A Raw Deal Or No Deal At All
It is nearing the end of a long, frosty night shift when Don Pollak picks up the ringing phone, over his partner’s clearly communicated protestations. Silent and frowning across their double desk at his more eager counterpart, Thaw puts down his pen, and looks around the open office for a sympathetic audience. He is not surprised to see that everyone else has clocked off early, or otherwise made themselves scarce – even the admin girl is off filing somewhere. They, unlike Pollak, clearly have the sense that they were born with, is how Thaw sees it.
Eavesdropping on the call, and watching the big American scribbling notes onto a pad, the veteran detective realises that he will be working a long way past the dawn shift-change, and he curses his partner. It has been nearly six months since they were assigned to each other, by a DI who swiftly got bored of Thaw’s helpful suggestions against the decision, and the officer with twenty years CID experience often feels that he still hasn’t properly broken in the Yank yet.
Occasions like this would seem to prove his concerns, too; taking a call as the next wave of coppers are parking their cars or stumbling off busses just outside is a schoolboy error, and Thaw has every intention of reminding Pollak of this for as long as it takes for the lesson to sink in.
True to form, less than an hour later the two are in a black cab, heading for Embankment Gardens. The Inner London Zone, what used to be thought of as Central London, that is suggested by what remains of the Circle line tube stations, is only a few miles across, but it is notoriously resistant to expedited travel.
Much of the established transport infrastructure of the city was compromised badly when London famously suffered the Great Big Nothing in 2033, and a government with a tenuous power-base has found itself with other things on its mind whenever the question of sorting the issue out has been raised.
Although many roads are sporadically under inches of water, and the Underground and train network has found nearly a third of its stations submerged, business has found a way to survive, with retail centres and industrial parks simply migrating to spots that are still well serviced. Very few people live in the ILZ any more, but London has always been a city of commuters, anyway. The majority of Londoners simply migrated outside the boundaries of the M25, and continued with their lives.
However, crime and the victims thereof aren’t as pragmatic, and are happy to land up anywhere. Often only someone with The Knowledge can get you to a crime scene. This suits a heavily impoverished local government down to the ground, because it gives a solid rationale for stopping the provision and maintenance of a fleet of unmarked cars for its men. So now the sworn officers of the CID find themselves reduced to taking cabs out to the final resting places of slowly cooling bodies.
By the time Simon Thaw eases his old bones out of the cab, and Don Pollak folds his own massive frame out of the rocking vehicle, the driver looks relieved to be seeing the back of them – Thaw has failed to let the perceived mistake of taking this call slide, and has been lecturing both Pollak and the cabbie on the politics and strategies of being a successful murder investigator.
On this day, that lecture has mostly consisted of the repeated assertion that you just don’t take a call when you should be pulling on your jacket. He punctuates his lessons with slurs on Pollak’s damn Yank work-ethic, with badly considered allegories and metaphors, and with endless “fucks”, “wankers” and more besides. Pollak only rarely gets to hear the inflection of Thaw’s East London upbringing, when the elder is angry, or half-cut, but the vocabulary is there always.
There is another reason for Thaw’s agitation that he doesn’t share with the younger man – a disquiet born of experience, an instinctual response to the geography that passes by them on their journey. It isn’t until they are crossing the near-swamp of Embankment Gardens, their Metropolitan Service issue boots sinking into the mud, that he starts to get a handle on the feeling, and it isn’t until he sees what the girl is wearing that he holds it fully.
The first officer on the scene is a five-year plod whose attention was drawn to the body by the small family who found it, just starting out on their longboat holiday. Statements have already been taken, but out here, there are no press, passersby or potential witnesses gathered around, and pretty soon the constable is allowed to continue his soggy beat, and the scene is reduced to two detectives and their victim, as they wait for the medical examiner to arrive.
“This used to be a park, you know.” Thaw says to his partner. “I remember driving past it.”
“Yeah?” says the American, giving his partner a sideways look as he circles the body. “How long ago was that? Forty, fifty years?”
“Cheeky twat.” Comes the retort. “No, not that long. Just… before London sank.” He looks around for signs of the MEs arrival. “We might as well have a proper look. What do you see?”
“Well, female Caucasian, around fourteen, fifteen? Face-up, pretty thing, no outward signs of anything unusual…”
“Beyond her not breathing, of course?”
“Yeah.” Pollak allows himself a dark grin, the squats down in the mud, water pooling where his heels sink in. “This green thing she’s wearing… it looks like a hospital gown. And there’s a radio ID bracelet, which would make her as a patient. We should be able to get a name from that.”
“Good work. And here’s the Doc, who I’m betting will just repeat everything you just said back at us, and not much more.”
Thaw already knows that for all his partner’s diligence, this case isn’t going anywhere, of course. For a start, there’s the location of the body. However she got here, the girl probably spent a lot of the journey in the water, and that’s going to leave few, if any, traces of foul play. Anyway, any good detective knows that forensic science hit its sweet spot many years ago, for about five minutes. By the time DNA evidence and scientific proof of an individual’s part in a crime gained real credibility with a jury of citizens, designer gene fixing and body modification started to make it reasonably doubtful that you could definitively prove who a person was from trace.
More then this, though, Thaw knows that the investigation is dead in the water, both figuratively and literally, because he recognises the bracelet and the gown, and he points this out to Pollak.
“See that over there?” he points.
“What is that, a heron?” Pollak says, squinting.
“No, not… behind the bird. That building…”
“Oh, yeah. Man, that’s huge. Ugly, too. What is it?” He shields his eyes with a meaty paw. “Oh, hang on… man, I’ve seen photos of that place. It’s… is that St Thomas? The research place?”
Thaw nods, and takes in the view – the body all but forgotten behind them.
The building is nearly two kilometres away, but once you notice it, it dominates all. Thaw will later explain that, as a kid growing up, St Thomas was much smaller, and more like a normal hospital. However, a couple of lucrative research contracts allowed the Trust to start buying up valuable land and property around the previous site, and old buildings were re-purposed or torn down and rebuilt for the hospital’s new brief as one of the premier research sites in the UK and the world.
Looking at it now, it’s a patchwork of old concrete and new, face-less blocks; of fire-escapes and raised walk-ways. Of course, the Trust lost lots of money, and the use of an awful lot of real-estate, when its foundations sank below the water line, but the corporate face of the organisation prevailed, and the hospital, and its business interests, just kept growing.
“The victim is wearing one of their gowns.” Thaw says.
“You think someone killed her over there, and dumped her in the Thames?” Pollak says.
“Well, more likely she got out on her own, went for a walk, and fell in. The currents are fucked in there, which would explain her ending up upstream instead of down.”
“Well, either way, it’s neglect. Patients shouldn’t be allowed to just wander around.” Pollak seems genuinely angry, an odd enough thing on the face of a murder police, Yank or Brit.
“Not patient. Subject. They only do research up there.” He looks up at his partner. “And we’re not going over there.”
Pollak is outraged, but that is because he doesn’t yet know about “The Deal”. What this “Deal” entails is, the administration at St Thomas promise not to just dump pathogen riddled corpses into the Thames indiscriminately, or to make any flagrant transgressions of international law so obvious that they can’t be overlooked, and the Met don’t look too closely at any enquiries that come out of the place. Thaw suspects that a great deal of money changes hands, as well.
“The Deal” makes Thaw sick to his stomach, but it is what it is, and so he struggles to make Pollak understand it. It proves tough for the American, but Thaw makes a solid case over the next few hours, and several beers, with the body of the unidentified girl safely behind them on a mortuary trolley at HQ.
Thaw hates these uncomfortable little compromises. As unpalatable as they are, he fears that they are an inevitable symptom of living in a city in which every street holds vendors dealing in three currencies, and a country which doesn’t know whether it wants to be led by a monarchy or a democracy, so opts for both.
Simon Thaw is an upright man, of city stock. Experience has made him pragmatic, and shown him to batten any idealistic tendencies down tight. But the memory of the girl – not the tragedy of her death, but the decisions that it has forced him to make, sticks with him. So much so that once he has seen Pollak safely into a cab, he hails one of his own, and goes and waits in the crook of a fire escape, behind St Thomas.
Because, he thinks to himself, this is the London way, now. You may force us to swallow your shit while you’ve got the upper hand, but the second you take a turn down a dark alley… we will give you a fucking kicking you will not believe.
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