‘Possible housebreaking, top end of Long Cross. CID on the way but delayed. Can you attend?’
I noted the details, replaced the radio handset and kick-started my motorbike. The house wasn’t that far away, I could be there in less than five minutes. A quiet approach was needed, no point letting an intruder know you are on your way (not that we had blue lights or nee-naw horns on our bikes back then. The road traffic department superintendent believed that his officers’ riding and driving skills should be so good that they didn’t need such things). I approached the house, switched off the engine, coasted down the hill and put the bike on its stand.
It doesn’t take detective training to know that on busy streets like this one, burglars tend to break into the backs of houses rather than the fronts. This house was semi-detached, so instead of going to the front door I walked down the path at the side. All windows, and the front and back doors, were closed. There was no sign of a break-in. By the time I’d returned to the front of the house, the lady who’d phoned us was there, standing in the doorway. “More things have gone missing,” she said. “It’s just like last time.”
The more questions I asked, the more I realised that there was no evidence of anyone else having been in the house. The lady lived on her own and had mislaid things. Unable to find them, her only explanation was that someone had broken in and stolen them. I checked with neighbours. They confirmed that though she was generally a level-headed person, she was very forgetful.
I did my best to console her but she remained unconvinced. Then CID arrived, an experienced officer twice my age. He had been there before, he said, several times. Like me, he was convinced there was no break-in. When the losses mounted up she phoned-in, convinced she’d been burgled.
“Help me,” he said. “We’ll wire the place up…”
The only way to describe what happened next is to say that we mimed unreeling rolls of wire and tucking it behind the sitting room picture rails – that room and the kitchen only, because these were the rooms where things tended to go missing. My colleague convinced her that we were trying out a new device that would call the police if a stranger entered her house. It was invisible so the intruder wouldn’t see it. When we had finished wiring the rooms she insisted that we also did her downstairs windows and doors. I felt bad about it. I didn’t like deceiving people.
It was around a year later when the duty inspector called me into his office. He looked puzzled. It was in the days before computer records and he’d been looking through old journals. ‘Last November,’ he said. ‘You attended a break-in at Long Cross. Would you care to tell me about it?’ I could see that this particular bit of writing, an entry in a daybook, had my name against it (being able to read text from all angles is an asset that I probably learned during my time with the police). He also had a handwritten letter, addressed to the force’s Chief Constable. He read part of it out to me. It went something like this:
“… the man has not been back to the house since your officer came. I am sure there will be no more burglaries so I no longer need your invisible wire. Please will you send the officer to take it down so it can be used again somewhere else.”
“Invisible wire?” he said. “Care to explain?” I explained as best as I could, wondering if there would be disciplinary action of some kind. There wasn’t. “Better get on with it then,” he said.
“Sir? Get on with it?”
“You heard what she wrote. She wants you to take it down so it can be used again.”
I did what I was told. On my own this time, with the woman watching, I mimed going around the rooms, reaching up, coiling invisible wire over my arm as if coiling rope. Then I did the windows and doors. It felt like some kind of punishment and I still feel guilty about it. I suppose I shouldn’t. Because it worked.