An extract from Lynne McEwan’s new novel, In Dark Water, published by Canelo Crime, on 23rd June 2021.
I’m way past scared. Panic’s roaring through my veins like the first fix. Some punters like to see that you’re feart. They get off on it. Sick. Does my head in. But this evil bastard’s not a punter. He’s a psycho, screaming at me to tell him stuff I don’t know. I keep saying, it isnae me you want, but he doesnae listen. It’s dark, the car moving fast. Me in the backseat, his arm around my throat choking me, and the fucker’s got this knife inching towards my eye. Blood and piss on the leather seat, I’m slipping down. I try to call out to the driver for help, to stop the car but then the cold metal of the knife touches my cheek and I freeze.
He picked me up from the squat in Carlisle. Flash car, a fourbie with tinted windows. Nice clothes, expensive aftershave. I’ve seen him around. Shaved dark hair, face like a skull. Said he was an old pal of Buckie’s, but Buck didn’t seem too pleased to see him. You’ll be compensated for your time, that’s what he said. Like I was doing them both a favour. Like I had a choice. Like my time was worth something.
I thought, this’ll be class, I can squeeze some cash out of him. He said he just wanted to talk to me. We’d have a wee drink. I could tell him what my friends were up to. Well, that’s a joke. Someone like me has no friends. When I laughed he hit me hard in the face, couldn’t see the funny side. I wanted to shout at the bastard. My only friend is the next fix.
He won’t be the only man to send me to oblivion. My father was the first. He belted me cos I gave him the cracked plate instead of the only good one in our house. I was about seven years old at the time. I’d spent hours making mince and tatties for his birthday cos I knew it was his favourite. Then he said I could give him a different present. I didnae know what he meant. I had no money for anything, none of us ever did. He showed me though.
Sometimes, when I read stories in magazines about women who were abused by their fathers I laugh. There was never any of that ‘you’re my special girl’ stuff or ‘it’s our little secret’, not for me. He never threatened me, muttering in his beery breath what would happen if I told. He didnae need to. Everyone knew. My mother, my sister, the teachers. They all knew. Kept their heads down, did nothing. When they let me out of hospital the second time, bandages on my wrists like twin bracelets, I went south. But it was too late. Change of scenery, but really it was just the same old scene. Old habits die hard, as the nun said to the junkie. At least my kid is a boy. He might stand a better chance. You get big enough, you can hit back.
From the rear seats of the car, I can just see the bent flowerheads of the motorway lights. Bright blobs swimming through my tears. Watching over me. Flicking past like seconds counting down to the end. Skirt rucked up and a hole in my new tights. Snot and blood bubbling out my nose like I’m a wee girl. Car’s slowing down. The fucker still got hold of me, but I’m not daft. If I see a chance, I’ll run. For a moment a blue square with a white cross fills the window and I know where I am. I’m northbound on the A74. I’m going home. I know the sign. I know what it says. Welcome to Scotland.
The call for assistance came into Kirkness lifeboat station on the Solway Firth on Saturday morning. Shona Oliver’s pager sounded just as she was placing the teapot down in the dining room.
‘Shout!’ she called to husband Rob. She dashed into the kitchen, gave him a quick kiss, grabbed her car keys and ran from the house. The two B&B guests stared open-mouthed after her.
‘Lifeboat. She’s on call,’ Rob explained as he entered the room a moment later and set down full Scottish breakfasts before the astonished guests, a husband and wife walking duo from Edinburgh.
‘Oh, that’s grand,’ said the woman, thrilled to have acquired a nugget of holiday colour. Just the ticket for the postcards she’d already purchased. ‘You must be very proud.’
‘Actually, it’s a bit of a pain,’ Rob replied, glancing at his watch. Seeing his guests’ uncertain expressions, he rolled his eyes and offered his most charming smile. ‘Means I’ll be doing the washing up.’ They laughed nervously, invited to enjoy a joke they didn’t quite understand.
‘Oh, that’s grand,’ the woman muttered again, picking up her knife and fork. No one knew if she meant Shona’s dedication to public service or the black pudding on the plate before her.
Shona was second in, behind coxswain Tommy McCall and just before Callum Stewart, the village’s twenty-one-year-old postman. Within nine minutes of the alarm sounding, the Margaret Wilson was flat out at 25 knots heading up the Solway Firth, the green arms of Scotland and England stretched out on either side of them, hazy in the early light. Later, it might turn into a fine day.
‘The maintenance boat from Robin Rigg Wind Farm reported seeing someone in the water,’ McCall shouted to Shona and Callum over the noise of the wind and the outboard motor. ‘The coastguard thinks the casualty has been washed up on Midton Bank.’ He pointed to the chart on the screen of the lifeboat’s electronic navigation console. ‘With the tide running down they can’t get any closer in with the big boats.’
Callum knelt in the bows and looked ahead, searching for any sign of their target. McCall, on the helm, nudged Shona. When she turned to look at him he mouthed, unconfirmed delta. She knew what that meant. Unconfirmed death. It wasn’t looking good for the casualty. Tommy touched just beneath his eye with two fingers then indicated Callum. She knew what that meant too, keep a watch on Callum.
McCall was right. It was often difficult for newer crew members to deal with the recovery of a dead body. She remembered some of the fatalities she’d encountered when she’d lived in London and first volunteered at Tower Lifeboat Station on the Thames. She’d known nothing about boats, joining the RNLI with a yacht-loving boyfriend. He’d gone. She stayed, finding common ground with fellow volunteers from all walks of life – salesmen, drivers, plumbers. With police training she was better prepared than most for the deaths but it was still heart-breaking. The drunks, the accidents, the ‘deliberate attempts to enter the water’ as they termed the suicides, both successful and unsuccessful. Sometimes, without a living human being to return to the lifeboat station or hand over to the ambulance services it was easy to experience a sense that, on some level, you’d failed.
Saving a life was what it was all about. The feeling you got from that made it all worthwhile; the cold, the danger, partners left in restaurants and at parties or just at home with the washing up. The flash of irritation on Rob’s face this morning, when the pager sounded and she’d kissed him goodbye, came back to her. Well, he could handle it. It was the end of the summer season, only a couple of guests. It had been his idea to move back to his home patch of Dumfriesshire, after he resigned from the bank two years ago. The B&B was supposed to be his thing. Their daughter Rebecca had been thirteen at the time, but already getting into trouble at school. It seemed a good idea to move out of London, a fresh start for them all. And it had been. The beautiful setting, the community. She’d fallen in love with it from day one.
The Margaret Wilson, named after the Solway Martyr, a young woman drowned for her religious beliefs, slowed as they approached Midton Bank. The Admiralty chart on the Nav console screen now showed large areas of blank space where no attempt had been made to record this shifting, fluid world, neither land nor sea. Tide-washed sands in the middle of the estuary shone metallic grey against the low sun. Morning mist hung over the Cumbrian shore making it difficult to pick out detail or judge distances. The locals said the tides here travelled faster than a horse could gallop. And if the tide did not catch you, the sinking pools of quicksand, invisible to the eye, would. Navigation was by local knowledge and respect. Shona was glad Tommy McCall, one of the most experienced skippers on the Solway Firth, was in charge.
Shona turned to Callum, handed him the binoculars, and motioned him to swap places. ‘Keep an eye on the far shore,’ she said as the engine noise dropped. ‘Someone might be foolish enough to attempt to walk or drive out to the casualty across the sands.’
The tall, powerfully built postman gave her a thumbs up.
‘I’ll do a first pass up the length of the sandbank,’ McColl said. Shona knelt in the bow and shaded her eyes from the sun. It wasn’t long before she spotted a pale shape lying on the sands. At first, she thought it might be one of the grey seals who came into the Solway to pup in the autumn, or perhaps a length of driftwood. She looked away, then back again to check. A swag of blonde hair drifted, mermaid-like, in the shallow water.
Shona stuck out her arm. ‘Target sighted, fifty metres.’ All she had to do now was keep pointing firmly at the target as Tommy manoeuvred the lifeboat closer.
The shallow draft of the D-class inshore lifeboat made it perfect for the Solway sandbanks. Callum leaned over the side of the inflatable craft, calling the depth as they edged closer, until McCall judged they were as near as they could get without risk of stranding themselves in the falling tide.
‘I’ll go in and make a first assessment,’ Shona said. McCall nodded.
At 5 feet 4 inches in her stocking soles, the sea came up past Shona’s knees, but the sand was firm beneath her boots as she waded through the shallow water. The body, partially clothed and probably female judging by the hair, lay on its side. It was tangled up in ghost gear, discarded or lost fishing net and lines. Crabs and other sea creatures had been at work.
Shona walked back to the waiting lifeboat shaking her head. ‘Confirm life extinct,’ she said. ‘The casualty’s been in the water for some time. Significant loss of definition to the face and hands. Identification will be difficult.’ She looked at Callum. ‘You up for this, pal?’ When he nodded, she continued, ‘We’ll use the yellow stretcher. We’ll also need to preserve what evidence we can, just in case. Tommy, can you make a note of our exact position?’
McColl indicated GPS fix on the screen. ‘Already done. It’s a tricky one. We’re bang on the border between Scotland and England. Never come across that before.’
‘Call the coastguard, ask them where they’d like us to bring the casualty in.’ Shona turned back to Callum. ‘First fatality?’
‘Yes, but don’t worry. I’ll be fine.’ His pale blue eyes showed a calm determination.
‘I know you will.’
They walked together up the steepening curve of the sandbank. Already the distance between the casualty and the receding sea had lengthened. They needed to work fast before the risk of grounding the lifeboat became too great. There was no way Shona would leave the young woman to the mercy of the next tide.
‘There’s a chance the body will break up when we lift it onto the stretcher. It’s entangled in fishing net so that will help us, but all remains must be retrieved, understand?’
‘Aye. I understand.’
Shona placed the flat plastic stretcher beside the prone figure. ‘We’re going to lift and turn her so she’s on her back on the stretcher.’ She looked down at the slight, pale woman, wrapped in her blanket of seaweed and netting curled up on the sand. ‘I’ll lift under her shoulders and head, you take her legs. One hand above the knees and one below. The joints may be loose. Okay, when you’re ready.’
Shona noted the remains of jeans. One hand was gone, but on the other wrist there appeared to be a metal bracelet embedded in the discoloured skin. The criss-cross web of the ghost gear bit deeply into the greenish, bloated flesh reminding Shona of a grotesque version of fishnet tights.
As they lifted her, a seabed miasma of rot and decay rolled heavily into their noses, mouths and lungs like an oily wave, coating the tongue and throat. Callum gagged but did not let go until the body was on the stretcher. Then he walked to the edge of the sandbar and vomited. Leaning forward for a moment, hand on knees, he took big gulps of fresh air. He returned, pale but composed. ‘Sorry about that.’
‘It’s fine,’ Shona reassured him. ‘Always happens first time. You’re doing well. Here, help me cover her up.’ They fixed the orange plastic sheet over the body and carried the stretcher carefully over the tide rutted sand, back to the waiting boat.
McCall helped them manoeuvre the stretcher over the side and onto the flat bottom of the lifeboat. ‘The coastguard want us to put in on Cumbria shore at Silloth. Paramedics and police are already there.’
They made good time and colleagues at Silloth Lifeboat station towed the Margaret Wilson on their tractor into the boat hall where police were waiting to shut the doors.
‘It’s a crime scene now,’ Shona said to Callum. ‘We’ll all need to give statements.’ She nodded her thanks to a crew member from Silloth who’d brought out a tray of tea.
‘Will the police find out who she is?’ Callum asked Shona. ‘She looked just a young lassie. Her hair, it was just like Paula’s.’ Callum’s girlfriend, the barmaid of the Royal Arms, did indeed have long, blonde hair. Shona hoped the similarity wouldn’t linger in Callum’s memory for too long.
‘They’ll do their best, Callum.’
‘But how did she end up out there?’ he persisted.
‘Well, it could be an accident. She may have been the victim of a crime. Or she may have taken her own life. Cumbria Police will investigate it once they know who she is. You’ve done your part now. It’s okay to let it go,’ she assured him.
‘Do you always let it go?’ He was studying her expression keenly.
‘I try to, Callum,’ she said. ‘I appreciate that can sound harsh, but if you didn’t you would just sink under the weight of it. The grief’s natural, but it can stop you doing your job properly and that helps no one.’
He nodded, satisfied by the honesty of her reply. ‘Aye, I see how that could happen.’
She meant what she said, but it wasn’t the whole story. The grief could be set aside, recognised it for what it was, the sense of sorrow at the loss of a life. But the anger? The anger that someone had taken a life? That someone had lost their life through despair or another’s carelessness? That was something she could never let go of.
An hour later, the boat hall doors of the station opened again.
‘Come on,’ Shona said clapping Callum on the back. ‘Once we’ve talked to the police we can get back home and hope the rest of the day is quiet.’
Further up the slipway, Tommy McCall was giving his statement to two uniformed officers. Shona watched as a lean young man with cropped fair hair, a scrappy beard and a dark suit under his grey anorak, went up to him.
‘DC Daniel Ridley, Cumbria Police.’ He showed his warrant card. ‘What can you tell me?’
‘Shona will fill you in.’
‘She the doctor?’
‘No, she’s one of your lot.’ McCall grinned at him.
Shona shook out her dark curls, walked over and placed the helmet on the ground at her feet. She extended her hand. ‘Hello, I’m DI Shona Oliver, Dumfries CID.’
‘DC Dan Ridley… ma’am,’ he replied, noting her firm grip. ‘I’d have thought you’d get enough excitement in the day job.’
‘I assure you Detective Constable, this is the kind of excitement we can all do without,’ she replied quietly. ‘The body was deposited on the sandbank by the tide. There was no other material with her. No handbag or other personal items. The PM is your best shot at identifying her.’
‘Sorry, yes of course. Sorry, ma’am.’ He reddened. ‘Is she ours or yours, do you think?’
‘We were instructed by the coastguard to bring the casualty in here, so she’s yours. For the moment.’ She looked directly up at him. ‘Is that a problem?’
‘No, no problem. Hear you’re a bit busy anyway. Big drug inquiry,’ he continued. Then seeing her cool expression, he faltered. ‘You know… my DCI has been in touch with your DCI’.
‘Yes, DCIs. They do that, don’t they.’ She began pulling on her gloves. ‘Not my operation, Detective Constable, so I can’t help you on that.’
‘No, ma’am. Sorry, ma’am. I hope I didn’t speak out of turn.’
Shona batted away the comment, then fixed him with a steady look in her warm brown eyes. ‘It would be good to know who she was, how she came to be out in the Solway.’ She nodded across to Callum standing pale but composed by the lifeboat, the blond hair at his temples dark with sweat. ‘It helps the younger crew close the circle.’
‘Yes, ma’am. I’ll let you know.’ He folded his notebook. ‘Can’t be easy. The RNLI volunteers do an amazing job.’
Shona searched his face for any sign of sarcasm but found none. ‘We didn’t manage to save her this time, but we recovered her body and that helps the family.’
‘Of course, ma’am.’
Shona paused. ‘Like I said, ID will be difficult, but I noticed some jewellery. If you can’t place her in Cumbria be sure to get in touch with me at Dumfries CID. I’d like to help put a name to her.’
‘Thank you, ma’am. I’d appreciate that.’
‘Good.’ Shona picked up the helmet. ‘Thank you, DC Ridley. Best of luck with your investigation.’ They shook again, Dan gave her his card. Shona re-joined her colleagues who were washing down the Margaret Wilson ready for the return journey across the Solway.
‘Set him on the right course then, Shona?’ Tommy McCall raised an eyebrow at her as they climbed into the lifeboat now positioned in a launch trailer and being backed into the receding tide by the beach tractor. ‘Streak of English piss. No idea what he’s doing.’
‘Thanks, Tommy. Nothing like a bit of casual racism to brighten up the day.’
‘So, you gonna do me for a hate crime then? You know it doesn’t count if they’re English. Common sense. They’re rubbish at everything.’
‘I’m sure he doesn’t need my help,’ Shona replied, refusing to be teased.
‘Perhaps you’d like to take the helm on the way back,’ he persisted. ‘It’s where you’re happiest after all.’
She wagged a finger at the smirking skipper. ‘Enough of your cheek. Give Callum a go, he’s earned it today.’
A smile lit up the young postman’s face. ‘Can I?’
‘Go on then, Cal. Let’s see if you can handle the lifeboat with more control than that post van you fly around the village in.’ McCall shuffled round to give the beaming young man his spot by the outboard motor.
As the lifeboat slipped back into the water, Shona wondered if perhaps Tommy McCall had a point. She hoped the youthful DC was up to the job, that she was leaving the unknown woman in good hands. Shona looked back at the awkward schoolboy figure of Dan Ridley watching from the shore. He raised a tentative hand in farewell. After a moment, DI Shona Oliver waved back.