Butterflies tumbled in her stomach as she watched him make his way over to her. He carried his drink in one hand, coat slung over his arm.
She rose to greet him. “Carol,” she said, offering her hand. He was tall, dark and broad shouldered. He seemed presentable, if conservatively dressed. He looked like he had lost his tie. Most of the other men wore jeans and trainers. Shame he hadn’t polished his shoes.
“McEwan,” he said. Realising his mistake, he smiled and shook her hand. “I’m sorry, I’m Alex.” They both sat down. The muted din of the trendy main bar formed a background drone to the chatter in the low-lit function room.
Carol smiled, covering her embarrassment, and studied his face. “Is this your first time?” she asked.
“No, but it’s been a few years since I last came to an event,” McEwan said looking around. “Last time I was in this place I was depositing my student grant cheque.”
“Yeah, me too,” she said, laughing. She pushed her hair out of her face so he could see her blue eyes and face better. He had a rugged clean-shaven look, not quite handsome. Maybe if he got a proper haircut, rather than a quick snip and clip over at the barbers, that could change. At least he had tried to tame it with some gel. He had a subtle, woody, masculine smell. She saw him studying her, a slight wrinkle on his brow as he thought about something.
“What did you study?” McEwan said. He felt free not wearing his tie, but the best thing he had found to wear was another work suit. He rarely needed to wear anything else. Fortunately, the shirt was freshly washed and ironed. It had been hand delivered to his office, along with the rest of this week’s service wash. He noticed his unpolished shoes and tried to tuck his feet out of sight.
“Politics and German. Lot of good it did me,” she said. “What about yourself?”
“Theology,” he said.
She looked surprised. “You don’t look like a priest.”
He smiled. “What does a priest look like?”
“I dunno, more bookish, with a dog collar?”
“You’re right, I’m not a priest. What do you do? I’m guessing it doesn’t have much to do with politics.”
“I’m an assistant bank manager,” Carol said, proud of her career. He was sitting with his shoulders hunched, elbows on the arms of the chair, leaning forward, tensed up. “If you’re not a priest, what is that you do then?”
“I’m a detective,” McEwan said. He braced himself for her reaction.
“With an agency?” she said.
“Yeah, the Claymore Consultancy.”
“What are you working on?”
McEwan was surprised. Normally he was attacked at this point. The other person had a short rant about what a stupid idea privatisation had been, how things were worse than before. Then he would make his excuses and leave. “I’m afraid I can’t really discuss it.” He shrugged.
“So why study theology and not minister to a flock?”
“I didn’t hear the calling,” he said. And then, as though being punished, he was wracked with a wet phlegmy cough.
Carol looked at him, clearly concerned. “Are you alright?”
“Sorry. I quit smoking a year ago, but this cough won’t go away,” he said, when the attack ended. He sipped at his dark rum and coke. He blinked slowly and smiled. “All over now.”
“Your coughing reminded me of an earthquake I was in once, in California. I thought my lasagne was going to fall on the floor. But as soon as it came, it went. Like nothing had happened.”
McEwan looked at her. Maybe she wasn’t quite all there. Her face was pretty, but she looked a bit skinny in her floral pattern dress. It didn’t seem to fit right. Perhaps she’d lost weight recently. “I’ve never been to the States,” he said. “Maybe one day. What’s it like over there?”
“Flat, nothing seems to be over two stories. Everything is spread out. No wonder they need big cars to get about. But it’s like a bad case of déjà vu. Everything repeats itself every couple of blocks. McDonalds, Wal-mart and so on, all clustered round major road junctions.”
McEwan’s phone began to ring. Dans Macabre rose and fell and got louder as he took it out of his pocket.
“Sorry,” he said. “It’s the office, I have to take this.” Carol smiled, clearly irritated. He pushed the answer button. “Hello?”
“Alex, it’s Malcolm,” said the voice. Malcolm Graves was the Consultancy’s pathologist.
“Hi, Malcolm. What are you still doing in the office?” he said.
“I was finishing my report on the latest victim,” Malcolm said. “I’ve uploaded it onto the server, but I’ve also sent you a copy via email.”
“Anything stand out in particular?”
“I was able to get a good look at the wounds this time. I’m certain now that the murder weapon was a surgical instrument of some sort.”
“Okay, thanks Malcolm. Have a good evening.”
He finished the call and put his phone away. “I’m sorry,” he said. “Something’s come up at work. I have to go.”
“Can I get your number?” Carol said. They still had at least another minute.
“Just tick the box on the form,” he said, putting his woollen overcoat on and downing his drink. “I’ll try and be in touch. Got to run. Bye.” McEwan half waved as he walked backwards a pace. He turned and strode out into the main bar, the relaxed chat deluged by a flood of voices. Carol watched him go. She drank her gin and tonic and waited for the next dater to move to her table. Perhaps the evening wouldn’t be a total loss.
McEwan hurried out the main door and up St Vincent Street towards Blythswood Square. Saved by the bell. She was nice but not really who he was looking for. Besides, when she realised who he was, she was bound to change her mind.
The evening was damp and cold. He wrapped his coat around him. Town was busier than he expected. The attempts to reach desperate, drunken oblivion seemed to last all weekend now. A burnt out car was blocking an alley. Inside he saw a scantily dressed girl. He went over and checked to see if she was still alive, assaulted by the smell of alcohol and vomit. Satisfied, he called for an ambulance and waited until the paramedics arrived. For a cynical moment McEwan thought about survival of the fittest, but he was determined not to give the killer, or any other predator out tonight, a freebie.
The Rhododendron refused to come free; its roots grasped the earth and stones tightly. McEwan hacked at the roots with his spade. He gritted his teeth as he tugged, and with a low roar ripped it free from the Welsh hillside.
“You look like you enjoyed that,” said the auburn haired girl in his work group. She had done some weird loop thing with her long hair that tied it back under its own weight. Whenever she bent over to work near the ground, her low-necked, navy blue vest, gave him an elusive view of her breasts. She wore shorts that showed off her long tanned legs. He hoped she hadn’t noticed him looking.
“There’s something satisfying about straight-forward, hard work,” he said. A trickle of sweat ran down his back, soaking into his blue shirt. He took his baseball cap and heavy gloves off and wiped his forehead with the back of his hand.
“I’m Kate, Kate Harlow,” she said.
He noticed she had a soft Lancashire accent. He liked it. “Alex,” he said.
“From Glasgow?” Kate asked. Her green eyes looked emerald in the summer sunshine.
“What gave that away?” he laughed. “Couldn’t have been the accent surely?”
Well, it was tough, but I figured it out. Besides, I just graduated from Glasgow uni.” She smiled, showing perfect white teeth. Her triangular face made her look like a taller, less slight, Audrey Hepburn.
“Anything useful?” McEwan said.
“So, come here often?” he asked, joking.
“Twice actually,” Kate said. “Once, with my parents, when I was too young to remember and last year. We had a lot of Americans and Belgians last year, for some reason. I quite like it here.”
She sat down and looked out over the valley. Hills rolled away into the distance. A light mist hung in the bottom of the vale and gave it a haunted look. It would burn off by lunchtime. The church they were staying in was couple of miles away, but its spire could still be seen. Birds sung in the trees. The lightly wooded hillside was warm, full of laughter and the sound of spade slicing into dry earth. McEwan sat down next to her. She smelled of sunshine.
“Not slacking off already are you?” asked a blonde girl, who emerged from behind the clump of Rhododendrons.
“Lynda, this is Kate. Kate, this is my girlfriend Lynda.” McEwan introduced them. Lynda had been trimming down the branches. It was a relatively easy job that was largely effort free. “We’ve got one bush out. I don’t think there’s much harm in having a rest before we clean up the remaining roots. Is there any water left?”
“Yeah, I’ll get it,” Lynda said. She returned momentarily with a half-full litre bottle and handed it to McEwan. “Don’t drink all of it,” she said. The bottle had been full when they left this morning. This was his first drink.
McEwan bit his tongue, it was easier not to say anything. He took a long drink of the tepid water and offered the bottle to Kate. “I guess I’ll have to go and get some more,” he said. She took it, her hand brushing his. Lynda was waiting with hands on hips, frowning and casting a cool shadow over McEwan.
“It’s okay,” said Kate. “I’ve got a bottle and I’m sure someone else in the group will have some.” She indicated the others, working on a clump ten metres along the hillside.
One of them noticed her looking at them. He waved, smiling. She wiped the bottle mouth with her hand and took a sip. “That’s John. I guess we’re seeing each other,” she said. “Although, to be honest, I only met him last week, when I came here.” She waved back.
McEwan felt a slight pang of jealousy. “Thanks,” he said. “I didn’t really fancy the round trip.” Kate passed the bottle back to Lynda.
“Come on,” Lynda said. “We’ve a whole hillside to clear.” She stomped back round the clump and returned to trimming the bushes.
“Guess we better get back to it then,” said McEwan, raising his arms in a ‘what can you do’ gesture. Kate grinned and joined a conspiracy.
“Do you fancy her?” Lynda asked him later.
“No,” he said, holding her gaze, knowing that he probably did.
They sat on the balcony, their feet dangling over the edge, as they looked through the banister at the stream bubbling by. The sun was setting, turning the sky shades of gold, red and cobalt. The heat of the day had warmed the dry wood and was radiating from the redbrick wall behind them. McEwan felt at peace, happy and content.
His culinary skills had fed thirty. The food had been so well received that the conservation volunteers had come back for more. He had hardly eaten himself. His stir-fry didn’t seem to have agreed with Lynda though. She was, by turns, in pain or in the loo. There wasn’t much he could do. He sat with Kate, watching the world go by, pleased he had met someone he could be quiet with.
“I better go check on her,” he said, breaking the silence.
“Stay, come on a walk with me, into the trees,” she grinned impishly, an unspoken promise in her eyes.
“I can’t,” he said, regretting, for once, being bound by his principles.
Kate’s face fell. “I don’t understand how you can be with someone like her, no-one here can. You’re kind and helpful. She’s a shrew, a selfish, wicked, spiteful woman. That’s not something that’s easy for me to say about anyone.”
“I guess I see a side of her no-one else does, when we’re alone.” McEwan clambered up. Kate reached out and held his fingers. Gently, regretfully, he left her to attend to his duty. She sat and watched the water flow as the sun went down.