Quality Square, Ludlow
The troubles with binge drinking had always been manifold. They were represented by girls sicking up in gutters, boys having a piss wherever and whenever the fancy took them, rubbish being scattered all over the pavements, broken bottles lying in the streets, property being damaged in the form of trampled gardens and overturned rubbish bins. Shrill arguments, cat fights replete with hair pulling and eye gouging, fist fights, stolen handbags, snatched smartphones…The list of what accompanied binge drinking went on and on, although it was worse in the big city centres where late-night clubs allowed young people to drink themselves into folly till dawn.
In a town like Ludlow there were only pubs, but Gaz Ruddock had discovered that the lack of late-night clubs made no difference when it came to bingeing, though. In his first week as Ludlow’s PCSO he’d come to learn that, faced with a population swollen more and more each year by pensioners, the pub owners had learned to attract and accommodate the kind of crowd who regularly kept far later hours.
It was after midnight when Gaz finally reached Castle Square. He’d worked his way from pubs on the outskirts of Ludlow because he reckoned that if Finnegan Freeman wanted to engage in a truly proper booze-up, he wouldn’t be so stupid as to do his drinking in the pub nearest West Mercia College, where he was a student. But Gaz was proved wrong, as things turned out.
He parked the panda car in front of Harp Lane Deli, which as usual had entered the town’s seasonal window-dressing competition. It had taken first prize during Halloween, and from the look of things, it was going to take first prize again if a half-size Father Christmas with a line of similarly sized children waiting to climb upon his lap was any indication. At one of his shoulders stood a perky-faced elf with a pile of gifts in his arms.
Gaz shoved open the car’s door and swung himself out. Snow had begun to heap onto windowsills, and it formed a pristine carpet down the length of the market square. In the distance the lights that shone on the castle walls made the scene look like an enormous snow globe. It was quite beautiful and Gaz would have admired it had he not been bloody cold and equally anxious to have his search for Finnegan Freeman over and done with.
Gaz strode into the passage that led from the marketplace to Quality Square. Once through, he could hear the noise. Music, loud conversation, and laughter reverberated in the square as if the pub stood within an echo chamber. He wasn’t surprised to find five understandably angry residents gathered outside their homes in parkas and hats and scarves and boots. Two of them approached him as he walked into the first pool of light from a streetlamp. It was, he learned from them, “about bloody time that someone had arrived to do something about this.” This didn’t need clarification.
He advised them to go indoors and told them to leave the situation to him. Considering the noise, there were going to be a good number of drinkers both inside and outside the pub, so moving them along would take some time.
He rounded the corner. Striding towards the open terrace, he encountered some two dozen drunken young people hanging about beneath outdoor heaters. They were swilling down drinks of every kind; they were leaning against the pub walls; they were having a snog in the multitude of shadows. The acrid odour of marijuana grew stronger as he approached the pub door.
He blew his police whistle shrilly, but it was practically impossible for it to be heard over “Waterloo,” which was blasting through the open door of the pub. He would have to deal with the music first, so he went inside. There, in the entrance corridor, the drunken condition of two young ladies was allowing five well-dressed boys to grope them while betting each other—in language that Gaz wouldn’t have repeated even to old Rob—just how far along the road they were going to get before the girls understood what was happening.
Gaz’s face pinched up. He bloody hated this sort of thing. He forced his way into the group and broke up the action. One of the boys swirled round on him, ready to give him a taste of something he had no appetite for, but when he saw Gaz’s uniform, he dropped his fist. “That’s right,” was Gaz’s remark. “Clear out of here and take your mates with you.”
He kept a firm grip on each of the girls as he forced his way through the crowd and into the public bar. He caught the stench of someone’s vomit nearby, and he dropped the girls into chairs at the table from which the stench appeared to be coming. That would sober them up or prompt them to be sick. Either was fine with him.
The publican Jack Korhonen was chatting up a girl at the bar. She looked to be in the vicinity of fifteen years old. He didn’t see Gaz till Gaz had his hand on the back of the girl’s neck and was barking “Un- derage” into her face.
“I’m eighteen years old!” was her slurred defence.
“You’re eighteen like I’m seventy-two. Be on your way before I haul you home.”
“Can do, have done, will do again. You can tiptoe inside Mum and Dad’s house with none the wiser or have me banging on the door to hand you over to them personally. What’ll it be?”
She graced him with a nasty look, but she also took herself off. He watched till she disappeared into the corridor that would take her outside, and he was satisfied to see three girls of similar age and appearance follow in her wake. He turned to Jack, who held up his hands in a don’t-blame-me gesture. He said to him over the noise, “Turn it off. Time to shut things down.”
“Not closing time yet,” Jack protested.
“Make it last orders, Jack. And who’s upstairs in the rooms?”
“What rooms’re you speaking of?”
“Right. What rooms, eh? Tell whatsisname over there”—with a nod at Jack’s nephew—”to knock them up and let them know the fun is finished. Seems that’d be better than myself breaking in on whatever’s happening. Are you going to turn off the music or am I?”
Jack sneered, but Gaz knew it was merely for effect. He did as he was told. Shouts of protest rose at the cessation of ABBA, but into it Jack called, “Last orders. Sorry.”
More protest followed. Gaz ignored it and began to move among the tables. He still had to have a look for Finnegan Freeman, and he found him at a far table against the wall. At the moment, his head was in his arms, which were themselves crossed on the tabletop. Next to him was a nattily clad boy holding a smartphone while a mixed-race girl leaned into him and together they laughed at something they were watching on the smartphone’s screen.
Gaz strode over to the group, but stumbled when he got to them. He glanced down to see what was on the floor, and there he found another girl relaxing sleepily against the wall. He recognized her:
Dena Donaldson, Ding to her friends. To Gaz she was someone developing a very serious problem with the drink.
He bent and, his hands in her armpits, jolted Dena to her feet. When she saw exactly who was gripping her, the sight appeared to be enough to sober her up. She said, “I’m okay, I’m okay, I’m perfect.”
“Are you now?” Gaz enquired. “Happens things don’t look that way. Happens this could well be the time I cart you straight home so Mummy and Dad can have a proper look at—”
“No.” Her face hardened.
“No, is it? So you’re thinking Mummy and Dad—”
“He’s not my dad.”
“Well, love, he is whoever the hell he is and he might be interested in seeing how little Dena spends her evenings. Don’t you agree? Or not? And if not—”
“I can’t leave Missa. I promised her gran I’d stay with her. Come on,” and she struggled to get away from the grip in which he held her. She called out, “Missa, let’s go. You got that bloke’s card for the mini-cab, right?”
Missa looked up from whatever she was viewing. So did the boy. Both of them clocked the PCSO. The boy said to Gaz, “Hey. She’s not hurting you. Let her go. Pick on someone—”
“Fuck it, Gaz.” This came from Finnegan. He’d raised his head and, of course, he understood in two seconds what Gaz was doing in the pub.
“Get up now, Finn,” Gaz told the boy. “Got to get you home and tucked up in bed.”
Finnegan came straight up at that. He reared back against the wall. “No bloody way!”
The rest of them looked confused by the exchange as well they would, since it would have been out of character for Finn to tell them that he had more than a passing acquaintance with the town’s PCSO. Gaz said, “I don’t mean Worcester, do I. I mean home here, tucked up in your bed here, and whatever else you require here. Hot cocoa if you want it. Bournvita. Ovaltine. What you will.”
“You know this filth, Finn?”
The other boy had said it, and Gaz’s blood bubbled, quick as could be. He hated kids who dripped privilege, and he turned towards him. Dena said, “Brutus,” in a tone that apparently told the boy to back off. He shrugged, went back to his smartphone, and continued watching whatever was on it.
Gaz snatched it out of his hand. He had it into his pocket before Brutus—and what sort of name was that for a kid who looked to be the size of a scrum half rather than a second row?—knew where it had gone. He said to him and to the rest, “You lot are going home as is everyone else in this place.” He shouted, “Last orders, like you heard. And I’m giving everyone five minutes to down them.” He was gratified to see some of the kids already leaving. He was equally gratified to see four kids coming down the back stairs in the wake of the younger of the barmen. They looked disheveled and in need of a talking to, but Gaz had enough on his hands with the four in front of him.
To Dena he said, “You best think about your choice, missy.” To Finn he said, “I’m taking you home.”
To the others he said, “And you two scarper before I think of something else to do with you.”
Dena said, “Fine. I’m choosing. You can take us all,” and before Gaz could inform her that he wasn’t running a bus service for the likes of this group, she announced, “We live together, as if you didn’t know. I’m quite happy for the ride, and my guess is everyone else is as well. You lot coming?” she asked her friends airily as she reached for her coat and scouted round the floor till she came up with some kind of ancient evening bag. “We can carry on our partying at home, which is what, I believe, this officer is suggesting. Isn’t that right, constable?” she asked him.
Gaz heard the harmony that accompanied the melody of her final question. It spoke of triumph at having bested him. Yes. Well. They would see about that.
From The Punishment She Deserves. Used with the permission of the publisher, Viking. Copyright © 2018 by Elizabeth George.
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