CRIME IN THE COLLEGE

Prologue

 

There was something about an Oxford winter that got right into your bones, Bill Knowles told himself as he leaned gingerly against the wall at the bottom of staircase eleven in Sherwin College. The stonework was so clammy with condensation and damp that it was no wonder the students had runny noses whenever he clapped eyes on them.

  Not that too many students were left in college on that Saturday 12 December, most having made tracks as soon as term finished the previous weekend. They had that many bleeding holidays, it was a wonder they did any work at all, he reflected sourly.

   And now the sodding Projects Manager had dragged him in at the weekend to investigate dry rot. As if it couldn’t have waited till after Christmas. The wife was livid he couldn’t take her shopping at the Westgate, so he’d be in the doghouse till god knew when. The only upside was he didn’t have to face her gobby mother and sister (aka the Gruesome Twosome) and listen to them moaning on about men being a waste of space. It was a wonder to him that the poor bastards they married hadn’t done a runner long ago.

  Mind, at least the Westgate was nice and warm, he thought irritably as a rheumatic twinge made him wince. Whereas even in summer Sherwin College always felt arctic, especially the older buildings. The gawping tourists oohed and aahed about its “charm” and “character”, but as far as he was concerned you could stick all that Olde English bollocks. Give me central heating and decent carpets any day, he thought crossly, ’stead of all this mouldering heritage malarkey.

  He felt even crosser as tantalizing smells suggestive of a roast dinner wafted across the quadrangle from Hall. Looked like those coppers down for the police conference were going to have a slap-up feed after a morning banging on about firearms or statistics or whatever the hell it was they were debating today. He could feel his mouth watering at the thought.

  As for him, well he’d be lucky to get some curled-up sandwiches and cold tea knowing the skinflint Head Porter. Nothing too much trouble for the boys in blue, but it’d be slim pickings for anyone else.

  And anyway, he thought with a fresh surge of resentment, he wasn’t even sure what he was supposed to do about the dry rot. It wasn’t as if they were going to fork out for a new staircase. More like, they’d expect him to do some sort of bodge job on the cheap – shore up any dodgy timbers and make sure it wasn’t a death-trap.

  He was willing to bet the Bursar and Fellows didn’t even know about this. It was just another bright idea of snot-nosed ‘Johnny Clipboard’ desperate to impress the Principal.

  Bill sighed gustily, watching his breath spiral into the freezing air of the staircase. Trying to put off the evil hour when he would have to poke around in the exposed crawl space under the wooden staircase, he peered out into the quadrangle.

  Although it was only early afternoon, the light was already starting to fade and third quad, as it was called, was wreathed in a vaporous mist that made Bill think of ghosts and graveyards. No lights shone from any of the rooms that overlooked the courtyard, since the conference guests were accommodated mainly in second quad and would anyway now be piling into the Great Hall which formed one side of the courtyard.

  There was something unsettling about a day like this. Something about the swirling fog which made him think of childhood stories about creatures that changed their shape and size and slid along the eaves of ancient buildings before vanishing into the murk.

  Altogether it was a mournful prospect and he shivered, suddenly craving the bright lights and hubbub of the Westgate…. even the maddening inanities of his womenfolk as they bickered over Christmas bargains.

  As he stood there, the college librarian appeared on the other side of the quad and began walking towards the little alleyway that led to second quad and the Great Hall. Eerily, she looked for all the world like a sleepwalker, swimming in a milky sea as though skimming through his dreams.

  Bill felt a sudden irrational wish for snow instead of fog. Proper picture-postcard crunchy snow with the footprints of the college population etched into the white like some pristine code that only the initiated could read.

  Yeah, give me snow any day, he thought. That’s what you want before Christmas, not this nasty cotton wool stuff that gets in your lungs like you’re choking…. or drowning.

  He gave himself a shake.

  No way did he want to be stuck on this staircase once it was properly dark. Even with all these coppers around, it still felt uncanny. Better dig around that crawl space and work out what was amiss. With any luck, repairs would keep till after the holidays….

 

Twenty minutes later, Bill sank back on his haunches wiping sweat, dust and cobwebs off his face.

  He’d transferred most of the rubble to a waiting wheelbarrow, so that he could take a closer look at the wooden struts, but there remained a stubborn patch of what appeared to be debris mixed with tar and other builder’s sludge. First off, he needed to chisel off what he could with a pickaxe….

  Chiselling completed, he reached for a spade and set to with a will.

  Then suddenly recoiled.

  That’s all he needed. Some moggy or other poor animal must’ve got trapped and ended up with a barrowload of debris dumped on top….

  Only….

  As he turned over another spadeful, Bill’s bowels turned to water.

  There were too many bones for a cat or rodent.

  Despite the cold of the staircase, he suddenly felt burning hot.

  There were lots of delicate bones…. looked like they belonged to a hand…. what did they call them, phalanges or metacarpals…?

  Easy, fella, he told himself, mindful of his dicky ticker. Easy.

  With these places – centuries-old in parts – who knew what might turn up. There were prob’ly monks and peasants and whatnot buried hereabouts, just like folk had come across in other colleges.

  Deep down, though, Bill failed to convince himself. The builders were bound to have turned up anything like that – any remains – when the staircase was overhauled in 2000…. Even though it was twenty years ago, apparently the university had strict rules about that kind of thing. Mister clever dick Projects Manager had impressed it upon him from the outset, like he fancied himself George Clarke or one of them lah-di-dah archaeologist types. ‘Anything like that, Bill, everything stops and we notify the relevant authorities tout de suite.’

 Tout de fucking suite.

  That poncy phrase just about summed up why he hated the affected little git.

  But there was no getting away from it.

  Any bones couldn’t be from medieval types cos they’d have turned them in way back in 2000. And then, like as not, they’d have ended up under glass at the Reynolds Museum.

  A fine example of a displaced Tudor burial….

  He didn’t watch Time Team for nothing.

  Bill was starting to feel light-headed.

   C’mon, he urged himself. Just dig it up and chuck whatever you find in the wheelbarrow. Leave it to mister clever dick to sort out the rest.

  Thunk.

  The spade had closed on something hard and substantial.

  He steeled himself.

  What emerged from the sludge was a skull.

  Unmistakeably a human cranium.

  Afterwards, Bill couldn’t quite believe he hadn’t had a coronary right there on the spot.

  The wife had told him to sue the college. ‘They left a body down there,’ she squawked, ‘A body for you to find…. And you with your iffy heart and all.’

  An iffy heart that he never told them about.

  There was something horrible about the sightless sockets staring back at him.

  A memory came to him as he rocked back on his heels staring at it.

  His grandson excitedly yammering away about the Princes in the Tower.

  ‘They found the princes’ bones in a box, grandad. Under a staircase in the Tower of London!’

  But instinctively, he just knew this wasn’t any old monk or historical skeleton or fairy-tale nobleman he had discovered.

  This was newer.

  Thank god those coppers were on site. They could take over now.

  Unsteadily, Bill lurched to his feet and manoeuvred himself out from under the crawl space.

  Standing on the threshold of staircase eleven, he looked out into the misty quad and took a deep breath.

 

The curtain was about to rise on what became known as the Oxford College Murders. 

1

Jane Doe

 

DI Gilbert (‘Gil’) Markham found the restrained Gothic style of Sherwin college chapel very much to his taste.

  It was Sunday morning and he felt a strong inclination to linger, savouring the warmth of a shaft of sunlight which picked him out in the choir stalls as he reflected on the startling developments of the previous day.

  He had been looking forward to nothing more exciting than jam roly-poly and custard followed by a soporific address from Oxford’s divisional commander when Bill Knowles had burst into Hall with news of the grim discovery beneath staircase eleven.

  ‘Looked like the ole lard bucket were gonna keel over,’ DS George Noakes had declared afterwards with all the severity of a fellow chubster who had been put on a strict diet following the previous year’s health scare. ‘Anyway, it’s par for the course with a place like this, innit…. You’re bound to trip over skellies all over the shop with it being medieval an’ all that.’

  The DI was amused by his wingman’s assumed sang-froid, Noakes having clearly made up his mind not to be impressed by the city of dreaming spires. ‘One more for the museum,’ the DS had said comfortably, declining to be distracted from his pud. ‘“Jane Doe from Henry the Eighth’s times” or whatever. The punters’ll go gaga. Kerching!’

  But even Noakes was obliged to revise his opinion when informed that these remains were highly unlikely to be ancient, given nothing of the kind had been called in by the builders who renovated that same staircase some twenty odd years previously.

  Judging by the reaction of Markham’s boss DCI Sidney (or ‘Slimy Sid’ as he was known to the troops), one might have thought the DI had personally engineered the discovery in order to wriggle out of the ‘seminal’ session on restorative justice scheduled for that afternoon.

  ‘It’s almost as though murder follows you around,’ Sidney observed disagreeably on hearing of the find beneath the staircase where Markham had lived as a final year student.

  ‘He made it sound like you freaking well dumped them bones there yourself!’ Noakes exclaimed wrathfully. ‘Like you were doing a Doctor Crippen or summat…. when anyone’d know you had your nose in a book all the time.’

  ‘Thanks for the vote of confidence, Sergeant.’ He tried to ignore the implication that he was far too busy to have murdered anyone.

   ‘Not that I’m saying you were the murdering kind, boss.’ Too late, Noakes realized his gaffe.

  Markham grimaced. ‘When in a hole, Noakes –.’

  ‘Stop digging,’ DC Doyle and DS Kate Burton chorused in unison.

  The gangling red-haired young DC and DS Burton, the other members of Markham’s close-knit ‘gang’, were visibly delighted to be in Oxford.

  Only Noakes resolutely refused to succumb to its picturesque charms.

  But then George Noakes was a law unto himself….

  As he sat there, the DI congratulated himself on having kept Noakes out of the clutches of Sidney’s henchmen on the Retirement Plan Committee and the rubber-soled mob at the Office for Police Conduct. No mean feat given Noakes’s spectacular talent for alienating his superiors and the investigation into what had occurred at the conclusion of the Bluebell murder case. The latter was the tightest of corners, but somehow it had bound the two men even more closely together.

  Markham well knew that he and Noakes were called ‘The Odd Couple’ by CID’s resident wits, but he could not conceive of ever being able to dispense with his point man. If anything, watching his upwardly mobile contemporaries greasing away to Sidney and the top brass at this conference made him all the more appreciative of Noakes’s unvarnished authenticity, even if his political incorrectness made life decidedly tricky at times.

  ‘Can’t you rein the man in, Markham,’ was Sidney’s never-ending complaint. ‘He gives an appalling impression of service values.’

  Noakes didn’t give a flying fajita for ‘service values’, but he never misstepped when it came to comforting the anonymous victims of murder or making ‘toerags’ squirm once they were in his sights.

  Moreover, the DS was instinctively simpatico to his legendarily chilly and fastidious boss, somehow taking in Markham’s unuttered past as a victim of childhood abuse without anything explicit on the subject having ever passed between them.

  Added to all of this – and Markham’s lips quirked at the incongruity – his teacher girlfriend Olivia Mullen was a staunch adherent of Noakes, revelling in his sergeant’s subversiveness and touched by his devotion to ‘the guvnor’. She was just about the only person able to get away with teasing the old warhorse – certainly the only one able to dispel any grouchiness.

  The thing was, for all Noakes’s run-to-seed slobbishness – the salt and pepper thatch that  never would lie down along with the hangdog features, paunchiness and shockingly bad dress sense –  he had a romantic, almost poetic, chord in his nature which vibrated to Olivia’s lightest touch. Hugely admiring of her willowy ethereal looks and long red hair, he confided to Markham that she put him in mind of ‘them witches in picture books’ (a typically mixed compliment, but Markham got the gist) and never objected when she discoursed on books and poetry on the basis that ‘her voice was like music or a choir doing one of them oratorio thingies’.

  These troubadourish tendencies did not go down well with Muriel Noakes, the sergeant’s snobbish overbearing wife who had a soft spot for ‘Gilbert’ Markham (‘such a charmer and so reliant on George’) but little time for his ditzy partner with the bohemian hair and clothes.

  It was a wonder to many back home in Bromgrove how Noakes and his ‘missus’ had ever ended up together, but Markham knew that whatever the truth of the matter his DS was bound to Muriel by ropes of steel. They were regulars on the ballroom dancing circuit – ‘poetry in motion’ was one surprising description of the stumpy policeman and his Bet Lynch lookalike wife – and Noakes was fiercely protective of Muriel and their daughter Natalie. When Noakes found out during the Bluebell case that Natalie was almost certainly not his biological daughter but the result of Muriel’s teenage indiscretion, he went temporarily off the rails, almost precipitating a crisis in his relationship with Markham. But the two detectives had weathered the storm and come out the other side, though Markham had no idea whether Noakes had made a clean breast of everything to the women in his life. Somehow, he suspected family Omertà had won the day, so he was destined never to have an answer to that question.

  Initially, Kate Burton and Noakes had been as prickly as a pair of cacti. A psychology graduate, she was earnest, quietly tenacious and according to Noakes ‘an all-round smarty pants’. Her parents had opposed a career in the force (‘no job for a woman’), but she had won them round to the point where they were inordinately proud of her success. Earmarked for great things, she had appeared to waver after splitting from her fiancé in the fraud squad and deferred taking her inspector’s exams.

  It was an open secret in CID that she carried a torch for Markham, but the DI had been incredulous when Noakes finally took it upon himself to deliver a few home truths, dismissing it as an over-developed sense of respect for her boss. ‘Nah guv, you c’n take it from me, she’s got it bad,’ the DS replied, before adding graciously, ‘but I’ll give her this, the lass never made a tit of herself down the pub or owt like that.’ Seeing as Burton was virtually teetotal, a sozzled meltdown was unlikely to occur, but this was small comfort to Markham in the circumstances and he vowed to raise the subject of her promotion again once the conference was over.

  At least she and Noakes had now shaken down well together, each valuing the other’s loyalty and dedication. Burton no longer flinched at her colleague’s breaches of PC good taste while he refrained from excessive eye rolls when she ‘went off on one’, as in sharing her prodigious knowledge about various branches of psychology (‘the world and everything’). Indeed, a shared enthusiasm for true crime documentaries had even resulted in some amicable fact-sharing that had proved useful in recent investigations. Noakes had mellowed to the point that he was almost fatherly towards his eager beaver colleague while she had come to appreciate the nonconformist integrity that ran through him like a stick of rock.  Markham suspected Burton still occasionally resented the intimacy he shared with Noakes, but these days she was less touchy about being a third wheel.

  DC Doyle, for all his youth, was what Markham thought of as a Steady Eddie. Now he had obtained that criminal law degree and passed his sergeant’s exams, the promotion board beckoned so he would doubtless be moving to pastures new in due course. In the meantime, he was a valued member of the unit. Gangling, ginger-haired and personable, he was affectionately irreverent towards Noakes, who was his invariable confidant when it came to matters of the heart (since for some reason the course of true love never did run smooth) and the prospects of their beloved Bromgrove Rovers.

  Yes, Markham was highly satisfied with his little band whose loyalty was unquestioned (despite Sidney’s best efforts) and regarded it as a stroke of good fortune that they were all at the conference together.

  His gaze drifted to the black-and-white chequerboard tiling of the chapel floor. Something about the symmetry of its patterns soothed him and he lingered on, enjoying the sunlight and the peace.

  As houses of God went, this little chapel was unpretentious and almost cosy.

  His eyes wandered to the far end where an oak screen depicted the twelve apostles posing stiffly in choir stalls much like the one in which he was sitting. Was it his imagination, or did Judas Iscariot – carrying the money purse with its thirty pieces of silver – bear more than a passing resemblance to DCI Sidney?

  Above the screen an arched stained-glass window depicted a repentant Mary Magdalene, clad in ruby red, raptly contemplating a skull in the depths of a turquoise cavern. Markham had been fond of this image from his student days and knew it was a traditional memento mori – as emphasized by the faded flowers and miniature coffin in the background  – but the discovery of that skeleton beneath staircase eleven gave it a new and poignant resonance.

  Was their victim a woman, he wondered. The Magdalene’s eyes seemed to look sorrowfully out of the stained-glass image as though to say ‘Yes’.

  He recalled the muttered commentary of the pathologist who attended the scene yesterday afternoon. ‘Gracile bones…. circular pelvic inlet…. most likely female…. all a bit jumbled.’ Markham had shuddered at that. ‘I’ll confirm after the PM.’

  Now he thought how much he missed Doug ‘Dimples’ Davidson, their usual pathologist back in Bromgrove, the compassionate eyes belying his bluff farmer’s appearance. ‘Dimples wouldn’t have talked about them bones like they were a bleeding Rubik’s cube,’ as Noakes put it, not caring at all whether he was overheard.

  Beneath the main window were three smaller arches depicting Saint George and the dragon. Something about the earnest gaze of the wimple-clad princess the saint was supposed to have rescued reminded Markham of Kate Burton….

  Burton, of course, would be waiting impatiently in the Bursar’s office behind the Porter’s Lodge, itching to get on with it but reluctant to seem too eager.

  He understood that mixture of emotions only too well… the adrenalin rush of a murder investigation which was also somehow shameful and vampiric because it derived from the extinction of a fellow human being. As though they were feasting on dead men’s bones.

  His gaze wandered back to the Magdalene and that sightless skull.

  Do not store up treasures on earth, where moth and rust destroy, but rather lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven.

  An unwelcome picture of those neglected remains, cobwebbed over with spiders’ webs and runnelled by insect larvae and god knows what else, suddenly rose up before him. But he forced it down. Whoever their victim was, he or most likely she was long past their pain. Nothing could hurt them further.

  All that remained was to seek justice.

  His mouth twitched at the thought that Noakes and Doyle were probably tucking into a full English in Hall while Kate Burton was forced to cool her heals in the Bursar’s office. Personally, he couldn’t face a grease-fest with the rest of them, preferring to gather himself in the seclusion of the college chapel.

  Sidney, gimlet-eyed, had reluctantly acceded to the Principal’s suggestion that ‘one of their own’ take over the investigation. Markham hadn’t warmed to Sir Paul Mirfleet with his bombast and drinker’s complexion, but he jumped at the offer to solve the mystery of staircase eleven. No doubt there would be ‘territorial’ issues with Thames Valley Police, but they’d cross that bridge when they came to it. Superintendent Ian Charleson from St Aldates was due to see them, so hopefully any ruffled feathers could be smoothed down…. assuming Noakes didn’t trample all over local sensibilities with his size twelves.

  The Bursar Philip Greaves had combined maximum efficiency with minimal warmth towards the DI and his team. Another florid specimen with pinched features, he aped the mannerisms of the Principal in a way that Markham found faintly nauseating. But at least he had temporarily made over his own rooms behind the porter’s lodge for their convenience. ‘Prob’ly bugged ’em,’ Noakes observed with cheerful insouciance. ‘That fella looks like a grade A snoop.’ Privately, he resolved to do a sweep before installing full incident room facilities.

  The minutes ticked by and yet Markham still could not tear himself away….

  His mind travelled back in time to those halcyon student days which had seemed then to stretch out hazily to infinity.

  The framed group pictures of students in full fig (sub fusc academic dress) that lined the oak panelled corridor outside the chapel made him feel sad. So much starry-eyed anticipation. So many hopes and dreams…. And then the bitter-sweet awakening once the wine of life was drunk, leaving only the dregs….

  Nostalgia ain’t what it used to be, he told himself wryly looking slowly round the chapel.

  The sun had now moved round to the plain-leaded lancet windows that lined both sides of the choir leaving his stall in shadow.

  Markham shivered, as though a chilly finger had touched him, admonishing him for wasting time when there was a murderer to catch.

  But was this murder, he asked himself.

  And if so, whose were the bones interred in the sludge under that staircase…. such a desolate resting place. Even more horrible when one thought of all the students pounding up and down stairs, blithely unaware of the grave site beneath their feet.

  His eyes returned to the enigmatic Magdalene in her strange subterranean lait. The ruby red mantle had somehow lost its lustre, seeming to pool about her feet like an upswell of blood…. Unconstrained. Unstoppable.

  Somehow, he was unable to look away.

  Above her in a rose window, God the Father extended his arms wide as though to welcome all lost sheep into the pen.

  But there was a wolf in the sheepfold,

  And Markham was determined to find him.

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

‘Cushty!’

  As far as Noakes was concerned, the Bursar’s rooms were a distinct improvement on the usual accommodation available for CID investigations.

  ‘He’s got one of them George Clooney Nespresso machines an’ all…. Jammy bastard.’

  Kate Burton was clearly embarrassed by these Del Boy raptures, but Doyle just grinned. ‘We’re in the wrong job, sarge. Should have worked harder at school, then we’d be the ones with the swank office.’

  The DS grunted and continued exploring the Bursar’s oak-panelled domain, clumping through the Axminster-carpeted rooms – study and tastefully appointed bedroom – like it was an episode of Through the Keyhole, thought Burton despairingly as she waited for him to complete his inspection.

  ‘Flat screen telly…. drinks cabinet an’ fridge an’ two computers…. Talk about a gravy train!’ Noakes plonked himself onto the chesterfield. ‘Hey, d’you think he’s got his fingers in the till? Cos this set-up’s worth a fortune.’

  ‘They pay vice-Chancellors and all the senior people top whack.’ Doyle pursed his lips and spoke with all the authority of a new-minted BA Law (2:2). ‘Bursar at a place like this…. He’s got to be on a hefty salary.’

  ‘Plus there’ll be perks and benefits,’ Burton added thoughtfully, looking round at the Old Masters and the vast mahogany desk. ‘And they probably do stuff in the private sector.’

  Nice work if you can get it.

  ‘You c’n tell Greaves is a boozer,’ Noakes declared sanctimoniously. ‘Ain’t seen a nose like that since ole Basher went on the batter at his leaving do.’

  Recalling the legendary DCI ‘Basher’ Briggs, Burton privately thought CID was well rid but forced a strained smile.

  ‘Mr Greaves has certainly done well for himself judging by this lot,’ she said. ‘Bursar’s a responsible position, though, so he must be up to the job…. And anyway, there’s always a drinking culture in places like this. They’re stuck in a time warp…. Brideshead Revisited.’ The censorious sniff with which this last was uttered suggested Burton’s views on Oxbridge leaned towards the puritanical.

  ‘Brideshead Revisited.’ Noakes mulled it over. ‘Oh yeah, I remember now…. poofters carting teddy bears round the place an’ speaking in daft voices.’

  Burton looked as though she regretted having ever mentioned the cult classic, but the DI’s arrival mercifully prevented further discussion.

  The lean dark face smiled at them. But Markham’s eyes were sad.

  ‘I’ve just had a call from the pathologist,’ he said.

  ‘Oh yeah, the Jigsaw Man.’ Noakes was distinctly unenthusiastic. ‘Fitted all the pieces together has he?’

  ‘Indeed he has, Sergeant.’ The DI’s gaze wandered briefly to an exquisite Madonna and Child which had the chiaroscuro hues of a valuable antique on loan from the college vaults. Then he looked steadily at the team.

  ‘Our victim is a young woman, around twenty years old…. She was five months pregnant…. The bones of the foetus had become displaced from the pelvis, but there’s no doubt about it now.’

  ‘Poor lass,’ Noakes said gruffly, clearing his throat. ‘Pregnant…. an’ chucked out with the rubbish.’

  Burton’s throat contracted as she thought of the corpse disappearing beneath cement and slurry, slowly digested to a skeleton…. fermenting underground.

  Doyle looked sick. ‘Did the doc say how she died, sir?’

  ‘Strangulation…. Apparently there was enough left to identify a hyoid fracture.’

  Burton found her voice.

  ‘Is there an ID, boss?’

  ‘We’re waiting on official confirmation from dental records, but there’s a strong possibility it’s a third-year English student who disappeared from Sherwin during her final year…. Catriona Rowlands…. She was never traced.’

  ‘How come she jus’ disappeared, guv.’ Noakes got up from the chesterfield and began prowling the deep pile crimson carpet. ‘I mean, a girl that age…. an’ a student here at Posh Central….  They musta had some idea.’ He kicked a thin-legged side table by way of relieving his feelings. ‘An’ her in the family way too…. jus’ don’ make any sense….’

  For all that it was a bright winter morning, the Bursar’s quarters seemed suddenly drained of light as though the air had somehow turned grey.

  The four detectives contemplated each other, pinch-faced.

  ‘Sit down, Noakesy. It’s making me sea-sick watching you wear out that carpet,’ the DI said finally.

  Moodily, the DS complied, taking a savage satisfaction in the fact that muck from his brothel creepers had transferred itself to the sofa’s chintz valance.

  ‘They pulled out all the stops,’ Markham continued.

  ‘Not if they didn’t check under that bloody staircase they didn’t,’ Noakes burst out mutinously.

  ‘On the face of it there was no reason to reopen the earthworks,’ the DI said levelly. ‘The builders working on staircase eleven were adamant no-one unauthorized had been down there…. the site foreman was positive about it at the time….’

  ‘“At the time”?’ Burton had picked up on the ambiguity. ‘Does that mean he got it wrong, sir?’

  ‘I’ve got a hunch that site security wasn’t all it was cracked up to be…. The firm in question was McMaster & Son…. they eventually went bankrupt after settling various claims involving breaches of health and safety.’

  ‘So they freaking lied.’ Noakes’s piggy eyes had narrowed to suspicious slits.

  ‘It’s a distinct possibility,’ the DI agreed. ‘But at the time McMaster had a good reputation …. There were contracts with several of the colleges…And besides, the last confirmed sighting of Ms Rowlands was in Cornmarket Street…. Several students placed her there.’

  ‘What about the family?’ Doyle asked. ‘Did they have any idea she might be pregnant?’

  ‘Her mother died while she was still at school,’ Markham replied. ‘Father remarried when she was in the sixth form…. I believe there’s a stepmother and half-sister….’

  Doyle digested this. ‘What about the dad…. is he still around?’

  ‘He died five years ago,’ the DI informed them heavily. ‘Ms Rowlands’s stepmother and half-sister are out of the country…. planning to spend Christmas in Lech –.’

  ‘What’s over there then?’ Noakes asked belligerently.

  ‘It’s an Austrian ski resort,’ the DI explained. ‘But they’ll be travelling home as soon as it can be arranged. And to answer your original question, Constable, according to the case files, the family had no idea why she went missing…. certainly no notion that she was pregnant.’

  It was clear that the DI meant to get a jump on the local police, Burton thought approvingly.

  Then a thought occurred to her.

  ‘Did you ever meet Ms Rowlands…. I mean with its being your old college, sir?’

  ‘The way Hissing Sid was carrying on yesterday, it sounded like he’s got you in the frame for this one, guv,’ Noakes observed amiably.

  ‘Very reassuring, Sergeant,’ came the dry response.

  Markham smiled at Burton. ‘We were in the same year, Kate, but oddly enough I don’t have any vivid recollection of her…. Strange, because the English students were a pretty flamboyant crowd.’ He reached into the pocket of his immaculately tailored pinstripe and produced a photograph.

  ‘The Bursar was kind enough to give me this,’ he said. ‘Pass it round.’

  ‘She was very pretty,’ Burton commented once they had done so. ‘So petite and dainty.’

  ‘Must be Mediterranean blood somewhere,’ Doyle said thoughtfully. ‘Or maybe South American…. Brazilian perhaps with those big dark eyes….’

  ‘Nice-looking lass,’ was Noakes’s more prosaic verdict. His stubby forefinger stroked the picture. ‘What a chuffing waste.’ Then almost angrily, as was always the case whenever the DS felt he had been betrayed into showing his emotions, ‘What about boyfriends?  With a stunner like that…. there had to be some bloke sniffing around.’

  Something flared at the back of his eyes causing Markham to wonder if his wingman was remembering Muriel and Natalie, each of them wronged by a man….

  ‘Ms Rowlands was on the rebound at the time when she was last seen,’ he said.

  ‘You’re kidding me.’ Doyle was incredulous. ‘You mean someone knocked her back?’

  ‘She and her boyfriend had split up a month or so before she went missing,’ the DI informed them before adding, ‘Actually, he’s a Fellow here.’

  ‘The boyfriend?’ This sounded promising to Noakes.

  ‘Dr Jon Warrender…. Yes, he’s a senior Research Fellow and Tutor in Classics.’

  ‘Bully for him,’ Noakes grunted. ‘Where was he when the lass went missing?’

  ‘A JCR event in the college bar.’

  ‘That’s the Junior Common Room,’ Burton translated.

  ‘Off his face then.’ Noakes never had much time for acronyms.

  ‘Along with most of his peers,’ Markham said. ‘It was June, so everyone was whooping it up after final exams. An all-nighter.’

  Somehow Burton couldn’t envisage her elegant boss ‘whooping it up’. Dinner for two at an expensive restaurant was more his style, she thought wistfully.

  ‘If they were partying, he coulda snuck off an’ done the dirty without anyone clocking him then.’ It was obvious Noakes liked Warrender as their prime suspect.

  ‘There was never anything to tie him to Ms Rowlands’s disappearance, Noakes.’

  Burton noted the formality of ‘Ms Rowlands’. The DI was always mindful of victims’ dignity and woe betide any subordinate who so far forgot themselves as to engage in gallows humour.

  ‘She had other boyfriends,’ Markham continued, ‘but nothing to explain why she suddenly walked away from her life.’ He sighed, ‘There was speculation that maybe she had a breakdown or something traumatic happened…. maybe an amnesic episode…. or possibly she didn’t want to be found….’

  ‘You mean they thought she might have done a Reggie Perrin…. faked her own death?’ Doyle sounded bemused.

  ‘Well, that was one line of thought…. Even so, the case went nowhere.’ The DI ran a hand through the curling black hair that, did he but know it, had led to civilian typists back at Bromgrove Station christening him their ‘studmuffin of the month’.

  ‘Whass the plan, guv?’ Noakes was growing impatient. Time to feel a few collars as far as he was concerned, and the sooner the better.

  The DI glanced at his watch.

  ‘I’ve asked the Bursar and Chaplain to join us,’ he said. ‘They’ll be along any minute.’

  ‘What about the local Plod?’ Noakes looked as if he relished the idea of a face-off.

  ‘Sidney’s squaring it with them. We’ll be meeting with Superintendent Charleson tomorrow morning, Noakes…. Diplomacy’s the order of the day.’

  Good luck with that, Burton said to herself, her mind roving over Noakes’s hair-raising track record with officialdom.

  Catching Markham’s eye, she blushed. Something about his expression suggested he knew exactly what she was thinking.

  ‘You and Doyle will be setting up our incident room, Kate.’

  ‘In here, sir?’ It sounded as if she couldn’t believe her luck.

  ‘Well, if we can manage to sweet talk the Bursar…. and convince him we’re house-trained.’

  Her face fell as she looked at Noakes, but Kate Burton was nothing if not determined.

  ‘I’m on it, sir,’ she said firmly.

  There was a discreet rap at the door.

  The advance party had arrived.

2

Into Focus

 

Sunday evening found Markham and Olivia in his temporary accommodation at Sherwin College on the top floor of staircase one overlooking first quad.

  All was quiet outside save for the occasional hollow echo of footsteps on the flags which bordered Sherwin’s immaculate lawn. Now and again the glass of the quaint diamond-paned windows rattled as a gull or curlew swung by, making a diversion on its flight home to Port Meadow for the night. The swirling vapour of a typical dank Oxford evening muffled everything, only the old-fashioned college lampposts illuminating the murk in little pools of yellow light. As she stood looking down into the courtyard, Olivia experienced something of the same shuddering distaste Bill Knowles had felt the previous evening when poking around the entrails of staircase eleven.

  Was it just good old-fashioned jealousy that prevented her from succumbing to Oxford’s winter spell, she wondered…? Resentment that she’d been denied the ‘Oxbridge experience’ and consigned to an undistinguished red brick university (her schoolteachers were strong on ‘knowing your limitations’ and ‘not getting above yourself’) ….?

  No, that wasn’t it she concluded…. More a case of there being something eerie about these old buildings blotched and stained with damp as though humidity was breaking out on them like a disease. And then there was the nonstop tolling of bells which at this time of year she found more dirge-like than joyful, like some sort of sinister sostenuto that she couldn’t switch off. So strong was this funereal impression that she found herself remembering the steel girders and plate glass of Bromgrove University with something almost like affection….

  ‘Penny for them, Liv?’ her lover enquired.

  She shrugged off her morbid fancies.

  ‘Who’ve they booted out to make room for you, then?’

  ‘One of the Junior Fellows…. History tutor…. She’s headed back to the States for Christmas, so,’ he gestured expansively, ‘here we are!’

  ‘Hmm…. a kitchenette…. and your own en suite too.’ She laughed. ‘I presume the others have to share.’

  ‘Oh, Burton and Doyle are up for the authentic student experience…. draughty stone staircases, wind whistling round the eaves, wonky floors, vaulted ceilings –’

  ‘Squeaky beds.’

  ‘That too. Needless to say, Noakes was distinctly underwhelmed, particularly with there being no television.’

  ‘He can always catch up with the footie in the Frog and Firkin next door…. They’ve got an obscenely large plasma TV in there.’

  ‘Yes, I believe he and Doyle have already scoped out the local amenities.’

  Something in her lover’s tone told Olivia that he didn’t anticipate there being much opportunity for recreation.

  ‘And then there’s the ancient plumbing,’ Markham added with an air of resignation. ‘That’s another gripe. Plus I don’t think Noakesy’s keen on queuing for the bathroom in his skivvies…. kept grumbling that it was like being back in the section house.’

  ‘Let’s hope Muriel packed a bathrobe…. Otherwise the scouts may wish to avert their eyes!’

  Chuckling at the thought of the college servants’ likely reaction to Noakes, she asked,

  ‘So what does George make of the feudal set-up…. scouts tugging their forelock and all that jazz?’ she asked. ‘I’d have thought it was a bit too Downton Abbey for his liking.’

  ‘Oh, he got on like a house on fire with Ernie Braithwaite.’

  She raised an eyebrow.

  ‘That’s the old chap looking after his staircase…. Longest serving college retainer, apparently…. served in the same regiment as Noakes’s cousin Jack, so no problems there.’

  Olivia hesitated.

  ‘Was Ernie around when this poor girl went missing?’

  ‘Yes…. He was Catriona’s scout at the time.  Seemed badly cut up about her murder.’

  ‘I suppose it was murder, Gil?’ There was a pleading note in his lover’s voice.

  ‘No doubt about it, sweetheart. But look,’ he steered her across to one of two comfortable wingback tartan armchairs in front of the cosily glowing electric fire where a tray of coffee and biscuits was waiting. ‘Tell me about your day first and then I’ll bring you up to speed on the case.’

  She allowed herself to be ensconced in an armchair.

  ‘Blimey that feels good,’ she sighed. ‘Bit of a cushy billet this.’ 

  Her expression suggested the accommodation at Rochford College, where she was attending a residential course, was somewhat lacking by comparison.

  Markham poured the coffee. ‘What’s Rochford like?’

  ‘Oh, I still can’t quite believe I wangled this creative writing gig.’

  ‘Always good to have Mat Sullivan on your side,’ he observed.

  Mathew Sullivan, the Deputy Head at Hope Academy in Bromgrove where Olivia taught English, was an old friend who had been caught up in a particularly gruesome investigation at the school. It was a case that had strained old loyalties, but they somehow came through unscathed and were if anything even closer because of it.

  ‘Well, you know how passionate he is about Bright Young Things,’ she said referring to the initiative which linked Oxford colleges with teachers in North-West inner-city schools. ‘Really sold it to SLT and the governors.’ A reminiscent giggle. ‘Laid it on a bit thick actually…. made me sound like a cross between JK Rowlng and Hans Christian Anderson by the time he’d finished.’

  ‘Better watch out…. They’ll have you doing all the literacy initiatives if you’re not careful.’

  She nibbled delicately on a chocolate Florentine (god, even the biscuits were exclusive).

  ‘It’d almost be worth it if I manage to go on courses like this now and again.’

  ‘Good tutors then?’

  ‘Fantastic. It’s a bit shy-making having to read your own stuff out, but there’s a great buzz.’

  ‘Do I get to see any of the magnum opus?’ Markham asked slyly.

  ‘Not till I’m on the second draft,’ was the solemn reply. ‘I haven’t quite found my groove yet.’

  He smothered a smile.

  ‘What’s the accommodation like?’

  ‘Standard student set-up, but it’s comfortable enough…. Certainly not as…. picturesque as Sherwin.’ She hesitated. ‘Not quite so Fall of the House of Usher.’

  ‘You think this place is creepy?’ He was surprised.

  ‘You’ve got to admit there’s something foreboding about it at this time of year…. The walls are so grey and, well, damp…. Like they’re sweating witch-ointment or something.’

  ‘Rochford’s pretty historic too,’ he countered thinking of the college’s gracious mellow buildings in the Queen Anne style.

  ‘Yes, but somehow it feels benign…. reassuring…. like a favourite great aunt…. Whereas Sherwin….’

  Despite himself, he was amused.

  ‘Not everyone’s favourite relative then.’

  ‘Not mine.’ She looked somewhat shamefaced. ‘God, I’m coming over all “arty-farty” aren’t I?’ She looked thoughtfully towards the windows which, their heavy damask curtains drawn back, disclosed only the starless inky night. ‘It must be that medieval vibe and all the stone…. Makes me feel like Richard Crookback’s lurking behind the ramparts somewhere…. waiting to slither out and wreak evil.’

  Despite the warmth of the fire, Markham gave a reflexive shiver.

  Olivia was instantly stricken with compunction.

  ‘Oh Gil, I’m sorry. The last thing you want is me bringing that up….’

  He forced a smile, although her reference to history’s most famous Wicked Uncle was an unwelcome reminder of the art gallery murders in which the legend of the Plantagenet king had recurred like a particularly horrible leitmotif. Markham had lost a friend during that case, afterwards declaring to Olivia that it felt as though the entire investigation lay under a curse.

  ‘All behind us, sweetheart,’ he said lightly. ‘Actually, the workman who found Catriona’s remains under staircase eleven felt much the same as you…. He was totally freaked out because apparently his grandsons had been doing the Princes in the Tower at school and couldn’t stop talking about bones turning up under staircases.’

  Now it was her turn to shiver.

  ‘How awful,’ she said with feeling. ‘And pregnant too…. the poor, frightened girl.’

  ‘She disappeared in 2000 …. last sighted on Cornmarket at the end of finals week.’

  ‘The height of summer,’ she ruminated. ‘Everyone demob happy because the exams were over.’

  ‘Demob happy…. Yes, that’s a good way of putting it.’ Markham’s brows furrowed. ‘All punch-drunk with relief and excitement…. so no-one noticed when Catriona slipped out of focus…. into the shadows.’

  I’m going to refocus the picture somehow, he vowed. Recall her to life.

  ‘And then she ended up under the cement….’ Olivia’s eyes wandered to the window.

  ‘Her killer took advantage of a restoration project.’ There was a marked edge to Markham’s tone. ‘The contractors were cowboys by the look of things…. which made it easy to conceal a corpse. The killer just slid it into the tar pit and shovelled asphalt on top.’ His mouth twisted. ‘It seems there were wheelbarrows of the stuff and no security to speak of. Perfect for the killer’s very own DIY SOS.’

  ‘And that was it?’ Olivia sounded disbelieving. ‘She was just written off as a missing person….? And nobody thought to check out building sites….  What were they playing at?’

  ‘There was an investigation, Liv,’ he sighed. ‘Though I grant you, things would be done differently these days…. It’s easy to condemn with the benefit of hindsight, but when Catriona went missing there were works going on all across the city so nobody thought of excavating under college staircases, particularly not when the contractors said everything was kosher.’

  She nodded slowly. ‘Like the Madeleine McCann investigation, I suppose…. The police over there in Portugal chasing their tails and no-one bothering to check out construction trenches even though half the holiday resort was being dug up.’

  ‘Correct.’

  ‘And all the while Catriona’s killer must’ve been watching and gloating…. like one of those sneaky little gargoyles on that parapet outside.’ Intently, she contemplated the glowing bars of the electric fire. ‘D’you think whoever did it is still here, Gil? In college?’

  ‘We’re proceeding on that basis…. The killer would have had the worry of knowing that the grave site might one day be uncovered. Plus,’ he added sombrely as though the words were dragged out of him, ‘I think it’s likely they felt somehow possessive of Catriona and wanted to keep her close…. keep an eye on her, so to speak.’

  ‘God, you make it sound like the Dennis Nilsen spree…. What did he call it… “killing for company”?’

  More like the Bluebell murders, Markham thought grimly, recalling how that particular investigation had ended.

  Aloud he said, ‘It’s just a hunch, Liv…. I’ve got nothing to go on except gut instinct.’

  At this, Olivia narrowed her eyes in ferrety suspicion and simulated DCI Sidney’s unpleasantly strident honk.

  ‘Be wary of flair, Markham. Good solid legwork…. that’s what’s needed…. None of your Flash Harry notions.’

  It was an uncannily accurate impersonation and Markham felt his spirits lift.

  ‘You should’ve seen Sidney’s face when the Principal said he wanted a “Sherwin man” to run the investigation. His eczema flared up like Erysipelas and he was tugging the goatee so hard I thought it might come off.’

  ‘Ugh. I hate the way he always strokes that tufty bumfluff like he thinks it makes him some kind of sex god.’

  Markham spluttered.

  ‘Sidney…. A sex god!’

  ‘Well, only in his dreams obvs.’ She grinned roguishly. ‘Too bad all those miniskirted students with legs up to their armpits have broken up for the holidays and aren’t available to soak up his lethal charm.’

  ‘You forget Sidney’s delightful lady wife has spies everywhere,’ her lover said drily. ‘I doubt he’d risk it.’

  ‘Oh yes.’ Olivia rolled her eyes at the mention of the DCI’s Valkyrie-like spouse. ‘Didn’t Brunhilde go to St Ursula’s?’

  ‘That’s right. And firmly part of the Oxford mafia as I understand it.’

  ‘Come to think of it, her name came up when we had drinks with the Dean yesterday,’ Olivia said.

  ‘How did that go?’

  ‘Oh, he’s a nice bloke…. Peter Hart…. Teaches Classics. His wife Margaret Payne’s the Junior Dean.’

  ‘Quite the family affair,’ he observed drily.

  ‘That’s Oxford for you.’ She tried to keep resentment out of her voice. ‘The Old Boy Network alive and kicking.’

 ‘I take it they’re both Oxbridge.’

  ‘Actually they were at Sherwin together.’

  His antennae twitched.

  ‘When was that, Liv?’

  ‘They did their finals in…. let me see…. 2000.’

  ‘Which would make them contemporaries of Catriona Rowlands,’ he said slowly.

  ‘I guess so.’ She sounded troubled, reminding him of the various investigations in which she had become embroiled.

  ‘Don’t worry, I’m not going to storm Rochford and expose you as a policeman’s moll,’ he joked. ‘…. At least not just yet. But,’ he said carefully, ‘it would help to have a word with them…. perhaps later in the week.’ Markham’s voice held a question.

  ‘Fine by me.’ Olivia had recovered her equilibrium. ‘Anyone who was at Sherwin with Catriona…. well they’ve got to remember something, right?’

  ‘We were all pretty selfish at that age, Liv…. obsessed with our own petty concerns…. oblivious of the bigger picture…. failing to connect.’

  ‘Perhaps that’s what Oscar Wilde or whoever it was meant when they said youth is largely wasted on the young,’ she said shakily.

  ‘Well when it comes to Oxford’s gilded youth, I’ve no doubt of it,’ Markham agreed wryly. ‘Back then I barely registered Catriona’s disappearance,’ he added softly. ‘There was the flurry of police interest and some excitement in college…. then it was next day’s fish and chip paper.’ The dark eyes were unfathomable pools. ‘Meanwhile there were people whose lives would never be the same again.’

  Including her murderer.

  In the silence that followed, the bell in the college clocktower tolled 9 p.m..

  The lovers counted each individual stroke.

  When the city bells pealed out on the last day of Catriona Rowlands’s life, she couldn’t have known that for her peers the carillon announced the start of summer festivities – parties, balls and Pimms – while for her they heralded the approach of eternity. Olivia liked to imagine the young student caught up in a giddy whirl of post-exam euphoria, touched by no shadow of what was to come….

  A thought occurred to her.

  ‘D’you think Catriona died the same day she disappeared, Gil?’ Suddenly it felt as though the Florentine was stuck in her throat. ‘Or was she…. kept somewhere…. abused or maybe tortured?’

  ‘I think she most probably died soon after she vanished,’ he said firmly. ‘And I’m willing to bet the kill took place in Sherwin close to staircase eleven. Given the level of decomposition, the pathologist couldn’t tell us whether or not she was assaulted or raped.’

  ‘But where do you even start after all this time….’

  ‘Those living on staircase eleven and the other staircases in third quad on the date Catriona disappeared,’ he said.

  ‘Was there a boyfriend?’

  ‘Yes, though they’d split up…. Dr Jon Warrender…. He’s a Fellow here.’

  Her expression said it all. Nepotism again.

  ‘I imagine as far as George is concerned it’s pretty much all sewn up then.’

  Markham gave a mirthless laugh.

  ‘There are a number of contenders for the top spot, Liv…. Ernie Braithwaite was very illuminating on the subject.’

  ‘Ernie…. Oh right, the scout…. Noakes’s new bestie.’

  ‘The very same. He said Catriona was a popular girl and there was at least one other serious boyfriend –’

  Olivia pulled a droll face. ‘Don’t tell me…. He works here too.’

  ‘As a matter of fact, yes…. Name of Mark Drexler…. Modern Languages don.’ Markham smiled reminiscently. ‘You could tell Ernie thought he was an arrogant tosspot.’

  She smiled. ‘Did he say that or are you quoting George?’

  ‘Let’s just say Noakesy was at hand to translate.’

  ‘So, two ex-boyfriends are in the frame and now a “Sherwin man” is going to head up the investigation. The whole thing’s positively incestuous,’ she declared, sinking back into her armchair.

  ‘It gets better, Liv.’

  Deliberately, he poured them some more coffee enjoying her reaction.

  ‘Come on, Gil, the suspense is killing me.’

  ‘Well, the Bursar was an undergraduate here too.’

  ‘At the same time as Catriona?’

  ‘Correct.’

  ‘Wow.’ She sipped her coffee mulling over the revelation. ‘I think I saw him in the porters’ lodge when I was signing in earlier…. tall and rather snooty…. barking orders.’

  ‘Yes, that sounds like Philip Greaves.’

  ‘He’s not all that bad looking,’ she went on thoughtfully, ‘if it wasn’t for the sneery expression and the nose.’

  Markham grinned. ‘You’re a stern judge, Liv. What’s wrong with his nose?’

  ‘Oh, it’s one of those beaky purplish types straight out of Dickens…. The ones that always seem to have a drop of moisture at the end of ’em.’

  ‘Delightful…. Well you said it yourself, Liv. It must be the cold and damp.’

  ‘Too much claret more like.’ Her prejudices were hard to shift.

  ‘Hmm…. Sherwin has a fine cellar, I believe…. perk of the job.’

  ‘Did George’s chum have any dirt for you on Greaves?’

  ‘We call it intelligence gathering,’ he said in mock reproof.’

  ‘Whatever.’ She waited implacably.

  ‘Apparently Catriona beat Greaves to various college prizes. She also sent him up in the Sherwin Confidential.’

  ‘Sent him up?’

  ‘As in poked fun at him in a sketch…. It was nothing malicious according to Ernie…. She just had a naughty way with words. “A bit of fun” was how he described it.’

  ‘Have you seen a copy?’

  ‘Not so far, but I’ve put Doyle on it.’

  ‘Greaves looked like a slimy cold fish,’ she mused. ‘But murder…. That’s a stretch.’

  ‘Not when you’ve got jealousy in the mix.’ As Markham knew all too well.

  ‘But he’s done well for himself, surely… I mean, Bursar in an Oxford college.’

  ‘No academic glory though, Liv.’ Markham stretched out long legs, enjoying the warmth of the fire. ‘You’ve got to go back twenty years when Catriona outshone him. According to Ernie, their tutor was convinced she was the one with great potential….  destined to wind up as the kind of talking head who publishes a string of books and is “never off the telly”.’

  ‘Lashings of charisma.’

  ‘Undoubtedly…. whereas it looks like Greaves never truly fulfilled his potential.’

  ‘So he hated her then,’ she said flatly.

  ‘Well if so, he wasn’t the only one.’

  There was a flush on Olivia’s cheek as she leaned in eagerly. No wonder Noakes described her as a sorceress, Markham thought, with those glittering grey-green eyes and the piled up red hair.

  ‘Go on, Gil. I’m all ears.’

  ‘There was a scout who ended up being dismissed for pestering female undergrads…. A man called Ray Cunliffe…. Catriona was one of those who complained.’

  ‘A sex pest….’

  ‘It happens from time to time…. ‘over-familiarity’ they call it.’

  ‘They bloody would.’

  ‘There was also some sort of issue with the Reverend Dr Royston De’Ath. That’s the Chaplain Emeritus –’

  ‘The what?’

  ‘Posh speak for a former Chaplain – they get to be honorary Fellows after retirement from the pastoral side.’

  ‘God, don’t tell me he was perving as well.’

  ‘There were rumours he was somewhat over-interested in particular students.’

  ‘As in laying on of hands.’ Her tone was grim.

  ‘Nothing concrete and no official complaints…. we’re talking about gossip on the scouts’ network…. If anyone did report him, it was hushed up.’

  ‘What a beaut.’ Olivia sounded disgusted. ‘You don’t mean to say he’s still here enjoying the “perks”.’

  ‘Oh, he’s very much in evidence. Still has a high-profile role at Sherwin…. heavily involved with liturgy and the like…. mentors the college organist Andrew Skeffington….’

  ‘Where does Skeffington fit in…. is he another one who had the hots for Catriona?’

  ‘Nothing like that…. ultra-respectable and a don into the bargain. Did his BA at Courtenay Hall… thought about becoming a Catholic priest but changed his mind. Later, he had a plum job as Director of Music at Southwark Cathedral before Sherwin poached him.’

  ‘All very illustrious. But if he’s Doctor Death’s sidekick, there’s got to be something hinky.’

  ‘I’m keeping an open mind, Liv…. haven’t met any of them yet except the Bursar,’ he said mildly. The Chaplain was down in London with Dr De'Ath, so that's a pleasure deferred.' 

  Instantly, she regretted her sarcastic tone.

  ‘Sorry, Gil, I’m being obnoxious…. Sounds like there are a few people who might’ve had problems with Catriona.’

  ‘She was the kind of girl others were drawn to,’ he said quietly, ‘like moths to a flame…. But in the end, she was the one who got burnt.’

  ‘What about women?’ Olivia caught herself up. ‘But no…. a woman couldn’t have managed that, surely.’ The pleading note was back.

  ‘Catriona was a slight girl…. doll-like…. The pathologist says a woman could easily have done it if she was taken by surprise…. She could have transported the body to staircase eleven…. in a wheelie suitcase or travel trolley, perhaps…. With all the college revels going on that night, the quads and stairwells were deserted –’

  ‘But it was still a massive risk.’

  ‘Well, it could have been passed off as some sort of prank…. especially if someone helped her.’

  His lover stared at him.

  ‘You mean an accomplice.’

  ‘It’s possible, Liv.  Maybe they didn’t even need a wheelie bag…. Remember, students were letting off steam that night…. maybe all anyone saw was a girl slung over some bloke’s shoulder in a fireman’s lift…. playing caveman…. horsing around, that kind of thing….’

  ‘Everyone slaughtered cos it was the end of exams…. Yes,’ she said meditatively, ‘I can visualize something like that.’ She held out finely tapered almost translucent hands towards the fire. ‘Could be the bloke didn’t even twig that Catriona was dead…. thought she was drunk and just dumped her on that staircase so her “friend” could take care of her…. God….’ Her eyes were wide with horror.

  As though to comfort herself, she murmured, ‘But you haven’t got any women in the frame yet….’

  ‘There’s an events organizer at Gaysoc we need to interview,’ he said reluctantly. ‘A woman called Alice Matheson.’

  ‘How come?’

  ‘Apparently she “had a thing” for Catriona when they were undergrads.’

  ‘And Catriona wasn’t interested?’

  ‘It’s not clear what happened….  but the friendship soured.’ Markham rubbed his eyes vigorously. ‘Ernie got a bit queasy round the subject of same-sex liaisons.’

  ‘Ah, just like George then,’ she laughed.

  ‘Oh yes, definitely singing from the same hymn sheet.’ He sighed. ‘But I just had the feeling there might be more to come on that score…. And then there’s the family….’

  ‘You’re tired,’ she said, watching him try to smother a yawn. ‘And I should be getting back to Rochford.’ A mischievous smile made her eyes dance. ‘I suppose in the old days when this place was all-male, you’d have had to smuggle me over the wall once the gates were locked.’

  ‘I’ll get you a taxi, Liv. No,’ he declared firmly at the look on her face, ‘no way am I letting you walk back by yourself with a killer on the prowl.’

  ‘It’s just up the road, Gil…. Just off the High…. And besides, Catriona’s killer isn’t interested in me….’

  ‘Who can say what a madman will do,’ Markham muttered darkly. And then, ‘You may as well give in graciously, Liv. Come on, I’ll walk you over to the lodge.’

Outside, a vaporous mist coiled about their feet like some pestilential exhalation breathed out by the stone flags.

  Suddenly Olivia was glad her lover was with her.

  A rustle from the adjoining staircase made her jump.

  She wheeled round, nervy as a whippet. ‘What was that?’

  ‘Just some loose ivy flapping about,’ he laughed. ‘Look, there’s no-one there, Liv.’

  But for a moment she was almost sure there had been…. someone with glittering eyes specking the gloom.

  Eyes full of hate.

  ‘Lay off the Edgar Allan Poe tonight, Liv.’

  ‘I’ll try Morse instead.’

  He gave a mock-theatrical groan.

  ‘Text me when you’re safely home.’

  ‘Will do.’ She reached up to kiss his cheek, conscious of the night porter watching them from the glass kiosk that fronted the lodge. ‘What’re you up to tomorrow?’

  ‘A meeting with the local police first thing.’

  ‘Oh dear…. territorial wrangles?’

  ‘Most likely, yes.’

  ‘Better unleash George…. your master diplomatist.’

  ‘It doesn’t bear thinking about.’ Then his tone brightened. ‘At least Kate will have the incident room up and running, so we can hopefully start the interviews.’

  There was the sound of an officious cough from the other side of the glass.

  Markham signalled to the porter to admit Olivia and reached for his mobile.

  ‘You wait in there, Liv, until the taxi arrives, do you hear me?’

  ‘Fat chance of making a break for it with Fulton Mackay’s beady eye on me,’ she riposted before sweeping into the lodge with a radiantly insincere smile.

 

Markham retraced his steps. All he wanted now was a whisky and bed. Thank heaven he had thought to pack the Glenlivet.

  Soon all was silent in first quad and the college slept.

3

The Line Up

 

Monday 14 December dawned cold and bright with a glittering frost.

  In the event, Markham’s meeting with Superintendent Charleson went on the backburner.

  He had just looked in at the porters’ lodge only to be accosted by the Head Porter wearing a troubled expression.

  ‘What is it, Mr Stevenson?’ the DI said, his senses instantly alert.

  ‘On staircase eleven, Mr Markham…. vandals or something.’

  ‘Show me.’

  Their footsteps seemed unnaturally loud as they passed through the archway in first quad and up the steps, with the Great Hall on one side of a narrow wooden corridor and the college kitchens on the other.

  Then down another flight of steps and on through second quad where a further archway led to third quad and staircase eleven over in the far left-hand corner.

  The Head Porter held back, gesturing Markham to go ahead.

  WHORE

  The word, spray-painted in red on the stone wall to the right of the cavernous gap at the bottom of the staircase, had the force of a blow.

  There was no sign that the yellow police tape had been disturbed, but he glimpsed a flash of colour in the murky depths of the excavation pit.

  Markham moved closer and peered in.

  Scattered in the tarry sludge, where plastic pegs marked Catriona Rowlands’s final resting place, were petals from a red rose. The flower itself looked to have been savagely hacked about…. like some travesty of a mourning posy.

  In light of the unusual circumstances – a twenty-year-old crime scene in an venerable Oxford institution – and the fact that the college was currently hosting a police conference, it had been decided not to seal off the premises on the assumption that there was no immediate threat to life or property.

  ‘Our killer will be lying low,’ was DCI Sidney’s verdict. ‘Won’t want to draw attention to himself.’

  But whoever murdered Catriona Rowlands had answered some ungovernable compulsion to revisit the gravesite and desecrate it.

  Markham turned to the Head Porter.

  ‘What time did you lock up last night, Mr Stevenson?’

  ‘The wicket gate is locked at midnight, sir. I open it again at 6 a.m. sharp.’ The man looked uncomfortable, as though fearful of being caught out in some dereliction of duty.

  ‘And outside those hours?’

  ‘Electronic card or fob…. same as what you’ve got while you’re here for the conference…. Visitors hand ’em back when they sign out.’

  ‘Presumably students and staff have them too?’

  ‘That’s right, sir…. In terms of security, it’s generally open access these days. Different from olden times when the proctors patrolled to see folk weren’t doing anything they oughtn’t.’

  Something about Stevenson’s expression suggested he thought things were managed better back then.

  ‘No need to leap over walls,’ Markham said remembering Olivia’s joke of the previous night.

  The Head Porter looked pained.

  ‘Well obviously you’ll always get the wilder characters….’

  But I run a tight ship, was the subtext.

  Markham felt sorry for the porter who suddenly looked old and frail in the half-light of the staircase.

  He drew Stevenson away from staircase eleven back into third quad.

  ‘As you say, Mr Stevenson, there’ll always be students who kick over the traces,’ he said soothingly. ‘This could well be a sick prank, so we’ll keep it to ourselves for the time being.’

  The other drew himself up. ‘I’ll get back to the lodge then, Inspector.’ Patting his regimental tie with headmasterly precision, he added. ‘Can’t leave the rest of ’em on their own for too long.’ Clearly, as far as he was concerned, junior staff fell into the same category as students. The porter turned to go then hesitated. ‘What’s going to happen about the conference, sir?’

  ‘I understand my colleagues will be decamping to St Ursula’s, Mr Stevenson…. It’s literally round the corner, so they’ll be perfectly comfortable.’

  Something in the porter’s demeanour made him add hastily, ‘Not as comfortable as they would be here, obviously, what with Sherwin’s legendary reputation for hospitality. But,’ he smiled charmingly, ‘any port in a storm.’ The thought of the DCI safely stowed round the corner afforded some consolation. Bad enough having to deal with the likes of Philip Greaves without having to fend off his own boss as well.

  ‘Well, they won’t be going without a cooked breakfast inside them.’

  From his parting sally, it was clear the porter felt his college’s honour was at stake.

  The DI watched him out of sight and then returned to the trench at the bottom of staircase eleven.

  Although the day was bright, the air of the stairwell was rank.

  Markham felt sick at the thought of his vivid contemporary ending up in this mouldy hole.

  Snatches from the pathologist’s initial report came to him as he stood there.

  Bones found at a depth of around four feet…. heaped and not in their original order…. displacement of the skeleton…. unusually small vertebrae…. excellent state of preservation…. young bones softer and more cartilaginous therefore disintegrate more rapidly…

  His parting words to the Head Porter belied his own deep unease.

  This was no prank.

  A killer’s hatred had boiled over into that vile graffiti.

  As for the mocking floral tribute, it struck him as sacrilege…. The murderer had deliberately returned under cover of darkness to defile the grave.

  He wondered now about the noise Olivia had heard the previous night. Perhaps it wasn’t the rustling of ivy after all….

  ‘Chuffing Nora.’

  Noakes had materialized beside him.

  ‘Pol Pot in the lodge told me where you were.’ He pulled a face. ‘Blimey, it smells even worse than before.  Enough to put me right off breakfast.’

  ‘Somehow I suspect you’ll force yourself, Sergeant.’ But now Markham too was breathing through his mouth. ‘Let’s get some fresh air,’ he said.

  Out in the quad, they gratefully gulped it down.

  ‘Talking of fresh, Noakesy, I trust you’ll be having a wash and brush before we head down to St Aldates.’

  Or go anywhere near the DCI, Markham said to himself, since the combination of ratty T-shirt, baggy knitted cardigan and sagging cords seemed positively calculated to make Sidney’s eyes pop.

  ‘I’m just doing the student thing, guv…. blending in…. Anyway,’ an aggrieved sniff, ‘there weren’t any hot water this morning….  Prob’ly Burton and Doyle used it all. Selfish, that’s what I call it.’

  ‘Method acting is all very well in its place, Sergeant. But we’re a little long in the tooth to be channelling our inner student hipster. So for god’s sake dig out a suit before we head down to Superintendent Charleson…. And if the DCI’s in Hall this morning, I’d recommend you fade discreetly into the wall panelling.’

  Another prodigious sniff.

  ‘What’s with the graffiti then?’ Noakes said. ‘Did Pol Pot know owt about it?’

  ‘Mr Stevenson was as baffled as you and I. Random vandalism was his best bet.’

  ‘Vandalism my backside…. Whoever did that hated the lass.’ The DS scratched his stubble. ‘Could be they knew about the baby an’ all.’

  Markham’s eyes were remote. ‘Someone Catriona jilted…. a one-time lover…. That would fit with the rose….’

  ‘What rose?’

  Noakes hadn’t peered into the trench, being only too keen to escape the noisome rot and fustiness.

  ‘Someone had thrown a rose into the pit, Sergeant…. It was ripped to shreds.’

  My love is like a red, red rose, he quoted to himself. But this was a cankered blossom.

  ‘Nasty.’ Noakes said with feeling, squinting warily at staircase eleven. ‘Like they’re laughing at her not having a proper funeral or summat.’

  The shambling uncouth figure looked upset, and Markham remembered that he was the father of a daughter not much older than Catriona Rowlands at her death.

  ‘Christ,’ the DS continued. ‘Sometimes it feels like we’re allus shovelling up corpses…. An’ for the lass to end up in a filthy tip like that…. no respect….’

  Markham famously loathed profanity but on this occasion uttered no reproof.

  ‘Anyway,’ Noakes added defiantly, ‘it shoulda been basil.’

  ‘Basil?’

  ‘Yeah…. That’s the plant they say feeds on murdered folks’ brains.’

  ‘Where’d you hear that, Noakesy?’ Markham was gentle.

  ‘There’s a painting,’ came the unexpected reply. ‘I remember it from the art gallery case….  one of them weird Victorian ones with this longhaired drippy lass slobbering over a plant pot…. Her lover was murdered, see, so she went an’ dug him up an’ stuck his skull in this tub of basil…. kind of like a memento. Then she jus’ lost the will to live an’ died,’ he declared approvingly as if the heroine of the tale had finished by doing the decent thing. ‘Your Olivia,’ a slight flush tinged the brawny neck, ‘tole me there’s a poem about it.’

  Despite his amusement, Markham could see this bizarre monologue represented his wingman’s attempt to conceal strongly felt emotions.

  ‘Basil flourishing on murdered brains,’ he said musingly. ‘How very sinister.’

  The DS had recovered his composure.

  ‘Well, it fits with that stinking compost heap back there,’ he said. ‘More’n roses at any rate.’

  Now Noakes was scanning the quadrangle.

  ‘D’you reckon the killer lives in college then, guv?’

  ‘It’s possible, Noakes…. Or they’ve got one of those fobs which opens the wicket gate.’    

Markham’s gaze returned to staircase eleven. ‘Do we have a list of people who lived on that staircase when Catriona Rowlands was an undergraduate?’

  ‘Yeah, Burton sorted that. But it’s no help, guv…. all foreign postgrads… She’s checking it out but doesn’t look like any of ’em had a connection to our vic.’ The DS was getting restless, massive head tilted towards the Hall as various savoury odours wafted towards them. ‘She’s doing one of her fancy spreadsheets an’ all.’ He forbore from comment, his views on Kate Burton’s enthusiasm for data and statistics being no secret. ‘But even if she works out ’xactly who was on all them staircases when the lass disappeared, that ain’t gonna tell us who did it…. I mean, it’s not like we c’n work out alibis or owt…. not after all this time.’

  ‘True, but they’ll still have to be followed up.’

  One for the girly swot, Noakes decided.

  Notwithstanding the lure of bacon and eggs, he looked back at staircase eleven.

  ‘Did they find any of the lass’s clothes?’ he asked gruffly.

  ‘Whatever she was wearing had disintegrated,’ the DI replied. ‘But they got a match from dental analysis, so we can be sure it’s Catriona.’

  ‘If she were pregnant, then she musta seen a doctor somewhere along the line…. the uni health service or clinic or whatever….’

  ‘I’m putting Kate and Doyle on it,’ Markham said heavily, ‘but I doubt it will give us the identity of the father or very much else for that matter.’

  The DS ran pudgy hands distractedly through his hair, stiff porcupine quills giving him the air of a convict on the run. More Magwitch than Maigret, thought his boss despairingly. Better let him push off to breakfast. Given the speed with which Noakes shovelled down his food, there was just a chance he’d be out of the way before Sidney and the other grandees graced the dining hall.

  ‘You get off to breakfast, Sergeant.’.

  ‘What about you, guv? You don’ want to be facing Charleson and the St Aldates mob on an empty stomach. An’ they do a mean fried egg here.’

  The DI’s stomach roiled ominously.

  ‘I’ve had coffee,’ he said. ‘And anyway,’ with a sense of relief, ‘Here come the others.’

  At least Burton and Doyle were appropriately suited and booted, the very epitome of thrusting young detectives. He was amused to see Kate’s barely concealed horror at her grizzled colleague’s ‘sad dad’ get up.

  ‘Noakes will bring you up to speed with the latest development,’ he said, noting how their eyes snapped with excitement at these words. ‘And then we’ll have a tidy-up,’ with pointed emphasis, ‘before seeing Superintendent Charleson.’

  ‘We’re all set to go, sir. The Bursar agreed we can use his rooms as our base.’

  ‘Excellent, Kate.’

  ‘Batted your eyelashes, did you?’ But Noakes’s tone was affectionate and his colleague merely shrugged self-deprecatingly while Doyle grinned.

  ‘After St Aldates, it’s back here for a brainstorm and run-through of our key suspects,’ the DI continued. ‘We’ll do formal interviews tomorrow morning in Hall and then brief the Principal.’

  ‘Oh yeah,’ grunted Noakes. ‘Sir Paul Mirfleet. Another stuck-up piece of work…. looks at us like we’re something he scraped off his shoe.’

  Privately, Markham had formed much the same opinion of Mirfleet, however he said quietly, ‘Well, it can’t be easy having his college commandeered for a conference –’

  ‘Even though they make a packet out of it,’ Noakes growled.

  The DI ignored this interjection.

  ‘And now to have the body of a former student discovered on the premises….’

  ‘Bad PR,’ came the cynical observation from Doyle.

  ‘Will there be a press conference, sir?’ As always, Burton was thinking ahead.

  ‘Most likely tomorrow, Kate.’

  ‘What about the family?’

  ‘They flew back yesterday morning.’

  Noakes jerked his head towards staircase eleven and threw the DI a meaningful glance which the latter had no difficulty interpreting.

  Nothing to say one of them couldn’t have done the graffiti.

  The vandalism was taking a risk, Markham thought to himself. But then whoever the killer was, they apparently had the confidence to prowl through Sherwin college, gliding invisible as a ghost through its dank cloisters.

  The savoury smells were getting stronger.

  ‘Off you go,’ he said to his team. ‘Back at the lodge for 10 sharp please.’

  Watching them go, the DI suddenly felt the nape of his neck prickle.

  As though he was being covertly observed.

  His eyes raked the Elizabethan frontage, inspecting the ivy-clad stonework and crenellated rooftops. But the ancient buildings met his gaze inscrutably with no sign of a spy lurking behind mullioned casements or battlements….

   Markham wandered towards the Fellows’ Common Room in first quad, grateful that he had somewhere to collect his thoughts before the meeting with Superintendent Charleson.

  Lavishly appointed like the Chapel, Markham delighted in its paintings of Tudor and Jacobean nobility looking down at him haughtily from over their ruffs. On one wall was a reproduction of the Field of the Cloth of Gold depicting the notorious extravaganza of Henry Eighth and his French counterpart, with Disneyesque pop-up palaces and a great banner  depicting a mythical creature – half dragon, half salamander – streaming across the sky. Disconcertingly, the sly pterodactyl eyes seemed to size him up with a mocking conviction that he was way out of his depth.

  Catch Me Who Can….

  With the defilement of Catriona Rowlands’s grave right under their noses, it was as though their killer had thrown down the gauntlet.

  Certainly, the case felt like no other they had undertaken.

  For a start, they were out of their comfort zone, the rarefied environment of the university being so far removed from ordinary life that it might as well have been another country…. The painting just about summed it up…. thrones, dominations… a softer climate bathing a cluster of gilded spires….

  And the inhabitants of this celestial city were unlikely to take kindly to any imputation that baser passions and motives seethed beneath its shining surface.

  His team would have to tread carefully.

  The Principal and Sidney were no doubt already joining forces to repel any overzealous interrogation of college personnel. On past form, Sidney’s ideal scenario would involve a sexually motivated attack by some anonymous drifter with no connection to Sherwin, but it looked increasingly unlikely that such was the case.

  As a “Sherwin man”, he was presumably expected to observe the decencies and steer the investigation well away from the sacred college precincts. But he felt in his bones that the killer of Catriona Rowlands had to be ‘Gown’ not Town’…. unless the answer lay closer to home in her family circle….

  The local police were another headache…. Likely to be touchy about an outsider being brought in…. to say nothing of any suggestion that they had been negligent first time around.

  And yet, he thought to himself, there had been negligence. That business with McMaster & Son for starters…. Imagine taking the word of those shysters at face value….

  The well-moulded lips compressed tightly at the thought of that omission.

  Even worse, he suspected a reverential deference towards the university authorities had played its part…. like those Tudor servitors in the painting fawning over bluff King Hal.

  Well, he was no stooge primed to save Sherwin from embarrassment…. Or, as Noakes was wont to say, ‘You can’t polish a turd.’

  The clock tower chimed a quarter to ten.

  Time to beard Superintendent Charleson.

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

  An hour and a half later, the team was back in the Bursar’s rooms brooding over the hostile reaction of their Oxford colleagues.

  ‘Ole slab face ain’t gonna give us diddly-squat,’ Noakes observed with gloomy relish as Burton busied herself at the Nespresso machine. ‘You could tell he hated your guts, guv…. jus’ waiting for you to fall flat on your face. An’ all that sarky stuff about him not having the right connections…. made it sound like you were Little Lord Fauntleroy or summat.’

  It was true enough, thought Markham resignedly. Ian Charleson and his boot-faced cohorts had been superficially civil, but the whole scene had seethed with hissy subtext.

  ‘They didn’t like the idea their old guvnor might’ve screwed up,’ Doyle put in laconically.

  ‘Pity Carter and Mike Knight have snuffed it,’ Noakes grunted, referring to the SIOs from the original investigation. ‘An’ as for the rest…. you c’n bet Charleson’s put the word out…. no sharing information with the flash git from Bromgrove.’

  Burton passed round their drinks.

  ‘Blimey that’s good,’ Doyle said appreciatively after a sip of his frothy cappuccino.

  ‘How the Other Half Lives, Constable,’ Markham said with his rare charming smile.

  Noakes winked at the youngster. ‘Wangle yourself one of them study leave thingies an’ you c’n have this every day ’stead of the gnat’s piss they give us in CID.’

  Burton was growing restive, shifting awkwardly in her chintz armchair as if deep in her soul she hankered for the utilitarian furniture of Markham’s office in Bromgrove.

  ‘We didn’t learn much new at St Aldates,’ she conceded wearily.

  ‘’Cept that McMaster couldn’t organize a piss up in a brewery an’ the SIOs never bothered to check ’em out,’ Noakes said breezily.

  ‘At least we’ve got a list of the firm’s employees – the ones who are still around – so I can follow up their statements,’ his fellow DS said.

  Noakes and Doyle exchanged their usual semaphore.

  Another freaking spreadsheet from the head prefect.

  ‘Excellent, Kate.’ Markham shot her colleagues a look that made them sit up straighter.

  ‘Then there’s the statements from people who may have seen Catriona,’ Burton continued. ‘Perhaps now her body’s been discovered, it’ll jog someone’s memory…. throw up something new.’

  ‘Good idea.’ The DI’s gaze wandered to the pile of manila folders he had brought from St Aldates. ‘Or there may be some discrepancy between their police statements and what our suspects tell us tomorrow…. something we can use as a way in….’

  ‘Who are the suspects, boss?’ Doyle asked.

  ‘The people in Ms Rowlands’s immediate circle,’ Markham answered.

  Burton was ready. As Noakes often said, the woman was a walking rolodex.

  ‘There’s the two former boyfriends…. Jon Warrender, the one she’d split up with –’

  ‘The bloke who’s a tutor here,’ Noakes frowned in a way that boded ill for Warrender.

  ‘Correct. Plus the other don Mark Drexler,’ she went on brightly. ‘Then we’ve got the Bursar Philip Greaves…. there was tension between him and Catriona when they were students…. some kind of academic rivalry.’ She turned to Doyle. ‘Any sign of that piece she wrote about him?’

  ‘Nothing doing…. but I haven’t tried the students’ union yet…. they might know something.’

  ‘Don’ forget the pervy padre Doctor Death,’ Noakes grunted.

  ‘Yes…. Dr De’Ath has to be of interest given the rumours about him’, Burton continued, ‘and there’s the scout who may have had a grudge after being reported for harassment…. Ray Cunliffe.’

  ‘An’ the folk who were students along with Rowlands.’

  Unlike the DI, Noakes never had any compunction about referring to victims by their surnames. But Markham knew his number two meant no disrespect. One look at Noakes’s face back on staircase eleven earlier had shown him that.

  ‘Right.’ Burton gave her mental rolodex a spin. ‘Dr De’Ath’s protégé Andrew Skeffington…. the organist…. he was a contemporary…. And most probably there’s staff in other colleges who crossed paths with her.’

  ‘Yes,’ the DI interposed quietly, ‘From what Olivia says, I believe the Dean and Junior Dean at Rochford College would have known her…. Peter Hart and Margaret Payne.’

  At the mention of Markham’s lover, a spasm shot across Kate Burton’s face, imperceptible save to Noakes whose compassion would have galled his fellow DS had she been aware of it.

  ‘How’s Olivia enjoying the creative writing course?’ she asked politely, her tone colourless.

  ‘Oh, writing up a storm,’ Markham said lightly. ‘I don’t want to destroy her street cred just yet, but I’ll need to check out Rochford later this week.’

  ‘Finally, there’s the family,’ Burton wound up. ‘Veronica and Sarah Rowlands.’

  ‘Step relationships can be tricky,’ Doyle observed.

  ‘Hopefully I’ll be seeing them tomorrow.’ The DI loosened his Turnbull & Asser tie in a rare sign of lassitude. ‘Sarah Rowlands is a teacher at Forty Martyrs Preparatory School here in Oxford.’

  Noakes looked as if he was sucking a lemon but said nothing, concentrating instead on spooning up the foam from his drink with unnecessary vigour.

  ‘You’ve forgotten the Gaysoc woman,’ Doyle said with a wary eye on Noakes.

  ‘Oh yes, sorry…. Alice Matheson.’ Burton decided to take the plunge. ‘Possibly another romantic interest.’

  ‘Some of them statements in there,’ Noakes jerked a thumb in the direction of the manila folders, ‘mentioned a girl with Rowlands on Cornmarket.’

  For all his apparent laziness, Noakes was like a truffle hog when it came to picking up the  scent, Markham reflected.

  ‘Slim, tallish, dark hair tied back in a ponytail, specs…. Mind you,’ the DS puffed out his cheeks, ‘prob’ly all them brainboxes looked the same….’ He licked the foam moustache off his upper lip. ‘Nah…. It’s gotta be someone who was knocking off a slice.’

  The DI carefully didn’t look at Kate Burton.

  ‘Where on earth do you get these dreadful expressions, Sergeant? Presumably that’s the vernacular for having sex.’

  Noakes was unabashed.

  ‘She were pregnant, which meant a whole pile of trouble for the father, guv…. Mebbe she even threatened to report him….’

  ‘For getting her pregnant?’ Doyle laughed. ‘Get out of it, sarge. They’ve moved on from Brideshead…. It was the noughties, remember.’

  But Burton’s gaze was speculative.

  ‘She could have threatened to report him for rape,’ she said. ‘That’d be a whole different ball game.’

  Noakes shot Doyle a triumphant look.

  ‘Makes more sense for it to be a bloke,’ he resumed. ‘A lass’d give herself a hernia trying to pull that off.’

  ‘Not necessarily,’ Markham said slowly.

  He walked across to the Nespresso machine, waving Burton back to her seat as she half-rose to fetch his refill.

  Then, with deliberate lack of haste, he strolled across to the mullioned bay window which looked out onto the leafless shrubberies of Plessington College. Despite the lack of colour, there was something pleasant about the garden’s neat parterres and geometrical patterns…. an orderliness that helped him to arrange his thoughts.

  ‘Killing Ms Rowlands on that staircase was a risk,’ he said, turning back to the team. ‘But it was the end of term…. everyone intoxicated by a kind of summer madness –’

  ‘You mean spliffs,’ put in Noakes dourly.

  The DI smiled.

  ‘No, not drugs…. More a sense of time suspended…. a feeling that this moment would never come again and the normal rules didn’t apply…. liberated anarchy, if you like.’

  Noakes’s expression said very clearly that he didn’t like.

  He and the missus had been disappointed when their Natalie’s A level grades weren’t high enough to get her into university (‘vastly overrated anyway,’ said Muriel, quoting Princess Anne), but listening to the DI carry on like some mad Marxist made him quite glad she was safely tucked away in that salon back in Bromgrove. She had her head screwed on alright and beauticians would never be short of custom.

  What I mean,’ Markham came down from the heights, ‘is that with all the fun and games going on…. students congregating in the bar and on the lawns, well away from the college staircases…. there was a window of opportunity…. Ms Rowlands was slight…. not to say tiny…. If she was taken by surprise, it could have been over in minutes and the body tipped into the builders’ slurry…. there was a spade handily available along with various other implements and barrowloads of rubble.’

  ‘Them dickheads,’ Noakes rumbled thinking of McMaster’s laxity.

  The DI was remembering his conversation with Olivia.

  ‘Alternatively, Ms Rowlands could’ve been killed elsewhere and then transported across to staircase eleven…. a wheelie suitcase, travel trolley, something like that…. or even over someone’s shoulder…. someone who didn’t realize they were carrying a dead body –’

  ‘Because they thought Catriona was drunk.’ As ever, Kate Burton was quick to catch on. ‘And anyone who saw them would put it down to fooling around…. some guy doing a Me Tarzan routine.’

  ‘If that’s how it happened, wouldn’t they have come forward when Catriona went missing?’ Doyle objected.

  ‘Might have been afraid to,’ Noakes said promptly. ‘Or they could’ve been wasted,’ he added darkly, ‘an’ not sure what the chuff actually happened that night. Mebbe they even worried they might have done something crazy. Hey,’ he was struck by a thought, ‘mebbe there was some kind of game going on…. an’ then it got out of hand….’

  ‘We can’t rule anything out,’ the DI said firmly.

  They sat in silence for some minutes. But it was an amicable silence as they mulled the range of scenarios.

  ‘What’s with the dragon?’ Noakes asked after a while, pointing at one of the impressive paintings on the wall behind the Bursar’s vast desk.

  Like the Field of the Cloth of Gold in the Fellows’ Common Room, this one depicted another medieval gathering – a tournament this time, like something out of Ivanhoe, with squires in brightly coloured tabards and ladies in strange crescent-shaped headdresses all watching a joust from tapestried stands while a banquet was in preparation below. And once again, there was a kite or banner emblazoned across the left-hand corner of the picture with another fire-belching dragon scorching the sky.

  ‘It’s an emblem,’ Burton told them. ‘Henry Tudor – Henry the Eighth’s father – was Welsh.’

  Of course he was, thought Noakes with an inward eye roll.

  Aloud, he contented himself with a muttered tribute, ‘Oughta go on Eggheads… I reckon you’d wipe the floor with the lot of them.’

  Doyle looked apprehensive, as though he feared they were in for a mini-lecture on heraldry.

  But despite her sternly concealed pleasure at Noakes’s compliment, Kate Burton had other fish to fry.

  ‘It would have been useful to get the Chaplain’s take on things,’ she said.

  ‘True,’ the DI agreed, recalling his frustration when it transpired that Sherwin’s Chaplain was unavailable for an advance briefing. Instead, they had been obliged to content themselves with the Bursar and assorted minor functionaries whose lips were firmly zipped. ‘At least he and Dr De’Ath are expected back from London some time tomorrow, so we’ll have a crack at them then.’

  Markham was starting to feel almost somnolent in the unaccustomed luxury of the Bursar’s rooms.

  ‘Let’s acquaint ourselves with the contents of the files,’ he said briskly, gesturing to the buff-coloured paper wallets. ‘Kate, would you divvy them up please.’

  As she and Doyle bent over the papers, Noakes turned to his boss.

  ‘D’you reckon Heaven’s like that?’ the DS asked, his eyes wandering to the medieval picture. ‘Parties an’ feasting an’ folk having a good time with their friends.’

  ‘What makes you ask?’ Markham enquired, somewhat startled.

  ‘Well, it’s gotta be beautiful…. The Bible’s clear about that.’ Sunday school had left its indelible mark on the DS. ‘But if it’s like church…. all following the highest, like, an’ no fun, it won’t be what the lass was used to.’ He cleared this throat. ‘What you said back there about students thinking they were outside time an’ kinda invincible…. not having to follow rules an’ that…. well, if the lass went to Heaven, she’d expect it to be like that….’ The broken phrases petered out.

  The DI found that he had a lump in his throat as he listened to George Noakes fumble through his ideas about the great mystery of the hereafter and what it might hold for Catriona Rowlands.

  He sent up a fervent prayer. Let Heaven at least prove a kinder city than Oxford.

  Before he could formulate a reply, there was a knock at the door and the Head Porter appeared.

  ‘Mr Stevenson…. What can we do for you?’ Markham enquired cordially.

  ‘It’s Ernie Braithwaite, Inspector…. No-one seems to know where he is.’

4

De Profundis

 

The atmosphere in their temporary incident room was suddenly electric.

  ‘Were you expecting Mr Braithwaite at work today, sir?’ Markham asked the Head Porter.

  ‘Yes, Inspector. He was on light cleaning duties once the students broke up for Christmas.’ The man was visibly agitated, his regimental tie askew as though from repeated tugging.

‘You can usually set your clock by Ernie, so when there was no sign of him after breakfast…. well, I thought there must be something amiss.’

  ‘Here mate.’ Noakes pressed him into an armchair and nudged Kate Burton. ‘Sort him a hot drink will you…. plenty of sugar….  I’ll only banjax that thing,’ he added with a jerk of his head towards the Nespresso machine.’ With the quiet efficiency which characterized all her movements, his fellow DS hastened to comply.

  Once the porter had taken a few shaky sips and composed himself, Markham asked, ‘Have you called him?’

  ‘Ernie can’t be doing with mobiles, but we rang his place on the Cowley Road…. there wasn’t any answer…. It’s one of those phones where you can’t leave a message.’

  ‘Has anyone checked out the address?’ Noakes was watching Stevenson closely.

  ‘I got one of the junior porters to go round, but there was no-one at home.’

  Burton had her notebook out. ‘Does he live with anyone…. Is there a Mrs Braithwaite?’

  ‘His wife died a while back. Cancer. No other family so far as I know.’

  ‘He were pretty shook up when that body turned up under staircase eleven,’ Noakes said thoughtfully. ‘Knew it had to be Catriona Rowlands…. even before the dental records confirmed it…. mentioned a few names an’ all….’ Restlessly, he began pacing the Axminster before wheeling round on the porter. ‘How’d he seem to you afterwards? Did he say owt?’

  ‘He was a bit quiet…. But it was only natural…. I think it was the fact they found two sets of bones…. He and his wife always wanted a family, but it just didn’t happen… knowing there was a child in there could’ve tipped him over the edge….’

  Noakes stared at the porter.

  ‘How’d he know about that? We only got the pathologist’s report on Sunday.’

  ‘Bill Knowles wasn’t exactly discreet, Sergeant.’ The man’s lips thinned to a taut line. ‘After finding the…. skull…. he took another look before the police arrived…. said he was fairly sure he’d seen some smaller bones…. thought a small animal must’ve got trapped in there somehow…. then someone said what if it’s a baby.’ Unhappily, he added, ‘As you say, Sergeant, everyone had thought of Catriona Rowlands straight off…. it wasn’t such a stretch to think she might have been in the family way.’

  Noakes gave a soundless whistle. Thanks a bloody bunch, Bill Bigmouth Knowles.

  The DI showed no sign of consternation, continuing in his light pleasant baritone.

  ‘Mr Braithwaite shared some memories of Ms Rowlands and her fellow students with us,’ he remarked easily. ‘Did he mention anything about that to you, Mr Stevenson, or say anything that might have a bearing?’

  Markham’s air of calm authority had its usual tranquilizing effect, the porter appearing less flustered now.

  ‘I remember we were stood over by the lodge chatting just before Ernie finished on Sunday around five-ish – he’d helped us out with an extra shift what with the conference…. and everything…. Anyway, suddenly, out of the blue, he kind of gave a little jump…. as if he saw someone he recognized –’

  ‘Did you see who it was?’ Burton asked quickly.

  ‘No…. They must have must have come out of one of the staircases and gone through the archway into second quad before I had a chance to clock them.’

  Now it was Doyle’s turn. ‘Did Ernie say anything about it?’

  ‘He just looked kind of thoughtful….  and then it seemed like he was in a hurry to get off home….’

  ‘Are you sure he didn’t say anything, Mr Braithwaite?’ Markham insisted. ‘This could be important.’

  ‘Hold on a minute…. yes, there was something, but it didn’t make much sense really.’

  ‘Try us,’ Noakes rumbled.

  ‘Well, he was turned away from me as he said it…. kind of muttering to himself.’ They waited expectantly. ‘He said something like he’d forgotten all about it until then, but he reckoned it must have been pretty much the last straw.’

  ‘Was that all?’ The DS was disappointed.

  ‘Sorry, Mr Noakes,’ the porter apologized. ‘He’s a bit of an old rascal is Ernie…. looked a bit shifty, so at the time I figured he was up to some dodge or other and I’d be better off not knowing…. It’s only now I think again….’ His voice tailed off.

  ‘This thing he’d forgotten about…. Something to do with a tutor?’ Markham pressed. ‘One of the Fellows?’

  Now Stevenson looked embarrassed.

  ‘I could’ve got it all wrong and maybe he was one over the eight or something….’

  ‘One over the eight?’ Noakes was on the warpath.

  ‘Ernie likes the odd tipple…. No harm in that,’ he added defensively. ‘Anyway, he needed something for the shock after that drama with Bill Knowles and all the rest of it.’

  ‘“Pass the Port” was it?’ Noakes enquired with heavy sarcasm. ‘Are you saying him an’ the Bursar had a bevvy?’

  ‘Of course not.’ The other was distinctly nettled. ‘It was most likely medicinal…. something for his nerves.’

  And the rest, Noakes thought sourly. But at least old prune-face Greaves could probably be acquitted of letting Braithwaite loose in the college cellar.

  ‘D’you think Mr Braithwaite just needed time by himself…. to make sense of it all?’ Burton asked delicately.

  ‘As in get rat-arsed.’

  No point beating about the bush in Noakes’s opinion.

  Something about this full-frontal approach jolted the porter into frankness.

  ‘Ernie’s had a battle with alcohol,’ he admitted, ‘but he’s worked hard for Sherwin down the years…. You wouldn’t find a more devoted college servant.’

  ‘Could he have topped himself cos of this business with the lass?’ Noakes’s tone was softer now.

  ‘No, I don’t think so, Sergeant. I think deep-down he’d accepted Ms Rowlands was dead…. everyone had, to be honest. Bill Knowles’s blather would have upset him, but he’d come through worse.’ Now the man spoke with decision. ‘There must have been something else bothering him.’

  The detectives exchanged glances.

  ‘If Ernie wanted to get away an’ be by himself…. mebbe sort things out in his head…. where would he go?’ Noakes asked. ‘Is there anyone he usually hangs out with…. goes down the pub with….?’

  ‘There’s the British Legion…. They’ve got a branch in Jericho…. Ernie sometimes went up there for a chat about the old days.’

  The DI nodded to Doyle who discreetly slipped into the adjoining room from where they could hear him making a call on his mobile.

  The porter’s face was tallow pale.

  ‘D’you think Ernie may have known something about who killed Catriona Rowlands?’ he stammered.

  ‘It’s possible, Mr Stevenson,’ the DI replied. ‘But we don’t want to jump to conclusions….  Nine times out of ten a missing person turns up safe and sound.’

  Inside, though, he had a horrible feeling this would be the exception that proved the rule.

  If Ernie Braithwaite had remembered something…. had some secret knowledge about Catriona and her circle…. he might have been tempted to capitalize on it…. with fatal consequences for himself….

  Had he tried to blackmail a killer?

  ‘Just one last question, Mr Stevenson,’ he said, hoping the porter wouldn’t see where this was leading. ‘Can you tell us anything about Mr Braithwaite’s personal circumstances…. Was there any kind of financial difficulty that might have led him to…. drop out of his life for a time?’

  ‘Well, he wasn’t a great spender…. lived pretty frugally so far as I’m aware…. The house is a two-up two-down…. don’t know if it’s housing association or what…. As for his pay here,’ the porter hesitated, torn between honesty and college loyalty, ‘it was…. on a par with the sector…. and of course, there were increments for long service.’ More defensively he added, ‘I wasn’t aware he had any complaints.’

  ‘No indeed,’ the DI said heartily. ‘We just want to get the full picture.’

  ‘Ernie having been at Sherwin so many years speaks for itself,’ Burton said gently.

  Mollified, the porter said, ‘Yes…. more than thirty years…. He’s a bit of a father figure to the students.’ A misty smile of reminiscence. ‘There was one young lady kept managing to miss dinner in Hall…. Ernie’d always make sure to bring her some left-overs – a bit of mackerel from the starter or a nice helping of tapioca.’

  Noakes’s face suggested neither of these ranked high in his league table of tasty treats, but his voice was kind. ‘Sounds like he was a soft-hearted ole bugger.’

  The porter blinked at the description but nodded. ‘A law unto himself, Ernie…. but loyal to the college through and through.’

  Doyle had returned.

  ‘The Legion put me on to one of his mates. He said Ernie likes the river…. always goes that way when he’s out of sorts.’

  The DI summoned a reassuring smile.

  ‘We’ll head down there right away, Mr Stevenson,’ he said. ‘In the meantime, we’ll leave you to take charge here. Not a word to anyone, please.’

  The older man’s nervous fingers fluttered about his trembling lips and he swayed slightly where he stood.

  Noakes placed a steadying hand on his arm.

  ‘We c’n thank our lucky stars we’ve got you at the helm, mate,’ he declared. ‘What with the conference having to shift down the road an’ interviews for tomorrow morning, we’re all-to -cock.’

  It wasn’t how Kate Burton would have put it, but she saw the bracing effect on the head porter and marvelled, not for the first time, how her uncouth, monumentally tactless colleague somehow managed to unsnarl nerves and pull off a weird kind of nirvana in the unlikeliest of circumstances.

  ‘Right you are, Mr Noakes, I’ll crack on here and make sure everything’s sorted for those interviews tomorrow.’

  Courteously, the DI escorted him to the door.

  ‘Poor devil,’ Doyle said once he was safely out of earshot. ‘I thought he was going to keel over.’

  ‘Them fellas allus come up with the goods,’ Noakes said. ‘No way is Stevenson gonna have anyone say he baled out when the college needed him…. might be a bossy ole git but I reckon he’s salt of the earth.’

  ‘Indeed he is,’ Markham agreed. Then, ‘Let’s check out Christ Church Meadow… I don’t believe Ernie will have gone too far from college…. it’s only five minutes away.’

  ‘Are we talking blackmail, sir?’ Doyle asked eagerly. ‘Doesn’t sound like Ernie’s well off…. If he had something on the killer, he might’ve decided to cash in.’

  ‘He saw someone while he was talking to Mr Stevenson,’ Burton mused, ‘and it triggered a connection….’

  Noakes was back to the hair-rumpling and pacing which invariably accompanied his cogitations. ‘An’ he talked about summat being the last straw…. mebbe he figured that’s what tipped the killer over the edge.’

  ‘Yes, I think Ernie may have had it in mind to try blackmail.’ Markham’s face was sombre. ‘And as we know, that rarely ends well.’

  ‘Mr Stevenson said Ernie was loyal to the college through and through,’ Burton commented. ‘So that might have been a factor too…. I mean,’ she contemplated the highly polished tips of her smart ankle boots, ‘he might have liked this person…. maybe even felt sorry for them….’

  ‘I agree, Kate,’ The DI said crisply. ‘If the killer’s connected to Sherwin College, that could have made Mr Braithwaite lower his defences and decide to go it alone.’

  ‘They never see the bleeding danger,’ Noakes growled. ‘Even when they know some mad bastard’s strangled a lass an’ chucked her under a load of cement…. they still reckon they can handle it.’

  ‘Human beings are complex, Sergeant,’ Markham said sadly. ‘We’re talking about a mixture of greed and deep-rooted allegiance to Sherwin.’ No wonder Olivia had called the Oxford traditions feudal, he reflected. In Ernie Braithwaite’s calculations, fidelity to his college trumped all else…. Even murder. ‘Right,’ he said, ‘let’s get a move on.’

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

Christ Church Meadow presented such an idyllic prospect, that it was almost impossible to connect it with murder.

  As they stood drawing in deep breaths of frosty air, savouring the exhilaration of being outdoors, the DI wondered if they were on the wrong track.

  The Meadow and woodland gleamed and sparkled, sloping down to softly fringed banks of sedge and smooth glassy water which reflected the December sunshine like a polished mirror.

  Perfect weather for rowing, he thought, though there were no boats out that day.

  The Rochdale College boat house appeared to be open, however, with a dark-haired young woman standing next to the modest timber two-storey structure. She was examining a pair of sculls intently but turned round at his greeting.

  No, she hadn’t seen anybody hanging round the riverbank, she told them. One or two cyclists and a dog walker had gone by, but she hadn’t paid them much heed. Sorry.

  ‘No matter, we’ll just follow the path for a bit,’ the DI said. Sherwin’s boat house was half a mile further down, round the next bend. He had an idea Ernie Braithwaite might have felt safest on his own college’s premises…. as though its coat of arms above the lintel offered some guarantee of protection.

  He smiled at the student, who smiled shyly back.

  God, Prince Charming rides again. Reeling ’em in without even trying.

  The fact that Markham was pretty much oblivious of his effect on the opposite sex did little to reconcile Noakes to the unfairness of nature when it came to physiognomic advantage.

  All such thoughts were banished as the quartet rounded the bend and saw the muffled shape, trapped in a heavy tarpaulin canvas, half in and half of the water like some hideous giant cormorant that had met its end on the bank.

  But this was no sea bird.

  A short battle with the oilcloth disclosed Sherwin’s longest-serving scout staring sightlessly upward, his snub-nosed features frozen in a ghastly rictus to rival the contortions of any gargoyle on the college battlements.

  ‘Beam me up, Scotty….,’ breathed Noakes.

  Even though they were expecting it, the stark reality was worse than anything they could have imagined as they took in the spectacle of the chatty bandy-legged little man, wispy grey hair clotted in stiff clumps around his livid forehead.

  ‘Okay, I’m calling it in,’ the DI said sorrowfully reaching for his mobile….

  A short time later, the riverbank teemed with SOCOs and personnel, filling the chill still air with their hubbub and the noise of walkie-talkies. To Markham it felt like another desecration.

  And then the ambulance was there and Ernie Braithwaite’s sheeted diminutive figure set out on its last journey through Oxford, the four detectives bowing their heads as he passed.

  Jigsaw Man, as Noakes called him, brandished the bottle of anti-depressants found in Ernie’s jacket pocket.

  ‘He’d had a skinful,’ was the blunt verdict, ‘and with these on top….’

  Markham disliked the man’s brusque clinicism and the pitiless summing up.

  His DS felt a bizarre impulse to defend Ernie Braithwaite.

  ‘He weren’t just some dosser, y’know,’ Noakes said bullishly. ‘Longest serving scout in the university… everyone knew him…. even the dons did what Ernie told ’em.’ Markham was touched by the absurd hyperbole, recalling the regimental connection with his wingman’s cousin Jack.

  ‘Oh, right…. a legend in his own lunchtime,’ the owlish young medic looked sceptical.

  Before Noakes could take up the cudgels again, Markham interposed.

  ‘Can you give us any idea on time of death, doctor?’

  The pathologist looked from one to the other.

  ‘I should say early this morning,’ he replied. ‘Rigor had fully set in.’

  ‘Cause of death?’

  ‘Drowning while under the influence, Inspector…. only….’

  Markham pounced on the hesitation.

  ‘You’re not certain?’

  ‘It looks as though he was blundering around on the bank and then somehow got tangled up in that sailcloth or whatever it is.’

  ‘As in fell over and knocked himself out?’

  ‘Correct, Inspector…. then slid face down into the water…. the effects of the booze and pills, plus the concussion, meant he couldn’t extricate himself….’

  ‘But you’re not convinced by that scenario,’ Markham stated flatly.

  ‘It seems to me there’s some injury to the small of his back, but I have to rule out hypostasis and artefactual damage before I can be sure….  lividity and external factors,’ he translated. His expression was troubled as he added, ‘And there’s this.’

  He held out a soggy pink scrap of paper.

  ‘It was clenched in his right fist,’ the pathologist explained. ‘Looks like the fragment from a fifty-pound note.’ Something in Noakes’s championing of Ernie Braithwaite must have had its effect because there was compassion in the man’s tone as he said, ‘I’m thinking your victim wouldn’t normally have had that kind of money on him…. That and the bruising make me wonder if this might not have been an accident after all.’

  To the other’s astonishment, Noakes stepped forward and gave him a bone-crunching handshake.

  ‘Nice one, doc. Ta very much.’

  The younger man visibly winced. ‘Not at all…. er, glad to be of help.’ He turned to the DI. ‘I’ll be in touch later.’

  ‘At least there isn’t any family to tell,’ Doyle remarked as they watched the pathologist tramp back along the towpath.’

  ‘Sherwin’s his family,’ Burton observed quietly. ‘Poor Mr Stevenson will be devastated.’

  Noakes’s voice was thick. ‘I’ll break it to him,’ he offered.

  ‘Thanks, Noakesy,’ the DI said simply. ‘I’m sure he’ll take it better coming from you.’

  The DS looked embarrassed, chewing the ends of his horrible striped scarf in a paroxysm of awkwardness, but Markham could tell he was pleased nonetheless.

  ‘What next boss?’ Burton contemplated the water wending its devious way alongside them, the day that had seemed so bright with crisp winter promise now suddenly dark and grey.

  His lean handsome face seemed somehow more lined and careworn, but Markham spoke with his customary resolve.

  ‘Back to base for me and Noakes,’ he said. ‘Meantime, I want you and Doyle to catch up with the young lady we passed on our way down here…. I sent a uniform to wait with her…. Take a statement…. the fact of a death may have jogged her memory.’ He looked at the little coppices and clusters of brambles whose picturesque charm were now irrevocably tainted by murder. ‘Then get along to the Legion. Apart from Sherwin, that seems to have been the extent of Mr Braithwaite’s social circle.’ He sighed. ‘It may turn out to be a wild goose chase, but I want you to check if anyone from there spoke to him or saw him after he finished work yesterday.’

  ‘D’you want me to bring the interviews forward, guv?’ Noakes asked. ‘I mean, it’s not just about the lass now…. we’ll be wanting alibis for Ernie.’ His underlip shot out pugnaciously. ‘Cos don’ let anyone tell me this ain’t murder.’

  ‘I’m very much of your mind, Sergeant.’ Markham’s tone was quiet as ever but held a steely resolve familiar to his colleagues. ‘To the casual observer, Mr Braithwaite may not appear to have had much of a life…. But in his own way, he was dauntless…. soldiered on and made the best of the hand he’d been dealt. I think it’s highly likely he was murdered and we are going to catch whoever did this to him.’

  ‘If it wasn’t for that bit of paper, we’d likely have thought accident…. or some kind of half-hearted attempt at suicide,’ Doyle mused.

  ‘From what the doc said, Ernie were shoved,’ Noakes said firmly.

  Burton frowned. ‘Forensics won’t get anything useful from the tarpaulin.’

  ‘I’d be interested to know where it came from, Kate. See to it would you?’ Markham knew she would gobble up all the tasks he could dish out, such was her zeal.

  ‘To answer your question, we’ll do the interviews tomorrow morning as planned, Noakes’ the DI continued. ‘No point flustering Mr Stevenson with revised arrangements…. He’ll be in a bad enough state just hearing about Mr Braithwaite.’

  Noakes nodded grimly.

  ‘Do we tell Stevenson it’s murder, guv?’

  ‘For the time being, let’s stick with “unexplained death”.’ Markham’s mouth twisted. ‘Obviously, I’ll have to brief the DCI and Principal.’ Needless to add that both these worthies would be focused on damage limitation and protection of the college’s precious reputation, pressing him to rule out any connection with the discovery of Catriona Rowlands. God forbid the pristine name of Sherwin should be sullied by a serial killer….

  A sudden chill struck him as he realized he had automatically assumed there would be more deaths.

  One day at a time, he told himself.

  The gleaming water meadows assumed a more sinister cast as he looked around him, wondering if a killer lurked somewhere in their ditches and dells.

  But it was time to return to Sherwin.

  He turned back to his team. ‘We’ve got a job to do,’ he said.

 

Forty minutes later, back in the Bursar’s rooms, a call came from Doyle.

  ‘The deputy manager at the Legion has just come on shift,’ he said. ‘She says she saw Ernie in the Lamb & Flag on Sunday evening.’ The young DC was tripping over his words in his eagerness to get the story out. ‘According to her, he acted like he was flush…. said he was expecting a windfall and there’d be plenty more where that came from.’

  So it was blackmail, Markham thought with a lurch of his heart. Ernie Braithwaite had gambled and lost.

  ‘Well done, Doyle,’ he said. ‘See if there’s anyone from the pub who can corroborate that and get statements…. If Mr Braithwaite was in his cups, he may have let something drop to the clientele there…. By the way, did Kate get anything from that student at the Rochford boat house?’

  ‘Nada, boss.’

  ‘Not to worry, it was always going to be a long shot.’ He thought hard. ‘Can you track down Catriona Rowlands’s next of kin for me and arrange for them to come in tomorrow.’

  ‘On it, sir.’

  When he had rung off, Markham reached for the pile of manila folders.

  Somewhere in the mound of paperwork there had to be some clue from the past that would put them on the trail of a killer.

  The college clock tower struck the hour and the DI bent to his task.

Catherine

Moloney 2019

 

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