It was Monday the 20th of October, and, as so often happened on Mondays, Janet Morrison was running late. She was only twenty minutes late, but when you’re late collecting your eight-year-old daughter it doesn’t look good, does it? The other parents always seemed to look down their noses when someone was late. Of course, in an ideal world no one would ever be late collecting their kids from school, but this isn’t an ideal world. This is the real world, for goodness sake.
She wasn’t really sure if she was more worried about what the other parents would say, or what Chrissy, the eight-year-old in question, was going to say. She had inherited her father’s brand of caustic sarcasm, and would be more than willing to berate her for being late – and then tell her father next time she saw him.
It wouldn’t be so bad, but it was his fault Janet was late. If he hadn’t run off with that young tart, she wouldn’t have to work so many hours and she wouldn’t be rushing around all the time. And it didn’t help that Chrissy thought he was so wonderful, just because he spoiled her on those rare occasions when he saw her…
As she pulled into the school car park, dumped her car, and ran for the gates, Janet thought, as she did sometimes, that it would be nice if she had been able to divorce her daughter as well as her husband. Then she immediately felt guilty for thinking such a thing.
As she reached the gates, she felt a pang of annoyance. Where was Chrissy? Why wasn’t she waiting here at the gate, like she was supposed to be? She looked around, but there was no sign of her daughter. She walked through the gates into the playground, but there were no children anywhere. Janet remembered she had always told Chrissy she should go back inside to wait if she was ever more than a couple of minutes late collecting her. The contrary little madam had never taken any notice of that advice before, but maybe, just for once, she had taken it on board. Surely that must be it. She must be inside the school.
Fifteen minutes later, the school headmistress was facing up to one of those nightmare decisions she had always hoped she would never have to make.
‘Hello, police? This is the headmistress at Saint Xavier’s school. I’m afraid I have to report we seem to have a missing child.’
Ashen-faced, she listened to the voice speaking to her.
‘Her mother’s here,’ she replied. ‘She’s come to collect her daughter, but she’s nowhere to be found.’
She listened again.
‘It’s not a very big school, and I can assure you we’ve searched every inch. I’m afraid Chrissy Morrison is definitely missing, and her mother is frantic with worry.’
‘As you’re the nearest thing I have to a detective inspector, I want you to know what’s going on.’
DI Goodnews sat behind her desk, her fingers steepled together as she spoke.
DS Dave Slater sat back in his chair, took a sip of tea, and marveled at the way things had changed around here. His old boss, DCI Bob Murray, had never kept anyone informed about what was going on, and that had annoyed not just Slater, but the other detectives under Murray’s ‘command’. To his delight, however, the recently appointed DCI Marion Goodnews seemed to have adopted the opposite approach. He might not be a detective inspector, but he was still the most senior officer below her, and was often privy to information before it became common knowledge.
He thought back to the changes she had managed to make in just the short month she had been in her new post; changes that Murray would never have had the get-up-and-go to bring in. She had been a real breath of fresh air around the station.
‘So, what miracles have you managed to work this time?’ he asked, wondering if she had been harassing the Chief Constable again.
‘They’re not miracles. Your old boss could have done the same if he’d understood a bit more about budgets.’
‘My mum always used to tell me women are much better with money than men.’
‘But it’s not rocket science. Anyone could have done it. It’s just common sense.’
‘Whatever it is,’ said Slater, ‘you keep on doing it. Morale is better than it’s ever been, and that’s all down to you.’
Goodnews nodded her acknowledgement of the compliment.
‘So far so good, then?
‘Very much so,’ Slater agreed. ‘Especially when you announced Forensics would be staying in the basement. I still don’t know how you managed to swing that one.’
‘It’s only for a year, don’t forget. If I can’t persuade the CC it’s a good idea to amalgamate with the two nearest stations we could still lose them.’
‘You’ve got him eating out of your hand. It makes perfect sense to move all the admin and CID here. We’ve got much more room than the other two put together.’
‘We’ll have a much bigger area to cover. I’ll definitely be needing a detective inspector if that happens, and I expect you to apply.’ She looked pointedly in Slater’s direction. He held her gaze for a moment, then looked away. ‘Is there a problem with that?’ she asked after a pause. ‘You know you can do the job, but you also know you won’t get promoted if you don’t apply.’
‘I know, I know.’
Slater’s thoughts flitted to his partner, not for the first time that day. It had been a month since Norman had been kidnapped – and a month since he had decided that early retirement might be his next step. It was hardly surprising – Norman was grossly overweight and unfit, and he would never have passed the medical and fitness tests to be allowed back to work. But it had been a blow for Slater all the same. He and Norman had become friends, not just colleagues.
Norman’s declaration that it was time to pursue a ‘normal’ nine-to-five life had been keeping Slater up at night for a few weeks now. It had made him look at his own life, and face some unpleasant realities. He was almost forty now, and had yet to find a woman who was willing to accept playing second fiddle to his job. His future weighed heavily on his mind, and he wondered if he would still be a police officer in a year’s time.
‘What’s happening with Norm?’ he asked. ‘Has he made his mind up yet?’
‘Have you spoken to him?’ Goodnews looked at Slater, her eyebrows raised.
‘I’ve not seen him or heard from him in days. Last I heard, he was going away for a few days to consider his future, whatever that means. But exactly where he’s gone, or how long he’s gone for, I have no idea.’
‘He’s not said anything to me yet. But, as far as I’m aware, he’s done nothing about getting fit either, which tells me he’s made his mind up even if he doesn’t realise it yet.’
‘He’ll be a big miss,’ Slater said, sadly.
‘Aye, the jokes will be missed, but this isn’t a comedy show. He’s a liability if he’s not fit, and we can’t afford to carry passengers. If we’re going to make these other things happen, we need a team of officers who are fit enough to do whatever it takes. I’m sorry, I know he’s your mate, but if he wants to carry on being Mr Roly-Poly he just doesn’t fit the profile I’m looking for.’
‘So what happens if he goes? We’ll be a DS short.’
‘DC Biddeford is keen to become DS,’ said Goodnews. ‘What do you think?’
‘You can’t just appoint him, can you?’
‘No, but he’s applied to take the exams. If he passes, he’s already got the local knowledge.’
‘If you’re asking me would he be good at the job, it depends what head he’s going to wear,’ said Slater, thinking back to his history with the young officer. ‘If it’s the “I’m better than everyone else” head, then he’ll just piss everyone off, but if he’s got his “responsible adult” head on, he could be really effective.’
‘That’s more or less what I thought you’d say.’
Goodnews sighed and leant back in her chair.
‘I’m sorry if that’s not what you wanted to hear. Perhaps I’m not the best person to ask. You know we have a past.’
‘Oh, it’s not that. It just so happens you think exactly what I think.’
Slater eyed her suspiciously.
‘You’re not going to make me work with him, are you?’
‘No, I’m not,’ she said, with a grin. ‘But I’m glad you brought that up, because that was the next thing I wanted to discuss with you.’
‘Tony Ashton’s okay. I can work with him.’
‘No. For the time being I want to keep him with Biddeford. Ashton’s not frightened to tell his partner when he’s acting like an idiot. I like that. It stops Biddeford getting carried away.’
She looked him in the eye and beamed a wide smile in his direction.
‘I’ve got someone much better in mind for you.’
‘There isn’t anyone left, is there? Or is Jane Jolly coming back to join CID?’
‘From what I’ve been told, I’m afraid PC Jolly won’t be back just yet,’ said Goodnews, sadly. ‘Since her husband kidnapped Norman, she’s been trying to make sense of what’s left of her life. It’s all come crashing down around her and now she’s got a bit of rebuilding to do. She seems pretty tough to me, and I’ve no doubt she’ll get there in time, but she’s not going to be ready for a while yet.’
‘We’ll miss her, especially when it comes to doing all our background research.’
‘Well, yes and no. The reality is someone like her is wasted doing that sort of work. She’s much more value to us out on the streets. Anyway, I think I’ve got the answer to that particular problem.’
‘And what’s that?’ asked Slater. ‘A robot?’
Goodnews beamed at him.
‘A dedicated civilian worker.’
‘Civilian?’ cried Slater. ‘But they have no idea about proper procedure!’
‘And, of course, you’ve always been the one to follow exact procedure, haven’t you?’ she said, looking him right in the eye.
He shifted awkwardly in his seat as her barb hit the target.
‘Anyhow,’ she continued, ‘we can argue about the rights and wrongs of proper procedure another time. Let’s get back to your new partner.’
Slater suppressed a groan.
‘New? Are you giving me a rookie?’
‘Look, someone has to train these new people, and in my opinion you are the best person here to do that.’
‘Now you’re just trying to flatter me.’
‘Don’t kid yourself,’ Goodnews said. ‘It’s the truth. And anyway, I don’t need to flatter you. Don’t forget – I’m DCI here. I can order you to do it, if I have to.’
Slater let out a heavy sigh. He wasn’t sure he had the patience to deal with a rookie right now, and was he really the right person when he was thinking about his own future? But then again, he liked Goodnews, and he didn’t want to fall out with her.
‘Okay. Where is this guy? And what’s his name?’
Goodnews made a big show of looking at her wristwatch.
‘I told DC Darling to be waiting for you down in the canteen at two-thirty,’ she said, ‘so you’d better get over there and introduce yourself.’
‘DC Darling?’ Slater got to his feet and headed for the door. ‘That’s a name to conjure with.’
‘You might want to think carefully about all those “come along, darling” jibes you’re planning,’ added Goodnews.
Not for the first time, Slater found she had read his thoughts exactly. It could be unnerving at times.
‘So why’s that then?’ he asked, with a grin. ‘Don’t tell me DC Darling has had a sense of humour bypass.’
‘Oh, I don’t think you’ll find that’s the reason,’ replied Goodnews, with a grin of her own. ‘I can assure you Darling has a fine sense of humour. Just don’t say I didn’t warn you.’
As he left the room Slater wasn’t quite sure what he was supposed to make of that last comment, but he guessed he’d find out soon enough.