22nd April 2018
Established 1872. Online since 1996.

Fiction: Bugs and Beasties

A short story by Marsali Taylor.

“It was Peterson’s sister who rang Lerwick,” DI Gavin Macrae said, helping himself to Khalida’s rapidly shrinking emergency whisky rations. “I must bring you a decent bottle of whisky, Cass. This is dreadful stuff.”

“If you were on the high seas getting a tooth out without an injection you wouldn’t care,” I said.

“I’m glad I’m not a crew of yours; that would add insult to injury.” He settled back in his usual corner of Khalida’s cabin, where the hanging candle-lantern cast a warm glow across his face and over the wooden shelves behind him. “Where was I?”

“A dead man up in the hill above Gonfirth,” I prompted. Khalida was berthed with her stern southwards, and from the hatch at my shoulder I could just see the green point of the Sneugie of Grobsness above the heather-dark back of Linga. We’d seen the coastguard chopper out there earlier, hovering above where the body had been found.

“Yes. Peterson was apparently getting a bit unsteady on his feet, and when he wasn’t home in the morning his sister thought he might have fallen, but when the coastguard got there they spotted blue lips, a flushed face and a spilled flask-mug beside him. Cyanide poisoning.”

“What was he doing roaming the hills at night? It’s not lambing season.”

“He was looking,” Gavin said resignedly, “for the eggs of a lesser-spotted crest-backed moth, to prove an argument with a fellow moth-ologist.”

“Moth?” we chorused.

Outside, the terns chittered to themselves as they settled on the shore, and there was that green smell of newly-mown grass. Gavin’s grey eyes considered Anders leaning back in one corner, with his pet Rat perched on his shoulder like a benevolently-whiskered black-and-white gargoyle, then moved to me. I was sitting sideways on to the chart table, my dark hair still curling wildly around my face after an unscheduled swim from one of the dinghies during that evening’s sailing class.

“Nobody whose lifestyle includes regular doses of externally-applied cold salt water,” he said in his soft, Highland drawl, “has the right to be critical of a peaceful bug-collector.”

We ignored that. “Was the cyanide in the flask?” I asked.

“Yes. He liked his coffee strong and black. Even then I’d have thought he’d have tasted it, but the sister said he had a poor sense of smell these days.”

“Did she make the coffee?” Anders asked.

Gavin shook his head. “She said he did, and there’s no reason why not. He’d been going off into the hills at night ever since he retired up here – he’d been a science teacher, hence the interest in bugs, beasties and particularly moths. He’d written a pamphlet about the moths of Shetland, and there are several of those Victorian cabinets in the house filled with impaled insects. They’re left to the Shetland museum, who didn’t seem grateful.” He sighed. “And one of the suspects is a fellow bug-ologist, who disagreed violently with him about whether the lesser spotted whatsit did breed here. He’s up from England too, this bloke, and a big candle in the moth world.”

“Staying at Peterson”s house?”

“Creator Lord, no, there would have been bloodshed. They had one of those academically vitriolic relationships, you know, letters in The Times beginning ‘While I hesitate to disagree with a scientist of X’s eminence . . .’ But, he visited him today, and the empty flask was, according to the sister, rinsed out and standing ready on the work surface.  All he had to do was pour the cyanide into the bottom, ready for the coffee to go in on top.”

I considered my well-worn flask, which had saved my life on many a graveyard watch. “You police have canteens, don’t you, with tea in polystyrene cups?” I said.

“What passes for tea,” Gavin agreed. He gave me a suspicious look. “Is this some odd Shetland flask custom I’ve never heard of, ready to trip me up?”

“Oh, no,” I said sweetly. “So is your theory that the rival bug-man brought the cyanide up with him to Shetland on the off-chance of being proved wrong about the lesser spotted whatsit?”

Gavin made a face that indicated his opinion of that one.

“Then I’d just rule him out,” I said. “He couldn’t have doctored the coffee anyway, and it’s a lousy motive.”

“Why couldn’t he have doctored the coffee?” Gavin demanded.

“Because it was in the flask,” I said, and left it there.

“What about the sister?” Anders said. “You have only her word that he made the coffee.”

“A down-trodden yes-brother dreep,” Gavin said. “She and her husband came up here when the husband retired too, and according to the neighbours he fitted in well here, but she had to move in with her brother when her husband died a couple of months ago, because she couldn’t manage alone. She’s from Birmingham,” he added, with the countryman’s faint pity for anyone who took up the yellow pages at the first blocked sink or fused light. “According to the neighbours, she couldn’t even get a bumblebee out of the house without a panic.”

“What about the cyanide?” I asked.  “Where did that come from? Presumably you can’t just buy it over the counter.”

“Not now. You used to be able to, some years ago – tins of it, for poisoning wasps’ nests.”

“Wasps’ nests,” I repeated. “What else is it good – or bad – for?”

Gavin gave me another curious look. “Nothing, as far as I know. Anyway, it just so happens we found a nice clean shining tin in the neighbour’s byre, neatly stowed among the paint.”

“Oh, yes?” I said.

“Yes,” Gavin agreed. “Fingerprints: an unknown male’s, with glove smudges around the rim. The prints were neither the bug man’s nor the neighbour’s, nor the dead man’s.”

“How did the neighbour get on with the dead man?” Anders asked.

“Coincidentally, he’s quarrelled with him too, about disturbing the lambs with his bug-chasing.”

“Was he naturally quarrelsome,” I asked, “or just recently?”

“Just recently,” Gavin said. “Age. Forgetfulness, querulousness, that kind of thing.  ‘A bit particular’, the sister called it.”

“Well, well,” I said. “Bad balance, forgetfulness, ill temper. He can’t have been much fun to live with, especially when you throw in the lack of city lights and yellow pages plumbers. If it was incipient Alzheimer’s she’d have been stuck with him getting worse for years, if he’d not died so conveniently. Is she about to head off back to Birmingham?”

“She was too busy crying to say.”

“Well, before she does,” I suggested, “why not see if she’s got anything of her husband’s you could try for prints. They might match the ones on the tin, the nice shiny tin which certainly hadn’t lain in a byre since last summer – it’d have been rusted solid. Which means it had been under the stairs in her council house, along with the rest of her husband’s stuff. When she took it with her to her brother’s she must have handled it with gloves, which means she’d already thought of a use for it.”

“Wasp killing,” Anders said.

“There aren’t any wasps out here in the country,” I said. Gavin raised his head, eyes narrowing. “Only in Lerwick, and you said it wasn’t any good for anything else, so it wouldn’t have belonged to the neighbour. The sister and her husband must have brought it up from Birmingham when they moved here, expecting wasps. And you’re not telling me a woman who couldn’t shift a bumblebee would tackle a wasps’ nest. And as for the coffee. . .”

“Go on,” Gavin said, “what have we polystyrene cup-users missed?”

“You warm it with hot water first,” I said, “before you fill it. So, if the rival bug-man had put cyanide in it, then it would have been rinsed out. The yes-brother dreep made the coffee and laced it with her late husband’s wasp poison.”

“It’s a good theory,” Gavin agreed. “Her husband’s prints on the tin and a doctor’s report on the brother might convince the Fiscal.” He pushed his glass away with a grimace. “Are you sure you haven’t laced this whisky with something?”

“My teeth are very healthy, and will not need extracted,” Anders said, reaching for the glass. Rat’s whiskers whiffled disapprovingly. “I will finish it for you.”