I'm honoured to be hosting an extract from Summoning the Dead by Tony Black - a new DI Bob Valentine case, is out now from Black & White Publishing. You can buy it from your local bookshop, or here, here or here.
The farm road was pitted with potholes and loose scree washed down from the hills. Beyond the encroaching bramble bushes were the low-hanging branches of trees. At their thickest, the branches and the creeping bushes made a connection to their counterparts on the other side of the road, creating an arbour. Although the scrub was dense, it was not thick enough to provide shelter from the heavy rain that poured from the night sky.
The uneven road, no more than a track really, with its dents and declivities made for heavy going in the Transit van. Inside the vehicle, beyond the rain-battered windscreen and the furiously pumping wiper blades, the men cursed the job that had brought them out in such conditions.
‘I swear the weather’s better back home, and that’s saying something,’ said the driver, his mate next to him nodding in agreement.
‘Just go easy. I don’t want to return this van with a broken axle – it’s costing us an arm and a leg as it is.’
‘I’m doing my best. It’s pretty bloody choppy out.’
The needle on the rev counter danced as the Transit struggled, its wheels slipping in the mud.
‘I said watch it!’
‘I am. I am.’
The voices were rising, along with the tempers. The larger of the two men removed his hat and started to strangle it in his hands. As the van progressed, rounded the bend at the top of a small brae and drew to a halt outside a farmhouse the tension in the cab was palpable.
‘Must be. I don’t see anywhere else.’
‘We should try the door.’
‘There’s no one in, I told you.’
‘We should try it anyway. You know what these places are like. The people are hillbillies – point a shotgun at you soon as look at you.’
The driver reached for the door handle. ‘Do what you like. I’m going to find what we came for.’
The rain was almost horizontal, backed by a strong westerly that threatened to take a man off his feet. The gable end of the farmhouse offered little shelter, the big man plastering himself to the sandstone and edging along slowly, so as not to be blown over by a freak gale.
The other man turned up the collar on his black reefer coat and faced the elements. He headed beyond the farm- house, towards the outbuildings. When he reached the first of the small stone buildings he raised a hand to shield his eyes and shouted to his partner.
He couldn’t hear the reply, drowned out by the wind and rain as it was.
The man moved off again, content that the other man knew where to find him, and negotiated the steps to the rear of the first outbuilding. As he peered over he leaned the toe of his boot on the rim of a large oil drum; it didn’t move. He crouched lower, still holding the wooden rail that skirted the steps, and pressed his weight against the drum.
‘What in Christ?’ he said, the words trailing before being taken by the wind.
His friend reappeared. ‘There’s nobody there.’
‘I told you.’
‘I wanted to check.’
‘Are you happy now?’
‘I am, yeah.’
The man in the reefer coat stood up again. ‘I don’t know how anyone can be happy out in this.’
‘I didn’t say I was ecstatic. I’d sooner be on my way home to the Dumbarton game at Pittodrie.’
‘Stuffing the ’Gers 2–1 at Ibrox not good enough for you?’
They smiled, the talk of their team winning thawing the tension. Aberdeen were on a winning streak; the gaffer had done wonders with the team. No one could really believe they had only recently been European champions. Would that ever sink in?
The pair had trailed their team around the country on an old trawler, chasing cod and odd jobs along the way. But the experience, initially so exciting to their ears, had worn thin as the odd jobs got even odder.
‘I can’t move it,’ said the man on the steps. ‘I can’t budge it an inch.’
The bigger man walked around the barrel, stalking it like a strong man facing a lifting challenge. He tested the steel with his toe, as his friend had earlier. It sounded solid.
‘What’s in it?’
‘I was told not to ask.’
‘Was that wise?’
‘I didn’t care. Look, they were paying cash, you had your share and now we have to dump it.’
The big man gripped the drum, put a shoulder lock on the rim and heaved. ‘Are you sure this is the right one?’
‘Of course it is. There’s the ICI badge and the cross painted in green, like he said.’
They wrestled with the barrel together, managed to tip it on its side. The ground shuddered a little as the heavy barrel splashed down in the mud.
‘It’s going nowhere. The bloody Transit won’t move with that in it, if we could get it in.’
‘I don’t suppose we’ll manage to get it on the boat either, not without a pulley and winch.’
‘We’d snap the cable – and sink the boat.’
‘That’s that then. Bollocks to it.’
‘We can’t leave it. We’ve been paid up.’
‘Have you got a better idea?’
He looked around. The rain was coming straight down on their heads now, bouncing in stair rods off the wet ground. ‘We’ll bury it here.’
‘Not right here, over there.’
‘In the fields? The first time someone runs a plough over it the bloody thing will stick out.’
‘Between the fields then. We roll it over and bury it as deep as we can. No one will see it, no one will know and your man will be none the wiser.’
‘I don’t know about this. Maybe I should call him. I saw a phone box back on the main road.’
‘You know what he’ll say – you took the money, now do the job he paid us for.’
‘We could give the money back. I never liked the sound of this anyway.’
‘You don’t give money back to people like that. Forget it. We bury it and walk away.We won’t be back this way again, so it’s not our worry.’
The man brushed the pooling water from the shoulders of his reefer coat. The action caused a shiver to enter him.
‘What do you think’s in it?’
‘I don’t know, and I don’t want to know.’
The shivering passed. He pointed back the way they had come. ‘I saw some shovels over by the barn.We’d better get started, it’ll take forever in this rain.’
Detective Inspector Bob Valentine struggled with the blue shoe covering, the elastic stretched to its snapping point. He knew he should sit down, take his time, but that would mean admitting to himself that the spreading paunch above his belt really did require his attention.
He leaned against the wall. The morgue tiles were cold on his back and another reminder that he was some- where that he really did not want to be. He told himself that the corpse on the mortuary slab through the wall held no fear for him. At least, that’s how it had always been. Until now.
‘Bloody things.’ He finally managed to get his last brogue covered and sighed towards DS Sylvia McCormack, who was waiting by the door, smirking slightly.
‘Something funny, detective?’ he said.
‘No, sir. Well, maybe a little.’ McCormack took a few steps towards him. ‘Have you thought about losing a couple of pounds? You’d feel the benefits of it.’
‘I’m not carrying any weight, Sylvia.’
He rubbed his stomach. ‘It’s dyspepsia.’
The smirk was back. ‘Boss, you’ll be telling me it’s the job next.’
‘It is the bloody job! Well, this case.’
‘Certainly seems to be making you irritable.’
The DI eased himself off the wall, rubbing his stomach.
‘Bad guts is no laughing matter. I wouldn’t wish it on any- one, well, maybe just Dino. I mean, what does she expect us to find here?’
‘Cause of death.’
‘Apart from the blindingly obvious. There’s no foul play involved, we’re all agreed on that. It’s only the media interest that has her rattled.’
Sylvia motioned towards the door. ‘They did feature it on Crimewatch, sir.’
Valentine shuffled his feet, made a show of distaste for the blue coverings. ‘And why was that? Not because it was a pressing crime that required the vigilance of the public to solve.’
They walked towards the morgue door; Valentine held it open for McCormack to enter first. ‘No, it was more to do with the CCTV from the hotel going viral. Cheap opportunism on the part of the programme makers. They’re not interested in justice or protecting the public – it’s ratings they’re after.’
As they headed towards the centre of the room two men, dressed in white scrubs, waited beside a large, steel-legged table. Immediately Valentine identified the taller of the two as the pathologist.
‘Hello, Wrighty,’ he said.
‘Bob . . . Sylvia,’ he nodded. ‘Here to get the low-down on our superstar?’
‘Give it a rest.’
‘I’m serious. Half a million hits on YouTube this lad got; that’s up there with Oscar winners in my book.’
Valentine turned to McCormack. ‘You see what I mean? We live in tawdry times. Everyone’s chasing celebrity! Even Wrighty’s excited to meet the Thin Man.’
The pathologist stepped aside and made a show of whispering into Valentine’s ear. ‘Do you think it would be OK to take a selfie with him, Bob? Nothing tasteless, just for Twitter and that.’
The DI’s expression soured; he looked ready to break into a tirade.
‘Bob, I’m pulling your plonker,’ said Wrighty. ‘Bit of gallows humour, so to speak.’
‘I’m laughing inside, I can assure you of that.’
The team assembled around the table and watched the pathologist go to work. His first incision on the corpse marked the beginnings of an inverted Y, from the sternum through to the top of the stomach.
Valentine felt his own insides tightening as he watched; his stomach pains had intensified to the point where he had to place a steadying hand on the slab’s rim.
‘Everything OK, Bob?’ said Wrighty.
‘Just this indigestion.’
‘You had that when I spoke to you on Monday as well. You aught to get that checked out.’
‘Is that a medical opinion? If it is, I’d like to ask when you last had a live patient?’
DS McCormack had been scrutinising the organs the pathologist removed from the body when she interrupted the banter. ‘Can I ask why they’re so shrivelled?’
Wrighty looked up. He had his hands under the swollen, reddish ball of the stomach. ‘Probably the chemotherapy.’
‘He’d been treated for cancer?’ said the DS.
‘Yes.Though not recently.These organs are riddled with it. By the look of it, I’d say the tumour was in the stomach and the cancer spread.’ He called for an aluminium dish to place the latest removal in; the assistant took the dish away and laid it with the other organs.
‘Anything you can tell us is a help,’ said Valentine. ‘We’ve no dental, and he’s not on any DNA databases.’
‘I saw that on the telly the other night. They said he’d removed all the labels from his clothes too.’
‘Cut them out.’
‘What was all that about?’
‘It’s common enough for suicides, when they don’t want to be found. There was a French lad who went up the hills that had done the same a few years back. Took Northern an age to track him down.’
Wrighty paused and looked at the officers. ‘It’s a sad business. I take it that’s what all the CCTV footage was about as well?’
‘Every time he left the hotel the cameras in the foyer caught him with a carrier bag. The street cameras caught him putting it in the bin a few times. He was disposing of all his effects because he clearly didn’t want to be identified after death. He probably never dreamed the tide would carry him back in either, and now here we are poking about in his last days and hours in the hope of undoing all his hard work.’
The pathologist summoned his assistant and started to remove his gloves. ‘Well, I’m afraid I can be of little help to you. There’s nothing to suggest foul play here. I’d say entirely natural causes, likely a massive cardiac arrest as a result of the pressure the swim had put on his heart. He was a very sick man; his organs are riddled with cancer. He wouldn’t have lasted much longer even if he hadn’t gone for a dip on Ayr beach.’
Valentine allowed himself a half smile. ‘Well, that’s that then. Nothing to see here, Sylvia, write it up as natural causes.’
‘And what about his family, boss?’ she said.
‘What family? We don’t know he has any. We don’t even know his name.’
‘It just seems so, I don’t know, sad and mysterious.’
‘And that’s what it will remain, I’m afraid. We can’t solve them all; we wouldn’t have a station full of cold cases if we could.’
‘It seems so final.’
‘It is. Unless we get a call out of the blue, we don’t have the resources to scour the globe for potential relatives. Don’t be downhearted, Sylvia, it’s just the way it goes.’
‘We can’t win them all.’
‘Sometimes it’s a miracle that we win any of them at all, you know that.’
The officers thanked the pathologist, shook hands and headed back to the car. Outside the morgue door Valentine removed his blue shoe-coverings without effort. ‘Would you believe it? I think my dyspepsia has gone. No, it definitely has. Completely vanished.’
‘I’m glad to hear it. Maybe your bad mood will have went with it. You’ve been like a bear with a sore head – I mean stomach – all week.’
The DI pointed the key at the car and opened the door as the blinkers flashed. Inside he turned to McCormack and said, ‘Don’t you think that’s odd?’
‘That I’ve lugged around bad guts, just as we’re investigating the Thin Man.’
‘Who we discover today had stomach cancer. It’s a coincidence of sorts. You’ll be telling me you’re getting the dreams again.’
Valentine turned to face McCormack. ‘Who said they’d stopped?’
‘But I asked you just the other day and you said . . .’
‘No, Sylvia, you asked if I had had any dreams about the case.’
‘And you said you hadn’t. Are you telling me that’s not the whole story now?’
The DI tapped the car keys on the rim of the steering wheel and looked away from McCormack. ‘I did see the Thin Man in one of those intense dreams.’
‘Nothing. Well, nothing about the case.’
‘He clearly told you something.’
Valentine shifted to face the DS once again. ‘He was there, on Ayr beach, and he said he had a message for me.’
‘He said I had no need to worry because, when it was my time, my mother would be there to take my hand.’
‘That could have been just a dream, you know.’
‘I told you, they’re not like dreams at all.’
‘Maybe we should have another meeting with Hugh Crosbie.’
‘The psychic, spiritualist bloke that Colin Baxter – the precognitive – put us in contact with before. He might have some insight.’
‘I’m not sure about that.’ Valentine put the key in the ignition and reached for his seat belt.
‘I don’t know whether he was a help or a hindrance the last time. There’s some things you’re better off not knowing about.’
‘That sounds like denial to me. Aren’t you getting dangerously close to burying your head in the sand?’
He paused. ‘Maybe you’re right. I’ll think about it.’
‘OK, but don’t come crying to me when you’re toppled over with stomach pain again, or worse, maybe headaches from a victim of a shotgun blast!’ McCormack kicked her bag into the footwell.
As Valentine started the engine the radio came to life. The voice of Jim Prentice on the control desk sounded stressed, directing officers to a rural location.
‘I know that place,’ said Valentine.
‘Sounds like a farm.’
‘That’s exactly what it is. Ardinsh Farm – it’s out Cumnock way.’
‘They’re talking about getting the SOCOs – must be a new crime scene.’
Valentine reached for the radio and spoke into the mouthpiece. ‘Jim, it’s Bob Valentine. What’s the story with Ardinsh Farm?’
There was a gap on the line and then the desk sergeant replied, ‘If you stayed away from that Krispy Kreme in Braehead you might be able to hear what’s going over the radio, Bob.’
‘You’ve spoiled the surprise. I have a dirty big doughnut sitting here for you.’
‘Lovely. I might even get a chance to eat it before midnight.’
‘So what’s all the commotion?’
‘Excavator driver’s turned up an oil drum in one of the fields. Looks like an old corpse inside.’
‘Old? How old?’
‘Put it this way, it could pass for a pharaoh.’
Valentine altered his tone. ‘No more jokes, Jim, please.’
‘Who’s joking? The corpse is mummified.’