Death at the Wake
Dougal MacPherson grimaced as the luminous green, spiked head of Melody Collins protruded through the sliding doors. He had reluctantly consented to driving to Inverness airport to collect his Australian cousin, but the two hour return to their Grandmother’s estate loomed interminably. Mel’s searing intrusion into his own affair in Sydney six months previously remained raw.
Mel acknowledged him with a curt “So Gran sent you. I thought it would be Matt.”
“Yes, but he was expecting the vet.” Doug explained lifting her case.
“Pull it along on its wheels” muttered Mel sulkily, but Doug was striding across the concourse and out to his dark green BMW. Pulling away from the ticket barrier he managed a courteous “So you were held up at Heathrow?”
“Baggage problems. How was the funeral? Weird to come all this way and miss the main event. Gran insisted on me coming and arranged everything. And us colonials make a lot of returning to our roots.”
The cousins made no further exchanges. Doug controlled the speed, ambient temperature and background music as Mel’s travel-weary gaze drifted over the landscape until their first stop at Loch Milis’ gates. There was an long hiatus until Doug’s brother, Hugh answered the intercom and allowed them entry. As they drove the last mile of silver, single track, traced out like a slug’s trail towards the Atlantic they each revelled in memories blended from previous visits.
Rosa was at the door and Doug lifted out Mel’s luggage before continuing to the old carriage house. Gran was particular about never leaving cars impeding the facade of the house.
The MacPherson dynasty received Mel cordially. The statutory lunch guests following Guthrie MacPherson’s funeral had departed leaving only the direct descendants. Now, with the arrival of Mel, Guilia’s remaining brood was complete. Guilia stood tall despite being passed seventy – taller than her two full-grown grand-daughters, Mhairi and Mel, but the twins, Skye and Linnet, aged fifteen, were still stretching.
Doug and Mel picked at the remaining buffet while Doug’s parents, Stewart and Heidi chatted with their niece. His brothers, Hugh and Magnus, seized their chance to escape by taking Mel’s bags upstairs along with a tray prepared by Rosa. Guilia announced she was taking a siesta and everyone should remove their formal clothes and reappear, more casually, at 7.30pm for dinner.
As eldest heir Stewart believed he understood the family dynamics and had predicted the course of their visit:- Day One would be polite; Day Two formal with his father’s long anticipated funeral; on Day Three his mother would make a pronouncement about the estate. He expected to inherit, keeping the family lands intact. He knew, however, that his brother Derrick was facing bankruptcy after a trail of misguided ventures and his second wife, Ruth, appeared demanding and expensive to keep. A three way split would be difficult for them all. He was prosperous, but would struggle to maintain the estate without additional cash. Could his dead sister’s daughter be entrusted with a share? He would have to be appointed guardian as she was non- resident, requiring ongoing contact with his disreputable niece. Margaret had been the youngest of the siblings, with marked Celtic features against her brothers’ dark which they had inherited straight from Guilia. Margaret emigrated on leaving school, but died in a boating accident before Mel was ten. The family had not heard that news until Mel had been officially adopted by her Australian grandparents. Guilia maintained contact and brought Mel over to visit Guthrie, but every trip seemed more fraught than the last. By all accounts she had left a trail of ill-will during the grouse beating last year. There had been some major upset with his daughter, Mhairi, who was uncharacteristically vitriolic about her cousin. He understood Mel had also offended Rosa who had been in service since they were toddlers. Mel’s behaviour must have been extreme as Rosa had adored her mother and would recount how babies can arrive inconveniently and she had delivered Margaret on her very kitchen floor.
Drinks were served in the conservatory accompanied by Rosa’s renowned savouries. For inexplicable reasons she had endured on this damp north western coastline. She spoke longingly of her roots and occasionally returned to Haiti, but remained loyal to the family.
Each MacPherson knew their position in the parade into the dining room but Mel, not brandishing the clan name, sauntered in on her own terms. Hugh, Magnus and Mhairi each had long term partners, but Guilia had stated that this was to be a family-only affair which they dutifully honoured. Guthrie had suffered from a degenerative neurological condition and she had managed both the estate and his care. The family acknowledged that she had walked a hard, lonely road. The estate appeared well run despite their concerns about certain employees that their mother engaged. The most recent, Matt Sneddon, a Helmand veteran, had arrived in the area for a period of horse therapy as treatment for PTSD. All were wary of him, except Mhairi who found Matt charming.
Guilia seemed unexpectedly animated for one so recently widowed. After looming for decades, the end had been sudden and Stewart read relief and newfound freedom in his mother’s relaxed demeanour. Derrick & Ruth were tetchy and Dougal anticipated talk of divorce immediately the will was read. The twins were, as usual, engrossed in internal communications despite sitting at opposite ends of the table. Perhaps it was their monozygotic relationship, but Mhairi, considering her recent thesis, believed they lay along the autistic spectrum. She was keen to continue studies abroad, but needed finance and Stewart was adamant that he would not support them beyond graduation. She hoped Guilia might back her generously.
Matt was on duty as waiter and Mel eyed him up. He was as muscular and attractive as she remembered and wondered what her chances of seducing him might be. He would be quite a conquest. Although he had evaded escorting her from the airport she might visit him at the stables tomorrow. Ex-Captain Sneddon dutifully topped up glasses then re-entered with the dessert tray.
“Ah, our blaeberry cranachan” Guilia announced grandly. “Guthrie’s favourite. Thank you, Matt. I’ll take the tray and you can go and eat.”
Heidi and Mhairi offered assistance, but Guilia served each sundae with a flourish. “Guthrie’s mother served desserts from this tray when I first came to Loch Milis so this is to honour her” she decreed royally.
“The trouble with cranachan is no seconds,” teased Hugh, “but Rosa will doubtless have a stash of something to indulge us over coffee!”
“I expect so,” responded Guilia “but I will see to the tidying up before drinks in the lounge. I thought you would be scheming your traditional swim – but without me tonight.”
“That’s a shame, Gran” said Magnus pushing back his chair and enquiring who was game. Stewart’s four headed for the door; Mel stretched languidly nodding assent; the twins joined the exodus. Stewart dropped both hands on the table decisively, challenging his brother to join him and went in search of towels. As the ladies crossed the hall Guilia summoned Matt to act as lifeguard while they settled in the lounge from where they could dimly make out the swimmers.
Stewart and Derrick strode down considering the impetuousness of their race to the island. Derrick ventured, “What do you make of Mel? What’s with the green hair – Margaret was proud of every strand of her red-headedness. And did you see her eyes – just the look her mother used?”
“Yes,” chipped in Stewart, “If I hadn’t known better I would have said she was flirting with me at the end of dinner. Maybe it’s jet lag.”
They joined the others and launched into the water glad the current was in their favour tonight. Matt stood to attention, constantly scanning his territory.
The twins trained regularly and to everyone’s chagrin, reached the wooden jetty first, followed by Doug and his three siblings. Amidst laughter and dunking it took several moments to identify Stewart in next place and then everyone looked for Derrick and Mel. The night was broken by Matt stripping off his jacket and boots and ploughing the waves in the opposite direction. Derrick surfaced in the confusion and the others shivered realising that Mel was drifting towards open sea, motionless.
Doug took command. “Dad get everyone back and summon help. Hugh, Magnus -we’ll support Matt.”
The four propelled Mel back and Matt led the resuscitation. Her pupils were huge and pulse racing and uncertainty hung in the air. The air ambulance had been scrambled and Stewart sent his brother to the house with the news. The resuscitation team were wearying when the helicopter circled before landing on the machair and Doug debriefed the paramedics. The ECG recorded a tachycardia before leaving for Raigmore.
The bedraggled party returned to the house overwhelmed by events and sat silently until PC Pert arrived. He was formal, insisting on the necessary details to complete his accident report. During this he received a call confirming their fears: Mel was dead on arrival.
Stewart escorted the constable to the door and they stood, scanning the stars.
“Sad days for Mrs MacPherson,” started PC David Pert. “She has quite a following in the village? Everyone says she funds the estate with writing all those books. Can’t do it without major income these days. Most lands are owned by oil magnates or such. Community wouldn’t survive without them I suppose, but always nice to have real folk around.”
“What do they say my mother writes?” Stewart queried edgily.
“All those crimes – a well-kept family secret is it? What’s her name? Molly someone isn’t it? Read one meself some years back – all murder and deceit - not my line. I prefer fishing when I’m not working. And work is mostly traffic offences or preparations for the local marathon and occasional accidents like this. Mentioning the marathon reminds me of your niece. My son was up home for it last year and the two of them had quite some falling out. He’ll be shocked with this news. I’ll be back tomorrow. Goodnight Mr MacPherson.” Turning the key in the ignition he slammed the door and drove off.
The family gradually excused themselves until only Guilia and Stewart remained. The matriarch appeared weary, but sent her eldest off insisting that she wanted to be alone with her memories.
Despite the drama Rosa served a rolling breakfast and each member launched their day uniquely. The plan had already been to stay another night and everyone drifted around the house and grounds somewhat aimlessly.
It was approaching 4pm when the Chief Inspector drew up with PC Pert as nervous chauffeur.
“Mrs MacPherson, my condolences. I made special arrangements for the post mortem to be carried out swiftly so as not to draw events out for you, but I am afraid the conclusion is that although Melody Collins died by drowning she had been poisoned. This therefore, is a murder inquiry. We are awaiting a team of detectives and I have to insist that no-one leaves the estate. They will collect further statements and evidence and I request that nothing is tampered with. ”
PC Pert appeared paler than the previous night, his voice less certain, his note-taking shaky.
When the team arrived Ruth asked that the twins be interviewed first so that they could be excused a long ordeal and the detectives obliged. They left around 11pm intending to return by midday. Another night of unease fell over Loch Milis and only the twins slept well. The house was not stirring by 8am, but Skye and Linnet joined Rosa in the kitchen for breakfast. They saw Matt briefly, but he had overslept and was hurrying to the stables. His watch had proved non-seaworthy and lost time since Friday.
With the arrival of eight Police Scotland employees everyone assembled in the lounge, once the venue for more celebratory occasions. The inspector gave his preamble before briskly announcing that Matt Sneddon was arrested on suspicion of murder. He had been the first to reach Mel in the water, had access to veterinary drugs and information provided by PC Pert’s son, Albert, alleged that he and Mel had significant disagreements during her last visit. In addition he was known to have a history of instability. The room gasped. Matt was stunned, looking frantically at Guilia for support, but none came.
As officers stepped up to handcuff him the twins jumped to his with the duet “You’re wrong!”
Skye led their reasoning -: “Matt could not have murdered Mel. Firstly, there is no motive. He isn’t interested in any relationship except getting access to his seven year old son and wouldn’t allow anything to jeopardise that. Secondly, if he had obtained poison at the vet’s how could he have administered it? The only things he served were drinks and Mel drank tap water. Thirdly, we believe she was already drugged by the end of dinner as she was flushed and her pupils were enormous. If Matt had given her an injection intended for a horse she would have objected and we doubt your fancy investigator found any needle marks. Fourthly, if Matt had been choosing to drown Mel he would have taken his watch off before going into the water. He doesn’t wear an expensive waterproof gadget, but instead his treasured possession given to him years ago by his father and today it is malfunctioning.”
Linnet continued “Having excluded Matt, consider the alternatives. It is not unusual for girls to commit suicide at times of emotional crisis, but this seems unlikely with Mel. None of our cousins liked Mel, particularly Dougal, but we don’t see any motive for murder. Even if they had felt irritated they knew she would be returning to Australia and Gran has told us that all her grandchildren will inherit equally.
Stewart and Derrick mistakenly assumed that Mel would inherit a third share, therefore significantly shrinking their own. They may also have baulked at the idea of being appointed her trustees in the UK. Our Dad and step-Mum are bankrupt and an estate divided by two branches of the family rather than three would be advantageous, but family murders are seldom solely over money.
Looking wider we have PC Pert who knew that Mel was returning and may have wished revenge following his son’s failed attempt to get in with the MacPhersons last year.”
“That’s outrageous” spluttered the PC before being silenced by his Chief.
Skye took over with, “We now have to consider Rosa and our own grandmother.”
Derrick shouted towards his daughters “Shut it! You are being outrageous!” but was silenced by the large hand of command.
“We sat with Rosa this morning and she told us things that she had sworn never to reveal while Guthrie was alive. She felt uneasy last summer after finding Mel combing his hair and collecting fingernail clippings in plastic bags. Next, we asked Gran for her laptop to view old photos creating the chance to access her Facebook account. Back in January Mel messaged her with an apology. She had been investigating a hunch that Margaret wasn’t a MacPherson – not Guthrie’s daughter – from something she had vaguely overheard. Last year she had taken samples and had them analysed against locks of Margaret’s hair and her own. She was proved wrong and is indeed Guthrie’s granddaughter and apologised for doubting.”
“It was never in doubt that Margaret was Mr MacPherson’s daughter,” huffed Rosa.
“Rosa also commented about how unusual it was for Guilia to insist on blaeberry cranachan for dessert as her custom has been only to serve foods in season and only if there was a glut was Rosa permitted to preserve produce to serve at another time. There was never a surfeit of blueberries, but she was issued with strict instructions to purchase the smallest blueberries for sale in Inverness for Saturday evening.”
Linnet resumed their speculations. “We researched possible poisons causing Mel to flush and her pupils dilate. We suspect the pathologist’s report will confirm atropine as the cause. This COULD have been from the vet, but would be traceable through receipts and empty packets. We propose that Mel was poisoned with berries and perhaps additional ground root of belladonna, deadly nightshade, leaving no empty phial and easily blended into her cranachan.
Doug interjected with “This is preposterous. Let the police take Matt and do their own job.”
His father silenced him, mindful of PC Pert’s comments late on Saturday night. “Let’s hear the girls out” he said softly, moth-like memories fluttering through hazy curtains at him.
Rosa was sobbing quietly, mumbling about how badly her family had needed the money and how he had kept his promise and paid more than she could ever make elsewhere. She concluded audibly with: “And I have never said a word.”
PC Pert and WPC Bradley moved with the handcuffs to bookend Rosa, but the twins chorused “It’s not Rosa. She couldn’t poison anyone”
Guilia stood and everyone noticed that she was wearing her funereal clothes. “I kept my promise to Guthrie bringing his daughter up as mine. Rosa was the midwife and the only member of staff to know, but I was not Margaret’s birth mother. Estates like this do not keep themselves and I have invested my fortune here. It is my home, my inheritance and it will only pass to my blood relations. The only flaw is that the Inspector was due to go on holiday today and used his position to request an immediate post mortem and toxicology. Without that Melody’s death would have been recorded as accidental drowning and after a period of mourning the estate would have been mine to bequeath. Rosa you have been a loyal member of staff. I was sorry to hear you accused. Chief Inspector, I am your murderess.”