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CRIME IN THE PARK

Prologue

                    

Whenever he stepped inside the grandly named Hollingrove Park Palm House, Vince Cardew felt a curious thrill, as though he was connecting with a mysterious Palaeolithic landscape that stretched way back into the mists of time.

  In truth, the Palm House was really an unassuming, somewhat dilapidated looking conservatory – a kind of poor man’s Crystal Palace that was home to a variety of rare botanical specimens and a collection of six ancient megaliths known as the Hollingrove Stones.

  Vince’s colleagues didn’t much care for the greenhouse’s Day of the Triffids vibe, but the groundsman was entranced by its tropical atmosphere and the mini-Stonehenge that formed its centrepiece.

  On this mild Saturday morning in mid-March, he enjoyed his flask of tea sitting on a bench next to the community allotments round the back of the greenhouse, congratulating himself as he often did on having the best job in the world.

  Hollingrove Park was the former seat of the Henwood family, leased to Bromgrove Council by its last surviving scion Miss Violet Hendon since 1954. On her recent demise, she had bequeathed the entire 90 acre estate to the council which duly lost no time in heavily promoting its myriad attractions: Georgian-style mansion house; museum; café; boating lake; book shop; children’s play areas; thousand year old oak trees and walled gardens.

  Not to mention the pièce de resistance: the Hollingrove Stones.

  The strange sandstone blocks, or menhirs, had once belonged to a prehistoric burial mound – one of those long hillocks with the earth piled up over stone cells and a passage leading to the outside…. a chambered box tucked into the landscape. It wasn’t until the 1960s that proper efforts had been made to protect the monuments. Vince’s 91 year old next door neighbour remembered a couple jutting out in the middle of the roundabout on Hollingrove Road. It was the fashion for local lads to carve their initials on the stones before contractors began to widen the highway and found more of them along with some burnt bones, clay burial urns, tools and other artefacts. Even then, however, the stones were simply relocated to the Hollingrove Triangle – a small green space bounded by Hollingrove Avenue and Bramfield Road –  where they were enclosed inside tall railings with only a modest plaque to indicate their provenance. Finally, however, in 1964 the stones were transplanted to Hollingrove Park Palm House where conservationists, academics and antiquarians came (strictly by appointment) to study their mysterious spirals and markings. Malcolm Devenish from the local Druid Society, who acted as curator for the mansion house museum, had told Vince the artefacts were Bronze Age but the monuments themselves were thousands of years older than that, which meant the tomb must have been a sacred site for millennia after it was originally constructed. It was incredible to think of generation after generation performing their eerie, secret rituals and burying the dead in a sepulchre that most likely seemed to them as old as the earth itself.

  Mr Devenish and Tom Burke who volunteered in The Reader Shop – the bookshop cum visitor centre – were pleased by Vince’s interest in the stones, though Miss Henwood’s nephew Tony Pardoe, a kind of CEO under the terms of her will, ‘had no time for all that witchcraft and Wicker Man bollocks’. Personally, Vince wasn’t sure where he stood on the matter, not least because a lot of the historical stuff went over his head, but he liked hearing Mr Devenish and Mr Burke talk about stone age people coming back to the chamber tomb over and over again to interact with the bones of their ancestors – maybe even remove them and add new ones. Mr Burke said the tomb (a dolmen he called it) would have been positioned towards the top of sloping ground and people probably used to gaze uphill to where the ancestors were buried…. sort of their own special signpost. Vince liked the idea of folk being connected with the sky and hills and horizon, but his fellow groundsmen laughed at all the ‘batshit stuff’, though not in front of the bookshop staff who maintained that Hollingrove Park and the stones belonged together. Suzanne Mackie who was responsible for the Shared Reader Group tore a strip off a volunteer she caught sniggering about ‘nutters’ and ‘devil worship’…. said it was downright disrespectful and all sorts of important people were into paganism and the occult. Vince supposed Mrs Mackie had a point there, seeing as Miss Henwood had been president of Bromgrove Folklore Society. Mind you, with the Henwoods being Roman Catholics, they most probably got off on ceremonies and rituals and that kind of thing. Personally, he wasn’t really comfortable with supernaturalism and horned gods…. Odin and all the rest of it. Plus, the mansion house museum gave him the willies. But he was all in favour of “live and let live”, and if the likes of Mrs Mackie didn’t have a problem with heathen deities and druids, then it couldn’t be all bad. She and Mr Burke were churchgoers like himself, and now he came to think of it, the bible said it was a star which guided the wise men to Bethlehem so happen all that about astrology and soothsayers didn’t mean you couldn’t be a good Christian.

  On the other hand, Vince was pretty sure his local vicar wouldn’t have any truck with superstition and old wives’ tales and all that jazz. No, he’d most likely be on the side of Tony Pardoe if it came to that.

  On a mild morning like today’s, Vince was content to dismiss metaphysical speculation, inhaling scented garden-fresh air and watching as cottony clouds moved gently across the sky. There was a heady sense of spring touching every nook and cranny and lush greenery blossoming, bursting and blooming all around him. March weather was always variable, so no doubt they hadn’t seen the back of high winds and stormy squalls, but in the meantime it was a scene to lift the spirits, even if all the competing fragrances made him sneeze. In wintertime when daylight was short, the woodland and copses were dark blotches which lay spider-like across the landscape, almost as if to ward off passers-by by their hostile, gloomy aspect. At such times, the park seemed almost spell-bound in a death-like equinoctial trance. With the changing of the seasons, however, and with the earth stirring life of every sort under his feet, the pines and conifers and willows appeared positively homely, even friendly, forming a feathery canopy and melting into a delicate haze that held no trace of shadow.

  Reluctantly, Vince heaved himself off the bench. Despite his sinewy build, weatherbeaten features and love of the outdoors, he was prone to periodic flareups of arthritis which gave him a cumbrous gait that belied his thirty-odd years.

  Wincing slightly, he made his way towards the Palm House feeling a familiar tingle of anticipation at the prospect of seeing ‘his’ stones, for they seemed to belong especially to him as much as to the scholars and academics who came to study them.

  Whistling a bar or two, he approached the glass vestibule at the entrance to the greenhouse, only for the tune to die on his lips as he noticed that the doors – usually padlocked – stood wide open.

  A chill descended on Vince’s carefree mood and he felt unable to stir another step, paralysed before some invisible menace. He tried to call out, but his voice seemed to come out of the depths of his overalls in a rasping croak that no-one could hear, while his work-worn hands were suddenly damp with sweat. Suddenly, the humid, steamy building with its aqueous half-light exuded an evil energy that swelled and surged and might at any minute submerge him.

  Moving unsteadily towards the inner courtyard and the gravelled sandpit that held the stones, all the “old wives’ tales” about their heathenish antecedents seemed to fill the pungent, stagnant air that was overlaid with the whiff of ripe vegetation…. and another odour….

    The scent of death.

  Tony Pardoe’s corpse was stretched across the tallest of the stones in an attitude of crucifixion. His sightless eyes stared upwards from a face hideously empurpled and distorted, like one of the gargoyles in St Mary’s Cathedral Vince thought in horror.

  Shaking uncontrollably, the groundsman sank to his knees.

  In that moment, the rich, pulsing world of the park beyond the glass windows seemed almost to mock the scene in front of him, as though nature asserted its supremacy and banished pathetic humanity to the shadows.

  He knew the bible taught it was really the woods and hills and flowers that were the shadows in God’s sight, since earthly beauties would all perish in time while human beings were immortal. Looking at the broken body before him, however, there was only the sense of overwhelming revulsion followed by a wave of dread.

  Tony Pardoe had mocked the stones.

  Now they had their revenge.

1

Stirrings

                                

The morning of Sunday 17 March found DI Gilbert (‘Gil’) Markham deep in thought on a bench in the terraced graveyard of St Chad’s Parish Church round the back of Bromgrove Police Station, as was his invariable practice at the start of every new investigation.

  Tall with a head of thick dark hair (silvering at the temples) and aquiline features, the detective was an imposing figure notorious at the station for his reserve and an air of chilly hauteur that enveloped him like chainmail. His courtesy was of the commanding type which kept subordinates at a distance, yet at this early hour the keen grey eyes held a gentle, almost wistful expression as he contemplated the glories of nature and the squirrels frisking energetically round moss-covered graves and monuments.

  It was a beautifully mild day – what his partner Olivia Mullen, an English teacher at Hope Academy (popularly known as ‘Hopeless’), called ‘twiggy’ – with earthy smells pervading the graveyard and a rushing, moving, growing feeling in the air. During winter, while nature slumbered, Bromgrove’s parks and open spaces had seemed somewhat apologetic, as though asking him to excuse their denuded poverty of aspect, with a sense of discarded clothes in the leaflessness and bareness of trees and shrubs (though the yews and cypresses of St Chad’s abided like sentinels over the dead). Now, however, there was an atmosphere of stirring and germination akin to some hidden force preparing to run riot. Olivia’s preference was for autumn with the countryside undecorated, stark and stripped down to its bare bones. She said there was honesty in the peeling away of finery and decoration, the stillness and simplicity. For his part, however, there was nothing to beat springtime with its mysterious tingle of anticipation, rooty dampness, chirruping birds and singing life. At such moments, drinking in the tranquil surroundings, he felt himself becoming slowly part of the landscape…. on the threshold of some sort of Nirvana, his brain receptive but at rest and a great peace within and about him.

  Despite his benignant mood, grim thoughts of the previous day’s call-out eventually forced their way into his mind….

  The pathologist Dr Doug ‘Dimples’ Davidson, a tweedy character with the air of a country vet, had been equally disconcerted by the discovery in Hollingrove Park Palm House, clearing his throat uneasily as they conferred at some distance from the now sheeted corpse while hovering paramedics waited to transport the body to a waiting ambulance.

  ‘Nasty the way they stretched him out…. like on some kind of heathen altar,’ he muttered with an apprehensive eye on the stones.

  ‘Time of death, Doug?’

  ‘Some time between eight and eleven last night.’ Again, the medic looked round warily. ‘I don’t care for this place,’ he muttered. ‘Downright eerie if you ask me…. devilish….’

  Dimples wasn’t prone to flights of fancy but Markham knew what he meant. For all the swampy heat of the greenhouse, he had felt chilled to the bone at the sight of Tony Pardoe’s body in its crucified pose, the richly coloured world of the park outside a mocking contrast to this scene of violent death.

  The pathologist lost no time in having the remains removed, he and Markham bowing their heads in respect as the little cavalcade departed for the mortuary. Neither man ever allowed themselves the relief of gallows humour, and the DI was known to be savage if any hapless subordinate displayed a lack of reverence towards the dead, since he regarded the search for justice in the light of a sacred mission. The faces of all his murdered victims were always with him, and it was in punishing those who had snatched them from life that he found the truest satisfaction…..

  Markham was a lapsed Catholic but now, as he sat in the peaceful graveyard, he recalled a story told by the parish priest of the church he attended as a boy. Fr O’Malley had said the Desert Fathers – those early Christians who lived as hermits and practised fearsome austerities – were so obsessed with thoughts of death that one of them, who worked by spinning wool, adopted the habit every now and then of symbolically letting his spindle drop to the ground and ‘putting death before his eyes before he picked it up again’. The DI supposed that this interlude at St Chad’s was for him the equivalent of the anchorite’s spindle – a chance to remind himself what his job was all about…. Markham knew he couldn’t change the past or undo the evil that had been committed, but he could at least obtain justice for Tony Pardoe and in doing so redeem his memory from the threat of futility and pointlessness. Aware that Easter was just weeks away, he sent up a swift prayer that the dead man’s soul had emerged from the shadows and was even then enjoying a springtime of new beginnings.

  Oh no!

  The clang of the church door along with the sound of voices interrupted Markham’s  meditation.

  Spying the Reverend Simon Duthie, former bank manager and now vicar of St Chad’s, he shrank down where he sat, trying to make himself invisible. Luckily for him, Duthie was absorbed in conversation with two female parishioners and sailed out of the churchyard without noticing the detective cringing on his bench.

  As Duthie disappeared from view, the DI cautiously exhaled, reflecting that it was a blessing Noakes wasn’t with him.

  The chiselled features relaxed into a grin as Markham’s thoughts turned to George Noakes, former DS turned private eye and his oldest friend. Despite St Chad’s being the station’s local parish church and regularly involved with the police in community initiatives, the vicar and Markham’s wingman had never exactly hit it off.

  Actually, to be honest, that was an understatement. Noakes had been expelled from his parish kindergarten for biting a visiting clergyman, since when he had borne the breed a distinct grudge and resisted all Duthie’s attempts at “pastoral outreach”. Favouring the Boanerges style of preacher who could deliver ‘marrowy’ sermons on hell fire and eternity, or sorting the wheat from the chaff, he was not enamoured of the vicar’s charismatic tendencies and had been heard by outraged parishioners to mutter ‘Take your partners for the last gospel’ when the priest mounted his pulpit. Duthie’s choice of modern hymns and recessionals (‘kumbaya rubbish’) also didn’t go down well, sparking one of Noakes’s most infamous interjections. ‘Voici le résultat des votes du Church of England : Morning Has Broken, Nul Points !’ he had rumbled in his execrable cod French. ‘Give the poor man a break,’ Markham pleaded. ‘It’s not his fault he belongs to the evangelical wing of the church.’ ‘You won’t say that when he decides to bring in limbo dancing or sticks a helter-skelter in the porch,’ the other countered darkly. The Rev. Duthie was by no means Noakes’s only clerical enemy, since Markham suspected it would be a long time before his friend was forgiven for various faux-pas with visiting Irish ministers. ‘Did you hear about the Kerryman who took his car in for its first service an’ crashed it into the pulpit?’ was one quip that had conspicuously failed to break the ice last St Patrick’s Day.

  Many people considered Noakes’s combination of bluntness and iconoclasm to be a form of dumb insolence, but Markham knew better and greatly enjoyed his friend’s bolshie but creative use of language. This was not, however, a talent appreciated by DCI Sidney (‘Slimy Sid’ to the troops). Shortly before his retirement, the then DS had attended a seminar given by Sidney – widely rumoured to hanker after a career in media punditry – on psychological profiling. ‘This material has not previously appeared in learned journals,’ Sidney intoned. ‘Nor ignorant ones either,’ muttered his bête noire. ‘Every single concept is new,’ the DCI continued. ‘And most of the married ones,’ came from the Greek chorus. ‘Shut up, sarge,’ DI Kate Burton had hissed on that occasion. ‘Well I ask you, Jus’ listen to how he’s carrying on. Any minute now, he’ll be telling us there’s a film coming out,’ a prediction that reduced his normally po-faced colleague to helpless giggles. ‘I tell you, I’m gonna give this chuffing book of his to everyone I hate for Christmas.’ Noakes always had to have the last word.

  It was internecine warfare between Noakes and the diversity apparatchiks. CID feministas also cordially detested him. The most fearsome, DCI Clare McDonald, took shrill umbrage – when she caught him telling DI Chris Carstairs (not exactly a card-carrying feminist) ‘the one about this bloke who said to his mate, “The auld woman fell out the back of the car” an’ the other guy said, “Thank god for that, I thought I’d gone deaf..”’ Even more frigid was the HR manager’s reaction to another hearing-related witticism: ‘“Fred, d’you wanna go share in this new invention?” “ What is it?” “A new type of hearing aid.” “Hearing aid?” “Yeah, it’s a little piece of wire – you wear it in your ear an’ everyone shouts.”’ Hacks at the Gazette knew that DS Noakes invariably provided good copy. It had taken all of Markham’s well-honed diplomatic skills to stop them reporting his friend’s comments at a civic diversity and inclusion workshop where the subject of Bromgrove’s connections with the slave trade had been mooted by Councillor Allbright. ‘We’re not the worst,’ Noakes had commented beadily during the Q&A. ‘Not when you think of a town like Blackpool which got its name cos of all the escaped slaves who made their way there.’  This was the kind of jovial repartee that made Noakes a legend in his own lunch hour – a sort of cross between a defence mechanism and inveterate one-upmanship, though it nearly landed him in serious trouble when a local thug gave Markam’s gang the evil eye, only for Noakes to invite the ringleader to ‘lend us yer nose’! Never inclined to observe the unspoken rule that guests at formal functions should treat sex, politics and religion as taboo topics, he had managed to offend just about every one of the top brass at a range of police dinners. Being a proud Northerner, on hearing the Chief Constable of Manchester begin his speech at one black tie event with the words: ‘Welcome to Britain’s second greatest city,’ he indignantly protested ‘I thought that were London’ to the great delight of the rank and file.

  Fearsomely computer illiterate and regularly humiliated by the dreadful curse Log Off!, it was something of a miracle that the former DS coped with the administrative side of his new business. Equally, he hated battling officialdom on the telephone. ‘Wouldn’t be surprised if folk passed away waiting,’ he groused when regaling Markham with details of his latest ordeal at the hands of the Telecom Madline. Kindly Mr Shah who owned the takeaway beneath Noakes’s minuscule office strove valiantly to haul his Luddite neighbour into the twenty-first century, but it was a thankless task.

  Noakes made no secret of the fact that he considered modern coppers too namby-pamby for words. ‘Total snowflakes,’ was his withering verdict. ‘My old Sarnt-Major used to say, “Don’ send me blokes who’ve never been knocked down. Send me fellas who know how to keep getting up again.”’ For all his dithyrambs about declining standards, however, he had an inner kindness that made him a passionate champion of the underdog. The former sergeant’s paunchy, uncouth exterior and appalling dress sense also belied a sensitive side to his personality which saw him respond with almost poetic relish to his boss’s penchant for ‘Big Words’ and high culture, traits that Markham’s superiors held against him.

  Doyle and Carruthers listened indulgently to the grizzled veteran’s salvoes about ‘wimps’ but on occasion met fire with fire. When he lamented their penchant for occasional forays into Bromgrove’s nightlife (pretty tame by metropolitan standards) with the demand ‘Don’ you know what good clean fun is?’ Carruthers had swiftly turned the tables, ‘No sarge, what good is it?’

  Olivia was Noakes’s number one fan, delighting in his subversive attitude to life and the big heart that lurked behind his gruff exterior and shambolic appearance. She had a surprising relish for his army stories about ‘crap-hats’ and ‘mess tins’ and ‘jankers’, while he in turn enjoyed her anecdotes from the chalkface, being particularly delighted to hear of one letter from a mother which had read, ‘Michael was away last week because I have had a new baby, and it is not his fault.’

  The chivalric devotion with which Noakes regarded the guvnor’s willowy, ethereal-looking partner was something that irritated his wife no end. Muriel Noakes, whom Noakes had met (most improbably) on the ballroom dancing circuit, was a snobbish woman and absolute anathema to Olivia who disliked her archly flirtatious manner towards Markham, the handsome, courteous inspector being greatly to Muriel’s taste whereas she regarded his partner as a ‘neurotic clever clogs and most likely anorexic into the bargain’. The Noakeses’ perma-tanned daughter Natalie (apple of Noakes’s eye even though she was not his natural daughter) shared this antipathy towards Olivia, though mother and daughter had mellowed somewhat since Natalie’s miscarriage after an unplanned pregnancy. Noakes was a doting husband and father who practically burst with pride when Natalie – a beautician and former doyenne of Bromgrove’s nightclubs – obtained her degree in History at the university after studying part-time. Despite a rocky romantic history, she was now engaged to the proprietor of a local fitness centre whose possessive mother had recently (though with very bad grace) allowed the young couple to set a date for their wedding. Both Natalie and Muriel were alarmed when Noakes set up as a private investigator, giving up his post-retirement job as security manager at Rosemount, an upmarket nursing home. Markham’s encouragement, however, and determination to keep Noakes involved with CID as a ‘civilian consultant’ had eventually reconciled them to his new career path, though Muriel preferred it when he handled white-collar crime as opposed to violence and murder. Hopefully the fact that this latest killing was connected with the Henwood family (i.e. gentry) would reconcile her to his latest assignment. Certainly the connection with the Hollingrove Stones was guaranteed to intrigue Noakes, given his interest in what he was wont to call ‘monuments to posteriority’.

  DS Roger Carruthers was also likely to relish the historical backdrop to this murder case. Like Burton a graduate entrant to the force, he had the somewhat desiccated look of an academic with his pallor, slicked back hair and horn-rimmed specs. A penchant for leather trench coats had earned him the nickname Herr Flick from Olivia, while Noakes had early christened him ‘Roger the Dodger’ on account of his being the nephew of Superintendent ‘Blithering’ Bretherton and possessing an uncanny knack of knowing how to schmooze his superiors. There was a time when Markham suspected Carruthers of being a mole who had an unhealthily close relationship with various columnists at the Gazette, but it appeared his tactic of having DI Burton drop a heavy hint about undesirable “extracurricular activities” had done the trick. Certainly there had been no more leaks to worry about. His colleagues had initially been wary of Carruthers due to his being well in with the top brass, but over time the DS had demonstrated that he was his own man, remaining staunchly loyal to Markham and giving as good as he got. Even Noakes – whom he called ‘sarge’ like the rest – had eventually been won over, not least given the fact that Carruthers shared his and Doyle’s passion for The Beautiful Game. A keen interest in forensic psychology gave him common ground with Kate Burton and he was undeniably ambitious though, like Doyle, he appeared in no hurry to take his inspector’s exams, perhaps fearing it would result in a move away from Markham’s fabled unit.

  DS Doyle – gangling, easy-going and auburn-haired (therefore known as ‘the ginger ninja’) – was Noakes’s protégé and treated him as the oracle in everything from football to affairs of the heart, though now he was happily engaged to teacher girlfriend Kelly the romantic rollercoaster was a thing of the past. Settled domesticity meant he was less preoccupied with prospects of promotion (despite having gained a degree in criminal law since joining the force), but Markham was hopeful that sensible Kelly would make him see the light.

  Then there was DI Kate Burton…. after Noakes, his most faithful ally.

  Like Carruthers a psychology graduate high-flyer, it had taken a good while before she and Markham’s wingman had come to understand each other, not least since she was as earnestly politically correct as the other was proudly ‘anti-woke’. Their cast-iron loyalty to Markham and a shared passion for true crime documentaries, however, gradually brought about a rapprochement. There was also the fact that Burton possessed an inner steeliness and was no slouch when it came to sly repartee, as when she mischievously pointed out that the portly ex-sergeant ‘somehow never lost face, as opposed to gaining stomach’. Doyle and Carruthers lamented her culture vulture tendencies and pedagogic intellectualism, but Markham knew they felt protective towards their schoolmarmish colleague and were secretly fond of her.

  Although engaged to Professor Nathan Finlayson of Bromgrove University’s criminal profiling department (nicknamed ‘Shippers’ by Noakes by virtue of his resemblance to the serial killer Harold Shipman), Burton showed no great enthusiasm for “naming the date”, a state of affairs which Noakes maintained was due to her carrying a torch for the guvnor. Certainly Olivia was suspicious of their relationship, and Markham himself knew that there existed some special affinity between them that neither had ever openly acknowledged…. a tie that he feared might be at the root of her reluctance to commit to marriage with Finlayson. His feelings for Kate Burton were a compound of respect, protectiveness and tenderness, together with the sense he always had in her company of a restful home-coming which kept the sordid world at bay. While his passion for Olivia was as strong as ever, ‘restful’ was not an adjective that could be applied to his spiky, insecure partner. They had been through some rocky patches – during their brief separation when she became involved with a colleague at Hope (a complicated business which ended in tears) and most recently when the longing for a child of her own threatened the life she and Markham had built together.

  For all Markham’s closeness to Burton, she was not privy to the dark secret in his personal history: the fact that he was the survivor of childhood abuse by an abusive stepfather, a tragedy he had somehow overcome while his brother Jonathan – long lost to drink, drugs and suicide – had not. Only Olivia and Noakes knew about this, and with the latter it was through a process of observation and inference, since the two men rarely spoke about personal matters, their deepest feelings somehow remaining subterranean and hidden. Markham knew their triangle was the subject of considerable speculation amongst Bromgrove Police’s rank and file, but it was the bedrock of his life and had never expanded to admit another person, not even Burton.

  Markham suspected that Burton, who had been hit very hard by the death of her father, was currently meditating some sort of decision, possibly a transfer to Tower Bridge Station in London. He hated the thought of losing her, but was equally reluctant to hold her back. He knew she had the talent and skills to reach the very top – including an emollience in dealing with the top brass that somehow never tipped into sycophancy or servility; knew also that the current situation was detrimental to her relationship with Finlayson, a wry, laconic man whom he respected. Somehow or other it would have to be resolved. Selfishly, however, he was glad to have her on this case.

  DCI Sidney would be decidedly gratified by the fact that this investigation involved the Henwood family, his snobbery the equal of Muriel Noakes’s when it came to gradations of class. This would quite possibly be Sidney’s swansong before retirement, and Markham was finding him easier to manage these days after the return of Mrs Sidney (aka ‘The Valkyrie’) to the marital nest following the Sidneys’ brief but acrimonious separation.  Sidney had never been a great admirer of the handsome DI whose Oxbridge credentials, culture and exceptional good looks put him in the shade, but they jogged on well enough together these days and the DCI had defended the gang against perennial bouts of sniping by high command. The news of Noakes’s involvement was unlikely to be greeted with rapture, but Burton would be able to pour oil on troubled waters, especially once she got Sidney onto the subject of ancient folklore and the history of the Hollingrove Stones, since he was quite the armchair academic and fancied himself as a bit of an antiquarian.

  Aware that the gang would be waiting for him in CID, Markham reluctantly got to his feet. The spell of Spring was strong upon him and he was loath to exchange it for the stale fug of the station. With a last glance round the picturesque cemetery, sunshine now gilding its masses of sprouting ferns and clumps of violets and primroses, he made his way slowly towards the stone steps which led down to the station car park.

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

CID was just as dingy and stuffy as he had feared, but his colleagues’ faces were bright and eager as they turned towards him. Casually but smartly attired in chinos and sweatshirts, the two men were dapper as always while Burton’s cobalt blue tunic dress over leggings and trendy streaked geometric bob were fashionably edgy and a far cry from her frumpy appearance when she first joined the department. Olivia scornfully described her as a ‘field mouse’, but the brown, thoughtful eyes revealed gleams of sardonic gaiety from time to time, as now when she watched the two sergeants wolfing down the goodies she had brought in from Costa. Noakes had always taken provisioning very seriously and they had kept up the custom of ‘eats ’n treats’ for their team brainstorms. After organising coffee for Markham and helping him to the last remaining chocolate brownie, she donned her glasses and whipped out a notebook containing details of potential suspects.

   ‘Hollingrove Park belonged to the Henwood family,’ she began briskly before providing a thumbnail sketch of its history and the Hollingrove Stones. After dealing with the background, she continued, ‘Miss Violet Henwood leased the estate to Bromgrove Council, but she died a year ago and under the terms of her will the whole shooting match passed to the Council with the proviso that her nephew Tony Pardoe was appointed CEO…. Mr Pardoe and Miss Henwood’s cousin Bernadette Donovan were her only surviving relatives….. Mrs Donovan shared Miss Henwood’s flat in the mansion house after she was widowed…. sort of a companion-cum-housekeeper.’

  ‘Weren’t the rellies miffed that she left everything to the Council and not to them?’ Doyle wondered.

  ‘Oh, she was a very wealthy woman,’ Burton explained. ‘Apparently she left most of her money to Mr Pardoe who was a very successful businessman in his own right….. I’ve made an appointment with Miss Henwood’s solicitors Goldrein Hesketh to go through the financial background.’

  As usual, Burton hadn’t let the grass grow, Markham thought admiringly.

  ‘Was Pardoe married…. or in a relationship?’ Carruthers was always keen to sniff out anything that smacked of Cherchez la Femme.

  ‘There was an on-off girlfriend name of Maureen Slattery…. and he was close friends with another woman called Loretta Davenport, but that was platonic – almost like a brother-sister relationship.’ Since Pardoe’s parents were both dead and he had no siblings, there had been no next-of-kin requiring the dreaded bereavement visit.

  ‘Business rivals?’ Markham enquired.

  ‘One Jason Quirk…. also in digital technology but didn’t have the same Midas touch and social connections…. by all accounts, he was hopping mad when Pardoe got an OBE while he was left out in the cold.’

  ‘So he had at least one enemy then,’ Markham said thoughtfully.

  ‘Oh, I’d say more than one, sir.’ Burton was always punctilious about calling him ‘Sir’ even though they were now the same rank. ‘He fired his PA Marion Kirkwood for some reason and she went off to work for Quirk…. Then there was Michael Brophy – journalist at the Gazette who kept writing snide pieces about Bromgrove’s “Ruthless Tech Tycoon”…. And Pardoe had tangled with Catrina Walsh… she’s the mansion house’s café manager and he wanted to get rid of her – personality clash or something like that.’ The DI consulted her notes. ‘Plus there’s the “old guard”…. traditionalists who worried that Pardoe didn’t care about the estate’s history…. were afraid of him turning the place into a theme park like Alton Towers….. The Henwoods can trace their descent from Richard II and the mansion house has its own museum…. the curator Malcolm Devenish is Vice-President of Hollingrove Druid Society…’ The two young sergeants exchanged startled looks at this piece of information. ‘There’s a team of volunteers who run The Reader Shop and Shared Reader Group…. and  the estate manager and groundsmen,’ she concluded.

‘That’s a lot of people to work through,’ Doyle gloomed.

  ‘Pardoe was killed on Friday night,’ Carruthers pointed out. ‘Folk will have been getting a head start on the weekend…. gone down the pub or out for a meal –’

  ‘Which means they’ll be alibied and we can rule them out,’ Burton finished crisply. ‘The park’s closed to the public for now, but the guvnor and I can scope the place out tomorrow  while you two start checking alibis… I’ve got a list of personnel here, so it’s a case of narrowing it down. Hopefully once I’ve sorted a venue for interviews, we can do those on Tuesday before the park reopens on Wednesday.’ Her eyes gleamed. ‘I’ve arranged for Mr Devenish to give us a private tour of the museum…. There’s so much history attached to the estate, that it makes sense to check out the background some more.’

  ‘Indeed it does, Kate,’ Markham said approvingly, amused to note that Doyle didn’t look exactly thrilled at the prospect of an afternoon spent poring over medieval arcana. Carruthers, on the other hand, had brightened up considerably on hearing this.

  ‘What about sarge?’ Doyle wanted to know. ‘Is he in on this investigation?’

  ‘Is the Pope a Catholic?’ Carruthers quipped.

  Markham smiled at Burton’s look of resignation.

  ‘I’ll be calling on Noakesy tomorrow morning,’ he said wryly. ‘No doubt he’s already heard about the murder,’ most likely from Doyle, ‘so I anticipate that he’ll be eager to make himself available.’  

  ‘Wild horses and all that,’ Carruthers grinned.

  ‘Quite.’

  A short time later, after the team had dispersed, Markham remained at his desk lost in thought. Outside his window, the skies had darkened and the day turned suddenly grey and cold. The glorious riot of Spring suddenly seemed very far away.

  But the case was in motion, the DI told himself.

  Whatever evil stirred in Hollingrove Park, he was on its trail.

2

Riding the Devil

 

Whatever buoyancy Markham had felt over the weekend promptly evaporated on the morning of Monday 18 March as he headed down Medway High Street towards Noakes’s office. It was paradoxical that in St Chad’s graveyard he had experienced a sense of life beating furiously under the brown earth – a miracle that made his limbs somehow lighter – while this busy thoroughfare felt oppressive and dreary by comparison, as though a large and gracious world had contracted to something much shabbier.

  Of course the weather didn’t help, the previous day’s mild sunshine and soft breeze having been replaced by a cutting east wind that made his eyes water. Altogether, he was glad when he reached the Tandoori at the entrance to the Medway Centre, its owner Mr Shah renting out the first-floor cubbyhole upstairs to the former DS.

  Noakes’s quarters were decidedly bijou, but Olivia had helped ‘prettify’ the place with tasteful black and white prints of Bromgrove and various pot plants that he was always forgetting to water. Despite its dimensions, the office worked reasonably well, a tiny galley kitchen and lavatory having somehow been shoehorned into the space and a fair sized bay window looking out onto the street below. There was a noticeable odour of Pot Noodle and takeaway, but Markham reckoned this wouldn’t necessarily deter the kind of client his friend aimed to attract (‘small fry to start with…. where there’s muck there’s brass’, was the Yorkshireman’s infallible nostrum). As well as the tasteful cityscapes, there were framed pieces from the Gazette citing Noakes’s involvement with Markham’s ‘elite squad’ which the DI figured wouldn’t do his friend any harm at all. Their most recent case together – down at the Tower of London – had attracted some very favourable publicity that would no doubt yield dividends in due course – though probably not fast enough for Mrs Noakes’s liking! Olivia had insisted on overseeing the installation of some decent furniture – an IKEA coffee table plus sofa and armchairs in cheerful patterned fabric, together with a pine desk and shelving unit – so the premises were less dingy than might have been expected from a cursory outside inspection. ‘You can have trendy tubular furniture and chrome gizmos galore when you hit the big time, George,’ Olivia had told him kindly. ‘But until then, you need to be comfy.’

  Even if Noakes ever attained the Promised Land of elegant décor and executive gadgets, Markham doubted that his friend’s appearance would lend itself to an aesthetic overhaul.

With his furrowed, pouchy face, piggy eyes and fleshy nose set atop a thick neck and chunky body, this was not exactly a lean, mean crime-fighting machine. His salt and pepper hair never would lie down, seeming to sprout in all directions, and sartorially he was a walking disaster, though at least there was no longer a risk of him outraging Sidney’s sensibilities on a daily basis. While submitting to his wife’s edicts when it came to high days and holidays (i.e. church and Muriel’s dinner parties), he was happiest in gansey jumpers of florid hue, flannels or cords, dodgy raincoats and his beloved George boots (indispensable to an alumnus of P company). No doubt once out in the field at Hollingrove Park, he would disinter the ancient tweed combo he deemed suitable for  ‘dealing with poshos’. Certainly Markham could only hope that today’s clashing outfit of sludge-coloured crew neck and purple cords was strictly a Working From Home getup.

  It was obvious Noakes was expecting him, sorting tea and chocolate digestives in record time and sitting back in his armchair with an air of eager anticipation.

  The contrast between the two men was almost comical. On the one hand, there was Markham immaculate in his pinstripe, the pure contours of his face radiating thoughtfulness, resolution and a certain spiritual fitness. On the other, Noakes with his horribly mismatched attire and air of a disreputable hobo. Yet somehow they couldn’t do without each other. It was more than the sameness of the goal. In some strange and indefinable way, Markham knew they were brothers under the skin, an alchemy that defied analysis.

  ‘D’you want me in with you on this Hollingrove Park jobbie then?’ Noakes asked with an elaborate casualness that amused Markham.

  ‘Naturally, Noakesy. I’d say the fact of the park being home to the stones – the whole neolithic angle – is likely to make for a high-profile case.’

  ‘It’s proper historical round Bromgrove…. goes all the way back to when we were joined with Russia…. covered in tropical vegetation an’ half a mile of ice.’

  ‘Really?’

  ‘Yeah, straight up.’ A quick slurp and mouthful of biscuit before Noakes continued, ‘I saw this documentary about boffins excavating some mound in Old Carton…. they said it dated from the late plasticine thingy.’

  Markham, long familiar with Noakseypropisms – linguistic quirks of dialect that the other had turned into an art form by his vehement sincerity – reminded himself to store this one up for Olivia who was sure to delight in such a rebranding of the Pleistocene Era.

  ‘Hmm,’ he chuckled. ‘Next thing you’ll be telling me they worked that out by carbon dating radioactive black puddings.’

  Noakes grinned and slurped some more.

  ‘Kate’s arranged for us to have a tour of the mansion house museum once forensics are done,’ Markham continued, ‘so we’ll doubtless learn more about the park’s Druidical antecedents then.’

  Noakes scratched his chin. ‘D’you reckon that’s why this bloke copped it – cos he were mixed up in some sort of cult….. kind of like a human sacrifice?’

  ‘It’s more likely to come down to one of the usual motives: Sex, Money or Revenge,’ Markham said drily. ‘But given where Tony Pardoe’s body was found, the pagan dimension could be significant.’

  ‘Druids are like the Greens, aren’t they?’ Noakes ruminated. ‘Venerating Mother Earth an’ all that crap…. don’ believe in Heaven neither….’ He sounded relieved that he wouldn’t be meeting any of said species there. ‘Always banging on about spirits living in the landscape an’ way-out stuff like that….Our Nat were into it at one time.’

  Markham recalled that Natalie Noakes had indeed flirted with New Age philosophies during a period when her engagement to Rick Jordan foundered. This had included a dubious association with the kind of people who promoted bizarre practices such as “self-marriage” ceremonies and betrothals to trees. Muriel Noakes had been in a ferment of anxiety about it.

    ‘Well, Merlin was a Druid,’ the DI said finally. ‘And plenty of historical figures became involved in magic and mysticism…. Nicholas II turned to Rasputin, for example…..’

  ‘An’ jus’ look how that turned out!’

  ‘Not the best example I could have chosen,’ Markham sighed. ‘But Henry VII was so obsessed with Merlin and King Arthur that he built his own replica of the Round Table… And  there was James I with his interest in witchcraft and Elizabeth I consulting her astrologer Dr Dee.’

  ‘Yeah, Princess Di an’ Fergie were into tarot cards an’ psychics – not that it did ’em much good….. An’ didn’t Tony Blair get mixed up with some daft bint who claimed she could see stuff in her crystal ball?’

  Markham laughed. ‘That’s right… the Blairs’ “lifestyle guru”….a woman called Carole Caplin…. She had a dodgy boyfriend in the background, so it all got a bit embarrassing.’

  ‘You couldn’t imagine Maggie Thatcher or Churchill bothering with star-gazing an’ all that hocus pocus,’ Noakes said firmly.

  ‘Sorry to disappoint you, Noakesy, but according to Olivia, Churchill belonged to a Druid association – the Albion Lodge or something like that.’ Seeing that the other looked as though the earth was shifting beneath his feet, Markham added hastily, ‘I believe Druids can be Christians…. and of course the Romantic poets made nature worship positively respectable…. people like Shelley and Keats….’

  Noakes looked very black at this. ‘Might’ve known they’d be mixed up in it somehow,’ he muttered.

  ‘Anyway,’ Markham continued heartily (before his friend could get started on his dislike of ‘Sheets and Kelly’), ‘the context for this case is certainly highly unusual…. As well as the Druid angle, the Henwoods are descended from Richard II. Actually, Violet Henwood – who left Hollingrove Park to the Council – belonged to the British Monarchists’ Society.’

  That was more like it. Noakes looked as though he strongly approved, causing Markham to reflect wryly that the late chatelaine and Muriel Noakes would doubtless have got on like a house on fire given Mrs Noakes’s enthusiasm for royalty and ardent partisanship of ‘the dear King and Queen’.

  ‘Richard II were deposed, though.’ Noakes’s expression clouded over.

  ‘I believe so,’ Markham replied vaguely. ‘Kate filled me in on him…Apparently he was rather too keen on the Divine Right of Kings and spent more time with soothsayers and astrologers than working out how to stay on his throne.’

  ‘Should’ve concentrated on not putting up taxes ’stead of bothering about alignment of the planets an’ whatnot.’

  Markham smothered a smile. If he knew Burton and Noakes, the two of them would lose no time boning up on the exotic historical background….vying with each other to unearth juicy nuggets about wizards and superstitious royals.

  In the meantime, though, ‘With all the prehistoric and medieval overtones, this case is quite the package,’ he said. ‘As I say, quite likely to stir up all kinds of local interest.’

  Noakes grinned wolfishly. ‘Slimy Sid won’t like it if there’s skeletons in the Henwoods’ family closet.’

  ‘We’ll cross that bridge when we come to it, Noakesy. As things stand, the list of suspects boils down to park employees and associates of Mr Pardoe.’

  With that, he went through the previous day’s briefing as Noakes listened attentively.

  ‘When I were a lad, I had all kinds of fancies about that park,’ the former sergeant said at the conclusion of Markham’s recital. ‘In the summer when there were moths flitting about – great white glimmering things – I used to imagine they were ghosts….. Other times, us kids scared ourselves witless making stuff up about the woods an’ them stones.’ His expression was reflective as he added, ‘I reckon if you spent too much time around them, it might turn you a bit pagan.’

  For Markham the beauties of the park symbolised on the one hand the innocence of God’s creation, while on the other hand there were the Hollingrove Stones with their hints of – what was Dimples’s word for it? – devilry. It made him uneasy.  

  ‘So far, there are no obvious Satanists or Wiccans jumping out at us,’ the DI said heavily. ‘But there’s definitely something uncanny about the way Mr Pardoe was posed…. something deeply unwholesome.’

  His friend was thoughtful. ‘Come to think of it, there were summat dodgy connected with that greenhouse place back in the seventies.’

  ‘Oh?’ Markham was instantly alert.

  ‘Yeah…. a kid went missing from the sandpit or play area or whatever they had for kiddies.’ Noakes screwed up his eyes intently then smote his forehead. ‘Got it! Little lass name of Mary Priddy…. she ended up down the bottom of a hole in the greenhouse.’

  ‘Foul play?’

  ‘Apparently the council had builders in relaying paving slabs or summat…. Any road, the coroner ruled it were an accident…. A journo at the Gazette did some digging, though, an’ found out that CID weren’t happy…. said they’d been trying to pin it on the playground supervisor but couldn’t make it stick…. a couple of cold case johnnies took a look later on, but they didn’t come up with anything new.’

  ‘Cheers, Noakesy, that’s an interesting coincidence for us to follow up.’

  The other knew if there was one thing Markham did not like, it was coincidences.

  ‘What are you up to this arvo then?’ he enquired.

  ‘I’m going to take another quick look at the scene with Kate while Doyle and Carruthers check out alibis…. We should be able to rule out anyone who was drinking or clubbing on Friday night –’

  ‘As in the young ones.’

  ‘Correct….. I’d say we’re looking at the names on Kate’s list rather than a local madman.’

  Markham knew well that DCI Sidney’s preferred prime suspect would be the archetypal “bushy haired stranger” as opposed to anyone with a connection to the Henwoods or the park. He might well be on a sticky wicket at any press conference, but they’d get round it somehow.

  Noakes must have read his mind. ‘How’s Sidney these days then?’ he asked. ‘Still boring on at those godawful “deep dives” an’ spouting weirdy psychobabble?’

  ‘Hashtag Be Kind, Noakesy.’

  His friend merely grunted.

  ‘The DCI wasn’t best pleased about that email you sent to Councillor Songhurst over local policing,’ Markham said caustically. ‘The one where you signed off Tweet Tweet Tweet!’

  ‘Songhurst’s a dickhead.’

  ‘True, but next time try to remember he’s the dickhead who chairs the Parks and Green Spaces Committee.’

  Noakes endeavoured to look contrite and failed miserably.

  ‘Before I forget,’ he said. ‘I’m to ask you an’ Liv over to ours for dinner next Saturday…. kind of a special meal for Easter.’ Shyly he added, ‘The missus is doing an Easter Tree an’ all.’

  An Easter Tree?

  ‘Splendid.’ Olivia would crown him for saying yes, but affection for ‘George’ would win the day.

  ‘How’s Natalie?’ he asked politely. ‘Not long to go to the wedding… May will be upon us in no time.’

  ‘Oh, she an’ Mu have got everything under control,’ his friend said solemnly. ‘It’s all down to spreadsheets, see.’

  Markham’s lips twitched, even as he felt a pang that Olivia appeared to have set her face against the notion of wedding plans featuring in their own immediate future.

  ‘Have another biscuit,’ his friend urged cordially, catching something forlorn in Markham’s expression.

  ‘Alas, I’d better make tracks, Noakesy…. You’re very welcome to come and join us for the recce.’

  ‘I’m jus’ gonna clear the decks here, seeing as I’m on this park case.’

  ‘Well, I’ll text you the venue for Tuesday’s interviews just as soon as I know the timetable.’

  After some further chit-chat about Noakes’s business (apparently Mr Shah’s tech-savvy offspring planned to introduce him to the marvels of TikTok and Instagram), Markham took his leave, satisfied that the fledgling outfit was doing as well as could be expected. It was obvious, though, that Noakes had had a bellyful of shadowing errant spouses and tracing missing pets (“bread and butter clients”) and was raring to get stuck into another murder case. Sidney would doubtless hum and haw about putting his old nemesis on the payroll, but the DI knew he could make a good case for Noakes’s inclusion, not least given the gang’s impressive solve rate along with his wingman’s local knowledge and the keen “inner eye” that made him an invaluable sounding board. If push came to shove, Kate Burton would know how to bring Sidney round. She had an unrivalled knack for propitiating the most prickly senior officers; even had Chief Superintendent Ebury-Clarke (‘Toadface’) eating out of her hand. Markham dreaded to think how he would manage the likes of Ebury-Clarke without her.

  Putting that depressing prospect firmly behind him, the DI quickened his pace. The wind had abated somewhat, so hopefully there’d be time for a quick whiz round the estate before getting the lie of the land back at the mansion house.

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

‘I’d forgotten how pretty the park is,’ Kate Burton declared a short time later after they had done a circuit of the lake and peeked into the Japanese and Old English gardens. ‘Everything kind of glows…. the daffodils and tulips…. idyllic.’

  The breeze having now picked up again and the skies resolutely grey, they were glad to retreat inside away from the elements.

  Bill Whelan, the estate manager. gave them a whistlestop tour of the greenhouse and mansion house before tactfully leaving them alone in the currently deserted ground floor café.

  ‘He’s in the clear, boss,’ Burton murmured. ‘Wedding anniversary party at Rossi’s on Friday night. Plenty of witnesses.’

  Good, that made one less to worry about. ‘This is a delightful place, Kate,’ he rejoined as they sipped the excellent coffee and biscuits that Whelan had rustled up.

  The mansion house was a restrained neo-classical three-storeyed gem with elegant white-stucco façade. While the frontage dated  to the Regency period, the interior was a fascinating hotchpotch of historical styles, the third-floor apartment tenanted by Violet Henwood being papered in crimson flock, raised like braille, while the formal rooms on the floors below merged into a blur of impossibly lofty ceilings, antique rugs, silk-clad walls, fine dark-wood furniture and overflowing bookcases. There were plenty of neo-pagan pre-Raphaelite paintings along with an abundance of carefully preserved family heirlooms – silk Japanese folding screens, old Bohemian glass, eighteenth century embroidered samplers, antique tea caddies and fans, plus masses of oak in the linen-folded style. All highly quaint and atmospheric.

  ‘I’ve arranged with Mr Devenish for us to go round the museum on Wednesday, sir,’ Burton told him as they enjoyed their refreshments. ‘Given the Henwood family’s background and the connection with the stones and everything, seems like we need to be on top of the context.’

 ‘Absolutely right, Kate,’ Markham approved. With a twinkle in his eye he added, ‘Noakesy can’t wait… very much a fan of historical epics.’

  ‘Especially anything starring the great Lancashire Viking Burt de Lancaster,’ she shot back deadpan, much to his surprise. But that was the thing about Kate Burton. Despite Olivia’s dismissal of her as a dormouse and the DI’s undeniable craving for correctness of procedure that irritated her colleagues no end – together with a sense that she was self-imprisoned and always corking up her personal feelings with rigid self-control – she had this habit of suddenly coming out with flashes of wit that revealed glimpses of an intriguing and unexpected hinterland.

  He smiled too, the austere features that could wither a subordinate with one scorching glance softening in a way that would have astonished the rank and file.

  ‘Indeed. I imagine he’s delving into Iron Age barrows and the rest of it even as we speak.’

  ‘The greenhouse didn’t strike me as all that sinister, boss,’ she said. ‘Just a smell of damp earth, stone and moss…. peaty and organic. It might have been happenstance the murder taking place there…. just a private, out of the way spot for a meeting…’

  He detected a note of doubt.

  ‘You don’t think there was any significance in the choice of rendezvous, Kate?’

  ‘Could be, sir. But if we’re looking for a killer with some sort of fixation about the ancestors, that’s a whole new can of worms.’

  He left this supposition hanging in the air as, the drinks finished, they walked over to a sash bay window overlooking trim mown lawns that abutted the park.

  Catching sight of swings and slides in the distance behind a low picket fence, he filled Burton in on Noakes’s story about the child who wandered off to her death in a slurry pit.

  ‘I’ll arrange an interview with Michael Brophy at the Gazette asap,’ she said. ‘He’s on our list of people to speak to, seeing as he enjoyed putting the knife into Mr Pardoe on a regular basis.’

  ‘See if you can find out who handled the cold case review, Kate.’

  ‘Will do, sir.’ She looked pleased to have a substantive lead, as opposed to more speculative hypotheses. ‘I should have somewhere sorted for tomorrow’s interviews by close of play... okay if I text you the details?’

  ‘Perfect.’

  ‘Forensics will be finished up here by Wednesday. So far there’s nothing of interest from Miss Henwood’s flat.’ A reluctant grin. ‘It’s like a time capsule from Victorian times or something…. she makes sarge look like a techno whizzkid.’

  Markham pulled a mock comic face. ‘I don’t suppose there’s any chance she was a mad Druidess with followers who were into human sacrifice?’

  ‘By all accounts she was just an old-fashioned Roman Catholic, with a soft spot for notions of Merrie England, maypoles and all that… you know sir,’ she quoted with a hint of cynicism, ‘The rich man in his castle, The poor man at his gate –’

  ‘He made them, high or lowly, And ordered their estate,’ Markham concluded.

  ‘That’s right, sir. A conservative type who liked the idea of the lower orders having a good frisky time in mid-summer but generally knowing their place…. Seems she was interested in folklore and such, but not in any subversive sense…. more libertarian by the sound of it, with the common folk having their fun so long as it was harmless and didn’t threaten the established order…. At any rate, the SOCOs haven’t turned up anything remotely dodgy.’

  ‘What about Mr Pardoe’s residence?’

  ‘Mansion flat in Taggart Mews just off Bromgrove Rise… tastefully neutral, with all the character of an upmarket hotel room… the techies are checking out his lap top and social media contacts, but nothing unusual so far…. Looks like there were a few community groups agitating about his ideas for a revamp of the park, but it was just the usual low-level grumbling…. no threats against him or anything like that.’

  ‘Neighbours any use?’

  ‘Nada, boss…. looks like he kept himself to himself…. the concierge doesn’t remember anything out of the ordinary, no fights with girlfriends or anything like that.’

  ‘What innovations did he have in mind for the park?’

  ‘Oh, some kind of fancy walkway to make the stones more accessible…. And a shakeup to bring in more “installation art” and young influencers.’ She pulled a wry face. ‘Whatever that means.’ She paused. ‘All pretty standard really for a trendy entrepreneur looking to flex his muscles as CEO….might have made the traditionalists bristle, but nothing too outrageous…. Seems like he wanted to play down the Ricardian stuff and focus more on the environmental side…. nature trails, that kind of thing….. but nothing worth killing for.’

  Markham sighed, A downpour had started outside, sheets of rain rattling the windows and gutters bubbling unchecked. ‘Okay, Kate,’ he said. ‘Let’s get back to base and see that everything’s set up. ‘Hopefully the other two will have winnowed down the list of suspects so we can see our way forward.’

  It struck Markham that his fellow DI looked somewhat pale and tired, but he knew she wouldn’t thank him for any expression of concern. With collars turned up, they hurried out to their cars, thoughts already turning to incident room procedures and protocols.

  Behind them, the park dripped damp and dank, inscrutable in the sudden March shower as though hugging secrets to itself.

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

That evening, Olivia was intrigued to hear about his experiences as they relaxed in the living room of Markham’s apartment at The Sweepstakes, an upmarket complex off Bromgrove Avenue. It was a comfortable space, almost womb-like with its red and gold vintage wallpaper and thick carpet of the same hue. Olivia’s ballet prints and figurines proclaimed her devotion to Dance, while Markham’s carefully chosen antiques glowed in the soft light from Tiffany lamps and daffodils were artistically arranged in a Waterford crystal vase on the low coffee table. It was still raining heavily outside, but through the French windows trees in the landscaped gardens were coming into bud and the cherry blossom foamed like a pale vapour.

  Markham sat in his favourite wingback armchair next to the French window with Olivia cross-legged at his feet as they reviewed the events of the day.

  ‘Miss Henwood sounds like a woman who was nostalgic for some sort of golden age,’ she observed after he had described the mansion house.

  ‘With Druid leanings,’ he chuckled. ‘By all accounts she was immensely proud that the Henwoods had custodianship of the Hollingrove Stones.’ His gaze wandered to a pile of exercise books on top of which sat Thomas Hardy’s Tess of the D’Urbervilles. Gesturing at it, he said, ‘I seem to remember Stonehenge features in that novel….doesn’t the heroine camp out there while she’s on the run?’

  ‘That’s right… Apparently Hardy was thrilled when he discovered an ancient sarsen stone in his back garden…. called it the Druid Stone and wrote a poem about it…. well actually, it was more about being haunted by the ghost of his first wife….’

  ‘You don’t sound too enthused.’

  ‘Oh don’t get me started on. I may have to teach him, Gil, but there are times when I see what Henry James meant when he said the only believable things in Far from the Madding Crowd were the sheep and the dogs!’

  Markham smiled at this.

  ‘And the man was a total pig to poor Emma Gifford. I reckon she was spot on when she told a friend that “old Tommy only understood the women he invented and didn’t have a clue about the rest.”’

  Her partner chuckled. ‘Given that there could be some sort of Druid vibe at work in this case, I may dip into Tess for inspiration.’

  ‘Be my guest.’ Absently, she twirled strands of long red hair – her most striking feature along with remarkable grey-green eyes – round her fingers. ‘D’you really reckon what happened to that poor man has something to do with paganism or witchcraft?’

  ‘Well, the positioning of the body seemed quite infernal…. as though whoever did this was suggesting that Tony Pardoe was accursed or marked by Fate…. a sacrificial victim…. And then there’s the choice of meeting place amongst the Hollingrove Stones….It feels to me as if that’s somehow significant, only as yet I don’t see how.’ He told her about the Mary Priddy case. ‘There were doubts about how that child came to end up in the greenhouse, so Tony Pardoe’s death might not be the first murder connected with the stones.’ He shivered involuntarily. ‘There’s something wild and heathen about them which is quite at odds with the trees and flowers and neat gravelled paths… Out in the park it’s very beautiful and you feel as if nature’s talking to you and you are talking back to it… uplifting and all one’s worries just drop away.’

  She looked up at him affectionately. ‘You remind me of Mole from Wind in the Willows… all happy and excited when spring arrives.’

  ‘I guess Noakesy has to be Mr Toad then, though in his case it’s a mania for history and the Druids rather than motor cars.’

  She giggled. ‘Has he got Stonehenge on the brain then?’

  ‘Well he’s decidedly intrigued by the Druidical angle…. Next thing we know, he’ll have come up with a theory about Tony Pardoe’s murder being connected with the Spring Equinox or some such.’ Seeing her amusement, Markham judged that the moment was propitious. ‘By the way, we’re expected at Toad Hall for supper on Saturday.’

  ‘Oh no, Gil!’

  ‘You won’t want to disappoint Noakesy…. Apparently Muriel’s doing an Easter Tree.’

  Olivia had to laugh at this. ‘The mind boggles!’ She yawned, her eyes wandering reluctantly to the pile of exercise books. ‘Suppose I’d better do some marking…. Who knows, I may glean some pagan insights to help with the case.’

  ‘Kate’s lined up a tour of the mansion house museum for us on Wednesday.’

  ‘How is she these days?’

  There was a hint of frost in his partner’s tone, but he chose to ignore it.

  ‘Looking a bit pale and washed out… I get the feeling she’s at some sort of crossroads career-wise.’

  Olivia tried not to look as though she hoped it was a trajectory that would take Kate Burton far from Bromgrove. ‘Maybe she and Nathan are ready for a change of scene,’ she said neutrally.

  ‘You could be right,’ he agreed quietly.

  He sought to recapture their earlier mood of affectionate complicity. 

  ‘I wonder which of the Wind in the Willows cast list would do for Sidney….’

  ‘Oh that’s easy, Gil…. He belongs with the weasels and stoats.’ She turned thoughtful, murmuring, ‘It was such a tragedy that Kenneth Grahame’s son killed himself so young.’

  Markham was startled. ‘Killed himself?’

  ‘Yes, laid down in front of a train when he was up at Oxford…. He said, “Death is a promotion.”’ Softly, she dropped a kiss on his head and headed for their room.

  Later, as Markham sat in his study overlooking the neighbouring municipal cemetery – a room almost monastically austere by contrast with the cosy, cluttered living room – those words echoed in his mind.

  Death is a promotion.

  He thought about Jonathan and wondered if his doomed brother had tasted similar consolation.

  Finally, with an immense effort of will, he reached for the manila file on his desk and began to read.

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