Authors: Maureen Carter
She squeezed her eyes tight. Then wiped another tear off the photograph.
erched on a desk at the side of the incident room, Detective Chief Superintendent Fred Baker, wearing a dark charcoal Boss designer suit, stuffed a hand in a jacket pocket and nodded at the whiteboard. Dominating it were three colour photographs in a spectrum of shades of soft fruit. The third victim's so-called likeness had been added to the earlier line-up of two just in time for the eight thirty briefing. DC Harries, who'd done the artwork, now sat at the front, hunched forward, notebook and pen in hand.
âNot chinless wonders â faceless,' the chief mused. âThree mugs left looking like raw mince, and we're the suckers left wondering why.'
Features impassive, Sarah stood centre stage forcing herself not to tap a foot. Through the picture window, she glimpsed a watery sun seeping into a leaden sky. The DI hoped the al fresco gloom partly accounted for the sluggishness on show inside. Motivating officers on a complex and fragmented inquiry like this was never easy. Of the dozen or so detectives seated on or at desks arranged around the open-plan room, only a couple appeared even vaguely keen. Too many sprawled legs and slumped shoulders were evident. Paul Wood and John Hunt propped up facing walls like novelty bookends, the detective sergeants' folded arms and crossed ankles said they'd seen it all before, and then some. And now Baker, who'd not only turned up unexpectedly but had missed the start, was chucking in what Sarah considered fatuous observations. Thank God for small mercies: there was no overpowering reek of aftershave but the day-old stubble would account for that.
Holding his gaze, she said evenly, âNot helpful, chief.'
Dead silence; telling eye contact. In her periphery vision, she caught squad members exchanging shifty glances. One of Baker's well-deserved names round the nick was Bruiser. Not that Sarah was known for backing off easily. Still staring at the chief, she rolled the sleeves of her jacket. The grey wool trouser suit was proving too warm, but it was the first outfit to hand that morning. Given she'd not got to bed until two, time had been pressing.
âGet off the high horse, Quinn.' He jabbed a finger at the board, clearly itching for a fight. âTake a proper butcher's at them.'
Like she hadn't? The images were imprinted on her brain. Three white males, two still unidentified and â given the extent of the injuries â damn near unrecognisable. Other similarities between the three existed, the big difference was that last night's victim hadn't survived. As for Baker, she didn't know where he was coming from and could live without the less than constructive commentary. âAnd?'
âThink about it.' Eyes creased, he was still scrutinising the lurid montage. âWhy would anyone batter some poor sod that badly?'
Why batter anyone, period? Even as the notion crossed her mind, she dismissed it as unrealistic, simplistic even. Cops â more than most people â dealt with the darker side of life, came up daily against crims and bad guys, sorted out the crap no one else could be arsed with. Baker had even coined his own classification system: in CID it was known as the four Ss: sadists, sad-sacks, sickos and shits.
Clearly Baker thought he held the answer, but Sarah was sick of playing twenty questions. âWhat exactly are you saying, chief?'
She watched him shuffle off the desk, join her at the front and run his gaze over the squad. âIs anybody on the same page as me?' The challenge went unanswered. They'd tossed ideas around at previous briefs. Given drug addicts would batter their own mother for a few quid, Wood reckoned the attacks were down to smack heads desperate for a fix. On the basis no one could dish out that level of violence sober, Harries had opted for yobs on the lash. Unless â and this theory had been mooted since the first incident â it was down to youths hunting in a pack, a gang initially out for kicks as much as nicking a few quid. They'd got sketchy descriptions of three or four teenagers spotted near the scene of what â if they were dealing with a series â was probably the first mugging. Baker was as up to speed as anyone in the room with what was on the inquiry table. Why the hell didn't he just get on with it?
âOK.' Sighing, he loosened an already slack silk tie. âWhat if it's personal?' He paused, but again no one ran with it. âSurely to God, beating the shit out of someone so viciouslyâ'
âCould mean the attackers know their victims? They're targeting them?' Sarah narrowed her eyes. âIs that your thinking?'
âGive the girl a gold star. To do that â' he tilted his head at the board â âit strikes me you'd need to hate someone big time.'
Her mouth was a tight line. And Sarah wasn't convinced. You only had to skim the red tops to see how often people were attacked by strangers. Innocent passers-by who made the wrong sort of eye contact or didn't shift out of the way quickly enough were regarded as target practice, yobs treated them as human punchbags and/or footballs. And if an assailant was armed, a fist in the face or a kick in the head was infinitely preferable to a knife in the neck.
Even so, had Baker got a point? Until now, the squad's premise had been that the attacks were random mindless acts carried out by perps on the rob. Could there be more significant links? Was it possible the chief's theory stacked up? Or was it a big fat red and damson herring? The savagery had undoubtedly escalated, but any cop could testify to the fact that once someone committed violence, he or she found it easier to inflict next time. And the next. Literally, near as damn it, a vicious circle. Villains got a taste for it: bloodlust it was called. Sarah could see nothing human in it, let alone personal.
âOK.' She pursed pensive lips. âWith the chief's point in mind, let's take another look from the top.' It couldn't do any harm. Catching Hunt's eye, she mimed writing, nodded her thanks as he dragged a flip chart closer. With one hand aloft, Baker trudged back to the desk. The gesture was open to interpretation, but right now it wasn't top of her priorities. She flipped to a new page, headed it Operation Steel in thick black marker pen, then sectioned out three columns and gave each a date: Wednesday 4 January, Wednesday 11 January, Friday 13 January.
âAs you know,' she said, âwe've been able to identify only one victim.' She wrote Duncan Agnew in the first column. Agnew was still in hospital, mainly down to an underlying medical problem exacerbated by his injuries. An epileptic, the twenty-six year old had suffered several fits since being admitted. Doctors were keen to keep an eye on what looked like a deteriorating condition. One of the squad's sharpest interviewers had spoken to Agnew briefly on two occasions, but the man's mother, as well as the medicos, were ultra protective. Given the new urgency, DC Shona Bruce had been despatched back to the Queen Elizabeth to push for a third session. On the off-chance the second victim had regained consciousness Shona would drop by the intensive care unit as well. Kill two birds . . .
Best not go there.
Sarah asked officers to call out observations as she quickly added times and locations to the chart: 23.00, Kings Road, Selly Oak; 22.30, York Road, Stirchley; 21.45 Chambers Row.
âNone of the victims had ID.'
âNo valuables full stop.' Harries was right. No watches, rings, mobiles, not so much as a gold filling had been recovered at any of the scenes.
âAttacks are getting worse.'
âAnd more frequent.'
Various members of the squad chipped in further, but none of it was new. Nodding, she hid her disappointment. Fact was, they couldn't really be certain the attacks were down to the same offenders. They couldn't even be sure it was offenders, plural. The line of inquiry was being followed only because an elderly couple who'd discovered Duncan Agnew lying injured in Kings Road told the first attending officers a gang of youths had been hanging round. In Selly Oak at that time of night, it'd be a first if dodgy juveniles hadn't been in the vicinity. Even so, the couple would have to be re-interviewed and Sarah would send detectives to canvas the neighbourhood again.
She cut the chief a glance. Ominously quiet, he was staring at the whiteboard, pulling on his bottom lip.
âWe're piss . . . whistling in the dark without IDs on the other two, ma'am.' Wood sniffed.
âPisswhistling?' Hunt gave a lopsided smile. âThat's a new one on me, Twig.' The name alluded to the sergeant's build: sumo wrestler meets brick shithouse. The big guy's grip on small detail was formidable though, which made him a first-rate IRM: Incident Room Manager. Hunt's piss-take had prompted a few sniggers but Twig was right. Without knowing who the men were, it was difficult to establish possible connections. And without those, they'd no way of knowing if â and more importantly, why â the victims might have been singled out.
âOK Woodie, can you get on to Rose Atherton?' Police artist. âAsk if she's prepared to draw up a couple of likenesses we can actually use.' With one subject dead, the other on life support, the woman would need a vivid imagination and strong stomach â and still have her work cut out. Worth a try though. The press was more likely to bite if Sarah had visuals as bait.
Wood tapped a temple.
Given the dearth of information on victims two and three, the Agnew incident was clearly the inquiry's richest seam to mine. Sarah reckoned it was a shame she hadn't recognised its full potential before. Details had been released to the media and the attack had been covered initially by both the
and Radio WM, but more exposure might have prompted more intelligence. And hindsight was a wonderful thing. She sighed, made a mental note to have a word with the press bureau. Actually, stuff the mental bit.
âDave, will you liaise with Ted White? Ask him to set upâ'
âA news conference? Leave it with me, boss.'
She laid down the pen, checked her watch. With a bit of luck there'd be time to drop by Chambers Row on the way to the post-mortem. With a bit more, the forensic guys â who'd been digging since first light â might have unearthed some solid evidence, and with a shed-load more she'd scoop a few squillions on the lottery and stroll off into the sunset.
Masking a wry smile, she tasked teams of officers to revisit the crime scenes, knock more doors, stop and question pedestrians and drivers. Other detectives were already viewing Christ knows how many hours of CCTV footage. Still more would soon be making contact with CHIS: Covert Human Intelligence Sources â long for snouts. They needed to gather more gen on street gangs. Squad members were already liaising closely with opposite numbers in the Gangs Unit, but crews sprang up so fast these days even specialist officers couldn't keep on top of them all.
âAre you finished then, miss?' Baker was back on his feet, a hand jangling keys in his trouser pocket. She'd almost forgotten he was there, still wasn't sure why he'd bothered to put in an appearance and certainly didn't appreciate the school ma'am crack.
She gave a brisk nod. âIf you've something
to add, chiefâ'
âDon't come the lip with me, Quinn.'
Come the lip?
That was a new one on her. But what was Baker's beef? Whatever was bugging him, she didn't do whipping woman. Slipping papers into her briefcase, she muttered, âClass dismissed.'
âI heard that, Quinn.'
âAnd I'm not through here. Has it occurred to you if I'm right there'll be more victims? That, to coin a phrase, we ain't seen nothing yet?'
âWhy are we standing round gabbing then?' Whoops. Bad move. She was knackered â the DCS was being arsy, but there were lines you shouldn't cross. She almost stepped back when the Baker finger was jabbed again.
âI'll give you twenty-four hours to put names to those two faces, Quinn.'
âOr what?' Arms tightly crossed, she watched as he shrugged and walked away.
At the door, he turned his head. âYou're the clever dick. You tell me.'
Forty minutes later and Sarah still wanted to tell the fat bastard to go fuck himself. In a twelve-year career, she'd never felt more like slapping a face or sticking in a complaint. Not that she would, but that wasn't the point. Her knuckles were tight and white round the steering wheel, the air in the Audi blue.
âShit, boss. That was a red.' Harries swivelled his head to glance through the rear window, presumably checking for road kill. Staring implacably ahead, she sensed a glare in her direction as he turned back adding, âIf I were you, I'd chill.'
âYou're not,' she snapped. Her female Stig impersonation on the way to the path lab wasn't down to the fact they were cutting it fine, she was as fired up as the engine. Smarting didn't even come close. âAnyway, we're late.'
He muttered what sounded like âwe soon will be' but she could live without asking for a repeat; Baker's words still echoed in her head. The chief's dig had gone deep, the attempt to undermine her had gone too far. Ridiculing her in front of the squad was out of order and unprofessional. They'd had their run-ins over the years but had lately reached a reasonable working relationship. At least that's what she'd thought.
Harries had his head down, checking his phone. She cut him a glance and sniffed. He could please himself. The wintry sun had beefed up its act a fraction; she pulled down the visor, nudged up the heating, ran through a mental to-do list. The in-car silence was shattered when she ran another red and a blaring horn competed with Harries' sharp intake of breath. âWe only have to attend the post-mortem, boss. The rate you're going, we'll end up on his and hers slabs.'
âYou can walk if you like.'
He shoved his phone in a pocket, stretched his legs and crossed his arms. âWhat I'd like is for you
to let the chief wind you up.'