Tuesday, February 16, 2010

In the Company of Strangers Part 3


 It was raining by four pm and all hell was going on at the Knightley road police station. The benches in reception were steaming gently with people and the desk sergeant was struggling with seven or eight rowdy teenagers in the hands of two constables. He saw me over their heads and nodded me past into the corridor.

“Room three, they’re waiting for you.”

“Why was she picked up?”


The usual. He raised his voice as several of the teenagers began to sing.

“Before you ask, social services know she’s here. Her social worker’s out, they can’t page him and he won’t be in touch until Tuesday at the earliest.”

He rolled his eyes at me. I waded through bodies and uniformed police to the briefing rooms. Melanie Keen looked up like a shot rabbit when I opened the door. I saw her eyes before she got the pout back in place: she was tired and scared and her child’s body was distorted with pregnancy. Across the table, Mark Adair greeted me with a brief, amused nod.


“What’s CID got to do with this?” I demanded. “Are you into petty theft now?”

“Miss Keen knows some friends of ours, that’s all.” Adair got up and gave me a sardonic bow. “I’ll see you when the two of you are finished.”

Melanie flatly refused to listen to the police or me. She hadn’t taken the CDs they found in her bag; they’d been planted on her; she’d paid for them; the store detective was out to get her; and there was nothing wrong with taking CDs anyway, everyone did it.
The sergeant patiently trying to question her, finally rolled his eyes at me and jerked his head at the door of the interview room.

“This is getting us nowhere,” he said as soon as the door was shut. “Is she stringing us along or does she really have no idea what’s happening?”

“She’s pregnant.”

And very young, none too bright and frightened. The sergeant propped his shoulders against the wall. “I’ll talk to the super. I reckon the best we can do is charge her and let her go. As to what’ll happen when this gets to court…”

He looked grave. I agreed with him. This was the fourth offence in ten months. She was going to end up with a custodial sentence soon, and I doubted very much if she’d survive it.

“What if I could get her to sign a contract? Some sort of agreement with the home staff that they keep track of her?”

“And then what? That’s what a court will ask.” The sergeant said apologetically.

“I’ll put the fear of God up her,” I said grimly. “What she needs is a foster placement, but she’s too old.”

“No chance at all?”

“I can try. That might convince a magistrate there’s some control over her.”

“You’ll be lucky at her age won’t you?”

“I’ll be lucky full stop.”

“Poor little cow,” the sergeant said under his breath. I sat back and mentally ran through every option I could think of. There were very few. She was in her third placement: Rainbows. A children’s residential hostel that we had several of the youngest St Giles clients placed in. I knew the hostel staff were getting heartily sick of her. At fifteen and pregnant, there were going to be few foster families ready to take her on; fewer still if we were looking for a family who’d give her the attention and supervision she needed and that a court would respond to. If I couldn’t find something significant to offer this time, I could see we were going to get into discussions on the rights of the unborn baby.

“The solicitor’s on his way.” The sergeant was back, hands in his pockets, looking a little more cheerful. “He’ll want to talk to you and Melanie, then she can go. Usual routine.”

“Thanks,” I said and meant it. The police were invariably understanding of our clients.

“Got a daughter of my own that age. Taking her GCSEs this summer.” The sergeant paused with his hand on the door. “Nothing we can do with her parents I suppose? Worth one of us having a word with them?”

“Dad’s in Maidstone prison. He’s the only relative Mel wants me to know about.”

“Awful what some people let happen to their kids.”

Actually, if you went through the St. Giles notes you started to find it was often just circumstances at the bottom of each story. Sheer bad luck.

I talked to Mel for a further half-hour without getting anywhere, except I could see her getting close to tears. She was clinging to the hope that I’d be able, as I had once or twice before, to coax the shop into dropping charges. The desk sergeant had already told me that this was a chain store proud of prosecuting every shoplifter caught.

In the end I gave up and put an arm around her shoulders, letting her cry in peace. She was one of our few disasters – a kid with moderate learning difficulties who had a lot of problems understanding morality. Her thefts had no ill intent behind them. I suspected that much of it had to do with her not really understanding the value of money. What she needed was a lot of looking after. The most I thought I’d be able to find for her would be overstretched social workers in a hostel where she’d only really be supervised overnight. And I was getting increasingly worried about her pregnancy. She was very young to be pregnant and as far as I knew, she’d had no medical support. I knew the school she was registered with and they were more than happy to help, but her self esteem was based on being supposedly too hard to go to school, and she didn’t like the work - even with the special needs help they gave her. In short, she was exactly the sort of client I wanted Ryan to hand back to social services in theory, save that I knew I couldn’t do that to her.
I was only half-listening to her monologue between sobs; a general indictment on police, retail stores, store detectives, and one of the key workers at her hostel who she didn’t get on with. Only one line caught my attention and I pulled myself together.

“What was that?"

“Steve. I heard he was killed. They were talking about it at Rivo’s.”

“Who were?”

She sniffed, calmer now. “Craig and that. They were hanging around Rivo’s last night; Craig said Steve had been killed.”

It was no surprise to me that she knew them. A lot of our kids know each other from the hostels and shelters. What I really took in was Craig’s name: he had obviously abandoned his placement already. That was going to be a blow for Ryan, much as he was expecting it.

“Yeah. He was hit by a lorry.”

“Craig said that was just a story. Something to do with this happy pill Steve had.”

“Do you know anything about this Elite?” I demanded. She wiped her eyes, losing interest.

“Can I have a coke?”

“Had you seen it before?”

“I don’t know.” She pushed her straggled perm back over her shoulders. I recognised the hairstyle vaguely: a parody of current fashion. It made her look about eleven with her streaked mascara and badly done lipstick.

“Mel, it’s important. What was said about this pill?”

“Craig said something about Steve selling it off. Twenty quid a tablet. Said if you had a couple you could make a fortune in any club in London .”

“Did Craig have any?”

She shrugged, confidences at an end. I got her a coke and left her to the solicitor, who I’d seen work with other juveniles and I knew wouldn’t alarm her. I now had a few hours to stabilise her current placement so she had somewhere to go tonight, and then I could start tilting at the windmill of foster placements.

Adair met me in the corridor outside, a polystyrene cup of coffee in his hand.

“What did she nick this time?”

“Two CDs. They caught her red handed, there isn’t much I can do.”

“If you’re done, can I take you out to lunch?”

“I’m straight.” I said irritably. Adair grinned.

“Pull the other one.”

“I’ve given it up for Lent then. What are you after?”

He flashed me a patently insincere smile. “Anything on offer. Why don’t you come out for a meal? I’ll behave. I’ll even tell you all about this Elite.”

“I’ve got clients waiting.”

He nodded at the briefing room door. “What about her?”

“I told you. There isn’t much I can do. She’s at Rainbows at the moment-“

“The kids’ home at Wrexham? I know it.”

“They took her on the grounds she wouldn’t offend again. She doesn’t understand she can’t keep her place unless she keeps the rules. I don’t think she really understands cause and effect. Whatever we find for her she scotches sooner or later. I just hope she catches on this time.”

He looked at me.

“You only ever see them in criminal settings.” I said defensively. He spread his hands. A rather sweet smile lifted the heaviness of his brows and mouth. “So convert me.”

He trailed me out of the station to the outside steps, which I navigated with care due to the frost. Adair passed his coffee to a colleague. The next thing I knew he’d grabbed the handles of my chair and I pulled my hands away from my wheels fast, before he dislocated any of my fingers as he tipped the chair back and slid it down to the pavement. I took firm hold of the wheel rims and pulled back out of his reach. “Thankyou,” I said in tones which left him in no doubt as to what I thought.

He grinned but didn’t argue. “Do you know what she’s told us about the Elite?”

“I’m more interested in salvaging her somewhere to sleep tonight.”

He bowed me past with exaggerated courtesy.

Rainbows were fed up with Mel who made no secret of the fact she didn’t like them. It took me a while to calm her keyworker down once she knew Mel had been arrested yet again, and it took longer still to persuade her to keep Mel’s place open. She had actually gone to Rainbows on the agreement that she wouldn’t offend again.

“We can’t be everywhere.” The woman told me hotly, “There’s fifteen of them and five of us covering shifts– we can’t cater for these half way house ones.”

Mel was actually too young for a halfway house, which was an option Jenny had suggested months ago. I was tempted to tell the woman about Ryan, Jenny and I who carried thirty kids plus on each of our caseloads, and basically ran a crisis-management policy of fixing every crack in the dam as it appeared. While I’d been sorting out Mel’s immediate problems there would be other crises blowing up with other clients on my list. If we had the time to stay on top of the cases we had and to do the supervision we were trained to do, we could actually have prevented most of the crises which cost the project so much money.

It was half five when I got out of Rainbows. I turned my mobile off as a mild gesture of defiance, and pulled off the road at Westfield ’s. Hugh’s workshop is in a well-hidden industrial estate on the outskirts of town. It’s a small industrial mechanics shop belonging to one of the big firms housed on the estate, dealing with the MOTs, services and repairs to a fleet of three hundred vehicles, from the messengers’ bikes to the HGVs and the cleaners’ Hoovers . He has a degree in engineering: I’ve badgered him several times about being wasted in a shop with two other mechanics and several YTS lads, doing a job he could perform in his sleep and being paid peanuts. The answer is, he likes it. He likes working in his own time, he likes being part of a small team with predictable work that he can do well, and he would hate the suit and tie and office job he’s qualified for. He was sprawled underneath an articulated lorry, head raised towards his hands, face twisted with the effort of what ever it was he was trying to do. As I reached him, his hands slipped and I heard the curse. I waited until he had his hands clear before I spoke to him.


He twisted his head out from under the cab and smiled. “Hi."

I was out of energy to communicate any more extensively.

He dropped the spanner and rolled out from under the cab. “How are you then?”


He got to his feet and stooped to put his arms around my neck, using his forearms as his hands were filthy. I nipped at his lower lip, feeling hints of relaxation spread through me for the first time that day. “Are you going to be long?”

“Another ten minutes.”

“Is it dead?” I asked, surveying the lorry. He snatched another kiss and grunted as he straightened up.

“Matter of opinion. If it was my choice I’d pass this one on for scrap.”

The company he worked for usually hung onto vehicles until they were past all hope. He glanced back at me as he slid under the cab. “What have you been doing all day? I rang you at lunchtime but your phone was off.”

“Bailing a fifteen-year-old out at the nick. And trying to find her a bed.”

“This the pregnant one again?”


He screwed up his face again in concentration. I watched him until he started to whistle softly. A sure sign that he was engrossed and happy.

Something to do with this happy pill they were talking about. The phrase came back to me along with the club name. Rivo’s. I’d heard of it.

“Feel like going out tonight?” I said innocently. The whistling broke off.

“Anywhere in particular? Damn - Joss come down here and hold this for me.”


I slid myself down onto the concrete and peered to see his hands in the dark under the cab. He moved over to give me room. “That bit. Push up and to the left.”

Whatever the chunk of metal was, it moved in my grasp and Hugh fumbled past it to the wiring. “Where did you say we were going?”

“A club?”

He looked at me. “You hate clubs.”

“I just feel like going out.”

“Got the bastard.” Hugh dropped his pliers and pulled himself out from under the cab. I followed him, rolled over on the concrete and pushed up to reach my chair in the way that always makes Hugh stop what he’s doing and come over very thoughtful.

“You’ve got incredible shoulders.”

“Thankyou. And we can’t possibly do that here.”

“There’s no one else around,” Hugh pointed out. “And you always did like a hard floor.”


“Rivo’s?” Hugh balked on the pavement, looking down at me with open suspicion. “What the hell do you want to go in there for?”

It was pitch black at this end of town and we were surrounded by people heading for the open door on the corner. We were near the docks down here; you could hear the river in the distance. Several girls teetered by on almighty heels, shivering in their thin dresses in the dark.

“It’ll make a change.” I spun ahead of Hugh, bracing to climb the kerb. He grabbed my chair. “What’s going on? You know the rep of this place don’t you? I thought you wanted to go out?”

“We are out.”

“In this place? It’s not a place I’d go to have a good time- I wouldn’t dare look at you in there, never mind touch you, we’d probably get beaten up.”

“Just ten minutes,” I said firmly. He didn’t let me go.

“The Dolphin’s ten minutes away.”

“We always go to the Dolphin, I wanted a change.”

“Who are you looking for?”

All right, try a half-truth. “One of the kids hangs around here; I just want to see he’s okay.”

Hugh hesitated.

“Five minutes.” I promised. “Literally. Just in, have a quick look round, then we’ll go onto the Dolphin.”

“Five minutes by my watch, starting now.”

I left him counting and navigated the front step. Within seconds I was face to face with a bouncer, a thin faced man in a T-shirt and jacket. His slow look took in my legs and my chair before he creased up into an apologetic smile.

“Sorry man, we’re full.”

It’s been years since I fell for that line. I sat back and recited the government regulations at him about equal opportunities. He wasn’t impressed. I got the usual quote about being a fire hazard. I didn’t hit him. Hugh put a hand on my shoulder.

“Look, it’s a hell of a place anyway-“

“It’s not suitable for a wheelchair.” The man jerked his head at me. “Try the bigger clubs up the road, mate. Sorry.”

“Come on, Joss,” Hugh pleaded. Usually he would have dived in on my side: we don’t often have this problem and he gets as annoyed about inaccessibility as I do, but he was clearly nervous about the whole place. I muttered and pulled away from the doorstep.

Hugh followed me on down the street towards the river.

“Now where are you going?”

“I just want a look around.”

“I don’t know what you’re doing but this is a bad idea,” Hugh said warningly. There was a yard behind the club. I pulled up to the gates and peered through. Nothing. A couple of cars on the street, a group of kids lounging against the wall of the abandoned mill opposite. One of which looked vaguely familiar.

“Sam?” I called across the road. One of them glanced round. And detached himself from the wall. A fifteen-year-old, one of my clients. I’d been trying for some months to persuade him to take a hostel bed but I suspected he had less restrictive contacts to spend the night with.  He gave me faintly guilty smile.

“What are you doing here? I heard about Steve-“

“Do you know who you’re with?” I said under my breath. He frowned, then glanced back at the group. “Most of them.”

“Where are you staying?”

This time he hesitated. I gripped his wrist, hard. “Just listen to me. If anyone offers you anything you don’t recognise- particularly blue capsules, leave them alone and leave the people alone. The police are watching this place.”

“I heard what Steve had a pocket full of.”

“They were dealing around here,” I said grimly. “Have you seen Craig?”

“I don’t know any Craig.”

“Good. Do me a favour and stay away from here until this is sorted out. The police seem to be taking this very seriously.”

He nodded faintly. I let go and watched him cross the road back to the group. A minute later, he and a girl separated from the group and walked up the street, Sam’s arm around her.

“Now can we get out of here?” Hugh muttered. I pulled across the road towards the group. Sam was safely out of sight. I looked around four or five youths in their late teens. None of them I recognised.

“Do any of you know a Craig McDonnell?”

They looked at each other.

“Who’s asking?” one of them said briefly.

“A friend of his. From St. Giles.”

There was a flicker of recognition, a slight change over the group. I was aware of Hugh stepping closer and more squarely behind me.

“Did you know a Steve Price?” I asked. There was a silence for a minute. Then one of the youths faced me, mouth tight. “We don’t know any Steve or Craig, so piss off out of here, all right?”

“What about Elite? Know anything about that?”

Another stir in the group.

“What the fuck’s Elite?” someone muttered.

“The police know,” I said clearly. “They’ll be asking next, I warn you.”

Hugh sighed and his shoulders relaxed in the way that usually told me he was preparing for action- to remove a tyre or attack a tax form- waiting, simply and quietly, for someone to make the first move. When it came, it was alarmingly fast. I saw Hugh catch the first fist and whirl the boy away, then I had a youth of my own to deal with. I had my usual advantage in that he believed I wouldn’t be able to move, and wasn’t sure how to belt someone sitting down. I hit him, hard enough to stop him, before he had his brain fully in gear. Hugh cut in front of me and his fist landed hard on the face of the fourth kid. Two were scattering; one was getting up from the road, the fourth looked nasty.

“Milliner!” someone roared across the road.

Mark Adair slammed his car door and jogged over. Another man was a few paces behind him. The two remaining youths fled. Adair took off after the nearest one. Hugh swore, hesitating, then ever the good citizen, sprinted after the second. He brought him down just outside the club in a rugby tackle that made the bouncer step well away. Adair had the other boy face down on the road. I heard the click of handcuffs. A third man, someone I didn’t recognise, was taking Hugh’s captive. Adair came across to me, breathing deeply.

“What the fuck are you playing at?”

I was out of breath myself, with shock more than exertion. Hugh joined us, shaking his right hand with its bruised knuckles. Adair turned on him, voice rising.

“What are you doing letting him hang around places like this?”

“How do you suggest I stop him?” Hugh said acidly. Adair shook his head.

“I suppose the girl told you the stuff was being traded here?”

“A lot of my clients hang around here. Not that lot. Although they knew Steve,” I added. “And Craig, I’m sure of it.”

“And who was that kid you warned off? Christ, you're about as subtle as a bloody brick!”

I didn’t answer. Adair glowered at me. “Impeding a police investigation is an arrestable offence Mr Milliner.”

“Suppose you arrest the two you’ve got and track down the two you lost.” Hugh said flatly. “There were four of them. I’m assuming they’re clients of Joss’s.”

“I’ve never seen them before,” I admitted. Hugh’s eyes went skywards and he walked away up the street from us.

“Where do you think you’re going?” Adair shouted after him. Hugh didn’t turn round.

“I need a drink.”

“This is police business you know,” Adair shouted after him. From the set of Hugh's shoulders, that was not currently something he cared about.

Continue on to Part 4 of In the Company of Strangers

Copyright Ranger 2010

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