My first DOCTOR WHO audio adventure is now available on CD or as a download from Big Finish. It's a story of the First Doctor, performed by Maureen O'Brien (Vicki) and Peter Purves (Steven), set in the labyrinthine attics of a house in Victorian London.
Fortean Times magazine has published its first collection of 55 of my "Mythconceptions" columns, illustrated by Hunt Emerson, in a paperback "magbook" at £6-99.
Suppose all the monsters in the world went on strike ... Till You Drop - a novella about zombie capitalism! Available as an e-book from all usual outlets, or direct from Smashwords.
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Cats & Crooks, an e-book collecting nine of my best "cat crimes" stories, is now available in most formats and from most sellers, or at Smashwords.
My children’s novel Neighbours From Hell - a suburban comedy horror story, aimed at readers around 11-13 years old - is now available for just $1-99 at Smashwords
My first book, published by Gollancz in 1995, was a collection of funny press cuttings called Cannibal Victims Speak Out. It’s been out of print for years, but I’m pleased to say it’s now available, extremely cheaply, as a multi-format e-book at Smashwords, or from your usual e-book supplier.
The paperback of my children’s novel, Soother’s Boy, sold out some time ago - but due to a sudden increase in demand, it’s now been reprinted. Please click on “Buy my books here,” above, for details of both the paperback and ebook editions.
Out now in paperback: OPEN & CLOSED
On sale now, for the first time ever in paperback: Open and closed, the fourth novel in my DI Don Packham and DC Frank Mitchell series of police procedurals, and the only one not previously paperbacked.
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To read about the book, and the reviews it’s received, see my other website at The Phone Co-op
THE PLOT SO FAR is an ebook, collecting around 100 of the best gardening columns I've written for the Morning Star since 1993. All proceeds from the book go to the Fighting Fund, to help keep "the Daily Miracle" coming out every day. You can buy it in most formats and from most ebook outlets, or direct from Smashwords, price $3-99. Please do!
ACTS OF DESTRUCTION
My story "On Borrowed Time," nominated for the 2016 Edgar and Macavity awards, can be read free here: EQMM or here: PDF
- Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine
I think most people realise now that capitalism is over and that, willingly or not, we are currently in the process of moving on to whatever comes next. Nobody seems to have written any fiction about it, though - if you don’t count dystopian pictures of a hellish, hopeless future, which, give or take a few technological details, could have been written at just about any time in the last hundred years.
In 2002, I had a short story published in a Crime Writers’ Association anthology; it was called Back to the land, and was a police procedural set in London, twenty or so years in the future, in a post-peak-oil world of food shortages and slow transport. My aim was to write something that was neither utopian nor dystopian, but which gave some idea of what a society might look like that was coping with the kind of future we are, it seems reasonable to suppose, all facing. Or one version of it, at least.
I always thought there might be more to be said about that world, and in 2008 I finally got down to writing a novel with a similar setting. By the time I'd finished it, it was beginning to look rather urgently topical ...
Acts of Destruction is now available, as a paperback and as an e-book. Please click on ‘Buy my books here,’ above, for ordering details.
Meanwhile, here are the first couple of chapters of Acts of Destruction ...
It’s often been noted, down the centuries and across the world, that a man who has something to smoke and something to read can survive almost anything.
Detective Constable Thom of the North London Serious Crime Squad had the sports pages and he had his pipe - burning home-grown today, admittedly, his ration of imported tobacco having run out some days earlier, but at least burning something - and he was surviving his sixth hour of keeping watch on a rooftop garden full of nectarines quite happily, when his mobile rang.
It was the control room, telling him that what seemed to be a dead body had been found in suspicious circumstances in a suburban street not far from where he now sat. Since his blipper showed him as the nearest detective to the scene, was he available to attend? Obviously, he wasn’t; obviously, he could not abandon his fruit surveillance, and once he’d explained the nature of his current assignment, the woman in the control room understood that entirely. She apologised for disturbing him, and called the squad’s main office instead.
Within ten minutes of the dead body being uncovered, therefore, two officers were hurrying to view it, having caught a bus from directly outside their Kentish Town headquarters which would take them to within a two-minute walk of the putative crime scene.
There were other factors - food production, wildlife habitats and so on - but it was mainly because of their contribution to flooding that paved-over front gardens were now illegal. Fifteen square metres of hard-standing could produce a hundred litres of run-off per minute during a half-decent storm. The legislation had allowed for a two-year grace period, during which householders could re-green their gardens themselves, or get the neighbourhood committee to organise a work gang to do it, or get a grant from the community council to pay someone to do it ... and still some people’s front windows looked out onto tarmac instead of grass. Some were lazy or disorganised, some were privacy rebels.
“There’s a bloke down my road,” Catherine told Greg as they turned into the murder street, their strides lengthening, “refuses to dig up his drive because if he did he’d have nowhere to keep his car.”
“What is he, a doctor?”
She shook her head. “He’s got no exemptions at all, hasn’t driven the bloody thing in years, he just keeps it standing there. Polishes it with a clean rag once a week.”
“Can’t bear to part with it?”
“Last Christmas, my husband said he should sell it to the Re, use the money to get his garden done, and he’d still have enough to take the kids to the seaside for a week. They give you a decent price at Recycling, they don’t cheat you. He hasn’t spoken to either of us since.”
“So what does he do for a living?”
She snorted. “Bus conductor, of all things.”
A uniformed cop stood four-square outside their destination, keeping back a crowd of gawpers which existed, as yet, largely in his imagination.
“DI Greg Wallace, DS Catherine Blake,” said Greg, flipping his wallet ID at the constable. Catherine blipped hers - from her pocket blipper to the PC’s shoulder unit - as she usually did, and Greg wondered (as he often did) why he was a flipper and she was a blipper. It wasn’t a matter of age; she was in her mid-fifties, at least ten years older than him. He’d been in the job longer than her, though - maybe that was it. He’d always been a copper. She’d worked in sales as a young woman - a field which no longer really existed, hence her current calling - so perhaps it was inevitable that her rituals wouldn’t match his. “You’ve got a dead body for us?”
“Over here, sir.” The PC led the way towards the far end of the drive, nearest the garage. “Direct Works had a court order for a compulsory re-green. We’ve had quite a few round here the last month or so, the street committees are getting a bit bored waiting for the anti-social minority to comply voluntarily. But they’d only just started digging, when they found that.”
Greg crouched by the trench dug in the paving. “That’s a dead body, that is,” he said, standing and nodding to Catherine to take his place.
“Is it murder?” asked the constable.
“Well, it’s a crime,” said Catherine, “if only illegal disposal of a body. Someone knew he was there.”
“Constable, can you call Scientific for me? And tell them to use motor vehicles, on my authority. I want the evidence made safe as soon as possible.”
“Are they at home,” Catherine asked, “the occupants of the house?”
“That’s a slightly odd thing,” said the PC. “I’ve only had a look through the windows, but as far as I can see, the place is unoccupied.”
Greg frowned. “Unoccupied? When was the last time you saw an unoccupied house?”
“Must’ve only just happened,” Catherine said, “otherwise the street committee would’ve reallocated it. Or the community council, or Displaced Persons. Bit of a coincidence, though. Rather suggests that whoever lives here didn’t want to be around when the paving came up.”
“Maybe it’s moving day,” Greg suggested. “You’d better call in, try and find out. We don’t want some poor bloody family turning up at their new home to find it crawling with corpses and cops. And while we’re waiting for Scientific, I’ll get someone started on the door-to-door. Now, who’s the best tea-drinker in the squad?” The question was rhetorical to the point of ritual, so Catherine only smiled as Greg made a show of scratching his head before answering his own question. “Ah, I know! This is a job for Bob Lemon.”
A mixed vegetable garden this time, rather than an orchard of dwarf fruit trees, but the same crime: crop theft. On the roof of a quadcycle factory only about half a mile from where Ginger Thom had been fruit-watching. How annoying. But how like life.
“DC Thom, Serious Crime Squad.” He nodded to the nervous-looking management bloke, and the nervous-looking management bloke - a Mr Doyle - nodded back. They were both wearing gloves, as it happened, but the thing was to get into the habit of not shaking hands. “Much missing?”
“The lot. Well - everything that was ready to pick. Sugar snap peas, early potatoes, celtuce ... all sorts. The canteen’s had to go out and buy a load of veg to keep them going for the rest of the week.”
Doesn’t sound like kids, thought Ginger. “I’d like to talk to your nightwatchman, please.”
Mr Doyle winced, and looked even more nervous. “Haven’t got one. We had one, but a couple of weeks ago he left us to go and work in a coalmine.”
“What was he, scared of heights?”
“His father and his grandfather had both been miners, apparently. Granddad was blacklisted after the big strike back in the - 1990s, was it? Anyway, he saw all the fuss on telly the other month, and seemingly suffered an attack of nostalgia. Applied for a job, and as soon as a vacancy came up, he was off.”
The manager sounded deeply disapproving - of nostalgia, or people changing their jobs, or miners’ sons in general, Ginger couldn’t say. “You have to admit it’s an impressive show, when they return to work at the re-patriotised pits.”
“If you like that sort of thing, I suppose.”
“All the miners marching up to the gate behind the brass bands, and the banners flying, and the Minister of Energy ceremonially handing over the keys to the chairman of the joint union committee.” He was putting it on a bit thick, now, he knew that. But on the other hand, he was enjoying it. “And the old ex-colliers from the strike generation, and their wives and widows, lining the route, holding up pictures of the ones who’ve died. All a bit romantic, if you ask me.”
Doyle’s nervousness was fighting with irritation now. “What does he know about coal-mining? Born and bred in bloody London.” He took his hat off, scratched his head, and replaced the hat.
“Preferable to working nights, I suppose,” said Ginger.
Doyle sighed. “Well, this is it. It isn’t a popular job. In theory, we’re supposed to have two on watch, but we could never recruit more than one, despite the pay. And since the boyo marched off, we can’t even manage that. We’re going to have to ask a neighbourhood committee to allocate someone soon, which is never satisfactory. We’ll end up with a villain on community service, or some poor old sod with a gammy leg.”
Ginger looked around the garden. It was similar to those found on the roofs of most workplaces, public buildings, and other large structures: raised beds of crops growing in light compost, windproof fencing around the edges, a couple of small sheds for the tools, and dotted here and there the infrastructure - water-trappers, solars and mills. One thing missing, though. “Can’t see any security cameras. Are they invisible?”
“Our efficiency audit told us they’d be a waste of resources, as long as we had two nightwatchmen.” Doyle added embarrassment to his repertoire. “And of course, as long as we had one man, we were always trying to hire a second. And currently, of course we’re still trying to hire a second - it’s just that now we also need a first. So in the meantime - ”
“You haven’t got any cameras.”
Mr Doyle nodded, then shrugged. “Of course, as things turned out ... ”
“Ah, that’s the thing about things, isn’t it?” said Ginger. “They always bloody do turn out, just when you don’t want them. So, as things stand, anyone can wander up here and help themselves at night?”
Ginger’s empathetic remarks about things turning out seemed to have defrosted Doyle a little. “Not far off, I’m afraid. I know it’s absurd, but it’s a situation that is proving ridiculously difficult to put right.”
“Your workforce are local?”
“Within the guidelines, certainly.” The thaw was over; Doyle was sounding distinctly defensive, now.
Ginger took a note of the ex-nightwatchman’s name, in case he needed to contact him. “You’re not a co-operative, I understand?”
“We’re still privately owned, that’s right. We’re just about small enough to be exempt.”
“But presumably the roof garden is classed as a co-op? So, until you manage to hire a watchman, can’t you get a voluntary rota going among your employees?”
And now, Ginger noticed with interest, defensive was replaced by just-a-little-bit evasive. “As I say, there’s not many of them, and they’re all busy people. We wouldn’t really want to impose on them.”
DC Thom didn’t reckon he’d ever heard of an entire workforce being too busy to safeguard a pile of spuds destined for their own families’ bellies. He was still a relatively young man, true, but he’d definitely lived long enough to have never heard of that. But that wasn’t what he said. What he said was: “Just to mention - they're not actually guidelines, sir. It is a legal requirement under the Agreement of the People that all enterprises, with very few exceptions, employ a specific, agreed proportion of their workforce from within a specific, agreed radius of the workplace.”
“Oh, of course, Detective Constable: there’s a bloody law for everything, these days,” said the voice of the private sector.
At the murder scene in Sudbury - he was already thinking of it as a murder scene, though of course Catherine was right, there were other crimes which might have resulted in this body under this hard-standing - Greg was nodding at, and being nodded to by, a cheerful young woman carrying a sleeping baby: the secretary of the Beech Lane street committee. The woman, of course; not the baby, even if it’d been awake.
He thought the secretary of the street committee was right to be cheerful, present circumstances notwithstanding; it was a pleasant street, in what used to be a suburb, when things were a bit more centralised in that way, before what most people called “the Process” began smoothing and stretching the cities at least somewhat. The 1930s houses were solid, and set in decent-sized plots. When Greg was a kid, you’d have had thousands and thousands of these houses, ringing every city in the country, with often only one or two people living in each one. And all those nice big gardens, with hardly a vegetable amongst them.
The road curved gently, and he could see, just about at the bend, a group of young children squatting in the middle of the road intensely concentrated on some sort of game. He wondered if, when these houses were first occupied, the traffic had been light enough for children to play in the road; in the 1930s? Perhaps. And then there’d have followed decades when you could barely cross the road, let alone play in it, and so to now: a fair amount of traffic, these days, but nowhere near as much as twenty years ago, and very little of it motor traffic. Not much of it so fast that a kid couldn’t get out of its way. All the same, there’d been a death not far from where his mother lived, just before Christmas, of a nine-year-old girl by a pony and trap. The driver hadn’t been drunk but, unbelievably, the pony had, and the driver would spend at least the next ten years doing community service.
“I’m DI Greg Wallace,” he told her. “You’re Nesta Popperwell?”
“Pleased to meet you. Someone said a body? Can that really be right?”
“I’m afraid it is, yes. A dead body has been found under the paving. Nesta, it would have been your committee’s responsibility to call in a compulsory re-green, yes?”
“No, in fact that’s done at community council level. Once it gets to compulsion, you see, it’s taken away from the street committees - the idea being not to lead to bad feeling between neighbours.”
“Ah, right. Thank you: I should have known that.”
She returned his smile. “It’s all still a bit new, isn’t it? And a bit complicated.”
“Well, and I’m old enough to remember the old system: if you wanted to get anything done, you went to the town hall, filled in a form ... ”
“And ... ?”
Greg shook his head. “No - no and, that was it. You just filled in a form, and six months later nothing happened. Happy days. Just out of sheer nosy curiosity, how do Direct Works leave the garden, once they've dug up the drive? Do they leave the householder with naked earth, or what?”
“No, they put it all down to lawn. Obviously, the hope is that people will grow a bit of food eventually, but given that you're talking about people who’ve had to receive a compulsory in the first place, you can’t be too confident.”
“So, grass isn’t ideal, but at least it lets the rain drain away.”
“That, and also lawns are more valuable than people think. They’re extremely useful to various birds, mammals, invertebrates, and of course the mowings go into the compost. And if the householder ever does get up off his bum, it’s pretty easy to convert a bit of lawn, or a whole lawn, for fruit and veg.”
“Listen, Nesta, we’re a bit puzzled to find this place empty - such a nice house, such a desirable street. Has it - ”
She shook her head. “No, no, it’s not - ”
He held up a placating hand. “I’m not suggesting your committee has been in any way - ”
“No, no - it’s not empty.” Her interruption was more determined this time. “The couple who live here, they’re just on holiday. They’ve got relatives in - Cornwall, I think it is.”
“They were leaving at the weekend, I think it was.”
“Well, that is very odd, Nesta. Because if they're on holiday, it appears they've taken the furniture with them.”
“The place is mostly empty, as far as we can see. We haven’t been inside yet, but we’ve looked through the windows.”
The secretary of the street committee was clearly astonished. She was so astonished, her baby woke up. Or else the baby was so astonished, it woke itself up. Greg couldn’t really tell. He didn't know an enormous amount about babies. “I don’t know what to say,” the young mother said. “I’ve no explanation.”
“Will the - what’s their name?”
“Will the Nottles have left their contact details with the street committee’s crime prevention person? Or maybe with their next-door neighbours?”
She waggled her hand. “It’s quite likely they won’t have, to be honest. It’s not compulsory, you know.”
“Sure. Most people do it, though, in case anything happens.”
For the first time, Nesta looked a little uncomfortable. The baby was all right; it had gone back to sleep, callous as all its kind. “The Nottles are a bit ... what could I say?”
“A bit private?” Greg suggested.
She nodded. “Yes, a bit private. They don’t come to meetings much, you don’t see them in the pub, or street events, or sports or clubs. Keep themselves to themselves.”
Greg smiled at her tone. When he was a lad, keeping yourself to yourself had been considered one of the great suburban virtues.
There were two Loftys. At the moment, they were in a quadcycle, just passing Trafalgar Square. They were on their way back from something and on their way to something else, as people so often are.
There were always two Loftys; this had been decided a good while previously, at Detective Inspector level. One Lofty was in his late twenties, the other in his early sixties. One was called Lofty because he was short, and the other was called Lofty because he was tall. One, in other words, was what might be called a “natural” Lofty, while the other could be described as an “ironic” Lofty.
As luck would have it - and luck would, no matter anyone else’s feelings on the subject - both Loftys arrived in the Squad on the same Tuesday. Neither, it quickly became apparent, was willing to answer to anything other than Lofty - both having held the nickname since childhood, and neither feeling they should be the one to relinquish it - and so it had been decided that they should be known in the office as Big Lofty and Little Lofty respectively.
It was the respectively bit that didn’t work. No-one, least of all the Loftys themselves, could ever quite remember - or quite agree - whether the Big and the Little had been applied naturally or ironically. Half the squad took it that Little Lofty was the shorter of the two - and the other half didn’t. Confusion over trivial matters can be very close to disastrous in a setting such as a Serious Crime Squad.
And so (at least, this was how the story went), DI Wallace ruled that the two Loftys should permanently and invariably be paired together, as unbreakable working partners. That way, it couldn’t matter which one was which: whenever you asked after them or sent for them, you’d get both, so the one you wanted - if you happened to know which one you wanted - would reliably be included in the package. The Loftys, to use a slightly old-fashioned phrase, came bundled.
This didn’t work badly. The apparent loathing between the two detective constables was, most of their colleagues believed, largely indulged in for recreational purposes.
For the record, the young one was short and the old one was tall.
“Are you pedalling, you lazy old sod, or am I doing it all?”
“The exercise’ll do you good, kidda. Look, are those evangelists?”
“Where?” The young one slowed the quadcycle, and looked where his colleague was pointing. “Oh, yeah, could be.”
“Shall we have a look, then?”
The young one made a squeaky noise between his teeth. “It’s not my idea of Serious Crimes. We’re supposed to be on our way to a murder.”
“It’s against the law,” said the old one. “It’s not up to policemen to pick and choose which laws they enforce.”
“Pompous old toss,” replied the young one, bringing the quad to a halt. “Anyway, I’ve heard on Radio Free Europe that enforcing the Privatisation of Faith laws is against international law. So we could end up being done for doing it. It’s against human rights, you see.”
The old one sneered, using his whole body for full effect. “Yeah, well, I’ve heard on Radio Free Europe that the moon’s made of foie gras.”
“Yeah, well, you haven't, in fact, because you never bloody listen to Radio Free Europe. You don’t listen to or watch or read anything you don't agree with. Your mind is completely blocked against anything that goes against your precious Process.”
“So why did you stop the quad, then?” The old one knew the answer to his question: Lofty had stopped the quad because - for all his disdain for modern Britain, and the Process, and for all his passionate, if sometimes not overly knowledgeable advocacy of a return to the good old days of free enterprise and individualism and the never-failing, self-regulatory perfection of the unflawed market - he was still an honest, loyal and ambitious police officer. He did not pick and choose which laws he enforced, and preaching in public was, undeniably, a crime; to be precise it was an Action Considered Injurious to Unity as laid down by the Agreement of the People. Freedom of religion was absolute in modern Britain, legally guaranteed, for the first time in the nation's history, so long as that religion was practised behind closed doors, in the home or in registered places of worship. Secularism in public - a term which included schools and workplaces, streets and parks - was, likewise, absolute; and, likewise, guaranteed by law for the first time. This was a country which had had enough of divisions caused by faith. It might be thought that it should have had enough some hundreds of years previously, but, at any rate, it had certainly had enough now.
“Tell you what, if you like, why don’t you call the local uniforms? Report an offence Injurious to Unity, let them deal with it.”
The old one held no principled objection to compromise. “Go on, then, kidda,” he said, “but you make the call while I pedal.”
You could go quite fast in a quadcycle when both passengers were pedalling (less fast, in truth, when the two Loftys were on board since it was rare for both of them to be pedalling simultaneously) and being that the vehicle was, on such a calm day, roofless, conversation required raised voices against the noises of travel. Luckily, neither Lofty was a quiet speaker, either by nature or choice.
A mile or so further northwards, the old one said, loudly: “That was an odd business this morning.”
“Why odd? Yobs chucking stuff into ponds. Or did you think vandalism wasn’t going to exist in your shiny utopia?”
The accusation of utopianism was too soft and stale to require a reply. So the old one gave the young one a five-minute ear-bashing on the subject, in his finest Black Country monotone, and then carried on. “I don’t reckon that stuff was chucked in. Not at random. It looked methodical to me.”
The young one couldn’t be bothered to argue for long against a proposition that was so evidently true. “All right, then - what for?”
“Only two motives I can think of. To get rid of the stuff that was chucked - or else to ruin the flood pond. If the former, we can tell the DI it’s a routine matter and he can hand it over to another section. If the latter, it most surely comes under Serious Crime.”
After a few moments’ thought, the young one said: “He won’t take us off the murder to investigate the pond, though, will he? I’ve never done a murder before.”
The examiners from Scientific had arrived in their van, siren screaming - unnecessarily, in Greg’s view, and very probably illegally - much to the delight of the local kids. Round here, Greg supposed, they probably didn’t see a motor vehicle as often as once a week. The Commonwealth of Britain’s fuel shortage was not as extreme as in some of those countries which had failed, as yet, to make the kind of structural changes which Britain had made; even so, the exemptions which allowed petrol and its analogues to be used for various categories of person or purpose were becoming fewer all the time. They were becoming more precise, too; doctors could still drive to visit patients, for instance, but could not drive between their own homes and their surgeries. Greg’s son’s rugby team was no longer allowed to use a minibus to attend away fixtures which would take less than ninety minutes by public transport.
“Greg - there you are.” DS Phil Kale leapt off his racing bike and marched over to the section of garden wall which Greg had chosen as his leaning post. He’d been leaning against it, smoking a roll-up, and running through checklists in his head. He stifled a sigh, now. The DI tried not to sigh every time Phil Kale marched up to him, because it really wasn’t fair: Phil was a decent bloke and an assiduous detective. It was just that bloody marching - his wiry limbs swinging, his scraggly, reddish beard bristling, his teeth grinding. Phil was a decade younger than Greg, but he had the worry-lines of a man two decades older. The marching always signified bees in bonnets. One bee in particular.
“All right, Phil. You come to join the to-do?”
The DS took his pipe out of his trouser pocket and rammed it into his mouth. Greg had hardly ever seen him smoke it, but he sucked it at every opportunity, and with the kind of ferocity other men reserved for tug-of-war contests. “What? What to-do?”
“The murder, Phil. Have you come to help me with my murder? Because if so, I could do with you on the - ”
“No, no!” The pipe went back into the pocket. “I haven’t got time for that, I’m afraid. I’ve come straight from the office. Listen: it looks like there’s been a rescue in Muswell Hill.”
Phil shook his head, impatiently. Rattled it, really, more than shook it. “You know, you know - a child's been reported missing, and the mother thinks - ”
“Oh, I see,” said Greg, stubbing out his cigarette and putting the dog-end into the little enamelled dog-end box his ex-wife had given him last Christmas.
“Yes, please don’t say I see, as if I’m making this up, Greg!”
“No, of course not, nothing of the kind, it’s just - ”
“Sarla Brown, aged seven next week,” Phil read from his notebook. “Went off to visit her friend, two doors down, ten o’clock this morning, never arrived at the friend’s, not seen since.” Greg glanced at his watch. Phil saw the glance, and rolled his eyes. “Yes, yes! Not long ago, sure. But she’s seven next week, Greg. ‘Give us a child before it’s seven ... ’”
“You’ve started the search?”
“Everything’s being done by the book, I assure you of - ”
“I don’t doubt it for a minute, mate - I’m not questioning - ”
“But we need to get moving. I don’t think she is ‘missing’. I think she’s been taken.”
“So, why do you call it a rescue? On what evidential basis?”
“The mother’s calling it that, Greg.”
“OK, same question.”
“She heard - ”
“She says she heard, yeah? Same as the neighbours say the little girl never arrived at their house. You don’t take things for granted in cases like this, you know that.”
Phil took his pipe out of his pocket, tapped it against his knuckles, and put it back. “She says she heard - and I believe her - North American voices through the open kitchen window just after the little girl left the house.”
“Did she have a look?”
“She couldn’t, she was doing something at the stove.”
“What does she say they said, these voices?”
Phil shook his head. “Just voices. Talking to someone.”
“Each other probably. And they were North American? She doesn’t say Yank?”
“Two women’s voices, Greg.” He treated the DI to a significant look. In the stories, it was always two Yank women, never two men or one of each. “And, yes, she says North American, not Yank. That’s why I believe her - she’s not hysterical, she's not running round the place saying My baby’s been kidnapped by Yank missionaries! She’s saying what she heard and what she saw. She’s a good witness.”
Greg took the time afforded by rolling and lighting another smoke to pre-edit what he was about to say. It was still going to come out wrong, but at least he’d have made the effort. When DS Kale was in one of these moods, that was about all you could do. “Look, Phil, you and I are never going to agree on this.”
“God’s sake, Inspector - clock’s ticking!”
“Philosophically, if you like, you and I are never going to agree. You believe that Christian missionaries from the US and the former US kidnap British children, and smuggle them back to America, to save them from growing up in a secular society.”
“Atheist communist society - that’s what it says on their websites. Exact words.”
“And you believe these ‘rescues’ are actually happening, and I don’t. I think they're urban myths, and that the nutters on the websites are just fantasising. I have never heard of one single, confirmed case, and neither have you - because if you had, you’d have told me about it. You haven’t given me one piece of evidence today that you yourself would take seriously if this was any other kind of case. And I need you on this murder.”
“Murder?” Phil’s expression of amazement suggested that the DI had said he needed him to help set up the trestle tables for a street party. “Surely you’ve got Catherine on that?”
“I need two sergeants on this one, Phil. One back at the office, and one - ”
“I can’t believe what you're saying! Surely a missing child is more urgent than someone who’s already dead?”
Well, you could hardly argue with that. “All right, look. I’m not calling in the Foreign Office, or whoever you’ve got your heart set on.” He held up a silencing palm. “No, I’m not, forget it. Not unless you’ve got something a bit more than two Canadian tourists strolling down a London street chatting about the weather. But you can continue with the case for the moment, and we’ll manage without you here.”
Phil muttered something that sounded suspiciously unlike a thank you, and turned towards his bike. Greg called him back.
“Just a second. You can work on this as long as it looks like a possible kidnapping. All right? As soon as it begins to look like a false alarm, or a domestic, I need you straight back here. Evidence-based decisions only, please, Phil. No crusading, you understand?”
“Can I go now?”
“Go on, keep me informed.”
Catherine Blake had heard the last few exchanges of the conversation; enough to be a little surprised at its outcome. Greg saw that on her face, and shrugged. “He won’t be much use here if his mind’s elsewhere, he’ll only sulk. Anyway, if it really is a missing child case, he’d be my first choice to handle it. I just wish I could get my squad to take murder seriously!”
“You think it is a murder, then?”
“Like you said, it’s a something; you don’t bury bodies under drives for no reason. Any idea yet when the paving went down?”
“I’ve got Bob Lemon on that, he’s asking the neighbours. And Gerard is on file searches back at the office.”
“In that case,” said Greg, “while we wait for Scientific to do their doings, we might as well go and find ourselves some lunch.”
“The local’s just round that corner.” Catherine pointed, and they set off pubwards.
“So what do you reckon?” Greg asked. “Are Yanks kidnapping our kiddies?”
Catherine lit her pipe. “Got problems enough of their own to be going on with, haven’t they?”
Everyone liked talking to DC Bob Lemon - just about everyone he’d ever met - which worked out pretty well, because Bob liked talking to everyone. Drinking tea, eating biscuits, and talking. He had to eat the biscuits, because he needed to be a bit tubby; he was a baby-faced, brown-skinned man in his forties, and if it hadn’t been for the slight tubbiness he’d have looked far too young, he reckoned, for people to feel happy about confiding in him. Tubbiness aged a man subtly and in a pleasing way. Anyway, that worked out pretty well, too, because he liked eating biscuits. His Nan's home-made, by preference, with anything chocolate and/or ginger in close second place. Some years ago, Bob Lemon had sat in an interview room in a police station in Birmingham eating his Nan's chocolate and ginger chip biscuits while the chap sitting opposite him had told him, in detail, how and where he had disposed of the corpses of the three young girls he had raped and murdered. Bob had chomped and nodded and sipped at his tea, and afterwards his then boss had told him “You are a fucking hard bastard, Orangey, and I mean that as the deepest of compliments.”
Everyone liked talking to Bob Lemon, but nobody liked it quite as much as old women did.
“People don’t move home so much, these days, do they?” said Mrs Denmark, a widow who lived in a house ten doors down from the assumed murder scene. “Not like they used to, years ago. Not voluntarily, I mean.”
“That’s true,” said Bob. “Are these home-made? They’re fantastic.”
“I’ve never had a shop-bought biscuit in the house, my love, and that is the truth.”
“Why would you? You can’t buy quality like this.”
“Have you tried the shortbread?”
“Don’t worry, Mrs Denmark, I’m getting to that next.”
“Of course, there’s floods and so on, so people have to move, but I can remember when young people used to change houses every few years. The property ladder, they called it.”
“But you’ve always lived here, you say?”
“I was born here,” she said proudly, “and I was married here, and I fully intend to die here. But not quite yet.”
Bob wondered why having spent an entire life at one address was something people felt proud about. It sounded like a neutral thing to him, deserving neither pride nor shame. “And do you remember when it was that the front garden at number nineteen was paved over for parking?”
“Well, you see, that’s happened more than once, to my knowledge. It was first done in the late 1970s, I should think, because the couple who lived there had two cars - which was quite unusual in those days, but the wife did those Tupperware demonstrations, you see - and then in the 80s it was turned back into a garden, because the bloke who lived there wanted to grow veg, he was into self-sufficiency.”
“Did he?” Bob smiled. “There’s nothing new under the sun, is there?”
“Oh, I hope you’re wrong, dear, I really do. It wouldn’t be much of a life without something new. Anyway, that didn’t last long, because the next family had four cars: his, hers, and the two teenage girls. So it was all tarmac then.”
“Four cars? Amazing. Hard to imagine now, isn’t it?”
“To be fair,” said Mrs Denmark, “people worked so far flung back then, and you couldn’t trust public transport, not like now with a bus stop on every corner and a railway station in every village, and who knows what else. We didn’t have any of that when I was young, you had to fend for yourself in those days. Yes, you did.”
And another thing Bob wondered: why did old people always sound so disappointed when they talked about something being better now than it had been in the past? Was it because it undermined their nostalgia?
They were both smoking their pipes now - home-grown, not proper imported tobacco; it was a long time since Christmas - and sipping their tea, Bob having eaten as many of the old widow’s biscuits as he felt decently able to.
“After the four-car family, there was an old widow - she wasn’t there long, she died, but she did have a little lawn, and some flower beds, I remember that. Pansies in winter, and wallflowers in spring. Then I think there was a young guy on his own, he was there briefly. It might have been him that did the last lot of paving.” She shook her head. “I don’t think I ever knew any of their names, to be honest. It wasn’t that sort of area, in those days. You just nodded in the street, sort of thing, that was about as far as it went.”
“Do you know the couple who live there now? The Nottles?”
“Not really, love. They’re not very social. Been there a good while, mind. They were quite young when they moved in, they must be in their fifties now, I should imagine. He teaches food preservation at the community school.”
“See, that’s already something we didn’t know. Does he teach adults or children?”
“Both, I think - they mostly teach both now, don't they? He specialises in jams, I do know that.” She frowned. “Or maybe jams and pickles. I know I asked him to look at my tomato solar when it went wrong and he said he hadn’t a clue, so he obviously knows nothing about food dehydration.”
“What does Mrs Nottle do, do you know?”
“Scientist, I think, or a researcher of some sort. So which one have you dug up, then? Him or her?”
“It’s a him, we reckon,” said Bob, “but we don’t think it’s Mr or Mrs Nottle. Been there too long, you see; probably been there since the hard-standing went down.”
“First, second or third lot?”
“Presumably the most recent.”
Mrs Denmark tapped her pipe against her teeth. It was moderately unusual to see an old woman smoking a pipe - it was more of a young woman’s fashion. Old women associated it with their great-great-grandmothers; young women associated it with something their mothers would never have dared do. Perhaps Mrs Denmark had been a non-smoker until the flu scares, Bob thought, and had chosen a pipe because you didn’t have to inhale. “Well, either way,” she said, after a while, “I can’t think of who it might be.”
“No-one who vanished from the scene suddenly, or went missing?”
“No-one comes to mind. You see, we didn’t think of it as vanishing, back then - it was just moving on, perfectly routine. Here today, there tomorrow. But if I think of anyone I’ll call you.”
“As long as you’ve been baking,” said Bob.
He sat and talked to her for a while longer because that was what he was good at, and every boss he’d ever had bar one had understood that Bob chatting to people was never a waste of time, even when - as in this case - it was basically a waste of time.
As he was leaving, Mrs Denmark told him: “They had a caravan, too. Can you believe it!”
“Who, the Nottles?”
She shook her head. “The family with four cars. Not like the modern ones, I mean, not horse-drawn - a great big motor home, out there on the drive.”
“Four cars and a caravan?” Bob popped his eyes. “It’s a wonder they didn't tarmac over the house, never mind the garden.”
“You useless sod,” said one of the Loftys to the other, as they entered the briefing room.
“I’ve been promoted,” the other Lofty told DC Gerard Cochrane, who was setting out chairs.
“You been promoted, Lofty?” said Gerard.
“Definitely. I was only a useless bugger, yesterday.”
“Your turn to buy the cakes, then.” Having placed seventeen chairs facing the dais, Gerard now began placing briefing notes on them. He’d been hard at it on the typewriter, and then on the hand-cranked duplicating machine, the last few hours; everyone attending the briefing would have whatever information they needed, assuming it was yet available. DC Cochrane was an acknowledged master of the organisational aspects of police work, and it was a mastery he was proud of. This was a craft he had studied and honed over decades, but there was another reason why he wanted his colleagues to know how good at it he was: he didn’t want them thinking that he did so much office work because, at the age of seventy-three, that was all he could do.
A seventeen-year-old girl had asked him, that very afternoon, why he’d stayed on in the police, and he’d replied as he always did: “There’s no reason why I’ve stayed. It’s just that there hasn’t been a reason, yet, for me to go.”
Under the Agreement of the People retirement was available to everyone - including the self-employed - at the age of fifty, without loss of income. But it was not compulsory, and many people (though not all that many detective constables, it had to be said) chose to continue working. Workers could be compulsorily retired, from any job or calling, but only by a tribunal finding that they’d become unable to perform their tasks “solely or chiefly by reason of age.” No-one was going to say Gerard Cochrane couldn’t perform his tasks, from age or any other cause. He intended to keep working in the Squad until he was eighty-five, and then have a look around and see what he might fancy doing next. As no previous male member of his family had ever, as far as Gerard knew, survived beyond seventy, he reckoned he was doing all right.
He’d joined the then Metropolitan Police in Hackney, in the 1970s. Some of the youngsters more or less fainted when he said that. They thought the 1970s, maybe, was when Queen Victoria died. Gerard missed almost nothing from those days, apart from striptease. In the pub they’d used as their local in the days when he’d first made plainclothes, there used to be strippers on at lunchtime. As a young near-virgin, he’d thought that was just about wonderful: for the price of a pint and a pork pie, bosoms and bottoms closer to your eyes than the dartboard was. You never saw strippers nowadays. It wasn’t that there was no demand, Gerard was pretty sure of that; more likely, there was no supply. The bosoms and bottoms of today had better things to do with their time.
He didn’t ask what one of the Loftys was being useless about. He had no objection to their double act, but he reckoned they could manage it without him. Instead, seeing Bob Lemon had turned up, he took him over a cup of tea and told him there was someone he ought to meet.
Sitting in the nearest thing to a corner that this largely non-angular room possessed, was a girl, or young woman - Gerard hadn’t decided yet - reading one of the duplicated bundles of briefing notes with great attention, and wearing a big windcheater which she showed no inclination to remove or even to unzip. She had very black skin, was a bit blushy and very pretty, and healthily plump.
“Erin, this is another of our team - DC Bob Lemon. Bob, Erin Smee.” They nodded. Bob’s generation - not to mention Gerard’s - tended to keep their hands in their pockets to remind them not to offer them for shaking, but to Erin it came naturally: the germ-free nod, the smile, the nod again. “Erin’s just left school, and she’s doing her work-sampling. She’ll be attached to the Squad for the next three months. I’ve been asked to be her main supervisor, which I consider an honour and a pleasure - ”
She smiled again. “Thank you, Gerard.”
“ - but the idea is that she should spend a bit of time with everyone, eventually. Get an all-round picture. I’ll be sorting out a preliminary rota in the next couple of days.”
“Work-sampling, eh?” Bob gave her a big smile. He liked teenage girls. He’d got three of his own; two daughters, and a second wife. “Wish they’d had that when I left school, I wouldn't have ended up doing this!”
Erin laughed, and beyond Bob’s eye line, Gerard winked, approvingly. She didn't look like a girl who minded laughing politely, or found it difficult, but her potential embarrassment must surely have been increased by the fact that this was the third time she had heard the same joke within Gerard’s hearing. “Are most of the school-leavers in your year doing work-sampling, Erin?” he asked now.
“About half and half,” she replied, her London accent strong, and her voice pleasantly deep. “A lot of them know exactly what they want to do, so they’re going straight to it - or filling in with something else while they wait for a vacancy. Or doing courses, obviously.”
“It lasts a year, does it?” Bob asked. “So what other samples are you doing?”
“Farriery, potato breeding, and bar work.”
“Now, that is what I call a range of interests! What attracts you to detective work, Erin?”
“Honestly?” She grinned. “Over-glamorised fictional presentations of policing in radio, TV, films and books.”
“Honestly?” Bob’s round face lit up with delight.
“I said, honestly.”
“That’s precisely what got me into it,” said Bob. “I saw the detectives on TV, and I thought - that is so cool.”
“And is real-life detective work anything like the fiction?”
Bob nodded. “Exactly like it.”
“What - honestly?”
“Exactly like it,” said Bob. “I mean, totally different in every way, obviously - but exactly like it, if you know what I mean.”
Erin smiled, shyly. “I think I do, yeah.”
“Right,” said DI Wallace, “thanks, everyone. We’ll get started.” The Squad’s permanent strength was twenty-one full-time positions, police and civilian, some of those being made up of two or even three part-timers. Attendance at this evening’s all-staff briefing - allowing for annual leave, sick leave, and those busy on assignment elsewhere or off-duty - was fifteen. Greg looked at the briefing sheet. “OK, I’ll go through the cases in the order that Gerard’s listed them. As ever, feel free to interrupt if you suspect I’ve lost my way or nodded off. Now then, we’ll - oh, sorry! Didn’t see your hand up. Yes, Jade?”
The detective inspector yielded the floor to the glamorously grandmotherly civilian who had worked as the Squad’s office manager for more than a decade. “Do you want a bit of cake with that tea?” she asked.
“Thank you, Jade,” said Greg, “that’s an excellent question. And I shall give it the full and honest answer it deserves: yes, I certainly do, I am bloody starving. Thank you.” He took a bite and a swig. “Right. The corpse found at nineteen, Beech Lane, is that of an adult male. Scientific are doing their doings right now, so we hope to know more tonight or in the morning. But for now, that’s it, except that there are no screamingly obvious signs of violence to the body, and that they are as sure as they can be at this early stage that the body went down at the same time as the paving. Which according to a neighbour was ... ?”
“Some time in the mid-to-late 90s,” said Bob Lemon. “That’s about as near as we’ve got at the moment. I think Gerard was ... ?”
“Nothing in the records yet,” Gerard said. “We’ll carry on looking, but I’m not hopeful. Everyone was doing it back then.”
“Are the current occupants suspects?” asked Ginger Thom.
“The current owners,” said Greg, “Bradley and Kim Nottle, are a bit of a puzzle altogether. In answer to your question, Ginger - no, our working assumption is that they’re probably not directly linked to the body, assuming it was buried before they moved in. However, we’d obviously like to speak to them, and at the moment that’s proving difficult.” He explained about the almost empty house - since confirmed by an entry team - and the Nottles’ apparent trip to Cornwall. “Our early attempts to locate them have been fruitless. DS Blake will be assigning officers to that aspect of the investigation shortly. The Nottles appear to have no siblings, and only one surviving parent between the pair of them: Bradley Nottle’s mother lives in a care home near Swansea, and an informal word with the matron there classes her as unfit to interview.”
“They’ve not told anyone where they're going on holiday?” said Ginger. “Are they privacy freaks?”
Greg finished his cake, and washed it down. “Not particularly social, from what we’ve heard - and of course they’ve ended up having their front garden re-greened compulsorily - but on the other hand, the husband, Bradley Nottle, is a teacher at the local school. That’s not normally the sort of job that would go to an individualist, is it?”
“What does Kim Nottle do?” asked a DC.
“Some sort of research scientist, apparently. We’re checking that.”
“Should we be worried for their safety?” asked Gerard. “Do we consider them missing?”
“Good question, Gerard. The house is being checked right now as if it were a crime scene, but if that doesn’t turn anything up then I think we’d have to say the only way we’ll know whether or not the Nottles are safe is to find them.” Greg checked his notes. “And I don’t think we know anything more than that at this stage. As I said, Catherine will be sorting out three teams to cover our three main priorities: identify the dead body; establish the whereabouts of the Nottles; and thirdly, identify and trace all previous occupants of the house from about 1990 onwards.” He frowned at his notes for a moment, looked over at Gerard and then clicked his fingers as his face cleared. “Of course, yes - I’d forgotten to say hello to Erin Smee, who’s joining us for a three-month work-sampling. I don’t think we’ve ever had a work-sampler on this squad before, so this is very exciting for us, and you’re very welcome.”
“Thank you, sir.”
“You've joined us on a busy day, as you can tell, so you might not get quite the measured induction we would normally aim for - but you’ll certainly get a fair idea of what we’re all about.” Greg glanced at Catherine; she nodded. “DS Blake will find you an assignment. You won’t be a spare part around here, I can promise you that.”
“Thanks,” said Erin. “I’m loving it already.”
Greg paused, and looked at the girl properly for the first time. “Are you really?”
He reckoned she was, and all. Well, well ... “You hear that, folks? She’s one of us.”
“Poor mite,” Jade called out. “She looked such a sensible girl, too.”
“Now then, next on the list,” said Greg. “Obviously, a lot of us will be working full-time on the unlawful burial - especially if, as we’re rather assuming it will, it turns into an unlawful killing. Most of the rest of you will probably be involved to some degree as and when. But we’ve also got a couple of other investigations which we all need to be aware of. Lofty? Anything in this pond business?”
“No, nothing,” said one of the Loftys, as the other one said “Could be, yes.”
Greg’s face clouded. “Could you decide which it is, please, and then get back to me?”
“Sir,” muttered both Loftys, in perfect sync.
“Next: Ginger, how are your missing veg going?”
Ginger stood up, notebook in hand. Dark-haired (he’d been “Tabby Thom” at school, but he preferred Ginger, given a choice), slight, and in his twenties, he was amongst Serious Crime’s most recent recruits. He'd known exactly what the work-sample girl had meant when she said she was already loving it: he’d felt the same way, right from his first hour. He’d hated being a uniformed cop so much he’d almost packed it in several times, and now thanked his luck daily that he’d held on long enough to find himself, for the first time in his life, doing something he was good at. “There’s been one more raid,” he said, and told them about the quadcycle factory’s unguarded rooftop garden. “It’s in the same area as the others, but as you’ll see from the briefing sheet, it doesn’t really fit the pattern - if there is a pattern.”
“Are you thinking it might be a one-off?” Greg asked.
“I think it could be. The fact that the place has no security - it could just be opportunist. To be honest, I think they could all be one-offs.”
“You're not convinced by the pattern that Uniform thought they saw?”
Ginger shrugged. “It’s there if you look for it. But it’s just as easily not there. People nick food, don’t they? That’s human nature. In World War Two it was endemic. The courts used to give people hard labour for it.”
Out of the corner of his, Greg saw a pipe-fill of tobacco change hands between two DCs. He tried not to smile; evidently someone had just won top prize in tonight’s Blitz Bingo, correctly guessing how soon into his contribution the young detective would make a comparison between present day difficulties and those of the 1940s. For his part, Greg was all in favour of his officers harbouring healthy obsessions: he reckoned they demonstrated keenness, connectedness, imagination. Unhealthy obsessions were a different matter, obviously. Speaking of which ... he looked around the room. Ah yes: over there by the door. Looking impatient, as usual ...
“OK, Ginger, thanks for that very balanced report. I think for the time being, I’m going to ask DS Blake to assign you on the tarmac case, and see what happens. Naturally, if we start getting indications that there is more to this than a series of unconnected raids, you’ll be reassigned. Organised food theft would clearly have to take priority over a long-dead body. So keep an eye on it, will you? Right, finally for now - DS Kale has been monitoring a missing child.” Phil took a step forward, and Greg was quick to continue speaking. He had one or two things to get clear before he gave Phil the floor. “Let me stress that this is not as yet a Squad case. As well all know, most missing children turn up. Phil has merely been liasing with the local police, in case we’re called in later. Phil? What’s the latest?”
“Right,” said Phil Kale, who was never at his best addressing meetings. He took a piece of paper out of his pocket, read through it, then put it back and got another one out. He read through that one and nodded to himself. “Right, as the DI says, we seem to have a missing child in Muswell Hill. A little girl, she’ll be seven next week, her name’s Sarla Brown. She set off from home to visit a close neighbour at ten-hundred, that’s over eight hours ago, and has not been seen since. Her parents live together, and all other relatives and friends are being contacted, so far without any news. Uniformed and volunteer search teams, likewise, have reported nothing so far. The parents are convinced she’s been taken, and - ”
He met Greg’s eyes, and the DI knew what was coming next.
“ - the mother reports hearing North American voices in her front garden at the time of Sarla’s disappearance.” Phil didn’t notice the gentle eye-rolling of a number of his colleagues. To be fair to the man, though, he also didn’t notice the significant glances exchanged between a few others. “Sir,” said Phil, addressing Greg directly, “the uniform Superintendent on the scene is formally requesting at this time that the investigation be led by this squad.”
“Is he indeed?” Greg was angry, and he didn’t especially care if it showed. He could just about guess where the local Super had got that idea from. “Very well, then. Though I’m not entirely sure what we might do that his own detectives couldn’t do just as well. But if that’s what he wants ... Phil, you and one other officer get back over there.”
“For now. Catherine’ll assign you someone. Obviously, if you find you really need more bodies, you can have them - at Catherine’s discretion.”
“Right,” said Phil, shoving his notes into his pocket, and ramming his unlit pipe between his teeth.
“And that’s about it, if there’s no other business? Thank you, everyone - there’s sandwiches in the pub for those who don’t have to rush off.”
One Lofty wouldn't drink at the Crown, because it was privately owned. The other Lofty wouldn’t drink at the Ernesto Lynch because it was a co-op. No-one seriously believed that these were stances born of genuine principle - apart from anything, no-one seriously believed that either Lofty was that bloody stupid - but in the interests of a quiet life, the Squad drank at the Coach, because nobody knew who owned it and, so far, no-one had been daft enough to ask.
The sandwiches laid out in the smoking room, ordered in advance by Jade, came in three flavours: mutton and mustard; cheese and sweet pickle; vegetable slice. Ginger Thom - who wasn’t nearly as obsessed with the Home Front during World War Two as his colleagues believed, but was in fact a passionate reader of anything written in or concerning Britain in the 1940s - always referred to the latter as “Victory Spread.” Catherine Blake, apparently the only member of the Squad who caught the reference, said it didn’t work as a joke, because the vegetable slice was in fact very tasty. It was certainly true that those sandwiches went first, but that was at least partly because few people under the age of twenty could get used to eating mutton. The cheese was good, but the pickle was pretty awful. There was an art to making pickles, as well as a science, which was why it formed part of the core curriculum in all schools. In the days of food shortages, Catherine had been the mother of two teenagers. Like so many, she had quickly relearned the skills of her grandmother’s time. Making sub-standard pickle - let alone having the nerve to sell it - was unforgivable, and she would make sure Jade put in a complaint.
The mutton wasn’t going to waste, though. Erin Smee - being the sole present representative of a generation which considered it to be a food fit for humans - was tipping the sheep sandwiches down her throat in the way that only seventeen-year-olds can.
“Was it a carp pond?” Ginger asked the Loftys.
The young one shook his head, and spoke around a mouthful of cheese-and-scraped-off-pickle. “Flood pond. No fish.”
“Not that it would make much more sense if it was a carp pond. Why would anyone want to kill a load of carp?”
“Because they’re disgusting, perhaps?” suggested Bob Lemon.
Over the last few years, farmed carp had become one of Britain’s main sources of meat. Being low in their food chain, carp were highly efficient producers of protein: their output to input ratio was guaranteed to put a smile on any agronomist’s face. But the fish was a taste which many struggled to acquire. Carp farming had been very widespread in Britain in the middle ages, but the coming of the railways had meant that more palatable, salt-water fish could be sold across the country without going off, or needing preserving. But now - with falling sea stocks, the general unreliability of imports, and the fact that most other farmed fish were fed on fish - carp’s unfashionable status had been repealed.
Ginger laughed. “You miss your beefburgers, Bob?”
“No, as matter of fact I was a vegetarian for years. Lived on a diet of cheese sandwiches and soya steaks.”
“You’re not a stickie, though?” asked Erin.
“No. I’m not saying anything against those who have stuck to it, but personally, I was convinced by the arguments.” Bob grimaced. “If not the flavour.”
Unproductive land was unimaginable, when you lived on an island in a world of unpredictable international trade and frequent global shortages. Meat-eating on the grand scale was clearly an unsustainable bad habit, best left behind in the twentieth century, but there were areas of Britain where the only crop that could be realistically raised was sheep. Beef had been banned by national referendum some years earlier: cow meat was not cost-effective to produce, and was highly polluting. Dairy herds were being slowly phased out, and in the meantime cow’s milk was rationed to the point of rarity. Cheese was considered an essential food - but cow’s cheese was rationed, while that from ewes and goats was not. Goat milk in particular was a ubiquitous food, goats being relatively low polluters, willing tenants of sub-prime land, and good recyclers of vegetable waste.
Food and land: even more than energy and water, these were the two great British preoccupations of the age.
Before the Process began, almost all British arable land was used to grow feed for livestock, not for humans; and even then, huge amounts of animal feed had to be imported, much of it from countries that were unable to feed their own human populations.
Now, people were encouraged to keep chickens and pigs privately - as their ancestors would have done, a century earlier - and Backyard Husbandry was another compulsory school subject, from which only vegetarian children could opt out on grounds of conscience. Anything home-grown was completely off-ration: meat, fruit, veg, honey, eggs, anything. If you grew it yourself, you could eat it until you exploded - and if you chose to sell your surplus, the resulting income was untaxed. It was a modified version of a system pioneered in Latin America at the turn of the century.
“I admire the old vegetarians,” said Erin, halfway through the last of the mutton. “You lot were like pioneers.”
“I don’t get the stickies, though,” said Ginger. “OK, like Erin says, the old vegetarians were pioneers - they caught on before everyone else did. But now that the whole country is virtually vegetarian, I don’t see any sense in people insisting on being a hundred per cent about it. Surely it’s much more efficient to raise a certain amount of animal protein locally, than to try and import great piles of soya and pulses and what have you?”
Erin nodded. “It is weird - it’s like they’ve gone from being ahead of everyone else to being behind.”
“I think,” said Catherine, realising that this might be a generation gap too far for a simple explanation around a pub table to bridge, “that stickies are probably people who’ve become vegetarian for moral reasons, rather than efficiency ones. Isn’t that right, Bob?”
“Yeah, some people feel it’s wrong to kill - simple as that. There’ve always been a few people who thought that, as far back as you want to go in history. Ancient Greeks, even. They’re one of history’s perennial minorities. But a lot of people, like me, figure that we’ve achieved eighty, ninety per cent of what we dreamed of - so we’ll settle for consolidating that.”
“Is it odd, though,” Ginger asked, “eating meat again, after years of not eating it?”
Bob took a long pull on his beer before answering. “Odd is a good enough word for it, yeah.”
“In World War Two,” Ginger added, “vegetarians used to get extra cheese ration.”
“Well,” said Erin, lighting up a dainty, fashionably-painted pipe, “I’ll tell you what, though - there were kids at my school who went vegetarian, just to be rebels, you know?”
Bob’s gaze met Catherine’s. He closed his eyes for second and gave a bemused shake of the head. She smiled back at him, and shrugged. At the end of a long day, neither of them had the energy left to untangle the concept of existential teenagers giving up meat in order to demonstrate their alienation from their elders’ attempts to save the planet.
“It’s only a return to the traditional British diet,” said Gerard. “My great-granny told my mum that when she was young, the only meat they ate from one week to the next was a lump off their annual, home-cured pig, stuck in the pot to give the stew a bit of flavour. If great-granddad happened to be earning well, they might possibly get a bit of beef for Christmas dinner. And they weren’t poor people, though - just ordinary village folk. That period of a generation or three when normal people ate meat every day - that was just a brief blip in history. As, indeed, is everything else in human life, a thought from which much comfort might be taken.” He finished his pint, and pointed to the middle of the table. “Now then, Greg’s obviously not going to join us, so I vote we drink his beer.”
Greg could just about taste that pint, but Phil Kale was not an easy man to shake off when he was trying to make amends through small talk. It was one of his more endearing - and more irritating - habits. If he thought he’d rubbed you up the wrong way, he’d seek you out at the first opportunity and talk to you about the weather, or the football, until he was confident that you’d been smoothed down again.
“You haven’t got an allotment, have you?”
“I haven’t quite got round to it, Phil, no.” It wasn’t only his thirst that was worrying Greg; if he didn’t get to the pub soon, he knew perfectly well that the only sandwiches left would be mutton.
“You’re automatically entitled to one, you know, now that you - ah - now that you’re ... well, while you’re currently living in a solo unit.” He took his pipe out of his pocket and tapped its stem against his teeth.
Greg had never heard Phil use the word ‘divorce.’ Perhaps he feared that his DI would break down in tears if he did. “I’ve got Havana window-boxes front and back,” he said, trying to enter into the spirit of the conversation - or, more truthfully, trying to pretend to. “I do all right for salads.”
“Oh, well - that’s nice,” said Phil, giving him an encouraging smile.
Greg couldn't resist. “I don’t really like salads.”
“Oh dear. Well, you might think you're better off without a veg patch this year. Here we are, second week of July, and there’s been no serious rain other than storms since February.” He put his pipe back in his pocket and pulled out his pocket barometer. Everyone Greg knew seemed to carry one of these bloody things these days. Except Greg. Phil tapped the dial. “There you are, no change. Plenty of floods, no rain! Typical.”
Greg feared the DS was getting himself upset again, so he decided to send him on his way before he started blaming the weather on the Yanks. At least he’d stopped calling them ‘subbies’ since his official warning on Language Injurious to Unity. “You’d best get back to your child-hunt, Phil. Keep me in touch with that, won’t you?”
He was finally, almost, on his way out of the door, on his way towards a pint of beer and a sit-down, when Jade called to him from her office. “Greg! You still there?”
He stuck his head around her door. “Yes, Jade? Is there more cake needs eating?”
“I’ll wrap a bit up for you. Scientific just phoned from Beech Lane.”
Greg felt the tiredness in his knees, quite suddenly, and in his shoulders - though that wasn’t sudden, he’d had that all day. “It’s not going to be good news, is it?”
“They’ve got another body.”
“Oh, shit.” He accepted her offer of a cigarette - a defiant non-smoker, she always collected her ration - and a light. “That isn’t good news.”
“But apparently, that’s not the bad news.”
Greg stared at her for a moment, as if she was mad, but then remembered that - mad or otherwise - she was only the messenger. “What is the bad news, then?”
Jade shrugged. “The woman from Scientific says she’ll tell you that when you get there.”