The worst thing about doing a stakeout is the pressure it puts on your bladder. Except, of course, when something unusual happens; like stumbling across a warm corpse, for instance, or finding evidence of torture. Then things get much, much worse…
Normally, I bring a milk bottle with me, especially at this time of year, when the cold can eat through a tartan travel rug, jumbo corduroys and a pair of woolly long johns within ten minutes of killing the engine. But, by some miracle of staffing, that day I had a trainee out with me, so I was going to have to moderate my behaviour. Especially as I had already given her the rug.
‘Can’t we have the heating on?’ she asked, through a small cloud of condensed breath. ‘It’s bloody freezing.’
I gave her a look that said, ‘The age of chivalry is not dead, but it might as well be. You get the rug, half the cheese roll, most of the coffee and all of the benefit of my seven years investigating experience, and you haven’t even smiled once. How about applying some of your Customer Care training to your colleague, then, eh?’ Possibly this was too much for her to take in all at once, because she simply turned away and muttered ‘freezing’ again.
‘We can only claim petrol expenses for the journey to and from the job,’ I said patiently, staring out into the dark. ‘Oh, and for all those high speed car chases that happen, of course. I can’t afford to run my engine for two hours just so I can be here.’
‘If it was this cold in the office, we’d be allowed to go home.’
‘Well, nobody’s stopping you,’ I wanted to say, which I admit is not my usual reaction to a strawberry blonde with good cheekbones and an endearing tendency to overdo the lip gloss. But when I’m suffering I prefer to suffer in silence. Maybe I’d have felt different if she’d offered to go Dutch on the travel rug, or even if she’d been better prepared for the night’s work. (I know they’ve cut the induction course to a day and a half now, but, for God’s sake, they hadn’t even taught her to bring her own sandwiches!) Still, if she hadn’t been there, of course, the whole affair would have turned out to be very different. Very different indeed…
‘If you’re lucky he’ll be out in a minute,’ I said.
‘D’you think so? How d’you know?’
‘The theory is he’s on the night shift at Grannie Baker’s.’ I rolled my eyes. ‘So he’d normally have to be there by eleven…’
‘Wait a minute,’ she said, checking her watch, ‘It’s only ten now.’
‘Well, if he gets suspicious, he may leave early to lose the tail.’
‘Come on! He won’t suspect he’s being tailed, will he?’
‘Oh, you’d be surprised about these boys. How clued-up they are.’ I didn’t really mean this, but it sounded good. And, to be fair, you do get the odd one or two who are professional enough to lose an investigator in the blink of an eyelid. One nervous tic and they’re gone…
I looked back out at the firmly closed front door across the street. It had bolts through it, as if someone had put on a steel plate or something to reinforce it at the back. Had they been there on my last visit? If so, I hadn’t noticed. And this wasn’t a particularly rough area: the houses were tiny terraces, but the majority were well kept. There were still some very elderly folk living along here; fortunately for us, since it was the only reason we had a parking space.
‘And if we’re unlucky, he won’t be out ‘til nearly eleven,’ she said, sounding a bit despondent at the prospect.
‘No. If we’re unlucky he’ll have swapped to the day shift and we’ll be sitting here all night.’
‘Either that or he’s not working after all. And we’ll be here all night.’
She shivered. ‘How do you cope?’
‘I’d try wearing trousers for a start.’ I sighed. ‘Lots of thin layers, like mountaineers do. Thermal underwear, or failing that, a pair of tights under your trousers…’
It was her turn to give me a look.
‘Keep a fleece and a scarf in the car, even in summer…’ I shook my head, patronisingly, I suppose. ‘Welcome to the glamorous world of the Benefit Fraud Department,’ I said.
It was then, or perhaps a moment or two later, when we heard the explosions.
There were screams, too – there must have been – although no-one else gave any sign of hearing them. Or was that just me, later, in my sleep?