A Question of Despair, page 1
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A QUESTION OF DESPAIR *
*available from Severn House
A QUESTION OF DESPAIR
This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorised distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author's and publisher's rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.
First world edition published 2011
in Great Britain and the USA by
Crème de la Crime, an imprint of
SEVERN HOUSE PUBLISHERS LTD of
9–15 High Street, Sutton, Surrey, England, SM1 1DF.
Copyright © 2011 by Maureen Carter.
All rights reserved.
The moral right of the author has been asserted.
British Library Cataloguing in Publication Data
A question of despair.
1. Women detectives–England–Birmingham–Fiction.
2. Women journalists–England–Birmingham–Fiction.
3. Kidnapping–Fiction. 4. Detective and mystery stories.
ISBN-13: 978-1-78010-103-3 (ePub)
ISBN-13: 978-1-78029-000-3 (cased)
ISBN-13: 978-1-78029-500-8 (trade paper)
Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.
This ebook produced by
Palimpsest Book Production Limited,
Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland.
They heard the mother before they saw her. Two streets away, through the open windows of an unmarked police motor, and they could hear the screams. On what felt like the hottest day of a baking summer, the sound was chilling and incongruous. To Detective Inspector Sarah Quinn’s way of thinking, the flawless turquoise sky called out for ice cream, paddling pools, children’s squeals. Not this cry against nature.
Maybe it was the cooling sweat trickling down her spine, but Sarah shivered again as she reran mentally what little they’d picked up on police radio. Scanning the surroundings, her shrewd grey eyes took in a stream of probably inconsequential images on the way to the bigger picture: a whippet trailing after a fat man with a ponytail, an old woman dragging on a cigarette as she tugged along a tartan shopping trolley, a chav yelling into a mobile, while pushing a double buggy one-handed.
It was force of habit for Sarah, the constant observing, recording, filing for possible future use. Anyway, detail via the radio had barely provided crumbs let alone food for thought, it had been sparse to the point of useless; the original triple-nine made from a call box, anonymous and garbled: a missing pushchair, White’s newsagent just off Small Heath high street and a young mother who, quote, needed a good slapping. Sarah arched an eyebrow: the tip-off was right on that score – the hysteria was evident and she hadn’t even seen the woman.
She wasn’t alone. Passers-by turned cocked heads trying to pinpoint where the screams came from. Sarah glanced at her sergeant, part of her willing him to drive faster, the rest scared they may already be too late. Either way, picking up speed wasn’t an option on inner city streets heavy with traffic and heaving with people. It was uniform’s shout by rights. Sarah and Hunt just happened to be in the vicinity when the call came in. She’d suggested taking a quick look, was already beginning to think better of it; quick was likely the last thing it would be. Thursday evenings were French conversation class – she was lucky if she got to one in three. C’est la vie.
‘Next left, John.’ Her clipped tone verged on curt; tight vocals the only sign of stress. It certainly wasn’t a case of least said soonest mended. If the screams were anything to go by, the damage had already been done. The feeling was so unlike Sarah; she didn’t do instinct, sixth sense, whatever. So why couldn’t she shake off the uneasiness?
John Hunt’s muttered, ma’am, articulated more than her senior rank. Born and bred in the second city, the detective sergeant needed directions like Delia Smith needed cookery lessons. Registering his pale face and pinched features, Sarah realized this call-out could be a too-close-to-home nightmare for Hunt. He and his wife had lost their first baby in a cot death just before Christmas.
Focus woman, she told herself, curling twitching fingers to stop them tapping; it wasn’t even clear yet that a child was missing, let alone permanently. Even before Hunt cut the engine, Sarah was out of the Vauxhall, long legs striding towards a growing crowd of gawpers. Through a sea of jeans and shorts, saris and salwar, she caught a flash of yellow. The warrant card and her air of seemingly effortless authority were enough for most spectators to step aside and for the first time Sarah saw the woman.
Down on bony knees in the middle of the dusty pavement, she was oblivious to the curious stares and occasional asides, to the fact her bright yellow sun dress had ridden up, exposing hollowed white thighs. Head cradled in her hands, she rocked and wailed as tears dripped from her chin, spotting a paving slab already mottled with discarded gum.
A man crouched at her side, his hand hovering but not quite making contact with her bare shoulder. The concerned glances he cast at the open door of the newsagent’s, as much as the biro tucked behind his ear, suggested he was the eponymous owner.
Sarah stopped just short, rapidly deciding on the best approach. The woman’s misery was almost palpable but it wasn’t getting anyone anywhere.
‘Took your time didn’t you?’ The biro man had a voice. And a point. Sarah was well aware the traffic had held them back. Five to four now – the call had come in eleven minutes ago. It was a long time in policing. It could be a lifetime if they didn’t act fast.
‘Mr White, is it?’ Over his shoulder she glimpsed Hunt in conversation with a couple of uniformed officers. He’d be briefing them; they’d start questioning people on the street, all potential witnesses.
‘That’s right.’ White staggered to his feet, the brusque tone slightly mollified. Sarah heard relief in it as well. Like most people he was happy to let the cops deal with it, whatever shit it was. ‘Can’t you do something for her?’ He jabbed a thumb at the hunched figure as if there was any doubt, as if Small Heath was a hotbed of women on the verge of a meltdown.
‘Let’s get inside. I can’t do anything here.’ The noise was grating and the woman needed to get out of the heat, drink some water. They’d have to call an ambulance soon if she didn’t get a grip.
‘She won’t budge. I’ve tried.’ White’s bald pate was surrounded by what looked like a fallen halo of wispy cotton wool. He pulled dung-coloured slacks over a middle-aged paunch. ‘She’s terrified to move in case the baby comes back.’
Comes back? Suppressing a growing sense of urgency, Sarah moved in closer. ‘Calm down, love. Take some deep breaths.’
Maybe the girl hadn’t heard. The rocking and wailing continued. Her sallow complexion was marred by twin trails of shiny mascara-blackened tears. Staring straight ahead now, she seemed oblivious to the crowd, to Sarah, to anything but her own misery. She was obviously in shock, but had she
‘We’re wasting precious time, love.’ Sarah’s patience was at a premium, too. It took an effort not to show it in her voice. For a few seconds, the woman appeared to focus on Sarah’s face and the screaming stopped. In the brief period of eye contact, Sarah was surprised to see how young she was: sixteen? Seventeen? Not much more than a child herself. She managed a tight smile of reassurance, encouragement, but the girl started screaming again.
Conscious of Hunt at her side, Sarah snapped a command. ‘For Christ’s sake, John, stop her making that sodding noise.’ The words came out louder than intended and sounded harsh even to her ears. Hunt failed to hide his reaction. She didn’t care if he was appalled; if a baby was missing hurt feelings were neither here nor there. Without a word, he went to the girl, squatted beside her and laid a strong arm around her scrawny shoulder. His six-two well-padded frame made her appear even smaller, even frailer. ‘Come on, sweetheart. Let’s get you inside. See what we can do to help.’
Hunt was good at the touchy-feely stuff; unthreatening despite his bulk; a passing resemblance to David Tennant didn’t hurt. It was enough to silence the girl, she cut Sarah a glance that was difficult to read, then allowed him to half carry, half steer her into the newsagent’s. White must’ve retrieved the girl’s bag from wherever it had fallen. He clutched it self-consciously as he showed them through to a cluttered storeroom then slipped it on the floor near the only chair, an upright that had seen better days. Hunt gently lowered the girl onto the seat where she hung her head, curtains of dull mousy hair concealing her face.
‘What’s your name, love?’ Silence. Sarah tried again. ‘I’m Detective Inspector Sarah Quinn. This is DS Hunt. Can you tell us what happened?’
The girl raised her head, stared sullenly at Sarah for a few seconds before pleading with Hunt. ‘Find her, please find her.’
‘You have to tell us what happened first.’ Sarah softened her voice and moved closer. ‘We’re here to help . . .’ Neither words nor action bridged the gap. Despite the girl’s anguish, her animosity towards Sarah was glaringly obvious.
‘Get out there and find her then.’ She licked dry lips, froze Sarah out again, turned to face Hunt. ‘Please find her, mister. She could be with anyone by now. They could have taken her anywhere.’
Sarah balled her fists, knew she was getting nowhere. The girl had been distraught outside, but clearly not deaf. Her uncharacteristic outburst was regrettable, and already proving an obstacle to communication when it was essential to get through to the girl. She nodded at Hunt to take up the questioning.
He got down on one knee and gently lifted the hair from her face. ‘Come on, sweetheart. We can’t help, if you don’t help us. We don’t even know your name. Or baby’s.’
The word brought it back in an instant. She sat bolt upright. ‘Oh, my God. They won’t hurt her, will they?’ Wide hazel eyes begged for reassurance, which he gave – too quickly.
‘You’re just saying that,’ she snapped back. ‘Tell me they won’t hurt her. Tell me she’s safe.’ She placed trembling fingers on his arm.
Touching scene it might be, but Sarah wanted to shake the girl. Her attitude – self-indulgent and over-the-top to Sarah’s eyes – was slowing down the police response to what was probably a major incident. She felt a tap on her arm and absently accepted a bottle of water from White. Offering it to the girl, she said, ‘Have a drink, then talk us through what you know.’
Still no movement. Hunt unscrewed the cap and passed her the bottle. ‘Inspector Quinn’s right, sweetheart. We have to know what happened. What she looks like, what she’s wearing. And we still don’t know your name. Or hers.’ His smile was reassuring, dark brown eyes warm and friendly. Sarah mentally rolled hers. Where did Huntie get the patience? He must have taken her share when it was being doled out. Her nickname round the station was the Ice Queen. She rarely saw it as a failing.
The girl gave a quick nod. ‘Evie. Her name’s Evie.’ She reached for her bag as she spoke. ‘She’s six months old. God, she’ll be starving. Will they feed her?’ Head down, her hand was scrabbling inside the cheap white plastic bag. The photograph wasn’t in a wallet. When she took it out, it was flecked with tobacco and fluff. But the girl’s sharp features softened as she blew the surface, and for the first time there was a glimmer of a smile on her face. ‘Beautiful, isn’t she?’
Sarah stepped forward for a closer look, but the girl’s focus was on Hunt, searching his face for the slightest sign of disagreement. There was none.
‘A right little smasher,’ he said. ‘Gorgeous.’
Despite the reply’s speed, no one could doubt it was genuine. Sarah was no big fan of babies, but with huge blue eyes, pink peachy cheeks and one tiny-toothed smile, Evie could do TV commercials for Mothercare.
And now she’d gone and the clock was ticking. ‘May I?’ Sarah reached for the picture. ‘When was it taken, Miss, Mrs . . . ?’
‘Lowe. Karen Lowe.’ Reluctantly she let the picture go. ‘And it’s Miss. I’m not married.’
There’s a surprise. Sarah made no comment, didn’t even tighten her lips.
‘And when was it taken, Karen?’ Hunt prompted.
‘Last week. In the park. I took a load but I only got that one printed.’
‘And the others are still on the camera?’ Sarah asked.
‘Yeah, most of them.’
Sarah nodded at Hunt who took his cue. ‘OK, Karen. Now we need to know what happened.’
The young mother swallowed, took a deep breath. ‘I’d run out of nappies. There’s a place up the road sells them a bit cheaper. I nipped in here on the way home for a mag and a packet of fags. I’ve never left the pushchair anywhere before. But there’s no room in here – you can see what it’s like.’ She paused, seeking approval, perhaps. ‘I was only going to be a few seconds. Had the money ready and everything. Course there’s an old dear ahead of me. Buying up the shop, moaning about the weather. Y’know the sort . . . all the time in the world.’
The words must have hit home. She clamped her hand to her mouth, a look of what Sarah interpreted as absolute terror on her face. Maybe she had an image in her mind’s eye of Evie being wheeled away by a stranger, some sort of monster. Her face froze, her slight frame shook, and in between heaving sobs, her rasping voice broke through in utter conviction and deepest despair.
‘They’ll kill her, won’t they? They’ll kill her. I’m never going to see my little girl again.’
Evie was screaming, her tiny face red and shiny with furious tears. The kidnapper didn’t realize the baby was hungry. Would lifting her out of the pushchair, giving her a cuddle, stop the crying? The racket was getting on the kidnapper’s nerves. Hush there hush. The screaming stopped, but only for a second or two, then returned louder than before. Ear-piercing, it was doing the kidnapper’s head in. Shut up, for God’s sake. The kidnapper pulled Evie closer, tightened the embrace, then walked slowly away.
When a child goes missing every minute’s precious; when a baby’s snatched each second counts. Police treat both incidents as major crimes from the get-go even if there’s ground for doubt and an innocent explanation emerges. Toddlers can occasionally wander off for a short heart-stopping while then turn up unharmed. But statistics show that a child taken by a predatory paedophile dies within three to six hours. There was no evidence either way yet, but Evie Lowe had gone nowhere without a helping hand.
Which was why less than an hour after the alert was raised Operation Bluebird had been launched: more than sixty officers – uniformed and detectives – were in or on the way to Small Heath; the newsagent’s in Prospect Road was now a designated crime scene and Sarah Quinn was at her neat-ish desk in Lloyd House tetchily twiddling her thumbs. She’d been called back to police headquarters to address a hastily-arranged news conference. Detective Chief Superintendent Fred Baker had wanted the media on board immediately. Not surprising. Given the family’s circumstances, a ran
Fanning her face with loose papers, she ticked mental boxes, running through the well-established police procedures that she knew were kicking in across the city: a mobile major incident unit was in the process of being set up on site, officers carrying copies of the baby’s photograph were flooding the streets, a specialist search team was combing – initially, at least – the immediate area. Behind the scenes scores of checks were being made: sex offender registers, hospital maternity units, CCTV footage. Operational overkill was acceptable – if it saved a child’s life. Better safe . . .
Sarah blew out her cheeks, couldn’t get Evie’s image out of her head. Or that the young mother’s histrionics had wasted a fair number of those priceless early moments. She’d asked Huntie to drive Karen Lowe home, stay with the girl until a family liaison officer arrived. Hopefully, he’d elicit more information. Either way, calling in at the Small Heath bedsit topped Sarah’s list of priorities. Assuming she ever got out of this place. She glanced at her watch, where the hell was the chief? Baker was a difficult bloke to get a handle on. He could be a lazy sexist sod, and definitely was coasting to early retirement and a fat pension. Why she had the occasional soft spot for him, God only knew. Maybe because he didn’t pay lip service to all the isms? What you saw was usually what you got? A decent-looking bloke in a fat suit? More likely because he wasn’t a bad detective. When he put his extraordinarily devious mind to it. And he’d have to. Baby snatching was still rare but thanks to the occasional high-profile case, the critical eyes of both the media and the man and woman in the street would be on how the police handled it. Baker was nobody’s mug which was why he’d wanted a full briefing from Sarah before addressing the pack. She’d delivered it five minutes ago, so what was the old devil playing at?