First Chapter: SEVENTY-SEVEN CLOCKS by Christopher Fowler
Fiction - Mystery & Detective | Bantam | Paperback | November 2005 | $6.99 | 0-553-58715-3
She recognized the symptoms immediately.
The stipple of sweat in the small of her back. Ice-heat prickling her forehead. A sense of skittering panic in the pit of her stomach. As she walked faster, she thought: This is absurd, it can't harm me. But beneath her mind's voice ran another, dark and urgent. It's not the night, but what waits in it.
The sun had barely set, but the road ahead was indistinct in the fading light. She refused to consider what might be out there. The Prince of Darkness is a gentleman, hissed the voice, a phrase recalled from her schooldays. She had no intention of meeting the prince this evening, and quickened her pace, not daring to look back. The clouds of night opened like ink blossoming in water, threatening to overtake her. Blackbirds skirted the trees, taking measure of the rising wind.
For as long as she could remember, Jerry Gates had been terrified of the dark. The cause of this nyctophobia was beyond the reach of recollection: some early trauma at the top of the stairs, perhaps. Her mother accused her of having an overactive imagination; she made it sound like a harmful thing. Others would have seen misted fields on either side of the road, bare elm trees blurring in the dusk. Jerry could see demons swarming.
She tried to read her watch, but it was too dark. Screw Nicholas and his country weekend, she thought. If he'd shown some warning sign of his intentions, she would never have come in the first place. The man should have been wearing a red toggle, Pull To Inflate Ego, like a life jacket. His personality had changed the moment he'd realized that she wasn't going to bed with him.
Now it was almost dark, and she was stuck in the deserted Kent countryside on a Sunday night, without a car, in the freezing cold, with an irrational dread nipping at her, goading her into a trot. She was a town girl, used to city lights and cars and sirens and people. It's so quiet around here you could hear a cow break wind five miles away. Where the hell is everybody?
She thought back over the weekend, and the mistake she had made in accepting his invitation. On Saturday morning they had 'motored down to the lodge'Nicholas's words, as if they were living in the roaring twentiesin the red MG that kept stalling, its roof folded back to admit the freezing country air.
The 'lodge,' a damp Victorian monstrosity situated on the far side of Dettling, had been designed in such a way that the watery warmth of the winter sun was excluded from it through every phase of the earth's rotation. The ground floor was surrounded by tall wet nettles, the brickwork obscured by reeking fungus. The rooms were virtually devoid of furniture. There was no central heating. Nicholas's family might have breeding, but they obviously had no money. The upkeep of such property, he'd explained, was staggering, and his parents preferred to stay in their Knightsbridge flat.
It didn't take her long to realize that Nicholas used the empty house for sex. One look at the bedrooms was all she needed to know. Adult magazines, wine bottles, mirrors, and candles, a lad's pathetic idea of what would please women. The blinds were drawn tight in all the upper rooms, and probably remained so throughout the year.
Her partner's dinner conversation had consisted of college tales laden with sexual innuendo. Nicholas was a different person on his home ground, all smirk and swagger, and she hated it. It was as if she had ceased to be his friend, and had become his quarry. The second time he brushed her breast while reaching for the wine, Jerry had announced that she was going to bed. No amount of persuasion could keep her downstairs.
She'd spent a sleepless night barricaded into her room, wearily listening to his pleas and insults through the door.
She had never looked forward to dawn so much in her life. Rising at the earliest opportunity, she had listened to the farming forecasts of incoming rain while frying herself bacon. Shortly after ten Nicholas had appeared in his dressing gown. The blackness of his mood barely allowed him to acknowledge her presence. The rest of the morning passed in gelid silence. Denied his conquest, Nicholas had regressed to a sullen schoolboy.
Her uppermost concern had been the problem of getting home. Trouble with the carbeneath which he passed most of the afternoonprevented Nicholas from driving her to the station. Typically, there was no cab service operating in the area. Jerry found herself left alone to wander the rooms of the old farmhouse. As she examined the shelves of discoloured paperbacks, she grew more bored and upset. Finally she had collected her overnight bag and struck out across the field in the direction of the main road.
She would have been happy never to see him again, but he would be there the next morning, at work. They even shared the same damned counter. Good judgement call, Jerry, she thought. You really know how to pick them.
She studied the dim road, hoping to see a light, but there was nothing. There was no rising moon. The darkness was nearly complete. The thought punched the air from her chest.
She began to run along the narrow lane as a downpour started. The rain added to her deepening panic. Bare branches entwined overhead like the spiny legs of insects. The trees and hedgerows were filled with scampering black imps that dropped with the rain and tried to catch her, but she ran on, hugging the curve in the road.
The dark drew forth stalking men. They lay in wait for her, appearing in clumps of wet leaves, unfolding their fingers like scythes. They could not survive in London, where there was always light even in the darkest hour, but here in the black woods and meadows they could pursue their pleasures without restraint....
Then she saw the light of the telephone box.
A red one, familiar as an old friend, with rectangular windows and directories and a buttery lightbulb that glowed through the torrent. She smothered her crawling fears and concentrated on the sanctuary ahead. Wrenching back the door on its leather straps, she threw herself inside.
Relief, afforded by the single bare lightbulb, washed over her, and she sank to her knees, filling the booth with angry sobs, furious at her own weakness. Everything had gone wrong. She had intended to use the weekend as a protest. Instead of attending some horrible charity dinner at Claridges with her parents, instead of keeping an appointment with her therapist, she had taken off for a weekend with a man she barely knew. She might even have had sex with Nicholas if he'd proved to be a halfway decent human being. She'd only wanted to show everyone that she had a mind of her own, but even carrying out this simple task had been beyond her.
As the rain pounded the roof, she drew the knees of her fringed jeans up beneath her chin and wept, crouching low in the fetid booth, protected from surrounding blackness as hostile as the surface of an alien planet.
She remained trapped in the haven of light, not daring to move, until a passing motorist found her over two hours later.
Daily Telegraph, Monday 6 December 1973
The fine sunny spells of the last few days are set to end as we bid farewell to the capital's unseasonably clear skies. Tumbling temperatures and strong northerly winds are on their way, bringing with them moderate to heavy rain. This will affect all parts of the Greater London area by nightfall. No one in London should ever be surprised by the weather, but this year we can expect winter to arrive with a vengeance.
The elderly lawyer dropped his newspaper on to the marble surface of the washroom counter. Nothing in the business section about the Japanese bid, he thought. At least that's something to be thankful for. Besides, he had something else on his mind. He was still annoyed about his hotel room. But there was no way he could pursue the matter further. He had complained as much as he dared; to say any more would risk drawing attention to himself.
He filled the sink with fiercely heated water and splashed some on his face. What a business; never in all his years of dealing with the family had he heard of such a thing. He stared back at himself from red-rimmed eyes. He needed a good night's sleep. He could do with being ten years younger, too. He was tired of doing the dirty work for others. His profession had once been a noble one.
He dried his hands on a thick cotton towel. A reflected movement in one of the stalls turned him from the basins. One of the cubicles was occupied. As he watched, the toilet door swung half open. The figure behind it remained in shadow, silently watching.
The lawyer stepped to one side, trying to see the face. The door swung slowly wide until it banged against the tiled wall.
He tried to raise the alarm, but the wretched cloth-wrapped creature ran forward and raised his hands, pressing them over the lawyer's face.
After that there was nothing.
Nothing at all.
Then it was a second, a minute, an hour later.
He had no idea how much time had passed, but he was still in the washroom, lying by the basins, feeling dizzy. He checked his ornate gold wristwatch, but had trouble focusing. He had a terrible headache. His neck hurt. The washroom was empty. The cubicles stood with their doors wide, the silence broken only by a dripping tap. He needed to take a short nap. Unable to comprehend what had happened, Maximillian Jacob pulled himself up, picked up his newspaper and weaved his way back to the lobby of the Savoy Hotel. He located a deep armchair in a quiet corner, where he could rest without being disturbed.
Jerry Gates checked her watch again and frowned. Five to six. Another five minutes until the evening receptionist was due to take over. Through the foyer doors she watched the turning taxis' beams fragmenting through needles of rain. The street outside the Savoy was the only one in London where they drove on the other side of the road; everything about the hotel was quirky in some way.
It still hurt to think about last night, but she was determined not to let the pain surface. It had been past midnight when she had finally reached home. She had never seen her parents so angry. Thankfully, Nicholas had ignored her for most of today, except for an acid comment about her tired appearance.
The hotel was unusually quiet for a Monday afternoon, but the lull would not last long. Many of the three hundred rooms above their heads were being readied for Common Market delegates. They were arriving to attend a conference scheduled to start in Downing Street a week from today, on 13 December. Speakers had been invited from throughout the Commonwealth, too. The staff had been briefed on correct modes of address.
For the moment, though, the lobby was a haven of peace. A disoriented Italian family stood with maps folded under their arms like weapons, waiting for the rain to stop before venturing out in new Burberry raincoats. Someone was dozing beneath a newspaper in one of the armchairs near the entrance to the American Bar. Nicholas was dealing with a pair of regular patrons, two querulous Spanish women who had been visiting the hotel together for the past thirty years. For many guests the Savoy was a second home rather than a hotel, idiosyncratic and personalized in its handling of their requests, famed for its attention to detail.
Although she had joined the hotel just a few weeks ago, Jerry had been made to feel like a member of an exclusive, if rather remote, family. Her mother had been upset when she announced her intention of taking the job. Gwen and Jack Gates had long expected her to apply for a position in the family business. For their only daughter to have chosen her own employmentand as a menialwas unthinkable. Jerry scowled at the thought as she gathered up her belongings. Let them think whatever they liked. She was enjoying her newfound anonymity.
'You're in a rush,' observed Nicholas. 'Got a hot date?' There was no hint of sarcasm in his voice, but she knew better than to trust him now.
'Chance would be a fine thing.' She threw a book into her backpack and zipped it up. 'I've got a figure-drawing class.'
'Of course, it's none of my business.' Nicholas checked his blond hair in the mottled lobby mirrors. 'If you're really interested in studying art, why are you working here?'
'You're right,' Jerry agreed. 'It's none of your business.' She noticed now that Nicholas had thin hairy wrists, a bony throat, and sprouting nostrils. He was a dim snob who used his public-school accent to ward off undesirables like a vampire hunter with a crucifix. How could she not have seen this before? His habit of joking whenever women were mentioned should have tipped her off to some kind of sexual inadequacy. Thank God I didn't unlock the bedroom door, she decided. Hopefully, their weekend encounter would never be mentioned again. Men like Nicholas were concerned about saving face.
'Wait a minute.' Nicholas pointed at the revolving door. The porter was carrying through several pieces of ancient, scuffed luggage. 'Someone's checking in. You may as well make it your last job tonight.'
'Thanks a lot.' She dropped her bag on to a chair and returned to the counter. The man walking across the carpet towards her was tall, broad, and black. His skin seemed an extension of his bronzed leather jacket. Dreadlocks fell in tightly woven strands between his shoulder blades, knotted in complex patterns, like the mane of a lion. She had seen Afros, but nothing like this. Standing amid a jumble of well-traveled bags, he looked like a particularly confrontational piece of modern sculpture. He's overdoing the rock-opera look, she thought, vaguely irritated.
'Hullo, I'm checking inJoseph Herrick.' The voice was softly seasoned with an American accent. As she confirmed the new guest's reservation and assigned him one of the larger suites she averted her eyes, performing the prime Savoy hospitality function of never appearing surprised. She was, though.
The elderly Spanish women stared at the newcomer's heavy motorcycle boots in distaste, lowering their gaze to the ground and up again as if expecting someone to come and remove him.
Jerry felt like coming to Mr. Herrick's defence. After accepting his registration form she found herself speaking with rather more volume than necessary. 'Here is your suite key, Sir. If I can do anything to make your stay more comfortable, please don't hesitate to call me.'
Excerpted from SEVENTY-SEVEN CLOCKS by Christopher Fowler. Copyright © 2005 by Christopher Fowler. Excerpted by permission of Bantam, a division of Random House, Inc. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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