The Blood Strand by Chris Ould is a new Nordic thriller in the Føroyar series featuring Detective Jan Reyna as he returns to the islands he left as a child to try and solve a mystery involving his estranged father (Available February 16, 2016).
Having left the Faroes as a child, Jan Reyna is now a British police detective, and the islands are foreign to him. But he is drawn back when his estranged father is found unconscious with a shotgun by his side and someone else’s blood at the scene. Then a man’s body is washed up on an isolated beach. Is Reyna’s father responsible?
Looking for answers, Reyna falls in with local detective Hjalti Hentze. But as the stakes get higher and Reyna learns more about his family and the truth behind his mother’s flight from the Faroes, he must decide whether to stay, or to forsake the strange, windswept islands for good.
I STOOD WITH MY BACK TO THE WIND AS IT BUFFETED ITS WAY in through the inlet behind me. The narrow passage between the rock faces was the only break in the encircling mountain-sides, towering so far above that it felt more like being at the bottom of a chasm, instead of standing at sea level.
This well of a cove was perhaps a quarter of a mile across: a vast natural amphitheatre holding a lagoon of brown-tinged water, rippled and stirred by the gusting wind. The water lapped at the margin of the grey-black sand bar where I stood but it was impossible to guess how deep it might be further out: maybe shallow enough to wade through, or perhaps abyssally deep. And somehow this uncertainty only served to reinforce the sense of foreboding the place seemed to have, at least to me. It felt like a trap, for air and water and space. And for dead bodies. It was halfway to the underworld already.
Twenty yards away from me Hjalti Hentze was taking photographs of the body while the two uniformed officers looked on, sipping the coffee and eating the sandwiches sent down for them. They were a stoical pair, but given that they’d already been here for over an hour there wasn’t much left to be excited about, and it wasn’t going to be their case anyway.
I’d purposely kept my distance, partly because I didn’t want to add my own footprints to those already around the body, but also so Hentze wouldn’t feel as if he was under scrutiny. Not that it would have fazed the man very much, I suspected. Hentze didn’t seem like the sort of man who let many things disconcert him.
His camera flashed a final time, then he stepped back and looked round before raising a hand and gesturing me in.
“His name is Tummas Gramm,” he said as I approached. “I arrested him once, two years ago for possession of drugs. Would you like to look? There isn’t any more we can do until the doctor gets here and says he is dead for the record.”
He handed me a single latex glove and let me move towards the body alone.
Tummas Gramm was lying on his back, head slightly tilted to one side, eyes closed. He looked to be in his mid- to late twenties and it was clear from the way that the sand was sculpted around the margins of his body and clothes – hands, legs and hair – that he hadn’t been moved since he’d come to rest here.
I circled the body, then squatted down beside his shoulder. As well as five smallish puncture wounds – bruised but washed clean by the sea water – Tummas Gramm’s face also showed the wine-mark purple staining of hypostasis, the pooling of blood at the lower parts of the body after death. When I pressed the skin of the cheek with a gloved finger the colour remained fixed, which meant the blood had coagulated. That took about twelve hours.
After a few more seconds of looking I straightened and moved to look at the rest of the body. He was dressed in black jeans and a thick grey pullover which had ridden up, exposing part of the belly and a large wad of sodden cotton wool, stained pinkish brown. A sticking plaster still adhered to the cotton wool but not to the flesh. I lifted part of the wadding but without moving more of the clothing I couldn’t see the wound it had been applied to. I put it back in position and stood up.
“So, what do you think about the body?” Hentze asked as I returned to where he stood waiting.
I waited a moment then said, “The lividity’s set – the hypostasis?” I looked to see that he understood the word. “So he’s been dead for more than twelve hours. Also, he wasn’t in that position immediately after he died. I’d say he was lying face down for some time.”
Hentze nodded. “The tide was high at four forty this morning. It could have moved the body here from somewhere else.”
I looked towards the water at the edge of the sand bar, then towards the narrow, rocky inlet from the sea. “Do you think he could have been washed in from out there?”
“It’s possible, but I don’t think so,” Hentze said. “It would take a long time to find the way in with the—” he searched for the word. “The movement of the water here – you know what I mean?”
“Yes, currents. And he hasn’t been long in the sea or there would be more damage from the fish and rocks. We see that sometimes – one time a year maybe. A person drowns and they sink to the bottom and stay there until the gasses of decomposition bring them back to the surface. But it’s after days, maybe weeks. I don’t think this is like that.”
“No,” I agreed. Then: “And you knew about the shotgun injury before we left Tórshavn – the pellets in his face?”
Hentze nodded. “Petur Bech knew what they were when he saw them. Of course, it doesn’t mean that the injury here” – he indicated his torso – “is also from a shotgun. We will see.”
The look on Hentze’s face made it obvious that he was expecting me to say the most obvious thing now, so I did. There’d been no other reason for him bringing me here.
“So you’ll have to look for a link to Signar’s gun.”
Hentze looked solemn. “It could be a coincidence, but yes, I think we will have to do that.”
I thought so too. The circumstances around Signar being found with a discharged shotgun to hand, and now a guy with shotgun pellets in his face turning up dead on a beach could be coincidental. Could. But if it had been my case, confirming or refuting any link between the two would have been high on my list of objectives just then.
But before I could say anything else, the sound of an approaching engine made Hentze look away. Petur Bech’s quad bike was coming down the path to the beach with two men astride it.
The doctor was a practical man in his forties called Olsen. It took him about ten seconds to pronounce that Tummas Gramm was dead and once it was official things started to happen more quickly.
At Hentze’s request, the doctor secured plastic bags over Tummas Gramm’s hands, feet and head before the body was moved. Then he and the two uniformed officers lifted the body from the sand and placed it on a polythene sheet, which the doctor and I had to hold in place against the wind. Finally, fully shrouded in plastic, Tummas Gramm was transferred to a body bag and the two uniforms lifted him into the trailer of the quad bike for the journey back to the top of the hill.
I took no part in this last part of the procedure. I was extraneous, so I wandered a little way off to look at an area of grass at the base of the cliff, only heading back when I heard the quad bike start up again. Hentze was waiting for me. The doctor was riding pillion with Petur Bech again and the uniformed officers had already started walking towards the path back to the farm.
“It’s all done,” Hentze told me. “There’s an ambulance at the farm. It will take him to the mortuary in Tórshavn and the pathologist will do an examination this afternoon.”
“A forensic pathologist?”
“No, we don’t have one here, but if it’s necessary someone can come from Denmark.”
Considering this was a place that didn’t reckon to have more than one murder every twenty-odd years he seemed pretty untroubled about the fact that he might be looking at one now. Not that he seemed drawn to speculate or jump to any conclusion about the cause of Tummas Gramm’s death. It was too soon for that, and the fact that Hentze knew it added to my growing feeling that the man was a decent copper.
We started back the way we had come, the wind pushing at our backs, and I let my gaze wander across the restless water to the landward side of the lagoon. On the far shore, close to the water, there was a steep-roofed building that looked as if it was in the process of being renovated. Above it and further round the curve of the shore a neater, tidier house with tarred clapboards and a turf roof was perched on a rare ledge of flat ground. There were no visible paths or tracks to either place.
“Does anyone live there?” I asked, gesturing towards the buildings.
Hentze followed my motion, then shook his head. “The old boathouse is being modernised. The other is only for holidays, I think. In summer many people come here to walk, to sit on the beach and enjoy themselves. It’s a beautiful place isn’t it?”
I cast a look upwards at the looming mountains and the over-spills of broken water running down their faces. Beautiful was not the word I would have chosen. To me the place still seemed forbidding, but maybe in summer it was different.
“Not an easy place to dump a body, though,” I said. “It’d be a long way to carry a dead weight.”
I waited to see how Hentze would react to that, ready to back off if he seemed to view it as interference. He nodded thoughtfully, though.
“There are many easier places where you could just drop a body in the sea,” he said. “But if he was here already… Is that what you’re thinking?”
“It’s just a thought.”
“Yes. A good one,” Hentze said. “We’ll see.”
By the time we got back to the car the rain had eased to a fine drizzle and the scene at the top of the hill had changed. Several cars and another quad bike were now parked on the road verges and half a dozen people were standing around, talking in knots and exchanging views with Petur Bech: his neighbours, I guessed – come to see what was happening.
Hentze confirmed it when he said, “The neighbours have come. I’ll see what they say.”
He seemed barely troubled by the walk we’d just done, whereas I was warm from the exertion and happy to lean on the car as he went off to circulate.
Ten minutes later, having spoken to everyone, he came back to me.
“No one has seen anything strange,” he said. “The only thing, maybe, is that two days ago – on Monday morning — Noomi Simonsen from the other side of the valley saw someone at the boathouse. She thought he was a workman because he was moving things around outside.”
“Could it have been Tummas Gramm?”
Hentze shook his head. “It was too far for her to give a description, but I’ve called the builder who does the work there. His men haven’t been here for three weeks, so I think I would like to have a look.”
We drove back to the fork in the road, then out along the other side of the valley, passing through a cluster of buildings – some modern, some built of stone and turf – before stopping where a temporary gate in the roadside fence marked the start of a track. From the muddy ruts in the wet grass it looked like the path had been made by the comings and goings of a quad bike, but not recently.
I followed Hentze’s lead through the gate. He didn’t hang about, walking with a purposeful stride as if he was used to travelling over rough terrain. Five minutes later we reached the narrow delta of grass where the boathouse stood about twenty yards from the shore. It was in the style of most of the Faroese houses I’d seen, with an undercroft of rendered stone and a first-floor living area above it, clad in neat wooden boards. From the outside at least it looked more or less complete, although the evidence of building work – barrels, cans and lengths of plastic piping and wood – were scattered in the grass all around and the wooden steps which led up to the first floor were still secured by scaffolding poles and roughly nailed cross-members.
Hentze still seemed keen to get on, climbing the steps and leaving me to look out across the bay for a minute. From here, without the cliffs bearing down, it felt less oppressive: more open and sweeping in scale. The inlet showed itself to be wider than I’d thought and across the intervening water I could see the spot where Tummas Gramm’s body had been found, although from this distance and angle it was impossible to see any traces we’d left.
I turned and looked upwards.
“Someone has been here,” Hentze said from the top of the steps.
I crossed to them and went up to the platform at the top where Hentze was examining the door. It was unpainted plywood, scuffed and marked in places, clearly a temporary arrangement just to keep the elements out.
“Edvin, the builder, told me the door had a lock – on the outside, you know the sort?”
“Yeh, that’s it.”
He indicated a rectangular pattern of screw holes in the plywood at chest height, matched by four more on the door jamb. They all showed signs that the fixings had been levered out, rather than unscrewed.
“Maybe someone went in to see if there was anything worth stealing,” I said.
“Maybe,” Hentze concurred. “But here that would be unusual.”
He contemplated the possibility for a moment longer, then reached out and opened the door, using his thumb at the very tip of the lever, I noted.
The door swung inwards and as we stepped inside I smelled wood and dust from the bare floorboards. All the windows except two at the far end of the room were obscured by black plastic bin bags, nailed in position, and as my eyes accustomed themselves to the gloom I saw that the place was pretty tidy for a building site. The floor had been swept and lengths of wood and blocks of foam insulation were neatly stacked against the walls.
Because my gaze was naturally drawn to the light from the far windows I saw the rumpled sleeping bag beneath them at the same time as Hentze, who started along the room to have a closer look.
I still didn’t want to crowd him so I followed more slowly, casting my eye along the margins of the room until I reached a small, cast-iron stove where offcuts of wood were stacked up – not dropped or heaped up, but squared neatly by length. I put a hand to the stove. It was cold, but in the spilled ash below its door I saw two stray strands of cotton wool.
“There is a bag of food in tins here, and a jacket,” Hentze said. He was standing over the sleeping bag now, pulling on a latex glove.
“The stove’s been used, too,” I told him.
I fished out the latex glove Hentze had given me earlier and squatted down to open the door of the stove. Inside, amongst the ash and partially burned wood, there were several wads of charred cotton wool and fabric; as if the stove had had insufficient heat to burn up the cloth before it had gone out.
“I think you should look at this,” Hentze said.
I left the stove and crossed to what I saw now was a makeshift bed: a sleeping bag on top of layers of insulation foam. Hentze had lifted a khaki army-surplus coat off the sleeping bag and now he pointed to the spot where it had been. The navy-blue fabric of the sleeping bag was darkly stained over an area about the size of a football.
“Does this look like blood to you?” Hentze asked. His tone was serious and pensive, as if – despite our reason for being here – he hadn’t expected to be looking at such a thing.
I nodded but kept my answer qualified. “It could be.” “Here, too, the same.”
Hentze had the look of a man who knew an already poor day was probably going to get worse. He indicated the left side of the coat. The stain there approximately matched the one on the sleeping bag, although that didn’t prove much. Transference could have gone either way.
He laid the coat carefully aside, stain uppermost, then looked at me. “So, there is a body out there and blood in here. I think there must be a connection.”
“Yeah, there could be.”
Hentze frowned. “You don’t think so? Come, say what you think.”
For the first time since I’d met him his tone was less than phlegmatic – a brief moment of irritation – and I realised I’d taken the neutrality too far.
“Someone I used to work with had a saying,” I told him. “‘If you don’t know enough for a theory, don’t make up a story instead.’”
I looked at him to see if he got it. His face remained set for a second, but finally he made a single, acknowledging nod. “You mean this doesn’t prove Tummas Gramm was here.”
“Not on its own, no. But if you can match the blood or fibres and DNA…”
“Okay,” Hentze said, accepting it. “So if you were seeing this in your job in England, what would you do?”
I cast a look at the sleeping bag and then around the whole room. “I’d leave everything as it is,” I said. “I’d seal the place off and get crime-scene examiners in to assess it.”
Hentze considered that for a moment, then nodded. “Okay,” he said. “I think you are right.” Then he gestured at the coat. “But I think I am right too.”
And from his expression I could see that it didn’t make him happy to say it.
Copyright © 2016 Chris Ould.
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Chris Ould is a BAFTA award winning screenwriter who has worked on TV shows including The Bill, Soldier Soldier, Casualty and Hornblower. Chris has previously published two adult novels, and the second of his series of Young Adult crime novels, The Killing Street, was published by Usborne in June 2013.