An extract from

The Shadow Men

Harbinger

Autumn 2015 roared in on Glasgow with biblical fury. It had been a mild, dry summer with rainfall well below the historical average, but as September arrived, the heavens opened their reserves and spared no effort in making up for lost time. Gale-force winds pummelled the city, the Clyde threatened to burst its banks, and flood warnings were issued for low-lying areas. Mother Nature, it seemed, was determined to inflict a reckoning for sins as yet unatoned for – a reckoning which, judging by the unrelenting ferocity of the assault, would not be complete until blood had been spilled.

On the night of Tuesday the eighth of September, Mother Nature got her wish.

* * *

Gil McLaren hadn’t wanted to be out tonight. As far as he was concerned, there was no such thing as a good time to be asked to work the 1900–0700 shift, but a night like this one made him crave his warm bed and electric blanket all the more fervently.

The call had come through at 0045: Road traffic accident on the M8. Driver killed on impact. No other persons in the vehicle. Road Policing shift sergeant required to coordinate at scene.

As he roared up the dual carriageway, tail-lights of the car in front shimmering on rain-slick tarmac, he took one hand off the wheel and slid it inside his coat, feeling the contours of the hip-flask in his breast pocket. Only the challenge of simultaneously unscrewing the lid and maintaining control of the wheel stopped him from helping himself there and then. Hopefully, if the locus was as chaotic as he was anticipating, he’d manage to secure a crafty swig once he got there.

Up ahead, the flashing lights of a stationary police car blocked one lane, while a constable in a hi-viz jacket occupied the other – a last defence against any driver who’d ignored the ‘ROAD AHEAD CLOSED’ sign some way back. McLaren leaned forward, peering past the swishing wipers to get his first glimpse of the scene that awaited him. The unfortunate vehicle, a blue hatchback, had careened off to the right, the metal barrier having done nothing to halt its trajectory. That task had finally been accomplished by the granite pillar supporting the A814 overpass as it crossed over the M8 before curving round and joining the main expressway some two hundred yards further back.

The cop in the hi-viz jacket waved him through. He continued for another fifty yards before coming to a standstill. He steeled himself, his hand once more straying automatically to his breast pocket. Then, suppressing the urge, he pulled on his peaked cap – less a nod to protocol, more a forlorn attempt to keep his head dry – and got out.

There were three other cop cars present; six officers in total milling about in their waterproofs. No sign yet of the Ambulance Service – but they could afford to take their time. As McLaren tramped towards the mangled hatchback, one of the plods – a babyfaced lunk who looked like he probably got carded at off-licence checkouts on a regular basis – approached and fell into eager step with him.

‘Looks like a straightforward case of the perils of driving in adverse weather, sir. Consensus is the brakes were to blame.’

‘That right, is it?’

‘Aye. One of the lads was saying these old Honda Civics are notorious for it. Rainwater gets on the discs and then they don’t kick in when you need ’em to.’

‘I’ll be sure to convey your hypothesis to the Fatal Accident Inquiry.’

The plod grinned eagerly. Either he was thick as mince or McLaren was losing his sarcastic edge in his old age.

They halted in front of the hatchback. There wasn’t much left of its front end, and the driver hadn’t fared much better. His face – which, judging by the blood splatter, had bounced off the steering wheel upon impact – resembled battered roadkill. And yet, as McLaren gazed at the man’s ruined features, it dawned on him that he’d seen them somewhere before. The gears of his mind, impeded by a lack of sleep and a surfeit of something else, cranked slowly as he tried to match the face to a name, and to recall the context in which he’d previously encountered both. As these three disparate elements finally aligned, like pictures on a slot machine, a trickle that wasn’t rainwater ran down his back.

He stirred, becoming aware of a hubbub developing behind him. He turned as an unmarked black sedan drew up, waved through by the hi-viz-jacketed officer on traffic control duty. The driver scrambled out, unfurling an umbrella. Holding it aloft, he hurried round to open the rear door. A figure stepped out: short, unimposing, his unassuming presence belying the waves his arrival had created.

‘What’s the Chief doing at an RTA?’ McLaren heard one of the plods asking in an awed whisper.

Peter Strickland, Assistant Chief Constable (West of Scotland), strode across the tarmac towards McLaren, his driver hurrying after him, umbrella shielding him from the rain. The babyfaced PC quickly melted away. All around McLaren, a newfound spirit of industriousness had taken hold, as officers who five minutes ago had been catching flies all suddenly seemed to find tasks which demanded their urgent attention.

Strickland came to a halt facing McLaren. He took in the sight of the totalled hatchback, then gazed at McLaren with his sad, hangdog eyes, and shook his head ruefully.

‘My God, this is a rotten business. No way for a man to go.’

‘Yes, sir,’ McLaren agreed obediently.

Strickland took the umbrella from his minder, dismissing him with a barely perceptible nod, then turned to McLaren with an inviting hand.

‘Shall we?’

Mystified, McLaren allowed himself to be led along the road, away from prying ears.

‘You look tired, Gil.’ Strickland’s hand hovered behind the small of McLaren’s back, guiding him.

‘It’s one in the morning, sir.’

Strickland smiled slightly, conceding the point. ‘And no time for an old sea-dog to be abroad. This job makes old men of us all sooner or later. It’s a youngster’s game, perhaps more so now than ever.’

‘I cope, sir,’ said McLaren, the response mechanical, unfelt.

Strickland slowed to a standstill. The two men met each other’s eyes – one small and slight, the other a stocky, ungainly giant. And yet there was no doubting where the balance of power lay.

Strickland sighed. ‘I thought we’d turned a corner with you, Gil. You promised me you’d turned over a new leaf.’

‘Sir, I don’t know what—’

‘Please don’t embarrass us both by denying it. Every man and his dog knows it’s still happening.’ The same reproachful look. The same bitter disappointment. ‘I can smell it on you.’

McLaren was suddenly acutely aware of the hip-flask in his breast pocket, burning a hole in the fabric, scalding his skin. He opened his mouth to – what? Protest his innocence? Come clean and throw himself at Strickland’s mercy?

Strickland beat him to it. ‘I don’t hold it against you, you know.’

His manner was sympathetic, but tinged with a weary disgust which he couldn’t quite manage to conceal – like a grown-up child who’s come home to discover an elderly, infirm parent lying in their own filth and too incapacitated to do anything about it.

‘It’s simply who you are,’ he continued, his tone philosophical. ‘I know it, you know it, so let’s not make a song and dance about it. Better to cash one’s chips on one’s own terms and leave the table with some degree of dignity than to lose everything and be escorted out by the in-house muscle. Better to avoid any unnecessary embarrassment – both to oneself and to the house.’

Until now, Strickland’s tone had been philosophical – speaking, it seemed, more to himself than to McLaren. Now, his expression intensified, those hangdog eyes suddenly sharp and piercing.

‘Do we understand one another?’

McLaren swallowed heavily. Oh, he understood. He understood all too well.

‘Yes, sir.’

Strickland smiled. He patted McLaren’s arm kindly: the level-headed child telling the embarrassed older man that there’s no need to worry – they’ll take care of the mess.

‘Time to call it a night, I think. You’re no good to anyone – not in your present state. Go on – home to your bed. We’ll soldier on without you.’

The conversation over, Strickland turned to go. His driver was by his side in an instant, hair plastered to his forehead from exposure to the elements. Taking command of the umbrella once more, he escorted his master back to the sedan, deftly thrusting the rear door open for him while simultaneously shielding him from the downpour. McLaren watched, rainwater running into his eyes from the brim of his hat, as the sedan performed a one-eighty-degree turn and departed the scene, rear lights receding into the distance.

McLaren remained there a little longer, watching the plods hurrying to and fro. Already, it was as if he no longer existed. A bystander at his own incident scene, his presence immaterial to the smooth running of the operation. A relic of the past. An unperson.

He realised it came as something of a relief. It wasn’t so much that he was leaving with his dignity intact. That had been expunged long ago, along with his self-esteem, self-respect and belief that what he was doing made any sort of difference, let alone one for the better. But at least it was an end of sorts; a line drawn in the sand, a laying to rest of the ghosts of the past. He took out the hip-flask and, in full view of his colleagues, downed a hearty draught. No one paid him the slightest attention.

He screwed the cap back on, turned and squelched back towards his waiting car.

* * *

On a street corner near the city centre, soaked by both the rain and the periodic splashes from vehicles howling past at full speed, a man waits, clutching the strap of the laden rucksack weighing his shoulders down. He’s been standing there for over an hour, his windbreaker barely protecting him from the thundering downpour.

The person for whom he is waiting will not come tonight, nor indeed any night. Factors and forces beyond his control have put paid to that, though he doesn’t know it yet. It is now 2 a.m. – more than forty-five minutes past the agreed rendezvous time.

And yet still he waits.


Chapter 1

Vasilico

Thursday 24 September 2015

The figure had been standing at the back of the lecture hall for at least the last ten minutes, leaving Anna wondering what precisely he thought he was doing here. There was something purposeful about his presence; something unapologetic, as if he had a God-given right to be here.

What made it doubly frustrating was that she couldn’t see his face. The room was built in the old theatre style, with two columns of benches on an incline running down to the stage where she currently stood. As such, he was standing the equivalent of two or three storeys above her, and every time she looked up at him her eyes caught the full glare of the ceiling-mounted lights pointed at the stage, all but blinding her in the process. All she could tell was that he was male, that he was wearing a suit, and that he was tall and broad-shouldered. Beyond that, he was just a hazy, ill-defined shape. A shadow.

In the pocket of her slacks, her phone hummed: her two-minute warning.

‘So,’ she addressed her assembled first-years, ‘we return to our original question: what is criminology? We must be able to define our topic before we can successfully study it. And before we can define criminology, we must first answer another, more fundamental question: what is crime?

‘It’s tempting to think we all have a solid understanding of what constitutes a criminal act – some innate knowledge that we’re all somehow imbued with. But in reality, there are multiple variables at play. There are acts which are considered crimes in some jurisdictions but not in others. Some acts were criminal in the past but no longer are, and vice versa. Who decides what is a crime and what isn’t? Governments? Academics? Broad public sentiment? And how do we approach legislation like the Nuremberg Laws, duly enacted according to the rules of the German constitution but themselves now considered to be crimes against humanity?’ She raised her shoulders in an exaggerated shrug. ‘I’m not posing these questions because I have definitive answers for you. I’m posing them to give you some idea of the complexity of your chosen topic of study.

‘Over the next several weeks, I want you to do your best to clear your minds of what you think you know about crime, about criminals and about their victims. Let go of your assumptions, be willing to embrace new and sometimes challenging ideas. If you were hoping for an easy ride, this is not the class for you. But, if you’re willing to park your preconceptions at the door and approach the subject as open-mindedly as possible, you should find the next three months both stimulating and intellectually satisfying.’

Sensing that she was done, and no doubt as aware of the hour as her, the students began to gather their belongings. It took a few minutes for the room to clear. As the last remaining stragglers headed for the exit, the stranger strolled down the steps towards her.

‘Dr Anna Scavolini?’

Anna glanced up from jamming her laptop into her shoulder-bag. ‘That’s right.’

‘Oh, super.’ The man grinned, flashing twin rows of even teeth. ‘And there I was worrying I’d come to the wrong place. An honour to make your acquaintance. Detective Chief Inspector Vasilico, Major Investigations Team.’

He was, as she’d already surmised, tall, and in his mid-thirties. He was also impeccably groomed, his suit clearly expensive and cut to measure, hinting at the well-honed muscles that lay beneath it. She eyed his outstretched warrant card with some suspicion. As far as she was concerned, anyone prepared to launch such a transparent charm offensive had to have an ulterior motive.

‘What can I do for you, Detective?’

‘I was rather hoping you’d consent to sparing a few minutes of your no doubt invaluable time.’

‘As long as it really is just a few minutes. I’ve an appointment I can’t be late for.’

‘Naturally. Rest assured, I’ve not the slightest intention of detaining you any longer than absolutely necessary.’ His extended pause gave immediate lie to this claim. ‘Derek Sullivan. What can you tell me about him?’

Anna zipped her bag shut and turned to face him. ‘He’s one of my postgrad students. Been doing a part-time Masters in Criminology with us for the past year.’

‘And presumably you’re aware that, in addition to being a part-time student, he’s also a serving police constable?’

Anna nodded. ‘The department has a partnership with the police – providing opportunities for officers to expand their knowledge-base and develop their analytical skills. Derek’s one of four who are with us at the moment. Why? Is he in some sort of trouble?’

‘That rather depends. When was the last time you saw him?’

‘We had a supervision meeting just over three weeks ago. Since then, we haven’t had any contact.’

‘And is that normal?’

‘More or less. We’re scheduled to meet once a month, and he attends group lectures in between, some of which I teach. I don’t remember seeing him at any of mine since our last supervision – but then, his attendance has always been…’ She hesitated, unable to shake the feeling that she was somehow betraying a confidence. ‘…spotty.’ She put one hand on her hip, gazing up at him entreatingly. ‘Look, I’m really not sure what I can realistically tell you unless you give me something more to go on.’

Vasilico was silent for a moment, as if considering how much he should say. At length, he exhaled a breath.

‘Derek Sullivan was last seen leaving work just over a fortnight ago. He failed to report for duty on Friday the eleventh of September, and since then has made no contact with his colleagues, friends or family.’

The silence that followed was so absolute Anna could hear the creaking of the building’s foundations.

‘I’m sorry to hear that,’ she said eventually, not knowing what else to say.

‘As you can no doubt appreciate, the more time that passes, the more concerned we grow about his wellbeing. I take it from your somewhat tongue-tied reaction that he hasn’t made contact with you.’

‘No, and I wouldn’t expect him to.’ Anna shrugged helplessly. ‘I really didn’t know him all that well. To be honest, I find it hard to believe there’s not someone better placed to answer your questions than me.’

Vasilico winced, as if this pained him on a personal level. ‘That’s just it. I’m not sure there is.’

‘You’ll have to explain.’

‘If I asked you to describe Derek, what would you tell me?’

It was a trickier question to answer than she’d anticipated. ‘Quiet, I suppose,’ she said after a moment. ‘Not especially talkative or outgoing. From what I gather, he kept himself to himself.’

‘Then we’re on the same page. Over the last few days, I’ve spoken to more of his squadmates than I’ve eaten hot dinners, and they all described him in more or less the same terms as you: quiet, preferred his own company, didn’t go in for socialising out of hours with the other lads.’

‘That’s not a crime.’

‘No. Does make it markedly harder to build up a picture of his movements, though.’

Anna studied Vasilico’s face, taking in the knitted brows, the pensive frown. She still wasn’t sure she altogether trusted him, and there was an overbearing slickness about him that set her teeth on edge, but he seemed sincere in his concern for the missing constable, and she found herself wishing she could do something more to help them both.

‘Well,’ he said, stirring, ‘I suppose it always was a long shot. I shan’t detain you further. I appreciate you taking the time to…’ He stopped, frowning for a moment as if he’d lost his train of thought, then smiled knowingly. ‘I’ve just realised.’

‘What?’

He wagged a knowing finger at her. ‘I know where I know you from.’

‘Oh?’

‘You’re the Anna Scavolini. The one who wrote that screed in the Tribune about the toxicity of police culture – how we’re all a bunch of unreconstructed bully-boys who go around breaking skulls and trampling on folk’s constitutional rights. What was that phrase again? “To be the law is not to be above the law”?’

There seemed little point in denying it – not least since she stood by every word. A few months earlier, the Glasgow Tribune had invited her to contribute to a package of articles about the changing face of the modern police force – though, as she’d insisted in the piece she subsequently penned, the words ‘changing’ and ‘modern’ could scarcely be less appropriate when applied to the Strathkelvin Police Force, the body which served the entire Greater Glasgow area. She’d been forthright in her language, highlighting both the moral conservatism that multiple studies had shown to characterise law enforcement officials in general, and a string of recent scandals that had dogged the Strathkelvin force in particular. The former included accusations of an aggressively macho ‘canteen culture’ which ostracised and targeted those who failed to fit in; the latter the heavy-handed treatment of protesters at a recent climate change rally, which had left one teenager with a fractured zygoma, as well as the burial of a report on institutional sectarianism within the force, the contents of which had only come to light following a lengthy Freedom of Information battle. She’d ended by calling for – amongst other measures – a root-and-branch overhaul of internal and external complaints procedures, and the establishment of a new supervisory body consisting solely of non-police officers to review all operational policies. ‘The Strathkelvin Police Force,’ she’d concluded, ‘is the oldest in the world, but it’s time they joined the rest of us in the twenty-first century.’

‘Yes, I rather enjoyed that.’ Vasilico was still smiling – an arch, self-satisfied smile that left her with an overwhelming urge to wipe it from his face by any available means. ‘You’ll be pleased to know you made waves at HQ. Wouldn’t believe how exercised the head honchos were by it. I gather the phrase “set public relations back to the Palaeolithic Age” was uttered.’

‘I’m glad it provided you with some amusement,’ Anna said, not sure which irritated her more: his implied belittlement of her or his seemingly blasé attitude to the serious charges levelled against the organisation he worked for.

Vasilico raised his hands in a gesture of truce. ‘Of course. Forgive me. Rest assured, we treat all accusations of misconduct with the utmost seriousness. Tricky though it may be to believe, the vast majority of us are in fact fine, upstanding individuals.’

‘Present company included, naturally.’

Vasilico chuckled. ‘Perhaps the problem is one of perspective. Walk a mile in another man’s shoes and all that. Now don’t mistake me,’ he added quickly, forestalling whatever objection he’d anticipated her making. ‘I understand the need for accountability and due process. But I also understand the practicalities – that, in life-or-death situations, it’s not always possible to dot every “i”, say “please” and “thank you”.’

This time, it was Anna’s turn to smile, though hers was considerably more saccharine. ‘Or perhaps you’re just too close to the action, Detective. Perhaps you lack the necessary distance to see what’s screamingly obvious to the rest of us.’

Vasilico threw back his head and laughed – a rich, deep laugh that reverberated in the high rafters. ‘Touché. I suppose I should have known better than to get into a battle of words with someone who bandies them for a living. And now I really have exhausted my welcome.’ He gestured to the stairs with a grandiose sweep. ‘Go! Attend your appointment, and let it not be said that the officers of the Strathkelvin Police Force are guilty of preventing citizens from going about their lawful business.’

Anna turned to go, hiding the involuntary smile that was threatening her lips. As she shouldered her bag, a thought occurred to her. She turned to Vasilico once more.

‘If there’s any news about Derek Sullivan…’

‘…I assure you, you’ll be among the first to hear it.’ Vasilico paused, fixing her with an earnest look. ‘We’ll bring him home safe – just you watch.’

Anna smiled, this time not entirely insincerely. ‘Don’t make promises you can’t keep, Detective,’ she said, and headed up the stairs.


To be continued...

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