It was a quarter past one when my client arrived. He was three quarters of an hour later than we had arranged to meet but no doubt he had some difficulty finding the hotel as did I only the day before. Ordinarily I would not have travelled such a way to meet a client but the frantic nature of his correspondence and the quantifiable sum which he had offered me for my services had drawn me from my comfortable home in Edinburgh to the sparse highland countryside and the dingy hotel which I found myself in. Once I had eventually located the hotel, which took the form of a crumbling manor house I was shown to my room by a stout and more than a little irritable maid. I found the room uncomfortably cramped with blazoning white décor and a spring-less bed adorned with a moth-eaten woollen blanket. Even in spite of the depressing room I didn't sleep much, I merely lay awake pondering the reason my client would call me to this stretch of the country and offer me an almost laughable sum simply to discuss his case.
"Mr McLeod?" I asked gesturing the man inwards. The more bore an immediately striking resemblance to someone with which I had strong connection. I could not quite put my finger on who Mr McLeod remind me of but I knew that I was someone I knew very well, someone whom I had seen everyday for years perhaps but had somehow forgotten. Although Mr McLeod was a shadow of the man whom he reminded me of, the man I knew was cultured, intelligent and full of grace, the man before me however was of dishevelled countenance and his clothing and hair was unmistakably unkempt. The man's face was of an usual pallor accompanied by shaking hands as he entered.
"Are we alone?" McLeod stuttered.
I glanced round at the room behind the only furniture that donned it was the bed, a worn table and its accompanying chair and a meagre bedside chest of drawers, if there were anyone else in the room it would be unquestionably evident.
"Quite." I rebuffed, calmly.
"No," he cried "You must be sure."
I was somewhat startled yet complied, I stooped to the bedside and glanced briefly underneath and then proceed to lock the door and shut the window both of which had been left ajar. McLeod, recognising that there was no one feasibly within earshot, softened his features and took a deep breath and relaxed in to the splintering wooden chair which he drew from the table.
"I apologise for my… demeanour," he paused "But you must understand I come to you under the gravest of circumstances."
I nodded, lowering myself to perch on the bed, as a hotel of this calibre was not equipped with the luxury of two chairs, and faced him.
"Mr McLeod if I may ask, in earnest, there are a great many lawyers in this country and there are undoubtedly a few, even here. Why then did you call upon me?"
"You are a renowned lawyer, Sir, and you have a trusting face." McLeod glanced up at me through squinted lids. "You really don't recognise me, do you?"
I felt a puzzled expression flush across my face and a hideously familiar lurch in my stomach.
"Never fear," McLeod smiled, suddenly a vision of ominous ease, "Its not important, perhaps you will recall later."
"Well then," I nodded uncertainly "To business."
"Now Mr McLeod I promise I will do my utmost to aid you but you must be completely honest with me.
"But, of course," he agreed "You see, sir, my predicament is a very complex one, all is not as it seems. It seems that whilst you require my trust in you I must ask you to instil that same trust in me."
"How do you mean?"
"Well, you must be aware I may ask conditions of my case that are strange but you must comply. Not merely for my own gain but for your safety, sir."
I could tell by his unflinching stare that the man was entirely convinced of the severity of the situation.
"You fully intend to pay me exactly what you quoted, don't you?" I half-gasped.
He clenched his jaw and slowly nodded.
"And if I lose?"
I raised an incredulous eyebrow at him.
McLeod's voice dropped to a hoarse whisper "You have to realise the danger you will be placing yourself in should you accept my case."
"Well you are hear, are you not," I pointed out, "I feel I already have. I have seen and heard much Mr McLeod, I don't doubt I am capable of undertaking your case. As long as you do not doubt me."
"I have nothing but the utmost faith in you sir."
"Then tell me. All."
McLeod caught my gaze for a moment then gently put his face in his palm. After a few deeply exasperated breaths he slid his hand from his face and clasped them gingerly on his lap, then began.
"I murdered a woman."
I regret to admit I found McLeod's admission overwhelmingly relieving. It was hardly an usual case, though undoubtedly gruesome I had enough experience with this type of morbid crime. After a pause McLeod took to compose himself and absent-mindedly fidget with the buttons of his shirt he furtively continued.
"She was a neighbour, a good woman. She had never caused me nor anyone any harm or cause for ill-will."
"What happened?" I urged.
"Sir," McLeod hissed "It is not the nature of the crime that is important but how I was committed."
"How was it committed?"
McLeod leaned away from me with a sinister leer.
"That's just it, my good man. I do not know."
I looked on at McLeod in sheer bewilderment.
"So you have been framed, accused of a crime you have not committed."
"No," McLeod shook his head, with something that worryingly resembled amusement. "I know I killed her. The police have all the evidence. The blood was on my hands. But I do not recall doing so."
"I don't.. I don't understand." I breathed.
"I want you to prove me guilty." McLeod uttered indignantly as he produced a large brown envelope, I has not taken any notice of before, from underneath his armpit.
"Here," he said pressing the envelope roughly between my fumbling hands and rising to his feet, "This contains all you need to know."
"Mr McLeod you vex me."
The man made his way to the door and rested a heavy palm on the handle.
"I like to think myself an honourable man, sir. If I am guilty then by all means I will do my time. But I cannot be sure yet, although all points to me being guilty I cannot fathom it myself. If you can tell me so, if I truly am a murderer then my incarceration will give me freedom. Until then, sir, I must act the part of jailbird and take flight."
"Goodbye then, Mr McLeod. I will do all I can."
"Another thing," the corners McLeod's mouth twisted up in to a tell-tale smile. "You don't find the people here…peculiar?"
"The staff at the hotel?"
"So to speak, yes," I shook my head. "Keep your eye on them. As I said all is not as it seems. In time, I'm sure you will come to understand. Guard that envelope with your life." And with a quick flick of the handle and the swift slamming of the door McLeod was gone.