They were close to finishing work on The Black Cat Building on Camden High Street when the body was discovered. Another week, at most, would have been sufficient for the civic opening. Now a police investigation would delay the grand reception for at least two more months.
The building had lain empty for several years now, possibly since Mrs Thatcher and her cronies had bullied ‘Red’ Ken and the Greater London Council into closing it down. Somewhere between those days and when it had opened a hundred or so years ago as a cigarette factory, the building, from the outside, had grown grey, boring and dirty, hiding from the world – well, certainly from those parading up and down the high street – its unique Art Deco features. Thankfully now, though, several marvellous columns had been painstakingly uncovered from years of plaster, paint and dirt. The final move in the celebrated refurbishment had been to seek out, from the darkened depths of some basement, the two tall, black cats and return them to their former glory with a lick of black gloss paint. Now they had been returned to their original plinths and were proudly guarding the building. The black cat twins looked like they’d just recently, reluctantly, returned from sentry duty at an Egyptian pyramid. Had that, in fact, been the case they surely would not have witnessed anything as mystifying or horrific, on the sandy desert, as what must have taken place the previous evening a matter of several yards away from their post – close to the tarmac street of one of London busiest junctions.
Detective Inspector Christy Kennedy had never been to Egypt, he certainly had no wish or desire to do so and so he couldn’t testify to the comings and goings over there. He had, however, been a police officer on the streets of London for getting close to twenty-five years now and he had never witnessed a killing quite so grotesque. His stomach continuously wanted to exit his body via his throat. Not that he was particularly squeamish. No, hardly at all in fact, it was just when he witnessed some of the more extreme things humans did to each other that he felt a very sorry man, and he knew the dark clouds gathering around his shoulders would make him sick to the pit of his stomach and something would have to give. It has to be said that with all the rumblings and threats, his stomach rarely made good its threats; today it did.
Kennedy’s usual remedy was to tune out, as quickly as he could, from the fact that it was the body of a fellow human, and concentrate instead on the fact that it was a piece of evidence in the murder investigation he was about to embark on. On that particular hot and sticky July morning he was finding this rather difficult.
The Black Cat Building had been buzzing away as electricians, carpenters, plumbers and a squad of odd-job men pottered away, rushing against time and towards a bonus. In their diligence none of them had recently found cause to visit the completed seventh floor. That was until the repulsive smell started to waft down the various stairwells and shafts and air ducts and what have you. Those with the keenest nostrils picked up the evil scent around about 11 am and then, one by one, they complained to their gaffers who in turn complained to the site manager, a Mr Christopher Runciman (known to all in the building, and in his professional life, as ‘The Archbishop’). The Archbishop was an old campaigner; efficient, resourceful and above all, one hundred percent honest, which made him the perfect candidate for his chosen vocation. He had single-handedly turned site management into an art form. Another three days and he would have signed off on this project and stolen a much-needed three-week holiday in his beloved Cornwall.
From the waist down he fitted in perfectly with the workforce – blue denim jeans and light brown, steel-capped boots. From his US army belt upwards, however, was another case. A white shirt, school tie and snazzy waistcoat graced his slight frame. Even though all of his day was spent in and around and travelling through dirt and dust and freshly painted walls, he always managed to remain spic-and-span; always ready for an inspection from above.
His day, though, not to mention his clothes, was about to be ruined when he saw the contents of the large room on the seventh floor.
He’d joked with the various gaffers when they came to see him to complain about the smell. He gave them various excuses: dog-do; unofficial toilets; someone relieving themselves of last evening’s intake of alcohol; burning rubber; Camden Council’s weekly meeting. On and on he continued with his wisecracks and jokes until he ran out of excuses. Coincidentally, it was around about the time that he ran out of excuses that he first started to inhale whiffs of the vicious smells himself.
Everyone he spoke to seemed to agree that the smell was coming down from above (“Undivine intervention,” as one of the Geordie carpenters put it (so the Archbishop set off on his search, starting on the completed third floor. The further he climbed, the stronger the smell. By the time he reached the sixth floor it was unbearable. By the time he reached the top of the stairwell to the seventh, he was forced to cover his nostrils and mouth with a laundry-fresh handkerchief.
Each floor was centred around the stairwell and the door from this access opened into a reception area – the idea being that visitors would announce themselves at the main mahogany reception desk on the ground floor. They would then be directed to the relevant floor where, once again, they would check in with a receptionist who would, in turn, show them through to their final destination. As you looked at the building from the street, the entire right-hand side of the seventh floor was being reserved for a boardroom. Probably the most important room in the building and the one whose refurbishment was the most lavish, not to mention the most expensive. The walls were lined with oakwood, reclaimed from a vicarage of the small parish church close to Ballyneagh, Country Derry, in Northern Ireland. The designer had been trying to recreate the “old money” feel of a high-powered firm of American lawyers. He’d succeeded.
‘“Oh, God”, I said, “not the vicarage,”’ the Archbishop blasphemed for the second time that day when later recalling his search for the benefit of DS Irvine and WPC Anne Coles. ‘You see, we’ve all taken to calling the boardroom “the vicarage”, you know, because of where most of the contents were taken from.’
He had walked into the boardroom, taken one look at the remains, been sick over himself (no time had been available for a more careful aim) and on the floor, turned and walked out again and went immediately to ring Camden Town CID.
Now it was Kennedy’s turn to view the scene.
The wooden shutters had all been left open and shafts of hot sunlight shone through the windows at forty-five degrees. The heat and the stench burnt their way into the very skin on the inside of his nostrils.
Hanging in the centre of the room were the remains of an elderly man.
He was suspended on a rope, fixed to a candelabrum. The other end of the rope appeared to be tied to the man, under the arms you would guess from the angle the body hung at, but closer examination revealed the rope was attached to a silver meat hook that was gouged into the back of the corpse. And still there was worse to come.
The old man had been stripped naked and his eyes had been removed from their sockets and placed on the large mahogany table below him. His stomach had been sliced open and his entrails and guts were hanging from the opening.
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Also by Paul Charles:
I Love The Sound of Breaking Glass
Last Boat to Camden Town
ountain of Sorrow
Ballad of Sean & Wilko
First of the True Believers
Hissing of the Silent Lonely Room
About Paul Charles