Extract: Written in Bones by James Oswald
A body is found in a tree in the Meadows, Edinburgh’s beautiful public park. The forensics suggest that the corpse has fallen from a height – but was it an accident or a shocking message? The dead man had led quite a life – a disgraced ex-cop turned criminal kingpin and, most recently, the head of a celebrated charity.
As McLean investigates, his search takes him from the city’s underworld – crossing paths with some of the most dangerous and the most vulnerable people in society – before taking him to the heart of a shadowy conspiracy stretching back years…
Written in Bones
He is weightless, lost. He floats on the air like the lightest of feathers. Wind tugs at him, ruffles his hair like an affectionate aunt. Dimly he is aware of motion, of falling, but that is something from another time, another life.
Warm air caresses his skin like a lover’s embrace. Like a womb surrounding him, keeping him safe from the pain and suffering outside. Only the slow tumbling upsets his calm, his fugue. He should be worried, he knows. Something happened, but for the life of him he can’t remember what. The life of him. His life.
The wind is fiercer now, tugging tears from the corners of his eyes. He had not realized they were open, but now he begins to see things. Shapes of darkness, pinpricks of light, rolling and flashing and whizzing past him like fireflies, like angry wasps.
He wakes more quickly now, understands that he has been drugged. Sluggish thoughts try to make sense of his surroundings, but it is too dark, the wind too strong. He remembers the leather tourniquet and bulging vein, the prick of the needle in his skin, the flush of ecstasy as the heroin surged through him. But that was a lifetime ago. He found help, cleaned up, quit. How could he have fallen back into those old ways?
He is falling.
The realization wakes him like a bucket of ice-cold water. Forgotten arms snap out from his body in a futile reflex. There is nothing to catch but air. And now he knows the pinprick lights are not fireflies but streetlamps, lit windows, the headlights of endless cars. The city.
Instinctively, he tenses, raises his arms to his face to protect it, even as he understands there is no protection from what is to come. Another lazy tumble brings him closer still to the ground, and now the lights are a thousand thousand fragile glass bulbs outlining the trees directly beneath him. Festooned through winter branches, they reach up to embrace him with fingers of brittle, stabbing wood.
He hits with an explosion of noise. A violence that drives the air from his lungs and the sight from his eyes. He is pierced, rent, ripped apart. The shock should have killed him, but the drugs dull the pain, make everything feel once removed. The final lurch brings him to a halt, forces his eyes open, even as he feels something hard slide deep into his guts. He is still high off the ground, staring down at a path scattered with broken branches and shattered lights. Wires fizz and pop close by as his mouth fills with warm liquid, an iron tang to it like electricity. The warmth leaches out of him quickly as he struggles to breathe, chokes and coughs out chunky dark blood. It falls to the ground in lazy slow motion, his vision tunnelling down to the point of impact. And as the darkness welcomes him, a flash of panic arcs across his dying mind.
He cannot remember his name.
‘Jesus wept. It’s brass monkeys out here.’
Detective Inspector Tony McLean stamped his feet and breathed steam into cupped hands, desperately trying to get some heat back into the tips of his fingers. February could be brutal in the city, and lately someone seemed to have rewritten the weather rules. Deep snow clung to the Pentland Hills, chilling the air as it fell down into the city and pooled in the Meadows. He’d remembered to grab his overcoat on the way out of the house, but in the rush to get here he’d forgotten his hat and gloves. He was regretting that now.
Standing beside him, Detective Sergeant Grumpy Bob Laird had managed to dress better for the weather, wrapped in a fluorescent green jacket that looked like it would double as a sleeping bag for an Arctic expedition. His balding head was enveloped in a garish woolly hat that he had to be wearing for a bet. Even so, the end of his nose glowed red from the cold.
‘Least it’s not raining.’
McLean followed Grumpy Bob’s gaze up to the sky, palest blue in the early morning. The call had come through before dawn, waking him on what was his first day back after three months of suspension, psych evaluation and meandering interviews with Professional Standards. He’d hoped for a gentle reintroduction and a light workload, but that was wishful thinking. Instead, a control operative who sounded as tired as McLean felt had told him there was a dead body on the Meadows and he was the only senior detective available. McLean had considered telling him to check his rosters again, but he knew it wasn’t Control’s fault. Every team was understaffed and overworked, even Specialist Crime Division, and at least the scene was reasonably close to home. He’d been surprised to find Grumpy Bob already there when he arrived, but then the old sergeant lived even closer.
‘What have we got then, Bob? Apart from chilblains, that is.’ The two of them stood on the frosty grass of the Meadows, far enough away from the bustle of the forensics team to avoid being scowled at. The centre of attention seemed to be one of the ancient trees that lined the path from the site of the old Royal Infirmary. Jawbone Walk, if memory served. The whale jawbone arch that had given the path its name had been removed some years earlier for restoration, and McLean couldn’t remember whether it had ever been put back again. He thought about going to have a look, but then remembered why he was here.
‘Nasty one, sir. And odd. Best if you have a look for yourself.’ Grumpy Bob nodded his head in the direction of the trees that lined the main road. A cherry picker was being reversed on to the grass, directed by a white-suited technician. The high-pitched electronic shriek of its warning buzzer sang counterpoint to the dull, omnipresent roar of the city, and only then did McLean notice the lack of traffic noise nearby.
‘They closed the road?’ He looked off towards the Lochrin end, then turned to Newington and Sciennes. ‘That’s going to be popular.’
‘Didn’t have much choice. Not going to get him down otherwise.’ Grumpy Bob pointed up into the bare canopy of the tallest tree, and McLean saw what he meant. A wych elm like many of the older trees on the Meadows, it stretched upward thirty metres or more, branches piercing the morning sky like broken, arthritic fingers. Only these fingers had caught something bloodied and grisly.
His first thought was of childhood holidays in the Highlands, clumping, bored, behind his grandmother as she hiked over rough moorland, fishing rod in hand, to some remote loch or river. The land was given over to heather and sheep as far as the eye could see, only the occasional square of dark green conifers to break up the scenery. Burns ran through the gullies, chattering peat water over rocks and churning it into bubbles that looked like the glasses of Coca-Cola he was only very seldom allowed. Every so often they would come across the carcass of some unfortunate animal, drowned and swept away in a spate, left tangled in roots high above the stream, as if the trees had reached out and snatched it from the rushing water.
It wasn’t the roots that had dragged this man into their deathly embrace, but the twisted, bare branches. He sprawled high up in the leafless canopy, twisted into a grotesque parody of a body so that it was hard to make out what was arm and what was leg. There was no mistaking his head, though, even at this distance. It hung down from a semi-naked torso skewered by the sharp point of a broken branch, features battered so as to be unidentifiable. Blood dribbled from what must have been his mouth and nose, slicking the trunk and spattering the ground.
‘Good God. How on earth did it get up there?’
McLean looked around, recognizing the voice. Angus Cadwallader, the city pathologist, looked like a man who had been roused from too little sleep. Grey skin bagged around his eyes and his smile was tired.
‘Morning, Angus. Been burning the midnight oil, have you?’
Cadwallader grimaced. ‘Don’t start. I’m getting too old for these early starts. And I really don’t like heights.’
‘You want to go up and see him? Can’t just let the experts bring him down for you?’
‘And miss a vital clue that cracks the case for you?’ The pathologist slapped his friend gently on the shoulder. ‘Don’t worry. You can go up and have a look after if you want.’ He turned away before McLean could respond. The cherry picker was in place now, a forensic technician already on board the lifting platform. A short pause as the pathologist scrambled in to join him, and then they were being lofted up into the tree.
McLean scanned the crime scene, pleased to see that, as well as closing the road, a wide cordon had been strung around the whole area. Uniformed officers were keeping the early morning gawkers away, although, to be fair, the frozen weather was helping. Not many people out and about, which at least made their job easier for now. Grumpy Bob had disappeared, no doubt in search of a cuppa. Heading to the road edge, McLean found a cluster of squad cars, forensics vans and a fire engine all parked in a line. Uniformed constables huddled around one large van bearing the Police Scotland logo. Chatting amongst themselves like schoolchildren in the playground, they didn’t notice his approach until he was upon them.
‘Who’s in charge here?’
The nearest constable startled, slopping hot tea from a mug she had been warming her hands around. ‘What the fu‒?’ She turned swiftly, angry face rapidly changing to fear as she realized who had spoken. ‘Oh. Sorry, sir. Didn’t know Specialist Crime were here already.’
‘Aye, well, some of us wish we weren’t. Any more of that tea going?’ McLean nodded at the mug, trying to remember the constable’s name.
‘Here. Have this one.’ She held out the mug. ‘I’ll get another and fetch Sergeant Stephen over.’
McLean took the mug more in surprise than greed, although he had to admit the warmth was welcome. Less so the four or five teaspoons of sugar that made the tea all but undrinkable. He slurped some down anyway as he waited for the constable to return. The others eyed him nervously, as if he were some kind of irascible headmaster, ready to hand out detentions on a whim. Was it his imagination, or were all police officers looking younger these days?
‘Anyone know who reported the body?’
‘Heard it was a dog walker, sir. Something about a kid, too. The sergeant knows all the details.’ One of the young constables nodded at a point behind him, and McLean turned to see the female PC return, a sergeant at her side. He had met Sergeant Kenneth Stephen before, most notably in the case of a spate of hangings in the city a couple of years back. He was a good officer, as could be seen by the efficient way the crime scene was being managed.
‘Morning, Kenny. See you’re working the early shift again.’
‘Aye, sucker for punishment, that’s me.’ The sergeant smiled, then frowned as he noticed the group of constables with their mugs. ‘Tea break’s over, you lot. I need you all working the cordon. Keep the public back till we’ve got the body down.’
McLean took another swig of over-sweet tea to hide his amusement as the constables muttered and grumbled away. The female PC whose tea he was drinking made to join them, but Sergeant Stephen stopped her.
‘Not you, Harrison. You can help the inspector here. Make a good impression and you might even get that transfer to Plain Clothes you’ve been after. Can’t see why you’d want it, mind.’
McLean looked at the young woman. Her name didn’t ring any bells, but then it had been a while since he’d had much direct contact with uniforms. That’s what happened when you were out of the loop for three months, he guessed. There had been a lot of new faces at the station each time he’d been back for briefings, interviews and those dreaded counselling sessions. Some notable missing faces, too, as more than a handful of promising young detectives took the offer of severance pay intended for the older staff and quit to find less stressful jobs. Most of the new constables eyed him nervously or scuttled away whenever they saw him. Quite what scurrilous rumours the junior officers spread while he was away he had no idea, but he was used to being the station pariah. PC Harrison didn’t seem to be as scared of him as most, holding his gaze, her expression one that would win her many a game of poker. He broke first, turning back to speak to the sergeant.
‘What’s the story then, Kenny? Who’s our man up in the tree, and who found him?’
‘As to who, I’ve no idea. We’ve not been able to get a good look at him yet and he’s pretty badly smashed up by the branches. Young lad found him. Out walking his dog before school. Apparently, he heard something crash into the trees, thought he was being attacked.’ Sergeant Stephen pointed at the spot directly beneath the man, where a nest of broken branches scattered around the frosty tarmac.
‘And he called us, this boy?’
‘Christ, no. Poor wee thing ran home, terrified. His mum called us. After she’d come out here and had a look for herself.’
‘Where are they now?’
‘Back home. They live in one of the tenements up Marchmont Crescent.’ Sergeant Stephen pointed across the road to the rows of buildings that lined the south side of the park. ‘Family Liaison’s with them at the moment. We’ll get a proper statement as soon as we’ve got this place sorted.’
McLean looked up at the tree. The cherry picker had lifted Cadwallader and one of the fire crew up into the bare canopy and was now edging towards the point where the man’s body shifted in the breeze. Someone had been thoughtful enough to roll out an inflatable safety bag directly beneath them, and the whole operation looked like it really didn’t need him getting in the way right now.
‘Constable Harrison, is it?’ he asked of the young PC. She stiffened slightly at her name.
‘Have you done any Family Liaison work?’ Even as he asked it, McLean realized how crass the question was. Just because she was a woman didn’t necessarily mean she’d have FLO training.
‘Not much, sir. Just what I’ve picked up on the beat. Domestics, that sort of stuff.’
‘Probably more experience than I’ve had in the last few years.’ McLean turned back to Sergeant Stephen. ‘Mind if I borrow your constable for a while, Kenny?’
‘Be my guest. She’s more trouble than she’s worth, anyway.’ The sergeant smiled at his own joke. ‘You going to see that kid, then?’
‘Aye. Might as well get it done. This lot’ll be here for hours yet.’ McLean pointed up at the tree, where the cherry picker was now lodged firmly into the canopy, Cadwallader leaning out across the void as he inspected the body in situ. ‘Unless he comes down by himself, that is.’