CRIME IN THE BOOK CLUB
There was nothing quite like an English spring, Sheila Birtle reflected as she made her way along Calder Vale High Street on the morning of Friday 20th March.
Most of the terrace’s little front gardens were adorned with cheery clusters of daffodils and vibrant purple crocuses. Those with paved forecourts had jardinieres and ceramic planters crammed with hyacinths, primroses and primula, creating a real feast for the eye. Even the more dilapidated properties sported window boxes with some kind of jaunty display heralding the approach of Easter.
Sheila was headed for the little railway heritage station located at the far end of the high street from where aficionados could take the steam train at weekends for a winding twelve-mile trip through hilly countryside and quaintly traditional towns and villages. She had made the trip herself a few times, rattling along in an open top carriage – at least until Rob grumbled about draughts making his arthritis play up, at which point they adjourned to one of the covered compartments.
Cleaning the railway office, waiting room and café was Sheila’s responsibility as lead volunteer, and she looked forward to it every week as a colourful diversion from pulling on the marigolds as a domestic worker at the council offices in Bromgrove Town Centre.
After her morning stint at the station, it would be back to Bromgrove and her clients in Grasmere Park, a leafy private enclave leading down to the river Brom and the garden festival displays along the Brom Promenade.
Puffing slightly as she arrived at the top of the high street, Sheila – a sturdy middle-aged peroxide blonde with the compact build of a cob pony – sank onto the bench at the station entrance. Time for a quick breather and then she’d crack on….
Idly, she wondered if there was any chance of bumping into Michael Dominguez, one of her fellow volunteers as well as a favourite Grasmere Park regular.
Sheila knew Rob took a dim view of her susceptibility to the charms of the sixty-something retired lecturer. ‘Stuck up ponce,’ was his unflattering verdict after a single unfortunate encounter in the town centre. ‘Like a cross between Nicholas Parsons and that smarmy bloke who does the railway programmes.’
‘Michael Portillo?’ she ventured.
‘That’s right…. dead oily with his teddy boy quiff an’ all the highfalutin blather…. As for the get-up…. pink jackets an’ green trousers…. I ask you…. It’s a wonder the guy doesn’t get lynched wearing that kind of clobber…. makes me eyes water just looking at him.’
‘Mr Dominguez doesn’t dress like that,’ she had protested. But Rob just shook his head darkly making it clear that he considered the man eminently punchable (‘Bound ter be a Tory an’ all’).
Dress sense aside, she supposed the comparison wasn’t all that far-fetched given Mr Dominguez’s Spanish ancestry, somewhat bouffant (suspiciously tawny) coiffure and resonant baritone. Plus, he had charm you could surf off. When he flashed that twinkly smile of his, the corners of his eyes crinkling roguishly, she felt he could talk her into just about anything…. Mind you, she didn’t think women were really his thing despite the flirtatiousness and old-world courtliness. Not that she’d ever seen anything, well, untoward in Grasmere Park…. it was just a feeling she had….
Mr Dominguez’s house was also her favourite to clean. A modernist detached property, it was all open plan and split level with acres of maple stripped flooring and triple-glazed panels…. Hard to see what he would want with five bedrooms, but then he’d earned it being a successful writer as well as lecturing at the university all those years…. She always gave the shelves in his double aspect snug her special attention, dusting the spines of Dominguez: The Collected Spanish Artists with positively reverential devotion. Velazquez…. El Greco…. Sorolla…. The names meant little to her, but they tripped off her tongue in an almost mystical incantation as she took down each gilt-edged volume and wiped it carefully before replacing the title precisely where she had found it. Mr Dominguez was fussy like that.
The day was so mild, and the spring scents so tantalizing, that Sheila allowed her mind to drift…
None of the rest of them in Grasmere Park was half as nice as Mr Dominguez.
Nerys Wynne, the retired civil servant who lived with her son in the rather boring red-brick dormer bungalow next door, clearly thought she was a bit forward with him. But Mr Dominguez just chuckled. ‘She’s old-school is Nerys. Probably makes Simon dress for dinner.’ There was no doubting Nerys ran her household on formal lines, though Sheila found Simon Wynne friendly enough and not above offering to help carry her vacuum and other cleaning paraphernalia from the car whenever the weather was bad.
There was never any question of Nerys requiring Sheila’s services – no way would she trust anyone to perform household tasks to her exactingly high standards – but the other residents of Grasmere were less chary and she now had a little pool of clients.
Mr Dominguez’s house was far and away the most striking, but there were some other properties that she enjoyed visiting.
‘They’re all well off in there,’ she told Rob proudly. ‘And the Park’s won all sorts of awards…. architecture and that kind of thing,’ she added vaguely.
‘Can’t think why,’ was her husband’s repressive rejoinder. ‘Some of them big old houses are downright gloomy.’
Personally, the period Georgian and Victorian properties – with their turrets and belfries – weren’t much to Sheila’s far more conventional taste, but any criticism of Grasmere made her oddly defensive.
‘It’s a mix of styles,’ she said with some hauteur. ‘“Eclectic”, Mr Dominguez says. That’s what makes it special.’
‘Oh aye.’ Rob remained resolutely unimpressed, thinking with some complacency of their own smart little semi in Medway. ‘It’s a bloody horror show with them space age tardises – all glass an’ steel an’ what have you – alongside the twiddly ones that can’t decide whether they’re meant to be castles or summat out of a fairy story.’
‘Well, there’s all sort of posh folk living in there at any rate.’ Knowing she had lost the argument, Sheila retreated to safer ground. ‘Vicars and accountants…. people like that.’ She paused with the air of one producing her trump card. ‘The local MP and all.’
Rob’s face darkened as though he hardly counted this to be a recommendation. Hastily, she continued, ‘I met some of them when they came round to the book club.’
‘What’s that when it’s at home?’ Despite himself, her husband was intrigued.
‘Oh, it’s Mr Dominguez who runs it. They meet once a month in his house…. neighbours from the Park mainly.’ She met her husband’s sceptical gaze bravely. ‘They usually meet Saturdays, but I was there once when the had to move it back a day.’
‘Passed round the drinks, did you?’
Her chin went up. ‘Mr Dominguez did that himself,’ she said. ‘He asked if I’d like to join in actually…. It was Wuthering Heights and I knew the story from when I went to see the film with our Julie.’
There was something oddly touching about her dignity.
‘You’re worth ten of any of ’em,’ Rob said gruffly with a clumsy squeeze of the hand. ‘I reckon your Mister Dodgy Dago knows it an’ all.’
Their tiff had ended in a truce….
Now Sheila stretched languorously. It was so peaceful just sitting outside the sleepy old ticket office. There was nobody about, just a fat tabby leering at her somnolently from the sidings where the Calder Vale Express (affectionately called ‘Thomas The Tank Engine’ by locals) gleamed in the sun.
But the station clock showed 11 am. Time to get a move on.
Forty minutes later, Sheila leaned back on her haunches in the little café and surveyed the newly washed red and black tiled floor with satisfaction. Just because she was a volunteer didn’t mean she was going to skimp on anything. Even Nerys bloody Wynne wouldn’t be able to fault her work today!
She felt a childish compulsion to take a quick turn round the sidings. Have a look at the little locomotive slumbering in the sun. Ten minutes break and then she’d be ready to do the Gents, this being easily the least enjoyable part of her morning’s schedule.
The blue-painted carriages were as storybook charming as ever, she thought, running her fingers lightly along their sides, watched out of the corner of his eye by the lazy tabby.
On she wandered, right along the full length of the train until she came to the very last compartment.
She was about to turn around and walk back when a familiar smell struck her nostrils.
Spicy, citrus-flavoured with hints of gerbera.
Sheila knew that perfume. Would know it anywhere.
Sweat pooling at the nape of her neck, and suddenly icy cold despite the warmth of the day, she peered into the end coach.
It was dark and shady inside, but still she saw it peeking out from beneath the velour banquette.
The red kerchief that he loved to wear when playing at station master.
She recalled him knotting the cravat at an impossibly rakish angle while flashing that endearing grin.
‘C’mon, Sheila. Do I look the business or what?’
Moving awkwardly on legs that felt as though they had turned to rubber, Sheila Birtle made her way back along the platform and into the café.
She rummaged through the shoulder bag for her mobile and made the call.
‘It’s Michael Dominguez…. out at the heritage railway…. I think he’s dead.’
Clouds on the Horizon
Like Sheila Birtle, DI Gilbert Markham always felt his spirits lift with the arrival of spring.
Saturday 21st March found him taking a turn in the terraced graveyard of St Chad’s which overlooked the back of Bromgrove Police Station.
‘You’ll end up with your own statue in there, you visit it that often,’ DS George Noakes was wont to observe. And it was true that the DI invariably sought out this favourite refuge before plunging into the sordid realities of a homicide investigation.
It was a beautiful morning, white clouds scudding across a sky so intensely blue that it almost hurt the eyes to look upon it. The daffodils tossed their little trumpet heads in true poetic fashion and sunshine softened the austere grey of monuments and crosses which crowded the paths in serried ranks. Clusters of dog violets, windflowers and saxifrage stippled the foot of the cenotaph like exotic pincushions while thrushes and blackbirds chirruped contentedly from somewhere in the tall old elm-trees that had protected the church from time immemorial.
It would have been utterly perfect but for the consciousness of his profession. The canker in the bud.
Markham sat on a bench next to the cenotaph and turned his thoughts to the previous day’s discovery….
There had been something truly horrible about the spectacle of Michael Dominguez’s battered corpse as the paramedics extracted it from beneath the railcar banquette. Worse than everything was the contrast between the man’s mashed and bloodied features and the perky red cravat around his neck.
‘It was his trademark,’ Sheila Birtle sobbed. ‘He liked to send himself up…. said you couldn’t be a stationmaster without a bandana.’
Arriving amid the usual vile squealing of brakes, DS Noakes lost no time in steering the hysterical woman away from the gruesome scene, keeping up a stream of soothing prattle which contrasted sharply with the bullishness he reserved for his own sex.
‘You don’ want to remember your friend like that, luv,’ he told her with gruff solicitude, his own innards twisting at the thought of that mangled head dripping pulpy matter onto the floor of the train compartment. ‘You an’ him helped out here, right? Well, I reckon he’d want you to get that café open so we can have a brew all round.’
Crashingly tactless with the rest of the world, Noakes invariably struck the right chord when it came to dealing with the stricken and vulnerable. In no time at all, Shirley was busy making hot drinks and sorting biscuits for the ambulance personnel, pathologist Doug ‘Dimples’ Davidson and police. Strictly speaking the café should have been cordoned off, but Shirley swore it and the waiting room (with interconnecting ticket office) had been locked when she arrived for cleaning duty and there was no sign of Michael Dominguez or his assailant in its vicinity.
‘It was deliberate, you know,’ she said softly just before Markham arranged for a uniform to drive her home. ‘Putting the scarf round his neck after doing…. that to him.’ Her voice was thick, the blue eyes brimming once more. ‘Downright wicked,’ she added with vehemence.
Once she had gone, Dimples withdrew a plastic evidence bag from his pocket with gloved hands and handed it to the DI.
‘I think the poor woman was right about it being a sick joke,’ said the bluff ruddy-complexioned doctor who had more of the farmer than sawbones about him. ‘This bookplate was in there as well, pinned to his jacket like the man was some kind of exhibit.’
‘What’s it say?’ Noakes squinted at the blood smeared evidence bag with disfavour.
‘Calder Vale Book Club,’ Dimples replied. ‘Only someone’s drawn a skull and crossbones in the corner.’
The DS scowled, pudgy bulldog face full of concentrated disgust.
‘Great,’ he muttered, ‘so we’re looking for a clever dick nutter.’
‘You’re looking for a psychopath,’ came the blunt rejoinder. ‘It’s a while since I’ve seen a body mauled about as badly as that.’
‘Time of death?’
‘Now you know better than that, Markham,’ the pathologist tut-tutted before relenting at the DI’s sombre expression. ‘I’d say between eight and ten on Thursday night.’
Noakes cleared his throat.
‘Was he…. well, tortured or owt?’
‘Battered with, at a guess, a steel jack or treadle.’ It was Dimples’ turn to swallow. ‘The victim put up quite a fight, but it was such a frenzied attack he stood no chance.’
‘Never saw it coming, then?’ Markham probed.
‘Doesn’t look like it.’ The pathologist took a long gup of tea as though to clear his mouth. ‘I recognize the name,’ he said at last. ‘Michael Dominguez, yes?’
‘You know him, doc?’ Noakes asked eagerly.
‘The wife dragged me to a couple of his talks at the art gallery…. Spanish painters or some such malarkey.’ Dimples clearly felt aggrieved that those were hours of his life he would never get back. ‘Could’ve been worse, I suppose…. bucketloads of ham, but the ladies lapped it up.’
‘What was he then…. an art expert?’ The DS was evidently no fonder of the breed than Dimples.
Between replacing items of kit in what Noakes irreverently called his ‘bag of tricks’, the doctor offered up some nuggets about the dead man. ‘Retired from the university…. big cheese in academic circles apparently…. published a few books into the bargain…. house in Grasmere Park.’ Now the medical man looked sad. ‘Actually, as I recall there was something quite endearing about him…. a sort of childlike enthusiasm…. and he wasn’t totally up himself like most of that lot at the university.’
Noakes nodded grimly as though to say, I know what you mean.
‘Was he a dago then?’
Markham winced but the other, inured to the sergeant’s contempt for anything resembling a PC lexicon, didn’t turn a hair.
‘Spanish ancestry…. Quite swarthy looking…. big sprawling nose that took over half his face…. good head of hair, mind.’ He winked at Noakes. ‘Helped along from a bottle, I’d wager.’ Another swig of tea. ‘Handsome enough in a continental sort of way…. seemed a bit too exotic for the university, though no trace of a foreign accent…. pure BBC.’
‘You said the ladies liked him,’ Markham observed delicately.
‘Not sure he liked them back, if you get me.’ Dimples was thoughtful. ‘I could be barking up the wrong tree, of course, and the women certainly went gaga for him….’
‘Keeping his options open then,’ Noakes grunted.
Amused, the doctor nodded. ‘Quite possibly, Sergeant.’
A cloud passed over his face. ‘He was a bit over the top for my taste, but there was something open and trusting about him….’
A naïveté which could have prevented him seeing the danger rushing towards him until it was too late.
‘Whatever the man was, he didn’t deserve to die like that.’ Dimples snapped his medical bag shut with unnecessary force. ‘Be sure to get whoever did this, Markham.’ He paused impressively. ‘And do it fast. I’d say he could develop a taste for it.’
After he was gone, Markham and Noakes watched the uniforms as they cordoned off the railway sidings with yellow crime scene tape.
‘Looks like ole Dimples took a shine to the vic,’ Noakes ruminated.
‘Yes.’ Markham’s face was shaded with melancholy. ‘Quite a character by the sound of it.’
‘Grasmere Park’s poshville,’ the DS volunteered. Then, with a hint of pride creeping into his voice. ‘One of the missus’ pals from the Women’s Guild lives there.’
‘Indeed, Sergeant. That could be very useful.’
The pouchy features radiated gratification.
‘The missus says it’s all very nicey-nicey on the surface, but you wouldn’t believe the bitching that goes on.’
‘Oh but I do, Noakes,’ the DI said gravely. ‘A closed community is a like a petri dish for all manner of hatreds and resentments…. and when a virus breaks loose, all hell follows in its wake.’
…. Remembering his words, it occurred to Markham that he had sounded melodramatic. Certainly DCI Sidney (whose moniker ‘Slimy Sid’ was justly earned) would baulk at talk of petri dishes and viruses. ‘Save the poetry and twiddles for when you write your first novel, Markham,’ he had said with ill-concealed jealousy of his subordinate’s cultured erudition.
And yet, for all the DCI’s rancorous agenda, Markham knew he must keep a check on the philosophical streak that formed such a strong part of his makeup.
But it was hard not to feel a sense of acute foreboding as the thought of that scrap of red cloth round the dead man’s neck…. the jaunty calling card badged with blood and gore.
He rose to his feet and, casting one last fond look at nature’s outspread tapestry behind him, headed towards the station.
The outer office in CID was quiet as Markham passed through to his own glass-walled corner sanctum with its unrivalled view of the station carpark. Sighing, it occurred to him that his workplace looked staler and shabbier than ever by contrast with the glowing panorama of St Chad’s. But in the current economic climate, the chances of his superiors sanctioning a splurge on interior décor were vanishingly small.
As he passed DS Kate Burton’s desk, he smiled at the sight of the miniature bonsai tree set in a gravel tray with its own tiny bamboo rake. In the wake of her broken engagement, this earnest capable member of his team had developed a passion for all things Zen. God help her if Noakes decided to lend a hand with the watering….
He shut the door of his office and sat down heavily in the supposedly ‘ergonomic’ chair behind his desk.
How do you solve a problem like DS George Noakes?
The grizzled veteran had long been in DCI Sidney’s crosshairs as an ideal candidate for redundancy due precisely to those very qualities which made him so indispensable to Markham: an outspokenness and capacity for politically incorrect gaffes which left the liberals aghast; lack of reverence for authority in general and ‘the gold braid mob’ in particular; a dogged determination to fight for the underdog and devil take the hindmost.
Despite being polar opposites, a strange affinity had existed between the DI and Noakes right from the beginning of their association, only deepening as the years went by. Noakes’s truculent loyalty to his boss never faltered, rendering him impervious to the machinations of those who envied Markham’s meteoric rise and would be only too happy to see him humbled.
The DS might be CID’s resident dinosaur, but he was unusually sensitive to undercurrents which lay below the surface. Without the need for words, Noakes had guessed the tragedy of Markham’s adolescence – the stepfather’s abuse that had blighted his formative years and made him bury his emotions deep inside.
Markham’s lover Olivia Mullen, an English teacher at Hope Academy, had clicked with Noakes from the start. Their inexplicable mutual admiration was an ill-disguised source of irritation to Mrs Noakes. ‘I think she must have bewitched my husband,’ Muriel Noakes was wont to say with a brittle laugh that deceived no-one.
But when Noakes dug his heels in, that was that. Despite his undoubted devotion to the snobbish overbearing wife whom he had met (bafflingly to those who knew them) on the ballroom dancing circuit, he regarded his boss’s willowy red-haired partner with all the reverence of a medieval squire sprung from the pages of Arthurian legend. Teasing and roguish with ‘George’, Olivia relished his unvarnished honesty and knew he would always have Markham’s back.
Somehow Kate Burton had never been admitted to this magic circle of intimacy.
Dedicated and conscientious, the psychology graduate’s path into the police had not been easy. Eventually overcoming parental opposition (‘no job for a woman’, her father said), Burton had worked hard to reach her present position in CID. It took a while before she and Noakes surmounted their ‘personality clash’ – his political incorrectness versus her right-on sensibilities and eager beaver impulses – but somehow they had reached a mutual understanding, united in their allegiance to Markham and equally tenacious in hunting down murderers. Recent investigations had brought out Noakes’s protective streak when his colleague blundered into danger, so their truce looked set to hold.
There was a curious restraint and self-consciousness in Burton’s manner towards Markham these days that bothered the DI. He knew she envied the closeness between himself and Noakes but somehow didn’t think that was the root of the problem. The broken engagement had made her withdraw still further into her shell (‘she’s well rid cos the guy’s a no-mark, if you ask me,’ was Noakes’s withering verdict on her stolid ex-fiancé) and she showed no appetite for taking her Inspector’s exams.
Somehow he would have to get to the bottom of it…. couldn’t allow a talented detective like Burton to drift.
But Noakes posed the more troubling dilemma.
A cloud hung over the relationship with his wingman and the DI didn’t know how to dispel it.
Their most recent murder investigation at the Bluebell Dance Studio had seen a skeleton tumble out of Noakes’s closet, namely the fact that Natalie Noakes – the apple of his eye – was most likely not his biological daughter but the result of Muriel’s youthful fling with a man who had left her high and dry. To make matters worse, it was eminently probable that Noakes had discovered the truth and took the law into his own hands.
Now an enquiry was underway, and the police watchdog involved. The DI never doubted that his number two would eventually be exonerated, not least since the IOPC wasn’t privy to Noakes’s family history, but it hurt that the man who was closer to him than just about anybody else had failed to confide the story leaving Markham to piece it together from other sources.
‘It’s chivalry,’ Olivia tried to reassure him. ‘George’s code of honour, you see…. he can’t bear the thought of anyone looking down on Muriel…. or knowing that Natalie isn’t his.’
Markham did see, but these days a shadow still hung over the relationship leaving him to wonder if things would ever return to the way they were.
Noakes had no idea that Markham knew his secret and the DI didn’t know how to broach the subject.
‘He’ll talk when he’s ready, Gil,’ was Olivia’s opinion.
Markham could only hope she was right. Somehow it felt contrary to the natural order that there should be any constraint between them.
At least DC Doyle, the fourth member of the team, caused the DI no anxiety. A tall, lanky carrot top with an easy-going manner that belied keen ambition, he was approaching the end of his distance-learning degree in criminal law and studying hard for his sergeant’s exams. Proud to be in ‘Markham’s gang’, he enjoyed a relaxed friendship with Noakes whose avuncular affection somehow survived their heated discussions about Bromgrove Rovers. Doyle’s attitude to Kate Burton was respectful, though he and Noakes indulged in expressive eye-rolling whenever she ‘went off on one’, as she was prone to do when it came to her beloved psychology. Indeed, the two men had bets on Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders being their colleague’s preferred bedside reading.
All in all, the DI prized his little team highly and strongly resisted all attempts at infiltration…. not that DCI Sidney hadn’t tried!
Idly, he wondered who was behind the series of leaks that had plagued the Bluebell case and made a mental note to keep this latest murder investigation firmly under wraps.
Michael Dominguez had sounded like someone worth knowing. While according to the poet, “any man’s death diminishes me”, Markham could not help feeling that Dominguez was no ordinary character and vowed with more than usual intensity to see that this brutish killing was duly avenged.
It occasionally happened in the team’s investigations that a victim’s personality impregnated the case to such a degree that it seemed almost as though strings were being pulled from beyond the grave. It had been like that with the George Baranov ballet murder, and the DI had a suspicion the same thing was about to happen again….
There was the sound of voices from the outer office.
‘If you over-water them, it’s fatal.’ Kate Burton’s voice was tight.
Markham suppressed a grin. More than likely, her fellow sergeant had been interfering with that poor little bonsai. Just because he donated the odd yukka plant to CID, the DS now seemed to regard himself as being on a par with Monty Don.
Indeed, as Noakes shambled into the DI’s office, he bore more than a passing resemblance to a park groundsman or gardener, sporting a grubby arran sweater and sludge-coloured cords with his salt and pepper thatch standing wildly on end as though it had been currycombed rather than brushed. Somewhat less chunky these days owing to what he bemoaned as a ‘crappy’ diet of chickpeas and couscous imposed by ‘the missus’, he still fell far short of a lean mean crime-fighting machine but had miraculously squeaked through his recent appraisal (Markham having called in various favours in the process).
Yes, Noakes would require sprucing up before they attended Grasmere Park. Perhaps Kate Burton could see her way to the necessary hint….
The other DS, needless to say, was smart and well-groomed even in her civvies. Despite a lack of sparkle in her demeanour, Burton looked the epitome of laid-back professionalism in straight leg jeans, dark polo neck, ankle boots and blazer. The chocolate pageboy with old-fashioned bangs offset intelligent brown eyes and a tip-tilted nose, lending her features a certain quirky charm.
Doyle too ‘looked the business’ in well-pressed denim and button-down shirt, so Markham would have no cause to blush for him should the DCI suddenly materialize like an evil genie.
Two out of three wasn’t bad going and with it being Saturday he could only hope Sidney was safely hitting the fairway at Medway Golf Club.
His subordinates settled themselves round the DI’s desk in their usual fashion, Kate Burton with her soy latte and the other two with cappuccinos and muffins from Dunkin’ Donuts. Markham sent up a silent prayer of gratitude that he was spared the usual grease-fest from Macdonalds.
Burton reached into her blazer for the spectacles which made her eyes look like enormous lollipops before flipping open a pristine notebook and regarding Markham with the rapt attention of a religious acolyte.
Her male colleagues contented themselves with an inner eye-roll, Noakes slouching into his chair in implicit rebuke to such bushy-tailed enthusiasm.
‘So, what’s with these poshos at Grasmere Park,’ was his opening gambit. ‘Cos it’s got to be one of them seeing as there was that bookplate thingy pinned to him.’
‘One of the reading group, you mean?’ Burton asked eagerly.
‘Book club,’ Noakes amended sourly.
‘Yes, I think we can narrow it down to members of the Calder Vale book club which I believe met at Mr Dominguez’s house once a month,’ Markham said.
‘What about the railway volunteers?’ Doyle enquired. ‘Wasn’t he some sort of train buff?’
‘They’ll have to be checked out, obviously,’ came the reply. ‘But that bookplate suggests to me his neighbours in the Park represent our prime suspects.’
‘Could be a double bluff, of course.’ Noakes’s lips were pursed. ‘A train spotter trying to make us look at the neighbours when it’s ackshually one of them Thomas the Tank weirdos.’
Burton frowned at hearing the railway enthusiasts thus described, but she wisely kept her counsel.
‘Do we have a list of the book club members, sir?’
‘It so happens I have one here, Kate.’ The DI smiled at her. ‘I’ll make sure you each have a copy…. It looks like having been quite an intimate set-up, so only a half dozen or so names.’
Burton’s fountain pen hovered over the immaculate notebook. Typically, she was keen to record her own marginalia. Noakes meanwhile tapped the side of his forehead as though to say, ‘It’s all in here, mate.’ The DC merely grinned.
Markham scanned his list.
‘Fenella Staunton, retired academic…. The university history of art department.’
Noakes’s mouth turned down at the corners. He’d had enough of bleeding art historians after that series of murders at the art gallery.
‘The Reverend Derek Worthington,’ Markham continued smoothly, only too aware of his wingman’s malevolent inner commentary. ‘Vicar of Barnabas…. That’s the little church at the entrance to the Park.’
‘Rosemary Kernan –,’
‘Hey, she’s the M.P.’ Doyle was alert and interested.
‘Not that ordinary folk ever see much of her,’ Noakes groused. ‘Too busy brown-nosing people in high places.’
‘Then there’s Bernard Gallagher, retired principal of Calder Vale F.E. College.’
‘Sounds like they’re all wrinklies,’ Noakes scratched his chin viciously. ‘Hard to see how any of ’em could’ve battered Dominguez to death.’
‘Age-wise, they range from late forties through to early seventies,’ Markham pointed out. ‘All vigorous enough to have done it, particularly with the element of surprise.’
Burton cast a reproving look at her fellow sergeant. Evidently, she wanted to hear the full roll call.
‘Andrew Boughton is a local amateur organist,’ the DI went on. ‘There’s a librarian from Bromgrove Central Library…. Judith Lockyer…. Plus, we’ve got a teacher from Hope Academy –’
‘Oh chuffing Nora, not that place again.’ Noakes sounded anguished, no doubt at the remembrance of the role played by the local secondary in various previous investigations and his own prickly encounters with school managers.
‘Afraid so, Sergeant. One Susan Caldicott from the Maths department.’
‘At least she’s not a pigging art freak,’ was the tetchy rejoinder.
‘Finally, we have Timothy Appleyard, retired accountant.’
Noakes sat up straighter. ‘That name rings a bell.’ Another scratch of the chin. ‘Yeah, I’ve got it.’ He sounded excited now. ‘He’s the one whose wife went missing an’ they never found her…. our lot thought he was good for it but couldn’t make owt stick….’
‘Yes, Mr Appleyard is connected to one of our cold cases.’ Markham’s tone held a warning note. ‘But let’s not make any hasty assumptions.
Despite this admonition, it was all too obvious from Noakes’s baleful expression that Appleyard had shot straight to the top of his shitlist.
‘Oh yes, and I nearly forgot. There’s Nerys and Simon Wynne, mother and son…. live next door to Mr Dominguez. He’s a surveyor with the council…. I believe she’s a widow….’
Markham looked at them steadily.
‘So there we have it.,’ he concluded. ‘And I propose to get started this afternoon…. Noakes, you’ll be with me taking a look at Mr Dominguez’s house before we have another word with Sheila Birtle…. I want to hear her take on the residents before we move to interviews.’
Seeing that Burton looked slightly downcast, he added, ‘I need you to set up the incident room with DC Doyle, Kate…. Your matchless efficiency means we can hit the ground running.’
She brightened at that, though the youngster looked somewhat as though he had drawn the short straw. ‘Don’t worry, I’ll see everyone gets a slice of the action,’ Markham added wryly causing the DC to crimson to the roots of his hair.
‘What about the rapes, sir?’ he asked tentatively referring to CID’s investigation of a string of sexual assaults.
‘Don’t worry, I’ll speak to DCI Sidney about that,’ Markham reassured him. ‘I’m sure he won’t mind my poaching you from DI Gregg.’
Too bloody bad if he did.
‘Right, team. We need to pull out all the stops on this one. Mr Dominguez deserves nothing less.’
Burton noted the formality. Markham was never casual in the way that he referred to victims. Never disrespectful. And woe betide anyone who exhibited gallows humour in his hearing. Then their austere chilly boss could turn glacial in a heartbeat.
‘There will be a pattern here,’ the DI concluded as they rose to their feet. ‘A criss-cross of human motives. And it’s our job to make it out.’
Picking up the Vibes
‘Before we head over to Grasmere, let’s check out the heritage station once more,’ Markham instructed Noakes as they settled into the latter’s Fiesta. ‘It was important to Mr Dominguez, so I want to get a feel for the vibes.’
‘Them choo-choo types jus’ never grow up,’ the DS declared sententiously.
‘Oh you know what I mean, Guv.’ Noakes ground the gears with his usual gusto. ‘On the telly they allus come across dead creepy…. All shiny-eyed an’ blathering on.’
Now it was the clutch making horrible noises, but the DS was unfazed.
‘God help their kids having embarrassing dads like that…. That’s if they ever manage to find some poor cow who’ll take ’em on.’
‘You made the whole thing sound positively perverted, Sergeant.’ Markham’s voice was dry. ‘But it’s just possible they admire the workmanship and creative genius.’
‘Oh aye.’ Then Noakes returned to the attack. ‘But you wouldn’t want to set your watch by one of them locomotives, would you?’
‘I suppose not.’ The DI was amused. ‘That’s not the point though, Noakesy. It’s about living life at a different pace…. savouring beautiful countryside…. enjoying the experience of being on a narrow-gauge railway.’ He warmed to his theme. ‘Then there’s the moments between stations…’
‘When you’ve got that sense of being almost outside time…. a sort of twilight zone where you’re neither in one place nor the other…. No man’s land….’
‘Well, I s’pose there’s always a trip to the pub at the end of it.’ Noakes was prepared to be generous. ‘Them outdoor seats must be bloody hard on folks’ rear ends, so reckon they’re ready for a pint when it’s all over.’
‘The point is, it’s meant to be a pleasure outing, Sergeant, not cruel and unusual punishment!’
But the DI’s tone was affectionate. It felt comfortable to be ribbing his DS like this. The air of constraint had lifted, and he sensed they were both relieved to be back in harness facing the challenge of a new investigation.
For his part, it was a guilty relief. At times he felt like some ghastly horseman of the apocalypse herding innocent souls into the netherworld before their time.
‘Yeah,’ Noakes agreed happily when Markham confided this superstition. ‘’S’like them dark rider blokes in that film Lord of the Rings…. the ones in black cloaks with no faces who wanna get the hobbits,’ he added with some relish.
That was the thing about Noakes. He made the unbearable bearable by virtue of his blessedly normal take on the evil that stalked in their wake, thereby destroying its potency. Like some fairy-tale where the demons crackled and withered and disappeared all at once in a puff of smoke with only a pile of incinerated rags to show they were ever there.
But the tectonic plates had shifted beneath Markham’s feet during their last investigation when he had a glimpse of his wingman’s hinterland, as though some personal genie had escaped from a bottle that until then remained tightly stoppered.
The DI recalled Olivia’s admonition to give it time.
Yes, he would just have to be patient and hope that Noakesy would tell him eventually.
If he didn’t, well dammit, along with Olivia the man was the nearest he had to family and he wasn’t going to throw it all overboard….
Noakes too was reflecting on his boss’s vagaries.
All that guff about the magic of, what was it, being suspended outside time and twilight zones. Like a train was one of them diver’s decompression thingies.
Most like the guvnor was thinking back to childhood outings when he got a break from that bastard of a stepdad….
Still, it was good to hear the DI coming over all poetic. Meant they were settling back into their old familiar groove. Happen he’d be able to tell him how it really was during the Bluebell case…. but not just yet….
All was quiet at the little heritage station when they arrived.
‘No funny types hanging around?’ Noakes enquired of the pimply uniform posted at the entrance. ‘Weirdos in flasher macs,’ he added by way of clarification.
‘My sergeant means train spotters,’ Markham said drily.
‘I meant the killer!’ the DS expostulated indignantly.
‘Come along, Noakesy.’ Time to forestall any discussion of the equivalence between train enthusiasts and homicidal maniacs.
‘Keep up the good work, Constable.’
With that, the DI moved towards the sidings. There was no sign of any SOCOs from which he deduced that the forensic sweep had been concluded.
‘Good work,’ Noakes snorted derisively. ‘The lad’s bored out of his skull.’ Then, with real fellow-feeling, ‘An’ he can’t even get a brew.’
‘There’s a perfectly adequate snack machine outside the ticket office, Sergeant, so he won’t perish for want of sustenance.’
The other’s expression suggested that Snickers were a poor substitute for tea and a bacon butty, but he merely grunted.
They ducked under the crime scene tape and made their way towards the covered end carriage where Michael Dominguez’s body had been discovered.
Inside the carriage it felt cramped and musty, but Noakes stroked the velour upholstery of the banquettes approvingly. ‘Nice,’ he said before plonking himself down on the right-hand bench. ‘Okay,’ he conceded, testing the springs. ‘Mebbe it wouldn’t be too bad for forty-five minutes or so.’
The DS looked about him. ‘What would ole Manuel have done for this volunteering lark, then?’
‘Don’t let Kate hear you call him that,’ Markham admonished. ‘I believe Mr Dominguez was of Basque ancestry, but the family came here during the Spanish Civil War and he regarded himself as an Englishman through and through.’
‘Oh aye.’ As far as Noakes was concerned, this transplantation did nothing to mitigate the unfortunate circumstances of the man’s origins. With an air of meritorious condescension to the unfortunately-born victim, he declared, ‘Very public-spirited of him to, er, help out here at any rate.’
The DI suppressed a grin.
‘I’m not entirely sure myself what exactly the volunteers do,’ he admitted. ‘Probably help out in the ticket office and café –’
‘D’you think they get to drive a loco?’
‘I believe they can help out the qualified crew…. apparently there’s a range of steam experience courses people can follow if they want a hands-on role.’
‘Mebbe they could be guards or operate the whatchamacallit…. signals.’
‘Exactly.’ Markham looked through the window of the stale little compartment. ‘There’d be lots of outdoor jobs on offer as well…. looking after the rolling stock…. helping to maintain tracks….’
‘Dressing up like The Fat Controller.’
The DI let it pass.
‘As you say, Sergeant, it showed admirable community spirit.’
‘How many trains have they got here, boss?’
‘Just three, I believe. The others are in the hangar behind the platform across from this one. There’s a little subway connecting the two.’
Noakes ruminated. ‘Mister D was deffo killed in this carriage, then?’
‘We’ll need results from the PM and forensics, but it looks that way.’ There was a note of real regret in Markham’s tone as he added, ‘I think the drama of a cloak and dagger meeting on the train would have appealed to Mr Dominguez…. easy enough to lure him out here by playing on that side of his character.’
‘An’ you don’ see one of them other volunteers for it, Guv? I mean, mebbe the vic got up someone’s nose.’ Noakes spoke as if he considered this all too probable.
‘We’ll run checks, obviously, but I think the answer lies in Grasmere Park,’ Markham replied slowly. ‘I reckon Sheila Birtle thinks so too.’
‘We’re gonna have another word, right?’
‘Yes, but first I want a look at Mr Dominguez’s house.’
‘The missus says they’re like summat out of Ideal Home.’ At Markham’s quizzical expression, the DS qualified gruffly, ‘Not that I read it meself.’ Perish the thought. ‘But Grasmere’s dead exclusive…. they use it for film shoots an’ stuff like that.’
‘You’re quite the mine of useful information, Sergeant,’ his boss smiled.
They walked slowly back towards the main entrance.
‘No CCTV,’ Markham said consideringly, ‘and no visible security…. Presumably they had a rota for patrols and the like…. it’ll need to be looked into.’
‘Well it’s jus’ a little outfit innit.’ Noakes guffawed. ‘An’ no chance of pinching a loco, so waste of money splashing out on high-end gadgets.’
‘Indeed.’ The DI took one final glance about him. ‘Whereas the Grasmere Park residences will no doubt be bristling with all kinds of expensive security devices.’ He nodded his head. ‘Our killer chose cleverly…. And he knew his man alright.’
Back in the car, Markham reflected, ‘Small communities have their own kind of awareness…. Not detection or high-powered psychology…. a kind of instinctive feeling for human nature, like water-diviners in folklore.’
Uh-ho. Noakes sensed another poetic digression was imminent. Hastily, he revved the engine and reversed out of the forecourt in a hail of gravel.
In the event, Noakes was awed almost to mutism by the glories of Michael Dominguez’s residence.
‘Gotta be worth half a million easy, Guv,’ was all he said as they explored the architecturally bespoke property set in half an acre of beautifully landscaped grounds.
It was certainly impressive, Markham reflected as they went through the house, from the undercroft double garage to the cosy snug perched on its own mezzanine, with square porthole windows on either side and light pouring down from a roof lantern above.
The DS was in a dream of wonder as they passed through room after room of high spec fixtures and fittings. ‘’S’like summat out of Star Trek,’ he muttered looking at the Quuoker taps and all the stainless steel. ‘An’ all for one bloke.’
To Markham it felt like some sort of beautifully designed Scandinavian showhouse. Spread over two floors, the exterior featured pale-yellow brick and a striking metal faced roof with projecting zinc-panelled elevation on the upper level. On the ground floor, the rooms flowed into each other around a central courtyard, with unexpected surprises from split levels, alcoves and secret spaces that took the visitor unawares.
Upstairs was equally impressive.
‘Not short of dosh, then,’ Noakes observed wistfully, gazing down from the master bedroom’s feature window to the rear garden with its decked patio area, pond, feature timber bridge and exotic shrubs. Determined not to sound too impressed, as they headed back downstairs he added, ‘Burton’d like the Chinky courtyard with them little rocks an’ the stumpy trees.’
‘I think you mean the Japanese garden, Noakes,’ the DI amended mildly.
‘It’s certainly a most attractive feature,’ Markham agreed.
The cloistered internal space at the heart of the house was the jewel in the crown as far as he was concerned; that and the delightful snug with bookcases that amply attested the intellectually omnivorous mind of Michael Dominguez.
‘What did he want with all them bedrooms, though?’
‘Who can say, Sergeant,’ the DI mused before saying briskly, ‘I’ll get Kate to make an appointment with Mr Dominguez’s housekeeper – Sheila can give us the details – then she and Doyle can do a top-down search.’
‘D’you reckon they’ll find owt useful, boss?’
‘Unlikely.’ Markham exhaled deeply. ‘Our killer’s fingerprints will be here – along with those of all the neighbours, so he knew it was safe to come back after the murder and remove anything that might be incriminating.’ Another sigh. ‘You may have noticed –’
‘Correct, Sergeant.’ Restlessly, the DI paced the maple-floored hallway. ‘So, any secrets on the laptop are lost to us.’
‘How’d he get in without waking everybody up, boss?’ Noakes gestured towards the large in and out driveway. ‘I mean, I know it’s all leafy an’ quiet an’ whatnot cost that’s what you’re paying for…. but Domingo’s got neighbours an’ someone must’ve heard something.’
‘Not if the killer had keys and knew how to disable the alarm, Sergeant.’
Noakes looked startled.
‘You reckon that was it, Guv?’ With sunlight streaming into the hallway, it felt warm inside, so they headed back out into the forecourt where another dispirited uniform waited to lock up behind them. ‘But won’t that mean we’re looking for…. well, someone in a relationship with the vic? Cos stands to reason, you don’ jus’ let any ole Tom, Dick an’ Harry into your gaff.’
‘That’s one possibility, certainly. But there are others…. Maybe someone exploited a Neighbourhood Watch scenario or somehow tricked Mr Dominguez into giving them access…. Perhaps a builder or tradesman was careless….’
‘I don’ see that Sheila slipping up.’
‘No,’ Markham agreed. ‘I’d say she’s highly conscientious and trustworthy.
He smiled at the uniform who endeavoured to look super-alert before turning back to the DS.
‘Let’s go and catch up with Ms Birtle. I’d be interested to hear her impressions of the residents…. She’s a shrewd sensible sort of woman, so worth seeing if she can give us a key to the residents.’ Easing himself into the front seat of the Fiesta, he added grimly, ‘A way to breach their defences if we’re lucky.’
Sheila Birtle lived on Bromgrove Rise in a neat little terraced property. Cluttered with knickknacks, the place nevertheless sparkled with cleanliness and the two detectives were soon comfortably ensconced in armchairs with tea and (to Noakes’s delight) homemade coffee cake.
It was obvious that she had been very fond of Michael Dominguez.
‘He was like an overgrown schoolboy at times,’ she smiled. ‘Full of energy…. a bit exhausting sometimes when he got started on his latest fad or whatever it was…. and always quoting stuff at me…. went right over my head, but that never put him off.’
Sounds like him and the guvnor could have been besties, thought Noakes munching away.
‘Was he the kind of man to have made enemies?’ Markham asked gently, taking in the red-rimmed eyes and doleful expression.
‘I s’pose he could have done, yes…. But everyone in Grasmere knew what he was like…. it seems hard to imagine any of the neighbours hating him enough to do…. that.’
Her lower lip began to tremble.
Noakes was quick to notice.
‘Hey luv,’ he rallied her. ‘You’re our secret weapon for catching the scumbag who did this.’ Lying through his teeth, the DS added, ‘Mister D was bashed so hard over the head he wouldn’t have known a thing…. The…. other stuff…. that happened after he was out sparko.’
He stared fiercely at the DI as though daring him to say it wasn’t so.
Markham gave an imperceptible nod.
Simmer down, Noakesy. I’ve got this.
‘I gather there are no next-of-kin,’ he continued.
‘That’s right,’ she said shakily. He was an only child…. parents were middle-aged when he came along and they’re both dead now…. I think there are some cousins out in Spain but that’s it really.’
‘You weren’t aware of any run-ins with the neighbours, anything like that?’ Markham asked.
‘You wouldn’t believe how many folk fall out over hedges an’ paths an’ walls…. all kinds of stuff,’ the DS put in cheerfully through a mouthful of cake.
Secateurs at dawn, Markham reflected, watching her face carefully.
‘Oh, I’m sure there was the odd tiff from time to time,’ she replied. ‘But nothing serious. Like I say, people would have said it was just Michael being Michael…. He didn’t have much of a filter…. childlike…. loved his Thomas the Tank Engine lunch box I gave him.’
There’s a bloody surprise. But Noakes kept his expression studiedly bland and sunny. Poor little bint was miserable enough as it was.
‘And yet he was an academic,’ the DI observed.
‘Oh yes, very intellectual. Always had his nose in a book…. Jane Austen was his favourite.’
Sheila smiled shyly. ‘I told him I liked Pride and Prejudice when it was on the telly and he gave it me to read.’
Christ. This is worse than bleeding Radio 4. But again, the DS remained shtum.
‘Would you say Mr Dominguez might have been absent-minded when it came to security, Ms Birtle?’ Markham’s mind was running on that missing computer. ‘Is there any chance a set of house keys might be out there? Did other people know the code for his alarm?’
‘I was always nagging him about that,’ she admitted ruefully. ‘He did lose a set of keys and I told him he needed to get the locks changed…. he promised he’d get round to it but somehow never did.’ Her face fell. ‘I should have insisted.’
‘Not your fault, luv. You weren’t to know there was any danger,’ Noakes told her.
‘The chair of Neighbourhood Watch had a set of keys,’ she continued. ‘That’s Mr Gallagher…. And the vicar had a set too.’
‘Mr Worthington.’ The DI recalled his roster of Grasmere residents.
‘That’s right. But they’re both ever so reliable…. I just can’t see them being careless.’
From Noakes’s expression, it was clear the DS didn’t let them off that easily.
‘Old geezers are they?’ he asked bluntly before adding hastily, ‘No offence, luv, but they could’ve, er, taken their eye off the ball…. specially the reverend if he’s got folks traipsing in an’ out.’
‘Mr Gallagher’s in his early seventies,’ she retorted smartly, ‘and Mr Worthington’s sixty something, but they’re not what you’d call “past it” by a long way.’ She paused, struck by a sudden recollection. ‘And Nerys Wynne has a set of keys as well.’
‘From the dormer bungalow next door to Mr Dominguez?’
‘Yes, Nerys and Simon – that’s her son – looked out for him.’
‘What’re they like?’
Noakes eyed the last remaining slice of cake as he put this question.
Sheila’s expression was indulgent. ‘Go on, Sergeant,’ she encouraged in a motherly tone, ‘force yourself.’
‘Don’ mind if I do.’
‘Nerys is a bit stiff and starchy…. genteel…. You’d want to mind your Ps and Qs. But goodhearted enough underneath it all…. Simon’s not really into all that railway stuff, but he pretended to be interested out of politeness.’ She smiled. ‘Nerys brought him up well.’
‘What about the other residents?’ Markham enquired, seeing that Noakes was intent on polishing off every last crumb.
‘Well, let me see…. There’s Mrs Staunton…. That’s Fenella Staunton…. She –’ Sheila’s face suddenly assumed the expression of one who has caught herself on the verge of committing an indiscretion.
‘Go on, luv, you can trust us,’ the DS urged. A crafty leer overspread his hangdog features. ‘Sweet on him, was she?’
‘As a matter of fact, I think she might have been a bit keen –’
‘’Cept he batted for the other side, yeah?’
‘Well, I wouldn’t want to speak out of turn,’ Sheila said turning red.
‘Don’ you worry ’bout that,’ Noakes reassured her.
‘I never saw anything…. but I did wonder….’ The woman fiddled with the tea things. ‘Fenella was very possessive and clingy, but he just didn’t seem that interested…. I think she might have been a bit jealous too cos he was so charming he had everyone eating out of his hand and she liked to be queen bee if you know what I mean.’
‘There were three other ladies in the book club, I believe,’ Markham resumed. ‘Mrs Rosemary Kernan MP…. Then there was Ms Lockyer and Mrs Caldicott, have I got that right?’
‘Susan Caldicott…. yes, she’s a nice woman…. teaches somewhere local…. Husband’s something in finance,’ Sheila bit her lip, ‘a bit of a bully between you and me.’
‘Don’t worry.’ The DI smiled charmingly. ‘We won’t tell if you don’t.’
She smiled back at the tall dark figure who had seemed a bit intimidating at first but had such a kind way with him.
‘Their place isn’t as smart as the other houses,’ she continued. ‘But with four children it’s not surprising.’
‘And Ms Lockyer?’
‘That’s Judith…. She works in the library, but Mr Dominguez told me she’s a writer on the side…. had a few books published.’ Sheila looked embarrassed. ‘I don’t think they’re any great shakes cos he was laughing when he told me.’
‘How about Mrs Kernan?’ Noakes was curious.
‘She never had a word for the likes of me.’ There was an edge to Sheila Birtle’s voice. ‘Mr Dominguez didn’t like it. He wasn’t at all snobbish.’ Again, that nervous lip chewing. ‘She wasn’t happy when he asked me to join them…. put her in a bad mood. They had an argument afterwards, only I don’t think it was about me…. something to do with one of his students from when he worked at the university….’
It was obvious she was uncomfortable about the appearance of eavesdropping, but Markham spoke warmly.
‘You’re being a tremendous help to us, Ms Birtle…. or perhaps I can call you Sheila.’
Oh pur-lease. Noakes jiggled in his seat but the DI sailed smoothly on.
‘Then there’s Andrew Boughton.’
She pulled a face.
‘I take it you’re not a fan,’ Markham said.
‘Thinks he’s the Great I Am, that one.’ This was uttered with surprising asperity. ‘Ego the size of…. a cathedral!’
It sounded to the DI as if there were quite a few egos amongst the residents of Grasmere Park.
‘Musicians can be a bit like that,’ he agreed.
‘I don’t know how Mr Worthington puts up with him…. but then that man’s halfway to being a saint.’
‘What about Timothy Appleyard?’ Noakes’s expression was intent.
Her expression became wary.
‘I know about his wife going missing, if that’s what you mean…. But it happened years ago, before I started coming to Grasmere.’ She shifted uneasily on the little two-seater sofa facing them. ‘He’s a quiet man…. very shy.’
With bloody good reason, thought Noakes sourly.
‘But he’s always been okay with me. “Live and let live” is my motto.’
‘And a very good one,’ the DI was quick to point out.
‘How many of ’em do you clean for?’ the DS asked. Always useful to have a spy in the camp.
‘I used to clean for Mrs Caldicott, but she had to let me go. Time to tighten their belts, was what she told me…. No-one else from the book club, but there’s a few others I do for in the Park….’
‘I believe there’s around thirty households in all.’
‘That’s right, Inspector.’ A touching note of pride. ‘It’s very exclusive, see.’
Nothing exclusive about murder, luv….
Afterwards, the DI said, ‘Obviously all the residents in Grasmere have to be checked out.’
‘But you don’ think it’s any of that lot do you, Guv?’
‘No, Noakes, I don’t.’
Sheila Birtle had confirmed that Michael Dominguez’s main associates within Grasmere Park were the members of the reading group. Given the discovery of the book plate and the fact that the book club was “his baby”, the DI was more than ever convinced their killer was somewhere on that list.
One of them was possessed by a devil which had gone under cover, deep down, concealed by a veneer of suburban respectability.
It was his job to lure that devil into the open.
A Spanner in the Works
Sunday morning broke bright and clear over Bromgrove, finding Markham and Olivia at home in their apartment at The Sweepstakes, an upmarket complex off Bromgrove Avenue.
As the lovers enjoyed a leisurely brunch of bagels, scrambled eggs and fearsomely strong coffee, Markham described the events of the previous day.
‘You should have seen Noakesy’s face. He was bowled over by that house in Grasmere Park…. Goggling at the fixtures and fittings…. you’d have thought he was memorizing it all for an exam or something.’
Well, I suppose in a manner of speaking he was,’ Olivia said wryly. ‘She Who Must Be Obeyed is bound to have given him the third degree. You know what Muriel’s like when it comes to property envy!’
Markham chuckled. ‘It was impressive alright,’ he said. ‘And there’s something delightful about being so close to the river…. The air tastes different somehow.’
‘Did you never think of Grasmere for yourself, Gil?’ Olivia asked curiously before breaking into a laugh. ‘But of course, it doesn’t have a view of the cemetery does it?’
Markham grinned. His predilection for graveyards was a standing joke, the flat’s outstanding view of Bromgrove North Municipal Cemetery having reeled him in while the site was still off-plan.
Olivia understood her partner’s feelings of kinship with those tussocky mounds stretching into the distance to the rear of the Sweepstakes’ landscaped gardens. Understood that the proximity of the cemetery acted like some revivifying draught when the demands of the job dragged him down, reminding him what he owed to those lost souls who were powerless to obtain vengeance for themselves. There was a shadowy host, invisible to others, which followed closely at Markham’s heels; a ghostly tag team that he was never able to shake off – didn’t want to shake off. It was part of why she loved him, this sensitive man whose austere, even forbidding, exterior concealed a heart which never ceased to ache for the murdered dead.
A lapsed Catholic, he nonetheless had a vivid awareness of the next world, to the extent that she sometimes felt he vibrated with supernatural impressions and fears.
Now Michael Dominguez had joined the cavalcade of spectres clamouring in Markham’s ears that he was their last hope of justice. That unearthly message would hold him spell-bound and possess him wholly, like some hypnotic trance, until he unmasked the killer.
Lightly, she asked, ‘What of the residents, then? Have you started interviewing them?’
Markham looked lovingly at her across the kitchen table.
Clad only in a dressing gown and bare of make-up, long red hair tumbling about her shoulders in a heavy mass, with her translucent ethereality she seemed to have sprung straight from a painting by Rossetti or Millais. Small wonder that Mrs Noakes talked of sorcery!
‘We’ve scheduled formal interviews for Tuesday,’ he told her. ‘Derek Worthington, the local vicar, said we can use St Barnabas’s church hall.’
‘What’s he like, the vicar?’
‘Faded…. timid…. tired eyes. There was something defeated about him.’ Markham scooped up the last of his scrambled egg and washed it down with a scalding mouthful of coffee. ‘God that was good, Liv…. He looked as though he was going to pass out when Noakes and I appeared on the doorstep, but I gather he’s got heart problems which would explain it.’
‘That and the fact of his neighbour being bludgeoned to death.’
‘Well, we’re keeping the details under wraps for now,’ he frowned, ‘but the local tom-toms will likely be busy.’
‘Did you get round the rest of them in this book club or whatever it was?’
‘They were all at home when we did the circuit.’
‘And George behaved himself?’ Olivia quirked an eyebrow. ‘Didn’t go all Citizen Smith at the sight of so many manicured lawns?’
‘Well, as far as he’s concerned, we already have our man and it merely remains to deliver him into custody.’
She leaned forward, intrigued.
‘And who might that be?’
‘A retired accountant in his sixties name of Timothy Appleyard.’ Markham reached across and squeezed her hand apologetically. ‘I’m afraid I have to go out to Calder Vale this afternoon with Kate Burton so we can speak to Jim McLeod about him.’
Olivia looked at him expectantly.
‘Appleyard’s wife is one of our unsolveds…. went missing in 2009…. But there was no trace of a body,’ he shrugged, ‘and they couldn’t get a result, though God knows they tried.’
‘Presumably George was ready to arrest him on the spot.’
‘Oh yes, chafing at the bit…. Luckily, he and Muriel are tripping the light fantastic at some dance shindig today, which should keep him out of mischief.’
‘I imagine Slimy Sid won’t want you “polluting the shades” of Grasmere Park by dredging up another murder.’ From the hardening of her delicate features, it might be deduced that Olivia was no great admirer of Markham’s boss.
Markham pulled a face.
‘I’ve got to brief Sidney this evening. Noakes said he’ll be back for that, so at least I’ll have some moral support.’
Olivia cut to the chase. ‘D’you think there’s a connection between the missing wife and what happened to Mr Dominguez?’
Her lover sighed.
‘Not got the foggiest, sweetheart…. I’m hoping Jim can shed some light.’
‘What’s Appleyard like?’
‘Stocky, silver-haired, craggy features, drinker’s complexion…. cultured voice.’
‘Did he look like a wife-killer to you?’
‘No, but who knows what goes on behind closed doors.’
She nibbled thoughtfully on her bagel.
‘From what you said, Mr Dominguez sounded larger than life…’
‘That’s right, Liv…. “flamboyant” was the word we kept hearing.’
‘People like that often stir up strong emotions.’
‘Well, it sounded like Fenella Staunton fancied her chances with him.’
‘I’ve seen that woman around the university, Gil.’ Olivia taught adult education classes in creative writing. ‘Quite a presence but very overbearing from the looks of it…. Affected too…. at one time she waltzed about the place sporting a pince-nez, would you believe.’
‘Yes, Grasmere Park’s answer to Germaine Greer… Let’s just say she and Noakesy didn’t exactly hit it off.’
‘I can imagine.’ Olivia’s rocked with mirth. ‘Did he insist on calling her “luv”?’
‘Despite my best efforts to close him down, unfortunately yes.’
‘Did Mr Dominguez fancy her back?’
‘It would appear not. I have a hunch she was quite disgruntled about it…. And as you say, a domineering personality into the bargain…. It was obvious she resented the way everyone fell down like ninepins before him.’
‘He sounds quite a smoothie,’ Olivia smiled. ‘But,’ her face clouded over, ‘d’you think it was a crime of passion, Gil? I know what they say about a lover scorned and all that, but could a woman really have bashed him over the head?’
‘Dimples says yes if his guard was down.’
Markham had kept the full details of Michael Dominguez horribly bloodied corpse to himself. Observing Olivia’s revulsion, he knew it was the right decision.
‘What about the other women in the Park?’ she asked. ‘Were they smitten too?’
‘Rosemary Kernan certainly wasn’t,’ he said drily. ‘A big bosomy dame with horsey features and a voice like a megaphone.’ Markham gulped down more coffee as though desperate to kick-start his synapses. ‘She didn’t give an inch…. The cleaning lady told us there’d been a falling-out between Mrs Kernan and Dominguez, but she was having none of it…. insisted everything was sweetness and light.’ He toyed with a bagel. ‘However, I’m inclined to believe there was a contretemps of some sort which led to a souring of relations.’
Olivia grimaced. ‘Not a groupie then?’
‘God no.’ Markham poured himself another cup. ‘And Judith Lockyer was clearly a bit uptight about him.’ He cast his mind back to the librarian. ‘She looked like one of those Wiccan types…. long grey hair and what Noakes would call hippie attire…. put me in mind of that historian…. Mary Beard.’
‘Oh right…. Didn’t some pig ignorant critic say she was too ugly for television?’
‘I wouldn’t be surprised,’ Markham replied. ‘Anyway, Ms Lockyer churns out bodice rippers as a side-line…. She didn’t say anything explicit, but I got the feeling Michael Dominguez might’ve poked fun…. just something about her defensiveness.’
‘He wound folk up, then….’ Olivia observed.
‘Well, Susan Caldicott seemed to like him –’
‘Caldicott.’ Olivia sat up. ‘She’s from our Maths department.’
‘Sorry, dearest. I should have mentioned it before…. Lives in one of those stucco-covered villas that’s seen better days…. middle-aged, washed out…. something a bit down at heel about her.’
‘Yep, that’s her,’ his lover said.
‘You don’t sound particularly enamoured.’ Markham had picked up on a certain reserve in her tone.
‘Oh, she’s just a bit…. well, dreary….’ Olivia hesitated, evidently torn between a desire to be charitable and the impulse to be indiscreet. The struggle was brief, however. ‘There’s something a bit sneaky about her…. the kind who listens at doors…. spies on colleagues and runs to management at the drop of a hat.’
‘But didn’t you tell me your place is pretty much “Stasiland” …. riddled with informers?’
‘True…. I don’t think her home life’s a bundle of laughs, so maybe it’s her only outlet.’
‘The husband’s a bully apparently.’
‘That would fit.’ Olivia slowly nodded her head. ‘There are four kids – two of them in Hope – so she’s got her hands full.’
‘Sheila Birtle – that’s the cleaning lady who found Mr Dominguez – said Mrs Caldicott was nice but had to give up having a cleaner because money was tight.’
‘I only know Susan from school, Gil…. Could be she’s a different person away from the swamp of fear and loathing!’
‘What you say about her being the type who listens at doors is interesting, though.’ Markham observed, his brow corrugated. ‘I’d almost forgotten about that….’
Olivia regarded him interrogatively.
‘Well, Mrs Caldicott mentioned overhearing a snatch of conversation between Timothy Appleyard and Dominguez which she said struck her as odd…. There was a pretence of being reluctant to badmouth a neighbour,’ Markham’s lips were tightly compressed, a sure sign of distaste, ‘but it was clear she wanted to mark our card.’
‘What was it she heard?’
‘Appleyard said something like, “You’ve enjoyed turning the screw all these years, haven’t you?”. Dominguez replied, “I put my neck on the line for you and you know it” or words to that effect… She didn’t hear the rest, but she said when Appleyard came out, he looked like someone on the rack.’
‘Very poetic,’ was Olivia’s acid rejoinder. ‘I didn’t think our mathematician could wax so lyrical.’
‘If she’s right about that exchange, it suggests Michael Dominguez may have covered for Appleyard.’
‘As in murder?’
‘I’m keeping an open mind, but you can see why Noakes wanted to whip out the handcuffs.’
‘Sounds fishy, certainly…. assuming she didn’t make it up for effect.’
Or to send us up a blind alley.
‘Well, that’s all the women,’ Markham swallowed a yawn. ‘Oh, and there’s the next-door neighbour…. Nerys Wynne.’
‘Nerys…. Is that a Welsh name?’
‘Hmm, sounds Celtic doesn’t it? But there wasn’t a trace of any accent…. Stumpy little sore-eyed woman…. in her sixties like Dominguez but looks decades older… walks with a limp and none too steady on her pins…. Seems to have been genuinely fond of him…. I got the feeling she was used to looking the other way when it came to his, er, eccentricities.’
‘You mean a colourful private life?’
‘Something like that…. Mrs Wynne is very correct…. What you’d call a stickler for doing the right thing…. but kind-hearted once you’ve got past the prim and proper bit.’
‘What’s her place like?’
‘Oh, nothing special…. At least, not in the same league as Dominguez’s house. That’s the thing about Grasmere…. architecturally it’s a lunatic hotchpotch…. the odd red-brick lego monstrosity mixed in with Victorian Gothic follies and quaint Georgian villas.’
Olivia raised her eyebrows. ‘Must have given Nerys an inferiority complex living next door to a modernist palace like Dominguez’s.’
‘I doubt it,’ her lover replied. ‘She and Simon – that’s the son – sounded faintly pitying when they talked about his pad…. as though it was somehow a breach of good taste…. I’d say they’re both very traditional.’
‘What did you make of the son?’
‘Middle-aged, sandy-haired…. a bit stodgy…. works for the council…. easy-going in a jog trot kind of way.’
‘None of them sound like a killer,’ she pointed out.
‘You’re telling me,’ Markham groaned.
‘Was that the lot, then?’
‘There’s a retired principal from Calder Vale F.E. College…. Bernard Gallagher…. A dry old stick but sharp as a tack. He spoke affectionately about Dominguez, but I think there may have been some intellectual jealousy…. I wouldn’t be surprised if Dominguez hadn’t needled him…. got under his skin somehow.’
‘Sounds like he’s a bit behind Mr Dominguez in the charisma stakes.’
‘Oh undoubtedly.’ Markham stretched luxuriously, enjoying these precious minutes with Olivia before murder claimed him again. ‘Dominguez wore his learning lightly. He was an academic but fun with it, whereas Gallagher…. let’s just say he doesn’t come across as red-blooded.’
‘So, if you put a drop under a magnifying-glass it would be all semicolons and parentheses!’
Markham smiled, recognizing a literary allusion.
‘Well, if Gallagher wasn’t red-blooded enough, Andrew Boughton certainly didn’t regard himself as being deficient in the manliness department.’
‘Where does he fit in then?’
‘Organist at St Barnabas’s and no doubt a heavy cross for the poor vicar.’
‘You didn’t like him, Gil,’ Olivia said softly.
‘He’s one of those fleshy overbearing types…. made sure we knew he came from money and didn’t have to work for a living.’
‘I’m sure that went down well with George.’
‘Like a lead balloon.’ Markham gave a reluctant chuckle. ‘It was like watching two silverbacks square up to each other.’
‘How did this Boughton bloke get on with Mr Dominguez?’
‘Hard to tell…. though he was careful to rattle off the appropriate platitudes.’
‘Was he jealous of him like some of the others?’
‘I wouldn’t be surprised,’ Markham said evenly. ‘There was a flicker when I touched on Dominguez’s eminence in the academic world, but it was gone so quickly I wondered afterwards if I hadn’t imagined it.’
‘I went to a lecture by Michael Dominguez,’ Olivia said thoughtfully. ‘He had flair, no doubt about it.’
‘Dimples went along a couple of times when Dominguez was doing talks at the art gallery.’ Markham pulled a comical face. ‘He said it was really hammy and over-the-top.’
‘Oh, I know what Doug means…. He was terribly over-exuberant and unselfconscious…. cracked some awful jokes too…. It was obvious he didn’t care two hoots what anyone thought.’ She smiled reminiscently. ‘But there was something so infectious about his enthusiasm and excitement that you couldn’t help liking him…. I remember thinking he’d make a good TV presenter because he just drew you in.’
‘Interesting you should say that, Liv.’ Markham knew it was time to be off, but somehow he couldn’t bear to abandon their cosy tête-à-tête. ‘One of them in the Park said something about Dominguez setting his sights on a media career…. Now who was it? Oh yes, that’s right. Nerys Wynne said the BBC had approached him about doing a series.’
Hearing the regret in her lover’s voice, Olivia said gently, ‘What a waste of all that energy and talent.’
Markham dug deep.
‘At least Michael Dominguez enjoyed the time allotted to him, Liv…. At least when he came to the end of the line, it couldn’t be said of him that he had not lived.’
‘True, dearest.’ Her voice was very tender. ‘If ever a man “sucked out all the marrow of life”, it was him.’ Her voice rang with conviction. ‘And I know you’ll see he gets justice in the end.’
Oddly enough, Kate Burton used practically the same words when she and Markham were driving back to the station after having called on retired DCI Jim McLeod at his quaint terraced cottage in Calder Vale.
‘DS Noakes will be well browned off to have missed Mrs McLeod’s home cooking,’ she said, a smile playing about her lips. Then, more seriously, ‘Mr McLeod knows you’ll nail this killer, sir. It’s just a matter of time.’
He was touched by the sincerity in her voice.
‘Noakes thinks Appleyard’s our man…. and Mr McLeod certainly had plenty of circumstantial evidence to say he could’ve murdered his wife.’
‘Yes.’ Even with such an intriguing subject under discussion, Burton drove as carefully as ever, pulling wide to avoid a cyclist. There was something restful about it after Noakes’s
Formula One pyrotechnics.
‘An unhappy marriage,’ the DS continued after having negotiated the obstacle, ‘plus problems with his business and the autistic daughter in care…. He was under a lot of stress…. Wouldn’t surprise me if he’d snapped.’
‘Why would Mr Dominguez cover for him, though?’
‘Perhaps he sympathized with Appleyard, sir…. the wife sounded a right harridan.’ She blushed at her own vehemence. ‘Or Dominguez could’ve enjoyed holding something over him….’
‘You mean blackmail?’
‘Not necessarily the financial kind, boss.’ Burton puzzled over the conundrum. ‘From the sound of it, Michael Dominguez was the kind of man who liked to be liked…’
‘Hmmm…. You mean he needed a coterie?’
‘Something like that…. with himself as top dog.’
‘So, Appleyard was a sort of faithful retainer,’ Markham mused, ‘and then the worm turned.’
Dogs and worms, he thought. The law of the jungle.
Burton pursued her theory. ‘Say Dominguez kept him on a tight leash…. There could have been lots of resentment bubbling away under the surface and then finally…. Whoosh!’
‘If that’s the game Mr Dominguez was playing, it was a risky one.’
‘Maybe things just crept up on them, sir…. There was this connection and it became toxic over the years.’
The DI suppressed a smile, being fairly sure his colleague was itching to look up “Dysfunctional Co-dependency” in the index of her trusty Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders.
‘Perhaps they kept each other’s secrets,’ he said. ‘Perhaps Mr Dominguez enjoyed flirting with danger and paid the ultimate price.’
‘Mind you, Appleyard hardly looks like he’s got the strength for an attack like that.’
‘Dimples says Dominguez was battered with a double ended spanner, and I had a call earlier to say the SOCOs found one a couple of hundred yards further up the track covered in blood…. It’s the murder weapon alright.’
‘So if the killer distracted Dominguez and got him looking the other way –’
‘Easy enough to smash his skull like an egg,’ Markham finished off grimly. ‘And by the by, there’s no question of you attending the PM on this one, Kate.’
Too bad if this raised Burton’s feminist hackles. The thought of her watching while Doug Davidson sloshed around inside what was left of Dominguez’s cranium made him feel sick.
Unusually, she looked relieved.
‘What kind of secrets d’you reckon Appleyard and Dominguez might have shared, boss?’
‘Could’ve been sexual if Mr McLeod’s right about Appleyard having gay friendships.’
Burton pursed her lips. ‘Never turned anything up though, did they sir?’
‘True…. If that’s why the marriage was on the rocks, they never found hide nor hair of a boyfriend.’ The DI looked sightlessly out of the passenger window. ‘Appleyard was so far in the closet that he’d thrown away the key….’
Unless Michael Dominguez had it.
‘Perhaps we’re over-complicating things, sir, and it was something like a tax fiddle or property scam.’
‘Hmmm. From the look of that house, Mr Dominguez certainly lived up to his income.’
They drove on for a time in silence, leaving behind the foxgloves and lush green foliage of Calder Vale as they drew closer to Bromgrove.
‘What’s the plan now, boss?’
‘Well, I’ve got to brief the DCI,’ Markham said neutrally. ‘Your fellow sergeant can share the honours on that one…. I calculate that Sidney is bound to be distracted by Noakes’s sartorial deficiencies and therefore less likely to turn his firepower on me.’
He was pleased to see that Burton allowed herself a tiny smile.
‘The DCI won’t like it if rumours start up about Grasmere Park,’ she said. ‘Doesn’t the ACC’s sister live in there?’
Markham stifled a groan. Please no!
‘He’ll want this squared away as being down to some climate change protesters or student anarchists,’ she went on remorselessly. ‘The Gazette’s doing wall-to-wall coverage on the rapes, so that’s the PR-friendly case as far as he’s concerned.’
‘Kate, you’re turning very cynical in your old age!’
‘I’ve been around DS Noakes too long,’ came the stoic reply.
As they turned into the station car park, the DI asked casually, ‘How are things generally with you these days, Kate?’
He saw her decide to grasp the nettle.
‘It was difficult when I broke up with Colin, sir. But,’ a twitch of the narrow shoulders, ‘probably for the best…. Mum and dad were very keen and, well, I think I got carried away.’
The notion of his earnest sensible sergeant getting ‘carried away’ strained credulity but Markham nodded gravely, considerately looking anywhere but at her face.
‘What about those inspector’s exams?’ he enquired gently after a pause. ‘You should be heading up your own team by now.’
With false brightness she replied, ‘I know and I’m on it, sir…. sent off for the registration forms last week.’
Time to leave it for now. But he wished he knew what was troubling her. Noakes had dropped sly hints about ‘a bad case of hero worship’, but it was inconceivable to Markham that an officer of Burton’s calibre and temperament should sacrifice her career to sentiment. Olivia had gone further and suggested the DS viewed him in a romantic light…. a theory which, on looking at his colleague’s stolidly phlegmatic profile, he rejected as being equally improbable.
One way or another he’d have it out with her.
In the meantime, time to tackle the DCI.
‘Well that weren’t too bad,’ Noakes ventured later that day after their interview with the DCI.
Sidney’s marsupial secretary Miss Peabody had greeted them at the entrance to the sanctum and left them in the outer office while she informed the DCI of his underlings’ arrival.
‘Can’t think why Sidney don’ have a dolly-bird PA like Superintendent Bretherton,’ Noakes muttered as soon as she left them. ‘Peabody’s a nice ole biddy but, well, there ain’t much kudos having a blue-rinser ’stead of a bit of skirt.’
‘That’s a remarkably ageist observation, Sergeant. And anyway, you forget that Mrs Sidney might not want “a bit of skirt” sashaying round the DCI.’
‘Right you are, Guv, I’m with you.’ Noakes tapped the side of his nose with an air of ineffable sagacity. ‘No danger of any hanky-panky with Peabody.’
Once in the holy of holies, the Valkyrie-like Mrs Sidney stared imperiously at them from various silver-framed portraits ranged along the rosewood sideboard as though to attest to her participation in the recruitment process. On the wall above, a photo montage irreverently dubbed the Hall of Fame by station wags showed her husband rubbing shoulders with luminaries of the North West in addition to assorted minor royals and C-listers. All in all, it ensured there was no mistaking Sidney’s priorities.
Tugging distractedly at the goatee that he fondly imagined counterbalanced the fact he was “folically-challenged” (having finally ditched what Noakes called his Bruce Willis buzz cut), Sidney was clearly preoccupied with the rape investigation to the exclusion of all else.
‘You could practically see him planning his next photospread in the Gazette,’ grumped Noakes afterwards. ‘“Tough on crime, tough on the causes of crime” an’ all that bollocks…. C’n you imagine it…. Sidney asking that little scrote Gavin Conors which is his best side.’ There was no love lost between Noakes and the Gazette’s ‘ace reporter’, their animosity having exploded into fisticuffs on various occasions that had passed into station lore.
Predictably, the DCI had been decidedly unenthusiastic about any raking up of the Timothy Appleyard case.
‘Just covering all the bases, sir.’
Markham operated on autopilot on such occasions, parroting meaningless but soothing phrases designed to reassure the DCI there was no question of his “going over the side”.
The DI even managed to listen to Sidney’s admonishments against relying on his ‘famous flair’ with every appearance of servile acquiescence.
‘Distrust it, Markham, the DCI honked in his unpleasantly nasal tones. ‘Solid down-to-earth legwork, that’s what’s required here. No flights of fancy.’
‘He don’ mind taking the credit for your clear-up rate though, Guv,’ Noakes exclaimed wrathfully afterwards. ‘That’s all fine an’ dandy…. No grumbling ’bout you having too much imagination when it means he can hog the headlines…. oh no!’
‘So long as we get our man, Noakesy…. That’s all that matters.’
The DCI had agreed to them bringing in Appleyard for questioning on Monday morning provided they were discreet.
‘No theatrics, Markham. I don’t want to be fielding complaints from respected local figures.’
As Burton had forecast, Sidney plumped for his favoured ‘random nutter’ theory.
‘Obviously we’ll be checking local troublemakers and student activists, sir,’ the DI reassured him, ‘in addition to mental health out-patients.’
He could count on DI Chris Carstairs in Vice for help in blindsiding Sidney with spreadsheets and data in return for the occasional loan of DC Doyle and sundry other favours.
All in all, as Noakes said, they’d got off lightly.
Like the skins of an onion, they were gradually peeling back the layers of Michael Dominguez’s complex personality…. Perhaps tomorrow they would know the secrets of his killer.
On the morning of the following day, the team sat huddled in Markham’s office.
‘So the DCI’s given us the green light to bring Appleyard in?’
DC Doyle was clearly excited at the prospect.
‘I wouldn’t go getting your hopes up,’ Noakes said. ‘We ain’t got nowhere near enough to charge him…. jus’ the tail end of a conversation some dopey bird earwigged.’ He rumpled his hair so vigorously that it gave him an air of having been electrocuted. ‘Coulda meant anything….’
‘Those phrases about Dominguez “turning the screw” and “putting his neck on the line” had the ring of authenticity,’ Markham said. ‘I’m willing to bet Mrs Caldicott’s recollection is accurate.’
‘Don’ mean they were talking about Appleyard topping his missus,’ the DS insisted stubbornly.
‘You’ve changed your tune,’ the DI said to his wingman. ‘I thought you couldn’t wait to see Mr Appleyard in the slammer.’
‘Playing devil’s wotsit, weren’t I,’ the other said huffily.
‘Well if you’re playing devil’s advocate, what else do you figure they might have been talking about,’ the DI enquired drily.
‘Happen Appleyard cooked the books for someone an’ Dominguez knew about it…. Or p’raps it was summat to do with sex.’ Noakes had his witchfinder general’s face on. ‘Summat pervy…. cos both of ’em were that way….’
Judging from Burton’s po-faced expression, it was obvious she objected to this swingeing designation, but she swallowed the acerbic reproof she clearly yearned to deliver.
‘The fact that they were gay doesn’t imply “perviness”, Sergeant,’ the DI pointed out.
Noakes's underlip shot out mutinously giving him the air of a choleric mastiff.
‘Yeah, but there could’ve been,’ he groped for a non-pejorative adjective, ‘romantic secrets an’ things.’ He was in deep now. ‘They were both leading a double life, if you like, so coulda got awkward.’
‘What did Dominguez tell the police when Appleyard’s wife went missing?’ Doyle asked suddenly. ‘Was it a false alibi or something like that?’
‘Good thinking, Constable.’ Markham smiled approvingly at the youngster who wriggled with gratification in a manner that made Noakes look at him sardonically.
‘Actually, they were never able to pinpoint when precisely his wife disappeared,’ the DI continued. ‘He didn’t report her missing for some time after she supposedly “walked out on him”– and accounts varied as to when she was last seen…. so the question of alibi was a moot point…. But Dominguez came out strongly for Appleyard…. said he couldn’t possibly have done it and there were no signs of anything being wrong.’
The DC was puzzled. ‘Didn’t Mr McLeod say Appleyard’s wife was a bit of a bitch though, boss?’
‘Yes…. which meant Dominguez’s version of events didn’t ring true…. But they couldn’t budge him…. and there was nothing to show any conspiracy.’
‘But you think Dominguez knew what had happened to her?’ Doyle asked eagerly.
‘I think maybe he did, yes.’
‘Strewth!’ The DC boggled. ‘As in helped Appleyard get rid of the body?’ he ventured.
‘Possibly,’ Markham said levelly. ‘Or maybe he figured it out because he saw something that put him on to Appleyard.’
‘And then kept quiet about what he knew?’
Like Burton earlier, Doyle sought to apply logic. ‘Having something on Appleyard might’ve been useful if he wanted the bloke at his beck and call, I s’pose.’
‘It may not have been as cold-blooded a decision as that to start with,’ Markham said. ‘Mr Dominguez was impulsive…. quixotic…. not fundamentally an evil man.’
‘But over time the relationship became toxic because he had Appleyard in a chokehold,’ put in Burton quietly. ‘Then something happened and Appleyard snapped.’ She looked wistfully towards the outer office and her desk with its shelf of psychology reference books neatly arranged by height. ‘If Appleyard had dependent personality disorder, then according to Professor Cermak that would impact his functioning.’
Noakes looked meaningfully at Doyle.
Oh God, that’s all we need. Next thing she’ll be yakking on about that Freud bloke and how it all goes back to potty training or his parents not giving him enough hugs or him having a small willy…
Markham knew exactly what the two men were thinking.
‘Let me have what you’ve got on that, Kate,’ he said warmly. ‘By way of building a psychological profile.’
Colour flooded her cheeks. ‘Will do, Guv,’ she said earnestly. ‘I’ll do a chart of comorbid risk factors as well.’
Just so long as we don’t have to listen to you go through them, luv.
Time for a pre-emptive strike, Noakes decided. Before his colleague got her second wind.
‘Are we gonna arrest Appleyard, Guv,’ her fellow DS asked, ‘seeing as no-one else looks good for it?’
‘That hardly sounds like a ringing endorsement, Sergeant,’ Markham said wryly.
‘Jus’ telling it like it is.’
‘Hmm… Well, my plan is that we ask Mr Appleyard to help us with our enquiries…. attend the station voluntarily in first instance?’
‘What if he tells us to bog off?’
‘We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, Noakes.’
‘He might be afraid we’ll try to fit him up for Dominguez cos of his wife….’
Doyle blenched before the implacably granite face Markham turned upon him. But all the DI said was, ‘It will be our responsibility to convince him we’re not in the business of stitching people up.’
There was a knock at the office door and a rabbity looking secretary appeared. It struck Burton that she looked frightened, but that might have been owing to the wolfish grin bestowed on her by Noakes.
‘I know you’ve had your calls diverted, sir,’ she said, ‘but there’s an urgent message from the Central Library.’
‘Central Library…. C’mon, luv, don’ tell us he’s in trouble for all them unpaid fines.’
‘Button it, Noakesy.’ The DI too had noticed the woman’s strained expression. ‘That’s perfectly alright…. Brenda, isn’t it…?’ She was agitatedly folding and unfolding a slip of paper. ‘Is that for me?’ he added kindly.
Dropping the note on his desk as though it burned her fingers, she ducked out of the room.
‘What’s up, sir?’
Burton half-rose in alarm observing Markham’s swift intake of breath and the way his jaw muscles tightened.
Outside the day was bright, but in Markham’s office if felt as though all the oxygen had been sucked out of the room.
‘They’ve found Timothy Appleyard’s body.’ The DI’s voice was very low.
‘What…. He topped hisself? In the bleeding library?’ Clearly it was the choice of location that defeated Noakes. ‘I mean, he must’ve guessed we were on to him…. but why do it there?’
‘This wasn’t suicide, Sergeant.’ The DI’s face was so taut that it seemed almost as though the high cheekbones must pierce the skin. ‘The man was murdered.’
There was something decidedly morgue-like about the Central Library’s basement with all that gunmetal steel and the tall locker-type shelves anchored to tracks on the floor.
Perhaps that was why Dimples Davidson looked so relaxed, thought Noakes eyeing the pathologist sourly. Like bleeding home from home.
‘How does this set-up work, then?’ he grunted.
Despite the horror of the situation, Kate Burton wasn’t going to miss a pedagogic opportunity.
‘They’re called “rolling stacks”, sarge,’ she said. ‘It’s to save space.’
Noakes’s expression suggested he preferred the more traditional arrangement.
‘How do folk get at the books, then?’ he enquired with a look of dark mistrust.
‘You turn the wheel on the side of the shelf if you want to get to a particular section,’ she explained.
‘Freaking scary if you got trapped an’ squished cos someone else was moving ’em,’ Noakes commented.
‘They’re pretty much foolproof these days…. fitted with sensors to detect blockages,’ Doyle chipped in with all the confidence of a man completing his university law degree.
‘Oh aye. Then how come that poor sod got no warning?’
Markham left Dimples and came over to their little huddle.
‘The head librarian says they’ve had engineers in over the last two weeks,’ he told them. ‘Problems with motor currents and floor plates apparently.’
Noakes flashed Doyle a triumphant look.
‘So not safe then, Guv?’
‘Safe enough for maintenance staff to work on but potentially lethal to the general public,’ the DI replied.
Burton felt shuddering relief that the remains had been sheeted and stretchered to a waiting hearse before they arrived.
‘Not pretty,’ was all the pathologist told them. ‘We’re talking massive trauma from crush injuries. Best if you don’t take a look.’
No-one felt inclined to argue with that decision.
Now Noakes ran gloved hands over the wheel which when spun had disclosed Timothy Appleyard’s mangled corpse lying in the aisle between two rows of shelving.
‘How do we know it’s murder an’ not some kind of prank that went wrong?’
Markham gestured to a paper-suited technician who was busily taking photographs on the far side of the room next to a row of study cubicles. ‘Brian says there’s blood over by the carrels…. signs of a struggle.’
‘Could Mr Appleyard have been unconscious before he was…. put in between the shelves?’ Burton asked hopefully, the big brown eyes huge in her wan face.
For all his earlier irritation when Burton brandished her university ‘educayshun’, Noakes felt a pang of sharp compunction at her woebegone expression.
‘Had to have been out of it,’ he said with a look at the other two men which dared them to contradict him. ‘A whack on the bonce an’ then finito…. jus’ never woke up.’
The others were happy to go along with it. Unbearable to imagine Appleyard’s final moments as bones shattered, blood vessels ruptured and organs exploded in a delirium of red-hot agony.
‘Appleyard didn’t murder Dominguez then,’ Noakes mused. ‘But he must’ve known who the killer was.’
‘Or it could be he saw or heard something but didn’t realize what it meant,’ Burton said. ‘And then he let it slip –’
‘So the killer decided it was too dangerous to let him live,’ Doyle concluded.
‘But Appleyard was the ideal one for him to finger,’ Noakes burst out. ‘I mean, let’s face it he was allus gonna be our number one suspect cos of what happened to his missus…. All sonny boy had to do was sit tight an’ wait for us to –’
‘Fit him up?’ Markham enquired with a dangerous expression.’
‘Find some ’criminating evidence,’ the DS replied with an expression of injured merit. ‘An’ mebbe he’d have planted a few clues to help us out.’
‘You’re correct that it was hardly in the killer’s interest to eliminate Mr Appleyard,’ the DI conceded. ‘Which means that whatever Appleyard uncovered posed a real threat.’
‘Why did Appleyard agree to meet him?’ Doyle was bemused. ‘And why here?’
‘He didn’t realize what he was dealing with,’ Burton answered. ‘Didn’t think the killer had anything to do with what happened to Mr Dominguez.’ She looked round the air-conditioned basement and shivered. ‘Maybe he thought it was just a case of “tea and sympathy”.’
‘Yeah, but why come to the library?’ Doyle persisted. ‘Why didn’t the killer finish Appleyard off back at the Park?’ He cast an eye over the rows of steel and metal. ‘That had to be more convenient than schlepping down here.’
‘Mebbe he got the wind up about all them twitching net curtains.’ Noakes ran a finger around the inside of his grimy shirt collar as though the atmosphere in the basement interfered with his breathing.
‘They’re not exactly overlooked in Grasmere though, are they sarge?’ Doyle countered. ‘I mean, it’s not like a council estate what with all those trees and massive gardens….’
‘Who knows what was going though his mind,’ the DI observed quietly. ‘Even somewhere that exclusive, he could have felt it was potentially a “neighbourhood of voluntary spies”.’
Noakes knew the guvnor was quoting out of some book, because this was a phrase he’d heard before. Nonetheless he was pleased by the corroboration of his theory.
‘Yeah,’ he nodded approvingly. ‘You allus get nosey-parkers an’ snoopers in places like that…. my missus says poshoes are the worst.’
It takes one to know one, Markham thought grimly then reproached himself for being uncharitable.
‘And don’t forget,’ Burton pointed out, ‘They’re all professionals and academic types in Grasmere – probably in and out of this place by the minutes – so meeting up in the library wouldn’t necessarily have struck Mr Appleyard as odd…. Maybe with a killer on the loose, he’d have liked the idea of a public place…. other people around, all nice and safe.’ She glanced about her as though trying to envisage a procession of visitors and researchers. ‘The library’s open at weekends till 6 p.m., so it’s handy too.’
‘What about this engineering malarkey?’ Noakes demanded. ‘Won’t they have turfed everyone out early? I mean, it’s not like the killer could’ve got stuck into Appleyard while folk were sitting around reading, is it?’ Heavily sarcastic, ‘They might’ve noticed someone getting clobbered over the head an’ flattened between them bookshelves.’
Burton winced perceptibly.
‘Sorry luv,’ he said, eliciting a weak smile.
Ever focused on the job in hand, she soon rallied however.
‘He must have had special access,’ she said slowly. ‘A passkey or fob or some such that meant he was able to come and go freely outside the usual opening hours.’
Markham was thoughtful. ‘The head librarian said they were overhauling the alarm systems and cameras …. using a private security patrol while maintenance was ongoing.’
‘There you go then.’ Noakes was exultant. ‘All he had to do was wait till everyone else had cleared out an’ then time to party!’
‘Who’d be entitled to a passkey?’ Doyle asked. ‘University types? Important people from the community? Christ, that’s just about all of them in Grasmere.’
‘You’re forgetting, it might be that somebody lent their passkey…. or the killer got hold of one somehow without anyone knowing and conned Appleyard into thinking he had special privileges.’ The DI digested the implications while his team regarded him in dismay.
‘Chuffing Nora,’ Noakes groaned, ‘that means checking all the passes an’ what have you.’
‘Yes,’ Markham agreed, ‘and even then I don’t think it’ll give us our murderer.’
‘Not if he nicked a lanyard thingy,’ Noakes lamented. ‘That means it could be pigging anyone.’
‘We know that Appleyard trusted him,’ Burton said. ‘Whatever Appleyard knew or thought he knew, he was happy to come out here for a chat.’
‘Must’ve scared him shitless when me laddo suddenly turned on him.’ Noakes cast a furtive glance at the carrels. ‘But he weren’t ’xactly weedy like the reverend an’ the retired headmaster fella…. Seemed like he’d be able to fight back.’
‘I’m not so sure about that, Sergeant.’ Markham watched the SOCOs intent on their fingertip search of the basement. ‘As with Mr Dominguez, we have to factor in the element of surprise.’
‘So a woman could’ve done it,’ the DS opined gloomily.
‘Dimples thinks it can’t be ruled out.’
‘What did they bash Appleyard with? One of them encyclopaedia things?’ Noakes guffawed slightly and then caught himself up with the guilty air of a schoolboy who’d been discovered laughing in church.
‘As it happens yes,’ Markham replied gravely. ‘A heavy volume of community records…. It’s likely the force of the initial impact broke Appleyard’s nose, hence the blood.’
The DS looked sick. ‘Poor bastard,’ he said. Sensing there was more to come, he added, ‘They used summat else on him, right?’
‘Some sort of workman’s tool…. a tack hammer or mallet, something like that.’
‘The railway again,’ breathed Doyle. ‘God, you don’t think it could be a nutter who works there do you, sir…. some psycho with a thing for shiny gadgets?’
‘That’s probably the DCI’s preferred scenario,’ the DI observed with massive understatement, ‘and no doubt the killer would be happy if we wasted time and energy on the railway angle –’
‘But you ain’t gonna do that.’
When the DI took that tone, Burton reflected, it would be a brave officer who attempted to deflect him.
‘I think the answer lies in Grasmere Park and the members of that reading group,’ Markham continued. ‘There are secrets buried out of sight behind those net curtains DS Noakes talked about…. It’s our job to pull them up by the roots. Every last one.’
‘Yeah, Guv, but you’ll see…. the residents will all close ranks now.’ Expressively, Noakes drew a hand across his lips. ‘Zipped…. Shtum.’
‘We’ll see about that.’
The manner of his reply sent chills up Burton’s spine.
‘What now, sir?’ she asked.
‘I want to have a word with the head librarian,’ the DI said. There was a certain sly malice in his tone as he added, ‘I believe that’s your old friend Miss Todd, Noakesy, so I’d like you to attend.’
The DS appeared resigned to his fate.
‘I remember her from the art gallery case,’ he said shooting a baleful glance at Burton. ‘This one tole her I was mad about them pervy Victorian painters who had a thing for big lasses getting their kit off.’
Such was Noakes’s summing up of the Pre-Raphaelite movement.
‘Not to worry, Sergeant,’ came the bracing response. ‘The lady’s got more to worry about than your cultural tastes just at the minute.’
‘Was she the one who found Appleyard then?’
‘Poor old bat…. probl’y put her off coming down here for life.’
‘Well, she’s made of stern stuff but even so….’
‘Mebbe we should interview her in that Costa place,’ Noakes said craftily, having found the library’s café a handy refuge on previous visits. ‘Change of scene an’ all that.’
‘How very caring, Sergeant,’ the DI replied deadpan. ‘You must have read my mind.’
He turned to Kate Burton. ‘I’d like you and DC Doyle back at base checking details for all the contractors doing work here.’
It was just the kind of tedious grunt work at which she excelled.
‘You also need to look into the position regarding lanyards and arrangements for special access to the library outside normal hours,’ he continued. ‘The Facilities Manager Mr Harrison can help you with that.’
Seeing DC Doyle’s glum expression, Markham added, ‘Not the kind of task to set the pulses racing. But we need to narrow down the field and who knows, it’s possible a workman or visitor may have noticed something out of place…. something a hair’s breadth off.’
The young DC was shamefaced. ‘It’s just that this one doesn’t seem like the type to make a mistake, sir.’
‘Maybe not, but I want a watertight case for when we finally nail him…. or her.’
‘Like the advert says, Every Little Helps,’ Noakes observed with a wink.
‘Kate, I also want you to liaise with Mr Worthington –’
‘The sky pilot.’
‘The vicar of St Barnabas’s.’ Markham’s flinty expression discouraged his wingman from further embellishment. ‘We need to interview everyone on our initial list first thing tomorrow morning…. after that, we can widen it to include other residents.’
‘Do we tell the vicar about Mr Appleyard, sir?’
‘You can say there’s been a tragic incident at the library…. Mr Appleyard has been found dead and we’re treating the circumstances as suspicious.’
‘It’ll leak anyway,’ Noakes said. ‘Bound to once the library bods start blabbing. An’ then that sleazeball Gavin Conors’ll be all over us.’ Meaty fists clenched and unclenched as though by Pavlovian reflex at the mention of the journalist’s name.
‘Maybe he’ll be too busy with the rapes,’ Doyle said, though without any real conviction.
‘There was another one last night you know.’
‘Where?’ Burton was startled.
‘Bromgrove Rise…. where the woods start.’
‘What is it with those freaking woods,’ Noakes muttered as though anyone needed reminding of the gruesome discovery that had triggered the Newman Hospital murder investigation when Kate Burton nearly lost her life.
There was something unsettling in the thought that two predators were bent on parallel paths. Like twin halves of an evil whole.
Markham shook off his malaise.
‘As you say, Constable, Gavin Conors currently has other fish to fry.’ He met the eyes of each of them in turn. ‘Which gives us breathing space…. So let’s make it count.’
Miss Todd, with her brutalist crop and beige two-piece, undoubtedly resembled what Noakes called ‘one of them dykey warders from Prisoner Cell Block H’. But the usually gimlet eyes were unfocused with shock. Even a triple shot Macchiato and jumbo chocolate muffin failed to restore their customary sharpness.
In normal circumstances, Noakes’s consternation over the rejection of such choice victuals might have been comic.
‘C’mon luv,’ he murmured. ‘Gotta keep your strength up. Look I’ll go halves on the muffin.’
‘You’re very kind, Sergeant, but…. it was such a shock…. I’ll never forget the sight of that poor man.’
‘He won’t have known owt about it, luv, honest Injun.’ Only the jiggling of Noakes’s feet under the table gave the lie to this assertion. ‘The doc said he was sparko as soon as he hit the deck.’
‘You’re bound to suffer post-traumatic stress, Miss Todd,’ the DI said very gently. ‘In the meantime, can we contact your GP…. arrange for someone to be with you?’
The Old Soldier, as Noakes subsequently rechristened her, sat up straighter, a faint flush colouring the sallow cheeks.
‘It’ll be fine, Inspector…. I just need time to process things.’ She squared her shoulders. ‘Now, how can I help you?’
‘I take it you were on duty over the weekend, Miss Todd?’
‘That’s correct, Inspector…. And everything was in order both nights…. I only realized something was wrong this morning after I saw the blood…. And then when I went to check the shelves…. I found him.’ She shuddered. ‘Like a carcass at the butcher’s….’
‘Would you happen to remember who was in the basement on each of those evenings, Miss Todd?’
Crestfallen, she shook her head. ‘I was just doing my rounds, Inspector…. and there wasn’t anyone at the service desk…. The first warning bell had gone to let readers know the library would be closing, so it was just a few people in the carrels getting ready to pack up.’
‘What’s down there then?’ Noakes asked.
‘It used to be the old Medway Family History Library before it was relocated to the basement here.’
‘An’ it’s open to anyone, yeah?’
‘Oh absolutely.’ The woman looked slightly less haunted. ‘It’s very popular and there’s study booths as well as the reading tables.’
‘Your usual security systems were deactivated on account of the renovations, yes?’
‘That’s right, Inspector…. We used OneGuard…. They have contracts with the diocese and education authority as well as the university…. I think they’ve taken over the art gallery too…. Mr Harrison organizes facilities and procurement….’
‘Don’t worry, Miss Todd, we’ll follow up with him.’ The DI could see she was flagging. ‘A last question for you…. Did OneGuard do checks of the whole building throughout the night or was this a standing patrol?’
‘I think they just manned the main entrance…. Once the warning bells had gone, everything was secure…. only authorized personnel allowed.’
‘And that would include folk with one of them special pass jobbies would it?’
‘That’s right, Sergeant…. But they’d have to leave through the main entrance…. everyone signed out for security.’
‘Only it wasn’t secure, was it?’ Noakes said afterwards once they had arranged a lift home for the librarian.
‘Well, the killer and Mr Appleyard didn’t leave with the rest,’ Markham replied. ‘And I have a feeling we’ll find no-one was signed out by OneGuard –’
‘So there must be another entrance.’
‘Correct…. We’ll need an ordnance map of the place.’
‘Burton c’n do that…. She gets off on charts an’ drawings an’ all that jazz.’
They had reached Noakes’s car.
‘What a bleeding mess!’ he exclaimed, kicking a tyre wrathfully. ‘Feels like we’re going into reverse. ‘An’ as for that library…. talk about making it up as you go along!’
‘Amateurish certainly,’ the DI observed. ‘And our killer exploited it… chose the moment well.’
‘Hey,’ Noakes had thought of something. ‘Don’ that Lockyer woman work here…. the one who writes mucky books?’
‘Yes, she’s a librarian.’
‘Reckon she goes to the top of the list then,’ the DS said more cheerfully.
‘Right, Noakesy, back to the station,’ his boss chivvied. ‘Best foot forward. Let’s have no more talk of that reverse gear!’