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Seventy Seven Clocks

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Seventy Seven Clocks

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Author: Christopher Fowler
Publisher: Bantam Dell Publishing Group, 2008
Doubleday UK, 2005
Series: Bryant & May: Book 3
Book Type: Novel
Genre: Fantasy
Sub-Genre Tags: Dark Fantasy
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A mysterious stranger in outlandish Edwardian garb defaces a Pre-Raphaelite painting in the National Gallery. Then a guest at the exclusive Savoy Hotel is fatally bitten by a marshland snake. Over the next several days, an outbreak of increasingly bizarre crimes will hit London-and, fittingly, come to the attention of the Peculiar Crimes Unit. Art vandalism, an exploding suspect, pornography, rat poison, Gilbert and Sullivan musicals, secret societies... and not a single suspect in sight. The killer they're chasing has a dark history, a habit of staying hidden, and time itself on his side. Detectives May and Bryant are racing the clock and this time the bell may be tolling for them.


Chapter One

Lights Out

She recognized the symptoms immediately.

The stipple of sweat in the small of her back. Ice-heat prickling her forehead. A sense of skittering panic in the pit of her stomach. As she walked faster, she thought: This is absurd, it can't harm me. But beneath her mind's voice ran another, dark and urgent. It's not the night, but what waits in it.

The sun had barely set, but the road ahead was indistinct in the fading light. She refused to consider what might be out there. The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman, hissed the voice, a phrase recalled from her schooldays. She had no intention of meeting the prince this evening, and quickened her pace, not daring to look back. The clouds of night opened like ink blossoming in water, threatening to overtake her. Blackbirds skirted the trees, taking measure of the rising wind.

For as long as she could remember, Jerry Gates had been terrified of the dark. The cause of this nyctophobia was beyond the reach of recollection: some early trauma at the top of the stairs, perhaps. Her mother accused her of having an overactive imagination; she made it sound like a harmful thing. Others would have seen misted fields on either side of the road, bare elm trees blurring in the dusk. Jerry could see demons swarming.

She tried to read her watch, but it was too dark. Screw Nicholas and his country weekend, she thought. If he'd shown some warning sign of his intentions, she would never have come in the first place. The man should have been wearing a red toggle, Pull To Inflate Ego, like a life jacket. His personality had changed the moment he'd realized that she wasn't going to bed with him.

Now it was almost dark, and she was stuck in the deserted Kent countryside on a Sunday night, without a car, in the freezing cold, with an irrational dread nipping at her, goading her into a trot. She was a town girl, used to city lights and cars and sirens and people. It's so quiet around here you could hear a cow break wind five miles away. Where the hell is everybody?

She thought back over the weekend, and the mistake she had made in accepting his invitation. On Saturday morning they had 'motored down to the lodge'--Nicholas's words, as if they were living in the roaring twenties--in the red MG that kept stalling, its roof folded back to admit the freezing country air.

The 'lodge,' a damp Victorian monstrosity situated on the far side of Dettling, had been designed in such a way that the watery warmth of the winter sun was excluded from it through every phase of the earth's rotation. The ground floor was surrounded by tall wet nettles, the brickwork obscured by reeking fungus. The rooms were virtually devoid of furniture. There was no central heating. Nicholas's family might have breeding, but they obviously had no money. The upkeep of such property, he'd explained, was staggering, and his parents preferred to stay in their Knightsbridge flat.

It didn't take her long to realize that Nicholas used the empty house for sex. One look at the bedrooms was all she needed to know. Adult magazines, wine bottles, mirrors, and candles, a lad's pathetic idea of what would please women. The blinds were drawn tight in all the upper rooms, and probably remained so throughout the year.

Her partner's dinner conversation had consisted of college tales laden with sexual innuendo. Nicholas was a different person on his home ground, all smirk and swagger, and she hated it. It was as if she had ceased to be his friend, and had become his quarry. The second time he brushed her breast while reaching for the wine, Jerry had announced that she was going to bed. No amount of persuasion could keep her downstairs.

She'd spent a sleepless night barricaded into her room, wearily listening to his pleas and insults through the door.

She had never looked forward to dawn so much in her life. Rising at the earliest opportunity, she had listened to the farming forecasts of incoming rain while frying herself bacon. Shortly after ten Nicholas had appeared in his dressing gown. The blackness of his mood barely allowed him to acknowledge her presence. The rest of the morning passed in gelid silence. Denied his conquest, Nicholas had regressed to a sullen schoolboy.

Her uppermost concern had been the problem of getting home. Trouble with the car–beneath which he passed most of the afternoon--prevented Nicholas from driving her to the station. Typically, there was no cab service operating in the area. Jerry found herself left alone to wander the rooms of the old farmhouse. As she examined the shelves of discoloured paperbacks, she grew more bored and upset. Finally she had collected her overnight bag and struck out across the field in the direction of the main road.

She would have been happy never to see him again, but he would be there the next morning, at work. They even shared the same damned counter. Good judgement call, Jerry, she thought. You really know how to pick them.

She studied the dim road, hoping to see a light, but there was nothing. There was no rising moon. The darkness was nearly complete. The thought punched the air from her chest.

She began to run along the narrow lane as a downpour started. The rain added to her deepening panic. Bare branches entwined overhead like the spiny legs of insects. The trees and hedgerows were filled with scampering black imps that dropped with the rain and tried to catch her, but she ran on, hugging the curve in the road.

The dark drew forth stalking men. They lay in wait for her, appearing in clumps of wet leaves, unfolding their fingers like scythes. They could not survive in London, where there was always light even in the darkest hour, but here in the black woods and meadows they could pursue their pleasures without restraint . . .

Then she saw the light of the telephone box.

A red one, familiar as an old friend, with rectangular windows and directories and a buttery lightbulb that glowed through the torrent. She smothered her crawling fears and concentrated on the sanctuary ahead. Wrenching back the door on its leather straps, she threw herself inside.

Relief, afforded by the single bare lightbulb, washed over her, and she sank to her knees, filling the booth with angry sobs, furious at her own weakness. Everything had gone wrong. She had intended to use the weekend as a protest. Instead of attending some horrible charity dinner at Claridges with her parents, instead of keeping an appointment with her therapist, she had taken off for a weekend with a man she barely knew. She might even have had sex with Nicholas if he'd proved to be a halfway decent human being. She'd only wanted to show everyone that she had a mind of her own, but even carrying out this simple task had been beyond her.

As the rain pounded the roof, she drew the knees of her fringed jeans up beneath her chin and wept, crouching low in the fetid booth, protected from surrounding blackness as hostile as the surface of an alien planet.

She remained trapped in the haven of light, not daring to move, until a passing motorist found her over two hours later.


Daily Telegraph, Monday 6 December 1973


The fine sunny spells of the last few days are set to end as we bid farewell to the capital's unseasonably clear skies. Tumbling temperatures and strong northerly winds are on their way, bringing with them moderate to heavy rain. This will affect all parts of the Greater London area by nightfall. No one in London should ever be surprised by the weather, but this year we can expect winter to arrive with a vengeance.

The elderly lawyer dropped his newspaper on to the marble surface of the washroom counter. Nothing in the business section about the Japanese bid, he thought. At least that's something to be thankful for. Besides, he had something else on his mind. He was still annoyed about his hotel room. But there was no way he could pursue the matter further. He had complained as much as he dared; to say any more would risk drawing attention to himself.

He filled the sink with fiercely heated water and splashed some on his face. What a business; never in all his years of dealing with the family had he heard of such a thing. He stared back at himself from red-rimmed eyes. He needed a good night's sleep. He could do with being ten years younger, too. He was tired of doing the dirty work for others. His profession had once been a noble one.

He dried his hands on a thick cotton towel. A reflected movement in one of the stalls turned him from the basins. One of the cubicles was occupied. As he watched, the toilet door swung half open. The figure behind it remained in shadow, silently watching.

The lawyer stepped to one side, trying to see the face. The door swung slowly wide until it banged against the tiled wall.

He tried to raise the alarm, but the wretched cloth-wrapped creature ran forward and raised his hands, pressing them over the lawyer's face.

After that there was nothing.

Nothing at all.

Then it was a second, a minute, an hour later.

He had no idea how much time had passed, but he was still in the washroom, lying by the basins, feeling dizzy. He checked his ornate gold wristwatch, but had trouble focusing. He had a terrible headache. His neck hurt. The washroom was empty. The cubicles stood with their doors wide, the silence broken only by a dripping tap. He needed to take a short nap. Unable to comprehend what had happened, Maximillian Jacob pulled himself up, picked up his newspaper and weaved his way back to the lobby of the Savoy Hotel. He located a deep armchair in a quiet corner, where he could rest without being disturbed.

Jerry Gates checked her watch again and frowned. Five to six. Another five minutes until the evening receptionist was due to take over. Through the foyer doors she watched the turning taxis' beams fragmenting through needles of rain...

Copyright © 2005 by Christopher Fowler


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