Friday, 4 January 2013
The fog wasn’t as thick or as frozen as last night but the air was damp and grey. Gloom hung over the top of the two-up two-down terraced houses on one side of traffic dirty Victoria Street and the four storey houses on the other, some broken up into bedsits, some developed into student flats and others into high rise executive apartments. Fencing with a bent panel for vandals to squeeze through cordoned off the barren land and brick foundations of where the old second hand shop once stood between a refurbished dentist’s surgery on one side, with thick cream blinds in the window and brass lettering on the door, and the corner shop on the other advertising tobacco, sweets and newspapers with a big Fakham Herald Sold Here banner in the window. A big sign informed that the land had been sold and was awaiting development like many others in Fakham which hadn‘t quite reinvented itself before the crash came and money ran out.
Lou Weekes sat waiting for the lights to turn green. Things hadn’t really changed in a century, she thought. In the old days when men worked 14 hours a day in heavy engineering factories littered across the city, they paid rent to their wealthy industrial employers who lived in the big grand houses on one side while their workers shared the smaller overcrowded houses on the other with their families and lodgers who helped to make ends meet. Then, despite the poverty, the houses were pristine. Lou once interviewed an old woman who’d lived down there before the war who told her how they used to be in competition with their neighbours. The best housewives were always out early scrubbing the front door step. The modern white British poor on benefits and immigrants rented rooms in those now shabby looking houses and the only people on front door steps were the heroin addicts begging for “a bit of small change please.”
Grubby dust and nicotine stained nets hung in some windows. Others had panes broken out and cardboard strategically placed to stop the cold from getting in. Of course the new professionals on the regenerated side of the road were always complaining about those on the old side to the council and the Herald and anyone else who would listen about anti-social behaviour from the drug addicts, paid sickness benefit to get high on heroin or morphine every day, and the Eastern Europeans who had recently moved into houses that the professionals termed sheds with beds because they were so overcrowded.
The Polish, Lithuanians, Romanians, Russians and Czechs worked hard on the land in the neighbouring agricultural countryside, spent little, lived in cramped conditions in hope to send as much money home to relatives as possible so it’s no wonder they went outside to smoke, to chat, to socialise, to breathe fresh air, to drink cheap beer and vodka on the street because the pubs were now too expensive and exclusive since the bloody awful smoking ban that Lou despised so much. But such behaviour wasn’t in keeping with the new vibrant and middle class city the bourgeoisie council and the developers at Fakham Associates were trying to create. Wretched and poor people littered the area and gave it a bad name when Regeneration was the new buzz word on everyone’s lips which, it seemed, included regenerating the people who lived in the area if they weren’t quite bourgeoisie enough. But not all of the locals wanted it in traditional working class, and now largely underclass or professional class, Fakham. Change was coming fast, too fast, for the town which had altered more in 10 years than the previous 100.
Lou’s hands were on the steering wheel. She tapped her fingers impatiently, turned her wrist inwards and looked at her watch. If she didn’t get to her desk within the next five minutes, news editor Andrew Sharp would literally have her guts for garters. He was a nasty piece of work who could slice out your kidney before you’d realised you’d been stabbed in the back. She hoped he’d move on soon. That sort usually did even though their talent was always claimed on the back of good journalists who did the real digging and legwork for the great stories he claimed credit for and sold to news agencies for the few extra hundred quid each week that he didn’t deserve or earn.
She pressed her foot hard on the accelerator as the lights changed, turned onto the south end of High Street past the entrance to the alley that linked both ends of town, and then slammed down hard on the brake. A pedestrian shot out and had taken a chance at running through the red man at the crossing. Everyone was in a hurry it seemed. Lucky for Lou, and the idiot in a baseball cap and trainers, she was on the ball this morning when she had no right to be after last night’s session with her best mate Munday. They’d shared a few spliffs, a few giggles, Munday had played her his latest composition on his guitar and she knew when she crushed the last of several joints out at 2am, and then got up late this morning, that she’d have to hit the ground running. Munday’s cold shower helped to wake her up. The near miss with the pedestrian had certainly cleared the haze from the dope smoking but she was trembling at the thought of what would have happened if she‘d hit that man.
Instead of thanks for her rapid reaction that saved the dickhead’s life, the pedestrian in a matching off white track suit with black stripes down each leg and sleeve, looked back as he got safely to the other side, lifted his arm, faced his hand outwards and then raised his two index fingers and split them apart into the sign of a V and flicked. His profanity was no more than mouthed words drowned out by the noise of the busy traffic travelling up and down High Street in a rush. Lou’s heart still pounded at the near miss. Her whole body shook in rhythm to it’s forceful beat and she knew it was the dope that had made her so anxious. A horn sounded behind her. But she needed a minute to compose herself. She sat back, blew out a huge sigh, reached for a cigarette from the well under the gear stick, a lighter from the dashboard and then lit up. She drew in a long draw and then exhaled with a huge pleasurable sigh and allowed the tension to drain away. Cigarette bouncing from her mouth, she pushed the car into gear and prepared to move on as the bloke in a suit in the car behind continued to pap his horn and make rude gestures at her that she could see in her rear view mirror. Everybody seemed in such a bad mood these days and she was no exception especially where Sharp was concerned but he was her boss so she’d have to button it.
A volley of profanities burst forth from Lou’s jacket pocket in an infantile, squabbling and offensive tirade, as she turned off the car engine in the Fakham Herald car park. She’d forgotten she’d changed her ring tone last night to the offensive cartoon show’s rude joke theme in a moment of high giggles with Munday who had Bluetoothed it to her mobile for a shared laugh. She knew she’d have to change it back, it wasn’t exactly “appropriate” for a professional who could be sat in an inquest hearing with grieving parents one minute, while talking to a headmistress about an infant school nativity the next, but she smiled in recognition of the caller.
“Hi Neil. What you got for me? Something I could use as a spade, I hope.”
Most hacks would kill for the kind of special relationship between Lou and DCI Neil Worthy from Fakham CID - if they didn’t kill each other first.
“What you been up to this time? I always said you were like dog shit - you spread everywhere.”
“Very funny. I’m just running late and his lordship is bound to have a go. So what’s new?”
Lou banged the car door shut and the blip as she locked up remotely from her keyholder sounded. She turned her back to walk towards the metal door in the three storey purpose built Fakham Herald building which a handful of staff occupied since it's printing presses went and it downgraded from daily to weekly in line with falling circulation figures. Everyone got free news from the internet these days so they didn't buy newspapers - or as newcomers to the city they had no real interest or affiliation in community news from a town that they were mostly passing through with no intention of laying down roots.
She paused before pressing the combination of keys that would allow her inside and pulled out her cigarettes from her bag instead. She pinched one out, put it to her mouth and lit up.
“You’re still smoking then?” Neil said as Lou blew out.
“Yeah, don’t tell me you can smell it over the phone now too - isn’t that called fourth or fifth hand smoke or some rubbish?“
“I thought you were running late.”
“I am. But I need the extra five minutes I haven’t got this morning after a dickhead ran out in front of my car and nearly got himself killed and me done for causing death by dangerous driving. But you didn’t phone to talk to me about my smoking, I’m sure.”
“No, but it’s why I left you.”
“Oh fuck off Neil. Her name was Jacqui and we both know it.”
She fiddled with her bag, put her keys inside and held her cigarette pack and lighter in one hand as the phone was held to her ear in a hunch with her shoulder attached to the hand and two fingers that pinched around the cigarette she was smoking.
“I was joking so please don‘t start on about Jacqui. I‘m trying to do you a favour here. You know damn well that cigarettes I can handle but a police officer living with a wreck head was only ever going to be career suicide.”
“Yeah, yeah, yeah. If you say so. I'm not going to argue today. I haven't got the will or the time.”
“Oh do grow up Lou. You’re not a teenager anymore. You're a middle aged woman. Drugs are bad. End of. There's nothing to argue about.”
“Look, what d’ya want Neil? Did you just phone me to have a go or have you got something I can use this morning?” She rolled her eyes and hooked her bag onto her shoulder.
“You heard about the fire?”
“It’s on the website but it’s being reported as arson with one fatality.”
“Well, thanks for telling me. My car radio’s knackered and I haven't had time to listen to the news this morning which wouldn’t have gone down well with Sharp."
Lou imagined the way his lip curled and his nostrils flared in contempt at any reporter who arrived at work not knowing the day’s breaking news in advance and then he‘d go on about it all day, with little digs here and there about how news reporters who haven‘t got a clue what‘s in the news should be working in PR or stacking shelves. The thought stuck in Lou’s throat and made her gag. Jacqui had her own PR company and she sure as hell was doing better out of that than Lou as a weekly newspaper reporter who had struggled to pay her mortgage since Neil moved out. She might well earn more working in a supermarket than a newspaper always looking to make cut backs.
“But that’s why I’m phoning.” Neil said. “It’s more than a fire but the press doesn‘t know that yet. The fire was set deliberately – and Barings is going to paint is as vandalism to keep the press off his back - but it was set to cover up a murder and the initial autopsy has found injuries similar to Maureen Casey’s and Susan Drake‘s”
The phone fell. Lou reacted quickly, did a jig, and saved it from crashing to the floor, sacrificing the cigarette packet to a puddle on the ground instead.
“But they got Simon Gillespie for those didn‘t they? “ She bent to pick up the pack and shook off the excess water, hissed, and rubbed the packet dry along the side of her black fleece jacket. “And I thought the police were not reinvestigating after Gillespie was freed on appeal because they were so sure he‘d done it? “
Neil tutted and blew out a heavy sigh: “That’s the problem. It looks like it's come back to haunt us and this time Gillespie has an alibi. There is a press conference this afternoon but Baring isn‘t going to mention the link because he doesn‘t want to have to deal with the criticism even though we in CID think he should so you‘ve got to ask the right questions and get it out into the open because we need witnesses. I’ve got to get to the scene. Baring’s on the warpath. He was late himself this morning and is as angry as hell, barking out orders to everyone. You’re not the only one with an arsehole for a boss.“
Lou smiled : “At least we still have something in common then,“ she said. She fiddled in her jacket pocket and brought out a small engraved circular tin. She pressed a pin on the edge and it popped open to reveal a well used pocket ashtray. She stubbed her cigarette out on the black ash charred inside surface and clipped it shut again.”
“Come down to the scene. It’s Hermit Road. Forensics are there now. But don’t let on to Baring that I told you about it. There won't be any other press there so this is exclusive.“
“Cheers. I suppose you want something for that.”
“Well, you could pay me back tonight. 7 o’clock in the Painter’s Arms. There’s something I want to discuss.“
“Make it The Noose at 9 and I might consider it. What's it about?”
“Jacqui's sister has gone missing.”
“Fuck Jacqui. What‘s her sister got to do with me and why should I care?”
“Lou, this isn’t about Jacqui, you or me, but a 17 year old girl who hasn‘t been home or seen by anyone in two months and a chief superintendent who doesn‘t think her disappearance worthy of investigation.”