Read Through a Narrow Door Online

Authors: Faith Martin

Through a Narrow Door

Through a Narrow Door

Faith Martin

Acting Detective Chief Inspector Hillary Greene leaned forward slightly in her chair, heard the skirt of her best dress uniform creak ominously and hastily sat upright again. The skirt still dug spitefully into her waist, but she managed to smile nevertheless as the assistant chief constable up on the stage spoke her name, and began to clap.

All around her, the applause was politely amplified by the guests and she stood up slowly, not sure whether to feel relieved because the pinching of her waist had now come to an end, or feel downright panic-stricken because now the full force of the media was focused upon her.

The venue was the Olde Station Hotel, a mere stone’s throw from Oxford’s railway station, and at this particular moment in time, its large dining room was bedecked with white and near-black flowers, some PR assistant’s brilliant idea, no doubt. Certainly Hillary’s uniform (which she’d last worn, what, nearly ten years ago?) was the traditional black and white, and a good percentage of the guests at this medal awards ceremony were similarly dressed, or had adorned black dinner jackets.

Hillary took a slow breath as she wound her way through the tables to the small makeshift stage where she walked carefully up two wooden steps and wondered, with just a tinge of hysteria, what the hell she’d do if her skirt popped a button and pooled around her ankles just as she accepted her award for bravery. No doubt the resultant photograph
appearing in Oxford’s papers the next morning would have a pithy comment to go with it. She managed to keep her face straight (and her stomach sucked in) as she approached a smiling ACC, and took his hand.

As he spoke, once more outlining her ‘outstanding’ bravery during the Luke Fletcher case, he pinned the tiny piece of metal on to the lapel of her uniform jacket, which strained somewhat over her generous breasts. She noticed him noticing, and bit back a sigh. So much for the two-week diet she’d been on that had guaranteed the shedding of at least six pounds. Six ounces, more like. Still, at nearly
forty-four
, her middle aged spread wasn’t nearly as wide as some of those around her. She stood stiff, feeling equal measures of embarrassment and unease as he pinned the medal on to her, aware of flashbulbs going off throughout the room. Some of the photographers, she knew, belonged to the gang of her family members who’d descended on the hotel that morning en masse. She knew that her mother, for one, would have the scrapbook all ready to accept this latest proof of her daughter’s glorious career, and would drag it out for
unwitting
visitors for years to come. She wanted to shout out that this was way over the top for what she’d actually done, but, of course, kept her mouth firmly shut.

She smiled and shook the mayor’s hand, accepting his congratulations and wondering if the big shining metal chain around his neck was genuine gold and, if so, which one of her colleagues would be likely to get the shout should it ever get stolen.

She shot a surreptitious glance at the clock on the wall as she turned to leave the stage. Lunch was going to be served early, at twelve, then she had a half hour or so of
glad-handing
to get through, which meant, with a bit of luck, she could be back in the office (and out of her bloody uniform) by two.

At the bottom of the stage she was obliged to pause for yet more photographs, and was aware of Acting Superintendent Philip ‘Mel’ Mallow coming up to stand beside her. Hillary
groaned audibly as the reporters thrust out microphones towards her face and Mel, her friend of the last twenty odd years, pinched her arm warningly, and whispered ‘be nice’, before beaming urbanely.

‘Detective Chief Inspector, how does it feel to be a hero? I mean, officially? To receive this medal must be the highlight of your career.’ The reporter wasn’t one she recognized, and she forced a smile on to her face. It felt stiff and unnatural and she only hoped she wasn’t baring her teeth like a terrier about to bite.

‘Well, I don’t know that I’m a hero,’ she said, and meant it. ‘There were other officers present at the same raid. I was the only one unlucky enough to get shot.’ And almost in the bum, too, she might have added, but luckily the bullet had entered just above and to the left, creasing her hip instead. Thus saving her from a lifetime of teasing by workmates and villains alike.

‘But you saved the life of your fellow officer, didn’t you?’ somebody who’d actually read the police press liaison officer’s report suddenly chirped up from the back. There was always one conscientious one, Hillary mused glumly. Mostly though, she could rely on journalists to be interested only in the free booze.

‘Yes, she did,’ she heard Mel say smoothly, with a smile in his voice. ‘And I’m the officer she saved,’ he oiled on, drawing the pack off her as he launched into a sanitized and newspaper-friendly version of the night in question. He hadn’t earned his nickname of Mellow Mallow for nothing. Hillary gave him a grateful smile and slipped away. As she did so, she wondered, with just a hint of justifiable malice, what Mel would say if anyone should ask him why the senior officer that night, Superintendent Jerome Raleigh, wasn’t here today. But with luck, nobody would. Jerome Raleigh had officially resigned and gone to live abroad. Which was as good a story as any, after all.

As a steady stream of reporters abandoned Mel and headed for the bar, she could already feel herself becoming
yesterday’s news and smiled with relief. The Great British public might like to acknowledge its heroes in uniform, but scandal still sold more papers – and was far more interesting.

She dodged into the nearest ladies’ loo and instantly unpopped the button on her skirt, looking at herself in the full-length mirror as she did so. The black-and-white uniform, with its old-fashioned black-and-white
checkerboard
effect, suited her long bell-shaped mass of dark brown, chestnut-streaked hair and dark brown eyes. Her figure could best be described as Junoesque: she was fairly tall and big-boned, and supported one of those curvy,
hourglass
shapes that were out of fashion with everyone but the average man.

Hillary noticed that her skirt managed to stay up even without the button holding it in place. Oh well. When lunch finally got served, the salad option it would have to be. Pretty damned pathetic really, for the heroine of the hour.

She frowned at the medal reflected in the mirror. What the hell was she supposed to do with it exactly? She was plain clothes normally, so she could hardly wear it after she’d changed. Did she frame it? Leave it pinned on to the uniform until the next official occasion when she’d be forced into wearing it again? Or did she put it in her desk drawer and drag it out whenever a subordinate got antsy?

 

One and a half hours later, and with a heartfelt sigh of relief to be getting back to normal, Hillary pulled Puff the Tragic Wagon, her fifteen-year-old Volkswagen, into the car park at Kidlington’s Thames Valley Police Headquarters and spotted an empty space beneath a huge flowering horse chestnut tree. She parked and got out, and stood for a moment or two, peering up at the cones of white and pink flowers above her with her first genuine smile of the day. May had always been her favourite month. Everything was in blossom (including her waistline) and even the scent of hot tarmac and exhaust fumes was overlaid by the scent of spring flowers and lilacs in bloom.

She pushed through the revolving door into the lobby and got the usual good-natured barracking from the desk sergeant and took the lift to the big open-plan office where she’d worked for the last ten years. It was still a novelty for her to then walk on to one of the small cubicle-like side offices and shut the door behind her. For years this had been Mel’s domain, but for the last six weeks it had been hers. She carefully closed the venetian blinds that blocked her view of the office, then, with a sigh of pure bliss, began to disrobe. Within minutes she was back in her cream, loose-flowing, linen trouser suit. Yesterday, the first of May and a bank holiday to boot, had stunned everyone by starting off
blisteringly
hot, and the weathermen were promising a week more of such weather still to come.

Once seated behind her desk, she reached for a file from her towering in-tray and sighed. Budget projections. She hated budget projections. She hated the number of
subcommittee
meetings she now had to attend as well, not to mention the mountains of paperwork that seemed to grow exponentially. She resented having to schmooze with the brass, and keep an overview of all the cases her team were involved in, but never offering any input herself. In fact, she was fast coming to the conclusion that being a chief inspector was a bigger pain in the arse than being shot.

With the abrupt and unexpected departure of Superintendent Jerome Raleigh a few months ago, Mel had been bumped upstairs into his slot, and Hillary had jumped at the chance to slide into Mel’s. The only thing was, she was having to reluctantly admit, if only to herself, that the working life of a chief inspector just wasn’t for her. She couldn’t remember the last time she’d interviewed a suspect or a witness. Couldn’t even pinpoint the last time she’d got out of this damned, private office. Considering the fact that she’d been champing at the bit for the last few years to gain a promotion, Hillary was feeling absurdly disappointed.

The phone burped at her and she picked it up grumpily, expecting the civilian assistant she shared with two other
DCIs to inform her that she had forgotten yet another meeting with a Neighbourhood Watch aficionado or some such thing. Instead, the rich baritone of Chief Superintendent Marcus Donleavy came down the wire.

‘Hillary, congratulations. Sorry I couldn’t be at the
ceremony
. Everything went smoothly, I hope?’

‘Yes sir, thank you.’

‘If you’ve got a moment?’

‘I’ll be right up, sir.’

As she hung up, Hillary felt her heart plummet. She had a horrible feeling that Donleavy was going to make her
promotion
permanent. She opened the blinds again and, as she stepped through the door, glanced across the large open space to the far right-hand side, where her old desk stood empty. She could see the blonde head of her sergeant, Janine Tyler, bent over a report on her desk, and DC Tommy Lynch on the phone. Of DS Frank Ross there was, of course, no sign. A circumstance that was guaranteed to make everyone’s day.

Hillary sighed as she made her way to the lift. As much as it irked her to say it, she missed the daily routine with her staff. The cases coming in, the delegation, the piecing together of a case. The arrests. Just how unprofessional would it be for her to turn down a promotion? And would it ever be offered again if she did so? After all, by the time she was fifty or so, she might be in the mood to relish the idea of a desk job. And the money was definitely better. Not that money was an issue right now. She’d just sold her old marital home for a healthy profit, and had finally taken the plunge and bought from her uncle his narrowboat (on which she’d been living for the last few years), so she was
unusually
flush at the moment.

She was ushered through the small outer room of DCS Donleavy’s office by his smiling PA, and into the boss’s inner sanctum. As she entered, Mel rose from one of the chairs opposite Donleavy’s desk. His smile, she noticed at once, was somewhat strained, and instantly Hillary sensed the tension in the atmosphere. Something was definitely up.

‘Hillary, please sit down.’ Marcus Donleavy was wearing one of his trademark silver-grey suits, which went so well with his silver-grey hair and silver-grey eyes. But he too looked unusually ill at ease. In the past, Donleavy and herself had always got on very well. She knew that the super rated her as a detective, and their personalities had always been compatible. True, that relationship had been strained, somewhat, over the Jerome Raleigh affair, but she still thought of the super as a friend. Now, wondering just what the hell was going on, Hillary slowly sat down. She cast Mel a quick, questioning glance, but he was already re-seated, legs elegantly crossed, and was inspecting the tassels on one of his expensive Italian loafers. (His second marriage had been to a wealthy woman, and he’d done well in the
subsequent
divorce.) He was so careful not to meet her eyes, that Hillary felt her stomach clench.

‘Needless to say, the PR people are very pleased with how the award ceremony went,’ Donleavy began. ‘And, naturally, everybody here feels the same. It makes what I have to say now doubly hard. Hillary, I want you to understand that I, we all, that is, feel that you’ve done an excellent job as acting DCI these past few months.…’

Hillary blinked and felt her jaw begin to sag as she suddenly twigged what was going on. Bloody hell, they weren’t going to make her promotion permanent! The cheeky buggers had given it to someone else. Had to be, with a build up like that. She clamped her lips firmly together and for a second felt like spitting tin tacks. Then her own innate sense of fair play reluctantly kicked in, making her want to grin ruefully instead. Well, she didn’t have the problem of turning down a promotion any more, did she? Still, she couldn’t see why she should make it any easier on them by letting them know that she would hardly be crying into her coffee over it.

‘I’m glad to hear it, sir,’ she said blandly. ‘I like to think I’ve given it my best.’

Mel uncrossed his legs and began to inspect his
fingernails
.
Hillary bit back a smile and looked blandly on at her super.

‘Oh, no doubt about it,’ Marcus said smoothly. But even though he was beginning to suspect that she might not exactly be broken-hearted at having to move back to her old desk, he was very much aware that there was far worse news to come. And because he respected and liked DI Greene, he resented having to be the one to give it. ‘However, to be blunt, the brass don’t yet think you’re quite ready to stay at that level.’

Hillary nodded. ‘I daresay the long shadow cast by my husband had a lot to do with that, sir,’ she said flatly. She’d been separated from Ronnie Greene for some time before he’d been killed in a car accident, and allegations of
corruption
had come tumbling out of the closet like so many grinning skeletons. Allegations that had then been
investigated
and thoroughly substantiated. Ronnie had been bent as a corkscrew, running, amongst other things, an illegal animal-parts smuggling operation. And his old mate, Frank Ross, had been just as bent, but rather more lucky, because none of the mud had been made to stick to him. And although nobody believed Hillary had been involved,
memories
were long.

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