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Archive for the ‘Fiction’ Category

It’s been over a year since I wrote a new story, but this one has been slowly growing in my head since late autumn of 2014, and it finally came forth week before last.  I’m just going to tease you with the beginning; if you want a copy, you can either buy it on Kindle or get a PDF copy by becoming a patron of my blog.  If you’re already a patron, you should’ve received a copy one week ago today; if you didn’t, please let me know.

Dane retrieved his knife from the body of the dog and began to carve as many choice cuts from the carcass of the wild cow as he thought he could eat before they spoiled; it wasn’t that much, but he figured he’d be in Korneg within a few days anyhow, and then he could buy all the food he wanted with the gold & furs he’d taken from that trader he ambushed last week.  The job was easier than he had expected; he congratulated himself on having had the good sense to let the dog pack do most of the work of butchery before he started picking them off from the top of the ruined tower.  He knew they’d be back soon, once hunger overcame fear of the rifle; still, half a dozen precious rounds were a good trade for an equal number of big, thick steaks.  It had been a long time since he’d had beef, since that excellent roast in Westover; maybe he should’ve stayed there longer.  But Dane was a cautious man, and he figured it probably wasn’t wise to stay in any city after he’d killed, even though she was just a whore; sooner or later the local warlord’s peacekeepers would’ve figured out which of the transients currently in town had done it, and his career would’ve come to an abrupt halt at the end of a rope.  Or something both much worse and much slower, if the harlots’ guild had caught him first.

Still, it had been a good stay while it lasted, and a profitable one; besides the rifle and ammo belt, some fairly-new boots and a little gold, he’d managed to steal a good horse on the way out.  That put Korneg within reach; though he was a strong walker, no human could outrun a hungry wild dog pack.  And since it was high time he left the Valley, that was now a necessity rather than just a preference.  He’d heard talk of Korneg for years…of its wealth, of the succulence of its foods, of the impregnability of its walls…and of the powerful queen who ruled it.  He had always wanted to see it for himself, but though Dane was no coward, he was also no fool; he knew that no matter how soft its beds or its women, he could not stay in Korneg long before his way of life put a price on his head.  Still, it guarded the only known safe pass to the Cities of the East, and that meant he had little choice but to visit it if he wished to remain free and alive.

The next few days were unremarkable except for the rain, but even that was a blessing because it meant plenty of water for both him and the horse in a season when good water was usually a concern.  It also meant he’d be that much harder to follow, in the event some bounty hunter had picked up his trail.  So all in all, he was in an unusually good mood when on the next clear day he spotted the stone pillars marking the edge of Korneg’s territory, despite the fact that they made him vaguely uneasy.  They were unlike anything he’d ever seen in his three decades of life:  five times as tall as a man they were, carved in the likeness of two huge serpents which coiled around and around until they ended in heads whose baleful eyes stared down at him, glinting like purple gems in the early afternoon sun.  It was obvious that they were intended as a show of power, and the display was a successful one; even in the heart of Ghezhel, mightiest city of the Valley, there were no comparable monuments.  There was an engraved tablet at the foot of the one on the right, but that was of no help to Dane since he had never learned to read.  However, the road beyond was well-built and well-maintained; he knew he couldn’t be more than a few days from the city wall, and he might even reach a trading post before nightfall.  So he set aside his disquiet and rode on, steadfastly resisting the gnawing urge to look back to see if the stone guardians were watching him…

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No matter how many times I explain it, police-state defenders keep popping up in my timeline to defend prohibition, cops and state violence.  So I thought that perhaps my language was too complex for them; however, I have trouble with simple language, so I decided to enlist the help of the late, great Theodore Geisel to rephrase my feelings on the matter.

Cops are glam
I’m a fan!

Police-state fans!
Police-state fans!
I do not like police-state fans!

Don’t you like the smell of ham?
I do not like it, Fan-I-am.
I do not like those thugs of ham.

Would you like them here or there?

I would not like them here or there.
I would not like them anywhere.

I do not like police-state fans.
I do not like them, Fan-I-am.

Would you like them in a house?
Would you like them with a mouse?

I do not like them in a house.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere.
I do not like police-state fans!
I do not like them, Fan-I-am.

Would you like them in a box?
Would you like them with a fox?

Not in a box.
Not with a fox.
Not in a house.
Not with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere.
I do not like police-state fans.
I do not like them, Fan-I-am.

Would you?  Could you?  In their car?
Lick their nice boots!  Here they are.
I would not, could not, in a car.

You may like them.  You will see.
You may like them in a tree!

I would not, could not in a tree.
Not in a car!  You let me be.

I do not like them in a box.
I do not like them with a fox.
I do not like them in a house.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere.
I do not like police-state fans.
I do not like them, Fan-I-am.

A camp-bound train!
A camp-bound train!
Could you, would you, on a train?

Not in a train!  Not in a tree!
Not in a car!  Fan!  Let me be!

I would not, could not, in a box.
I could not, would not, with a fox.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them in a house.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere.
I do not like police-state fans.
I do not like them, Fan-I-am.

Say!  In the dark?
In a cell so dark?
Would you, could you, in the dark?

I would not, could not, in the dark.

Would you, could you, in the rain?

I would not, could not, in the rain.
Not in the dark.  Not on a train.
Not in a car.  Not in a tree.
I do not like them, Fan, you see.
Not in a house.  Not in a box.
Not with a mouse.  Not with a fox.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere!

You do not like men made of ham?
I do not like them, Fan-I-am.

Could you, would you, with a goat?

I would not, could not, with a goat!

Would you, could you, on a boat?

I could not, would not, on a boat.
I will not, will not, with a goat.

I do not like them in the rain.
I do not like them on a train.
Not in the dark!  Not in a tree!
Not in a car!  You let me be!
I do not like them in a box.
I do not like them with a fox.
I do not like them in a house.
I do not like them with a mouse.
I do not like them here or there.
I do not like them anywhere!
I do not like police-state fans!
I do not like them, Fan-I-am.

You do not like them.  So you say.
But I will hound you anyway.
I will not respect your “nay”.

Fan!  Since you won’t let me be,
I will mute you.  You will see.

I do not like states, threats and ham!
I do not like their spineless fans!
I still avoid them in a boat.
I still avoid them with a goat…

And I still hate them in the rain.
And in the dark.  And on a train.
And in a car.  And in a tree.
They are so bad, so bad, you see!

So I will mute them in a box.
And I will mute them with a fox.
And I will mute them in a house.
And I will mute them with a mouse.
And I will mute them here and there.
Yep, I will mute them anywhere!
I always mute police-state fans!
Fuck you! Fuck you, Fan-I-am!

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Around the Block

It’s been a while since my Muse of Fiction went back to her old sulky self, but I recently came up with a plot for a set of images I’ve been wanting to use in a story for several years now.  I haven’t actually written the story yet, but it’ll probably be in the next few weeks.  I suspect it may end up being a little longer than most of my tales, and I’m going to share it in a different way than usual.  For a while now it has bugged me that I don’t give my subscribers any special privileges as I really should, so once I get that story written I’ll package it as a stand-alone for Kindle for like 99¢, but I’ll send all my subscribers, regular clients and donors a coupon code to get it for free.  Then once I’m ready to put together my next fiction collection, it’ll be in there.  I’m also going to offer my patrons a special deal on The Essential Maggie McNeill when I manage to put that together, which I’m rather hoping to manage before the end of summer (no promises, because those haven’t worked out well for this long-delayed project).  And in the meantime, if you haven’t bought and read The Forms of Things Unknown I’d really, really appreciate it if you did, and reviewed it as well; I’m not sure what the exact threshold is for Amazon’s algorithms to start recommending the book to people who aren’t specifically looking for it, but the only way to find out is to get a LOT more reviews on it than I already have.  And needless to say, more attention to my books will not only result in more money in my purse (always a good thing, especially since I haven’t caught up from paying for the move yet), but will also draw more eyes to this blog and maybe open those eyes to the absolute necessity for freeing consensual adult sexual activity from the list of things our culture allows state thugs to ruin people’s lives over.

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Whenever I use the toilet, all the horses break down my door and rush into my bathroom so they can intently watch me.

In this video, members of the band The Academic take advantage of a flaw in Facebook’s livestreaming software to record a song with their own past selves; it’s really quite interesting.  The video was contributed by Kevin Wilson, as was “horror”; the other links above the video were provided by Radley Balko (“pigs” and “together”), Conner Habib (“promises”), Jesse Walker (“books”), and Clarissa (“surprise”).

From the Archives

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I asked Brooke for a quick introduction to her new book, and she wrote: “You Don’t Know Me is a follow-up to The Turning Tide, though you don’t have to have read that book to read this one.  It’s set in the same universe: a medium-sized town in the Highlands called Cameron Bridge.  It all starts (as so many crime novels do) with the disappearance and death of a call girl.  However that is only the beginning.  As the investigation unfolds in the here and now, her best friend’s flashbacks reveal a woman who is anything but the expected ‘dead sex worker’ trope.  It’s a story about sex and secrets, but also about women and passionate friendships.  How far would you go to avenge your best friend and soulmate?  That’s the question one woman will have to answer.”

It is the second half of her master’s course in Newcastle.  Her first spring in the city, after a winter of freezing rain and baffling lectures.  Denise’s cheap coat, good enough for the London cold, is insufficient here and beginning to come apart at the seams.

She logs her hours in the computer lab, turns in every piece of work on time, and phones her parents twice a week whether they answer or not.  Usually they do not.  She waits for the answerphone, leaves a message as if everything is the same as it was before.  Before she moved to Newcastle to start a master’s course in genetic epidemiology.  Before her brother died.

There is money in her account, far too much.  One hundred and fifty thousand pounds.  The number glares at her every time she has to use the cash point.  She can’t spend it and she doesn’t want to keep it.  But giving it away is no good either; it would be like giving away the last photograph of a loved one.  It would be unthinkable.

Denise throws herself into her master’s project.  She analyses single nucleotide polymorphisms in genetic samples of families with a history of colon cancer.  A text-based program calculates risk predictions for future generations in those families.  She tweaks the code, pleased when she shaves microseconds off the runtime of each simulation.  It is like the swimming practices she and Darwin did as teens.  Working over weeks, months, even an entire season to prune down their personal bests.

One night Denise is at the bus stop when she sees some of her course mates in a pub.  It looks warm inside, the bus is almost 20 minutes late, and she has five pounds in her pocket she forgot to spend on lunch.  She crosses the rain-slicked road and goes in.

“Denise!” a man at the bar waves.  “I’m getting a round in.  What are you having?”

“Hi, Jack.”  Denise smiles.  “That’s very kind, thank you.  Diet coke and lemon, please.”  Jack has blue eyes and wears his hair long but it suits him.  His smile is kind and his eyes seek her out in lectures, exchanging a look that seems to indicate they are in on some kind of secret together.

He always seems so nice, at ease in any group, charming and smart.  She realises she has probably had a crush on him for some time now.

A crush she can never act on.  Because he has a girlfriend.  This girlfriend is called Miriam.  His eyes go soft whenever he mentions her, as if the sound of her name has a sort of power.  Denise has never met this woman, but the others have, and they agree she is wonderful.  She is not sure what to imagine.  A petite and serious brunette, perhaps, the kind of studious woman who is primly perfect when she takes her glasses off?  Or else a tight-bodied, hockey-playing blonde, the sort of country girl already settled into Jack’s family, accompanying his parents on weekend trips to the garden centre?

The other students are dressed more formally than usual, a woman in a short purple satin frock, the men in trousers and jackets.  Is there something on she has forgotten about?

“Didn’t think you’d be out tonight.”  The woman’s teeth look dull yellow next to her lipstick.  “Or did you get a ticket in the end?”

Denise accepts a glass from Jack at the bar.  “A ticket to what?”

The group erupts in a peal of laughter.  “To the Medics Ball?  At City Hall?”  A hot redness blooms on her cheeks.  The epidemiology students aren’t medics even if they are in the medical school; why would it occur to her to go?

“I wouldn’t worry about it,” Jack says.  “I went last year.  It’s not all that.  Terrible meal.  The disco is dire.  You’re not missing anything.”

“Are we ready or are we ready?” a voice calls out behind them.  Denise follows the others’ eyes as they look to the door.

“Miri!” Jack says.  “Finally.”

The woman in the green velvet dress enters the pub.  It is a cold night, but she is wearing no coat.  Probably local to the area, then – one of the first things Denise noticed about Newcastle was that the rumours were correct:  true Geordies went out in all weather without jackets or hats.  Her hair has the colour and movement of fire.  The crushed velvet clings to her pear-shaped body and reveals plainly that she is wearing nothing underneath.  A long string of garnets, dark as the shadows in her hair, is looped once around her neck and hangs almost to her waist.  She is wearing the kind of strappy sandals Denise often looks at in shop windows but can never bring herself to buy:  too impractical, too showy.  But the black patent straps look just right around her narrow ankles, not too showy at all.

Her only concession to the cold is a pair of black satin gloves that come past her elbows.  Denise looks away but not before she notices Miri slip an arm around Jack’s neck and his twist to kiss her on the cheek.

“Who’s this?” she asks, meaning Denise.  “I don’t think we’ve met.”  Miri’s voice is smoky and deep, a surprising contrast to her pink cheeks and baby skin.  She detaches her arm from where it is snaked around Jack to offer a hand.  Denise mumbles her name, first and last.  “Are you coming?” Miri smiles.  Her smile is a sweet tiny bow, the face of a Victorian valentine.

“I was on my way home,” Denise says.  “I don’t have a ticket…”

Miri laughs, full throated like a goose.  “You shouldn’t let a thing like that stop you!” she says.  “Come with me.”  She grabs Denise’s elbow and leads her to the toilets, shouting to the rest of the group to go on ahead, they will catch up.

Inside are two toilet stalls, one missing a door.  Miri indicates for Denise to take off her coat, which she does.  Miri folds it and stuffs it into Denise’s bag.  Suddenly Miri is peeling off her dress.  “You can wear mine,” she says.  “You can’t walk in there dressed like that.  Give me your clothes.”

Denise hesitates.  As she suspected Miri is wearing nothing underneath.  Miri tilts her head and smiles, slinky green fabric in her gloved hand.  The dress looks smaller off her body, hardly more material than a swimsuit.  “Go on, it’s stretch, it fits everyone,” she says.  “You’re almost as flat up top as I am.”

“But what will you wear?”

Miri smiles.  “Your clothes, obviously.  Don’t worry.  I know the doormen, it won’t be a problem for me to walk in.”

Denise doesn’t know what to do.  It is impossible to look at the girl standing in front of her wearing nothing but gloves, a long necklace, and heels.  It is almost as hard not to stare.  Miri is slim up top and heavier below.  She has the kind of seal-like limbs, smooth, that Denise often thinks of as boneless.  Her legs taper from firm round thighs to tiny narrow ankles.  It is not the type of body that is fashionable now, not the body celebrated in haute couture shows and women’s magazines.  But the way she is standing tells her that Miri is more comfortable in her skin than she with her angular limbs and narrow hips ever will be.

Denise doesn’t want Miri to laugh at her for being a prude.  She does not want to have to see Jack and the others later, tomorrow or the next day or next week, in the library or in an exam, and explain what happened.  She closes her eyes and begins unbuttoning her shirt.  The hands feel as if they belong to someone else, as if all of this is something she is watching in a film.  Miri pulls the velvet dress over her head.  To Denise’s surprise the dress does indeed shrink and stretch in the right places to fit.

“Hair,” Miri says, and reaches forward, her arms encircling Denise’s neck.  Her eyes, which looked blue at a distance, are green and violet close up, flecked with yellow, the fire of opals in her pale face.  The scent of her is sweet and sharp, sweat and vanilla.  Miri’s small hands untangle Denise’s pigtail, arrange the strands over shoulders.  “Not bad,” she pronounces.  “Do you have makeup?”  Denise shakes her head.

“That’s OK, we’ll make do.”  Her face suddenly darts forward, and she plants a firm kiss on the lips.  She leans back and examines Denise’s surprised face.  “Perfect,” she declares.  “Now you have some of my lippy.”

She tells Denise to look in the mirror.  Denise’s cheeks are flushed as if she has been running and her lips are a bright pink like Miri’s.  The ends of her hair graze her collarbones, now exposed by the low neckline of the dress.  Denise stares at her reflection as if she is looking at someone else entirely, someone who resembles her but not quite.  A close relative, perhaps.  A twin.  She had a twin once.  Then her twin was lost and she has been alone ever since.  If the mirror can be her twin, perhaps she isn’t alone after all.

She glances down at her watch.  “We should hurry,” she says.  “We don’t want to be too late.”

“Is being on time important to you?” Miri says.

“I guess so.”  Denise hesitates.  Wasn’t being on time important to everyone?  “It’s rude to be late, isn’t it?  Like, you would get in trouble if you were late for work—”

Miri’s throaty laugh cuts her off.  “There are only two kinds of people who are paid to be on time,” she says.  “Train drivers and call girls.  Anyway, what’s the rush?  Let’s have a drink, get to know each other a little better.  Jack tells me nothing about his friends.  I want to find out more about you.”

“What’s to find out?  I’m very boring.”  But Miri is standing there, expecting something.  “OK, my name is Denise Ang.  My family is from Macau, I was born in London.  My parents have a chip shop.”  She is about to mention Darwin but stops herself.  She looks at the mirror again, it is almost impossible not to.  Twin-Denise moves her mouth when Denise does, but she is different somehow.  Both her and not-her.  She has a thrilling, guilty feeling of looking at herself too long, as if someone has caught her staring at them.  She clears her throat and looks away again.  “I have a degree in maths.  So I guess I’m kind of a walking cliché.”

Miri tilts her head.  “How so?” she says.

Denise is confused.  Is she taking the piss, or does she really not know?  “I’m very boring,” she repeats.

“Nonsense,” Miri says, and her reflection smiles at Denise’s.  “In my experience, it’s the quiet ones you have to watch out for.”

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At long last, The Forms of Things Unknown is out; some people are saying it’s even a stronger collection than Ladies of the Night, and the reviews I’ve seen so far are good.  Those reviews are really important, so if you read the book (either in paper format or Kindle) and like it, please take the time to do a review for me on Amazon.  Even if it’s a short one, Amazon likes seeing reviews and the more there are, the more my book will show up on the radar of people who haven’t heard of me before.  That will boost sales of both Forms and Ladies, and of the essay collections I plan to release before the end of the year.  A gent is helping me to set up a merchant site (there are a few bugs, but I’m hoping we can fix them) on which to sell both books, autographed copies, the last four copies of the special edition Chester Brown did for me last year, future books, autographed photos, maybe even copies of my friends’ books and more!  But for right now, let’s concentrate on The Forms of Things Unknown; you can buy it in either paper or Kindle form on Amazon in the US, the UK, France, Germany or Italy, or order it from Barnes & Noble.  Or if you prefer, you can get an autographed copy for $26 if you live in the US, $31 if you live in Canada and $36 if you live anywhere else; the price includes shipping, which is why it’s more outside the US.  Of course, you could set up a book reading at a local bookstore for me; that would get me to fly to you so I could autograph your copy in person!  If you’d like to do that, email me & we can plan.

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My friend Brooke Magnanti’s last book, The Turning Tide, is now available in the United States!  So I asked her to provide an excerpt so as to entice y’all to buy it…especially since her new one is coming out this summer!  If you live in the UK, buy it here instead.  And just in case you don’t remember, she did a series of video promos when the book was first published last year!

Of all the things that Daniel Wallace had hoped to do on holiday, finding a dead body was not one of them.

The kayak trip from Skye to Raasay was perfect. Daniel had planned this leg of the trip carefully: a mid-February journey starting on Skye, going up the long east coast of the island of Raasay. Although the water was cold, there was little wind and the only snow was on the mountaintops. They would paddle past the steep cliffs and fossil beaches with views over to the mainland and lunch on the cobble beach below castle ruins, then continue on to a romantic bothy inaccessible to walkers and unlikely to be occupied at this time of year.

Maya teased him for being such a list maker, but as the day went on he was pleased at having planned it so well. There was a slight chop on the water and late winter light on the wavelets sparkled like sequins. It became glassy smooth as they rounded the tip of Raasay and turned north. There was a superpod of dolphins spanning the sound between the island and Applecross on the mainland, hundreds of them leaping and squealing for the sheer fun of jumping around. Maya was nervous about the large mammals at first. She clutched the shaft of her paddle tightly, but was soon laughing with the joy of it all.

They landed on the northern tip of the island. Maya pulled her kayak above the tide line onto the shingle beach while Daniel hung back. ‘Something wrong?’ she asked.

‘I think there’s something caught in my rudder,’ Daniel said, ‘bit of seaweed, maybe. You go on ahead and find the bothy, I’ll catch up.’

‘Sure,’ she smiled. Daniel watched her buttocks cased in her kayaking drysuit disappear along the path. Three years in and he still fancied this woman as if they just met. A good sign, right? That she was a keeper. The One.

So far, so good. Tonight they would watch the sunset from the beach and share a bottle of whisky. He would make them a simple meal of bacon and tuna pasta on the gas camping stove.

Then there was the ring, tucked safely away in his dry bags. He planned to pop the question after dinner: maybe on a moonlit walk, maybe sitting by the bothy fire later. With the day going so well he could afford to play that part by ear.

That was tonight sorted. Tomorrow? Tomorrow they would paddle around the smaller nearby isle of Rona before heading down the other coast of Raasay and back to Skye. He had booked a table and room at an inn that specialised in local seafood and folk music, and they could toast their engagement with a pint of ale.

He tugged hard on the deck lines. The kayak would not budge. Daniel took off his gloves and felt along under the boat to the rudder. Something was caught on it. He pulled but it wouldn’t give way. So it was not seaweed then. It felt a bit like rope. ‘What on earth…’ he murmured. Maybe a belt? Someone’s old climbing gear? The cliffs further down the island were popular with climbers and the waters were trawled by fishing vessels. You never knew what could wash up on the beaches here.

As he gave one last pull something came loose. Daniel crossed to the bow and dragged the kayak up the shore. He flipped the boat on its side and saw what looked like a holdall with one long strap that must have caught on his boat in the shallows. He sighed. Maybe the bag fell off a hiker on a hill somewhere. ‘Someone wasn’t having a great day,’ he said to no one in particular.

Probably there would be a wallet inside, or a tag perhaps, and they could get this back to its rightful owner. He didn’t relish the thought of carrying someone else’s luggage around for the next day or two, but he hoped someone else would have done the same for him.

The zip came unstuck with a little effort. Inside it looked like – well, he wasn’t sure what, exactly. Something the size of a melon poked out, round. It had a slippery, translucent quality rather like a jellyfish. But it was too early in the year for jellyfish. He poked at it with the toe of his neoprene boot. The stench hit him at the very moment he realised what it was he was looking at. The contents of Daniel’s stomach bubbled into his throat as a wave of shock ran up his body. He collapsed on the ground.

‘Maya!’ he shouted. ‘Maya!’ He tried to clamber to his knees, but his legs felt rubbery and uncertain.

Maya was only seconds away but to Daniel those moments felt like hours. She put her hand gently on his shoulder. ‘Are you OK?’ she said. Daniel did not often lose his cool, not even the time they went out for a routine paddle that turned into force eight gale conditions off the Islay. This had to be serious.
Daniel closed his eyes and shook his head. He tried to raise one arm and point back to the boat.

‘What is it?’ Maya asked.

‘You tell me,’ he said.

Maya went for a closer look. The sight and smell knocked her back for a moment, but she recovered quickly and leaned in to see what was in there. There was a body inside the bag. No doubt about that. Three years of a forensic science degree had prepared her, but only just, for something like this. She had seen plenty of specimens in the lab or in the morgue but that was different. Those were lifeless, static things that looked more like oversized dolls than anything else.
This however was… well, it was kind of great, actually. Her first cold one in situ. ‘It’s dead,’ she said. She picked up Daniel’s paddle and poked the remains with the end. ‘Human.’ There was a retching sound behind her. ‘Daniel?’

He was sitting upright, head between his knees. ‘Are you sure?’

‘Sure it’s dead, or sure it’s human?’ No reply; only the sound of more heaving. ‘Yeah, I’m sure,’ she said.

Maya frowned at the remains. A head, bald. A shoulder and arm pulled back, maybe tied? A slender elbow joint poked through the grey, gelatinous scraps of flesh and connective tissue. If the body hadn’t been in the bag, odds were the rest of its extremities would have fallen away from the trunk by now. This had been in the water some time – weeks, at least.

Daniel’s chest rose and fell heavily. ‘What now? Do we radio this in? Pull the GPS beacon?’ Of all the emergency situations he had prepped for over the years, this was not one of them.

Maya inspected the outside of the bag for clues. It was covered in black algae. There was no sign of ID.

‘Pulling the beacon might be too far,’ she said. ‘Whoever it is, he’s already dead.’ If someone was dead it was a collection job, not an emergency.

Was it an offence to leave a dead body unattended? She couldn’t remember. Maya surveyed the horizon in all directions. There was the tiny island of Rona to the north and six miles of heather bog to the south; Skye on one side, mainland Scottish Highlands on the other. No place within walking distance of where they were unless she fancied a four-hour yomp to Raasay’s only village in wet boots. Plus Daniel didn’t look in any shape to do it. She popped the covers open on his kayak and rifled through his dry bags for a phone. ‘Do you have reception? We could call the police station in Portree.’

‘No reception here.’

‘I’ll get on the VHF and radio the coastguard,’ Maya said. ‘They can pass it on to police. Looks like we might not be staying here the night after all.’

Daniel’s five-star instructor’s course had offered no guidance on what to do if you ended up having to haul a sack of decomposing human remains on a sea kayak. ‘Please tell me we’re not paddling this – this thing – to shore.’

‘No,’ Maya said. ‘Best not to move it more than necessary – in case there’s any evidence to be found at the site.’ She sat down next to her boyfriend. ‘We’ll see if we can get a lift off the coastguard and grab a B&B on Skye tonight,’ she said. ‘It’s not the end of the world.’

Daniel nodded weakly. Maya repacked his bags. She spotted a tiny jewellery box among his things and her heart skipped a beat. ‘Oh my God! Daniel… is this what I think it is?’ She tugged off her gloves to slide the half-carat sparkler on her left ring finger. ‘And it’s a perfect fit!’

Her fiancé rolled to one side and chucked a mouthful of foamy spittle on the grass.

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