CRIME IN THE HEAT
Thinking about it afterwards, DS George Noakes supposed there was something weirdly appropriate about him being on the spot when Rebecca Shawcross’s body was discovered.
There had been no hint of impending drama when he arrived at the surgery waiting room at Bromgrove Community Centre at 4.30 on a wet Monday afternoon in June. For a wonder, he appeared to be the only patient with an appointment.
‘How come, luv?’ he asked the youthful trainee receptionist jerking a pudgy finger at the empty chairs.
‘Bit of a lull today. Only the locum an’ ANP in.’ Observing Noakes’s look of bewilderment, she translated patiently. ‘That’s the Advanced Nurse Practitioner.’
‘Oh aye,’ he grunted, none the wiser. ‘The missus made an appointment….For my annual review…Noakes.’
‘Just a minute…..Ah yes, Sergeant Noakes, isn’t it?’ From the disappointed look she cast at him, it was clear he didn’t exactly measure up to her idea of CID’s finest.
Actually, he’d made a bit of an effort clothes-wise. Muriel had insisted on it. ‘This is one time I’m putting my foot down, George. We have a certain standing in the community after all.’ He hated it when she started on at him. Like that screechy Hyacinth Bucket woman from the sitcom. Even worse once she embarked on the subject of his boss, DI Gilbert (‘Gil’) Markham. ‘It must be a real trial to poor Gilbert to have you trailing about after him looking like some sort of vagrant. He has such refinement.’ She grew positively misty-eyed at the thought of his superior’s dark good looks. The boss tended to have that effect on the opposite sex, he thought sourly. You can bet if he walked into the surgery waiting room, little miss muffet on the desk would be oohing and aahing like James Bond had turned up!
He was so lost in the contemplation of his wrongs, that he came to with a start.
‘I said, your appointment is with Dr Neil Troughton at 4.45.’ Her voice trailed off uncertainly. ‘If you’d like to sit down.’
God, the poor lass probably thought he was losing his marbles.
With an embarrassed duck of the head, he lurched away from the counter and plonked himself down in the farthest corner of the room.
Some sort of creepy aquatic style soundtrack was playing over speakers. The kind of stuff meant to keep you calm. Unfortunately it made him want to pee. He’d just have to hold it in. Didn’t want them thinking he was nuts and incontinent.
Trying to ignore his importunate bladder, Noakes contemplated the video footage playing on a wall-mounted screen. And promptly wished he hadn’t. How to examine your stools.
God, the whole set up was starting to make him feel like some sort of decrepit coffin-dodger.
Catching sight of his reflection in a glass-fronted literature display unit, he sucked in his paunch and smoothed down the rumpled salt-and-pepper thatch that despite his best efforts declined to lie flat. There was nothing to be done about his pug-like features (‘lived-in’ he told himself hopefully), but the regimental tie was bound to create a favourable impression. Granted he needed to lose some poundage, but no way was he joining that poncey gym Muriel kept rabbiting on about. Spinning classes. Pilates. Tai Chi. Avocado smoothies. Lycra.
Jesus. There had to be another way.
Perhaps he might check out Bromgrove Police Boxing Club…the place in Marsh Lane that Markham visited whenever he wanted to beat seven bells out of DCI Sidney (or Slimy Sid, as their senior officer was popularly known). The proprietor ‘Doggie’ Dickerson looked a right old villain, but at least there’d be no danger of encountering the kind of right-on veganistas who invariably brought him out in hives.
Strange that his fastidious, famously austere boss should be perfectly comfortable slumming it at Doggie’s. But that was Markham…hidden depths….
He had never quite fathomed how he was still at Markham’s side as his bagman in the face of the DCI’s ill-disguised desire to have him put out to grass. But the rising star of CID had stubbornly resisted all Sidney’s attempts to remove Noakes. At a level deeper than words, they were an unbreakable team. He felt a glow of gratification at the thought.
It was raining heavily now, the privet hedge just visible through the waiting room window drooping dankly as though it shared his despondent mood.
Welcome to the Great British Summer.
Around him the Community Centre was eerily quiet.
It was a modern but not particularly inspiring cinder block complex which housed the surgery, local library and a sixth form study annexe for Hope Academy.
This was the dead time, he thought yawning as he looked at his watch and wondered what the hell was keeping Dr Neil Troughton. Quarter past five. Weren’t appointments meant to be bloody ten minutes these days? So was the previous patient yakking on? Or was the good doctor catching up on his admin? Either way, Noakes was getting restless at the hold-up.
The little receptionist seemed to have disappeared.
He shifted uncomfortably on the trendy modular seating which was hopelessly unsuited to a man of his girth.
Time for another shufti at the in-house entertainment.
Oh, chuffing hell. Now it was You and your prostate.
He couldn’t face any more of the triple-bill. Might as well get a coffee from that machine in the corridor. Bound to taste like gnat’s piss but it would pass the time…
Noakes got to his feet then froze.
What was that?
Sounded like a scream followed by pounding footsteps.
The girl from the front desk was back. White-faced and barely able to speak, she looked as though she was in shock.
For a big man, Noakes could move surprisingly fast.
‘Here, luv. What’s up?’ He manoeuvered himself behind the counter and pressed her gently into a chair.
‘There’s a body in the refrigerator,’ she stammered eventually.
‘Where would that be then?’
‘The minor ops treatment room.’
‘Can you show me, luv.’
She nodded vigorously, lank blond ponytail swinging with the force of her agitation.
They passed through double doors and along a corridor to the rear of the building where the receptionist halted in front of another door.
‘C’mon, luv. Don’t be afraid,’ Noakes urged gently.
The stainless steel refrigerator stood at the far end of the room, its lid ajar.
‘I can’t look again, Mr Noakes.’
‘That’s alright….’ Noakes squinted at her name badge, ‘Shelly.’ He patted her arm reassuringly. ‘You jus’ stand here an’ be look-out.’
The sleeping and the dead are but as pictures.
The boss’s words came to Noakes as he looked down at a woman’s slim body concertinaed into the narrow space, turned on its side, long dark hair obscuring the face.
Somehow, with an ineffable weight of sadness, the DS instinctively knew that she was beautiful.
Voices at the door.
Shelly’s voice. ‘It’s Dr Troughton, Sergeant.’
Noakes waved him over.
Neil Troughton looked calmly at the recumbent figure.
‘Can you identify her, sir?’
‘Yes,’ the other replied calmly. ‘It’s one of our patients. Rebecca Shawcross.’
And So It Begins
Gilbert Markham sat on ‘his’ bench round the back of Bromgrove Police Station shortly after 6 am on Tuesday morning, savouring a few brief moments peace before the hurly burly of a new investigation. A fine drizzle softened the outlines of St Chad’s cemetery and deepened the lush green hues of neighbouring Hollingrove Park, lending them a gentle beauty which charmed the eye and soothed the soul of the young DI.
His eyes wandering to the parish church’s ancient tombs, he recited an internal prayer for Rebecca Shawcross. As a lapsed Catholic, the dead woman’s final bourn remained veiled in mystery, but he knew for certain there would be no rest for him until her killer was brought to justice.
Reluctantly, he dragged his thoughts back to the impending murder enquiry.
What did he know of Bromgrove Community Centre?
Architecturally undistinguished. A sort of one-stop shop for various community services…
His mouth quirked at the recollection of George Noakes’s ill-concealed relief at the cancellation of his annual check up after the previous day’s dramatic discovery. The old devil had sported a startling tweed ensemble that – taken with his florid complexion and overflowing gut – gave him the look of a down-at-heel gamekeeper, so presumably Muriel had issued some sort of fatwa against his usual garb. Most of the time, she wisely averted her eyes, but a visit to the local GP meant family pride was at stake. Markham wasn’t sure that her intervention on this occasion had resulted in a significant improvement. Noakes’s appearance invariably raised DCI Sidney’s blood pressure (‘For God’s sake, Markham, the man’s a disgrace. Looks like Worzel Gummidge and offensive to boot…’), but luckily Slimy Sid was on an away-day so hopefully wouldn’t clap eyes on the DS till much later.
Markham knew his insistence on Noakes as his number two had done him no favours with the top brass, but somehow he didn’t care. That the DS had no filter was part of his appeal. In a world of palm-greasing and PC virtue-signalling, integrity ran through George Noakes like a stick of rock. He also had unexpected gifts of empathy and kindness, something in his unvarnished authenticity touching a chord with tongue-tied teenagers and truculent old-time criminals alike. Markham had long since detected Noakes’s susceptibility to the charms of his willowy teacher girlfriend Olivia, which manifested itself in a sort of chivalrous devotion that was as funny as it was touching. Mrs Noakes, needless to say, regarded these troubadour tendencies with a distinctly jaundiced eye, but Noakes proved unexpectedly stubborn in his allegiance. ‘She’s good for the guvnor’ was his stolid reposne to any acid asides about ‘highly strung types’.
Olivia, in turn, had taken to Noakes in a big way. Neither she nor Markham had ever fathomed his fierce loyalty to the snobbish, bossy Muriel, but they knew the couple was rock solid for all that. It had come as a surprise to learn that the Noakeses were regulars on the competitive ballroom dancing circuit, hence the need for the DS to get his weight under control. ‘I can’t see George switching from Greggs pasties to kale smoothies,’ Olivia had giggled. At least the check up had been a step in the right direction…and now Noakes had wriggled out of it.
Markham wanted his usual team for this case. DS Kate Burton was no doubt already inside raring to get started.
He smiled at the thought of the other keen-as-mustard DS.
A greater contrast to George Noakes could hardly be imagined. Kate Burton was the epitome of a thrusting young officer, her focused ambition in sharp contrast to Noakes’s shambling slobbishness.
Initially antagonistic to each other, the two sergeants had slowly bonded over the course of some dangerous assignments, Noakes gradually learning to appreciate the doggedness of his female colleague (whose entry to the police had initially been blocked by parental resistance – ‘No job for a woman’) as well as her devotion to Markham. Privately, he suspected this went much further than professional regard though, as she was now engaged to a DS in Fraud, Burton had presumably ceased to sigh for the moon. Noakes had never betrayed her secret to Markham or DC Doyle, the youngest member of the team with whom he enjoyed setting the world to rights in Bromgrove’s various hostelries, but he figured the guvnor must have had an inkling.
In fact, if such a possibility ever crossed his mind, Markham had dismissed it, being notably devoid of vanity or self-regard. But he sensed Burton’s envy of the easy complicity that he and Noakes shared and had made a resolution to draw her closer. Beneath the somewhat disconcerting earnestness and eager beaver intensity which had initially repelled her male colleagues lay an unexpected vulnerability. She had certainly loosened up considerably since her arrival in CID, to the point where a wary camaraderie had spring up between herself, Noakes and Doyle. While still occasionally bristling at Noakes’s more outrageous outbreaks of political incorrectness, she had learned to give as good as she got, a mischievous sense of humour coming to her aid in the various incident room exchanges.
Burton should be looking for further promotion and taking her Inspector’s exams. He had the feeling she was holding back for some reason…A desire not to outgun her boringly conventional fiancé, perhaps? Or maybe she just wanted to stay close to the action as one of ‘Markham’s gang’? Either way, he felt selfishly relieved that it looked as though he could hang on to her a bit longer…
Yes, Burton and Noakes should work well in harness on this one. Noakes could be relied upon to detonate the H-bomb in terms of forcing potential suspects to reveal their hidden vices while Burton, ever the diplomatist, kept management and the local authority at bay.
Hopefully DC Doyle would be available too. The ‘ginger ninja’ as he was affectionately known, was a hard worker and keen to rise within CID having begun a part-time degree in Criminal Law through distance learning. He could also be a useful buffer between Noakes and Burton, his youthful ingenuousness proving invaluable whenever the entente cordiale showed signs of fraying.
Better head inside and get a jump on the day. The fabled ‘golden hour’ had yielded precious little in terms of information gathered at the community centre.
Rebecca Shawcross was an English teacher from Hope Academy where Olivia now worked. Markham frowned as he recalled the traumatic murder investigation his girlfriend had been caught up in which led to her leaving that particular school and doubting if she would ever be able to teach again. He could only pray that none of this led back to the Academy, reawakening old ghosts.
The victim had been strangled with some sort of rudimentary garrotte. Surgical twine, according to the pathologist Doug ‘Dimples’ Davidson who gave time of death (unofficially) as between 1 and 3 pm that day.
At least the surgery hadn’t been teeming with medical staff due to the majority attending a conference in London. Always helpful to have the field of suspects narrowed down. Noakes was due to do this morning’s briefing on the community centre personnel after which Markham would dispatch Burton and Doyle to set up an incident room.
The DI cast a last wistful look at the gauzy outlines of Hollingrove Park before moving purposefully towards the station and the day ahead.
CID looked somehow staler than ever by contrast with the lush verdure of the park that was its neighbour, the distinctly tired looking décor badly in need of sprucing up. Even the huge yukka plant donated by the station’s green-fingered custody sergeant had an air of dejection.
When pigs fly, thought Markham resignedly turning to his lilliputian office with its unrivalled views of the station car park.
The two sergeants were already waiting for him, a faint aroma of grease suggesting that Noakes’s fitness regime had been sidelined for the time being. Burton sat virtuously sipping black coffee, prim as a schoolgirl, her nut-brown pageboy gleaming with health. She always dressed smartly but soberly, as though any distinctive marks of personal taste risked undermining her professional persona. Today’s outfit was another of what Noakes called her Chairman Mao trouser suits, but the overall effect was one of irreproachable neatness.
The DI was relieved to see Noakes toned it down since the previous day, being no more than ordinarily scruffy in crumpled linen separates (mismatched) and less than pristine white shirt. Just enough to pass muster with the DCI, though the hideous vermillion tie vied with Noakes’s complexion to give the overall impression that here was a prime candidate for apoplexy, heart attack, stroke, or all three.
Suppressing a sigh, Markham sat down behind his desk, on which Noakes promptly set aside his dogeared copy of the Gazette while Burton eagerly whipped out her police notebook. Looking at the two faces turned towards him – Burton’s tip-tilted features in amusing contrast to Noakes’s weather-beaten jowliness – the DI felt a wave of affection. Along with Olivia, this was family. The only real family he had ever known.
‘Any chance of securing DC Doyle for this investigation?’ he asked.
‘DI Carstairs nabbed him for this morning, Guv,’ Noakes grunted. ‘But he promised we c’n have him back later.’
‘Good.’ Markham leaned back in his chair, trying to ignore the loose spring digging into his back. ‘Right, Noakes, why don’t you talk us through the potential suspects.’
The DS cleared his throat portentously and fished into his jacket pocket for an envelope on which he appeared to have scribbled some notes. A sound that might have been a whimper escaped Kate Burton, swiftly repressed.
‘Well, it helps that all the medicos were off on a jolly.’
‘Doing CPD.’ The silly bitch loved her acronyms. ‘Continuous professional development,’ he enunciated sonorously. ‘Up in Leeds. ’Cept for two of ’em.’ He squinted ferociously at his horrible handwriting. ‘Dr Neil Troughton – he’s the locum – an’ the ANP Maureen Stanley,’ he continued triumphantly, as though to demonstrate he could ‘do’ acronyms with the best of them.
‘Troughton was pretty calm.’ Noakes shrugged. ‘But then, it’s all in a day’s work for him ain’t it…I mean, death…The professional training would kick in….’
‘Hmm.’ Markham steepled his fingers. ‘What about his colleague?’
‘She looked dead upset…could’ve been putting it on, of course.’ He grinned evilly. ‘Got the feeling she fancies Troughton. Fussing around him with cups of tea and whatnot…went bright red whenever she spoke to him….’
Burton’s disapproving look was back, but Markham didn’t halt the flow. Noakes was good at picking up vibes that loftier types tended to miss.
‘Who else was in the vicinity yesterday, Sergeant?’
Noakes began counting them off on his stubby fingers. ‘Well, there was the receptionist Shelly. Poor little cow. She was hysterical. Mum had to come and collect her….we can rule her out – .’
‘We’re not ruling anyone out, Sergeant,’ the DI interposed mildly.
‘Yeah, well I don’t see Shelly for it, Guv.’ The DS stuck to his guns, but Markham let it pass. As the father of a teenaged daughter – Natalie, trainee beautician and undisputed doyenne of Bromgrove’s less salubrious nightspots to whose ‘extracurricular’ activities her doting parents were oblivious – Noakes had a soft spot for young girls and was good with them too.
‘Go on, Sergeant.’
Noakes resumed his roll call.
‘’Right….bloke called Peter Elford’s the community centre administrator. All brylcreemed hair and smarm. Seemed efficient, mind,’ the DS conceded grudgingly, ‘but deffo in love with himself.’ A brief scowl and he continued. ‘There’s a caretaker who reports to him…Chris Burt…middle-aged….not sure he’s the full shilling, if you get my drift. Special needs or summat like that. Anyway,’ he went on hastily before Burton could accuse him of inappropriateness towards minorities, ‘Elford bosses him round goodo. Burt’s sister Thelma Macdonald’s the surgery office manager. Sour-faced, bit of a harridan…She was over in the library visiting her mate when we found the body.’
‘Who’s the mate?’ Burton was scribbling vigorously.
‘Another harridan.’ Burton’s pen stilled. ‘Sorry….the head librarian Shirley Bolton.’ He grimaced. ‘It’s jus’ that they didn’t seem to care about that poor cow being found dead in the fridge.’
‘You can’t necessarily read anything into that, Sergeant. Shock takes people in different ways.’
‘Yeah, I know, Guv.’ Noakes shifted uncomfortably. ‘It’s jus’….well they didn’t even seem surprised…’
Interesting. What was it about Rebecca Shawcross that could have marked her out as a candidate for murder?
‘Then there’s Lorraine Thornley, the community midwife. Nice kindly woman,’ Noakes said approvingly. ‘Now she was proper upset. You could tell. One of the phleb –, phleb – ’
‘Phlebotomists?’ suggested Burton helpfully.
‘That’s right.’ Noakes accepted the prompt with more grace than in former days. ‘One of them girls….’ He consulted his notes once more. ‘Jayne Pickering, the phleb thingy…healthcare assistant or what have you…she looked after Lorraine...gave her a lift home.’
‘Any other personnel?’
‘A counsellor or therapist woman…Jenni Harte. All floaty clothes… ethnic scarves and bangles...you know the type. Born-again hippie.’
Burton’s lips compressed, but she said nothing. The entente cordiale was holding. But only just. Watch it, Noakesy, the DI warned him in silent semaphore. Thin ice.
Message received and understood.
The DS cleared his throat.
‘An’ there was another therapist or trick cyclist. Asian guy. Very quiet. Seemed a decent sort. He and Jenni were reviewing a case together…didn’t hear or see anything.’
Noakes had run out of fingers.
‘Is that the whole dramatis personae then, Sergeant?’ The DI’s voice was dry.
‘Pretty much, Guv.’ Noakes ran pudgy hands through his hair so that the frowsy thatch stood on end in porcupine quills. Not a good look. ‘There’s a sixth form study annexe,’ he wrinkled his nose, ‘or learning centre or whatever the new-fangled name is…That’s on the first floor. The surgery and library are downstairs.’
Hormonally challenged seventeen and eighteen year olds. They had to go in the mix too.
‘Are the students supervised?’ Burton, as ever, wanted specifics. ‘I mean, presumably there are teachers in there with them?’
Noakes scratched his chin. ‘I think they sort of do shifts…from Hope Academy.’ Or ‘Hopeless’ as it was known locally. ‘There’s a few classrooms and an ICT suite…all mod cons…not like in my Nat’s day when it was chalk n’ talk. Now it’s all fancy gimmicks.’
Seeing that Noakes was gearing up for a paean to ‘the good ole days’, Markham took over.
‘Students and staff will need to be checked out, obviously.’
Noakes noticed a shadow pass across the guvnor’s face. Blink and you’d miss it, but he’d seen it there.
‘’Course, we won’t let anyone bother your Olivia, Guv,’ he said gruffly, the tips of his ears turning pink with consternation.
Looking at this unlikeliest of Sancho Panzas, Markham was strangely moved. Even Burton, that stickler for protocol and propriety, echoed, ‘It’s probably got nothing to do with the school, boss. And anyway, Olivia was nowhere near, so like Noakesy said there’s nothing for her to worry about….’
Burton felt the familiar hollow ache when she saw how the DI’s normally austere features softened at the mention of his girlfriend. No-one had ever looked at her like that and doubtless never would. Least of all dependable unromantic Colin….
She pulled herself together. Noakes was wearing that expression again. The one which suggested he knew exactly what she was thinking. The last thing she needed was her fellow DS’s pity!
Whatever it was bound her enigmatic boss and the ethereal Olivia together, it was an unbreakable bond and that was the end of it. Besides, she had come to like the dreamy-souled English teacher whose fragile appearance concealed a roguish wit. Everyone knew it had taken months of therapy, and a lengthy period out of mainstream teaching, for Olivia to recover from the Hope Academy murders. Burton sincerely hoped this new investigation wouldn’t trigger a setback.
‘Thanks, both of you.’ Markham smiled at them. ‘I’m sure Olivia will cope.’
He sounded more confident than he felt.
There was a smart rap and DC Doyle’s carrot top appeared round the door.
‘What happened with Carstairs, lad? Thought he wanted you.’
‘He could tell I was pining for you, sarge,’ the other grinned. He turned to the DI. ‘Do you want me on this one, sir?’
No affectation of casualness. No assumed indifference. That was the refreshing thing about Doyle. He made no secret of his preference for Markham’s maverick unit above all others.
‘Indeed I do, Constable.’ Markham’s voice was warm. ‘Come on in.’
There was no chair for him in the minuscule space, but the loose-limbed gangling young detective leaned against the doorframe nodding affably to Burton.
‘Sharp suit,’ Noakes grunted.
‘Knew you’d like it, sarge, what with you being a fashion aficionado. Hugo Boss.’
Pleasantries over, Markham quickly briefed the new arrival before handing out tasks.
‘I need you and Kate to set up an incident room in the community centre. Uusal pack drill. Get the office manager on side while you’re about it…we’re going to want access to HR records and all the rest of it.’
Noakes was waiting expectantly.
‘You and I will get the administrator – ’
‘We’ll get Mr Elford to give us the guided tour…see what we can glean before starting on interviews.’
‘Has the DCI been briefed yet, sir?’
‘A pleasure deferred, Constable,’ Markham replied deadpan. His subordinates knew all too well that the boss looked forward to sessions with Sidney about as much as he did to root canal work. As far as Slimy Sid was concerned, the name of the game was always Operation Cover Up. Anything which risked staining Bromgrove’s civic reputation – and thereby potentially the DCI’s own – was to be avoided at all costs. Markham was willing to bet Sidney was already dusting off his favoured Bushy Haired Stranger theory with a view to distancing Bromgrove’s great and good from anything vaguely scandalous or embarrassing. God, it would be like the Newman Hospital investigation all over again. Cherchez the nutter!
He suppressed a groan. Sidney could wait. For now, they needed to get a handle on the centre and its occupants.
‘Is there anything on motive yet, sir?’
‘According to Dimples, Ms Shawcross wasn’t sexually assaulted. But other than that….’ The DI shook his head. ‘She was likely taken by surprise. Let’s hope it was over quickly.’
An explosion of fiery pain and then….nothing.
For an instant, his eyes were remote, unseeing.
Rebecca Shawcross had been so young. Just mid-twenties. Pray heaven there was some unseen realm…some bright and happy place beyond the grave that victims were called upon by God to people. He had to cling to that thought lest thoughts of all those he had been unable to save should drive him mad.
The other three waited respectfully, accustomed by now to Markham’s moments of introspection when he was ‘talking wi’ dead folk’ as Noakes was apt to put it.
Then he was back with them.
‘It was a vicious attack,’ he said quietly. ‘Nasty and vicious.’
‘An’ shoving her in a fridge like that.’ Noakes shook his head. ‘Like she was some kind of specimen…’
Burton was thoughtful. ‘Could a woman have done it, sir?’
‘Undoubtedly, Kate.’ The DI flexed his long slender hands as though measuring their strength. ‘If the attacker had the advantage of surprise, Ms Shawcross could have been taken down in a trice.’
Ms Shawcross. Always that respect for the victim. No gallows humour ever on Markham’s watch.
‘But let’s not speculate,’ he said briskly. ‘We’ll have the PM results by this evening at the latest….In the meantime, I want to get a feel for the centre.’
He was a great believer in that…letting the murder scene speak to them.
Outside drizzle was still falling softly as they headed for the car park, rain pattering steadily and relentlessly on the tombs of St Chad’s.
Time to track a killer.
A Neighbourhood of Spies
It had stopped drizzling by the time Markham and Noakes drew up in the Community Centre car park, but the day was dull and overcast lending no lustre to the unbeautiful square building in front of them.
‘Could do wi’ summat to brighten the place up,’ the DS grunted. ‘One of them art installation jobbies or whatnot.’
‘You surprise me, sergeant.’ Markham’s tone was quizzical. ‘I seem to recall your not being very keen on them when we visited the “psychos” at the Newman.’ He referred to the special hospital which had been the scene of a previous investigation. ‘In fact, I had the distinct impression you considered art therapy a poor substitute for hypodermic syringes.’
‘Well, I know more about it now than I did then,’ Noakes said huffily. ‘What with all them visits to the Art Gallery when we were on the Alex Carter case.’
The DI somehow repressed a sarcastic rejoinder, having observed no signs of his sergeant’s cultural sensibilities undergoing any notable transformation on that occasion. If anything, he had seemed even more stoutly opposed to Pre-Raphaelite art at the conclusion of their investigation than at the beginning.
‘Not that Victorian bollocks,’ the DS qualified beadily, as though only too aware of what Markham was thinking. ‘Summat nice an’ ordinary…’ He cudgelled his brains for inspiration. ‘Summat cheerful.’
‘Well, I believe there’s some sort of fountain or water feature round the back, Noakes, but that’s about it.’ Time to meet the old warhorse half way. ‘You’re right, though. It doesn’t exactly raise the spirits.’
The DS was mollified. ‘Surgery’s on the ground floor,’ he reminded his boss. ‘Library an’ sixth form annexe upstairs.’
‘Have the SOCOs finished yet?’
‘Pretty much, Guv. Should be done by end of today. Only essential staff allowed in for now.’
‘Fine.’ Markham spoke briskly. ‘I want things running normally again as soon as possible. Least possible disruption to the community, if you get my drift.’
No need to mention DCI’s obsession with civic PR.
Noakes nodded grimly.
A man was waiting for them in the entrance porch.
‘Peter Elford. The one who thinks he’s God’s Gift,’ Noakes muttered out of the side of his mouth.
Hmm. Elford certainly wasn’t anyone’s idea of an Adonis, thought Markham, being short, sallow and shifty-looking with beaky nose and eyes set too close together. What had Noakes said about him back at the station… “all brylcreemed hair and smarm”? Well, the coiffure may have been lacquered into place and there was a certain preening self-consciousness about the man, but he appeared presentable enough and was perfectly in command of himself and the situation apart from a certain wariness about the eyes…
The administrator had a well-modulated voice, any Northern inflection ruthlessly suppressed. ‘Your colleagues are setting up an incident room for you in the surgery seminar room, gentlemen. It’s at the end of the corridor behind Reception. I’ll make sure you all have keys by the end of the day.’
‘Excellent, sir.’ Certainly Elford couldn’t be faulted for efficiency. ‘In the meantime, perhaps you could give us a tour of the building and introduce us to key personnel. Obviously, we’ll be conducting interviews with everyone who was in the building yesterday afternoon, but a walk-through would be useful if you have the time.’
‘Of course, Inspector. Whatever I can do to help…I didn’t know Ms Shawcross personally.’ That remained to be seen, thought Markham. ‘But it was a shocking attack.’
Grudgingly, despite a certain visceral antipathy for the Administrator, Markham gave him credit for concision and lack of gush.
Elford ushered them forward to the surgery Reception counter where a large doughy looking woman presided, piggy eyes surveying them from behind milk-bottle specs.
Jesus, what a Ten Ton Tessa, thought Noakes. Unable to turn around without the use of tugs….not the best advert for healthy living.
Noakes took a step backwards as she simpered at them.
Or rather, not so much at him but Markham. She certainly hadn’t bothered to turn on the charm yesterday, but the DI’s dark good looks had her fluttering like a schoolgirl.
‘This is Thelma Macdonald, the surgery office manager.’
The woman raised a self-conscious hand to her fine blonde hair, ill cut in an approximation of the gamine crop.
Markham smiled charmingly.
‘Ms Macdonald, I hope the police investigation won’t cause you too much disruption,’ he said with customary old-world courtesy. ‘We appreciate that this is a very distressing time for everyone who works here.’
She didn’t look too distressed from where Noakes was standing. In fact, the DS thought, she looked keyed-up….almost triumphant in a queer gloating kind of way.
‘I understand you were in another part of the building when Ms Shawcross’s body was discovered.’
‘That’s right, Inspector. I don’t normally leave the junior receptionists unsupervised…’ She bridled self-importantly. ‘But yesterday was unusual in that most of the medical staff were away.’
‘CPD,’ put in the DS unctuously. Might as well give the new-found acronym full value.
‘Yes.’ Her look of surprise heightened Noakes’s gratification. ‘In Leeds.’ Somewhat nervously, she wetted her lips. ‘There were only a few afternoon appointments.’
‘So you decided to slope off for a bit.’ Noakes winked at her conspiratorially. ‘When the cat’s away an’ all that.’
She drew herself up with some hauteur, jowls wobbling. ‘Certainly not, Sergeant. I merely visited the library to see if a book I’d reserved had arrived.’
Interesting, Markham thought. Noakes had clearly touched a nerve. Was it because of the imputation that she had been skiving? Or did she have something to hide? How long had that particular errand taken? Was it just the library that Thelma Macdonald had visited, or was there another secret encounter with Rebecca Shawcross?
Not a hint of these thoughts showed on his face as Markham congratulated her on the good fortune of working in close proximity to a library. ‘We readers are insatiable, Ms Macdonald.’
Pass the sick bag, Noakes muttered to himself. But the Markham magic was working. The old witch was totally disarmed.
‘’Ow’s little Shelly doing?’ he enquired.
‘She’s called in sick.’ A sniff was eloquent testimony to the office manager’s disapproval. ‘One of the other girls is helping out for now.’ She waved a hand in the direction of the back office from where a clicking of computer keys could be heard. ‘Will you be needing to see her?’
‘Not just at the moment, Ms Macdonald.’ Keen grey eyes rested on her, causing the woman to flush unbecomingly. ‘So it was just you and Shelly on duty down here yesterday afternoon?’
‘Did Ms Shawcross have a medical appointment?’
Again, that strange triumphant gleam.
‘No, that’s the odd part. She didn’t have an appointment at all. No reason for her to be sn –,’ the office manager corrected herself, ‘I mean, wandering around the surgery.’
Pound to a penny she was going to say ‘snooping’, Noakes thought grimly.
‘I understand she was a teacher at Hope Academy.’ Markham paused delicately, weighing the reasons for Rebecca Shawcross to have been on the premises. ‘Could she have been visiting the sixth form study annexe at some point?’
Dimples Davidson had given it as his unofficial opinion that their victim had been killed in the minor ops treatment room where the body was found at some point between 1 and 3 pm. But they needed to establish her movements prior to that.
‘Ms Bolton – that’s Shirley Bolton the head librarian who manages the study centre – should be able to help you. Monday afternoons, most of the students do Enrichment.’
Whatever the hell that was. From the vinegary look on Thelma’s face, Enrichment presumably referred to the non-academic side of Hope’s sixth form curriculum. Or ‘Wasting Time’, as she no doubt thought of it.
‘So there aren’t many students working in there during Enrichment, Ms Macdonald?’
‘Not usually, no. There’s a roster of teachers for the study centre, but Shirley covers Monday afternoons.’
Her tone suggested this constituted rank exploitation.
‘So there would have been no reason for Ms Shawcross to be in the study centre?’ Markham persisted gently.
‘Shirley didn’t mention seeing her, but…Well who’s to say that she mightn’t have been….helping a student….She was ever so popular with the sixth form boys.’
God, subtle as a hand grenade, Noakes thought. The innuendo was larded on so thick, it was almost indecent.
The DI affected not to notice.
‘Indeed.’ Another charming smile. Markham turned to Peter Elford. ‘I believe we’ve trespassed long enough on Ms Macdonald’s good nature.’
Good nature! That’s a joke!
Makham shot his subordinate a look. Don’t antagonise them, Noakesy.
‘Perhaps you could take us to Ms Bolton’s domain, Mr Elford. Help us get our bearings.’ A graceful bow to the office manager and their little procession wound its way towards the staircase on the right of the surgery waiting room which was eerily quiet. No snot-nosed kids wailing and creating mayhem, for one thing.
‘What with your officers sealing off the premises, we’ve cancelled all non-urgent appointments.’ Peter Elford said smoothly. ‘The On Call service is still operating, of course, and Medway Medical Centre is offering cover as well.’
At that moment, a diminutive middle-aged man came down the stairs. Bald, except for a thin fringe of grey hair round the base of his skull, and rather vacant looking, with watery blue eyes, he blinked at the group as if wondering where they had sprung from. Wearing brown overalls like some sort of overgrown grocery boy, he cut a faintly comical figure.
‘This is Chris Burt, our caretaker,’ Peter Elford said in a tone which clearly implied: We all have our crosses to bear, and this is mine. ‘Chris is Thelma’s brother. One of our old-timers.’
Well, whoever guzzled the pies in that family it weren’t poor old Chris, Noakes thought as he contemplated the weedy specimen in front of them. He noticed there was a faint sheen of sweat on the man’s upper lip and he looked furtive. Mind, they were hardly meeting him under ideal circumstances. Bound to have been badly shaken up, especially if he was a bit simple….or what they called ‘special needs’. Or could it be a case of guilty conscience?
Markham’s manner with everyone was the same. No distinction of tone, whether it was the Duke of Wherever or the local dustman. Noakes had to admire the way he defused the underlying tension with some easy inconsequential chit-chat, reassuring the dazed looking caretaker that he wasn’t about to be arrested and hauled away on the spot….though, judging from the expression on Elford’s face, that would have been a perfectly acceptable outcome.
God help the poor sod, the DS reflected, as he watched Burt shuffle away towards Reception. Between Big Sis and Elford, his working day likely wasn’t a barrel of laughs. How to examine your stools was probably as good as it got.
The library and sixth form study annexe were as quiet as the downstairs regions, police tape still partitioning various sections where a few SOCOs toiled in their disposable white suits, pausing to acknowledge Markham and Noakes with nods and waves.
The layout was open plan, with the two facilities situated on either side of a corridor. Clearly designated ‘break out zones’, with low tables, magazine racks and brightly coloured easy chairs, lent this floor a homely feel. With glass skylights and sliding doors, it was airier and altogether more congenial than the medical centre. There were lockers, a vending machine and pot plants in the sixth form annexe, with what looked like two well-equipped seminar rooms opening off the main study area.
‘Shirley Bolton manages the library and study centre for us, Inspector.’
The head librarian was a petite, rather dumpy woman of vaguely Mediterranean appearance. With her jet black hair coiled in a neat chignon and vibrantly coloured tie dye dress, she was more prepossessing than her counterpart in the medical centre. As introductions were made, the librarian’s expressive hand gestures and rather theatrical manner reinforced the impression of foreignness while her quick darting head movements put Noakes in mind of a blackbird.
‘I didn’t see Ms Shawcross up here yesterday,’ she told them after the conventional, and apparently sincere, expressions of regret. ‘Library staff don’t have all that much to do with the teachers – beyond dealing with research enquiries and helping kids with coursework, of course. We did the usual induction sessions for students when they started in the sixth form, but other than that…’ She shrugged expressively.
Was there a flash of resentment in her eyes? A sense of being ‘lorded over’ by Hope’s academic staff? If so, it was gone so quickly that Markham couldn’t be sure he hadn’t imagined it.
‘I understand Ms Shawcross was very popular with the students,’ the DI said levelly.
‘Yes, she was. Very enthusiastic about her subject and always happy to go the extra mile.’
‘Easy on the eye too,’ Noakes put in with an amiable leer. ‘No hardship for the lads doing detention with her.’
Watching Shirley Bolton flinch, Markham regretted the necessity of having Noakes do his dirty work. But there was no denying his unaparalleled ability to flick suspects on the raw.
And there was something there….something which got beneath the woman’s defences.
What was it?
‘Ms Shawcross was excellent with both boys and girls, Sergeant.’ The scorching look she shot at Noakes would have shrivelled a lesser man, but the DS took it in his stride. The hide of a rhino, his boss thought smothering a grin.
Shirley Bolton would definitely repay watching, Markham decided. Hopefully Matthew Sullivan, Olivia’s boss at Hope Academy, would be able to give him the low-down….
Peter Elford was now looking distinctly uncomfortable. The DI couldn’t be sure, but he thought he detected a frisson of hostility between the administrator and librarian. Now what was that all about? Job-related…or something else….something to do with Rebecca Shawcross…?
It could wait.
Doubtless the DCI would be delighted if he were to frogmarch Chris Burt off for questioning post-haste, but Markham would do nothing in a hurry. He wanted all the pieces in place.
‘Thank you, Ms Bolton,’ he said, ‘you’ve been most helpful.’
Then, turning to Peter Elford, ‘We need to speak to other staff who were in the building yesterday.’
‘The trick cyclists, healthcare assistants an’ community midwife,’ Noakes prompted helpfully.
‘Naturally, gentlemen.’ Elford was unfazed.
‘Plus the GP from yesterday Dr Trout… locum bloke…an’ the deputy doctor woman…’
‘That would be Dr Troughton and the Advanced Nurse Practitioner Maureen Stanley.’
‘Right you are, them an’ all.’ Elford’s fastidious italics were wasted on Noakes.
‘They’re assembled in the staffroom downstairs.’ The Administrator’s forebearance was wondrous to behold. He turned to Markham. ‘Will you be conducting interviews today, Inspector?’
‘Tomorrow afternoon, Mr Elford.’ After a trip to Hope Academy to see what the school’s jungle drums yielded about Rebecca Shawcross. The DI wanted to ensure that his team was fully primed beforehand. And the vibes from Shirley Bolton certainly suggested a recce at Hope would pay dividends. ‘Of course, my officers will take preliminary statements, but essentially the aim today is to gain an overall sense of where everyone was in the hours surrounding Ms Shawcross’s murder.’
The usual whiff-whaff. There was certainly no question of giving Elford or anyone else an inkling of the crucial time frame.
‘If you would care to follow me, Inspector.’
With that, Elford led the way back downstairs.
The medical staffroom turned out to be rather poky and stuffy, one of a warren of consulting rooms and offices on the ground floor. The furniture was a drabber version of the amenities in the sixth form study centre – shabbier, more scuffed and uncared for, though someone had attempted to brighten the place up with some potted African violets and ferns.
‘That’s Jenni, our greenfingered expert,’ Elford murmured following Markham’s gaze. ‘She can coax plants to bloom in the unlikeliest of places.’
‘Jenni’ turned out to be Jennifer Harte, one of the centre’s two resident counsellors. She was gazelle-like in build and very pretty with heart-shaped features and dark hair worn in a ponytail with a fringe setting off intelligent hazel eyes. Markham clocked the hippie accessories immediately, but thought that if anything they enhanced rather than detracted from her professional persona.
The other counsellor was Tariq Azhar. Tall and handsome, with a sensitive fine-boned face and gentle manner, there was something protective in his attitude towards his fellow therapist. Markham didn’t conclude they were a couple, but there was obviously strong mutual affection and respect.
The third woman in the room – plump and motherly – could have come straight from central casting, thought Noakes, being a dead ringer for Sister Evangeline in Call The Midwife. She was introduced as Lorraine Thornley.
‘Are Dr Troughton and Ms Stanley likely to be joining us?’ Peter Elford enquired fussily, looking at his watch.
‘They should be along in a minute, Mr Elford.’ Jenni Harte was calm and soft-voiced, just what you’d expect from a counsellor. ‘Thelma had a query which needed sorting out.’
There was a knock at the door and a squat, athletically-built girl with long dark hair and a bad case of acne appeared.
‘Jayne Pickering, our phlebotomist and trainee healthcare assistant,’ Elford intoned.
The late arrival grinned unapologetically and perched on the arm of Loraine Thornley’s chair.
‘Jayne is Loraine’s niece,’ the Adminsitrator said, as though such informality required an explanation.
‘Very cosy.’ Noakes was deadpan.
Blimey, he thought. Happy families all round what wi’ Thelma and Chris doing a double act in reception.
At that moment, Dr Neil Troughton came bustling in, trailed by the Advanced Nurse Practitioner Maureen Stanley.
Sandy haired, slight and bespectacled, Troughton looked an unlikely focus of female lust, but then you never could tell…
The ANP was a wispy, washed-out looking woman with straggling mousy hair in an untidy bun and a nervous tic which pulled at the corner of her mouth. She looked self-conscious and ill at ease, though this was quite possibly how she appeared most of the time.
It transpired that these were the members of staff who had been on the premises the day before. All were able to account for themselves. Jenni Harte and Tariq Azhar had conducted consultations in the morning and then worked on a research paper together in the afternoon. So effectively they alibied each other. Of course, this left open the possibility of joint enterprise.
Maureen Stanley and Jayne Pickering likewise had appointments in the morning followed by Maureen giving the healthcare assistant a training session in new biomedical techniques.
‘Like vampires, eh?’ Noakes said jocularly, eliciting bewildered looks from the two women.
Hastily, Markham moved on to Loraine Thornley and established that she had been out on her rounds in the morning and writing up notes in the afternoon. ‘I used the computer in here,’ she said, pointing at the rather delapidated looking PC in the corner of the room.
‘Anyone else in here with you, luv?’
‘No-one, Sergeant. And to be honest, I was quite glad of the peace and quiet.’
So, no alibi for the relevant time, thought Noakes exchanging glances with Markham.
Dr Troughton too was alone in the afternoon, having been ‘catching up on paperwork’.
Which is why he was so bloody late for my appointment, concluded Noakes sourly. Or maybe he was having a crafty snog with that Stanley one…assuming the ANP did a crafty bunk from the phlebotomy training…Love’s young dream, not!
Which meant Dr Troughton and Loraine Thornley were potentially vulnerable, thought Markham, though they would need to drill down into staff movements in far more detail.
‘Thank you all for your time,’ the DI said warmly. ‘Sergeant Burton and Constable Doyle will be along shortly to take statements and contact details, so I would ask you to bear with us for a little longer. We want to minimize any upheaval to your work, and anticipate the centre should be open for business as usual from tomorrow.’ He turned to the Administrator. ‘Right, Mr Elfords, if you would be kind enough to direct us to the incident room.’
As the door shut behind them, there was a moment’s silence followed by an outbreak of anxious twitterings.
Good, thought, Markham. We’ve thrown a stone into the pond. Now let’s see what washes up.
Matthew Sullivan, lean, lanky and bespectacled, presented his usual owlish appearance that evening over supper in Markham’s flat at The Sweepstakes, an upmarket apartment block whose chief attraction for the DI was the fact that it overlooked Bromgrove North Municipal Cemetery and an array of lichen-covered Gothic tombs and monuments that he never tired of contemplating.
It had been an excellent meal – one of Olivia’s epic Summer salads followed by strawberries and cream. And now the two men lounged lazily in their respective favourite armchairs, savouring the warmth of the wood burning stove (it being somewhat chilly for the time of year) while Markham’s girlfriend prepared coffee.
By tacit consent, the current investigation had not been broached during their meal, but now the time had come to discuss Rebecca Shawcross.
‘She was a reliable member of the English department, Gil. A good team player.’
‘I got a strange vibe off a couple of women in the Community Centre.’
‘Oh yes? What kind of vibe?’ Sullivan’s pleasant baritone gave nothing away.
‘A suggestion – nothing explicit, mind you – that she might have made waves….that she might have been a little too cosy with some of the sixth form boys….’
Sullivan’s eyebrows shot up.
‘It’s always the same when there’s a decent looking woman on the scene, mate. Late twenties, attractive…the tom-toms start up, and before you know it she’s supposed to have seduced half the school.’
Markham chuckled, knowing that Matthew Sullivan was himself immune to female charms. Indeed, like Olivia he had been badly affected by the previous murder investigation at Hope Academy during which his hopeless infatuation with the male Assistant Head had been revealed.
‘How well did you you know her, Mat?’
‘We weren’t close.’ Sullivan leaped up to take the tray of drinks from Olivia who curled up on a footstool at her lover’s feet.
Companionably, the three enjoyed their coffee.
‘What about you, Liv?’ Mat enquired eventually. ‘Did Rebecca ever open up to you….girlie chats?’ Olivia pulled a face. ‘Confidences? That kind of thing.’
‘She was difficult to know. Bit of an ice maiden. Liked her privacy…Not that I blame her,’ Olivia added quickly, ‘Schools can be such snake pits.’
‘Her dad died in a car crash when she was quite young. Mum’s in a nursing home, Advanced Alzheimer’s.’ Sullivan’s voice was sombre. ‘I believe she was very faithful about visits.’
Markham thought back to the afternoon’s agonizing interview and Noakes’s tenderness with that wreck of a human being. He only wished the DS’s detractors could have witnessed his infinite patience and the way he coaxed a tearful smile from the bewildered woman whose daughter was forever frozen in time as a toddler. Afterwards, with hands clenched, his colleague said, ‘That poor lass drew the short straw all right, Guv. But we’ll see the bastard doesn’t get away wi’ it.’
‘Whoever killed her, we’ll get them Noakesy,’ he had replied.
But now he felt at a loss. The dead woman felt like an enigma, unknowable.
Suddenly, he experienced an unnerving flashback to the autopsy room and the moment when they contemplated Rebecca Shawcross’s remote white beauty, before Dimples Davidson set to work with his Stryker. Afterwards, having skipped lunch, he sat queasily watching the pathologist and Noakes chomp their way through cheese baguettes while mulling the forensic implications.
‘It would have been over very quickly, Markham,’ Davidson said observing the DI’s downcast expression. ‘Hardly enough time even to be afraid.’
‘That garrotte was pulled so tight she was nearly decapitated,’ put in Noakes ghoulishly.
‘She would’ve been unconscious within seconds,’ the doctor said repressively. ‘Taken by surprise and then finito….No defence wounds or signs of a struggle…She never saw it coming.’
‘Likely somone she knew then,’ the DS mumbled through a mouthful of cheese and pickle.
‘Man or woman?’
‘Could’ve been either. With being taken off guard, it didn’t require massive strength.
Just overpowering hatred….
With an effort, Markham dragged himself back to the present.
‘Any ripples at school?’ he asked carefully, gently stroking Olivia’s long red hair. ‘Anything contentious...?’
‘Rebecca was very popular with the sxith form,’ Olivia answered. ‘But then, she did a lot of work on school drama productions…Guys and Dolls last year, that kind of thing…really threw herself into it….’
‘True,’ Sullivan concurred. ‘The kids respected her for that.’
‘Any, er, liaisons with other staff?’
‘She was friendly with Leo Cartwright in Drama, but I don’t know if it went further than that.’ Sullivan’s tone was guarded. ‘I mean, God knows at Hope it’s such a goldfish bowl…good luck to anyone who gets it on without the whole bloody place knowing….’
Remembering the way the world had fallen down about Matthew Sullivan’s ears during the Hope Academy murder investigation, Markham couldn’t blame him for wishing to shield his colleagues from intrusive police enquiries.
‘I want to pay a visit, Mat,’ he said quietly. ‘Nothing too heavy, I promise. Just a quick word with this Leo Cartwright and an invitation to folk to let us know if they remember anything…something they didn’t notice at the time, perhaps…something which only struck them as being odd in hindsight….’
‘Just like old times.’ But neither Sullivan nor Olivia looked enthralled at the prospect.
Sullivan roused himself.
‘Don’t worry, Gil, I’ll square it with Dr Abernathy and our “Executive Head”.’
Markham grinned. He knew Sullivan had the unworldly Abernathy eating out of his hand. And he had every confidence in his friend’s abilitity to deal with the higher echelons.
‘Will Noakes be coming too?’
Olivia burst out laughing at the resigned expression on Sullivan’s face.
‘Better buckle on that Kevlar vest. George doesn’t have much time for “leftie liberals” like you!’
‘Oh I think I’ll just about pass muster,’ her friend said wrly. ‘Don’t forget I play centre-back for the Bromgrove Wanderers, so much will be forgiven me.’ He gave a theatrical shudder at the thoughts of Noakes’s likely response to the earnestly PC senior leadership team. ‘It’s the rest of ’em I feel sorry for.’
‘Don’t worry, Mat, I’ll keep him under control,’ Markham laughed. ‘Tomorrow morning do you? Elevenish?’
‘Fine.’ Sullivan frowned. ‘What about the students?’
‘Find me a few form reps…prefects…kids she taught….basically anyone she was close to. Get whoever’s responsible for safeguarding and child protection onside…that way there’s no come back.’
And with that, the talk passed to other things.
Outside the shadows lengthened and in the ancient graveyard the cypresses stirred and whispered restlessly as if there were secrets they could share if they would.