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Winner of the 1999 Crime Writers' Association Best First Crime novel ...
Winner of the 1999 Crime Writers' Association Best First Crime novel award.
Ghost-grey day in the city and seagulls screaming through the fog that had been smothering us for a week. Tourists started to head up George IVth Bridge for the Friday execution. I was the only local paying attention. If you want to survive in Edinburgh, you've got to keep reminding yourself this place is weirder than sweet-smelling sewage.
My shift with the squad of Parks Department labourers was due to finish at four but I'd made up my mind long before that. I had an hour before my meeting with the woman who signed herself Katharine K. It was 20 March 2020, I was thirty-six years old and I was going to break the rules.
"Are you coming for a pint, Quint?" one of the boys asked.
It was tempting, but I managed to shake my head. There would have been no escape if they had known what day it was. The Council describes birthday celebrations as "excessively self-indulgent" in the City Regulations, but the tradition of getting paralytic remains. It's one of the few that does. Anyway, I had a sex session later on and if you're pissed at one of those, you're in deep shit.
"Course he isn't." Roddy the Ox wiped sweat and snot away with the back of his arm. "He'll be away to the library like a model arse-licking citizen." Every squad's got a self-appointed spokesman and I never get on with any of them. So I go to the library a lot. Not just to broaden my mind. I spend most of my time in the archives checking up on the people my clients report missing.
"Actually," I said, looking the big man in the eye, "I'm going to watch theexecution." Jaws dropped so quickly that I checked my flies. "Anybody else coming?"
They stood motionless in their fatigues, turned to stone. Not even the Ox seemed to fancy gate-crashing a party that's strictly tourists only.
The way things are, I usually try to stick out from the crowd. Not this time. As I was the only ordinary citizen pushing a bicycle towards the Royal Mile, I tried to make myself inconspicuous. The buses carrying groups to the gallows gave me a bit of cover. So did the clouds of diesel fumes, at the same time as choking me. Fifteen years since private cars were banned and still the place reeks.
The mass of humanity slowed as it approached the checkpoint above the library's grimy facade. Rousing folksongs came from loudspeakers, the notes echoing through the mist like the cries of sinners in the pit. Some of the tourists were glancing at adverts for events in the year-round Festival which is the Council's main source of income. Among them were posters of the front page of Time's New Year edition proclaiming Edinburgh "Worldwide City of the Year". The words "Garden of Edin" were printed in maroon under a photo of the floodlit castle. I've worked in most of the city's gardens but I've yet to see a naked woman — or a snake.
I kept my head down and tried not to bump into too many people with my front wheel. The guards had raised the barrier as the time of the execution drew near. Fortunately they weren't bothering to examine the herd of people. I felt a stickiness in my armpits that would stay with me till my session next week at the communal baths. Why was I taking the chance? The fire in my veins a few seconds later answered the question — I'd managed to get into a forbidden part of the city. I felt like a real anarchist. Till I started calculating my chances of getting out so easily.
I let myself be swallowed up by the crowd that had gathered round the gallows in the Lawnmarket. Guides were struggling to make themselves heard, speaking Arabic, Chinese, Greek, Korean. There was a small group of elderly Americans in transparent rain-capes. They were among the first from across the Atlantic; until recently the Council refused entry to nationals of what it called in its diplomatic way "culturally bankrupt states". A bearded courier in a kilt was giving them the sales pitch.
"The Royal Mile runs from the castle to what remains of Holyrood Palace," he bellowed, pointing towards the mist-covered lower reaches. "The palace was reduced to ruins in the rioting that followed the last coronation in 2002. The crown prince's divorce and remarriage to a Colombian drugs heiress signed the old order's death warrant." He paused to catch his breath and gave me a suspicious look. "The already fragile United Kingdom quickly broke up into dozens of warring city-states. Thanks to the Council of City Guardians, Edinburgh has been the only one to achieve stability ..."
The propaganda washed over me. I knew most of it by heart. I wondered again about the note I'd found under my door yesterday. "Can't wait any longer," it read. "Meet me at 3 Lennox Street Lane five p.m. tomorrow if you want work. Katharine K." The handwriting was spidery, very different from the copperplate required in the city's schools and colleges. The writer must have been hanging about on the landing outside my flat for quite a time. Despite the fumes from the nearby brewery, the place was filled with her scent. I knew exactly what it was: Moonflower, classified Grade 3 by the Supply Directorate and issued to lower level hotel and restaurant workers. Beneath the perfume lay the even stronger smell of a client desperate for my services.
It was coming up to four thirty and the guides took a break from their shouting competition. Looking around the crowd, I was struck by how many of the tourists were disabled in one way or another: some were in wheelchairs, some were clutching their companions' arms, a few even looked to be blind. The Council had probably been working on a braille version of the hanging.
Then there was a hush as the condemned man was led up to the scaffold by guards in period costume. The prisoner's hands were bound and a black velvet bag placed over his head.
The guides started speaking again. The bearded man was explaining to the Americans that this was Deacon William Brodie, the city's most notorious villain.
"Here, in the heart of the city where crime no longer exists" — at least according to the Public Order Directorate — "Brodie committed his outrages. He was a cabinet-maker by trade, rising to become Deacon of Wrights and Masons. But by night he was a master-burglar, robbing dozens of wealthy householders."
Encouraged by their guides' gestures, the tourists began to boo. The English-speaking guide moved nearer the gallows.
"Brodie was eventually caught, but not before his reputation had gained a permanent place in the minds of his fellow citizens. A century later the Edinburgh writer Robert Louis Stevenson used him as the model for his famous study of evil in Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde. The man in the kilt gave a fawning grin. "Don't forget to pick up a souvenir edition of the book in your hotel giftshop."
Under the gibbet final preparations were being made. I followed them closely, trying to work out how they faked it. There was no sign of a protective collar. It even looked like the victim was trembling involuntarily. I remembered summary executions I had seen, members of the drugs gangs that terrorised the city in the years after independence being put up against a wall. They had shaken in the same way, sworn at the guardsmen to get it over with. To my disgust I found that my heart was racing as it had done then.
The presiding officer, dressed in black tunic and lace collar, shouted across the crowd from the scaffold. "On 1 October 1788 Brodie mounted the set of gallows which he himself had designed — to be hanged by the neck until he was dead."
There were a few seconds of silence to let everyone's flesh creep, then a loud wooden thump as the trap jerked open and the body dropped behind a screen, leaving the rope twisting one way then the other from the tarred beam. The spectators went wild.
I pushed my way to the side, wheeling my bicycle past the tartan and whisky shops towards Bank Street. I felt a bit shaky. It had struck me that maybe the execution wasn't just a piece of theatre for the tourists. I mean, staging mock hangings in a city where capital punishment has been abolished and violence of any kind supposedly eradicated is cynical enough. Actually getting rid of the small number of murderers serving life with hard labour in the city's one remaining prison would be seriously hypocritical. But with the Council you never know. It's always boasting about the unique benefits it's given us: stability, work and housing for everyone, as much self-improvement as you can stomach. But what about freedom? Even suicide has been outlawed.
I turned the corner. By the Finance Directorate, a great, dilapidated palace that had once housed the Bank of Scotland, the barrier was down and the city guardswoman standing in front of it was definitely not friendly. She stuck her hand out for my ID.
"What are you doing up here, citizen?" She was in her mid-twenties, tall and fit-looking. Her red hair was in a neat ponytail beneath her beret and the maroon heart — emblem of the city — was prominent on the left breast pocket of her grey tunic. On the right was her barracks name and number. The heavy belt around her waist provided straps for her sheath knife and truncheon; since the gangs were dealt with, the City Guard no longer carry firearms. "Well?" she demanded. "I'm waiting."
I tried to look innocent. "I was working at the museum, Wilkie 418 ..."
She didn't buy it. "Your flat's in the opposite direction." She had the neutral voice that all auxiliaries acquire during training. The Council has been trying to get rid of class distinctions by banning local accents. It's a nice theory. "You've no business to come this way."
She ran her eyes over my labourers' fatigues and checked the data on my ID card — height five feet ten inches, weight eleven stone in the imperial system: bringing that back was one of the Council's stranger decisions. Hair black, a bit over the one-inch maximum stipulated for male citizens. Eyes brown. Nose aquiline. Teeth complete and in good condition. Then she glanced at my right hand to check the distinguishing mark, showing no sign of emotion. Finally she gave me a stare that would have brought a tear to the eye of the Sphinx. She had registered the letters "DM" that told her I'd been demoted from the rank of auxiliary.
"I hope you don't think I'm going to do you any favours." The sudden hard edge to her voice rasped like a meat-saw biting bone. "You've no business in a tourist area. Report to your local barracks tomorrow morning, citizen." She handed me an offence notification. "You'll be assigned two Sundays' community service and your record will be endorsed accordingly." She glanced at my face. "You could do with a shave as well."
I stood at the checkpoint with the neatly written sheet in my hand for a few moments. Cheering from the racetrack that had been laid over the disused railway lines in Princes Street Gardens came up through the fog. The seagulls had given up auditioning for the City Choir and now I could hear bagpipe music from the speakers beneath the streetlamps. It sounded more mournful than any blues song I ever played. My appetite for meeting the fragrant Katharine K. had gone completely.
"Oh, and citizen," the guardswoman called humourlessly from the sentry box. "Happy Birthday."
I was late of course. As I was cycling like a lunatic through the swirls of mist on the Dean Bridge, I almost went into the back of one of the city's battered delivery vans. Their drivers have a reputation for using the vehicles to shift contraband but this one was going so slowly he had to be on city business.
"At last." The woman came towards me from the door of the house in Lennox Street Lane, then stopped abruptly. She examined me as critically as the guardswoman had, staring at my mud-encrusted trousers like she'd never seen filth before. She had a face to write poems about: high cheekbones, lips as promising as a lovers' assignation and green eyes that flashed in the dim light and told me stories I hadn't heard for a long time. Then her nose twitched and the spell was broken. "You are citizen Dalrymple, aren't you?" she asked in a hoarse voice that I felt run up my spine like a caress.
She wasn't the first of my clients to be dubious about the way I look. I nodded and fumbled with the padlock on my bike; only an idiot relies on the City Guard to look after his property outside the tourist areas. At the same time I ran my eye over her. She was about my height, but her build had more going for it. The short brown hair that stood up on the top of her head would have made her look permanently surprised if she hadn't been as languid as a well-fed lioness. I wondered whom she'd eaten recently.
"Katharine Kirkwood," she said. "I wasn't expecting a labourer."
I took her hand and felt long, elegant fingers. Her scent washed over me like the tide of a lunar sea. "Quintilian Dalrymple," I said. "Investigator as well as labourer."
Her eyes blinked only once when she felt the stump of my right forefinger. "You give everyone that little test, don't you?" A smile nagged at the corners of her mouth. "How did I do?"
"Pretty well," I said generously.
"How did you lose it?"
"You don't want to know."
She looked at me curiously, then shrugged. "Come this way." She opened the street door and led me up dingy stairs to the first floor. That gave me an opportunity to examine her legs, black stockings beneath her issue coat. She passed that test too.
"You've got a key," I said. "Why were you waiting outside?"
Katharine Kirkwood faced a door which needed several coats of paint. She turned slowly and handed me the keys, her face taut. "I'm ... I'm frightened." I hadn't put her down as the type who scares easily. "This is my brother's place." All of a sudden her voice was soft. "It's ten days since I last saw him."
"That's not long. You know what it's like in this city. People are always being picked up for extra duties or ..."
"No," she said with quiet insistence. "Adam and I, we're ..." She left the sentence unfinished. "He'd have found a way to let me know."
I watched her as she leaned against the doorframe and tried to look optimistic. It wouldn't be the first time I found a body behind a locked door. If this one had been there for over a week, not even a jerrycan of her perfume would be much help.
"Haven't you been to the City Guard?"
"Those bastards?" Her tone was razor sharp. "I told them days ago but they still haven't found the time to take a look. Too busy licking the tourists' arses."
I nodded and knocked on the door less violently than the guard would have done. No answer. That would have been too easy. So I slipped the key into the lock and took a deep breath. Then pushed the door open and went inside.
Adam Kirkwood's flat conformed to the Housing Directorate's standard plan. In other words, it was a soulless dump. There was a square living room with the minuscule kitchen in a partitioned alcove, a bedroom off to the left and a toilet without shower or bath in the far corner. It contained the usual furniture; table, two stick-legged chairs, a sofa that looked like an elephant had been trampolining on it, a desk, uneven bookshelves and, to my relief, no body.
Katharine K. remained in the doorway till I beckoned, then came forward into the main room. "He's not here."
She breathed out slowly and turned to me. "Your turn for a test." She gave me a smile that was about as encouraging as the thumbs-down to a stricken gladiator. "I heard from one of the girls at work that you find missing people. Convince me you've got what it takes, citizen."
"Call me Quint." I've had to get used to clients who think investigators are magicians. Sometimes I refuse to perform, but not when they're female and have her looks. "You want a demonstration?" I scrutinised her, taking my time. I enjoyed it more than she did. "So, you work as a chambermaid at the Independence Hotel, you live in William Street, you're left-handed, you burned yourself with an iron five, maybe six days ago and you spend a lot of your free time in the staff gym."
She wasn't impressed. "Come on, all that's obvious from my appearance. And everyone knows where Indie staff live."
I shrugged. "I haven't finished. You have an unusually close relationship with your brother, your parents are dead, you used to be an auxiliary and you have a dissidence conviction." I gave her my best smile. "Also, you like Chinese poetry."
She glanced at the tattered book that was protruding from her bag. "Very observant. But most of that is just guesswork." She didn't sound quite as sceptical.
"You reckon?" I don't usually reveal how my mind works and a lot of what I'd said was just supposition, but I wanted her to think I was as sharp as they come. Maybe I was trying to convince myself too. "I saw your handwriting, remember? Only someone who doesn't care what people think would write a note to a stranger without using copperplate. And you aren't in a hurry to get off to evening classes either. Demoted auxiliaries like us aren't allowed to attend classes in case we have a bad influence on the others."
Katharine K. nodded. "You were one too. I was beginning to wonder. Don't tell me — Public Order Directorate?"
I raised my hands in surrender. The way she had shifted the discussion from her past to mine was impressive.
"Guardsman?" she asked acidly.
"Not exactly." I went over to the kitchen. It was tidy, a cup and plate on the draining-board. "Do I get the job, then?"
"I suppose so." She was right behind me, looking at the crockery, then touching the cup carefully as if she were trying to re-establish contact with her brother. "How do I pay you?"
"No cure, no pay. If I find your brother, it's up to you what you give me. None of my clients has much to spare after buying the week's food and electricity vouchers. I often get whatever they can lay their hands on at work. I had half a pound of coffee last month."
"Riches indeed." She finally took her fingers away from the cup. "Why do you do it?"
I've never been too sure of the answer to that question myself. "It's a way of staying alive." I moved over to the sofa. "You'd better tell me something about your brother."
Katharine K. sat down beside me and took a piece of hotel notepaper from her book of poetry.
"Adam Peter Kirkwood," I read. "Status — citizen. Born 3.12.1995, height six feet two inches, weight thirteen stone twelve pounds, hair dark brown, nose snub, teeth complete, distinguishing mark none, employment Roads Department, Transport Directorate, address 3 Lennox Street Lane, next of kin Katharine Kirkwood (sister)." I nodded. "That'll do for a start. I don't suppose you've got a photo?" The Council has strictly controlled the taking of photographs, seeing them as a major element in the cult of the individual that had helped to destroy the United Kingdom.
She showed me a small, blurred copy of a handsome young man who was looking straight into the camera with the hint of a mocking smile on his lips. "Just this, I'm afraid." The only way people can get pictures of their loved ones is by sneaking photocopies of ID cards.
"I'll track down his file and see what it says. If it's been brought up to date."
"Can you do that?" She was staring at me. "I thought citizens' files were classified."
"Depends who you know." That line usually provokes admiration, but Katharine Kirkwood just looked puzzled. "He's twenty-four, so obviously he's done his year on the border."
"Finished it three years ago."
"And you last saw him when exactly?"
"Tuesday before last, 10 March. I came round here. I often do."
I looked around the small room, keeping to myself the fact that over the last three months I'd had half a dozen cases of missing young people. I hadn't found any of them. "Anything different? Anything been taken?"
She got up and walked about, picking up and laying down objects that were clearly familiar to her. She went into the bedroom and re-emerged after a couple of minutes. "Everything's as it always is. Adam's very neat."
"Is there anything you haven't told me, Katharine?"
She looked like she was going to object to my use of her first name, but nothing came of it.
"I need to know. If it turns out he's part of some dissident cell, I'd prefer to be told before they start using me as a punchbag."
She shook her head. "No, he's not a rebel. You can be sure of that." She raised her hand to her forehead. "What worries me most is how he was the last time I saw him. Kind of nervous — not frightened exactly, but excited, as if something important was about to happen. I've never seen him like that before. He wouldn't tell me about it. Said it was secret."
I didn't like the sound of that and went into the bedroom to conceal my expression. If Adam Kirkwood was into something classified, I'd be giving myself a headache for nothing. Still, maybe she was worth it.
Where he slept was unusually tidy, more like a barracks than a private room. The deal wardrobe contained labourer's fatigues like mine and the few casual shirts and trousers that the average citizen possesses. A pair of size twelve running shoes took up one corner. When you look round a place you normally form an impression of the person who lives there. Not in Adam Kirkwood's case. I felt like an archaeologist breathlessly opening a golden sarcophagus to find nothing but dust and moth-eaten shrouds.
Back in the main room I continued snooping around, aware of Katharine's eyes on me.
"How are you going to track him down?" she asked.
I sat down on the sofa beside her. "I'll check the archives first. I know my way around there. I've got contacts in other places too — the Misdemeanours Department, the Labour Directorate — to see if he's been drafted into the mines or on to one of the city farms" — I skipped the hospitals, where unidentified bodies turn up more often than you might expect in a city whose population is carefully monitored — "the Deserters' Register. Did your brother ever talk about crossing the border illegally?"
Her eyes narrowed. "That's what the guard asked too. Adam isn't a deserter any more than I am. I don't like the Council but Edinburgh's safer than all the other cities. Neither of us wants to leave." She moved her hand to her eyes quickly. "It's my fault. I influenced him. He could easily have become an auxiliary. It was because of me that he didn't. He let his work at college go, failed all his exams and ended up as a labourer." She looked over at me. "Sorry ..."
"Don't worry, I'm not proud. You haven't told me why you were demoted."
Her eyes opened wide and glinted shafts of ice. "That's got nothing to do with this. What about you? Why did they kick you out?" She looked down.
"Why do I have the feeling that I've suddenly grown jackass's ears?" I waited for her to raise her eyes again but she didn't oblige. "Forget it. I'll have to trust you."
"How kind." She smiled bitterly then stood up. "I've got the night shift. When will you know something?"
I moved over to the bookshelves. "In a couple of days. I live in Gilmore Place, number 13. Come round about eight in the evening." I pulled out the book that had attracted my attention. It was the same edition of Chinese poetry translations Katharine had in her bag. Between pages twenty and twenty-one I came across a single foreign banknote. I kept my back to her. "Any idea why your brother would have secreted fifty thousand drachmae in his copy of this?"
She was at my side instantly, staring at the garish pink bill. "I haven't the faintest idea," she said, her voice fainter than it was hoarse. "What's it worth?"
"More than you or I will earn this month. But where did he get it? You know it's illegal for Edinburgh citizens to have foreign currency."
Katharine shook her head in what looked like bewilderment. I was almost sure she knew nothing about this part of her brother's life but you never know — she could have been the most accomplished actress in the city. Glancing at her profile, I made another discovery. The line of her nose was exactly the same as Caro's. I thought I'd got over seeing aspects of her in other women. This case was already full of surprises.
I wheeled my bicycle back to Gilmore Place. It was dark now and the fog was even thicker than before, but City Guard vehicles were still careering about like decrepit maroon dodgems. My watch had finally succumbed to the soakings it got every day in the city's parks so I didn't have much idea of the time. Fortunately curfew wasn't imminent. Then I remembered the sex session. All citizens have to attend a weekly session with a partner allocated to them by the Recreation Directorate. The Council claims we get a more stimulating sex life, but everyone knows it's just another way of keeping an eye on us. At least it was a home fixture this time. A month ago I ended up stranded for the night at a crazy woman's flat in Morningside. She got her money's worth. Thank Christ the regulations forbid further encounters between partners of my status.
Back in my place I sank into the sofa, which was even more hamstrung than the one at Adam Kirkwood's. My room, a testament to Housing Directorate grot, was so similar I almost thought I was back at his. The only difference was that I had a lot more books. One of the few Council decisions I completely go along with is the banning of television. As a result Edinburgh citizens are seriously well read and cheap copies of most kinds of books are available. Nothing too subversive, of course, and writing in any Scots dialect is right out. I've forgotten all the dirty bits from Irvine Welsh books I memorised when I was a kid. But the worst thing the idiots in power have done is to ban the blues, though they had their reasons. My collection of recordings is hidden under a tartan rug with my guitar case on top. I listen to them with my head against my moth-eaten speaker, straining to hear and hoping the neighbours won't report me. What a thrill.
The street door three floors below banged open and heavy, ringing steps sounded on the stairs. Only the City Guard and citizens working in the mines are issued with nailed boots. Either I was about to have sex with a large female miner or someone in number 13 was in trouble.
I should have known that someone was me. My door took a pounding before I could get to it.
"Citizen Dalrymple?" The auxiliary was tall and barrel-chested, the kind of guy who gets picked first in playground team games. His black hair was longer than mine and the regulation beard thick on his face. "I'm Hume 253." He handed me an envelope bearing the seal of the Council. "This is for you."
I opened it, expecting one of the public order guardian's regular warnings to keep my nose out of his directorate's business. Instead I read: "CONFIDENTIAL: Murderer codenamed Ear, Nose and Throat Man appears to have resumed his activities. Accompany Hume 253 to Council meeting."
I was having trouble standing up, let alone concealing my shock from the guardsman.
"Are you coming, citizen?" the guardsman asked with an unusually patient smile.
I followed him out. Halfway down the stairs we passed a middle-aged female citizen with tired eyes and a soft, sad face. I wished I could have spent some time with her, but she was better off without me.
"I hear there's been a murder," Hume 253 said in a low voice. He must have been in his late twenties and on the surface he looked like a typical muscle-bound guardsman, but his enthusiasm was surprising. The average auxiliary these days displays about as much emotion as the tarts who service the tourists in the city's hotels. "What do you know, citizen?" he asked.
"Nothing," I lied as I climbed into the battered Land-Rover.
"The first killing in the city for five years," the guardsman said. It sounded like he approved. He let in the clutch and set off round the corner even faster than his kind normally drive.
I hung on to the worn edges of the seat and wondered exactly what kind of birthday present I was about to be given.
Posted August 6, 2013