Read Malice in the Highlands Online
Authors: Graham Thomas
“Well, Shand, what is it?” Barrett snapped.
“I thought I should tell you, sir. Dr. Campbell, the pathologist, called to advise that he's completed the postmortem. Apparently something a bit peculiar has turned up. He can make himself available at eight tomorrow morning to discuss his findings with us, if it's convenient, of course, sir. I was just about to check with Grantown when you called, but now that you're in charge, sir, I naturally assumed …” he trailed off lamely.
There was a deadly silence round the table. Finally, Barrett exhaled like a punctured tire. “Well, that's it then. Be here tomorrow morning at seven-thirty precisely.” His manner left no doubt that PC Shand had been dismissed.
“Yes, sir.” Shand jumped to his feet, mumbled a good evening, and fled the lounge bar of the Salar Lodge. He stopped at the front desk to place a call to Dr. Campbell.
Warburton took his cue and, after a decent interval, bade his companions good-night.
Powell and Barrett sat in silence for a few moments. Presently Barrett spoke. “The bet's off. After all, fair's fair.”
“You know, our fishing match. Until I get this business cleared up.”
“Alex, I'm surprised at you!” Powell said, feigning dismay. “It's only sport, after all.”
Barrett ignored him. “If I'm right, it shouldn't take long.”
“One can only hope,” Powell replied, not at all convinced.
Nigel Whitely stepped back quickly. He had been
standing behind the inglenook just outside the rear doorway to the lounge bar. He hesitated for a moment and then hurried down the corridor to a side service door. His movements were jerky, almost spastic, and his plimsolls squeaked jarringly on the lino tile.
He opened the door a few inches and listened. A damp chill seeped through the crack. He shuddered. Eventually he heard the crunch of gravel as a vehicle pulled out of the car park. He counted slowly to ten and then slipped outside, carefully shutting the door behind him.
A few moments later, a white van emerged from behind the Salar Lodge and turned into the empty street.
Not a cloud sullied the pale blue sky as PC Shand drove Powell and Barrett into Grantown-on-Spey the next morning. As they sped through the well-kept streets, Powell was absorbed in thoughts of giant salmon swirling in sunlight-gilded pools. He imagined at that very moment that Pinky would be perfecting his casting technique under the watchful eye of Arthur Ogden, renowned authority on salmon fishing and resident angling tutor at the Salar Lodge.
Ogden had arrived late the previous evening with a group of clients for his annual spring fishing course, from which Powell himself had graduated more years ago than he cared to remember. In the conviviality of the Salar Lodge bar, Powell had offered, somewhat rashly it seemed to him now in the harsh light of morning, to accompany Barrett to see Dr. Campbell, the pathologist. It had seemed like the matey thing to do at the time, but in retrospect he had to admit that curiosity had been his true motivation. It wasn't until Barrett mentioned it that Powell had realized he would be more or less abandoning
Pinky to his own devices. Fortunately, Ogden, who had joined them for a drink, had offered to take Warburton under his wing while Barrett and Powell were otherwise engaged, thus allowing Powell's conscience to escape relatively unscathed. At breakfast that morning, Powell, feeling slightly the worse for the previous evening's festivities, had hastily explained the situation to an understanding Warburton just as PC Shand arrived to collect them.
Powell's reverie was interrupted as they drew up in front of a pleasant stone house set in a half-acre garden on a quiet street of similar houses, several of which displayed discreet signs advertising bed-and-breakfast accommodation. Barrett dispatched Shand on an errand, instructing him to return in an hour.
They were met at the door by a dour housekeeper of indeterminate age who escorted them into Dr. Campbell's study. Campbell, a dapper man with a military bearing, leapt to his feet, hand extended.
“Gentlemen, thank you for coming at this ungodly hour,” he said smartly. “As I indicated to your young constable, I have a rather urgent matter to attend to later this morning and I naturally assumed that you'd wish to have my report as soon as possible.”
“We do appreciate your time, Doctor,” Barrett replied smoothly. “By the way, I'm Chief Inspector Barrett and this is Chief Superintendent Powell of New Scotland Yard. Mr. Powell is here to, em, study our local police methods.”
Powell coughed politely.
“Splendid. Please sit down, gentlemen.”
Barrett got directly to the point. “I'm given to understand that you've turned up something in the Murray
postmortem. Something a bit peculiar, according to Constable Shand. We'd appreciate it if you could summarize your findings for us—in layman's terms, if at all possible.” He smiled mildly.
Campbell frowned. “By all means, Chief Inspector. But first I must take issue with your constable's choice of words. ‘Peculiar,’ indeed!” He grimaced as if biting into something unpleasant. “In science, no finding is any more or less peculiar than any other. A fact, gentlemen, is a fact!” he declaimed climactically. He then fell silent and absently stroked his mustache.
“Quite.” Barrett made a mental note to have a word with PC Shand. After a decorous interval he prompted, “You were saying, Dr. Campbell?”
Campbell, apparently mollified, cleared his throat. “In cases of this kind, one invariably approaches the problem with a working hypothesis, that is to say with some idea of the likely cause of death. Now, don't misunderstand me, gentlemen—I do not wish to imply that one prejudges the matter. I simply mean to say that one naturally looks for the obvious things first.” He paused reflectively, this time to light his pipe.
Powell caught Barrett's eye.
After noisily sucking and drawing for some time, Campbell eventually seemed satisfied and resumed his lecture. “Now in this particular instance I naturally assumed that I was dealing with a man who had drowned. I was looking, therefore, for the characteristic findings that, in aggregate, are suggestive of death by drowning. These include
, that is the hyperdistention of the pulmonary alveoli; the occurrence of a foam cap around the mouth and nostrils; the presence of water in
the stomach; and, lastly, given the prevailing water temperatures,
, more commonly referred to as ‘gooseflesh.’ I don't mind telling you, gentlemen, that I was more than a little surprised to find, with the exception of a small quantity of water in the stomach, that the usual indications of drowning were entirely absent.”
Barrett was incredulous. “Are you suggesting that Murray didn't drown?”
Campbell nodded. “That is my opinion based on the information available to me.”
Barrett scrutinized him intently. “Are you certain?”
“Mr. Barrett—” he sighed ponderously, affecting an air of infinite patience “—a determination of death by drowning is basically a process of elimination. The signs that I've mentioned vary considerably in their frequency of occurrence and utility; the presence or absence of any one of them cannot be considered, in and of itself, conclusive. In the end, one must rely upon the weight of the evidence.”
Barrett ground his teeth. “What exactly are you saying, Dr. Campbell?”
“Simply that there are additional features in this case supporting a conclusion that the victim was already dead when his body found its way into the river.”
Barrett was on the verge of asking, “Such as?” but decided on a different tack. “I understand that the victim had been rather badly knocked about,” he observed casually.
“Quite so,” Campbell mused. “I have some photographs here somewhere, taken
He rummaged noisily amongst the cluttered mass of papers on his desk.
“Ah, yes, here they are, if you care to have a look at them.”
He handed Barrett six color photographs depicting different aspects of a corpse, including close-ups of the head and face, lying on a cobble beach. Barrett examined them in turn and then passed them to Powell.
It was not a pretty sight. The victim's face was swollen and discolored and bore numerous yellowish abrasions. On the back of the head and neck there was an angry-looking contusion. Framed with garish incongruity in the last photograph, dangling like some bizarre punk embellishment from the corner of the corpse's right eye, was an orange-and-black salmon fly.
“Nice touch, that,” Campbell remarked breezily as Powell pondered the photograph.
It struck Powell that Charles Murray must have been an imposing figure in life. Closely cropped gray hair accentuated a broad forehead and jutting jaw, and even in death his expression seemed slightly defiant. Powell returned the photographs to Barrett.
“My attention is drawn particularly to the bruise on the back of the head,” Barrett said presently. “Would I be correct in assuming that it would take a blow of considerable force to effect such an injury?”
Campbell seemed mildly surprised at such a display of perceptíveness in one of his students. “Quite correct, Chief Inspector. A blunt force trauma sufficient certainly to cause concussion, but not enough to kill the victim outright. There was a small subdural hemorrhage but nothing of any significance,” he added, declining to elaborate.
Barrett parried with an outflanking maneuver. “Do you
have any idea how and when these various injuries might have been inflicted?”
Check, thought Powell.
Campbell held up one of the photographs. “The numerous minor abrasions you can see on the face—here, for example—were sustained after the fact, probably as a result of the body bumping along the riverbed during the course of its downstream passage. However, the injury to the back of the head occurred prior to death, as there was ample evidence of a vital reaction.”
“Are you able to fix the time of death?”
Campbell shrugged. “By the time I arrived on the scene, rigidity had set in to all the major muscle groups. That normally occurs within eight hours following death. However, the body was immersed in cold water, which retards the process. My best guess would be at least twelve hours prior to my initial examination.”
“You first examined the body at approximately noon yesterday?”
“That would put the time of death sometime before midnight on Monday?”
“Getting back to the cause of death, if Murray didn't drown and the head injury didn't do it, what in heaven's name
Powell smiled inwardly. Mate.
Campbell cleared his throat. “Ah, now we've come to the crux of the problem. Unfortunately, it is not possible to provide a definitive answer to your question.”
Powell hastily revised his forecast to a stalemate.
“I can, however, hazard an educated guess,” Campbell continued.
“Please do,” Barrett said evenly.
It was obvious to Powell that Barrett was only barely able to restrain himself from pummeling the good doctor.
“Analysis of the blood indicates that the deceased was intoxicated at the time of his death. Drunk as a lord, in fact, or perhaps I should say ‘laird.’ Ha ha.” In the conspicuous absence of any response from his audience, he continued quickly, “Let us assume that Murray had been out for a stroll along the river. It is not inconceivable, considering his state of intoxication, that he slipped and fell, striking his head on a rock. Given the combination of factors—a blow to the head that would normally be considered nonlethal, excessive alcohol consumption, and hypothermia—death could well have been the result.”
“And when the river rose, the body was carried away?” Barrett ventured doubtfully.
“That would be consistent with the evidence, Chief Inspector.” Campbell glanced at his watch. “I will, naturally, be submitting a full report in due course. Now, er, gentlemen, if there's nothing else … ?”
Barrett refused to be put off so easily. “I want to be certain that I've got this right. Are you telling me that you don't actually know the cause of death?”
Campbell clearly was beginning to get annoyed. “Let me try to put it another way, Chief Inspector. I cannot identify a single lethal event; rather I believe it was a combination of factors that ultimately led to the victim's death. If you insist on pinning me down, I would say that the most plausible hypothesis is diffuse axonal injury caused by a blow to the head, aggravated, as I've said, by
alcohol and hypothermia. However, it's not something you can see under a microscope.’
Barrett grunted. “Well, I suppose if that's the best you can do … but tell me, could the head injury have been inflicted in some other fashion, by a blunt instrument, say?”
“Anything's possible,” Campbell replied shortly. He had begun to fidget.
Barrett persisted. “What about suicide?”
“By hitting himself on the back of the head? A bit difficult, I should think.”
Barrett turned abruptly to Powell. “Chief Superintendent?”
Powell rather prided himself on his working knowledge of forensic pathology, and something was bothering him. “There is one thing, Dr. Campbell. I can't help wondering if there isn't a way to determine more definitively whether or not Murray was alive when he went into the river. It may prove to be an important point.”
Campbell looked at Powell, as if weighing his options. “One could conduct a diatom study, I suppose,” he admitted grudgingly. Anticipating the next question, he continued rapidly, as if to get the ordeal over with, “All natural bodies of water are inhabited by diatoms, a variety of microscopic algae. When water is aspirated into the lungs of a drowning person, the wee beasties are absorbed into the bloodstream and carried to various parts of the body—the long bones of the legs, for instance— wherein they are deposited. Their presence can be detected by means of a special test. Although not infallible, it is the most reliable indication of death by drowning available.”
“Am I to understand, Dr. Campbell, that you failed to perform this particular test?” Barrett asked acidly, with obvious implication.