And it was still pissing down.
In the middle of the estate were a few shops: Granma Willis’ paper shop, a grocery cum hardware store, “His & Hers” hairdressers, “Fry-up” chippie, “Bamboo Garden” take-away, and the Victoria Inn next to a Paddy Power betting office.
It was coming up to two o’clock; well into lunchtime. Jackie considered her options. Her plods were in uniform; she wasn’t. The pub was a no-go area for them; the low lives would run a mile or, more likely, tell the plods to drink up and sod-off. Harmony estate was not known for its charitable characters.
But not if she went in; they’d be gawping – and maybe be willing to talk. Jackie pointed to the pub. ‘I’m going in there. You’re not.’
She waved down their attempted protests. They were on-duty; even slurping a can of 0.5% Bass shandy was a disciplinary offence – though you could drink a bath full without reaching the limit. All because of public image; you helped a little old lady to cross the road, then she couldn’t complain you had alcohol on your breath.
So the plods were sent grumbling to the chippie for their break.
Jackie peered at the grimy pub windows as she walked up to the door. Doom and gloom inside, no doubt. She pushed open the creaking door and stepped inside. Everything went quiet; it felt like a thousand eyes were staring at her.
Outsider. Not welcome.
In fact, inside, there were only four layabouts playing dominoes at a table by the window, a heavy-set barman who was picking his nose and the pub cat who resembled Garside. And only Garside was gawping at her; the others were engrossed. She breathed out, then in; and moved across the concrete floor past the scuffed pool table, and up to what could be loosely regarded as a wooden bar – it was probably a reject from a salvage yard.
She sat down on a wonky bar stool next to the cat, and propped her elbows on the top of the bar. The barman sniffed, and wiped his hand across his face. He looked at her; didn’t speak.
Jackie broke the silence. ‘Henry, please. Make it a pint.’
The mute picked out a glass, held it under the lemonade tap and pressed the button.
‘One orange, or two?’
It can speak.
‘Just the one. Drinking and driving.’ Jackie’s attempt at humour wasn’t reciprocated. He grunted. Garside stretched a clawed foot out, and meowed. Jackie flinched, the cat was probably infested with fleas. She tried again. ‘You got any food?’
‘Only cheese and onion.’
Jackie hated that flavour. ‘Anything else?’
The barman scowled and put the pint on the bar. ‘Two pounds.’ He scratched his ear with a dirty fingernail. ‘Are you deaf? Food’s finished.’
“Mine host”, he wasn’t.
Jackie pulled out a picture of Candice and showed it to him. ‘I’m looking for this woman. You know her?’
‘No.’ Meaning, if he did, he wasn’t about to tell her.
‘You sure…’ but he had walked away. Collecting empties was more interesting.
Jackie sighed. Perhaps it had been a bad idea. Pie and chips from the chippie would seem like a gourmet meal. Jackie ignored her pint. And the cat. She left the money on the bar, and walked back out into the welcoming rain.
She ruled out the betting office, maybe as a last resort. Any punters blowing their winnings on a Candice ride would hardly admit knowing her; that was for sure. She spotted the two plods eating their lunch from wrapped newspapers outside the “Fry-up”. They were sheltering under the awning, keeping dry. Jackie groaned. The chippie lights were off, closed until evening.
‘Want a chip?’ asked one of them, offering the bag. Tony was a pleasant youngster with ginger hair and a baby face, who was into weight-lifting. As was the other lad, Smithy. They looked the part, too. ‘We got the last helpings.’
Jackie dived into the bag, pulled out a few, and stuffed the fatty calories down her throat. She gurgled with satisfaction. ‘Lovely grub.’
Smithy shared his chips, and a piece of pastie, as well. Jackie felt a bit ashamed. She had treated them shabbily. She licked the last of the grease off her fingers, collected the empty bags and stuffed them into a nearby waste-bin.
‘Okay, lads, first round’s on me tonight.’ Most off-duty coppers frequented the Albion, a small freehold town pub close to the nick. Eric Large, the landlord, was ex-CID; rumour had it that he funded the pub from his crime rake-offs, but nobody gave a toss, especially as Eric was a generous contributor to the Police “widows and orphans” box. Early doors and late night sessions were tolerated, or overlooked. It was a win-win situation.
‘You’re on,’ said Tony.
Whether it was the change of mood, or the satisfying warm glow inside her stomach, Jackie felt a lot more energetic. And the rain eased off, letting a touch of blue sky, enough to make a pair of sailor’s trousers, poke though the storm clouds.
Jackie pointed to block G. ‘Let’s get an early finish today. You lads do this one; I’ll do the next block.’ She watched them traipse off, and then she jogged over to block H. Up the stairs to the top, and along the balcony knocking on all doors without padlocks, as she went.
On the second floor, one old lady with blue-rinsed hair and wearing a paisley-blue print dress was sitting outside her flat on a matching plastic chair. She had a pair of opera glasses around her neck. A large man, dressed in dark blue overalls, and who could have been her son, was pouring her a cup of tea from a china teapot. Delphi style.
Jackie stopped. She could hear the “Nessun Dorma” aria from inside their flat.
They were quite happy to pass the time of day. ‘My mum likes the view,’ said the man.
Another similar block opposite. Jackie nodded.
‘People-watching ... better than Eastenders,’ he explained.
Jackie pulled out Candice’s photo and handed it to the old lady.
The old lady stared. Took a sip of tea, and then peered at the picture again. She showed it to her son. ‘Isn’t that the girl that lives with that Mike whatshisname? You know ... the drug addict?’
‘Yes mum. That’s her all right.’
The old lady sighed, and gave the picture back. ‘Pretty girl. God knows why she took up with him.’
Jackie had her notebook out and took down the details.
‘I saw her going into Block D. Mike was to be avoided, so Granma Willis said. Or he would snatch your purse.’
Granma Willis. The paper shop; maybe someone would know. Granma could have an address. Or they could at least narrow it down.
She called Tony. ‘Get your arses down to the paper shop, pronto. I’ll meet you there.’
Smithy was the one that appealed to Granma. She liked muscles; wrestling was her favourite TV programme, and Smithy had dark hair and brooding looks, just like Edge. So she cooperated.
Jackie looked at the final list. No Mike on Granma’s books, she wouldn’t give him the time of day, but she thought he lived on the top floor. One of her paperboys had mentioned Mike had tried to tout him for a few quid.
Jackie gritted her teeth and thanked Granma. She hauled the lads outside.
‘Let’s give it a try.’ She saw them looking at her. It was not what the book said. ‘Look, we’re only trying to find where Candice lives. If we don’t strike gold, we’ll go back to the station and report it.’
Tony shrugged. ‘It’s your call, Sarge.’
Making it quite clear she carried the can, but she certainly wasn’t going to get wrapped up in procedure. Not this time.
They clambered up the stairs to the top floor of Block D, all of them trying not to breathe hard. That would show a lack of fitness – and result in having the piss taken later.
They knocked on several doors; no response, although there was noise inside a few; TV soaps, washing machines, electric drills, and kids screaming.
Jackie shrugged. ‘We tried,’ she said.
On their way down they stood aside for a woman carrying a heavy bag of groceries. When she saw them, she started complaining.
‘The asshole next door. MTV all day and all night. I’ve had no sleep for days.’
‘Don’t know. Only talked to his girlfriend ... Candy.’
Jackie motioned to Smithy to take the lady’s bag. ‘Can you show me, ma’am?’
They clambered back to the top floor, and along to the flat with no padlock on the door. It sounded like MTV rap inside. Jackie lifted up the letter box and peered through. She wasn’t sure at first, but she could just about make out a grey shape lying on the floor; a shape very much like a curled up foetus.
Jackie motioned to Tony. ‘Call an ambulance.’ She turned to Smithy. ‘Get me in there quick.’
One well-placed kick with a boot later, they were inside.
“Mike”, if that was his name, was lying next to a hypodermic kit. A syringe was in his hand. Jackie knelt down and bent close. He was unconscious, but she could hear sporadic breathing. She tested his pulse; weak. She rolled him into the recovery position, told the lads to stay put, and then went looking inside the flat.
For a mobile phone.