by Tony Black
Published by Preface Publishing
320 pages, 2011
Tony Black, an Australian-born Scottish journalist-author has come up pretty quickly in the crime-fiction world. Only a few years ago, he was freelancing for the British Webzine Shots, while working on another e-zine, the now sadly defunct Pulp Pusher, and scribbling away hopefully on his first novel, Paying for It. Few people were familiar with his name or work back then. but that all changed with the 2008 publication of Paying for It, which introduced Black’s first series protagonist, loosely bound Edinburgh newspaper reporter-turned-part-time private eye Gus Dury. Paying for It was soon followed into bookstores by Gutted (2009), Loss (2010) and Long Time Dead (2010). To further enhance his profile, the author last year placed an original Gus Dury short story (“Last Orders”) in The Rap Sheet and even appeared in a music video by James Grant, playing a troubled son to William McIlvanney (Laidlaw), the “Godfather of Tartan Noir.”
2011 brings yet another novel from Black, but also a new series lead. In Truth Lies Bleeding, readers are introduced to Edinburgh Detective Inspector Rob Brennan, recently returned to work from psychiatric leave after the death of his brother. His superior hesitantly assigns Brennan to probe the case of a dismembered teenage girl found in an alleyway dumpster. It isn’t long before that investigation leads Brennan down a twisted path prominent with drug abuse, child abduction and professional hit men.
Comparing Black’s new character to Ian Rankin’s longtime protagonist, The List, a UK entertainment magazine, opined that “Brennan is like the Hyde to [John] Rebus’ Jekyll in terms of Edinburgh crime fiction, a nasty, messed-up misanthrope, with a wife and daughter he can’t stand, a lover he’s having problems with, and a whole police station full of enemies. While Brennan is beautifully sculpted out of hard rock, Black really excels with his depiction of Edinburgh’s low-life scum, delving into the lives of skag addicts, psychos, people traffickers and murderers, with visceral believability, all the more so for the author’s pinpoint accuracy in exposing the fearsome underbelly of Scotland’s capital city.”
Truth Lies Bleeding is definitely not a tame, conventional police procedural. But then, anyone who’s read Tony Black in the past would expect no less.
The girl’s screams were enough to give away their hiding place. It took a lot of noise, a racket, to have heads popping out of windows in a Muirhouse high-rise but it wasn’t the noise alone that alerted the neighbourhood.
‘Oh my God ...’
The young girl didn’t recognise her own voice -- it was loaded with an emotion she hadn’t heard before. The tone was higher, seemed to tremble more. It was as if she had somehow tapped into a world she’d only encountered on the television, or at the cinema. It sounded alien to her.
‘What is it, Trish?’
The three teenagers surrounded their friend. They’d been smoking, drinking, having a laugh and a joke, whiling away another day that they should have spent at school. But this wasn’t any other day; Trish knew it the moment she had started to scream.
‘Trish, what’s up?’
The girl stood rigid. When her friends touched her she jerked herself away and started to shiver. Tears fell down her cheeks soon after. They felt cold on her hot skin.
She didn’t answer, the words wouldn’t come.
She felt the colour draining from her face. She closed her eyes tight, tried to shut it all out but the images were still there inside her head. She started to bite her lip. Her breathing altered, became shorter. She felt the corners of her mouth turning down and her whole head now seemed to be shivering out of control. More tears came. The shivers stopped suddenly, then instantly started again as she opened her eyes and held up her hands.
Trish knew the streaks of blood were spotted by the others at once. They were dark red smears moving slowly down her fingertips towards her palms. It took her some time to register the blood was actually on her hands -- nothing seemed real now -- but when she became aware of what she was looking at her mouth opened wide and her throat tightened. No sound came from her. As the girls stared at her everything felt like it was locked inside her. Trapped.
Her mouth widened some more; she started to gag, wanted to be sick but nothing would come out except a noise. A shrill, desperate animal wail. The others stepped back. They watched Trish shaking as she screamed out. She stared at her hands, and felt her eyes widening at the sight of the fresh blood.
‘Keep the noise down!’ A man hung his head from an open window in the high-rise above the alleyway. He turned to the girls below, looked down, but didn’t call out a second time.
The girls stared at each other, looked scared. One shrugged. Another ran to Trish, clamped arms around her. As her wailing turned to sobs Trish fell into her friend, weeping and shaking. The young girl held her, trying to keep her steady on her feet but the pair were forced to slump onto the ground.
‘What is it, Trish? ... What is it?’
The other two girls watched for a moment, then one of them pointed back up the alleyway. There was a large bin on wheels, a communal bin, a dumpster. A few moments earlier Trish had gone over there to drop off an empty bottle. She watched the girls staring at each other, wondering what she’d seen. She could tell that thoughts were passing between them: they were curious.
One of the girls started to walk; the other followed. Trish tried to call out, to bring them back, but words still wouldn’t come out. She watched them go. Tried to claw out to them, pull them back.
They kept walking up the alleyway.
It was a large bin, almost as tall as they were. When they got up close they pointed to the bloody finger-streaks. Trish watched as they turned to each other as if to ask, ‘What’s inside?’ For a moment they stared on, frozen, then one spoke. ‘Go on, open it.’
‘No, you do it.’
The girls stood, unmoving. Trish tried again to call to them but all that came from her now was screams, shrill roars she couldn’t control.
They looked back, then, ‘We’ll do it together.’
A firm nod. ‘Okay.’
They reached out hands, raised the lid of the dumpster. Their breathing looked to have stilled as their thin arms pushed the black rubber lid back. The dark interior of the vault was exposed now. For a second or two the girls peered into the blackness, but didn’t seem to see anything. They drew closer, raised themselves on tiptoes.
As they edged nearer the rim, Trish remembered the sweet smell that had come from inside. She knew it would take a moment for their eyes to adjust to the darkness inside the bin, to make out the light and shade. To piece together familiar shapes, in an unfamiliar setting. To take in with their eyes what their minds wouldn’t want to believe.
In the next few seconds the air filled with the screams of two more young girls; they were running from the alleyway.
DI Rob Brennan stood outside the Chief Super’s door with his fist held tightly, knuckles out, hovering beneath the brassy nameplate. He thought about pounding the wood panel, thought again, then gripped the handle and stomped in.
‘You want me?’
Chief Superintendent Aileen Galloway, phone in hand, blasted some poor DC about the state of his handwriting in the mileage log for the new Cavaliers.
‘If it’s not a good time, I’ll call back,’ said Brennan.
She turned, keeping up her rant, and flagged him to sit down. It was multi-skilling, or man-management, something like that, he thought; something women were always better at than men. Wasn’t that the received wisdom?
Brennan walked over to the desk. It was immaculate. Little rows of yellow Post-it notes lined up with geometric precision on the carefully stacked files. A set of pens, only two, and a photo-frame containing a picture of a smiling man and two perfect young children -- looked like a mortgage advertisement from an era before the banking crisis, before the ads had shifted towards images of cast-iron stability, more meat and potatoes, less gloss. Or maybe they hadn’t changed at all. Maybe it was the way he viewed them now; maybe everything had lost its gloss.
Brennan took out a Silk Cut. Not a real fag: these were for Saturday smokers and teenies who bought packs of ten for a sly puff between home ec and maths ... But something had to give. A lot of things had to give, thought Brennan.
As he put the cigarette to his lips, the Chief Super hung up the phone. ‘Light that and I’ll have your guts for garters!’
She probably meant it. He rolled the tip of the cig on his tongue, held schtum. He had no intention of lighting up; it was just a gambit, a needle for her. Galloway put her hands on her hips. She seemed to have him sussed -- a let-the-laddie-at-his-game look. She smiled, sat.
For a moment Brennan stood before her. She was a thin brunette in a tight-fitting skirt and jacket. He wondered, in other circumstances, could he fancy her? Doubted it -- she wasn’t his type. There was a harshness there, a meanness of spirit that outweighed any other physical attractiveness. She was a ball-breaker, and Brennan liked his balls the way they were.
‘You called me in, ma’am.’
‘Don’t call me that, Brennan ... and stop playing the prick.’ She put a stare on him; what should have been an attractive pair of hazel eyes managed to burrow like hungry rats. He looked away. Whatever he thought of her, she was the boss and you didn’t challenge the boss ... not unless you wanted your head in your hands to play with.
The Chief Super took a file from the top of the neatly stacked pile on her desk. For a moment, she seemed engrossed; she completely ignored Brennan as she turned over the pages with her long fingernails. After some time she sat up, straightened her back and made an apse of her fingers. Brennan felt uneasy as she stared over him, spoke: ‘I’ve been looking over your file.’
‘File?’ He knew exactly what she meant, but played dumb. It was the psych file compiled by Dr. Fuller.
‘The recommendation is for you to return to ...’ she stalled, held in her words, then, ‘the real world.’
Brennan felt his pulse quicken. She was riling him. ‘That so?’
‘How do you feel about that?’ She wheeled back her chair, crossed her legs. Her heel slipped from her stiletto, the shoe dangling delicately on her big toe.
‘I’ve told you before: sooner I’m given a proper case the better.’
Galloway stared. For a moment Brennan thought she was about to cave, then she reached out for the file, started turning pages. Every few seconds she stopped, stalled on a word or a phrase and let out a long sigh. Once or twice she wet her lips with her tongue and clicked her teeth together. She had done this to Wullie when he’d been up for early retirement and he’d said he felt the urge to give her teeth a ‘proper fucking clatter’. Brennan knew how he felt.
‘If this is about the murder out in Muirhouse,’ said Brennan, ‘I know you’ve got Lauder and Bryce out on the pub shooting, and there’s hardly enough bods to fill the rota as it is so -- ’
Galloway raised an eyebrow. ‘So, what, I should just bring you back into the fold because we’re a wee bit short-staffed, eh?’
‘No, I, eh ...’
Her tone became shrill. ‘I should fucking think not. Never heard of force cooperation? I can draft in a full murder squad if I need it, Brennan.’
He knew she was bluffing now -- there was no way she wanted anyone else’s staff on her patch. She didn’t want anyone reporting back to the competition about her. Chief constable jobs were as rare as hobby-horse shite and she knew it; like she’d mess with her prospects when the promotion board were looking at her.
‘Look, I know you have some ... factors to consider.’
She laughed, near spat, ‘Factors! Hah ... that what we’re calling it these days?’ She slammed the folder shut, got up and turned to face the window. Brennan found himself unconsciously checking out her arse. ‘These factors, Brennan ... should they concern me?’
He rolled on the balls of his feet. ‘They don’t concern me.’
‘The Hibs back row’s your top concern, Brennan. I didn’t ask what concerned you. Should they concern me, sunshine?’
The DI’s palms started to sweat; he rubbed them together. There was a strong urge in him to put his hands around her neck, shake some manners into the bitch, but he resisted. ‘I’m fighting fit ... Raring to go, boss.’ She liked that, being called boss -- made her feel like one of the lads. She turned back to face him, slumped in the seat. Her body language, her posture, all screamed one thing: she had nowhere to turn.
Chief Superintendent Aileen Galloway drew another file from a drawer, scribbled in it momentarily then turned it over. She drummed her fingers on the top of the blue cardboard cover. ‘Stevie McGuire has been desking the information as it comes in -- ’
Brennan sparked up, ‘Stevie fucking McGuire ... Is it that bad?’
Galloway frowned. ‘Look, he’s a DC now, Rob -- give him the benefit of the doubt.’
‘He’s a DC with no experience.’ Brennan’s pulse fired. ‘Don’t tell me you’re giving him this murder ... Don’t tell me.’
Galloway paused, touched the corner of her mouth, then picked up the file and handed it over. Her voice came softly, slowly: ‘Get down there, shake up the SOCOs ... Don’t be afraid to put that big foot of yours in a few arses.’
For a second Brennan wondered if he’d heard her right. He double-blinked, took a few breaths; that seemed to put his mind back into gear. He reached forward, grabbed the folder. There was a part of him that felt like he had been released from bondage, prison maybe. But there was no part of him that wanted to rejoice. He was never pleased to hear that a life had been taken, especially such a young one. It was a wrong that was always deeply felt in him. He turned for the door, got three, maybe four steps, then:
‘Brennan ... Galloway was back on her feet now, pointing. Something about her posture, the harsh angle of her face to her neck, said she might lunge for him at any moment with those pointy fingernails. ‘You fuck this up, or even hint at fucking it up, and I’ll make sure you spend the rest of your days on traffic and I’ll make sure every time those lights go out at the top of Easter Road, you’ll be down there with a pair of white gloves, standing in the middle of that box junction.’
Brennan strode for the door, said, ‘Yes, ma’am.’ | February 2011
Copyright © 2011 Tony Black