INSTEAD, Ford looked away, stomach roiling, acid burning the back of his throat as he stared at the thick pink rat’s tail hanging from the mouth and trailing over the lower jaw, like a perverse line of drool.
THE landscape seemed to decompress as Connor drove west, the urban sprawl of Edinburgh and its suburbs giving way to the open fields and greenery of Linlithgow and West Lothian as he headed for Bannockburn.
The radio was full of breathless reports about the murder, each station finding ever more inventive ways to say the same thing over and over again. He finally settled on Valley FM, more out of habit than preference. It was a typical local radio station - all nineties music and terrible jingles for small firms in the town - but he found the traffic reports useful. And it was on the station’s website that he’d read the first take on the story.
Donna Blake sounded older than he had imagined from her Twitter profile. The picture there - open smile, perfect make-up and just the right approachable twinkle in her striking blue eyes - gave an impression of youthful enthusiasm and likeability. A reporter who wanted to hear your story. But the voice drifting from the radio was deeper, more tired than he would have thought.
She went through what Connor had already read, telling listeners that the victim had been found in the grounds of Cowane’s Hospital. Investigations were ongoing, and a post-mortem examination was due to be held. The report then cut to what Connor thought must have been a press conference, the harried voice of a DCI Ford struggling to be heard over camera flashes and the background murmurs of a room full of excited reporters.
‘A definitive cause of death has yet to be established, and the victim has yet to be identified. Extra officers will be deployed in and around Stirling town centre, and we would appeal to anyone who was in the vicinity of John Street, Cowane’s Hospital or the area around the Old Town Cemetery and castle at the top of the town between 10pm last night and 6am this morning to come forward.’
The report cut back to Donna Blake as she gave some background on the area in which the body had been found. Connor tuned it out, his attention shifting to the two massive horse heads that loomed up over the horizon, the metal sculptures glinting in the late-afternoon sun.
At 30 metres tall, the Kelpies were an arresting sight and, to Connor, vaguely menacing. They had been built as part of a project to extend the Forth and Clyde Canal, a monument to Scotland’s long use of horses in industry. But there was something about them that seemed designed to intimidate, one staring straight ahead, the other frozen with its head flung back, as though it was rearing to throw off its rider.
He shook his head, bearing down on the accelerator and enjoying the surge of power from the Audi’s V8. The car was veering dangerously close to flashy for his line of work but it was, apart from the flat, his only indulgence. And, besides, his mother would have approved. He was almost sure of it.
He came off the M9 onto a twisting A-road that he enjoyed just a little too much, reluctantly slowing as he came into Bannockburn. As he passed a car dealership and a petrol station, it struck him again how normal the town seemed, the banal markers of modern life giving no hint of its extraordinary place in Scotland’s history.
In 1314, the armies of Scotland and England had met in fields close by and, over two long, brutal days which cost more than 15,000 lives, Scotland had prevailed. Connor had studied the battle at school, its sheer scale and savagery capturing his young imagination.
He ignored the satnav, taking the turns that led to his destination from memory. As ever, a creeping dread chilled him as he drove,his thoughts descending into a confused jumble. He indicated and turned off the road, the static of crunching gravel filling his ears as he drove up the long, sweeping driveway that led to the main house.Pulling into a space under a small grove of neat trees, he killed the engine, then climbed out of the car.
It was a clear August afternoon, the wind calm, the sun warm yet not overbearing. Despite this, Connor felt clammy, overheated, as though he had just finished an intense session at the gym. He loosened his tie and the top button of his shirt as he glanced up at the building in front of him. It was a Victorian-style sandstone mansion, the bottom floor dominated by two huge picture windows that flanked the open front door like sentries.
To the left of the main house, connected by a glass corridor, sat a smaller, more recent building, like a modern block of flats, trying its best to blend in with its grander neighbour. What would he find when he stepped inside? Would she be waiting for him, or would it be only the sickness that increasingly wore her face? Would he be greeted with a smile or suspicion? And how would he tell her what he was going to do this weekend?
Steeling himself, Connor headed for the care home’s main entrance...
To continue reading No Man’s Land take advantage of this special offer.
No Man’s Land, by Neil Broadfoot, is published by Constable and available on Kindle until 30 April at the special price of 99p, in paperback for £8.99, or hardback for £19.99
Thank you for reading this story on our website. While I have your attention, I also have an important request to make of you.
In order for us to continue to provide high quality and trusted local news on this free-to-read site, I am asking you to also please purchase a copy of our newspaper.
Our journalists are highly trained and our content is independently regulated by IPSO to some of the most rigorous standards in the world. But being your eyes and ears comes at a price. So we need your support more than ever to buy our newspapers during this crisis.
With the coronavirus lockdown having a major impact on many of our local valued advertisers - and consequently the advertising that we receive - we are more reliant than ever on you helping us to provide you with news and information by buying a copy of our newspaper.