NATURAL CAUSES

By James Oswald


He shouldn’t have stopped. It wasn’t his case. He wasn’t even on duty. But there was something about the blue flashing lights, the SOC van and uniforms unrolling yellow tape that Detective Inspector McLean could never resist. By the bustle of activity, it was a major incident, and this was his neighbourhood now. It couldn’t hurt to just ask what was going on.

The house was secluded, surrounded by mature gardens and set in a street of other large detached houses. You rarely saw an estate agent’s board in Rickards Lane. Old money lived here, and old money tended to stay where it had settled. As his feet crunched up the gravel drive, McLean saw a line of uniforms doing a finger-tip search of the lawn. Ahead of him a gleaming Bentley looked perfectly in place by the front door. Alongside it, a scratched and dented Ford Mondeo lowered the tone. He knew the car, knew its owner. DCI Charles Duguid, known as Dagwood behind his back, was not McLean’s favourite superior. He was debating whether or not to leave before he was noticed, when a voice rang out.

‘What the blazes are you doing here, McLean?’

‘I was just passing, sir.’ McLean approached the corner of the house where the Chief Inspector had just appeared. Duguid wore white paper overalls and had the air of a man who has just nipped out for a fag. ‘I wondered what was going on.’

‘Well there’s no ghosts here, if that’s what you’re looking for,’ Duguid said. ‘And what’re you doing lurking round this part of town anyway?’

‘My gran died a couple of months back. Her house is at the end of the street.’

‘So you’re part of the mafia, eh?’ Duguid’s manner seemed to soften. ‘Well, since you’re here you might as well have a look. The Chief Super seems to think you’ve got a good eye. Let’s see if she’s right.’

The SOC team had set up shop in the cavernous hall. Before he could go anywhere, McLean was handed the full works, overalls, paper boots and hat, by a pale PC.

‘We’ve done most of the sensitive stuff already. But you might want to wear this to keep your clothes clean.’

‘Who’s the victim?’ McLean struggled into the overalls.

‘Barnaby Smythe,’ Duguid said. ‘You know him?’

‘I know of him.’ McLean crossed the hall towards the one open doorway. ‘Retired banker, wasn’t he? Gave a large chunk of money to rebuild the National Museum if I remember... oh.’

It was a small library, walls lined with dull red leather books on dark mahogany shelves. Two tall, thin windows let the evening light in, and between them an antique desk held nothing but a small laptop. A matching pair of deep leather armchairs sat in front of a large open fireplace, the occupied one turned to face the door. All this McLean noticed later.

Someone had flensed the skin from Barnaby Smythe’s stomach and chest, peeling it back to reveal the bloody mess of muscle, bone and organs beneath. Glistening entrails draped over his chair and spilled to the floor like dropped offal. His throat was cut from ear to ear, head tipped back to stare at the ceiling. It took a while for McLean to realise that the body was naked from the waist up; jacket, shirt and tie draped neatly over the chair behind the desk.

The blood-soaked carpet squelched under his feet as McLean stepped forward for a better look. Only then did he notice something protruding from the dead man’s face.

‘ Is that..?’

‘His heart, yes,’ Duguid said. ‘The killer cut it out and shoved it in his mouth.’

***


‘ Did Her Majesty no’ say why we’ve been given this call?’

McLean smiled at DS ‘Grumpy’ Bob’s latest attempt to find a nickname for their new Chief Superintendent. She’d been in the job four months now, and still no-one had come up with one that stuck.

‘Something about chasing ghosts,’ he said. ‘Apparently I’m the best man for the job. Not sure that’s a compliment or an insult.’

They stood in front of what had once been an elegant house; built back in the days when Edinburgh was more a collection of villages than a sprawling metropolis. The suburban home of some wealthy merchant, it had fallen prey to the vagaries of the planning department, surrounded over time by sink estates and soulless social housing. The extensive gardens had been nibbled away, acre by acre, by crude little brick box-dwellings; the proletarian masses overcoming the aristocratic old giant.

‘Whose great idea was it to build something like this in Sighthill, anyway?’ Grumpy Bob asked.

‘I think it was probably here before the towers, Bob,’ McLean said. He’d noticed the sign at the tumbledown gates to the property: A prestigious new development from McLennan Homes, and now he could see the business of demolition all around him. The windows were boarded up, scaffolding clad one wall, and skips overflowed with the building’s intestines. The site was quiet; all work stopped since the discovery. They found the action down in the basement.

‘Ah, Anthony, I was wondering when you might turn up. This is right up your street.’

His eyes adjusting to the harsh glare of the scene of crime team arc lights, McLean could only make out a silhouette of the man who addressed him. But he knew the voice well enough. Angus Cadwallader, the pathologist, wore regulation white paper overalls.

‘What’ve we got, Angus?’ McLean stepped into the area flooded with light. It was a large cellar, the ceiling vaulted with brick. At the far end a demolition team had begun taking down what appeared to be a solid wall.

‘It seems to be some kind of ritual sacrifice,’ Cadwallader said. ‘The SOC boys have been doing the usual stuff, but I can’t see the point of it myself. She’s been dead at least sixty years.’

‘How certain can you be of that?’

‘Take a look for yourself.’

McLean stepped through a rough hole hewn in the wall. More spotlights lit up a hidden room beyond, and white-suited SOC technicians were busy putting away their equipment, trying to a man not to look at the sight that had brought them there.

She was small, had probably been barely adolescent. McLean wasn’t sure why he thought that, but there was something about the whole scene that shouted of a young life cut short. She lay spread-eagled on the floor, her hands and feet nailed to the wooden boards. Her skin had dried rather than decaying, tightening over her skeleton like some Egyptian mummy. And like a mummy, someone had gone to great lengths to remove all her internal organs. A gaping hole showed pale white ribs and spine. It may have been the effects of drying, but her face seemed locked in an agonised scream, as if she had been still alive at the start.

‘Who found her?’ McLean crouched down. There was no answer, and when he looked around he saw the reason why. All the SOC technicians had left, and no-one else had joined him in the room.

‘She’s dead, Bob,’ he shouted to the shadowy figure in the entrance hole. ‘She’s not going to bite you.’

Bob made to step into the room, and it was then that McLean noticed the markings on the floor.

‘Wait,’ he said before the Sergeant could cross the threshold.

‘Make up your mind, sir.’

‘Just hold on a minute.’ McLean fished his torch out of his pocket. The spotlights lit up the body, but they cast confusing shadows over the rest of the room. Where the wall had been knocked in, the floor was strewn with broken bricks, the floorboards scuffed and scratched. But further into the room it was just about possible to make out the circle when you knew what you were looking for. It seemed to have been daubed on the floor, a darker stain to the already deep brown boards. He made his way right around it, noting seven sigils drawn at points equidistant around the circumference.

‘You can come in now, Bob,’ he said, straightening up and feeling the surface of the wall close to one of the sigils. ‘Mind where you put your feet, and bring that demolition hammer.’

‘What’s up?’ Bob hefted the heavy weight in his hand as he made his way around the edge of the room before handing it over. He kept his eyes off the shrivelled, shriven figure of the woman, McLean noticed.

‘I’ve a hunch.’ McLean tapped the hammer lightly against the wall. It sounded solid against the plastered brick, the metal ringing with each tap. Then it thunked a hollow sound. He tapped again, harder this time, and something snapped. Plaster fell away to reveal a small alcove, darkly shadowed. Inside a young man’s face stared out of a photograph in a silver frame, and behind it a glass jar glinted in the torchlight. For the second time in as many days, Inspector McLean looked at a human heart.

‘Call the SOC boys back in, Bob,’ he said. ‘I think they’ll find six more just like this one.’

***


They stared up at him from their protective evidence bags. Seven photographs of seven young men. All in black and white, all dressed in clothes that would have been fashionable in the late forties. No-one recognised any of them, but one of the pictures had ‘Bertie ‘45’ inscribed on the back in faded black ink. It was the closest they had to a clue. Each one had been in its own alcove, sealed up with a jar. All but three of these had been cracked, their contents reduced to a dry dust. Heart, liver and spleen had all survived; it was likely that the other jars had also contained the woman’s organs, but the results of the analysis were still to come in.

‘Any more on who owned that house in the forties?’ McLean asked as Grumpy Bob walked into the office.

‘It was part of the Farquhar estate.’

‘Menzies Farquhar? Of Farquhar’s bank?’

‘The same. He lived there until the mid sixties, then moved out to that great pile in the Borders. Never sold the place though. And the bank wouldn’t let it go it even when he died.’

‘So how’d McLennan get hold of it?’

‘Farquhars got themselves bought out last year by some middle-eastern bank. Seems the Arabs aren’t interested in Sighthill.’

‘What about the workmen who opened the place up?’ McLean asked. ‘We got statements off them yet?’

‘Working on it,’ Bob said. ‘Been a wee bitty problem there.’

‘How so?’

‘Mr McLennan’s not above using casual labour. You know the kind of thing, illegal immigrants, cash in hand, no questions asked.’

‘What about the foreman?’

Bob was about to answer, but they were interrupted by the loud arrival of Detective Constable Stuart MacBride.

‘You hear the news?’ He was breathless as if he had run all the way. ‘Seems Dagwood’s got the Smythe killer.’

‘That was quick,’ McLean said. ‘How’d he manage that?’

‘Bloke turned up in a pub downtown last night. Walked into the gents and cut his own throat open. Same knife he used to cut up Smythe, and he was covered in his blood too.’

‘He’s dead, I take it,’ McLean said.

‘Very.’

***


It was too big for him on his own, McLean knew. But he couldn’t bring himself to sell the place. He’d grown up here, his father before him. His grandfather had bought it sometime in the thirties and very little had changed about it since. Even though he had lived in Newington for more than ten years now, the house in Rickards Lane felt like home.

But there was almost seventy-five years of accumulated junk here: endless wardrobes of clothes that would certainly never be of any use to him; furniture and paintings that were probably worth a lot more than they looked. He could have hired someone to come in, sort through everything and get rid of it for him, but somehow that felt disrespectful. No-one else had the right.

He stood in the middle of the drawing room; that grand old space as big as a city centre apartment. It was filled with antique furniture, covered in white dust sheets as it had been since his gran had gone into hospital over a year ago now. He spent fifteen minutes pulling them off, savouring the smell that rose up from each released antique; memories of hot summers and hide-and-seek with the children from next door.

The escritoire was the place where his gran had written all her correspondence. Dark mahogany, it was lined with deep drawers filled with letters, notebooks, sketches and other collected mementoes. Trying to shrug off the feeling that he was doing something very naughty, McLean sat himself in the old leather secretary’s chair and began to go through everything.

It was all personal, the things that made up the woman who had raised him since he was nine, since his own parents had died. McLean felt himself alternately smiling and on the verge of tears as each new piece jogged a different memory.

Then he found the photographs.

They were all tidied away in the bottom drawer; old-fashioned black leather-bound folding frames protecting the long dead friends and relatives who lived on within. There was his grandfather, a stern-faced man he had never met. And there were his parents on their wedding day, smiling as they embarked on a life together, blissfully unaware that it would be over in less than ten years. Another photograph showed his mother in her graduation robes, sometime in the early sixties, and earlier still, the strikingly beautiful young woman who had aged into his grandmother.

At the bottom of the drawer, buried under everything else as if it hadn’t been looked at in decades, there was one more photograph. It was autographed: To Esther, from the Edinburgh University Boat Club Coxed Four – Henley 1938, with five curly signatures in different coloured inks. Four young men, dressed for the river, held up their oars like medieval knights. A fifth lay on the ground in front of them, his arms crossed over the front of his striped blazer. His was the face that McLean recognised first.

Rushing to the kitchen, he grabbed the copies of the photos from the house in Sighthill. Five of his seven suspects were here. He squinted at the signatures, trying to make out the names from the grandiose squiggles that must have been all the rage in the late thirties. The only one he could be sure of was under the prone, short figure, smiling up at him with a cheeky, cocky grin.

Barnaby Smythe.

***


The station was in turmoil when McLean buzzed himself in later that night, the photograph and case file under his arm.

‘What’s happening, Reg?’ He asked of the desk sergeant.

‘There’s been another murder. Same MO as Smythe.’

‘Same MO? I thought they’d got the man.’

‘They had, and there’s no doubting he did it.’

‘Copycat?’ McLean asked.

‘I don’t know how. We’ve no’ exactly been giving out details.’

‘Ah, McLean, you’re here. About time. Don’t you ever switch your phone on?’

McLean reached into his pocket as he looked around to see DCI Duguid walking across the lobby. He was sure he’d charged his phone that morning, but it was as dead as Barnaby Smythe.

‘Battery’s gone, sir.’

‘Well don’t wave it around. Follow me.’

Outside, a squad car was waiting to take them across town. McLean squeezed into the back with Duguid.

‘Is this about the murder?’ he asked.

‘Reg been filling you in?’ Duguid said. ‘Yes. We’ve got another elderly pillar of Edinburgh society eviscerated. Almost exactly the same MO as Smythe.’

‘Who is it?’ McLean asked.

‘Jonas Carlisle. Pity he’s a QC, not a banker. Otherwise I might’ve been able to get some kind of financial angle on the whole thing. There’s a lot of foreign money coming into the city these days. Arabs, Indians, Chinese. They don’t play business by the same rules as us.’

‘Jonas, dead?’ McLean said, ignoring Duguid’s casual racism.

‘You knew him?’

‘He is... was the family solicitor. I’ve seen quite a lot of him over the last couple of months, what with sorting out the will and everything.’

‘Since when did a retired QC deal with that sort of thing?’

‘He was a friend of my gran. From way back.’

‘Well, try not to let it upset that fine deductive brain of yours.’ Duguid said. ‘Wouldn’t want your feelings getting in the way.’

‘I thought I wasn’t supposed to be on the case,’ McLean said.

‘You’re not, but you did see the Smythe crime scene, so you can tell me if you think this one’s a copy-cat or a collaborator. You’re not busy with anything else are you.’

McLean knew from experience that it wasn’t a question. Duguid said nothing else for the rest of the journey to the New Town. They stopped outside a terraced house in Heriot Row, parking in the middle of the closed off road.

The SOC team were still at work, handing out paper overalls and scowls to anyone who dared enter. McLean followed the trail of technicians into what had been Jonas Carlisle’s dining room.

Like Smythe, Carlisle had been in his eighties. But he hadn’t been frail. The last time McLean had spoken to him he had been impressed by the man’s vigour. So it was all the more surprising to see him sitting almost calmly in a high-backed leather dining chair. His jacket, shirt and tie had all been removed and neatly folded over another chair; his throat cut and his chest peeled open.

‘Has he been tied down?’ McLean asked one of the technicians.

‘No, he’s just sitting there. No sign of a struggle. It’s almost as if he let it happen.’

‘Drugged?’

‘Too early to tell,’ the technician said. ‘But there was nothing in Smythe’s blood. My guess is this’ll be the same.

McLean leant forward, trying not to breathe in the smell of dead QC. Carlisle’s head was tipped back, staring at the ceiling just like Smythe’s. But where the banker had been choked on his own heart, Carlisle’s mouth was smeared with something dark and slippery. Chunks of it had been hacked off and lay on the floor all around the chair.

‘It’s his liver,’ the technician said. ‘In pretty good nick too, for someone of his age.’

***


‘ So you reckon they could be revenge killings?’ Grumpy Bob leant back in his chair, nudging the empty donut box on his desk with his foot.

‘I don’t know,’ McLean said. ‘It’s a bit far-fetched. I mean, the woman died sixty years ago. Who’s taking her revenge for her? And why now? Anyway, you know Duguid. If I even mention it he’ll go off the deep end. Doesn’t like things complicating his investigations, does he. No, It’s not our case. Best leave it alone. We’ve got six young men still to identify. You get anywhere with those signatures?’

‘Not really, no. This one looks like it could be “Tobble Jumbly”, this one looks like “Buck Stop” or something. Far as I can tell the other two are called “Jamson” and “Butt Fumble”. Great names they had back then.’

‘One of the photos from the crime scene had “Bertie” written on it, and the house belonged to old man Farquhar. Could “Butt Fumble” be Bertie Farquhar?’

‘I though old Farquhar’s name was Menzies,’ Bob said.

‘He had a son, though, Albert John. Died in a road crash in 1960.’ Constable MacBride appeared at the door, hands cupped around three paper cartons of coffee, grease-stained brown paper bag shoved under his arm.

‘How d’you know that?’ Bob asked, leaping to his feet with uncharacteristic enthusiasm, eyes on the goodies.

‘I did a project at school. All about Edinburgh’s private banks and the families behind them.’

‘And you can remember it still?’ Bob said from behind a mouthful of donut.

‘Some of us haven’t been on the force all that long.’ MacBride smirked.

‘This project,’ McLean asked. ‘Did it have photos in it?’

‘A few, yes. I spent hours in the library going through old newspapers.’

‘Recognise any of these then?’ McLean asked, spreading out the seven photographs and the group shot from his gran’s collection. MacBride scanned them quickly, flicking over the one with the inscription on the back.

‘That could be Bertie Farquhar,’ he said. ‘Which would make, let me see, that one John Adamson. He died in the same car accident. There was quite a press splash about it. Killed a Perthshire farmer at the same time.’

‘What about the others?’ McLean asked.

‘I’m not sure, I’d have to check. But there was a group of them right after the war, all took over small family banks and turned them into the giants we know today. Farquhar and Adamson, Tobias Johnson and Buchan Stuart.’

‘D’you know where they are now? The other two?’ Bob dropped sugar from his donut onto the photographs.

‘They’re both dead,’ MacBride said. ‘Johnson fell off the north face of the Eiger in the early seventies, and Buchan Stuart...’

‘Died in the same plane crash that killed my parents,’ McLean said, remembering where he had heard the name before. ‘January 3rd 1979.’

‘I thought I told you to look at these pictures yesterday,’ Bob said to MacBride. ‘Couldn’t you have told us all this then?’

‘I had to get home,’ MacBride said. ‘Thought I’d get started this morning.’

‘Mum still get anxious if you’re not in by ten?’

‘Leave him, Bob,’ McLean said. ‘He’s done a lot better than “Butt Fumble”. Got the forensic on those jars yet?’

Bob stomped back to his desk, shuffled some papers around and came back with a single sheet. McLean spread the photos out on his desk, pulling out a red marker pen.

‘Right, so we’ve got Smythe in an alcove with the woman’s heart,’ he said, reading off the information. ‘Analysis says that Johnson had some lung with him, as did Farquhar. Adamson had her kidneys and Stuart had her stomach. All four are dead and all four jars were broken.

‘This person,’ he picked up one of the remaining two photographs, ‘had her spleen. And this one her liver. Stuart?’

‘Sir?’ MacBride answered.

‘Have you got that internet connection working yet?’

‘Fixed it yesterday, sir. I don’t know what you do to technology, but it’s not pretty.’

‘Never mind,’ McLean said. ‘Get on there and dig up anything you can find about Jonas Carlisle.’

‘Are you looking for anything in particular?’ MacBride asked.

‘A photo of him aged twenty would be nice.’

***


Someone had laid a flower on his Gran’s grave. A single red rose that looked fresh as the day. For a moment, McLean almost knelt down to pick it up, fishing for his handkerchief so he could inspect it like he would a piece of evidence from a crime scene. But he managed to stop himself, instead staring at the flower with a mixture of jealousy and shame. He’d brought nothing with him; why kill a flower to commemorate someone already dead? And who else knew his gran well enough to leave this memento? Who would dare?

‘She was a fine woman, Esther Morrison,’ a voice said behind him. Turning, McLean saw an elderly gentleman, his heavy black wool coat buttoned up tight against the morning’s chill. He held a dark, wide-brimmed hat in one gnarled hand and leant heavily on a walking stick. His head was topped with a profusion of thick, white hair, but it was his face that caught McLean’s attention. Once proud, strong features had been marred by some terrible accident, and now it was a mess of scar tissue and ill-matched skin-graft. It was a face you wouldn’t have thought it possible to forget, but though it was hauntingly familiar, for the life of him, McLean couldn’t put a name to it.

‘Did you know her, Mr...?’ He asked.

‘Wemyss,’ the man pulled off a leather glove and offered his hand. ‘Gavin Wemyss. Yes, I knew Esther. A long time ago. I even asked her to marry me, but Bill beat me to that prize.’

‘In all my life I don’t think I’ve ever heard anyone refer to my grandfather as “Bill”,’ McLean took the proffered hand. ‘Anthony McLean.’ He added.

‘The policeman, yes, I’ve heard of you,’ Wemyss said.

‘You weren’t at the funeral.’

‘No, no. I’ve been living abroad for years now. America mostly.’

‘So how’d you know my gran?’

‘We met at University in, oh, it must have been ‘33. I was studying archaeology and anthropology. Esther was the brilliant young medical student everyone wanted to be with. It quite broke my heart when she chose Bill over me, but that’s ancient history.’

McLean’s phone buzzed in his pocket, a sensation so unusual he almost jumped.

‘Excuse me.’ He fished it out and fiddled with the buttons. There was a text message from the station. Duguid wanted to see him.

‘I’m sorry Mr Wemyss. I have to go.’

‘Crime waits for no man, eh?’ Wemyss chuckled. He reached into the pocket of his coat and drew out a slim silver case. Inside it were some business cards and he handed one to McLean. ‘This is my home in Edinburgh,’ he said. ‘I’m here sorting out some unfinished business, should be around for a week or two. Look me up and we can have a chat about your... grandmother, eh? Who’d have thought it.’

‘I’d like that, sir,’ McLean said, shaking the man’s hand again. He left him staring at the grave.

***


‘What are the chances of two total strangers carrying out identical murders, then each committing suicide twenty-four hours later?’

‘Two?’ McLean asked. ‘You’ve found Carlisle’s killer?’

DCI Duguid settled himself down in the one comfortable chair in McLean’s office and let out a long, sighing breath. ‘This morning. Chap called Harry Peters. Investment analyst for Scott Monroe Stockbrokers. The back door to their offices is in North St Andrew Lane. Seems he walked up there at about half seven and cut his throat open with a Stanley knife. Forensics are pretty sure it’s the murder weapon, and he had Carlisle’s blood all over his clothes.’

‘There were witnesses, I take it.’

‘Plenty. Commuters walking to their work mostly, but one of the secretaries saw it all. She’d just opened the back door for a motorcycle courier.’

‘Which firm?’ McLean asked.

‘Eh?’

‘Which firm did the courier work for?’

‘I don’t know,’ Duguid said. ‘He wasn’t around when the first officer arrived on the scene. Didn’t think we needed to interview him, really. Not with all the other people there. It’s pretty cut and dried.’

‘Yeah, I suppose so.’ McLean wondered why Duguid kept bringing the case back to him. ‘Did you get an ID on the first killer?’

‘Tomas Schzz something or other,’ Duguid said. ‘The fingerprint match took a while. He wasn’t on the criminal database at all, but he was on immigration. Seems he should be in Dungavel waiting to be deported back to Fuzzistan or wherever it was he came from.’

‘What was the name of the pub he killed himself in?’

‘The Feasting Fox, I think,’ Duguid said. ‘Why?’

‘Just around the corner.’

‘Are you suggesting they met? Maybe there was a connection? It seems a bit unlikely, doesn’t it?’

‘Probably,’ McLean said. ‘But it wouldn’t hurt to see if your man Peters drank in that pub. And why do you suppose Tomas went there? It’s not exactly close to Smythe’s house, and it’s not your typical illegal immigrant hangout either.’

***


McLean pushed open the doors of the Feasting Fox and breathed in the smell of lunchtime drinkers. There was a chip-fat fug in the air, almost but not quite overpowering the smoke from a half dozen cigarettes. Only half the tables were occupied, and the barman looked bored as he polished glasses, his eyes focussed on something far away.

‘Pint of Deuchars,’ McLean said, noticing the hand pump.

‘Deuchars’s off.’ The barman twisted the clip-on label around the handle so it faced away from the punters.

‘Never mind then.’ McLean reached into his pocket and drew out two photographs. He put the first one down on the bar, Harry Peters. ‘This man ever come in here?’

‘Who’s asking?’

McLean sighed, reaching for his warrant card. ‘I am. And it’s a murder investigation, so being helpful would be your best course of action right now.’

The barman peered at the photo for all of two seconds, then said: ‘Yeah, he drinks here most evenings. Works round the block somewhere.’

‘Did you ever see him talking to this man?’ McLean put down the photograph of Tomas Sienciewicz. The barman’s eyes widened.

‘That’s the man... You know.’

‘Yes, I do know,’ McLean said. ‘But did you ever see him talking to Harry Peters here?’

‘I don’t think so. Can’t say as I ever saw him before the night he came in here.’

‘And exactly what did you see then?’

‘Well, like I told the other officers. I was here at the bar. It wasn’t a busy evening. Weekday’s aren’t, not after the office crowd’s gone home. But then this guy comes in, right. He’s filthy, acting a bit strange, but he heads straight for the gents before I can get to him. I went to follow him; we don’t want his type in here. But he was bleeding all over the floor. Christ it was a mess.’

‘Was there anyone else in the toilets when he killed himself?’

‘I dunno. I don’t think so.’ The barman scratched at his stubble. ‘No, hang on. I tell a lie. There was someone came out of there just before I went in. Could’ve been this man, now you show me his picture.’ He pointed at Harry Peters.

***


‘ Here you go sir, photographs of Barnaby Smythe, Jonas Carlisle, Tobias Johnson, Albert Farquhar, John Adamson and Buchan Stuart, all taken in the late 1940s.’ DC MacBride slapped photocopied prints down on the desk one by one, lining them up with the photographs found at the crime scene. ‘And there’s something else that links them all together too,’ he added. ‘They were in the same regiment during the war, served together in Africa.’

‘The Desert Rats?’

‘No, this was Western Africa, sir,’ MacBride said. ‘Some sort of special forces unit on the Ivory Coast.’

‘So that just leaves Mr Spleen, then,’ Grumpy Bob said, flicking the remaining photograph on the edge of the desk. McLean watched it rippling backwards and forwards, the image distorting, warping in the overhead lights as if the man in the picture were burning in some terrible conflagration.

‘Hold on a minute, Bob,’ he said. ‘Give me that.’

He took the photograph and laid it down alongside the others, looking more closely at the features of all the men.

‘This one’s older than all the rest,’ he said. ‘I’d say thirty to their twenty, wouldn’t you?’

‘You’re right, sir,’ MacBride said. ‘You can see it around his eyes.’

His eyes. McLean looked at that calm, intelligent stare and realised he had seen it recently. He fumbled in his pockets, looking for the card he had been given in the graveyard, finding it finally at the bottom of his overcoat, hanging on the back of the door.

‘Damn, I must be losing my touch.’ He slapped the card down on top of the last photograph. ‘Gavin Wemyss. I met him yesterday.’

‘As in Wemyss Industries?’ Bob asked. ‘Isn’t he dead? He’d be about ninety by now, surely.’

‘And yet here he is, in town on unfinished business apparently.’ McLean checked the address on the card. It wasn’t far from Rickards Lane. ‘Stuart, get us a car. It looks like we might have a suspect to interview.’

***


‘ Here’s close enough. Park behind that van.’

‘Can we no’ just drive right in? He’s not going to run away now, is he.’

McLean looked at Grumpy Bob, sighing, but DC MacBride was driving, and he pulled the car in to the kerb without a word. They were in a quiet street, the pavement shaded by the mature trees growing in the gardens of the large houses. A tall stone wall surrounded the address on Wemyss’ card, topped with broken glass set in mortar, but the heavy wrought iron gates were wide open. A black Mercedes sat in front of the house, and as they approached, McLean saw a small motorcycle hidden behind it. A prickling sensation ran up his spine as he saw the pannier-mounted box with ‘Zippy Couriers’ written on it. The front door was wide open, revealing an ample porch. Through it, a glass partition door let cold air into the hall.

‘This doesn’t look good.’ McLean stepped into the house, wanting to hurry, but all his years of training urging him to be careful. The hall was dominated by a dark oak staircase that filled the back of the house. Ornate panelled doors led off to either side, all closed except one.

‘Shouldn’t we..?’ MacBride started to say. McLean stopped him with a raised hand, stepping quietly across the hall towards the open door. He could hear noises from the room beyond. Wet, unpleasant noises. Taking a deep breath, he pushed the door wide and stepped in.

The private study was filled with surprisingly modern office furniture. A small desk near the door would have been where a secretary would work, but it was unmanned. Beyond it there was an open space with a couple of functional couches, a low table between them, and beyond that a large desk. Behind it sat Gavin Wemyss.

He was naked from the waist up, his recently removed clothes neatly folded and placed over a low filing cabinet to one side. Blood glistened, still dripping slowly from the wound in his neck, sliding down his arms and onto the floor. His chest had been opened up, skin and muscle peeled back, entrails scooped out, but his mouth was empty. For an instant McLean thought that Wemyss might be still alive. His eyes stared out of that ravaged face, staring straight at him. Then they blinked once, shifting to a point to the right as his head tipped backwards, the cut opening up like a bloody grin. Only then did McLean notice the bike helmet lying on the floor.

Instinct kicked in. McLean ducked, twisting around as a man lunged at him. The courier was plastered in blood, his motorcycle leathers slick and slippery. He held a hunting knife in one hand, but seemed to be moving in slow motion. McLean dodged the blade easily, moving in to disarm the man. But instead of trying to fight, he stepped back, reaching up with the knife to his own neck.

‘Oh no you don’t!’ McLean leapt forward, knocking the knife out of the man’s hand, and together they crashed to the floor. By the time MacBride and Grumpy Bob reached the door, it was all over.

‘Anyone got some cuffs?’ McLean asked.

***


The hospital had a sad familiarity for him. McLean had visited his gran here too many times to count. The nurses all smiled and said hello as he made his way along the corridors; he knew most of them by name. Walking beside him, DC MacBride blushed at the attention.

‘What are we doing here, sir?’

‘I’m here to interview our murder suspect before this mysterious illness kills him. You’re here because Grumpy Bob’s developed a talent for hiding when he knows I’m about to do something the Chief Super won’t approve of.’ McLean approached the room he had been seeking. A bored looking uniform sat on an uncomfortable plastic chair outside, reading an Ian Rankin novel. ‘’

‘Inspector! No one told me...’ The constable stood to attention, trying to hide the book behind his back.

‘Don’t panic, Andy. I’m not really here. Why don’t you go off and get yourself a cuppa, eh? Stuart’ll keep an eye on things.’

‘What do you want me to do?’ MacBride asked as the relieved policeman scurried off to the canteen.

‘You stand guard here.’ McLean opened the door and stepped in. ‘And don’t let anyone in.’

It was a small and soulless room, a single narrow window opening onto a view of rain-swept concrete and glass. Two plastic chairs were drawn up against the wall, and a narrow cabinet had been pressed into service as a bed-side table.

David Brown lay at the centre of a bewildering array of humming machinery. Tubes pumped noxious looking fluids to and from his body. He looked nothing at all like the fit young motorcycle courier McLean had wrestled with just weeks earlier. Propped up in a mound of pillows, his face was sunken and pale, his eyes dark hollows. Most of his hair had fallen out, and the skin on his scalp was mottled with liver spots. His arms lay on top of the blankets like sticks. From the way his hospital pyjamas hung from his shoulders, it looked like he had lost about half of his former weight.

‘You came. I knew you would.’ Brown’s voice was weak, barely audible above the hum of the life-support machinery.

McLean picked up one of the chairs, wedging it under the door handle. He took the emergency call cord and looped it out of reach. Then he leant down to study the machines for a moment, finally finding the right switches and turning them off one by one. Medical science kept the body alive, but David Brown had really perished the moment he had witnessed Harry Peters take a knife to his own throat. Whatever it was that had taken hold of his soul then had been slowly devouring his flesh ever since.

‘Tell me about the girl.’ McLean settled himself into the other chair.

‘What girl?’

‘You know who I’m talking about. The girl they killed in their sick ceremony.’

‘Oh. Her.’ Brown sounded oddly distant, as if he were a ventriloquist’s dummy. ‘Maggie Donaldson, she was called. Pretty little thing. Can’t have been much more than sixteen. Pure, of course. That’s what attracted me to her. But they soiled her, all of them. One after the other. The old one, he knew what he was doing. He trapped me inside her and then they split her up. Took a part of me each.’

‘Why did they do it?’

‘Why do your kind ever do anything? They wanted to live forever.’

‘And you? What happens to you?’

‘I go on. In you.’

McLean looked at the pathetic figure dying in front of him. He was filled with an urge to strangle the man. It would be so easy to wrap his hands around his throat and squeeze the life out of him. Or better still, to snap his neck with a quick flick, like they did in the movies. He had a pen in his pocket, that would be enough of a weapon. You just needed the right entry point, the right leverage. There were so many ways to kill a man. So many...

‘Oh no you don’t.’ He shook the alien thoughts from his head, remembering the way the victims had all submitted to their deaths.

‘You have to kill me. That’s why you came. I called you. I chose you. You’re stronger than the others. We can do so much.’

This time the persuasion was like a wall of darkness, pushing against him. McLean saw glimpses of gruesome scenes: Smythe’s face contorted in pain as the knife bit into his grey-haired chest; Jonas Carlisle’s heart still beating beneath his exposed ribs; Gavin Wemyss sitting calmly, only his eyes showing his true state of mind as his throat was slowly cut. And with each image came a surge of power, a feeling of unrestrained excitement and joy. He could have this, be this.

He could live forever.

‘I don’t think so.’ McLean pushed himself out of his chair and crossed to the bed. He reached up to the saline drip, twisting the tap around until the flow was cut off. ‘I understand now. You need the violence to pass from one host to the next. Without it you’re stuck. You can die.’

Brown tried to sit up, but lacked the strength to move. Wasted muscles twitched in his neck, his face contorted with a savage anger. ‘What are you doing? I command you to kill this body.’

‘You’re doing a good enough job of that yourself.’ McLean shrugged off another wave of compulsion, weaker this time, more desperate. He sat himself down again, staring at the withered form in the bed. ‘I’m guessing you never meant to stay in poor David Brown this long. He was never strong enough to carry you, was he?’

‘Kill me.’ The voice was little more than a faltering breath now. ‘Set me free.’

‘Not this time,’ McLean said, settling himself into the chair. Brown’s last few breaths rattled out of him like escaping insects.

‘ This time you die of natural causes.’


ABOUT THE AUTHOR

James Oswald was born, he grew up and went to school. He now lives. It is not enough. He craves recognition. James started writing a long time ago, because no one would give him a proper job. It didn't make any difference but he enjoys the hours. Natural Causes is the latest in a series of short stories to feature the paranormal Detective Inspector McLean. Earlier incarnations can be found at www.devildog.co.uk


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