FROM this height, the sleeping city seems like a child’s construction, a model which has refused to be constrained by imagination. The volcanic plug might be black Plasticine, the castle
balanced solidly atop it a skewed rendition of crenellated building bricks. The orange street lamps are crumpled toffee-wrappers glued to lollipop sticks.
Out in the Forth, the faint bulbs from pocket torches illuminate toy boats resting on black crêpe paper. In this universe, the jagged spires of the Old Town would be angled matchsticks, Princes Street Gardens a Fuzzy-Felt board. Cardboard boxes for the tenements, doors and windows painstakingly detailed with coloured pens. Drinking straws could become guttering and downpipes, and with a .ne blade—maybe a scalpel—those doors could be made to open. But peering inside . . . peering inside would destroy the effect.
Peering inside would change everything.
He shoves his hands in his pockets. The wind is stropping his ears. He can pretend it is a child’s breath, but the reality chides him.
I am the last cold wind you’ll feel.
He takes a step forward, peers over the edge and into darkness.
Arthur’s Seat crouches behind him, humped and silent as though offended by his presence, coiled to pounce. He tells himself it is papier-mâché. He smooths his hands over strips of newsprint, not reading the stories, then realises he is stroking the air and withdraws his hands, laughing guiltily. Somewhere behind him, he hears a voice.
In the past, he’d climbed up here in daylight. Years back, it would have been with a lover maybe, climbing hand in hand, seeing the city spread out like a promise. Then later, with his wife and child, stopping at the summit to take photos, making sure no one went too close to the edge. Father and husband, he would tuck his chin into his collar, seeing Edinburgh in shades of grey, but getting it into perspective, having risen above it with his family. Digesting the whole city with a slow sweep of his head, he would feel that all problems were containable.
But now, in darkness, he knows better.
He knows that life is a trap, that the jaws eventually spring shut on anyone foolish enough to think they could cheat their way to a victory. A police car blares in the distance, but it’s not coming for him. A black coach is waiting for him at the foot of Salisbury Crags. Its headless driver is becoming impatient. The horses tremble and whinny. Their .anks will lather on the ride home.
“Salisbury Crag” has become rhyming slang in the city. It means skag, heroin. “Morningside Speed” is cocaine. A snort of coke just now would do him the world of good, but wouldn’t be enough. Arthur’s Seat could be made of the stuff: in the scheme of things, it wouldn’t matter a damn.
There is a .gure behind him in the darkness, drawing nearer. He half-turns to confront it, then quickly looks away, suddenly fearful of meeting the face. He begins to say something.
“I know you’ll .nd it hard to believe, but I’ve . . .”
He never .nishes the sentence. Because now he’s sailing out across the city, jacket . ying up over his head, smothering a . nal, heartfelt cry. As his stomach surges and voids, he wonders if there really is a coachman waiting for him.
And feels his heart burst open with the knowledge that he’ll never see his daughter again, in this world or any other.
Excerpted from Dead Souls by Ian Rankin.
Copyright © 2000 by Ian Rankin.
Published in March 2010 by St. Martin's Press.
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