Of all the things that Daniel Wallace had hoped to do on holiday, finding a dead body was not one of them.
The kayak trip from Skye to Raasay was perfect. It was his girlfriend’s first visit to Scotland and he wanted to make it a weekend she would never forget. Daniel had planned this leg of the trip carefully: a journey starting on Skye, going up the long east coast of the island of Raasay. Winter weather in the Highlands was tough to predict but although the water was cold, there was little wind and the only snow was on the mountaintops. They would paddle past the steep cliffs and fossil beaches with views over to the mainland and lunch on the cobble beach below castle ruins he knew well, then continue on to a romantic night at a bothy inaccessible to walkers and unlikely to be occupied at this time of year.
Maya teased him for being such a list maker, but as the day went on he was pleased at having planned it so well. There was a slight chop on the water as they left Skye and late winter light on the wavelets sparkled like sequins. It changed to perfect glass as they rounded the tip of Raasay and turned north. There was a superpod of dolphins spanning the sound between the island and Applecross on the mainland, hundreds of them leaping and squealing for the sheer fun of jumping around. He could tell Maya was nervous about the large mammals at first. She clutched the shaft of her paddle tightly, but was soon laughing with the joy of it all.
They landed on the northern tip of the island. Maya pulled her kayak above the tide line onto the shingle beach while Daniel hung back. ‘Something wrong?’ she asked.
‘I think there’s something caught in my rudder,’ Daniel said, ‘bit of seaweed, maybe. You go on ahead and find the bothy, I’ll catch up.’
‘Sure,’ she smiled. Daniel watched her buttocks cased in her kayaking drysuit disappear along the path. Three years in and he still fancied this woman as if they had just met. That had never happened to him before. A good sign, right? That she was a keeper. The One.
So far, so perfect. Tonight they would watch the sunset from the beach and share a bottle of whisky. He would make them a simple meal of bacon and tuna pasta on the gas camping stove. The bothy had a fireplace to ward off the cold but there wasn’t much wood on the island, so Daniel had brought peat bricks and coal in a thick blue rubble bag.
Then there was the ring, tucked safely away in his dry bags. He planned to pop the question after dinner: maybe on a moonlit walk, maybe sitting by the bothy fire later. With the day going so well he could afford to play that part by ear. They had met on a kayaking course Daniel was teaching at a leisure centre pool in Croydon. Normally he didn’t date students but Maya had caught his eye. That would have been where things ended, but to his surprise she asked him out after the course was over. It didn’t take him long to realise that she was, not to put too fine a point on it, the love of his life. Even more so than kayaking.
The best part was that Maya wouldn’t be expecting him to propose. It was as close as he had ever got to being spontaneous, and she knew that wasn’t his usual style. She probably thought he would pop the question after a long discussion, then they would shop for rings together. She hadn’t known that he figured out that the diameter of her finger was the same size as the plastic ring pull on the orange juice he always bought.
That was tonight sorted. Tomorrow? Tomorrow they would paddle around the smaller nearby isle of Rona before heading back down the other coast of Raasay and back to Skye. He had already booked a table and room at an inn that specialised in fresh local seafood and folk music, and they could toast their engagement with a pint of local ale.
He stood waist deep in the water and tugged hard on the rope deck lines. The boat would not budge. Daniel took off his gloves and felt along under the boat to the rudder. Something was caught on it, as he’d suspected. He pulled but it wouldn’t give way. So it was not seaweed then. It felt a bit like rope. ‘What on earth . . .’ he murmured.
Maybe a belt? Someone’s old climbing gear? The cliffs further down the island were popular with climbers and the waters were trawled by fishing vessels. You never knew what could wash up on the beaches here.
He gave one last pull and felt something come loose. Daniel crossed to the bow and, with some difficulty, dragged the kayak up the shore. He flipped the boat on its side and saw what looked like a holdall caught underneath with one long strap that must have caught on his boat when he paddled over seaweed in the shallows. He sighed. Maybe the bag fell off a hiker on a hill somewhere.
‘Someone wasn’t having a great day,’ he said to no one in particular. Still, stranger things had happened. He chuckled at a memory of the time Maya once left her bra on a sandy beach in Cornwall after a little al fresco romance. They were half a kilometre away by the time she realised. Daniel unwound the strap. A sports bag, all right. He leaned over and unzipped the top. Probably there would be a wallet inside, or a tag perhaps, and they could get this back to its rightful owner. He didn’t relish the thought of carrying someone else’s luggage around for the next day or two, but he liked to hope someone else would at least have done the same for him.
The zip came unstuck with a little effort. Inside it looked like – well, he wasn’t sure what, exactly. Something the size of a melon poked out, round. It had a slippery, translucent quality rather like a jellyfish. But it was far too early in the year for jellyfish. He poked at it with the toe of his neoprene boot. The stench hit him at the very moment he realised exactly what it was he was looking at. Not a jellyfish at all, but a head. A bald human head.
The contents of Daniel’s stomach bubbled into his throat as a wave of shock ran up his body. He collapsed on the ground. He blinked, lifted his head from the pebbles on the beach. He looked up the path where his partner had disappeared. ‘Maya!’ he shouted. ‘Maya!’ He tried to clamber to his knees, but his legs felt rubbery and uncertain.
Maya was only seconds away but to Daniel those moments felt like hours. She knelt by him and put her hand gently on his shoulder. ‘Are you OK?’ she said. Daniel did not often lose his cool, not even the time they went out for a routine outing that turned into force eight gale conditions off the Isle of Wight. Her paddle had snapped and he had to tow her to shore, battling wind against tide, both of them swallowing facefuls of sea foam. Maya had been in bits afterwards – it was her first open water crossing – but had never felt like Daniel wasn’t in control. Even then he didn’t raise his voice or anything. No, Daniel wasn’t the sort who freaked out at any old thing. This had to be something serious.
Daniel closed his eyes and shook his head. He tried to raise one arm and point back to where his boat was pulled up on the beach.
‘What is it?’ Maya asked.
‘You tell me,’ he said.
Maya spotted the bag next to his kayak and crouched down to get a closer look. The sight and smell knocked her back for a moment, but she recovered quickly and leaned in to see what was in there. There was a body inside the bag. No doubt about that. Three years of a forensic science degree had prepared her, but only just, for something like this. She had seen plenty of specimens in the lab or in the morgue but that was different. Those were lifeless, static things that looked more like oversized dolls than anything else.
This however was . . . well, it was kind of great, actually. Her first cold one in situ. ‘It’s dead,’she said. She picked up Daniel’s paddle and poked the remains with the end. ‘Human.’ There was a retching sound behind her. ‘Daniel?’
He was sitting upright, head between his knees. ‘Are you sure?’
‘Sure it’s dead, or sure it’s human?’ No reply; only the sound of more heaving. ‘Yeah, I’m sure,’ she said.
Maya frowned at the remains, trying to puzzle out what she was looking at without removing anything from the bag. The back of a head, bald. A shoulder and arm pulled back, maybe tied? A slender elbow joint poked through the grey, gelatinous scraps of flesh and connective tissue. If the body hadn’t been in the bag, odds were the rest of its extremities would have fallen away from the trunk by now. Whoever this was had been in the water for some time – weeks, at least. Daniel flopped back onto the ground above the cove. His chest rose and fell heavily. ‘What now? Do we radio this in? Pull the GPS beacon?’ His voice was uncharacteristically panicked. Of all the emergency situations he had prepped for over the years, this was not one of them.
Maya inspected the outside of the bag for clues. It was covered in black algae. There was nosign of ID, no nametag that she could see.
‘Pulling the beacon might be going too far,’ she said. ‘Whoever it is, he’s already dead.’ If someone was dead it was a collection job, not an emergency. And the fishing boats wouldn’t want to get involved. No point getting the lifeboats and helicopters out for this. Was it an offence to leave a dead body unattended? She couldn’t remember. Maya surveyed the horizon in all directions. There was the tiny island of Rona to the north and six miles of heather bog to the south; Skye on one side, mainland Scottish Highlands on the other. No place within walking distance of where they were unless she fancied a four-hour yomp to Raasay’s only village in wet boots. And while under normal circumstances Daniel would have no problem going out in the kayaks again once darkness fell, Maya didn’t fancy it.
Even if they wanted to go find help on their own, Daniel didn’t look in any shape to do it. She
popped the covers open on his kayak and rifled through his dry bags for a phone. ‘Do you have reception? We could call the police station in Portree.’
‘No reception here.’
‘I’ll get on the VHF and radio the coastguard, then,’ Maya said.
‘Ask them to pass it on to police. Looks like we might not be staying the night here after all.’
Daniel’s five-star instructor’s course had offered no guidance on what to do if you ended up having to haul a sack of decomposing human remains on a sea kayak. ‘Please tell me we’re not paddling this – this thing – to shore.’
‘No,’ Maya said. ‘Best not to move it more than necessary – in case there’s any evidence to be found at the site.’ She sat down next to her boyfriend. ‘We’ll see if we can get a lift off the coastguard and grab a B&B on Skye tonight,’ she said. ‘It’s not the end of the world.’
Daniel nodded weakly. Maya repacked his bags. She spotted a tiny jewellery box among his things and her heart skipped a beat. ‘Oh my God! Daniel . . . is this what I think it is?’ She tugged off her gloves to slide the half-carat sparkler on her left ring finger. ‘And it’s a perfect fit!’
Her fiancé rolled to one side and chucked a mouthful of foamy spittle on the grass.
• Brooke Magnanti worked for the NHS before being revealed in 2009 as the anonymous author of the award-winning blog Belle de Jour and bestselling Secret Diary of a Call Girl books. She lives on the West Coast of Scotland.