Set in McDermid’s hometown of Edinburgh, The Skeleton Road centres on a Cold Case investigation. A skeleton is discovered, hidden at the top of a soon-to-be renovated Gothic building. Detective Karen Pirie is tasked with identifying the decades-old bones and soon finds herself unearthing a series of past conflicts, false identities and secrets that have long been buried.
Sunset is often a glamorous business in the Cretan holiday harbour of Chania. Reflections of gold and red and pink splash along the hulls of the day-tripper boats, the mid-price yachts and the cabin cruisers. The historic walls of the outer harbour loom solid against the fragile sky like shadows pro- jected on a screen, and the quaysides are languid with tourists making their leisurely way from pavement artist to jewellery stall, from restaurant to souvenir shop.
Around the harbour, buildings crowd higgledy-piggledy back into the town, some staggering up the hillside, some crammed together like Roman tenements. Holiday flats and retirement homes look down on the swarm of boats and people, streaked with the sun’s last lazy rays.
At one of the outside tables, a man sits watching the tourists, his face expressionless, the remains of a large seven-star Metaxa in front of him. In his early sixties, by the looks of him. Broad-shouldered and a few kilos overweight. He’s wearing dark navy shorts and a bottle green polo shirt that shows off muscular forearms tanned the colour of his drink. He’s wearing tinted glasses that are noticeably more fashionable than the rest of his outfit. His silver hair is cropped close to his head and he has a heavy moustache which he wipes with the back of his hand from time to time. It’s a gesture he completes more often than his drink- ing requires; as if perhaps the moustache is something he’s self-conscious about. It’s the only thing about him that betrays the appearance of absolute self-possession.
He is completely unaware that he is being watched, which is surprising because he has the air of a watchful man.
He finishes his drink, wipes his mouth one last time then gets to his feet. He walks along the quayside with a firm step. People move out of his way, but not fearfully. With respect, it looks like. Only a couple of metres behind him there’s another presence. A shadow, taking advantage of the crowds to stay close on his heels.
A few streets back from the harbour, the man turns into a narrow side road. He casts a swift look around, then heads into a modern apartment building. Not too smart, not too cheap. Just the sort of place a retired history teacher would buy to enjoy the Cretan way of life. And that’s exactly what his neighbours think he is.
The watcher slips into the building behind him and silently climbs the stairs in his wake. Stealth is second nature in this line of work and tonight is no exception. A blade slides from its sheath without a sound. Sits balanced in the hand, waiting. So sharp it could split a sheet of paper.
The man stops in front of the door to his apartment, key already in hand, prepared for a quick entry. He slots the key into the lock and turns it, pushing the door open. He’s about to step across the threshold when a voice indecently close to him says a name he hasn’t heard in years. Shocked, he begins to turn around, backing into his flat as he goes.
But he’s too late. Without hesitation, the blade moves in a gleaming arc and slices the man’s throat from ear to ear. Blood gushes and spurts, splashing a different red over the door and the walls and the floor.
By the time he’s finished dying, his assassin is back among the tourists, heading for a bar and a well-deserved drink. A seven-star Metaxa, perhaps. And a toast to the single death that doesn’t begin to atone for all those other deaths.
Fraser Jardine wanted to die. His stomach was knotted tight, his bowels in the twisted grip of panic. A teardrop of sweat trickled down his left temple. The voice in his head sneered at his weakness, just as it had since boyhood. Biting his lip in shame, Fraser forced open the skylight and pushed it outwards. He climbed up the last three steps on the ladder one at a time and gingerly emerged on the pitched roof.
Never mind that tourists would have paid for this sensa- tional view of a city classified as a World Heritage Site. All Fraser cared about was how far he was from the ground.
He’d never liked heights. As a child, he’d done his best to avoid the tall slide in the park. The vertiginous stairs that clanged like some ominous tolling bell with every step. The cold rail clammy under his sweating palm. The smell of sweat and metal that made him feel he was going to throw up. (And how terrible that would have been, projecting a rain of multicoloured vomit over the kids and parents below.) But sometimes there had been no escape. He’d stood on the tiny metal platform at the top, a melting sensation in his bladder, the knowledge that wetting his pants was too close for comfort. Then he’d shut his eyes, drop on to his backside and hurtle down, refusing to look again till he shut- tled off the end of the shiny metal strip into the hard-packed sand beyond. Skinning his knees felt like a blessing; it meant he was back in touch with solid ground.
That lifelong terror of high places had been his only reservation when he’d been considering his choice of career. Surely a demolition quantity surveyor couldn’t avoid going out on roofs from time to time? You couldn’t ignore the fact that some structures might pose dangers for the crew itself or add extra costs to the job. He wasn’t stupid; he’d asked about it specifically at the careers fair. The man representing the building trade had made light of it, claiming it was a rare occurrence. Fraser had been three months into his training period before he’d understood the careers advisor hadn’t had a clue what he was talking about. But the job market was crap, especially if you were a young man with a moderate degree from an indifferent university. So he’d bitten the bullet and stayed put.
Over the past six years he’d become adept at figuring out which upcoming jobs would present the worst prospects, then neatly managing to sidestep them. Too busy with another assessment; a dental appointment for a troublesome molar; a training course he needed to attend. He’d turned avoidance into a fine art and, as far as he was aware, nobody had noticed.
But that morning – and a Saturday morning too, just to add insult to injury – his boss had sprung this on him. A rush job for a new client they wanted to impress. And everybody else already committed elsewhere. The job of checking out the Victorian Gothic battlements, turrets and pinnacles of the John Drummond School had dropped on Fraser’s steel- capped toes.
Dry-mouthed, hands slippery with sweat inside his work gloves, he crab-walked cautiously down the steep pitch of the slates. ‘It could be worse,’ he said aloud as he automati- cally checked out the state of the roof, noting gaps where slates had slipped from their moorings or disappeared alto- gether. ‘It could be much worse. It could be raining. It could be like a bloody fucking ice rink.’ The fake cheer wouldn’t have fooled his two-year-old daughter. It certainly didn’t fool Fraser.
The trick was to keep breathing, slow and steady. That, and not to look down. Never to look down.
He gained the relative safety of the shallow lead-lined gutter behind the crenellated perimeter wall and concen- trated on the task before him. ‘It’s only a wall. It’s only a wall,’ he muttered. ‘A pretty fucking crappy wall,’ he added as he noted the crumbling mortar. The pressure on his blad- der increased as he contemplated how weather-weakened the structure had become. There was no way of detecting that damage from below. What else was lying in wait for him on this decaying bloody roof?
Fraser had driven past the John Drummond countless times, marvelling at the fact that from a distance it still looked as impressive as ever, even after standing empty for the best part of twenty years. It was an Edinburgh landmark, its elaborate facade impressively dominating what amounted to a small park beside one of the southbound arterial roads. For years, the sheer scale of any redevelopment of the abandoned private school had daunted developers. But the exponential expansion of the city’s student population had created more pressure on accommodation and more profits for developers with the nerve to go for major projects.
And so Fraser was stuck on this decaying roof on a cold Saturday morning. He began making his tentative way round the perimeter, dividing his attention between the parapet and the roof, dictating occasional notes into the voice-activated recorder clipped to his hi-vis tabard. When he came to the first of the tall mock-Gothic pinnacles that stood at each corner of the roof, he paused, assessing it care- fully. It was about four metres high, not much more than a metre in diameter at its base, rising in a steep cone to its apex. The exterior was decorated with extravagant stone carvings. Why would you do that, Fraser wondered. Even the Victorians must have had better ways to spend their money. So why would you choose that? All that over-the- top detail where nobody was ever going to see it up close, balls and curlicues stark against the sky. Some had fallen off over the years. Luckily nobody had been standing underneath when that had happened. At roof level, there was a small arch in the stonework, presumably to provide access to the interior of the pinnacle. Access for the youngest and smallest of the mason’s apprentices, Fraser reckoned. He doubted he could even get his shoulders through the widest span of the arch. Still, he really should take a look.
He lay down in the gutter, switched on the head torch on his hard hat and edged forward. Once his head was inside, he was able to make a surprisingly good assessment of the interior. The floor was covered with herringbone brick; the interior walls were brick, sagging slightly in places where the mortar had crumbled away, but held in place by the weight pressing down from above. A bundle of feathers in one corner marked where a pigeon had lost the battle with its own stupidity. The air was tainted with an acrid whiff that Fraser attributed to whatever vermin had visited the building. Rats, bats, mice. Whatever.
Satisfied that there was nothing else of note, Fraser backed out and eased himself back to his feet. He tugged his tabard straight and continued his inspection. Second side. Second turret. Don’t look down. Third side. A section of crenellated parapet so decayed it appeared to be held together by faith alone. Happy that there was nobody there to see the drips of sweat falling from the back of his hair, Fraser got down on his hands and knees and crawled past the danger zone. That wall would have to be taken down first before it came down on its own. Down. Christ, even the word made him feel faint this far up.
The third pinnacle loomed like a place of safety. Still on his hands and knees, Fraser switched on the head torch again and thrust his head inside the access arch. This time, what he saw made him rear up so abruptly that he smacked his head on the back of the arch, sending his hard hat tum- bling across the floor, the beam of light careering around madly before it finally rocked itself still.
Fraser whimpered. At last he’d found something on a roof that was scarier than the height. Grinning at him across the brickwork was a skull, lying on a scatter of bones that had clearly once been a human being.