The Six Cord Snare
Garth McKenna’s coffin sits suspended on boards. As we stand waiting, small rivers of muddy water seep past our feet, pouring their contents into the open grave.
‘Ladies. Gentlemen. Please step forward when I call your name and collect one of the cords”.
Bullets of rain lash the huddled group. There exists among us a collective sense of unwillingness as one by one the undertaker beckons us out from beneath dark umbrellas and we step out into the full force of the storm.
“Margaret McKenna”. Garth’s aspiring young widow. Half his age and twice as fashionable. She’ll hardly be shocked to find herself in this situation.
“Patrick Darwin”. Met him once in Belfast while he still taught there. Fellow academic and close colleague of Garth’s.
“Lucy McKenna”. The only one of Garth’s offspring attending. She looks pissed not to be standing next to Margaret. Probably like to bury her as well.
“Mungo McKie”. Who’s this old boy? Fishing buddy? Neighbour perhaps. Likes his pies.
“Reef Morris”. I know Reef. Solid gent, but I’m not surprised to see he doesn’t own a suit.
“Barclay Jones”. And that’s me. Another academic. A friend of ‘high society’ and one-time business partner of the deceased.
Rain drips from the undertaker’s nose as he stands at the head end of the grave and watches us grip the thin brown ropes. There’s just the seven of us here. Nine if you count the two gents from the council who dug the grave this morning and now stand ready to extract the boards that are the last things shielding Garth’s body from eternity. There’s no minister. Garth didn’t believe in that kind of thing. Didn’t keep faith with very much as it turns out. Well, it’s not only the weather keeping other folks away. Garth didn’t put much store in friendship. So here we are. Six people. Summoned to hold the cords for a man as callous as today’s damned weather.
“Mr McKenna left instructions there were to be no speeches at his graveside”, said the undertaker before we left the comfort of the warm black car. Thank goodness is all I can say, wondering if Garth had the foresight to know he’d be buried on the last day of a foul November.
“Ladies. Gentlemen. Prepare to take a little strain on the cords.” His eyes dart around us all. "And lift."
Mungo is a little bullish and consequently, the coffin swings a few inches towards Margaret who gives a little yelp. Between them they regain their balance as the boards are withdrawn, water immediately seeping into the depressions they leave.
“And gently down.”
We watch the coffin descend. We’re getting the hang of this. But it’s over as soon as it began, the coffin resting on a bed of damp red clay.
"Thank you. Please discard the ropes into the grave." The Undertaker gives a single low, gracious nod. “In lieu of a funeral supper, Mr McKenna’s solicitor has arranged for a sum to be placed behind the bar at the ‘The Old Forge’. Ladies. Gentlemen. You are all most cordially invited. But now, if you’ll excuse me, I’ll leave you now to say your own goodbyes.” This said he hoists an umbrella and moves swiftly towards his waiting car.
The six of us stand there, caught in the moment of committing another human being to the ground. Lucy dabs at her eyes a few times, but in this weather, it might just be rain.
This moment threatens to become overly long, I think. Mercifully Patrick Darwin does too. “A free jar. That’s not like Garth.”
We all look at him. Then at each other.
“Come on folks”, I say, lifting my voice over the gale. “The least we can do is have a drink together. Tell a few stories about the old bugger.”
They nod. Slowly. But nothing about today is even tinged with enthusiasm.
Mungo points to a gate at the far end of the cemetery. “Best go this way. With any luck, they’ll have a fire.”
We file away from the grave, lifting our feet from the sucking soil that will one day claim us all. As we walk, we fall naturally into pairs. “Are you a local?” I ask.
“Aye. A few streets over that way”, Mungo swings his arm in an arbitrary direction.
“How did you know Garth?”
“Met him through the angling club. Then later I became his gardener.”
“Right. Now you mention it, I can’t imagine Garth having green fingers. Did he have a big garden?”
“No”, says Mungo. “He didn’t. Anyway, what about yourself?”
“We were in the same department at Glasgow University for a decade or so. Kept in touch after he moved to Edinburgh.”
Mungo raises his eyebrows but says nothing.
“Dreadful weather”, I say, after a pause.
Mungo draws his black overcoat tighter to his neck. “Turning to sleet by the look of it.”
We round a corner and shudder as we face the wind head-on.
The pub isn’t busy. Few are on a Tuesday afternoon at the arse end of a crap November. We commandeer a large table near the fire while Mungo checks with the barman there actually is a tab.
“Mitch says we’ve got up to five hundred”, he reports.
“Bloody hell. Champagne anyone?” No one laughs at Patrick’s joke.
His widow is staring at me. “Have we met?” she asks.
I lean over and offer her my hand. “Barclay Jones. I was at your wedding. But it’s been a couple of years and we didn’t chat long.” Her grip is light and boney, in keeping with her scant frame. I remember thinking she was pretty. The last four years must have been hard.
“Is it really that long? You look more familiar.”
I nod. “I haven’t seen much of your husband in recent times. We’ve tended to email.”
“Well, thank you for coming. I know it would have meant a lot to Garth.”
The barman, looking eager for business, comes over with a pad. "What can I get you, folks?"
After everyone has placed an order, I scan the warming faces. “Anybody else not met?”
This triggers a cascade of separate conversations. I listen to Reef telling Lucy he owns a franchised delivery company. She asks a couple of polite questions and seems to grasp pretty quickly that Reef is a van driver. It’s interesting. Her accent is quite antipodean. She’s been out of Kelso for a long time, working for NGO’s apparently, her life dedicated to helping life’s underdogs. It’s brave work, I grant her that, but if Reef is a good judge of people, he’ll see her eyes flash with insecurity.
Meanwhile, Patrick and Mungo are working hard to find something in common. Understandably they’re struggling. Patrick is urban, an academic researcher and chemistry guru, while Mungo is red-faced and resolutely blue collar. The high point of his year apparently, is a week’s salmon fishing in a remote part of Norway. But they should look in a mirror. In his elbow pads and brown chinos, Patrick looks like an old sofa that's seen better days. Meanwhile, Mungo looks like Father Christmas in a tweed jacket. They could be family.
I ask Margaret if she still works in estate agency and she tells me she hasn't practised for many years. I quiz her on the art of homemaking around a man like Garth. It’s not a long chat.
Our drinks arrive and the half-hearted attempts at bonhomie around the table die natural deaths. We look at each other in silence for a few moments. I decide to take the conversation in a different direction.
“What are you going to put on Garth's tombstone?" I ask, looking at Margaret.
“I beg your pardon?”
“The gravestones in Kelso all have occupational details”, I reply. “I was here a little early and noticed stones referencing careers from Bank Manager to Cork Cutter.”
“That’ll be from the fishing”, says Mungo. “Used to be a lot of salmon rods made around here.”
“We could all chip in our suggestions”, I say.
Margaret sniffs. “If you like. I’d not thought about it yet.”
They all retreat into their own thoughts for a few seconds.
“Industrialist”, says Patrick, after a time.
Reef looks puzzled. “Thought he worked at the Uni? Chemistry and that.”
Patrick shrugs. “He did, on and off. You couldn’t label him simply as an academic. Hands in lots of other things too. Lucy, how would you describe your father’s occupation?”
Lucy glances up and right. She looks quite pretty in the mottled light of the fire. Curly brown hair, high cheekbones. I could be attracted to her if I was into that kind of thing.
“Until last week, I’d not seen my father for many years. I’m not very up-to-date on his career.” She looks at Mungo. “You were his friend. You must know.”
Mungo’s face reddens and he stares at his feet. “Aye. He was very interested in his herbs.”
Patrick laughs. “There you have it then. ‘Industrial Herbalist’. I quite like it.”
Margaret’s single nod is brief, her face perplexed. “I’ll give it some thought.”
Reef reaches out and touches Lucy’s arm. If he’s hitting on her, it’s a bit early in the afternoon. “Did you come home ‘coz your Dad wasn’t well?”
She shakes her head. “No. I’ve been away a long time. I felt a home visit was long overdue.”
Reef sucks in his next breath. “Phew, made it in the nick of time, didn't you. Who'd have known Garth was going to check out at sixty-four.”
“Was he ill?” I ask. “I’d not seen him in a while.”
Margaret shakes her head.
“Not the terrible big-C then?” I add. “How did he die?”
There is a long silence and for a moment, everyone is busy staring at their drink, or picking fingers, or studying the menu board on the faraway wall.
Mungo gives a long sigh. “Lot to be said for a massive heart attack”, he says eventually. “Nae warning, nae pissing about. Just WHAM and goodnight.”
Margaret snatches up her drink and takes a long sip, her eyelids fluttering to keep her vision clear.
“Ah yes”, says Patrick. “Good old Myocardial Infarction. A piece of plaque breaks out from an artery and blocks the blood supply to the muscles in the heart, causing them to die. Not as common as they used to be.”
Lucy’s face flushes pink. “Do you mind? I find this upsetting.”
Patrick raises a hand. “My apologies. Garth and I had quite a direct relationship. I feel like I’m in that mode. I didn’t mean to upset you.”
Lucy doesn't look reassured and instead, her body language suggests she might leave the table. I decide to smooth ruffled feathers. "No one is trying to upset you, Lucy. We are simply an eclectic mix brought together by the simple desire to honour your father's memory." I thrust an open palm towards her. "Change the tone for us. Tell us something happy about your early days with Garth.”
Lucy grasps the stem of her wine glass and peers down into the amber liquid. “Oh dear. So long ago.” She forces a smile and looks up at us. “We had a wooden train set. A big box with hundreds of pieces. Dad wasn’t much one for playing games, but we could spend an entire morning clearing space in the lounge, laying out track, working out intersections. I had two brothers you see. It’s my best memory from that time. The four of us building a big new layout conceived by my father.”
“You have brothers”, says Patrick, tacking back into troubled waters. “Where are they these days?”
“Simon is in Germany, where he’s lived since he graduated. George joined me in Australia for a few years. But he moves around a lot and we’ve lost touch.”
“Sorry to hear that”, says Patrick.
“What about you?” Lucy counters. “Did you know my father in a professional capacity, or were you friends”
Patrick recoils from this and seems uncertain how to answer. He’s rescued by Mungo. “Garth didn’t really ‘do’ friends.”
“But you fished together. You did his garden, didn’t you?”
Mungo winces. “Aye, I ghillied for him. I tended his wee patch and grew his….. herbs. I wouldn’t say we were pals.”
I step in. “What Mungo is trying to say, he can contradict me if he disagrees, is your father had a rather utilitarian attitude to relationships.”
Lucy blinks a few times. “You’re saying he wasn’t your friend either.”
I shrug. “It’s not such a desperate state of affairs. To have a relationship with Garth, there had to be something in it for him.” I ignore Margaret shifting uncomfortably. “He was old school. These days he would have been diagnosed with some condition. Something on the spectrum. It didn’t make him a bad person.”
“I’m getting another pint in”, says Mungo. “Anybody else?” The rest of us have barely touched our drinks, so he heads to the bar alone.
“What’s he on about?” Lucy whispers to Mungo’s retreating back.
“Howdya mean?” says Reef.
“These herbs he grew for my father. Margaret, he might have changed, but I never saw Dad cook anything in his life.”
Reef sits back in his chair. “Ask no questions, Darlin’.”
“It was probably medicinal”, Margaret says.
Reef snorts and knocks back the rest of his bottled lager. “You know, I think I might grab another. Lucy, yours alright?”
Lucy brushes him away then looks at me. “If it was for his health, well that’s okay then. Isn’t it?”
I clear my throat. “I’m sure it was only a smidge.”
Lucy glances at Patrick. “So if Dad didn’t have friends, what was his relationship with you? I don’t think he’s worked at the university for ages.”
Patrick puffs out his grey, thinly bearded cheeks. “Oh, we did a bit of business together over the years.”
“What kind of business?”
Patrick slips his hands under his buttocks and shifts his weight from one side to the other. "We're both chemists. Your Dad was still quite active in developing organic compounds for … cognitive therapies."
“Yeah, I remember he developed one of the early drugs to treat narcolepsy.”
"Aye, well I helped him outsource the manufacture of new compounds he had under development.”
“At the university?” Lucy asks.
“I could do him a few small favours. But mainly I helped him find specialist labs. All very boring stuff I’m afraid.” His pause is just a beat. “So, did you go to school in Kelso?”
Lucy shudders. “No, all three of us were shipped out to a horrible boarding school in Peebles.”
“You didn’t enjoy it then?”
“My brothers did. Lots of sport.” She forces a smile. “I hated it. Lots of sport!”
Patrick laughs. “Must have been a progressive enough place though. Twenty years ago, not many of those schools were co-ed.”
I can’t help but smile, but as Lucy opens her mouth to respond she is cut off by Reef and Mungo returning. Reef sets down a loaded tray with a flourish. "There we go, boys and girls. Got a full round in. Given it's so busy and all."
I glance around the bar. Apart from us and the barman, there are only two others, sitting at a distant table. I accept the drink passed to me and carefully set it to one side. "Thanks, Reef. While you were up at the bar, we were discussing how we all knew Garth. What’s your story?”
Reef is tall and wiry with a thin beard under his chin he either hasn't noticed or can't be bothered to trim. His blue eyes are always wide like he's in a state of perpetual alarm. Before he answers my question, he fiddles with a single stud earring in his left lobe.
“Came across Garth years ago. We’d a mutual interest in his … herbs. Later on, when he diversified his business he approached me to help him manage the delivery logistics.”
“Good grief”, says Margaret. “You make it sound like Parcelforce.”
Reef’s shoulders dip and spring back up again. “Garth’s transactions were quite specialised. He needed reliable people he could trust. Anyway, came at a good time for me. Garth’s work gave me critical mass to build my business.”
“You’re going to miss him”, I say.
His shoulders drop again and he gives a half nod. “Yeah. But I know a couple of guys. I’ll keep the show on the road.”
We are distracted by an unwelcome blast of cold air as the door opens and closes. An old boy comes in and walks to the bar. “Evening Mitch. Give us an IPA would you.” He notices Mungo sitting at the table and lifts a hand in greeting.
“Braw evening Cecil”, Mungo replies. “You look like you came in from the Arctic.”
Cecil shakes icy dampness from his jacket and looks around our group. “Turning to snow out there. I hope you folk don’t have places to be.”
“Having a long session”, says Mungo. “We’re no’ in any hurry.” He gets up and to no one in particular says, “Scuse me a minute.”
We watch him drag his weary girth back to the bar and falling into a conversation with Cecil we can’t quite hear. Lucy turns to face Margaret. “How long has that man been growing drugs for my father?”
Margaret leans back and for a long moment the forefinger of her right-hand hovers in front of her mouth like she was taking a long draw on a cigarette. “Not sure that’s any of your concern.”
“Of course it is!” Lucy’s voice is compensating in pitch for what it is dropping in volume. “He was my father.”
Margaret dips her face towards Lucy as if looking over the top of non-existent glasses. “And you were such a faithful child. Always by his side.”
Lucy opens her mouth then shuts it again. After some thought, she says, "He didn't make it easy for me."
“Agreed, darling. I think the feeling was mutual”, Margaret says coldly. “But if you must know, the marijuana wasn’t for him.”
“He grew it for other people.” Margaret nods at the bar. “Or at least, he had that big lump do it.”
I decide it’s time to offer one of my most agreeable smiles. “Steady on Margaret.”
“It’s true”, she hisses. “They have a barn in the countryside. Acres of plants.”
Patrick scratches the back of his neck. “I wouldn’t go advertising that. If any part of Garth’s estate was the proceeds of crime…”
“I know”, snaps Margaret. “The last thing I want to do is murky the waters around Garth’s money.” She thrusts an open palm towards Reef. “I thought you all knew.”
They glance at each other, but no one speaks. Lucy’s face is writ with silent indignation. I clear my throat and say, “Well, this is quite a revelation.”
“What is it you actually do, Mr Jones?” asks Margaret, her wary face feigning interest.
“Well, I’m a scientist, Like Garth. We met during a spell when I worked in Edinburgh. These days I’m retired from teaching and research. I make my crust reviewing academic papers for journals. And I dabble in a few businesses. Nothing very grand.”
“And the pair of you were still in touch?”
“Yes. I often dipped into Garth’s deep reservoir of knowledge to clarify a technical point. We were in touch by phone or email most weeks.” I offer Margaret a fixed smile. “And you didn’t know this?”
She looks away from me and smooths the skirt on her lap. “Garth kept his life quite compartmentalised. He didn’t talk about his work.”
"Whatcha going to do now", asks Reef. "Nice place Kelso. You staying on?”
Margaret shakes her head. “No. I’ll move back to Edinburgh I expect. Get back among the movers and shakers.”
Margaret doesn’t see Patrick raise his eyebrows and look at me. Like me, Patrick can’t imagine Margaret moving or shaking anything too significant.
“I do hope Garth left you a degree of financial security”, I say.
She turns to face a window, grown prematurely dark as heavy flakes of wet snow brush past the glass. “I expect so.”
“Oh, I think you’ll do quite well from it”, says Lucy in an even, emotionless voice.
Margaret’s reply is a single, delicate nod.
“Folks”, says Mungo from the bar, wiggling his empty glass at us. Like me, most people are just finishing their first drink, a second already standing by. “Reef, can I get you another?” I say. He nods and I pick up my untouched drink and take it to the bar. Mitch steps over to me and takes my order.
“A large merlot please and whatever lager that chappie is drinking.” I watch him prepare the two fresh drinks and ferry them back to the table. Passing Reef his beer I say, “I gather you’re doing up a classic car.”
Reef’s wide eyes open even wider. “Yeah. My baby. My pride ‘n joy ‘and all that.”
“An old jag”, I prod.
“Yep, 1956 X K convertible. Total mess when I found her. Comin’ on nicely now.”
“Is it an expensive hobby? Doing up old cars.”
Reef wags his head from side to side. “If you’re gonna do it right. Proper parts and that.” He glances at Lucy. “But I’m not with anybody at the moment, so it keeps me busy. Good distraction from the business.”
“Oh dear”, I say. “Things pretty tight in road haulage?”
Reef pulls a face. “There’s money to be made, but it’s the competition you see. You get a good thing going and then there’s always somebody trying to muscle in.”
“Like the work you did for Garth?”
Reef nods deeply. “Big strategic threat. Fortunately, I know a guy. Sorted it out for me.” He pats his pockets. “Anyway, stressful thoughts! Need a puff. Anyone joining me?”
“I might”, says Margaret, getting to her feet. “It’s been a trying day.”
They slip out, and for a few minutes, six have become three. “Silly bitch”, says Lucy. “Doesn’t she see it?”
“See what?” says Patrick.
“Reef! Even his name! He’s might as well have, ‘Drug Dealer’, tattooed on his forehead.”
Patrick drops his gaze from her face to his drink. “No so bad. Is it?”
Lucy leans towards him. “Addiction. Poverty. Death. What’s good about that?”
“Yeah, but you’re talking about the users. No one forces them to take this stuff. The dealers are simply meeting a demand.”
Lucy physically recoils. “You can’t honestly think that?”
Patrick nods. “I do. The users, they’re generally the ones committing the crimes.”
“But these are desperate people, Patrick. With hard lives. We’d be better off if we decriminalised possession of all drugs. Make the police focus on suppliers. People like Reef.”
“Here, here”, I say. “Better to stand up for the underdog and stick the law to the buggers on the production side.”
Patrick’s face seems a little flushed. “Where the hell is everybody. We’re meant to be having a wake.” He lifts his glass and walks to the bar.
Lucy gives me a tentative smile. “Thank you. I appreciate the support.”
I reciprocate the gesture. "Oh, I quite mean it. Sticking up for the underdog that is.” I lean over and touch her gently on the wrist. “I imagine you’re the kind of person who’s been doing that for a long time.”
A flicker of uncertainty spills across her face, but before she can say anything, Reef and Margaret come back. The smell they bring with them is more than tobacco. But then, shame on any man unwilling to sample his own product.
“Snow’s startin’ to lie”, Reef announces.
“Really quite unpleasant out there”, Margaret adds.
Patrick returns from the bar with a scowl on his face and Reef asks, “Did we miss anything?”
“A short discussion on the merits of decriminalising recreational drugs”, I announce. “And in short, we agreed to disagree.”
“Yeah. Keep a lid on it I reckon”, said Reef, sitting down with a grunt.
Lucy gives her head a quick shake, letting her soft brown curls bob left and right. “What?”
"Supply and demand, love", Reef sniffs. "If it was legal, there'd be no money in it.” He winks at Patrick and probably thinks no one notices, but everyone does. Patrick says nothing.
“Anyways, keep your voices down.” Reef nods as Mitch comes back from a distant part of the bar. “Reckon that one could be a copper.”
We all turn to look at Mitch, who is a small thin chested man, wearing a black T-shirt adorned with a caption raging against the perils of capitalism. “Him?” says Lucy.
“Better believe it”, says Reef. “Met him on a drugs raid years ago. He doesn’t remember me. I remember him.”
"I think you're being paranoid", says Margaret. "Garth and I ate in here quite regularly. Mitch has been around for some time.”
Patrick snorts. “Maybe Reef is Scotland’s drug kingpin. Imagine it! Police Scotland devoting millions of pounds and thousands of man-hours to secure his conviction."
“Piss off”, says Reef, tossing a bar mat at Patrick that skims off course and hits Lucy harmlessly in her mid-rift. "Well, he LOOKS like a copper I once met."
“How often have you been arrested?” Lucy asks, suppressing the smallest flicker of a smile.
Reef taps his nose. “Questioned? Yes. Never formally charged. Always one step ahead of the game.”
I decide its time to drag the conversation back on track. “I can’t think why you want to move away from Kelso”, I say to Margaret. “This lovely old square. All those cobbles.”
Margaret fixes me with a cool stare. "Do you know how far it is to the nearest John Lewis?"
“There’s always the internet”, says Reef.
“But then she’d have to deal with white van man”, says Lucy, arching her eyebrows. “And that wouldn’t do at all.”
I rush to defuse. “You must have so many friends here.”
“I do have friends, in what you might loosely describe as the better houses”, says Margaret. “But most have weekend flats in the city, so if anything I’ll see more of them, rather than less.”
“And of course restaurants. The theatre”, I add.
“Good place to hook up with another bloke”, Reef says.
Margaret turns to look at him as if weighing whether his observation deserves a response. "Assuming I'm to be financially independent, I think I might settle for companionship rather than marriage.”
“You could give Patrick a bell”, says Reef, grinning.
Margaret turns to look at Patrick, then back to Reef. Unsmiling she says, “I’ll be sure to get his number.”
Everybody laughs. Apart from Patrick.
“Hey Reef”, says Patrick, getting to his feet. “Stand up.”
“Stand up Reef.”
Slowly, Reef stands. "Look, man, I wasn't trying …."
Reef edges around the side of the table, squeezing past Lucy.
Patrick leans into Reef’s face. “Yeah, okay. You can sit down now.”
“What was that about?” asks Lucy.
Patrick looks away and gives his head a little shake.
“He’s spotted my eye”, says Reef.
“Its good work”, says Patrick.
“Glass?” I ask.
“How did you …?” asks Lucy.
Reef turns and sinks back into his chair. “I’m in a competitive business. Let’s leave it at that.”
Margaret winces and turns away. “Oh dear.”
Mungo returns with a fresh pint for himself and one for Patrick. “Couldn’t see everyone’s glasses. How’re we fixed?”
Lucy looks at what must be Mungo’s fourth drink. “Is there still money left?”
“Barely in treble figures yet. The night is still young. NIGHT CECIL”, he shouts, raising an arm to his departing friend.
“Off already”, I remark.
“Wife’s called him. He lives down a lane on the edge of town. Getting quite thick apparently.”
“I’m going to book a taxi”, says Patrick. “Anyone else?”
“Yes please”, I say. “Lucy, how about you?”
“I’m in a B&B.”
He shrugs. “Was going to sleep in the van. Might bunk with a friend.”
Patrick nods and heads to the bar. I decide to join him. I order a shiraz and sit nosing it while Mitch makes a call for us. After a few moments, he holds the phone to his chest and turns to face us. “Sorry gents. No long distance tonight because of the weather. They can only do local runs.”
“Damn it”, Patrick says.
“We’ve got rooms here”, says Mitch. “I did have bookings, but if they’re not here by now, they’re probably not coming.”
"Thanks, Mitch", I say. "Let’s give it an hour and see how things stand.”
“No problem. I’ll give you first refusal. Also, if you’re wanting any food, we’ll need to close the kitchen soon.”
“Satisfying country fayre, as they say”, declares Patrick pushing back his plate. Margaret picked at her food like a bird, but everyone else has eaten heartily. The two bottles of red I collected from the bar are almost depleted. All round, the mood is more companionable.
Reef points at me with his fork, before laying it down. “Barclay, have I seen you on TV?”
I shake my head.
“You look familiar”, he presses. “YouTube then?”
Again, I decline. “Alas, no.”
“Alas?” says Lucy.
“I would have loved to act", I say. "In fact, I applied to the Scottish Conservatoire many, many years ago, but didn’t get in.”
I smile and dip my head as I remember. “Apparently I look and sound like a posh Tory. Which is all very well, but for some reason, there aren’t many parts for people like me in Scottish theatre.”
Reef nods vigorously. “Can see that.”
“I would love to have got into street theatre” I continue. “Done some Improv. But work, life, intervened. I remain the frustrated artiste.”
Reef interjects with a wink. “Instead you turned into a filthy rich academic.”
“Why ‘filthy’ rich?” I ask.
He shrugs. “All are, aren’t they?”
“The salary is quite basic”, I say. “Although the pension is fine.”
“Only way to get really rich is to move to the States”, says Patrick.
“Or turn to crime”, I say. Everyone laughs. Apart from Patrick.
I return from the sub-zero fridge that is the men’s toilets. They were empty apart from Reef, who seems busy with some form of self-medication in the privacy of a cubicle. Lucy and Patrick are sitting quietly, staring into the fire as it consumes the logs Mitch added. Margaret is bringing Mungo up to speed on her plans to move away.
“If you need any help clearing the house”, Mungo says. “And you’ll want me to sort things out at the farm.”
Margaret murmurs that they’ll talk about it again soon.
I’m finally feeling warmer and slip my silk jacket onto the back of an empty chair. I check my tie is straight, then step back into the fray. “That’s a beautiful necklace, Margaret. White gold?”
“Platinum”, she replies. “I find white gold fades back to yellow with too much use.”
“And matching earrings. Very lovely”, I add.
“Orcadian”, says Margaret. “Garth was good enough to let me select a few pieces every year.”
Patrick grunts an acknowledgement. “Say what you like about Garth, but he knew quality when he saw it.”
“Was he still successful?” Lucy asks. “With his therapeutic compounds?”
Patrick forces a pained smile. “Aye. He was quite innovative.” He stares back into the fire without offering further comment.
We've all had quite a bit to drink and the conversation stumbles. On a better evening, someone would get to their feet about now and bid the rest of us ‘Goodnight'. But the combination of wind howling in the chimney and the soft flakes giving way to icy bullets darting against the windows, leave us feeling soporific and wedded to our places by the fire. Outside, the street lighting is muted by the heavy snow and where the wind curls against an obstacle, drifts are starting to form.
“Mitch”, Mungo calls. “Any chance you could close these blinds? Keep more heat in.”
“Let’s play a game”, says Lucy.
“There’s got Monopoly behind the bar”, says Mungo. “And Cleudo. A few others.”
They debate the merits between them for a few moments until I interject. “I’ve got a game.”
They all look at me. A moment of silence passes until Patrick asks, “What kind of game?”
I think for a second. “A bit like Cleudo. I’ll improvise a murder mystery.”
“Sounds exciting”, says Lucy. The others don’t look so sure.
I gaze up at the ceiling. “We can call it”, I pause for effect. “Who killed Garth McKenna?”
I am greeted by silence. They’ve all turned to stone. Metaphorically. So I continue. "I'll consider what motives each of you might have had for killing Garth. Then, in the manner of the great detective, I will reveal with a flourish who the murder is.” To emphasise my point, I lift my right arm and flick my hand at the ceiling.
“It doesn’t sound very amusing”, says Margaret at last.
Patrick clears his throat. “I’m sure like the rest of us you’ll miss him, Barclay. But you do realise Garth’s death was natural causes?”
I nod. “Of course. If the procurator fiscal had any doubt about that, he had three days to examine Garth's body before it was committed." I glance around the worried faces. "Folks, come on! Indulge me in a little make-believe."
“I think its poor taste”, says Patrick.
“A bit of fun”, I reply. “And you can get your heads together and figure out if I had motive and opportunity. Give it your best shot. I’ll be back in five minutes.” I stand and walk to the bar, and in everyone’s hearing say, “Mitch, can I get a brandy. And do you have any envelopes?”
“Yes, for a little game.”
There is much muttering and hissed whispering behind me. I think they’re getting the hang of it. I have some white cord in my pocket. I cut it into six lengths, coil them and slip each cord into the money envelopes produced by Mitch from behind the bar. Finally, I write a name on each.
“Ready or not”, I call. Mungo pushes past me on his way to the bar and dictates a long order to Mitch. They’re all suddenly very thirsty. As they settle again, Mitch comes and takes away the empties, then wipes the table.
"Thank you", I say, spreading out the six envelopes face down. I separate out one and push the remaining five towards them. “Would you like to go first?”
“How’ya mean?” Reef says.
I smile. “Can you offer a motive and method whereby I might have killed Garth McKenna?”
They look at each other and eventually, Reef shakes his head.
"Well look", I say. "How about you have your go at the end when you've all got the hang of it?"
I glance around and finding no objections, press on. “We can pick our first player at random if you like, or you can volunteer, it doesn’t matter. I’ll then consider if the selected person had the motive and opportunity to be the murderer. But just to let you know, I’m tipping off the most likely guilty party by placing a small cord in their envelope. That way, if any of you needs to flee to South America, then I'm giving you a head start." I smile at my own joke, but nobody laughs. "The game ends when the person with the cord in their envelope is accused. If they can’t refute the evidence, then the ‘detective’ wins. If at the end of the day I make the wrong call, then you win.”
“What’s that envelope?” Lucy asks, pointing at the one I separated out.
“This envelope represents another person who was at the scene the day Garth died.”
Margaret fixes me with an icy stare “Garth and I were home alone the day he took ill.”
I roll a hand in front of me. “Well it’s really quite obvious, but I’d prefer not to spell it out. Shall we begin?”
They sit in silence for a few long moments, Mungo gulping silently on his latest beer. On impulse, Lucy reaches out and flips over one of the envelopes. “Reef”, she says.
“Stupid game”, Reef mumbles. “Not sure I want to play.”
I give him an encouraging smile. “Don’t you want to know if I’ve figured you as the killer?”
Reef studies his envelope at a distance, then reaches out and snatches it up. He doesn’t open it, but I watch his fingers rub the texture of the paper for what, if anything, might lie inside. Only once, his Adam's apple bobs deeply in his throat. He recovers by sitting back and folding his arms. “Okay then”, he says. “Give it your best shot.”
I nod. “Let’s consider if you had any motive. We know you got a lot of business from Garth, distributing his ‘herbs’ and other products, so on the face of it, you’ll lose out upon his death.”
Reef’s nod is barely a flinch.
“But then again, you work hard for whatever commission you earn, so perhaps you judge you could earn a little more. Knowing Garth’s onward distribution network, all you need to do is source the product for yourself and all of a sudden, business could be more lucrative.”
“Garth only handled quality merchandise”, says Reef. “Not sure I’d find that on the open market.”
“Indeed. And that’s why you’ve been taking steps to identify Garth's main supplier. By working in conjunction with him, or her, you might hit on a plan to remove Garth from the equation.”
I glance around the ashen faces. “How am I doing?”
“Sounds pretty weak”, Patrick fires back.
I shake a finger at Reef. “So I’ve got my suspicions. But that’s all they are. No proof. No suggestion Reef was anywhere near Kelso the day Garth died. So unless he was using Voodoo, I’m not sure he was the killer. I’ll keep you in play Reef, but I’m not ready to accuse you yet.” I turn back to Lucy. “My dear, please pick another card.”
Her fingertips hover over the envelopes for a few seconds, then stop on one and flip it over. “Mungo”, she says, passing it to him.”
Mungo takes the paper and crushes it in his fist. “Didn’t agree to take part.”
Reef cackles. “And yet, while there’s free beer, here he sits.”
“You watch it you wee junkie shit”, says Mungo, struggling to his feet.
“Gentlemen, gentlemen”, I say, rising and extending my arms between them. “We’re simply new friends, playing a little get-to-know-you.”
Mungo puffs a few times, then sinks back in his chair. I remain standing. “But I’m bound to observe, Mungo how quickly your temper turns to violence.”
“Ye reckon”, says Mungo, lifting his glass again to his mouth.
“What does a Ghillie earn in an average year?” I ask.
“What’s that got to do with anything?”
“Well, these fishing trips to Norway”, I say. “Not exactly, Ryanair.”
Mungo shakes his head but says nothing.
“And you and Mitch seem pretty familiar. You in here a lot?”
"What's your point?"
“Money. Debt. Enough cash to enjoy life’s luxuries. Everyone has their motivations.”
“If you mean motivated to do a tiny bit of gardening for cash in hand, then guilty as charged.”
“Mungo, we all know you did more than weed Garth’s flower bed. How big are the Roxburgh barns? About three acres? That’s a lot of first quality herb.”
Mungo glances about him. "Keep it down, will you. I'm not risking prison for the sake of your silly game. And anyway, I thought you were solving a murder?”
“I’m coming to that. For the time arrives when perhaps a man has earned enough ready cash and he starts to look at the downside of his involvement in Garth’s business. He goes to Garth to propose his retirement, but finds himself threatened.” I smile. “Keep dealing with the weeds or risk exposure to the police.”
Mungo blinks at me, his brain wading ankle-deep through alcohol. “Garth was a bully, I’ll grant you. But he died of a heart attack. And that’s the end of it.”
"Unless of course, you had the means to get to Garth. Perhaps you were setting aside some top quality produce for Garth’s personal consumption. You would have the chance to spray it with something. Not an aggressive weed killer or anything that would arouse suspicion. Just something mild, to put his heart under pressure. Take his energy down a notch. Help him see the wisdom of retirement.”
Mungo tosses his crumpled envelope back on the table. "I'm not saying anything."
“Thing is”, I say. “I happen to know Garth was allergic to Marijuana. The result of a little accident we had back when we were postgrads.” I glance around the faces. “Makes me wonder who was consuming your tainted weed?”
“Bloody hell Mungo”, says Patrick.
Perhaps I’m alone in seeing Margaret’s hand rise to her chest and the colour drain from her face.
I sigh theatrically. “Still, I’m not sure I’d have enough to convince a jury. I’d need evidence. Something like a Tox report. I’ll keep this in my back pocket. Lucy, please select another.”
Lucy glances at the brooding face of Mungo, before turning over a card. “Margaret”, she says.
Margaret composes herself and straightens her back. “Garth was my husband”, she says. “I loved him and wouldn’t do a thing to harm him.”
“Ah Margaret”, I say. “You were so nearly home and dry. You were bound to outlive Garth, so a long life of financial independence stretched ahead of you. That was until Garth got bored and started to mutter about divorce. Perhaps your relationship wasn’t, what was the word we hit on earlier? Transactional enough.”
“I’ve just about had enough of your insults, Mr Jones.”
“And you’ve kept company with us, through a long uncomfortable afternoon, when you’re nothing but a short taxi ride from home. What is it you’re trying to find out, Margaret? I’m sure you’re trying to discover something. Perhaps Garth’s last will and testament isn't as clear-cut as you'd like. Perhaps it's in dispute. If the marriage was failing, how fortunate to suddenly finding yourself widowed with all the legal protection that entails.”
“You’re not suggesting….”
“Was Garth in a lot of pain these last few weeks?” I ask.
“I’m not sure… well no”, Margaret seems uncertain what line of attack to prepare for.
I dip my hand in my jacket pocket and produce a single A4 sheet with Garth’s name at the top. “I had the opportunity to access a sample of Garth’s blood. It indicates a high intake of ibuprofen. I wonder, did he realise the health implications? How it causes salt retention and a consequent increase in blood pressure. I mean, were you sprinkling it on his food?"
Margaret’s chest begins to rise and fall rapidly and I wonder if she’s about to pass out.
Mungo is sitting back more deeply in his chair while Patrick’s dark face has turned thunderous. “How did you get that?”
I hold my hands up in a calming motion. "It's a prop in a game, Patrick. Nothing to fret about. The point I’m making is simply that a man puts his life in the hands of whoever prepares his food.” I lean down and polish off my brandy. “Speaking of which, anyone for another?”
“I’ll get ‘em”, says Mungo, floundering in his attempt to get out of his chair.
I put a hand on his shoulder. "Sit your ground, Mungo. Reef will help me.” We move to the bar where Reef leans across the richly polished surface and stares rudely into Mitch’s face, before heading to the gents.
“Excuse my friend”, I tell Mitch. “Paranoid personality disorder.”
“Right”, says Mitch. “Anyway, you folks might want to pick up the pace a little. I need to close in an hour and there’s a hundred and fifty left in the kitty.”
I nod my acknowledgement. “We might end up tipping you with it. Wouldn’t that be better?”
Mitch smiles. “Suit yourselves. I’d go home happy.”
“Anybody waiting for you at home?”
He shakes his head. “Naw.”
“Not many younger women worth having in a place like this.”
“You’d be better in the city. You’ve got transferable skills.”
He pulls a face. “You mean bar work? I only got into this as a stop gap. Been here six months already.”
“And you’ll be here in another six unless you do something about it.”
He shrugs. “Yeah, but it’s the hassle. Job applications. Moving flat.”
“Inertia is a terrible thing, Mitch.” I nod at his T-shirt. “If you don’t like capitalists, I’m not sure how you can stomach serving the landed wealthy you must meet here in the Scottish Borders.”
“Ah”, says Mitch. “They’re gentry, not capitalists. There is a difference.”
I think for a second. “Yes. I suppose there is. Now excuse me, I must get back to an interesting conversation.”
Drinks distributed and bladders emptied, I nod at Lucy and she selects another card. “Oh dear”, she says. “It’s my turn.”
“Ah, dear Lucy”, I say as all eyes turn to her. “The dark horse. The returning prodigal. How long had it been before you saw your father last week?”
“Over ten years.”
“You must have given him quite a shock.”
“I only gave him twenty-four hours’ notice, that’s true.”
“You know that’s not what I mean.”
Lucy blushes. “What the hell do you mean?”
I dip my body towards her. A conspiratorial gesture of sympathy. “We’ve never met before today, but I've known your father long enough to remember he didn’t have any daughters.”
“Don’t go there, Barclay”, snaps Margaret.
But I press on. “Instead I recall he had three sons. “Simon, George and …. Lucas”.
Lucy turns away from me. “It must have been so difficult for you. A woman trapped in a man’s body. All this turmoil going on in your head in what, at the very least, must have been an unsympathetic home environment. Did you hate him, Lucy?”
She says nothing, blinking away tears.
“I mean, the very man who could have affirmed your identify. Who could have helped you navigate away from confusion and root you in your real self? Tell me, have you ever found love, Lucy?"
“You’re a right bastard, Barclay Jones”, mutters Reef.
I turn and gently wave a finger at him. “The tragedy here is that Garth’s death means he and Lucy will never be reconciled. Had Garth been a better father, even at this late stage, he could have opened his eyes to his daughter’s struggle and saved her from living her life as a perpetual underdog. Instead, finding him cold and judgemental, she might even have been driven to kill.”
“You can’t prove that”, says Margaret.
I tilt towards her as my acknowledgement. “And for that reason, I doubt I can call her out as Garth’s killer. But she’s not without motive.”
“I hate you, Mr Jones”, says Lucy, snatching up another envelope. She glances at the name and tosses it across to Patrick. “Your turn”, she says.
Patrick shakes his head. “I’m not putting up with this B.S.”
“Actually Patrick, you’re neck deep in it.” I sit back in my chair and let any warmth ebb from my face.
Patrick gives a hollow laugh. “So now you’re going to sit there and peddle your twaddle at me? Take this tittle and that tattle and make some great leap to portray me as a monster?” He shakes his head again. “I won’t have it.”
“As a scientist, you'll appreciate this. In your case, I have real data.”
Patrick takes a long draw on his pint so he can look away from me. So I continue. “A few weeks ago, Garth admitted to me he was feeling unwell.” I glance at Margaret. “Looking back, I can see why. I recommended a private clinic so he could get some tests. The clinic offers a comprehensive range of services, including a rapid response team in case you don’t want to hang around for an NHS ambulance in an emergency.”
“Now you’re saying Garth’s medical sheet wasn’t a prop”, Patrick says.
For a moment, I’m almost embarrassed. “You’re right. It’s a detailed tox scan of Garth’s blood, taken about four weeks before he died.”
“And this clinic is legitimate?” says Patrick.
I shrug. “I’m a major shareholder and I sit on the board. I can vouch for its consummate professionalism.”
Patrick sniffs. “Forgive me if I’m not reassured.”
“Garth’s notes tell me that as well as an abnormal amount of ibuprofen, his blood contained an interesting mixture of amphetamines. As you’ll know, that’s another class of drug that puts an exceptional strain on the heart.”
Reef nods vigorously. “Garth liked to test his new gear.”
“Shut up Reef”, says Patrick.
“It does make you think”, I say. “How much Garth must have trusted his lab man." I turn to fully face Patrick. "They must have worked together for years, first producing small quantities of high-end product for distribution to Edinburgh's rich. Pocketing some useful cash, but keeping the whole operation small enough so it never came to the attention of the authorities. But then the business grew. Some production had to be outsourced. The distribution chain got longer. And all the while, Garth’s go-to production man is starting to feel the heat.”
Patrick sets his beer glass down heavily in the pool of condensation gathered around the base of his successive drinks. He throws his head back for a moment and stares at the ceiling. “Look, if you were the closest thing to a friend to Garth, and his doctor in some way, then truly, I’m sorry for your loss. But I’ve no idea what Garth took. I thought he kept pretty clean." Patrick claps his fingers together, creating an arch with his hands. "But you're right about the business. It was getting away from us. There was somebody above Garth you see. I kept telling Garth that he needed to tell his man to wind it back in a bit. Try not to spoil a good thing.”
“Hang on a second”, says Lucy. “A while ago you were slagging users. And now you tell us you run a meth lab!”
“No one likes a loud, messy drunk, Lucy”, Patrick retorts. “And it’s the same with users. If they can’t control their habit, they’ve only got themselves to blame.”
Lucy sits back with a little harrumph. “I’m surrounded by morons. I need to get out of here.” She gets up and walks to the bar.
“Where are you going?” Mungo asks.
"Taxi", says Lucy, over her shoulder. “For immediate despatch.”
I try to gain Patrick’s attention again with a more empathetic smile. “So you’ve been trying to get out of the business?”
Patrick nods while watching Lucy use the pub's landline. "I need to retire. I've got money saved and the pressure's getting too much."
“Why don’t you then?” My voice sounds almost encouraging.
Patrick lifts a forefinger and points it at the ceiling. “The guy above Garth. Apparently, he's threatened us. Wants us to keep producing.”
“But with Garth out of the picture”, Patrick shrugs. “That might change things.”
“Again, I see.” I leave a pause. “Which means you did have a strong motive for killing Garth.”
He scowls at me, caught out by this change of tack. “Well, let’s be glad mother-nature got there first.”
Lucy returns to the table and sits down heavily. “Taxis are all off”, she announces. “The roads are blocked.”
“How exciting”, I say. “All escape routes are closed and here we all are, potentially sharing a drink with a killer.”
Reef wipes his nose with his sleeve. “So, Patrick. Did you do it?”
“Do what?” Patrick snarls. “Garth wasn’t murdered. This man is toying with us.”
“Patrick, please. Did you kill my husband?” says Margaret.
He smiles darkly at her. “The only fact we have established this evening is you were poisoning him.”
Lucy picks up the remaining envelope. "There's one last card." She looks it over. “There’s no name.”
I nod. “His name might not be important. But he was the last person to see Garth alive.”
A long pause hangs over the gathering.
“The emergency responder”, Margaret says. “From the local health centre.”
I shake my head. “He was from my clinic.”
Margaret is remembering. “Garth had a pain in his chest. He called a number and the medic came and tried to help him, but he got distressed and collapsed. The medic gave him CPR, but Garth was dead.”
“Alas, poor Garth”, I say. “Laid low by family and colleagues.” I look around at the faces. “Was his life really in the hands of a dedicated medic, as it appeared, or was this person actually an assassin, wrestling an already weakened Garth to the floor, exposing his chest to deliver an injection of adrenaline straight into his heart." They stare at me, open-mouthed. "But we will never know. His body is in the ground and no one around this table will be keen to see it exhumed for an autopsy."
They stare at me, uncertain if I am friend or foe.
“Did you kill Garth McKenna”, Patrick says quietly.
I spread my hands out in front of me. “Patrick, we are friends, playing a macabre game to amuse us during a long evening.”
“Are we”, says Margaret. “Friends?”
I think about her question and shake my head. “No. Not really.”
I let them absorb this, then nod at the table. “Open your envelopes.”
They do so, one by one, tossing the cord coils onto the table.
“You see, you’re all guilty, to a greater or lesser degree.” I glance at each of them. “Best we keep that amongst ourselves.”
Patrick is staring at me, trying to fathom my true place in all this. Am I simply an actor, whose starring role is to bring them all to heel, at the beck and call of a higher power? Or am I that power? A giant stooping down on to earth to toy with mere mortals.
‘Ladies, I have a few small claims against Garth’s estate. I’ll resolve these with his solicitor and then you’re free to take Garth’s money and run. Divide it up amongst yourselves as best you can without drawing attention to all that wealth.
“What about them”, says Lucy, nodding at Reef, Patrick and Mungo.
“They’re going to go back to work”, I say.
Patrick scowls. “If we don’t?”
I shrug. “I’ve always seen early retirement as a path to premature death. Best we all stay busy, don’t you think?”
Patrick looks like he’s going to explode so I insert a little distance. “Let’s have one last drink together. Shall we finish with champagne?”
I rise and go to the bar. “Bottle of house fizz please, Mitch and a pint of whatever Mungo is drinking. Then I’ll settle up.”
Mitch starts to pull the ale. “You paying? The letter from Mr McKenna’s solicitor ….”
“That was a mix-up. I’ll be paying. If you give me the solicitor’s letter, I’ll take care of it.”
Mitch rummages behind the bar and produces a torn envelope which I take and slip into my inside jacket pocket. As I do so, the door opens and a uniformed officer walks in. Back at my table, the hushed conversation halts abruptly.
“Evening, Mitch”, says the officer. “How are things this evening?”
“Quiet”, says Mitch. “We’re about to pack up in here. You in for a drink?”
The officer shakes his head. “Gone really bitter out there. Nothing moving on the roads. Just doing my rounds before I call it a night.”
He leans against a bar stool. “Actually Mitch, maybe a coffee if you haven’t already cleaned down the machine.”
“Sure, I’ll just finish getting this gentleman’s order.”
As Mitch heads for the table with a tray, two men emerge from the toilets at the back of the bar. Their faces are not familiar and neither they nor the officer acknowledges each other. Instinct flares within me and I edge towards the door, but the officer stands and by edging into the centre of the room, he blocks my path.
Mitch is pouring up the house fizz, un-thanked by the throng of murderous faces. Then he stoops on one knee and reaches beneath the table where we have sat all evening and grasps something taped to the underside. I see what it is and my heart sinks. He’s attracting the attention of the others now, faces falling as he stands and slowly presents his warrant card. “Reef Morris, Patrick Darwin, Mungo McKie. I’m charging you with the possession and with intent to supply controlled substances. Anything you say…”
The words pass by me in a blur until I hear a voice near my head. “And you, Mr Barclay whatever your name is. I think you need to join us down at the station.”
I turn my head to find the uniformed officer, poised to grip my wrists. “Officer, I assure you, there’s no proof I’ve done anything wrong.”
“You won’t mind answering a few questions then?”
I swallow once and level my voice. "Of course. Anything I can do to help."
“And when this snow blows over”, says the officer, pulling handcuffs from his belt pouch. “We can get Garth McKenna back up and see what he has to say about it.”