‘I can’t decide between Dawn Light and County Stone,’ DI Clare Mackay said, shoving the paint chart across the kitchen table. ‘What do you think?’
DCI Alastair Gibson flicked a glance at it. ‘Which ones?’
‘Those.’ Clare stabbed the chart with her finger. ‘Look, I’ve marked them.’
He peered at it. ‘Both look cream to me. You choose and I’ll slap it on the walls.’
She snatched the chart back. ‘You’re absolutely hopeless.’
He sipped his coffee. ‘Clare, it’s a spare room. Not the Sistine Chapel. Does it honestly matter?’
‘I want it nice – for James – when he comes to stay.’
‘Your nephew? Clare, he’s three! He wouldn’t care if the walls were tartan.’ He drained his cup. ‘I’d better go. I’ve a meeting at nine.’
‘Leave the dishes,’ she said. ‘I’m on a late.’
He rose from the table and carried his plate over to the sink. ‘Sure?’
She nodded. ‘On you go.’
She waited until he’d gone then filled the kettle to make a fresh pot of coffee. Benjy, her English bull terrier, was systematically licking the kitchen floor clean of crumbs and she tore a bit off her toast and offered it to him. ‘Do not tell Al,’ she said, and Benjy responded with a wag of his tail. As she waited for the kettle to boil she studied her garden through the kitchen window. They’d tidied it up for winter at the weekend and it was looking neater than Clare could ever remember. Just one of the benefits of Al Gibson moving in, semi-permanently. She found she was smiling at this. ‘Careful, Clare,’ she told herself. ‘You’re in danger of settling down, here.’
The kettle came to the boil with a hiss of steam and she scooped the coffee grounds out of the cafetiere into her compost bin. Maybe it was time she settled down – whatever that meant. She had the cottage, the dog and now the man. And she was preparing to decorate her spare bedroom. ‘There’s no hope for me,’ she told Benjy. ‘It’ll be two-point-four children before we know it.’
She poured fresh water into the cafetiere and stirred the coffee, considering this. She’d never thought about children. Not until now. Her sister had James and another baby on the way. Was it time that she, too, began thinking about it? It wasn’t like they’d discussed it. She wasn’t even sure she wanted children. But she wasn’t getting any younger.
She drank her coffee, moving her chair so it caught the morning sun. A few more weeks and it would be too low in the sky. Time to have the chimney swept for the winter. She drew a notepad across the table and began to make a list.
‘All quiet,’ Jim said as Clare entered the station. As if on cue the phone began to ring.
‘That’ll teach you,’ she said, heading for her office. She switched on the computer and waited for her inbox to load. A minute later Jim poked his head round the side of the door.
He came in, notepad in hand. ‘Might be something and nothing. A prison van possibly missing.’
Clare’s brow creased. ‘Possibly?’
‘Aye. They’re not sure. It was due back three or four hours ago. But no sign of them.’
He shook his head. ‘No, one of their own vans. Couple of officers taking a prisoner to a funeral down in Pittenweem.’
‘Who was he?’
Jim scanned his notepad. ‘Paul Devine. Doing six years for armed robbery.’
Clare raised an eyebrow. ‘And they sent him in an ordinary van? No security staff?’
‘Apparently he was considered low risk.’
‘Hmm. Okay.’ Clare rose. ‘Let’s look at the map in the incident room.’
The room was quiet, just a couple of officers tapping away at laptops. The blinds had been angled so the afternoon sun streamed in the windows, warming the air. Clare shrugged off her jacket and moved to the large map of Fife, a permanent fixture on the wall. ‘Pittenweem, you say?’
‘Aye.’ Jim indicated the village, still an active fishing port on the East Neuk of Fife, now popular with holidaymakers. It sat on the north side of the Firth of Forth, an estuary straddled by three iconic bridges, the water feeding into the North Sea.
Clare studied the map. ‘Looks like there’s lots of little roads running between the villages. Where would they have gone?’
‘That’s the problem. Normally I’d say they’d take the B942 but it’s closed just now for roadworks. There’s any number of ways they could have gone.’
‘Best guess then?’
‘According to the tracker on the van they headed east to Anstruther.’
Clare frowned. ‘But surely they’d be better going north, along this road,’ and she tapped the map.
Jim rubbed his chin. ‘Funeral was at midday. Probably over by one. I’m guessing they’d not had their lunch. Could be they decided to stop in Anstruther for fish and chips.’
‘Not exactly following regulations,’ Clare said, ‘but it’s pretty hard to pass the fish bar. What does the tracker say now?’
‘That’s just it. The prison radioed the officers to say the tracker was going off and on. Some intermittent fault. The men agreed to keep in touch by radio and that’s the last they heard.’
‘Hmm. Do trackers often play up?’
Jim shrugged. ‘No idea. Most prison transport’s a bit more secure. I’m guessing they don’t generally need to rely on the trackers.’
‘Okay. Last known location?’
‘Dunino. Five or six miles south of here.’
Clare found Dunino on the map. ‘Not much there by the looks of it.’
‘No, just a few houses. Pretty spot, though.’
‘Okay, Jim. Let’s get a couple of cars out there. Make sure they have the van details. Better get a photo of the prisoner too.’
‘Want the press office alerted?’
She considered this. ‘Maybe leave it until the cars have had a look round. I presume Perth cops are checking from their end?’
He nodded. ‘ANPR cameras too.’
‘Hopefully there’s a straightforward explanation.’
‘Hope so.’ He turned to go but Clare suddenly realised she hadn’t seen her DS and she forestalled him.
‘Erm, nipped out I think. Want me to call him back?’
‘Nah, don’t worry. I’ll catch up with him.’ She turned back to her inbox and the emails which seemed to accumulate faster than she could attend to them. She worked on steadily, stopping occasionally to check for news of the missing van. By six o’clock with no sign of the van or its occupants she decided to call Suzi Bishop, the Press Officer.
‘Clare,’ the familiar voice said. ‘How are you?’
‘I’m well thanks, Suzi. You?’
The pleasantries dispensed with, Clare got to the point. ‘Perth’s had a prison van go missing, probably in Fife. It’s been gone since lunchtime and there’s no sign of the prison officers either, so I think we need to go public.’
‘Want the officers named?’
Clare considered this for a moment. ‘Not yet. Not until I’ve spoken to their next of kin.’
‘Okay, Clare. Give me the prisoner’s details and I’ll get something out today.’
As she ended the call her office door opened and her detective sergeant, Chris West came in.
‘Ah,’ she said, ‘the wanderer returns. Where have you been?’
He shrugged. ‘Out on enquiries.’
‘It’s always the same when I’m on a late. Remind me to give you a list of jobs for tomorrow.’
He ignored this. ‘Much happening?’
She looked at her notepad. ‘Might be. We have a missing prison van.’
‘Early afternoon. Prisoner returning from a funeral down in the East Neuk. The van’s tracker was playing up. Last known location was close to Dunino. I’ve had a couple of cars out but no sign. Just spoken to Suzi. She’s going to get something out within the hour. Hopefully get it on the ten o’clock news.’
Chris frowned. ‘Dangerous?’
‘Potentially. He’s doing a stretch for armed robbery. Held up a jeweller’s shop in the town a year or so ago.’
‘That big one? Along South Street?’
‘I remember it. You were on a course. We picked up one of the gang pretty quickly.’ He wrinkled his brow. ‘Think it was Paul somebody.’
‘Devine. Well remembered.’
‘It’s amazing what we get done when you’re not around.’ He dodged out of the way as Clare flicked her hand at him. ‘So Devine’s gone missing, eh? What about the POs?’
Clare scanned her notepad again. ‘They’re missing too. Just the two male officers. Gavin Gates and Alan Carter.’
‘Eh?’ The colour drained from his face.
‘What? What is it, Chris?’
‘Alan. He’s my cousin.’ He felt in his pocket and pulled out his phone. ‘I’d better call Kim. She’ll be frantic if she sees it on the news.’
Clare put out a hand. ‘No, Chris. Not yet.’
‘Clare, it’s family. We – I mean, he’s like a brother to me. I’ve got to speak to Kim. She’d never forgive me.’
She shook her head. ‘We’ll call round. Do it properly. Anyway, Suzi’s only naming the prisoner, for now.’ She studied him for a moment. ‘Maybe I should take someone else.’
‘Like hell you will. Come on – let’s get round there before Suzi has it all over the news.’
Clare hesitated, then she saw the expression on Chris’s face and her heart melted. ‘Okay. But if I judge there’s a conflict of interest…’
‘Yeah, I know.’ He jingled his car keys. ‘Coming?’
Alan and Kim Carter lived in a semi-detached bungalow in the Bogward Estate. The house was in darkness as they drew up and Clare took a moment to study it. A red-painted front door stood between two windows, and she crossed a square of grass and peered in. The house was in darkness except for a small red light which she assumed was coming from a TV.
‘That’s their front room,’ Chris said, walking ahead of her. He jerked his head to the other side of the door. ‘Dining room there. Bedrooms to the back.’ He pressed the front doorbell, keeping his finger on it for a few moments. They heard it ring out but there was no sign of life from within. Clare began walking along the side of the house, past a single garage finished in a grey render. She stopped to peer in a small window. ‘Don’t think the car’s here.’ She stepped back from the window. ‘What about Kim? Do they have a car each?’
Chris was striding past her, round the back of the house now. ‘Just the one car,’ he said. ‘Kim works in an office. Somewhere in the town. Not sure where, though.’
As they rounded the house a security light came to life, illuminating the back garden. Clare took it in. There was a fence down one side separating the house from its neighbour and a tall hedge on the other. A shed stood at the end of the garden and she walked down to investigate this. The door was bolted but there was no padlock and she fished out a pair of gloves before drawing the bolt back. The door swung open to reveal a lawn mower and an assortment of garden tools. She bolted the door again and walked back towards the house. Chris was shading his eyes from the security light trying to see through the windows.
‘Come on,’ she said. ‘Obviously no one at home. I’ll get Jim to track down Kim’s work while we check the other officer’s house.’
‘I’m going to try her mobile,’ Chris said, tapping at his phone.
‘Say nothing to panic her.’
‘I do know that. I’m not stupid.’
Clare threw him a look, but he was too intent on his phone to notice. ‘I’ll drive,’ she said, holding her hand out for the keys. He handed them over and they climbed back into the car, Chris with the phone clamped to his ear. She pulled away, heading towards Strathkinness. After a few seconds Chris ended the call.
The trees were turning from green to gold now. A coppery leaf fluttered down as they drove along and stuck on the windscreen. She slowed a little as they neared Daisy Cottage, her home for the past few years. Glancing left as they passed she saw there were lights on, the front room curtains drawn against the darkness. A Ford Focus, now so familiar, was parked in the drive – DCI Alastair Gibson’s car. He’d been Clare’s boss at one time and she still referred to him as the DCI. But these days their relationship was on quite a different footing.
Despite the urgency of their mission, she found herself smiling.
‘He’s moved in then.’
‘Working out okay?’
‘It’s starting to look permanent.’
Clare shrugged. ‘Maybe. Maybe not. We’ll see.’
‘Would it kill you to make a commitment?’
‘Probably. Never mind that, now. Check my notepad please. See what Jim found out about the other officer.’
Chris turned on the interior light and squinted at the pad. ‘Your handwriting’s shocking. It looks like Gareth Gates.’
He peered at the pad again. ‘I know it. It’s Guardbridge. Turn right at the roundabout and I’ll direct you.’
Five minutes later Clare drew up outside Gavin Gates’s house. As with Alan’s, it was in darkness. ‘I’m starting to see a pattern here,’ she said.
Chris moved to the front door and, seeing no bell, rapped sharply on it. While he waited, Clare walked round to the back returning a few minutes later. ‘No sign of life.’
‘Nothing here, either.’
Clare stood, looking at the house. ‘Get onto Jim now, will you? See if he can find out where Kim works; and if there’s a Mrs Gates.’
Clare waited, tapping the steering wheel while Chris spoke to Jim. Eventually he ended the call.
‘Kim’s a data operator for a bank in South Street.’
Clare looked at him. ‘A bank?’
‘Reckon that’s anything to do with it?’
‘Dunno. I doubt it, to be honest. Bank security’s pretty tight these days.’
‘You’re probably right.’ She turned the key in the ignition and the car came to life. ‘What about Gavin Gates?’
‘According to Jim, he’s married too. Wife’s Debbie. She works in Eccentricity.’
‘That shop in Market Street?’
‘No point in chasing up their workplaces tonight, then,’ Clare said. ‘Come on. Let’s get back to the station and call the prison.’
It was almost eight o’clock when Clare finally got through to the assistant governor.
‘Complete surprise,’ he said in response to her questions. ‘He’s been no bother, Paul. We’ve searched his cell and there’s nothing. Had his cellmate in for questioning too. Either he’s been well drilled or he knew nothing about it.’
‘Any Covert Human Intelligence Sources in the prison?’ she asked.
‘Probably. We’ve an officer who acts as CHIS handler. I’m not sure who his contacts are, but I can speak to him in the morning.’
‘Quicker if we speak to the CHIS himself.’
‘Sorry, Clare. No can do. We go through the handler – to protect the CHIS.’
‘Surely in a case like this.’
‘Nope. Any direct contact with a CHIS could endanger his life. It’s through the handler or not at all.’
Clare sighed. ‘What about visitors?’
‘I’ll get you a list of Paul’s visitors ASAP. It might be tomorrow, though. We’ve had a flu bug going round the office so we’re a bit short-handed.’
‘You couldn’t manage it tonight?’
‘I’ll do my best. We don’t want him at large any longer than you do. But I can’t promise.’
‘Fair enough.’ She paused for a moment, running through a checklist in her head. ‘Can you get me a list of your releases as well, please? Last two months.’
‘Yep. No problem. Anything else?’
‘Just the usual – Paul Devine’s family, known associates, phone calls, letters. Oh, and the funeral – whose was it?’
‘I’ll check that too. And you’ll be wanting next of kin for the two officers. If you can hold on.’
A minute later Clare had phone numbers for Debbie Gates and Kim Carter. She thanked the assistant governor and ended the call. The number he’d given her for Kim matched the one Chris had tried earlier. He called it again but it rang out.
‘Try the other one,’ Clare said.
Chris dialled the number for Debbie Gates but it went straight to voicemail. ‘What now?’
‘We’d better start digging.’ She drummed absently on the desk with her pen. ‘A missing prisoner is one thing but the two prison officers, well that’s something else. If they’ve not turned up by morning we’ll need to set up the incident room. I’ll request mobile phone data for the officers and their wives. I’d also like the background on Paul Devine’s trial. If you could ask Jim to look into that. As soon as we get the list of Devine’s known associates I want a watch put on them. And Chris, I’m sorry, but not a word to your family.’
He met her gaze and she thought she detected a hint of defiance.
‘I mean it. Not until we know what’s going on.’
He shrugged and went out of the room, letting the door slam behind him.
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