CRIME IN THE SPA

Prologue

 

Sunday 3rd January was a gloriously cold crisp day, the pavement crunchy underfoot from a light coating of frost and the winter air sharply invigorating.

  As Muriel Noakes headed along Sefton Avenue towards Bromgrove’s Enterprise Quarter, she reflected smugly that those Echinacea toning supplements from the Beautiful Bodies clinic had certainly put a spring in her step. There was something so vulgar about diet pills and quick-fix drinks, but homoeopathic remedies were quite different…. Prince Charles and the Royals were all devotees of complementary medicine, and you couldn’t have a better recommendation than that.

  Even if it weren’t for the royal seal of approval, she would have taken Dr Nariman’s word for it….

  Mrs Noakes’s heart gave a strange, unaccustomed little flutter as her thoughts turned to Dr Yasir Nariman, bariatric surgeon and the clinic’s senior partner who had come to Bromgrove via the world-famous Texas Heart Institute ten years previously.

  The Iranian-born doctor’s appearance certainly didn’t reflect his medical eminence, she mused. Sallow-skinned, squat and slightly hunched, with black hair that belied his advancing years (‘straight from a bottle’ according to unkind observers, while those heavy sideburns were pure sixties), the bow-legged physician was physically unprepossessing to say the least.

  To the superficial observer, she reminded herself.

  Those who were more discerning – who looked beyond the externals – could not fail to miss the incredible aura that radiated from the man, overpowering and eclipsing the presence of other medical personnel. His gaze behind the heavy-rimmed spectacles was so keen and penetrating, that one was quite hypnotized by it. Even his robotic delivery and flat American vowels (‘How y’all doin’?’ was his invariable greeting) couldn’t dent the air of authority and omnipotence. And when the nutcracker face and chin relaxed into a shy smile, there was something disarming about his benevolence.

  Of course, it required a certain type of person to appreciate Dr Nariman’s subtle charm.

  Not like Olivia Mullen, she thought, her lips tightening.

  She never could fathom how George’s boss DI Gilbert Markham – so fastidious and refined – had ended up with a woman like that. Sex was no doubt at the bottom of it, she reflected darkly, her thoughts travelling to the flame-haired willowy teacher whose unconventional dress sense (positively hobo) and ironical asides suggested she was enjoying a perpetual joke at Muriel’s expense. ‘He looks like a geriatric Richard the Third,’ was her crude response to the Gazette’s recent feature on Dr Nariman. ‘Or a spider in a white coat…. And what’s that weird brooch he’s wearing…. is he some sort of Grayson Perry on the side?’

  Muriel had enjoyed imparting the information that Dr Nariman’s trademark gold badge was in fact a replica of the human intestines presented to him on the occasion of his fellowship. But Olivia was not in the least crestfallen. ‘Sorry Muriel, I can see you’re a fan, but he gives me the creeps…. A cross between Gollum and a gigolo…. think I’d pass out again if I came round from the anaesthetic to find him standing over me.’

  ‘Bit of a midget,’ was George’s contribution to the discussion. ‘Looks like he wears stack heels an’ all.’

  Of course, her husband was bound to follow Olivia’s lead, she thought savagely. He was totally in thrall to her, though she did him the justice to admit this was about more than Olivia’s obvious physical attractions and somehow bound up with his devotion to Markham which made him put the boss’s girlfriend on a pedestal and defend her against any criticism.

  Frankly, it was beyond Muriel, but she was nevertheless proud of George’s status as wingman to the wunderkind of Bromgrove CID. ‘I can do without anyone except Noakes,’ the DI responded to all attempts to prise the DS from his side. They were a unit and that was that.

  Her pace slowed and her features softened as she reflected on the family’s Christmas. That Hermès tie for George had been a great success, even if she wasn’t sure he entirely appreciated that it was an exclusive brand. Luckily, Gilbert Markham would doubtless value her assistance in endeavouring to give George’s wardrobe a more executive accent…. though God knew, it was an uphill struggle to break down his resistance to ‘poofy clobber’.

  Their daughter Natalie had given her father a Bonsai tree. ‘He’s got a thing about Zen,’ she told her mother. And, improbable though it seemed, Noakes was delighted by the funny little Chinese elm in its black ceramic pot with oriental inscriptions around the base. ‘One of ’em in CID has a miniature garden thingy with gravel an’ a little rake,’ he confided. ‘Kind of like a mindfulness gizmo…. You can play with the pebbles an’ whatnot when you get stressed….’

  ‘That’ll be Kate Burton,’ Natalie told her mother with a grin, referring to Noakes’s perennially earnest younger colleague. ‘She’s big on meditation…. joss sticks and all that jazz.’

  Natalie herself seemed to have turned a corner after the trauma of the Bluebell case, returning to her job at the beauty salon and taking an interest in the local dating scene…. mercifully the current boyfriend was a clean-cut type who worked as an instructor at the Harmony Spa…. certainly a vast improvement on what had gone before. It was a pity he wasn’t professional, but his mother owned the Spa so who knew where that might lead….

  Muriel considered Beautiful Bodies a step up from Harmony, both because its clientele hailed mainly from Bromgrove’s leafy southeast side (these things counted) and the clinic’s medical team was affiliated to Bromgrove General Hospital. Given her previous career as a medical records clerk, it was really only natural she should feel comfortable in such an ambience.

  It was thoughtful of George to have given her that membership subscription for her birthday last summer. Otherwise she would never have met Dr Nariman in the flesh.

  Another flutter and surge of warmth as she recalled the old-fashioned courtly way he had cleared a path for her one day when she struggled to get past the camera crew stationed at the front door. Later in the clinic’s minimalist café, he had apologized charmingly and chatted about his fly-on-the-wall show for Bromgrove TV. Ever since then, she had avidly consumed The Scales Don’t Lie heedless of Natalie squawking that the whole series was ‘gross’.

  Obviously she was far removed from the poor souls for whom Dr Nariman represented their last chance of a normal life, Muriel reflected complacently, a hand patting the stiffly lacquered blonde helmet before moving down to the collar of her quilted puffer coat and suedette midi. She shuddered fastidiously at the thought of those Ten Ton Tessas who waddled towards Dr Nariman’s office with an almost fanatical light in their eyes. Some of the slobbish husbands were just as bad, but she supposed they were beyond caring whereas the women hadn’t yet given up hope, regarding Beautiful Bodies as their last chance saloon

  Dr Nariman had spoken so compassionately to her about those people and his commitment to ‘giving them a life’. But he was no pushover, and the masterful way he dealt with them on camera sent delicious shivers down her spine – ‘Don’t play games,’ was his catchphrase, uttered with the impenetrability of a sphinx. And when he delivered his soliloquies to the viewers, it felt curiously intimate as though he was speaking just to her.

  But that’s how it was with those from the medical world…. There was always that affinity.

  Kindred spirits.

  That was why he had been so at ease with her in the café…. “Like calls to like.”

  It had been a delightful interlude, concluding with a discussion of natural remedies for chronic fatigue (wild horses would not have induced her to mention the menopause).

  Half fearfully, she hoped to run into him today…. accidentally on purpose. She knew he worked twelve-to-fourteen-hour days seven days a week with no regard for holidays or time off. The Duchy Originals in her tote bag would hopefully strike the right note…. tasteful yet casual and not trying too hard…. She rehearsed it in her head. ‘I became totally passionate about organic farming after listening to the Prince of Wales….’ Or perhaps she should keep royalty out of it…. Coming as he did from Iran, with those ayatollahs or whatever they were toppling the Shah, it might touch a nerve….

  Muriel was still puzzling the conundrum of how to engineer this felicitous encounter when she arrived at the entrance to Beautiful Bodies.

  The clinic was situated just back from the main road, screened by a bank of spindly birch trees. It had won several awards for architecture, the modernist design comprising a series of graduated steel and glass cubes along an upward sloping terrace. Further lego-type extensions to the rear overlooked beautifully landscaped gardens in the Japanese style with bamboo pipe water features and two miniature pagodas in pebbled bowers. Far superior to Harmony which from the outside resembled a Victorian train station. Even George had been impressed that time when he came to collect her. The one and only time, she reflected grimly, trying not to cringe at the memory of his exuberant curiosity about ‘the lardbuckets’.

  ‘It’s not just a weight loss clinic,’ she had told him reproachfully. ‘They have all kinds of specialists…. It was founded on holistic principles…. a whole-body approach, mixing traditional medicine with alternative therapies.’

  ‘Yeah, but it’s the fatties put it on the map,’ Noakes replied happily. He never missed The Scales Don’t Lie, chomping his way through a funsize bag of Snickers as though he got a perverse buzz from cocking a snook at Dr Nariman and the apostles of clean living. He was generally in self-congratulatory mode at the conclusion of each weekly episode, since the clinic’s patients possessed an affluence of flesh that made him appear positively anorexic by comparison. The programme’s freak-show element also fascinated Natalie who, like her father, boggled at the heft of the clientele in a manner that her mother considered unseemly.  

  ‘It’s about giving people quality of life and establishing new habits,’ Muriel admonished. ‘Obviously television focuses on the sensational elements,’ she added with distaste, ‘but Dr Nariman does all kinds of operations…. cardiac and gall bladder procedures…. And he’s a great believer in psychotherapy as well – always insists on sending patients to mental health services.’

  ‘Nobody’s interested in that stuff, mum,’ Natalie said rolling her eyes. ‘They just want to see saddos feeding their faces and having baggy skin cut off…. Plus the weirdy doc looks like some kind of perv…. like he’s somehow, well, getting off on it.’

  Muriel was indignant at the way her nearest and dearest cast a sheen of sleaze over such a dedicated professional. How terrible to have one’s purest motives so dreadfully misconstrued. Well, she at least would show her appreciation of Dr Nariman’s selfless commitment to those whom no common or garden plastic surgeon would ever be willing to treat.

  Sunday was always a quiet day at the clinic, with just a bored weekend receptionist filing her nails at the desk in the main foyer. Muriel smiled regally and swiped her membership card through the turnstile before passing along pastel-hued corridors to the Nutrition and Lifestyle suite where Dr Nariman had his consulting room.

  The waiting room was deserted. Not a sound to be heard. Not even the clack of computer keys or voices on the telephone from the secretaries’ room.

  Secretly this was what Muriel had counted on, it being well known that Dr Nariman alone of the clinic’s medical staff generally came in at weekends to catch up on his paperwork. She hadn’t liked to enquire at the front desk – no reason to let all and sundry know her business – but what could be more natural than that she should say a graceful thank you for the Echinacea en route to Holland & Barrett at the far end of the building.

  ‘Do they sell mugs with his face on, then?’ George had enquired facetiously, a sally which put him in the deep freeze for one entire weekend.

  The memory made her frown until she recalled that this would give her unbecoming tram lines and ruin the impression she intended to create. Besides, Botox was a big no-no…. just look at Nicole Kidman…. unable to move a muscle after all that work she had done…

  Now it came to it, however, Muriel felt uncharacteristically timid.

  What if he took her to be one of those pathetic women who were always lurking in front of the clinic during filming? Groupies….

  She took a deep breath. Dr Nariman would never in a month of Sundays take her for one of them. And anyway, he was married and above all that…. The wife had some chronic illness that had left her in a wheelchair…. further confirmation of the man’s selflessness as far as Muriel was concerned.

  Another calming breath and she was tapping lightly at his door which to her surprise was slightly ajar.

  Perhaps he had popped out for a coffee to help him get through the paperwork.

  But it was unlike him not to lock the door. Everyone knew he was a stickler for confidentiality and safeguarding patients’ details.

  She knocked again, louder this time.

  Still no answer.

  And now she began to feel uneasy standing there on the deep pile fawn carpet. A prickling sensation of there being something wrong….

  Gently, Muriel pushed the door.

  The sight that met her eyes was one she would never forget.

  Dr Yasir Nariman stood on the industrial size weighing scales in the far corner of the room apparently locked in the embrace of a giantess.

  It took Muriel some moments to register that the disconcertingly lifelike figure was in fact one of the bariatric simulation mannequins used for education and training.

  Medic and dummy were tethered to the sturdy rail at the back of the platform under the digital display monitor. They stood sideways-on to Muriel, with Nariman’s head lolling forward onto the Amazon’s chest.

  The grotesque pose was lewdly suggestive of deviant sex.

  But for one thing.

  Nariman’s dark hair was clotted with a black sticky substance.

  Dried blood.

  From somewhere outside herself, Muriel heard anguished wailing.

  It was only afterwards that they told her the screams were her own. 

1

And So It Begins

 

As DI Gilbert (‘Gil’) Markham sat on his favourite bench in St Chad’s graveyard overlooking the police station, he wondered if he would ever tire of this peaceful retreat to which he had invariable recourse at the start of every major investigation.

  It was a leaden Monday morning. One of those days when every vestige of colour seemed to have been leached from nature. And yet, even denuded of foliage, the cemetery with its lichen-encrusted monuments and tombstones felt somehow inexpressibly soothing…. as though watchers from the spirit world protected the peaceful terraces.

  ‘Bleeding morbid,’ was DS George Noakes’s verdict on his boss’s unvarying ritual. ‘Old miseryguts wassname’ll think you’ve got a thing for dead folk…. that or he’ll try an’ sign you up for the smells an’ bells brigade.’

  But the Reverend Mr Dodwsorth understood Markham’s rites of passage, being well aware the lean dark policeman whose hawklike bone structure gave him an air of unusual distinction had a poetic streak which found solace in St Chad’s precincts.

  It was superstition too, since the inspector felt unable to embark on a murder case without privately commemorating all the murder victims who thronged his dreams, their faces indelibly printed on his mind. Almost as though he had to seek permission before working to avenge the latest addition to their ghostly ranks.

  Bizarre but somehow indispensable to his mindset.

  Markham’s thoughts turned to the previous day’s discovery at the Beautiful Bodies clinic….

  Muriel Noakes had herself well in hand when they arrived. There was no hysteria or frenzy, but he noted with compassion how she clutched the packet of Duchy Originals for dear life as though it represented the doctor himself.

  ‘I was going to give him these,’ she whispered through ashen lips. ‘A gesture of appreciation…. such a refined man.’

  Noakes’s expression suggested he thought that particular brand was the last thing anyone would want to dunk in their brew, but he was gentle with his wife, steering her firmly out of the doctor’s consulting room and into the hands of the receptionist who had been alerted by her screams.

  ‘I didn’t touch anything, Inspector,’ she told Markham, dabbing beads of sweat from her forehead. Normally it would have been ‘Gilbert’, but the occasion demanded formality.

  As Markham commended her presence of mind, some colour crept back into her cheeks and she allowed herself to be shepherded towards the café on the assurance that a statement would be taken forthwith.

  ‘She didn’t see anyone around ’cept the receptionist, guv,’ Noakes said on his return. ‘It’s always quiet here at weekends.’

  The two men returned to Dr Nariman’s office and contemplated the ghastly tableau that had so traumatized Muriel.

  ‘If it weren’t for the blood, you’d think the doc was up to summat kinky with the sex doll,’ the DS observed.

  Markham’s lips twitched. ‘That’s not a sex doll, Sergeant. It’s one of the dummies they use to practise moving larger people.’

  His wingman moved forward to take a closer look.

  ‘Could’ve fooled me. Looks like one of them creepy inflatables Vice picked up when they raided the place in Calder Vale….’

  ‘Ah yes, I recall it was quite a haul from To Heaven And Back.’ The DI’s finely moulded lips curled.

  ‘Chris Carstairs kept one of ’em in his office for laughs till Sidney got wind of it.’

  Markham could well imagine DCI Sidney (‘Slimy Sid’ as the rank and file had christened him) bursting a blood vessel at such a discovery, but DI Carstairs was an old hand at managing his superiors.

  ‘Titchy ain’t he?’ Noakes was circling the weighing scales thoughtfully. ‘Looks like a hunchback an’ all…. or a dung beetle….’ Catching sight of the DI’s expression he added hastily, ‘Not that the poor sod deserved to end up like this.’

  ‘It’s alright, Sergeant.’ The DI’s distaste for anything approaching gallows humour was notorious, but he was familiar with the other’s distancing techniques and knew no-one would be more tenacious in ferreting out Nariman’s killer than George Noakes.

  The pathologist Doug ‘Dimples’ Davidson arrived, calling a halt to this poetic colloquy.

  Bluff and hearty, with a brick-red complexion and the breeziness of a farmer or vet, Davidson looked the absolute antithesis of the wizened figure whose face was buried in the dummy’s chest.

  ‘Christ.’

  Markham’s dislike of profanity was as well-known as his intolerance of disrespect for the dead but, observing the medic’s stricken expression, it occurred to him there was a professional connection to the victim.

  ‘You knew him, Doug?’

  ‘In a manner of speaking.’ The colour that had drained from the doctor’s face began to return. ‘Nariman was one of those who lived for his work. Obsessive.’ There was a note of disapproval, since Davidson took a lively part in community affairs and cut a colourful figure on Bromgrove’s social scene.

  ‘How old is he?’ Noakes’s eyes were riveted on the ‘dung beetle’.

  ‘Well, I believe he qualified around 1970.’ A shaky laugh. ‘He used to say he was “old enough to do surgery” and that was all anyone needed to know.’

  ‘In his seventies then,’ Markham said.

  ‘Yes…. But he had the stamina of a youngster…. it was legendary how much he crammed into a day.’

  ‘Seemed to have a bit of a cult following,’ Noakes said with an unaccustomed air of diffidence. He cleared his throat awkwardly. ‘My missus talked about him like he was God Almighty.’

  Markham had wondered about that. Clearly Mrs Noakes was susceptible to the good doctor’s appeal…. otherwise, what was she doing dropping in at the weekend with a present for him? Inconceivable that Muriel had the hots for Nariman – she and Noakes were solid – but he suspected that what Olivia would term a ‘crushette’ wasn’t out of the question given her recent assiduous attendance at the clinic regarding ‘women’s problems’ (unspecified). Noakes and his boss rarely talked about their personal lives – any allusion to the change of life or HRT would have reduced the sergeant to paroxysms of mumbling embarrassment – but Markham was willing to bet Muriel’s infatuation with the clinic’s lead practitioner and resident TV star had something to do with fluctuating hormone levels. ‘I can lend her Germaine Greer’s The Whole Woman,’ Olivia had suggested mischievously. ‘Or maybe Nancy Friday’s My Secret Garden…. so she can get in touch with her uninhibited side.’ That won’t be necessary, he told her heavily, but it tickled his lover’s fancy to imagine illicit desires just waiting to be unleashed.

  Narrowing his eyes, the pathologist said, ‘There was something about Nariman…. Personally, I thought he looked like Rumpelstiltskin,’ Noakes guffawed appreciatively at this, ‘but for some reason women couldn’t get enough…. And that TV programme of his was a real ratings success…. He had a weird sort of authenticity…. didn’t play to the cameras…. no soft-soaping of patients…. just a man on a mission to give people a better life.’ He chuckled grimly. ‘It was quite enjoyable seeing him give all those couch potatoes a pasting.’

  ‘A man with enemies then?’ Markham’s gaze was searching.

  ‘More than likely,’ Davidson agreed.

  ‘What about family?’ the DI asked.

  ‘There’s a disabled wife…. multiple sclerosis with complications…. He was pretty devoted by all accounts…. but there was his work, and she had her own circle of friends.’

  ‘Separate lives then?’ Noakes had a keen nose for scandal.

  The pathologist shrugged. ‘Whatever they got up to, it stayed under wraps.’ Softly he added, ‘What a waste…. He was a brilliant surgeon…. published some interesting material on non-invasive procedures.’

  ‘Blinding,’ Noakes grunted.

  Dimples gave a bark. ‘Not the usual definition of interesting, I grant you. But Nariman was a one-off.’ He squared his shoulders. ‘Right gents, let’s get him off that weighing machine and then I can take a quick look…. It’s obvious he was bashed over the head…. small guy like that, it wouldn’t take much strength to finish him off.’

  Noakes disappeared momentarily to give instructions to the forensics team, and in no time at all the area was flooded with white-suited technicians and paramedics.

  ‘Fricking gruesome,’ the DS said as they watched Nariman being disentangled from his horrible dancing partner. Then, ‘Think they were making a point, guv…. about his private life mebbe? Summat to do with him being a…. ladies’ man?’ The notion of Nariman being a lothario was clearly a stretch for Noakes, but there was no denying the lubricity of the pose in which the victim had been found.

  ‘Quite possible, Sergeant…. Or it could just be a sick joke about his dedication to plus size patients.’

  Davidson had moved quickly, and now a covered stretcher was being borne towards the exit. Detectives and pathologist bowed their heads in silent respect as it passed.

  ‘Time of death, Doug?’ Markham felt it was worth a try.

  The doctor tut-tutted but answered readily enough. ‘I’d say around midnight, but don’t quote me.’ With that, he saluted smartly and was gone.

  ‘Right Sergeant, I want you to finish up here… Check on Muriel, then see who else was around this morning…. Oh, and find out how their security worked. In the meantime, I’m going to break the news to his widow.’

  It was characteristic of Markham that he never left the dreaded condolence visits to others.

  ‘Got you, guv.’ Noakes stared at the dark purplish stain on the beige Axminster of Nariman’s otherwise utilitarian office. ‘They smashed his skull like an egg,’ he muttered before heading towards the café.

  Markham had eventually tracked Mrs Nariman down to Bromgrove General’s outpatients clinic where she was having physiotherapy. The dark-haired dark-eyed woman with the delicate frame and gamine features of a dancer took the news calmly, Markham’s instinct telling him that plain speech and an absence of fuss would be felt by her as a tribute of respect. Having established that there would be carers visiting the Narimans’ flat later that day, he left her with the hospital staff after discreetly establishing that there was no possibility whatever of her having left the wheelchair to which she was confined. Given that she suffered from the secondary-progressive form of MS, the doctor’s widow could be discounted as a suspect from the outset. The couple had no children and there were no other family members to notify, so other than making the appropriate arrangements with the family liaison team there was little else for Markham to do.

  Now as he recalled himself to the present, the DI’s thoughts turned to his team.

  He and Noakes had outflanked every attempt by Sidney and the gold-braid mob to usher the DS towards the door marked ‘Retirement’. The DCI lost no opportunity to snipe at Markham regarding his wingman’s political incorrectness and ‘deplorable lack of client-facing skills’ – refusal to bullshit, as Noakes translated it – but somehow the detectives had triumphed over all the tick-box tricksiness, and Noakes remained firmly ensconced at Markham’s side.

  A greater contrast between two men could hardly be imagined, the DI’s elegant attire and appearance in comical contrast to Noakes’s glaring deficiencies of wardrobe and grooming. Muriel had done her best over the years – when he was “on parade” with her at community events, she brooked no opposition – but even a bilateral strategy by herself and Markham had pretty much failed to improve Noakes’s professional image. The bushy salt and pepper thatch waved as wildly as ever in prongs above his battered mastiff’s features, while the art of colour-coordination had never been added to his professional repertoire. Markham grinned as he tried to envisage what wince-inducing combination would confront him today.

  Dimples had referred to Dr Nariman as having a weird sort of authenticity. And that was precisely what Markham valued most in his number two – the steadfast refusal to bend before ‘official bollocks’ combined with unswerving loyalty to his boss, fierce commitment to obtaining justice for murder victims and a stubborn readiness to “speak truth to power”.

  The partnership had survived the crisis of the Bluebell investigation, when Noakes discovered that Natalie was not his biological daughter and went temporarily off the rails, and their bond was now stronger than ever. Markham did not know what, if anything, had ever passed between Noakes and his wife on the subject of her youthful indiscretion, still less whether she had discovered the truth about the case which nearly ended Noakes’s career. But the denouement of the Sherwin College enquiry in Oxford, when the DS demonstrated unexpected empathy with a deranged killer, had shown Noakes at his finest and convinced his boss that the family would somehow work things out between them.

  Olivia and Noakes had long since formed a mutual admiration society, united in their loathing of Sidney whom she had nicknamed ‘Judas Iscariot’. Noakes was renowned for his chippiness around intellectuals and ‘arty farty types’, but Olivia’s lack of pretension had totally disarmed him while the roguish teasing in which she delighted chimed with his subversive streak. Moreover, her slenderness, grey-green eyes, translucent pallor and abundant red hair also added up to a package that Noakes found eminently seductive. ‘Like one of them Hans Christian Andersen princess types,’ he explained elliptically. ‘The Swan Queen an’ all that….’

  Muriel Noakes – well-built, bossy, with more than a touch of Margaret Thatcher – could by no means compete with Olivia in terms of romantic aesthetics. But the DS was entirely devoted to the woman whom he had swept off her feet when they met on the ballroom dancing circuit (Noakes’s surprising prowess in this arena was something he kept well under wraps), making Markham suspect that the overbearing, snobbish exterior hid a vulnerable core. Olivia initially simply gritted her teeth and seethed silently beneath Muriel’s condescending patronage, contenting herself with ironic inner eye-rolls at the other’s gratingly arch manner towards Markham. But as time went on, she had become almost fond of Noakes’s formidable ‘missus’, even though she felt mystified by the nature of their relationship. Plus, fealty to ‘George’ made her bite her lip.

  Acting Inspector Kate Burton, in opposition to Noakes, was punctilious, earnest and politically correct. It had taken a long time for them to shake down together and appreciate each other’s qualities, but the formerly uptight Burton had mellowed considerably so that they were now as comfortable with each other as an old married couple. ‘He was bound to rub off on her,’ Olivia chuckled over the metamorphosis. ‘When you think what she was like at the beginning….’

  Burton’s path to her present eminence had hardly been strewn with roses, since stiff parental resistance (‘no job for a woman’, said her father) and her own introverted disposition worked against her. But she had proved herself over and over, exhibiting a devotion to Markham that matched Noakes’s.

  According to Olivia and Noakes, Burton’s feelings went further than devotion. ‘Kate’s in love with you, Gil,’ Olivia had told him matter-of-factly. ‘Yeah guv, she’s got you bad,’ Noakes echoed. ‘That’s why she can’t make it with anyone else…. They can’t compete, see,’ he added with the sagacity of a would-be Relate counsellor.

  Whatever the truth of it – and Markham was by no means confident of this hypothesis being, as Olivia said ruefully, decidedly obtuse when it came to gauging his effect on the opposite sex – that was then, and this was now. During their most recent murder investigation – which strangely also centred on a Bromgrove TV series – Burton, a psychology graduate, had become close to Professor Nathan Finlayson, clinical psychologist at the Newman Special Hospital, or ‘the bearded twat’ as Noakes called him affectionately, never failing to comment on the man’s startling resemblance to the serial killer Dr Shipman.

  ‘Thank chuff she can yammer on to him about that pervy book she’s always lugging around, so we don’t have to listen.’ Noakes’s enthusiasm for the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders was by no means on a par with his colleague’s although, much to Markham’s amusement, the two had discovered a shared fascination with true crime documentaries. Crippen, Dahmer, Nilsen, the Wests…. you name it, Burton and Noakes knew these luminaries inside out. Noakes even let slip that Muriel too had a predilection for the genre, though this was something the lady would doubtless prefer went under the radar.

  Markham knew that he wanted Kate Burton for this investigation and was pretty sure he could snaffle her from Chris Carstairs to whose unit she was currently seconded. Of course, Sidney wouldn’t like it. He wanted new blood on the team (‘his own spies, you mean’, Olivia said on hearing this), declaring himself strongly opposed to senior officers forming cliques.

  Well Sidney could take a running jump. If necessary, Markham would appeal to Superintendent Bretherton. ‘Blethering’ Bretherton owed him a few favours which could if necessary be called in. Forcing a decision out of the man would be like nailing jelly to a wall, but Markham felt reasonably confident he would win the day.

  He also wanted DS Doyle as the fourth member of their team. The gangling ginger-haired detective had proved his worth down the years. Besides, his good humour and easy manner made him a useful “binding agent” in the mix. Smart, ambitions, and now the possessor of a criminal law degree, he was an invaluable peacemaker when tensions flared. Noakes was his mentor in matters of football, romance and station politics, the two men liking nothing better than leisurely analyses of all three over their favourite Ruddles ale. Burton, on the other hand, approved his diligence and fealty towards the DI as well as the wry humour which enlivened his conversation.

  Yes, Markham told himself, he wanted the usual gang and would settle for nothing less. They had a reputation for cracking cases fast, which was bound to help his cause given the status of their victim and the fact that Beautiful Bodies was the chattering classes’ clinic of choice. It wouldn’t surprise him if Mrs Sidney, the DCI’s Valkyrie-like wife, didn’t have shares in the place!

  He stretched languorously. Time to go, he thought regretfully, gazing at the inscrutable marble cherubs on an adjoining monument before rising stiffly to his feet.

  What discoveries would this investigation yield, he wondered.

  Silently he made a vow to Dr Yasir Nariman, the enigmatic figure at the heart of the case.

  You never gave up on people. And I won’t give up on you until we have your killer behind bars.

  Then he walked slowly down through the terraced banks of graves towards the station and a new day.

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

 CID was deserted when he arrived on the third floor, with forlorn Christmas banners and decorations drifting tipsily from the ceiling and noticeboard.

  He did a double take as he passed Noakes’s desk which sported what looked like a Bonsai tree.

  ‘Our Nat got it for me,’ the DS said nonchalantly, sidling up behind him. ‘Good for the chakras an’ feng shui, she said…. bringing the outdoors indoors.’

  Markham smothered a smile.

  ‘It’s splendid, Noakesy…. Though I think there’s something rather English about it.’ He passed a hand over the surprisingly sturdy foliage. ‘Like a miniature oak or that tree where Charles the Second hid when the Roundheads were after him.’

  The DS looked highly gratified. ‘Ackshually it’s an elm, but I see what you mean, guv.’ Shuffling his feet, he nodded towards an adjacent workstation. ‘I’m keeping an eye on Burton’s Jap garden thingy too…. She didn’t want to risk it round Carstairs’ mob.’

  And a good thing too. God alone knew how it would fare in Vice.

  ‘I’ve told Burton about this one at the clinic, boss,’ the DS continued. ‘She’s bound to want a piece of it.’

  ‘Excellent, Sergeant…. That means I can leave it to her to square things with Carstairs and the powers that be.’

  ‘She’s on it right now, guv. Ants in her pants as usual.’ But the tone was affectionate.

  They made their way to Markham’s glassed-in office with its unrivalled view of the car park, and while the DI struggled with his refractory stone-cold radiator Noakes amused himself by setting the steel balls of the executive pendulum toy on the desk in motion with a resounding clack.

  Eventually giving up on the radiator, Markham rummaged around in the bottom drawer of his filing cabinet and produced a small convector heater. Plugging it in, he muttered, ‘One day I’ll get that blasted radiator sorted.’

  ‘It don’ bother me, guv,’ Noakes said cheerfully. ‘I’m feeling pretty toasty.’

  The DI eyed his colleague resignedly. Toasty…. Grungy more like, he thought taking in the dingy mauve cable-knit sweater, baggy fawn chinos and what looked like British Army George boots.

  ‘I see you’ve come prepared for all eventualities,’ he observed caustically. ‘Anticipating the “beast from the East” perhaps?’

  ‘You know me, boss. Ready for owt.’

  Which was certainly one way of putting it. Ready for the DCI’s apoplectic appraisal was another matter entirely.

  There was a smart rap at the door and Kate Burton appeared.

  Now she certainly looked the picture of executive chic in a smart black jersey dress, red wool jacket and black suede pixie boots, with a leather underarm briefcase completing the ensemble.

  ‘Sight for sore eyes,’ Noakes leered amiably. ‘High time you got your pins out, luv.’

  ‘Thanks, sarge.’ Once upon a time she would have bristled, but now she merely grinned as she took a seat.

  His DS was right, Markham thought. Kate certainly looked glossy. Her dress was a vast improvement on the Chairman Mao trouser suits of yore, while the chestnut bob was becomingly cut in a jaunty geometric shape, skimming her cheekbones, and the button-nosed face with intelligent brown eyes glowed with animation. It looked as though Professor Finlayson had rejuvenated her after the breakup from that stodgy fiancé and the romantic drought that followed. The DI felt a faint twinge, not of jealousy exactly but something more indefinable, as he looked at her vibrant little countenance. Then he reproached himself for being a dog in the manger. It had been flattering to have Kate’s worshipful attention – so that he almost took it for granted – but now there was someone else on the horizon…. someone he had found he liked…. Nathan Finlayson was good for his Acting DI and he resolved to give the fledgling relationship every encouragement.

  He became aware that Noakes’s piggy eyes were watching him shrewdly.

  Time to get down to business.

  Another knock at the door and DS Doyle joined them, equally dapper in a well cut two-button suit with Ted Baker fitted roll neck.

  ‘Happy New Year all,’ he said cheerfully. Then, with unmistakeable eagerness, ‘Am I with you for this clinic case, boss? Fraud said they can spare me.’

  Markham smiled at the lanky freckled redhead.

  ‘I’ll sort it with the DCI, never fear.’ He turned to Kate Burton who had whipped out the trademark governess specs that magnified her eyes to the size of enormous lollipops, the better to make notes. ‘How about you, Kate?’

  ‘DI Carstairs is fine so long as I can balance it with the odd job for him.’

  ‘You mean spreadsheets an’ stuff he can’t be bothered to sort himself, the lazy bastard,’ Noakes pointed out.

  Burton didn’t demur.

  ‘Take a pew, Doyle,’ the DI resumed, ‘and let’s see what we’ve got on this case at Beautiful Bodies.’

  Burton was unfolding a piece of A4 and clearing her throat.

  Noakes and Doyle exchanged meaningful glances.

  ‘When I heard you were taking it over, I did a list of potential suspects, sir,’ the Acting DI said.

  Bloody hell, that’s quick off the mark even for her, Noakes’s expression seemed to say but privately he was quite pleased his colleague had done the initial legwork. Provided she didn’t go all Jackanory on them and start rabbiting on about psychology and stuff, she could probably do a decent job of putting them in the picture.

  Clearly Markham thought so too.

  ‘The floor is all yours, Kate,’ he smiled encouragingly.

  Slightly pink in the face, she took a deep breath and launched in.

  ‘The victim is Dr Nasir Yariman. He joined the clinic in 2010 as a weight-loss specialist with practising privileges at Bromgrove General…. became a partner in 2013… Very impressive background in general surgery but concentrating in the main on vertical-sleeve gastrectomy procedures.’ Seeing Noakes’s eyes begin to glaze over, she translated hastily, ‘Stomach stapling so people can’t eat the same amount anymore.’

  Her colleague looked as if the thought of a McDonald’s breakfast roll with ketchup had suddenly lost its appeal.

  ‘Anyway,’ Burton went on, ‘his TV series The Scales Don’t Lie brought in the punters and helped place the clinic on the map.’ She consulted her crib sheet. ‘There are two other partners. Dr Andrea Matheson…. bottle blonde…. late forties…. specializes in face work and women’s healthcare…. and Dr Malcolm Lunt…. fifties, Scottish, prickly, doesn’t suffer fools…. dermatology, that’s skincare, and liposuction –’

  ‘Sucking the fat out,’ Doyle said with relish.

  Forget the burger, Noakes decided queasily. Maybe he’d just hang on till dinnertime.

  ‘What about local competition?’ Doyle asked. ‘Isn’t there another health centre round there…. the Healing something or other….’

  ‘The Harmony Spa,’ Burton corrected him. ‘Owned by one Barbara Jordan… divorced, heavily into alternative medicine –’

  ‘That’s right,’ the young detective interrupted eagerly. ‘I remember it now…. She and Nariman had some kind of spat in the Gazette…. he was saying her methods were emperor’s new clothes…. practically came out and told her she was a fraud.’

  ‘Very interesting.’ The DI’s antennae were twitching. ‘Anyone else Nariman had rubbed up the wrong way, Kate?’

  ‘Well, there were tensions between him and the bariatric team at Bromgrove General…. Mr Bernard Flexen, one of the surgeons accused him of “pedalling false hope”. Burton was motoring now, barely glancing at her notes. ‘And the Reclaim Your Body lot were after his blood too. Sorry, sir,’ she mumbled, ‘unfortunate choice of words.’

  ‘That’s fine, Kate, you’re doing well,’ Markham reassured her kindly. ‘Who are this group?’

  ‘I can tell you.’ Noakes wasn’t going to let Burton and Doyle have things all to themselves. ‘They’re the nutters always demonstrating against plastic surgery an’ having demos about not messing with nature,’ he warmed to his theme, ‘an’ how women shouldn’t mutilate themselves so they end up looking like teenage boys with big plastic knockers.’

  Burton gulped then smiled weakly. ‘Er yes, something like that, sarge…. It’s a sort of lobby group…. their chairman’s a psychotherapist called Tony Leesom…. There’ve been a few run-ins with the clinic.’

  The DI was thoughtful. ‘What about unhappy customers, Kate? Patients complaining about botched procedures?’

  ‘There’d been a few over the years, but that’s par for the course and the clinic’s insurance usually takes care of it…. As far as Nariman was concerned, nothing significant, although there’s a husband and wife who were threatening him with a solicitor.’ A quick look at the aide-memoire. ‘Laura and Jeff Lowther…. Apparently Nariman had refused to approve her for weight loss surgery.’

  ‘Any disgruntled employees?’ Markham asked. ‘Any disciplinaries or HR issues?’

  ‘He’d given one of the nurses a warning for laughing at obese clients,’ Burton said casting a wary glance at Noakes.

  Right on cue, he guffawed. ‘Bet I know which one it is…. Gotta be the bird you see weighing ’em on the TV,’ he declared triumphantly. ‘You can tell she’s holding it back…. Don’ blame her…. it’s unbelievable, the state of ’em…. An’ they always insist the scales are wrong…. I ask you!’

  Burton’s features were rapidly congealing into their Queen Victoria We Are Not Amused expression.

  ‘Name, Kate?’ the DI interposed.

  ‘Mandy Donnelly, sir…. Looks like they ran a tight ship…. I couldn’t find anything else…. Hold on,’ she caught herself up, ‘there was this woman hung about the place…. one of Nariman’s former patients –’

  ‘You mean a stalker,’ Doyle enquired wide-eyed.

  ‘One of his success stories…. Shelagh Goulden…. She developed a bit of a thing about him…. Nothing sinister…. just wanted his attention.’

  Like Muriel Noakes, the DI reflected wryly. Catching Noakes’s eye, it was apparent the same uncomfortable thought had also occurred to his wingman.

  ‘So, no threats or violent outbursts?’ Markham asked.

  ‘Nothing like that, sir…. The TV people kept an eye out of course.’

  The DI leaned back in the padded chair that was the only concession to status and steepled his fingers meditatively.

  ‘So that’s the cast list,’ he said finally. ‘Plenty to be going on with.’

  ‘What’s the plan, guv?’ Noakes demanded.

  ‘You and I are going to pay the clinic a visit, Sergeant, while Kate and Doyle get the incident room up and running.’ Observing the youngster’s face fall, he added, ‘Then I want the two of you to get along to Bromgrove General and interview Mr Bernard Flexen…. find out what privileges Nariman and the partners had at the hospital while you’re about it.’

  The ‘ginger ninja’ visibly re-energised on the spot.

  ‘On it, sir,’ he said springing to his feet.

  Burton repacked her briefcase efficiently and with a shy smile at Markham followed her young colleague out of the door.

  ‘Right, Noakesy,’ the DI said. ‘Time to beard the partners in their lair.’

2

Swirling Currents

 

‘Burton’s looking chipper,’ Noakes commented as they got into the DI’s car (Markham really didn’t feel up to his DS’s usual emulation of a Formula 1driver). ‘D’you reckon she an’ old beardy boots finally got it together?’

  ‘Obviously Kate’s private life is none of our business, Sergeant.’ Then, as the other was clearly waiting for more. ‘But Nathan Finlayson’s a good man and the auguries are hopeful.’

  ‘’Course, you’ll always be her pin-up, guv.’

  Markham chose to ignore this sly observation.

  ‘If you can tear your mind away from Kate’s romantic prospects, I’d like to hear your take on our suspects, Sergeant.’

  ‘Reckon I could do with a coffee an’ snack first, guv.’ Noakes was staging a rapid recovery from his earlier nausea. ‘Then I can think straight. Brain fuel, y’know,’ he added virtuously.

  ‘Would a pit stop at Greggs be likely to get the synapses firing?’ Markham enquired with heavy irony.

  ‘Champion.’ Whatever the chuff his synapses were, there was nothing that couldn’t be cured by a breakfast muffin.

  The DI waited patiently while his wingman slurped and chomped his way through the grease-fest, confining himself to a restorative black coffee.

  ‘Right,’ he said finally as they sat outside the bakery. ‘Let’s hear it.’

  Noakes belched portentously.

  ‘Well, looks like Nariman wasn’t exactly Mister Popular, guv…. Could’ve been the other partners at the clinic were jealous cos he bagged all that publicity even though he weren’t nowt to look at.’ The DS clearly found this aspect baffling. ‘Downright ugly when you come to think of it….  with that hump an’ the oily black hair an’ bandy legs…. plus a face like one of them ventriloquist dummies with funny hinged jaws…  same as in Devil Doll.’

  ‘I’m not personally familiar with that particular film, Noakes, but I get the gist,’ Markham said wryly. ‘However, ugliness can be compelling, especially when combined with a powerful personality.’

  ‘Diddy blokes always have to work harder,’ Noakes agreed with a world-weary air that made his boss bite the inside of his cheek to stop himself laughing.

  ‘Indeed,’ he replied gravely.

  ‘P’raps Nariman were giving the female doc one.’

  ‘By which you presumably mean there might have been issues arising from a secret affair with his colleague Dr Matheson.’

  The DS grinned, not at all abashed by this gloss.

  ‘Yeah, or if he were dynamite in the sack then mebbe a jealous husband had it in for him…. or there could be some woman he messed about looking for payback…. with him being so small an’ weedy, a woman could’ve done it.’ Noakes ruminated, rasping his stubbly chin. ‘S’like he was some sort of Rasputin – y’know the rusky priest you told me about when we were on the hospital murders…. he got around a bit even though he were plug-ugly.’

  Markham gave a short laugh. ‘Well remembered, Noakes. Yes, by the sound of it Dr Nariman possessed the kind of magnetism that might well have led to sexual entanglements.’

  ‘Mind you, Dimples said he lived for his work,’ the DS pointed out. ‘But he could’ve burned the candle at both ends.’

  ‘Quite probable…. Remind me to take a look at The Scales Don’t Lie later. I know Olivia’s addicted to the programme, but I’ve only ever caught odd snippets…. It seemed pretty formulaic from what I could gather.’

  ‘Yeah, but thass what’s so great about it,’ Noakes agreed happily. ‘You always know what’s coming…. fatties gorging themselves…. usually it’s some gross bird with a weedy little bloke… one of them pervy types who fancy big women…. then the doc parachutes in an’ does his big saviour number…. Sometimes it ends with them having the op, but they usually screw up an’ then he really has to stick it to them…. Brilliant.’

  The DS was misty-eyed at the recollection, though Markham suspected Nariman would have been horrified by such lip-smacking prurience. On the other hand, the surgeon could surely have been under no illusions about why the series had such broad appeal.

  ‘Or mebbe it was professional jealousy,’ Noakes proceeded to examine other theories. ‘The grumpy Scottish git –’

  ‘The other partner…. Dr Lunt,’ Markham prompted.

  ‘Yeah, him…. Or Mister Bendy from Bromgrove General…. the one who said Nariman wasn’t honest…. made promises he couldn’t keep or whatnot.’

  ‘Bendy?’

  ‘Mister Flexible or whatever Burton said he was called….’

  Noakes was notorious for the monikers he bestowed on suspects whose names he struggled to remember.

  The DI put him out of his misery. ‘You mean Mr Bernard Flexen.’

  ‘That’s the fella. Bound to have been some rivalry what with them being in the same line of work.’

  ‘Hmm.’

  ‘Don’ know about the fruit loop stalking him… prob’ly couldn’t find her way out of a paper bag…. But then there’s that stuff with the demo doll he were tied to…. seriously screwy.’ Noakes cogitated some more. ‘As for getting into the place at night, that receptionist said they changed their alarm code every few weeks but Nariman always forgot…. kept writing it down on post-its an’ leaving ’em all over the place.’

  ‘For anyone to see,’ Markham concluded grimly.

  ‘Then there’s Mrs Lardbucket an’ her husband,’ the DS continued remorselessly. ‘Nariman called blokes like that “enablers” an’ accused them of being murderers cos they bunged the missus Twixes instead of broccoli an’ spinach.’ He shook his head sadly. ‘Bound to end in tears.’ Clearly Noakes felt being restricted to the green stuff might well constitute a strong motive for murder.

  ‘If Dr Nariman refused to give Laura Lowther weight loss surgery, that might have pushed them over the edge,’ the DI mused.

  ‘Or they could’ve jus’ thought Nariman was a rude bastard an’ let rip.’

  ‘That too.’

  ‘Mebbe it was one of them campaigners,’ Noakes speculated. ‘Y’know the fanatical type, like that weirdo who wants to keep folk fat.’

  ‘That’s a gross simplification, Sergeant,’ the DI said before wincing at the pun.

  ‘Gross. Nice one, guv.’

  Markham sighed. ‘I meant that Mr Leesom and his ilk are primarily concerned with the way society objectifies individuals, particularly women… encouraging the development of body dysmorphia – a distorted body image – and other disorders…. That’s not quite the same as wanting to keep people fat.’

  ‘Yeah, but the chubsters might think it’s a licence to gobble.’ Noakes looked proud of his freshly minted catchphrase. ‘Yeah, a licence to gobble,’ he repeated with satisfaction. ‘Means they can tell the body shamers to stick it where the sun don’ shine.’

  ‘In that case, perhaps we’re looking at a nefarious alliance between a “chubster” and one of these body-positive activists…. some sort of warped crusade for fattivisim?’

  Noakes shuffled warily in his seat. When the boss took that sarky tone, he knew he was skating on thin ice.

  ‘Well, I still think the guru johnny’s worth a look,’ he declared with a touch of defiance.

  ‘Undoubtedly.’ At least they agreed on that point.

  The DS continued ticking them off.

  ‘The nurse who had a dig at the fatties…. she’s got to be in the frame if Nariman gave her a warning for it.’

  ‘True, though I suppose it all depends on the context and whether there was a full-blown disciplinary.’

  They had arrived outside the clinic.

  ‘I don’t suppose, Noakes, there’s any chance of you remembering to refer to patients as “plus-size” or “obese” rather than calling them lardbuckets and chubsters.’ The DI sounded as though he felt this was a decidedly forlorn hope.

  ‘I’m with you, guv.’ Bulldog head on one side, the DS winked at his boss. ‘Clinic like this, it’s all about being tactful…. not letting ’em see you think they’re fat bastards.’

  ‘Something like that,’ the DI said faintly.

  ‘You can rely on me.’

 

Somewhat surprisingly, Noakes was as good as his word.

  Not that his good behaviour got them very far, since Drs Matheson and Lunt were circumspect when it came to discussing their deceased colleague.

  Andrea Matheson was an attractive woman with frosted blonde bob, curvy figure, clear complexion and high girlish tones that belied her long years in the job.

  She took the wind out of Noakes’s sails by candidly admitting a ‘brief liaison’ with Dr Nariman not long after he had been made a partner. ‘It was one of those things,’ she said ruefully. ‘A quick fling with no strings…. Afterwards we just continued as before.’ She wouldn’t be drawn on the subject of Annette Nariman, though Markham thought he could detect that she did not like her.

  Malcolm Lunt was a short suet-featured man whose cosy appearance was at odds with his unmelodious brogue and testy manner. Like Dr Matheson, however, he praised Nariman’s professional skills and worth ethic.

  ‘You could tell he were jealous of old Ali Baba becoming a TV star,’ Noakes observed as they sat in the car afterwards.

  The DS had reined himself in while inside the clinic, so Markham let the irreverence pass.

  ‘Dr Nariman was modest and unassuming about his celebrity according to Dr Matheson,’ he said. ‘He didn’t throw his weight about.’ Seeing Noakes grin at the unintended pun, he continued hastily. ‘And Dr Lunt agreed the publicity was good for the clinic.’

  ‘Yeah, but I could see it in his eyes, guv.’ Noakes jabbed pudgy two fingers towards his own. ‘It was there alright.’

  The DS was shrewd when it came to detecting undercurrents, with a sixth sense for suspects’ hidden resentments and prejudices.

  ‘Lunt was a racialist too,’ Noakes continued. ‘All that stuff about Nariman not appreciating the English character… A bit rich, if you ask me.’

  Surely a case of the pot calling the kettle black, thought Markham, but all he said was ‘Oh?’

  ‘Well, the Scots ain’t all that keen on us neither,’ the DS persisted gamely, ‘an’ anyway, it were jus’ the way he kept dropping “foreign” into the conversation…. like Nariman were an alien.’

  ‘Hmm. Dr Matheson implied that Dr Nariman was thoroughly cosmopolitan owing to his years in the States, though his speech was oddly mechanical…. What did she call it? Yes, she said his voice sounded “rusty” …’

  ‘’S’right…. You’ll see what she means when you watch him on TV, guv…. He sounded like a dalek…. but somehow folk liked it.’

  Including Mrs Noakes, thought Markham.

  Choosing his words with care, he asked casually, ‘Did Muriel see much of the partners when she attended the clinic, Noakes?’

  ‘Not for owt cosmetic cos she don’ approve of messing with nature…. Think she’s on Dr Matheson’s books for…. vitamin deficiency or thyroid or summat….’

  Covered a multitude, the DI said to himself. HRT most likely. Certainly a more “genteel” approach to the climacteric than whatever the local health centre’s harassed practitioners offered the hoi polloi.

  ‘And that was pretty much it then? She didn’t come across the other clinic staff?’ he asked.

  ‘Well, she ran into Nariman in the café.’ A note of mingled pride and anxiety crept into the other’s voice. ‘Ackshually, she said the doc kind of sought her out…. like he felt comfortable with her.’ The shadow of a frown crossed his face. ‘Nothing dodgy…. He wasn’t trying it on or owt like that…. jus’ knew a lady when he saw one.’

  The DI was touched.

  ‘Naturally,’ he said with the delicacy that characterised all his dealings with subordinates.

  Noakes’s countenance cleared.

  ‘The missus said it’s mainly freelance people who come in to administer treatments an’ therapies…. an’ they’re all out of there by five o’clock.’

  They would all have to be checked, Markham reflected. But it was unlikely Nariman had been killed by an outsider. The murder’s signature felt too personal for that.

  ‘What about the nurses?’ he asked.

  ‘There’s a couple of ’em from Bromgrove General do shifts at the clinic…. what with the partners seeing patients at the hospital as well, there’s some kind of arrangement for sharing staff.’

  ‘Did Muriel come across Mandy Donnelly…. the woman Nariman disciplined?’

  ‘Don’ think she ever mentioned her….’

  Doubtless because she had her eyes on the big fish rather than minnows.

  As they sat there, a stocky blonde woman in a blue nurse’s uniform exited the front door and wandered across to Artisane, a chi-chi patisserie on the other side of the road. From their vantage point, the detectives watched as she bought something at the counter then took a seat just inside the window.

  ‘Mebbe that’s Donnelly,’ Noakes ventured. ‘We could have a gander an’ see if she’s up for a chat.’

  While scoping out the cakes, Markham thought resignedly.

  ‘No time like the present, I suppose,’ he said. ‘Lead on, Noakes.’

 

Fifteen minutes later, they were back in the car, the DS bearing a smart paper bag with sugary treats for the team.

  ‘She seemed dead nervous,’ Noakes said. ‘But I dunno, it felt a bit put on.’

  ‘Yes,’ Markham agreed. ‘The wide-eyed Bambi routine felt rehearsed somehow.’

  Close up, Mandy Donnelly was a pretty blue-eyed blonde with a flattering pixie haircut and peaches and cream complexion. If it hadn’t been for her dumpy bottom half – the curse of the pear-shaped woman – she would have been dazzling. An American twang betrayed her origins in Minnesota, but it appeared their shared connection with the States had cut no ice with Dr Nariman.

  ‘He just didn’t like me,’ she had told them ruefully. ‘But then I wasn’t his pick…. Dr Lunt recruited me, so maybe he resented that.’

  ‘We understand there was some issue with a patient,’ Markham prompted.

  Was it his imagination, or did the limpid blue gaze suddenly harden?

  When she spoke, however, there was no change in the pleasant manner, just a gossamer puckering of her forehead.

  ‘Oh, that was something and nothing…. It never even went to a written warning after I explained to the partners…. Dr Nariman got it into his head that I was smirking at one of our larger ladies…. But he had it all wrong…. The patient rolled her eyes when she got on the scales like she was saying a prayer or something. I just smiled back to show I sympathized with her for being nervous about gaining.’ The nurse’s voice was easy on the ear and she showed no embarrassment. ‘It was crazy in the clinic that day, and Dr Nariman was upset on account of the hate campaign.’

  ‘What hate campaign?’ The DI’s voice was sharp.

  ‘Well, maybe that’s too strong a word…. It was more a case of someone trying to smear him…. flyers posted in the town centre saying he was just a quack on account of having qualified in Tehran –’

  ‘But that’s a well-respected medical school, isn’t it?’ Markham demurred. ‘And anyway, he went on to earn a string of postgraduate qualifications in the States.’

  ‘Plus, there’s the fellowship wotsit an’ all the writing for medical journals.’ Noakes was not to be left out.

  ‘Oh, he’s very eminent…. pioneered any number of innovations, especially in keyhole surgery.’ The nurse sounded genuinely admiring. ‘It was mainly racist slurs.’

  Markham frowned. ‘Did the clinic report this? Hate crime is a serious matter.’

  ‘The partners said it would all die a death.’ She blushed at her choice of words. ‘Sorry, what I mean is they didn’t think it was a good idea to give whoever was behind it any publicity.’

  More like they didn’t want the clinic’s pristine reputation tarnished, the DI thought grimly. Assuming it was pristine….

  Now as the two men sat mulling it over, Markham sighed.

  ‘Kate can do some background research on Beautiful Bodies… see if there are any skeletons in the cupboard.’ His mouth twisted. ‘God, another unfortunate turn of phrase.’

  The DS never worried about such niceties. ‘If there’s any scandal, Burton’ll ferret it out…. Not that it’d necessarily put folk off…. When they nabbed the Yorkshire Ripper, all these posh birds an’ society people couldn’t get enough of him…. everyone hotfooted it to Broadmoor cos that was the place to be…. Same with Ronnie Kray an’ all.’

  ‘Let’s just hope the clinic’s annals don’t disclose the likes of those two on the staff,’ Markham retorted with mock horror. Then, more seriously, ‘If there’s something lurking in the past…. some wrongdoing or disgrace…. then we need to know.’

  Noakes pondered the hate campaign. ‘Wee MacTavish was racist about Nariman,’ he said.

  ‘True…. But Dr Lunt made no effort to disguise it…. And if people knew about his bigotry, he’d be a useful scapegoat.’

  ‘Yeah,’ Noakes conceded. ‘Someone could’ve wanted to finger Lunt…. mebbe even set him up as number one suspect for the murder.’

  ‘That’s if we assume the leafleteer and killer are one and the same,’ Markham went on.

  It was a troubling thought, pointing to premeditation and cunning.

  ‘We need to see one of these pamphlets,’ he said.

  ‘I’ll put Doyle on it, guv.’ A sly leer. ‘Our lad’ll go down a storm with all them fat lasses.’

  ‘Don’t let’s get blindsided by the weight loss angle, Sergeant…. The clinic offers a range of services and therapies… The murder might have its roots in any one of them.’

  ‘Yeah, but remember the way we found him, boss…. tied to that fricking creepy doll…. like it was a message about lard-arses.’

  ‘You’re right, it was very pointed, but even so….’ Markham started the engine. ‘I need hardly remind you to watch your diction around Kate…. You know what she’s like about discriminatory language.’

  ‘Me an’ Doyle had the lecture from her on…. what was it, oh yeah…. “body fascism”,’ Noakes said glumly. ‘Sounded like she’d borrowed a load of books from the weirdo beardo.’

  Noakes was clearly disappointed in Professor Finlayson.

  ‘Just remember, Fat Is A Feminist Issue, Sergeant.’

  The DS shuddered. ‘An’ we all know how that turns out…. hairy-legged crones on a mission to cut off blokes’ goolies.’

  ‘Well, I don’t think Kate’s sharpening her blade just yet,’ Markham laughed. ‘And she’s a long way from being a crone. But,’ he gave his wingman a steely look, ‘the DCI’ll have you signed up for diversity training in a flash if he gets a whiff of any sizeism or fat phobia.’

  It was the right thing to say.

  ‘I’ve had enough of those daft chuffing classes to last me a lifetime. Reckon I could write the book on all that PC bollocks.’

  ‘A project for your retirement perhaps.’

  A baleful grunt was all the acknowledgment he received.

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

A short time later found the team comparing notes over coffee and almond croissants.

  ‘These are amazing.’ Doyle eventually came up for air. ‘Where did you get them?’

  ‘Place called Artisane next to the clinic,’ Noakes told him.

  ‘The canteen at Bromgrove General was pants,’ the young detective groused. ‘All oaty this and beetroot that…. just made me want a jumbo Mars Bar.’

  ‘It was perfectly fine,’ Burton said repressively. ‘In fact, I believe Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall advises them on menus.’

  ‘Who’s he?’ Noakes enquired polishing off the last of his croissant.

  ‘Poncy TV cook. Piggy face and looks like a hippy. The River Cottage guy,’ Doyle filled him in.

  ‘He’s very different these days,’ Burton said. ‘Lost two stone through intermittent fasting.’

  ‘I’d want to fast if that crap was the alternative,’ Doyle retorted. Then, suddenly aware of the DI’s quizzical expression, ‘Sorry, sir.’

  Hastily, he buried his nose in his notebook.

  ‘Moving on from the hospital’s culinary deficiencies, what did you make of Mr Flexen?’ Markham asked with heavy irony.

  ‘Thick-set but carries it well…. silver-haired, distinguished-looking,’ Burton commenced.

  ‘Posh voice,’ Doyle added. ‘Like a professor.’

  ‘Well, he went to Cambridge University…. Fitzwilliam College…. so it’s hardly surprising.’ As always, the Acting DI had the facts at her fingertips. Markham noticed she had broken off a quarter of her croissant while her colleagues had made short work of theirs.

  ‘He seemed like a nice man,’ she continued. ‘No airs and graces…. didn’t talk down to us.’

  ‘Learning the double bass in his spare time and plays the organ at St Faith’s.’ Doyle too had clearly warmed to the surgeon.

  ‘What was it with him and Nariman then?’ Noakes demanded, furtively eyeing the remainder of Burton’s pastry. ‘Didn’t they have some kind of row?’

  ‘It was more a case of articles in the British Medical Journal than pistols at dawn,’ she said thoughtfully.

  ‘They were rivals though, right?’ the DS persisted.

  ‘He admitted there’d been the odd frank exchange of views,’ Burton told them.

  ‘What did they argue about?’ Markham wanted to know.

  She looked down at her notes. ‘He felt The Scales Don’t Lie exploited morbidly obese people…. said the series was slick and synthetic, while any psychotherapeutic interventions were superficial. Then there was the sensationalism…. showing patients undressed…. graphic bathroom scenes…. and getting them to talk about intimate stuff…. childhood abuse, that kind of thing.’

  Noakes darted a look at his boss. He had long since intuited that the guvnor was a victim of similar abuse, although nothing explicit had ever passed between them on the subject.

  But the DI’s expression was tranquil.

  ‘Could it be a case of sour grapes?’ he pressed Burton. ‘Was he jealous of Dr Nariman’s celebrity?’

  Burton recalled the heavy-lidded sensual face – fleshy but handsome, with full, almost pouty mouth and come-to-bed eyes – and avuncular charm. No doubt Bernard Flexen considered himself far more photogenic and simpatico than his counterpart at Beautiful Bodies. But that was the weird thing about Yasir Nariman – the gruff straightforwardness and apparent disregard for any of the niceties were what held viewers spell-bound. You could say there was something Noakesian about the man….

  Flexen projected a democratic image. But she wondered how deep it went…. had the feeling it might depend on a tacit acknowledgement of his superiority, with any attempt at over-familiarity likely to be sharply slapped down. The surgeon had been surrounded by noticeably reverential subordinates, which no doubt went hand in hand with a healthy ego.

  ‘I could see him being jealous,’ she said finally. ‘Though he’d take good care to hide it.’

  It was an interesting pen portrait, giving Markham a sense of the medical milieu that the victim had inhabited.

  Swiftly, he updated Burton and Doyle on the morning’s work.

  ‘I want you to finish getting our incident room set up, Kate,’ the DI said at the conclusion of his account. ‘Then we’re going to need full background on Dr Nariman and the clinic.’ He paused. ‘Former patients with a grudge…. any botched operations or negligence claims…. finances…. you name it, I want to know.’

  ‘Checks on freelance staff and visiting therapists, sir?’ Burton was clearly raring to get stuck in.

  ‘Absolutely…. I don’t think any of them is in the frame…. the way the body was posed points to an intimate connection with Dr Nariman…. I believe it’s one of those names on that list you went through.’ With an increase of deliberation Markham added, ‘Indeed, we may already have met our killer.’

  Burton shivered. At those words, it seemed to her as though the overcast day darkened in an instant. Watching her absorbed expression, Noakes surreptitiously slid the remains of his colleague’s croissant into a baggy pocket. At them prices, wouldn’t do to let it go to waste.

  The DI’s desk phone trilled.

  His face was something of a study as he replaced the receiver.

  ‘That was the desk sergeant. Apparently, Shelagh Goulden is down in reception causing something of a commotion.’

  ‘Nariman’s stalker,’ breathed Doyle.

  ‘The very same.’ Markham came to a decision, pinning Noakes to his seat with a firm stare. ‘I’ll take Kate for this one…. We don’t want to overwhelm Ms Goulden.’

  The DS gave a couldn’t-care-less shrug. Doyle, however, looked disappointed.

  ‘The two of you can make a start here,’ Markham instructed. ‘And don’t worry,’ he added kindly to the young detective. ‘I’ll see that you get a crack at more witnesses in due course. Kid gloves with this lady, though.’

  He nodded to Burton and they disappeared into the outer office.

  Noakes turned to his mentee.

  ‘Afore we get started on the admin,’ this last word being uttered with pronounced distaste, ‘I reckon we’ve got time for a dekko at The Scales Don’t Lie.’

  Doyle perked up.

  ‘You’re on,’ he said happily.