Thursday, April 12, 2012

Excerpt: “Murder Mile,” by Tony Black

(Editor’s note: Australian-born Scottish author Tony Black today welcomes the publication of Murder Mile [Preface], his second dark but delightful mystery featuring Edinburgh Detective Inspector Rob Brennan. I chose Black’s initial Brennan novel, Truth Lies Bleeding, as one of my favorite UK works of crime fiction last year. [Read an excerpt from that book here.] And Murder Mile is likely to further enhance Black’s standing in the genre. Here’s a brief synopsis of this new story’s plot: “In a cold, windswept field on the outskirts of Edinburgh, lies the brutally mutilated body of a young woman. As DI Rob Brennan looks at the tangled mass of limbs and blood, he feels his heart freeze. Like Fiona Gow five years earlier, this girl has been strangled with her own stockings, sexually mutilated, and her eyes have been gouged out. Is this the work of an Edinburgh Ripper? The press certainly think so. Rob Brennan is determined to uncover the truth--however painful that might be. But truth is hard to come by in a world of police rivalries, media hysteria, and copycat crime.” Below is Chapter 1 of Murder Mile.)

The fluorescent green of the alarm clock stung DI Rob Brennan’s eyes as he awoke, but it was the ringing phone by the bedside that did the real damage. He reached out, knocked it off its cradle, and heard it clatter to the ground. His next instinct was to turn round and see if his wife was still asleep beside him, but she wasn’t there; he remembered now.

Brennan eased himself upright, leaned over the edge of the bed, and retrieved the receiver; his voice rasped as he spoke, “Yes, Brennan.”

“Hello, sorry to wake you …” It was DS Stevie McGuire--the lad still hadn’t learned how to handle him, thought Brennan. He didn’t like people who opened conversations with the word “sorry.”

“What is it?”

The line crackled a little. There was a pause, Stevie preparing his words carefully--he knew that much then. “Boss, there’s been a call …”

“There better have been more than a bloody call if you’re getting me out of my kip at this hour, Stevie.”

The DS coughed gently; was he thinking of another apology?

“Yes, well … There was a call and we had uniform check it out. By all accounts it’s not pretty.”

Brennan’s interest was aroused. He massaged the back of his neck with his hand and then he rose from the bed, walked towards the window, and stuck his fingers in the blinds. It was still dark out. “Go on.”

“The early reports are a female, sexually motivated.”

“Have you been to the scene?” Brennan knew he hadn’t; if he had he wouldn’t be relaying the uniforms’ report. He was reaching, making assumptions.

“No.” Stevie sounded defensive now. “The victim’s half naked, bound and tied.”

“So it looks sexually motivated, Stevie.” He let the implication hang.

“Yes, sir.”

Brennan removed his fingers from the blinds, turned towards the bed. The wind outside worried the window latch. “Where is she?”

“Just off the bypass … Straiton will be about the nearest if you’re mapping it.”

“She’s in the wilds?”

McGuire’s tone softened, he seemed to be relaxing again. “A field … The boffins are setting up, or on their way there now.”

Brennan gouged a knuckle into his eye, rubbed. He was awake now, but not fully functioning. It was cold in the room, it would be colder outside; the chill air would wake him, he thought, if the job didn’t get there first. “OK, Stevie, pick me up in fifteen.”

“Yes, sir.”

He hung up.

Brennan returned the phone to its cradle and looked at the pillow lying beside his; it didn’t look slept on. His thoughts zigzagged for a moment. He turned away, flicked the light switch on, immediately his eyes creased in a defensive move as the shadeless bulb burned. He let his vision adjust for a moment or two and then he headed towards the wardrobe. He stood firm-footed as he tried to grasp what his next move should be. He grabbed the first shirt he came to--pale blue, button-down collar--and matched it with the first pair of trousers he found--gray, chino-style--they had been put away with the belt still in the loops and were saggy kneed; he dressed quickly.

In the bathroom the strip light was even brighter. Brennan ran a cold palm down his chin but knew a shave, even a quick run over with the electric razor, was out of the question. He looked at his stubble, it had started to lighten, there were white spikes poking through; he wondered why the graying hadn’t reached the hair on his head yet. In a moment the passing thought was expunged from his mind; he had more serious matters to consider now. The demands of the job always came first and he felt vaguely guilty to have let himself forget that, even for a second. There was a woman lying dead in a field--that was his focus now.

Outside the bathroom, Brennan stood in the top landing staring at his daughter’s bedroom door. A light flickered on the inch or so of exposed jamb--she had fallen asleep with the television on again. He’d told her about that a dozen times, but had always been ignored. He sighed; there was another talk he needed to have with Sophie--one he didn’t want to have--and he wondered how she would react.

Brennan grabbed his jacket and overcoat from the banister, headed downstairs. He looked at his watch as he went, it read 3:42. McGuire would be arriving in under five minutes. In the hallway outside the kitchen door Brennan put on his jacket, fastened the buttons, then fitted himself into his overcoat. He felt bulky as he thrashed about looking for his cigarettes. He tried all his pockets; they weren’t there.

“Fucking hell,” he mumbled.

Brennan turned the handle on the kitchen door, walked in. He saw his wife straight away; she was sitting with her face towards the wall, smoking one of his cigarettes. He looked at her for a moment, tried to discern some kind of meaning from the tableau but could find none.

“Joyce …”

She had heard him come in, couldn’t have failed to, but she refused to acknowledge him. He stared on, she was still for a moment longer and then she brought the filter tip of the cigarette up to her lips and inhaled deeply. Brennan continued watching her for a few seconds longer and then retreated through the door, closing it gently.

In the hallway, he shook his head and made for the front door. He opened up and stepped outside. At the end of the driveway Brennan felt his mind jam with incoming thoughts, none of them aligned with what he knew he should be occupying himself with. Was this the way it was going to be now? Day after day fading into one another, into insignificance. Did nothing matter anymore? Certainly nothing he did made a difference. Every emotion he felt was pastiche--a throwback to childhood or adolescence when feelings meant something, indicated a mood shift or a new sensation. There were no new sensations in adulthood. Nothing was new. All that was left was the husk of experience. Life was drudge. Endless routine. It took something painful--the shock of hurt, tears--to bring back the unsettling realization that you could still feel.

Brennan wondered if this was why he stayed in the job. It certainly wasn’t the rewards. There was no satisfaction--even capturing a killer and seeing justice served came after the event, after the killing. He could never do anything about that. His job was making sense of the mess, sweeping up after it; but never halting anything. He saved no one. If he knew this, understood this, then what did that make him: a ghoul? Did he simply get off on witnessing other people’s hurt? Did it make him feel more alive--just alive, in any way--to be so close to death and to people’s encounters with death?

Brennan stamped his feet, tried to knock out the cold. He felt his lungs itch for tobacco. When he got like this, a cigarette always helped. He didn’t know why; all he knew was the simple act of lighting up took him out of himself. He put his thoughts into the cigarette, then watched them burn up. Wullie had always said, “Never trust your mind, Rob … It’s a tool, a bloody good tool, but don’t let it rule you.” You had to listen to your gut too, and if there was a choice between gut and head, the gut was always right.

As the VW Passat rolled into view, McGuire raised a hand above the wheel and signaled to Brennan. The car stopped next to the curb, dislodging some rainwater from the gutter. McGuire had the passenger’s window down, was leaning over. “Think we’re going to have our work cut out with this one, sir.”

Brennan grabbed the door handle, stepped in. “Is that what you think?”

McGuire turned, his face indicated angst, his eyebrows rose in an apse. “Revise what I said about looks sexually motivated, sir … We’ve got genital mutilation and some seriously sadistic carving. And that’s just the tip of the iceberg.”

(Copyright © Tony Black 2012)

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