Inspector Leach shuffled his papers. A jaundiced strip-light, littered with bluebottle corpses, gave Leach a sickly, porridge complexion. Leach’s shoulders stiffened. He dragged back the chair with a screech. Meeting over then, save for the pantomime, Totter thought.
Bravo shift had been assigned their work. Clement and Roper would continue obs for a flasher. Dozens more wasted man-hours munching cheesy puffs and browsing Readers’ Wives. They chewed gum and pushed mirrored Aviators up their noses. They put extra creases in their shirts. No one fucked them around.
Totter picked at a piece of tuna, clamped between his teeth. He stifled a belch, tugged at his utility belt, letting the spare flesh sag against his cuffs and baton. He fidgeted with his collar, gazing at the trees beyond the drab, utilitarian custody block. His shirt, damp in the folds, peeled from his back. He longed for a stiff breeze, the cornflake scrunch of leaves beneath his size elevens. He tugged at his collar. The new batch of uniform shirts was cheap, itchy.
‘What did you expect – Calvin Klein?’ Clement said, watching him.
His meaty forearms were folded high on his chest, his boots wedged against Dawn Horton’s chair.
‘Freddie and Flo’s more his style,’ Dawn said.
Totter had no idea what Freddie and Flo was, but guessed it wasn’t a compliment. He’d liked Dawn at first and helped her with her first interviews. But it had been a choice between Totter and the rest and she’d played the numbers game, couldn’t blame her really. Then she’d got drunk and sucked Roper off at the Christmas do. Roper told everyone.
‘Not bad. Not bad at all. Bit more training and she could suck a tennis ball through a hosepipe.’
This information had fractured their relationship further. Just the sight of Totter, even a friendly hello, and she took it as a pop at her morality. He was getting old, perhaps that was it. They all thought him washed-up; a non-entity coasting towards retirement, playing mini-golf and spooning up lumpy gravy in some retirement apartments, his sole excitement surfing the stair-lifts or waiting for repeats of Can’t Cook, Won’t Cook.
Some societies venerated the old as possessing wisdom, but this lot, graduates most of them (as if a degree in sociology or Polynesian languages somehow helped you spot a shoplifter) watched a few cop shows and thought they knew it all.
Johnston and Poole would interview a robbery suspect with new information. Johnston was clutching an NYPD mug he’d bought on the internet, fingering his stubble. It was still a novelty. Poole was wriggling in his seat, attempting to extricate his boxer shorts from his buttocks without telegraphing the fact. Totter fought the urge to smirk when Leach suggested the second interview. Johnston and Poole were interviewing again because they hadn’t asked pertinent questions. If a decent brief had been available they wouldn’t have got away with it. More time learning law and procedure and less time posturing with thumbs hooked in utility belts.
Leach paused in the doorway. He sniffed.
‘Almost forgot you PC Totter,’ he said.
‘Yes Sir?’ Totter said. The word Sir stuck in his throat like a cake of lard in a down pipe. There was silence, just the faint hum of the strip-light. A murder inquiry wouldn’t command this level of respect, but the chance to belittle a colleague…….
‘I think all things considered….’ Leach said.
Drum roll, ready with the cymbals, Totter thought. Leach shuffled through his reports, the copy of Gardeners’ World tucked away inside.
‘PC Totter can look after Beat 21 – the Hackles.’
Totter nodded and made a note in his pocketbook.
‘Anything in particular to be aware of……..’ he said.
‘The thieving gypsy bastards that live there,’ Roper muttered, a hand cupped across his mouth. Leach glared, silencing him. Jokes at the expense of others were his and he wasn’t about to delegate authority.
‘I’m sure the good citizens of the Hackles will sleep safe in their beds tonight,’ Leach said, and turned on his heel.
‘Thanks, Sir. I’ll make sure they do.’
Totter capped his pen and pocketed it. He was too old, too wise to show disappointment. Outside, in the yard, Totter blinked in the sunshine. Clement gunned the Volvo engine, impatient as the automatic gate creaked open. Roper’s feet were on the dash. He was talking into the mike. He gave Totter the finger, flicked on the blues and twos as Clement swept out into the High Street. Totter checked his kit, punched the numbers into the keypad on the pedestrian gate. Totter cut through the churchyard. At the corner was Adam Alphabet’s. Adam finished serving an old woman. Adam Alphabet was Polish, so called because his name contained every letter in the alphabet. He took off his helmet and set it down on the counter.
‘Christ, you’re melting,’ Adam said.
Totter took a white hankie from his trouser pocket and dabbed at his forehead.
‘Fancy a drink?’
‘With ice and a slice; served by some nubile young piece of skirt?’
Adam cracked a can of Coke, set it down on the counter.
‘Busy then?’ he said.
Totter nodded. He loved the shop. It was a real throwback. It had a bead curtain separating the back room from the shop. Star shapes had been clipped from orange and yellow card with prices scribbled in marker pen. The fridge was packed with pizza, oven chips and ice lollies. The radio crackled. Totter fiddled with the volume.
Report of a violent domestic in Larch Crescent
He took a swig of Coke, wiped his brow.
An ambulance crew requesting police presence; woman assaulted, heavy blood loss. Common-law husband though to have just left…..
‘Too far?’ Adam said.
Totter nodded. It had to be two miles, maybe more. Roper cut in, said they were three minutes away. Poole said they were en-route from the nick.
‘The cavalry?’ Adam said.
‘You could call them that.’
Totter finished his Coke, couldn’t resist cooling his palms on the fridge top.
‘You want an ice-cream?’
Totter shook his head.
‘Any grief lately?’ he said.
‘With Birmingham’s finest on the doorstep?’
Totter gave a mock salute, like an American cop in the movies. He stepped out into the sun, crossed the road and headed for the park. The radio crackled. Poole and Johnston booked off at the domestic. Roper and Clement were silent. They’d be checking the alleys and garages of Larch Crescent hoping to banjo the husband. Totter transmitted, told Control he was in the park, heading for the Hackles.
‘Received, PC Totter.’
Sam on Control barely bothered to conceal his boredom. A blackbird swooped down, pecked at a worm and took off. Totter twisted his belt, giving a little relief to his lumbar region. A cyclist in sports sandals and white knee-length socks rode past, but didn’t speak. Even the Christians are ignoring us, Totter thought. He told Control he was in the Hackles. If he had to be here, he might as well get credit for it. Ancient hawthorns and, here or there, an oak or yew, spread their thick, gnarled roots. Totter rested against an oak, wiping his forehead with the hankie. What he needed was a long, cool drink. Beyond the hawthorns it was possible to catch the occasional glimpse of a Mercedes or Saab. At least one of these houses had an outside swimming pool. Another had a tennis court. The houses gave way to smaller, meaner semis. The lane twisted, reaching a gravel car park surrounded by Warning: Deep Water signs. Night fishermen parked here to try their luck at the reservoir. The signs were pitted with dimples where kids had taken potshots with air rifles. Totter crossed the car park.
Here, was the randomness of ex-council stock. A handful in the street would have made Maggie proud. Their doorsteps painted a deep, factory floor, blood red. Their gardens tended, boxes bursting with impatiens, dahlia and begonias; little model men with straw hats and pipes pushed wire wheelbarrows. Butterflies clung to the pebble-dash gables. Ponds with lily pads watched over by windmills painted brilliant white in leftover gloss. Newly-laid block paving and clipped privet. These people were trying, which made what was happening around them all the harder.
Cracks in walls where guttering had been left to crack and seep into the brickwork. Missing tiles sprouting weeds and abandoned rust-bucket cars were stacked on bricks. Windows and doors boarded with plywood. Broken trees, snapped saplings. Bike frames and washing machines tossed on front lawns. He stopped to read obscenities sprayed on a fence panel.
‘Dan M- is a kid fiddler’
A curtain twitched upstairs. The panel had been doused with spirits or petrol. You could see where the blue paint had leached out. Totter pressed his nose against the frosted glass to look into the porch. An avalanche of free weeklies, gaudy pizza leaflets and cosmetic offers splayed out across the coconut matting. Totter had been taught to open the flap of a letterbox and sniff. Death had a distinctive smell. It was acrid, sharp and sweet. A harsh, cloying perfume of decaying fats and tissues that hung in uniforms long after they’d been washed. He rubbed his back, straightened. The curtain upstairs was perfectly still. Despite the searing heat there wasn’t a window open in the house.
Totter turned into an alley, taking care to step between broken bricks and smashed glass bottles. A shopping trolley lay on its side, mangled. The wire sides had been bashed and bent where it had come into contact with fence posts and a dying silver birch. Totter glanced over his shoulder to check no one was watching him. People had funny ideas about the police. They’d expect him to catch the perpetrators, return the trolley, stack the bricks and probably give their fence panels a couple of coats of creosote. He ducked through an arch in the hedgerow, emerged through a clump of nettles and foxgloves beaming. A family of ducks swam in line, bobbing side to side in the wash. A dragonfly skittered across the canal. Totter took off his helmet, dabbed at his temples. He waved at a narrowboat. The skipper of the Potteries Lass waved back. He wore a peaked cord cap and a tatty faded waistcoat. The trousers might have been held up with rope.
‘Nice day for it,’ the man said.
‘Always a nice day for it,’ Totter replied, content to leave ‘it’ to both their imaginations.
‘Weather’s looking up,’ the man said.
He made look sound like Luke. As the Potteries Lass chugged past a Jack Russell with a red spotted neckerchief padded along the deck yapping at him. Totter grimaced as he placed his helmet back on. The temperature inside his hat had to be ten degrees warmer. It was a black felt greenhouse. He stopped at the bridge and pressed his palms against the cool stones. Totter scanned the hundred yards or so he could see to the north and south. Last night’s rainfall had washed soil into the canal giving it a red-brown tinge and blunting the glare. Totter shielded his eyes against the sun and squinted. Two summers back a dog walker had prodded a bulging black bag bobbing at the edge of the towpath. A foul smell had bubbled free. The man had been wise enough not to investigate further. Totter was first on the scene. His guts were loose. He crimped his toenails into the soles of his boots. He called in Scenes of Crime and watched as they opened the bag with a craft knife. An arm tumbled out, cut with surgical precision below the shoulder. It was milk white and mottled. There was a Villa tattoo on the upper left portion.
‘Must be dead then?’ PC Kean said.
Kean was freckle-faced with an unruly mop of sandy hair. Second, third generation Birmingham Irish, Totter reckoned.
Totter frowned at him.
‘Maybe they’ve been amputated,’ Kean said.
‘Who has both their arms amputated and then drops them in a bin bag in the canal?’
‘Handy place, though eh?’ Kean said.
Ah, the wit of the Irish. Kean was a detective sergeant now. Totter popped a mint into his mouth. Smells like that stayed with you. So potent and lingering you could taste them. His radio crackled. Clement and Roper said the ambulance had taken the woman away. She was in a neck brace, suffering from concussion. She was fitting, so they’d sedated her. She had cuts to her cheek and jaw, marks from a sovereign ring, Roper said.
‘House looks like a bomb’s hit it and the husband’s gone and done one,’ Roper said, the disappointment distinct in his voice. He gave a description which Control put straight out over the air. Six one, muscled, wearing jeans, a black T-shirt and…….
Totter turned the volume down, stretched his back and breathed in. He closed his eyes catching the faint trace of honeysuckle from the woods. A mallard drifted in, crashed into the water, leaving a V-shaped wash in its wake.
‘Pulled out the place again then?’
Susan was wiping tabletops with a dishcloth. She wore faded jeans a size too small and a red and black striped top.
‘Dennis the Menace today, is it?’
Susan stopped to empty an ashtray into her palm. As she stretched her jersey rode up revealing soft, pale flesh, the gentle curve of an almost flat stomach.
‘What can I do you for?’ she said, without turning.
Totter sat down in a white plastic patio chair at the waterside, grateful to conceal the stiffening in his trousers. He stretched his legs out against an umbrella stand weighted with sand. There was no umbrella, but he shifted the seat a few inches to catch the shade from a giant sycamore.
‘Coffee would be nice.’
‘You’re getting old. Sure I shouldn’t fetch you a tartan blanket and a flask of soup.’
Totter was suddenly aware of their ages, ashamed of the bulge in his pants.
‘I’ll have an ice-cream then, love.’
Susan nodded and fetched him a cone with two scoops of Cornish.
‘Thought you’d be busy today, what with this weather?’
Susan shook her head.
‘It’s always quiet. That’s why you like it, you coppers.’
‘Who else comes here?’
‘No one else; It’s our little secret, don’t worry.’
She went back to wiping tables. Last night’s rainfall sat in bubbles on the plastic. Acorn Wharf sounded like a kids’ TV show. It was a hotchpotch of tables under dripping trees and a creaking cabin that sold ice-creams, teas and bacon butties – if Susan had the bacon and the bread in. Few knew it existed. Some day the Health and Safety Police would close it, but until then Totter would enjoy each precious lick of ice-cream or sip of coffee.
Totter licked at the cone. Sunlight was already causing the ice-cream to melt and drip like one of those candles Italian waiters made from wine bottles. A twig cracked. Ducks splashed into the water below Bridge 39. Totter saw a man stagger, then slump against the stones. The man got to his feet and pointed at Totter.
‘You lot want me,’ he said.
Totter didn’t hear. The man staggered toward him.
‘You alright mate?’
Totter tried to decide if the man was a threat. He was about to get up when the man slumped into the chair across the table. Under the table, Totter loosened the flap on his CS gas.
‘You bastards want me.’
The man wore a black T-shirt and blue jeans. He set his clenched fists down on the tabletop. His knuckles were grazed. Dried blood had coagulated close to his watchstrap. He wore chunky gold rings.
‘You bastards want me. You know why?’
Totter sighed. Everyone had a right to some peace and private contemplation, didn’t they?
Couldn’t he enjoy an ice-cream without interruption from some lunatic with a martyr complex?
‘You have my advantage there,’ Totter said.
The man’s eyes narrowed. A dark line formed at the bridge of his nose.
‘I don’t know why you’re wanted.’
‘Because I sorted the wife out, didn’t I? Slag had it coming to her.’
Totter sat upright, feeling for the clip in his belt. As he did, the man sprang from his chair, pulling a knife from his jeans. Susan screamed.
‘Take it easy,’ Totter said.
‘Shut the fuck up. You don’t give the orders.’
The man cut the air with circling motions. Establish a rapport, build trust with the suspect.
He thrust the knife toward Totter and laughed as Totter shot back in the chair, the flimsy legs bending beneath him.
‘It’s a lovely day. Why don’t we just talk and see if we can sort things…..’
The man paused, looking down at his feet. He realized he was at the edge of the canal and shuffled forward. Totter pushed the table at the man as hard as he could, with his full body weight behind it.
‘What the hell……?’
The edge of the table caught him in the groin, buckled him and lifted him off his feet backwards. The man seemed to float in mid-air, before tumbling into the brown water. His blue trainers were the last part of him to submerge. The table floated away from the towpath. Totter stood watching. The man splashed and kicked and rose from the water, gasping, screaming.
‘You bastard, I can’t swim.’
He was spitting canal water. Sirens were getting closer.
‘I can’t bloody swim.’
Susan brought Totter a lifebelt and he chucked it in. He stood arms folded, watching. Clement and Roper ran up, asked them what was going on.
‘He pulled a knife and Nigel wasn’t having it. He chucked him straight in the canal,’ Susan said. She was smiling. Clement stared at Totter open-mouthed. Totter stood watching, enjoying the moment. If only he’d some gum and a pair of those Aviators
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