It was supposed to be a simple delivery job for DI Victoria Montgomery-Porter and her sidekick, Edward Reekie – pick up a prisoner from HMP Grampian and take them to their new state-funded home – but life’s never that straightforward.
I never really wanted to be a police officer.
Thick flakes of white drift down from a low, grey sky, adding their weight to the drooping branches of beech trees. Making the gorse and broom slump in surrender. A burn gurgles, just out of sight behind knotted clumps of barbed-wire brambles. A duvet of white smothers the forest clearing, snow robbing the shapes and colour from everything, leaving only the frozen ghosts of what lies buried beneath.
I wanted to be an astronaut, or a football player, or a rock star . . .
Everything is calm and still and crisp, marred only by a line of deep footprints and a smooth-edged scar where something heavy has been dragged through the drifts. Then there’s the noises: the ping-and-clang of a pickaxe, chipping away at the frozen ground – a regular, methodical sound, an industrial metronome, marking out the time of death. Every blow accompanied by a grunt of exertion.
My big brother, Dave, he was the one meant to follow the family tradition and join up, but a drunk driver blew straight through the Holburn Street junction, and that was that.
The person swinging that pickaxe is tall, broad-shouldered, powerful. Hair pulled back from her flushed face. Mid-forties, give or take a year or two. Her high-vis padded jacket hangs from the branch of a twisted Scots pine, like a flayed skin – one of the sleeves blackened with blood, more smears on the front. A second jacket, dark as coal, and a petrol-blue shirt are draped over another branch. Steam rises from the shoulders of her burgundy T-shirt. You’d think she’d be wearing something a bit more … death-metal-like. You know: a skull and crossbones, or a snake with a dagger in its teeth, but her T-shirt features a cartoon black cat in a bow-tie and eye patch, posing with a gun like it’s from a James Bond movie. The hole’s already waist-deep, a pile of dark earth slumping beside it. A wooden-handled shovel poking out of the heap, like a skeletal flag.
Dave swapped his police dreams for a wheelchair, and I swapped mine for a warrant card. Cos that’s what you do when your dad’s a cop, and his dad before him, and his dad before that.
A body lies off to one side, partly covered by a stained sheet, curled against the Scots pine’s hungry roots. The body’s high-vis jacket is the twin of the one hanging from the branch, only there’s a lot more blood. Deep scarlet stains the jacket’s fluorescent-yellow back; it’s soaked into the grubby-grey suit underneath too. The jacket’s owner doesn’t look a day over twenty-four, but he does look very, very dead.