Team Spirit (Special Crime Unit Book 1)

BOOK: Team Spirit (Special Crime Unit Book 1)
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Team Spirit

 

 

 

IAN
MAYFIELD

Week
One

Tuesday

 

Halfway up Gravel Hill more
fire engines overtook them, sirens blaring like panic-stricken elephants.
Sophia frowned as she watched them go past and then said, ‘That’s four.’

There
was no response from her companion, who kept driving at a sedate forty.

‘Are
you all right, Nina?’ Sophia said.

‘Mmm?’

Sophia
waited. They’d just come from visiting a ninety year old woman, violated in her
nursing home bedroom, little better than catatonic despite the best attentions
of the care staff. Occasionally, even in this job, it got to you.

Nina
became aware that some sort of response was expected, and twitched her head as
if to snap out of a daydream. ‘Sorry, guv. No, I’m all right. Personal stuff,
that’s all.’

Sophia
nodded. ‘My door is always open, you know that.’ A pause, then the corners of
her mouth jerked up into a smile. ‘Figuratively speaking.’

Nina
looked across and grinned, appreciating the joke. Always open because it didn’t
exist. An ‘office’ which consisted of having a bigger desk than everyone else.
Intimidating though she usually was, there were times when the guv’nor was
almost human.

They
reached the roundabout at the top of the hill and the moment passed. Sophia’s
attention was caught by something through the trees.

‘There.’

Nina
followed her gaze away to the left and saw it: a column of black smoke rising
from the valley.

‘Petrol
station gone up?’

‘No,
it’s all houses down there.’

Three
police cars, one unmarked, leapt raucously from the third exit and crossed the
roundabout. They disappeared in the direction of the smoke.

‘And
what’s this got to do with us?’ Nina asked, pulling out after them.

‘Mr
Heighway didn’t say.’ Sophia lifted the phone in her hand and looked at the
text message again. ‘Just that he wants us on the scene and we’ll see why when
we get there.’

 

It wasn’t hard to
find. Down Ballards Way, left turn into Chapel View at the bottom, smoke
billowing into the sky, high and violent like the pillar of cloud that guided
Moses. The house was halfway along. Flames gushed from the windows, into which
the fire crews were already training their hoses. Smoke billowed from the roof,
filling the air with an acrid stench. Inside the house burning wood crackled
and banged. Ahead of them the street was blocked, a logjam of red, white and
flashing, strobing blue, emergency personnel hurrying and leaping over snaking
hose, stringing out tape to keep spectators at a safe distance. Four paramedics
emerged slowly, carefully from the garden, two stretchers their burden. An
adult body and a small child’s, wrapped in plastic, what could be seen of them
a ground, charred mass, like half-cooked burgers. It dawned on the two women
that the smaller figure wore an oxygen mask. It was still alive.

But
they weren’t what drew the eye. That privilege was reserved for the thing on
the lawn.

‘Jesus,
Mary and Joseph,’ Nina said, and crossed herself. Sophia just stared.

Planted
in the flowerbed by the front garden wall, simply fashioned from two sturdy
pieces of timber, was a cross. It was six feet high. And it too was in flames.

 

Copper or not,
Detective Sergeant Kim Oliver thought, you could tell a major crime scene a
mile off. As the car in which she was travelling crawled eastwards in the rush
hour jam on Croham Valley Road, she lost count of the police vehicles and the
uniformed and plain clothes officers who’d swarmed into the area to knock on
doors. They contributed to the jam not only by blocking the road but also
because their presence made everyone slow down to see what was going on. Kim
sighed and caught a glimpse of herself in the wing mirror. She noted the bags
under her eyes and wondered how much longer she would last. She’d come back on
duty at seven that morning after a session with a rape victim that had lasted well
into the previous night; now she faced an extension to the working day of
unknown length to which she would have to gear herself.

The
driver of the car was tired too. Detective Constable Marie Kirtland had been up
most of the night nursing her two-year-old through an ear infection. Her left
hand drummed on the wheel; her right held a burning cigarette from which she
seldom took a drag but frequently tapped the ash out of the rolled-down window.
Neither woman spoke. For now, all that needed to be said had been. Any
utterance would smack of frivolity.

Marie
gave a relieved sigh as at last they reached their turn and she was able to
swing the wheel left and lean on the accelerator. She took a final puff, blew
the smoke out through her nostrils and threw her stub out of the window. Kim,
who’d given up six months ago, would normally have frowned on Marie smoking in
the confines of the car. Today she forced herself to be tolerant, even though
she herself was gasping for a fag and fighting a battle of none too strong
will.

‘Just
round here, yeah?’ Marie said in her broad Lake District accent, and flicked
the left indicator without waiting for an answer. They were coming to a wide
green bordered by modern semi-detached houses and bungalows, snuggling among
blossom-filled cherry trees. Another street turned left, Chapel View. Marie
took it.

Several
patrol cars and a couple of dog vans hugged the pavement outside number 84,
along with a mobile incident room trailer and a boxlike red van with FIRE
INVESTIGATION UNIT written on the side. In front of the charred shell of what
had once been a house a cordon of blue and white striped tape, patrolled by a
PCSO, kept the public away while the forensic and fire investigators finished
their work. Officers went about their business or stood around the trailer in
conference or awaiting orders. A couple of dozen onlookers, mostly children,
loitered in front of the parade of shops across the street. Some of them were
talking to television news crews, an outrider for one of whom, hefting a video
camera, was taking stock shots.

They
tried to take it in. It was bizarre, disturbing. This should be an inner city
estate, with a history of crime and tension. It wasn’t. This was a suburban
street of green lawns, of second and third cars and grass verges, of
comfortable semis that sold for upwards of two hundred grand. The eye turned as
if drawn by a magnet to the burnt-out house, then to the obscenity on the lawn.
Another world had come to visit.

As
they parked, Detective Chief Inspector Sophia Beadle eased her bulk down from
the trailer. She came over, looking at her watch.

‘Traffic?’

‘Yeah,’
Kim said. ‘Backed up right the way into town.’

‘Any
news on the victims, guv?’ Marie asked.

Sophia
looked grim. ‘Mother didn’t make it. The little boy’s still hanging on.’

She
brought them up to speed. Not surprisingly, the fire investigator’s initial
impression was that it had been started deliberately, and had spread throughout
within moments, overwhelming the occupants before they could react.

‘You
wonder,’ Kim said, ‘what sort of sick scumbag would want to...’ She broke off,
grimacing as if from a nasty taste. She repeated, angrily, ‘You wonder.’

‘Do
I detect a shift from impartiality, Kim?’ The DCI’s clear, china blue eyes
fixed her in their field of vision. There was no humour in them.

Kim
was undaunted. ‘Yes, I’m afraid you do.’

Sophia’s
nod contained many things, but not approval.

Arms
folded, Marie was looking at the cross. Charred white now, it acted as a garish
signpost to the blackened spectacle beyond. She said, ‘The Job’s shown me some
things, but… phew.’

‘The
Ku Klux Klan used to use a burning cross as a calling card,’ Kim declared.

Marie
digested this for a moment. ‘I don’t suppose anybody saw it put there?’

‘No
witnesses so far,’ Sophia confirmed. ‘Except to the effect that it wasn’t there
up to twenty minutes before the fire.’

‘Par
for the course.’

‘But
there is a suspect.’

‘Who?’

‘The
babysitter.’

‘You’re
joking,’ Marie said.

‘Name
of Deborah Clarke,’ Sophia went on. ‘Sixteen, school leaver. Looks after the
kid while Mrs Benton’s at work, collects him from school and watches him until
she gets home.’

‘So
she’s got a key?’

‘Yes.
At the moment we have to fancy her strongly, because she appears to have done a
runner.’

They
waited mutely for her to explain.

‘Our
only witness of any worth, Mrs Blissett, who keeps the newsagent’s over there,
served Mrs Benton at about twenty past four. Five minutes later Debbie Clarke
came in, apparently seemed a bit het up. She used cash to buy several bars of
chocolate and a Basildon Bond notepad, and then according to Mrs Blissett she
ran out of the shop and headed off’ - she pointed back the way Kim and Marie
had come - ‘in the opposite direction to her home. Ten minutes after that the
house went up like a Guy Fawkes bonfire.’

‘Coincidence?’
Kim said.

Sophia
shrugged. ‘We know she must have gone down Croham Valley but we lose her once
we get to the main road. Obviously the house-to-house is still going on and we
may get something further from that. Nina’s also checking with the bus garage
in case a driver remembers her getting on a 64.’ She gestured vaguely with a
pudgy hand.

‘Where
do we come in?’

‘Your
job for now is to talk to the sitter’s parents: Andrew and Charlotte Clarke.’
She gave them the address. ‘Expect a hard time: the PC who went round got sent
away with a flea in her ear by the father. Find out,’ she added, as they turned
to go, ‘if Debbie’s been been back there or if they have any idea where she’s
gone. They say not, but the father’s attitude may mean he’s hiding something.
All right?’

 

Ballards Way was a
long, wide residential street, much used nowadays as a rat run between the two
main roads it connected, but still affordably affluent. The Clarkes’ house was
a pebbledashed four bedroom semi with sizeable gardens front and back, a short
gravel drive and a garage. A Japanese maple grew on the front lawn. The timbers
of the house and garage were painted crimson, echoing the tree. There were two
cars in the drive, a white VW Golf and a silver Volvo. Kim and Marie crowded
into the red parquet porch and rang the bell.

There
was movement behind the frosted glass pane and a man opened the door. He was
fortyish, suited, blond, his florid, rough complexion suggesting he might keel
over from a heart attack at any moment. There was a strong odour of tobacco on
his breath when he spoke.

‘If
you’re press, go away.’

‘Mr
Clarke?’ Kim said. They showed their warrant cards. ‘Kim Oliver, Marie
Kirtland, Croydon Special Crime Unit. Somebody told you we’d be coming?’

His
faint frown was a look they’d become inured to over time, the look you got when
not one, but two women in plain clothes turned up on the doorstep, both
claiming to be from the police. One of them black, to boot. Once again Kim felt
some uneasy pressure. Not for the first time, she wondered disloyally whether
her colour was the sole reason Sophia had appointed her to the team.

Andrew
Clarke said, ‘Yes. Come in.’ He held open the door with grudging disdain, like
the doorman of a Mayfair club on ladies’ night. They were shown into a large
sitting room, furnished in autumn browns. Sliding patio doors gave onto a
well-kept lawn with a young cherry tree at the bottom of it. A petite, greying
brown-haired woman sat perched on the edge of a settee, smoking. She looked up,
as surprised by who she saw as her husband. Andrew Clarke said, ‘It’s the
police, Charlotte.’ For the police’s benefit he added, ‘My wife.’ They’d
guessed as much.

‘Mrs
Clarke,’ Marie acknowledged. ‘May we sit down?’

‘I
suppose,’ Charlotte Clarke said, ushering them with an apathetic wave to any
seat of their choosing, ‘there’s no point asking if you’ve found Debbie?’

‘Not
yet,’ Marie said. She paused for a moment before launching in. Kim sat,
inclined forward, listening. Both had guessed that they might get more out of
the Clarkes if Marie did the talking. She began, ‘Can I just ask you again if
you’re sure your daughter hasn’t been back here?’

Andrew
Clarke greeted the question with a huge and deliberate sigh, and let himself
flop back into the settee, flinging his arms up in a show of exasperation.

‘We’re
sure.’ Mrs Clarke took a deep drag. ‘We’ve checked and double-checked her room;
we’ve been watching out for her constantly...’

‘And
you’ve tried calling her?’

‘Frequently,’
Andrew Clarke said. ‘Her phone goes straight to voicemail.’

Marie
nodded and turned back to Mrs Clarke. ‘Did you notice anything missing when you
searched? Clothes, makeup?’

‘No.’

‘How
could you tell?’ her husband cut in. ‘The state she keeps that room in, who
knows what she’s got in there we don’t know about?’

BOOK: Team Spirit (Special Crime Unit Book 1)
3.71Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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