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Living again off the Isle of Lewis, ex-detective inspector Fin Macleod is working as a security officer for a local landowner. While investigating illegal activity on the estate, Fin encounters the elusive poacher and former childhood friend and bandmate Whistler Macaskill.
When Fin catches up with Whistler among the windswept hills of the estate, the two witness a freak natural phenomenon&mdahs;a bog burst—that drains a loch of all its water in a flash, revealing a mud-encased light aircraft with a sickeningly familiar moniker on its side.
Both men immediately know what they will find inside: the body of Roddy Mackenzie, a friend whose flight disappeared more than 17 years earlier. But when Whistler's face appears to register something other than shock, an icy chill of apprehension overtakes Fin.
What secret has Whistler been hiding from him, and everyone else on the island? Fin is unprepared for how the truth about the past will alter the course of the future.
Release date: November 19, 2012
Publisher: Quercus Publishing
Print pages: 400
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Fin raised himself up on to his elbows and saw that the stone at the entrance had been rolled aside. Beyond it he could see the rose-tinted mist of dawn that hung over the mountains. The storm had passed. Its rain had fallen, and it had left in its wake an unnatural stillness.
Painfully, Fin unravelled himself from his blankets and crawled past the fire to where his clothes were spread out across the stone. There was a touch of damp in them still, but they were dry enough to put on again, and he lay on his back and wriggled into his trousers before sitting up to button his shirt and drag his jumper over his head. He pulled on his socks and pushed his feet into his boots, then crawled out on to the mountainside without bothering to lace them up.
The sight that greeted him was almost supernatural. The mountains of south-west Lewis rose up steeply all around, disappearing into an obscurity of low clouds. The valley below seemed wider than it had by the lightning of the night before. The giant shards of rock that littered its floor grew like spectres out of a mist that rolled up from the east, where a not yet visible sun cast an unnaturally red glow. It felt like the dawn of time.
Whistler stood silhouetted against the light beyond the collection of broken shelters they called beehives, on a ridge that looked out over the valley, and Fin stumbled over sodden ground with shaking legs to join him.
Whistler neither turned nor acknowledged him. He just stood like a statue frozen in space and time. Fin was shocked by his face, drained as it was of all colour. His beard looked like black and silver paint scraped on to white canvas. His eyes dark and impenetrable, lost in shadow.
‘What is it, Whistler?’
But Whistler said nothing, and Fin turned to see what he was staring at. At first, the sight that greeted him in the valley simply filled him with confusion. He understood all that he saw, and yet it made no sense. He turned and looked back beyond the beehives to the jumble of rock above them, and the scree slope that rose up to the shoulder of the mountain where he had stood the night before and seen lightning reflected on the loch below.
Then he turned back to the valley. But there was no loch. Just a big empty hole. Its outline was clearly visible where, over eons, it had eaten away at the peat and the rock. Judging by the depression it had left in the land, it had been perhaps a mile long, half a mile across, and fifty or sixty feet deep. Its bed was a thick slurry of peat and slime peppered by boulders large and small. At its east end, where the valley fell away into the dawn mist, a wide brown channel, forty or fifty feet across, was smeared through the peat, like the trail left by some giant slug.
Fin glanced at Whistler. ‘What happened to the loch?’
But Whistler just shrugged and shook his head. ‘It’s gone.’
‘How can a loch just disappear?’
For a long time Whistler continued to stare out over the empty loch like a man in a trance. Until suddenly, as if Fin had only now spoken, he said, ‘Something like it happened a long time ago, Fin. Before you or I were born. Sometime back in the fifties. Over at Morsgail.’
‘I don’t understand. What do you mean?’ Fin was filled with confusion.
‘Same thing. Postie used to pass a loch on the track between Morsgail and Kinlochresort every morning. Way out in the middle of bloody nowhere, it was. Loch nan Learga. So one morning, he’s coming down the track as usual, and there’s no loch. Just a big hole where it used to be. I’ve passed it many times myself. Caused a hell of a stir back then, though. The newspaper and television people came all the way up from London. And the things they speculated on . . . well, they seem crazy now, but they filled the airwaves and the column inches of the papers at the time. The favourite was that the loch had been hit by a meteor and evaporated.’
‘And what had happened?’
Whistler lifted his shoulders then dropped them again. ‘Best theory is that it was a bog burst.’
‘Which is what?’
Whistler made a moue with his lips, his eyes still drawn to the slime-filled basin of the disappeared loch. ‘Well . . . it can happen when you get a long spell without rain. Not very common here.’ He nearly smiled. ‘The surface peat dries up and cracks. And as any peat-cutter knows, once it’s dry the peat becomes impervious to water.’ He nodded towards where the giant slug trail led off into the mist. ‘There’s another loch down there, lower in the valley. If I had any money, I’d put it on this one having drained down into the other.’
‘Most of these lochs sit on peat lying over Lewisian gneiss. Quite often they’re separated by ridges of something less stable, like amphibolite. When the dry spell is followed by heavy rain, like last night, the rainwater runs through the cracks in the peat creating a layer of sludge above the bedrock. Chances are that what happened here is that the peat between the lochs simply slid away on the sludge, the weight of the water in the upper loch burst through the amphibolite, and the whole bloody lot drained down the valley.’
There was a stirring of air as the sun edged a little higher, and the mist lifted just a touch. Enough to reveal something white and red catching the light at what must have been the deepest part of the loch.
‘What the hell’s that?’ Fin said, and when Whistler made no reply, ‘Do you have binoculars?’
‘In my rucksack.’ Whistler’s voice was little more than a breath.
Fin hurried back to their beehive and crawled inside to find Whistler’s binoculars. When he got out to the ridge again, Whistler hadn’t moved. He continued to stare impassively at the hole where the loch had once been. Fin raised the binoculars to his eyes and adjusted the lenses until the red-and-white object came clearly into focus. ‘Jesus!’ he heard himself whisper, quite involuntarily.
It was a small, single-engined aircraft, cradled among a cluster of boulders, and lying at a slight angle. It appeared to be pretty much intact. The windows of the cockpit were opaque with mud and slime, but the red and white of the fuselage was clearly visible. As were the black-painted letters of its call-sign.
Fin felt every hair on the back of his neck stand up. RUAI, short for Ruairidh, the Gaelic for Roderick. A call-sign which had been in every newspaper for weeks seventeen years before, when the plane went missing, and Roddy Mackenzie with it.
Mist lifted off the mountains like smoke, tinted by the dawn. It was perfectly still. Not a sound broke the silence. Not even a birdcall. Fin lowered Whistler’s binoculars. ‘You know whose plane that is?’
‘What the hell’s it doing here, Whistler? They said he filed a flight plan for Mull and disappeared somewhere out at sea.’
Whistler shrugged, but made no comment.
Fin said, ‘I’m going down to take a look.’
Whistler caught his arm. There was an odd look in his eyes. If Fin hadn’t known better he would have said it was fear. ‘We shouldn’t.’
‘Because it’s none of our business, Fin.’ He sighed. A long, grim breath of resignation. ‘I suppose we’ll have to report it, but we shouldn’t get involved.’
Fin looked at him hard and long, but decided not to ask. He pulled his arm free of Whistler’s grasp and said again, ‘I’m going down to take a look. You can come with me or not.’ He thrust the binoculars back into Whistler’s hands and started off down the hill towards the empty basin.
The descent was steep and difficult, over broken rock and hardened peat made slick by grasses washed flat by the rain. Boulders lined the banks of what had once been the loch, and Fin slithered over them, struggling to keep his feet and his balance, using his arms to stop himself falling. Down, down into the bowels of the one-time loch, wading through mud and slime, up to his knees at times, between rocks he used like stepping stones to cross the vast depression.
He had almost reached the plane before he turned to look back and see Whistler following just a few yards behind. Whistler stopped, breathing heavily, and the two men stood looking at each other for almost a full minute. Then Fin glanced beyond him, up through layers of peat and stone like the contour lines on an ordnance survey map, towards what just twelve hours before had been the shoreline. Had the loch still been there, the two men would have been fifty feet underwater by now. He turned to cover the remaining yards to the plane.
It was canted at the slightest of angles amid the shambles of rock and stone at the bottom of the loch, almost as if it had been placed there by the delicate hand of God. Fin was aware of Whistler’s breathing at his side. He said, ‘You know what’s weird?’
‘What?’ Whistler didn’t really sound as if he wanted to know.
‘I can’t see any damage.’
‘Well, if the plane had crashed into the loch it would be pretty smashed up, right?’
Whistler made no comment.
‘I mean look at it. There’s barely a dent on it. All the windows are intact. The windscreen’s not even broken.’
Fin clambered over the last few rocks and pulled himself, slithering, up on to the nearest wing. ‘Not much rust in evidence either. I guess it must be mostly aluminium.’ He didn’t trust himself to stand on the treacherously slippery surface of the wing, and crawled on his hands and knees towards the nearside cockpit door. The window was thick with green slime and it was impossible to see inside. He grasped the handle and tried to pull it open. It wouldn’t budge.
‘Leave it, Fin,’ Whistler called to him from down below.
But Fin was determined. ‘Come up here and give me a hand.’
Whistler didn’t move.
‘For Christ’s sake, man, it’s Roddy in there!’
‘I don’t want to see him, Fin. It would be like desecrating a grave.’
Fin shook his head and turned back to the door, bracing his feet against the fuselage on either side and pulling with all his strength. Suddenly it gave, with a loud rending like the sound of tearing metal, and Fin fell backwards on to the wing. Daylight flooded the interior of the cockpit for the first time in seventeen years. Fin scrambled back to his knees and grabbed the frame of the door to pull himself up to see inside. He heard Whistler hoisting himself on to the wing behind him, but didn’t turn. The sight that greeted him was shocking, his olfactory senses assailed by a stink like rotting fish.
The fascia below the windscreen arched across the cockpit, a mass of gauges and dials, glass smeared and muddied, interior faces discoloured by water and algae. The passenger or co-pilot’s seat, at the nearside, was empty. The red, black and blue knobs of the throttle controls between the seats were still visible, drawn back to their idle position. The remains of a man were strapped into the pilot’s seat at the far side. Time and water and bacteria had eaten away all the flesh, and the only thing holding the skeleton together were the blanched remains of tendons and tough ligaments that had not decayed in the cold-water temperatures. His leather jacket was more or less intact. His jeans, though bleached of colour, had also survived. His trainers, too, although Fin could see that the rubber was swollen, distending the shoes around what was left of the feet.
The larynx, ears and nose had all lost their structure, and the skull was plainly visible, a few strands of hair clinging to the remnants of soft tissue.
All of which was shocking enough to the two old friends who remembered the young, talented, restless Roddy with his shock of fair curly hair. But what disturbed them most was the terrible damage inflicted to the right side of the face and rear of the skull. Half the jaw appeared to be missing, exposing a row of yellowed broken teeth. The cheekbone and upper part of the skull were smashed beyond recognition.
‘Jesus Christ.’ Whistler’s voice came to Fin in a blasphemous breath.
It had only taken a moment to absorb the scene exposed by the opening of the door, and Fin recoiled involuntarily almost at once, banging the back of his head against Whistler’s shoulder. He slammed the door shut and turned around to slide down into a sitting position against it. Whistler crouched on his hunkers looking at him with wide eyes.
‘You’re right,’ Fin said. ‘We shouldn’t have opened it.’ He looked at Whistler’s face, so pale that pockmarks Fin had never before noticed were visible now, the result perhaps of some bout of childhood chickenpox. ‘But not because we’re desecrating a grave, Whistler.’
Whistler frowned. ‘Why then?’
‘Because we’re disturbing a crime scene.’
Whistler gazed at him for several long moments, dark eyes obscured by confusion, before he turned to slither down off the wing and make his way back towards the shoreline, climbing steadily out of the crater and back up towards the beehives.
‘Whistler!’ Fin called after him, but the big man didn’t even break stride and never looked back.
Fin sat in Gunn’s office, looking at the shambles of paperwork gathered like drifting snow on the detective sergeant’s desk. The occasional car rumbled past outside in Church Street, and even from this distance he could hear the gulls circling the trawlers in the harbour. Bleak, harled houses with steeply pitched roofs filled the view from the window, and he stood up and crossed to it to widen his field of vision. Macleod & Macleod the butcher, no relative. The Blythswood Care charity shop on the corner, with its handwritten notice in the window, We do not accept any left over goods from sales of work. The Bangla Spice Indian restaurant, and the Thai Café. Folk a long way from home.
Life went on for others as if nothing had happened. And yet for Fin, the discovery of Roddy’s remains in the aeroplane at the bottom of the loch had turned all of his memories on their head, altering for ever his recollection of history, and the way things had been.
‘A bog burst seems about right. Your friend Whistler knows his stuff.’
Fin turned as Gunn walked in clutching a sheaf of papers. His round face was shaven to a shine below a dark widow’s peak, pink skin splashed with an astringent and powerfully perfumed aftershave. Fin said, ‘There’s not much that Whistler doesn’t know.’ And he wondered what it was Whistler knew that he wasn’t telling.
‘There’s the disappearing loch down at Morsgail right enough. And apparently there were a couple of large bog bursts in the early nineties on steep north-facing slopes on Barra and Vatersay. So it’s not unknown.’ He dropped his papers on to his desk, like a further snowfall, and sighed. ‘Not much luck with the deceased’s family, though.’
Fin wasn’t quite sure why, but the reference to Roddy as the deceased was almost painful. And yet he had been dead for seventeen years. The most talented and successful Celtic rock star of his generation, cut down in his prime.
‘Father died five years ago, his mother last year in a geriatric unit in Inverness. No brothers or sisters. I suppose there must be distant relatives somewhere, because it seems the house at Uig was sold off by the estate. Might take a while to track them down.’ Gunn ran a hand back through his darkly oiled hair, then unconsciously wiped it on the leg of his trousers. ‘Your pal Professor Wilson is boarding a flight from Edinburgh as we speak.’
Gunn nodded. He had unhappy memories of his one encounter with the acerbic pathologist. ‘He’s going to want to examine the body in situ, and we’ll get the whole scene photographed.’ He rubbed his chin thoughtfully. ‘It’s going to be in all the papers, Mr Macleod. Bloody press’ll be flying in like vultures. Aye, and the brass, too. From Inverness. Wouldn’t surprise me if it was the high heid yins themselves. They just love to stand in front of the cameras and see their wellfed faces on the telly.’ He paused, then, before turning to push the door shut. ‘Tell me, Mr Macleod. What makes you think that Roddy Mackenzie was murdered?’
‘I’d rather not say, George. I don’t want to prejudice your interpretation of the scene. I think it’s an assessment you should make for yourself.’
‘Fair enough.’ Gunn dropped into his chair and swivelled around so that he was facing Fin. ‘What the hell were you and Whistler Macaskill doing up in the mountains in a storm anyway, Mr Macleod?’
‘It’s a long story, George.’
Gun raised his arms to interlock his fingers behind his head. ‘Well, we’ve got time to kill before the pathologist’s plane arrives . . .’ He let his sentence hang. Fin’s cue. And Fin realized it was only a couple of days since he and Whistler had been reunited for the first time in half a lifetime. Already it seemed like an eternity.
It had been an Indian summer, the long, hot dry spell stretching well into September, a rare phenomenon on this most northerly island of the Outer Hebrides. The furthest north and west you could go in Europe, the Isle of Lewis was burned brown by months of summer sun and unaccustomed weeks without rain. And still the weather was holding.
It had taken Fin nearly two hours to drive from Ness down the west coast to Uig that day. From as far north as Siadar, Fin had seen the mountains rising out of the south-west towards Harris, a dark brooding purple cut against the palest of blue skies. It was the only point on any horizon where the clouds still lingered. Not threatening but just there, drifting among the peaks. The yellow bloom of wild tormentil grew among the bracken, lending a hint of gold to a landscape in which even the heather was bleached of colour. The tiny petals dipped and bowed in the stiffening breeze that blew in off the ocean, carrying with it the smell of the sea and a distant whiff of winter.
On this first day of his new life, Fin reflected on just how much it had changed in little more than eighteen months. Back then he had been married, with a son, a life in Edinburgh, a job as a detective in ‘A’ Division CID. Now he had none of those things. He had come back to the womb, the island of his birth, but he wasn’t sure why. In search of who he had once been, perhaps. The only thing he knew for certain was that the change was irrevocable, and had begun the day a driver took the life of his little boy in an Edinburgh street and failed to stop.
As he rounded the head of Loch Ròg Beag, Fin turned his mud-spattered Suzuki four-by-four off the single-track road on to a broken metalled path without passing places. Past a clutch of Highland cattle with their long, curling horns and shaggy brown coats, to follow the river upstream towards a puddle of a loch where, unusually, trees grew in the shelter of a fold of hills, and Suaineabhal Lodge stood in the shadow of their protection.
It was a long while since Fin had seen Kenny John Maclean. Big Kenny had left the island with the rest of them. But his life had taken an altogether different course. He lived now in an old crofthouse that had been extended and modernized, and sat on the far side of the path opposite the lodge. A rabble of dogs came barking out of a tin-roofed barn as Fin pulled up in the parking area. The lodge itself was based upon an old farmhouse, and when Sir John Wooldridge had first bought the Red River Estate he had built out side and back, and appended a conservatory at the front that looked out over the loch. Unlike Cracabhal Lodge at the head of Loch Tamnabhaigh, which could accommodate more than twenty during the shooting and fishing seasons, Suaineabhal had only a handful of bedrooms and was reserved exclusively for fishermen. But it had a public bar, and at this time of year was filled every night with fishermen and ghillies, and locals out for a pint and a dram.
This morning there was not a soul around, until Kenny came striding up to the gate from the loch side and shouted the dogs to silent obedience. Cowed by the reprimand of their pack leader, they contented themselves with snuffling about Fin in quiet curiosity, breathing in his strange scents, sunlight falling around them in dappled patches like rain. Kenny wore green Hunter wellies over khaki breeks, and a multi-pocketed waistcoat over a military green woollen jumper with shoulder and elbow patches. As he approached, he whipped off his flat cap to reveal a cropped fuzz of ginger hair that was losing its colour, and held out a big callused hand to shake Fin’s warmly.
‘It’s been a helluva long time, Fin.’ Although most of his day would be conducted in English, with Fin he reverted to Gaelic without thinking. It was the language of their childhood, the first language that would spring naturally to both their tongues.
‘It’s good to see you, Kenny,’ Fin said, and meant it.
They stood looking at each other for a moment, assessing the changes that the years had wrought. The two-inch scar that followed the line of Kenny’s left cheekbone, the result of some childhood accident which had nearly taken his eye, had faded with time. Kenny had always been a big lad, bigger than Fin. Now he was enormous, filled out in every direction. He appeared older than Fin, too. But, then, he had always been an old-fashioned boy, rough-hewn from country stock and not very sophisticated. Bright enough, though, to go to agricultural college in Inverness and return to the island eventually to manage the estate on which he had grown up.
Fin, although not a small man, had retained his boyish figure, and his tightly curled fair hair still grew abundantly, green eyes fixing on the hidden wariness he saw in the darker gaze of his old schoolfriend.
‘I hear you’re back with Marsaili. Living with her, I’m told.’
Fin nodded. ‘At least until I finish restoring my parents’ crofthouse.’
‘And her boy’s yours they say, not Artair’s.’
‘It’s what I hear.’
‘You hear a lot, it seems.’
Kenny grinned. ‘I keep my ear to the ground.’
Fin returned the smile. ‘Be careful, Kenny. You might get mud in it. Then maybe you wouldn’t hear so good.’
Kenny snorted. ‘You always were a smart bugger, Macleod.’ He hesitated for a moment as his smile washed away, like sunshine passing behind a cloud. ‘I hear you lost a son, too.’
The colour rose very slightly around Fin’s eyes, darkening them. ‘You heard right.’ Followed by a long pause in which it was clear he was not about to elucidate.
The end of this personal nature of their exchange was signalled by the replacement of Kenny’s cap, which he pulled down low over his brow. Even his tone of voice changed. ‘I’ll need to brief you on your duties. I imagine Jamie will have covered the bullet points. But like most landowners, he doesn’t know much about the land.’
Fin didn’t miss the point. Jamie might be his boss, but Kenny considered himself his superior. And now he was Fin’s boss, and their brief exchange as equals was over.
‘I’m not sure I would have taken you on as head of security myself. No offence, Fin. I’m sure you were a good cop, but not so sure that it qualifies you to catch poachers. Still . . . ours not to reason why, eh?’
Fin said, ‘Maybe you could do a better job of it yourself.’
‘No “could” about it, Fin. But managing an estate of more than fifty thousand acres, with extensive salmon, brown trout and sea trout fishing, as well as stalking and shooting, takes up all my time as it is.’ He sounded like a brochure for the estate. ‘And it’s no small problem we have.’
Kenny’s Range Rover bounced and rattled over the potholed track, following the course of the river, the ground rising up ever more steeply around them. Bare, rugged hills peppered with rock and slashed by gullies rose up into mountainous peaks lost in cloud. Boulders clung to the hillsides, great chunks of gneiss four billion years old. Kenny glanced at Fin and followed his eyes. ‘Oldest rock in the world,’ he said. ‘Those slabs of it have been lying around these hills since the last ice age.’ He pointed up into the shadow of the mountain on their left. ‘You see those watercourses running through the rock? Originally cracks in the face of it, they were. And when the water in them froze the ice expanded till the rock exploded, and threw these massive big fucking lumps of it all over the valley. Must have been quite a show. But I’m glad I wasn’t around for it.’
Ahead of them a small loch reflected the cut-glass blue of the sky overhead, its surface ridged by the wind, and Kenny drew in beside a green-painted corrugated-iron shed that he called a lunch hut. A place where fishermen and their ghillies could shelter from the weather to eat their sandwiches. The vehicle track ended here. A footpath led down to the water while another wound its way up over the hill, climbing steeply through clusters of rock and fording clear-watered streams that would normally be in spate at this time of year. After weeks of drought most had been reduced to a mere trickle.
Kenny was fit for such a big man, and Fin fought to keep up with him as he strode quickly along the rising path. The track snaked between the cleft of the hills, hugging the south side of a sheer rock face to their right, before Kenny stepped off it and over the bed of an almost dry creek. Then he struck off through long grass and heather, heading for a hilltop to their left. Long strides that took him upwards to the peak a good few minutes ahead of Fin.
It wasn’t until he reached him that Fin realized how high they had climbed, first in the Range Rover, and then on foot. He felt the wind fill his jacket and then his mouth, stealing his breath as the ground fell away beneath them to reveal a startling panorama of sun-washed land and water. Browns, pale blues, greens and purples faded into a shimmering distance at their feet.
‘Loch Suaineabhal,’ Kenny said. He turned, grinning, towards Fin. ‘You feel like a god up here.’ Something caught his eye high out over the loch. ‘Or an eagle.’ Fin followed his gaze. ‘We have twenty-two nesting pairs of them between here and the North Harris estate. Highest density of golden eagles anywhere in Europe.’
They watched the bird riding the thermals, almost on a level with them, a wingspan of more than seven feet, feathers spread at their tips, and fanned out at the tail, like fingers, manipulating every movement of the air. Suddenly it dropped, like. . .
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