While they were taking the piss out of a highly respected colleague, the phone rang again. Albert took it, listened for a few moments – told the caller to hold on – smirked, and passed the phone across.
Paul looked at him, but Albert had returned to his crossword. He put on his official voice. ‘Detective Constable James, here. Can I help?’
The male caller sounded agitated. ‘Look ... me and the missus were having a bit of nooky out in the woods. After, I got out of the car for a pee in some bushes. I touched it with my foot ... gave me a right turn, I can tell you.’
‘Touched what, exactly, sir?
‘I see. And your name is?’ There was a muffled discussion at the other end. Finally, the man spoke. ‘I’m in enough trouble as it is, phoning your lot.’
Paul’s eyes rolled. If it wasn’t a crank call, he could picture some scally with half a conscience wanting to do the right thing – be public spirited. But that could mean problems with his missus – if indeed she was the missus, and not a bit on the side.
‘Tell me about the hand. Was it attached to anything ... an arm, maybe?’
The man’s voice rose. ‘You taking the piss?’
Paul was quick to reassure the caller that it was a serious matter, and that he was only trying to establish the facts.
‘I only saw the hand poking out ... anything else is covered in a mountain of snow.’
The man sounded serious – and scared. This put a whole different complexion on it. Maybe not a wind-up at all. ‘Okay, sir. I’ll get on to it right away. Where was this, exactly, sir?’
‘I just told you ... in the woods.’
Paul stifled his impatience. ‘Can you describe how to get there?’
The man’s voice faded. Paul strained to hear, ‘... follow the lane from the station, you can’t miss it ....’ The call ended.
Paul cursed. ‘Albert, he sounded genuine enough. Let me know if he calls back.’
Albert shrugged. ‘Don’t hold your breath. They’re all at it nowadays.’
Paul wasn’t listening. He rushed back to his desk in the MIR. He looked around. ‘Anyone seen Sarge?’
He saw several heads turn and glance in his direction, but no takers. Then Reilly came by; placed a note on top of the pile of files on Jackie’s desk.
Paul strode over to take a peek. ‘What’s this, then?’
Reilly gave him a look that meant “can’t you read?” but condescended to explain. ‘Father Schmidt. Killer priest ... American murderer ... they’re all bonkers over there.’
Not that Paul was any wiser. ‘Sarge gave you this ... or ...?’
Reilly nodded. ‘Some oddball she’s found ... a new lead or something.’
‘You know where she is?’
‘Said she had a prison appointment at Leyhill.’ Reilly glanced at his watch. ‘She left about an hour ago.’
‘Ah ... okay.’ He hadn’t a clue what Jackie was up to - killer priest; a prison visit; he’d find out later. But if she wasn’t around, he would chase up the ‘hand in the woods’ mystery – that’s if it wasn’t a crank call.
No pool cars; apparently Jackie had taken the last serviceable one. Just his luck; he didn’t feel like slogging around in the snow and slush. Fortunately, Albert took pity on him; got Smithy and Tony to give him a ride in their patrol car – on the understanding he owed a favour.
Whether or not it was a false alarm, it was a good opportunity, en route, to discuss “the Vatican” Xmas heist: confiscation of the nightclub’s security camera tapes. It all boiled down to how long it would take Reilly to make copies.
‘As far as I know,’ Paul said, ‘he’s got it all set up, ready to go. Two shifts maximum.’
Smithy turned into the lane by the station; headlights blazing in the gloom. He stuck his oar in. ‘It has to be before Christmas Eve. It’ll be mayhem; puddles of puke everywhere. I pity the poor buggers who are on shift that night.’
Tony shifted in the passenger seat. ‘Slow down ... bloody snow; I can’t see a thing.’ He turned to Paul in the back seat, and made a sensible suggestion. ‘They’ll be having parties right through December. Don’t really matter which night we choose; a few drinks inside them and it’ll turn into an orgy outside and in the nearby alleys. Yobs getting their ends away in shop doorways, girls flashing their tits and waving their knickers; you name it ... real-life porn on tap.’
They all chuckled.
A few hundred metres down the lane Smithy pulled over and came to a stop, turned to Paul with an innocent grin. ‘Okay, Sherlock ... here’s where the woods start. Where now?’
Good question. The best he could come up with was a lay-by or a place you could pull off the road if you wanted a bit of privacy.
Smithy shook his head. ‘In this weather ...?’
Paul shrugged. ‘What about tyre tracks, then?’
Tony grunted, pointed out of the window. ‘See that white stuff. It’s called snow.’
From their expressions, Paul realised that they weren’t in any mood to yomp through snowdrifts on the off-chance that a hand would magically wave them down. He resigned himself to the inevitable. Give it thirty minutes tops; then try again the next day – if it was clearer.
‘Pass me the torch, I’ll lead the way.’
Paul slithered his way up the lane looking for clues, while the patrol car followed. It was darker inside the woods and he thought it a complete waste of time and effort. He thought back to what the caller had said.
You can’t miss it...
Can’t miss what? It was when he reached the half-obscured sign which pointed to a picnic area, that it dawned. Had to be this place - had to be. If it wasn’t, he’d give up. He signalled to Smithy to point the headlights down the small track off-road. In the beam he could just make out tyre tracks fast being obliterated by the fresh fall of snow. He had the presence of mind to tell Smithy to hold it there while he walked gingerly forward, trying not to contaminate any evidence. He came to a small clearing; one of many, with snow covered bushes and thick undergrowth circling it. The tyre tracks seemed to end there; rather, there were a number of tracks criss-crossing as if a three-point turn had been made.
He cast the torch’s beam over the bushes, trying to picture the caller getting out of his car and taking a leak. The caller wouldn’t have gone far; it was too damn cold. And so was he, now that he’d slowed down.
What was that?
He swung the beam back over the snow. A footprint? He bent down, looked at what appeared to be a small, wrinkled stick poking out of a bush...
Thirty minutes later, the area had been cordoned off, and Paul was being given both a pat on the back and a dressing-down by Adam Forsyth.
‘Initiative is all very well, but you should have radioed in. Any potential crime scene is my call, not yours.’
Paul nodded. ‘Yes sir. Sorry sir.’
Forsyth seemed satisfied. ‘You’ve got a bright future. Let it be a lesson.’ He pointed to the cordoned off area. ‘You were first on the scene. Give DCI Hillock a full report.’
A bright future? He couldn’t wait to tell Jackie.