Authors: Cynthia Harrod-Eagles
The Bill Slider Mysteries
The Dynasty Series
THE DARK ROSE
THE OAK APPLE
THE BLACK PEARL
THE LONG SHADOW
THE TANGLED THREAD
THE DEVIL’S HORSE
THE POISON TREE
THE HIDDEN SHORE
THE WINTER JOURNEY
THE DREAM KINGDOM
THE RESTLESS SEA
THE WHITE ROAD
THE BURNING ROSES
THE MEASURE OF DAYS
THE FOREIGN FIELD
THE FALLEN KINGS
THE DANCING YEARS
was born and educated in Shepherd’s Bush, and had a variety of jobs in the commercial world, starting as a junior cashier at Woolworth’s and working her way down to Pensions Officer at the BBC. She won the Young Writers’ Award in 1973, and became a full-time writer in 1978. She is the author of over sixty successful novels to date, including thirty volumes of the
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IT HAD BEEN QUIET LATELY
, a warm sunny spell after a cold wet spring surprising the General Public into good behaviour. If it went on, of course, the hot weather would generate its own particular rash of crime and they would all be run off their feet, but for the moment people were more interested in enjoying the sunshine than abusing their neighbours.
In the middle of the morning the atmosphere in the canteen at Shepherd’s Bush nick was so dense and bland you could have poured it over the apple pie and called it custard. Like trench soldiers during a prolonged pause in hostilities, the troops hung about drinking tea, playing cards, and swapping half-hearted complaints.
Detective Inspector Slider had had a cup of tea brought to him in his office only half an hour ago, but the contagion of lethargy found him joining his bagman, DS Atherton, for another. Some previous occupant of their corner table had managed to persuade the window open a crack, and a green, living sort of smell from the plane tree outside was pervading the normal canteen miasma of chips and sweat.
Slider dunked his teabag aimlessly up and down in the hot water, his mind idling out of gear. He didn’t really want the tea. These days there was a choice of teabags at the counter: Earl Grey, Orange Pekoe, Lapsang Sou-chong, or Breakfast Blend (cateringspeak for Bog Standard). It was a move intended to quell the complaints about the change to teabags, which itself had been the response to complaints about the quality of the tea made the old way, which had
always been either stewed or transparent. Since Atherton had bought this round, they had both got Earl Grey, which Slider didn’t care for. He didn’t like to say so, though, for fear of Atherton’s left eyebrow, which had a way of rising all on its own at any evidence of philistinism.
Atherton was so bored he had picked up a copy of
the official Met newspaper whose explorative prose style brought out the David Attenborough in him. He turned a page now and found a report on an athletics meeting at Sudbury.
‘It says here, “After a slip in the 100 metres hurdles, PC Terry Smith remained lying prostate for some minutes.” That’s a gland way to spend the afternoon.’
Slider looked across at the front page. The picture was of two cute Alsatian puppies sitting in upturned police uniform caps, under the bold headline YAWN PATROL. He began to read the text.
At the moment police work might be nothing more than a playful game of caps and robbers to tiny Dawn and Dynasty, but 12 months from now
… He stopped reading hastily. On the back page was more sports news and an achingly unfunny cartoon. Slider remembered Joanna telling him what orchestral trumpet players said about their job: you spend half the time bored to death, and the other half scared to death. She was away on tour at the moment. He had managed to get thinking about her down to once every ten minutes.
Atherton turned a page. ‘Hullo,’ he said. ‘Here’s a para on Dickson. Obituary.’ He read it in silence. ‘Doesn’t say much,’ he said disapprovingly.
‘They never do,’ Slider said. Die in harness after thirty years of dedicated service, and you merit less room in the paper than tiny Dawn and Dynasty. Of course, to be honest, Dickson had never been that photogenic. And to be fair, they had been about to execute him when he forestalled them by having a heart attack. ‘Anything known about the new bloke?’ Slider asked to take his mind off Dickson, whom he missed and whose treatment he bitterly resented. ‘What’s his name – Boycott?’
‘Barrington,’ Atherton corrected. ‘Detective Superintendent I.V.N. Barrington.’
‘I knew it was some cricketer or other.’ Atherton, who had
never heard of Barrington, looked blank. ‘I’ve never come across him. Have you heard anything?’
‘He’s from Kensington, apparently; before that I don’t know. Originally comes from
somewhere. Carrot country.’ He glanced round at the next table, where DC McLaren – recently transferred from Lambeth to replace Hunt – was reading the
while slowly consuming a microwave-heated Grunwick meat pie straight from the cellophane. Atherton repressed a shudder. ‘Hey, Maurice –you were at Kensington for a while, weren’t you? Did you come across this DS Barrington at all? What’s he like?’
McLaren looked up, removing his mouth from the pie. A lump of something brown and glutinous slipped out from the pastry crust and slopped onto the table. ‘Barrington? Yeah. He’s a great big bloke, face all over acne scars. Looks like a blemished lorry.’
‘Never mind that, what’s he
‘What would you be like if you’d spent your teenage years looking like a pepperoni pizza?
he’s ex-army. Boxed for his unit; fair shot, too. Belongs to some snotty shooting club out Watford way. At Kensington we used to call him Mad Ivan.’
‘Cos of his initials – I.V.N.,’ he explained kindly. ‘Anyway, he comes from Yorkshire, and you know what it’s like out in the sticks – the top bods think they’re gods. I mean, Met guv’nors are human at least – more or less—’ It was plain that he hadn’t seen Slider in the corner. From where he was sitting, Atherton’s tall shape must have screened him.
‘Disciplinarian, is he?’ Atherton interrupted tactfully.
‘You might say,’ McLaren said with grim relish. ‘You lot’ll have to pull your socks up. He won’t let you get away with murder like old Dickson did. Especially you, Jim. No more lying about the office all day reading
then knocking off early for a trip to Harrods Food Hall.’
‘Do you really do that?’ Slider enquired mildly of Atherton. ‘I didn’t know.’
McLaren started, and reddened. ‘Sorry, Guv. I didn’t see you there.’
‘That’s all right. This is most enlightening. So Mr Barrington’s a spit and polish man, is he?’
‘Ex-army. Some said he was in the paras, but I dunno if that’s true. But he likes everything smart.’
‘Well, that suits me,’ Atherton said languidly, leaning back in his chair and stretching his elegant legs out under the table. ‘Maybe he can stop Mackay wearing nylon shirts.’
‘I doubt whether his definition of “smart” will coincide exactly with yours,’ Slider said. He pushed his now tepid tea away and stood up. ‘Ah, well, I suppose I’d better go and do some paperwork.’
As he walked back to his office, he reflected on the last days of DS Robert Scott Dickson, sometimes referred to – though never in his hearing – as ‘George’. He hadn’t quite died at his desk, as freshly-reprimanded DCs generation after generation had hopefully predicted, but it was a close thing. He’d been found there unconscious after the first heart attack, and it had taken four of them plus the ambulance crew to extricate him from his furniture and get him downstairs into the ambulance; for Dickson was a big man.
Slider had visited him in hospital the following day, and had found him strangely shrunken, lying immobile in the high white bed, patched in to the National Grid and running half a dozen VDU monitors. Small he looked amongst so much technology, and very clean and pale, as though he’d been shelled and his gnarled old obstreperous personality cleared tidily away by the nurses. Only his hands, resting on the fold of the sheet, had defied the process: the first and second fingers of each were stained orange almost to the knuckle, kippered by a lifetime’s nicotine, as though he’d smoked them two at a time. He looked for the first time like an old man, and Slider had been suddenly afraid for him, taken aback by this unexpected hint of mortality in someone he’d regarded as hardly human enough ever to die.
Dickson suffered a second attack the following day, a lesser one, but enough to finish him. But it had not really been that, Slider thought, which killed him. There had long been an element that wanted Dickson out, and that element
had been baying more loudly recently, despite the good publicity the Department had gained over the clearing-up of what the tabloids had dubbed the Death Watch Murders. Even there, though presiding over a successful investigation, Dickson had not come across well in front of the news cameras: he was neither a lean, smart, keen-eyed achiever, nor the fatherly, dependable copper of public yearnings. Unpredictable of temper and permanently ash-strewn, like a mobile Mount Etna, he had scowled at the journalists’ questions and all but told them to mind their own bloody business. Standing at his elbow and wincing inwardly, Slider had imagined the local editor hastily changing the proposed jocularly approving headline of DICKSON OF SHEPHERD’S BUSH GREEN for an irate and rhetorical WHO DOES HE THINK HE IS?
In the end if top brass wanted you out, they’d always find a way, and Dickson’s faults being as many and manifest as his virtues, he didn’t make it hard for them. There had been a certain amount of fancy footwork on the part of the area chiefs, and some flirtatious meetings with members of Dickson’s team who were not-so-discreetly pumped for incriminating evidence against him. Slider, whom Atherton described affectionately as CSN – conspiratorially sub-normal – hadn’t understood at first what was going on. When his own turn came he met both veiled promises and veiled threats with puzzled blankness. Later Atherton and Joanna together explained it all to him, and when he wanted to go back in there and punch noses, they assured him he couldn’t knowingly have done better than he had unwittingly.
But it angered and depressed him all the same. ‘If I’d realised what they were getting at—! All those questions –d’you know, the bastards even tried to make out that the old man’s racially prejudiced? I didn’t twig it then, but I see now why they kept asking why we had no black DCs on our firm—’
‘You’re not allowed to say “black” any more. You have to say “epidermically challenged”.’
‘Shut up, Jim,’ Joanna said. ‘This is serious.’
‘I mean, Dickson of all people – he hardly even notices whether people are male or female, never mind what colour
they are. And all that guff about his relationship with the press! As if any copper can keep those jackals happy, without feeding them his balls in a buttered roll.’
‘We’re all going to have to keep our heads down for a while,’ Atherton said, suddenly serious. ‘When the shit hits the fan, it’s better to be a live coward than a dead hero.’
‘I hate you when you talk like that,’ Joanna interrupted plaintively.
‘That’s from the Michael Douglas books of aphorisms,’ Atherton said in hurt tones.
‘You sound like some dickhead junior sales executive trying to impress the typists.’
‘But what about loyalty?’ Slider asked, still angry and ignoring the asides.
‘Depends,’ Atherton said, on the defensive. ‘Do you think Dickson would be loyal to you?’
‘Not if you’d done wrong.’
‘He hasn’t done wrong,’ Slider said, frustrated.
‘Then he’s got nothing to fear,’ Atherton said with maddening logic.
In the end, the Mighty Ones picked on drink; and Slider heard it first from Dickson himself.
It was at the end of a routine discussion in Dickson’s office. Slider, waiting to be dismissed, saw a change come over his boss. Dickson said suddenly, ‘I’ve been offered a posting to the computer centre. Letter here from Reggie Wetherspoon.’ He made a flat gesture towards his tottering in-tray. Wetherspoon was the Area Commander.
‘Come on, Bill, don’t give me that innocent look! You know what’s been going on. You had a cosy little cup of tea with Wetherspoon yourself last week, didn’t you?’ The irritation was feigned, Slider could see that. Dickson’s expression was watchful: a man counting his friends, perhaps? Or perhaps merely assessing his weapons. ‘I’ve been given the choice: sideways promotion, or a formal enquiry into my drinking habits in which I’ll be found unfit for duty and required to resign. I can make it easy for myself, Wetherspoon says, or I can do it the hard way. It’s up to me.’
‘You’ll fight them, sir,’ Slider said. It wasn’t really a question so much as a demand for reassurance. He had seen Dickson over the years in many moods and many modes, but this one was new. He seemed neither angry nor depressed nor even afraid; only very calm and rather distant, as though he had other things on his mind and was trying to be politely attentive to a friend’s child at the same time.
‘Bottle fatigue,’ Dickson said thoughtfully. ‘I don’t know. That would be a stain on the record, all right’