After an especially prolonged lockdown of their own, the St Marmaduke’s crew are out of isolation and ready to tell their story again.
As ever, to read the previous chapters, please go to this page.
And to read the first section of Chapter 28, here is where you need to be.
Tuesday 12th November 1985: 12.30 – 13.45
An elderly man was leaving the cafe as Amita arrived. ‘No luck in there, lass,’ he told her as he passed. ‘I’ve just tried. Not a seat in the place.’
Oh. She hesitated. ‘I think I’m supposed to be meeting somebody,’ she said; but the man had already crossed the road and was on his way along the opposite pavement.
The old woman in her dream, or whatever it had been, had definitely said here.
Oh well, there was nothing for it. She had to check it out, at least.
She pushed open the door, entered, and stood on the threshold and looked around.
It wasn’t a place she’d ever been to before. Normally, when the element in CID that looked on her as nothing more than a skivvy demanded its bacon sandwiches and chocolate-chip biscuits, she made her way to the dirtiest, greasy-spooniest cafe in Camtown to get them. A combination of what must have been three-year-old lard in the frying pans and bread knives that hadn’t seen a kitchen sink for even longer promised a satisfying range of bacteria for the bastards’ consumption. As an added bonus, the sandwiches were usually cut by a young woman whose fingernail polish was so cracked it couldn’t fail to drop minute flakes into the bread, along with the imprint of her knuckles where she pressed heavily into the top slice.
This place was neat and clean, and promised no such microbiological input. A number of office workers were dotted about, men in suits and ties, and women in those shoulder-padded jackets that made them look as if they’d overdosed on dumbbell-slinging at the gym. She wondered how her colleagues might react if she were to arrive at the station dressed like that. Probably, she’d be referred to as ‘Vindaloo Carrington’ for evermore.
Other tables were occupied by nondescript individuals, mainly elderly men of the same type as the one who’d left, slurping tea in gloomy loneliness. Some of these glanced up as she closed the door behind her, and the distaste on one or two faces was evident. That was nothing unusual. Many men of a certain age — and some women, for that matter — might well have been hatched from the same egg as DI Hampshire.
One other table — three pushed together, actually — was crammed to the gunwales by men in fluorescent jackets, the legend McAndes, a local construction firm, printed on the backs of the ones facing away from her. They looked as out-of-place here as a convention of nuns in a brothel.
To a man, these workers also lifted or turned their heads to stare at her, and the looks they gave were entirely different. She was used to this, too. And the comments, sniggers, wolf-whistles and visual undressing that inevitably went with them.
She let their particular form of interest slide off her, and glanced around further, making a mental note that when she could get back to work she’d ask a couple of uniformed constables she was friendly with to drop in at the site office to see if they could find any discrepancies in the company’s paperwork.
The old man had been right. Every seat was taken. Disappointed, she turned to leave. Obviously, her dream had been just that.
‘There is a seat in the far corner,’ a voice beside her said. ‘Why not ask the person sitting at that table if it is all right to take it?’
‘Oh. Thank you,’ she said, turning again. Then she stood stock still.
And stood for a good half a minute. Then, frowning very deeply, and wondering at the sudden upsurge of supernaturality that was entering her life, she made her way over to the corner.
It was true — there was a vacant chair there. Now how on earth had she missed it first time? And how had the old man, for that matter?
There was, as the voice had indicated, somebody occupying the other seat at the table. Somebody she couldn’t see, due to the fact they were hiding behind a newspaper that was so large, it wasn’t so much a broadsheet as a bedsheet.
The fingers holding the paper were intriguing, though. For some reason they reminded her of someone she’d seen…
She coughed. ‘Excuse me,’ she ventured. ‘Do you mind if I sit here?’
She saw the fingers stiffen, and the paper rustled. ‘It’s all right,’ she whispered, leaning in close. ‘I have the same problem. Dirty looks, and waves of hate. I get it all the time, in fact.’
The paper lowered a fraction, and a pair of concerned eyes stared into hers. The forehead above them was chestnut brown, the hair above that a neatly-groomed black.
‘It’s Joseph, isn’t it?’ she said, still keeping her voice low. ‘Joseph Makumbo?’
The eyes had widened, probably from the shock of finding another non-pasty skin tone in its field of vision. The paper dropped further. ‘That is correct,’ the mouth that now came into view said. ‘Erm…’
She smiled. ‘I’m Amita. Amita Chowdhary. We were together outside Harriet Foster’s bungalow the other night. Along with all those others. You might not have noticed me.’
The eyes widened again. ‘I remember,’ he said. ‘The sergeant who was there called you “Detective Constable”. You are a — a —’
‘Yes,’ she broke in, ‘I’m a police officer. But, don’t worry, this is nothing official. I’m off duty.’
She gave a self-deprecating laugh. ‘As a matter of fact, I’m suspended.’
‘It’s because of that night. I shouldn’t have been there, you see.’
‘Stepping into areas that were none of my concern.’
She paused, feeling that there had, so far, been a certain one-sidedness to the conversation. The paper was still hovering halfway towards the table, as if it might at any moment soar to its previous lofty height and blot out the young man’s face again.
Quite a nice face, actually, she realised. Good looking in a not-too-obvious way. It was the sort of face you could get used to seeing over, say, a breakfast table…
Oh-of-her-own. Now where had that thought come from?
‘To be honest,’ she hurried on, feeling her face suddenly grow hot, ‘I came here because of a —’
A what? A dream? She couldn’t say that, it sounded ridiculous.
‘— an instinct,’ she finished instead, then added, ‘I thought that a nice cup of coffee would help me to mull things over. Put a fresh perspective on it all.’
As if on cue, a volley of wolf-whistles and ‘oy-oys’ broke out from behind her, and turning, she saw a pretty, but red-faced, young waitress heading towards their table. Ah — hence the reason for the McAndes men’s presence.
She amended the ‘a couple of uniformed constables dropping in at the site office’ to ‘an anonymous tip-off about a group of workers in a cafe passing suspicious substances around necessitating a full raid by the Drugs Squad’. Even if they didn’t find anything, it’d at least seriously inconvenience the man in charge, and hopefully lead to a little wrath being meted out among the workforce.
She really was getting worried about the state of her mind. Any more such thoughts, she’d be hatching out of the same egg as Jack Hampshire too.
She ordered a latte. ‘And you, Joseph?’ she asked.
‘Oh. Erm. Perhaps another tea would be nice. Please.’
The waitress left to another chorus of male chauvinism, and a follow-up raid by the Vice Squad was added to the McAndes inventory.
‘So, Joseph. May I ask why you’ve come here today?’
She hoped to God that he wasn’t going to resort to ‘Oh’ again. He did, but to her relief added, ‘To be honest, I do not know. I was merely walking, and happened to pass this place. I suppose that I too came in to “mull things over”, as you say.’
‘Really?’ she said. ‘What sort of things?’
‘Well.’ He hesitated, and she hoped that he wasn’t going to go back to speaking in monosyllables, albeit a different one.
‘Well,’ he said again, then seemingly decided to take a plunge. He even went so far as to lower the paper completely.
She listened in growing astonishment as he told her of his infatuation with a ‘certain lady’ — who, she gleaned, was beyond hope of wooing due to being terminally married to someone else — and of the vicar’s phone call to the doctor that morning in Joseph’s presence, during which the phrases ‘psychiatric evaluation’, ‘committal’ and ‘men in white coats’ formed the part of the conversation he could hear.
(And at that moment, two and two added themselves neatly to four in her brain. She’d seen the vicar’s wife outside Harriet Foster’s bungalow too, and noticed that Joseph’s main concern had been for her wellbeing rather than anyone else’s.)
‘As well,’ he was concluding, ‘your detective inspector seems to be convinced that I am responsible for these dreadful deaths. I cannot make him believe otherwise, and I do not know what to do. Is there nothing that you can do to help, Detective Constable Chowdhary?’
She sighed, and shook her head. ‘Unfortunately not, Joseph. And it’s Amita, by the way. As I said to you, I am suspended at the moment.
‘Although…’ She took a sharp in-breath as a sudden idea crossed her mind.
‘Well —’ she began slowly, studying her coffee cup (which had been delivered while Joseph was telling his story) as if the half-formed thought might start to grow out of the liquid it contained. ‘I suppose as I am suspended, anything that I did do would be strictly as a private individual rather than a police officer. So I don’t suppose that I could get in any more trouble than I’m already in…’
She raised her head, as another idea branched off from the first one. ‘And of course, if I were to take someone else along with me — say to make an introduction to a certain person and vouch for my bona fides…’
He was staring at her, a frown of incomprehension on his face.
Yes, that was definitely a good idea. A brilliant idea, in fact.
‘Joseph,’ she said, ‘how would you like to help me with something that might just help you…?’