A sullen, smudgy gloom begins to settle over the flat, cleared area of patchy grass and stones as night draws near. Broken swings hang one-sidedly from a rust-and-chipped-paint pipe frame. A park bench with a back but no seat stands empty, as one might expect; its remaining parts are covered in bright, geometric and curlicued obscenities and gang signs.
A small girl squats in the dust, tightly gripping a fat piece of colored chalk, concentrating on the words she is scrawling on the pavement. She has tousled brown curls, bright green eyes, and a doll's puckered lips. They are pursed now, drawn together in a slight frown as she copies the words and symbols she sees sprayed on the walls of the council estate that surrounds her.
She is not more than six, though she commands a vocabulary—and a cynical understanding of life—far exceeding those few years. She looks up as a silver diesel Jetta rackets to an idle alongside the broken kerb. The driver's window lowers, and she runs to the car with her coat flapping, still clutching her chalk.
"Daddy! You got a new car!"
The person inside speaks to her, but low—a nosy neighbor or a passerby would not be able to hear. The girl frowns a little, drawing out the dimples in her cherubic cheeks.
"Mummy says you're not to see me. Mummy will be very angry you came here."
A man's hand protrudes from the window, a large lollipop in its grip. The girl takes it with an impish grin.
"Mummy says I'm to tell you to fuck off if I see you. She says no more fucking visits until you start paying again." She takes several steps away from the car and grins.
"So fuck off, Daddy! I hope you come around again soon!" She runs off as inarticulate shouts from the car follow her pounding heels.
A few blocks away, a woman in worn, four-inch heels strolls slowly along the pavement, picking her way to avoid broken glass, chunks of concrete, and the occasional puddle of piss or vomit. She should be cold, but she's used to it by now; cheap liquor will warm her later. She's twenty-two, but only by a few weeks. She's been working this patch for over seven years. It's tiresome, the money's bad, and the johns are often freaky or dangerous, but what else can she do? Saddled with an infant at fifteen, never very interested in school, she is on her own with no legal means of earning anything close to what might be called a living. And now that That Bastard, as she thinks of him, is cutting off her child support, she feels as though she's slowly bleeding to death. Or starving, more accurately.
A silver car slows as she struts along the pavement, her skirt nearly covering her buttocks, her top barely covering her nipples. The driver's window lowers and she steps closer, leaning over so the driver can examine the goods before he makes a purchase.
"Hi, there, can I help yeh with anythin'?" She peers into the car, then reels back. "Oh, shit, it's you."
A man's harsh laugh emanates from the interior.
The woman sneers in disgust. "Yeh get a new car, then? If I'd known it was you, I'd've turned the other way, yeh cheap bastard. How is it you can afford a new car but yeh can't afford to send me payments?"
The answer is terse, bitter. "The Merc was repo'd."
She is unsympathetic. "Yeh managed to scrape together enough for this shitbucket. But yeh can't manage a few quid fer yer own son. It's a long time before he's earnin' his own keep, yeh know."
Apologetic sounds are not enough to placate her. "Look, you bastard. Yeh said yeh'd take care a' me, an' yeh'd take care a' him. But here I am workin' my tits off an' barely makin' enough t' eat. I should sell 'im, I should. Lose the expense an' make enough profit t' get out of this shithole, too."
She ignores the pleading tones that try to persuade. "Nah, I'm thinkin' about it, seriously. I know someone what's interested. If yeh want 'im, yeh better let me know what yer bid is." She turns sharply and struts away, between the broken bollards and into the concrete court where the car cannot follow her and where the driver's pleas are drowned in the cacophony of shouting couples, blaring televisions, and crying infants. She knows he won't dare get out of the car and follow her on foot. The Jetta would be gone before he could turn around to check on it. She mentioned selling the child merely to get under his skin. But as she thinks on the idea, it takes shape as the only reasonable option left to her in this hopeless, optionless place.
"Is that it, then, for another whole year?" Detective Sergeant James Hathaway tries to keep his demeanor flat so it does not betray the sinking disappointment he feels. All that write up, all that blather, for what, exactly? A pat on the head?
His senior officer studies him, knows he's holding back. "That's all I can do, Sergeant. Look, it's not my idea to lump a standout performance like yours along with the mediocre performances that some of the other blokes manage all together under 'Meets or exceeds expectations.' I put what I could in the comments, but it's . . . y'know. Hard to put into words what makes your work so much better than everyone else's."
Detective Inspector Robert Lewis knows what's angering Hathaway. The young man is a genius, brilliant at solving crimes, capable of doing far more than simply plodding through the routine steps of an investigation. Lewis wishes he could say something that mattered.
"Look, James, there's nothing I can do until something opens up and they ask my opinion about promoting you. And anyway, you've been a sergeant, what, five years? That's not very long, compared to most blokes, you know."
Hathaway looks up sharply. He is not "most blokes," as Lewis is well aware. He looks away to hide his festering resentment. He chooses to do nothing because he wants me to be his sergeant forever.
"Whatever." The word is muttered, spat out.
Lewis bites back the response he wants to make. Bloody hell, the man can't begin to know the meaning of frustrated ambitions. Not likely a little humiliation would hurt the Boy Wonder. It never hurt Lewis, all the humiliation he endured from Morse over the years. Taught him how to ignore other people's class prejudices and pay attention to what mattered. Hathaway could use a little of that sort of education, the posh prat. But Lewis knows Hathaway is not deserving of such churlish thoughts, and he's left with an uncomfortable feeling that he, not his sergeant, is the one acting childishly.