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Of Needles and Haystacks

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MIU was in chaos. Amid the piles of boxes and the floes of paperwork that covered every available surface, detectives and uniform moved from phones to computers. They worked methodically, professionally, but as they brushed past each other, they exchanged worried looks. Everyone s voice was low and grim, or tight with anxiety. There was no joking, no wise-cracks or teasing.


The bastards had the Guv.


The general hubbub was punctuated by occasional bulletins from one desk or another:

Weve got her on CCTV as far as the Tesco at the junction, but then we lose her. Camerasre bashed out along there, havent managed to pick her up again…”

Neighbours say the dog was barking when they drove past at seven…”

Weve got an ID! Traffic warden reported a suspicious character matching Liam Roches description…”




The last announcement was the one Matt Devlin and Ronnie Brooks had been waiting to hear. They headed for the doors at once, and were half way to the carpark before DS Rhys-Jones had finished giving her report.

 

---------

Eight Hours Earlier

---------

 

“Done and done, Ronnie Brooks said with satisfaction as he stuffed the last sheaf of paperwork into a manila folder. And another one bites the dust.

“Lets just hope CPS can get a conviction, replied Matt Devlin. His sports jacket was slung over the back of his chair and his shirt, Ronnie had been implying in various ways all morning, was too well-pressed by half for a bloke whod just wrapped a murder case.

“Two separate witnesses, motive and murder weapon? said Ronnie, counting the strengths of their case off on his fingers. In the bag, my son.

His partner snorted.

“Defense lawyerll probably argue that the Internet made him do it, or something, Matt countered. He watched Ronnie peel a sticker from the roll in the label-printer and handwrite the case number before sticking it to his own copy of the files. The internet - thats that thing where people talk to each other with computers, he explained, smirking. For the benefit of those present who still remember the age of the telegram with fondness.

It was a cheap shot, but Ronnies jabs about his clothes had been bugging Matt all day. He hadnt heard the door open or noticed they had company until a wry voice spoke behind him.

“I knew I took you on for a reason, Matt. Thank goodness we have you here to explain these things to us clapped-out old has-beens.

“Guv!

Matt turned around so quickly he knocked his jacket from the chair-back. DI Natalie Chandler was standing watching him, her narrow hips squared against on the edge of desk behind him. After three years working at MIU, Matt was getting the hang of his bosss repertoire of Looks. This one - eyebrows raised, lips pursed, arms folded - meant hed dug himself right into a hole, and his rope and ladder privileges had been rescinded pending review.

“I didnt mean- he began, but couldnt think of a way to finish the sentence without shoving his other foot into his mouth too.

“My addled wits just cant keep track of it all, can yours? Natalie asked, turning to DS Brooks.

“Dont know a MyBook from a Face-Space, me, said Ronnie happily.

Matt buried his head in his hands.

Happily, London’s crime rate granted him a reprieve. When DI Chandler spoke again she was all business.

“Youve got those files ready to go to James Steel? she asked, taking in the paperwork stacked around them. Excellent, we can drop them off on the way.

Brooks and Devlin groaned in unison.

“Tell me you mean on the way to help some sweet old lady whose cats got stuck up a tree, said Ronnie.

“Homicide,” said Chandler grimly. “Body was found in a packing crate in a warehouse. Get your coats.”

 

----

 

Ronnie grabbed an armful of newspapers, shopping bags, and other detritus from the back seat of his car and shoved them haphazardly into the boot. DI Chandler was leaning against the door frame on the passenger side. If she noticed the occasional old food wrapper which Ronnie s excavations uncovered she diplomatically didn t mention them. Instead, she flipped idly through his CD collection as they waited for Matt to carry down the last of the file boxes.

“I didnt know you were an Abba fan, Ronnie,” she said.

“Whats that?

Chandler held up a CD from the stack.

“Oh that, said Ronnie. Its my daughters. She left it in the CD player one day. I leave it playing, Matt spent the rest of the afternoon singing snatches of Dancing Queen.

“Comedy gold, his boss observed dryly.

“Gotta get your kicks where you can find em in this job, Guv.

“This is the last of them, said Matt as he arrived, slightly out of breath, carrying a box of folders. The DI gave him a nod of approval.

“Stick them in Ronnies car, Matt. She pointed at the newly cleared off seats. You can come with me in the Lexus.

Matt hefted the boxes into the car, shooting occasional looks of annoyance at his partner. Natalie watched him thoughtfully as he loaded up the car, then turned to DS Brooks, still holding the CD.

Do you mind if I borrow this?” she asked quietly.

Ronnie just grinned.

 

-------

 

The area around the warehouse was already filling up with all those people whose job it was to manage and sort the aftermath of a crime. Uniform patrolled the boundaries of the crime scene, and FSI were assessing the evidence to be collected. DI Chandler left them to go debrief the officer on duty.

“Thanks a lot, Ronnie, Matt grumbled as they crossed the police tape. “I cannot believe you told her that. And Im going to have that bloody music stuck in my head for the rest of the day.

“Maybe you could look up cures for Abba earworms on The Google,” his partner suggested without a trace of sympathy.

The inside of the warehouse came as a surprise. The walls were lined floor to ceiling with boxes of every shape and size. There were crates and cases from large electrical appliances stacked six-deep. On top of them, hundreds of smaller boxes formed pyramids reaching all the way up to the high iron roof. To one side, forensics experts were hovering around the open crate where the body had been found - discovered by a usefully nosy man walking his dog. Even from this distance Matt could get wafts of the smell which had caught the dogs attention.

A dark-haired PC crouching near the body rose and approached them when she saw them come in.

“Shot in the head,” the PC informed them. “You can have a look at the body in a minute, when the coroner’s done, but come over here first. Youre going to love this. She brought them to the nearest teetering pile of shoeboxes. The detectives looked down at identical boxes as she jabbed a finger at each in turn. Box One - assorted ballpoint pens. Box Two - 5 mil wing nuts. Box Three - half a kilo of cocaine. Box Four - Smurf keyrings.

“Cocaine? asked Ronnie. He lifted the lid with the end of his pencil. Sure enough, there was a Ziploc bag full of white powder in the third box. Was this marked?

“Not that we can see,” she answered. “Found it in the stack next to the crate. There are thousands of shoe boxes in here. Nothing to say what's in any of them.

Ronnie looked around the piles of boxes filling the warehouse. Needle in a haystack hardly seemed to cover it. They'd get sniffer dogs in to look for any more gear, but dogs couldn't fly and some of the stacks of boxes were almost twenty feet high. If there was some kind of system, they'd have a hell of a job finding it. There were no more corpses at least; they'd opened all the big crates. Some had more little boxes stacked inside. He had a feeling he'd see this place in his mind's eye the next time he found himself complaining about a lack of evidence.

The owner of the warehouse was being tracked down, they were told. In the meantime, the caretaker seemed the best place to start. By all accounts, he'd arrived just after the police did, and refused to leave or to offer any help, beyond telling them that his name was Cromley, and that he was ignorant of just about everything except the mess the forensic team were making of his warehouse. Ronnie and Matt found him lurking near the tape at the perimeter of the crime scene.

Matt mentally wrote up his stats. Caucasian. Mid to late fifties. 5 4 ”. 200 pounds. Glasses and hat make him look like a mole whose been hitting the worms too hard. As soon as Ronnie had introduced them both to him, Cromely launched into a stream of complaints, and Matt added extreme halitosis to the description.

“I know nothing about any of this, said Cromley. “How am I meant to do my job with you lot traipsing around? We've a delivery coming in at noon, you know. What am I meant to tell them, that's what I want to know."

“Do you recognise the victim? Matt asked sharply.

“I dont know him from Adam. I know nothing!

Matt opened his mouth to speak again, but Ronnie cut across him.

“Maybe you could just tell us exactly what it is you do here, yeah? Then we can see about letting you go home, he said kindly.

Cromley gave them a long look, magnified by his bottle-end glasses.

“I get word of the deliveries on the phone, he explained, jerking his head towards the corner of the room where a grubby telephone hung on the wall. I check my book here to make sure theyre expected. I make room for the deliveries, and Im here when they ship out again, and they have to sign the book. All above board. We store all sorts.

“Including hard drugs? asked Matt.

Cromley scowled and clammed up.

“I know nothing. I just work here, he repeated doggedly.

“Alright, Matt tried again, trying to keep the exasperation from his voice. What about all this stuff. He indicated the piles of boxes inside. Who are you storing it for?

Cromley looked at them suspiciously. He seemed to be expecting a trap. Ronnie smiled encouragingly.

“Theres nothing illegal about it, he began slowly. Sometimes when our clients collect their deliveries, they leave us a box or two. Appreciation for keeping things safe. I tell you, theyd lose more than that to sheer slipshod practices in some of the other warehouses round here. Thats not illegal. Thats just friendliness.

Both police officers looked back at the teetering mounds of friendly gifts in disbelief.

“Thank you, Mr Cromley. Well be in touch, said Ronnie.

Not going to get anything out of him yet, he said to Matt as Cromley sloped away. Matt nodded his agreement. They knew his type too well; until they had some real leverage, he’d lie to them out of simple peevishness.

Natalie Chandler came over to join them. “Were going to have to examine all of these boxes to see whats in them, she sighed. Have uniform stick as many of them as they can into the vans and well go through them at the station. No point wasting all our manpower down here. Itll give the people on desk duty something to do.

“Lucky them, Ronnie grinned .

 

------------------------

 

Loading up the vans (and once again filling Ronnies car) helped to make a dent in the warehouses inventory. DI Chandler gave some final instructions to those left behind to deal with the remainder, and was about to tell everyone else to wrap it up when there was a disturbance at the perimeter of the scene.

A tall woman dressed in an expensive looking coat and barking orders into a mobile phone barged through the police tape. As uniform tried to stop her, they found themselves confronted by her companion. The woman was tall, but the man with her was a giant. As Ronnie and Matt ran closer to head them off, they saw that his exposed arms and neck were covered in tattoos, and his face had so many piercings that Ronnie found himself wondering that his skin didn't tear like perforated paper.

"Oy! Excuse me. You can't come in here," Matt called.

The woman hung up her phone and cast him a withing look.

"This is my building; what have you done to it?" she asked. Her expression suggested that their mere presence was lowering her property's value.

"Miss Chivers is it?" Ronnie asked. He began to explain the circumstances around their investigation. Matt watched her face closely for a reaction. However, he didn't have much time to come to any conclusions. Ronnie had barely gotten as far as the discovery of the body when Chivers rolled her eyes, turned on her heel, and strode away, back across the police tape.

"Liam, deal with this," she ordered her tattooed companion without breaking her stride as she passed him.

Matt went to follow her. He was stopped by Natalie Chandler who materialised behind him and laid a restraining hand on his arm.

"Don't worry about it, Mattie. I know where she lives," she said.

"Let's go have a word with pinface," said Ron. 

Liam Roche was even less help than Cromley had been. He answered in shrugs, monosyllables, and expectorant. After a few minutes, they gave it up as a lost cause and went back to grab the last of the crates. But Matt noticed that Liam didn't leave. He stayed even closer to the tape than the caretaker had and seemed to watch their every movement from beneath his heavy, scowling brows. As Matt climbed back into Natalie's car for the return journey to the station, he couldn't shake the eerie feeling of being under malicious scrutiny. Not until they were several miles away.

 

------

 

Every available surface was covered with boxes to be opened, checked, and labelled. Ronnie and Matt had to weave their way around officers sorting through every manner of detritus on the floor to reach DI Chandlers office. When they got there, the news which waited them wasnt good.

“You remember Pamela Chivers?” asked DI Chandler.

“Her with the pin cushion for a bodyguard?” asked Ronnie.

Natalie nodded.

“Her lawyers have been on to us. Denial of all knowledge of the deceased, refusal to co-operate beyond the letter of the law, and thinly-veiled insinuations that we planted the drugs there ourselves. Oh, and she hasn‘t been doing any maintainance on her security systems either, so no CCTV footage of our victim entering the warehouse.

“What? asked Matt. "We saw those cameras with our own eyes. There were tapes in there! Those weren't dummies!"

"All blank. At least, there were only blank tapes in them by the time our boys got to the scene. Make of that what you will," said Natalie.

“Someone must have switched them out! That‘s evidence!” stormed Matt.

Natalie just shrugged and smiled grimly as Matt gesticulated his irritation. Ronnie ducked beneath his partner's arm to hand Natalie a thin folder.

“Gift for you," said Ronnie. "Report so far

“Hand it over,” Natalie sighed. She slipped the report into her handbag. “And on that note, Im off for the night.

“The boys home yet, Guv?” asked Ronnie

“Not yet. Cleo and I are having a girls night in. Dont work too late.

“Well take care of ourselves," said Matt.

“I dont care about you pair. Its the mountain of paperwork you stick me with when you keep pulling all this overtime that bothers me,” she said.

“We'd better go cross-check the deliveries from Cromley's book," said Matt. "If we can find a spare inch of carpet thats not covered in bottle caps and plastic leprechauns.

“You can use the office if you like, just dont spill anything,” said Natalie as she tugged on her coat.

"Night, Guv."

"G'night, Guv."

 

-----

 

"This is hopeless. We don't even know what we're looking for. "

They were still sitting in DI Chandler's office, but by silent agreement they never ventured beyond their own side of the desk.

For what it was worth, the deliveries for the past few months seemed to be kosher and accounted for. One or two matched up to the contents of a box or two which had already been opened. They'd considered the possibility that all the junk might be the leftovers from a long firm fraud. But that raised more questions than it answered. The paper trail on this one was going to be a nightmare. And they still had no ID on the victim. Matt threw his head back in frustration.

"Blank tapes in working cameras? No way that‘s accidental," he fumed. "That woman is in this up to her neck. Bloody bitch is deliberately obscuring things."

"Oy," warned Ronnie.

Matt looked over and saw that his partner was waving DI Chandler's swear box at him.

"Oh come on. The guv's not even here!"

"You know the rules," said Ronnie. "And it's twenty pence extra for gendered slurs."

Matt grumbled, but rooted in his pockets for the change all the same, and threw some coins into the jar.

"Come on," said Ronnie. "Let's go get some coffee and think this out."

"You're buying," said Matt, glaring at the swear box. "I think I'm going to need all my change."

 

-----

 

It was getting dark as Natalie Chandler pulled up outside the door of her home. The only light from the house was the security light on the porch. Natalie let herself in, her tired brain buzzed over the day's work, and everything that would need to be done tomorrow. Denise and Aasim would probably end up needing a warrant for the boyfriend's flat, she thought. Colin had been in a world of his own all day. Poor bloke was probably worrying about his daughter again. Maybe he should be encouraged to take annual leave. And then there was Ronnie and Matt's case. Damn, she'd left the report on the passenger seat of her car. Well, it would keep until tomorrow. That was one case she didn't want to take home with her.

The house was impossibly quiet with her family away. As she walked by the twins room, she noticed they'd left their sports gear scattered across the floor. She spent a few minutes tidying the clutter out of sight. Passing her eldest son's room she reached in for the doorknob without looking past the threshold, and pulled the door resolutely shut. Not going in there without a hazmat suit, she thought. In her own room, Natalie quickly changed into jeans and running shoes, then slipped back downstairs and grabbed the dog's lead.

"Cleo," she called, slipping out the back door. "Walkies, girl. Cleo!"

She stopped still. No resounding bark met her calls.

"Cleopatra?"

Natalie could see a dark shape lying by the doghouse - more a small shed, really - where Cleo slept. She did not move forward to investigate. First, she stepped back inside the house and turned on the lights in the back garden. Now she could see the black lab, lying unmoving on the ground.

"What's wrong, girl?"

Natalie made her way over. It wasn't until she was right by the dog that she saw the problem. Strong black cord was tied around her paws, and from there to the tether on her house. Much more of the cord had been used to bind her muzzle tight shut.

"Get up, and don't make a sound." growled a voice behind her. "I got a gun, and I've got no problem whatsoever using it on you if you try anything funny."

Instinctively, Natalie lifted her hands to where her assailant could see probably see them in the light. She rose to her feet without turning around. Who the hell was behind her? Her eyes darted to the light cement of the garden path. She could see her own silhoutte and the towering black shadow who stood behind her. Either he wasn't lying about the gun, or he had brought a convincingly gun-shaped prop. Damn.

He spoke again.

"Good. Now, you're giving me a lift. We're going to your car. Get in, drive normally, I'll tell you where to go."

 

-----

 

"Are you really going to eat that?" Matt asked askance.

"Oy. Food of the Gods, this is!?" grinned Ronnie.

"Yeah? Well your mana's dripping all over your tie, mate."

Brooks and Devlin had hardly crossed the threshold back into the station when they were accosted by a young constable who looked as though he were about to cry or be sick.

"What's up?" asked Matt.

"We've just had a phone call from one of DI Chandler's neighbours. They heard her dog whining and... well hurry up and come talk to them yourselves."

Seeing the look on the constable's face, they followed after him as quickly as they could. Ron dropped his pasty into the bin as they passed by.

 

---

 

In the rearview mirror she could see that he was still brandishing the gun. Definitely real, though not necessarily loaded. She also noticed that his tattooed arms were shaking slightly as he gripped it. So far he'd said nothing except to direct her when to turn, and to growl some threats so stereotypical he seemed to have memorised them from old gangster movies. She had to think - blocking out thoughts of the gun and the rising terror, she tried to concentrate on billboards on the road and the sounds of her engine.

He was dangerous, Natalie decided, gripping the wheel tightly to keep it from slipping under her sweating palms. But not experienced at this sort of thing, and not especially well informed. He confirmed that last assumption when he made her pull up to the kerb and told her they'd walk the rest of the way 'so they couldn't be tracked by GPS'. Still, 'stupid' was no help if her kidnapper was also trigger-happy. Christ, her son would kill her if she got herself murdered on the job.

“Stay in the car. Im going to come round to let you out, an then Im going to cuff you. You try anything funny, Ill shoot you in the fucking head,” Liam Roche snarled.

Natalie's thoughts were racing. She could run for it, but she knew her beat. Commercial properties, then the kind of houses that didnt pay much mind to a screaming woman, or even to a gun shot. She had maybe twenty seconds. Scanning the car, she caught sight of Ronnie's report on the passenger seat. Hurriedly, she grabbed the paperclip holding it together. Hoping against bloody hope that Roche was as misled by bad movies as he seemed, she just had time to clip it to her cardigan sleeve before the door was opened and Liam yanked her painfully out of the car.

She stepped out on to the kerb, flinching as he waved the gun in her face again.

“Hands out in front of you. Now.

Natalie felt her stomach swoop in relief. Any cop knew how to cuff a prisoner behind their backs. Any cop who'd last more than five minutes on Natalie Chandlers team also knew to check a persons sleeves first. But Porcupine was flustered and inexperienced. He manhandled the cuffs over her sleeved wrists as she held them out for him.

“Where are we going?” she asked to distract him from adjusting the cuffs once they'd snapped into place.

"Shut the fuck up."

Without another word he grabbed her arm and dragged her towards a cluster of dark buildings.

 

----

 

MIU was in chaos. Amid the piles of boxes and the floes of paperwork that covered every available surface, detectives and uniform moved from phones to computers. They worked methodically, professionally, but as they brushed past each other, they exchanged worried looks. Everyone ’ s voice was low and grim, or tight with anxiety. There was no joking, no wise-cracks or teasing.

The bastards had the Guv.

The general hubbub was punctuated by occasional bulletins from one desk or another:

“We’ve got her on CCTV as far as the Tesco at the junction, but then we lose her. Cameras’re bashed out along there, haven’t managed to pick her up again…”

“Neighbours say the dog was barking when they drove past at seven…”

“We’ve got an ID! Traffic warden reported a suspicious character matching Liam Roche’s description…”

The last announcement was the one Matt Devlin and Ronnie Brooks had been waiting to hear. They headed for the doors at once, and were half way to the carpark before DS Rhys-Jones had finished giving her report.

 

----

 

The building to which Liam had taken her was very clearly a primary school, closed up for the holidays. Natalie wondered briefly if he would need to break in, and whether that would leave him distracted. But it turned out he had a key. If there was an alarm, it had obviously already been disabled. It seemed Liam had planned at least this far ahead.

Pushing her ahead of him, he lead her into the dim front hallway. Then, to Natalie's surprise, he turned around and fumbled once more with the key to lock the door behind them. The shaking she'd noticed in the car was even more pronounced now, and he almost dropped the key twice before finally fitting it to the lock, then struggled to turn it with his left hand while keeping the gun clutched in his right. Natalie took advantage of the distraction.

Natalie Chandler's father had seen policing as a vocation. As far back as she could remember, his conversations had been full of stories about the heroism of his copper friends. On those evenings when he'd made it home in time for dinner, he often waxed lyrical about his friends on the force. At other times, when he got home late and Natalie sneaked downstairs to say good night, he spoke more somberly, but always with a firm and philosophical belief in the importance of the work he did. There were no men so like the knights of old as coppers on the trail of a dastardly criminal.

At least, that's what he had seemed to believe until his only daughter had proudly announced her intention to join the force. Suddenly in his minds eye the investigation rooms and stations were filled with skulking predators. Previously overlooked casual sexism among his pals became blaring alarm bells. When it was clear Natalie wasn't to be dissuaded, he'd told her not a bugger among them was to be trusted and then taught her five different ways to slip a pair of handcuffs.

Rest in peace, Dad, thought Natalie sadly as the handcuff lock clicked open.

 

----

Ronnie and Matt had hit a dead end. Liam Roche hadn't been seen at home for weeks. His parents hadn't spoken with him in even longer. If he had friends to be interrogated, they hadn't found them and they didn't have time for a wild goose chase. Pamela Chivers would only speak to them through her solicitor, and Derek Cromley was also not at home. On a last wild chance, they made their way back to the warehouse.

The uniform team had finished up there, and the forensics had finished and cleared the scene. It ought to have been deserted, but a light shone from the high windows. Inside, they found Cromley sweeping up. He was whistling loudly as he moved around the dust the police had stirred up.

"Working late, Derek?" Matt asked.

Cromley stopped and looked up, but said nothing. If he was worried or surprised to see them, he didn't show it. He just glared at them with the same look of irritable disinterest he'd worn that morning.

"Need to ask you some questions, Mr Cromley," said Ronnie. He held up a photo of DI Chandler's car. "You seen a car like this tonight, mate?"

"No," said Cromley. "Now leave me to my work."

"What about Liam Roche? He been by tonight?" Ronnie pressed.

"I ain't seen him." Cromley went back to sweeping.

Matt lost his temper.

"Look at the photo, Cromley!" he yelled, forcing it into the man's field of vision. "Where is Liam, and where's the car!"

"I tell you, I ain't seen it. Go ask somebody else. I'm working." 

Matt clenched his fists and looked around for anything at all that might indicate Cromley knew something about Natalie's whereabouts, but the warehouse was just as they'd left it. At least... not exactly as they'd left it. Before he'd started cleaning, Cromley had evidently replaced the lids on all of the large crates.

A sickening fear gripped Matt's stomach. He grabbed the lid of the nearest crate and pulled it loose. It was empty.

"Hey! Stop that! You can't do that!" yelled Crowley.

Matt paid no heed. One by one, he pulled the lids from every crate and box in the warehouse large enough to hold a body. Ronnie stayed where he was, keeping his eyes on Cromley, but watching Matt's progress in his peripheral vision.

After several impossibly long minutes, Matt overturned the last of the boxes. They were all empty. He turned back to Ronnie who was as pale as a ghost, and had closed his eyes in momentary relief. Cromley just glared at him, stomped over to the crates, and began the laborious task of replacing the lids once again.

"Come on, Mattie. This isnt helping anything," said Ronnie.

"He knows something," growled Matt as they walked away. His arms ached, but he was still pumped with adrenaline. 

"That's as may be, but she clearly ain't with him now," Ronnie said. "And it's Liam Roche the witnesses spotted, remember?"

At a loss as to what to try next, they headed back to the car. They'd just have to wait for a new lead, if any was forthcoming. The thought was almost unbearable.

Suddenly Matt stopped short. Without a word, he turned on his heel and began running back to the warehouse. Ronnie sprinted behind him.

"Matt! What?"

“He knows where she is!” Matt called over his shoulder. He saw that Ronnie was struggling to run, and slowed just enough to allow his partner to catchi up.

“What are you thinking? asked Ronnie, panting for breath.

Matt slowed as he reached the path to the warehouse once more.

"He was whistling 'Waterloo'," he said simply.

Ronnie looked at him in confusion, then realisation dawned.

“Now, that could be a coincidence, said Matt, as they headed for the door of the warehouse.

“Or, Ronnie finished for him. It could be the result of driving a stolen car with an Abba's Greatest Hits still in the CD player.

“Cromley, Matt said as he stepped back into the warehouse. I think theres something youre not telling us.

Cromley looked up at Matt's face and then down to his flexing fists. Ronnie moved to block the exit. The caretaker's mask finally slipped.

"He just told me where to pick the car up! He was gone when I got there! He said it was his! I don't know nothing!" he cried.

 

------

 

Roche had finally gotten the door locked. Now he followed behind her as he ordered her upstairs and further into the school. Natalie concentrated on keeping the open cuffs from slipping as they passed through corridors lined with fading children's paintings. She'd given up trying to get him to talk. Sometimes it helped to distract people, but in Roche's case he just seemed annoyed at the energy it cost him to have to throw another curse in her direction. 

The corridor ended in a closed door. Natalie stopped. Roche gestured at her to open the door. She turned the handle, and it swung in, revealing another corridor.

"Go on!" he snarled.

Natalie stepped through the door. Roche began to follow her, gun held at arm's length in one trembling hand. Natalie saw her opening. Hardly stopping to think, she grabbed the edge of the door, and swung it shut behind her, throwing all her weight against it. Roche howled in pain as the door slammed into his extended arm. Through pure luck, she'd caught him right at the elbow. The gun fell from his hand. His arm withdrew, and the door slammed shut. Natalie swooped down and grabbed the weapon, her heart racing. Quickly, she checked the gun. Loaded. No safety. She allowed herself three deep, steadying breaths, then swung open the door again to see Liam cradling his hand to his chest.

She stood well back, gun held steadily in both hands. She gestured back down the corridor from which they'd come.

"After you," she said.

 

---

 

 

"You sure this is the right place?" Ronnie asked

"This is where Cromley said he picked up the car," Matt replied firmly. "He wasnt lying."

He could feel his anger rising again. It looked like yet another dead end.

Ron gazed about, his glasses bobbing up and down as he wrinkled his nose in thought.

"You know, I remember how this area was in the eighties," he mused. "It wasn't such a bad spot then. A lot of Irish immigrants. There was some bad feeling, well your family might be able to tell you about that. A lot of them preferred to just keep to themselves. Irish businesses, Catholic church, that kind of thing."

"Where are you going with this, Ronnie?" asked Matt.

Ronnie looked throughtfully at the 'Children Crossing' sign where Derek Cromley had picked up a car he swore he'd thought belonged to a friend.

"Just a hunch about what might bring a chap like Roche to a place like this," he said. "Follow me. And call uniform and tell 'em to hurry up."

 

----

 

Natalie took a seat on the teacher's desk. From the window in this room she could see anyone approaching the front door while still keeping her eyes on Liam. He sat in front of her on a chair that was too small, his hands cuffed behind him. In the bright lights of the classroom (Natalie had turned on every light they'd passed), he looked rather pathetic. She could see that his muscular arms showed signs of wasting. His eyes were tired and red. And if that wasn't enough of a giveaway, he was now shaking in earnest and rocking in his chair.

"You're not very good at this," she told him and ticked off the points against him one by one. "You never said what you wanted. Didn't bring back up. Carried a weapon you don't know how to use. What did you want, Liam?"

“Whered you put the stuff?? I need the fucking stuff!!"

Well, it didn't take Sherlock Holmes to work that one out, Natalie thought.

"Did you know the victim?" she asked.

Roche looked at her in confusion, as though it was the most irrelevant non-sequitor he'd ever heard. She tried another tack.

"Was this your school?"

Liam gave a half-nod of his head.

“When we moved here. Got kicked out. Pulled a knife on a teacher, he sneered.

They sat inside for a moment. At last, Natalie saw a welcome flash of blue lights in the distance. She offered a prayer of thanks to anyone who might be listening. Then she had one last stab at getting something from Liam.

“You know youre going to prison?” she said softly. "If youre smart, you can get yourself cleaned up in there.

Liam looked at her, at the gun, at his own position.

“I think we established I aint smart,” he said.

 

-----

 

When they reached the school, Matt knew Ronnie's instincts had been right. There were lights ablaze from half the windows on the top floor. Somehow, that made it look even eerier than the darkened buildings which surrounded it on all sides.

The heavy security gate had been pulled back, but front door was locked. Ronnie and Matt looked at each other and reached a decision. Protocol be damned, this was no time to cool their heels and wait for back-up.

Matt took a run up and charged the door. Then charged it again. At the third blow the old lock gave way and the door swung open.

“Police!

“DI Chandler? Matt called out. 

“Natalie!” yelled Ron, from the bottom of the stairs.

At last, to their overwhelming relief, they heard her voice from above them.

“Im up here! Third room on the left.

 

---

 

Matt went first, his gun unholstered. Ronnie followed. They made their way upstairs with care and alertness born of years of training. Even so, they were not prepared for the sight that met them when they stepped inside.

DI Chandler was leaning against the teachers desk, holding a gun. At the other side of the room, a gigantic tattooed man was huddling. He was putting up no struggle.

“We came to rescue you," said Ronnie "Should we go and come back?

“Sorry boys, got a bit tired waiting for you. Not to impugn your masculinity," Natalie smiled.

“Why the hell didnt you let us in?” Matt demanded, rubbing his aching shoulder.

“Thought you might be Jehovahs Witnesses. She said, drily. That, and Liam here is such good company I was loath to leave. Do the honours, Matt.

“Liam Roche,” Matt began, pulling him to his feet. "You are under arrest. You do not have to say anything..."

Ronnie approached Natalie.

“You alright, Guv?

She had the feeling he asked as much for the sake of using her title as anything else. That way, they could both pretend that it wasn't only a few minutes since he'd been calling her given name in terror of hearing no answer. No big deal, fall back on gallows humour and it's just another day on the job. A few months down the road, and this'd be a funny story, right? 

“Ive called in uniform," he said. "Better wait around for them to take you home in a squad car, unless you want a lift home in my wheelie bin.

Natalie shook her head.

“I'm all right. My cars parked half a mile away,” she said.

“In this neighbourhood? No it aint.” said Ronnie with a small smile. Dont worry, weve got people on it. With any luck, well get it  back before theyve sold moren the hubcaps.

Natalie buried her face in her hands. “So much paperwork,” she groaned.

Ronnie thought it might be okay to give her a hug of support over that. So he did.

 

---

 

Outside, Liam Roche was bundled into a waiting squad car while another officer took a preliminary statement from the DI. Then he offered her a lift home, which she accepted.

"You sure you'll be okay at home alone tonight, Guv?" Matt asked.

Natalie gave him a warm if slightly shakey smile.

"Don't worry about me. Uniform will have me watched as closely as the proverbial stable door for the next week at least. Besides," she grinned,  "I know some great blokes who've always got my back. Night, boys."

"Night, Guv."

"G'night, Guv."

They watched as the last of the squad cars pulled away.

"Want to get a curry?" Ronnie asked.

"La plus ca change," Matt muttered. 

Tomorrow it'd be back to the grindstone - chasing down the paper trail, finding out what Pamela Chivers had to do with all this. They might even get an ID on the body at last. But for now they were done for the night, and Ronnie and Matt went for a curry.