Chalmers walked the streets alone, even on nights. He closed his eyes and sucked in the cool night air, the damp grass and trace of honeysuckle. Headlights dipped and swerved across the parkland. A fox’s eyes were caught like jewels in the beam. Its silhouette was frozen, a twenty foot shadow cast across the bowling-green. Chalmers stepped off the pavement, skidded and cursed. A rotting kebab clung to his heel like road-kill. He scraped the worst of it against a drain grid and crossed into the park. He shone his torch into the trees and picked up a stick, snapping it to a decent length, before poking the scum from the ridges in his sole. Wobbling on one leg, the torch beam played across scuffed turf, spent fags and a rumpled, used condom. Chalmers shivered in his shirt sleeves. It was a cloudless night and the crisp, starched cotton of his uniform shirt was ice-cool against his goose-pimpled skin. His radio crackled.
‘Any units in Pool Lane, over?’
Chalmers fiddled with the volume switch. It wasn’t a cop’s job to spread panic. He gave his call sign.
‘I’m five away,’ he whispered.
A light flicked on in a frosted glass window. Chalmers imagined someone clicking a cord, relieving themselves of last night’s lager or merlot. He checked his watch. It had just gone three. A shadow passed the window and the light clicked off.
‘It’s number 48. Someone’s been seen in the garden.’
‘I’ll head towards.’
‘Nice one, Judith.’
The police force got by on nicknames and war stories. When Chalmers was transferred his last skipper had phoned ahead.
‘You must know Judith Chalmers? You remember. She was the one with the tan off Wish You Were Here.’
On day one he’d opened his locker and a tide of brochures had spilled onto the lino. There were cruises, treks, coach trips and beach holidays. There was one of the pyramids and a London city break with a guardsman on sentry duty. When Chalmers sat down for the shift briefing the skipper slurped tea through his beard and asked Chalmers what holidays he’d got planned. What with you being an expert, like. Someone brought him a builder’s tea.
‘There’s no iced tea, just PG I’m afraid.’
There was a cocktail umbrella poking from the mug. Chalmers laughed with them.
Chalmers shivered, popped a mint into his mouth and set off for Pool Lane. The houses here backed onto the canal. The cut, as the locals called it, passed through the worst estate for miles but that didn’t stop leisure trippers and holidaymakers passing through on narrowboats. In summer Chalmers would watch them steer a course as far from the towpath as possible. This was the bit they didn’t put in the brochures. White paint had been slapped over the letter L in Pool. Chalmers smirked. He lengthened his stride down Pool Lane, rubbing his arms to warm them.
He was fiddling with his belt clip when he heard a groan or whimper. He stopped and listened, hooking his thumbs in his belt. A low moan came from the trees over the road. Chalmers’ neck tingled. He waited. Perhaps a minute passed. There was another groan, deep and guttural. He stepped onto the island of rutted grass, where the residents without drives had dumped their cars. He watched each window for signs of activity. Bedroom windows were pegged open in every house. Curtains were drawn, fluttering and rippling in the gentle breeze. Chalmers froze. The moan came again, this time longer. He swallowed and licked his lips. It was difficult to tell where the noise came from. He could walk away because no one knew he was here, but he’d have to live with that. There was another mournful groan. It was barely audible and drifted, broken on the breeze.
Chalmers decided it was one of two semis where Pool became Pomegranate. The street lamp was out, probably shot out with an air rifle, so the houses were in darkness. They stood behind tall privet hedges that were punctured where school children had jumped into them. Chalmers chose the house nearest and tugged on the low, wire gate. The hinges squealed causing him to wince. He took a deep breath. Above the sagging, mossy rooftops of Pomegranate Road was a clear, starry night. No wonder it was turning cold. He crept up the front path. It was crumbling cement, turning to moss. Small, round pebbles glistened with dew. In this corner of the city it seemed everything was tinged with green from the road signs to the phone boxes as if nature was reclaiming the streets.
Chalmers stood rigid.
This time the groan lasted longer. It was the sound of someone suffering; a groan of despair that rose from deep within. Chalmers felt for his baton. His throat pulsed. The front door was frosted glass, like blobs of oil paint on a canvas. He pressed his nose to it. There was no light on inside. He peered round the side. The alley was gated with barbed wire and broken glass cemented to the top of the wall, so there was no way he’d get round the back. Another groan came from above, then the sound of sobbing. Chalmers tapped the door with his baton. He had to get in. He took a step back to take a run. A light flicked on in the bedroom. Chalmers’ radio crackled. It was Mike 3-4 booking off for grub. The curtains opened. A wiry man in a white vest peered down.
‘What’s going on?’ he asked.
Chalmers pointed to the front door. His shoulders dropped an inch.
‘I want to ask you the same thing,’ he said.
‘It’s good to know you’re about, anyway.’
Mick Larch was pouring tea into a chipped mug. It had the name of an engineering firm on it. Larch saw Chalmers reading it.
‘I lost my job, but they gave me a coffee mug so I mustn’t grumble,’ he said.
His hair stood up in thick, wiry clumps. He’d have the devil of a job smoothing it in the morning, Chalmers thought. He’d accepted their offer of a tea and helped himself to a couple of digestives, knowing it was too late for the cheese and beetroot he’d left in the fridge. If he ate after five on nights, he could never kip on a full belly. He sipped the tea and made his excuses.
‘You going back to bed?’ he said.
Larch shook his head.
‘No point, now.’
Belinda Larch was washing up. She’d had bad dreams for years, Larch said. Nothing they’d tried had helped. She’d scream and groan and turn in the sheets, but remembered nothing when she woke. On their honeymoon they’d got into bother in a hotel when the people next door thought someone was being murdered.
‘Cheers for the tea,’ Chalmers said.
Larch closed the front door. Chalmers watched his shadow shrink behind the frosted glass. He looked up and saw Belinda watching in the bedroom window. What she really needed was a holiday. And what with him being an expert, like…