By M. C. Beaton
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Death of a Traveling Man: A Hamish Macbeth Mystery
Lochdubh constable Hamish Macbeth's life is going to pot. He has-horrors!-been promoted, his new boss is a dunce, and a self-proclaimed traveler named Sean and his girlfriend have parked their rusty eyesore of a van in the middle of the village. Hamish smells trouble, and he's right as usual. The doctor's drugs go missing. Money vanishes. Neighbors suddenly become unneighborly. The tension only explodes after the itinerant Sean is found brutally beaten to death. Suspicion quickly falls on his girlfriend, but with nobody willing to talk, the canny Hamish faces the tough task of worming the facts out of the villagers. As he uncovers a bizarre story around the murdered traveler, Macbeth knows he must find the truth soon, before the killer gets away for good.
From his brimstone bed, at break of day,
A-walking the Devil is gone,
To look at his little snug farm of the World,
And see how his stock went on.
– Robert Southey
Police Sergeant Hamish Macbeth was never to forget that fine spring day.
It was the day the devil came to Lochdubh.
Hamish was strolling along the waterfront of the tiny Highland village, glad to be free for a brief spell from the bloodhound efficiency of his sidekick, PC Willie Lamont. Although his promotion to sergeant had meant more pay, it had also meant that this eager beaver of a policeman had been thrust upon him, interfering with Hamish's easygoing life and home. Willie was also a cleanliness fanatic and Hamish was tired of living with the all-pervading smell of disinfectant.
The day was fine and warm, unusual for March in the Highlands. Snow glittered on the twin peaks of the mountains which soared above the village, and the sea loch lay calm and placid in the morning sun. Peat smoke rose from cottage chimneys, seagulls swooped and dived.
And then Hamish saw it, parked in front of what was once the Lochdubh Hotel, still up for sale. It was a battered old bus which had been converted into a travelling home. At one time in its career the bus had been painted psychedelic colours but even these had faded into pastel streaks overlaid with brown trails of rust.
Hamish went up to it and knocked at the door. The door jerked open. A tall man smiled down at Hamish. He was incredibly handsome. Jet black hair grew to a widow's peak on his forehead. His eyes were green, grass-green without a fleck of brown in them. His face and arms were tanned golden-brown. He was wearing a blue-and-white checked shirt and blue jeans moulded to long muscular legs.
'You are not allowed to park here,' said Hamish, wondering why he should take such an instant and violent dislike to this handsome man.
'I am a traveller,' the man said in a cultivated English voice. 'My name is Sean Gourlay.'
Hamish's face hardened. Sean would have been called a hippie not so long ago and a beatnik a long time before that. Now he belonged to that unlovable crowd who euphemistically referred to themselves as travellers, the itinerant race who descended on places like Stonehenge complete with battered unlicensed vehicles, dirt, drugs and dogs. To some charitable souls who had never had their sheep ripped apart by dogs or their land turned into a sewer, the travellers carried with them an aura of romance, like the gypsies they pretended to be. Living on the dole, they travelled aimlessly from place to place. The reason these nomadic layabouts claimed to be 'travellers' or sometimes 'new travellers' was that they demanded the privileges and camping rights given to gypsies, privileges often dating back centuries. Hamish was tolerant of gypsies and knew them all. He had no time for these so-called travellers.
'You are not a gypsy,' said Hamish, 'and therefore have no rights. This is private property.'
A girl squeezed in beside Sean at the doorway. She had straggly sun-bleached hair, a small dirty face, and a thin, flat-chested body.
'Get lost, pig,' she said, in the guttural accents of Glasgow.
Hamish ignored her. He addressed himself to Sean. 'I can direct you to a place up on the moors where you can camp.'
Sean gave him a blinding smile. 'But I like this village,' he said.
'And so do I,' retorted Hamish, 'which is why I am ordering you to move on. Let's see your driving licence.'
A stream of four-letter words erupted from the girl. Sean dug into the back pocket of his jeans and produced a clean new driving licence, issued only a few months ago. The girl had now jumped down from the bus. She was very small in stature. She leapt up and down in front of Hamish, cursing and yelling. 'Pig' was the politest epithet. There was a peculiar, almost sinister magnetism about Sean. He paid no attention to the girl whatsoever and Hamish found himself doing the same. He examined Sean's insurance and the road-tax disc on the bus. Both were in order.
He handed back the papers and said firmly, 'Now, get moving.'
Sean grinned. 'Certainly, officer.'
The girl told Hamish to perform an impossible anatomical act on himself and then suddenly bolted back into the bus, like some small hairy animal darting into its lair.
'Pay no attention to Cheryl,' said Sean lazily. 'Rather an excitable type.'
'Her full name?' snapped Hamish.
'Cheryl Higgins, like the professor.'
Hamish waited until Sean had climbed into the driver's seat, and the bus clattered off. He stood with his hands on his hips and watched it go. Then he shook his head. He should not have allowed Sean to upset him. If they parked up on the moors, they would not stay long. He knew the travellers preferred to be with their own kind. It was unusual to find just two of them and one old bus. This fine weather was unusual. Soon there would be the 'lambing blizzard', that last vicious fall of snow which always arrived in the late spring to plague the shepherds.
His mind turned to the problem of PC Willie Lamont. He would not have minded at all having a helper. All policemen, however crime-free the area they lived in, were landed with a lot of paperwork. Hamish regarded the police station as his home, his own home, and he wished he could manage to get Willie to live somewhere else in the village. As he ambled back again in the direction of the police station, he saw that his dog, Towser, was once more tied up in the garden. Poor Towser was always being banished outside these days, thought Hamish. Willie must be scrubbing the floors … again. He decided to go up to Tommel Castle Hotel where his friend, Priscilla Halburton-Smythe, was working in the hotel gift shop. Priscilla's father, Colonel Halburton-Smythe, had turned his home into a hotel to recoup the vast losses he had made by trusting his money to a charlatan. The hotel had prospered, having excellent shooting and fishing and high enough charges to appeal to the snobbish and the parvenues who thought the colonel's high-handed manner with his guests was a sign of true breeding, rather than the mixture of arrogance and sheer bloody-mindedness that it, in truth, was.
As he unhitched Towser and led the dog to the police Land Rover, Hamish reflected sadly that having Willie in the police station was like being married to a nag of a wife. Archie Maclean, the fisherman, spent most of his time either in the pub or sitting on the harbour wall to get away from his wife's perpetual cleaning.
The new gift shop was a pleasant place, full of the very best of Scottish goods: Edinburgh crystal, Caithness glass, silver jewellery, fine woollens, along with a multitude of cheaper goods for the tourist to take home – shortbread, locally made fudge, guidebooks, postcards, souvenir pens and pencils, and stuffed toys.
Priscilla was wearing her new tourist uniform of frilled white shirt and short tartan skirt. Hamish wondered what the tourists made of her, this graceful woman with the smooth blonde hair and the superb figure who looked as if she had stepped out of the pages of Vogue.
She saw Hamish and smiled. 'I've had a coffee machine put in here. You must have got word of it.'
'I am not mooching,' said Hamish, who nearly always was. 'But I will have the coffee, nonetheless.'
'What brings you here, Sergeant?' asked Priscilla as she poured two mugs of coffee. She never tired of calling him Sergeant these days, he reflected. He knew she took his promotion as a sign that he had finally come to his senses and decided to be ambitious.
'It's Willie,' he said. 'Cleaning again. I cannae call my house my own.'
'You're too easygoing, Hamish,' said Priscilla firmly. 'You should put your foot down. Find him something to do.'
'Well, I was thinking of phoning the superintendent and pointing out that there is not the work here for two men.'
'And then what would happen?' demanded Priscilla. 'The police station would be closed down and you would be moved to Strathbane and you would hate that. I mean, it's not as if you want to be demoted, is it?'
'As a matter o' fact that waud suit me chust fine,' said Hamish, whose Highland accent became more marked when he was upset. 'I had the good life afore the last murder and I should ha' let Blair take the credit for solving it.' Detective Chief Inspector Blair was the bane of Hamish's life, but in the past he had let him take the credit for solving cases, not wanting any promotion to disturb his calm life. But at the end of the last case, during which Blair had been more than usually obnoxious, Hamish had cracked and told the superintendent that he had solved the case himself and so the result had been promotion to sergeant – and the arrival of Willie.
'Oh, Hamish, you're just saying that.'
'No, I am not. I had the fine life afore I got these wretched stripes. I want Willie and his scrubbing brush out and I don't know how tae go about it.'
She sat down on a high stool behind the counter and crossed her legs. They were excellent legs, thought Hamish not for the first time, but he wasn't going to be daft enough to fall in love with her again. He had enough trouble in his life with Willie.
'Look,' said Priscilla, 'here's something we could do.'
Hamish brightened at the sound of that 'we'. He found another stool and perched on it, facing her over the glass counter. There was a sample bottle of a scent called Mist o' the Highlands. He sprayed some on his hand and sniffed it. It was very strong and very sweet and cloying.
'Pooh,' he said, scrubbing at his hand.
'Can't you leave any free sample alone?' said Priscilla. 'You'll smell of that stuff for weeks. Believe me, I've tried it. It's immune to soap and water. Now about Willie. He's a bachelor, right?'
'Aye, and likely to remain so,' said Hamish with feeling. 'What woman can compete with all thon cleaning and polishing and cooking? Besides, he's a terribly finicky eater.'
'That doesn't matter. An awful lot of people are finicky eaters, and there are a lot of women who would be delighted to have a housekeeper.'
'What are you getting at?'
'Find him a wife,' said Priscilla. 'If he gets married, there's no room in that station for a married couple. They'd need to find him new quarters.'
Hamish's face brightened. Then it fell. 'Who is there who would even look at the beast?'
'We've got a new hotel receptionist. Doris Ward's her name. Prissy, fussy, competent, not all that good-looking. Invite Willie up to the castle tonight and we'll all have dinner. It'll start his meeting females anyway.'
'All right,' said Hamish. 'I'll try anything.'
He was driving back slowly through the village but he slowed to a mere crawl as he saw a vision standing outside Napoli, the new Italian restaurant. The vision was shaking out a duster. She had an old-fashioned figure, that is, she had a voluptuous bust, a tiny waist and a saucy plump backside. She was wearing a short, skimpy black dress over which was tied a frilly checked apron. She had a heart-shaped face, a tiny nose and a wide soft mouth. Her hair was a riot of dusky curls. She was wearing very high heels and she had firm-muscled calves, like you see on dancer's legs.
Must be one of old Ferrari's relatives, thought Hamish. Mr Ferrari was a Scottish Italian, that is, his father had settled in Scotland at the turn of the century. From his father, Mr Ferrari had inherited a prosperous restaurant in Edinburgh, but having retired and turned it over to his sons, he found time lying heavy on his hands. And so he had started the restaurant in Lochdubh and staffed it with remoter relatives from Italy.
Hamish arrived at the police station in time to meet Willie, who had his uniform on and was preparing to leave.
'Where are you off to?' asked Hamish.
'There's gypsies up on the field at the back o' the manse,' said Willie.
Hamish's eyes narrowed. 'An old bus?'
'I'll come with you. They're not gypsies but travellers.'
'Commercial travellers, sir?'
'No, I'll tell you about them as we go along.'
Sure enough, there was the bus in the grassy field behind the manse.
Followed by Willie, Hamish knocked at the door. Cheryl opened it. 'Two pigs,' she said in disgust.
'Here now,' said Willie, 'there is no reason at all, at all to be using nasty words.'
'Go screw,' said Cheryl, and then, suddenly, she covered her face with her hands and began to sob pathetically, saying between her sobs, 'Why are you always persecuting me?'
'And just what do you think you are doing, Sergeant?' demanded a wrathful voice from behind Hamish. He swung round. Mrs Wellington, the minister's wife, stood there, and behind her was Sean, rocking lightly on his heels, a mocking look in his green eyes.
'I am moving these people on,' said Hamish.
'You have no right to do any such thing,' said Mrs Wellington wrathfully. 'I gave this young man permission to put his bus here, and that is all there is to it. These poor young people are hounded from pillar to post by bureaucratic monsters like yourself, Hamish Macbeth. These people of the road should be admired for their life-style.'
If you have given your permission,' said Hamish, 'then that is all right. But I shall be calling on you later.'
As he walked off with Willie, he heard behind him Sean's light, amused laugh. 'Get on to Strathbane,' said Hamish to Willie, 'and see if they have anything on their files on Sean Gourlay and Cheryl Higgins.'
'Herself was a bit dirty-mouthed,' said Willie, 'but he seemed nice enough.'
'He's as bad as she is and I have the feeling that he's dangerous.'
'Well, now, sir, I am in the way of being a student o' human nature,' said Willie. 'I took a correspending course in the psychotry.'
'A correspondence course in psychiatry,' corrected Hamish, who always felt he was fighting a losing battle against Willie's mistakes and malapropisms.
'Didn't I just say that?' demanded Willie, aggrieved. 'Well, I would say from my experience that Sean Gourlay is just a regular, normal fellow.'
'Never mind. Check up on him anyway,' said Hamish. 'And by the way, we're invited up to the castle for dinner tonight by Miss Halburton-Smythe.'
'But we cannae dae that, sir,' said Willie patiently. 'That waud mean two of us off duty.'
'We leave a note on the door o' the police station to say where we are,' said Hamish, striving for patience. 'What's going to happen in Lochdubh? The same as all the nights since you've been here … nothing at all.'
'Well, I suppose …' Willie's voice trailed away and his mouth fell open. They had arrived outside the Italian restaurant and the beauty Hamish had seen earlier was down on her knees scrubbing the restaurant steps, her bottom waggling provocatively with each movement of the scrubbing brush. 'That's something you dinnae say these days,' said Willie, staring in admiration.
'What? A bum like that?' asked Hamish.
'No, a woman down on her knees scrubbing. I thought they were exstinked.'
'Nice day,' said Hamish loudly, raising his cap. The girl turned and looked up and then got to her feet, wiping her soapy hands on her apron.
'Just arrived?' pursued Hamish.
'Yes. Mr Ferrari send for me last month.'
'But you knew English already?'
'My mother, she is from Edinburgh. She go back to the village to get married. The village is outside Naples.'
She held out a small work-reddened hand. 'I am Sergeant Hamish Macbeth and this is PC Willie Lamont,' said Hamish, 'and you are …?'
'And what do you think of Lochdubh, Miss Livia?'
'It is … very quiet,' she said, her eyes looking beyond them to the still loch.
A group of fishermen and forestry workers came along and stopped short, all of them staring at Lucia in silent admiration.
'I feel it is the duty o' the police tae look after newcomers to the village,' said Willie suddenly. 'Perhaps you waud allow me to show you around the place, Miss Livia?'
'I am not sure,' she said cautiously. 'I would have to ask Mr Ferrari. I work every evening.'
'Aye, well, just you ask him,' said Willie. 'You've left the corners o' the steps dirty. That'll no' do. Wait and I'll show ye.'
'For heffen's sake,' muttered Hamish, his Highland accent becoming more sibilant. But Willie was already down on his knees, scrubbing busily at the step.
'I'll say good day to you, Miss Livia,' said Hamish stiffly. 'Some of us haff the police work to do.'
Willie scrubbed on, unheeding.
Hamish walked gloomily back to the police station. In the small kitchen, everything gleamed and shone and the air smelled strongly of bleach and disinfectant. He made a cup of coffee and carried it through to the police station and sat down at the desk. He phoned Strathbane and spoke to Detective Jimmy Anderson, giving him the names of Cheryl and Sean. The address on Sean's driving licence had been a Glasgow one and Hamish remembered it clearly, Flat B, 189, Lombard Crescent. Anderson said he would check up on it and get back to him as soon as possible.
Hamish then went out again and along to the manse. The minister was alone in his study. 'Oh, Hamish,' he said, pushing away the sermon he had been working on, 'what brings you here?'
'It's those layabouts and their bus.'
'They are doing no harm, Hamish. The field is not used for anything. It's a small patch of weedy grass and nettles. Why shouldn't these young people have the use of it?'
'There's something about them I don't like. Besides, I'm surprised at you, Mr Wellington, for encouraging that kind of layabout.'
'Now, Hamish,' said the minister mildly, 'you know jobs are few and far between.'
'So why don't they go somewhere where there are jobs?' demanded Hamish, exasperated.
The minister chewed the end of his pencil in an abstracted way and then put it down. 'There is something appealing about their way of life,' he said. 'I sometimes think it would be wonderful to just take off and travel around without any responsibilities whatsoever.'
'And then who would pay the taxes?'
'They're both young,' said Mr Wellington comfortably. 'Time enough yet for them to grow up and become responsible.'
'Sean Gourlay is, I should guess, in his late twenties,' pointed out Hamish, 'and the girl has a gutter mouth.'
'Come now, she was charming to me.'
'Well, I feel you are being conned,' said Hamish. 'Don't say I didn't warn you!'
Hamish and Willie drove up to Tommel Castle Hotel that evening. Hamish climbed down from the Land Rover and sniffed the soft air with pleasure. The light evenings were back. Gone was the long dark tunnel of winter. A faint breeze blew in from the moors, scented with wild thyme. And then one of the castle cars, driven by a young woman, drove up and began to reverse to park next to the police Land Rover.
'Wait a minute,' shouted Willie, moving purposefully forward. 'You're no' doing it right. Hard left. Now straighten up! Straighten up. Dear God, lassie, how did you ever pass your test? Don't you know how to straighten up?'
Face scarlet with a mixture of fury and mortification, the woman parked at an angle and then climbed out and slammed the car door.
Willie shook his head. 'Women drivers,' he said. 'You'll need to do better than that.'
She gave him an angry look and walked off into the hotel without a word.
'Stop being Mr Know-All,' said Hamish. 'She'd probably haff done chust fine if you had left her alone. Now forget you're a cop, and try to be charming.'
Suddenly nervous, Willie tugged at his tie. 'Do I look all right, sir?'
'Yes, yes, just watch that mouth of yours.'
Priscilla met them in the entrance hall. 'Doris is waiting for us in the bar,' she said. 'I told her to get herself a drink and settle down. Some fool of a man was trying to tell her how to park.'
Hamish groaned inwardly. Doris Ward was a plain young woman with thick glasses and a rather rabbity mouth. She was wearing a blouse and skirt and a tartan waistcoat. She shook hands with Willie and Hamish and then said to Willie, 'I should have known you were a bobby.'
'Sorry about that,' said Willie awkwardly after a nudge in the ribs from Hamish's elbow. 'Forgot I was off duty.'
'I am sure you have more to do when you are on duty,' said Doris, 'than hector women drivers.'
'You're English, aren't you?' said Hamish, desperate to change the conversation. 'Thanks, Priscilla, I'll have any sort of soft drink, but Willie here will have a whisky.'
'Yes, I'm English,' said Doris. 'It's all very remote up here, isn't it?'
Everyone agreed that, yes, it was remote and then there was a heavy silence.
'Willie here is from the city, Strathbane,' said Hamish at last. 'He's finding it difficult to get used to village ways.'
'Do you have many friends in the village?' Doris asked Willie politely.
'No, not in Lochdubh,' said Willie, 'but I have a cliché of friends in Strathbane.'
'Clique,' moaned Hamish under his breath.
'Mind you,' said Willie, becoming expansive, 'I have always wanted to travel. I have an aunt in America I could go and see.'
'Which part of America?' asked Doris.
'She lives in a condom in San Francisco.'
Doris sniggered. 'Well, in these AIDS-ridden days, that's a very safe place to live.'
Willie looked at her, puzzled, and then his face cleared. 'Oh, aye, them condoms have secured cameras and guards and things like that.'
'Do you want to travel yourself, Doris?' asked Hamish.
'Oh, I don't know.' Behind her thick glasses, her eyes sent him a flirtatious look. 'I might settle for marriage.'
'Quite right too,' said Willie heartily. 'I must say, it is refreshing to meet the woman these days who disnae go in for all this fenimist rubbish.'
'You mean feminist,' corrected Doris. 'If you are going to criticize anything, at least pronounce it properly. Do you mean all women should settle for marriage and babies?'
'Why not?' demanded Willie, giving her a tolerant smile. 'That's what they're built for.'
'You're out of the Dark Ages,' said Priscilla smoothly. 'Dinner should be ready now. Carry your drinks through.'
'Get her to talk about herself,' hissed Hamish in Willie's ear as they walked towards the dining room.
But no sooner were they seated and waiting for the first course to be served than Doris selected a cigarette from a packet and lit up.
'Do you know you are ruining your lungs?' demanded Willie. 'That stuff's a killer and bad for the skin, too. I can already see it has –'
'What are we haffing for dinner?' said Hamish, his voice suddenly very loud and strained.
- On Sale
- Apr 30, 2013
- Page Count
- 272 pages
- Grand Central Publishing