When you’re a private eye, it always makes sense to agree to meet the client where they want to go, not you. You should get there early too, so you can see what they’re like when they’ve got their guard down. All of which explains what Von Valenti is doing waiting for a middle-aged Liverpudlian woman on Edinburgh’s Calton Hill at the start of Hania Allen’s new novel
He dropped the weapon and slumped against the rail. God, his body ached; even sucking air into his lungs made his chest burn. The soft June wind set up a murmuring in the trees, urging him to close his eyes and let the sound lull him to sleep, but this was no time to stop. When you reached the bridge, you didn’t have far to go and, anyway, he’d promised the others he’d make it.
It hadn’t been such a good idea, though, running through the woods on an empty stomach: there was lightness in his head and the stitch in his side was growing worse. He stumbled forward, but tripped on a loose board and fell sprawling. The sound disturbed a squirrel, which shot out from the bushes in a rush of indignation and ran up along the branches towards a sky threaded with white. The effort of keeping his head back to follow the bobbing grey tail made him dizzy and, disregarding what he’d learnt in training, he loosened the neck straps and removed the face guard. The air smelt of earth and grass, and he inhaled deeply, ignoring the pain in his lungs. There was a sudden buzzing in his ears, but he couldn’t tell if it was real or the sound of insects skating over the water.
It was then that he heard it, a noise both unfamiliar and unexpected. A flock of crows burst into the air, wheeling and cawing before reforming to fly east. He staggered to his feet. And he heard it again. Closer now. Close enough that there was no mistaking the sound. His heart lurched with shock.
He ran a trembling hand over his mouth, and looked around desperately. If he hadn’t glanced back along the bridge, he’d never have seen the man, never have seen what he had in his hands.
The ground seemed to rush away, so strong was his fear. He bolted into the wood, searching frantically for the path. On the other side of the field, there was the farmhouse, with an entrance into the tunnels. But that meant breaking cover. A quick calculation told him the man would be at the boundary fence long before he reached the farm. It wasn’t worth the risk.
The bushes were thick in this part of the wood and might deter a pursuer. He dropped into a crouch and rolled into the shrubs. Ignoring the gorse scratching at his face, he crawled on his belly until he found a small clearing. Then, lying on his back, the damp leaf-rot smell filling his nostrils, he paddled furiously with his hands and covered himself with soil and leaves.
Seconds later, he heard the pained creak of wood as someone stepped onto the bridge.
He stared into the clouds, praying that whoever it was would keep to the path and pass him by. Maybe the man would cross the field, giving him a chance to steal back through the trees and reach the safety of the road. He listened, his heart galloping. The footsteps were coming closer. Then they stopped. For one delirious moment, he thought he heard them recede. He counted to twenty and raised his head. The man was standing a short distance away, scanning the landscape, his back turned.
He fell back, his mind unravelling. Had the man heard him move?
There was a tentative rustling, and then a crashing as something thundered through the undergrowth. Another second and it would be over. He tried to scream out his name, shout to the world that everything was wrong, that this shouldn’t be happening, but his throat closed in on the words. Reason told him he had a chance if he crept further into the thicket. Instinct told him he’d never make it. Panic overwhelmed him. He sprang to his feet and charged into the field, windmilling his arms furiously.
The first shot struck him between the shoulder blades. Strangely, there was no pain, just a sharp blow as though someone had clapped him on the back. Numbness spread through his body, his legs buckled, and the sky tilted wildly around him.
A large shape blotted out the light.
Sweet Jesus, it couldn’t end like this, it was a mistake, he had to tell him that, had to make him understand. He gazed into the pitiless eyes, moving his lips, but the words refused to come. In desperation, he turned onto his belly and, clawing at the earth, tried to drag his body along the ground.
With the second shot, a light exploded in his brain, flooding his world with an unremitting, beating agony. And then there was nothing, and more nothing, and all he’d ever known was that unbounded shimmering blackness.
VON Valenti glanced at her watch. Her client was late. Or perhaps it was she who was early. It was a habit of hers to come well in advance when meeting clients for the first time, especially in a public place. It gave her the opportunity to observe their approach. How they held themselves, their facial expression (or lack of it), and what they’d chosen to wear told her more about their state of mind than anything else. Once they met, the guard came down like a visor, and she had to work hard to prise it open to discover what they were hiding.
She let her clients choose the locations of their meetings. That, too, told her something. On the grassy mound behind her was the façade of the Greek temple known as ‘Edinburgh’s Shame’, all that had been built by architect William Playfair before funds ran dry. Below it was the jumble of buildings making up the Observatory and, opposite, the sooty circular tower of Nelson’s Monument. Calton Hill was a public place but it was clear why the client had requested they meet here: although it was lunchtime, there wasn’t a living soul about.
She stifled a yawn. The baby had kept them both awake last night with her incessant crying. This couldn’t go on much longer. She was sleeping through her work and people had started to notice. And her anxiety attacks, which she thought she’d left behind in London, had returned.
She’d chosen to wait at the Dugald Stewart Monument, a huge stone urn imprisoned in a cage of fluted columns, because it afforded a view of the steps from Waterloo Place, steps which the client would climb as the quickest route to Calton Hill. Across Regent Road, the gravestones of Old Calton Burial Ground clung to the grassy slope. Any steeper, and the grimy stones would come tumbling into the street. Behind the cemetery, the dull blue and white arches of North Bridge flashed suddenly as the sun emerged from behind the clouds.
She saw the woman long before the woman saw her. Shoulders slumped, she was trudging up Regent Walk, stopping now and again to catch her breath. Her grey hair was scraped back into a wispy ponytail and a sudden fierce gust lifted it and blew it about her head. Seeing Von, she raised a hand, setting her face into a tired smile.
Von smiled back, waving a hand in acknowledgment, her smile fading as the woman reached her. The softened jawline suggested she was in her mid-to-late fifties, although her complexion was that of someone half her age, and she carried with her the reek of a lifetime spent putting others first.
She was panting from the climb. ‘Miss Valenti?’ she said, dropping her large tote bag. The wind blasted her denim jacket open, giving Von a view of the pink cotton cardigan. ‘You must be Mrs Pattullo,’ she said gently, taking in the red-rimmed eyes.
Relief flooded the woman’s face. ‘I wasn’t sure you’d be here. It’s me own fault, like, I couldn’t remember what time we’d agreed.’ Her voice was shrill, the accent, Liverpudlian. ‘I knew we’d get a bit of privacy here. It’s quite a way, though, going the long way round, but I couldn’t make it up them steps, not with me asthma. I’m sorry I suggested this spot now.’
‘I can give you a lift back to work if you like.’
‘Oh, there’s no problem going down steps. It’s going up them that I can’t do.’ Her eyes drifted to Princes Street. The city centre was heaving with local shoppers and the ever-present tourists and, from Calton Hill, it was impossible to distinguish which was which.
‘Where do you work?’ Von said lightly, wanting to keep the conversation on safe ground for a little longer. Once they moved to the reason for the meeting, there’d be no going back.
‘The Balmoral. You probably know it, that big hotel by Waverley station.’ She stared hollow-eyed at the ornate grey stone building, its saltire flapping wildly on the clock tower. ‘I’m a chef, Miss Valenti,’ she added, her voice quivering.
‘Is it interesting work?’
‘Yes, but it’s manic most of the time. Hotel kitchens always are.’ The woman glanced around. ‘I need to sit down. I’m feeling a bit faint.’
Von was on the point of suggesting they go to a café on Princes Street, but her boss at Swankie and Vale Professional Investigators had made it clear that this client needed special handling, and Calton Hill had been her choice. ‘How about over there?’ she said, indicating the benches in front of the Observatory.
Mrs Pattullo picked up her bag, and they took the path beside the flowering broom bushes and up past the Portuguese cannon. The strengthening wind plucked at their clothes.
The woman turned her clear-eyed gaze on Von. ‘You’re not from round here, Miss Valenti. That’s a London accent.’
Von smiled to herself. She was being checked out. But she’d be doing the same if the situation were reversed. ‘I grew up in the East End.’
‘I lived in London for many years. Moved from Knotty Ash to make me fortune. I didn’t, as things turned out. But I loved the place. What made you leave?’
‘My daughter. She had her first child three months ago. Up here.’ She hesitated, unsure how much to probe. The wrong question and the case would fold like a house of cards. ‘So what made you leave, Mrs Pattullo?’
‘I got married.’ The light vanished from the woman’s eyes. ‘To a Scotsman who likes his drink.’
Von glanced at the bruises on Mrs Pattullo’s neck. No wonder the woman hadn’t wanted them meeting at her house.
Silently, she reached across and covered Mrs Pattullo’s hand with hers, imagining the inebriated husband sneering at his wife, losing it and lashing out in front of a stranger.
‘I haven’t long, Miss Valenti. I think your agency’s told you what this is about.’ She played with her hands. ‘Me son’s gone missing.’
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Hania Allen was born in Liverpool of Polish refugees. She always wanted to go into space and came a fair way (but not far enough) in the Project Juno competition to find Britain’s first astronaut. Her career in education culminated in information management at the University of St Andrews, a post she left to write full-time.
When not writing, she plays the piano with her musically gifted godchildren, making up for in enthusiasm what she lacks in talent. Hania has lived in Scotland longer than anywhere else and currently resides in a fishing village in Fife. Jack in the Box was published in 2014, the first book in the Inspector Von Valenti series. Hania’s second novel, Double Tap, is out later this month (Freight Books, £8.99).