~ 2 ~

The poster to the side of the vending machine showed a blurred picture of a man with his head in his hands. In deliberately broken typeface, its slogan warned of the dangers of drugs and alcohol at work. Detective Inspector Nick Ingram couldn’t help but smile with wry amusement.

If it wasn’t for drugs and alcohol, there would be hardly any work for his team to investigate and, if not for drugs and alcohol, at least half his officers wouldn’t be able to cope with their investigations. While Ingram prided himself on sticking to a strict fitness regime and only drinking at weekends, he knew the majority of his colleagues didn’t share his self-discipline.

Hearing a beep from the vending machine, Ingram lifted the plastic cup and looked at the thin black liquid within. The machine was out of milk again. He was sure that when he took his first mouthful he would find it was also out of sugar.

Oh but I’m sweet enough as it is, he told himself in mocking sing-song. Of course it wasn’t true. A police officer could be many things, but sweetness was not a trait that lasted long in the force.

Returning to his office, Ingram remembered again the compliment his wife paid him about being too handsome to be a policeman. Well, it had been a compliment of sorts. Of course there were handsome men who signed up to the force. Some of them even managed to hold onto their looks for a few years, though facing life’s ugliest side day after day soon took its toll. And that was before they turned to the drink and drugs the poster warned of.

Although he would never admit it in polite company, Ingram silently agreed with his wife. He was far too handsome to have been a policeman for as long as he had.

He moved to the window before he had the chance to drift into a narcissistic reverie. The office overlooked the car-park and, two storeys below him, he could see DC Donna Swales getting out of her vehicle. Ingram watched as she crossed the car-park with the fixed determination of a short person eager to prove their height was not a handicap. Swales aimed her key-fob behind her as she hurried away from her car. The car’s headlights flashed once to let her know the motor was secure.

Retreating from the window, Ingram waited at his desk for Swales’s arrival. He could hear the officious click of her shoes against the linoleum before she rushed into the office in the manner of a woman desperately trying to make up for being late. Slightly out of breath, she already had one arm out of her coat as she leaned over her desk to switch her computer on.

Ingram tapped his wristwatch.

‘Swales,’ he said. ‘You’re early. Again.’

Leaning back in his chair, Ingram rested his hands behind his head.

‘One of these days,’ he warned, ‘you’ll sleep in and find yourself arriving bang on time.’

Exhaling deeply, Swales finally allowed herself a smile.

‘If I’m early,’ she said, ‘then what are you?’

‘Ah, you know how it is,’ Ingram replied. ‘Missy wasn’t sleeping and that woke Shawna up. Once both the girls were in with us, Melissa and I had no chance of getting a decent night.’

He looked at the family photo on his desk. It had been taken the previous spring on Ingram’s 39th birthday, and it was this image that kept him going when he feared he’d reached a dead-end in a case. Even in the space of six months, both daughters had grown almost beyond recognition. Ingram would have a new portrait done before his 40th.

When he started his police training he’d yet to meet Melissa, while the thought of fathering children was no more than a nebulous concept he rarely entertained. Yet it was now his family who gave Ingram the strength to pursue justice through to its bitter conclusion.

As a new recruit, Ingram had been enterprising and ambitious. Having reached a rank and age where complacency could easily set in, the three faces in his photo provided him with the impetus to keep raising his game. It was Ingram’s duty to do everything in his power to create a safer world for his family. If that meant working on limited sleep, so be it.

‘We think Missy’s teething,’ he said to Swales.

‘Ouch.’

Swales screwed up her face, either in solidarity with Missy’s teething pains or Ingram’s sleep deprivation resulting from said pains, and keyed her password.

Ingram grimaced as he sipped his coffee. Having his suspicions proved correct wasn’t always a blessing. The machine had been out of sugar after all.

‘So I thought I’d come in and sort through some paperwork.’

He pointed to the twin pillars of incomplete files piled high on his desk. Then he pointed to three cardboard boxes neatly sealed by the side of the table.

‘At least this lot can go to scanning.’

‘Very productive,’ Swales said.

‘As a reward – and I use the word in the loosest possible sense – I allowed myself a coffee after filling that third box.’

Holding his cup aloft, Ingram pulled a face.

‘Not only is the machine out of milk again, it’s out of sugar too. I’ll wager every other machine in the building’s been refilled.’

Swales’s eyes remained on her screen.

‘They don’t expect us in so early,’ she replied. ‘That’s why uniform get theirs filled first.’

‘Either that or they know we’ve got more important things to do than spend all morning sitting in the canteen.’

Stopping what she was doing, Swales smiled guiltily. It wasn’t so long since she’d been in uniform herself. If her only concern then had been canteen gossip, she and Ingram both knew she would never have transferred to CID. Swales’s smile dropped as she clocked the expression on her superior’s face.

‘You look like you want to ask me something.’

Ingram nodded, a question of some description hovering upon his lips.

‘Did you hear about the body they found in Bridgelands Cross?’

Swales frowned.

‘Can’t say I have.’

‘How well do you know the area?’

‘Hardly know it at all.’

‘Well Bridgelands Cross is a small place,’ Ingram said. ‘A coastal village separated from the nearest town by several square miles of woodland.’

‘Sounds idyllic.’

‘Most of the time I’m sure it is,’ Ingram replied. ‘Although it’s a coastal village with high cliffs and precious little beach. When the storm cleared, the body of a young woman was found washed up on the rocks. It seems she fell from the cliffs during the storm.’

‘Anyone know who she is?’

Ingram shook his head.

‘Her description’s been run through Missing Persons. That brought up a list of possible relatives who might be able to identify her, but nothing definite.’

‘Anything suspicious?’

Ingram turned the plastic cup in his hands as he considered Swales’s question.

‘At the moment everything points to it either being an unfortunate accident or, in the worst case, suicide. There’s nothing to suggest any foul play.’

‘If there’s nothing suspicious, why’s it come to us?’ Swales asked. ‘Why isn’t it with the local department?’

‘Oh it is,’ Ingram replied.

‘So what’s the problem then?’

Ingram drummed his fingers on the table.

‘Max Sheehan’s in charge of the area,’ he said, ‘and Sheehan’s a bit of a clown.’

Wincing slightly, he reconsidered his words.

‘Well, that mightn’t be entirely fair, but Bridgelands Cross is a small place, not a lot of police work going on there. Sheehan’s main job is to keep the peace, but keeping the peace doesn’t usually stretch beyond breaking up a few fights at closing time and issuing the odd speeding fine. There aren’t many dead bodies found on the shoreline, if you know what I mean.’

Swales nodded, the tight bun she’d pulled her hair into bobbing up and down with the movement.

‘Now if this is as straightforward as it seems,’ Ingram said, ‘then I’m happy to let Sheehan run with it. But if it turns out there’s anything more going on, I don’t want him handling it on his own.’

‘So what are you saying?’

‘I want you to keep an eye on it,’ Ingram replied. ‘Liaise with Jeff Donohue. If the pair of you can keep up to speed on the investigation, there’s no need for Sheehan to know we’re watching him.’

‘I can do that.’

‘I know you can.’

‘What’s your instinct on it?’

‘My instinct is we don’t go on instincts,’ Ingram said. ‘Instincts are for chancers like Max Sheehan. We go on facts and evidence, as we always do. Beyond that, I say we keep an eye on the case and keep a closer eye on Sheehan. If anything suspicious comes to light, we step in before Sheehan has a chance to make a mess of it.’

Ingram swilled the last dregs of his cold coffee around in its cup.

‘If the victim fell or jumped,’ he said, ‘we can’t do anything more than pray for her soul. But if there’s any sign – any sign at all – that she was pushed, we can’t leave Sheehan running the show.’

Swales smiled.

‘You really think there’s more to this, don’t you?’

Ingram shrugged.

‘I’m keeping an open mind,’ he replied, ‘but if the coroner’s report comes back showing she was dead before she hit the water, or they find any marks suggesting she’d been attacked and thrown over those cliffs, then there’s someone out there who knows exactly what went on. And what could provide better cover than a violent storm?’

Having finished his coffee in a single gulp, Ingram tossed the empty cup into a wastebasket.

‘If that’s the case,’ he added, ‘then that’s the person you and I have to find, with or without Sheehan’s help. If someone killed her, I’m gonna make damn sure they don’t get away with it.’

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