I recognised a couple of the faces from news reports, articles in the local press and so on. Once more, Inspector Powell’s word of choice rose up: “local”. None of these, to my best recollection, had made anything more than the local news reports, certainly not the nationals, and the consistency was there in each picture, each black eye and fat lip. The boys had been attacked from the front, or at least after they had been grabbed. Pretty boys who had ceased to be so.
There were files as well as press clippings, and we passed around witness statements and evidential photos in near silence as the urn heated and Alun shepherded a couple of the IT bods as they plugged in new phones and Ellen cut and pasted the large-scale maps to the wall. Rob was muttering more than most.
“How long has this been going on?”
Candice shrugged. “Too long, from the looks of it. Surprised it hasn’t been picked up on before, number of cases there are here”
Rhys played devil’s advocate. “No way of saying whether they are linked yet”
He got a growl from Rob, and held up his hands. “No, mate, not saying that. Just, if this lot is all from one posse, then we need to be really careful tying it together, innit? Get a ringer in, one that’s not ours, aye? Wreck any prosecution. Who wants a brew? Oh, and let’s get a brew list done, who takes what, how they take it, aye? I suspect we’re going to be spending quite a lot of time in here to start with. Alun, your local bods: can we get some lockable sets of drawers?”
That first day went in fits and starts as team members came up with ideas for things they wanted, or realised we simply had to have, and by the time the Inspector was back the room had gone from random piles of Stuff to somewhere that looked halfway like a working office. I had even had my own brainwave, and over the following weeks, as Blake and Alun’s council contacts responded we had pins in the maps. Each one secured a little wedge of paper, showing CCTV cameras and their fields of view. Other markers showed the position of gents’ public toilets, and two days into our setting up I caught our boss shaking her head and sucking her teeth like a sit-com car mechanic.
“This is bloody ridiculous, Diane! What the hell’s happened to all the bogs? No wonder blokes piss up dark alleys—there’s nowhere else left!”
Oddly, all the excitement went out of the work after three days, as we got everything pinned up, stuck down, locked away or just piled into a cupboard. It wasn’t what I had hoped for, in that it was starting to get boring, but to be honest it was what I had been expecting. Hurry up and wait, drink coffee, crunch biscuits, and plot all the bogs, pink establishments and CCTV sites in two cities. Not the most stimulating of ways to fill my day.
The team was a hoot, though, someone, somewhere, having had a feel for congenial characters, and a real working system was taking shape as we discovered each other’s strengths, weaknesses and blind spots.
Things changed gear with a suddenness I had been half expecting, when our boss came stalking into what we were describing as our ops room, her face clenched.
“Gather round, boys and girls. This has moved onward and bloody downward. We have a gang rape this time, not just a beating”
I looked round the team, seeing similar expressions of anger and disgust, which I hoped wasn’t for the nature of the victim.
“Diane, you take one of the boys up the hospital and see what you can get from him. Softly softly, aye? I want location soon as you can, and then… you, you, you off to pull camera footage. That leaves… aye, Alun and Blake, you tee up SOCO for when we know where we’re going. Yes, Blake?”
The big man had hid hand up, just like a schoolboy, as I was halfway to the door with Rhys.
“Ma’am, doesn’t this narrow the field down a lot, now we know we’re looking for homos?”
I couldn’t help myself, and turned back to him.
“You can be so fucking thick at times, boy! What makes you think they’re gay?”
“Well, bum sex, aye?”
No bloody idea at all. I walked back towards him, feeling my face twisting as the memories came back. Whore. Slut. Another big man ripping into me. I tried to keep my tone within supportive team-member boundaries, but I suspected it was well outside them.
“It’s not sex, you pillock, it’s RAPE. It’s about power, about humiliation, about destroying someone. They weren’t fucking him, they were fucking him up, right?”
Inspector Powell was very still, watching me, so I tried to wind my neck in a bit. More memories danced for me.
“Ma’am, don’t ask me how I know this, but I’m willing to lay a pound to a penny that they pissed on him after, like. We’ll give you the gen as soon as we have it”
Rhys had grabbed a set of keys from one of our new drawers, and after a mercifully short session of ‘hunt-the-vehicle’ we were on our way to the hospital.
“Could you do the lead on this one. I don’t want to stuff up. Not used to this, am I?”
“Bloody hell, Rhys, I am just off probation myself!”
“Aye, but you’re a girl. You’ll be softer than me. Might be necessary”
For god’s sake! I held my tongue with difficulty.
“OK, mate. Just, well, cover anything I miss, yeah?”
“OK. Sorry, Di”
“Oh, let’s just get it done. Be gentle with him, and we’ll be fine”
After a quick word with the staff nurse, ward sister, whatever the current name was, we were led into a side room to find a really skinny young man, eyes red from tears where they weren’t black with bruises.
“Hiya, I’m Diane Owens. I’ve come out to see if you’re OK, anything you need, sort of thing”
“You the Police?”
I shrugged, and nodded. “Aye, and this is Rhys Perkin, my colleague”
Rhys went to shake the lad’s hand, and I saw it was pink, almost raw, like an advert for a washing-up liquid. I remembered the tagline, about hands that do dishes being soft as your face, and in this case it was just about true, as his face was such a mess. I pulled out a smile; keep it steady, PC Owens.
“What do we call you, my friend?”
“Vern. Vernon Pugh”
“How old are you, mate?”
“Diane. Di. Whatever suits best, yeah? And as I said, this Rhys. What do you do?”
“I’m at the Uni, doing art and design”
“Where you from?”
“Out to Cowbridge”
“Right. Do you think you can tell us what happened? You feel up to it?”
He nodded. “Night before last, it was. Went out to the Smuggler’s for a few beers, a dance, usual thing”
“Yeah. I know the place. Was it a good night?”
“Well, yeah, until, well”
“Don’t worry about that, Vern. We’ll get there. Can you talk us through it?”
He looked at the wall for a few seconds, then nodded.
“Typical, innit? I got out of the pub, just down the road, and I needed a wee. Cold air does that to me”
Rhys muttered 2Beer does that to me, and Vern flickered a faint smile. Nice one, Rhys.
“Yeah, same here, but too much beer, cold air, yeah? Needed a wee, and, well, am I going to get in trouble if I say where I went?”
Rhys smiled, and shook his head, going up steadily in my estimation.
“Well, I went into the multi-storey, didn’t I? Third floor, I think. Got my music on my phone, chilled, and somebody punches me right in the kidney. Left one, from behind”
He was trembling now, staring off into the distance, memories slicing into his soul.
“I go down, and they kick me round the floor, and they’re all snarling, queer, cocksucker, arsebandit, and I can hear because my buds have dropped out with the punches, and then they grab me and drag me over the ground. Some store room or something, By the lifts, I think…”
He was starting to shake again, and to my astonishment Rhys reached out to take his hand as tears started to fall. My mate’s voice was soft, gentle.
“Can you remember anything about them, Vern? Accents? Faces?”
“Oh, shit, sorry…”
“No, mate. No worries. Your speed”
A sobbing breath, tears clamped away for later. “Local. Not English, not gogs, not any further west than Swansea. One of them might have been Valleys. They… They pulled my jeans down, and of course my cock, it’s trying to climb back inside, along with my balls, and they see, and they’re laughing at it, and they’ve got my hair, and my arms, and there’s a workbench, and they drag me up…”
His voice was getting quitter. “And then one of them whacks me, right in the guts, and I fold up, and that’s what they want, cause I’m bent over the table, bench thing, and I hear their zips go down…”
His knuckles were white where he had Rhys’s hand, and he was starting to drone, the words tumbling out.
“And it’s one after the other, and there’s five of them. All banging away, all grunting and swearing, pansy, you love it, and it’s so painful, and I don’t think any of them used protection…”
Again, Rhys was gentler than I realised I could have been. “Did they all ejaculate?”
Vernon just nodded.
“So they all get up, and they’re leaving, and they say they know where I live, know my family, and I’ve got a little sis, she’s only twelve….”
Rhys was nodding. “Yeah, and what did you do afterwards?”
“I scrubbed myself as clean as I could, and I made sure the doors were locked, and then the next day I realise I need to see my GP, and he freaks and sends me straight here.
The words were still there in my own memory. Whore, slut, slice your face off, so I asked the question, knowing what the answer would be.
“Vern, after they had all finished, did you see where they went?”
“No. They just hit me again, threw me on the floor, and then they all pissed on me”
We thanked him, and muttered some platitudes to the nurses on the way out, or rather Rhys did, because I couldn’t actually manage to speak, let alone be polite.
Someone else was talking all the way back to the nick, but it was only in my memory.
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