WELCOME to our regular feature showcasing the talents of the nation’s best writers. This week, an extract from Douglas Lindsay’s Song of the Dead
Friday afternoon. Standing in a queue at the supermarket, staring at the floor, the basket weighing heavily in my right hand. Dinner, milk, wine, water, orange juice.
I’ve chosen the wrong queue again. We don’t always choose the wrong queue, we just never notice choosing the right one. Glance at the old woman fumbling with change, counting the coins out slowly, as though she’s still converting from pounds, shillings and pence.
There’s another younger woman behind her. Looking at her phone.
Almost dark already. Too late to go for a drive. Tomorrow maybe. I can head off, then get out the car, walk some way up a hill. Nothing major. Nothing that requires a backpack. Up Strathconon, stop long before the end. Sit on the grass, watching the day crawl over the land, the deer mingling at the foot of the hill.
My phone rings. Much too loud. Set on full volume to make sure I never miss it. The three women beside me allglance disapprovingly. Their censure vanishes as I press the green button and put the phone to my ear.
‘Need you back in here, sorry.’
It doesn’t matter who says it, does it? The voice from the station: That weekend that you were about to start enjoying is going to have to wait.
My plans hadn’t amounted to much anyway.
I contemplate risking the wrath of someone anonymous at the supermarket by placing my basket on the floor and walking out, but instead I take a minute to walk round, putting my dinner and the drinks back on the appropriate shelves.
* * *
Five minutes and I’m closing the door behind me and sitting down in front of the Chief Inspector. He’s on the phone, but he waved me in. He’s writing as he listens. When he’s finished, he thanks the person he’s talking to and hangs up. ‘Need you to go to Tallinn,’ he says. Looks across the desk. Humourless. Good at his job, respected. But totally humourless. Which means he isn’t joking.
As opposed to where, I wonder, as soon as I’ve asked the question. Maybe there’s a Tallinn, Idaho or a Tallinn, North Dakota.
‘You’re booked on the eight-thirty Gothenburg ferry from Aberdeen, so you’ll need to get going. Train from there to Stockholm, overnight ferry Stockholm to Tallinn, gets you to Estonia, more or less, for start of play Monday morning.’
He looks at his watch.
‘Sorry, Ben, but you’re the best man for the job, given your background. They’re not intending to do anything with it over the weekend, so Monday should be fine.’
‘There was a case twelve years ago, before your time. It was news around here, but wasn’t too big nationally. A young couple went out to the Baltics, aiming to tour around. The chap, John Baden, went missing in Estonia. In the south, in a place called Tartu. It was in the papers for a few days. Then his body washed up on the shores of the lake that forms much of the border between Estonia and Russia.’
He pushes a file across the desk.
‘Read it on the ferry.’
‘Was there anyone here who went out there at the time?’
I nod, lean forward and lift the file. We don’t talk about Rosco.
‘So, there’s a new lead? That’s why they want someone to go out?’
No dramatic pause. The Chief doesn’t do drama, just as he doesn’t do humour.
‘John Baden, or someone claiming to be him, walked into a police station in Tartu this morning.’
Just as the boss doesn’t do drama, he doesn’t like to see his officers overreact. I remain expressionless. It was going to be something interesting, or else they wouldn’t be sending anyone out there.
‘The Embassy are involved?’
‘Is there anyone working there who remembers the case?’
‘Doesn’t appear to be.’
‘They’ve spoken to the Estonians?’
‘Everyone’s on board. Baden’s been taken to a military hospital. They’re going to keep him there over the weekend, try to get to the bottom of it on Monday. You should arrive just in time.’
‘And his partner from twelve years ago? Has she been notified?’
‘We’re trying to find her. However, at the moment we just want to know where she is and what she’s doing. We’re not telling her yet. Presumably... presumably this isn’t him. Look at the file. He was dead, his body was identified by at least three different people. This was an open and shut case.’
‘Except someone just opened it again.’
‘Yes.’ He nods towards the door. ‘You’ve just got a passenger booking, no need to take your car over. Mary’s got the details.’I lift the folder, and get up.
‘You’ll let me know if you find out where the partner is?’
I walk from the office, closing the door on my way. I’m glad I’ve got nothing to cancel this weekend, but I’d be lying if I said that there’s anything I’d likely be doing that was going to be more interesting than this. I go back to my office, lift my watch off the desk, and am strapping it onto my wrist as I get to Mary on my way out. She’s ready for me and holds out a few pieces of paper, clipped together, as I approach.
‘Have a safe trip,’ she says.
‘When am I coming back?’
‘Open booking,’ she says.
I nod and walk out the station without stopping.
• Douglas Lindsay’s debut novel was made into the film The Legend of Barney Thomson. Song of the Dead is published by Freight, £8.99