The Fool of Law
"M'sieur - you can'elp pleez" said the faltering voice on the phone "We are driving from France this night to find 'er - she will die alone on ze London streets"
In the office of Interpol London it was 4pm Friday. The call had come through from Scotland Yard.The elderly caller spoke only French. He was a Southern French farmer called Du Champs and the father of one Maxine who was missing. The daughter was schizophrenic and the subject of a French mental health order allowing hospitalisation. During a period in the community she had neglected medication and her inner voices had called her to London. A few minutes before his desperate call to Scotland Yard, Maxine had phoned home distraught from somewhere in London.
I leaned back in my chair. "There are 10 million people in London" I explained.
"She is always my baby" said the old man.
I shook my head with years of street-wise weariness. Mechanically I recorded the full description of the woman- 40 years, 5'5",slightly plump..
"We 'ope to be in Londres by ze morning" said the old man.
"If you get in a real mess call me" I said, giving him my home number.
Then I circulated all details. 'Hopeless' I concluded.
That Saturday morning the phone rang at my suburban home.
"M'sieur - we don't find London" said the old man.
I gave directions to Heston motorway services on the edge of London. It was mid afternoon when the shabbiest Renault 5 in the world screamed into the car park. The driver was Jean-Philippe a neighbouring farmer. Monsieur Du Champs himself was about 75.
We exchanged JCB strength hand-shakes and set off for my office on the Embakment. The vehicle obviously doubled as a tractor.
While they drank coffee and smoked Gauloise I secretly called the Gendarmerie to satisfy myself that they were kosher. Then I checked all reports. I noted a police attendance at the A&E dept of University College Hospital for a troublesome foreign woman gone on arrival. A young switched on Met' cop had put it on the wires.
I decided to check it out. The father surveyed the crowds in the Charing Cross Road.
"Zere are meellions" he almost sobbed.
Fate and promotion had put me behind a desk, but these streets were where I belonged. I would see this one through.
A security guy thought he might have seen her but that was all. More coffee, more Gauloise. I left Jean-Philippe at the hospital on watch. Lost souls go in circles, never in straight lines.
Monsieur du Champs and I did the rounds of homeless shelters, night cafes, railway stations, A&E departments. I think I smelled but the agricultural history of the car made it irrelevant. We searched all night and into Sunday with frequent visits to Jean-Phiippe. Afternoon drained into evening and at 9 pm I returned to my office. Only one telex...mentally ill female detained Marylebone Road, foreign but no ID. I made a quick call to the nick and booted it to Marylebone, collecting Jean-Philippe on the way.
An Interpol officer has no executive power but I still retained a Met' warrant card. Scruffy though I was, the sergeant showed me to the prisoner.
"Maxine?" I asked.
"Oui, c'est moi" she replied.
This was impossible.
"You cannot make her go home" said the sergeant.
He was right. To obtain the legal order in London would require at least a doctor and a social worker. The odds were that she would walk from the nick to join the tide of shufflers and mumblers who live and die unknown.
"Do you speak French?" I asked the sergeant.
"You're joking" he said.
My luck was in. This lady was going home.
"I have official instructions from police at Marseilles to convey you to France" I said, weaving in as many French legal expressions as I could remember.
"You will take me?" she asked.
"It is my duty. You would not want me in trouble would you?"
She had kind dark eyes and the raft of her own language in a foreign sea was enough. I signed her out and Jean- Philippe gunned it to Dover. I waffled our way past the Security check and her absent ID with a story that her bag had been stolen. I watched the ferry sail and blagged a ride to Victoria on a Euro-bus from Paris.
I walked to the office and bird-bathed in the toilet sink. A new week had begun.
A few weeks later Maxine phoned. She told me she was on medication and doing well. She thanked me and then asked
"Are police trained to tell lies?"
"Mais Oui." But didn't everyone know that?
Author's note: This happened circa 1991 when i was at the london Bureau of Interpol as a linguist and art specialist. I never got over it.
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