘Marl said it weren’t a happy ship.’ He sniffed self-righteously. ‘An’ you can’t put a price on employee satisfaction, can you? All very well working ’em to the bone, but if they don’ like you….’ 

  Anything could happen. Maybe even murder.

  ‘Artists are strange people,’ the DI observed, feeling somewhat at a loss. ‘Very sensitive, you know…. Highly strung.’

  ‘Like my Marl.’ Doggie was smug. ‘In tune with folks’ chakras.’

  Markham felt the conversation was heading somewhere he didn’t care to go.

  ‘Let me know how it goes with the…. er, classes,’ he said kindly. ‘I believe dance is all the rage these days.’

  When Doggie heard about Shirley Bastin’s demise, he would no doubt regard the news as irrefutable proof of Marlene’s psychic infallibility. At that moment, however, the DI felt it was a subject best left unexplored.

  ‘Right, I should get dressed before I catch my death.’

  That’s if the resident bacteria didn’t do it for him.

  ‘I’ll be seeing you, Mr Markham,’ said the other. ‘Mr Carstairs ain’t giving you nuff of a workout these days. Reckon you’re ready for the next level.’

  God only knew what that would involve, but for the moment Markham was safe.

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

 

Later that evening, back in his apartment at The Sweepstakes, the upmarket complex off Bromgrove Avenue, Markham regaled Olivia with the events of the day as they sprawled on the living room floor eating takeaway from The Lotus Garden. Outside it was raining steadily, but indoors all was cosy.

  His lover enjoyed hearing about his visit to the boxing club.

  ‘Cheetahs!’ she chuckled. ‘God, Doggie’s malapropisms get better and better.’

  ‘Is that what you call them?’ He smiled affectionately as he watched her forking up her chow mein with gusto.  ‘I just think of him as coining a new language.’

  Suddenly she stopped mid-laugh, the grey-green eyes clouding with compunction.

  ‘Sorry, Gil, it doesn’t feel right to be joking about it, what with the poor woman dying like that.’

  She scooped back a hank of red-gold hair that was too heavy for the loosely pinned chignon.

  ‘D’you really think she could’ve been murdered?’

  ‘I honestly don’t know, love.’

  How to put into words the acute sense of foreboding he had experienced in that narrow corner at the back of the dance studio? He couldn’t properly articulate it even to himself.

  ‘There might be a connection with another case,’ he said, pushing away the foil container with his sweet and sour pork, appetite abruptly gone.

  Olivia listened carefully.

  ‘So you think this Mickey Willett’s killer murdered Shirley Bastin?’

  ‘Assuming Mickey was murdered and didn’t just drop off the radar, I think it’s possible there might be some connection, yes.’

  ‘Because she knew something about what happened to him…. or because she was involved in some way….?’

  ‘Who can say?’ Markham tried to keep the discouragement out of his voice. ‘The thing is, it means Sidney won’t shut us down just yet.’

  ‘That man!’ Olivia jabbed a bean sprout as though she wished it was a tender portion of the DCI’s anatomy. ‘What a weasel…. Grabs all the glory when you get it right while secretly hoping you fall flat on your face. Yuk!’

  ‘Oh, Sidney’s not the worst,’ her lover rejoined mildly. ‘Just nervous about treading on Establishment toes.’

  ‘More like trying to make sure you don’t leapfrog him and make Chief Constable first!’

  ‘I’d hate that, Liv. I’m not a bean counter.’ He grinned. ‘And besides, they’d never let me keep Noakesy.’

  She burst out laughing. ‘Can’t see George schmoozing the corridors of power, that’s for sure!’

  ‘He’s a holy terror. Not best suited to handling our Bluebell suspects…. You know what he’s like round “poofy types” …. The hackles go up and he gives them that look…. You know the one.’

    ‘Mmm. Only too well.’ She thought for a minute. ‘Maybe he’s over-compensating because of the ballroom dancing. You know, brandishing his macho credentials in case anyone thinks he’s not one hundred percent raw male.’

  ‘Well he certainly got his point across,’ Markham sighed. ‘Those instructors at the Bluebell won’t be in any doubt about which team he bats for!’

  ‘What did you make of the set-up down at the Bluebell?’

  ‘Difficult to say really.’

  Crunching prawn crackers, his lover waited patiently.

  ‘Everything seemed all right on the surface,’ he said finally. ‘But apparently there were tensions. Looks like Ms Bastin cracked the whip and alienated various folk. Took advantage of family too from the sound of it.’ Another sigh. ‘But whether it adds up to murder….’

  ‘What does Dimples reckon?’

  ‘Accidental death…. Or suicide at a push.’ A faint smile. ‘Noakes told me to spin him a sob story about needing to dot the i’s and cross the t’s after what happened at New College Close…. so he’d give us more time to check it out.’

  ‘Crafty old devil.’ Olivia too was smiling. And did it work, this guff about you needing closure?’

  ‘Well, to the extent that Dimples’ findings aren’t cut and dried.... further tests and samples needed etcetera.’

  ‘Should help with Sidney, then.’

  ‘Luckily for us, he’s distracted by the Gazette’s campaign attacking the force for being wet and woke.’

  ‘Oh yes…. Gavin Conors’ column, isn’t it?’ She opened another foil container. ‘C’mon Gil, you’ve got to help me with the spare ribs.’

  To please her, Markham duly tucked in. The sticky barbecue sauce wasn’t too bad, and the gypsy-style picnic was a novel diversion from their usual routine.

  ‘I never thought I’d be grateful to the Gazette,’ he said at last. ‘But if this keeps Sidney’s attention engaged elsewhere, then I hope Conors spins it out.’

  ‘Maybe you should arrange for George to be interviewed,’ Olivia suggested mischievously. ‘Ten minutes with him should put paid to the idea of CID being superwoke and snowflaky.’

  ‘Ah, that’d be the nuclear option, sweetheart.’ Markham’s expression lightened with genuine amusement. ‘Can you imagine the impact of unvarnished Noakes? The DCI would be doing damage limitation till the cows came home.’

  And no bad thing, she thought to herself.

  Aloud, she said, ‘So what’s your plan with the Bluebell?’

  ‘Well, Kate and Doyle plan to look up some of the stage moms and see what the jungle drums are saying. Meanwhile, Noakes and I will pay Doug Callaghan a visit.’

  ‘Callaghan….,’ she said ruminatively. ‘Wasn’t there a Callaghan involved in the New College case?’

  ‘Yes, Councillor Penny Callaghan.’ Markham frowned. ‘A real juggernaut of a woman…. Let’s just say she and Noakes didn’t exactly hit it off.’

  ‘Figures.’

  ‘This is the husband.’

  ‘Another Doug to boot.’

  ‘Yes…. We call Dimples Good Doug and this one Bad Doug to distinguish them.’

  Olivia’s joyous, full throated laugh invigorated him.

  ‘He had his eye on the Bluebell for a property development, but Ms Bastin turned him down.’ Absently, he began tidying the foil containers, stacking them one inside the other. ‘We don’t know of any other connection between them, but he’s worth a look…. Then there’s an on-off boyfriend.’ Markham chewed his lip guiltily. ‘Sorry, love, I should have mentioned it earlier. He teaches at Hope, name of Fred Stroud.’

  ‘Fred!’ she was startled. Then, laying a hand softly on his, ‘No need to feel bad, Gil, it’s just a bit of a surprise.’

  ‘What sort of man is he?’ Markham probed gently.

  ‘A gentle giant,’ was the reply. ‘Half American…. still has the “twang” …. Nice looking but quite shy. He comes out of his shell with the kids but never really lets anyone else get close.’

  ‘It seems he made an exception for Shirley Bastin,’ Markham observed grimly.

  ‘Do her family know?’

  ‘Stroud’s name didn’t come up when we spoke to them…. One of the parents told Kate.’

  ‘God, how awkward.’

  ‘Well, it looks as if Shirley and the ex-husband were still pretty tight, so she could have been running the two men in tandem…. If there was some kind of love triangle, we’ll have to get to the bottom of it.’

  Markham’s lean sensitive face was full of intense distaste at the prospect of airing this dirty laundry and dragging a dead woman's sexual secrets into the light.

  He held out his hands and helped Olivia to her feet. For a moment, they stood entwined.

  ‘Maybe Dimples is right and it was an accident,’ she whispered.

  But it didn’t sound as though she believed it.

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

Markham slept badly and was up very early the following morning, slipping quietly into his study so as not to wake Olivia.

  Overlooking Bromgrove North Municipal Cemetery, his desk was as paperless as Sidney’s, but that was where all resemblance to the DCI’s sanctum ended. There was something almost monastic about the room’s lack of furniture, its principal feature being a huge picture window which drew the eye to tidy ranks of monuments and headstones and tussocky wild undergrowth beyond.

  Sitting in the window seat with his coffee, Markham contemplated the graves.

  All Passion Spent.

  Was that why he never tired of the view, he wondered…. because of the ordered serenity which offered such a contrast to the tangled skeins and disorder of the lives it was his job to dissect?

  His gaze wandered to the Wilderness Garden at the far side of the cemetery where it bordered Bromgrove Avenue, with winter jasmine, snowdrops and larkspur showing bravely beneath a pale sky tinged with streaks of red.

  Suddenly, he found himself thinking of that other garden at the rear of the Bluebell Dance Studio.

  Why had it filled him with such disquiet?

  They dug it up when Mickey Willett went missing…. Nada.

  So why had he seen it in his dreams, with a shadow falling across it as though cast by an invisible watcher standing just out of sight?

  Kate Burton’s ‘diagram thingy’ showed a children’s playground behind the garden, and next to that was Heathfield Primary School. No building works or excavations to speak of in the last thirty years….

  The picture of suburban respectability. But, as though borne on an evil wind, he had picked up the scent of something rotten. Something which made him think of death and coffins and corruption.

  His fingers tightened on the mug of coffee. No way could he start sounding off about ‘premonitions’ or ‘funny feelings’. Nothing short of hard evidence would induce Sidney to let him run a full-fledged investigation into Bluebell. And as yet they didn’t have any.

  At that moment, his mobile pinged. It was Noakes.

  Bad Doug in meetings till 12. C u at Hope?

  They could take the drama teacher first, though from what Olivia had said he didn’t sound a likely prospect.

  On the other hand, as his wingman was wont to say, Still waters run deep.

  Reluctantly, he abandoned his window seat vista and went to shave, deciding on a walk to Hope. Maybe that would clear his head.

 

‘Watcha reckon to Yogi Bear then?’ Noakes asked an hour later as they sat in his Fiesta outside the school.

  It was an apt description, the big dark teacher with his transatlantic accent having something undeniably ursine about him.

  Like Dave Gould he was walrus-moustached (clearly Shirley Bastin favoured a particular “type”) but younger and brawnier.

  There had been no visible signs of strain when he greeted them in the HR Manager’s office, the teacher readily admitting to a ‘relationship’ with the dead woman.

  ‘I think it had run its course, though,’ he said candidly. ‘The spark had gone.’ A flash of perfect teeth suggested the American fetish for cosmetic orthodontia had crossed the pond with him. ‘She was onto the next thing.’

  ‘The next thing?’

  ‘Just a figure of speech, Inspector. I don’t know if there was someone else on the scene…. I kinda assumed there was.’ His voice thickened as he added, ‘We had some good times did me and Shirl, but it was never gonna be Happily Ever After.’

  Not for her at any rate.

  ‘When did you see Ms Bastin last?

  ‘About a month ago. We watched As Good As It Gets in her flat and had a meal together…. But I didn’t stay over.’ He met their eyes boldly. ‘The sex fizzled out a while back but we still met up from time to time…. no hard feelings.’

  ‘Would you have said she was the type to take her own life?’

  ‘Hell no.’ He looked genuinely shocked. ‘She was the up-and-at-’em type.’ He smiled ruefully. ‘A real firecracker.’ Too fiery for him, was the subtext.

  Now Noakes weighed it up.

  ‘So she was onto the next stud muffin then, Guv.’

  The DI winced. His sergeant believed in calling a spade a spade.

  ‘It would appear so.’

  ‘Marlboro Man too laid-back for her.’

  From the nicknames Noakes bestowed upon their interviewee, it appeared he liked him. Markham too had warmed to the genial teacher, but he knew better than to jump to conclusions. There had been a certain wariness in the man’s eyes when asked if his late lover could be ‘difficult’, a tightening of the generous lips when the subject of her family came up.

  ‘Didn’t like ole Dave an’ Cathy, did he?’

  As ever, Noakes was on the DI’s wavelength.

  ‘I got the feeling he thought they were like leeches,’ the DS continued. ‘Kinda hanging out of her while she hustled to bring home the bacon.’

  ‘Yes, it did sound like that. But depending on how you look at it, she was the one exploiting them.’ Succinctly, he outlined what Doggie had vouchsafed the previous evening.

  ‘Bit of a nag an’ a nympho then.’ The DS scowled ferociously as was his inclination when wrestling with a knotty problem. ‘If she’d dumped lover boy, who was she shagging?’

  ‘It’s just possible she had embraced celibacy, Noakes.’ The DI’s tone was ironic. ‘Though I believe they call it “self-partnered” these days.’

  His wingman’s eyes narrowed to slits. ‘Sounds pervy.’

  Moving swiftly on from sexual semiotics, Markham mused, ‘Mickey Willett’s name didn’t produce a flicker.’

  ‘Don’ forget he’s a drama teacher, Guv. Them arty types know how to pull the wool.’

  ‘True enough.’

  ‘An’ he’s lived in Bromgrove most of his life despite the Yank accent…. Could’ve been on the scene the same time as Willett.’

  ‘I’ll get Mat Sullivan to do some digging,’ Markham said finally. The assistant head was an old friend and highly regarded by Noakes whose politically incorrect view of the universe chimed with Sullivan’s own distinctly subversive sense of humour. Having briefly fallen under suspicion in Hope’s notorious Ashley Dean murder investigation, Sullivan had weathered the storm to become a well-respected member of the school community. The DI could rely on his tact and discretion.

  At that moment, Markham’s mobile trilled.

  ‘Kate, how’s it going?’

  As the DI listened, his face darkened. Noakes, bulldog head on one side, watched him attentively.

  ‘Wassup, boss?’

  ‘Enid has disappeared.’

  It took the DS a moment to remember. Then, ‘The grannie? But Guv, she can’t hardly walk can she?’

  The two men hastily got into Noakes’s Fiesta and he started the engine.

  ‘You don’ think she’s topped herself an’ all, boss?’

  ‘Oh no, Sergeant.’ The DI’s face was set. ‘Do you remember saying we had to wait till the killer struck again? Well, you know what – he just has!’

Catherine

Moloney 2019

 

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