Disturbing shadows from the past are awoken in the latest Inspector McLean thriller from bestselling author James Oswald.
Silence fills the old house like a pool of stagnant water. Sunlight filtering in through the thick ivy clogging the fly-spotted windows picks out motes as they dance and spin in the heat. There is a stillness to the air, as if nothing has disturbed this place in decades. Only ghosts walk these abandoned rooms. Only spirits haunt the long, cobwebbed corridors. Even the rats avoid it and the only bird anywhere near lies dead in the hallway, trapped and starved and rotted to feather and bone.
She treads lightly on the wooden stairs, footsteps leaving imprints in the dust. Light fingers caress the bannisters as she descends from high above. If she notices the dereliction around her, she doesn’t show it, stepping across the litter-strewn hallway without a care. She walks through a library filled with rotting bookshelves, their books collapsed into piles of decaying paper and leather on the floor; broken furniture worn down by time more than use. The fireplace in the drawing room is filled with ash and twigs, a small sapling growing where its parent was long ago put to the fire. The dining room is laid out for a meal, the food on the plates half-eaten and now turned to dirt. A fern unfurls in the corner where water has leaked in through a broken window. Its primeval fronds are delicate and pale, a home for insects and spiders. She stops for a moment, taking one leaf lightly between finger and thumb like a seamstress eyeing up a piece of fine cloth.
‘I heard a noise. Did something disturb you?’
She turns slowly, recognising the voice of her brother.
‘I woke up. I was asleep for so long.’ She stretches like a cat, long arms reaching for the cracked, damp-spotted ceiling. The bones in her back and neck click and pop as if she has not moved in a very long time. She yawns wide, revealing pure white teeth in a mouth as black as the night.
‘We are needed in the city.’ He emerges from the shadows, her double. She leaves the fern, steps through piles of dried leaves and the skeletons of long-dead animals until she is standing directly in front of him. Together it is clear they are twins, but the embrace she drapes around him is far more intimate than any sibling greeting. He wears her like a coat for long moments before drawing away, pushing her back. He is dressed for the road and lifts a heavy leather bag as if its meaning is obvious. ‘We are needed in the city.’
‘I know. I felt it too.’ She wipes at her lips with a slender finger, slips it into her mouth as if to taste whatever is there. The slightest of pauses as she looks around the derelict room, then with a shrug of her shoulders she turns for the door.
‘All units check in.’
Detective Inspector Tony McLean sat in the driver’s seat of the unmarked police car, staring across the dark street at a row of Georgian terrace houses. A few lights shone out through chinks in the curtains, but most of these buildings were offices, their workers long since gone home. Further up the street, scaffolding clung to a facade like ivy, skips filling up with seventies Artex-covered partitioning and mile upon mile of outdated wiring. Whether it was being turned into flats or just one rich person’s home, he couldn’t tell, but slowly this part of the New Town was being reclaimed as residential.
‘Everyone in place. Might as well get this show on the road.’ Beside him, Detective Chief Inspector Jo Dexter stared at her chunky airwave set. In the confined space of the car, all McLean could smell was stale cigarette and mint. Not overwhelming, but enough that he’d rather be outside. In truth, he’d far rather be directing the operation from the front, but that was sergeant work.
‘All units proceed as planned.’ Jo Dexter placed the airwave set on the dashboard in front of her, tuned to the channel designated for the operation, then settled back in her seat.
‘Christ, I could do with a fag right now.’
‘Thought you’d quit,’ McLean said, even though he knew better.
‘Aye. Thought I had too. Thought you’d gone back to CID as well.’ Dexter peered out of the windscreen at the activity across the street. A dozen uniforms poured out of an unmarked Transit van, their hi-vis jackets reflecting the street lights as they clattered up the stone steps and in through the front door their colleagues had just rammed open. A few muffled screams of alarm wafted out on the night-time air.
‘Seems like none of us get what we want these days. Except maybe DCI Spence. Never thought I’d look back on Dagwood’s reign with fondness.’
Dexter opened her mouth to say something, but her airwave set squawked an interruption.
‘Scene secure, ma’am. You might want to come over now.’
McLean climbed out of the car, feeling the autumn chill in the air. At least it was fresh. Across the road, the house that had been the centre of attention was ablaze with light now, shutters thrown open and curtains drawn to reveal whatever sordid secrets lay within. He looked up and down the street, only slightly surprised to see another car parked with two people sitting in it, the silhouette of a long lens. This raid was meant to have been kept quiet, but someone always told the press.
‘Paps?’ Dexter asked, seeing the direction of his gaze.
‘Almost certainly. Nothing like getting a snap of someone important being hauled out of a knocking shop by the rozzers, is there?’
‘Aye, well. We can send a couple of constables over to distract them. Let’s go see who’s been caught with their troosers down first.’
The inside of the house was warm and bright. McLean stepped through the front door into a large reception hall filled with bustling police. Comfortable sofas lined the walls, low tables in front of them scattered with magazines and a few half-empty glasses. It might have been a posh boutique hotel rather than somewhere people paid for sex. Chances were that would be a line the lawyers would try, if it got that far.
Detective Sergeant Kirsty Ritchie spotted them and pushed her way through the melee. She wore a stab vest over her dark blue suit, but it was hanging open. If there had been any threat it was now long past.
‘Exactly what we were expecting, sir, ma’am.’ Ritchie had an airwave set in one hand and shoved it into her pocket as she spoke. ‘There’s a couple more reception rooms on this floor, a dozen bedrooms upstairs. We’re still working on the basement.’
‘I thought you said the scene was secure,’ Dexter said.
‘Oh it is, ma’am. Very.’ Ritchie smiled, something McLean hadn’t seen much of lately. ‘It’s going to take a while to get some of the people out of their . . . restraints.’
‘Anyone important?’ McLean asked. ‘Only the press are here already. We’ll need to be careful getting people out. You know what the lawyers are like. Any suggestion we’ve set someone up and the whole operation’s bust.’
Ritchie’s smile faded into a frown. ‘Press? How the fuck did they find out?’ She shook her head. ‘No matter. We can get a van in the back, take everyone out that way. I’ll sort it.’
‘Good. We’ll need to talk to them all first. Keep them separated until we’ve taken statements.’
‘Shouldn’t be a problem. All the johns are in individual rooms. Well, most of them. I’ve got a uniform on each door. No one in, no one out.’
‘Good work, Sergeant.’ Dexter gave Ritchie a friendly pat on the shoulder, then turned to McLean. ‘Guess the sooner we get started, eh?’
McLean looked around the hallway. A few of the girls had been brought through and sat on the sofas. Some were in tears, some defiant, most just head down and shoulders slumped in resignation. What struck him most was how ordinary they looked. They weren’t especially young or particularly old, not noticeably thin or fat. Some looked like they had dressed for a particular kind of party, but mostly they were just a bunch of women, shocked and frightened by a visit from the local constabulary in the middle of the night.
‘Top down or bottom up?’ he asked, getting a look of puzzled horror from Dexter and Ritchie both.
‘Shall we begin with the basement and work our way to the attic, or do you want to do it the other way round?’
‘Oh, right.’ Dexter let out a short bark of a laugh, startling a couple of nearby uniforms. ‘Let’s split up. I’ll take Ritchie and start at the top. You can have the basement. I’m guessing DC Gregg’s still down there?’
‘She was last time I saw her.’ Ritchie gave McLean a naughty wink as she and Dexter headed for the stairs. ‘Have fun, sir.’
He watched them go, then asked one of the constables for directions to the basement. Through the back of the house, the decor was much the same, a couple of large reception rooms either side of a narrow back hallway, window looking out on to what might once have been a garden but was now a concreted parking yard. Steps worn smooth by age led him down into a stone-walled corridor, neatly arched ceiling surprisingly high overhead. The flagstone floor had been covered with a narrow strip of dark red carpet, and what looked like heavy iron sconces hung at regular intervals like an unconvincing film set. The torches in them flickered in a way flame never would, and closer inspection showed them to be made of plastic with electric bulbs concealed in their tops.
McLean was looking for the wires when a shriek of alarm distracted him. He rushed to the nearest open door, and as he took in the scene beyond it, he understood Ritchie’s wink.
It was a large room, with a vaulted ceiling held up by squat stone pillars and lit by more of the fake torches. Two uniformed officers, one male, one female, stood with their backs to the door, staring at a metal cage suspended from an iron ring set into the ceiling. Perhaps a little over six foot long and cylindrical in shape, it was only just large enough to contain the fat man locked within it. His feet were a few inches off the ground and apart from a black leather face mask he was completely naked.
‘Ah, sir. I was hoping someone senior might get here soon.’
McLean dragged his attention from the dangling man, seeing the familiar form of Detective Constable Sandy Gregg emerge from the shadows on the far side of the room. As his eyes adjusted, he saw yet more strange apparatus
and what appeared to be another man.
‘What’s going on in here, Constable? Why’s this man still locked up?’
‘Key’s snapped off in the padlock, sir. Don’t know if it was done on purpose or not.’ Gregg walked up to the cage and rattled the offending article, close to the man’s flaccid member. Perhaps feeling the movement, he threw his head from side to side, mumbling something.
‘Think he’s gagged under that hood.’ Gregg let go of the padlock, reached up and patted the man’s arm through the bars of his cage. ‘Try to stay calm, sir. We’ll have you out of there in a jiffy.’
‘If he’s gagged, who made that noise?’
‘Oh, that’s Mr Jefferies.’ DC Gregg pointed over into the dark corner, where McLean could now clearly see a man leaning uncomfortably over something that looked a bit like a coffee table made of Meccano.
‘What’s wrong with him?’
‘I think he’s taken too many little blue pills, sir. Either that or he’s just really turned on by a uniform. We’ve been having difficulty, um, extracting him. Attached by a rather sensitive part. Doctor’s on the way.’
McLean looked from one man to the other. No doubt the women who had been ministering to them were in the group upstairs. Well, these two weren’t going anywhere in a hurry. He could come back to them later. He turned to the uniformed officers.
‘You two stay and wait for the doctor. Gregg, you’re with me. Let’s go and see what other delights this place has in store for us.’