They’ll Not Find Her – a short story

Motorway

‘What shall we do with the body?’ The other one rubbed his chin. ‘Let’s not get ahead of ourselves, eh? We’ve been through all this. It’ll be like she disappeared. She’ll be walking down the lane and then-’ he held his palms open, fingers splayed, as if releasing a tiny bird. ‘There, and then gone.’ I couldn’t stop watching those hands. Thick fingers and cracked skin that would feel like sandpaper. He’d done hard graft once. I could see them through a gap in the plastic foliage dividing our seats. ‘They’ll not find her.’ I didn’t want to move; I was terrified yet transfixed. And I was certain I’d heard something that was dangerous. Something that would bring harm to me. So, I kept listening, unable to help myself.

It’s my business being nosy. I’m a writer and a lot of what writers do is stealing. We don’t invent; we take from what we see around us and give it a little tweak here and there. A favourite spot of mine for nosing and people watching is the motorway services and that morning I was sipping a latte, trying to finish a story I’d promised a magazine but was three days late in sending. I’d gone there to escape the four walls of my home office and the constant drilling that was next door’s latest property makeover.

They’ll not find her. I got drawn in, hooked by the words that came in the quiet gaps between the chimes of the fruit machines and the clatter of dropped cutlery. ‘They all got tats’ he said, and a chair was dragged across the floor, interrupting him. ‘A black rose, yeah-’ and a blast from the coffee machine drowned him out before I might hear where.

I know it’s risky letting the imagination fill in the gaps, but what would you think if you heard two fellas – proper hard cases and handy looking – talking like that? A mobile phone rang, its vibrations causing it to dance across their table. ‘Leave it’ he said. He had a Black Country accent, blunt and heavy vowels, and while I still couldn’t see his face, I’d clocked him when he’d strolled over clutching a cappuccino. It was a large one but seemed tiny in his gloved fist. He wore a heavy grey woollen overcoat, the lapels pricked up against the icy wind, and black leather gloves. He had a few days’ stubble, and his grey-black hair was slicked back tight from his forehead and temples, so it curled where it met his collar. He wore an expensive citrussy scent that drifted across the food court in his wake.

I slid down in my booth, worried their silence meant they might’ve noticed me. I was obscured by the divider of plastic plants, but it wasn’t much comfort knowing they might walk round this way and think I’d overheard everything. I could go to the toilet, but what if they followed? I’d have to wait them out. Perhaps it was all a prank I told myself. They probably did stuff like this all the time in case some nosy sod like me was listening in.

The other fella was on the phone, but I couldn’t hear what he was saying. When grey coat set off towards the toilets, hands stuffed in his pockets, I slotted in my headphones and offered up a silent prayer, but he didn’t notice me. Most days I got my favourite spot here, this little corner booth where I got to hear things. I was out of sight of the other tables and, as it was a good twenty metres from the coffee shop queue and toilets, people got careless, especially when it was quiet later at night. I’d seen bags left and collected a moment later by someone else. I’d heard football agents promise they’d get a striker in by the weekend, but they were smart not to name players or teams. I saw a heavy gold chain pulled from bubble-wrap and handed over; cash swapped once for an oil painting. I watched a couple kiss, lost in each other as hail rattle the veranda, as if they’d never see each other again in this life.

They’d gone their own ways with grey coat standing in the food court, chatting into his phone. The second bloke wore a black bomber jacket. His scalp was shaved to the bone. He had pale, blue-tinged skin and was prone to spots, reminding me of a kid in my year cruelly tagged Pizza Face. No one was going to call this guy margherita. He barged the fire-doors and strolled out onto the terrace, lighting and puffing on a cigarette, blowing smoke into a blue sky.

I typed the words out. They’ll not find her. I stared at them, forgetting my story, forgetting my deadline. When the tune for the grabbing machine kicked in, or Clifford the Dog or whatever, I tilted to my left on the pretence of tying a shoelace, to see if I could get a better look at them. The grey-haired one was facing me but didn’t see me. He was talking into his phone but was too distant and his words were obscured by nickelodeon music. I started typing. When I looked up I saw ponytail had gone. His cigarette lay where he dropped it, smoking among the gravel and windswept leaves. Grey coat pushed through the double doors to the car park. And then they were gone.

George was mopping the corner of the courtyard. I beckoned him over. ‘Those fellas,’ I said. He shrugged, twisting the mop head. George was Portuguese but wouldn’t share his real name. He said English people were terrible at saying it. He was the utility man of the services team. He mopped floors, cleaned the courtyard fountain, fixed the chairs and parasols, and got cars going on winter mornings with his jump leads. He patrolled the site on smoking breaks, seemingly lost in thought but I knew he never missed a trick. ‘Two big men. One had a grey coat.’

‘Yeah, I see them.’

‘Do you know them?’

George grinned. ‘They’ve been in before.’

‘What car do they drive?’

George leaned on the mop handle. He whistled through his teeth as if it was a big ask. ‘Silver Merc. Nineteen plate,’ he said. ‘Other fella has a Range Rover.’ George was staring at me. ‘Did they say something to make you sad?’

I leaned in, lowering my voice. I didn’t want to say too much until I was sure of myself. ‘They were arranging something. Bad things.’

A grin flashed across George’s face. He shook his head. ‘He’s in sales. I’ve seen him have meetings here.’

‘I haven’t.’

George shrugged. ‘You get lost in writing, thinking. I can mop round your feet and you hardly notice me.’

‘Something bad was happening.’

George propped his mop against the wall, dragged out a chair and sat down. ‘You come here how often?’ He answered before I could. ‘Three, sometimes four times a week. This is your little hideaway, but we all know you’re here. Perhaps they know you are here too.’

‘You think they were doing it on purpose?’

‘Having fun Mr Saxby, that’s all. Maybe they know you are the Great Writer, and they are supplying you with your next story.’

‘Maybe,’ I said, but I didn’t believe it. I decided I’d give the services a rest for a few days.

I woke at three with a start, next door’s Rottweiler set off barking by the foxes up on the ridge. I couldn’t sleep after that, so went downstairs and dropped onto the couch with a glass of water. I got out my laptop, signing in before it drained of charge and scanning the notes I’d typed.

They’ll not find her. 947am. M6 Services. CCTV? One drives a silver Merc, the other a Range Rover.

I’d added descriptions of them. I typed kidnap and abduction and did a local search, but nothing came up that was recent. The nearest was a body found in mid-Wales with the detective leading the search appealing for information to identify a woman ‘believed to be in her 40s.’ I guessed the poor woman was in a grim state of decomposition if they were hoping to ID her through a charm bracelet and pink cotton blouse.

The story did nothing to quell my fears. Had the two men acted last night, after I’d overheard them? Perhaps it was too early for news. What if the person they’d snatched hadn’t been reported missing yet? Or they had no one to report them missing? I’d have to do something. Thankfully, fifteen years in local journalism wasn’t entirely wasted. You build up your contacts.

Crawling…

Clive Petrie sat on the bench outside the Shire Hall. He wore tinted glasses, a tweed hat and the kind of oatmeal slacks and jacket you’d find in the Sunday supplements. A fisherman involved in espionage. Those who wouldn’t know Clive would’ve thought he was dozing but I knew what he was doing. ‘Shoplifters. Just come in on the train. Look at them.’ He spoke through the side of his mouth without turning to acknowledge me. I don’t know what he did to relax. Retirement was killing him. ‘What’s the problem?’ he asked.

‘You’ll say it’s nothing. That it’s daft.’

Clive hadn’t taken his stare off the group. I saw some east Europeans queuing for steak bakes. Clive saw organised crime groups, stripping shelves of Christian Dior and Chanel No.5. ‘Don’t give me the chance I can’t say, can I?’ he muttered.

I waited for his full attention and outlined everything I’d seen and heard that morning. He took off his glasses, huffed on them and wiped them with a handkerchief. ‘The problem you’ve got is hearing fragments of the conversation, isn’t it?’

‘I didn’t think you’d believe me.’

‘You asked for an opinion and I’ve given it. I wasn’t there but going on what you’ve said I reckon you misheard them.’

‘I know what they said.’

Clive replaced his glasses. I caught my reflection in the lenses and didn’t like what I saw. ‘Yes, but you don’t have any context. They could’ve been chatting about something perfectly innocent. They could’ve been talking about wives or girlfriends. She’s out shopping. They’ll not find her. You know the sort of thing.’ Clive tried to look sympathetic. ‘Do you know how many calls we used to get like this?’ I shook my head. ‘Hundreds every year and that’s just on our patch. God knows what it’s like now with social media. You know, people mess about and fool around and sometimes they do mean stuff like that when they say it. But it’s just talk. Have you never said you could kill someone or felt like wringing their neck?’

‘Hasn’t everyone?’

‘But aloud? You get my point. Hold on, we’re off.’ The first of the Romanians had shuffled into Boots. None of the others followed, preferring to eat their pasties out of the biting wind. I didn’t see what harm they were causing or what service Clive thought he was providing.

‘They met at a services though, didn’t they?’

‘Ah, so it’s all about the location.’

‘It’s a bit dodgy, isn’t it?’

‘No, not really.’ Clive’s knees creaked as he got to his feet. ‘Make a story of it. Or just forget it,’ he said. ‘That’s my advice.’

Two days I kept away until escaping the hammering of plasterboard tacks got the better of me. Anna said she’d bring my latte over. ‘I know where to find you.’

‘I don’t always sit there.’ The corner of her mouth twitched. ‘George in?’

‘Not till Thursday.’

I opened up my laptop and began to type ‘kidnap’ in the search bar. The screen flickered and dimmed. My battery was running on dregs again, less than ten per cent. I rummaged through my bag, but there was no sign of my charger. It was at home or had maybe fallen out in the car. Anna set my latte down and asked what I was writing. ‘Sorry to be a pain, but could you keep an eye on my stuff?’

‘Sure,’ Anna said. And added, ‘if you’re quick.’

‘Two mins. Promise.’ I jogged out of the main entrance, dodging a junior football team in their shiny tracksuits. The car park was busy, and I had to wait for an old woman to reverse park tightly between two people carriers when she could’ve had six spaces to herself just a few strides away. I stepped onto the crossing as a silver car shot around the side of a minibus almost hitting me. I raised a heel and turned sidewards instinctively, like a footballer in a free-kick wall about to be struck by a thunderous shot. It was a silver Merc. The driver waved a fist and swore at me and as he leaned forward over his dashboard. I recognised the man in the grey coat. I clocked the plate. Three letters and three numbers. A private plate. I made a rhyme of them so I wouldn’t forget. He took off his sunglasses and I ran off, nipping between tightly parked cars and vans. I glanced back and saw his Mercedes shoot off past the trailers and vans. I watched him till he’d disappeared between the gap in the conifers. I should get away before he came back. I should shoot off, but I didn’t have my laptop.

I jogged across to my car, checked the footwell and beneath the seats and the seat pockets, but I couldn’t find the stupid thing. I had enough useless chargers for phones and laptops to make a spaghetti of plastic leads. I clicked and opened the boot, knowing I hadn’t been in the boot for weeks, so it wasn’t going to be there. I just try to rule places out when I’m looking for something; it’s like a system. I lifted the boot and was leaning in, poking past the petrol can and tatty AA road atlas when I heard a boot scrape. A sole on gravel, like a match striking. I turned as something struck my neck. I stumbled forward but someone caught me. Hands gripped tight under my armpits. I got a whiff of something sharp, lemony. My knees buckled and I was lifted and tipped and the car park and the trees and the sky span. I remember lying on my side, but I don’t remember anything else.

Anna checked her phone. Two minutes? He’d been five already and she wasn’t paid for minding bags and laptops. She glanced over to the main door and seeing there was no sign of Mr Saxby she snapped his laptop shut, slid it into his case and cleared his things. She asked her manager, Greta, what to do and was told to put the things in a bag in the cleaning cupboard. ‘I hope he’s alright. It’s not like him.’

‘I’m sure he can look after himself.’

Two coaches came in, and then some football fans, so they got busier, and Anna was told to ‘jump to it’ and she forgot all about Mr Saxby’s things. She forgot to label them too, which would delay things even further when the police called for them six days later. When the digital forensics team accessed the laptop, they found notes of a conversation in a document he’d created, but they didn’t mean much. They’ll not find her. They knew Tim Saxby was a writer and dismissed the document as prelim notes for a story or piece he was working on.

Kids were playing near a flooded quarry in Derbyshire, some thirty miles to the east, when they spotted something shiny in the murky waters. One of them threw stones and got a metallic sound. Despite the weeds and debris, they made out a car just beneath the surface. It hadn’t been there the week before and they called police. It was Tim Saxby’s car, but he wasn’t inside it. The national newspapers reported on the mystery of a missing writer, suggesting his fate could’ve been similar to one of the stories he penned.

Three days before the car was found a woman was let out of a van in the Staffordshire Moorlands. She tripped in the grass verge, leggy and exhausted, and sat down, sheltering against a drystone wall. She was pale, her long blonde locks dirty and greasy and her skinny jeans filthy with rust and grit. She’d lost weight and she was sobbing. She’d been given a chocolate bar and a bottle of mineral water and told which way to walk. There hadn’t been proper food and she was light-headed and suffering cramp. She took her shoes off to walk, carrying them despite the frost. She crouched and wiped her ankle with a dock leaf, where it was sore and swollen. She’d scratched it, so a thin red stripe ran into the rose tattoo. She stared up at the golden ball of sun obscured by the cloud. She wore YSL sunglasses, and a jacket cropped above the waist that seemed to be made of eagle’s feathers. She was an odd sight for anyone who might’ve been walking or cycling the lane that morning. She could’ve tottered out of a city nightclub if the nearest one wasn’t thirty miles away.

She was crying because she was free and no longer – perhaps for the first time in her life – cared how she looked. She’d been kept in a cellar and had lost track of the days without a watch and a phone, listening to drips in the darkness or the scrape of the bolt in the door. As she stood leaning on the weathered fingerpost at the bottom of the lane an immaculate black car pulled up. They didn’t pip the horn or say anything, not wanting to alarm her. The back door opened, and she saw her husband. He jumped out and hugged her. He cried too. She’d never seen him cry before. ‘I hope you’re not crying about the money,’ she sobbed.

‘Don’t be so bloody daft.’ A policeman helped her into the back where she was wrapped in a blanket. An ambulance was on standby, where it wouldn’t be seen, to check her out. All had been prearranged. Nothing would be written about this. There would be no newspaper stories. The woman was returned. She could give no description but was sure there were two men. A mask had been pulled over her head and she’d caught something. A scent. Did they say anything? No, they’d been careful not to talk. But he wore a strong scent. Citrussy. She rubbed her ankle where she’d been scratched. ‘They took a photo of my tattoo, didn’t they? The police officer said it had been to prove it was her, that she was captive. They’d held her foot as they’d done it and she’d kicked out, blindfolded, and one of them had grunted and dug his nails in. She was safe now, but she’d prayed for hours in that cellar. Prayed that someone out there would see or hear something and help her. Everyone in the car, except her, thought she’d been lost. Something had rattled the men who took her, but no one knew what.

Left Luggage – a short story

Left Luggage

They found a suitcase behind a wall in our house. Bound up with parcel string, it was wedged tight against the chimney breast, cobwebbed, and caked in brick dust. It had been walled in behind plasterboard that was tacked to the ancient beams. The board was papered over with woodchip and brushed with a slap of dripping emulsion. All my fault. I’d invited them in.

I couldn’t remember a time when the wall hadn’t been there. God knows how old the case was. It was tartan-patterned and could’ve been a child’s toy. But the parcel string that criss-crossed it, holding it together with granny knots and reef knots, suggested something was held within it. The tartan was a pattern like a skirt I’d been made to wear for Sunday school – post-box red with navy and straw lines – but I was sure that it wasn’t mine. I sniffed and drew in damp, mustiness, a lingering trace of lavender.

I should never have called the workmen in. I could hear Cecil’s voice now. ‘What did you want to do that for? Stupid bloody tart. You know what happens now, don’t you?’

We’d had problems before when we’d used a local firm. They knew the reputation of Outlands and they’d taken photos of the rooms and staircase, even posing for selfies by the tree stump. Cecil swore blind they’d taken some of our ornaments as trophies, but he was such a hoarder I don’t know how he could remember what was here and what wasn’t.

I’d tried to assess the old place, room at a time, wondering how we were going to see our way through another winter. I’d started with the back bedroom and spotted patches of damp, seen that the paper had begun to peel away and the plaster beneath was crumbling. So, I got the builders in. I was careful not to pick a local firm but, yes, I’d started all this. I should’ve known better.

That afternoon, crashing out after a late, late shift I was sprawled out on the settee, headphones on, cushions shoved against my face, trying to drown out the hammering and scraping from the back bedroom. Drilling, then sawing, then stomping about and crowbarring floorboards off creaking beams. Three of them managing to sound like an invading army. The foreman it was, Mick, who’d tapped my foot giving me a start. I tugged the headphones off, so they clamped round my neck and I sat bolt upright. I hated anyone touching my feet. ‘What,’ I said, sharply. I held the cushion like a shield in case my dressing gown rode up and gave him a flash.

            ‘Sorry luv. I did knock.’ Mick was a gentleman and didn’t let his gaze drop, though I’d caught him clocking my black-painted toenails in the kitchen. He’d shaken his head at me shuffling about, bare soles slapping the red tiled floor. ‘You’ll catch your death, petal.’

‘I don’t do slippers. I’m not ready for dying yet,’ I’d told him.

            ‘Bit of a delay,’ he said. ‘I need you to look at something.’

Mick’s face was pinkish as if he’d shaved and stood in the wind. He was the hipflask type, tot of scotch in his builder’s tea to keep off the chill. He wore a dusty, padded checked shirt stuffed with receipts and bookie’s pencils. I pulled my heels to my bum, tucking my dressing gown tight as a drumskin and picking at a cornflake that had stuck to the towelling fabric.

            ‘You’ll have to tell us what you want to do,’ he said and set off, jogging up the stairs, not waiting for me to follow. ‘It’s not the electrics again, is it?’ I called after him. The wiring at Outlands might’ve been put in by Thomas Edison. Any more than a hairdryer and a kettle on the go and the lights flickered and shorted out. ‘You need to come and have a look.’ I tugged at my dressing gown as I climbed the stairs, tying the cord tight. I felt like a proper lazy bitch, in my bedclothes, with my bed-hair, in the afternoon. I wanted to put on some joggers, a sweater, at least pull a brush through my hair. ‘You need to come now,’ Mick said. ‘Tell us what to do.’ He’d paused on the landing, resting a hand on the newel post. I didn’t like his tone. Serious, I thought.

            ‘I’m coming, I’m coming,’ I said.

I should’ve known there’d be bother. We didn’t have the cash to fix up the back bedroom, but it was my idea we could tart it up, rent it out for a few quid. Mick had been in the game for donkey’s years and his brief assessment, with hands on his hips and sucking his teeth, was to knock the wall through and create a bit more space. Then he’d sort the damp. ‘In here, look,’ he said. It felt odd being invited into one of our own rooms, but then I’d rarely been into the back bedroom. I always found it cold, damp, unsettling. A full-length mirror stood in the corner, black-spotted and blurry with condensation. Or perhaps Cecil had smeared something on it to protect it. Thickly varnished floorboards bowed in the middle of the room like the hold of a ship. Patches on the ceilings and walls had gone the colour of old maps. Stiff chocolate-brown and orange curtains hung from a plastic rail and I’d left them, so I didn’t have to see outside.

The back bedroom looked out upon what was left of the woods. On the bank opposite, beyond the gorse and the brambles, was the stump. It was there that I’d stumbled, wrenching my knee, as I ran from Craig Moffatt. Tangled in the roots of that stump, had been a skull. I didn’t know what it was and could only see a pale, smooth patch of bone poking through the black soil. I’d dug deeper and put my fingers through an eye socket.

            ‘You won’t see from there, petal. You’ll need to come in.’

Mick frowned at Gary’s use of ‘petal’ even though he was always doing it himself (perhaps it was a rank thing) but I wasn’t bothered. I was clinging to the doorframe, leaning in, as if I might be able to see that way. The room was bare, all gone except for the cloudy mirror. I’d thrown what little furniture was left, after breaking it up with a claw hammer. I’d chucked it into a pile in the yard, doused it with some petrol I’d found in the outhouse and watched black smoke drift towards the motorway as the sun set. Cecil had no use for the petrol since his old Jag had gone to the scrapyard. It’d sat there rusting on bricks for years. Gary and Pete – I think the other one was called – were crouching over something. They both wore heavy workmen’s boots which looked at odds with their shorts and yellow hi-vis. Gary pointed at a break in the plasterboard. He’d put a hammer or maybe a boot through it, but it was powdery and shot through with damp. I clasped my dressing gown to my chest and stooped to see whatever I was meant to be looking at. Gary pointed his phone at it, so the lit screen picked out a small, white plastic handle and a tartan pattern.

            ‘Some sort of case,’ Pete said.

            ‘Strange place to go on your holidays,’ Gary said, grinning.

            ‘I got them to put it back,’ Mick said, glaring at him. ‘Till you were here.’

My scalp prickled. They know about the house, I thought. They know all about its reputation and its past. ‘Drag it out then,’ I said. I’d no idea why they’d take it out and slot it back. Perhaps Mick wanted me to see exactly how they’d found it. I wasn’t getting on hands and knees in front of that lot in a dressing gown. Gary reached in, where he’d shone the phone and tugged at the handle. He got three fingers looped around it, unable to fit his whole hand through. The case scraped on the brick dust and boards as he dragged it and set it down at my knees.

            ‘Someone did not want anyone getting in there, did they?’

I didn’t catch it, but Mick gave Gary another look that silenced him. I swallowed back dust. Outside it was a dull, wet afternoon but what weak, retreating sunlight there was picked out the stump in a wash of yellow and grey. Do you know anything about this? I sat down on my heels, screwing my eyes tight, shutting it out.

            ‘You OK, luv?’ Pete said.

I coughed to clear my throat. ‘I expect it’s something of Cecil’s,’ I said. ‘Proper bloody hoarder, you know the type.’ Mick nodded. Gary and Pete were decent enough to get up and go for a smoke. I watched them make their way down the stairs, patting pockets in search of tobacco tins and papers. They hadn’t got as far as the hallway before they were muttering.

            ‘Oh yeah, watch that. It’ll break else,’ Mick said. He pointed at a silver chain and locket which had got trapped in the case as it’d been snapped shut. ‘I’ll give you a few minutes. Shout up when you’re ready.’ Mick handed me a blade for the parcel string. I watched him make his way down the stairs and listened for the tinkle of cups on the draining board, the clank of the pipes.

I should’ve waited for Cecil. I’d have to tell Mick not to mention it to him. Far as Mick was concerned I was paying. I took a deep breath, held out my trembling fingers. I took the knife and snuck out the blade. I ran a fingertip over the tartan pattern. The case was dented here and there, scratched with brick-dust. I cut the first piece of string and it twanged it had been pulled so tight. I stabbed and cut at the others until a cat’s cradle of parcel string lay beneath the case. My heart was pounding. I closed the bedroom door. Outside on the crazy paving, the men were smoking, hands clasped around mugs of orange tea. Mick glanced up, and seeing me, looked away. I knew they were talking about me.

A child’s case, almost a toy. That meant it didn’t belong to him, thank Christ. I got the blade inside the case and levered it against the lock. The blade slipped, and I had to crook my elbow into my hip to drive it in and twist till the lock came away from the case. I slumped back against the wall, light-headed with the effort. I opened the case, flipping the lid back against the wall. What did I expect to find? Clothes were neatly folded. A mohair sweater and a topaz dress that smelt fusty but shimmered like a peacock’s feathers when I draped it over my arm. I rummaged through the musty clothes. There were no labels, nothing so convenient as a driving licence or passport. Not even a receipt. Mick called to see how I was doing and, as I got to my feet, I kicked the locket and it slid beneath the boards, dragging the slender silver chain with it. I’d need a story for the builders. Cecil had made me promises he hadn’t kept. The suitcase meant there’d been at least one more victim.

Wandering/Wondering

I haven’t posted for some time. I’ve been busy with work and other things and sometimes feel I’ve let things slip a little. I’m plagued by guilt whenever I’m not writing.

But I’ve 11 short stories out there in either competitions or submissions so perhaps I shouldn’t be so hard on myself. There’s also always the doubt I’m focusing my creative efforts in the right area too.

I’d love to complete a bigger project but that’s on the back burner while I develop ideas and rest awhile. Hopefully I get my usual annual desire for a project in autumn.

In the meantime I’m listening to lots of good music and reading a lot (currently loving Craig Brown’s Beatles biog One Two Three Four). And thinking about my next project. Im lucky to have these views while I walk Bruce and think….

Late Turn in Lockdown

It is hoped we are turning a corner with the vaccines, but it’s not so long ago we had little or no understanding what might happen. This is a fictional account of a shift for two police officers in the early days of Covid19…..

Late Turn in Lockdown

First up: A fight in a supermarket. Control were desperate for takers. Pete winked at his partner and radioed in. ‘It’s your lucky day. We just pulled up right outside.’ A security guy in a clingy nylon sweater was frantically gesturing to them from the doorway. ‘By the cornflakes. It’s kicking off big time,’ he said, breathlessly. Pete raised an eyebrow at Tommo. Don’t say it.

            ‘Could be a cereal killer.’

But the kerfuffle was by the detergents, not the bran flakes. Two men pushing and shoving each other. One had a footballer’s haircut and designer jeans, with all those tears and zips at odd angles. The other bloke was out of puff, his tie knot dangling down at his gut. He saw Tommo and stood back, tripping over a shelf. He clutched a four-pack of economy toilet rolls tight to his chest. ‘Put them back,’ Pete said.

            ‘I had them first.’

Pete snatched the toilet rolls, giving them to an old woman who grinned and shoved them in her trolley.

            ‘Both of you need to take a good look at yourselves,’ Tommo said. ‘What’s happening to this country?’

            ‘Search me,’ Pete said.

The second call of the shift was a bloke ratting on his neighbours for sharing a hot tub with half the street. Word was it was the local councillor, but it turned out to be a hoax. They were driving to their next job – a bloke who’d been robbed – when Tommo asked: ‘Did Emma say anything?’

Emma had severe asthma. Pete had tried not to think about it. What if he brought the virus home? When he didn’t answer, Tommo said: ‘Shell wants me to go sick.’

Control interrupted them, asking if anyone could drive by Rossiter Street. A bloke was selling bottles of hand sanitiser, twenty quid a pop, from a table on the pavement. The call was cancelled when the salesman did a runner. ‘Clean getaway,’ Tommo said.

They pulled up at the end of the arcade, a deserted and windswept expanse of crumbling concrete. They were thinking it was their second hoax call of the shift when a man trailing a bandage from his head, staggered down the steps from the old Woolworth’s. ‘This our fella?’ The man rested on a wall. He was barefoot, his soles and heels black with filth. He wore shiny tracksuit bottoms and a tweed jacket, which hung open over a pale, bony chest. He took a can of lager from somewhere, tilted back his head and swigged at it. ‘It’s not getting to him, is it?’

            ‘What isn’t?’

            ‘The stress of lockdown.’

A woman in a grubby pink dressing gown appeared at the top of the steps, shaking her fist. ‘The missus,’ Pete said.

The fella with the can took another swig, turned, and scowled at her, before trudging off.

‘Let’s scoot. Fancy something to eat?’ Tommo said.

Pete was watching her. ‘What’s she got in her hand?’

            ‘How should I know?’

Pete saw a glint and ran from the car. He shouted for her to stop and she turned and clocked his uniform, her face full of hate. She had a kitchen knife in her left hand, all but the last few inches of blade concealed in her sleeve. ‘Drop it’ Pete said. She took a step toward him and hissed like a goose, but the knife slipped from her hand and clattered on the flagstones. Pete told her she was under arrest for carrying a blade. He cuffed her and led her back toward the car. The bloke in the tweed jacket was raging, so Tommo told him to wind his neck in.

‘What’s your name?’ Pete asked. He saw it coming but was too slow to react. She drew it up from her throat with a rattle and gobbed. He felt it smack against his cheek and drip from his nose. It stung his eyes. ‘I got the corona,’ she said, giving him a gap-toothed grin.

Pete didn’t have a spit guard, so he turned her and held her, temple pressed against the car. Fury made him grip hard. Spitting was filthy. Spitting was deadly now, too. That’s what people were saying. He could’ve yanked a fistful of her hair and slammed that leering face into the bonnet, but he’d never been that kind of cop.

            ‘I said I got the virus,’ she hissed. There was an Asda carrier bag on the back seat and yes, he was tempted to pull that over her head. He wondered if she really was infected. If he’d have to isolate from Emma, sleep in the spare bed. He yanked open the car door and shoved her inside. He was straightening up when he saw an old woman waving from across the road. ‘Come inside and wash yourself, luv.’

She’d been tending to a hanging basket. He thought he knew her. She led him into a downstairs toilet and told him to wash. There was a bar of yellow coal tar soap. It nipped at a cut on his knuckles. She handed him a towel, seeing the worry in his face. ‘It’s a virus luv. Nothing a dash of bleach won’t sort out.’

He dabbed at his sopping fringe. She was the woman he’d given the toilet rolls to. She offered him tea, but he said he should wait with his prisoner. She smiled at that word. ‘Nasty piece of work,’ she said. ‘Don’t know how you cope.’ She brought two steaming mugs of tea out, for him and Tommo, and a plate of biscuits, and set them down on the wall. Pete sipped his tea, wondering what he’d say to Emma, what to do for the best. The woman in the filthy dressing gown was mouthing swear words at them through the rear window.

            ‘It won’t last more than a few weeks,’ Tommo said.

            ‘How do you know?’

 Tommo shrugged, dunking a biscuit in his tea. He held up his steaming mug and winked at their tea-maker. ‘We do this for people like her. Anyway, this’ll blow over. We’ll be wondering what the fuss is about in a few months.’