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Authors: Paul Johnston

House of Dust

Table of Contents

 

The Quint Dalrymple Mystery Series

BODY POLITIC

THE BONE YARD

WATER OF DEATH

THE BLOOD TREE

THE HOUSE OF DUST

THE HOUSE OF DUST

A Quint Dalrymple Mystery

Paul Johnston
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First published in Great Britain in 2001

by Hodder and Stoughton, A Division of Hodder Headline PLC

338 Euston Road, London NW1 3BH,

eBook edition first published in 2011 by Severn Select an imprint of Severn House Publishers Limited

Copyright © 2001 by Paul Johnston.

All rights reserved.

The moral right of the author has been asserted.

A CIP catalogue record for this title

is available from the British Library.

ISBN-13: 978-1-4483-0047-1 (epub)

Except where actual historical events and characters are being described for the storyline of this novel, all situations in this publication are fictitious and any resemblance to living persons is purely coincidental.

This ebook produced by

Palimpsest Book Production Limited,

Falkirk, Stirlingshire, Scotland.

In memory of

Margaret Johnston

(1926-1996)

Life goes by like a dream. The nightmare only begins when your brain slips out of gear and you realise that everything is turning to dust.

I can remember when spring was a non-event in Edinburgh. We used to go straight from the damp chill of winter to summer's deceitful blue skies, and the wind's well-honed knives never took more than a day off at a time. Things are different now. April 2028 was even warmer than previous years. People started parading around in clothing that revealed far too much, juxtaposing the skin and bone of undernourished locals with tourist flab. In June the Big Heat that results from global warming would kick in and the city would turn into a giant Turkish bath, though not in the air-conditioned hotels occupied by our honoured guests.

Except, come June, the tour companies might well have voted with their feet and left us to enjoy the sweat season on our own. The ruling Council of City Guardians has been losing the fight against the youth gangs in the suburbs for over a year. These days groups of Edinburgh's generation excess even mount raids into the central zone, divesting foreigners of currency, clothing and consciousness – not necessarily in that order. The headbangers in the City Guard, no strangers to extreme violence themselves, have had more than their hands full.

Which is why the guardians, fearful that their main source of income is about to go drier than the Water of Leith in August, have been working on a plan to put even more of a squeeze on their subjects. The appearance of the first swallows – they arrive earlier every year – coincided with the completion of the city's new corrective facility: it was intended to turn the Council's “perfect city” into a fully operational prison-state. Personally I've never been a supporter of banging people up, but no one asked my opinion. After all, I'm only an investigator. What do I know about crime and the causes of crime?

So every night the city resounds to the frantic rush of youthful feet and the slap of truncheons on flesh. Special squads of extra-hefty guardsmen and women were formed to deal with the gangs late last year, but the so-called “beaters” end up beaten more often than not.

The problem for me in recent months has been one of commitment. When I was a kid I loved Edinburgh for its breathtaking vistas and its glorious if blood-lathered history. Even after my home city set itself up as an independent state twenty-five years ago, I stayed on the scene. The Council's extreme policies were better than the mayhem we'd lived through when the UK was ripped to pieces in the drugs wars, and its high-minded Platonic ideals at least meant that people were treated with a reasonable degree of fairness. But I've had about as much as I can take of the present regime's iron fist. I've even been considering slipping over the border and heading for Glasgow – at least there's a semblance of democracy there.

To hell with spring. I go along with Merline Johnson. Back in the 1930s she sang about the blues being everywhere. I've always had a tendency to pessimism, but it took the fatal shooting of a guardian and a journey to the underworld to make me realise just how right the old diva was.

Chapter One

The windows to my bedroom were barred – thick, rusty steel implanted in the worn stone – and the walls were damp with condensation. I couldn't see much out of the grimy glass, but I knew the flats across the street were also decorated with heavy metal fixtures. When the Housing Directorate started erecting the bars last year, it was claimed they were to protect citizens from incoming scumbags – though how the youth gangs' members were supposed to climb three storeys of vertical granite was never explained. Everyone knows what the guardians have really been up to and that's turning us all into prisoners.

There was a tap on the window, then another. It was a small bird, a blue tit. It peered in at me, motionless, then twitched its head and disappeared in a blur of feathers. I felt the smile die on my lips and turned away. The birds are as free as it gets in Enlightenment Edinburgh – if they can avoid the kids armed with slings who trade the tiny avian corpses for stale bread from the hotels. Apparently there are tourists who regard songbirds as a delicacy.

“You're going to wet the bed, Quint.” Katharine took the mug from my hand and sat down on the bed. Watery sunshine was making an attempt to filter through the dirty glass.

I shook my head at her dispiritedly.

“What is it?” She ran a hand over her spiky brown hair and held her piercing green eyes on mine.

“It?” I said, playing for time.

She shook her head in irritation. “Come on, Quint. I'm not an idiot. More mornings than not since I've been coming back to this cesspit you call home, you wake up like a long-distance sleepwalker. Obviously something's getting to you.”

I took the mug back from her and swallowed the last of what the Supply Directorate solemnly swears is coffee. “Shit.” I wiped my mouth with my hand. “What do they put in this stuff?”

Katharine smiled. “I think you've answered your own question.” She held her eyes on me. “So are you going to tell me what's disturbing your slumbers or not?” She waited for a reply. “Apparently not,” she said, getting up from the bed and heading for the door. “I'm off to the drop-in centre. At least the people down there converse.”

“Hold on,” I said, stretching out to grab her arm. “Sorry. I don't . . . I don't really know what it is.” I glanced out of the window again. There was no sign of the blue tit. “This place is going down the bloody tubes, Katharine, and we're just sitting around watching.”

“Speak for yourself,” she said, her tone caustic. “I'm doing the best I can for the city's confused kids.” She shook her arm out of my grip. “Anyway,” she continued, “what about us? Haven't you got anything out of us being together again?”

I bit my lower lip. “Us? What does ‘us' mean? After the nightmare case in Glasgow back in '26 you lost yourself in Welfare Directorate business. I hardly ever saw you. You stopped coming round here, you moved down to Leith to be closer to your work. And then you turned up out of the blue a couple of weeks ago. I mean, I hadn't even laid eyes on you for months—” I broke off and gave her a blank stare. “If you ask me, ‘us' isn't worth a flying fuck, Katharine.”

She glared at me, then the lines on her face slackened. “A flying fuck,” she repeated. “I don't think I've ever had one of those.” She sat down on the bed again.

I pushed her away gently, feeling slightly less suicidal. I've never been good in the mornings. “Well you're not getting one now, citizen. I've got a report to make to the public order guardian in under an hour.”

Katharine looked at me then shook her head. “You'd better not keep the old bastard waiting then.” She got up and headed to the wardrobe. “I presume you'll be needing these.”

“Here, watch it!” I yelled as a black sweatshirt and trousers were thrown over me.

She waited till I shifted the garments off my head. “And I guess you'll be needing these.”

Supply Directorate underwear and socks that were beginning to show their age hit me in the face.

“Breakfast in two minutes,” Katharine said, marching out of the bedroom. “Dearest.”

I splashed water from the sink over my face and got dressed. At least Katharine hadn't thrown my steel toe-capped boots at me. I reckoned that two days' stubble would irritate the guardian intensely so I left it untouched by my blunt razor blade. I needed a new one but I wouldn't get a voucher till next week.

“You look lovely,” Katharine said, inclining her head towards the kitchen table as I went into the main room. “Though your hair could do with a mow.”

I normally keep my head with less than an inch of grey matter on it. I hadn't had time to hit the barber recently and it was double length now.

“What's this?” I asked, examining the crusty object on the table.

“A barracks bagel, would you believe?” Katharine said. “Someone must have done a deal with a foreign supplier. Twenty tons of last year's bakery products for five hundred holidays in Edinburgh or the like.”

“Anything to keep the tour operators sweet.” I bit into the bagel and immediately wished I hadn't. “What's inside this?”

“Prune and date, I think. Nice, isn't it?”

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