Authors: Faith Martin
t twelve minutes past eight that Tuesday morning, two people closed the front door behind them, and set out to face another day. Both had appointments with murder, though in very different capacities. One was Detective Constable Keith Barrington, who’d just left his temporary digs in Summertown, a suburb of Oxford, and the other was Caroline Weekes, a wife, wannabe mother, and PA to the owner of a local coal merchant. She lived in a small, privately owned semi in King’s End in the small market town of Bicester. Neither knew the other, but both, for vastly different reasons, faced the day with a certain amount of trepidation.
DC Barrington nodded pleasantly to the owner of a small newspaper shop as he passed him on the way to where he’d parked his ten-year-old banger just off a nearby slip road, and received a brief smile in reply. The early December morning was still dark and he was glad of the orange glare of a street light as he reached for his car keys and fumbled for the lock. The sky was full of ominous dark clouds, and a chilly wind brought with it the first spatter of raindrops. He ducked quickly into the shelter of his car and reached for the seat belt.
When he pulled out onto the main road, the rush hour traffic was already building up, but since he was travelling out of the suburbs rather than into the city proper, he was going against the tide, and the roads on his side were almost clear. Something, he thought with a pang of nostalgia, that would never happen back in London. There, the rush hour clogged every artery at every point of the compass regardless, bringing gridlock and road rage for nearly three solid hours, and as he drove towards Thames Valley’s Police Headquarters in Kidlington, he tried to fool himself that he was enjoying the sensation of being a fish swimming against the tide, that it was a perk, or at least a pleasant change in circumstances that anyone with even half a brain would be pleased to accept. He didn’t quite succeed. Even though he never quite left the signs of suburbia behind him on the short commute, there were still too many bare-twigged trees, too much greenery hovering at the edges, reminding him that he was out in the sticks. Rural Oxfordshire lurked, never far away, never out of mind. For a boy who’d been born and raised in the mighty blight of a capital city, the sight of a grazing horse in a small paddock just before he got to the Kidlington roundabout hit him with a jolt of culture shock that made him miss his gear change.
As he filed into the traffic heading down Kidlington’s main road, he tried to remember the last time it had been his ‘first day’ at a new nick, but it was too many moons ago now to be clear in his memory. He’d entered the police force straight after he’d finished his A levels, joining his local nick and staying there until his abrupt and ignominious departure last month, after more than seven years of exemplary service. An image flashed into his mind of his snarling, jeering DS, but he quickly thrust it away. Far better to remember the sincere sympathy of his friends, and the atmosphere of resentment that had pervaded the once-friendly nick on his behalf when it became clear that he wasn’t going to be allowed to stay on.
Of course, not everyone had been on his side – most of the brass seemed to think he was bloody lucky to keep his position of DC at all, and not be demoted back down into uniform. Or even prosecuted. But there would have been one hell of a stink if they’d tried that on, Keith thought with some satisfaction, and then caught sight of his defiant grin in the driving mirror. Quickly, he wiped it off. He hadn’t met his new DI yet, but he was damned sure a cocky grin wouldn’t go down too well.
As his dad had kept on saying only last weekend, as he’d helped his son move his stuff from the East End of London to the rarefied suburb of the university city, he needed to keep his head down and play it clever. Maybe even eat humble pie for a while, if need be. But most of all to think of it as a new start and a new chance to shine.
Ever since joining the force, Keith had been determined to get out of uniform and start doing some real detective work. Locking up the bastards who preyed on ordinary decent folk, like his own mum and dad. To actually make a difference to some poor sod’s quality of life, by collaring hooligans and vandals, who specialized in tyrannizing the elderly or young. The fact he could still feel that way, even after how he’d been treated back at Blacklock Green, was, he supposed, at least something. He hadn’t let that bastard of a sergeant wear him down completely.
He carefully kept an eye on the buildings leading off on his right, remembering from his brief orientation interview last week that the HQ was situated nearly halfway down the main road, not far from a big comprehensive school. Spotting the large signpost at last just outside a narrow access road, Keith indicated and pulled in, but struggled to find a parking space.
His shift didn’t officially start until 8.30, and he had a good ten minutes to spare, but it didn’t do to be late on his first day.
As he climbed out of the car, he wondered yet again what his new boss was going to be like. Detective Inspector Hillary Greene. He’d done the usual asking around, of course, but information had been sketchy. Not many of his still-loyal mates back at Blacklock Green knew much about Thames Valley. So what he’d managed to glean had been mostly trawled from the Internet, scuttlebutt and guesswork. His friends had ribbed him a bit about working for a woman, but Keith thought it might not be such a bad thing. He certainly didn’t think he had any hang-ups about taking orders from a woman, unlike some. Who knows, it might even work out.
As he walked towards the entrance and pushed through the door, he thought, fatalistically, that she could hardly be worse than the last bastard he’d worked for.
About ten miles away, Caroline Weekes walked down her short, concrete pathway, and pushed open her garden gate. She was a tall woman, with short dark hair and large chocolate-coloured eyes, and wore a long beige Burberry, belted tightly against the wind and threatening rain. The neighbour’s cat, a large fat ginger tom, spotted her coming and jumped up onto the top of the neat brick garden wall that surrounded her property and arched his back, already anticipating the warm caress of her hand. The sight of the friendly moggy lifted her vague sense of depression and brought a smile to her face.
‘Hey there, Spartacus. Not been after the sparrows, I hope?’ She stroked the hard, furry head that butted into her palm with typical cat-like ecstasy, and listened to the loud rumbling purr. Every morning she left for work, and more often than not, had to pay the cat the usual toll. She smiled at her neighbour who was climbing into his car, then gave the cat a final chuck under the chin and moved off down the road. She usually caught the bus at the end of the street, since she only worked in the market square and it never seemed worth the bother to take the second car. Once at the bottom of the road, however, she crossed over at the corner and after a short while, veered off the pavement to enter a little cul-de-sac of council houses.
Caroline was thirty-nine, but managed, with a strict exercise regime and careful dieting, to look much younger. A flair for clothes and an expert hand with make-up also helped, and her short bob of brown hair was always maintained in a careful cut. Those who knew her had never been able to understand why her first husband had left her for, of all people, his rather overweight secretary. Caroline had felt proud of herself for taking it more or less in her stride and had promptly divorced him, then re-trained as a secretary herself. She had taken a job as a humble secretary and admin assistant in Johnson Coal, but was now, three short years later, PA to the man himself. She had also remarried just recently, to a man ten years her junior, who was an up-and-coming ‘something’ in advertising, working out of an office in High Wycombe.
Anyone watching the attractive brunette walking down the street on that cold and wet December morning might have supposed that she was a woman who’d taken life by the throat and shaken it into a position that suited her.
They would have been wrong.
As she walked to number 18, in the rather grandly named Holburn Crescent, Caroline Weekes was a woman with plenty on her mind. She felt slightly sick for a start, but knew that it was probably only the new pills her specialist had put her on last week. She felt cold, maybe because she’d started her period that morning – a circumstance that had in itself filled her with a deep sense of gloom. Soon she’d have to start on the treatments, and a vague sense of terror momentarily paralysed her. What if they didn’t work? She bit her lip and told herself to get a grip. Take things one step at a time.
She sighed, glancing up at the house in front of her. For over five years now, she’d been dropping into number 18, usually with some shopping, sometimes with a box of biscuits or other treats. Hers and Flo Jenkins’ was an odd sort of friendship, and most people took it for granted that the youthful, successful Caroline was merely playing the good Samaritan to a 76-year-old who needed a helping hand. It wasn’t as one-sided as that, though, and many was the time that Caroline had sat at Flo’s kitchen table, pouring out her various woes, and slowly feeling better.
‘Hello, love, nice weather for ducks innit?’ The cheerful voice of the woman across the street, picking up a milk bottle, made her jump.
‘Certainly is,’ she said with a wry smile, as the first of the raindrops began to splatter down. Not wanting to get her shoulders damp and cold, she half ran up the path to the shelter of Flo’s meagre porch and rang the bell.
Back in Kidlington, Keith Barrington looked across the expanse of the lobby and instantly caught the eye of the curious desk sergeant. There was no getting around him, of course, and taking a deep breath, deciding it was best to just get it over with, he walked on over.
‘Searge,’ he said pleasantly. ‘DC Barrington. I’m looking for DI Greene’s billet?’
The desk sergeant’s face tightened, and Keith felt his heart sink. So it was beginning already. It had been too much to hope, of course, that the plods out here in the sticks hadn’t heard the rumours that must have been seeping out of Blacklock Green. He only hoped they were halfway accurate, but the fact that he’d be painted as black as possible was far more likely to be the case.
‘Oh, so you’re the lad then,’ the desk sergeant said heavily, confirming Keith’s worst fears. He was the usual type for the breed, middle-aged, with a comfortable middle-aged spread and that certain smugness that comes with someone who’s been on the job for over twenty years and has earned their stint out of the firing line.
Keith met the curious, watery blue eyes with a slightly stiffened back and met the gaze head on. ‘DC Keith Barrington,’ he repeated expressionlessly. He tensed even further as he felt someone behind him, and turned quickly to see another of the breed closing in. Of course, the day shift was just coming in to replace the owl watch.
‘Morning Cliff,’ the present incumbent said, lifting the hatch and moving around to make room. ‘Quiet night, nothing to worry about. This here’s Hillary’s new recruit,’ he added by way of introduction.
The other man nodded at him as he glanced down at the log book. ‘She’ll be glad to get the extra help I reckon,’ the newcomer said amiably enough. ‘Her last DC left in the summer. Got married and moved to Headington. Not sure which fate is worst,’ he added, and his crony gave a loud laugh. ‘She was supposed to get someone right away, but you know how it is. Now her DS is leaving too – another one getting married. Must be a bloody epidemic up there.’
Keith smiled, just to show willing. They were obviously going to have their say, so he might as well get his licks in as well, just to test the waters. ‘I was told at orientation that there are two DS’s in her team. Bit unusual that, isn’t it?’
The two desk sergeant’s shot each other a knowing grin. ‘Ah, but DS Ross doesn’t count,’ one of them said succinctly.
‘Oh,’ Keith said warily. Just what the hell was that supposed to mean? Was he a burn-out, or a booze hound or what?
‘You know what I was thinking the other day?’ the night-shift sergeant mused, with all the subtlety of a mating moose. ‘That time Hill arrested that drug-dealing toerag off that canal barge.’
His oppo grinned widely. ‘Oh yeah, I remember that too. Running away up the tow path he was, dodging all the uniforms like a scrum half at Twickenham. Bowling over beefy constables like they were nine pin bowling skittles.’
‘Then he comes to the bridge, and there’s only DI Greene stood there.’ The other one took up the tale with all the panache of a straight man playing off a long-established comedy partner. ‘Of course, he sees this woman in civvies stood there, and he thinks he’s got it made, right? Get past her and he can leg it into any of the side streets and disappear like a rat up a drainpipe.’
Keith Barrington could see the punchline coming a mile off, and patiently waited for it, neither smiling nor frowning.
‘So Hill just stands there, right, waiting for him to come to her, then lets off with a high kick right between the legs.’
‘He was nearly wearing his balls for earrings,’ the other man said, both of them laughing hard, but both of them watching him closely. Just to make sure he’d got the message.
Keith nodded shortly. ‘Sounds like she knows what she’s about,’ he said blandly.
The two older men nodded, catching each other’s eye, before the night-duty man shrugged. ‘Well, must be off. Supposed to be a match on Sky One this afternoon I wanna catch. See you, Ted.’
They both watched as he made his way to the door, then the newly arrived desk sergeant cleared his throat. ‘You’ll find your new boss is highly respected around here, laddie,’ he said flatly, all pretence at subtlety going out the window. ‘She’s well liked, and one of the best thief-takers and SIO’s in the business. Chief Superintendent Donleavy rates her.’ He paused, just to make sure it was all sinking in.
Keith Barrington nodded wearily. So the gloves were off already. Well, sod ’em. Sod ’em all. ‘Sounds like she can teach me a lot,’ he said flatly. ‘I’m looking forward to working for her.’