The ShortRead of 14 January
The Missing and the Dead
Authors: Stuart MacBride
What's the story: Cold. Gritty. Dark. All words of praise commonly levelled at the work of Stuart MacBride, and all descriptors readily associated with the writer's preferred setting of Aberdeenshire. For the past four years, MacBride's crime novels have been a common sight at the heights of the Sunday Times bestseller list, with The Missing and the Dead set to give fans of Inspector Logan McRae another taste of the grim, bleak humour the Scots are masters of.
Slung out in the depths of Aberdeenshire in a new divisional policing position, McRae finds himself heading up a manhunt for the killer of a girl whose body has washed up in the sleepy town of Banff. As his old colleagues from Aberdeen stomp around the countryside, burning professional bridges, Logan gets dragged deeper and deeper into the investigation.
Faster. Sharp leaves whip past her ears, skeletal bushes and shrubs snatch at her ankles as she lurches into the next garden, breath trailing in her wake. Bare feet burning through the crisp, frozen grass.
He’s getting louder, shouting and crashing and swearing through hedges in the gloom behind her. Getting closer.
She scrambles over a tall wooden fence, dislodging a flurry of frost. There’s a sharp ripping sound and the hem of her summer dress leaves a chunk of itself behind. The sandpit rushes up to meet her, knocking the breath from her lungs.
Not like this…
Not flat on her back in a stranger’s garden.
Above her, the sky fades from dirty grey to dark, filthy, orange. Tiny winks of light forge across it – a plane on its way south. The sound of a radio wafts out from an open kitchen window somewhere. The smoky smear of a roaring log fire. A small child screaming that it’s not tired yet.
She scrambles to her feet and out onto the slippery crunch of frozen lawn, her shoes lost many gardens back. Tights laddered and torn, painted toenails on grubby feet. Breath searing her lungs, making a wall of fog around her head.
Straight across to the opposite side as the back door opens and a man comes out, cup of tea in one hand. Mouth hanging open. ‘Hoy! What do you think you’re—’
She doesn’t stop. Bends almost in half and charges into the thick leylandii hedge. The jagged green scrapes at her cheeks. A sharp pain slashes across her calf.
If He catches her, that’s it. He’ll drag her back to the dark. Lock her away from the sun and the world and the people who love her. Make her suffer.
She bursts out the other side.
A woman squats in the middle of the lawn next to a border terrier. She’s wearing a blue plastic bag on her hand like a glove, hovering it over a mound of steaming brown. Her eyes snap wide, eyebrows up. Staring. ‘Oh my God, are you…?’
His voice bellows out across the twilight. ‘COME BACK HERE!’
Don’t stop. Never stop. Don’t let him catch up.
Not after all she’s been through.
It’s not fair.
She takes a deep breath and runs.
‘God’s sake…’ Logan shoved his way out of a thick wad of hedge into another big garden and staggered to a halt. Spat out bitter shreds of green that tasted like pine disinfectant.
A woman caught in the act of poop-scooping stared up at him.
He dragged out his Airwave handset and pointed it at her. ‘Which way?’
The hand wrapped in the carrier bag came up and trembled towards the neighbour’s fence.
‘Thanks.’ Logan pressed the button and ran for it. ‘Tell Biohazard Bob to get the car round to Hillview Drive, it’s…’ He scrambled onto the roof of a wee plastic bike-shed thing, shoes skidding on the frosty plastic. From there to the top of a narrow brick wall. Squinted out over a patchwork of darkened gardens and ones bathed in the glow of house lights. ‘It’s the junction with Hillview Terrace.’
Detective Chief Inspector Steel’s smoky voice rasped out of the handset’s speaker. ‘How have you no’ caught the wee sod yet?’
‘Don’t start. It’s… Woah.’ A wobble. Both hands out, windmilling. Then frozen, bent forward over an eight-foot drop into a patch of Brussels sprouts.
‘What have I told you about screwing this up?’
Blah, blah, blah.
The gardens stretched away in front, behind, and to the right – backing onto the next road over. No sign of her. ‘Where the hell are you?’
There – forcing her way through a copse of rowan and ash, making for the hedge on the other side. Two more gardens and she’d be out on the road.
Logan hit the send button again. ‘I need you to—’ His left shoe parted company with the wall. ‘AAAAAAAARGH!’ Cracking through dark green spears, sending little green bombs flying, and thumping into the frozen earth below. THUMP. ‘Officer down!’
‘Laz? Jesus, what the hell’s…’ Steel’s voice faded for a second. ‘You! I want an armed response unit and an ambulance round to—’
‘Gah…’ He scrabbled upright, bits of squashed Brussels sprouts sticking to his dirt-smeared suit. ‘Officer back up again!’
‘Are you taking the—’
The handset went in his pocket again and he sprinted for the fence. Clambered over it as Steel’s foul-mouthed complaints crackled away to themselves.
Across the next garden in a dozen strides, onto a box hedge then up over another slab of brick.
She was struggling with a wall of rosebushes, their thorned, snaking branches digging into her blue summer dress, slicing ribbons of blood from her arms and legs. Blonde hair caught in the spines.
‘YOU! STOP RIGHT THERE!’
‘Please no, please no, please no…’
Logan dropped into the garden.
She wrenched herself free and disappeared towards the last house on the road, leaving her scalp behind… No, not a scalp – a wig.
He sprinted. Jumped. Almost cleared the bush. Crashed through the privet on the other side, head first. Tumbled.
On his feet.
He rugby-tackled her by the gate, his shoulder slamming into the small of her back, sending them both crunching onto the gravel. Sharp stones dug into his knees and side. The smell of dust and cat scratched into the air.
And she SCREAMED. No words, just a high-pitched bellow, face scarlet, spittle flying, eyes like chunks of granite. Stubble visible through the pancake makeup that covered her thorn-torn cheeks. Breath a sour cloud of grey in the cold air. Hands curled into fists, battering against Logan’s chest and arms.
A fist flashed at Logan’s face and he grabbed it. ‘Cut it out! I’m detaining you under—’
‘KILL YOU!’ The other hand wrapped itself around his throat and squeezed. Nails digging into his skin, sharp and stinging.
Sod that. Logan snapped his head back, then whipped it forward. Crack – right into the bridge of her nose.
A grunt and she let go, beads of blood spattering against his cheek. Warm and wet.
He snatched at her wrist, pulled till the hand was folded forward at ninety degrees, and leaned on the joint.
The struggling stopped, replaced by a sucking hiss of pain. Adam’s apple bobbing. Scarlet dripping across her lips. ‘Let me go, you bastard!’ Not a woman’s voice at all, getting deeper with every word. ‘I didn’t do anything!’
Logan hauled out his cuffs and snapped them on the twisted wrist, using the whole thing as a lever against the strained joint.
‘Where’s Stephen Bisset?’
More pressure. ‘I’m not asking you again – where is he?’
‘Aaaaagh… You’re breaking my wrist! … Please, I don’t—’
One more push.
‘OK! OK! God…’ A deep breath through gritted, blood-stained, teeth. Then a grin. ‘He’s dying. All on his own, in the dark. He’s dying. And there’s nothing you can do about it.’
(Image: Flickr/Kate Hiscock)