The Best Corpse for the Job (Lindenshaw Mysteries, #1)
Tea and sympathy have never been so deadly.
Schoolteacher Adam Matthews just wants to help select a new headteacher and go home. The governors at Lindenshaw St Crispin’s have already failed miserably at finding the right candidate, so it’s make or break this second time round. But when one of the applicants is found strangled in the school, what should have been a straightforward decision turns tempestuous as a flash flood in their small English village.
Inspector Robin Bright isn’t thrilled to be back at St. Crispin’s. Memories of his days there are foul enough without tossing in a complicated murder case. And that handsome young teacher has him reminding himself not to fraternize with a witness. But it’s not long before Robin is relying on Adam for more than just his testimony.
As secrets amongst the governors emerge and a second person turns up dead, Robin needs to focus less on Adam and more on his investigation. But there are too many suspects, too many lies, and too many loose ends. Before they know it, Robin and Adam are fighting for their lives and their hearts.
- Runner-Up: Best Gay Mystery / Thriller in the 2015 Rainbow Awards
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Adam Matthews stifled a yawn, shifted in his seat, and wished he were anywhere else but here.
Outside, the sun was shining. A beautiful late-spring Thursday morning in a beautiful English village. Two blackbirds were having a standoff on a grassy bank dotted with daisies; the world looked bright, exciting, and full of hope. The only sign of schoolchildren was the sound of purposeful activity. Lindenshaw St. Crispin’s School was putting on its handsomest face, as if it knew it had to sell itself to the visiting candidates as much as they had to sell themselves to the board of governors. Maybe that handsome face would distract them from learning just how much of a bloody mess the school was and how badly it needed a new headteacher to turn it round.
Simon Ford, one of the applicants for the headteacher post, was droning his way through his presentation on “what makes an outstanding school,” sending volleys of jargon and acronyms flying through the air to assault his listeners’ ears. The droning was so bad that Adam’s head began to nod. Which, in the greater scheme of things, was the least of his worries.
He was one of the poor sods trying to work out whether Ford was right for the job.
Two days of activities, interviews, picking apart everything the candidates said, and this was only bloody day one. He’d been given a particularly important role, or so Victor Reed, the chair of governors, had said. They needed an educational perspective, and Adam’s invaluable feedback from the candidates’ presentations and his marking of their data-handling exercises would help the rest of the governors—as laypeople—form an opinion. Yet, all Adam could feed back at the moment was the feeling of being bored to death. He knew he should have brought his buzzword bingo sheet.
“Adam? What’s your view on that point?”
Oh hell. Victor was talking to him, and he had no idea what it was about. “I’m sorry,” Adam busked it, trying to look like he’d been deep in meaningful thought. “I was thinking about the point Mr. Ford made about children in care. Could you repeat the question?”
“Mr. Ford was saying that the key to any school’s success is the enthusiasm for learning it produces in its pupils.”
“Were I to be headteacher of Lindenshaw St. Crispin’s,” Ford began again, before Adam could add his twopenn’orth, “I would make it my priority to engender that lifelong love of learning in all the children here.”
Bugger. That would have given me full house on my buzzword bingo card.
Still, Ford had hit at the crux of the matter because the previous headteacher had done bugger all to make anybody want to do anything at the school, least of all the teachers to produce good, or even outstanding, lessons. As was typical of too many nice little schools in leafy English villages, St. Crispin’s had relied on its reputation for too long. The best thing the previous headteacher had done for the school was leaving it, although the reasons for that lay under a cloud of rumour and secrecy. Why was it proving so hard getting somebody to step into her shoes? They’d tried the previous term and failed.
Adam sneaked a look at the clock. Ten past twelve—not much more torture to endure today. He caught the eye of one of the parent governors, who gave him a wink. Christine Probert was keen, committed, and pretty as a peach. The hemline of the skirt resting at her knees hadn’t stopped the blokes present from eyeing up her legs.
“Do we have any questions?” Victor asked, surveying the governors with an expression that seemed to demand they didn’t.
“Mr. Ford, what is your view on—” Oliver Narraway, community governor and the bane of much of the community’s life, nipped in but not quick enough.
“Simon, I’m a parent governor, so you’ll appreciate why I ask this question.” Christine had been hotter off the mark than Usain Bolt. “You mentioned parental involvement as being key to children’s success. How have you engaged them in your existing role?”
Well done, Christine. Tie down the loose cannon.
Ford beamed. “That’s a challenge for every school these days, Mrs. Probert. At Newby Grange Primary . . .” He was off again, leaving Oliver looking furious at having been knocked off his “modern education is rubbish” hobbyhorse and Victor breathing a huge sigh of relief at that fact. Oliver’s hit list didn’t stop at modern education; it included modern hymns and women in positions of power—apart from Mrs. Thatcher, whom he regarded as a saint. And gay men. Or, as Oliver put it, raving poofs.
Surely they’d break for lunch soon? Adam felt guilty for not being more enthusiastic, but he wouldn’t give any of the candidates houseroom on their showings so far. Three years he’d been teaching here, and despite all its failings, despite the lack of leadership and the dinosaurs on the governing body who couldn’t be trusted to choose new curtains let alone a new headteacher, he loved the place.
He looked sideways at Oliver, watching him slowly seethe at what Ford was saying. What would he do if he saw me coming out of that bar in Stanebridge? Bosie’s wouldn’t be his sort of place. All right, nobody could sack him for being gay, thank God and employment law, but he wouldn’t put it past any of them to make his life intolerable. Subtly, of course. Just like the previous headteacher, had done. Maybe that’s why she’d been eased out, or at least one of the reasons, before the wrath of the school inspectors came down like a ton of bricks and even more cow manure hit the fan.
A knock on the door, followed by the appearance round it of Jennifer Shepherd, the school secretary, cut short all talk.
“Sorry to interrupt. The wire’s worked loose on the front door release again, and the thing won’t open properly.”
“I’ll sort it.” Adam was out of his chair before anyone could stop him. Freedom ahoy! Thank goodness the caretaker only worked early mornings and evenings so Adam was the appointed handyman the rest of the time. “Sorry everyone. Class A emergency.”
“That’s fine,” Victor said, sending him on his way with a wave. “Our security system is vitally important,” he added, addressing Ford. Vitally important and almost impenetrable. Unless someone was a staff member, and as such, granted knowledge of the entry code for the keypad. Somebody, like Ford himself, couldn’t usually get into the school except through the main door. He’d need to buzz the intercom and persuade Jennifer to press the little switch to let him in, after which he’d come into view of her desk, through the hatchway window. Ultimate power for Jennifer, except when the wire had worked loose, then nobody without the code could get in that way short of bulldozing the door down.
Adam followed Jennifer down the corridor.
“Sorry to pull you out,” she said. “I didn’t have anywhere else to turn.”
“I’ll give it my best shot,” Adam said, stepping into the office and realising that freedom was still a pipe dream. Ian Youngs, another candidate for the headship, was flicking through a book of school photographs. This was part of his free time, intended to let the candidates have a chance to go round the school and get to know it better. Adam could think of better things to do with the time, like talking to the children, rather than lurking in the office.
“Got that screwdriver, Jennifer?”
Jennifer handed over a little box of tools. “I’ll leave you to it.” She turned her attention to the other invader of her territory. “Are you enjoying those? That’s from when St. Crispin’s won the local mathematics challenge in 1995.”
“Really?” Youngs didn’t sound impressed.
“Yes. We used to be one of the top schools in the county.”
Adam felt Jennifer bridling, even though he was under the desk, wrestling a handful of wires.
“You seemed to win lots of awards in the 1990s, Mrs. Shepherd,” Youngs continued, sounding like he was trying to redeem himself. Adam wanted to warn him not to smile, as that would ruin the effect. He’d weighed the bloke up as soon as he’d seen him, and while Youngs wasn’t exactly bad looking, when he opened his mouth, he revealed a set of crooked teeth. Not the most attractive smile, especially in combination with his slightly protruding ears.
“We did.” Jennifer didn’t sound any happier. She cleared her throat and changed the subject. “Will they be out soon, Adam?”
“Should be.” Adam emerged, brushing fluff from his trousers. “All sorted, I think.”
Jennifer pressed the button, heard the release catch open, then smiled. “You’re so clever. What would I do without you?”
“Have a peaceful life?” Adam winked at Youngs, who just scowled in return.
“It’s a shame they can’t just change the timetable around and see you straight after lunch, Mr. Youngs, now that we’re down to two candidates instead of three. It means you having to kick your heels for ages,” Jennifer said. “But our Mr. Narraway insisted we had to keep to what we’d planned, breaks and all.”
“It’s to do with the timing of assembly,” Adam explained. “The vicar has to watch Simon Ford lead an act of worship, like he watched you earlier, before he sits in on your presentation. And we all need a bit of lunch before any of that.” Adam kept his eye on Youngs, who was slipping a piece of paper—on which Adam had seen him jot something down—into his pocket.
“I don’t mind.” Youngs smiled, crooked teeth and all. “It’ll be nice to go stretch my legs for a while. This morning’s been hard work, what with taking assembly and getting the third degree from the pupil panel.”
Jennifer smiled at the mention of the pupils. “You should take a wander around the village while you’re at it, Mr. Youngs. You can’t say many places have kept their charm and not changed too much over the years, but it’s certainly true of Lindenshaw.”
Adam choked back a laugh. Parts of Lindenshaw had barely reached the twentieth century, let alone the twenty-first.
“I’ve got that impression already. I’ll see you at about half past one, Mrs. Shepherd.” Youngs turned towards the door.
“Good. That’ll give you plenty of time to set up your presentation. They’re strict about punctuality.”
“I’ll remember that.” Youngs stopped at the office door, and Adam thought he heard the man mutter, “I bet they like being strict about all sorts of things.” Youngs pushed against the front door, annoyed that it wouldn’t budge, as the rest of the governors came out of the classroom and into the hallway.
“You’ll need to use the exit button,” Christine piped up, smiling at Youngs.
“Thank you!” he replied, beaming. Every male candidate puffed his chest out when Christine was around, like a gamecock trying to impress a hen.
“It’s like bloody Alcatraz getting in and out of here,” Oliver said.
Adam gave him a sharp glance; Oliver was watching Youngs with more than a passing interest, as were the vicar and Marjorie Bookham—the only other woman on the governing body—as if there was something about the man that they were trying to fathom out. A hand on Adam’s shoulder ushered him along the corridor, and the others following in his wake. The Reverend Neil Musgrave was steering his flock as usual, this time in the direction of the staffroom, where lunch would be waiting.
“The more I see that man, the more I think I might have met him somewhere before,” Neil said. “What about you, Marjorie? Does he ring any bells?”
Marjorie bridled. “Of course he doesn’t. If I knew him from somewhere, then I’d have already declared it or else I might not be allowed to stay on the selection panel.” She stopped, waiting for Victor to catch the others up. “I’m right, aren’t I, Victor?”
“Sorry, Marjorie, I missed that.” The chair of governors looked preoccupied, his normally neat appearance slightly awry and an untidy pile of papers under his arm.
“I said that if the vicar crossed swords with Ian Youngs in the past, then he should declare it.”
“What’s all this? Can’t have any conflict of interest, Neil,” Victor said.
Neil shook his head. “I didn’t say that I knew him. Marjorie’s being mischievous. I just said I had a feeling I’d met him at some point in the past, but even if I have, it’s probably something entirely innocuous. I run across an awful lot of people in the diocese, one way or another.”
Victor, who had a certain bovine quality, scowled. “Please be careful, Marjorie, even if you’re just making a joke. Remember all the trouble we had last time we tried to recruit.”
Seconds out, round one?
“I don’t think I’m responsible for that debacle.” Marjorie turned on her heels and headed for the ladies’ toilet, sashaying stylishly as she went. Marjorie was a good-looking woman for her age—early fifties, maybe?—and was always immaculately dressed in clothes that reeked of class and couldn’t have been found even in the poshest of the Stanebridge shops.
Neil watched her go, shrugged theatrically, then led the way to the staffroom and lunch.
Adam flopped into his favourite chair, grabbed a sandwich, and dealt with priority number one. Cheese and pickle would stop the rumbling in his stomach from becoming too audible.
“They both seem to be very nice. Mr. Ford and Mr. Youngs,” Christine said.
“Nice?” Oliver snorted from across the room. “I’m not sure nice is what we’re looking for in a headmaster.”
“Admiral Narraway’s looking for a hanging and flogging captain,” Neil said under his breath.
Victor grimaced. “We shouldn’t make any judgements this early in the process. And it’s ‘headteacher,’ not ‘headmaster,’ remember? Gender neutral.”
“We can decide if we want to send them home.” Oliver, ignoring the gender bit, pointed his sandwich crust at Victor as though it were a gun.
“Like we sent them home when we tried last term? Not one of them made it through to the second day and the interviews proper.” He fished the tea bag from his mug, flinging it into the bin like a bullet.
“That’s because they were all rubbish,” Oliver continued, aiming his crust gun at Neil this time. “And I can tell you exactly why. It was because—”
“Sorry, chaps and chapesses. May I remind everyone present about confidentiality?” Victor wagged his finger. “I’m sorry, but what happens in the interview room stays in the interview room. Leave it at the fact that none of them were good enough.”
Marjorie, who had returned and was now hovering by the watercooler, nodded. “It’s such a shame Lizzie Duncan was taken ill and couldn’t be here. Getting a woman’s answer to some of the questions would have been enlightening. And yes, I know the last woman wasn’t much use, but don’t tar all of my sex with the same brush.”
“We couldn’t have put the process off again, Marjorie,” Victor said, tetchily.
“We’ll just have to hope these two chaps don’t make a mess of things like the last lot did,” Oliver said, unable to point his crust gun at anyone as he’d eaten it.
Adam wasn’t interested in hearing more if they weren’t going to dish the dirt on the last round of recruitment and looked up at the clock. “Blimey, is that the time? I’ve got a phone call to make.”
“Making a date for the weekend?” Christine smiled knowingly.
“Nothing so glamorous. Finding out how Mother’s cat got on at the vet. Said I’d ring before one o’clock. Twenty minutes before I get cut out of the will.”
Marjorie picked up her handbag. “I think there’s time for me to nip home and put my washing out. Shame to waste a good drying day.”
“Just make sure you’re back in time.” Victor kept looking at his phone. “Ian Youngs is giving his presentation at one fifty-five.”
Marjorie headed out of the room as Oliver got to his feet. “I’m going to find somewhere to have a cigar. Don’t worry, I’ll make sure I’m far enough away from the school not to pollute the air the little ones are going to breathe.” He slammed the door behind him.
Neil, hovering over his seventh sandwich, shook his head. “He’s always been a bit of a loose cannon, and I fear he’s getting looser by the day.”
“Then tie him down,” Jeremy Tunstall said, looking up from the huge pile of papers he’d been flicking through. Lead Learning Partners, or whatever it was they were calling the people from the county education department this week, seemed to go through a lot of trees. “You don’t want a repeat of the mess you got into when you tried to recruit before. Now, I’ve got calls to make, assuming I can get a bloody signal. I’ll be back about half past one.”
Adam watched him go. “I should have told him about the ladies’ loo. You’re supposed to be able to get a signal in there.”
“How do you know?” Neil asked, grinning.
“Jennifer told us, of course.” Adam eased out of his chair. If he went out into the lane by the school field and faced south, he could generally get a decent fix on the network. Maybe it would be easier just to see Jennifer and ask to use the landline?
He was halfway through the office door when Jennifer’s voice—in conversation with Marjorie about sandwiches or some such nonsense—stopped him. He didn’t want to be nabbed by these two formidable females, who, for all their superficial spikiness with each other, had always been thick as thieves.
“Neither Simon nor Ian joined us for lunch, even though there was an open invitation. Are they in the candidates’ hidey-hole?”
“Hidey-hole? Oh, you mean the children’s kitchen? Not as far as I know.” Jennifer waved her hand airily.
Marjorie sniffed. “Good. We were hoping they might spend their spare time looking around the school and talking to the children rather than hiding away.”
“Oh, that nice Mr. Ford was certainly keen to do that. Last time I saw him, he was being led off by a group of children to eat his sandwiches with them on the field.” Jennifer smiled; it was clear which candidate she had her eye on. “It’s such a lovely day, we let the children have a bit of a picnic out there. Much healthier.”
“I wish I’d joined them. I feel the need of some fresh air, especially having been cooped up with Oliver most of the morning.” Marjorie eased past Adam, who was still hovering in the doorway, leaving a trail of good-quality perfume behind her.
“Maybe you could rescue Mr. Ford if he’s still out there,” Jennifer shouted after her. “I wouldn’t put it past some of the year-six children to have tied him to a tree by now, pretending he’s a human sacrifice.”
The ringing of the bell signalled the end of the children’s lunchtime but not quite the end of Adam’s phone call. They’d established that the cat was fine and the vet hadn’t charged an arm and a leg, and were just getting onto the “when are you next coming to dinner?” bit.
“Let me get through these next few days, and I’ll organise something. Bell’s going. Got to go. Love you.”
The vicar was coming up the field, weaving his way between children as they dawdled over getting into line. He looked distracted.
“Penny for your thoughts?” Adam asked as Neil approached.
“Eh?” He took a deep breath. “Oh, they’re not even worth a farthing. Come on, better not be late or Victor will have my guts for garters.”
“I think you’ve got the short straw. Watching Ford lead assembly and then back in to listen to another presentation.”
“Collective worship, not assembly. The bishop insists on the right name as we’re a church school.” Neil winked. “Only the second collective worship of the day. I’ll survive.” Neil steered them towards the side of the school. “I’ll take the shortcut and see if anyone will let me into the hall direct.”
“I’ll sign you in, then, or Jennifer will have your guts for garters too.”
“Don’t bother. I forgot to sign out.”
Adam wished he were going with the man. Watching assembly had to be better than going through Ian Youngs’s data analysis—another one of the many hoops they’d made the candidates jump through. He’d take the file into Jennifer’s office and plonk himself at the spare desk, which was about the only bit of free space available today, then plug in his iPod so the background noise wouldn’t disturb his concentration.
He was a third of the way through the task when a quiet passage in his music coincided with a harsh buzz from the front door intercom.
“Who is it?” Jennifer spoke into a little grey box, out of which a tinny version of Marjorie’s voice emerged in answer. She flicked a switch under her desk. “It’s open, come in.”
Marjorie soon appeared at the hatch. “Does someone eat all of the pens here?”
Jennifer looked up. “What? Oh, sorry, Marjorie, I’ve been fighting with the computer all lunchtime. It’s got a mind of its own. Here you are.” She eased herself out of her chair and passed a Biro through the hatchway.
“I’m not late, am I? Oliver would tear me off a strip if I was.” Marjorie didn’t seem overly concerned about the fact.
“More likely give you six from the cane.” Jennifer appeared pleased with herself for making a slightly saucy joke, even though Marjorie didn’t seem at all amused. “No, you’re fine.”
Adam gave up trying to sort out the data. “The presentation’s not due to start until one fifty-five, so you’ve even got the chance to grab a cup of tea.”
“Anyway, Mr. Youngs went for a bit of fresh air earlier on and isn’t back yet, so he’ll be the one getting the wigging.” Jennifer shook her head.
Marjorie sniffed. “How was the cat, Adam?”
“Cat? Oh, yes, fine, thank you.”
“Adam had to ring his mother about her cat,” Marjorie explained, showing no sign of going to get some tea, or even of going anywhere.
“Are you sure he wasn’t ringing his girlfriend?” Jennifer said, archly.
“If I was, I wouldn’t tell you. You’d be working out how to get in touch with her and snitch about all my bad habits.” Adam cringed. Why did he always feel as if he had to hide? Why couldn’t he bring a partner to the summer social without risking somebody like Oliver having palpitations? Might help to have a partner to bring, of course.
“I can’t believe you have any bad habits, Adam.” Marjorie smiled.
Better ask the ex about that, Marjorie. He’d make your eyes stand out like organ stops.
“It’s nearly ten to two. I’ll give Mr. Youngs another couple of minutes, and then I’ll ring his mobile.” Jennifer was back at her desk, scowling at the computer, which seemed to be misbehaving still.
“If he’s got his phone turned on. We do ask candidates to switch them off during the activities.” Marjorie sniffed again. “I think I will get myself a cup of tea. It’s been a bit more hectic today than I thought it would be.”
“You shouldn’t have rushed home; you should have put your feet up,” Jennifer said, still making faces at the screen. “Your husband could have put the washing out, couldn’t he?”
“Could he? That would be an unexpected case of taking initiative.” Marjorie turned on her heel and headed for the staffroom.
“She leads a dog’s life.” Jennifer kept her voice low, even though Marjorie had gone around the corner. “When you get wed, don’t you expect your wife to wait on you hand and foot.”
“I promise I won’t,” Adam replied. That was a cast-iron guarantee.
Back again. Same classroom, same panel, same anticipation of death by PowerPoint.
Same Oliver, glancing at the clock and looking like he was about to explode.
“I say we should just scratch Youngs’s presentation and count it as a definitive black mark against him.” Oliver clenched and unclenched his hands. “We don’t want a headmaster who can’t keep his appointments.”
Christine, inevitably, was the voice of reason. “We should give him another few minutes. Maybe he got lost.”
“Got lost?” Oliver glowered. “Then he shouldn’t have been wandering around, should he? What’s that chappie Ford doing now?”
“It’s all on the timetable, of which you have a copy, although I don’t suppose you’ve bothered with it.” Victor rummaged in his inside pocket, producing a folded sheet of A4 paper. “He’s into his second session of free time. You’ve just been watching him lead an assembly, haven’t you, Neil?”
Neil rubbed his hands together. “Yes. And very good it was. The children loved singing ‘Our God is a great—’”
“This is ridiculous.” Tunstall got up, prowled over to the window, and peered out. “Can’t see him.”
Marjorie turned in her seat to address Adam. “He did go out for a walk?”
“Yes. He made his escape just when I’d finished sorting that buzzer out.”
Tunstall shook his head. “I was hoping he’d show a bit more gumption. Simon Ford certainly seems to be on the children’s wavelength.”
Adam waited for the inevitable comment from Oliver. It came.
“Do we want someone on their wavelength? When I was young, I was scared stiff of my teachers, and when I was a headmaster, the children would never have wanted to play skipping with me. Fear and respect—that’s what’s lacking these days.”
Tunstall swivelled in his chair. “We want someone who can take the school into the twenty-first century. You seem to want to drag it back to the nineteenth.”
Oliver stood up. “Now, you just—”
Any likelihood of fisticuffs was put on hold by a knock on the door. Shame. Adam had been looking forward to Tunstall versus Narraway, heavyweight knockout.
“Come in!” Victor said.
Jennifer stuck her head around the door. “I’ve tried ringing Mr. Youngs, but he’s not picking up his mobile. Do you think he’s all right?”
“Good lord, you don’t think he’s had an accident or something, do you?” Christine grabbed Adam’s arm.
“What on earth makes you think that, Christine?” Victor asked. “Would you try ringing again, please, Jennifer? If there is some genuine problem, we should allow him a bit of leeway.”
Tunstall forestalled any dissent. “Ian Youngs is a good candidate, and you can’t afford to turn your noses up at him if he’s been delayed by something out of his control.”
The increasingly awkward silence just continued. Apart from a faint noise . . .
“Is it me, or does that sound like a mobile phone?” Adam jerked his thumb towards the wall dividing the classroom from the children’s kitchen, where space had been set aside for the candidates to take refuge.
Victor leaped out of his chair. “I bet Youngs got the timetable buggered up—sorry, vicar—and he’s sitting there waiting.”
“Or he’s gone off and left his phone, and that’s why Jennifer can’t get him to answer. Although, how he’s got signal when most of us struggle . . .” Marjorie stared out of the window, as though she was trying to spot him.
Victor rose and headed for the door, raising his voice as he went out. “Don’t bother trying to ring Youngs, Mrs. Shepherd. He’s left his phone in the kitchen. We can hear the bloody thing ringing, and I’m going to go and find out what’s going on.”
“Language, Victor. There are children around, you know,” Neil said as Victor left. He grinned at Adam. “He must be rattled to have sworn twice in as many minutes.”
“How rattled do you have to be to turn the air blue?”
“You should hear me in the shed if I hit my thumb with a hammer! There was once . . .” Neil stopped, as the chair of governors reappeared at the door. “Are you all right, Victor?”
“Um, got a bit of a problem. Neil, could you and Adam give me a hand?” Victor’s face was as pale as if he’d met the school ghost in the corridor.
“Of course.” Neil, unhesitating, followed Victor out the door, and Adam slipped into their wake, intrigued.
The children’s kitchen was barely bigger than a generous broom cupboard, with a door to the corridor and a fire door leading to the field in case the little horrors set their fairy cakes ablaze. The table where the ingredients usually got slaughtered was tucked in an alcove with a bench on either side of it. Only, this time, something else had come to a sticky end there.
Even though there wasn’t any TV-forensic-show-type bloodbath, the man was obviously dead, eyes wide-open and unseeing, body slumped and unmoving. Adam, who’d never been in the presence of sudden death, wasn’t sure if he was going to faint or throw up.
“Should I get Jennifer to call an ambulance?” Victor, transfixed by the corpse, seemed like he might beat Adam to the fainting bit.
“Get Adam to do that.” Neil exuded professional competence, leaning over the body. He gently shook Youngs, got no response, felt for a pulse in his neck, and shook his head.
“He’s not just been taken ill?” Victor asked.
Why did that voice sound so faint? And why had the room started to swim in and out of Adam’s vision?
“Gone, I’m afraid. But I don’t like the appearance of his face, nor the bruising on his neck.” Neil looked up, face ashen. “Be a good chap, Adam, and ask Jennifer to get the police to come, as well. I don’t think this was from natural causes.”
Adam, who’d made the mistake of getting a glimpse of that contorted face, managed to pass the message on before heading for the men’s toilet and losing all his Waitrose sandwiches.
Inspector Robin Bright peered out his office window at the magnificent view of assembled glories the Stanebridge Police Headquarters car park could boast. Two traffic-division bobbies were chatting beside a police motorbike, one of the handlers was lugging a hot and bothered dog into a van, and somebody else was shaking his head over some scraped bodywork. Another typical day in Rozzerland.
Bloody hell, the day had turned hot. No wonder that Alsatian looked as if it wanted to take a chunk out of someone’s leg.
He turned away from the window. His sergeant was at his desk. How did the bloke always seem so cool? And so young? Granted, Robin wasn’t exactly long in the tooth, having gone straight on the promotion fast track, but Sergeant Anderson had the face of someone barely out of nappies.
“This weather makes no sense.” Robin ran his fingers round his collar then eyed a pile of paperwork that needed to be dealt with. It could wait. “I was so cold last night I ended up putting the heating back on.”
“You want to be living with my Helen, sir. I’m always last in the pecking order.” Anderson grinned. “She nabbed the fan heater. She almost sits on top of it when she’s marking essays. And the dog was parked by the radiator.”
“You should have got the dog to lie on her feet and killed two birds with one stone.” Robin tried to keep his voice free of envy at the cosy domestic setup. There were times when having a lecturer—or anybody—to come home to would be the summit of all desire.
Anderson groaned. “If I’d suggested that, my life wouldn’t have been worth living. And we forgot to turn the bloody heating off this morning too. The house will be sweltering when we get back.”
The phone rang, cutting off any further meteorological discussion.
“Inspector Bright’s office,” Anderson said in his best telephone voice.
Who is it? Robin mouthed.
Anderson mouthed, Some school, in return, which left his boss none the wiser.
“Yes . . . Got that . . . Right,” he continued. “Have they rung for an ambulance? Good. I hope they have the sense to keep people away. The less tramping around the better. Thank you.”
“There’s nothing more frustrating than only hearing half a phone call. I take it we’re wanted?” Robin was already out of his chair and heading for the door.
“Lindenshaw St. Crispin’s School, sir,” Anderson replied, joining him. “The emergency services had a call that they’d been recruiting for a new headteacher today and one of their candidates has come a bit of a cropper.”
Robin had a cold feeling in his stomach on hearing the location. “Do you mean they’ve had an accident?” Maybe they wouldn’t need to go there.
“Doesn’t sound like it. He was found dead in the kitchen the children use for doing their cookery lessons. The people at the school think there may be suspicious circumstances.”
“Right.” Robin felt in his pocket for his car keys. Keep to the professional and objective. “I guess it won’t be anything as simple as him having choked on a fairy cake. Police surgeon been notified?”
“I was just about to make sure, sir.” Anderson waggled his mobile phone. “The school secretary apparently rang for an ambulance, but she said that’s a case of shutting the stable door after the horse has bolted.”
“Isn’t it always?” Robin headed down the stairs, his sergeant on the phone and hot at his heels. Murder, if this was what they had on their hands, wasn’t a quantity they came across a lot in Stanebridge, despite the depiction of murderous middle England in television crime dramas. And most of the violent deaths he’d had to deal with had been easily solved, the culprit close at hand among relatives or friends. What was it about families that drove people to such extremes?
I was tempted to bash Patrick over the head with a blunt instrument. More than once.
Oh yes, he’d loved Patrick with a fiery ardour, and it had blazed away to leave nothing but ashes. And a bitter taste in his mouth that the best part of a year hadn’t yet washed away. Maybe this poor bloke had rubbed their nearest and dearest the wrong way, and they’d chosen to do the deed away from home.
“Jigsaw time,” Anderson said, slipping his phone back into his pocket. That was Robin Bright’s line, his description of putting together the evidence surrounding any suspicious death, seeing how the pieces fitted together.
Even though he had no idea what the picture on the box lid was supposed to be.
Lindenshaw was only a fifteen-minute drive away, the first village out of Stanebridge, just off the same main road the police station stood on. Robin parked in the staff car park, next to the ambulance, blocking all the other cars in; it didn’t matter, because nobody was going to be allowed to go anywhere for the moment.
The playground was empty, although sounds of children playing games filtered round the building. Robin pulled the front door handle, then pushed it, then pulled the bloody thing again.
“Is it me or is this sodding thing fighting back?” He couldn’t remember it being this hard to get into the place, but then school security had gone mad since then.
“You need to press the bell, sir.” Anderson reached across to press the intercom button, clearly fighting a grin.
“Must be easier to get into Parkhurst prison.” Robin’s mutterings were interrupted by a sharp, efficient-sounding female voice. One he recognised all too well.
“This is Inspector Bright, Stanebridge police.” Robin hated talking into intercoms with his sergeant standing by. It felt so idiotic. “I . . .” A sharp click and the door yielded to his shove. The entrance hall and corridors appeared much the same as they had when he’d been a boy, except they’d been brightened up by pieces of the children’s work and pot plants with decorative stones round their stems.
But there was the perennial Mrs. Shepherd, leaning through the hatchway window, looking no older than she had twenty years previously, and pointing to a book on the ledge. The door, the little window, and the book might be new, but nothing much else seemed to have changed.
“Could you please pop your names in our signing-in book? Everyone who visits the school is supposed to do it. You’ll need a visitor’s badge too.”
“Must we? We’re supposed to be dealing with a dead body.” Why did they have to go through such a rigmarole?
“You must. Even police inspectors have to obey the rules.” She fixed him with a gimlet glance, just as she’d done when he’d been rising eleven. Maybe she remembered him as clearly as he remembered her. Back then, the height of Robin’s ambition had been to win an argument with her, but this wasn’t the time he’d at last be successful. He took the pen, signed in with a touch of theatricality, then gave it to Anderson, who was still grinning. By God, if he didn’t stop it, Robin was going to have to whack that smile off his face.
“Put these on, please.” She gave them each a brightly coloured adhesive badge, which they dutifully stuck on their lapels.
“Now, will any more of you be coming through this way? It’s bedlam, what with the crime scene people and the ambulance crew and who knows what.” An unexpected crack appeared in her façade as her voice faltered. “I’m sorry. It’s been a trying day. I just wanted to make sure I was on the alert to let them in.”
Time to be magnanimous. “Very wise. So the CSIs are here.” Would he ever get used to the change from scenes of crime officers, which rolled off the tongue, to crime scene investigators, which just smacked of American TV? “What about the police surgeon?”
Mrs. Shepherd nodded. “I sent him through the school, after the ambulance men. The children are out on the field, so they won’t get wind of what’s going on.”
Robin fought to control his voice. “On the field? There could be vital stuff out there being ground to pieces under a hundred pairs of plimsolls.”
“It’ll be trainers, sir. No one wears plimsolls anymore,” Anderson cut in, although it wasn’t helpful.
“It was already too late, according to the CSI woman.” Mrs. Shepherd sounded on the verge of tears. “She had the same concern. I told her the children were out on the field all over lunchtime and most of the younger children were out there for their first afternoon lesson, practicing for sports day. She said anything would likely be long gone.”
“If it was there at all. I doubt the killer risked wandering past all those prying little eyes if they’ve been out there most of the day,” Anderson continued, soothingly.
“I suppose you did the right thing,” Robin said at last. He didn’t feel like scoring points anymore. Murder wasn’t a matter for one-upmanship, no matter how much satisfaction it would have given his inner schoolboy. “Right. Nobody should leave the school until we give our say-so. I’ll rely on you to help us with that.”
“You can rely on me entirely, Inspector. I’ll watch that front door like a hawk.” Mrs. Shepherd paused, biting her lip. “What are we to do with the children? They’re due to be picked up at three fifteen.”
“There’s no reason they can’t go home. So long as all the adults stay here until we’ve taken their statements. “What have you told them? The children, I mean.”
“That they’ve all been so good they can have extra games out on the field for the rest of the afternoon.” Mrs. Shepherd smiled. “Mrs. Barnes’s idea—she’s our acting head—to keep them busy and away from what’s going on in here. They can’t really see the children’s kitchen windows from the field, so hopefully they’ll be none the wiser.”
Robin nodded. There was a convenient shrubbery dating back to his time at the school that would have hidden everything from view. Which was just as well for the murderer, come to think of it. “Your acting headteacher sounds very sensible.”
“She is. Mind you, we won’t be able to stop everyone seeing the ambulance. They’ll come in here asking things.” The secretary seemed as though she was fighting a losing battle with a bucketful of tears. “Mrs. Barnes has been back at her own school for the day, and even though she’s on her way, she may not make it in time to fend off the parents.”
“Then don’t let them through the door,” Robin said. “You stand guard and keep anyone outside from nosing about too much. That would be really helpful.” Fat chance of that happening, though. These small communities were all the same, and the parents would be thinking up excuses to come in and find out what was going on.
Still, Mrs. Shepherd appeared relieved to have something proactive to do. “I’ll get on it straightaway, then.”
“Can you show us the way to the kitchen?” Anderson was champing at the bit.
“Along the corridor, past the classroom, and around the corner. You won’t miss it. Inspector Bright will remember it as the old kiln room.”
Anderson gave his boss a sideways glance and mouthed, Remember?
“Keep walking.” Robin led the way.
“Can I help you?”
Robin swung round to see a grey-haired, harassed-looking man coming out of one of the classroom doors. His old classroom, scene of many a murder, although only of the English language and that was usually in one of Robin’s stories.
“Ah, the police.” The man held out a hand for Robin to shake. “Victor Reed, chair of governors.”
Robin shook his hand, introduced himself and his sergeant, and tried to edge towards the kitchen. Were they never going to get to the corpse?
“Thank you for being so prompt. Such a terrible thing to have happened to the school.” Reed rubbed his temples.
“Pretty terrible thing to have happened to Mr. Youngs,” Robin muttered, although not quietly enough for Reed not to have heard.
“Of course. Yes.” He appeared even more distressed. “I found the body. Shall I show you . . .?”
“No, thank you,” Robin said, trying not to be too officious. “We can find our way there.”
“If you’re sure.” Reed seemed relieved. He pointed to the door, carefully closed behind him. “I have the rest of the panel and governors in there.”
“The interview panel? Would you warn them we’ll have to take statements from them all before they can go home? And I’d like the school shut tomorrow, so we can go over everything unimpeded. Could you arrange that too?” There was a time when Robin would have been grateful for a murder coming to St. Crispin’s—anything to get an extra day off school.
“Luckily we’d already booked tomorrow as a teacher-training day so the children wouldn’t be around when we conducted the interviews themselves. So at least we won’t have hordes of parents complaining they can’t get childcare on short notice.” Reed looked as if that was a much worse prospect than even fifty unexplained deaths would be. “I’ll just tell everybody about their statements.”
“Yes, you do that. We have to get into our gear.” Robin escaped along the corridor, hauling Anderson with him. The memories the building evoked didn’t make him want to hang around. He concentrated on getting into his protective clothing, a necessary evil in these days of microscopic examination of crimes scenes down to a molecular, let alone cellular, level.
Anderson, fully suited and booted, grabbed the kitchen door handle. “It’s shut, sir. Should I knock?”
“You’re not a child coming to the headmaster’s office for a whacking. Get in there.”
“I’m afraid you can’t . . .” A deep voice came from the other side of the door as Anderson turned the handle.
Robin pushed into the room. “I’m afraid we can.”
“Oh, sorry, sir.” A gangly constable stepped aside to let them in, carefully shutting the door behind them. “I thought you might be another unwanted interloper. We’ve had a few of them.”
“And not all of them children, Bright.” The police surgeon, Dr. Brew, straightened up from where he’d been leaning over the body. “Offers of tea or coffee or help—none of it wanted. Ghouls . . . they want to get a peek at what’s going on.”
“And pick up information.” Or maybe even cross contaminate it. How many people had already been in here, innocently or otherwise? “It’s always like gold dust around a murder scene.”
Robin took in as much of the room as he could at first glance. A general impression—that’s what he wanted before he got bogged down in forensic detail. Cookers, fridges, worktops, all at the right height for children. The shrubbery outside the window . . . It had grown so much in twenty years. The little table with the body slumped over it.
“Oh yes. Worth a fortune in gossiping currency.” Dr. Brew sniffed.
“How did he die?” Anderson asked.
“It’s strangulation, I’d say.”
That seemed clear, even to a layman. No obvious signs of blood or a violent struggle. The young man looked as if he’d just laid his head down on the table to get forty winks. Only the ugly bruising just visible on his neck and the awful appearance of his face made that peaceful scene a lie.
“And,” the doctor continued, “not, I think, with bare hands. Something like a knotted cord. Or a good old-fashioned stocking with a gobstopper tied up in it.”
Anderson looked at his boss, mouthed Gobstopper? and shrugged.
“I saw that, Sergeant.” Dr. Brew grinned. “You should have been at my school. We used to fantasise about how we were going to get rid of the maths teacher. A stocking with a gobstopper—or one of those large marbles—tied up in the middle was the method of choice.”
“Ye-es. Quite.” Robin had come up with a few of those ideas in his time here, but he wasn’t going to admit it. “Do you think the victim was just sitting here when he was killed?”
“It appears so. There were some papers under the body, so I suppose he could have been reading them. No sign of a struggle, or at least not much of one. Some evidence that he’d tried to pull the other person’s hands away—some fibres appear to be under his fingernails.”
Anderson nodded. “We’ll know better when the CSI has fully processed the scene. I wonder if it’s Grace. She wheedles out anything that’s there to be wheedled.”
Robin rolled his eyes at Anderson’s flight of verbal fancy. For a zealously straight bloke, he could be camper than a row of tents. “May I?” he asked the doctor, gesturing that he wanted to move the dead man’s arm to get a better look at what lay underneath.
“Be my guest. The girl took plenty of snapshots and samples before I even started.”
Robin knew he could have waited—those papers weren’t going anywhere—but he liked to get his hands on evidence, letting it speak to him even through the obligatory protective gloves. This time the papers were mute. “This looks like it’s all to do with their interviews.”
The doctor grinned. “Were you hoping it might be a vital clue? I only think detectives get that lucky on the television.”
Robin ignored the quip. “We saw the ambulance outside. Are the paramedics hitting the tea and biscuits?”
“I think they’re in the first aid room dealing with some seven-year-old who’d been whacked on the conk with a rounders ball. Blood everywhere.” Dr. Brew grinned. “Nothing else for them to do here, is there?”
“I suppose not.” Robin sighed, weighing up the scene. There would be no countering the rumour mill once it started grinding. “Mr. Youngs doesn’t seem that big a bloke. I guess he could have been easily overpowered by someone strong—or cunning—enough to put him at ease. Anderson, can you get behind him?”
“If I can just . . .” The sergeant manoeuvred round behind the body.
“Would you have room there to carry out murder without making your intention so bloody obvious that the victim would be able to fight back?”
Anderson made an elaborate mime of strangulation. “Plenty, sir. I can imagine someone looking over Youngs’s shoulder at what he was reading, a nice innocent conversation turning into . . .” He finished off with another garrotting movement.
“Yes, we get the picture. Easier there than from this side of the table too.” Robin eyed up all the likely angles. “Would an attack from behind fit with the marks on the body?”
Dr. Brew nodded. “Absolutely. Still, I wouldn’t jump to any hard-and-fast conclusions. Let’s see what the autopsy shows.”
Robin took a close look at the body, shutting his mind—as ever—to the fact this was someone’s son or lover, cut off in his prime. Pleasant-looking guy, nothing out of the ordinary, except for ears that seemed too large for his head. And yet . . . Robin sniffed, then wrinkled his nose. Something there, some scent. He leaned closer to Youngs’s body and sniffed again. “Sergeant, can you smell something?”
Anderson leaned closer to the dead man, sniffing around like a bloodhound. “There’s something there, sir, but I can’t put my finger on what it is. Some sort of aftershave?”
“Maybe. It seems a bit too floral, though.”
“Perhaps Mr. Youngs preferred his cologne—what’s the word?—metrosexual.” Dr. Brew winked, clearly thinking he’d been hilarious.
“Or possibly he’s been up close and personal with one of the women here,” Anderson said, easing them through a tricky moment.
“You’d better get close to them yourself then and see if you can match up the scent.” Robin was quite happy to delegate that duty. “Maybe—” A sharp rapping noise interrupted him. A nod to the constable and the door got opened an inch or two.
“I’m afraid— Oh, sorry.” The constable produced his usual line as an efficient-looking woman barged through the door. Grace, one of the crime scene investigation team members, was pretty, clever, always appeared to be trying her best, and was fancied by half the blokes in the division. The first three facts were unlikely to cut any ice with Robin and the last one just riled him.
“Out of the way there, Harry, I just—” The sight of the police took the wind out of Grace’s sails. “Didn’t realise you’d arrived, sir. We were just wondering if the doctor had finished so we can get on in here some more.”
Robin nodded. “That’s quite all right by me, Grace. Anything turn up so far?”
The CSI smiled, clearly arranging herself as elegantly as she could, given the disadvantages of working gear. “Not that I can see, although we’ve not been around the outside of the building yet. Didn’t want to scare the children while they practice their sports.”
“I thought sports days were a thing of the past. The perils of the little ones becoming upset at not winning and all that.” Dr. Brew started to pack his stuff away.
“Oh, they still thrive around here. If you want to see cutthroat competition you should watch the average parents’ race. We nearly got called out to stop a fight after the last one.” Anderson rolled his eyes. “Anyway, sir, maybe it’s as well they’re trampling about out there rather than obliterating anything in here.”
It was a valid point. A bit of thought might have ensured the children were all taken entirely off the premises, but if nobody was certain it was murder, would they have bothered to think of that?
“Constable, you did check with the teachers to find out if they’d noticed anything suspicious?” Robin kept his gaze out the window, fighting down his temper. It was probably too late now to make a fuss about sloppy procedures.
“I had a quick word, sir. They hadn’t.” The constable smiled nervously, like a child desperate to please the teacher. Local lad, most likely, drafted in at a moment’s notice and maybe out of his depth. “I nipped round all the teaching staff. We felt it would be safer to let them take the kids out there and keep the building clear.”
“You probably did the right thing.” Robin sighed and turned to Grace again. “Did you by any miraculous chance find anything in the school itself? With your unimpeded snoop around?”
Grace, unmoved by his sarcasm, or unaware of it, shook her head. “Very little.”
“Nothing at all show up?” Anderson, at least, was keeping civil.
“Nothing apart from a couple of smelly socks and two Top Trumps cards, no.” Grace eyed the dead body eagerly. “More luck in here, I hope.”
“We’ll leave you to it, then.” Robin wasn’t convinced. What chance was there of something like a clear set of prints, with the number of sticky fingers that would have been all over everything? “Let me know as soon as anything significant turns up.” He nudged Anderson, tipping his head towards the door. “Come on. We’ve got people to talk to.”
“And sniff at, sir?” Anderson asked, almost earning himself the sort of clip around the ear that Robin had suffered more than once on these very premises.