The dreary haar hung around the harbour limits meaning anything beyond the small lighthouse was abandoned to the grey blanket. From the top floor of the station, he could usually see right out into the Minch, even catch the odd passing cargo ship as it made its way through the often rough waters that separated the island from the mainland. At five o’clock in the morning, his shift was taking its toll and he was fighting the bleary eyes that had been forced to look at the information screens so necessary for his job.
The thing about this time of the morning was that so little happened in general, it was normally qu-. No, he must not say that word. Under no circumstances was that word to be mentioned or even thought of, lest a cavalcade of woe would come in on the emergency numbers. So far the night had been routine. Just after his shift had started, one of the visiting yachts to the area had broken down and he had been involved in organising the lifeboat to help them negotiate the entry to the harbour. Otherwise it had all been qu-, routine.
Turning back to the room from the window, he saw his colleague, her face rooted to her screen and headset on. It may have been her timesheet she was looking at, because for this time of the morning she seemed intense. But then again she was often intense, especially when anything broke the qu-, routine nature of the shift. Looking behind her, he saw the paper calendar with its simple indicator that was moved along the numbers to indicate the day. Then he baulked at the number it displayed. She hadn’t moved it on at midnight. Now a day behind, he knew his mind would return to it time and again until the marker was adjusted. There was something wrong in his make-up surely, affected as he was by such simple and inconsequential things.
He turned back to the window, stretching his arms and legs, pushing back the cramping feeling attacking them. Keeping himself from tightening up was always a problem. When you sat for so long…
An artificial claxon broke the quiet of the room. On spinning round he saw the confirmatory red panel flashing and he automatically raced back to the desk. Grabbing his headset, he placed it over his ears and then pressed the red button, accepting the incoming distress call.
“Coastguard,” screamed a voice, “Is that the Coastguard?”
“Yes sir,” he answered calmly whilst inside his blood began to pump fast and he felt the nervous twinge in his stomach. This sounded like a bad one. “What’s the problem?”
“There’s someone out there. Someone on the rocks.”
“Where are you, sir?” The need to locate and then send help burned in his mind.
“I think they’re dead, God, I think she’s dead.”
“We will get help to you, sir, but I need to know where you are. Where are you, sir?”
“Oh God, she’s dead. She must be dead. I can see her throat, inside her throat. Even from here.”
“Where are you? Tell me where you are, sir?”
But the phone call had dropped from the system. His heart pounded but he forced his brain to think through what to do. Position, I need a position he thought, somewhere to send teams. Looking up at the screen he saw the incident had been flagged on his map. Because it was a mobile call, it was showing an indicative position, not necessarily accurate but based on a mobile mast and the information garnered electronically during the call. Start there, he thought, just start there.
Standing, he started issuing instructions to his colleague and shouted for their third watch keeper to come back in from their break. He requested they send a lifeboat, coastal rescue teams and a helicopter to the situation, treating the casualty as still alive despite the caller’s assertion. Then he called the mobile phone that the first informant, the man who had been so panicked, had called in on. But it just rang out.
As the wheels of search and rescue spun rapidly, he realised that this was no longer a qu…, routine night shift.
Detective Inspector Macleod sat in one corner of the station’s cafeteria with his eyes closed. He could hear the clatter of knives and forks, spooning down of greasy breakfasts and cereals, coffee cups lifting and descending but he was in his own calm and serene island. It was always good to start a day with prayer and he had done so when he had arisen. But now as he waited for his colleague to join him, he indulged in some more brief moments with his Lord.
There was so much in this world that needed fixing, his day job told him that. Twenty years on the force and now working the murder squad, he had seen plenty, unlike the upstart that was about to join him. In recent years, everything had gone crazy. He had worked with women before, most of them more than competent at their jobs, indeed some had even been the reason they had solved certain cases. But he had grown up with women knowing their role in the home and this was a change he had found hard to swallow.
Yet, he had swallowed it, to the point that his senior officer was a woman and he showed no resentment or annoyance but instead had worked with her the best he could. It helped that she was very professional, knew him and his job. And so, despite the many reservations he had, he worked with this new openness the force displayed.
However, the woman about to join him was different. In her mid-twenties, she had risen up the ranks quickly and was now a detective, recently assigned to his department. Although he had never worked directly with her, he had seen her about, usually in something provocative and unashamed to flirt. And not just with the men. There were rumours that she was quite hedonistic in her life but he had never seen the point of investigating this further as his boss had seen the sense of never assigning her to a team of his. But with Mackenzie having been taken off-line after the car crash, there was no choice but to pair them.
His eyes opened and he baulked at the flesh in front of his face. There were two buttons undone on her blouse and he was sure he could see a bra strap. As his head lifted he looked into the youthful face that smiled back at him. Her red hair was tied back in a ponytail and around her neck hung a simple gold chain on which hung a small cross. Inside something raged that this precious symbol was being hijacked by this woman but he knew he had to maintain his calm.
“Detective McGrath, thank you for your punctuality. I think it’s time we get to the airport, I believe the flight to Lewis leaves in a little less than two hours.”
The woman nodded. “Of course, but please call me Hope. I think using long titles just gets in the way, sir.”
Nodding, he rose from his own chair. Sir, that’s good, he thought, formal enough, she’s not getting to call me Seoras. Placing the chair back under the table, he saw one of the uniformed officers approach and hand Hope a small package. When the officer had gone, he asked her what it was.
“Just some photos from the convention I attended. Comic books, sir.” She took some out of the packet and handed them to Macleod. Looking at the first one, he saw her in a group of girls all dressed in bright, bold outfits. This was not an issue but the amount of body left uncovered was. Still, he couldn’t lecture her straight away about where this path would take her.
“Very good,” he said mutedly, “but we can’t stand around. There’s a body that wants to talk to us.” Hope nodded and he knew she got his point.
Routing via the office, they grabbed their small cases and were then taken by Johnstone to the airport. There would be a small team by the time everyone arrived but himself and Hope would be there as quickly as possible. The local officers would be holding the fort until then and he hoped they wouldn’t do anything daft. Deep inside, he knew this attitude towards the resident force was just a front for his nervousness about returning home, back to the island that had been his childhood home, a place he had not seen in over twenty years.
Waiting in the lounge, secreted down a small staircase, he looked around at the island faces about to board the small aeroplane with him. Someone had said the cross winds at Stornoway would make the landing fun and he remembered their devilish face, almost gloating in his apprehension at flying. The winged coach held just over thirty seats and he would be seated beside Hope in the cabin. Trying to focus his thoughts on the case before him, he found himself thinking of falling through the air, or seeing the plane run off the runway and then exploding into flames. Irrational and childish he knew, but he couldn’t beat these demons from his door.
Hope was holding a paper cup before him and he gratefully took it. Watching her then walk over to the long window to stare at the airport workings, he saw several other men stare at her behind. When she turned round suddenly, he noticed their eyes quickly divert before commencing to stare again. There was no doubt that she was extremely attractive but Macleod felt that she flaunted her looks. When he was growing up, girls kept their legs covered and certainly showed no hint of breastbone never mind any lingerie peering out. She may not have been the most buxom woman he had ever seen but there was no need to offer them up like a sacrifice on the altar of men’s thoughts.
The Tannoy system broke into life and Macleod chuckled internally at the fact that the speaker was only ten feet away from his audience and yet was using this device to be heard. Standing with his ticket, he was flanked by Hope and he wondered how it must look to others, a slip of a girl as his companion. No, she was no “slip” of a girl. Detective McGrath was almost six foot, and although reasonably broad, did not have an obvious ounce of fat on her. Maybe it was because she was in that prime of life, a time when even he had so little wrong with his physical appearance. No, everyone was probably thinking they were work colleagues. The thought that people were surmising he was a dirty old man, was not one to be entertained.
The aircraft rolled down the runway and glided into the sky, but was then buffeted by some rough winds. Macleod swallowed hard trying to keep a solemn appearance. His ears were being assaulted by the noise of the engines and he suddenly realised McGrath was talking to him. She seemed to be asking if he was alright but was leaning forward and he found the scent of her perfume invading his nostrils. It was subtle and pleasant, intoxicating to a degree and coupled with her neckline, it gave him a warm sensation. But it was wrong and he looked away from her, holding a hand up to indicate no help was required.
Thankfully the trip was short and before he knew it, the Saab 340 was approaching the runway at Stornoway. Beneath him, he saw only white clouds and wondered just what sort of day the island was having. Growing up, he remembered dreich days, days when the drizzle seemed to be a life constant and you never saw the sun. This was replaced by times of extreme winds and rain that he was sure did not fall from above but came at your face side on, driving into your clothing and seeping through to the skin beneath. That cold, damp feeling as you were buffeted along the street had never left him.
The cloud cover broke abruptly and he looked out of the window to catch a first glimpse of the island. But the aircraft was only a few hundred feet up and he could see the runway out of his window. Surely that wasn’t right. The blessed piece of asphalt should be ahead of the aircraft not at the side. His hands gripped the arm rests. Staring wildly, he felt exposed. There was nothing he could do. His life was in the hands of the pilots. He should have come by ferry.
A hand was placed over his and he turned to see Hope saying it was fine. She spoke loudly and he heard something about it being due to the cross winds and that the plane would soon straighten. Her free hand was making a flicking motion to help her explanation but in truth it was the smiling face, delightful scent and wide green eyes that was calming him down. He drunk in her visage as the aircraft made that slight adjustment and landed smoothly. Having landed, he removed his hand and felt embarrassed. He had behaved like some old man. And then the guilt of enjoying her looks struck him. A brazen woman, he silently requested forgiveness from above.
In the small arrivals hall, they were met by PC Smith, on detachment from Inverness who led them to one of the local cars. The drive into town was short and Macleod looked at the overcast sky and light drizzle that was falling. Yes, he remembered these days. No doubt those little fiends, the midges, would be out and about, eating the skin off everyone. For something so small they were ferocious in the damage they did to you. Hope’s white skin would be a prime target. Again he found himself thinking of the brazen woman.
The rest of the murder team would be arriving later that day but Macleod was keen to get on with business and insisted on being taken to where the body was found right away. PC Smith advised that they would have to drop by the station and pick up another driver, as he was required elsewhere. On arrival, and after the formal greetings, Macleod insisted on a car and he asked Hope to drive. But when he held the driver’s door open for her, she seemed affronted.
“What’s wrong? Don’t you want to drive? It’s just I want to think some things over.”
“Sir,” replied McGrath, “you don’t need to open doors for me. I’m capable of getting about, I have driven before. And on the way up here, you offered me seats, you let me through first, you do minor things for me like I am incapable. You don’t need to.”
“I’m just being civil, gentlemanly. A man should afford a woman certain courtesies. It’s only right that…”
Hope rallied. “Courtesies? You mean I’m weaker. I think I would kick your arse any day. And I don’t remember me shitting my pants on the landing today.”
She was so coarse. Modern women spoke in such an ugly fashion. “Don’t use that tone with me, McGrath. I am your superior.”
“Sorry, sir!” Hope stood in defiance, daring him to say more.
He knew he had offended her but really she had no need to take offence, he was only stating the honest truth. When God had made man and woman, she had been made for him and so to protect her and look after her was only reasonable. But these days it seemed women wanted to stand on their own.
“Shall we get on?” asked Macleod.
“Of course,” Hope replied. “But kindly cut out the male chauvinistic bollocks. Sir!”
He found himself staring at her, not in anger but in admiration. He was used to quiet women. His mother had been one, strong at raising her family but quiet in the presence of his father. But Hope was the new breed and as he watched her unblinking face and taut shoulders, he found himself more than a little turned on by her attitude. Like a challenge. But that was wrong.
“Okay, McGrath. Let’s just try this again, we got work to do.”
As the car drove smoothly along the single track road, Macleod saw the sheep casually lazing about, occasionally breaking into a hurried shuffle as the car got too close for comfort. Hope was cursing at the animals and inside he decided at some point he would need to rein in her language. There was no need to swear, no possible requirement that could justify the f-word. If she used the Lord’s name in vain he would most definitely pull her up for it.
After turning down a small side road, the car wound its way down to the cliff edge and gave the occupants a long view of the loch before them. Taking a look at the quiet expanse of water before them, Hope whistled her appreciation.
“Look at that, sir. Perfect to swim in or what?”
“The waters are cold up here, even colder than Glasgow and you’d be mad to swim in the Clyde for starters. Park up and find me who’s running the show.”
Hope parked the car just off the track and headed towards the small contingent of police cars up ahead. Macleod followed behind slowly, chewing over the area. Right out in the back of beyond, he thought. They couldn’t have killed her in a more remote or lovely a place. If the sun would turn out this area would be hailed as a paradise but then was that not true of all the islands up here. The weather made such a difference to the perception of the place.
As he approached the group of local officers, Hope was walking towards him, accompanied by a tall man in a shirt and tie who held out his hand. He wore wellington boots but was otherwise suitable to be in any office.
“Good morning, sir,” said the officer, “it’s a bit on the rough side weather wise.”
“Thank you, Detective..?”
“Allinson, sir. I hope the flight up was good enough for you.” The man smiled somewhat disingenuously and Macleod wondered if Hope had said anything.
“It was fine, just fine. Now fill me in Allinson, what have we got?”
“If you’ll come this way, sir, and I’ll brief you as we walk. An early morning walker spotted a body off this cliff edge, looking down to sea. It appears to have been washed up onto the rocks and not simply dropped from the top, as there was little trauma to the body except for the throat which was slashed through. Actually it was more ripped apart, not a very clean job.” Allinson seemed to involuntarily swallow as he thought about his last statement and Macleod wondered if the man had ever seen a murder before. It was a sad truth that you became dead to far too horrific a scene in this work, well at least that was what you told yourself. Some of the nightmares said different.
“We had to move the body,” continued Allinson, “as the tide would have taken it back out into the loch. Members of the local Coastguard and the lifeboat combined to remove the corpse and it is now back at the hospital morgue. Right, here we are.”
Macleod approached a cliff edge and taking care not to get too close too quickly, he peered at the rocks below. “So the tide floods right up and over these rocks? Are we thinking the body came from further up the loch, or down?”
Allinson twitched his head on his rather thin neck and curled the edge of his mouth up. “Well, I spoke to the Coastguard station who said their modelling system would struggle in such a confined area as this loch and they put me onto the lifeboat coxswain. He said it would depend on how long she had been in the water. Given the condition of the body, we are thinking less than twelve hours and more like the early morning, so he reckoned the corpse would have been pulled in from the sea end down the loch.”
“Are there any piers or jetties further up?” asked Hope, looking in the general direction.
“A couple on the side of the main road but only one more further up from here.”
“Do you have a map?” asked Macleod. “I’m getting a bit disorientated.”
Allinson pulled out a standard OS map and spread it on the bonnet of the car. “Now sir, you would have left Stornoway and followed this road out and along before turning down this side road. After that, you have come round the end of the loch you see before us and are now on this side. If you continue up the road, you’ll see that there is a marked jetty right there.”
“Do many people use it?” asked Hope.
“No, it’s in bad repair but it is accessible and people will sometimes go there for a bit of quiet.”
“Sort out my mind quiet, or hump the daylights out of each other quiet?”
“McGrath, there’s no need to be so crude,” chastened Macleod.
“The…, eh…, two person physical kind,” answered Allinson. Macleod caught Hope’s bemused look. She clearly didn’t even know her crime. That was the trouble these days, the standards of the new generation had sunk too low, far too low.
“Has anyone been up there yet?”
“No, sir. We’ve been a little maxed out here dealing with the body and trying to seal off this scene. We’ve also been trying to identify who the victim is and been canvasing doors to identify her.”
“And?” requested Macleod.
“The victim is a twenty-one year old female named Sara Hewitt. English girl, counter assistant in town and former lifeguard who recently started her own massage business.”
“What sort of massage business?” asked Hope. Allinson looked quizzically at her.
“Detective McGrath means was it a health benefit or simply a knocking shop?” Allinson looked puzzled again.
“Knocking shop,” said Hope, “the old name for a brothel. Was she giving them something beyond a soothing pair of hands?”
“I doubt it,” said Allinson, “the shop’s on one of the main streets.”
Macleod turned away and looked up the loch again. “We need to know the story,” he said aloud to the world in general. “Where did she float from? Where there any cars about last night?” He scanned the area for domiciles and saw very few, each hidden off the road, barely visible. Turning around and thinking of where he had driven through he remembered the small village they had passed.
“Allinson, the village behind us, you would need to pass through it to get to the jetty further up, yes?”
“Good, then have some of our guys ask round the village. Did anyone see anything last night, anyone strange passing through? Probably a couple, maybe more. If there’s no car, then she might have come out here with her murderer.”
“We should canvas the other side of the loch too, the town side, there’s no guarantee that the body came from this remoter side,” said Hope.
“True,” nodded Macleod. “Take a run up to the pier, McGrath, see if there’s any indication of anything there and call me if there is. Allinson, can you go with her or send one of your men up?”
“People, sir,” corrected Hope.
“People, indeed, any officer you deem fit, Allinson.”
Macleod stood looking around, soaking in the loch and the air, trying to imagine the place at night. It had been an overcast night, so there would have been little light. This place was perfect to get rid of someone. Watching Hope and Allinson get into the car and then drive off towards the pier, he knew he needed more to run down this killer.
“Do you two get on?”
Hope turned to Allinson checking his intent. He seemed genuine enough. “It’s our first case together. Macleod’s from here and I got dumped on him because his right hand man was in a car crash.”
“Hell of a substitute.”
Because she was driving, Hope found it hard to turn and gauge the comment but it certainly sounded like a come on. “The best,” she replied.
“You can’t be used to a place like this, more cut out for the bright lights of the big city I guess. There’s not that much happening here. Plenty if you like the outdoor life and that. Plenty of clubs and groups but the social scene isn’t the wildest.” Allinson was smiling at her and Hope felt his eyes soaking her up. He was kind of cute and she never minded being looked at. She dressed to impress after all so why would you get annoyed when they stared.
“I’m no wild child, I like a little rural, fresh air and countryside.”
“Well if you need any help, just holler. Happy to assist one of our colleagues from the south.”
“I may just do that but I doubt we’ll get any time for a day or two. By the way does the hotel have any facilities, like a gym or that?”
Allinson smiled. “I’m not certain but if it doesn’t there’s always the leisure centre in town. I tend to get up early and work out, so if you need company then I am available.”
Hope laughed internally. She knew she was attractive and probably a little wilder than most men were used to which often made their heads spin. But she wasn’t shallow and she didn’t just take a come on from everyone and run with it. But if everywhere else was drab at least there was someone to hang out with.
“Are all your side tracks like this,” said Hope, “Feels like the road wasn’t built for cars.”
“Well it’s not like these are main routes to anywhere. I’m not sure anyone really uses the pier anymore. I reckon we get some amorous couples down here but no major traffic.” Allinson laughed as he spoke, finding the notion of well-maintained roads somewhat amusing. With a generous smile, this ability to laugh at his personal surroundings endeared him to Hope. She had worked with a number of people from Lewis in Glasgow and most didn’t like anything derogatory said about their island.
Within a few minutes Hope had pulled the car up on the pier side and the pair exited the vehicle. Separating, they looked down either side of the pier. Hope scrabbled across rocks with tiny little pools of water lying stagnated, left by the receding tide. Something took her back to days of clamouring over similar rocks with her grandfather, and his tales of the sea monsters that lived in each one.
“McGrath, I’ve got something.”
Hope broke off from her daydream and strode across the rocks back to the end of the pier where Allinson was calling from. As she approached, he pointed to the ground, right where the concrete of the pier started to slope downwards towards the water.
“Threads?” queried Hope.
“Yes, threads from a jacket of something. They seem to be close to the colour she was wearing. I guess we should step away now and get forensics up here. Looks like this may have been the place.”
“I’ll call the boss,” said Hope and pressed the button on her mobile. Holding it to her ear she wondered why it was taking so long.
“You’ll need to drive back down. Mobile signal is often pretty poor when you are down the lochs. You go and I’ll sit here until someone makes it back.”
“Thanks,” said Hope. “It really is out of the way here. The lack of houses around, the long trek to a pier no one wants to use, and then a slipway that runs into the water. Almost the perfect spot.”
“They usually just say quaint or picturesque in the brochures. But then we don’t advertise the place for murder.”
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