By M. C. Beaton
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Death of a Liar: A Hamish Macbeth Mystery
Sergeant Hamish Macbeth is alarmed to receive a report from a woman in the small village of Cronish in the Scottish Highlands. She has been brutally attacked and the criminal is on the loose. But upon further investigation, Hamish discovers that she was lying about the crime. So when the same woman calls him back about an intruder, he simply marvels at her compulsion to lie. This time, though, she is telling the truth. Her body is found in her home and Hamish must sort through all of her lies to solve the crime.
Then one day there really was a wolf, but when the boy shouted they didn’t believe him.
Police Sergeant Hamish Macbeth and his sidekick, Dick Fraser, sat in deck chairs in the front garden of the police station enjoying the Indian summer and the fact that the county of Sutherland in the very north of Scotland seemed free of crime.
At Hamish’s feet lay his wild cat, Sonsie, and his dog, Lugs, as lazy as their master. The berries on the rowan tree at the gate gleamed as red as Hamish’s hair.
The air had that clear, sparkling quality as there was no pollution. The sky was blue, the sun shone down, and Dick folded his chubby hands across his plump stomach and fell asleep.
The sudden shrilling of the phone inside the police station cut through the air. Hamish went in to answer it, not expecting anything important, for what nasty thing could happen on such a lovely day?
At first he could not make out what the woman on the line was saying.
“Calm down,” said Hamish in his soft highland accent. “Take a deep breath. Now, what’s happened?”
“It’s me, Liz Bentley, at Cromish. I’ve been raped. Oh, help me!”
“I’ll be with you as fast as I can,” said Hamish.
He went into the garden and roused Dick. “Some woman up at Cromish says she’s been raped. Let’s go.”
Soon Hamish, Dick, and the animals were all in the police Land Rover and heading out of Lochdubh and up the west coast of Sutherland to Cromish.
It was a long drive, the village of Cromish being situated between Kinlochbervie and Cape Wrath. Sutherland, the south land of the Vikings, covers three hundred thirty-five square kilometres but has a population of only thirteen thousand people, making it one of the most sparsely populated areas in the United Kingdom.
There are villages like Cromish which look as if time had forgotten them. The fishing boom had come and gone, leaving only a small huddled group of cottages beside a crumbling harbour. The mountains of Foinaven, Arkle, and Ben Stack loomed in the distance. Like Lochdubh, it boasted only one shop, a post office, and a general store, run, as Hamish remembered, by an old woman.
They quickly found Liz Bentley’s address. She was a short woman with rosy cheeks and brown hair. When she saw Hamish, she threw herself into his arms and began to cry.
“There, there, lassie,” said Hamish, although Liz was somewhere, he guessed, in her fifties. “Let’s go ben and tell me about it. Make us some tea, Dick.”
He settled her down in an armchair and waited until she had dried her eyes. “Now, first, have you called the doctor?”
“You’ll need to be examined and then you’ll have to go to hospital where they’ll take a swab for DNA.”
“It won’t do any good,” she said. “I was that shamed and disgusted, I burnt my clothes and took a swim in the sea.”
“Nonetheless, you’ll need to be examined for signs of rape. What is the local doctor’s name?”
“It’s on the wall by the phone, but he’s awfy busy and…”
Hamish ignored her, phoned the doctor, and explained it was an emergency. The doctor said he would be there right away.
“So,” said Hamish, returning to her. “Tell me what happened. What did he look like?”
“I couldnae see his face. He had a black balaclava on. He was awfy tall and strong. He threw me to the floor and held a knife to my throat.”
“And when did this happen?”
“Last night. About midnight. I hadn’t locked the door.”
“Why didn’t you report it sooner?”
“He said if I called the police, he would murder me!”
Dick came in with a mug of tea which he handed to Liz. The doorbell rang. “That’ll be the doctor,” said Hamish.
Dr. Williams was a small, gnarled man with a sagging grey face. “Let’s go into the bedroom, Liz,” he said.
“I’m not up to it!” wailed Liz.
“Now, then, I haven’t got a case if you won’t help me,” said Hamish. “Off you go.”
As Liz was reluctantly led off to the bedroom, Hamish looked around the room. It showed all the signs of that old-fashioned practice of “being kept for best.”
The fireplace was empty. Above it hung a gilt-framed mirror. The sofa was an antique one, stuffed with horsehair but looking as new as it had probably done a hundred years before. A table by the window was covered with an embroidered cloth and had a shiny aspidistra in a brass bowl. There were two armchairs, covered in chintz. On an occasional table, a pink china lady held up a pink frilled lamp shade.
Hamish strolled outside and let the dog and cat out of the Land Rover. He would wait for the doctor’s report and then question the villagers to see if they had noticed any stranger in the area.
Hamish swung round. Dr. Williams came up to him.
“I’m afraid you have had a wasted journey.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Because Liz Bentley is a virgin, that’s what. Furthermore, she’s a chronic liar. Last year, she told everyone she had terminal cancer when I was away on holiday. The villagers were so sympathetic they gave her little gifts. I soon discovered when I came back that it was all lies. She said she was attending the hospital at Strathbane for chemotherapy. I phoned them up and they’d never heard of her. When I challenged her, she said it was a miracle. She had prayed and prayed and God had taken the cancer away.”
“I’ll chust be having a wee word with her,” said Hamish, the sudden sibilance of his accent showing he was really angry.
He strode into the parlour where Liz was sobbing on Dick’s bosom.
“She’s a damn liar,” said Hamish. “Leave her alone. Stop the waterworks, Liz, and hear this. I should charge you with wasting police time and get you to pay for the petrol it cost to get here. I suggest you start to see a psychiatrist. Don’t effer dare phone me again. Come on, Dick.”
“It’s called Munchausen syndrome,” said Dick as they drove off. “You know, it’s where a body keeps lying to get attention. I mind a case in Strathbane where a woman kept making her children sick so that everyone would sympathise with her.”
“Pah!” said Hamish. “Let’s find somewhere to eat.”
They stopped at the Kinlochbervie Hotel and had a pleasant lunch in the bistro.
“It’s a sad thing to have a mental problem like that,” said Dick. “I mean, they cannae stop.”
“Do you mean that damn woman is going to plague us with another lie?” said Hamish.
“She’ll probably make herself ill or something.”
But Lochdubh, during the next week, settled down into its peaceful ways. The only great change in the village was that the old schoolhouse had been closed down and the children were now bussed into Strathbane. The school had been turned into a house and had just been bought by an English couple, a Mr. and Mrs. Leigh.
Hamish, knowing they had just moved in, strolled along to welcome them to the village. Dick came as well. “I’m right curious to know what it looks like now,” said Dick.
It was a prime location, thought Hamish, facing as it did the long sea loch. The playground had been dug up and earth put in, ready for a garden.
Hamish rang the bell and waited. The door was jerked open by a tall, mannish woman. “What’s up?” she demanded, looking at Hamish’s uniform.
“Nothing,” said Hamish soothingly. “We just came to welcome you to the village.”
“Come in. I suppose you’re just nosy and want to poke around like the rest of the people here.”
She turned away, expecting him to follow her. But Hamish turned away as well, said to Dick, “Come along. We’re wasting our time.”
When Mrs. Leigh came back to the door and peered along the waterfront, it was to see the tall figure of Hamish and the smaller figure of Dick heading towards the police station.
She shrugged and went in to join her husband. “Who was that?” he asked.
“The local copper.”
“What did he want?”
“Said he wanted to welcome us to the village. Only wanted to nose around like the rest of them. I told him so and he got the huff.”
Mr. Frank Leigh was a small, fussy little man with grey hair and a small wrinkled brown face like a walnut.
“For God’s sake, Bessie, we don’t want to antagonise the local fuzz. Go and apologise.”
“All right. It was your idea to move here, so make the best of it. Hand me my stick.”
Hamish and Dick were lounging in their deck chairs when Hamish saw a small man struggling to open the front gate.
“It’s jammed,” he called. “Go round to the side door.”
Hamish rose and went into the police station and through to the kitchen. He opened the door and looked down at Frank Leigh. “Can I help you, sir?”
“I’m Frank Leigh.”
“And I’m Hamish Macbeth. What can I do for you?”
“I’ve come to apologise for my wife’s rudeness. It’s the strain of the removal, you see. The villagers have all been calling and she got fed up. We’re only used to city life.”
“Come in,” said Hamish. “Can I get you something? Coffee? Something stronger?”
“Have you any whisky?”
“Yes, sit yourself down and I’ll get you one.”
Frank looked around the kitchen and at all the gleaming appliances. “I see you’ve got all the latest gadgets,” he said. “Wouldn’t have thought a local copper could afford all this.”
“I can’t,” said Hamish, lifting down a bottle of whisky from a cupboard and thinking, who’s the nosy one now? “Dick Fraser, my policeman, is a quiz expert, and he won all this stuff on television shows. How do you take your whisky?”
“Just neat. Aren’t you joining me?”
“Daren’t risk it in case I’m called out.”
Frank downed his whisky in one gulp and looked hungrily at the bottle. Hamish poured him another one.
“So where are you from?” asked Hamish, leaning his lanky form against the kitchen counter.
“And what brought you up here?”
“Quality of life.” Frank seized the bottle and poured himself a full glass.
“A lot of English people come here looking for that,” said Hamish, “but the long dark winters get them down and they soon leave.”
“Not us. Thish is a nice place.”
Hamish guessed he had been drinking earlier. He firmly closed the whisky bottle and put what was left of it back in the cupboard.
“Are you retired?” he asked.
“What was your business?”
“None of yours, copper.”
“So that’s the end of your chat,” said Hamish, a steely note in his voice. He went to the kitchen door and held it open. “My regards to your wife.”
Grumbling under his breath, Frank left.
Hamish sighed. He hoped the Leighs would soon get tired of the Highlands and go back to London.
He was just wondering whether to go back to the garden and join Dick when there came a hammering at the kitchen door. He opened it to face Bessie Leigh.
“How dare you!” she yelled.
“How dare I what?”
“How dare you force whisky on my husband? I shall report you to your superiors.”
“You do that,” said Hamish calmly, “on the understanding that the police will want your whole background and your husband’s medical records.”
“You…you…,” she spluttered. Then she said viciously, “Don’t come near us again.”
“My pleasure,” said Hamish sweetly, and slammed the door in her face.
Bessie Leigh had reached the schoolhouse when an odd-looking dog with blue eyes and a large cat came strolling along the waterfront towards her. As they came alongside her, the cat raised its fur, its yellow eyes blazed, and it let out a long low hiss.
Bessie let out a squawk of alarm, dived in, and shut the door behind her.
Settled once more in the garden after recounting the two visits from the Leighs, Hamish said gloomily, “That pair are trouble.”
“Maybe not,” said Dick comfortably. “The Highlands sometimes seem wall-to-wall in alcoholics. We often get newcomers like that. Heavy drinkers can be awfy romantic. Ah, the hills and the heather, and all that. The winter’ll see the last of them.”
Hamish decided to go to church on Sunday, not because he was particularly religious, but because he sometimes felt like supporting the minister, Mr. Wellington.
To his surprise, he saw the Leighs seated in a pew. Bessie Leigh was sporting a large felt hat, and she was dressed in a new-looking tweed jacket. Dwarfed in her shadow sat her husband.
He received an even bigger surprise to find at the end of the service that the villagers were making their way to the schoolhouse.
“What’s going on?” he asked Archie Maclean, the fisherman.
“They’ve invited us all back for coffee and biscuits,” said Archie. “You coming?”
“Not me. I’ve had a row with her. Drop into the station afterwards, Archie, and tell me what went on.”
Archie turned up an hour later. “I could do wi’ a dram, Hamish.”
“This is a police station, not a pub,” grumbled Hamish, but he got the whisky bottle out of the cupboard. “So what was it like?”
“Mean, that’s what. Cheap instant coffee and water biscuits wi’ cream cheese and nowhere to sit. Mrs. Leigh was queening around as if she was auditioning for a part in Downton Abbey. Her man was in the corner reading the Bible.”
“Naw. Looked like Ikea in a tartan rash. Plain wood furniture and a tartan carpet and tartan curtains.”
“So you thought the whole thing phony?”
“I wonder what they’re playing at?” said Hamish slowly.
“Och, the same auld thing. They’re playing at being highlanders. Won’t last.”
And when, after two weeks went by, there was suddenly no sign of the Leighs, that seemed to be the case. The curtains were drawn and no one answered the door.
The fine weather had broken. Ragged black clouds flew in from the Atlantic, bringing squalls of rain. Choppy white waves raced down the loch and sent spurts of spray up from the rocks at the end of the shingly beach. A tall heron perched on one of the rocks with its back to the wind, like a man in a tailcoat, defying the weather.
The piles of earth in the schoolhouse garden slowly turned to mud.
The wind rose to a screaming gale, and with it came torrents of rain.
Rain battered at the windows of the police station. The River Anstey was in full spate, racing higher and higher under the humpbacked bridge.
And then, with one of its usual lightning changes, the weather shifted abruptly, racing off to plague the east and leaving the whitewashed cottages of Lochdubh gleaming in watery sunlight.
By late afternoon, when the sun was already going down, heralding the long dark winter nights to come, Hamish went out for a stroll with his pets.
He was looking dreamily at the loch when a small hand tugged at his regulation jersey. He looked down and saw one of the local children, Rory McVee, staring up at him, his freckles standing out on his white face.
“What is it, sonny?” asked Hamish.
“A foot! A foot!”
Hamish hurried after the boy and then called out, “Wait there!”
He opened the gate and walked into the schoolhouse garden. “At the back!” called Rory.
Hamish told his pets to stay, unhitched a torch from his belt, and walked round the back of the schoolhouse. He shone the torch across the garden. The recent storm had channelled rivers through the earth.
In the beam of his torch he saw a foot in a sensible brogue sticking up.
His heart sank down to his boots. He knew all of a sudden that the Leighs had not left at all.
The whole circus of forensic team, police, and detectives headed by the bane of Hamish’s life, Detective Chief Inspector Blair, descended on Lochdubh.
Blair made sure that Hamish was relegated to the sidelines, preferring to listen to gossip about the dead Leighs which his policemen had collected from the villagers. Finally, it transpired that there was only one body, that of Bessie Leigh. Of her husband, there was no sign. Hamish was ordered to take Dick and scour the countryside while a watch was put on all airports, train stations, bus stations, and ports. The Leighs’ car was missing, a brand-new Audi.
Hamish decided to search the back roads, stopping at various croft houses to ask if anyone had seen an Audi driving past. He went north, guessing that any fugitive would avoid going south. At Lochinver, a man working in his garden said he had seen an Audi going at great speed past his house the day before, but he said there seemed to be several men in the car. Hamish drove on up the coast, looking always carefully to right and left, sure that the car would be dumped.
Just south of Kinlochbervie, he slammed on the brakes. “Seen something?” asked Dick.
“Over there, on the moor,” said Hamish. He started up the engine and swung the Land Rover onto the moor, bumping over tussocks of grass and heather. He stopped beside the Audi and got out. A seagull perched on the bonnet glared at him and flew away.
The car was empty, but the keys were in the ignition. “Better check the trunk,” said Hamish.
He sprang the trunk.
Inside was the bound and gagged body of Frank Leigh, his dead face twisted in a rictus of pain.
Blair was furious. This was an important case, and he didn’t want this sergeant who had taken the glory away from him so many times having anything to do with it. When he arrived, the first thing he did was to order Hamish back to his police station to write a report.
“I’d swear that wee man was tortured,” said Hamish as he drove back to Lochdubh. “What do we know about the Leighs? Nothing at all. Frank Leigh must have information about something that someone wanted.”
Maybe whoever had taken him had followed in another car. Blair would try to make sure he didn’t get any information. Hamish stopped off on the way and bought a bottle of whisky in the hope that Detective Jimmy Anderson would call on him. Jimmy was a friend and had often passed on information in the past—provided he was lubricated with whisky.
And so it turned out. He had just finished his report when Jimmy arrived, his eyes gleaming in his foxy face as Hamish put the whisky bottle and a glass on the kitchen table.
“It’s a mystery,” sighed Jimmy when he had downed his first glass. “The house had been ransacked, safe open and empty, hadn’t been blown so they must have got the code out of them, and papers strewn everywhere. But among thae papers, there aren’t any marriage lines or birth certificates, bankbooks or passports. Maybe the villains took them with them.”
“How was Mrs. Leigh killed?” asked Hamish.
“Suffocated. Plastic and duct tape wrapped round and round her head. There may be something else when the full autopsy’s been done.”
“Vicious and nasty,” said Hamish. “They seemed to have come from nowhere but, och, that didnae seem ower-strange. I mean, from time to time English folk come up to settle here, but you know how it is, if the weather doesn’t chase them off, the drink will get them. It looks as if the Leighs were villains themselves and had something some gang wanted. There was more than one of them, wasn’t there?”
“More than one size of footprint. Guess four men, but it looks as if they might have been wearing forensic boots and the whole place had been wiped clean.”
“In a wee village like this,” said Hamish, “four men drive up and break in and no one sees a damn thing…”
“No sign of a break-in,” said Jimmy. “Either the Leighs thought it was friends or someone held a gun on them.”
“Wait a bit,” said Hamish, clutching his red hair. “They could have come over the back during the night in a Land Rover or a four-by-four of some sort. Get in by the back door. Decide to take Frank Leigh off and torture him. Take him off over the moors and park. One of the men gets into the Audi and drives off sedately and meets up with them. They put Frank in the Audi and one of the men takes the four-by-four away. Did you see any tracks at the back?”
Jimmy sighed. “We didn’t get a chance. The pathologist and the forensic team have been working all day in the garden.”
“Let’s go now!”
Jimmy took a last swig of whisky and got reluctantly to his feet. “You’d better bed down in the cell tonight,” said Hamish. “You’ve had too much to drink and drive.”
“Havers. I tell you, laddie, there’s nothing at this time of night on the road to Strathbane but the odd sheep.”
Dick, Jimmy, and Hamish put on their forensic suits and boots and made their way to the back of the schoolhouse garden, shining their torches on the muddy ground.
“You see!” said Hamish excitedly. “Tyre tracks going out, just a bit there. The rain probably washed away the rest of the evidence. There’s no fence at the back. We won’t get any further tracks in the heather. But if they went the way I’m thinking, they may have gone past Angus Macdonald’s cottage. We’ll go and ask him.”
“Thon seer gives me the creeps,” said Jimmy. “We’ll take your Land Rover. I’m not walking up that steep hill to his cottage.”
Angus Macdonald opened the door to them, looking more like one of the minor prophets than ever with his long grey beard and long white gown.
He ushered them into his low-ceilinged parlour. His peat fire was smouldering and sending out puffs of grey smoke.
Hamish explained the reason for their visit.
“You havenae brought me anything,” complained the seer, who always expected some sort of gift.
“This is police work, you greedy auld man,” snapped Hamish. “You’ve heard about the murders. Did you see or hear a vehicle passing on…” He swung round to Jimmy. “When do you think Mrs. Leigh was murdered?”
“About two weeks ago at least.”
“It must ha’ been about two in the morning,” crooned the seer, closing his eyes. “I sensed black evil and went to the window and looked down the brae. A four-by-four was racing along and turned over the moor, heading down to join the road at the outside o’ the village. That would be about fifteen days ago.”
“That would be them,” said Hamish. “Thanks, Angus.”
As they made for the door, Angus said, “Oh, Mr. Anderson. If I were you, I wouldnae drive tonight.”
“Why?” demanded Jimmy.
“Something’s waiting for you on the Strathbane road.”
“I cannae see any further.”
“Maybe you should sleep here,” said Hamish after they had walked back to the police station.
“That police cell bed is as hard as buggery,” said Jimmy. “I’m off.”
He drove carefully out of the village and up onto the Strathbane road. He had to admit, the seer had scared him. Jimmy stopped the car and lit a cigarette. He was about to drive off again when, with a great rumbling sound, a landslide of mud, heather roots, gorse, grasses, and earth crashed down the road in front of him.
He slowly and carefully turned the car and drove back to the police station.
Dick and Hamish went out to check that no one and no cottage had been caught in the landslide. They were muddy and tired when they got back to the police station.
Jimmy’s snores were sounding from the police cell.
Hamish showered and got ready for bed. He was just climbing into bed, followed by his pets, when the phone in the police office began to ring.
He went through to answer it. Liz Bentley’s voice came over the line. “He’s trying to get in the door. Oh, help me! Help me! Oh, God!” There was the sound of a crash, running feet, a shot, and then silence and the line went dead.
- "Highly entertaining...Beaton's series remains as engaging as ever."—Publishers Weekly
- "This Hamish McBeth mystery is as quirky as the others. Hamish is an endearing character who coincidentally happens upon all sorts of mischief and finds himself wrapped up in the center of a murder investigation that hits close to home."—RT Times
- "Longing for escape? Tired of waiting for Brigadoon to materialize? Time for a trip to Lochdubh, the scenic, if somnolent, village in the Scottish Highlands where M. C. Beaton sets her beguiling whodunits featuring Constable Hamish Macbeth."—New York Times Book Review
- "Hamish Macbeth is that most unusual character, one to whom the reader returns because of his charming flaws. May he never get promoted."—New York Journal of Books
- "With residents and a constable so authentic, it won't be long before tourists will be seeking Lochdubh and believing in the reality of Hamish Macbeth as surely as they believed in Sherlock Holmes."—Denver Rocky Mountain News
- "Macbeth is the sort of character who slyly grows on you."—Chicago Sun-Times
- On Sale
- Feb 3, 2015
- Page Count
- 368 pages
- Grand Central Publishing