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The Meating Room
A DCI Gilchrist Investigation
By T. Frank Muir
Chicago Review Press IncorporatedCopyright © 2017 T. Frank Muir
All rights reserved.
5:41 AM, Friday, March 3 Tentsmuir Forest Fife
Maggie Ferguson heard the car before she saw it.
The sound of its burbling engine reached out to her through the morning darkness. At the age of sixty-seven her hearing was still good, although her eyesight was not what it used to be. And the haar that had drifted inland off the North Sea, shrouding the forest in a stirring fog, did nothing to help. She thought it odd that the car was parked in the clearing, with its lights off and its engine running, and her first thought was that it must be a couple of young lovers up to no good in the backseat.
She gave out a short shrill whistle and a "Here boy. Over here," and sighed with resignation when Fergie, her golden Labrador, ignored her call and carried on crisscrossing the ground, nose to the pine-needled carpet. Poor old Fergie, she thought, his hearing was now as bad as her own eyesight. But as she walked off toward the beach, the wind rose, and the haar shifted, and the shadowed hulk of the car revealed itself for a fleeting moment before settling once more into the fogged darkness.
She was no good with cars, never knew their names, although she did notice that it was one of these big posh ones, far too expensive for a pair of youngsters. Which made her think it must belong to someone older, and that he, or she, might be on the phone. So she ignored it, and strode on through the trees toward the sea.
But with that shifting of the wind, Fergie caught some new scent, and he tracked off, nose to the ground, in the opposite direction.
"This way, Fergie. This way."
But Fergie wandered on, oblivious to Maggie, until he noticed the car.
Later, in her statement to the police, Maggie would say that Fergie had seemed to know something was wrong, that he must have sensed death, for he stood there, his hackles raised like a fur fin on his shoulders, his coughing bark straining his canine vocal cords as if ready to snap. But in that early morning chill, Maggie was unaware of what she was about to find as she rushed to quiet him.
"Shush," she ordered. "Shush now, Fergie. That's enough."
But Fergie was as good as deaf, his hearing drowned by his own barking.
"Oh, dear," Maggie said, digging into her pocket. "We'll need to put your lead on."
Even then, when she leaned forward to clip Fergie's lead to his collar, and cupped her hand over his nose to stop him barking, she did not notice that the driver's window was just a touch ajar, a crack at the top. Nor did she notice the rubber tube that led from the window to the exhaust pipe. Only when she stood upright, tugged Fergie away, and gave the car a parting glance did she realize that the windows were steamed up, and that a scarf, or a pullover, or something woollen, was stuffed into the crack in the window, through which smoke seeped into the early morning air.
The driver, nothing more than a silhouette in the mist, took no notice of her — not on the phone but sleeping. Or maybe not sleeping but ...
"Dear goodness," she gasped, and stumbled backward.
In her panic, as her mind struggled to compute what her eyes were telling her, it never occurred to her to open the door and check if the driver was alive or needed help. Nor did she think to switch off the engine or use her mobile phone to call for an ambulance. Her thoughts were clouded with the panic of the moment, intent only on putting as much distance as possible between herself and the car.
Fergie seemed to have found new life in his old legs, too. He tugged hard at his lead, as if chasing after some new, irresistible scent. Or maybe his canine senses caught the danger in what had gone before and urged him to pull his owner away from the scene — to the safety of her car and the drive back to Leuchars.
* * *
"Has anyone ever told you you're a gentle lover?"
Gilchrist held Cooper's inquiring gaze. Her eyes fascinated him. They always had. The lightest blue, sharp and clear as a winter sky. Even after the night before — one too many Deuchars in the Central and a bottle of Moët back home in Fisherman's Cottage to celebrate nearing the end of the week, any excuse for a session — her eyes looked fresh and alert. Or maybe, at the age of forty-one, Cooper was too young for him, and now it was showing. But he thought he caught a sense of wariness in her question, a subtle probing, and he pushed a hand through her hair. He loved the way her curls spilled onto his face, loose and long and shampoo fresh. He breathed her in, slid his other hand down the length of her back, heard her gasp.
"Why do you ask?" he said.
She leaned forward, settling deeper into him, pressed her lips to his. "Why do you always answer a question with a question?"
"See what I mean?" She smiled, as if to make him think she was letting him off the hook, then said, "Well? Has anyone ever told you?"
"What do you think?"
"I think you're too much of a gentleman to tell me any secrets from your past."
"And what about secrets from your past?"
If he had to analyze her reaction, he might have thought it was a warning to back off, a silent Just don't go there. Instead, he chose to believe that her questioning, their back-and-forth banter, was a form of verbal foreplay. Which seemed to be confirmed when she leaned forward, her breasts against his chest, her lips at his ear, breath warm and rushing as she —
His mobile rang.
"Leave it," she instructed.
But he reached for it, read the screen — Jessie. "I have to take this."
Cooper flexed her thighs, slipped off him, and lay by his side.
"Jessie," Gilchrist said. "It's early."
"And it's Friday, and we've got a body."
"Keep talking." Gilchrist held Cooper's gaze as he listened to Jessie rattle off a sequence of events that began with a call from a Mrs. Ferguson in Leuchars. The name rang a faint bell, but he couldn't place it.
"We've run the registration number through the PNC," Jessie said, "and the car's a ... hang on, here it is ... Jaguar XJ8 Vanden Plas, whatever that is when it's at home, registered in the name of Stratheden Enterprises Ltd."
The company name rang a bell, too, but again Gilchrist couldn't pull it from his memory. Of course, Cooper's hand on him did not lend itself to clear thought, but a Vanden Plas was a top-of-the-range Jag, suggesting the company had money, or at least the directors did.
Jessie helped him out with, "Stratheden's privately owned and specializes in luxury development, mostly overseas, and mostly for the stinking rich. The two registered company directors are Thomas Magner and Brian McCulloch."
Gilchrist pressed his mobile hard to his ear. "Did you say Thomas Magner?"
"The one and only. But the dead guy in the Jag's not him, so I'm thinking it might be McCulloch. We're trying to contact both of them by phone, but we're just being dumped into voicemail."
"Tried the company landline?"
"Well, it is early," Gilchrist conceded. "So, who's at the scene now?"
"Just me and the SOCOs. I've had a quick look but kept my distance, if you know what I mean. I think our suicide had some help, though."
"Murdered, you mean?"
"Hey, Boy Wonder. You're quick."
Gilchrist frowned. Everything Jessie had described had suggested a straightforward suicide. So ... "What have I missed?"
"You need to see the body. But the PF can't get hold of the pathologist." A pause, then, "Is she there?"
"Why do you ask?"
"Other than the obvious, she's not answering her phone either."
Gilchrist noticed Cooper's mobile on his bedside table and had a vague recollection of her powering it down last night. At that moment, Cooper rolled over, her hand guiding as she settled on top of Gilchrist. She leaned back, curls spilling over her shoulders, falling on to his legs, the tendons in her neck stretching from the effort of keeping silent.
Gilchrist managed to stifle a gasp, then said, "I'll see if I can reach her."
"Well, reach her soon. It's cold enough out here to freeze tits."
Gilchrist ended the call as Cooper fell forward and nuzzled into the crook of his neck. Her lips found his left ear and nibbled. Her fingers gripped the pillow like talons.
"You can be a cold bastard at times, Andy," she whispered.
He put his arms around her, held her through the final moments. Then, when he felt her relax, he said, "But gentle?"
She pressed her lips to his mouth. "Regrettably," she moaned, "you can be ever so gentle."CHAPTER 2
They took separate cars — Gilchrist in his Mercedes SLK Roadster and Cooper in her Range Rover. Gilchrist reached Tentsmuir Forest first, arriving just after eight, and pulled the Merc into an open clearing. He parked alongside Jessie's Fiat and removed a packed set of coveralls from the boot.
Off to the side, the dark blue Jaguar stood surrounded by yellow police tape, its paintwork gleaming like a showroom model no one was permitted to touch. Three SOCOs in white coveralls were on their knees scouring the adjacent area, prodding through the pine needles, cones, and roots with latex-gloved hands. Two more stood by the side of their Transit van, mobiles to their ears, their breath a vivid white in the cold air.
Gilchrist caught the eye of one of them, who nodded to the beach.
He spotted Jessie beyond the tree line of the forest, alone on the dunes, staring across the North Sea, on the phone. Standing there in coveralls, the early morning haar as a backdrop, she looked as pale as a ghost. The wind picked up, lifting sand off the dunes like spindrift, stinging his face as he strode toward her.
She turned as he clambered up the slope to stand beside her, ended the call with an angry grunt, and slid the mobile into her jacket pocket. She zipped up her coveralls. "Why is it always so fucking freezing on the east coast?"
"You're exposed out here," he said. "It's not so cold in the woods."
"No, there it's just freezing. Here, it's fucking freezing."
"Don't ask." She glared at him for a frosty moment, then said, "Follow me."
In the three months since DS Jessica Janes had transferred to Fife Constabulary from Strathclyde Police, Gilchrist had come to understand that her considerable bark was worse than her bite. But the remnants of last night's alcohol, on top of not enough sleep, was pushing him to the wrong side of a hangover, and he was in no mood to put up with either today. Besides, it was indeed verging on the fucking freezing.
"Any further forward with the ID?" he asked.
"I didn't have all day to wait, so I checked his wallet."
Investigation of a dead body usually did not begin until the police pathologist had first confirmed life was extinct. But the PF — the procurator fiscal — ran the show, particularly when a death was suspicious. And where a body was clearly dead, the investigation often began with the arrival of the first on the scene.
"Anything else I should know?" Gilchrist asked.
"Don't think I've ever seen so much cash in a wallet. Stuffed, it was. All brand-new hundreds. I didn't count it, but it had to be well over five thou."
"What about his mobile?"
"Can't find it."
Unusual, thought Gilchrist, but there could be a hundred reasons why McCulloch's mobile was not on his person or in the car. "Let's pull his records. See what we can find." A pause, then, "So why don't you think it was suicide?"
"Come and see for yourself."
They reached the yellow tape as Cooper's Range Rover pulled to a halt alongside Gilchrist's Merc. The SOCOs seemed busier all of a sudden. Gilchrist unfolded his coveralls as Cooper's door opened.
"Christ on a stick. Does she never have a hair out of place?" Jessie said.
Gilchrist thought silence his best response. Cooper lifted the hatchback of the Range Rover and removed a set of coveralls. He found it oddly erotic watching her slide in one leg, then the other, and slip the coveralls over her hips while he was doing likewise. Eight hours earlier, they had gone through a similar process in reverse.
Cooper zipped up and walked toward them. She nodded to Jessie, then to Gilchrist, who lifted the yellow tape for her to stoop under.
"After you," he said to Jessie.
"So you can compare backsides? I think not."
They followed Cooper side by side.
Cooper reached the Jaguar and opened the driver's door, taking care not to pull the rubber hose from the window. Then she leaned inside.
Silent, Gilchrist waited and glanced across to Jessie. The tip of her fine nose was red, and her eyes were glinting from the chill. Early March in Fife could be bitter, but this winter felt as if it had been with them forever, and the wind seemed to be gathering ice from the North Sea and firing it into their faces. Overhead, branches shifted and swayed, like evergreen brushes sweeping the air. All around them the forest rustled and stirred, groaning, as if almost alive.
"Rigor's not fully come yet," Cooper said, "so I'm guessing time of death would be —"
"— around midnight," Cooper said, ignoring Jessie. "Maybe earlier."
Jessie hissed under her breath.
"Body temperature's low," Cooper continued. "But I'm thinking not as low as it should be for time of death."
"Why's that?" Gilchrist asked.
"From the settings on the controls, the seat heater's on. And if the engine was running, with the heating set as it is, it would have been warm —"
"Expert in cars, too, are you?" Jessie said.
"Cars, no. But Mr. Cooper only ever drives Jaguars. He has one just like this."
"Other than Mrs. Ferguson," Gilchrist interrupted, "who was first on the scene?"
Jessie said, "Mhairi," as Cooper returned her attention to McCulloch's body.
PC Mhairi McBride. Recently applied to become a detective, beginning to make a name for herself, and a significant asset to any team. "Did she get here before the ambulance arrived?"
"You speak to her?"
"She switched off the engine, if that's what you're asking."
Gilchrist nodded. It would probably be the first thing anyone would do. And, knowing Mhairi, once she had checked for a pulse, she would have taken control of the scene andtold the ambulance crew they weren't needed. But he had a few questions for her. "Where is she?"
"Sent her off to fetch some coffees. I think she's planting the beans, the time she's taking."
Gilchrist turned back to Cooper. "How's it looking?" he asked.
"Nothing so far that would suggest it's anything other than suicide."
"Any bruises around the neck?" Gilchrist asked. "Signs of a struggle?"
Gilchrist waited until Cooper pulled herself upright; then he leaned into the car to inspect the body. Jessie had obviously seen something Cooper had missed, and he did not want their ongoing antagonism to turn into something nastier.
The first thing that struck him was how trim and well dressed McCulloch was — black hair graying at the temples and cut short at the back and sides, white twill open-necked shirt, gold cufflinks, dark blue suit, black leather belt, trousers neatly pressed, black polished shoes. The second was the empty bottle of Grey Goose vodka in the passenger footwell. But as he tilted McCulloch's head from one side to the other, parted his lips, peered into his mouth, checked his hands, fingernails, and wrists, he found nothing out of the ordinary. He eyed the settings on the car's controls, confirming what Cooper had said. Then the sliver of an idea came to him.
He pulled back from the car's interior and turned his attention to the door lock.
"How did Mhairi get in to switch off the engine?" he asked.
Jessie glanced at Cooper, then smiled at Gilchrist. "It was unlocked. Odd, don't you think?"
Gilchrist gave it some thought. "You attach the hose, you take your seat, you switch on the engine, then you wait to pass out from carbon-monoxide poisoning, knowing there will be no coming back," he said. "But you don't necessarily lock the door ... because ..."
"Because someone put you there."
Gilchrist shook his head. "Because you have doubts. Maybe McCulloch didn't really want to go through with it. Maybe he was hoping someone would find him —"
"Except that he was unconscious when they closed the door on him," Jessie said.
"They?" Cooper asked.
"Figure of speech."
"We'll check for fingerprints on the bottle." Gilchrist glanced at Cooper. "And alcohol in his system. And any narcotics, of course." Then he turned to Jessie. "OK, I'm listening."
Excerpted from The Meating Room by T. Frank Muir. Copyright © 2017 T. Frank Muir. Excerpted by permission of Chicago Review Press Incorporated.
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