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PROBABLY the worst Saturday night of the year, which was why Inspector John Rebus had landed the shift. God was in his heaven, just making sure. There had been a derby match in the afternoon, Hibs versus Hearts at Easter Road. Fans making their way back to the west end and beyond had stopped in the city centre to drink to excess and take in some of the sights and sounds of the Festival.
The Edinburgh Festival was the bane of Rebus’s life. He’d spent years confronting it, trying to avoid it, cursing it, being caught up in it. There were those who said that it was somehow atypical of Edinburgh, a city which for most of the year seemed sleepy, moderate, bridled. But that was nonsense; Edinburgh’s history was full of licence and riotous behaviour. But the Festival, especially the Festival Fringe, was different. Tourism was its lifeblood, and where there were tourists there was trouble. Pickpockets and house-breakers came to town as to a convention, while those football supporters who normally steered clear of the city centre suddenly became its passionate defenders, challenging the foreign invaders who could be found at tables outside short-lease cafes up and down the High Street.
To night the two might clash in a big way.
‘It’s hell out there,’ one constable had already commented as he paused for rest in the canteen. Rebus believed him all too readily. The cells were filling nicely along with the CID in-trays. A woman had pushed her drunken husband’s fingers into the kitchen mincer. Someone was applying superglue to cashpoint machines then chiselling the flap open later to get at the money. Several bags had been snatched around Princes Street. And the Can Gang were on the go again.
The Can Gang had a simple recipe. They stood at bus stops and offered a drink from their can. They were imposing figures, and the victim would take the proferred drink, not knowing that the beer or cola contained crushed up Mogadon tablets, or similar fast-acting tranquillisers. When the victim passed out, the gang would strip them of cash and valuables. You woke up with a gummy head, or in one severe case with your stomach pumped dry. And you woke up poor.
Meantime, there had been another bomb threat, this time phoned to the newspaper rather than Lowland Radio. Rebus had gone to the newspaper offices to take a statement from the journalist who’d taken the call. The place was a mad house of Festival and Fringe critics filing their reviews. The journalist read from his notes.
‘He just said, if we didn’t shut the Festival down, we’d be sorry.’
‘Did he sound serious?’
‘Oh, yes, definitely.’
‘And he had an Irish accent?’
‘Sounded like it.’
‘Not just a fake?’
The reporter shrugged. He was keen to file his story, so Rebus let him go. That made three calls in the past week, each one threatening to bomb or otherwise disrupt the Festival. The police were taking the threat seriously. How could they afford not to? So far, the tourists hadn’t been scared off, but venues were being urged to make security checks before and after each performance.
Back at St Leonard’s, Rebus reported to his Chief Superintendent, then tried to finish another piece of paperwork. Masochist that he was, he quite liked the Saturday back-shift. You saw the city in its many guises. It allowed a salutory peek into Edinburgh’s grey soul. Sin and evil weren’t black— he’d argued the point with a priest— but were greyly anonymous. You saw them all night long, the grey peering faces of the wrongdoers and malcontents, the wife beaters and the knife boys. Unfocused eyes, drained of all concern save for themselves. And you prayed, if you were John Rebus, prayed that as few people as possible ever had to get as close as this to the massive grey nonentity.
Then you went to the canteen and had a joke with the lads, fixing a smile to your face whether you were listening or not.
‘Here, Inspector, have you heard the one about the squid with the moustache? He goes into a restaurant and—’
Rebus turned away from the DC’s story towards his ringing phone.
He listened for a moment, the smile melting from his face. Then he put down the receiver and lifted his jacket from the back of his chair.
‘Bad news?’ asked the DC.
‘You’re not joking, son.’
THE HIGH Street was packed with people, most of them just browsing. Young people bobbed up and down trying to instil enthusiasm in the Fringe productions they were supporting. Supporting them? They were probably the leads in them. They busily thrust flyers into hands already full of similar sheets.
‘Only two quid, best value on the Fringe!’
‘You won’t see another show like it!’
There were jugglers and people with painted faces, and a cacophony of musical disharmonies. Where else in the world would bagpipes, banjos and kazoos meet to join in a busking battle from hell?
Locals said this Festival was quieter than the last. They’d been saying it for years. Rebus wondered if the thing had ever had a heyday. It was plenty busy enough for him.
Though it was a warm night, he kept his car windows shut. Even so, as he crawled along the setts flyers would be pushed beneath his windscreen wipers, all but blocking his vision. His scowl met impregnable drama student smiles. It was ten o’clock, not long dark; that was the beauty of a Scottish summer. He tried to imagine himself on a deserted beach, or crouched atop a mountain, alone with his thoughts. Who was he trying to kid? John Rebus was always alone with his thoughts. And just now he was thinking of drink. Another hour or two and the bars would sluice themselves out, unless they’d applied for (and been granted) the very late licences available at Festival time.
He was heading for the City Chambers, across the street from St Giles’ Cathedral. You turned off the High Street and through one of two stone arches into a small parking area in front of the Chambers themselves. A uniformed constable was standing guard beneath one of the arches. He recognised Rebus and nodded, stepping out of the way. Rebus parked his own car beside a marked patrol car, stopped the engine and got out.
‘Where is it?’
The constable nodded towards a door near one of the arches, attached to the side wall of the Chambers. They walked towards it. A young woman was standing next to the door.
‘Inspector,’ she said.
‘I’ve told her to move on, sir,’ the constable apologised.
Mairie Henderson ignored him. Her eyes were on Rebus’s. ‘What’s going on?’
Rebus winked at her. ‘The Lodge, Mairie. We always meet in secret, like.’ She scowled. ‘Well then, give me a chance. Off to a show, are you?’
‘I was till I saw the commotion.’
‘Saturday’s your day off, isn’t it?’
‘Journalists don’t get days off, Inspector. What’s behind the door?’
‘It’s got glass panels, Mairie. Take a keek for yourself.’
But all you could see through the panels was a narrow landing with doors off. One door was open, allowing a glimpse of stairs leading down. Rebus turned to the constable.
‘Let’s get a proper cordon set up, son. Something across the arches to fend off the tourists before the show starts. Radio in for assistance if you need it. Excuse me, Mairie.’
‘Then there is going to be a show?’
Rebus stepped past her and opened the door, closing it again behind him. He made for the stairs down, which were lit by a naked lightbulb. Ahead of him he could hear voices. At the bottom of this first flight he turned a corner and came upon the group. There were two teenage girls and a boy, all of them seated or crouching, the girls shaking and crying. Over them stood a uniformed constable and a man Rebus recognised as a local doctor. They all looked up at his approach.
‘This is the Inspector,’ the constable told the teenagers. ‘Right, we’re going back down there. You three stay here.’
Rebus, squeezing past the teenagers, saw the doctor give them a worried glance. He gave the doctor a wink, telling him they’d get over it. The doctor didn’t seem so sure.
Together the three men set off down the next flight of stairs. The constable was carrying a torch.
‘There’s electricity,’ he said. ‘But a couple of the bulbs have gone.’ They walked along a narrow passage, its low ceiling further reduced by air- and heating-ducts and other pipes. Tubes of scaffolding lay on the floor ready for assembly. There were more steps down.
‘You know where we are?’ the constable asked.
‘Mary King’s Close,’ said Rebus.
Not that he’d ever been down here, not exactly. But he’d been in similar old buried streets beneath the High Street. He knew of Mary King’s Close.
‘Story goes,’ said the constable, ‘there was a plague in the 1600s, people died or moved out, never really moved back. Then there was a fire. They blocked off the ends of the street. When they rebuilt, they built over the top of the close.’ He shone his torch towards the ceiling, which was now three or four storeys above them. ‘See that marble slab? That’s the floor of the City Chambers.’ He smiled. ‘I came on the tour last year.’
‘Incredible,’ the doctor said. Then to Rebus: ‘I’m Dr Galloway.’
‘Inspector Rebus. Thanks for getting here so quickly.’
The doctor ignored this. ‘You’re a friend of Dr Aitken’s, aren’t you?’
Ah, Patience Aitken. She’d be at home just now, feet tucked under her, a cat and an improving book on her lap, boring classical music in the background. Rebus nodded.
‘I used to share a surgery with her,’ Dr Galloway explained.
They were in the close proper now, a narrow and fairly steep roadway between stone buildings. A rough drainage channel ran down one side of the road. Passages led off to dark alcoves, one of which, according to the constable, housed a bakery, its ovens intact. The constable was beginning to get on Rebus’s nerves.
There were more ducts and pipes, runs of electric cable. The far end of the close had been blocked off by an elevator shaft. Signs of renovation were all around: bags of cement, scaffolding, pails and shovels. Rebus pointed to an arc lamp.
‘Can we plug that in?’
The constable thought they could. Rebus looked around. The place wasn’t damp or chilled or cobwebbed. The air seemed fresh. Yet they were three or four storeys beneath road level. Rebus took the torch and shone it through a doorway. At the end of the hallway he could see a wooden toilet, its seat raised. The next door along led into a long vaulted room, its walls whitewashed, the floor earthen.
‘That’s the wine shop,’ the constable said. ‘The butcher’s is next door.’
So it was. It too consisted of a vaulted room, again whitewashed and with a floor of packed earth. But in its ceiling were a great many iron hooks, short and blackened but obviously used at one time for hanging up meat.
Meat still hung from one of them.
It was the lifeless body of a young man. His hair was dark and slick, stuck to his forehead and neck. His hands had been tied and the rope slipped over a hook, so that he hung stretched with his knuckles near the ceiling and his toes barely touching the ground. His ankles had been tied together too. There was blood everywhere, a fact made all too plain as the arc lamp suddenly came on, sweeping light and shadows across the walls and roof. There was the faint smell of decay, but no flies, thank God. Dr Galloway swallowed hard, his Adam’s apple seeming to duck for cover, then he retreated into the close to be sick. Rebus tried to steady his own heart. He walked around the carcass, keeping his distance initially.
‘Tell me,’ he said.
‘Well, sir,’ the constable began, ‘the three young people upstairs, they decided to come down here. The place had been closed to tours while the building work goes on, but they wanted to come down at night. There are a lot of ghost stories told about this place, headless dogs and—’
‘How did they get a key?’
‘The boy’s great-uncle, he’s one of the tour guides, a retired planner or something.’
‘So they came looking for ghosts and they found this.’
‘That’s right, sir. They ran back up to the High Street and bumped into PC Andrews and me. We thought they were having us on at first, like.’
But Rebus was no longer listening, and when he spoke it wasn’t to the constable.
‘You poor little bastard, look what they did to you.’
Though it was against regulations, he leaned forward and touched the young man’s hair. It was still slightly damp. He’d probably died on Friday night, and was meant to hang here over the weekend, enough time for any trail, any clues, to grow as cold as his bones.
‘What do you reckon, sir?’
‘Gunshots.’ Rebus looked to where blood had sprayed the wall. ‘Something high-velocity. Head, elbows, knees, and ankles.’ He sucked in breath. ‘He’s been six-packed.’
There were shuffling noises in the close, and the wavering beam of another torch. Two figures stood in the doorway, their bodies silhouetted by the arc lamp.
‘Cheer up, Dr Galloway,’ a male voice boomed to the hapless figure still crouched in the close. Recognising the voice, Rebus smiled.
‘Ready when you are, Dr Curt,’ he said.
The pathologist stepped into the chamber and shook Rebus’s hand. ‘The hidden city, quite a revelation.’ His companion, a woman, stepped forward to join them. ‘Have the two of you met?’ Dr Curt sounded like the host at a luncheon party. ‘Inspector Rebus, this is Ms Rattray from the Procurator Fiscal’s office.’
‘Caroline Rattray.’ She shook Rebus’s hand. She was tall, as tall as either man, with long dark hair tied at the back.
‘Caroline and I,’ Curt was saying, ‘were enjoying supper after the ballet when the call came. So I thought I’d drag her along, kill two birds with one stone . . . so to speak.’
Curt exhaled fumes of good food and good wine. Both he and the lawyer were dressed for an evening out, and already some white plaster-dust had smudged Caroline Rattray’s black jacket. As Rebus moved to brush off the dust, she caught her first sight of the body, and looked away quickly. Rebus didn’t blame her, but Curt was advancing on the figure as though towards another guest at the party. He paused to put on polythene overshoes.
‘I always carry some in my car,’ he explained. ‘You never know when they’ll be needed.’
He got close to the body and examined the head first, before looking back towards Rebus.
‘Dr Galloway had a look, has he?’
Rebus shook his head slowly. He knew what was coming. He’d seen Curt examine headless bodies and mangled bodies and bodies that were little more than torsos or melted to the consistency of lard, and the pathologist always said the same thing.
‘Poor chap’s dead.’
‘I take it the crew are on their way?’
Rebus nodded. The crew were on their way. A van to start with, loaded with everything they’d need for the initial scene of crime investigation. SOC officers, lights and cameras, strips of tape, evidence bags, and of course a bodybag. Sometimes a forensic team came too, if cause of death looked particularly murky or the scene was a mess.
‘I think,’ said Curt, ‘the Procurator Fiscal’s office will agree that foul play is suspected?’
Rattray nodded, still not looking.
‘Well, it wasn’t suicide,’ commented Rebus. Caroline Rattray turned towards the wall, only to find herself facing the sprays of blood. She turned instead to the doorway, where Dr Galloway was dabbing his mouth with a handkerchief.
‘We’d better get someone to fetch me my tools.’ Curt was studying the ceiling. ‘Any idea what this place was?’
‘A butcher’s shop, sir,’ said the constable, only too happy to help. ‘There’s a wine shop too, and some houses. You can still go into them.’ He turned to Rebus. ‘Sir, what’s a six-pack?’
‘A six-pack?’ echoed Curt.
Rebus stared at the hanging body. ‘It’s a punishment,’ he said quietly. ‘Only you’re not supposed to die. What’s that on the floor?’ He was pointing to the dead man’s feet, to the spot where they grazed the dark-stained ground.
‘Looks like rats have been nibbling his toes,’ said Curt.
‘No, not that.’ There were shallow grooves in the earth, so wide they must have been made with a big toe. Four crude capital letters were discernible.
‘Is that Neno or Nemo?’
‘Could even be Memo,’ offered Dr Curt.
‘Captain Nemo,’ said the constable. ‘He’s the guy in 2,000 Leagues Beneath the Sea.’
‘Jules Verne,’ said Curt, nodding.
The constable shook his head. ‘No, sir, Walt Disney,’ he said.
Excerpted from Mortal Causes by Ian Rankin.
Copyright 1994 by Ian Rankin.
Published in August 2009 by Minotaur Books.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.