Authors: Maureen Carter
âThat bad, huh?' Caroline turned her head to the wall.
âHow did it happen, Caroline?'
âSod knows. You tell me.' It sounded as if teeth were missing or damaged. Though the lisp could be down to swelling. The lips looked bee-stung. By a swarm.
Sarah stepped further into the room, dragged a chair closer to the bed. âYou were found around half-eleven last night unconscious near the cricket ground.' By a bloke taken short, on the way home from the pub; if he'd not waded into the bushes it would've been hours before medical treatment arrived. If hypothermia had set in . . . The DI had picked this up just now over the phone, a control room inspector had read her the attending officers' report. They'd not had a name to go on back then, the assailant or assailants had left nothing that identified King.
A clearly still woozy Caroline picked listlessly at the sheet with her fingers. âLast thing I remember is being in Harborne.' Less lisp more slur. Made sense though, her BMW had been found in Harborne, Park Road.
âWhere in Harborne?'
âLeaving the park, around half-seven. Heading to meet you.'
Pitch black, freezing cold. âWhat were you doing in the park?'
Hesitation, prevarication or medication slowing reaction time? âMeeting . . . someone.'
Probably all three. âThis someone have a name?'
Beginning with J ending in M.
Last time they'd spoken, Caroline said the meeting with Jas Ram was imminent. Did he have anything to do with this? He mightn't like getting his hands dirty but he had henchmen who'd be willing.
âYes, but . . . hold on . . . I . . .' She narrowed her eyes. Something else had struck.
Sarah leaned forward, placed a hand on the covers. âWhat?'
âI'm not sure. No, it's gone.' Impatient shake of her head. âI thought I remembered . . .'
Past tense bad. âRemembered?'
âShadows, dark figures. Over my shoulder.'
Figures plural. âHow many?' Three perhaps? Wilde and Brody's absent buddies? No. Sarah dismissed the thought. The leap was way too large. Besides, the gang hadn't attacked a woman before.
As far as the cops knew.
Was it possible, then? Just? Or was the DI only giving the notion mental house room because the youths occupied much of her mind most of the time recently?
âI just don't know. It was dark, there's a bunch of trees out there. It was a hazy glimpse. Corner of my eye. I might have imagined the whole thing anyway.' Tearful, nervy, touch of am dram, too? No. That was churlish. She'd never seen King look so lost, so fragile. Tread lightly.
âNo worries.' Sarah smiled. âIt's more likely to come back when you're not thinking about it anyway.' She'd ask Dave or Jed to take a look after sun rise. Couldn't do any harm. Burning questions were how she'd got from Harborne to Edgbaston? And what had happened in the hours in between? âAny idea whatâ?'
âI wish. Doesn't the brain blank what it can't handle?'
She nodded. âIt's been known.'
Amnesia could be selective too.
Was she holding back information, pursuing her own agenda? Sarah wouldn't put it past King but the ordeal was real enough. For the moment she'd give her the benefit of the doubt. And have another word with the medic â they must have done blood tests.
The earlier notion still bugged Sarah. Had the reporter been in the wrong place at the wrong time? A random mugging for rich pickings? Or had the gang targeted her? But why? More likely something to do with her work: journos, like cops, made more enemies than friends. Given King's recent dealings, surely if anyone had singled her out . . .
âThis meet you had in the park?' She paused, waiting on eye contact. âWouldn't have anything to do with Jas Ram, would it?'
âNothing.' Rapid response. Too rapid? âPass my water, would you?'
Keeping her gaze on King, she handed her the glass. âAnd you'd say if it was?'
âThanks.' Was slaking her thirst more important than answering the question?
âOf course I would.' She lifted a hand let it drop. âSarah, can we do this later? I'm really beat.'
That she was. Sarah's fist clenched. Had Ram got a hold on her? Was she protecting him? âI warned you he was toxic, Caroline.' She recalled her take on Caroline getting involved with the bastard: a hiding to nothing.
King pointed both index fingers at her face. âThis isn't to do with him.'
âWeird that.' She raised an eyebrow. âIf you can't remember anything â how do you know?'
âLook . . . pleaseâ'
âLook please nothing. I'm not here for the good of my health. You asked to see me.'
Caroline lowered her head, and voice: âI want you to pick up a few things for me from home. Nat's away.'
âFor fuck's sake . . . isn't there someone else?' A solitary tear trickled down the reporter's battered face, dripped off her chin, dampened the sheet. The sight staunched the flow of Sarah's tirade. She was pretty sure King had no family, certainly none in Birmingham, colleagues were mostly London-based. Christ, if her only option was to call a cop that made her Milly-no-mates big time. Maybe they had more in common than she'd assumed. âOK.' She reached out tentatively, patted Caroline's hand. âI'll see what I can do. What do you need?'
âI've written a little list. It's here somewhere.' She gave a weak smile as she scrabbled under the pillow. âBastards took everything: phone, watch, jewellery, bag.'
âCoat pocket. There's a spare BlackBerry on the kitchen dresser. I'll need my laptop, too. But mostly it's toiletries, decent nightie, make-up bag.'
Sarah glanced at the ceiling. Saw a leopard with spots. âThought they were only keeping you in one more night?'
âLong enough, isn't it?' She gave a one-shouldered shrug. âLook I'm still a bit shaky but I know I've got to try and come up with more detail. I'll do my best, honest.'
Nodding, she took the paper and keys from Caroline. âYeah, well when I get back I'll have a list, too, and it won't be short. So think on, eh?' She rose, slipped the things into her bag.
âSarah?' The DI turned her head at the door. âStraight up? If I want to look half decent, how much slap am I gonna need?' Her laugh was brittle and too loud, the fear in her eyes telling, as she searched Sarah's face for the truth. She'd not have looked in a mirror then.
âI won't lie to you, Caroline. Probably more than you've got.'
A full English would be pushing it but still just shy of half-seven, Sarah had time enough to grab toast, banana and coffee. Huntie had already been roped in to hold the early brief. Waiting in line, she glanced round the canteen, spotted Dave, Jed and Beth Lally in cahoots over by the window. She'd have to break up the party. Wanted Jed and Beth to take a gander round the park in Harborne; Dave, she'd almost forgotten, would have his hands full with Michelle and Lily first thing. Picturing the image, she smiled. Her nose wrinkled: a waft of Paco Rabanne had cut through the bacon odours. Talk about olfactory early warning.
âCall this crack of sparrow's fart?' Baker's tray appeared alongside hers.
âGive it a rest, chief. I had to drop by the hospital on the way in.'
âNothing serious, I hope.' Mouth tight, she cast a glance, caught him eyeing the suit.
âWhere's the hearse, Quinn? You look like a funeral director touting for business.'
Hearse sounded far too close to horse. She had a sudden and certainly unwitting vision of Baker belting out
If she'd been on stage, she'd have corpsed, as it was she had to press a hand to her mouth to stifle a giggle.
âSodding hell, woman. It's not that funny.'
âOh, I don't know.' She could barely get the words out. âHorses for courses and all that, chief.'
âYeah, well, get it out your system while you can, Quinn.' He was not amused. âI can't see today being a barrel of laughs.'
âRohypnol?' Sarah had left Baker to it, carried the tray to her office, opted for a working breakfast. She'd skimmed the overnight reports, responded to emails and was now on the phone picking the pathologist's brain. Richard Patten was more at home talking stiffs, but made the odd exception for Sarah's live specimens. He was up to speed on Caroline King's symptoms, particularly the memory loss. âRohypnol as in roofies?' Sarah asked. âWhat people think of as the date rape drug?' Not that any cases had been confirmed in the UK. âThere's no indication of sexual assault, Rich.' Pensive, she popped in the last piece of toast.
âYeah, but it's a recreational thing these days, rave parties and the like. Kids use it for the buzz, the euphoria. It gets them intoxicated quicker, combined with other drugs â cannabis, coke, heroin â it intensifies the effect.'
Wilde and Brody? They both smoked cannabis. Presumably their missing mates would too. She jotted a note, already considering a further possibility. Pimps, sexual predators, groomers had been known to subdue their victims with Rohypnol. Groomers like Jas Ram.
âFrom what you say about the woman's condition â the drowsiness, confusion, memory loss â Rohypnol is a definite possibility.' Nothing like committing yourself. âNot that I'm saying she took it herself. She's not a raver is she, Sarah?'
âHow would it have been administered though?' She grimaced, reckoned the lingo was infectious.
âIt comes in tablet form, usually slipped in a drink. It dissolves easily and it's colourless, odourless, tasteless and ten times more powerful than Valium. Even more potent when mixed with booze. It'll act faster, effects'll last longer. Victims can pass out within a few minutes, stay out for up to eight hours.' She heard a bark and Patten's slightly muffled voice saying, âShush, Scottie, old boy.' She smiled: the dog wasn't stuffed after all. âSorry where was I? Yeah. Rohypnol. In theory it's only available here on private prescription. The manufacturers changed the formula a while back, added a blue dye to make it easier to detect, but there are street versions out there that don't have the dye â as I'm sure you know.'
Easy to get hold of, dirt cheap, too. âShe says the last thing she remembers is walking across a park?'
âYeah but what happened immediately before? Has she no memory of that?' As if she should.
âLet's just say she's not sharing.'
Medical tests would detect if the drug was in her system, only King would know how it got there. If it was. Sarah blew out her cheeks on a sigh.
âYou sound as if you need a lift.'
âIn need of something, Rich.' A fan and air freshener would do for a start. The prospect of spending x number of hours confined in stuffy interview rooms in the hygienically challenged company of Zach Wilde and Leroy Brody didn't have a lot going for it.
âActually, I was gonna give you a bell later anyway.' Touch hesitant? âCouple things. The pics you asked for? The writing on the body? I'll email them soon as I get in.'
âGreat.' Brushing crumbs off her lap.
âYeah and the other . . .' Definitely hesitant. âDon't know whether you're up for it, but I've got tickets . . . let me just check the date.' She ran a wish list: Coldplay, Radiohead, Stones, RSC, Comedy Store. âThey're for a convention.'
Legal? Medical? Professional?
She gave a mental grimace, knew what he was about to say.
âAt the NEC early April. Patrick Stewart's a cert. Shatner a maybe. 'Course Len doesn't do appearances any more. Real shame that butâ'
âRich?' Rapping the desk with her knuckles. âCan I get back to you? I've got someone at the door.' A real McCoy knock startled her. She glanced up, frowning; Dave entered as per without summons. Cutting Patten off in his prime, she drawled, âDo come in, detective.'
She twisted her mouth.
Should've laid the sarcasm on with a trowel.
âTo what do I owe . . .?'
âNo pleasure, boss.' His clenched jaw, curt tone underlined the point. âHospital's just been on. Sean-William-Foster-Walter-Fielding, whoever he was?'
She felt the colour drain from her face.
âHad a heart attack this morning, boss. He didn't make it.'
od. That's awful. I'm really sorry to hear it. And you've no idea what happened?'
âThat's right. I get the occasional hazy flashback. Like a dream you know is in your head, but can't grasp?' The reporter hadn't phoned Ruby Wells to burden her with news of the attack. Apart from needing something â anything â to help fill the interminable hours, the call was primarily to thank the lawyer for pointing Amy Hemming in the right direction. Caroline's chat with the girl last night had gone better than she could have expected. Doubtless, the carton of Silk Cut and Diet Cokes helped strike the deal. That and the promise of a few bob once the interviews were in the can, as it were.
âHow long are they keeping you in, Caroline? I could come visit if you like?'
She wouldn't. Even looking her best, Caroline struggled next to Ruby. By now she'd seen her face. She'd cajoled the
nurse who wheeled in the phone to fetch a mirror. Caroline could still picture the damage. She bit her lip, winced at the pain. Not all of it physical. OK. Nothing was broken, bruises faded, swelling went down, but violence had always been something she reported on, not taken the brunt of. She'd have to live with the experience now, but what if the psychological legacy hit again and again? She brushed away the fear, now not the time . . .
âThat's kind, Ruby but, hey, don't put yourself out.'
âIt's no hassle or I wouldn't have offered.'