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Power on Her Ownby Judith Cutler
Kate strode down the endless corridors. OK, they'd scored a hit. They'd sent her to the back of beyond to collect a set of files. She'd bet no such fries had ever existed. Everyone must have been in on it-whoever she spoke to referred her to someone else on a far distant floor. She grinned even as she cursed herself for falling for the trick: the sort of thing you'd do to anyone new to the squad, just to test them.
So why was no one in the office when she went back in? The phone started to ring. Who the hell had been stupid enough to put it right at the back of the desk? She bent to reach it-and was pushed hard forward, arms pinioned. A hand clamped her mouth, the thumb rough against her nose. She tried for a bite: it pressed harder. She struggled, elbowed-used all the tricks in the book and then some-but he was bigger, heavier. Her chest was parallel to the desk top. Now something was pressing hard against her skirt, against her buttocks. Into the cleft between her buttocks. Thrusting, again and again.
If she let go, if she made her knees bend so he fell forwards ... But he pulled her back. She twisted her foot: with a bit of luck she could land a kick.
And then she didn't need to. There was a rush of footsteps into the room. Someone tore the man's hands off her and sent him flying across the room. 'Stupid fucking bastard. Get the hell out of here!'
She fell forwards on to the desk top, scattering papers, and lay there panting. Another hand touched her, gripping her upper arm to lift her up.
'Kate? Are you OK?' the same Brummie voice asked kindly.
Swallowing tears and spittle, she bit her lips to stop them quivering. She waited for her chest to stop heaving, her pulse to slow, before she spoke. Why was she overreacting like this? 'Fine!' she said at last. But her voice cracked.
Who on earth had rescued her? That guy-the young constable-at the back of the room who'd just smiled and nodded when all the other lads in the squad had yelled and catcalled. What was his name? He pulled a chair up. Sally, the Welsh airhead, was talking about getting her a
qldrink. 'Water, that's what you need.'
Kate needed water like a hole in the head. Whisky: that might just help. Mustn't think of whisky, Kate, not till six, no, better make it seven tonight.
'Sit down a bit,' the young man said. Colin, that was it. Colin Roper. Sally's partner.
'No. I'm fine. Honestly.' Her knuckles were white on the back of the chair. 'Not hurt. Just bloody annoyed. Falling for an old trick like that. The second in ten minutes, too.'
'Here you are-best if you sit down.' Sally inched the styrofoam cup towards her.
Out of the corner of her eye she saw a couple of figures in the doorway. DI Cope, that was the beer-belly and her immediate boss; the other was the DCI, his boss, Graham Harvey. Four inches shorter than Cope, and four stones lighter, he managed to bring stillness into the room. He looked around him, for all the world like a school teacher bringing the class to order. He had the slight stoop of a teacher, too, and a weariness about the eyes.
He even sounded like a teacher. They'd all pulled themselves to attention: she wondered if he'd notice if she tried to smooth the back of her skirt.
'My room, please. Now. You two-where's Selby?'
They were at attention too, shaking their heads. If suspects stood like that, they might as well plead guilty straightaway. 'If you have to lie, he good,' Robin used to say. Mustn't think about Robin now.
'Canteen, Sir,' Sally said.
It was a pity Colin Roper opened his mouth at the same time: 'Having a slash, Sir.'
'I'll talk to you two later. Remind your colleagues that we're supposed to be fighting crime, will you, not arsing around. There's a small matter of a missing child, in case it had escaped your memories. Power?' He gestured with his head.
He was holding the door for her. Old-fashioned courtesy, of course. And it meant he could look at her more closely as she passed. He wouldn't miss the finger-shaped pressure marks across her face.
She waited in the corridor for him, so they could walk side by side. But he didn't speak, not until he'd opened his office door, again standing on one side for her to go through first. She stopped in front of his desk, like a school kid in front of the head's desk, turning to watch him as he closed the door behind him. Although the room was standard issue, he'd got geranium cuttings on the windowsill, and some posters for art exhibitions on the walls. On his bookshelf stood a kettle and a plastic bottle of water.
'Sit down, please.' His voice was angry, exasperated, and, somewhere, kind.
'Sir.' Which chair? Not one of the armchairs. A hard one. She sat, knees together, upright, not letting her back sag. In spite of themselves, her fingers clasped and unclasped. Eventually she gave up the fight, gripping both sets of fingers in towards the palms. At least while he could see the white of her knuckles he couldn't see the bitten nails.
'You look as if you could use a cup of tea.' He busied himself with the kettle. When they chinked against each other, the mugs had the ring of china. No green fur, not like her last nick where there was a proper penicillin factory.
'I'm fine, Sir.' What was a DCI doing, fussing round making tea? It was usually a brusque yell to whoever was passing to bring coffee.
He turned to her, tea bag in one hand, mug in the other. 'Who are you trying to kid? Selby been his usual charming self?'
'There was some horseplay, Sir. I couldn't say who was involved.'
'Little DS Arctic, eh? Look, Kate, you've had a rotten time this last year, and anyone on my squad who makes it worse will feel my boot up his arse.' He looked at her closely. 'What have I said?'
'Young lady, you're not telling me the truth. Something happened in there to upset you. I've a shrewd idea what it was. If you don't make a complaint, I can't fix it.'
'If I make a complaint, Sir, I've blown my job here. There's these things wherever you go, aren't there. And I've got to work with-with everyone on the squad. Last thing I need's the reputation for being a grass.'
'I don't agree.' He stared at her for a moment, lips tight. She didn't let her eyes drop. 'OK. I won't press you at the moment. Let me know if you change your mind. And remember, there are others involved. You can't think just of yourself. What about other women recruits who may face the same unpleasantness? Think about that, Kate.' He poured water in the mugs. A strange smell, like grass cuttings, pervaded the room. The DCI was only giving her herbal tea, when every nerve yelled for caffeine.
The taste-suddenly she saw worms, little pink worms in a compost heap, the sort of worms which were eating Robin's flesh.
She made it out of his room to the nearest loo. Heaved until there was nothing left but bile, and heaved again. It had gone straight to her stomach, all that business. Shock, the doctor said.
She soaked wads of loo paper in cold water and pressed them to her eyes. Then all over her face. The door opened; she swung away, so no one could see her like this.
'Only me,' said Sally. 'Hang on!'
She was out of the door and back again before Kate had done much more.
'Here: take this.' She offered a bulging make-up bag. 'All that mascara running-look a bit like a panda, you do.'
Kate peered at herself. Panda was the right word. She smiled and opened the bag. Sally went in for bright lipsticks.
'Thanks. That's really kind of you. There: that's better. Just what I needed. And-about earlier-thanks.'
'No problem. Maybe you've got too much blusher there. Wipe a bit off, eh? Time to move, d'you think? Harvey sent me to find you. Well, to see if you were all right, really. Funny bloke, bit of a pussy cat. Sometimes. Best not to keep him waiting, though, eh?'
Back down the corridor. Though she couldn't see them, she knew that eyes watched her through cracks between doors and frames. She could feel the silence fall, deepen. Suddenly Roper put his head round the door of the gents: he grinned and winked, making a silent thumbs up. She smiled back.
Bracing her shoulders, she tapped on Harvey's door. The concern on his face as he let her in panicked her: what if she started to cry again?
'Sit down, Kate. My God, I didn't know my tea could do that to anyone. It's supposed to be healthy, this herbal stuff. No, have the arm-chair, girl.' Watching where the sun would fall on her face, he fiddled with the blinds.
'It-' She couldn't go into all the explanations he might want. But there was something about his face that made her want to tell him the truth, if not the whole of it. 'It reminded me of something, Sir.'
'Worms.' The word came out baldly.
He nodded. Perhaps he understood. 'I hope this won't.' He smiled very kindly. It was drinking chocolate this time. Not the packet sort, either. More like the expensive stuff she'd always sent Aunt Cassie for Christmas. And that was another problem, of course.
'I've been thinking about what you said,' Harvey said, pulling his chair round to her side of the desk. 'I'll let it be known that you've taken it in the spirit they'll say it was intended. You'll be taking hammer, anyway, coming up from the Smoke. An outsider. I don't want to make it worse. But I tell you this, Kate -' his voice hardened again '-if there's ever even a whisper of any other woman enduring-what did you call it? Horseplay?-I'll whip the perpetrator through every disciplinary procedure there is and have you as a witness. Clear?'
'Clear, Sir. They'll have other goes at me, Sir, just to make sure I'm sound. They did earlier, as a matter of fact. I went through it in the Met. I can handle it.'
'I've no doubt you could. That was before all that business with-your colleague.' He leaned over to his desk and patted what must be her file. 'Things like that mean you lose your -resilience. Heavens, woman: all those stress factors.' He ticked each item off on his fingers. 'The bereavement. Your own injury. Changing jobs. Moving house. No need to be quixotic.'
Quixotic? Perhaps she'd been quixotic about the house. But she thought about that enough out of working hours not to want to think about it now.
'Remember, now, if you should want support but don't want to drag me in, a Skilled Helper's just at the end of the phone. Right?'
What had Sally called him? A pussy cat. She found herself nodding and smiling a little. Harvey smiled back.
'Now, Kate,' he continued, in a slightly different voice, as if he were reading from a checklist. Perhaps this was what he'd been meaning to say all along, but had had to defer. 'There'll be plenty of people to say you were wrong to leave the Met, but you'll find the West Midlands Police pretty much on the ball. We'll be able to give you all the experience you need for that accelerated promotion scheme you're on.'
Kate responded in kind-alert, professional. 'Sir.'
'Oh, for goodness' sake call me Graham. Everyone else does. You'll know-even that lot know-when it should be Sir. You'll find they call me the Gaffer: that's Brummie for Guv'nor.' His sudden grin took ten years off his age. Not that he was that old. Forty, perhaps a couple of years more. Funny how having their hair go grey at the temples made men look attractive. n0 Then he looked at her sternly: 'Some of you folk from the Met have been known to take the piss out of us Midlanders on account of the accent. But you want to remember that we don't wear woad and some of us can even do joined-up writing.'
'Even Selby, Sir?' It was out before she could stop it, or she could stop her dimples.
He grinned again: 'I wouldn't guarantee that! But maybe you don't need reminding about all this-you've worked up here before, haven't you? Undercover at that old people's home? Where the matron had Munchausen's by Proxy Syndrome?'
'Then she had that heart attack before we could get her to court. Funny, I was quite relieved. In many ways she was quite kind-paid the staff decent wages for a start!'
'And killed the residents. OK, Kate. So at least you know your way around the city. You'll find there have been a few changes.' Then he returned to that agenda of his. 'Have you found anywhere to live yet?'
Found! Had it wished on her, more like! 'I've got an aunt up here. She's had to go into a home, so I've got her house.'
Except it wasn't, of course. It was a house from hell, with garden to match.
'Kings Heath.' Solid traffic from the front door into the city centre, as far as she could see. Next task, find a rat-run.
'Excellent. A pleasant residential area. But they have the odd spot of bother on the High Street at weekends. Kids: too much money and too much booze. Bit of a dust-up there last Saturday. Parking's dreadful.'
She nodded. 'Even after London. And no tube, either.' And Birmingham couldn't be London, no matter how hard it tried. And no matter how hard she tried to ignore that whining accent.
Harvey smiled formally, as if he'd concluded the items on his agenda. But then his face softened properly. 'Tell you what, Kate. After this morning I'm inclined to believe what the medics say. I think this business has knocked you around more than you admit. Even to yourself. And I think they're right-you should be on light duties for a bit. Now, in this squad we don't have passengers-'
'Sir! You're not going to transfer me!'
'Who said anything about transferring? No, all I was going to propose is that for a couple of weeks, rather than legging it round Birmingham and getting yourself-'
'Sir, I'm running again. And swimming. The knee's fine-it was only a dislocation!' But she had gone too far.
'Hang on, young lady, hang on.' He was back into schoolmaster mode.
'OK. Here's what I was going to say. There's more than one way of skinning a cat. You can take to the streets or you can sit here and get stuff off the computers. Some of the lads have the keyboard skills of the average gorilla. And it's here in the records-you've been on a couple of computer courses, haven't you? Quick accurate retrieval and cross-referencing of material would be invaluable. You'd also establish yourself as a member of the team. Give yourself time to make friends. Then we can work out who to pair you up with. OK.' It wasn't a question; it was an order.
She smiled politely. Yes, she'd have to make the best of it: the man was only doing what he thought was right. If she didn't like benevolent paternalism, she'd have to lump it-and with good grace.
'Now, you'll be meeting the other senior officers in due course. Superintendent Gordon. He's as decent a man as you'd wish to meet. Career officer, very dedicated.
Copyright © 1998 by Judith Cutler
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