This my first short story featuring Detective Superintendent Colm McEvoy, the lead character in The Rule Book and The White Gallows. I wrote the piece in response to Seana's comment to a post I put up a couple of days ago about my sense of being out of place in Roskilde, suggesting that my observations might make the basis for a short story. I think it might be the first piece I've written that contains no dialogue. I drafted the piece in Copenhagen on Saturday.
A Black Feather
The sky and water were sheet metal grey, the horizon a thin line where the two near identical panels met. The wide fjord was bounded left and right by dark, low lying headlands; a single, small sailing boat was tacking from right to left, its white sail billowing with the light, chilly breeze.
As the first fat drops of rain began to fall, Superintendent Colm McEvoy pushed himself off the railing and headed to the shelter of a wooden-clad workshop, part of the Vikingskibsmuseet, The Viking Boat Museum in Roskilde, Denmark. The glum faced, local detective acting as his chaperone had been convinced that the place would be of great interest to a visiting Irish man.
In the small boatyard the Danes had built a Viking longboat, using authentic tools and materials, that they had named The Sea Stallion of Glendalough in honour of the ancient monastic site in County Wicklow. In 2007 they had sailed it across the North Sea, around the top of Scotland, and down through the Irish Sea to Dublin, replicating the journey that countless Nordic invaders had undertaken a thousand years previously.
Normally, McEvoy would have been fascinated by the history, the archaeological finds, and the master craftsman recreating the ancient boats, but instead of curiosity and wonder, he felt listless and useless. He had arrived the previous morning and been met at the airport by two policemen dressed in dark grey suits. They had proceeded to Roskilde where the men had briefed him on the abduction of Annelise Snedker, a twenty year old philosophy student who lived with her parents and younger brother, who had seemingly been snatched ten days previously from her downstairs bedroom at the back of a suburban house in the town. They had no real leads except for a black feather and a lock of her hair that had been left on her pillow.
One of McEvoy’s colleagues, Detective Inspector Barney Plunkett, had a European-wide alert issued for immediate notification if any black feathers were discovered at crime scenes. Ever since the Raven, Ireland’s most notorious serial killer, had gone to ground, Plunkett had been trying to pick up his trail. So far, four such feathers had been found; two in Ireland and one in South West France. And now in Eastern Denmark. McEvoy had arrived in Plunkett’s stead because his junior officer was on annual leave and he didn’t want to disturb him from a much needed break. The man was edging towards obsession; he would have abandoned his wife and kids to ten days in Tenerife, and flown to Denmark at his own expense to follow the lead.
McEvoy had spent an hour that morning with Annelise’s parents. They looked haggard from exhaustion; consumed by the shock of the nightmare they were now living and their fears. They seemed resolute in their belief that their daughter was still alive, but his presence had undoubtedly undermined their faith. The mother had visibly wilted as the conversation unfolded. It had been a disheartening meeting that had led to much upset, but no new insights.
The parent’s gloom had transferred to him and his darkening mood was being fuelled further by a sense of alienation, of feeling out of place in the town. Roskilde was everything an Irish town was not – prim and proper; ordered, planned, managed and controlled. All the buildings were well maintained and the gardens perfect. The landscape had the feel of being a kind of unnatural nature – every tree, bush and blade of grass had been carefully positioned and pruned. And there was a notable absence of people. The bar he’d spent an hour in the previous evening had been all but empty and on the walk back to his hotel he was the only soul wandering the town’s streets. He literally had the place to himself. He’d only been there a day and he was already missing the messiness and busyness of Irish towns – the bustle and hustle and vaguely patterned chaos.
Even during the day the town seemed curiously quiet; only a few pedestrians and cyclists on the main thoroughfare. In the suburbs it was even more pronounced. On the five kilometre drive from his hotel to the unassuming university on the town’s edge to talk to Annelise’s course tutor, they had only passed half a dozen cars, two cyclists and one jogger. The place was like a model town or a film set once all the actors and crew had gone home. Beautiful, but empty.
The people had the same kind of quality. He’d only met a handful so far – a couple of cops, hotel and bar staff, the university professor and his administrator, the missing girl’s family – and they had all been well dressed and mannered, formal and reserved. He was too used to the gregariousness and unpredictability of the Irish. Though to be fair, with the exception of the distraught family, he had detected a hint of mischief hiding under the surface; a twinkle in the eye and the playful curve of an occasional smile. Once the guard came down, the Danes might well be quite fun. How often that was, McEvoy wasn’t sure. Given the cost of the beer, probably not often. Half a litre of Carlsberg had cost him nearly twice as much as a pint of the same brew in an Irish bar, and Ireland was not a cheap country when it came to its pub prices. It would be cheaper for the Danes to leave the country and then re-import their primary export, than to drink it at home. It defied logic for a country that seemed to run on calculated rationalism.
McEvoy watched the dour craftsman plane a length of wood, the floor at his feet littered with curled shavings. Beyond place and family names, whatever the Irish had inherited from the Danes it had seemingly been lost somewhere along the way, he reflected. That or the Danes had been civilised in the intervening years.
The rain had turned into a light drizzle and he left the craftsman to his solitary labour, wandering through the sheds, starting back to his hotel. On the skyline, up a slight slope the two, red brick square towers of Roskilde Cathedral, topped by slender copper green spikes, rose above the tree-line. If the Raven had committed the abduction he was almost certainly long gone. And he would have left very little of himself behind except for some vague traces of a shifting mirage. The man was a chameleon. McEvoy knew he was wasting his time here, even if it was a performance he needed to act out to satisfy both the Irish and Danish authorities. And it would be at least two days before he would be able to return Dublin and its familiar sense of place.
He sighed, knowing that he’d been enveloped in a sober funk. That self-realisation wouldn’t be enough to tip him back out of it either; rather it would lead to further existential musing on the state of his life and a slow slide into a familiar condition of depressed, self-loathing. He needed to get out of this town. It was too unsettling. It felt too perfect. No, not perfect. It was too much of a simulacrum for what a town should be; a slightly unreal imitation of an urban utopia. He would check out of the hotel and head into Copenhagen. Perhaps the large city would be more ... more alive.
Which was probably more than could be said of Annelise Snedker. Or indeed Colm McEvoy.