McAllister had met her before but could not say he knew her. He stood. "Countess Sokolov."
"Please, no formalities, I prefer to be know as Mrs. Sokolov. Even though I am legally a countess, it sounds so pretentious."
As she smiled, McAllister saw that her eyes, as pale blue as a duck's egg, had that ethereal quality which, in a photograph, would make the eyes seem empty.
"I can see by your dram it must be . . . unfortunate." She said this to her brother. "Do you want to tell me now or shall I make tea first?"
"Tea first, please." Beech believed not so much in tea for shock, more in the tea ritual.
The three sat around a small table set by a window overlooking a profusion of flowerless shrubs that McAllister, being a Glaswegian, guessed to be azalea, the only garden plant he knew.
Rosemary Sokolov poured, saw her brother stir two spoons of sugar into his cup, and knew this was not going to be good news.
"Mrs. Smart has been killed." Beech was gentle but direct in his speech. They were both of an age where they had seen too much of death to use platitudes. "There is no way to soften thismy dear, the police are saying she was murdered."
Rosemary looked into her cup as though searching for an explanation in the tea leavesor perhaps to hide the salt water in her eyes. "That poor womanafter all she has been through . . . "
They were silent for a moment, the pause like the one minute's silence on Armistice Day, to reflect on the dead. The phrase would stick in McAllister's mind. After all she has been through.
"I'm sorry," McAllister said putting his teacup carefully back into the delicate saucer, "there is not much I can tell you. But if and when I do hear more, I'll let you know." He stood. "Please excuse me, I must get back to the office."
Beech saw him out. "I'll come in this afternoon," he said, "see if I can be of any help."
"I'd be grateful."
They shook hands. The idea of Beech in the office was reassuring. The much older man had a calming presence and a good sense of the milieu of a newspaper. He knew all the casual correspondents and contributors. His name alone was enough to calm the most querulous complainants. His voice, when he telephoned to ask a favor or two from recalcitrant councilors or noble lords, made the listener believe that their opinion mattered. Plus, the family name, and that of the matriarchal lineage, made him a formidable figure in Highland society.
Thank goodness I can rely on Beech, was McAllister's thought as he strode off along the river to the town and the next edition of the Highland Gazette. We will surely need all the help we can get.
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