Out With A Bang
It really was a hell of a blast.
The explosion occurred at daybreak on the second Tuesday morning of
September, its shock waves rippling through the beer-stained
streets of Mornington Crescent. It detonated car alarms, hurled
house bricks across the street, blew a chimney stack forty feet
into the sky, ruptured the eardrums of several tramps, denuded over
two dozen pigeons, catapulted a surprised ginger tom through the
window of a kebab shop and fired several roofing tiles into the
forehead of the Pope, who was featured on a poster for condoms
opposite the tube station.
As the dissonance pulsed the atmosphere it fractured the city's
fragile caul of civilization, recalling another time of London
bombs. Then, as now, dust and debris had speckled down through the
clear cool air between the buildings, whitening the roads and
drifting in the morning sunlight like dandelion seeds. For a split
second, the past and the present melted together.
It was a miracle that no one was seriously injured.
Or so it seemed at first.
When Detective Sergeant Janice Longbright received the phone call,
her first thought was that she had overslept and missed the start
of her shift. Then she remembered that she had just celebrated her
retirement from the police force. Years of being woken at odd hours
had taught her to focus her attention within three rings of the
bedside telephone. Rubbing dreams from her head, she glanced at the
clock and listened to the urgent voice in her ear. She rose from
the side of her future husband, made her way quietly (as quietly as
she could; she was heavy-footed and far from graceful) through the
flat, dressed and drove to the offices above Mornington Crescent
Or rather, she drove to what was left of them, because the North
London Peculiar Crimes Unit had, to all intents and purposes, been
obliterated. The narrow maze of rooms that had existed in the old
Edwardian house above the station was gone, and in its place
wavered fragments of burning lath-and-plaster alcoves. The station
below was untouched, but nothing remained of the department that
had been Longbright's working home.
She made her way between the fire engines, stepping across
spit-sprays from snaked hosepipes, and tried to discern the extent
of the damage. It was one of those closed-in mornings that would
barely bother to grow light. Grey cloud fitted as tightly over the
surrounding terraces as a saucepan lid, and the rain that dampened
the churning smoke obscured her view. The steel-reinforced door at
the entrance to the unit had been blown out. Firemen were picking
their way back down the smouldering stairs as she approached. She
recognized several of the officers who were taping off the pavement
and road beyond, but there was no sign of the unit's most familiar
An ominous coolness crept into the pit of her stomach as she
watched the yellow-jacketed salvage team clearing a path through
the debris. She dug into the pocket of her overcoat, withdrew her
mobile and speed-dialled the first of the two numbers that headed
her list. Eight rings, twelve rings, no answer.
Arthur Bryant had no voicemail system at home. Longbright had
ceased encouraging him to record messages after his 'static surge'
experiments had magnetized the staff of a British Telecom call
centre in Rugby. She tried the second number. After six rings, John
May's voice told her to leave a message. She was about to reply
when she heard him behind her.
'Janice, you're here.' May's black coat emphasized his wide
shoulders and made him appear younger than his age (he was
somewhere in his eighties --- no one was quite sure where). His
white hair was hidden under a grey woollen hat. Streaks of charcoal
smeared his face and hands, as though he was preparing to commit an
act of guerrilla warfare.
'John, I was just calling you.' Longbright was relieved to see
someone she recognized. 'What on earth happened?'
The elderly detective looked shaken but uninjured, a thankfully
late arrival at the blast scene. 'I have absolutely no idea. The
City of London Anti-terrorist Unit has already discounted political
groups. There were no call signs of any sort.' He looked back at
the ruined building. 'I left the office at about ten last night.
Arthur wanted to stay on. Arthur . . .' May widened his eyes at the
blasted building as if seeing it for the first time. 'He always
says he doesn't need to sleep.'
'You mean he's inside?' asked Longbright.
'I'm afraid so.'
'Are you sure he was still there when you left?'
'No question about it. I rang him when I got home. He told me he
was going to work right through the night. Said he wasn't tired and
wanted to clear the backlog. You know how he is after a big case,
he opens a bottle of Courvoisier and keeps going until dawn. His
way of celebrating. Mad at his age. There was something in his
voice . . .'
'What do you mean?'
May shook his head. 'I don't know. As though he wanted to talk to
me but changed his mind, that weird hesitation thing he does on the
phone. Some officers in an ARV from the Holmes Road division saw
him standing at the window at around four thirty. They made fun of
him, just as they always do. He opened the window and told them to
bugger off, threw a paperweight at them. I should have stayed with
'Then we would have lost both of you,' said Longbright. She looked
up at the splintered plaster and collapsed brickwork. 'I mean, he
can't still be alive.'
'I wouldn't hold out too much hope.'
A tall young man in a yellow nylon jacket came over. Liberty
DuCaine was third-generation Caribbean, currently attached to the
unit in a forensic team with two young Indian women, the brightest
students from their year. Liberty hated his name, but his brother
Fraternity, who was also in the force, hated his more. Longbright
raised her hand.
'Hey, Liberty. Do they have any idea why --- '
'An incendiary device of some kind, compact but very powerful. You
can see from here how clean the blast pattern is. Very neat. It
destroyed the offices but hasn't even singed the roof of the
station.' The boy's impatience to explain his ideas resulted in a
staccato manner of speech that May had trouble keeping up with.
'There are some journalists sniffing around, but they won't get
anything. You OK?'
'Arthur couldn't have got out in time.'
'I know that. They'll find him, but we're waiting for a JCB to
start moving some of the rafters. They haven't picked up anything
on the sound detectors and I don't think they will, 'cos the place
came down like a pack of cards. There's not a lot holding these old
houses in one piece, see.' Liberty looked away, embarrassed to be
causing further discomfort.
Longbright started walking towards the site, but May gently held
her back. 'Let me take you home, Janice,' he offered.
She shrugged aside the proffered hand. 'I'm all right, I just
didn't think it would end like this. It is the end, isn't it?'
Longbright was already sure of the answer. Arthur Bryant and John
May were men fashioned by routines and habits. They had closed a
case and stayed on to analyse the results, catching up, enjoying
each other's company. It was what they always did, their way of
starting afresh. Everyone knew that. John had left the building
first, abandoning his insomniac partner.
'Who's conducting the search? They'll have to verify --- '
'The fire department's first priority is to make sure it's safe,'
said Liberty. 'Of course they'll report their findings as quickly
as possible. Anything I hear, you'll know. John's right, you should
go home, there's nothing you can do.'
May stared up at the building, suddenly unsure of himself.
Longbright watched the column of rusty smoke rising fast in the
still grey air. She felt disconnected from the events surround- ing
her. It was the termination of a special partnership; their names
had been inextricably linked, Bryant, May, Longbright. Now she had
left and Bryant was gone, leaving May alone. She had spent so much
time in their company that the detectives were more familiar than
her closest relatives, like friendly monochrome faces in old films.
They had been, and would always be, her family.
Longbright realized she was crying even before she registered the
shout, as though time had folded back on itself. A fireman was
calling from the blackened apex of the building. She couldn't hear
what he was saying, would not allow herself to hear it. As she ran
towards the ruins with the fire officers at her heels, the familiar
codes started passing through the rescue group.
A single body, an elderly white male, had been located in the
wreckage. For Arthur Bryant and John May, an unorthodox alliance
had come to a violent end. They were her colleagues, her mentors,
her closest friends. She would not allow herself to believe that
Bryant was dead.
An immolation had joined the end to the beginning, past and present
blown together. John May had always sensed that routine demise
would not be enough for his partner. They had just closed a sad,
cruel case, their last together. There were no more outstanding
enemies. Bryant had finally started thinking about retirement as
the unit headed for a period of radical change, sanctioned by new
Home Office policies. He and May had been discussing them only the
Friday before, during their customary evening walk to the river.
May thought back to their conversation, trying to recall whether
they had spoken of anything unusual. They had strolled to Waterloo
Bridge at sunset, arguing, joking, at ease in each other's
John and Arthur, inseparable, locked together by proximity to
death, improbable friends for life.
'You mean to tell me that amateurs are being invited to solve
murders?' asked Arthur Bryant with some surprise. 'Have a pear
'Is that all you've got?' May rattled the paper bag disappointedly.
'They kill my mouth. A study published by the Scarman Centre had
apparently found that trained investigators are no better than
nonprofessionals at telling whether a suspected criminal is lying.'
The centre was a leading crime-research institute based at
Leicester University. Politicians took its findings very
'Surely the Home Office and the Association of Chief Police
Officers won't endorse the scheme?' Bryant squinted into the bag.
'I thought there was some Winter Mixture left.'
'I don't know where you get those sweets. I'm sure they don't make
them any more. HO's already endorsed the plan. They reckon any
respected person with common sense and an analytical mind can be
recruited. Civilians are going to be given unlimited access to
evidence and records. I thought you'd be pleased. You suggested the
same thing years ago.'
'Well, the general public have a distinct advantage over us.'
Plastic carrier bags floated around the traffic lights at the end
of the Strand like predatory jellyfish. The hum of traffic around
them was like the drone of bombers. The air was acrid with
exhausts. Bryant leaned on his walking stick to catch his breath.
The stick was a sore point; May had bought it for his partner's
birthday the previous year, but Bryant had been horrified by the
suggestion that he was facing mobility difficulties. It had
remained in his conservatory for several months, where it had
supported a diseased nasturtium, but now the elderly detective
found himself discreetly using it. 'Civilians aren't limited by
knowledge of the law. I've been employing members of the public
ever since the unit opened in nineteen thirty-nine.'
'Looks like HO has finally come around to your way of thinking,'
May remarked. 'They've got a new police liaison officer there, Sam
'His grandson, I believe.'
'How odd. I was thinking about old Sidney Biddle only the other
day. So sensible, solid and efficient. I wonder why we all hated
him? Do you remember, I once tricked him into shaving his head by
telling him that German bomber pilots could spot ginger people in
the blackout. I was terrible in those days.'
'The grandson is forwarding candidates to us. We could do with more
recruits like DuCaine. It'll be a fresh start for the unit. I rang
you last night to discuss the matter, but your mobile was switched
'I think it broke when I dropped it. Now it keeps picking up old
radio programmes. Is that possible? Anyway, there's no point in
having it turned on when I'm playing at the Freemason's Arms.' They
stepped through the scuffed gloom of the buildings hemming Waterloo
Bridge. 'I once took a call while I was going through the Gates of
Hell, hit one of the pit-stickers and nearly broke his leg. The
cheeses weigh about twelve pounds.'
'Am I supposed to have any idea what you're talking about?' May
'Skittles,' the detective explained. 'I'm on the team. We play in
the basement of a pub in Hampstead. The discus is called a
'Playing children's games with a bunch of horrible old drunks isn't
my idea of fun.' He tended to forget that he was only three years
younger than his partner.
'There aren't many players left,' Bryant complained.
'I'm not surprised,' replied May. 'Can't you do something more
productive with your evenings? I thought you were going to tackle
'Oh, I've made a healthy start on the book.' Bryant paused at the
centre of the bridge to regain his wind. The pale stone balustrades
were dusted with orange shadows in the dying sunlight. Even here
the air was musty with vans. There was a time when the stale damp
of the river permeated one's clothes. Now the smell only persisted
at the shoreline and beneath the bridges. 'They say there are fish
in the river again. I heard another human torso was washed up by
Blackfriars Bridge, but there was nothing about salmon. I'm looking
up old contacts. It's rather fun, you should try it. Go round and
see that granddaughter of yours, get her out of the house.'
'April had a breakdown. She can't bear crowds, can't relax. The
city gets her down.'
'You have to make the best of things, fight back, that's what
Londoners are supposed to be good at. You really should go and see
her, encourage her to develop some outside interests.' Bryant
looked for his pipe but only managed to find the stem. 'I wonder
what I've done with the rest of this,' he muttered. 'I've just
finished writing up our first case. Did I tell you I went back to
the Palace to look over the files? They were still where I'd left
them in the archive room, under tons of old photographs. The place
is exactly as I remember it.'
'Surely not,' exclaimed May, amazed.
'Oh, theatres don't change as fast as other buildings.'
'I thought some of the finest halls were destroyed in the
'Indeed they were, music halls mostly, but the remaining sites are
listed. I watched as they put a wrecking ball through the Deptford
'How many other files have you got tucked away?'
'You'd be surprised. That business with the tontine and the Bengal
tiger, all documented. The runic curses that brought London to a
standstill. The corpse covered in butterflies. I've got all our
best cases, and a register of every useful fringe group in the
'You should upgrade your database. You've still got members of the
Camden Town Coven listed as reliable contacts. And do I need to
mention the Leicester Square Vampire?'
'Anyone can make a mistake,' said Bryant. 'Look at that, a touch of
old Shanghai in London.' He pointed as a fleet of bright yellow
tricycles pedalled past, dragging bored-looking tourists around the
sights. 'Do you want to buy me a cup of tea at Somerset
'It's your turn to pay.'
'I didn't think you'd remember.' Bryant squinted at the fading sun
that was slipping behind the roof of the Savoy, as pale as a
supermarket egg. 'Not only were the files on the Palace Phantom
still in the archives, but I discovered something interesting about
our murderer. I've often thought of him over the years, poor old
bugger.' Ahead, the Embankment was picked out in neon, fierce reds
and blues, part of a Thamesside festival. It looked like a child's
drawing of the river finished in crayons.
'What did you find out?'
'I was thinking of paying a visit to the Wetherby tomorrow
morning,' Bryant announced, not quite answering the question. The
Wetherby was a sister clinic to the Maudsley on Southwark's Denmark
Hill, and housed a number of patients suffering from senile
'Are you finally going to have yourself checked over? I'd love to
join you, but I'm having lunch with an attractive lady, and nothing
you say will persuade me to do otherwise.'
Bryant made a face. 'Please don't tell me that you're entertaining
the notion of relations.'
'I have every hope.'
'I must say I find it rather grotesque that you still have a sex
drive at your age. Can't you just use Internet porn? How old is
this one? She must be younger because you don't fancy women as old
as you, which makes her, let me guess, late fifties, a post-war
child with a name like Daphne, Wendy or Susan, a divorcée or a
widow, a brunette if your track record is anything to go by. She
probably considers you the older child she never had, in which case
she'll be mooning over you, wanting to cook you meals and so on,
and won't mind waiting a little longer for the pleasure of finding
one of your vulgar off-the-peg suits hanging in the other side of
Irritated by the accuracy of his partner's predictions, May dug out
his lighter and lit a cigarette, which he wasn't supposed to have.
'What I do in my free time is no concern of yours. I'm not getting
any younger. My cholesterol's through the roof. This might be my
last chance to have sex.'
'Don't be revolting,' snapped Bryant. 'You should pack it in, a man
of your age, you're liable to pull something in the pelvic region.
You're better off taking up something productive like wood carving.
Women cost a fortune, running up restaurant bills and trawling
shops for a particularly elusive style of sandal.'
'They still find me attractive. They might even consider you if you
smartened up your act a bit.'
'I stopped buying shirts after they went over six quid. Besides, I
like the trousers they sell at Laurence Corner, very racy, some of
'They sell ex-military wear, Arthur. That's the lower half of a
demob suit you're wearing. Look at those turn-ups. You could park a
bike in them.'
'It's all right for you, you've always been able to impress women,'
Bryant complained. 'You don't have the demeanour of a bad-tempered
May's modern appearance matched the freshness of his outlook.
Despite his advanced age, there were still women who found his
attentiveness appealing. His technoliteracy and his keen awareness
of the modern world complemented Bryant's strange psychological
take on the human race, and their symbiotic teamwork dealt them an
advantage over less experienced officers. But it still didn't stop
them from arguing like an old married couple. Their partnership had
just commenced its seventh decade.
Those who didn't know him well considered Arthur Bryant to have
outlived his usefulness. It didn't help that he was incapable of
politeness, frowning through his wrinkles and forever buried
beneath scarves and cardigans, always cold, always complaining,
living only for his work. He was the oldest active member of the
London police force. But May saw the other side of him, the
restless soul, the gleam of frustrated intellect in his rheumy eye,
the hidden capacity for compassion and empathy.
'Fine,' said Bryant. 'You go off with your bit of fluff, and I'll
go to the clinic by myself. There's something I want to clear up
before I close my first volume. But don't blame me if I get into
'What sort of trouble could you possibly get into?' asked May,
dreading to think. 'Just make sure you wear something that
distinguishes you from the patients, otherwise they might keep you
in. I'll see you on Sunday, how's that?'
'No, I'll be in the office on Sunday.'
'You could take some time off. I'll even come and watch you play
'Now you're being patronizing. But you can come to the unit and
help me close the reports. That's if you can tear yourself away
from . . . let's see, Daphne, isn't it?'
'It is, as it happens,' admitted May, much annoyed.
'Hm. I thought it would be. Well, don't overdo things.' Bryant
stumped off across the bridge, waving a brisk farewell with his
That had been on Friday evening. May had no idea that Sunday would
be their last day together in Mornington Crescent.
Excerpted from FULL DARK HOUSE © Copyright 2004 by
Christopher Fowler. Reprinted with permission by Bantam, a division
of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved.