The first pale trickles of daylight forced their way past the shabby curtains and found the moth hole, using the small gap to reach further into the darkened room.
Carver lay on the rumpled bed, his long legs tangled in the grey sheets. The finger of light crept along his body, leaving the faintest red line as it passed. The tip of a dark blonde hair sizzled slightly as the daylight pushed through it and his nostrils flared slightly in his sleep.
One dark eye opened and checked out the room.
“Morning,” he said, to no one in particular.
He rolled over, out of the way of the tentative beam of light, and scratched at the now fading angry line.
He’d been using total sun block for so long now that there was a permanent layer over his skin, but now and again some light would find a way through.
He pulled himself up in bed and went through a series of stretches. He was supple as a cat, his body youthful and well-muscled. He walked, naked, to the bathroom and reached for the small dark container at the side of the sink. Flipping the lid he eased one finger in and slipped one of the pale blue lenses out and laid it over his right eye. He blackness of his iris was covered instantly and he looked into the mirror above the sink. His reflection, what was left of it, looked back at him evenly, the odd-coloured eyes unblinking in the dark of the room. He could discern the cabinet against the wall immediately behind him, and at times his outline seemed to flicker, but it was workable. He examined the lean face for signs of aging. The hair, dark and wavy had a couple of stray grey hairs, but nothing worrisome. Some tiny lines at the corners of his eyes and a slight puckering in the jawline at the base of his ears. He smiled, wryly. Not bad for a hundred and thirty three. He finished putting in the other lens and quickly shaved, then he showered, lathered factor 60 over his whole body from face to feet, not forgetting his hands and fingers, and walked back into the bedroom again to dress.
He was due to meet Roddy today at noon. He had the photographs and the address. The rest would be up to Roddy. There was a limit to how much attention he could call upon himself in a small town like Auchinloch.
He eased some black jeans on and fastened the lightweight stab vest tightly round his slim body. The velco ripped as he pulled it neat and finally he patted it, satisfied. The invention of kevlar had been a godsend for vampires. Then he put a white shirt over it and tucked it into his jeans. A red sweat over the shirt, the collar twitched over the neck of the top, completed the look. Finally he pulled on black socks and leather Cuban heeled boots.
He plucked the long Driz-a-Bone coat off the hook on the back of the door and took the dark glasses from the pocket and slipped them on. Then he donned his trade-mark wide-brimmed cowboy hat from the side-board, his camera bag from the floor, and stepped out into the light.
Heat from the watery winter sun warmed him instantly, but it was not uncomfortable. One of the good things about living in the Western Highlands of Scotland was that the sun was a welcome (for most people) but infrequent visitor. And in the winter there were whole areas that didn’t even get direct sunlight for three months of the year. It was all good as far as Carver was concerned.
During the summer, thanks possibly to global warming, the days were getting wetter and the sun less intense on the days it chose to appear. When it DID come out to play, Carver could usually be found at home, in the shadows. He’d venture out in the evening, sometimes to the local pub and sometimes just to walk along the long, pebbled beach, his camera at his side. Freelance photographers could choose their own work, and the hours he kept, if sometimes odd, were not noticed by anyone. The rain didn’t bother Carver and the sun was not as much of an issue as he’d thought originally it was going to be. Here, in the highlands, it was scarcely something he even thought about from day to day.
His cottage was set back on a tree-lined track leading from the main road between Glen Coe and Fort William. Across the road was a long shingle beach that looked out across grey, lapping water towards the vastness of the Atlantic.
Carver had crossed that ocean many times during his lifetime, searching for a quiet life where his eccentricities would go unnoticed. He’d lived in this staggeringly beautiful but remote area for just under ten years now. He knew that he had maybe another ten to go at the most, before his relative lack of ageing began to be talked about, even in this closed and insular community. He’d be able to maybe pull another ten years out if he began dying his hair but he’d long ago accepted that he was now a nomad and any home was only a temporary haven.
His car was parked under the fir trees to the right of the cottage. He walked silently across the thick bed of fallen needles and opened the door before slipping into the drivers seat. Keys, he thought. Damn.
Like most people living in the Highlands, Carver didn’t lock house or car. Trust was highly prized in the area and anyone who violated this unspoken code of honour would be harshly dealt with – first by the community, then by the police and finally by the court. The keys were in his leather jacket in the kitchen. Groaning, he pulled himself out of the car again and fetched the keys. He walked back to the car again and threw himself into the drivers seat. Thrusting the keys viciously into the hole in the steering column, he stamped hard on the accelerator and listened as the engine gave a satisfactory roar.
The small stones churned under the wheel as he drove round the back of the house, pulled out the other side and eased into the driveway pointing down towards the bay. He paused for a moment just to take in the view. It was one of these rare mornings where the light caught the surface of the water turning the whole bay into a gently moving silver carpet. Clouds hung heavily, pregnant with rain but off in the distance. They’d be over the bay by evening and it would be another wet night.
In the meantime, the day was his, to be enjoyed.
The main road into town was quiet, what passed for a morning rush hour having gone by a couple of hours before. The road along the side of the sea loch kept a firm grip of the rocky shoreline, dipping in and out of the inlets and between the clumps of spindly trees clinging to the foreshore, yet Carver drove it almost without seeing the grey tarmac. He’d driven it so many times that he knew its every twist and turn like the skin on his own hands. Once or twice, he’d even arrived in town for an appointment or a job, and could not even recollect any detail of the journey he’d just driven at all. He suspected most of the residents in the area were exactly the same, and he marvelled at the relatively low number of road accidents there were locally.
As he neared the small Highland town, the signs of settlement changed from an occasional croft house surrounded by a few acres of stony ground to more small stone cottages dotted around the hillside that sloped towards the road, until finally becoming the brieze-block flats that marked the outer edge of Auchinloch. The centre of town had been pedestrianised sometime in the 70’s, so Carver swung the car into the large car park opposite the flats.
During the winter months, the council had the good sense to waive all parking charges, thus encouraging what off-season tourism might drive by, and the first row of spaces along the length of the walled park was full. He swung round behind them and slid into one of the bays in the second row. Dropping the car into neutral, he yanked the handbrake on, and climbed out, fetching his camera from the boot before stopping and looking up.
A sharp wind caught his hair and whipped it across his face, causing him to lift the collar of his long coat up to protect his neck. The long loch seemed to have its own permanent wind, which it tunnelled up through the hills that led towards the town until releasing it with enthusiasm directly into the High Street.
The sunlight tickled his skin, causing him to smile at the slight sensation. He adjusted the dark glasses and walked towards the edge of the car park, the partial wall with the railing on top, separating the vehicles from the seaweed covered shoreline twenty feet below.
He took a deep breath, and sucked in the green smell of the barnacle-encrusted shore. His senses swam. It was the wildness of the place that kept him here. The smell of the water; the tug of the wind; the height and fierceness of the mountains that surrounded the town. The people here made their lives in this small, forgotten part of the mainland, but they knew they were there only by nature’s good graces. He’d seen waves so high that they swamped the car park he was standing in, storms so wild they tore the roofs off barns and municipal buildings. Rain so heavy and prolonged that the town was cut off, on one occasion for two days. The people here equalled nature in their ruggedness and veneer of civilisation. You could live here for twenty years and still not be one of them. But they would protect you against outsiders if you were threatened. You might not be a member of their family – but you were an honoured guest, and you were treated with courtesy and grace.
Carver watched as a couple of seagulls allowed themselves to be thrown around in the wind over the water, their mournful cries half-heard in their rising and falling as they dipped to scoop some fragments of food from the surface.
Something red bobbing on the water caught his eye for an instant and then disappeared again as the wave was swallowed up in the next one. Probably something that fell off one of the passenger boats that plied their trade taking tourists up the loch.
There it was again. A cardigan – some clothing. Carver stared with a growing sense of horror. His eyes were sharp – sharper than most birds of prey – and he could make out a hand sticking out of the red sleeve. A woman’s hand, white and limp in the freezing cold water, wafted gently in the current, bobbing and dipping, first there, then gone again.
He pulled his phone from his inside pocket. Still looking at the small red stain on the water, he dialled 999 and reported the sighting of a body in the bay.
Then he quickly walked up the ramp into the town centre and watched as the first of the blue flashing lights appeared at the far end of the street.