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Authors: Graham Thomas

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BOOK: Malice in the Highlands
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“Sergeant, I see that Chief Inspectors Barrett and Mac-Donald are both on leave at present. Find out if either of them can be reached. It's important.”

Faultlessly efficient, as always, Gordon reported in an impenetrable Glaswegian rumble, thick with glottal stops and elided labials, that Inspector MacDonald was out of the country, trekking in Bhutan, but that Chief Inspector Barrett was presently Speyside on his annual fishing holiday.

Furness remembered now. How providential. “Very good, Gordon. Get in touch with Mr. Barrett and have him call me here tonight. And, oh, yes, send out for some Chinese, would you?”

When he was alone, Furness permitted himself a fleeting smile. Barrett was not going to like this and he only wished that he could be there to see his chief inspector's reaction. In this damnable job, he thought grimly, one takes one's amusement where one can.

Powell sighed contentedly. He was a bit sore from wielding his fourteen-foot spliced-cane rod all afternoon, but that was more a result of rusty technique than anything else. By the end of the day, he had been able to Spey cast thirty or so yards of line, so he really couldn't complain. As usual, Barrett had ragged him about the old rod while showing off his own latest carbon fiber weapon.
Chacun à son goÛt
, Powell thought equably. He downed his whisky with a gulp.

The afternoon had not been uneventful. Although the river had not yet come into good fishing form, he'd managed to get into a salmon, but after one good run the hook had come away. As chance would have it, neither Barrett nor Warburton had touched a fish. A good omen, Powell decided, well satisfied with himself. Despite their lack of material success, they'd had a grand day on the water and, to Powell's considerable relief, Barrett and Pinky seemed to have hit it off. Salmon were showing in all the pools and if the river continued to drop and clear, conditions promised to be perfect for tomorrow.

Powell's reverie was interrupted by an increase in the intensity of Barrett's voice. The Scot was obviously warming to his subject.

“You see, Pinky, fishing differs fundamentally from both shooting and stalking, where the pheasant or stag is clearly the intended victim. In the gentle sport of angling it is the humble fisherman who is the aggrieved party.” Barrett paused to light a cigarette. “Consider for a moment an unsuspecting angler, biding awhile beside a burn and innocently dangling a line to which he has attached a prized concoction of silk, fur, and feather—simply for the aesthetic pleasure that's in it, you understand. And what happens? A salmon or trout seizes the fly, with larcenous, if not murderous intent, and attempts to run off with it. Naturally, our fisherman endeavors to recover his property and if in the process he manages to capture the scaly brigand, which must then quite properly pay the ultimate price for its misdeeds, so much the better.”

Warburton chuckled. “I must admit that I've never looked at it quite like that before.”

“Sounds like entrapment to me,” Powell observed, stifling a yawn.

Before Barrett could reply, Ruby arrived at their table laden with several steaming and fragrant dishes: a rich, red lamb
roghan josh
a saffron-scented
pilau;
and stacks of crisp
pappadams
and fluffy
naans
accompanied by various small dishes of chutneys and pickles.

Sniffing each in turn, Powell was transported. “Absolutely brilliant, Ruby! You have surpassed yourself.”

Ruby blushed, obviously well pleased. “I hope you gentlemen enjoy your dinner.” It seemed that things had returned to some semblance of normality at the Salar Lodge.

After Ruby had gone, Barrett said, “Erskine, would you mind getting your snout out of the stew or whatever it is?” He shook his head sadly. “I should have known the two of you were up to something. I'd had it from a reliable source that you were seen passing Ruby a vial of some strange-looking substance the other day. I can see now that I should have put the Drug Squad on to you.”

“The substance, to which you so flippantly refer, happens to be my secret
garam másala
, renowned in London curry circles and prepared especially for this occasion.”

Barrett grimaced. “Quite honestly, Erskine, I don't see how you can rave about this muck.”

Powell rose to the bait. “I daresay it's quite an improvement over that memorable period a few years back when Ruby was on her Taste of Scotland’ kick. I tell you, Pinky, every meal seemed to consist entirely of sheep's entrails, assorted naughty bits, and congealed body fluids, the whole served up with lashings of stiff porridge.”

“Blasphemy!” Barrett cried. “The trouble with you
English is that you lack a sense of cultural identity and consequently have never developed a truly distinctive national cuisine. With the possible exception of eggs and chips,” he concluded with a triumphant smirk.

Powell hooted derisively. “Did I heard you say ‘cuisine’? Pinky, you really must try the clapshot
cordon bleu
sometime. And let's not forget that traditional Scottish favorite, deep-fried Mars bar.”

Warburton was laughing helplessly, tears streaming down his round, red face. “Stop, you two, please stop!” he implored.

“Now tell the truth, Pinky,” Barrett said. “What's your opinion?”

Pinky dabbed at the corners of his eyes with a napkin. “I'm sorry, Alex. I must confess that I, too, am an unrepentant curry fiend. Indian army brat and whatnot. However, it does seem that, for some, curry is an acquired taste. As is haggis, I suppose,” he added charitably.

“Aye, well,” Barrett sighed resignedly, “in the absence of more substantial fare, I suppose I'd better tuck in so as to keep my strength up for the morrow.”

Powell noted with considerable annoyance that Barrett had two huge servings of lamb and rice and had the cheek to help himself to the last
naan
, which he then used to polish his plate. After Ruby had cleared away the dishes and served coffee, they retired to the bar.

A short time after they had settled themselves in the inglenook, Bob Whitely came in and made a beeline for Barrett. He seemed more or less his old self and acted as if nothing out of the ordinary had happened that afternoon. “A Sergeant Gordon just telephoned with a message for you to call Mr. Furness. He said it was important.”

Barrett frowned, avoiding Powell's eyes. Whitely cleared his throat and continued, “I wish to apologize for my behavior at lunch. There is absolutely no excuse and, well, I hope you can see your way clear to forgive me.”

‘Think nothing of it, Bob,” Powell said quickly. “This must be a difficult time for you.”

“Aye, well, I'm sure things will work out eventually.” He seemed anxious to change the subject. He turned to Barrett. “You can use the phone in the office, if you like.”

“Thanks, Bob,” said Barrett, springing to his feet. “This shouldn't take long,” he added for Powell's benefit.

“What do you suppose that's all about?” Warburton asked.

“Oh, I expect it's nothing important,” Powell replied absently. He swung his legs up onto the settle and felt for his cigarettes.

“Your friend Barrett is quite a character,” Warburton ventured tentatively.

“You'll get no argument from me on that score.”

Warburton leaned closer. “I say, he does get this queer look at times. It's—it's as if he's looking right through one. It's rather off-putting. Haven't you noticed?”

Powell smiled lopsidedly. “It's his left eye. Completely useless. Took a stray pellet while grouse shooting as a lad. Every once in a while he tends to go a bit cross-eyed, that's all.”

Warburton seemed relieved. “That explains it. I was beginning to think it was my imagination.”

“Damn useful, though,” Powell mumbled.

“Beg your pardon?”

“You've heard of the ‘evil eye’?”

Warburton shook his head, frowning slightly. Tm afraid you've lost me, old boy.”

Powell thought about another whisky. How many had he had? He couldn't remember. No matter. He brought his attention with some difficulty back to the subject at hand. “Look, Pinky, before I relate to you one of the most astounding feats in the annals of modern detection you must promise me that you'll not breathe a word of this to another living soul.”

Warburton cocked his head warily, obviously curious, but leery of being had. “With a buildup like that I'd be a fool not to agree, wouldn't I? All right, I promise.”

Powell nodded. “It happened many years ago in Edinburgh. Alex was an up-and-coming detective-sergeant at the time, and he'd been working on a case involving the theft of some paintings from the house of a certain wealthy industrialist. After a lengthy investigation he was still at loose ends, so as a last resort he assembled the suspects at the scene of the crime, hoping to bring things to a head, as it were. Dame Agatha would've been proud of him.”

Powell drew on his cigarette with studied deliberation. “He'd narrowed the field down to three possibilities. There was the owner, himself, who stood to benefit from the insurance settlement. Bit of a shifty character, apparently. Then there was the wayward son, who had a penchant for gambling more than he could afford to lose. There was even a bloody butler, if you can believe it. The man had evidently developed a taste for the finer things in life, including the master's wife, who happened to be a drunk. A regular rogues’ gallery, I think you'd agree.”

He smiled cryptically. “To cut a long story short, the
ploy failed miserably. Alex was trying to figure out how to make a graceful exit when, as chance would have it, a gust of wind through the open window blew a speck of something into his good eye. As he was attempting to dislodge it, like this—” Powell clumsily pulled his right eyelid down to demonstrate “—he was amazed to find that for the first time since his boyhood accident he could see perfectly well with his other eye.” He paused significantly for effect. “You're not going to believe this, Pinky, but Alex swears that he could see, as clearly as I can see you now, a sort of ethereal figure hovering over the assembly. And—get this—the thing was pointing an accusing finger at the son.”

“Good Lord!”

“When Alex opened his good eye, the apparition vanished as suddenly as it had appeared. Always one to seize the moment, he confronted the lad, who was caught completely off guard and confessed on the spot.”

Warburton was transfixed. “Absolutely incredible!”

“Wait, you haven't heard the half.”

“You mean there's more?” Warburton gasped.

“The ghost or spirit or whatever in hell you'd call it— you'll never guess what, or rather who, it was.”

“Don't keep me in suspense, for God's sake!”

Powell lowered his voice to a hoarse whisper. “It was the Flower of Culloden, the Bonny Prince himself.”

The color had drained from Warburton ‘s face like port from a glass, and for several seconds he seemed incapable of speaking. Eventually he managed to sputter, “You— you can't be serious!”

“If there's one thing I've learned, Pinky, it's never to underestimate the Celtic mind.”

Warburton struggled to his feet. “Christ, I need another drink.” The thought of Barrett communing with the Young Pretender was evidently too much for him.

He returned with the whiskies and gave Powell a resentful look. “You know I'm superstitious, you bugger.”

Powell laughed. “Not to worry, Pinky, we've got only Alex's word for it.”

They nursed their drinks in silence until Warburton spoke.

“Now that I have the opportunity, Erskine, I—well, I'd like to thank you for having me along. Quite honestly, I can't remember when I've enjoyed myself as much. I can see now how badly I needed to get away.”

“Don't mention it, Pinky. But my motives were not entirely unselfish. It's been far too long since we've got together for a good natter.”

“There's been a lot of water under the bridge, all right. But I'm pleased to see that you've enjoyed continuing success in your profession; I seem to recall that you'd just made chief inspector when we last lunched at the Savoy.” He regarded Powell thoughtfully. “You know, Erskine, I've always regarded you as a kind of Prometheus in plainclothes, gallantly striving to dispel the darkness in the world—or at least your own small corner of it.”

Powell smiled weakly. “I think Sisyphus is more my style.” He hesitated, not quite sure how to broach a potentially delicate subject. He decided it was pointless to avoid the issue. “And you, Pinky, how have you been getting on?” It came out more awkwardly than he had hoped.

“Oh, I can't complain. You may be interested to know
that I've recently embarked on a new career as an estate agent. I've decided to specialize in sporting properties, since I've had a bit of experience in that line.”

Powell searched for any sign of bitterness in Pinky's voice and was relieved to find none; if anything, there was perhaps a hint of irony. “Well, it would seem that your timing is impeccable. I understand that property sales are beginning to pick up.”

Warburton smiled. “So far I've managed to keep the wolves from my door. I don't wish to seem immodest, Erskine, but I do believe that I have a certain aptitude for the profession.”

Powell chuckled. “I don't doubt it for a moment, Pinky. You could charm the—”

He was interrupted by the clamorous arrival of Barrett and a uniformed police constable who appeared distinctly ill at ease. It was obvious that Barrett was not happy as he threw himself onto the settle.

“Chief Superintendent Powell and Mr. Warburton, Police Constable Shand. Sit down, Shand, and have a drink.”

“Er, I'd better not, sir. Thanks all the same.”

“Suit yourself. But I'll have one, if you don't mind.”

“What's up?” Powell asked.

Barrett scowled. “A routine bloody accident and it seems that I'm the only one in the entire force competent to deal with it.” But his expression suddenly brightened as his attention fixed on PC Shand. “I trust, however, that the good constable here will be able to do most of the leg-work, leaving me ample time for more, em, rewarding pursuits.”

Powell noticed that the good constable was fidgeting in his seat.

BOOK: Malice in the Highlands
6.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
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