“Where on earth are we?” asked Arthur Bryant.
“You’re the map reader, you should know,” suggested May, switching on the windscreen wipers. “It’s starting to snow. That could slow us down a bit.”
Bryant dug into his astrakhan coat and withdrew a crumpled bag. “You’re always going on about what a good driver you are. Now’s your chance to prove it. Have a Milk Bottle. Or there are some pink sugar Shrimps.” He rattled the bag at May.
“No, thank you, they get stuck in my teeth. What was the last sign you saw?”
“Windlesham. Or possibly Bagshot. Hang on, there’s one coming up on the left.” Bryant wrapped his spectacle arms around his ears and squinted. “Hawley, Framley, Minley Manor, Hartley Wintney. The names of English towns are more like elocution exercises than real places. Listen to this: Tinkerton, Tapperton, Topley. Sounds like a ping-pong ball falling down a flight of steps. I say, look at that.” He pointed through the windscreen. “Not often you see a green sky. Is that some kind of shepherd’s warning, I wonder?”
“Not much traffic,” May noted in puzzlement. “Turn on the radio.”
Bryant rolled the dial through a range of staticky channels, each less distinct than the last, but got a refreshing blast of Respighi on Radio Three and, on a local station, several women holding an urgent discussion about butter. “This isn’t Alma’s original radio,” he explained. “I had to buy it from an Armenian man in the Caledonian Road who ran away with my change. There was a time when being a police officer used to count for something.”
“I don’t understand.” May took his eyes from the road, confused. “What happened to the original radio?”
“Oh, it melted.” Bryant sucked his sweet pensively. “I borrowed it from the van and wired it to a car battery for a party back in 1970. We were celebrating the anniversary of the Messina brothers being sent down, remember them? Five Maltese racketeers who ran an empire of brothels and streetwalkers across the West End after the war. The senior officers at Bow Street were full of stories about them running around armed with razors, hammers and coshes. The Messinas introduced the ”short time“ rule for London prostitutes, reducing their time with punters to ten minutes, working them from four p.m. to six A.M. until they were half dead. Eugenio Messina used to drive around Piccadilly in a yellow Rolls-Royce, checking that his girls weren’t leaning against walls, not that the gesture made him a gentleman. He just wanted to make sure they were working hard.”
“I don’t see what this has to do with your melted radio-‘
“Some of the call girls heard we were holding a bash, and threw a Molotov cocktail through the window of the station house kitchen to remind us that we had ruined their livelihoods.”
“So that’s how the radio-‘
“No, I’d put the radio on the cooker, not realising the grill was on. We almost choked to death on the fumes. Oh, we had a laugh in those days.” He peered out at the passing fields. “Look at the snow falling in the trees; it’s so postcard-pretty out there. I’d forgotten how much I hate the countryside. All those rustic views and seasonal changes give me the willies.”
“That’s because you’ve never spent time there,” May replied.
“Why would I? My family came from London. None of us had any business out here. Rural folk think they’re so superior, just because they have a village pub and a duck pond.”
May knew that his partner’s antipathy to the countryside stemmed from the lean times his parents had endured following the war, when their only work came from long days spent hop-picking in Kent. Locals had hated rowdy East-Enders piling down to disturb the peace in their charabancs. “The engine doesn’t sound quite right to me.”
“I had it checked over only recently.”
“A fully qualified mechanic, I hope.”
“More of an astrologer,” Bryant admitted.
“He must have thought you were born under the sign of the mug, charging you to tie string around the distributor. Do me a favor and call Janice, would you?” asked May. “Make sure everything’s all right.”
Bryant thumped away at his mobile and listened. “Janice?” he shouted. “Are you there?”
“You don’t need to keep checking on us,” said Sergeant Longbright. “Everything’s fine. How’s your trip?”
“Long motorways play havoc with a weak bladder, but we soldier on. I’ll call you at regular intervals.”
“There’s really no need, I assure you.”
Longbright replaced the receiver and looked back at Giles Kershaw. “I didn’t say anything. I know how upset you must be, but what good would it do to mention it now? Mr. Bryant can’t do anything from where he is. At least he didn’t ask if I was still at the unit.”
“He could talk to Raymond about the matter; he could use his authority,” Kershaw replied, dropping his head into his hands and allowing his thin blond hair to run through his fingers. “I can’t believe Oswald would do a thing like this. He told me I was the best assistant he’d had in years. Why would he refuse to recommend me for the position?”
“He obviously doesn’t think you’re ready for it,” said Longbright. “You know how demanding he is, you’ve been shadowing him for nearly a year now.”
“So Finch steps down on Friday, and Land appoints an outsider to come in and take over. Someone who’s never worked with the unit before, and might decide to stay on forever. Oswald led me to believe the job was mine. He can’t do this to me. This is a specialist unit. All my training has been geared towards this work-where else can I go? You know it’s not fair, Janice. My career’s on the line here.”
“Leave it for forty-eight hours, until the boys are back,” Longbright suggested. “Nothing will happen before then. I’ll go in with them and see Raymond, but I warn you, Mr. Bryant thinks you rely too much on technology and not enough on your natural instincts. He’s told you that before. You’ll need to convince him as well.” She checked her watch. “You’d better go down to the Bayham Street Morgue. They brought someone in a few minutes ago. Caucasian female, early twenties, some kind of overdose, but she was found in suspicious circumstances. It’s probably nothing, but Raymond wants us to take care of it.”
Kershaw puffed his cheeks in annoyance. “The system’s down now. I thought we weren’t accepting any cases until the upgrade was finished.”
“It’s not a referral; we’re just lending a hand. Oswald will be down there, Giles. You’re going to have to work alongside him without letting him know about what you’ve heard.”
“So I have to help the man who just stepped on my promotion. That’s just great.” Kershaw picked up his folders and stormed out of the office.
Longbright went to the window and looked out at the grey-green evening. Her bosses were right to remain aloof from the everyday problems of the office; it allowed them space to think. Instead, everyone came to her with their problems, and then expected her to take sides. Since he had announced his retirement, Oswald Finch had managed to upset everyone in the unit. Could it be he simply regretted making the decision to leave? If he could no longer make himself useful, what was left for him?
It looked like it was snowing outside. She pressed her hand against the radiator and discovered it was cold. No heat, no computers, no investigations, and now Raymond has decided not to let us go home after all, she thought. What else can go wrong?
“It’s snowing,” said Meera, clearing a patch of condensation from the curved window in her office. “With any luck it’ll cover the tramps and they’ll freeze to death.”
“There’s a touch of Margaret Thatcher in you,” Colin Bimsley pointed out. “I love seeing snow; it freshens everything up. It even makes Camden Town look almost attractive. It’s beautiful.”
“Not when you’re standing out in it.” Mangeshkar remembered an incident from her childhood, when she spent the evening locked out on the balcony of the flats while her stepfather beat the hell out of her mother. She had been wearing a T-shirt and track suit bottoms, and the snow had fallen steadily enough to whiten her hair. Eventually a neighbour had taken the frozen girl in and warmed her beside the fire. She had not cried or complained, but never spoke to her mother’s husband again, even after he begged her to forgive him. She had no love of snow. Watching Bimsley’s goggle-eyed reaction to the weather merely convinced her that he was part Labrador. The fact that they expected her to work with someone so hopelessly optimistic and soft showed how badly they had misjudged her abilities. With a groan of fury, she stalked out of the office in search of Giles Kershaw, slamming the door hard behind her.
Raymond Land sat in his office and tipped back his chair, balancing his heels on the edge of his desk. This was how he liked it, so quiet you could hear mice scampering in the skirting boards and Crippen straining in his litter tray. He had been right to keep his staff on at the unit. It was time to stop treating them with kid gloves.
Only the angry traffic in the street below could remind him that he was still stranded here, in an ugly district of the city at a miserable time of the year. If only he had taken a post far, far away from the junkies and nutters of North London, somewhere in the southern hemisphere, where the sun remained visible even in the depth of winter, and the locals smiled respectfully instead of waving two fingers at you. Actually, he would have been grateful to find the Agincourt V sign still in use, but few of the street traders in Camden could manage English and only mustered a phlegmy expectoration as his officers passed.
He tipped his chair back further and placed his hands behind his head, savouring the first moments of what he fully expected to be the calmest three days of his career at the PCU. No tabloid-baiting lunatics to track down, no white witches, weepy clairvoyants, or chanting necromancers to chuck out of Bryant’s room, nothing but the gentle drift of a half-empty office running on a skeleton crew. Faraday had failed to close the unit down entirely, but at least both Bryant and May were out of his hair for the first time in many years. For once there was no-one telling him what to do, or what he ought to have done, or completely ignoring him. Land felt in charge once more, and at a time when there was so little work on that even he could not be accused of making a mistake.
Smiling to himself, he stretched and tipped his chair just a little bit too far.