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A DROP of dirty rainwater fell from the guttering and landed with a splash in the open eye of the dead man. He lay with eyes wide and mouth open, arms close to his side and legs together. The body had lain there for three hours and not a soul had cared to notice. The alley was narrow and unlit, with large bins pushed against the walls on both sides. Navigating from one end to the other was an assault course and that was what had slowed him down and killed him.
The dead man had run into the alley at ten past one in the morning, gasping, bleeding and limping. The ground was wet and he slipped against a green industrial bin placed beside the plain red rear door of a struggling restaurant. His hand reached out instinctively and hit the top of it with a thump, sliding it backward a fraction, feeling the thick raindrops that had settled on it wet his palm. He pulled away and the lid slid shut with a hollow knock. Running was already beyond the man with the knife wound, and now he had to weave between bins and boxes stacked against bare brick walls. The effort ensured that twenty-five seconds later he was on the ground, dying.
A little before two o'clock in the morning a waiter came out of the back of the restaurant and pushed open the lid of the bin a dying hand had touched. He held two plastic shopping bags filled with food scraps, the bags knotted at the handles. He slung them into the bin in a looping movement and pulled the lid tightly shut to deny the rats a meal. He took a cigarette from his pocket and lit it, standing by the bin for two or three relaxing minutes, ignoring the familiar, rotting smell. A shout from inside the building, a woman's voice, the waitress he gave a lift home to each night. He dropped the cigarette on the ground and stubbed out the orange glow with his shoe, blew out the last mouthful of smoke and walked quickly back into the restaurant. He said he saw no body in the alley, that there was light enough to spot it so it can't have been there.
At twenty past two a police car sped down Somerset Street and past the end of the alley. Its siren knifed the silence, its lights flashing blue into the darkness, bouncing off the walls and briefly down the alley. The city had many emergencies for its police to tackle, and no one had realized another victim was lying, waiting to be discovered, nearby. From the alley, beside the body, you could hear the siren fade away into the distance, looking for a new horror. They wouldn't have to search long.
At four o'clock in the morning another man entered the alley from the Morti Road end. This one was walking more slowly, carefully, picking his way and watching his footing with unnecessary care. He went past the bins and saw the body lying flat, so he stopped. He moved slowly beside it and nudged the still arm with his boot. He knelt down and slapped the face gently, held a hand over the nose to try to feel breath. There was nothing. His medical expertise exhausted, he stood and took his mobile from his pocket and called the police. Two and a half minutes later sirens were loudly announcing their return. The dead man had been found and reported, and now the investigation would begin.
WE'LL START before the obvious point because the real beginning of this story comes a couple of days earlier than that. Instead of opening with the gorgeous dame walking into the office on Cage Street we'll instead go to a flat on Haugen Road, over in the Bakers Moor district in the east of the city.
There were forty people in a room that could hold twenty, in a flat that housed six and was designed for three. That's always the way on the east side of Challaid, too much life for the space. The music was loud and indistinguishable from the general racket, shite, to be succinct; the crowd packed so tight it was hard to tell who was dancing and who was waving for help. It was hot and, boy, was it sweaty, the movements slow. A young couple were kissing with the passion of people who had uncovered a new art form and wanted to perfect it, fast. Darian Ross stood back against the wall by the door, on his own, and watched.
Girls in vest tops and shorts and boys in T-shirts with unwitty slogans printed on the front, shimmering brows on blissed faces.
A constant and aimless sway of bodies in the absence of actual dancing.
A pill passed discreetly from one hand to another.
A shout and then a bottle breaking, the crowd pausing in anticipation of a violent follow-up and then carrying on, disappointed, when they realized it wasn't coming.
Someone was trying to make themselves heard close by and failing, the music screaming and the babble of voices always rising in the battle to be heard above it. This was what other people's joy looked and sounded like. A gap just large enough for him to raise his hand cleared and Darian took a sip from his warm beer can.
His eyes never wavered, fixed on the same couple.
The girl had black hair in a bob and big teeth, but he couldn't see the rest of her. They were deep in the crowd, Darian catching occasional glances of their heads as they looked into each other's eyes, the man doing all the talking.
He was older than her, older than most of the people in the room. She and they were teenagers; the man she had her arms around was twenty-seven. Brown hair combed back, average height, an ordinary, clean-shaven face and small, dark eyes that always seemed to have a light trapped inside them. Not a lot to look at, but his charisma held him above the ordinary mass of boys that usually chased her.
Two young girls had offered Darian a body to lean on earlier in the evening when there had been more room to approach but he had turned them both away, not interested. The only person he was there to see was the man with the unremarkable face. As the crowds filled the flat and the temperature rose, the light had faded from the room, too. Darian was handsome, light brown hair, feminine features, large brown eyes and full lips, six feet and slim with an intense look. In the dark he could lean back against the wall by the door and play the detached observer, still just young enough at twenty-two to slot in and not look like a creepy bastard. He'd picked his spot to make sure anyone who left had to parade right past him. More coming than going, and it had reached the point where a couple arrived and instantly decided that being crushed in a sweaty crowd was not actually the best available option for a Friday night. In this city there were always, always better options.
The beer in his can was flat and had lived long enough to rise to room temperature but he didn't notice. Darian sipped from it only so that he wouldn't be the only person standing still. In this room the man not moving was the man who stood out, so he'd occasionally nod his head self-consciously to the thudding music he hadn't yet identified. He found his excitement in silent moments, but this crowd was looking for something else. Most of them wanted more from life than peace and quiet, and one of them wanted everything.
Darian lost sight of the couple for a few seconds, a wave of bodies rising in front of them. Where the hell did they go? Shit, lost them. No, wait, there, he saw them again. Picked them up, walking toward the door beside him, politely nudging past partygoers to reach the exit. The ordinary face leaning down to speak into the ear hidden by dark hair. She smiled, buzzing, eyes wide and too alert, looking forward to being somewhere else. They managed to escape the scrum and passed Darian, out of the flat.
He let them go and counted slowly to ten, then counted a second time to make sure he had it right. He put the beer can on the floor for someone else to kick over, spun off the wall and walked out through the door, not looking back at the crowd that had barely noticed his presence and didn't spot his departure at all.
THE CHALLAID GAZETTE AND ADVERTISER
14 January 1905
32 DIE IN TUNNEL COLLAPSE
Tragedy struck Challaid yesterday morning with a major collapse in the rail tunnel being dug under the Bank district of the city which killed thirty-two men working at the site. It is believed the men drowned when the tunnel ceiling collapsed and mud and water poured in from above, filling the tunnel and preventing escape. A large rescue operation began immediately but no survivors have been retrieved, and it has now been confirmed that bodies will not be recovered until the tunnel has been drained, which may take several weeks.
Concerns had previously been raised regarding the digging of the tunnel as part of the rail extension with unions arguing the boggy land close to the docks was unsafe. The project, funded by Sutherland Bank, has been controversial since its announcement, with the tunnel proposed as an alternative to an above ground line, reducing disruption in the city center during construction and afterward. Lord Sutherland, chairman of the bank, has stated his shock and sadness and added his hope that work can begin again on the tunnel in quick order for the good of the city.
Glendan Construction—who are building the rail line from Barton to Whisper Hill—have confirmed that thirty-two of their workers are missing after the collapse but will not confirm the identity of the men until families have been informed. It is thought that most or all of the men were from Challaid and Glendan has stated that its senior engineers were leading the tunnel excavation at the time.
Further questions have been raised about the proposed underground rail system that would connect various parts of the city not served by the new main line. The underground designs are before the council planning committee and it was hoped construction would begin next summer with parts open to passengers by 1908. This is now likely to face delay while the safety of all proposed lines is assessed.
Polla Clothing New Year sale.
Large reductions on menswear and ladies' clothing in both South Sutherland Square and Sandpiper Road stores.
Sale lasts until January 31st
KING BEGINS TOUR OF CALEDONIAN STATES
His Royal Highness King Kenneth IV yesterday docked in the port town of New Edinburgh in Panama for the first day of his three-week tour of the Caledonian states. King Kenneth, traveling without Queen Margaret, was greeted by large crowds happily waving saltires and Caledonian flags, with all suggestions of unrest in the region surrounding his visit proved false.
King Kenneth will give a speech to parliament in Panama City on Monday and will attend a banquet in his honor on Tuesday in the city. His tour will continue north to Costa Rica and Nicaragua. It is the longest visit by a reigning monarch to Caledonia in more than seventy years and comes against the backdrop of growing demands for full independence for the three states. Recent elections in Costa Rica saw the independence party finish second with almost thirty percent of the vote. The Scottish government has denied his majesty's visit is a reaction to the rising volume of the independence movement, and have reiterated that the visit will boost trade and opportunities for both Scotland and the Caledonian states.
DARIAN LEFT through the open front door and made his way to the stairs. He could see them ahead, both pulling on coats as they moved out of view, walking side by side, leaning against each other out of lust and a need for balance. The stairwell they skipped down was dark, streetlights coming through the full-length windows giving a dull orange tinge to the deep gray surroundings. Darian lurked at the top to play voyeur, listening to them go down together.
The girl said, "Hold on, I can't see properly."
A squeal followed as the man said, "Don't you worry, I got you."
She sounded too young to be playing this game. She started to giggle and that noise was smothered quickly by a kiss on the landing a floor below Darian. Thirty seconds passed before it turned back to movement, shoes clacking on bare concrete stairs as the couple moved further down. Darian kept up the stalk, making sure they couldn't hear him, walking slowly on the balls of his feet. He only needed to be close for this early part of the journey, just until he was sure his guess was right.
He was on the first-floor landing when he heard the front door click shut behind them. Darian sauntered down, pushed it open and stepped out into the cold, clear night. They were, as we said, on Haugen Road, dirty lamplight showing the four-story flats on either side of the long street, their dark brown brickwork hugging the shadows tight, the road curving downhill toward Bakers Station. One man, he looked middle-aged, was walking up the street, and seemed to be struggling to keep his feet on a flat pavement inconsiderately not designed with the stumbling drunk in mind. The young couple had crossed the road and were walking down toward the station, the man with his arm tight around the girl. Darian stayed on the other side and walked more slowly than them.
It was a careful process, staying far enough behind to make sure his footsteps couldn't be heard. He didn't need to stay close now, but it was hard to walk down the hill to the station any slower than the lovey-dovey, hands-on couple were going without tying his feet together. They went into the brightly lit, century-old, gray stone station at the bottom of the road ahead of him, so now he could take his time, let them get ahead, let them disappear. They entered through the large arch to the concourse and Darian followed slowly, dragging his fingers along the bumpy surface of the stonework on the outside.
The couple used their travel cards to get through the barriers and hopped onto the next train heading north to Whisper Hill. Darian was, technically, working, so he went to the machine and bought a ticket with money he could claim back the cost of with a rare proof of expenses. The purchase killed four minutes; made sure he missed the train north they were on but got him to the platform in time for the next.
A short detour from the tale here, but anyone who's ever been to Challaid will know the leading pastime of the populace is not football or camanachd or the theater or, unfortunately, books or any other noble pursuit, it's complaining about the transport system. Ignore the stadiums and grand halls and libraries the other hobbies occupy, nothing can compete with the scale of people whinging about travel. This is a port city, founded over a thousand years ago as a fishing and trading town, or so your history teacher would have you believe, and centuries later boats remain the only vehicles we're any good with. The roads are clogged because we're a long but narrow city, U-shaped round the end of a sea loch, and because the rail system is a calamitous joke. We have no underground trains, and a single line running round the city above ground.
Look, we all know the reasons; a lot of people died when the original line was being built, probably more than was ever admitted because immigrant workers were never properly counted, and the companies involved were tone-deaf in their response. People protested against further development. It was dangerous back then, and by the time engineering skill caught up with public demand to make building an underground system safe it was prohibitively expensive. We're a reasonably rich city, but there's no appetite to spend the many billions something that big would now cost, so instead we complain. It's cheaper. There had been a suggestion in recent years that a monorail should be built, running over buildings instead of trying to dig under them. Funnily enough this idea had met with little support from communities who would have trains rattling above their heads every ten minutes and the odds of it ever happening ranked somewhere alongside the chances of everyone in Challaid being provided with a jetpack.
Darian was on the next train up to Whisper Hill, the carriage a mix of people silently annoyed with the others who were drunkenly loud. He was content to let the couple get ahead of him. It took fourteen minutes before the train stopped at Three O'clock Station in Whisper Hill and Darian got off. He walked out through the eastern exit of the sprawling station, each expansion adding a new architectural twist to the last stop on the city line, a glass and steel frontage on old brickwork on the east side of the tracks, a long, thin, white-paneled extension on the west and the back end of the building twice the height of the front.
There was a time, probably, when Whisper Hill would have been attractive. The hills, the narrow stretch of moor and then Loch Eriboll; who wouldn't find that pretty on a rare day of summer, midges the only pollution? Now this area of the city was dominated by the large industrial docks built in the thirties around an inlet, and the "engineering marvel" of Challaid International Airport built on top of Whisper Hill itself, the hilltop mostly leveled to accommodate it. No one in the last century has put the eyesore area on a postcard.
The lights up the steep hill shone bright, and Darian walked that way. Along Drummond Street, the long road that ran from the docks to the airport, the first half flat and the second a steep climb out of the tangle of concrete and up the heather-clad hillside. Darian turned right before he reached the bottom of the hill to walk down Gemmell Road, a narrow street with ugly brown three-story flats on each side. This was low-cost housing built for people working the docks in the thirties and forties. Short-term housing for temporary residents. It was the sort of area, buildings tightly packed together, a squash of inhabitants with a high turnover of tenants, in which a person with secrets could live a life unnoticed.
Darian knew he was looking for the second building on the left; he had spent time on Gemmell Road already, and went in through the front door and up the stairs to the first floor. There was no need to creep around now; they would have been inside the man's flat for more than five minutes.
Darian pictured them, kissing intensely, hurried, all that energy bottled up since meeting at the party cracking the glass with its intensity now.
Tension racing wild as soon as it was let off the chain.
Clothes being pulled off as they moved into the bedroom, onto the bed.
The girl underneath, that was the pattern.
The man licking and then biting, the girl getting scared as he forced her to roll over.
She would try to push him off, slap him, and he would ignore her.
When she moved too much for him, made his mouth's work too difficult, that was when he would reach for the knife, that's when he would want blood.
Darian stood outside the front door, eyes closed, trying to calculate the time that pattern would take to play out. There was a scream from inside, quickly muffled. Darian took a step back and kicked, aiming for the lock of the front door, knowing how cheap and feeble such fixtures were. It was the smash-and-grab burglar routine; kick, damage, repeat, the same methodical impact taking three kicks before the door cracked open. Darian was into the corridor and pushed open a door to find a bathroom, pushed open the next one to find his target.
A lamp was on beside the bed, showing the walls painted a dark blue, the bedside cabinet and a wardrobe opposite, no other furniture. The girl with the black bob was sitting up on the pillows, her eyes wide, a single drop of blood tickling down her left breast. The man, Darian knew his real name was Ash Lucas, whatever he was telling the girls, was standing at the foot of the bed, naked and excited. He had a large silver knife with a serrated edge in his hand and he spun to face the door when Darian walked in.
It took a glance for him to see it all, to understand that the pattern was indeed being repeated. Not pausing because delay gave the knife an advantage, Darian took a step toward Lucas and swung hard with his right fist, aiming accurately for the bridge of the nose. He hit the smaller man hard but he didn't hear the crack he was hoping for. The tactic was to hurt the bastard, and fast. Lucas stumbled backward, gripped the knife harder and reeled forward to his front foot to try to make a thrust at Darian. A second punch caught Lucas around the left eye, Darian's longer arm jabbing over the knife before he danced a step away.
That punch hurt both of them, Darian's index finger cracking, but he didn't show it, didn't react to pain in a fight. Lucas dropped sideways onto the bed. Darian took aim, his boot this time, the girl shouting as Darian stamped down on what we'll chastely call the man's excitement, scuffing down the skin. Lucas opened his mouth and instead of screaming he gasped loudly for breath as his eyes bulged, dropping the knife onto the floor. Darian picked it up and pointed it at Lucas.
He said quietly, "Got you, you piece of shit."
He was about to say something reassuring to the girl when she bolted across the bed and out of the room, scooping up enough of her clothes in a bundle to cover herself as she ran down the hallway, struggling to dress as she hopped and stumbled out through the broken front door.
Darian shouted, "Hey."
She didn't come back and he didn't chase, couldn't leave Lucas unguarded. Another punch, this one to make sure Lucas didn't kid himself by thinking he had the same freedom to run his victim did. Unlikely that he could have moved fast anyway, hunched over and crying quietly as he was, hissing through his teeth. Darian took his mobile from his pocket and scrolled down through his contacts. He knew the nearest station was Dockside, and he called his contact there.
HIS CONTACT came round in minutes in a police car with another uniformed officer. They used to say that all the toughest cops in Challaid were based at Dockside station because Whisper Hill was by far the shittiest area, populated by people who saw violence as another form of exercise. It might not be as brutal now as it was in more casually violent times gone by, but the Hill remained the home of the darkest nights in town.
It was two reassuringly large coppers who stood in the bedroom doorway of the flat, looking at Darian standing over the prisoner. Darian's contact was PC Vincent Reno, a barrel-chested bruiser in his thirties and the sort of honest rogue who made the ideal friend in the force. Vinny had a wide, smiling face, pale skin prone to flushing red when he was talking energetically as usual, and he looked like he'd been born in the uniform. Darian didn't know the other cop, he was very young and quite tall, narrower than Vinny, and looked like he'd borrowed his uniform from his father to play dress up.
Vinny was looking down at Lucas, relishing his discomfort, pleased to see the smudge of blood under his nose mingling with tears. He looked at Darian and said, "So this is how Darian Ross spends his Friday nights, is it?"
"Aye, very good. There was a wee girl with no clothes on as well, but she did a runner."
"Happen to you a lot, does it?"
Darian gave him the classic don't-push-it-too-far-pal look, and Vinny knew him just well enough to take the hint. Knew him enough to know this was a mixed blessing. Darian had no business chasing after this now-naked bastard, not legally, but Vinny was among a group of coppers who knew exactly what sort of arsehole Ash Lucas was, what he had been getting up to and getting away with. He'd take any chance to put a stop to it, even a bloody awkward one.
Vinny said, "Right, get some clothes on you; I'm not looking at that ugly wee willy of yours all night. We'll take you for a drive to the station."
Lucas looked up at him through teary eyes and, with spit on his lips, said, "Fuck you, I need to go to the hospital."
Vinny smiled and said, "That's not really for you to judge, that's for me to judge. They won't have much room for you at A&E in the Machaon on a Friday night anyway, better off trusting yourself to doctor professor Reno. That's me, by the way."
Lucas groaned a lot as the younger cop threw a random selection of clothes at him to put on and Darian and Vinny stood in the doorway and watched. Vinny wasn't gentle as he led Lucas down the stairs and out to the police car. Challaid cops seldom are. It was a short drive, nobody speaking a word in the car on the way.
Whisper Hill rattled past them, gloomy and menacing where the high buildings faded above the lights, figures walking through a welcoming night in search of easily found fun or fleeing from the amusements of others. Countless stories that would never be told. They went down past Three O'clock Station and left onto Docklands Road. It was a long street filled with large, irregular buildings, on one side the backs of the huge warehouses whose fronts looked onto the dock itself and on the other a line of large buildings intended to serve shipping in other ways; among them the much-needed police station. They drove up the side of the whitewashed block and round to the walled car park at the back.
ACCLAIM FOR MALCOLM MACKAY
"Don't pick up a Mackay book unless you've got spare time. They're habit-forming."—Janet Maslin, New York Times
- "Contemporary noir doesn't boast a more elegant stylist than Mackay. Even in evoking a world of scuzziness, he makes the lure of redemption sing."—Lloyd Sachs, Chicago Tribune
- "It is a joy to wallow in the muck with Mackay, who writes in a bold style that reflects confidence rather than bravado, occasionally breaking up the tension with a wry joke."—Marilyn Stasio, The New York Times Book Review
- "The [Glasgow] trilogy was a bravura performance, and one had every reason to expect that Mackay would do more with such rich material. That expectation has now been met, and rousingly so."—Dennis Drabelle, The Washington Post
- On Sale
- Aug 13, 2019
- Page Count
- 576 pages
- Mulholland Books