Steph stepped up onto the entrance of the coach. “Dawn, we’re ready if you’d like to be next for a chat with Bill.”
“I’ll be right there.” Dawn lifted her bottled water, took a sip and went out to the front of the coach. She sat on one of the wooden boxes which Bill had lifted from the luggage compartment.
Bill said, “Steph is going to stay out here with me, Dawn. Just as I said inside earlier, I’m going to speak to everybody to see if we can piece together how and why a member of our group could end up so far away and have a fatal accident.”
“Personally, I can’t understand why he would have wandered so far away. Even with a mobile phone light, he’d have had problems seeing where he was.”
“We’ve discussed the situation and our idea is that we pair everybody up, so each person has a buddy—wherever they go, the buddy goes. Nobody will get lost, and if there is an accident we’ll find out quickly.”
“Obviously, we know that you were beside the coach earlier when the others walked into the darkness so there’s nothing you can tell us about the incident.” Bill paused. “Something occurred to us about the passenger list and you’d be the person to help us clear it up.”
“Yes, of course, what is it?”
“When you and Paul set out on your one-day tours like today, do you only have scheduled passengers, or do you cater for stray tourists along the way?”
“The coach will carry forty passengers apart from the driver and guide, so the company normally ensures a minimum of twenty-five from setting out, and then depending on the route and sights, we can pick up and drop off. It’s usually an out and back route, perhaps with two or three stops.”
“Okay, so with that in mind,” Bill said. “Today was a trip to visit an Osprey viewing centre, and then on to visit a selection of sights around a particular mountain area?”
“That’s right, yes.”
“Did you pick up anybody after setting off with your initial group?”
“Now that you mention it—we did. If I can have two minutes I’ll nip in and grab my tablet. If it still has any cell life I’ll have noted the ones we picked up.” Dawn was in and out of the coach in less than two minutes. “Here we are. At the Bird of Prey viewing centre, we picked up Anne Brown, Ken Wallace, Patsy Mayne, Noreen Thorpe, and Jay Singhmar.”
“Okay, I’ve ticked all of them, thanks, Dawn.” Bill leant forward. “We’re hoping to avoid any discussion so could you keep it under your hat that we asked about the passenger list?”
“Yes, of course. Is there anything else you need to know?”
“Not for now,” Bill said. “You’ve helped a lot though—thank you.”
Dawn went back inside and Bill turned to his companion. “What have we got, Steph?”
“I know we haven’t done much interviewing yet, but I think we can safely say we have at least two or three people who are not who or what they say they are.”
“The only person called Ken is the dead man, and according to Dawn’s list, he was a salesman.”
“Which we know he wasn’t, unless he was, and he wasn’t a police officer.”
“I’m inclined to believe that the identity card you found is genuine, but it does lead us into another quandary.”
“If you didn’t go through his clothing, how far away from his body was the wallet with the warrant card inside?”
“Easily a few paces—say four or five metres, and I only saw it because it was open so the shiny surface caught my eye with the flashlight.” Bill studied the author. “What are you thinking?”
“I’m thinking that if you were to lift that small wallet from your pocket and drop it by accident, it wouldn’t fall open, because it’s folded into two neat sections.” She glanced at the coach and held out her hand.
Paul pulled the folded wallet from his pocket and handed it over. He glanced at the coach to ensure nobody was watching. “Go on, Steph.”
She held the small wallet open and dropped it. When she picked it up by one corner it still didn’t fall all the way open. “I think he placed this on the floor because he was worried about being alone with a certain person.”
“You mean he knew he was taking a risk, but if things went wrong, he didn’t want them to find the identity document on his body and make it disappear?”
Steph nodded and handed the wallet back to Bill. “He either knew, or thought he knew the murderer, but why end up so far away and alone with them?”
“It is a mystery, and if we ask the right questions, we’ll solve it—I’m sure.” Bill looked at the list of names on Steph’s pad. “How about interviewing those we don’t have any suspicions about and when asked we just say our list was random. It won’t take long before we’re conducting the interviews of the passengers taken on while en route?”
“Interviewing everybody will camouflage what we’re doing. Our killer is among them and will be aware of how hard it will be to figure out the details of Ken’s death. Who do we want first?”
“Let’s get Alan out here.”
“I’ll ask Dawn to give him a shout.” Steph went to the doorway, spoke to Dawn and returned to her strange seat. “At the moment only the two of us know what’s happened—should we tell anybody else yet?”
“I’ve been pondering that very aspect of this, and I thought we should leave it until we’ve done all the questioning, but then only tell our committee.”
“Again, a good idea, so unless we have a problem, that’s who we’ll go.”
“Hi guys,” Alan said. “What can I do for you?”
“Sit yourself down, Alan,” Bill said. “I know this is all very hush-hush and formal looking, but we didn’t want to have an open discussion. What we’re doing is asking everybody if they wandered away from the coach earlier, who they were talking to, and that sort of thing. We’re trying to find out if anybody was near Ken before he fell over.”
Alan said he’d been standing within sight of the coach lights and talking to Calvin.
Bill mentioned the buddy-system idea and asked if Alan had any other suggestions. As they would do with everybody, the interviewing pair asked that Alan didn’t pass on anything that had been said, although he was at liberty to say that the whole interview idea was in the name of personal safety for everybody.
When Alan went inside, Steph turned to Bill. “Brian next?”
Five minutes later, Paul was sitting out in front of his coach. The driver was happy to be interviewed, trusting the judgement of both Bill, and Steph. They gave the same simple explanation as given to the other members of the committee. Paul’s interview was followed by, Norman of the Forestry Commission pair.
The chat was similar to that which had gone before and then as he was about to go inside a casual remark caused Bill and Steph to exchange an anxious glance.
“I’m sorry, Norman,” Bill said. “What do you mean by hoping ‘the wild man’ has a buddy?”
“Oh, it was an observation that Chloe and I have made over the past couple of weeks. One of our tasks has been to go to specific areas of forestry and perform examinations of those trees we’ve grown away from the public eye.”
Steph said, “Why would you grow trees away from the public eye?”
“I know it might sound a bit crazy if you’re not in our line of work, but there are certain species of tree that people will uproot from the wild, and our tree nurseries were being affected in a bad way. For about ten years we’ve been building secret nurseries within large forests, and the idea was working—until today.”
“Okay,” Bill said. “Could we get back to the ‘wild man’ you mentioned?”
“It’s quite simple really—we’ve found evidence of somebody living in the forest, building basic shelters and moving on, probably after a couple of days.”
“Are you sure it isn’t a group of people and—”
Norman shook his head before Bill finished. “The build is always the same because whoever it is has mastered the particular shelter which is quick and easy to build among the trees, and there is always water nearby, and a cooking pit. Whoever it is knows what they’re doing, or at least it appears that way.”
“Can you remember where any of these shelters were, specifically in regions of the forest?”
“No, but if you’re talking to everybody, ask Chloe—she has a great memory for things like that.”
“Thank you,” Steph said. “Oh, and it goes without saying—we’ll keep this to ourselves.”
“No problem—should I send Chloe out now?”
“Yes, please,” Steph said, and when Norman had gone she turned to Bill. “The idea of somebody living out there in the woods isn’t good, but it will depend on the last time a shelter was seen.”
“Hi there,” Chloe said and took a seat on the third box. “How can I help you guys?”
The interview went smoothly as Ken, safety and buddy-system were all discussed, and then Bill threw in a line about the wild man.
“I remember clearly where I last saw a shelter,” Chloe said. “It was in a dense section we call or used to call Zone Seven.”
Steph said, “Why does it stand out in your memory?”
“Zone Seven is bordered by tracks that lead up to a high viewing point. In fact, I think it’s one of the viewing points that this coach would have visited earlier today. It’s quite a climb and from up top, you can see for miles, mountain peaks, lochs, and with good eyesight, out to the west you could see the Atlantic ….” Her voice trailed off as she considered it was probably all gone now.
“Chloe,” Steph said. “You’ve been a great help, but we must ask that you don’t discuss any of this with anybody else—we have a good reason.”
“Okay, and if there’s anything else, I’ll be happy to help.”
Bill said, “Could you ask for Noreen to come out next, please?”
Bill shook his head after Chloe had gone. “Apart from our committee members whom we trust, we’re back to square one.”
“Not necessarily, Bill—the culprit will make a mistake. We just have to make sure every person in the group feels confident to come forward if they have worries about anything in our control. From what Dawn said, it sounds like several passengers sat alone after boarding, so we’ll have people to talk to who haven’t been associated with anybody else.”
Bill turned. “Why would that be a problem?”
“We all went up to the high viewing site earlier today in one big group and a few people were keeping to themselves. You know—no conversation at all, and then we came back down when we realised the world we knew was about to end.”
“Yes, but according to Paul, one of the guys … I think he said Calvin, had waited near the bottom of the track and counted everybody back out to the coach.”
“If our murderer was the ‘wild man’ and living in the trees in that Zone Seven place, it means that any person, man or woman, who wandered off the beaten path could be replaced.”
“Oh shit, I see what you mean, which brings something else to mind.”
“What?” Steph squinted in the dim light.
“Norman and Chloe are assuming it was a ‘wild man’ in the forests—what’s to stop it being a ‘wild woman’?”
Steph nodded. “One of the nurses next—they both got on the coach at the Osprey centre.”
“Yes, let’s speak to Noreen—you stay there, I’ll go and ask Dawn to find her.”
A few minutes later, a curvaceous young black woman came outside. She’d been one of the two people who had checked passengers for injuries after the rapid entry into the tunnel.
“Hello, Noreen,” Bill said. He introduced the idea of safety and how confusing it was that somebody could wander off, and so on. For a few minutes he asked the nurse’s opinion on how things might be done differently to ensure personal safety and he talked about the idea of the buddy-system.
“I like that,” Noreen said. “Apart from not wandering off alone, it means that the women, in particular, will feel less inhibited about going outside the coach in the dark. I don’t mean that we can’t trust the men, but—”
“It’s okay,” Steph said. “We know what you mean.”
Bill said, “Was it a stroke of luck that you ended up on this coach, or were you one of those who booked earlier?”
“I suppose you could call it a stroke of luck, which is also how I met Jay-Dee—the other nurse.”
“I don’t understand,” Bill said. “Aren’t you and Jay-Dee together?”
“Oh, yes, we’re sitting together and we’re getting along, but we only met at the Osprey centre earlier—actually not long before we joined a couple of other people who were catching the coach to go on to the mountainside stop.”
“I’m sorry,” Bill said. “How presumptuous of me—when I saw that you and Jay-Dee were both nurses and sitting together I thought you were, you know—”
“An ‘item’, as they used to say a million years ago—no, we’re newly acquainted.”
“Do you, or should I say, did you have a speciality in your nursing career?” Steph said.
“I’ve mainly worked in general wards, but I gained qualifications so I could get my job as a midwife in the Glasgow Central Hospital. Until this episode, I was there for four years.”
“Thank you, Noreen,” Bill said. He explained about not discussing the interview.
Jay-Dee, the Asian nurse was next and he was friendly and happy to take part in the exercise. From what he said about his work experience when asked, he had spent most of his time in the Accident and Emergency Department. “I see some pretty bad things on a daily basis, but in a strange way, it doesn’t phase me because my job is … sorry, was, to help people.”
Steph said, “I think we’re all having the same problem, Jay-Dee—we’re not yet accustomed to talking about our working lives in the past tense.”
“It’s crazy, and you just know there are some folk in that coach there who haven’t quite realised what our predicament is—we’re gonna have some mental trauma as the time passes.”
“Well mate,” Bill said. “I hope we can count on you to keep your head and help us through it.”
“I’ll give my best—it might not be a hospital environment but we’ll still have sick people.”
Jay-Dee’s interview ended and the next person came out.
“Hello, I’m Des, I’ve just been sent out by the girl you’ve just interviewed.”
“Hi, Des,” Bill said and smiled. “Please, take a seat.”
The sequence was followed until every person was interviewed, but it was the final one which caused Bill and Steph to take a deep breath.
Anne was a pretty dark-haired woman in her early thirties. She remained calm for a while as the questions were asked, but her responses were abrupt and there was no attempt at friendliness. Her manner was so different from almost every other person that Bill became suspicious.
To brighten the mood, he gave a little laugh. “You might be able to help me, Anne. When I was along the tunnel earlier with Paul we were trying to impress each other with trivia.”
“Right—how could I help you?”
“Paul asked me if I were desperate would I eat Atropa Belladonna—would you?”
Anne squinted and paused.
“Well, Anne—would you eat it?”
“I … I … what’s that got to do with anything?”
“Do you know what Atropa Belladonna is, Anne?”
“Of course I do, but it’s irrelevant.”
Steph sensed irritation in the other woman. “What is Atropa Belladonna, Anne?”
She looked from one to the other. “Have you any more sensible questions, because if not, I’m going back inside.” She stood.
Bill said, “You’re not a florist, are you?”
“Are you really an ex-Serviceman?”
“I am, but right now, I’m trying to solve a mystery—is Anne your real name?”
“I don’t think I like your tone.”
Steph said, “Wasn’t it you who suggested somebody hadn’t come back on board the coach?”
“Yes—we were chatting earlier and I remembered the man.”
“You weren’t sitting beside him all the time though,” Steph persevered. “I know because I was sitting beside him for a part of our day.”
Bill leant forward. “Look, Anne, we can’t tell anybody everything we know—not yet anyway, but we need two things from everybody in the group—honesty from them, and trust in us.”
Anne glanced at the windscreen of the coach and then back towards the doorway, ensuring there were no prying eyes or ears. She whispered, “I’ll make a deal with you—if you two tell me what the big secret is, I’ll tell you who I am for real.”
Bill turned to Steph and she nodded.
Bill said, “I have reason to believe that the man’s death wasn’t accidental.”
Anne briefly closed her eyes tight. “Who else knows what you suspect?”
“As far as I can tell, nobody—now, who or what are you, and why the secrecy?”
“I’m Detective Constable Anne Brown—Detective Sergeant Ken Wallace was my boss.” She let that information sink in. “Since I’ve been on the coach somebody has stolen my identity card, but unlike Ken’s, mine doesn’t have an accurate photograph.”