CRIME IN THE BOOK CLUB

Prologue

 

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.

  999.

  ‘It’s Michael Dominguez…. out at the heritage railway…. I think he’s dead.’

1

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.

  Downright wicked.

  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.

  ‘Correct, Constable.’

  ‘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.’

2

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.

  ‘Choo-choo types?’

  ‘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…’

  ‘Eh?’

  ‘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.

  ‘Same difference.’

  ‘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 –’

  ‘No computer.’

  ‘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.