A deadly fire at a nudist club plunges DCI Harry Brock and DS Dave Poole into an explosive mix of deception, betrayal and fraud.
DCI Harry Brock’s leisurely Saturday afternoon is shattered when he receives the news that Robert Sharp, a charming, good-looking man in his thirties, has been found dead in a suspicious fire in his hut at the Pretext Club, a nudist club near Harrow.
Besides being a philandering husband, it seems Robert Sharp was a conman on the wanted list of three different constabularies, a chameleon who managed to escape the police’s clutches and justice . . . until now. Plunged into a deadly mix of deception, betrayal and fraud, Harry and his colleague DS Dave Poole soon uncover a number of people with a grudge against Robert, but can they unmask his killer?
About the Author
During Graham Ison’s thirty-year career in Scotland Yard’s Special Branch he was involved in several espionage cases. He also spent four years at 10 Downing Street as Protection Officer to two Prime Ministers. He is an honorary agent of the US Army Criminal Investigation Command.
As well as the Brock and Poole Mysteries, Ison is the author of the Hardcastle and Marriott historical mystery series.
Read an Excerpt
For days I'd been looking forward to spending the weekend with Lydia Maxwell, an attractive and wealthy, buxom, right-side-of-forty widow. We'd met when I was investigating a murder at an apartment block in North Sheen. Callous though it may sound, once a murder enquiry has been brought to a successful conclusion, I banish it from my mind, usually because I'm dealing with another one.
Lydia's late husband Geoffrey had been what is euphemistically called 'something in the City'. I've never quite discovered what that involves, but he had made a lot of money doing it, sufficient to buy a yacht for half a million pounds and a top-of-the-range Aston Martin that he always drove much too fast. Ironically, it was those two obsessions that, indirectly, were responsible for his death. Lydia had hated sailing and eventually prevailed upon her husband to sell the yacht, which he kept in a marina at Lowestoft, but on his way home after the sale he was killed in a high-speed crash on the A12 the other side of Colchester.
Geoffrey Maxwell had died a rich man and his substantial fortune passed to Lydia. However, I had the impression that she was not too upset by the tragedy, the implication being that her marriage had been unravelling for some time prior to her husband's death. I said she disliked sailing and it most likely had something to with that – she confessed to suffering badly from seasickness – and the drive from North Sheen to Suffolk almost every weekend didn't help. Added to which was her husband's insistence that 'you'll soon get used to it, old girl', a term she disliked given that he had first used it when she was in her teens.
However, apart from my meeting Lydia, the North Sheen murder was memorable for a far less agreeable reason. It had resulted in a second murder, that of one of my own officers, a young married detective constable named John Appleby who had been gunned down while attempting to arrest the killer. And that is something you remember for the rest of your life.
Lydia had been unwilling to remain living in a flat opposite one that had been the scene of two murders, and had moved to a large house on a gated estate in Esher in Surrey. Being a keen swimmer, she'd made sure that the house possessed its own swimming pool, which she'd had enclosed in an attractive cedarwood chalet, thus ensuring privacy and the luxury of being able to swim in mid- winter.
Quite by coincidence, Lydia's new house turned out to be next door to the one owned by Bill and Charlotte Hunter, and the three of them had quickly become friends. Bill, a very successful financial speculator, and Charlie, as she was invariably known, had been friends of my ex, Gail Sutton. Gail and Charlie Hunter were actresses but Gail had been attracted, like a moth to a flame, to the bright lights of Hollywood by a mind-blowing amount of money for a part in a glossy American soap opera. I had waved goodbye to her at Heathrow Airport knowing, but trying to think I was wrong, that it would be the last I ever saw of her.
I'm pleased to say, however, that my relationship with Lydia seems to be showing all the signs of permanency and Gail is gradually becoming a distant memory.
Late on the Saturday afternoon, she and I were lazing by her pool and, as an added delight, I was relishing the thought of another of her masterclass dinners later that evening.
From time to time, we took a dip in the pool to cool off from what was proving to be one of the hottest days of the year. I was enjoying one such dip and waiting for Lydia to join me when I noticed she was speaking to someone on the phone. I swam to the side of the pool and saw that it was my mobile she was holding. I'd not heard its distinctive ring tone from the pool and Lydia had answered it.
'It's the office for you, Harry, darling,' she said in the husky voice that had immediately attracted me when first we'd met.
I clambered out and took the phone, in a bad temper even before I'd answered the damned thing. I knew exactly why it had rung on a Saturday afternoon and so did Lydia. She'd known me long enough to have learned what such a call usually meant. All that remained was to be told the location.
'It's Gavin Creasey, sir.'
'What is it, Gavin?' I listened in disbelief as Detective Sergeant Creasey, the relief incident room manager, gave me the details of the death to which I'd been assigned. 'You've got to be kidding me, Gavin,' I eventually managed to say. 'Well, tell them to make sure they've put some clothes on before I get there. And organize a car for me.'
'Dave Poole is on his way to pick you up as I speak, guv'nor.'
'I'm at Esher, not Surbiton, Gavin.' I gave him Lydia's address.
'I'll get him on the radio and divert him, guv.'
'What was that all about, darling?' Lydia asked as I finished the call. The expression on her face was a mixture of amusement and disappointment. 'Why did you ask them to put clothes on?'
'I've been assigned to the suspicious death of a nudist in a fire at a bloody naturist club somewhere near Harrow, would you believe?'
Lydia started to chuckle but eventually became convulsed with laughter and almost collapsed on to one of the poolside loungers. Eventually she managed to speak. 'You can go as you are, then,' she said. In between fits of uncontrollable giggles, she gestured at my nudity.
My sergeant, Dave Poole, got me to the venue of the nudist's death – some thirty or so miles from Esher – in commendably good time. Since the swingeing budget cuts that the government had inflicted upon the police, the usual mode of transport to take me quickly to the scene of a murder had been a traffic unit car. But such luxury had now been vetoed by authority, the reasoning being that if the victim was already dead, there was no hurry. Such are the thought processes of those supreme beings set over us who have no detective experience. They did, however, authorize the fitting of a sat-nav to our cars, which sometimes introduced me to parts of Greater London that I didn't know existed.
I was met at the entrance to the naturist club by a uniformed inspector flourishing a clipboard. I'd long ago concluded that without clipboards, the Metropolitan Police would grind to a standstill. I knew what he was going to ask and forestalled his question.
'DCI Harry Brock and DS David Poole, HMCC West.'
I should perhaps explain that Dave and I are attached to Homicide and Major Crime Command. The addition of the word 'West' indicates that we're responsible for murders, manslaughters and other assorted major mayhem in an area that stretches from Westminster out through Hammersmith to Barnet. Unfortunately, it also includes the Harrow area.
'Thank you, sir.' The inspector carefully recorded this information. 'DI Mansfield is in there somewhere,' he said, and waved at the entrance. A discreet sign stated that this was the Pretext Club. There were open high metal gates designed to look as if they were much older than they were, but access was controlled by an automated barrier a little further inside. There was a CCTV camera mounted on a short post, positioned so that it could read car number plates but, as we later learned, could not see who was in the vehicle. And that turned out to be unfortunate.
The fire brigade was still in attendance when we arrived, although the fire crews had started to pack away their equipment. I spotted the woman who was supervising. She could have been slim, but it was difficult to tell as she was clad in a firefighter's protective gear and wore a white helmet with a single black band around it indicating that she was a station manager. I presumed that she was in charge of the incident.
'Good evening, I'm Detective Chief Inspector Harry Brock and this is Detective Sergeant Dave Poole.'
'Hi!' Taking off her helmet, the woman ran a hand through her damp hair and wiped perspiration from her smoke-begrimed face with a small towel.
'What can you tell me about the fire?'
'I won't weary you with all the details that are on record, like the time we got the call and the time we arrived, and all that sort of stuff.' She sat down on the step of the pump appliance. 'We got a shout to a fire in that chalet,' she said, indicating with a wave of the hand. 'It was well alight by the time we arrived, but it was brought under control very quickly.'
'What caused you to think it was suspicious?'
'Apart from everyone roaming around in the nude, I think you guys call it copper's nose,' said the fire chief. 'You know when something's not quite right, but you can't put your finger on it, so you dig a bit deeper.' Taking a bottle of water from one of her crew with a word of thanks, she took a long drink. 'Well, it's the same with us. Call it a sixth sense, if you like, and there was something not quite right with this one. I think the thing that made me doubtful was that the corpse, what was left of it, was still on the bed, which to me implied that he'd been dead before the fire. In view of my doubts, I've arranged for a fire investigator to examine the scene and I expect you'll want your people to have a look at it.'
'Thanks very much. I hope the rest of your shift stays quiet for you,' I said, and turned to go.
'So do I, Chief,' she said. 'Thanks.'
I crossed to where Jane Mansfield was chatting to a uniformed constable. Mansfield was what we call a HAT DI, an acronym that has nothing to do with headgear, but indicates that she is part of a Homicide Assessment Team. Members of these teams decide if a suspicious death is a murder, and if so, whether it's one likely to involve a protracted enquiry. Mansfield had obviously decided that this particular homicide qualified on both counts, hence my presence.
'What's the SP, Jane?' I asked, borrowing a bit of racing jargon that CID officers use as shorthand for getting the basic details of the story so far. 'Incidentally, I've already spoken to the fire brigade station manager.'
'It's going to be a tricky one, guv.' Jane was just over five-six in height, with short brown hair. She also had a cheerful smile that was now very much in evidence. 'Half of them in there are strolling around stark naked,' she said, cocking a thumb over her shoulder.
'So the fire chief told me, but I instructed the incident room sergeant to ensure they were dressed.'
'So I understand, but apparently they take the view that if the textiles – that's us – want to come in, we'll have to take them as they are. And that's just the staff.'
'Witnesses?' I asked despondently. I was becoming more depressed by the minute.
'If there are any. Some of them have gone home.' Jane's cheerful smile reappeared. 'I said it was tricky because Saturday midday is when quite a few of the members leave, presumably because they're going back to work on Monday. Gives them time to find some clothes, I suppose,' she added impishly. 'Another lot will arrive today and tomorrow which just about gives the staff time to clean the vacated huts, or chalets as they call them, as well as the rooms in the main block, and to get the laundry under way. But there are quite a few others, pensioners for the most part, who turn up for a week or two, maybe from midweek to midweek, or for just as long as the mood takes them.'
'You're really cheering me up, Jane. Do go on.'
'Anyway, to get back to the incident. The staff started collecting bed linen and towels from the vacated accommodation at about half past three this afternoon when one of the chalet maids, as they call them, spotted that there was a fire in one of the huts. As you know, there's a standard procedure at places like this, and the brigade was called. It was the firefighters who found the corpse.'
'How the hell did he manage to lie there and get burnt to death?' I mused aloud, echoing what the fire chief had said.
'The only thing that springs immediately to mind is that he was dead before the fire started,' said Jane. 'Hence the reservations expressed by the fire brigade.'
'Wonderful! Are the scientists here yet, Jane?'
'Yes, guv. Linda Mitchell and her team arrived about ten minutes before you did, and Dr Mortlock is here, too.'
'Already? I bet he's happy.'
'Happy is not a word I'd have used to describe his mood,' said Jane. 'He was muttering something about a bloody fire death getting in the way of his being able to watch the Open Golf Championship from Carnoustie on television. By the way, your Australian DI is here somewhere.'
'You mean Kate Ebdon?'
'Yes, that's the one.' As she did every time she mentioned Kate, Mansfield pretended that she couldn't remember her name. I knew who she meant, but for some reason I'd never discovered – and didn't really want to know – an element of animosity existed between the two. It could be that Jane Mansfield had been educated at a public fee-paying school and then university, before entering the Force by way of the direct entry scheme.
Kate, on the other hand, had a fairly rough upbringing in Port Douglas in Queensland, her birthplace, and openly boasted about skinny dipping in the Coral Sea. Following a spell in advertising and hospital administration, she finally settled for the Metropolitan Police and started her career by walking a beat in Hoxton for two years. As a detective she'd excelled as a thief-taker in London's East End before graduating to the Flying Squad as a sergeant. Somewhere along the way she'd acquired a black belt in judo, and I'd once seen her put a six-foot villain on his back with little apparent effort. Now in her early thirties and a detective inspector, she had become a great asset to the team. She was also very outspoken about the shortcomings of the direct entry scheme, which was probably what riled Mansfield.
Mansfield may have skinny dipped at university where, I believe, it's considered to be very daring, but it wasn't the sort of thing she'd mention. The other noticeable difference between the two DIs was that Mansfield's usual attire was a rather conservative trouser suit, whereas Kate always dressed teasingly in a man's white shirt and tight-fitting jeans.
'Thanks very much, Jane. I'd better get on with it, I suppose.'
'Better start with the bare facts, then, guv,' said Dave.
'Shut up, Poole.' I could visualize an unending stream of jokes about investigating a murder at a naturist club.
Dave Poole is my black bag carrier, but I should explain that it is Dave who is black, not the bag. In fact, there is no bag. The days of taking a murder bag to the scene of a homicide are long past; we now have a team of forensic scientists. However, the term bag carrier has stayed and is used to describe the senior investigating officer's assistant. Dave's grandfather, a medical doctor, came over from Jamaica in the 1950s and set up a practice in Bethnal Green. His son, Dave's father, became a chartered accountant, but Dave, after getting a good English degree at London University, 'went mad', to put it in his own words, and joined the Metropolitan Police. Impishly describing himself as the black sheep of the family for not pursuing a professional career, he has proved to be one of the best sergeants I've ever had working with me.
'Hello, Harry.' Linda Mitchell and her team of forensic scientists were standing outside the chalet that was the centre of police attention.
'What have we got, Linda?' It was the standard opening question to the crime-scene manager, and what she had to say very often put me on the right track to solving a murder or, rather, prevented me from wasting time by going in the wrong direction.
'The victim is Robert Sharp. He's reckoned to be in his thirties and had joined the club about a year ago. He wasn't due to check out and, according to one of the staff, he came fairly regularly and usually stayed for just a few days. This time he hadn't committed himself to a specific period.'
At that point, Dr Henry Mortlock, the Home Office pathologist, joined us. 'This is a grave disruption of my social life, you know, Harry. I was looking forward to watching the Open on television.'
'You can always see it on catch-up, Doctor,' suggested Dave.
Mortlock took off his pince-nez and polished them with his top- pocket handkerchief while giving Dave the sort of silent withering glare he usually reserved for incompetents who failed to follow his opinion of the cause of death. It was not unusual for Mortlock to display a short temper despite having the outward appearance of a rather overweight, cuddly family doctor in whom one could confide. Dave once described him as going up like a can of petrol in a thunderstorm. It was an oddly contradictory analogy from someone with a degree in the English language.
'What's your verdict, Henry?' I asked, before Dave dug himself deeper.
'Come with me, Harry. I think you'll find it's fairly obvious.'(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Naked Flames"
Copyright © 2019 Graham Ison.
Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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