Monday, 28 May 2012

The kitchen

The mother stayed behind in a police car. By turns hysterical and stock still she was restrained and comforted by two pale-faced woman PCs who looked as though they’d much rather be out here in the chilly night air jogging along the railway tracks with their armed and armoured colleagues and leading the search party of sniffer dogs with their handlers, forensics people, the terrified father, a specialist medical team, four priests and me.
   The dogs, I felt, were plain insulting. The priests that Detective Chief Inspector Cooke insists on having along on any operation involving me were pious-looking and earnest enough, but seriously; what harm could they do? But one of my chief strengths in these cases is my skill at tracking added to the ability to reason and speak with the authorities; albeit in this case with those very authorities who’d been unable, despite a full week’s warning that the intended abductor might strike again, to keep a Member of Parliament’s daughter safe in her own home. It’s true that certain breeds of dog can pick up scents consisting of only a few parts in a million but even the best of them can’t get round it when a kidnapper cuts the trail by climbing the wall of a disused warehouse and thence along its roof to the next building and so down to the far side of the high wall of a former brewer’s yard. They surely couldn’t follow such a trail even if they were lucky enough to scent a molecule or two of the sole issue of the marriage of the Right Honourable Sir Colin Orchard and the right pallid Lady Charlotte Orchard, nee Hampshire.
   I slipped down from the brewery wall, ignoring the stupid baying of the dogs (bloodhounds, just to rub it in), and motioned the Chief Inspector to join me.
   “He’s left the industrial part of the ruins. He’s on foot and he’s still got the girl. In a sports bag. Synthetic leather, mouldering canvass and intensely bitter old sweat. Some 1970’s aftershave too, so he’s not likely to be very new. You’re looking for a former squash player, I should think. Not that they’ll care about the details if they find him.” I nodded towards the police firearms specialists. When the likes of Tanya Anne Orchard are stolen by an abductor who’s already taken the children of three wealthy London families right out of their homes in the same neighbourhood and the latest victim’s father is a Cabinet minister you get more bang for your buck than the usual crowd of Special Constables and Sea Scouts beating the bushes. Emphasis on bang. I wondered if the firearms boys were the ones who’d been on guard duty when Tanya was taken from the attic bedroom of the Orchards’ town house. I hoped they were more concerned with putting the abductor down for her sake than to avoid police careers lived forever close to the traffic laws and parking regulations of London. This time he’d even sent them a warning note well in advance. Perhaps he was no longer thinking clearly; even by the standards of whatever his pathology was.
    “Where’s he headed, then?” panted the DCI, catching up.
   “Into the slum clearance across the fence. It’s logical; lots of empty terraced houses secluded from the populated parts of the city, built on coal cellars that’re handy for soundproofing and security and inhabited only by rats and the occasional drugged-up squatter. Easy to secure against squatters, no law around to object if he needs to enforce his privacy. Lots and lots of privacy. It’s probably why you never found what’s left of the bodies.” Our quarry was a frequent user of the Postal Service as well being as a dab hand with needle, thread and scalpel.
     I led the circus past the brewery’s high walls, through a gap in the redevelopment site’s recession-neglected safety fence and onto weed-choked streets whose abandonment testified to the victory of politics and bureaucracy over a neighbourhood that the Luftwaffe had failed to destroy in six years of war.
  The DCI held the herd back. The muscle formed a protective cordon around the Minister who looked about ready to bolt into the empty streets shouting for Tanya. Or order them to start an immediate house-to-house and thus warn off our friend with the surgeon’s instruments. So I’d have to do it quickly and I’d have to do it the old-fashioned way.
   The first street was empty. Nothing larger than a scruffy pigeon dwelt there; nor anything in the first side of the second terrace.
   The DCI and two cops with a battering ram and a pump-action lock pick just made it around the corner behind me when I found the house. Identical to the others, it was a soot-blackened Victorian relic of the railways and the huge families who served them. It stood like the blindfolded skull of a giant with its padlocked door and boarded-up windows. Nothing with a pulse now called that place home - though something with a good strong heartbeat would be calling it hell if her six years had taught her the word. Nothing pushed back at me as I approached the door, nor burned me when I placed my hand on the lintel that marked the threshold. And now I also knew that I was not alone.
   Orchard would be sure to order a frontal attack and Cooke’s experience of kidnappings and sieges would mean nothing to him. A father might panic when his children are threatened and do violent, dangerous, self-defeating things: especially a proud and arrogant one. Our master chef could do everything he needed in the seconds needed to smash down the door and I had just discovered that if Orchard and the SWAT boys went in there before me there’d most likely be a clutch of Metropolitan Police funerals within a fortnight and a bye-election in Yorkshire a week or two later. Boarded-up lower storey windows.

   He was in the back bedroom with Tanya and she was at least still breathing, which made one of us. It was pitch dark but my sense of smell isn’t the only reason Cooke employs me. Seeing his face in the infrared glow of the girl’s life was like looking in a mirror once again after so many decades. He had the same haunted, hungry eyes that I’m told I have and he stood with the same thrumming strength I feel growing within me at dusk. 
   I didn’t try to talk him down or negotiate in any way. You can’t explain to such a creature that what he’s doing is wrong, and in any case I had at last realized his true motive in all this. He was no gourmet. He was old, but I was older and that counts for everything in these matters; more even than a father’s love.
    I brought Tanya out myself; alighting on the pavement by the specialist medics. They had to start their procedures immediately if this whole thing was not to be a waste of time – procedures they must have hoped never to need and had only ever simulated at Porton Down. They mustn’t be delayed by Orchard’s hysterics.

   Minutes later Cooke and I stood together as the biohazard van and the ministerial car raced away towards a carefully misnamed secure ward in the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine.
   “You’ll not be getting any forensics from this one Chief Inspector,” I said. “A fire will gut the whole street before dawn due to a faulty field generator, perhaps. It’s started already. And when you’ve explained it all to him, Sir Colin will likely rush to sign the paperwork to bulldoze these streets and get the concrete poured just as fast as can be.” Cooke stared inquiringly at me. “You didn’t see what I saw.”
   A father might panic when his children are threatened and do violent, dangerous, self-defeating things. Especially a proud and arrogant one. The house wasn’t a kitchen at all. It was a nursery. 

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