'All right, let's go and have a look at your sister.' Bryant clambered wearily to his feet. Tortoise-like, scarf-wrapped, argumentative to the point of rudeness, myopic and decrepit, Bryant appeared even more dishevelled than usual, owing to the current upheavals in his life. A waft of white hair rose in a horseshoe above his ears, as if he'd been touching static globes at the Science Museum. Behind his watery sapphire eyes, though, was a spirit as robust and spiky as winter earth. He had been described as 'independent to the point of vexation and individual to the level of eccentricity', which seemed accurate enough. John May, his dapper partner, was younger by three years, an attractive senior of considerable charisma, modern in outlook and gregarious by nature. Bryant was a loner, literate and secretive, with a sidelong, crafty mind that operated in opposition to May's level-headed thinking.
'Janice, when John finally deigns to turn up, would you send him around to join us? Where are we going?'
'Number 5, Balaklava Street,' said Mr Singh. 'It's between Inkerman Road and Alma Street.'
'Ah, your sister's house was built in the 1850s, then. The roads are all named after battles of the Crimean War. Victorian town councils were fond of such gestures.' Bryant knew historical facts like that. It was a pity he couldn't remember anything that had happened in the last twenty years. Recent events were his partner's speciality. John May remembered everyone's birthdays. Bryant barely recalled anyone's names. May exhibited a natural charm that disarmed the toughest opponents. Bryant could make a nun bristle. May had girlfriends and relatives, parties and friends. Bryant had his work. May would smile in blossoming sunlight. Bryant would frown and step back into darkness. Each corresponding jag and trough in their characters was a further indication of the symbiosis they had developed over the years. They fitted together like old jigsaw pieces.
Longbright waited for Bryant to leave the office, then opened all the windows to clear the overpowering smell of paint. She set about unpacking the new computers, thankful that the old man could occupy his mind with the unit's activities once more; he had been driving everyone mad for the past month, acting like a housebound child on a rainy day.
Arthur's sudden decision to move house had been uncharacteristic. Furthermore, he had chosen to leave behind his landlady, the woman who had tolerated his dreadful behaviour for more than forty years. Alma Sorrowbridge had been shocked and hurt by her tenant's determination to abandon her in Battersea as he moved alone to the workshop of a converted false-teeth factory in Chalk Farm. As she unbattened boxes and uncoiled cables, Longbright wondered at his motive. Perhaps Arthur felt that time was running short, and was preparing to distance himself from those closest to him. Perversely, his morbidity always increased when he was removed from death. Proximity to a fresh tragedy concentrated his mind wonderfully. Truly ghastly events took years off him.
Longbright caught herself humming as she worked, and realized that she was happy again.
'So you and Mr May still have the Peculiar Crimes Unit.' Mr Singh made conversation as he drove his little blue Nissan from Mornington Crescent to Kentish Town. Bryant had given the unit his Mini Cooper, a sixties relic with a history of rust and electrical faults, and as it was away being repaired he was forced to rely on getting lifts, which at least allowed the pedestrian population of north London to breathe a collective sigh of relief.
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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