May 50AD – Caledonian Highlands
Only a rear corner of the canvas roof protruded out of the turbulent peat-coloured river. The body of the vehicle regularly shifted under force of the flow, threatening to turn over and roll further downstream. A dozen or so gillies, beaters and estate hands were trying to attach ropes to the vehicle under the eyes and guidance of several policemen. Light but steady rain made the already sodden ground tricky to obtain purchase. The river bank was particularly treacherous, not helped by the dawn sun being hidden behind the rainclouds, providing very little light. Lanterns swung back and forth sending beams criss-crossing over the churning waters as men slipped and cursed.
Detective Inspector Wallace McCulloch stood on the nearby road, examining the last fateful part of the automobile’s journey. Ahead of him the road narrowed as it passed over a small humped-back bridge. Behind the road was relatively straight with no sharp bends to catch the unwary driver out. A hole in the drystone wall, with lumps of rock and vehicle parts lying scattered around indicated where the car had left the carriageway a short distance before the bridge. Parallel wheel tracks gouged their way through the turf in the direction of the river, only veering sharply just before a short drop onto a small limestone shelf that jutted out into the choppy waters.
McCulloch yawned and rubbed his eyes. He was tired; very tired, having been woken barely moments after he had gone to bed, and been driven through the night from Edinburgh to the desolate highland moors in a steamer, a half-tracked steam-driven vehicle that looked like a small railway engine with a hansome cab bolted to the back of it. Rough roads and crude suspension are never good partners, much less an aid to sleep. Twice McCulloch had been on the point of nodding off when the steamer lurched, causing him to pitch sideways and crack his head against the side of the compartment. He yawned again, rubbing an area just above his left ear, irritated by his bowler hat. McCulloch winced as he scratched at the tender spot, the contact point from his earlier incidents, and felt the dried blood crumble and lodge under his fingernails. It matted his greying auburn hair, sticking it to the scabbed-over wound. His driver, Sergeant Winston Seeley, standing a short way off, noticed McCulloch’s discomfort and enquired if anything was the matter. McCulloch merely grunted. Then, thinking himself rude and not wishing to offend a good officer, attempted a conversation. “Sorry Seeley. Tired… not much sleep… you know… think I banged my head. Will be fine…”
“Yes, sorry about dragging you out, sir. Kept explanation to a minimum on the way. Thought you could do with the rest. Shows what I know, eh?” the sergeant chuckled.
McCulloch failed to see the funny side of the situation but let it pass. He tugged at his unkempt beard, a tangled mass of orange with the occasional white fleck. “So…,” he continued, rummaging around in his garbadine greatcoat for his pipe and tobacco, “…why the hell am I out in the rain on this god-forsaken moor at a, frankly, obnoxious hour of the morning? Hetty was most displeased at being woken I can tell you.”
Seeley recalled the shrill and very unladylike language that had accompanied McCulloch as he opened the front door when the sergeant had rapped the knocker several hours earlier. McCulloch’s affectionate but formidable wife Hettie was well known amongst the force as a woman not to upset; if Henrietta McCulloch was upset then DCI McCulloch was upset. When McCulloch was upset then no-one got in his way. Seeley eyed the dour DCI warily and chose his words, not wishing to spark off what was commonly known in the office as a ‘ginger eruption’. He was thankful that the DCI was momentarily distracted in his task of filling the briar. “An explosion alerted one of the estate gamekeepers. He came to investigate, saw the remains of the car sinking into the river and went for help. The butler at Kilverbeck, realising the seriousness of the matter, rang the police. And here we are,” the sergeant explained in what hoped was his most matter-of-fact voice.
McCulloch tamped down the tobacco and then pointed first at the sky, then at the police steamer resting half on the verge, half on the muddy carriageway, its boiler hissing as raindrops fell on hot metal. Seeley took the hint immediately and ferreted around in the trunk until he found an umbrella. He opened it and brought it over to shelter the DCI. McCulloch grunted something that may have been thanks and proceeded to light his pipe. The smoke filled the umbrella canopy, giving a fleeting impression that it was actually on fire. “So…here we are,” McCulloch repeated, gruffly. “And what exactly is the seriousness of the matter, pray tell?”
“Well, he’s dead, sir,” spluttered the sergeant, confused by his superior’s lack of interest.
“People die every day, Seeley. There has been a traffic accident,” McCulloch growled, “Why am I involved? The rank and file are capable of dealing with the aftermath of a traffic accident. Why, in God’s name, drag me out of bed for a bloody traffic accident?”
“Well, because he’s dead, sir,” Seeley said, at a loss of what else to say.
“Yes, I know that because you’ve just told me,” snapped McCulloch, peering out from under the umbrella. The light was improving slightly, silhouetting the grey mountains that seemed to crowd around the landscape. “Who is dead and should I care about them?”
Seeley’s jaw flapped some more. “I know I didn’t say much on the way but we talked about it in the steamer, sir.”
“It was so bloody noisy I couldn’t hear a thing,” the DCI said.
“I thought you said something when I told you, sir, so I assumed you had heard.”
“I was just making noises to sound polite; it seemed easier that way. So who has snuffed it?” Seeley had drifted a step or two away from McCulloch so the DCI reached out and pulled the umbrella back over his pipe, keeping the rain out of his smoke. Seeley had little choice but to follow.
“Kilverbeck Hall, sir?” he said, amazed that McCulloch had failed to pick up the earlier reference. The DCI merely looked at him and raised an enquiring eyebrow.
“It’s Fisherton, sir.”
McCulloch seemed to stop as though, momentarily, time had been suspended. For a second or two he did not appear to move, breath, blink or give any hint of animation. Then, very slowly, he looked first to the accident scene and then turned towards the sergeant, staring at him, fixing him with a penetrating gaze from slate cold eyes. Pipe smoke tumbled out his nostrils and drifted away in the cold, bitter rain. “Could you repeat that, Seeley? I’m hoping I misheard you,” he said, very softly.
Winston inhaled, then spoke. “I’m afraid you didn’t, sir. It’s Sir John Fisherton. The First Sea Lord.”
McCulloch continued to stare, unblinking, at the sergeant for another half minute, before he turned away, looking back towards the river. Ropes had been lashed to the vehicle and, with considerable effort, it was being dragged towards the limestone terrace. “Fisherton,” he murmured. “Fisherton. Dear god.” He seemed to be lost in a private reverie for a while before he spoke again without turning around. “Are we sure, Seeley?”
“Well obviously not a hundred percent, sir, until we retrieve the body but fairly confident. He’s the only one around here for miles with a Ghost Limousine and he was expected back. He had phoned ahead to say he was on his way and for the house to be made ready for his arrival.”
“Ghost Limousine, eh? Classy. So we’re looking at two dead I’m guessing. Fisherton and the chauffeur,” muttered McCulloch. He had wandered over to where the vehicle had left the carriageway and was crouching, examining the surface. His greatcoat splayed out around him in the mud but he didn’t seem to notice.
“Well, possibly not, sir,” replied Seeley, still trying to cover the DCI with the umbrella. “From what the butler tells us, he was driving himself.”
McCulloch continued to examine the ground with out looking up. He spoke through pipe-gripping teeth to the rain-sodden road, so that the conversation was muffled and to most casual ears incomprehensible. Experience gave Seeley an edge, having worked with the DCI for several years, and he understood where most colleagues would be left scratching their heads. “Driving himself? Driving himself? Why the hell would the First Sea Lord be driving himself?” McCulloch asked to no-one in particular. “What’s the point of having a bloody chauffeur if you’re going to drive yourself?”
“We don’t know. The butler at Kilverbeck told me that Fisherton had telephoned around midday yesterday and said he was on his way. He sounded anxious. Fisherton, not the butler, sir. Although the butler was obviously very anxious after he heard about the accident.”
McCulloch stood, groaned a bit as he stretched his back and then looked at his gloves. Mud clung to the fingertips where he had poked at tyre marks. He idly rubbed his fingers. It just spread the mud further. Wiping his hands on his coat he enquired, “When did you speak to the butler?”
“He rang the local station around eleven last night. They though this was bigger than them so rang us. I rang Kilverbeck Hall, took all the information I could and drove to your house straightaway. I assumed you would want to be involved,” Seeley responded.
“Thought it was bigger than them…well they got that right. Who else knows? Within the force?”
“Only officers from the local station and us, sir. For the moment.”
McCulloch groaned, scratched again at his head injury, winced, and then said, “Oh god! Why me? Why do I always end up these? Right, let’s get this sorted before the Chief finds out and kicks my arse the length of Princes Street.” He noticed that the back end of the Ghost was being hauled up onto the bank. “I suppose we’d best go and have a look. See if there’s anything left of the poor sod. What a way to go; drowned, trapped alone in dark and freezing river.”
Seeley coughed. McCulloch, about to set off towards the river, hesitated. “Yes?” he enquired. “Something else you haven’t told me? Or have told me but I’ve failed to listen?”
“Just a couple of points, sir, to bear in mind -”
“Well, if it is Fisherton, it is unlikely he had time to drown, sir.”
“Had time? How much time do you need? I would have thought he had plenty of time. What else would he have been doing?” asked McCulloch with just a hint of sarcasm.
“I don’t mean like that, sir. The explosion is likely to have killed him first,” explained Seeley.
“Yes, sir. I mentioned that a gamekeeper heard an explosion. That would be the boiler exploding as it plunged into the cold water. These things go off with a hell of a bang. I’d be surprised if there’s much left of the front of the vehicle…or Fisherton.”
The DCI groaned again. “Oh this just gets better and better.”
“Yes, it does, sir,” Seeley said, perhaps just a little too enthusiastically.
“It is possible Fisherton was not alone in the Ghost, sir.”
There was a hiss as the rain finally triumphed over briar and McCulloch’s pipe went out. Angrily he knocked the sodden contents out on the heel of his shoe and thrust the pipe back inside his coat. “I’m sorry, Seeley. It’s too early, I’m tired, my head hurts and I’m clearly missing everything you’re trying to tell me. Tell me straight; Fisherton was driving and he had someone else in the car with him?”
“The Kilverbeck butler said that when Fisherton telephoned he asked him to make the house ready. Bearing in mind that he hadn’t been back to Kilverbeck for several months, a panicky telephone call was a bit of a surprise. But, more importantly, he asked the butler to make up one of the guest rooms,” said Seeley. “The inference being -”
“Yes, all right, I get the picture,” McCulloch snarled. Having worked with the sergeant for longer than he would care to imagine the DCI could not work out why Winston remained resolutely a sergeant. The man was clearly bright enough and talented enough but every time promotion was offered he turned it down flat. Perhaps Seeley was just happy with his lot. Just the right level of responsibility without all the crap that went with it.
From the river bank came triumphant shouts. The remains of the Royce Ghost had been removed from the water and they could see men swarming all over the vehicle. “Best we get over there before any real damage is done, eh Seeley?”
“Right you are sir,” the sergeant replied and clambered over the rock pile where the Ghost had ploughed through the wall. McCulloch started to follow but something caught his eye. He stopped, crouched down in the road again and, whipping his pipe out again, traced the outline of something in the dirt with the stem.
“Seeley! Here!” he barked. The sergeant dutifully trotted back, the umbrella bouncing with his stride. “See here; footprints,” said McCulloch, gesturing with the pipe.
“Are you sure, sir?” asked the sergeant, seeing only puddles amongst puddles. McCulloch gave Seeley a look that clearly said of course I’m bloody sure. The sergeant crouched alongside his superior and examined the ground as well. The DCI said nothing but traced the outline of a footprint again. He then leaned forward and pointed to another small puddle, and then another. Seeley had to admit that, following the outlines indicated by the DCI, there did appear to several footprints. “Could it not be co-incidence, sir? I mean, they could just be puddles roughly shaped like footprints.”
“Quite right Seeley, quite right. Which is why you are going to get wet and come with me to look at the wreck, and someone else is going to stand here with the umbrella keeping the rain off them. Hopefully things will start to dry out. It must stop raining eventually; even in Caledonia.”
The sergeant stood up, carefully holding the umbrella over the area they had been examining. “Oh, I don’t mind staying here, sir,” he said.
McCulloch offered him a wry grin and said, “Fat chance. You’re too bloody smart to be left on sentry duty. Ah, here’s an unsuspecting victim.” One of the local officers had left the river bank and was making his way towards the sergeant and DCI.
“Good morning, sir,” the policeman said, “I think you will want to come and take a look at this.”
“Thank you…?” said McCulloch, waiting for the officer to fill in the gap.
“Roberts, sir,” the officer dutifully responded.
“Ah, yes, thank you, Roberts. Now, be a splendid fellow and cop hold of this umbrella and stay here,” said McCulloch. The constable looked distinctly unimpressed. “Hold it over this area here,” the DCI continued, gesturing at the ground. “There is evidence that I need preserving from the rain as much as possible. Footprints. Yes; there,” he snapped, noticing the policeman’s expression of disbelief. “Stay here. Hold the umbrella like so. And for god’s sake don’t stand on the bloody things.” With this he thrust the umbrella at the speechless constable, turned and, nodding to the sergeant, strode off towards the stricken limousine.
Picking their way across the sodden ground, tripping on tussocks as they approached the remains of the car, two more local officers moved to meet them. “Excellent timing gentlemen,” McCulloch said. “You; at the bridge. You; down the road a hundred yards or so. No-one is allowed past without my express permission and no-one, but no-one is to approach your colleague with the umbrella. Until I say otherwise, this is a crime scene.” There was little movement from either constable so McCulloch dug inside his greatcoat and produced his wallet which he flipped open, revealing his badge of identity and rank. The officers paled slightly and hurried off to take up their new duties, leaving Seeley and McCulloch to finish their short journey to the river bank. “Must have been moving at some speed,” said the DCI, pointing at the wheel tracks. “No tread marks. Brakes locked and the car has slid all the way to the river.”
“Aye, sir. And he’s tried to turn at the last moment. Probably rolled it,” Seeley suggested.
“Probably, which means there is a good chance whoever was in the vehicle was either knocked out or crushed before it entered the water,” said McCulloch, easing himself down the muddy drop onto the stone terrace. The wet rock was slippery and the DCI lost his footing, ending up on his backside to Seeley’s amusement. The sergeant made his way down the bank with more confidence and grace. He offered a hand to the DCI but McCulloch glared at him and got unsteadily to his feet. A single local officer remained with the vehicle, along with up to a dozen working men from the estate, all sodden, cold, and with a look of collective horror. The constable beckoned the two visitors to the car. “I think you’ll want to ‘ave a good look, sir, if you’ve the stomach for it,” he said with little emotion. The estate workers instinctively stood back as the two men approached.
The remains of the Royce Ghost looked in reasonable condition from the rear, which is what faced McCulloch and Seeley as they stepped forward. The top of the hood was indeed crushed, indicating that the car had rolled over but it was not as bad as they had feared. However, making their way around the vehicle it was clear that it had suffered a major catastrophe. The front was missing completely: no boiler, no wheels; all torn off in the explosion. Jagged metal stuck out where the remains of the chassis protruded from underneath the coachwork of the passenger compartment. The elegant exhaust system that ran down either side and had been sculpted to form the wheel arches was split and hung loose like broken limbs. Windscreens and windows had been shattered instantly in the blast. Water dripped from everywhere and bits of river debris: twigs, a branch, leaves and weeds, had become entangled with the bodywork and interior. A thin metal bar jutted forward from the driver’s side but the end had been bent through ninety degrees in the disaster. McCulloch realised that this was the steering column, held in place by a few twisted pieces of metal which were all that remained of the main bulkhead. But where was the driver? No-one appeared to be in the driving position. He noticed something poking through a large hole below the steering mechanism and moved in closer. At first he thought it must be part of the upholstery as it looked to be fabric hanging loose, but a long needle of white penetrating through the cloth told him otherwise. Trousers. Bone. He was staring at the all that was left of the lower half of a man. The blast had ripped off both legs around the knee. Crouching, he peered up through the hole inside the vehicle. The torso was not attached. McCulloch stood. Seeley had hung back from the vehicle, preferring to let his superior undertake the initial inspection but now the DCI pointed towards the rear seats and nodded. Seeley took a lantern off one of the men and shone it into the back of the Ghost. “It’s Fisherton alright,” he said, grimacing. McCulloch joined him and Seeley pointed the beam into the interior again and the DCI looked in.
“Are you sure?” McCulloch asked. The trunk of a man, minus the right arm, was sprawled across the relatively intact rear seat, speared to the leather upholstery by a large arc of the wooden steering wheel. The torso was also missing its head.
In response the sergeant shone the light into the footwell. A face stared back at them, an expression of panic and shock now forever etched upon it . Even though it had been badly lacerated by the imploding windscreen the bloodless, alabaster-white face of the Sir John Fisherton, First Sea Lord, looked back at them with empty eyes.
They retreated back a pace or two. A couple of the men crossed themselves. The local constable approached and said, in a soft voice, almost a whisper, “It’s a bad business, sir. ‘specially the boy.”
McCulloch glanced at Seeley, who shrugged and shook his head. “The boy?” enquired the DCI.
“The one in the car, sir,” the constable said. McCulloch snatched the lantern from Seeley and shone it back inside the wreckage. Again, he saw the unfortunate remains of the First Sea Lord, a face that would stay with him in his sleep for months to come, but no sign of a child. Then, as he was about to withdraw from the car, he caught sight of something directly below him, slumped in the footwell up against the door.
“Seeley,” the DCI hissed, “be ready to catch when I open the door.” The sergeant stepped round his boss and nodded. McCulloch nodded back and then, very slowly, pushed the ornate brass door handle down. He felt the deadweight of the body behind it start to press against the door. He slowly eased it open. Door and frame had barely separated more than width of his hand when the head and shoulders of a small boy fell through the gap. Seeley instinctively reached out and caught the child. With the sergeant supporting the body McCulloch was able to open the door fully. He helped lift the corpse out of the car and they laid it out gently onto the wet rock. The men crowded round, flashing lanterns and frantically crossing themselves. “Anyone know who he is?” said McCulloch, looking around the sea of faces. One or two definitely had tears forming.
“No, sir,” replied the constable. “Sir John never ‘ad no bairns so ain’t ‘is.” A murmur of agreement went around the huddled group. Seeley held a lantern close to the dead boy’s face. He appeared to be no more than six or seven years old. In contrast to the First Sea Lord’s contorted expression the lad gave away nothing about his last moments. It was the constable that broke the momentary silence by stating what everyone gathered around was thinking.
“Sorry for saying it, sir, but does ‘e look a bit foreign to you?