Aristocracy, Cannibalism, Chancellors Court, Crime, Detective, Detective fiction, Detective Inspector Rebus, Dinner party, Edinburgh, Edinburgh University, Health and Safety, Ian Rankin, Masses Against the Classes, Police, Police Community Support Officers, Pollock Halls, Students
[Since the retirement of Detective Inspector Rebus, Edinburgh has lacked a leading crimefighter. It has happily come to my attention, however, that our own Pablo has solved a number of perplexing mysteries through his work as a Police Community Support Officer, and Tychy hereby intends to chronicle some of the highlights from his curriculum vitae. Ed.]
I was drinking with Pablo in the Peartree this afternoon, and he regaled me with some amusing incidents which he had witnessed whilst working as a PCSO. They concern the Pollock Halls of Residence, a housing complex for first-year students at the University of Edinburgh.
As a Polish man in Edinburgh, I needed to consult with my editor James in order to judge how to write about these students. To my eye they look merely eccentric, but most of them are, in fact, extremely rich. In this country, the very rich are as distinct and separate a social class as the very poor: both are alienated from bourgeois society by their uselessness, their scrounging, their boorishness, their jarring and unsightly clothes, and their strange, disagreeable ways of speaking.
“It sets my teeth on edge,” James confided. “The braying English aristocratic voice. It should have rightfully declined along with fox hunting and gentlemen’s clubs, but it seems to grow more strenuous the further that we progress into the twenty-first century. This voice declares that one is excluded from society, but that society has been judged to be of rather less consequence. Yet the voice often contains a bit of estuary English, as if vaccinated with a harmless amount of proletarian essence for its own protection.”
“They are called “Yahs”?” I broached, somehow disliking being made to feel like an anthropologist.
“Because they say “yah” instead of “yes.” But if I could only speak in that way, I would end up mumbling and shrugging helplessly, unable to raise my voice. I would eventually just shrivel up with embarrassment and expire. The “Pollock Halls voice” is like an horrible extra genital which should be tucked away in private, but the students will often flaunt this thing in public. I’m sure that you have been in the queue for a bar, crushed up with somebody who has that “Pollock Halls voice,” and everybody will fall into a furious silence, as if a machine gun is being brandished over their heads, whilst that enormously assured voice floods into their minds and pushes out their own thoughts, like an invading, imperial force.”
I was astonished. “You really do hate it?”
“It is a shame that the rich could not communicate using sign language. I cannot see how they would ever agree to it, though.”
I think that this adequately introduces Pollock Halls. Our story begins at the point when Pablo had been recruited to an undercover police mission. He was a highly regarded PCSO and his familiarity with Edinburgh’s nightlife made him perfect for the mission.
A human thigh bone had been found in the long grass which fringes the southern entrance to Holyrood Park. Further investigation had uncovered human vertebrae in the dustbins of Pollock Halls. Students often drop out of university, or wander off for several months, and a less glamorous and more bureaucratic lump of the police force had conducted countless wild goose chases before the names of two students from Chancellors Court could be finally put to these bones. The next task was to locate the rest of their bodies, and it was here that the police happened upon an unexpected opportunity to put a very old case to bed.
In the 1980s, several children in a Surrey boarding school had been accused of practising a bizarre ritual which had apparently involved cannibalism. There was not enough evidence to prosecute anybody, and, in any case, there had been an unsightly stampede within the establishment to hush up the scandal, but where the police had been baffled, social scientists had become extremely lively. A seminar had been held – several papers had been published – and to grossly oversimplify a complicated subject, it seems that a clique of these children had attributed their aristocratic privilege not to their parents’ wealth or to their superior education, but to a mystical, superhuman power which they believed was derived from eating other children.
They had formed a sort of “cannibal club” and this would undertake rituals in which the most socially inferior child would be identified and eaten. There was a sort of sportsmanship to the proceedings, and the losing child would have to pretend that they consented cheerfully to their fate.
The sociologists had contended that this club met annually and that the ritual may have continued into university. The latest police investigation now established that over a dozen former pupils from the school in question presently lived at Pollock Halls, and that their old kinship had survived intact. Bumping into each other at a funeral, a group of seasoned bankers and civil servants may be transformed instantly into the schoolboys who had once fished together in the same canal, the little, fragile personalities emerging into daylight like the sleeping knights of legend who had founded a nation. But these Surrey children had always remained closely connected. From monitoring their emails, the police learned that they would soon meet for an unspecified event, and that partners and close friends could also attend, in an honorary capacity.
It was decided that Pablo should infiltrate the club by posing as the heir to a Spanish dukedom. He was the first to point out that in order to achieve this, he would need a ready supply of cash. The police had provided him with the PIN number to an exclusive bank account and he had hastily filled several brown envelopes with banknotes. He made a spate of purchases, but his new Mercedes was intended very much as a prop. Pablo screeched around Edinburgh on a succession of sunny afternoons, with rap music on full volume, collecting girls and being as eye-catching as possible.
Pablo would remain unarmed during his mission, but he would maintain radio contact and carry a camera, which would be concealed in a bag. Pablo was unimpressed with the bag.
“This is a man-bag.”
“You’re meant to be a duke. You cannot turn up wearing a rucksack.”
Pablo regarded the bag dolefully. “My character would leave this hidden in his castle.”
“Maybe you could adjust your character to make him a little more fruity?”
Pablo only sniffed and shook his head. “These cigars. Are they Cuban?”
“I’m afraid that they contain no genuine tobacco. It’s policy. We cannot subject the public to tobacco smoke.”
It seemed that the room had become deeply cold.
“This tuxedo is good, though” Pablo remarked finally. “And the microphone is planted in this piece of chewing gum?”
“Yes. Keep it in the side of your mouth at all times… If you swallow it…”
“It will release a chemical to induce immediate vomiting.”
Pablo’s grin froze.
It took Pablo several weeks to make friends with two of the cannibal ringleaders: Clive, who the other students called “Nigger” because his father owned a diamond mine in South Africa; and Oscar, who had not seen his own parents since he was six, even though they had periodically lived together on the same yacht until he was eighteen. Both of these boys looked like overgrown babies, their gigantic, restless bodies were capped with the little woollen bonnets which toddlers are dressed in, whilst they seemed to be waiting for a mother to appear and pull up their trousers, as their waistlines had fallen almost around their knees to expose vast buttocks, tailored in pink and purple bloomers. Pablo was disturbed by the fact that his eyes always seemed to return to these buttocks, like a compass needle swinging back to north, and that the colours of the bloomers never changed.
Pablo played rugby with these boys and afterwards, when drenched in blood and caked in mud, they would together turn up at the nightclub WhyNot, like Banquo to dinner, chuckling at the bouncers’ outraged henpecking. The boys came to regard Pablo as a reliable chum, they borrowed money from him, and Pablo saw that he could make progress by supplying them with drugs. They were very inexperienced, and the police were able to cook up some fake ecstasy, which delivered the same mild buzz that you may procure from an espresso. For their part, the boys alluded familiarly to the looming “din dins,” and they evidently presumed that Pablo was in on the secret.
An invitation finally arrived via Facebook. The “din dins” would be held at midnight in a common room within Chancellors Court. Pablo notified the station at St Leonards and an armed support unit was put on standby. After eleven, Pablo slipped into his tuxedo, fitted his earpiece, and popped the chewing gum microphone into his mouth. He then trotted over to Pollock Halls and followed a pleasant walkway through a series of courtyards.
It was as if Pablo had been hit by a great blast of sea air. He felt massively invigorated. “My God!” he exclaimed. “The girls here are all dressed like prostitutes!”
There was a distant laugh in the earpiece. “Stay focused man.”
In Chancellors Court, there are real students and fake students. The fake students do not seem to fit in: they are too unremarkable, too slightly built, and one can detect the grit of their working-class accents, like sand in a condom. In truth, they are servants. When the Court judges itself to be unobserved, the fake students resume serving drinks to the real ones.
A servant greeted Pablo at the door and lead him to the table. Pablo was mildly dismayed when the servant confiscated his man-bag and took it away to be stored in a cupboard. But he was pleasantly surprised to find himself seated next to Clive’s girlfriend Katy.
“Hello my dear,” Pablo’s eyes sparkled. “You look magnificent this evening.”
“Thank you Pablo.” Katy could not quite return the smile. A sensible, middle-class girl, whose father owned a chain of DIY stores, she seemed dumbstruck with awe at the glamour of these aristocrats, like a child put at the wheel of a fire engine for a treat. She would grumble about them, and make clever, barbed remarks at their expense, but this did not even convince herself. In her relationship with Clive, he was the brandy and she was very much the soda.
It struck Pablo that Katy was the only girl at the dinner. She looked forlorn, as if abandoned to the savages by her own kind. Pablo was happy to be seated beside her, however, and they together seemed like an island of sense within a raging, mad sea.
The dinner was well underway, the servants were dispensing elaborately dressed dishes and the aristocrats were eating them with a pointed carelessness. Their voices clashed over the dinner table like swords and the room already stank of wine. Katy bobbed forward to confide in Pablo. “Have you been to one of these things before?”
Pablo raised an eyebrow, as if to say, “You don’t want to be here?”
Katy did not nod but she might have done. “It’s too late to leave now. They wouldn’t like it.”
Pablo shrugged. “Another glass of wine?”
Katy did not know how to continue. “I’m expected to be here. As Clive’s girlfriend. I’ve been trying to talk my way out of it, but he can’t seem to focus on me. He’s a hundred miles away.”
“Pablo!” Clive swooped into their midst.“May I help myself to a cigar?”
Pablo almost swallowed his gum, but he managed to cough it back up in the nick of time. Clive had fished a cigar out of Pablo’s breast pocket and a servant was ducking forward with a match.
Pablo had been told that the technology behind these tobacco-free cigars was still in its infancy, and that it was best not to offer them around. The servant lit the end of the cigar, but before Clive could take a puff, the entire thing was aflame. Clive snorted with surprise as the cigar dropped like the Hindenburg zeppelin into his lap, where it proceeded to blaze away merrily. The end of Clive’s nose was briefly on fire, and his servant hurried to slosh an ice bucket over him.
The table roared in appreciation. Clive laughed stupidly at his burnt face.
Dinner was replaced with cards. For a while, they played rounds of poker for larger and larger sums of money. Luckily, Pablo had a fresh brown envelope in his pocket and he was able to participate. He observed that there was something different about this game. Everybody seemed very earnest and careful, even the students who normally played like elephants, and Katy, who usually excelled on these occasions, was so nervous that she lost a great deal of money. Bewildered, Pablo watched Katy melt into a pool of tears.
“I hope that you’re outside?” Pablo mumbled to himself.
“We’re just waiting upon your signal and then…”
Suddenly the earpiece was telling Pablo to collect an elderly couple from the Filmhouse. A bus had broken down on the Grange Road, and it was best to proceed via the Grassmarket. Pablo cocked his head, to try and receive the proper transmission, but he then realised that several of the players were glaring at him.
Then this happened: a crocodile alarm clock which stood on the common room television began to waddle on the spot, reciting, “Tick, tock, it’s three o’ clock. Tick, tock, it’s three o’clock.”
“Three o’ clock – money on the table!”
Servants were clearing the table and a large tin foil tray was placed in the centre. Another servant had stepped up on to a chair and he was deftly removing a fire alarm from the ceiling. Pablo was rapidly gathering that each player had to surrender all of the money on their person. Those around the table were ruefully emptying their pockets and all hands were suddenly filled with banknotes.
Wads of banknotes would be handed to the head butler, who would quickly and skilfully verify whether the stated amount was correct. They were going around the table and the extracted amounts were all in the tens of thousands.
Pablo was desperate to confer with headquarters, but then the butler was at his side and he had to relinquish his brown envelope. This was public money, which could be spent on community policing, treating drug addiction, or educating prisoners. “One thousand, four hundred,” the butler proclaimed, to the amazement of the table. This was the lowest figure yet. Pablo was mumbling frantically to himself, but there was only a low hiss in his earpiece. The brown envelope was added to the pool of money in the foil tray.
But Pablo was relieved to see Katy cough up even less than himself: only six hundred pounds. She was desperately searching pocket after pocket, whilst the room grew impatient and they began to drum lustily on the table.
With a droll smile, the butler affirmed what the room already knew. “Miss Katy is din dins.”
The banknotes were splashed with something which smelled pretty pungent and with the crack of a match, a small fortune was going up in flames.
The table had seized Katy and they were hauling her struggling body over the fire, looking like a family who were fighting to bathe their cat. She roared – a terrible unearthly sound – as the flames licked her back. For a moment, Pablo sat transfixed.
One of the students began to tug down Katy’s jeans. But as Clive sank his teeth into his girlfriend’s arm and tore out a strip of flesh, Pablo rose to his feet.
He clapped his hands. “Cut that out!”
The room paused. Clive froze with his teeth still in Katy’s arm.
“Put her down,” Pablo said sternly.
At the unexpected sound of an adult voice, the students slunk back like wild animals.
Pablo stepped forward, but then he checked himself and grunted. He found that he was completely blind. The students were groaning and crashing to their knees. A descending head slapped Pablo’s thigh and bumped off his shoe.
Helping hands were then leading Pablo away. Somebody told him that he had been a star.
I should explain that after they had lost radio contact, the police had followed the relevant health-and-safety procedures and subjected the room to a pressure wave. A bolt of energy – rather like that transmitted within a microwave, except increased by a hundredfold – had been directed at the room from a nearby police van. Once everybody within the room had been incapacitated, either through temporary blindness or organ failure, the police had kicked down the door and marched those who could still walk back to the police van.
Pablo had recovered his sight by the following afternoon, whilst Katy survived with a few sore patches. She was completely deranged, however, and to this day it remains unclear whether her sanity has perished along with her faith in the ruling class. She is currently recuperating in an English nursing home.
I am otherwise sorry to relate that this story remains to be satisfactorily concluded. The police are still investigating the “cannibal club,” the Crown doubts that there is enough evidence to convict any students, and, suffice to say, these are rich kids with influential parents. My only suggestion is to avoid Pollock Halls after dark.