CRIME IN THE HIGH STREET

Prologue 

 

Summertime and the livin’ is easy….

  Monday 1 August looked likely to be a scorcher, Rosemary Blake thought, humming under her breath as she locked up at number 16 The Copse before checking to see she had all her cleaning paraphernalia with her. Stella Fanshaw had raised merry hell the one time she had left her mop and bucket inside by mistake, so nowadays she was ultra-careful. At least the old sourpuss didn’t stand over her the whole time, since Monday morning’s hairdressing appointment was set in stone and she invariably met up with her friends from the bridge club afterwards. And it was relatively easy money, seeing as the place was pretty much immaculate to start with. Rosemary was willing to bet Stella Fanshaw regarded the acquisition of a “woman who does” as a status symbol which set her apart from other residents of the cul de sac in one of Medway’s more salubrious districts. Out of the seventeen households in The Copse, only Stella, Sheila Craven and Tricia Dent employed a cleaner, no doubt thoroughly enjoying the one-upmanship of being able to afford such a perk.

  The houses themselves were nothing special, being merely neat modern residences with dormers and pocket-handkerchief gardens to front and rear. However, the close boasted a parking bay and nicely landscaped central island (Stella Fanshaw objected to hearing it called ‘the mound’), and it was a peaceful little estate where nothing much ever happened, the most excitement in recent times being a rather half-hearted “street party” (of the most genteel kind) on the occasion of the Queen’s Platinum Jubilee.

  Rosemary’s next port of call was Sheila Craven’s residence at number 12, which she always thought of as the doll’s house on account of its dainty decor. Widowed eighteen months previously, Mrs Craven was gradually rediscovering her mojo, venturing out to bowls and the occasional lunch at Rossi’s on the high street. Most likely, in line with her usual Monday morning routine, she would be comfortably installed in her little conservatory (or ‘orangery’ as she called it) contemplating the beautifully manicured back lawn and flower beds which her gardener (one in the eyes to Mesdames Fanshaw and Dent!) kept in tip-top condition.

  Rosemary had a few minutes before she was due at Sheila’s, so she wandered across to her car and rooted around in the boot for a bottle of water and Kit Kat. Having consumed the al fresco snack, she leaned against her vehicle savouring the warmth of the day.

  Mad Dogs and Englishmen, she reminded herself, aware that she should get indoors since her pale Celtic complexion was prone to take on an appearance of boiled lobster with too much exposure to the summer sun.

  Nonetheless she couldn’t help lingering, the buttery heat making her feel languorous and featherlight. The day had a white glare which seemed somehow vaguely ominous. There would be thunder before long, she told herself, and a hosepipe ban was probably just round the corner. No doubt Stella Fanshaw would keep a beady eye out for any family which had the temerity to produce a paddling pool. Snitches ‘R Us.

  Time to get on. Sheila Craven didn’t crack the whip like La Fanshaw. Nevertheless, she was pernickety in her own way and what her old gran used to call ‘hard on a penny’. If Rosemary didn’t give full value for money, Mrs C wouldn’t be slow to let her know.

  Rubbing her back, she contemplated the doll’s house. It was strange, because normally she tore through her jobs in The Copse, but today she felt a peculiar reluctance to enter number 12 whose pristine tilt-and-turn windows looked as though they were squinting at her…. somehow baleful and unwelcoming.

  Get out of it, Rosemary admonished herself firmly. She couldn’t afford to have sunstroke. Not with Tricia Dent’s still to do followed by a trip to Sainsbury’s for Rob’s tea.

  With the cordless vacuum under her arm (she swore by her own equipment) and hefting the mop and bucket with assorted cleaning products, she went up the neat paved path to the front door. She had her own set of keys for when Mrs Craven was away, but normally the front porch and inner door were left unlocked for her.

  Stepping into the hallway with its deep pile rose carpet, she felt a prickle of unease.

  Something felt subtly different…. off.

  ‘Mrs C,’ she called softly. ‘It’s only me.’

  There was no answer.

  She felt sweat pooling disagreeably in the small of her back and caught the sudden acrid tang of her own fear. Her heart was beating so fast, it felt as though it must jump out of her chest.

  Leaving her things in the hall, Rosemary peered round the living room door.

  Everything looked the same as usual, from the plumped up cushions arranged with geometric precision on the cream three piece suite to the tasteful arrangement of pink and white roses in the Waterford crystal vase adorning the lacquered chiffonier. The eau de nil carpet, which matched the anaglypta walls, was unsullied and the coffee table magazines were undisturbed.

  And yet she had the sense of something badly wrong…. something that hung like spoor in the Jo Malone-perfumed air.

  She passed into the dining room where eau de nil again predominated. Renamed ‘the garden room’ by Mrs Craven, frosted glass doors at the far end divided it from the hexagonal extension which brought the outdoors inside as per approved middle-class fashion. Again, nothing appeared out of place, the Chippendale dining set and corner cabinets with their fine collection of Wedgwood apparently undisturbed. Unusually, the glass doors were firmly shut, though Sheila Craven normally left them open when Rosemary was expected.

  ‘Mrs C,’ she called again through dry lips. ‘Are you there?’

  There was no answer and in that instant, somehow she knew that there never would be.

  Stumbling round the dining table, she pulled the double doors open.

  Sheila Craven sat in her accustomed rattan armchair, eyes closed, for all the world as if she was just taking forty winks, the picture of prosperous placidity…. but for a trickle of dried blood under her left nostril and the protruding tongue that would have left her aghast could she have beheld it. Livid bruising on her forearms was the only indication of violence, and it was clear death had come on her unawares. A cushion at her feet told its own story of homicidal smothering, however, for she could never bear to have anything out of place, still less one of the Liberty ‘Strawberries and Cream’ matching set that, along with pouffe and footstool in matching fabric, were her pride and joy.

  Do not store up for yourselves treasures on earth, where moth and decay destroy, and thieves break in and steal. But store up treasures in heaven, where neither moth nor decay destroys, nor thieves break in and steal.

  Rosemary could not have said why these words from church came into her head as she stood there gaping stupidly at the dead woman. She supposed it had something to do with the shock of seeing Sheila Craven suddenly wrenched from all that she held dear… all the dainty fripperies…. her Liberty prints and the Herend figurines ranged along the white-painted bay shelving that were always such a nightmare to dust….

 Mrs C will be lost in heaven without all her things, was all the cleaning lady could think. It won’t be what she’s used to.

  As she stood there, her fear receded. The conservatory’s French doors were wide open, so it was clear Sheila Craven’s attacker had left through the garden and then gone over the low wall which backed on to Derwent Lane.

  Mrs C must’ve let her killer into the house in the first place, Rosemary thought. Which meant this was someone she knew.

  It was the ideal time to strike, what with it being the holiday season and only The Copse’s retirees usually around at this time of the morning.

  The bottom suddenly dropped out of Rosemary’s stomach as she realised that Sheila Craven had most likely been in her death throes while she was happily wielding her Pledge and dusters four doors down.

  Catapulted from here to eternity in the blink of an eye, she thought, wondering how it was that the birds outside continued to chirrup merrily, oblivious of Death…. Surely now that the silence in Sheila Craven’s ears was never more to be broken, nothing should stir and summer noises should be hushed.

  She wanted to say a prayer, but the words wouldn’t come. In her dazed state, all she could think of was “the wicked cease from troubling and the weary are at rest”, but that was all wrong.

  She knew she mustn’t touch anything.

  She knew she had to ring 999. Fingers slick with sweat, she fumbled for her mobile.

  On the other side of the wall, a shadow glided along Derwent Lane. And Rosemary shivered as though someone had walked over her grave.

1

Hot and Bothered

 

On the morning of Tuesday 2 August, DI Gilbert (‘Gil’) Markham sat on his favourite bench in the quaint terraced graveyard of St Chad’s Parish Church round the back of Bromgrove Police Station, it being his usual practice to take stock there before the start of any new investigation

  Mercifully, it was too early for there to be any chance of the Reverend Simon Duthie – a late recruit to the priesthood after a career with Lloyds Bank – swooping on him for one of those earnest little chats he considered indispensable to his mission of ‘pastoral outreach’ but that filled Markham with dread. In the days when he had been accompanied by his former wingman, the redoubtable Yorkshireman DS George Noakes, there had been little to fear from the vicar, since the clergyman took a distinctly dim view of Noakesian biblical exegesis such as the sergeant’s enquiry whether Judas Iscariot would have cured the sick and cast out devils just as effectively as the other eleven apostles given that he was ‘a wrong ’un’. Noakes’s notorious propensity for malapropisms also went unappreciated, though Markham had privately relished the expression on Duthie’s face when his friend asked where the priest stood on eating meat during Lent and if you could still get ‘condensation from the Bishop’. As for Mrs Duthie, it had been outright warfare between that good lady and Noakes ever since he had commented with a wink on the fine show of ‘salivas’ in the rectory garden before telling her to plant a row of  ‘spitoonias’ on the other side. Yes, Noakes’s fabled linguistic quirks and undoubted expertise in the art of “insinuendo” had not endeared him to the Duthies, both of whose countenances wound up distinctly ‘ultra-violent’ after any chance encounter with the philistine of CID.

  Smiling ruefully at the memory, Markham gazed around the little cemetery, admiring the ancient yews and cypresses interspersed with clusters of Japanese azaleas, marigolds, zinnias  and exuberant rhododendrons which always reminded him of the late Queen Mother’s hats. There were no squirrels scampering about, but presumably they were taking it in easy in the heat, though wood pigeons were cooing softly and butterflies flitted amongst the flowers.

  Savouring the shade and peace, Markham’s thoughts turned to the previous day’s gruesome discovery in Medway….

  Sheila Craven maintained a delightful back garden, vibrant with poppies, dahlias, larkspur and hydrangea, with honeysuckle-clad pergola on the patio that adjoined her conservatory. A little oasis in the parched suburban estate.

  The murder victim herself presented the most peaceful looking corpse he had ever laid eyes on, the bruising and misplaced cushion pretty much the only signs that she had been smothered where she sat. Markham was inclined to agree with Rosemary Blake that Sheila had let her killer in and settled down for an innocuous chat before the visitor launched their attack. But no-one on the estate appeared to have noticed a thing….

  ‘A nice place to live,’ was the verdict of Anish Patel, the handsome young pathologist who was covering for Dr Doug ‘Dimples’ Davidson over the summer. Although Markham missed Davidson, the bluff, tweedy countryman who everyone said was a dead ringer for vet Siegfried Farnon in the old BBC All Creatures Great And Small, he found Patel both efficient and congenial, with a respectful, compassionate way of handling the sad detritus of victims’ lives. It was an approach which the DI, known to be savage with subordinates who attempted anything resembling gallows humour, found eminently simpatico.

  ‘It was over very quickly,’ Dr Patel reassured ashen-faced DS Doyle after the young detective, who had answered the call-out with Markham, stuttered that Sheila Craven was the dead spit of his nan before blushing painfully at his unfortunate choice of words. Kindly, the medic added, ‘She’d have fallen unconscious after around a minute given her age…. No time to register what was happening or even be afraid.’

  The cleaner Rosemary Blake was a nice woman who, despite her shock, did her best to give them a picture of The Copse and its residents; four young families with children and the rest elderly or retired. She ‘did’ for Sheila Craven, Stella Fanshaw – retired teacher and Mrs Craven’s fellow stalwart at Saint Michael the Archangel Parish Church – and Tricia Dent who owned the second-hand bookshop Bookworm on Medway High Street. ‘Well, it’s called the high street but these days there’s only a few shops along there,’ Rosemary told them. ‘Just Londis for groceries, the hairdresser’s, Rossi’s – that’s the Italian restaurant – and,’ a certain constraint crept into her voice, ‘The Healing Centre at the bottom next to The Medway Inn.’

  ‘Healing centre?’ Doyle was momentarily diverted from the horror of the crime scene. ‘What’s that then?’

  ‘A sort of spiritual retreat.’ Rosemary was clearly uncomfortable with the whole subject. ‘Meditation and holistic remedies, that kind of thing,’ she said vaguely.

  Markham was pretty sure he’d heard about The Healing Centre in some other faintly scandalous context but couldn’t immediately recall the details. All of the high street establishments would need checking out, given their proximity to the murder site – literally around the corner, just a few hundred yards from Derwent Lane.

  ‘Did Mrs Craven get out much?’ Doyle asked, clearly wondering about their victim’s connections to the local community.

  ‘Well, she wasn’t so active right after her husband Tom passed…. he was in the police…. got pancreatic cancer, it was pretty horrible….. but she was starting to pick up the threads…. played bowls at Medway Park now and again, went out to Rossi’s, that kind of thing…. plus she hobnobbed with the vicar.’ Now it was Rosemary’s turn to flush, as though she realised that ‘hobnobbed’ made Sheila Craven sound like some sort of social climber. ‘Sorry, that came out wrong,’ she said in a flustered tone. ‘I meant church was important to her…. and she got on well with Norman Collins…. he lives in the rectory behind Saint Michael’s.’

  ‘Don’t worry,’ was Markham’s gentle response. ‘You’re doing just fine, Mrs Blake. Perhaps you could take a quick look around with my sergeant… check to see if anything’s missing…. or if you notice something different in any of the rooms.’ He turned to Doyle. ‘Then I want you to take Mrs Blake round to her friend Stella Fanshaw’s please…. I’m sure Ms Fanshaw will be happy to arrange a cup of tea with lots of sugar.’

  Rosemary’s expression suggested that Stella Fanshaw would normally baulk at the prospect of playing hostess to her charlady. But in Markham’s experience, social boundaries were never proof against prurient curiosity and getting the inside track on murder.

  The Copse having been cordoned off and uniforms posted, the admission of paramedics and forensics was straightforward, with no rubbernecking circus or scrum of the kind that all too often attended a violent death. Markham had no doubt that neighbours’ curtains were twitching like mad at the sight of the police cars and ambulance, but so long as the residents stayed safely behind their own front doors the situation was manageable. No doubt the Gazette’s intrepid reporters would soon be on the trail like the bloodhounds they were, but in the meantime the perimeter of the estate was secure.

  Eventually Dr Patel was ready to transport the body, and Sheila Craven left her home for the last time on a sheeted gurney, forensics and police personnel bowing their heads in respect during the removal. As he watched the sombre procession depart, Markham quietly vowed to secure justice for the elderly widow who was obviously so proud of her little gem of a house and its immaculate garden. She had been ‘picking up the threads’ after bereavement according to Rosemary Blake, which made her murder particularly cruel. And for a devout churchgoer to be wrenched from life with no chance to prepare her soul, struck him as an especial outrage. The fact that her husband Tom was ex-job would no doubt also strike a chord with his team back at CID….

  Recalled to the present, Markham thought about his tight-knit unit, or the Gang of Four as envious colleagues called them.

  Pre-eminent at his right hand now that Noakes had retired was DI Kate Burton. She had faced opposition from home when applying to join the force (‘no job for a woman’ her father had maintained) but in the end overcame all obstacles through sheer determination and hard work. A psychology graduate with culture vulture tendencies, she was rarely without her trusty Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders and was addicted to true crime documentaries or anything that touched on behavioural analysis. Perhaps unsurprisingly, after a lengthy fallow period in her private life, she had become engaged to Professor Nathan Finlayson of Bromgrove University’s criminal profiling department. Their relationship appeared recently to have hit the skids, though they were still together and Markham had heard on the grapevine that they were attending ‘relationship therapy’.

  How Noakes would have scoffed at the notion of ‘touchy feely navel-gazing’! The former DS had early diagnosed that Kate Burton had a king-sized crush on Markham and had failed to get the better of it, effectively carrying a torch for her boss despite an initially happy interlude with Finlayson (whom Noakes had nicknamed ‘Shippers’ on account of his startling resemblance to serial killer Dr Harold Shipman). The problem lay not only with Burton, however, since Markham well knew that a latent attraction on his own side – very much a slow burn affair that had evolved over the course of their partnership and his increasing admiration for her – was at the root of recent difficulties with his partner Olivia Mullen, an English teacher at Bromgrove’s Hope Academy (popularly known as ‘Hopeless’), that had led to her moving out of their apartment in The Sweepstakes. The clever, spiky redhead possessed an unlikely champion in Noakes who, though happily married to the formidable Muriel (whom he had met, unbelievably, when they were both regulars on the ballroom dancing circuit), had fallen hook, line and sinker for her pre-Raphaelite looks and a wickedly irreverent sense of humour which was as un-PC as his own.

  For all that Noakes harboured a chivalrous devotion towards Olivia reminiscent of a medieval practitioner of Courtly Love, over the years he had become fond of Kate Burton despite the initial clash of temperaments, she being earnest, well-groomed, diplomatic and politically correct where he was uncouth, chronically sartorially challenged and tactless with an unrivalled ability to put his foot in his mouth. Noakes admired Burton for her ferocious loyalty to Markham, and the pair had gradually bonded over a mutual addiction to true crime and dedication to the job. By the time Noakes came to leave CID, there was something almost Darby and Joan about their bickering and set-tos, while the older detective’s avuncular protectiveness towards his colleague saw him come to her rescue on many occasions. To start with, Burton had felt excluded from Markham’s special relationship with Noakes (the latter being the only one apart from Olivia who knew that Markham was a survivor of childhood abuse by a stepfather and had lost his brother to drink and drugs). However, with the passage of time, they came to form a tight triumvirate, a development assisted by the fact that both Burton and Noakes possessed a sensitive, almost poetic, streak – though in the latter’s case this was undoubtedly well-hidden!

  DCI Sidney (‘Slimy Sid’ to the troops) had practically expired with relief when Noakes finally retired, though his portly nemesis, despite taking up a post as security manager at an upmarket retirement home, promptly ended up getting involved in further investigations and wangling himself an unofficial position as police consultant. Sidney had long despaired of ever ejecting Noakes from CID (‘hardly the best advertisement for modern policing’), the sergeant’s highly idiosyncratic dress sense being a particular bone of contention. With his pouchy prize-fighter’s features, chunky physique, unruly salt and pepper thatch (which never lay flat) and penchant for hideous ganzies, Noakes offended his superiors’ eyes.  Impervious to Markham’s exhortations that he should ditch the junk food, the man who never ate on an empty stomach somehow bluffed, blagged and bribed his way through appraisals until the time came for him to collect his carriage clock. His infamous retirement bash had passed into station folklore, not least an altercation with DCI McAllister in the course of which he informed the DCI that he was called “Thrombosis” behind his back on account of him being a bloody clot.

  ‘Noakesy’s just no good at creeping to the bosses,’ Olivia chuckled whenever Markham lamented his friend’s congenital inability to propitiate the gold-braid mob. She delighted in the iconoclastic word-mongery which Markham’s wingman turned into an art form by his vehement sincerity, but it was definitely an acquired taste.

  Muriel Noakes had been delighted when Noakes secured the job at the exclusive Rosemount Retirement Home, being a bossy social climber whom Olivia called Hyacinth Bouquet under her breath. Decidedly partial to Markham whose handsome looks and old-world courtesy charmed her, Muriel was not at all keen on his partner whom she considered too clever (and neurotic) by half. Noakes’s devotion to Olivia also rankled, so she was secretly pleased when Olivia and Markham split up though being careful to exude high-minded sympathy and concern. ‘So very sad, but not really surprising. Being a police wife requires special qualities’ (that Muriel presumably possessed and Olivia did not). The Noakeses’ marriage was something of a mystery to Markham, since he and Noakes rarely talked about personal matters, but of their mutual devotion he had no doubt. Noakes was proud of Muriel and quick to detect any slights to his wife, so Olivia bit her tongue, leaving him with the impression that the two women were the best of friends and that Muriel might help broker a rapprochement between the estranged couple. For his part, Markham had no idea where things stood with his ex and was dismayed that she appeared to be seeing Mathew Sullivan, the deputy head at Hope who had come out as gay during the Ashley Dean investigation (during which he was briefly a murder suspect) but now showed every sign of being infatuated with her. Noakes was baffled by this development but hadn’t given up hopes of a happy ending, vastly irritating his wife by scheming for a reconciliation between Markham and Olivia.

  Natalie Noakes, the Noakeses’ pneumatic beautician daughter, shared her mother’s enthusiasm for Markham and dislike of Olivia. There had been a serious professional crisis for Markham and Noakes when the latter learned during the Bluebell Dance School investigation that he was not Natalie’s biological father, a discovery that sent him temporarily off the rails and almost destroyed his professional reputation, but the two men had weathered the storm and drawn even closer together, much to the mystification of those in the ranks who regarded the haughty, legendarily austere DI and his shambling subordinate as naturally antipathetic. ‘What the hell does Markham see in that fat slob?’ went the perennial refrain. But Markham set high store by Noakes’s genuineness, dogged refusal to toady and sympathy for the underdog. Then there was that shy, wistful sensitivity which made the former sergeant intuitively sympathetic to what Sidney impatiently dismissed as ‘Markham’s fey side’. Kate Burton knew better than to give the DCI an inkling that she was anything less than a hard-boiled pragmatist well attuned to the slick politics of CID, but Noakes never bothered to pretend and didn’t care who knew that he was proud to work for a guvnor who quoted poetry and the bible and liked ‘mouldy old churches an’ statues an’ all that stuff’.

  DS Roger Carruthers, Noakes’s replacement on the team (‘Roger the Dodger’ as Noakes immediately christened him), hadn’t known what to make of the weird connection between Markham and his former wingman. With his albino-like pallor, horn-rimmed spectacles and a kind of fishy coldness – which led Olivia to call him Herr Flick after the comedy Gestapo officer of that name – Carruthers’s supercilious fastidiousness and watchfulness (nephew of Superintendent ‘Blithering’ Bretherton, he was rumoured to be Sidney’s plant) was initially off-putting to Burton and Doyle. Burton was soon won round by Carruthers’s interest in psychology and all-round professionalism, but Doyle took time to warm to the newbie, since Noakes had advised him on everything from football to matters of the heart and he badly missed his mentor. In the end, however, the new team managed to gel and suspicion of Carruthers melted away. Nobody knew quite how it was, but his colleagues’ absolute loyalty to Markham and the tightly-welded solidarity that had seen the little unit triumph so many times when the chips were down somehow got through the dedicated careerist’s defences, so he became like the others ‘one of Markham’s lot’ and was no longer suspected of spying for the enemy. After a period of wary circumspection, Carruthers even warmed to Noakes, to the extent that he called him ‘sarge’ like the rest and enjoyed swapping facts about serial killers (regarding whom Noakes’s knowledge verged on encyclopaedic). Markham suspected that Sidney and the higher echelons were less than delighted that their protégé had so speedily gone over to the dark side, but it was obvious they had decided to make the best of it in hopes that Carruthers would revert to being their stalking horse at some future date. In the meantime, they just breathed a sigh of relief at having expunged Noakes from CID (officially at least).

  DS Doyle had bonded extra-curricularly with Carruthers over football since, as Noakes put it, no-one who loved The Beautiful Game could be all bad. Furthermore, Doyle – the lanky, freckled ‘ginger ninja’ – plumed himself on being able to dispense romantic wisdom to his colleague now that he had put his own relationship disasters behind him and was currently going steady with teacher girlfriend Kelly. Carruthers for his part seemed grateful for a steer. Both young men were dapper dressers, so in one area at least Sidney’s long-standing grievances about ‘standards in Markham’s team’ were laid to rest. Kate Burton, of course, was always irreproachable when it came to costume. In the old days, she had favoured frumpy trouser suits in endless shades of beige, but nowadays chose clinging midi dresses that flattered her curvy frame. Even the Joan of Arc chestnut bob had now mutated to something shaggy and streaked, with eye-skimming side fringe, so she was altogether a different creature from yore. She still regularly resorted to the glasses that magnified her eyes to enormous brown lollipops, but nowadays the brightly coloured frames made it look like a fashion statement rather than armour to hide behind. Physically, Burton was very different from Olivia, but Markham felt more than the ‘bat’s squeak of sexuality’ and found that it disturbed him. Was it possible to be in love with two women at the same time, he wondered. If so, it was a conundrum he was nowhere near solving. He had proposed marriage to Olivia, both by way of demonstrating his commitment to a shared future and banishing her jealous fears of his affection for Kate Burton, as well as reassuring her that he didn’t care about their inability to have children of their own (Olivia’s troubled past featuring a botched abortion that ruled out natural motherhood). She had turned down his proposal so decisively, however, that it was difficult to see how they could move forward. The strange entanglement with Mathew Sullivan made things even more complicated, so he struggled to share Noakes’s optimism that it would all come right in time. Markham had drawn even closer to Burton during their investigation into The Confetti Club murders, his fellow DI opening up about her devastation over her father’s death in a way that had touched him deeply. He was honest enough to admit to himself that Burton’s fealty and respectful deference (she insisted on calling him ‘Sir’ despite them now being the same rank) naturally predisposed him in her favour, but there was something deeper than that between them and he doubted whether he could ever dispel Olivia’s insecurities about his colleague or her resentment of the job that dominated pretty much all his waking hours.

  Sighing, Markham took a last look round the graveyard. He had a predilection for such places – even chose his apartment at The Sweepstakes on account of its proximity to the municipal cemetery – and loved the sense of timeless tranquillity that they exuded. From the corner of his eye, he spotted an elderly lady carrying a modest bouquet further up in the newer section of the burial ground and grinned as he recalled the Reverend Duthie’s poleaxed expression at Noakes’s favourite story about the little girl who gave her teacher a bunch of flowers with a promise to bring her more the following day ‘if the lodger wasn’t buried’. Catching sight of the visitor’s mildly reproachful expression – clearly she wondered what on earth this strange man was doing grinning inanely – the DI hastily rearranged his features, nodded politely and made his way back down towards the station.

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

CID felt stale and stuffy. Needless to say, the radiators were going full belt despite the heatwave; no doubt when the cold weather set in, they would promptly give up the ghost.

  His colleagues were already waiting in his corner office with its unrivalled view of the car park. Thankfully, the central heating in his room was off and a fan was keeping it reasonably cool. No doubt he had Burton to thank for that.

  The trio took provisioning very seriously, in the best Noakesian tradition. ‘For God’s sake, Inspector,’ Sidney had once expostulated, ‘there always seems to be some sort of picnic going on whenever I come in here.’ To which Doyle had replied solemnly, ‘It helps us work smarter, sir…. kind of like a power breakfast.’ Well, at least Burton’s granola (‘birdseed crap’ according to Noakes) qualified as brain food, but Markham wasn’t at all sure about the blueberry muffins and creamy Macchiatos. Still, he wasn’t going to look a gift horse in the mouth and accepted his share with a smile.

  ‘Right, Kate,’ he said after a period of silent munching (presumably, according to Doyle’s theory, while their synapses fired up), ‘let’s run through the cast list.’

  She had her glasses on and notebook ready almost before the words were out of his mouth, causing Doyle and Carruthers to exchange glances expressive of an inner eye roll. School Swot. But none so good as Burton when it came to a succinct roll-call of suspects.

  ‘Our victim Mrs Sheila Craven was seventy-eight, widowed, no family apart from a nephew… Desmond Pettifer; family liaison are trying to track him down….. Mrs Craven lived at number 12 The Copse in Medway. Fairly affluent locale. Uniform are doing house to house with the neighbours, but most of them are off on holiday and those who were around didn’t see anything. It’s the kind of estate where folk keep pretty much to themselves, so no surprise that we’ve drawn a blank…. She lived fairly quietly….played bowls now and again when she felt up to it…. otherwise just the odd trip to the high street….. there’s a little row of shops… convenience store, local Italian, bookshop, pub, hairdresser’s, healing centre –’

  ‘Ah yes,’ Markham interrupted. ‘I picked up some vibes from Mrs Craven’s cleaner regarding the healing centre…. as if there was something she didn’t approve of.’

  ‘It’s run by that ex-priest, sir,’ Carruthers volunteered. ‘Not Anglican…. RC.’ He had nearly said ‘one of your lot’, given that Markham was known to be a Catholic (which explained a lot in his opinion), but corrected himself just in time. ‘The Gazette did a piece a while back after some woman made a fuss about him supposedly coming on to her.’

  ‘Oh yeah, I remember that,’ Doyle joined in. ‘Name of Henry Morland…. looks like Rasputin…. you know, the famous hypnotist…. all flowing beard and piercing eyes, like one of those creepy icon things.’

  Despite the closeness of the office, Markham felt his skin prickle. Rasputin. Our Friend, as the ill-fated Romanovs had called him. A sinister Svengali whose legend had cast a shadow over their previous investigation at the Newman psychiatric hospital. Surely it was only a coincidence that Rasputin was cropping up again….

  ‘Henry Morland,’ Burton said brightly, scribbling briskly. ‘Right, he needs checking out…. Then there’s Rossi’s where Mrs Craven liked going for lunch…. Francesco Rossi’s the owner… his daughter Marina manages the restaurant with her fiancé Matteo Bianchi… I think there’s a couple of other siblings knocking around….’

  ‘It’s mint,’ Doyle said enthusiastically then, aware of Markham’s quizzical expression, he amended, ‘I mean it’s a great place to eat…. That presenter from Bromgrove Radio’s always in there with his mates…. George Parker…. a noisy crowd but they give him the red carpet treatment.’

  ‘Mrs Craven’s neighbour Tricia Dent owns the bookshop,’ Burton continued. ‘And there’s another neighbour Stella Fanshaw who knew her from church…. Saint Michael the Archangel in Cabot Road…. The vicar Norman Collins can help with that side of things, and there’s the deacon too…. Graham Thorpe.’

  ‘Blimey, looks like we’re going to have suspects coming out of our ears,’ Doyle said, looking somewhat disconcerted as Burton worked through her list.

  ‘Oh that’s pretty much it,’ Burton reassured him crisply. ‘There’s Emma and James Carnforth who manage the pub…. The Medway Inn….. and someone said Mrs Craven knew Frances Langton the headteacher at Medway High…. Obviously Londis and the hairdresser’s will need a visit too but they’re small outfits and the hair salon’s closed for a refurb at the moment.’

  ‘Bags I not do the bowls club,’ Doyle grinned as Burton shot him a reproving frown.

  ‘Let me know as soon as you’ve located the nephew, Kate.’ Markham never shirked the condolence visits.

  ‘Will do, sir.’

  ‘Our priority now is to get an incident room up and running. Then tomorrow you and I will hit the high street and church, Kate, while Doyle and Carruthers follow up at The Copse,’ Markham continued.

  ‘Are you bringing sarge in for this one?’ Doyle asked slyly.

  Markham suppressed a smile. Like Banquo’s ghost, George Noakes was ever-present even when he was supposedly ensconced in executive splendour as security manager at Rosemount.

  ‘I’ll swing by and catch up with Noakesy in the morning. I imagine he’ll have his ear to the ground,’ he replied wryly. To say nothing of Natalie and Muriel. ‘In the meantime, let’s crack on. Dr Patel’s putting a rush on the PM but it seems clear Sheila Craven was smothered yesterday morning…. most likely by someone she knew.’

  ‘Her old fella was ex-job,’ Doyle said soberly. ‘Could be a jailbird or someone with a grudge against him.’

  ‘That’s definitely one line of enquiry,’ Markham nodded. ‘Check with Bill Sullivan in Records. He should be able to help.’

  ‘Press bulletin, sir?’ Carruthers asked.

  ‘Yes, but keep it short and sweet.’

  Murder in suburbia, the DI mused as his colleagues headed to their various tasks. A harmless old lady and no discernible motive.

  But if there was one thing he had learned over the years, it was that seemingly quiet communities were often positive hotbeds of gossip, jealousies and resentments. 

  Summertime and the heat was on.

2

Shadows in the Backwater

 

The Rosemount Retirement Home looked resplendent, Markham thought as he drove up to Noakes’s workplace on the morning of Wednesday 3 August. Even with a drought beckoning, the landscaped grounds of the Georgian mansion appeared to be in tiptop condition, verdant lawns undulating gracefully down to the little lake with its island and willow oak in the middle. The red sandstone paths and perfectly clipped topiary were as pristine as ever, fully validating Rosemount’s reputation as Bromgrove’s number one private facility for those in the twilight of their years (a few publicly funded patients admitted via the NHS took care of the social conscience side). Even the home’s recent role in one of CID’s most challenging homicide investigations couldn’t detract from its bucolic allure, Markham thought as he checked in with the cheery new manager who directed him to Noakes’s cubbyhole where tea and biscuits were waiting.

  His former sergeant’s summer attire of checked mustard flannels and bright red shirt (to match his perspiring face) was very Rupert Bear-ish but no doubt went down well with the retired army major types who comprised the majority of Rosemount’s clientele.

  Indeed, Noakes’s mind was running very much on military matters when Markham arrived. Having previously not been all that keen on the portrait of bemedaled and moustachioed General Charles Gordon in the home’s staff room, Noakes – ex parachute regiment – had gradually warmed to the Victorian hero of Khartoum and his unique brand of muscular Christianity, not to mention the general’s defiance of the odds (nothing being so seductive to the black sheep of Bromgrove CID as the legend of this indomitable soldier prepared to tackle all comers, whether Egypt’s Madhi or the government back home).

  Taking his nose out of various gilt-bound volumes from Rosemount’s handsome library, he confided, ‘I’m thinking of getting some prints of Gordon for the residents’ lounge…. With them all being dead patriotic here,’ Noakes sniffed approvingly, ‘I reckon they’d like that….We could make it a bit of a theme….. the way they do with destination hotels…. summat to bring everyone together….. like a talking point.’

  It amused Markham to think of Noakes in front of the CEO pitching his plans for making Rosemount a ‘destination’ facility, but he kept a straight face.

  ‘Well, I know Bromgrove History Society arranges lectures here, Noakes, so that’s in your favour.’

  His friend’s St Bernard’s face split into a smile. ‘Yeah, they’re interested in doing talks on Gordon an’ Kitchener an’ Monty an’ other military types in the autumn.’ Self-consciously, he riffled through a stack of word processed papers on his untidy desk. ‘I’ve got other ideas too…. true crime an’ stuff like that.’ He whistled. ‘Honestly, you wouldn’t believe how some of them sweet old dears can’t get enough of serial killers, guv…. Shipman an’ Bundy an’ Fred West an’ all that crowd.’ It struck Markham as comical the way Noakes spoke of these unholy demons as casually as if they were old acquaintances (which in a sense they were). ‘The events woman wondered if I could do a talk on our old cases…. providing you didn’t object, guv,’ he added anxiously.

  ‘Of course not.’ Personally, Markham couldn’t imagine a combination of homicide and Horlicks making for a peaceful night’s sleep, but there was no accounting for tastes. De gustibus non est disputandum, as his old Classics teacher used to say.

  ‘If you’re after nineteenth-century prints,’ the DI continued, ‘I gather there’s a second-hand shop on Medway High Street which might have something in that line….Bookworm…. the proprietor’s a neighbour of that poor woman from The Copse.’

  Noakes settled his hands comfortably over the overflowing paunch. ‘Wondered when you’d get round to that, boss,’ he said complacently. ‘She was murdered, right.’

  This was by way of statement rather than an enquiry, but of course the ex-sergeant still had his sources.

  ‘What do you know of The Copse, Noakesy?’ Markham enquired mildly.

  ‘The missus knows a few of ’em in there.’ She would of course. ‘Reckons it’s like Midsomer, without the blood an’ gore…. well, up till now at any rate…. The most exciting it ever gets is someone putting their bins out on the wrong day…. Mainly WI types an’ nice little families…. 2 point 4 kids…. dead safe an’ ordinary an’ boring.’

  ‘Not now it isn’t,’ Markham retorted grimly. ‘Mrs Craven most probably let her killer in, so it’s got to be someone in her local circle.’

  ‘Have a Bourbon,’ the other said consolingly, pushing the plate across his desk. ‘An’ drink your tea before it gets cold.’

  Markham did as he was bid before returning to the topic of the moment.

  ‘How about Medway High Street, Noakesy….. do you ever get round there?’

  ‘Dead as a dodo these days, guv…. Jus’ a few little poxy shops…. plus the pub an’ that Italian.’

  ‘And the Healing Centre,’ Markham prompted. ‘The proprietor Henry Morland is somewhat controversial by all accounts.’

  ‘Ex sky pilot.’ Knowing Markham’s religious affiliation, Noakes was clearly anxious not to cause offence. ‘Nowt to do with the RCs these days, though…. more like meditation an’ yoga an’ all that mindfulness crap.’

  ‘Doyle compared Morland to Rasputin,’ the DI said flatly.

  ‘Oh aye…. The Mad Monk,’ was the rejoinder. ‘Well, he’s got the look alright.’ Noakes visibly perked up. ‘Ackshually, our Nat’s doing Rasputin at the moment…..  one of her A level modules…. The Russian Revolution an’ all that stuff.’ Muriel had been delighted when their daughter decided to undertake a foundation course in History at Bromgrove University, having long objected to the way ‘late developers’ (i.e. the chronically lazy) were ‘short-changed by the modern education system’. Natalie’s pursuit of some qualifications had been turbo-charged by her split from Rick Jordan, the highly eligible heir to a fitness empire whose mother was inclined to look down her nose at his perma-tanned fiancée. Even though she and Rick were now back together, Natalie had persisted with her studies encouraged by Noakes who had an enthusiastic amateur’s interest in the subject.

  ‘The Orthodox lot made Rasputin a saint, y’know,’ he said conversationally.

  ‘Is that so?’

  ‘Oh yeah…. even though everyone thought he diddled all them women including the empress.’ Noakes’s piggy eyes narrowed. ‘Mind you, he called it “holy kissing” an’ said it were like being a doctor…. helping ’em get free from sin an’ all that.’

  ‘Indeed?’ Markham was intrigued. ‘What does Natalie make of it all?’ Somehow he couldn’t imagine that Muriel would consider discussion of lecherous bacchanalias as suitable tea-table talk.

  ‘Oh, Nat reckons the Revolution were all his fault cos of how the empress fell for all that prayer an’ hypnosis lark, so it looked like they were up to summat pervy…. when all the time Alexandra were jus’ hoping he could cure her little lad of haemophilia.’ Noakes shook his head sorrowfully. ‘All a big misunderstanding. Same thing with Gandhi when he went to bed with young lasses as part of some mad religious plan to purify ’em. Everyone got the wrong end of the stick, see.’

  ‘Hmm. Can’t say I’m entirely surprised, Noakes.’

  ‘Folk have got dirty minds,’ was the trenchant reply. ‘An’ anyway, the mad monk had medical issues.’

  ‘Really?’

  ‘Yeah. When he were a lad, he got into trouble for being a horse thief an’ some men from his village duffed him up an’ threw him in the air…. He squashed his privates when he hit the ground an’ it meant he went round with a permanent you know what.’ Noakes’s voice sank to a whisper. ‘After he got hisself murdered by some cross-dressing aristo, apparently his willy turned up in an icebox in Paris an’ then got sent back to some museum in Russia….. just imagine, your todger ending up pickled in formaldehyde!’ A detail that definitely wasn’t likely to be shared with Mrs Noakes.

  ‘Ah,’ Markham said faintly, seeing that some response was clearly expected.  ‘It sounds like Rasputin went on causing trouble even when he was dead.’

  ‘You betcha,’ Noakes replied with relish. ‘There’s all sorts of stories about him…. How the empress kept laying flowers at his grave but the next morning they’d turned into a great smelly layer of slime…. an’ then later, when the commies dug him up an’ chucked him on this bonfire, his chest wouldn’t burn…. Mind you,’ Noakes added magnanimously, ‘ole Grigory could see into the future an’ all sorts…. told Alexandra that if he died, the whole lot of ’em would snuff it an’ that’s xactly what happened…. Plus, plenty of folk said he were dead holy an’ a healer an’ all sorts…. an’ you need miracles to get made a saint.’

  Prompted by a mischievous impulse, Markham said, ‘Perhaps you should follow General Gordon with a talk on Rasputin, seeing as they were both devout believers.’

  Noakes appeared to consider it then, ‘Nah,’ he replied. ‘Folk here wouldn’t like the sex stuff.’ Whereas they had no problem with the likes of Ted Bundy or Ed Kemper! Markham’s lips twitched. Truly the human psyche was unfathomable.

  Before Noakes could get started on the way Rasputin had featured as a leitmotif in the Newman hospital murder case, Markham said hastily, ‘So, is this Henry Morland some kind of sexual reprobate like our Russian friend?’

  ‘Like I say, guv, he’s got the look. Y’know, weirdy beardy an’ strange glittery eyes. Looks like he could do with a square meal too.’

  ‘Wasn’t there trouble over some woman claiming he groped her under hypnosis?’ Markham asked, having now been briefed by Kate Burton.

  Noakes grunted. ‘I reckon the Gazette made most of it up. Any road, it fizzled out as soon as he made noises about suing ’em…. they had to print an apology in the end.’

  ‘Hmm…. Anyone else on the high street likely to be of interest, would you say?’

  ‘It ain’t xactly Party Central, guv.’

  ‘What about Rossi’s?’

  ‘Mainly flash gits from out of town… DJ crowd an’ hangers-on…. The missus didn’t care for all them Del Boy types giving it large.’

  ‘What about Natalie?’ Markham had a feeling she wouldn’t necessarily be averse to the odd medallion man, the apple of Noakes’s eye having been somewhat notorious in her younger days as the doyenne of Bromgrove’s seedier nightclubs, though her doting father never believed the rumours thanks to Markham’s discreet damage limitation.

  ‘She an’ Rick prefer dinner parties nowadays,’ the other said with complacently. ‘Nat says it’s much more civilised.’ And less chance of her ending the evening dancing on the table belting out Beyoncé’s greatest hits.

  ‘The pub’s halfway decent,’ Noakes conceded, his thought returning to the high street’s amenities.

  ‘The Medway Inn?’

  ‘Yeah, though they lost a heap of custom to Rossi’s, so it were touch an’ go if they could hang on to the place.’

  ‘Would Mrs Craven have gone in there, do you think?’

  Noakes nodded vigorously. ‘Bound to…. They did a decent carvery back in the day…. Me an’ Tom Craven were on the darts team for a bit.’

  ‘We’re checking out ex-cons with a grudge,’ Markham said slowly. ‘But somehow it doesn’t feel like that kind of revenge murder.’

  ‘I’m with you there, guv,’ Noakes agreed. ‘Tom spent his last ten years doing the community beat…. supervising PCSOs an’ specials…. the nicest bloke you could ever meet an’ never wanted to be some shit-hot inspector or owt like that…. they called him Dixon of Dock Green, but everybody liked him,…. even the scrotes didn’t mind being nicked by him.’

  ‘Did you see much of his wife?’

  ‘Not that I remember…. She were churchy, him not so much…. more a Christmas an’ Easter kind of fella.’ With Muriel being a pillar of high-churchery, Noakes recognised Sheila Craven’s type.

  ‘The sort of lady to make enemies?’ Markham pressed.

  Noakes frowned. ‘Don’ see how,’ he replied. ‘I mean the worst you could say is she were mebbe a bit “up herself”.’ He stuck out his pinkie and mimed drinking tea. ‘You know, one of the lace doily brigade.’ Given Muriel’s lady-of-the-manor affectations, Noakes knew more about such genteel aspirations than most. ‘She were a bit po-faced,’ he expanded. ‘There were this time me an’ Tom an’ some of the lads came in from the pub an’ she asked if I wanted to go an’ wash my hands. An’ I said, “No thanks, I’ve just washed ’em on the wall outside.” Kind of like an ice-breaker, see…. jokey, so she knew she didn’t have to impress me or lay on owt fancy.’

  ‘I take it there was a sense of humour failure then.’

  ‘Yeah, she gave me this look, like I were summat she’d stepped in… reckon Tom got it in the neck afterwards.’

  Markham tried not to laugh at his friend’s expression of injured merit.

  ‘Ah well, when it comes to comedy, they say everything’s in the timing, Noakesy.’

  ‘Anyway, there were no great harm in the woman,’ the other added charitably, ‘an’ Tom worshiped the ground she walked on.’ Such uxoriousness definitely met with Noakes’s approval. ‘It were cowardly sneaking up on her like that in the middle of all her nice bits an’ pieces.’

  Strangely, that was pretty much how Rosemary Blake had reacted to the desecration of Sheila Craven’s sanctum, repeating over and over that it shouldn’t have happened in her lovely conservatory…. as if murder was ever acceptable on any terms! But Markham knew allowances had to be made for shock and, as ever, Noakes was attuned to the underlying nuances.

  ‘This one’s got me stumped,’ the DI sighed. ‘An apparently harmless elderly lady smothered in her own home…’

  ‘P’raps she had some kind of secret life nobody knew about,’ Noakes offered half-heartedly. ‘Mebbe she were up to all sorts behind that respectable exterior…. like Rose West…. Would you believe, that one’s into flower arranging an’ crafts these days, like all the torture an’ chopping never happened…. jus’ some tubby bird knitting cardigans an’ stuff for kiddies…. Thass why so many folk reckon she couldn’t have been in on all that house of horrors stuff.’

  ‘I take it you’re not going to do a lecture on Rose West for the residents, Noakes. That really would be a step too far.’

  ‘Well, they’d be up for it alright, guv. But it’s too close to home… I’ll go with Jo Naso or some American whackjob to start with.’

  Happy days! Clearly Noakes’s remit extended beyond the usual purlieu of a security manager. As though reading Markham’s thoughts, the other said virtuously, ‘All the risk assessments and security upgrades are sorted an’ up to date, guv. But,’ with a shy hint of pride, ‘management reckon I can help give “added value”.’

  The DI smiled. ‘None better, Noakesy.’

  Both of them knew that after the revelations which emerged during the Andrée Clark murder investigation, whatever could be done to reinvigorate Rosemount was a bonus.

  ‘Am I in on this case then, guv?’ Noakes asked hopefully as they made their way out to the forecourt. ‘I mean, all the plans for improvements here don’ mean I can’t help out.’

  ‘You’re my civilian consultant, Noakes.’ So what if Sidney had apoplexy, he’d square it somehow and anyway it didn’t matter who cavilled, Noakes was his wingman always. God knew, he’d earned the right. ‘Why don’t we have a meal at Rossi’s on Friday,’ he suggested. ‘Then we can share intel.’

  ‘With your Liv?’

  Oh God. Noakes’s knight-errantry meant he wasn’t going to give up on his doomed efforts to bring Markham and Olivia back together.

  ‘Why not,’ he said helplessly, rewarded by his friend’s beam of approval.

  ‘An’ then you two can come to us for your dinner on Sunday…. after trying out the service at Mrs C’s church.’

  ‘St Michael the Archangel.’

  ‘Thass the fella. Reckon it’ll be all smells an’ bells, guv. Jus’ how you like it.’

  Which made him sound like some sort of religious maniac obsessed with sanctuary choreography, the DI thought helplessly.

  ‘Sounds like a plan,’ he concurred. Now Noakes had the bit between his teeth, he might as well fall in.

  They went outside by way of the rose garden at the rear of the building.

  ‘The flowers are looking good, Noakesy.’

  ‘Yeah. We’ve got one named for Andrée Clark.’ The celebrity whose murder had launched one of their most complex investigations ever.

    ‘Sweet rose, whose hue angry and brave Bids the rash gazer wipe his eye; Thy root is ever in its grave, And thou must die,’ Markham murmured meditatively, his eyes resting appreciatively on the dark red blooms which gave the flowerbeds the appearance of a rich damask counterpane.

  That was just it with the guvnor, Noakes thought, bowing his head respectfully. Sidney and the high ups couldn’t stand the way he broke into poetry and quotations and what have you at the drop of a hat. Granted, it was kind of a coded language that didn’t suit everyone. But he liked how the words sounded. Musical and lush and mysterious, like something from another world. And it was true, there was something fierce and defiant about the colour of those roses. A bit like Andrée Clark herself. He just hoped that stuff about roots and grave and dying didn’t turn out to be some kind of omen……

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

‘At least with The Confetti Club there wasn’t any shortage of people with a grudge,’ Kate Burton lamented later that afternoon as she and Markham sat in the beer garden round the back of The Medway Inn, their jackets off, nursing Diet Cokes.

    ‘True.’ Markham thought back to their recent investigation of a bridalwear store where just about everyone they encountered seemed to have it in for the flamboyant proprietor. This one, on the other hand, appeared to be a case of “motiveless malignity”, but logic dictated there had to be skeletons in Sheila Craven’s closet…. or some kind of secret, if they just dug deep enough.

  ‘By the look of it, she was just this perfectly inoffensive old lady, boss. Mostly kept herself to herself apart from church and pottering along here now and again.’

  ‘She seems to have stuck to a few favourite places,’ Markham ruminated. ‘They all seemed fond of her in Rossi’s.’

  Francesco Rossi, a middle-aged Italian whose receding hairline in no way detracted from a charismatic flirtatiousness, and his gentle wife Serena, with a faded prettiness that suggested she had once been something of a blonde bombshell, had appeared genuinely distressed by the news of Sheila Craven’s murder. Glamorous daughter Marina and her darkly handsome fiancé Matteo also seemed thunderstruck, though the detectives knew better than to take such reactions at face value.

  ‘Yeah, they came across as really warm and caring,’ Burton said. ‘Francesco’s youngest…. Guilia…. what a cutie…. it’s sweet, the way Italians always make a big fuss of their kids.’

  ‘They seem to consider their staff part of the family too,’ Markham observed. ‘That personable red-haired waiter said most of them have been there for years.’

  Burton had her notebook at the ready. ‘Yes, Ed Frayling…. not a patch on Matteo in the looks department, but seemed like a nice guy. Apparently his girlfriend Barbara Price used to work there too, but now she’s training to be a social worker…. still does the occasional shift at weekends.’

  ‘They were all very simpatico,’ Markham said thoughtfully.

  ‘Bit of a contrast with that pair in there,’ Burton commented, jerking a thumb at the pub. ‘He doesn’t crack a smile and she’s like something out of Prisoner Cell Block H.

  It was true. James Carnforth had none of Francesco Rossi’s charm, being a short taciturn man with a fish face and grey combover. His wife Emma was short and stocky with a pudding bowl hairdo, clumpy shoes and badly applied makeup that looked as if it had been slapped on in the dark.

  ‘It’s been a struggle for them to keep going,’ Markham pointed out. ‘Especially with Rossi’s poaching all their customers.’

  Burton glanced down at her notebook. ‘They live on Derwent Lane at the back of The Copse, but it didn’t sound like they mixed with Sheila, even though they’re churchwardens at Saint Michael the Archangel.’ She took a long draught of her drink while pondering this conundrum. ‘You’d have thought being fellow parishioners meant they had quite a lot in common.’

  ‘There may be no obvious motive, but alibi-wise, they’re potentially all in the frame,’ Markham said ruefully.

  Burton did a recap.

  ‘Okay, Dr Patel estimates Sheila died around eleven o’clock or not long before Rosemary Blake rocked up at half past. The Carnforths say they were here doing a stock check. And according to Francesco Rossi, he and Serena were having a lie-in at home because the restaurant is closed on Monday with them doing the deep clean in the afternoon. Ditto Marina and Matteo who weren’t due in till two…. Ed was doing circuit training in Medway Park before he met Barbara for coffee in the town centre at midday and then got a lift into work to help with the cleaning.’ Burton frowned. ‘The Rossis’ alibis are pretty much worthless seeing as couples will always lie for each other,’ she summarised. ‘Ed was doing a solo workout and there’s no-one to vouch for him, which means he’s in the frame too….. plus he’s young and athletic, so –’

  ‘He could have fitted murder in before coffee without breaking sweat,’ Markham finished drily.

  His colleague looked sheepish. ‘I know, I know…. on paper he’s the likeliest, but he came across as genuinely upset about Sheila…. and no motive. Francesco thinks the world of him….. says he’s in line to become assistant manager.’

  ‘Ed’s another one who knew Sheila from church,’ Markham mused. ‘He said something about her singing in the choir with him and Tricia Dent before her husband became ill.’

  ‘What did you make of Ms Dent, sir?’

  ‘She seemed rather tense and brittle,’ he replied, thinking about the  deeply tanned, curly-haired brunette from the bookshop who was fine-boned to the point of being anorexic.

  ‘Reminded me of that woman from The Hotel Inspector,’ Burton volunteered.

  ‘Alex Polizzi?’

  ‘Yep, that’s the one…. You’d imagine Dent was Italian,’ Burton pulled a face as she recalled the Sloaney drawl, ‘until she opens her mouth.’ She referred to the trusty notebook once more. ‘Doyle found out she dated that DJ George Parker for a while before it all went sour.’

  ‘Indeed?’ Presumably the split partly accounted for the hard-bitten look. She had made all the right noises about Sheila Craven, but there was a lack of warmth that Markham found repellent.

  ‘Rosemary Blake was due to clean for Dent after she’d finished at Sheila’s,’ Burton continued. ‘And according to her, with it being the holidays she put the Closed sign up so she could reorganise the shop,’ with a grimace, ‘which means once again no alibi.’

  Markham’s thoughts turned to the other members of the team. ‘Have we got anything from Doyle and Carruthers about The Copse?’

  ‘They’ve been able to rule out the families…. solid alibis all round…. Same with three elderly couples…. district nurse giving an injection at number 5…. decorator busy at number 7… and the accountant round at number 9.’

  ‘Well at least that narrows the field….. Anything else?’

  ‘Bossy old trout at number 16 name of Stella Fanshaw,’ Burton grinned as she quoted Doyle verbatim. ‘She bent their ear for ages about the lack of police patrols, rising crime yada yada yada…. Alibi-wise, she had a hair appointment in the town centre – not Jon James on the high street due to the refurb.’

  ‘When was she finished in town?’

  ‘Ten, because she took the first appointment. She usually meets up with friends mid-morning, but one of them’s in hospital and the other away on holiday, so she decided to head back home…. Carruthers reckons she wanted to check Rosemary hadn’t skived off early.’ Clearly their colleagues hadn’t warmed to the lady. ‘Anyway, she got the taxi to drop her off at Saint Michael the Archangel so she could check the flower arranging rota.’

  ‘What time was this?’

  ‘Quarter past ten…. apparently she hung around for a bit, said her prayers, that kind of thing, and then walked home….. got back just before half eleven but there was no sign of anyone, so she figured Rosemary had already gone next door to Sheila’s…. Then the next thing she knew, there were police cars everywhere.’

  ‘And no-one clocked her returning to number 16?’ Markham asked, sounding frustrated.

  ‘No-one, boss,’ Burton replied in tones of equal exasperation.

  ‘So nothing to say she didn’t call on Mrs Craven via Derwent Lane…. If she knocked at the conservatory window, Sheila would have thought nothing of letting her in the back way.’

  ‘Carruthers says Sheila was easy-going about neighbours coming round the back,’ Burton told him. ‘It’s only a low wall, so not like they had to clamber over a fence.’

  ‘But nobody saw anything,’ Markham repeated glumly. ‘And in suburbia of all places…. land of the proverbial twitching curtains.’ 

  ‘Holiday time, guv…. plus the hot weather…. everyone trying to keep cool and minding their own business.’

  Perfect timing.

  They had no better luck at St Michael the Archangel rectory in Cabot Road. The vicar Norman Collins was a courteous, whippet-thin middle-aged man with a slight stoop who Markham guessed must have been decidedly handsome in his youth. A cultured voice, aquiline features, fine dark eyes and a head of silver hair lent him an air of distinction which was entirely lacking in the owlish deacon Graham Thorpe , the two men being deep in a discussion of parish affairs when the detectives broke into their meeting.

  However inconvenient the interruption, Thorpe promptly produced tea and then effaced himself while the vicar expressed their sadness at the death of Sheila Craven in a few well-chosen phrases.

  After they had left the handsome Victorian terraced house, Burton didn’t mince her words.

  ‘No Mrs Collins, so I bet that guy’s got a brigade of ladies hovering in the wings,’ she commented acidly.

  ‘You weren’t impressed, Kate?’

  ‘Oh don’t mind me, guv. It’s just, he struck me as one of those clerical smoothies who always knows what to say.’

  ‘Sincere?’

  ‘Yes,’ she conceded. ‘Though all that about Sheila leading an exemplary Christian life sounded, well, a bit glib if you know what I mean…. almost like he was dialling it in.’

  ‘I suppose it’s an occupational hazard that priests sometimes sound as if they’re talking by rote,’ Markham told her. ‘There has to be an element of detachment.’

  ‘Well he had almost film star looks… Not like that deacon….. no danger of him having a Thorn Birds moment,’ she laughed as they stood at the bottom of the rectory drive. ‘He reminded me of the head librarian at the university. Old SpeckyFourEyes…. bald and boring.’

  ‘Quite a sensitive face, though,’ Markham countered. ‘And no doubt used to fading into the background while the Reverend holds centre stage.’

  ‘At any rate, there’s two more who can’t be ruled out,’ she sighed. ‘No-one was around to confirm the Rev was working on his sermon…. and unless a neighbour saw Thorpe deadheading those roses, he could easily have been round at The Copse finishing Sheila off.’

  Crossly, she kicked a stray pebble from the gravel drive.

  ‘It’s all so pat…. everything like one of those villages in an Agatha Christie novel.’

  ‘Remember the Old Carton case, Kate. We know what can fester beneath a community’s cosy exterior.’

  ‘God yes,’ she said with feeling, looking back at the rectory. As she watched, there was a movement behind the downstairs bay window. Someone was waiting to see them depart.

  ‘Back to base,’ Markham said. ‘Medway may be a sleepy backwater, but hopefully we’re making ripples.’

  And drawing a killer into the open.

3

Candidates for murder

                                                                 

‘So, no dice with The Healing Centre then?’

  Doyle was clearly disappointed as they reviewed matters the next morning.

  ‘Wednesday’s half day closing,’ Burton informed him. ‘And anyway, the centre’s usually only open in the afternoons. Mr Morland teaches on the European studies degree course, so he’s at the university most mornings.’ She paused, riffling through a manila folder before producing a head-and-shoulders black and white portrait. ‘There he is, perfectly respectable…. looks like an accountant or some such.’

  ‘Ditched the beard and weird getup then,’ Doyle concluded. ‘Must’ve decided it’d spoil his chances of career progression,’ he added sourly.

  The young detective was the proud possessor of a degree in Criminal Law. but he was clearly fascinated by Morland’s colourful background, Noakes’s mentorship having fostered an interest in all things esoteric and “far out”.

  ‘One of that lot from The Copse – Prof Windling at number 5, retired from the uni as head of modern history last year cos of health issues – said Morland’s gone all Eastern Orthodox,’ Doyle confided. ‘Icons and incense and bells and all the rest of it.’

  ‘Perfectly irreproachable,’ Markham said calmly.

  ‘Not totally, guv,’ Doyle asserted stoutly. ‘More like a fad for dodgy mystics and freakiness.’

  ‘How so?’

  ‘Well, the prof didn’t seem all that comfortable with how Morland was teaching the Russian Revolution…..  said he got this thing about “rehabilitating” Rasputin… insisted all the sex stuff was him testing his restraint and pitting himself against the Devil…. mastering temptation like those holy types who went and lived on top of pillars in the desert. ’

  ‘Hermits,’ Markham said drily. But he was interested to see where this led. ‘Go on,’ he said.

    ‘The way Morland tells it, Father Grigory,’ cue a scornful noise from Carruthers, ‘was a Christ-like outsider, which is why Nicholas and Alexandra couldn’t get enough of him…. cos they decided he wasn’t a shyster but the genuine article.’

  ‘Presumably that’s an entirely valid intellectual position,’ Markham countered reasonably.

  Carruthers wasn’t a fan. ‘The bloke was downright sinister,’ he muttered. ‘Like some kind of religious Doctor Feelgood.’

  Burton pursed her lips.

  ‘Of course, we can’t rule out academic jealousy?’ she said. ‘Let’s face it, dons and lecturers are worse than prima donnas when it comes to that.’

  An interesting remark in the context of her relationship with the head of Bromgrove University’s criminal profiling unit, Markham thought.

  Doyle stuck to his guns. ‘I don’t think so, ma’am,’ he insisted. ‘The prof said Morland really bought into all the spiritualist bollocks…. er, sorry, theory,’ he amended hastily, belatedly registering Burton’s dyspeptic expression. ‘Morland was always quoting Rasputin…. “Love is everything; love will protect you from a bullet” blah blah.’

  ‘Got that wrong, didn’t he,’ Carruthers interjected. ‘I mean, didn’t they finish him off before killing the tsar and the rest of them.’

  ‘He told Nicholas they wouldn’t last five minutes without him,’ Doyle retorted, clearly intrigued by this unlikeliest of CID talking points. ‘So he got that part right. Plus, the Romanovs ended up being made saints.’

  It was obvious that Doyle had consulted Noakes on the engrossing subject of Rasputin, a personality whose unsettling significance for the department predated Carruthers’s arrival.

  Doyle shot Burton a shifty sidelong glance. ‘Word on the grapevine is, Morland’s seminars are pervy …. stuff about free love being okay cos it means you can harness your sex drive for God the way Rasputin did…. Like the Ruskies said, “he’d got enough in him for everybody”.’

  ‘Ruskies?’ Burton’s tone was flinty.

  ‘Sorry, ma’am. I meant the Soviets.’

  The DI didn’t look appeased by the amendment, but Doyle ploughed on undaunted.

  ‘Sounded to me like Morland’s a creep. Mind you, the students lap up all his Rasputin stories…. this power-behind-the throne stuff’s all the rage on history courses these days.’

  Carruthers looked interested at this. ‘Yeah, I remember something with Judi Dench in it…. about Queen Victoria having it away with this highlander….  before she moved on to some Muslim bloke…. They reckoned she married the highlander in secret…. didn’t Billy Connolly play him?’

  ‘Yeah that’s right,’ Doyle said eagerly, ‘John Brown…. People called her Mrs Brown and –’

  ‘This isn’t The Film Review, Sergeant.’ Burton’s tone was decidedly acid. ‘And even if Rasputin was some kind of notorious sex-beast or erotomaniac, it’s a totally legitimate area of study.’ A moment’s hesitation, but the DI could never resist a pedagogic opportunity. ‘You could say he was the first modern Russian religious celebrity. There’s always been a tradition of holy fools in the Eastern Church….  they called men like Rasputin a sort of religious elder, a starets….. or a wandering pilgrim, a strannik…. Nathan,’ a slightly self-conscious flush, ‘says he wasn’t really evil…. just ended up being the ideal scapegoat for everything that was wrong with Russia. On top of which, he was this peasant from Siberia messing around with aristocratic women… dramatic role reversal, which didn’t help.’ Burton’s socialist sympathies were evidently aroused. ‘I mean, it was okay for noblemen to abuse serfs… that was their birthright…. but entirely different when things were switched around.’

  ‘So you’re on Rasputin’s side then, ma’am,’ Doyle ventured, with a surreptitious wink at his colleague. ‘Up the workers and all that.’

  ‘Don’t be facetious, Sergeant,’ was the frigid response. ‘In many ways, it’s a deeply tragic story.’ She turned to Markham, ‘D’you remember when we did that case at the Reynolds Museum in Oxford, sir?’

  ‘All too well, Kate.’

  ‘Before your time, mate,’ Doyle said kindly to Carruthers.

  ‘When we were looking into those all-male dining clubs, you told me about that one named after some lover of Edward the Second who was beheaded,’ she continued.

  ‘That’s right…. The Piers Gaveston Society,’ Markham confirmed, secretly amused by the poleaxed look on Carruthers’s face which seemed to say, Why do I always miss out on the juicy stuff.

  ‘Well I read up on him afterwards.’ Bloody typical, Doyle’s expression plainly said. ‘And he was a traditional “favourite” just like Rasputin…. they end up making scores of enemies on account of everyone being jealous. It’s kind of a Catch-22 situation, because the more their opponents plot against them, the more they get pushed into sucking up to the ruler by way of self-protection….. Always ends in tears, with them meeting some sort of gruesome end.’

  Carruthers clearly decided it was high time they turned aside from the byways of history. ‘Only in this case, it ain’t the Rasputin lookalike who copped it,’ he pointed out baldly, ‘just some harmless old biddy who never hurt a soul.’

  ‘Unless it turns out she had some kind of raunchy past,’ Doyle mused, ‘or she got mixed up in dodgy stuff at Morland’s clinic.’

  ‘Oh for heaven’s sake.’ Burton was exasperated. ‘How likely is that at her age!’

  ‘I’m serious, ma’am,’ the young sergeant sounded affronted. ‘You hear about that kind of thing in the news…. gaslighting the elderly.’

  Seeing his earnestness, Burton – ever anxious to be fair – relented.

  ‘Well, if it’s parallels with Rasputin you’re after, women of all ages flocked to him, especially the older society ladies…. ate the scraps from his plate and kissed the hem of his shirt…. like he was a reincarnation of the Sun King or some kind of sex god. The common folk joked that instead of the royal flag they should have flown a pair of his trousers over the imperial palace.’

  Carruthers was surprised to find that sobersides Burton could be amusing when she put her mind to it. And despite his impatience with the historical talk, he couldn’t help being drawn in.

  ‘It was probably the novelty,’ he said shrewdly. ‘You’ve got this stinky peasant with the greasy beard and wandering hands…. totally different from what they were used to…. the smell of the great outdoors and all that….simplicity.... authenticity. Plus, the neurotic types with boring husbands probably couldn’t get enough of him.’

  ‘According to Nathan,’ Burton said, again with that faint tinge of self-consciousness, ‘he was most probably a mixture of priest and doctor…. had some sort of genuine psychic gift…. definitely brilliant at reading people’s minds and reassuring them. The tsar’s prime minister said ten Rasputins were better than one of the empress’s hysterical fits.’

  ‘There you go then!’ Doyle exclaimed, pleased to be vindicated. ‘If Morland’s doing a Rasputin, he could well be into mind games with grannies.’

  ‘Wouldn’t the vicar be a more likely bet if it came to that?’ Carruthers asked. ‘If she was a churchgoer, he’d be more likely to influence her than some charlatan faith healer on the fringes….. especially with Morland being an ex-priest…. I mean, it doesn’t sound like she was the type to approve of that.’

  ‘A good point, Carruthers,’ Markham agreed. ‘And Norman Collins certainly had an impressive presence…. easy to imagine him acquiring a certain following amongst his parishioners.’  He turned to Burton, ‘I recall you were struck by it, Kate.’

  ‘Yes, the vicar definitely had an aura alright,’ she confirmed. ‘Tough on the nerdy deacon, who didn’t exactly shine by comparison.’ She thought for a moment. ‘I can imagine Collins having a winning way with women…. But he seemed quite worldly and shrewd – the type who’d see the elephant traps a long way off – so it’s hard to imagine him winding up in some kind of pastoral mess.’ She sighed. ‘Neither Collins nor Graham Thorpe has a useful alibi, but not really contenders for prime suspect at this stage.’

  ‘Unlike Morland,’ said Doyle hopefully.

  ‘The only problem there being, we don’t know that Mrs Craven ever patronised Mr Morland’s healing centre,’ Markham pointed out. ‘Which is why you and Carruthers need to clear that up this afternoon.’

  Doyle was visibly delighted.

  ‘You don’t want to do Morland yourself, boss?’

  ‘Kate and I are going to call at Medway High School,’ the DI said evenly. ‘It appears Mrs Craven knew the headteacher Frances Langton, so hopefully we may glean more details to fill out our picture.’

  The “ginger ninja” looked as though he could hardly believe he and Carruthers were going to get first crack at the mysterious owner of The Healing Centre.

  ‘I need hardly say, Sergeant, that I expect absolute professionalism on your part,’ Markham continued evenly. ‘Whatever your interest in Rasputin and esoteric religious practices, you will confine yourself to the parameters of the current investigation, specifically any interaction between Mrs Craven and Mr Morland. We need to leave sensationalism and prurient speculation out of the equation.’

  After the two sergeants had left, Burton said resignedly, ‘Doyle’s full of it, sir….. hung up on Rasputin and all this mystic mumbo jumbo.’ She sighed. ‘I suppose sarge is egging him on.’

  ‘Oh, Noakesy’s cup runneth over,’ was the dry response. ‘You know what a history buff he is. And now Natalie’s taking that course at the university, he’ll be gorging on biographies and documentaries.’

  ‘Well, Rasputin’s a fantastic subject and no mistake,’ his colleague conceded. ‘The way he died…. better than Fatal Attraction with him foaming at the mouth and clawing at his assassins when they thought he was safely kaput from poisoned cakes or whatever it was they laced with cyanide… like he was the reincarnation of Satan or an evil spirit.’ Diffidently, she added, ‘What do you make of it all, sir?’

  ‘Oh a real crowd pleaser alright…. The world, the flesh and the Devil writ large…. I seem to remember watching some film with Olivia which had Alan Rickman as Rasputin…. that marvellous sibilant hiss of his…. pure schlock really, but compulsive viewing.’

  There, he had said his ex’s name easily enough, as though he was well over her and moving on with his life. Only, he had a suspicion that Burton was not deceived.

  All she said, however, was, ‘Morland’s a colourful figure but it’s a bit of a stretch to imagine him and Sheila Craven up to some kind of voodoo.’

  ‘Natalie might be able to give us some more background,’ he suggested. ‘I’m seeing Noakes shortly,’ he omitted any reference to dinner at Rossi’s or Sunday lunch, ‘so I can pump him then.’ He laughed. ‘As for Doyle and Carruthers, I think the interview with Morland should dispel any overheated Gothic fantasies about Russian mystics and the undead.’

  ‘Do you plan on us taking a look, guv?’ She was loath to admit to her strong curiosity about The Healing Centre and its enigmatic proprietor.

  ‘We can let the other two soften him up for us and then pay a visit tomorrow afternoon.’

  ‘You don’t reckon they’ll end up alienating him?’ she asked dubiously. ‘After all, he did threaten to sue the Gazette. And if he gets on the blower to the DCI, there could be no end of complications.’

  ‘You can give them a pep talk beforehand, Kate…. reiterate the need for tact and diplomacy…. Morland might actually be flattered by Doyle’s enthusiasm for Rasputin’s legend –’

  ‘Just so long as he doesn’t make it too obvious he thinks Morland’s been messing with OAPs,’ she finished dourly.

  ‘Oh I think he’ll rein himself in, Kate. Doyle’s an ambitious young detective who won’t want Sidney fancying he’s been infected by my “mystical streak”.’

  She grimaced. ‘That would be career suicide alright.’ Then, hesitantly, she continued, ‘All this hocus pocus stuff reminds me of the choir school case, sir…. and god knows, that was disturbing enough…. We’re meant to be living in the twenty-first century not the Dark Ages!’

  ‘Morland can’t be all that unorthodox, Kate. Medway’s not exactly a hot spot for alternative culture. His clinic wouldn’t have lasted this long if he were some totally dodgy guru preying on the vulnerable. You said something before about Rasputin being made a scapegoat for everything that went wrong in Russia. We need to be careful it doesn’t happen in this investigation with Morland just because he’s got some kind of Dionysian backstory.’

  ‘Agreed, sir.’ Burton looked at her watch. ‘We’re not due to see Frances Langton at the school till four…. Think I’ll go and give Doyle and Carruthers that “pep talk”,’ she added grimly, ‘ then I’ll do a briefing note for our meeting with the DCI tomorrow morning and sort out something for the press office.’

  ‘You’re a human dynamo,’ Markham said admiringly, causing her to flush with pleasure.

  ‘You’re not so bad yourself, sir,’ she rejoined gruffly.

  ‘I run a strange sort of outfit here, though, don’t I?’ he mused. ‘I’m willing to bet DI Carstairs and his ilk don’t have riveting debates about the likes of Rasputin.’

  Her solemn expression softened.

  ‘Nathan says you can’t beat lateral thinking and free association, guv…. incubation he calls it….  Plus, you letting us bat ideas around is what gives our unit its distinctive flavour.’

  ‘“Distinctive flavour” eh, Kate.’ Markham smiled the rare, charming smile that transformed his ascetic features. ‘I’m pretty sure Sidney and the high-ups have another name for it!’ Seeing her poised to leave, he added casually, ‘By the way, how’s everything with you these days?’

  ‘Me and Nathan had a bit of a bumpy spell, but we’re working through things,’ was the cautious reply. ‘Mirroring exercises, role play and dialogue strategies,’ she added defensively.

  There was something poignant about the way she said this. Like a student desperate to get an A grade on her assignment. Conscientious in this as in everything, Burton was determined to do her homework, though it sounded about as romantic as watching paint dry. He could only imagine what Noakes would make of the role play element!

  Schooling his expression to show nothing of what he felt, Markham merely said, ‘Glad to hear it, Kate. Don’t hesitate to ask if you need any time off.’

  When hell freezes over, he thought as the door shut behind her.

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

Later that afternoon, as Burton drove them, with her customary punctilious observation of speed limits, to Medway High School. Markham said, ‘We need to take in The Copse tomorrow, Kate, once we’ve recce’d The Healing Centre. I want to do a follow-up with Stella Fanshaw and Tricia Dent. Neither of them has a satisfactory alibi… according to Dent, she was hard at it rearranging her stock, while Fanshaw apparently checked up on flower arranging at Saint Michael the Archangel before coming home.’

  ‘It all seems so improbable somehow, guv,’ she sighed. ‘I mean, The Copse set up is pure George Orwell, isn’t it…. shades of old maids cycling to Holy Communion through the morning mist and all that jazz.’

  ‘As envisioned by John Major, aka “Captain Underpants”,’ he said with a rueful expression. ‘Don’t forget, Ms Dent apparently dated the DJ, George Parker, so she doesn’t exactly fit the template of a sedate spinster.’

  ‘You know what I mean, guv…  It’s the sheer ordinariness of it all that makes this case so weird.’ She paused, scrupulously observing roundabout protocols. ‘I was watching this drama on catch up the other night…. Manhunt…. All about the Night Stalker who did all those burglaries and rapes involving old people…. Martin Clunes plays a blinder as the SIO.’

  ‘Ah yes, I remember that one, Kate….. Colin Sutton, wasn’t it… the one who put Levi Bellfield away… got justice for Amélie Delagrange, Marsha McDonnell and Milly Dowler?’

  ‘That’s right, sir…. Manhunt’s really good…. shows the perp unscrewing lightbulbs, forcing side doors, disabling telephones, slithering through ginnels and the rest of it…. seriously spooky… But this one of ours, boss,’ she raised her hands from the steering wheel and let them fall in a gesture of exasperation, ‘we’re talking mid-morning – broad daylight – and a visitor smothering Sheila with one of her own cushions in the conservatory…. as if they’d dropped in for coffee and decided to finish her off by the by…. as casual as brushing their teeth or part of their morning routine…. like it meant nothing at all.’

  ‘I know what you mean, Kate… And I remember one of the senior detectives in Manhunt raging about the fact that if the victim only fell within the right age range – twenties to forties – it would’ve made the case sexy enough for the tabloids.’

  ‘That’s just it, boss…. You can bet the Gazette will bury this one on page seventeen or right towards the back…. because they can’t show a pic of some pouting teenaged nympho.’

  There was a note of bitterness in her voice that was unusual for Burton, but he carefully refrained from looking at her and she had herself in hand almost immediately.

  ‘It’s the whole setting, sir,’ she went on. ‘Suburbia, with the blasted dahlias bobbing away outside and nothing more exciting than the postman rocking up with a load of junk mail… then someone holds a cushion over Sheila’s face till she stops breathing….  I mean, what would make anyone do that….  a gerontophiliac,’ even in her agitation, Burton did not omit technical precision, ‘or someone who needed to shut her up for some reason?’

  ‘Or a mixture of both.’ Markham knew they had to be prepared to think the unthinkable.

  ‘It was a gentle sort of killing,’ she said almost pleadingly. ‘As though they didn’t want to hurt her.’

  Just like Shipman, would have been Noakes’s verdict And look how that escalated.

  All he said at this point, however, was, ‘Agreed. The level of violence doesn’t suggest a sadistic desire to linger over the process or protract it unnecessarily….. which points to an impulse kill rather than premeditated murder.’

  ‘But what could an inoffensive old lady have said or done that would make someone suddenly decide to kill her?’

  ‘Your guess is as good as mine, Kate.’

  He just hoped to God Sheila Craven’s murder hadn’t ignited a flame that wouldn’t go out.

  Now they were drawing up at Medway High, Burton parking in a space adjacent to the forecourt.

  The school was built on the same model as Hope Academy’s soulless sixties “bunker” – a beige, lego-brick, battery-hen edifice with all the charm of B&Q or a women’s prison. Actually, on balance, Markham felt he preferred HMP Styal.

  ‘Horrible, isn’t it?’ Burton breathed as they disembarked and contemplated the three-storey cement building with its modular cinder extensions.

  Olivia  was wont to say that Hope Academy’s motto should have been, Abandon hope all ye who enter here. Looking at Medway High, Markham felt an even stronger note of despondency. ‘Maybe inside it’s all futuristic architecture and light-filled atriums.’

  In the event, the school’s interior was even more unprepossessing than its exterior, with the chlorotic off-white walls and submarine-like corridors clammily evocative of their experiences in the Ashley Dean investigation at Hope. Burton was resolutely tight-lipped, but Markham could tell from her taut expression that she didn’t at all care to be reminded of that particular case. Light and air felt conspicuous by their absence, however, so it was difficult to avoid comparisons.

  At least since it was holiday time, there were no marauding hordes whooping and hollering, which meant they were spared the customary hubbub of a juvenile exodus.

  Frances Langton was decidedly attractive for a headteacher, Markham thought, having mentally prepared himself for something along the lines of Hope’s bulldozing senior management. Slender, gentle voiced and youthful, with long dark hair, a pale complexion and features of quattrocento delicacy, the headteacher couldn’t have been further removed from the female “juggernauts” whom the team had previously encountered at Hope Academy.

  She had a reserve and fastidiousness that inflected her disclosures about Sheila Craven.

  ‘Sheila was an exemplary Christian, Inspector,’ she commented over refreshments brought by a smiling secretary.

  This wasn’t enough for Markham in the circumstances.

  ‘Could you expand on that, Ms Langton,’ he said courteously. ‘Currently, we haven’t got much sense of what Mrs Craven was like in terms of her personality.’

  As in, Spare us the platitudes, Burton thought sardonically.

  ‘Whatever you tell us is obviously in confidence,’ Markham went on quietly. ‘Unless of course it’s directly germane to our enquiries.’

  Frances Langton fingered the necklace of amber beads that set off her well-cut jade trouser suit.

  ‘She was a good woman,’ the headteacher repeated. ‘But she enjoyed gossip and small talk…. with the likes of Stella Fanshaw from The Copse and one or two others…. birds of a feather…. it can make trouble in a community, you know….’

  Markham rather thought he did, having learned from his ex how insidious and dangerous could be this gnawing of the inward worm in a certain type of woman. ‘The Coven’ was the nickname Olivia had bestowed on a similar clique at Hope.

  ‘Did Sheila make some sort of trouble for you?’ Burton asked bluntly.

  ‘I think she….speculated about my friendship with Norman Collins.’ A flush had burned into the pale cheek. ‘Talked about it in such a way as to imply there was an unsuitable degree of intimacy…. a familiarity between us that might prove detrimental to his ministry….’

  ‘How do you know Sheila badmouthed you?’ Burton pressed her.

  ‘Eventually I worked it all out and found the proof of the pudding…. plus people were willing to talk…..’ She tucked a stray strand of hair behind her ear with a careful deliberation that suggested she was thinking how to package her dislike of Sheila Craven. ‘Norman and I were friends and he was a school Governor, but then he backed away…. didn’t want to engage with my strategic planning…. I’m pretty sure it had something to do with Sheila, though obviously I never confronted him about it.’

  So the vicar had cooled on her, Burton thought, and it was most likely down to clacking tongues including Sheila Craven’s.

  Which added up to motive.

  The head had no alibi. ‘I came in early Monday morning to catch up on admin and paperwork.’ A self-deprecating smile. ‘The bane of my life.’

  ‘No-one else around?’ Burton enquired.

  ‘My PA came in about midday and a couple of the secretaries showed up after lunch…. we’re pretty flexible in holiday time…. I think there were cleaners on the premises, but I kept my head down until the afternoon and nobody bothered me.’

  It was only five minutes’ walk from school to The Copse, Markham calculated. And he noticed that Frances Langton’s office had a side door that led directly on to Warren Avenue, so she could easily have made it to Derwent Lane and back without a soul being any the wiser.

  As though to emphasise that she had nothing to hide, after some inconsequential chat, the head let them out that way, her expression almost defying them to comment on the school’s proximity to The Copse.

  ‘So Sheila queered Langton’s pitch with the padre,’ Burton mused as they made their way round to her Fiesta. ‘Then he went lukewarm on her school improvement plans…. wouldn’t back her up with the Governors anymore.’ Fastening her seatbelt, she mused. ‘She wasn’t all that keen on the Rossi crowd, though that story about Vincent Rossi claiming their little sister Guilia was being bullied didn’t sound like a big deal….. And it as obvious she didn’t go a bundle on George Parker either.’

  ‘I believe we’ve yet to meet Vincent,’ Markham said, thinking that he would look out for this scion at dinner on Friday. ‘Perhaps they let her down when it came to fundraising,’ Markham said thoughtfully. ‘Or it could be they’re all too brash and ostentatious for her taste.’ Frances Langton had struck him as possessing an innate pride and refinement, covered with a thin glazing of ice-cool reserve, that made her an intriguing proposition. Certainly he could easily imagine her as the target of jealous gossip.

  ‘She wasn’t giving anything away about Morland and The Healing Centre,’ Burton continued. ‘But having a couple of acupuncture sessions there doesn’t add up to much.’

  ‘Hmm, yes she was definitely cagey….. Mind you, in her position she probably has to watch what she says.’ As they approached the town centre, he asked, ‘Have the FLOs located Desmond Pettifer yet?’

  ‘Oh right, the nephew…. He was off at some music festival in Wales…. works as a promoter or something like that. They said he was pretty offhand when they broke the news, so obviously not that close to Sheila. He’s due back in Bromgrove sometime tomorrow, sir.’

  ‘Try and arrange a condolence visit for the afternoon please…. Even if theirs was a long-distance relationship, I think it’s important we get off on the right foot.’ Not least if Pettifer entered the stakes as a potential suspect.

 

  There were potential candidates for Sheila Craven’s murder whichever way he looked, the DI thought uneasily. But the Golden Hour had been and gone, and a killer was gloating somewhere close at hand.

  Time to step it up a gear.

4

An Interesting Encounter

 

 

It was strange, Markham thought the following morning as he sat with Burton in the DCI’s office, how his relationship with Sidney had become almost affectionate with the passage of time. The boss’s dreadful nasal honk still affected his nerves like nails scraping down a chalkboard, and he disliked the woke-ridden management-speak as much as ever, but visits to the Holy of Holies were no longer such an ordeal as formerly.

  Sidney himself, with his buzz cut, designer specs and sharp linen tailoring, looked like a hybrid of Prince William and an Italian football manager, though periodic outbreaks of eczema (notably in abeyance now that Noakes had retired) somewhat marred the impression of executive chic.

  Olivia loathed Sidney who returned the compliment in spades, invariably referring to ‘Markham’s lady friend’ with a knowing leer that suggested his doubts of their relationship lasting the course (actually, he had showed some prescience if it came to that). Calling him ‘Judas Iscariot’, a ‘backstabbing snake’ and various other choice epithets, she had early detected the king-size chip on Sidney’s shoulder due to Markham’s Oxbridge credentials, handsome looks (including thick black hair – a particular sore point for the folically-challenged), courtly grace and total disdain for the sort of palm-greasing at which Sidney was so adept.

  But Markham himself had come to realise that beneath the bombast and strident self-assertion, the DCI was in fact terminally insecure, not to mention ‘pussy-whipped from here to eternity,’ as Noakes said with reference to ‘Brunhilde’, his formidable spouse who ruled the roost at home. In fact, Sidney’s allegiance to conventionality, class paranoia and deep-rooted horror of anything idiosyncratic or unusual (viz his DI’s ‘feyness’) reminded Markham of Muriel Noakes’s anxious adherence to orthodoxy and the social norms, as though they represented protection against being perceived as an imposter who belonged outside the charmed circle of Bromgrove’s middle class elite. Interestingly, both the DCI and Mrs Noakes were rabid royalists, his particular favourite being the Countess of Wessex pictures of whom appeared with startling frequency in the Hall of Fame, as the photomontage which took up the whole of one wall of the office and showed Sidney hobnobbing with assorted notables was irreverently known.

  Yes, Markham thought to himself as he discreetly observed the DCI throning over acres of teak desk (he was a great champion of the ‘paperless office’), the flipside of what Olivia considered to be Sidney’s mean-minded jealousy was undoubtedly some fear that had its roots deep in his upbringing – a dread of not being good enough. He could understand and pity this, as well as admiring Sidney’s resilience in mustering strategies that allowed him to keep his sense of self intact. If that meant patronising Markham for head-in-the-clouds dreaminess and ‘making himself conspicuous’, then so be it.

  On this occasion, as it happened, and much to Markham’s private amusement, Sidney was all affability as he discoursed on Rasputin and the Romanovs with Kate Burton, she having decided it might be as well – given the DCI’s well-known nervousness around suspects with a litigious streak and his fear of sensationalism – to underline the team’s respect for Henry Morland’s academic and university credentials.

  Burton and Sidney being psychology graduates with a keen interest in criminal profiling and proficient in all the politically correct jargon, they had found common ground in a way that he and Markham never quite managed. Burton’s red brick educational antecedents and respectful earnestness (unmingled with servility) also stood her in good stead.

  ‘A fascinating period of history, Inspector Burton,’ the DCI brayed approvingly. ‘I believe Prince Philip helped with the DNA testing when they located the Romanovs’ bones in Ekaterinburg. Only natural that our royal family should want Nicholas and Alexandra properly honoured.’

  Markham forbore from pointing out that guilt might have had something to do with it, seeing as George V shamefully vacillated about rescuing his cousins from the revolutionaries until it was too late.

  It was obvious that Sidney was keener on the tsar and his family than the Mad Monk, but Burton was adroit. ‘We’ve come a long way from all the Hammer House of Horror stuff,’ she said earnestly. ‘It’s really interesting the way historians now see Rasputin as a victim of Bolshevik propaganda and not some kind of evil fiend.’ She knew to steer clear of severed penises or botched cremations. ‘And of course, there’s the whole question of his ability to cure haemophilia and role within the Russian Orthodox Church.’ Her features a picture of innocent enthusiasm, she added, ‘Doctor Morland’s articles on the real extent of his political influence shed a whole new light on it all.’ Markham had no doubt that Burton had mugged up on Morland’s entire oeuvre with a view to making herself mistress of the subject in question.

  Having artfully positioned herself as Henry Morland Ph.D.’s number one fan, Burton slipped in, ‘Of course we’ll need to speak with Doctor Morland, but really it’s pretty much routine.’ In the sense of ruling him out, was the clear implication.

  Sidney visibly relaxed, reassured that the proprietor of The Healing Clinic would be handled with kid gloves and there would be no scandalous rumours about Sheila Craven and the ex-priest.

  The DCI’s addiction to quick fixes – the “Bushy Haired Stranger” or mentally deranged loner – was notorious in CID, especially where there was any risk of the great and good or Bromgrove’s reputation being tarnished by association with violent death. To his credit, however, Sidney had increasingly placed his trust in Markham’s team to achieve results, even where they pursued lines of enquiry that threatened the established order. Now he said warily, ‘Am I to take it that you’re looking for someone with a local connection, Markham?’

  ‘It seems very likely that Mrs Craven knew her killer, in view of how she died and the absence of defensive injuries,’ he replied levelly, fully aware that a killer embedded in the community – quite probably a respectable citizen – was Sidney’s worst nightmare.

  ‘Nothing was taken from the property, sir,’ Burton told him. ‘There was money and jewellery in her bedroom upstairs, but it wasn’t touched, and there was no sign the killer attempted to search any of the rooms.’

  Sidney frowned. ‘Could there be a link to her husband? Tom Craven was one of our own, so conceivably it’s possible this might be someone with a grudge.’

  Markham shook his head. ‘Noakes thinks not, sir.’

  The DCI passed a hand over his forehead, his expression suggesting he felt a migraine coming on.

  ‘I presume you’re proposing to involve George Noakes in some way then, Inspector,’ he said heavily, as though inwardly cursing, Just when I thought it was safe to come out!

  ‘As an occasional civilian consultant, sir,’ Markham aimed for his best bedside manner, ‘seeing as Noakes knows Medway and the high street very well. Then there’s Natalie…. she has links to the university and local community. And obviously her work as a holistic practitioner,’ or however she described herself these days, ‘gives her the perfect calling card.’

  ‘Access all areas,’ Sidney said thinly.

  ‘Something like that, sir.’

  ‘Extraordinary the way that family somehow manages to enmesh itself in every CID investigation going.’

  There was really no response to this observation, so Markham simply maintained a rictus smile till his jaw ached.

  ‘Mrs Craven led a quiet life,’ Burton said finally in an attempt to dispel the spectre of the Noakeses. ‘So for now, we’re looking at the neighbours, her church, shops on the high street, the local Italian.’ Surreptitiously crossing her fingers behind her back, she continued brightly. ‘The vicar at Saint Michael the Archangel and the headteacher from Medway High have been a great help. It’s a question of getting a feel for the local networks, sir.’

  ‘Just so long as you don’t take too long about it,’ was the faintly menacing response. ‘I need hardly point out that the murder of an elderly woman in her own home is generating great concern at the highest levels.’ Which, roughly translated, meant that the Chief Constable or some other head honcho was giving Sidney gyp.

  Markham was swift to offer reassurance. ‘We’re throwing everything at this one, sir, including help from the criminal profiling unit.’ Just as soon as he could pin down Nathan Finlayson….

  In the meantime, Burton gave it the full Krafft-Ebing.

  ‘Erotic age orientation…. clinical targets…. laboratory appraisal…. Kinsey…. DSM-IV….classifications systems…. population-level occurrence…. paraphilias…. teleiophiles …. etiology and psychosexual origins…. Journal of Forensic Psychiatry & Psychology….’

 With no apparent squeamishness, Sidney lapped it up, stroking the jutting chin formerly adorned by a wispy goatee (‘cos he reckoned it makes him look like an egghead’, was Noakes’s withering verdict). After a discussion of psychological markers in the Night Stalker  case, Burton concluded earnestly, ‘It’s possible the person we’re looking for suffered some sort of abuse by an elderly person, sir, but the offender profile’s still inchoate at this stage.’

  Incohate!  Not for the first time, Markham thanked God for a second in command who had swallowed a thesaurus.

  Well aware that Sidney would be secretly hoping their enquiries might point to a mental patient or some other social reject in preference to well-heeled suburbanites, the DI added suavely, ‘Of course we’ll be liaising closely with the Newman Hospital and Carradine Centre,’ the latter being Bomgrove’s homeless hub, ‘keeping all options on the table, sir.’

  Once safely back in Markham’s office, Burton said, ‘At the risk of sounding like Barry Lynch,’ the station’s oleaginous press officer, ‘I’d say we got away with it, guv.’

  He smiled. ‘Thanks in no small part to your skill in disarming the DCI, Kate.’

  ‘I guess he’s not so bad if you can get on his wavelength,’ she said diplomatically. ‘He’s quite the history buff…. It was funny what he said about that tsar – Alexander the something – who was so strong he  could bend iron pokers and silver cutlery with his bare hands…. like some sort of Uri Geller…. Noakes would have enjoyed that.’ A giggle escaped her. ‘Did you clock the way Sidney’s PA kept looking around as though she was afraid he was going to jump out at her.’

  ‘Not exactly kindred spirits her and Noakes,’ he laughed. ‘I think she took it the wrong way when he cracked that joke about PMTea…. He was lucky she didn’t set the diversity squad on him.’

  ‘Knew it would be a lost cause, boss…. all that inclusion training was water off a duck’s back.’

  ‘Well, at least now he’s officially a civilian, I don’t have to dread that officious woman from HR turning up here like the Wrath of God with complaints about the latest outrage to PC sensibilities.’

  She chuckled before returning to the subject of Sheila Craven.

  ‘We’re not really looking for some random psycho here are we, guv?’ she said, the mirth fading from her face. ‘Rosemary Blake was positive that Sheila normally kept the conservatory’s French doors locked unless she brought someone in round the back. The doors weren’t forced, so she let them in –’

  ‘Which means she had to have known them.’

  ‘Exactly.’ Burton’s face was troubled. ‘I know I trotted out all the behavioural psychology stuff for the DCI, guv, but Sheila’s murder doesn’t fit the template for sexual homicide…. Dr Patel says she wasn’t interfered with…. and it didn’t present like an asphyxiation scenario or fetish activity.’ She thought hard. ‘Of course, it could be they just have got off on the act itself…. having power over life and death…. a bit like Shipman….. all neat and tidy with the old folk looking like they’d just nodded off where they sat…. and him getting a kick from shooting them full of morphine….’

  ‘You could well be right, Kate. Nothing to say we’re not looking for someone with a psychosexual kink. Back there you mentioned the Night Stalker…. Well, as I recall, there was quite a lot of theorising about Delroy Grant’s formative years and the fact that he was almost entirely brought up by his paternal grandmother in a rural community in Jamaica.’

  ‘So his sexual tastes might’ve had something to do with her taking over the maternal role?’

  ‘Correct….. some kind of disordered response to disruption of the mother-child bond.’

  ‘Or she could have abused him in some way?’ Burton pressed.

  Markham was very still, the well moulded lips set as though closed on a secret. For an instant, he was suddenly back with the sadistic stepfather who had stolen his own childhood. He was silent just long enough for Burton to wonder at it, before he replied in his usual tones, ‘Some sort of trauma in infancy might well be a factor if it turns out we’re dealing with a sexual attraction to the elderly.’ The DI paused. ‘But I’m not convinced that’s what was going on here.’

  Burton fiddled with her papers and briefcase while surreptitiously observing the guvnor. Small wonder that Sidney felt at such a disadvantage whenever he was in Markham’s presence. The narrow, aristocratic face, high forehead, dark hair coming down in a peak, together the look of fastidious reserve, could not have been in greater contrast to the rest of Bromgrove Station’s high command. And then there were the fine dark eyes and penetrating gaze… unlike ‘Blithering’ Bretherton of whom Noakes was wont to say that his eyes were so near his nose they looked like they wanted to join themselves to it….

  ‘Penny for them, Kate?’

  ‘Just thinking that the DCI seemed to have mellowed, sir,’ she lied, somewhat flustered.

  ‘Well, he seemed reassured by your obvious respect for Doctor Morland’s pre-eminence as an expert on Rasputin and Tsarist Russia,’ was the wry response. ‘I was just waiting for you to get started on the tradition of holy fools…. God’s foolishness is wiser than human wisdom and His weakness is stronger than human strength,’ he intoned piously with a mischievous gleam.

  She looked embarrassed. ‘I probably overdid it a bit, guv.’

  ‘It was most diverting’, and excellent diversionary tactics. ‘Just a pity Noakesy wasn’t there to join in.’ Sidney’s reaction to his friend’s scabrous anecdotes about The Dark One didn’t bear thinking about.

  ‘The DCI took it quite well when you said that about him being a civilian consultant on this one.’

  ‘Oh, there’ll be some kind of quid pro quo exacted, never fear,’ he observed cynically. ‘But in the meantime, we’ve got The Healing Centre lined up for this afternoon?’

  ‘That’s right, boss. At four o’clock…. Then we can take a look at The Copse and Sheila’s neighbours.’

  ‘What about Desmond Pettifer?’

  ‘He’s coming in to the station at six.’

  ‘Good.’ No-one could say they were letting the grass grow, Markham thought. Aloud, he continued, ‘Did we get anything useful from the SOCOs?’

  ‘Nope, boss. The killer was forensically aware…. literally did the deed and then wiped everything down…. there’s no useful DNA.’

  ‘What about Doyle and Carruthers…. Did they find The Healing Centre an Aladdin’s cave of Rasputiniana?’ There was a sardonic edge to Markham’s query.

  ‘I’ll check in with them before we head off,’ she said. ‘Hopefully they didn’t come across as giving the impression we think Morland’s some amateur huckster into all kinds of mumbo jumbo.’

  Markham laughed. ‘I’m sure you’ll be able to smooth over any awkwardness, Kate.’ His gaze rested on her consideringly. ‘I had the impression back there in Sidney’s office that you’re quite taken with the whole Rasputin legend.’ Not unlike Noakes, he thought, though his former wingman regarded the famous hypnotist with his usual iconoclastic irreverence.

  ‘Well I’ve always had a bit of a thing about Nicholas and Alexandra ever since watching that cheesy 1970s film,’ she said shyly. ‘Oh, I know they were  totally wrongheaded about the real state of things in Russia, but they were so brave and it was so horrible the way they were butchered in that cellar.’ Her tone was misty as she added softly, ‘Those four beautiful girls and their little brother dying before they ever really lived…. And their aunt….. the one who became a nun…. dragged into the forest and thrown down a mine shaft…. singing hymns as the Bolsheviks chucked grenades in to finish her off.’

  ‘I know what you mean, it’s a compelling story. Olivia,’ it was almost as though he was testing himself by bringing her into the conversation, ‘loved that film too…. and the one about Anastasia starring Ingrid Bergman…..’

  ‘You mean the woman who claimed to be Anastasia – the one they dragged out of a canal in Berlin who turned out to be an imposter after DNA testing on her hair,’ Burton amended punctiliously.

   ‘The DCI wouldn’t like me impugning royalty, but arguably the empress’s infatuation with Rasputin caused the downfall of the dynasty,’ Markham suggested.

   ‘She was just a desperate mother. Her son’s haemophilia was the ticking time bomb,’ she replied stoutly. ‘And seeing as she was the carrier who gave it to him, the guilt must have been crucifying. No wonder she turned to religion.’

  ‘So you’re a “Rasputinist”,’ he teased. ‘Just like Noakesy.’

  She looked alarmed at this.

  ‘I just think it was convenient to blame him and the empress for everything that was wrong. Poor Alexandra was German-born, which counted against her for a start. The trouble-makers got at her through other people, not just Rasputin…. There was all that about her having a lesbian relationship with her best friend…. it got so bad, that after the revolution the poor woman subjected herself to a medical exam to prove she hadn’t been Alexandra’s lover.’

  ‘No doubt Noakesy’s already gobbled up that particular nugget,’ Markham laughed. ‘I’m just relieved there’s no danger of you treating the DCI to stories about Rasputin’s allegedly peripatetic genitalia,’ he went on. ‘It’s remarkable how he’s latched on to the more dubious aspects of the myth…. One can only pray he won’t succumb to the urge to share the scurrilous details with Rosemount’s residents.’

  To the DI’s surprise, his normally prim and proper colleague chuckled. ‘You’ll have to tell him about Rasputin being attacked by a bishop and some madman,’ she said. ‘Apparently they went and squeezed his privates till he broke down and confessed his sins.’

  Markham groaned in mock horror.

  ‘Now don’t you go and encourage him, Kate…. He’s much safer sticking to General Gordon…. God only knows how I’m going to keep him from storming The Healing Centre.’

  The smiled at each other in a moment of precious complicity.

  ‘I’m not really a “Rasputinist”,’ sir she said finally. ‘It’s just that it’s so easy to stereotype religious folk as unbalanced nutters or seedy manipulators…. I think Rasputin was just this brilliant peasant with some kind of healing powers…. a victim of jealousy in the end.’

  ‘That’s very much Noakes’s take on it,’ he commented, amused. ‘He was impressed that the Orthodox Church made him a saint.’

  ‘That was the Russian True Orthodox Church, a breakaway group,’ his colleague corrected him with her usual exactitude, ‘but it’s true the mainstream Orthodox Church asked for him to be canonised…. it caused no end of problems.’

  ‘I can imagine.’ With a gleam in the dark grey eyes, Markham asked, ‘What would the DCI say, if he heard us conversing like this, Kate? He’d be bound to disapprove.’

  ‘Oh, I think he was pretty intrigued by it all, sir….. The thing is, we don’t seriously think Sheila Craven’s part of some dodgy secret sect run by an ex-priest who fancies himself to be a reincarnation of Rasputin, do we?…. I mean, that’s just too far-out for words.’

  ‘Agreed. It seems highly improbable.’ With a wry grin, he added, ‘though I’m sure the Gazette would love it.’

  She pulled a face at that. ‘There weren’t a load of icons or religious knickknacks knocking around Sheila’s house…. nothing that stamped her as some sort of crank…. She was just this perfectly respectable middle-of-the-road churchgoer –’

  ‘Who made a dangerous enemy somewhere along the line.’

  Burton shivered at that.

  ‘While I’m fully alive to the danger of stereotyping Henry Morland,’ Markham continued, ‘he undoubtedly represents an exotic element in the mix…. Do we know why he left the priesthood, by the way?’

  ‘We’re up against the usual omertà there, boss….. But Bishop Buckley’s chaplain did deign to tell me that “nothing untoward”,’ she air quoted viciously, ‘was in question.’ Scowling, she added, ‘He behaved like I was some kind of sleazy hack salivating over the prospect of exposing a pervy priest.’

  ‘Given all the flak the Catholic church currently attracts, I suppose you can hardly blame him.’

  ‘He implied there was some deep theological reason the likes of me are too thick to fathom. That or Morland was kicked out of priest-school for being unsuitable.’

  ‘You’ll be able to ask him yourself shortly, Kate.’

  This recalled her to their agenda for the afternoon. ‘I’d better go and debrief the other two,’ she sighed.

  ‘What’s the position on Morland’s alibi?’ Markham enquired.

  ‘He wasn’t at the university with it being the holidays…. doing some gardening apparently…. another one virtuously deadheading the roses.’

  ‘And nobody saw him?’

  ‘Sorry, guv, his neighbours are away, so no joy there.’

  ‘What about whether Sheila ever had any treatment at the centre…. do we know if she went there?’

  ‘She had the occasional facial and pedicure…. but Morland doesn’t do those himself, and anyway she hadn’t been in for several months.’

  Another brick wall.

  After Burton had left, Markham reflected on their successful meeting with the DCI. He had spied a picture of Sidney’s eldest son Jake at his Sandhurst passing-out parade on the Wall of Fame, so perhaps paternal pride had something to do with the new mellowness. Noakes generally didn’t have much time for ‘sprog Officer-Cadets’, but he had quite warmed to Jake, a charming self-effacing young man, principally for the reason that ‘he didn’t take after his old man’. So perhaps there might be some safely neutral territory on which Sidney and Noakes could make small talk when they met.

  Mind you, he’d be a fool to count on it.

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

The Healing Centre was an unpretentious unit next to the pub. From the outside it could have been a dentist’s or newsagent’s but for the discreet signage. Inside, however, it was a different story. Oriental rugs on parquet floors, watered silk lavender wallpaper and beautiful flower arrangements – white and purple lilacs, vases of roses and orchids and bowls of violets perfuming the air – gave the ground floor suite of five consulting rooms a feeling of intimate cosiness. A very feminine atmosphere, Marham reflected, but of course Morland’s clientele would be preponderantly, if not exclusively, female. The walls were covered with icons and what looked like vintage prints of palaces.

  ‘Tsarkoe Selo, “the Tsar’s village”,’ Morland told them, seeing their interest. ‘Russia’s equivalent of Marie Antoinette’s Petit Trianon….  It was the Romanovs’ enchanted paradise where they could be themselves and live a simple life.’

  ‘With an army of servants in the wings,’ Burton sniffed disapprovingly, peering at pictures of retainers in brightly coloured national costume. ‘That’s autocracy for you.’

  ‘True,’ their guide smiled. ‘They were deplorably insulated from how the masses suffered.’

  Burton lingered before a series of pictures of Rasputin. ‘He’s got the most amazing eyes,’ she murmured. ‘Even in black and white, they’re piercing.’

  ‘Apparently they were grey-green, but people said they had a phosphorescent glow and sometimes even turned red,’ Morland informed her.

  She peered closer. ‘He looks sickly and emaciated in this one…. sort of like a Russian Fagin with that gaunt face and the beard and straggly hair.’

  ‘Yet he had this tremendous aura…. So much so, that women didn’t mind that he smelled like a goat….. They even cut his fingernails and sewed them into their clothing as if they were holy relics.’

  Markham thought of Noakes’s enthusiasm for relics during their investigation of the Little Flower Institute. Somehow he didn’t think Rasputin’s fingernails would find equal favour with his friend.

  ‘You wouldn’t imagine the empress would look twice at him,’ Burton said wonderingly, ‘if it weren’t for the haemophilia.’

  ‘Oh, the emperor relied heavily on him too. They both called him “Our Friend”.’

  Hearing those words and recalling the Newman Hospital investigation gave Markham a disagreeable sensation.

  Morland hadn’t missed the moue of distaste.

  ‘There’s no denying Rasputin’s sinister attributes, ‘he said. ‘But he had remarkable psychological “flair” and healing touch….When it came to religion, it wasn’t so much that he said anything new or anything that hadn’t been said many times before, but there was a kind of magic to the way he said it…. a simplicity and freshness based on his own lived experience that contrasted powerfully with all the dead theology people were used to.’

  Markham wondered if it was ‘dead theology’ that had led to Morland leaving the priesthood.

  ‘How do you reckon he cured the haemophilia then?’ Burton asked. ‘Isn’t there some story that he once sent a telegram saying the boy would be okay and to make sure the doctors left him alone?’

  ‘It might just have been that he was able to calm everyone down and defuse things,’ Morland replied, clearly gratified by their attentiveness. ‘There’s a theory that emotional stress can aggravate bleeding in haemophiliacs and make the capillary walls break down, whereas a sense of well-being can reduce blood flow and strengthen the vascular defences…. all pretty much redundant now with our modern breakthrough therapies, but back then it could have been crucial….. Reassuring the empress meant she would relax and this would communicate itself to Alexis, while getting the medics to back off was excellent advice because their poking and prodding might have dislodged clots or triggered further trauma…. Rasputin had this colossal animal vitality and self-confidence…. someone even compared him to a gorilla.’

  Burton laughed at the notion of a Slavic King Kong. ‘Quite a guy,’ she said.

  ‘Oh, undoubtedly. He recognised the dangers in ignoring the people’s suffering far sooner than the tsar or his ministers, who totally ignored the lessons of the 1905 revolution, and he begged Nicholas not to go to war. In some ways he was very philanthropic and enlightened, which is why I’m keen to rehabilitate him.’

  Burton was enjoying herself. ‘Didn’t he have second sight?’

  ‘Well, he predicted the assassination of the prime minister, Stolypin, and he wrote a remarkable letter to his family in 1914 saying, “My hour will soon strike”,’ foretelling his death.’

  ‘And the dynasty fell all because people believed that Alexandra and Rasputin were having an affair,’ Burton marvelled.

  ‘The trouble was, Russia didn’t know about the tsarevich’s haemophilia,’ Morland said. ‘It was a closely guarded secret and the family resorted to all kinds of subterfuge to cover it up – photos posed of him seated or on steps to hide a crooked leg, that sort of thing – which led to all kinds of unsavoury rumours about the poor child. And all the secrecy meant there was no sympathy for Alexandra nor understanding why Rasputin held such sway with her…. she wouldn’t hear a word against him…. even when his habit of kissing women was reported to her, all she said was that the Apostles kissed everyone by way of welcome.’

  Markham if Morland himself had ever deployed what sounded a decidedly high-risk pastoral strategy.

  ‘A naïve woman then,’ was all he said, however.

  ‘Devout and sincere, but also vulnerable to cranks in that strange closed world where everyone was plotting and the rest of the family hated her…. Even before Rasputin, she’d fallen prey to a weirdo called Monsieur Philippe. He gave her a little bell that he said would ring of its own accord whenever the powers of darkness threatened approached.’

  ‘CID could do with one of those,’ Markham laughed.

  ‘She was a seriously beautiful woman,’ Burton commented, examining a family group.

  ‘You can’t see it in these photographs, but she was very willowy with dark blue eyes and masses of reddish gold hair…. very striking.’

  Markham felt a sharp stab of pain at this, an image of Olivia rising up before him.

  Morland mistook his wince for impatience.

  ‘Let’s adjourn upstairs,’ he said smoothly. ‘Otherwise I’m liable to get carried away discoursing on my favourite subject.’

  His office on the first floor was functional and relatively utilitarian by comparison with the suite of rooms below, but it was nevertheless comfortable with plain leather chairs, desk and bookshelves in pine and more prints on vintage grey herringbone wallpaper.

  There was no sign of any clients or staff, and Markham figured Morland had arranged it that way. Their interviewee offered to make coffee which the detectives courteously declined, engaging in some more desultory chat about the university and his academic interests before cutting to the chase.

  Asked about Sheila Craven’s visits, he readily replied, ‘I’ve checked my appointments book and she was here a few times last summer, only I didn’t attend to her personally…. I’ve a vague recollection of seeing her, but it was just a case of pleasantries and “how are you?”, nothing more than that.’

  Morland seemed perfectly calm and master of the situation, a musical speaking voice falling agreeably on their ears. He was personable and conservatively dressed in chinos and open-necked shirt, with close-cropped dark hair, long aquiline nose mobile expressive mouth and alert hazel eyes behind clear-rimmed glasses. Aware of Burton’s curious appraisal, he said, ‘As you can see, I ditched the Summer of Love disguise a while ago.’

  Embarrassed, Burton said, ‘Sorry, it’s just that it’s quite a turnaround from the long-haired look.’

  ‘Think nothing of it, Inspector,’ was the easy reply. ‘That belonged to my kabbalistic

  phase – identifying too strongly with Rasputin when I researched his connections to the khlysty…. Russian apocalyptic sects…. unhinged flagellants who sought God through all kinds of extreme practices…. orgies and voluntary castration and cutting off women’s breasts.’ Just wait till Noakes found about this, Markham thought wryly.

  ‘Did Rasputin belong to one of those groups?’ Burton asked eagerly.

  ‘Well, they investigated him multiple times but couldn’t nail him for it.’ A dour smile. ‘Shame the Gazette didn’t cotton on to my research interests. They’d have had a field day.’

  Markham found that he was warming to Henry Morland with his culture, wry self-deprecation and humorousness.

  ‘In the febrile climate of his time, Rasputin’s mixture of the saintly and the demonic was incredibly appealing to people. But for all that, he was no fanatic,’ Morland continued. ‘He was a truly “religious” individual, unlike most Russian clergymen. And his attitude to women was progressive for the times, since he didn’t go along with separation of the sexes at all.’

  Observing Burton’s sceptical expression, he said, ‘Oh, don’t get me wrong, he womanised and drank and partied….  and he was always asking women about their sex lives…. that’s why it caused a scandal when it came out that he was visiting the Grand Duchesses – Alexandra’s daughters – at their bedtime…. But on the other hand, he was a family man with a wife and three children…. Plus, he was genuinely devout – went wandering round the countryside in chains at one point.’ Markham imagined Noakes would designate this as a mid-life crisis. ‘And as the empress insisted, “the saints are always calumniated”’, Morland concluded.

  ‘I’d always thought of him as kind of like a witch doctor,’ Burton said.

  Morland smiled at this. ‘The Russian elite were morbidly obsessed with the occult – séances, hypnotism, dark forces – and he was part of all that…. embodied the clash between urban modernity and much older mystical values. He came from a tradition of peasant healers – horse-leeches they called them – who were thought to have supernatural powers and could stop bleeding through the use of certain words. They called it the ability to “speak the blood”.’

  Speak the blood. The words made Markham’s skin prickle.

  ‘I’ve heard of horse whisperers,’ Burton said uneasily, ‘but that’s a new one on me.’

  ‘With Rasputin, it was more about hypnotic suggestion. Amongst other things, he reputedly had the ability to contract the pupils of his eyes at will regardless of the amount of light in a room…. it gave him extraordinary mesmeric power. And then of course, he acted as a masseur from time to time, which was problematic because that was open to misinterpretation.’

  Burton was swift to take the opening.

  ‘Is that what happened with the woman who went to the Gazette?’ she asked. ‘A misunderstanding?’

  ‘Yes. She misinterpreted an applied kinesiology session.’

  That was it. He offered no further details nor explanation. By tacit agreement, the detectives did not press him further.

  It was the same with Morland’s priestly career. He talked calmly about a ‘period of spiritual debility’ and ‘being at odds with his superiors’ (something with which Markham could sympathise), but they got nothing beyond that and were obliged to move on to a review of his qualifications (which were sound), the centre’s various treatments and protocols. He was politely vague and non-committal about the locals, giving the impression that he had taken no particular trouble to integrate himself into the life of the community.

  Afterwards, mulling over the encounter as they sat round the corner in Markham’s car, Burton said with unusual animation, ‘That’s a fascinating bloke.’ Wistfully, she added, ‘The students are lucky…. I bet his courses are packed out.’ She grinned. ‘And that was funny, what he said about Rasputin being so conservative and bland he could safely have gone on Thought for the Day.’

  ‘We didn’t learn much about Morland personally, though, apart from what he said about his interest in alternative medicine developing out of the research into Eastern mysticism.’

  ‘True,’ she conceded, ‘but that about not knowing Sheila seemed genuine enough.’

  ‘The place appears to be doing well financially,’ Markham observed, ‘and all the paperwork was in apple-pie order.’

  ‘Probably all the female patients are titillated by him being an ex-priest.’

  His lips twitched. ‘Not very feministic of you, Kate, but doubtless accurate.’

  ‘I was wondering…..’ She coloured and broke off. ‘No, that’s stupid….’

  ‘Go on,’ Markham encouraged.

  ‘Well, he’s obviously charismatic…. a registered hypnotherapist and all the rest of it…. there’s lots of positive reviews online…. What if someone fancied playing the “soul doctor” with Sheila, so they could get her to do what they wanted?’

  ‘You mean like a disciple of Morland’s?’ Markham asked, intrigued.

  Her blush deepened.

  ‘Sounds a bit potty… It’s just that as he was talking about autosuggestion and the way Rasputin cast a spell over Alexis and his mother, I wondered if some copycat had targeted Sheila like that, but for some reason they screwed up and ending by killing her.’

  ‘Not potty at all, Kate…. As an elderly widow living on her own, she might well be vulnerable to that kind of  manipulation.’

  Starting up the engine, he reflected that the interview with Morland had been engrossing. He had no such expectations that The Copse would be half so interesting….

  And so it proved.

  Those of Sheila Craven’s neighbours who were in the vicinity on Monday morning were all boringly unexceptionable and, as established by Doyle and Carruthers, alibied up to the hilt.

  Stella Fanshaw fully lived up to Doyle’s description of her as a ‘bossy old trout’. Stocky, beady-eyed and belligerent, with a stiff blow-dried blue rinse that wouldn’t have moved in a force nine gale, she was clearly irritated at having to account for her movements again while at the same time gratified at being interviewed by not one but two detective inspectors. She repeated the account that she had given their colleagues, waspishly pointing out that Rosemary Blake must have skimped on that morning’s cleaning, since strictly speaking she wasn’t due to finish until half eleven ‘on the dot’ but had obviously packed up early and gone round to Sheila’s since there was no sign of her when Stella arrived back from her detour to Saint Michael’s. Markham had no doubt the hapless cleaner had already been apprised of her employer’s displeasure as regarded bunking off early.

  ‘Nobody saw Stella coming back into The Copse, though,’ Burton said dispiritedly as they stood near the little central island, no doubt under observation from behind the curtains at number 16. ‘And we only have her word for it about dawdling at the church and getting back just before half eleven…. for all we know, she might have been in and out of there in minutes then scooted off to Derwent Lane… The estate’s a bit of a goldfish bowl, so she wouldn’t have risked trying Sheila’s front door.’

  ‘Difficult to see Ms Fanshaw ‘scooting’ anywhere, but she’s not particularly decrepit and she had the time,’ Markham said thoughtfully. ‘I suppose it’s too much to hope we’ve got any sightings from Derwent Lane yet?’

  ‘Zilch, guv. I’ve got Doyle and Carruthers on it but no-one saw anything. A shady lane with flats and just a few semis set well back from the road…. it was ideal really,’ she said regretfully.

  Looking back at number 16, Burton said, ‘The shutters came down when we got on to the vicar and Frances Langton. You’d have thought an uncharitable word about those two never passed her or Sheila’s lips…. but I’m willing to bet there were regular gossip-fests.’ Uneasily, she added, ‘Morland talked about a strange closed world where everyone was plotting…. something about this case feels the same….’

  As they walked over to Sheila Craven’s doll’s house, cordoned off with police tape, Burton’s mobile rang. Watching her take the brief call, Markham saw her face change.

  Bad news.

  ‘Norman Collins is dead, sir,’ she told him without preamble.

  Markham was stunned. ‘Foul play?’ But he already knew the answer.

  ‘Looks like it, guv.’

  Suddenly the very air of the quiet little residential estate seemed to have changed.

  Vibrations of evil.