HOT TROD BY CRAIG AITCHISON

On days like that one, trudging through a damp field, with rain needling her face and cold water seeping through her shoes, DS Armstrong questioned her life choices. Her shift should’ve finished half an hour earlier; she should’ve been warm at home with a mug of tea or glass of wine. She could’ve taken longer for maternity leave, stayed at home with Max. She could’ve stayed in uniform or applied for a nice wee office job. She could’ve completed her law degree. At the very least, she could’ve remembered to bring her bloody wellies.

When she’d arrived at the house, she spoke to his wife, Elspeth, who told Armstrong he was in the top field. Elspeth had offered her to come in and have a cup of tea while she waited for him but she’d refused – another bad decision – because she wanted to get it over and done with. She’d driven up the track to find him.


The rain got heavier as she drove, so she parked when she was close to him and beeped the horn, hoping that she wouldn’t have to get out of the car. It was clear though that Stuart Elliot was in no rush to talk to her. He’d lifted his head then bent back to the dyke that he was repairing. She’d come all this way and wasn’t going home without speaking to him, so she got out the car and bent into the wind and rain, splashing through puddles and sheep shit. He stayed intent on his task. Even when she was standing next to him, she had to address him twice before he pulled back his hood and looked her up and down.


‘It’s you,’ he said.


‘Can I talk to you?’


‘Ah’m busy the now.’


‘I thought we could talk in the car. Or your house?’


He turned back to the wall. ‘Ah’ve been waiting for you for a while.’


She pushed the damp hair away from her face, put her hands on her hips.


‘I’m nearly done. I’ll see you at the house. Five minutes.’ He lifted a stone and placed it on the dyke.

She turned and walked back to the car, the heater and the radio blasting when she turned the ignition. For a moment she considered driving further up the track but it got muddier as it rose. She didn’t want to get stuck. She just had to ask what she needed to and get back to the station. She could write it up in the morning; she might be home before eight.


Armstrong was here to ask Elliot if he could shed any light on a man who worked for him, Darren Ness. Not that it would make much difference to Darren right now – he was in the ICU in the Borders General Hospital. He’d been found on the street outside his flat in the early hours of the morning by one of his neighbours. Armstrong had spoken to the neighbour, Jane, that afternoon. Jane had thought he was ‘just pissed’ until she saw the blood. ‘He’ll have wound up someone that he shouldn’t have,’ Jane said. She was probably right but it was Armstrong’s job to find out if Elliot could tell her who Ness might have wound up.


She reversed back down the track. She turned off the radio so she could concentrate on guiding the car, bending to look over her shoulder sometimes, checking the mirrors at others, adjusting when she hit something with a clatter. ‘Shit.’ She thought it was a gate she’d hit. She didn’t want to report that when she got back – the crap jibes about women drivers, DI McPherson’s disapproving eyebrows, a lecture about tight budgets. She opened the door and leaned out into the rain. Cattle grid. Thank God. She slammed the door and kept reversing.


Once she was over the cattle grid and through the gate, the surface got better and the road wider so she could reverse in the yard then continue back down the track to the farmhouse itself.


The sooner she was out of here, the better.


She parked outside the house. Though she knew she could knock on the door and Elspeth would invite her in, she wanted to sit for a moment, warming up a bit, waiting for Elliot, letting the song finish. Massive Attack, Protection.


When his quad bike pulled up outside the house, he climbed off and wiped his hands on his waterproof trousers. Armstrong got out of the car and walked towards him, trying to avoid the puddles, though it was too late now.


‘It’s gid o ye tae wait.’


‘You didn’t give me much choice, Mr Elliot.’


‘Ah dinnae leave a job half-done.’


‘Can we go inside?’


‘Unlike some folk.’ He walked towards the house.


‘Yes, Mr Elliot.’ He was still bitter about the tractor that was stolen four months ago.


He stopped and turned abruptly so she almost walked into him. ‘Look,’ he said and pointed up. Rain got in her eyes; she couldn’t see anything.


‘CCTV.’


Now, through the rain, she could make out a camera above the front door, a wee light blinking.


‘Bloody dear. But ah’ve lost enough lately. As ye ken.’ They stepped under the portico above the front door of the farmhouse that gave Armstrong a little shelter. ‘Enquiries are ongoing Mr Elliot,’ she said but even to Armstrong the words sounded hollow. The tractor would be long gone.


‘Christ. There was a time ye could take revenge on folk that stole from ye.’


‘The Hot Trod?’ Armstrong said.


Elliot smiled. ‘Ye can a bit aboot the Reivers?’


‘I do. They could legally pursue people who stole from them and take revenge – The Hot Trod. Or retrieve what was theirs within six days – The Cold Trod.’


‘Very gid.’


He opened the door and called, ‘Elspeth.’ He took off his boots, his waterproof trousers and coat, leaving them in a damp pile by the door. She followed him through to the kitchen which was warm and smelt of cooking. Stew maybe, good warming food. Armstrong’s stomach rumbled. Elspeth turned from the stove.


‘There’s tea,’ she said already pouring into a mug. ‘Just milk, Fiona?’


‘Please.’ Armstrong took the mug in both hands, sipping at it, feeling better already as the hot strong tea warmed her. She couldn’t help but like Mrs Elliot. Elspeth had a kind, gentle manner but Armstrong could see there was a strength in her that was echoed in her solid form.


Elliot sat at the heavy kitchen table. ‘Well Miss Armstrong. What have ye tae say?’


‘It’s about Darren.’


‘Darren?’ He said, ‘Darren Ness?’


‘Yes.’ She pulled out a chair and sat down.


‘Ah didnae realise.’


‘I tried to phone.’


‘Ah’ve been working, Miss Armstrong.’


She looked at him through the steam from her mug. ‘Sergeant Armstrong,’ she corrected.


‘What’s he done?’


‘He’s been hurt—’


‘He’ll have been drinking.’


‘He’s in the BGH.’


‘Ah’ve told um about the drink. Doesnae know when tae stop.’


‘He’s been assaulted.’


‘Ah mean, we aw like a drink, but—’


‘Mr Elliot.’ Armstrong raised her voice.


‘Aye?’


‘He’s in critical condition.’


Elliot slurped tea from his mug.


‘Do you know anyone who might have wanted to hurt Darren?’


‘Ah don’t think so. Ah mean, he was daft. But harmless.’


She leaned back in her chair. ‘And do you know who his associates,’ she paused. She shouldn’t speak of him like he was a criminal. He was a chancer maybe, but he hadn’t deserved the beating he’d taken. ‘Who his friends are?’


‘Well.’ Elliot rubbed a hand through his hair, making his untidy hair even more messy. ‘He used to be friends with ma laddie.’


‘That’s a while ago now,’ said Elspeth.


‘Of course.’ A quiet fell. The Elliot’s son, Iain, had died two years ago in a car crash. It happened around here sometimes. Young folk didn’t have much else to do other than drink or drive too fast. Sometimes they did both on the same night.


‘The Allan laddie. And Kerr, what’s his first name?’


Armstrong had heard this name before. Grant Kerr. A rugby player who had been tipped for big things. He’d been given a professional contract, was on his way to playing scrum-half for Scotland. Then he tore all the ligaments in his knee. That was it. Career over. He had occupied himself by fighting and taking coke. Some folk said he was dealing too.


‘Ah think he might’ve owed money to Kerr,’ said Elliot.


That made sense. There was talk of poker games where the stakes rose with the testosterone levels. Or it could be that Ness owed him for drugs. Armstrong didn’t imagine Elliot paid him much.


‘Thank you.’ Behind her, Elspeth stirred the stew, releasing more aromas. She needed to get home to her son; leave the Elliots to their dinner, their gossip about Ness, their grief.


‘Well, thank you, both of you. For the names. And the tea. I’ll leave you to your dinner.’


‘It’s nearly ready Rob. Away an get washed up.’


‘Ah will. Miss, Sergeant Armstrong. Did you want a wee look at the CCTV?’


She paused for a moment. She felt sorry for them wondering how often they had visitors that Rob would try to prolong any visit, even one from the police.


‘Come away through. Ah’ll show ye.’


Elspeth laughed. ‘Let him show you his new toy.’


He led her down a hall which was covered with rosettes of various colours – prizes from agricultural shows. She paused to look at a photograph. In the picture, Elliot stood beside a ram, he wore a white jacket, a red rosette, and a broad smile. At the other side of the sheep was another man, who was almost identical except slightly taller, slimmer and much younger. The son.‘This is the hall of fame,’ said Elliot, realising she had paused. He turned and saw the photo she was looking at. ‘Highland Show, three years ago. Second in its category. The beast that beat us that day won Best in Show.’ He looked at the photo and sighed. Armstrong wondered if he was remembering his son or losing out on the big prize.


As they stood, gazing at the photograph, her phone rang and she reached for it.


‘Excuse me, Mr Elliot. Can I just take this?’ She held up the phone.


‘Aye, nae bother. Ah’ll just be in here.’ He stepped into the small office off the hall.


‘Hello?’


‘DS Armstrong. Are you still at the farm?’


‘Yes,’ she looked at the photos and rosettes on the wall, worrying a little that she’d got distracted from the job in hand. ‘I’ve got some names. Nearly done.’


‘Ness is awake. He’s talking.’


‘And?’


‘One person, he thinks. They were waiting for him, jumped him as he opened the gate. Came from behind a car. With a weapon, a club or bat. Maybe something metallic.’


‘Okay. Thanks. I’ll just finish up here.’


Armstrong tried to work out what it meant. From the state of Ness, the extent of the bruising – the broken cheekbone, the cuts – she’d thought there was more than one attacker. The use of the weapon, the idea that the attacker was lying in wait; it was planned, premeditated. She didn’t imagine Kerr using a weapon for some reason; she thought he’d be all fists.


She put her phone away and stepped into Elliot’s office. She meant to make her excuses, get back into town, maybe even pick up someone to go round and have a word with Grant Kerr. But she couldn’t help but stop. If Elliot’s hall of fame had made her reconsider her opinion, this room made her see the man in a whole new light. It was very neat, shelves on the wall holding dated box files above a desk with an expensive looking laptop and a wireless printer. On the screen of the laptop was a spreadsheet which Elliot was studying.


‘Come away in,’ he said.


She entered, hoping she hadn’t made her surprise too obvious.


‘Just a second.’ Elliot swiped and clicked the mouse, minimising the spreadsheet and calling up three windows. Small writing told Armstrong that one was the camera for the house, one for the barn, the third for the lambing shed. At the moment, they were all blank.


‘Good eh? They’re aw blank the now. Ah pit it on at night. Ah’m never far away the rest ae the time. The cameras are motion sensitive, they record when there’s something passing.’


‘Clever.’ She watched him click again.


‘Each of these spikes is when the camera saw something. Foxes likely. Watch.’ He clicked on one of the spikes and the screen filled. Armstrong recognised it as the yard at the front of the vehicle barn. A dark shape crept across the screen. ‘Badger,’ he said.


‘What about this one?’ she pointed at the screen and he clicked.


This time the view was from the camera mounted on the house. At first there were just dim lights, then a large shape began to move across the screen, and the lights got brighter. It was a car, pulling away from the house. ‘Is that your car Mr Elliot?’


Elliot looked at the screen. The dim red of rear lights illuminated the garden gate then the screen faded to almost complete black. The time stamp in the top-right corner read 2233.


‘Did you go into town last night, Mr Elliot?’


‘Me? Christ, no. Ah was in ma bed by nine o’clock as usual. Bed early, up early, that’s me.’


At that moment, Elspeth turned her head round the doorway. ‘Your dinner’s – oh, Fiona, you’re still here.’


Armstrong reached across Elliot to the mouse pad, stroking it so that the vehicle reversed back across the screen.


‘Where were you going Mr Elliot?’


‘Ah wasnae—’


Elspeth interrupted. ‘You’d better turn that off. Rob’s needing—’


Fiona stood and faced Elspeth. ‘I’d like him to answer.’ But when Armstrong turned back to Elliot, he was staring past her, at Elspeth. There was fear in his eyes.


‘Was that you Elspeth?’ he said.


‘Och no,’ she started to say but then became fixed on the frozen image on the screen. A Land Rover, headlights on, a figure in the driving seat. When she spoke again it was so quiet that Armstrong could hardly hear her. ‘Ah couldnae sleep,’ she said.


‘Where did you drive to Elspeth?’ Armstrong asked.


‘I just drove about a wee bit. Sometimes things just go round and round in my head. Iain and—’


‘The robbery?’ Armstrong said. She stepped towards Elspeth who squared her shoulders. ‘Was it Darren? Did you go to find him?’


Armstrong was aware of Elliot getting up behind her, but she had to press on. ‘If you left at 1033, you could be in town in time for the pubs kicking out. You could be waiting for him outside his flat.’ Elspeth glanced over Armstrong’s shoulder. ‘With a shovel.’


Then Elspeth stepped forward and Armstrong felt strong hands, grabbing at her, squeezing her arm and when she raised a hand in defence she was pushed back and fell, knocking the office chair so that it spun away and falling heavily onto the ground. She looked up as Elspeth advanced, looming over her and Armstrong cowered, seeing a dirty boot inches from her face, preparing herself for the kick.


But it didn’t come.


Elliot stepped over her and grabbed Elspeth’s arms, pinning them to her side. As Armstrong scrabbled to her feet, the two of them wrestled and rocked for a few seconds until Elspeth relented. The grip that Elliot had on his wife became a hug and she started to sob.


‘What have you done?’ Elliot said into her shoulder, his voice soft. ‘What the bloody hell have you done?’

Armstrong watched them, feeling almost like an intruder for a moment, then stepped forward and placed a hand on each of them, gently prising them apart. She looked at Elspeth, hair stuck to her face with tears.


‘I think you’ll need to come to the station with me.’


‘She’ll come,’ said Elliot, nudging Elspeth towards the door. ‘Ah’ll come wi her.’


They walked along the corridor, past the prizes and awards, the pictures of better times, not stopping at the kitchen where plates were filled with food and rich smells filled the air, nor pausing to lift coats or hats, just going straight out the door, through the rain. Armstrong did not bother to step over the puddles as she walked to the car and opened the back door so that they could get in. She turned only once to see their hands linked in the back seat. Elspeth looked out at the fields, the damp sheep and the rain; Elliot looked only at his wife’s face.


Armstrong drove back to the station without speaking. She wouldn’t get to read Max a bedtime story tonight, wouldn’t get to tuck him in. It was going to be a busy night.


© Hot Trod, 2022, Craig Aitchison

 

Craig Aitchison has a Masters in Creative Writing from the University of Stirling. His fiction has appeared in Lallans, Fictive Dream, Northwords Now, Southlight, Wyldblood and Pushing Out the Boat. He has won the Sangschaw award for short fiction in Scots and been shortlisted for the Wigtown Poetry Prize for Scots. He has had poetry published in Poetry Scotland and was commissioned by the Scottish Poetry Library to write a poem celebrating 250 years of Sir Walter Scott. He was recently chosen as a Scottish Mountaineering Press Creative. In 2022 his work will feature in New Writing Scotland and the Fly on the Wall Press anthology, ‘Demos Rising.’