Playback by Ian Rankin

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Playback by Ian Rankin

It was the perfect murder.

Perfect, that is, so far as the Lothian and Borders Police were concerned. The murderer had telephoned in to confess, had then panicked and attempted to flee, only to be caught leaving the scene of the crime. End of story.

Except that now he was pleading innocence. Pleading, yelling and screaming it. And this worried Detective Inspector John Rebus, worried him all the way from his office to the four-storey tenement in Leith’s trendy dockside area. The tenements here were much as they were in any working-class area of Edinburgh, except that they boasted colour-splashed roller blinds or Chinese-style bamboo affairs at their windows, and their grimy stone facades had been power-cleaned, their doors now boasting intruder-proof intercoms. A far cry from the greasy Venetian blinds and kicked-in passageways of the tenements in Easter Road or Gorgie, or even in nearby part’s of Leith itself, the parts the developers were ignoring as yet.

The victim had worked as a legal secretary, this much Rebus knew. She had been twenty-four years old. Her name was Moira Bitter. Rebus smiled at that. It was a guilty smile, but at this hour of the morning any smile he could raise was something of a miracle.

He parked in front of the tenement, guided by a uniformed officer who had recognised the badly dented front bumper of Rebus’s car. It was rumoured that the dent had come from knocking down too many old ladies, and who was Rebus to deny it? It was the stuff of legend and it gave him prominence in the fearful eyes of the younger recruits.

A curtain twitched in one of the ground-floor windows and Rebus caught a glimpse of an elderly lady. Every tenement, it seemed, tarted up or not, boasted its elderly lady. Living alone, with one dog or four cats for company, she was her building’s eyes and ears. As Rebus entered the hallway, a door opened and the old lady stuck out her head.

‘He was going to run for it,’ she whispered. ‘But the bobby caught him. I saw it. Is the young lass dead? Is that it?’ Her lips were pursed in keen horror. Rebus smiled at her but said nothing. She would know soon enough. Already she seemed to know as much as he did himself. That was the trouble with living in a city the size of a town, a town with a village mentality.

He climbed the four flights of stairs slowly, listening all the while to the report of the constable who was leading him inexorably towards the corpse of Moira Bitter. They spoke in an undertone: stairwell walls had ears.

‘The call came at about 5 a.m., sir,’ explained PC MacManus. ‘The caller gave his name as John MacFarlane and said he’d just murdered his girlfriend. He sounded distressed by all accounts, and I was radioed to investigate. As I arrived, a man was running down the stairs. He seemed in a state of shock.’


‘Sort of disorientated, sir.’

‘Did he say anything?’ asked Rebus.

‘Yes, sir, he told me, “Thank God you’re here. Moira’s dead.” I then asked him to accompany me upstairs to the flat in question, called in for assistance, and the gentleman was arrested.’

Rebus nodded. MacManus was a model of efficiency, not a word out of place, the tone just right. Everything by rote and without the interference of too much thought. He would go far as a uniformed officer, but Rebus doubted the young man would ever make CID. When they reached the fourth floor, Rebus paused for breath then walked into the flat.

The hall’s pastel colour scheme extended to the living- room and bedroom. Mute colours, subtle and warming. There was nothing subtle about the blood though. The blood was copious. Moira Bitter lay sprawled across her bed, her chest a riot of colour. She was wearing apple-green pyjamas, and her hair was silky blonde. The police pathologist was examining her head.

‘She’s been dead about three hours,’ he informed Rebus. ‘Stabbed three or four times with a small sharp instrument, which, for the sake of convenience, I’m going to term a knife. I’ll examine her properly later on.’

Rebus nodded and turned to MacManus, whose face had a sickly grey tinge to it.

‘Your first time?’ Rebus asked. The constable nodded slowly. ‘Never mind,’ Rebus continued. ‘You never get used to it anyway. Come on.’

He led the constable out of the room and back into the small hallway. ‘This man we’ve arrested, what did you say his name was?’

‘John MacFarlane, sir,’ said the constable, taking deep breaths. ‘He’s the deceased’s boyfriend apparently.’

‘You said he seemed in a state of shock. Was there anything else you noticed?’

The constable frowned, thinking. ‘Such as, sir?’ he said at last.

‘Blood,’ said Rebus coolly. ‘You can’t stab someone in the heat of the moment without getting blood on you.’

MacManus said nothing. Definitely not CID material and perhaps realising it for the very first time. Rebus turned from him and entered the living-room. It was almost neurotically tidy. Magazines and newspapers in their rack beside the sofa. A chrome and glass coffee table bearing nothing more than a clean ashtray and a paperback romance. It could have come straight from an Ideal Home exhibition. No family photographs, no clutter. This was the lair of an individualist. No ties with the past, a present ransacked wholesale from Habitat and Next. There was no evidence of a struggle. No evidence of an encounter of any kind: no glasses or coffee cups. The killer had not loitered, or else had been very tidy about his business.

Rebus went into the kitchen. It, too, was tidy. Cups and plates stacked for drying beside the empty sink. On the draining-board were knives, forks, teaspoons. No murder weapon. There were spots of water in the sink and on the draining-board itself, yet the cutlery and crockery were dry. Rebus found a dishtowel hanging up behind the door and felt it. It was damp. He examined it more closely. There was a small smudge on it. Perhaps gravy or chocolate. Or blood. Someone had dried something recently, but what?

He went to the cutlery drawer and opened it. Inside, amidst the various implements was a short-bladed chopping knife with a heavy black handle. A quality knife, sharp and gleaming. The other items in the drawer were bone dry, but this chopping knife’s wooden handle was damp to the touch. Rebus was in no doubt: he had found his murder weapon.

Clever of MacFarlane though to have cleaned and put away the knife. A cool and calm action. Moira Bitter had been dead three hours. The call to the police station had come an hour ago. What had MacFarlane done during the intervening two hours? Cleaned the flat? Washed and dried the dishes? Rebus looked in the kitchen’s swing-bin, but found no other clues, no broken ornaments, nothing that might hint at a struggle. And if there had been no struggle, if the murderer had gained access to the tenement and to Moira Bitter’s flat without forcing an entry… if all this were true, Moira had known her killer.

Rebus toured the rest of the flat, but found no other clues. Beside the telephone in the hall stood an answering machine. He played the tape, and heard Moira Bitter’s voice.

‘Hello, this is Moira. I’m out, I’m in the bath, or I’m otherwise engaged.’ (A giggle.) ‘Leave a message and I’ll get back to you, unless you sound boring.’

There was only one message. Rebus listened to it, then wound back the tape and listened again.

‘Hello, Moira, it’s John. I got your message. I’m coming over. Hope you’re not “otherwise engaged”. Love you.’

John MacFarlane: Rebus didn’t doubt the identity of the caller. Moira sounded fresh and fancy-free in her message. But did MacFarlane’s response hint at jealousy? Perhaps she had been otherwise engaged when he’d arrived. He lost his temper, blind rage, a knife lying handy. Rebus had seen it before. Most victims knew their attackers. If that were not the case, the police wouldn’t solve so many crimes. It was a blunt fact. You double bolted your door against the psychopath with the chainsaw, only to be stabbed in the back by your lover, husband, son or neighbour.

John MacFarlane was as guilty as hell. They would find blood on his clothes, even if he’d tried cleaning it off. He had stabbed his girlfriend, then calmed down and called in to report the crime, but had grown frightened at the end and had attempted to flee.

The only question left in Rebus’s mind was the why? The why and those missing two hours.

Edinburgh through the night. The occasional taxi rippling across setts and lone shadowy figures slouching home with hands in pockets, shoulders hunched. During the night hours, the sick and the old died peacefully, either at home or in some hospital ward. Two in the morning until four: the dead hours. And then some died horribly, with terror in their eyes. The taxis still rumbled past, the night people kept moving. Rebus let his car idle at traffic lights, missing the change to green, only coming to his senses as amber turned red again. Glasgow Rangers were coming to town on Saturday. There would be casual violence. Rebus felt comfortable with the thought. The worst football hooligan could probably not have stabbed with the same ferocity as Moira Bitter’s killer. Rebus lowered his eyebrows. He was rousing himself to fury, keen for confrontation. Confrontation with the murderer himself.

John MacFarlane was crying as he was led into the interrogation room, where Rebus had made himself look comfortable, cigarette in one hand, coffee in the other. Rebus had expected a lot of things, but not tears.

‘Would you like something to drink?’ he asked. MacFarlane shook his head. He had slumped into the chair on the other side of the desk, his shoulders sagging, head bowed, and the sobs still coming from his throat. He mumbled something.

‘I didn’t catch that,’ said Rebus.

‘I said I didn’t do it,’ MacFarlane answered quietly. ‘How could I do it? I love Moira.’

Rebus noted the present tense. He gestured towards the tape machine on the desk. ‘Do you have any objections to my making a recording of this interview?’ MacFarlane shook his head again. Rebus switched on the machine. He flicked ash from his cigarette onto the floor, sipped his coffee, and waited. Eventually, MacFarlane looked up. His eyes were stinging red. Rebus stared hard into those eyes, but still said nothing. MacFarlane seemed to be calming. Seemed, too, to know what was expected of him. He asked for a cigarette, was given one, and started to speak.

‘I’d been out in my car. Just driving, thinking.’

Rebus interrupted him. ‘What time was this?’

‘Well,’ said MacFarlane, ‘ever since I left work, I suppose. I’m an architect. There’s a competition on just now to design a new art gallery and museum complex in Stirling. Our partnership’s going in for it. We were discussing ideas most of the day, you know, brainstorming.’ He looked up at Rebus again, and Rebus nodded. Brainstorm: now there was an interesting word.

‘And after work,’ MacFarlane continued, ‘I was so fired up I just felt like driving. Going over the different options and plans in my head. Working out which was strongest-‘

He broke off, realising perhaps that he was talking in a rush, without thought or caution. He swallowed and inhaled some smoke. Rebus was studying MacFarlane’s clothes. Expensive leather brogues, brown corduroy trousers, a thick white cotton shirt, the kind cricketers wore, open at the neck, a tailor-made tweed jacket. MacFarlane’s 3-Series BMW was parked in the police garage, being searched. His pockets had been emptied, a Liberty print tie confiscated in case he had ideas about hanging himself. His brogues, too, were without their laces, these having been confiscated along with the tie. Rebus had gone through the belongings. A wallet, not exactly bulging with money but containing a fair spread of credit cards. There were more cards, too, in MacFarlane’s personal organiser. Rebus flipped through the diary pages, then turned to the sections for notes and for addresses. MacFarlane seemed to lead a busy but quite normal social life.

Rebus studied him now, across the expanse of the old table. MacFarlane was well-built, handsome if you liked that sort of thing. He looked strong, but not brutish. Probably he would make the local news headlines as ‘Secretary’s Yuppie Killer’. Rebus stubbed out his cigarette.

‘We know you did it, John. That’s not in dispute. We just want to know why.’

MacFarlane’s voice was brittle with emotion. ‘I swear I didn’t, I swear.’

‘You’re going to have to do better than that.’ Rebus paused again. Tears were dripping onto MacFarlane’s corduroys. ‘Go on with your story,’ he said.

MacFarlane shrugged. ‘That’s about it,’ he said, wiping his nose with the sleeve of his shirt.

Rebus prompted him. ‘You didn’t stop off anywhere for petrol or a meal or anything like that?’ He sounded sceptical. MacFarlane shook his head.

‘No, I just drove until my head was clear. I went all the way to the Forth Road Bridge. Turned off and went into Queensferry. Got out of the car to have a look at the water. Threw a few stones in for luck.’ He smiled at the irony. ‘Then drove round the coast road and back into Edinburgh.’

‘Nobody saw you? You didn’t speak to anyone?’

‘Not that I can remember.’

‘And you didn’t get hungry?’ Rebus sounded entirely unconvinced.

‘We’d had a business lunch with a client. We took him to The Eyrie. After lunch there, I seldom need to eat until the next morning.’

The Eyrie was Edinburgh’s most expensive restaurant. You didn’t go there to eat, you went there to spend money. Rebus was feeling peckish himself. The canteen did a fine bacon buttie.

‘When did you last see Miss Bitter alive?’

At the word ‘alive’, MacFarlane shivered. It took him a long time to answer. Rebus watched the tape revolving. ‘Yesterday morning,’ MacFarlane said at last. ‘She stayed the night at my flat.’

‘How long have you known her?’

‘About a year. But I only started going out with her a couple of months ago.’

‘Oh? And how did you know her before that?’

MacFarlane paused. ‘She was Kenneth’s girlfriend,’ he said at last.

‘Kenneth being-‘

MacFarlane’s cheeks reddened before he spoke. ‘My best friend,’ he said. ‘Kenneth was my best friend. You could say I stole her from him. These things happen, don’t they?’

Rebus raised an eyebrow. ‘Do they?’ he said. MacFarlane bowed his head again.

‘Can I have a coffee?’ he asked quietly. Rebus nodded, then lit another cigarette.

MacFarlane sipped the coffee, holding it in both hands like a shipwreck survivor. Rebus rubbed his nose and stretched, feeling tired. He checked his watch. Eight in the morning. What a life. He had eaten two bacon rolls and a string of rind curled across the plate in front of him. MacFarlane had refused food, but finished the first cup of coffee in two gulps and gratefully accepted a second.

‘So,’ Rebus said, ‘you drove back into town.’

‘That’s right.’ MacFarlane took another sip of coffee. ‘I don’t know why, but I decided to check my answering machine for calls.’

‘You mean when you got home?’

MacFarlane shook his head. ‘No, from the car. I called home from my car-phone and got the answering machine to play back any messages.’

Rebus was impressed. ‘That’s clever,’ he said.

MacFarlane smiled again, but the smile soon vanished. ‘One of the messages was from Moira,’ he said. ‘She wanted to see me.’

‘At that hour?’ MacFarlane shrugged. ‘Did she say why she wanted to see you?’

‘No. She sounded… strange.’


‘A bit… I don’t know, distant maybe.’

‘Did you get the feeling she was on her own when she called?’

‘I’ve no idea.’

‘Did you call her back?’

‘Yes. Her answering machine was on. I left a message.’

‘Would you say you’re the jealous type, Mr MacFarlane?’

‘What?’ MacFarlane sounded surprised by the question. He seemed to give it serious thought. ‘No more so than the next man,’ he said at last.

‘Why would anyone want to kill her?’

MacFarlane stared at the table, shaking his head slowly. ‘Go on,’ said Rebus, sighing, growing impatient. ‘You were saying how you got her message.’

‘Well, I went straight to her flat. It was late, but I knew if she was asleep I could always let myself in.’

‘Oh?’ Rebus was interested. ‘How?’

‘I had a spare key,’ MacFarlane explained.

Rebus got up from his chair and walked to the far wall and back, deep in thought.

‘I don’t suppose,’ he said, ‘you’ve got any idea when Moira made that call?’

MacFarlane shook his head. ‘But the machine will have logged it,’ he said. Rebus was more impressed than ever. Technology was a wonderful thing. What’s more, he was impressed by MacFarlane. If the man was a murderer, then he was a very good one, for he had fooled Rebus into thinking him innocent. It was crazy. There was nothing to point to him not being guilty. But all the same, a feeling was a feeling, and Rebus most definitely had a feeling.

‘I want to see that machine,’ he said. ‘And I want to hear the message on it. I want to hear Moira’s last words.’

It was interesting how the simplest cases could become so complex. There was still no doubt in the minds of those around Rebus – his superiors and those below him – that John MacFarlane was guilty of murder. They had all the proof they needed, every last bit of it circumstantial.

MacFarlane’s car was clean: no bloodstained clothes stashed in the boot. There were no prints on the chopping- knife, though MacFarlane’s prints were found elsewhere in the flat, not surprising given that he’d visited that night, as well as on many a previous one. No prints either on the kitchen sink and taps, though the murderer had washed a bloody knife. Rebus thought that curious. And as for motive: jealousy, a falling-out, a past indiscretion discovered. The CID had seen them all.

Murder by stabbing was confirmed and the time of death narrowed down to a quarter of an hour either side of three in the morning. MacFarlane claimed that at that time he was driving towards Edinburgh, but had no witnesses to corroborate the claim. There was no blood to be found on MacFarlane’s clothing, but, as Rebus himself knew, that didn’t mean the man wasn’t a killer.

More interesting, however, was that MacFarlane denied making the call to the police. Yet someone – in fact, whoever murdered Moira Bitter – bad made it. And more interesting even than this was the telephone answering machine.

Rebus went to MacFarlane’s flat in Liberton to investigate. The traffic was busy coming into town, but quiet heading out. Liberton was one of Edinburgh’s many anonymous middle class districts, substantial houses, small shops, a busy thoroughfare. It looked innocuous at midnight, and was even safer by day.

What MacFarlane had termed a ‘flat’ comprised, in fact, the top two storeys of a vast, detached house. Rebus roamed the building, not sure if he was looking for anything in particular. He found little. MacFarlane led a rigorous and regimented life and had the home to accommodate such a lifestyle. One room had been turned into a makeshift gymnasium, with weightlifting equipment and the like. There was an office for business use, a study for private use. The main bedroom was decidedly masculine in taste, though a framed painting of a naked woman had been removed from one wall and tucked behind a chair. Rebus thought he detected Moira Bitter’s influence at work.

In the wardrobe were a few pieces of her clothing and a pair of her shoes. A snapshot of her had been framed and placed on MacFarlane’s bedside table. Rebus studied the photograph for a long time, then sighed and left the bedroom, closing the door after him. Who knew when John MacFarlane would see his home again?

The answering machine was in the living-room. Rebus played the tape of the previous night’s calls. Moira Bitter’s voice was clipped and confident, her message to the point: ‘Hello.’ Then a pause. ‘I need to see you. Come round as soon as you get this message. Love you.’

MacFarlane had told Rebus that the display unit on the machine showed time of call. Moira’s call registered at 3.50 a.m., about forty-five minutes after her death. There was room for some discrepancy, but not three-quarters of an hour’s worth. Rebus scratched his chin and pondered. He played the tape again. ‘Hello.’ Then the pause. ‘I need to see you.’ He stopped the tape and played it again, this time with the volume up and his ear close to the machine. That pause was curious and the sound quality on the tape was poor. He rewound and listened to another call from the same evening. The quality was better, the voice much clearer. Then he listened to Moira again. Were these recording machines infallible? Of course not. The time displayed could have been tampered with. The recording itself could be a fake. After all, whose word did he have that this was the voice of Moira Bitter? Only John MacFarlane’s. But John MacFarlane had been caught leaving the scene of a murder. And now Rebus was being presented with a sort of an alibi for the man. Yes, the tape could well be a fake, used by MacFarlane to substantiate his story, but stupidly not put into use until after the time of death. Still, from what Rebus had heard from Moira’s own answering machine, the voice was certainly similar to her own. The lab boys could sort it out with their clever machines. One technician in particular owed him a rather large favour.

Rebus shook his head. This still wasn’t making much sense. He played the tape again and again.

‘Hello.’ Pause. ‘I need to see you.’

‘Hello.’ Pause. ‘I need to see you.’

‘Hello.’ Pause. ‘I need -‘

And suddenly it became a little clearer in his mind. He ejected the tape and slipped it into his jacket pocket, then picked up the telephone and called the station. He asked to speak to Detective Constable Brian Holmes. The voice, when it came on the line, was tired but amused.

‘Don’t tell me,’ Holmes said, ‘let me guess. You want me to drop everything and run an errand for you.’

‘You must be psychic, Brian. Two errands really. Firstly, last night’s calls. Get the recording of them and search for one from John MacFarlane, claiming he’d just killed his girlfriend. Make a copy of it and wait there for me. I’ve got another tape for you, and I want them both taken to the lab. Warn them you’re coming-‘

‘And tell them it’s priority, I know. It’s always priority. They’ll say what they always say: give us four days.’

‘Not this time,’ Rebus said. ‘Ask for Bill Costain and tell him Rebus is collecting on his favour. He’s to shelve what he’s doing. I want a result today, not next week.’

‘What’s the favour you’re collecting on?’

‘I caught him smoking dope in the lab toilets last month.’ Holmes laughed. ‘The world’s going to pot,’ he said. Rebus groaned at the joke and put down the receiver. He needed to speak with John MacFarlane again. Not about lovers this time, but about friends.

Rebus rang the doorbell a third time and at last heard a voice from within.

‘Jesus, hold on! I’m coming.’

The man who answered the door was tall, thin, with wireframed glasses perched on his nose. He peered at Rebus and ran his fingers through his hair.

‘Mr Thomson?’ Rebus asked. ‘Kenneth Thomson?’

‘Yes,’ said the man, ‘that’s right.’

Rebus flipped open his ID. ‘Detective Inspector John Rebus,’ he said by way of introduction. ‘May I come in?’

Kenneth Thomson held open the door. ‘Please do,’ he said. ‘Will a cheque be all right?’

‘A cheque?’

‘I take it you’re here about the parking tickets,’ said Thomson. ‘I’d have got round to them eventually, believe me. It’s just that I’ve been hellish busy, and what with one thing and another…’

‘No, sir,’ said Rebus, his smile as cold as a church pew, ‘nothing to do with parking fines.’

‘Oh?’ Thomson pushed his glasses back up his nose and looked at Rebus. ‘Then what’s the problem?’

‘It’s about Miss Moira Bitter,’ said Rebus.

‘Moira? What about her?’

‘She’s dead, sir.’

Rebus had followed Thomson into a cluttered room over-flowing with bundles of magazines and newspapers. A hi-fi sat in one corner, and covering the wall next to it were shelves filled with cassette tapes. These had an orderly look to them, as though they had been indexed, each tape’s spine carrying an identifying number.

Thomson, who had been clearing a chair for Rebus to sit on, froze at the detective’s words.

‘Dead?’ he gasped. ‘How?’

‘She was murdered, sir. We think John MacFarlane did it.’

‘John?’ Thomson’s face was quizzical, then sceptical, then resigned. ‘But why?’

‘We don’t know that yet, sir. I thought you might be able to help.’

‘Of course I’ll help if I can. Sit down, please.’

Rebus perched on the chair, while Thomson pushed aside some newspapers and settled himself on the sofa.

‘You’re a writer, I believe,’ said Rebus.

Thomson nodded distractedly. ‘Yes,’ he said. ‘Freelance journalism, food and drink, travel, that sort of thing. Plus the occasional commission to write a book. That’s what I’m doing now, actually. Writing a book.’

‘Oh? I like books myself. What’s it about?’

‘Don’t laugh,’ said Thomson, ‘but it’s a history of the haggis.’

‘The haggis?’ Rebus couldn’t disguise a smile in his voice, warmer this time: the church pew had been given a cushion. He cleared his throat noisily, glancing around the room, nothing the piles of books leaning precariously against walls, the files and folders and newsprint cuttings. ‘You must do a lot of research,’ he said appreciatively.

‘Sometimes,’ said Thomson. Then he shook his head. ‘I still can’t believe it. About Moira, I mean. About John.’

Rebus took out his notebook, more for effect than anything else. ‘You were Miss Bitter’s lover for a while,’ he stated. ‘That’s right, Inspector.’

‘But then she went off with Mr MacFarlane.’

‘Right again.’ A hint of bitterness had crept into Thomson’s voice. ‘I was very angry at the time, but I got over it.’

‘Did you still see Miss Bitter?’


‘What about Mr MacFarlane?’

‘No again. We spoke on the telephone a couple of times. It always seemed to end in a shouting match. We used to be like, well, it’s a cliche, I suppose, but we used to be like brothers.’

‘Yes,’ said Rebus, ‘so Mr MacFarlane told me.’

‘Oh?’ Thomson sounded interested. ‘What else did he say?’

‘Not much really.’ Rebus rose from his perch and went to the window, holding aside the net curtain to stare out onto the street below. ‘He said you’d known each other for years.’

‘Since school,’ Thomson added.

Rebus nodded. ‘And he said you drove a black Ford Escort. That’ll be it down there, parked across the street?’

Thomson came to the window. ‘Yes,’ he agreed, uncertainly, ‘that’s it. But I don’t see what-‘

‘I noticed it as I was parking my own car,’ Rebus continued, brushing past Thomson’s interruption. He let the curtain fall and turned back into the room. ‘I noticed you’ve got a car alarm. I suppose you must get a lot of burglaries around here.’

‘It’s not the most salubrious part of town,’ Thomson said. ‘Not all writers are like Jeffrey Archer.’

‘Did money have anything to do with it?’ Rebus asked. Thomson paused.

‘With what, Inspector?’

‘With Miss Bitter leaving you for Mr MacFarlane. He’s not short of a bob or two, is he?’

Thomson’s voice rose perceptibly. ‘Look, I really can’t see what this has to do with-‘

‘Your car was broken into a few months ago, wasn’t it?’ Rebus was examining a pile of magazines on the floor now. ‘I saw the report. They stole your radio and your car phone.’


‘I notice you’ve replaced the car phone.’ He glanced up at Thomson, smiled, and continued browsing.

‘Of course,’ said Thomson. He seemed confused now, unable to fathom where the conversation was leading.

‘A journalist would need a car phone, wouldn’t he?’

Rebus observed. ‘So people could keep in touch, contact him at any time. Is that right?’

‘Absolutely right, Inspector.’

Rebus threw the magazine back onto the pile and nodded slowly. ‘Great things, car phones.’ He walked over towards Thomson’s desk. It was a small flat. This room obviously served a double purpose as study and living-room. Not that Thomson entertained many visitors. He was too aggressive for many people, too secretive for others. So John MacFarlane had said.

On the desk there was more clutter, though in some appearance of organisation. There was also a neat word processor, and beside it a telephone. And next to the telephone sat an answering machine.

‘Yes,’ Rebus repeated. ‘You need to be in contact.’ Rebus smiled towards Thomson. ‘Communication, that’s the secret. And I’ll tell you something else about journalists.’

‘What?’ Unable to comprehend Rebus’s direction, Thomson’s tone had become that of someone bored with a conversation. He shoved his hands deep into his pockets. 

‘Journalists are hoarders.’ Rebus made this sound like some great wisdom. His eyes took in the room again. ‘I mean, near-pathological hoarders. They can’t bear to throw things away, because they never know when something might become useful. Am I right?’

Thomson shrugged.

‘Yes,’ said Rebus, ‘I bet I am. Look at these cassettes, for example.’ He went to where the rows of tapes were neatly displayed. ‘What are they? Interviews, that sort of thing?’

‘Mostly, yes,’ Thomson agreed.

‘And you still keep them, even though they’re years old?’ Thomson shrugged again. ‘So I’m a hoarder.’

But Rebus had noticed something on the top shelf, some brown cardboard boxes. He reached up and lifted one down. Inside were more tapes, marked with months and years. But these tapes were, smaller. Rebus gestured with the box towards Thomson, his eyes seeking an explanation.

Thomson smiled uneasily. ‘Answering machine messages,’ he said.

‘You keep these, too?’ Rebus sounded amazed.

‘Well,’ Thomson said, ‘someone may agree to something over the phone, an interview or something, then deny it later. I need them as records of promises made.’

Rebus nodded, understanding now. He replaced the brown box on its shelf. He still had his back to Thomson when the telephone rang, a sharp electronic sound.

‘Sorry,’ Thomson apologised, going to answer it.

‘Not at all.’

Thomson picked up the receiver. ‘Hello?’ He listened, then frowned. ‘Of course,’ he said finally, holding the receiver out towards Rebus. ‘It’s for you, Inspector.’

Rebus raised a surprised eyebrow and accepted the receiver. It was, as he had known it would be, Detective Constable Holmes.

‘Okay,’ Holmes said. ‘Costain no longer owes you that favour. He’s listened to both tapes. He hasn’t run all the necessary tests yet, but he’s pretty convinced.’

‘Go on.’ Rebus was looking at Thomson, who was sitting, hands clasping knees, on the arm of the chair.

‘The call we received last night,’ said Holmes, ‘the one from John MacFarlane admitting to the murder of Moira Bitter, originated from a portable telephone.’

‘Interesting,’ said Rebus, his eyes on Thomson. ‘And what about the other one?’

‘Well, the tape you gave me seems to be twice-removed.’

‘What does that mean?’

‘It means,’ said Holmes, ‘that according to Costain it’s not just a recording, it’s the recording of a recording.’ Rebus nodded, satisfied.

‘Okay, thanks, Brian.’ He put down the receiver.

‘Good news or bad?’ Thomson asked.

‘A bit of both,’ answered Rebus thoughtfully. Thomson had risen to his feet.

‘I feel like a drink, Inspector. Can I get you one?’

‘It’s a bit early for me, I’m afraid,’ Rebus said, looking at his watch. It was eleven o’clock: opening time. ‘All right,’ he said, ‘just a small one.’

‘The whisky’s in the kitchen,’ Thomson explained. ‘I’ll just be a moment.’

‘Fine, sir, fine.’

Rebus listened as Thomson left the room and headed off towards the kitchen. He stood beside the desk, thinking through what he now knew. Then, hearing Thomson returning from the kitchen, floor-boards bending beneath his weight, he picked up the wastepaper basket from below the desk, and, as Thomson entered the room, proceeded to empty the contents in a heap on the sofa.

Thomson stood in the doorway, a glass of whisky in each hand, dumbstruck. ‘What on earth are you doing?’ he spluttered at last. But Rebus ignored him and started to pick through the now strewn contents of the bin, talking as he searched.

‘It was pretty close to being fool-proof, Mr Thomson. Let me explain. The killer went to Moira Bitter’s flat and talked her into letting him in despite the late hour. He murdered her quite callously, let’s make no mistake about that. I’ve never seen so much premeditation in a case before. He cleaned the knife and returned it to its drawer. He was wearing gloves, of course, knowing John MacFarlane’s fingerprints would be all over the flat, and he cleaned the knife precisely to disguise the fact that he had worn gloves. MacFarlane, you see, had not.’

Thomson took a gulp from one glass, but otherwise seemed rooted to the spot. His eyes had become vacant, as though picturing Rebus’s story in his mind.

‘MacFarlane,’ Rebus continued, still rummaging, ‘was summoned to Moira’s flat. The message did come from her. He knew her voice well enough not to be fooled by someone else’s voice. The killer sat outside Moira’s flat, sat waiting for MacFarlane to arrive. Then the killer made one last call, this one to the police, in the guise of an hysterical MacFarlane. We know this last call was made on a car phone. The lab boys are very clever that way. The police are hoarders, too, you see, Mr Thomson. We make recordings of emergency calls made to us. It won’t be hard to voice-print that call and try to match it to John MacFarlane. But it won’t be John MacFarlane, will it?’ Rebus paused for effect. ‘It’ll be you.’

Thomson gave a thin smile, but his grip on the two glasses had grown less steady, and whisky was dribbling from the angled lip of one of them.

‘Ah-ha.’ Rebus had found what he was looking for in the contents of the bin. With a pleased-as-punch grin on his unshaven, sleepless face, he pinched forefinger and thumb together and lifted them for his own and Thomson’s inspection. He was holding a tiny sliver of brown recording tape.

‘You see,’ he continued, ‘the killer had to lure MacFarlane to the murder scene. Having killed Moira, he went to his car, as I’ve said. There he had his portable telephone and a cassette recorder. He was a hoarder. He had kept all his answering machine tapes, including messages left by Moira at the height of their affair. He found the message he needed and he spliced it. He played this message to John MacFarlane’s answering machine. All he had to do after that was wait. The message MacFarlane received was “Hello. I need to see you.” There was a pause after the “hello”. And that pause was where the splice was made in the tape, excising this.’ Rebus looked at the sliver of tape. ‘The one word “Kenneth”. “Hello, Kenneth, I need to see you.” It was Moira Bitter talking to you, Mr Thomson, talking to you a long time ago.’

Thomson hurled both glasses at once, so that they arrowed in towards Rebus, who ducked. The glasses collided above his head, shards raining down on him. Thomson had reached the front door, had hauled it open even, before Rebus was on him, lunging, pushing the younger man forwards through the doorway and onto the tenement landing. Thomson’s head hit the metal rails with a muted chime and he let out a single moan before collapsing. Rebus shook himself free of glass, feeling one or two tiny pieces nick him as he brushed a hand across his face. He brought a hand to his nose and inhaled deeply. His father had always said whisky would put hairs on his chest. Rebus wondered if the same miracle might be effected on his temples and the crown of his head…

It had been the perfect murder.

Well, almost. But Kenneth Thomson had reckoned without Rebus’s ability actually to believe someone innocent despite the evidence against him. The case against John MacFarlane had been overwhelming. Yet Rebus, feeling it to be wrong, had been forced to invent other scenarios, other motives and other means to the fairly chilling end. It wasn’t enough that Moira had died – died at the hands of someone she knew. MacFarlane had to be implicated in her murder. The killer had been out to tag them both. But it was Moira the killer hated, hated because she had broken a friendship as well as a heart.

Rebus stood on the steps of the police station. Thomson was in a cell somewhere below his feet, somewhere below ground level. Confessing to everything. He would go to jail, while John MacFarlane, perhaps not realising his luck, had already been freed.

The streets were busy now. Lunchtime traffic, the reliable noises of the everyday. The sun was even managing to burst from its slumber. All of which reminded Rebus that his day was over. Time, all in all he felt, for a short visit home, a shower and a change of clothes, and, God and the Devil willing, some sleep.



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