Authors: Maureen Carter
Was it so obvious? She took a deep breath and loosened her grip on the wheel. She'd deliberately not bad-mouthed Baker, never denigrated colleagues in front of Dave. Either her DC had honed his already enviable empathy or her famous cool was on the slide. Mind, there was a first for everything. âThat wasn't a wind up, that was a sodding great put down. Me. In front of junior ranks.'
âCome on, boss. You're bigger than that. Besides you wereâ'
âEnough, constable. In my book, slagging off colleagues in public is out of line.'
âBetter than shit bagging behind your back.'
âWho's frigging side are you on?' She whacked the wheel with a palm.
âYours.' Talk about rapid response. No arguing with that. She closed her mouth, verbal incontinence â like emotional â was no good to anyone. She counted ten then asked if he'd sorted the news conference. He told her it was set for mid-afternoon in the hope Rose Atherton would have time by then to come up with the goods. She made a mental note to assign extra officers to phone duties. The press coverage would almost certainly lead to a load of incoming calls, hopefully a handful would lead somewhere worth going.
âYou heard the latest on Ram, boss?'
âDrink-drive, wasn't it?' Not that charges had been brought, he'd been released on bail pending results. âLet's hope he pissed absinthe.'
Harries laughed. She thought he was about to say something but nothing emerged for several seconds, then: â
. . .' He stretched the word to two syllables. âBack to Baker. Did anything strike you?'
Apart from a load of verbals?
âGive us a clue.'
âThe loose tie? The crumpled suit?'
âI was holding a brief. Not checking his gear.'
âThe whites of his eyes were like road maps.'
She turned her mouth down, tried to recall. That Baker-thy-name-is-vanity was well turned out was something you took for granted. And she had.
No. Hold on.
She'd spotted the day old stubble.
âYou didn't notice, did you?' Harries gloating was not a good look. âCall yourself a detective?' His grin froze when he clocked her arctic glare. âBoss â it was a joke.'
âCould've fooled me, Harries.' For a few seconds she thought on what he'd said, then gave a one-shouldered shrug. âSo the guy was hung-over. It's not my problem.' Her bag was nailing the bad guys. Baker was a big boy now, if he'd overdone the booze, he'd only himself to blame. Besides, cop nursing sore head was hardly going to make the front page. Harries was staring ahead, ostentatiously shtum. Sarah sighed. âDon't keep it to yourself, Dave.' She sensed his gaze as he weighed up whether to wade in.
âGrapevine has it it's more than that, boss.'
âGo on.' And why hadn't she heard any murmurings? âCar park next left, isn't it?'
He nodded. âYeah, if you're going via the back. As I say, a few of the guys think he's drinking on the job. You know his missus legged it?' She nodded. âWord is, he's taking it hard. He's been seen mooching round the nick on his days off, like he's at a loose end or something.' Was that why he was in today, she wondered? âApparently he keeps a bottle or three in his drawer, tops up whenâ'
She raised a hand. âThanks, Harries.' Too much ill-informed information. She'd had her say, but gossiping about a senior detective wasn't on. She'd keep tabs on it though. If the rumour held a grain of
and the alleged drinking got worse, it could be everyone's problem. She opted for a diplomatic change of tack. âHow'd you know I was hacked off, Dave?' The question was casual as she reversed the motor into a tight space between Richard's beat-up Land Rover and a gleaming black BMW.
âWhere shall I stop, boss?'
She matched his smile as she locked the motor, grimaced when she spotted Richard's dog. She was beginning to suspect it was stuffed until it perked up and pressed its nose against the grimy window. Snotty saliva trails. Nice.
âAs I was saying . . .' Harries â complete with hand signals â listed her giveaways as they walked to the back entrance. He majored on body language and repeated the expletives. âPlus you called me constable twice and Harries three times. No worries though, boss.' He strode ahead to get the door. âIt means we're a good team.'
The Victorian redbrick, innocuous on the outside, never failed to give her the shivers. The sickly sweet odours permeated even here to the threshold, they'd stick in her nose, cling to her clothes and the image of last night's victim would shortly be added to the macabre picture gallery in her brain. She recognised Harries' banter as a diversion from what lay ahead, thought displacement in action. Each to their own. âHow'd you work that one out, Dave?'
âI reckon you're getting more chilled, you feel you can open up to me.'
The raised eyebrow was sceptical. âAnd what's in it for you?'
âI'm learning from a great . . .'
Don't say teacher.
He was clearly struggling to avoid the T word. â. . . master . . . mistress . . . no . . . I mean . . .'
Mistress? You should be so lucky.
She curved a lip. âDave. Quit while you're not ahead, eh?'
t was a potential opening, or at least the glimmer of a crack. Caroline was itching to home in on the topic she wanted under debate, but she held fire while the waiter delivered a solo dessert. The strawberry tart was pricey, like everything else Jas Ram had selected in one of Birmingham's most expensive eateries. The reporter was happy to pick up the bill: it would be dirt cheap if the sweet-talking paid off. If her instinct was right, he was almost there, the interview not a million miles from the Mulberry.
Playing her fingers round the stem of a wine glass, she met Ram's gaze across the table. Her red sheath dress and Ralph Lauren jacket said serious player, but subtle flirting was virtually second nature when she was working a source and/or found a guy tasty. Ram, though she was loath to admit it, fell into both categories. He reminded her of the lead in the Twilight movies. Robert Pattinson, wasn't it? OK, the skin tone was way out, but the chiselled features, the piercing eyes, the mobile mouth . . .
Skin deep, Caroline, skin deep.
âLa Signorina is sure she wants nothing?' The whip-thin waiter's eyebrows disappeared under a glossy black fringe. With a white napkin draped over his forearm, the guy was straight out of central casting â complete with dodgy accent.
I want you to sod off, pronto.
.' Smiling sweetly, Caroline patted a stomach she strived to keep looking good. The gesture ensured she wasn't the only one watching her figure. As well as Ram's gaze, the restaurant was packed with diners giving her the eye â men in suits, ladies who lunch, yummy mummies with offspring in tow. San Luigi's was one of those places to be seen. DÃ©cor was monochrome with checked floor tiles, striped walls, blowsy lilies in huge black vases, mirrors everywhere. Tasty and tasteful. And clientele classy enough not to gawp or ask for a signed picture.
âYou revel in it, don't you?' It was Ram's first conversational gambit. After initial small talk she'd steered the bigger issues in his direction, ushered in the so-called victory in court, the shabby treatment dished out by both police and press, how she could help repair the damage. Any reporter will tell you people like talking about themselves â Ram loved it. She wasn't a fan herself. âYou've gone quiet all of a sudden, Miss King.'
Her celebrity, such as it was, wasn't a topic she wanted to pursue. She ran an index finger over her phone to play for time, toyed briefly with feigning ignorance but as she was discovering, Ram was sharper than a sharpened tack, acting the ingÃ©nue would only delay resuming where they'd left off.
âBeing on the telly? Getting recognised? What's not to like?' She raised her glass, took a sip of by now tepid Prosecco. âIt's better than scrubbing floors for a living. But let'sâ'
âMy wife's a toilet attendant.'
That was a couple of turn ups for the yet to be written book: a) there's a Mrs Ram and b) she shovels other people's shit. Caroline swiftly calculated how she could work it into the story, it should make a few lines at least. Ram was staring, still waiting for a response.
âNo offence. I didn't mean . . .'
She'd walked straight into that one. The crooked smile told her he was taking the piss. And boy, had she fallen big time. The designer-clad, Porsche-driving Ram â letting his wife scrub loos? Not good for his public persona that. But what was the public persona? The more she tried, the harder it was to get a handle on the guy. Greased eels had more traction. She reached for the bottle. âTop up?'
He shook his head, poked the tart with his fork. âSeems to me, Miss King, that for an investigative journalist â sorry, an
investigative journalist â you're pretty easily taken in.'
She tipped the glass again. âFirst time for everything, Mr Ram.' Clearly he was a better liar than she gave him credit for. And despite all her years in the people business, she found the guy harder to read than a Stephen Hawking book. She watched his strong white teeth sink into the soft flesh of a strawberry. âAnd you're a very convincing man.' Her lips parted in what might have been a smile. And how come he was au fait with her CV?
âRegular boy scout me. As in, I do my homework.' He was no mind reader, he was warning her how smart he was. Or thought he was.
âMakes two of us, Mr Ram.' She tilted her head, thinking of the meeting she had lined up that afternoon at the home of one of his victims. And she'd heard about the spot of bother with the law last night. âA little bird tells me you might be getting yourself a bus pass soon?' Given his predilection, there were probably better ways to voice that. Pavarotti's dulcet tones on tape covered what could have been an awkward silence. As for fellow journo Nat Hardy who'd tipped her the drink-drive wink, he certainly wouldn't appreciate being likened to aâ
âLittle bird?' Ram's full lips were stained red with juice.
She flapped an impatient hand. âNo matter. The point is . . . it appears the police are out to get you.' As if she wasn't. And once she got what she wanted, she'd happily lend the cops a hand.
Chewing slowly, he stared into her eyes. Surely he'd have to blink soon? What was going on under that blank exterior? She'd no idea what he was thinking and the fleeting emotions in those cold dark irises were impossible to identify. She fought hard not to shift in the seat, felt a frisson that could be fear, or â God forbid â arousal. Possibly both. Either way the intense scrutiny was unnerving, unsettling. Seemed to her, he looked at, and through her, simultaneously. Was he onto her not-so-little game?
He dabbed his lips with a napkin then treated her to a lazy smile. âMay I call you Caroline?'
Mental wipe of brow. âSure.'
âTry telling me something I don't know . . . Caroline.'
She turned her mouth down as if giving it serious thought. âThe cost of a travel card?'
Please, Lord, let him have a sense of humour.
It took a second for the penny to drop. His laugh seemed genuine. Hallelujah. The quip had lightened an increasingly tense atmosphere. Disclosing she knew about the drink-drive incident wasn't clever, she'd allowed herself to be diverted by his cocky arrogance. But there was no mileage in point-scoring, she needed to get the chat back on line. She opened her mouth but he spoke first.
âGo on then, tell me.' Pushing the plate to one side. âWhat's it cost?'
She wouldn't be seen dead on a bus. âGot me there. Google it, shall I?' Half-joking she reached for her phone but Ram laid a restraining hand on hers, and pressed hard. His flesh was warm and soft. She registered a rise in her pulse, didn't yet question why.
âCaroline, Caroline, Caroline.' Smiling, he shook his head, kept the tone calm, almost amused. âThere you go, taken in again. Gullible, or what? I don't give a rat's arse about bus fares.' There was nothing vaguely jocular in the eyes. âI want your price. What's my story worth to you, Miss Award Winning Journalist?'
The pressure grew when she tried sliding away her hand. âAre you trying to intimidate me, Mr Ram?' She looked down, pointedly. He didn't need telling. When he released his grip, the faintest outline on her skin was just visible. Lightly, he traced the mark with his fingers. She said nothing, both knew his upper hand had been metaphoric as well as literal.
anything, Caroline.' There was an ostentatious straightening of a pristine white cuff, then: âYou've still not answered the question.'
Ram wasn't the sort of guy who'd give anything away. Caroline had already budgeted in a fee, what you might call a sweetener. Equally she was sick of playing games, being taken for a fool's ride; it was rare for her to feel wrong-footed. âI'm prepared to go to five grand. Take it or leave it.'
He nodded. âI'll let you know.'
âYou do that.' Indifferent bordering on curt. She'd blown it. Ram was more likely to open in a test match than come to the interview wicket now. Unsmiling she signalled to the waiter, reckoned it was time to cut her losses. âGo Dutch, shall we?' Her tongue was in both cheeks but it was worth a try.
âYeah, you can take it out of my five grand.' For a split second she thought it was another joke. âNo kidding, Caroline.'
Owzat! By the time she'd settled the bill, they'd more or less sorted time and location for the first session. The reporter was certainly banking on more. Ram rose first, walked round to do the chivalrous bit with her chair. She caught a hint of lime when he lowered his head close to hers. âYou never did tell me.'