James Oswald is the author of the Inspector McLean series of detective mysteries. The first two of these, Natural Causes and The Book of Souls were both short-listed for the prestigious CWA Debut Dagger Award. Set in an Edinburgh not so different to the one we all know, Detective Inspector Tony McLean is the unlucky policeman who can see beneath the surface of ordinary criminal life to the dark, menacing evil that lurks beneath. James has also written a classic fantasy series, The Ballad of Sir Benfro. Inspired by the language and folklore of Wales, it follows the adventures of a young dragon, Sir Benfro, in a land where his kind have been hunted near to extinction by men. The first three books in the series are currently available on kindle. James has pursued a varied career - from Wine Merchant to International Carriage Driving Course Builder via Call Centre Operative and professional Sheep Shit Sampler (true). He currently lives in a large caravan inside a Dutch Barn in Fife, with three dogs and two cats. He farms Highland cows and Romney sheep by day, writes disturbing fiction by night. Visit his site at http://jamesoswald.co.uk/
The pain is everywhere.
It pulses through his head as if there’s a hole in his skull and someone is squeezing his brain in time to his heartbeat. It shoots through his veins like acid, burning him from the inside. It grinds in his joints even though he is motionless. It smothers him like a blanket made of fire.
He doesn’t know where he is. There is oOnly the darkness surrounding him and the echoing roar in his ears and the all-consuming agony. Is he back in Afghanistan? Has he gone the way of Bodie and Jugs?. Trodden on one of those towelhead IEDs? No. That was then. He did his tour, survived. For all the good it did him.
He remembers the city, the secret life of the street people. His people. He’d been safe there, for a while. He’d steadied himself, built himself a life of sorts. Something he could understand, fighting for survival, hustling for the next hit of booze.
Calm. Try and be calm. Let the training kick in. He’s been in worse situations than this, surely. Just needs to get his shit together. Easier said than done with the pounding in his head, the itching all over his skin, the sandpaper in his hips and knees and shoulders.
Slowly the panic subsides, leaving just the pain. He can cope with that. Focus beyond it. Try to work out what’s going on. He flexes his hands, grunts as the pain lances up his arms. The noise is a reassurance, something he can understand, and he feels the restraint on his left wrist give a little. Concentrate on that. Use that. Ignore the agony sapping his energy. He works at the strap like a terrier with a rat. Tenacious, stubborn, fixated.
When it gives it’s as if someone’s put a bullet through his brain. The darkness explodes in a kaleidoscope of colours, swirling and flashing even as he can feel himself going under. He grits his teeth;, chokes out a short, sharp bark. Half triumph, half defeat. Lets his freed hand fall down by his side as he gathers his strength for the next battle.
The head strap first. Sweat- slick fingers struggle with a buckle pulled too tight. It seems to take hours before it finally clicks loose. He’d hoped the release of pressure would ease the pounding in his head, but if anything it worsens. Touching his forehead, the skin is rough and puckered, the point of contact exploding in fire.
He has known agony before. Training for Special Forces they did things to your body most people wouldn’t believe. This is far, far worse. It’s only the straps tied tight around his ankles that keep him from falling when he tries to sit up. The effort of untying them almost kills him. There is nothing he can do to stop himself slithering to the floor. At least it’s cold, soothing the parts of his skin that come into contact. He hugs it like a child hugs its mother, desperately clinging to that tiny relief.
It is only transient, the cooling touch inflaming his skin to new levels of torture. As if the stone has become sandpaper, rasped across flesh already raw. Salt and lime rubbed into the wounds.
He staggers to his feet. Steadies himself on the gurney. There is light here. Real light, not the fireworks that have filled his vision since he first tried to move. Soft and low, it barely illuminates the room. Still, what he sees is enough to bring the panic bubbling back up his throat like vomit.
It is a torture chamber. He is surrounded by a collection of apparatus designed only to inflict pain. Needles on long mechanical arms, boxes with wires looped around them, crocodile clips lined up on chrome rails. Bottles of coloured fluids, poisons, acids.
He pushes away from them, recoiling in horror, and as he does so he catches glimpses movement across the room. Glass, a mirror, an unfamiliar figure echoing his own ungainly movements. It’s too dark to see clearly, but he staggers towards it anyway. Closer and closer, not quite able to say what is wrong with the image he is seeing.
And then it is there. Glaring out at him in the half lighthalf-light. The face. His face. But the face of a demon. Wild eyes staring. Black swirls curling over cheeks and nose, forehead and shaven pate. He looks down at his arms and sees the patterns writhe and snake across his body. They are in him:, alien, spectral creatures under his skin, devouring him.
The panic hits full on. Adrenaline sweeps everything else away. There is only running. He crashes through doors, down empty corridors, oblivious to anything but the fear. There is no direction to his flight, no plan beyond get away.
And then he is outside. White snow blizzarding out of a night sky. He hardly notices his nakedness as he runs from the building. Barely feels the icy cold on his feet or the ripping of low branches against his battered skin. His terror is so complete that he doesn’t even notice when the land runs out. Arms and legs pumping as momentum carries him off the cliff and down and down.
‘Jesus wept, but it’s cold.’
Detective Inspector Tony McLean stamped his feet in the ankle-deep snow, trying desperately to get the circulation going. He stuck his red raw hands under his armpits in search of warmth, all too aware that he’d come out without really thinking through where he was going. Roslin Glen was a wonderful spot in the summer, the river North Esk burbling through a narrow gorge cut deep into the sandstone. It widened out here, where the road to Rosehall and Dalkeith switched up the hillside, and was normally a sheltered sun trap. Not today though. Today the wind was funnelling up the river, swirling the snow in eddies that stung against any exposed skin.
‘Should’ve brought a coat with you, sir. Gets a bit parky here at times.’ Detective Sergeant Laird, Grumpy Bob to friend and foe alike, looked like someone’s granddad at Christmas. He was wrapped in a quilted jacket, heavy gloves on his hands and a bright yellow knitted bobble hat keeping his balding head warm. The cold wind had turned his cheeks and the tip of his nose red. Well, it was either that or a lifetime of drink. Or both.
‘You any idea where we’re supposed to be going?’ McLean swivelled on his feet, taking in the entirety of the car park. There were a couple of squad cars, a Scene Evaluation Branch Transit van and a rusty old Peugeot estate car parked close by, but no sign of any people. This time of year, and with the snow still falling out of a sky the colour of an old bruise, it was hardly surprising. You’d have to be a hardy dog- walker to chance not getting lost.
‘You’re here, sir.’
‘That much would appear to be obvious, Cconstable.’ McLean peered past him into the van, and saw a couple of sScene- of-c Crime oOfficers huddling around what looked like a portable gas heater, something Health and Safety would no doubt frown upon if anyone brought it to their attention.
‘Don’t suppose you’ve got a spare jacket in there or anything?’
It might have been fluorescent yellow and have with ‘Strathclyde Water’ written across it in large blue letters, but it was warm. McLean hugged his newly acquired jacket close as he followed MacBride and Grumpy Bob down a narrow footpath away from the car park and deeper into the glen. The trees growing either side linked overhead to form a tunnel of sorts. They shielded him from the worst of the lazy wind, but threatened to drop a dump ofdump snow on the unwary at any moment.
‘What are we looking at, Constable?’ McLean asked, as the path opened up across a small grass field of miserable sheep.
‘Dead body in the river, sir. Must’ve fallen in somewhere upstream. There’s been a lot of water running through lately. Swept it down until it hit the rocks just a ways up ahead.’
They clambered over a broken stile and into a more forested area. Here the snow had hardly settled on the ground, but was just a thin dusting, sufficient to make the going slippery. The steep slope down to the water’s edge didn’t help either. Somehow McLean managed to make it without falling over, stepping on to a flat rock that protruded out into the water. A few paces away, a couple of uniform officers were huddled into their own bright jackets, breath steaming in the Baltic air.
‘Down there?’ McLean indicated the river where it cut a narrow channel between the flat rocks. He could hear the water echoing below. The nearest uniform nodded. A couple of SOC officers were busy setting up some kind of pulley system and framework over the channel. They both wore heavy- duty wet weather gear and the kind of helmets favoured by kayakers and potholers. No doubt they’d drawn the short straw when it was decided who was going to recover the body.
‘Who found it?’ McLean asked the constable as he inched closer to the edge, wary of ending up head first in the North Esk.
‘Local from the village. Walks his dogs here every day. Bloody nutter if you ask me.’ The uniform officer looked slightly sheepish, before adding: ‘Sir.’.
McLean said nothing, just peered down into the gully. The whole of the glen had been cut from the sandstone over millennia. In places the cliffs were well over a hundred foot high. Here, the river had met harder rock, and ancient spates had pushed vast boulders up against one another to form a barrier. The narrow channel into which he was looking was just one of many routes the water took around and through this obstacle before carrying on its journey to the Firth of Forth. There was regular spates had deposited all manner of detritus deposited: fallen trees; plastic carrier bags; even the occasional shopping trolley. And now the naked body of a man.
It was difficult to see in the half- light, but McLean was fairly sure it was a man’s body. The water hadn’t been kind, tumbling it over, bending arms and legs in ways they were never meant to go. The head wasn’t visible at all, wedged hard into a jumble of rocks. He shivered from something other than cold as he contemplated the possibility that it might be missing entirely. It wouldn’t be the first time someone had tried to make their job more difficult that way, and it was never pleasant.
What struck him first about the body though was its colour. Not unusual to see a black man in a city the size of Edinburgh, of course, but there was something not quite right about the colour of this man’s skin. Or maybe it was the texture.
‘You ready for us to bring it up?’
McLean looked up into the face of one of the SOC officers, much closer than he’d been expecting. The constant roar of the water made it almost impossible to hear people moving about.
‘Can’t do anything useful with it down there. Yes. Bring it up.’
He stood back and waited while they lowered a small stretcher into the gap. One of the SOC officers played out a rope tied securely to a nearby boulder, whilest his colleague climbed carefully down to the water. After an age, in which McLean’s feet began to lose all feeling, the SOC officer clambered back out again and gave the thumbs up. The two together then hauled the stretcher back, swinging it over, before placing it carefully down on the flat rock surface.
‘Bugger had his head jammed right into a crack. Pain in the arse getting him out of there.’ The SOC officer was busy coiling up ropes whilest his colleague dismantled the frame and pulley. They had the look about them of men who wanted to get back to the nice Transit van and its nice little gas heater. McLean couldn’t really blame them.
He crouched down beside the body, still twisted and broken from its time in the river. He couldn’t see the man’s face without touching the body, but it was very definitely a man. That much was shrivelled and small but evident nonetheless. What was also evident was that the man wasn’t, in fact, black. There were a few traces of pale white skin visible on his body, but they were very few.
The rest was covered from head to foot, arms, hands, fingers, and yes, even his penis, in a dark swirl of tattoos.
(C) James Oswald 2014
© Paul Kane 2003-2017. All rights reserved. Materials (including images) may not be reproduced without express permission from the author.