By M. C. Beaton
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Death of a Hussy: A Hamish Macbeth Mystery
About the best that can be said of wealthy Maggie Baird is that inside her middle-aged body, there still beats the heart of a beautiful tart. So when her car catches fire with Maggie in it, there are five likely suspects right on the premises of her luxurious Highlands cottage. Lochdubh police constable Hamish Macbeth has to question Maggie's timid niece and four former lovers, one of whom Maggie had intended to pick for her husband.
All five are equally poor-with ample motive and opportunity to monkey with Maggie's car. Now to find the killer, the astute lawman must apply his extraordinary insight into human nature. But when the evidence appears to point to the wrong person entirely, Hamish must dig down deep to stop the real murderer's escape.
Table of Contents
A Preview of Death of a Policeman
A Preview of Death of a Yesterday
A Preview of Death of a Nag
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In the Highlands in the country places Where the old plain men have rosy faces, And the young fair maidens Quiet eyes.
—R. L. Stevenson
"You might have known people really do dress up for dinner in the Highlands." Maggie Baird shifted her large bulk irritably in the driving seat and crashed the gears horribly.
Beside her in the passenger seat of the battered Renault 5, her niece, Alison Kerr, sat in miserable silence. Her aunt Maggie had already gone on and on and on about Alison's shabby appearance before they left the house. Alison had tried to protest that, had she been warned about this dinner invitation to Tommel Castle, she would have washed and set her hair and possibly bought a new dress. As it was, her black hair was lank and greasy and she wore a plain navy skirt and a white blouse.
As Maggie Baird mangled the car on its way to Tommel Castle—that is, she seemed to wrench the gears a lot and stamp down on the footbrake for no apparent reason at all—Alison sat and brooded on her bad luck.
Life had seemed to take on new hope and meaning when her mother's sister, Maggie Baird, had descended on the hospital where Alison was recovering from lung cancer in Bristol. Alison's parents were both dead. She had, when they were alive, heard little about this Mrs. Maggie Baird, except, "We don't talk about her, dear, and want to have nothing to do with her."
When she had thought she was about to die, Alison had written to Maggie. After all, Maggie appeared to be her only surviving relative and there should be at least one person to arrange the funeral. Maggie had swept into the patient's lounge, exuding a strong air of maternal warmth. Alison would come with her to her new home in the Highlands and convalesce.
And so Alison had been borne off to Maggie's large sprawling bungalow home on the hills overlooking the sea outside the village of Lochdubh in Sutherland in the very north of Scotland.
The first week had been pleasant. The bungalow was overcarpeted, overwarm, and overfurnished. But there was an efficient housekeeper—what in the old days would have been called a maid of all work—who came up from the village every day to clean and cook. This treasure was called Mrs. Todd and although Alison was thirty-one, Mrs. Todd treated her like a little girl and made her special cakes for afternoon tea.
By the second week Alison longed to escape from the house. Maggie herself went down to the village to do the shopping but she would never take Alison. Eventually all that maternal warmth faded, to be replaced by a carping bitchiness. Alison, still feeling weak and dazed and gutless after her recent escape from death, could not stand up to her aunt and endured the increasing insults in a morose silence.
Then had come the invitation to dinner from the Halburton-Smythes, local landowners, who lived out on the far side of the village at Tommel Castle, and Maggie had not told her about their going until the very last minute, hence the lank hair and the blouse and skirt.
Maggie crashed the gears again as they went up a steep hill. Alison winced. What a way to treat a car! If she herself could only drive! Oh, to be able to go racing up and over the mountains and to be free and not immured in the centrally heated prison that was Maggie's bungalow. Of course, Alison should just leave and get a job somewhere, but the doctors had told her to take it easy for at least six months and somehow she felt too drained of energy to even try to escape from Maggie. She was terrified of a recurrence of cancer. It was all very well for other people to point out that these days cancer need not be a terminal illness. Alison had had a small part of her lung removed. She was terribly aware of it, imagining a great hole lurking inside her chest. She longed daily for a cigarette and often refused to believe that a diet of forty cigarettes a day had contributed to her illness.
Maggie swung the little red car between two imposing gate posts and up a well-kept drive.
Alison braced herself. What would these people be like?
PRISCILLA HALBURTON-SMYTHE PUSHED the food around her plate and wished the evening would end. She did not like Maggie Baird, who, resplendent in a huge green and gold caftan, was eating with relish. Her voice was "county" as she talked to Colonel Halburton-Smythe about the iniquities of poachers, and only Alison knew that Maggie had a talent for sounding knowledgeable on all sorts of subjects she knew little about.
I can't quite make her out, thought Priscilla. She's a great fat woman and quite nasty to that little niece of hers and yet Daddy is going on like an Edwardian gallant. He seems quite taken with her.
She looked again at Alison. Alison Kerr was a thin girl—well, possibly in her thirties, but such a waif that it was hard to think of her as a woman. She had thick horn-rimmed glasses, and her black hair fell in two wings shielding most of her face. She had very good skin, very pale, almost translucent. Priscilla flashed a smile at Alison who scowled and looked at her plate.
Priscilla was everything Alison despised. She was beautiful in a cool poised way with shining pale gold hair worn in a simple style. Her scarlet silk dress with the ruffled Spanish sleeves must have cost a fortune. Her voice was charming and amused.
I would be charming and amused if I lived in a castle and had doting parents, thought Alison bitterly. I know what that smile meant. She's sorry for me. Damn her.
"You will find you have to do a lot of driving in the Highlands, Mrs. Baird," the colonel said.
Maggie sighed and then looked at him with a wicked twinkle in her eyes. "How true," she said. "I'm up and down that road to the village like a tart's drawers."
There was a little silence. Mrs. Halburton-Smythe opened her mouth a little and then shut it again. Then the colonel gave an indulgent laugh. "It's not London," he said. "There isn't an Asian grocer at the corner of every field. You have to make lists, you know. It's quite possible to buy all the groceries for a week in one go. Doesn't that housekeeper of yours do the shopping?"
"I prefer to do it myself," said Maggie, once more falling into the role of country gentlewoman. "I like to get the best of everything although Lochdubh is pretty limited. I think the inhabitants must live on a diet of fish fingers."
"You should take a trip into Inverness and stock up," said Mrs. Halburton-Smythe. "They've got everything there now. Quite a boom town and expanding every day. Why, I remember not so long ago when it was a sleepy place and they drove the Highland cattle to market through the main street. Now it's all cars, cars, cars."
"And crime on the increase," said the colonel. "What those fools in Strathbane think they're about to leave us without a policeman, I don't know."
"Hamish!" said Priscilla. "You didn't tell me." She smiled at Alison. "I only arrived last night and haven't caught up with the local news. Hamish gone? Where?"
"They've closed down the police station and taken that lazy lout off to Strathbane," said her father. "It's funny, I never thought Macbeth actually did anything. Now he's gone and someone has been netting salmon in the river. At least Macbeth would have found a way to stop it, although he never arrested anyone."
"But this is dreadful," exclaimed Priscilla. "Hamish is a terrible loss to the village."
"Well, you would naturally think so," said her father acidly.
Priscilla's cool manner seemed ruffled. Oho! thought Alison, I wonder if the daughter of the castle is in love with the absent local copper.
Maggie looked amused. "If you want to get him back," she said, "all you need to do is manufacture some crime in the village."
She flashed a flirtatious look at the colonel. Priscilla thought, It's as if there's a beauty encased under that layer of fat.
But she said aloud, "What a good idea. Why don't we organise a meeting in the village hall and put it to the locals."
The colonel seemed about to protest but the suggestion caught Maggie's imagination. She liked to imagine herself a leader of Highland village society.
"I'll arrange it for you if you like," she said. "Alison can help. Or try to help. She's not really good at anything, you know. When shall we have the meeting?"
"Why not this Saturday?" asked Priscilla.
"You are not suggesting you are going to encourage the villagers to commit crimes so as to get Hamish back!" said Mrs. Halburton-Smythe.
"Something must be done," said Priscilla. "We'll put it to the locals and then take a vote."
"A vote on what?" demanded her father.
"On whatever suggestions are put up," said Priscilla evasively. "There's no need for you to get involved, Daddy. I am sure Mrs. Baird and I can handle everything."
Alison found herself beginning to speculate on this local bobby. He must be someone very special to attract the cool Priscilla. Her mind wandered off into fantasy. What if she helped to get him back, managed to do more than Priscilla? This Hamish Macbeth would be tall and fair and handsome like those paintings of Bonnie Prince Charlie on the old biscuit tins. He would fall in love with her, Alison, and take her away from Maggie and leave Priscilla with the knowledge that Alison's inner attractions were more important to a man than stereotyped outward beauty. She lacks character in her face, thought Alison, looking under her lashes at Priscilla and trying to find fault.
At last the evening was over. Maggie was wrapped by the butler in a voluminous mink coat. I hope Macbeth isn't into Animal Liberation, thought Alison maliciously. That coat must have taken a whole ranch of minks.
As she was leaving, the colonel suddenly leaned forward and kissed Maggie on the cheek. She flashed him a roguish look and he puffed out his chest and strutted like a bantam.
Oh, dear, thought Priscilla, I wish he wouldn't make such a fool of himself.
She did not know that her father's misplaced gallantry was to start a chain of events which would lead to murder.
MAGGIE WAS IN a good mood as she drove home through the wintry landscape and under the bright and burning stars of Sutherland. So she could still attract a man. And if she could attract a man when she was like this—well, plump—think what effect she could have if she took herself in hand.
It was all the fault of that damned waiter, thought Maggie. Maggie Baird had earned a considerable amount of money during her career. Although she had managed to stay off the streets and had been married and divorced twice, she had made a business out of being mistress to a long string of wealthy men, occasionally straying to the poorer ones for her own amusement. Like most women addicted to food, she also had a tremendous appetite for sex. Unlike most of her sisters on the game, she had squirreled away her earnings, buying and selling property and investing cleverly. That was when the blow had fallen. Finding herself a very wealthy woman and looking for amusement, Maggie had taken up with a Greek waiter whose swarthy good looks had appealed to her. But for the first time in her life, she had fallen helplessly in love and when she had found that he was taking her money to save enough to marry a young blonde from Stepney, she felt her life was over.
She had bought the bungalow in the Highlands, a place to lick her wounds. She had let the bleach grow out of her hair so that it became its natural brown streaked with grey. She had put on pounds and pounds in weight. She wore tweeds and suede hats and oilskin coats and brogues and everything she could to adopt the character of a Scottish gentlewoman, as if hiding her hurt under layers of fat and country dress.
Taking Alison out of the hospital made her feel good for a while, until the novelty had worn off. Now the pain of the waiter's rejection was fading as well.
"There's life in the old girl yet," she said cheerfully.
"You mean the car?" asked Alison.
"Me, you fool, not this heap of junk."
"It's a very nice little car," said Alison timidly. "Auntie—"
"I told you not to call me that," snapped Maggie.
"Sorry… Maggie. Look, do you think I could take driving lessons? I could do the shopping for you."
"I've got more to do with my money than pay for your driving lessons," said Maggie. "That colonel's quite a lad. His wife looks a bit of a faded nonentity. And that daughter of his! No character."
"Exactly," agreed Alison eagerly. Both women fell to trashing Priscilla and arrived home quite pleased with each other for the first time in weeks.
THE HIGHLANDS OF Scotland contain many pretty towns and villages but Strathbane was not one of them. It had been attractive once, but had become a centre for light industry in the early fifties and that had brought people flooding in from the cities. Ugly housing complexes had been thrown up all round; garish supermarkets, discos, and wine bars and all the doubtful benefits of a booming economy had come to Strathbane along with crime and drugs.
Police Constable Hamish Macbeth sadly left the kennels where his dog, Towser, was housed. It was his evening off. He was bored and lonely and he hated Strathbane and he hated Detective Chief Inspector Blair with a passion for moving him out of Lochdubh.
He was sick and tired of the youth of Strathbane with their white pinched faces, their drunkenness, and their obscenities. He was tired of raiding discos for drugs, and bars for drunks, and football matches for hooligans.
He walked along the dirty streets. A thin drizzle was falling. Even the seagulls wheeling under the harsh orange light of the sodium street lamps looked dirty. He leaned on the wall and stared down on the beach. The tide was up; oil glittered on the water and an old sofa with burst springs was slowly being gathered in by the rising tide.
A man reeled past him, then leaned against the sea wall and vomited onto the beach. Hamish shuddered and moved away. He wondered how much longer he could endure this existence. His home in Lochdubh had been the police station, so he did not even have a house to go back to. The neighbours were looking after his hens and his sheep, but he could not expect them to do so indefinitely. Some real estate agent would probably sell the police station. He had left most of his possessions there, refusing to believe his life in Lochdubh was over.
Then there was Mary Graham. P.C. Graham was Hamish's usual partner on the beat in Strathbane. She was a thin, spare woman with a hard face and dyed blond hair and a thirst for making as many arrests as possible. She was from the south of Scotland and considered Hamish some sort of half-witted peasant.
Hamish's mind went back and forth and round and round the problem, seeking escape. He could always go back to Lochdubh and take lodgings with someone. He could move his hen houses onto the bit of croft land assigned to him. But, like all crofters, he knew it was impossible to live on small farming alone, trying to wrest a living out of a few stony fields. He could work on the fishing boats, of course.
What hurt most of all was that the people of Lochdubh appeared to have taken his banishment without comment. He felt very friendless.
ON SATURDAY NIGHT, the village hall in Lochdubh was crammed to capacity. On the platform facing the audience was the committee made up of Maggie, Alison, Priscilla, and the minister, Mr. Wellington, and his large, tweedy wife—who for the first time in her life was outdone in largeness and tweediness. Maggie Baird was encased in new tweeds and had a suede hat with a pheasant's feather on it on her head. Alison had washed and set her hair for the occasion, perhaps in the hope that the handsome policeman would walk in the door while the meeting was on.
Maggie Baird, much to the annoyance of Mrs. Wellington, rose to speak.
"Our local policeman has been sent away because of a lack of crime in the area. I suggest we organise enough crime to make it necessary to send him back."
There was a roar of approval. Shocked, Mrs. Wellington struggled to her feet and held up her hands for silence.
"That is a most dreadful and, if you will forgive me, Mrs. Baird, immoral suggestion."
"What would you suggest?" asked Maggie with dangerous sweetness.
"Well, I think we should get up a petition."
"We'll put it to a vote," said Maggie. "All in favour of organising some crime, raise their hands."
A forest of hands went up.
"All in favour of a petition?"
Only a few hands went up.
Mr. Wellington took the floor. "You cannot, Mrs. Baird, expect us all to break the law."
"No one said anything about breaking the law," replied Maggie cheerfully. "We make it look as if we've got a crime and insist on having the police in. I am going to pass round sheets of paper and you will all write down suggestions. I will report that something of mine, something valuable, has been stolen, and then after a bit I'll say, 'Sorry to have wasted your time, it has been found.' That sort of thing."
There was a silence in the hall. Maggie realised furiously that everyone was obviously waiting for Priscilla to say something.
Feudal lot of peasants, thought Maggie angrily.
Priscilla got to her feet. She was wearing a smart grey tailored pin-striped suit with a white blouse, sheer stockings, and patent leather high heels. "Yes, I think a bit of organised crime is the sensible answer," said Priscilla. "My father is having trouble again with poachers. I shall start off with that complaint."
There was a cheer and a man shouted, "Good for you. We knew you would think of something."
In that moment, Alison felt quite warm toward her aunt. It did seem unfair that Maggie should have thought up the scheme only to have everyone give Priscilla all the credit.
Papers were passed around, a few half bottles of whisky were produced, the villagers scribbled busily. The air was soon heavy with the raw smell of alcohol and a fog of cigarette smoke.
When the meeting was over, everyone was happy with the results—with the exception of Mr. and Mrs. Wellington, Maggie, and Alison.
"Why did I bother?" fumed Maggie on the road home. "Did you see that Halburton-Smythe bitch calmly taking the credit for everything? Anyway, my crime is the best and so I shall show them."
SERGEANT MACGREGOR DROVE angrily over the twisting Highland roads that led from Cnothan to Lochdubh. Some female had lost her diamond earrings and what should have been handled by that Macbeth fellow was now having to be handled by him, MacGregor.
What made it worse was that this female, this Mrs. Baird, had phoned the high-ups in Strathbane and accused them of deliberately encouraging crime in Lochdubh by taking away the village policeman and had threatened to write to The Times.
He drove through Lochdubh, remarking sourly to himself that it looked as sleepy as ever, and took the coast road to Maggie's bungalow.
The door was opened by a grim-looking housekeeper wearing a blue cotton dress with a white collar. MacGregor's heart sank. Anyone who could afford to employ a Scottish housekeeper these days and get her to wear a sort of uniform must be stinking rich, and stinking rich meant power, and power meant trouble.
Mrs. Baird was all he had feared and anticipated. She was a great, fat woman wearing a tweed suit and heavy brogues. Her thick hair was scraped back in an old-fashioned bun and she had the glacial accents of the upper class. With her on the chintz-covered sofa sat a dab of a woman, peering at him through thick-lensed glasses, whom Mrs. Baird introduced as "my niece, Miss Kerr."
"You took your time about getting here," said Maggie.
"Well, I have to come from Cnothan, which is a good wee bit away," said MacGregor with what he hoped was a placating smile.
"Stop grinning like a monkey and get your notebook out," ordered Maggie. The housekeeper brought in a tray with a coffee pot, cream, sugar, and only two cups. MacGregor was obviously not going to be offered any.
"When did you first notice the earrings were missing?" asked MacGregor.
"Last night. I've searched the house. Mrs. Todd, the housekeeper, is a local woman and above suspicion. But two suspicious-looking hikers were seen hanging about yesterday. They could have got in somehow and taken them."
"Description?" asked MacGregor, licking his pencil.
"Man and a girl, early twenties. The man had a straggly beard and the girl looked like one of those dreary intellectual types, rather like Miss Kerr here." Maggie laughed and Alison winced. "The man was wearing a camouflage jacket and jeans, and the girl, a red anorak and brown slacks. The man had on a ski cap and the girl was hatless. Her hair was mousy brown."
MacGregor eventually drove off in a more cheerful frame of mind. He had something concrete to go on. He telephoned from his Land Rover to Strathbane and put out an alert for the hikers. That strange creature, Macbeth, who had had the temerity to solve a murder case in his, MacGregor's, absence, would soon find out his presence was not missed in Lochdubh.
He had only just reached home when a call came through from the chief constable. Colonel Halburton-Smythe demanded the presence of a policeman immediately. Poachers were netting salmon on his river. With a groan, MacGregor set out for Lochdubh again. The colonel insisted on taking the sergeant on a long walk across country to the river and haranguing him on the ineptitude of the police. MacGregor was tired and weary by the time he got back to Cnothan.
But fury gave him energy, fury generated by a call from Strathbane to say that Mrs. Baird had telephoned. She had found her lost earrings down the back of the sofa and what was MacGregor doing wasting the force's time by having them look for villainous hikers who did not exist?
Then a phone call came from the Lochdubh Hotel to say that a group of young people were creating a riot in the public bar. MacGregor appealed for back-up and took the road back to Lochdubh to find the public bar empty apart from a few shattered glasses and the owner of the hotel, who was unable to give a clear description of the young people.
By the time he finally got home to bed, he was nearly in tears of rage. Morning found him in a calmer frame of mind. Lochdubh would sink back into its usual peace and quiet.
And then the phone started to ring. A crofter in Lochdubh complained that five of his sheep had been stolen during the night, and a farmer reported that two of his prize cows were missing. The schoolteacher, Miss Monson, called to say that drugs had been found in a classroom.
Again MacGregor telephoned for help, only to be asked wearily why he couldn't handle things himself—that is, until he got to the tale of the drugs in the classroom. Detective Chief Inspector Blair and a team of detectives and forensic men were despatched from Strathbane only to find that the drugs in the classroom were packets of baking soda. "Silly me," said the giggling schoolteacher, and Blair took his anger out on MacGregor, who had no one to take it out on except his wife, and he was afraid of her.
THE AMAZING THING about British policewomen is that a surprising proportion of them are attractive. And so P.C. Hamish Macbeth could not help wondering why he had the ill luck to be saddled with such a creature as Mary Graham on his beat. P.C. Graham, he reflected, looked like one of those women you see in German war films. Not only was there the dyed blond hair, but she had staring ice-blue eyes, a mouth like a trap, and an impeccable uniform with a short tailored skirt which showed strong muscular legs encased in black tights—not fine sheer tights worn by some of the younger policewomen, but thick wool ones, and her shoes were like black polished glass.
It was a sunny day as they walked side by side along the waterfront, past closed bars smelling of last night's drunks; past shuttered warehouses falling into ruin, relics of the days when Strathbane was a small busy port; past blocks of houses thrown up in the fifties during that period when all architects seem to have sold their souls to Stalin, and had erected towers of concrete very like their counterparts in Moscow. The balconies had once been painted jolly primary colours, but now long trails of rust ran down the cracked concrete of the buildings in which elevators had long since died, and rubbish lay in heaps on the sour earth of what was originally intended to be a communal garden.
"I always keep ma eyes and ears open," Mary was saying. She had a whining singsong voice. "I hae noticed, Macbeth, you're apt to turn a blind eye tae too many things."
"Such as?" asked Hamish while in his mind he picked her up and threw her over the sea wall and then watched her sink slowly beneath the oily surface of the rising tide.
"Two days ago there were these two drunks fighting outside The Glen bar. All you did was separate them and send them off home. I wanted to arrest them and would hae done had I not seen that wee boy acting suspiciously over at the supermarket."
Hamish sighed. There was no point replying. Mary saw villains everywhere. But her next words nearly roused him to a fury, and it took a great deal to rouse Hamish Macbeth. "I felt it was ma duty to put in a report about you," she said. "It is cramping my style to have to walk the beat wi' a Highland layabout. The trouble wi' you Highlanders is you just want to lie on your backs all day long. You know whit they say, mañana is too urgent a word for you." Mary laughed merrily at her own wit. "So I said I would never rise in the force, having to patrol wi' a deadbeat like you, and asked for a change."
"That would be nice," said Hamish.
Mary threw him a startled look. "I'm surprised you're taking it so well."
"Of course I am taking it well. Ye dinnae think I enjoy walking along on a fine day wi' a sour-faced bitch like you," said Hamish in a light pleasant voice, although Priscilla, for example, would have recognised, by the sudden sibilancy of it, that Hamish was furious. "Wass I not saying chust the other day," said Hamish dreamily, "that it was sore luck getting landed wi' you instead of someone like Pat Macleod." Pat Macleod was a curvaceous brunette of a police-woman who wore sheer stockings instead of tights. Every policeman who had seen her flashing her thighs in the canteen as she deliberately hitched up her short skirt to sit down could bear witness to that.
- On Sale
- Jun 1, 2012
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Grand Central Publishing