Authors: Maureen Carter
âSorry. That wasn't the brightest remark.' Caroline gave a sheepish grin. The dumb question had been deliberate, a delaying tactic and a diversion.
Straightening from the range, Mrs Hemming leaned against the rail, arms folded. âHow old did you say your daughter is?'
Glad that worked.
Caroline would've preferred a bit of bonding before getting down to business. âFifteen . . . the same as Amy.' Though Mrs Hemming's only daughter was just thirteen when Ram took her on what could be called her first ride. After nine months' forced unprotected sex with numerous strangers, Amy had her first abortion. A tame social worker had helped Caroline with the homework: apparently the Hemmings' marriage was in trouble; he'd now moved out, lived in a bedsit; three sons were away at uni.
âIs this her?' Caroline asked. The school photograph on the fridge showed a little girl with blonde pigtails, blue eyes, shy smile. âSo pretty.'
âIt's an old photo.' Mrs Hemming ran fingers through her bob. âShe's . . . grown since then.'
âIs Amy here, Mrs Hemming?'
She paused a few seconds, head tilted. âThat's her on the piano.' It sounded like a Beatles' song to Caroline. Odd choice for a teenager, Amy was a mean player though. âIt's the first time she's touched it . . .'
Since Ram got his hands on her?
Whatever was on Mrs Hemming's mind, she didn't voice it. âI'll get that drink.' With her back to Caroline she said, âI'd rather we talk first before seeing if Amy wants to meet you. She's been through . . . a lot.' That was one way of putting it. Hell and back another.
âOf course. I understand.'
âDo you?' She cast a withering glance over her shoulder. âI doubt that, Mrs Hunter. You said your daughter was playing with fire. Not that she'd been burned.' Burned was a weird kind of euphemism. Amy had been raped, abused, buggered, psychologically and emotionally scarred. And the man who'd orchestrated it was still on the streets.
Of course Caroline couldn't comprehend it. No one could, unless they'd been there. It was why she'd inveigled herself in here. Why she'd cooked up a sob story featuring a fictional child and putative groomer. Why she'd told Mrs Hemming on the phone she desperately needed to talk to a family who'd gone through the experience in the hope of saving her non-existent daughter from the same awful fate. The last part was true, except it was other people's flesh and blood the reporter wanted to help. If writing a book exposing the crime, describing the sort of people who got caught up in it, stopped one child from stepping into a groomer's car then Caroline would spin any number of lies. And not apologise for it. âForgive me. It was a crass remark.'
âYes it was.' Unsmiling, she passed tea to Caroline, nodded at milk and sugar on the bar, then sat on the stool opposite. Small hands cupped round a thick red mug with gold lettering, she fixed the reporter in her sights. Fighting the urge to squirm, Caroline could just make out the words: Keep Calm And Carry On. She swallowed.
Easy for you to say
Saying nothing, Mrs Hemming sipped her tea, studied Caroline over the mug's rim. Piano chords drifted into the silence. It
a Beatles' number, but Caroline couldn't name it just now. Not that she was trying, her mind on more pressing matters. The reporter had no doubt she was being measured up, feared she was falling short. Suspected her cover was blown.
âOK. Let's talk.' The woman drained the mug, pushed it to one side. Caroline breathed a huge mental sigh of relief. âWhat do you want to know, Mrs Hunter?'
Shuffling forward she rested open hands on the bar, keen to bridge any gap between them. âWhatever you can tell me. Anything that might help.'
The woman talked for twenty-five minutes. At some stage the piano music must've stopped. Caroline may have interrupted once. It was as if a verbal floodgate had opened, pent up grief, fury, fears, frustration narrated in a dry monotone. Every word of it was on tape, Caroline was still covertly recording. She'd probably pick up nuances when she transcribed it. Either way, the material was stark, detail graphic. Amy's story was truly shocking, profoundly moving. The flat delivery only underlined its heart-shattering content. It was rare the reporter welled up.
Mrs Hemming's apparent lack of emotion during the telling would be her way of distancing the appalling events. The automaton mode was a coping mechanism Caroline had seen many times before. But the woman's emotional armour had chinks: the tic in her right eyelid had become difficult to ignore, the compulsive worrying at loose skin round badly bitten nails had drawn blood.
Caroline reached out a tentative hand. âI'm so terribly sorry, Mrs Hemming.' The sympathy was real and the need to talk to Amy greater than ever. The story had everything, but was nowhere near complete. âIs there anything I can do?'
âYes there is.' The woman sat back out of arm's reach. âDrop this ridiculous pretence.' She raised a hand. âPlease. The injured look cuts no ice. I know who you are, knew almost from the word go.' Slipping down from the stool, she rescued the bread from the Aga. Caroline opened her mouth to speak, but Mrs Hemming hadn't finished. âI won't report you to the police, don't worry on that score. It was my decision to let you stay, my decision to talk to you. I know you have clout in the media and I want people out there to know what can happen if . . .' Biting her lip, she dropped her gaze.
âPlease. No.' Shaking her head. âJust write your story or whatever it is you're working on. Tell the world the truth, Miss King. That's what you can do. And now . . .' Pointing to the door. âI'd like you to go.'
âWhat about talking to Amy?' She was pushing her luck. âIs there any chanceâ?'
âYou heard her.' A slender youth slouched in the doorway. He had close-cropped hair and a skinny roll-up clenched between white teeth. Eyes creased, he struck a match, released twin smoke trails through pierced nostrils. âNow bog off.'
âAsk her yourself, Miss King. But I think that's a no.'
o comment. Sorry.' Sarah took a sip of water, aware of rustling sounds as she crossed legs under the conference desk. The noise might have emanated from her, could easily have come from the audience shuffling in front. Eight or nine hacks had deigned to show, none appeared overwhelmed, one had barely glanced up from her phone, another was already stowing notebook in jacket pocket. She'd even glimpsed Ted White, the press officer next to her, stifling a yawn. You didn't have to own a Pulitzer to know a bog standard witness appeal wasn't sexy in news terms. But the DI wasn't yet prepared to go the whole hog and confirm press speculation. Why is it, she wondered, reporters want to insert
in front of every crime?
âSo you're saying there's no link, DI Quinn?' Nathan Hardy,
She'd come across him before on stories. Sharp operator, dark good looks, bit of a charmer for someone who could be full of himself.
Suppressing the latest in a series of sighs, she said evenly, âI'm saying we're keeping an open mind. I'm also saying we need help identifying the man on the right.' She turned her head briefly at the screen behind. Three faces stared back, enlarged images of Duncan Agnew, Sean William Foster, John Doe. âAnd it's important we speak to anyone who was in the relevant places at the specified times. We want people to come forward. You have numbers they can call.' Details were in a news release handed to everyone at the start. At least that information was kosher.
Hardy propped casual ankle on knee inadvertently showing a Superman sock. Least she assumed the revelation was unwitting. The dark suit, tie and glasses had more than a touch of the Clark Kent about them. âAnd you don't reckon the attacks are down to one gang?'
âI think I'd have mentioned it, don't you, Mr Hardy?'
He turned his mouth down. Good as saying no. Hardy was a big fish in this particular hack pool, the free-sheeters and stringers seemed happy to sit back. âSo you're not issuing a warning then?' Must be a flying fish â with a kite. âThere isn't a gang on the loose, mugging people on the streets?'
Had the guy been to rhetorical question school? Tapping a pen on the desk, she said, âAt this stage we've noâ'
âHow many attacks qualify then, inspector?'
And for God's sake stop saying âthen'.
âTill you admit they're serial.'
How many times . . .?
âI've already made it clear, we need proofâ'
âHow many men have to end up like that before you tell the public the truth. Four? Five?' A stroppy journo was hardly new but Hardy was running out of toys.
Holding his gaze, she heard her watch tick in the silence. Counted ten. âThe truth, Mr Hardy? What is it you're getting at exactly?'
Mouth tight, he shrugged off the question, smoothed his hair. His peers seemed a mix of amused and bemused. Sarah gazed at faces as she finished her water, questions had apparently dried up. âIf that's it, ladies and gentlemen?' It was. Chairs were scraped back, reporters wandered out, she started gathering papers.
Ted slid an envelope across the desk. âWe're not issuing these then?' â
again. Must be catching.
âMaybe later.' She knew what was inside, didn't need to take another look at the âafter'
shots of Foster and the murder victim. Unlike the artist's sanitised âbefore'
on the screen, they showed the men's injuries in stark close-up. Doubtless the newspapers would make space: if it bleeds, it leads and all that. She hoped the case would be featured without making readers feel sick. âSee how it goes, eh?'
âCan I run something past you, DI Quinn?' It wasn't technically an ambush: Nathan Hardy hadn't stuck a leg out to trip her, but he was propping up the wall outside the conference room.
âWhy now, Mr Hardy?' She made a show of checking the time.
âIt'll only take a second.' The smile was tentative. Not surprising given his recent angry-thirty-something-man performance.
âThat's no answer.' Not that she needed one. He hadn't run it past her earlier because clearly whatever juicy titbit Hardy had, he certainly wouldn't share it with the pack.
âWhat I have isn't for general release, inspector.'
âGet on with it, Mr Hardy.' Arms folded, she watched as he peeled himself off the wall and retrieved a notebook from his back pocket.
âMean anything to you?' He showed her two names, the same names left on the police hotline.
Sensing his hawk-eyed gaze, she'd shown no reaction, thoughts were whirring though. âShould they?'
âYou tell me.' Hardy matched her apparent insouciance.
âWho gave them to you?' The intelligence had only come in to HQ a couple of hours ago. God and/or Baker forbid, it was a cop on the take. Like Hardy would give away his source.
âTip-off.' Tapping the side of his nose. âCall to the news desk.'
âSaying?' She pursed her lips.
âThis isn't a one-way street, inspector.'
âOff the record?' She waited for what was patently a grudging nod. âFollow me.'
âNot trying to bribe me are you, DI Quinn?' Arch delivery, crooked smile. Hardy was in sock-showing stance again, leaning back in a window seat in the canteen. Sarah played it safe, tightened her lips, as she placed a tray on the table. It would cost a lot more than a mug of canteen coffee to buy the reporter's silence, or loosen his tongue. Not that she was in the market for either. Dangerous territory these days. Post the Filkin Report, most cops had lost count of the latest guidelines on cosying up to the media. To Sarah's way of thinking, the most condescending on an overlong list were: keep a note of every conversation with a reporter and try to avoid joint drinking sessions. As for no flirting.
What a frigging cheek.
Soon as she sat down opposite, Hardy raised a toast and another knowing smile crossed his face. âAre we sure this isn't a case of “inappropriate hospitality,” inspector?'
So Superman had read Filkin too. Big deal. âIt's not spiked, Mr Hardy. No worries.'
He flapped a hand. âNat, please.' The charmer returns.
âSo . . .' Stirring Earl Grey tea. âThis call? Tell me more.'
A woman had been put through to the news desk, he said. Claimed she had information about the attack in Stirchley on the eleventh. Insisted she'd actually witnessed it and recognised two of the âbastard toe rags' responsible.
âTwo of?' Sarah frowned.
Did that mean there were more?
Hardy shrugged. âIt's what was said apparently.'
because Hardy hadn't spoken to the woman, a colleague had picked up the phone. She'd taken down the names, even got the caller to spell them. It was as far as they got, the woman rang off without giving her own.
Playing the spoon between her fingers. âAre calls recorded as a matter of course at the
Slight hesitation? âI think so.' Hedging his bets most likely.
âI'd like a copy.'
He tapped a salute. âI'll see what I can do.'
The big question was what Hardy â make that his editor â intended doing with the information. Without corroboration, they'd be mugs to run anything. Not yet anyway. Apart from risking a legal suit, it was meagre fare, it needed fleshing out, they'd want to put faces to names. If they hadn't already. She'd be amazed if they confined the digging to Facebook. Which meant hacks sniffing around, rooting into backgrounds, attracting the wrong kind of attention. If Zach Wilde and Leroy Brody were culpable, there was only one way quicker to signal they were under suspicion. The police at the door. Uniform had despatched unmarked cars to various addresses in south Birmingham, she'd not heard feedback yet.