'Yes, but we've had a change of brief since the days when you worked with us,' said Bryant. 'Now it's problem homicides, low-profile investigations, cases with the potential to spark social panic, general unrest and malaise. We get the jobs that don't lead anywhere and don't suit Met's wide-boys. They're too busy number-crunching; the last thing they want is the kind of investigation that hangs around for months without producing quantifiable results. They have league tables now.'
'So you're meant to free up the regular police.'
'I suppose that's how they see it. We've had a few successes, but of course the cases that pay off are never the ones you expect.' He wasn't complaining. While everyone else was streamlining operations to board the law-enforcement superhighway, the PCU remained an unreliable but essential branch line no one dared to close down, and that was how he liked it. 'I'm sorry you were the one who had to find your sister.'
'It's not her dying, you understand, I've been expecting that. But something is wrong, you'll see.'
'What are you doing these days?'
'Both my daughters finally married. I said to them, "Don't wed Indian boys, they'll make you have babies instead of careers," but they wouldn't listen to me, so I fear there will be no more academics bearing my name. I retired from the British Library when it moved to King's Cross, but I'm still lecturing on pagan cults.' Benjamin had once provided the unit with information allowing them to locate a Cornish devil cult. 'You know, I had asked Ruth to move in with me, but she was too independent. We never got on well with each other. I wanted her to wear one of those things around her neck, a beeper, you know? She refused. Now look where it's got her.' This time, Bryant noticed, Mr Singh's tissue came away damp.
The little Nissan turned a corner and came to a stop.
Balaklava Street was a surprise. It was cobbled, for a start; few such thoroughfares had survived the most recent invasion of property developers, and only an EEC ruling had prevented London's councils from ripping up the remaining streets. The pavement consisted of velvety flagstones, the kind that were pleasurable to roller-skate over, and ran in a dog-leg that provided the road with the appearance of a cul-de-sac. Commuters rarely used it as a rat-run and casual pedestrians were infrequent, so a peculiar calm had settled across the roof slates, and it was quiet in the way that London backstreets could often be, with the traffic fading to a distant hum and the rustling of high plane trees foregrounded by birdsong. Deep underground, passing Tube trains could be faintly detected, and only the proliferation of parked cars suggested modern times.
Bryant opened the car door and eased himself out with the help of the hated walking stick that May had bought for his last birthday. He noted that the framework of the street's original gas lamps still stood, although they had been rewired for electric light. There were ten terraced yellow-brick houses, five on each side, before the road skirted a Victorian school that had been converted into an adult-education centre. Opposite, at the end of the road, a parched patch of waste ground was backed by the car park of a kitchen centre and a chaotic wood joinery, the triangle forming a dark corner where youths could play football by day and buy drugs at night.
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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