The first, and most welcome, sign that there had been a regime change at Sussex House was that senior CID officers here now actually had a parking bay of their own, and in the best position, outside the front of the building. Which meant that Roy Grace no longer had to drive around trying to find a space out on the street, or furtively leave his car in the ASDA supermarket car park across the street, like most of his colleagues, and then trudge back through the pissing rain, or take the muddy short cut through the bushes, followed by a death-defying leap off a brick wall.
Situated on a hill in what had been open countryside, a safe distance from Brighton and Hove, the Art Deco-influenced low-rise had originally been built as a hospital for contagious diseases. There had been several changes of use before the CID had taken it over, and at some point in its history the urban sprawl had caught up with it. It now sat rather incongruously in an industrial estate, directly opposite the ASDA which served as the building’s unofficial but handy canteen and parking overflow.
Since the very recent departure of the amiable but lax Detective Chief Superintendent Gary Weston, who had been promoted to Assistant Chief Constable in the Midlands, tough, no-nonsense, pipe-smoking Jack Skerritt was making his presence felt throughout the place. Skerritt, the former Commander of Brighton and Hove Uniform, who was fifty-two, combined old-school toughness with modern thinking, and was one of the most universally liked – and respected – police officers in the force. The return of this weekly meeting was his biggest innovation so far.
Another instantly noticeable change, Grace reflected, as he entered the front door and exchanged a cheery greeting with the two security guards, was that Skerritt had imposed a modern stamp on the entrance staircase. The displays of antique truncheons had been dispatched to a museum. The cream walls had been freshly painted and there was now a new, wide blue felt board containing photographs of all the senior personnel currently manning HQ CID.
Most prominent was the photograph of Jack Skerritt himself. He was a lean, square-jawed man, good-looking in a slightly old-fashioned Hollywood matin'ee-idol way. He had a stern expression, a slick of tidy brown hair, and was wearing a dark suit jacket and a muted, chequerboard tie. He exuded a commanding presence which seemed to be saying, Don’t fuck with me and I’ll be fair to you. Which was in fact the essence of the man.
Grace respected and admired him. He was the kind of policeman he would like to be. With three years to go before retirement, Skerritt didn’t give a stuff for political correctness, nor was he too concerned about directives from above. He saw his role as being to make the streets and homes and businesses of Sussex safe places for law-abiding citizens, and how he did it was his business. And in his past two years as Commander of Brighton and Hove, before this new posting here, he had made a considerable impact on crime levels across the city.
At the top of the stairs was a broad, carpeted landing, with a rubber plant that looked as if it was on growth hormones and a potted palm that looked as if it should have been in a hospice.
Grace pressed his card against the door security pad and entered the rarefied atmosphere of the command floor. Thisfirst sectionwas a large, open-plan area, with a dark orange carpet down the centre, with clusters of desks on either side for the support staff.
Senior departmental heads had their own offices. The door to one was open and Grace exchanged a nod with his friend Brian Cook, the Scientific Support Branch Manager, who was on his feet, finishing a call. He then hurried past the large, glassed-in office of Jack Skerritt, wanting a quick word with Eleanor Hodgson, his Management Support Assistant, as his PA was called these days in this bonkers, politically correct world.
Posters were stuck up all over the walls. A big red and orange one stood out the loudest:
RAT ON A RAT.
DRUG DEALERS RUIN LIVES.
TELL CRIMESTOPPERS WHO THEY ARE.
He hurried past his office and one marked ‘Detective Superintendent Gaynor Allen, Operations and Intelligence Branch’, and went over to where Eleanor was sitting.
It was a cluttered area of desks stacked with over-full red and black in-trays and littered with keypads, phones, file folders, writing pads and Post-it notes. A car ‘L’ plate had been stuck to the rear of one flat computer screen by some joker.
Eleanor’s was the only orderly desk. A rather prim, quietly efficient if nervy middle-aged woman with neat black hair and a plain, slightly old-fashioned face, she ran much of Roy Grace’s life for him. She was looking nervous now as he approached her, as if he was about to shout at her for some balls-up, although he had never once raised his voice at her in the eighteen months she had worked for him. It was just the way she was.
He asked her to check with the Thistle Hotel on the size of the tables for the Rugby Club Dinner for this December, and quickly ran through some urgent emails she drew to his attention, then, glancing at his watch and seeing it was two minutes after 10.30, he entered Skerritt’s spacious, impressive domain.
Like his own new office – he had recently been moved from one side of the building to the other – it had a view over the road towards ASDA. But that was where the similarity ended. While his just had room for his desk and a small round table, Skerritt’s cavernous room accommodated, as well as his large desk, a rectangular conference table.
There were changes in here too. Gone were the framed photographs of racehorses and greyhounds that had dominated the walls in Gary Weston’s day, showing his priorities in life. They had been replaced by a single framed photograph of two teenage boys, and several of Labrador dogs and puppies. Skerritt’s wife bred them, but they were also the police officer’s own passion – on his rare moments away from work.
Skerritt exuded a faint smell of pipe tobacco smoke, just as
Norman Potting usually did. On Potting, Grace found the smell noxious, but on Skerritt he liked it. It suited the senior officer, enhancing his tough-man image.
To his dismay, he saw Cassian Pewe seated at the table, along with the rest of the SIOs and other senior members of the Command Team. He did not imagine tobacco had ever crossed Cassian Pewe’s lips in his life.
The new Detective Superintendent greeted him with a reptilian smile and a treacly, ‘Hello, Roy, good to see you,’ and held out his moist hand. Roy shook it as briefly as he could, then took the only empty seat, muttering apologies for being late to Skerritt, who was a stickler for punctuality.
‘Good of you to make it, Roy,’ the Detective Chief Superintendent said.
He had a strong, classless voice that always sounded sarcastic, as if he had spent so much of his life interrogating lying suspects it had rubbed off permanently on him. Roy couldn’t tell now whether he was actually being sarcastic or not.
‘Right,’ Skerritt went on. ‘The business of today.’
He sat bolt upright, with a fine, confident posture, and had an air of being physically indestructible, as if he was hewn from granite. He read from a printed agenda in front of him. Someone passed a copy to Roy, which he glanced through. The usual stuff.
Minutes of previous meeting.
Annual motor incident report.
2010 Challenge Programme – shortfall of lb8-10m.
Joining forces – update on merging Sussex and Surrey Police Forces…
Skerritt steered the assembled group through each of the items at a brisk pace. When they reached ‘Operational Updates’, Roy brought them up to speed on Operation Dingo. He did not have a lot of news for them at this stage, but told them he was hopeful that dental records might produce the dead woman’s identity quite quickly.
When he reached ‘Any Other Business’, Skerritt suddenly turned to Grace. ‘Roy, I’m making a few changes in the team.’
For a moment, Grace’s heart sank. Was the Vosper-Pewe conspiracy finally showing its colours?
‘I’m giving you Major Crime,’ Skerritt said.
Grace could hardly believe his ears, and indeed wondered if he had misheard, or misunderstood. ‘Major Crime?’
‘Yes, Roy, I’ve given it some thought.’ He pointed at his own head. ‘Up here in the old brainbox, you know. You keep your SIO roles, but I want you to head up Major Crime. You’re going to be my number two – you head up CID if I’m not around.’
He was being promoted!
Out of his peripheral vision he saw Cassian Pewe looking as if he had just bitten into a lemon.
Grace knew that although his rank remained the same, covering for Jack in his absence and running HQ CID from time to time, was a big step up.
‘Jack, thank you. I – I’m delighted.’ Then he hesitated. ‘Is Alison Vosper OK with this?’
‘Leave Alison to me,’ Skerritt replied dismissively. Then he turned to Pewe. ‘Cassian, welcome aboard our team. Roy’s going to have his hands full with his extra workload, so I’d like you to start here by taking on his cold-case files – which means you will be reporting to Roy.’
Grace was having trouble suppressing a grin. Cassian Pewe’s face was a picture. Rather like one of those television weather maps dotted with rain and thunderclouds and not a ray of sunshine in sight. Even his perma-tan seemed, suddenly, to have faded.
The meeting ended on target, at exactly 11.30. As Grace was leaving, Cassian Pewe intercepted him in the doorway.
‘Roy,’ he said. ‘Alison thought it might be a good idea if I sat in with you today – at your press conference and at your evening briefing. To sort of find my feet. Get the general gist of how you do things down here. Still OK with you – in the light of what Jack’s just instructed me to do?’
No, Grace thought. Not at all OK with me. But he didn’t say that. He said, ‘Well, I think it might be a better use of your time to familiarize yourself with my caseload. I’ll show you the cold-case files and you can make a start.’
And then he spent a few moments thinking how very pleasant it might be to stick hot needles into Pewe’s testicles.
But from the expression on Pewe’s face, it seemed that Jack Skerritt had just done that job for him.