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The Victoria Vanishes

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The Victoria Vanishes

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Author: Christopher Fowler
Publisher: Little, Brown and Company, 2008
Series: Bryant & May: Book 6
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Contemporary Fantasy
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It's a case tailor-made for the Peculiar Crimes Unit. A lonely hearts killer is targeting middle-aged women at some of England's most well-known pubs-including one torn down eighty years ago. What's more, Arthur Bryant happened to see one of the victims only moments before her death at the pub that doesn't exist. Indeed, this case is littered with clues that defy everything the veteran detectives know about the habits of serial killers, the methodology of crime, and the odds of making an arrest. Now, with the public on the verge of panic and their superiors determined to shut the PCU down for good, Detectives Bryant and May must rise to the occasion in defense of two great English traditions-the pub and the Peculiar Crimes Unit.

That's easier said than done. A lost funeral urn, the eighteenth-century mystic Emanuel Swedenborg, the Knights Templars, the secret history of pubs, and the discovery of an astounding religious relic may be enough to convince one of the pair to take back his resignation letter. But with Bryant consulting a memory specialist and May encountering a brush with mortality, do the Peculiar Crimes Unit's two living legends have enough life left to stop a murderous conspiracy... and a deadly cupid targeting one of their own.


Chapter One

Asleep in the Stars

She had four and a half minutes left to live.

She sat alone at the cramped bar of the Seven Stars and stared forlornly into her third empty glass of the evening, feeling invisible.

The four-hundred-year-old public house was tucked behind the Royal Courts of Justice. It had been simply furnished with a few small tables, wooden booths and framed posters of old British courtroom movies. Mrs Curtis had been coming here for years, ever since she had first become a legal secretary, but every time she came through the door, she imagined her father's disapproval of her drinking alone in a London pub. It wasn't something a vicar's daughter should do.

Hemmed in by barristers and clerks, she could not help wondering if this was all that would be left for her now. She wanted to remain in employment, but companies had grown clever about making women of a certain age redundant. After her last pay-off, she had spent time working for a philosophical society instead of heading back into another large firm. Now she was waiting for—what exactly? Someone to surprise her, someone to appreciate her, someone—

She stared back into the melting ice cubes.

Her name was Naomi, but her colleagues called her Mrs Curtis. What was the point of having an exotic name if nobody used it? She was sturdy-beamed and rather plain, with thick arms and straight bangs of greying hair, so perhaps she looked more like a Curtis to others. If she had married, perhaps she would have gained a more appealing surname. She regretted having nothing to show for the past except the passing marks of time.

She checked the message on her cell phone again. It was brief and unsigned, but casual acquaintances sometimes called and suggested a drink, then failed to turn up; the legal profession was like that. Looking around the bar, she saw no-one she recognised. Friends usually knew where to find her.

'Give me another Gordon's, darling. Better make it a double.'

Adorable boy, she thought. The barman was impossibly slim, probably not much older than twenty-one, and didn't regard her with pity, just gave her the same friendly smile he bestowed on everyone else. Probably Polish; the ones who worked in bars now were quick to show pleasure, and had a rather old-fashioned politeness about them that she admired.

She touched her hair and watched him at work. She would never eat alone in a restaurant, but taking a drink by herself in a pub was different. Nobody knew her past here, or cared. For once, there were no tourists in, just the Friday night after-office crowd jammed into the tiny narrow rooms and spread out across the pavement on an unnaturally warm winter night. It had to be a lot colder than this to stop the city boys from drinking outside.

When she noticed him, it seemed he had been standing at her side for a while, trying to get served. 'Here,' she said, pushing back her stool, 'get in while you can.'

'Thanks.' He had a nice profile, but quickly turned his head from her, probably because of shyness. He was a lot younger than she, slightly built, with long brown hair that fell across his face. There was something distantly recognisable about him. 'Can I get you one while I'm here?' he asked. Rather a common voice, she thought. South London. But definitely familiar. Someone I've talked to after a few gins?

'Go on, then, I'll have another Gordon's, plenty of ice.'

He slid the drink over to her, looking around. 'I wonder if it's always this crowded.'

'Pretty much. Don't even think about finding your way to the toilets, they're up those stairs.' She pointed to the steep wooden passageway where a pair of tall prosecutors were making a meal out of having to squeeze past each other.

He muttered something, but it was lost in a burst of raucous laughter behind them. 'I'm sorry, what did you say?' she asked.

'I said it feels like home in here.' He turned to her. She tried not to stare.

'My home was never like this.'

'You know what I mean. Cosy. Warm. Sort of friendly.'

Is he just being friendly, she thought, or is it something else? He was standing rather too close to her, and even though it was nice to feel the heat of his arm against her shoulder, it was not what she wanted. In a pub like this everyone's space was invaded; trespass was part of the attraction. But she did not want—was not looking for—anything else, other than another drink, and then another.

He showed no inclination to move away. Perhaps he was lonely, a stranger in town. He liked the pubs around here, he told her, Penderel's Oak, the Old Mitre, the Punch Tavern, the Crown & Sugarloaf.

'Seen the displays in the window outside this place?' he asked.

She turned and glanced at the swinging pub sign above the door, seven gold-painted stars arranged in a circle. The wind was rising. In the windows below, legal paraphernalia had been arranged in dusty tableaux.

'Wigs and gowns, dock briefs. All that stuff for defending criminals, nonces and grasses.' He spoke quickly, almost angrily. She couldn't help wondering if he'd had trouble with the police. 'I used to meet my girlfriend in pubs like this. After she left me I got depressed, thought of topping myself. That's why I keep this.' He dug in his pocket and showed her a slender alloy capsule, a shiny bullet with his name etched onto the side. 'It's live ammunition. If things get too much I'd use it on myself, no problem. Only I haven't got a gun.' He'd finished his beer. 'Get you another?'

She wanted more gin but demurred, protested, pushing her stool back by an inch. He seemed dangerous, unpredictable, in the wrong pub. He took her right arm by the elbow and guided it back onto the bar with a smile, but gripped so firmly that she had no choice. She looked around; most of the standing men and women had their backs to her, and were lost in their own conversation. Even the barman was facing away. A tiny, crowded pub, the safest place she could imagine, and yet she suddenly felt trapped.

'I really don't want another drink. In fact I think I have to—' Was she raising her voice to him? If so, no-one had noticed.

'This is a good place. Nice and busy. I think you should stay. I want you to stay.'

'Then you have to let go—' But his grip tightened. She reached out with her left hand to attract the attention of the barman but he was moving further away.

'You have to let go—'

It was ridiculous, she was surrounded by people but the noise of laughter and conversation was drowning her out. The crush of customers made her even more invisible. He was hurting her now. She tried to squirm out of his embrace.

Something stung her face hard. She brought her free hand to her cheek, but there was nothing. It felt like an angry wasp, trapped and maddened in the crowded room. Wasn't it too early in the year for such insects?

And then he released her arm, and she was dropping, away through the beery friendship of the bar, away from the laughter and yeasty warmth of life, into a place of icy, infinite starlight.

Into death.

Chapter Two

The First Farewell

Early Monday in Leicester Square. On a blue-grey morning like this the buildings looked heavier, more real somehow in rain than in sunlight. Drizzle drifted on a chill breeze from the north-east. The sky that smudged the rooftops felt so low you could reach up and touch it.

John May, Senior Detective at the Peculiar Crimes Unit, looked around as he walked. He saw cloud fragments in lakes on broken pavements. Shop shutters rolling up. Squirrels lurking like ticket touts. Pigeons eating pasta. Office workers picking paths through roadworks as carefully as cats crossing stones.

The doorways that once held homeless kids in sleeping bags now contained plastic sacks of empty champagne bottles, a sign of the city's spiralling wealth. Piccadilly Circus was once the hub of the universe, but today only tourists loitered beside the statue of Eros, trying to figure out how to cross the Haymarket without being run over.

Every city has its main attraction, May thought as he negotiated a route through the dining gutter-parrots in the square. Rome has the Coliseum, Paris the Tour Eiffel, but for Londoners, Leicester Square is now the king. It seems to have wrested the capital's crown away from Piccadilly Circus to become our new focal point.

He skirted a great puddle, avoided a blank-faced boy handing out free newspapers, another offering samples of chocolate cake.

This is the only time of the day that Leicester Square is bearable, he thought. I hate it at night. The sheer number of people standing around, what do they all wait here for? They come simply because it's Leicester Square. There's not even a chance they'll spot Tom Cruise having his photo taken on a girl's cell phone, because everyone knows film premieres only take place on weeknights. There's nothing to see other than a giant picture of—who is it this week?—Johnny Depp outside the Odeon cinema, plus a very small park, the cheap ticket kiosk and those parlours selling carpet-tile pizzas that you could dry-stone a wall with. At least Trafalgar Square has Nelson.

The scene before him was almost devoid of people, and could not reveal the diegesis of so many overlapping lives. The city was shaped by assembly, proximity and the need for companionship. Lone wolves can live in the hills, but London is for the terminally sociable.

May caught sight of himself in a shop window. On any other day, he would have been pleased to note how neatly he fitted his elegant suit. He had remained fit and attractive despite his advancing years. His hair had greyed, but his jaw and waist were impressively firm, his colouring healthy, his energy level consistently high. All the more reason to be angry, he thought, but today he had good reason to be ill-tempered. He had just come to the realisation that he might very well be dying.

Copyright © 2008 by Christopher Fowler


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