Read Malice in the Highlands Online

Authors: Graham Thomas

Malice in the Highlands (2 page)

BOOK: Malice in the Highlands
8.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads
It was a man, or rather a corpse, its bloated face horribly lacerated and cast a ghastly gray. The head was wrapped in a shroud of fishing line and there, securely hooked in the corner of the right eye socket, was Miss Barington-Jones's orange-and-black salmon fly.
MacDougall gaped, refusing to acknowledge that such a thing could happen at Cairngorm. Then gradually, as if awakening from a dream, he became aware that Miss Barington-Jones had begun to scream.

CHAPTER 1

Powell slowed the little roadster to a crawl and peered blearily into the gloaming. Kettle black clouds were brewing over Cromdale and the bare crests of the hills beyond the river were smeared with rain. Hardly propitious, he thought bleakly, not that he was about to complain under the circumstances. Already, the hurly-burly of London seemed light-years away. He switched on the headlamps; he knew that the turning to the Old Bridge must be nearby, but the usual landmarks seemed strangely ambiguous.

Eventually he drew up to a weathered fingerpost, its directions barely legible:
OLD KINLOCHY BRIDGE
, 1/2
MILE.
He swung the Triumph into a narrow lane that plunged between untidy hedgerows bordering fields of sprouting barley that, in the gloom, reminded him of an old man's unshaven stubble. Alternately braking and accelerating, he negotiated the twists and turns, wincing occasionally as the car bumped over a pothole or brushed against an overgrown branch. At the bottom of the hill he stopped, lowered his window, and leaned out. The air smelled of
briar and bracken and damp earth, with a resinous hint of distant pine forests. Over the rumble of the motor came the faint sound of rushing water. He eased the car into gear, all sense of fatigue forgotten.

The grandeur of the prospect that was suddenly revealed as he rounded the final turn, although long anticipated, never failed to startle him. The strath was submerged now in bluish purple shadows, but the broad sweep of the river, seeming somehow to absorb and amplify the fading light, shone with a faintly luminous quality. Framed by steep headlands were three perfect arches of pink granite, spanning the river like the trajectory, frozen in space and time, of some leaping Brobdingnagian salmon. High on the far hillside, partially screened by a black filigree of trees, twinkled the lights of a great house. Taking it all in, Powell realized just how much he had been longing for this moment and, for the first time in a very long while, was content.

Just short of the bridge the road was blocked by a concrete barrier, in front of which was parked a rusty red Escort. Powell parked alongside and extricated himself from his car. He stretched his limbs to work out the kinks and then walked over to inspect the other car. He touched the bonnet. Cool. Not a good sign, he thought, considering the various possibilities. He zipped up his jacket against the evening chill and walked out onto the bridge.

Once the main road crossing of the River Spey near the Highland town of Kinlochy, the Old Bridge was restricted nowadays to pedestrian traffic, having been rendered redundant by a modern steel-and-concrete affair located a few miles downstream. Nevertheless, the picturesque stone bridge remained popular with tourists
nostalgia buffs, and other eccentrics who still appreciated such things.

Powell's footsteps sounded with satisfying solidity on the stonework. At the center of the bridge he stopped and leaned over the parapet. The Bridge Pool below was deserted. A short distance downstream the river turned sharply left behind an island of birch. He called out, his voice submerged in the roar of nearby rapids. He briefly considered the prospect of a stumble down the riverside path in the dark, but the siren calls of a hot bath and a whisky at the Salar Lodge had begun to beckon insistently.

Powell started back, glancing upstream as he turned. He stopped suddenly. Not more than fifty yards from the bridge, standing motionless in the streamy water, was a solitary fisherman, a ghostly figure in the gloom. Powell squinted; it was odd that he hadn't noticed him before. Presently the fisherman, who gave no sign he was aware of Powell, began to cast, awkwardly at first and then with increasing fluidity. Powell noticed that he was using a short single-handed rod, unusual on a Scottish river in the springtime. Probably a North American, he concluded. recalling vaguely that Castle Glyn had recently been taken over by a millionaire of that persuasion. Powell shivered. Must be dead keen. Suddenly there was an ominous rumble overhead and, as if on cue, the heavens opened.

As Powell dove into his car out of the rain, an old verse ran through his head:

Wind from the east
,
Fish bite least.

Still, he thought a bit wistfully, you never know with these Highland squalls. It could blow over.

The Salar Lodge in Kinlochy was a small two-star hotel that catered largely to a sporting clientele. Built of the local stone and designed originally as a spacious private residence, it was set amidst some treed acres on the banks of the River Spey. The hotel fishing, available free of charge to guests, encompassed the stretch of river fronting the hotel and extended upstream to the Old Kinlochy Bridge and the demesne of Castle Glyn Estate, a distance of approximately two miles. The hotel water was comprised of six beats with four rods permitted on each, these being assigned by lot to guests each day. Any vacancies on the beats were offered for a daily fee to visiting anglers staying in the local area. In the autumn, shooting and stalking could be arranged.

Every spring a cosmopolitan group of anglers gathered at the Salar Lodge Hotel to fish for salmon and drink the local whisky. And while he, too, delighted in the blameless virtue of these pursuits, Detective-Chief Superintendent Erskine Powell of New Scotland Yard tended to regard such diversions as essentially means to an end. For him, the Salar Lodge represented a kind of Shangri-la, far removed from the tedium of his profession. For a fortnight each May he could forget that he was a policeman.

There is a popular misconception, derived no doubt from excessive exposure to television and the press, that police work is vividly exciting. For the modern policeman, however, the possession of Holmesian powers of deduction is a far less useful faculty than the ability to
file endless reports in triplicate concerning the minutiae of bureaucratic life.

As Powell had risen through the ranks of the Criminal Investigation Department of the Metropolitan Police, he had become inexorably and inextricably mired in the administrative morass—a victim, he had finally realized when it was too late, of his own ambition. And he had long since become resigned to the fact that the job of a senior-ranking policeman had more to do with protecting the posteriors of his superiors than apprehending criminals, the latter activity apparently regarded in the rarefied echelons of the Home Office as an inconvenient, albeit necessary, evil. It was not exactly what he'd had in mind when he joined up.

There was, however, one saving grace: As a member of the Yard's Murder Squad, Powell was occasionally provided a respite from the normal routine. Traditions die hard at the Yard; still hanging in a small frame in what is quaintly, if somewhat nostalgically, referred to as the “murder room” at CID Central is a list of three senior detectives currently available on instant notice to assist provincial forces with difficult or otherwise noteworthy murder investigations. But over the years the Yard's
clients
(in the current parlance) have developed their own specialized expertise, as well as a highly developed sense of territoriality; nowadays, local chief constables are generally reluctant to call in the Yard without some ulterior, invariably political motive.

Powell had nonetheless become increasingly dependent on these fertile interludes, as he regarded them, and correspondingly resentful of the intervening droughts. The fact that he had not been called out for nearly a year
had rendered the pervasive grayness of the London winter even more oppressive than usual. But eventually spring had burst forth with the eternal, if short-lived, promise of renewal, and it was with particular relish that Powell had been looking forward to his Speyside holiday. All the more so, since during the last few weeks before his departure, his wife, Marion, had not missed an opportunity to point out with relentless precision the various repairs and renovations needed around the house, not to mention the difficulty in making ends meet these days. Powell could not exactly be described as the do-it-yourself type and he was quite sensitive about his shortcomings in that area. Furthermore, he did not like to be reminded that entropy was increasing helter-skelter all around him, the existential implications of which were all too obvious.

Powell suspected that Marion, being a ruthless practitioner of domestic Thatcherism, barely tolerated his annual fishing holiday. The sole barometer by which she judged the matter was the number of salmon ultimately brought to table in relation to the capital expended to catch them—a dismal and mean equation that entirely missed the point, as far as he was concerned. And as a kind of penance for his alleged profligacy, he was expected to endure without complaint an annual family holiday at the seaside, an ordeal that he absolutely and abjectly dreaded. Lying idle on the beach at Bude while his two teenage sons, Peter and David, ardently pursued the local population of pubescent females was not exactly his idea of a jolly time.

Thus it was that as Powell pulled into the car park of the Salar Lodge Hotel, his spirits fluttered like a phoenix above the ashes of his worldly cares and responsibilities. But, as he was soon to discover, that particular species
can be easily mistaken in the Highland mist for a heather-fattened grouse coasting low over a butt on the opening day of shooting season.

He was removing his bags from the boot of his car when he was hailed by a familiar voice. It was Nigel Whitely, the Salar Lodge's proprietor, hurrying over in the drizzle with an armful of logs. Well over six feet tall and thin as a stick, he resembled a graying heron. Looking a little older, Powell thought, but then aren't we all?

“It's good to see you, Nigel.”

“This
is
a surprise, Mr. Powell!” Whitely exclaimed with a soft burr. “We weren't expecting you until tomorrow.”

Powell smiled sheepishly. “I managed to sneak away early. I intended to call, but I'm afraid it completely slipped my mind. I hope it's not inconvenient.”

Whitely grinned. “No problem at all, Mr. Powell. Your room's ready for you. I'll toss this lot on the fire and be right back to lend a hand with your kit. Bob's away for a few days so I'm more or less on my own,” he added, as if by way of explanation.

Before Powell could protest, Whitely disappeared around the back of the hotel. A few moments later he returned and was relieving Powell of his fishing rod and bag. They exchanged pleasantries as Powell picked up his suitcase and followed his host into the hotel.

Powell, as always, was impressed by the care and attention to detail with which the Salar Lodge had been renovated and restored in period style by Nigel and his late wife, Margaret. Furnished with some good antiques and a modest collection of nineteenth-century Scottish oil paintings, the Salar Lodge was known as one of the finest of its kind in the Highlands. Powell was aware that
the Whitelys had sunk their life savings into the project, but, in spite of a certain obvious romantic appeal, he had long suspected that the Salar Lodge was more a labor of love than a going concern. It could not have been easy for Nigel and his son, Bob, since Maggie's death, following a lingering illness, three years ago. But such was Whitely's dedication to his trade that, although Maggie was sorely missed by the hotel's regular patrons, none of the qualities of service and comfort that brought them back year after year had suffered in the least. Powell was hard pressed to think of a more fitting memorial.

After stowing his tackle in the drying room, Powell preceded Nigel into the front hall, past the main staircase on the right and the entrance to the lounge bar, through which could be seen a number of guests ensconced before the fire, enjoying a dram or two before dinner. Powell recognized a few of the regulars thus pleasantly preoccupied. At the end of the hall, situated in a small alcove beyond the dining room door on the left, and immediately to the left of the main entrance, was the front desk.

Hearing the commotion, the stout, middle-aged woman behind the counter looked up from her ledger. Her smooth face broke immediately into a smile. “Mr. Powell, it's grand to see you again! Has it really been a year?” Ruby MacGregor was the Salar Lodge's chief cook, housekeeper, mother hen, and sergeant major all rolled into one indispensable package.

“Ruby, you're a sight for sore eyes,” Powell said appraisingly. “Like a rare vintage, you seem to improve with the passage of time.”

“Get away with you now!” she admonished, blushing profusely.

Nigel hovered on the periphery, beaming.

Powell rummaged about in a jacket pocket. He handed her a small jar with an inscribed label affixed. “A small token of my undying devotion,” he said.

She frowned as if critically considering his offering. “Well, I suppose there might be a wee treat in store for you. But only if you behave yourself, mind.”

Powell winked. “Say no more, Ruby, say no more.” He rubbed his hands together briskly. “Oh, by the way, Nigel,” he remarked casually, “I saw Mr. Barrett's car at the Old Bridge. When did he arrive?”

“Shortly after lunch. But he wasn't here five minutes before he was out the door with his rod. You know Mr. Barrett.”

All too bloody well, Powell thought with a sinking feeling. He reached for a pen and signed the guest register with a flourish. “Has he had a fish yet?” He tried to affect a suitable air of nonchalance.

“Not as far as Ï know,” Whitely said brightly. “But then again,” he added on a more sobering note, “he's not back yet.”

BOOK: Malice in the Highlands
8.97Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

Other books

The Bride Insists by Jane Ashford
Dewey's Nine Lives by Vicki Myron
Fatal Frost by James Henry
Keeper of the Flame by Tracy L. Higley
Ride Me Away by Jamie Fuchs
Stay With Me by Jenny Anastan
1/2986 by Annelie Wendeberg
Incredible Sex (52 Brilliant Little Ideas) by Perks, Marcelle, Wilson, Elisabeth