A cold February night. No one was out and about in Ashfordly. It was nearly eleven, and people were either in their warm beds or ensconced by their firesides. No such luck for PC Nick Rowan walking a lonely beat in Ashfordly that night.
Down by the canal was an area which although lonely and part derelict did contain some in use warehouses and various sheds, lock ups and garages. And it was outside one of these sheds a small gang had congregated. They were boys about thirteen to fourteen years of age and totalled five in number.
"What's in this one?" one boy asked peering through the window of a lock up. "Eh, look, clothes and stuff. Must be using it for storage. It'll go up like fun, this." He looked round at a smaller boy near the back of the group. "Well, come on, you know what you have to do."
The boy hesitated. "Its wrong innit?"
"You said you wanted to be in our gang right? Well you have to pass an initiation. This is it. You're gonna burn that shed to the ground." The older boy pushed a petrol soaked rag and some matches at the other boy. "Go on then. I'll even smash t' window for you so you can throw it in." As he spoke he picked up a half brick from the ground and slung it through the window of the shed. Then he looked back at the smaller boy. "Come on! Light that rag and sling it through the window. Do it!"
The smaller boy slowly struck the match but before he could do anything Nick Rowan emerged out of the darkness. "Oi - drop that – now!" he shouted.
The boy froze in Nick's torchlight and dropped match and rag even as the other boys shouted, "Copper!" and ran scattering in all directions. The smaller boy after momentarily freezing also took to his heels. Nick went after him only pausing to check that the rag hadn't lit. They could deal with the damaged window later.
The lad was nippy and Nick was wearing heavy greatcoat and boots. He was not really holding out much hope of catching him until the lad shot into one of the derelict warehouses nearby.
Nick followed him pausing as he entered the vast space. He shone his torch around noting the warehouse was two tier with a balcony/ mezzanine running down one side of it with offices leading off. There was a staircase at the far side of the warehouse leading up to this balcony and Nick heard a small scuffling noise up there. Clearly that was where his quarry had gone.
Nick walked slowly over to the staircase which was metal and safe and got to the balcony level safely. The boy had probably intended to try to hide in one of the offices or get out through them but despite the dereliction of the warehouse these offices were still locked and there was no escape route. Down the far end of the balcony, trapped against the wall was the boy Nick was chasing.
"All right sonny, games up," Nick said. "Come on."
The boy did not attempt to move. "Oh come on," Nick said impatiently. "Don't make me come to you."
"Didn't mean no harm," the boy mumbled.
"Yeah right, just going to burn that shed down for the fun of it were you?" Nick said sarcastically. "Stop mucking about and come on."
The boy shook his head and pressed himself further against the wall. Nick muttered something to himself and began to walk down the mezzanine toward the boy. He had got about halfway down when the balcony floor which must have been rotten gave up the ghost. It collapsed sending Nick crashing down to the warehouse level below.
The boy was terrified. He stared at the gaping hole in the floor where the young constable had crashed through. He pressed himself against the side of the wall furthest away from the edge of the balcony and began to inch slowly down the corridor toward the stairs. He crawled past the hole in the floor where Nick had gone through and then crawled along toward the stairs managing to make it safely.
He scrambled down the steps and then went over to where Nick was lying on the ground. Nick had been lucky in the sense there was a pile of compacted builders sand in the warehouse and he had half landed on it albeit still heavily on his left side then twisted somehow and slid down this onto the ground landing on his back. But even with the cushioning he knew he had done himself some damage.
For a moment there had been nothing then the pain hit. It felt like his chest was being crushed and breathing was absolute agony. He closed his eyes fighting the pain. He became aware of someone standing next to him and he opened his eyes again. Looking up he saw the boy standing over him.
Nick ran his tongue over his lips trying to speak. "Help," he managed. "Get help. Phone box…."
He couldn't speak after that and closed his eyes again. Dimly he heard the boy run from the warehouse. After that and for some time Nick was not aware of very much at all as he fought to breathe.
The boy did not go to the phone box and summons help. He instead began to run for home. It was easy to get into the two up two down terrace where he lived and where his parents slept oblivious to the fact their son was out that night. The boy just climbed onto the lean to kitchen roof and from there scrambled through his bedroom window. He sat on his bed, dressed and trembling knowing he should get help yet terrified of the consequences.
In Ashfordly Police Station Alf Ventress, reading the paper heard the nearby clock strike eleven. He folded the paper knowing Nick Rowan would be in shortly as his beat finished at that time and went to put on the kettle.
The clock's hands moved onto eleven-thirty. Alf had been watching the hands as they dragged round and at eleven forty he rang Sergeant Blaketon at home.
Oscar was not in bed he was reading by the fire, and answered the phone quickly. "Blaketon," he said crisply.
"Evening, sarge," Alf said. "Sorry to disturb yer. Its Nick Rowan. I think there's a problem."
Phil had been in bed and went through to the living room of his small flat to answer the phone. He put it down looking distracted. A pretty blonde came to the door of the bedroom which opened onto the lounge.
"It's the middle of the night," she said complainingly.
"Sorry luv. Got to go to the nick," Phil said pushing past her to get into the bedroom.
"Its urgent, all right? One o' t' lads is missing."
"Well I won't be here Phil when you get back. I'm sick of this. Cancelled dates, interrupted dates…"
"Be fair Sandy! I can't help it can I?" Phil paused. "Look, talk later. I've got to go."
Twelve o'clock. Nick faintly heard a clock strike midnight. He was trembling with cold and the pain in the left side of his chest was excruciating. Breathing hurt. He was also aware of pain in the left side of his stomach and blood soaking through his left sleeve. His senses were dimmed but he knew enough if that boy had gone and phoned for help it would have been here for now. Nick knew that he had been left here, alone, helpless and in serious trouble.