Authors: Alan Alexander
BY ALL MEANS
A Fiske and MacNee Mystery
Thanks to Emma Quinn for the cover design and to Neale Stidolph for allowing us to use his photograph of the Aberdeen skyline.
Thanks, too, to the friends and family who read early drafts and provided comments that improved the final version.
© 2014 Alan Alexander
'When did we last have two separate murders on the same weekend?'
Detective Chief Inspector Vanessa Fiske, together with Detective Inspector Colin MacNee, sat opposite Campbell Esslemont, head of CID in North East Constabulary, early on Monday morning. Vanessa had spent most of the previous two days on an offshore oil-drilling platform. Colin had been at Grampian Royal Hospital. They had both been investigating sudden and unexplained deaths that they assumed were suspicious. Confirmation from the duty pathologist was expected later in the day.
'Never in my time, Vanessa'. The detective chief superintendent was budget holder for CID and he was already worrying about the cost of running two parallel murder enquiries. His time went back nearly thirty years. Few others in the force had longer memories, so it was safe to assume that it probably hadn't happened before.
'I can't tell you how petrified I was about getting into that helicopter,' Vanessa said. 'I read somewhere years ago how much less safe they are than fixed wing planes. But I loved it! Now I know why Russian oligarchs and the like have helicopters as well as private planes. Land the things anywhere, fly in straight lines from here to there. Great!'
Esslemont pursed his lips to signal that she should get on with it.
'Late on Friday afternoon, during a routine health and safety check of the rig - it's called Vermont One, by the way, its American operators call all their rigs after States that don't have major oil fields - an inspector found a body. The dead man wasn't a regular member of the rig's crew. He was a senior engineer from the States, sent over to perform an independent, or at least quasi-independent, safety check on all the rig's systems. Apparently this happens a few times a year, usually unannounced, with the results reported directly to the company's Audit and Risk Committee. He'd been on the rig for a few days and seemed to have established positive relationships with senior management and the resident engineers. Nothing negative reported. No fights, disagreements or spats. At first, they thought it was an accident. The body was lying at the bottom of an inspection chamber used to examine the drilling gear, and a guard-rail was bent in a way consistent with someone having toppled over it. The rail had been in perfect condition last time it was inspected, a couple of weeks ago.'
'So why did they think it wasn't an accident?' Vanessa made eye contact with Colin as the DCS asked the question. They both knew that he was hoping not to have to mount a full scale murder investigation, always expensive, but likely to be ruinous to his budget if it involved frequent visits to an oil rig more than a hundred miles north east of Aberdeen. Not to mention the possibility of running two investigations simultaneously.
'The medics on the rig noticed severe bruising on the back of the neck and shoulders, consistent with being struck, or pushed very hard, from behind. We should hear what the pathologist thinks very soon. Also, there was no sign of his hardhat, which is suspicious in itself. But there's no doubt that, at the very least, we have a suspicious death.'
MacNee was a little apprehensive. He was looking at his first turn as Senior Investigating Officer on a major case, and his first murder, since he had got his promotion. He didn't count the few days he served as Acting SIO on the so-called Balmoral murder a couple of months before he was made up to Inspector, but he thought his performance on that case, both before and after his temporary promotion, had helped his career. He needed to get this one right, from the start.
'On Saturday morning, just before the shift change at eight o'clock, a nurse at GRH went for a pee in a staff loo in the main surgical block. He took out his phone to call his partner, dropped it - he said his hands were still wet because the hand driers are useless - and when he bent down to pick it up he saw two feet partially visible under a cubicle door. The door was locked, so he stood on the toilet bowl of the next cubicle and looked over. He knew right away that the man, whom he didn't recognise, was dead. He called security, they had a look and called us. I was on duty and I got there just after half past eight.'
'Has he been identified? And do we know the death is suspicious.'
'No ID yet, sir. There was nothing on the body to tell us who he was. No wallet, which is odd. So we don't know if he was a patient, a relative, a member of staff, or a contract worker. I've got Williamson and Todd working on it and they should be able to eliminate some possibilities quite quickly.'
'Cause of death?' Esslemont prompted.
'Again, we need to wait for the pathologist's report. He's doing two PMs, so it might be this afternoon before we have anything definite. But nobody had touched the body before I got there, and from the position and attitude I'd be surprised if he had died from natural causes. He looked as if he had been stuffed into the cubicle and there were scuff marks on the door that suggest somebody climbed over it to get out, probably after locking it.'
'Can we put a name to the oil platform body?' There was just a touch of exasperation in Esslemont's question. He clearly didn't want to have to tell the press that he had two unidentified murder victims on his hands.
'Harvey Jamieson, from Shreveport, Louisiana. We've been in touch with the American Embassy and the company has contacted the family. Married, three grown up children. We expect his wife to get here late this afternoon to do the formal identification.'
'Christ almighty!' Esslemont said, 'Two murders, one weekend. I was always taught never to believe in coincidence. Any reason to think they're related?'
'Very unlikely, sir,' Vanessa looked at Colin who shook his head. 'But we'll keep an open mind on it.' It was a well-worn cliché, but it would do for now.
Detective Constables Todd and Williamson, working on the identity of the hospital body, quickly established that he wasn't a patient or a member of staff. The hospital's computerised admission and discharge system kept meticulous records of the comings and goings of patients. The human resources department could check quickly which employees had used their electronic swipe cards to record arrival and departures over the previous forty-eight hours and there were no anomalies. It was just possible that a staff member had come into the hospital and forgotten to swipe. However the system, which had been introduced by the new private sector management company in the face of strong opposition from staff and unions, was used by human resources to verify attendance and by payroll to calculate wages and salaries, especially overtime. The detectives decided to exclude the possibility that the dead man was a member of staff until they had checked up on relatives and other members of the public, and, more importantly, contract staff.
'About three years ago', Duncan Williamson told Colin MacNee, 'the Health Board, against its better judgment, the chief executive says, was instructed by the Scottish Government to contract out the hospital's management. It was hugely controversial politically. I was still in uniform then and I had to police the union demos protesting against it. But it went ahead, and things became even more heated when an American health management organisation - an HMO - was announced as the preferred bidder.'
MacNee interrupted. 'Fascinating stuff, Duncan, but is it relevant?'
'Bear with me, boss. Eventually, the contract, for twenty-five years, was awarded to the HMO. It's called Hedelco - Health Delivery Corporation. They kept on most of the management, but the performance of the hospital is monitored, on a daily basis, by a team of number crunchers and lawyers from the states. They have a suite of offices on site and they are obsessively secretive. It's not a happy place, and Stewart and I are being blocked at every turn as we try to find out who they had on site on Friday and Saturday.
'For fuck's sake, we're investigating a murder in a major public building!'
'That's the point. Hedelco regard it as a private corporation. Their local people have to refer everything back to the States and you don't have to spend much time there to realise that the local management are shit scared of Hedelco.'
'But they don't own it. We own it. The National Health Service owns it. These money grubbing bastards need to know that. Who do I talk to?'
Colin MacNee was angry that the enquiry was being obstructed, but he also knew that he was showing his political leanings. As a serving officer, he had to be politically neutral, but his liberal views on race, gender and public service were well known to his colleagues. He had great respect for those police officers who, in the face of the usual stereotyping, became openly left wing after leaving the service, even to the extent of running for public office or taking the Labour whip in the House of Lords. His wife, Janet, was an NHS GP and, since his promotion had increased their income to the point where they could afford reliable childcare, she worked full time in a community health centre.
'Hedelco's local boss – “Chief Contract Management Officer” he calls himself - is Bernard - stress on the "nard": really pisses him off if you get it wrong - Donovan. I'd only been with him for two minutes when he told me about his MBA from Harvard. As my granny would say, if he was chocolate he'd eat himself. Very good at giving nothing away, though. Says he has to check everything with Head Office. Can't give out information without their approval. He's your man. You may need reinforcements, though.'
DCI Vanessa Fiske had a flat in Aberdeen, but for a few months she had been living with her - she was never sure how to describe him - boyfriend? partner? lover? - in his rather bigger apartment overlooking the harbour. Neil Derrick, a commercial lawyer in the oil business, had been less than sympathetic when Vanessa had confessed to being frightened by the prospect of flying by helicopter to the crime scene.
'For God's sake, Vanessa. You're a senior police officer in the oil capital of the UK. You really can't expect to restrict you investigations to places you can drive to. Anyway, the police use helicopters for all sorts of things.'
'I know that! But I've been quite clever, so far, about avoiding going up in the bloody things. Even when I was on royal protection I managed to negotiate myself out of airborne assignments. And budget cuts make it quite easy, most of the time, not to use them. But I've got a probable crime scene that happens to be a hundred miles offshore and I can hardly send Colin because I'm frightened to go on a chopper. He's a friend, and he's very loyal, but it would get out. So I'll just have to take a beta blocker and go for it!'
Going for it had meant a one hour flight from Dyce to Vermont One. It had been a lovely bright autumn day with very little wind and the conditions helped her to enjoy the experience. Circling round the rig and then landing on its helipad had been dramatic and her excitement had communicated to the two scenes of crime officers she had taken with her, and to her newly recruited Detective Sergeant, Sara Hamilton. But this was work, and potentially a very difficult case. She needed to assess the situation before sending for some uniformed support to take statements from the staff on the rig.
DI Colin MacNee had been sitting in the reception area of Hedelco's suite of offices rather longer than the urgency of a murder enquiry could tolerate. The young woman at the desk - locally recruited by the sound of her accent - was smiling at him in a way that was intended to be both apologetic and encouraging, but his patience was exhausted.
'Miss Archibald, I need to speak to Mr Donovan. Now. I assume that he is behind that door. I don't care how important his international call is. Either you go in there and tell him I have to see him right now, or I will. You might remind him that this is almost certainly a murder enquiry and that he is coming very close to obstructing the police.'
The door was opened by a man of about forty-five with close-cropped fair hair and wearing the unmistakeable uniform of corporate America. The jacket of the single-breasted suit was a little too tight, the trousers a little too short. The button-down, double-stitched collar contained the regulation anonymous, but to the British eye, faintly military tie, with the stripes sloping down from right to left. He stuck out his right hand - no shirt cuffs, so a half-sleeve shirt.
'Mr MacNee. I'm so sorry you've had to wait. How can I help?'
Smarmy bastard, Colin thought, let's make sure he understands the ground rules.
'It's Detective Inspector MacNee, Mr Donovan, and I've just been telling your secretary how perilously close you're coming to obstructing my enquiries, so perhaps we should speak in private.'