Islay. The sun shines. In the air, the flavour of salt and of whisky. On the edge of the muir, two men work. With the long, sharp, peat spades they are lifting thick shards, moist and deep brown, flicking them over to the top of the cutting, laying each aslant on the previous one, so that the wind will hustle through to dry them out, ready for the fire next year. Thomas and Robert McRae, men of Islay, Ìleach, brothers.
Thomas is near the end of the line they have marked out for digging. As he lifts a long slab and twists the spade with age-old skill, the peat crumbles, scatters, falls to either side, spills back down the cliff-edge of the cutting. He turns to call to his brother.
“Rab,” he says, “The peat’s aa messed here. Something’s up wi’ it.”
So he’s not looking as he slices the sharp spade into the dark peat again, and he feels this time that the blade has cut through an obstacle. Maybe a root. Instead of flicking the slab over, he pauses to inspect it on the spade. Again the peat crumbles and falls away. And on the bright steel of his spade a human hand, brown as the peat. As the hand seems to twitch (or is it a tic of his nervous arm) it slides off the spade and falls, as if grasping for a handhold, to lie, palm upward, on the black earth.
Day 1. Thursday
Late morning, September.
The view from the fourth floor of the Oban Police Station was spectacular. You could see from the harbour all the way round to the Cathedral and the Corran Halls. You could see the ferries coming in and out, the top end of Kerrera, with the yachts clustered in the marina, and further off, the grey bulk of Mull. But Inspector Blue’s office was not on the fourth floor, nor was it even at the front of the building. It was on the ground floor and at the back, and the view was of the kitchens of the Scotia Hotel.
Even so, there was sometimes, perhaps even often, something of interest to see from his window. He had recently witnessed the preparation of a boiled cod’s head to a traditional recipe. The head had seemed very large, so that he could not imagine how big the whole fish must be. Davie the cook seemed to be removing the brain with a spoon, mixing it in a bowl with something dark and slimy, sprinkling in what could be salt, pepper, spices, herbs, maybe breadcrumbs too. The head had stared at the inspector balefully, before disappearing under the pan lid. Davie said to him later, in the bar, “You’ve to be careful wi’ cod. Bottom feeders. There’s aye worms in them. Especially in the liver. For the Biled Cod’s Heid you need to mix the brain wi’ liver, but you’ve to get the worms out the liver first. They spoil the taste.” He’d asked if many people ordered it: “Aye, quite a few, they’re taken by the novelty o’ it. But they dinna usually finish it. Plenty left for the Fish Soup next day – we just dinna say what’s in it.” Blue’s stomach had churned as he remembered the tasty fish soup he’d often had in the bar of a lunch time.
His phone rang.
“Inspector Blue. How may I help?” There were strict instructions on how to answer the phone. No hellos, or other signs of familiarity. To the point, but with courtesy. Identify yourself clearly. Police Scotland are always ready to help.
“Excellent response, Blue, ten out of ten.” Superintendent Campbell, Head of CID.
“Thank you sir, did you want something?”
The Super’s office. The fourth floor, at the front. Divisional commander must have the penthouse. Of course, normally the view over Oban Bay was spectacular. But today heavy cloud hung over everything. A big ferry loomed out of the mist.
The boss as usual sat behind his wide polished wood desk. Files and papers at either side; in the space in the middle, one slim file. “Angus, come in, sit down. How are you doing?”
“Fine, thanks, chief.” Campbell frowned, but who doesn’t like to be called ‘chief’? Informal but respectful, acknowledging the leader who can make contact with his troops. “Hope all’s well up here?”
“Need you ask? Never is! Coffee?” The Super had a commensurately superior coffee machine with an Italian name. The coffee was good, made the trip upstairs worthwhile. Almost.
“Please. What’s going on now?”
“Rumours of an announcement on Britishness. Doesn’t sound good.” As the country had entered the so-called ‘period of transition’ following its exit from the European Community, the government in London had announced that a ‘Reclaiming Britishness’ project would be launched. This programme of as-yet-unspecified measures would enable citizens of a ‘newly-independent Britain’ to rediscover the essence of their national identity, ‘buried too long beneath continental bureaucracy and alien cultures.’
“Hmm.” Blue waited, but nothing more was forthcoming. He sipped his coffee. Strong and deep. “I guess there’s something you’d like me to do, Sir?”
“Yes, yes, of course.” Campbell moved the slim file an inch to the right. “Islay. Unexplained death. Maybe more than one.”
“Probably a perfectly natural explanation. CID need to have a look. Just in case.”
Blue could not think of a natural explanation for several dead bodies. Why wasn’t everyone they had being rushed over there?
“Accident of some sort?” A bus packed with screaming tourists rushing down the hairpins at Port Askaig and plunging into the Sound of Islay. “Maybe an epidemic?” A recent visitor from a distant land coughing a terrible virus onto the streets of Bowmore?
“No, no, Angus, they’ve just been revealed. Uncovered.”
“From the peat. Some peat-cutters found them. Early this morning.”
“So they’re not recent?”
“When did I say they were?”
“Er, you didn’t.”
“Exactly.” Campbell glanced at the file, slid it one inch to the left.
“So how old are they?” asked Blue.
“We don’t know. As yet. Could be very old, who knows, Middle Ages, Dark Ages, earlier. Like those bodies they found in … where was it?”
“Denmark. Bog bodies. Dyed brown by the peat.”
“Maybe. Or executions. Maybe even a serial killer.”
“Ours could be more recent. Can you get over there, check it out.”
“OK, chief. What about the shoplifting gang at the Co-op?”
“Two of them. The rest are from Manchester.”
“Where are we on that?”
“We’re ready to round them up. Tomorrow afternoon. Sixteen-thirty.”
“Don’t give me jargon, Angus.”
“Sorry, sir. Half past four.”
“Good. Well, you may be back by then, otherwise Sergeant Bruce can handle it.”
“When am I off then?”
Campbell looked at his watch. “Get home, grab a bag. There’s a scheduled flight at twelve. Otherwise you’d have to get the bus to Kennacraig for the ferry.”
“SOCOs?” asked Blue.
“Inspector Lennox is on it; they’ll be over sometime this afternoon.”
Blue got up and put his cup on the plastic tray on the window ledge. He knew the routine. “Just one thing, sir, any info on the subject?”
“Info? You’re sailing close to the line, Blue.”
“You’re right, chief. Sorry.” In order to encourage ‘intercommunicability’ throughout its empire, Police Scotland had issued a list of words to be used in reports and other ‘intra-force transactions’. This document was regarded with contempt by most police officers.
“Quite so. Here’s what was emailed this morning. Read it on the plane.” He gazed at the file for a moment, then pushed it across the desk with a fingertip. Maybe just one sheet inside. And on the front was typed: ‘Glenegedale Moss deceased’.
“Let me know what’s happening, Angus.”
“Yes, chief, A.S.A.P.” That wasn’t on the list either.