The Gathering Dark, страница 1
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THE GATHERING DARK
To all the team at Michael Joseph. Thirteen books in five years! What were we thinking?
Christ, but he hates having to use another driver’s rig. The cab stinks for one thing, and there’s something not right about the engine. The brakes aren’t much better than stamping on a block of wood; they make more noise than actually do anything. How it passed its last inspection is anyone’s guess. Bloody typical.
He belches, thumps his fist against his chest as the acid burns. Should have taken more time over breakfast, but then if he’d had more time he wouldn’t have been driving this heap of shit. Hauling slurry from the sewage works over to some helpful farmer to spread over his fields. If people knew what went into their food.
At least there’s satnav, even if it’s an old set with half the screen darkened and scratched. Boss said something about it being a special delivery. Just let them empty the tanks themselves and not ask any questions. Aye, like he ever would. Thirty years driving trucks for the old man and his son, he’s seen it all before. Do the job, get paid, go home. Be better if he didn’t have to drive this piece of shit, though. Dodgy goods are one thing, being expected to drive a crap rig is something else entirely.
Shouldn’t be a long trip, mind. He can give Bill in maintenance a piece of his mind when he gets back. Knock off early after that. Last time he does the boss a favour.
Another belch and flames leap up his throat. Christ what was in that bun? Not like Sheena to serve him a dodgy burger. And the smell’s not helping either. Making his eyes water, so it is. He’s sweating, too. No bloody aircon in this thing. Fucking marvellous. Satnav wants to take him through the town as well. Must know about a balls-up on the city bypass he doesn’t. He’d check the radio for traffic news only that’s one other thing that doesn’t work.
It’s just a job. Be done soon enough and then home. Maybe even get in before Mary’s back. Surprise her for a change. Mind you, the way his luck’s been panning out lately he’d probably find her shagging the postman.
Traffic’s buggered all the way up the Gogar road, buses overtaking each other then pulling into the next stop, holding everyone else up as if there was no rush. Christ, but his chest hurts, and struggling with this ancient truck isn’t making things any easier. Maybe he’ll stop somewhere on the east side and have a kip. Just got to make it through the city centre.
Through the lights and on to the Western Approach Road. Thank fuck the traffic’s easing up. If he can coax this asthmatic engine up above 2,000 revs, maybe he’ll even get to the farm on time. Might even get some air through the cab and clear the foul smell.
Finally picking up speed now. Under the bridge, green all the way. The traffic on Lothian Road is surprisingly light, but even so he’ll have to slow a bit for the corner. Heavy foot on the brake pedal and this time it sinks all the way to the floor. The fuck?
Everything freezes. He can see the cars, delivery vans. Pedestrians just beginning to register something is wrong. Directly ahead, the other side of the junction, a bus stop packed with people. He mashes his foot down on the pedal again and the truck speeds up. Something in his chest bursts as he tries to turn the wheel, stop what he knows is unstoppable.
And now the people are beginning to panic, eyes wide, mouths open in unheard screams. There is only silence as the horror unfolds. No explosion, no rending of metal, no smashing of glass and cracking of bone. He can hear nothing.
Not even the beating of his heart.
Even as he turned the corner, Detective Inspector Tony McLean knew that there was something wrong. He couldn’t have said how he knew, but the movement of the traffic on Lothian Road and the junction with the Western Approach Road grabbed his attention. Another warm summer morning and the pavements were packed with tourists, workers hurrying to their offices, people of all sorts. Cars and buses filled the road, almost blocking the view. A horn blared loud, shouts of surprise. A truck travelling far too fast shot out of the turning, its engine screaming like a tortured soul. A hundred yards away, all McLean could do was watch as it swerved across the main road, its long tanker trailer jackknifing as it tried to turn. Failed.
A wave of panic swept through the crowd, but it was too late. McLean could only watch in horror as the cab began to tilt, tyres lifted off the road on one side. That was when he saw the bus stop, the people. Knew that they were doomed.
It happened so quickly he could scarcely make sense of it. The cab tipped completely, smashing into the bus stop and scattering people like straw on the wind. Then the trailer rolled over, split open, thousands of litres of something liquid gushing out over the fallen, splashing against the walls of nearby buildings like a tsunami. The noise was oddly muted, a distant smashing of glass and rending of metal that nevertheless brought back horrible memories of the winter as his beloved Alfa Romeo was ripped apart by something unseen and feral. For a moment it was as if the whole world held its breath in silence, unable to believe what had just happened. Then something clicked and the full horror came crashing down.
The truck’s engine was still running, a rear wheel spinning as if it were trying to right itself. Safety railings had ripped open the rusty steel tanker and something noxious was dripping out on to the pavement like poisoned blood. A stench of industrial chemicals hung in the air, hazing it with blue smoke that threatened to explode at any moment. McLean fought back the horror, suppressed the urge to join those fleeing the scene. He pushed against the tide, struggling to get closer, to try and help. In only a few short steps he was through the crowd and into a widening area that cleared around the crash.
Bodies lay like rag dolls on the road, the pavement. The shop window directly behind the bus stop had shattered and a still form lay half in, half out of the display. Glass shards caught the morning sun, some glittering white, others ruby red.
‘Control? There’s a major accident. Corner of Lothian Ro
‘Multiple calls coming in on that one, sir. Ambulance and fire services are on their way.’ The young woman at the control centre, miles away beyond the far side of the city, sounded calm and collected. She couldn’t see what he could see.
‘Tell the fire crews they’ll need hazardous-chemical gear.’ McLean coughed before he could get the rest of the sentence out, the pale smoke tickling the back of his throat, a chemical reek that was already giving him a headache. ‘We’re going to need a lot of bodies to clear the area, too. Shut off the Lothian Road from Princes Street to Tollcross.’
‘I take it you’re at the scene, sir.’ Behind the voice, McLean could hear the clattering of keys as the Control operative hammered at her keyboard. A distant siren began to wail, followed by another and another.
‘I am.’ He made an effort to move the gawkers back, concerned the truck might explode at any moment. There were far too many people for his liking, but none dressed in the uniform of Police Scotland officers. ‘Looks like I’m probably first on scene, too. Ah, no. Here we go.’
A fire engine appeared at the end of Princes Street and wound a slow way through the halted traffic, siren giving off the occasional slow ‘whoop’ as if that might somehow magically clear the gridlock. A pair of uniform constables, one talking rapidly into her Airwave set, hurried towards the scene of the accident. McLean ended the call, slipped the phone into his pocket and went to meet them.
‘Jesus Christ. What happened here?’
McLean recognized Constable Carter, formerly Detective Inspector Carter. The female PC, still talking on her Airwave set, was new to him.
‘I’d have thought that would be obvious, Constable. Now, why don’t you see if you can’t get some of these people back, clear some space for the ambulance and fire crews? No idea what’s in that truck, but it might explode at any moment.’
Carter stared at him for perhaps a moment longer than was necessary, but it wasn’t the normal sneer of ill-concealed hostility. The look on the constable’s face was something different, a mixture of barely controlled panic and something else that might have been awe.
‘Constable …?’ McLean turned his attention to the other officer as she clipped the handset for her Airwave back on to its shoulder strap. Behind her he could see the fire engine pulling to a halt beside the overturned truck, the fire crew leaping out and setting to work.
‘Right then, Constable Gregor. You’re in charge of cordoning off the scene. Get these people back as far from the crash as possible. I’ll coordinate with the senior fire officer and any other uniforms who get here before the rapid response unit shows up.’
McLean coughed, tears pricking the corners of his eyes. The smell from the truck almost overpowered him, a mixture of exhaust fumes, sewage and something harsher still. He covered his mouth and nose with one hand as he picked a way through the carnage. Too many bodies lying still, but some were beginning to stir. Where the hell were the ambulances and paramedics?
The truck’s engine coughed once and died. A stillness fell over the scene, not quite utter silence as the city carried on its usual roar, oblivious to the terrible violence that had been meted out on its streets. Then the moaning filtered into his hearing, the quiet whimpers of pain, the sobs of terror and sudden, terrible shrieks of pain.
Closing himself off to the horror as best he could, McLean approached the first body. A young man lay sprawled half on the pavement, half on the road. At first it looked like he was just sleeping, but then McLean saw the pool of dark blood leaching from the back of his head. He pulled on a pair of latex gloves, more normally used for keeping his prints off crime scenes, but just as useful here. The young man’s eyes stared sightlessly at the sky, and he had no pulse when McLean felt at his neck. Gently, he eased the eyelids closed and moved on to the next body.
A young woman sat upright and stared wide-eyed at nothing. One arm hung awkwardly at her side, clearly broken, and as she turned to look at him McLean could see the skin on her face streaked with blood and what looked like burn marks. She opened her mouth to speak, but no words came out.
‘It’s OK,’ he said as he crouched down beside her. ‘I’m a police officer. You’re in shock, looks like your arm’s broken, but you’re going to be OK.’
The stench from the ruptured tanker made it hard to breathe, a dull headache squatting in the back of his brain. Still, McLean worked his way methodically through the crash scene, keeping away from the truck itself but tending to the injured and the fortunate but dazed. Every so often he would pause to see whether any ambulances had turned up, but mostly it was just police and fire crews, a couple of motorcycle paramedics tending to the more seriously injured. Someone had found blankets and begun covering the dead, too. There were far too many.
A young man sat with his back to a railing just a few paces from where the bus stop had once been. Head in hands, he rocked gently backwards and forwards. McLean picked a path through the carnage until he was standing directly in front of him, but the young man didn’t seem to see him.
‘You OK?’ He reached out and touched the man on the shoulder, felt a jolt almost like static. For a moment the sky darkened, a cloud passing overhead. The young man seemed not to notice.
‘Hey. Look at me. You OK?’
Finally the young man looked up, saw him. He still said nothing, and there was something about his face that spoke of unimaginable loss. More even than the shocked reaction to this terrible event. What was his story? Why had he been here? Had he lost someone in all the melee? Slowly, something like understanding softened the fear in the young man’s eyes. He nodded once, indicating that he wasn’t injured. Or at least that was what McLean thought he must mean. Looking at him, he appeared unscathed, at least physically.
‘Stay there. I’ll send one of the paramedics to check you over.’
As he took his hand from the young man’s shoulders, the clouds moved away from the sun and light burst out across the street. McLean stumbled, light-headed for a moment as he searched for someone else to help. Then a woman nearby started screaming for her baby. No one rushed to her aid. They were all too busy dealing with the wounded, the dead, keeping the camera-phone-toting ghouls at bay. Distant sirens played counterpoint to the wailing of the injured, but there were still too few medics there, too few fire crews. Bitter smoke drifted across a scene like a battlefield, and for a moment all he wanted to do was run, flee from the horror unfolding around him. Instead he took as deep a breath as he dared, then set off once more into the fray.
Jesus Christ. What the fuck just happened? My head’s splitting like the worst of hangovers, mouth feels like something’s crawled in there and died. I’m home, I know that much, but as to how I got here? No idea. Must have been walking on autopilot, dead to the world.
All I can remember is noise, panic, screaming. There was heat, too, like I’d been on the beach all day on the one day of summer we get in this country. Glass breaking, people running in all directions, a man’s face in the windscreen of a truck.
Oh God. No.
I sit too heavily in the rickety old armchair, springs threatening to end any thoughts of being a father I might have had. Some chance, like I’d want to bring a child into this shit-stain of a world. Lifting hands up to my face, I notice for the first time that I’ve got a red scarf draped loosely over my shoulders. Cashmere by the feel of it, ripped at one end. There’s a dampness about it, spots of darker red where something has wetted it. I rub one between finger and thumb, stare at them stupidly when they come up with a thin
My head spins as I stand, walk on unsteady legs to the tiny kitchen. I meant to throw the scarf away, but as I cross the hall so more memories come back. By the time I get to the bin, lid flipped open by a well-placed foot, I’ve pieced enough together that I might even throw myself in there, too.
The lid makes a dull metal clang as I let it fall down, wrap the scarf around my shoulders again and go through the automatic ritual of making myself a mug of coffee. I don’t want to believe what’s just happened, but the pieces are dropping into place now. A crowded bus stop, a truck speeding out of control, tipping in slow motion onto people too slow, too wrapped up in their earphone cocoons, too unlucky to even notice. And I’m reaching my arms out to embrace a stranger, a young woman with long blonde hair and a face I last saw as a child. She has a scarf around her neck, red cashmere despite the summer warmth, and she has a name.
Oh Christ. Maddy.
‘You all right, sir?’
McLean startled at the words. He had been staring into the middle distance, seeing the slow motion of traffic at the end of Princes Street as it was diverted away from the junction on to Lothian Road. The recovery operation was running smoothly now, the clean-up process well underway as the professionals got on with the jobs they had been trained for. He probably should have left them to it long since, but the fact he’d been first on the scene meant all the uniforms had come to him for instructions. There had been a task to complete and he had thrown himself into it utterly. Now it was done, he was left with a feeling of disconnection, as if he’d been away from the world awhile and was only just returning.
‘Sorry?’ He turned to see Constable Gregor standing close by. Her gaze suggested she was trying to work out what he’d been staring at, and he wondered just how long he’d been lost in his thoughts.