‘A vision flashed through his mind of the killer entering here, but why did he or she descend into the kitchen?’
Extract taken from A Killing in Van Diemens Land
By Douglas Watt
Published by Luath Press
He returned to the kitchen and examined the range. Had something been burned there in the night? He took a rag and opened the small metal door, peering inside. It had burned out and was full of ash. A small white shape caught his eye at the front. He picked it up delicately. It was a small fragment of material, a couple of inches in length, partly burned. He placed it in his pocket and stood for a few moments more, contemplating the scene, recalling the kitchen of his foster mother years before when he was a boy in the Highlands. It had been his job to make sure the range was supplied with a plentiful supply of peat. He had taken a particular pleasure in the responsibility, carrying the basket back and forward from the peat stack. He remembered the sweet odour of burning peat filling the house. The range in Van Diemen’s Land used coal. A scuttle sat beside it. He picked up a lump of coal and stared at it, before dropping it back into the scuttle.
On the way out the kitchen, MacKenzie cleaned his shoes with the rag to remove any blood picked up from the floor. He climbed the stairs to the ground floor and walked down the narrow hall to check the front door. It was bolted securely and the lock appeared sound. He turned into Kerr’s trading premises on the right, a large bright room full of bales of cloth which included calico, blue linen, brown linen, diaper, serge and Yorkshire. A fine bale of green linen and some high-quality muslin caught his eye. Kerr must have had rich customers.
The window at the front of the chamber which looked out on the courtyard was made up of dozens of tiny rhomboid panes of glass. They were all intact. Another window at the back of the chamber looked out onto the rig behind and there was a door to the garden. The window was also barred with iron and intact. MacKenzie entered the office on the left. It had one tiny window, high on the wall which was too small for anyone to enter through. Inside the office, documents and papers were strewn over the floor and the desk had been ransacked.
There were two kists on the floor. The lid of the smaller one was open. MacKenzie got down on his haunches. A key, part of a set, was in the lock and the kist was empty. He turned to the larger kist and found it was locked. He tried to move it along the floor, but it would not budge more than a few inches because it was chained to the wall. He took the set of keys from the lock of the small kist. The second one fitted and he opened the larger one. Inside was a pile of bonds, notes and bills of exchange. Underneath the stack of paper, he found a pistol, as well as gold and silver coins, guineas and pieces of eight. He quickly estimated they came to a healthy sum – a couple of hundred pounds sterling at least. The burglar had chosen the wrong kist.
MacKenzie returned to the back door and noticed it was very slightly ajar. He pulled it open carefully. It provided access to a stone platform above the basement which led to the yard at the back. It was immediately obvious the lock had been broken. A vision flashed through his mind of the killer entering here, but why did he or she descend into the kitchen? If Kerr had disturbed a thief, he would have confronted the person up here. Or had the thief taken Kerr down to the kitchen for some reason? He closed the door gently and returned to the office to examine the debris on the floor more carefully. Letters and lists lay everywhere. He picked up a random paper – an inventory of cloth Kerr had bought in Amsterdam.
He noticed a line of ledgers on a shelf above the desk. He looked through the first fat leather-bound volume. The ledger itemised Kerr’s purchases and sales back in the 1670s. MacKenzie returned it and took the next on the right. The book was only half used. He found a number of transactions dated the day before – three in total. He wrote the names in his notebook. William Spence, Ninian Reid and Archibald Purves were all tailors in Edinburgh. A portrait of Kerr and his wife on the wall opposite the window caught his attention. The painting gave the impression of confidence and wealth, but there was something about the demeanour of Margaret Kerr. MacKenzie noticed again that she was a fine-looking woman, if a serious one. From the picture she hardly appeared a happy wife. A knock on the door startled him. Margaret Kerr herself stood at the doorway; the same beautiful, unhappy face in the painting, although a little older.
She spoke first. ‘Was the motive theft, Mr MacKenzie? I see the back door has been broken.’
‘It’s too early to say, madam’, replied MacKenzie.
She moved into the room and looked at the kists. ‘My husband always carried the keys with him. Everything is gone from the smaller one.’
‘It may be burglary’, replied MacKenzie, nodding. ‘But I haven’t seen around the house yet. Where did your husband keep his keys?’
‘They were always on his belt. He wore his belt even in bed at night. He never took it off.’ She crossed her arms over her chest and looked away.
MacKenzie moved closer to her. ‘Do you know what’s been taken from here?’
‘The cash was kept in the larger one. The small one contained items concerned with daily business. Maybe some bonds… correspondence, that kind of thing, a little petty cash perhaps. He kept important things in the larger one.’
‘Why would a thief take the papers from the small kist and not try to open the larger one?’ asked MacKenzie. She did not reply and shook her head. MacKenzie turned back to the portrait, smiling. ‘A fine likeness. When was it painted, madam?’
She stood transfixed for a few moments staring at the image, before coming back to herself. ‘About ten years ago. A Dutch artist was in town painting nobles and lawyers and merchants. It cost us a pretty packet. Jacob was adamant we should be recorded for posterity. The artist was impressed by the Dutch name of our house. He was disappointed to learn we did not belong to the original family.’
MacKenzie smiled. ‘Is it a good likeness of your husband?’
She looked at the painting again, and as she did so, dropped to her knees. She cried out, ‘What are we to do now, sir? Why has God forsaken us? Why has He taken him?’
MacKenzie helped her back to her feet. As she looked up at him, he saw for an instant the younger woman in the portrait. She was bonnie indeed, if a tad severe, like many Scottish lasses. The ministers and elders of the Kirk, like her husband, demanded their wives dress like crows. He looked again at the portrait. Kerr appeared confident to the point of arrogant with a large belly protruding over his belt. And there were the keys hanging from it. The keys he slept with. The security of his house and the kists was paramount to him as a merchant. MacKenzie observed Kerr’s large florid cheeks, cold eyes and double chin. Something made MacKenzie shudder at the owner of Van Diemen’s Land.
He turned from the painting and nodded at Mrs Kerr. ‘I’ll take in the rest of the house myself, madam.’
A Killing in Van Diemens Land by Douglas Watt is published by Luath Press, priced £8.99