Authors: Maureen Carter
âFor fuck's sake.' The expletive was rare. She felt a flush rise on her cheeks. âJust for once, will you let me finish aâ?'
âSod this for a game of soldiers â I need to turn the bike round. Get the drinks in, will you, lass?'
Still open-mouthed, she watched him wander off to take a leak, wishing she could move on so easily. She'd been about to say the word âsentence' â and of course that word resurrected
Earlier that afternoon, she and Baker had been in court to observe sentences being handed down on a pair of scumbags. The men, both in their late-thirties, were given fifteen months apiece for relieving four schoolgirls of what was left of their childhood, and leaving emotional scars that would stay with the teenagers and their loved ones for the rest of their lives.
She pictured the pinched features, pale faces, haunted eyes, sensed the girls' hurt, the betrayal they must have felt, twice over. Amy, Dawn, Laura and Natasha â the eldest, just fifteen â were the latest victims of a criminal growth area: older men preying on young white girls from comfortable homes, good families. Sarah wasn't the only cop shocked by the lack of official statistics; equally disturbing was the fact the media generally pointed the finger at Asians, more specifically Pakistani men. Racial stereotyping was a cop-out; the issue went deeper, was far more complex than colour.
âNot on your own are you, ma'am?' Paul Wood paused en passant carrying a tray full of drinks for some of the lads. He was the longest serving detective sergeant in the squad, usually kept a paternal eye out for her.
âNo. I'm good thanks, Woodie.' Her fleeting smile belied her thoughts. Grooming, the media called it. Pimping with knobs on, Sarah called it. Not that the girls were on the game. Only in the sense the men regarded them as sex toys. And when the big boys had had their fill, they passed the goods on to their playmates. Emotive phrases like âeasy meat' and âwhite trash' were bandied about in the press, spouted by people who should know better, or choose words more wisely.
The issue wasn't just complex â it was explosive.
She cast her mind back to the afternoon's bombshell, the vocal fireworks in the court when a third defendant was unexpectedly released. Insufficient evidence, dodgy statements, flaky performances in the box from shit-scared witnesses, the judge dismissed the case and Jas Ram walked. Running a gauntlet of death threats from the public gallery.
Sarah's verdict? Whoever said two out of three ain't bad was talking bollocks: Ram was the biggest scumbag of the lot, head groom in a stable of terrified and vulnerable young girls. And he was out there now probably adding to his livestock.
âDitch the scowl, Quinn. You'll frighten the horses.' Baker grinning ear-to-ear.
Her expression was glacial. âWhy don't youâ?'
âHere you go, Mr B. Sorry to keep you waiting.' Len's interruption was timely. She might have said something she wouldn't regret. The landlord handed over a glass as if it contained holy water.
What was it with blokes and beer?
Baker ran an admiring glance over the contents before taking a slurp. âLiquid gold, Len. Liquid gold, my son.' He smacked his lips. Sarah would happily have done it for him.
âWhat about you, love?' Forget pints, the landlord's grin revealed a couple of teeth that needed pulling. âThe usual, is it? Or you livin' dangerously tonight?'
âListen, sunshine . . .' Narrowing her eyes, she beckoned him closer, vaguely aware Baker was having trouble swallowing.
âWhat you drinking, boss?' Good timing again, or what? DC Dave Harries, back from a bit of legwork, had materialised on her other side. Maybe there was a conspiracy to keep Len sweet. Either way, it was her young sidekick's lucky day.
âLarge gin and tonic, ice, no lemon.' She treated Baker to a tight smile. âAnd it's the chief's shout, Dave.'
âTa, very much, sir.' Harries loosened his scarf, smoothed his hair. âPint of Guinness, cheers.'
âDon't drink it all at once, lad.' Was Baker's parting shot. Hand in pocket, he wandered off to join the blokes watching soccer on the telly. The big screen didn't exactly blend in with the low ceiling and dark panelling. Glancing further round, Sarah clocked Christmas lights flashing from smoke-blackened beams; copper bed pans still trailed garish green tinsel. It was more than a week since Twelfth Night. She frowned. Supposed to be bad luck, that.
Could explain a lot.
âCheers, Dave.' She raised her glass, took a sip. Harries sank an inch or two of his stout. âI heard what happened in court, boss. It's a real downer.'
âGot that right.' Leaning back against the bar, she ran her gaze over a squad that should be celebrating not drowning sorrows. By now, tables were strewn with glasses, and cops with a bevy or two inside them were maybe slightly less pissed off than a few hours back. But the derisory prison terms and Ram's shock release had been a kick in the teeth for every officer who'd built the case and helped get it to court. Making an effort, she moved on. âHow about you, Dave? Any joy?'
He'd been out knocking doors, trying to trace witnesses to a street attack. He wasn't the only detective landed with a short straw, half the squad was working on Operation Steel. The incident â two days ago â had been particularly vicious. It had similarities with a mugging a week earlier and the fear was it wouldn't be the last.
âJoy?' He snorted. âI wish.' As if working the streets of Stirchley wasn't bad enough, he clearly hadn't thawed out yet. She could almost smell the cold wafting off the black wool of his coat. Dave had taken to wearing dark gear all the time recently. He probably reckoned it bolstered his passing resemblance to a pre-raddled Keith Richards. Maybe she shouldn't have mentioned the likeness. He'd be getting ideas above his station next. She twitched a lip. The Boy Wonder, as Baker called him, had only made detective eighteen months back.
âNothing doing, then?' she prompted.
âOn a scale of one to ten?' Harries took another drink. She cut him a stop-faffing-around glance which he clearly didn't catch. âTwenty. Tell you this, boss, I'd have got more chat out of Tommy.'
âDeaf, dumb, blind kid. The Who? Y'know.'
âI know I shouldn't have asked,' she muttered. A quick glance at her watch coincided with the News at Ten bongs blaring from the box.
âWe'll have to go back any road.' Harries turned his mouth down. âLoads of people were out. Again.'
Friday night. Course they were. On the splurge: wages, benefits, ill-gotten gains. Getting hammered on cheap booze. As opposed to just getting hammered â like the victim of Wednesday's assault. She grimaced. âHaving the guy's ID would help, of course.'
âDifficult that.' Harries scratched his chin, probably thinking along similar lines. The body had been stripped of any clue and even the poor sod's mother would struggle to recognise him. Maybe when the swelling went down and the stitches came out, they could issue a mug shot that wouldn't give kids nightmares.
âStill nothing on misper, boss?'
She shook her head. Asked herself if it was significant that no one in the late-thirties/early-forties age group had been reported missing? Dossers and druggies often don't have anyone looking out for them but the victim didn't have the appearance of a vagrant or a user. He might just live on his own and his absence hadn't yet been noticed. Mind, it had taken three days for the mother of the first victim to come forward. Thank God she had, he'd been beaten so badly he could barely remember his own name.
Loud jeers went up from the crowd congregated around the TV and for a second Sarah assumed there'd been a foul or a missed penalty. No, couldn't be that. The game had finished. Curious, she turned her head to look at the screen.
Foul and missed penalty were both spot on.
Surrounded by cameras, Jas Ram was centre-frame kicking off in front of Birmingham Crown Court. The words were inaudible under the reporter's voice-over. The body language and face were vocal enough; both said relaxed, confident, confiding even. It struck Sarah again how physical attraction could mask the basest behaviour, that good looking men â and women â often came across as more plausible, that so-called lookers generally got an easier ride in life. Like high cheekbones meant high morals. Regular features denoted a regular guy. She sniffed. Bring on the fleet of Ferraris. Ram was one of the best looking men she'd ever seen. As a person â one of the ugliest.
â. . . vilified, spat at, I've been to hell and back.' There was instant silence in the bar â Ram now had a speaking role. âNo one should get away with treating people like that.'
âNo one' meant the police, of course. And for âpeople' he meant himself.
Unless, he was playing the race card.
Glancing round, she guessed colleagues had the same idea. Heads shook, expressions were incredulous, there were a couple of low whistles. Harries was on the phone.
âNaturally, I'll be seeking compensation for wrongful arrest.'
Christ, even the guy's voice was seductive: smooth, honeyed, accent free. Lowering his gaze an artful touch, he bit his bottom lip, paused as though weighing up whether to continue. Like there was ever any doubt. âBut this isn't all about me.' Humble murmur. Decision apparently made, he raised his head, swept a blue-black fringe out of dark treacle eyes and talked into the nearest lens. âI'll be seeking legal advice with a view to taking action against the police. Innocent citizens like me need protecting from suffering the same ordeal.'
Paul Wood played an imaginary violin. Other cops were more vocal.
âMy heart bleeds.'
âWhat about the victims, you twat.'
âShush.' Baker's raised palm quelled the squad's running commentary. Saint Jas no longer held the stage. Cameras were trained on a middle-aged man striding into shot with his fist raised. Even distorted with rage, the face rang a bell with the DI. She cut Harries a querying glance but he still had the mobile clamped to his ear.
Come on, Dave, you're missing the best bits.
The man barged his way through the media scrum. âYou evil effing bastard. Prison's too good for your kind of scum.' A second or two more and he'd have landed the punch he was swinging, but a police sergeant had sprinted across and now held the man's arm out of harm's way.
âShame,' Baker murmured.
âHear this, shit head,' the man snarled. âI'll see you rot in hell.' He was a relative of one of the girls, but Sarah still couldn't put a name to the face. Suddenly the guy threw his head back and spat. Ram ducked but not fast enough. He was wiping gob off his cheek when the picture cut to the reporter's piece to camera.
That, and the accompanying cheers from the squad, was probably why it took a few seconds for the DI to clock who the hack was. The fur hat was a distraction, too. When, by popular request Len switched channels, Sarah turned away, lips still curved. Christ on a bike. It must have been brass monkeys for Caroline King to go out looking like that. And why was a journo of her calibre covering a Birmingham court case? Surely there had to be richer pickings?
âEarth to Major Quinn.' Baker's hand played windscreen-wiper perilously close to her face. âA few of us are buggering off to the Taj. Fancy a bite?'
A naan finger if you don't back off.
Mind, there was very little food at home, as per â and none of it appealed. âYeah, OK, why not?'
âMaybe not, boss.' Harries shoved the phone in his coat pocket. âUniform are requesting back-up. A man's body's been found off Newton Road.' Not a million miles from the law courts.
âAnd.' Reaching for her coat.
âHe's Asian. And the death's suspicious.'
as Ram â recent recipient of a bunch of death threats â taken out? A stone's throw from the court where he'd been released? No way. Mouth turned down, Sarah tapped the wheel. There were coincidences and there was wishful thinking. Hers. And the notion put a novel slant on the term death wish.
âSure you're OK, boss?' Harries was scoffing a late supper grabbed on the way out of the pub: salt and vinegar crisps with Mars bar chaser. If he didn't watch the crumbs, it'd be his last supper as well. They were in her new Audi. They'd toyed with walking it, the crime scene was barely half a mile from the Queen's Head, but depending what panned out, they'd need wheels later, if only to deliver the death knock. Traffic was light in the heart of the city, biggest hazard was jaywalkers tanked up on jolly juice.
âI'm fine, Dave.' She definitely wasn't over the limit. Not on half a G&T. Baker's levels had been borderline and turning up half-cut at a crime scene was probably the best way to get your hands on a P45 and wave goodbye to a pension. Besides, suspicious deaths don't ordinarily warrant the presence of a DCS. He'd waved off the DI instead, cracking some limp line about who shot JR?
So not funny. Besides, as far as they knew, and detail was skimpy, the death wasn't gun-related. But Sarah's humour bypass was down to more than that. She was battling with the uncomfortable knowledge that if Jas Ram had been wasted, she wouldn't give a rat's ass.
âD'you reckon it's Ram, then?' Harries was still stuffing his face.
âI don't do predictions, Dave.' They'd find out soon enough. What she did reckon was that Ram was a worthless piece of shit who'd inflicted untold damage â physical, emotional, psychological â on naÃ¯ve and vulnerable schoolgirls; innocent kids approached on the street and turned into lucrative sex slaves. Sarah had spent countless hours interviewing the victims, drawing out the detail, pulling together the picture. She rarely let cases get under her skin, never this badly.