By Stephen Thom
Ceramic tiles. Glazed concrete blocks. Hoses. Drains. Gleaming stainless steel tables.
'Da laek a dat,' the nurse whispered.
Gilbert Bain Hospital, Lerwick. The mortuary was all sharp angles, angry edges, as if the room itself was an act of violence. Bain watched the nurse mooch away, shaking her head. Gillis stepped aside to allow her to pass. He binned his paper coffee cup and glanced at Bain.
The body lay flat on a table. The skin was blotchy. There was a sharp focus under the surgical lights. The holes. The meat. The red smile on the neck.
'You are the officer in charge of the case?'
Bain clicked back to the present. Dr. Burns was a wiry, lined man. He was pulling on fresh gloves. His hair tufted shock-like above his raised goggles.
'Aye. Detective Inspector Bain. You know Detective Constable Gillis, I believe.'
'I know you too. Everyone's one degree of separation here. I don't want to repeat the question, but... this remains yours? I heard there were... specialists... '
Bain removed a tissue from his pocket and blew his nose. Burns raised his eyebrows and inclined his head to one side. Gillis coughed to break the silence. Burns shrugged.
'Right. Right. Just trying to be on the level. Everything's moving fast.'
He ushered them over to the table. Their shoes clipped on the tiles. Burns adjusted one of the lights above and leaned in. His mouth was a tight line. His gloved fingers traced down the neck and settled on the chest. Bain couldn't tear his eyes away. The wounds had a suction of their own. The cleavage lines. The gape.
'This was a... a savage attack. Haemorrhaging as a result of the cut throat and penetrative wounds to the chest. Fractured skull, injury to the brain.'
Burns sniffed and rose. He angled the light above, aiming a yellow puddle over the neck. It was an odd spotlight, a tiny stage in a dark theatre. Their shadows bound and blurred on the tiles. Burn's eyes flicked up at them.
'Knives with single cutting edges such as kitchen knives, fishing knives... these will cause wounds that have a clearly pointed edge...'
His gloved fingers trailed papery, ridged epidermis.
'... with the opposite edge being squared off, or split. A fish tail, if you will. Intermittently jagged along the throat, we can see. This suggests multiple cuts. Cutting a throat... is not as easy as you might perhaps think. All the same, an wound eleven centimetres wide and seven centimetres deep. The pharynx completely severed above the larynx.'
Bain's fingers worried the cigarette packet in his pocket. He swallowed a bubble of saliva. Gillis blinked several times rapidly. He looked pale. Burns held his hands, palms down, over a flurry of puncture wounds on the stomach.
'It can be seen that when the knife enters the skin at a shallow angle, the saw edge comes into contact with the skin, giving rise to excoriated slashes. A ‘V’ shape can be made where the knife is partially removed and moved... '
He inhaled. His hands dropped to his sides.
'... within the wound. This relative movement occurs often in knife attacks which are... dynamic, shall we say.'
Gillis grunted. He turned abruptly, rushed to the sink, and spewed. He spat chunks and scrabbled for the paper towel dispenser, his head still bowed.
Burns peeled his gloves off and rubbed the ridge of his nose. Bain looked up, breathed deeply, and walked away. He trailed round the empty steel tables.
'So, a fishing knife. A kitchen knife. A blunt instrument... a rock, a piece of metal piping.'
Burns nodded slowly. He stood, head bowed, in the small wash of yellow light.
The moon sent a muzzy white trail over the skin of the waves. The beach was still crowded. Portable lighting had been brought in so they could continue their work into the night. Generators thrummed. Officers in hi vis jackets struggled with tripod legs. Canteens of coffee were ferried down the gully from a van parked amongst the stony soil at the peak.
Bain and Gillis wandered down the shoreline. Bain slugged from a hip flask. Little yellow orbs flowered as the remote area lighting was fixed up. The wind was a soft rustle undercut with a low frequency, an isochronic tone, a despondent drone. Gillis scratched his head.
'I'm sorry,' he muttered. 'I just... I'm... '
Bain took another draught. The whisky lit his throat.
'You're fine. It's not something you can prepare for. I had the boke too. Fucking bogin.'
They splashed through the tide. Radios crackled within the yellow tape. Gillis spat.
'The girl's okay, then?'
'Oh aye, she's out on the lash tonight. Pulling shapes on the dancefloor.'
Gillis bit his lip. Bain threw him the hip flask. Gillis fumbled it and bend to retrieve it from the sand. He stared at the little container in his palm. A seagull squawked above them.
'You're twenty-two,' Bain growled. 'That's what you should be doing on a Friday night. Fuck man, you've not had the most straightforward of days.'
He nodded back to the lights, the radios, the tape.
'I'm sure they've more pressing matters.'
Gillis wrinkled his nose. He unscrewed the cap, took a long draught, and passed the flask back. Bain nodded and lit a fag.
'She's in intensive care, but she's stable. Lucid. Obviously fairly distraught. She took some blows and a few slices but they seemed to save the big blow-out for the lad. It's a weird one... it was already... I don't know. It's weird to leave a witness.'
'She's maintaining the water thing?'
Bain stopped and turned to face the sea.
'Aye. Aye - no boats. She's saying she doesn't recall a boat. They came out of the water, fully clothed, soaked. They walked out of the water. I'm not - I wouldn't take this as gospel. The lad... the lad had a blood alcohol level of .015; spirits, beer just prior to death. Weed. Roach butts, tins... '
Surf wet his shoes and he stepped back. They passed the hip flask between themselves and made towards the lights. Ronas Hill loomed far above them, fringed by the red cliffs and offlying stacks. They walked in silence. Bain tallied up distances. He ran areas, times. Distance by foot. Boat. No boat. Swimming.
To the north lay an ice-carved wilderness of low hills. Dozens of freshwater lochs. The north-east threw up the jagged rocks of the Ramna Stacks, with background silhouettes of the Gloup Holm in North Yell and the Muckle Flugga rocks north of Unst.
The south-east was scattered islands, the bays of Yell Sound, Sullom Voe. Foula's outline reared out of the ocean to the south-west, and just across St. Magnus Bay were Papa Stour and the Ve Skerries reef. Too many areas. Too many possibilities.
'Isolated,' he croaked.
'Everywhere's isolated,' Gillis said.
Bain squatted by the drag marks. He watched hunched officers at work under the lights.
'Not in that way. The cliffs. The descent to the beach. It's the right spot. You could escape up the hill. Down the beach, up the beach. Over the water. There's too many...'
He trailed off.
'She said they were wearing... she said they were wearing deer masks.'
Gillis eyed a yellow-jacketed figure handing out coffee. His breath came in white coils.
'Fuck this place. There's not enough to do round here.'
Bain lifted himself up, dusting his trousers.
'Maybe this suggests a need for activities.'
Bain smoked at the top of a short paved driveway. His eyes were scored with red lines. Gillis sniffled and checked his watch beside him. Rain greased their foreheads.
They watched mourners filing out of the Lerwick Baptist Church. People separated from quiet groups and whispered conversations. They ducked into cars to make their way to the wake.
Bain strode amongst the black-clothed figures. He picked out two middle-aged folk emerging from the church. Callum Mowat wrestled briefly with a large umbrella and raised it above his wife. Bain watched them negotiate a smattering of brief interactions. Heads bowed, nodding. Callum patted shoulders and clasped hands between his large palms. People retreated in the rain.
Bain glanced back at Gillis, shivering on the pavement, and pressed forward. Linda Mowat turned towards him. Her greying hair was scraped back in a tight bun. Her chin was tilted upwards with a vague air of pride, defiance, but her eyes were raw and moist and within them there was bottomless despair. Bain ran his fingers through his own soaking mop.
'My condolences,' he said. 'I want you to know... I want you to know we're doing everything we possibly can.'
Linda dabbed at her nose with a tissue. She mouthed something silently and looked away from him. Callum Mowat shifted his large body, ushered Linda further under the umbrella, and fixed his gaze on Bain.
'There's no processing this,' he breathed. 'It's too big of a thing. It's not the world.'
Bain nodded. He chewed his lip and continued nodding, oblivious to what he was doing. Callum's thin face was jerky. The umbrella wobbled, and his free hand bunched and opened repeatedly.
'If it is... if it is, there's something inherently wrong... it's -
'Callum,' Linda snapped. Her face crumpled. 'Please.'
Bain checked his nervous nods. Callum cleared his throat and looked away. His eyes welled up.
'He was just a laddie,' he whispered.
Rain drilled the tarmac. Linda grasped his flexing fingers. It seemed to jerk him back to the present. When he looked back he was unable to meet Bain's eyes. He addressed his tie.
'My understanding... my understanding is: no leads. No evidence. No suspects. Nothing.'
Droplets hung from Bain's eyebrows. Mourners slipped around him like spectral wraiths.
'We're doing everything we possibly can,' he repeated, and he felt inside that moment deeply unsure, cut loose, a separate thing. Fulfilling a role in some abstract scene. The real world had passed by; it had moved on and left him nodding vacantly, churning out interminable stock phrases at the most vital moment. There is no way to be. There is nothing to say. There is something inherently wrong.
They stood with their heads bowed, an awkward triangle. Bain raised his head to speak and Callum's features twisted. He was shaking.
'People. People are vile,' he spat. 'We will eat ourselves. We will eat ourselves.'
Linda clutched at his face, and his head fell into her shoulder. His chest heaved and shook.
Bain rapped his knuckles on the oak table. They made a sharp, resonant sound. Suited figures brushed into the conference room and picked spots amongst rows of blue seats. Notepads rustled. Pens and dictaphones clicked.
Lystina House behind Lerwick Town Hall. Bain's eyeballs scratched when he blinked. Cream carpet. Cream walls. Framed paintings. A waiting room. A bland limbo. Too early. Too real, too present.
Give me the file. Cigarettes. The wee hours. The beach.
Shetland police area commander Angus Tait coughed to his left. He clasped his glass of water like a protective charm. Bain caught his eye and tapped the shotgun mic. His mind spat a series of blocks as he checked his statement and allowed the stragglers to be seated.
An easy-going kid. Last year of high school. Well-liked. Decent grades. Liked a smoke, a beer. Not a pisshead. Studied hard. One eye on the future.
No known enemies. No reason. No motive.
No prints on the clothing. Shite surface anyway. A finely weaved Fair Isle jumper, a better chance of success. Nothing.
Sarah. Sarah Sandison, the sole witness. Her story shifting by degrees. Deer masks. Dog masks. Skinny people. Tall people. Strong people. It wasn't surprising. Stress. Trauma. Shock. Guilt; survivor guilt. Fierce levels of feeling. Memory gets muddled.
Sand. Red dust. Granite granules dug up, sifted, tonnes and tonnes. Nothing.
Tangents. Possible tangents. Weird potential. Weird paths. Masks: Iconography. Mythology. Keep it on the down-low. Trim the details. The shite rags would run with it.
Tait held his gaze on the door at the end of the room. Bain heard his own voice as if it was someone else's.
'... we remain determined to catch those responsible.'
'... have carried out extensive enquiries as our investigation continues... '
His voice cracked. Tait's eyes wavered. Bain lifted his glass and drank. There was a glaze of sweat on his upper lip.
Every seat was taken. People lined the walls. Pens hovered. Chairs creaked. Legs crossed and uncrossed. He flattened the sheet of paper. Phrases bound:
Anything witnessed in the Lang Ayre beach, or the wider Northmavine area, in the preceding hours or days. Anything out of the ordinary.
Anyone seen acting suspiciously.
He caught the sweaty imprint on the table as he lifted his palm. He tried to focus.
'... any piece of information, however small, could prove vital in establishing the chain of events that led to Paul losing his life in such a brutal manner.'
A camera flashed. He flinched. He saw the yellow orbs of the remote area lighting. The lapping tide. The body stark against the red cliffs. The helicopter taking off. Dipping. Lifting.
'... we need the public’s help to bring Paul’s killers to justice. Paul had his whole life ahead of him. I would urge anyone who can assist with any information to contact us straight away.'
A woman in the front row raised her hand. Tait cleared his throat, shot Bain a glare, and leaned forward.