‘Who said romance was dead?’ Jackie Steel sniffed at the floral bouquet and sneezed. Hay-fever and a hangover greeted the first of April: her 30th birthday.
Last night it had been dashing Detective Constable Paul James who had carried her across the palace threshold at midnight. Today, the palace was her apartment in Bridleton that needed a coat of paint, and her hero had transformed into an ashen-faced entity, huddled in a pink Paisley dressing gown. It matched her blue one.
Paul grunted. ‘Don’t forget the pendant. Cost me a packet.’
Jackie felt a twinge of guilt, which made her feel queasy. She put a hand to her neck. ‘It’s ... lovely.’ She choked. ‘I think I’m going to be sick.’
Paul started to mutter to himself while she rushed to the bathroom and heaved up into the toilet pan.
Then she heard the phone ring. She pressed the flush lever, and wiped her chin with toilet paper while Paul was answering it. He called out. ‘Debi Franks wants a word.’
Jackie frowned, and then smiled. A name from the past: Vice squad, Metropolitan Police. She stumbled back into the kitchen and took the phone from Paul’s outstretched hand.
‘Jackie ... it’s been ages. How are you?’
‘Debi? … Is that you?’ It sounded like the voice she remembered; the Home Counties accent. She glanced at Paul. He was out of it, staring blankly at a cold cup of coffee.
She heard the chortle at the other end. ‘Yes, it’s me … and … well … is this a good time?’
‘Debi … I’m recovering. Unless it’s a hangover cure…’
‘Really? What happened?’
‘The big “Three-O” birthday has arrived. Yesterday was my last as a twenty-something.’
And so it went on. Debi could talk for England. Welcome to the club; men; biological clock ticking; men…
…Jackie switched off — Debi had exhausted the platitudes and was explaining something. ‘…the reason I’m phoning … is … I have a proposition to put to you.’
Jackie heard the pulsating rhythm of the bathroom shower; water in full flow. She looked at the kitchen clock with a wonky second hand; nearly eleven. One hour to opening time and welcome to the “hair of the dog”. Her stomach started to gurgle like a clapped-out washing machine; maybe it hadn’t been a good idea to book an early lunch at the Blacksmith’s Arms. Whatever Debi was going to ask, she wasn’t up for it.
‘Can it wait?’
‘This is a one-off, Jackie. Your name cropped up. Fancy a secondment?’
‘Secondment? Are you kidding?’
Debi sounded sincere. ‘It’s an investigation, your patch. Duty Free is the code name.’
Duty Free? What the hell?
‘I get it. It’s a wind-up … an April fool’s joke.’
‘This is no joke, it’s as serious as it gets, believe me.’
Jackie’s head throbbed. It was all too much to take in. ‘Debi … even if I was interested … I’ve got an important court case coming up. I’d never get the time off.’
Debi wasn’t fazed. ‘That would be taken care of ... it has already been sounded out; you’re perfect for the role.’
The shower stopped. She needed to get herself sorted. ‘Debi … the answer’s no… sorry, but I can’t deal with it right now.’
Debi started to press the buttons. ‘Jackie ... we have an underage girl in protective custody following a paedophile ring tip-off with links to the Bristol area. Ana is a refugee from Romania; we found her semi-conscious in a cellar in Paddington. Her sexual organs have been mutilated.’
Jackie’s stomach heaved. Last night’s excesses being whipped into a whirlpool by Debi’s indictment. ‘No ... no ... I’m not listening.’
Debi was relentless. ‘We also found home videos: amateur stuff; three snuff movies, all featuring live girls ... until their throats were cut.’
The gurgling in Jackie’s stomach became a torrent of hot bile. She rushed to the kitchen sink and threw up the last of the excesses.
A whole heap of stinking vomit dumped on my doorstep.