cover

Contents

Cover
About the Book
Title Page
Dedication
Epigraph
1 ‘Like A Kite Stuck In Telegraph Wires’
2 ‘Why Are They Allowed To Be There?’
3 ‘The Company Will Outlast Its Employees’
The First Day
4 ‘Better Value For Money’
5 ‘So Much Violence In London’
6 ‘A Murder In The Prelapsarian Paradise’
7 ‘Wild Chambers In The Urban Machine’
8 ‘Gardens Aren’t Supposed To Be Lethal’
9 ‘All It Took Was A Murderer On The Loose’
10 ‘Sometimes His Imagination Gets The Better Of Him’
11 ‘A Series Of Unfortunate Circumstances’
12 ‘Like Goldfish Into A Bowl’
13 ‘If A Fish Murdered A Lady Fish’
The Second Day
14 ‘We’re The Professionals’
15 ‘The Playgrounds Of The Rich’
16 ‘Why Are The Simplest Cases The Hardest To Crack?’
17 ‘Loss Of Respect Can Make A Man Do Terrible Things’
18 ‘There Are Dark Roots To This Case’
19 ‘The Shrubberies Are Filled With Assignations’
20 ‘A Human Being Is Not A Turkey’
21 ‘She Was Walking Dead’
The Third Day
22 ‘Everybody Has To Pay Someone’
23 ‘They’re Closing The Parks Tonight’
24 ‘An Awful Lot Of Tragedy In One Family’
25 ‘Like Midnight Foxes, We Adapt’
26 ‘He Doesn’t Look The Type’
The Fourth Day
27 ‘I Have A Head For The Peculiarities Of History’
28 ‘London Is Full Of Coincidences’
29 ‘He Said I Looked Like An Angel’
30 ‘Where Do You Place The Responsibility?’
31 ‘We’re The Ones Who Have To Care’
The Fifth Day
32 ‘There Are No Unanswered Questions Left’
33 ‘A Sylvan Setting That’s Poisoned Somehow’
34 ‘Places Have The Power To Haunt And Disturb’
35 ‘Misery Makes Money’
The Sixth Day
36 ‘We’ve Come Full Circle’
37 ‘He’s Idealizing The Female Form’
38 ‘Why Would Anyone Want A Seven-Year-Old Boy Dead?’
39 ‘It’s An Urban Epidemic’
40 ‘It’s The Perfect Spot For A Confrontation’
41 ‘Not The Most Salubrious Area’
The Seventh Day
42 ‘You Know The Whole Thing’s A Bluff’
43 ‘This Is Not Normal Procedure, I Think?’
44 ‘It Was Quite A Ride’
45 ‘I’ll Have To Go It Alone, Unless …’
46 ‘Sometimes What Looks Like Cruelty Is Actually Kindness’
47 ‘He’ll Only Sound Like Cassandra If He Tries To Explain’
48 ‘You Saw The Light Die In Her Eyes’
49 ‘That’s How All Of This Began’
50 ‘Made Richer By Your Friendship’
Acknowledgements
About the Author
Also by Christopher Fowler
Copyright
Also by Christopher Fowler, featuring Bryant & May

FULL DARK HOUSE

THE WATER ROOM

SEVENTY-SEVEN CLOCKS

TEN-SECOND STAIRCASE

WHITE CORRIDOR

THE VICTORIA VANISHES

BRYANT & MAY ON THE LOOSE

BRYANT & MAY OFF THE RAILS

BRYANT & MAY AND THE MEMORY OF BLOOD

BRYANT & MAY AND THE INVISIBLE CODE

BRYANT & MAY: THE BLEEDING HEART

BRYANT & MAY: THE BURNING MAN

BRYANT & MAY: STRANGE TIDE

Short Stories

BRYANT & MAY: LONDON’S GLORY

Memoir

PAPERBOY

FILM FREAK

image

TRANSWORLD PUBLISHERS
61–63 Uxbridge Road, London W5 5SA
www.penguin.co.uk

Transworld is part of the Penguin Random House group of companies whose addresses can be found at global.penguinrandomhouse.com

image

First published in Great Britain in 2017 by Doubleday
an imprint of Transworld Publishers
Copyright © Christopher Fowler 2017
Cover illustration by Max Schindler

Christopher Fowler has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

This book is a work of fiction and, except in the case of historical fact, any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Every effort has been made to obtain the necessary permissions with reference to copyright material, both illustrative and quoted. We apologize for any omissions in this respect and will be pleased to make the appropriate acknowledgements in any future edition.

A CIP catalogue record for this book is available from the British Library.

Version 1.0 Epub ISBN 9781473526198
ISBN 9780857523433

This ebook is copyright material and must not be copied, reproduced, transferred, distributed, leased, licensed or publicly performed or used in any way except as specifically permitted in writing by the publishers, as allowed under the terms and conditions under which it was purchased or as strictly permitted by applicable copyright law. Any unauthorized distribution or use of this text may be a direct infringement of the author’s and publisher’s rights and those responsible may be liable in law accordingly.

1 3 5 7 10 8 6 4 2

For Roger and Izabella – into the beyond!

Those intensely quiet places immured in the very centre of London seem as still and desolate as cloisters.

HENRY MAYHEW

At the best, city life is an unnatural life for the human; but the city life of London is so utterly unnatural that the average workman or workwoman cannot stand it.

JACK LONDON, THE PEOPLE OF THE ABYSS

Take a wretched thief
Through a city sneaking,
Pocket handkerchief
Ever, ever seeking.
What is he but I
Robbed of all my chances,
Picking pockets by
Force of circumstances?

W. S. GILBERT

1

 

‘LIKE A KITE STUCK IN TELEGRAPH WIRES’

On a desolate, rain-battered London midnight, the members of the Peculiar Crimes Unit went looking for a killer.

DC Colin Bimsley charged up a narrow flight of service stairs leading to the raised railway line, and was near the top when sweat broke out across his back and forehead. He looked down at his boots as the station staircase truncated and rotated, churning his stomach. Stretching out his hands to the walls, he tried to steady himself.

His quarry was getting away. Even with a section of rusted iron drainpipe manacled to his right wrist, the killer was running nimbly over rails and sleepers, sure-footed in the falling rain. It shouldn’t have happened like this, but nothing in the case should have happened the way it did, and now the staff of the Peculiar Crimes Unit were dealing with the farcical consequences.

Colin fell back against the wall, watching in horror as the stairs dropped. He could not move. From the corner of his eye he saw his colleagues Detective Sergeant Jack Renfield and DC Fraternity DuCaine ascending towards him.

‘Hey, Colin, you OK?’ Fraternity called.

‘No – it’s my head thing, it’s back.’ Bimsley suffered from Irlen Syndrome, a perceptual problem that made him unable to judge widths and spaces, and it had kicked in just as he was coming within range of their suspect. All he could do was point upward. ‘He’s getting away,’ he called. ‘I can’t go any further—’

‘Stay here, mate.’ Renfield slapped him on the shoulder as he and DuCaine powered past, up on to the rainswept bridgework that ran beside the train lines. Ahead of them, the southern routes of London Bridge Station fanned out in a great brick swathe.

The yellow windows of a commuter carriage flickered past. The train was heading for Kent and the coast. It had just turned midnight. Below them the stalled traffic steamed and rocked, jouncing forward, only to halt and hoot, the drivers cursing as the traffic lights flicked red again.

The suspect was running hard along the narrow edge of the bridgework, but DuCaine’s long muscular legs quickly closed the gap. Renfield had spotted the only possible escape route and was frantically calculating their chances of an arrest; at the end of the brick path was an open section of railing leading to one of the railway arch’s buttresses. Even if their suspect was able to climb through, it was a long drop to the street below.

DuCaine had almost caught up with the running man. He made a sweeping grab at his jacket but the rain was in his eyes and he missed. He slipped over on to his knees. The suspect vanished into the gap between the railings and headed out on to the brick promontory beyond it.

‘Leave him, Frat,’ Renfield called. ‘He can’t go anywhere.’

Fraternity answered by jabbing his finger down: Look.

Renfield peered over the side of the arch and saw a single freestanding iron pillar, the top of which was about ten feet below them. If their target took the wildest of risks and managed to land on its broad capital, he could leap once more to the pavement and run back into the tunnels beneath the lines. There was a good chance that they would lose him forever.

‘If he jumps don’t attempt to follow him,’ Renfield said into his headset. ‘I don’t want to be the one peeling you off the pavement.’

‘Why is there even a bloody pillar there anyway?’ DuCaine asked.

‘Left over from the old line,’ Renfield replied. ‘Damn, he’s going for it.’

It was too late to stop him. Their suspect had spotted the rain-slick top of the pillar and made his move. He was light and easily managed the leap, landing perfectly in the centre of the capital. Now he just had to jump downward once more and he would be home free.

DuCaine had also calculated the probable outcome. He touched his microphone. ‘Is there a cordon around London Bridge Street?’

His headset crackled. ‘Yeah, we’ve shut off all traffic, and on St Thomas Street as well.

Renfield hesitated, thinking that he should head back down the stairs, but he knew it would take him too long to reach the base of the pillar. DuCaine was already bracing himself for the jump.

‘OK, I’m going for it.’

‘Frat, don’t try it, mate.’

Fraternity was there one second, gone the next. The suspect had made his second leap, and behind him DuCaine was about to land hard on the pillar he had just vacated.

Renfield looked over the edge of the railway parapet and saw their target falling from the pillar towards the ground. Right at that moment, something entirely unexpected happened. The suspect stopped in mid-air, hovering above the street with his arms over his head. It seemed insane, impossible, but there he was, suspended above the road.

‘Bloody hell,’ said Renfield.

His headset burst into life. ‘What’s happening?’ asked John May.

‘Fraternity’s doing a bit of parkour,’ he replied. ‘Suspect made a jump for the pavement. Only he didn’t make it.’

What do you mean, he didn’t make it?

‘Not exactly sure, guv,’ Renfield admitted. ‘A bit of a Peter Pan job. He’s sort of floating above the road.’

Their suspect had jumped between a pair of virtually invisible steel guy ropes running between the railway arches, which had been used to suspend signs for the London Dungeon’s last exhibition. He had dropped between them but the length of drainpipe manacled to his wrist had caught itself over the knotted cables. Trapped, he tried to grip the ropes with his free hand to ease the weight on his right arm, and now swung helplessly back and forth with his legs kicking, unable to move in any direction.

A few moments later he was surrounded by various surprised members of the Peculiar Crimes Unit.

‘You’re too late!’ their suspect shouted down at them. ‘It’s over. I did what I set out to do. You know I did. Whatever happens now, remember this: I won.’

‘He can say what he likes,’ Jack Renfield told his boss, John May. ‘He’s hanging over the road like a kite stuck in telegraph wires. It looks to me like we’ve caught the Mr Punch Killer.’

2

 

‘WHY ARE THEY ALLOWED TO BE THERE?’

Over on St Thomas Street at exactly the same time, a Metropolitan Police traffic unit was redirecting cars around a makeshift cordon of railings, red plastic barriers and ribbons, but it was proving trickier than anyone expected. Articulated trucks were being forced to tackle the small side streets running under the railway arches, and were mounting the pavements as they turned.

Sergeant Samuel Kemp-Bird was nearing retirement. What he saw around him was utter chaos. He hadn’t expected to end up on point duty tonight, but there was a lot of flu about and the traffic unit was short-staffed. He had only just recovered from a bad cold himself and the damp night air was filled with diesel fumes, tightening his chest. His spectacles were covered in water droplets, and he had nothing to clean them with. The traffic was backed up in every direction and seething, the drivers on the lookout for someone to blame. The sergeant wished he was in America, where failure to comply brought the threat of arrest. Here, drivers just laughed at you and swore.

‘Oi, mate, this is a joke, innit? What’s going on?’ a driver shouted down from the cab of his truck.

‘Police are arresting someone. The arterial roads around the station are closed. Keep it moving,’ Kemp-Bird called back, waving him on.

The driver kept his air brakes on. ‘How am I supposed to get into the West End?’

‘You’ll have to go round and back up to Tooley Street, then down Borough High Street,’ Kemp-Bird replied. ‘Barnham Street’s shut but I think Shand Street’s still open.’ He called to his gormless young colleague, ‘Oi, Blakey, is Shand Street still open?’

‘Yeah, it must be,’ Blakey shouted back. ‘No one’s mentioned it.’

‘Are you having a laugh?’ The driver slapped the side of his truck with impatience. ‘This is an artic, not a concertina. And that’s not a road, it’s a bloody tunnel. It’s got a tight bend at either end and a low-clearance ceiling. I can’t get through that.’

Sergeant Kemp-Bird stepped back and eyed the truck’s roof. He removed his glasses and wiped them. The trucker was holding up traffic. ‘You’ve got a good foot and a half all round, mate. You’re clear to go.’ He waved the vehicle on.

The driver didn’t think so, not for a minute, but he was already two hours late getting his glassware into the old Covent Garden market because of delays to the ferry services, so he decided to take the traffic cop at his word. Releasing his brakes, he hit his turn signal and accelerated.

The vehicle behind him, a gleaming red Chevrolet Cruze, pulled up near the traffic cop and its window rolled halfway down. ‘What’s going on?’ called the pretty blonde girl inside. Sergeant Kemp-Bird coughed. He thought he could smell dope over the blue exhaust fumes in the tunnel.

‘Detour,’ he said. ‘Where are you heading?’

‘Trying to get to Vauxhall. Why is it so difficult to get anywhere in this city?’ She sounded as if she might also have been drinking, but there was no room and no time to pull her over – he needed to get the traffic flowing again.

‘Look, just follow the truck in front to Borough High Street.’ Stepping back, he waved her on.

Further along the tunnel, Sharyn Buckland pushed a strand of auburn hair out of her eyes and checked her watch again. The show had finished late, the service in the restaurant had been abysmal and the night tube wasn’t in operation tonight, not that she ever caught it this late – it was too full of drunk people eating the most disgusting burger things out of paper bags. ‘Stay close to me, darling,’ she told the boy, adjusting the heavy box under her arm. ‘We’ll find a taxi in a minute.’

But there weren’t any taxis. Worse still, London Bridge Road appeared to be closed off and backed up in every direction. Sharyn could see the rotating blue lights of two squad cars parked across the road in the distance. It meant that everyone would be trying to hail a cab on the other side of the roadblock, at the approach to the bridge. She wished she’d chosen something light-coloured to wear instead of a black raincoat. At least then she would stand out more.

Charlie Forester kicked at the kerb in annoyance. ‘Is my father bringing me something from Hong Kong?’

‘I’m sure he will,’ Sharyn replied. Mr Forester never forgot to bring his son a gift, just as he never bothered to bring anything for his wife. What was the point? Helen Forester spent half her life stressing out on business trips and the other half putting herself back together in health spas. Sharyn had been employed as the boy’s nanny since he was three, and he was now almost eight. She had severe doubts about Mrs Forester’s commitment to her son. Whenever Charlie wanted to tell his mother about his day at school she looked trapped and anxious to escape. Any attempt she made to show interest seemed awkward and false. Luckily Mr Forester made up for the imbalance in parenting skills. He was just about the best father a child could ever have. Sharyn wished Mr Forester would divorce his wife and marry someone with a warmer heart. He just didn’t realize there was already a devoted candidate living in his household.

Charlie stepped into the empty street and saw the barriers. ‘Why aren’t there any taxis?’

‘They’ve closed the street. Come out of the road at once, please.’ There’s no point in just standing around here, she thought. Maybe we can get an Uber. If not I’ll have to find a cut-through to the station. But her phone wasn’t connecting to the internet and she wasn’t sure which road would take them through to the taxi rank. Looking up, she saw the sign on the wall: ‘Shand Street’. ‘Come along,’ she said, taking Charlie’s hand. ‘Your father will be home shortly. Let’s see if we can beat him back.’

As she turned into Shand Street she realized her mistake. It wasn’t a street at all but a low brick tunnel leading underneath the railway lines. The walls were wet and green with calcifying rainwater. The air was sickly with truck fumes.

‘Sharyn, look – there’s a tramp.’ Charlie pointed at a bundle of clothes wedged inside a roll of corrugated cardboard.

‘They’re not tramps, they’re homeless people,’ Sharyn explained, lowering her voice.

‘You mean they stay here all night?’ Charlie asked in amazement. ‘He’s sleeping in his clothes.’

‘He doesn’t have anywhere to go. It’s not his fault. Imagine if your mother and father lost their jobs and couldn’t pay their bills – they’d have to sell your lovely house and you’d all have to sleep on the street.’

‘We’d stay with Granddad.’

I bet you wouldn’t, thought Sharyn. Granddad wouldn’t like having his nice Monte Carlo lifestyle compromised. ‘Just come away, please. Let’s cross over.’

She pulled him closer to her and they fled to the other side of the road.

It wasn’t far to the end of the tunnel, and she recalled there was a cab rank in a bay around the corner. The box beneath her arm contained a heavy toy truck. It was an encumbrance but Charlie had been given it at the show, an elaborate interactive event with pirates and prizes, and it was too big for him to carry. He’d won it by using his brains and solving a puzzle when all of the other children had merely made guesses. He was an astonishingly smart boy. His father was already making plans to have him accelerated in school. She imagined the pair of them raising Charlie themselves, Jeremy coming home after board meetings to play with the boy, the three of them living in the country, sharing a hug in a sunlit garden. She saw herself on the boards of charities, coming home to Charlie and Jeremy – and perhaps their own little girl, a new sister for the lonely child …

She had to release his hand to avoid dropping the package, and of course just then her mobile rang. Digging it from her bag, she saw that Mr Forester was calling, probably from the arrivals lounge at Heathrow. ‘Hang on – Charlie, stay here …’ she called, wedging the phone under her ear as the toy truck started to slide out of the end of the box.

The truck driver swung his wheel and turned into Shand Street, checking the clearance meter on his cabin ceiling. It told him that the tunnel’s sloping roof was less than six inches above, because he was coming in at an angle. Straightening up, he watched as the meter dropped back to a foot, and knew he would be able to keep it there. He just had to watch out for protrusions; some of these tunnels had cable bars hanging down from their roofs. There was a lot of traffic in the tunnel, and visibility was poor.

The vehicles suddenly shunted forward. He reached out a hand and cleared the condensation forming on his windscreen. He didn’t enjoy truck-driving; the work was monotonous and his foreman at Medusa Holdings was constantly pressuring him to improve on his delivery times. He had a degree but couldn’t find a way to make it pay, so for now he was stuck with long-haul deliveries—

Damn. The car in front had slammed on its brakes and he nearly rear-ended it. The trucker turned up his radio. There had just been a warning about road closures to the south of London Bridge but he had missed it. Perhaps it would come on again.

As he tried to find another news station he saw a movement from the corner of his eye. One of the homeless men in the tunnel had lurched to his feet on the left-hand pavement and was about to step out. He swung the wheel to avoid him. The clearance meter started beeping urgently.

Swinging back, the truck’s front nearside tyre mounted the low kerb with a thump. Wary of shifting his load, he checked his mirror and smoothly slowed down as the homeless man wandered clear. A moment later he saw a smartly dressed woman in a black raincoat standing in front of him, squinting in his headlights, and through the fumes he sensed something else – that there was a child just below the level of his windscreen.

He was an instinctive driver. Swinging the wheel sharply, he managed to avoid the boy without shifting his load, but the vehicle behind was caught out by his brake lights. It was getting too close, and meandering in its lane as if its driver was drunk.

Looking in his rear-view mirror, the trucker could see that the car was about to hit the grey metal electrical cabinet that jutted from the tunnel wall. Those damned things were barely visible; he’d often come close to clipping them. He heard a low scrape and a thump and, sure enough, caught a glimpse of the car rocking to a sudden stop, right up against the brickwork. Been there, done that, he thought, but suddenly the smartly dressed woman on the pavement was yelling and he thought she was reacting to the shock of nearly being run over, but as the driver behind got out he realized that something bad might have happened. The girl was pretty but very thin, dressed in tight blue jeans and a green Superdry sweatshirt. She looked alarmed, confused. As she came around the car’s driver-side headlight she reached out a steadying hand.

The trucker kept his eyes focused on the rear-view mirror. The toy lorry that lay in the gutter looked like a miniature version of his own vehicle. He watched as the girl knelt down before it, drawn by the same ominous sight, then saw the shocked little blond-haired boy standing just ahead of her car. He was holding a hand to his cheek, but he couldn’t possibly have been hit. Man, that could have been nasty, the driver thought. These bloody short-notice detours are going to kill someone one day. Satisfied that the boy was OK, he was about to drive on, hoping to meet his deadline at Covent Garden’s tourist market, but when he looked in his rear-view mirror again he saw there was something wrong.

It wasn’t in his nature to walk away from a problem. With a sigh he looked for a spot to pull over, and prepared to miss his allocated time slot.

‘Are you hurt, Charlie?’ Sharyn asked, holding the boy’s thin shoulders. ‘Show me your face.’

‘I’m fine,’ said Charlie, pulling free. ‘My eye’s sore.’

‘Don’t rub it. Let me see.’ She gently removed his hand from his left eye and peered into his face. There didn’t seem to be anything wrong. ‘It’s probably a bit of grit from the road.’

‘Is he OK?’ asked the thin girl in the Superdry sweatshirt. She glanced back nervously at the car. ‘Are we all right here?’

‘I don’t know.’ Sharyn turned the boy to the light. She could see a tiny red mark in the corner of Charlie’s left eye. ‘It looks like a little speck of blood.’

‘I’m OK,’ Charlie repeated.

Sharyn looked down at the pavement, which she now saw was covered in tiny pieces of broken glass. ‘Is that from your wing mirror?’

The girl turned and looked. She seemed dazed and unable to take in what had happened. ‘No,’ she said, ‘I think there was like an empty bottle on top of the cabinet or something. It must have smashed.’ They looked back at the gutter, where a wine label lay with shards of green glass still stuck to its back.

Suddenly Charlie Forester wavered as if he was about to faint. He fell forward, but slowly, so that Sharyn was able to catch him and keep him upright.

The girl dropped back in a state of panic. ‘Oh God, what’s wrong with him? I didn’t do anything.’ She turned and staggered towards the car.

‘Wait,’ called Sharyn, ‘where are you going?’

‘It’s just shock, he looks fine, I have to go,’ said the girl over her shoulder.

‘You can’t leave; it was still an accident. Don’t you have to stay here until we’ve reported it?’ Sharyn wanted to run after her but couldn’t abandon Charlie.

‘I can’t, I’m sorry,’ said the girl. She climbed back into the car and then it was reversing, lurching back and forward again, freeing itself and bouncing out into the traffic gap before it had a chance to close up, leaving Sharyn and Charlie on the pavement.

Sharyn turned her attention back to Charlie. Her only concern was for the boy. He was heavy in her arms. His eye was definitely weeping. Then someone in uniform was running towards them. Sergeant Kemp-Bird was out of breath by the time he reached her side. ‘What happened?’

‘I’m not sure – I think he’s fainted.’

‘Get back to the wall, away from the traffic,’ Kemp-Bird instructed. ‘I’ll call someone.’ The truck driver was walking towards them now, a look of concern on his face.

She went with Charlie in the ambulance but wasn’t allowed to sit with him in the back. The EMTs did what they could, but the boy grew deathly white and lay motionless on the trolley. The supervising technician shone the beam of his penlight into his left pupil. Sliding back the window, he asked Sharyn whether she saw anything enter the boy’s eye.

‘I think it was probably dust from the tunnel,’ Sharyn answered. ‘The lady in the car that hit the wall said she saw a bottle break. There was glass all over the pavement. There was a wine bottle, probably from one of the homeless men. Why are they allowed to be there?’ She looked back at the boy and grew even more alarmed. ‘Why isn’t he responding?’

‘I don’t know yet,’ the technician admitted as the ambulance edged through the traffic, but he had seen something like this happen before and had a strong suspicion about what was occurring. He could see something reflecting in the left caruncle, the corner of the eye. If it was a sliver of glass from the road it could be coated in all kinds of chemicals and bacteria. It could work its way around to do serious damage, perhaps even sever the optic nerve. He’d known a sliver of glass to enter an eye, blind it and leave a patient’s body one week later from under a fingernail. People who worked with glass all said the same thing: that it was a pernicious and potentially lethal material.

His worst fears were confirmed when it became obvious that the foreign particle had gone much deeper and was causing a clot. ‘We need to get there faster,’ he warned the driver.

Charlie Forester died on the operating table twenty-seven minutes later, and through her tears Sharyn saw another tragedy approaching. She realized she would have to confront his father about the events that had occurred on that rain-beaten night in the tunnel underneath London Bridge Station.

It was the moment when she saw all her plans, her ambitions, every expectation and dream she had for her future wiped out in a single stroke.

3

 

‘THE COMPANY WILL OUTLAST ITS EMPLOYEES’

Six months after his son died in the emergency unit at St Thomas’, Jeremy Forester arrived at his office just before 8 a.m., parking his black Mercedes-AMG S 65, a vehicle worth more than his first house had cost, in his space beneath the sign saying ‘Washbourne Hollis Employees Only’. As he killed the engine, he gathered his presentation materials and tried to get his wife off the phone.

‘Helen, I agreed to the meeting in principle but we’re going to be really busy here. We’ve a heap of contract renewals to handle. Someone has to oversee the renovations on the house, and I’ve got to deal with the Hong Kong flat. I let you choose the counsellor but I’ve never even met this woman. How do I know she’s not just going to automatically take your side?’

‘Oh, we have sides now?’

‘You know what I mean.’ He closed his case, bipped the car door and headed for the lifts.

‘I have no other time. I’m choosing fabrics for the gallery. Surely you haven’t forgotten? At this point we have to be seen to be spending money.’

‘Do we? I’m more concerned about closing Hong Kong. I’ve just arrived at work. We’ll talk later.’

Jeremy knew he had lost the battle. Helen’s appalling friends would encourage her to spend while he stayed in London trying to close his contracts and project-manage the house renovation at the same time, and the relationship counsellor would charge them a fortune for a series of broken appointments. If Helen’s gallery failed to open on time, the house wasn’t finished or the Hong Kong flat was delayed, she would blame him, and even if everything did work out she would still not be happy, because she never was these days. Nothing had been the same since they’d lost their son in a bizarre accident no one could adequately explain. Charlie’s death had opened fissures in their marriage that were impossible to close.

Washbourne Hollis was housed in Number One, Poultry, a prestigious building at the epicentre of London that had arisen during the city’s birth, and had remained in one form or another for two thousand years. The lift took Jeremy to his office. A message from his assistant Melissa warned him that Larry Vance, the head of finance, had called an urgent meeting. As he diverted there, Jeremy wondered if the month’s figures had finally set him on track to become a partner. Vance needed him. It would mean that the deal’s accompanying shares would pay for the house, the gallery and Hong Kong, which was good timing as he had just finished signing the paperwork.

Vance was too short and inconsequential-looking to be sitting behind an acre of Indonesian teak; it made him look like a fearful schoolboy waiting to see the headmaster. Even so, Jeremy knew at once that something was wrong. Instead of the usual tentative smile from the financial chief there was a downcast fidget, a failure of acknowledgement from the man who had mentored him for six long years.

Placing his manicured fingers on the blotter and spreading them wide, Vance finally looked up into his employee’s eyes. ‘Don’t get too comfortable, Jeremy. I think it’s better for both of us if I keep this short. I’m afraid I’m the bearer of bad news. You know I made a lot of allowances for you after Charlie died. But I simply can’t any longer.’

Jeremy tried to swallow but his mouth was dry. ‘What are you talking about?’

‘There’s no other way to say this. I’m afraid you’re relieved of your duties here. In compliance with company policy, I have to insist that you immediately clear your desk.’ Vance turned away, actually turned away, unable to hold his gaze. ‘Don’t take any files with you. You can leave your security keys with the concierge.’

Jeremy glanced about the room. Was this some kind of grotesque joke? Were his colleagues about to jump out? ‘You’re not serious, are you? I thought this was about making me a partner.’

‘Until a week ago, so did I,’ said Vance. ‘I really need you off the premises as quickly as possible, Jeremy.’

Pain prickled behind his eyes. ‘After all the money I made for you in the last two years? Are you insane?’

‘This is not about your skills as a negotiator,’ said Vance, ‘it’s about your choices. We’ve been over the books.’

Jeremy’s face froze. What was he talking about? There were no actual illegalities, just a few carefully bent rules. A decision pivoted before him: Deny their existence or come clean. ‘I never did anything for personal gain. Everything I did was for the company.’

‘I believe you, Jeremy, but it doesn’t alter the fact that what you’ve been doing completely contravenes fiscal policy,’ replied Vance. ‘If any of this gets reported we’ll have the Fraud Squad on our backs in a heartbeat. You saw what happened with the Panama Papers. There has to be total accountability.’

‘It’s not exactly in the same league, Larry. We’re talking about methods in common usage in the international business community.’ He was starting to speak too quickly; he knew that. ‘I needed to make our investments more profitable. What, you think that just happens by itself?’

‘Let me ask you – what do you think will happen if the City Companies Commission gets wind of this?’ He stopped his employee from framing a reply. ‘Are there any other records I don’t know about? Is there anything kept off-site, on your home laptop, in cloud storage?’

‘No, it’s only here in the office in secure e-vault files. I would never take it outside, you know that.’

‘I’m prepared to accept your word for now, until there’s a full internal investigation. This kind of – blindness – is something we keep a constant watch for. It’s lucky for you that I noticed before anyone else did. We’ll clean house as fast as we can, but I’m afraid part of that process is getting you off the premises before 9 a.m.’

Jeremy felt sweat dripping between his shoulder blades. There was a terrible sense of things falling away. ‘What’s my severance package? The terms are complex, it’ll take a while to go through everything with the lawyers—’

Vance looked amazed. ‘What are you talking about? There is no severance package, Jeremy. What you get is me keeping you out of jail, in the short term at least. That’s the only deal we’re looking at here, the one you should be thanking me for. Look, I know it was a rough year for you, losing your son, and I know you and Helen are going through a difficult patch, but this is an extremely serious matter.’

‘It isn’t what you think,’ he replied, starting to feel sick. ‘Did you stop to wonder whether the profitability levels on those contracts were sustainable? Where did you suppose the money came from, for God’s sake?’

Vance picked up a thick envelope and plucked it open. ‘Yours is the only name on any of the transactions, for which I suppose I must thank you. I just need you to sign this.’ He unfolded the pages and smoothed them out before his employee.

Jeremy looked down at the sheets containing details of his transactions and subsequent resignation. ‘Please, Larry, I have debts,’ he said. ‘I owe money, I’ve a million pounds’ worth of house renovations going on here and I just purchased the Hong Kong flat so that I could be there to handle clients more easily. There are substantial outstanding loans – everything was based on the assumption of me being made a partner.’ He rattled the page, his fingers leaving sweat-marks. ‘What if I don’t sign this?’

‘Then I’ll have to call security and they will call the police. This was your project, nobody else’s.’

‘Don’t do this to me,’ he begged as quietly and reasonably as he could. ‘I have nothing saved. I took personal risks. My own investments didn’t work out. I had to borrow from all sorts of – hell, I haven’t even finished paying for the gallery, so you can imagine what my wife—’

‘I wouldn’t wish your wife on a dog,’ interrupted Vance, relishing the opportunity to be brutally honest. ‘You bought her to make yourself look good. Get rid of her. Women have always been your weakness, Jeremy. Don’t say you did this for us – admit that you did it for her. You know I’m sorry you lost your son, but I can’t afford to be sentimental about this. I need you to sign the document and then vacate the building.’

‘Let me keep the car,’ he pleaded. His pen hand was shaking violently. ‘Just the car.’

Vance considered the point. The car was nothing. Forester’s replacement would want a new one anyway. He could concede that. And as far as his accountants could tell, Jeremy had operated alone without authority, indicting only himself. Perhaps it was the gentlemanly thing to do. ‘All right,’ he conceded. ‘Out of respect for your work here, you can keep the car.’

The page wavered before Jeremy’s eyes as he signed his career away. For one horrible moment he thought he felt tears swelling. ‘I’ve served Washbourne Hollis well. I put its profits before everything else.’

Vance thought about this and grunted assent. ‘The company will outlast its employees. But you, Jeremy – let me give you a word of advice. You need to develop a survival strategy. You’re too loyal. To the company, to your wife. We’ll both be fine without you. Look after yourself. Settle your debts, find a way to reconnect, but do it alone, on your own terms. Your job here will be filled within days. People will be climbing over corpses for it.’

And then the security guard was walking him down the corridor to his office and everyone was looking at him through the glass partitions because he saw to his horror that they knew, they all knew he was being fired although they probably had no idea why, and being humiliated like this was more than he could stand, because he had always prided himself on looking the best and being the best. Was there time to talk to Melissa, to admit that their night together should never have happened, and that he might never see her again?

The bubbling nausea within him really started to rise when Jeremy Forester realized that this would be only the first of the humiliations, that they would start now and keep on coming until everything was gone and there was nothing left at all, because he had always lived beyond his means, making reckless decisions when it came to loan terms. Now he owed more than he could ever pay back, so it wasn’t simply a matter of seized assets and frozen bank accounts, it was smashed faces and broken legs and, God, what if they found out about the gallery? What if they discovered where Helen worked? They couldn’t take what he didn’t have, but they could harm his wife. Suddenly this distant woman to whom he had barely spoken lately except to co-ordinate diaries was desperately precious to him.

That was when he decided there was nothing for him to take from his office, that he would leave empty-handed and gain a head start while he worked out some kind of a game plan that would keep Helen safe and him in one piece. He would sell the car and get some ready cash; that would keep him going for a while. It no longer mattered what the staff of Washbourne Hollis thought; it was only important to stay ahead of his creditors. The loan he had taken out in Hong Kong and could not pay back was large enough to get him killed.

He began to run towards the lifts.

THE FIRST DAY

4

 

‘BETTER VALUE FOR MONEY’

From today I will learn to take charge of my organization by blaming other people, Raymond Land repeated to himself, using one of the thirty or so mantras he had memorized from a self-help business manual called Lower Your Expectations & Raise Your Profits by a bearded American professor called Osbert Desanex. Having been told that he needed to run his wayward police unit like a private company, Land had taken the message somewhat too heavily to heart.

Leaning forward, he squinted at his computer screen, checked that he had the date right and the correct staff list pulled up, then touched the microphone symbol with his mouse arrow. For some reason it opened his email, so he closed down Mail because he didn’t like to have two windows open at once, and tried again. This time the mouse accessed his recent history and revealed a page about Beautiful Russian Women Just Waiting to Meet You. Embarrassed, he panicked and stabbed randomly at the keyboard until a window popped up reading Are you sure you want to shut down now? If so all current data will be lost YES NO. He meant to click NO but for some unearthly reason found himself clicking YES, and then it was too late.

While the computer restarted he rose and went to the window. Over time Land had acquired the features of an ineffectual man, soft-boned, thin-haired and seething with small irritations. He was a visual representation of constipation, marked with the look of a fellow who knows he will never be listened to with anything other than disrespect. But for all of that, he meant well. Outside, the bedraggled one-legged pigeon that had made its nest on his windowsill stared back at him. It looked like an avian version of a very sick Camden Town punk from the late 1970s.

‘I’ll get you this time, Stumpy,’ muttered Land. Pressing himself against the wall, he picked up a copy of Time Out, rolled it up tightly and reached across to the window catch. In one swift movement he slid up the sash and thwacked the magazine down on the sill. The pigeon strutted around the weapon, flicked one staring orange eye at it, warbled, then dropped a white splodge on to a photograph of the mayor.

‘Why not,’ Land sighed. ‘Everybody else treats King’s Cross like a toilet.’ He returned to his desk to begin dictation.

Peculiar Crimes Unit
The Old Warehouse
231 Caledonian Road
London N1 9RB

STAFF ROSTER MONDAY 11 DECEMBER

Raymond Land, Unit Chief
Arthur Bryant, Senior Investigator
John May, Senior Investigator
Janice Longbright, Operations Director
Jack Renfield, Operations Director
Dan Banbury, Crime Scene/Forensics
Giles Kershaw, Pathology (off-site)
Meera Mangeshkar, Coordination
Colin Bimsley, Coordination
Steffi Vesta, Scientific Services
Crippen, staff cat

PRIVATE & CONFIDENTIAL MEMO
FROM: RAYMOND LAND
TO: ALL PCU STAFF

As I’m sure you know, the police service in England and Wales is currently reducing its budget by 20 per cent, while another wonderful new quango, the Police and Crime Commissioners Office, has been created by the Home Secretary for purposes only she understands, so you’ll see from the attached list that there are some changes. Your former Metropolitan Police titles have been removed, so you’re no longer locked into their pay structure. This doesn’t mean you can make up your own job titles. I’ve already told Mr Bryant he can’t be Sultan, Emperor or Supreme Being. I’m willing to humour him a bit because he hasn’t been well, but if anyone else starts winding me up they’ll soon discover the less forgiving side of my nature. I can be a right Dr Jekyll when I have to.

‘He does know that Mr Hyde was the bad one?’ asked Arthur Bryant as he read the memo back later.

Stay with me, it gets worse. The new pay structure is performance related, so if I can’t regularly put a few biscuits in the tin you don’t get any wages. As we’re starting out with a deficit from the building renovations, we have to win our next case or PCU goes down. I know you’ve all heard that before but this time it’s about hard cash, not meeting quotas. Conducting an investigation is expensive, and we have to pay for every outsourced service we use. This isn’t some Swedish crime show where they only have to snap their fingers to get a bucketful of tested DNA dropped into their laps. We’ll be lucky if we can run to chocolate digestives.

Now, some of you may remember that Jack Renfield used to work with the PCU. You should do, as it was just six weeks ago, before he threw a moody and walked out, leaving us all in the shit. He rejoins us after completing an exhausting month-long stint back at the Metropolitan Police Force, during which time his so-called mates filled his locker with dead fish and superglued his trousers to an armed response vehicle. As his homecoming proved somewhat less than welcoming, and the exciting opportunities afforded by a unit offering low pay and even lower esteem proved irresistible, he’s come back just in time to qualify for Christmas overtime. I imagine it was this or working in an Oxfam shop, so unless he’s good at pricing teapots and Harry Potter wands we’re stuck with him.

Also joining us on a temporary secondment is Steffi Vesta from Cologne. She has a background in scientific services and a degree in criminal law, and wanted to spend a couple of weeks in a respected, world-class specialist unit. Instead she got us. She says she’s looking forward to meeting you all and is therefore clearly out of her mind. When I say make her feel at home, that doesn’t mean telling her what your granddad did during the war. I’d like to remind you that our own royal family is German, so if you want to have a go at someone, do the proper British thing and pick on the French.

The closure of the King’s Cross Police Station means that we’re now the only unit operating between Holloway Prison and Bloomsbury, so the City of London Police have asked us to handle public consultation sessions one morning a week. Yes, that’s ‘public’ as in ‘general public’. Janice will produce a duty roster, so be prepared for a lot of witless questions about fly-tipping and whether it’s illegal to have a fire in your back garden, no doubt mixed in with some disturbing theories about immigrants from our neighbourhood’s highly volatile mix of tracksuited wombles, nutcases and cat ladies, a technical term for a certain type of unmarried female that I am assured by Equality & Diversity is not yet listed as derogatory.

‘He’s become quite angry since Leanne left him, don’t you think?’ said John May. ‘It’s an improvement.’

You may be aware that I recently attended a business seminar called ‘Policing & Profit’, as the powers that be have decided we should offer better value for money to our ‘customers’, quote unquote. I shall be sending each of you exercises designed to increase your awareness of customer care and value. Our politicians think they can rebrand their way out of budget cuts and I’m only amazed that they haven’t changed ‘crime prevention’ to ‘product satisfaction’. Perhaps they’re planning to turn the ground floor of the PCU into a Patisserie Valerie. I thought of taking sponsored advertising but I don’t suppose your chances of gaining respect will be improved by having ‘Barclays’ emblazoned across your jackets, especially as it’s rhyming slang.

You’ll notice that we now have a smart new operations room on the first floor, created by the two Daves, who’ve miraculously managed to take out the right walls without this doss-house falling down. You’ll see from my floor plan that all staff except myself and our two senior detectives will share this space in order to improve communications. Obviously Mr Bryant and Mr May will remain in their own office, preferably with the door shut. I don’t want you catching any of their habits, ideas or germs. We don’t want a repeat of what happened when that polio-infected rabbit got loose.