Out of bounds, p.12
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       Out of Bounds, p.12

           Val McDermid

  ‘No, he’s not the greatest recruiting sergeant for law enforce­ment. So, you email me the details of your plane explosion and I’ll see what I can dig up. Like I said, if it’s the one I’m thinking of, there’s a horse’s mouth I can go straight to.’ Sunny knocked back the last of her coffee and smacked her lips. ‘Just what the doctor ordered. But I’m going to have to love you and leave you, I’ve got a train to catch.’

  They hugged farewell and Karen watched her bustle out of the shop and hurry down the crowded pavement of South Bridge towards the station. She wasn’t sure what to do with herself. She could go back to the office and work on the schedule of interviews in the Tina McDonald case, but Jason was perfectly capable of doing that himself. She didn’t want him thinking she lacked confidence in his ability to do something so straightforward. While she considered her options, she decided to drop a text to Giorsal. Karen was well aware of her tendency to let things drift on a personal level. If she didn’t arrange something soon, it would slide off her agenda, and then it would get pushed aside by work, and before she knew it, months would have passed.

  To her surprise, Giorsal seemed to be at as much of a loose end as she was, for she replied immediately. Within ten minutes, they had a firm arrangement to meet for dinner in a Thai restaurant near Waverley, convenient for Giorsal coming into the city by train. Cheered at the prospect, Karen decided to head back to the office after all. There had to be something she could do to push the case forward.


  Sunny took advantage of the uneven Wi-Fi on the train to access some of the background on the bee in Karen’s bonnet, as she’d dubbed it in her head. So, by the time she got back to her office in Dundee, she had a list of things to ask Dr David Longford, who was now Reader in Forensic Chemistry in Cambridge.

  After work, she sat down and composed a lengthy email outlining what she hoped he could tell her. The case was an old one; if he could help, he’d have to dig out some pretty ancient files. That far back, the chances were that they were either on paper or on some obsolete form of digital storage. Sunny hoped he was intrigued enough by her interest to brave the IT guys and ask them to restore his old floppies.

  When she logged on the following morning, she discovered she wasn’t the only one who answered work emails at midnight.

  Hi Sunny. Good to hear from you. How are things in the frozen north? Are you going to the Lisbon conference? If so, can I persuade you to give a short presentation in a session I’m doing about recent refinements in IEDs?

  I must admit, I was fairly gobsmacked by your questions. I haven’t thought about the Cessna Skylane explosion for years. There was nothing problematic about it, as I recall, except that the incendiary device was pretty primitive. It didn’t have a recognisable signature and you’re right, nobody claimed it. But I should be able to access my files. We digitised all the historic archive material a couple of years ago – we got a lovely grant from an American demolition tycoon! – so, assuming it was all done correctly, it shouldn’t be difficult. I’ll see what I can find and maybe we can Skype? If you can make time on Thursday, my diary is clear apart from a supervision at 2pm. Look forward to talking to you.

  Skype calls had become second nature to Sunny O’Brien. Her colleagues were scattered around the world, but these days, academics didn’t have to wait for the next big conference to share ideas. Nowadays, it was easy to form working relationships with colleagues who had similar research interests, regardless of where they were based. So David Longford’s suggestion was welcome. It was always better to see the whites of their eyes. Karen would be pleased. And given what her friend had been through lately, anything that would cheer her up had to be a bonus.

  The days trickled past with nothing to show. Karen and Jason spoke to witnesses whose twenty-year-old memories added nothing new to their store of knowledge. They discussed the forensic evidence with the lab but there were no startling revelations as a result of advances in technology. They went through the motions of an inquiry that only one thing could affect.

  Waiting for Colin Semple’s call was killing Karen. How long did Sheriff Abercrombie need to figure out the right thing to do? If the advocate was right and Abercrombie was waiting to see whether Ross Garvie would die and save her the bother of making a difficult decision, how long would she leave it? Karen had phoned the hospital every day to check on Garvie’s condition. ‘Stable but critical,’ was the unchanging verdict. What did that even mean?

  What it meant in real terms was that Sheriff Abercrombie was sitting on the fence. So Karen kept marking time. The weather was terrible too; incessant cold drizzle, the kind that insinuated its way into every gap in weatherproof clothing, leaving you cold and clammy in a matter of minutes. Night walking was purgatory when what the locals called ‘wee sma’ rain’ drifted down for hours on end. So Karen stayed home, wondering about the refugees. Did they brave the weather for the sake of conversation and company? Or were they, like her, stuck indoors, chafing at the inclement weather, wishing they were back where the rain was warm?

  And then, late on Thursday evening, Sunny called. ‘I didn’t disturb you, did I?’

  ‘No, I was box-set bingeing on Homicide: Life on the Streets. I always rewatch it when I’m fed up with work. It reminds me how much worse it could be.’

  Sunny laughed. ‘Funny, I never feel the same about CSI. So, I’ve just come off the Skype with David Longford. He did some work around the crash, analysing the bomb materials and such. And your instinct was right. It’s a bit outside the usual run of Irish Republican ordnance.’

  ‘What does that mean?’

  ‘Boiling it down – it’s very simple. It’s not in the least bit sophisticated. And at that point in the IRA bombing campaign, their bomb-making was relatively high end. Between common-or-garden criminality, drug dealing and donations from across the Pond, they were raking in enough cash to afford proper explosives. Semtex and so forth. Electronic timers. There was nothing like that going on here. This was about as kitchen sink as you can get, with a couple of very vicious twists. The accident investigators got some fragments of steel and distorted metal spheres from the wreckage. Which suggests something like a paint tin with ball-bearings added to your basic mixture to up the destructive element of the explosion.’


  ‘But effective. As to the chemicals – there wasn’t much in the way of residue, but the little they got was enough to adduce that they were looking at good old sodium chlorate and sugar with sulphuric acid as the precipitating factor. With an extra dose of iron oxide and aluminium oxide.’

  ‘Humour me. How does that work?’

  ‘Sodium chlorate used to be quite easy to get – it’s banned now, but it was a common weedkiller back when you’re talking about. It was also used as a bleaching agent in recycled paper pulp. So, you mix that fifty-fifty with granulated sugar. Tip in the two metal oxides – aluminium’s dead easy to get hold of, it’s in everything from plastic filler to sunscreen, and iron oxide is your basic rust. Then you pour concentrated sulphuric acid into a condom – more than one, if you want to delay things – tie a double knot in it, set it on top of the chemical mix, put the lid on your tin and wait.’

  ‘I don’t get it. What’s the condom for?’

  ‘It’s a very primitive fuse. The acid slowly eats its way through the rubber then it ignites the chemical mixture. And boom, you’ve got thermite. It burns hot and fierce, the gases build up and the tin explodes into shrapnel. With added ball-bearings.’

  It was that easy? ‘And you can buy sulphuric acid, no questions asked? Over the counter?’

  ‘You can buy battery acid, which is weak sulphuric acid. You heat it in a ceramic pot till thick white smoke starts coming off it, and Bob’s your uncle. You need to be careful with it, mind. You know the old verse?’

  ‘What? You mean poetry?’

  ‘Doggerel, more like: “Alas, poor James
is dead. / We see his face no more. / For what he thought was H2O / Was H2SO4.” What passes for wit among chemists.’

  ‘And that would be enough to bring down a plane?’

  ‘Single-engine small plane? Sure. Two hundred and fifty grammes of each of the chemicals and a condom of acid and you’d be well away. It’d do terrible damage to your moving parts and the aviation fuel feeding the engine would catch fire. It’s simple, but it’s pretty fucking catastrophic. Look, I’ll email all the tech stuff I got from David, but your bottom line is, this doesn’t look like a mainstream Irish terrorist bomb of that vintage.’

  ‘OK,’ Karen said, puzzled. ‘So what does that say to you?’

  Sunny sighed. ‘Ach, it’s hard to be definitive. There were so many Republican splinter groups around at that time, all trying to make their mark. It might be as simple as a wee cell without much in the way of resources but desperate to be noticed and taken seriously by the big boys.’

  ‘Or it might not.’ One of the reasons Karen was so good at cold case work was her ability to think in tangents. Thinking aloud, she spoke slowly: ‘Maybe it was nothing to do with the Irish connection.’

  For a moment, Sunny was silent. Then she said, ‘I suppose it’s possible. But if it looks like a duck and it sounds like duck and it tastes like a duck, it’s generally a duck.’

  Except when it’s not, Karen thought. What she said, with a laugh, was, ‘Aye, you’re right. I can’t help myself. Flights of fancy, that’s what keeps me going.’

  Sunny’s warm laugh again. ‘You should be writing crime, not fighting it. OK, so this was a bit out of the usual run of Republican bombs, but the man on the business end of it was a former Northern Ireland minister. It stands to reason the motivation came from across the Irish Sea.’

  Karen muttered agreement. But what she was thinking was that there were three other people on that plane. The obvious answer wasn’t always the right one. Especially when the son of one of the victims ended up murdered twenty-two years later. If indeed Gabriel Abbott had been murdered, the voice of reason at the back of her mind insisted.

  ‘Anyway.’ Sunny carried on regardless. ‘I’ll ping the details over to you, to satisfy that restless curiosity of yours.’

  ‘Cheers, Sunny, I owe you.’

  ‘You do. And I’m hoping to collect before too long. Now off you go and get some sleep.’

  As if, thought Karen as she ended the call. She looked out at the night, wondering whether the rain had eased off. She opened her sliding glass door and stepped out on to her balcony. She raised her face to the sky and miraculously, it remained dry. The air was still soft and damp, but the precipitation had stopped just in time to prevent her becoming stir crazy.

  Ten minutes later, she was heading out on the route to the Restalrig Railway Path. Walking briskly, she picked up the path at an earlier point than she had the last time she’d been. She exchanged nods with a middle-aged woman tugging a recalcitrant pug along the path. When she caught sight of the now-familiar glow on the stone wall of the bridge abutment, she was surprised by how pleased she was to see it.

  The weather had taken its toll on the refugees. There were only three men standing round a more subdued fire than usual – Tarek, and the two who had seemed most hostile to her before. Tarek looked up and gave a dignified nod as she joined them. ‘Miserable night,’ she said, warming her hands at the fire. She wasn’t cold but it was a useful ice-breaker.

  ‘We do not like Scottish rain,’ Tarek said.

  ‘Neither do we,’ Karen said with a wry smile.

  ‘So why do you come out in the night and the rain if you don’t like it?’

  She wondered if they were naturally direct, these Syrian men, or if it was simply that they didn’t have the command of the language that would allow them to go all round the houses and tread diplomatically with a stranger. ‘I don’t sleep well. Walking tires me out. Then when I go home, I manage to drop off.’

  ‘Drop off?’

  ‘Sleep. It’s an expression that means sleep.’

  Tarek nodded, considering, as if filing it away for future use. ‘So why do you not sleep? Do you have bad things on your mind? Bad police things? Are you guilty?’

  Karen felt her shoulders rise defensively. ‘I’m not a bad person. I’m not a bad police officer either. But a bad thing happened to the man I loved. Another man killed him.’ She fell silent and stared at the flames.

  ‘I am sorry,’ Tarek said.

  ‘So am I. All the time, I’m sorry. And I’m sad too. So I work long hours and I walk half the night to take my mind off what happened.’

  ‘I understand. You have work instead of your man now.’ Tarek heaved a deep sigh. ‘We have sorrow too. We are sad because people we love are killed in the war. And because our homes are broken and we can’t live there any more. And we have no work to stop us being sad.’

  ‘That’s hard,’ Karen said. ‘I don’t know what I’d do without my work to take my mind off what I’ve lost.’

  ‘Work is dignity.’ Tarek shoved his hands deep into his coat pockets and scowled at the flames. ‘We have no dignity here.’

  ‘You’re not allowed to work, are you?’

  He shook his head. ‘Not until we are accepted to stay. It is hard because we are men who work. We are not beggars with our hands out.’ He clapped the flat of one hand on his chest. ‘I am accountant.’ He pointed at the closest of the other two men. ‘He is chef. And he—’ pointing at the third – ‘he is dentist. But here, we are nothing.’

  They put her to shame, Karen thought. She’d felt her own life had been emptied out with Phil’s death. But these people had lost so much more. And while she could attempt to move forward with her life, they were in limbo. Desperate to begin again, but stuck fast where they’d landed.

  ‘I’m sorry,’ she said again.

  Tarek shook his head. ‘It’s not your blame. You people here in Scotland, you are trying to help. Mostly, you are kind. Some, not so much. But mostly, yes. It’s good to be where there are no bombs or bullets. We are glad for that.’

  The man he’d identified as a chef looked Karen in the face for the first time. ‘Why will you not let us work? Always I fed my family. Always I made a roof over the head of my wife and my children. But now we are like babies. I hate it.’ He spat on the ground at his feet. ‘Sometimes I think better to be dead at home than living like this.’ He turned up his coat collar and walked off into the night.

  ‘He does not mean this,’ Tarek said hastily. ‘He is angry, that’s all.’

  Karen sighed. ‘He’s right to be angry, right to be upset. I wish there was something I could do to help, really. Is there anything practical that you need? Food? Clothes? Blankets?’

  Tarek’s eyes were heavy with sorrow. ‘We are not hungry. We have clothes. What we need, you cannot give us.’

  There was nothing more to be said. Karen stood with the men for a few minutes longer, then said goodnight. She wasn’t sure what she’d gone looking for on the railway path. But she knew she hadn’t found it.


  It was just before seven when Karen’s phone woke her. A moment of disorientation – there were seldom urgent out-of-hours calls in cold cases – followed by the chill fear that something terrible had happened to one of her parents. Then she registered the name on the screen and swore.

  ‘Good morning, sir,’ she growled into her phone.

  ‘Good? What do you mean, good, Pirie? What’s good about it? Have you not seen the papers? It’s all over the bloody internet.’ Judging by the volume, the Macaroon’s face would resemble the mottled palette of a Victoria plum.

  Karen rolled upright, sitting on the edge of the bed, awake and alert. ‘I have no idea what you’re talking about,’ she stalled. ‘I’ve just this minute woken up.’

  ‘Then I suggest you find out double quick. My office, eight o
clock. And I’m telling you now, Pirie, this is one step too far after what I said to you the other day.’

  Silence. Karen let out a puff of breath and tossed her phone on the bedside table. Bastard, she thought, heading for the bathroom. Whatever was biting the Macaroon in the arse could wait till she’d had her shower and a brew. Everything looked worse without the mediation of hot water and caffeine, in her experience.

  Fifteen minutes later she was in front of her laptop. Showered, dressed and armed with a cup of coffee, how bad could it be?

  Very, very bad, was the answer. She didn’t even have to go looking. The Google Alert she had set up a couple of years ago was sitting there in her mailbox, directing her to three Scottish media sites – two newspapers and an internet-based news service. The headlines screamed in her face.



  And finally, at greater length: LOVELY TINA’S MURDERER – THE DNA FINGER POINTS AFTER 20 YEARS. The clever concision of newspaper headlines didn’t apply to the web. Nobody was constrained by the size of the page or the need for big snappy capitals to grab the passing potential reader rushing from bus stop to office.

  Karen clicked on the first link, the popular tabloid her parents had read for years before finally giving up in disgust at its relentless parade of reality TV Z-list celebrities and badly behaved footballers with more money than sense. Best to get the worst over with first. Under the screaming headline, she read:

  The blood of a teenage joyrider may hold the key to a twenty-year-old unsolved murder, Police Scotland believe.

  When the youth’s DNA was analysed after a fatal crash in Dundee last weekend, boffins realised that the killer of blonde hairdresser Tina McDonald was one of his close male relatives.

  But hopes that the crime would quickly be solved were dashed when detectives discovered that the youth was adopted at birth.

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