Criminal Investigation Division Sergeant Seth Mornay jogged across the narrow road, leaning forward to keep icy November rain from blinding him.
His partner, Constable Claire Gillespie, had already arrived at the scene of the head-on collision just outside of Cordiff, a small village near enough the coast to lure in tourists, but not so close that it was overrun in the summers.
A Nissan four-by-four was upside down in the stream that ran parallel to the road. The Nissan had been pulling a battered, windowless horse box, which was also upside down. The other half of the head-on collision was a silvery blue Fiat with a crushed front end. It'd been spun around from the force of the collision and was now on the other side of the road, facing the wrong direction.
On the far side of the accident, parked on the grassy embankment next to the road, was a dark green Mitsubishi with HARRIS VETERINARY CLINIC painted on the driver's door. The vet was towing a white horse box. In front of the Mitsubishi was a construction crane -- the sort used to lift heavy loads to second-floor building sites. The crane was parked directly in front of two Grampian Police cars. An ambulance and a mud-splattered tractor, hauling a wagon burdened with rusting acetylene tanks, were also at the scene.
"Where's the Nissan's driver?" Mornay asked Claire.
Claire's gaze took in his appearance: the gapping anorak, the slice of wrinkled shirt, and the tie that didn't match jacket or shirt. She fixed on the nick he'd given himself as he'd rushed through his morning shave. He'd have changed into a clean suit, but he'd forgotten to pick them up from the cleaners.
"How late did Gordon have you working last night?" she asked.
Laina Gordon was their new detective inspector, brought into their office to temporarily fill the void their former supervisor, DI Byrne, left when he was transferred earlier that year. Gordon was on the fast track to a carpeted office in Aberdeen, the top office if she got her way. Her father's position as deputy justice minister of the Scottish Executive didn't hurt her career goals.
"My shift ended at two."
"But did you leave when Taylor came on duty?"
"Taylor brought tea and rolls." He didn't need to tell her he'd fallen asleep after the early-morning meal; she could see he was still wearing yesterday's suit. Taylor woke him at nine when his pager went off.
A gust of wind scoured Mornay's cheeks, numbing them. He crouched to see his reflection in the car's window, in case there was anything he could quickly mend. He'd been working grueling hours since ten-year-old Matthew Adair's disappearance two weeks earlier. The long hours were taking their toll; his face was gaunt and pale, despite his dark coloring. His deep-set eyes always gave him a brooding expression, even when he was well rested. Before his service in the Royal Marines, his features could have, at best, been described as stern. Now, after being rearranged by several necessary surgeries, his features had a ferocity that seemed almost primeval. He pushed his damp hair off his forehead, quickly combing it with his fingers, trying to tame the waves the damp had brought out.
He turned away from the window as the crane operator started barking directions at Constables Dunnholland and Sahotra. The shivering men were standing on the edge of the stream's embankment, holding a heavy, rusted chain between them. On the crane operator's command they scrambled down the slippery embankment, managing to remain upright and keep their grip on the chain.
Mornay pointed to a couple huddled under an umbrella next to one of the police cars. The unpredictable gusts of wind were threatening to turn their umbrella inside out. "They were in the Fiat?"
Claire nodded. "Called from their mobile. Up from the borders. Both were near hysterics, because they couldn't find the driver of the truck. They said it came flying around that curve." Claire pointed to the curve just up the road. "There was no room or time for them to move out of the way."
The woman had a bandage on her forehead, and the man was pale. Given the condition of their Fiat, they were lucky that was the extent of their injuries.
"Shouldn't someone seat them in the back of a car, out of the rain?"
"They didn't want to get back into a car just now. I don't blame them."
"Is the horse box empty?"
"We don't know. The doors were crushed when the Nissan flipped. We need to cut it open."
Which explained the farmer and the acetylene torch.
Just then, a plump man in worn tweeds stepped in front of Mornay. "My name's Harris, are you in charge here? Because if you're in charge here, I want to make a report to your supervisor." The man's mouth was nearly hidden by a bushy white mustache. He must have been close to sixty, but he had the burly build of a man twenty years his junior.
"You'll have to leave the area," Mornay said, barely sparing him a glance.
"Your lot called me here over an hour ago, and I've seen nothing but incompetence since I arrived."
"We've got procedure -- "
"Bugger procedure! You've got animals in that box, and I haven't been allowed near them."
The rain was plastering Mornay's shirt to his chest; he hadn't thought to zip up the coat before getting out of his car. He snapped it closed. "You'll need to remain in your vehicle until we're ready for you." Mornay stepped around the man, who sputtered under his breath before plodding, fists clenched, back to his Mitsubishi. Like the Nissan, it was a working vehicle with scratched paint, dented running boards and nicked front grills.
Mornay watched Dunnholland fumbling to loop the S hook at his end of the chain around the grill of the Nissan. The cold appeared to have stiffened his hands, making him more clumsy than usual. After he got it through, Sahotra grabbed the hook and shoved it back into one of the chain's links. The reinforced grill was the only place, short of the exposed driveshaft and axles, that a chain would go around and support the weight of the vehicle.
Mornay glanced at his watch. It was half ten. This was a miserable way to start the morning when you'd slept propped against a cold window. If he were lucky, DI Gordon wouldn't find out he'd arrived at the scene late.
"Have you checked PNC for the Nissan's registration?" Mornay asked.
Claire nodded. "I've submitted the request. No one's gotten back with me yet."
The ominous sound of metal screeching on metal brought out a collective wince from the gathering, then the crane started lifting the vehicle inch by inch.
Mornay's gaze drifted into the rolling fields surrounding them. The fields were still green, a startling tropical shade of green, and were surrounded by low, drystone walls that formed meandering gridwork patterns across the landscape. In the distance, curls of smoke were drifting from the chimney of a whitewashed farmhouse. The view would've been picturesque on a drier day.
Mornay shoved his hands farther into his pockets and tried to shrink down into his collar. At least the weather was keeping the gawkers away. The press wouldn't be interested in another collision on these twisting back lanes, not with Matthew Adair's
parents giving regular briefings from their front garden, pleading for their son's safe return.
The crane lifted the crushed cab of the Nissan high enough off the ground so that Sahotra could nimbly slide down the embankment and search for the driver.
His head soon popped back into view. "There's no one here, sir," he shouted.
Mornay awkwardly slithered down the embankment, using his hands to steady himself. By the time he made it to the cab, his trousers were soaked to the knees, and his feet were numb from wading through the freezing water.
Sahotra was right. The cab was empty.
A stone turned beneath Mornay's foot, and he grabbed the open driver's door to keep from falling. The movement shook more chunks of bluish green glass loose; they sprinkled down into the water. He knelt to take a closer look into the cab. The seats were a dark blue canvas material. They were filthy. The dash was thick with dust. Most of the shattered windshield seemed to be lying on the stained canvas roof liner. There were two crumpled cigarette packs, Royals -- the black-and-white SMOKING KILLS label covering half of the pack -- and a red box of Kings. Ashes and butts were mingled among the chunks of windshield. He found a smear of blood on the interior of the driver's door. "Looks like there could've been two people," Mornay said when he straightened. "Two brands of cigarettes." "And one of them got hurt when he climbed out. But not seriously, if he could escape and disappear."
Sahotra straightened and glanced around him, as if he hoped to spot the driver lurking in the fields. The wall edging the side of the road blocked their view of the field behind them. And the grass was too thick to see any footprints, so they had no idea which direction the driver might've run.
"Think he's got a head wound?" Sahotra asked. "Maybe he was delirious?"
"He wouldn't have gone too far, then." Mornay pointed to the farmer driving the tractor. "Is he the owner of that property?" Sahotra nodded an affirmative. "We'll need to send someone to have a look around his buildings."
Harris had returned. "You've got to be careful!" he bellowed to the crane operator, his face a dark crimson. Claire had to lead him forcefully out of harm's way.
Mornay told the crane operator to lay the wreckage on the road so they could determine if there were any injured animals in the trailer. If not, the conjoined vehicles would then be lifted to the flatbed truck that was due to arrive at any moment.
Mornay and Sahotra scrambled back up the embankment and let the crane operator pull the wreckage out of the stream.
The farmer was tall and the wiry sort of thin that bespoke years of walking the surrounding hills. He wore an old set of coveralls whose original color might have been pale blue, but use had ground permanent brown streaks into the legs, arms, and back. The farmer sat comfortably on the seat of his tractor, his expression bland. Lying on the engine cowling was a well-behaved border collie that was sending beseeching looks in Claire's direction, his tail thumping against the cowling. The dog was too well trained to bound over to Claire and beg for her to scratch his ears.
When everyone had backed away from the horse trailer, the farmer reached for his cutting torch.
Cutting through the hinges was slow work, made even slower by the precarious position of the trailer, which lay on its side, balancing on a fender well, heaving with each gust of wind. From the trailer's list, it was obvious something was inside. Mornay thought it was late in the year to be moving animals, at least by owners who valued them. The weather and the road conditions were too unpredictable.
Mornay and Claire edged closer when the farmer stood on the tractor seat to work on the second hinge. Blue-white sparks hit the pavement with loud hisses, and a sharp, metallic odor filled the air. Once the hinge was cut away, the damaged door could be pried open with crowbars.
"Look," Claire said quietly. She pointed to a spot close to the road, near the most crumpled part of the trailer. Blood was seeping around the hinge and slowly dribbling onto the slick surface of the road.
When the farmer nodded, Dunnholland and Sahotra moved in with crowbars. They wrenched and heaved, and within moments had pried the doors apart. The bottom door fell open with a loud clang, splattering those nearest the door with blood. Dunnholland and Sahotra jumped back with startled shouts as gravity slid the carcass of a ram down the door that was now acting like a ramp. There was another dead ram inside, along with several bales of straw.
The woman from the Fiat screamed.
Mornay gritted his teeth. "Claire, would you kindly get rid of that silly woman?"
Some straw had come loose in the accident, and gusts of wind scattered it, sticking bits and pieces of golden straw to everyone's wet slickers.
"Well, Dunnholland," Mornay said, giving Sahotra a wink behind Dunnholland's back. "Get in there and see if we've got any survivors."
"Survivors?" Dunnholland repeated. "Do I have to touch them?"
Sahotra had to turn around to keep from laughing aloud when Mornay said, "Just think of them as extra rare lamb chops. You're not afraid of lamb chops, are you?"
Mornay watched Dunnholland pick his way around the dead ram, then he turned and scanned the road for the truck that would haul away the horse box and the Nissan. A constable was leaning down to a car stopped by the roadblock, telling the driver he'd have to find another way around.
"Sahotra," Mornay said. "Get on the radio and find out what's keeping that flatbed. We can't hold up traffic all day."
"Sir," Dunnholland's voice echoed from inside the trailer. He swallowed hard when Mornay turned to stare at him. Dunnholland's gaze darted down to the bales of straw, then back up again. His face was pasty, which Mornay put down to the exertion he'd been through that morning.
"Sir," Dunnholland repeated inanely.
"I think you should see this." Dunnholland bent down, taking a closer look at something near his feet.
Mornay stepped into the trailer, hunching over to avoid knocking his head on the riveted sidewall. "Don't touch it, whatever it is," he ordered automatically. Any other constable would've had the good sense to keep his hands to himself, but in times of crisis, Dunnholland tended to act like a curious bystander rather than a police officer.
Mornay stopped short.
A black plastic garbage bag had spilled from between two straw bales. A child's foot was sticking through the bottom of the bag.
The trailer shook as someone else stepped inside; Sahotra had joined them. He was the first to break the prolonged silence. "Now we know why the driver ran." He turned and stumbled outside.
The sound of Sahotra's retching nearly sent Mornay reeling out of the trailer.
"What is it?" Claire asked from inside.
"It looks like a child's body." Mornay clamped a hand on Dunnholland's shoulder. "Out, before we do any more damage to the scene."
"Is it Matthew Adair?" Claire whispered.
What was the likelihood they had two missing children?
"Probably," he replied. Mornay stepped out of the trailer, thankful for the brisk breeze. He put his hand firmly on the small of Claire's back and propelled her away from the trailer, guiding her toward the couple from the Fiat. "Look after these two," he said quietly into her ear. "I'll look after the rest."
Copyright © 2004 by Moira Maus
A Sergent Mornay Mystery
Last Seen in Aberdeen
A Sergent Mornay Mystery
- Pocket Books |
- 304 pages |
- ISBN 9781416512011 |
- December 2004