Authors: Maureen Carter
âTell you what?' Hoisting her shoulder bag.
âThe little bird? The one with the big mouth?'
She reached for her car keys. More than her life was worth, revealing a source. In this case that was overblown bollocks, but Ram could go whistle. Mind, tossing the fob in the air, was pretty tactless and given the look on his face, offering a lift wouldn't go down well either. âSorry, Mr Ram. First law of journalism.'
She led the way across the chequered floor that put her in mind of a giant chess board. Her lip curved as she toyed with the notion. If she was King, what would that make Ram? The King was the most powerful piece in the game, wasn't it? The smile faded as the rules came back to her. The piece with the most clout was the Queen. And that reminded her, she needed a word with Sarah Quinn.
I Quinn, here.' Sarah had the phone nestled under her chin, hands occupied with an egg mayo roll and the initial forensic report from last night's crime scene. At gone three p.m. the working lunch was late, nothing new there. Nothing earth-shattering from Chambers Row either, though fibres and samples were en route to the labs. Sarah hadn't fancied eating earlier anyway. She'd been on the PMD: otherwise known as the post-mortem diet. As an appetite suppressant, blood and guts won hands down, though a body covered in grotesque tattoos like John Doe's came a close second. She shuddered. Either way, the multiple injuries meant cause of death had been too close to call.
âSomeone in reception I think you should see, ma'am.'
Swift flick through her mental Rolodex came up with Dennis Law on the front desk as the owner of the voice. The veteran sergeant rarely gave his name, the West Country accent spoke for him. Plus he'd been a fixture for so long, everyone in the nick knew him as Laydown. Old time cop he might be, but he'd also been around long enough not to waste anyone's. Even so. She cast a glance at twin piles of leaning paperwork on her desk. Snowed under wasn't in it. Pass the ice axe.
âWho is it, Laydown? I'm really pushed.'
âWouldn't say, ma'am.'
Lips pursed, she dragged closer one of the artist's portraits Twig had left on her desk: victim number two, airbrushed within an inch. Rose Atherton hadn't done a bad job. âCan you getâ?'
Tom, Dick or Harries to do the needful?
âI could.' Laydown's pauses were usually telling. âShe asked for you by name.'
The sigh blew out her cheeks. By the time they'd finished arguing the toss, she could have dealt with whoever/whatever was down there. âOn the way.' Laying the egg roll back in its wrapper, she cast it a longing look before heading for the door.
A swift about turn and she crammed in another couple of inches, dashed into the corridor, clocked Baker sauntering the other way, hands deep in pockets.
âGood way to get IBS that.'
Yeah, well you'd know, chief.
âI want to see you later in my office, Quinn.' She watched agape as he strolled past finger pressed to his lip. âNo talking with your mouth full. Bad manners that.'
She narrowed her eyes. The man must have eyes in the back of his bloody head.
Sarah was biting her tongue now. Laydown had informed her the proverbial bird hadn't flown so much as legged it. âSo what did she look like?'
âJust a slip of a thing, ma'am.' Simian brow furrowed, the barrel-chested sergeant scratched an armpit. Christ. He'd be swinging through the trees next. âOne minute she was here, the nextâ'
âYou're a trained observer, sergeant.' Her foot tapped the lino. Loud and clear.
âRight. I'd say five-foot-nothing, seven stone or thereabout. In old money that is.' His smile was short-lived. âSorry, ma'am. Dark hair down to here.' His hand went to a breast pocket. âBlue eyes, pasty-faced.'
It wasn't ringing any bells. âAge?'
âNot my strength, ma'am, but I'd say in her teens.' She was beginning to wonder if he had a strength. He knew she'd not been sitting round twiddling her thumbs. Why summon her down to deal with a kid who wouldn't even give her name?
âShe must've got cold feet, ma'am.' He picked up a pen, started writing, as if he'd decided it was a wrap.
Sarah had other ideas. âAnd why would she do that, Sigmund?'
Still scribbling, he said, âShe told me she was here about Jas Ram.' Handing her the note. âThat's the number I got out of her.' His shrug said for what it's worth.
Could be genuine. You never know. She gave it a quick glance before slipping it in a jacket pocket. âThanks Laydown, can youâ?'
âGet on to the you've been framed boys? No worries.'
Police HQ had more cameras than Rupert Murdoch. The anonymous girl who'd given them the slip would have been captured in at least a couple of shots.
âHey, boss! We could be cooking on gas.' Tie over shoulder, a slightly flushed Harries burst into Sarah's office, Boy Wonder energy barely contained.
Cooking on gas? God, he had a way with words.
She looked up, fingers poised over a hot keyboard. âGo on then.'
âTwo names on the hotline.' Tie straightened, he smoothed his hair.
Unsubs? Mispers? Flashers? Could be all three given the revelations so far.
âFrom the top, eh, Dave? And do me a favour. Either sit down or keep still.' The fidgeting was getting on her nerves. It wasn't as if there was a shedload on, of course the Policy Book could wait. Like hell. Operation Steel's PB needed updating, like yesterday. A detailed written log had to be available to every squad member at all times, and as senior investigating officer the task fell to her. If anything slipped the net or went tits up, her neck would be on the block. As for the Action Book?
Don't get me started
Perched on the seat edge, Harries looked ready to spring into action any second.
Leaning back in her swivel chair, she sipped from a can of Red Bull, as he told her that in the last half hour two separate callers had left messages on the Crimestoppers' line naming two individuals allegedly involved in the Stirchley attack â the second the squad was investigating.
âThese names,' she asked, âare they known to us?'
âSince they were kids.' In their late teens now, Zach Wilde and Leroy Brody had been in and out of cop shops as often as they'd been in and out of care. Checks had revealed cautions â and later, convictions â for a string of offences including criminal damage, nicking cars, burglary, antisocial behaviour.
No violence though.
âSoon â with a bit of luck.' Two squad members were tracking down whereabouts now. Luck shouldn't come into it â it was hardly Smith and Jones territory.
âAnyone checked Facebook?'
âThey're both on it.'
Straightening, she tapped a few keys, ran her gaze over the screen. Zach Wilde held two thumbs up to the camera. He had tattoos across both sets of knuckles â âbad' and âboy'. Looked as if he'd done them himself. She pointed it out. âNot quite got the hang of it, has he?'
Harries grinned. âI know a wom . . . mate who reckons his girlfriend's got sweet and sour tats on her tâ'
âThank you, constable.' Frowning, her gaze was still on the screen. Wilde's ink work, shaven head, missing front tooth were visual clichÃ©s for stock yob.
But they didn't equal sadistic bully.
Maybe her reservations showed.
âCurious about timing.' She slung the can at the bin. âLike â why now?'
âBull's eye. Why not?' His frown said, why ask?
Leroy Brody's tight curls were dusted with blue dye, a crucifix dangled from an ear lobe.
âWe've got someone working on this, I take it?'
âCourse.' Harries scratched his chin. âI thought you'd be chuffed. Gift horse, mouth and all that.'
Gift, yes. Booby prize not. Intelligence without evidence wouldn't get them far. Dave might be on the right lines though. She'd skimmed today's local rag. Last night's attack had made page five with a sidebar summing-up previous incidents. The coverage could've prompted witnesses to come forward.
She sat back. âTwo sources, you said?'
âChrist, Dave. Spare me the police speak. Male? Female?'
One of each?
âOne's a bloke, I think.'
âThink?' The raised eyebrow said it all.
âThe line wasn't brilliant, boss.'
There's a surprise.
âYoung . . . ish?'
If you want a thing doing.
âI'll listen to the tape. And I'd like to speak to them both.' Despite what parts of the media would like the public to believe, cops don't just drag people in off the streets. Certainly not on the say so of a couple of disembodied voices. She laced her fingers. âReckon they'll come in?'
âAnd “ah” means?' As if she didn't know. She raised a don't-bother palm. Anonymous calls were a pain in a cop's bum. They didn't always mean duff info, informants were often too scared to give their name. But it made things a damn sight easier when the police knew who they were dealing with.
âI'll get the tape, boss.' He was on his feet when the landline rang. She took the call, caught his eye, mouthed âhold on'. While hovering he spotted the artist's impression, picked it up for a closer look. As she hung up, he slipped the image back on the desk with a murmured, âPoor bugger.'
âNot quite, Dave.' Sarah nodded at the phone. âThat was Shona at the hospital. And that â' pointing at the likeness â âis Sean William Foster.' Who'd come round long enough to give his name to one of the nurses. It wasn't a lot, but it was better than nada.
âTop notch, boss. You telling Baker?'
The old boy wanted two names, didn't he? She gathered a few files ready for the news conference. âNo hurry, is there?'
he black BMW roadster was going so slow there were parts of the city where the driver would be pulled over for kerb crawling. Tudor Rise was in Harborne and Caroline King was on the look out for house names not street girls. Her eyes lit up when she spotted Hawthorn Villa. After parking a couple of detached houses down, she checked her face in the rear-view mirror. No make-up and the sleek black bob pulled back tauter than a Croydon facelift. The horn-rimmed glasses held clear lenses and â like her vision â were perfect. The sober image they fostered was just the ticket, entrance ticket. Her own mother wouldn't recognise her. Fiona King was dead but that was beside the point.
The long hot shower after lunching with Ram, though not strictly necessary, had helped the reporter feel less . . . contaminated. The main reason for the detour home had been to change her outfit, alter the look. It was more than possible the Hemmings had seen her before, either on TV or in the press gallery in court yesterday. But she wanted to create a first impression â and it had to be convincing. Caroline had arranged the meeting on the phone and may have been a tad stingy on the
. She'd not mentioned her profession â as a journalist.
As she aimed the fob at the motor, the sun struggled through a bank of cloud the colour of suds; the rays had no heat, the temperature below freezing. Tightening the belt on a beige raincoat, she headed towards the double-fronted Victorian red-brick. Come summer the faÃ§ade would be covered in ivy; brittle tendrils clung now, dotted with what looked like desiccated confetti.
Villa? Someone had a sense of humour. Glancing up, she saw smoke drifting from one of the chimneys. Cosy. She could but hope. Despite the chill, her palms were clammy, heart rate up a touch.
Deep breath, lick lips, press bell. Big Ben chimed even louder when the heavy wooden door swung open. Alice Hemming looked older than forty-two, nearer fifty would be Caroline's guess. The greying pageboy wasn't flattering and the deep lines etched into a gaunt sallow face couldn't all be down to laughter. âYou must be Mrs Hunter? Isobel?'
âThat's right.' Suitably unassuming Caroline shook hands, made eye contact, took in the woman's black slacks, grey fleece, pearl earrings. âThank you for seeing me, Mrs Hemming.' The reporter had flattened her vowels a tad and once she'd caught more of the woman's delivery, she'd aim to match that too.
âCome through. I was about to make tea.' Slim and slight, Alice Hemming could pass as a teenager from the back. Over her shoulder, she called out with an over-bright comment, âYou'll have to take us as you find us.' Why did people always feel the need to say that kind of stuff? Caroline didn't care if houses were dives as long she came up with something. That said, from what she saw the place did need a little TLC. DÃ©cor was tired, paintwork chipped, skirting boards scuffed. Money could be tight, she supposed. Or interior design not a priority. A piano was being played downstairs somewhere, thick hardbacks lined two of the hall's walls and baking smells wafting from the kitchen were to die for.
âYou look younger than I expected.' Mrs Hemming flashed a polite smile as she indicated one of six high stools round a breakfast bar. âI'll pop the kettle on then just finish off here if you don't mind?'
âOf course.' Caroline had a quick nose round while the woman busied herself at one of the work surfaces. âIt's good of you to give me your time.' The L-shaped room was red tiles and terracotta, old pine and copper pans, light glinted off nine or ten serious looking knives clinging to a magnet on the far wall. Two loaves cooled on a tray, Mrs Hemming walked to the Aga carrying tins with two more. âWow!' Caroline gushed. âYou make your own bread?'
âWell spotted.' The barb was deserved, but her half smile softened the sting.