CRIME IN THE GALLERY

Prologue

 

Gemma Clarke was saving the best till last.

  With careful deliberation, as though to tantalize herself, she walked through all the rooms on the first floor of Bromgrove Art Gallery until she reached the wing devoted to Pre-Modern Art. At the entrance to the collection, she passed the glass display case with the poet’s elaborately calligraphized paean:

  Full of great rooms and small the palace stood,

  All various, each a perfect whole

  From living Nature, fit for every mood

  And change of my still soul.

  But Gemma barely registered the periwigged and powdered notables gazing down at her benignly from their gilded frames; scarcely turned her eyes towards the idealized landscapes, apotheosized family portraits and ponderous allegories. Instead she forced herself to walk slowly, alert with anticipation as she approached her goal.

  And finally, there they were.

  Room 9. The Pre-Raphaelites.

  Those vast colour-drenched canvases with their strange Titanic forms whose impact struck her with a shock to the solar plexus.

  With a feeling akin to being in church, Gemma sank onto one of two high-backed pine benches and gazed greedily around her at the jewel-like masterpieces glowing against burgundy silk clad walls, as though she could never have her fill of so much sensuous beauty.

  Nervously, she smoothed her neat blue skirt and jacket and adjusted her badge. No other security attendant was in sight, owing no doubt to the jollifications attending yet another leaving do downstairs in the gallery staff room. But she knew she could only count on a quarter of an hour tops. Even though Sunday afternoon was generally the gallery’s quietest time, Mr Bramwell the Director would likely go ballistic if he found out about staff sloping off, what with those demonstrators from the university out the front protesting against ‘Imperialist Art’…She wasn’t even sure what that meant, only that it had something to do with pictures being racist…. There was a little black page boy in one of the paintings down the corridor…

  Thoughts of gallery security gradually faded as the painting directly in front of Gemma exerted its familiar hypnotic pull.

  In the left foreground was a statuesque woman with alabaster complexion and rippling copper tresses. Clad in sinuous white drapery, its folds pooling at her feet, she held a book in one slender hand while the other was bestowed on a stiffly jointed figure in full armour, the casque drawn back to disclose a pensive downcast face. Behind the couple was a square building with an arched entrance, decorated in gleaming mosaics, like a little church with a tomb inside. The right foreground depicted beautiful gardens with exotic creatures bathed in pearly light, and above them a cluster of hovering angels in pastel robes swooping and swallow diving with mystical intent. In the background was a shimmering golden citadel.

  The two figures with their air of grave courtesy fascinated Gemma, as did the strange little building from which they had emerged. Seeing her interest, Mr Carstone, Head of Conservation had explained the story behind the picture. It was meant to be symbolic, he said. The ethereal lady and the thoughtful gentleman in armour represented a person’s soul leaving the body after death. They were coming out of a mausoleum, not a house, and the angels were directing them towards Heaven, the far-off city. It was called Life and Thought Emerging from the Tomb, he told her, and there were coded messages in it. About resurrection and eternal life.

  Gemma didn’t really care about all that intellectual stuff, though she liked the way Mr Carstone treated her as an equal and never talked down to her – as though he saw something more than just a security attendant with indifferent qualifications and job prospects. Not like some of the other curators who looked through her like she was invisible.

  She couldn’t really say why she felt drawn to this one painting more than the rest. Perhaps it was something to do with the way the woman seemed to be looking right out of the canvas directly at Gemma…almost as though she wanted to tell her something.

  Or perhaps it was the fact that she looked like Helen Melville, the gallery’s willowy auburn-haired Acquisitions Officer. Gemma thought wistfully of the young director’s graceful undulations and romantic aura. However hard she tried, however carefully she studied that languid elegance, it was a look that she, with her stubby sandy-haired ordinariness, could never in a million years hope to reproduce….

  Reluctantly, she tore her eyes away and looked around her, wave upon wave of intense colour flooding her senses in the half-light like the magic-lantern images of a trance.

  She knew her colleagues scoffed at her fascination with the paintings of Room 9 –

their strange archaic themes, medieval heroes and sorceresses. But to her the pictures spoke of a magical world vibrating with mysterious harmonies for which, did she but possess the key, she could exchange her daily humdrum reality – the crowded terraced house on Bromgrove Rise, her worn out mum and the three grungy older brothers who somehow seemed to suck up all the oxygen. The knights and ladies, with their queer beckoning eloquence and cryptic gestures, seemed infinitely more vivid – more potent in their suspended animation –  than the pallid specimens of humanity who populated everyday life.

  The silence of Room 9 lapped about her, enveloping her.

  She felt a curious reluctance to move. As though there was a spell laid upon her.

  Voices floated up towards her signalling the end of her reprieve. The shrill giggles of the café staff struck her ears discordantly like a blasphemy. God, that Julie one sounded tipsy.

  Gemma sighed. Time to make her way back to Craft and Design on the ground floor. She’d hoped to start the Christmas rotation on Old Masters or Victorians, but her request had met with a level stare from Rebecca Summerson the haughty blonde Facilities Manager. ‘Security staff don’t get to choose rotations until completion of their probation period,’ she observed in frigid tones which left Gemma in no doubt that she had committed a major faux-pas. ‘Take no notice of that snotty cow,’ her co-worker Barbara said kindly, but Gemma felt nevertheless that she had got off to a bad start.

  Tapestries and musty old fabrics just didn’t do it for her, she thought with a last wistful look at the samite-robed figure emerging from the tomb. Still, if she minded her Ps and Qs, she’d get taken on full-time and in the meantime she’d have a look at the adult education brochures Mr Carstone had given her. Perhaps one day it would be her giving talks to visitors and looking at her wavy-haired heroines whenever she chose. The mere thought was like having a grape when her mouth was dry….

  Craft and Design was located on the ground floor of the gallery to the left of the black and white marble floored entrance. On the right-hand side of the lobby was the Sculpture Gallery, whose smirking nudities made Gemma feel uncomfortable, unlike the scantily clad nymphs and shepherds of the Victorian pictures which oddly enough didn’t bother her at all. Behind the Sculpture Gallery could be found the small exhibition centre and offices for senior staff. To the rear of the lobby were the gallery shop and café with cloakrooms, storage lockers and staff room in the basement. An imposing staircase, continuing the black and white theme, led from the front hall up to the first floor which housed the paintings. The cupola-roofed first-floor landing had an echoing, cathedral-like air of hushed devotion which seemed to have risen up like incense from the cavernous gloom of the foyer below.

  Bromgrove was proud of its Art Gallery. A small, compact building in the neoclassical style with majestic pillared portico, it was situated right in the centre of town next to the Central Library and boasted thirteen rooms (an unlucky number some might say) spanning art from medieval times to the present day. Chronologically arranged, a wander through the collection would give visitors a whistlestop tour of art through the ages, though like Gemma most visitors seemed to have their particular favourites. There were some big names too, she was wont to boast – Monet, Turner, Gainsborough and Lowry – but nothing could dent her allegiance to the Pre-Raphaelites. ‘Dunno what you see in ’em,’ her boyfriend Jeff had yawned on a visit one rainy day in October. ‘Jus’ letchy old gits with a thing about redheads. Give me Banksy or the Matchstick Man any day.’ After that, she had kept her raptures to herself.

  Now, outside the November afternoon was already getting dark. She started as she passed the ceramics desk and caught sight of her white face reflected in the long sash window behind it. Moving swiftly through displays of jewellery, pottery and glass, she passed finally through a door marked Textiles, her station for the day.

  It was a long narrow space lined with wall-to-ceiling cabinets containing mannequins in crinolines, bustles and breeches for which Gemma found it difficult to work up any enthusiasm. Wispy grey-haired Miss Crocker, Assistant Textiles Curator, was squinting myopically at a swatch of fabric in a packet on the counter in front of her making the little beaver-like noises which with her generally indicated puzzlement.

  ‘Who could have left this? The label seems to have come adrift…. I wonder what….’

  Then her face cleared.

  ‘Oh, I know what it is!’

  The girl waited for enlightenment.

  ‘It’s from that tapestry Mr Traherne was worried about. He thought it might have mould.’

  None the wiser, Gemma did her best to look alert and intelligent.

  The diminutive older woman smiled kindly at her.

  ‘It needs storing in the freezer, then Conservation can have a look. I wonder if you’d mind taking it down for me, Gemma,’ she said, looking rather distractedly at the untidy work service strewn with a variety of labelled garments and paperwork. After rummaging in the capacious pockets of her corduroy skirt, the curator located a swipe card. ‘That’ll unlock it for you.’

  ‘’Course, Miss Crocker.’

  For some reason that she couldn’t explain, Gemma felt fidgety, restless, as though impelled to keep on the move. Normally she had no difficulty subduing such outbreaks of cabin fever when she was in Textiles, but today was somehow different.

 

The textiles freezer was accessed by a narrow black-railed spiral staircase at the very far end of the room.

  Just as she put her foot on the first tread, Gemma felt an uneasy sensation. A kind of prickling between the shoulder blades as if someone stood behind her.

  But there was no-one there.

  She gave herself a little shake. No chance of impressing the likes of Rebecca Summerson if she came down with an attack of the heebie-jeebies any time someone asked her to do an errand.

  At the bottom of the stairs, she flipped on the light switch and there it was, the walk-in freezer.

  Again, that feeling of unease. But this time it was an almost unconquerable reluctance to swipe the electronic lock.

  The stairwell was cool and musty, but she felt beads of sweat breaking out along her hairline and at the nape of her ponytail.

  God. What was the matter with her? Too much time spent drooling over pictures of fairyland, she told herself grimly, vowing to ration the dose on her next trip upstairs.

  Another little shake and then she raised the swipe card, her hand steady now.

 

The freezer door swung open.

  But Gemma Clarke stood as though turned to stone, the packet dropping from her nerveless hand.

  Curled up in a foetal ball at her feet was the figure of a woman, the hands like claws at her side.

 

  A woman with auburn hair.

 

1

The Palace of Art

 

At last Bromgrove Art Gallery was silent. The pathologist had been and gone, Helen Melville’s pitiful remains wheeled away on a gurney, and the building left to an army of technicians and SOCOs.

  Now DI Gilbert (‘Gil’) Markham and DS George Noakes were taking stock in a small

windowless office adjacent to the exhibition centre behind the romanesque Sculpture Gallery.

  Noakes was clearly relieved to be away from the impersonal alabaster busts and statues which lined the route like a sinister praetorian guard, their blank stare reflecting the light of some fathomless alien world.

  ‘Freakin’ creepy that lot,’ he grunted, jerking a thumb towards the passage they had just traversed. ‘Like horrible wax-works jus’ watching and waiting to make a grab at you. Always hated it when they dragged us here on school trips and whatnot.’

  The stolid DS not being noted for his imaginative disposition, Markham found this an interesting reaction.

  ‘I take it you’re not a fan of the gallery then, Sergeant?’

  Noakes looked sheepish. ‘Not really, guv.’ He struggled to frame his thoughts, pudgy hangdog features corrugating with the effort. ‘None of it feels like it’s got anything to do with real life…I mean, all them angels and folk lying about outdoors picnicking…’

  The DI suppressed a grin as his subordinate consigned centuries of Judaeo-Christian culture to the dustbin.

  ‘’Course we took our Nat here a few times,’ Noakes ploughed on, evidently anxious that his boss shouldn’t regard him as a complete philistine.

  Natalie Noakes, undisputed doyenne of Bromgrove’s flashier nightclubs, struck Markham as unlikely to have profited much from the experience, but he kept such thoughts to himself and smiled noncommittally.

  ‘I imagine it’s not everyone’s cup of tea,’ he commented mildly, making no mention of the many rainy afternoons he had passed in the gallery, eking out the time till he had to return to the home that was no home at all, desperately escaping into a parallel universe of grace and enchantment before encountering the sordid reality of a stepfather’s abuse. 

  Something close to compassion flared in Noakes’s piggy eyes, so that the DI had the feeling his sergeant knew exactly what he was thinking.

  The two men’s rock-solid relationship was an object of mystification to most of Bromgrove CID, and to DCI Sidney (‘Slimy Sid’) in particular it was nothing short of incomprehensible. Indeed, Sidney’s jeremiads against ‘dinosaurs’ and ‘detectives out of step with modern policing’ were now so routine that the DI regarded them pretty much in the light of an occupational hazard and went his own sweet way regardless. George Noakes was one of his non-negotiables: not only had they come through many adventures together, but he knew the other always had his back and, by some strange attraction of opposites, understood him better than anyone else. The shambling, uncouth DS and his darkly handsome boss with a reputation for impenetrable reserve made a decidedly incongruous pairing, but their clear-up rate had so far rendered them impregnable to all assaults on their partnership. Markham intended it to remain that way.

  ‘I take it we’ve got full contact details for everyone who was in the gallery when the alarm was raised?’

  ‘Yeah, guv. Burton and Doyle are on it,’ came the prompt reply. Then with a sly grin, ‘Burton went round with the facilities manager securing the area….prob’ly boring the pants off her oohing and aahing over every two-bit daub in the place…You know what she’s like.’

  Markham smiled wryly. Keen-as-mustard DS Kate Burton was a university graduate, the team’s acknowledged “culture vulture” and Noakes’s polar opposite, so it had been a case of dislike before first sight. Notwithstanding which, the two detectives had settled into an uneasy truce. Along with a grudging respect for each other’s abilities, they shared a fierce devotion to their boss. With Burton, this had gone much further than professional regard, though Markham had never suspected her hopeless crush on him. Noakes guessed but never betrayed his colleague’s secret, confining himself to the occasional knowing glance. Since Burton was now engaged to an up-and-coming DS in Fraud, the danger looked to be long past, though Noakes suspected she would never be entirely ‘over’ the guvnor.

  ‘What about the young girl who found Ms Melville?’

  This was another quirk of Markham’s. No victim was ever just ‘the body’ or ‘the deceased’ to him, and woe betide any junior officer who thought to indulge in gallows humour. On such occasions, the DI’s tongue could cut like a lash.

  ‘Security attendant name of Gemma Clarke,’ came the reply. ‘Poor little bint. All snot and tears. Burton did a mop-up an’ called this lad Jeff to come an’ collect her.’ Noakes scowled. Clearly he had not hit it off with the boyfriend. ‘’Bout as much use as a J cloth. More interested in squeezing his blackheads than anything else.’

  ‘Hmmm.’

  A pause and then, ‘What did you make of the rest?’

  The DS had surprisingly sharp instincts when it came to ‘sizing folk up’.

  ‘The facilities woman,’ he consulted a dog-eared notebook, ‘Ms Summerson – definitely a miz that one – looked a stuck-up piece of work. Kept looking me up and down like it was Downton Abbey or summat and she expected me to use the servants’ entrance.’

  Noakes’s sartorial instincts lagging markedly behind his inquisitorial skills, this was hardly to be wondered at. Today’s ensemble consisted of baggy mushroom-coloured cords, scuffed brothel creepers and hideous emerald green ganzie topped off with a Columbo-style mac. It didn’t even have the merit of being a considered style statement, but was rather a combination of total indifference to how he looked coupled with his ongoing battle of the bulge. With his brick-red complexion and haystack shock of salt and pepper hair, the DS hardly conformed to anyone’s ideal of the gentleman detective. A blot on the artistic landscape if ever there was one.

  ‘But efficient, I’ll give her that,’ Noakes conceded grudgingly. ‘Got a roll-call of the staff organized in double quick time, so Doyle could tick ’em all off.’

  He frowned, ‘You could see it hit her hard, though. Turned white as a sheet when we told her who it was. Pulled herself together sharpish, but there was a moment back there when I thought she was going to pass out.

  Interesting.

  ‘Oh, and get this, guv.’ Another look at the notebook. ‘The boss is Helen Melville’s ex-husband…well, separated any road.... Lemme see…yeah, that’s it…Benedict Bramwell,’ Noakes declared with a flourish.

  Benedict Bramwell. Markham recalled meeting the gallery director at some civic bunfight or other. Tall, balding and adept at meaningless bonhomie. The epitome of ‘a useful committeman’.

  ‘Has he been informed?’

  ‘They’re trying to locate him? He’s at a meeting in Birmingham today.’

  ‘What about the rest of the command structure?’

  ‘Well, there’s the Board of Trustees – they’re only around now and again, for meetings and that sort of thing.’ More riffling through the notebook. ‘The Treasurer and Secretary share an office behind the exhibition thingy, but nobody sees much of them.’ Noakes gave an eye-roll. ‘Too grand to mix with the plebs if you ask me.’

  ‘Get that chip of your shoulder, Noakesy. Tact and diplomacy are the order of the day here.’

  ‘If you say so, boss.’

  ‘I do.’ Markham was firm, grimly recalling his sergeant’s less than subtle approach during their most recent murder investigation involving the local ballet company.

  With a long-suffering sniff, the DS continued down his list.

  ‘With it only being a small outfit, there’s not that many chiefs…leastways they all double up…. Helen Melville was responsible for paintings and sculpture as well as buying stuff…Then there’s the head of craft and design who handled textiles too…name of,’ Noakes squinted at his untidy scrawl, ‘Marcus Traherne…His deputy’s the one who took us down to the freezer –’

  ‘Miss Crocker?’ The assistant curator, with her air of the world being too much for her, had reminded the DI of DCI Sidney’s much put-upon PA Miss Peabody.

  ‘Yeah. She was in a right state, poor old biddy…Seemed to think it was all her fault. The facilities manager’s PA made her a cup of tea…nice sensible woman…Cathy Hignett…god knows how she copes with Ms Bossy Knickers.’

  ‘Anyone else from the top brass?’

  ‘Silver-haired gent…Head of Conservation…Aubrey Carstone.’ Noakes just couldn’t help himself. ‘Marcus…Aubrey…I mean, I ask you!’ At a steely look from Markham, he subsided and resumed his recital. ‘Thin, weedy, spectacles…getting on a bit. But kindly…you could see the staff liked him…prob’ly lets ’em get away with all sorts.’ Noakes flicked over a page. ‘He’s got a youngish deputy…Daniel Westbrook – crew cut, tough-looking, doesn’t miss much, related to some art collector.’

  ‘Did Ms Melville have an assistant?’

  ‘Nah, she was one of them ball-breakers….er, executive types,’ Noakes hastily amended, ‘…didn’t like to delegate…Got the feeling it may have got up folks’ noses.’

  ‘Anyone else I should know about at this stage?’

  Noakes snapped his notebook shut.

  ‘That’s all the main players, guv. We’re trying to get hold of Bramwell an’ the two trustees. Apart from that, it’s jus’ the café and cloakroom people…security attendants and such like.’ He screwed up his features sagaciously. ‘I think there’s one or two researchers floating round the place as well. Postgraduate types from the university.’ This was said with an air of profound suspicion. ‘Mr Carstone’s giving Doyle the details.’

  ‘What about those demonstrators who were outside? What was that all about?’

  ‘Oh, jus’ the usual rent-a-mob lot.’ Noakes looked disgusted, no doubt recalling their entanglement with Bromgrove University ‘activists’ in a previous murder case. ‘Usual snowflake shite, guv. Summat to do with paintings being nasty about black people.’

  ‘Thank you for that neat paraphrase, sergeant.’ The DI’s tone was dry. ‘Somehow I suspect the reality may be more complex.’

  Noakes grinned, not at all abashed.

  ‘Well you know what they’re like, boss. Never happy unless they’re taking offence.’

  ‘Do we know if there was any trouble with gallery staff? Any run-ins with Helen Melville?’

  ‘Right, now I get you.’ The DS was suddenly serious. ‘I’ll get Burton on to it, guv.’ With an air of magnanimity, ‘She’ll be on their wave length if you get my drift.’ With her poncey psychology degree and M.A. in Gender Studies he meant, though the words were left unsaid.

  ‘Quite.’

  Markham leaned back in the tasteful ergonomic chair which was already giving him back ache.

  ‘Any obvious oddballs jump out at you? Other than the university lot,’ he asked hastily before Noakes resumed his denunciation of Generation Snowflake.

  ‘A couple of the security guards seemed a bit gormless.’ Then in an unusual burst of empathy, ‘But that’s cos they’re looking at the same stuff day in day out.’ Clearly the notion of there being any art-fanciers amongst their number never crossed Noakes’s mind. ‘Mind, there’s one bloke definitely looked like he’d got a screw loose.’

  ‘Oh yes, who was that?’

  ‘Fella called Bill Hignett –’

  ‘Hignett? Isn’t that –’

  ‘Yeah, Cathy Hignett – the facility one’s PA – she’s his mum.’

  Noakes did an expressive eye roll.

  ‘I heard one of the others call him “Quasi”.’

  ‘“Quasi”?’ Markham wondered was he being exceptionally dense.

  ‘You know, short for Quasimodo, guv…. like the Hunchback of Notre Dame…you know, creepy bell-ringer from that Disney film.’

  ‘Ah. And how did Mr Hignett react to this term of endearment?’

  ‘Oh, he seemed used to it…like a nickname,’ the DS replied warily, antennae suddenly alert to what he privately termed his boss’s ‘sarky’ tone. ‘I think he’s jus’ a bit simple…. learning disabled or whatchamacallit. One of the café girls said his mum got him the job.’

  ‘Any issues with his fellow workers?’

  ‘He could be a bit…well, intense…if he got a thing about someone, he’d follow ’em round like a dog.’

  ‘Helen Melville?’

  ‘Oh, she slapped him down early on…and mum made sure to keep him out of Melville’s way. Nah,’ Noakes shook his shaggy head, ‘Reckon he’s just a big harmless lummox, guv…. part of the furniture. Bit of a nuisance sometimes maybe, but that’s about it.’

  As the DI sat digesting this information, there was a tap at the door and DS Kate Burton appeared. Smartly attired in a charcoal trouser suit and immaculate white shirt, conker brown page boy swinging, she was visibly energized by the start of a new investigation. Head on one side, she regarded the DI with the air of an intelligent beagle.

  Not exactly pretty, with her retroussé nose and solemn eyes like enormous lollipops, there was something undeniably appealing about Burton’s earnestness. She had faced tough opposition from home when she decided to join the police, but rapid promotion and Markham’s interest in her career had done much to smooth ruffled parental feathers. ‘She’ll be safe with him,’ was her father’s verdict after meeting the DI, and Markham had fully justified that faith, though there had been a moment in last year’s investigation into a series of murders at the Newman Psychiatric Hospital when the team thought they had lost her. It was a close shave, but Burton came through the crisis with flying colours and somehow the whole experience bound the little unit even more closely together. ‘Markham’s groupies,’ others in CID were wont to mutter sotto voce, but the same cavillers would have killed for a chance to work with the legendarily austere DI whose reputation as Bromgrove CID’s rising star made him an object of intense interest.

  ‘All secure, Kate?’

  ‘Yes, sir.’ Shooting an apprehensive sideways glance at her fellow DS, she cleared her throat. ‘It’s an amazing place.’

  Markham’s smile was kind.

  ‘People think it’s all whipped cream and sponge-cake style paintings, but there’s a decent section on contemporary art,’ she elaborated, her tone defensive.

  ‘You mean folk being angry with splattery paint,’ Noakes grunted.

  There was something almost ritualistic about their sparring, Markham thought with amusement. The preliminary skirmishes before they got down to the serious business of finding a murderer.

  ‘Where’re we up to with initial statements, Kate?’

  ‘Doyle and the uniforms are just winding things up downstairs, sir. He’ll be along in a few minutes.’

  ‘Good.’

  Markham’s keen grey eyes were fastened on her face.

  ‘First impressions?’

  ‘As you’d expect, sir. Everyone shocked. The facilities manager Rebecca Summerson looked badly shaken up…I mean, she took control…snapping out orders left right and centre…. But when we were checking the rooms, I caught her leaning against a wall like she’d been sucker-punched.’

  It chimed with what Noakes had noticed.

  ‘She didn’t like it when I said she should take a moment…sit down, have a glass of water. Got pretty sharp with me. So I didn’t push it.’ Burton’s expression was thoughtful. ‘She seemed like the kind of person who’s afraid of looking weak.’

  Afraid of looking weak or afraid of something else? Markham wondered.

  ‘When was the last time anyone saw Ms Melville?’

  ‘No-one’s entirely sure about that. Funnily enough, though, Gemma Clarke said she’d been spending a lot of time in the pre-Raphaelite room.’ Seeing Noakes looking mulish, she elucidated, ‘The one with the Victorian paintings. The same room Gemma visited shortly before she found the body.’

  ‘Oh aye, what was the big attraction then?’

  ‘Well, the pictures in there are very dramatic and brightly coloured – lots of myths and legends…biblical stories…if you like that kind of thing.’

  It was clear her colleague didn’t.

  ‘But we’re not just talking escapist fantasy,’ Burton persisted. ‘Apparently they’re full of in-jokes and coded messages –’

  ‘Messages?’ She had Noakes’s interest now.

  ‘Yes, for people in the know.’

  The DS cogitated.

  ‘P’raps there was a symbol in one of them pictures which meant summat to Helen Melville…summat dangerous…’

  He caught himself up short, beefy features mottled with embarrassment, and looked belligerently at Burton as though he would accuse her of luring him into flights of fancy.

  ‘I think you may be onto something there, Sergeant,’ the DI observed quietly.

  Mollified, Noakes proceeded to develop his hypothesis.

  ‘Which painting was it she liked best then?’ he asked Burton.

  ‘The same one Gemma Clarke liked. Life and Thought Emerging from the Tomb.’

  ‘Eh?’

  ‘It’s what they call an allegorical painting.’ Burton was careful not to sound patronizing. ‘It shows two figures leaving a kind of little house…a sort of grave monument –’

  ‘Like the ones down the Municipal Cemetery,’ Noakes put in, ‘the tombs for the posh families. Proper fancy some of ’em.’ He shuddered slightly, doubtless recalling an earlier case when he and Markham had ended by exhuming murder victims from the waterlogged neighbourhood of one such mausoleum.

  ‘That’s right. Well, the idea is that the figures represent Life and Thought leaving the body and setting off for Heaven.’

  ‘Is that all?’

  Markham did his best not to smile. Clearly Noakes had been hoping for cabalistic clues worthy of the Da Vinci Code. 

  ‘There are all kinds of symbols of life after death,’ Burton persevered gamely. ‘The painter included a peacock, a butterfly and a bird hatching out of an egg.’

  Noakes did his best to meet her half way.

  ‘It’s weird all right.’ He scratched his frowsy thatch. ‘But why would any of that stuff have spooked her?’

  ‘We don’t know that it did,’ Markham observed before Burton had a chance to embark on a discussion of nineteenth-century iconography. ‘The painting might not have anything to do with her death. She could just have been in a morbid state of mind…. Or perhaps she simply felt drawn to it like Gemma.’ Observing his subordinates’ disappointed faces, he added, ‘But it’s part of the background to her murder…. part of the context. So let’s not discount it.’

  Suddenly there came the sound of an eerie rhythmic rattling which took them by surprise.

  Sleet.

  To Markham the moment felt disconcertingly sinister, as though they were trapped in some sort of kettledrum.

  ‘It’s not the first murder to have happened here,’ Noakes blurted out.

  He had their full attention.

  ‘Well, last time was more a disappearance than a murder.’

  ‘You’re full of surprises, Sergeant. Tell us more.’

  Knuckling his forehead as though by this means he could assist his memory, the DS duly obliged.

  ‘It wasn’t long after I’d joined the force, guv. A little lad wandered away from his mum down one of the corridors upstairs. There’d been a power cut or summat like that an’ she kinda lost sight of him for a moment…got distracted…Afterwards she said she remembered him walking away from her but then he seemed to sort of, well, blur into the shadows.’ The DS shifted uncomfortably in his seat. ‘Like he was there one minute and gone the next. It was quite dim and gloomy with the lights being off, so at first she thought she could still see him. But then she called out an’ he didn’t answer. By the time she got to the other end, there was no sign.’

  ‘I’m with you now, Sergeant,’ Markham said slowly. ‘The Carter abduction.’

  ‘That’s the one, guv. Never solved. Big Jim McLeod an’ the rest bust a gut on it but nada.’ Noakes’s face was grim. ‘It was a Sunday afternoon…bit like today. The poor cow only really came in to get out of the rain and see some nice bits ’n bobs…. Never got over it an’ ended up on the sauce…’

  ‘You don’t think there’s a connection with Helen Melville do you, sir?’ Burton looked troubled. ‘I mean, a cold case….’

  ‘Could just be a tragic coincidence, Kate, but I’ll want to review the Carter files asap.’

  She nodded, her face sombre.

  There was a rap at the door and DC Doyle appeared.

  The tall, gangling ginger-haired detective was the fourth member of the unit and, after a rocky start, had proved himself a valuable member of the team. Something of a sharp dresser, his Hugo Boss suit struck just the right note of professionalism, so that he looked perfectly at ease in his surroundings. As with Noakes – his mentor when it came to football and affairs of the heart alike – it had taken time for him to jell with Kate Burton, but they had developed a solid mutual respect which seemed proof against amount of ‘arty-fartiness’ on her part.

  ‘We’ve got all the statements and contact details now, sir,’ he announced cheerfully. ‘There were only a few visitors in the building on account of it being a Sunday, but they’re all accounted for.’

  ‘Thank you, constable,’ Markham said crisply, rising to his feet. ‘I’d like a word with Ms Summerson, but the rest of the staff can go. With the gallery being a crime scene, we’ll do interviews in the library next door. I’d like you to get that set up for tomorrow morning please.’

  Clicking his heels smartly, Doyle disappeared into the corridor.

 

Outside the sleet had ceased its insistent thrumming.

  Burton felt curiously reluctant to leave the safe space of the office. But Markham was motioning towards the door.

  Time to hear what Rebecca Summerson had to say.

Catherine

Moloney 2019

 

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