A Question of Blood (Inspector John Rebus Series #14)by Ian Rankin, James MacPherson
When a former soldier and recluse murders two 17-year-old students at a posh Edinburgh boarding school, Rebus immediately suspects there is more to the case than meets the eye. Army investigators show up to snoop around the scene of the crime, and links between the killer and a local group of "Goths" (a morbid clique of black-clad teens who listen to heavy metal music… See more details below
When a former soldier and recluse murders two 17-year-old students at a posh Edinburgh boarding school, Rebus immediately suspects there is more to the case than meets the eye. Army investigators show up to snoop around the scene of the crime, and links between the killer and a local group of "Goths" (a morbid clique of black-clad teens who listen to heavy metal music) begin to surface. But just as Rebus finds himself in the thick of the murder inquiry, he's threatened with suspension from the police force: a man who had been menacing his partner and friend, Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke, dies in the same house fire that has left Rebus with horrible, painful burns. Rebus is immediately suspected of foul play. Now Rebus is faced with two harrowing missions: He must get to the root of the boarding school killing even as he tries to clear his own name.
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A Question of Blood
By Ian Rankin
Little, BrownCopyright © 2003 John Rebus Limited
All right reserved.
Chapter OneThere's no mystery," Detective Sergeant Siobhan Clarke said. "Herdman lost his marbles, that's all."
She was sitting by a hospital bed in Edinburgh's recently opened Royal Infirmary. The complex was to the south of the city, in an area called Little France. It had been built at considerable expense on open space, but already there were complaints about a lack of useable space inside and car-parking space outside. Siobhan had found a spot eventually, only to discover that she would be charged for the privilege.
This much she had told Detective Inspector John Rebus on her arrival at his bedside. Rebus's hands were bandaged to the wrists. When she'd poured him some tepid water, he'd cupped the plastic glass to his mouth, drinking carefully as she watched. "See?" he'd chided her afterwards. "Didn't spill a drop." But then he'd spoiled the act by letting the cup slip as he tried to maneuver it back on to the bedside table. The rim of its base hit the floor, Siobhan snatching it on the first bounce.
"Good catch," Rebus had conceded. "No harm done. It was empty anyway."
Since then, she'd been making what both of them knew was small talk, skirting questions she was desperate to ask and instead filling him in on the slaughter in South Queensferry. Three dead, one wounded. A quiet coastal town just north of the city. A private school, taking boys and girls from ages five to eighteen. Enrollment of six hundred, now minus two.
The third body belonged to the gunman, who'd turned his weapon on himself. No mystery, as Siobhan had said. Except for the why.
"He was like you," she was saying. "Ex-army, I mean. They reckon that's why he did it: grudge against society." Rebus noticed that her hands were now being kept firmly in the pockets of her jacket. He guessed they were clenched and that she didn't know she was doing it.
"The papers say he ran a business," he said. "He had a powerboat, used to take out water-skiers." "But he had a grudge?"
She shrugged. Rebus knew she was wishing there was a place for her at the scene, anything to take her mind off the other inquiry - internal this time, and with her at its core. She was staring at the wall above his head, as if there were something there she was interested in other than the paintwork and an oxygen outlet.
"You haven't asked me how I'm feeling," he said. She looked at him. "How are you feeling?" "I'm going stir-crazy, thank you for asking." "You've only been in one night." "Feels like more."
"What do the doctors say?" "Nobody's been to see me yet, not today. Whatever they tell me, I'm out of here this afternoon." "And then what?"
"How do you mean?" "You can't go back to work." Finally, she studied his hands. "How're you going to drive or type a report? What about taking phone calls?"
"I'll manage." He looked around him, his turn now to avoid eye contact. Surrounded by men much his age and sporting the same grayish pallor. The Scots diet had taken its toll on this lot, no doubt about it. One guy was coughing for want of a cigarette. Another looked like he had breathing problems. The overweight, swollen-livered mass of local manhood. Rebus held up one hand so he could rub a forearm over his left cheek, feeling the unshaven rasp. The bristles, he knew, would be the same silvered color as the walls of his ward.
"I'll manage," he repeated into the silence, lowering the arm again and wishing he hadn't raised it in the first place. His fingers sparked with pain as the blood pounded through them. "Have they spoken to you?" he asked.
"About what?" "Come on, Siobhan ..."
She looked at him, unblinking. Her hands emerged from their hiding place as she leaned forwards on the chair. "I've another session this afternoon."
"Who with?" "The boss." Meaning Detective Chief Superintendent Gill Templer. Rebus nodded, satisfied that as yet it wasn't going any higher. "What will you say to her?" he asked.
"There's nothing to tell. I didn't have anything to do with Fairstone's death." She paused, another unasked question hanging between them: Did you? She seemed to be waiting for Rebus to say something, but he stayed silent. "She'll want to know about you," Siobhan added. "How you ended up in here."
"I scalded myself," Rebus said. "It's stupid, but that's what happened." "I know that's what you say happened ..." "No, Siobhan, it's what happened. Ask the doctors if you don't believe me." He looked around again. "Always supposing you can find one."
"Probably still combing the grounds for a parking space." The joke was weak enough, but Rebus smiled anyway. She was letting him know she wouldn't be pressing him any further. His smile was one of gratitude.
"Who's in charge at South Queensferry?" he asked her, signaling a change of subject.
"I think DI Hogan's out there." "Bobby's a good guy. If it can be wrapped up fast, he'll do it." "Media circus by all accounts. Grant Hood's been drafted in to handle liaison."
"Leaving us short-changed at St. Leonard's?" Rebus was thoughtful. "All the more reason for me to get back there." "Especially if I'm suspended ..."
"You won't be. You said it yourself, Siobhan-you didn't have anything to do with Fairstone. Way I see it, it was an accident. Now that something bigger's come along, maybe it'll die a natural death, so to speak."
"'An accident.'" She was repeating his words. He nodded slowly. "So don't worry about it. Unless, of course, you really did top the bastard."
"John ..." There was a warning in her tone. Rebus smiled again and managed a wink.
"Only joking," he said. "I know damned fine who Gill's going to want to see in the frame for Fairstone." "He died in a fire, John."
"And that means I killed him?" Rebus held up both hands, turning them this way and that. "Scalds, Siobhan. That's all, just scalds." She rose from the chair. "If you say so, John." Then she stood in front of him, while he lowered his hands, biting back the sudden rush of agony. A nurse was approaching, saying something about changing his dressings.
"I'm just going," Siobhan informed her. Then, to Rebus: "I'd hate to think you'd do something so stupid and imagine it was on my behalf." He started shaking his head slowly, and she turned and walked away. "Keep the faith, Siobhan!" he called after her.
"That your daughter?" the nurse asked, making conversation. "Just a friend, someone I work with." "You something to do with the Church?"
Rebus winced as she started unpeeling one of his bandages. "What makes you say that?"
"The way you were talking about faith." "Job like mine, you need more than most." He paused. "But then, maybe it's the same for you?"
"Me?" She smiled, her eyes on her handiwork. She was short and plain-looking and businesslike. "Can't hang around waiting for faith to do anything for you. So how did you manage this?" She meant his blistered hands.
"I got into hot water," he explained, feeling a bead of sweat beginning its slow journey down one temple. Pain I can handle, he thought to himself. The problem was everything else. "Can we switch to something lighter than bandages?"
"You keen to be on your way?" "Keen to pick up a cup without dropping it." Or a phone, he thought. "Besides, there's got to be someone out there needs the bed more than I do."
"Very public-minded, I'm sure. We'll have to see what the doctor says."
"And which doctor would that be?" "Just have a bit of patience, eh?"
Patience: the one thing he had no time for. "Maybe you'll have some more visitors," the nurse added. He doubted it. No one knew he was here except Siobhan. He'd got one of the staff to call her so she could tell Templer that he was taking a sick day, maybe two at the most. Thing was, the call had brought Siobhan running. Maybe he'd known it would; maybe that's why he'd phoned her rather than the station.
That had been yesterday afternoon. Yesterday morning, he'd given up the fight and walked into his GP's office. The doctor filling in had taken one look and told him to get himself to a hospital. Rebus had taken a taxi to A&E, embarrassed when the driver had to dig the money for the fare out of his trouser pockets. "Did you hear the news?" the cabbie had asked. "A shooting at a school."
"Probably an air gun." But the man had shaken his head. "Worse than that, according to the radio ..."
At A&E, Rebus had waited his turn. Eventually, his hands had been dressed, the injuries not serious enough to merit a trip to the Burns Unit out at Livingston. But he was running a high temperature, so they'd decided to keep him in, an ambulance transferring him from A&E to Little France. He thought they were probably keeping an eye on him in case he went into shock or something. Or it could be they feared he was one of those self-harm people. Nobody'd come to talk to him about that. Maybe that's why they were hanging on to him: waiting for a psychiatrist with a free moment.
He wondered about Jean Burchill, the one person who might notice his sudden disappearance from home. But things had cooled there a little. They managed a night together maybe once every ten days. Spoke on the phone more frequently, met for coffee some afternoons. Already it felt like a routine. He recalled that a while ago he'd dated a nurse for a short time. He didn't know if she still worked locally. He could always ask, but her name was escaping him. It was a problem: he had trouble sometimes with names. Forgot the odd appointment. Not a big deal really, just part and parcel of the aging process. But in court he found himself referring to his notes more and more when giving evidence. Ten years ago he hadn't needed a script or any prompts. He'd acted with more confidence, and that always impressed juries - so lawyers had told him.
"There now." His nurse was straightening up. She'd put fresh grease and gauze on his hands, wrapped the old bandages back around them. "Feel more comfortable?" He nodded. The skin felt a little cooler, but he knew it wouldn't last.
"You due any more painkillers?" The question was rhetorical. She checked the chart at the bottom of his bed. Earlier, after a visit to the toilet, he'd looked at it himself. It gave his temperature and medication, nothing else. No coded information meant to be understood only by those in the know. No record of the story he'd given when he was being examined.
I'd run a hot bath ... slipped and fell in. The doctor had made a kind of noise at the back of his throat, something that said he would accept this without necessarily believing it. Overworked, lacking sleep - not his job to pry. Doctor rather than detective.
"I can give you some paracetamol," the nurse suggested. "Any chance of a beer to wash them down?" She smiled that professional smile again. The years she'd worked in the NHS, she probably didn't hear too many original lines. "I'll see what I can do."
"You're an angel," Rebus said, surprising himself. It was the sort of thing he felt a patient might say, one of those comfortable clichés. She was on her way, and he wasn't sure she'd heard. Maybe it was something in the nature of hospitals. Even if you didn't feel ill, they still had an effect, slowing you down, making you compliant. Institutionalizing you. It could be to do with the color scheme, the background hum. Maybe the heating of the place was complicit, too. Back at St. Leonard's, they had a special cell for the "maddies." It was bright pink and was supposed to calm them down. Why think a similar psychology wasn't being employed here? Last thing they wanted was a stroppy patient, shouting the odds and jumping out of bed every five minutes. Hence the suffocating number of blankets, tightly tucked in to further hamper movement. Just lie still ... propped by pillows ... bask in the heat and light ... Don't make a fuss. Any more of this, he felt, and he'd start forgetting his own name. The world outside would cease to matter. No job waiting for him. No Fairstone. No maniac spraying gunfire through the classrooms ...
Rebus turned on his side, using his legs to push free the sheets. It was a two-way fight, like Harry Houdini in a straitjacket. The man in the next bed over had opened his eyes and was watching. Rebus winked at him as he levered his feet into fresh air. "Just you keep tunneling," he told the man. "I'll go for a walk, trickle the earth out of my trouser leg."
The reference seemed lost on his fellow prisoner ... Siobhan was back at St. Leonard's, loitering by the drink machine. A couple of uniforms were seated at a table in the small cafeteria, munching on sandwiches and crisps. The drink machine was in the adjoining hallway, with a view out to the car park. If she were a smoker, she would have an excuse to step outside, where there was less chance of Gill Templer finding her. But she didn't smoke. She knew she could try ducking into the underventilated gym farther along the corridor, or she could take a walk to the cells. But there was nothing to stop Templer using the station's PA system to hunt down her quarry. Word would get around anyway that she was on the premises. St. Leonard's was like that: no hiding place. She yanked on the cola can's ring pull, knowing what the uniforms at the table would be discussing -same thing as everyone else.
Three dead in school shoot-out. She'd scanned each of the morning's papers. There were grainy photos of both the teenage victims: boys, seventeen years old. The words "tragedy," "waste," "shock," and "carnage" had been bandied about by the journalists. Alongside the news story, additional reporting filled page after page: Britain's burgeoning gun culture ... school security shortfalls ... a history of suicide killers. She'd studied the photos of the assassin-apparently, only three different snaps had so far been available to the media. One was very blurry indeed, as if capturing a ghost rather than something made of flesh and blood. Another showed a man in overalls, taking hold of a rope as he made to board a small boat. He was smiling, head turned towards the camera. Siobhan got the feeling it was a publicity shot for his water-skiing business.
The third was a head-and-shoulders portrait from the man's days in military service. Herdman, his name was. Lee Herdman, age thirty-six. Resident in South Queensferry, owner of a speedboat. There were photos of the yard where his business operated from. "A scant half-mile from the site of the shocking event," as one paper gushed.
Ex-forces, probably easy enough for him to get a gun. Drove into the school grounds, parked next to all the staff cars. Left his driver's-side door open, obviously in a hurry. Witnesses saw him barge into the school. His first and only stop, the common room. Three people inside. Two now dead, one wounded. Then a shot to his own temple, and that was that.
Excerpted from A Question of Blood by Ian Rankin Copyright © 2003 by John Rebus Limited. Excerpted by permission.
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