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Natural Causes

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Natural Causes

  Natural Causes

  James Oswald


  Published by DevilDog Publishing, 2012

  Smashwords Edition

  Copyright 2012 James Oswald

  All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced or transmitted in any form or by any means without the permission of the author.

  James Oswald has asserted his right under the Copyright, Designs and Patents Act 1988 to be identified as the author of this work.

  All characters in this book are fictitious. Any resemblance to a real person, living or dead, is coincidental.

  Cover by JT Lindroos

  ISBN 978-0-9530473-4-5

  More from the author at


  Smashwords Edition, Licence Notes

  This ebook is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. This ebook may not be re-sold or given away to other people. If you would like to share this book with another person, please purchase an additional copy for each recipient. If you’re reading this book and did not purchase it, or it was not purchased for your use only, then please return to and purchase your own copy. Thank you for respecting the hard work of this author.

  Table of Contents





  About the Author

  Free sample of The Book of Souls




  She screams when the first nail goes in.

  Bright pain rips through her hand as she struggles against him, pinned to the floor by the weight of his body. This isn't right. He shouldn't hurt her. He's a good man, a handsome man. A kind man. He helped her family through the war.

  'Please. Don't.' She tries to scream but a hand clasps over her mouth, forcing it closed. Figures move in the shadowy edges of her vision, pawing at her, holding her down, breathing in the heavy darkness. Someone grabs her wrist, pulls her arm wide. Her fingers crack against the floor. Hammer hits nail, ripping skin and cartilage, forcing another scream out through her nose. She kicks out, struggling against the weight on top of her and the cold steel pins that gouge through her flesh. Crucified, her hands slide slippery against the metal as she scrabbles to break free, foiled by the jagged and bent heads, the shafts sunk deep into the wooden floor.

  His weight lifts off her, and she catches a glimpse of his face in the darkness. His eyes gleam, his features blurred by her tears, distorted as if something is trying to burst out through his skin. She thrashes against him as he drags up her dress, tears away her panties and her nylon stockings. Something glints in the pale light filtering under the door. She feels a cold, flat pressure on her bare belly, stroking her skin and raising goose-bumps as it traces its way down. A warm wetness trickles between her thighs and the sweet smell of urine fills the air. She is going to die here, violated by this man she has trusted all her life.

  Her knees pop as rough hands grab her ankles, stretching her legs wide, pulling the bloody wounds in her palms tight against their cruel bonds. Strong hands push her feet flat to the floor. She can hear bones cracking, the noise of steel on steel as nails are driven home. The agony comes in waves, starring her vision.

  He forces himself between her legs, cracking her head against the splintered floorboards with uncaring hands. Rough fingers pull open her mouth, making her retch as they push deep down her throat. She tastes the cold metallic tang of steel, and then a flash of pain as her throat fills with warm, salty liquid. Gagging, she coughs and heaves, vomiting into the face of her attacker. He pulls back, wiping his cheeks to reveal pale grinning teeth. Little drops of her own blood rain down on her face and spatter the dirty floorboards.

  One by one they take her, roughly forcing themselves into her, shattering the last of her dreams. The pain is everywhere: in the bright points of the nails; in the burning mess of her tongue; in her bruised flesh and cracked bones. She cannot escape them, she is truly helpless. And all the while, he cuts her, the man who was her friend. Small slices opening up wounds that cover her pale skin with slick red blood.

  Death takes a long time to claim her, and even then she isn't at peace.




  He shouldn't have stopped. It wasn't his case. He wasn't even on duty. But there was something about the blue flashing lights, the Scene of Crime van and uniforms setting up barriers that Detective Inspector Anthony McLean could never resist.

  He'd grown up in this neighbourhood, this rich part of town with its detached houses surrounded by large walled gardens. Old money lived here, and old money knew how to protect its own. You were very unlikely to see a vagrant wandering these streets, never mind a serious crime, but now two patrol cars blocked the entrance to a substantial house and a uniformed officer was busy unwrapping blue and white tape. McLean fished out his warrant card as he approached.

  'What's going on?'

  'There's been a murder, sir. That's all anyone's told me.' The constable tied off the tape and started on another length. McLean looked up the sweeping gravel drive towards the house. An SOC van had backed halfway up, its doors wide; a line of uniforms inched their way across the lawn, eyes down in search of clues. It wouldn't hurt to have a look, see if there was anything he could do to help. He knew the area, after all. He ducked under the tape and made his way up the drive.

  Past the battered white van, a sleek black Bentley glinted in the evening light. Alongside it, a rusty old Mondeo lowered the tone. McLean knew the car, knew its owner all too well. Detective Chief Inspector Charles Duguid was not his favourite superior officer. If this was one of his investigations, then the deceased must have been important. That would explain the large number of uniforms drafted in, too.

  'What the fuck are you doing here?'

  McLean turned to the familiar voice. Duguid was considerably older than him, mid fifties at least; his once-red hair now thin and greying, his face florid and lined. White paper overalls pulled down to his waist and tied in a knot beneath his sagging gut, he had about him the air of a man who's just nipped out for a fag.

  'I was in the neighbourhood, saw the patrol cars in the lane.'

  'And you thought you'd stick your nose in, eh? What're you doing here anyway?'

  'I didn't mean to butt in to your investigation sir. I just thought, well, since I grew up in the area, I might've been able to help.'

  Duguid let out an audible sigh, his shoulders sagging theatrically.

  'Oh well. You're here. Might as well make yourself useful. Go and talk to that pathologist friend of yours. See what wonderful insights he's come up with this time.'

  McLean started towards the front door, but was stopped by Duguid's hand catching him tight around the arm.

  'And make sure you report back to me when you're done. I don't want you sloping off before we've wrapped this up.'


  The inside of the house was almost painfully bright after the soft city darkness descending outside. McLean entered a large hall through a smaller, but still substantial, porch. Inside, a chaos of SOC officers bustled about in white paper boiler suits, dusting for fingerprints, photographing everything. Before he could get more than a couple of steps, a harassed young woman handed him a rolled up white bundle. He didn't recognise her; a new recruit to the team.

  'You'll want to put these on if you're going in there, sir.' She motioned behind her with a quick jab of her thumb to an open door on the far side of the hallway. 'It's an awful mess. You'd no' want to ruin your suit.'

  'Or contaminate any potential evidence.' McLean thanked her, pulling on the paper overalls and slipping the plastic covers over his shoes before heading
for the door, keeping to the raised walkway the SOC team had laid out across the polished wood floor. Voices muttered from inside, so he stepped in.

  It was a gentleman's library, leather-bound books lining the walls in their dark mahogany shelves. An antique desk sat between two tall windows, its top clear save for a blotter and a mobile phone. Two high-backed leather armchairs were arranged, one on either side of an ornate fireplace, facing away from him towards the unlit fire. The one on the left was unoccupied, some items of clothing neatly folded and placed across the arm. McLean crossed the room and stepped around the other chair, his attention immediately drawn to the figure sitting in it, his nose wrinkling at the foul stench.

  The man looked almost calm, his hands resting lightly on the arms of the chair, his feet slightly apart on the floor. His face was pale, eyes staring straight ahead with a glazed expression. Black blood spilled from his closed mouth, dribbling down his chin, and at first McLean thought he was wearing some kind of dark velvet coat. Then he saw the guts, blue-grey shiny coils slipping down onto the Persian rug on the floor. Not velvet, not a coat. Two white-clad figures crouched beside them, seemingly unwilling to trust their knees to the blood-soaked carpet.

  'Christ on a stick.' McLean covered his mouth and nose against the iron tang of blood and the richer smell of human ordure. One of the figures looked around and he recognised the city pathologist, Angus Cadwallader.

  'Ah, Tony. Come to join the party have you?' He stood, handing something slippery to his assistant. 'Take that will you, Tracy.'

  'Barnaby Smythe.' McLean stepped closer.

  'I didn't realise you knew him,' Cadwallader said.

  'Oh, yes. I knew him. Not well, I mean. I've never been in this place before. But sweet Jesus, what happened to him?'

  'Didn't Dagwood brief you?'

  McLean looked around, expecting to see the Chief Inspector close behind and wincing at the casual use of Duguid's nickname. But apart from the assistant and the deceased, they were alone in the room.

  'He wasn't too pleased to see me, actually. Thinks I want to steal his glory again.'

  'And do you?'

  'No. I was just off up to my gran's place and I saw the cars...' McLean saw the pathologist's smile and shut up.

  'How is Esther, by the way? Any improvement?'

  'Not really, no. I'll be seeing her later, if I don't get stuck here, that is.'

  'Well, I wonder what she'd have made of this mess.' Cadwallader waved a blood-smeared, gloved hand at the remains of what had once been a man.

  'I've no idea. Something gruesome I'm sure. You pathologists are all alike. So tell me what happened, Angus.'

  'As far as I can tell, he's not been tied down or restrained in any way, which would suggest he was dead when this was done. But there's too much blood for his heart not to have been beating when he was first cut open, so he was most likely drugged. We'll know when we get the toxicology report back. Actually most of the blood's come from this.' He pointed to a loose red flap of skin circling the dead man's neck. 'And judging by the spray on the legs and the side of the chair, that was done after his entrails were removed. I'm guessing the killer did that to get them out of the way whilst he poked about inside. Major internal organs all seem to be in place except for a chunk of his spleen, which is missing.'

  'There's something in his mouth, sir,' the assistant said, standing up with a creak of protest from her knees. Cadwallader shouted for the photographer, then bent forward, forcing his fingers between the dead man's lips and prising his jaw apart. He reached in and pulled a slimy, red and smooth mess out of it. McLean felt the bile rise in his gorge and tried not to retch as the pathologist held the organ up to the light.

  'Ah, there it is. Excellent.'


  Night had fallen by the time McLean made it back out of the house. It was never truly dark in the city; too many street lights casting the thin haze of pollution with a hellish, orange glow. But at least the stifling August heat had seeped away, leaving a freshness behind it that was a welcome relief from the foul stench inside. His feet crunched on the gravel as he stared up at the sky, hopelessly looking for stars, or any reason why someone would tear out an old man's guts and feed him his own spleen.

  'Well?' The tone was unmistakeable, and came with a sour odour of stale tobacco smoke. McLean turned to see Chief Inspector Duguid. He'd ditched the overalls and was once more wearing his trademark overlarge suit. Even in the semi-darkness McLean could see the shiny patches where the fabric had worn smooth over the years.

  'Most probable cause of death was massive blood loss, his neck was cut from ear to ear. Angus... Doctor Cadwallader reckons time of death was somewhere in the late afternoon. Between four and seven. The victim wasn't restrained, so must have been drugged. We'll know more once the toxicology screening's done.'

  'I know all that McLean. I've got eyes. Tell me about Barnaby Smythe. Who'd cut him up like that?'

  'I didn't really know Mr Smythe all that well, sir. He kept himself to himself. Today's the first time I've ever been in his house.'

  'But you used to scrump apples from his garden when you were a boy, I suppose.'

  McLean bit back the retort he wanted to give. He was used to Duguid's taunting, but he didn't see why he should have to put up with it when he was trying to help.

  'So what do you know about the man?' Duguid asked.

  'He was a merchant banker, but he must have retired by now. I read somewhere that he donated several million to the new wing of the National Museum.'

  Duguid sighed, pinching the bridge of his nose. 'I was hoping for something a bit more useful than that. Don't you know anything about his social life? His friends and enemies?'

  'Not really, sir. No. Like I said, he's retired, must be eighty at least. I don't mix much in those circles. My gran would have known him, but she's not exactly in a position to help. She had a stroke, you know.'

  Duguid snorted unsympathetically. 'Then you're no bloody use to me, are you. Go on, get out of here. Go back to your rich friends and enjoy your evening off.' He turned away and stalked towards a group of uniforms huddling together smoking. McLean was happy to let him go, then remembered the chief inspector's earlier warning about sloping off.

  'Do you want me to prepare a report for you sir?' he shouted at Duguid's back.

  'No I bloody well don't.' Duguid turned on his heel, his face shadowed, eyes glinting in the reflected light of the streetlamps. 'This is my investigation, McLean. Now fuck off out of my crime scene.'



  The Western General Hospital smelled of illness; that mixture of disinfectant, warm air and leaked bodily fluids that clung to your clothes if you spent more than ten minutes in the place. The nurses at reception recognised him, smiling and nodding him through without a word. One of them was Barbara and the other Heather, but he was damned if he could remember who was who. They never seemed to be apart for long enough to work it out, and staring at the too-small badges on their chests was just embarrassing.

  McLean walked as quietly as the squeaky linoleum floor would allow along the soulless corridors; past shuffling men in skimpy hospital smocks, clutching their wheeled intravenous drip stands with arthritic claws; busy nurses weaving their way from one crisis to another; pallid junior doctors looking like they were about to drop from exhaustion. It had all long since ceased to shock him, he'd been coming here that long.

  The ward he was looking for was at a quiet end of the hospital, tucked away from the hustle and bustle. It was a nice room, with windows looking out over the Firth of Forth to Fife. It always struck him as a bit daft, really. This would be a better place to put people recovering from major operations or something. Instead it was home to those patients who couldn't care less about the view or the quiet. He wedged open the door with a fire extinguisher, so the distant hum of activity would follow him, then stepped into the semi-darkness.

  She lay propped up on several pillows, her eyes closed as if s
he were sleeping. Wires flowed from her head to a bedside monitor, which ticked a slow, steady rhythm. A single tube dripped clear liquid into her wrinkled and liver-spotted arm and a slim white continuous pulse monitor clamped onto one withered finger. McLean pulled up a chair and sat down, taking his Gran's free hand and staring at her once-proud and lively face.

  'I saw Angus earlier. He was asking after you.' He spoke softly, no longer sure she could hear him. Her hand was cool, room temperature. Apart from the mechanical rising and falling of her chest, his grandmother didn't move at all.

  'How long have you been in here now? Eighteen months is it?' Her cheeks had shrunk away more since the last time he had visited her, and someone had cut her hair badly, making her skull look even more skeletal.

  'I used to think you'd wake up eventually, and it would all be the same. But now I'm not sure. What is there for you to wake up to?'

  She didn't answer; he hadn't heard her voice in over a year and a half. Not since she had phoned him that evening, saying she didn't feel well. He remembered the ambulance, the paramedics, locking up the empty house. But he couldn't remember her face when he had found her, unconscious in her armchair by the fire. The months had wasted her away, and he had watched her fade until all he knew was this shadow of the woman who had raised him since he was four.

  'Who's done this. Honestly.' McLean looked around, startled by the noise. A nurse stood in the doorway, struggling to remove the fire extinguisher. She flustered in, looking around and then finally seeing him.

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