Short story: ‘Bryant and May On The Beat’ by Christopher Fowler

Image of Christopher Fowler author of Bryant and May on the Beat a Dead Good short story

This December, to celebrate the festive season, we have some criminally good reads to stuff into your stocking.

These short stories are lovingly crafted by some of our bestselling crime and thriller authors and we’ll be releasing them over December exclusively to you, our Dead Good members.

Here’s the first short story from Christopher Fowler – ‘Bryant and May On The Beat’.

‘Bryant and May On The Beat’ by Christopher Fowler

‘I’m out of ideas.’

John May, senior detective at the Peculiar Crimes Unit, studied the living room of the chaotic tenth floor apartment. Its contents were sealed beneath a cowl of clear plastic, designed to prevent contamination of evidence. ‘His body was found over there by his landlady and was taken straight to University College Hospital. The last time anyone saw him was Christmas Eve, four days ago. The doctors want to know if he was a farmer or had visited a farm in the past two weeks.’

‘Seems a bit unlikely,’ said Arthur Bryant, his partner, laboriously unwrapping a rhubarb and custard boiled sweet. ‘Living in the Barbican, hardly the most rural spot in London. Why farming?’

‘They think he died of anthrax. He had mouth ulcers, had complained of stomach cramps and feeling sick. It’s used for bioterrorism.’

‘I remember. It was sent through the American Postal Service in 2001 and infected more than twenty people. Turned out to have been mailed by someone local with a grudge. Maybe the same thing happened here.’ The boiled sweet rattled against Bryant’s ill-fitting false teeth as he turned the problem over. ‘What do we know about him?’

‘William Warren, forty-seven, part-time musician, played with a jazz band in pubs, ran a stall in Camden market, no known affiliations with any political organization, moved here after he broke up with his wife last year. It seems an amicable enough split. He was still seeing his kids at the weekends. Nothing much else to go on.’

Bryant lifted a corner of the plastic seal, raised a piano lid and gave an impromptu, not to mention terrible, rendition of Chopsticks.

‘Don’t do that, the room hasn’t been dusted for dabs yet.’

‘Music hath charms to soothe a savage breast.’ Bryant put the lid back down. ‘I suppose you checked his mailbox.’

‘The landlady says there was nothing out of the ordinary. She always opened his stuff for him.’

‘Why?’

‘He had a habit of avoiding his bills. Bit of an old hippie, didn’t approve of paying fat cats.’

‘Bet he didn’t mind supporting the black economy, though,’ Bryant sniffed. ‘Music and market stalls, I don’t suppose he got around to paying tax on his earnings. Do we know his movements over Christmas?’

‘Same as always. He saw his kids, played his gigs, ran his stall, went drinking with his mates.’

Cherchez la femme?’

‘Well, I think there’s something going on with the landlady. Ex-rock chick.’

‘He doesn’t sound like the sort of person who gets targeted by an international terrorist gang. Selling anything dodgy on the side?’ Bryant loosened his moulting pea-green scarf and sniffed the air. ‘Doesn’t smell very fresh in here.’

‘Not that I know of. All we have to go on is what’s in this apartment.’ May carefully stepped over a pile of dirty socks and surveyed the room. Some partially repaired musical instruments were arranged in one corner. The sofa and two armchairs were piled with sheet music, volumes of poetry, bits of home-made pottery, hand-woven woolly hats, flutes, bongo drums and various hand-painted ethnic bits of wood.

‘You can tell a lot about someone by looking at his home,’ said Bryant disapprovingly. He raised an empty plastic pudding pot and peered into it. ‘It’s all a bit knit-your-own-muesli. I bet he was a vegetarian. Probably poisoned by a rogue sprout. The thing is –’ Bryant gingerly replaced the tub on the windowsill.
‘– people like Mr Warren are vaguely tiresome but they don’t usually have any enemies. Why do you think he was murdered?’

‘Anthrax is hard to catch. You can get it from tainted meat except, as you rightly surmise, he was a vegetarian. It’s one of the diseases that comes up as an alert on the system because of its terrorist connotations, so we were asked to check it out.’

Bryant wasn’t listening. He had twisted himself under the window and was squinting up at the sills.

‘What are you doing?’

‘These locks have been painted over at least half a dozen times. People can’t be bothered to take the old paint off anymore. What’s wrong with a blowlamp?’ He pottered over to the door and flicked experimentally at the hasp. ‘Was he a skinny man? Not much meat on his bones?’

‘Yes, I believe so. Why do you ask?’

‘Jumpers everywhere, rubber seals on the door, draught excluder. The flats in the Barbican are notoriously overheated, and yet he obviously felt cold. It’s suggestive.’

‘Of what?’ May wondered.

Bryant ignored the question. He withdrew a pair of old brown leather gloves and tightened his scarf, then produced an enormous pair of kitchen scissors from within his rumpled overcoat. Stabbing the plastic seal, he rooted about in the cardboard boxes that stood behind the sofa.

‘You really shouldn’t –’ May began, then gave up.

‘He made those ghastly Tibetan hats and drums for his stall and sold them, along with ethnic musical bits and bobs, is that right?’ asked Bryant.

‘I believe so.’

‘And he was an enthusiastic musician?’

‘According to the neighbours.’

‘Well, there you go. This place should be sealed off.’

‘It was. You walked through the seals coming in, remember?’

Bryant grunted. ‘Mr Warren wasn’t involved in a terrorist attack. And it wasn’t murder or suicide, either. Accidental death. Let’s pack up here and go to the pub.’ His knees creaked as he rose and dusted himself down.

‘That’s it?’ said May, amazed. ‘Is that all you have to say? Pack up and go to the pub?’

‘It’s either that or return home to the latest of Alma’s left-over Christmas creations, yes. It was thinking about her overcooked drumsticks. You see?’

‘No, I really don’t.’

‘Do you need it spelled out?’ Bryant’s aqueous blue eyes widened in innocence. ‘The windows were sealed shut. The door was closed tight, too. There was no fresh air. He made his own music! Look!’ He pointed through the plastic at the stack of homemade bongo drums arranged on the sofa. ‘He covered the drums with uncured animal skins – they’re cheaper, and they’re also illegal. And when he thrashed them with his drumsticks, he released their toxic bacteria spores, and accidentally ingested them.’ Bryant picked up his battered trilby and found that the trim had been sewn with festive tinsel. ‘How long have I been wearing this?’

‘Since the Christmas party. The girls put it there. They thought it would brighten you up.’

The End

We didn’t see that one coming did you?

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