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Authors: Tom Knox

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BOOK: The Marks of Cain
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‘Where the hell is everyone?’

‘Killed. Died. America.’

They were at the end of the lane. The houses had dwindled, and they were surrounded by rocks and thickets.
Somewhere out there was France, and the ocean – and cities and trains and airports
.

Somewhere.

Abruptly, a church appeared through the mist. Grey-stoned and very old, and perched above a ravine which was flooded with fog. The windows were gaunt, the location austere.

‘Not exactly welcoming. The house of God?’

Amy pushed at a rusty iron gate. ‘The churches are often like this. They used to build them on older sites, pagan sites. For the ambience, maybe.’

David paused, perplexed. Odd circular stones, like circles balanced on squares, were set along the path to the church door. The stones were marked with
lauburus
– the mysterious and aethereal swastika. David had never seen circular gravestones before.

‘Let’s try inside,’ he said.

They walked down the slippery cobbled path to the humble wooden church door. It was black, old, wet – and locked.

‘Damn.’

Amy walked left, around the side of the church – shrouding herself with mist. David followed. There was a second, even smaller door. She twisted the rusty handle; it opened. David felt the lick of moisture on his neck; it was cold now, as well as gloomy. He wanted to get inside.

But the interior of the church was as unalluring as the exterior. Dank and shadowy, with unpainted wooden galleries of seating. The reek of rotten flower-water was intense; five stained glass windows filtered the chill and foggy daylight.

‘Curious,’ said Amy, pointing up. One of the stained glass windows showed a large bull, a burning tree, and a white Basque house. Then she elaborated, still pointing at the window.

‘The Basques are very devout, very Catholic. But they
were pagan until the tenth century, and they keep a lot of their pre-Christian imagery. Like that. That house – there –’ she gestured to the main window ‘– that’s the
exte
, the family house, the sacred cornerstone of heathen Basque culture. The souls of the Basque dead are said to return to a Basque house, through subterranean passages…’

David stared. The stained glass tree was burning in the cold glass light.

‘And the woman? In the other window.’

‘That’s Mari, the lady of the witches.’

‘The…’

‘Goddess of the witches. The Basque witches.
We do not exist, yes we do exist, we are fourteen thousand strong
.’ She looked at him, her eyes blue and icy in the hanging light. ‘That was their famous – or infamous – saying.
We do not exist, yes we do exist, we are fourteen thousand strong.

Her words were visible wraiths in the chill; her expression was obscure. David had a strong desire to get out; he didn’t know what he wanted to do. So he made for the little door, and exited with relief into the hazy daylight. Amy followed him, smiling, and then immediately headed left. Away from the path, disappearing behind the stage curtains of fog.

‘Amy?’

Silence. He said again:

‘Amy?’

Silence. Then:

‘Here. What’s this? David.’

He squinted, and saw her: a vague shape in the misty graveyard: female and slender, and elusive. David quickly stepped across.

‘Look,’ she said. ‘Another graveyard…With derelict graves.’

She was right. There was a secondary cemetery, divided
from the main churchyard by a low stone wall. This cemetery was much more neglected. A crude statue of an angel had fallen onto the soggy grass; and a brown cigarette had been contemptuously stubbed out – in the angel’s eye. Circular gravestones surrounded the toppled angel.

A noise distracted them. David turned. Emerging from the mist was an old woman. Her face was dark. She was dressed in a long black skirt and a ragged blue jumper, over which she was wearing a T-shirt imprinted with Disney characters; Wall-E, The Lion King, Pocahontas.

The woman was also deformed. She had a goitre the size of a grapefruit: a huge tumorous growth bulging out of her neck, like a shot putter holding the shot under his chin, getting ready to throw.

The crone spoke. ‘
Ggghhhchchc
,’ she said. She was pointing at them, her goitre was lividly bulging as she gabbled, her face vividly angry. She looked like a toad, croaking.


Graktschakk
.’ She pointed at them with a long finger, and then at the neglected graveyard.

‘What? What is it?’ David’s heart was pounding – foolishly. This was just an old woman, a sad, deformed old woman. And yet he was feeling a serious fear, a palpable and inexplicable alarm. He turned. ‘Amy – what is she saying?’

‘I think it’s Basque. She’s saying…shit people,’ Amy whispered, backing awkwardly away.

‘Sorry?’

‘She says we are shit people.
Shit people
. I’ve no idea why.’

The woman stared. And croaked some more. It was almost like she was laughing.

‘Amy. Shall we get the hell out?’

‘Please.’

They scurried up the path, David tried not to look at the woman’s enormous goitre as he passed; but then he turned
and looked at her goitre. She was still pointing at them, like someone accusing, or denouncing, or
laughing.

They were almost running now; David stuffed the map in his pocket as they escaped.

The sense of relief when they made the car was profound – and preposterous. David pressed the locks and turned the engine and spun the wheel – reversing at speed. They rumbled over the cobbles, past the stencil of
Otsoko
– the silently grinning black wolf’s head.

Amy’s mobile phone bleeped as they crested a hill: the telecom signal returning.

‘It’s José Garovillo. It’s
José.’

‘So.’ His excitement was real; his fear was repressed. ‘What’s his response?’

She looked down, reading her message. ‘He says…he is willing to meet you. Tomorrow.’ She shook her head. ‘But…this is a little odd…there’s something else.’

‘What?’

‘He says he knows why you are here.’

7

The tiny four-seater plane soared across the windswept fields of Shetland, heading for the rough blue sea already visible in the distance.

‘It’s just a twenty-minute flight,’ said the pilot, above the loud engines. ‘Might get a bit bumpy when we reach the coast.’

Simon Quinn was squeezed in the back of the minuscule plane alongside DCI Sanderson; sitting next to the pilot was DS Tomasky.

The speed of events was bewildering. Simon had learned only the previous afternoon, while watching
Shrek
with his son, Conor, that there was another murder case, linked to the Primrose Hill knotting. And already he was here: flying across the lonely, sunlit cliffs, with the words of his excited editor at the
Daily Telegraph
still reverberating in his mind:
you know the cliché, Simon: murder is money. Our readers will lap this up. Go and have a look!

It was certainly a juicy story. He could envisage the headlines – and the byline photo. But there was a mystery here, too. All he had been told was that the new victim, Julie Charpentier, was also old, and she was from the South of France. But the circumstance which had apparently
clinched the link, to the satisfaction of the police, was the fact that the woman was tortured. The details of the ‘tortures’ were, so far, unrevealed.

When he’d heard about the murder, he’d had to beg Sanderson to take him along; promising him some very nice coverage in the resulting article. The DCI had yielded to the journalist’s pleas – with a laconic chuckle: ‘Make sure you bring a strong stomach. They kept the corpse there for a few days so we could see it.’

The plane raced over the cliffs, out to sea. Leaning forward, the journalist asked the pilot:

‘What’s it like?’

‘Sorry?’ The pilot – Jimmy Nicolson – lifted one of his earphones, to hear better. ‘Didnae catch it. Say again?’

‘What’s it like, living on Fowler?’

‘Foo-lah,’ Jimmy laughed. ‘Remember what I said. Foula is pronounced Foo-lah.’

‘Yep. Sorry.’

‘Don’t worry,’ the pilot answered. ‘We’re used to people not knowing about us.’

‘You mean?’

‘Since they evacuated Saint Kilda, Foula is the most remote inhabited place…in the whole of Britain…’

Simon peered out of the window at the oceans. Chops of foam were mere flicks of whiteness against the enormous wastes of water. For several minutes they flew on in silence. He felt his stomach churn – he didn’t know if it was the nauseating rollercoaster ride of the airplane, or his apprehension at visiting the murder scene. Yet he was also adolescently excited. Headlines. He would get
headlines.

‘There,’ said Jimmy Nicolson. ‘Foula!’

Just perceptible through the sea-haze was a small but gutsy outcrop: a looming outlier of treeless, grass-topped rock, surmounted by steep hills. The cliffs looked so enormous
and the hills so daunting it was hard to believe anyone could pitch a tent on the island, let alone find enough flat space to build a house. But there were houses there: small crofts and cottages, tucked against the slopes.

And now they were banking towards Foula’s only landing spot. A patch of green turf.

Sanderson laughed. ‘That’s the airstrip?’

‘Flattest part of the isle,’ said Jimmy. ‘And we’ve never had a crash. Anyway if you overshoot, you just end up in the sea.’ He chuckled. ‘Hold onto your bonnets, gentlemen.’

It was the steepest descent Simon had ever made in a plane: they were plunging headlong towards the airstrip, as if they intended to plough up the fields with the propeller. But then Jimmy yanked fiercely on the joystick, and the plane tilted up, and suddenly they were coming to a stop, ten yards from the vandalizing waves.

Tomasky actually applauded.

‘Nice landing.’

‘Thank you,’ said Jimmy. ‘Look now, here’s the widow Holbourne. And Hamish Leask.’

Already the red-cheeked locals were slapping Jimmy on the back, and helping him to unload stores from the hold of the little aircraft; a few of them were nodding respectfully at DCI Sanderson. A tall red-haired man, in a police uniform, came over and introduced himself to the Scotland Yard officers.

‘Hamish Leask. Northern Constabulary.’

Sanderson smiled politely:

‘Of course. We talked. Hello!’ He gestured. ‘This is the freelancer I mentioned. Simon Quinn. He’s covering…things for the
Telegraph
.’

‘Och, yes. A proper newspaper.’ Leask shook Simon’s hand with crushing vigour. Before the journalist could reply, Jimmy intervened:

‘Terrible thing, Hamish. Terrible thing.’

Leask nodded. Without a word. Then he turned to face his guests. ‘So, chaps – shall we go straight to it?’

‘Yes please.’

‘I’ve been using Jimmy’s car. Very generous of him. Just over there.’

The five men strode across the meadows to a blue and very muddy four-wheel drive. The inside of the Range Rover smelt of peat, dogs and sheep-farming.

They drove past a small harbour. On the shingly beach, small wooden boats were lying on their sides, like drunks asleep on park benches. The biggest boat of all, a red metal tugboat, was oddly craned above the icy waters: literally lifted out of the harbour-water by an enormous metal claw.

Leask explained:

‘They have to lift the boat up, or it would get crushed in the storms.’

‘But…’ Simon said. ‘It’s made out of
metal.

Jimmy laughed: ‘You haven’t seen the storms on Foula.’

The road ran through fields with dark brown sections of soil, where peat had been brutally chopped from the sward. Sheep were nibbling at the salty grass.

Finally they rocked around a corner, where the road turned into a track; beyond that a few humble, off-white cottages were scattered on the last fields, staring at the sea – some looked empty, some had smoking chimneys. And all of these homesteads had a crouched and fearful appearance, huddled against the punitive wind: like dogs too often clattered by a brutal owner.

The path to Charpentier’s croft – the apparent scene of the crime – was short and soggy. Simon was glad he was wearing his walking boots.

‘OK,’ said the Shetland inspector. ‘We haven’t touched anything since the discovery.’

Sanderson said:

‘Just as it was found?’

‘And a wee bit grim! Gird yourselves. The body was discovered by a friend, Edith Tait. Another old lady who lives in the cottage just over that field. She’s gone to stay on the other side of the island.’

The modest croft seemed innocent enough in the cool northern sunlight. Whitewashed and foursquare. There was no sign of police activity, none of the kerfuffle Simon had expected.

Hamish looked at the assembled faces; he paused, theatrically.

‘Shall we?’

Everyone nodded; Hamish Leask thrust open a second door and Simon swiftly scanned the room. The furniture was austere; a painting of the Queen was hanging next to a photo of a Pope. And there was the corpse: lying on the floor, next to the fireplace.

The woman was old, she was dressed in some kind of housecoat. Her body below the neck was virtually untouched; her grey hair was long. She was dark-skinned and barefoot. But it was her face and shoulders that showed what had really happened.

Her face was shredded. Literally ripped into shreds: flaps of skin hung from her cheeks and forehead; the lips had been cut away but left to dangle, livid pink flesh showed inside the savage wounds. Her tongue had been sliced in two: it was protruding, and forked by the slice. Blood was spattered over her throat, the longest ribbon of skin draped down to her chest. Despite the complex and barbaric wounding, an expression was still visible: her face was contorted by pain.

Simon felt himself weaken, somehow, at the appalling sight: it was worse than he had anticipated. Much worse.
But he needed to stay lucid and cogent: do his job, be a journalist. He took a pen from his pocket – he needed to grasp something to calm himself.

DCI Sanderson approached the corpse. The detective stooped to look at the bruises on the neck. Blood had drained into the victim’s chest, discolouring the flesh; the intense rotten odour of decomposition was quite profound. The corpse would have to be moved very, very soon.

‘Hey, Tomasky. Have a look.’

The Polish DS dutifully stepped near. Simon quelled his sense of repulsion, and did the same – uninvited.

Sanderson whistled, almost appreciatively.


Expertly
done, again. Another garrotting.’

Simon followed the line of the DCI’s pen: he was pointing at some thin weals on the neck. They were livid and painful-looking. Blood had been drawn, but the bruising was minimal, the killing had indeed been swift, ruthless, and
expert.
As the DCI said. And yet the torture looked wild and insane.

Something else caught Simon’s attention. He looked down at her feet. Something there was not quite right; something there was…
not right at all.

He didn’t know whether to mention it.

Sanderson was off his haunches and saying, briskly: ‘You’ll need to get her to Pathology in Lerwick, right?’

‘Aye, we’re flying her out this afternoon. Kept her too long. But we thought you might want to see the scene first, Detective. Seeing as it is so…unusual.’

‘Lifted anything?’

‘Noo. No signs of forced entry – but that means nothing on Foula, people don’t lock their doors. No prints. Just…nothing.’

He shrugged; Sanderson nodded, distractedly.

‘Yes. Yes, thank you.’

Tomasky mused, aloud. ‘
O moj boze
. Holy Mother.
The face.’

Sanderson came back: ‘Quite something.’

Simon was puzzled, as well as horrified. He was still thinking about her feet. The weirdness of it all. He turned.

‘So the big question is…what links this woman to Françoise Gahets?’

Sanderson was gazing about the room. ‘Yup. We’re on it,’ he said, pensively. ‘She was from Gascony. Isn’t that right, Hamish?’

‘Aye. French Basque Country near Biarritz. Came here with her mother when she was very young, sixty or seventy years ago.’

A sober pause enveloped them; the moan of the ceaseless Foula wind outside was the only noise, carrying the faint bleats of sheep.

‘Enough?’ said Hamish.

‘Enough for now,’ Sanderson answered. ‘We’ll want to speak to her friend, of course.’

‘Edith Tait.’

‘Maybe tomorrow?’

The Shetland inspector nodded, and turned to Jimmy Nicolson.

The good cheer of the pilot had quite departed. ‘She was such a grand old gal. Came here after the war they say. Now look at her.’

He put a shielding hand to his eyes, and walked out of the room.

Leask sighed. ‘Foula is a tiny wee place. This has hit them hard. Let’s go for a walk.’

He led them outside into the cold bright air. Jimmy Nicolson was sitting in his car, passionately smoking a cigarette. Tomasky wandered over to join him, but Hamish Leask was already hiking in the opposite direction: up the nearest hill. He turned and called over his burly shoulder.

‘Let’s climb the Sneug! I feel a need to clear my lungs.’

Simon and Sanderson glanced at each other, then turned and pursued the Shetland officer.

The incline was austere, it was too exhausting to talk as they made their ascent. The journalist found his blood thumping painfully in his chest as, at last, they crested the top of the mighty hill.

The wind at the top was fierce. They were on the edge of a sudden cliff. He edged closer to the drop to have a look.

‘Bloody hell!’

Seagulls were wheeling at the bottom of the cliffs, but they were minuscule flakes of whiteness.

‘Good God. How high is
that
?’

‘One of the biggest sea-cliffs in Europe, maybe in the world,’ said Leask. ‘More than half a mile down.’

Simon stepped back.

‘Very advisable,’ said Leask. ‘The wind can whip you off these clifftops – and just flip you over the edge.’ Hamish chuckled, soberly, and added, ‘And yet you know what…what is truly amazing?’

‘What?’

‘These cliffs kept the Foulans going for centuries.’

‘Sorry?’

‘Look. See here –’ The Shetland officer was pointing at some distant atoms of birdlife, halfway down the enormous rockwall. ‘Puffin yonder, they nest on the cliffside. In the old days, when food ran low after a long winter, the local men would climb down the cliffs and steal the eggs and the chicks. It was a vital source of protein in the bad times. Baby puffin is very tasty – lots of fat, ye see.’

‘They’d climb down these cliffs?’

‘Aye. They actually developed a strange deformity. Like a kind of human subspecies.’

‘Sorry?’

‘The men of Foula. And Saint Kilda too.’ Hamish shrugged, his rust-red hair riffling in the wind. ‘Over the centuries they developed very big toes, because they used them for climbing the cliffs. I suppose that was evolution. The men who climbed best happened to be the ones with big toes, so they got wives and had well-fed children, and passed on their big toes.’

‘Are you serious?’

‘Quite serious.’ Hamish smiled serenely.

But Simon was not feeling serene; the talk of the weird toes of the Foulans had brusquely reminded him.
What he saw
. The old woman’s bare feet. He
had
to mention it.

‘Guys. Can we, ah, get out of this wind?’

‘Of course.’

The two policemen, and the journalist, walked down to a hollow, then lay back on the dewy turf. Simon said: ‘You mentioned toes, Mister Leask.’

‘Aye.’

‘Well. It’s funny but…Julie Charpentier’s toes…Did either of you notice?’

Leask looked blank. ‘I’m sorry?’

‘You didn’t see anything unusual about the victim? Her feet?’

‘What?’

Simon wondered if he was making an idiot of himself.

‘The toes of her right foot were deformed. Slightly.’

Sanderson was frowning.

‘Go on, Simon.’

‘I think the word is syndactyly. My wife is a doctor.’

‘And syn…’

‘Yes. Syndactyly. Webbed toes. Two of the old woman’s toes were conjoined, at least partially. It’s rather rare, but not unknown…’

Sanderson shrugged. ‘So?’

BOOK: The Marks of Cain
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