Vic is a fresh detective with a tarnished record. The world is watching this next case...
Waking up to the static glare of the television, Vic rubbed his eyes before finishing the half-glass of water on his bedside table. He looked around the small room and shook his head – the floor was a minefield of unwashed clothes and half-packed boxes. The only thing in there that retained a semblance of order was his bedside table, arranged with soldierly precision: phone charger; fiction by Frank Herbert; black and white picture of a man in full military regalia.
Pulling himself out of bed he ate, drank coffee, showered, and then got in the car to go to work. The journey was slow, crawling through the rush hour traffic. On the radio was a dialogue between the prime minister and a journalist about how Remembrance Day is still relevant in a society opposed to international conflict.
“Stark, you’re late.”
“Sorry John,” Vic replied, his head bowed. “Traffic was a nightmare.”
“Right. Let’s walk through it. Got the call today at 4.04am. Local bloke, a vet from Afghanistan, seen some serious shit, believe me. Been out at the Cenotaph and on his way back saw someone - matches what the surveillance found. Saw a Caucasian male wearing a black hoody and Adidas tracksuit bottoms. Height about 6’ 1”, probably 160-180 pounds. Thoughts?”
“That’s half the population of London guv.”
In front of Vic was the famous Whitehall remembrance monument, the Cenotaph, where tomorrow’s Remembrance Day service was due to be held. It had been desecrated with crimson spray paint along its four white stone faces. Where formerly ‘The Glorious Dead’ was inscribed, it now said ‘Dead for almost 100 years and still dying.’
John gestured with his hand. “And there you have it. As you can imagine, the chief is under a bit of pressure to get this cleaned up quickly with the ceremony happening tomorrow. You want to make a name for yourself Stark?”
Vic hesitated for a second before replying with a cautious nod.
“Listen, it’s probably just some hippies or students trying to make a splash, but it needs cracking quickly. Go talk to Natsu in the van once you’ve had a look around.”
Left in front of the Cenotaph, Vic walked slowly around, struggling to disguise the disgust that he was feeling. Wreathes of poppies lay trampled into the ground and there was a dark wet stain at the base of the monument. Someone has defiled this, Vic thought. What could cause such contempt for the people who literally gave their lives to protect their country?
Continuing around the outside of the monument, Vic looked at the immediate surroundings. It was on a busy street near the Thames, walking distance from Big Ben and the Houses of Parliament. The tourist traffic alone was a constant congested wave, washing over Westminster during every hour of daylight. The lines of camera touting opportunists were seven or eight deep, taking pictures of an event to tell their families about. When London lost control.
Slightly further away, the outlines of St. James’ Park were visible, during the day a haven for joggers, young couples and tourists, however at night the seedier side came out. A possible escape route, Vic noted.
After a final glance, Vic went to the police van to run through the surveillance videos, which would be able to tell him more.
Natsu was in the van adhering to the police stereotype with a box of Chinese food and a can of coke next to his monitor. His protruding belly folded softly against the side of his desk and his round, dark-framed glasses were steamed up from the heat of the technology surrounding him.
“Vic. You alright? Look a bit white mate.”
“Fine. Show me what we’ve got.”
Natsu talked Vic through the surveillance video, starting around three minutes before the incident. The video began rolling at 3.14am. “Not much in the way of people, although there is a group of kids that seem to have been loitering around the area for a while, came from St. James’ Park, not sure where they were before that though, it was pretty busy in the evening and we just don’t have the man power to go through every camera and play Where’s Wally.”
“Usually the police move them on don’t they?” Vic remembered when he was a uniformed patrolman and three quarters of his role seemed to be asking groups of teenagers to loiter in a different area. “Move them to someone else’s beat and it became someone else’s problem.”
“Usually. Lot of training going on last night though, get the boys ready for the big procession. Lot of scary stuff in the news, threats and the like.”
Vic had seen it. The world seemed to be losing its mind: bombings in the Middle East; shootouts in Europe; kidnappings in Africa. It was no surprise that security was being increased for Remembrance Day.
“Now the guy in the hoody appears just here,” Natsu said, tapping his monitor with a sausage-like finger. “He came from the same direction as the group of kids.”
“How old would you say these kids are?”
“It can be difficult to tell with the quality of the images but judging from build, demeanour and the way they’re smoking like it’s going out of fashion, I’d say between sixteen and eighteen.”
The next stage of the video showed the hooded man taking a spray can out of his pocket and quickly writing on the monument. “Knows exactly what to write, pre-planned,” Natsu commented. The man then, with his back to the camera, started to urinate on the monument. Finally, he stamped on the wreaths that had been placed around the monument, in remembrance of the fallen soldiers of all the conflicts since World War One.
“Boot prints?” Vic asked.
“Nothing, just partials which don’t tell us anything. Doesn’t seem to have been much in the way of a sole to the shoe, perhaps well-worn.”
“DNA in the urine? Can you guys do that?”
“Yeah we can if epithelial cells have been discharged, but only if we’ve already got the offender’s DNA on file. If we have, then case closed. It’s been sent off for processing and we should know in the next 12 hours. My advice: don’t get your hopes up.”
“I don’t suppose there’s anything else we can get from this? All that money on surveillance and the images are so grainy you can barely tell the sex of the person, let alone get a positive identification.”
“Leave the technology alone man. If you knew the money that’s been put onto this case, which is basically just a vandalism case, you’d be shocked. You should take it that there’s an angel up there that loves you man, second chance after last time and a fat budget to go with it.”
Vic tried to ignore the rebuke, although he felt the colour flush through his clean-shaven cheeks. “Anything else?”
“Look at the way the perp is walking – a slight stagger every other step. Suggests a limp or perhaps he’d had himself a bottle of cider in the park before he came over.”
Vic thanked Natsu, picked up the report and left to go talk to the veteran who had discovered the scene. Leafing through the pages he also noted that the paint was a common aerosol can, ‘stone finish’ that could be easily ordered online and found in hardware stores across London.
The drive to the station was another skulk through London traffic. Vic had been in the upper offices for several months, having received his detective recommendation after some fine, if routine, policework. However, he was currently on probation; his supervisor believed that he may have been promoted above his station. This case was a chance to prove himself.
The veteran had been waiting for some time and was clearly becoming impatient.
“Vic Stark, thanks for waiting.”
“Neville Hunt.” The veteran had a booming voice and a surprisingly robust frame for someone of his age. There was a slight rasp to his speech caused by the thick white beard. He wore a khaki green shirt decorated with medals of service, which reminded Vic of his own grandfather and the picture that he kept to remind him to stay strong.
“Could you recount the events of last night?” Vic clicked on his tape recorder.
“I’d been out to the Cenotaph to pay my respects to my friends, the best people you could meet. Lost a lot of them out there in Afghanistan and I know better than most what it is to give everything in service of your country. Sat on a bench minding my own business having a little drop to remember the boys by. I left about 3am and went through the park. There were a group of loud-mouths who started shouting at me so I gave it them back and most of the little buggers just laughed at me. Can you believe that? Things have changed.”
Seeing that a digression was about to take place, Vic steered the conversation back on track. “And the man with the black hoody?”
Neville’s mouth turned up and his brow furrowed perceptibly. “Yeah, biggest bugger of them all. I wasn’t scared of him but I’m not as strong as I was. He knocked me off my feet and walked off laughing this big guffaw, like one of those twits in the Beano.”
“This man in the black hoody, was he with the rest of the group?”
“Yeah, the nasty bugger, pushing a veteran about. I’ve fought to protect this country!”
“And then what happened?”
“It took me a while to get my breath back. When I left it must have been half an hour later.”
Vic continued to ask routine questions until he exhausted all possibilities. “Thank you Mr Hunt. You’re free to go.”
The report Vic had taken from Natsu confirmed Neville’s whereabouts as he was spotted on the surveillance cameras coming out of St. James’ Park just before 4am. At 4.03am he made the call to the police from a payphone.
Sitting in his office reviewing the casefiles, Vic knew that he was missing something. Nothing to be gleaned from the physical evidence, Vic knew. Although the police response in securing the area was excellent, the sheer volume of people that had visited the Cenotaph during the day meant that the crime scene would contain countless incidental items which would obscure any evidence. Neville’s testimony corroborated the surveillance videos, however they were still no closer to finding out who this group of ‘kids’ were. If they could track this group down, then Neville could surely make an identification which would secure a conviction. The question was, how could he find this mystery person in the black hoody? Perhaps the urine test would lead them right to him, and give Vic a little redemption after the farce of last month.
I’m getting nowhere, Vic thought and went to get a coffee from the station canteen. Mounted in the corner of the room was a large screen television displaying 24-hour news. The current item of interest was, unsurprisingly, the vandalism of the Cenotaph. The headline announced: ‘Heroes’ Legacy Desecrated.’ Vic walked to a table, noting the other officers deliberately avoiding his eye and unsubtly spreading themselves across their dining tables so there was no room.
Still don’t trust me.
The news anchor was interviewing local residents who were aggressively spitting into the camera, blaming the police who had failed to ‘protect and serve’ and should be held accountable for this. Vic massaged his temples. This is my last chance, he thought to himself.
Despite being tipped for a successful career, he had floundered on his first case, forgetting to read a suspect his rights when arresting him. From there he had lost control of the situation and, worse, ended up losing the custody of the suspect because correct procedures were not followed. He was removed from the case and given traffic duty for a month as his penance. The whispers he could hear in the canteen he knew were directed at him – the others believed he had taken a bribe from the suspect to ensure the case collapsed and he could walk free.
At eight in the evening Vic was still in his office. His eyes were blurry but he didn’t want to go home, there was nothing for him there. More than once, he had stopped to speak silently to his grandfather to ask for advice and direction. It had been a month since he last drank and he was craving a beer. When the phone rang it jolted him out of contemplation in the way an alarm clock ends a dream.
“Sorry Vic. We’ve not been able to get anything from the urine.”
Vic slammed the phone into its cradle, sending it skidding over the edge of the desk. A derisive swipe with the back of his hand sent the report sliding into the wall, raining down sheets of loose paper like a storm of failure.
No useable physical evidence, grainy camera images, a single witness statement from an aging veteran who had been physically assaulted on the eve of Remembrance Day. Vic sank in his seat and let his head roll back. The headache that he had been suppressing snapped electrically through his temples. This was what failure felt like. If he felt like this, what must Neville Hunt be feeling like?
Vic left the office as it was: tomorrow’s problem. Getting in his car he drove the 35 minutes to Beckenham, where Neville would hopefully be home.
Neville answered the door with a look of befuddlement. “Was there something else?” he asked, bleary eyed.
“May I come in?” Vic asked. He was invited to sit in a brown leather armchair in a small, untidy living room. Neville sat on a threadbare sofa, sinking into it.
“Neville, I wanted to say that I’m sorry about what happened to you in the park. It isn’t right for a man who has served his country to have to put up with that,” Vic said.
“Things have changed. There’s no respect for the forces anymore. We’re sending our boys off to die in wars that don’t concern us,” Neville growled, his scraggy beard blustering with each word like a jagged dandelion. “When I was younger we were fighting to protect our families.”
“My grandfather fought in the last World War. He gave everything for us,” Vic said.
“Yeah. It wasn’t about oil then. When will they learn?” Neville said, pulling himself to his feet with a grunt of effort and limping towards the kitchen. “I need a proper drink.”
Looking around the room Vic knew that Neville was right. After the First World War, there should have never been another. But there was. Now veterans like Neville had to live in tiny homes, struggling to afford London house prices. Vic would be willing to bet that this was rented accommodation.
“Do you work Neville?” Vic called in to the kitchen.
“Can’t because of my bloody leg. Another little gift from the war,” he said above clattering of glasses. “I bet that big bastard in the hoody doesn’t work either, bloody benefits going to the wrong people.”
“Can you tell me anything else about him? Anything that might help us track him down? Age, any distinguishing marks, the way he walked, accent, anything, no matter how irrelevant it may seem.”
Neville bowed his head in concentration for a moment to see if any memories stirred. Vic looked around the squalid room again, distressed by the poverty which an honourable man should have to live in. In the corner was a radio, broken, with pieces scattered around it as if it had suffered a sudden impact. Vic realised that he hadn’t noticed it before because it had been in the shadow of the chair.
Said something you didn’t want to hear? he wondered.
“He sounded from West London. Probably a student. They’re all arrogant buggers,” Neville spat, taking a large gulp of his whisky, clearly not the first based on the thick slurred edge to his words.
“4am is late for an old man to be out in the park Neville,” Vic said carefully. “A little dangerous.”
“I told you, I was having a drink, maybe more ‘n one drink.”
“It’s the wrong way to do things,” Vic said, bracing himself.
Neville didn’t say anything, just stared down at his feet, clenching his glass hard. He took a large gulp to finish the rest of his drink then threw the glass across the room, watching it splinter helplessly. When he looked up, to Vic’s surprise, his withered eyes were wet. Suddenly he looked fragile, broken.
“My voice hasn’t been heard. It wasn’t those kids that pushed me over last night, but a group just like them two nights ago, no respect for someone who has given everything for them. Little buggers! I’d had enough of not being listened to. Do you know how hard it is to have part of your leg blown off and just assimilate back into civilian life? Employers don’t want people with ‘soldier skills’, we’re just the forgotten generation.”
“But you’ve defaced the memorial that was put up to celebrate what’s been done.”
“No. It was put up to stop it ever happening again. I’m not ashamed, I’ve not done wrong. Maybe now they’ll listen, maybe they won’t. Your grandfather, did he want you joining up?” Neville asked, holding Vic’s gaze through tear-welled eyes.
“He told me he fought so I didn’t have to.”
“So what are you going to do?”
Vic paused. Thought about his grandfather and the soldiers that he admired so much. Thought about Neville and everything that had led him to this point. He stood up. “I’m going to do the right thing.”