Authors: Doug Johnstone
Tags: #Mystery; Thriller & Suspense, #Mystery, #Thrillers & Suspense, #Crime, #Crime Fiction
Immeasurable thanks to Trish, Allan Guthrie, Angus Cargill, Katherine Armstrong, Alex Holroyd, Sam Brown, John McColgan, Lisa Baker and everyone else at Faber.
The writer gratefully acknowledges support from Creative Scotland towards the writing of this book.
They shouldn’t have been going this way. Billy wasn’t even sure where they were. He definitely shouldn’t have been driving. He’d lost count of the number of beetroot schnapps he’d downed. That was the problem with free drink. And the pills Charlie gave them. What were they again? Charlie liked to throw medical names around to seem clever – Zetran, Pervitin, Oramorph. They sounded like aliens from an obscure sci-fi movie.
Whatever the pills were, they were kicking in now. He felt a rush, his eyeballs throbbing, pulse hard in his throat. The tips of his fingers on the steering wheel tingled like after a snowball fight. The left side of his face was numb. He glanced at Zoe in the passenger seat. Beautiful, cool Zoe. Black fringe, pale skin, hippie-chic dress. She reached over and squeezed his thigh and it felt like her fingers were moulding the clay of his leg, squeezing down to the bone beneath.
He tried to concentrate on driving. Where the hell were they? Which way was home? It wasn’t easy to focus with Charlie yammering away in the back.
‘Beetroot schnapps, honest to fuck.’ Charlie slapped the back of Billy’s seat.
‘I know,’ Zoe said, shaking her head. ‘Awful.’
Billy belched and tasted rancid earthiness in his mouth. He pictured the blood-red shot glasses clustered on trays, sexy Aryan models handing them out. Some expensive re-branding of an Austrian peasant drink in an ultra-cool warehouse in Leith. It was nuts the freebies Zoe got through her work.
They never usually went out in Leith, they were Southside these days. They’d staggered out of the glass and concrete box fifteen minutes ago and looked at the wasteland around them. They were lost. The guy on the door warned them police were doing random drink-drive stops on Leith Walk and the Bridges, and they should go a different way.
How had Billy ended up behind the wheel? He looked round the car. Zoe’s head was wobbling and her eyelids flickered. Charlie was blethering loudly to himself, smacking the roof of the Micra to emphasise his point. His thick arms were tense and his eyes wild.
Billy saw a roundabout ahead and crunched the gears.
‘Hey, watch Mum’s car, Bro.’ Charlie ruffled Billy’s hair. Billy hated it when he did that. They still called it Mum’s car, even though she’d been dead five years.
He took the roundabout too fast, swerving in an arc then heading straight on, jostling them all in their seats. They drove past a pond. He realised where they were. A ruined chapel loomed over them on the left, the well-manicured lawn of Holyrood Park on the other side. They’d be home in a few minutes. Up Queen’s Drive, hang a couple of rights past the Commie Pool and they’d be in Rankeillor Street in no time.
The dashboard clock said 2.37 a.m. The streets were empty. Edinburgh in July, the majority of students had fucked off and the festival pricks were yet to arrive.
Charlie’s fist thudded on his shoulder as they approached another roundabout.
‘Hey, Bro, when are you gonna start getting sweet freebies like your lady here?’
Charlie had already mentioned this several times tonight in the warehouse bar. Either he didn’t remember or he didn’t give a shit and was just on the wind-up.
Billy felt like sighing but laughed instead. Must be the chemicals slewing through his blood cells and synapses.
‘Crime reporting isn’t the heady heights of lifestyle journalism.’ Billy couldn’t help himself, his voice made sarcastic quote marks around the last two words.
‘Hey.’ Zoe swayed round to punch him on the arm. ‘I didn’t see you refusing any beetroot schnapps earlier.’
‘Yeah, or my fucking pills,’ Charlie said.
Another freebie, somehow liberated from the ERI where Charlie worked.
Billy shook his head. ‘The only freebie I’m likely to get is an invite to a crime scene.’
‘That would be cool,’ Charlie shouted, bouncing in the back seat. He put on a thick accent. ‘There’s been a murder.’
Since Billy started a month ago, it had been constant jibes about
. The truth of trainee crime reporting so far was astonishingly mundane, but Billy liked the methodical clarity of the work, trying to create order from the mess of real life.
They were climbing a slope now, Salisbury Crags towering on the left, trees lining the road on the other side. It felt like the countryside. Houses and shops and pubs were two minutes away, but it seemed like the middle of nowhere.
‘Hey, check out the stars,’ Charlie said, leaning forward.
‘Hey, check out the stars,’ Zoe repeated in a stoner voice.
Charlie laughed. ‘Fuck you, droopy drawers.’
‘Fuck you right back.’ Zoe threw him a flirty look.
Billy felt a rush of chemical love for his girlfriend and brother, the drugs thrusting his feelings into the stratosphere. They were a regular Three Musketeers, one for all, and all for one.
Zoe craned her neck to look through the windscreen. ‘Actually, that is kind of beautiful.’
Billy laughed. ‘Jesus, what was in those pills?’
‘Better if you don’t know,’ Charlie said. He liked to be secretive about the drugs he pilfered from A&E cabinets, but Billy trusted him. Charlie was his big brother after all, the one person supposed to look after him. Charlie wouldn’t let him come to any harm.
Anyway, the pills they took were pretty predictable. Uppers to get the night going, opiates, benzodiazepines or barbiturates to come down. Judging by the buzz, they were on something speedy, maybe MDMA as well. Methamphetamine and mephedrone?
Charlie was looking out his passenger window now, trees blurring past, his face pointing up. ‘Seriously, that sky is fucking amazing. You gotta check it out, Bro.’
Zoe laughed and looked at Billy and he smiled back at her. The road bent round in a slow curve as they climbed the hill. Billy leaned forward so his chin was almost touching the steering wheel and gazed upwards.
The moon hung there, surrounded by a whirl of stars, needles of light puncturing the deep violet sky. The Crags to their left were like a rocket launch pad jutting into the expanse of glimmering life.
Billy turned his head to look the other way. There was an almighty jolt in the car and a monstrous crashing noise, something solid and heavy smashing into metal and glass, followed by a ripple of sound across their roof and the weighty thunk of whatever it was landing on the road behind them.
Billy lunged for the brake. His left temple cracked against the windscreen and his chest pressed into the steering wheel. The car glided for a moment, its nose pointing towards an embankment and a small copse of trees, then it righted itself in a screech of brakes and the crunch of tyres on tarmac. The car lurched to a stop and Billy was thudded into his seat as the engine stalled.
The smell of burning brake pads and rubber. The tick and creak of the engine.
Billy felt a bursting pain above his left eye, and a deeper, pulsing ache through his neck and shoulders. His fingers and toes were fizzing. He rubbed his temple and felt a thick lump under the skin. He cricked his neck and a blade of pain shot through his upper body.
He looked round. Zoe had both hands pressed against the dashboard, her eyes closed.
‘You OK?’ he said.
He tried to clear his head. He removed Zoe’s hands from the dashboard and felt her body relax a little. She turned to him, her eyes slits.
‘You sure you’re all right?’
She nodded again.
Billy turned to the back of the car, his neck aching. Charlie was sprawled across the seats. No seat belt on. Lucky he hadn’t been sitting forward. He was righting himself in a flustered mess of limbs.
‘I’m fucking fine,’ he said, irritated. He rubbed his arm. ‘What the fuck happened?’
‘We hit something.’ Billy looked through the back windscreen at the curve of road behind them.
‘No shit.’ Charlie followed Billy’s gaze. ‘What was it?’
‘I don’t know.’
Billy opened his door and eased out, his body stiff, his legs shaky. He walked to the rear of the car. He heard the click and clunk of car doors as Charlie and Zoe followed.
In the red glow of the Micra’s tail lights, he could see something on the road a few yards away. He walked unsteadily towards it.
‘Christ.’ He rubbed the lump on his temple. His hands shook and he felt his breath shorten. He inched forward until he was standing over the body. It was face down, torso twisted sideways, legs splayed out. It was a man, middle-aged, in a suit and tie. Short hair.
‘Mate?’ Billy’s voice was quivering and high. ‘Are you all right?’
Charlie was next to him now. ‘Is he alive?’
Billy looked at his brother. ‘You’re the doctor.’
Charlie knelt down and took the man’s wrist. Billy could hear the faint sound of traffic in the distance, over the embankment. He could see right down to Holyrood Park, just wildlife and darkness. The stars still sparkled overhead.
‘I’m not getting anything,’ Charlie said.
He turned the body over. The face was a bloody mess, a sticky pool of dark red left on the road.
‘Fucking hell,’ Billy said.
Charlie put two fingers to the man’s neck and waited a few moments.
Billy was aware of Zoe next to him, her body rigid.
Charlie sighed. ‘He’s dead.’
‘Shit,’ Zoe said, and took Billy’s hand.
Billy pulled away. His chest tightened. He struggled to breathe. The lump on his head pounded pain through his body. He pulled his mobile out.
Charlie stood up. ‘Wait a minute, what are you doing?’
Billy pressed 999. ‘What do you think I’m doing?’
‘Let’s think about this.’
‘What is there to think about?’
Billy pressed ‘call’. Charlie strode towards him and grappled the phone from his hand. Billy didn’t resist too hard. Charlie was shorter but stronger, more determined. You couldn’t win a fight with Charlie.
Charlie pressed ‘end call’ and waved the phone at Billy. ‘You want to ruin our lives? Is that what you want?’
‘But . . .’
‘He’s dead, there’s nothing we can do.’
‘But we have to report it.’ Billy’s voice was straining.
‘We’re all drunk. And loaded on stolen medical supplies. You were driving. It’ll kill our careers, wreck our lives. Is that what Mum would’ve wanted?’
Billy felt tears spring to his eyes. He couldn’t think straight.
‘Charlie’s right,’ Zoe said.
Billy had forgotten she was there. He turned. He couldn’t work out the look in her eyes. She had a hand out, reaching for him, pleading. He wanted to grab her and hold her until this all went away.
‘There’s no point making things any worse,’ she said. ‘It was an accident. He came out of nowhere. None of us saw him.’
Billy looked round, his heart hammering against his ribcage. ‘So we just drive off? Is that what you’re saying?’
A faint noise made them turn. Down the hill in the distance, two headlights were reaching out along Queen’s Drive. The growl of a diesel engine. A taxi. Still a long way away. There was a chance it might turn right at the roundabout, head past the
offices instead of up the hill.
‘Shit,’ Charlie said.
He turned to the other two. ‘Zoe, kill the lights. Billy, come here.’
They both stood still, staring at the headlights in the distance.
‘Do it,’ he shouted, making them jump. Zoe ran to the car as Charlie pulled his brother staggering towards the body.
‘Get his legs.’
Billy held the man’s ankles. Expensive leather shoes, scuffed now. He felt Charlie lift the man’s arms.
Charlie pointed at the small clump of trees to the side of the road. ‘That way.’
Billy shuffled backwards with the ankles in his grip, almost dropping them. The man’s arse scraped on the tarmac between them.
They were plunged into near darkness as Zoe reached the car and switched the lights off. She removed the key and slammed the door, then headed over to them.
Charlie and Billy looked the other way. The taxi went straight on at the roundabout, heading up the hill towards them. Still some distance, headlights pointing away, thanks to the bend in the road.
They struggled to the pavement with the body, the headlights creeping round the opposite embankment towards them. Zoe took an ankle from Billy as they lugged the body. They reached the edge of the slope and heaved the corpse down into the trees and thick foliage.
The taxi was almost on them now, chugging up the hill. Charlie and Zoe grabbed Billy and shoved him down the embankment, diving after him.
Billy landed in thick nettles, stinging his hands, his face only a few inches from the dead man. Charlie landed next to him with a thump, Zoe rolling on top of Charlie in the mayhem.
They heard the taxi engine ease off as the driver spotted the parked car and slowed. Then the revs picked up as he sped past the Micra and disappeared up the hill.
The fading engine rumble left a vacuum behind. All Billy could hear was his own heavy breathing and a thin rustling of leaves. Zoe extricated herself from Charlie then the two of them got up. Billy didn’t look at the dead body, only a few inches away to his right. Instead he gazed up at the sky packed full of stars.
Zoe and Charlie offered him their hands, and he let himself be lifted. Every movement meant more nettle stings, but Billy somehow enjoyed the sharp jabs of pain.
They scrambled up the bank, Zoe and Charlie ahead of him. Billy looked along the road. Darkness in both directions.
‘Come on,’ Charlie said. He pushed Billy into the back seat of the Micra then took the keys from Zoe. ‘I’ll drive.’
He got in the driving seat, Zoe in the front passenger seat. Billy alone in the back. Charlie started the engine and switched the lights on, then pulled out sharply, forcing Billy into his seat. As they drove away, he stared out the window at the starry sky, his mind numb.