CRIME IN THE CRYPT

Prologue

 

Marie Devlin was feeling distinctly hungover as she trudged up three flights of stairs to the top floor of the Theresian Club in Upper Montagu Street on Monday morning, a bucket of cleaning materials in her hand.

  Too much Chardonnay, she thought ruefully trying to ignore the headache building behind her eyes. But it had been a great party…. just so long as her brother J-J didn’t shoot his mouth off to the family. She didn’t fancy her mother back in Dublin getting to hear about those drinking games….

  At least mum approved of the Club. According to J-J, that’s because it was the next best thing to a convent.

  Breathing hard and cursing the fact that the building didn’t have a lift, she passed through the swing doors on the landing, heaved the hoover from a wall cupboard and made her way along the corridor to the far end.

  Thank heaven there were only three rooms to do up here. It was always quiet in the Club coming up to Easter when bookings became a trickle and there were only a few residents still around.

  She retrieved a crumpled piece of paper from her overall pocket.

  Yes, just Rosemary Gough, Thelma Machin and Julia Porter to attend to up here and after that the senior staff bedrooms on the second floor…. last stop the American professor on the first floor. Not too bad really.

  She wondered what J-J would think if he saw Rosemary Gough’s room. There was so much religious bric-a-brac it made the place a nightmare to dust, but she was used to it by now so that the statues and holy pictures felt almost like old friends.

  Mum would definitely like the little figurine of St Therese of Lisieux dressed in the flowing nun’s habit, clasping her crucifix and roses firmly to her chest. Marie liked it too, though this morning she fancied the saint’s expression held a look of sorrowful reproach…. almost as though she knew exactly what the cleaner had got up to last night.

  The bedrooms could do with a makeover, she reflected as she set to. They were perfectly neat and comfortable but so drab with the cream walls, sage green carpet, dull heavy furniture and curtains from the 1950s.

  Mind you, Rosemary Gough was the epitome of drab, so the room suited her personality down to a T.

  Marie wasn’t keen on the mousy little woman with badly cut hair who blinked at the world from behind thick-lensed NHS specs and never seemed to have a word to say for herself. But at least she wasn’t around this morning on account of it being her shift with the Great Ormond Street Volunteers. Personally, she couldn’t imagine anything more depressing than having the likes of Miss Gough dispensing good cheer, but she supposed there was no great harm in her. And at least she never gave Marie any hassle. Not like Mister Nosy Parker David Manners.

  The Irish girl’s pretty face darkened at the thought of the deputy warden. Always poking and prying. To say nothing of trying to catch them out over every petty breach of the rules. For such a small grey man, he had boundless self-conceit and seemingly endless energy when it came to prowling round the building. And when he ‘needed a word’, this somehow invariably happened to be when she and the other student cleaners were half-dressed or getting changed.

  Creep.

  He and Rosemary Gough had the same taste in books…. big fat holy volumes about the lives of saints. And they were mighty particular about them too…. always noticed if she moved anything or if they weren’t lined up just so.

  She wondered how Rosemary managed to afford living at the Club. Even with a discount for membership, it couldn’t be cheap. Getting by on her pension, presumably. Plus, she’d been a resident for years and years, so maybe they didn’t give her a hike when they put prices up….

  At least the woman was tidy and organised. Not like Julia Porter. God, she simply dreaded the thought of doing room 18 at the other end of the corridor. What on earth could anyone want with all those newspapers and magazines, not to mention the stuff from charity shops?

  It was a wonder old fusspot Manners hadn’t had a go at her about it. But then, there was something vaguely scary about Julia’s appearance with all the witchy hair and heavy eye makeup. Plus, she absolutely stank of cigarettes, so maybe he didn’t care to get too close.

  Thelma Machin was a bit of a hoarder too, though not on the same scale as Julia. But at least she had some excuse for all those books and papers being a supply teacher, whereas Julia was just a part-time receptionist at the Little Flower Institute in Kensington. Thelma wasn’t too bad actually. Had to be getting on, seeing the way she stooped and the whiteish hair, but she was kind to Marie at the beginning when she was homesick and lent her paperbacks from time to time.

  There were worse places to end up, Marie thought as she cleaned the sink, dusted and hoovered. The residents’ rooms didn’t have en-suite, so that was one less thing to worry about. She couldn’t imagine living for years with a bathroom down the corridor. Just like being at boarding school.

  Or a convent.

  Despite J-J’s jibes, the Club was very comfortable, for all that it was no frills. She felt quite proud of the red-carpeted entrance hall with the reading room on one side and the television lounge on the far side of the dining room. Everywhere was traditional and old-fashioned, but there was no institutional smell of cabbage or anything like that. With its shut-in, faintly perfumed air, pictures in gilt frames and the bookcases with leather-backed volumes of religious classics, there was a feeling of Victorian parlours…. the kind of place where Dickens or some other famous person might have lived. It was quietly impressive from the outside too, situated at the end of the Georgian terrace with a pillared portico that was rather grand. She and the other two girls lived in budget quarters in the somewhat dingy basement with a shared shower, but the rooms weren’t bad and there was a pretty garden round the back. Mr Up Himself Manners didn’t like them using the garden, but Father Digby Peake the warden was relaxed about it. ‘Just remember, no topless bathing,’ he told them with a wink. That was the thing about Father Digby, he was always up for a joke and a laugh. Not a bit like she’d thought a priest would be, though the grey-black beard gave him the air of an Old Testament prophet.

  Finished with Rosemary’s room, Marie locked it carefully with her master key and moved down the corridor to Thelma’s. She had settled into the usual Monday morning rhythm and the headache had mercifully started to recede.

  There was the same holy paraphernalia as in Rosemary’s, though rather more upmarket. And all kinds of mementoes of St Therese of Lisieux. A bit like a shrine. Mind you, the Club was named for her and the place was meant to be a centre for religious research…. what did they call it, oh yeah…. Theresiana…. so it was only to be expected residents would buy in to the whole thing.

  Sister Pauline the Club librarian, who lived on the second floor, was forever on at Marie about the saint’s cult. And Sister Roisin the chaplain wasn’t much better, though at least she didn’t keep pressing prayer cards into her hand. Sister Pauline was always cornering her about Mass and Confession, but Sister Roisin (pronounced ‘Rosheen’, as she regularly had to remind people) seemed to understand that Marie had other stuff to do…. she was more easy-going…. more laid back than Sister Pauline. Gloomily, she reflected that mum would disapprove of them wearing skirts and blouses instead of the full religious habit. But you could tell they were nuns, she thought, even without the clue of the little silver cross and chain.

  Thelma’s room didn’t take long. At this rate she’d be finished in time for a quick coffee with the housekeeper Paolo Serrano before she had to go on duty in the dining room, ready to help the cook and serve snacks for anyone who wanted a light lunch.

  She brightened at the thought. Dark-eyed Paolo was outrageously camp and such fun.  Not all prissy and downturned mouth like the live-in theology student Ignatius Fermor who lived on the second floor. He’d made such a palaver about ‘cleaning his own room’, you’d think Marie was some kind of prostitute trying to tempt him from the straight and narrow.

  It’d probably do him a power of good.

  She had arrived outside Julia Porter’s room.

  For some reason that she couldn’t quite analyse, Marie hesitated outside the door of number 18, a hand rubbing the small of her back.

  Everything was the same as usual.

  And yet, something felt different.

  She looked about the hushed corridor apprehensively.

  All the bedrooms on the third floor looked out onto Upper Montagu Street, unlike the second floor which had rooms front and back.

  Today, the third-floor corridor felt somehow cramped and claustrophobic.

 Airless. Silent.

  As though the Club held its breath.

  Waiting.

  Marie gave herself a shake.

  That’s what came of living in a place like this, You started to imagine all sorts.

  But still.

  She hovered on the threshold, unaccountably reluctant to put her key in the lock.

  Snap out of it, girl, she told herself. At this rate she’d never have time for that coffee with Paolo.

  She turned the key.

  Afterwards, she said it was as though Julia was laid out waiting for her, glassy eyes turned sightlessly towards the door.

  Even if it hadn’t been for the livid weal around the woman’s neck, she’d have known Julia was dead.

  Strangled.

  From a little shelf above the bed, the statuette of St Therese looked on, waxy and inscrutable as though oblivious to the sacrilege that had taken place within the sacred precincts of her Club.

  Marie Devlin backed into the corridor, her screams rending the silence.

1

A Case Like No Other

 

Late afternoon on Tuesday 16 March found DI Gilbert (‘Gil’) Markham enjoying some mild spring sunshine in Montagu Square. The daffodils were out, and the pale blue sky was as clear as if it had been freshly shampooed.  All around was the sense of nature stirring and preparing to put forth her best.

  Delightful.

  Or would have been, were it not for what had happened the previous day just a short distance from where he sat.

  It was halfway through the Police Federation fortnight, an event which was living down to expectations as usual. He and DS George Noakes were the attendees from Bromgrove CID amidst much wrathful muttering from Noakes about it being ‘some other sucker’s turn’. DCI Sidney (‘Slimy Sid’ to the troops) was also down at the conference, though moving in more rarefied circles than his disgruntled subordinates. ‘Cos he’s the big cheese an’ we’re jus’ fricking plankton,’ as Noakes put it, mixing metaphors with his usual crude brio.

  With his lived-in pugilist’s face, squat physiognomy, unruly salt and pepper hair (bristly as a lavatory brush) and dire dress sense, George Noakes was no-one’s idea of a lean, mean fighting machine and the despair of DCI Sidney, not least for his obstinate refusal to pay due deference to the shibboleths of political correctness.

  But that was precisely what Markham loved about Noakes. That and the fierce loyalty which meant the grizzled sergeant would always have his back no matter what. There was also a refreshing authenticity about the uncouth manners that made Noakes, like some old gumshoe, stand out like a sore thumb amidst the careerists and diplomats of CID. He had compassion too, though not for ‘scrotes’, and a strangely poetic, almost romantic, side to his nature that he took care to keep well hidden from the rank and file.

  Perhaps this was one reason why Markham’s English teacher girlfriend Olivia had taken to Noakes from the first. She too had a markedly subversive streak that made her impatient of smooth-tongued apparatchiks (of which there were all too many in her profession) and delighted in Noakes’s outspoken honesty. At some level they were kindred spirits, and the gruff DS was devoted to her, to the considerable irritation of his wife.

  Mrs Muriel Noakes was overbearing and snobbish, though with a marked tendresse for her husband’s fastidious, elegant boss. No great fan of Olivia’s boho chic and sparkiness, she persisted in her belief that ‘poor dear Gilbert’ had been ensnared by a designing hussy. Sex was at the bottom of it all, in her opinion, and she lived for the day when the handsome inspector’s eyes would be opened. In the meantime, there existed an uneasy truce of sorts between her and Olivia who – in a strange way – had become almost fond of her protagonist.

 ‘It’s a Love Hate thing, Gil,’ Olivia told Markham. ‘But after the Bluebell affair, I saw how vulnerable she was.’

  The ‘Bluebell affair’ was an investigation during which Noakes made the shattering discovery that Natalie Noakes, the apple of his eye, was not in fact his biological daughter but the fruit of his wife’s youthful dalliance with a ‘no-mark’. The discovery had consequences that almost ended Noakes’s police career, along with his partnership with Markham. But they weathered the crisis, although the DI was unsure to this day what had passed between Noakes and ‘the missus’.

  He and Noakes never talked about it. Nor did they talk about Markham’s sad past as the victim of childhood sexual abuse. That was the thing. Somehow there was no need for words. But he knew that Noakes – the man Sidney dismissed as ‘Markham’s useful idiot’ – comprehended it all without any need for explanation.

  As for Noakes and Olivia. Well, there was something of a conundrum. Clearly the DS had a secret chivalric yen for swan-necked, Titian-haired women who looked like the heroines of his childhood picture books about King Arthur. Muriel Noakes, on the other hand, was as buxom and well-upholstered as the ‘Miss Joan Hunter Dunn’ celebrated by John Betjeman and others as goddesses of the English shires.

  ‘A man can be in love with two women at the same time, Gil,’ Olivia assured him.

  He would have to take her word for it. But still, it was unfathomable. When he watched Noakes and his wife dance – another well-hidden secret being that the Noakeses had met on the ballroom dancing circuit – he was struck by the mysterious affinity which meant they moved like a dream. It was difficult to reconcile their chemistry on the dance floor with Muriel’s sergeant-major-ish approach to marital relations. Truly, what went on behind closed doors was a great mystery.

  Weirdly, Noakes hadn’t been remotely fazed by events at the Theresian Club. After the St Cecilia investigation, Markham had braced himself for superstitious mutterings and maledictions of the direst kind. But when DCI Sidney made the call and brought them in (‘you being au fait with the religious side, Markham’, a none too discreet reference to Markham’s Catholic upbringing), the DS took everything in his stride right down to the religious statues and pictures.

  It turned out that Mrs Noakes was something of a fan of St Therese of Lisieux, the ‘Little Flower’. So none of the anticipated invective against nuns, convents and the Catholic Church in fact materialised.

  Markham wasn’t sure what to make of this new born-again Noakes, but as things stood he’d take what he could get.

  DCI Sidney had suggested he and Noakes link up with DI Kate Burton and DS Doyle at Southampton Row.

  Just like old times.

  DI Kate Burton was the earnest, achingly politically correct protégée Markham had been disappointed to lose to London.

  ‘It was for the best, Gil,’ Olivia had told him brutally. ‘Otherwise, she was never going to get over you.’

  Olivia and Noakes were adamant that Kate had succumbed to a ‘crush’ on him. For himself, Markham couldn’t see it. Nonetheless, he knew it was good for Burton to spread her wings and leave Bromgrove. But he felt a gap. And he knew Noakes did too. For all their differences, the warhorse DS and university-educated highflyer had eventually shaken down together like an old married couple, their periodic spats as predictable as the changing seasons. The DS had discovered an avuncular protectiveness towards Burton that he would rather have been flayed alive than confess to, while for her part she had learned to appreciate the wily shrewdness that made him second to none when it came to flicking suspects on the raw. The psychology graduate and dyed-in-the-wool old school copper had also discovered a mutual passion for true crime documentaries, though it was unlikely Noakes would ever acquire any enthusiasm for Burton’s bible, the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Markham suspected that each missed the other more than they cared to admit.

  And now circumstances had reunited them.

  The fourth member of their quartet, DS Doyle, had moved with Burton to Southampton Row. Noakes was the lanky ginger-haired young detective’s mentor in matter of football and the heart alike, with no abatement in their friendship arising from the latter’s transplantation to the capital since Doyle made frequent flying visits to his hometown, especially whenever there was a chance of seeing his beloved Bromgrove Rovers in action. With his newly minted degree in criminal law, Doyle like Burton was on the fast track to success.

  Markham and Noakes were staying at the Russell Hotel in Bloomsbury and, fortuitously, Olivia was booked in there too courtesy of a CPD (continuing professional development) course at the University of London.

  Given the leaden dullness of the conference seminars on ‘Diversity for A New Millennium’, neither the DI nor his DS was devastated to be called away. But the Theresian Club case promised to be like nothing they had ever encountered.

  They hadn’t personally secured the crime scene. That was down to DCI Moriarty at Southampton Row. The previous day had only allowed a swift recce of the Club once Julia Porter’s body had been removed. Too brief a visit to allow of their forming any distinct impressions. But he’d sensed that Noakes was thoroughly intrigued by what on the surface appeared an inexplicable murder and by the whole otherworldly atmosphere the place exuded.

  That was the thing about Noakes. He constantly confounded expectations.

  And now the residents and staff had been dispatched to a local B&B while forensic teams combed the premises. His own ‘Gang of Four’, mandated by the powers that be to take over the investigation, was due to meet at Southampton Row on the morrow. In the meantime, he awaited Olivia’s emergence from her final seminar of the day at the Senate House.

  For a moment, he felt nostalgic for the terraced graveyard of St Chad’s Parish Church in Bromgrove where he invariably gathered his thoughts at the start of each new case. Then he reproached himself for being an old stick-in-the-mud. A change was as good as a rest, and this investigation promised something unique.

  A check of his watch told him it was time to head for Malet Street to meet Olivia. With a final glance at the daffodils, he said a silent prayer for the soul of Julia Porter. Whatever had brought her to that lonely end in the Theresian Club, he would not rest until they had ferreted it out.

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

 

Later, Markham filled Olivia in on the events of the day as they unwound over a banquet at China City just off Russell Square. From an Anglican background, she had a keen interest in religion, though professed to be lukewarm about holy luminaries.

  ‘St Therese….. Oh yes, I know the one you mean,’ Olivia said with an expressive eye roll. ‘She was that French nun in an enclosed order at the end of the nineteenth century…. the Carmelites, wasn’t it…. died at twenty-four from TB. Actually,’ she pulled a face, ‘I remember seeing some creepy footage on You Tube from when they exhumed her body before lugging it back to the convent…. all part of the rigmarole before she could be beatified….. called ‘Blessed’ or whatever happens before they make someone a saint.’

  She chewed her dim sum meditatively then added, ‘Didn’t she have these really pushy sisters in the same convent who sent out some notebooks of hers instead of the standard obituary?  I read somewhere they chopped up her bed and clothes so they could send them out as relics… just like some creepy cottage industry?’

  Markham chuckled. ‘That’s right. The notebooks ended up being published as her autobiography, Story of a Soul. But even before she died, they were beavering away collecting hairs and tears…. There must have been something in it. Apparently on the Fiji islands her image stopped a tidal wave…. And on other occasion it sent a horde of Chinese bandits packing.’

  ‘Her image…. Ah, I remember that too, Gil…. It’s all coming back to me now…. She had a thing about flowers and said that after she died she would send down a shower of roses…. so the statues always show her with an armful of them…. Honestly, all that kitsch.’

  ‘That’s her.’ Markham’s eyes held a mischievous gleam. ‘And as for the “cottage industry”, Noakes tells me they’ve got a piece of Therese’s blanket in the Anglican church at Walsingham.’

  His lover paused with a pork ball halfway to her mouth.

  ‘How come George is up on all of this?’she asked.

  ‘I believe Muriel enjoys the occasional flirtation with Catholicism,’ came the wry answer. ‘Apparently she went to see Therese’s relics when they were on tour in this country.’

  Olivia shuddered.

  ‘On tour,’ she repeated scornfully. ‘God, that was necrophiliac…. bits of her thigh and leg being toted round the UK like a rock star doing gigs…. She even “played” Wormwood Scrubs…..’

  Markham smiled. ‘I found it rather touching, actually….  I suppose relics make ordinary people feel close to her,’ he added simply. ‘There’s a shrine with her right arm, which wrote Story of a Soul, in the basilica at Lisieux. The convent has the ribcage inside an effigy of Therese on her deathbed, while there’s some more bones in a vault directly underneath and other parts of the skeleton that travel the world.’

  ‘Isn’t it meant to be a sign of holiness if a saint’s body doesn’t decay?’ Olivia demanded beadily. ‘Aren’t they supposed to be intact?’

  ‘When Therese was dying, her sisters were obsessed with the idea of her body remaining incorrupt, but she was totally realistic…. said there’d be nothing left of her apart from a pile of bones…. Apparently she appeared in a vision to some theologian or other and told him, “It was the dress of my day’s work that I threw off. I await the robe of the eternal Sunday; I do not care what happens to the other.”’

  ‘Hmm,’ Olivia murmured appreciatively, ‘that’s rather beautiful.’ She added slyly, ‘Sounds to me like you’ve done some research, Gil.’

  ‘Well, no doubt the academics at the Club will fill me in on the theological side, but she’s quite an intriguing character. There’s much more to her than florets and fuzzy lambs and all the sentimental bad taste…. They created her a Doctor of the Church in the end.’

  ‘I don’t like saints made of multicoloured plaster in sky-blue and pink,’ Olivia retorted stubbornly. ‘All flowers, and roses and twee goodness….’

  ‘Oh there were plenty of thorns and brambles too, Liv.’ Markham scooped up some chow mein while she watched him expectantly. ‘Therese was a product of her limited bourgeois environment, but gutsy for all that…. She might have been raised in a middle-class hothouse and wrapped in cotton wool to start with, but there was real heroism later on.’ Markham was surprised by his sudden inexplicable ardour for this long-dead twenty-four year old. ‘Not just her illness and the fight to become holy…. She went into religious life all starry-eyed, but that convent of hers was anything but a collection of saints.’

  Olivia frowned. ‘Wasn’t there a crackpot Prioress who wouldn’t let her have morphine when she was dying?’

  ‘That’s right…. Mother Marie de Gonzague.’

  His lover raised her eyebrows.

  Markham grimaced. ‘Yep, aristocratic dame, so probably looked down on Therese because she hailed from “trade” …. lacemaking and watches.’

  ‘She was a psycho about the morphine.’

  ‘The family got round it…. Therese’s cousin was married to a doctor and he administered it surreptitiously once the disease started attacking her intestines.’

  Olivia flinched. ‘What a soap opera.’

  ‘She rose above it, Liv…. That’s what I like about her…. Her sisters and a cousin were all lurking round her bed – pens at the ready to take down any edifying last words – and she more or less told them to stuff it…. When they asked her, “What will you die of?” she told them, “I shall die of death”.’

  Olivia burst out laughing.

  ‘I’m beginning to warm to Therese,’ she said.

  ‘Oh, they’re all fighting over her, Liv…. Feminists take the sociological line…lots of Freudian speculation about the relationship with her father and sexual repression.’

  ‘Don’t tell me, they decided she had a crush on the Prioress.’

  ‘As a matter of fact, yes.’

  Olivia rolled her eyes. ‘Shades of the St Cecilia investigation and dodgy convents…. George is going to love this.’

  ‘Well, he takes his lead from She Who Must Be Obeyed, so hopefully these days he won’t be shrieking No Popery at every turn.’ Markham took a long draught of his Châteauneuf-du-Pape. ‘Actually, Noakesy seemed to know quite a lot about Therese.’

  His lover’s eyebrows shot up again.

  ‘Muriel dragged him along to some talks at the Women’s Institute and a surprising amount appears to have stuck.’

  ‘I can’t imagine him going a bundle on all the tinselly stuff…. chucking rose petals at crucifixes and all the rest of it.’

  Markham chuckled. ‘No, but I reckon he admires her sheer bloody-mindedness…. the way she waged a sort of guerrilla warfare against the other nuns who weren’t prepared to work at religious life and give it their best.’

  Olivia was thoughtful. ‘How many of her family were in that convent?’

  ‘Three sisters and a cousin…. Plus, there was another sister who joined a different order.’

  ‘No wonder the poor old Prioress was paranoid…. probably expected them to mount a coup or something.’

  Markham smiled. ‘It wasn’t just the Prioress,’ he said. ‘There’s this story about a nun who liked to come and stand at the foot of Therese’s bed when she was dying to gloat over her sufferings…. They were all pretty intense and neurotic, no doubt about it…. very much the product of their times…. “Fortress Catholicisim”, if you like.’

  ‘Didn’t her parents want to join religious orders before they married?’ Olivia asked. ‘I remember hearing they’ve been canonised too.’

  ‘That’s right, and one of the sisters is on the same track.’

  ‘Blimey, just like a family business.’ Olivia turned her attention to the prawn crackers. ‘I still think there’s something eminently slappable about this Little Flower of yours, Gil.’

  ‘Oh, no question.’ Markham’s eyes were merry. ‘Looking through the worthy tomes about her life, some of it’s hilarious.’

  ‘Go on. After a day of Postmodernist Feminism with earnest nerds, I could do with a laugh.’

  ‘Well, when Therese was in the convent, she was praying for her sister Celine to join her but it looked like big sis might have fancied the bright lights…. Anyway, when Celine went to this party, Therese started praying that the evening would be a disaster and got the whole community to join in…. It ended with some young fellow asking Celine to dance, but they both found they couldn’t take a single step, so Therese took it as a sign she was right.’

  ‘See what I mean…. Slappable,’ Oliva said darkly.

  ‘There was a relative who was quite normal, actually…. Uncle Isidore. He was a pharmacist who was very comfortably off because of money from his wife,’ Markham replied, amused by her fierceness. ‘He didn’t want Therese going into the convent at fifteen…. and he wasn’t happy about the canonisation either, though the Church played all of that down.’

  ‘I like the sound of old Isidore.’

  ‘Well, he wanted his nieces to see something of the world before they renounced it.’ Markham chuckled grimly. ‘But he was on a losing wicket with Therese. When the family did a pilgrimage to Rome, she spent all her time praying to St Joseph to shield her eyes from seeing anything unsuitable. Even on her deathbed, she was asking herself if it was sinful to have enjoyed using perfume.’

  Olivia whooped.

  ‘Priceless! What a prig.’ She looked ruefully at the spread in front of her. ‘Nothing very ascetic about the way I’ve hoovered up this lot,’ she lamented. ‘Come on, Gil,’ she pleaded, ‘save me from myself.’

  Markham duly helped himself to a spring roll. Suddenly serious, he added. ‘Like I say, Liv, Therese was a product of her time. But she was a giant in religious terms….  her theory of “The Little Way” had a huge impact.’

  ‘Uh-huh.’ Olivia looked unconvinced. ‘Wasn’t that all about her offering stuff up…. gritting her teeth when some nun splashed her with dirty water in the laundry or trying to ignore the one who kept sucking her teeth during silent prayer?’ She pulled a comical face. ‘I remember thinking it made her sound like some kind of weird Eastern fakir… totting up pains and ordeals like she aimed to break a world record.’

  ‘Oh, there was much more to it than that,’ her lover replied. ‘But I think what endeared her to ordinary folk – the reason she’s such a big hit – is the way she fought so hard to do everything as well as she possibly could…. and did it with her very best smile.’

  ‘Ugh.’

  ‘I know, I know…. But once you look past all the gilt they daub on her, it’s actually quite remarkable…. how she rose above all the crudeness and spite of convent life and tried to meet it all with love.’ He shot Olivia a penetrating look. ‘Love is blind,’ he quoted softly. ‘It is a wild torrent that leaves nothing behind in the path where it has raged.’

  ‘Therese said that?’

  ‘The very same.’

  ‘Well, I guess I need to mug up some more on your Little Flower…. Sounds like she was treated pretty shamefully at the end.’

  ‘Oh yes, the way she died was a scandal alright. There was a French priest who wrote about it in the 1950s…. his book made the Church really angry, but it was all true…. TB just wasn’t properly understood back then, and Victorian prudery played a part. The priest’s sister died in a convent too, and she wasn’t even allowed to have fresh air because the Mother Superior decided it wasn’t proper for nuns to keep their windows open at night.’

  Olivia made a disgusted sound.

  ‘What about the sensible uncle?’ she asked. ‘Wouldn’t he have kicked up a stink?’

  ‘Uncle Isidore did his best, but Therese covered things up even after she’d begin to cough blood. Her mother was just the same. Had a breast tumour for sixteen years before she said anything about it, and by then it was way too late.’

  She shuddered.

  ‘Poor little girl. And no peace at the end with those pesky sisters whipping out their jotters like demented stenographers.’

  Markham smiled sadly. ‘She had a great admiration for martyrs like Joan of Arc, but what she went through was infinitely worse than anything they endured.’

  ‘She sounds like a sort of eternal schoolgirl,’ Olivia murmured. ‘Didn’t she doorstep the Pope in Rome and beg him to let her become a nun at fifteen? What were they all thinking of? How could her father have allowed it?’

  ‘He saw it as a great honour for all of his girls to enter convents,’ Markham said simply. ‘That’s the kind of family they were. He was thrilled when she became a nun and sent so many presents to the convent that they called him “Christ’s postman”.’

  ‘Downright unbalanced if you ask me.’ Olivia was reluctant to be won over. ‘A schoolgirl,’ she repeated.

  ‘With a huge following,’ Markham said. ‘In the First World War, soldiers and airmen went into battle carrying pictures and medals of her…. And it’s lasted right up until today…. It’s a real cult, believe me…. Even the Muslims revere her.’

  ‘Presumably her sisters’ PR campaign had something to do with it,’ Olivia observed caustically.

  ‘To start with, yes. They were determined to have her declared a saint…. Celine was the artistic one who took her camera into the convent, so while the others got down to editing the notebooks, she was airbrushing her photos of Therese…. making her features more oval and heavenly…. All quite touching really.’

  ‘Makes me feel queasy,’ was his lover’s tart retort. ‘So there was a family bandwagon.’

  ‘In the beginning maybe…. But it took off astonishingly…. She was made a saint by popular acclaim less than thirty years after her death, when usually the process lumbers on for much longer…. There were so many stories and miracles…. The Church has a huge investment in her.’

  Olivia’s gaze was penetrating.

  ‘Do you think the Church has got anything to do with this murder, Gil?’ she asked. ‘I mean, d’you reckon this Julia Porter was some sort of heretic…. working against the Little Flower cult or movement or whatever it is, so they set out to punish her?’

  Markham frowned.

  ‘That’s the strange thing…. Julia Porter was just this middle-aged woman who’d lived at the Club for many years…. ever since she came to London. Devout Catholic with a job as a receptionist at the Little Flower Institute. Quiet and inoffensive by all accounts…. a bit eccentric perhaps, but nothing worse than that.’

  ‘Eccentric?’

  ‘Something of a hoarder apparently. Obsessive about collecting newspapers and stuff most people would throw out…. It was more or less under control, though… They could still get in to clean her room.’

  ‘So she was a Therese groupie then?’

  ‘Definitely….  but there was nothing subversive about her piety…. hugely enthusiastic about the whole shebang.’

  Olivia was puzzled. ‘There must be a connection with religion somewhere, Gil,’ she said wonderingly. ‘I mean look at where she died…. the whole set-up’s so, well, unique.’

  ‘True.’ Markham felt as though a weight had lifted just from sharing his impressions of the case. ‘That Club’s a weird, closed world,’ he continued. ‘But at least there are only a few residents and staff there at the moment, because the place always winds down before Easter when visiting academics go home for the holidays.’

  She flashed him a grin.

  ‘Not too many fanatics to wade through, then?’

  ‘Correct.’ He sighed. ‘Of course, what happened to Ms Porter may be nothing to do with St Therese and the Little Flower movement…. but something tells me there’s a link.’

  ‘Well, while you’re hot on the trail, I’ll take a look at those books you mentioned…. From what you say, it sounds like Therese wasn’t just a pink bon-bon but quite a toughie underneath it all.’

  ‘Be my guest, Liv.’ He was pleased by her interest. ‘Don’t be put off by the sugar roses and lard clouds and all the rest of it,’ he added dryly. ‘They’re just analgesics to take away the pain of the real story.’

  ‘I’m up for a challenge, at any rate.’ She chuckled softly. ‘Me and George both.’

  ‘Oh, I’d say Noakesy is shaping up to be quite a fan.’

  ‘Muriel’s indoctrinated him, then?’

  ‘Well, he doesn’t have much time for all the voodoo bollocks.’

  Olivia laughed, recognizing a direct quote.

  ‘But he likes how Therese bucked the trend…. didn’t do anything grand or heroic but just kept at it in that dreary convent and made the best of a bad job.’

  ‘A saint for the tryers, then,’ Olivia concluded.

  ‘Yes…. the little people, if you like.’

  She screwed up her face.

  Markham’s lips twitched at her expression.

  ‘I know, it sounds dreadfully patronising,’ he said. ‘But Therese may surprise you…. When you get past the infantilism, there’s something irrepressible about her.’ He set down his chopsticks with a satisfied air. ‘Wow, that was good.’ Again, he smiled the rare charming smile that transfigured his darkly handsome features. ‘When Therese was near the end and refused a cup of broth, the nun who brought it was offended and told her she wasn’t a saint as her sisters pretended but not even a good nun. Apparently, she replied what a blessing it was to hear on one’s deathbed that one hadn’t even been a proper nun.’

  ‘Feisty gal,’ Olivia observed. ‘I begin to see why she might appeal to George.’

  ‘Well, he likes physical courage –’

  ‘Bloody-mindedness.’

  ‘That too…. He seemed pretty fascinated by the clammy details of how she died…. tubercular toxins, gangrenous intestines and all the rest of it. Sorry,’ he caught himself up at the look on his lover’s face. ‘That’s not what you want to hear over a meal.’

  ‘No, I can see how this saint draws people in,’ she said slowly. ‘Such a strange subterranean kind of life…. locked up in that convent when she was just in her teens…. being measured for her shroud from day one.’

  ‘She chose it, Liv…. to save souls. And as for the rest, God was the only doctor she ever trusted.’

  ‘Humph.’ But Olivia’s gaze was tender. She could see St Therese had somehow got under her lapsed Catholic lover’s skin.

  ‘Actually, she badly wanted to be a missionary and get sent to Indochina, but in those days and with what happened to her health….’

  ‘Awful…. Walled up within four walls and no physical escape…. brought up against your own shortcomings all the time with no let up.’

  ‘I think that’s part of why Noakesy admires her. Battling away day after day no matter what….  She didn’t even believe in heaven towards the end –’

  ‘Can’t say I’m surprised.’

  ‘But she kept trusting right up until the last.’ Markham reached across the table and took her hand. ‘It may sound odd, but I somehow feel I owe it to Therese as well as that poor woman to find out what’s going on in the Club.’

  ‘A divine mission,’ she exclaimed. Well, if the Almighty is on your side….’

  ‘There’s a tale about the woman who reformed the Carmelite order, St Teresa of Avila…. The story goes that after some setback or other she was praying about it and heard Jesus say, “This is how I treat my friends”. To which she replied, “If this is how you treat your friends, it’s no wonder You have so few”.’

  The meal ended in laughter.

2

A Foreign Country

 

‘You should go on Mastermind, sarge,’ Doyle was saying as Markham joined them in Kate Burton’s office at Southampton Row the following morning. ‘Seriously, this St Therese woman could be your specialist subject…. I reckon you’d clean up.’

  Burton too looked reluctantly intrigued, eyes darting to her beloved Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders which held pride of place in the bookcase. Markham was willing to bet the psychology graduate was itching to look up Religious Exaltation and Psychosomatic Disorders in the Index.

  Sounds a terribly hard sort of life,’ she said.

  ‘You’re telling me.’ Noakes was gratified by their attention. ‘Getting up at five in the morning with jus’ two helpings of soup an’ some bits of veg a day.’ He shook his head sorrowfully, since decent grub was one of his non-negotiables. ‘An’ kissing people’s feet when you did owt wrong, an’ if you broke something then you had to wear it round your neck….’

  Markham was amused by the way his wingman had latched on to the more gothic aspects of nineteenth-century religious life.

  ‘Five hours work a day and prayer on top of that,’ he broke in with a smile. ‘With just a straw mattress to sleep on and no heating. They bred them tough back then.’

  ‘’Spose it weren’t all bad,’ Noakes scratched his chin dubiously. ‘The boss nun felt quite sorry for her an’ gave her a box with some hot coal so she could warm her feet up. Therese joked about it…. said other nuns would turn up in heaven with holy things while she’d be carrying this hot water bottle.’

  Markham chuckled. ‘Doyle’s right, Sergeant. We’ll be hearing you on Thought For The Day at this rate.

  The DS tried to look suitably modest and failed.

  ‘Well, our Nat went through a stage when she wondered about becoming a nun.’

  A choking sound came from Doyle, hastily suppressed.

  The DI remained impenetrably grave despite the mind-boggling notion of pneumatic Natalie Noakes, the doyenne of Bromgrove’s nightclubs, wanting to take the veil. Of course the trauma of the Bluebell case, when she’d been in serious danger, might have effected a personality change but even so….

  Burton carefully didn’t look at him.

  ‘Me an’ the missus didn’t want that for her,’ Noakes continued. ‘She’d too much character for that kind of life.’

  Markham suspected the vows of obedience and chastity might also have presented problems for the Stroppy One.

  ‘An’ when you look at what happened to Therese…. the TB an’ her insides turning to cheese,’ Noakes added sagely.

  Doyle shifted restlessly. ‘How come you know so much about it, sarge?’

  It was an echo of Olivia’s question the night before.

  ‘The WI back home did these lectures on her. Thought I’d go along, see what all the fuss were about.’

  Which, translated, meant ‘the missus’ had issued a three-line whip.

  ‘Turned out to be quite interesting ackhsually,’ Noakes said. A thought struck him. ‘Hey, I almost forgot. Therese were into murder an’ all.’

  ‘What?’ Burton was startled. Even she hadn’t envisaged a saint with homicidal tendencies.

  ‘Not herself,’ Noakes explained patiently. ‘But when she were little, she heard about this bloke called Pranzini…. He’d knocked off a couple of women, so they guillotined him. But jus’ before he died, he kissed a crucifix three times….  Therese decided it were her prayers that made him repent…. That’s what got her started on praying for bad ’uns, see. Murder.’

  The word fell into the silence of the room like a heavy weight.

  Murder.

  ‘Well let’s hope Julia Porter’s a one-off and there isn’t some nutter out there targeting religious hostels,’ Doyle said uneasily. Then, ‘Look, why I don’t get us some drinks in from Costa next door before we get started.’

  ‘Champion.’ Noakes beamed at the younger man. ‘I could do with one of them muffins an’ all.’ He patted his paunch complacently. ‘No need for any of us to go in for that fasting malarkey.’

  Doyle grinned. It was really a miracle the older man got through his fitness appraisals what with all the junk he put away. Any virtuous intentions formed during their last investigation at the diet clinic had clearly gone up in smoke, and Noakes was looking distinctly chunky. The horrendous combo of blue chinos, mustard sweater and ancient Harris tweed jacket didn’t exactly help matters, while the pug-like features and ungovernable hair gave him the air of a bookie’s runner. A greater contrast to the pinstriped Markham and Burton in her softly tailored charcoal two piece could scarcely be imagined. Doyle was satisfied that his own ensemble from the Dior Men’s range covered all the bases. Edgy but classic at the same time. Perfectly unobjectionable attire for scouting around this weird religious place.

  Happily oblivious of his colleague’s reaction, as Doyle disappeared into the corridor Noakes grunted amiably at Burton, ‘You’re looking chipper, luv. So how’s it going with you an’ ole Shippers then?’ By which cordial designation he meant Professor Nathan Finlayson, the psychologist to whom Burton had drawn close during previous investigations and who bore a disconcerting resemblance to the serial killer Dr Harold Shipman.

‘Well, with it being long-distance we don’t always hook up as much as we’d like, sarge.’

  That figured, the DS thought, since the pair of them were bleeding workaholics.

  Markham smiled warmly at her. ‘You’re certainly looking well, Kate. Clearly Southampton Row agrees with you.’

  The nut-brown pageboy swung forward to hide a tell-tale blush, but Burton quickly recovered herself, intelligent brown eyes and snub-nosed little face glowing with pleasure at the compliment.

  She still ain’t over the guvnor, Noakes told himself. Poor old Shippers.

  ‘So, we’re taking over this case are we, sir?’ she asked anxiously after some desultory chit chat, as though fearful the opportunity would be snatched away before they’d got their teeth into it. ‘DCI Sidney’s squared it, right?’

  ‘Yes, Kate. He and DCI Moriarty are only too happy for us to take over.’ A slight tightening of the well-moulded lips. ‘In view of the cranky religious set-up.’

  Burton registered the distaste. No doubt those were Sidney’s exact words.

  The DCI’s resentment of Bromgrove CID’s legendarily reserved wunderkind, with his Oxbridge background and air of fastidious refinement, was an open secret. Sidney never lost a chance to needle Markham about how ‘his other half managed to crop up in so many investigations’, leading Olivia to christen her lover’s boss Judas Iscariot. Burton herself never experienced any problems with Sidney, but it was hard to watch his pettifogging persecution of the man who had been her lodestar ever since she joined CID. It was a relief to be out of his orbit.

  Now she said, ‘How cranky is it, sir? I mean, the Theresian Club’s a sort of centre for research, right?’

  ‘Well, the intellectual engine room’s on Brompton Road…. the Little Flower Institute… located round the back of Brompton Oratory within the Oratory Gardens.’

  ‘Knightsbridge…. That’s within spitting distance of Harrods,’ she frowned. ‘Prime real estate.’

  ‘It’s down to Peter’s Pence,’ Noakes rumbled. ‘Collections at Mass an’ all the rest of it…. That’s how they can afford such a posh location.’

  Burton ignored the Greek Chorus.

  ‘And Julia Porter worked there as a receptionist,’ she mused.

  ‘Correct.’

  ‘Musta known summat about crooked priests… corruption an’ dodgy deals.’ Noakes was keen to demonstrate he hadn’t read The Da Vinci Code for nothing.

  ‘Like what?’ Burton was clearly flummoxed. ‘How would a secretary have access to information like that?’

  ‘Came across it by accident,’ Noakes persisted. ‘Or she were earwigging…. An’ whatever she found out, it spelled danger.’

  ‘Hmm.’ Burton tapped a fountain pen against her teeth. ‘That all sounds a bit high-flown…. Maybe it had something to do with her personal life.’

  ‘She didn’t have one,’ Noakes objected. ‘Went to work an’ came home. No boyfriends, no socialising, jus’ work, sleep…. an’ hoarding,’ he added with a theatrical eye roll. ‘Newspapers an’ religious brochures, that kind of thing.’

  ‘What about an intruder?’ Burton persisted.

  ‘Highly unlikely,’ Markham said. ‘Security at the Club’s pretty tight…. Visitors have to be buzzed in, and I’d say there’s little chance of a stranger being able to wander around without getting challenged.’

  Sensing her frustration, he smiled encouragingly. ‘It’s not too great a pool of suspects and the place is generally quiet over Easter. Hardly any paying guests and pretty much just the staff in residence.’ Markham slipped a hand into his jacket pocket. ‘DCI Moriarty’s done a briefing note,’ he said, handing out copies ‘There were just three other residents in the Club when Ms Porter was killed…. Rosemary Gough, retired secretary…. volunteers at Great Ormond Street…. Thelma Machin, supply teacher… Both women lived on the same corridor as Julia. Then on the second floor you’ve got the senior staff…. Father Digby Peake, the warden…. David Manners, deputy warden…. Two nuns…. Sister Roisin Boden and Sister Pauline O’Connor, chaplain and librarian respectively…. and the housekeeper Paolo Serrano.’

  ‘You said three other residents, sir.’ Burton was scanning the piece of paper intently. ‘Who’s the third?’

  ‘Let me see…. ah yes, that’s Ignatius Fermor…. He’s a theology student at King’s…. has a room on the second floor…. plans to train for the priesthood, so they probably lodged him on the same floor as the staff out of deference to that.’

  ‘Yeah, wouldn’t want ole Rosie or Thelma giving him the glad eye,’ Noakes leered.

  ‘They’re devout Catholic ladies of a certain age, so precious little chance of that,’ Markham said dryly. ‘I’d say it was more a case of ensuring he had mentors available. Sister Roisin is also a student counsellor for the university.’

  ‘The DCI’s listed four “members” on here,’ Burton said. ‘Donald Trevelyan, Margaret Bertram, Kenneth Robson and Anne Leadbeater…. Do they live in the Club too?’

  ‘I believe they’re former residents and as such have various privileges…. their own pass keys, reduced rates if they want to stay the night, that kind of thing…. they’ve all been involved with Theresian studies.’

  ‘And just one visitor,’ Burton continued. ‘Tom Nevin.’

  ‘That’s right…. He’s their only paying guest over Easter…. American professor from the University of Florida.’ Markham folded the paper and restored it to his jacket.

  ‘I don’t know all that much about this St Therese,’ Burton said apologetically.

  Noakes bit back the sarcastic rejoinder that sprang to his lips. If Burton ran true to form, she’d be better briefed about Therese than the Pope before the day was much older. Probably already had a reading list burning a hole in her pocket.

  ‘Oh, Noakes can bring you up to speed,’ Markham told her, not without a certain sly malice as he took in her expression. ‘He’s a walking encyclopaedia on the subject.’

  The DI cleared her throat. ‘I had the impression her becoming a saint was some sort of vast propaganda exercise,’ she said apprehensively.

  ‘Yeah, but she were holy too,’ Noakes said firmly as though he was determined to brook no misunderstanding on that essential point.

  ‘Right, sarge,’ she replied faintly. ‘Er, what’s with the “Little Flower” terminology then?’

  ‘That’s cos she were really modest an’ didn’t like boasting…. said heaven’s like a garden an’ the really important saints – you know, St Peter an’ his mob – are the big flashy plants…. then there’s folk like her filling out the bits in between…. little flowers, see.’

  ‘Sounds more like moss,’ Doyle quipped as he arrived with their refreshments. ‘Or weeds.’

  Noakes frowned portentously.

  ‘Only kidding, sarge,’ the other said swiftly. ‘This bird I’m seeing at the moment,’ of whom no doubt further particulars would be vouchsafed to hie mentor over a pint or four, ‘she’s a Catholic. Her mum’s well into St Therese. Always doing prayers and Novenas and things.’

  The DS nodded approvingly. ‘Yeah, she’s a big deal. There’s even the king of some tribe in Africa made her regent of his country. Thass how much they rate her.’

  Burton absorbed this startling information as Doyle smoothly distributed the drinks and snacks. ‘There you go, guv…. oatmeal latter and granola bar for you…. cappuccinos for me an’ sarge, espresso for you, sir…. and chocolate muffins to finish off.’

  Noakes wasn’t distracted for long.

  ‘St Therese is probably the Left Footers’ number one saint,’ he observed wistfully through a mouthful of muffin.

  Markham’s lips twitched at the way Noakes made it sound like the ecclesiastical equivalent of Eurovision. For someone with a soundly Methodist upbringing, he was an unexpected adherent of this most ethereal of saints. Burton meanwhile was trying not to boggle.

  The coffee was excellent. After a few appreciative sips, he turned to Burton.

  ‘Even those without faith couldn’t help but admire Therese,’ he said quietly. ‘She wasn’t all about meek sentimentality. There was iron self-discipline her whole life long.’

  Now that was a language Burton understood. She began to lose the startled look.

  ‘She died of TB, is that right sir?’

  ‘Yeah,’ Noakes cut in. ‘They threw everything at it…. mustard plasters, blisters, the works…. the local doc didn’t know his arse from his elbow an’ the boss nun were a jealous bitch,’ not unlike Sidney he thought to himself, ‘so the poor lass died in agony…. didn’t even believe in life after death by the end of it.’

  ‘But she kept on loving and trusting,’ Markham continued as his wingman paused for breath. ‘Which is a large part of her appeal…. She promulgated a doctrine called “The Little Way” …. I suppose you’d call it getting on with life as it actually is…. very different from the inflated Christian fantasies of martyrdom and being boiled in oil…. coping with difficult fellow human beings and family instead.’

  ‘She might’ve preferred the boiling oil to her family.’ Noakes had rallied once more. ‘Her sisters were in the convent, an’ they were a right pain in the proverbial…. I mean, even when she had jus’ weeks to live, they kept pestering her with daft stuff about angels coming an’ taking her to heaven an’ asking her if she wanted to die on a feast day –’

  ‘What did she say to that?’ Doyle asked curiously.

  ‘Told ’em her death would be feast day enough for her.’

  Like Olivia the previous evening, Doyle’s response was admiring.

  ‘She had a sense of humour then,’ he said with a grin.

  ‘She fricking needed it,’ Noakes said dourly. ‘One of ’em even told her it wouldn’t look good if she took too long about dying cos people might think her being sick were all a fraud…. The bloody cheek of it.’

  Burton looked as though her prejudices about the Catholic Church were being confirmed on the spot.

  ‘All sounds very medieval,’ was her measured response, though Markham detected the undertone of distaste. Then, ‘Will there be clergy butting in, sir…. bishops…. people like that?’

  ‘I understand from DCI Sidney that Bishop Buckley requires an update in due course, and I anticipate the diocesan clergy will be taking an interest.’

  Cue glum faces all around, as their thoughts travelled unbidden to clerical interference in the St Cecilia case.

  ‘Is this murder something to do with the Church then?’ Doyle burst out impatiently in another echo of Olivia. ‘Was Julia Porter up to something they didn’t approve of…. badmouthing St Therese or doing something to make this cult or whatever it is look bad, so they went and bumped her off?’ Even to his own ears it sounded far-fetched. ‘It’s like something out of a trashy thriller.’

  ‘The Da Vinci Code,’ Noakes put in sententiously.

  ‘Yeah, sarge, but we’re talking a hostel in the middle of London, not Vatican City…. no wicked cardinals or anything like that in the picture.’ The young detective’s freckled open face was a study in bafflement. ‘The whole set-up sounds pretty creepy…. Sorry, sir, no offence,’ he added, reddening at the remembrance of Markham’s Catholic antecedents. Rumour had it that his former boss liked visiting old churches in his spare time and had a thing for religious history. Weird, but all part of the DI’s unique cachet.

  ‘None taken,’ Markham said lightly. ‘

  Burton’s face was closed, introspective, as usual when she was thinking hard.

  Noakes’s words came back to her.

  Therese’s sister told her it wouldn’t look good if she took too long about dying because people might think it was all a fraud….

  Fraud.

  ‘The Catholic Church has had lots of scandals involving dirty money,’ she mused, revolving new possibilities. ‘There was this book In God’s Name which claimed Pope John Paul 1 was murdered because he tried to clamp down on corruption.’

  Noakes was staring as though he feared she was about to launch into a lecture on church history.

  ‘Maybe Julia Porter found out about some financial wrongdoing,’ she said hastily. ‘Something connected with the Institute. She might only have lived in a hostel, but if the Little Flower Institute’s big league and this Bishop Buckley wants updates, then maybe he’s worried about something embarrassing coming out.’

  ‘Money an’ sex,’ Noakes said oracularly. ‘Though it don’ look like Porter whooped it up. The only crush she had were on God.’

  ‘God and St Therese,’ Doyle amended.

  ‘Right,’ Markham said briskly. ‘Time to get started. Today we’re taking all the staff and residents. They’re staying in Eton Lodge, that’s the B&B two doors down from the Club. I’ve lined up a visit to the Little Flower Institute for tomorrow, then interviews with those members who don’t live at the Club.’ He ticked them off on his fingers. ‘That’s Donald Trevelyan, Margaret Bertram, Kenneth Robson and Anne Leadbeater.’ He raked the slightly over-long dark hair which was another item in DCI’s list of grievances against his handsome subordinate. ‘If there’s time today, we’ll take another look at the Club while it’s clear of everyone.’

  The team got to their feet, nothing loath to crack on with surely the strangest case they had ever encountered.

  It felt like a foreign country.

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

There was nothing supernatural about Eton Lodge, however. It was just an unpretentious but comfortable little hotel whose balding bespectacled manager was quietly accommodating and not at all fazed by having the police descend on them.

  ‘You can have the lounge for interviews, Inspector,’ he told them. ‘I’ll see that nobody disturbs you. There’s complimentary tea and coffee on the sideboard.’

  There was nothing especially heavenly or elevated about the Theresian Club’s staff and residents either. As Noakes grumbled afterwards, ‘They looked jus’ like anybody else.’ Markham wondered what exactly he had been expecting. A whiff of incense or swishing habits no doubt.

  In fact, the two nuns, Roisin and Pauline, were decidedly downbeat in their sensible skirts, blouses and lace-up shoes. Like social workers or district nurses, Doyle thought disparagingly.

  Both were Irish, Sister Roisin being the more attractive of the two, with broad open features, a buxom figure and brown hair cut in a feathery mushroom hairstyle which, though decidedly nineteen eighties, gave her a youthful air. Sister Pauline was what Noakes thought of as ‘stringy’, with dark hair pulled back in a severe bun and a straight up and down figure. Thick black NHS glasses swamped plain features and made her look far older than her fellow religious. Neither of them had an alibi to speak of for Sunday night. According to Sister Roisin, she was working on the Club’s newsletter while Sister Pauline was ‘doing her spiritual exercises’.

The two women spoke of Julia Porter in respectful tones – a ‘committed Catholic…. dedicated to her job’ – which gave no indication what they actually thought of her. Reference to the dead woman’s hoarding elicited only a murmured ‘To be sure she had a great devotion to St Therese.’ And no, they hadn’t noticed anything out of the ordinary in the Club on the day she died, nor had they seen any strangers around the building.

  ‘Well, they were bugger all use,’ Noakes muttered after they had left the room.

  ‘Early days, Sergeant,’ Markham told him. ‘And don’t forget, they’ll all be in shock.’

  ‘Looked to me like they were taking it pretty well,’ his wingman retorted. ‘Not ’xactly prostrated with grief,’ he added sarcastically.

  ‘They’ll see her as having gone to a better place,’ Doyle suggested helpfully. ‘It’s in their job description.’

  Next up was Father Digby Peake.

  Like summat out of the Bible. John the Baptist or one of them from the Old Testament, thought Noakes, clocking the beard and slightly over long hair.

  The warden was a gentle, softly spoken character who struck Markham as more suited to the contemplative life than manager of a hostel.

  ‘Holy Obedience means I go where I’m sent,’ he told them wryly.

  He and the two nuns belonged to the same religious order, the Brothers and Sisters of St Therese. ‘Our Rule aims for a balance of prayer and apostolic work,’ he told them before adding ruefully, ‘but these days there seems to be less and less time for quiet reflection.’

  With an air of mild embarrassment, he confided that he had been watching a film in the television lounge on Sunday evening. ‘No-one else was around…. It was a Western…. I ended up falling asleep in front of it.’

  Afterwards, Burton said, ‘I liked how he didn’t pretend to be doing something holy…. Another priest might’ve said he was reading the Bible or something.’ Suddenly she grinned. ‘When Pope John Paul 1 died – the one they said was murdered – there was a story he’d been reading a Western in bed, but when the Cardinals discovered the body, they switched it for some prayer book because they didn’t want it to come out that the Pope liked trashy books.’

  ‘Nowt wrong with Westerns,’ Noakes said stoutly. Like Burton, he’d found the lack of pomposity appealing.

  Along with the nuns, Father Digby would not be drawn on Julia Porter. ‘The poor woman had no family here and very few friends,’ he said. ‘She didn’t really mix with people in the Club all that much…. perhaps Sister Pauline now and again, but obviously there was no question of their being confidantes.’

  ‘Why not?’ Doyle was puzzled.

  ‘We’re very aware of the danger of “particular friendships”,’ the priest said mildly.

  ‘What’s he mean by that?’ the young DS wanted to know after the priest had departed.

  ‘They don’ want the nuns turning into lezzers,’ Noakes informed him.

  Kate Burton visibly cringed, but before she could say anything Markham took the bull by the horns.

  ‘If by “lezzers” you mean a prohibition on lesbianism, Noakes, I would say the idea is to steer clear of intimacies which might compromise their vocation and distract them from serving God.’

  ‘Yeah, that an’ all,’ his DS said, not at all abashed. ‘But there was summat shifty about the way Diggers said it.’

  Noakes was on the money there, Markham thought with reluctant admiration for the shrewd antennae that had picked up on the priest’s discomfort. For some reason, Father Digby had been ill at ease around the subject of personal relationships. The question was why…

  If Father Digby was understated, the theology student Ignatius Fermor came across as being the finished seminary product. Bespectacled and bookish in sweater and flannels, he was good-looking with closely shorn dark hair and clean-cut features. Markham couldn’t say what it was about the man that unsettled him, but there was the sense of intense feelings carefully banked down. Like the others, he had no alibi for the night of the murder. ‘I was writing a paper on the spirituality of St John of the Cross and its influence on St Therese.’

  Of course you were, thought Noakes sourly. Presumably that was what passed for a good time with blokes like Fermor. Prissy little sod. Casting those looks up to heaven every few minutes so you could see the whites of his eyes. And it wasn’t nice the way he somehow managed to imply that Julia Porter was insignificant as a gnat. The question being, was he really as indifferent as he appeared…...

  The housekeeper Paolo Serrano was a different proposition. Tall, dark and very Spanish looking with a little pointed beard and eyes that danced in a lean El Greco-ish face, there was something puckish and engaging about him. ‘Julia’s room was a challenge for the cleaners,’ he said, ‘but they understood…. All our madres are a bit like that as they get older…. hanging on to their treasures…. keeping them close.’ He had been working out staff rosters on Sunday night before watching television in his bedsit. Serrano seemed an unlikely candidate for a murderer, but Markham sensed a reserve beneath the bonhomie…. something withheld.

  David Manners the deputy warden was next. A fussy, self-important little man who no doubt got up everyone’s nose and made the lives of junior staff a misery. He clearly hadn’t liked the dead woman. his lips thinning to nothing as he spoke of her room being a ‘fire hazard’. It turned out Manners wasn’t a Catholic, which came as a surprise. ‘It’s not compulsory,’ he sniffed. ‘In fact, I’m a Quaker, but the Club has a strongly ecumenical spirit and many of our visitors hail from other denominations.’ For all the brotherhood-of-man guff, Markham sensed anti-Catholic vibes emanating from the deputy warden when he referred to the troika of Father Digby and the nuns – a superstitious dislike of priests and nuns (especially the latter) not far below the surface unctuousness. Sunday evening had seen him watching a documentary about the Eastern Orthodox tradition. Big yawn to that, Noakes thought crossly. So that was yet another of them without a bleeding alibi.

  The cleaning staff followed, but it was the same story. Nobody had seen or heard anything untoward. On duty in shifts at reception, they didn’t recall any visitors.

  ‘Gotta be an inside job,’ Noakes said as they helped themselves to coffee. One of that lot,’ he jerked a stubby finger at the door, ‘had it in for our bag lady.’

  Burton frowned at “bag lady” but held her peace. She knew none would be more zealous than the grizzled DS when it came to doubling down and tracking Julia Porter’s killer.

  ‘But what reason did they have for offing her?’ Doyle was frustrated. ‘Sounded to me like she was barely on their radar.’

  ‘That’s what we have to find out,’ Markham said quietly.

  ‘Hey up, here’s another one,’ Noakes said as there came a knock at the door.

  It was the American professor, Tom Nevin, with the weathered looks of a strapping frontiersman and a lazy southern drawl that put Burton in mind of Clark Gable in Gone with the Wind. Tall, bluff with improbably dark hair for his age (out of a bottle, Noakes surmised), he spoke of the dead woman with respectful and apparently sincere chivalry. ‘I come over to London most years,’ he said. ‘Julia was always very helpful when I needed anything down at the Institute, but she was an independent sort of lady…. I guess the word I’m looking for is self-sufficient, so I wouldn’t say we were friends.’ Like the rest, he’d spent a quiet night reading and listening to music in his room.

  Rosemary Gough and Thelma Machin came in together, ‘for moral support’ according to David Manners who hovered in attendance until Burton firmly closed the door on him.

  They were a pallid pair, Markham thought. Rosemary Gough was a shrinking dormouse of a woman with reddened eyes and nose who shrank into her high-backed Queen Anne armchair and spoke in a whispery voice that the detectives had to strain to hear. Thelma Machin was plump and doughy with a somewhat bovine appearance. But she showed a kindly solicitude towards her fellow resident who appeared genuinely traumatised by Julia Porter’s death even though there was no evidence that they had been particularly close.

  ‘Fellow RCs,’ Noakes said glumly afterwards. ‘An’ living on the same corridor…. meals together….  kind of like being back at school.’

  Markham recalled his lover calling St Therese an ‘eternal schoolgirl’. No doubt Olivia would regard the long-term residents as a bad case of arrested development.

  The two women had been knitting and writing letters respectively. So once again, no alibi for the night of the murder.

  ‘Let’s take a turn round the Club,’ Markham told his team. ‘Get a feel for the place before they let everyone back in.  After that, I want to get the incident room up and running. Then tomorrow we’ll scope out the Little Flower Institute and see what the other members have to say for themselves.’ He intercepted an exchange of glances between Noakes and Doyle. ‘Don’t worry, there’ll be time for a pint.’

  ‘Reckon we’ll need it after all this spiritual hoojah,’ Noakes said firmly.

  They were like explorers in uncharted territory, thought Markham as they left Eton Lodge.

  Explorers without a compass….