Bryant & May on the Loose: A Peculiar Crimes Unit Mystery

1 See The Victoria Vanishes.

1

‘A BIT OF BAD LUCK’

The sleek metal cylinder was a little over a foot long, snub-nosed and topped with an inverted V of steel. It weighed about a kilogram, and the section with the fin pattern had been painted green. It hung in the air for a moment after being released, almost as if it had become weightless, then began to roll down through the thin low clouds. It had split away from the other incendiary bombs released from their rack, and now that its carrier had already droned past it fell silently, accompanied only by the soft whispering of the wind.

Below, the clouds parted and the brown curves of the terraced streets came into focus. Grey slate roofs, orange chimney pots, scruffy little back gardens, a child playing on the pavement with a red toy car—the details stood out in sharp relief. It all seemed so silent and undisturbed; there had been no warning siren.

The mundane urban topography came clearer and closer, houses on wide cobbled streets that curved in arching paisley patterns beside the shining stripe of the canal. Makeshift shelters, chicken sheds, lines full of washing, outside toilets—the distance between the bomb and the ground closed fast as the cylinder spiralled down toward the crowded houses of King’s Cross.

A sudden wind buffeted it and shifted its direction a little to the right. There were two terraced homes just below it now. The nose of the bomb swung first over one, then the other, as if trying to decide which it would hit.

‘I’ll have to be getting back, Mrs B,’ said Ethel, drying her hands and replacing the tea towel on its rod. ‘My Alf creates merry hell if he don’t get his tea on time, and I’m late as it is.’

‘Do tell him it was my fault,’ urged Bea. ‘It was kind of you to help out today.’

Ethel wiped her nose and returned her handkerchief to her sleeve. ‘You do what you can. I’ll just be glad when everything settles back to normal.’ She unknotted her apron, folded it neatly, then yanked a grey felt hat over her hair and stabbed it into place with a pin.

‘Could you take these back as you go?’ Bea handed Ethel a pair of empty bottles, cod liver oil and concentrated orange juice. ‘And you’d better pick up some more soap flakes at Lynch’s.’ She glanced over at her husband, who was half asleep in front of the fire, his chair tipped back at a precarious angle. ‘Harold, Eth’s off now.’

‘Oh, don’t wake him up, Mrs B. He’s like Alf, dead to the world when he’s not up and about, but it’s a good thing. Since we lost Bert it’s been hard for any of us to get a good night’s sleep.’ Ethel’s oldest son had been killed at sea. She slipped the bottles into her bicycle basket. ‘I’ll collect the linens from Wallace’s and be back in the morning around half past ten.’

‘I shall be here,’ Bea promised. ‘I agreed to let the Services Comfort Committee have the piano, and they’re coming to collect it. I warned them it will need tuning. Mrs Porter is donating all her sheet music.’

‘I don’t know what you’re going to do for a sing song now, I’m sure.’

Bea was about to tell Ethel that the National Gallery’s lunch-hour concerts would be a preferable alternative to Harold hammering out ‘Whispering Grass’ on the upright, but she didn’t get a chance to speak. Nor did Ethel manage to get her bicycle out of the scullery doorway, because the room shook and all the