We were both up with the cockerel. The invisible bird’s cry rolled gently through the valley, joined by an early sheep. I rolled out of bed, pulled a heavy jacket over last night’s clothes and went downstairs to make a coffee.
It was still dark outside, but there was already a light on in Shaw’s bungalow, half a mile away. I flicked off the night vision setting on the binoculars, took a sip of steaming coffee, and pressed the lenses against the window.
Shaw was still in his pyjamas. The powerful binoculars made the red and white stripes jump into focus. I could see the gleam of his head in the bathroom light, and his reflection in the mirror as he carefully shaved with an engraved straight razor. The purple birthmark over his left eyebrow. I felt as if I was close enough to touch him. Reach out, crush the little hand in mine and draw the razor across his throat. Spin him away from me so the blood didn’t spatter my clothing. I dropped the binoculars, feeling something akin to shame. Luckily for my conscience, it couldn’t be that way.
Shaw pottered about the cottage for another two hours. I ate a breakfast of stale cornflakes in water and watched him cook a fry up, which he ate in the garage, door open to the elements to vent the smells of cooking and oil as he jacked up his BMW and changed the rear tyre. If it had fallen on him, it would have saved me the job. But this was a careful, methodical man. He kicked his new tyre as I watched, stripped off his filthy overalls and bunged them into an outdoor washing machine. He replaced the jack and tools and stepped out of his boots before closing the shutter and heading back into the house. A man who didn’t make mistakes. Evident enough from the dossier sitting on my bedside table. I would just have to make one for him.
He headed out at 8:30 sharp. Shaw’s cottage looked onto the loch, the rear of the property an untamed four acres of bare earth, spotted with hardy weeds and occasional pools of standing water. I watched from a chair in the porch as the little man receded across his grounds, wrapped up like a sardine in a dark green jacket, flat cap and wellies. A fishing rod swung over one shoulder.
I watched him cross the grounds, stopping to inspect something under his boot, and finally come to his short wooden jetty. From this distance, I could no longer see the feathers on the hook of his rod, but the magnification was still enough to see him pull a key from a chain and unlock the door of the little boathouse on the jetty. He disappeared inside for several minutes, finally emerging with a Tupperware box, a transistor radio, and bizarrely, a stuffed pink bunny. I looked away as he settled himself into a small red launch, gunned the motor, and cut the grey waters of loch Lomond, a slowly receding dot against the valley walls. It was time for my own exercise.
The morning air was crisp and cool, and the ground damp with last night’s rain. A two-seater plane glittered faintly in a ray of cold sunlight and the drone of the engine filled the valley as I walked the muddy half-mile to Shaw’s in four and a half minutes. The road was all mud and cobbles, and stunk of invisible manure. In the distance, I could see a small hamlet, with smoke rising from a chimney into the clear sky. A dark brown tractor moved in a field a mile away to my right, but otherwise the air was still.
Shaw’s estate was ringed by a waist-high stone wall that seemed to have been assembled by hand from a hodgepodge of slate and dull brick. Thin wires ran through the layers, holding it together. A small humped bridge forded a thin stream, and beyond that sat the black iron gates leading to the long gravel drive to the cottage. I turned away before I came to the winking control box set into a high brick arch holding the gates. I noticed there was no intercom.
I circled the estate at a more leisurely pace, keeping to the far side of the road from the wall, and occasionally snapping a picture off the phone nudged into my breast pocket. The wall disappeared after a hundred metres into a small thicket of pine, tips glistening like Christmas angels with the evening’s frost. I entered on a dirt track spotted with needles and rabbit droppings, the white paint of the cottage lost for moments at a time in the forest. It was as good an entry point as any. The grounds around the house were mostly bare earth, but the woodland offered approach cover, and the distance once I’d vaulted the wall would be less than ten metres.
I could see a small outhouse at the rear of the garage, a woodpile twice the size of mine and an axe resting in a stump. A side door into the house sat next to this. The lock looked new, but the wood locked old. I could force it easily with my shoulder. But that wasn’t the mandate.
I checked the time. 8:46. Shaw typically liked to fish until noon, and cook up his catch for lunch. The smell of steaming bream, cooked in garlic and basil suddenly blasted away my senses, sharp enough to taste. The way Rob had fried it up in his cabin in Norfolk, after we’d just come back off Homersfield lake. I was a useless fisherman, but my brother-in-law’s blundering nature ceased when he had a worm on his hook. Nicole had told us not to have too much fun with our rods. Rob said whatever happened at sea stayed at sea. She’d been pregnant with Ellie the last time we’d been out to the cabin. I’d been told it was a boy’s trip, no phones and no drama. After Rob had passed out by the fire, I snuck to the bedroom and had a clandestine call with my wife. The Scottish cold stung at my eyes and I had to wipe them clean.
I cursed under my breath and tried to focus on the cottage. The white walls swam briefly and then sharpened. I couldn’t think about her now.
I had three hours, at least. Enough time for a reconnoitre. I approached the wall and prepared to vault it. And stopped, one foot between the wet bricks when I saw the camera.
It was small, maybe no wider than the palm of my hand, tucked under the red brick gable of the roof in a handy recess. Small, grey and stationery, with a thin wire leading into the wall. It was set in one corner of the house, and there was no question it hadn’t seen me. I slowly lowered my foot, heart pounding in my ears. I forced myself to act as naturally as possible, when I’d been a breath away from hurdling the wall and sprinting at the house.
I rested trembling elbows on the brick wall, and leant into them. The path I’d walked was well worn by boot and hoof, and twisted up a gentle incline into a deeper thicket. A discarded dog collar lay nearby, torn off perhaps as its owner had lunged into a rabbit warren. It was a public footpath. Very luckily. I affected a gentle whistle which cracked on dry lips.
How often would he check the tapes? I imagined a basement room, a bank of monochrome monitors. Maybe a potted plant. Or did the footage go to an unmarked white van in a layby, bored private security eating croissants over a live feed?
I forced myself to count to thirty, then stifled a false yawn and turned my back on the estate, strolling slowly back to the path, when every instinct screamed at me to run like the flicker of white tail that bolted at my approach. I was dressed in rambling gear under my own flat cap, and prayed that I looked the part. If I hadn’t, I figured I would know about it sooner rather than later.
I took a walk I didn’t need, on legs that protested every step. Retuning back the way I had come might look unnatural, so I wandered damp hillsides for an hour before turning back, every flutter of bird or rabbit spiking my adrenaline.
I re-emerged from the thicket at 10:30, forcing myself to keep my eyes on the path rather than the estate. All the same, I clocked two further cameras I had missed the first time round. The estate was covered from all angles. Shaw might have left the city, but the city had not left him. It was no longer the simple job I had been promised.