Good looker, huh?
He came across as sane as she was – mad as a hatter – nothing that a break from the job wouldn’t cure. While she believed she’d been set up – he couldn’t rule out the early stages of paranoia.
They had both laughed at that, and he decided to go the tried and tested route first. No anti-depressants, just a change of contraceptive pill – which he said was the first step in balancing her mood swings. The pills finally seemed to be working; laid-off sick or not, she would gate-crash the Christmas party, show them she was fully functional – and glamorous.
The glam bit would be easy – hair-do, make-up, and her little black number she’d hardly worn. But how could she demonstrate being fully-functional?
She called him; left a message to call her on his answer phone, then sat back and started to read the travel brochures.
He called back an hour later; jokingly apologised for interrupting her siesta – he hoped she was taking it easy – said he’d wanted to talk to her; important developments that could interest her and suggested a bistro bar in Montpellier – early evening before it became busy.
It sounded good.
She was early – the Cheltenham train was on time for once - and after a brisk walk she was hungry as well. Once inside the Bistro, she parked herself at an empty table by the window, overseeing a pedestrian walkway alive with curio shops and jewellery stores squeezed between up-market, fashion outlets. The waiter, who was sporting a black, bushy moustache – it seemed stuck-on - and wearing a striped kitchen apron over a Rugby shirt and jeans, greeted her in a mock French accent. Parisian week: a poster of the Eiffel tower and blue, red and white striped flags adorning the walls. He persuaded her that the house white was as good as Chablis, better than Chardonnay. Of course, if she was celebrating, he had a few bottles of exceptional Champagne in the chiller.
She smiled; positive he was born and bred in England, but she played along with the act. ‘Just a glass of wine, monsieur ... but make it a grand one.’
He delivered a stage bow, but his moustache fell off. The illusion was broken, and Jackie started to giggle as he retreated, red faced, into the kitchen. It was several minutes before he felt brave enough to return with a carafe of wine – must have been a pint. He put a finger across his lips. ‘On the house,’ he said.
While she waited for Brains to arrive she gazed outside; people watching. Several brave tourists, wearing Burberry coats and scarves were wandering along the gritted cobblestones. A few eminent suits appeared from what appeared to be legal chambers, and started their daily march to their parked cars. Jackie glanced at her watch. Soon the trickle would be a lemming run when the offices emptied. She guessed some lemmings would be distracted and end up in the bistro; imbibing a quick one or three before facing the elements. The cold snap had lasted a few weeks; days of snow, and nights of frost and ice...
She heard his voice behind her. ‘Sorry … got held up.’ She turned and smiled. Still in his Shetland jumper and cords but he was holding a red rose in a silver wrapping. He held it out; she took it, a little embarrassed – Paul had never been up for romance.
She murmured he shouldn’t have bothered, and made room for him to sit down. He was gushing out his apology: his afternoon patient had been sent home smiling, and with a further month’s sick leave. He chuckled. ‘I should have told the skiver to sod-off back to work, but I pretended to fall for the Mr. Hyde persona instead of exposing Dr. Jekyll.’
Jackie raised an eyebrow. ‘I hope you don’t think I’m a skiver. I want to get back to work.’
‘Yes I know. That’s one reason I want to talk to you.’
He seemed slightly embarrassed, fingered with the menu. He turned away and signalled to the waiter to bring another carafe. ‘There’s another reason ... this new posting ... Christmas coming up ... important social gatherings, including my invite to your do at the Nelson...’ He paused, before blurting. ‘I haven’t got a thing to wear.’
Jackie laughed. ‘And you want a woman to help you choose?’
He nodded. ‘Since my wife died, I haven’t ...’
He stopped while the waiter placed a basket of French bread on the table and poured out fresh glasses of wine. The French accent was overdone. ‘Would you like to order, now?’
Brains pointed to the blackboard at the side of the bar. ‘How about the daily special ... hors d’oeuvre, plat principal and a dessert or cheese?’
Jackie smiled. ‘Well that covers everything. Do we have a choice?’
The waiter obliged: Jackie patted her stomach; felt the absence of daily runs beginning to tell. ‘I want to leave room for dessert. I’ll stick with the Almond Trout.’
Brains laughed. ‘You’re in good shape, but I’m going to bull out on the Beef Bourgogne.’
He certainly knew how to flatter a woman, but she wasn’t kidding herself. She would use the break to get back to peak fitness; otherwise her little black number would be straining at the seams.
Jackie picked up her glass. ‘You were saying about your wife ...’
Brains took a sip of wine and seemed to be lost in thought. ‘Cancer. She didn’t make it. Since then ...’
‘Oh, I’m sorry.’
He smiled. ‘Don’t be. It was a long time ago. Two wonderful sons and a mountain of memories ... but I’m useless in the fashion department ...’
The waiter slid a couple of saucers onto their place mats. Crudités: sticks of raw vegetables marinated in balsamic. They looked at one another; then both dived into the basket of French bread.
Whilst munching on a crispy carrot Jackie mentioned Cavendish House – that’s if his budget could afford it. ‘It’s probably got the widest choice, but we could also visit Debenhams ... they seem to move with the times.’
Brains layered a slab of butter onto his bread. ‘I’m in your hands. Lead me to the slaughter.’
Jackie looked at her watch. ‘It’s late night shopping week ... if I can cadge a lift back to Bridleton we can sort you out after dinner.’
He put a hand over his wine glass, and grinned. ‘Better lay off the booze, then. I don’t want to be pulled over by some over-eager traffic cop ... that reminds me. The other matter.’
Jackie sensed the waiter hovering. ‘Let’s save it for dessert. Here’s our main course.’
A couple of larger saucers; could hardly be described as plates - Nouvelle Cuisine on a diet. Jackie looked appraisingly at the three morsels swimming in a creamy sauce. She plucked one out with a fork. ‘Poor baby.’
Brains chuckled and reached for another piece of bread. ‘We could always order cheese and a dessert.’
It was starting to get noisy. She glanced around. The Bistro was filling up with the early evening crowd. ‘Good idea. But we’d better be quick before it all goes.’
The sliver of cheesecake with raspberry sauce was rapidly followed by a slice of Brie – and another basket of French bread. Between mouthfuls Jackie asked about the “other matter”.
Brain’s face was flushed. ‘Before I start work ... when it’s quiet ... I have a cuppa and a natter with the nurses in A&E. A couple of days ago I heard about this wreck of a police officer who hobbled in with a severed Achilles and carrying a jagged piece of glass ... it was well past the witching hour.’
He explained that’s why he loved visiting A&E. Plenty of insane characters with outrageous stories. All to be written in his hoped-for, best-selling memoirs...
Apparently, the officer was still in the hospital. There was the usual debate whether to carry out emergency remedial surgery or just stitch him up and put him in a plaster cast. The butchers won the argument.
Brains stared at her. ‘Marty Hemming.’
What the fuck?
Jackie nearly choked on her bread. ‘Marty? What happened?’
Brains wiped a napkin across his mouth. ‘I visited him and this is where it gets interesting. Apart from the ridiculous story ... he said he’d walked into a broken bottle while under the influence. I was hoping to get to know a few officers ... you know ... networking ... maybe find out a bit more about your situation.’
The waiter intervened. ‘Coffee ... cognac?’ They ordered coffee.
Brains continued. ‘He was in a bad way; seemed frightened. I asked a few open-ended questions ... no names ... and let him do the talking. Not that he was saying much ... but he did mention that DCI Hillock had been giving him grief ... he said it in a way that meant Hillock was up to something dodgy ... and he gave me a lead to Orson Angers.’
Jackie frowned. ‘Dodgy? What sort of lead?’
‘That’s what I went to find out. The Medical Clinic wasn’t that far away, and I popped in later that day.’
‘I know it. How was he?’
Brains laughed. ‘Deprived of chocolate. He thought the clinic was a detention centre and he was on starvation rations.’
Jackie smiled. ‘That sounds about right. In the office, he’s always chomping through bags of goodies.’
Coffee arrived; with a small jug of cream. The table next to them was taken up by two suits; Jackie overheard them bemoaning the state of the stock-market; blamed it on the weather.
She stirred cream into her cup and took a sip, while Brains continued. ‘He became more talkative when I fetched him a bar of chocolate.’ He paused, put two teaspoons of sugar into his cup. ‘I related what Marty had said ... about Hillock ... but he went quiet. I couldn’t push it.’
‘That was all?’
‘Not quite. Your name came up.’
She needed a wee. Crossed her legs and willed her bladder to behave. ‘In what way?’
‘Marty seemed to resent your influence with Orson; perhaps he found your way of working not to his liking ... I’m not sure. Orson seemed surprised that you’ve been having a set to with Hillock ... or maybe just surprised that Marty told me.’
‘Yes, he would. BECS officers don’t willingly share confidences with outsiders.’
Brains took a gulp of coffee. ‘Hmmm ... From what I heard it’s quite likely that you have been forced out on dubious grounds. What I want to know is why?’
Jackie frowned. ‘Good question. He’s an arrogant bully and a control freak.’ She smiled. ‘Maybe he hates sassy women that stand up to him.’
Brains appeared to think while Jackie fidgeted. His eyes lit up. ‘I think it’s more than that. If he is up to something dodgy, bullying could conceal shame or anxiety: by demeaning others, the abuser feels empowered.’
‘Say that again in English ... no hold on, I need the bathroom ...’
When she returned, Brains was settling the bill. He waved away her protests. ‘This one’s on me.’ While Jackie gathered up her belongings, he explained. ‘Basically, if you can find out what Hillock is up to ... it could explain his behaviour.
How the hell do I do that?