CRIME IN THE HIGH STREET
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, the only quote she could remember was “where the wicked cease from trouble and the weary are at rest”, but that felt 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.
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. It had struck him as being 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, she was addicted to anything that touched on behavioural analysis. Perhaps unsurprisingly, she was now engaged to Professor Nathan Finlayson of Bromgrove University’s criminal profiling department. Their relationship appeared recently to have hit a rocky patch, though they were still together and Markham had heard on the grapevine that they were attending ‘couples therapy’. The DI was uneasily aware that Finlayson, like Noakes, harboured suspicions about the strength of his feelings for Burton. Certainly their slow-burn friendship had contributed to Markham’s breakup with Olivia Mullen, an English teacher at Hope Academy (popularly known as ‘Hopeless’), which had led to her moving out of their apartment in The Sweepstakes. On joining CID, Burton had initially 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 Jonathan to drink and drugs). However, with the passage of time, she and her uncouth colleague grew closer, gradually bonding over a mutual addiction to true crime, dedication to the job and fierce loyalty to Markham. For his part, Noakes harboured a strangely chivalrous devotion towards Markham’s ex, despite the fact that this was deeply aggravating to his bossy social-climbing wife Muriel (whom he had met, unbelievably, on the ballroom dancing circuit). Muriel had been delighted when Noakes secured the job of security manager at the exclusive Rosemount Retirement Home and even more delighted at the news that Olivia was 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 his colleague. 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 the flame-haired English teacher.
DCI Sidney (‘Slimy Sid’ to the troops) had been ecstatic when Noakes finally retired, though his portly nemesis had somehow wangled himself an unofficial position as police consultant. The antipathy between Noakes and the ‘gold braid mob’ was legendary, not least his infamous retirement bash during which he informed DCI McAllister that he was called “Thrombosis” behind his back on account of him being a bloody clot. In the circumstances, it was something of a miracle that Noakes had lasted so long, but he has somehow bluffed, blagged and bribed his way through successive appraisals until the time came for him to collect his carriage clock.
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, 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. In the end, however, the new team managed to gel and suspicion of Carruthers melted away so that he became ‘one of Markham’s lot’ and was no longer suspected of spying for the enemy. 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, the young sergeant – the lanky, freckled and ginger – 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.
With a sigh of satisfaction at the way his subordinates had bonded. Markham took a last look round the graveyard. He had a predilection for such places – even chose his apartment on account of its proximity to the municipal cemetery – and loved the sense of timeless tranquillity that they exuded. Out of the corner of his eye, he spotted an elderly lady carrying a modest bouquet further up in the newer section of the burial ground. He chuckled at the recollection of Noakes’s favourite joke 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.
Doyle and Carruthers were both 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 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. Today she wore a fuchsia linen sheath dress while her colleagues sported well-cut lightweight suits and skinny ties.
The trio took provisioning very seriously, in the best Noakesian tradition (the former DS famed as the man who never ate on an empty stomach). ‘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 there was 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, rearing its head again during the notorious Confetti Club murders. 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 his 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.
‘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 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 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.
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 clinical supervisor who directed him to Noakes’s cubbyhole where tea and biscuits were waiting.
His former sergeant could not have presented a greater contrast with Doyle and Carruthers, with his pouch prize-fighter’s features, chunky physique, unruly salt and pepper thatch (which never lay flat) and penchant for hideous ganzies. Today, in a concession to the heat, he sported checked mustard flannels and a bright red shirt that matched his perspiring complexion. All very Rupert Bear-ish, but no doubt it 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….. kind of 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. Bit of a boffin….. teaches part-time at the university.’
‘Doyle compared Morland to Rasputin,’ the DI said flatly.
‘Oh aye…. The Mad Monk,’ was the rejoinder. ‘Well, Morland’s got the look alright.’ Noakes visibly perked up. ‘Our Nat’s doing Rasputin at the moment….. the Russian Revolution an’ all that stuff. Ackshually,’ with a gleam in his eye, ‘she says he’s an okay lecturer, so most likely he soft-pedals the mystical hocus pocus.’
Natalie was Noakes’s perma-tanned beautician daughter and the apple of his eye. Like her mother, she was partial to Markham while considerably less enthusiastic about Olivia (something Noakes had never cottoned on to). She had unwittingly triggered a serious crisis for Markham and Noakes when the latter learned that he was not her biological father, a discovery that sent him off the rails and nearly derailed his career. The two men weathered the storm, however, drawn even closer by their shared experience of familial trauma. Markham was touched by Noakes’s transparent pride in his brassy loudmouthed daughter’s recent decision to undertake a foundation course in History at Bromgrove University with a view to improving on her poor showing at A level. Privately, Markham suspected that 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 pneumatic fiancée. Even though she and Rick were now back together, the prodigal daughter continued to attend the university, encouraged by Noakes who secretly regretted his own misspent schooldays.
Prompted by a mischievous impulse, Markham said, ‘Perhaps you should follow General Gordon with a talk on Rasputin, seeing as they were both religious fanatics.’
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 Rasputin’s role in the downfall of imperial Russia, Markham said hastily, ‘So, is this Henry Morland some kind of sexual reprobate?’
‘Like I say, guv, he’s got the look. Y’know, weirdy beardy with strange glittery eyes. Looks like he could do with a square meal too.’
‘Wasn’t there trouble over some woman claiming Morland 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, having at one time been somewhat notorious as the doyenne of Bromgrove’s seedier nightclubs, though her doting parents 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 and dogged adherence to the values of what Olivia called ‘the crumbling classes’, 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’ outfits 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 had emerged during a recent murder investigation, temporarily sullying Rosemount’s good name, whatever could be done to rehabilitate the home 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 knows, 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?’
Noakes’s knight-errantry meant he wasn’t going to give up on his efforts to bring Markham and Olivia back together. ‘Bet she’s well up to speed on Rasputin,’ he added in an attempt to be less obvious about it.
‘Why not,’ the DI 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 resignedly. Having once overheard Doyle holding forth about having a guvnor who spouted the bible at the drop of a hat ‘with a thing about mouldy old churches and statues’, he imagined that was pretty much his reputation amongst the station’s rank and file.
‘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 other replied, referring to the celebrity ballerina 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 all over the place. 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….
Such a sympathetic response to what DCI Sidney denigrated as ‘Markham’s fey streak’ was typical of Noakes who possessed an unusually sensitive nature beneath the shambling, frequently tactless exterior. It was a source of endless mystification to those in CID who struggled to understood ‘what Markham saw in that fat slob’. But Markham set high store by Noakes’s authenticity – the dogged refusal to toady and sympathy for the underdog which went hand in hand with an intuitiveness that cut through artifice and chicanery and was keenly responsive to beauty in all its forms. Kate Burton too had a sensitive side, but whereas she knew better than to give DCI Sidney an inkling that she was anything less than a hard-boiled pragmatist well attuned to the slick politics of CID, Noakes never bothered to camouflage his true feelings. In a world of self-serving careerists, it was a trait that Markham knew how to value.
‘At least with the Confetti Club investigation, 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 investigation of the 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.
‘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’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 a few 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
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, balding deacon Graham Thorpe with whom he was 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.’
‘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.
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. Henry 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, totally 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 entirely, guv,’ Doyle asserted stoutly. ‘More like a fad for dodgy mystics and freakiness.’
‘Well, the prof didn’t seem all that comfortable with how Morland’s approach….. said he had this obsession with “rehabilitating” Rasputin… insisted all the stuff about seducing women was just him testing his restraint and pitting himself against the Devil.’
Markham was interested to see where this led. ‘Go on,’ he said.
‘The way Morland tells it, Rasputin was some sort of Christ-like outsider…. totally misunderstood…. next best thing to a saint.’
Actually, I think the Orthodox Church did make Rasputin a saint,’ Burton interjected earnestly.
Carruthers didn’t like the sound of any of it. ‘The bloke was downright sinister,’ he muttered. ‘Like some kind of religious Doctor Feelgood.’
Burton pursed her lips.
‘Maybe Morland’s colleagues are just jealous,’ she mused. ‘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 looked deeply sceptical. ‘I’m not sure about that, ma’am.’ As Burton frowned, he added hastily, ‘Or it could be Morland identified with Rasputin at some level…. banged on about him being misunderstood and slandered cos the same thing had happened to him when that woman ran to the Gazette about him being a perv.’
This struck Markham as an astute observation. ‘An interesting hypothesis,’ he said.
With a wary sidelong glance at Burton, Doyle ploughed on.
‘Sounded to me like Morland’s a creep. Mind you, the students lap up all his stories about Rasputin’s enemies using him to topple the Romanovs…. this power-behind-the throne stuff’s all the rage on history courses nowadays.’
‘I suppose Rasputin just ended up being the ideal scapegoat for everything that was wrong with Russia,’ Burton said thoughtfully. ‘On top of which, he was this peasant from Siberia messing around with aristocratic women, which went against the natural order.’
‘So you’re on Rasputin’s side then, ma’am,’ Doyle ventured, with a surreptitious wink at his Carruthers. ‘Up the workers and all that.’
‘Don’t be facetious, Sergeant,’ she rapped.
Carruthers clearly decided it was high time they turned aside from the byways of history.
‘Look, 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 speculated, ‘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.’
‘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….. Plus, Morland was an ex-Catholic priest and it doesn’t sound like she was the type to approve of that.’
‘A good point, Carruthers,’ Markham agreed. ‘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…. put him well in the shade.’ 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 take 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 reminded the youngster. ‘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, all hung up on Rasputin and all this mystic mumbo jumbo.’ She sighed. ‘I suppose Noakes is egging him on. What do you make of it all, sir?‘
‘What, Rasputin? A fantastic subject, sure, but the mythology is just that. I seem to remember watching some film about him once with Olivia… 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.’
‘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 interest –’
‘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 faith healing stuff’s a bit unnerving, sir…. 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 laughed. ‘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 that 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 it, 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…. almost as casual as brushing their teeth or part of their morning routine…. like it was 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.’
‘Exactly, 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? Are we talking 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, softly spoken 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 about 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 was 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 glaze 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.