This short story, set just after novel 6, grew out of a scene I witnessed in a quiet Wiltshire pub a few years ago. A group of three men were taunting a young woman staff member in exactly the way described here. My presence, and that of my group of friends, helped to defuse the situation and the men left soon afterwards. I was aware that the young barmaid was pregnant at the time. It was intolerable that she should have been humiliated in this way, and at such a time.
Life had been hectic for several weeks, with Dorset’s Violent Crime Unit involved in a complex investigation that had been both challenging and time consuming. Detective Superintendent Sophie Allen, the unit’s commanding officer, had been hoping that the case would be wrapped up before Wareham Real Ale group’s next scheduled pub crawl, and so it had proved. She’d breathed a sigh of relief when she realised that her attendance at the evening jaunt could go ahead. These monthly evening events had always proved to be a relaxation lifeline for her, occasions when she could afford to let her guard drop and her hair down just a little. She and her friend Nikki were often the only women present, vastly outnumbered by the dozen or so men who usually made up the bulk of the group.
The only slight problem on this particular evening was that Nikki couldn’t make it. An emergency at her own work as a senior ward sister at Poole Hospital had led to a last-minute cancellation. This would normally have led to Sophie’s husband, Martin, stepping in as substitute companion but a parents’ evening at his school had prevented such an action on this occasion. So Sophie went on her own, the solitary woman in a group of ten.
As was often the case, she was dressed in slim jeans, an ornately patterned top, her favourite leather jacket and ankle boots; an outfit that was comfortable yet fashionable. The evening started at eight o’clock, in the most northerly of the four pubs the group planned to visit, with a single pint (or half) intended in each. A strange kind of logic had suggested that the crawl moved its way southwards towards the river as the evening progressed, in the downhill direction. The organiser hadn’t taken into account that this inevitably meant most of the members of the group would have uphill walks to get home. Sophie didn’t mind; she lived fairly close to the quayside.
The ale drinkers had become mellow and talkative by the time they entered the third pub on the itinerary, the smallest and quietest of the four. They bought their drinks from the solitary staff member on duty, a young woman, Jasmine, new to the job. Sophie chatted to her as she waited for her drink and Jasmine explained that the pub manager had been called away just an hour before. His elderly mother had fallen over at home and hurt herself badly. He’d left Jasmine in charge, although the chef was still on the premises, probably clearing up in the kitchen. Sophie noticed that Jasmine seemed slightly ill at ease but didn’t comment on it. The ale enthusiasts took their drinks to a quiet table away from the bar, settling down into comfortable chairs. Several diners finished their meals and left, leaving the pub empty apart from Sophie’s group and three men, sitting together on stools at the far end of the bar. They seemed to be sniggering about something. Sophie didn’t recognise them. They may have been tourists, possibly camping nearby judging by their appearance and the state of their clothes.
After half an hour of chat, the group decided it was time to set off for the final pub, their favourite. They gathered their coats together and moved to the door. Sophie looked back as she left and again noticed the look of worry on Jasmine’s face and her nervous glance towards the remaining men. Surely the young woman would be safe enough? After all, the chef was still on site. However, as the group passed the entrance to the car park, Sophie spotted a man in a chef’s apron in one of the outhouses, sorting through boxes of catering packs. The girl was alone in the main pub building. Sophie felt uneasy about the situation.
‘You lot go on,’ she said. ‘I’m just popping back in for a minute. I may catch up with you later.’ She turned on her heels and made for the door.
As soon as she entered, she realised that something was wrong. Jasmine was pink faced, almost tearful, and the three men were laughing in a sly manner.
‘What’s wrong?’ she said, beckoning Jasmine along to the other end of the bar.
‘They keep on at me,’ came the reply. ‘They keep asking me to lift my top up and show my breasts. They say they’ll give me money after I do it. I’m scared. I don’t know what to do.’
Sophie felt enraged. ‘That’s totally unacceptable,’ she said. She walked across to the men. ‘You’ve been intimidating that young woman. I suggest you leave right now, or I’ll call the police and have you charged.’
One of the men sneered at her. ‘Who the fuck do you think you are, telling us what we can and can’t do? Piss off. It’s nothing to do with you. Skinny bitch. At least she’s got tits, unlike you.’ His voice was slurred.
Sophie took out her phone, but at the same time one of the other men put his hand up in mock surrender. ‘Okay, okay. We’re going.’ He put his hand on his more aggressive friend’s shoulder. ‘C’mon, Pete. No point in getting the locals set against us.’
‘S’no fun around here,’ came the reply. But all three finished their drinks and moved to the door. Sophie watched them go, catching the eye of the intimidating one as he turned on reaching the exit. He pointed at Sophie, his fingers formed into a mock revolver, before turning on his heels and leaving. Should she report them or give them the benefit of the doubt? She decided to let the matter slide, knowing that all the other pubs in the town would be busier than this one, and would have more experienced staff, trained to deal with such behaviour. She stayed in the bar until they were joined by the chef, packed up and ready to leave. On hearing the story, the chef took the decision to remain in the bar until closing time. Sophie felt able to re-join her group at the final pub on their itinerary.
Sophie’s senses were on alert as she made her way along the street, alone. At the back of her mind was the thought that there could be a backlash caused by her intervention, and so it proved. She’d only walked a hundred yards when she spotted the three men ahead of her, spread across the pavement, watching her approach. She kept walking, finally stopping a few yards short of them. Again, there was a sneer from the aggressive one. She’d better get in first, to sow the seeds of doubt in their minds.
‘I’d better warn you that I’m a serving police officer. If you’re planning something stupid, don’t. You’d regret it.’ She stepped forward and the two calmer individuals slowly moved aside. Not Mr Angry. He maintained his position blocking the footway and, as Sophie stepped sideways to move around him, he did the same, blocking her progress. She was forced to halt, only inches away from him. She could smell a mix of sweat, cigarette smoke and whisky fumes coming from him, and feel the waves of intimidation. This had gone too far, and she needed to keep the initiative. She brought her left knee up hard into his groin, then seized his arm as he lurched forward in reaction. She twisted it hard around his back, spinning him sideways and downwards onto the pavement, following through by kneeling, hard, on the small of his back. She felt, and heard, his head crash into the paving slab, taking the weight of both of them. He groaned loudly and continuously.
‘Stay back,’ she shouted at the other two men.
While they hesitated, she slipped her hand inside her shoulder bag and pulled out a small container, hidden by her fingers. ‘Pepper spray,’ she said. ‘Move back against that wall and stay still. I need to phone in and get an ambulance and a police team. I think your friend may have a broken jaw.’
By the time she’d made the short call, they’d been approached by some people who had been sitting at the window seat in a nearby restaurant, now hurrying out to offer assistance. Sophie felt the tension of the situation ease, but she didn’t move from her position. Many years of experience on the streets of London and other major cities as a young officer had taught her never to be overconfident about the outcome of such a situation. She relaxed enough to replace her bottle of perfume spray into her bag, particularly now a small crowd had gathered, intrigued by the sight of a slightly-built, middle-aged woman kneeling astride a more bulky man, her knees in his back and her hand still twisting his arm behind his neck. Several took photos that would inevitably end up on social media before the evening was out.
It took less than ten minutes for a police squad car to arrive, the officers slightly bemused by the scene in front of them. It wasn’t often that, as a serving police officer, you got to see one of the county force’s senior figures in such a situation. The problem for them was, who was the assailant here and who the victim?