Penguin Books

James Oswald


Natural Causes
The Book of Souls
The Hangman’s Song
Dead Men’s Bones
Prayer for the Dead
The Damage Done


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Penguin Random House UK

Natural Causes first published 2012

The Book of Souls first published 2012

The Hangman’s Song first published 2014

Dead Men’s Bones first published 2014

Prayer for the Dead first published 2015

The Damage Done first published 2016

This collection first published 2017

Copyright © James Oswald, 2012, 2014, 2015, 2016

The moral right of the author has been asserted

ISBN: 978-1-405-93213-4


Natural Causes

The Book of Souls

The Hangman’s Song

Dead Men’s Bones

Prayer for the Dead

The Damage Done

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Inspector McLean



James Oswald is the author of the Inspector McLean series of crime novels. The first six, Natural Causes, The Book of Souls, The Hangman’s Song, Dead Men’s Bones, Prayer for the Dead and The Damage Done are available as Penguin paperbacks and ebooks. He has also written an epic fantasy series, The Ballad of Sir Benfro, which is published by Penguin, as well as comic scripts and short stories.

In his spare time he runs a 350-acre livestock farm in north-east Fife, where he raises pedigree Highland Cattle and New Zealand Romney sheep.

Also by James Oswald

The Inspector McLean Mysteries

Natural Causes

The Book of Souls

The Hangman’s Song

Dead Men’s Bones

Prayer for the Dead

The Damage Done

The Ballad of Sir Benfro


The Rose Cord

The Golden Cage

Other Novels

Running Away




One Good Deed

Travel Writing

Pedalling Uphill Slowly

James Oswald



Chapter 1

Chapter 2

Chapter 3

Chapter 4

Chapter 5

Chapter 6

Chapter 7

Chapter 8

Chapter 9

Chapter 10

Chapter 11

Chapter 12

Chapter 13

Chapter 14

Chapter 15

Chapter 16

Chapter 17

Chapter 18

Chapter 19

Chapter 20

Chapter 21

Chapter 22

Chapter 23

Chapter 24

Chapter 25

Chapter 26

Chapter 27

Chapter 28

Chapter 29

Chapter 30

Chapter 31

Chapter 32

Chapter 33

Chapter 34

Chapter 35

Chapter 36

Chapter 37

Chapter 38

Chapter 39

Chapter 40

Chapter 41

Chapter 42

Chapter 43

Chapter 44

Chapter 45

Chapter 46

Chapter 47

Chapter 48

Chapter 49

Chapter 50

Chapter 51

Chapter 52

Chapter 53

Chapter 54

Chapter 55

Chapter 56

Chapter 57

Chapter 58

Chapter 59

Chapter 60

Chapter 61

Chapter 62

Chapter 63

Chapter 64

Chapter 65



To my parents, David and Juliet.
I wish you were here to share in this.


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 Scene of Crime van and uniforms setting up barriers that Detective Inspector Anthony McLean could never resist.

He’d grown up in this neighbourhood, this rich part of town with its detached houses surrounded by large walled gardens. Old money lived here, and old money knew how to protect its own. You were very unlikely to see a vagrant wandering these streets, never mind a serious crime, but now two patrol cars blocked the entrance to a substantial house and a uniformed officer was busy unwrapping blue and white tape. McLean fished out his warrant card as he approached.

‘What’s going on?’

‘There’s been a murder, sir. That’s all anyone’s told me.’ The constable tied off the tape and started on another length. McLean looked up the sweeping gravel drive towards the house. A SOC van had backed halfway up, its doors wide; a line of uniforms inched their way across the lawn, eyes down in search of clues. It wouldn’t hurt to have a look, see if there was anything he could do to help. He knew the area, after all. He ducked under the tape and made his way up the drive.

Past the battered white van, a sleek black Bentley glinted in the evening light. Alongside it, a rusty old Mondeo lowered the tone. McLean knew the car, knew its owner all too well. Detective Chief Inspector Charles Duguid was not his favourite superior officer. If this was one of his investigations, then the deceased must have been important. That would explain the large number of uniforms drafted in, too.

‘What the fuck are you doing here?’

McLean turned to the familiar voice. Duguid was considerably older than him, mid-fifties at least; his once-red hair now thin and greying, his face florid and lined. White paper overalls pulled down to his waist and tied in a knot beneath his sagging gut, he had about him the air of a man who’s just nipped out for a fag.

‘I was in the neighbourhood, saw the patrol cars in the lane.’

‘And you thought you’d stick your nose in, eh? What’re you doing here anyway?’

‘I didn’t mean to butt in to your investigation, sir. I just thought, well, since I grew up in the area, I might’ve been able to help.’

Duguid let out an audible sigh, his shoulders sagging theatrically.

‘Oh well. You’re here. Might as well make yourself useful. Go and talk to that pathologist friend of yours. See what wonderful insights he’s come up with this time.’

McLean started towards the front door, but was stopped by Duguid’s hand catching him tight around the arm.

‘And make sure you report back to me when you’re done. I don’t want you sloping off before we’ve wrapped this up.’

The inside of the house was almost painfully bright after the soft city darkness descending outside. McLean entered a large hall through a smaller, but still substantial, porch. Inside, a chaos of SOC officers bustled about in white paper boilersuits, dusting for fingerprints, photographing everything. Before he could get more than a couple of steps, a harassed young woman handed him a rolled-up white bundle. He didn’t recognise her; a new recruit to the team.

‘You’ll want to put these on if you’re going in there, sir.’ She motioned behind her with a quick jab of her thumb to an open door on the far side of the hallway. ‘It’s an awful mess. You’d no’ want to ruin your suit.’

‘Or contaminate any potential evidence.’ McLean thanked her, pulling on the paper overalls and slipping the plastic covers over his shoes before heading for the door, keeping to the raised walkway the SOC team had laid out across the polished wood floor. Voices muttered from inside, so he stepped in.

It was a gentleman’s library, leather-bound books lining the walls in their dark mahogany shelves. An antique desk sat between two tall windows, its top clear save for a blotter and a mobile phone. Two high-backed leather armchairs were arranged either side of an ornate fireplace, facing the unlit fire. The one on the left was unoccupied, some items of clothing neatly folded and placed across the arm. McLean crossed the room and stepped around the other chair, his attention immediately drawn to the figure sitting in it, his nose wrinkling at the foul stench.

The man looked almost calm, his hands resting lightly on the arms of the chair, his feet slightly apart on the floor. His face was pale, eyes staring straight ahead with a glazed expression. Black blood spilled from his closed mouth, dribbling down his chin, and at first McLean thought he was wearing some kind of dark velvet coat. Then he saw the guts, blue-grey shiny coils slipping down onto the Persian rug on the floor. Not velvet, not a coat. Two white-clad figures crouched beside them, seemingly unwilling to trust their knees to the blood-soaked carpet.

‘Christ on a stick.’ McLean covered his mouth and nose against the iron tang of blood and the richer smell of human ordure. One of the figures looked around and he recognised the city pathologist, Angus Cadwallader.

‘Ah, Tony. Come to join the party have you?’ He stood, handing something slippery to his assistant. ‘Take that will you, Tracy.’

‘Barnaby Smythe.’ McLean stepped closer.

‘I didn’t realise you knew him,’ Cadwallader said.

‘Oh, yes. I knew him. Not well, I mean. I’ve never been in this place before. But sweet Jesus, what happened to him?’

‘Didn’t Dagwood brief you?’

McLean looked around, expecting to see the chief inspector close behind and wincing at the casual use of Duguid’s nickname. But apart from the assistant and the deceased, they were alone in the room.

‘He wasn’t too pleased to see me, actually. Thinks I want to steal his glory again.’

‘And do you?’

‘No. I was just off up to my gran’s place. Noticed the cars …’ McLean saw the pathologist’s smile and shut up.

‘How is Esther, by the way? Any improvement?’

‘Not really, no. I’ll be seeing her later. If I don’t get stuck here, that is.’

‘Well, I wonder what she’d have made of this mess.’ Cadwallader waved a blood-smeared, gloved hand at the remains of what had once been a man.

‘I’ve no idea. Something gruesome I’m sure. You pathologists are all alike. So tell me what happened, Angus.’

‘As far as I can tell, he’s not been tied down or restrained in any way, which would suggest he was dead when this was done. But there’s too much blood for his heart not to have been beating when he was first cut open, so he was most likely drugged. We’ll know when we get the toxicology report back. Actually most of the blood’s come from this.’ He pointed to a loose red flap of skin circling the dead man’s neck. ‘And judging by the spray on the legs and the side of the chair, that was done after his entrails were removed. I’m guessing the killer did that to get them out of the way whilst he poked about inside. Major internal organs all seem to be in place except for a chunk of his spleen, which is missing.’

‘There’s something in his mouth, sir,’ the assistant said, standing up with a creak of protest from her knees. Cadwallader shouted for the photographer, then bent forward, forcing his fingers between the dead man’s lips and prising his jaw apart. He reached in and pulled a slimy, red, smooth mess out of it. McLean felt the bile rise in his gorge and tried not to retch as the pathologist held the organ up to the light.

‘Ah, there it is. Excellent.’

Night had fallen by the time McLean made it back out of the house. It was never truly dark in the city; too many street lights casting the thin haze of pollution with a hellish, orange glow. But at least the stifling August heat had seeped away, leaving a freshness behind it that was a welcome relief from the foul stench inside. His feet crunched on the gravel as he stared up at the sky, hopelessly looking for stars, or any reason why someone would tear out an old man’s guts and feed him his own spleen.

‘Well?’ The tone was unmistakable, and came with a sour odour of stale tobacco smoke. McLean turned to see Chief Inspector Duguid. He’d ditched the overalls and was once more wearing his trademark over-large suit. Even in the semi-darkness McLean could see the shiny patches where the fabric had worn smooth over the years.

‘Most probable cause of death was massive blood loss, his neck was cut from ear to ear. Angus … Dr Cadwallader reckons time of death was somewhere in the late afternoon, early evening. Between four and seven. The victim wasn’t restrained, so must have been drugged. We’ll know more once the toxicology screening’s done.’

‘I know all that, McLean. I’ve got eyes. Tell me about Barnaby Smythe. Who’d cut him up like that?’

‘I didn’t really know Mr Smythe all that well, sir. He kept himself to himself. Today’s the first time I’ve ever been in his house.’

‘But you used to scrump apples from his garden when you were a boy, I suppose.’

McLean bit back the retort he wanted to give. He was used to Duguid’s taunting, but he didn’t see why he should have to put up with it when he was trying to help.

‘So what do you know about the man?’ Duguid asked.

‘He was a merchant banker, but he must have retired by now. I read somewhere that he donated several million to the new wing of the National Museum.’

Duguid sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. ‘I was hoping for something a bit more useful than that. Don’t you know anything about his social life? His friends and enemies?’

‘Not really, sir. No. Like I said, he’s retired, must be eighty at least. I don’t mix much in those circles. My gran would have known him, but she’s not exactly in a position to help. She had a stroke, you know.’

Duguid snorted unsympathetically. ‘Then you’re no bloody use to me, are you. Go on, get out of here. Go back to your rich friends and enjoy your evening off.’ He turned away and stalked towards a group of uniforms huddling together smoking. McLean was happy to let him go, then remembered the chief inspector’s earlier warning about sloping off.

‘Do you want me to prepare a report for you, sir?’ he shouted at Duguid’s back.

‘No I bloody well don’t.’ Duguid turned on his heel, his face shadowed, eyes glinting in the reflected light of the street lamps. ‘This is my investigation, McLean. Now fuck off out of my crime scene.’


The Western General Hospital smelled of illness; that mixture of disinfectant, warm air and leaked bodily fluids that clung to your clothes if you spent more than ten minutes in the place. The nurses at reception recognised him, smiling and nodding him through without a word. One of them was Barbara and the other Heather, but he was damned if he could remember who was who. They never seemed to be apart for long enough to work it out, and staring at the too-small badges on their chests was just embarrassing.

McLean walked as quietly as the squeaky linoleum floor would allow along the soulless corridors; past shuffling men in skimpy hospital smocks, clutching their wheeled intravenous drip stands with arthritic claws; busy nurses weaving their way from one crisis to another; pallid junior doctors looking like they were about to drop from exhaustion. It had all long since ceased to shock him, he’d been coming here that long.

The ward he was looking for was at a quiet end of the hospital, tucked away from the hustle and bustle. It was a nice room, with windows looking out over the Firth of Forth to Fife. It always struck him as a bit daft, really. This would be a better place to put people recovering from major operations or something. Instead it was home to those patients who couldn’t care less about the view or the quiet. He wedged open the door with a fire extinguisher, so the distant hum of activity would follow him, then stepped into the semi-darkness.

She lay propped up on several pillows, her eyes closed as if she were sleeping. Wires flowed from her head to a bedside monitor, which ticked a slow, steady rhythm. A single tube dripped clear liquid into her wrinkled and liver-spotted arm and a slim white continuous pulse monitor was clamped onto one withered finger. McLean pulled up a chair and sat down, taking his gran’s free hand and staring at her once-proud and lively face.

‘I saw Angus earlier. He was asking after you.’ He spoke softly, no longer sure she could hear him. Her hand was cool, room temperature. Apart from the mechanical rising and falling of her chest, his grandmother didn’t move at all.

‘How long have you been in here now? Eighteen months is it?’ Her cheeks had shrunk away more since the last time he had visited her, and someone had cut her hair badly, making her skull look even more skeletal.

‘I used to think you’d wake up eventually, and it would all be the same. But now I’m not sure. What is there for you to wake up to?’

She didn’t answer; he hadn’t heard her voice in over a year and a half. Not since she had phoned him that evening, saying she didn’t feel well. He remembered the ambulance, the paramedics, locking up the empty house. But he couldn’t remember her face when he had found her, unconscious in her armchair by the fire. The months had wasted her away, and he had watched her fade until all he knew was this shadow of the woman who had raised him since he was four.

‘Who’s done this. Honestly.’ McLean looked around, startled by the noise. A nurse stood in the doorway, struggling to remove the fire extinguisher. She flustered in, looking around and then finally seeing him.

‘Oh, Mr McLean. I’m so sorry. I didn’t see you there.’

Soft Western Isles accent, her pale face topped with a bob of flame-red hair. She wore the uniform of a ward sister and McLean was sure he knew her name. Jane or Jenny or something. He thought he knew the names of almost all the nurses in the hospital, either from work or his regular visits to this quiet little ward. But for the life of him, as she stood staring, he couldn’t remember hers.

‘It’s OK,’ he said, standing up. ‘I was just going.’ He turned back to the comatose figure, releasing her cold hand. ‘I’ll come see you again soon, Gran. I promise.’

‘D’you know, you’re the only person who comes here to visit regularly,’ the nurse said. McLean looked around the ward, noting the other beds with their silent, motionless occupants. It was creepy, in a way. Queued up for the morgue. Waiting patiently for the Grim Reaper to get around to them.

‘Don’t they have family?’ he asked, nodding his head in the direction of the other patients.

‘Sure, but they don’t visit. Oh they come at first. Sometimes every day for a week or two. Even a month. But over time the gaps get longer and longer. Mr Smith over there’s not had a visitor since May. But you come here every week.’

‘She doesn’t have anyone else.’

‘Well, still. It’s not everyone would do what you do.’

McLean didn’t know what to say. Yes, he came to visit whenever he could, but he never stayed long. Not like his gran, who was condemned to spend the rest of her days in this quiet hell.

‘I have to go,’ he said, making for the door. ‘I’m sorry about the fire extinguisher.’ He stooped, lifting it back onto its hook on the wall. ‘And thank you.’

‘For what?’

‘For looking after her. I think she would have liked you.’

The taxi dropped him off at the end of the drive. McLean stood for a while in the evening coolness, watching the steam of the retreating exhaust dissipate into nothing. A lone cat strode confidently across the road not more than twenty yards away, then stopped suddenly as if realising it was being watched. Its sleek head moved from side to side, sharp eyes scanning the scene until it spotted him. Threat detected and assessed, it sat down in the middle of the road and began licking a paw.

He leant against the nearest in a line of trees that burst through the paving slabs like the end of civilisation, and watched. The street was quiet at the best of times, almost silent at this hour. Just the background quiet roar of the city to remind him that life went on. An animal shriek in the distance stopped the cat mid-lick. It peered at McLean to see whether he had made the noise, then trotted off, disappearing into a nearby walled garden with an effortless leap.

Turning back to the driveway, McLean faced the blank edifice of his grandmother’s house, the dark windows as empty as the old lady’s coma-shrunk face. Eyes shutter-closed against the never-dark night. Visiting the hospital was a duty he undertook willingly, but coming here felt more like a chore. The house he’d grown up in was long gone, the life of the place leached out of it as surely as it had been leached out of his grandmother until there was nothing left but bones of stone and memories gone sour. He half wished the cat would come back; any company right now would be welcome. But he knew it was really just a distraction. He’d come here to do a job; might as well get on with it.

A week’s worth of junk mail littered the front hallway. McLean scooped it up and took it through to the library. Most of the furniture was covered in white sheets, adding to the other-worldliness of the house, but his grandmother’s desk was still clear. He checked the phone for messages, deleting the telesales offerings without bothering to listen to them. Should probably switch the machine off, really, but you never knew if some old family friend might be trying to get in touch. The junk mail went into the bin, which he noticed would need emptying soon. There were two bills that he’d have to remember to forward on to the solicitors dealing with his grandmother’s affairs. Just the walk-around and he could go home. Maybe even get some sleep.

McLean had never really been afraid of the dark. Perhaps it was because the monsters had come when he was four, taken his parents away from him. The worst had happened and he’d survived. After that, the darkness held no fear. And yet he found himself switching lights on so that he never had to cross a room in darkness. The house was large, far larger than one elderly lady needed. Most of the neighbouring houses had been turned into at least two apartments, but this one still held out, and with a substantial walled garden surrounding it. Christ alone knew what it was worth; one more thing he’d have to worry about in the fullness of time. Unless his grandmother had left everything to some cat charity. That wouldn’t really surprise him; definitely her style.

He stopped, hand reaching up to flick off the light switch, and realised it was the first time he’d thought about the consequences of her being dead. The possibility of her dying. Sure, it had always been there, lurking at the back of his mind, but all the months he’d been visiting her in the hospital it had been with the thought that eventually there would be some improvement in her condition. Today, for whatever reason, he had finally accepted that wasn’t going to happen. It was both sad and oddly relieving.

And then his eyes noticed where he was.

His grandmother’s bedroom was not the largest in the house, but it was still probably bigger than McLean’s entire Newington flat. He stepped into the room, running a hand over the bed still made up with the sheets she’d slept in the night before she’d had her stroke. He opened up wardrobes to reveal clothes she’d never wear again, then crossed the room to where a Japanese silk dressing gown had been thrown over the chair that stood in front of her dressing table. A hairbrush lying bristles up held strands of her hair; long white filaments that glinted in the harsh yellow-white glow of the lights reflected in an antique mirror. A few bottles of scent were arranged on a small silver tray to one side of it, a couple of ornately framed photographs to the other. This was his grandmother’s most private space. He’d been in here before, sent to fetch something as a boy or nipping through to the bathroom to pinch a bar of soap, but he’d never lingered, never really taken much notice of the place. He felt slightly uneasy just being in here, and at the same time fascinated.

The dressing table was the focus of the room, much more so than the bed. This was where his grandmother prepared herself for the world outside, and McLean was pleased to see that one of the photographs was of him. He remembered the day it was taken, when he passed out of Tulliallan. That was probably the tidiest his uniform had ever been. Police Constable McLean, on the fast track sure, but still expected to pound the beat like any other copper.

The other photo showed his parents, taken at their wedding. Looking at the two pictures together, it was clear that he’d inherited most of his looks from his father. They must have been similar ages when the two photographs were taken, and apart from the difference in film quality, they could almost have been brothers. McLean stared at the image for a while. He barely knew these people, hardly ever thought about them anymore.

Other photographs were dotted about the room; some on the walls, some in frames on the top of a wide, low chest of drawers that undoubtedly contained underwear. Some were pictures of his grandfather, the dour old gentleman whose portrait hung above the fireplace in the dining room downstairs, presiding over the head of the table. They charted his life, from young man through to old age in a series of black-and-white jumps. Other pictures were of his father, and then his mother too as she came into his life. There were a couple of McLean’s grandmother too, as a strikingly beautiful young woman dressed in the most fashionable of 1930s clothes. The last of these showed her flanked by two smiling gentlemen, also dressed for the period, and in the background the familiar columns of the National Monument on Calton Hill. McLean stared at the photograph for long moments before he realised what was bothering him about it. On his grandmother’s left was his grandfather, William McLean, quite obviously the same man who appeared in so many of the other pictures. But it was the man on her right, one arm around her waist and smiling at the camera as if the world were his oyster, who looked the spitting image of the photos of the newly married man and the fresh out of training college police constable.


‘Just what exactly’s gone missing, Mr Douglas?’

McLean tried to settle himself into the uncomfortable sofa; there were lumps in the cushions that felt like bricks. Giving up, he looked around the room as, beside him, Detective Sergeant Bob Laird, Grumpy Bob to all his friends, took down notes in a long, loopy scrawl.

It was a well-furnished room, the lumpen sofa notwithstanding. An Adam fireplace filled one wall, a collection of tasteful oil paintings covering the rest. Two more sofas formed a neat cordon around the hearth, though all that filled it in the sweltering summer heat was a neat arrangement of dried flowers. Mahogany dominated, the smell of polish competing with the faint odour of cat. Everything was old but valuable, even the man sitting opposite.

‘Nothing was taken from here.’ Eric Douglas touched his black-rimmed spectacles with a nervous finger, pushing them up to the bridge of his long nose. ‘They went straight to the safe. Almost as if they knew exactly where it was.’

‘Perhaps you could show us, sir.’ McLean stood up before his legs went numb. He might gain useful information from seeing the safe, but even more he needed to move. Douglas led them through the house to a small study that looked like it had been hit by a tornado. A wide antique desk was piled with books, pulled from the oak shelves behind to reveal a safe door. It hung open on its hinges.

‘This is pretty much how I found it.’ Douglas stood in the doorway, as if not entering the room might make it revert to normal. McLean pushed past him and picked his way carefully behind the desk. Tell-tale grey-white dust on the shelves and around the frame of the one large window showed that the fingerprint specialist had already been and gone. She was still busy elsewhere in the house, dusting doorframes and windowsills. He fished in his jacket pocket for a pair of rubber gloves anyway, snapping them on before reaching for the small pile of papers still sitting on the floor of the safe.

‘They took the jewellery, left the share certificates. They’re worthless anyway. It’s all electronic these days.’

‘How’d they get in?’ McLean replaced the papers and turned his attention to the window. It was painted solid, no obvious sign of having been opened in the past decade, let alone the last twenty-four hours.

‘All the doors were locked when I got back from the funeral. And the alarm was still set. I’ve really no idea how anyone could have got in.’


‘Mother.’ A frown passed over Mr Douglas’ face. ‘She passed away last week.’

McLean silently cursed himself for not paying attention. Mr Douglas was dressed in a dark suit, with a white shirt and black tie. And the whole house felt empty; it had that indefinable air of a place where someone has recently died. He should have known of the bereavement before barging in and asking questions. He cast his mind back over the meeting so far, trying to remember if anything he had said might have been insensitive.

‘I’m sorry to hear that, Mr Douglas. Tell me, was the funeral well-advertised?’

‘I’m not sure what you mean. There was an announcement in the paper; time and place, that sort of… Oh.’

‘There are evil people who’ll take advantage of your grief, sir. The men who did this probably keep an eye on the papers. Can you show me the alarm?’

They left the study, crossing the hall once more. Mr Douglas opened a door tucked under the wide staircase, revealing a set of stone steps leading down to the basement. Just inside the door, a slim white control panel flickered green lights. McLean studied it for a while, noting down the name of the company who serviced it. Penstemmin Alarms, a well-respected firm, and a sophisticated system too.

‘You know how to set this properly?’

‘I’m not a fool, inspector. This house contains many valuable things. Some of the paintings are worth six-figure sums, but to me they are priceless. I set the alarm myself before making my way to Mortonhall.’

‘I’m sorry, sir. I just need to be sure.’ McLean slipped his notebook into his pocket. The SOC officer trudged down the main stairs. He caught the eye of the young technician but she just shook her head, crossed the hall and went out of the door.

‘We’ll not take any more of your time, but if you could supply us with a detailed description of the stolen items, that would be very helpful.’

‘My insurance company has a full inventory, I’ll have them send you a copy.’

Outside, McLean approached the SOC officer as she struggled out of her overalls and threw her equipment into the back of her car. She was the new girl he’d seen at the Smythe murder scene; quite striking with her pale skin and unruly mop of black hair. Her eyes were lined with some kind of thick make-up; either that or she’d been on a serious bender.

‘Find anything?’

‘Not in the study, no. Place is as clean as a nun’s mind. There’s plenty prints around the rest of the house, but nothing unusual. Probably the owner’s mostly. I’ll need to get a set of reference prints.’

McLean swore. ‘They cremated her this morning.’

‘Well, there’s not much we can do anyway. There’s no sign of forced entry, no prints or other marks in the room with the safe.’

‘Get me what you can, eh?’ McLean nodded his thanks and watched as she drove off. He turned back to the anonymous pool car Grumpy Bob had signed out that morning when he’d been handed the case. His first proper case since being made up to inspector. It wasn’t much, really; a burglary that would be damned hard to solve unless they got lucky. Why couldn’t it just be some crackhead stealing the telly to pay for his next fix? Of course, something like that would have been left to a sergeant to investigate. Mr Douglas must have had some influence to get an inspector involved in such a minor crime, however new he was to the job.

‘What d’you want to do next, sir?’ Grumpy Bob looked across from the driver’s seat as McLean climbed into the car.

‘Back to the station. Let’s make a start on putting these notes into some sort of order. See if there’s anything similar in the unsolved pile.’

He settled himself into the passenger seat and watched the city flow by as they drove back through the busy streets. They’d only gone five minutes when Grumpy Bob’s airwave set went off. McLean picked it up, fiddling with the unfamiliar buttons until he managed to answer the call.


‘Ah, inspector. I tried your mobile, but it doesn’t seem to be switched on.’ McLean recognised the voice of Pete, the duty sergeant. He pulled his phone out of his pocket, pressing the power button. It had been fully charged when he’d left home that morning, but now, just a few hours later, it was as dead as old Mrs Douglas.

‘Sorry, Pete. Battery’s gone. What can I do for you, anyway?’

‘Got a case for you, if you’re not too busy that is. The super said it would be right up your street.’

McLean groaned, wondering what petty misdemeanour he’d be given now.

‘Go on, Pete. Give us the details.’

‘Farquhar House, sir. Over in Sighthill. Some builder phoned, said they’d uncovered a dead body.’


McLean stared through the car window past light industrial units, factory outlets, shops and grimy warehouses to the towers hovering in the middle distance over a haze of grey-brown pollution. Sighthill was one of those parts of the city they didn’t show in the tourist brochures, a suburban sprawl of social housing spilling out towards the bypass along the old Kilmarnock road, dominated by the imposing, brutalist bulk of Stevenson College.

‘Do we know anything more about this, sir? You said a body’d been found.’

McLean still couldn’t get used to Grumpy Bob calling him ‘sir’. The detective sergeant was fifteen years his senior, and it wasn’t that long since they’d been the same rank. But the moment McLean’s promotion to inspector had come through, Grumpy Bob had stopped calling him Tony and switched to sir. Technically, he was correct to do so, but it still felt strange.

‘I’m not sure of the details myself. Just a body found on a building site. Apparently the chief superintendent said something about it being just the right case for someone like me. Not sure she meant it as a compliment.’

Grumpy Bob said nothing for a while, steering the car down a bewildering maze of side streets lined with identical grey semi-detached houses. The occasional personal flourish – a different coloured door or modern roof lights – marked the few homes owned by someone other than the council. Finally they turned into a narrow lane, pebble-dashed walls blocking the view into tiny gardens on either side. At the end, incongruous amongst the sprawl of council housing, stood a once-grand set of gates, their ornate ironwork overgrown with ivy and hanging at a perilous angle from two cracked stone pillars. A sign on the left one read: ‘ANOTHER PRESTIGIOUS DEVELOPMENT FROM MCALLISTER HOMES.’

The house beyond was in the Scots Baronial style, four storeys tall with high, narrow windows and a round tower jutting out of one corner. Scaffolding supported one wall, and the last of what had once been a large garden was now filled with builders’ vans, skips, portacabins and other detritus of the trade. Two squad cars waited at the front doors, watched over by a lone PC. She managed a weary smile as McLean showed her his warrant card, then led them into the darkness of the front hall. It was cool after the outside heat, raising goose bumps on his skin and sending an involuntary shiver down his spine.

The PC noticed. ‘Aye, it’s like that in here. Creepy so it is.’

‘Who found the body?’

‘What? Oh.’ The constable dug out her notebook. ‘Mr McAllister phoned us himself. Seems his site foreman Mr Donald Murdo, from Bonnyrigg, was working late last night tidying up some stuff in the basement. Gave himself quite the shock when he … You know.’

‘Last night?’ McLean stopped so suddenly that Grumpy Bob almost walked into him. ‘When was this called in?’

‘About six.’

‘And the body’s still there?’

‘Yeah, well, they’re just finishing up now. They were a bit busy last night, and this wasn’t considered high priority.’

‘How can a dead body not be high priority?’

The constable gave him what could only be described as an old-fashioned look.

‘The police surgeon declared death at seven-fifteen last night. We secured the crime scene and I’ve been here keeping an eye on it ever since. It’s not my fault that half the SOC team were out on the piss last night, and quite frankly I think someone from CIB could’ve come out a bit sooner, too. There’s far nicer places to spend the night.’

She stomped down the stairs towards the basement. McLean was so astonished at the outburst, he could do nothing but follow.

A scene of industrious determination greeted them as they reached the bottom of the steps. Thick cables slithered across the dusty floor towards several powerful arc lights; shiny aluminium boxes lay open, their contents piled around; a narrow strip of portable walkway had been set up down the middle of the main corridor, but no one was using it. Half a dozen SOC officers busied themselves with putting things away. Only one figure noticed their arrival.

‘Tony. What have you done to piss off Jayne McIntyre so early on in your new career?’

McLean picked his way through the dust and equipment to the far end of the basement. Angus Cadwallader stood by a large hole hacked into the wall, light glaring out from powerful spot lamps beyond. The pathologist looked distinctly uneasy, not his usual chipper and irreverent self.

‘Piss off?’ McLean bent down to peer through the hole. ‘What’ve you got for me this time, Angus?’

Beyond lay a large circular room, its wall smooth and white. Four lamps had been erected near the centre, all angled inwards and down, as if their subject were some up and coming star of the stage. Spread-eagled, desiccated and brutalised, it was unlikely she would be taking any applause.

‘Not a pretty sight, is she.’ Cadwallader pulled a pair of latex gloves from his suit pocket and handed them to McLean. ‘Shall we take a closer look.’

They stepped through the narrow opening hacked in the brickwork, and McLean instantly felt the temperature drop. The noise of the SOC team fell away as if he had closed a door on them. Looking back, he felt a sudden urge to retreat from the hidden room; not so much fear as a pressure in his head, forcing him away. Shrugging it off with no little difficulty, he turned his attention to the body.

She had been young. He wasn’t sure how he knew, but something about the diminutive size spoke of a life cut short before it had really begun. Her hands stretched out wide in parody of crucifixion; black iron nails hammered through her palms, their heads bent over to stop her ripping them out. Time had dried her skin to leather, stretching her hands into claws, her face into a grimace of utter agony. She wore a simple, floral print cotton dress that had been pulled up over her breasts. McLean noticed in passing how dated it looked, but the detail was soon lost as he took in everything else.

Her stomach had been opened up, a neat cut from between her legs to between her breasts, the skin and muscle peeled back like a rotting flower. Ribs poked white through dark dry gristle, but nothing remained of her internal organs. Down further still, her legs were splayed wide apart, hips disjointed so her knees almost touched the floor. Her skin had tightened like biltong over dried muscle, each bone clearly visible right down to her slender feet, nailed like her hands to the floor.

‘Jesus Christ. Who could do such a thing?’ McLean rocked back on his heels, looking up past the lights to the featureless walls all around. Then into the bright arc itself, as if staring at the glare would wash the image out of his mind.

‘Perhaps a more pertinent question would be when it was done.’ Cadwallader squatted down on the other side of the body, drew out an expensive fountain pen and used it to point at various parts of the girl’s remains. ‘As you can see, something has prevented decay from occurring, allowing a natural mummification to take place. The internal organs were removed, presumably disposed of elsewhere. I’ll need to run some tests once I get her back to the mortuary, but I can’t see her being killed anything less than fifty years ago.’

McLean stood up, shivering slightly in the cold. He wanted to look away, but his eyes kept being dragged down to the body at his feet. He could almost feel her agony and terror. She had been alive, at least when this ordeal had started. Of that he was sure.

‘Better send a team in to move her,’ he said. ‘I’m not sure if the techies can get anything useful from the floor underneath, but it’s worth a try.’

Cadwallader nodded and left the room, stepping around the brick rubble that had spilled in when the workman had knocked the first hole. Alone with the dead girl, McLean tried to imagine what the place must have looked like when she died. The walls were smooth white plaster; the ceiling a neat vault of white-painted brickwork, its apex directly above the dead body. In a chapel, he would have expected to find an altar directly opposite the bricked-up doorway, but there was no ornamentation in the room at all.

The arc lights cast strange shadows over the dark wooden floorboards, seeming almost to ripple as McLean stood, waiting for someone to come back in. He found the shapes hypnotic, curling glyphs at regular intervals around a wide circle, perhaps three feet in from the walls. Shaking his head to rid himself of the illusion, he stepped out of the central glare of the lights, then stopped dead. His own shadow had moved, gliding over the floor in four different shades. But the patterns on the floor had remained solid underneath it.

Stooping, he peered closer at the wooden boards. They were polished smooth and only slightly dusty, as if the room had been hermetically sealed until the wall was broken through. The light from the arc lamps was confusing, so he pulled a slender torch from his pocket and twisted it on, pointing it directly at the patterns on the floor. They were dark, almost indistinguishable from the wood. Ornate knots of lines, thickening and thinning as they intertwined to form a complicated whorl. The edge of a circle etched in the floor ran away in both directions. He followed it around anti-clockwise, noting five more intricate marks, all equidistant. The line between the first and the last had been neatly intersected by the falling brickwork of the walled-up doorway.

Digging out his notebook, McLean tried to make rough sketches of the signs, noting their relationship to the position of the dead girl. They lined up perfectly with her outstretched hands and feet, her head and the central point between her legs.

‘You ready for the body to be moved, sir?’

He almost jumped out of his skin, spun around to see Grumpy Bob staring through the hole hacked in the wall.

‘Where’s the photographer? Can you get him back in here a minute.’

Bob turned away, shouted something McLean couldn’t quite make out. Then a moment later a short man stuck his face into the room. McLean didn’t recognise him; another new recruit to the SOC team.

way around the body. About this far in from the wall. Close-up.’

The photographer nodded, glancing nervously at the silent figure in the centre of the room, then set about his task. The flash gun on his camera popped and whined between each recharge, little explosions of lightning spearing the room. McLean straightened up, focusing his attention on the wall now. Start from the body and work your way out. He felt the cold plaster through the thin protection of his latex gloves, then turned his hand around and rapped his knuckle on the surface. It sounded flat and solid, like stone. Moving round a bit, he rapped again. Still solid. Glancing over his shoulder, he moved around until he was in line with the dead girl’s head. This time his knuckle produced a hollow clunk.

He knocked it again, and in the confused light of the flashgun and shadows thrown by the arc lamps, it looked like the wall bowed in under the pressure. Turning his hand once more, he pushed gently, feeling the wall give way under his fingers. Then with a crack of brittle bones, a panel about a foot wide and half as tall again split from the wall and fell to the floor. It had concealed a small alcove, and something glinted wetly from within.

McLean pulled out his torch again, twisted it on and directed the beam into the alcove. A slim silver ring lay on a folded piece of parchment, and behind it, preserved in a glass jar like a specimen in a biology classroom, was a human heart.