CRIME IN THE MUSEUM
Security guard Brendan Potter loved his Saturday morning shift at the Reynolds Museum in Oxford – or, to use its full title, the Reynolds Museum and Centre for Ethnographic Research. Saturday mornings were by no means popular with his colleagues, however. ‘Nah, Bren,’ went the popular refrain, ‘weekends are for having a lie-in. Not traipsing round checking to see no-one’s nicked some poxy cooking pot or totem pole.’
But the museum held a rare charm for Brendan. Unenthused by history lessons at school, he was entranced by these glimpses of strange peoples and vanished worlds.
Best of all was Polar Exploration in the Antarctic on the third-floor gallery, which he was saving till last. Seeing his interest in the new exhibition, Mr Kelleher, the museum’s assistant curator, had told him all sorts of stuff…. How the name ‘Arctic’ came from the Greek word for ‘Bear’, because the continent was thought to lie under the star of that name…. How the Elizabethans didn’t really have a clue, so drew pictures of monsters at the bottom of their maps…. How there was that Victorian bloke got stuck in the ice and his crew ended up cannibals….
As Brendan did his rounds, the names came back to him, and he rolled them round his mouth like an incantation, displaying a retentiveness that would have astonished his long-suffering GCSE teacher.
De Gerlache…. Sir John Franklin…. Nansen…. Amundsen…. Captain Scott…. Shackleton….
All those men with their blackened, blistered faces cracked by sunburn and frostbite…. The ones who only truly came alive amongst icebergs and glaciers with the penguins and seals and whales, the stormy seas and danger….
Brendan had enjoyed watching Kate Winslet and Leonardo What’s His Face in Titanic on that awkward date with Janice from HR. But those icebergs were child’s play compared to the real thing and the sinister sheer mountains which shot out of the sea for thousands of feet.
He’d always thought snow was white and that was that. But Mr Kelleher said the photos in the display cases didn’t give you an idea of all the colours, especially in summer when night never fell…. every colour from violet to indigo and purple, like something out of a fairy-tale….
And the Brits were tops. That Norwegian bloke Amundsen might have made it to the South Pole first, but Mr Kelleher said he hadn’t played a straight bat, and anyway Captain Scott and Oates and all that lot never cheated…. won through fair and square, and died like heroes every man jack of them….
The pictures of Captain Scott’s grave never failed to send shivers down his spine. They called it a cairn…. the snow-mound they piled on top of the three sleeping bags with the dead men inside after letting down the tent poles and canvas on top of them…. The rescue party put a cross on top, but the museum director Dr Ashworth said ice was on the move so the bodies would eventually end up in the ocean and wash up somewhere…. Brendan didn’t like to imagine their tomb floating about. It didn’t seem decent somehow. Then there was Oates and the other one…. Evans…. they didn’t even have proper graves. He wondered what they looked like now…. skeletons or ice-mummies?
Brendan knew what his mother would say.
No need to be morbid, son. Just stay focused on the job.
Mum was so proud when he was taken on by the Reynolds. He knew she imagined him hobnobbing with professors and posh folk like in Inspector Morse, and somehow he didn’t have the heart to disillusion her.
Not that there was anything wrong with his job, he told himself, squaring his shoulders defiantly. Dr Ashworth said everyone had to start somewhere and no reason why he couldn’t look for something on the management side provided he got some qualifications under his belt. A late developer, that’s what he was. ‘And none the worse for that.’ He could hear mum’s voice loud and clear.
Outside the Reynolds it was a blazing hot July day, but the air-conditioned dimly lit depths of the museum were unaffected and there was something almost delicious to Brendan in the thought of those snow-capped regions at the ends of the earth.
He passed a display on the Greenlandic Inuit, moving with studied casualness to the staircase that led to the third gallery and the polar regions.
And there it was. The latest exhibition, designed to pull in the punters.
Photographs of men arrayed in stiff wing collars, gazing self-consciously into the camera lens, underneath poetic captions.
And how can man die better than facing fearful odds, for the ashes of his fathers, and the temples of his Gods?
Brendan wasn’t entirely sure what that meant, but he relished the way it sounded. Like the national anthem. Dr Ashworth said it was something to do with Ancient Rome, which seemed a bit weird because as far as he knew they hadn’t got round to discovering the South Pole back then…. According to Mr Kelleher, it was about being ready to put yourself on the line for your country, which he reckoned was a good thing.
Brendan forced himself to walk slowly past cabinets featuring pictures of bergs and explorers, with their captions about ‘Furthest South’, latitudes and longitudes.
He was headed for the section dedicated to Robert Falcon Scott.
Scott of the Antarctic.
Even the name had a thrilling ring.
As if even an obscure security guard could rise like Scott from midshipman to the greatest ornament of the age.
It made his nerve ends tingle.
At the far end of the gallery was what the curators called an ‘art installation’ based on some test the great Norwegian Roald Amundsen had devised for himself in a whiteout blizzard. Apparently, he’d dug himself a cavity in the snow and then woken up to find it had turned overnight into a sarcophagus – a solid block of ice…. a frozen coffin from which there was no way out!
Eventually, as in all the best action movies, Amundsen was saved at the last minute by a compatriot who spotted his reindeer-skin sleeping bag poking through the snow.
But Brendan couldn’t dislodge images of the explorer scratching away in his icy coffin, struggling desperately to free himself. Sometimes at night, he woke in a cold sweat imagining that he too was a hair’s breadth from death. It merged with dreams of Captain Scott and his companions entombed in their frigid carapace, floating onwards to the farthest sea.
An ice cube. Steamed up with the panicked cries of a man looking death in the face.
A mock-up. A piece of theatre designed to bring in the credulous public.
There it was, spot lit at the end of the gallery.
An eerie rectangle condensed with exhaled human breath.
From an ice machine or one of those theatre contraptions, obviously.
Only something wasn’t right….
It was meant to be a mannequin inside the display case. But the figure curled on its side in a foetal position was too life-like to be mistaken for a dummy.
Brendan swallowed hard then moved in for closer examination.
He recognised those features, the teeth drawn back over the well moulded lips in a species of snarl.
Dr Timothy Colthurst. The ‘up and coming man’, as some called him sarcastically. The impetus behind the exhibition.
Suddenly, Brendan was fearful, the familiar shadowy galleries and alcoves suddenly terra incognita.
He thought of those Elizabethan squiggles.
Hic Sunt Dracones.
Here Be Dragons.
Brendan staggered back against the gallery railing and looked about him apprehensively.
All was quiet and the outside world seemed a million miles away.
Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea.
The recollection came out of nowhere. An English teacher banging on long ago about some fantastical conception of a Victorian novelist.
An hysterical giggle rose in Brendan’s throat.
Freaking Captain Nemo, that’s me. Oh my god, mum. You’re never going to believe this.
Transfixed, he stood there as if rooted to the spot, under some ancient spell that held him fast.
Around him the galleries and exhibitions were inscrutable, silent.
Somehow, Brendan could not break the trance that held him. Afterwards he could not have said how long he stayed looking disbelievingly at the dead man pinioned in the ice.
Outside the Reynolds, carefree tourists and holidaymakers laughed and enjoyed the sun.
Inside the museum, the nightmare was only just beginning.
The morning of Sunday 25 July found DI Gilbert (‘Gil’) Markham sitting on a bench outside the Reynolds Museum, thoughtfully contemplating the brutalist architecture that was readily denounced by Oxford academics as an ‘abomination’.
Personally, he rather liked all the solar controlled glass, steel and concrete, enjoying the contrast with the quaintly old-fashioned English gardens whose hedge-lined walks and arboreta had a peaceful tranquillity at odds with the building’s rather sinister history.
For this was not the first time that murder had visited the museum, one of the killings in a previous investigation having cast its shadow over an exhibition on Neolithic Man.
Markham’s thoughts turned to the previous day….
His lover, English teacher Olivia Mullen, with whom he had been enjoying a self-indulgent holiday in the Old Parsonage Hotel out on the Banbury Road, was frankly incredulous when he took the call.
‘Oh no,’ she groaned. ‘Not another one. That place must be jinxed.’ Then, biting her lip guiltily. ‘I’m sorry, Gil, that sounds callous, but I just can’t believe it’s happened again.’ Surely a break from murder was long overdue, she thought crossly. ‘And let me guess, Sidney’s tipped off the local CID to have you take over this one, what with you being “an Oxford man”. Plus, it stops you stealing his thunder back at the ranch.’ These observations were uttered through clenched teeth, Olivia being no fan of DCI Sidney (‘Slimy Sid’ to the troops), Markham’s boss back in Bromgrove, whom she regularly likened to Judas Iscariot for his jealousy of the younger man.
‘Oh, I reckon Sidney’s mellowed,’ Markham pointed out mildly. ‘And to be honest, with the Ivory Tower brigade, it doesn’t hurt to have one of their own working the case.’
She conceded the logic of this, doing her best not to sigh too gustily over the rapidly diminishing perspective of hazy lazy days with Pimm’s and punts.
‘What do you know about polar exploration, Liv?’ he asked as they tucked into their room service meal of seafood salad followed by strawberries and cream. ‘Captain Scott, Shackleton and all that lot.’
She took a hefty gulp of Chablis. ‘Let me see, I think it goes something like this…. In the early nineteen hundreds, Scott led an expedition in his ship the Discovery which didn’t reach the South Pole but got closer than anyone else…. Then Shackleton – who’d been on the first trip but ended up getting sick and had to be pulled along on a sledge – went out in his ship called the Nimrod…. There was some bad blood between the two of them over that, because he followed Scott’s route after promising he wouldn’t butt in on his territory…. Anyway, he got even further and beat Scott’s record by three hundred odd miles –’
‘Didn’t make it to the Pole, though?’
‘No, he’s famous for turning back when he was almost there to make sure he brought his team back safely after they ran into trouble.’ She chuckled. ‘Told his missus he reckoned she’d prefer a living donkey to a dead lion.’
Markham smiled. ‘I like his style.’
‘Then Scott had another crack at it…. Led an expedition in the Terra Nova, but the Norwegian Roald Amundsen got there first. Scott’s team all died when they weren’t that far from help.’ She forked up some crispy calamari and chewed appreciatively. ‘Mmm, this is seriously good…. Now, where was I?’
‘Scott and Co expiring before they made it back to camp,’ Markham prompted.
‘Oh yes…. Captain Oates was one of them, remember?’
‘Ah…. the chap who fell on his sword because he was slowing the rest down…. Walked out into a blizzard…. said he was just going out and might be some time.’
‘That’s the one.’ Olivia frowned. ‘Mind you, his old mother always said Scott talked him into it.’
‘What, as in pressured Oates to do it?’ Markham was startled. ‘That’s a new one on me, Liv.’ He took a long draught of wine, watching his lover’s flushed animated features admiringly. With her pallor, waterfall of long red hair and sparkling grey-green eyes, she was the epitome of a Rossetti heroine, though the overall effect was somewhat belied by pedal pushers and baggy tee shirt. ‘Where did you hear that story? I mean, I don’t remember coming across it in my Boys’ Book of Heroes.’
‘Oh, these days it’s terrifically fashionable to debunk types like Scott and Shackleton,’ she replied, deflecting the question as was characteristic of one who wore her learning lightly. ‘I wanted to do something on them with the History department at Hope,’ for such was the name of her school in Bromgrove, popularly designated as ‘Hopeless’.
‘Just the usual woke spoilsports…. obsessing about it being jingoistic and imperialistic.’
‘Well, Scott was hardly some chinless wonder,’ Markham protested.
‘My point exactly,’ Olivia frowned. ‘But the PC whingers decided he epitomised,’ air quoting savagely, ‘“outdated Empire values”.’
He grinned, imagining the scene in Hope’s staffroom.
‘I seem to remember watching some film with John Mills,’ he said. ‘Scott of the Antarctic. Stiff upper lip and all the rest of it. Lashings of patriotism.’
‘I played the Great British Values card for all I was worth,’ Olivia told him with a sardonic gleam in her eyes. ‘Quoted Cecil Rhodes at them into the bargain. To have been born English was to have won first prize in the lottery of life. Come to think of it, that’s probably what did for me.’
‘Well, Rhodes isn’t exactly flavour of the month with the cancel culture mob,’ Markham pointed out, amused.
‘I couldn’t help myself,’ she burst out. ‘Scott and Shackleton and the whole lot of them believed in something bigger than themselves…. They had real guts…. real deep-down courage like you hardly ever see these days.’ She warmed to her theme. ‘They took everything the Pole could throw at them – sunburn, scurvy, snow blindness, diarrhoea, frostbite, gangrene – but never gave in, even when they had the option of taking opium tablets to end it all. And anyway,’ she went on indignantly, ‘Shackleton was this maverick Irishman, not a moustachioed Colonel Blimp or one of the Ha! Ha! poshoes. When he and his crew ended up marooned at some godforsaken place called Elephant Isle after another trip across Antarctica went wrong, he just said, “Okay boys, now we go home!”.’
‘I’m definitely warming to Shackleton,’ Markham commented. ‘There’s something appealing about the understatement.’
‘They were all like that. Oates is a scream. Wrote Mommie Dearest that employers would be keener to take on a man who’d been to the Pole than someone who only got as far as the Mile End Road. Scott was just the same. In the last letter to his missus, with toes about to drop off from frostbite, he told her to get their son interested in natural history because it was “better than games”.’
Markham laughed, the austere hawklike features softening in a manner that his subordinates rarely witnessed.
‘You’ve really gone into this, haven’t you?’ he said affectionately. ‘I can see that Scott and his buddies cast quite a spell.’
‘Don’t get me wrong, I know they made terrible mistakes – inadequate provisions, dodgy paraffin lamps so the fuel ran out, not using dogs and all the rest of it. But they were so brave at the end… Plus,’ she pulled a wry face, ‘reading their diaries about the strain of being cooped up cheek by jowl put me in mind of the snake pit at Hope.’
‘Ah.’ Markham could imagine it all too well. He polished off the last of his rollmops before asking, ‘Couldn’t you have got Mat Sullivan onside?’ Sullivan was a Deputy Head at Hope and one of their oldest friends, the relationship having been cemented after a murder investigation at the school when he came briefly under suspicion.
‘Oh, Mat was very keen. Loved all the derring-do and amazing stories.’ She chuckled. ‘Their clothes froze like suits of armour out there as soon as the heating ran out. It meant they held whatever shape they froze in. One poor bloke stopped to look sideways for a few minutes then found the neck of his hood had frozen solid and he was stuck in that position until they could unthaw him so he could look ahead again.’
Markham smiled. ‘Couldn’t the two of you have talked up the heroics and played down the Empire side of it?’
‘God knows we tried. We knew the kids would lap it up. But that witch Judith Lipscombe wasn’t having it.’
At this reference to Hope Academy’s insufferably right-on Assistant Head, he began to see why Olivia’s plans had never got off the ground.
‘Lipscombe read History at uni,’ she explained, ‘and somehow she ferreted out that one of Scott’s men was this terrible bigot – always ranting on about “froggies” and “sausage eaters” and fixated on racial purity. So she felt she really couldn’t in conscience recommend the project to Call-Me-Tony…. Parents might get wind and it could undermine the school’s caring ethos yada yada.’ Her voice resonated with scorn for the Headteacher Anthony Brighouse, as she added, ‘And you know what an invertebrate he is!’
‘Weren’t most Navy men like that back then? I mean, it was a different time.’
‘Well, this one – Henry ‘Birdie’ Bowers – was in a league of his own. Total racist. You’re right about it being a different time, Gil…. He was lucky to have been born into the one era when his opinions wouldn’t land in him jail…. Makes George look like a liberal softy by comparison.’
‘George’ was DS George Noakes, Markham’s trusty sidekick to whom his thoughts now turned as he sat outside the museum savouring the warmth of the early morning sun.
Over their seafood supper the previous night, Olivia had observed that the passionate devotion of Captain Scott’s men to their ‘Skipper’ (‘It will be an honour to drop down any crevasse in the world with you’) was reminiscent of Noakes’s dogged loyalty to his guvnor.
And it was true. The porky, bulldog-featured, monumentally tactless and uncouth sergeant was the absolute antithesis of the smooth careerists who mainly populated CID these days and the despair of his politically correct superiors.
After several fruitless attempts to have Noakes put out to grass, however, DCI Sidney appeared to have accepted that he was a fixture at Markham’s side. ‘Just keep him on a tight leash, Markham,’ he instructed. ‘The man’s a walking PR disaster.’
For her part, Olivia adored ‘Noakesy’, appreciating the strangely romantic, almost poetic side of his nature, which he generally took good care to conceal from colleagues. He was intensely proud of being bagman to a DI of Markham’s culture and refinement, even if he didn’t understand all the ‘big words’ or the mystical streak in his boss’s makeup. No intellectual, he nonetheless had an omnivorous curiosity about the world, surprising them during a recent investigation by the way he enthusiastically hoovered up every crumb of information about a religious cult. There had even been a brief flirtation with Catholicism, though his Sunday school Methodist upbringing was too sturdily entrenched to see him go over ‘to the dark side’.
When Markham had telephoned him in Bromgrove with news of the latest murder, the DS had been surprisingly knowledgeable about polar explorers. ‘Them bloody Norskies never played fair,’ he said of Roald Amundsen. ‘An’ Captain Scott was a hero…. I remember this documentary. It said all these soldiers wrote to his missus after World War Two to say how knowing about him an’ Oates an’ the rest helped give ’em courage…. She needed it herself, poor lass…. travelling out to meet him when he was long dead.’ While short on compassion for ‘scrotes’, Noakes had a tender chord that was readily touched. ‘An’ one of the other wives had given her fella a little silk flag to fly at the Pole when they got there, but the Norskies beat ’em to it.’ The knight-errantry of it all clearly appealed to the DS, possessing as he did an oddly chivalric strain in his own character that came out strongly in his relationship with Olivia. Her ethereal charms inspired in him an almost Sancho Panza-like devotion and reverence that were a considerable source of irritation to his formidable spouse.
Muriel Noakes was a snobbish, overbearing woman who had a marked partiality for her husband’s handsome boss with his charming manners and old-world gallantry but regarded Olivia with a jaundiced eye. Of late, however, they had achieved some kind of truce, aided by glimpses of a softer, more vulnerable side to the woman who at first glance resembled a Sherman tank crossed with Margaret Thatcher. (It being no coincidence that the eighties, as the heyday of the Iron Lady, were Muriel’s favourite era.) Unlikely as it seemed, she and Noakes had met on the amateur ballroom circuit and showed a surprising chemistry on the dance floor. Markham had never succeeded in fathoming the precise dynamics of the marriage, but Noakes was fiercely proud of his ‘missus’ and a doting father to their perma-tanned beautician daughter Natalie. Undoubtedly the biggest crisis of Noakes’s life was the discovery during the infamous Bluebell investigation that Natalie was not in fact his biological daughter but the result of his wife’s lapse from virtue in her teens. It almost had cataclysmic consequences for his police career and partnership with Markham, but he hung on to his job and the two men came through the storm stronger than ever even though neither ever alluded to what had happened, it being typical of their relationship that personal matters went unspoken. Noakes knew that Markham was a victim of childhood abuse, but he never sought to pry, conveying a wordless sympathy that required no explanation.
As Olivia had once put it, in some people’s opinion George Noakes might have very little displayed in the shop window, but the goods inside were pure gold.
Technically, Noakes was enjoying some well-earned leave, but had made it clear he was ‘up for’ this investigation. Markham suspected this was more to do with a desire to escape the list of DIY tasks earmarked for his attention than any sudden enthusiasm to revisit the city of dreaming spires.
The DI had been amused at the eagerness with which his bagman suggested scrambling a team to join him in Oxford.
‘You know Burton’ll want a piece of the action,’ Noakes insisted. ‘I mean, Oxford an’ the museum an’ Captain Scott…. She’ll think she’s died an’ gone to heaven.’
DI Kate Burton, currently based in London, and Noakes had started out as adversaries, the earnest, politically correct university graduate guaranteed to turn the chip on his shoulder into a great big boulder. But over the course of many investigations, Markham’s protégée and the grizzled veteran gradually learned to appreciate each other and became friends. A psychology graduate now engaged to a criminal profiler at Bromgrove University, Burton shared Noakes’s addiction to true crime documentaries, though she had never managed to win him over to the merits of her beloved Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders which accompanied her everywhere. Aware that the DS had christened her fiancé ‘Shippers’ on account of his startling resemblance to the serial killer Dr Harold Shipman, Burton had unbent sufficiently from the po-faced detective of yore to find the nickname endearing rather than otherwise. Having come through many tight corners with Noakes – including being rescued by him at the eleventh hour – she also secretly liked his protective attitude towards her even when expressed in terms that would have the diversity personnel reaching for their smelling salts.
Like Noakes, she was always hungry for knowledge and Markham had no doubt that this investigation with its tie-in to the age of polar exploration would strongly appeal. Her capacity for hard work and loyalty to him – qualities she shared with the DS – made her inclusion a no-brainer. He should be able to square it with DCI Moriarty at Southampton Row provided Sidney was on board.
And where Burton went, no doubt DS Doyle would wish to follow. The lanky ginger-haired youngster had moved with Burton to Southampton Row and was much missed by his former colleagues in Bromgrove, by none more so than Noakes, his mentor in relation to football and matters of the heart alike. The two men invariably enjoyed meeting up for a ‘drinkathon’ on Doyle’s regular forays home, so it would be quite like old times to reunite them…
Markham glanced at his watch. Quarter to nine. He was due to meet the museum’s director Dr Clive Ashworth shortly, the building being closed to the public after the previous day’s shocking discovery.
The DI had been rather taken with Brendan Potter, the young lad who found the body. He imagined that Noakes would feel the same way about the fresh-faced security guard who so obviously idolised the great Antarctic explorers, even if they did lack the winning touch. Gentle questioning about the polar exhibition and its strange art installation showed how strong was the spell cast by this land of the midnight sun. ‘You can see why they weren’t able to stay away,’ Brendan said. ‘There’s no place on earth like it. And Captain Scott was the best…. Eight thousand men volunteered for his second expedition…. Eight thousand.’ Shyly he added, ‘The man who sponsored him had the same surname as you. Sir Clements Markham.’ The DI wasn’t sure whether or not he should regard this coincidence as a good omen but received this piece of information with a ready smile.
The interior of the museum was neo-Gothic and as traditional as any orthodox heart could desire, with coffered ceilings, iron wrought spiral staircases and massive oak cabinets. As though the designer of the exterior had been sacked and the architectural status quo restored. The mismatch gave the place a unique quirkiness, and its cool depths had the quality of a mysterious aquarium.
With SOCOs and police swarming through the building, there hadn’t been time to take in the polar displays, but his eyes had been drawn to some amazing montages with black and white photographs of strangely shaped bergs, grottoes, tunnels, colonnades, and snow-covered ships resembling Christmas cakes, like some wondrous sculpture park that lay under a dark enchantment.
Following the detective’s gaze, Potter had told him, ‘It was all black and white back then, so you don’t get any idea of the colours…. But they wrote about it in the diaries…. And about the rocks and birds… skuas and giant petrels and things. I don’t know much about the science,’ the youth added modestly, ‘but it wasn’t just a race to the Pole. Captain Scott discovered all sorts. He was collecting specimens right till the end. And Shackleton’s lot were the same.’ His voice trailed away as he gestured to the art installation now surrounded by screens. ‘How did Dr Colthurst die, sir?’
‘The pathologist tells me he was most likely attacked elsewhere – Dr Merrick had in fact said ‘bludgeoned,’ but Markham refrained from using the word – ‘and then lifted into the replica ice box.’ He had almost said ‘coffin’ but, observing his stricken interlocutor, stopped himself just in time.
A look of relief washed over Brendan Potter’s broad freckled face. ‘I was afraid he’d been put in there alive and then suffocated, sir…. you know, screaming and scratching only no-one came.’
Markham repressed his shudder at a scenario that sounded like something out of Edgar Allen Poe.
At least Dr Timothy Colthurst had been spared that.
‘Did you have much to do with Dr Colthurst?’ he asked the security guard.
‘Well, he was a research don at Sherwin, but ever so down to earth…. no airs and graces.’ Not toffee-nosed, his mum would have said. ‘Polar exploration was a big thing with him…. He had lots of stories about what it was like man-hauling – that’s pulling sledges,’ he added kindly. The DI’s lips quirked at Potter’s unconscious tone of condescension to the uninitiated. ‘And all about the ponies…. How Scott hated having to kill them and called one of the camps Shambles Camp cos they had to finish off so many. And –,’ He broke off suddenly, embarrassed. ‘Sorry, Mr Markham, you don’t want to be hearing all this.’
Letting his tongue run away with him, mum would say.
‘Not at all.’ The tall dark policeman with the kind, steady gaze was reassuring. ‘It helps to have a picture of Dr Colthurst. He sounds likeable,’ Markham added with a pang.
Any man’s death diminishes me.
‘He was round here quite a lot. When him and Dr Ashworth and Mr Kelleher got started about explorers, they could go on for hours. They each had their favourite…. Dr Colthurst’s was Henry Bowers.’
Ah yes, thought Markham. The rabid xenophobe whom Olivia had compared to Noakes.
‘Why did Dr Colthurst particularly admire Mr Bowers?’ he asked, intrigued.
‘Well, Bowers was just this short-arse…. Sorry,’ he blushed, ‘I mean he was a bit diddy, five foot four or something. But Scott called him a “marvel” cos he was so tough. Never say die.’ The boy’s face crumpled. ‘Only he did.’
‘He sounds an amazing character.’
‘Yeah, he was. Dr Colthurst said when he was dying, he wrote to his mum last thing so she wouldn’t fret.’ Devoted as he was to his own mother, this had made a powerful impression on Brendan. ‘Told her he was just going to sleep in the cold. Imagine that. I mean, he was a bible basher, so likely that helped him cos he knew everyone’d meet up in heaven and all that, but even so…. Him and Dr Wilson – that’s the other bloke they found dead with Scott – wouldn’t even make a dash for the last depot in case they didn’t make it back and the captain was left on his own.’ Potter screwed up his face in recollection. ‘And Bowers told his mum that best of all was dying with his two mates cos they were the tops.’
Something about the earnest open face brought a lump to Markham’s throat. He sent up a silent prayer that Brendan Potter would never lose his shining faith in the capacity of friendship and courage to overcome all odds.
Seeing some movement around the screens, Markham gently drew Potter to one side as a sheeted stretcher on a gurney was wheeled past them towards the third-floor lift. Dr Merrick – or ‘Jigsaw Man’, as Noakes had nicknamed him during the Sherwin College investigation from his habit of discussing victims in terms of bones and body parts, ‘like a bleeding Rubik’s cube’ – paused, nodding courteously to the DI. ‘I’ll be in touch as soon as possible, Inspector,’ he said with a wary glance at the security guard who was evidently on the brink of tears. ‘At a preliminary estimate, I would say death occurred around ten pm on Friday night.’
The DI and security guard bowed their heads as the sombre little cortege moved out of sight. Then Brendan said agitatedly, ‘There should be something on CCTV, Mr Markham…. It’s a brand-new system. Everything gets picked up in the control room.’
These words echoed in Markham’s head as he waited in the sunshine for the director to arrive.
He knew all about the state-of-the-art technology introduced at the museum in the wake of the previous murder investigation.
Somehow, he reflected, the killer must have found a blind spot…
Dr Clive Ashworth – the new broom director who had taken over after the last incident at the museum – came panting up shortly after nine o’clock and ushered Markham into his well-appointed ground floor office that had been okayed for use by the SOCOs.
The predominant impression was acres of teak and mahogany with a magnificent view of massed fritillaries and roses through the floor to ceiling window that took up the whole length of the room. Oil paintings on the wall portrayed various doughy bald grandees whom Markham took to be benefactors and academics. Learned and ugly. He could only imagine what Olivia would make of it….
Dr Ashworth was a short man with sparse silver hair, spectacles and a little pointed beard who put Markham in mind of Lenin. But his manner was amiable enough, with nothing of the despot. ‘I’d be glad to show you around the polar exhibition, Inspector,’ he volunteered.
‘That’s very good of you, sir. I suggest that we postpone a guided tour until tomorrow when my team should be available to accompany me. It would certainly be useful to meet the principal museum staff as well… those who had the most contact with Dr Colthurst.’
‘Of course, Inspector.’
As he had feared, it transpired there were blind spots not covered by CCTV.
‘Only three,’ Dr Ashworth confirmed in his slightly squeaky voice. ‘One next to the staff locker room and the other two in the second and third floor mezzanine recesses… The risk assessment indicated it was alright, and anyway after last time we never thought –’
‘That lightning could strike twice,’ Markham finished gravely.
The director’s face was troubled.
‘We’ve worked hard to move on from…. last time,’ he said.
‘I imagine the notoriety initially brought a certain cachet,’ Markham observed wryly.
‘Ye-es. But the Council wasn’t happy about that.’
‘Ah, of course, I remember now…. Oxfordshire County Council owns the museum, so it’s a public resource, though there are close ties to the university.’
‘Correct. Sherwin College was sponsoring the polar exhibition, hence Dr Colthurst’s involvement.’
After requesting a list of personnel and any current museum brochures, Markham decided to call it a day. The poor man was no doubt anxious to salvage what was left of his weekend and the DI himself fancied a stroll with Olivia. She had suggested they take a turn in St Sepulchre’s Cemetery out in Jericho – ‘It’s so peaceful, Gil, all butterflies and briars’ – and the prospect suited his mood. Out there with nature, far away from the police tape and white-suited SOCOs, he would be able to commend Dr Timothy Colthurst to God while recalling all those other murder victims whose footfalls echoed down the pathways of memory.
Dr Ashworth was back with a handful of glossy handbooks and brochures.
Markham’s gaze dropped to the gilt lettering of the topmost booklet.
‘They that go down to the sea in ships, that do business in great waters see His wonders in the deep,’ he read, looking up enquiringly at the director.
‘That was the psalm underlined in Dr Edward Wilson’s little prayer book when his body was found in its sleeping bag next to Scott. In the margin next to it, he wrote, All is ready for us.’
As he left the museum and walked towards the University Parks, Markham found himself hoping that Dr Timothy Colthurst too was in safe harbour out of the swing of the sea.
Weird White World
Kate Burton, predictably, was enthralled by the museum’s polar exhibition when the hastily scrambled ‘Gang of Four’ assembled there first thing on Monday morning.
Markham was struck by how well she was looking, the glossy chestnut bob more geometric and edgy than he remembered, and the turned-up features – snub, tip-tilted nose and chipmunk cheeks giving her an endearingly squashed up look – vibrant with wellbeing.
Noakes and Olivia always maintained that Burton had long harboured a serious crush on him, and of late Markham intuited a jealous insecurity in his lover on that score which had surprised and unsettled him, causing him to wonder if Olivia was aware of something that he hadn’t cottoned on to. Privately, he admitted that Burton’s retrenchment of hero-worship had caused a pang, but he wryly put that down to his own punctured vanity as much as anything else. And it was good to see his former protégée so happy with Professor Nathan Finlayson – a man whom he liked and respected – even if Noakes did insist, ‘You’d only have to crook your little finger an’ Shippers would be history’.
Now secure in her position as a DI at Southampton Row, her dress sense too had evolved, and she was the epitome of executive chic in a mint-green two piece accessorised with a khaki leather briefcase containing the essential notebook and reading glasses.
DS Doyle too looked well content with life and was clearly delighted to be included in the team for the museum murder. Always a snappy dresser, he had opted for the preppy button-down look with navy gingham shirt, fawn chinos and deck shoes.
Noakes, needless to say, had fallen wide of the mark in his attempt to muster a sartorial ensemble suitable for the student city, ample paunch spilling over baggy beige combat trousers bizarrely topped with fuchsia polo shirt and flapping navy cardigan. Markham was amused to note the mildly appalled sideways glances Burton and Doyle shot the DS before looking down with renewed complacency at their own attire. The only thing in favour of his batman’s horribly mismatched clobber was that Noakes had eschewed crocs or sandals and was sporting his usual George boots. Perspiring heavily on arrival at the museum, florid face the same hue as his shirt, the DS was grateful for the air-conditioned depths of the Reynolds, his complexion gradually subsiding from beetroot-red to something less suggestive of a coronary waiting to happen.
Having ascertained that his three colleagues were satisfied with the accommodation he had arranged for them at Malmaison, the Victorian prison converted into a boutique hotel on Oxford’s New Road, Markham introduced them to the museum’s director who offered to show them around the polar exhibition since they had time before they were to meet the museum’s administrator.
Noakes was as delighted as Burton by the stunning black and white pictures of the arctic landscape, though Doyle commented uneasily that the bergs looked like tombstones in a cemetery. ‘A kind of spooky ghost world,’ he commented.
‘Interesting that you should say that, Sergeant,’ Dr Ashworth told him. ‘When he was trekking over mountains and glaciers in South Georgia, Shackleton said he always had the feeling of there being an extra presence – one more person than could actually be counted.’
On hearing this, Doyle looked more uneasy still.
Noakes meanwhile was poring delightedly over a display case devoted to polar expedition dogs and ponies. ‘Says here they named one of the ponies Weary Willie,’ he chuckled delightedly. ‘An’ would you believe it, two of ’em that ended up going to the bottom of the ocean were called Davy an’ Jones!’ Doyle joined him at the large glass cabinet, glad to be distracted from thoughts of ghosts. ‘Blimey, it says here that Amundsen shot twenty-two of his dogs somewhere called the Butcher’s Shop.’
‘Scott was an animal lover,’ came an amused voice behind them. ‘Mind you, getting the beasts over by ship was a nightmare. On one trip, there were nineteen ponies housed immediately above the sailors…. kept peeing on them, so they spent most of the time drenched in urine.’
The director brightened at the sight of a tall bespectacled colleague dressed in light-coloured chinos and cream linen jacket. Lean and rangy with curly black hair, he had an air of ironic detachment that reminded Markham of Mat Sullivan.
‘Ah, greetings Jonjo,’ Dr Ashworth greeted him. Then, turning to the detectives, ‘This is our assistant curator, John Kelleher,’ he said before introducing Markham’s team to the newcomer.
‘Everyone calls me Jonjo,’ the other said with a grin. ‘Not very donnish, but somehow I get away with it.’
‘Are you responsible for the polar exhibition then, Mr Kelleher…. or, sorry, is it Doctor Kelleher?’ Kate Burton was punctilious about getting handles right.
Another grin. ‘No, you were right first time. Never got round to finishing my Ph.D….. kept getting distracted and going off at a tangent,’ he said ruefully.
‘He’s being modest,’ the director put in. ‘With a first-class M.A. on the role of the Royal Geographical Society in arctic exploration, we counted ourselves lucky to snap him up before academe got hold of him.’
It was clear the two men enjoyed a good relationship. As though by mutual consent, they refrained from mentioning the recent tragedy while Markham and his team moved round the exhibits.
‘Behold how good and joyful a thing it is: brethren to dwell together in unity!’ Burton murmured, peering at the caption above a series of portraits along the wall.’
‘Captain Scott inscribed that at the front of one of his journals,’ the assistant curator told her. ‘Given the tricky mix of personalities, it was about as appropriate as Margaret Thatcher quoting St Francis at the door of 10 Downing Street,’ he added with a chuckle as Burton gazed at the trim slight figure with receding hair attired in naval uniform.
‘God, this bloke’s a bit of a runt,’ Noakes declared, from further along the line of pictures.
‘Ah, that’s Birdie Bowers, one of the two men found with Scott at the end,’ Kelleher told him. ‘A pretty good “hater” by all accounts, but devoted to Scott. The one next to him is Dr Edward Wilson. ‘He and Birdie were committed Christians while Scott was an agnostic. But they all had total faith that what they were doing counted.’
As the DS nodded his approval, Markham reflected that this was a fair description of Noakes himself.
‘And there’s Oates,’ Doyle said, regarding the muscular handsome figure with the steely gaze and close-cropped hair. ‘They never found his body, did they?’
‘No, but a memorial was erected where he was thought to have walked out into the blizzard,’ Kelleher said. ‘His nicknames were “Soldier”, because he was army, and “Titus” for Titus Oates, the man who plotted a conspiracy to kill Charles the Second.’
Absorbed, the group moved further along, listening attentively to their affable guide. ‘The last two are Dr Edward “Bill” Wilson and Petty Officer Edgar “Taff” Evans…. Dr Wilson was found in his sleeping bag next to Scott, but Evans – like Oates – has no known burial place. He fell into a coma – frostbite, hypothermia, mental collapse, no-one’s quite sure how it was – and they just had to leave hm. He was the only non-officer…. it was devastating for him when they found out Amundsen had beaten them to the Pole, because he was hoping that fame and fortune from being first would allow him to buy a little pub and settle down.’
Noakes scrutinised the working-class bloke with interest. ‘Poor sod,’ he said. Then, ‘That Amundsen were a right sneaky bastard,’ he added venomously, with a contemptuous glance towards a nearby portrait of a hawk-faced man who looked like a modern-day Viking, ‘pretending to focus on the North Pole when all the time he planned to go South.’
Before the DS had any chance to embark on a xenophobic rant, Burton drew their attention to the photograph of a woman in a sack-like dress with an intelligent face and hair piled high on her head. ‘It says Scott’s wife was a sculptor,’ she said, examining notes on the adjacent plaque.
‘That’s right,’ Kelleher said. ‘She was a feisty lady. Oates wrote about her getting into arguments with the other wives – said two of them had a magnificent battle and it was a draw after fifteen rounds.’
As the detectives laughed, Markham could see the director was visibly pleased at the way his assistant curator had brought the exhibits to life, Ashworth’s rather fidgety, prissy manner giving way to a more relaxed demeanour.
The two men were an effective double-act, the director taking over as they moved down the line towards the section devoted to Sir Ernest Shackleton.
‘He was different from Scott. More of an adventurer than your officer type, though he had worked his way up through the merchant navy.’ Ushering them to a long low table with newspaper cuttings under glass, ‘That’s the advert he put out before the Endurance expedition.’
‘“Men wanted for Hazardous Journey,”’ Doyle read aloud. ‘“Small wages, bitter cold, long months of complete darkness, constant danger, safe return doubtful.”’ The young DS chuckled. ‘Great sense of humour,’ he said appreciatively.
Ashworth laughed. ‘Oh, “Shackles”, as they called him, was the buccaneering type. He had heart problems but just shrugged it off. The last thing he said to his doctor was, “You’re always wanting me to give up things, so what is it I ought to give up now?” The doctor replied, “Chiefly alcohol, boss, I don’t think it agrees with you.” Shackleton died a few minutes later. He was only forty-seven.’
Markham was surprised to find the museum director a natural raconteur, quite different now from the man he had first encountered in that over-the-top office.
‘Scott’s wife couldn’t stand Shackleton,’ Ashworth went on. ‘Even said she’d happily assist at his assassination.’
There was an awkward silence at the reference to homicide before Markham stepped in. ‘Wasn’t that because Shackleton moved in on what Scott saw as being his patch?’ the DI enquired.
‘Well, to be honest, in the circumstances Shackleton didn’t have much choice,’ the director replied. ‘but according to the strange codes of chivalry in those days, it wasn’t the done thing to break your word… Edward Wilson had been one of Shackleton’s closest friends but never spoke to him again for doing that to Scott.’
‘Shackleton was a kind of ghostly pace-maker for Scott,’ Kelleher put in.
Doyle shifted uncomfortably at the mention of ghosts.
Seeing this, the assistant curator continued smoothly, ‘In many ways they were very alike. Couldn’t find contentment ashore…. There was always that yearning for the arctic.’ Kelleher smiled at them. ‘But I reckon Shackleton was much more fun than Scott…. less stodgy somehow…. There’s this lovely story about him teaching his sisters signalling…. When he sailed off with the Discovery on that first polar expedition with Scott, he brought out his white handkerchief then got one of the crew to bring him another and semaphored to each of them – in strict nursery order of precedence.’
‘Was he religious-minded like Bowers and Wilson?’ Burton asked.
‘Not at all. He didn’t like clergymen,’ Kelleher replied. ‘Called them sky pilots and only accepted one as chaplain because when the guy opened his attaché case, a woman’s silk underwear and champagne cork rolled out.’
‘Sky pilots, eh?’ Doyle said amidst the laughter, with a mischievous look towards Noakes. ‘That’s that you call them ain’t it, sarge?’
The other affected not to hear this sally.
‘It says here Scott’s crew could’ve topped thesselves with opium,’ he observed, squinting at another noticeboard.
‘Correct, Sergeant.’ Kelleher grimaced. ‘But they chose not to take that way out. Actually, in Oates’s case, he wouldn’t have been strong enough to feed himself opium tablets or even undo his clothing to speed things up.’ Remembering what Olivia had said about the accusations levelled by the gallant soldier’s mother, Markham wondered if one of Oates’s comrades might have assisted the process. ‘But he likely died within ten minutes or so of walking out into that blizzard,’ Kelleher continued. ‘You see, nerve-endings would have frozen from the outside in…. and then he’d have been oblivious, probably travelling back in spirit to his home in Essex and leaving that weird white world behind.’
‘It’s like the surface of Mars or somewhere in outer space,’ Doyle murmured gazing around.
‘Treacherous too,’ Kelleher told him. ‘If a man fell through the ice pack and survived, the hole he fell through would drift away faster than he could catch up to it… It meant he’d be trapped on the underside of the ice, clawing desperately to find a way out, staring up till everything turned black.’
It sounded to Markham eerily reminiscent of Timothy Colthurst’s death throes.
As though conscious he had put his foot in it, the assistant curator turned to Doyle, ‘You’re right about there being something lunar about the landscape, Sergeant. The pressure ridges make it look almost Saharan.’ Following the young detective’s rapt gaze, he added softly, ‘Explorers said the ice pack gave out cries like human moans…. as though it was a child saying its first words.’
To Markham, wandering past the stunning photographs, the arctic topography seemed at once sinister and curiously restful, mantled in the white silence of death, the medium he knew so well.
‘Reckon they were crap at skiing.’ Noakes’s voice brought him back to earth. ‘They look like bandy-legged crows with them poles.’
Kate Burton frowned. ‘It’s so ethereal,’ she said almost reverentially.
Kelleher smiled at her. ‘I suppose you could say so when you look at shots of the funny little crenellated townships they constructed out on the ice floes, but there’s nothing ethereal about the diaries. The men are either grumbling about the grub-scoffing useless beggars who don’t pull their weight or whingeing about fried penguin being inedible.’
‘Fried penguin!’ Noakes was appalled.
Kelleher enjoyed the reaction he had produced. ‘Oh, believe me, that was haute cuisine compared with the usual hooch.’
‘Hooch?’ This was Doyle.
‘A sort of stew…. Basically they chucked everything in it,’ Kelleher told them. ‘From biscuits, raisins, curry paste and pemmican – that’s powdered meat mixed with melted fat – to cocoa powder.’
Doyle’s jaw dropped. ‘Christ!’
‘Oh, they dreamed endlessly of big feeds in their sleep, Sergeant – cakes and sirloins – night after night.’
The man was a born teacher, Markham reflected, enjoying this evocation of another world, though by the sound of it if Dante had witnessed the explorers at their worst, he might have found inspiration for another Circle of Hell.
‘Being trapped out there must have tipped some of them over the edge,’ the DI remarked.
‘Yes indeed.’ Kelleher’s face was suddenly sombre. ‘What they called “overwintering” could produce severe psychological side-effects. A sailor on one of the early expeditions developed delusions that the ice was alive – possessed by angry spirits that were coming after him.’ He paused impressively to let this sink in before resuming. ‘Of course, the ice could be a fairyland of light –’
‘The Aurora Australis,’ Burton cut in eagerly.
Noakes and Doyle exchanged glances.
Somebody’s been swotting up.
Kelleher shot her an approving glance. ‘Correct. And there was a spectrum of rainbow colours to gladden the heart of any artist – aquamarine, pink, orange, mauve, indigo…. Plus there were spectacular illusions like the Four Suns.’
Noakes’s piggy eyes widened on hearing this. ‘But ain’t it dark for six months of the year out there?’ he asked, recalling a programme he’d seen on the Discovery channel.
‘Indeed,’ Kelleher nodded in his unpatronising manner. ‘Lack of light often accelerated the emergence of mental symptoms.’
‘I’ve heard of folk going screwy like that…. S.A.D. or summat,’ Noakes confirmed sagely.
‘Seasonal Affective Disorder.’ Burton could never resist translating an acronym.
‘Yes, that’s one reason why explorers like Scott and Shackleton set great store by arranging theatricals,’ Dr Ashworth told them.
‘Theatricals…. You mean like musicals?’ Noakes boggled at the notion of Oklahoma on ice.
‘It was an essential distraction,’ Kelleher explained. ‘Shackleton in particular was always looking out wigs and dresses.’ He winked mischievously, ‘Some of the men made very fetching leading ladies.’
Doyle smothered a grin at the expression on Noakes’s face. He could tell the older man didn’t at all care to hear his naval heroes associated with cross-dressing and ‘pervy’ goings-on’.
Aware of the portly policeman’s disapproval, Kelleher steered them into safer waters.
‘It was important to keep the men from becoming depressed,’ he said easily. ‘Scott even got up an expedition newspaper…. anything to stave off mental breakdown.’ Face serious, he added, ‘It could make the difference between a happy crew and the threat of mutiny.’
‘Mutiny?’ Visions of Fletcher Christian and Captain Bligh of the Bounty danced across Doyle’s brain.
‘Oh yes,’ Dr Ashworth joined in. ‘Shackleton had to face that down more than once, but he had nerves of steel.’
‘When people live together in close proximity in a confined space, you can get collective outbreaks of semi-hysteria,’ Kelleher went on.
Burton the psychology graduate was gripped.
‘They found it happening in convents in the sixteen-hundreds,’ she said earnestly. ‘There was a Ken Russell film…. The Devils of Loudun…. with Oliver Reed.’
At this mention of the notorious hellraiser, Noakes looked as though he could guess only too well what kind of film that was.
Registering his boot-faced expression, she added hastily, ‘Being in darkness half the year would play havoc with their body clock too.’
‘Absolutely,’ Kelleher replied, ‘to say nothing of problems from scurvy which was poorly understood back then before the importance of Vitamin C became clear…. Edgar Evans said he would follow Scott to Hell, but he could never have imagined the horrors involved in getting to the Pole…. Starvation, their teeth splitting from the cold, altitude sickness, disorientation and madness….’
‘Of course, it wasn’t all about coming first in a race,’ Dr Ashworth told Burton in a confidential tone as they moved along the display cases. ‘People forget that Scott’s Discovery expedition was stunningly successful…. They were the first to take aerial photographs and the scientists made all kinds of discoveries… found a leaf fossil that indicated Antarctica had been part of a super-continent with a tropical climate…. The geological research was first-class.’
Noakes’s expression clearly said, Bollocks to Geology.
Doyle nudged the older man. ‘Hey, there’s some weird stuff about ’em in the newspapers,’ he said before reciting in sing-song tones, ‘At the Pole, at the Pole, Britannia’s pretty sure to reach her goal; Her ever-conquering legions, Will annex those distant regions, And make a new dominion of the Pole.’
‘Not much cop at limericks, if you ask me,’ Noakes grunted.
Markham recalled Olivia’s colleagues deploring the jingoism of Scott-worshipers Personally, knowing that the Great War was just beyond the horizon, he found the words almost unbearably moving in their desperate evocation of an epic pre-eminence so soon to be extinguished….
Time to leave the Antarctic for now.
Sensing the DI’s change of mood, Dr Ashworth gestured towards the lift. ‘Gentlemen,’ a courtly little bow to Burton, ‘and lady. Perhaps we should adjourn to my office. I’ve asked the museum’s administrator Yvonne Garrard to arrange refreshments so we can discuss…. recent events in comfort.’
Reluctantly, Kate Burton turned her eyes away from the glaciers and crevasses and summits, with ice floes like gleaming prehistoric shields.
As they walked to the lift, questions raced through her mind.
Did the polar exhibition hold a clue to Dr Timothy Colthurst’s death?
And why pose him in that grotesquely theatrical manner, as though to re-enact some frightful ice-bound trauma of long ago?
Captain Scott’s wife had wanted to assassinate Shackleton….
The word seemed to float in the still air of the galleries, like a malign prophecy.
What had Timothy Colthurst done to merit such a violent end? Was it a one-off, or was the killer engaged in working out a pattern to some predetermined end?
Even in the cool dim depths of the museum, she could not repress a shiver.
Then there was the spectre of madness. From what Ashworth and Kelleher said, it sounded as though insanity had stalked those polar expeditions. Was it possible some contagion had reached across the centuries to break out here in Oxford?
The others were waiting for her, Noakes and Doyle wearing expressions of the Oh no, she’s gone off on one variety.
She quickened her pace to catch them up.
Yvonne Garrard, the museum’s administrator, was waiting for them in the director’s office and, after introductions were made, set about arranging coffee and biscuits for the group with a quiet, calm efficiency which was obviously one of her strengths in the job.
Markham put her at late fifties, with something of mutton-dressed-as-lamb in the artfully silvered hair which fell in soft curls just past her shoulders. But she was perfectly groomed with an excellent figure set off by a well-cut charcoal business suit. The DI believed Dr Ashworth when he called her his ‘tower of strength’.
He didn’t miss the faintly scandalised expression, swiftly suppressed, with which she greeted the news that they had been touring the polar exhibition, nor the propitiatory manner in which the director said, ‘The detectives wanted to gain a feel for the set-up, Yvonne.’
‘Yeah, soak up the vibes an’ all that, luv.’ Noakes beamed at her. The DI had the feeling that his wingman had been dreading the appearance of a Mary Beard character spouting ‘academic bullshit’, but the down-to-earth competence – and provision of lemon curd biscuits – had reassured him. ‘All that arctic stuff’s champion. Jus’ wish we had more time for a closer look.’
The administrator smiled with genuine warmth at the policeman who looked the farthest thing imaginable from a hot-shot CID officer.
‘We’re very proud of it,’ she said. ‘Looks like being an even bigger draw than the David Livingstone exhibition in spring.’
Noakes sniffed in the manner of one who would take the Antarctic over African jungles any day of the week.
‘Of course, Jonjo deserves the lion’s share of the credit,’ she went on. ‘He sweettalked the British Library and all kinds of places into loaning us items.’
‘I aim to please,’ Kelleher said self-deprecatingly.
‘Do you have valuable artefacts here, Ms Garrard?’ Burton asked, wondering if Timothy Colthurst could have interrupted a burglary.
‘Relics an’ stuff?’ Noakes prompted hopefully, remembering how the team’s last investigation into a religious cult had featured just such treasured souvenirs.
‘Well, certainly some pieces would be priceless to a collector,’ she said uncertainly, ‘The Apsley Cherry-Garrard belongings, for example…. No relation,’ she added before Noakes could ask the question.
Frowning, the administrator turned to Markham.
‘Given that you said Dr Colthurst was…. posed…. in the art installation, I presumed this had to have been someone with a grudge.’
‘We aren’t ruling anything out at this stage,’ the DI replied. ‘But you’re right, there was something very deliberate about the positioning of the body.’
‘Almost like Shelley’s Memorial,’ she said.
Uh-oh, thought Noakes observing Kate Burton’s sudden interest, Boffin Alert.
And sure enough, Markham’s fellow DI couldn’t resist.
‘That’s a sculpture of the nineteenth-century poet Shelley depicting him after he was washed up drowned in Italy,’ she murmured. ‘Actually, he ended up being cremated and his heart buried separately.’
It was just what Noakes expected of some longhaired Victorian poet. But he was quick to catch on. ‘Mebbe that means Colthurst was murdered by some academic type, he said darkly, the scornful emphasis eloquently conveying his distaste for the breed. ‘I mean it’s not likely your average Joe would come up with owt like that.’
‘What kind of a man was Dr Colthurst?’ Markham asked in the silence that ensued. ‘Was he at odds with anyone that you know of? A quarrel…. feud…. something like that?’
The three colleagues looked uncomfortable.
‘Tim was very popular with his students and everyone at Sherwin,’ Dr Ashworth said after a pause. ‘Somewhat flamboyant, mind you….’
‘Flamboyant, sir?’ Markham prompted.
The director cleared his throat. ‘He had a rather colourful private life…. bisexual and not particularly discreet about it, which caused a few ripples.’
Noakes pursed his lips.
I’ll bet it did. God, you’d think they’d be too busy writing books and thinking big thoughts for that kind of caper. The missus was bang on the money when she said their Nat was better off not going to uni. One great big shagfest by the sound of it….
‘Was there any relationship in particular that caused, er, controversy?’ Burton asked delicately.
‘Yeah, the one with Des Milner,’ Kelleher replied as the director hesitated. ‘Desmond Milner to be precise. Second year undergraduate in Modern Languages at Plessington College…. So no abuse of power,’ he added laconically. Observing the director’s troubled expression, he said gently, ‘Come on, Clive, it would’ve got out anyway…. It doesn’t mean they’re going to clap handcuffs on Milner.’
Not yet anyway. But boyo had shot straight to the top of Noakes’s shitlist.
Mindful of the need to liaise with the pathologist and settle into their incident room at Oxford CID, and having established that Colthurst and Milner were sexually involved at the time of the murder, Markham moved on to the matter of alibis. It transpired that all three members of staff were single and home alone on Friday night, Ashworth in his flat on the Woodstock Road and the other two further out in Summertown.
‘They were dead shifty when you asked if ole Timmy had mixed it up with anyone, guv,’ Noakes observed as the team emerged blinking into the sunshine.
‘Agreed,’ his boss said quietly. ‘But they need time to sleep on it… Hopefully we’ll get more out of them tomorrow when Dr Ashworth is going to give us a list of Colthurst’s main contacts.’ Romantic and otherwise, he thought grimly. ‘Obviously we need to review the movements of all museum staff, but I’m inclined to think Dr Colthurst was killed by someone in his intimate circle…. someone he never for a moment suspected.’
Suddenly, Doyle remembered the director’s words about that ghostly extra presence Shackleton had been convinced was following at his heels.
And for all the heat of the day, like Burton earlier, he gave a convulsive shiver.
Deceived with Ornament
‘This reminds me of the Brontë graveyard in Haworth, Gil,’ Olivia said later the same day as they wandered through the long-lost gravestones and hidden paths of St Sepulchre’s Cemetery. ‘Full of ghosts hovering above and beyond us all.’
Hearing this, Markham recalled the story of Shackleton’s spectral follower. As he looked around him at the tranquil scene – the mossy graves and lichen-covered vaults – with the subdued gentle hum from Walton Street a reassuring reminder that life continued to roll round, mixed up with nature’s rocks and stones and trees, such a notion seemed like a bad dream.
But Timothy Colthurst had been stalked and murdered in the very heart of the university city where artists painted and poets penned their immortal verses. The sound of birdsong, the drowsy buzz of insects and Markham’s awareness that this ancient cemetery was the playground of rabbits and foxes couldn’t banish the ugly reality of human malice.
Sensing her lover’s mood, Olivia drew him over to one of the modern benches arm in arm.
‘Oxford’s at its best this time of the year,’ she said. ‘Strange isn’t it, the way buildings seem to become more beautiful the older they are…. unlike people.’
Markham laughed at that. ‘True, Liv, but I’m quite taken with the modernism of the Reynolds Museum – the glass and concrete…. the angularity of the whole thing. And somehow it works with those romantic landscaped gardens. There’s this sense of continuity…. of something spanning the ages…. uniting past and present.’
‘How was George?’ she enquired with a mischievous twinkle. ‘Did he succumb to the spell?’
‘God, yes. Actually, he and Doyle were like children at the circus.’ Markham smiled. ‘I knew Kate would be up on it all.’ He missed the slight tightening of Olivia’s expression as he said this. ‘But seriously, they were entranced.’
Olivia strove to hide her jealousy of the casually admiring reference to DI Kate Burton. Sometimes it felt as though she would never entirely conquer the banked-down resentment of a colleague who had admittance to a world from which she was barred.
Swallowing hard, she said, ‘When are they re-opening the Reynolds, Gil? I plan to queue up with Joe Public.’
‘Should be Thursday or Friday,’ he replied. ‘I imagine footfall will be heavier than usual,’ he added wryly.
‘Naturellement,’ she chuckled. ‘Murder’s gotta be a draw.’
Olivia saw the chiselled features stretch and tauten at this.
‘C’mon,’ she encouraged gently, ‘how was it with the museum honchos? What were they like?’
‘They seemed perfectly decent and bewildered,’ he replied. ‘The director Dr Clive Ashworth’s a sort of Lenin lookalike – tugging away at his goatee beard – but he relaxed after a bit. Then there was his assistant curator, Jonjo Kelleher…. a cross between that actor Stephen Mangan and Mat Sullivan –’
‘He owned up to John Joseph…. opted for the snappier sobriquet when he went to uni.’
Olivia was thoughtful. ‘Hold on a minute,’ she said. ‘Yep, I know who that is…. he was at Manchester when I was there, the year above me…. Come to think of it, I vaguely remember Colthurst too… life sciences or geography… big in the Environmental Sciences Society or some such.’ She shrugged. ‘Sorry, Gil, it’s just a name really.’
‘No worries, sweetheart, I didn’t realise they’d crossed paths with you. Kelleher and Ashworth make a good team…. full of anecdotes and human-interest stuff… really brought the exhibition to life.’
‘Anyone else?’ Olivia asked.
‘There was the administrator, Yvonne Garrard. Sort of upmarket Mary Beard. Very competent. I got the feeling she was a bit horrified at us in the circumstances.’
‘Well, taking the guided tour given what happened to Colthurst.’
‘I imagine you wanted to get inside his head, didn’t you?’
Markham squeezed her arm.
‘Precisely,’ he murmured.
‘And did it help, Gil?’
‘To be honest, I don’t know, Liv.’ Markham’s gentle sigh was almost borne away on the soft breeze that stirred the beech trees next to their bench. ‘Apparently Colthurst was majorly involved in the exhibition…. did his bit in terms of helping attract sponsorship and making it a success.’
‘Despite the best efforts of the woke brigade bleating on about our evil imperialist past?’ Olivia enquired sarcastically. ‘Let’s face it,’ she went on, ‘ever since Lytton Strachey did a hatchet job on Florence Nightingale, academics can’t get enough of character assassination…. They’ve been busy constructing Scott’s wife as bisexual and his sponsor Sir Clements Markham as some kind of Victorian Jimmy Savile… into earthy Sicilian lads and all the rest of it.’
‘That’s not the half of it. Gil…. There’s a sizeable contingent obsessed with proving that Scott tried to persuade Bowers and Wilson to lie down with him and wait for the end.’
‘As in some kind of assisted suicide?’
‘Exactly.’ She smiled ruefully. ‘I don’t believe a word of it,’ she added softly. ‘His men adored him. Some bloke called Thomas Crean called him a born gentleman and said he loved every hair on his head. Even Oates told his old mum not to take any notice of his grumbles about Scott because he was having a hard time and didn’t mean a word of it.’
‘Methinks you’ve been doing some research, sweetheart,’ Markham teased. ‘I guess you haven’t given up on the idea of organising a project at Hope.’
Olivia’s eyes were dreamy as she gazed at a lozenge-shaped tombstone immediately in front of their bench.
‘Scott was so fine,’ she declared. ‘He really left something behind in men’s minds when he died…. He was the real thing.’ Olivia clutched Markham’s hand, delicate features flushed with admiration for the long-dead explorer, her grey-green eyes misty with fervour. ‘He was just so incredible at the end, Gil…. Scribbling away with that pathetic little stub of a pencil…. telling his wife he knew he hadn’t been a very good husband but hoped to be a better memory… desperately trying to comfort his mother…. exhorting the Admiralty to “look after his people” …. Talk about Exit Stage Left,’ she breathed, ‘it was the exit of all time.’
Markham smiled. ‘I suppose I should be jealous,’ he observed mildly. ‘Here’s my girl in love with this heroic explorer.’ Then, ‘Or should I say explorers plural…. What about Shackleton?’
‘Oh, he was incredible too, Gil. D’you know, he said in a letter to Winston Churchill that Death was very little and Knowledge very great.’ She snuggled closer. ‘He had all these groupies…. One of them said life was humdrum for the most part till he gave her a glimpse through the magic casement.’
They contemplated the peaceful woodland scene before them.
Finally, Olivia said, ‘Scott and Shackleton were out of the common way…. mediating everything through the prism of literature…. You can tell from the diaries what they were reading at any given moment…. Wordsworth, Austen, Shakespeare…’ Dreamily, she continued, ‘Imagine it, out there in an Antarctic blizzard, huddled in their little tent reading the Bard…. The world is still deceived with ornament…. How many cowards, whose hearts are all as false As stairs of sand wear yet upon their chins The beards of Hercules.’
‘You think someone was pretending devotion to Dr Colthurst with murder in their heart, Liv?’
She shrugged expressively. ‘Who can say, sweetheart…. But from what you’ve told me, it feels extraordinarily personal.’
They remained some while in silence, lazily somnolent in the summer heat. In the distance, childish cries and whoops suggested a cricket match or school sporting fixture was in progress.
‘What next, Gil?’
‘Bedding in with Oxford CID…. Plus we’re going to round up Colthurst’s associates at Sherwin College,’ he replied. ‘I’ve got Kate checking out museum staff, but I agree with you – this has to be personal.’
She hesitated. ‘Does that mean we’re based here for the foreseeable?’
‘It does, sweetheart…. Sidney’s coming down Wednesday to organise the press conference.’
‘What about the team?’
‘Happily berthed at Malmaison…. As featured in Lewis, don’t you know.’ With no way of breaking it gently, Markham plunged on. ‘There's a prayer service for Dr Colthurst on Thursday at Blackfriars, and Muriel's coming down on Friday.’
Olivia took the news better than might have been expected.
‘Okay, Gil, I reckon I can cope with afternoon tea at the Randolph,’ was the phlegmatic response. Then with a grin, ‘But you owe me a slap-up dinner when this is over.’
‘You’re on,’ he agreed readily.
Afternoon shadows were lengthening, but the lovers seemed disinclined to move.
‘Here in this lovely English cemetery, Gil, I just can’t imagine being stuck out at the South Pole,’ Olivia said finally. ‘Watching your shadow crawling round and round all day long, with nothing but snow stretching out as far as the eye can see…. only the swish of snow and the cracking of ice to break the silence.’ She frowned. ‘Enough to send anyone stir-fry crazy.’
‘You’re forgetting the stench of rancid whale blubber, unwashed bodies and clothes unchanged for six months,’ Markham put in wryly. ‘To say nothing of bird and animal shit. Happy days!’
‘Look, why the hell would anyone want to kill some obscure academic?’ Olivia demanded, reverting to the investigation. ‘It’s true there’s that whole cancel culture thing going on around British heroes, but Scott and Shackleton are up there with King Alfred and William the Conqueror…. part of our history, right?’ She laughed. ‘And anyway, life sciences and geography are pure nerd territory.’
‘The answer has to lie in Colthurst’s rather complicated personal life, Liv,’ Markham replied. ‘He was bisexual and not especially discreet about it. Though, as you say, we have to reckon with the anti-imperialist warriors.’
‘Amundsen says he won the Cup, Then why do our men guard it? Two lie prone, but one sits up. Over his hands there hovers a Cup,’ Olivia quoted so quietly he had to strain to hear her.
‘That’s rather beautiful,’ Markham observed.
‘Just this poem I found about Scott and his team,’ she replied. ‘But you’re right, it makes them sound like the Knights of the Round Table or something…. Even though they lost the race, they come out on top somehow…. because they played a straight bat or whatever.’
‘Someone in Oxford hasn’t played a straight bat,’ he said sombrely, watching as shadows began to lengthen across the cemetery’s overgrown wilderness. ‘And I mean to find out who.’
‘They say Shackleton was obsessed with Robert Browning,’ she said lightly. ‘Took his battle cry from Prospice: I was ever a fighter, so – one fight more, The best and the last!’ She met his eyes steadily. ‘You’re just the same, my love…. dauntless to the bitter end.’
Markham’s finely moulded mouth set in a determined line. ‘Timothy Colthurst passed violently before his time. Whoever killed him – whether it relates to arctic mythology or not – I will hunt them down like a dog…. like one of those poor animals Amundsen slaughtered out on the ice pack.’
His voice was so implacable that Olivia flinched.
It sounded like an unbreakable vow.
Despite the comfortable hotel room, Markham slept badly, plagued by nightmares where he stood in an arctic wasteland watching the shrouded body of Timothy Colthurst, lashed horizontally to an explorer’s sledge, slide headfirst into a crevasse only for the sledge to whip upright at the last moment. It was as though, like Rasputin, the man simply refused to die. As he watched, the bindings fell away and Colthurst contemplated him steadily, lips drawn back in the snarl of his death throes, though it seemed to Markham they held a sneering contempt too. Stiffened by rigor mortis, the corpse stood to attention before sinking slowly into the black water below. Try as he might, Markham could not dispel the phantom image of Colthurst suspended over the icy depths, floating about in a standing position like some ghastly revenant. Logic told him this was ridiculous. Colthurst ended up in an art installation, not the ocean. According to Dr Merrick, he was dead before featuring in that grotesque tableau, but the DI found himself unable to picture the academic’s soul wandering through more congenial regions.
‘The Antarctic’s taken hold of you too, Gil,’ Olivia observed sympathetically as he endeavoured to do justice to The Old Parsonage’s magnificent full English.
‘Well, it can’t be Seasonal Affective Disorder,’ he commented wryly, gesturing to the beautiful sunny morning unfolding beyond the bay windows of the Grill Room. ‘Not on a day like this.’
‘There’s this condition called polar anaemia,’ she said. ‘Sent lots of the early explorers doolally…. There was some ship’s doctor who got the men to strip off in front of a coal fire and “bake” …. He had the right idea, but no-one really understood the medical science back then.’
‘From something Yvonne Garrard said, I gather Dr Colthurst was interested in that side of it,’ Markham told her.
‘Really…. as in madness?’ Olivia was deeply intrigued.
‘Well, it was one strand of his research, apparently. By the sound of it, he aimed to corner the market in early twentieth-century concepts of winter-over syndrome or whatever it’s called.’ Markham toyed with his black pudding. ‘Colthurst had lots of irons in the fire, though…. he was planning a monograph on Roald Amundsen too.’
Olivia grinned. ‘The one George called out for being a sneak.’
‘And for massacring so many of his dogs,’ Markham added drily. ‘Noakesy couldn’t get his head round that…. Scott, on the other hand, had a hang-up about killing sled dogs hence the decision to use ponies.’
She nodded. ‘Probably cost him the race to the South Pole. But at least he wasn’t a butcher.’
‘Indeed.’ Markham reached for some toast. ‘Amundsen died in a plane crash over the Norwegian Arctic when he was just fifty-five…. part of a rescue mission for some Italians who were stranded. They never found a trace of him or the five crewmen.’ Markham threw up his eyes theatrically. ‘No doubt Noakesy would call it Karma.’
His lover helped herself to a croissant, slathering on butter with gusto. ‘No point worrying about calories on a jaunt like this,’ she smiled across the table at him. Then, ‘I reckon that’s probably just how a bloke like Amundsen would choose to bow out… up there in the clouds…. suddenly, while embarked on some great chivalrous quest.’
‘Hmm. For all the rivalry and one-upmanship, he and Scott were brothers under the skin…. had this almost masochistic urge that drove them on, so they could never have been content with ordinary life.’
‘A different kind of insanity,’ she agreed. ‘And don’t forget Shackleton.’
‘Ah yes…. living on pack ice for nearly five months and then a seven-day crossing to Elephant Island in life-boats…. followed by a seven-hundred-mile crossing through raging seas to South Georgia Island to get help…. Talk about snatching victory from the jaws of defeat!’
She laughed. ‘You’ve been doing your homework!’
‘Well, there’s something pretty compelling about all this setting off to do battle with the forces of nature. Scott and Shackleton were certainly larger than life.’
‘Apparently a fortune teller told Shackleton before his last expedition that he would die at forty-eight,’ she said unexpectedly. ‘He was superstitious about it…. imagined the harbour bell was tolling his death knell when he set out for the last time. But he wouldn’t turn around…. said he would just keep on going till the day he didn’t come back.’ Despite the torpid warmth of the day and her pretty sundress, she suddenly looked pinched. ‘D’you think Dr Colthurst had any inkling, Gil…. saw death coming, but then it was too late….?’
‘The pathologist says he didn’t know much about it,’ Markham said gently, forcing back memories of his nightmare and the image of Colthurst’s corpse bobbing like a cork on the ocean floor. ‘There were no defensive injuries.’
She didn’t appear much comforted by this reassurance.
‘It has to be a man, surely,’ she pressed, ‘seeing as he was lifted into that ice box thing.’
‘Not necessarily.’ Markham hesitated, lowering his voice as a pair of guests passed their table. ‘The SOCOs found blood on a steel platform truck at the far end of the third-floor gallery…. It seems likely the killer bent Colthurst’s body over the shelves and simply wheeled him along to the art installation. Merrick doesn’t think it would have required great physical strength to slide him in.’
She stared at him.
‘God, how horrible…. As if he was a specimen or something.’
‘He was a slight man…. underweight if anything,’ Markham continued musingly. ‘So a woman could have done it.’
‘A spurned lover?’
‘It’s one possibility…. On the other hand, university politics can be murky –’
‘I’ll say,’ she responded with feeling. ‘Remember the last time you checked out a murder here…. the backbiting and intrigue made my snake pit at Hope look like Enid Blyton!’
‘Or maybe the answer lies in the museum itself,’ he said. ‘By the by, when it opens again, be sure to look out for a lad called Brendan Potter. What he doesn’t know about polar exploration isn’t worth knowing.’
‘Will do, Gil…. In the meantime, I’m going to take a stroll around Christ Church Meadow.’ She watched him lovingly over the rim of her coffee cup. ‘I suppose it’s wall to wall interviews at Sherwin for you, though?’
‘Well, mercifully the cast list isn’t as large as it might have been due to this being the holiday season. Kate’s narrowed it down to three this morning…. Guy Hanbury, Emeritus Professor of Modern History…. Maggie Rawson – a female postgrad Colthurst was supervising…. and finally, Dr Marion Peary, Fellow and Tutor in Modern History…. essentially the college contacts who were still around last Friday. There’s another Tutor from Latimer College we’re hoping to catch up with in the afternoon plus some ex-girlfriend –’
Olivia’s ears pricked up. ‘That sounds promising.’
‘Noakesy seemed to think so,’ Markham said drily, ‘though he was also quite struck by the news that Colthurst was involved with a second-year male undergrad at Plessington College.’
‘Liked to live dangerously by the sound of it,’ she observed.
‘Not one of his tutees apparently, but certainly sounds like he might’ve been skating on thin ice from an ethical point of view,’ her lover agreed.
‘Is the boyfriend on your list for today?’
‘If we can track him down…. He lives out on the Iffley Road, but no answer there and he’s not answering his phone.’
‘Prostrated with grief?’ Olivia suggested cynically.
‘You’re worse than Noakes,’ Markham said reproachfully.
‘Oh, I’ve a long way to go before things get that bad,’ she laughed, the joyous peal causing an elderly couple at a nearby table to smile indulgently. They probably imagined he and Olivia were honeymooners, thought Markham ruefully, when all the time it was violent death and sexual intrigue under discussion.
‘Enjoy the Meadow but stay away from Deadman’s Walk,’ he said lightly, referring to the footpath that bordered Merton Field.
‘Righto guvnor,’ she replied cheerfully. ‘Now, are you going to eat that last croissant, Gil, or can I have it?’
To Markham’s way of thinking, Sherwin College’s stern Gothic architecture – crenellated and turreted like some miniature fort – looked at its best in winter when romantically wreathed in the vaporous fog that invariably shrouded the city at that time of year. Clad now in abundant clinging wisteria, First Quad had an almost sheepish look, as though with the arrival of the holidays the ancient buildings had lapsed into dishevelment.
His old friend the Head Porter Mr Stevenson – a staunch ally in Sherwin’s previous murder investigation – was on leave, but a briskly efficient crop-headed young woman informed him that the team were waiting for him in the Fellows’ Common Room. ‘I can find my way,’ he told her politely, forbearing to mention that he was an alumnus.
Deciding there was time to pay his respects to some old haunts, Markham peered in at the black and white chequerboard-tiled chapel in the front right-hand corner of First Quad.
There they all were… the twelve apostles on the oak screen at the far end, each one depicted in his own little choir stall with an iconic motif above…. fishing net, money bag, martyr’s palm, spear…. the stained-glass panoply of saints glowing in their various windows…. red-robed flowing-haired Mary Magdalene brooding in a mysterious cavern with symbols of death strewn at her feet, like some ecclesiastical Lady of Shalott…. Saint George bearing off his wimple-clad princess…. and presiding above all from the rose window, a luxuriantly bearded God the Father with arm extended in a gesture more forbidding than benevolent.
The air felt somewhat stuffy, overlaid with scents of incense and beeswax, but the mahogany curlicues, marble seraphim and magnificent side-view mirrors mounted either side of the organ exercised their old fascination. The interior was narrow – almost boxy – with choir stalls a hand’s breadth apart across the nave and a low wooden ceiling painted navy blue that was studded with what Markham thought of as little gold love knots, though the guidebook said they symbolised Christ the Morning Star.
Olivia had been wistful when they visited the chapel for the first time together. ‘It’s gorgeous,’ was her verdict. ‘All sumptuous and heavy and brooding…. Sinister too,’ she had added eying the Magdalen. ‘But way better than anything we had at Manchester. Our gaff had all the charm of a B&Q outlet.’
Now Markham wondered whether Timothy Colthurst too had ever found Sherwin’s chapel sinister…. ever felt as though God the Father was singling him out with that peremptory forefinger.
Reluctantly he tore himself away and headed for the Great Hall, which formed one side of the courtyard in Second Quad.
Just one peep at Gloriana, he promised himself, being particularly fond of the portrait of the Virgin Queen who presided over the dining room in a beruffed and periwigged splendour that cast the canvasses of lean faced cadaverous Elizabethan clerics quite into shadow.
Yes, there she was, the ashy pallor, russet pompadour and great rope of pearls more striking than ever beneath the golden apse emblazoned with Sherwin’s crest. Fresh from his meditations in the college chapel, he could almost fancy she regarded him with a severity equal to that of the bearded Deity.
Seeing a young, whippet-thin college servant busily wiping one of the six tables that were ranged two by two in three long columns in the well of the hall, Markham decided not to linger and quietly withdrew before the dark-haired boy had a chance to notice him.
Wandering back towards the Fellows’ Common Room in First Quad, he was struck by the silence. Probably the lull before Oxford’s conference season got into full swing, he reflected. At any rate, it was good news if it meant they were spared having to dance attendance on the Principal and Fellows.
The clock tower chimed the hour.
Markham felt the usual tingle of anticipation that signalled the start of a murder investigation.
With a swift upward glance at the college ramparts, he stepped through a stone archway and turned to the well-remembered stout oak door on the right-hand side.
Time to begin.
Sherwin’s Fellows’ Common Room was one of the most delightful rooms in the college, with portraits of Elizabethan and Jacobean nobility presiding over its civilised appointments.
The crowning glory was a reproduction of the Field of the Cloth of Gold depicting a sumptuous open-air conference between the Kings of France and England in the sixteenth century.
On the team’s last visit to Oxford, Noakes had been fascinated by the painting, regarding it like some grownup version of Where’s Wally, delightedly scrutinising the miniature tents, castles and processions of beruffed manikins to see ‘who were doing what’. The DS had been particularly taken with a pterodactyl-like dragon flying aloft in the top left-hand corner like some evil spirit bent on jinxing proceedings. Even Kate Burton’s prosaic explanation that this was a nod to King Henry’s Welsh lineage couldn’t dispel the magical impression.
Standing in the doorway looking up at the picture, Markham suddenly recalled the fantastical drawings of dragons and mythical beasts with which Brendan Potter had told him the early cartographers filled up their maps to indicate unknown terrors at the edge of the world.
Here Be Dragons. The words resonated in his mind as though to transmit a warning….
But now there was a new attraction in town, he observed with amusement as he watched the team bent over a series of glass cases lined up along the opposite wall.
‘Their faces are the colour of mulligatawny soup.,’ Noakes was telling his colleagues.
‘Sunburn,’ Burton replied.
‘He’s got your dress sense, sarge,’ Doyle observed critically. ‘God, get that hat, the woolly balaclava and those mitts on a string round his neck…. Hmm, bit titchy and chubby,’ the young detective continued with some complacency, looking down at his own well-honed physique.
‘Most likely him being a bit plump were all to the good,’ Noakes observed, ignoring the observations on wardrobe. ‘He’d have kept warm when the rest of ’em were perishing with cold…. An’ being shorter meant he’d find it easier in the tent.’
Doyle was determined to have the last word. ‘Didn’t do him much good in the end though, did it…. being short and tubby…. He died just the same, along with the rest of them.’
Burton peered in. ‘There’s lots of quotes here about trusting in his Heavenly Father and not worrying about the future because the Lord would wipe all tears from their eyes.’
‘He were a God squadder,’ Noakes pointed out approvingly. ‘Thass what gave him backbone.’
Kate Burton’s voice was unwontedly gentle. ‘Looks like he was devoted to his mum,’ she said softly. ‘Trying to keep her spirits up by telling her they’d have a glorious return and he was going to stick by Captain Scott no matter what.’
Watching his colleagues, so absorbed by this mini-museum that they were wholly unaware of his presence, the DI felt he was learning more about their characters than ever before.
Burton’s voice was almost dreamy. ‘Listen to this,’ she quoted. ‘“No worry now – only living out one’s full allowance of time under conditions that fulfil one’s ideas of manliness…. You may be sure of one thing that though I may not get to the Pole or make a splash in the public eye – I shall do much towards the honour of my mother who deserves something better than a rolling stone for a son.”’
Possibly Markham was the only one who knew the depth of Kate Burton’s desire to make her parents – especially her father, who had opposed her entry into the police (‘No job for a woman’) – proud.
The DI advanced into the room.
‘Well, I reckon this was no rolling stone,’ he said.
His three colleagues turned to face him, the two men shuffling awkwardly as though they had been wrongfooted.
Doyle cleared his throat.
‘It’s an exhibition on Birdie Bowers,’ he told the DI.
Markham nodded. ‘Ah yes, the fifth man on Captain Scott’s ill-fated expedition.’
Noakes frowned. ‘Him an’ Scott weren’t always bezzie mates,’ he said, ‘cos there’s stuff about getting into the skipper’s bad books over instruments not working.’ A shy glance at the DI. ‘But they got over the hump an’ it says here he wrote home that he were all for Captain Scott.’
Markham was touched. He knew that when Noakes referred to ‘getting over the hump,’ his wingman was also thinking about their own relationship which had so nearly foundered during the Bluebell investigation.
‘No wonder Scott called Bowers a marvel,’ he smiled.
‘Yeah.’ Noakes was studiedly nonchalant now, as though embarrassed at having been betrayed into a display of personal feeling. ‘He might’ve been this little fat, flat-footed bastard with an ugly mug an’ big hooter.’ Here a baleful glance at Doyle. ‘But he were so sure they were gonna reach the South Pole,’ the DS continued. ‘Kept writing home that they were on target to plant the British flag an’ all that.’ There was a curious catch in his sergeant’s voice. ‘Tramping away an’ dragging them bleeding sledges for hundreds of miles when all along they should’ve been using huskies… At least they didn’t end up beating the dogs to death or chowing down on ’em like the Norskies.’
Doyle shot his mentor a concerned glance.
‘You’re right, sarge,’ he said. ‘Bowers was one in a million.’ The young detective was anxious to strike a happier note. Gesturing towards the glass cases, he added, ‘Pretty incredible…. He even rustled up a Christmas dinner…. with plum duff and all the trimmings.’
Noakes’s mastiff face brightened. ‘Yeah, imagine that,’ he said admiringly. ‘All scabby an’ out of it with frostbite, but he still knew what was what.’ As far as the DS was concerned, that meant a decent feed at Crimbo.
A voice came from the doorway behind Markham.
‘They all took it in turns to do lectures in the hut at Cape Evans,’ the newcomer said. ‘When it was Birdie’s turn, he did a talk on whether cocoa was preferable to tea during marches…. Apparently it provoked a lively debate between the “tea-ites” and “cocoa-ites”.’
A thin stooped figure with sparse grey hair and spectacles moved towards them. Markham noticed he dragged one leg slightly.
‘Guy Hanbury,’ the cultured voice continued after Markham had introduced his colleagues. ‘I was Timothy Colthurst’s mentor back in the day, but as you can see,’ a rueful wave of the hand, ‘he’s long since ceased to need my sponsorship.’
The group moved across to comfortable armchairs near the richly carved oak chimney piece, a gargantuan flower display of gladioli and red hot pokers occupying the hearth beneath.
It was the first of their interviewees.
‘Is that lot down to Colthurst then?’ Noakes jerked a stubby finger towards the glass cases.
The Emeritus Professor of Modern History smiled kindly at the overweight detective whose ensemble appeared to give a nod to the worsteds and woollens of polar explorers, consisting as it did of a khaki green sleeveless tank top over British army camouflage trousers and the ever trusty George boots.
‘Indeed it is.’ Hanbury chuckled. ‘Not everyone was happy about a posse of Edwardian explorers invading our Tudor sanctum, but Colthurst won the day.’
‘Bit of a self-promoter was he?’ Doyle enquired guilelessly.
‘No more than any of us,’ Hanbury retorted. ‘And it was good to tilt the balance away from Renaissance princelings in favour of the twentieth century.’
The urbane academic was easy and relaxed, sharing anecdotes about Birdie Bowers which enthralled his listeners, not least Noakes who was perfectly charmed to learn that Bowers had enshrined one of pony Victor’s hooves at a polar depot in the hope of taking it back to England as a souvenir.
‘Sounds an all-round decent bloke,’ the DS told Hanbury.
‘Well, Tim was certainly very taken with Bowers,’ the other confirmed. ‘The letters home are a revelation…. It’s incredibly poignant what he said about five of them being a pleasant little crowd and just the right number when exploring so far from home.’ Seeing Noakes’s interest, he added, ‘Nothing came easy to Bowers. It was a case of good honest sweat driving him on.’ He grinned, looking suddenly endearingly puckish. ‘’Had quite a way with words as it turned out…. really brings the Adélie penguins to life, just like a cohort of Charlie Chaplins.’
‘I saw ’em on Frozen Planet,’ Noakes offered. ‘Well cute.’
Before Noakes had a chance to build up a head of steam on the merits of David Attenborough, Burton brought them back to the matter in hand, establishing that the professor, a widower, had been working alone on some proofs in his terraced house on the Marston Road the night of Colthurst’s murder. ‘It’s a book about Scott, Amundsen and Shackleton,’ he said. ‘These days, people are more open to accepting that they had very different backgrounds, qualities and objectives…. so we need to look at them in the round…. understand how each of them can be recognised as a great man in his own right without detracting from the reputation of the others.’
‘And Dr Colthurst was working on a monograph about Amundsen, is that right sir?’ Burton pressed him politely.
‘That’s correct…. for the Oxford University Press…. but as far as I was concerned, the more the merrier…. We bounced ideas off each other really. I was more focused on the group dynamics of the various expeditions whereas Tim was looking at one man.’
‘Group dynamics, yeah. ‘Noakes appeared much struck by this phrase. ‘The idea that Bowers an’ Wilson could’ve saved their lives an’ left Scott!’ he exclaimed indignantly, though his startled colleagues were innocent of having made any such suggestion. ‘Men like that couldn’t do owt but stand by him right through.’
Hanbury nodded sadly. ‘Bowers was quite philosophical about the risks,’ he said. ‘Confided to his diary that he knew how the smallest thing could upset the best laid plans…. He was properly spooked when his mother and sister came to wave him off on the expedition with Scott, because there was this truckload of coffins on the platform alongside the train….’ The academic shook himself as though someone had walked over his own grave. ‘But you’re quite right about his loyalty, Sergeant. Abandoning a comrade was an impossibility for explorers of that calibre…. The last thing Birdie did before he died was scribble a note on the back of one of Scott’s letters indicating where the rescue party would find Wilson’s final letter to his wife.’
‘The prof seems an alright bloke,’ Noakes said after the professor had left them. ‘For an intelleckshual.’
Burton and Doyle, proud possessors of degrees in psychology and criminal law respectively, exchanged wary glances at this reference to the anathematised breed.
‘Full of stories, that’s for sure,’ Burton said. Then hesitatingly, ‘I wonder if he wasn’t a bit too keen to head us off from asking more about his relationship with Colthurst.’
For all that Noakes had relished the polar folklore, he was shrewd enough to recognise the truth of this. ‘Probl’y a bit chippy about the young fella overtaking him,’ he conceded. Just like Slimy Sid about Markham, he thought. ‘But sounded like there were enough room for everyone…. I mean both of ’em were working on their own book.’
‘Colthurst had a publisher lined up, though,’ Doyle pointed out. ‘But Hanbury didn’t say anything about his.’
Kate Burton scribbled a memo in her moleskin notebook to check it out.
‘By the by, Kate, what about Dr Colthurst’s next of kin?’ Markham asked. The DI was well-known for never ducking a meeting with bereaved relatives.
‘Only child and both parents dead, sir. There’s an aunt in a nursing home down south. Local CID are on it.’
At that moment, the crop-headed young woman who appeared to be manning the fort in the Head Porter’s absence appeared with coffee and biscuits (chocolate hob nobs, Noakes noted approvingly), allowing the detectives to regroup before their next interview.
‘Thank god it’s the holidays,’ the DS grunted. ‘I like this place better without that slimy Principal an’ Bursar oiling around getting under our feet.’
The DI was privately relieved about this, having no great desire to renew his acquaintance with their bêtes noires from the previous murder investigation at Sherwin.
‘Cuts down the list of suspects too,’ Burton said happily. She sipped her coffee daintily, perched on the very edge of her chair in the habitual manner which made Noakes wonder irritably why she never parked her bum four square like everyone else. ‘I’ve asked Yvonne Garrard for a list of the museum staff and details of their shifts, guv,’ she told Markham, ‘but it doesn’t seem like Colthurst had all that much to do with the hoi polloi other than telling them how he wanted the exhibits set up.’
There came a rap at the door.
Their next interviewee had arrived.
Maggie Rawson was a statuesque blonde with flicky shoulder-length pageboy and side fringe, fleshy horsey face and the husky voice of a smoker. She would have been strikingly good-looking but for a prominent scar from some long-ago accident that she clearly disdained to camouflage with cosmetics. The postgraduate’s turquoise-patterned tie dye dress flattered her curves, and the overall impression was that of a woman thoroughly at ease in her own skin.
She lost no time in setting out her stall.
‘Someone else will probably tell you, so I might as well get in first.’ There was defiance in her tone. ‘Tim Colthurst was a total dog in the manger when it came to other people’s research.’
‘He was your supervisor, Ms Rawson?’ Markham enquired smoothly.
‘I switched to someone at Latimer,’ came the blunt reply. ‘Colthurst did bugger all supervision…. if anything, I’d call him actively obstructive.’
The DI was curious to learn more. ‘How so?’
‘Always dodging meetings…. ignoring e mails…. Kept trying to make me change direction.’
‘What was your research field?’ Markham asked.
‘The Four Musketeers.’
‘Eh?’ Noakes did a double take. ‘How come? That’s fiction ain’t it?’
‘That was the title I planned on using,’ she replied with a thin smile. ‘I was looking at the four men who went with Captain Scott to the Pole – from their own time to the present day.’ Her lips curled. ‘And I wasn’t going to do a hatchet job on their reputations with any fancy revisionist bollocks about a homosexual underground.’
Noakes blinked hard at this bluntness, but Markham was unperturbed.
‘Was that Dr Colthurst’s approach then…. the psychoanalytical angle?’
She snorted. ‘Anything sensationalist to make a splash and ensure he stood out from the crowd. Colthurst was the type who’d have reduced Christ to a failed carpenter.’
Markham could see that Noakes was liking this less and less.
Noticing the sergeant’s affronted expression, the postgraduate appeared to recollect herself.
‘Sorry, but seems to me it’s a tawdry way of making a name for yourself…. Colthurst constructed the rivalry between Scott and Shackleton as having all kinds of homosexual undercurrents…. cheapened everything they achieved, though obviously the trendy mob couldn’t get enough of it…. And he was at it again here.’ She bit her lip. ‘Part of me wonders whether he wasn’t secretly ashamed of himself, so when I came along wanting to play it straight,’ an ironic chuckle, ‘he tried to undermine me.’
It was an intriguing hypothesis.
‘Professor Hanbury seemed okay with the way Colthurst did things,’ Doyle pointed out.
In that moment, the scar on her cheek stood out lividly in a lead-coloured streak.
‘Don’t you believe it.’ Her tone was scornful. ‘Colthurst backed off from helping the prof when one of his undergraduates committed suicide, and Hanbury never forgave him.’
Burton leaned forward intently. ‘When was this?’
‘Three years ago. The family insisted Hanbury had bullied him.’ A short bark. ‘It was total crap. He had a major drug problem, and an investigation cleared the prof in the end. But you see, Colthurst hedged his bets…. frightened of being damaged by association… Him and Hanbury patched things up, but I reckon it was never the same between them after that.’
Interesting that Professor Hanbury had omitted any reference to the episode, Markham thought. On the other hand, maybe it was still too raw and painful to talk about.
‘How’s it working out with your new supervisor at Latimer?’ Burton enquired neutrally.
The woman’s petulant expression softened. ‘Oh, Freda Carrington’s great. Doesn’t do the great I AM, if you know what I mean…. She’s interested in the psychological side, but doesn’t make you feel she’s got it in for cultural historians.’
‘Wouldn’t like to get on the wrong side of that one,’ Doyle mused after she had left them.
‘Yeah, don’ look like she stands for any BS…. I can jus’ imagine her bashing Colthurst over the head,’ Noakes agreed.
‘She seemed honest enough to me.’ Kate Burton’s tone was stiff.
Noakes winked at Doyle before humming the tune from Sisters Are Doin' It for Themselves.
Burton declined to rise to the bait.
‘Right,’ she said. ‘Marion Peary’s next.’
‘Not another bleeding academic jawing on about, what was it, revisionism and psychoanalysis,’ he groaned.
Burton took a certain malicious satisfaction in informing him that Dr Peary was Fellow and Tutor in Modern History.
A cough outside the door alerted them to the Tutor’s arrival, putting an end to Noakes’s grumbles.
In the event, Marion Peary was so dry and colourless that she practically faded into the wood panelling.
Hiding behind long dark hair, outsize spectacles and heavy Claudia Winkleman style bangs, she spoke in a nervous monotone as though afraid the walls could hear.
A difficult woman to read, Markham thought as Burton took her through the standard questions. The Tutor reluctantly confirmed what Maggie Rawson had volunteered about the estrangement between Timothy Colthurst and his erstwhile mentor Professor Hanbury but didn’t appear to consider the rift serious.
‘I reckon that one had a crush on Colthurst,’ Noakes said after the interview was over and the Tutor had disappeared back to her books.
‘What made you think so?’ For all his lack of social finesse, the DS was quick to pick up on subtle vibes that escaped others and Markham had learned to respect his intuition.
Noakes jabbed two fingers at his own eyes.
‘There was jus’ summat,’ he said musingly. ‘A spoony look when you were talking about Colthurst and the exhibition…. An’ I reckon she’d been crying.’
Doyle mulled this over. ‘But as far as Colthurst was concerned, Marion Peary was just a colleague, right?’ The lanky youngster scratched his chin. ‘I mean, he had something going with that male undergrad they told us about at the museum.’
‘Yes.’ Markham was thoughtful. ‘If Dr Peary did have feelings for Dr Colthurst, it appears they went unrequited.’
Noakes got to his feet and hitched up the dodgy camouflage trousers.
‘Right, thass them three done.’ He scratched his paunch in a manner which had Kate Burton fastidiously averting her gaze. Looking hopefully at his watch, the DS added, ‘The lass on the front desk said we could pick up sarnies an’ whatnot in the Hall. Reckon I’m ready for that.’
When was he not, the DI thought resignedly.
‘Can’t stand that weirdy picture of Good Queen Bess they’ve got in there,’ Noakes added as they headed for the door. ‘But you can’t turn down free grub.’
The long narrow refectory appeared less austere than in winter when the dark linenfold panelling, rows of supercilious portraits, wooden benches and draughty casements contributed to a less than cosy dining experience. But picked out by a shaft of sunlight and sitting well away from Gloriana, the team was quite comfortable. Excellent coffee and a platter of deep-filled baguettes were conjured up in no time at all, the group being waited on by the dark-haired college servant Markham had noticed earlier.
‘Alex Mason,’ the haggard-looking but not unattractive youth introduced himself.
‘Are you a Scout then?’ Noakes was rather proud of himself for remembering the old-fashioned term for the college housekeepers.
‘Junior Porter actually, sir, but I do a bit of everything in the holidays,’ the other replied self-deprecatingly. He smiled shyly round the table. ‘Is there anything else I can get you?’
‘Nah, this is champion, lad. Great cheese and pickle.’
‘Thank you. I’ll tell Mrs McShane. The chutney’s home-made…. her gran’s recipe.’
‘Nice manners,’ the DS said approvingly to his retreating back. ‘Looks a bit famished, but I suppose that half-starved druggie look’s all the rage these days.’
Kate Burton winced. No point telling him to keep his voice down, she thought ruefully. With Noakes, that was what passed for a compliment.
Despite her impatience to crack on with the case, she had to admit it felt good sitting companionably in the dusty sunlight of the Hall. Her humous and salad baguette was unexpectedly tasty (she’d been expecting anaemic ham and a few limp lettuce leaves, with cotton wool bread curling at the edges), and for a few moments she could almost fancy they were a group of students with nothing more pressing before them than an afternoon boating on the river….
Then her eye fell on Noakes.
‘Almost’ being the operative word, she thought. That awful, mismatched clobber didn’t exactly fit the idyllic image of college gondoliers!
Doyle had finished his roast chicken and salad. ‘Who’s up next then?’ he enquired.
‘A Tutor at Latimer.’ Burton was all business. ‘Plus Colthurst’s ex-girlfriend.’
‘Oh aye.’ Noakes’s eyes gleamed. ‘That should be interesting, what with him playing for both teams.’
‘Though obviously we’re approaching this with an open mind,’ the DI told him firmly. ‘Whatever the nature of Dr Colthurst’s private life, it may have nothing to do with his murder.’
Noakes looked distinctly dubious on hearing this.
‘Don’ forget the lad Colthurst were sh– …. involved with,’ he said heavily.
Doyle suppressed a grin. Those diversity courses hadn’t been totally wasted, he thought. The old warhorse would be a fully paid-up member of the PC brigade at this rate.
Markham turned to Burton. ‘Any sign of the elusive Mr Milner?’ he asked.
‘Not yet, guv. I’ve asked St Aldates to give me the heads up when he shows.’
‘How’s ole slab face then?’ By which affectionate designation, Noakes meant Superintendent Ian Charleson of Oxford CID.
Burton grimaced. ‘Onside, more or less. Actually I think he’s quite glad to leave this one to us. After last time, I reckon he didn’t fancy checking out the museum.’
‘Happy to give it to la-di-da Inspector Linley here, you mean,’ Noakes guffawed, thumping the table with a sly look at his boss.
‘Er, something like that,’ she replied, flustered. ‘At any rate Charleson’s giving us an incident room.’
‘So we can entertain Slimy Sid in style,’ Doyle sighed. Then blushing, ‘Sorry, sir. That just slipped out.’
‘It’s alright, Sergeant.’ Markham’s tone was ironic. ‘The DCI won’t be up till tomorrow…. a pleasure all the greater for being deferred.’
Suddenly, in the silence following the DI’s remark, they heard footsteps pounding across First Quad and up the steps to the narrow wooden corridor which led to the Great Hall on one side and the college kitchens on the other.
Instinctively, the detectives jumped to their feet as one.
The Acting Head Porter appeared followed by a frightened-looking Alex Mason.
‘You need to come at once, sir,’ she said breathlessly. ‘There’s a body out at Revenger’s Folly. They’re saying it’s murder.’