Phosphate Rocks, Part 3: The ebony elephant...

In the third of four extracts from Phosphate Rocks, by Fiona Erskine, John Gibson meets Detective Inspector Rose Irvine.

Thursday, 24th June 2021, 4:55 am
Author Fiona Erskine
Author Fiona Erskine

Chapter 2: John

John has a face like a well-kept grave. He arrives early one morning at Torphichen Street Police Station: a tall, thin man with cropped grey hair and the demeanour of a professional undertaker. He is neatly dressed in polished leather shoes, grey trousers with stay-press seam, an ironed white shirt, blue tie and burgundy V-neck jumper under a padded anorak. Despite the layers, he shivers in the slanting winter light and blinks repeatedly as he states his business at the counter.

‘I’ve come about the ess-eh-eye.’

Phosphate Rocks

A short, plump woman emerges from a side room with outstretched hand. She wears a black serge uniform with silver buttons and epaulettes, fair hair scraped back from a round face.

‘Mr. Gibson?’

She smells of flowers and reminds him of summer.

‘Aye.’

‘Detective Inspector Rose Irvine.’ Her handshake is warm and surprisingly firm. ‘Thanks for coming in.’

He follows her up a flight of steps and waits while she recovers her breath. Outside Interview Room Number Two she gestures for him to enter, but he holds the door open so

she can go in first. The room is furnished with a wooden table and four metal chairs, the furniture marooned on a sea of blue linoleum, adrift between plain grey walls under a high

barred window and a ticking clock. On the table is a manila folder.

‘You worked at the SAI?’ she asks. ‘Scottish Agricultural Industries?’

‘Aye.’

‘We found a body in the old Leith works.’

John places his hands flat against the table, leaning onto it for support.

‘Sit,’ she says. ‘Please.’

His complexion has paled from ivory to ash, his breathing is fast and ragged. She observes him closely as he sinks onto the chair. When he raises his eyes again, they are wide with shock.

‘Who is it?’

‘We don’t know yet,’ she says.

‘Poor beggar.’

She leans forward. ‘Any idea why there might be a dead body in your old factory?’

‘No.’ He shakes his head.

‘Until I get the autopsy results, I don’t know the date of death, the cause of death, whether the victim was male or female, young or old, tall or short, fat or thin.’

She sits back and stretches her hands out, palms upwards. She has nice hands, capable hands.

‘Can you help me?’

‘I can try.’

She opens the folder and shows John the photographs.

‘What can you tell me?’

His shiver turns to a shudder. ‘Poor beggar died before 1997.’

‘Why do you say that?’

John wrinkles his brow.

‘Production stopped.’

‘I see.’

‘And after 1955,’ he adds.

‘When production started?’ She frowns. ‘A forty-two-year window?’

He nods.

His working life.

First Clue: THE EBONY ELEPHANT – SULPHUR

Chapter 3 The Ebony Elephant

Inside the interview room of Torphichen Street Police Station, Rose is the first to break the silence.

‘Can you identify the items found beside the body, the things on the desk?’

She extracts a photograph from the manila folder and hands it to John.

‘Here’s a close-up.’

He takes off his glasses and brings the print to the end of his nose.

‘We cleaned the objects up,’ she says. ‘Do you want to see them?’

‘Aye.’

She picks up the phone and punches a number.

‘Bring in the SAI evidence.’

Please, he thinks to himself.

‘To Interview Room Two,’ she says. ‘Right away.’

Thanks, he adds silently as she puts down the phone. After all, it doesn’t cost anything. At a knock on the door, he is first on his feet, opening the door for a young constable who carries a metal tray. Rose nods at the table, and the constable rests the tray carefully on the near edge. John moves the stack of photographs to one side so she can slide it into the centre.

‘Thank you,’ she smiles.

‘You’re welcome,’ he says.

Rose waves the constable away.

John sits again. He stares at each of the objects for exactly ninety seconds, one after the other, then closes his eyes.

Rose waits.

The clock ticks.

Rose waits some more.

When he opens his eyes, she leans forward. ‘Any ideas?’

‘Can I touch them?’

She nods.

John picks up a little ebony elephant, about the size of his fist, tail curved, trunk down, ears alert, expertly carved. He strokes the smooth wood. One sharp white tusk is loose. John pulls it out, brings first the matchstick-sized shard, and then the empty socket, to his nose. He sniffs. Once. Twice. He pulls away and licks his lips, wrinkles his nose then bends forward and inhales again. Thrice. Yes, there it is. No doubt about it. Just a trace, a whiff, but unmistakable.

Sulphur.

Tomorrow: Chapter four – Meet Fat Willy, Smart Sandy and Becksy…

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