‘The man turned around. His hands were dark with blood.

Shona Sandison is back in a second outing from author Philip Miller. The intrepid reporter, newly redundant, is unsure of her next steps when she attends a friend’s wedding. In this extract, she comes across something far worse than the drunken banter at the reception.


The Hollow Tree
By Philip Miller
Published by Polygon


It was time for her to sleep.

She draped the mislaid jacket on an empty chair, then headed up the two flights of stairs to her room. Her legs ached. There must be a lift, she thought. She paused on the worn red carpet of the first landing. The little pebble had shifted in her pocket. She took it out. In the glow of the wall lamps, she could see it was green – green as a broad bean, streaked with a kind of silver. It was impermeable, complete and smooth, like a tiny planet plucked from deep space. She decided to keep it.

She reached a long, dimly lit corridor that smelled of lemon carpet cleaner. The noise of the party receded into distance and night. Some doors had names painted on them: HUGHES, ELIOT, WORDSWORTH, TENNYSON, PATERSON, BERRYMAN, MORGAN. Her bedroom was untitled. It was just room 27. She leaned against the wall, fishing out her key card.

But she did not open the door. She was suddenly distracted by a stream of sharp air against her face. A chill. She looked to the end of the corridor. A fire door was slightly open, and, beyond it, a metal staircase. What was out there? The battlements, the flags and the towers. The view across the darkness of Argyll.

Pale light fell on her door – it came from across the corridor. A door was ajar. She thought she heard something: a clumping noise, footsteps, a kind of moaning. But she could not tell where it was coming from.

‘Hello?’ she called tentatively. She looked left and right, but there was no one around – just the distant bass thump of a song pulsing from the bar.

Shona moved a step forward into the open room. The door, she noticed, had a name printed on it: SORLEY MACLEAN.

She saw a bed and a faint light from the bathroom.

‘Hi,’ she said. ‘Anyone here?’

She thought she heard another moan, and then a deep, long sigh. Raucous laughter suddenly rang out from downstairs.

She took another step into the room. The bed was made, a backpack on the floor beside it. A book lay open on the dressing table. It had been ripped; half a page hung loose and jagged like torn flesh.

With a kind of mental flinch, Shona realised something was on the bedroom floor. She moved closer and could see, spelled out in pebbles and stones, the words: THE RIGHT PATH.

They glimmered with liquid. She bent down and touched a pebble with a fingertip, which suddenly darkened. It was blood.

There was a clanging noise from the hall – the rasp of metal on metal. She moved out to the hall as quickly as she could. In the doorway that led to the roof, something like a ribbon fell into view. It pooled on the floor in a puddle of shadow. She moved to the stairs, as if in liquid, as if in a dream.

There were smears of blood on the wallpaper, lit by a skelf of light. The air seemed to move, like the shimmering around a bonfire. On a metal step lay a pair of silky suit trousers, empty and collapsed. On the next step up, a single sock. Shona moved up the staircase, and the night air was suddenly upon her face, a breeze pulling at her hair.

She reached the top, the battlements low, no higher than her waist.

‘There is no time,’ a flat voice said.

She looked to her right, and a naked man stood at the edge of the tower.

His white skin glimmered in the light thrown from the garden, from the hotel, from the moon. He was looking out into the night, to the dark mountains and the invisible sea.

Shona found herself unable to move – one hand was on her stick, the other was outstretched, as if she needed to hold the air. She saw her fingers, her hand open, clutch at nothing.

The man turned around. His hands were dark with blood.

On his chest was a tattoo that dropped down from his shoulder blades to his waist: a circle of the letters of the alphabet in deep black, and the numbers 0 to 9. Yes on his left shoulder, No on his right.

‘Say yes to no,’ he said, arms outstretched.

‘No,’ she said weakly.

He nodded. His eyes closed.

He cannot fall. She felt a deep surge towards him.

‘Hey, pal, come on, why don’t you come to me? Come down, come inside,’ she said, in the warmest, most reassuring voice she could muster.

His lean naked body stood between battlements. His face was blank, his eyes closed. She realised it was the pale man who had been drinking alone at the bar. It was Viv’s friend.

‘It’s Dan, isn’t it?’ she said.

‘Ask Sorley,’ he said. He opened his eyes. They looked past her. Then he stepped back, into space. Into the night. He dropped from view.

Shona hurried to the edge and saw the end of his fall, the tumbling over, the hurtling into darkness.

There was a loud, wet noise – of solidity meeting softness, of a sudden human breakage. A brief silence – as deep as a sea – and then shouting and a single yelping scream.

His body lay face down, tangled and broken on the hard stone. He was facing the cold earth, the line of the neck dislodged. Legs and arms askew, like the broken branches of a leafless tree.

The music played on, for a while, as doors opened and people gathered. Then the music stopped. And then there were human voices, and the sounds of the deep night, and the murmuring of a small group gathered around the body of Daniel Merrygill.


The Hollow Tree by Philip Miller is published by Polygon, priced £9.99.

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