Chapter 4 – The Sightless Couriers Of The Air

The light had improved, though not by much, over the preceding couple of hours. The rain, however, had not. If anything if had got worse. McCulloch had sent Seeley to gather up all available constables from the local stations to cordon the area. Several manned the nearest junctions, diverting any traffic away. They were not very men busy; it was remote countryside. He then set the sergeant to work on the footprints in the road, plaster-casting under a makeshift tent.
A doctor had also been sent for to confirm what was immediately apparent to everyone present; that Fisherton and the anonymous child were dead. The doctor, without hint of irony or emotion, confirmed the death of the First Sea Lord, whose constitute parts had been placed together under a tarpaulin but with head clearly no longer attached to body. No gallows humour, nothing. McCulloch was almost disappointed and assumed the man had either been called from his bed or had been in the job too long. With the child it was different. Whilst the doctor was a fairly elderly man with a white rambling moustache and an indifference to the death of the most senior naval officer in the country, he did at least seem to show a small spark of sadness at the passing of a boy whose age had yet to reach double figures. “Do we know who he is?” he asked.
“No idea,” replied the DCI. The boy was dressed well, almost in the manner of an adult in miniature with a smart, loose-fitting suit and waistcoat, tie and fine welted ankle boots. His hat, for no gentleman old or young would be seen without one, had presumably been washed away in the river. They had checked pockets for clues as to the child’s identity but, so far, had drawn blanks. Dark hair and an olive complexion suggested that he was not native to Albion.
“Well, all I can confirm is that he is indeed dead, poor fellow. Suspect the cause was drowning but the post mortem and the coroner will advise further.”
“Thank you for your time,” muttered McCulloch, chewing on the stem of his pipe.
“Can’t think of a better way of starting the day than to look at a decapitated admiral and a drowned child. Try not to call me again,” the doctor replied sourly. He picked up his bag, tipped his hat to the detective and walked away towards the road. The DCI sighed and pondered his next move. He looked to the sky in hope because he was unsure as to what to do until the rain ceased. In Caledonia that could meaning waiting for some considerable time. The clouds, as if sensing the unwelcome reception below, hurled one final flurry and then abated. McCulloch licked the droplets from his moustache, savouring the purity of the water. He ruminated for a moment on the fact that rain here would fall upon peat bogs and swell highland rivers, ultimately flavouring the particular single malt to which he was partial, and felt slightly less ill-disposed towards the languorous clouds.
A distant rumble disturbed his reverie. It was a very soft, mechanical sound, dampened by the low cloud and moist air but distinct nonetheless. Deflecting off the steep sides of the glen the noise grew steadily louder, haunting and familiar; the unmistakeable ‘whop, whop, whop’ of slickship rotors hacking at the air. McCulloch felt his heart sink. “Oh bloody hell!” he snapped, “CoS squads.”
The men around him became nervous. Estate workers and other civvies quickly found excuses to leave. Only the DCI and a few constables remained. McCulloch peered into the pale mist and saw the insectoid silhouettes of two slickships approaching fast and low up the valley, a thin smoke trail stretching out behind each one. None of the policemen moved; as though mesmerised they watched the aircraft close until the fierce downdraft hit them as the pilots flared for landing. The wind whipped away the tarpaulin covering the bodies, leaving them exposed. Fisherton’s head began to roll towards the river and a constable galloped after it. Seeley had emerged from his shelter on the road to see what was going on, only to find the tent blown down and sent cartwheeling across the moorland. Two officers set off in pursuit whilst Seeley desperately tried to protect the drying plaster of Paris from flying dirt and debris.
The aircraft hovered one behind the other, slightly staggered so the rotor wash and exhaust smoke from the lead ship did not hinder the second. They remained that way for about half a minute assessing the landing ground, approximately fifty yards from the river bank and twenty feet in the air, black and sinister. The pilots were obscured behind tinted windscreens, the paintwork was an oily black and neither carried any markings. If any vessel was designed to instill fear into one’s very soul then it was aircraft such as this. Six legs slowly unfolded out of the belly on each slickship, enhancing the already dragonfly-like appearance, and the aircraft descended. The legs splayed outwards spreading the weight of the craft reducing the amount they sank into the peat. Despite this the underside of each was barely clear of the tussocky mounds. A piercing whine rent the air making the watching men shudder. Wallace looked around trying to ascertain where the sickening howl was coming from. As the noise started to subside he realised it was the rotor gears screaming, almost protesting, as the engines shut down. A door on the lead ship swung open and a set of steps dropped down, squelching as they smacked onto the sodden ground. The huge rotors took several minutes to come to a complete halt and in that time no-one emerged from either aircraft. McCulloch was unsure whether this was for effect or safety reasons; either way it was unnerving for those watching and waiting for something to happen. A door on the second ship opened and six figures rapidly dismounted and strode towards the policemen in a ragged line, the marshy ground upsetting any pretence of order. They were dressed identically: double-breasted knee-length greatcoats, gloves, trousers over boots, leather gasmask concealing the face with eyepieces darkly glazed and a bowler hat; all black. The only colour about them were the brass buttons in two vertical rows up the front of the coats which occasionally flashed when they caught what little light there was in the gloom of this Caledonian morning. At the hip each carried a sidearm in a leather holster. The DCI regarded the foot soldiers of the Committee of Safety with disdain. Thugs; government thugs. They came within fifteen feet of McCulloch and the officers, and stood at ease in a shallow crescent facing the men, remaining motionless and silent. Despite their form they seemed inhuman which, McCulloch knew, was the intention; fear is often a more effective weapon than firearms. Cheaper too, and cleaner.
The seconds ticked by and nobody moved or spoke on either side. The DCI made a point of taking out his pocket watch. He took a long, leisurely look to emphasise the fact that they were imposing on his time. Twirling the watch once on the chain he allowed it drop back into his waistcoat pocket and then stepped forward towards the squad. They did not flinch. He approached the nearest trooper, looked at his own reflection in the eye-pieces and said “Yes?”
No response. “I haven’t got all bloody day you know,” he snarled. The trooper remained unmoved. McCulloch turned back to the other policemen. “Right then chaps, back to work. Fisherton is more talkative than this lot.”
Seeley came trotting over looking unsettled. “What’s going on? What’s with this lot? Damn well nearly ruined my plaster-casting.”
“No idea Seeley. These clowns have turned up but don’t seem much like talking. Starting think the art of conversation is dead.”
One of the officers waved at McCulloch to attract his attention and then pointed to the aircraft. The DCI and Seeley peered either side of the trooper, who was blocking their view. A figure was emerging from the lead ship. It was dressed in a similar fashion but wore a top hat instead of a bowler. On each shoulder were two pips which denoted rank; as to what rank exactly McCulloch had no idea but it was clearly in charge of this intrusion. As it walked towards him McCulloch thought there was something different about this one. The troopers had an air of menace but this, this whatever it was, seemed to command authority by simply being there. The troopers did not look round but the police officers to a man were all watching the figure approach.
It walked straight past McCulloch and Seeley without speaking or looking at them and continued towards the wreck of Fisherton’s vehicle. The huddle of policemen parted to allow it to pass. Stunned, the DCI stumbled after it, Seeley following. As he drew nearer to the figure McCulloch suddenly twigged what had been bothering him. “Good god!” he exclaimed. “It’s a woman.”
The figure stopped and turned. She appeared to be staring at the DCI though it was hard to tell. McCulloch found it deeply unsettling regardless. When she spoke the voice, muffled and distorted by the mask, was emotionless and much deeper than McCulloch would have expected. “How terribly observant of you,” she said slowly. “And you are…?”
The DCI was temporarily thrown by this blank request; he normally did the demanding. “I… oh… um… Detective Chief Inspector Wallace McCulloch.” He was about to ask who this person thought they were, disrupting a possible crime scene when the woman cut in again.
“Are you in charge here?”
“I… er… yes. Yes, I am,” he replied. Being unable to see the eyes made it a thoroughly disconcerting experience. It felt like being interrogated by some sort of automaton.
McCulloch pointed to the tarpaulin covering the bodies. A couple of the officers had retrieved the sheet and had weighed it down with stones to stop it being blown away again.
“Show me.”
The DCI noticed that the pips were in the shape of lion heads. Four brass lion heads lined up along the woman’s shoulders, two either side; eight tiny eyes glaring at him. He nodded to Seeley and they went where the bodies lay. He snapped his fingers at a couple of officers; they removed the stones and rolled back the sheet.
“Who the hell is this?” demanded the woman, pointing with a thin, gloved hand at the child.
“Who the hell are you?” snapped McCulloch, attempting to reassert his authority. There was a long pause before the woman spoke and when she finally did the DCI knew exactly where he stood.
“Lieutenant Livia Ireton, Committee of Safety. I am here on the business of the Commonwealth. The body of the First Sea Lord is now in my charge. I asked you a question; you have not answered.”
McCulloch sucked on his teeth and clenched his hands; utterly failing to hide his annoyance. To be talked to in such a way in front of his sergeant and other officers was embarrassing; to be so by a woman was humiliating. “Quite the conversationist aren’t we,” he snarled. Pointing towards the body of the boy with his pipe he said, “We have no idea who this poor lad is. He was in the back of Fisherton’s car.”
“Thank you Inspector,” the lieutenant rapped. “Well, the boy is no concern of ours. I am here to retrieve Fisherton and take his body to Winchester.”
“It’s Chief Inspector,” McCulloch corrected. “And what happens to the boy?”
“As I said, no concern of ours. Deal with as you would normally deal with. Do whatever policemen do.” She signalled to the troopers who had not moved during the entire exchange. They hurried to where the pieces of Fisherton lay. One of the troopers produced a small pouch out of which came a piece of black folded cloth. He shook the cloth and unfurled into a long sack around six feet long. It was buttoned on one side. The trooper set about unbuttoning; two of his colleagues held it open. The other troopers collected the various parts of the First Sea Lord and laid them within the sack. This was then re-buttoned.
“Silk bodybag,” said Ireton without any bidding. “Packs small and black helps hide any unpleasantness. Reusable as well.”
McCulloch filled his pipe as he watched the troopers at work. They were incredibly efficient and had Fisherton bagged up before he got a match anywhere near the bowl. “Your men get a lot of practice? Collecting bodies I mean. I understand that wherever CoS turn up corpses are sure to follow,” he said, nodding towards the troopers who were manhandling the bodybag to the waiting aircraft; the fact Fisherton was in pieces meant that he did not carry well. Ireton glared at him, or at least the DCI presumed she did; he couldn’t really tell through the eyepieces. He was aware that she was looking at him and low, angry rasping breaths emanated from within the mask. She stormed off after the troopers who were loading the body onto the furthest aircraft and gave a signal to the pilots. Immediately the horrendous whine tore through the air causing several of the officers to cover their ears. The enormous rotors began to swing, slowly at first but gaining momentum. The steps and door on the rear craft locked back into place, the troopers and their cargo already aboard. Ireton climbed aboard the lead ship and stood in the doorway as the steps folded in, looking at McCulloch whilst the rotors became a blur, snatching at the damp air and making the vessel rock as it started its battle with gravity. The downwash was tremendous. Seeley, not as quick as the others who realised what was coming, lost his hat, blown clean off his head and into the river. The DCI, successfully clamping his hat to his head, nevertheless had his pipe ripped from his mouth and into a boggy puddle. The rear slickship began to lift, smoke belching from the tail exhaust vent. It struggled as the peaty soil held the legs fast for a few heart-stopping moments until lift overcame suction and the vessel leapt into the air. It climbed upwards, legs folding in as it turned away and moved off down the glen in one fluid movement. As the lead ship rose to follow, McCulloch could still feel Ireton’s gaze piercing right through him as she remained in the open door until her vessel also turned away, concealing the lieutenant from view. It chased after the other aircraft and they both disappeared into the damp, grey mists that drifted through the valley.
“She was a bundle of laughs. Bet Hettie would give her a run for her money though, sir,” said Seeley when the noise was sufficiently quiet enough for normal conversation to resume.
“Do not drag my wife into this,” snapped McCulloch, retrieving his pipe and tapping sodden tobacco into his palm. He desperately wanted a smoke but with a wet briar it was out of the question. He was secretly quite pleased by the comparison; yes, Hettie would have shown that uppity lieutenant who was boss. Pride suddenly reared its head; Good god, man, he thought, can’t you fight your own battles? Pull yourself together for god’s sake.
“Sorry, sir,” Seeley replied. He pointed at the boy lying pale, wet and out of place on the limestone shelf. “So what do we do with him?”
“You heard her. We do whatever police normally do. Find out who he belongs to for a start,” said McCulloch gesturing to the constables to wrap the lad in the tarpaulin. “Get him back to Edinburgh, identify and post mortem. At least he’ll be somewhere warm which is more than we will be for a while. Let’s see whether you’ve come up trumps with the footprints.” They trudged across the peatland to the road whilst the officers carried the body of the boy over the bridge to a waiting pony and cart. The DCI and Sergeant watched as they laid the tarpaulin package gently in the back of the cart. McCulloch was touched by the care policemen took and doubted that they would have displayed the same consideration had it been Fisherton’s corpse instead. One of the constables jumped up alongside the carter and the others piled in the cart. The carter whistled and the pony moved off heading away from the DCI and Seeley. Half an hour to the station, an hour and a half on the train; he’ll be in Edinburgh by noon. God knows when we’ll be back, thought McCulloch. Even the constables manning the cordons down the road had slunk away from their post when the slickships arrived. Now it was just him and Seeley and a lump of plaster of Paris. Then it began to rain again.


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