London Bridges Paby Stevenson
A superbly entertaining, high-spirited novel, London Bridges gives a very contemporary spin to the classic English detective thriller. Set in 1990s London, the plot centers on a treasure lost in the Blitz and newly discovered by an unscrupulous lawyer, who is tempted by greed into a series of crimes leading to murder. "The true treasure here is Stevenson's motley
A superbly entertaining, high-spirited novel, London Bridges gives a very contemporary spin to the classic English detective thriller. Set in 1990s London, the plot centers on a treasure lost in the Blitz and newly discovered by an unscrupulous lawyer, who is tempted by greed into a series of crimes leading to murder. "The true treasure here is Stevenson's motley chorus of characters" (The New Yorker); the main character is London itself, lovingly depicted in all its rich variousness. With elegant wit, keen social observation, and dazzling intelligence, Stevenson explores the ways that people's lives intertwine in a great city, often with startling results.
- Houghton Mifflin Harcourt
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- 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x 0.69(d)
Read an Excerpt
London is a town for fog, mist swirling up from the river, the darkness between streetlights. But, although it is never summer in the London of the imagination, the streets are as answerable to sunlight and long evenings as those of any capital in Europe. There are hot, still, August nights in Mayfair, and on such a night, Jeanene Malone had just found out about the Greek optative.
On such nights, while visitors ebb and flow in vast human tides through London’s centres of shopping, culture and entertainment, in Mayfair, though it lies between the sun-baked yet inviting grass of Hyde Park and the manifold entertainments of the West End, secret, flower-adorned mansions of stock-brick and stucco maintain a patrician silence; unguessed, unseen lives move in secret channels beneath the surface, and the streets are as deserted as the mountains of the moon.
As the Greek couple turned out of Park Lane and looked down the hot and dusty length of Mount Street, they saw nothing moving at all except a feral cat, white paws twinkling jauntily in the grey evening light as it slipped at its leisure from beneath a BMW to a new lookout-point behind the front wheel of a Jaguar. The woman’s sharp heels set up flat, clacking echoes in the silent street. About halfway down, the Queen Anne Dutch frontages were briefly punctuated by a squashed-looking parade of shops built into the ground floor of nos. 40–48. The third shop remained lit, a little yellow beacon in the blue summer night.
‘There it is,’ murmured the woman. As they approached, they saw that the windows were bright with images of tanned and exquisite women, while theshopsign, running the length of the frontage, showed a mortar and pestle, and the words ‘Mount Street Chemist’s’. As they approached the shop, they found they were able to peer over the top of the window display into the lighted depths of the pharmacy. Within, a girl sat alone, resting her elbows on the counter, hands pushed into her dark, curly hair, studying an open book with great concentration. Her plain white blouse was obviously inexpensive, and she looked very young and small. The woman smiled to herself without humour. A student, she suspected, studying for exams. Ideal: with her mind full of her own problems, she would hardly notice that they had come in.
Taking a last look along the deserted street, the man stiffened, and touched his companion’s hand warningly. A man had emerged from the side door of the Riyadh Gallery, and was rapidly approaching. The woman slipped her arm through the man’s, and they turned away unhurriedly. Sebastian, as he came level with them, saw no more than a pair of elegant shadows, their faces obscure as they stepped away from the brightness of the lit window, and did not give them a second thought. He went up to the pharmacy door, and pressed the night bell.
Inside the pharmacy, Jeanene Malone heard the buzz, hastily shut her book and pressed a button under the counter to admit the late customer, who turned out to be an expansive and zestful individual, not unlike the late Oscar Wilde in appearance. He had longish dark hair, bright blue eyes, and an unEnglish ability to address a shop assistant as if she were a human being rather than a mechanical answering device, and she looked at him with interest. The man bought some Nurofen, and then suddenly decided to buy perfume as well, a transaction which took some time and involved frequent changes of mind. He thanked her courteously as he stuffed his purchases into various pockets, and was just about to leave when his glance swept across Jeanene’s book. He flicked his heavy fringe out of his eyes with a practised toss of the head, put three fingers on it, and swivelled it on the counter till he could see the spine.
‘I thought I recognised it. What on earth is an Aussie pharmacist doing with an ancient Greek Grammar?’ ‘I’m just about to start graduate work. At the Institute of Classical Studies.’ ‘Well, good for you. But that’s ancient grammar, not just ancient Greek! Why Abbot and Mansfield? Everyone uses Reading Greek these days, surely?’ ‘Do you know the Institute people?’ asked Jeanene, her heart lifting. ‘I’m getting a bit of preliminary reading done for the Intensive Greek course. With Professor Beckinsale? It was what he asked us to get.’ Sebastian arched his eyebrows sardonically. ‘Oh, her. In her dreams, dear. Actually, it’s not even Doctor Beckinsale. Mister, and chippy about it. That explains it: our George is a bit of a museum piece in himself, as you’ll find out in due course. The thing you’ve got to remember about old George is that he’s rude to everybody, he doesn’t mean it personally. Well, not usually. He can’t staand me, of course, but I have to admit I wind up the poor old spook something shocking.’ ‘Do you teach at the Institute?’ she said hopefully.
‘I do a bbbbbit of Byzantine stuff for them. We’ll probably bump into each other sometime – my name’s Sebastian. ’Bye for now.’ The door whispered shut behind him, leaving her with the warm thought that she had just met someone she might meet again: after only four weeks in London, she knew practically nobody except her current employer, a fat and surly individual called Patel. She looked at her watch again: only thirteen minutes to lock-up. Was it really worth staying? Just as she was about to get up and go into the back for her bag, the doorbell rang once more. Two modish silhouettes, male and female, were dimly visible through the glass, and she buzzed them in.
‘Good evening. How may I help you?’ she said in her best professional manner. The man came forward, feeling in his breast pocket.
‘Good evening. Can you fill this prescription, please?’ Jeanene took the piece of paper and studied it conscientiously, nibbling her thumbnail.
‘I’ll have to check on the computer,’ she said apologetically.
‘This is a high dosage, and I’m not sure we keep it in that strength.’ ‘It is very important,’ said the woman, abruptly.
‘Too right. If the patient’s used to this amount, he’s got to keep on with it.’ She considered the prescription more carefully. There was something else peculiar about it: the prescribing doctor’s address was in Fife; and while Jeanene’s education had not been big on British geography, Macbeth, she recalled, was the Thane of Fife. So, surely Fife was in Scotland? The man, watching her narrowly, saw her frown in puzzlement.
‘We came down from Scotland on the night train,’ he explained.
‘Yes,’ the woman cut in, ‘and most unfortunately, we find our uncle has forgotten his pills.’ ‘So we rush out, and try to fill his new prescription this very night,’ the man finished smoothly.
How did a pair of obvious foreigners end up with an uncle called Campbell? she wondered momentarily, and immediately answered herself: quite easily, no doubt, one of her own aunts had married a Hungarian, and she had relatives she couldn’t even spell.
‘I’ll just go and see if we’ve got some – I’m just a temp here, so I don’t know the stock that well.’ ‘Could you substitute another drug, if necessary?’ asked the woman.
‘Not without ringing up the doctor. I don’t want to alarm you, but this stuff’s a bit specific, and you can’t monkey with it. If I get it wrong, you and the old gentleman could end up having a rough night.’ ‘Oh, it is too late to bother the doctor,’ said the man hastily. ‘If you haven’t got the right stuff, just leave it.’ Jeanene excused herself and went through to the back of the shop. The couple puzzled her. ‘Our uncle?’ They were both handsome, well- dressed and Mediterranean, but they did not look like siblings, and neither of them was wearing a wedding-ring. Well, none of her business. Probably some kind of weird extended family. She typed the prescription into Mr Patel’s computer. It’s not for mere pharmacists to criticise a medico, but she did wonder what this Scotch GP thought he was up to. The prescription before her was for a higher dosage than she felt comfortable with. It was within limits of the prescribable, but it occurred to her strongly that if the poor old bloke forgot and took two, chances were he’d not be troubling his kith and kin much longer. Perhaps she should check...? She reached for the phone, and rang the number given on the prescription. This, as she had fully expected at that hour of the night, gave her an answerphone with an emergency contact number. She scribbled it down, and rang it, but there was no reply. She put the phone down with a sigh, observing that the computer was flashing back at her victoriously: they had some in stock. She hesitated, in a quandary. But clearly, the stuff had been prescribed; and if the patient was used to it, he would be better with it than without it. All the same, she wished she had been able to check with the doctor. She went and took the bottle from its shelf, and returned to the front shop. The door which separated the pharmacy proper from the front of the shop was a heavy fire-door with a spring, which opened and closed slowly and silently, then clicked into place. Thus Jeanene, who was wearing light, rubber-soled sandals, was able to re-enter the shop without the couple realising that she had done so. They were looking out down the road with their backs to her, and arguing under their breath in their own language, which (as she came gradually to realise) was Greek. She got an impression that the man was worried; certainly, the woman was insistent. Jeanene, apart from the ancient Greek she was laboriously acquiring, had a smidgen of modern Greek, initially acquired during a backpacking year after school, and kept in use during her undergraduate years because she lived in a cheap bit of Sydney. As she waited politely for a break in the stream of words, she found one or two making sense to her. OSnatov came up several times; dhlhtÔrio ...poison, death. The whole thing was giving her the habdabs. They could be worrying about the prescription, but something about the way they were hissing at each other said not. Pull yourself together, girl, she said to herself. A sentence came over loud and clear: the woman’s voice. What Jeanene understood her to say, unbelievably, was, ‘Just shut up. Even if we killed him, it wouldn’t matter. Who’s ever going to know?’ Then, as she stood doubting both the evidence of her senses, and her command of Greek, the door finally clunked shut. The couple whirled round, looking daggers. Jeanene opened her mouth, but nothing came out.
‘I got your pills,’ she squeaked, on the second try.
‘Excellent,’ said the man, too heartily. ‘It is a very great relief to us.’ ‘You’ll be really careful?’ she asked, earnestly. ‘Give him them one at a time, and make sure he takes them.’ ‘We will make very sure,’ said the woman. She held out her hand for the little bottle. Jeanene handed it over, and she dropped it into a tiny Gucci handbag. The clasp snapped shut decisively, while the man got his wallet out again, and put a ten-pound note on the counter.
‘Oh, and I want a tin of Andrews Liver Salts,’ he said. Wordlessly, she got one off the shelf, bagged it and put it on the counter, then rang it up and gave him his change.
‘There you go,’ she said, meaninglessly.
‘Thank you very much. You have been most helpful. Come, Lamprini.’ They left; and as soon as they had gone, Jeanene locked the front door and pulled down the blinds. As she went mechanically through the motions of closing down, switching off and locking up, she thought furiously what to do next. Five to eleven; she’d shut a bit early. Well, whatever she was going to do in the wider sense, no way was she going back to her lonely little room to lie awake all night. What she needed was a drink, and human company.
Born and bred in the dry heart of Australia, Jeanene was sensitive to watering-holes, and had one staked out for emergencies. The big posh pub in Mount Street itself was closed for renovations, from which it would doubtless emerge posher and more expensive than ever. But, tucked unobtrusively into the tiny service streets and mews which fissure Mayfair’s slabs of expensive architecture, there are one or two tiny, inconspicuous establishments. One such was the Horse and Groom in Balfour Mews, a distressing little saloon which had remained resolutely unmodified through so many changes in pub de´cor that fashion had practically caught up with it. Jeanene had been there only once, and had established two important facts. First, it was near enough that she could get to the bar before last orders. Second, the clientele consisted entirely of gay men. Still, she thought to herself, it had to be better than the echoing silences of a half- empty graduate women’s hostel.
When she rounded the corner of the Mews, she saw light still spilling from the gilded, rococo window of the Horse and Groom, so she pushed open the door. The single bar was solid with male bodies, partially obscured by drifting veils of blue smoke. Heads lifted and swung suspiciously as she entered, like a herd of bullocks when a dog enters their field, and nobody moved. Nonetheless, she began pushing her way through to the bar, past bodies which shifted only slowly and reluctantly out of her path. Elbowing her way between two beefy male backs, she was startled to see a girl’s face through the crush: white, tense and big-eyed, framed by a mass of curly dark hair – it was, she suddenly realised, her own reflection in the mirror behind the bar. Moments later, she saw a far more welcome sight: her new friend Sebastian’s elegant, grey-clad form, leaning on the bar in confidential conversation with a sulky-looking blond in a white T- shirt. He turned towards her, urbane recognition shading rapidly to concern.
‘You look like death, dear. What’s happened? Let me get you a drink. Gin?’ ‘Great,’ said Jeanene gratefully.
‘Larry, love. Double G and T, please, and two more Becks’. Stevie, this is one of our new students. She’s working in the Mount Street pharmacy.’ When the barman pushed the drinks across, Stevie curled his lip, muttered something inaudible, took his new bottle, and mooched off. Sebastian cast one wistful glance after his retreating back, and turned to Jeanene.
‘Let’s go and sit at that table in the corner, and you can tell me what happened. And your name, while you’re about it.’ ‘This is incredibly kind of you,’ said Jeanene, a little unsteadily.
‘I’m Jeanene Malone.’ Tears pricked her eyes, and the room dazzled around her as Sebastian piloted her through the crowd.
‘Oh, rubbish. I’m just curious. Seriously though, you look as though you’ve had quite a shock. Was it someone on drugs?’ Jeanene took a deep breath, and a reviving swallow of gin.
‘No. That’s always a worry, of course, when you’re by yourself, but there’s an alarm, and a video and stuff. This was something weird . . . Oh, I don’t know if I can make it sound like anything at all.’ ‘Try me.’ ‘Well, there was this couple, you know? Greeks. They said they were filling a prescription for their uncle, but the name was Campbell? Not impossible, but the whole thing didn’t seem to add up. What’s really given me the willies is, I overheard them talking Greek to each other when they didn’t know I was there, and I got a serious impression that they’re trying to poison someone.’ ‘How? I mean, what were they after?’ ‘Mellerox. It’s an oral hypoglycaemic, for treating diabetes.’ ‘I thought diabetics got insulin injections?’ ‘That’s right. Young diabetics get injections. But there’s a kind of diabetes you get when you’re old, and they treat that with stuff like Mellerox.’ ‘So, what’s the problem? I mean, the stuff’s not actually poisonous, is it? I thought the body made insulin naturally.’ ‘Well, yes. But if you get the dose wrong, then the patient can wind up in a diabetic coma. These are the highest potency pills on the market. Did I say the doctor’s someone in Scotland?’ ‘No. . .’ said Sebastian thoughtfully. ‘It does sound as dodgy as fuck, doesn’t it? I mean, if your punter starts frothing at the mouth or passes out, the doctor’s going to have a job checking up on him.’ ‘Well, people do travel ...’ said Jeanene wretchedly, turning her glass round and round in her hands. It all sounded so trivial. Sebastian felt sorry for her, and decided she was due a little empowerment.
‘Look, Jeanene. I’ve hardly known you five minutes, but you don’t strike me as the sort to make a fuss about nothing. Where did you grow up?’ ‘Cootamundra. I did pharmacy at Sydney Uni, then I got a scholarship and went to Wollongong to do Euro Lit.’ ‘Well then. It sounds like you’ve pulled on your own bootstraps and got yourself out of the back end of nowhere. You’ve got two degrees already, and now you’re starting postgraduate work at London. Right?’ Jeanene nodded. ‘So you’re not exactly an airhead. And you’re used to being alone, aren’t you?’ ‘Yes.’ ‘Well, don’t tell me you’re seeing ghosts, dear. You can’t possibly be that sort of girl. Unless it’s that time of the month – it isn’t, is it?’ Jeanene shook her head, embarrassed, but beginning to feel much better.
‘Well then,’ said Sebastian, waving a hand magniloquently and knocking back the last of his lager, ‘let’s start by assuming you’ve got something to worry about.’ ‘Time, gentleman, please!’ shouted Larry. Sebastian looked at his watch.
‘I’m afraid I’d better go. I’ve got rather a lot on tomorrow. Where do you live?’ ‘I’m in Ellen Wilkinson House – you know, the women’s hostel just off Bedford Square?’ ‘Errgh. You poor darling. I’ve got a flat in Stedham Chambers – opposite Pizza Express, just round the corner from the BM. It’s incredibly convenient – I’m going to be devastated when they move the Library. Anyway, the point is, it’s five minutes from Bedford Square. The Tube might be a bit nasty this late, so if you’d prefer to walk, I can go most of the way with you.’ ‘That’s really sweet of you,’ blundered Jeanene. ‘Don’t feel you have to. I mean,’ she amended hastily, ‘I’m used to going around by myself.’ ‘I know. But I don’t suppose you usually attract villainous Greeks. Do you know what overseas graduate students are worth to a university these days? We have to protect our investment.’ She looked at him a little resentfully, disliking the feeling of being big-brothered, but there was nothing but goodwill and concern in his face. They drained their drinks, and prepared to leave. Sebastian blew the barman a kiss, and they stepped out into the hot, quiet night, heading towards the distant roar of Oxford Street.
‘On they went through the shadows,’ said Sebastian conversationally, after a while, ‘beneath an obscured sun, through the empty halls of Dis and his phantom kingdom.’ Jeanene boggled for a moment, then suddenly realised that he was quoting the Aeneid. She shot him a cautious glance, not sure if he was just being pansy, or taking the piss: his expression, in the orange streetlight, was bland and innocent. ‘I don’t feel like a Sybil,’ she retorted. ‘Do you?’ ‘It’s more the empty halls of Dis I was thinking about. London in August. Let’s go up Great Marlborough Street, it’s quieter. There’s a bit of Oxford Street in our future, come what may, but we needn’t rush it.’ They ambled up Conduit Street in amicable silence, broken after a time by Sebastian. ‘Actually, it must have been you who made me think of the Sybil. There you are, with a dark and formless prophecy of woe...’ ‘... I’m sorry...’ ‘Don’t apologise, dear. It’s the most exciting thing that’s happened all week.’ ‘Okay, I’ll skip the apology...but I hope he rings in the morning.’ ‘Tant pis. There’s plenty more where he came from, surly little bugger.’ ‘It’s sweet of you to be like that about it. But seriously, Sebastian, what do you think I should do?’ ‘Well, you could make a note of the data off the prescription, and I suppose make a memo of everything you can remember before you forget it again. Then I suppose if you’re really feeling like Nancy Drew, you could ring the doctor’s, and see what you can find out. That’s about it, really.’ They went on in silence, but she was feeling better. The simple act of telling someone else had lifted the worst of the worry; she could already tell that by the morning, it would all feel like a lot of fuss about nothing. She had been so lonely, so isolated, that she just got herself into a state.
‘Okay, Jeanene, I turn off here. You’re all right the rest of the way, aren’t you?’ ‘Sure.’ Sebastian fished in his wallet, and extracted a card. ‘Here’s my address and phone. If anything interesting happens, let me know. If not, I’ll see you around the Institute one of these days.’
Copyright © 2000 by Jane Stevenson First published in Great Britain in 2000 by Jonathan Cape.
All rights reserved Houghton Mifflin Company
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