CRIME IN THE BOUTIQUE

Prologue 

 

Stella Walker felt somewhat self-conscious as she pressed her palm against the glossy surface of The Confetti Club’s black marble floor, but she loved the sensation of chill silkiness beneath her fingertips. Marble signalled wealth and exclusivity…. people who didn’t have to count the pennies like she did.

  Unusually for a Sunday morning, Stella was cleaning the third-floor boutique by herself due to Moira Clegg having come down with tonsilitis the previous day. Antonia Rambert wasn’t happy about it – the senior sales consultant being notoriously mistrustful of her underlings – but Stella had convinced the woman she was up to the job.

  Actually, Moira was such a motor-mouth that it was a treat to have the place to herself without having to listen to salacious details of her colleague’s colourful love life.

  Stella had never had a boyfriend and, after months of Moira’s confidences, was in no hurry to acquire one. Which wasn’t to say she was immune to the romance of all those ethereal gowns, foaming with frills and lace, that were displayed on black dummies the better to advertise their lustre and sheen.

  Moira wasn’t as smitten with their surroundings. She supposed it was okay when customers were around and the place was bustling and lively. But after everyone had gone home, there was something downright spooky about the headless mannequins trailing their ball dresses. As though the women inside the costumes were long dead.

  With her head tucked underneath her arm
She walks the bloody tower
With her head tucked underneath her arm
At the midnight hour.

  It totally creeped Stella out when Moira warbled that horrible song, but the other just grinned at her protests. ‘Heard it from my nan,’ she said unapologetically. ‘All about Anne Boleyn haunting the Tower of London. I c’n only remember the chorus.’ Which suited Stella just fine. Ghosts and headless women were the last things she needed to imagine.

  At a level, though, she admitted to herself that she knew what Moira meant. Out of hours, it was a bit like being in a waxworks museum.

  She’d never told Moira, but she tried to avoid the storeroom filled with rack upon rack of plastic wardrobes which made her think of graveclothes and shrouds and morbid stuff. Like in pictures of Jesus and Lazarus and people in the bible rising from the dead.

  Winding sheets. That’s what awful Mrs McGillivray had said when they did RE in junior school. And something about tombs bursting open when Jesus died and the bodies of prophets coming out of them and walking all over the place…

  Yeah, thanks to the old witch she could never look at those garment bags without thinking of ‘bandages’ and ‘burial strips’ and gruesome things like that. In the circumstances, she was always pleased to leave the backroom area to her colleague who enjoyed pawing through the merchandise as she cleaned.

  With prickles of sweat breaking out on her forehead, Stella realised that today there could be no shirking of tasks she found distasteful.

  Uneasily, her gaze wandered across to the curtained cubicles that lined the right-hand wall, gold brocade drapes drawn chastely across to screen their interior.

  Stella preferred it when the swags were looped back, having never forgotten Moira jumping out at her one time and almost giving her a heart attack.

  ‘If you stand on the pouffe thingy,’ the other girl crowed gesturing to the grey velvet tufted banquette at the rear of the cubicle, ‘nobody can see your feet…. so they don’t know you’re there!’

  The stealthy ambush had given Stella a most disagreeable sensation.

  Now she peeped inside each of the half dozen booths, feeling faintly ridiculous, like a child checking under the bed for bogeymen. There were more cubicles at the rear of the shop on the other side of the storeroom, but they could wait until her heart had stopped racing.

  What the hell was wrong with her? she wondered irritably. It was mild and sunny outside, with Easter just a fortnight away. And this was her big chance to show them how trustworthy and reliable she was. If she put her back into it, they might even put in a good word for her with the cleaning agency. She was still on probation with Executive Marigolds, but a recommendation from the bridal boutique would definitely count for something, particularly given its upmarket clientele. It was far and away the smartest store in Bromgrove Shopping Centre, a real step up from Primark and the naffer outlets on the two floors below – to say nothing of the unisex toilets on the ground floor that reeked so strongly of ammonia they made her eyes sting. The Confetti Club’s ‘ladies’ powder room’, redolent of citrus and lavender, with its tub chairs upholstered in purple velvet, felt like heaven after that. It was the same with the men’s restroom just off the boutique’s entrance vestibule, the décor more restrained but equally expressive of a luxury brand. As Moira said (though not when Antonia Rambert could overhear her), posh folk liked to think their pee smelt of violets and always talked about washing their hands when they meant go to the bog.

  Recalling her colleague’s cheerful irreverence momentarily raised Stella’s spirits.

  The slightly built cleaner swiftly braided her sandy hair into a neat plait. It was all a question of having a system, she told herself. And making sure that by the time she had finished, the shop was so immaculate you could eat your dinner off the floor.

  The backroom areas could wait till last, she decided. She would start by polishing the floor to ceiling mirrors that lined the left-hand wall before hoovering the overstuffed chintz armchairs and dusting the Shaker ivory coffee tables. After that, she would sort out the tiny staff kitchen and loos (no expensive floral scents wasted on employees) before cleaning the floors and changing areas. Then, after a quick coffee, it would be time for Mr Everard’s office.

  Mr Everard. Proprietor of The Confetti Club.

  A misty expression stole over her pinched features at the thought of Gino Everard.

  ‘That fella’s no more Italian than Mister Whippy,’ was Moira’s grudging refrain, but Stella didn’t care. And besides, Mr Everard didn’t make a big thing about being continental or anything like that. The family came from Somerset, though to be sure there was Italian ancestry on his mother’s side, while the artfully layered silver bob, come-to-bed eyes and languorous, caressing accents – home counties overlaid with a hint of something more exotic – suggested gilded origins far from the common run of provincial dress designers.

  Moira wasn’t having it. ‘He’s a big fat phoney,’ she grunted in response to Stella’s raptures. ‘An’ as for that barnet…. well, makes it look like he’s in drag…. Y’know, pantomime…. impersonating Miss Marple or that housekeeper woman in Father Brown.’

  Stella took no notice. For her money there was something magical about the way Mr Everard made every girl feel like a princess. When they went to the Wedding Show at Carton Hall last year, even her mum had to admit he had star quality. You felt that he actually liked women…. that the old-world gallantry – calling everyone ‘darling’ and the courtly hand-kissing – wasn’t just some big act. The Gazette’s ‘Celebrity Corner’ hinted that he’d dated men (in addition to there being an ex-wife), but it made no difference to Stella. He had glamour that made her knees turn to jelly. Wistfully, she acknowledged that he probably wasn’t aware she even existed, but just taking care of his office was something special…. something to be saved till after the boring chores were out of the way.

  Suddenly a door slammed somewhere in the shopping complex, causing her to jump.

 

  The noise should have made her feel safe, reminding her that other janitorial workers were busy in the vicinity, trundling round the retail units with their mobile trolleys of all shapes and sizes.

  But, unbidden, another of Moira’s ghoulish bons mots came into her mind.

  ‘You could hide a body in one of those housekeeping carts,’ her colleague had observed casually one day as they watched a weedy little bloke wheeling a three-shelved stainless-steel number around the third floor. ‘Clobber someone and then wheel them out of here under everyone’s noses easy peasy.’

  ‘It’d have to be someone fairly small,’ she’d objected, only for the Incorrigible One to reply, ‘I reckon you’d fit.’

  At the time, Stella hadn’t been able to help laughing, but now the thought of those rubber-wheeled gurney-like contraptions made her shiver.

  It was alright joking about psychos on the loose when there were two of you, but not helpful to recall now that she was here on her own in the silent boutique with its mirrors and curtains and spotlights….

  Time to get a bloody grip, she told herself savagely.

  She didn’t intend to stay a cleaner for ever. One day she meant to swap her squeegees for stilettos and a business suit. Already she was picking up the consultant’s jargon: ‘a customer’s entourage… her preferred silhouette…. mermaid or princess…. sweetheart neckline…. illusion bodice…. bling…. embellishments….’ At first it was like Esperanto, but now the words felt like old friends.

  When she’d shyly told Franco Santini – the boutique’s director of operations and rumoured ‘power behind the throne’ (as well as Italian “real deal”) – about her ambitions, he hadn’t made fun or been dismissive. Instead, he had flashed his engaging lopsided smile and quoted poetry at her. ‘The inferior priestess, at her altar's side, Trembling, begins the sacred rites of pride. This casket India’s glowing gems unlocks, And all Arabia breathes from yonder box.’ Apparently it was sending up the beauty industry or something like that. At any rate, she liked it a hell of a lot better than Moira’s rhyme about Anne Boleyn….

  An hour and a half later, glowing and sweatily virtuous after the application of some serious elbow grease, Stella turned her footsteps towards the storeroom.

  Ruthlessly suppressing all thoughts of Lazarus and bandages, she began mechanically working her way through the rows of clothes racks, carefully wiping down the steel rails and garment bags as she hummed the latest Mick Hucknall ditty.

  Finally, Stella came to the fitted wardrobes which covered the whole of the back wall and held the most expensive samples. Her pace quickening with relief that the end was in sight, she moved from right to left, methodically parting plastic covers and cellophane until she reached the far end of the cupboard –

  And screamed as a face swam towards her that belonged to the phantasmal sheeted dead, like one of the prophets in those RE lessons, luxuriant silver hair waving about the livid features like a halo…. a saint or holy man rising up from the depths.

  As she staggered backwards, Stella realised this was no celestial apparition but something infinitely more diabolic.

  Gino Everard, proprietor of The Confetti Club…. and unmistakeably dead.

1

Opening Manoeuvres

 

Early morning on Monday 4 April found DI Gilbert (‘Gil’) Markham lost in thought on his favourite bench in the graveyard of St Chad’s Parish Church overlooking the police station, this being his invariable habit at the start of a new investigation.

  The air was mild in the bosky little terraced cemetery, with wood pigeons warbling throatily to each other in the yews and the odd squirrel whisking between lichened headstones and baroque monuments. Clumps of daffodils, bluebells and primulas offered little bursts of colour amidst the granite and marble, so the scene was altogether a pleasing prospect.

  Markham’s enjoyment was heightened by the knowledge that at this hour he was safe from the evangelical predations of St Chad’s new incumbent, a former bank manager with all the officiousness of the breed who had shown every sign of being determined to corral the aloof inspector into his fold. Formerly, Markham’s wingman George Noakes had offered some protection from the clergyman, who hadn’t exactly been convulsed at quips about Anglican clerics having a better half while RC priests had better quarters. Noakes’s favourite headstone joke about Lucy. Whose price was above Ruby’s elicited an even frostier response, the pastor thereafter giving the two men a wide berth whenever they took a stroll round the graveyard.

  The DI’s austere features softened at thoughts of his ex-sergeant whose proudly un-PC credentials made him something of a legend amongst his peers (though distinctly unpopular with the ‘gold braid mob’). Never had anything seemed more improbable than that he and Noakes should find each other infinitely simpatico, but so it was, the stocky veteran’s lack of filter very much to his taste amidst the politicking and sycophancy of CID. Notoriously uncouth, being sartorially a walking disaster with prize-fighter’s features and an addiction to junk food, Noakes had a surprisingly sensitive, poetic side, albeit one that he generally kept well hidden. Combative and outspoken in puncturing pomposity or wokeness, he never dropped a clanger in his dealings with underdogs or the vulnerable. And he was fiercely, unflinchingly loyal to Markham whose childhood trauma as the victim of an abusive stepfather he instinctively fathomed though few words on the subject had ever passed between them.

  Noakes had shown the same dogged fidelity to Markham’s ex, willowy English teacher Olivia Mullen, seduced alike by her pre-Raphaelite looks and mischievous sense of humour. When Markham and Olivia had split up, the burly sergeant was almost the most distressed of the three and continued to harbour wistful hopes of an eventual reconciliation.

  Noakes’s bossy social-climbing spouse Muriel, however, was by no means displeased with this turn of events, being decidedly partial to Markham while deploring that he had ever been caught in the toils of an uppity, sardonic, too-clever-by-half schoolmarm. As far as she was concerned, it was high time the scales fell from the handsome inspector’s eyes and his attention turned to someone more suitable (i.e. someone in the mould of Muriel herself).

  Naturally, Markham was well aware of all this, just as he knew that Noakes’s susceptibility to Olivia’s charms thoroughly irritated his wife. The nature of the Noakeses’ union was in many respects baffling to him, but he had no doubt of their mutual devotion. Having met (of all things) on the ballroom-dancing circuit, theirs was a solid marriage that had weathered a brief crisis when Noakes discovered that he was not perma-tanned beautician daughter Natalie’s biological father (that Natalie was the apple of his eye made things worse). Temporarily going off the rails, his relationship with Markham and professional reputation nearly became casualties of the discovery, but somehow he pulled through with both intact.

  It had been a blow to Markham when Noakes finally retired. Of course, DCI Sidney (‘Slimy Sid’ to the troops) had been trying for years to have Noakes put out to grass, seeing him as the absolute antithesis of modern policing and a ‘deplorable anachronism’, but in the event, it was his old nemesis who chose the time and manner of his departure. The retirement party and Noakes’s farewell gaffes, like the man himself, had passed into legend. Markham still savoured the remembrance of Sidney’s apoplectic expression when Superintendent Bretherton made some typically trite remark about ‘never resting on his laurels’ only for a well-refreshed Noakes to retort that he must be wearing them in the wrong place.

  Even then, poor old Sidney hadn’t seen the last of Noakes who promptly took up a post as security manager at an upmarket retirement home only to find himself slap bang in the middle of a murder being investigated by Markham. The DCI had been almost resigned when Markham brought Noakes in as a ‘civilian consultant’, wearing the look of one who knew his reprieve was too good to be true.

  Noakes’s replacement, DS Roger Carruthers (or ‘Roger the Dodger’ as Noakes immediately christened him), had initially seemed like a poor exchange, being a pallid protégé of Sidney’s and almost certainly his spy on the side. But from unpromising beginnings, the newcomer had somehow bonded with DI Kate Burton and DS Doyle, the other members of the team. And as Doyle – even more fanatical than Noakes about football – was wont to say, no-one who liked the Beautiful Game could be all bad.

  Markham’s growing regard for DI Kate Burton had been one of the reasons behind his breakup with Olivia. Earnest, politically correct and serious-minded – in many ways Noakes’s polar opposite – the psychology graduate faced stiff parental opposition in her choice of career (‘no job for a woman’, said her father) and was never entirely at ease with the more raucous aspects of CID canteen culture. She and Noakes had enjoyed a love-hate relationship which gradually evolved into genuine affection, not least given their shared enthusiasm for true crime documentaries, commitment to the job and unshakeable devotion to Markham. It was true that Noakes had never been entirely converted to the cause of criminal profiling nor developed an appreciation for Burton’s beloved Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, but Markham knew the two sparring partners secretly missed each other, notwithstanding Noakes’s habit of referring to Burton’s fiancé as ‘Shippers’ on account of his startling resemblance to the serial killer Dr Harold Shipman.

  Burton seemed to have blossomed since becoming engaged to Professor Nathan Finlayson, clinical psychologist and head of the criminal profiling unit at Bromgrove University. Over time, she became more confidential with Markham, opening up about her background and displaying an unexpected vulnerability that surprised and touched him. A wryly mischievous sense of humour had also gradually emerged that reminded him of his ex- partner….

  Perhaps therein lay the rub.

  Was it possible to love two women at the same time?

  The startled expression of a squirrel gambolling yards away made him realise he had spoken the words out loud.

  Smiling at himself, he meditated on the conundrum.

  It was disconcerting to discover that he felt jealous when Kate Burton took up with Nathan Finlayson, having become aware – not least through Noakes’s blunt remarks and Olivia’s increasingly jaundiced observations – that his colleague had nursed a crush on him ever since her arrival in CID as an ambitious DS. He could admit to himself that Burton’s hero-worship had flattered his ego, but in any event, he had rapidly come to feel both respect and liking for the preternaturally solemn and punctilious detective whose po-faced appearance belied a deeply sensitive nature. Initially dowdy with a penchant for ‘Chairman Mao’ trouser suits in endless shades of beige, Burton had finally come out of her chrysalis and these days looked positively glamorous, her geometric chestnut bob and blonde highlights set off by cashmere midi dresses in a range of eye-catching colours. She still never hesitated to whip out the spectacles that magnified her eyes to enormous brown lollipops, but these days the fashion statement frames were what got people talking. Physically very different from Olivia, being petite and curvy, Burton had acquired a sophistication – possibly an armour – that served her well.

  The bottom line was, he found her appealing and somehow soothing (where Olivia was sparky, sharp-tongued and highly strung). It wasn’t the same electric connection – the sexual fireworks – as he had with Olivia, but there was still something….

  Perhaps, he thought wryly, it was connected with Burton’s flattering subservience towards him – not an agreeable reflection, but he knew himself to be as capable of chauvinism as the next man. On the other hand, the newly minted DI was no simpering pushover, and there had been many occasions when she spoke her mind. She would never have lasted the course with Noakes and the others without a certain steely inner resilience.

  Whatever the nature of the attraction, Olivia had sensed his increasing warmth towards Burton and been threatened by it, so in the end his colleague had inadvertently come between them.

  He cringed at the thought of Burton discovering that Olivia regarded her as one side of an Eternal Triangle, but believed that to date, his domestic secret was safe. As far as his colleagues were concerned, the breakup had occurred due to the pressures of his job.

  And there was undeniably some truth in this version of events, since he could not deny his tendency to live the job in a way that had undoubtedly provoked resentment. However, Olivia’s troubled past – which included a botched abortion that precluded them having children of their own – was also part of the mix. His suggestion that they should marry had been turned down so decisively that he was discouraged from proposing again.

  And now Olivia was being squired everywhere by Mat Sullivan, their mutual friend and the deputy head at Hope Academy where she worked. Sullivan – beanpole thin, lanky with an ironic turn of phrase – had come out as gay during the Ashley Dean investigation (during which he was briefly a murder suspect), but since he was showing every sign of being infatuated with Olivia there was precious little comfort in that.

  He supposed it was possible that Olivia, now renting a flat in town, had reached out to her colleague who did his best to jolly her out of the doldrums; after all, the two had always shared a conspiratorial bond, particularly their passionate abhorrence of wokeism in schools. But something in Sullivan’s demeanour suggested a more unsettling dynamic. Noakes – who had formed an unlikely bond with Sullivan during the Ashley Dean case, appreciating the teacher’s subversive streak – was all for ‘having it out with him’. But ‘Fools Rush In, Noakesy,’ Markham had responded before dissuading his old ally from interfering.

  And anyway, at the moment Noakes had quite enough on his plate what with daughter Natalie’s unexpected connection to this latest investigation….

  During the Rosemount Retirement Home murder investigation, Markham had been startled to learn that Natalie’s engagement to Rick Jordan – the highly eligible heir to a fitness empire – had foundered, leading her to embark on a somewhat dubious voyage of personal rediscovery that included plans for a ‘self-marriage ceremony’. She had apparently fallen in thrall to one Gino Everard…. proprietor of The Confetti Club and now murder victim.

  It was an extraordinary and disconcerting coincidence, not least as Noakes had even solicited Olivia to visit the bridal store so that she could reassure him and ‘the missus’ that ‘Gino Ginelli’ (Noakes could never resist a nickname) wasn’t up to anything nefarious.

  Olivia and Natalie were not exactly soulmates. Indeed, Markham suspected that Noakes’s brassy, buxom offspring disliked Olivia at least as much as her mother (while exhibiting a marked tendresse for Markham). But Olivia hated seeing Noakes worrying himself sick over the prodigal daughter and readily undertook the mission. Apparently, she reported back that there was no great harm in Gino Everard, and it was simply a case of Natalie enjoying the glamour of doing ‘wellbeing’ consultations there and being a sucker for the man’s theatrical mannerisms. As for Natalie’s self-marriage scheme – quite common these days for all its wackiness – she was fairly sure it would ‘die a death’.

  Only now it was Gino Everard who had died. In highly suspicious circumstances.

  Markham’s thoughts turned to the previous day’s call-out with Doug ‘Dimples’ Davidson the police pathologist, a bluff medic with more the air of a country vet than sawbones. Certainly he was the spit of Siegfried Farnon in both appearance and manner….

  ‘Strangled,’ was Dimples’s succinct verdict after he had supervised removal of the corpse. ‘Then tied to this mannequin pole thing or whatever it is and wedged inside the plastic wardrobe…. ready for some poor soul to have a coronary when his face leered out at them.’ The medic was sombre. ‘I’d say your killer enjoyed rigging him up like a puppet on a string…. making him look ridiculous.’

  ‘Man or woman?’ Markham wanted to know.

  ‘From the marks round the throat, I’d say whoever did it used a sequin sash belt or some kind of blingy garotte.’ The pathologist’s eyes scanned the shop. ‘Some rhinestone accessory or other…. With the element of surprise, a woman could have done it…. Your victim was actually quite slight, which meant he was manoeuvrable. The hardest part would have been strapping him to the clothes rod and getting him into the wardrobe…. But doing it in stages – first moving him onto a chair perhaps, while he was still supple – was perfectly manageable…. especially if the adrenalin was flowing and they knew they had all the time in the world.’

  The adrenalin was flowing alright, Markham thought grimly. They had enjoyed this.

  ‘Time of death?’

  ‘Tut-tut, Inspector, always so impatient.’

  Markham knew it was a token protest and waited.

 Dimples pursed his lips. ‘Don’t quote me, but I’d say late Saturday night… around ten or eleven…. before midnight at any rate.’ He looked around the chi-chi interior with its chintz, gilt mirrors and flouncy mannequins, raising a bushy eyebrow. ‘Presumably he wasn’t here for a business meeting at that time of night.’

  Markham wasn’t ready to delve into the specifics.

  ‘Do you know this place, Doug?’ he asked, deflecting any analysis of Gino Everard’s motivation for his rendezvous with death.

  ‘The wife was in and out by the minutes when our eldest got married,’ the other replied before adding with a grin. ‘The only book she’s ever really been interested in is my chequebook.’

  The two men exchanged a long look of masculine complicity.

  ‘What did she make of Everard?’ Markham enquired.

  ‘Said he was a real smoothie…. Lots of “Fabulous, dahling” and all that jazz…. He did some minor royal’s wedding dress back in the day…. been trading on it ever since by the sound of things.’ The portly medic bit his lip with momentary compunction. ‘The guy was a real Flash Harry, but there was no great harm in him. He had a nice thing going here and the television people had come calling.’

  ‘Indeed?’

  ‘Yes, Bromgrove TV were sniffing around…. think they even did a pilot… Apparently Everard was poised to cash in on the trend for reality TV programmes that follow brides in the run-up to the big day. It’s all the rage these days. My lot are hooked on the stuff.’

  Markham was amused to note that Dimples couldn’t have looked more embarrassed than if he had admitted to snorting cocaine. Clearly this dabbling in popular culture was something to be indulged in by stealth.

  He continued to pump this most unlikely of informants.

  ‘Anyone with grudges against Everard?’

  ‘Some hairy legged feminist at the Gazette wrote a few snidey pieces about him.’ Dimples grinned. ‘Presumably he hadn’t wasted too much hand-kissing on her.’

  Markham knew there was no point remonstrating with the other about his antediluvian attitudes. He was worse than Noakes when it came to that.

  And yet, like Noakes, the pathologist possessed a compassionate humanity that Markham knew cared nothing for creed, colour or class. The two men were products of their generation but infinitely preferable in the DI’s book to virtue-signalling, upwardly mobile careerists.

  All the same, he was grateful that Kate Burton wasn’t around to hear the pathologist’s dithyrambs against the Gazette’s hapless columnist.

  ‘Anyone else while we’re at it, Doug?’

  ‘I seem to remember the wife saying there were various people he’d pissed off…. pardon my French.’ Davidson had to be just about the only person who ever used the phrase these days. ‘Some designer he’d badmouthed…. and a pretty boy he thought stole his thunder in the pilot thing.’ The medic looked wary. ‘But don’t quote me on that.’

  ‘Perish the thought.’

  Now, thinking back to the aftermath of the murder as he sat in the tranquil little cemetery, Markham concluded that with this one he had his work cut out.

  Designers, fashionistas, demanding clients, distraught brides…. Quite a cocktail.

  He took one last look around the graveyard, his gaze coming to rest on a nearby tombstone

which stoutly proclaimed, Every tear shall be wiped away.

  Well, whatever the celestial outcomes, it was up to him to snare a murderer and ensure  justice for Gino Everard here on earth.

  Another grey squirrel peeped out from behind a headstone as though to say, ‘Good luck with that, mate.’

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

Despite the early hour, his team was already waiting in Markham’s poky office with its unrivalled view of the station car park, all bright eyed and bushy tailed.

  Carruthers had sorted the refreshments.

  ‘Black coffee for you, sir. Vanilla soy latte, ma’am, and flat whites for me and Doyle…. with triple chocolate chip muffins on the side and, er, a granola bar.’

  He didn’t say, ‘Yours is the birdseed crap, ma’am,’ but Noakes’s immortal description hung in the air.

  Talk about Banquo’s Ghost, the DI thought with an inner smile. Noakes was somehow more vividly present than if he had been there slouched across the table, setting the swinging balls of Markham’s cradle desktop toy in motion with childlike glee and the perennial pronouncement that he ‘didn’t know why the boss bothered with all that Zen shit.’

  Carruthers, for all his blonde albino pallor and horn-rimmed spectacles, appeared far more congenial these days. Like Doyle attired in skinny chinos and crew neck, the former attenuated intensity had mutated into something altogether more acceptable. Less Kim Philby crossed with Herr Flick and more Liam Gallagher or some other scrawny contemporary icon.

  At any rate, there was an easy camaraderie with Burton and Doyle that augured well. And all three radiated an unmistakeable eagerness to crack on with this latest homicide investigation.

  Seeing that Burton had already whipped out her designer specs and notebook, Markham invited her to brief them on the victim and suspects.

  ‘Gino Everard, sir,’ she said, twitching the crib that Markham was reasonably sure she had memorised by heart. ‘Proprietor of The Confetti Club for the last twenty years and fodder for the gossip columnists… Did some royal cousin or other’s wedding dress and made a living out of it…. Divorced his wife Claudia Everard yonks ago amid a big falling out over who should have had the credit for the costumes at some aristo’s nuptials.’

  ‘Have we been in touch with Mrs Everard, Kate?’

  Markham was famously reluctant to make his subordinates undertake the dreaded bereavement visits.

  ‘She’s abroad right now, sir, but I’ve got people on it. They didn’t have kids…. Family liaison’s checking out relatives.’

  ‘Thanks, Kate. How about the rest of the Dramatis Personae?’

  ‘Right, sir.’ Her tone was crisp as she resumed. ‘In terms of the boutique’s management structure, we’ve got Franco Santini, Mr Everard’s number two and oldest friend… Then there’s Lucille Chilton his PA and Antonia Rambert the senior consultant –’

  ‘Bet the names are all made up,’ Doyle interjected. ‘Sounds too French Riviera for words.’

  ‘Most likely,’ Burton agreed equably. ‘But it’s like that in their line of work.’ She grimaced. ‘Plain Jane Doe’s never going to cut it.’

  ‘Who else, Kate?’ Markham asked.

  ‘Antonia’s assistants are Maria Hagan and Christina Skelthorne,’ Burton replied. ‘Those three handle front of house, while a bloke name of Randall Fenton takes care of the seamstresses and,’ air quoting with a quizzical expression, ‘the “creative team”.’

  ‘What about disgruntled employees?’ Markham asked, remembering his conversation with Dimples Davidson.

  ‘There’s a designer…. Joanna Osborne…. She quit after Everard apparently bitched about her during some TV pilot,’ Burton replied. ‘Plus, a young guy…. Jamie O’Neill…. He got fired shortly after they made the pilot…. Word on the street is, Everard thought O’Neill was upstaging him… too good looking and charismatic by half.’

  As anticipated, the cast list was proving complex.

  ‘Is that it, Kate?’ But somehow Markham knew they weren’t finished yet.

  ‘Danielle Rigsby at the Gazette seemed to have it in for Everard,’ she said frowning. ‘Did a couple of hatchet jobs on him…. He’d threatened to sue over a feature she did about the TV pilot.’

  Ah, presumably this was Dimples’s ‘hairy legged feminist’.

  Wonderful, the DI mused with an inner eye roll. The ladies and gentlemen of the press getting their oar in was bound to complicate matters, as well as being absolutely guaranteed to bring DCI Sidney and the top brass out in hives.

  Burton wasn’t done.

  ‘There’s this local businessman who had some kind of vendetta against Everard on account of his daughter.’ Burton squinted at her notes, clearly finding the entire topic distasteful. ‘He felt the TV pilot made her out to be a… half-witted slag.’

  ‘Name?’ Markham already felt a headache building behind his temples.

  ‘Mark Harvison, sir.’ Burton looked apologetic. ‘You may remember him from the Citizens-Police Liaison Committee.’

  Oh God, only too well. Florid Colonel Blimp type. Champing at the bit to portray Bromgrove CID as a complete waste of space.

  Burton cleared her throat nervously, which could only portend more bad news.

  ‘Er, finally sir, there’s Shay Conteh,’ she said.

  ‘Got to the Commonwealth Games boxing finals,’ Carruthers interposed eagerly. ‘Doing an MA in sports science at Bromgrove Uni, sir. Big on equality and all that… the Gazette interviewed him about sexism and women being commoditised.’

  Damn and triple damn. That’s all he needed. A bunch of liberal do-gooders gagging to portray Bromgrove as some kind of ghastly neanderthal backwater where discrimination and social oppression were rife. The hits just kept on coming….

  ‘Presumably Mr Conteh wasn’t happy about Gino Everard’s endorsement of bridal patriarchy,’ he said flatly.

  ‘That’s about the size of it, sir,’ Burton agreed. ‘But it doesn’t look like The Confetti Club ever became a flash point… at least not in that way.’

  ‘Thanks, Kate.’ He did his best to sound brisk and authoritative. ‘Is that it?’

  ‘For now, sir,’ came the cautious reply.

  ‘Will we be using sarge on this one, sir?’

  Markham knew full well that as far as Doyle was concerned, his mentor Noakes would forever be ‘sarge’. Burton was the same, and even Carruthers appeared to have accepted the unusual set-up.

  ‘I don’t see why not,’ he replied evenly, though well aware that Sidney could no doubt come up with any number of reasons for keeping Noakes at arm’s length. Carefully, he added, ‘Natalie Noakes is by way of having an entrée to the boutique…. make overs and so forth.’ No need to expand on the bizarre ‘self-marriage’ scenario just yet. Or at least not until Noakes said he could share it with the team. ‘So naturally I’ll be wanting to explore that angle with Noakes.’

  Naturally.

  ‘Let’s get an incident room set up here,’ Markham instructed. ‘Then we can work through some more background and line up interviews for tomorrow…. you and me at The Confetti Club, Kate, and then ideally a meeting with Claudia Everard.’

  He noticed that Carruthers and Doyle appeared somewhat crestfallen on hearing this.

  ‘Don’t worry, you’ll get your chance,’ he told them. ‘Having a crack at the Gazette’s intrepid hack for one thing…. then there’s Messrs Harvison and Conteh along with the disgruntled ex-employees…. Plenty to get your teeth into, believe me.’

  In the meantime, though it was doubtless sexist and chauvinist and a whole load of ‘isms’ to boot, he needed Burton for The Gentle Touch and not the other two barging in with their size twelves.

  Markham thought of Gino Everard’s silver-blonde bouffant, and the powder-puff face horribly bloated and congested in death.

  And vowed to leave no stone unturned in bringing the killer to justice.

  Now to tackle DCI Sidney and persuade him that George Noakes was indispensable to his enquiries.

  Which meant careful negotiation of Sidney’s sour-grape-vine accompanied by lashings of flattery. Well, if he could secure his old friend for this one, the grovelling would be worth it.

  Let battle commence.

2

The Personal Touch

 

‘Ginelli don’ zackly look like love’s young dream in these promo pics.’

  Such was George Noakes’s pronouncement as he sat with Markham in the staff room at Rosemount Retirement Home on the morning of Tuesday 5 April scrutinising brochures for The Confetti Club.

  Despite the traumatic events of their previous investigation at Rosemount, Markham felt that the shadow hanging over the place had lifted. A new young administrator had greeted him cheerfully, and in no time at all the DI found himself installed cosily à deux with his old ally enjoying excellent coffee and a plate of amaretti biscuits.

  Even the portrait of moustachioed General Charles Gordon, formerly Noakes’s pet hate on the grounds that the picture gave him the heebie jeebies, seemed somehow more benignant than of yore, as though the nineteenth-century hero had accepted the new regime and was determined to make the best of it.

  ‘Gino Everard,’ Markham reminded his friend. ‘Make sure you don’t call him Ginelli to anyone else,’ i.e. Sidney. He had a feeling the DCI wouldn’t find the ice cream tutti frutti connotations particularly hilarious.

  ‘Yeah, whatever,’ Noakes grunted, his piggy eyes riveted on Everard’s face. ‘He’s kinda puffy-faced, an’ that quiff’s flipping ridiculous.’ Slightly shamefaced, he added, ‘I checked him out on You Tube when Nat started banging on about him…. he didn’t look quite so soft and flabby on there.’

  ‘Ah, the wonders of clever lighting and makeup,’ Markham retorted drily. ‘The camera angles probably flattered him…. whereas he rather looks his age in the PR glossies.’

  Noakes scowled. ‘He came across as a right ponce…. waving his hands around like he were doing magic tricks.’

  Markham grinned, imagining the dramatic gesticulation, with flowing fingers and easy wrists.

  ‘That’s his stock-in-trade, Noakesy…. It’s what people expect from a “royal” dress designer…. The same with the accent…. it’s meant to hint at cosmopolitan connections and the crème de la crème –’

  ‘Yeah, that got on my nerves an’ all,’ the other grouched. ‘Like summat out of Downton Abbey.’

  ‘Physically, Mr Everard was pretty unprepossessing,’ Markham said. ‘Quite small-boned actually…. That larger-than-life stuff was all “smoke and mirrors”.’

  He recalled Everard’s dead features, flesh slack and somehow almost feminine in death, and the strangely lidless eyes. ‘He was older than people thought…. sixty-nine on his next birthday.’

  Noakes was not to be appeased. ‘So what business did he have making eyes at young girls like my Nat?’

  Markham suppressed a sigh. ‘That’s the whole point. He was like that with everyone…. The cleaner who found him clearly thought he was marvellous, so he must have sprinkled some kind of stardust around the place.’

  ‘What did you make of the setup?’ Noakes enquired beadily. ‘The missus had a gander…. thought it were very flash…. your Olivia too.’

  Markham laughed. ‘It’s what you’d call Quatorze the Fifteenth,’ he hazarded.

  ‘Oh aye, you mean like a tart’s boudoir.’

  ‘Well, lots of chintz and gilt, if that’s what you’re getting at…. but quite tastefully done…. It is a bridal shop after all…. they want clients to feel they’re stepping into a fantasy world.’

  Noakes’s gaze sought out bemedaled General Gordon brooding sternly above the fireplace, almost as though to elicit sympathy from the eminent Victorian, before returning to the man he still thought of as ‘the boss’.

  ‘They certainly got my Nat living in fantasy land,’ he growled. ‘First all this self-marriage crip crap an’ then Ginelli trying to talk her into offering some side line in piercings.’

  Markham was startled. ‘Piercings?’

  Noakes was highly gratified by the effect of this revelation.

  ‘Yeah…. According to Ginelli, getting yourself mutilated counts as,’ assuming an affected falsetto, ‘“empowerment”’…. I kid you not…. nipples an’ noses done same time as you’re shopping for the dress.’

  ‘Well, well…. I had no idea that body modification was breaking into the bridal market.’

  ‘Nat says you get mums an’ daughters asking about it these days…. she says piercing parties – y’know, needles an’ tattoos with a glass of bubbly – are gonna be the next big thing…. an’ price no object, so it don’ have to be scuzzy…. you can have a diamond in your belly button if you want it.’ Noakes was comically conflicted between feelings of repulsion on the one hand and pride in his girl’s familiarity with the zeitgeist. ‘Obviously the missus ain’t up for that kind of caper,’ he added hastily.

  Fighting down a wave of hysterical mirth at the notion of Muriel Noakes opting for a navel barbell, Markham replied gravely. ‘Presumably Mr Everard thought highly of Natalie’s commercial acumen, otherwise he wouldn’t have floated the idea.’

  ‘Yeah, he were on to a good thing with Nat’s wellbeing stuff…. plus, she’s got her finger on the pulse when it comes to fashion an’ all that.’

  Markham tried not to recall Olivia’s acid remarks about Natalie’s ‘hooker wear’ and its impact on susceptible young detectives at CID christmas parties down the years, their eyes out on stalks at her décolletage (‘all meat and no gravy,’ as one wit put it). Since her engagement to Rick Jordan, however, Natalie had started dressing more conservatively and begun to tone down the polyfilla-thick makeup and oompa-loompa tangerine tan. Ditching the Katie Price look had obviously paid dividends in terms of her working relationship with Gino Everard.

  Or had it been more than a working relationship, the DI wondered.

  Carefully, he asked, ‘You still weren’t happy about Natalie working for Mr Everard?’

  ‘Your Liv said it were alright,’ Noakes said reluctantly. ‘An’ there’s no flies on her…. so I reckoned everything had to be kosher…. It’s jus’ the way Nat seemed so taken up with him and some other bloke with a weirdy Wop name….’

  Markham ignored the unrepentant xenophobia. You had to make allowances for a worried father, and clearly there was something about The Confetti Club that had made Noakes uneasy.

  ‘Careful,’ he cautioned mildly. ‘You mean Franco Santini, Mr Everard’s deputy.’

  ‘Thass the fella…. He’s in the background on one of them You Tube gigs…. genuine Eyetie cos he’s got the accent.’

  ‘Noakes.’ Markham was firmer now.

  ‘Don’ worry, I’ll watch it round Burton.’ Slyly, the other added, ‘Got you all to herself today, has she?’

  Markham ignored the insinuendo.

  ‘Custody of the tongue’s important on this one, Noakesy…. not just as a matter of respect for cultural diversity,’ which he knew was for the birds as far as his friend was concerned, ‘but because there's been a certain amount of ill feeling against the boutique in various quarters, so we need to tread extra carefully.’

  ‘You mean the rent-a-mob lot…. all high dudgeon an’ dungarees.’ Markham’s lips quirked at this. ‘Nat said the uni lefties, including some ex-boxer,’ Noakes sounded disgusted, ‘were stirring the pot.’

  ‘Did Natalie see anything kick off at the boutique?’

  ‘Nah…. But there’s been nasties in the Gazette.’

  ‘Yes…. not the kind of column inches Mr Everard was after…. And apparently Mr Mark Harvison took exception to the way his daughter came across in some TV pilot for Bromgrove TV.’

  ‘That twonk from the committee,’ Noakes chortled. ‘Loved the sound of his own voice an’ bored everyone rigid.’ As far as he was concerned, slag-gate was payback for all those hours of Harvison’s grandstanding.

  ‘Like you, he was concerned about his daughter, Noakes.’ Markham’s tone was flinty.

  ‘Alright, alright, boss…. Don’ get all narked with me…. I were only saying.’ It was the time-honoured refrain, with a side-helping of injured innocence.

  ‘Was Natalie aware of any tensions in the boutique…. jealousies…. grudges…. that kind of thing?’

  ‘She said it could be bitchy sometimes…. But fashion’s like that, innit?’ Noakes scratched his chin. ‘You can ask her yourself when you come round for your tea tomorrow,’ he said, anxious lest Markham had forgotten Muriel’s pressing invitation. (‘So important that Gilbert doesn’t brood.’ Especially not over Olivia Mullen.) ‘I’ll tip Nat the wink that you’re after the full low-down.’ Suddenly the mastiff features brightened. ‘What with the piercings palaver an’ Ginelli’s plans for pamper sessions or whatever they’re called, at least it meant she’d kind of put the self-marriage thing on ice.’

  ‘Natalie’s insights will be very welcome,’ Markham replied with cast-iron courtesy. Even at the price of Muriel’s faux commiseration on his love life.

  Noakes looked pleased, once more meeting General Gordon’s eyes as though to say, ‘The boss is one of us…. the kind who gets things done.’

  ‘What’re you up to today then?’ Noakes’s voice was somewhat wistful.

  ‘A shufti at our suspects with Kate…. Somehow, I felt she’d be a safer bet than the other two.’

  Noakes guffawed at the very notion of Doyle and Carruthers clodhopping amidst sequins and lace.

  ‘And then hopefully a visit to Claudia Everard, the ex-wife.’

  Noakes’s eyes gleamed. ‘Oh yeah,’ he said thoughtfully. ‘Nat mentioned summat about that…. She never met her, though, cos her an’ Ginelli were daggers drawn.’

  Shyly, he tufted his salt and pepper thatch into myriad little prongs in a sure sign that he wanted to say something but didn’t know how to get the words out.

  ‘Spit it out, Noakes,’ Markham said kindly.

  ‘Will you be, er…. needing me at all on this one, boss…. civilian consultant kind of thing?’

  ‘As if you needed to ask! Of course I will…. I ran it past Sidney yesterday and he took it on the chin.’

  ‘He don’ have one.’

  Markham held up a forefinger in admonition.

  Noakes reeled it back. ‘Okay, I get you…. Custody of the tongue, right?’

  Amused, the DI nodded.

  ‘Quite.’ He smiled. ‘Rosemount’s rubbing off on you, Noakes…. And may I compliment you on the new wardrobe.’

  In the startlingly loud mustard Harris Tweed suit, his former wingman resembled a down-at-heel gamekeeper (Downton on a budget), but overall, it was an infinitely more respectable look than the shockingly mismatched ganzies and combat trousers which had resulted in Sidney complaining loudly about the decline in standards of dress.

  ‘I’m assuming you’re settled here, Noakesy?’ Markham prompted after an interval of bashful preening.

  ‘Yeah, things are kushdi now the Board’s letting me tighten up on security…. An’ the missus likes how everything’s dead… genteel.’

  She would, the DI thought sardonically.

  ‘But now an’ again I kinda get itchy feet…. like I should be out there getting scrotes off the street.’

  Markham knew what he meant. Years previously, in collaboration with DI Chris Carstairs (Vice) for a dare, Noakes had penned a limerick for Police Life entitled And Plod Those Feet which included the immortal lines: ‘No time left to tackle toughs. Too weighted down with torch and cuffs. Get on Crimewatch. Study hard. Your two feet might make the Yard.’ Sidney and the higher echelons were outraged by such lèse-majesté, but the troops loved it and belted out the Noakesian credo at many a black-tie bash:

  Call for back-up from the Bill.

  Or the Sweeney, that’s a thrill.

  PC-this and DC-that.

  On the mobile for a chat.

  ‘Glad to hear you’re up for a challenge. That being the case, I believe I can help make your dreams come true,’ Markham said deadpan. Then, more sombrely, ‘There’s something seriously out of whack at that boutique, Noakesy…. I need to get a handle on it. Fast.’

  ‘No worries, boss.’ His friend was chipper now that he was assured of the inside track. ‘Nat’ll give you the gen on everyone at Brides ’R Us tomorrow.’

  The two men wandered out to the Georgian mansion’s porticoed entrance. Along the driveway, tall pines and cypresses waved gently, reminding Markham of the trees in St Chad’s cemetery.

  Always mindful of the murdered dead, he endeavoured to believe that existence for everyone ended in new life beyond the grave.

  As ever sensitive to ‘the guvnor’s’ moods, Noakes said gruffly, ‘Ginelli’s gone, boss, but you’ll make it right…. then he can get stuck into the heavenly banquet an’ all that, knowing everything’s sorted down here.’

  At times like this, Markham would have given much to emulate his former colleague’s evangelical certitude. But even though he struggled with the eternal verities, just knowing that George Noakes was enlisted in his team’s corner counted for much.

  He flashed a smile at his old friend.

  ‘I’ve got to get on top of this, Noakesy.’ Then, almost inconsequentially, he added, ‘What was it your old Sergeant Major told King Hussein of Jordan?’

  He knew the answer (no doubt apocryphal) but needed to hear the other say it.

  Noakes proudly stroked the regimental tie that he wore as a badge of honour.

 ‘“If you do not get a grip of yourself, Mr King, Sir, we will have to report you to your people!”’

  ‘Right, well, replace the Hashemite kingdom with Superintendent Bretherton and his ilk, and you’ll have some idea what I’m up against.’

  ‘I’d back you against that shower any day of the week, sir.’

  Markham couldn’t say why this awkward admission should mean so much, but the assurance of Noakes’s faith in him worked its usual magic. Suddenly he felt he was recovering his true self – the part not submerged by bureaucracy and politics – in the consciousness that he was with one who totally believed in it.

  Strolling down the drive to his car, Markham smiled as he recalled the way his former sergeant’s eyes had kept straying to the rather ugly painting of General Charles Gordon in Rosemount’s staffroom. During their last investigation, Noakes had ferreted out some information about that epitome of heroic failure, concluding that it all boiled down to jealousy and Gordon was hung out to dry because the politicians resented his glamour. Now his wingman’s words came back to him: ‘Jealousy’s one of the seven deadly sins an’ that’s what did for soldier boy in the end.’

  One of the seven deadly sins….

  Was jealousy at the root of Gino Everard’s murder, as in so many homicides that Markham had investigated over the years?

  Or was there some hidden transgression in Everard’s past that lay behind the discovery of his obscenely posed corpse?

  His mobile buzzed with a text message from Kate Burton.

  His fellow DI was waiting for him at Queen for a Day, the bridal accessories store which adjoined The Confetti Club, Gino Everard’s business being temporarily relocated there while the SOCOs carried out forensics at the crime scene.

  Time for a first look at the suspects.

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

‘Bloody hell, sir,’ Burton said out of the corner of her mouth as they perched awkwardly on a flouncy sofa surrounded by cards and balloons and soft toys. ‘Someone’s gone out and raided the local Clintons…. It’s like the Ashley Dean case at Hope, remember?’

  ‘How could I ever forget, Kate…. I remember thinking then that a depressing number of people seem to think eternity consists of reading excruciatingly bad doggerel verse.’

  She flashed him a puckish grin. ‘Not to mention meeting Noddy and the entire cast of Brambly Hedge.’ She glanced around at the cornucopia of tributes. ‘Along with Winnie the Pooh, Piglet and Eyore.’

  ‘Just as well Noakesy’s not here…. This lot would be guaranteed to bring out his…. subversive streak.’

  ‘How’s he doing out in the sticks, sir?’ Burton invariably deferred to Markham as her superior officer, even though they were now equal in rank, and he had given up trying to dissuade her.

  ‘Seems acclimatised to Rosemount,’ Markham replied, ‘but champing at the bit to have a look-in.’

  They shared a conspiratorial smile.

  ‘The DCI’ll wear it provided Noakes stays low profile,’ Markham said, without disclosing that Sidney had only agreed to allocate ‘expenses’ so he intended to make up any shortfall from his own pocket.

  ‘I’m not sure he knows what “low profile” is, sir.’

  ‘Oh, we’ll keep him in order somehow between us, Kate.’ And out of Sidney’s sight as far as possible. ‘Natalie’s going to give me some intel on the setup here…. personalities, rivalries, that kind of thing…. by way of supplementing whatever we get today.’

  Which in the end didn’t turn out to be all that much.

  Franco Santini was a well-preserved if slightly haggard man in his sixties who exuded chic in a well-cut dark suit. Wearing gold-rimmed spectacles that gleamed and glittered, and with dark wavy hair that glistened with a rich dressing, his courtly manners and accent were decidedly mediterranean. Only a narrow nose, pinched sharp at the tip, detracted from the impression of personableness. He didn’t appear to be prostrated by grief, but the detectives knew better than to draw any adverse conclusions from that, not least since Santini was now the man at the helm of Gino Everard’s flagship enterprise and therefore obliged to keep a cool head.

  They learned nothing from Everard’s number two which shed any light on animosities past or present, the man raising well-groomed eyebrows when Markham raised the subject of disaffected employees Joanna Osborne and Jamie O’Neill. ‘They became…. how do you put it… too big for their boots,’ he confided. ‘As for thinking that Gino felt threatened by Mr O’Neill…. the very idea of a designer at the top of his game, in such demand by the media, having anything to fear from an apprentice consultant…. simply too ludicrous for words.’

  ‘What about Ms Osborne?’ Burton pressed.

  A theatrical gesture of the elegant hands. ‘Pouf…. she misunderstood when Gino said her particular strengths lay in designing ready-to-wear dresses…. There was no intention to offend…. Like Mr O’Neill, she had her own way to make.’ And a long way to go before attaining Everard’s stellar heights, his tone implied.

  Antonia Rambert and Lucille Chilton – Everard’s senior consultant and PA – parroted the same line so glibly that it felt rehearsed.

  The former was a whip-slim middle-aged woman with vulpine features and a mid-length platinum power bob. Her manner towards the police was ingratiating, but Markham received the impression that the staff feared her.

  Lucille Chilton was a scrawny young redhead wearing an impossibly short black dress and stilettos. Whereas Antonia Rambert’s black pinstripe, grazing shapely legs, looked classy, the youngster’s appearance verged on tacky. Marham was surprised she got away with it, before reflecting that Gino Everard presumably liked the gymslip aesthetics. An over-loud Estuary accent was in keeping with the brashness of her appearance, Rambert – whose own tones were upmarket northern – perceptibly winced as the decibel level rose. Reddened eyes indicated that the PA had been crying, whereas the older woman showed no sign of discomposure.

  Two other women were introduced as Antonia Rambert’s assistants.

  Maria Hagan was an unthreatening looking bottle blonde in her forties. With her hair pulled somewhat incongruously into Pippi Longstocking braids, she had a kind plain face, tree trunk legs, broad Lancashire accent and a nervous laugh.

  Christina Skelthorne was more soignée and looked to be in her early thirties. Slightly plump but attractive with a rounded face, long curly black hair and catlike eyes, she reminded Markham of a young Marie Helvin. Judging by the approving look the senior consultant shot her, it was clear that she at least met Antonia Rambert’s high standards. And yet there was an easy camaraderie with Maria Hagan. Presumably they were allies behind the scenes.

  Randall Fenton the young backroom supervisor – tall, shy and dark-haired with a slight stoop – very much deferred to Santini and Rambert and didn’t have much to contribute beyond stammering awkwardly that he couldn’t imagine how The Confetti Club would manage without Gino Everard. Glancing at the senior personnel’s steely expressions, Markham figured that they considered themselves more than capable of taking the reins.

  The question was, had they privately wanted a chance to shine away from the perpetual shadow cast by Everard?

  Such at any rate were The Confetti Club’s key players.

Certainly, as Everard's closest associates, they were the individuals of principal interest.

Notwithstanding which, Markham and Burton watched and listened politely as various others – seamstresses and outside hires – trotted to and fro, essentially repeating the same conventional platitudes, though the detectives detected genuine affection for their bouffant-haired boss. ‘He was never too grand to speak to you,’ as one youthful freelancer put it, unconsciously making Everard sound like royalty.

  It would be interesting to learn Natalie Noakes’s perspective on the working atmosphere that she had described as being occasionally bitchy.

  In the meantime, however, it was a case of what her father would have called ‘slim pickings’.

  None of the principals had a strong alibi, though with the murder now confirmed by Dimples as having occurred just before midnight, this was hardly surprising.

  Afterwards, adjourning to Waterstones for coffee, Burton glumly admitted as much. ‘All of them on their lonesome and just Maria Hagan’s husband to say where she was… worse than useless,’ the DI grumbled. Then she straightened up self-consciously as though suddenly aware she was hardly demonstrating appropriate esprit de corps. ‘But I’ve lined up Danielle Rigsby at the Gazette for tomorrow morning, boss…. Then there’s Joanna Osborne and Jamie O’Neil –’

  ‘Ah yes, the Young Pretenders,’ Markham said somewhat listlessly. ‘That should be illuminating.’

  ‘They’re due in to the station for interviews tomorrow afternoon…. And I had a call from Claudia Everard who’s back on terra cotta.’

  Amused to note how his prim colleague had absorbed Noakes’s Del Boy patois to the point that she now used it without thinking, Markham felt a surge of energy. It was still early days and hardly to be expected that the killer would just drop into his lap.

  ‘Franco Santini talked about Everard being at the top of his game and in demand by the media,’ Burton mused. ‘But d’you reckon that was really true, sir? I mean, being proprietor of a provincial bridal shop’s no big deal….’

  ‘I get the feeling Mr Everard’s star had waned and he was trading on past glories, Kate…. Presumably the TV pilot thing was aimed at resurrecting his career…. some sort of comeback.’

  He smiled at his colleague.

  ‘Right,’ he said, ‘After coffee, we’ll see if Mrs Everard can shed any light on her ex’s media prospects.’

  Some fifty minutes later, they sat in Markham’s car outside a large Victorian terrace in Wembley Gardens just off Bromgrove Rise.

  ‘Well, she wasn’t giving much away,’ Burton lamented.

  Markham mulled over his impressions of Gino Everard’s ex-wife.

  There had been something of the ice maiden about her, from the no-fuss swept-back silver hairstyle to the severe grey pinstripe suit teamed with a burgundy silk shirt. Coolly self-possessed, she confirmed that she had travelled by Eurostar to Paris for a business meeting on Sunday afternoon before returning to the UK the following day.

  Another suspect without an alibi for Everard ‘s murder on Saturday night.

  Now Burton commented, ‘She was right about her ex being quite the heartthrob when they were starting out…. I looked up some of their early publicity shots online and he’s like a young David Cassidy…. all puppy dog eyes and blow-dried hair….’ She caught herself up hastily. ‘If you like that kind of thing.’

  Markham suppressed a smile at the thought of decidedly un-cute Professor Nathan Finlayson.

  ‘But things began to sour when they became competitors as opposed to collaborators,’ he said thoughtfully.

  ‘It’s weird,’ Burton continued. ‘Her designs are the exact opposite of how she looks…. all romantic and ethereal…. almost like ballet costumes…. Whereas he went in for more modern form-fitting stuff, which is how he got the gig for that granddaughter of the Duchess of Kent or whoever it was.’

  ‘In terms of their partnership, Mrs Everard definitely felt that he’d claimed credit where it wasn’t due,’ Markham observed.

  ‘That was a low blow when she said he was more like a canny self-promoter than any kind of serious creative talent,’ Burton pointed out. ‘And I don’t reckon she was half as relaxed about the TV pilot as she wanted us to think…. all that about it being tacky and vulgar, and how she couldn’t believe they’d been taken in by Everard’s blarney…. somehow it didn’t ring true…. I had the feeling she’d probably give her eye teeth for exposure like that.’

  ‘Yes,’ Markham concurred before adding, ‘We need to dig deeper into Mrs Everard’s career trajectory…. find out more about the ups and downs.’

  Burton nodded vigorously. Then, ‘What did you think of her new bloke?’ she asked. ‘He’s got to be quite a bit younger,’ she added diffidently, clearly reluctant to make any allusion to “cougars” (or “jaguars”, as Noakes had once described them in one of his more memorable malapropisms).

  ‘Hmm. I believe Mrs Everard is seventy-one…. Yes, her partner looked to be in his fifties… though he had the assurance of someone much older.’

  Slight, with the dark hair and eyes of a Cornishman, Claudia Everard’s partner Martin Carthew had been cold but courteous, confirming that he had driven her to the train on Sunday before returning to collect her the following day. Declining to be drawn on Gino Everard, he told them his work as a lawyer meant he had nothing to do with the fashion industry. ‘Which suits us both,’ Claudia had added frigidly.

  Neither of them had anything to say about The Confetti Club, though the superciliousness with which Mrs Everard referred to the boutique was of a piece with her overall affectation of inhabiting a different world. ‘I’m sure customers had a…. memorable experience,’ she said. ‘Gino was master of the personal touch.’

  When it came to insinuendo, here was a practitioner to rival George Noakes.

  ‘No shortage of funds,’ Burton ruminated. ‘Everything back there looked minimalist but high spec.’ She pulled a wry face. ‘Definitely not IKEA.’

  ‘Yes, she certainly appeared to be the epitome of a successful businesswoman,’ Markham agreed. ‘But I’d be interested to know what happened to her along the way.

  As he looked back at the house, an upstairs curtain twitched.

  Someone was waiting for them to leave.

  ‘Right, Kate,’ Markham said. ‘Let’s check that the incident room’s set up, and then we can turn our attention to some of the other people Mr Everard managed to alienate.’

  He had the feeling it might turn out to be a sizeable roster.

3

Adverse Reports

 

‘How’s sarge getting on with General Custer then?’

  It was the morning of Wednesday 6 April, and the team was gathered in Markham’s office ready to compare notes.

  Markham smiled at Doyle’s question.

  ‘General Gordon…. Noakesy’s got plenty of work on hand…. what with sorting out Rosemount’s security and the rest of it.’

  ‘Is he coming on this case with us, boss?’ Carruthers asked.

  Somehow Markham knew that the new DS understood just what George Noakes meant to him and the team. And that there was no longer any need for subterfuge.

  Sidney’s spy or not, Roger Carruthers wasn’t going to unsettle the dynamic that had worked so well down the years.

  On the other hand, Markham still wasn’t sure if Carruthers was truly “his man”. He had found it difficult to bond with him, not being sure to start with if the newcomer possessed that all-important sense of humour. As Olivia had once mischievously observed, lack of GSOH didn’t allow for the wind: either of change or dyspepsia.

  But he had observed Burton and Doyle gradually warm to the new recruit and was determined to give Carruthers a chance, though there was no question of him ever filling the Noakes-sized hole in Markham’s unit.

  Now, however, he was startled when Carruthers, flushing awkwardly said, ‘Gino Everard wasn’t the worst.’

  Three heads swivelled his way.

  ‘My girlfriend Kim went to The Confetti Club for a bridesmaid’s dress. She’s…. well. plus-size…. But Everard didn’t make her feel like a bag of you-know-what.’ The flush was painful now, seriously blotchy as though the young DS had come down with a case of leprosy.

  ‘Thank you, sergeant,’ Markham said simply. ‘I appreciate your sharing this with us.’ Doyle hastily rearranged his features from hilarity to sobriety.

  Carruthers’s prominent Adam’s apple was undergoing all kinds of gyrations, but Markham just regarded him with kind reassurance. ‘You know you’re amongst friends here, sergeant,’ he said gently. ‘Anything you tell us stays in this room.’

  ‘Sorry, I should have said something earlier, boss…. Somehow it felt difficult.’

  ‘Of course.’ Markham’s steady regard never faltered. ‘But we’d be very interested to know what Kim made of Mr Everard.’

  Bloody hell, Doyle thought. Carruthers must be one of those blokes with a thing for fat girls. Well aware of Markham’s disapproval of prejudice, he maintained his expression of impenetrable solemnity, glad for once that Noakes wasn’t there to undermine his efforts in that direction.

  However, he couldn’t help remembering the bizarre fetish sites they had come across during their investigation into murders at the Beautiful Bodies clinic, struggling to assimilate the idea that the uptight, almost prissy Carruthers could have a plus-size partner.

  But then he noticed Markham’s expression of gentle acceptance and felt ashamed of himself. The DI didn’t have a problem with any of it, so why should he?  And anyway, his ex-girlfriend Paula’s obsession with looking like Twiggy had been a right pain at times. It might have been all to the good, he reflected darkly, if she had been able to let herself go once in a while and splurge on cream cakes. Suddenly aware that Burton’s eyes were on him, Doyle stopped wool-gathering and adopted a look of alert interest.

  ‘Kim said Everard was really nice,’ Carruthers volunteered. ‘There were skinny girls in there at the same time – perfect waist measurements and spray tans – but he treated her exactly the same as them.’ The DS was squirming uncomfortably but determined to get his point across. ‘People think girls like Kim sit at home scoffing cakes,’ Doyle gave a guilty start at this, ‘and watching stuff like Jeremy Kyle. But it’s medical with her…. She has thyroid problems and it’s a minefield planning things…. She always wants to map a route in her mind to get from A to B without attracting attention…. won’t even go shopping if there’s a risk of getting a load of abuse from teenagers shouting about “chub-rubs”.’

  Doyle couldn’t help himself. ‘What’s one of them?’

  ‘When your legs rub together,’ Carruthers replied, his pale face almost naked in its vulnerability. ‘Being overweight can be terribly lonely, see.’ With a proud defiance which made Markham warm to him as never before, he added, ‘Kim’s gorgeous, but she’s got zero confidence. It took a lot for her to go to The Confetti Club rather than an outlet for…. curvy women. She’d tried a few of those before and practically lost the will to live…. Well anyway, Gino Everard didn’t bat an eyelid. And he didn’t behave as if she was invisible below the neck either…. She actually bought an outfit in the end…. and what’s more, it really suited her.’

  Markham nodded encouragingly. There was a risk of them viewing Mr Everard like some kind of pantomime dame on account of his flamboyant personality and backstory, so it was good to hear someone praise him.

  Burton cleared her throat. ‘What did Kim make of the rest of them in there?’ she asked.

  ‘Polite enough,’ Carruthers replied, ‘but Everard really went out of his way to be charming… even though brides are supposed to be the main event and she was only getting a bridesmaid’s dress. She had the feeling some of the sales staff could be quite overbearing…. not nasty or anything like that…. more like manipulating shoppers’ emotions so they’d sign on the dotted line…. But Everard told people not to rush and said they should take a day or two to think about things if they needed it. His voice and mannerisms were over the top alright, but underneath it all she felt he was a regular guy…. pretty authentic.’

  ‘Interesting,’ Markham said. ‘Did she notice anything else?’

  ‘While she was in there, some TV bloke came in – at least she thinks that’s who he was…. She only overheard snippets because they were in Everard’s office most of the time. But when they were wandering round the shop, Everard got quite wound up about not liking the kind of show which ramped up the drama by pitting people against each other…. you know, encouraging brides and their mothers to fall out over revealing dresses and that type of thing…. or getting bridesmaids who are bitter about not getting married to have a bitch-fest and stick it to the bride.’

  Doyle was somewhat bemused. ‘But isn’t that the whole point of reality telly?’ he enquired before adding hastily, ‘Not that I watch much of it, but Kelly,’ the new girlfriend, ‘says that’s the fun part…. when the “entourage”,’ he air quoted ironically, ‘don’t get along.’

  Carruthers screwed up his features, remembering.

  ‘Kim said Everard didn’t sound like he was going to be pushed around…. told mister hotshot producer or whoever he was that he didn’t like confrontational stuff…. preferred to focus on the creative side…. designs and fittings…. He said you could extract plenty of drama out of last-minute panics.’ Self-consciously, Carruthers added, ‘Like when a bride loses tons of weight so dresses suddenly have to be taken in…. Or someone changes her mind about bling, so the backroom crew have to do on the spot alterations…. whipping off straps and sequins…. shortening trains and all the rest of it….’

  ‘Not as much fun as a cat-fight,’ Doyle demurred, ignoring Burton’s frown.

  ‘Well, Kim said Everard’s number two was trying to talk him round…. saying stuff about needing to exaggerate and send things up a bit for the cameras.’

  ‘Franco Santini?’ Burton asked eagerly.

  ‘Yes, that’s right…. Odd really….,’ Carruthers said.

  ‘What is?’ Doyle prompted.

  ‘Well, you’d think Everard would be the one up for a spot of play-acting seeing he was so theatrical and OTT…. But Kim said it was Santini who talked about how it made commercial sense to spice things up…. sort of role reversal….’

  The subject of television came up again when Markham betook himself to the DCI’s office.

  On arrival in the inner sanctum, he could not help his gaze wandering to the Hall of Fame, as the photomontage which took up the whole of one wall was irreverently known. Yep, there was a new picture of Sidney’s Brunhilde-like wife hobnobbing with his all-time favourite royal the Countess of Wessex and other assorted notables. When it came to scary millinery, Mrs S easily trumped Muriel Noakes….

  Sidney himself looked reasonably good, the executive buzz cut, clean-shaven jaw (goatee long gone) and sharp tailoring – together with the new addition of professorial spectacles – combining with his ‘paperless office’ and acres of polished mahogany desk to give the impression of a man at the top of his game.

  Olivia had never been able to stand ‘Judas Iscariot’ as she called him, and it was true that Sidney’s resentment of Markham’s Oxbridge credentials, handsome looks (the thick dark hair being a particular grievance) and wunderkind reputation had in the past caused difficulties between them. Not to mention Sidney’s antipathy towards Noakes whose slobbishness and renowned subversiveness literally induced an allergic reaction (his eczema had noticeably abated since Noakes’s departure).

  But now, with the prospect of retirement moving closer, Sidney was inclined to be less territorial and abrasive. Olivia had said, ‘You wait and see, Gil, he’s desperate to get his phiz on TV – reinvent himself as some sort of police pundit…. or a consultant on those creepy crime documentaries for Channel 5…. God, can you just imagine it…. Sidney doing Jack the Ripper!’ And the ignoble thought had crossed his mind that Sidney’s affability might not be unconnected with Gino Everard’s status as a pseudo celebrity (or what passed for one in Bromgrove) and television’s interest in The Confetti Club.

  It turned out that Sidney’s niece – on Brunhilde’s side – had got married the previous year and called on Everard’s services. To Markham’s surprise, the DCI confided, ‘We would have liked a daughter…. Not that we aren’t extremely proud of the boys, of course.’ And he was off, holding forth about his stellar offspring, paying particular attention to the eldest, Jake, who was currently doing officer training at Sandhurst. All things considered, Markham thought wryly, it was just as well Noakes wasn’t there to puncture Sidney’s balloon with allusions to barrack-room bad lads and his favourite army jokes, liberally sprinkled with colourful Saxon expletives on the subject of ‘crap-hats’ and ‘jankers’. He suppressed a grin as he thought of the last time CID had hosted the Royal Military Police, when Noakes had assumed the duties of unofficial toastmaster in a manner that none of those present was ever likely to forget.

  Possibly something in Markham’s expression reminded Sidney of those Top-Table-Terrors, because the DCI abruptly terminated his raptures on the subject of army life. ‘Well, as I was saying, we’ve no daughters to marry off.’  Markham rather suspected that, given the DCI’s notoriously parsimonious streak, he didn’t particularly object to dodging the financial obligations that belonged to Father of the Bride. But he was nonetheless touched by the wistfulness in Sidney’s voice, evidence of the man behind the corporate mask.

  ‘What was your niece’s experience of The Confetti Club, sir?’ the DI asked.

  ‘Oh, everything was entirely satisfactory…. the dress and so forth…. a halter neck…. very, er, daring according to Mrs Sidney.’ From which it might be deduced that the DCI’s formidable wife hadn’t approved the choice of outfit. Certainly his boss’s squeamish expression indicated a degree of discomfort around the subject of the family nuptials.

  ‘Did Mrs Sidney see much of Mr Everard herself?’ Markham continued.

  ‘She’d been into the boutique once or twice,’ the other said vaguely, careful not to use the word ‘shop’ with its overtones of the lower orders. ‘And of course, Everard was a regular on the charity circuit. Very charming by all accounts.’ It occurred to Markham that Noakes and Sidney were probably as one in their assessment of Everard’s charm.

  Markham briskly took his boss through the rollcall of suspects, with Sidney clearly hoping someone from the shop floor or ‘sewing side’ could take the top spot, rather than that (horror of horrors) anyone from the Gazette or university…. or, even worse, the ex-wife or Mark Harvison, scourge of Bromgrove CID, should assume pole position.

  ‘Are we looking at an inside job, Inspector?’ the DCI honked in the strident bray that always affected his subordinate like nails scraping down a chalkboard.

  ‘I think Mr Everard arranged to meet his killer by appointment, sir –’

  ‘But why would he be on the premises at that time on a Saturday night?’ Sidney interrupted impatiently. ‘I mean, isn’t that somewhat bizarre?’

  ‘I think it would appeal to Mr Everard’s sense of drama…. enjoyment of intrigue, if you like,’ Markham replied calmly. ‘From what I’ve learned of him, cloak and dagger would have been right up his street.’

  ‘CCTV?’ Sidney enquired.

  ‘The system was being upgraded at the weekend, sir…. Everyone knew the score, so it offered the perfect opportunity.’

  Now the DCI was revolving scenarios in his head.

  ‘Could the killer have known that Everard was planning to come in late at night and then lain in wait for him…. planned some kind of ambush?’ Sidney speculated.

  ‘The senior staff had their own key fobs for getting into the centre and knew the shop’s eight-character alarm code which was changed monthly,’ Markham said. ‘A master set of keys apparently went missing a few weeks ago, but they didn’t bother to change the locks. I suspect there was a pretty laissez-faire attitude to the alarm code as well, with people jotting it down on post-its or giving it out willy-nilly, though of course they all swear blind nothing like that ever happened…. An ambush is obviously one possibility, sir, but I’d say a pre-arranged rendez-vous is more in keeping with Mr Everard’s character…. Plus, the pathologist tells me he had taken a large glass of Chablis not long before he died, which is one reason why his defences were down when he was attacked. Apparently he always kept a few bottles in the fridge in his office for special visitors…. The staff can’t say for sure if a bottle’s missing, but I’m inclined to think he and his assailant shared a drink…. According to their cleaner, Everard’s drinks cabinet is missing two glasses, which most likely points to the killer removing them afterwards…. In terms of forensics, cross-contamination means we need a suspect in the frame before raising our hopes.’

  Sidney’s face bore the look of one far from accustomed to getting his hopes up.

  ‘And where does George Noakes fit in to this investigation,’ he enquired with a rapier thrust.

  ‘Well of course Noakes sees himself very much in the…. boiler room when it comes to helping us out,’ Markham improvised hastily thinking, Boiler room, that’ll be the day! ‘He’s currently busy re-assessing Rosemount’s security needs and doing risk assessments.’ Yeah, for Bingo. He could almost hear Noakes’s scornful Greek chorus as he uttered this reassurance. ‘I believe Natalie may have some useful insights in terms of the boutique’s working environment seeing as she offers various, um, holistic services to clients. In fact, I’ll be seeing her about that shortly.’ No need to mention that he would be dining chez Noakes. Nor that his former wingman suspected Gino Everard of having nefarious designs on the fair Natalie.

  ‘Well, if you’re sure Noakes can be trusted to remain in the background….’

  ‘Absolutely, sir…. in the engine room for this one.’

  What was it with Ordeal-by-Sidney when he found himself spouting the most awful tripe…. boiler and engine rooms!

  But the DCI seemed to buy it, appearing mollified by this depiction of Noakes as the proverbial shy violet.

  Some cordial conversation followed concerning the progress of Kate Burton whom Sidney, a fellow psychology graduate, clearly regarded as a kindred spirit. Markham suppressed a grin as he recalled one occasion when the DCI and Burton got on to the burning philosophical question of whether religious belief had been superseded by evolutionary science. Asked where he stood on heaven and hell, unconsciously parodying Jane Eyre, Noakes solemnly cautioned Sidney, ‘You wanna be careful an’ don’ ever die!’ After that, the DCI made sure to keep off Richard Dawkins and similar subjects when Markham’s lumbering number two was around.

  Having assured Sidney that DI Burton would liaise with Professor Finlayson on psychological profiling (no doubt his eager beaver colleague was already on it) and promised ‘utmost discretion’ in respect of ‘prominent people’, Markham at last salaamed himself out of the office. A brief exchange with the current dragon who guarded Sidney’s domain – an intimidatingly efficient woman who, like the DCI, had shed few tears at Noakes’s departure – and he was free.

  Right, time to tackle Danielle Rigsby over at the Gazette. He’d take Doyle along for that – see what effect his vaunted ‘boyish charm’ would have on a cynical hack. Then Doyle and Carruthers could sit in on the interviews with Joanna Osborne and Jamie O’Neill. Meanwhile, Burton could check out background information on the TV people once she and Carruthers had processed Everard’s flat in Dunbabin Mews. He considered it unlikely that Everard had been murdered for anything to do with “creative differences”, but the television pilot was another element in the mix.

  The DI’s spirits lifted at a successful outcome (more or less) to his meeting with Sidney who had finally stopped telegraphing clumsy sympathy for the split with Olivia. Any more of those comments about Markham looking ‘peaky’ (cringe), or unsubtle reminders that ‘his door was always open’ (pass the sick bucket), and it wouldn’t just be Noakesy cashing in his chips!

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

 

Danielle Rigsby at the Gazette seemed cheerfully unconcerned about featuring on their list of suspects. A chunky woman with shaggy blonde perm and big jam-jar glasses, she clearly didn’t give two hoots about her appearance, sporting mismatched sweatshirt and baggy combat trousers reminiscent of Noakes’s pre-Rosemount wardrobe.

  Despite showing no signs of succumbing to Doyle’s ingenuous charm, she seemed easy-going and friendly, chatting affably about her early days as a cub reporter working on Marriages and Deaths.

  ‘Cue major hysterics when things go wrong,’ she chuckled. ‘I remember there was a huge fuss a couple of years back over some headstone which said: As the years roll onwards, And memories grow dim, We promise that, forever, We shall remember her…. And there was this other time when Veronica Williams – you know, Bromgrove’s first female councillor of colour who did all that outreach for sex workers – died and some dickhead curate announced at her funeral that the choir would sing the old Negro Spiritual Carry me back to Old Virginity…. God, the row over that went on for ages.’ She winked at the two detectives. ‘Mind you, we got the biggest postbag ever.’

  Doyle sniggered appreciatively, but at an imperceptible sign from Markham moved on to the subject of Gino Everard.

  ‘You weren’t a fan of Mr Everard,’ the DS prompted her. ‘Criticised him in the paper, right?’

  ‘Look, the man was so OTT he practically invited us to take the piss,’ she retorted. ‘All those airs and graces and waving his hands around…. I met him at this charity bash, and he was like some condescending aristo assuring members of the great unwashed, “There’s no need to call me Sir, my good man.”’

  Doyle grinned. He’d already sorted a file of press cuttings for the guvnor to read later, greatly enjoying the journalist’s sarkiness about the ‘embourgoisement’ of Everard and the designer’s enthusiasm for tippexing his working-class antecedents.

  ‘There was no great malice in any of it,’ the journalist insisted. ‘We stayed just the right side of libel.’

  ‘What about Mr Everard’s TV pilot?’ Doyle asked silkily. ‘He threatened to sue over that piece you wrote about him being some gigolo and rumours about him plying the mums with complimentary Prosecco…. so they’d lose their inhibitions and kick off…. and it’d boost ratings.’

  ‘Look, I did a follow-up to put things right,’ she said. ‘Explained how that customer – the one who slapped the senior woman with the French surname – was on medication, which is why she lost it and –’

  ‘Turned tired and emotional,’ Doyle suggested helpfully.

  The journalist nodded vigorously. ‘Precisely. And anyway, that barney never made it into the programme.’

  ‘In fact,’ Markham interposed, ‘I have it on good authority that Mr Everard was apparently strongly averse to anything smacking of staged melodrama.’ And Carruthers’s girlfriend had said nothing about alcohol being pressed on customers, though Markham could easily imagine Everard offering fizz to favoured clients. ‘If anything, it was his deputy Franco Santini who favoured that kind of approach.’

  Danielle Rigsby’s expression was highly sceptical, as though she found it difficult to imagine Everard taking the moral high ground.

  Doyle ploughed on. ‘There was that section where you said every wedding planner in the country would be up in arms about the way he encouraged his staff to treat them like total charlatans.’

  ‘Again, I clarified that in the follow-up.’ And now Markham fancied the woman sounded distinctly nettled, her earlier friendliness evaporating. ‘I said Everard was just anxious that brides shouldn’t feel they were under pressure or at risk of their big day being hijacked.’ With a clear note of exasperation in her voice, she added, ‘To be honest, I was more interested in how Everard’s social media accounts didn’t do much to support women who struggled with their body image…. reinforced discriminatory stereotypes, that kind of thing.’

  ‘Ah yes,’ Markham interjected smoothly. ‘Your interview with Mr Shay Conteh.’

  ‘That’s right.’ Now the journalist was undeniably defensive. ‘It wasn’t a case of inciting people to go out and picket Everard’s shop or anything like that. But at different times he had been outspoken about obesity…. did that awful quote about plus-size brides being the “Buntys of Bulimia all puke-u-like and mess” …. well, him or some smart-alec PR type looking to get him some attention.’

  After they had left the Gazette’s offices, Doyle turned to Markham, ‘Strange what Carruthers said about Everard being so nice to his girlfriend…. and then hearing the journo tell us that about him taking pot shots at fat girls…. er I mean women with body problems,’ he amended hastily, well aware of Markham’s dislike of pejorative language but inwardly thinking it was getting ridiculous the way you had to police every bloody word, especially when it came to women’s issues…. Like Noakesy said, any day now they’d be talking about the pigging Peopleopause.

  ‘I seem to recall Ms Rigsby’s career stalled after all the fuss with Everard, so she never made it to senior features writer,’ Markham observed.

  ‘Yeah, it would give her a reason to hate him.’

  ‘Her and quite a few other people by the sound of it,’ the DI sighed. ‘I think this murder was an “inside job”, but we’ll need to check Everard’s customer records and look into any incidents of shoppers’ rage.’

  ‘Not to mention wedding planners’, sir.’

  ‘Indeed.’

  The list of to-dos was growing longer by the minute, Markham reflected wearily.

  ‘Okay,’ he said, ‘let’s see if Joanna Osborne and Jamie O’ Neill have anything for us.’

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

In the event, they didn’t.

  Joanna Osborne was a very pretty young woman with laughing hazel eyes and shoulder length honey-streaked hair, worn slightly long over one eye so Markham wondered how it didn’t drive her mad. However, with an inward shrug, he supposed this was the fashion nowadays and he was too old to appreciate such artful dishevelment.

  She had come straight from her job as a buyer for fashion chain Zara and was wearing a lime green crochet knit dress teamed with a blazer and trainers, a look that flattered her athletic figure. The DI was amused to note how both Doyle and Carruthers sat up straighter when they saw her.

  ‘I’m sorry Gino’s dead, of course I am,’ she said in a soft clipped tones that reminded Markham of Princess Diana’s Sloaney voice. ‘And to be murdered…. just awful.’

  The DI wasted no time getting to the heart of the matter.

  ‘You left The Confetti Club on bad terms,’ he said levelly.

  She bit her lip but answered readily enough. ‘Yes, Gino sneered on TV about my being this ready-to-wear designer – made it sound like I was some little nobody. The truth was, I’d worked with him on some couture items, only he never gave me any credit for it. And I had a couple of commissions in the pipeline from clients who’d seen my sketches…. It sounds big-headed to say so, but I think he was jealous and insecure…. And the others didn’t like me –’

  ‘Why not?’ Doyle asked, though he had a feeling as he looked at their doe-eyed interviewee that her colleagues’ reaction had to be down to jealousy too.

  ‘I think they felt I should have stayed more in the background. But the TV people wanted me in shot and I couldn’t exactly say no.’

  ‘Who’s “they”?’ Carruthers followed up. ‘Do you mean the sales team?’

  ‘Oh, pretty much everyone, I think,’ she said vaguely. ‘It was just this sense I had that they all thought I was pushing myself forward…. hogging the limelight.’

  There was something of the wide-eyed ingenue about her, Markham thought, but that didn’t mean it was necessarily false or put-on; more like a demeanour she had somehow assimilated so that it became a part of her character. She appeared to be happy and successful in her new position, admitting that while it was a sideways move away from designing, she still had her freelance work and was optimistic about her chances of breaking back into the bridal market.

  ‘Did you reckon afterwards you might’ve overreacted a bit about the TV pilot?’ Carruthers asked as she got up to leave.

  ‘Well, Gino practically bit my hand off when I gave him my resignation,’ she replied frankly. ‘Couldn’t wait to accept it.’

  ‘If she does regret how things turned out, she’s doing a good job of hiding it,’ Doyle said afterwards. ‘Plus, she seemed pretty philosophical about Everard.’

  Markham wasn’t so sure about that, with the words ‘some little nobody’ reverberating in his ear.

  Jamie O’Neill, tall, blonde and languid with well-cut features and a slight transatlantic accent, made no bones about the reason for his dismissal.

  ‘Everard said I was too slow…. let appointments overrun…. wasted too much time on chit-chat…. didn’t understand it was all about making money dah-di-dah.’

  ‘Was that why he fired you then?’ Doyle demanded bullishly.

  ‘Was it heck!’ O’Neill smiled, but to Markham his expression looked somewhat strained. ‘He just didn’t like me sweet-talking the mothers and Bridezillas…. That was supposed to be his forte…. And then after the pilot thing, some reporter talked about me being the boutique’s Prince Charming, which didn’t help.’

  Markham could well imagine how Danielle Rigsby enjoyed that little bit of mischief-making.

  ‘As for my airtime, it was a case of blink-and-you’d-miss-it,’ O’Neill continued. ‘I was smart enough to know Everard wouldn’t want me muscling in, so I tried to stay well out of the way…. And I saw the sour faces when the TV lot wanted to use Jo…. Congratulated myself on dodging a bullet…. but,’ with some bitterness, ‘the cameras caught me anyway.’

  ‘You didn’t think about taking Everard to a tribunal?’ Carruthers pressed.

  ‘I had grounds alright, but in this industry if you’re seen as a troublemaker and make waves, then you’re dead.’ An awkward laugh. ‘Sorry, not the best choice of words.’

  After O’Neill’s departure, Markham announced. ‘Right, I think I need to see this infamous TV pilot and them I’m off for a consultation with Natalie Noakes.’

  His two young subordinates shared a look that said eloquently, Rather You Than Me.

  ‘Do some more digging on Ms Osborne and Mr O’Neill,’ Markham instructed. ‘Superficially, he seems to have the more obvious grudge against Everard seeing as he’s currently out of work,’ the DI continued. Which in itself was somewhat odd given the man’s good looks. ‘But I don’t want to jump to any conclusions. The more background we have, the better…. And see if you can schedule Shay Conteh and Mark Harvison for tomorrow.’

  ‘On it, boss,’ they chorused in unison.

  Having skipped lunch, Markham found he was looking forward to getting his supper at Noakes’s.

  But first, time to immerse himself in the world of…. what had O’Neill called them? Oh yes, the Bridezillas!

4

The Fabric of Crime  

                   

Markham felt reasonably sure that supper chez Noakes didn’t normally feature a chicken liver pâté starter, Duck à l'Orange and sherry trifle, but he was nonetheless touched by the trouble Muriel had taken – as though she considered her “superior” cuisine balm for a wounded heart and guaranteed to expunge painful memories of Olivia.

  Mrs Noakes was wearing one of her fearsomely floral tea dresses, with blonde bouffant lacquered within an inch of its life. Very Margaret Thatcher, Olivia would have said.

  The two women didn’t get on, though Olivia somehow never had the heart to disabuse Noakes of his fond notion that she and his womenfolk had gradually become the best of friends.

  ‘I hate the way Muriel’s so arch with you while giving me these snide looks – as though I’m something she’s stepped in,’ was his ex’s regular plaint. ‘And there’s the way she elongates her vowels and does the whole highfalutin elocution thing whenever she sees you…. like some weird psychodrama where she’s playing Professor Higgins and Eliza Dolittle at the same time.’

  But Muriel existed in 3D for Markham in a way that she never did for Olivia…

  ‘Noakesy’s this Yorkshireman who just sticks two fingers up with one hand even as he’s forelock-tugging with the other (not that there’s too much of that),’ he had told his partner. ‘He doesn’t give a stuff about whether he’s working or middle class. But with Muriel, it’s much more complex…. I think somewhere along the line she’s developed a bad case of social anxiety…. internalised some sort of chronic class insecurity, which weirdly means she puts “upper-class” behaviour on a pedestal precisely because of its exclusivity – the fact that the likes of her don’t get to be part of it….   Then she replicates that dynamic by categorising folk as Other People and deciding whether or not they’re “respectable” –’

  ‘You mean she gets off on looking down her nose because it makes her feel better about herself,’ Olivia groused.

  ‘I’m not sure if that’s the right way to put it,’ he said. ‘It’s more that her obsession with correct behaviour gives her a chance to recalibrate the social scales in her own favour.’

  ‘Whatever goes on in that woman’s head, it’s beyond me… Whenever we visit them, it’s like some gruesome remake of Abigail’s Party.’

  Despite the memory of Olivia’s jaundiced commentary, now as he looked as Noakes’s wife, Markham somehow found her poignant. She might have internalised Respectability from her backcombed hair to the classic shoes (Sole Bliss, as worn by the Duchess of Cornwall), but he sensed that she adopted her protective camouflage of middle-class pretension to keep herself safe from being on the outside looking in. Whereas Olivia disdained this attitude as ‘small-souled petty-mindedness’, he understood and sympathised, seeing the flipside of Muriel’s snobbery and social climbing – the fear that went with it…. the lurking worry that she somehow wasn’t good enough. Markham had come to admire her resilience and pragmatism – you could almost call it gallantry – in the way she deployed “middle-classness” to keep her sense of identity and core beliefs (prejudices) intact. Listening to her over coffee and chocolate truffles (Fortnum & Mason) as she extolled the performance of Bette Davis in the previous night’s offering on Film4 (no doubt mentally reassigning the role of Jezebel to Olivia), he suspected his hostess found comfort in the reflection that even beautiful rich women occasionally hit rock bottom…. one respect at least in which that shimmering exclusivity became accessible.

  Poor, dear Gilbert, Muriel thought as she chatted brightly about Culture (receiving precious little help from her husband or Natalie), it was so obvious from the intensity of his gaze that he was starved for gracious living and some elegant conversation. Olivia Mullen with her penchant for takeaways and clever clogs intellectualising – showing off, to be honest – was not at all the right partner for a man like that. Quiet, unflashy refinement was what he required…. and she flattered herself that, blessed with so many inner resources, she knew how to provide it. Really, it was all a question of breeding, but so many people nowadays had no clue when it came to social savoir-faire. At least she would never be found wanting in that department.

  Natalie, meanwhile, felt she had never done so many eye rolls as during the course of this meal.

  Mum always got herself dressed up like a dog’s dinner whenever Gilbert Markham came calling. It was dead obvious she thought the sun shone out of his backside and was seriously chuffed he had split from Olivia.

  As for herself, well she wasn’t Olivia’s biggest fan – always felt the other woman was laughing up her sleeve at them – but she couldn’t help feeling sorry for Markham’s ex who had looked properly miserable that day when she came into The Confetti Club to pick up some brochures for a friend. Olivia had lost tons of weight – looked like a toothpick to start with – and had bags under her eyes. In fact, she looked so bad that, for the first time in their acquaintance, Natalie felt herself to have the upper hand. There were stories about her stepping out with Mathew Sullivan, the Deputy Head from Hope, but she didn’t believe it…. I mean, seriously, who’d want that nerdy long drink of water after Markham, and anyway wasn’t he supposed to be gay!

  Okay, so the DI was an older man, but he definitely still had it…. like Jeremy Irons or that bloke from X-Files with the peculiar surname…. something about the haunted eyes and that air of being a wounded dreamer….

  Muriel had banned shop talk while they were eating, on the basis that a skilled hostess never allowed conversation to become heavy or depressing, but over coffee they finally turned to the burning topic of The Confetti Club murder.

  Even Olivia had been forced to concede that Muriel, for all her love of police gossip, was invariably tight-lipped about CID investigations outside their own immediate circle. So Markham was able to discuss victim and suspects freely.

  ‘Gino Everard seems to have been a “like him or loathe him” kind of character,’ he said. ‘The ex-wife Claudia and her lawyer toyboy clearly hated his guts…. On the other hand, his PA Lucille Chilton seemed pretty upset –’

  ‘Cos she had the hots for him,’ Natalie interjected, ignoring her mother’s frown. ‘Always prancing round in skirts so short you can practically see what she’s had for breakfast.’

  Markham suppressed a smile as he recalled Natalie’s own wardrobe in her pre-Rick Jordan epoch. None so puritanical as a reformed party girl who these days preferred “nun chic” to in-your-face glamour (though the eye makeup and false eyelashes were startling as ever).

  ‘Indeed,’ he said with his trademark grave courtesy. ‘Lucille certainly struck me as having a more…. informal approach than Antonia Rambert.’ He looked enquiringly at Natalie, who was more than happy to dish the dirt on the senior sales consultant.

  ‘Oh, that one’s a real witch.’ The film talk had clearly lit a flame. ‘Have you ever seen The Devil Wears Prada?’ she asked Markham.

  He shook his head with a charming expression of regret.

  ‘Well, there’s this piece of work played by Glenn Close…. dead mean and snaky…. like Anna Wintour…. you know, the editor from Vogue?’ she added hopefully.

  ‘Right, I’m with you now,’ Markham nodded. ‘The anorexic-looking woman who always wears sunglasses even when she’s indoors?’

  ‘Yeah, that’s her…. Thinks she’s better than everyone else…. wore sunglasses to meet the Queen.’ Muriel’s lips thinned with disapproval at this. ‘And Rambert’s just the same. She really knows how to make people squirm…. Good at her job, mind…. kind of frightens customers into choosing something and ponying up.’ Clearly Natalie admired the hard-nosed side of the senior consultant. ‘Even Gino was scared of her.’

  ‘What about Franco Santini?’ Markham asked, aware of Noakes’s louring expression.

  Natalie simpered. ‘Oh, he’s such a sweetheart…. You can talk to him about anything and it’s like he’s read your mind or something.’

  Noakes’s expression darkened still further at this suggestion of Svengali-like powers, but he comforted himself by abstracting another truffle while Muriel’s attention was distracted.

  Markham hadn’t exactly received the impression that Santini was a particularly “cuddly” personality, but clearly he had some kind of charisma where women were concerned.

  ‘Franco understands the media side,’ Natalie continued, with an air of worldly wisdom that amused Markham. ‘Knows you have to give them what they want…. drama, fireworks, people falling out, that kind of thing.’ She pursed her lips. ‘Gino wasn’t happy about that, but he was starting to come round to the idea…. knew it made sense.’

  ‘What were your impressions of the junior staff?’ Markham asked.

  ‘Maria Hagan’s dead nice…. kind of motherly and cosy…. good at calming everything down if it gets stressy.’

  Ah, the Bridezilla phenomenon, Markham thought. Aloud, he asked, ‘Do you ever have men visiting the boutique?’

  ‘Nah…. It’s usually just GBFs.’

  ‘GBFs?’

  ‘Gay Best Friends,’ she translated with an air of kind forbearance.

  ‘Right.’ Markham returned to safer ground. ‘How did you find the other salespeople?’

  ‘They’re okay…. Chrissy Skelthorne and Maria pretty much stick together…. safety in numbers kind of thing.’ Grudgingly, she added, ‘Chrissy’s quite glamorous but,’ somehow Markham just knew there would be a qualification, ‘a bit up herself…. puts on airs and graces for customers…. bit OTT if you ask me.’

  ‘The backroom lad Randall Fenton didn’t have much to say for himself,’ Markham observed.

  ‘Oh, he’s nice but really shy.’ Markham could well imagine pneumatic Natalie Noakes terrifying the living daylights out of Fenton. ‘Hero-worshiped Gino…. Trailed round after him like a puppy dog.’

  It didn’t sound as though any of Everard’s employees had it in for him. ‘So, you’d say that on balance the boutique was a happy ship?’ Markham pressed Natalie.

  ‘Gino was the tops.’ Suddenly she looked woebegone. ‘Him and Franco were dead understanding about me wanting a ceremony thing…. so I could draw a line under Rick…. have closure.’

  And get the cash register ringing. But Noakes didn’t say it.

  With a wary glance at Muriel, she continued, ‘They were really keen about moving into body art.’ Her mother’s expression strongly suggested she considered ‘piercings’ an unsuitable topic for coffee and truffles. ‘Physical ornamentation,’ she amended hastily, ‘to express your personality.’

  Markham smiled warmly. ‘How very interesting, Natalie. I believe there’s a specialist module you can do as part of the university’s MA in Performance Studies. They’d probably bite your hand off if you fancied some teaching.’

  Natalie looked pleased as punch at this.

  ‘I got interested in costumes and makeup and stuff after that poisoning case at Carton Hall,’ she said. Ducking her head shyly towards Noakes, ‘Dad got me some books out of the library.’ Almost defensively, she added, ‘He knows so much about history and all that, I said he should do a degree or something.’

  Muriel also looked gratified, having considerable respect for academic study as some sort of moral enterprise, regularly boasting of Noakes’s extracurricular interests in the same way as a proud parent might flaunt their child’s achievements in the high jump.

  ‘I always felt GCSEs and A levels seemed practically designed to stop youngsters like Natalie – Talented Late Developers (Markham could hear the capital letters as Muriel said this) – from fulfilling their potential at school.’ Oddly enough, it was an observation he had heard many times from Olivia’s lips. Muriel bridled. ‘But I’ve always said you can’t beat the University of Life (more capitals).’ Her beringed hand waved as though brandishing an invisible scroll, for all the world like Neville Chamberlain returning from Munich with his piece of paper. Markham felt a strong compulsion to laugh but maintained his expression of polite complaisance.

 

  Notwithstanding his amusement, he never failed to be moved by these glimpses of Muriel’s inner life, though he knew his ex would have scoffed at the rooted prejudices that ran through her like a stick of Blackpool rock. (Mrs Noakes would not have cared for that comparison on account of its vulgarity.)

  ‘D’you reckon the TV lot will want to go ahead with something about the boutique after all of this…. the murder and everything?’ Natalie asked wistfully. She hadn’t been in the shop the day they filmed the pilot, and anyway they’d have wanted to focus on the brides and dresses. But who knew, maybe they could do a follow-up…. kind of like a tribute to Gino… with a look at the spin offs he was developing…. on the cosmetic side….

  Again, Markham felt his heartstrings plucked by the transparency.

  ‘They might well want to do a feature at some point, Natalie,’ he said, while privately reflecting that there was nothing like ghoulish notoriety for bumping up ratings. ‘I’ll be looking to see if there were any production issues, but so far there don’t appear to have been any disagreements which turned nasty.’

  ‘That Jo Osborne,’ Natalie gave a little hiss, ‘and Jamie O’Neill imagined the pilot was gonna make them into stars…. I heard the two of them were posing like mad – trying to catch the producer’s eye.’ Annoyance gave her normally pretty features a sulky, discontented look. ‘It wasn’t my day for doing treatments, but one of the girls in repairs told me all about it…. can’t say I was surprised.’

  ‘They didn’t get all that much camera time in the end, though,’ Markham said thoughtfully.

  Judging by Natalie’s expression, it wasn’t for want of trying.

  ‘I take it you found them pushy,’ he observed mildly.

  ‘And then some! Talk about thinking you’re “God’s gift” …. Franco always said Gino spoiled them and that’s why they got so conceited.’ She looked as though she was wrestling with herself whether to be indiscreet or not. Natalie being Natalie, the inner conflict lasted a matter of seconds. ‘I reckon Jamie fancied Gino but got knocked back,’ she said.

  ‘Mr O’Neill was gay?’

  ‘He didn’t come right out and say it, but you could tell.’ It was clear from the knowing air that Natalie considered her gaydar to be pretty infallible.

  ‘What about Mr Everard…. did you know about any romantic attachments…any boyfriends?’ Markham asked. He had drawn a blank on this during the interview with Danielle Rigsby, who was quick to point out that she had confined herself to hinting that Everard’s sexuality was ‘fluid’ and had never named names.

  Natalie scowled, and Muriel looked like she was sucking a lemon.

  ‘That stuff in the Gazette was a pile of crap,’ she said vehemently, the lack of any tut-tutting from Muriel eloquent testimony to the fact that mother and daughter were singing from the same hymn sheet. ‘I never saw anything like that…. I mean, the way he behaved round customers and the mums, it was obvious he was a hundred per cent straight. And anyway, if you ask me, I reckon he was so scarred from the divorce that he didn’t want to get into anything romantic for the rest of forever.’

  From the way Noakes was shuffling his feet, it was obvious he didn’t care for the subject of Gino Everard’s sexuality.  But he said nothing, preferring on such occasions to give his wife and daughter the floor.

  ‘Did you see the incident where Ms Rambert ended up getting slapped by a distraught bride who’d been plied with drink?’ Markham enquired, deftly changing the subject.

  ‘Nah.’ Natalie was clearly disappointed to have missed this Bridezilla moment. ‘But I know it wasn’t anything to do with Prosecco,’ she said smugly, having clearly been briefed by her spies on the ground. ‘The daft cow had taken too many chill pills…. So when Rambert made a snippy comment about needing to be “realistic” – cos she was three sizes too big for the look she wanted – she totally lost it…. apologised afterwards, mind you, so Rambert was able to guilt-trip her into buying something way over budget.’ Natalie clearly rather admired how the senior consultant had turned things round. ‘Gino was well upset when the Gazette ran that piece about him trying to get customers pissed.’ Ahem from Muriel, but Natalie was oblivious. ‘He only brought out the booze at christmas and new year, or if it was a customer’s birthday…. said it was all about giving people a Rolls Royce experience…. nothing to do with winding them up…… He didn’t like aggro or arguments.’

  ‘And yet he parted company with Ms Osborne and Mr O’Neill,’ Markham demurred.

  ‘She was a pathetic attention-seeker…. flounced out cos Gino didn’t make enough fuss of her. And O’Neill just couldn’t cut it. Maria Hagan said he was so laid-back he was practically horizontal – did everything in slo-mo – and it was driving everyone nuts. That’s why he had to go.’ Fiercely she added, ‘They were big-heads, the pair of them…. didn’t seem to realise it was Gino’s gig and they were fricking nobodies.’

  At this juncture, Muriel deftly removed the Pinot Grigio from Natalie’s elbow and ushered them into the ‘drawing room’ for the inevitable Richard Clayderman.

  All in all, it had been an illuminating evening, Markham reflected as he walked back to his apartment in The Sweepstakes.

  Natalie hadn’t been able to shed any light on Mark Harvison and his daughter – how her eyes had gleamed when Markham mentioned slag-gate! – but she had given him plenty to think about in relation to the other suspects. Tomorrow he and Carruthers would beard Shay Conteh at the university, and hopefully after that Mark Harvison back at the station. Then on Friday he would catch up with Noakes at Doggie Dickerson’s.boxing gym in Marsh Lane before his appointment with Gino Everard’s solicitor.

  Nothing had jumped out at him from the TV pilot, which came across as fairly anodyne – though there was the possibility of juicier segments having ended up on the cutting room floor.

  Now that Burton had inducted him into the mysteries of bridal reality TV, Markham felt he had a better appreciation of the genre, evaluating the slick superficiality of the half hour pilot as typical of the desired formula for such programmes. He hadn’t detected any overt signs of tension amongst the boutique’s personnel, nor had there been any bust-ups between brides and their “entourages” aside from some fairly good-natured bickering about styles and ‘silhouettes’. There was no sign of Prosecco being quaffed, though it could have taken place off camera.

  According to Natalie, the proprietor of The Confetti Club hadn’t liked aggro or arguments. Which chimed with what Carruthers’s girlfriend Kim said about Everard’s aversion to the idea of staged catfights for TV.

  On the other hand, if Kim was right, Franco Santini wasn’t against the idea of engineering displays of temperament on the basis that it was good box-office….

  When it came to the file of press cuttings assembled by Doyle, again there was nothing that really stood out…. other than Danielle Rigsby’s skill when it came to sly malice….

  Suddenly tired, Markham decided to forget about bridal stores and tantrums for the time being. Hopefully tomorrow’s visit to Bromgrove University would give him and Carruthers something useful to chew on.

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

The Sports Science Centre at Bromgrove University was one of those edifices whose brutalist architecture Prince Charles must surely have had in mind when he spoke of ‘monstrous carbuncles’. So Markham thought as he and Carruthers contemplated the rhombus-shaped black steel and glass main building.

  ‘God, it’s ugly,’ Carruthers said fervently. ‘Most likely cost a fortune too.’

  The DI nodded agreement. Despite Thursday morning being mild and dry, nothing could soften the centre’s uncompromising angles. A group of sculpted figures in the main forecourt, presumably meant to depict genderless athletes, put him more in mind of Easter Island monoliths than heroic Olympians. Raised beds around the perimeter of the forecourt were conspicuously devoid of flowers, featuring shrubs whose uncompromising sturdiness was of a piece with the stark geometric complex. In front of the sculptures was a rectangular raised pool with a granite javelin thrower (at least this one being recognisably human) in the centre.

  Shay Conteh had arranged to meet them in the centre’s coffee shop on the ground floor, so the detectives duly headed in and settled themselves with two flat whites.

  Noakes had e mailed Markham some items from the Gazette, and Markham had been surprised to see that Conteh didn’t resemble his idea of an ex-boxer, being a tall thin man with light red hair and beard and features that narrowly missed being handsome due to an expression of fretful tetchiness. ‘Conteh were a featherweight,’ Noakes explained in his accompanying phone call. ‘Not plug ugly like some of the others… a good mover round the ring. Did pretty well but broke his hand which meant curtains for his career. Took A levels an' became a poster boy for the uni. Jumps on every bandwagon going. Between you an’ me, guv,’ always the prelude to something deeply derogatory, ‘he’s a sanctimonious twat…. Plus he looks jus’ like that pervy writer your Liv likes…. the one who did the Lady Chatterley book.’

  And now as Conteh made his way to their table, Markham saw what Noakes meant. The former boxer with his famished good looks undoubtedly bore a certain resemblance to DH Lawrence, though Conteh’s vaunted puritanical streak presumably ruled out extracurricular erotic high jinks.

  In conversation, however, he appeared amenable with nothing to hide, though the temperature dropped several degrees when Carruthers touched on rumours that had featured in the Gazette’s ‘Confidential Correspondent’ column.

  ‘There’s this story that Gino Everard called you a D-lister desperate to be relevant…. something about taking a mickey mouse degree at a tinpot university…. That had to have hurt, right?’ Carruthers pressed. ‘And then apparently he called you…. what was it… oh yes, a pretend male feminist spouting the liberal lefty line because it was a way to get publicity….? After that, you really cranked up the rhetoric about how designers like him were taking women back to the dark ages with their “size discrimination”.’

  Conteh didn’t rise to the bait, though there was an edge to the pleasant Northern tones as he shrugged, ‘I didn’t know the man, and the papers will say anything these days…. I just wanted to help some of the plus-size bloggers share their stuff on social media…. they saw Gino Everard as being part of the problem, frankly. And they were the ones who got the bandwagon rolling.’

  But it was Conteh whom Everard had allegedly singled out for ridicule.

  ‘What did you make of him, boss?’ Carruthers asked after Conteh terminated the conversation on the grounds that he was late for a lecture.

  ‘Self-contained, difficult to read…. no love lost and no alibi….’

  ‘Same as the rest of them,’ Carruthers groaned. Then, brightening, ‘Harvison’s bound to give us something, though, what with Everard showing his daughter up like that.’

  ‘I wouldn’t count on it, Sergeant.’ Markham’s thoughts turned to Harvison, an unattractive specimen of manhood with his broken-veined nose and thinning slicked-back hair. ‘The Harvisons went through an acrimonious divorce not long ago, so I reckon the “outrage” over his daughter was pretty much confected and a way of getting back at his ex…. The TV pilot didn’t flatter the young lady, but that’s because she’s a big girl and the camera adds around ten pounds…. Plus, the makeup was laid on with a trowel…. but it was the same with practically everyone – including Harvison’s ex-wife and half the staff.’ Markham shook his head. ‘Everard was ultra-respectful, so there were no grounds for saying the daughter was portrayed as some kind of slapper…. Now that Daddy Dearest has had time to think about it, I’m reasonably sure he’ll backpedal fast.’

  And so it transpired, Mark Harvison proving extremely keen to distance himself from everything to do with The Confetti Club, though – through all the backslapping bonhomie – Markham detected the embers of a smouldering resentment against Gino Everard. It struck him that Harvison was the kind of man who regarded the women in his family as chattels – his possessions – and that the mere notion of other men encroaching on his preserve was liable to trigger a violently irrational response. The combination of the divorce and his daughter’s nuptials – in which, by his own admission, he was accorded only a walk-on role – had clearly inspired a seething hostility to all things bridal. In addition to which, the pilot showed Gino Everard doing his usual hand-kissing troubadour-ish routine with mother and daughter in a manner bound to inflame Harvison.

  The question being, had all of this been the breeding ground for murder?

  As Markham sat in his office pondering the conundrum, Kate Burton burst through the door in a state of high agitation.

  The DI half rose.

  ‘What is it, Kate?’

  ‘There’s been another one, sir.’