The Neal James Website

                                  Last Tango in Riddings

                     

                                 

 

 

Riddings could never be described as a place of notoriety. Its status as a village tells much of what the casual traveller would need to know of the former mining community in Derbyshire. Its name derives from the word Ryddynges, a clearing or riding in a wood, and it was part of the ancient forest known as Alfreton Grove within the manor of Alfreton. The settlement goes back at least to the 12th century, when Hugh de Ryddynges received half of the manor of Riddings and half of Watnall from his relative Ralf Ingram of Alfreton. But enough history – its population of just under six thousand was set to receive a wake-up call which none of them could ever have anticipated.

            The Jacqueline Naylor School of Dance had used, as its base, the Riddings Park Community Centre for several years, and Jaqueline Blane, under her maiden name, had run the classes, along with close friend Alison Bond, for the entire lifespan of the business. Life had run its relatively quiet course for Jacqueline and her husband, David, since their move to Derbyshire from London after WWII and, now both in their eighties, they had considered themselves immune from the hurly burly of modern life. Such is complacency – reality was set to hit them with the force of a wrecking ball. DCI Dennis Marks, one of the finest detectives ever to serve with the Metropolitan Police, had the two of them in his sights.

            It had been on an evening in November 1943 that the lives of Jacqui and her husband were destined to be changed in the most radical manner. Their identification, isolation, and ultimate elimination of the Nazi spy, Robert Dancing, had, they had believed, gone unnoticed by the public in general and the police in particular. The bomb which hit the Butterfly Dance Club on Sunday 7th November had buried his remains beneath tons of debris – the two of them had barely escaped with their lives. Now, over sixty years later, it had turned up as the site was prepared for redevelopment. The Metropolitan Police, in the guise of DCI Dennis Marks, had been informed of the find, and the detective, armed with information derived from a thumbprint on the gun used to kill Dancing, had made it his business to track down the perpetrator- Jacqueline Blane.

            “Are you sure that this is worth your while?” Groves asked as they sat over a freshly poured coffee at his lab. “I mean, it was over sixty years ago – she may not even still be alive.”

            “You said yourself, George – the injury suggested a killing; even an execution. I’m a policeman and murder is murder irrespective of when it was committed. If she’d been caught at the time she’d have faced the gallows. We pursue Nazi war criminals for no less than she did.”

            “Yes, but where are you going to begin? It’s not as if you have infinite resources at your disposal. It would leave your squad seriously undermanned if you went at it singled-handed.”

            “We know she moved north after the war, and our computer guys came up with some enhanced images based on the ageing I supplied to them. I’ve had some data back from forces up and down the country based on census data since 1946. There aren’t too many Blanes arriving in their areas based on that timescale, and it’s just a case of working through them with the registers of deaths in their areas. If she’s alive, I’ll find her.”

            “And the odds against that?” Groves asked.

            “Slim as I’d thought, but a promising lead came back from the Derbyshire police. I’m going up there to check it out; I’ll take a few days leave and June and I will spend some time in the countryside. You just never know your luck.”

 

 

Sitting in the Brewers Fayre restaurant at Butterley Park near the Derbyshire town of Ripley, Dennis Marks slid a flyer across the table to his wife, June.

            “I picked this up at the local library,” he said. “Fancy tripping the light fantastic?”

            “The Jacqueline Naylor School of Dancing?” she asked. “Is this the woman you’re looking for?”

            “Could be,” he replied. “The picture looks a reasonable match to the one that our guys aged from the black and white photo I gave them. It’s worth checking out, and we haven’t been dancing for a while. Think you can remember how?”

            “Cheek!” she said. “It was you always getting your steps muddled up.”

            “Tomorrow evening, then. Seven thirty until ten thirty it says; and there’s even a bar.”

            “And what if is her?” June asked. “Surely you can’t simply snap a pairs of cuffs in her.”

            “No, I’ll have to play it very carefully. She can’t possibly know who I am, or what I have in mind,” Marks replied. “I just need to be certain before we make a move on her. Could do with a face-to-face conversation; that should do it. Anyway, it isn’t until tomorrow, so I’ve got plenty of time to work out a plan.”

 

 

There were the usual suspects queueing at the door on Tuesday evening, waiting for the private lessons to end. The group dance class always started at the same time each week, and this time the regular number had been swollen by and extra group of beginners prompted by Jackie’s recent advert in the Ripley & Heanor News. The dance floor was not one of the biggest, so it was going to be a tight fit for the first hour; after that, numbers generally thinned as the newcomers departed, leaving behind the regulars and those of their own number brave enough to mix with the more experienced dancers. This was the case tonight, and Pamela and I spotted quite soon, the couple in the corner near the canteen who had been reticent in their conversations with those at the same table – it looked odd to my detective wife, and I’ve come to respect her ‘copper’s nose’ in such things. The furrowed lines of concentration across her forehead were a bit of a giveaway.

            “What’s up?” I asked.

            “Hmm?” she said, turning to face me, but keeping her eyes slanted towards the opposite corner of the room. “Oh… nothing, maybe something; I don’t know.”

            I followed the line of her gaze to the aforementioned couple, who now seemed deep in conversation for the first time with the pair opposite them. The other couple were smiling, nodding across the room to the stage where Jacqueline Naylor had taken her seat in preparation for the evening’s social event. I shrugged my shoulder, failing to grasp the meaning of my wife’s concern.

            “The couple in the corner?” I ventured. “New beginners – what’s the problem?”

            “Got it!” she exclaimed quietly, jabbing on the arm.

            “Well, if that’s what it does, you can keep it to yourself,” I said, rubbing the point of impact of a finely manicured fingernail.

            “I knew I’d seen him before.” She looked me straight in the eyes. “That’s Dennis Marks.”

            “Old boyfriend?” I shrugged, completely lost

            “Dennis Marks,” she sighed, “is one of the Met’s top detectives.”

            “Okay, so he’s on holiday. All coppers are entitled to time off – you keep saying that yourself.”

            “Too much of a coincidence him turning up here after that newspaper article,” she said, shaking her head.

            “Ah,” I replied, lights suddenly coming on as my brain returned home. “The one in London. Where was it? Putney?”

            “Yes, the dance club. They reckon it had been there since the end of the war. He’s after Jackie!” Pamela thumped the table. “Must have worked out, somehow, who did it and traced it back to the Blanes. Remember what Jackie told us?”

            My blood ran cold. Not only was one of our closest friends an MI5 agent, but she had also executed a spy in the closing stages of the Blitz. Charles Dancing had been about to transmit the plans for Operation Overlord to the Nazis when Jackie and her husband, David, had cornered him. Dancing had rendered David unconscious and was about to deliver a fatal blow when Jackie shot him. The explosion caused by a German V1 masked the noise of the gunfire, and they had been lucky to escape with their lives. If that wasn’t enough, Pamela, listening intently to Jackie’s confession a week or so ago, had chosen to ignore it on the basis of the lapse of time – if that ever came to light her career would be over; she might even end up in prison.

            “So, he’s tracked her down after all that time?”

            “Techmically,” Pamela said, “it was murder, and any copper will move heaven and earth to bring a killer to justice. It’s my guess that MI5 have been protecting the Blanes ever since.”

            “Okay, so what do we do?” I asked.

            “We can’t allow him to get his hands on anything which could be used to positively identify Jackie. Look; that glass at her elbow – it’ll have her fingerprints and, quite possibly, traces of her DNA on it. I have to get it away from her before he spots it… and he will, of course.”

            “Right,” I said. “What do I do?”

            “”I’m going up to the stage – give me that copy on one of your books she asked for, and while I’m gone create a diversion.”

            With that, Pamela was out of her seat and heading for the platform where our teacher was seated. I had to think fast, and out of the corner of my eye, I saw Dennis Marks rise from his seat and head in the same direction as my wife. I moved to intercept, reaching him before he had cover half the dancefloor. Holding out my hand, I smiled as we met.

            “Hello, I’m Mike Grace. New starters, are you?”

            “Dennis Marks,” he replied, looking mildly irritated. We shook hands.

            “No, not really,” he said. “June and I have danced before. We’re on holiday, and I picked up a leaflet at the local library so we thought we’d come along for the evening. She’s a very good teacher, isn’t she?”

            Pamela, returning down the room, smiled at me as she passed.

            “Outstanding,” I replied. Well, mustn’t keep you.

            I made my way to the bar where my wife was deep in conversation with Alison Whatmore, who ran the community centre. Alison, like a select number of us, was aware of Jackie’s wartime career, and we had all become very protective of out dance teacher. I walked in on the conversation.

            “Get it thoroughly washed, or maybe smash it. That glass mustn’t get into Dennis Marks’ possession.”

            “Okay, Pam,” Alison said, watching the figure of Dennis Marks as he returned empty-handed to his seat. “You can leave it to me. Have you made sure she’s not touched anything else belonging to the community centre – what about her chair?”

            “I’ll tell her to wipe it down before she leaves, along with anything else that she’s touched.”

            “What now?” I asked as we turned from the bar.

            “Wait him out and just try to keep an eye on him for the remainder of the evening. I’m going to have another word with Jackie.”

            I returned to my seat alongside our friends, Ben and Julie. Unaware of what was happening, and after a series of conversations about this and that, Julie returned to a question she had asked me before I abruptly left our table.

            “So,” she said in her inimitable way. “Iris Foxtrot… you did promise.”

            “Yes, I did, didn’t I? Come one then. Pam can take Ben through his paces,” I said, as my wife returned to join us. For the moment, at least, it seemed that we had spiked Dennis Marks’ guns.

            “Don’t think that this is over,” Pamela remarked as we pulled out of the car park at the end of the evening. “New Scotland Yard won’t be as easily foiled as that. We’re going to have to be on our guard.”

            “What did Jackie say?” I asked.

            “Doesn’t seem phased in any way. Now that she knows what’s going on, she says that there are people she can contact who can sort it out for her and David. Apparently we’ve done our bit.”

 

 

Back at their hotel, Dennis and June Marks had called in at the Brewers Fayre for a drink before retiring for the night. June was accustomed to her husband’s periods of silence as he pondered his cases, and this evening’s events had fit perfectly into that scenario. She knew that, given time, he would open up to her.

            “Damn the man!” he cursed silently.

            “Who was he” June asked.

            “Said his name was Mike Grace. I was on my way to talk to the dance teacher, Jacqueline Naylor, but he intercepted me.”

            “Did he say anything?”

            “That’s the odd part – he just shook my hand, said his name, and asked if we were new starters. By the time I answered, he was on his way.”

            “So, you didn’t get to speak to her?”

            “No, and every time I tried, there was someone else who got there before me, and she played another dance record. It almost as if they were all trying to keep me away from her. So bloody frustrating! I was going to try to get my hands on her glass for fingerprint comparison, but it vanished!”

            “Okay, so what have you got that you can use?” June asked.

            “Nothing conclusive. Fingerprint and DNA evidence would have been perfect, but that chance has now gone. All I have is an old back and white photograph from sixty years ago, her current picture from her Facebook page, and the fact that her name is Jacqueline – the same name as the woman I’m looking for. The CPS would throw it out and laugh at us. It just seems that they’re all closing ranks around her.”

            “What about the local police – won’t they help?”

            “They’ll just sat the same as the CPS. ‘What evidence do you have that we can use?’ It’s crazy; she killed a man in cold blood and walked away from him.”

            “It was wartime, Dennis,” June said.

            “Groves made the same point, but a murder was committed and the killer got away. I’m beginning to think she was MI5, and if that’s the case I may as well try to catch the wind. I’m dames if I’m letting go, though.”

The warning from Pamela Grace had given Jackie Blane and her husband, David, much to think about on their way home that Tuesday evening, but by the time they closed their front door they were no closer to a solution to the problem which Dennis Marks posed than they had been half an hour earlier.

            “Maybe it’s time to move on,” David had suggested, having poured a glass of Chardonnay for both of them.

            “What?” she asked. “After all this time? It’s taken so long to build up the business – are you serious? What would we do at our age?”

            “Retire. Let’s face it Jackie, we’re no spring chickens. Do you fancy going to prison for something we had to do sixty years ago. Don’t forget what was at stale back then.”

            “Maybe we should just hand ourselves in and trust the legal system to look the other way…”

            “Are you serious?” David said. “Do you really trust the police? All right, yes, I know Pam’s a DI, but apart from her…”

            “He’s not going to give up, you know. Pam says he’s just about the best detective that the Metropolitan Police have.” Jacqueline heaved a sigh and shook her head.

            “What about MI5? You said yourself that you thought they would take care of us. Do you know who to contact?”

            Jacqueline and David Blane, in the days running up to the end of the Second World War, had been in the vanguard of a team dedicated to rooting out foreign agents, and the killing of Charles Dancing had been just one incident in that campaign. They had been promised immunity from prosecution at a time when the penalty for murder was a death sentence. She rose from the sofa and went upstairs, returning a short while later with a small, aged, black notebook. She flipped through its pages and stopped about half way through. Picking up the phone, she dialled a number which she had never thought she would have to use.

            “Number?” The anonymous voice made a simple request.

            “925-867-160-222” Jacqueline replied.

            “Hold the line”

            There was a silence lasting several minutes and the Blanes sat in silence, waiting for the party at the other end to come back. It seemed like an age when another voice jolted Jacqueline from her thoughts.

            “Mrs Blane?”

            “Yes.”

            “What is the nature of you call for help?”

            Over the course of the following half hour, she explained the circumstances surrounding the evening’s dance class, and the unexpected encounter with DCI Marks.

            “Yes,” the voice said. “I see how that puts you in a very awkward situation, but that is what we are here for. You and your husband did the country a great service in carrying out your assignment. But for the two of you, D-Day might never have happened. Take it from me that you have nothing further to be worried about. I will be in touch.”

            The line went dead, and Jacqueline replaced the receiver. Having relayed the conversation to David, they retired for the evening not really knowing where the following weeks would take them.

 

 

Dennis Marks, in the meantime, had returned to London after the short holiday in Derbyshire needing a slice of luck in the killing of Charles Dancing. When it came, it was from a completely unexpected source. The envelope marked for his attention landed on his desk on the Monday morning after he and June arrived home. It contained a letter written, according to the signature, by Jacqueline Naylor, to a competitor running another dance school in Derbyshire. The writer went on to point out that the envelope, sealed in the traditional manner of licking the flap, should contain a DNA sample which the DCI may find useful. Marks smiled at the stroke of fortune and made immediate plans to return to Ripley – this time with a warrant for the arrest of Jacqueline and David Blane.

            Certain that he knew where to find Jacqueline, he arrived at Riddings Park Community Centre at 7.30pm the next day. His disappointment at finding her absent was compounded by a conversation which followed with her deputy.

            “Where is Jacqueline Blane?” he asked.

            “No longer here.” she said. “She’s handed the class on to me.”

            “And you are?”

            “Bond.” Came the smiling reply. “Alison Bond.”

            “How can I find her?”

            “Sorry, I can’t give you that information… DCI Marks, isn’t it?”

            “Yes, my wife and I were here last week. I need to speak with Mrs Blane urgently.”

            “I dare say, but you won’t get any help from anyone here, Chief Inspector. The Firefly last Tuesday was her last tango in Riddings.”

 

 

Marks was furious at being outflanked. Having failed to obtain the information he needed now, his only alternative was to rest for the night and call at the offices of Amber Valley District Council in the morning. That visit gave him, at least, the address of the Blanes from the council’s records once he produced his warrant card. Thirty minutes later he was at the Blanes residence with a smile on his face. It was not to last long.

            “Come in, Dennis. I’ve been expecting you.”

            George Watkinson cut a very different figure to the one to which Marks had become accustomed. Gone was the Bond Street suit and tailored shirt, the Saville Row shoes, and the silk tie which had become something of a trademark. Wearing casual attire, he could easily have been mistaken for a normal resident. Ushering the DCI into the Blanes’ house, he was most apologetic.

            “I’m afraid there’s nowhere to sit and have a chat, and I can’t even offer you anything to drink – the Blanes took everything with them when they left.”

            Marks and Watkinson had a professional relationship going back a number of years, and usually it had worked to the benefit of both MI5 and New Scotland Yard. As the head of the intelligence service, it was one of Watkinson’s duties to protect all operatives, both current and retired, from prosecution.

            “You won’t find them, you know,” he said, smiling. “Service to the Crown in times of wat and all that; defence of the realm isn’t it? Anyway, Dancing was a spy working for the Nazis – terrible fellow by all accounts. This is one you’re going to have to chalk up as a loss.”

 

 

“So, we’re safe now?” David Blane said to his wife as they sat in their new home in Penrith.

            “Mr Watkinson assured me that we have nothing further to worry about,” Jacqueline replied. “The new identities will ensure that the police can never track us down as long as we keep out old one secret.”

            “No keeping in touch with old friends, then?”

            “Absolutely not – he was adamant about that. Just have to start all over again.”

            “At our time of life?”

            “We’ve done it before, and Penrith does appear to be a lovely place. The neighbours, that young couple with the little girl, seem very nice. I’m sure we’ll settle in. If you think we’re hard done by, try thinking about how Dennis Marks must be feeling right now.”

 

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