Read an Extract from In the Cold Dark Ground by Stuart Macbride

Read an Extract from In the Cold Dark Ground by Stuart Macbride

Three Days Ago —

He rolls over onto his side, blood pulsing from what’s left of his nose. It stains his teeth dark pink. Bubbles at the side of his mouth. Explodes out in a shower of scarlet droplets as the boot slams into his bare stomach again. And again. And again.

He just twitches with the impact. Can’t even defend himself – not with both hands tied behind his back. Can’t do anything but bleed and groan, naked on the damp forest floor.

Blood drips onto the mat of rusting pine needles, making it dark and shiny.

His lips move, but the words are broken mushy things forced out between ruined teeth. ‘Gnnnnfnnnn … mmmm … nnngh…’

‘Do you see?’ A boot stamps down on his head. Something crunches. ‘Do you see what happens?’

Blood drips onto the mat of rusting pine needles, making it dark and shiny. ‘Nnnngh…’

Another voice: quiet, shaking. ‘Please. Please, I’ll do whatever you want. Please.’

‘Damn right you will.’

A black plastic bin-bag crackles out like the wing of a giant bat. It soars above him for a moment, then gets yanked into place, enveloping his head. The scratchy growl of duct tape rips through the air.

And, at last, he finds enough breath to scream.



— Wednesday Dayshift —

in loving memory of those not yet dead


1

Where the hell was Syd?

The song rambled to a halt, and the DJ was back. ‘Wasn’t that great We’ve got JC Williams on in just a minute, talking about her latest book PC Munroe and the Poisoner’s Cat, but first here’s Stacy with all your eleven o’clock news and weather. Stacy?

Logan screwed the cap on his Thermos, popped it on the dashboard, then wrapped his hands around the plastic cup.

Warmth seeped into his fingers, almost making it as far as the frozen bones. Tendrils of steam mixed with his breath, fogging the windscreen.

Thanks, Bill. The hunt for missing Fraserburgh businessman, Martin Milne, continues today…

He wriggled in his seat, pulling himself deeper into the stabproof vest, like a turtle. Knees together, rubbing slightly to get maximum itchiness from the black Police-Scotland-issue trousers. Took a sip from the Thermos lid.

The bare stalks of old nettles poked out of the yellow grass like the spears of a long-dead army.

Tea: hot and milky. Manna from heaven. Well, from the station canteen, but close enough.

…concerned for his safety after his car was found abandoned in a lay-by outside Portsoy…

Logan wiped a porthole in the passenger window.

Skeletal trees loomed on either side of the dirt track.

Gunmetal puddles in ragged-edged potholes. The bare stalks of old nettles poked out of the yellow grass like the spears of a long-dead army. All fading into the dull grey embrace of February drizzle.

Something bright moved in the distance – where the oak and beech gave way to regular ranks of pine – a fluorescent yellow high-viz smear. Then the woods swallowed it.

…with any information to call one-zero-one. A teenage driver who crashed through the front window of Poundland in Peterhead was six times over the drink-drive limit…

Sitting next to the Thermos, his mobile phone dinged, skittering an inch to the right as it vibrated. He grabbed it before it fell off the dashboard. Pressed his thumb on the text message icon.

Laz: call me back ASAP!
No screwing about – it’s urgent!
Where the hell are you?!?

Sodding DCI Sodding Steel. Third time today.

‘Leave me alone. I’m working, OK? That all right with you?’

He deleted the message. Scowled at the empty screen.

…eight pints of cider at a friend’s eighteenth birthday party…

A pair of headlights sparked in the rear-view mirror: the cavalry had arrived. With any luck they’d brought biscuits with them.

…remanded in custody. The body of a young woman, discovered ten days ago in woods outside Inverurie, has been formally identified…

Logan took another sip of tea, then popped the door open, climbing out as a battered green Fiat lurched and rolled to a halt, windscreen wipers squealing across the glass.

‘Emily was last seen leaving the Formartine House Hotel on Saturday night…’

Everything smelled of dirt and mould and green.

…Emily Benton, a nineteen-year-old philosophy student from Aberdeenshire…

The Renault’s door clunked open and a man climbed out, dressed in tatty black combat trousers and a quilted black fleece.

Big grin on his face. Short grey hair circled a wide strip of shiny pink scalp. His breath steamed out into the drizzly morning.

‘Fine day for it.’ He pulled a baseball cap from his back pocket: black with ‘Police’ embroidered over a black-and-white checked strip. He put it on, hiding his bald patch from the rain.

Logan toasted him with the Thermos cup. ‘Syd. You bring your hairy friends with you?’

Emily was last seen leaving the Formartine House Hotel on Saturday night…

Syd leaned back into the car and came out with a thick leather lead, draped it around his neck, under his arms, and clipped it behind his back, like DIY braces. ‘Thought you and your minions already searched this one.’

…anxious to trace the driver of a red Ford Fiesta seen in the vicinity.

‘Didn’t find anything.’ A shrug. ‘Thanks for coming.’

‘Forget about it.’ Syd waved a hand. ‘Only so many times you can watch Lord of the Rings.’ He marched around to the back of the car and popped the boot open. A golden retriever scrabbled out onto the track, tail wagging, feet pounding round and round his master, nose up to him, mouth hanging open.

‘You ready to put that nose back to work, Lusso? Are you? Yes you are. Yes you are.’ He ruffled the dog’s ears. ‘Do you good to get off your backside and do some work for a change, you fat lump.’

…appeal for witnesses. Now, are you ready for Valentine’s Day? Well, one enterprising teenager is auctioning his booking for a romantic meal for two at the Silver Darling restaurant in—

Logan clicked the radio off and downed the last of his tea.

Pulled a padded high-viz jacket on over his stabproof vest, then dipped into the kitbag stuffed down into the rear footwell. Came out with a brown paper evidence bag. ‘Here you go.’

‘Socks?’

‘Better.’ Logan opened the bag and came out with a red T-shirt. The company name was speckled with paint: ‘Geirrød ~ Container Management and Logistics’

They followed Lusso across the damp leaf litter, into the forest gloom, ducking under branches and crunching through brittle beige curls of dead bracken.

‘Well, you never know your luck. Since we retired, Lusso’s sniffed out nothing more challenging than other dogs’ bumholes.’ He unrolled a small fluorescent-yellow waistcoat thing and slipped it over the golden retriever’s head, clipping the straps together behind its front legs. Then Syd took the T-shirt and wadded it up into a ball. Squatted down and held it under Lusso’s shiny black nose. ‘Big sniffs.’

Logan pulled on a pair of padded leather gloves. ‘We set?’

‘As we can be.’ Syd stood, then swept his arm out in an arc, hand pointing towards the woods on one side of the track.

‘Come on, Lusso: find.’

The dog scampered around them a couple of times, then its nose went down and it snuffled away.

They followed Lusso across the damp leaf litter, into the forest gloom, ducking under branches and crunching through brittle beige curls of dead bracken.

Logan nodded at the dog. ‘What do you reckon?’

‘Long shot, to be honest.’ Syd tucked his hands into hispockets. ‘If you’re after dead bodies, cash, or explosives: Lusso’s your dog, but this tracking thing…’ He sucked on his teeth.

‘Well, you never know.’

The musky brown scent of earth rose from the ground like a blanket, turning sharper and more antiseptic as they crossed the boundary from deciduous to evergreen. At least the tops of the trees were evergreen; down here, at ground level, everything was black and grey and jagged.

Through a clearing, tufted with heather and fringed with brambles.

Down a small ravine.

They clambered over a fallen tree, its roots sticking up into the air like a hairy shield.

Up a steep hill, puffing and panting by the time they reached the summit.

But there wasn’t much of a view from the top, just more dark trunks, stretching down and away into the distance.

Merging together in the fog and drizzle.

Syd sniffed. ‘Of course, trouble is, it’s been so long since he’s had to actually work Lusso might think he’s out for a walk.’

There was that.

‘Well, at least we’re—’ Logan’s mobile blared out its anonymous ringtone. He closed his eyes and sagged for a moment.

The crackle and snap of Syd fighting his way through a clump of dead rosebay willowherb faded into silence.

Then straightened up. Pulled on a smile. ‘Sorry. I’ll catch up.’

He dug the phone out as Syd worked his way down the hill, following the wagging tail.

‘McRae.’

A woman’s voice. ‘Logan? It’s Louise from Sunny Glen.

And Logan sagged again.

The crackle and snap of Syd fighting his way through a clump of dead rosebay willowherb faded into silence.

Somewhere in the distance a pigeon croooed.

Logan? Hello?

Deep breath. ‘Louise.’

A sigh came from the earpiece. ‘I know this isn’t easy, Logan, it’s a horrible thing, but there’s nothing else we can do for her. If there was, I would. You know that.

Of course he did. Didn’t make it any easier, though.

‘Yeah…’ He stared down at his boots. At the tufts of grey green grass poking out between the dirty pine needles.

‘When?’

That’s really up to you. Samantha’s… You’ve been the best friend she could ever have hoped for, but it’s time. It’s just her time.’ Another sigh. ‘I’m sorry, Logan. I really am.

‘Right. Yes. I understand.’

We have a specialist counsellor you can speak to. She can help.

Another smear of fluorescent yellow appeared away off to the right, before disappearing into the undergrowth again.

The stabproof vest held him tight in its Velcro embrace, keeping everything squeezed inside.

Four beeps sounded underneath his high-viz jacket, followed by a muffled voice. ‘Shire Uniform Seven, safe to talk?

Logan unzipped the jacket and reached inside, feeling for the Airwave handset. Leaving it on its clip while he pressed the button. ‘Give us a minute, Tufty.’

Back to the phone.

Louise was still going: ‘…all right? Logan? Hello?

‘Sorry. I’m kind of in the middle of something.’

You don’t have to decide right away. We’re not trying to rush you into anything. Take your time.

‘Yeah, I understand.’ The stabproof vest held him tight in its Velcro embrace, keeping everything squeezed inside.

‘Friday. We’ll do it Friday.’

Are you sure? Like I said, you don’t have to—

‘No. Friday the thirteenth. Samantha would’ve liked that.’

I’m sorry, Logan.

‘Yeah, me too.’ He hung up and slipped the phone back into an inside pocket. Stared up at the heavy grey sky.

Friday.

When he breathed out, it was as if someone had attached weights to his lungs and stomach, dragging them down.

Another breath.

Then another.

And another.

Come on.

He blinked. Rubbed a hand across his face, wiping away a cold sheen of water. Hauled himself straight.

Then pressed the call button on his Airwave handset again.

‘Tufty: safe to talk.’

He blinked. Rubbed a hand across his face, wiping away a cold sheen of water. Hauled himself straight.

Sarge, we’ve done the loop again. No sign of Milne. You want us to try the burn?

‘Might as well.’

Dripping water made a slow-motion drumroll on the forest floor.

Sarge?

‘What?’

‘Can we go home soon? Only Calamity’s gone all blue and purple. Last time I saw someone that colour they were lying on a mortuary slab. Bleeding freezing out here.’

‘Tell her we’ll give it another hour, then back home for tea and biscuits.’

‘Sarge.’

Logan slithered his way down the hill, picking his way between the trees, following Syd’s trail.

Silence blanketed the forest, the needles underfoot and the branches overhead smothering all sounds except the ones he made. Not even midday and it was already getting dark. The clouds overhead had blackened and crept lower. Gearing up for the change from breath-frosting drizzle to a full-on downpour.

Maybe an hour was chancing their arm? Might be better to pack it up and try again tomorrow.

And after that it’d be someone else’s problem.

A ding and a buzz against his ribcage marked another text message coming into his mobile. No point checking: it’d be Steel. It was always Steel.

Wah, wah, wah, why haven’t you called me back? What I want is much more important than anything you’re doing. Wah, wah, wah…

He left his phone in its pocket. Kept going.

It wasn’t too hard to follow Syd. His feet had left a scuffed path through the needles, the layer below darker than the ones on the surface. It wound its way between the trees, scratching a zigzag line down and off to the left. Where—

Was that a shout?

Yes. Somewhere off in the distance, but definitely there.

Logan stopped, cupped his hands around his mouth in a makeshift loudhailer. ‘SYD?’

Another shout.

Nope, still no idea what he was saying.

Needles slipped beneath Logan’s feet as he hurried down the slope and up the other side. ‘SYD?’

He froze at the crown of the hill, surrounded by boulders and Scots pine. The ground fell away in front of him: a steep incline punctuated by rocks and gorse between hundreds of circular stumps where the trees had been harvested. A dirt track ran along the bottom of the hill, with another clump of gorse on the other side.

His torso was a tie-die pattern of purples, blues, and yellows fringed with green, the bruises spaced randomly across palegrey skin slick with drizzle.

Syd stood in front of it, waving his arms like he was trying to guide a plane in to land. Lusso lay on the ground at his feet, hairy yellow tail sweeping back and forth through the mud.

Logan tried again: ‘WHAT IS IT?’

Whatever Syd shouted back, it was swallowed by the wind and rain.

‘Sodding hell.’ No choice for it then. Logan scrambled down the slope, feet sideways to the drop, skirting the dark-green needles of gorse. Windmilling his arms as a clump of mud shifted beneath him, threatening to send him tumbling.

Keep going…

He clattered onto the track and skidded to a halt before he went over the edge and into a drainage ditch thick with rustcoloured water.

Syd sniffed. ‘Took your time.’

‘What?’

He raised a finger and pointed at a patch of broom. ‘In there.’

Logan smoothed down the front of his high-viz jacket, then stepped over the ditch and onto the bank on the other side.

‘Can’t see any—’

‘Keep going.’

Another couple of steps up the bank and… OK.

There was a dip in the earth: semicircular with a chunk of lichen-covered granite at one end. Stalks of dead weeds poked up through the yellowed grass. And right in the middle, lying flat on its back, was the body of a man. Naked. Hands behind him. One leg crooked out at the knee, the foot resting against his other shin.

His torso was a tie-die pattern of purples, blues, and yellows fringed with green, the bruises spaced randomly across palegrey skin slick with drizzle.

Syd’s voice came from the other side of the bush. ‘That him?’

Logan blew out a breath. ‘Difficult to tell…’

The head was covered with black plastic – like a bin-bag – fixed around the neck with thick strands of silver duct tape.

There was a strange smell too. Maybe bleach?

The pubic hair was a sickly yellowy-white, so it could be bleach. Probably bleach.

Someone covering their tracks, trying to make sure they hadn’t left any DNA or trace evidence behind that could be identified. Yeah, good luck with that. Something always survived.

Another smell lay under the bleach, something sweet and meaty and cloying. Like a chunk of mince, forgotten about at the back of the fridge, a couple of days past its sell-by date.

Definitely dead.

Logan unzipped his jacket and pulled out his Airwave handset. Punched in the Duty Inspector’s shoulder number.

‘Bravo India from Shire Uniform Seven, safe to talk?’

Inspector McGregor’s voice crackled out of the speaker, sounding slightly plummy, as if she was eating something. ‘Go ahead, Logan.

‘Guv? I think we might have found Martin Milne…’