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Authors: Bruce Beckham

Murder by Magic

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Bruce Beckham

__________

 

Murder by Magic

 

 

A detective novel

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

LUCiUS

 

Text copyright 2015 Bruce Beckham

 

All rights reserved.  Bruce
Beckham asserts his right always to be identified as the author of this
work.  No part may be copied or transmitted without written permission
from the publisher.

 

This is a work of fiction. 
Names, characters, places and incidents either are the product of the author’s
imagination or are used fictitiously.  Any resemblance to actual persons,
living or dead, events and locales is entirely coincidental.

 

Kindle edition first published by
Lucius 2015

 

CreateSpace edition first
published by Lucius 2015

 

For more details and Rights
enquiries contact:

[email protected]

 

EDITOR’S NOTE

 

Murder by Magic
is a stand-alone crime mystery,
the fifth in the series ‘Detective Inspector Skelgill Investigates’.  It
is set primarily in the English Lake District, although for the purposes of storytelling
some minor liberties have been taken with the geography of the Langdales.

 

 

BY THE SAME AUTHOR

 

Murder in Adland

Murder in School

Murder on the Edge

Murder on the Lake

 

(Above: Detective Inspector
Skelgill Investigates)

 

Murder Mystery Collection

The Dune

The Sexopaths

1. YOWES

 

Walking
in the Lake District, it is not unusual to come across the carcass of a
sheep.  With an ovine population that outnumbers the human residents of
the National Park by more than ten to one – put bluntly – they have
to die somewhere.  Desiccated by wind, bleached by sun, bones and fleece
scattered by scavengers, sometimes all that remains is a skull, its empty
sockets staring out from the bracken like a stranded spirit.  Since early
medieval times sheep have been reared in the Lakes, and breeding flocks of
Herdwicks have lived – and died – upon the same ‘heaf’ for countless
generations.  Their husbandry is woven into the fabric of a landscape that
has dry stone enclosures bent like ribs through the heather.  High above,
the hardy creatures speckle the open fells, scrambling down ‘in bye’ to lamb only
upon the insistence of crafty dogs and their whistling masters.  These shepherds
still count using ancient Cumbric, a relict language that tells of a Celtic
ancestry, and varies even by dale, with
yaena, taena, teddera
(one, two,
three) in Eskdale becoming
yan, tyan, tethera
in neighbouring Borrowdale.

Hailing
from the latter, and thus familiar with both the rhythmical pattern of life and
death, and the vernacular, it is only when Skelgill’s morning tally of fellside
casualties reaches
tethera
that he begins to take note.  That, and
the absence of the sheep’s head.

This
particular corpse is what might be described as ‘Raven fresh’ – and,
indeed, it is an unruly unkindness of these sinister corvids that calls his
attention to the site of excoriation, high on the northern flank of the Scafell
Pikes.  “Fighting for the eyes,” is Skelgill’s muttered observation, as he
hears a battering of wings and sees the jousting of great beaks.  Upon his
cautious approach, one by one the birds launch themselves reluctantly, their protests
of
brok
resonant about the silent comb.  He pauses to watch them glide
to a crag below Round How, and crowd into a surly committee that conspires to
vote him off the mountain.

Having
parked his motorbike before dawn at Hope’s Farm in Borrowdale, this April
Sunday sees Skelgill trailblazing a running route that packs in some of
Lakeland’s most famous peaks.  He is calling it ‘The Mammoth’, for its outline
upon the map looks like two flapping ears and a flared trunk.  In brief,
it skims south over Glaramara and Allen Crags; from Esk Hause due east upon
Rossett Pike and the Langdales; south to Pike of Blisco, with its epic cairn; west
along the roller coaster of Crinkle Crags, Bow Fell and Esk Pike; down into
Eskdale, whence to scale Sca Fell via Foxes Tarn; a hair-raising scramble to
Mickledore through the boulder-choke that is the Lord’s Rake; then ‘home’ over
the small matter of Scafell Pike, Broad Crag, Great End, Great Gable and Green
Gable.  Thirty-five miles, fifteen thousand feet of ascent, and Gladis
Hope’s legendary Cumberland Fry – and make that a large one.

It is
upon Broad Crag that Skelgill has encountered his third dead sheep since sunrise. 
The first two comprised little more than weathered remains, encrusted like
lichen upon the splintered rocks, with scant form but clumps of fleece and
strands of sinew.  Now, as he pensively regards
tethera
, he might
be wondering whether
yan
and
tyan
were similarly lacking in
essential parts of their anatomy – for it is not just the head that is
absent.  Ravens might be equipped with bills capable of tearing the
exposed hide of a sheep’s belly, but this animal has been savagely butchered,
its thoracic cavity cleaved apart, a gaping red wound that has so aroused the winged
opportunists.

Skelgill
is travelling light.  There was a good forecast and the weather has lived
up to its billing.  A cloudless dawn has given rise to a crisp and bright
early morn, and only now are the first few cumuli beginning to bubble up on the
south-westerly drift that bears the fresh itch of birch pollen.  A water
bottle and two
Wainwrights
(books four and seven) contribute the
majority of weight to his small backpack, but there is also his mobile phone,
and he employs it now to take a series of photographs of the unfortunate animal. 
Sheep can ordinarily be recognised by
lug
marks – though not this
one; given the deficiency of ears Skelgill captures the coloured
smit
marks on the fleece, which ought to identify the owner.  The image of the
underbelly has him narrowing his eyes – an onlooker might say in anger
– for this yowe was ready to lamb.

 

*

 

‘Aye
– thon’s one o’ George Dixon’s yowes – frae ower Wasdale.’

Skelgill
nods, grim faced.

‘Who’d
do that, Arthur?’

The
farmer is a big man; he’d seemed a giant once, when Skelgill was a boy,
unofficially apprenticed on Arthur Hope’s farm, being a classmate of his
son.  Now his frame is bowed, by age and the dipping of ten thousand yowes
– but he can still cart a vintage motorbike about his workshop that would
take two ordinary folk to heft.  He shakes his large head, chiselled like
a boulder taken off the side of the fell that rises above the slate-built farmstead.

‘Offcomers.’

This
single word conveys his feelings on the matter – no man of the fells
could commit such an act.

‘You’ve
not had any problems?’

‘Ourn
are all in-bye since Wednesday – but we’ve lost a couple o’er the winter. 
Might have strayed.  I’ll ’ave a word wi’ our Jud – case ’e’s sin
owt.’

Skelgill
takes a deep breath and exhales slowly.  The air is still cool and wraithlike
condensation drifts across the yard.

‘Lambing
yet, Arthur?’

‘Any day,
lad.’  The farmer grins, wry lips covering his teeth.  ‘Thou
volunteering?’

Skelgill,
appropriately, looks sheepish.

‘As I
recall, you put me on tea duty last time, Art – that’s how much use I
was.’

Arthur
Hope winks.

‘Jud tells
me tha’s got a fighting dog.’

Skelgill
grins; the farmer is ribbing him.

‘Aye
– she’ll just about fight the cat for your dinner if you turn your back.’

There
comes a sharp rapping on a small pane of glass, a steamed-up side window of the
kitchen.  It is a signal that Skelgill’s breakfast is ready.

‘Get
the’sen fed, lad – I heard thee come.’

Skelgill
looks a little alarmed.  Earlier he had wheeled his motorbike the last
hundred yards so as not to disturb the family.

‘Sorry
if I woke you.’

‘I
were up, lad  – thought it wo’ sound o’ your bike – it’s only
thee that’s touched enough to be ont’ fells int’ dark.’

Skelgill
shrugs apologetically.

‘Aye,
well – I like the place to myself, Arthur.  How come you were
awake?’

‘If
t’yowes start ter lamb it’s at four int’ mornin’ – and Jud’s away for a
sale – yowes and hoggs wi’ lambs at foot.’

Skelgill
nods appreciatively – it is a positive sign that the farm is seeking to
add to its flock.  The knocking comes again, more insistently now, and
Arthur Hope inclines his head towards the planked door that displays a tilted
hand-lettered notice marked ‘café’.

‘Gan
an get that fry, lad – afore Gladis gives it t’cur dogs.’

 

*

 

In a condition
allied to drunkenness, Skelgill staggers under the burden of his Cumberland
Fry, his saturated fat levels soaring like the surrounding fells.  His Triumph
motorcycle is parked a short distance down the farm track, and ahead of him the
first swallow of the summer – though by tradition an oxymoron –
dips and dives for clegs attracted by the dung.  A yellow splash of
Forsythia
spills from a little walled-off garden, and along the lane whitebeam are
budding, their clusters of leaves exploding in a display of mock
Magnolia

From their midst a chiffchaff, just landed from Africa, imperfectly announces
its presence.  Spring has arrived in the Lakes.

Approaching
Rosthwaite Skelgill has to slow for a flock of Herdwicks, perhaps two hundred
that have been gathered from the fells and now are being walked up by their
shepherd and two hands.  There is no need for the dogs – their work
done, they balance improbably on the back of a quad; the village walls provide
all the necessary curbs.  The ewes graze as they go, bellies swaying, eager
to trim the lush verges, remembering the taste of fresh green couch after a
winter of austerity.  Their fleeces are stained by peat and rock and
bracken, like the greatcoats of a ragtag rebel army that has been holding out
in the hills, now under truce and trading grass for little black lambs.  Thus,
the wheel of life takes another turn.

2. MR LEONARD

 

‘Morning,
Guvnor.’

Skelgill
glances up from his computer without tempering his scowl.  DS Leyton has
arrived bearing mugs of tea from the canteen, but this softener has little
apparent impact upon his superior’s mood.  If DS Leyton were able to see
the map on his screen and the scribbled calculations on his pad, he might
deduce that Skelgill is dissatisfied with some aspect of his run yesterday
morning.  Alternatively, had he observed Skelgill’s arrival a few minutes
earlier, prising himself from his car and hobbling across to the rear entrance,
thence to seek out drugs from a reliable dealer in the shape of a cleaning
lady, he might form another theory for the cause of his boss’s displeasure. 
More profound sleuthing would reveal that Skelgill had ‘dined out’ rather well
on his latest exploit and, frankly – at 37 – is no longer able to treat
either real ale or fell running with the casual indifference he once
could.  He might now be wishing he had spent his Sunday fishing, which
would have avoided at least one of his present ailments.

DS
Leyton, having seated himself, and given Skelgill a reasonable window in which
to voice either a complaint or – less likely – an acknowledgement
for his provision of the tea, and receiving neither, leans forward and places a
forearm across one knee.

‘Just
received a report of a missing person, Guv – young chap never came back
to his B&B in Keswick last night.’

Skelgill
takes a long draught of tea and regards his colleague thoughtfully across the
rim of his mug.

‘We’ve
probably arrested him.’

DS
Leyton grins, but shakes his head.

‘I
checked, Guv – nobody matching the name or description.’

Skelgill
appears largely disinterested, and his gaze drifts back to his screen.

‘Landlady
thinks he was hillwalking, Guv.’

The
word
hillwalking
seems to ignite a tiny spark of interest in Skelgill’s
otherwise unenthusiastic demeanour.

‘Where?’

‘She
doesn’t know, Guv – want me to shoot over and have a natter?’

Skelgill
swallows the remainder of his tea, seemingly inured to its incipient
heat.  He bangs down the mug and pushes himself to his feet by the arms of
his chair, grimacing through bared teeth.

‘Pity
our mob closed down that burger van, Leyton.’

 

*

 

‘Grisedale
Vista’
is a tall,
narrow end-of-terrace guesthouse that – despite its promising designation
– overlooks the public cark park in the centre of Keswick.  True, leaning
on tiptoes from the loft dormer, the summit of the eponymous fell is just about
visible, though this is not the most auspicious view of Grisedale Pike, and
certainly does not do justice to the mountain that defines the small town’s splendid
western horizon.

The
entire row is given over to B&Bs and, efficient landladies having promptly fed
and shooed away their overnight guests, there are vacant parking spaces outside
most of the properties.  The front doors are reached by a stiff climb up a
zigzag of stone steps – perhaps a cunning defence against undesirable
oversized suitcases – and this banked frontage is adorned in such a way
that it also presents a considerable challenge to the eye.  It is rather
as if a local garden centre has gone bankrupt and all the unwanted stock from
the fire sale has ended up here.  Not only does a plethora of ‘Vacancies’
signs and Tourist Board rosettes compete for the attention of the prospective lodger,
but also a battle of paraphernalia is being fought.  There are birdbaths, windmills,
classical sculptures with noses and fingers missing, solar-powered lanterns,
pots with dwarf conifers and hanging baskets that trail ivy and withered
remnants of last year’s
Lobelia
.  Grisedale Vista appears to
specialise in gnomes.

‘That
one looks like you, Leyton.’

Skelgill
has picked out a chubby – though cheerful – character waving a
trowel and what might be a cauliflower.  However, DS Leyton gives as good
as he gets.

‘Well
– that’s you then, Guv – with the fishing rod – and the big hooter.’

Skelgill,
scaling the steps ahead of his more ponderous colleague, surreptitiously runs a
finger and thumb from the bridge to the end of his nose; he scowls and reaches
for the bell push.  However, he hesitates for a moment as he reads a
series of notices that have been taped to the inner door of the porch:

“No
arrivals before 5pm.”

“No
muddy walking boots or wet clothing.”

“No
smoking or dogs.”

“No
admission or noise after 10pm.”

“No
alcohol on the premises.”

Skelgill
folds his arms as he considers these directives – perhaps contemplating
the futility of his ever applying here for a night’s bed and breakfast.

‘Why
not keep it simple and say, “No visitors”, Guv?’

Skelgill
nods as he thumbs the bell.  It is the sort that keeps ringing when
depressed, and he holds it down with a certain determination.  He starts,
however, when the figure of a woman suddenly pops up from beneath the
wood-panelled lower section of the door and glares at them through the
glass.  She is probably in her late fifties, thin and angular, with a long
pointed nose and deep-set eyes ringed by dark shadows, short mousy hair and pale
skin, most notable on her bare arms, which droop limply before her.  A
meerkat is called to mind.  Evidently she is in the process of cleaning
the hall floor, for she holds a scrubbing brush, and wears yellow rubber gloves
and a faded sky-blue overall.  Peeling off the gloves, and setting her jaw
ominously, she unfastens the latch.  Skelgill steps back and quips out of
the side of his mouth.

‘Over
to you, Leyton.’

DS
Leyton hurriedly engages the defensive shield of his warrant card.

‘Mrs
Robinson?’

‘Yes?’

‘I’m DS
Leyton and this is DI Skelgill, from Cumbria CID, madam – you spoke with
one of our colleagues earlier – about your missing guest – Mr Leonard?’

‘He
isn’t here.’

‘Yes
madam – that’s why we’ve called.’

The
woman glowers disapprovingly, although she is already scrutinising their shoes
as if she is resigned to having to admit them.

‘We’d
like to know a little bit about him for our files.’

‘Well,
I don’t see how I can help.’

‘Perhaps
– if we could see his room – you told the duty officer he’d left
some belongings?’

‘There’s
no wallet – he hasn’t paid, you know.’

The
woman appears quite unabashed by her revelation of this knowledge.

‘Well
– maybe if we can track him down, madam – we can get that sorted
out.’

This
suggestion seems to win a modicum of approval, and rather grudgingly she moves
aside and allows the detectives to enter.  A loud electronic alert sounds
as the door closes behind them.  The hallway is narrow and tiled in a
chequered Victorian style; there is a smell of disinfectant, and from beneath
knitted brows the woman frowns at their footprints.  They pass a doorway
on the right marked ‘Residents’ Lounge’ (subtitled, “Locked at 9pm”).  Skelgill
catches a glimpse of a firm-looking sofa that has clear plastic stretched over
the seat cushions, and the shade of a table lamp with its pleated cellophane
wrap still in place.  Ahead on the left is a staircase, and beyond doors of
what might be a breakfast room (“Wait to be seated”) and the kitchen (“Keep out”). 
Beneath the stairs is an austere upright chair and beside it on a stand a
telephone and a gnome piggy bank – the latter labelled “Honesty box” with
the word honesty underlined twice.

They
are led to a small single bedroom on the second floor, in the eaves at the rear
of the house.  The air is stuffy and Skelgill automatically gravitates to
the window; it faces north and has pleasing views to Skiddaw.  He raises
the sash and leans out, as if to satisfy himself that the browbeaten lodger has
not made some escape bid and is hiding on a flat roof – but there is a
sharp drop, perhaps thirty feet, to a paved courtyard.  When he turns
back, DS Leyton is unzipping a worn black sports holdall that sits at the foot
of the apparently undisturbed bed.  The landlady is in close attendance,
gnawing at a fingernail.

‘Mrs
Robinson?’

The
woman twitches.  Skelgill gestures to a mahogany wardrobe.

‘Could
you show me inside, please?’

He is perfectly
capable of looking for himself; it seems he wishes to divert her attention away
from DS Leyton.

‘It is
quite empty, Inspector.’

She
tugs at one of the doors, causing its ill-fitting twin to swing open at the
same time.  Other than half-a-dozen odd coat hangers the cupboard is bare.

‘How
about the dresser?’

One by
one she pulls open the drawers.  Like the wardrobe this item is warped by
age; it has lost its original shape and each action is met with a shriek of protest.

‘And there
was nothing left in the bathroom – if he even went in there. 
Everything is in the bag, Inspector.’

Skelgill
nods.  DS Leyton, perhaps fearing sharp objects, is gingerly working his
way through its contents.

‘So,
when did you last see Mr Leonard, madam?’

The
woman reverts to her meerkat pose – as if she believes she will be held
responsible for his disappearance.

‘Actually,
it was when he arrived.’

‘What
time was that?’

‘Four
fifty-eight.’

Skelgill
nods implacably.  She would have noticed exactly.

‘And
when did he go out?’

‘I
thought he had stayed in his room until bedtime.  I don’t understand how I
did not hear the exit alarm.’  She wrings her hands in
self-reproach.  ‘And this morning I cooked his breakfast – a
complete waste.’

For a moment
Skelgill appears as though he might beg to differ – but he overcomes his
instinct for food and deals with the matter in hand.

‘There’s
a back entrance?’

The
woman’s scowl suggests she would not let someone give her the slip so easily.

‘Through
the kitchen – but I was there most of the time.’

‘Where
are your quarters, madam?’

‘I
have a bed-sitting arrangement – in the basement.’

‘Perhaps
you were down there?’

‘But
the bells are also wired to my rooms.’

‘Is it
possible he left at the same time as some other folk?’

‘My
only additional guests last night were an elderly couple – and they
watched television in the lounge until nine – after which they went directly
to their room on the first floor – at the front.  Before they left I
asked them if they had seen Mr Leonard, and they said not.’

Skelgill
rubs his chin with a knuckle.  The stubble makes a rasping sound and the
landlady narrows her eyes disapprovingly.

‘Did
he suggest he might want go somewhere in particular – you mentioned
hillwalking when you called us?’

She
folds her arms, as though offended that her report is being called into
question.

‘There
was a map sticking out of the side pocket of his jacket.’

‘Did
you see the title or the sheet number?’

‘It
just said, “Derwentwater” – it looked like an old one, a
Bartholomew
.’

Skelgill
nods.

‘It
was observant of you to notice, madam.’

The
woman looks away, and bends down to straighten the corner of a rug that Skelgill
has inadvertently scuffed.  It seems that she has shied away from the compliment,
unaccustomed to such.  Meticulously, she arranges the little carpet tassels. 
Skelgill, meanwhile, is watching DS Leyton, who has discovered a concealed zip
on the base of the holdall: it is in fact a flat compartment housing straps
that enable the bag to convert into a rucksack.  He slides his hand inside
and, after a second or two of exploration, pulls out a small rectangular
plastic wallet.  The two detectives exchange glances, and DS Leyton hands
the item to Skelgill.

‘You
said he was called Mr Leonard, madam?’

Skelgill
has opened the wallet and is squinting at the contents.  Then he folds it
and places his hands casually behind his back as the woman rises and
straightens her overall.  Her features have regained their pained aspect,
and constrict further as she is asked to repeat this particular fact.

‘That
is correct, Inspector.’

‘Did
he have a reservation?’

She
shakes her head.

‘Until
the Bank Holiday, most of my trade is walk-up.  It falls late this year.’

‘Did
he sign in?’

‘I
don’t have a visitors’ book, Inspector – I found it was being abused.’

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