By M. C. Beaton
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Death of a Greedy Woman: A Hamish Macbeth Mystery
There's not a cloud in Constable Hamish Macbeth's sky, just plenty of warm sunshine and not quite enough of beautiful Priscilla Halburton-Smythe. But as eight hopeful members of the Checkmate Singles Club converge on Tommel Castle Hotel for a week of serious matchmaking, the clouds roll in. The four couples, carefully matched by dating director Maria Worth, immediately dislike each other. The arrival of Maria's gross, greedy partner, Peta, kills the last vestige of romance. And as love goes out the window, murder comes in the door. Peta soon slurps up her last meal, and Hamish is left with a baffling puzzle: Who shared the fateful outing that left Peta dead with a big red apple in her mouth? Surely not of those singles…
A Preview of Death of a Chimney Sweep
Table of Contents
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O fat white woman whom nobody loves
—Frances Crofts Cornford
It was a blue day in the West Highlands of Scotland as P. C. Hamish Macbeth strolled along the waterfront of the village of Lochdubh. Not blue meaning sad, but blue coloured by a perfect day, blue coloured by the sky arching above and the sea loch below. Mountains rearing up were darker blue, marching off into a blue infinity of distance, as if Sutherland in the north of Scotland had no boundaries, but were some sort of infinite paradise of clean air and sunlight.
It had been a bad winter and a damp spring, but summer, which usually only lasts six weeks at the best of times in the far north, had finally arrived in all its glory, strange to the inhabitants who were used to rain and damp and high winds.
Little silken waves curled on the shore. Everything swam lazily in the clear light. Never had the roses in the little village gardens been more profuse or more glorious. Dougie, the gamekeeper on Colonel Halburton-Smythe's estate, told everyone who would listen that unusual blossoming meant a hard winter to come, but few wanted to believe him. It was as if the whole of Lochdubh were frozen in a time capsule, with one perfect day following another. Life, never very energetic, slowed down to a crawl. Old quarrels and animosities were forgotten.
All this suited Hamish Macbeth's easygoing character. There had been no crime at all for some time; his superior and frequent pain in the neck, Detective Chief Inspector Blair of Strathbane, was on holiday somewhere in Spain. Hamish planned to walk along to the harbour for a chat with any fisherman who happened to be mending nets, and then perhaps he would go up to the Tommel Castle Hotel for a coffee with Priscilla Halburton-Smythe, once the love of his life if she only but knew it.
Fisherman Archie Maclean was sitting on the edge of the harbour wall, staring out at the loch where the boats rocked gently at anchor.
"Aye, it's a grand day, Hamish," he said as the policeman came up.
"Not verra good for the fish," rejoined Hamish amiably.
"The fish is chust fine. Fair jumping into the nets, Hamish. Got a cigarette on you?"
"You forget, I gave up a whiles back," said Hamish regretfully. Would he ever get over that occasional longing for a cigarette? It would be great to light one up and puff away contentedly.
"Ah, well, I'll chust go along to Patel's and get some." Archie prized himself off the harbour wall. Both men walked in the direction of the village general store.
Priscilla Halburton-Smythe was just coming out of the store with a bag of groceries in her arms. "I'll take these, Priscilla," said Hamish. "Where are you parked?"
"Round the side of the shop, Hamish. Morning, Archie."
"Why are you doing the shopping?" asked Hamish curiously.
"Wanted an excuse to get away," said Priscilla, unlocking the car.
Priscilla's father, Colonel Halburton-Smythe, had turned his home into a hotel after losing his money. The hotel was thriving. Mr. Johnson, former manager of the Lochdubh Hotel, now closed, was running the business, and so Priscilla was usually carefree. But Hamish noticed she was looking rather strained.
"What's up?" he asked.
"Come back with me and we'll have something to drink and I'll tell you."
Hamish got in the car. He glanced at her sideways, reflecting that she looked more beautiful than ever. Her golden hair shone with health and her skin was lightly tanned. She was wearing a sky-blue cotton dress with a broad white leather belt at the waist and her bare tanned legs ended in low-heeled brown leather sandals. Some of the old desire tugged at his heart, but she was so cool and competent, so expert a driver, so seemingly oblivious of him as a man, that it quickly died. He felt illogically that she would be quite devastating if she did something wrong for once, crashed the gears, dropped something, had a hair out of place, wore the wrong shade of lipstick, or were guilty of any simple little human lapse at all.
The fake baronial pile that was Tommel Castle Hotel soon loomed up. She told Hamish to leave the groceries at the reception desk and then led the way through to the bar, formerly the morning-room. "Want a whisky, Hamish, or will we have coffee?"
"Coffee's just fine." She poured two mugs of coffee and they sat down at one of the tables.
"So what's been happening?" asked Hamish.
"Well, everything was running smoothly. The new gift shop that I am going to run is nearly finished and I've been off on my travels accumulating stuff to display in it. We were expecting eight members of a fishing club. But they cancelled at the last minute. Their chairman was trying to land a salmon somewhere down south and the fish turned out to be more powerful than he and dragged him in and down the rocks and over the rapids. He's recovering in hospital. He was an old friend of Daddy's and it turned out that Daddy hadn't even charged any booking-fees. So we had another booking which Daddy wanted to turn down flat. It's from the Checkmate Singles Club. Daddy has gleaned a lot of knowledge of singles' bars from American films, and so the very word 'singles' started him foaming at the mouth. Mr. Johnson said, quite rightly, that we should take their booking to make up for the lost fishing party, but Daddy wouldn't be moved, so Mr. Johnson called me in to talk sense into his head.
"This Checkmate Singles Club is actually one of the most expensive dating and marital agencies in Britain. I told Daddy they must have half the titles in the country on their books, which is a wild exaggeration, but the old snob fell for it," remarked Priscilla, who often found her father a trial. "It's actually mostly a marriage agency. The thing that clinched it was the woman who runs it, Maria Worth, dropped in on us to check the place out and she was so impeccably tweedy and blue-blooded—she even has a tweedy mind—that Daddy caved in and smarmed all over her. So everything's settled, but I felt so limp after all the arguments and stupidity; I felt I had to get away just for a little and volunteered to do the shopping."
"You mean this Maria Worth is something like a marriage-broker?"
"Sort of. She charges enormous fees. She's bringing eight of her clients up to get acquainted."
"Dear me," said Hamish, scratching his fiery-red hair in puzzlement, "they must be a sad bunch of folk if they have to pay some woman to find them a mate."
"Not necessarily. Usually they're people who want someone with money to match their own fortunes or middle-aged people who don't want to go through the indignities of dating a stranger. It's very hard dating in this day and age, Hamish," said Priscilla seriously. "I mean, isn't it better to have an agency check the other person out first? Find out all about them? I might try it myself."
"Don't be silly," said Hamish crossly. "We both know almost everyone in the whole of damn' Sutherland and what we don't know we can soon find out."
"Who says I want to marry someone from bloody Sutherland?" Priscilla glared at him.
Hamish suddenly grinned, his hazel eyes dancing. "So you're human after all."
"Of course I'm human, you great Highland drip."
"It is just that you always seem so cool about everything, like a nice chilled salad."
"I don't like scenes and confrontations, that's all. If you had a father like mine, you would shy away from dramatics as well."
"Why doesn't the wee man just jack this hotel business in?" said Hamish, not for the first time. "He's making a mint. He can go back to being lord of the manor and take down the hotel sign."
"He loves it. Some of his old army friends book in here and he tells them long stories about how he had nearly shot himself when he lost his money and how courageously he had fought back single-handed, just as if Mummy and I hadn't done all the work, not to mention Mr. Johnson. It's the new legend. 'The Plucky Colonel.' Still, I'm being catty. He's happy. His rages don't mean anything. They never last for long, and then he can't even remember what all the fuss was about. Anyway, you're having a lovely life. No murders."
"Thank goodness for that," said Hamish. "And not a cloud in the sky."
But the clouds that were about to darken his tranquil sky in the shape of the members of the Checkmate Singles Club were soon approaching Sutherland.
On her road north a week later was the organizer, Maria Worth. She was a stocky, cheerful woman who had made a success out of the business. She never had large get-togethers for her clients. She always assembled them in small groups and in some romantic setting, but usually in or near London. She had heard from friends about the Tommel Castle Hotel and decided it would be a perfect setting for the most difficult of her clients. She would not have thought of such an adventurous scheme had Peta been around. Peta Gore was the bane of Maria's otherwise successful life. Peta had put up half the money to launch Checkmate, becoming a partner. When the business flourished, Maria had tried to buy her out, but Peta refused. For Peta was a widow on the look-out for a husband and she hoped to pick up one at one of Maria's get-togethers. She never troubled her head with any of the nitty-gritty of office work or with interviewing or researching clients. But she had a nasty habit of turning up, uninvited, and throwing the carefully chosen guest-list out of sync.
Maria had come to hate her old friend. For not only was Peta noisy and vulgar, she was a glutton. There was no softer word for it. She was not just "fond of her food" or had "a good appetite," she sucked and chomped and chewed with relish, all the while inhaling noisily through her nose. She was a party-pooper extraordinaire.
But Maria had been determined that Peta should not find out about the visit to Tommel Castle and so had kept quiet about it until Peta, thinking there was nothing in the offing, had said she was taking a holiday in Hungary.
Sitting in a first-class carriage on the Inverness train, Maria opened her Gucci brief-case and took out a sheaf of notes and thanked God that Peta was far away, slurping and chomping her way up and down the shores of the Danube.
She ran over her notes to double-check that she had paired her singles correctly.
There was Sir Bernard Grant, who owned a chain of clothing stores. A photo of him was pinned to the notes. He was in his late forties, small, round, plump and clever. He was a widower. He had approached the agency because he had found himself too busy and too reluctant to begin dating again at his age. And by the time he joined, it was well known that Checkmate only catered to the rich.
Maria slid out the next sheet of paper. He was to be paired with Jessica Fitt, owner of a florist's shop in South Kensington. Jessica had a degree in economics from Newcastle University. After various jobs she did not like very much, she had taken a training in floristry, opened up a shop, and then used her excellent business brain to make it pay. She was a grey lady: grey hair, grey face, and she even wore grey clothes. In her shop, she had confided to Maria, she was deferred to by her staff and known by her regular customers. But outside the shop, people seemed to treat her as if she were invisible. She had recently come round to the idea that a husband would be a good thing, not for sex or romance, but to have someone with her who could catch the eye of the maître d' in a restaurant. Sir Bernard only wanted a wife because he needed a hostess. Yes, they should hit it off.
The next photograph showed a pleasant-looking young man with a square face, rather small eyes, and a rather large mouth. This was Matthew Cowper, a yuppie, twenty-eight and surely the last person to need the aid of Checkmate. But he had climbed fast in the world from low beginnings and he wanted a wife with a good social background to help him go further. He expected Checkmate to introduce him to the sort of people he would not otherwise meet socially.
He was to be matched with Jenny Trask. Jenny was a legal secretary with a private income from a family trust. She was fairly attractive in a serious way: black hair and glasses, a good mouth, and large blue eyes. She was, however, painfully shy.
Maria put that lot to one side. The train roared across the border into Scotland. It had been muggy and overcast, but now the skies were clear blue and the sun was shining. And Peta was far, far away.
Maria smiled and returned to the rest of her notes. The good-looking features of Peter Trumpington smiled up at her from a large colour photograph. Now, he was a prize! He had a large fortune and did not work at anything at all, quite unusual in this age of the common man. But like any other rich man, he was tired of being preyed on and needed the agency to sort out the wheat from the chaff. He had been engaged to a film starlet who had relieved him of a sizeable chunk of money before dumping him. Then a typist caught his eye, a typist whose looks hid the fact that she was dull and rather petty, but he had found that out in time and he had dumped her. Although tall and handsome, with dark hair and melting dark eyes, he did not have much personality. He also did not evince any signs of great intelligence.
So chosen for him was Deborah Freemantle, also with a private fortune, who worked as an editorial assistant to a publisher in Bedford Square, London. She still spoke like a schoolgirl with many exclamations of "Gosh! I say!" and thought everything was FUN and had joined Checkmate for "a giggle," or so she said, although her parents had made the booking.
The last man on the list was John Taylor, Q.C.; in his sixties, widower, dry and chalky-skinned and fastidious, grey hair still quite thick, contact lenses, punctiliously dressed. He wished to be married again to spite his son and daughter. He hoped for someone young enough to still bear children but did not want "some silly little bimbo."
Selected for him was Mary French, a demure spinster in her early thirties. She was an English teacher at a public school, not that rich, but comfortably off and made up in breeding what she lacked in wealth, which had made her acceptable to Checkmate. She was third cousin to the Earl of Derwent. Maria squinted doubtfully down at the photograph. Mary was a teensy bit rabbit-toothed and perhaps her ears did stick out a trifle, but then John Taylor was hardly an Adonis and he was quite old.
With an increased feeling of well-being, she packed away her notes and closed her eyes. Nothing could possibly go wrong.
* * *
Jessica Fitt, had Maria but known it, was further down the train in the second-class dining car, trying to catch the eye of the waiter so that she could order more tea, but the waiter slouched past her as if she did not exist. She gave a little sigh and wondered, as she had wondered so many times before, why she did not have the courage to raise her voice and call him. She thought of Checkmate and wondered whom they had found for her and experienced a sudden spasm of nerves that made her nervously scratch her armpits and then one hip. She belonged to that nervous breed of women who are forever scratching themselves. She did hope it would be different from the other two events organized by Checkmate: one dinner party, and one cocktail party in the Whistler Room at the Tate Gallery. The man selected as her escort on each occasion had drifted off to talk to some other woman. If it had not been for the attentions of Maria Worth, she would have been left entirely alone. But perhaps this time it would work. It was a whole week in which to get someone to notice her. She sighed. Someone—anyone—kind would do. She had lost hopes of romance long ago.
Sir Bernard Grant drove his large car northwards through the clear empty Highland landscape. If he did not find a partner at this affair, he would drop Checkmate and try one of the other agencies. He was very rich, but that did not mean he liked wasting money, he told himself virtuously. He needed a wife, a good hostess, someone with a bit of style. He wasn't much interested in sex. He could always buy that.
Also driving north was Matthew Cowper, still young enough at twenty-eight to dream of a mixture of social success and romance. He wanted one of those cool society girls. For all there were a lot of yuppies like him working in brokerage houses in the City, chaps from ordinary working-class backgrounds, he knew the old guard stuck together. The correct wife would give him that edge he needed.
He turned in at the gates of the Tommel Castle Hotel, silhouetted against the blue sky, turrets and pinnacles and battlements and all. It was a fake castle, built in Victorian times, but Matthew did not know that. It reminded him of a castle in a boy's book about knights of old that he used to treasure.
He saw Priscilla Halburton-Smythe walking across the drive in front of the castle and his heartbeat quickened. What a stunner! Thank you, God!
Jenny Trask had a lot in common with Jessica Fitt. Although she was attractive and in her twenties, she was painfully shy outside the confines of her job in a legal office. She hated dating because either the man dashed off right after dinner, which was a painful rejection, or he stayed on, obviously expecting the evening to end in bed. Jenny felt she did not belong to the world that her contemporaries inhabited. They thought nothing of leaping into bed with someone on a very short acquaintanceship. They were, or so Jenny thought, hardheaded and practical. Jenny dreamt of romance and longed for the days, now long gone, when a girl could expect to be courted. She had only recently joined Checkmate, and this visit to the Highlands was her first experience with the agency.
Hope sprang eternal. Jenny had flown to Inverness and then caught a bus to Ullapool, then changed at Ullapool to a creaking local bus to take her to Lochdubh. Her hopes soared with every mile. So remote from London and so very beautiful. She was seeing the mountains and moors of Scotland as they are rarely seen, benign in sunlight. It had cost an awful lot of money, but already she felt sure it was all worth it. Somewhere at the end of the journey was the clever, sensitive, and romantic man of her dreams.
Peter Trumpington drove his Mercedes with the real leather seats competently through some of the most dazzling scenery in the world—like Switzerland without people—and was completely unaware of the beauty around him. He would have been just as happy in London. But if this long journey meant a suitable bride, then this long journey had to be completed. All that was in his mind was the thought of a long cool drink and a hot dinner. He did not know Deborah Freemantle had been chosen for him, or anything about her.
Deborah was also driving along the one-track roads near journey's end. She was employed as an editorial assistant with Dumbey's Publishing, who produced large coffee-table books on art or country houses or other inoffensive and expensive subjects. She had been hired not for her brains, but because she did not expect to be paid very much, because her grammar was quite good and her enthusiasm boundless. She also had one great asset. She did not aspire to take her boss's job. Dumbey's was not a competitive firm, and editors liked to have inferiors who would not threaten their position. Her enthusiasm was not an act. She was genuinely enthusiastic about everyone and everything, which made up for her clumsiness and large backside. She had heavy Hanoverian features and rather thin brown hair. She bounded and giggled much as she had done at the expensive boarding-school she had once attended. She had made her come-out as a débutante, but things, her parents had decided, were not handled as in the old days, when a good dowry was enough to thrust a beloved daughter into marriage. Checkmate had been their idea. As with Jenny, this would be the first get-together she had attended. She was not very worried about it all. Mummy and Daddy usually knew best.
John Taylor, Q.C., alighted from the station at Inverness. He recognized Maria Worth, who was walking along the platform in front of him, but he did not hail her. To him, she was a sort of employee and he was not going to demean himself by sharing his taxi north with her.
The taxi-driver he asked to take him to Lochdubh explained it would probably cost him in the region of forty-five pounds. "Oh, get on with it," snapped John, and climbed into the back seat.
Money was no object when it came to spiting his children. The trouble had started last Christmas in the family get-together at John Taylor's country home in Buckinghamshire. His wife had died when the children were still young, and he considered he had done the best anyone could for daughter Penelope and son Brian. Brian was a lawyer like his father and quite a successful one. Penelope had married an affluent stockbroker. All was what it should be.
And then, coming down the stairs one morning before Christmas, he had overheard Brian and Penelope talking. "I wish we didn't have to endure these ghoulish family affairs," Brian was saying. "The old man has about as much Christmas spirit as Scrooge."
Penelope gave her infuriating giggle and said, "He hasn't been quite the same since they abolished hanging. He's still boring on about bringing back the birch and the treadmill."
And Brian had rejoined, "Only a few more days to go and then we can escape from his pontificating. But be sweet to him, Penelope. Your kids and my kids will soon be ready to go to public schools and you know what a mint that's going to cost us. He can't last much longer. He looks like a cadaver warmed up. He's made his will and we both get the lot. So let's continue to ho-ho-ho our way through this awful Christmas."
John had retreated back upstairs. Hatred burned inside him. To cut them out of his will would not be revenge enough. After he was dead, he wouldn't be around to see their stupid faces. He thought long and hard about ways to get even and then he decided to go to Checkmate and order them to find him a bride. They probably had someone on their books desperate enough.
Mary French had already arrived at Tommel Castle Hotel. Mary was always early for everything. She turned up at dinner parties at least an hour early. She had taken the train up to Inverness the day before and had got the first bus in the morning to Ullapool and then a cab from Ullapool to Lochdubh. She was not nervous in the slightest. Maria Worth might regret the fact that Mary had buckteeth and jug-ears, but Mary saw rare beauty when she looked in the glass. She taught at a girls' school, one of the few that still employed only female teachers. That was why, she knew, she was not married. Men could only admire her from afar. The fact that she met plenty of men on her annual holidays did not count. Her aristocratic breeding had put them off. Checkmate would find her the right sort. They'd better, she thought with true aristocratic thrift. She was paying enough.
- On Sale
- Jul 1, 2011
- Page Count
- 240 pages
- Grand Central Publishing