There are occasions when their world impinges playfully upon our own. Imagine finding yourself placed opposite a beautiful woman at a conference dinner, a delegate who the hosts have neglected to introduce to you. She has a private, watchful face and she is yet to look you in the eye or indicate that she feels ready to start thinking about your existence. She sits calm but unconsciously frozen as she trawls down a feed on her phone. Suddenly you register her foot beneath the table, hot and damp out of its shoe and inching in bare cotton, like a frolicsome independent creature, up towards the flesh of your ankle. You look her frankly in the face but it remains solemn, private, and untwinkling.
Five of them had ended up in the car that was going down to Tamline, including the Area Commander. Once, each of the ranks would have gone in their own vehicle, but now the order had issued from the highest level for them to carpool. Anybody who disputed this new policy was humourlessly invited to consult the force’s “carbon challenge.” Yet Andy, the Area Commander, would get out at Ashkirk, where a fresh car was waiting to spirit him away to the Selkirk police station. He had decided to liaise with the media there, rather than swamp the miniature village any further with vehicles and footfall.
Outside, in the spring sunshine, the landscape looked immensely clean and hale. In the confusion of them all entering the car, Inspector Dennis Santana had bagged a seat by the window, and he was annoyed to find that he could not sit in peace and watch the countryside passing. Andy was updating him on their progress across the morning.
“A child was abducted in Tamline over thirty years ago, in very similar circumstances. She was named Mary and, like Pippa, she was eight years old. Also like Pippa, she was taken from the back garden of one of those cottages.” The cottages that he was referring to were a row of raggle-taggle one-storey buildings, which made up the back of the village and looked out over the base of a steep hill.
Their car had surprised two deer that were apparently conversing, nose to nose, in front of a grove of fir trees. Dennis watched them plunge with melodramatic fear into the foliage. “And she’s still missing? The case was never closed?”
“We have technology today,” Andy replied fairly. “We can do in an hour what it took them a week back then. Here’s the thing though. Mary’s family have long since moved from the area – they are so far untraceable. But we’ve been allowed to set up our incident room in the manse, where the incumbent, a man named Arthur Hannah, claims to remember a tremendous amount about the previous disappearance.”
Dennis yawned savagely with boredom and he looked dangerously around the car’s interior. His boss gave him a quick, timid glance. “Regarding the previous disappearance, there was a suspect who we are currently trying to locate. A Frenchwoman who’d worked on one of the farms.”
Dennis is a gangly man with limp black hair and Latin features that look prematurely hard and jowly. Once he would have been obviously a warrior but today his warrior’s personality is effaced, or confined to an enchanted slumber, beneath the complicated proceduralism of his job. He always looks bored and disenchanted. It is as if life is a movie that he has decided to sit through to the end, even though he has personally decided that it is predictable and second-rate. He is in his mid-thirties now, with a young family.
“Only you and Allison will be on the ground this afternoon. There are more than enough volunteers out in the fields so we don’t need you there. The coastguard are bringing over a helicopter. Begin with Mr Hannah.”
“Reverend Hannah,” Allison, or Sergeant Carmichael, corrected the Commander. He froze and then nodded forcefully in agreement.
“A bit small to have its own churchman,” Dennis remarked, as though he had finally thought it necessary to signal that something about the case interested him. Tamline had fewer than three hundred inhabitants.
Andy looked worried “He’s doing a PhD, I think. It’s something quite prestigious in theology – that’s how he has the living.”
The Commander was bundled out of the car at Ashkirk, along with Inspector Hardy, leaving a space in the back between Dennis and Allison. There was no friendliness between them and whenever they spoke it was purely to swap small, paltry items of information. Their conversation usually sounded as terse as though they were reading lines that had been printed for them on cards.
“It would be good to get back before the kids are in bed,” Dennis recited woodenly.
“I haven’t seen my partner for two days now,” Allison returned in the same key.
He thought that she was fussy and humourless, although he thought this about all women until they went out of their way to show him otherwise. She thought that he was moping and selfish. Both were painstakingly courteous in their open boredom with each other.
They were at the manse. The car swept up over a sleeve of rumbling gravel. Dennis glimpsed jutting bay windows, each with an island of pampas grass stationed protectively in front of them. On climbing out of the car, he was met with a haggard Victorian building that might have been grand in a rather tottering kind of a way. By contrast, the church that lingered midway down an adjoining lane could have been designated as housing for a servant. It was basically a cottage with a cross on top. When Dennis peered at it, he also made out a squat wicker steeple that was fastened on to the topmost corner and looked vaguely like a rabbit hutch.
Arthur Hannah appeared at the doorway of the manse and he then came out to lead them in. A stiff, willowy figure in his late fifties, a man so mild and sexless and dressed with such spinsterish plainness that he could have realistically belonged only to the church. Hannah wore a tweed blazer and matching trousers which were so thin that, on him, they resembled girls’ leggings. He had very compact grey hair that framed a peaky and somehow fiercely selfish-looking face.
He had evidently made up his mind that the police were subordinates and he spoke to them with kindly encouragement. “If you follow me please…” Wondrously, his voice sounded like that of a monk, in that it was flatly unmusical and yet it rang as clearly as a bell. You could imagine this voice and many similar ones piously warbling matins together in some medieval sanctum.
Dennis realised that he was hurrying after the minister. Behind Allison came their driver, Sergeant Liam Nathan, who was grinning satirically. The interior of the manse was dark, with low ceilings and grimy windows. Everything was very sparse, as though they had walked into a doctor’s surgery. Dennis tried to pick up the first thread with Hannah. “So we wish to speak with you about a suspect, sir. A Frenchwoman, I believe.”
Hannah had an oddly military walk. His head swivelled around like that of a parrot, as he marched, and he eyed Dennis with prim disapproval. “A common misconception, I’m afraid. Many people in Tamline assumed she was French. I addressed her in the language, however, and she couldn’t understand the first thing.”
To Dennis, this was missing half an answer. “So what nationality…?”
Hannah had stopped. “We’ll no doubt speak about that later. Miss Rae will come around with the tea at four. I have given you this bedroom here, Mr Santana. I’ll leave you to rest – you must be very tired after your journey.” He swept the other police officers onwards, pointing them to separate doors across the hallway, before selecting what appeared to be the remaining room for himself. Doors duly closed in a succession of gulps, as though water was disappearing down a plughole.
Dennis was left alone with his allocated bedroom and a massive feeling of chagrin and defeat. There had been clearly a communication error. The Reverend thought that they were staying the night in his manse as guests, rather than setting up an active headquarters there. Next, though, and in spite of himself, Dennis had taken a mechanical step and dropped into the room. He was facing a pair of folding windows that looked out over a superbly contoured lawn. At its very end stood a yew tree. Only the lower quarters of this tree were visible to Dennis and, beneath them, he could make out a group of loosely organised figures.
Coming to the window, he looked up again at the tree. The leaves were as dense as thatch and a little breeze meandered and crept amongst the branches, stirring them like broth in a pot. The men below were dressed as paramilitaries and they were deep in discussion. Dennis counted six of them. They were wearing bottle-green uniforms and gripping combat rifles.
Paintballing? In the manse garden? Dennis had dismissed the idea as soon as it had occurred to him. These men did not look like they were playing a game. Their guns looked authentically murderous. Their uniforms were too fastidious.
One of the men had noticed him and he began to veer towards the window. He was almost capering. He was tall – about the same height as Dennis – but his own black hair was boyishly tousled. He wore an expression that was jocular and, as it tilted towards Dennis, rather unpleasantly derisive.
The man had stopped in front of the window with his smirk still playing insolently around his lips. His stare hardened. Dennis felt very uneasy and then, with a sharp spike of dismay, he realised that he was being flooded with the immobilising current that is physical fear. He looked down, so that he could not see the scornful reaction of the gunman as he shuffled away from the window.
He ought to ask Hannah what was happening. It seemed to Dennis that a hundred years had elapsed since he had last seen the minister.
Outside the minister’s room, he rapped on the door. He heard the minister bleat out an unsurprised “come in.” On pressing on into the room, Dennis saw Hannah seated at a desk and then amazement was pouring in all around them like sunshine.
Dennis felt immediately relieved and yet still snagged on a cobweb of bafflement. This room contained a folding window that was identical to the one in the previous room and it looked out over the same stretch of back garden. The lawn was landscaped in the same bold contours. Instead of terminating in a yew tree, however, an oak tree had taken its place.
The oak was as broad as a map of the world and its branches bobbed gaily, almost festively, in the sportive afternoon breeze. Dennis was so astonished by this that it took him a second to realise that the paramilitaries had disappeared as well.
How had the trick been done? Was it an optical illusion? Had the garden been subtly divided up, so that you received a different view out of otherwise neighbouring windows? But what variety of madcap genius would pursue this stratagem and why?
The minister gave him a curious look and one that was still slightly superior. “May I help you?”
It struck Dennis that he had seen six armed men. He began to fumble with his radio. He had delayed reporting this important information. He continued to fumble. Leaving the room, he heard Hannah calling calmly after him.
He stalked around through the kitchen and emerged out into the cool air and a cobbled side garden. Around the back of the manse, the garden opened on to the now familiar lawn and the undeniable reality of the oak tree. There was no yew peering out from anywhere or any possibility of one being concealed.
Behind the garden and the oak tree, Dennis could see that golden hill that had been mentioned so much during their investigation. It was arrestingly steep and it seemed faintly out of proportion to the rest of the landscape. Likewise, the clouds above him were hanging unnaturally or even hazardously low. They were so daintily prinked that they made the sky resemble an amateur fresco.
A row of windows looked out on the back garden: two kitchen windows; those of the minister’s room; and that of the one allocated to Dennis. Dennis proceeded along the manse, looking into each window in turn. He was entirely alone in the garden. At the third window, he saw Hannah sitting at his desk and gazing out with a sad, inquiring smile. Without responding, Dennis advanced to his own window.
He saw that the room he had been previously standing in was now crowded with tall men. It looked like a drinks party was going on inside. Dennis at once recognised the bottle-green uniforms.
At the sight of one of these men, Dennis became sharply alert and then, for a dizzying moment, he assumed that he was encountering his own face in a mirror. Finally, he understood that this image of himself was moving under a volition of its own.
This doppelgänger of Dennis was seated in the bedroom’s solitary chair, with the six gunmen gathered behind him. He was dressed in identical clothes to those that Dennis was wearing, rather than the green uniform. On perceiving Dennis, each gunman stood back and froze, as if on a signal, so that the group was suddenly configured like a family that was posing for a photograph. The eyes of each man were gleaming conspiratorially, with something like spite. The man with the tousled black hair placed his hand carefully on the shoulder of Dennis’ doppelgänger.
The doppelgänger stared up at Dennis, with Dennis’s own face, and with a look that was unbearably intimate and confidential. He shook his head sadly and mouthed the word “G-O-O-D-B-Y-E.”
Behind him, the man with the tousled hair shivered and a bubble of laughter broke on his lips.
So that was that, Dennis thought ruefully. He drifted across the lawn, deep in thought, before swinging back with listless determination towards the manse.
In the kitchen again, he sat down heavily on a wooden chair. He felt so drained that he was near to blacking out. His mind was like a mass of fog and his thoughts were a little box lantern flickering deep within.
Somebody was standing beside him – it was Sergeant Nathan and he was holding out a glass of water.
Dennis took it and sipped. “Where’s Hannah?” he heard himself ask.
Liam chuckled. “He said that he was getting some blunts, so we can get high, and then he’s going to phone up some bitches.”
“Funny,” Dennis replied in an extinct voice.
He pulled a knife from the metallic strip above the counter, even though he had never known that one was there, and flung it into Liam’s face. He closed his eyes for several seconds and when he opened them, the sergeant was kneeling on the floor, rocking silently.
Dennis knew that the knife had hit Liam and penetrated his eye. He kicked the sergeant over and then brought his boot down on his face with a crack. Dennis had done this with such unexpected force that he jumped back in the air, his arms scrambling. The knife, already loosened, skidded across the floor tiles.
He returned and stamped down again and again on Liam’s face until the structure gave way. The meat was disintegrating soggily. Liam had snorted once but now he was motionless.
Dennis undressed. It was maddening trying to wrench off his boots and in the end his trousers and pants got tangled inside-out around them. He scooped a handful of blood and slime out of the hollow in Liam’s face and smeared it across his own bare chest. Bits of something – they could have been teeth – dropped on to the floor and rattled. He smeared more blood and brains across his own face and his penis. It was as if he had dressed in a suit of blood and he was no longer really naked. He gave a loud guffaw.
Allison was scrabbling down the corridor towards the kitchen on shaking legs, chanting urgently into her radio. He appeared at the kitchen door and leered at her, wiggling his bloodied penis tauntingly. She turned and raced back at full pelt to the front door.
Hannah began to call from his room and Allison was frantic that he keep quiet. Dennis crept to the minister’s door and he then roared theatrically and pulled him out into the corridor. He picked the minister up by his shirt collar so that his feet were dangling in the air.
Allison was reminded of a photograph she had once seen of a gorilla in a zoo who had briefly stolen a human toddler. “PUT HIM DOWN! MY TASER IS SET – STEP AWAY” she shrieked.
There were more voices outside the windows. “Kill him – do it now.”
“Do it now, Gerry. Do it.”
Dennis was ripping the minister’s flesh in his hands – ripping a thick strip down from the neck.
A volley of gunfire beat apart the windows and Dennis danced blindly and flopped.
Luckily, at that minute, one of the search parties had called in to deliver its report. Some of the farmers still possessed rifles and several had discreetly brought them along, in car boots, just in case they might prove useful. The subsequent volley finished Dennis off.
The minister sat up. He was very frightened in his crumpled clothes and he looked harried and diminished, like a shrunken, frumpy little doll. His neck was bleeding but, after patting around at his clothes, he grasped that he was awesomely clear of bullet holes.
On the other side of the hill they had been walking Pippa away from the village but she repeatedly wanted to stop and gaze into the Ettrick Water. The little girl was plainly reluctant to be taken so far from Tamline.
“Why do you keep calling me princess?” she asked the men crossly. “It’s silly.”
The man with the tousled black hair replied for them. “You should get used to it. Our commander, Mary, is the queen,” he explained patiently. “You shall be our princess.”
“It’s silly” Pippa insisted to herself. She had stopped by the water again. “And why won’t my phone work?” she complained, squinting down at the blank screen.
“Where we are going, your phone will no longer work. But there will be lots of other, nicer things to compensate.”
Next everybody had stopped and stood still. Through the trees they could hear the distant jingling of a carriage and the clopping of hooves.