Quintin Jardine: Skinner's festival

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Quintin Jardine Skinner's festival
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    Skinner's festival
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Quintin Jardine

Skinner's Festival


Panic was etched on the face of the clown on the unicyle.

Even through the happy smile make-up, it registered as he struggled to regain his balance, rocking frantically backwards and forwards on his unsteady perch. His arms flailed, and for a second it seemed certain that he was gone, but with a violent last-ditch heave he pulled himself back to the vertical, straightening quickly in the saddle and resuming his compromise with gravity. The reallife smile returned behind the rictus.

He swerved suddenly towards Skinner and Sarah.

Under Bob's arm, Sarah's shoulders still shook with laughter from the sight of this silent struggle. She leaned against her husband as the clown drew closer. Fully in command of his steed once more, the unicyclist thrust out his right hand, offering them a leaflet. Sarah reached up and took it from him, waving him goodbye as he wobbled on towards his next target.

She studied the handbill. 'Le Cirque Mobile. Leith Links.

Performances 7:30 and 10:00 nightly.'

'Hmm. Hope the rest are a bloody sight more "mobile" than him,' Skinner said, dryly.

'Let's find out some night. My treat.'

'Put like that. Doctor Sarah Grace Skinner, you're on.'

His wife hugged him tight with her left arm as they made their way, slowly and haphazardly, through the crowds which thronged the open area at the foot of the Mound, around the grey-pillared Royal Scottish Academy, and its yellow stone neighbour, the National Gallery of Scotland. The classical formality of the buildings was in strange contrast to the garish make-up and dress of the Fringe performers who were muling around the pedestrian area, promoting the opening nights of their various shows.

Skinner's sweater was slung over his left shoulder, hanging from his thumb by its label. As the sun had climbed higher in the sky in the late August morning, its heat had caught him by surprise. He was a tall, strongly built man, grey-maned but still looking younger than his forty-four years. He walked straightbacked and broad-chested, with a mass of curly hair filling the V of his open-necked shirt.

Sarah's lean and sinuous body seemed to fit perfectly against his, held by the tanned right arm which spanned her shoulders.

Her auburn hair sparkled in the sun, and an easy smile played around the corners of her mouth as she relaxed against her chosen mate, enjoying the beauty of the morning.

Summer tends to by-pass Scotland in July, the month in which most of its families normally take their annual holidays. Those who can afford it make for the airports, en route for the Mediterranean, the Canary Islands or the Aegean. Those with no spending power, or no stomach for flying, either stay at home adults in the pub, offspring watching satellite TV movies – or cling to wind-swept loch-sides in caravans, as the bleak season runs its course.

Then, in August, the penance is over. As the factories reopen and builders' buttocks peek out anew from jeans on construction sites across the country, the skies clear and the sun resumes its daily journey from Edinburgh to Glasgow.

This turn in the weather coincides with the opening of the Edinburgh International Festival. The Festival' is a misnomer in reality, for the season of the arts in Scotland's capital is a gathering of gatherings. From all over the world, performers and audiences come: for the 'official' plays and concerts in the grandest venues; for the connoisseurs' film event; for the conference of the mighty in television; for the jazz and blues concerts around the pubs and hotels; for the Military Tattoo in its steel arena on the sloping Esplanade of the great Castle; and, chaotically, for the Fringe – that magnet for hundreds of theatre groups ranging from the most professional to the rankest amateur.

As is the case with many who have migrated from west to east in Scotland, there was a part of Skinner which relished the time of the Festivals. They gave his adopted city an atmosphere which he could not imagine being matched anywhere in the world. For the best part of a month the capital buzzed with excitement; her streets filled with freak shows; her pubs, hotels and shops filled with visitors.

On the other hand, as Assistant Chief Constable Skinner, Head of Edinburgh's Criminal Investigation Department, there was a ambivalent tinge to his appreciation of this unique ambience. For the Festival month brought with it an invasion of pickpockets, conmen, shoplifters, and still the occasional drug-dealer, although the ranks of the pushers had been decimated by Skinner's own heavy hand and by the severity of the Scottish courts.

Still, despite that downside, this year's Festivals made Skinner even happier than the contented man he had become since his marriage. Already he and Sarah had spent days plotting their course through the hundreds of shows on offer to them and had worked out a rough running order. However there were still some slots to be filled and, for those in doubt, mid day windowshopping at the Mound had become yet another Fringe tradition.

Surrounded by the jangle of competing musicians, and the traffic noise from Princes Street, one hundred yards away, Sarah did not react at all to the sound of the explosion.

But Skinner tensed at once. First Sarah felt the bunching of the muscles of his arm. Then he took it from her shoulders, his hand reaching subconsciously towards his left side. He seemed to stretch, to stand to his full height. With eyebrows raised, he looked around, first to his left towards the west end of Princes Street, then right, towards Waverley Station and the Balmoral Hotel. He turned his back on the street, as his gaze swept up the jagged skyline as it rose to the Bank of Scotland Head Office, past the Assembly Rooms, and on towards the Castleon its rock.

Sarah tugged his arm. 'What is it. Bob? What's wrong?'

'Didn't you hear it?' The sharpness of his tone stung her, and she fired back.

'Hear what, for Christ's sake? All I can hear are guitars and fairground barkers. What am I supposed to have heard?'

'A bang. An explosion. A fucking bomb, that's what! But I can't figure out where it went off.'

'Are you sure. Bob? Couldn't it just have been some stunt here?'

When he looked down at her, his eyes were hard, but they softened at once at seeing the hurt on her face. 'I'm sorry, love. I didn't mean to snap at you. No, it wasn't as close as that. I reckon it was somewhere between two and four hundred yards away, but I can't pin down the exact location. It was a bomb though, for sure, I've spent too long on anti-terrorist training courses not to recognise that sound.'

He looked back towards Princes Street. The traffic was still flowing freely from west to east, but closer to them, on the street's south side, it seemed to have dwindled to a trickle. Only a public service bus and two cars could now be seen, slowing as the lights changed to red.

Skinner flicked open the button which secured the left breast pocket of his shirt, and took out a small mobile telephone. He switched it on, and keyed in a short-coded number. The headquarters switchboard answered within three seconds.

This is ACC Skinner. Give me the duty inspector in communications control, fast.'

Yes, sir.'

He heard the buzz as the call was re-routed. Once again it was picked up quickly.

'Central control, Inspector Good.'

Skinner knew the man, and was pleased to hear his voice; he had him marked down as experienced and unflappable. 'ACC Skinner here. Henry. Have you had anything through 999 from the Princes Street area within the last half-minute or so?'

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