He found a quiet spot and sparked up beneath a bank of weeping willows. There was no trace of a breeze, no rustle among the leaves to expose the glowing tip of his cigarette. Hodges took off his helmet and hung it from the strap on a broken branch. He ran a hand through his hair. His scalp was damp from the walk and he ruffled his fringe. They said this was the hottest July on record, but they were always saying things like that, weren’t they?
Hodges’ eyes narrowed as he drew smoke deep into his lungs. He needed a figure. The police force was driven by statistics these days and he hadn’t stopped, searched or nicked anyone in three weeks. Minter had even stuck a league table up on the wall and there he was, right at the bottom, Hodges, DW, propping up the rest of them.
‘Certain relegation material,’ PC Matt Cooper said, shaking his head gravely, ‘you’re worse than the Blues.’
Quality, not quantity Hodges told them at the ten o’ clock briefing. Minter stared at him. ‘I haven’t seen much of either,’ he said.
Hodges made a vow that tonight was going to be different. He sucked in the scent of the night – damp grass and a 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. Hodges stepped off the pavement, skidded and cursed. A rotting kebab clung to his boot, a road-kill slipper. 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. It wasn’t a good start. His radio crackled.
‘We’ve got a possible break in Pool Lane, over.’
Hodges fiddled with the volume switch. The newbies sprinted about, boots clattering and radios blaring, but it wasn’t a cop’s job to spread panic. Cops were meant to reassure the public. The first thing he’d learned in the job: Run to a fire, walk to a fight. It meant you had to choose wisely, you had to pick your battles; you had to save those worth saving. He gave his call sign, whispering. He was five minutes away on foot, allowing for a slow approach.
Hodges was crossing Vicarage Road when a light flicked on in an upstairs window opposite. The window was frosted, but Hodges imagined someone clicking a cord, relieving themselves of that night’s lager or merlot. He checked his watch. It was chucking-out time in town, but here the streets were in darkness. A shadow passed the window, blurred by the pebble-patterned glass, and the light clicked off. Hodges’ radio crackled. Karl was on Control tonight.
‘It’s number 48 Pool Lane. Someone’s been seen in the garden.’
‘I’ll head towards.’
‘They reckon it’s a prowler. They’ve been told to stay indoors.’
Hodges fiddled with the volume, turning Karl close to silent. Karl was playing soldiers, acting up as usual. Hodges lengthened his stride down Pool Lane. He grinned seeing someone had painted over the ‘L’ on the road sign in white paint. He was in the hundreds, some way from 48, but he kept away from the streetlamps, pressed in tight against the towering privet, not wanting to spook Billy Burglar. He was fiddling with his belt clip, adjusting his baton and CS, when a strange noise made him stop. It was a groan or whimper. He listened, hooking his thumbs in his belt, thinking it might be a cat. Sometimes cats went at it for hours, hissing and scratching, patrolling their boundaries. A low moan came from across the road, barely audible. Hodges’ neck tingled. He felt the sharp lines Sandra had pressed into his shirt touch his skin. He waited. Minutes passed. There was another groan, deep and guttural. Hodges stepped onto an island of rutted grass, closer to where the sound was coming from. Residents without drives had dumped their cars here gouging furrows in the dried mud. He leaned on a busted sapling – struck by a car and snapped and feathered where the trunk had split – watching each house for signs of activity. Bedroom windows were pegged open in every house. Curtains hung without a ripple. A distant siren wailed reminding Hodges of his radio. He was fumbling, checking the others’ positions when the moan came again, this time for longer. He swallowed and licked his lips. It was difficult to tell where the noise came from. Hodges had been scared as a cop before. A baton and a can of spray was an edge, but that was all. Once, he’d surprised three blokes getting lead off the church roof. They came at him with bars and he ran; never told a soul about it. He could walk away. His feet jigged, like a child needing the toilet. There was another groan and then a voice spoke, the words coming in rasps.
‘Get off me. You’re choking me. I can’t breathe.’
Hodges took out his baton. It was one of two semis where Pool became Pineapple Crescent. The street lamp was out so the houses were in darkness. They stood behind tall privet hedges that were punctured where school children had jumped into them. Hodges had done the same thing as a kid, being chased down the road by blokes from the allotment. Hodges gripped the baton so it ran along his forearm ready to strike. He tugged on the low, wire gate of the house nearest. The hinges squealed causing him to wince. He took a deep breath. Above the sagging, mossy rooftops of Pineapple Crescent was a milk-white moon. He crept up the front path. It was crumbling cement, turning to moss, edged with rotting wood. 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. A faint breeze caused a ripple in the curtains upstairs.