Detective Sergeant Bert Hook was surprised to see the woman looking so anxious when he answered his front door. For a moment, he didn't even recognize her. That wasn't good for a policeman. You needed a good memory for people you'd seen before. Bert usually prided himself on his memory for faces.
He was off duty when he was at home; perhaps that's why he'd switched off. He stirred his mind into reluctant action. He'd been working until nine in CID last night and then they'd had a couple of swift pints to unwind. He didn't seem to be able to shrug pints off as easily as he once had, in his cricketing days. They'd had five or six pints sometimes, after Herefordshire had enjoyed a good day. It had never been a problem the next morning, not in those days. It shouldn't be a problem now: he was forty-three, not seventy-three, for God's sake. But as Chief Superintendent Lambert was wont to remind him, God seemed to have very little connection with the doings of policemen nowadays.
He knew who this woman was now, but that only made him feel more guilty. A neighbour – next door but one, he was almost sure. He said hastily, 'I'll go and find Eleanor for you.'
'No. No, it's you I want to see.' The woman moved her weight from right foot to left foot and then back again, like an embarrassed adolescent. 'It's you I need to see, Sergeant Hook.'
She was upset. It had taken her a big effort to come here. Hook, who was a sensitive man beneath his gruff exterior, divined that and wanted to help her. He forced a smile, cast his Saturday-morning lethargy aside and said with all the grace he could muster, 'You'd better come in, Mrs Ramsbottom.'
He'd remembered her name now, as well as her face: that was better. That was a little more professional. But it was easier when the name was slightly ridiculous, like this one. He studiously avoided any suggestion of a smile and led her into the deserted front room. They called it the dining room, but it was the boys' homework room, really. Some of their books were still open on the table from last night's efforts. He swept them quickly into a pile and put them on the sideboard, then drew back one of the dining chairs at the table and invited his visitor to sit.
She sat on the very edge of the hard chair, as if recognizing that she was here on sufferance. Bert didn't think she'd ever been in his house before, unless she had enjoyed some private tryst with Eleanor in his absence. But he and Eleanor didn't have secrets: she'd have told him about it. He listened to the boys shouting at each other upstairs and wished that they would shut up. Mrs Ramsbottom had screwed up her resources to come here. She deserved at least a respectful hearing – not that you could expect boys to think like that, even if they'd realized that she was here.
She had a good bust, he thought suddenly, as she leaned forward a little and stared at the table in front of her. You somehow didn't expect women to have good figures, when they were housewives and had names like Ramsbottom. That was both sexist and stupid; he must really be relaxing at the weekend.
He said with a rather desperate seriousness, 'What can I do to help you, Mrs Ramsbottom?'
'It's probably nothing, really. It's probably just me being stupid.'
'If I had a fiver for every time I've heard someone say that, I'd be a rich man, Mrs Ramsbottom.'
She gave her first little smile, appreciating his encouragement. 'It's Lisa. You should call me Lisa. We're neighbours, after all. That's why I'm here, isn't it? I hope this isn't an imposition.'
'It's not an imposition, Lisa. I'm happy to give you whatever help I can. But I should warn you that people often think people like me can do far more than we actually can. I usually end up telling them to go into their local police station and follow the standard procedures.'
Her hand flew suddenly to her lips. 'I couldn't do that, Sergeant Hook. They'd laugh at me, I'm sure.' She looked at him anxiously. 'It's all right to call you Sergeant, isn't it?'
He smiled at her, trying to relax the tautness which was evident even though she was now seated. 'Strictly speaking, it's Detective Sergeant Hook. But that's when I'm at the station and on duty. Here, it's Bert. We're neighbours, as you said.'
A wider smile now. Her gratitude was out of proportion to what he had offered, but he sensed that she was relieved that she hadn't been rebuffed. He said, 'It's much better that you tell me about what's worrying you. I see a lot of life at Oldford police station. It's not all good, but at least it helps to put things in proportion. Perhaps my experience can help you now.'
She looked round, seeing first his wedding photograph, with a younger Hook looking shy and uneasy beside a radiant Eleanor, then the pictures of the boys when they were small, then the one of a very serious thirteen-year-old Jack in his new cricket flannels, playing a studious forward defensive shot. She said apologetically, 'It seems silly here, where everything's so normal. But it was scary, when it happened.'
'That's often the way of things. The context alters them. Sometimes, in the full light of day, on a quiet Saturday morning like this, things seem less threatening than they do at night, or when you're left on your own with them.'
Just when Bert was into his therapy act, there was a huge crash from upstairs and a yell of protest from his younger son. His father put his head into the hall and called, 'Quiet up there! We've got a visitor down here, Luke, in case you didn't know.'
A sudden cascade of footsteps down the stairs, a precipitate arrival of two teenage boys in the hall. Jack appeared in the open doorway. 'Sorry, Mrs Ramsbottom. We didn't realize you were here. It was Luke, you see. He dropped his tennis racket.'
Bert wondered why his elder son was trying so hard to be polite to their visitor. Then he remembered belatedly that the woman sitting at his dining table had a rather pretty daughter who was in the same year as Jack at school – very likely in the same class, for all he knew. He said sternly, 'What we want is for both of you boys to be quiet. Go into the garden, if you like. Help Mum unload the food she's bought, when she gets back from the shops. Give us a little quiet and privacy in here, that's all.'
He shut the door firmly on the boisterous energy in his hall and smiled at his anxious visitor. 'Kids! Sometimes it's easier to do these things at the station. But they won't interrupt us now. They know the score.'
'They're good boys, Bert.' She forced herself to use the unfamiliar name. 'Well, Jack is, anyway. I hardly know Luke. But they're a credit to you and Eleanor.'
'Thanks. But you didn't come here to tell me that, did you?'
'No.' Lisa Ramsbottom twined her fingers on the table in front of her, inspecting the varnish on her nails. 'I came because I'm scared. Someone keeps threatening to kill me.'
The new Chief Constable looked very smart in his beautifully tailored uniform. Important to give the public the best impression, he always thought. And you never knew when you might be on show without notice. It wasn't just the press who wanted quotes; in these days of local radio and regional TV, you were likely to be cornered at any time. Usually you could only say the standard things: the police were aware of all the circumstances and the investigation was proceeding. But he thought they carried a little more conviction if you were smart.
Today Gordon Armstrong lacked the normal breezy confidence which had been such an asset in his progress to high office. This was a private meeting, where he would be judged strictly on the words he used rather than the overall impression he created. This was a policeman, a man who operated in the same world as he did. The usual clichés would be seen as exactly what they were if he used them here. The man who was being ushered into the room knew the intricacies of the police service as well as he did; indeed, he knew the workings of one particular branch of it better than his new chief constable did.
The fact that Chief Superintendent John Lambert was older than Armstrong inhibited him a little, but he had dealt with that situation quite a few times since he had been appointed Chief Constable of Gloucestershire and Herefordshire. What he had not had to deal with before was an older man of this standing. John Lambert had a local, and perhaps by now a national, reputation. He was a man better known to the public than the urbane and highly polished Armstrong was himself. Gordon Armstrong wasn't used to dealing with police celebrities, and still less with a man referred to by the tabloids as a 'super-sleuth'. He wasn't looking forward to the experience.
Armstrong had rather hoped that he wouldn't have to do this. He had expected that by now Lambert would be either retired or on the verge of retirement. In that case it wouldn't have been necessary to meet him one to one. He could have presided over the man's retirement, presented him with gifts, and offered the sort of eulogy on an illustrious career in which he was practised and fluent. But Lambert had been so successful that the Home Office had taken the initiative in offering him a three-year extension to his normal service. That meant that this ageing luminary was now very definitely a member of staff for some time to come.
Armstrong had arranged for coffee to be brought in with the man's arrival, served in the best china cups and saucers, which were usually reserved for civic dignitaries. He dismissed the minion and poured the coffee himself. He could not tell from the impassive, lined face of the very tall man sitting before him whether he recognized the honour that was thus being bestowed upon him by his Chief Constable.
He offered the biscuits, eschewed them himself after Lambert's refusal, and came and sat down in the armchair opposite the one in which he had installed the Chief Superintendent. 'I thought it would be useful if we had a little chat, John. I like to feel I know my senior staff.' He crossed his legs and relaxed his shoulders. It was always best to give people the impression you had allotted plenty of time to them, even when you knew that your next appointment was only twenty minutes away.
'It's good of you to take the time, sir.' Lambert could play these games with the best of them, though not for long: patience wasn't his strongest suit, in situations like this. He was a problem-solver, not a diplomat. The modern world and the police service within it needed people like Gordon Armstrong, he was sure, but John Lambert would never be one of them. That wasn't prissiness: he knew he simply didn't have the skills or the patience to be a modern mandarin.
Armstrong said, 'I wanted your overview of CID in the area. There is no one better qualified to offer a confidential opinion to me.'
'I'm afraid I shall be a disappointment. I try to ensure that there is minimal corruption and maximum efficiency in the CID section for which I am responsible. I don't really have an overview beyond that. I took a decision many years ago now that I was happiest and most efficient when working directly on particular crimes and that I didn't want further promotion and more general responsibilities.'
They were phrases he'd trotted out many times over the years, but not recently. Armstrong recognized them for what they were and said with a smile, 'You're saying that you might well have been sitting in my chair at this moment, had you not chosen to stay in your present post.'
'I don't think I would ever have made that chair. I would have become impatient and thus inefficient long before I became a Chief Constable.'
'You are too modest, John. You could have done it, if you'd put your mind to it. But you chose not to do that. You despise some of the skills you would have needed to exercise to reach this office.'
'No, sir. I don't despise them. I recognize them as very necessary in today's world, where you have constantly to be the public face of the police service. Forty years ago, some chief constables could blunder through the diplomatic aspects of their jobs, if they were efficient thief-takers. That isn't so today. And I don't despise the skills involved: I simply don't possess them.'
'You've got the skills, John. You've chosen not to use them, that's all.'
'Let's agree to differ. I'm happy where I am, and I'm even more happy that people like you are able to handle the things I wouldn't have been much good at.'
'You can be as modern as any of us, when it's necessary.'
Lambert took a sip of his coffee and evaluated that word 'modern'. It carried such a multitude of meanings that you needed a context for it, before you decided whether it was a compliment or an insult. Or, as he suspected it was in the mouth of this man, a studiously neutral word. 'I'm often told I'm something of a dinosaur. Not least by DI Rushton, who handles the internet for me and co-ordinates the information on major investigations. I don't reject the description.'
'You don't sit behind a desk and direct others, as most chief supers do.'
The new man had done his homework on this veteran, whom he was now treating with a kind of cautious reverence. Lambert hadn't met much reverence and he wasn't at ease with it. 'I maintain that what I do is efficient. If it ain't broken, you don't need to fix it.'
'And you produce results. As long as you do, I'm happy to go along with your methods, even if some would consider them out of date.'
The first hint of a threat. But the man had to assert his authority. Don't be so sensitive, Lambert. He can't hurt you. If the worst came to the worst, you could walk away. But there's no need to be so negative: the new CC is merely doing what you'd expect him to do. And look at the coffee and the best china: he's treating you with kid gloves.
Lambert forced a smile. 'Contrary to popular police and tabloid press opinion, I do sit behind my desk and direct others for a large proportion of my time, sir. But when there is a major investigation, I like to be what most people now call hands-on. I find I get a clear idea of the issues and the possibilities if I get out and about and speak to major suspects myself. I'm immodest enough to think that I've acquired a certain expertise over the years, and that it is better to use it directly than to expect others to produce what I'm looking for.'
'My predecessor said you're the shrewdest copper he's ever met. He said you let people talk themselves into trouble and he still doesn't know quite how you do it.'
Good old Douglas Gibson. We had our differences, but he always did his best for me, when it mattered. As it did when he was speaking to his replacement as CC. Hope he's enjoying his retirement and his painting in oils; Gibson never enjoyed his garden and his roses, as retired coppers are supposed to do. Lambert lifted his head and smiled. 'That sounds a little too kind, even a little sentimental, though I'm grateful for Mr Gibson's thoughts. I operate in the way which seems most efficient for my unit. I also enjoy myself much more operating that way, though one can't speak publicly of enjoyment when the investigation of serious crimes is one's concern.'
'You enjoy what you're good at, like most of us. In your case, that's the direct business of investigation at the crime face.'
'Fair description, sir. But I'm part of a team. I don't neglect the coordination of an investigation and the efficient filing and cross-referencing of the huge amount of information that accrues round any major crime. Inspector Rushton is far more efficient in those things than I could ever be.'
'And the doughty DS Hook is an efficient bagman for you, as you put yourself about among those involved in major crimes.'