But of course, nothing at the PCU had ever been normal. Founded as an experimental unit during the War to handle the cases no one else understood, let alone wanted, the detectives had built a reputation for defusing politically sensitive and socially embarrassing situations, using unorthodox and controversial methods. Some of the more rule-bound Met officers hated their guts, but most of the force's foot soldiers regarded them as living legends, if only because they had repeatedly refused promotion to keep their status as ordinary detectives.
Bryant climbed the trash-stickered steps to Waterloo Bridge and hailed a taxi. Thirteen weeks of airless summer heat had passed without rain, but now the warmth was fading from the yellow London brick, and there was moisture in the rising breeze. The autumn chill stealing up the river would bring rheumatism and new strains of influenza. Already he could feel his joints starting to ache. The only thing that would take his mind off the problems of old age was hard work.
He dug into a pocket and found his pewter flask, granting himself a small nip of cherry brandy. When he was alone he thought too much. John May was the only person who could bring calm to his sense of escalating panic. Their fifty-year-plus partnership had the familiarity of an old radio show. The bald head gave a little shake within its yards of musty scarf; Bryant told himself he would never consider retiring again. The thought of doing so made him feel ill. When the unit reopened in its rightful office on Monday morning, he would return to his desk beside John and Janice, and stay in harness until the day he died. After all, it was where he was needed most. It would be important to show he could still do the job. And he had nothing else without it.
THE FIRST DEATH OF AUTUMN
'I came to you, Mr Bryant,' said Benjamin Singh, 'because you have such
an incredible capacity to be annoying.'
'I can't imagine what you mean,' said Bryant, stuffing his bentwood pipe with a mixture of Old Holborn and eucalyptus leaves.
'I mean you can get things done by badgering people. I don't trust the regular police. They're distracted and complacent. I'm glad you are still here. I thought you would have retired by now. You are so very, very far past retirement age.'
Bryant fixed his visitor with an evil eye. Mr Singh dabbed his cheeks with a paper handkerchief. He hadn't been crying; it was a gesture of respect for the dead. He paused to take stock of his surroundings. 'I'm sorry, have you been burgled?' he asked.
'Oh, no.' Bryant fanned out his match and sucked noisily on the pipe. 'The unit burned down. Well, it blew up and burned down. They're still rebuilding it and we haven't had time to unpack anything yet. We don't officially reopen for business until ten o'clock this morning. It's only nine, you know. It'll be a nightmare around here later because we've got painters, carpenters and IT bods turning up. There's no floor in the toilet. Health and Safety said they wouldn't be responsible if we moved in, but we couldn't stay above a barbershop. It doesn't help that I'm also in the middle of moving house, and appear to have mislaid all my socks. Sorry, do please go on.'
Excerpted from The Water Room by Christopher Fowler Copyright © 2005 by Christopher Fowler. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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No Man's Land
by Simon Tolkien
Inspired by the experiences of his grandfather, J. R. R. Tolkien, during World War I.
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