The call came in at 18.34. By 17.05, DI Arnott was walking into AC-12’s office in Thatchbury. Instinctively he flashed his pass at the barrier: but there was no barrier; only a door that closed none too well and, beyond that, a small office with three desks and a kitchenette. Toilet and washing facilities were shared with the print finishers on the first floor. AC-12 had come down in the world: or, as Hastings preferred to put it, was “building back better”. Arnott was happy to play along with this piece of spin although they hadn’t had any jobs in the two months since they’d been waiting for their re-commission.
The other two were already there. DI Kate Fleming was trying, not for the first time, to unjam the ancient laser printer. Superintendent Hastings was on the phone.
“Well, I appreciate that of course, but…” he was saying.
Arnott took off his jacket and nodded at Fleming. “Mate,” he said.
“Mate,” she replied without looking up.
“We should take up playing chess,” he suggested with one of those grins that he had.
Fleming gave a short, bark-like laugh. “If you like losing.”
Arnott let that one slide. Across the room, the gaffer’s call was reaching its climax. “Well, I can assure you that if there’s a rotten apple in your barrel we’ll be the ones to find it…not at all…Goodbye.” He jumped to his feet and theatrically looked at his watch. “Glad you could join us, DI Arnott,” he said. Arnott was, after ten years, growing slightly tired of this gruff archness and said nothing. “Kate, if you could tear yourself away from the repairs for a moment…”
Fleming did so. “It’s knackered, boss. The PSD won’t charge the RU. HP3s are prone to that after a few years. And this is more than a few years.”
“Mother of God,” Hastings said automatically. “What we have to work with – well, thank the saints for your resourcefulness, Kate.”
Arnott now noticed that she had an array of tools and spare parts spread out on the desk. He was starting to be daunted by Kate Fleming’s bewildering range of competences. He remembered the gaffer’s words when they had moved into this tip of a place two months before. “We’re on our own, folks,” he said. “We’ll have to look after ourselves and make do and mend.” It was increasingly clear that this had been no mere form of words.
“Well, we have ourselves an enquiry,” Hastings was saying. “As you know,” he added, with the air of a man consciously breaking the fourth wall to keep any viewers in the loop, “since that “H” business we’ve been cast adrift, feeding off crumbs until our time comes again. Which, so help me God, it will. So – here we have it. The A-CEO of EBC has asked me look into a suspected case of PCF.”
Arnott avoided Hastings’ gaze. He never thought the day would come when acronyms would flummox him but he’d never heard any of these before.
Hastings slid a piece of paper across to each of them. They read it and glanced at each other. Fleming did that thing with her eyes. Arnott sort of thought he knew what it meant but was never quite sure. Since they’d been going solo there’d been no script to check so he never knew what was going to happen next. They were, in fact, in the novel position of making it all up as they went along.
“All clear?” Hastings barked. They both nodded dumbly. “Kate, you’re UCO on this one. I’ve fixed it up. You need to call Joanne Weaver. Steve – surveillance. Operation Handforth is now active. Well, what are you waiting for? Bent…bent people to catch!”
The following evening, Kate Fleming was feeling the same bewilderment at the acronyms as Steve Arnott had earlier done. EBC, CIL, WAP, PSA, QDS, NDP – the terms came at her like bullets. She’d portrayed herself, and been accepted, as experienced in this world and had covered herself by saying that at the first meeting she’d just be there to learn the ropes.
Even this reticence seemed not to be enough. The discussion had reached what appeared to be a familiar impasse and several people were shooting her sidelong glances as if they hoped that this newcomer could help them out of their difficulties. She tried to marshal the various terms into a pattern, as if looking for the clue to a cipher.
“EBC” was the one that came up most often, sometimes accompanied with a snort that spoke outwardly or derision but also of a deep-seated fear. This was, she reasoned, a senior organisation to which they answered and fixed in her mind the image of the Chief Constable’s office. Then there was something called “sill”, which she only knew was “CIL” because she’d seen it written down: this seemed to be an obligation of some kind, probably financial, regarding which they had got in a bit of a muddle. She thought of this as a Section 13 notice or some such financial or disciplinary measure. Finally, one person in particular, a woman called Maggie Penfold, was talking a lot about “NDP”. This appeared to be some status which they did not yet enjoy but hoped to, whereupon much about the relationship with EBC would change. This seemed like an operational directive of some kind. Through this twisted prism, things started to make a bit more sense.
There was a pause. “Well, Karen,” said the Chairman, who had the unfeasible name of Courtney Inchbold.
She gave him one of her special smiles, deep with meaning, of the kind that so confused Steve Arnott. “It’s Kate, actually,” she said.
“Kate, Kate, of course, yes,” Courtney said. “My apologies. So – Kate, ha ha, what would you advise?”
Six pairs of eyes were fixed on her. This was no moment to quail. “Send it back to EBC,” she said. “Tell them that the NDP comes first and the CIL needs to be sorted out afterwards.”
There was a long pause. Courtney Inchbold and Maggie Penfold shot each other a long glance. Kate hardly dared breathe.
“An interesting idea,” Inchbold said at last. She could feel the rest of the group relax. The bluff seemed to have worked. “Well, we’ve tried everything else…” There was a low murmur of laughter. “Right – can we minute that…”
The rest of the discussion played itself out without incident. It was only at the very end, when everyone was leaving, that Kate saw Courtney Inchbold reach into the cupboard in the corner of the room, take out two files and a small package and put them in his briefcase. Click-click went the camera on her phone.
Sitting in her car, she texted “Code mauve” to Arnott and Hastings. Then she drove the three miles to her new “home” in West Shelford, poured herself a large glass of wine, drunk it and went to bed.
She finished her report the following morning at AC-12. Hastings stood up and rubbed his hands. “Now we’ve cooked his goose,” he said. “Obvious, clear case of mis-use of public documents. When I show this to Carmichael – well, the Chief Constable’s going to have to sit up and take notice.”
“Sir,” Arnott interjected before Hasting’s enthusiasm got the better of him. “We don’t actually know what’s in these files.”
“Indeed we don’t, son, indeed we don’t,” Hastings retorted. “Which is why you’re going to be doing a lawful search of his house tomorrow morning while Kate here accompanies him on a site visit to…where was it?”
“Wayland’s Farm, sir.”
“Well, there you go, there you go. This goes up to the very top or I’m mistaken. Let’s crack on, then. Sit rep at noon.”
Kate spent half an hour trudging round a field in the driving rain with Courtney Inchbold and Maggie Penfold. The wind was so savage and her knowledge of what was being discussed so slender that she took virtually no part in the discussion.
“Well,” Inchbold said when they’d finished, “that clinches it, I fancy.”
“Absolutely,” Kate said. Inchbold beamed at her.
“Think we can agree this between the three of us.”
“There’s just one thing,” Maggie Penfold said. “If the S106…”
Inchbold waved his hand. “I don’t think it will come to that. It’s clearly an unsuitable application. Most unsuitable.”
“It’s certainly quite obtrusive,” Maggie agreed.
“Well, I think we can report back that we’re unanimous,” Courtney Inchbold went on and then shot her a wink.
“Absolutely,” Kate said with the same conviction as before but no more knowledge of what they were talking about.
Arnott, disguised as a meter reader, found it easy to break into Courtney Inchbold’s cottage. He discovered the Lever-Arch files quickly enough: both were empty. Of the package, which Kate had not been able to photograph, there was no sign. What he did find, through, in the desk drawer, was an envelope containing £120 in ten-pound and five-pound notes. Click-click went Steve Arnott’s camera.
Steve Arnott pressed the button and the recorder started its ten-second bleep. Why the hell did the thing have to go on for so long? Hastings had told him it was to get the interviewee “good and jumpy.” It had much the same effect on Arnott. Ever since his back injury time had moved at a slightly different pace for him, the bleep on each occasion continuing for about a second longer than he was expecting and putting him, rather than the person sitting across from them, on the back foot.
“Interview in the presence of…” he ran through the names and the familiar litany. “…you do not mention something that you later rely on in court. Anything you do say may be used in evidence.”
“Well, now,” Hastings began, “let’s start with the files, Mr Inchbold., the files that you stole.”
Courtney Inchbold’s lawyer was an elderly, confused and dishevelled man called Michael Starke. He lived in the neighbouring village of Westfield and had been summoned from his bed at 7.15am, half an hour before, by his panic-stricken client just after his dawn arrest. Starke had already protested several times that he hadn’t practised for twenty years and hinted that he had been struck off. He was also deeply hungover and perhaps still drunk from the night before. For all these reasons, he merely gaped at this allegation, like a small child suddenly finding himself transported into a pivotal scene in a Le Carré novel.
“The files were empty. What was in them?”
Starke, who had clearly watched a few TV police dramas, pulled himself together and whispered something in his client’s ear.
“No comment,” Inchbold stammered.
“What about the package, removed from the same cupboard at the same time?”
“DI Arnott,” Hastings said.
“Item OH1 in your files and on the screen.” Arnott flicked his tablet. Nothing happened. Then he switched it on. Hastings let out a pained sigh. “OH1 on the screen,” Arnott repeated when the image finally appeared. “This shows £120 in used ten- and five-pound notes discovered in your house. How do you account for this?”
“It was from the tom…” Inchbold started before Starke started hissing in his ear again.
Hastings gave him a cold smile. “Do you normally decide responses to EBC on your own?”
There was a slightly longer whispered pause. “No comment.”
“Jesus, Mary, Joseph and the inn-keeper…” Hastings said.
“What was the…” Arnott interrupted; but Hastings, who had not finished, put up his hand.
“…and the wee donkey. Are you going to waste our time all day? I tell you, I’m going to throw the book at you, so help me God. If there’s one thing I hate it’s bent co…people.”
“No comment,” Inchbold said again.
“Take him down to the cells,” Hastings said to Arnott.
“We don’t have any cells, boss,” Arnott whispered.
“Well, take him out of my sight,” Hastings shouted. He stood up. “Superintendent Hastings leaving the meeting before he says something he regrets.”
As the gaffer’s hand was on the door handle, Inchbold spoke. “I’d like to make a statement,” he said, waving Michael Starke’s whispers aside.
Hastings resumed his seat. “Well, now we’re sucking diesel, son. Out with it.”
“I admit that I removed a Lever-Arch file and a pack of coloured pencils from the stationery cupboard to use for my daughter’s homework,” he said. “The other Lever-Arch file was for legitimate official purposes. The £120 was money from the tombola at the village fete that I haven’t yet had time to pay into the account.” He paused. “The last bank in Kintford closed in July and I need to go to Thatchbury to do it…but I keep forgetting.”
“Three weeks ago,” Hastings said. “Three weeks. That’s fraud in my book. If there’s one thing I hate…”
“No comment,” Michael Starke said on behalf of his client.
“Mother of God,” Hastings said. “DI Arnott – book him.”
In the kitchenette, Kate Fleming was watching the interview on the monitor. An awful feeling had been growing on her that they’d mis-counted the trumps in this investigation. Corruption was, as Hastings was fond of reminding them, corruption: but how serious was this case, really? Was there a link, which Hastings had insisted existed, to a higher power, a deeper conspiracy, a more powerful plot? So far, it didn’t seem likely. Then again, they were not yet commissioned. A lot of other pretenders had sprung up to take their place. The end of Season Six had been left on a distinctly downbeat note, “leaving AC-12 at its weakest.” God knows, that was true. In the meantime they had to keep their hand in, ready for the call if it ever came.
She turned away from the screen and did a sad, thoughtful look into the middle distance that might cut some ice with BBC’s commissioners or, failing that, with any other producers who might be watching.
Steve Arnott came in so, for good measure, she did that thing with her eyes again. There was a long silence. As there was no script she could think of nothing to say. Through the frosted glass they could see Hastings pinning photographs to the notice board.
“Mate,” he said.
“Mate,” she replied.
“So – where are we?”
Where were they, exactly? Was this arrest likely to get the attention of DCS Patricia Carmichael or of the BBC commissioners for the next series? She reviewed the charge sheet in her mind. They’d nabbed a rural parish councillor in East Brockshire for nicking some stationery, for being a couple of weeks late in paying the fête takings and for taking a high-handed line about opposing a planning application. It was hardly up there with the search for H. A case of PCF – parish councillor fraud – wasn’t, she had to admit, a huge step on the road back to redemption: but it was at least a start.
The image at the top of the post has been taken from this article about Line of Duty in The Guardian in March 2019.