Hodges stood rigid.
‘You’re throttling me…..I can’t….breathe.’
Hodges’ sweaty fingers slid along his baton. His throat pulsed. Hodges imagined rescuing a terrified housewife, catching a murderer red-handed. No one would ever question his figures again. The front door had a thick glass porthole distorted by fuzzy circles. He pressed his nose to it, fogging it with his breath. There was no light on inside, just the faint outline of a stairway, hall and a telephone on a table. 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. A woman was sobbing, screaming to be let alone. Hodges drew back his baton. He’d punch a hole in the porthole glass. He was about to strike when a light flicked on in the bedroom. He heard sobbing and a man’s voice said, ‘It’s alright, Bren.’
Hodges coughed and scraped his feet on the ribbed concrete. When no one came he rapped the door knocker. A man in a white vest swung the window open further and peered down. Tufts of hair on his shoulders were picked out as fluff by a bare light bulb.
‘What’s going on?’ he said.
Hodges pointed to the front door.
‘I was going to ask you the same thing.’
‘Hold on,’ the man said.
Hodges’ shoulders dropped an inch. His heart was thumping.
‘It’s good to know you’re about.’
Hodge nodded. So much for my figure, he thought. Mick Larch, the murderer who never was, was in a striped toweling dressing gown pouring tea into a chipped mug. It had the name of an engineering firm on it. Larch saw Hodges reading it.
‘I lost my job, but they gave me this mug so I mustn’t grumble,’ he said.
His hair stood up in thick, wiry clumps. Hodges suffered from bed hair too. He’d have the devil of a job smoothing it in the morning. Hodges had accepted the offer of a tea and helped himself to a couple of digestives. Even after all these years night shift played merry hell with his guts. He couldn’t handle cornflakes and cold milk before bed and he didn’t do curries at four am. He sipped the tea and made his excuses.
‘You going back to bed?’ Hodges said.
Larch shook his head. ‘No point, now.’
There were dark crescents beneath his eyes, purplish like bruises. Brenda Larch was washing up. She’d had bad dreams for years, she said. Nothing they’d tried had helped. She’d scream and groan and turn in the sheets, but she remembered nothing when she woke. On their honeymoon they’d got into bother in a hotel when the people in the next room thought someone was being murdered. Mick squeezed Brenda’s hand.
‘Cheers for the tea,’ Hodges said.
Larch closed the front door and Hodges watched his shadow shrink behind the frosted glass. He fiddled with his radio, resigned to another night without a figure and the ribbing he’d get. Karl was organizing the troops, trying to get them into a pincer movement. They still hadn’t caught Billy Burglar. Matt Cooper reckoned he’d heard rustling beyond some bins. Jen Souter was waving her torch about like a boy scout. Minter was hissing for radio silence. Hodges lit up puffing plumes of white smoke at the moon. Karl was talking about calling in the chopper. ‘Idiot,’ Hodges said.
He finished his fag and flicked it into the shadows. A twig snapped. Hodges shone his torch into the hedge. A man in a flat cap was squatting in a hole in the privet staring up at Hodges. He held up a hand against the glare of Hodges’ torch beam. Hodges snapped a cuff onto the man’s wrist. He nudged a leather bag at the guy’s feet. It rattled. He radioed Control.
‘We’re keeping radio traffic to a minimum,’ Karl hissed.
‘The thing is,’ Hodges said. ‘I think I might have what you’re looking for.’
Hodges took the burglar’s elbow and led him up Pool Avenue.