Authors: Denise Mina
Terry Hewitt’s corpse began the long melt back into the earth, and the world went on.
Paddy took a crouching step from her armchair to the television, pressed the button for STV, and sat back down. The adverts were still on. Dub’s long, skinny body was draped across the length of the settee and he smiled a slow, warm grin.
“This is the best point of the entire fucking week for me. The delicious moment just before the music starts and the half-hour car crash begins.” He slid his hand under his T-shirt, lazily scratching the skin on his belly. She pretended not to look at his flat stomach and the soft cushion of his pectorals. She was having to do that a lot.
“It’s getting worse, isn’t it?” she said to the TV.
“No.” Dub raised a finger to correct her. “It’s getting much worse.”
They grinned in unison at the screen as the theme tune started, high-pitched, frantic, followed by the flat titles for George H. Burns’s Saturday Night Old Time Variety Show. The graphics were a rip-off of Monty Python’s Flying Circus but still they were the most original thing about the program.
A knock on the front door startled them. Dub sat up and looked out into the hall. “That’s not him, is it?”
“Doubt it,” said Paddy, acting casual as she got up. “Don’t turn over though, in case it is.”
She pretended not to care whether it was George Burns, but when she was alone in the big hall she straightened her pajamas and fluffed her hair up at the sides. She opened the door.
The man in the close was young, fresh faced behind his John Lennon glasses. His hair was pulled straight back into a ponytail at the nape of his neck, loose, thick. The notepad and poised pen were the real clues.
“Hi, sorry to bother you, I’m Steven Curren—”
Conscious of the loud paint job and messy boxes in the hall, Paddy almost shut the door so they were talking through a two-inch gap. This would be the first of a hundred door stops. She’d better get used to it. “Who are ye with?”
“Sunday Mail,” he said, a little proud. “When’s Callum Ogilvy getting out? Is he coming to stay with you?”
His accent was soft and rounded. Edinburgh or England, Paddy thought, maybe Scottish but educated in England.
“Son,” she whispered for the sake of the neighbors, “fuck off away from my door.”
“Come on, Miss Meehan, you must know when he’s getting released. Where’s he staying when he gets out? Is Driver Sean going to pick him up? Is he staying with him?”
He had a grasp of the basic facts but nothing he couldn’t have found in old clippings or picked up from office gossip. She waited for him to hit her with something else but he didn’t.
“Is that it?”
He shrugged. “Um, yeah.”
“This is a bullshit door stop,” she said. “You’ve got nothing to go on. Do the Mail even know you’re here?”
“McVie,” he explained, eyes dipping in shame. “He said I have to try.”
“McVie sent you to my door on a Saturday night?”
“He said to follow up the leads.”
She felt for him. A more practiced journalist could have challenged her or made up some fact to goad her into talking. Her own door-stop method had always been to wait until a few journalists had rung the bell and been thrown off the step. Then she’d open her eyes wide and pretend to be a rookie, forced to come here by an evil editor. She’d ask the householder permission to wait on the step for a little while, just so that her editor couldn’t sack her. Often they’d side with her against the paper and invite her in. Curren, by contrast, had started combative and then had nothing to back it up. He’d get his face kicked in doing that in Glasgow.
“You’re new at this, aren’t you?”
“Yeah.” He looked excited.
“New to Glasgow?”
He brightened. “Been here a week. Just finished my training. ‘Greatest newspaper city in the world.’”
Combative and then suddenly soft; it was the worst possible combination to use when prying into the affairs of very upset people.
“Maybe you should try being more aggressive,” she said, imagining him nursing a black eye in the Mail newsroom while explaining where he got the idea from to guffawing colleagues. “When you get to a door try to push it open, swear at them, do something that’ll make them think you’re in charge. No one’s going to buckle under gentle quizzing.”
Curren nodded earnestly. “Really?”
“Yeah, Glaswegians really respond to that kind of firm hand.”
Curren hummed at his feet. “OK.” He took a deep breath, steeled himself, and demanded, “When’s Ogilvy getting out?”
“Better. Definitely better.”
Confusion flickered on his face and Paddy felt a little bit guilty. In the yellow light of the close he looked young and embarrassed and fed up, while she, content and pajamaed, still had the taste of oaty biscuits bright in her mouth.
She gave him permission to do what he’d do anyway. “Listen, just go back and tell your editor I’m a total bitch and you tried really hard.”
Resentment flashed behind his glasses. “I’ll tell McVie he’s a fat poof.”
She tutted. Brutal insults were the custom of their profession, but she didn’t like McVie’s homosexuality used as a slur. “Nah, don’t say that to him, he might get a bit, you know . . .” she searched for the word, “. . . stabby.”
He grinned. Nice teeth. “Stabby? Is that an intransitive verb? Only in Glasgow . . .”
“Adjective.” She’d never heard of that kind of verb. Even tea boys had degrees these days. “Well, fuck off anyway.” She shut the door, felt a pang of guilt at her mis-advice, and called through the wood, “Safe home.”
“Thanks,” he answered, his voice muffled. “By the way, I saw your Misty column about dope. Brilliant.”
Paddy felt vaguely ashamed. She had stolen the argument that no one started a fight in a bar because they’d smoked pot, but that alcohol provided so much tax revenue it couldn’t be outlawed.
“Thanks,” she said to the door. “It was Bill Hicks’s line actually. I took it and didn’t give him an acknowledgment.”
“Good for you,” replied the door. The kid would go far.
She listened as his foot dropped to the first step, followed the echo of his trail as he walked down two flights and left the close. The outside door slammed behind him.
Lucky her. The biggest crime story in the last twenty years hadn’t so much landed in her lap as grown up under her feet. Callum Ogilvy and another small boy had been found guilty of the brutal murder of a toddler nine years ago. At the same time Paddy, a hungry young reporter, was engaged to Callum’s cousin Sean. It was because of Paddy’s investigation that the men who goaded the boys to do it were found and charged. Callum and James were done for conspiracy instead of murder and it carried a shorter sentence. Even she didn’t know if it was a good idea to release them, but there was no legal basis on which to hold them any longer.
She hadn’t met Callum since he went to prison. She knew very little about him, other than the sanitized snippets Sean passed on from his prison visits and the occasional articles about his life there. Sean wanted her to write Callum’s big interview when he got out. Working in newspapers for the past six years, he was savvy enough to know that Callum would be hunted down and eventually caught, probably by an unsympathetic journalist who’d print a picture and ruin what little anonymity he had. Most journalists would have bitten Sean’s hand off for the opportunity but Paddy had her doubts about writing it: she couldn’t guarantee a sympathetic story, and anyway, Callum didn’t want to talk to anyone.
She loitered in the hall, looking down at the boxes of Dub’s records and a cardboard rack of her work clothes. Unpacking had ground to a halt a month ago and now they only noticed the boxes when they saw them from an unusual angle.
The ceilings were high in the flat. The early Victorians took tenements seriously, built them on a grand scale with servants’ quarters and drawing rooms that could accommodate dance parties, and Lansdowne Crescent was one of the oldest tenements in the West End of Glasgow.
It was a student flat before Paddy bought it. The hall was still purple with canary yellow trim, the detailing on the magnificent cornicing obscured under a century and a half of pasty emulsion. The three bedrooms were painted in colors that would exacerbate a hangover and the kitchen ceiling was so nicotine stained that it was hard to tell whether it had been painted white or kipper yellow.
At twenty-seven, she was in her first home away from her family and she was still gliding around it like a triumphant child in a longed-for Wendy house.
Back in the living room Dub smirked up at her. Paddy could tell by the crumbs on his T-shirt front that he’d stolen some of her biscuits.
“Who was it?”
“A wee journalist from the Mail. Asking about Callum Ogilvy. How’s the show this week?”
“Oh, bliss, it’s even worse.”
They watched as George H. Burns demanded a welcoming round of applause from the audience, his eyes flashing angry as he backed offstage to the wings. The curtain rose on a sweating ventriloquist with a cow puppet sitting upright on his knee, its impertinent pink udders quivering in the spotlight.
The Saturday Night Old Time Variety Show was arse-clenchingly poor. George H. Burns’s compèring style revolved around insulting the audience. He guessed where they were from, told jokes about skinflints from Aberdeen and half-wits from Dundee. His material was obvious, the intervening acts mediocre, the musicians plodding.
“Even the curtains look tired,” said Dub.
The viewing figures were spectacular: every single week the numbers halved. But it wasn’t really funny. If Burns’s career took a nosedive he’d stop giving Paddy money, even sporadically, and she was stretched tight enough as it was.
Dub had been George’s manager when the TV company approached them and offered the show. He advised Burns not to host it on the grounds that it would be absolutely fucking shit. Burns, greedy and headstrong, sacked the guy who’d brought him to the brink of stardom and replaced him with a manager who wore shiny suits and couldn’t talk to a woman without staring at her tits. Now even he knew the show was crap. He was angry, blaming the producer, the writers, the quality of the acts, but the flaw was in the concept: variety theater needed revival because it was dying, and it was dying because it was patchy and dull. Worse for George, going mainstream had alienated all his comrades on the alternative comedy circuit. Far from being alternative, the circuit was suddenly all there was, apart from guest spots and workingmen’s clubs.
“Mother of God,” muttered Paddy, dropping into her chair. “Where are they finding these people? Backstage must be like the bus to Lourdes.”
“They’re all actual performers. Dinosaurs. Actually, mini-saurs. Baby saurs.” He lay there, grinning, his chin folded into his neck, the sole pocket of fat on his entire six-foot-two frame. She’d been flat sharing with him for two months and saw how much he ate. She’d always hoped that thin people were lying, that they didn’t eat giant meals and keep their figures just the same, but Dub ate peanut butter sandwiches before his dinner, snacked on entire packets of biscuits, and was still rake thin. Paddy felt the hefty roll of fat on her middle bulge as she sat down. It was just unfair.
A slow knock echoed out from the deep hall. Paddy sighed as she stood up again. “Tell him to get lost,” Dub said.
But it didn’t sound the same, didn’t sound like a journalist’s jaunty, faux-friendly beat. “I’ve told him to fuck off.” She brushed her hands clean on her pajama trousers. “I’m just after telling him that.”
As she stepped back over the boxes the knock was still going, a rhythmic, steady tap on wood, slow and grave. Paddy’s heart jolted a warning.
Her hand hesitated on the handle. It could be a lost drunk who’d wandered up the close, or a journalist from a serious paper looking for news of Callum Ogilvy’s release date. Or George Burns on a downer. Or Terry fucking Hewitt. God, not Terry, please.
She slipped the safety chain on noisily, hoping it sounded more substantial than it was, and opened the door an inch.
Two unfamiliar police officers, a man and a woman, stood shoulder to shoulder, wearing full uniform and looking grimly back at her.
Paddy slammed the door shut in their faces.
Alone in the hall, her knees buckled. She had shadowed the police often enough to know what a death knock looked like: two uniformed officers, stony faced, one of them a woman, turning up at an unexpected hour.
When Paddy was on night shift she’d arrived at the door with them, faked sympathy along with them, never once thinking they would come to her. With them, she kept her face straight during the interview and sniggered at the jokes in the car afterwards, laughing at the clothes and the décor, at the family setup and undercurrents, dead wives found in a boyfriend’s bed, car crashes caused by drink, once a husband found dead in a ladies’ changing room at a department store, trying on girdles. They laughed, not because any of it was funny, but because it was sad.
Someone close to her had died. They had died violently, or she would have been called by a hospital, and they had died alone, or a family member would have phoned her. It had to be Mary Ann.
“Dub?” Her voice was high and wavering. “Could ye come out here a minute?”
Dub took his time. When he appeared he stood in the doorway; he was still looking back at the TV. “What?”
“Two police. Outside. I think something’s happened.”
They looked anxiously at the door, trying to read an answer in the lumpy yellow paint.
Dub came over, standing too close, even jumpier than she was. “Couldn’t be a noise complaint? A mistake? The journalist, the wee guy, was he noisy on the way out?”
Paddy pressed her hand to her mouth.
“It could be Mary Ann.”
“Let them in then.” Dub reached over swiftly, slipped the chain off, and pulled the door wide.
The male officer was a big shed of a man, fat and broad, blue shadow on both his chins, his chest still heaving from the effort of lumbering up the stairs. The woman was blond, hair scraped back so tight it looked as if it had been painted on. She was birdlike: a pointy nose, beady eyes, thin lips. Family Liaison. They always sent out a woman from Family to hold the person’s hand when they sobbed.
The policewoman attempted a smile but it withered on her lips and she slipped Paddy’s eye. She hadn’t done many death knocks, hadn’t yet developed the cold skill of looking heartbreak in the face.
“Hello.” The portly officer took charge. “I’m PC Blane and this is WPC Kilburnie. Are you Paddy Meehan?”
They waited for an answer but Paddy was stiff with fright. She couldn’t seem to get the air to the bottom of her lungs.
“I know it’s you actually.” He half smiled at Paddy. “I recognize your face from the newspapers.”
Paddy did what she always did when a fan approached her. She bared her teeth politely and mumbled an irrelevant “thank you.”
Dub moved in front of her. “Is it Mary Ann?”
Blane blanked his question, stepping over the threshold and looking exclusively at Paddy. “Can we come in?”
She backed away, letting the officers shuffle in, trespassing death into her Wendy house.
Neither of them looked at Dub. Usually he was great at taking charge of a situation. He’d done stand-up for many years and was more than capable of demanding the attention of a nightclub full of drunk people but now, strangely, neither officer would acknowledge him.
“He’s my friend,” said Paddy, pointing at him.
Blane and Kilburnie glanced warily at each other. Blane cleared his throat. “Shall we go through?”
Paddy’s footsteps felt spongy and unsteady as she stepped across the boxes and walked the length of the hall. She slowed as she reached the living room, stalling, as if she could prolong the unknowing moment indefinitely, but Blane took her elbow, hurrying and supporting her at the same time.
“Please sit down.” He guided Paddy through the door and over to the settee. She saw Blane clock George Burns on TV, crouching down at the edge of the stage to talk to a busty woman in the audience.
“Burns,” he muttered dismissively, letting the comment write itself.
Burns had been a policeman before he became a comedian. Every copper in Glasgow had a story about him, usually derogatory—how there were ten guys on every squad funnier than him, how they’d done their training with him and he was a prick then too, anecdotes always delivered with a slightly thrilled smile that they knew someone on telly.
Determined to be spoken to, Dub dropped onto the settee right next to Paddy, reaching for her hand, but Kilburnie managed to squeeze her pointy little self into the space between them.
“Tell me,” said Paddy, taking a deep breath and holding it, bracing herself for the blow.
Kilburnie nodded her head to Dub and widened her eyes. “Maybe it would be better if we spoke to you on your own.”
“Well . . .” She looked uncomfortable. “I’m afraid we have some rather bad news, Miss Meehan.”
“I’m afraid,” Kilburnie continued with the standard speech she had practiced in the car, “we found a body yesterday, in the countryside, near Port Glasgow . . .”
Two fat tears raced down Paddy’s cheeks. “Just say it.”
Kilburnie looked down at her lap, patting her knees with both hands, steeling herself. “Terry Hewitt is dead. A shot to the head, I’m afraid. We would have come sooner only he didn’t have any identification on him and we’ve only just found his flat and been through his effects . . .”
Paddy sat up. “Terry Hewitt?”
Disconcerted, Kilburnie glanced at Blane. “I’m afraid he’s dead. I’m very sorry.”
Dub sat forward. “Terry Hewitt?”
“Single shot to the head.” Kilburnie gave Blane a worried look. “He’s dead, I’m afraid.”
Dub reached across Kilburnie’s lap. “Paddy? Were you seeing him again?”
“No,” she muttered, “not since . . . before. I haven’t seen him since Fort William.”
“Why are you telling her this?”
Kilburnie turned to Dub. “I’m very sorry.”
“What are you saying sorry to me for?”
Kilburnie looked from Dub to Paddy. “I’m sorry for talking about this in front of your hubby.”
“Oh.” Dub looked at them both, smiling at the suburban phrasing. “Oh, no. We’re just flatmates. We’re friends.”
“I’m not married,” said Paddy. “Is Mary Ann OK?”
“Who is Mary Ann?” asked Kilburnie.
“My sister. She works in a soup kitchen. She’s a nun. When you said it was out in the country I thought she’d been abducted. I thought she’d been raped . . .” Paddy clamped her hand over her mouth to stop herself talking.
She knew they’d repeat every word of the interview back at the station. A minor provincial celebrity caught off guard wearing ripped pajamas. There were a lot of pauses in police work, opportunities for gossip. They’d describe the purple and yellow hall, her non-hubby flatmate, how they were watching Burns’s show and Paddy was eating biscuits instead of having dinner. They’d tell people about the rip in her pajama bottoms.
“The thing is . . .” Kilburnie tailed off. “I’m afraid we need you to identify his body.”
“Why me? There must be someone who’s seen him more recently than me. I haven’t seen Terry for six months.”
“But you were the next of kin on his passport. We found it in his house. That’s how we got this address.”
“He had me down at this address?”
Dub watched the back-and-forth, interested now that he knew Mary Ann was safe.
“But we just moved in two months ago.” She looked around the living room, at the orange walls, the sparse furniture, carefully chosen from junk shops and auctions. Terry had never been here; she hadn’t thought he knew the address.
“So you’re not related?”
“No. Terry’s parents died years ago. I don’t know if he had anyone else. He was a foreign correspondent, traveled, didn’t make many friends. I suppose that’s why. I’m not completely surprised, to be honest. He wasn’t happy.”
Paddy stood up. It occurred to her that she should get to the Daily News and file the story of Terry’s suicide. It wasn’t a great story but the thought of work calmed her. She felt the steel nib pierce her heart, felt her muscles relax, her blood slow. With a notebook in her hand she could walk through fire and feel nothing.
The woman officer stood up to meet her. “We need you to come and have a look at him, if you would.”
“Just let me get changed.”
As she passed Blane on her way out of the living room he looked down at her and blurted, “I love your column. I always agree with it. You write things before I’m even thinking them.”
Paddy bared her teeth politely. “Thank you,” she said.
REGAL AND BRU
Paddy kept her window down. The warm breeze caressed her face, carrying the high-summer smell of dust and rotting vegetables as she followed the red taillights of the police car.
Blane and Kilburnie were in the car ahead, sniggering about her purple hall no doubt, passing tasty morsels back and forth about her and George Burns. Everyone would know what Terry’s suicide note said by morning. They’d extrapolate every detail: Terry shot himself because of her, she loved Burns and that’s why she was watching his show, she’d painted her hall purple and yellow, Dub was a boyfriend or a beard. Rumors of her lesbianism increased in direct proportion to her success. It was intended to belittle her, but she quite liked the suggestion that she was impregnable, literally and metaphorically.
A green traffic light switched to orange as the police car passed beneath it. Paddy slowed unnecessarily, stopping before it changed to red. Out of the empty street, a sudden rush of people crossed the road in front of her. She looked back. They were pouring out of the Ramshorn Kirk, a church she’d never even noticed before this year, converted into a theater for Glasgow’s year as European City of Culture.
For a century Glasgow had been a byword for deprivation and knife-wielding teenage gangs but in the past few years the thick coat of black soot had been sandblasted off the old buildings, revealing pale yellow sandstone that glittered in the sun, or blood orange stone that clashed with blue skies. International theater companies and artists had started coming to the city, colonizing unlikely venues, old churches, schools, markets and abandoned sheds, places the locals failed to notice every day. Glaswegians no longer felt as defensive of their home, began to look around with renewed interest, like a partner in a stale marriage finding out that their spouse was a heartthrob abroad.
The lights changed to green but Paddy sat still, watching the pedestrians crossing in front of her. They were young for a theater crowd, smoking now that they could, chatting animatedly about the piece they had just witnessed.
Some of the men cast admiring glances at her car. It was a big white Volvo saloon, a vanity car, bought to show the world of men she moved among that she was doing well and had the readies to buy a big motor. She didn’t like it. It handled like a tank and was too big and boxy to park in the handy little spaces she used to manage in her Ford Fiesta. Parking it anywhere slightly rough was to invite a key along the paintwork.
The crowd began to thin and she let the handbrake off, gently nudging forward. Ahead, the police pulled out slowly, making sure she stayed with them, as if she couldn’t find the city morgue herself.
They drove on, turning down the steep winding High Street, once the spine of the city, now a road through plots of dark wasteland. The seven-story Tollbooth sat on its little traffic island, all that remained of a medieval prison where witches were hanged and the debtors voted in their own mayor.
Glasgow City Mortuary was an unobtrusive single-story building on the corner of the High Court. Built in red brick, it had windows on either side of a deep doorway like a punched-in nose. The business of the building was conducted belowground, in the white-tiled cellar.
The squad car pulled up right in front, on a double yellow line, so Paddy followed their lead and drew up behind them. Kilburnie and Blane were waiting for her on the pavement, their mood lighter than it had been before, distant and observing. They had been talking about her, she could smell it on their breath.
The mortuary faced Glasgow Green, an ill-lit expanse of grass cut through by the River Clyde, bordered on one side by the damp highrises in the Gorbals and on the other by the crumbling tenements of the Gallowgate. At night it was populated by roving prostitutes and the drunk men who came to fuck them or rob them. Shadows routinely rose out of the moist night and tried the door of the mortuary. It was assumed they were attracted by the lights or looking for drugs but no one really knew why they came, banging on the oak or scratching at the windows.
The narrow porch was a tight fit for the three of them. Blane’s looming bulk swallowed the light. They heard the entry buzzer fizz as he pressed it.
“You two do a lot of death knocks?” Paddy used the police term to show them she wasn’t just a punter off the street.
“Not that often,” said Blane.
“Well, I’m afraid I’m Family Liaison.” Kilburnie smiled sadly and tipped her head to the side, putting Paddy in her place as the bereaved. “I have to come here quite often, I’m afraid.”
“You’re afraid of everything,” said Paddy quietly.
Blane smirked at his shoes. Tell your pals that, Paddy wanted to say: Meehan cracking jokes at the door of the mortuary, coming to view a corpse.
She’d been avoiding thoughts of Terry all the way into town, filling her head with Pete and decorating the new house and how soon she could get into the office to file the story. No amount of anticipating could make her ready for the sight of a dead body. She knew that from experience.
When her father, Con, died, the family held the nightly rosary around his open coffin. The gray simulacrum of Con Meehan became just that: not the man, but an impostor wearing her daddy’s best suit. She clung to her grief, knowing that it was the very last emotion her dad would ever provoke in her.
It was a terrible death. He was fifty-eight, riddled with tumors, but the physical pain was nothing compared to his anger in those last few ragged months. He died scratching at the clod walls of his grave, tearful, never accepting that his time was up. Everyone in the family made of Con’s uncharacteristic anger what they needed to. Trisha, his wife, thought it was because of the way things had gone with Paddy and Caroline, because the boys weren’t devout. Caroline put his fury down to his long-term unemployment and a lack of counseling. The boys said it was the medication, Mary Ann said pain. But when Paddy looked into his eyes she saw a great roar of regret. Con was a timid man. He had spent his life avoiding conflict, let everyone through the door before him, waiting in a holding position, and then, suddenly, his time was over.
She gave up trying to get her head around the fact of death. She developed the mental trick of pretending that Con had gone away on a long, happy trip, that she would see him again one day and everything would be better, he’d be tumor free, the regret and all the space between them gone. It was later that she realized her mother used exactly the same mental trick but called the destination heaven.
Blane glanced nervously out at the misty Green and cursed under his breath as he pressed the hissing intercom again. Kilburnie looked at Paddy, blank faced until her training kicked in: her face softened and she reached supportively for Paddy’s arm, retreating when she saw the snarl on her face.
Paddy thought she was coming over too hard. “Did he leave a note?”
Blane looked puzzled. “Who?”
“Terry. Did he leave a note saying why?”
Blane’s jaw dropped in realization. “No, no, sorry. He didn’t do it to himself.”
Kilburnie stole a pinch of Paddy’s elbow. “He was murdered.”
“You’re shitting me?”
“Oh yes, definitely. There were tire marks at the side of the road but no car around and we haven’t found the weapon. He was naked and we never found his clothes. He was murdered.”
“Terry was naked?”
Blane nodded. “Stark, bollock naked.”
She knew it had to be murder: even if the gun wasn’t missing, Terry wouldn’t want to be found naked. He was a bit pudgy, had some fat around his arse, and was ashamed. He wanted the lights off before he would undress in front of her. It was one of the things she’d liked about him. “But who’d want to kill Terry Hewitt?”
Blane leaned in confidentially. “They said it looks like an IRA assassination.”
Paddy reeled on her heels. “Get fucked!”
He nodded, excited, knowing the implications. “‘All the hallmarks.’ That’s what they said.”
“No one’d authorize that in Scotland. We’re neutral. And Terry had nothing to do with Ireland.”
“Well,” he said, “I’m sure they’ll tell us in the press statement. They usually do that, don’t they?”
Kilburnie leaned back, getting between them, pointedly clearing her throat, reminding Blane of the need for discretion. Chastened, he turned back to the door, his shoulder met by Kilburnie’s, forming a wall against Paddy. He pressed the buzzer a third time. “Well, that’s what they told us,” he said, defending himself to Kilburnie.
“It can’t be.” Paddy addressed their backs. “He was a journalist. Even the Americans wouldn’t stand for that.”
The intercom crackled: “Yeah?”
Blane leaned in. “PCs Blane and Kilburnie from Pitt Street. Expected here for an ID.”
The door buzzed and fell open an inch, letting out a jab of sharp lemon. Paddy had visited the city mortuary several times and the smell didn’t get any less alarming. She took a deep breath before stepping into the dark hall.
Blane made sure the door was shut tight behind them.
Inside, the lobby was softly lit. A bleary-eyed security guard sat stiffly at the desk, the appointments book in front of him suspiciously flattened. As Blane and Kilburnie showed him their warrant cards and signed in, Paddy moved to the side and spotted the edge of a pillow on his lap.
Blane smiled at the guard, saying his name twice in the course of a bland hello. Police officers liked to say people’s names. Made them feel connected. He introduced Paddy but the security guard didn’t react to her name. Not a Daily News reader.
Blane gave up trying to chat and nodded Kilburnie and Paddy down the corridor to a set of doors with ABSOLUTELY NO ENTRY painted on them. Through the doors, after a long landing, narrow stone steps led down into the bowels of the building and a warren of white-tiled corridors.
Kilburnie turned back to Paddy at the bottom of the stairs. “About the IRA—that’s just a canteen rumor.”
Paddy nodded. “Understood.”
“It shouldn’t go in the paper or anything. Could scare people. Cause friction.”
“I’m sure it’ll be fine,” said Paddy vaguely, itching to get to the office now.
“Now, this . . .” Kilburnie pointed down the corridor. “I’m here to support you. Are you sure you’re all right?”
“Fine,” said Paddy sharply.
She saw Kilburnie flinch at her coldness. Paddy could have faked a bit of trauma, but that wasn’t supposed to be the point. The incessant attempts to prompt her emotions were getting on her tits.
Ahead of them, sheet-plastic abattoir doors glowed yellow from the light behind them and a radio hummed, muffled by the scratched, leathery material. Kilburnie reached out with both hands and pushed them open. The smell hit Paddy’s nose like a spiteful slap. Rancid meat and the afterburn of alcohol. She forced herself to take breaths in and out. She’d made herself dizzy in the mortuary once before by not breathing in enough.
The bizarre tableau they walked in on stopped them dead. Kilburnie gasped, afraid again no doubt.
Standing alone against a wall of glinting stainless steel was an elf dressed in green scrubs, face mask hinged off one ear. Her hands hung by her sides, turned towards them, like Jesus welcoming sinners in a painting. The wild brown hair was blunt cut above her shoulders. She smiled stiffly, eyes open a little too wide. She’d heard them coming down the stairs, probably heard the buzzer and the doors. Her welcoming stance had gone stale.
“Hello.” The odd little woman refreshed her smile. She was young, her skin perfect, her figure unformed, as if she was still waiting for puberty to hit.
Blane frowned. “John about?”
The mortuary elf looked Paddy over, smart in a black wraparound work dress and platform orange-suede trainers. “He’s having a kip in the back.”
All three of them considered the possibility that this tiny woman had risen from the Green, broken in for some sick reason, and beaten John to death.
She touched a hand to her chest. “Aoife McGaffry,” she said, her Northern Irish accent thick and warm. “I’m the new pathologist.”
Blane smiled. “Oh, I thought you were a nutter. What are you doing here at this time on a Saturday night?”
Aoife stepped back, welcoming them into the big room. “We’re backed up.”
“Old Graham Wilson had a heart attack a week ago,” Blane explained to Paddy. “They’ve been storing everyone they can until the new Path started.”
Paddy had never met Graham Wilson but she’d seen him giving evidence at the High Court a couple of times. He was disheveled, looked as if he’d just been woken up, wore a crumpled three-piece suit and pince-nez.
“Died on the job,” said Aoife. “Not ‘on the job’ as in mid- coitus,” she corrected herself, “but ‘on the job’ here.” She pointed at the floor in front of her. “Again, not in midcoitus.”
It was supposed to be a joke but Blane flinched.
Aoife McGaffry winced. Police officers might snigger at the nightie someone was wearing when they were told of a loved one’s death, they might make jokes about Head and Shoulders at the scene of car crashes, but, apparently, there were bounds of decency and the suggestion that a colleague had died in the course of a necrophiliac orgy wasn’t funny. Paddy liked Aoife immediately.
“I’m Paddy Meehan.” She stepped forward and put out her hand.
Aoife smiled at the outstretched hand. “You wouldn’t thank me for shaking it. It’d take ye a week to get the smell out.” She twisted around to look behind her. “Tend to go a bit ripe if they’re left for a week.”
“I’m here to identify someone . . .”
Behind her Blane barked, “SMR Ref 2372/90,” reading from his notebook.
Aoife listened, dismissed him with a blink, and looked at Paddy again, shedding all her awkwardness now she was in her professional role. “And is this someone close to you?”
“Not really. A friend. He hadn’t anyone else.”
“OK.” She nodded. “Well, I’ve been here for two days and haven’t had the time to dress anyone up. I don’t know what kind of state your friend is in but we can do this two ways: I can tidy him up but that’ll take time, or I can just bring you to him. How’s your constitution?”
Paddy shrugged. It was shite, actually, but she wanted to get to the office and file the story before the final edition went to press. “Fair to middling.”
Aoife smiled. “Beckett,” she said, catching the reference. “Right, come on now you with me and we’ll find your friend.”
The police trailed after them as Aoife led Paddy through a small passageway to a big steel door. A gauge on the wall next to it showed the temperature. Paddy had looked at a body here before, a long time ago, as a favor to an old friend.
“Don’t you use the drawers anymore?”
“Bloody thing conked out ages ago. Heads need banging together in this place.” Using all her slight weight, Aoife yanked the big door open. A gust of frost and alcohol burst into the corridor. Brutal white strip lights flickered awake in the walk-in fridge, casting inky shadows under the sheeted trolley beds. Inside, the fridge was crowded. Aoife had to wiggle sideways between the beds to make her way to the back of the room.
“What number did ye say?” Her voice echoed back to them.
Blane looked at his notebook again and repeated it.
She checked a couple of toe tags, muttering “Here we go” to herself when she found Terry. She looked back across the full fridge and sighed a white cloud. “Hell. We might need to empty the whole place to get him out.”
There were fifteen, eighteen bodies in the place. It would take ten minutes to wheel all the beds out and then they couldn’t very well piss off and leave her with the bodies in the corridor.
“Tell you what, I’ll come in,” said Paddy, bracing herself and stepping into the cold. She slid between the shrouded shapes, holding her hands high, trying not to touch anything.
“Me too,” said Kilburnie. Family Liaison. Elbow holder. Empathy in uniform. She followed Paddy’s path through the trolleys, keeping close, until they were gathered on the other side of the bed from Aoife, exhaling smog over the cold white sheet.
Paddy looked down. Terry was under there. A Terry-shaped piece of meat. Naked. Rotting. Suddenly, death wasn’t a long holiday. It was real.
Aoife McGaffry sensed her tension. “Was he a relative of yours?”
“No.” Paddy couldn’t stop her eyes from mapping the mountains and valleys of the sheet in front of her. “No, no. We’ve just known each other for a long time, that’s all.”
It wasn’t all. They had known each other for nine years and she thought about him all the time he was away, wondered after him, imagined his absent opinion of her actions. Terry Hewitt had been her touchstone for nearly a decade. He was a marker of how she was doing, a spur to action, a call for decency. She wished he’d never come back to Glasgow.
Aoife was talking. “. . . pull the sheet back slowly. You’re better just looking at him once the sheet’s away and not while it comes off. It’s easier to look then. And stand back a wee bit, there.”
Dumbly, Paddy took a step away, her bum banging into the trolley behind her. She started, imagined a dead hand grabbing her arse.
“Don’t get freaked out, just step back. It’s good to have more in your line of vision than just the deceased. Keeps perspective. If it gets too much, look up at me. Ready?”
She had her hands on the top end of the sheet. Paddy stared hard at Aoife’s face and nodded.
“Right, here we are now.”
Against orders, Paddy watched as Aoife rolled the sheet back, folding it under Terry’s chin as if he was a sleeping child. “You try to have a wee look now.”
At first all Paddy could see was the mess of it. A black hole the size of a fist was at his temple. A tongue, was that a tongue? Purple, swollen, poking out between the bloody lips. He must have been lying on his side after he was shot because tendrils of blood had dried across his face, a black octopus climbing out of the hole above his ear. She couldn’t see Terry in all of that. She stole a look at Aoife’s shoulder, braced herself, looked at him again through a puff of white breath.
The first thing she recognized was the BCG scar on his upper arm. She had kissed that, stared at it in the gloomy room in Fort William while Terry talked about San Salvador, knew every fold of the smooth penny, every overlapping freckle. Then she saw that the nose was Terry’s nose. It was his double chin. She saw the hair on the back of his neck: black, coarse, gelled, sticky to the touch. She had run her fingertips around that neck, savored the softness, scratched and kissed it, run the tip of her tongue through the soft precursor hairs, tasted him. Her mouth filled suddenly with salt water.
“Him. It’s him.”
Lightness flooded into the top of her head, making her unsteady. Ordering herself to be brave, she raised her eyes to Aoife but her gaze rolled up past the thick brown hair, rushed up the wall, and skidded up to the ceiling into a burning strip light.
She hit the floor before realizing she was going down.
The light above her was so harsh that Paddy threw her arm over her face and rolled onto her side to get away from it. Aoife was talking a mile away. “She’s fine. No worries. Yez can go about your business now.”
Paddy heard Blane say something. Or was it Kilburnie? Aoife replied and a door clicked shut somewhere.
Keeping her hands over her face, Paddy sat up. She was on a low bed, a leather daybed, covered in a long strip of paper like a gynecologist’s examination couch. She had passed out right in front of policemen while she was wearing a dress. Blane and Kilburnie would have a story to tell now: Burns on the telly, purple hall, and herself on the floor, legs splayed, washday-gray knickers on full show. She cursed to herself and swung her legs over the side of the bed, forcing her eyes open.
They must have carried her in here. It was a small office, cut off from the rest of the mortuary by wood and glass partitions. Gray box files and papers were stacked on every surface. The cheap particleboard desk had a big white computer sitting on it, the screen blinking a green prompt.
Aoife was watching her from a swivel chair, smoking a cigarette she didn’t look old enough to buy.
“Oh, sorry, I’m sorry,” Paddy apologized over and over, trying to think of something else to say. “I’ll go, I’m sorry.” She stood up uncertainly and looked around. “Where’s my coat?”
“Ye haven’t a coat.”
“Are ye pregnant or anything?”
Paddy stroked the round of her stomach defensively.
“I didn’t mean . . . Ye don’t look it or anything.” Aoife waved her cigarette up and down Paddy’s body. “Just in case there’s something more than shock going on. I’m a doctor, I’m supposed to ask stuff like that.”
Paddy remembered the harrowing moments before she fainted. She covered her face with her hands and groaned Terry’s name.
“Your friend,” said Aoife simply.
Paddy looked up. “Friend.” The word seemed infinitely tender. She felt like crying. “Who’d shoot him in the head? He was a good guy.” She remembered the hotel room in Fort William. “Good-ish. A good enough guy.”
Aoife considered her cigarette. “While you were out of it the police said he’d been shot by the Provos.”
“Terry was nothing to do with the Troubles. He wasn’t even interested in that.”
Aoife snorted bitterly and crossed her legs. “Doesn’t take much to cross them bastards. I trained in Belfast. Seen some right messes. Most of them’re just thugs with a political justification. Both sides. Wankers.”
She sounded like the child she resembled: small, scatological, odd. Her ponytail had come undone at the side, probably from yanking Paddy’s body off the floor. Her hair was so wiry each strand looked thick and coarse as a horse’s tail.
“By God, ye’ve some head of hair on ye,” said Paddy, letting her Irish phrasing show now they were alone.
Aoife looked at her, sternly at first. Her face broke into a laugh. Paddy laughed along with her.