Skeletons emerge from a St. Andrews graveyard—and from Detective Inspector Andy Gilchrist's own past
When a woman’s skeleton is discovered in a shallow grave, DCI Andy Gilchrist is tasked with finding her murderer. But a psychic’s warnings and markings on a rusted cigarette lighter found among the rotted remains take Gilchrist on a journey into his own past that brings him closer to discovering the identity of his brother’s killer from a hit-and-run case some thirty-five years before. Dental records from an extracted tooth force Gilchrist to confront the unthinkable—that his brother might have been her killer. He keeps his fears to himself, only to be suspended on suspicion of destroying evidence.
About the Author
Frank Muir was born in Glasgow, but from a young age he has had the urge to see more of the world than the rain sodden slopes of the Campsie Fells. Thirty-plus years of living and working overseas helped him appreciate the raw beauty of his home country. Now a dual US/UK citizen, Frank makes his home in the outskirts of Glasgow, Scotland, and he visits St. Andrews regularly to research the town’s many pubs and restaurants. He is also the author of Hand for a Hand.
Read an Excerpt
Detective Chief Inspector Andy Gilchrist stood alone at the back of the chapel as the curtains closed on the coffin of his ex-wife. He barely heard the prayer of committal as he watched his son, Jack, place an arm around Maureen in the family group in the front pew. Beside them shuddered the grieving figure of their stepfather, Harry. Even now, at the moment of Gail’s final parting, Gilchrist could not find it in his heart to forgive Harry.
As the chapel emptied, Gilchrist held back, tagging on to the end of the mourners, each giving their condolences to the family line as they shuffled through the vestibule.
Jack gave him a sad smile of surprise. “I didn’t see you.”
“Late as usual,’” Gilchrist offered.
Jack’s grip was firm, a son-to-father handshake meant to assure Gilchrist that Jack would be strong for all of them. The tremor in his chin said otherwise.
Gilchrist pulled him in closer and gave him a hug. “Mum’s no longer suffering,” he said.
Jack nodded, tight-lipped, as they parted.
Maureen went straight for a hug. “I wasn’t sure you’d come.”
Even through her heavy coat he could feel her bones, her body light enough to lift with ease, it seemed. She was thin, too thin. He tried to say something but found he could not trust his voice. Instead, he hugged her tighter, breathed her in, and pressed his lips to her ear.
“We’ll miss Mum,” he managed to say.
He gave Harry a firm handshake and a wordless nod, conscious of Maureen’s eyes on him, searching for signs of forgiveness. Then he was down the stone steps, marching across the car park, avoiding eye contact with family friends he did not know. From his car, he watched Jack and Maureen leave the chapel hand in hand, Harry in front, defeated and alone. Something in that simple formation told Gilchrist that Harry could never fill their paternal void.
He caught Maureen’s eye as she prepared to step into the funeral car.
Are you coming back? she mouthed to him.
He nodded as she slipped from his view, then he powered up his mobile and saw he had two missed calls, both from Stan.
“What’s up, Stan?” Gilchrist asked.
“Thought you might be interested in a skeleton, boss. Just been dug up.”
Gilchrist switched on the ignition, slipped into Drive. “Keep going.”
“In Dairsie Cemetery. Uncovered while the lair was being opened for another burial. No coffin and not six feet under, boss. So we’re definitely thinking murder.”
Gilchrist eased his Mercedes SLK Roadster forward. Ahead, the funeral car cruised through the crematorium grounds, grey exhaust swirling in the October chill. The wake was being held in Haggs Castle Clubhouse, the golf club where Harry was a member. Gilchrist knew he should attend, for Jack and Maureen, for Gail’s memory, too. But the thought of faking a face for Harry it was too much for him.
“I’m on my way, Stan.”
* * *
Gilchrist walked through the gate in the old stone wall and into the cemetery grounds.
The forensic tent was erected by a gnarled willow tree in the far corner. Yellow tape looped around it from headstone to headstone. As Gilchrist approached, Stan broke the connection on his mobile with a slap of its cover.
“This skeleton,” Gilchrist said, as he pushed his feet into his coveralls. “Is it in good nick?”
“Right thigh bone chopped through by one of the gravediggers. But other than that, it seems perfect.”
“Whose plot were they preparing?”
“A local by the name of Lorella McLeod. Fair old age of eighty-seven. Passed away at the weekend and was to be laid to rest in the family plot next to her husband, Hamish. He died in ’69. So the grave’s not been touched for thirty-odd years.” Stan shook his head. “Already checked our misper files for ’68 to ’75 and came up empty-handed.”
“What about the PNC?”
“Got Nance doing that, even as we speak.”
Gilchrist pulled his coveralls up and over his shoulders, his mind working through Stan’s rationale. “Did the McLeods have children?” he asked.
“None. Mrs. McLeod lived by herself.”
“For the last what, thirty-five years?”
“So I’m told, boss. But I haven’t confirmed that yet.”
Gilchrist looked away. Tree-covered hills were already greying with the coming of winter. It seemed unimaginable for someone to live alone for that length of time, and he wondered if the end of his life would be as destitute. Sadness swept through him at that thought. The end of his life. Or more correctly, part of it. Gail was now gone, and he worried he would spend even less time with Jack and Maureen. He forced his mind to focus on the present and eyed the forensic tent.
“So, Stan, it looks like we’re dealing with a thirty-five-year-old murder.”
“Bit soon to jump to that conclusion, boss. The body could have been buried any time since the burial of Hamish McLeod.”
Gilchrist zipped up his coveralls. “But why was it buried in that grave, Stan? Have you asked yourself that?”
Stan scratched his head. “It’s difficult to imagine a more perfect place to hide a body. I mean, who would look for it in a cemetery?”
“But why that particular grave?”
“Because it would have been fresh, that’s why. And if there is no coffin, there was no funeral. And if there was no funeral, no one knew about it. Therefore, we have a thirty-five-year-old murder on our hands.” He stared off to the edge of the cemetery and the open fields beyond. Scotland in the sun was like no other place on earth. But its blue skies offered only false promise of a fine day. “Not exactly thriving, is it, Stan?”
“Dead center of town, boss.”
Gilchrist almost smiled. “Ever been here before, Stan? In this cemetery?”
“Neither have I. Which makes me think neither have a lot of people. So start off by making a list of all those who attended McLeod’s funeral.”
Stan livened. “I’ll get onto it, boss. Door to door, discreet like, see who knows what,” he said as he walked away.
From the outside, the Incitent gave the impression it would be cramped and dark, but the interior was suffused with a yellow light that seemed to lend a reverential quietness to the scene. Gilchrist counted four transparent plastic bags next to the open grave, each filled with bones the color of mud. A row of larger plastic bags full of earth lined one wall like a garden center. A camera sat on a silver metal case.
Four Scene of Crime Officers worked in silence while Gilchrist watched. One sifted through a heap of soil at the side of the grave. Another placed more muddied bones into a fifth bag, while two more scraped soil from the bottom of the opened grave with the focused intensity of biblical archaeologists. As Gilchrist stepped forward, one of the men in the grave looked up. Despite coveralls that hid his balding pate and made his face look round and tight, Gilchrist recognized Bert Mackie, not a SOCO, but the police pathologist from Ninewells Hospital in Dundee.
“Any luck, Bert?” he asked.
“I expect you mean have we found any items of identification?”
“That’ll do for starters.”
“Afraid not, Andy. All we have at the moment are bones. No watches, no jewelry. And the clothes have deteriorated to rags. Looks like she was wearing some sort of nylon jacket, but it’s difficult to say at this stage—“
“The bra gives the game away. Unless he was trying it on for size. Interestingly,” he added, scowling at a muddied bone and scraping at it with his thumb, “she appears not to have been wearing any knickers.”
“Could they have rotted away?”
“I’d expect to find traces of elastic.” Mackie shook his head. “None so far.”
Gilchrist wondered if that was important. Why wear a bra, but no knickers? Had she just had sex, perhaps a quickie, and something was said that ended in violence? Had she been raped then murdered? Or did she simply like to walk around feeling free and airy, so to speak? “Any ideas on her age?” he asked.
“I’ll be in a better position to confirm that after a full post-mortem, of course. But if I was pushed, I’d say late teens, early twenties.”
Gilchrist squatted by the open grave. “This no knickers thing,” he persisted. “Any thoughts?”
“Sex is always a grand motive,” said Mackie. “He wants some. She doesn’t. He’s drunk. They argue. Turns into a fight, and before you know where you are, he has a fit and batters her to death.”
Mackie’s explanation seemed brutally simplified, but Gilchrist had heard of less compelling motives. “Too early to have a stab at cause of death?”
“Neil,” snapped Mackie. “Skull.”
The SOCO by the plastic bags removed a dirty-brown skull from one of them and handed it to Mackie as if passing over the Crown Jewels.
Mackie took it without a word, and Gilchrist noted that the teeth looked perfect. The skull’s deformed shape confirmed the cause of death as blunt trauma. “See here,” said Mackie, pointing to a jagged hole in front of where the right ear would have been. The skull was indented and networked with cracks. “Best guess would be a single blow to the temple. And to crush the skull like that, she was most likely dead when she hit the deck. Definitely unconscious. From the damage here,” he said and ran his finger over the bone, “to here, I’d say not a hammer. The impact dent would have been more circular. And not an axe. The skull’s been crushed, not cut.”
“Blunt axe?” offered Gilchrist.
Mackie shook his head. “Something broader, more rounded. If she was killed at home, perhaps the base of a heavy table lamp. Now that would do it.” Seemingly satisfied with his theory, Mackie offered the skull to Gilchrist.
Gilchrist folded his arms. He had never been comfortable handling human remains. Not long after joining the Force, he had held the skull of a man shot through the head and found himself struggling to control his emotions as he visualized the bullet thudding into the forehead, ripping through the brain, and exiting in an eruption of blood and gore. Had the man felt any pain? Or just a numbing thud, followed by blind confusion then death? At what point in the bullet’s passing had the man died? Gilchrist had managed to hand back the skull before vomiting on the mortuary floor. From that point on, he made sure to keep a safe distance.
“It’s a classic wound for someone murdered on the spur of the moment,” said Mackie. “Face to face. A heavy blow that crushed her skull and sent her flying, either dead or dying.” He gave a slow-motion demonstration, holding an imaginary weapon and striking at the skull.
“Left-handed, I see,” said Gilchrist. “Unless she was struck from behind, of course.”
“Of course,” said Mackie.
Gilchrist stared at the battered skull. Had sex been the motive behind this young woman’s murder? Had she put up a fight that ended in her death? Regardless of how she was killed, her disappearance would not have gone unreported. Someone would have missed her—her parents, boyfriend, sister, brother. She could not have vanished without some stirring in the local press. Gilchrist had been with Fife Constabulary nigh on thirty years and had come across only two unsolved misper cases, neither of which involved a woman, young or old. And Stan had found nothing up to ’75. Maybe Nance would have better luck with the Police National Computer.
Mackie handed the skull back to the SOCO.
“Dr. Mackie, sir?” shouted the other SOCO, scraping around the exposed ribcage.
Gilchrist found himself on hands and knees, leaning into the grave.
“It looks like a metal case, sir.”
“Camera,” ordered Mackie. He flapped a hand to his side.
The SOCO by the plastic bags obliged.
The camera flashed as Mackie pried more soil loose and eased a rusted lump of metal from the rotted remains of clothing. “Ah-hah,” he said, holding it to his face. “Looks like we’ve found ourselves a cigarette lighter.” Mackie rubbed the lighter’s rusted surface with his thumb, holding it as if about to light up. “Don’t suppose it works,” he said.
“Shouldn’t think so.”
Mackie reached for a metal box beside the moss-covered headstone and removed a magnifying glass. He turned his attention to the lighter. “Looks as if there’s some marks here,” he mumbled. ‘It’s scratched on the side. Difficult to say. Could be damage to the case, of course. Or just natural deterioration.”
“May I?” asked Gilchrist.
The case was about three inches long by two wide, scarred black[KH3] with rust. Gilchrist supposed it had been silver-coated at one time. He studied it through the magnifier and tried to make sense of the markings, but the metal was too rusted. “It could be anything,” he said, and handed the magnifying glass and lighter back to Mackie. “Can you clean it up?” he asked. “I’d like to know if it means anything. You never know.”
“Let me see what I can come up with.”
Gilchrist thanked Mackie and stepped from the tent.
Outside, the crisp air and bright sunlight failed to lift his spirits. Somehow, the discovery of the cigarette lighter troubled him. Seven years earlier, a child’s body had been discovered on a stretch of dunes, a pair of matching footprints stamped into the sand close by. Gilchrist’s suspicion that they had been set there to lead them away from the murderer had proven to be correct in the end. And now he had that same feeling with the cigarette lighter.
It seemed so innocent that it rattled alarm bells. They had found no watch or jewelry of any kind on the woman. Only the lighter. If the killer had removed her jewelry, if in fact she had ever worn any, why leave the lighter? Gilchrist grimaced at the thought. Had the lighter been overlooked? Or was he searching for clues where there were none?
As he unzipped his coveralls, he struggled through his rationale.
Was it possible the lighter had been deliberately left in the woman’s clothing? If so, did that mean the killer had known Hamish McLeod, had known that the family plot would be reopened in the future to bury Lorella, and the body found? It all seemed possible. But more troubling was the thought that for thirty-five years the murder had gone unnoticed, as if the young woman had simply been forgotten by all who had ever known her.
Had her parents been alive? Would they not have missed their own child?
Would she not have had friends, or siblings, someone who would have reported her missing? And now that her remains had been found, would her killer worry about her murder investigation commencing?
What secrets from the past was he about to uncover?