Read the Excerpt: Death of a Traitor by M.C. Beaton

DeathofaTraitor_NovelSuspectsCHAPTER ONE

Gregor Mackenzie gazed out over the hillside above Lochdubh, leaning on his cromach walking staff and admiring his sheep grazing contentedly in the late morning sunshine. On a day like today, he mused, with a blue sky and a light breeze breathing the freshest of air across the mountains, gently ruffling the heather in soft purple waves, Sutherland was surely the most beautiful place on the planet. His mood was buoyed by the sound, healthy condition of his flock. He was immensely proud of his prize-winning animals and had a fine selection of lambs almost ready for the big auction at Lairg in September, sure to fetch a handsome price. As though they could read his thoughts, several of the North Country Cheviots turned their white faces towards him, their pensive expressions filled with false wisdom. When Gregor’s border collie, Bonnie, pricked up her ears and raised her head, they immediately returned to their grazing.

“Ha!” Mackenzie let out a soft laugh and reached down to pat his dog. “It’s like they don’t want you to know what it is they’re thinking, lass. Truth be told, I doubt they’re ever thinking anything much.”

It was then that he spotted a movement far below on the track leading to the main road. He immediately recognised the pink coat and hat of Kate Hibbert, the woman who had moved into the glen more than a year before. Her cottage was little more than a hundred yards from his. She was perfectly outlined against the distant view of Lochdubh and she appeared to be struggling with a large suitcase, dragging it down the rutted track.

“Where’s that sly besom off to, eh, Bonnie?” Mackenzie reached into a battered knapsack, quickly laying a hand on his old binoculars without ever taking his eyes off the figure in pink further down the hill. No sooner had he fixed the woman in focus than she disappeared where the track dipped behind a heather-clad mound. He tutted, setting off down the hill to find a spot where he could catch sight of her again when she reappeared, Bonnie trotting at his heels. He’d heard nothing about Hibbert taking a holiday and his day was suddenly cheered by the thought that he might be rid of her for a couple of weeks. Wait, though—what if she were going for good? Man, he’d sink a dram or two of his best whisky to that thought as soon as he got home, no matter what his wife might say about him drinking in the afternoon.

Mackenzie stopped abruptly, his dog almost slamming straight into the backs of his legs. He looked down at the white, petal-like bracts and delicate purple flowers of the avern plants and took a detour off to his left. The avern, some called them cloudberries, marked the edge of boggy ground where he could easily sink up to his knee if he wasn’t careful. Once he had a view of the track and the road running along the lochside, he raised his binoculars again. The glasses had been part of the trouble the Hibbert woman had created between him and his wife, Clara. He’d always kept the binoculars for spotting otters, or maybe an osprey, out on the water but Hibbert had told Clara she’d seen him spying on the women aboard the tourist yachts that came into the loch in the summer. Well, on warm days they were in bikinis—sometimes even topless. What was so wrong with taking a wee peek? That, of course, wasn’t how Clara saw it.

He scanned the track and the road, waiting for Hibbert to reappear, musing over the problems she had caused. She’d interfered when it came to the peat. Clara had a fine, strong back on her and was well able to carry a sackload of peat down the brae to their cottage from where they cut it further up the hill. Hibbert had insisted on helping, always cheerful, always smiling but always bleating about what heavy work it was and how “poor Clara shouldn’t have to lug all that peat around.” Clara never complained, but Hibbert kept on about it until, in the end, he’d been forced to agree that Clara shouldn’t be carrying the peat and that he needed to do something about it. He bought Clara a peat barrow.

Even then, Hibbert gave him no peace. She was constantly round at their cottage, happily helping Clara to bring in the washing or clean the windows. She was forever drinking coffee, having lunch with Clara or happening to drop by just as they were about to sit down at teatime, making them feel obliged to invite her to share their evening meal. All the time, she was watching him, always looking for another chance to point out how he was failing his wife. When none came, she would conjure one up, saying things like, “That sofa’s seen better days, has it not, Gregor? Surely Clara deserves a new one?” Gregor hated Hibbert but, while she never claimed they were the best of friends, Clara tolerated her at first. As time went on, however, Gregor could plainly see that Clara was starting to find Hibbert about as welcome as a midge in the bedroom on a warm night.

Things came to a head when Clara arrived home from doing some shopping at Patel’s little supermarket down in Lochdubh to find the woman in their house, going through their mail and the old ledger where they kept their accounts.

“Aye, that was a grand day, Bonnie,” Gregor said softly, the binoculars pressed tight against his eyes. “We were rebuilding the dyke all the way up in the top pasture, weren’t we? We could hear Clara going mental even from there—such language as I’ve never before heard from her. She was right ashamed of the blasphemy afterwards. Attended the kirk every Sunday morning for a month. The bloody Hibbert woman steered well clear of us after that. But where has she got to now, eh?”

Mackenzie had a clear view of the track and the road but there was no sign of the woman in pink. Making his way down the slope, he took a look behind the mound that had obscured his view only to find the track deserted. He ran a hand over the greying stubble on his chin, shrugged and turned to head for home, itching to tell Clara he had seen that damned woman leaving their glen. With any luck, they’d heard the last of her.

Kate Hibbert was the furthest thing from Sergeant Hamish Macbeth’s mind as he stood close to a small crowd gathered on the shore of The Corloch, enjoying the morning sunshine and listening to a story he hadn’t heard since he was a child.

Auld Mary’s Tale (part one)

“You’ll neffer catch them now, John Mackay! They’re free from your evil clutches at last!” The old woman stood on a small, rocky island ten yards from the shore of The Corloch. Silhouetted in the moonlight, her shadow cast long upon the water, the woman pointed a crooked finger towards the loch, the ragged folds of her black cloak hanging from her outstretched arm. “They’ll be in Sutherland territory afore an hour has passed. The Gordons will welcome them there, and you dare not follow.”

The three men on the shore stared out across the water to where a man and a woman were making their way steadily across the loch in a small boat. A ripple of water could be heard echoing over the surface each time the young man heaved on his paddle, yet they were still close enough for the three men to make out the pale, frightened face of the young woman staring back at them.

“Damn you, Mary! You gave them your boat!” raged the leader of the three. Each of them was barefoot, as they generally were come rain or shine, and dressed in a heavy plaid wrapped around the body, with a generous length draped over one shoulder, all held fast at the waist by a broad, leather belt. Each of them also carried a long, heavy sword, the steel blades glinting in the pale light.

“Just as you knew I would,” the old woman cackled. “Don’t try to pretend otherwise. It’s all part of your plan.”

“What’s she talking about, John?” asked one of the other men, stepping forward. His beard and long hair were as dark as his leader’s. “What plan?”

“She’s raving, Jamie,” scoffed the first man. “You hear that, Mary? You’re raving mad. Don’t you know who that is in yon boat? He’s Malcolm Gordon, the son of a Sutherland laird, and the girl is Eilidh Mackay, daughter of our own laird. The laddie has been held hostage these past five years in order to keep the peace between us Mackays and the Gordons. Don’t you realise what you’ve done? There will be no peace now!”
“Peace?” howled the woman, with a strength of voice that seemed alien to

her frail, thin frame. “Don’t you lecture me about peace! The boy was neffer kept as a guarantee of peace. He was held hostage so that the Mackays could raid Sutherland, stealing cattle and causing havoc wi’ no fear of reprisal! Now perhaps we’ll see real peace at last!”

“You auld witch!” roared the third man. Even with the moonlight softening the foliage and the trunks of the ancient oak and birch trees to a misty grey, his hair and beard glowed a fearsome red. “You’ve given the Gordons a free hand to strike at us as they please!”

“Such is your fear,” said the old woman, her voice now calm and steady. “You fear your enemies will take revenge, but your fear blinds you. Open your eyes as you should have done these past five years. Have you no’ seen those two grow together—he as a prisoner in the laird’s grand house and she as the laird’s pride and joy? Have you no’ seen the stolen glances and secret smiles? Have you no’ seen the love that has blossomed? Young Malcolm’s no’ kidnapping Eilidh— they have chosen to elope together! They’ll be wed afore the next new moon!”

“A Mackay woman wi’ a Gordon man? Neffer!” growled John Mackay.

“Who are you to say such a thing?” the old woman laughed. “Married they will be and, in due course, blessed wi’ strong, healthy bairns. And the bairns will have no hatred of the Mackays, their mother being a Mackay herself. And when Malcolm becomes laird, he’ll no’ send men to raid Mackay lands. He has friends here, and his wife’s kin. He’ll no’ risk them being killed

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in battle, just as your laird will be loath to risk his daughter and grandchildren! There will be peace now, just as I have ay predicted!”

“Predictions is it?” yelled John. “You’re a witch, you auld hag! A witch and a traitor!”

“There’s a traitor among us, right enough,” Mary said softly, her voice carrying clearly across the water, “but it’s no’ me, John Mackay.”

“We’ll neffer catch up wi’ Miss Eilidh and the Gordon laddie,” Jamie groaned. “There’s no other boat for miles along this shore.”

“Lamont could take him easy with his bow,” said the red-haired man, pointing his sword towards the boat. “He could put an arrow through a sparrow’s eye at this distance.”

“Aye, he’s an easy target wi’ this moon,” agreed John, “and the current would bring the lassie back to us. Where is Lamont?”

“You sent him to fetch the laird, John,” said Jamie.

“Then we’ve lost them,” sighed John. “You hear that, witch? We’ve lost the laird’s daughter and you will pay dear for this! We’ll fetch a boat and come for you by sunrise. Traitor and witch—you will burn for your sins! You will burn to cleanse our shore of your evil!”

“I’ll no’ roast on your devilish pyre!” yelled Mary. “My ancestors settled here on The Corloch over a thousand years past. They built this crannog—my island. I’ve lived here all my days and it is here my days will end.”

From the dark folds of her cloak she drew a long dirk, pointing the blade towards John Mackay and whispering the word, “Traitor.” Then she spun the dirk in her bony hands, the tip touching her breast, and plunged the blade into her heart with a screech that stilled the waters of the loch.

“That’s a grand story and well told,” Hamish congratulated the narrator as the ripple of applause faded and the audience, a group of around a dozen tourists, trooped off along the makeshift bridge linking Auld Mary’s Island to the shore.

“Thank you,” the woman smiled. “They’ll be back for a wee lecture about crannogs and part two of the story once they’ve had their afternoon tea at the picnic spot.” She strode towards Hamish, holding out a hand to introduce herself. “I’m Sally Paterson.”

Hamish pulled his hands out of his trouser pockets and reached forward to shake, but the woman suddenly withdrew her outstretched hand.

“Sorry, sorry,” she said, wiping her hands on a cloth she produced from the waistband of her jeans and laughing. “Getting a bit muddy is an occupational hazard on a site like this.”

“Aye, well, I’m fair used to getting my hands dirty in my job as well,” he replied, taking her hand. “I’m Hamish Macbeth.” Up close he could now see that she was taller than he had first thought, elegantly slim with a mane of ash-blonde hair and sparkling blue eyes.

“And what brings the police to Auld Mary’s Island, Sergeant Macbeth?” she asked, glancing at the silver chevron badges on the epaulettes of his white uniform shirt.

“Just Hamish will do.”

“So, ‘Just Hamish,’ I’m guessing you know The Corloch quite well.”

“That I do, and I wanted to see for myself what’s been going on up here,” he said, shielding his eyes from the glaring sun with a flattened hand and squinting out over the loch. “Looks like the water’s still disappearing.”

“It is,” she agreed, “and the engineers say we’ll lose a bit more over the next couple of days before it begins to stabilise.” “I’ve never seen The Corloch so dry. It’s a braw thing they’re doing up in the hills with the new hydroelectric scheme but we don’t want the loch here to vanish completely.”

He looked out over parched, cracked areas of the exposed loch bed closest to the shore, scattered with ancient boulders and more recent driftwood deposited by the receding water. Auld Mary’s Island stood on a shallow ridge that had been carved out of the landscape thousands of years before by a retreating glacier desperately trying to cling to the glen.

“Don’t worry, Sergeant, it won’t vanish. This warm weather has made it seem worse but the streams they have diverted will be flowing again soon and The Corloch will be back to its normal level by the time the winter rains set in.”

“I hope you’re right, but you’re a historian, aren’t you, not an engineer?”

“Actually, I studied geography at university, but that got me interested in geology, archaeology and anthropology.”

“That’s a lot of ‘ologies.’” Hamish smiled, but the expression faded quickly and he looked away from her, casting his eyes over the rocky island. “Where we’re standing is usually covered with water.”

“It is,” she agreed, “but with so much of the island now out of the water, it’s given us a unique opportunity to study how it was built and to find out a bit more about how people lived here through the ages.”

“There’s a fair few of these crannogs scattered across the lochs.”

“There certainly are. Some of them are thousands of years old. It’s amazing to think that people back then had the ingenuity and skill to drive wooden stakes into the bed of the loch or pile boulders in the water to create these islands.”

“I suppose living on an island was good protection from their enemies.”

“And from wild animals—bears and wolves used to roam these parts. The original dwelling on Auld Mary’s Island would have been a wooden roundhouse, but at some point it was replaced by a stone structure that was gradually enlarged.” Sally pointed out the remains of the stone walls. “Auld Mary is thought to have been the last inhabitant. The old stories say that no one would live here after her death.”

“She’d have had no bridge like that thing?” Hamish nodded towards a line of neatly laid wooden pallets that had turned a recently exposed loch-bed ridge into a walkway between the island and the shore.

“That’s a temporary arrangement to let people visit the site here without sinking into the silt or slipping on rocks.”

“So are you learning much about how they lived on—”

“Sergeant Macbeth! A word, if you please!” an unmistakable voice boomed out from the shore.

“Crivens!” Hamish lowered his voice. “Sounds like the big boss. What on earth is he doing up here?”

He turned to see Superintendent Peter Daviot beckoning him from the shore side of the palette bridge. Daviot was barely recognisable in stout walking boots, military shorts and a casual chequered shirt.

“Aye, it’s the superintendent himself,” Hamish sighed, turning back to Sally. “I have to go.”

“Drop by again soon,” Sally said, smiling and waving goodbye as Hamish loped towards the bridge. She raised her voice when he clattered across the palettes. “I’ll be here for at least another two weeks!”

“Good afternoon, sir,” Hamish said, a little out of breath by the time he joined Daviot on the shore. “I hardly recognised you out of uniform.”

“I might say the same about you, Sergeant!” barked Daviot, plucking at Hamish’s white shirt. “I saw you standing with your hands in your pockets, which you well know is not how we do things, and what is this?”

“My shirt, sir?”

“But it’s not your uniform, is it, Macbeth? The correct uniform for a police officer on duty is the regulation black wicking shirt—and where is your equipment? You are wearing no body armour, you have no personal radio, no taser, no service belt, no baton, no handcuffs and you’re not even wearing your cap! Where is your cap and your equipment?”

“Aye, well, I was chust…I mean I took a wee break and what with it being awful hot and . . . it’s all in the Land Rover, sir.”

“You know the force’s insurance doesn’t cover you if you are assaulted on duty and are not wearing protective equipment?”

“Aye, sir, I know that fine. I was . . .”

“Over here, Sergeant!” snapped Daviot, striding towards Hamish’s parked police car and glancing back at a gaggle of middle-aged hillwalkers who were watching impatiently. He lowered his voice when they reached the Land Rover. “Listen, Macbeth, this isn’t about your uniform, although you are most definitely incorrectly attired and . . . no, don’t get me started on that again. I need you to rescue me from that lot.” He nodded towards the hillwalkers.

“They seem harmless enough,” Hamish said, with a shrug. “You may have noticed my wife among them.” Daviot’s voice was now little more than a conspiratorial whisper. “It’s one of her churchy charity things—a sponsored hillwalk. I need you to get me out of it. Those are, without doubt, the most appallingly dull, dreadful people I have ever had the misfortune to meet.”

“Aye, they’re a dry-looking bunch right enough,” Hamish agreed. “Och, but . . . um . . . with the exception of Mrs. Daviot, of course. I mean . . .”

“Shut up and listen, man!” hissed Daviot, leaning a hand on the bonnet of the Land Rover. “I’m leaving my card on the car. When I go back to Susan and her friends, you give me ten minutes and then call me on the private mobile number. Talk for a bit as though you’re reporting on an urgent situation at Strathbane. That way I can tell them I have to get back to the office urgently.”

Hamish nodded. “Back to headquarters is it, or down to the Strathbane Golf Club?”

“Don’t be insolent, Macbeth,” warned Daviot. “Play along and I’ll ignore the fact that you’re loafing around out of uniform.”

“Will do, sir, but,” said Hamish, pausing to make it clear that their little negotiation was not quite concluded, “my white shirts still have years of wear left in them and, you know, people on my patch expect to see their local bobby dressed like a policeman, not like some special forces commando and—”

“I expect you to draw the appropriate uniform from the stores in Strathbane,” Daviot interrupted, holding up a hand to silence Hamish. “Knowing you, I also expect you will wear exactly what you want on your own patch. Just make that call.”

Hamish watched the senior officer striding back to the hillwalkers. He ran a hand through his shock of red hair and thought back over the number of times he had saved Daviot’s bacon, not least when he was being blackmailed over some compromising photographs of his wife. Hamish had tracked down the photos and handed them over to Daviot, but he’d kept one. It was supposed to help him deter Daviot from closing down the police station at Lochdubh. That, he thought to himself with a sigh, was maybe a wee mistake. Daviot had sent the despicable Detective Chief Inspector Blair to steal the final photo but Blair had used it to blackmail Daviot himself. Blair was an evil scunner, but also a blundering drunk. Had Blair not been so inept, he might have succeeded in murdering Hamish when he’d become embroiled with Glasgow gangsters not so long ago.

Hamish felt a sudden chill, as though a cloud had passed across the sun. It was the Glasgow thugs who had murdered Dorothy, the woman he had been set to marry, on the morning of their wedding day. Hamish shook his head. All thoughts led back to Dorothy. Whenever he set foot somewhere they had been together—a beach, a hillside, even his own police station—snatches of conversation filled his head and he could hear her voice as clearly as if she was standing right beside him. He could see her smile, smell her hair, sometimes almost feel her walking arm-in-arm at his side. He thought about her all the time. But that was a good thing, wasn’t it? He had heard that, when you lose someone you love, it can become difficult to picture them in your mind, as though they are fading away. That had never been a problem for him. He saw Dorothy’s beautiful face every time he closed his eyes. That was his comfort. The fact that she was never far from his thoughts meant that, in a very real way, she was still with him. It meant that she would always be with him—

“Macbeth!” Daviot’s voice echoed along the shore of The Corloch. “Stop daydreaming and get back to work!”

Hamish climbed into the Land Rover and waited ten minutes, by which time the hillwalkers were completely out of sight, before calling the number on Daviot’s card.

“Daviot,” came the voice after a few rings.
“Police headquarters here, sir,” said Hamish.
“Well what is it, man? You know I’ve taken the day off.” “Aye, of course, sir. I . . . um . . .” Hamish knew he had simply

to fill in time now while Daviot pretended to listen, as though receiving an urgent message, so he rolled out the first things that came into his head. “Well there’s riots in the streets of Strathbane, there’s been ten murders, the Strathbane Bank of Scotland’s been robbed and Her Majesty the Queen is at the front desk because she’s lost her crown jewels. That ought to do you, sir.”

There was a click and a rustle of movement before Daviot’s voice hissed, “You idiot, Macbeth! I had you on the loud-speaker. Everyone could hear that load of havers! Could you not have come up with something sensible?”

“Och, that’s a right shame. I didn’t realise . . .” Hamish was thinking fast. “You can ay tell them that police communications have been compromised by a hacker and you need to get back to headquarters to make sure it gets sorted out.”

“Yes, yes, that will work,” said Daviot, and hung up.

Hamish started the engine, then leant forward on the steering wheel and switched the car off again. He threw back his head and laughed. The thought of the looks Mrs. Daviot’s kirk friends must have given her husband when they heard his report from “police headquarters” brought tears to his eyes. He hadn’t laughed like that for months. Suddenly, he felt utterly exhausted. He started the car again and headed home to Lochdubh.

Hamish crossed the stone humpbacked bridge over the River Anstey and pulled the car over to the side of the road. He had one arm dangling casually out the open window and could feel the warm breeze snaking between his fingers. From here he could see all the way down the road into Lochdubh. The scattering of white-painted cottages, some larger than others, strung out along the road that skirted the edge of the loch, were bathed in sunshine. The air was tinged with the familiar dry smell of heather and the freshness of pine underpinning the faint, lemony scent of wild thyme. It was the smell of home. He drove on down the street, acknowledging a friendly wave from Mrs. Patel as he passed the village’s small supermarket.

Then he spotted the formidable figures of the Currie twins, Nessie and Jessie, glowering at him from the pavement, two small clouds of misery on an otherwise glorious day. They were dressed identically, as always, their beige, lightweight summer raincoats buttoned up to the neck and their precisely permed grey hair making each a mirror image of the other. Nessie beckoned him.

“What is it, ladies?” he asked, stopping the car beside them. “I’m awful busy right now.”

“What kind of woman is it that you’ve brought into the village this time, Hamish Macbeth?” Nessie demanded. “By the looks of things—a painted harlot!”

“Painted harlot!” echoed Jessie, who had an enormously irritating tendency always to repeat the tail end of her sister’s remarks.

“I really have no idea what you’re talking about,” Hamish admitted, shaking his head.

“Well, she’s waiting for you outside your police station,” Nessie said, indignantly. “As you would know if you were doing your job instead of traipsing off all over the Highlands. She’s been pacing back and forth . . .”

“. . . back and forth. . .” repeated Jessie.
“…in her high heels and short skirt…”
“…short skirt…”
“. . . making your police station look like a . . .”

“Whorehouse!” squeaked Jessie, then cast her eyes to the ground to avoid her sister’s withering stare.
“You two had best be on your way,” said Hamish, enjoying the twins’ discomfort at one of them having uttered such a shameful word. “I’ll deal with my visitor, whoever she is.”

Approaching the police station, Hamish could see a large red Range Rover parked outside and, sitting on the garden wall, a woman with long dark hair, smoking a cigarette. Her skirt was not as short, nor her heels as high, as the Currie twins had led him to believe but her clothes and her make-up were certainly more appropriate for a glitzy city cocktail bar than a sleepy Highland village like Lochdubh.

“Can I help you?” he asked, stepping out of his car.

“At last!” she threw her cigarette to the ground and crushed it beneath her shoe.

“Have you been waiting here long?” Hamish asked, eyeing the collection of cigarette butts on the pavement.

“Seems like forever,” she snapped. “Where have you been?”

“Police business,” he replied, staring straight at her. She was, he decided, really quite pretty, despite all the makeup and despite her current state of irritation bringing a waspish sharpness to her features. “Maybe you should have called.”

“I did,” she said, punching out the words in two short jabs. “Actually, we’ve spoken several times. I’m Diane Spears—Kate Hibbert’s cousin.”

“Aye, I recognise your voice now,” he said. “You’re the lady from Edinburgh. Why don’t you come away inside and we can talk over a cup of coffee?”

“I don’t have time for that. I just need to know what you’re doing to find my cousin. It’s been nearly three weeks since she went missing.”

“There’s nothing much I can tell you, really,” Hamish explained. “Kate was last seen heading for the main road carrying a suitcase. I’ve spoken to everyone in the area that knew her and nobody has seen her since.”

“And that doesn’t seem odd to you? It doesn’t seem strange that she should simply disappear?”

“Ordinarily it might,” he admitted, “but this isn’t the first time she’s done something like this, is it? She’s gone missing afore and had half the police in Scotland out looking for her. Last time it turned out that she’d spent the entire summer sunning herself by the Med at a swanky hotel in the south of France. That was afore she showed up here in Lochdubh.”

“So you think she’s gone abroad?”
“As far as we’re aware, her passport hasn’t been used.”
“So she’s still in the country? Look, I need to…damn!”

Her phone rang with a shrill, urgent tone. She put it to her ear, exchanged a few brief words, then rang off and began tapping out a message on the screen before turning to Hamish. “I have calls to make and a business to run, but I’m not going anywhere until I get some answers. Is there anywhere decent to stay around here?”

“The Tommel Castle Hotel is on the edge of the village,” Hamish advised, pointing out the right direction.

“Right. That’s where I’ll be. We will talk again, Sergeant— soon—and I’ll want to hear about some progress on your part.” She yanked open her car door, climbed inside and set off towards the hotel.

Hamish made his way down the side of the police station to let himself in through the kitchen door. There was no energetic and noisy welcome from his pets Lugs, a dog of various breeds and various colours, and Sonsie, his tame wildcat. He knew that on a fine day like this they would be dozing in the sunshine down on the beach or chasing the gulls. He hoped they weren’t scrounging snacks from tourists. He checked the kitchen clock and realised that they would be home soon to be fed. Their stomachs kept better time than a Swiss watch. Rolling up his sleeves, he tackled the mountain of dirty dishes piled up in the sink. In the past he had generally had a constable working for him who would share domestic chores like this. Some had been more useful than others when it came to household duties but he didn’t want to use the lack of a constable as an excuse to fall back into his old, lazy bachelor ways. Besides, mindless tasks like washing the dishes gave him a chance to think.

What was Diane Spears doing in Lochdubh? He could understand someone being concerned about a missing relative but she didn’t seem the type to lose too much sleep over a cousin who had gone AWOL, especially one who had made it a bit of a habit. He recalled from his case notes that she was Hibbert’s only real family, but Spears hadn’t kicked up such a fuss when Hibbert had gone missing previously. And what about Hibbert? He had spoken to everyone in the area who knew her and they had all said the same thing—she was a very nice, helpful lass, yet nobody had been in the least bit upset that she had vanished. Nobody in the area had even reported her missing—it was Spears who had done that. No matter what people had said, he had the distinct impression that they were glad to see the back of her. Highlanders eked out the truth like a miser’s pennies. Unless it was in their own best interest, they gave away only what they had to. In talking to the locals, Hamish knew full well that things had been left unsaid, and unless he had to dig deeper, he had no intention of stirring up trouble. The best thing was to sit back and wait for Hibbert to show up again.

Fortunately, that had been the official line from Strathbane as well. They didn’t want him wasting his time chasing around after some woman who had shown herself to be perfectly capable of disappearing in the past only to show up when it suited her.

There was a sudden commotion and Lugs burst through the oversized pet-flap in the kitchen door, his claws scrabbling on the floor tiles as he tried to gallop towards Hamish.

“Steady, now, you daft dog,” Hamish chided, stooping to tickle his pet’s ears. “You’ve brought in half the beach wi’ you. And where’s…och, it’s herself.” He watched Sonsie make a more dignified entrance through the flap. It was an open secret around the village that Sonsie was more than just an overgrown moggie and everyone knew that the Scottish wildcat was an endangered species, yet no one would ever admit to an outsider that Sonsie was anything other than a domestic pet cat. They had seen how miserable Hamish had been without the cat when he had once tried to release her into the wild at the sanctuary on the Ardnamurchan peninsula and everyone had been hugely relieved when he eventually brought Sonsie home again.

“Let’s get you two fed, then,” he said, Sonsie winding herself around his legs. “I’ve a couple of venison sausages for you, Lugs, and a nice bit of rock salmon for you, Sonsie.”

Having fed his pets, he strolled outside to check on his chickens and glanced up the hillside to where he grazed his small flock of sheep. The heather on the ridge line at the top of the slope was outlined against the blue sky and he knew that, beyond the ridge, the ground fell away into a small corrie where there was a tarn known as the Ruby Loch. Just above the loch was where he had laid Dorothy to rest. He kept the grave neat and tidy, visiting as often as he could. He knew full well that the locals called it his “shrine” but he couldn’t care less what people thought. It was peaceful up there. It was somewhere he could go to think without any interruptions. They said he went there to talk to her, but that was nonsense. He wasn’t the sort to waste words on a gravestone. The Ruby Loch had been a special place for him and Dorothy and it would always be special. If the gossips needed it to be more than that, that was their problem, not his.

The shrill bleeping of the police station phone drew him back indoors where he grabbed the receiver from his desk in the small front office.

“Oh, Sergeant Macbeth, thank goodness it’s you. It’s Sally, up at The Corloch. There’s a body here—a dead body!”

“Not Auld Mary, is it?”

“No, this is a real body, floating in the water!” There was no mistaking the notes of panic and fear in her voice.

“Don’t touch anything,” warned Hamish. “I’ll be there as quick as I can.”

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