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The Shortread: Tony Black


ShortRead of 2nd July 2014


Artefacts of the Dead

Authors: Tony Black

What's the story:

Irvine Welsh adores him and Ken Bruen can't praise him highly enough - Tony Black is the new Scottish noir king you need on your bookshelf. The Australian-born author has been adding inches of review praise with every book he publishes - his 2011 novel Long Time Dead currently being adapted into a film.

Artefacts of the Dead is the first in a series following detective inspector Bob Valentine. Dragged out of leave as he recovers from a near-fatal stabbing, the DI is needed to find the killer of a banker, whose death has shattered the sleepy calm of coastal town Ayr. With an untrustworthy team and deeply incompetent Chief Superintendent, the pressure is growing on Valentine as the bodies continue to pile up.

Release date: 14 July



The bulldozer emitted a drone, chugging noise as its caterpillar tracks pushed through the hill-high mounds of refuse. White parcels of cardboard and ubiquitous plastic carriers toppled into the broad, fresh footprint of the earth mover. A grey-to-black cloud of smoke hung in the wide trail, fresh bursts from the vertical exhaust pipe adding to a slug-line smear hugging a blue skyline. The jagged sawtooth of the Isle of Arran and the rough jut of Ailsa Craig looked a long way out at sea as the driver crunched the gears a final time and brought the vehicle to a halt.

In the cab, a shabby portable radio – it looked like a tip-find – sat on the dash, blaring a West FM jingle as Davie ferreted for a pack of Embassy Regal. He whistled something from the terraces, a line about ‘honest men’ that had been stuck in his mind since Saturday.

‘What’s this, now?’ Davie clamped the filter tip in his mouth and lit up. As he did so, he eyed the fast-approaching quad bike, the orange light flashing above on its pole.

‘Bastard, won’t give me a moment’s peace.’ He turned the key in the ignition and felt a shudder as the bulldozer came to life again. As Davie tucked his cigarette packet into the top pocket of his shirt, he smashed a tightly balled fist into the grubby dash. ‘Five minutes, for a fag... I was only after a bloody fag!’

As the crawler-tracks bit into the ground, the dozer blade caught the refuse piles and ripped them apart. A blunt line was sheared from the side of the tight-packed cardboard and plastic waste, fresh spills of carrier bags and bottles toppling to the cleared ground. A dirty cloud of fly-ridden effluvia escaped into the air but was soon swallowed up by the bulldozer’s own emissions.

‘I see you, I bloody well see you!’

Davie kept his eyes front and tried to ignore the intoning from his supervisor on the fast-moving quad bike. He bit the cigarette between his teeth and tucked his head further towards the filthy windscreen. He felt the smoke rising; his eyes smarted.

As Davie’s supervisor edged closer his driving became more erratic, aggressive almost. He clearly wanted to say something to the man at the earth mover’s controls; he wagged an arm to attract his attention, but the act merely increased Davie’s resolve to ignore him.

‘Aye, I can see you...’ He smiled to himself, the cigarette on his lips jostling up and down as he rasped. ‘Can’t have five minutes for a fag, eh. Out that trap like a bloody greyhound, you were.’

Davie crunched the gears again dug a fresh swathe through the crumbling debris. A broken door clattered off the edge of the bulldozer’s side-panel. For a moment it startled him; his stomach lurched, then tightened in expectation of more landslips from the same location. Nothing came, and he collected the cigarette in his fingers, sucked the nicotine deep into his lungs, then flicked the ash onto the floor of the cab.


He heard the supervisor’s roars, closer now.

The driver pretended to be oblivious to the commotion that was rapidly drawing near his open side-window. It was one small victory he was allowed in the game of life: to be able to play dumb and irritate the boss. He was never normally in a position to put one over on his supervisor, but he pretended to be ignorant; after all, that’s what was thought of him.

‘What’s that...? Slow down, is it?’ Davie felt a glow in his cheeks as he crunched the gears again forced the dozer blade deeper into the rubbish tip. What would he want, anyway? A few more hours out of him shifting this muck; a weekend shift at time-and-a-half when it should be double-time. No chance.

‘Keep up, mate,’ he rasped beneath his breath.

Still, he didn’t seem to be giving up. Davie saw his supervisor haring over the mounds of trash, sending the scavenging gulls back to the sky to circle and squawk above. Up and down the terrain he went, in and out of the garbage gulches. He wasn’t normally so committed. A niggle started in Davie’s conscience. He allowed himself another gasp on the cigarette; the grey-white ash had formed itself into a slender poker-point and threatened to fall on his lap at any moment. He squinted to the left, towards the high-revving quad bike. He was still there, still moving, still at speed.

‘What’s he up to?’

As the bulldozer’s blade cut through a fresh stack of high-piled black refuse sacks, splitting them open and spilling the contents, a flurry of brown rats ran for cover. Davie watched the rats; he knew they were smart creatures and held a grudging respect for them, even if they did churn his guts. The sight of them running from the bulldozer always made him leap in his seat, try to catch a glimpse of a long tail being caught in the caterpillar tracks: he’d never seen a single one caught yet. As he raised himself, his gaze was drawn to the horizon. He kept a hand on the wheel as he eased the earth mover down the gears. The noise from the gulls and the quad bike, the revving of the engine and the crunching of the gears, all faded into oblivion as he stared through a gap in the fly-splattered windscreen.

‘What the hell is that?’

In the midst of the collected detritus of Ayrshire’s homes sat an unfamiliar object. Davie craned his neck and thinned his eyes to better discern the sight before him.


The sudden high-pitched din of the quad bike revving to a halt at his side broke the spell, but only for a moment.

‘Davie... get out the way!’

He heard the call, but didn’t register any interest.


He sensed movement beside him, his supervisor gesticulating with his arms wide in the fly-thick air.

‘Yeah, yeah...’ he said, flagging his boss aside. Workplace rules were abandoned in times like this: those rare occasions when the outside world stepped inside and levelled everyone to the same status. This moment was far more important than any bawling his boss was capable of delivering. Davie wasn’t sure what it was that he was seeing – the shape was too indistinct – but he knew this much: it wasn’t something you should see on a council rubbish tip.

‘Davie, Jesus Christ...’

He let the bulldozer roll a few yards, clearing the now-established route through the wasteland, towards the shape. It seemed to be a collection of familiar objects, but none in the right order. There was a central pole, like a flagpole or a spike in the earth, but there was something attached, tethered.


He rolled the bulldozer further forward. It was a tangle, like a tangle of limbs – arms and legs – was it a scarecrow? Had someone dumped a tailor’s dummy?

‘Davie, please!’

He depressed the brake and stilled the engine. The sun was high in the noon sky, a rare wide blue offering that filled the line of rooftops and stopped just shy of a shimmering yellow band of sunlight. Davie cupped his hand above his brows and stared front. No, it wasn’t a dummy.

‘Christ above...’

At his side, Davie suddenly felt a whoosh of air as the cab door was swung open and his supervisor jerked a hand towards the dash to grab the keys from the ignition.

‘What in the name of God are you playing at, Davie?’

The driver turned to face his interrogator; his lips parted and the lower of the two suddenly became heavy.

‘Is that...?’

‘Yes, it’s a body!’

‘A what?’

His supervisor’s eyes widened; the red shine of exertion showed in their corners.

‘A body! A man’s body...’

Davie’s words faltered now. ‘On the tip?’

‘Yes, yes...’

He hung out of the cab and pointed with both his arms in the direction of the corpse, pale white against the bright blue of the sky.

‘It’s a dead man... Can’t you see someone’s put a bloody great spike through him?’



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