By Stephen Thom
The headlights picked out individual snowflakes, quivering cotton drops spliced from the gauzy storm and suspended in their yellow orbs.
'You have to pull over,' he muttered, fidgeting. 'I don't know where the fuck - '
'Etteridge, or something,' she snapped, 'that's what you said last.'
Windscreen wipers scudded flowering white maps aside with irate, rubbery yelps.
'I have to piss anyway. I have to piss and we need to work out -'
'Fine! Your fucking steel bladder.'
The car nudged into an arc of earth beside the road and he cracked the door open. Snowflakes flurried in curious striations around him. His boots sunk into pillowy clumps, and he reached for the support of the fence framing the road as he unzipped.
Beyond the cold wire, the view fell away into a sprawl of fields. Black trees, branches splayed in skeletal dance, were spray-haired white. A splash of inconsistent colour clarified through the haze. Shaking out the last drops, he felt his stomach tighten.
A topless man was sitting at the base of a great trunk. Further within the shifting snow-shroud, a second, naked man knelt as if in prostration. White powder settled on their still figures.
The fields behind them rose steeply to tree-clad hills, but they were murky and indistinct in the storm, as if the pure lining - the white soul of the world - was being torn up and hurled back in anger, and two ancient pilgrims had sunk down to watch the last good remnants of man frisk, wither, and settle, dust-like, in the encroaching dark.
A creep of light unpicked the night with sandy, seeping threads. Bain knelt by the body propped against the tree. The frame had slumped to one side. Snow crystals laced the hair and eyebrows.
'Newtonmore?' He said. The skin was a mottled blueish grey. The lips were two fat blue worms.
Gillis stood further off, jittery and stamping in the crisp morning chill. The second body kneeled in statuesque reverence at his feet.
'Aye,' Gillis lit a cigarette and crunched towards him. 'A fair bit further away. A fair bit down the A9.'
Bain watched him drawing in quick, desperate puffs and turned back. Glacial pebble eyes stared, eyelashes peppered with silver streaks; drips had frozen into miniscule stalactites. The right side of the face, from temple to cheek, was a web of broken red cicatrixes and bulbous pustule-like lumps. The earlobe was slicked into the skin behind it like putty, and tufts of icy hair sprung around raw, pocked nests of flesh.
'Bad burns to one side of the face over there, too,' Gillis muttered, cigarette crackling. 'Bad burns.'
Across the white field, a wail of sirens broke the heavy silence. More vehicles were pulling up at the fence.
'We have to let them do their work now,' Bain nodded. As he strode past Gillis he caught a sharp waft of alcohol. 'How long have you worked in this area, Constable?'
'Nine... coming on ten years,' the shivering man choked.
The second body was a totemic gauntlet guarding vague paths spoking away from his figure. Bain trudged several footfalls into one, deep holes puncturing the fluff.
'This a new one?'
'Aye,' Gillis puffed. A host of uniformed figures swarmed over the fence behind him. The hills beyond their grotesque gathering glistened, inverted clouds pockmarked by angular trees.
'Where did they come from?' Bain asked.
He left the forensics team; white overalls merging with the landscape, blue gloves cutting from the sheen like great bluebottles droning around the bodies.
'Exposure. Severely malnourished. The burns are a bit older... they'll take them back for more work.'
'What about the kids?' Gillis' eyes were a nexus of red lines.
Bain sparked a cigarette, his own pupils flaring orange above the flame.
'The couple that found them.'
Hacking into the nippy air, Bain dragged his jacket sleeve under his nose.
'Took them up to Inverness. But they were just passing through. They've had a bad wee shock. Your thoughts, Gillis. This is your area. Where did these men come from?'
The local constable shuffled, scratching at his cheek. He glanced towards the hills.
'There's a house out that way - listen, I don't know how to say this, and I don't want to - '
'Spit it out.'
'It's not... not that I -'
'For fuck's sake.'
'There's a boy lives there - with his missus... this lad, there was an accident a good few years back, camping stove exploded, he burned - burned up the side of his face pretty bad. I don't know that... I mean this, fuckin', this doesn'... '
They watched plastic bags, fluttering in protest, being secured over the heads of the bodies. Striped tape was draped gaudily between trees.
'Take me to the house.'
Bain flapped an arm towards the bag-heads.
'You want to wait for more?'
'This is procedure?'
'Spiral search. Big fucking spiral.'
Bain was already stalking towards the hills.
The trees seemed to group together as they progressed, acting on intelligence from their lonely scouts further down the hill. Interlocking boughs cut light into patterned shafts which expired on the padded white of the ground. Everything was black or white, drained to a monochrome replicant of the world they had known.
'I can't get my head around... see here, fuck all happens here.'
'Maybe this suggests a need for activities.'
Gillis was silent. Bain glanced at him. His hands were shaking. Not the cold. A soft tremolo, a rattle. He coughed again; his breath appeared in a nebulous string, as if he were so riddled with ghosts that they spilled out.
The trunks thinned, and a dilapidated angle of stone wall jutted between sparser branches. They padded into the clearing. Puffy rolls of snow fringed the roof of the house. The windows were boarded haphazardly, and a frosty padlock hung from the bolt of the front door. Pacing round the back, Bain found a rear door flapping open. Punctured glass spidered out from the pane set within it, and red smears decorated the exterior knob.
'Jesus. Jesus.' Gillis edged in after Bain. They moved as crooked marionettes within the lambent glow offered by the slips of light escaping the window boards.
The word was devoured by stone walls. Bain paused in the darkness of the hall.
'You've been here before,' he murmured. He could feel Gillis's hand vibrating against the wall as he grasped it for support.
'Aye... aye, I used to come out, I used to, but he's no been right since his accident, awfy... awfy low, I just... just left them to it.'
Gillis bristled. 'What do you want me to say to a guy with half his fuckin' face left?'
They stopped. Wheezy breaths mingled with the heavy air. Bain drifted into the doorway to the left, punching on the light. A single bed adorned with a crusty, foul-smelling duvet greeted them. Soft moans rose from underneath it.
Gillis rushed forward and dropped to the floor. Dust clouded up in baggy drifts. Bain joined him at the skirt of the duvet. The woman's wrists and ankles were bound by grimy steel restraints nailed into the floor.
'Mary,' Gillis choked, 'Mary, oh God.'
Gillis was shaking uncontrollably as Bain led him up the path. A blanket of night had snuffed out the tepid remains of the day. Stars slipped out like pinpoint piercings in the black, as if some sparkling, transcendent plane of existence was struggling behind the dark cloak.
Bain watched the constable rustle for his keys, drop them, curse, and shoogle-click them in the lock.
Inside Gillis slumped into the single chair in a narrow kitchen. Oilish beads slicked down his forehead.
'You need a drink,' Bain muttered, his shadow thrown up against the far wall.
'Aye.' Gillis lumbered towards the shelves.
'I mean you need a drink.'
Gillis paused. He emptied the closest bottle into a tumbler and drained it. The amber fluid dribbled down his chin. His exhalation twisted into a barking cough. Bain took the chair.
'Fuck all to do here?'
Gillis' eyes were dewy, but his hand was steadier as he rustled for another bottle. Bain leaned forward, clasping his hands together.
'How did it get to this?'
Another glass slid down. There was a crackle as Bain lit up.
'My wife.' Gillis ground the heels of his palms into his eyes. 'My wife passed a few years back. The stupidest fucking thing. Some drunk fuck ploughed into her. Further up, near Aviemore.'
He slugged from the bottle and grimaced.
'And our first was on the way. So just like that. Everything... everything coming together, then... fuck all.'
Smoke was unfurling helixes between them. Gillis' block of hand clamped over the bottle.
'What the fuck was with their faces?' He whispered.
'There's a lot to unpack here. Two more sets of shackles, pried open, in the next room. The blanket and duvet coated in semen. A lot to unpack, but I can see it falling together. It's not pretty, but I can see it.'
Gillis' chin sunk into his chest. Bain stood and dropped his fag-end into the empty bottle.
'Your man, your man who had the accident - Tom, Tom McInnes - we'll find him tomorrow. There was no vehicle. He's on foot. There's nothing else you want to tell me?'
The constable groped for the bottle. Their shadows stood as witnesses bodied forth from the dark silk of dreams.
'Then you should get some sleep,' Bain said, clumping out.
In the hall shadows met, bound and ensnared Gillis as he fumbled with the lock. The door creaked open and he lurched against the cool wall inside, swaying onto the stairs. The darkness was of a new kind. It was as if for each staggered step an insidious, malevolent dimension unfolded to systematically bury every remaining bright drop of memory.
'Christy,' he slurred, tripping down the last step.
There was a shuffle in the dog cage near the corner of the cellar. Her eyes were deep clear wells against the bars.
'Christy, I've brought you a sandwich.'
A scrawny arm slipped through the tight space. The girl huddled back into the corner. He could hear her munching. He blinked back tears as he stroked the grates.
'Christy, I love you. I love you so much. I have to... I have to tell you properly tonight, I have to... I don't think we have long left together. Things have happened, and I - '
The girl had stopped eating. Hot, wet bulbs slipped down Gillis' cheeks.
'I'm so grateful for the time we've had. I'm so - '
'My daddy's here,' she said.
He looked up. She bared her teeth.
'What? I know I'm - what?'
To his right, another shape separated from the gloom. A corroded mass of scars, a wedge of face turned inside out, slid into the rectangle of light cast down the stairs.
'Tom. Tom, what have you done?'
The clear, stubbly side of the face leaned against the bars. Black curls of hair fell across the forehead. The voice was thin, tired, reedy.
'You know Mary wouldn't touch me, John. You know she wouldn't touch me after. Barely fucking look at me.'
He turned to the cage. Gillis took in the map of ruined tissue.
'You know I brought her other men. You know I - I wanted her to... to be happy...'
His voice wavered. Gillis leaned forward, but a strong hand gripped his wrist.
'Tom, you're hurting me - '
'You got this out of it,' he nodded towards the girl. His scars looked moist in the flash of movement. 'This girl, this girl another man... put in my wife...'
The nails were digging into Gillis' skin. His voice sounded and felt like another person's.
'I'll never stop being grateful Tom. You gave me something to cling to after I lost everything.'
Tiny red beads squirrelled out from under the nails.
'It worked out well for both of us, Tom,' he pushed.
'I couldn't do it any more,' Tom hissed. 'If she wanted to fuck them, they should look like me.'
The girl had crawled to the far side of the cage. She had her hands over her ears.
Tom turned to face him, and he saw the full yin and yang of his features.
'I made them look like me. And I made them fuck her.'
Their shadows swam around them.
'You shouldn't have come here. They're looking for - I had to tell them, Tom. Those men are dead now. People are dead, Tom... and Mary, good God... you've, you're out of... this has all gone - '
Gillis felt a sharp rush in his side. Realities seemed to fold and mesh. A hot pain shot up his side. He looked down at the knife embedded in his stomach, the warm red flood.
'Now they've gone. They got out.'
The thin voice trembled by his ear. Pain moved in waves, seething crescendos.
'And everything's fucked. We're all fucked, so we all have to go.'
Pushing away from the bars, Gillis turned and scrabbled for the stairs. The knife protruded from his side like some maldeveloped, alien third limb. The girl screeched and rattled the bars.
The flood of fear carried him; tearing at the wooden grain of steps, leaking fluids and flickers of lifetimes within lifetimes. His hand slapped on the frame of the door and he felt the knife slick out and sink into the meat of his shoulder. Hands groped around his neck, light washed through the door, and when he twisted his neck up he saw the sudden, stark bulk of Bain swinging a boot above him.
The red lights of the assembled emergency vehicles glowed and bled like ceremonial torches as Bain picked his way down the path, cradling the girl in his arms. A blur of figures around him threaded in and out the house. On the hills beyond, a tentative, muddy-yellow brush swelled to push out the night, to push out the last remnants of innocence.
Chief Superintendent Allan, a block of silver-topped head scrunched into a thick black coat, split from the weaving rush to join him. A hunched, cuffed figure was led to a van.
'That's the one. Tom McInnes. They were sleeping with his missus. He mutilated them. He replicated his injuries on them and forced them upon her.'
Allen's eyes were deeply sunken and underscored with pitted grooves. They swivelled and seemed to regress further into his skull.
Bain looked at the warm ball dozing off against his chest, and up towards the stretcher being lugged down to an ambulance.
'A few more questions there.'
The older man spat.
'Christ. Here. People don't even bother locking their doors up here.'
A single bird see-sawed overhead. The trees locked their branches and drew closer as if they were all of them bound, a single entity of earth, souls and elements brimming with and straining to contain the cumulative schisms, misery and sickness that seethed within.