As she drove from Oban up towards Connel, she thought about the meeting. The restaurant had been very discreet, the tables enclosed in cosy booths, the staff masked but solicitous, and the food excellent: langoustines landed that morning, venison with a whisky sauce, roast potatoes and broccoli, and a chocolate mousse created with fresh eggs and chocolate made in the town. She’d avoided the wine, conscious that she was driving back to the cottage, but also that she had to listen carefully to what was being said. It was a pity he hadn’t let her use the voice recorder on her phone – he was afraid they could hack into it. But she’d made notes, and sat afterwards typing them into her laptop, plus anything else she recalled of their conversation. The material was saved directly onto a USB key, which she stowed in an inside pocket of her jacket. She didn’t keep anything important on the laptop itself; she knew how prone they were to being hacked or stolen.
So it was now 11.50 of a wet summer evening as she crossed the Connel Bridge. The turn-off for the cottage was not much further on, just opposite the entrance to the airport, and as she swung off the main road into the darkness of the single track road, she was already thinking of a mug of hot chocolate with maybe a dash of spiced rum. Thankfully, as she crawled down the road at a snail’s pace, memorising again the position of each passing place – she hated single track roads – no other car emerged from the blackness ahead to present a challenge.
And as she steered the car tentatively off the road into the farm track that led to the cottage, she thought again how perfect this place was as a getaway. She’d only been there a few days so far, so she still had most of the three weeks she’d booked to get well on the way with the writing. The first article would be ready within a week, and the second by the time she had to get back home. With no Wi-Fi in the cottage, she was glad to be below the radar and away from the internet trolls who constantly denounced her work.
She smiled as she passed through the gate – she’d left it open when she’d set off, and couldn’t be bothered to shut it now – and swung the car round the curtain of trees that shielded the cottage from the west winds. Then she stopped. There was a light on in the cottage. She certainly hadn’t left one on when she went out; it had still been daylight then. Could Hamish at the farm, or his wife, have put it on, anticipating her return in the dark? That was unlikely. No-one else had a key, as far as she knew. And on top of that, hardly anyone knew she was here. She certainly didn’t want any of the trolls turning up to slash the car tyres or spray obscenities on the bonnet.
She quickly turned off the headlights, leaving only the sidelights, and peered more closely at the cottage. It was the living room light that was switched on. And the curtains were closed too. That definitely wasn’t her. She shivered, and wondered what to do next. The sensible thing would be to get Hamish out of his bed and ask him to go with her into the house. But that would mean negotiating the rutted and potholed track up to the farmhouse in the darkness. And what would Hamish – and his wife – think of her? Up from the big city and scared of the dark! Although it wasn’t the dark she was afraid of.
She pulled out her phone. No signal! She knew she could still phone 999, but what could she say? The light’s on in my house and I’m scared to go in? Pull yourself together, Angela. If it were burglars, they’d have made off as soon as they’d grabbed what they wanted. But would burglars have put the light on and pulled the curtains? That didn’t seem likely, but maybe out here in the middle of nowhere, that’s just what they did. After all, there didn’t seem to be anyone living in the house next door, and on top of that there were trees between them. And she knew that Hamish couldn’t see the cottage from the farmhouse. He’d said so when she’d phoned him up to make the booking, stressed that it was quite private.
She noticed with a start that the front door was open. That suggested the burglars had already gone. Or maybe they had left the door open for a quick getaway. And there was no other car here. Unless they’d parked it further along the road, maybe in the passing place.
Then she saw a dark smudge moving across the lighted curtain. Someone was still there! She needed to get out of there. But first she pulled out her hip flask and took a good swig of the spiced rum. That calmed her down. She must get up to the farmhouse and alert Hamish. He’d have a landline and could call the local police. She reversed the car to turn round, and swung it towards the gate.
Suddenly she was dazzled by a flood of intense brightness, and hit the brakes. A vehicle was parked in the gateway facing her and had switched its headlights on. For a moment she was paralysed, like a rabbit caught in the light. Then she remembered the grassy area behind the cottage. From there she might be able to reach the fence, and get onto the farm track, where she could run up to the farm. She put her foot hard down on the accelerator, and the car leapt forward. She steered it down the left side of the cottage onto the gravel parking area, then threw it round the back corner of the cottage into the darkness. She felt the wheels on the softer grass at the back.
Then, out of nowhere, something loomed up in front of the car, and she hit it. The rotary clothes drier fixed in the centre of the grass. It must have been a good quality one, as it didn’t snap. She revved up, but the wheels started spinning on the wet grass. The car wasn’t going to get past the obstinate drier pole. She knew the other vehicle would be right behind her in a few seconds, so she flung open the car door, jumped out, and ran for the fence.
She heard a car door slam, and then a torch beam waved around, seeking her out. It lit up the garden table and chairs, and she dodged away from the light and past them. But the beam sought her again. Then suddenly it flew off towards the sky as the torchbearer crashed into one of the metal upright chairs. She heard the crash and a shouted curse. And a shot, that missed her in the dark. So there were two of them. Now she just needed to reach the pile of horse dung in the far corner of the garden, maturing until it could be dug in the next spring. Her foot sank into the soft mound, as she heard another door slam. One last effort. Behind her, someone shouted.
Day 1. Wednesday 11th August 2021
Angus Blue was wakened by the sound of the siren. He got out of bed and opened the curtain a little. He could see the lights of the fire engine as it sped north across the Connel Bridge. He looked across Loch Etive, beyond the bridge, in hopes of seeing the fire, but nothing was visible. He got back into bed and glanced at the old alarm clock. Five past two in the morning. He turned the light out, lay down again, and soon went back to sleep.
At 4.30 he was awakened again by an insistent buzzing, as if someone with a chainsaw was felling a tree at the bottom of his bed. As he woke he realised the police issue Personal Digital Assistant, the modern replacement for the old notebook, was on his bedside table, flashing. Pressing the receive button, the buzzing and flashing mercifully ceased.
“Angus, is that you?” called a voice.
He recognised it at once. Sergeant Duncan Graham, Oban Police HQ. He must be the overnight duty sergeant.
“Hi, Duncan, what’s up?” said Blue.
“There’s been a wee fire in the night, over North Connel way.”
“Oh, yes? I think I saw the engine heading over there. Nothing too bad, I hope?” Although he knew that if it were in fact nothing too bad, Duncan Graham wouldn’t be calling him.
“About ten to two we got a call, reporting a fire behind one of the cottages on the north side of Loch Etive, the one on Hamish McAllister’s land, by the road. The caller, a Mrs Blaine, suspected drunks having a bonfire, that’s why she called us. I alerted the fire brigade, and sent a patrol car over too. They found a car on fire. Luckily, no damage to the house. Once they’d got the fire under control, and were able to get close enough, the firefighters saw a suspicious object in the car. It looked like a bundle of some sort, in the front passenger seat. But as the car cooled down and they were able to get closer, they recognised it as a body. The guys in the patrol car, that was Atkins and Beattie, called here right away. You’re top of the call-out list for tonight. Can you take it?”
“No problem. Can you alert the SOC team? And Enver too?”
“I already have. Enver’s picking up a pool car and will collect you in about fifteen minutes. Anything else?”
“Yes. Who lives there? In the cottage I mean.”
“Hamish’s mother used to live there. Now he rents it out as a holiday cottage. Nice wee earner, I’d bet.”
“Know anything about the car?”
“No information yet. I’d have said stolen for a joy-ride and a bonfire by a bunch of neds. Until I heard about the body. The local neds are a nuisance, but they don’t go around killing people.”
Duncan Graham was right, thought Blue. Every town now had its share of bored and amoral young men, ready to steal a car, drive it around for a while, and then set it on fire. Watching it burn was part of the fun. But putting people in the car to burn with it wasn’t their scene.
He was relieved Sergeant Enver McCader was going to pick him up. Otherwise he’d have had to drive into Oban to collect a pool car himself, then drive back again and then over to the incident site. He had time to get dressed and make a cup of something for breakfast. He’d been given for his birthday an array of instant coffee sachets: cappuccino, mocca, moccacino, moccachoccacino, megamoccachoccacino. And flavoured ones: caramel, toffee, butterscotch, Irish cream, and so on. Sometimes it was difficult to choose. Then again, they all tasted vaguely similar. He picked one at random, snipped the top of the sachet and tipped the contents into a mug, then added hot water from the kettle.
Fifteen minutes later, he was outside the house, and a couple of minutes after that an unmarked black VW Golf drew up at the kerb. McCader must have skipped his coffee and headed out right away, thought Blue. Enver McCader’s dark hair and slight build, even the slightly sallow complexion, might point to a Pictish origin. But in fact McCader had been born in Albania, and his father had Scottified his name on reaching Dundee, after fleeing from the Stalinist regime in the late 1980s, only months after his son’s birth. He’d grown up in Dundee and married a girl from the Angus glens. They’d been in Oban three years now. Before joining the police, McCader had been employed in various activities which did not appear in his personnel file. As a man who could disappear in a crowd of three, he was no doubt very effective at whatever these involved. Blue knew better than to ask.
“Morning, chief,” said McCader cheerily, as Blue opened the passenger door.
Dawn was already colouring the eastern sky as they set off. That was good – they’d be able to get a good look at the car and its contents in daylight. They were soon crossing the Connel Bridge, a former railway bridge that now carried the road over Loch Etive. Across the bridge, McCader drove on for a few hundred yards, then turned right opposite the entrance to the airport into the road that ran along the north side of the loch. After three well-spaced houses, he swung the car left onto the track leading up to Hamish McAllister’s farm. After about fifty yards, they came to the open gateway on the left leading to the cottage. There was a police ‘No Entry’ sign tied to the gatepost, and just beyond the gateway, the farm track was blocked by a fire engine. McCader turned the car into the gateway to the cottage. A patrol car was already parked on the gravel in front. McCader parked next to it, and he and Blue got out. Beyond the cottage they could now distinguish the burntout car, smoke still wafting lazily up from it. They walked down the side of the cottage, which appeared undamaged.
Blue recognised the officers from the patrol car: PC Ron Beattie, running to fat, with dark hair and a scruffy beard, and PC Donny Atkins, thin, fair-haired, clean-shaven, more alert than his colleague. And a firefighter; that was Matt Wetherby, one of the Team Leaders from Oban.
He nodded to the two uniformed officers. “What have we got, Matt?” he asked the firefighter.
“We were out here not long after two. The car was well alight by then; probably doused with petrol before being torched. Renault Clio, by the way. We put a pipe into the loch and gave it a good drenching. We gave the back end of the cottage a splash too, just in case. The car was pretty burnt out in the end. It wasn’t till then we could get close enough to see inside with the spotlight from the engine, and realised there was something there. I must admit, it wasn’t easy to spot; it had slumped down from the passenger seat into the footwell, and suffered a lot of fire damage. Looked more like a charred lump than a corpse. So you’re going to have a bit of trouble identifying it, I guess. We’re just hanging on now to make sure it doesn’t reignite. That could happen if there were something flammable in the boot, for instance. Anything obvious would have gone up by now. Probably easier to wait till it gets a wee bit lighter and the car’s a bit cooler before you get too close. The corpse is not going to run away, and the car won’t be going anywhere either. I need some coffee now, my flask’s in the engine. Give me a shout if you need us again.”
Blue thanked Wetherby, and as the firefighter headed back to the engine, he joined McCader, who was standing with the two uniformed officers a few feet from the burnt-out vehicle. He asked the sergeant what he made of the scene.
“Looks like the car came round the side of the house onto the grass at the back, turned and then ran into a clothes pole. One of those rotary ones. The shaft’s still there, though all the plastic bits have been burnt away. The body’s been well charred. Given its location, I doubt if he, or she, was driving when it hit the post. I reckon they were already in the car, in the passenger seat, or were put in later, before it was set on fire.”
“Could have been a big lump of wood,” said Beattie. “That’s what it looked like to me. But I guess charred corpses isn’t something we get much of out here. That right, Donny?”
“Aye, that’s right enough, Ron,” said Atkins, “but I mind that case, must be a few years ago now, you know, that house that burned down, over Kilmartin way, or was it Tyndrum? Anyway, the thing was, they had all this stuff in the garage, and the guy had gone in there for a fag, and …”
“Did you get an ID on the car?” Blue interrupted.
The two officers looked at each other. It was clear to Blue they’d never thought of getting the car’s registration number and calling it in to be checked on the DVLA database.
“Onto it now, sir!” said Atkins, and made for the burnt-out vehicle.
“Don’t bother,” called McCader. “The plates have been removed.”
“Oh, er, right,” Atkins came back. “No harm done then, eh?” He looked guilty. Beattie just looked blank. He seemed to be chewing something.
“Where’s Hamish McAllister?” Blue asked them. Now both of them looked blank.
“The owner of the cottage,” he explained. “He lives up at the farm. Has anyone been up to tell him what’s going on?”
Atkins face brightened. “Yes, sir, I went up, as soon as we got here. It was pitch dark. No lights anywhere. I knocked quite hard on the door, nobody answered. I was going to shout through the letterbox, but there wasn’t one. I don’t know what the postie does with his mail. There was no animal noises, nothing at all. It was quite creepy. I came back and talked to Ron, PC Beattie, that is. He said it sounded like they were away. They might be on holiday, it being that time of year. Sir.”
Beattie was keen to add a contribution. “Yes, that’s just what Donny said, sir. Nobody answered. And I thought they might be on holiday. There being no-one in.”
“Could you see the fire from up there?” Blue asked Atkins.
Atkins thought for a moment before answering. “No. I mean, you could see the glow above the trees, but the fire itself, no, I couldn’t see that.”
“Thanks, Constable,” said Blue. “We’ll go up and see what’s doing there in a minute.”
He left them, walked round the car, and peered in through the space that used to be the passenger window. He could feel the heat still emanating from the wreck. Filling the footwell was a large black lump. Once you knew it was a body, you could identify bits of it. A smell of roast meat hung in the air around the vehicle.
“Forensics should be here soon” said McCader, who’d followed him. “Doc’s on his way too, though there’s not a lot of doubt about whether this one’s still alive.”
“OK. It’s odd that Hamish wasn’t in, or didn’t seem to notice anything. I think we should go up to the farm now. We’ll see more in the daylight.”
Blue told Atkins and Beattie to man the gate. Then he and McCader squeezed past the fire engine and walked up the track towards the farm.
“What kind of farm is this one?” asked McCader.
“Mainly sheep. He used to have a few cows, too. He’d have to get someone to mind the livestock if he was off on holiday. I hope nothing’s happened up here.”
After a hundred yards of steady climb, the track curved right through some trees, and emerged into a courtyard. Facing them was the farmhouse, a solid stone two-storey edifice which had been there, Blue guessed, since the mid-nineteenth century. It was very quiet.
There was no doorbell, so McCader knocked loudly on the door.
Blue noticed curtains twitch in one of the upstairs rooms. He stepped back to be fully visible to anyone peeping down. “Hamish!” he shouted, cupping his hands to direct the sound at the house. “This is Angus Blue. We need to talk about the fire down at the cottage. I’m becoming concerned about your safety, so if the door’s not answered, we’ll have to bring someone up to open it.”
McCader rapped on the door again, and this time they heard someone fiddling with the bolts on the other side. Then the door opened a few inches, so that the chain was visible, and they saw half a face in the gap: weatherbeaten, clean-shaven, with short ginger hair, and a suspicious look.
“Ach, it’s yourself, Angus. What are you wanting?”
“We want to talk with you about the fire down at the cottage, Hamish.”
“What fire was that?”
“During the night. Didn’t you see it, and wonder what was going on?”
“We canna see the cottage from up here, even from the upstairs windows.”
“You didn’t see the glow from the flames?”
“We shut the curtains at night. And we sleep at the back of the house.”
“You didn’t hear the fire engine?”
“No. We slept right through till you started shouting. You shouldna ha done that. It fair frightened the wife.”
“You didn’t hear Constable Atkins knocking on the door about half past two?”
“Didn’t I just tell you we slept through the night?”
“Hamish, we need some details about the cottage and who’s staying there at the moment.”
“Aye, well, I suppose so.” McAllister did not sound enthusiastic. But then, he never did. “Look, Angus, can we talk round in the barn? The wife gets awfy nervy wi these things. She’s awfa highly strung. I’d rather we didna disturb her.”
“Wherever’s convenient, Hamish.”
Blue and McCader stepped back. The chain was unhooked and Hamish McAllister slipped through the door and shut it behind him. He was around fifty, about five foot eight but solidly built, with rolled up sleeves despite the early morning chill. He led them across the courtyard to a large stone building with a corrugated iron roof. They passed through a wide doorway into a broad and empty space. Just inside the entrance were a couple of wooden benches. McAllister sat on one, and motioned for Blue and McCader to sit on the other. “I store my hay bales and stuff here, but there’s no much in right now. We can talk wi no worries about being disturbed. So, let’s have your questions. I’ve plenty to do the mornin.”
A barking of dogs rent the air, and two black and white border collies rushed into the building, and stopped, eyeing the two strangers carefully. McAllister gave what sounded like a couple of grunts, and the two dogs wandered back out into courtyard and lay down where they could keep one eye on their master.
“Thank you,” said Blue. “As I told you, there was a fire down at the cottage last night.”
“Is the cottage damaged?”
“No. Not at all.” Blue saw the other man relax a little. “But a car was driven round the back onto the grass at the rear. It was later set on fire, and one of your neighbours called the fire brigade. They extinguished the blaze, but the car was burnt out. Are you sure you didn’t see or hear anything from up here?”
“Did I not tell you already, nothing at all. See, that’s why we built the cottage down there, so’s it would be far enough from the farm, so that my mother didna still think she was in charge here. So she couldna see what we were up to, and come up and tell me that’s no how my faither would ha done it. My wife couldna stand her, she was aye interferin. Have you got the boys that did it? They’ll be from yon housing estate the other side of Oban.”
“Can you tell me who’s living in the cottage at the moment?”
“Why would that have anything to do wi it?”
“They would be a potential witness. I would expect that anyone staying there would be woken up if a car were driven round the cottage, crashed into the clothes pole, and were then set on fire. It’s not the sort of thing you’d miss, is it?”
“Aye, I suppose you’re right. It were a lassie, I cannae mind her name just now.”
“On her own?”
“Aye, on her own.”
“Then we’d better come with you to the house, so you can look up her name and address, and the exact dates she was staying.”
“Do you mind if I wait till the wife’s a wee bit calmer, like? Then I’ll phone you up.”
“I’m sorry, Hamish, that’s not possible. There’s no sign of the woman now, and we need to find her. It may be her car that’s been burned out, and we need to check that.”
“I’m sure she’s just gone off somewhere in her car, maybe staying the night wi a friend. That car would be a stolen one thae neds have been joy-riding. That’s what they aye do, isn’t it, steal a car, drive it round, then set it on fire. An evening o fun for them, eh?”
“The local neds don’t usually include a human sacrifice when they torch a car.”
McAllister stared at the inspector. “Eh?”
“I think you understand me. There was a corpse in the vehicle, well burned. It may be that of the woman who was staying there. That’s why we need her details. Now.” Blue got up and McCader followed suit. “Let’s go, shall we, Hamish?”
McAllister got up too, rather reluctantly. “All right. Look, can you wait here, and I’ll go and get the details. If the wife hears about a body she’ll go mental. Please.”
“All right. But we need to get back down there again, so don’t waste time copying the details out for us. Do you keep them in a book, or on your computer?”
“I only use the computer for the farm stuff, and only because I have to. I’ll get the book then. You just wait here.” Without looking at them, McAllister headed for the courtyard.
“He’s not very forthcoming,” commented McCader. “Is he always like that?”
“To some extent. He used to keep a few cows, and one night they were all stolen.”
“They don’t confine themselves to the Wild West. Even then, it was hard to get the information we needed from him.”
“I thought his eyes were going to pop out when you told him about the body. And his wife, is she really highly strung? The farmers’ wives I’ve met have been, I wouldn’t say they’re laid back, but certainly philosophical. You know, ready to take anything in their stride. The uncertainty of the weather, or the price of milk.”
“I don’t know. We hardly saw her when we were up about the stolen cows. Though he did let us into the house then. She made us mugs of tea, but just brought them out of the kitchen, put them down, paused briefly to tell us she’d not seen or heard anything, then off again.”
“Not one to get involved in men’s business,” said McCader quietly. “Ah! Here he comes.”
They remained silent as McAllister returned. He handed Blue an A4-sized book bound in red faux leather. “It’s aa in here,” he said.
“Thank you, Hamish,” Blue cheerily. “If you don’t mind, I’ll borrow it for a while.” McAllister opened his mouth to object, but Blue carried on. “Don’t worry, you’ll have it back tomorrow, I can assure you of that. It’s very good of you to let us have it, thank you. Now, let me just find the right entry here.” He opened the book near the end and flicked the pages back until writing appeared.
“Ah, here we are. Angela Corlington. Address in St Albans. Booked from 7th to the 28th August. Three weeks. That’s quite a long stay, isn’t it? Well, now we have a name. Just a couple of final questions. Can you describe Ms Corlington to us?” McCader took out his PDA.
McAllister frowned. “Ah well, I didna get much of a look at her. In fact, I didna see her at all. She texted me when she arrived. That was the usual arrangement wi folk. They’d text me, then I’d text back where the key was hidden. If there were any problems, they were to phone my mobile. I could be anywhere on the farm, see.”
“Okay. And I notice you’ve got her mobile number here. That’s very helpful. Last question, how did she book? I mean, did she phone, or was it online?”
“She phoned me up. I’ve got the cottage on a website, but just wi my phone number.”
“And I note here you took the booking on the 25th of May. How did she sound?”
“I’d say she was from England. If we’re still allowed to say that.”
“Did she sound young or old?”
“I wouldna like to say. No a child, and no an old lady.”
“Did she say why she was coming here? As I said, three weeks is unusually long.”
“It’s no my business to know why folks are here. I canna recall much o what she said.”
“Perhaps we should ask Mrs McAllister if she remembers you saying anything to her after you took the call.” Blue made to get up.
McAllister waved him to sit down again. “No, we’ve no need to do that. Let me think a wee bit.” He stared at the floor, as if counting the fragments of straw at his feet. “Aye, I think she said it was what she called a personal writing retreat. Whatever that is.”
“Did she say if she was writing a book, or what sort of book it was?”
“I didna ask. I don’t have the time for reading books. That was all she said. Apart from askin when she should arrive.”
Blue waited a minute to see if there was anything more to come, but that was clearly all McAllister was going to offer. “Well, thanks, Hamish,” he said finally. “That’s something that might help us.”
“Aye, well, if that’s you, I’ve got plenty to do,” muttered McAllister. “I’ll see you out.”
He led them back to the courtyard, gave them a wave-like gesture, and stood watching them, as they crossed the courtyard to the track.
“Like getting blood out of a stone,” remarked McCader as they walked back down to the cottage.
“Still, at least the book gives us something,” said Blue. “We can chase up Ms Corlington. Or see whether she’s the corpse.”
Coming back down the track, they noticed the fire engine had gone. However, the white forensics van had arrived, and three figures were struggling into their anti-contamination gear, looking, in the wan dawn light, like ghosts trying to scratch an itch. Steve Belford, the team leader, thoughtful and serious, Dennis Johnston, looking sad as usual, and Jill Henderson, whom Blue regarded as the sharpest in the team, but also the most stubborn, if she got an idea into her head. The fourth member of the team, Andrew McGuire, overweight and prematurely balding, but invariably jovial, was already setting his camera up on a tripod to get a picture of the whole scene.
McGuire waved at Blue and McCader. Blue waved back and went over to Belford. “Hi Steve. Body in a burnt-out car. Needs the corpse removed and a good search.”
“Yeah,” said Belford, “Donny here put us in the picture, but I thought we’d wait till you got back, just to be sure. We’ll get the deceased out first, once Andy’s got a few shots of it in situ. Then we can have a look inside. We’ll also check out tyre tracks, footprints, and whatever else is lying about. Don’t feel you have to wait. I guess we’ll be a while.”
“Thanks, Steve,” said Blue. Then to Atkins, “Has anyone looked in the cottage?”
“Er, no, sir. We looked in the windows, but there didn’t seem to be any sign of life. So we thought we’d better wait for CID to get here.”
“Good. That was the correct decision. Sergeant McCader and I will take a quick look now, then. It’ll have to be searched carefully later on, but it’s worth checking, in case there’s anything we spot right away.”
“Let’s hope it’s not another corpse,” commented Atkins.
Blue and McCader went round the cottage to the front door. It was closed, but when Blue gave it a gentle push, it opened.
“Been jemmied open,” observed McCader.
They both put on nitrile gloves and plastic overshoes before entering. There were smudged outlines of footprints on the worn carpet in the hall, leading into the living room, to the left of the front door. Two armchairs flanked an empty fireplace. By the window there was a dining table, an upright wooden chair pulled up to it. Two more chairs sat against the wall, below a framed photograph of a farmer leading a horse, drawing a plough. There was certain amount of disturbance in the room. The doors of a cupboard were open, and the contents, DVDs and board games, scattered on the floor.
“Looks like the occupants were very careless,” said McCader, “or the place has been searched.”
Opening the door on the other side of the hall revealed a bedroom. They didn’t go in, but saw what they could from the doorway: a double bed, with a small cupboard on either side, a lamp on each one. A chair by the window and a wardrobe opposite. On the bed lay an empty suitcase. Its contents were strewn around the room.
“Looks like a woman’s stuff,” remarked Blue.
“Poor quality searching,” added McCader. “What a mess.”
A second bedroom had not been used at all. They could still smell the antibacterial spray that had been used during the cleaning between lets. The bathroom cupboard had been searched too, and various potions and lotions thrown into the sink.
“Just one toothbrush,” observed Blue.
Finally, at the end of the hall, they reached the kitchen, from which a door led to the garden at the back. The burnt-out car was visible from the window. Again the searchers had been active. A plastic container had been opened, the contents, oats by the look of them, spilled on the floor.
McCader opened the fridge. It was almost empty. Just a pint of milk, a box of six eggs, a carton of olive spread, and a pack of cheese slices. And a bottle of white wine, unopened. A breadbin contained a small brown unsliced loaf, half remaining, little spots of blue mould at one end.
“No obvious sign of a laptop,” said Blue. “That’s unusual. You might expect someone going away on their own for three weeks to have one. Especially as Hamish said she was on a writing retreat. Did our searchers take it? Or is it still hidden in one of the rooms?”
The key was on the inside of the back door. They went out.
Dr Saffraj, the police doctor, had just arrived. The SOCOs had removed the body and placed it on a heavy-duty plastic sheet. It was still curled up, and well-charred, but some body parts could be recognised. The doctor got into his protective gear and had a look at it. It didn’t take him very long to complete his examination. “I can confirm that this person is dead,” he announced to the SOCOs, Blue and McCader, addressing no-one in particular.
“Any idea of cause of death?” asked Blue.
“Not at this stage. You’ll need to wait for the post-mortem.”
“Anything else you can tell us?”
“Hmm. Only that I suspect the corpse is male. That will have to be confirmed by the PM. I’ve called an ambulance to take him to the mortuary. I’ll let you know when the PM will be. Maybe this afternoon, or tomorrow sometime.”
Dr Saffraj was a man of few words. He nodded to his audience, and returned to his car. It took him a few minutes to get the protective suit off. Then he got into the car, picked up his tablet from the passenger seat, and started typing. The SOCOs got on with examining the site.
Ten minutes later the ambulance arrived. Dr Saffraj spoke briefly to the crew. They carefully wrapped the plastic sheet around the corpse, placed it onto a stretcher and put it into the rear of the ambulance, then waved to the doctor, and were off again. The whole operation took less than ten minutes. And then the doctor, without a further word to anyone, was off too.
“Well,” said Blue to McCader, “that takes us on a little bit. Dr Saffraj rarely expresses an opinion unless he’s ninety-nine percent sure of it. So that probably rules out Angela Corlington as our corpse, but raises two new mysteries. Who is the deceased? And where has Ms Corlington gone? Let’s see if Steve has anything for us.”
The SOCOs were standing near the gate chatting. Blue and McCader went over. “Anything in the car, Steve?” asked Blue.
“Not a sausage. Had there been, it would be well overdone. We can have another look once it’s been brought back to the station. The truck will be here sometime to pick it up. But, and you might find this interesting, we’ve had a look for tyre tracks. The gravel in front of the cottage isn’t very helpful. However, the gateway is more muddy, and we can spot the Clio coming in. We’ve also got a good set on the lawn, which confirm that it drove round the house onto the back lawn, then crashed into the clothes pole. But, once we’d eliminated the SOC van, the patrol car, and your and Enver’s vehicle, we still managed to pick up another fairly fresh set. Looks like a Range Rover or something similar. Came in and went out. Probably parked on the gravel, like we all did.”
“So was the dead man a friend of Ms Corlington, who got in the way of something …?”
“Like a kidnapping?” put in Jill Henderson.
“That’s certainly possible,” responded Blue. “There’s no sign of a body in the cottage, so it doesn’t look like Ms Corlington was murdered. Here, anyway.”
“Or did the dead guy arrive in the Range Rover, and fall by the wayside?” added McCader.
“Why burn the car, though?” asked Steve.
“Probably to make us think it was just a bunch of neds,” said Blue. “Gives them a bit of time to get away. Probably also to render the body unidentifiable. Either just to slow us down, or because they don’t want it identified. That might be the case if it were one of the Range Rover guys. There must have been at least two of them, if it was driven away.”
“Same with taking the car’s plates.” added McCader. “That’s just a delaying tactic too. They know we’ll identify it eventually. Steve, any footprints around the car?”
“Nothing very useful. I guess the bad guys don’t wear designer trainers. We did get a couple of useful prints which suggest either a female or a man with very small feet.”
“Where were they?”
“You’ll see the yellow flags at the back. One by the car at the driver’s side. Another near the patio with the garden furniture, and one more on what looks like a heap of horse manure near the fence. We had a look on the other side of the fence, but nothing very clear there. There’s a drainage ditch then the track leading up to the farm.”
“So where did our man die?” asked Blue. “In the garden or the cottage, or even in the car? We’ll have to give the cottage a thorough search. Might be best to wait till after the PM. Then we’ll know how the guy was killed and what sort of signs we might need to look out for. The cottage’ll need to be sealed, and watched, till we come back to it. Where are Beattie and Atkins? I don’t see any sign of them.”
“They went off up the farm track a bit,” said Jill. “Probably for a pee or a ciggy.”
“I’ll have a look, boss,” said McCader. He went out the gateway and up the track.
A few minutes later he returned, Atkins and Beattie following.
“I asked Mr Beattie to pick up his cigarette ends, to avoid contaminating the site. And now they’ve answered the call of nature, Atkins and Beattie have volunteered to seal the cottage and guard the site for a few more hours.” The two officers were staring at the ground. McCader had clearly had a few words, thought Blue.