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He looked in the wardrobe for his suit, but swore when he realised that it had been lying crumpled in the corner since Friday night. He pulled his emergency suit out of the wardrobe, all threadbare cuffs and shiny elbows. As he pulled on the clothes, tightening the tie around his neck and threading his cufflinks into his shirt, he started to feel like a lawyer again. It was always the same. Weekends in scruffs, weekdays in pinstripes, and the tightness of the shirt collar seemed to squeeze out the weekend.
He just needed a coffee and then he would be ready for the world.
Sheldon Brown’s eyes were closed. There was sweat on his top lip and his fingers were clenched into a tight fist to stop the shakes. He breathed through his nose and began the countdown from ten.
He got to one and opened his eyes. His reflection in the mirror in the police station toilets gave nothing away. His dark hair lacked some shine, and there were purple rings under his eyes, but he had looked worse. He had got used to not sleeping.
He splashed some water onto his face and dried it off with a paper towel. He nodded at his reflection and then headed for the door.
As Sheldon came back onto the corridor, he became aware of the sound of men laughing and joking, waiting for the day to start. The squad was padded out with officers from other teams, drafted in to help with the routine stuff. The door-to-doors, fingertip searches. The door to the Incident Room was ahead, and he strode towards it. A voice from behind stopped him. ‘Sir?’
Sheldon turned round. It was Tracey Peters, the sergeant from the night before. Tall and brunette, with deep brown eyes, elegant in a fitted grey suit, she looked like she had caught the sleep Sheldon had missed.
‘Sergeant Peters, good morning.’
‘It’s Detective Sergeant, actually, although I prefer Tracey.’ She smiled. ‘I hope you don’t mind, but I have spoken to my inspector, and he says that if you want one more, then you’ve got me.’ When Sheldon didn’t respond, she added, ‘I was there last night, and so I want to see it through.’
Sheldon swallowed and nodded. People would be watching him. He would need all the help he could get. ‘Yes, thank you,’ and then, ‘it’s been hard getting the numbers in.’
Tracey grimaced. ‘I know how it is.’
Every team was the same. Budget cuts had decimated the force, and so every squad was running at its leanest. Sheldon had assembled a unit from whoever could be spared, with some drafted in from the nearest towns. They had taken over the small Oulton station, a stone block in the middle of the town next to the Magistrates Court, with old wooden windows and a genteel blue lamp hanging over the door.
There was supposed to be a detective chief inspector coming over from the Force Major Investigation Team, to see whether they should take over the case, but there had been a double murder on the other side of the county. Sheldon had been instructed to keep things afloat until he got there.
Sheldon stopped at the doorway of the Incident Room and looked in. The station wasn’t used to so much activity, and the squad looked crammed in. Condensation was building up on the windows and officers lined the walls, the few available chairs taken by the keen ones who had arrived first. He recognised all the detectives in there, testament to the twenty-five years he had put in, the eager young cadet turned into a jowly man in his fifties. As people saw him, the sounds of conversation died away, and they exchanged glances, some of disappointment, some of surprise.
Sheldon smiled, but it came out like a twitch, and then he walked in, his head up. All the eyes in the room followed him as he took a place at the front. The only sound in the room was the rustle of an envelope as he pulled out a set of photographs, and then the rip of sticky tape as he pasted them to the whiteboard at the front of the room. They were the pictures from the night before, the body on the hotel bed, strapped to the corners, the face sliced off.
Murmurs went around the room as they took in the images. Sheldon guessed that word of the body had gone round the station, but photographs made things more real.
Sheldon cleared his throat and then turned round to look at the squad. His hands went into fists again. ‘Last night was grim,’ he said. ‘I was there. I know how it was. We need to catch whoever did this.’ He tried to make it sound like a rallying call, but he was met by stares and silence. His tongue flicked across his bottom lip, waiting for someone to ask a question, just to fill the gap.
‘Do we know who the victim is yet?’ a voice said at the back. Sheldon recognised him. Duncan Lowther, the poster boy for the local CID. He was a hobby copper, inherited wealth funding his life, not the job. His was the Porsche on the car park, to match the expensive cologne, and the weekends spent in the wine bars of Manchester. He talked of great literature and art-house cinema, and didn’t wear the usual uniform of pastel shirts and chain store suits, preferring tight grey V-necks and silk ties.
Sheldon had seen too many coppers like him. All glory, no graft.
‘That’s the first thing we need to work out,’ Sheldon said. ‘Always start with the victim. And someone needs to go through the incident logs for the county for the last twelve hours, just to check if someone didn’t come home.’
‘Extra-marital?’ someone else said. ‘Maybe a jealous husband?’
Sheldon nodded. ‘Maybe. That is one angle. It was cruel, and so revenge seems a motive.’ He looked at the photographs again. ‘The face was removed and wasn’t left in the hotel room. We need to find where it went, because someone took it away for a reason, and so we need to know why.’
‘It could just be a random sick murder,’ Lowther said. ‘These things do happen. And does it matter why? It’s the who that’s important.’
Sheldon felt the smile grow on his face, although it felt tight and unnatural, and he knew it hadn’t reached his eyes. ‘Thank you for your wisdom, but if you get the why, you’ve got yourself a suspect list. And you’ve just got yourself the CCTV job.’ When Lowther looked confused, he added, ‘Go to the hotel and watch the camera footage. Account for everyone staying there. If someone comes in who you can’t put in a room, there’s your first suspect. Then go through the town cameras. Someone running, or a car going too fast.’ He looked around the rest of the room. ‘The rest of you. Divide yourself up into twos. It’s time to knock on doors. You know the routines. Get the paperwork in, look for the unusual, and let’s hope for a forensic hit.’
‘How long have we got the job in Oulton?’ a voice said at the back. ‘FMIT are coming over.’
‘I want to keep it with us,’ Sheldon said. ‘The people in this town know us and trust us. You know how it is around here, that they don’t like outsiders. If we let FMIT take over, people might clam up and we will lose that local contact.’
There were some murmurs of agreement, before everyone looked to the front, startled, as a uniformed officer burst into the room. He looked at the photographs, and then at Sheldon.
‘Yes?’ Sheldon said, irritated.
‘We’ve just had a call, sir, from the paper, the Lancashire Express,’ and he pointed to the photographs taped up at the front. ‘It’s about your case. They said they’ve got something you have to see.’
Charlie walked to his office, as usual. Even though there had been a burglary, getting there earlier would only make a bad start come sooner.
The stroll shook off most of the booze from the night before, although he couldn’t get over the slump as quickly as he could a few years earlier. Managing a hangover was just about patience though, and so he knew he would be over the worst by lunchtime.
His apartment was at the top of the town, just so that they could sell it by the views. It wasn’t a long walk; just past the entrance to a council estate, where the street signs were obscured by graffiti, and then along a row of terraced cottages whose views across barren hills had been stolen by the march of progress.
As he walked past the Eagleton, the best greasy spoon in town, with large windows that were permanently steamed up, he heard someone ride alongside him on a bike, the tyres crunching on the small stones in the gutter. Charlie’s pupils were still sluggish, but he recognised him as Tony, one of his regulars. This was the part of the day when Tony made sense, before he stocked up on bargain vodka and watched the day dissolve into a blur of survival, every day just an attempt to get through to the next one. Sometimes he got into fights, just messy brawls most of the time, and that’s when he turned up at Charlie’s office.
‘Tony. How are you doing?’
‘Have you seen up by the Grange?’ he said, pointing over his shoulder, towards the moors. ‘There’s police everywhere.’
‘There’s been a murder,’ Charlie said. ‘It’s probably to do with that.’
‘Who is it?’
Charlie shrugged. ‘I don’t know.’
‘It must be someone important. I’ve never seen so many police.’
Charlie smiled. ‘We’re all important, Tony, even you.’
He was about to set off walking again when Tony said, ‘I’ve just had a summons, for threatening behaviour. I’m up next Thursday. I was on my way to your office.’
‘You won’t get legal aid.’
Charlie stopped walking and sighed. He knew the scowl. If Charlie wouldn’t do it for the goodwill, then someone else would. He remembered refusing to turn out for someone on a freebie, and the client killed someone two months later. The one who did the freebie got the murder.
‘Guilty plea?’ Charlie said.
‘Okay, I’ll see you there, but if something else comes up, you’re on your own. I’m yours if I’m available.’
Tony smiled. ‘Thanks Charlie.’
Charlie didn’t say anything as Tony set off riding again. People like Tony kept the work flowing. Sometimes he got paid, and sometimes he didn’t, but Charlie had to look after him for those days when he did, because he had chosen criminal law, the budget end of the trade. He remembered the brochures for high-earning corporate firms that littered the career racks at his university, attracting those with polished accents. The only child from his family to go to university, Charlie guessed at his limitations and aimed low. At least he achieved his aim, and it didn’t seem like failure.
As Tony rode away down the hill, Charlie noticed a group of people on the other side of the street. Six of them, all in black clothes, and Charlie thought they were looking straight at him. They were near the office, and even as Tony went past them, they didn’t change their focus.
That made him pause. For every client he had to defend, it usually meant upsetting someone else, like a victim or a police officer. Charlie paused for a moment, made some pretence about checking his phone, but when he looked up again, the group were no longer there.
Charlie frowned. Perhaps he had misread it. He shrugged and set off walking the last hundred yards to his office, above a kebab shop and accessed by a door squeezed between it and a tattoo parlour.
Charlie had set up his own practice five years earlier, when the firm he trained with started to replace the lawyers with paralegals. He had known that he was next in line, and so he went on his own. The dream of building an empire soon soured, with long hours just to make the practice break even, with too much time spent on practice management, just to prove that he was fit to do legal aid work. He had been on the brink of walking away from it all, knowing that he wasn’t cut out for it and that a job behind a bar might make him happier, when Amelia had approached him and said that she wanted to buy in.
Amelia Diaz. He had seen her a few times around court before then, and her appearance was hard to forget, with long dark hair and an olive-tanned cleavage that she flaunted at men to get what she wanted, and at women just to show that she had it. Her father was from Barcelona and had married an Englishwoman, except a northern upbringing had given her more brashness than Catalan swagger. Charlie hadn’t wanted a partner, but he was too desperate to turn her away, because it let him carry on being the only thing he knew he was good at – a Magistrates Court legal hack.
As he climbed the stairs, he could hear the coffee machine bubbling.
She popped her head around the door of her office and scowled. ‘Glad you could make it. Come in.’
Charlie rolled his eyes at Linda, who had been his receptionist and secretary and office manager since he started, a woman with the stature of a bowling ball, with hair cropped close to her head.
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