Authors: Maureen Carter
Brushing away the thought, she pulled her phone closer, checked the screen again. King could at least have texted. Forget Cruise. In the better offer department, she reckoned the reporter must've struck oil.
âGet that down you, lass.' Baker handed over a glass. âIt'll take away the taste of the bitter lemon.'
Sauvignon Blanc. Her usual poison. She'd eschewed it earlier, dealing with King even with a clear head was sobering enough. âCheers, chief.'
âPlease, lass.' He stilled halfway to his seat. âWe're not on the job here. Y'know the name.'
Easy for you to say.
He'd told her to use it before, but she found Fred impossible to spit out. Clowns at the nick had no trouble calling him The Shred. Behind his back. She raised the glass to her lips, took a tactical sip. The chat was light, amiable, the occasional silence not uneasy. The pie was heaven on a plate. She relished it while Baker waxed lyrical about his times out West. Told her she'd love it there, ought to learn to ride. She'd laughed, said there was more chance of her piloting Richard Branson's
Her mood mellowed. In his current state, Baker was decent company, good talker, entertaining tales, surprisingly interesting â and equally happy to listen. He wasn't exactly a different man, but certainly showing a different side. Or she was prepared to see it.
Suddenly he shoved his plate to one side then: âI was at the solicitor.' Blue Out Of.
She certainly wasn't prepared for the verbal curveball. âSorry?'
âThis afternoon. You couldn't reach me.' His gaze didn't reach
âRi . . . ght.' She stretched it to two syllables.
And you're telling me why?
It'll get out soon enough, but . . . her indoors â the missus â isn't. She's left me. Pushing hard for divorce. I needed to sort a few details.' Dipping an index finger in a little spilled beer, he kept his gaze on the table. Poor bloke. She wondered if she ought to tell him his exclusive was the worst-kept secret since news broke on Jeremy Clarkson's gagging order.
âI'm sorry to hear that.' True, but she was still hazy why he'd chosen her as confidante.
âI didn't see it coming, reckoned we were hitched for good. Till death do us and all that. Fact is, I'm finding it . . . difficult. I'm a grumpy old bugger at the best of times. Know that. But these last few months have been . . . shite. I've prob'ly not been the easiest person in the world to work with.'
No point rubbing it in. That was as close to an apology he'd ever come. âNo worries, chief.'
He sighed. âNot sure how much longer I can hide it from the lads.'
Bit late in the day if what he was really saying was, have a quiet word with the squad. As in: cut the chief some slack cause he's going through the wringer.
âI think one or two might have picked up on it, chief. Look, if there's anything I can do . . .?'
âThanks, lass. Guess I just needed someone to tell.'
For tell â read, talk to
? What was the saying?
It's tough at the top. Must be pretty lonely up there, too.
âAny time. I mean it.'
He finally lifted his gaze. âI miss her.' The simple statement had more impact than if he'd wrapped it in some glib so-called wit.
And was that a tear in his eye?
âHey, it'd be a wonder if you didn't.' She felt a rush of sympathy, almost reached to comfort him. âIt's only natural . . . Fred.'
âI mean, Quinn, I can't boil toast and as for the sodding washing machine.' He threw his hands in the air. âDon't fancy shacking up, do you?'
The line didn't fool her for a second. For whatever reason, he'd shown vulnerability, an emotional Achilles heel. Now it was business as normal. Smiling she shook her head. âYou'd get a shock if I said yes.'
âShock? I'd have a bloody stroke.'
Her ring tone â at last. She was still smiling when she grabbed the phone. King could bloody well sod off. Except it wasn't her number on display.
What was he playing at?
âSorry if I'm breaking anything up . . . thought you'd want to know.' She waited a few seconds while he got his breath back. âPatricia Malone's place . . . looks like it's been torched.'
here are you?' Sarah glanced at her watch, calculated the wine intake: 21.35 and pushing it. Baker who'd wandered off to take a leak would definitely be over the limit. If need be, she'd call a police driver.
âAcross the street from the house. Crews are still in there.' Harries said he'd driven back to Winson Green on the off-chance, knew she placed importance on what the woman might have to say, wanted to try and get something out of her before the interviews tomorrow.
Chasing Brownie points.
Christ, woman, don't take a pop at him for showing initiative. âI couldn't believe it when I saw the engines, boss.' Must be a generator she could hear in the background. âI feel a right numpty now for taking the piss.'
âAnd Malone? Where's she?' Eyes closed, she mouthed a prayer.
Dear God â don't do this.
âHold on a tick.' She heard engine noise, shouts too muffled to make out the gist.
Come on, come on . . .
âSorry 'bout that. One of the guys just came out, says they're pretty sure the place is empty. I'll feel happier when I've had a word with the lead fire officer. He's up against it at the mo.'
Proof positive'd be better. âWhat's the damage like?'
âCould be hell of a lot worse. Neighbour putting rubbish in his bin out back spotted it. From what I hear, the crews managed to stop it spreading upstairs. I can't see the place being habitable for a while though.'
âAnd you reckon it was torched?' She shook her head at Baker who stood at the bar waggling an imaginary glass.
âI'm told there's been a spate round here in the last couple of weeks. Burning rags shoved through letterboxes. They suspect it's kids, copping a buzz. Mind, this fire started at the back of the house and it's the only property that had someone living in it.'
âHad' was about right. When Patricia Malone eventually turned up, she'd find herself at least temporarily homeless. Whether she'd be too afraid to move back was anyone's guess. Maybe scaring her off was the point: scaring her off from talking to the police.
Given the circs, she saw no mileage going out there, asked Harries to knock on a few doors, find out if neighbours had any idea where the woman had gone and more important when she'd be back. âEither way, Dave, have a word with uniform. Tell them I want an officer posted there till they hear otherwise.' They'd need to nab Malone the minute she showed.
âLooks like your instinct was sound, boss.'
She chewed her lip. âIf there's been a spate, I s'pose this could just be coincidence?' In the clutching straw department, she suspected she'd grabbed onto a burning hayrick.
He gave a sceptical sniff. âBless. What was it you said about the Pope?'
âLook Dave, I'm still in the pub but I'll be heading off any time soon. If there's anything I need to knowâ'
âAnd thanks, Dave. Good work.'
âNo worries. How's the girls' night going then, boss?'
She glanced at Baker hunched over the table, tongue stuck out in concentration as he gingerly added a beer mat to a perilously leaning tower.
Like a house on fire.
âLike a dream. You just wouldn't believe it, Dave.'
oonlight glinted off stainless steel sinks and work surfaces, cast silver grey shades over the rest of the room. Silhouetted against a tiled wall, the girl sat on cold lino, bare legs spread wide. Fridges hummed, a tap dripped. Oblivious, she stared ahead, tears trickled down her face. She crammed the last doughnut in her mouth. The sauce that glistened round her lips was all that remained of a twelve inch pizza. The red stain looked like lipstick â applied by a ham-fisted clown. Or as if someone had smacked her in the mouth.
Stifling a sob, the girl tried working out when it all went pear-shaped. Not ending up in care. Christ, she was used to that by now. No. This shit situation with the man. Six months back she'd been well in. He'd singled her out, shown her preferential treatment, a touch of favouritism. She wasn't going to say no. She'd have a bit of that. In all her fifteen years, she couldn't remember anyone showing interest, and she'd liked helping him in the kitchen. It was all unofficial, he gave her a few bob pocket money on the sly and she got first dibs on food, any seconds going spare. She wasn't fussy. It'd be a shame to see it go to waste. She didn't see it as stealing. Not until the man threatened to dob her in.
She couldn't get her head round it. He'd been the one who'd taken her under his wing, looked out for her. He'd said she was all skin and bone, needed fattening up a bit. He used to push the extras her way. Then a few weeks ago, he started making her look for them, told her it was a game. He'd hide plates of food in store cupboards or in the room where they kept the cleaning things. It was all right â until he started following her in, locking the door, touching
her. Even that was OK at first. He was still nice to her then and she was pathetically grateful. Then he started bringing friends in, other men, men who treated her like meat.
She'd begged him not to, threatened to tell the woman in charge but he told her he'd kill her if she breathed a word. The woman didn't believe her anyway. Called her a fat lying tart.
Shivering, the girl felt round on the floor for her knickers. She didn't think they'd be back tonight. And there was an almost full tub of chocolate ice cream in the fridge. She couldn't be arsed with a spoon, scooped it out with her fingers then licked the tub clean.
Comfort food they called it. Yeah right.
When he eventually came back to unlock the door, she'd head for the bathroom and shove the same fingers down her throat.
Dead comforting, that.
aker decked out in Rhinestone Cowboy costume cavorted on stage astride a palomino stallion clad in a pink satin tutu. The National Indoor Arena was packed, the concert in aid of the Police Benevolent Fund, the whip-cracking crowd going wild during the chief's raucous rendition of
Tammy Wynette joined him for a duet â
, natch â there wasn't a dry eye in the house. Crowning moment came when the pink limo glided on stage and Dolly Parton popped out in a low-cut pink cowgirl mini dress. Her fuchsia Stetson had fetching puce feathers and flashing red hearts. Dolly and Fred's interpretation of
had to be seen to be believed. Sarah watched in toe-curling embarrassment from the front row then broke into a broad smile. Of course, all the pink made sense now â no one wanted the horse to stand out looking like an ass.
Dripping with sweat, palms clammy, Sarah threw off the duvet, lay back trying to work out if she was about to throw up. Not so much at the vomit inducing visions but the indigestion-stroke-heartburn that had broken the dream. She put both down to last night's flaky pastry and thanked God she'd not eaten cheese, any more rich food might have prompted a nightmare: she could've found herself starring in the stage show. Shuddering at the thought, she swung her legs over the side of the bed, sat with her head in her hands till her heartbeat slowed.
Clock read a minute to six, almost rise and shine time anyway. She took a deep breath, slowly exhaled. The nausea seemed to have passed. Rising shouldn't be beyond her. She wandered to the window, pressed her forehead against the cool glass. Icing sugar frost tipped the reeds and grasses along the canal bank, patchy ice floated on the surface of the water. Forget the sun cream then.
Like she'd slipped King's mind? The reporter failing to turn up was one thing but no text apologising was slack. Sarah tightened her lips. Her sleep couldn't have been that deep, surely? Strolling to the bathroom, she checked the phone again. Nada.
Last call was Dave's around eleven just before he pulled out of Winson Green. He'd told her Patricia Malone's neighbours had mostly been a waste of space, but one old girl reckoned Mrs Malone did a fair bit for the homeless: soup runs, volunteer stuff at night shelters, that kind of thing. Pretty ironic given what had happened. Uniform had obviously failed to track her down or Sarah would've heard.
Stepping into the shower, she reckoned Malone would have to go on to the mental back burner for a while anyway. She rolled her eyes; there were better ways to put it. Whatever. Wilde and Brody's interviews would take precedence. She'd skimmed through some of the files before bed, jotted down a few thoughts. For the youths, it didn't look good.
Ten minutes later she glanced at her reflection in the cheval mirror, reasonably happy with her own image. She'd opted for black. Tailored linen trouser suit, crisp white shirt. Even applied a hint of slap. The gear was more severe than her normal soft taupes. A sartorial message. She gathered the paperwork, slipped it into her briefcase. An earlier peep into the fridge had confirmed it was running on empty. No matter. She'd already decided to hit the canteen.
The call came when she was in the car. It explained why Caroline King had been a no-show. And handy, it meant Sarah could drive straight to the hospital.
âChrist, Caroline. What happened?' The reporter lay in bed in a private room at the QE. Sarah hoped the shock didn't show in her face: Caroline's resembled marbled beef. Outside in the corridor, the DI had learned that the reporter had been found in a side road in Edgbaston. Beaten, robbed, not sexually assaulted, she'd been treated for shock as much as the injuries, kept under observation for several hours, as well as sedation. Sarah's knee-jerk reaction? One way to keep the bloody woman's trap shut. That was before witnessing the damage. Even the whites of King's eyes were red. Soon as she'd come round apparently, she'd badgered a nurse to call Sarah.