Chamber of Horrors
Arthur Bryant stood there pretending not to shiver.
He was tightly wrapped in a 1951 Festival of Britain scarf, with a Bloody Mary in one hand and a ketchup-crusted cocktail sausage in the other. Above his head, a withered yellow corpse hung inside a rusting gibbet iron.
'Well,' he said, 'this is nice, isn't it?'
His partner, John May, was not so consoled. The great chamber was freezing. Rain was pattering into an array of galvanised buckets. The smell of mildewed brickwork assailed his nostrils. A few feet behind him, the Witchfinder General Matthew Hopkins was stabbing a thin- bladed knife into a screaming priest, looking for the marks of the Devil. On the other side of the detectives stood a torture rack and several members of the Spanish Inquisition clad in crimson robes, armed with flaming brands and scourges.
'You could have made an effort and put on a clean jacket, instead of that ratty old overcoat,' said May. 'You look like a character from Toad of Toad Hall.'
'This is Harris Tweed,' said Bryant, fingering a frayed hole in his soup-stained sleeve. 'It was handed down to me by my grandfather.'
'Was that before or after he passed away?'
'Funny you should say that. He died in it. Gave himself a heart attack trying to get the lid off a jar of gherkins. My grandmother thought it was a pity to waste good fabric.'
A distorted tape loop of chanting monks began to play once more from hidden speakers, adding to the chamber's pervasive gloom.
May sighed. 'Of all the things you've put our Unit through over the years, this has to be the strangest. Hosting a cocktail party in a house of horrors in order to catch a murderer. If you ever say a word about it in your memoirs, I'll kill you.'
'I didn't hear any better ideas from you,' Bryant reminded him cheerfully. 'This is absolutely our last chance to break the case. At midnight we'll be forced to unlock the doors and we'll lose everything, unless we can flush him out in the next hour. Keep your eyes peeled for anything unusual.'
May looked around at the kidnapped party guests, most of whom were glumly wedged between rotting corpses. 'Unusual,' he repeated, trying not to lose his temper.
Bryant sucked the celery stick from his Bloody Mary thoughtfully. Somewhere above the stalactite-spiked arches of London Bridge station a train rumbled. The bricks trembled and soot sifted down. The shunting mingled with the thunder outside. Rain was pouring under the front door and pooling around the sodden shoes of the guests, all of whom were underdressed for the occasion. In the silences between rain, thunder and trains, May saw the group's breath condensing and imagined he could hear their teeth chattering. A waitress passed them, bearing a tray of bloody eyeballs on sticks. On closer inspection, these turned out to be dyed pickled onions.
'Masks,' said Bryant, apropos of nothing.
May turned to him. 'Explain?'
'They're all wearing masks. Look at them all nodding and drinking.' He waved his sausage at the partygoers. 'You wouldn't think we had to bring them here under sufferance and lock them in. They were as jumpy as cats when they arrived, but they're attempting to pretend that everything's normal. Middle-class people with upper-middle incomes. They come alive at parties, no matter how strange the circumstances. They discuss house prices and holidays and restaurants, and give opinions on the plays they've seen. But after all that's happened in the last seven days, they know they've been brought here for another reason. What do you think is happening behind those forced smiles?'
'I imagine they're morbidly curious, the way people are about watching traffic accidents.'
'But they're careful to keep up the illusion of appearing unconcerned. An interesting phenomenon, isn't it?'
'That's the English for you,' said May, studying the gathered guests. 'We're great pretenders.'
'Yes, an odd mixture of exaggerated politeness and thoughtless cruelty. The true mark of English conversation is not being able to tell when you've been insulted. I think the more sophisticated society becomes, the more it hides behind the masks it manufactures.'
'Do we have to discuss this now, Arthur? We're on a bit of a deadline here.'
Bryant ignored his partner. 'It's just that we seem to be so good at hypocrisy. I always think when an Englishman says "We really must get together soon," he's telling you to piss off. We bury ourselves so deeply inside complex personas that it's amazing we remember who we really are. Which makes this room, for example, very hard to read. You know me, I don't play those games. I prefer honesty.'
'Yes, but you're downright rude to people,' retorted May. 'And I do know you. It's a class thing. This lot make you feel uncomfortable. You're from a working-class background. Your mother cleaned cinemas for a living. You hate the idea that one of the guests might get the better of you tonight.'
'No,' said Bryant firmly. 'I hate the idea that one of them thinks they can get away with murder.'
'Well, our legal priority over the investigation ends in exactly'-here May checked his classic Timex-'fifty-five minutes. You're cutting it a tad fine.'
'I know. We have to watch for the smallest signs, an odd look, any betrayal of emotion that might cause one of them to give the game away.'
'Arthur, an odd look isn't going to secure a conviction. We need concrete evidence before the clock strikes twelve.'
'Well, whose idea of a shindig was this?' said a tipsy blond woman in a tight black Lycra dress that had made her tanned breasts rise like golden loaves. She turned her attention to May while ignoring his partner. It was her habit to only address men she found useful or attractive, a trait that made her thoroughly unlikeable.
'How did you get in?' asked Bryant. 'This is a private party. No riffraff allowed.'
Rudeness had no effect on Janet Ramsey. As the editor of Hard News, the capital's gossip daily, she was used to having the door metaphorically slammed in her face. 'Actually, Uncle Fester, I'm here as a guest,' she rejoined airily. 'And you're up to something. I can smell it. I can see it on that old tortoise face of yours.'
'I'm surprised you can see anything through that face-lift,' Bryant harrumphed. 'If you print a single word about this, I'll send so many uniforms around to your office it'll look like you're staging The Pirates of Penzance.'
Ramsey gave him a blank look.
'There are a lot of policemen in The Pirates of Penzance,' May explained to her.
'I don't know why you hang around with Rip Van Winkle here,' said Ramsey, walking frosted fingernails up May's lapel. 'He's holding you back, John. He always has. Tell me the truth. Give an old newspaper gal a break. What's this party all about? Why are the guests locked in? Why does everyone look so anxious? What exactly are you two up to?'
'You wouldn't believe me if I told you, Janet.'
'I recognise some of the people in this room.' She narrowed her false eyelashes at the assembly. 'This wouldn't have anything to do with the murders your Unit has been investigating, would it?'
'You can't print conjecture,' May warned.
'I see the time has come to let you in on our little secret,' said Bryant, trying not to grimace as he took Ramsey's arm. 'Come with me and I promise all will be revealed.'
Ramsey knew she couldn't trust Bryant, but her curiosity got the better of her. She stumbled after him, into the chill shadows of the cobwebbed chamber. There was a short silence followed by a yelp and a clang of metal, and Bryant came back alone.
'What did you do?' asked May. 'Where's Janet?'
'I think I managed to spike her story,' he said cheerfully. 'I shut her in the Iron Maiden.'
'That thing's just a stage prop,' said May with a hint of regret. 'There are no sharpened nails on the inside of it.'
'Really?' Bryant's eyes widened in innocence. 'I had no idea. What a pity. I'll let her out after midnight.'
'Okay, what do we do now?'
'We know that our killer is in this room. I just have to come up with a way of drawing him out.'
'You mean you haven't thought this through?'
'How could I? From the very first moment, this entire investigation has been an unmitigated disaster. Nothing has gone according to plan.' Bryant peered up his sleeve. 'The little hand's fallen off my watch. How much time do we have left?'
'Fifty-two minutes. This is the last time all of our suspects will be in one room together. It's the only chance we have to put things right. We're so close now.'
'John, we're no closer than we were a week ago,' said Bryant. 'God, it feels like we've been working on this case for a lifetime. Come on.'
The pair set off into the penumbral chamber of horrors, determined to catch an impossible murderer. Last week had felt like a fresh beginning. Now they could see it might have been the beginning of the end.
fresh start!' said Raymond Land, striding into the Unit's smart new open-plan office in the warehouse at the corner of Caledonian Road. Over the weekend it had been painted arctic white and filled with furniture, admittedly secondhand, but it provided the staff with a communal space.
Land was pleased to see that the holes in the floor had been repaired. The workmen had almost finished redecorating the building. Broken windows had been replaced. There were no longer bare wires hanging down from the ceiling. There was a door on the toilet and a banister on the staircase. The coffee machine was finally working. The funny smell had gone from the Evidence Room. He slapped his hands together with an approximation of good cheer and beamed hopefully around the place.
His joy was not reciprocated.
'What are you so bloody happy about?' asked Jack Renfield, not bothering to look up. The sergeant was crunching indigestion tablets and checking his emails, attacking his keyboard with great bearlike paws.
Land looked pathetically expectant. 'It's the start of a new week, the sun's out, summer's on the way, nice new paintwork everywhere, we haven't been blamed for anything awful in nearly a month. Makes you feel glad to be alive.'
'There's a bad storm coming,' said Meera Mangeshkar. 'It's going to be chucking it down by noon. We'll have to put the lights on.'
Land felt he had every reason to be in a good mood. He and his wife, Leanne, were going on a sailing holiday around the Isle of Wight at the end of the week. His desk had already been cleared in readiness. His monthly budget had been met. The Home Office was leaving him alone. The crime figures were down. Only the staff seemed fed up, but they always looked like that when he came into the room. A more sensitive chap might almost doubt they were pleased to see him.
'Come on, you lot,' he jeered, 'perk yourselves up a bit. You should be thankful. You've got a nice new office, and the mean streets of King's Cross are quiet for once.'
'We'd rather be busy,' grumbled Mangeshkar, flicking a rubber band at the cat. Colin Bimsley was making a paper sculpture of a flamingo from old witness statements. Dan Banbury was reading Forensic Analysis in the Home-Volume 4: Drains.
Land found it hard to share Meera's sentiment. Being busy at the PCU usually meant risking his career, health and sanity. He still fantasized about running a police department in a sleepy Spanish village, the kind of place where the most exciting thing that ever happened was a cow wandering into a shop.
London was not much smaller than New York but averaged around 130 murders a year, compared with the Big Apple's rate of over 460 in the same period. Most of the London cases were handled by the CID, but the more troublesome crimes were reluctantly placed in the hands of the PCU. Raymond Land had inherited the worst of both worlds; the cases that the Home Office preferred the CID not to handle were the most awkward and unsolvable, and were also the least likely to win public praise for their solution. The PCU received no help from the Met divisions, which meant that they effectively operated in a vacuum.
Land liked order. He liked graphs and bar charts and Venn diagrams, and Excel spreadsheets of policing figures, even though he didn't really know how to use them. He didn't understand waffling academics and weirdos, and disorganisation and mess, and strange, elliptical ideas that led to investigative dead ends.
He didn't understand the PCU.
Sticking his hands into his pockets, he wandered over to the window and sat on the ledge. 'I thought you'd all be happy,' he said plaintively. 'For once, everyone thinks we're doing a good job. You can take it easy. You don't have to spend the week going through someone's rubbish or sitting in a car all night staring at a front door. You can go home at the normal time, catch up on your emails, watch some telly, cook a meal that doesn't come in a plastic tub. For once, you can get on with your lives.'
But as soon as he said that, Land realized he had made a mistake. Working at the PCU meant surrendering all thoughts of a normal private life. It meant abandoning loved ones, working unsociable hours, falling out with friends, never having time to do the comfortingly habitual things civilians did. His staff barely existed beyond their working lives. Their refrigerators remained empty, their bills piled up, their houseplants died and their voicemails were never played back. Even their pets gave up on them. Apart from a brief, disastrous stay at Raymond Land's house, Crippen had spent his entire nine lives in the office.
'Well, I feel good about today, and I'm not going to let you lot put the mockers on it,' Land said, rising and turning.
He looked back and found that suddenly everyone seemed to have brightened up a little. Perhaps his positivity had proved inspirational after all. Bimsley was trying to suppress a laugh. Meera was smiling and shaking her head. 'Right,' said Land, 'we're going to use this week to get organised and learn to behave like a proper police unit.' He looked down to discover a thick arctic white stripe across the seat of his new black trousers. 'You can start by getting the workmen to stick a bloody Wet Paint sign on this ledge.'
Bimsley burst out laughing.
A dark thought suddenly crossed Land's mind. 'And where are Bryant and May?' he demanded to know.
'Look here, can somebody give me a hand with this?'
Bryant appeared in the doorway right on cue. If Land hadn't known better, he'd have suspected that his most senior detective had been waiting outside to make an entrance. Bryant moved to reveal a crimson- painted wooden case. It was about five feet tall and covered in cobwebs. 'I found her in the attic.'