Authors: Graham Thomas
MALICE IN THE HIGHLANDS
“Graham Thomas knows his Highlands, lochs, glens, and salmon fishing—and as I followed the ingenious twists and turns of his tidy plot, I felt I had been transported back to that chillingly beautiful, remote country. With its accuracy of detail,
Malice in the Highlands
is a fiercely intelligent murder mystery.”
—Susan Allen Toth
England for All Seasons
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For my parents
With thanks to Kristen Busch
This day winding down now
At God speeded summer's end
In the torrent salmon sun
Collected Poems 1934-1952
The hills loomed over the valley with the dark intensity of storm clouds. It was raining lightly and Miss Pamela Barington-Jones had to clench her teeth to keep them from chattering. The mist had thickened and drawn closer, creating a claustrophobic sense of isolation, and it occurred to her, not for the first time, that if she hadn't been so pigheaded she could have been sunning with her sister in Majorca. Suppressing a wave of self-pity, she drew herself up and straightened her shoulders. She was cold and wet and stiff from her exertions, but she was not about to throw in the sponge. After all, she reminded herself, they turn out a gritty sort of chap at the Springset School for Girls.
The rain-swollen river, stained dark with peat and lashed to a yeasty foam, looked like brown ale. She was perched on a jumble of boulders that had been placed along the riverbank to protect it from erosion. The footing was treacherous, so she took some time to position her Wellies securely before going over the sequence in her mind once again. Back, stop, pause, forward. When she was certain that she had it right, she sucked in her breath and began to flail about with her salmon rod in yet another attempt to fling her fly into the river where the salmon resided, as opposed to the bushes behind her. In a final climactic thrust, accompanied by the sort of spirited grunt usually associated with American tennis stars, she let fly. When the leaves had settled, her line looked like a cat's cradle woven amongst the brambles.
“I say,” she shouted above the tumult of water. “I just can't seem to get the hang of it. Er, would you mind awfully … ?”
Angus MacDougall muttered darkly to himself. He was a big man and he had to stoop awkwardly in his chest-high waders to untangle the line. He had lost count of the times he had been asked to sacrifice his dignity on the altar of Miss Barington-Jones's incompetence, and it was precious little consolation to imagine, as he attempted to dislodge her fly from its thorny keep, that the large treble hook was imbedded instead in her ample haunch. He yanked on the line.
MacDougall's frustration was not due entirely to the fact that Miss Barington-Jones had no aptitude for salmon fishing; he had come to expect that. As head gillie on the Cairngorm water, perhaps the most renowned salmon fishing on the River Spey, he had witnessed an alarming decline in standards over the years. His clients nowadays were mostly yuppies and foreigners with more brass than brains. Not like the great days when the river ran silver with salmon, and a gillie and his gentleman were joined by a bond of mutual respect and a love of sport that transcended mere class distinctions.
Many of his newer clients had never even fished for salmon before coming to Cairngorm, having been enticed by glossy magazine adverts that played up the snob appeal of a fishing holiday on a Scottish estate. It didn't usually take more than a few hours standing crotch-deep in an icy torrent, attempting to cast a three-inch fly with a double-handed rod into the teeth of a Highland gale, for the novelty to wear off. Despite these not inconsiderable handicaps, MacDougall took his responsibilities as tutor, mentor, and guardian of a venerable tradition seriously. While he couldn't guarantee a fish these days, he refused to lower his standards when it came to the practice of the art itself; he had yet to meet a guest who had not been able, either through encouragement or coercion, to master at least the rudiments of salmon-fishing technique.
That was, however, before the Coming of Barington-Jones, as MacDougall was later to think of the epochal event. As deceptively nondescript and harmless as she might appear to the world, the executive assistant (whatever that was) from Birmingham was shaping up to be his Culloden. Miss Barington-Jones, it could fairly be said, embodied ineptitude on a heroic scale. She was, in fact, completely bloody hopeless. After nearly a week she remained unable to manage a cast of more than four or five yards, which happened to be at least ten yards short of the nearest salmon. Moreover—and this in particular grated on his nerves, even more than that improbable Brum accent of hers—she seemed constantly to be staring at him with a treacly sort of smile on her face. It gave him the willies. And the fact that she was paying more than a thousand pounds a week for the privilege of fishing at Cairngorm, with absolutely nothing to show for it, offended his Scotch sensibilities. True, the river was in full spate and there was little hope of catching anything, but MacDougall was a stubborn man and refused to concede defeat.
Having recovered Miss Barington-Jones's fly, which was beginning to look the worse for the wear and tear, MacDougall approached his lady, who was waiting at the water's edge, still game if just a trifle flustered. He drew a deep breath and summoned his last reserves of equanimity. He placed his lips close to her ear so there could be no misunderstanding. ‘It's all a matter of timin’, Miss,” he said evenly. “Just remember tae pause a wee bit until the line straightens out behind you before startin’ the forward stroke. Then snap the rod forward, just like I showed you, like you was hammerin’ a nail at eye level wi’ a double-handed hammer. And remember tae keep the line high on the backcast so you won't get hung up again.”
Miss Barington-Jones stared at her gillie, wide eyed with wonder, as if he were a rare specimen of some exotic tribe. She pushed her foggy glasses back up her nose and blinked to make certain that she wasn't dreaming. Her holiday at Cairngorm was to have been the adventure of a lifetime, yet standing beside this wild Highland torrent, far removed from her familiar milieu, she felt all at sea and more than a little foolish. Miss Barington-Jones had never married and seldom had cause to regret it, but she had always been attracted to the strong, silent type, and with all this talk of rods and strokes and him standing so close now, she was finding it difficult to concentrate. She shook her head doubtfully. “I don't know. It seems so devilishly complicated.”
MacDougall sighed heavily. “Just try again, Miss,” he said, prudently stepping to the side and out of the line of fire.
With a peculiar rotary motion that defied close analysis, Miss Barington-Jones began to switch her rod to and fro. Although the relationship between action and reaction was unclear, the end result of her exertions was a satisfying plop fifty feet away as her fly settled neatly into the swirling current.
MacDougall, to say the least, was astonished; Miss Barington-Jones, for her part, was ecstatic. But before either of them could utter a word, her rod bowed sharply and the reel ratchet began to screech in the characteristic manner that is music to every angler's ear. It was evident that something huge had taken hold of her fly, and Miss Barington-Jones, completely flummoxed, could do little save hold on for dear life.
“Let it run! Let it run!” MacDougall shouted, leaping instinctively into action. His mind raced at the prospect of a considerable salmon being taken at Cairngorm, with all the attendant publicity and prestige. There hadn't been many good fish in recent years because of all the netting and that damned disease he could never pronounce. From the bend in Miss Barington-Jones's rod it was obvious that she was into a good one, and he wasn't about to let her bungle it. According to tradition, a gillie was not supposed to actually play his client's fish, but he could coach, cajole, or admonish as events dictated and was expected to tail or gaff the salmon at the dénouement. MacDougall, however, had been seized by a historic sense of purpose, and even if he had to bend the rules a little, just this once, he promised himself that Miss Barington-Jones would have her salmon.
It didn't take long, running downstream with the full force of the current behind it, for the leviathan to strip the fly line from the reel. Only a few turns of white nylon backing remained on the spool, and even these were disappearing at an alarming rate. There seemed little doubt that the great beast was intent on returning nonstop to the firth.
MacDougall quickly assessed the situation. “We'll have tae run with it, Miss,” he announced with grim determination, grabbing the sleeve of her Barbour and pulling her along the revetment, despite her protestations, as fast as he dared. But before they had gone more than a few yards, his boot slipped on a greasy, cantaloupe-size rock, sending him hard on his arse, and Miss Barington-Jones, an instant later, on
MacDougall swore and snatched up the rod. The line had gone sickeningly slack. Hoping against hope, he scrambled to his feet, reeling frantically. To his inexpressible relief, the line tightened again, indicating that the fish was still attached, although it no longer seemed to be moving. He heaved on the rod as hard as he dared but felt only a solid, unyielding resistance. Forgetting about Miss Barington-Jones, who had begun to whimper softly, MacDougall slowly picked his way downstream amongst the rocks, keeping the line taut. He was limping slightly, conscious of his bruised buttocks, not to mention his battered pride.
Just ahead he could see a partially submerged bush where the line appeared to be snagged. Absorbed as he was in the task at hand, he did not notice that Miss Barington-Jones had rejoined the fray and was now following close behind. Upon reaching the tangle, he waded out and began to rummage about with his boot in the murky, thigh-deep water.
Suddenly, in the lee of the bush, a huge shape rolled to the surface of the river. Not quite believing his eyes, MacDougall edged closer for a better look.