If the incident with McGroarty had provided some unexpected excitement it was short lived. There’d been some subterfuge in their attempts to execute more warrants, but the remainder of the week proved an anti climax. It wasn’t altogether fruitless. Alec had learned new tricks. The art of whistling bird calls as they entered each common close, a technique used by the neds to signal the presence of a friend. There were secret knocks on tenement doors and to Alec’s surprise one such rat-a-tat had guddled another fugitive into eager hands, but that had been their one success. For the most part Ronnie had resorted to threats to kick in doors because ‘we know you’re in there’, but no sound ever came, no key in lock, no pale faced skull presented themselves for arrest.
“They’ll get a weekend lie-in and they know it. No point in flogging a dead horse.”
Instead, the warrants were put away and as they stepped onto the beat that Thursday morning, it was to have breakfast in the box and see out the last day of the early shift in peaceful harmony with the world. Some ambling around, some chat with the few people willing to chat back and a coffee at Giacommo’s.
That’d been the plan, but they’d no sooner reached their first port of call when they were directed to another. Ronnie cursed the uncivilised hour and Alec resigned himself to the familiar twists of fate as Bob’s perpetually weary voice relayed the concerns of an old lady who’d got no reply at a neighbours door.
“You know what that means.”
Alec knew what it meant, but he made his way to the house hopeful it was a misunderstanding. Deafness perhaps, away visiting family, there could be all sorts of reasons.
The house was a four-in-a-block cottage flat, one of hundreds huddled round a small but steep hill, the quiet streets arranged in concentric rings, neat gardens of trimmed lawns, heather rockeries, borders of rhododendrons and azaleas. Alec made his way up the steep incline to the sound of lawnmowers and Ronnie’s laboured breathing.
An old woman waited for them up a short flight of steps. She wrestled one hand over the other as she talked about her downstairs neighbour, an old friend not seen for three days and who’d not been ‘keeping well’.
Alec looked over to the front door. A stuffed letterbox vomited junk mail onto bottles of milk, their foil tops pecked open by birds. Ronnie, still out of breath, pointed to the drawn curtains of the downstairs windows.
“Any lights last night?”
The old woman looked glum and shook her head. Alec felt the nudge at his arm.
“Give the door a knock.”
“And if there’s no reply?”
Ronnie pursed his lips.
“Kick it in, that’s why we’re here.”
Alec tried the doorbell, but there was no response and when he removed the mail from the letter box he was confronted with a dark smell that made his head jerk back.
Ronnie noticed the involuntary reaction and led the neighbour away, suggesting she make a cup of tea. He returned, face set in resignation.
“Might as well get on with it.”
“Do we have permission?”
“I’ve just given it.”
Alec was still getting used to the difference between the procedures taught at Tulliallan, and the semi autonomous habits of old-school cops like Ronnie, but in this case it was clear cut. No Sergeant would tell them to walk away from this.
Alec stepped towards the door and landed a heavy kick on the centre panel. The door shuddered, but the only change was the appearance of a dirty shoe print on the white PVC surface.
Ronnie shook his head.
”Two steps back – big step forward – kick above the handle.”
This was harder than it looked. Alec took a deep breath and struck the door with malice. There was a loud bang and it burst inwards. The ching of something metal hit the floor and then there was silence. He stood aside to let Ronnie past, but the old cop smiled and swept an arm forward as if to say ‘after you’.
Alec had gone no more than a few steps when it overtook him. In all the years that lay before him he’d never describe it adequately. It’s putrid uniqueness, it’s corruption of the senses, an alien stench that filled nose and mouth and wakened a primal urge to retreat, to heave, gag, retch and vomit. A thick cloying miasma of rancid meat, rotten fish guts and sour milk. A viscous musk of Satan’s shit regurgitated by a parliament of maggots and embroidered with a beguiling syrupy scent that seduced the senses into tasting the corruption again and again, teasing them into the irredeemable foulness so that the retching longing to retreat would return with vengeance in a never-ending loop.
Alec stopped, bent over and tried to gather himself. His breakfast lurched around his stomach. As he drew breath the waves of nausea struck again and he was forced to suppress each violent heave with Herculean effort. He inhaled in shallow sips, hoping to limit his exposure somehow, but this failed and his next steps were a triumph of will over instinct. Alec forced himself further into the house. It was hot. Someone had left the heating on and as he entered the living room the putrid stench intensified but he could see nothing to explain it. At the far side, a door opened to a small bedroom, bed empty, bedsheets cast aside. On the other, a closed door with a square panel of dimpled glass in the upper half. A light shone inside.
Alec reached for the handle and turned it.
The door swung open to a small bathroom, complete with standard fixtures and fittings. Alec guessed that it had been floored with linoleum, but it was impossible to be sure for it was submerged beneath a thick layer of blood, set like crimson jelly. Here and there, ragged chunks of flesh broke a gelatinous skin that shone dull beneath the wan light of a naked bulb. The surface was undisturbed save for two ragged arcs, like the wings of bloody snow angels, thrashed side-to-side at the toilet bowl sending thick splatters of blood onto the side of the bath and the skirting boards. Within this bloody mess, frantic motion stilled, a pair of blood-soaked feet splayed at the ends of two stick-thin legs, each leading upwards to a cheap dressing gown it’s faded cotton hem matted with blood. The thin form of an old woman huddled over a toilet bowl filled to overflowing with the same visceral stew of flesh and blood that carpeted the floor. Her bone-white skeletal hands gripped the blood soaked rim. Bluebottles crawled over her fingers. She kneeled, slumped to one side, held upright by the toilet and the wall next to it. Alec couldn’t see her face, for in the moment of death her head had slumped forward and lay submerged in the bloody soup. It had looked at first like a murder scene, but the contents of the toilet and the desperate tableau of thrashing feet told Alec clear enough that she’d died vomiting up the contents of her own internal organs. He was still coming to terms with this when a hand pulled him back and Ronnie stepped forward to take a look.
“Jesus Christ – what a way to go — spewin’ yer guts into the bog.”
“Yeah, poor old cow.”
“Aye — could’ve flushed though.”
Alec looked down at the thick expanse of gore. He had no desire to intrude upon it, but he felt the question needed asked.
“Shouldn’t we at least check — just in case?”
Ronnie shook his head.
“Be my guest, but the average woman has nine pints of blood and she’s donated most o’ that to the floor.”
Alec felt Ronnie’s arm across his chest, guiding him away.
“C’mon — it’s fuckin’ horrendous in here.”
They opened the windows and left in the hope the smell would dissipate.
Ronnie updated the control room with his usual sardonic wit, while Alec spoke to the neighbour, as much to get enquiries started as remove himself from the horror. There were no expressions of surprise when he broke the news, though he’d left out the grim details. The deceased had been ill for years and on medication for a stomach ulcer. She’d drunk too much and smoked too much. There’d been a husband who’d died of cancer and a daughter in New Zealand who never wrote. Alec noted the depressing details and returned to the house. The smell was less intense, but it was still there and Alec’s reacquaintance renewed his gagging reflex so that he had to stand in the hall for a few moments before going inside. His tutor raking through the drawers of an old bureau had evidently acclimatised. Piled on a coffee table were various certificates and assorted medication. Ronnie pointed to the bottles and cardboard boxes, head still buried in the bureau.
“It’s no’ a wonder she died, it’s a wonder she lived.”
“Neighbour says the same. Massive ulcer.”
“Ye can add angina, rheumatoid arthritis and a stroke to that.”
The bathroom door lay open. Alec’s thoughts returned to the body draped over the toilet, the desperate convulsions and thrashing legs, the fear and loneliness of her last moments.
What had she known when she’d thrown aside the covers? What had she felt as her body convulsed again and again and helpless to stop it, blood hot in her mouth, choking and crying, she’d spent her last minutes in terror? Alec didn’t think himself religious. Any sense of that died the day he’d buried his mum but the same questions he’d asked then returned to him now. Did God exist, and if He did, why was He so cruel? Was He bored with immortality? Had he turned to dark invention for self-pitying amusement, torturing those he’d made in his own image?
Alec’s dark reverie was disrupted by the disembodied voice of Bob. The casualty surgeon was on his way. Thankful for the interruption, he acknowledged the update and turned to help Ronnie search the house.
The rest of the day played out much the same way as the others. The casualty surgeon, a man who’d seen it all, pronounced life extinct at the bathroom door, but busy with other deaths across the city the shell would take longer than usual. Ronnie went back on patrol leaving Alec to wait for the undertakers arrival.
Several hours passed before an anonymous black transit van pulled up at the house. Alec, who’d retreated to the front door, mouthed a silent hallelujah. The undertakers, black suits and black ties, polite but reticent, pulled covers over their polished shoes and retrieved the body of the old woman with quiet efficiency. Alec watched as they straightened the stiffened limbs before placing the body inside a thick plastic bag sealed with a heavy zip. He felt undeniable respect. What a job.
A council joiner arrived and Alec left him to secure the front door while he joined the undertakers in the waiting van. As they navigated their way off the hill, Alec tried some conversation, but the undertakers placed no value in small talk so he turned his attention to the world outside.
They drove into the city centre. It was a sunny afternoon and everywhere Alec looked there were signs of change and renewal. New restaurants and bars. Designer clothing stores and upmarket hi-fi shops. Life went blithely on. Young women peered through plate glass windows at the latest sales, while sharp dressed men, chins up, strode to upmarket offices on Blythswood Square. Buskers played Dylan to the indifference of material girls, while men in flat caps sold the Evening Times on street corners, their calls unheard by loping students wired to Sony Walkmans. A bearded man in a filthy suit slept in a doorway, piss coursing from splayed legs, while far above on a domed rooftop a neon sign advertised the delights of Bell’s Whisky. The town looked threadbare in places and the mixture of old and new gave the city a schizophrenic quality. It was a place in transition and Alec could see that it was incomplete. Renovated buildings, all sandblasted facades and smoked glass, faced abandoned department stores with trees in the gutters and ‘To Let’ signs on the upper floors. At the Tollbooth Bar a group of men jabbed incoherent fingers at each other for the benefit of a toothless audience, while beyond them stretched the Gallowgate, with it’s sullen congregation of low rent pubs and pawn shops.
Through it all, in plain sight but unseen, a black transit van passed with it’s cargo of the dead, like the secret police of the underworld.
They turned into the Saltmarket, down towards the High Court and through the gates of the single storey red brick building that was the City Mortuary. A smartly dressed woman appeared at the rear door and directed Alec to a small room lined on two sides with uncomfortable chairs. A vase filled with fake flowers sat at a frosted glass window. After a few minutes a pale young man, hair in a pony tail, Genesis t-shirt half hidden under a lab coat, led the way down a broad corridor to the post-mortem room.
Alec followed him through a doorway draped with the thick clear plastic strips seen in abattoirs. The post-mortem room, cold and austere, was clad to shoulder height in white glazed tiles. Three post-mortem tables were spaced at regular intervals down the centre of the room, each made of stainless steel. Manufactured of the same material and taking up the entire length of one wall, huge metal doors rose from floor to ceiling. Alec knew what lay beyond them. He’d watched with other recruits three months before as a pathologist had opened one at random and selecting a drawer from a tower of four, had slid out a tray containing the naked body of a young woman. A suicide who’d drowned at the suspension bridge. In his mind’s eye Alec could see her still. The room smelled as it had done then; of the dead, mixed with the chemicals and fluids used by the morticians. It was unpleasant in a way he couldn’t put his finger on, but then, it was a world removed from what he’d witnessed earlier.
The old woman lay on her back on one of the tables. Alec was surprised to see that her face had been cleaned. A pale green cover had been draped over her body and her washed feet lay astride the fluted channel down which fluids would drain when her post-mortem was performed. Not that there’d be much left to drain away. The attendant removed a wedding and engagement ring from a wrinkled finger and placed them on a tray. Alec put them in a clear plastic bag and produced a label for the attendant to sign. And that was that. No fanfare. No minutes silence. No pause for effect. Across the room, a black cat with glossy fur and sleepy eyes stretched on a tiled window sill, while wraith-like figures shape-shifted, window-to-window, beyond the frosted glass.
A car had been dispatched to pick him up and it sat idling outside the public entrance, the faces within it bored and unfamiliar. Alec checked his watch. It was mid afternoon and this was the late shift, a whole day consumed by the old woman’s death.
There was little to do when he returned to Corsair Street. His shift had gone, their weekend already begun. Ronnie had left behind a comprehensive report and all that remained was to add an update, lodge the rings in the safe and stand down.
Weary, he climbed the stairs to the top floor and changed in the cloistered silence of an empty locker room. It was a far cry from the raucous pre-muster banter. There’d been talk about a night out, Sandy and Ricky trading insults with Harry about his shagging prowess and the low rent nightclub they’d end up in. Objects tossed over lockers in either direction. The slam of metal doors as they’d headed down to muster. There’d been no invitation to join them and unwilling to embarrass himself by asking, he’d kept his own counsel.
Alec was dog-tired. There’d been the missed tea break but it wasn’t just that. The circumstances of the old woman’s death had depressed him in a way that the others hadn’t and it felt as though the whole week had suddenly caught up with him. As he climbed into his car it was a reflective Alec MacKay that turned the ignition and steered away from the Corsair Street car park.
The journey home was made shorter by a state of exhaustion that lent itself to auto-pilot driving and recurring images of the dead, a drive only briefly interrupted by a stop at the local supermarket. Had they been interested, the casual observer would’ve noticed a pale young man in black trousers exit with a heavy looking carrier bag. The trained eye would’ve noted the number of wine bottles within it.
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