Also today, I have an extract to share with you on the blog tour for Ground Rules by Richard Whittle.
Called out one night in the hope that she can identify the body of a man found in a field, Edinburgh forensic geologist Jessica Spargo – Jez – inadvertently becomes involved in the investigation of a university lecturer’s murder. The investigating officer, Tom Curtis, hands her a small glass vial and asks her to analyse its contents. She agrees to do it. The results confound everyone.
Media attention around a seemingly unconnected incident on a construction site near Edinburgh means that all work has stopped. An object discovered beneath the site confounds everyone, including the police. Employed by the firm’s owner to attempt to solve the mystery, Jez falls foul of an uncooperative site manager. Unruffled, she perseveres. Meanwhile, the murder mystery deepens. Despite her reluctance to become further involved, she has her own theories about the origin of the vial’s contents, theories the police do not accept.
To Jez’s dismay there are more deaths. As she says to Curtis, ‘I don’t do bodies. I’m a geologist, I look at rocks. If I’d wanted to look at bits of body then I would have become a surgeon or a pathologist.’
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I already knew there was a body, I had seen its bulk, flat on the ground in trampled-down bushes. Two hooded, white-clad figures crouched over it. One of them moved away and I saw clothing, green and brown. Charles deWit was a big man, he didn’t wear flimsy fleeces, he favoured heavy-weave jackets of dull plaid just like this one. The jacket I particularly remembered had leather-elbow patches, things I hadn’t seen on jackets for years.
One of the hooded figures stood up. Tucking back strands of long hair that had escaped from her hood, she looked at Curtis and then at me, holding the gaze for several seconds, the way children do when outstaring each other.
I looked away, so she won. She gave Curtis a quick nod. ‘I’m done here.’
‘The rain doesn’t help,’ I murmured.
They ignored me. I asked how long the body had been there. Curtis shrugged. It was none of my business but he answered anyway.
‘It’s not recent.’
The shrug again. ‘Been here some time.’
I felt nauseous. And horribly cold.
Curtis stayed. The others moved away, became shadows. It was, apparently, my turn for the limelight and I had stage fright, I had to identify deWit and I didn’t want to go closer. Whoever said it is better to travel than to arrive, got it right.
I had strange, mixed feelings. Just because I disliked deWit didn’t mean I wanted him dead.
I assumed – hoped – that if I had been called to a real forensic job rather than to identify a corpse then things would have been different. Earlier in the year, in a rare relaxed moment, Curtis admitted to me that when things got really bad the job simply took over and he worked like an automaton, doing what he had to do. The personal feelings came later, he said, like grieving. At the time I’d wondered what he meant by really bad.
‘Are you ready for this?’ Words said quietly so the others wouldn’t hear.
‘There’s no need for you to go right up. Just get to where you can see him properly.’
I took a step forwards and then stopped. Then stepped forwards again. I had deliberately ignored the body by looking down at my feet, pretending to see where I was treading. Now, a glance at the victim told me he lay flat on his back, his head near the edge of the field and his feet beneath chopped-back undergrowth. To give themselves better access, the police had cut back branches.
I did an out-of-focus appraisal of the body, first the boots and the legs and then the trunk. Had it been in the middle of a cornfield I might have mistaken it, even from so close a distance, for a fallen scarecrow. I could make out a hole in the chest where, had it been a scarecrow, the straw stuffing might have burst out. Finally I focussed. In this case it wasn’t straw, it was the pale ends of smashed ribs. I swallowed, glad I’d spent the evening unpacking removal boxes and hadn’t had time to eat.
There was no blood, not now. I guessed that with such a huge hole there had been a lot of it and the rain had washed it away. In fact, the body was so wet it might well have been dragged from a pond. What little bare flesh I saw was bloodless, the colour of a butchered carcass.
I gathered up courage and looked at the face. From my surreptitious glances I already knew that the head was turned sideways, as if looking away from me. Curtis’s remark about not having to go right up was meaningless. Unless I did, I couldn’t see who it was.
From somewhere in the shadows, Curtis was talking. I’d assumed he was speaking to the others but he was speaking to me. I caught the last bit.
‘…as soon as you are sure, Doctor, just say. It’s not a formal ID. I just want to know if it’s deWit.’
Not taking my eyes off the body, I nodded. The arm nearest to me was twisted unnaturally, locked under the body. I stared at the plaid fabric and the worn leather-patches. It was definitely deWit’s jacket. To see the face properly I bent over the body. I could see more bone than flesh. The soft tissue around the eyes, the nose and the mouth was gone, no doubt the work of birds and animals – rooks and crows, foxes and badgers. I let my eyes focus and then jumped back. Not because of what I’d seen but because Curtis spoke unexpectedly.
‘You all right there?’
The breeze had carried much of the stench of decomposition away from me. I now caught it for the first time and my stomach heaved. Somehow I managed to control myself.
I nodded. ‘I’m okay.’ I was definitely not okay. I felt nauseous.
‘Can you tell? Is it deWit? Are you absolutely sure?’
about the author
Richard has been a policeman, diesel engine tester, university student and engineering geologist. Writing as Alan Frost he was shortlisted from several hundred international competitors for the CWA (Crime Writers Association) Debut Dagger Award.
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Thanks to Emma for inviting me on to the tour, and to the author and publisher for providing me with a copy of the book. All views are my own.
Until next time….