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Authors: Bruce Beckham

Murder on the Lake

BOOK: Murder on the Lake
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Bruce Beckham

__________

 

Murder on the Lake

 

 

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 on the Lake
is a stand-alone whodunit, the
fourth in the series ‘Detective Inspector Skelgill Investigates’.
Chronologically, its events take place a few months after those described in
Murder
on the Edge.
It is set primarily in the English Lake District, with scenes
in London and the Scottish capital, Edinburgh.

 

 

BY THE SAME AUTHOR

 

Murder in Adland

 

Murder in School

 

Murder on the Edge

 

(Above: Detective Inspector
Skelgill Investigates)

 

Murder Mystery Collection

 

The Dune

 

The Sexopaths

1. DERWENTWATER
– Sunday evening, late October

 

It
might be surmised that Daniel Skelgill is never happier than when he crouches
alone, afloat, alert; a trusty rod gripped in the left hand, an oar deftly
manoeuvred in the right; another epic piscine battle about to augment his
inventory of pike-infested pub tales.  Yet the casual observer would not
think so to look at him.  At this moment of truth – when defeat may be
plucked from the fishy jaws of victory – he appears anything but content. 
In this instant when intuition usurps rational evaluation, when instinct and
experience come together in an artful display of predation – a lupine
anticipation takes possession of his demeanour.  He is a man
transfixed.  His pale eyes are narrowed to slits.  His lips are drawn
back over his teeth.  A fearsome grimace grips his features.  Indeed
he might barely recognise himself – a photograph taken now surely challenging
even his indifferent narcissism.  He stalks his quarry like a half-starved
wolf, hostage to adrenaline that – in the event of failure – will
abandon him, hollow with loss.  Such stakes perhaps explain the lack of
obvious joy – even in the event of triumph, when the stampede of his
heartbeat is all consuming.

But on
this particular October Sunday evening Skelgill has more reasons to be
cheerless.  An autumn gale – long forecast but promised for the
early hours – has swept prematurely across England’s western seaboard and
is making of Derwentwater a storm-tossed Irish Sea in miniature.  White horses
threaten to breach the bow.  Seeking refuge in the lee of Grisholm –
an uninhabited wooded islet whence browning leaves of ancient oaks stream like
migrating birds against the lowering sky – Skelgill wrestles his small bobbing
craft into calmer but still choppy waters.  He casts about for a likely
spot to fish – but darkness advances and he ought to call it a day. 
Soaked to the skin and not a little hypothermic, only bloody mindedness now
drives him on – he has an appointment with a pint and a fishless blank will
spoil his chat.

But if
it is a yarn he craves, then perhaps all is not lost.  As his boat is drawn
shoreward by the refracted waves that embrace the isle, a movement attracts his
attention.  In the gloom, a pale shape weaves amongst the bankside
trees.  It is the slim figure of a woman, almost ghostlike.  The roar
of the wind in the canopy drowns out any sound she makes.  She has long
fair hair, plastered down by the rain; around her is drawn a fawn mackintosh
that reaches her ankles.  As she picks her way towards him she stumbles on
the uneven ground, and clutches protectively at her midriff.  Then
suddenly she glances across the water, as if she senses that she is being
watched.  For a few seconds they exchange curious stares, each squinting
into the dusk, like the meeting of an explorer and a savage (in appearance,
Skelgill fulfilling the role of the latter).  The boat washes closer, and
at about twenty feet of separation the woman breaks her silence.

‘We
need help.’

Though
she calls out, her voice is weak and tremulous.

‘What’s
wrong?’

Skelgill
has no such trouble in projecting his reply.

Still
clutching one hand to her stomach, with the other she wipes beads of rain and
strands of hair from her face.

‘Somebody
has died – we have no means of communication.’

Skelgill
pushes closer to the bank, but there is an empty clunk as the hull strikes a
rock and he is forced to reverse.’

‘Who’s
we?’

‘It’s
a writers’ retreat – at Grisholm Hall – there are nine of us. 
Eight.’

Skelgill
evidently decides he has heard enough.  Energetically he begins to row
away from the shallows.  He calls out, not looking at the woman.

‘I
can’t get ashore here – meet me round at the landing stage – you
know where that is?’

‘Yes.’

‘Five
minutes max.’

The
woman nods and turns and disappears into the darkness beneath the trees. 
Grisholm is a small oval island, barely half a mile at its widest, with its
long axis oriented north to south.  The landing stage is located on the
west bank, diametrically opposite his present position.  Skelgill must
battle the breakers that surge around either headland – he sets his
course in a clockwise direction, to take advantage of the south-westerly once
he rounds the point.  Spray and spume and precipitation soak him anew, but
he bends his back to the task and reaches his destination in more or less the
predicted time.  The woman is waiting for him, shielding her eyes from the
rain with a deckhand’s salute.

Skelgill
pulls in his oars and allows the swell to sweep the boat up against the wooden
jetty.  The woman watches as he leans over the bow and makes fast the
painter around a sturdy upright.  Then he hauls himself onto the greasy
planks and stands beside her, panting from his exertion.  He regards her
with some surprise – she is small in stature – barely over five
feet – and young, too, a girl really: early twenties if her elfin
appearance is not misleading.  Her skin is fair and – framed by the
inverted ‘v’ of her hair – her features are indistinct in the gloom. 
He notices that she is shivering.

‘You
alright, lass?’

‘I’m
cold – that’s all.  I thought it worth looking for a boat –
before it became too dark.’

She is
well spoken, her accent privately educated.  She seems quite calm, though
her demeanour is rather solemn. 

‘Well,
you were right.’

She
does not respond, as if she is waiting for Skelgill to take the initiative.

‘I’m
Dan, by the way.’

Stiffly
she offers a hand in a formal manner, and does not reciprocate his grip.

‘Lucy.’

‘Where
are the others?’

‘They’re
at the house.  The majority think we should wait until the morning. 
Until the storm has died down.’

Skelgill
adjusts his
Tilley
hat, pulling it more firmly into position.

‘That
might be a long wait – this is one of the deepest lows on record.’

The
girl looks at him rather blankly, as though meteorology was not included on her
finishing school curriculum.

‘We
should get you inside.  Let’s head up to the hall and see what’s what.’

Skelgill
is familiar with their immediate geography.  Grisholm Hall, a rather
austere Victorian edifice at the centre of the eponymous isle, lies chronically
vacant and shuttered, a situation that has persisted for the best part of half
a century.  With no caretaker in residence, the peeling and tilted
‘Trespassers
will be Prosecuted’
signs nailed around the perimeter held little fear for
him and his fellow adventurers, who spent many an illicit hour here in their teenage
years.  From the mooring a winding footpath climbs through dense woodland
to a highpoint, where the property rests in a clearing of lush mossy lawn, though
entirely hidden from the lake year-round by a judiciously planted inner ring of
conifers.  It is necessary to climb one of the fells surrounding lower
Derwentwater to discover this hidden mansion from afar.

The
girl seems accepting of Skelgill’s local knowledge.  She walks silently,
half a pace behind him.  As they move away from the shoreline,
rhododendrons close in to banish the wind at ground level.  Skelgill tries
his hand at making conversation.

‘I
thought writers were all old wrinklies.’

The
girl might be expected to reply to this clumsy compliment with some degree of energy,
but her considered answer is rather perfunctory in its delivery.

‘Agatha
Christie wrote her first novel in her twenties.’

‘Shows
what I know.’  Skelgill tilts his head in a gesture of bafflement. 
‘Not really my bag, fiction.’

A few
more moments of silence pass before the girl responds, more casually now.

‘What
do
you like?’

‘Well
– fishing, believe it or not.’  Skelgill hesitates, perhaps weighing
the pros and cons of revealing his official vocation.  ‘Fell
running.  Real ale.  But in my day job I’m a police officer.’

He
glances back at the girl, but it is too dark beneath the trees to gauge any
reaction.  She appears to be concentrating on her progress, as the path
takes a sudden upward bound.  So Skelgill chimes in again.

‘You
might say you struck lucky.’  He lifts his hat and scratches his head
absently.  ‘Although my boss would probably disagree.’

She treats
this self-deprecating remark with the same detachment as his observation about
her youth; but perhaps she is just overawed by his seniority.  They emerge
upon the edge of the lawn, and she quickens her pace and moves ahead of him. 
Before them looms the imposing form of Grisholm Hall.  It is a substantial
construction, though not one that is especially easy upon the eye, even with
the benefit of daylight.  In the advancing darkness the main impression is
of unplanned asymmetry, with wing-like structures added on either side of the
original house, and numerous dormers and chimney stacks protruding erratically
from the roof.  There are just-discernable bay windows in both of the main
storeys, and an offset porch reached by a broad flight of stone steps. 
Perhaps the most salient feature, under the circumstances, is the virtual absence
of artificial light, either illuminating the route of access, or emanating from
within the building itself.  The only sound above the wind is the irregular
spatter of rainwater escaping from a blocked gutter.  The castaway would
be excused for thinking there is no one at home. 

The
girl, Lucy, might not be forthcoming with chatter, but now she leads the way
nimbly up to the darkened entrance.  She has to lean upon the heavy
timbered door, which admits them with a creak of hinges into a stone-flagged
hallway, dimly lit and – the noise of the storm now excluded – filled
with the steady background hiss of gas lamps – the explanation no doubt
for the lack of external lighting: the island has no mains electricity.

Skelgill
hesitates for a second and glances down at his sodden walking boots – but
they are washed clean as such and the girl is already entering a room at the
end of the hall, through one of a pair of double doors.  There is the murmur
of voices from within, and, as he hurries to catch her up, she makes an
announcement to those persons as yet out of his sight.

‘The
police are here.’

Removing
his hat, Skelgill enters the now-silent room to be greeted by half a dozen or
so inquisitive faces that have abandoned their conversations to look his
way.  Despite its size the drawing room is cosy and welcoming, its subdued
gas lighting bringing out the best of its autumn colour scheme.  The
members of the party are seated upon a trio of sprawling country house style
sofas set around a broad slate hearth, where a log fire smokes in the
grate. 

If
Skelgill were able to adopt a fly-on-the-wall perspective, he might be
persuaded that, in the bemused stares directed his way, there is an element of
collective anticipation along the lines that someone else is yet to enter the
room.  This notion is perhaps confirmed by the first person to break the
silence, a somewhat nondescript middle-aged man in shirtsleeves and waistcoat, who
sits closest to the fire, and who is mainly distinctive for sporting an
extravagant spotted bow tie and a public school accent.

‘You couldn’t
look less like the police, if you don’t mind my saying so, old boy.’

Skelgill
fixes the man with a polite but steely glare.

‘Wouldn’t
you say, sir – in my profession that might just be an advantage?’

The
man does not appear disconcerted by Skelgill’s challenging tone.

‘You
mean you are a plain clothes officer?’

‘DI
Skelgill, Cumbria CID.’

The
girl Lucy takes half a step forward.  She begins to unfasten the oversized
mackintosh, which, on reflection, she must have borrowed.

‘He
was fishing – it’s a Sunday, after all.’

This
little intervention seems to break the ice, and several of the group now rise
to their feet, and begin to approach the new arrivals.  They all try to
ask questions simultaneously, but one woman – a rather voluptuous
brunette who might, beneath her extensive make up, be around the forty mark
– reaches Skelgill first, and fastens on to his upper arm with both hands. 
Rather swooningly, in the exaggerated fashion of a player in a silent movie, she
begins to regale him with her concerns (in summary, along the lines of having
to sleep in the equivalent of a mortuary), and apparently to wreathe him
– if his reaction is anything to go by – in the coils of her heady
perfume.  Not to be outdone by this possessive display, a general clamour
breaks out from the remainder of the crowd, who begin to bombard him with more
requests and opinions.  Skelgill backs away – brunette attached
– holding up his free hand in protest.

‘Ladies,
gentlemen – please!’

He
evidently looks suitably disconcerted, for the petitioners seem to realise they
have overdone their advances and fall silent, temporarily at least.  Into
this hiatus, the man who first spoke interjects.

BOOK: Murder on the Lake
4.31Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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