Langdale and Pike Investigate
Written by Richard W. Straw
Illustrated by Andy Paciorek
They found the body a little after nine o’clock on the evening of November 17th, in the year of our Lord 1904. A young couple, walking home from an evening out, hurrying to escape the cold, took the short cut along the back of Lowther Street. And so they came across the body, lying in a puddle of gradually freezing water and blood.
They had to call in the big boys for this one. Murder was unheard of in Penrith. Violence was rare, save the occasional bruise-up outside the Druids’ Arms when spirits were both flowing and high. The local police station was not equipped for such things. Constable Whitehead, junior at the office by virtue of being the most recent recruit, had been sent careering off on the road to Kendal on the station bicycle, and from there, a telephone call had gone to Carlisle.
By the time the message got to Detective Inspector Langdale, via a healthy knock on the door from Sergeant Pike, it was well past midnight. Langdale was trying against all the odds to get a decent night’s sleep, his first for a long time. Cursing the world and all its iniquities, he stumbled to the front door, swaddled in blankets and sheets. The sight of Pike, big, bluff, enthusiastic, was almost enough to make him slam it shut without a word, but duty overrode annoyance just enough to restrain him. He stared at the sergeant questioningly.
“Bad one, sir,” Pike said. That was enough for Langdale. “Body, very messed up, Penrith.”
Langdale suppressed a groan of despair. Thirty-one years in the force, and still these cases seemed to find him. Another long, cold journey to look at a corpse. Wonderful fun for a November weekend. He ushered Pike into the sitting room. The fire had long since died, and the room was morgue-like in its frigidity, but this didn’t seem to bother the sergeant, who perched himself on the chaise-longue, bowler on knee, smiling stupidly, whilst Langdale swore his way back to the bedroom, and attempted, with only moderate success, to get dressed in the dark and without unwinding himself too much from his sheltering cocoon of warm bedclothes. Ten minutes later, they were in a police trap, heading for Penrith. It was about then that Langdale noticed that his boots were on the wrong feet.
They drew up to the police station at Penrith at about half past three. Langdale had attempted to sleep on the journey, but the bumps and bangs of the roads had made it impossible, so he had been reduced to huddling down into his overcoat and glaring jealously at Pike as he gently snored in the seat opposite, head buried beneath scarf and hat. There was no morgue, so a makeshift facility had been put together in one of the larger cells beneath the station. It was freezing down there, somehow even colder than in the open air. They were awaiting the county pathologist, but the messenger who had been despatched to Hamilton Gould’s house in Keswick had been told in no uncertain terms that he would not be rising before eight o’clock, and the dead could certainly be left in these temperatures. So for the moment, there seemed little to do. Langdale had sent Pike to the George Hotel to try to rustle up a couple of rooms, but the landlord was clearly more obstinate than the inspector, and no amount of banging on the door would rouse him at this time in the morning. An offer from Knowles, the local Sergeant in charge, to go and see the site where the body was found was met simply with an Anglo Saxon epithet. Langdale was sure Doctor Gould was correct. The body and the murder site could wait. He just wanted to sleep. Was that too much to ask?
* * *
He and Pike spent the rest of the night on opposite benches in one of the empty cells, being gently serenaded by the drunken snores of one of their neighbours. He supposed he must eventually have fallen into slumber, as he was conscious of being woken by Pike just after nine o’clock, and a large mug of rather stale-smelling tea being thrust under his nose.
“Doctor’s here,” Pike said, with loathsome chirpiness, “Thought you might like a cup of tea, sir.”
There was no other breakfast forthcoming, so he sipped gingerly at the tea, trying not to gag on the foul taste, and wandered to the makeshift pathology lab. He had barely got his nose around the door before Gould barked at him to “Leave me alone for at least an hour!” He beat hasty retreat and decided that the murder site might be a better bet.
It was a short walk to the murder site. There was a huddled hush across the town, people scurrying about in the frozen morning air, not looking at each other. Langdale wondered if the word was out already. He supposed police activity in a small town like Penrith was limited, and people would have noticed the new arrivals pretty quickly.
About halfway down a cobbled back street, Constable Whitehead was standing, looking even more miserable and uncomfortable than Langdale felt. A makeshift cover of police capes draped over small chairs had been assembled. It looked fairly ludicrous, but as Pike and the constable moved the chairs, Langdale caught his breath. The puddle was very large, at least eight feet across in all directions, and covering the cobbles completely. It was now totally frozen over, a dark morass of crimson and grey.
Langdale knelt down beside it. “Is there this much blood in the human body?”
Knowles stood over him. “Most of it’s not his, sir,” he said. “He was found in a huge puddle of water. He mixed the blood in himself, if you take me sir.”
Pike was wandering up and down the street, looking closely at walls, trying doors. He looked back at Langdale and shook his head. Nothing interesting there, then. He sighed and stood up.
“Anything else significant?”
“Pose of the dead man sir. He was lying straight on his back, arms stretched straight out to both sides. Bit like our Lord and Saviour on the cross, you might say, sir.”
Despite himself, the inspector smiled at the image. “Religious man, sergeant?”
“Not really, sir. Christmas and Christenings only, I suppose. Not much worth believing in, these days.”
“And one other thing sir. There were…marks on his face and neck.”
Knowles hesitated, and Langdale looked at him. The sergeant was a big man, in his forties, probably a veteran of the force. And he was really scared. “I think it’s better if the doctor talks to you about that, sir”
Pike had come back over after his fruitless search. By now, Langdale was swearing again. There was no breeze, but try as he might, he couldn’t get his pipe to light. A succession of matches was thrown over his shoulder in despair. “Who was it who found him?”
Pike drew forth his notebook. “Local couple sir. Ellis and Alice Ellen.”
Langdale grunted. He put his matches back in his pocket. “Try saying that when you’re three sheets.”
“Nothing much to say about them, really. He’s a stockbroker’s clerk, she doesn’t work. Seems his parents were looking after the children, they went out for the first time in six months.”
“They were coming home,” Knowles added, “this is a pretty popular shortcut for the houses on the far side of the town. As far as I can tell, they aren’t any bother. Certainly not under suspicion.”
“Still, wouldn’t hurt to get a statement. Pike, get onto it, would you?” He indicated the constable, who was rapidly turning blue. “Take this fellow with you too.”
As Pike strode off, the Constable Whitehead hurrying to keep pace, Langdale ruminated on his unlit pipe. Knowles walked over to him. The big sergeant was clearly worried.
“This is a decent town, inspector,” he said quietly. “We rarely have any real bother around here. Hasn’t been a murder in over a hundred years. Word of this spreads, and people will panic.”
Langdale nodded. He took of his hat, and ran his hand through his thinning dark hair. It was a gesture he often made in times of perplexity. Then a cold breeze drifted over his head, and he hastily replaced the hat and decided to stroke his beard instead. “Worse than that, if I can’t sort this out, London will get involved. We’ll get some flash sod from Scotland Yard. Or even – “he shuddered “- a private detective. One way or another, sergeant, we need to solve this one quickly.”
* * *
When they got back to the station, they found Gould sitting beside the corpse. In one hand, he held a small silver hip flask, which Langdale eyed jealously. In the other, he was holding a glass specimen jar up to the light. Something that looked like it belonged on a butcher’s slab floated in formaldehyde. Langdale felt like whimpering as Gould dipped his finger into the liquid and then tasted it slightly.
“Devil of a mess, Langdale, devil of a mess,” he said, his rich Yorkshire accent echoing around the icy room. He pulled back the sheet from the corpse’s face. Langdale winced. The man looked normal enough – a man of thirty to forty, white, blonde, nothing much to look at ordinarily – except that his face was covered in torn, bloodied marks. They were circular, and slightly puckered. They reminded him of something, but he couldn’t quite place it. He needed his pipe to think, and he scrabbled around in his pockets to find it.
Gould indicated something further. The marks continued around the neck, winding in a pattern all about the man’s throat. And the neck was horribly bruised. Langdale had seen the necks of strangulation victims. Two weeks ago, he had helped cut down the body of a sailor who had hanged himself in a warehouse in Silloth. But these marks were worse than anything he had ever seen.
“Was he strangled?”
“Yes, but not to death.” Gould pulled back the sheet to expose the man’s chest. It was indeed a devil of a mess. Gould had stitched him back up, but the wounds were very clear from groin to neck. Clearly the man had been ripped open.
“This is his liver.” Gould held up the sample jar. “Once I’d squished all the rest back in, there wasn’t any room left. I’ll keep it for the collection.” Langdale twitched. Gould was clearly enjoying himself. “Official line will be blood loss and internal injuries. Assault by person or persons unknown. Well, I say persons,” the doctor added, “but I think it’s more likely that an animal did this.”
Langdale had another go at lighting his pipe, but before he had even applied the match, the pathologist had plucked it from his mouth. He set it down on the victim’s chest, his own bulky body blocking the inspector’s route to retrieving it.
“Not in here, please. This is a sterile environment.”
“An animal?” Langdale had read his Jules Verne. “An octopus?”
“Well, that’s what the marks on the face indicate. But I’ll tell you one thing…” Gould paused, drawing out the drama, “…aside from the puddle he was found in, this man hasn’t been near the water.”
* * *
About an hour later, Gould was done. He had packed up his things, scrawled a few cursory notes on the back of a charge sheet, promised a full report and a substantial bill for services rendered in the next couple of days, and then decamped back to his luxurious and no doubt warm country house that overlooked Derwent Water. Pike had returned from talking to the Ellens with very little to report. They seemed to be nothing more than an innocent young couple who had simply been unfortunate in their choice of short cuts. The sergeant had commandeered a small office next to the cells, and he and Langdale sat sipping at the station’s fetid tea, and trying to keep the cold out. Without success, Langdale thought. He had only just managed to rescue his pipe from being wrapped up with the corpse, but once again the tobacco was stubbornly refusing to ignite. Finally, he hurled it across the room, narrowly clipping Pike’s left ear. It whacked into the wall opposite and fell to the floor, neatly cleaved into two pieces.
“It’s a filthy habit anyway, sir. My Elsie told me to give it up years ago. Never been happier since I did that.”
“I bet you don’t drink either,” Langdale said poisonously.
“Not really sir. Occasional pint of Grayrigg’s best bitter on my birthday. Healthy body, healthy mind, that’s what they’re saying these days, sir.”
Langdale decided to change the subject. “How is your wife anyway?”
“Very bonnie, thank you sir. Off visiting the mother in Newcastle.”
Langdale grunted again. It seemed to be the response of the day; much easier than actually having to say something coherent. His wife was off visiting her mother too. In Gretna. For the last six years. He decided to change the subject again. Second time lucky, he hoped. He threw Gould’s notes onto the desk in the middle of the room.
“So we have a man who has been strangled to death by an octopus. In the middle of a very dry town. No witnesses. No suspects. And we don’t even know who he is. Was,” he added pedantically.
Pike frowned. “Maybe someone was using some sort of weapon, to make those marks. You know, to incriminate the octopus.” The words sounded ridiculous as soon as he had said them, and the sergeant shrugged helplessly. Langdale laughed.
“You’ve been reading too many books, sergeant. The number of years you’ve been on the force, thought you would have left that sort of thing behind.” The inspector was already feeling a familiar tang of pessimism coming over him. The calling up of Scotland Yard was beginning to figure largely in his thoughts, and with that always came the terrible throb of failure.
Pike, being young and filled with boundless stupidity, was being more positive. “Well, the best thing to do is find out who he is. It’s a small town. We could put out an appeal.”
“You want a poster out in this good town of that smashed-up face, with the header, ‘Do You Know This Man?’ We’d be lynched.”
“Well, how about an artist’s impression, sir? Elsie said that her friend Mabel said that these places are full of artists from London. They go round painting the lakes and being deep. Make money from doing portraits.”
“Very well, lad,” Langdale shrugged a resigned pair of shoulders. “You go and find an artist. Assuming you can get one with a strong enough stomach, get him to do a sketch of the victim looking…normal. Then you can put out your poster.”
Pike jumped up, happy to be engaging in semi-productive industry. “What about you sir?”
The inspector pulled his hat down over his eyes. “Thinking time,” he muttered.
* * *
He spent the next couple of hours dozing in the chair, wrapped up in overcoat and scarf, whilst a few speculative thoughts passed through his mind. Finally, tiring of this, he got up and wandered out, past Pike, who was ushering a young, delicate looking man into the station, and out into the streets of Penrith. A self-stated aim of wandering the town in search of inspiration lasted about a quarter of an hour. He bought a new pipe, and finally he ended up in the nearest hostelry, the Druids Arms, where he downed a pint of the best local bitter. The atmosphere in the place was odd – not unwelcoming or hostile, but fearful. He felt eyes on him the entire time he was there, gazes that questioned him and his success in dealing with the death that had come to the town. Clearly, Sergeant Knowles had been correct. Word was spreading. A few desultory attempts at conversation with the landlord came to nothing. He didn’t feel anything was being held back. It was simply that nobody knew anything. That was what was scaring them the most. Finally, reluctantly, he dragged himself away from the fire that was cosily banked up in the main parlour, and went back out into the cold.
By now it was late afternoon, and the frost was settling in nicely. Langdale strode as briskly as possible back to the station. Thinking time had not really been very much use – he felt as in the dark as he had before going out. No identity, no clues, the only thing that seemed relevant was wounds from an animal that couldn’t possibly have been responsible. His head hurt, and he was sure that it wasn’t from the beer or the cold.
He stopped. For a moment, he felt the same feeling that he had in the pub. Eyes on him. He was being watched. He looked about. The usual hustle of a small town square, shops, two pubs, a small library and several offices, accountants, lawyers and the like. The shops were in the process of closing for the day. There were plenty of folk about, but nobody who seemed interested in the slight, uninteresting figure of a district police inspector. But the feeling remained. Finally, he shrugged. Let them watch him. As long as they left him alone, they could look at him all they liked. He trudged on.
From the shadow of the library, a tall man watched as the policeman walked on. There had been a brief second of danger, but the moment had passed. The man was a fool, barely capable of understanding this world, let alone anything infinitely greater than it. The man smiled to himself. Remain vigilant, of course, but there was little threat here. Matters could continue.
* * *
When he got back to the station, Langdale found Pike with a happy smile and a large pencilled portrait in his hands. It seemed Mr Seymour Ffoukes, of Lodge Cottage by Windermere, had done his work well.
“Queer sort,” Pike told him, “Bit of a molly, if you get me, sir. But he’s done his job well.”
Langdale had to agree. The picture was an accurate depiction of the man of mystery laid out in cell six. He gave orders for it to be copied and distributed. As Pike and Constable Whitehead went through the laborious task of photographing the picture for distribution, Langdale decided the day had been long enough. He headed towards the George Hotel, where with almost pathetic relief, he was able to secure a room for the night. The delightedly roaring fire was leaping about the grate as he clambered into bed after a healthy dose of steak and kidney pudding in the hotel bar. It wasn’t more than five minutes before he was snoring roundly.
* * *
A gentle tapping woke him. He opened his eyes to see, of course, Pike, bright eyed and happy as ever. Another cup of tea was preferred towards him.
“Sunday sir,” said the sergeant, “Coming to church?”
Biting back a particularly vicious comment about God and all his angels and where they could go, Langdale shook his head muzzily. He had forgotten Pike and his wife were happily committed Anglicans. The sergeant rarely mentioned it, but church on a Sunday morning was taken as a given. “I think my soul’s long gone, sergeant,” he managed eventually, “Go on without me.”
One thing for Pike, he knew when not to argue. He placed the tea on a table, annoyingly just out of reach, and left. Langdale finally extracted himself from the bed and grabbed for the cup as the one warm thing in the room. He gritted his teeth and took a sip. Rather better than the station’s, at least.
When he arrived at the station, he found Knowles looking unpardonably smug. They had good news, and Langdale found himself feeling the first tiny glow of progress. Constable Whitehead was seated in the small back office with a little old lady, the picture of their murdered unfortunate between them.
“This is Mrs Johnson, sir,” the constable told him, “She claims she recognises the gentleman in our picture.”
Langdale nodded suspiciously at the old lady. He was automatically suspicious of any female over forty. Something went wrong with them over that age. This one seemed no different, a wizened creature, eighty if she was a day, dressed in clothes that had been the height of fashion some time around the Battle of Inkerman. She stared back at him in equal suspicion, sharp little eyes focussing over her pince-nez
“Do you indeed, Mrs Johnson?” He was trying for friendly and expansive, but feared he just sounded drunk. He sat down. “So then, what can you tell us?”
“Well,” she began, clearly loving being the centre of attention, “I came to Penrith this morning to pay a call on an old friend of mine, Mrs Kaye. She lives just two streets over, you know. Have you met Mrs Kaye? She’s ever such a nice soul. Husband passed over in ’71, I’m afraid. Taken by the colic. And I always told her, Florence, I said – ”
“Could we stick to the original story, please, Mrs Johnson,” Langdale interrupted. How he hated elderly witnesses. You got every fact except the relevant ones.
“Oh yes, well, I was passing by your station and I saw that picture on your notice board, and I says to myself, ‘I’ll swear that’s our Mr Russell, if it’s not then he has a twin’, so I comes over to look at it a bit closer, and yes, I swear again, that’s Mr Russell, such a nice lad, Mr Russell, even if he is a bit odd, and he always keeps a bit back for me of a Tuesday, and – ”
“Keeps a bit back? A bit of what?” Langdale asked, dreading the answer.
“A bit of sausage,” she told him. The inspector quailed in horror. “He’s the butcher.”
Perhaps sensing the inspector’s keen desire to lamp the old trout, Whitehead had decided to step in “Where would that be, then, Mrs Johnson?”
She looked at him pityingly, as if he were a simple child. “Well, Shap of course. That’s where I live. Where else would he be from?”
Langdale suppressed his twenty-third despairing sigh of the day. “So this Mr Russell, he’s from Shap then?”
“Well, of course. How else would I know him?” She seemed astounded at the inspector’s mental processes. “I must say, though, I was surprised to see a picture of him in this town. Bit of a – what’s the word – cuts himself off – recluse, that’s it, bit of a recluse, is Mr Russell. I haven’t seen him for a few days. Not since he gave me that nice bit of mince last Tuesday. ” She paused in her ramblings. “I do like a bit of mince, and I’ve got lovely Mr Wallace coming over for tea tonight”, she said significantly, “I’m a widow, you know.”
Hurriedly, Langdale indicated to Whitehead to cut the conversation short. The young constable rose from his seat. “Well, many thanks, Mrs Johnson, I’m sure you’ve been a great help. This information will no doubt help us to progress this case quite significantly.”
“Well, I do hope Mr Russell is alright,” she told them innocently. At the door she stopped and looked back. “I don’t suppose there’s a reward or anything?”
Langdale fought back the impulse to yell at her as if she were a junior constable. “I’m sure Sergeant Knowles will make you a nice cup of tea.” And you’re more than welcome to that witch’s brew, you old harpy, he silently added.
Pike returned from church at around eleven o’clock. He hadn’t been very impressed with the local vicar – a bit of a non-conformist, it appeared. He told the inspector about his sermon, something about not truly perceiving the world that was around us, but by this point Langdale wasn’t listening. He was processing the information of the morning. If Russell had been such a recluse, what was he doing in Penrith? Logically, he had come to see something. Or possibly someone? Find the reason, find the killer. Langdale was not yet prepared to believe that the killer had not been a human being. Sea creatures did not attack people in the street. Not in Edward’s England, anyway.
“Got to admit it, Pike, you were right about that picture.” Pike waved a modest hand, and the inspector went on, “We’ll have to get to this Shap then. Train?”
“Should think so, sir.”
“Then get a timetable. We’ll go as soon as we can and take a look at this butcher’s.”
This plan of action was unfortunately, and rather suddenly, curtailed. Whitehead entered hurriedly, clutching a piece of paper in his hand.
“Sorry to be bothering you, sir, sergeant,” he told them, “but we’ve just got a message. Seems there’s been a bit of trouble at Windermere.”
A frown creased Langdale’s mouth. Just as things were looking up. “Lake or town, constable?”
“Lake sir.” He waved the paper. “Says here three children were skating on the lake, seeing as it’s been frozen in this weather sir, and they’ve gone in the water, sir.”
Langdale hoped his expression wasn’t as wearily nonplussed as he felt.. “That’s very unfortunate, but I’m not sure what it has to do with us.”
“Well, sir, you told us to look out for anything unusual. Seems the children didn’t just fall in the lake, sir, seems they were – ” he wavered over his choice of word, “ – well, seems they were dragged in, sir.”
Langdale seized the paper from Whitehead and scanned it swiftly. His eyebrows quested for the ceiling in surprise.
“Tentacles?” was all that he could eventually manage.
* * *
As they wound down the hill towards the town and the lakeshore, Langdale could feel a suppressed sense of tension in the streets on Bowness. Murder of an adult male in Penrith had been bad enough. The seemingly random deaths of children in an apparently impossible way had set everything on edge. People in these small towns lived their lives by certainties and ritualised order. The smallest challenge to such order could set their lives spiralling out of control. And this challenge was far from small.
Down by the lakeside, a large crowd of people were gathered, being held back by what seemed an impossibly small number of policemen. Langdale and Pike leapt from the carriage as it arrived, and walked over to two men who stood behind the ring of police. One was Henderson, the local sergeant. He and Knowles eyed each other warily like dogs in a territory war. Langdale sent the pair of them away to argue over boundaries and demarcation, and then turned to the other man, a tall, middle aged fellow in large astrakhan coat.
“Mordecai Freeman”, the man said, as if that explained everything. Langdale shook his offered hand, and came away with a business card. ‘The Windermere Patented Electricity Company’, it read.
“Chairman of the Local Board of Commerce,” Freeman added. Langdale frowned. One of those self-appointed local leaders, he thought. Always bothersome. He let it go without comment however, and walked with Freeman onto one of the jetties that fringed the lakeshore, Pike on their heels. In the bitterly cold late morning weather, the edge of the lake was frozen over to about forty feet out. It was here, Freeman told them, that a group of children had been skating.
“And it was definitely tentacles?” Pike asked.
“That is what the witnesses say,” Freeman replied. “I have at least three people prepared to state under oath that large tentacles emerged from the lake just beyond the ice and seized upon three of the children. However, the local folk are often given to purposeless superstition and hysteria. “
“No sign of them since?” Langdale lit a cigarette, and drew on it slowly. It just wasn’t the same.
“Children or tentacles?” Freeman let out a bark of bitter laughter. “Well, it’s the same answer. No. Not a ripple.”
They looked back at the crowd. The stand off against the police was quiet for now, but the undercurrent that Langdale had felt as they entered the town was sharper than ever. Unfocussed anger, fear, uncertainty. All of which could be set off by the slightest spark. And if they did, there weren’t enough police here to control them.
Freeman nodded, reading his expression. “They are afraid and angry. Several of them have tried to take boats out onto the water to hunt … whatever it is down. And we had an ex-whaling captain living up in Windermere Village who offered to lend people his collection of harpoons. The sergeant has tried to close the lake, but it’s a very big stretch to cover. This could end very badly indeed.”
“So what do we do?” Langdale asked. The question hung there unhappily, all three men’s gazes swinging between crowds and water in equal, uncertain measure.
“Does anyone have a diving suit?” Pike said finally. Langdale sighed deeply. Just why did the sergeant have to open his mouth?
“Probably,” Freeman replied, “Why?”
“Well,” Pike said, “Someone should take a look down there.”
“You won’t get anyone in their right minds to go down there lad,” Langdale muttered. He could see where this was going, and he really didn’t like it.
“I’ll have a go,” Pike said, confirming his fears. Freeman’s face had clouded over darkly at all of this, and he shook his head fiercely.
“No, never, too dangerous,” he said emphatically, “I couldn’t possibly allow it.”
If there was anything guaranteed to get Langdale irritated, it was being told what to do by officials. Especially self-appointed ones. The pompous look on Freeman’s face made his mind up.
“You’ll excuse me saying this, sir,” he said, “But I’m not sure you have any choice in the matter.” He turned to Pike. “All right, lad. You’re on. But just make sure you come back,” he added, “because I don’t want to be the one who has to tell your wife.”
* * *
Two hours later, and Pike, clad in a John Brown rig, was seated on the edge of a launch floating in the middle of the lake. To one side, Langdale was muttering platitudes and offering advice, to the other, Jones, a local boatman and owner of an old diving outfit from his days in the Liverpool shipyards, was tightening the screws on the heavy copper helmet that had been placed over the sergeant’s head. Behind him, two more men were finishing the set-up of the air pump that connected to the helmet via a long flexible tube. A second line, attached to Pike’s weighted belt, would keep him connected to the launch at all times and allow him to be hauled up in case of emergencies.
Langdale gazed across the lake to the shore, where Freeman was standing arguing with Sgt Henderson, of the Bowness Constabulary. The businessman had proclaimed and complained and threatened, but in the end, the sergeant had stood by the inspector and declared that if he wanted to send someone into the lake, then at least that was doing something, and unless Mr Freeman (sir) had something practical to offer, then he really would be better off going home. Freeman had lapsed into sullen silence at that, but clearly he was off again now. Langdale didn’t care. As long as he was far enough away that he couldn’t hear him, then he could rant all he liked.
Behind the two men, the crowd of people had grown, but now they seemed more like a group of spectators than an angry mob. The illusion of activity that had been created by Pike’s act of foolhardiness had, for the moment, calmed their spirits.
“Now remember, lad” he told Pike, “Straight down and have a quick look around. I don’t really know what we’re trying to achieve here, so I don’t want any stupid risks.”
Pike tried to nod, but the suit prevented him. He resorted to a simple “Yes, sir.” Truth was, now that was seated on the edge of the water, he wasn’t sure what he was trying to achieve either. If his wife had been there, he would have been on the end of the worst tongue lashing imaginable. The inspector was right. He’d be back, if only to spare his superior from that fate.
Jones lifted the faceplate up to the helmet. He felt Langdale’s hand on his shoulder.
“Good luck, lad.” There was genuine warmth in the inspector’s voice. As the faceplate was screwed into place, cutting him off from the outside world, Pike smiled to himself. He knew the inspector wasn’t really the miserable soul he liked to pretend he was. Not all the time anyway.
Moving awkwardly in the suit, he stared down into the water. The grey skies reflected back from the surface, making the lake look colder than ever. Nothing was visible beyond that reflection. The air in the suit began to roar around his head, and he hesitated. Then he steeled himself. Faint heart, and so on. He took a deep breath – silly, of course, but it was strangely comforting – and pushed himself off the deck and into the water.
As he hit the water, the shock of the cold nearly finished him off there and then. He was clad in warmest clothes, jumpers and thick trousers, and the suit was as insulated as possible, with layers of twill and rubber laid on each other, but it was still a cold like he had never known before. Deep breaths, two, three, four, gradually he felt his body adjust. Not exactly comfortable, but bearable for a short while.
In the time it had taken him to do this, the weights in his boot and belt, compensating for the buoyancy in his helmet, had dragged him down towards the lake bed. At this point, the lake was about one hundred and fifty feet down, and it wasn’t long before he felt his feet touch bottom. He stood there for a long time, unmoving, feet sunk slightly into the silted lake bed. Then, slowly, carefully, he took one step forward. It wasn’t as difficult as he had feared. Slow, slightly awkward, constantly pushing against an unseen force, but possible. Another step, then another. Soon he was moving about with reasonable confidence.
It was only after about a hundred steps forward that he realised three things.
Firstly, he had no idea what he was actually looking for.
Secondly, he had no idea what he would do if he found it.
Thirdly, he realised that nobody had actually told him how to get back to the surface when the time came.
Elsie was not going to be pleased. And if he met an octopus then there would be hell to pay. For him and it.
He stretched his neck and back to look up at the surface of the lake. Enough of the cold light was permeating down to allow him to see. Far above, he could see the bottom of the launch, and the two lines snaking down to him. They seemed terrifyingly slight. Hardly the sort of thing to place one’s life on. He tried not to think about it. He straightened up, and tried peering through the grill-covered glass of the helmet.
It was a world like nothing he had ever seen before. Grey, leaden beds of mud, tangled with weeds and wood, detritus from the boats that sailed obliviously on above him, and an almost constant sense of murk. He couldn’t see any fish, but he wasn’t sure if that was significant. Maybe they were just avoiding him. He tried to shrug, and then laughed as it was nearly impossible in the suit.
He set off, foot over foot, trying to move outward in what he hoped was a widening spiral of about a hundred feet. The mud, stirred up by his heavy treads, threatened to blot out the light more than once, but on he went, constantly moving his head back and forth in the helmet, trying to pick up anything remotely out of place down here.
For a moment, he thought he had seen something. A shadow, flickering across his view. He shook his head inside the helmet. The shadow had not been large. In fact, it had almost seemed – man-like? No, not possible. He told himself every argument for why it could not have been, why it must have been an illusion caused by the seemingly endless miasma of mud. Still, just for that second…
It was then that his eye caught the glint of metal. Just the tiniest glint, but it drove all other thoughts from his mind. Moving to his left, as fast as he could, he advanced about ten steps and tried to focus. The glint of metal had been the edge of a skate blade. Attached to a skate, worn on the foot of a little girl.
He stood and stared at her for a long time. Her legs had lodged beneath a large rock, which was preventing her body from floating to the surface. He briefly contemplated trying to get her free, but then he wasn’t sure anyone would want to see a child like this. He and Elsie hadn’t yet been blessed with children, but then, they’d only been married a year, so there was still plenty of time. He knew the inspector had a daughter, barely older than this girl, on whom he doted. She was with her mother in Scotland, and the inspector barely saw her, but he knew how much he cared about her. All of this flashed through his thoughts as he looked at the small form. She was blonde, about twelve years old, clad in a woollen dress and a red coat. The colour was stark against the paleness of her skin and hair. The blonde tresses, rendered near-white in the light, floated about her head in a halo. Her eyes were open. He wanted to close them so much, but knew it was impossible in these gloves. Those eyes – they were haunted by something terrible…and they were reflecting something.
He turned himself fully around and stared through the water. About twenty feet away from him, something glowed blackly. That didn’t make sense, he told himself, but it was the only description that came to mind. Something was sitting on the bed of the lake, and it did not look natural. The girl temporarily put from his mind, he took strong steps towards it.
It was as if someone had put a plughole in the lake. Pike found himself looking at an almost perfect circle, about ten feet in diameter. It sat amidst the mud, simply a hole in the earth, but beyond that hole, he could see nothing. It was pure black, but this was a black that was more than simply an absence of colour. This seemed alive, flowing and moving as he watched. Water did not seem to be entering the hole. In fact, it was the opposite. It was as if the hole had extruded itself into the lake from somewhere else, and was reaching out, feeling its way into the world.
He had never seen anything remotely like it before. A sinkhole in the world. Where had that idea come from? He didn’t know, but he knew that it was true. And he knew that this was the ultimate source of all of their troubles.
He was concentrating so hard on the hole that, at first, he did not notice the shapes that were drawing around him. It was only when one of them touched him on the arm, just gently, but enough to be noticed, that he realised he was not alone. He jerked his arm back, shocked, and craned his head sideways in the helmet to stare out of the side port.
A face looked back at him.
It was not a human face, although there were elements that were familiar. The head shape was longer and thinner, the nose was pulled back into the forehead, the ears were shrunken and the mouth was almost fishlike, turned down in a perpetual frown of dismay. But it was the eyes that really scared him, yellow and lidless, gazing at him with a lack of emotion. The bald, grey-green skull was mounted on a scaled body, humanoid in form, but with webbing across fingers and toes, and a hugely ridged back, resembling the creatures in the reptile house at Edinburgh Zoo. At the neck were what seemed like gills, pulsing in slow, regular time.
At the same time that he gazed at this creature, his mind was refusing to accept it. Pike had always been a practical man. He knew that Langdale sometimes regarded him as bone-headed, but that didn’t bother him. It was simply that he was methodical and careful in his analysis of things. This – this was beyond anything that he could ever have imagined seeing.
It took little more than ten seconds for him to take all of this in. Another ten seconds, and he had realised that this thing was not alone, that he was surrounded by at least ten, possibly more, of the same creatures. They were all looking at him. Then, he felt arms upon him. This time, the touch was not gentle. It was strong, furious, pulling and tearing at him with absolute hostility.
He thrashed about him wildly, the suit’s restrictions forgotten in his desperation. Briefly, he shook himself free of the attackers, then they re-gathered themselves, and flew at him with a renewed fury. He screamed out, the sound rebounding back at him from the confines of his helmet, deafening him, and in the moment of hesitation that this caused, they had him. They swept him off his feet, and were upon him, pushing him down into the ooze.
An absolute madness of terror seized Pike, and he fought like he had never done so before. The weight of the suit and the water became nothing to him. Pike was not a small man, and he had grown up in a tough part of Carlisle. Despite his usually calm exterior, fighting was second nature to him, and he did it well. Punches flew left and right, the creatures falling away. He swung the helmet directly at one of them, feeling the satisfying whack of copper into skull, and the crunching of fish bones beneath the impact. But, in the end, there were just too many of them. He felt claws and teeth ripping into the suit, passing through the layers to let in the frozen water. Hands seized his arms and legs, more arms passed about his chest, pinning him down, bringing his struggles under control. Finally, and worst of all, he felt a sudden jerk at his head as the air line was torn free. Lying there, his view almost blocked by the grey weight of bodies, he could see it floating away towards the surface. Water began to flow into the helmet, and he choked on the muddy silt.
One last effort. With a final scream, he pulled free of the creatures and struggled to his knees, then to his feet. He scrabbled at the weighted belt. If he could lose the belt and the boots then he might just be able to make a break for the surface.
No good. They were on him again, their attack worse than ever. He suddenly saw how close he now was to the hole. Man and creatures teetered on the edge. And in one single flash of calm, he decided. He dug his feet deep into the mud and pushed, his body moving forward, accepting it. And they all plunged into the black.
It wasn’t what he expected. It was not some free fall into oblivion. Instead, he felt almost cushioned, gently moving downwards. The water no longer flowed about his head, and the creatures no longer grasped at him. He was alone, lost in deadening silence.
Images flashed across his eyes. Langdale, standing in a room, looking serious and sad. A face he didn’t know, a blonde haired man, dressed in grey and black. Gould, fat and self-satisfied. And then someone else. He couldn’t quite make out the features. The face was thin, dark as if tanned, eyes shining sharply in shadow like a cat’s, and a vulpine smile spread across the mouth.
The faces fled, driven away by a new image. He seemed to be floating above a city, but this was not the simple and understandable architecture of a Carlisle or Newcastle. This was an insane, sprawling, underwater metropolis, an impossibly angled tumble of minarets and temples, vast libraries and echoing halls that stretched away from him in all directions for as far as he could see. Domed towers stretched up towards the furthest point, whilst endless deeps loomed beneath, threatening and dead. And over the surface of all the buildings, things crawled. Some of them he recognised as the strange humanoids that had attacked him. They gathered in small communities, staring sightlessly out at the world. Others had no clear form, swarms of flesh and tentacles, flowing into each other until he wasn’t sure whether it was one creature that he saw, or a myriad of forms.
Something else moved. Something that lurked within one of those deep places, something larger and more terrible than anything he had thus far seen. It stirred, and regarded him with an inarticulate malice.
No more. He could bear no more of this, and tried to close his eyes against it, but it was no good. This world and its inhabitants were alive inside his head, dragging him deeper and deeper to join them in the perfect abyss.
Finally, he saw the face of his wife. He had never seen anything so beautiful, and he nearly wept for sight of her. As the blackness took him, he saw her smile and tell him that everything was going to be alright.
There was nothing else.
* * *
Standing pensively on the launch, waiting, Langdale only felt the first lurch very slightly. Something had pulled at the line that was attached to Pike’s belt. He moved over to that line and plucked at it. It felt taut, as if pressure was being applied from beneath the surface of the lake.
The second time it happened, Langdale’s stomach lurched with the boat. And the third time, he felt it very clearly and cried out. Something was pulling at the line.
The launch began to move violently back and forth, causing the inspector and the other men to lose their footing. Narrowly avoiding being pitched into the icy water, Langdale reached for the motor that operated the pulley system on Pike’s line. He never reached it. His left hand was still resting on the line, and suddenly he felt the tension in it ease. He froze, staring at the line. It was a tough steel spun cable, capable of resisting an enormous amount of pressure. If something had caused it to come free…
One of the boatmen slammed his hand onto the lever on the pulley motor. It spluttered into life against the cold, hauling in the line. The line moved faster than it should have done, and then, suddenly, the end was flying at them, wrenched out of the water by the small engine. As the pressure on the line eased, the boat ceased its rocking motion, allowing them all to regain their footing. The cable danced angrily about the boat for a moment, then Langdale seized it and stared. It had been totally severed, the end neatly cut as if by a knife.
Langdale swore angrily. But any further action was forestalled by a shout from Jones. He was pointing out into the water. As he looked, the inspector’s heart seemed to slow, then stop completely.
Pike’s airline was floating free on the surface of the lake. The sergeant was clearly not attached to it.
I’ve killed him. It was the only thing that he could think. Pike, good, plain-spoken, ever-willing, decent, Sergeant Josiah Pike was dead, and it was all because of him. He felt so numb that he had even stopped noticing the cold.
Then he realised that Jones was now looking beyond the water, back to the shore. A small crowd of nine or ten people had gathered on the jetty. Freeman and Sergeant Henderson were at the centre of the crowd, and they stood over the kneeling Constable Whitehead. And Whitehead was kneeling over the form of a man in a helmeted diving outfit.
Even as he told himself it was impossible, he shouted at Jones. “Get this sodding boat back to land as fast as you can!”
* * *
Pike lay staring up at the ceiling, his pale expression blank and glazed. Beside him sat his helmet, badly bashed, faceplate glass cracked open.
Langdale stood beside the bed in the Windermere Gate Cottage Hospital, watching a small phalanx of doctors and nurses tending to his sergeant. Physically, despite being exhausted and borderline hypothermic, Pike was fine. But he had made very little response to anyone who had tried to talk to him or rouse him. He had simply lain there and stared. Once or twice, words had been heard, but they seemed little more than delirious gibberish.
Nobody knew how he had got to the shore. One minute Sgt Henderson had been looking out across the lake, watching the launch moving violently on the water, the next there had been a shout from the crowd, and he had turned to see the body of the young detective lying on the jetty, spread-eagled and unmoving. There were witnesses prepared to swear that he had appeared out of thin air, but Langdale wasn’t having anything of that. Somehow, he had got to the surface, whereupon his strength had given out. What had happened in the meantime, however, only Pike knew, and at the moment, he wasn’t telling. There were rips in the diving outfit, however, and dents in the helmet that told an extremely disturbing story.
He had given immediate orders to seal off the entire lake – an impossible task, of course, but Henderson was doing his best, and had dragged in men from the neighbouring towns. Thankfully, the locals appeared to have lost their appetite for outrage, and had drifted back to their homes, shops and businesses with a sulky acceptance that this was more than they could deal with. How long that would last, Langdale wasn’t sure, but he’d take it for now.
Other than that, there really wasn’t a great deal they could do. The sergeant was in good hands, being tended for a few superficial wounds. Until he chose to come out of this hypnotic state, they would just have to wait.
Langdale did all of his best waiting with his pipe, but for now, it still stubbornly refused to light. As he was trying his sixteenth match, Whitehead entered the room with a message.
More of a summons actually. Mr Freeman was deeply concerned and would appreciate a word. He crumpled the note up in disgust and threw it over his shoulder. Then he retrieved it and put it in his pocket. Might be useful for lighting his pipe later.
Deep breaths, Langdale, he told himself. He left Whitehead to stay with Pike, then set off for the Windermere Patented Electricity Company Headquarters. This was a long, low building set just off the lake shore, in small grounds of its own. Oddly, as he walked towards the building, and then entered the main door, he saw nobody about. Not one person, not even anyone to greet him. He had heard that automotive processes were making the ordinary worker extraneous, but this was ridiculous.
Beyond the small main porch, the company seemed to consist solely of one large room. And within that room – well, to call it a machine was like calling the Endeavour a boat. It was a vast cathedral of brass and glass, a huge edifice that ran the thirty foot length of the room, full of twisted metal, sparking tubes and turning pistons. It chugged gently along, making surprisingly little sound, although Langdale for the life of him couldn’t see the source of its energy. Maybe it generated the energy that ran itself, he thought, although he was aware that really didn’t make any sense.
He didn’t notice he wasn’t alone until he heard the voice. “The patented electricity machine itself,” Freeman said. He jolted and turned to see him. The man was standing directly behind him, looking decidedly proud of his creation. “A prototype, of course, but in time, it will supply the electricity of the entire Lake District.”
And turn you a healthy profit, too, Langdale added internally. Aloud, he confined himself to, “It’s all very interesting, Mr Freeman.” If honest, he was telling the truth. He stooped to stare down one particularly finely wrought glass tube. “How does it all work, exactly?”
Freeman tapped his nose. “Trade secrets, Inspector.”
“Probably wouldn’t understand anyway,” he admitted.
“Probably not,” Freeman agreed. The look on his face was not friendly. “But that is beside the point anyway. The reason I brought you here, inspector, was to tell you that I am extremely displeased with the way that you have handled this matter. I warned you not to take any precipitant action, and you wouldn’t listen. And now your sergeant hangs on the edge of death and we have a town that has been scared out of its wits.”
“Sergeant Pike is something of a law unto himself.” Then, feeling guilty at landing his prostrated sergeant in it, he quickly added, “But in any case, I support what he did. Better that than standing around doing nothing.”
“You are his superior. I would not tolerate any underling of mine taking such action.”
Yes, well you don’t have Josiah Pike for an underling. In the face of the man’s grotesque pomposity, Langdale felt very protective of his young bulldog of a sergeant. Time to take the obvious way out of this. “Be that as it may, in the end, Mr Freeman, I am not answerable to you.”
“Maybe not. But I am not without local influence. There are men of power, Inspector Langdale, and despite your small title, you are not one of them. I have sent word to your superiors in Carlisle, and I have no doubt that they will soon be recalling you following this debacle, and will replace you with someone a good deal more competent. Preferably from Scotland Yard, since I believe that the local constabulary are hardly equal to the intellectual challenge of this crisis.”
There was an awful lot of other-cheek-turning required at all of that, but somehow he managed. He confined himself to, “Is that it, Mr Freeman? Because I have work to do.”
Freeman glowered at him. “For now. Although I am sure we will not meet again anyway, Inspector. Enjoy your trip back to Carlisle.”
Langdale would be buggered if he was going let the pompous sod have the last work. He put on his most formal accent, suppressing his Cumbrian vowels. “Well, thank you for wasting my time, Mr Freeman. Now, if you’ll excuse me, until such time as I am told otherwise, I have an investigation to run and a sergeant to help.”
He swung on his heel and left before another word could be uttered. Striding back to the hospital, his brain turned over the conversation. Scotland Yard – well, that had been inevitable since the case had started. Even if every message went as fast as possible, he had at least a day to pursue his investigations, and he intended to use every minute of it. Pike’s ordeal – whatever it had been – had galvanised him. There was a connection between everything he had seen so far, and he was determined, for Pike’s sake, to see this through.
He paused in his step. Men of power? What had Freeman meant by that? Secret handshakes and the old school tie? Or merely self-aggrandisement? He doubted it. The phrase had sounded rehearsed.
He put that from his mind as he reached the hospital. Pike had changed little, although he had now closed his eyes and was snoring gently. Morphine, according to Constable Whitehead. He looked down at the sergeant. His face had assumed an expression of almost idiotic innocence in its slumber. Nice to be able to sleep the sleep of the saved, Langdale thought. He turned to the sergeant.
“Stay with him, Knowles, and don’t let anyone near him. Least of all Mr Mordecai Freeman.” He wasn’t sure why he had added that. Somehow, Freeman didn’t feel safe. “Constable, we are taking the train to Shap.”
“What for, sir?” The constable’s questioning tone was so disingenuous that Langdale had to laugh.
“To visit the butcher’s,” he replied, “I’ve a hankering for a good sausage.”