CRIME IN THE SALON
Becca Drew felt her spirits lift as she walked down Greenbank Avenue early on the morning of Saturday 15 April. Normally she resented having to work at weekends – an occupational hazard for hairdressers – but the post-Easter lull meant that it was just her, Sandra Crowley and Ed Collins holding the fort. Oh, and Cassie Johnson would probably show her face at some stage, but the nail bar didn’t really count. Plus, she’d be seeing the boss, so there was that to look forward to…
Her thoughts turned to Andrew Coxley, proprietor of The Mane Event, a small but prosperous little hair salon situated a short way out from Bromgrove town centre on the way to Old Carton.
What was it about Andy?
Of course there were the darkly brooding, almost Mediterranean good looks: that gleaming smile against the trim, black beard…. thick wavy hair, romantic sideburns and languorous sloe-eyed smile that made her shiver deep inside. Granted he was on the short side, but somehow that didn’t matter such was his charisma. Even his accent was exotic…. caressing, with an indefinable lilt that hinted at some kind of sultry backstory far removed from mundane suburbia.
Becca’s partner Phil, of whom she was decidedly bored if truth be told, said ‘the whole Greek gigolo getup’ was tragic, but that was just jealousy because there was no way he could ever rock Andy’s 1970s vintage wardrobe. She sniggered disloyally at the very idea of her Meat Loaf lookalike other half attired in the suede bellbottoms, psychedelic shirts and flared trench coats that fitted Andy like a second skin. Some folk just had it, while others….
Despite the flamboyance and theatricality, she would swear that Andy wasn’t gay. He played up the ambivalence deliberately…. to titillate the old dears who constituted a large part of his clientele. It was clever the way he hinted at sexual fluidity (mysteriously decadent) while at the same time managing to suggest that he was drawn to older females …. Of course, since every woman liked a challenge, this conveyed the message that he was ripe for seduction if he could only meet “The One”. Oh it was heady stuff all right, but Andy never dropped a clanger or struck the wrong note, pushing their buttons without them ever realising it was part of his strategy.
She supposed at a level there was something almost immoral about it, but the best hairdressers always put on a show. It was all part of creating an experience and making women feel special…. queen for a day….
And it was mostly women who patronised the salon, though the odd young bloke popped in ‘to try something new’ (usually marking the acquisition of a new girlfriend). In the main, male visitors tended to be elderly husbands dropping their wives off, rarely emboldened to enjoy a coffee in the waiting area and instead casting looks of profound suspicion around the premises as though they secretly regarded the salon as just one up from a bordello and considered ‘grooming products’ to be the first step on a slippery slope. Give me a decent barber’s any time, their anguished expressions seemed to say. The occasional brave soul lingered for a chat, but this had sometimes proved traumatic. Poor old Gordon Rushworth from Porlock Drive and that nice bank manager from Medway practically passed out when she told them the cost of a full head of highlights. Ever since then, she fudged prices, remembering to deduct twenty-five percent whenever the issue was broached by easily scandalised visitors. Wouldn’t do to give the poor things a coronary….
Yes, with the rest of the staff on holiday, it would be more relaxed than usual. Mind you, Ed seemed to have gone sour on Andy recently. She wasn’t sure what was at the bottom of it…. something to do with that woman who left Ed a load of money when she died. Andy hadn’t liked that at all…. She overheard him having a rant at Ed about ‘professionalism’, so presumably he thought there was something iffy about it. And it was true Ed could be pretty smarmy with the older ones. She supposed he wasn’t bad looking…. beefy and blonde, with a way of leaning in and getting all confidential…. whispering to them out of the corner of his mouth like something out of a corny soap opera…. Mind you, the technique seemed to work a treat and there was no question it was good for business, but still…..
She got on okay with Ed. But Cassie was a different matter. ‘Lash artist’ my backside! She looked like Victoria Beckham’s twin and had just about the same amount of charm, i.e. zilch. What on earth had possessed Andy to take her on? Most likely it was a favour for someone or other, since he liked to do a good turn where he could. She knew Cassie had kicked up a stink when Andy raised the rent on her beautician’s booth, but times were hard and in Becca’s opinion she was lucky to have it at all. Des O’Grady from The Cutting Edge sacked his beauty therapist because the business had become so cut-throat, so she wouldn’t be surprised if Andy didn’t eventually do the same and give Cassie her cards. No big loss!
She hoped godawful do-gooder Carol Davidson wouldn’t come round trying to cadge freebies for True Care Bromgrove. She had a cheek constantly pestering them to put up posters and donate goody bags to the charity for nothing. Never gave them any custom herself, needless to say. Not that you could do much with such terrible flyaway hair anyway…. But she might finally have got the message after Andy gave her the brush off at Easter. I mean, imagine coming in and badgering them to use the salon as a food bank donation point. Too classy for words. Said no-one ever.
Yes, she could definitely do without a dose of Davidson. Of course that other pain in the backside Sarah Moorcroft was coming in to get her roots done, but Ed took care of her these days after she’d got the hump with Andy for not being able to fit her in when she did that thing in Waterstones…. what was it…. oh yes, An Evening with Sarah. I mean, pass the sick bag. It wasn’t even as if she was properly famous like Jojo Moyes or Lynda La Plante. Just churned out Mills & Boon type stuff…. though of course she called them ‘historical sagas’…. soft porn more like. Ed was welcome to her!
Business wasn’t too bad right now, even if that bitch Helen Mathews had done her best to poach clients after she was sacked. It wouldn’t surprise her if it wasn’t Helen who went running to the Gazette with those spiteful stories about Andy, she thought darkly…. little drops of poison perfectly calculated to cause maximum damage.
Well, as the boss always maintained, all PR was good PR because it meant people were talking about you. Ed said that made him sound like Donald Trump but so far it seemed to be working.
Becca’s pace slowed as she passed the little key park at the top of Quickswood Lane. Andy was a member on account of living in the right postcode, though he had never offered to show any of them round despite Sandra hinting like mad.
She grinned, remembering…. It was so obvious Sandra had a thing for the boss, always flicking her hair and sticking her bony chest out at him. Plus there was the way her eyes followed him everywhere and she laughed just that bit too loud whenever he was in the vicinity, sending clear signals of hero-worship. Not that the anorexic looking brunette stood a chance with him, Becca thought wryly. He was never snide or unkind, but his indifference was obvious. She could totally see why Sandra fancied Andy, but it just wasn’t cool to be so pathetic and needy.
The cherry blossom trees at the gates of the key park frothed and foamed invitingly in the mild sunshine, and Becca suddenly wished she could play hooky instead of reporting for work….
But she had to open up.
With a heartfelt sigh, she moved down the road, calling into the little coffee shop for her accustomed skinny latte before heading for the salon.
To her surprise, the front door was unlocked, though no-one was visible through the window that ran the length of the unit.
Inside, everything looked just as usual.
There was the waiting area with its black marble tiles, cream leather sofas, magazine table, and reception desk, immaculate and pristine, set off by silk flower arrangements that looked even better than the real thing. A sleek stainless steel coffee machine and water dispenser completed the effect. Nothing, including the cash till, appeared to have been disturbed.
From the doorway, her gaze scanned the interior.
A little flight of steps led up to the mezzanine area with its row of gleaming floor to ceiling mirrors, green glass counters, wall-mounted drying hoods and comfy black leather tub chairs. Towards the back were the sinks, with a beauty counter tucked away in the right-hand corner. Sliding doors in the opposite corner concealed customer toilets. A door behind the sinks led to a separate room for customers who preferred to be shielded from the gaze of passers-by, and next to that was the tiny staff kitchen with adjoining loo. Discreet spotlights throughout were complemented by two crystal ceiling pendants front and back, adding a touch of understated luxury.
Normally Becca would have felt reassured by the mere sight of it all.
But deep down, she sensed something was wrong, the blood beating in her ears so that it almost seemed the whole salon was thrumming with it and a trickle of fear creeping along her spine. Though it was mild outside, she suddenly felt desperately cold.
Taking shallow gasping breaths, she went up to the mezzanine area.
Now to check the toilets and staffroom.
Finally, the back room.
As she opened the door, she felt her stomach lurch, the way it used to do when she was a kid riding the big dipper.
Almost as though she knew what she was going to find.
Andrew Coxley sat under a dryer hood, a pair of scissors protruding from the side of his neck. His eyes opaque and unseeing, Becca’s boss resembled some ghastly mannequin from a sci-fi movie. Like I Am Legend or one of those horror films, she thought, marvelling that one part of her brain was able to make the comparison at such a moment.
Suddenly, the young stylist began to shake uncontrollably.
She stood rooted to the spot, unable to tear her gaze from the most chilling thing of all.
His assailant had put a silicone highlight cap on Coxley’s head and viciously pulled strands of hair through it, like some hideous parody of a colour treatment.
As though to send a message….
Runners and Riders
The morning of Sunday April 16 found DI Gilbert (‘Gil’) Markham sitting on his favourite bench in the old-fashioned, tranquil graveyard of St Chad’s Parish Church round the back of Bromgrove Police Station. With a view across to leafy Hollingrove Park and a gentle breeze caressing the back of his neck, it seemed to him that everything spoke of the miracle of new life even as he contemplated the moss-covered monuments and headstones slumbering in the dappled shade of yews and elms.
His was a lean, high-cheekboned, almost gaunt face, topped with thick black hair just beginning to show silver at the temples. The aquiline features customarily wore an expression of thoughtful reserve – almost hauteur – leading to his station nickname of ‘Lord Snooty’. But away from CID, lost in contemplation, his keen dark gaze turned inwards as he recalled the discovery of Andrew Coxley’s corpse the previous day….
‘Quite the joker, this one,’ the pathologist Doug ‘Dimples’ Davidson said with a moue of distaste. The bluff, tweedy medic, who looked more like a country vet or farmer than a police surgeon, fastidiously removed the scissors protruding from Andrew Coxley’s neck before pronouncing, ‘No mystery about cause of death. Penetrating neck trauma which severed the carotid…. CNS shut down…. all over very quickly.’
‘Time of death?’ Markham pressed him.
‘Rigor’s fully established…. Judging from that and by the look of him, I’d say some time between nine and midnight but don’t quote me on that. I’ll know more once I’ve had a rummage.’
Had a rummage! The medic’s bleak insouciance was distinctly reminiscent of Dr Max DeBryn from Inspector Morse. Actually, he wouldn’t have been surprised if Dimples wasn’t deliberately modelling himself on that old curmudgeon.
‘Too early for runners and riders, I suppose?’ the other asked in another echo of TV’s most popular sawbones.
‘’Fraid so,’ the DI replied. ‘But I believe the salon’s quite a local institution.’
‘Yes, I believe my wife’s come in here for, er, whatever….’
Markham suppressed a smile in the face of Davidson’s obvious mystification. But the other recovered his aplomb, resorting to poetry.
‘Th' inferior priestess, at her altar's side,
Trembling, begins the sacred rites of pride,’ he quoted with sarcastic emphasis.
‘Ah, The Rape of the Lock, very apposite.’
Dimples sighed. ‘I never can catch you out, Inspector. Well, I’ll get him moved now.’ With a note of anger, he added, ‘That get-up on his head…. downright nasty. See you catch this one, Markham.’
‘I’ll do my best.’
But as the paramedics moved in, Markham felt a pang of self-doubt. What on earth was going on here? A hairdresser murdered in his own salon and posed in such a grotesque fashion….. what had the man done to inspire such malevolence?
Now, as a burst of birdsong recalled him to the present, he said a swift prayer for Andrew Coxley’s soul and vowed to make good on his promise to Dimples.
In addition to recalling the call-out, it was a ritual on such occasions for Markham to take stock and contemplate the merits of his team, reminding himself of the quirks and idiosyncrasies of that tight little unit known (with more than a hint of jealousy) as ‘Markham’s Gang’.*
His fellow DI Kate Burton plus the two sergeants Doyle and Carruthers.
Not forgetting his oldest friend and ally ex-DS George Noakes.
Markham’s naturally austere features softened as he thought of that perennial thorn in the flesh of DCI Sidney (‘Slimy Sid’ to the troops) and Bromgrove Station’s high command.
These days, the powers that be seemed more or less resigned to Markham’s former bagman being a fixture around CID, even after collecting his carriage clock. Despite taking up the position of security manager at Rosemount Retirement Home, Noakes still ‘had his fingers in every pie’, as Doyle inelegantly but accurately put it.
But with DCI Sidney’s own retirement now on the horizon and Superintendent Ebury-Clarke in the ascendant, it was by no means certain that Noakes’s gleeful “infiltration” of his old stamping ground would be allowed to continue. Ebury-Clarke, a virtuoso when it came to bearing grudges, had never forgotten Noakes’s heckling when the superintendent addressed Bromgrove’s Police Benevolent Fund, none so adroit as Markham’s former sergeant when it came to sabotaging the great moments in life:
Ebury-Clarke: ‘I am conscious…’ (Could’ve fooled me!)
Ebury-Clarke: ‘That I’ve been done…’ (Too right!)
Ebury-Clarke: ‘A great honour.’ (Is that what you call it!)
From there, it was all downhill, Ebury-Clarke becoming so unnerved by Noakes’s mischievous “noises off” that he crowned his peroration by saying ‘he prided himself on being a policeman who had the courage of his previous convictions’ (to the unmitigated delight of many in the junior ranks). This line (or was it a Freudian slip?) brought the house down, though not in the way that the superintendent had intended. Certainly, he had never forgiven Noakes. Nor was Mrs Ebury-Clarke, a decidedly rotund lady, likely to forget Noakes’s description of her as being ‘the only woman who could fill this hall’. ‘She’s committee mad,’ he had groused to Markham when the latter reproached him for his lack of tact. ‘Very big on local literacy initiatives, though,’ the DI pointed out. ‘Oh aye, the type who wants to publish a book called Teach Yourself Reading, the daft bint,’ came the blunt rejoinder.
No, there was definitely no love lost on that front and Markham knew he was going to have to box clever to keep Noakes in his unique position as “civilian consultant”.
His partner Olivia Mullen, teacher of English at Hope Academy (aka as ‘Hopeless’) and de facto member of ‘the Gang’, adored Noakes, being the only one, other than his wife, to call him ‘George’ and revelling in what, as an ardent ballet fan, she termed his ‘faux pas de deux’. On occasion, he had the capacity to extend this into an entire conversation, out-blarneying his opponent. The barbed verbal wit, or one-upmanship, delighted Olivia, since she shared the same subversive instincts, regularly getting on the wrong side of her school’s senior management team for her outspokenness. Never had the maxim “Opposites Attract” been more bewilderingly apparent than in the conspiratorial affinity between Markham’s former DS and his highly strung, quixotic other half. Never had he seen her more delighted than when regaling his friend with a recent sick note from one of her parents: ‘I kept Joe home as I am very tired because I have been under the doctor all this week.’ The two of them were regularly in hysterics over the utter ludicrousness of pronouncements by Ofsted and other discredited institutions, relishing anything that exposed pretentiousness and pomposity. When Noakes performed verbal atrocities and unleashed insults that made Markham’s eyes water, she only laughed the harder.
His friend’s Yorkshire make-up was composed of a genial yet unshakeable view of races and characteristics which led him to regard everyone outside that county with a cheerful irreverence that in no way detracted from his essential humanity and that Markham found a refreshing antidote to the achingly PC strictures that poured out of the station’s HR department. It appeared to him that Noakes’s casual xenophobia was somehow far more honest and authentic than all the nicey-nicey carefully curated pronouncements of a police force which seemed increasingly out of step with the concerns of ordinary people. And if there was one thing that Noakes understood, it was what he called (with a nod to his Methodist Sunday School antecedents), ‘ornery sinners’. Still, the Noakesian philosophy was definitely an acquired taste, he thought ruefully, recalling Noakes’s infamous retirement speech – de rigueur, or ‘de rigueur mortis’ as DI Chris Carstairs wittily dubbed it – which had long since passed into legend as a valediction that managed to insult virtually every senior officer in the upper echelons. He suspected that it would be long, very long, before DCI O’Rourke forgot that jovial banter about the Irish Parliament being known as ‘the dole’ and their PM being called ‘tea shop’…. though in fairness, as Doyle was quick to point out, Noakes was cheerfully insulting about the Scots too, having caused mortal offence to DI McNabb with his denunciation of ‘bogpipes’ and sly allusions to folk sowing their wild porridge.
Suddenly, out of the corner of his eye, Markham spotted Reverend Duthie’s wife slinking round the left-hand side of the church. It was obvious she had seen him but preferred to maintain “custody of the eyes” in case that appallingly uncouth ex-sergeant was with him. Markham grinned at the recollection of Noakes holding forth to the vicar’s wife about ‘the epistle to the fallopians’. He guessed Noakes just hadn’t been able to resist riling one of those he called ‘happy-clappy ecumaniacs’ or ‘holy harridans’ – a tribe who, in his books, were definitely fair game.
Making sure Mrs Duthie was out of sight, Markham got up and wandered along the terraces, stopping now and again to read poignant inscriptions and testimonials to the late lamented.
But his mind was still running on Noakes, his best friend and ally, the man whom he found he could not do without but who was utter anathema to his superiors.
Returning to his bench, he looked across at St Chad’s cenotaph. In doing so, he mused that his friend’s unique patois to some degree derived from his background as an ex-serviceman, with gags, punchlines and a gung-ho indomitability that came straight from the parade ground. It was a unique culture that the likes of Doyle and Carruthers regarded with amused tolerance but did not remotely understand and an inheritance that the higher ranks regarded as embarrassing luggage to be discarded on their travels to the top of the greasy pole. Olivia’s marked partiality for Noakesy’s army jokes and anecdotes no doubt contributed to her reputation for “eccentricity”, a trait which DCI Sidney and Mrs Muriel Noakes invariably referred to in terms that suggested they considered Olivia (‘your lady friend’, as Sidney called her with leery emphasis) ripe for psychiatric intervention.
He smiled as he recalled an army joke that had particularly tickled her fancy (his too). It concerned a weary group of army squaddies trudging around the square and saluting by numbers, when a doom-laden voice, with touching pathos, moaned: ‘O death, where is thy sting?’ The immediate response from the apoplectic drill-sergeant was, ‘Oo said that?’ An even wearier voice responded, ‘No idea, sarge, but I think it was Shelley.’ Next day, on Part-One orders came the announcement: ‘Private Shelley to Adjutant’s Office. On report. Insubordination. Twenty-one hundred hours.’ The more lugubrious Noakes’s recital, in a variety of mock-comic accents, the greater his partner’s enjoyment.
Olivia and Noakes could not have been further removed from each other by all the normal social rules and expectations (Noakes liked to tease her that Socrates in his book meant ‘So crates of beer’), but Markham thought of them as his twin pillars. Let the disciples of Freud and Jung make of it what they would, but when his friend and lover were in alignment, all was right in his world, it was a simple as that…
Understandably, Mrs Muriel Noakes didn’t see things in quite the same light…
Noakes’s snobbish, social-climbing wife whom he met, almost unbelievably, on the ballroom dancing circuit, had never taken to Olivia. Sitting there in the mild spring sunshine, Markham’s thoughts reverted to their sparring about it….
‘Muriel’s so caste-bound, Gil,’ Olivia had lamented. ‘And no, I don’t mean the sticking-your-pinkie-out-from-the-teacup kind of snobbery…. not Hyacinth Bucket…. just that godawful sliding scale based on class.. You know what I mean…. like when she has a fit of the vapours if George says “lounge” instead of “drawing room”, or pulls that sour face when he talks about seeing his pal Don down the Legion to swap army stories…. Whenever we’re with her, there’s that feeling of net-curtain twitchery…. And I just know she thinks of me as some kind of ex-hippie who snared you through Mata Hari practices.’
Markham laughed at this. ‘You’re a respected English teacher, Liv,’ he remonstrated, ‘not some kind of degenerate flower child. And anyway, certain of Muriel’s tastes are decidedly, er, populist. Noakesy says she never misses Simon Cowell on Britain’s Got Talent.’
His partner giggled. ‘God, she’d kill him for letting that out.’
‘Indeed….. in the same way that she hides her true crime books under Joanna Trollope and the Aga sagas when she’s coming out of the library…. It’s all about appearances and maintaining standards… perhaps because she hasn’t always felt on top of her circumstances… I think,’ he observed compassionately, ‘her fixation with “commonness” must have something to do with what happened when she was a teenager.’ In Markham’s opinion, the youthful pregnancy that resulted in daughter Natalie, before Muriel married her husband, was the key to her obsession with gentility, though Olivia struggled with this charitable interpretation. ‘I suppose George was her safe harbour after things spun out of control,’ she conceded reluctantly. ‘I kind of get that,’ she added with a grimace, ‘even if she dies a thousand deaths whenever he says “toilet” instead of “loo”… or worse still, “the bog”.’
Noakes’s discovery that Natalie wasn’t his biological daughter nearly derailed his career during the notorious Bluebell investigation, but he and Markham had somehow weathered the storm, which drew them even closer together. For his part, Noakes knew that Markham was the victim of an abusive stepfather whose malign influence resulted in the premature death of his brother Jonathan from drink and drugs, but very little on the subject had ever passed between them. It was as if they didn’t need an exchange of explicit personal confidences to shore up the unusual relationship that was a source of endless bafflement to all in CID.
The fact that Noakes and Olivia had mysteriously and inexplicably “gelled” – Noakes regarding Markham’s willowy red-haired partner with the kind of awed reverence appropriate to a knight in Mallory’s Morte d’Arthur – irritated his wife no end (to say nothing of his beautician daughter, the perma-tanned, buxom Natalie, former doyenne of Bromgrove’s nightclubs), but both women for Noakes’s sake somehow connived at the pretence that they were the best of friends, which ensured that an uneasy truce prevailed…. though Olivia was always threatening to break it…..
Markham flinched at this interruption of his thoughts, freezing as two middle-aged ladies hallooed to each other before passing under the lychgate into the church. But they were oblivious of him, so he was able to relax, slowly exhaling as he lingered in the ancient churchyard with its reassuring atmosphere of time immemorial. The sun’s rays gilded the crumbling monuments and headstones, with clumps of spring flowers softening the overall prospect of granite and marble in a way that soothed his nerves and reminded him of nature’s glories. The Easter season was always guaranteed to put Noakes in a bad mood – ‘like it’s this great bring an’ buy sale in honour of the Easter Bunny or some pagan wotsit,’ he grumbled, only for DS Carruthers to interject sardonically that of course it was all about ‘the great god Thaw’, earning himself a portentous frown for the execrable climate change pun and a hasty change of subject by DI Kate Burton.
Markham’s fellow DI had faced a difficult path to success in her chosen profession. An earnest psychology graduate whose parents staunchly opposed her choice of career (‘No job for a woman,’ was her father’s verdict), Burton fought for every square inch of renown and was never at ease with CID canteen culture, she and Noakes initially circling each other like two prairie dogs before eventually bonding over their mutual unshakeable devotion to Markham and commitment to the job. The two also shared an indefatigable enthusiasm for true crime documentaries and a keen interest in forensic psychiatry, though Noakes affected profound scepticism whenever Burton had recourse to her beloved Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders. Despite massive differences of character and outlook – Burton being as earnest and mainstream as Noakes was slobbish and relentlessly un-PC – they both possessed an almost poetic sensitivity (well-hidden in Noakes’s case) that made them sympathetic to their cultured boss’s refined temperament. Noakes, in particular, was decidedly proud of having a boss infamous for using ‘Big Words’ and having esoteric interests in ‘mouldy old churches’, ruins and the like.
Noakes, ever watchful on Olivia’s behalf, early intuited that Burton carried a torch for her guvnor. For his part, Markham felt a strange kind of tenderness for his colleague, having been increasingly drawn to the vulnerability and sensitivity that she only revealed gradually over time and finding that it possessed an unusual power to move him.
Did it mean that he was half in love with her? Certainly Olivia resented their closeness. As did Burton’s on-and-off fiancé Professor Nathan Finlayson of Bromgrove University’s Psychology department (nicknamed ‘Shippers’ by Noakes on account of his startling resemblance to the serial killer Harold Shipman) who Markham guessed was inclined to regard their affinity as an obstacle to Kate agreeing to marry him.
Not that Olivia could really claim the moral high ground, given that she had recently been involved (to what degree Markham was never entirely sure) with a colleague from her school. On said colleague - Mat Sullivan, the deputy head – deciding that his orientation was exclusively homosexual, she had come back to Markham. More recently, there had been another hiatus in their relationship due to her struggle to accept the prospect of childlessness (an earlier abortion having left her infertile). When Natalie Noakes became unexpectedly pregnant, Olivia had even nurtured mad schemes of adopting the child, before a stillbirth rendered all such speculation redundant. Nowadays, she was quietly resigned, rejecting both Markham’s proposal of marriage and suggestion that they should adopt. He found he couldn’t always read his partner, but sensed her suspicion of his fellow DI had by no means abated.
Markham wondered uneasily whether Kate’s deferential attitude towards him (she was always punctilious about calling him ‘Sir’ even though they were now the same rank) played a part in his affection for her. No doubt he was as chauvinistic as the next man (possibly excepting Noakes!), but he knew that there was more to it than that, having become very close to his colleague during recent investigations in Oxford. Noakes would doubtless have dismissed the scenario as ‘bleeding Mills & Boon,’ but it was damnably complicated for all that….
A flurry in the cemetery’s dense undergrowth startled Markham. Seeing, however, that it was just a couple of squirrels playing footsie in and out of some brambles to the far right of the cenotaph, he relaxed again as he thought about his two young sergeants.
DS Doyle, proud possessor of a degree in criminology, had been briefly destabilised by the departure of Noakes, his mentor in everything from football (they were both passionate supporters of Bromgrove Rovers) to affairs of the heart. His romantic life had been something of a shambles until recently, when Kelly, a primary school teacher, had entered his life and restored some equilibrium. Markham liked the lanky, auburn-haired youngster (the ‘ginger ninja’) with his artless enthusiasm and ill-concealed ambition to get to the top. He had no doubt that Doyle would one day make inspector and do a fine job of it. The DS was his own man and had resisted pressure to disassociate himself from Noakes, which made Markham like him even more.
He had initially felt no such liking for Noakes’s replacement DS Roger Carruthers (‘Roger the Dodger’, as Noakes had christened him) , not least as Carruthers was the nephew of Superintendent ‘Blithering’ Bretherton and rumoured to spy for the higher ups. But despite Carruthers’s unprepossessing exterior – albino pallor, savage short back and sides haircuts, horn-rimmed specs, Gestapo raincoats and an impression of overall geekiness – he had somehow won over both Burton (they had an interest in psychology and a formidable work ethic) and Doyle (via their mutual love of the Beautiful Game and penchant for wry humour). Most surprising of all was the way Carruthers took to Noakes, clearly respectful of the grizzled veteran’s experience and loyalty. Markham had initially wondered whether this was an act, before being compelled to conclude that Carruthers genuinely admired the old warhorse, even to the point of calling him ‘sarge’ like the rest. The DCI when he got to hear of this hadn’t liked it one bit.
DCI Sidney. Markham’s line manager….
Olivia and Noakes were united in their loathing of Sidney, or Judas Iscariot as Olivia called him. ‘Such a creep,’ was Noakes’s uncompromising verdict. ‘I can’t even feel sorry about him an’ his missus splitting up.’ For it appeared that the DCI and Mrs Sidney (aka Brunhilde on account of her Valkyrie-like attributes) were experiencing marital difficulties. ‘Whass the betting he complains about her being small-minded an’ childish then whinges that she’s allus going an’ hiding his teddy…. jus’ like Hazza said about King Charles.’ Mrs Noakes, an ardent royalist, would strongly have disapproved of such a comparison, but Markham was only too familiar with Sidney’s jealous resentment of his Oxbridge credentials and patrician good looks (most particularly a full head of hair). Of late, however, he felt that Sidney had mellowed, and he was grateful to the DCI for backing him in a few tight corners despite his avowed repugnance for ‘Markham’s fey mystical streak’ and preference for ‘good solid (i.e. unflashy) legwork’. They would never be natural allies but, as with Muriel Noakes, he increasingly sensed some unacknowledged hinterland in Sidney – some personal insecurity about his background and antecedents – that meant the barriers were always up between them. Perhaps once Sidney retired and the competitive element was removed, there would be a chance to understand his boss fully. Olivia was convinced that Sidney was hellbent on a career in media punditry (like John Stalker), but Markham thought it more likely he would return to the force on a consultancy basis…. who knows, maybe ending up working cheek by jowl with his old nemesis George Noakes. Now that would be worth seeing!
Suddenly, the grin was wiped off Markham’s face by the Reverend Simon Duthie’s appearance over at the lychgate. He kept very still, feeling he was not up to the forced, over hearty chat in which the clergyman (a late vocation to the priesthood after a career as a bank manager) felt obliged to engage seeing as the station was in his parish. Of course, if Noakes had been there, the DI could have been sure of Duthie giving him a wide berth since the two men had an almost allergic antipathy to each other. Most recently, the vicar had been mightily offended when, after a particularly turgid homily on Moses at St Chad’s Police Memorial Service, Noakes complained, ‘Preachers these days wanna beat about any bush jus’ so long as it ain’t burning.’ As a commentary on the fairly dire standard of ecclesiastical oratory, Markham was inclined to think his friend had a point, but Duthie had been in high dudgeon about it. Olivia was convulsed by this latest example of what she called Noakesypropisms, but relations with Duthie had been pretty much in the deep freeze ever since.
Thank god, the vicar either hadn’t spied him or was doing an excellent job of pretending not to have seen him. With it being Sunday, no doubt he was thinking about higher matters, such as his sermon for the nine o’clock service.
Time for Markham to head over to CID.
Yet it was so peaceful in the little cemetery, and his heart rejoiced in the rising sap of spring with its signs of new life and the feeling of hope intrinsic to Eastertide.
But there was a murder to investigate.
Shades of the prison-house begin to close.
He took one last look round the peaceful little cemetery whose ghostly residents seemed to urge him, ‘You are not dead yet. Get down to life!’ And in that moment, he imagined the dead hairdresser’s plaintive voice joined to theirs. ‘Get down to life!’
CID felt stuffy and stale after his interlude in the fresh air, but at least the team would be ready and waiting in his corner office with its unrivalled view of the car park. It being tacitly accepted that the trio would be scrambled at short notice when Markham was heading up a murder investigation, he could count on them being free to give their full attention to the salon homicide.
There were few others around the department, but one or two shot Markham appraising glances as he disappeared into his office. As usual, Bomgrove CID’s wunderkind was wearing his impeccable three-piece pinstripe and looked as unlike a policeman as it was possible to imagine. With his stellar record, promotion was no doubt his for the asking, but it was rumoured the handsome inspector had no desire to be a desk jockey.
Unaware of this covert scrutiny, it cheered Markham to see that his colleagues looked alert and eager, in notable contrast to the drabness of their surroundings, the DI’s office being indistinguishable from CID’s other glassed-in cubicles with generic office chairs, metallic filing cabinets, rickety sash windows and generally faded décor.
Kate Burton was a far cry from the dowdy, frumpy sergeant of yore addicted to dreary trouser suits and pudding bowl haircuts. Now she sported a chic geometric bob with a set of blonde highlights to rival Cameron Diaz and wore a softly tailored mint green midi dress. True, she still had schoolmarmish habits – ‘perching on chairs with her bum one half on and one half off, like she’s getting ready to take dictation’ (Carruthers) and ever ready to whip out scary specs that magnified the intelligent hazel eyes to the size of enormous brown lollipops . But altogether, she was transformed from the sexless neophyte whose main objective appeared to have been to pass unnoticed in the boisterous melting pot of CID. ‘Actually she’s pretty fit these days,’ was the irrepressible Doyle’s verdict.
Both Doyle and Carruthers – today casually attired in chinos and sweaters – paid careful attention to appearance, unlike Noakes whose chunky physique and fondness for junk food meant that the pug-faced ex-sergeant with his pouchy prize-fighter’s features, dreadful dress sense (his cardigans being particularly awful) and wildly waving salt and pepper thatch was hardly a poster boy for modern policing, inducing shudders whenever the ‘gold braid mob’ clapped eyes on him. Luckily, the two young sergeants distracted bilious superiors from his friend’s sartorial deficiencies. Markham still winced whenever he recalled Sidney irritably enquiring of Noakes, ‘Why are you always scratching yourself, man?’ only to receive the scowling reply, ‘Cos nobody else knows where I itch.’
One Noakesian tradition that the team had enthusiastically continued was the provision of eatables on such occasions. Sarcastic commentary from Sidney and others on their exemplification of the maxim that ‘an army marches on its stomach’ was water off a duck’s back to Doyle and Carruthers. Faintly embarrassed by her colleagues’ preoccupation with what Noakes called ‘commissary’, Kate Burton nonetheless saw its value in terms of team bonding and was happy to provide chocolate muffins and cappuccinos from Costa when it was her turn while generally sticking to a granola bar and soy latte for herself. Today it was Carruthers doing the honours, proudly producing a lemon drizzle cake made by his girlfriend Kim. During the wedding boutique murder inquiry, Carruthers had shown himself in a more vulnerable light when he confided that Kim was plus-size and had suffered abuse for being a ‘fat girl’. His chivalrous protectiveness had made the others warm to him, with Kim and Doyle’s fiancée Kelly now vying to outdo each other in the baking stakes.
Just like family, Markham thought in amusement watching them tuck in, even Burton being tempted by the deliciously moist offering (‘She uses fromage frais, that’s the secret,’ Carruthers told them proudly). The DI was pleased to note that Burton appeared more bright-eyed and cheerful than of late. Hopefully that meant her romantic prospects were looking up again. Nathan Finlayson was a decent man – to say nothing of patient – and there was every prospect of him making her happy if she would only give him a chance.
Predictably, Burton was the first to finish her cake and get down to business, briskly stating the identity of their victim before rattling off the pool of suspects.
‘Mr Coxley was found by Becca Drew, one of the stylists. It was just her and two other stylists – Ed Collins and Sandra Crowley – due in, along with Cassie Johnson who runs the nail bar…. The rest of the staff are away on holiday.’
‘Narrows it down,’ Doyle said with satisfaction.
‘Hmm.’ Burton frowned. ‘I wouldn’t be too sure about that… There’s a rival hairdresser name of Des O’Grady and some bad blood,’ she bit her lip, ‘sorry – unfortunate choice of words – with Helen Mathews a stylist Coxley had sacked…. he thought she was poaching clients and bitching about him to the Gazette.’
Typically, Burton had been swift in extracting background information from Becca Drew.
‘In terms of other people he had issues with…. there’s this woman called Carol Davidson from True Care Bromgrove who was apparently “always on the cadge” and a local writer…. Sarah Moorcroft…. she threw a hissy fit because Coxley couldn’t fit her in for an appointment when she had some kind of a launch or promo at Waterstone’s.’ Burton scanned her notes. ‘Things weren’t hunky dory with the nail bar woman because he’d jacked up her rent…. and reading between the lines, it sounded as though him and Ed Collins weren’t getting on too well. Also, there’s this girl Stella Casey who was a trainee at the salon and started hanging round the place after her apprenticeship was over, making a bit of a nuisance of herself.’
‘A stalker!’ Carruthers sat up. This sounded promising.
‘Well, I’m not sure if you could call her that,’ Burton demurred. ‘But apparently her father Philip seems to think Coxley had led her on…. encouraged her…. Becca also mentioned an ex-customer called Karen Bickerstaff who sued Coxley after a treatment went wrong and damaged her scalp. She lost the case and has been bad-mouthing him ever since.’
‘Well done, Kate,’ Markham thanked her. ‘That’s all useful intel…. It certainly sounds as though Mr Coxley wasn’t universally popular.’
‘He was very charismatic according to Becca,’ Burton replied handing out a head and shoulders shot of the victim. ‘I’d say she and Sandra Croxley were fairly smitten.’
‘That clobber’s a bit dated,’ Doyle scoffed.
‘Yeah, like something out of The Sweeney,’ Carruthers agreed, ‘though he looks more of a pretty boy than some kind of macho man.’ His voice held a question.
‘Not homosexual according to Becca,’ Burton replied smartly, ‘though he liked to keep the customers guessing…. made him glamorous and mysterious.’
‘Ah yes, there’s the clientele to consider,’ Markham said thoughtfully.
‘His regulars were mostly elderly ladies by the sound of it,’ Burton said. ‘They’re really the salon’s bread and butter, though there’s some young ones come in as well. I’ve asked Becca to email me a list.’
‘What about next of kin?’ Markham asked. He was never one to foist condolence visits on subordinates and liked to pay his respects to the bereaved.
‘He was an only child,’ Burton replied. ‘Both parents dead. There’s an aunt and a couple of cousins. The FLOs are on it.’
Markham nodded slowly. ‘Get them to give me the details, Kate.’ Even semi-detached relatives needed to know that Andrew Coxley was not just another statistic and mattered to the team.
There was a brief pause, his colleagues aware of the guvnor’s intense respect for the dead. Unlike some hard-bitten SIOs, he never tolerated anything that approached an affront to their dignity. Indeed, those who had been on the receiving end of his icy disdain for displaying inappropriate gallows humour never made the same mistake again.
Finally, Doyle broke the silence.
‘Who gets to inherit the business?’ he asked.
‘I’m checking with his solicitors tomorrow,’ Burton answered. ‘Hoskinson & Garrett in the town centre.’
‘What’s the plan then?’ Carruthers was clearly eager to get cracking.
‘Obviously the salon’s closed for the time being,’ Burton informed them. ‘But staff are being re-directed to Mr O’Grady’s premises…. The Cutting Edge.’
‘Kate and I will interview them there tomorrow morning while you two get the incident room set up and make a start with background checks,’ Markham instructed. ‘We also need as full a picture as possible of Mr Coxley’s clientele. Dimples is doing the PM at three tomorrow afternoon.’
They looked at each other. ‘Why not attend together,’ the DI’s tone was wry, ‘for moral support,’ he added, being well aware of their squeamishness. ‘I doubt there will be any surprises, but I want a full report.’ He steepled elegant musician’s hands with long, thin, tapering fingers. ‘You also need to liaise with the SOCOs processing Mr Coxley’s flat and find out what his computer shows in terms of social media activity. Whoever killed him didn’t take his mobile, so the phone records also need following up.’
‘Any chance this could have been random, boss?’ Carruthers asked. ‘Some nut job?’
‘Apparently Mr Coxley always kept the salon locked when he was there by himself…. he was pretty paranoid about security after a burglary at the newsagent’s. Which means he most likely opened the door to his attacker –’
‘Because he knew them,’ Doyle finished.
‘Precisely.’ Markham let this sink in. ‘I believe he probably met his killer by appointment.’
It was a sobering thought.
‘Is sarge coming in on this one?’ Doyle enquired disingenuously.
‘Is the Pope Catholic?’ Markham asked deadpan.
His colleagues grinned.
‘I’ll swing by Rosemount tomorrow afternoon and see what Noakesy makes of it all. No doubt Natalie and Mrs Noakes will have something to contribute in due course.’ Plenty of highly-spiced gossip, no doubt.
He smiled at them. ‘Right, get off and enjoy the rest of your day. Tomorrow we have to hit the ground running.’
All At Sea
Monday April 17 looked set to be fine and sunny as Burton and Markham drew up outside The Cutting Edge on Quickswood Lane. Part of a short terrace of shops and houses on the other side of the street from Andrew Coxley’s salon, its dimensions were much the same as the rival establishment, though Markham noticed that the frontage was shabbier with the paintwork peeling in places and worn signage.
‘It’s just Becca Drew, Sandra Crowley, Ed Collins and Cassie Johnson this morning, sir,’ Burton said with her usual punctilious deference (clearly he was never going to break her habit of calling him ‘sir’). ‘The rest of them will be coming in tomorrow…. We don’t have to worry about staff who were away on holiday, so essentially it’s just the key players I went through yesterday – folk who knew Mr Coxley or locked horns with him at some point.’
‘Good. What about clients?’
‘The others are still working on that, guv, though we’ve got some names from Becca and hopefully people will fill us in tomorrow…. The clientele’s largely elderly and it doesn’t seem like any of his regulars could be in the frame, but you never know.’
‘Indeed,’ he nodded thoughtfully. ‘Anything useful come through from Mr Coxley’s flat…. anything from social media?’
‘Doyle’s e mailed you the SOCO pictures and report. It’s just a typical bachelor pad…. nice little terrace…. décor safe and neutral,’ she grimaced, ‘not like his dress…. By the look of it, he liked a quiet life…. no red flags, nothing to show he did drugs or anything like that…. and the neighbours weren’t aware of overnight visitors. His social media stuff’s all about the salon, nothing personal.’
‘Sounds like he guarded his privacy.’
‘Well, I suppose in his job he was more or less on stage all the time – projecting an image,’ Burton replied. ‘It was probably a relief to drop the act when he was at home.’
An astute observation, Markham thought.
‘Phone records?’ he asked without much hope.
‘Still waiting on those, guv….. But I checked with his solicitors before we came out. After a bit of arm-twisting, the senior partner told me Coxley never made a will, so it looks like his next of kin are set to inherit.’
Markham suppressed a smile at the reference to ‘arm-twisting’. Burton must have borrowed one or two techniques from the playbook of infamous George Noakes!
‘I spoke with the FLOs last night,’ he said. ‘The aunt’s in a nursing home and his cousins have cast-iron alibis for the time in question.’
‘So, not a case of “Follow the Money”,’ she said regretfully.
‘Definitely not,’ he confirmed. ‘The cousins have power of attorney and apparently want to keep the salon running until they decide what to do with it.’
So the bottom line was, they had nothing to go on.
And the interviews with Andrew Coxley’s employees didn’t yield anything useful either.
Sandra Crowley was a droopy brunette with long witchy hair and a somewhat dopey manner which gave her the appearance of being half a beat behind everyone else. Becca Drew, on the other hand, a gamine blonde, was clearly sharp as a cartload of monkeys though, like her colleague, she appeared woebegone with red-rimmed eyes. Ed Collins struck Markham as good-looking in the manner of one of those handsome lifeguards from Baywatch, giving little away behind a cool, bland exterior.
In terms of alibis, all three were technically unsatisfactory since they were home alone slumped in front of the TV. Of course, given that they were due into work bright and early on Saturday morning, it was understandable if none of them fancied whooping it up on Friday night.
‘Andy was a decent boss,’ Ed insisted, though neither Markham nor Burton missed the sidelong glance Becca shot him at this. An unspoken message passed between the detectives.
It would definitely pay to probe the relations between Andrew Coxley and Ed Collins.
Cassie Johnson was a scrawny, almost emaciated, woman wearing so much makeup that it practically entered the room before she did. Apparently, she had spent the night with her boyfriend and was feeling fairly hung-over on Saturday morning. ‘Andy was a skinflint,’ she told them bluntly. ‘And yeah, I was angry about him putting my rent up. But not enough to kill him, no way!’ Petite and bird-like, it was difficult to imagine her plunging scissors into Coxley’s neck or lugging his body about, but Dimples Davidson was clear that a woman could have done it.
All four employees remained tight-lipped on the issue of personalities and possible disagreements.
‘Almost as if they’d made a pact to keep shtum,’ Burton lamented afterwards. ‘O’Grady too.’
The proprietor of The Cutting Edge had been even less forthcoming than the others although, being thick-set and brawny, it was easier to imagine him as the attacker. For an alibi, he referred them to the landlord of The Quickswood Arms round the corner.
Once back outside in the sunshine, the two officers regarded each other in some dismay.
‘Let’s get back to the station and touch base with the other two,’ Markham said finally.
‘Think I’ll drop in on the PM this afternoon, sir,’ Burton told him before adding with a thin smile, ‘Doyle’s always a bit green about the gills when Dimples gets out his Stryker saw.’
‘Excellent. Meanwhile I’ll see if Noakesy can add anything in terms of background.’
That had to be better than spending the rest of the afternoon dodging Sidney.’
Burton must have read his mind. ‘The DCI’s over in Liverpool today, sir…. the conference on digital forensics. Not due back till around four tomorrow ’
‘Nothing like putting off the evil hour,’ he said, the relief clear in his tone.
‘And don’t forget, sir, he’s knee-deep in preparations for the Coronation – that junket down at the Town Hall and the concert in Hollingrove Park. It’ll be a while before he gets round to the Coxley case.’
‘Thank heaven for King Charles III,’ Markham exclaimed. ‘Looks like royalty may buy us a reprieve!’
There was a twinkle in Burton’s eye as she joked, ‘At least with this one they aren’t going to be screaming “E.R.”!’
He groaned in mock-horror. ‘Kate, that sounds worryingly Noakesian.’
‘Give sarge my best,’ she grinned. ‘Looking forward to indiscreet inquiries!’
Rosemount Retirement Home was a two-storeyed white stucco Georgian building whose classical façade and beautifully landscaped grounds were a source of no small satisfaction to Mrs Muriel Noakes with her penchant for what Olivia called Downton Abbey Toffdom. The layout of knot and rose gardens, along with regimented topiary, created a soothing impression of symmetry and order before the formality gave way to lawns and a lake surrounding a small island with willow oak in the middle. Beyond that, a wildflower meadow blended imperceptibly into a landscape worthy of Constable or Gainsborough.
Since Markham was generally regarded as part of the furniture at Rosemount, the cheery clinical manager waved him through with a smiling welcome. ‘Mr Noakes is in the library setting up for a poetry recital tonight,’ she told him, since the retirement home regularly played host to a range of local societies.
The Jacobean style panelled room with its deep red walls and drapery, maroon leather wingback chairs, highly polished round tables and thick pile antique carpet was graciously proportioned, with floor to ceiling leaded windows looking out onto the woods and up towards Weston Ridge. Recessed mahogany shelving along one side of the room held row upon row of gold-tooled volumes, while a full-length portrait of George III in his coronation robes dominated the opposite wall. Markham was amused to note there were fewer paintings of the nymphs-and-shepherds variety dotted about than formerly, these having been replaced by watercolours of British naval heroes due to Noakes’s Bulldog Drummond enthusiasm for men who ruled the waves. The DI wasn’t entirely sure that Horatio Nelson with eye patch and sleeve pinned up would have been his own choice for the library of a retirement home, but at least it wasn’t General Gordon being butchered at Khartoum or Captain Cook facing down cannibals, both of these worthies being much admired by Rosemount’s security manager. And most probably Noakes’s apple-cheeked young assistant Brian, who belonged to the Bromgrove Sea Cadets, eagerly endorsed all his line manager’s choices.
His friend looked almost respectable, in a brown tweed suit which, despite being rather too warm for the day and straining at the seams, doubtless reflected Muriel’s Home and Garden aspirations, though she hadn’t succeeded in parting Noakes from his beloved George boots (the only footwear an alumnus of 2 Para would countenance) or the regimental tie knotted somewhere under his left ear. Seeing Markham, he beamed with pleasure, ushering the DI towards an armchair. As if by magic, Brian appeared and after a brief exchange of pleasantries betook himself to rustle up tea and biscuits (‘the good ones, mind’).
‘How goes it, Noakesy?’
‘Not too bad. Jus’ a case of shifting things round a bit in here an’ sorting some chairs.’
‘A poetry evening, I understand.’
‘Yeah, William Blake.’ Noakes scowled. ‘You wouldn’t think someone like that could write Jerusalem, would you?’
‘Well, with him being a holy joe an’ a dirty old man.’ Noakes spoke as if it were self-evident.
‘I suppose we’ve got to make allowances for morally flawed artistic geniuses.’
His friend didn’t look as though he supposed they had to do anything of the kind.
‘Any road, it couldn’t be worse than the bloke we had in last week from the Biblical Archaeology Society…. some beardy weirdy from the university banging on about ancient manuscripts.’ He let out a guffaw. ‘Wasn’t too happy when Bri called them the Dead Chuffed Rolls.’
Markham’s lips twitched. It sounded as though Brian, for all his youth, was a kindred spirit.
‘Guess you’re here about that hairdresser getting murdered,’ Noakes said with elaborate casualness, though he was transparently desperate to be involved (‘all the subtlety of a hang-gliding flasher’, as Carruthers had memorably observed).
‘Did you know him… not personally, of course,’ Markham added hastily, aware that his friend expected to get change from a fiver when he went for a haircut, ‘but perhaps Muriel and Natalie had dealings?’ The DI suspected that Mrs Noakes might well have been susceptible to the practised blandishments of a man like Andrew Coxley.
‘Dunno about Nat, but I think the missus went in there a few times,’ Noakes replied. ‘Said it were a bit embarrassing, though, the way some of the old dears competed for his attention… kind of fighting over him.’ From which it might be deduced that Mrs Noakes did not care to be lumped together with the sort of women who lapped up the attentions of their hair stylist. No, she wouldn’t want to patronise an establishment as part of the herd.
Brian was back with their refreshments, Noakes dispatching the cheery youngster on various errands before getting stuck in to the tea and shortbread (perk of the job).
‘Strange how women had the hots for someone like that,’ he said finally, coming up for air. ‘Especially with him wearing all that poncey gear, like a disco king.’
‘Oh I don’t know, Noakesy,’ the DI said with a mischievous gleam. ‘Vintage wear is in vogue again, what with Life on Mars and DCI Gene Hunt.’
‘Oh aye…. that series about the policeman who gets knocked over an’ wakes up in the nineteen seventies…. ends up working for some right bastard straight out of The Sweeney…. dead sexist an’ homophobic,’ Noakes added primly. Pot calling the kettle black, Markham thought with an inner eye roll.
‘The very same. But “the Gene Hunt look” went down a storm.’
‘Mind you, that hairdresser didn’t look like anyone from The Sweeney,’ Noakes grunted. ‘More like Donny Osmond or one of them Bee Gees, if you ask me.’ With some compunction he added, ‘Not that the poor bloke deserved to end up like that… with scissors sticking out of his neck an’ a bathing cap thingy on his head.’
Markham didn’t ask how his friend knew this, well aware that the other had his own hotline to CID.
‘I’ll check with Mu an’ Nat to see what they know about the setup,’ Noakes said affably. ‘You can come over for your dinner an’ they’ll tell you all about it…. Thursday suit you?’
‘Great, but please don’t let Muriel go to too much trouble.’ Vain hope!
‘Bring your Liv,’ Noakes urged. ‘I were thinking the other day how she looks like she could do with a square meal.’ Which, roughly translated, meant that ‘the missus’ had made noises about anorexia or an eating disorder.
‘I’m sure she’d love to,’ Markham lied valiantly, aware with what little relish Olivia would greet the prospect of an evening chez “Mu”.
There was a brief silence before his erstwhile wingman’s thoughts returned to the murder. ‘Anyone looking good for it yet?’ Noakes asked, shovelling in more shortbread.
Markham outlined the list of suspects. ‘Becca Drew and Sandra Crowley seemed genuinely upset,’ he said. ‘Ed Collins less so, but he still made the right noises. Cassie Johnson was upfront about having rowed with Mr Coxley…. rather a hard-faced character…. but it’s a long way from murder.’
‘What about O’Grady….. handbags at ten paces with him an’ Coxley?’ Noakes demanded in an unconscious imitation of DCI Gene Hunt.
‘O’Grady’s short, stocky and balding. Definitely not the histrionic type,’ the DI replied drily. ‘Looks like a real spit and sawdust barber…. or a prize-fighter…. He insisted the place was big enough for the two of them and Coxley was welcome to his “old tabbies”.’
‘How about the stalker lass an’ the rest of ’em?’
‘Doyle and Carruthers are chasing up alibis and arranging interviews with all of them for tomorrow morning. O’Grady’s letting us use his place again.’
‘Probl’y good for business, him being close to the action,’ Noakes commented cynically.
‘Do you fancy sitting in?’ the DI asked, observing the naked longing on his former wingman’s face. ‘I’d be interested to hear your impressions,’ which would no doubt be of the unvarnished and brutally frank variety.
Noakes beamed. ‘Thought you’d never ask,’ he said. ‘Bri can hold the fort for a couple of hours.’ Then, a shade anxiously, ‘What about Slimy Sid?’
‘It’ll be fine,’ Markham said with more conviction than he felt. ‘You leave the DCI to me.’
There followed a pleasant interlude, with Noakes enquiring cordially after Dimples Davidson. The pathologist didn’t have the requisite ‘bed-pan manner’, in his opinion, but the two men had acquired a grudging respect for each other for the years.
Gradually, Markham felt his way round to the delicate subject of Natalie’s health, feeling he could safely introduce the subject now that her name had been mentioned between them.
‘Well, it knocked the stuffing out of her for a while an’ she had a bit of a depression, but Rick really stepped up,’ Noakes confided, referring to Rick Jordan, her fiancé and proprietor of a fitness empire whose hardboiled mother hadn’t exactly welcomed Natalie into the family. ‘An’ mebbe it’s all for the best what with it not being planned an’ them probl’y going to have the baby adopted.’ His piggy eyes were wistful, Markham noticed. Muriel might have been relieved that this hiccup in the family history had been ironed out, but he was certain his friend would have loved a grandchild.
‘Just two more years and then Natalie will have her degree,’ he said swiftly, moving on to a happier subject. The Noakeses had been inordinately proud when their ‘late developer’ offspring – a beautician and ‘holistic practitioner’ – retook her A levels before signing up to do a part-time degree in History at Bromgrove University where she was now in her third year. ‘Yeah, jus’ think of that’ Noakes sighed happily, ‘She’ll have letters after her name…. like your Liv!’ And Muriel would doubtless be insufferable on the strength of it. ‘God, talk about Educating Rita, we have to deal with Educating Natalie!’ Olivia lamented even though no-one could fail to be touched by Noakes’s delight in his daughter’s achievement.
‘Funny thing, this with your hairdresser an’ the oldies,’ Noakes said gnomically as they wandered out to the forecourt where Markham had parked.
‘Well, I ran into Chris Carstairs in The Grapes the other day an’ he said Jack Moriarty’s looking at a couple of unsolveds from ten years back.’
‘Really?’ Markham had a lot of time for DCI Moriarty who ran the station’s cold case unit.
‘Couple of old biddies who lived somewhere off Quickswood Lane…. yeah, thass right, one were Montclair Drive an’ the other Canterbury Close…. each of ’em smothered with a cushion or pillow or summat but no sign of a break-in or burglary or owt like that… dead peaceful an’ quiet, a bit like Shipman.’ Noakes had always been vastly interested in Doctor Death’s murderous career.
‘So they knew their killer then?’
‘More’n likely, yeah… Jus’ seems a weird coincidence with it being in the same area an’ Coxley having all them OAP groupies.’
Markham couldn’t help laughing at the reference to ‘groupies’, though he felt a sudden chill on hearing this, as of someone walking over his grave. It was not long since the high street murder investigation had raised the spectre of a homicidal gerontophile, and he had no desire to revisit such territory any time soon.
Noakes was eyeing him shrewdly. ‘I know you don’ like coincidences, guv.’
The DI certainly didn’t.
Calmly, he replied, ‘I’ll check in with DCI Moriarty, Noakesy. As you say, it’s an odd coincidence, but we need to cover all the bases.’
‘Him an’ DI Hart don’ reckon there’s much gonna turn up after all this time, but you never know.’
Markham unlocked his car and looked back at the elegant mansion behind them.
‘I reckon you’ve landed on your feet here, Noakesy,’ he said. ‘A gentler pace of life.’
‘Happen so…. but I ain’t ready for the old invalid chair an’ cocoaholic haze jus’ yet, guv.’
More a rum-and-coke, the DI thought wryly. Britannia waives the rules as far as Noakesy’s concerned, he reflected as he waved and headed down the drive.
But there was considerable affection in his glance as he drove away. As Olivia often said, if cycling from the pub to Evensong past cricketers on the village green was no longer what it was, there were nevertheless still certain enduring signs of what it meant to be Made in England, one of which being George Noakes. As he headed away from Rosemount back to the station, Markham strove to remind himself of this essential truth.
That evening at The Sweepstakes, a complex of ultra-modern apartments off Bromgrove Avenue where Markham had his flat, Olivia was waiting for him with Chinese takeaway (from her current favourite, The Lotus Garden) and a new hairstyle.
‘Wow, Liv,’ Markham said, contemplating her new side-parted pageboy with a bizarre mixture of pride and nostalgia. ‘Where have the pre-Raphaelite tresses gone?’
‘Way too Burne-Jones, my love,’ was the prompt reply. ‘I felt it was time for something more hard-edged and Anna Wintour if you get my drift.’
‘Suits you,’ he said. And it was true, though he wasn’t sure how he felt about the somewhat severe, almost androgynous new look. The Joan of Arc style brought out Olivia’s fine-edged, almost medieval, bone structure as never before, however, and he was impressed by the overall effect.
‘Of course, Noakesy will be outraged.’
‘Not too mention Her Nibs,’ Olivia retorted. ‘She’ll probably decide I’m “gender fluid” or a Tatu follower and thus even more unworthy of the honour of being your partner.’
He chuckled at the allusion to the lesbian pop duo.
‘Where did you get it done, Liv?’
‘Mobile hairdresser who does someone at school,’ she said, smiling broadly.
As the timing seemed propitious, Markham quickly broke the news of their invite to the Noakeses for Thursday but was relieved that his partner took it quite well.
‘Oh well,’ she sighed, ‘I suppose I’ll get through it somehow.’ With the aid of gallons of Pinot Noir.
‘How’s Natalie doing?’ she asked kindly.
‘Noakesy says okay, but it’s got to have left emotional scars.’
The whole topic of Natalie’s pregnancy being freighted with difficult memories, he sought to distract Olivia with an account of his visit to Rosemount.
‘A poetry evening, eh…. Wasn’t it Milton who said, “Some books are to be chewed and digested”?’ she laughed. ‘Though I guess in George’s case, they’re probably ulcer-inducing.’ Spearing a won ton, she giggled endearingly, ‘He was tickled pink when I told him Milton had a hernia…. fell about when I said that’s probably why people talk about his “epic strain”….. Honestly, Gil, it’s priceless… I’ll never forget Hope’s Open Evening last year… George announced he’d always liked Keats’s Belle Dame Sans Merci and then went on about how all the Romantics were high on “deadly lampshake”. I don’t know how Doc Abernathy managed to keep a straight face, even when George started on about his favourite Tennyson poem being The Lettuce Eaters…. It was too much for Mat, he had to leave the room before he died laughing.’
Despite a sharp pang at the mention of Mat Sullivan, Markham played along. ‘Better not get Noakesy started on John Donne then,’ he cautioned. ‘Wasn’t he alternately a convert and pervert at regular intervals?’
Olivia smiled delightedly. ‘Think I’m safe there, Gil…. They didn’t do The Metaphysicals on George’s school syllabus…. Apparently most of it was modern stuff about cup-finals and the Queen’s birthdays.’
‘Thank god for small mercies,’ Markham chuckled. ‘The cynicism of his outlook is bound to curdle the enthusiasm of the most dedicated poetry-lover.’ Given his friend’s anti-Scots prejudice, what he might make of Robert Burns did not bear thinking about.
‘She smiled reminiscently. ‘It was a real conversation-stopper when Abernathy said, “I’m sure your peers have all gone to higher things” and George told him, ‘”You mean jails.” You should have seen the Doc’s face! But I think he really rates George, not like the rest of that po-faced lot…. enjoys all his mis-quotations and taking the mickey…. Actually, I reckon he secretly wishes he’d had the guts to kick over the traces and be a bit more of a rebel.’
‘Hmm…. career suicide for a deputy head, my love.’
‘Probably,’ she gurgled. ‘D’you know what George said to my friend Linda… that PGCE student I was mentoring last term…. “Don’t talk too quickly at assembly, luv, or most likely they’ll all get up and start dancing”…. She was pretty scandalised, but at least I managed to stop her repeating it to the head – don’t think it would have gone down well with our Dear Leader!’
Markham had no doubt of it, nor of the fact that such bons mots would inevitably somehow have found their way to DCI Sidney and the station’s top brass.
‘Damage limitation, Liv,’ he said wryly. ‘Well done.’
‘Seriously though,’ she went on gently, ‘how are you doing with this hairdresser murder?’
‘We’re all systems go tomorrow,’ he said. ‘Witness statements and alibis and all the rest of it.’ Then, as she regarded him quizzically, ‘Only we’re really none the wiser. Pretty much all at sea.’ Almost as an afterthought, he told her about the parallel cold case inquiry.
‘Spooky,’ she said thoughtfully. ‘D’you reckon there’s a connection?’
‘I don’t see how,’ he replied, ‘but it’s uncanny nonetheless.’
Rousing himself to show an interest in his partner’s day, moving the chow mein round his plate, he said, ‘What did you get up to, sweetheart?’
‘Oh, just a mental health awareness forum,’ came the laconic reply.
‘What’s one of those then?’
‘You really don’t want to know, Gil.’ Then, with a sudden grin, ‘The last time we were in The Grapes, George said students are all “bleeding snowflakes”.’
‘Sounds a familiar refrain.’
‘He said back in the day nobody gave a stuff about mental health…. Him and his mates just got given Cascara tablets…. fed them to the school nurse’s dog… poor bugger ended up passing himself away.’
Markham couldn’t help laughing despite himself.
‘You know what he’s like once he gets started with all that Dotheboys Hall malarkey!’
‘Well, he says kids these days are all so wet you could wring them out – the victim culture and all that – and no-one’s prepared to tell it as it is.’
‘I’m sure you managed to reassure him that at least one teacher was on his side!’
‘Oh yeah.’ The shiny new bob swung with the vehemence of her enthusiasm. ‘Actually, I suppose today could’ve been worse…. At least there were some laughs.’
‘Yep…. One of the speakers told us this anecdote from Rabbi Lionel Blue ….There was this time when a student burst into his office ranting that he was going to commit suicide and screaming, ‘”What are you going to do about it?” In his memoirs, the Rabbi says, “For the next half an hour or so, we practised jumping off the sofa.”’
Markham found his voice after nearly choking on a prawn cracker. ‘I’m not sure that kind of, er, robust approach will find much favour with Hope’s senior management team…. Just saying.’
‘Don’t I know it.’ Olivia’s face was alight with mischief. But it’s such fun when someone goes off-message. They say the pen is mightier than the word, right?’ she demanded, head on one side. ‘Well, I reckon the Biro Platoon is my best chance of cocking a snook at Slimy Sid and your creepy colleagues.’
‘Good luck with that, Liv.’
‘I’ve saved something special for the Bromgrove Police Newsletter.’
Oh god, he might have known. ‘How’s that, Liv?’
‘It’s George’s favourite traffic-cop story.’
No, oh no!
‘You know…. the one about the policeman who cautions the female motorist, “Madam, you don’t have to say anything, but whatever you say will be taken down and may be given in evidence,’ and she says, “Please don’t hit me with your truncheon, officer.”!’
Hell, that should go down a bomb when it came to the Federation conference on The Place of Humour in Modern Policing.
Sorry, Gil.’ Only she didn’t appear remotely contrite. ‘It’s just too good to leave out.’
‘Hmm.’ He liked to see his lover looking bright and bushy-tailed, so was loath to puncture the merriment.
But she sensed his anxiety.
‘This case has got under your skin,’ she observed softly.
His lips twisted in a resigned smile.
‘It just doesn’t add up,’ he sighed. ‘No rhyme nor reason… but something malicious and hateful at the back of it…. and now some ancient history that feels as if it might be connected… only I don’t see how….’
In other words, the kind of case that gave him the professional heebie-jeebies.
She met his gaze levelly. ‘You’ll crack it Gil, of course you will.’
He wished he felt so sure.
‘I’ll be seeing Noakesy tomorrow…. for scabrous commentary amongst other things,’ he added wryly.
‘Wish I could be there.’
‘Yes, well, I could do with a few penetrating insights before Sidney inflicts a press conference on us… Hopefully Kate’ll be on top of that.’
He missed the way her face tightened at the mention of Kate Burton, but all she said was, ‘Oh, I’m sure she’ll be on top of all the bollocks-speak.’ Not half!
After an awkward silence, Olivia forced a laugh. ‘You’ll be okay with the “Press Gang”’
‘Not if Gavin Conors has anything to do with it, I won’t,’ he replied gloomily, referring to the Gazette’s lead gossip columnist and Noakes’s sworn enemy with whom the former DS had on one occasion come to blows. ‘He’ll be looking for some kind of personal angle.’
‘“Putting a nose on a piece,” I believe they call it,’ she smiled. ‘Like that headline in the Yorkshire Evening Post after the sinking of the Titanic.’
He looked at her quizzically. ‘What headline was that?’
‘“West Riding Lad Feared Drowned.”’
Markham burst out laughing and his gloom momentarily lifted.
‘Right, what’s tonight’s bill of fare on the box?’ he enquired.
‘Kirsty and Phil with Love It or List It.’
Oh well, he’d take what he could get.
‘You’re on,’ he said.
Outside, the spring shadows deepened. Even as they watched the anodyne property improvement gurus, Markham’s mind never stopped niggling at the all-consuming question.
Who killed Andrew Coxley and why?