About the Author
Hometown:Edinburgh, London and France
Date of Birth:April 28, 1960
Place of Birth:Cardenden, Scotland
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A Good Hanging
By Ian Rankin
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 1992 Ian Rankin
All rights reserved.
It was the perfect murder.
Perfect, that is, so far as the Lothian and Borders Police were concerned. The murderer had telephoned in to confess, had then panicked and attempted to flee, only to be caught leaving the scene of the crime. End of story.
Except that now he was pleading innocence. Pleading, yelling and screaming it. And this worried Detective Inspector John Rebus, worried him all the way from his office to the four-storey tenement in Leith's trendy dockside area. The tenements here were much as they were in any working-class area of Edinburgh, except that they boasted colour-splashed roller blinds or Chinese-style bamboo affairs at their windows, and their grimy stone facades had been power-cleaned, their doors now boasting intruder-proof intercoms. A far cry from the greasy Venetian blinds and kicked-in passageways of the tenements in Easter Road or Gorgie, or even in nearby parts of Leith itself, the parts the developers were ignoring as yet.
The victim had worked as a legal secretary, this much Rebus knew. She had been twenty-four years old. Her name was Moira Bitter. Rebus smiled at that It was a guilty smile, but at this hour of the morning any smile he could raise was something of a miracle.
He parked in front of the tenement, guided by a uniformed officer who had recognised the badly dented front bumper of Rebus's car. It was rumoured that the dent had come from knocking down too many old ladies, and who was Rebus to deny it? It was the stuff of legend and it gave him prominence in the fearful eyes of the younger recruits.
A curtain twitched in one of the ground-floor windows and Rebus caught a glimpse of an elderly lady. Every tenement, it seemed, tarted up or not, boasted its elderly lady. Living alone, with one dog or four cats for company, she was her building's eyes and ears. As Rebus entered the hallway, a door opened and the old lady stuck out her head.
"He was going to run for it," she whispered. "But the bobby caught him. I saw it. Is the young lass dead? Is that it?" Her lips were pursed in keen horror. Rebus smiled at her but said nothing. She would know soon enough. Already she seemed to know as much as he did himself. That was the trouble with living in a city the size of a town, a town with a village mentality.
He climbed the four flights of stairs slowly, listening all the while to the report of the constable who was leading him inexorably towards the corpse of Moira Bitter. They spoke in an undertone: stairwell walls had ears.
"The call came at about 5 a.m., sir," explained PC MacManus. "The caller gave his name as John MacFarlane and said he'd just murdered his girlfriend. He sounded distressed by all accounts, and I was radioed to investigate. As I arrived, a man was running down the stairs. He seemed in a state of shock."
"Sort of disorientated, sir."
"Did he say anything?" asked Rebus.
"Yes, sir, he told me, 'Thank God you're here. Moira's dead.' I then asked him to accompany me upstairs to the flat in question, called in for assistance, and the gentleman was arrested."
Rebus nodded. MacManus was a model of efficiency, not a word out of place, the tone just right. Everything by rote and without the interference of too much thought. He would go far as a uniformed officer, but Rebus doubted the young man would ever make CID. When they reached the fourth floor, Rebus paused for breath then walked into the flat.
The hall's pastel colour scheme extended to the living-room and bedroom. Mute colours, subtle and warming. There was nothing subtle about the blood though. The blood was copious. Moira Bitter lay sprawled across her bed, her chest a riot of colour. She was wearing apple-green pyjamas, and her hair was silky blonde. The police pathologist was examining her head.
"She's been dead about three hours," he informed Rebus. "Stabbed three or four times with a small sharp instrument, which, for the sake of convenience, I'm going to term a knife. I'll examine her properly later on."
Rebus nodded and turned to MacManus, whose face had a sickly grey tinge to it.
"Your first time?" Rebus asked. The constable nodded slowly. "Never mind," Rebus continued. "You never get used to it anyway. Come on."
He led the constable out of the room and back into the small hallway. "This man we've arrested, what did you say his name was?"
"John MacFarlane, sir," said the constable, taking deep breaths. "He's the deceased's boyfriend apparently."
"You said he seemed in a state of shock. Was there anything else you noticed?"
The constable frowned, thinking. "Such as, sir?" he said at last.
"Blood," said Rebus coolly. "You can't stab someone in the heat of the moment without getting blood on you."
MacManus said nothing. Definitely not CID material and perhaps realising it for the very first time. Rebus turned from him and entered the living-room. It was almost neurotically tidy. Magazines and newspapers in their rack beside the sofa. A chrome and glass coffee table bearing nothing more than a clean ashtray and a paperback romance. It could have come straight from an Ideal Home exhibition. No family photographs, no clutter. This was the lair of an individualist. No ties with the past, a present ransacked wholesale from Habitat and Next. There was no evidence of a struggle. No evidence of an encounter of any kind: no glasses or coffee cups. The killer had not loitered, or else had been very tidy about his business.
Rebus went into the kitchen. It, too, was tidy. Cups and plates stacked for drying beside the empty sink. On the draining-board were knives, forks, teaspoons. No murder weapon. There were spots of water in the sink and on the draining-board itself, yet the cutlery and crockery were dry. Rebus found a dishtowel hanging up behind the door and felt it. It was damp. He examined it more closely. There was a small smudge on it. Perhaps gravy or chocolate. Or blood. Someone had dried something recently, but what?
He went to the cutlery drawer and opened it. Inside, amidst the various implements was a shortbladed chopping knife with a heavy black handle. A quality knife, sharp and gleaming. The other items in the drawer were bone dry, but this chopping knife's wooden handle was damp to the touch. Rebus was in no doubt: he had found his murder weapon.
Clever of MacFarlane though to have cleaned and put away the knife. A cool and calm action. Moira Bitter had been dead three hours. The call to the police station had come an hour ago. What had MacFarlane done during the intervening two hours? Cleaned the flat? Washed and dried the dishes? Rebus looked in the kitchen's swing-bin, but found no other clues, no broken ornaments, nothing that might hint at a struggle. And if there had been no struggle, if the murderer had gained access to the tenement and to Moira Bitter's flat without forcing an entry ... if all this were true, Moira had known her killer.
Rebus toured the rest of the flat, but found no other clues. Beside the telephone in the hall stood an answering machine. He played the tape, and heard Moira Bitter's voice.
"Hello, this is Moira. I'm out, I'm in the bath, or I'm otherwise engaged." (A giggle.) "Leave a message and I'll get back to you, unless you sound boring."
There was only one message. Rebus listened to it, then wound back the tape and listened again.
"Hello, Moira, it's John. I got your message. I'm coming over. Hope you're not 'otherwise engaged.' Love you."
John MacFarlane: Rebus didn't doubt the identity of the caller. Moira sounded fresh and fancy-free in her message. But did MacFarlane's response hint at jealousy? Perhaps she had been otherwise engaged when he'd arrived. He lost his temper, blind rage, a knife lying handy. Rebus had seen it before. Most victims knew their attackers. If that were not the case, the police wouldn't solve so many crimes. It was a blunt fact. You double bolted your door against the psychopath with the chainsaw, only to be stabbed in the back by your lover, husband, son or neighbour.
John MacFarlane was as guilty as hell. They would find blood on his clothes, even if he'd tried cleaning it off. He had stabbed his girlfriend, then calmed down and called in to report the crime, but had grown frightened at the end and had attempted to flee.
The only question left in Rebus's mind was the why? The why and those missing two hours.
Edinburgh through the night. The occasional taxi rippling across setts and lone shadowy figures slouching home with hands in pockets, shoulders hunched. During the night hours, the sick and the old died peacefully, either at home or in some hospital ward. Two in the morning until four: the dead hours. And then some died horribly, with terror in their eyes. The taxis still rumbled past, the night people kept moving. Rebus let his car idle at traffic lights, missing the change to green, only coming to his senses as amber turned red again. Glasgow Rangers were coming to town on Saturday. There would be casual violence. Rebus felt comfortable with the thought. The worst football hooligan could probably not have stabbed with the same ferocity as Moira Bitter's killer. Rebus lowered his eyebrows. He was rousing himself to fury, keen for confrontation. Confrontation with the murderer himself.
John MacFarlane was crying as he was led into the interrogation room, where Rebus had made himself look comfortable, cigarette in one hand, coffee in the other. Rebus had expected a lot of things, but not tears.
"Would you like something to drink?" he asked. MacFarlane shook his head. He had slumped into the chair on the other side of the desk, his shoulders sagging, head bowed, and the sobs still coming from his throat. He mumbled something.
"I didn't catch that," said Rebus.
"I said I didn't do it," MacFarlane answered quietly. "How could I do it? I love Moira."
Rebus noted the present tense. He gestured towards the tape machine on the desk. "Do you have any objections to my making a recording of this interview?" MacFarlane shook his head again. Rebus switched on the machine. He flicked ash from his cigarette onto the floor, sipped his coffee, and waited. Eventually, MacFarlane looked up. His eyes were stinging red. Rebus stared hard into those eyes, but still said nothing. MacFarlane seemed to be calming. Seemed, too, to know what was expected of him. He asked for a cigarette, was given one, and started to speak.
"I'd been out in my car. Just driving, thinking."
Rebus interrupted him. "What time was this?"
"Well," said MacFarlane, "ever since I left work, I suppose. I'm an architect. There's a competition on just now to design a new art gallery and museum complex in Stirling. Our partnership's going in for it. We were discussing ideas most of the day, you know, brainstorming." He looked up at Rebus again, and Rebus nodded. Brainstorm: now there was an interesting word.
"And after work," MacFarlane continued, "I was so fired up I just felt like driving. Going over the different options and plans in my head. Working out which was strongest —"
He broke off, realising perhaps that he was talking in a rush, without thought or caution. He swallowed and inhaled some smoke. Rebus was studying MacFarlane's clothes. Expensive leather brogues, brown corduroy trousers, a thick white cotton shirt, the kind cricketers wore, open at the neck, a tailor-made tweed jacket. MacFarlane's 3-Series BMW was parked in the police garage, being searched. His pockets had been emptied, a Liberty print tie confiscated in case he had ideas about hanging himself. His brogues, too, were without their laces, these having been confiscated along with the tie. Rebus had gone through the belongings. A wallet, not exactly bulging with money but containing a fair spread of credit cards. There were more cards, too, in MacFarlane's personal organiser. Rebus flipped through the diary pages, then turned to the sections for notes and for addresses. MacFarlane seemed to lead a busy but quite normal social life.
Rebus studied him now, across the expanse of the old table. MacFarlane was well-built, handsome if you liked that sort of thing. He looked strong, but not brutish. Probably he would make the local news headlines as "Secretary's Yuppie Killer." Rebus stubbed out his cigarette.
"We know you did it, John. That's not in dispute. We just want to know why."
MacFarlane's voice was brittle with emotion. "I swear I didn't, I swear."
"You're going to have to do better than that." Rebus paused again. Tears were dripping onto MacFarlane's corduroys. "Go on with your story," he said.
MacFarlane shrugged. "That's about it," he said, wiping his nose with the sleeve of his shirt.
Rebus prompted him. "You didn't stop off anywhere for petrol or a meal or anything like that?" He sounded sceptical. MacFarlane shook his head.
"No, I just drove until my head was clear. I went all the way to the Forth Road Bridge. Turned off and went into Queensferry. Got out of the car to have a look at the water. Threw a few stones in for luck." He smiled at the irony. "Then drove round the coast road and back into Edinburgh."
"Nobody saw you? You didn't speak to anyone?"
"Not that I can remember."
"And you didn't get hungry?" Rebus sounded entirely unconvinced.
"We'd had a business lunch with a client. We took him to The Eyrie. After lunch there, I seldom need to eat until the next morning."
The Eyrie was Edinburgh's most expensive restaurant. You didn't go there to eat, you went there to spend money. Rebus was feeling peckish himself. The canteen did a fine bacon buttie.
"When did you last see Miss Bitter alive?"
At the word "alive," MacFarlane shivered. It took him a long time to answer. Rebus watched the tape revolving. "Yesterday morning," MacFarlane said at last. "She stayed the night at my flat."
"How long have you known her?"
"About a year. But I only started going out with her a couple of months ago."
"Oh? And how did you know her before that?"
MacFarlane paused. "She was Kenneth's girlfriend," he said at last.
"Kenneth being —"
MacFarlane's cheeks reddened before he spoke. "My best friend" he said. "Kenneth was my best friend. You could say I stole her from him. These things happen, don't they?"
Rebus raised an eyebrow. "Do they?" be said. MacFarlane bowed his head again.
"Can I have a coffee?" he asked quietly. Rebus nodded, then lit another cigarette.
MacFarlane sipped the coffee, holding it in both hands like a shipwreck survivor. Rebus rubbed his nose and stretched, feeling tired. He checked his watch. Eight in the morning. What a life. He had eaten two bacon rolls and a string of rind curled across the plate in front of him. MacFarlane had refused food, but finished the first cup of coffee in two gulps and gratefully accepted a second.
"So," Rebus said, "you drove back into town."
"That's right." MacFarlane took another sip of coffee. "I don't know why, but I decided to check my answering machine for calls."
"You mean when you got home?"
MacFarlane shook his head. "No, from the car. I called home from my car-phone and got the answering machine to play back any messages."
Rebus was impressed. "That's clever," he said.
MacFarlane smiled again, but the smile soon vanished. "One of the messages was from Moira," he said. "She wanted to see me."
"At that hour?" MacFarlane shrugged. "Did she say why she wanted to see you?"
"No. She sounded ... strange."
"A bit ... I don't know, distant maybe."
"Did you get the feeling she was on her own when she called?"
"I've no idea."
"Did you call her back?"
"Yes. Her answering machine was on. I left a message."
"Would you say you're the jealous type, Mr. MacFarlane?"
"What?" MacFarlane sounded surprised by the question. He seemed to give it serious thought. "No more so than the next man," he said at last.
"Why would anyone want to kill her?"
MacFarlane stared at the table, shaking his head slowly.
"Go on," said Rebus, sighing, growing impatient. "You were saying how you got her message."
"Well, I went straight to her flat. It was late, but I knew if she was asleep I could always let myself in."
"Oh?" Rebus was interested. "How?"
"I had a spare key," MacFarlane explained.
Rebus got up from his chair and walked to the far wall and back, deep in thought.
"I don't suppose," he said, "you've got any idea when Moira made that call?"
MacFarlane shook his head. "But the machine will have logged it," he said. Rebus was more impressed than ever. Technology was a wonderful thing. What's more, he was impressed by MacFarlane. If the man was a murderer, then he was a very good one, for he had fooled Rebus into thinking him innocent. It was crazy. There was nothing to point to him not being guilty. But all the same, a feeling was a feeling, and Rebus most definitely had a feeling.
"I want to see that machine," he said. "And I want to hear the message on it. I want to hear Moira's last words."
* * *
It was interesting how the simplest cases could become so complex. There was still no doubt in the minds of those around Rebus — his superiors and those below him — that John MacFarlane was guilty of murder. They had all the proof they needed, every last bit of it circumstantial.
Excerpted from A Good Hanging by Ian Rankin. Copyright © 1992 Ian Rankin. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Table of Contents
The Dean Curse,
A Good Hanging,
Tit for Tat,
Auld Lang Syne,
The Gentlemen's Club,