Crime thriller serialisation: No Man's Land, by Neil Broadfoot - Part 4

Part four of our five day serialisation of the opening chapters of Neil Broadfoot’s acclaimed No Man’s Land, the first of his ‘Connor Fraser’ crime novels. Broadfoot, one of Scotland’s most exciting up-and-coming crime writers has been described as having ‘one hand on Ian Rankin’s crown as the king of Scottish crime’, while Rankin himself has called the author ‘a true rising star of crime fiction’

By Neil Broadfoot
Sunday, 12th April 2020, 3:54 pm
No Man's Land, by Neil Broadfoot
No Man's Land, by Neil Broadfoot

A SIMILAR tent was being erected behind Ford to preserve the primary crime scene and contain the sheer horror of what was there. But he knew better. Containment was impossible now. They could shield it from sight, but it was too late. The damage was done. He would see that image for the rest of his life, revisit it in countless dreams, dwell on it in quiet moments driving home or sitting up during the nights when sleep would not come.

It was branded into his memory. Part of him. And, somehow, he had to try to make sense of it. And the twisted motivation that led to it being there.

He shuddered again, blinking rapidly as his eyes moistened. He coughed once and dug out his notepad, glaring at the pages, trying to fill his mind with the facts, quell madness with the mundane.

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The discovery had been made a little after six that morning by a normally spry and vital pensioner, who was now under heavy sedation at Forth Valley Hospital. Ford hadn’t yet listened to the 999 call Donald Stewart had made but, from the edited transcript, he knew it was little more than a stream-of-consciousness rant of horrified disbelief punctuated by snippets of detail.

Stewart had been out for his morning walk with his dog, Minty. As usual, they had made their way up a long, twisting path called the Back Walk, which led from the Albert Halls at the bottom of the town, hugging the old town wall as it snaked around the cliffs on the way to the graveyard and the castle.

Making a loop, they would walk back down St John Street and head for home in Abercromby Place, a typical central Stirling street of neat hedges, spotless pavements and Victorian townhouses hewn from granite and sandstone.

Stewart was obviously not short of money, Ford thought. A point worth remembering. But that morning Stewart had never made it home. Walking past the Holy Rude, the dog had slipped his collar, squeezed under the gate and charged into the lane, yapping and barking. Noting the gate was unlocked, Stewart had followed - and stepped into Hell.

The report of what he had found, the thing which called to Ford now with its soft squeal, descended into a litany of swearing and sobs for God’s mercy.

Ford nodded silent approval. He’d seen too much in his job to believe in God, but if ever he wished there was one, it was today. He set his jaw, took a deep, hitching breath.

Thought of Mary, who would be at the university now, where she worked in the IT department. Mary, who would hold him in bed when he moaned in his sleep, listen to him as he spoke, tolerate his silences when he couldn’t find the words. Not that he would have to do much explaining on this case: it would be on every TV station and front page soon enough.

Bracing himself, he turned, letting out a small sigh of relief when he saw the SOCOs had finished erecting the tent. He nodded to one he recognised. Even swathed in his white jumpsuit, hood and mask, the huge outline and pendulous gut of Jim Dexter was unmistakable. He heard the squealing again as he approached the tent. Soft, maddening. Almost, he thought, excited now. Yes, Malcolm, that’s it. Come and see me. I’ve been waiting for you.

He stepped inside, earning a cold glare from another forensics officer standing in the middle of the space. Ford held up a hand, indicating he wouldn’t get any closer. He wasn’t sure he could, even if he wanted to. The tent had been erected on a small section of perfectly manicured lawn just to the side of the ornate arch that made up the main entrance to the church.

The wind picked up and there was another squeal. Some primal instinct to run caressed the back of Ford’s neck as he looked at the source of the sound, the object that had called to him, begging him to look. Just. One. More. Time.

In the centre of the tent a slender steel spike had been driven into the lawn, swaying gently with the wind. Impaled on it was a head, the spike entering just below the left side of the jaw and exiting just above the right temple. It put the head at an obscenely jaunty angle, giving it an almost quizzical look.

It was little more than a twisted knot of waxy, ash-grey flesh. Lank dark hair was plastered to the forehead, while fluid from the ruined eye sockets soaked the cheeks and mingled with blood so dark it almost looked like oil.

The rest of the body was in the second tent on the bowling green, and Ford dimly wondered if the injuries he had seen on it had been inflicted before the head was removed. Given the expression on what remained of the face, he thought so. The face was a rictus scream of agony, the mouth forced open impossibly wide.

Despite his revulsion, Ford was seized by the sudden, almost irresistible urge to step forward, remove the object that had been crammed into the mouth to release the scream it must have stifled. Instead, he looked away, stomach roiling, acid burning the back of his throat as he stared at the...

To be continued...

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