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Authors: Graham Thomas

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BOOK: Malice in the Highlands
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“I wanted to have a word with you, but perhaps some other time …”

She shook her head. “Really, Mr. Powell, I'm all right. It's just that, well, it's all been rather upsetting.”

He nodded, regarding her with fond concern. Although he had no evidence to suggest otherwise, he had often wondered if Ruby's relationship with Nigel was simply that of employee and employer. In any case, he had no
doubt that since Maggie Whitely's death, Ruby had been the mortar that held things together at the Salar Lodge.

“Ruby, I should tell you that I've been ordered by my superiors to assist Mr. Barrett with the investigation of Mr. Murray's death.”

If he had expected some sort of reaction, he would have been disappointed. In fact, Ruby seemed incapable of any reaction at all. Her expression was devoid of emotion, bereft of hope.

“I see,” she said eventually in a barely audible voice.

Powell measured his words carefully. “This isn't easy for me, Ruby. I hardly need to tell you that I consider you a dear friend and the last thing I want to do is upset you, but as a policeman I have to ask certain questions.” He paused to let the import of his words sink in before continuing. ‘On Tuesday morning you told me that Miss Murray called the hotel asking after her father. I must admit that it struck me as a bit odd at the time. Why would she call here, and not the police, if she were concerned about his welfare?”

“I really couldna say, Mr. Powell,” Ruby replied, a little too quickly, Powell thought.

Obviously distraught, she began wringing her hands.

“Might it have had something to do with his drinking?”

“Sir?” She seemed puzzled.

“Correct me if I'm wrong, Ruby, but I got the distinct impression from you that Mr. Murray was not averse to a wee drop now and then.”

As if to busy her hands, she returned to her folding.

“Ruby, it's important.”

“I—I canna remember exactly what I said now.”

Powell surmised that she probably felt uncomfortable
telling tales out of school. “We know from the postmortem that Mr. Murray had been drinking on the night in question. I'm simply trying to trace the sequence of events, that's all.”

‘Oh, I see.”

Changing the subject, he said gently, “Have you spoken to Miss Murray recently?”

“I went to see her—on Tuesday, I think it was—to see if she needed anything.”

“Did you go alone?”

“Aye.”

He thought he detected something in her voice. “What about Nigel and Bob? I thought perhaps you might have called on Miss Murray together?”

She stammered, “Oh! It—it would have been too much, wouldn't it? I mean, so many visitors all at once, after such a shock.”

She had obviously been caught off guard by this suggestion, but Powell gave no sign he had noticed.

“Yes, I suppose you're right. Getting back to Mr. Murray, do you recall the last time he stopped by the hotel?”

She appeared to give the matter considerable thought.

“Miss Murray apparently thought he might have been here Monday evening,” he prompted.

“I really couldna say, Mr. Powell. Monday night is my Women's Rural Institute meeting. I didna get back ‘til after eleven.”

“I see.” He drew a shallow breath. “Ruby, is there anything you can tell me, anything at all that might help me get to the bottom of this business?”

She looked at him imploringly, as if seeking forbearance, before replying ambiguously, “I canna see how I can help.”

It was obvious to Powell that the point of diminishing returns was rapidly approaching and he needed time to think. He patted her arm and smiled warmly, but to no effect.

Preoccupied, he made his way to the front hall. Almost certainly Ruby, like Nigel, knew more than she was letting on. But why would either of them wish to conceal anything? Since the murder, it had struck him that there was a fragile pretense of normality surrounding the daily activities at the Salar Lodge, but there was something else lurking not far beneath the surface.

He felt like a rock climber groping for an unseen handhold.

Nigel was in attendance at the front desk. He looked up from his paperwork. “Good morning, Mr. Powell,” he said cheerily. If he was harboring any resentment from the day before, he gave no indication.

“Hello, Nigel. How's fishing?”

“Getting better every day. There were three fish taken yesterday and two have been brought in already this morning. You really should try to get out, Mr. Powell.”

“Not possible, I'm afraid. It's now official,” he added blandly. “I've been ordered by my superiors to assist Mr. Barrett with the Murray investigation.”

There was no reaction.

“Which creates a bit of a problem …”

Silence.

“For Mr. Warburton.”

“Oh, I see what you mean.”

“But I think I have a possible solution. The other day I bumped into a chap on number two beat—John Sanders,
I think his name was. He had a day ticket. Do you remember him?”

“Yes, of course, the Canadian gentleman.”

“That's him. Well, I was wondering if you'd mind if he took my place on the beats? He seems like a decent enough chap and he'd be company for Mr. Warburton.”

“No problem at all, Mr. Powell. I seem to recall that he's staying at one of the local guesthouses. I can check our copy of the receipt for the address and try to get in touch with him, if you like.”

“I'd be much obliged, Nigel.”

“Not at all, Mr. Powell.”

Powell stepped outside. As there was nearly half an hour until lunch, he decided on a stroll around the garden. Lost in thought, he rounded the corner of the hotel and nearly collided with Warburton and Arthur Ogden, who were returning from the river, rods in hand, engaged in an animated conversation.

“Well, speak of the devil,” Warburton quipped.

“I was just going to tell Pinky about a rather curious incident that happened to me at the Old Bridge this morning, but he insisted that I should let you in on it as well,” Ogden explained. He smiled thinly and ran his fingers through an impressive mane of white hair. Although nearly seventy, Ogden's rugged good looks seemed immune to the ravages of time. A self-educated man, he was at ease in any social circle and had tutored both princes and plumbers in the art of angling, as well as having written several authoritative books on the subject. “It's probably of no consequence whatsoever,” he continued, “but perhaps Pinky's right. One never knows.”

“I'm all ears,” Powell said, his curiosity aroused.

“It was around nine o'clock,” Ogden began. “I'd left my class to work on their casting and wandered up the river to see if I could catch a glimpse of a deer whose sign I'd come across earlier. I kept to the river path as far as the Old Bridge and then took to the hillside. I reckoned that the animal was bedded down in a thicket somewhere on the slope above the river. I was making my way through the scrub toward a rock outcropping, which looked like a good vantage point, when I nearly stepped on the bugger.” He smiled sheepishly. “It's a good job I'm still continent, I can tell you. It was a young stag. He was off in a flash, leaving me shattered and feeling rather foolish.

“When my heart stopped pounding, I climbed onto the rock to see where he'd got to. I glassed the hillside, but there was no sign of him. Just as I was about to climb off, something caught my attention. There was a fisherman on the estate water. He was well upstream of the bridge around the first bend, which is why I hadn't spotted him from the river path. It seemed a bit rum, so I decided to investigate. Silly of me to stick my nose in, I suppose,” he ventured tentatively.

Suppressing a surge of excitement, Powell smiled reassuringly. “Perfectly natural, Arthur. Do it all the time myself.”

Apparently relieved to have escaped official admonishment for practicing detection without a license, Ogden continued in an increasingly animated fashion, “I picked my way along the slope, which had became unpleasantly steep and loose by this time, until I was at a point directly opposite and above him, perhaps fifty yards away. The chap had waded out into the river and was standing with
his back to me, about ten yards from the near bank. He seemed completely unaware of my presence, my desperate scrabbling on the rocks above having no doubt been masked by the sound of the river.” He paused, as if, in recalling the excitement of the moment, he needed to catch his breath.

“What did you do then?” prompted Warburton, who seemed to be taking considerable pleasure in the proceedings.

Ogden grinned sheepishly. “A damned foolish thing, now that I think of it. I'd come to the conclusion by then that I was dealing with a common poacher, and I'd just about made up my mind to challenge the fellow when I slipped on a patch of damp bracken. Somehow, I managed to grab on to something and arrest what might have been a rather spectacular descent, but in the process I dislodged a rock about the size of a football. I watched helplessly as the boulder bounded down the face and finally sailed in an apparently lethal trajectory toward my unwitting victim. I called out, but it was too late for him to react. The rock hit the water with a great commotion, missing him by mere inches. He let out a yelp and began to thrash his way back to shore, losing his rod in the process. One can hope that it was only river water that filled his waders.” Ogden winked at Powell.

Warburton was shaking silently in near-apoplectic mirth while gesturing frantically for Ogden to continue.

“To cut a long story short, the poor bloke half swam, half crawled out of the water and, without so much as a glance over his shoulder, buggered off downstream like a scared rabbit.”

“Interesting,” Powell mused.

“And there's a rather curious footnote.’

“What do you mean?”

“At that point I thought it best to leave well enough alone. I was about to start back when, all of a sudden, an unearthly wailing sound began to reverberate through the strath. It took me a few seconds to realize what it was.” He looked incredulously at Powell. “It was someone playing the bloody bagpipes, if you can believe it! Difficult to say exactly where it was coming from, but it was damned eerie, I can tell you. Odd thing was, after a few minutes it stopped as suddenly as it had begun.”

Powell's mind was racing. There was beginning to be too much clutter in this case for his liking. “Did you get a good look at him—the fisherman, I mean?”

Ogden shrugged. “Afraid not. I fancy I was shaking too much.”

“Curious behavior for a poacher,” Powell observed, as much to himself as anyone else.

“What do you mean?”

“Attempting to poach a salmon in broad daylight.”

“Pretty brazen, I agree. Maybe he'd heard about the laird's demise and reckoned there'd be no one around to worry about it?”

“Perhaps.” Powell considered this latest development. He'd better arrange for a diving team to attempt to recover the fishing rod. It was a slim chance, but worth a try. “Much obliged, Arthur. I think this may prove to be important.”

Ogden grinned. “Always happy to help a copper.”

“By the way, did you happen to notice the type of rod he was using?”

“What? Oh, the usual fourteen or fifteen footer. Why do you ask?”

“Are you certain?”

“Of course. I took particular notice because he wasn't very good with it.”

Powell frowned. “That's a bit odd, don't you think?”

“What do you mean?”

“I don't know, I've always thought of poachers as being rather good at what they do.”

Ogden shrugged. “Killing fish is the main thing—finesse is secondary. In fact, it's amazing how crude some of their methods can be. I recall a case where—”

“Gentlemen,” Warburton interrupted heartily, consulting his watch, “unless I'm sadly mistaken, luncheon will be served shortly.”

Feeling thoroughly sorry for himself, PC Shand had stopped in at Solway's for a cup of tea, although he'd been more in the mood for a few pints at the Grouse and Butt. In spite of his best efforts, he'd made painfully little progress in filling in the critical gap between the departure of Charles Murray and Oliver Pickens from Castle Glyn on Monday afternoon and the discovery of Murray's body in the River Spey the next day. He'd managed to ascertain that the two had stopped at a filling station in Grantown on Monday afternoon at approximately one-thirty, on the way to Aviemore presumably. Although neither man was known to the attendant, the lad had taken note of Murray's silver Mercedes and the Canadian accents. PC Shand chided himself; it wasn't much to show for four days of work.

As he stepped into the road he was faced with the immediate problem of what to do next. Rather than taking the High Street back to the police station, he turned down a narrow lane that ran parallel to the High Street behind various shops on the one side and a row of redbrick semis on the other. He always thought more clearly while walking, and here he could saunter along at his own pace; it wouldn't do to be seen by the public lounging about in the High Street. A few minutes later, having made precious little mental progress, he was approaching on his left an inconspicuous cleft between two buildings known as Leslie's Close, a narrow passage that led back through a tiny intervening courtyard to the High Street. As he was about to turn into the gap, he heard the soft murmur of voices, followed by a feminine sigh. He stopped, his curiosity aroused, and peered cautiously around the corner.

Less than twenty feet from where he stood was a couple locked in an amorous embrace. The man leaned against one wall with his back to Shand, partially screening the woman from view. Her arms were entwined around his neck. Impetuously unaware of the possibility of being observed, as lovers often are, they kissed passionately.

Being single in a small village and completely dedicated to his career, PC Shand had little opportunity or inclination for such diversions himself. Nevertheless, he was unable to avert his eyes, transfixed by a voyeuristic fascination mingled with embarrassment. His sense of duty soon intruded and he hurriedly weighed the courses of action open to him. Attempting to pass by in the intimate confines of the close was obviously out of the question. To his credit, he did not even consider the intrusively officious “What's all this, then?” Perhaps a discreet
cough to announce his presence, followed by a decent interval to provide the couple with sufficient time to escape? Upon further reflection, he decided that it might be best under the circumstances to avoid the issue entirely by simply leaving the couple in peace and returning to the High Street the way he had come.

BOOK: Malice in the Highlands
3.73Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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