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Authors: Graham Thomas

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BOOK: Malice in the Highlands
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PC Shand listened with rapt attention.

“The same difficulty arises when one considers the possibility of suicide. Jumping off a bridge, for instance.
But if one accepts the possibility that Murray was murdered, it all begins to make sense.”

Shand coughed politely as if he were about to say something, but he apparently thought better of it.

“Suppose Murray accompanied someone down to the river on some pretext or other,” Powell continued. “When the opportunity arose, his assailant bashed him on the head and then chucked him into the drink, hoping that when the body eventually turned up it would look like an accident. Thus the significance of the diatom test.”

PC Shand wore a puzzled expression.

Powell explained patiently, “Look, if the test had been negative, suggesting that Murray had died before going into the river, we would have been left to account for some rather improbable behavior on the part of our hypothetical assailant.”

“I'm still not sure I follow you, sir.”

Powell sighed. “Why would anybody leave their victim lying unconscious on the riverbank to be discovered by the next passerby? The killer could not have been certain that the river would subsequently flood to conceal his crime. No, I'm afraid that we'd have been left with the unavoidable, however unsatisfying, conclusion of accidental death. So it is fortuitous, if I may put it that way, that Murray was still alive when he was pushed or dragged into the water.”

PC Shand nodded his head doubtfully. “Yes, I think I understand now, sir.” Actually, it seemed to him that Powell's reasoning was somewhat elliptical, but he wisely chose not to pursue the point. “Maybe the act was
committed in the heat of the moment, a crime of passion, like.”

The constable's boyish enthusiasm was beginning to wear a bit thin. “That's possible, of course,” Powell said crisply. “Now, then, how are you getting on with your own inquiries?”

PC Shand drew himself up and cleared his throat. “Well, sir, I've had a wee chat with MacDougall, the gillie at Cairngorm who found the body. Nothing new there, I'm afraid. The man seemed more concerned with avoiding further publicity than answering my questions.”

Powell could well imagine. “Any news of the elusive Oliver Pickens?”

“Not yet, sir. We've checked with British Rail at Aviemore. None of the staff on duty Monday afternoon have any recollection of anyone matching either Murray's or Pickens's description. It seems fairly certain that Pickens did not buy a ticket at Aviemore. He may have had a return ticket, or possibly a BritRail pass. In either case, he could have boarded a train without direct contact with station personnel. We're presently checking all departures from Aviemore on Monday and interviewing all employees who might have come in contact with him along the line. We're also making inquiries at the local taxi stands, coach lines, car rental agencies—you know, the usual routine, sir.”

Powell suppressed a smile. The young constable had taken to his task like a salmon to a burn. “I don't doubt something will turn up eventually.”

“I hope so, sir. I've still not been able to come up with anyone who saw either of them after they left Castle Glyn.”

“Well, carry on. It's early innings yet.”

“Very good, sir. I'd best be off then.” Shand paused a little awkwardly. “Will there be anything else, Mr. Powell?”

Powell smiled. “I expect you're wondering what any of this has to do with me?”

“I haven't given it much thought, sir. I suppose I've just assumed that Mr. Barrett is consulting you on the case.”

This lad will go far, Powell thought. He then explained how he saw his role, mainly to put the young constable at ease so he wouldn't feel he was being pulled in two directions at once. Powell was left with the distinct impression, however, that the young constable was quite happy with the present arrangement. Recalling the early days of his own career, Powell supposed, somewhat immodestly, that Shand was more or less enamored with the prospect of associating with the Yard, however tangentially.

When he was alone, Powell considered his next move. It seemed almost certain now that Charles Murray had been murdered, although admittedly, the evidence remained largely circumstantial. He was scheduled to return to London the following Saturday, which gave him a week at the outside and lent an urgency to the proceedings. For a variety of reasons, not the least of which was his sense of protocol, he decided with little enthusiasm that he had better begin with Nigel.

It was a cool morning with a pale sun in a watery sky. The distant outline of the hills was softly indistinct in the mist, lending a Turneresque quality to the landscape.
There was a heavy dew, and it didn't take long for Powell's brogues to become soaked as he walked across the broad sweep of lawn that separated the Salar Lodge from the river. He steered a course toward an island of shrubs, amongst which a tall, stooped figure could be seen digging energetically.

“Good morning, Nigel.”

“Oh, hello, Mr. Powell.” Whitely paused, mopping his brow with his sleeve. He was bent over his spade like a mantis clutching some hapless stick insect. “Out for a morning stroll, are we?”

“Actually, Nigel, I'd like to have a word with you, if it's convenient.”

“Of course.” Nigel straightened, wincing noticeably. “Getting old,” he muttered to no one in particular. “Now, what can I do for you, Mr. Powell?”

“It's about Charles Murray.”

There was a barely perceptible hesitation. “Oh, aye?”

“You know that Mr. Barrett has had to return to Inverness for a few days to further investigate this business.” Powell smiled ruefully. “Mr. Barrett has most ungraciously refused to acknowledge any fish I may be fortunate enough to catch while he's away, so I've decided to poke around a bit on my own to see if I can come up with anything that might help things along. The sooner this thing is cleared up, you see, the sooner we can both get back to our fishing.”

“I take it that Mr. Murray's death is being treated as something more than an accident,” Nigel said slowly, without any particular inflection.

Powell chose his words carefully. “The police have to take all possibilities into account, Nigel.”

Whitely remained impassive. “Forgive me, Mr. Powell, but I don't see what any of this has to do with me.”

“As a starting point, I'm trying to put together a mental picture of Charles Murray, and I was hoping you'd be able to help.”

Nigel shrugged. “I'm afraid I didn't know him very well. They—he and his daughter, I mean—hadn't been here very long.”

“I understand that Mr. Murray would occasionally stop by the hotel.”

“Not often.”

“Do you recall the last time he was here?”

Whitely frowned as if searching his memory. “Why do you ask—is it important?”

“I'm just trying to learn something of his habits,” Powell said easily. “Where he went, what he did, whom he associated with, that sort of thing.”

“Like I told you, Mr. Powell, I didn't know him very well.”

That seemed definite enough. “Can you tell me anything about his daughter, then—Heather, isn't it?”

Whitely's features softened for an instant. “She—” He stopped short.

“Yes?”

“She used to come by now and then to visit Ruby.”

“Used to?”

“I mean, before the, ah, accident.”

“Have you seen Miss Murray recently?”

“I went to see her on Tuesday evening. To pay my respects.”

“Oh, yes?”

“She is a neighbor and I felt it was the least I could do.”

“Yes, of course.” Powell had the rather disquieting impression that Nigel was not being altogether forthright. He decided to take a more direct line. “Nigel, I understand that you and Murray had a business relationship of sorts.”

Whitely stiffened. “What do you mean?”

“Don't you lease the fishing rights for the hotel from Castle Glyn?”

Whitely seemed to relax slightly. “Yes, that's so. But it's a long-standing agreement that predates Mr. Murray's tenure.”

“I see.” Powell quickly considered the situation and came to a decision. “Thank you, Nigel. I won't keep you from your gardening any longer. You've been most helpful. If you happen to think of anything else …”

Whitely refused to meet his eye. “Yes, of course, Mr. Powell,” he murmured.

As Powell walked along the river path it was clear to him that his attempt at a casual chat with Nigel had been an unmitigated disaster. Nigel's manner had been stiff and defensive, if not actually evasive. It was possible, of course, that he simply felt uncomfortable, as most people do, being questioned by a policeman, unofficially or otherwise. Powell could not deny that he had slipped more or less unconsciously into the role of interrogator, and a singularly inept one at that. He found himself in an extremely awkward position: Nigel was his host and, in a very real sense, a friend, but he was finding it impossible to suppress his professional curiosity, not to mention a rather vivid imagination. He suddenly recalled the stinging accuracy of Marion's assertion that he was an incorrigible busybody. He swore
aloud. That settled it; he was going fishing and to hell with Barrett.

Unfortunately, as is often the case when one is feeling hard done by, things went from bad to worse for Powell that day. He fished without success all morning, he was late returning to the hotel for lunch and had to settle for a sandwich, and later in the day, while attempting a prodigious cast to cover a distant fish, the top section of his beloved cane rod snapped off. He had a spare top back at the hotel, but he knew that the day was soon coming when he would have to retire his old friend and resort to one of the new, mass-produced, space-age articles—all efficiency and no soul. He returned to the hotel in a foul mood.

En route to the bar, he was intercepted by Ruby with a message from Barrett, asking him to call immediately, which, as it happened, suited his purposes admirably. He'd bloody well get it over with. He went up to his room and placed the call. But before he could take the offensive, Barrett had launched a preemptive strike.

“We've had a veritable spate of inquiries from the Scottish Office about the Murray case. The Canadian ambassador has been raising a carfluffle. He's even had the bloody cheek to question our progress to date, and I don't need to tell you who's been taking the brunt of it. The fiscal has reviewed the matter and has instructed us to step up the investigation.”

Powell, who had never really bothered to delve into the arcane peculiarities of Scottish law, knew that the procurator fiscal was something like a cross between an English coroner and public prosecutor.

“And I've had a word with the brass,” Barrett continued. “Owing to the possible, em, diplomatic ramifications,
we've put in a formal request to the Yard for assistance. Naturally your name came up—since you happen to be in the neighborhood, so to speak—and, well, the chief jumped at the suggestion. We've put a word in with the Home Office and it's all fixed.”

Powell could not believe his ears. For several seconds he was at a loss for words. He finally exploded, “How dare you involve me like this? You're not only presumptuous, you're bloody impertinent!” But even as he uttered the words he felt faintly ridiculous. After all, he hadn't exactly been dragged into the thing kicking and screaming.

There was dead silence on the other end of the line. Eventually, Barrett said neutrally, “Not having a great day, I take it.”

Deflated, Powell described his interview with Nigel.

“See here, Erskine, I understand completely,” Barrett said soothingly. “Just between you and me, I've been feeling a wee bit guilty about the difficult position I've put you in. So I thought to myself, ‘Why not make it official?’ ”

Why not, indeed? It occurred to Powell that a rather more likely explanation for this latest ploy was to get the políticos off the local backs and onto his own. He had to smile in spite of himself. However else they might be described, fishing holidays with Barrett were never dull.

CHAPTER 7

The call came at eight o'clock the next morning from Sir Henry Merriman, assistant commissioner of the Metropolitan Police. Sir Henry was not exactly an endearing character, having risen to his present lofty status by virtue of a singular talent, it was widely held amongst his subordinates, for arse licking. Sir Henry proceeded to inform Powell that his leave was forthwith canceled and, at the specific instruction of the Home Secretary, he was to assist the Scottish authorities with their inquiry into the death of Charles Murray. His tone, however, left little doubt that he considered Powell unworthy of such distinction.

Powell was to liaise directly with the local investigating officer-in-charge, while keeping Sir Henry fully briefed. Powell's role in the matter was to be purely advisory, of course, and discretion was the order of the day. We don't want to ruffle any sporrans, do we? Ha ha. And, oh, yes, the Home Secretary had taken a personal interest in the case and was looking forward to a speedy resolution. In other words, Powell thought grimly as he disconnected,
my balls are on the block. He was beginning to wonder what he had got himself into.

For the time being, he and Barrett had agreed to operate more or less independently, employing evening telephone sessions to compare notes. Barrett was still awaiting word from the Canadian authorities on Charles Murray, and the search for Oliver Pickens, who had apparently vanished into thin air, had been stepped up. For his part, Powell could now begin in earnest to investigate the circumstances surrounding Murray's death. Barrett had readily agreed to Powell's suggestion that PC Shand be assigned to the case on a full-time basis. Although inexperienced, the lad seemed both keen and capable, and he was, to some extent, a known quantity; Powell didn't need any surprises in that line.

After breakfast, Powell set out to locate Ruby. It was high time, he decided, they had a heart-to-heart. He eventually located her folding sheets in the laundry room. She started with a tiny squeak when he spoke her name.

“Ruby, what's wrong?”

She quickly wiped her cheek, looking annoyed with herself. “Oh, I'm fine. Just having a wee bubble, that's all.”

BOOK: Malice in the Highlands
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