—trust no one—
(unless you want stabbed in the back)
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. His skin’s got that waxy, translucent, mortuary colour to it, where it isn’t smeared in dark red. More blood on his shirt, and on the cheeks of his sharp-featured face. Bags under his closed eyes. Short brown hair and a matching Vandyke . . .
Strange the way things turn out, isn’t it?
The muscled woman in the cartoon-cat T-shirt stops swinging the pickaxe and stands there for a moment, head back, breath fogging above her as the snow falls. Face pink and shiny.
Sorry – where are my manners? The lady doing the digging is one Detective Inspector Victoria Elizabeth Montgomery-Porter, North East Division. Some people call her ‘Bigtoria’, but never to her face.
She tosses the pickaxe out of the hole and grabs the shovel instead. Muscles bunch and writhe in her thick arms as she digs, the shovel’s blade biting into the loosened soil, before flinging it onto the pile.
She’s not the worst boss I’ve ever had. And yeah, given what’s happened, that’s pretty hard to believe. Sometimes events just get away from you and before you know it: there you are, in the middle of a remote, snowy glen, digging a shallow grave.
The shovel growls as Bigtoria stabs it into the ground, stones and dirt adding their mouldy-bread scent to the peppery ozone tang of falling snow.
I, on the other hand, am Detective Constable Edward Reekie. And I guess you could say I’m having a very bad day.
One last shovelful gets added to the pile before Bigtoria scrambles out of her pit, then stomps over to the body, scoops her hands in under its armpits and drags it back to the hole.
It’s weird. I know I should be angry about it – furious even – you know, being the dead body and everything? But mostly I’m just cold.
Bigtoria tumbles Edward into the pit. Stands there, staring down at him for a moment, head on one side. Shovel held like an executioner’s axe. Then she grunts. Grabs her high-vis from the branch.
You’d think she could manage a few words, wouldn’t you? Express a bit of sorrow and guilt. Maybe beg my forgiveness? A sodding apology wouldn’t hurt.
But Bigtoria doesn’t say a thing. Instead, she pulls a mobile phone and a child’s walkie-talkie from her jacket pockets. The walkie-talkie’s shaped like a clown’s head, complete with jaunty red nose and big beaming smile, and it’s dwarfed in her huge hand.
Have to admit, this isn’t exactly the funeral I thought I’d end up with. I’d kinda hoped for more mourners, maybe a few tears, some inspiring speeches about what a great guy I was. Distraught wife, two-point-four inconsolable children, and a heartbroken golden retriever.
She chucks her emptied jacket into the shallow grave. It lands on Edward’s body, hiding his bloodied, dirty face. Followed by the bloodstained sheet he was wrapped in.
And it’s not like I wanted a massive mausoleum – a nice headstone would’ve done.
A shovelful of dirt and gravel patters down on the jacket. Then another one. And another.
After all, it’s not like any of this was my fault.
An electronic twiddling noise bursts into life somewhere nearby. It’s a cheap one-note-at-a-time rendition of that olde-worlde circus theme tune: Yata, yadda yadda, yata yaaaaaa da.
There’s a pause, some swearing, then a bleep as Bigtoria presses the clown’s nose. She barks into it, hard and sharp as the pickaxe’s blade: ‘What?’
A distorted voice crackles out of the walkie-talkie.
It’s an old man, sounding every bit as cold and sharp as Bigtoria, but where her accent is posh-girl Scottish, his is gravelly Glaswegian. Redolent with tenements, whisky, and putting the boot in. ‘Is it done?’
‘God’s sake. I’d get through this quicker’ – she’s getting louder with every word – ‘if you didn’t keep checking up on me’ – till she’s roaring it out – ‘EVERY BLOODY MINUTE!’
Silence falls with the snow, settling into the landscape. Now the only sounds are the babbling burn, the jagged cawing of a distant crow, and Bigtoria’s breathing. In and out like angry bellows.
The man’s voice sounds again. ‘Just get it done.’
There’s a snarl. A sigh. And another shovelful of dirt clatters down on Edward’s body.
Bigtoria keeps filling in the shallow grave. ‘Should never have agreed to this.’
Like she’s the one lying at the bottom of a shallow grave.
On and on the earth rattles down, till there’s nothing left but muffled death.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. Probably better if we start at the beginning . . .