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Jam and Jerusalem
Scribbs peered around the corner, a grin of childish anticipation on her lips, before her face fell into confusion at the sight of thirty middle-aged women sitting around chatting; fully clothed.
"Why aren't they naked?" she asked Ash.
Ash looked horrified. "My mother is not a streaker!"
With some effort Scribbs managed to locate Mrs. Ashurst amidst the crowd, and the woman in question was certainly as far from naked as you could get without wearing your winter wardrobe. The buttoned-up woman appeared to have added a little too much starch to her clothing, her ramrod straight back almost artificial in its rigidity.
"Pity," Scribbs lamented, "it might have helped with the pole she's obviously got stuck up her -"
The crowd of women turned in their direction and Ash's mum made an audible tutting sound as she spied her daughter and her, so called, friend. Ash smiled an apology, before dragging Scribbs further into the room.
"Good afternoon, ladies, my name is Detective Inspector Ashurst." She held up her warrant card. "Middleford CID."
"Little Katie Ashurst," said a plump woman towards the back, "I haven't seen you since you played Romeo in your school's Shakespeare festival."
"Mrs. Dunwillis." Ash appeared to shrink in size as the woman came closer, followed by several others she remembered from her childhood. "We're here on official business," she stated, after the third exclamation concerning how much she'd grown.
"Isn't she cute," Mrs. Dunwillis exclaimed. "Dora, you must be so proud."
Scribbs looked towards Ash's mum, who looked anything but proud. "I believe Katherine is here on police business," Mrs. Ashurst's tone carried with it a 'you had better be, young lady, or else' that Scribbs found quite impressive; scary but impressive.
"Yes, I am." Ash looked to Scribbs for assistance.
"We've had reports of a ... thief in the area," Scribbs began, not quite sure how you described a knicker thief and all round perv to the ladies who lunch brigade. "He's been targeting mostly small groups of women, who he has also verbally threatened, but we believe he's escalating and might target organisations such as yours in the near future."
"Is he dangerous?" asked a nervous woman in the back.
"He hasn't been." Ash hadn't needed the lecture from Sullivan's pet psychologist to tell her that this particular nutjob was a powder keg of unexploded anger and aggression. "But there is no guarantee that his threats won't devolve into actual bodily harm."
"He's a total nutter," Scribbs added.
Murmurs went through the crowd and several of the women looked ready to bolt.
"And what do you plan to do about this, Katherine?" Mrs. Ashurst demanded.
"Sergeant Scribbins and I were planning to pose as members of your groups, so that we could keep an eye out for the suspect."
"Oooh," squeaked Mrs. Dunwillis, "It's like an episode of The Sweeney."
Scribbs didn't particularly appreciate being likened to Dennis Waterman but she was at least grateful for Mrs. Dunwillis' apparent enthusiasm. The same could not be said for Ash's mother or several of the other ladies; their faces pinched in a mixture of distaste and condescension.
"You wish to use this organisation as . . . Bait?" The word appeared to stick in Mrs. Ashurst's throat.
"Don't be such an old sourpuss," Mrs. Dunwillis chided. "I'm sure Katie and her lovely young friend are more than capable of handling this 'nutter'." She looked at Scribbs. "We haven't been introduced, I'm Elizabeth Dunwillis, the chairperson of our little group."
"DS Scribbins." Scribbs shook hands with a few of the more eager members. "I'm Katie's backup."
Ash looked as if she was about to strangle someone. "Anyone who feels uncomfortable with our presence is more than welcome to leave." She pointed towards the main entrance. "We can arrange for you to be driven back to your homes, if necessary."
"Poppycock!" said another woman, her booming voice in direct contrast to the apparently frail and delicate body that housed it. "We're not going to let some little toe-rag interfere with Institute business." She waved a sheaf of papers in the air. "We've fund raising to discuss."
"Is that when you get naked?" asked Scribbs, much to Ash's horror.
Mrs. Dunwillis and several of the other women laughed, and even Ash's mum cracked a smile.
"What?" Scribbs looked confused.
"Sorry, ladies, we watched Calendar Girls last night and -"
"She's been waiting for us to do a Helen Mirren ever since," Mrs. Dunwillis interrupted. "I'm sorry to have to break it to you," she told Scribbs, "but not everyone in the WI likes to get their kit off at a moment's notice."
"Heaven forbid," Mrs. Ashurst exclaimed, the first genuine smile of the day working its way onto her lips.
"I'm sure DS Scribbins never meant -"
"That's a pity," Scribbs interrupted. "I was looking forward to cavorting around the place."
Scribbs' comment and accompanying wink provoked more laughter from the ladies and a heightened colour from Ash. The light-hearted atmosphere having calmed many a jangled nerve, the ladies proceeded to instruct Scribbs, and a warily aloof Ash, of the normal goings on at the Women's Institute. Their initiation into the society coming thirty years too early for Ash's liking.
"Do you think they'll teach me how to make jam?" Scribbs asked.
"Keep your eyes on the road," Ash instructed, despite the fact they were now inside the tiny car park adjacent to the town hall, and there wasn't another car within sight. "Besides, you don't cook."
"Who said anything about cooking? I just want to know how to make jam." She swerved into a parking space, the squeal of tyres and accompanying jolt as the brakes kicked in, all for Ash's benefit and disgust. "I could have it on my toast in the mornings."
"And forego your precious Sugar Puff drink?" It was a civilised alternative but Ash found the whole idea of Scribbs cooking highly unsettling; not that she couldn't do a mean steak and chips when the occasion called for it, but making jam from scratch was far too mumsy for someone like Scribbs. "You'll be crocheting next," she grumbled.
"Nah, Betty said crocheting is for geriatrics."
"You call Mrs. Dunwillis, Betty?"
"She asked me to."
There was something so intrinsically wrong with that statement that Ash lost the power of speech and merely sat in the car until Scribbs' call from within the hall brought her back to reality. The thought of Mrs. Dunwillis, the same Mrs. Dunwillis who had scrunched her cheeks and bought her a Cindy doll for her seventh birthday, being on first name terms with her partner was inconceivable.
"She'd probably let you call her Betty, too," Scribbs offered, having mistaken Ash's astonished paralysis for jealousy. "She's always saying what a bright girl you are and how proud your mum must be that you didn't turn out like Janice Fotherington."
Ash rolled her eyes. "Janice ran away with the Latin master at the end of the fifth year. I don't know what scandalised my mother more, the fact that she returned a year later with twins, or that she didn't re-sit her O Levels."
"Shocking." Scribbs smiled, having seen her fair share of pregnant school girls during her final year at school. "At least there's no chance of you failing your exams, even if you do run off with someone she considers scandalous."
"Not much chance of that," Ash murmured. "Enough of this, we need to check the surveillance equipment and make sure he didn't make any unexpected visits during the night."
Mrs. Dunwillis bent over Scribbs' shoulder and peered curiously at the tiny monitor one of the technicians had installed in the broom closet. The picture was surprisingly crisp and, at that moment, depicted a harried looking DI Ashurst searching through the wheelie bins at the rear of the hall, and throwing bags of rubbish this way and that.
"Is that normal police procedure?" Mrs. Dunwillis asked.
Scribbs had been too absorbed in her appreciation of the way Ash's position and tighter than tight trousers displayed her rear end, to have noticed Mrs. Dunwillis' approach, and jumped in fright when the woman herself spoke; the fear that her thoughts might have been interpreted, as much as the suddenness of the voice, bringing a blush to Scribbs' cheeks.
"Is that normal?" Mrs. Dunwillis repeated, pointing to Ash, who had progressed from sifting through rubbish to kicking the bins and, from the looks of it, swearing up a storm.
"Not exactly." Scribbs was relieved to see that Ash had abandoned her diatribe against the bins and was headed back into the building. "One of the ladies decided to tidy up Ash's papers, and accidentally threw her warrant card in the bin."
Scribbs nodded. "She said she hated clutter." That statement alone had been enough to alienate Ash, who considered her workspace, especially compared to Scribbs' own, as a model of neatness. "But couldn't remember which bin she'd used to dispose of the rubbish."
"Her husband was a tyrant," Mrs. Dunwillis confided. "Rumour has it that he used to go into a rage if she so much as left a cup out on the draining board."
"Bastard!" Scribbs looked shocked at her own choice of word. "I mean . . ."
"Oh, no, my dear, you got it right the first time. He was a complete and utter bastard and I, for one, am glad his heart gave out on him."
"Scribbs! I can't find the bloody thing anywhe . . . Mrs. Dunwillis?"
"Good morning, dear." Mrs. Dunwillis decided not to mention Ash's heightened colour and shocked look at spying her ensconced in Scribbs' little hidy-hole. "I was just saying to Emma how professional it all looks in here."
Ash's smile was forced and Scribbs could almost here the 'we are professionals' screaming inside her head. "Thank you," she finally managed.
Mrs. Dunwillis got up to leave, gently patting Ash's arm as she passed. "You should speak to Ella about your warrant card, dear, she usually manages to retrieve anything useful before Emily puts them in the bins."
As the door closed, Ash put her head in her hands and sighed. "These women are going to be the death of me."
Mrs. Ashurst laid out another photograph for Scribbs' enjoyment; the elder woman took great pleasure in having an attentive and appreciative audience for a change. The candid photos of women at work, both inside and outside the home, had been looked down upon by the other members of her amateur photography club; most of them retired civil servants and solicitors, who thought the real lives of women were beneath them.
"I took this one at a canning factory in Manchester." She laid the print before Scribbs, the image displaying a laughing woman, her head thrown back, surrounded by heavy machinery and dark shadows. "She had such a contagious laugh."
"She looks . . ." Scribbs hesitated, not wanting to show her ignorance in front of Ash's mother. "She looks so alive and . . . I dunno . . . unique?" Unlike Ash's posh girls' high, Scribbs' school hadn't run to art appreciation, and she felt totally out of her depth. "Like when you think of factories you think of all these grey machines and their equally grey operators, but there she is, full of spit and vinegar."
"That's exactly it!" She squeezed Scribbs' hand. "The whole point of this series was to look beyond people's expectations and see into the realities of women's lives."
Scribbs' loved the older woman's enthusiasm and, for the first time, she could begin to see a resemblance to her daughter that went beyond a good posture and impeccable diction. "Perhaps you should come down the station?" she offered. "Maybe go out on a routine call with a couple of the female PCs?"
"Really?" A touch of colour entered Mrs. Ashurst's face. "You don't think Kate would mind?"
"Mind what?" Ash asked, coming in halfway through another conversation.
"I suggested your mum come down the station and take some photos." She pointed towards the array of photographs laid out on the table. "You never said how talented she was."
Ash looked annoyed. "Since when are you interested in art?"
"I don't need to have season tickets to the opera to know a good photo when I see one." Scribbs turned to Ash's mother. "She thinks I'm an ignoramus," she whined.
"I do not."
"Katherine!" Mrs. Ashurst gathered up her photographs, disappointment colouring her voice as she said, "I expected more from you." She smiled at Scribbs. "We'll speak more later about your idea."
Once her mother had gone, Ash slumped down into the chair she'd vacated and stared menacingly at her partner. "What do you think you're doing?"
"Sucking up to my mother like that." She sat up straighter. "She doesn't need your condescension."
"Condescension? That's rich, coming from you."
"What does that mean?"
"You figure it out." Scribbs stood to leave, but Ash halted her progress with a quick tug on the arm. "What?"
"What?" An apology from Ash was so rare and unexpected that it threw her for a loop. "Are you talking to me?"
"Don't be annoying, Scribbs."
That was more like it. "Her photos really are good," Scribbs said, "and you don't need to be David Bailey to see it."
"I know." Ash looked back towards where her mother had disappeared. "She's been taking photos since as far back as I can remember, but every since Dad died she's been really passionate about it. She even set up a darkroom in the garage." She looked slightly uncomfortable. "I think it helps take her mind off his absence; especially now that Michael's moved away and I don't get time to visit as much."
"Maybe we could take her to a gallery opening, or something?"
"Yeah, why not?" Scribbs wanted Ash's mum to like her, but more than that, she'd actually enjoyed talking about the photographs with her. "Unless you'd rather have her to yourself."
"No, I... I think she'd like it if you tagged along."
By their fourth visit to the institute Ash had given up any hope of catching the miscreant or stopping Scribbs from bonding with the over fifties. Even when they were chasing up other leads Scribbs found time to shop for jam making ingredients or come up with saucy ideas for a non-nude calendar. It would have been worrying if it wasn't so damn sweet.
"What are you smiling at?" Scribbs asked, peering over the top of her 'knitting for beginners' magazine.
Ash pressed the rewind button on the video recording equipment and let herself hide amidst the whirl of outdated machinery. Setting the tape running, Ash prepared herself for twenty minutes of utter boredom as she watched a variation on the same dull view of the car park; the motion sensors did at least mean she wouldn't have to forward wind through days of the stuff, but it still left her an eye witness to every passing cat and strong gust of wind.
"What's that?" Scribbs pointed to the left-hand side of the screen. "Take it back a few frames."
The old equipment they'd been lumbered with didn't quite run to frame by frame imaging, but Ash did her best to accommodate Scribbs' wishes. "Is that a man?"
"Play it again."
They re-watched the same three seconds of tape five more times, but still couldn't decide on exactly what they'd seen. "Why don't you do a visual sweep of the area, while I watch the rest of the tape?" Ash suggested in a tone Scribbs rightly understood to be an order.
The rest of the tape showed nothing more sinister than a pair of overly friendly felines, and Ash was about to write-off their earlier suspicions as nothing more than paranoia when Scribbs returned and deposited a rank smelling carrier bag on the table.
"This was stuffed behind one of the drain pipes." She used a gloved hand to carefully peel back the carrier to reveal the garments within. "I'm no expert on Marks and Sparks undies, but those look like they came from at least eight different women."
The various sizes and cuts made Ash suspect the true number was nearer fifteen. She wrinkled her nose. "What's that gooey substance?" She tried to peer more closely but Scribbs held her back.
"Believe me, you really don't want to know."
Ash took one look at Scribbs and then one at the bag, before stepping as far away from the table as humanly possible. "You should bag that up and get it sent to forensics." Her eyes sought out the door. "I'll radio this in to the station."
As Ash fled Scribbs was left to deal with the evidence and wish she had time to pop back home and take a long, hot shower.
To Be Continued
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