By M. C. Beaton
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Death of an Outsider: A Hamish Macbeth Mystery
The most hated man in the most dour town in Scotland is sleeping with the fishes, or-more accurately-dumped into a tank filled with crustaceans. All that remain of the murdered victim are his bones. But after the lobsters are shipped off to Britain's best restaurants, the whole affair quickly lands on the plate of Constable Hamish Macbeth.
Exiled with his dog, Towser, to the dreary outpost of Cnothan, Macbeth sorely misses his beloved Lochdubh, his formerly beloved Priscilla Halburton-Smythe, and his days of doing nothing but staring at the sheep grazing in a nearby croft. Now the lawman has to contend with a detective chief inspector who wants the modus operandi hushed up, a dark-haired lass who has an ulterior motive to seduce him, and a killer who has made mincemeat of his victim-and without doubt will strike again . . .
See, the happy moron,
He doesn't give a damn,
I wish I were a moron,
My God! Perhaps I am!
Constable Hamish Macbeth sat in the small country bus that was bearing him away from Lochdubh – away from the west coast of Sutherland, away from his police-station home. His dog, Towser, a great yellowish mongrel, put a large paw on his knee, but the policeman did not notice. The dog sighed and heaved itself up on to the seat beside him and joined his master in staring out of the window.
The bus driver was new to the job. 'Nae dugs on the seats,' he growled over his shoulder, determined not to be intimidated by Hamish's uniform. But the constable gave him a look of such vacant stupidity that the driver, a Lowland Scot who considered all Highlanders inbred, decided it was useless to pursue the matter.
Misery did make Hamish Macbeth look dull-witted. It seemed as if only a short time ago he had been happy and comfortable in his own police station in Lochdubh, and then orders had come that he was to relieve Sergeant MacGregor at Cnothan, a crofting town in the centre of Sutherland. In vain had he invented a crime wave in Lochdubh. He was told that protecting the occasional battered wife and arresting a drunk once every two months did not amount to a crime wave. He was to lock up the police station and go by bus, for Sergeant MacGregor wished his stand-in to keep his car in running order.
Hamish hated change almost as much as he hated work. He had the tenancy of some croft land next to the police station at Lochdubh, where he kept a small herd of sheep, now being looked after by a neighbour. He earned quite good money on the side from his small farming, his poaching, and the prize money he won for hill running at the Highland Games in the summer. All that he could save went to his mother and father and brothers and sisters over in Cromarty. He did not anticipate any easy pickings in Cnothan.
Crofters, or hill farmers, always need another job because usually the croft or smallholding is too small a farm to supply a livelihood. So crofters are also postmen, forestry workers, shopkeepers, and, in the rare case of Hamish Macbeth, policemen.
It was the end of January, and the north of Scotland was still in the grip of almost perpetual night. The sun rose shortly after nine in the morning, where it sulked along the horizon for a few hours before disappearing around two in the afternoon. The fields were brown and scraggly, the heather moors, dismal rain-sodden wastes, and ghostly wreaths of mist hung on the sides of the tall mountains.
There were only a few passengers on the bus. The Currie sisters, Jessie and Nessie, two spinster residents of Lochdubh, were talking in high shrill voices. 'Amn't I just telling you, Nessie?' came the voice of Jessie. 'I went over to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals at Strathbane last week and I says to the mannie, "I want a humane trap to catch the ferret that has been savaging our ducks." He gives me the trap, and he says, "You take this here humane trap, and you humanely catch your ferret, and then, if you want my advice, you will humanely club the wee bastard to death." Sich a going-on! And him supposed to be against cruelty. I have written to our Member of Parliament to complain most strongly.'
'You told me a hundred times,' grumbled Nessie. 'Maybe he was right. For all you caught in that humane trap was the minister's cat. Why don't you tell Mr Macbeth about it?'
'Him!' screeched Jessie. 'That constable is a poacher and it was probably his ferret.'
The bus jerked to a halt and the sisters alighted, still quarrelling.
Three months in Cnothan, thought Hamish, absent-mindedly scratching Towser behind the ears. They say Lochdubh is quiet, but nothing ever happens in Cnothan, and nothing ever will. Did I not have the two murders in Lochdubh?
He thought of the murder that had taken place last summer and how it appeared to have brought him closer to the love of his life, Priscilla Halburton-Smythe. But Priscilla, the daughter of a local landowner, had then left, just before Christmas, to go to London to find work. She never stayed away for very long. She might even be heading north now, and would return to Lochdubh to find him gone.
'And she will not be caring one little bit!' said Hamish suddenly and loudly. The bus driver bent over the wheel and congratulated himself on his decision to leave this crazy copper alone.
Hamish knew Cnothan and thought it must be the dullest place in the world. Although designated a town, it was about the size of a tiny English village. He remembered the inhabitants as being a close, secretive, religious bunch who considered anyone from outside an interloper.
At last, he was the only passenger left on the bus. The bus lurched and screeched around hairpin bends, finally racing out of the shadow of the tall pillared mountains to plunge down into the valley where Cnothan stood, in the middle of Sutherland.
Hamish climbed down stiffly and collected his belongings, which were packed into a haversack and an old leather suitcase. The bus departed with a roar and Hamish pushed his peaked hat back on his fiery hair and looked about him.
'High noon in Cnothan,' he muttered.
It was the lunch hour, which meant all the shops were closed and the main street was deserted. A savage wind screamed down it. Not even a piece of scrap paper was borne on the wind. The town had a scrubbed, grey, antiseptic look.
Cnothan stood on the edge of an artificial loch caused by one of the ugliest hydroelectric dams Hamish had ever seen. What you saw was what you got. There were no quaint lanes or turnings. One straight main street led down to the loch. There were four grocer's shops, which all sold pretty much the same sort of goods, a hardware, a garage, a craft shop, a hotel, a fish-and-chip shop, a butcher's, a pub, and an enormous church. The government-subsidized housing was tucked away on the other side of the loch, segregated from Cnothan's privately owned houses, which were all very small and drab and looked remarkably like the government ones.
The town was so barren, so empty, it reminded Hamish of scenes in a science-fiction movie he had once seen.
And yet he was aware of eyes watching him, eyes hidden behind the neatly drawn lace curtains.
He opened the garden gate of the bungalow nearest him, called Green Pastures, and went up and rang the brass ship's bell that hung outside the door. Silence. A plaster gnome stared at him from the garden and the wind moaned drearily.
A mail-order magazine protruded from the rubbish bin beside the door. Hamish twisted his head and read the name on it. Mrs A. MacNeill. At last he heard footsteps approaching. The door was opened a few inches on a chain and a woman's face peered through the crack, one of those sallow Spanish types of faces you find in the Highlands of Scotland.
'What is it?' she demanded.
Now Hamish knew in that instant that the woman knew exactly who he was. Her manner was too calm. For in a relatively crime-free area, the arrival of a policeman on the doorstep usually creates terror because it means news of a death or accident.
'I am Constable Macbeth,' said Hamish pleasantly, 'come to replace Mr MacGregor who is going on holiday. Where is the police station?'
'I dinnae ken,' said the woman. 'Maybe it's up the hill.'
'At the top of the main street?' asked Hamish. He knew the woman knew perfectly well where the police station was, but Hamish was an incomer, and in Cnothan, you never told incomers anything if you could help it.
'It could be, but why don't you ask someone else?' said the face at the door.
Hamish leaned against the door jamb and studied the sky. 'Aye, it iss blowing up,' he said in his soft Highland voice, which became more sibilant when he was angry or upset. 'Now, Mr MacGregor, he will be going to Florida to visit his brother, Roy. It will be hot there this time of year.'
'Aye, it will,' said the woman.
'And I call to mind he has the sister in Canada.'
The chain dropped and the door opened another few inches. 'That's Bessie,' said the woman. 'Her that is in Alberta.'
'True, true,' agreed Hamish. 'And you are Mrs MacNeill?'
'Now, how did you ken that?' asked Mrs MacNeill, opening the door wide.
'Oh, hass not everyone heard of Mrs MacNeill,' said Hamish. 'That's why I called. People are not often anxious to give directions, but I said to myself, that Mrs MacNeill, being a cosmopolitan sort of lady, would help if she could.'
Mrs MacNeill simpered awfully. 'You are asking about the police station. Yes, as I was saying, it is right at the top of the main street on the left. They are packed and ready to leave.'
'Thank you.' Hamish touched his cap and strolled off. 'Cantankerous auld bitch,' he muttered to Towser, 'but there was no point in asking anyone else, for I suppose they'll all be the same.'
At the top of the main street was a long, low, grey bungalow with the blue police lamp over an extension to the side. A small angry police sergeant was striding up and down outside.
'What kept ye?' he snapped. And then, before Hamish could open his mouth, he went on, 'Come in. Come in. But leave that dog outside. There's an old kennel at the back. It can sleep there. No dogs in the house.'
Hamish told Towser to stay and followed the sergeant into the house. The sergeant led the way through to the extension. 'Here's the desk, and don't you mess up my filing system. And there's the keys to the cell. You'll have trouble wi' Sandy Carmichael of a Saturday. Gets the horrors something dreadful.'
'If a man has the DTs, isn't it better to get him to the hospital?' asked Hamish mildly.
'Waste o' public money. Jist strap him down on the bunk and let him rave away until morning. Come ben and meet the wife.'
Hamish loped behind the bustling policeman. 'She's in the lounge,' said Sergeant MacGregor. Mrs MacGregor rose to meet them. She was a thin, wispy woman with pale eyes and enormous red hands. Hamish's pleasantries were cut short.
'I like to keep the place nice,' said Mrs Mac-Gregor. 'I don't want to come back from Florida and find the place like a tip.'
Hamish stood with his cap under his arm, his hazel eyes growing blanker by the minute. The living-room in which he stood, which had been exalted to a lounge by the MacGregors, was a long, low room with pink ruched curtains at the windows. A salmon-coloured three-piece suite, which looked as if it had been delivered that day, stared back at him in all its nylon velveteen overstuffedness. The walls were embellished with highly coloured religious pictures. A blond and blue-eyed Jesus suffered the little children to come unto him, all of them dressed in thirties school clothes and all of them remarkably Anglo-Saxon-looking. A carpet of one of the more violent Scottish tartans screamed from the floor. There was a glass coffee-table on wrought iron legs in front of the sofa, and a glass-and-wrought iron bar stood in one corner, with glass shelves behind it lit with pink fluorescent strip lighting and containing, it seemed, every funny-looking bottle ever invented. An electric heater with fake logs stood in the fireplace. In the recesses of the room were glass shelves containing a startling variety of china ornaments: acid-green jugs in the shape of fish, little girls in pastel dresses holding up their skirts, bowls of china fruit, dogs and cats with Disney smiles on their highly glazed faces, and rows of miniature spun-glass objects, of the type of spun glass you see at fairgrounds. On a side table lay a large Victorian Bible, open at a page where there was a steel engraving of an epicene angel with scaly wings throwing very small anguished people in loincloths down into a fiery pit.
Mrs MacGregor then led him from one frilly overfurnished bedroom to another. The bungalow boasted five.
'Where's the kitchen?' asked Hamish, finding his voice.
She trotted on her high heels in front of him, head down, as if charging. 'In here,' she said. Hamish stifled a sigh of relief. The kitchen was functional and had every labour-saving device imaginable. The floor was tiled, and there was a good-sized table. He decided to shut off that terrible lounge for the duration of his stay.
'Have you got television?' he asked.
Mrs MacGregor looked up at the tall, gangling policeman with the fiery-red hair and hazel eyes. 'No, we don't believe in it,' she said sharply, as if debating the existence of little green men on Mars.
'I see you have the central heating,' remarked Hamish.
'Yes, but we have double glazing on the windows, so you'll find you hardly need it. It's on a timer. Two hours in the morning and two in the evening, and that's enough for anyone.'
'Well, if I could chust haff a word with your good man …' began Hamish, looking around for the police sergeant, who had disappeared during the tour of the house.
'There's no time, no time,' she said, seizing a bulging handbag from the kitchen counter. 'Geordie's waiting with the taxi.'
Hamish looked at her in amazement. He wanted to ask MacGregor about duties, about where the keys to the car were kept, about how far his beat extended, about the villains of the parish. But he was sure the MacGregors were cursed with what he had rapidly come to think of as Cnothanitis: Don't tell anyone anything.
He followed her out to the taxi. 'So you'll be away three months, then?' said Hamish, leaning on MacGregor's side of the taxi. The sergeant stared straight ahead. 'If you'd get out of the road, Constable,' he said, 'we might be able to get to the train on time.'
'Wait a bit,' said Hamish. 'Where are the keys to your car?'
'In it,' snapped MacGregor. He nodded to the taxi driver and the cab moved off.
'Good riddance,' grumbled Hamish. He jerked his head to Towser, who followed him into the kitchen. Hamish took the central heating off the timing regulator and turned up the thermostat as high as it would go and started to examine the contents of the kitchen cupboards to see if there was any coffee. But the cupboards were bare; not even a packet of salt.
'You know, Towser,' said Hamish Macbeth, 'I hope they get hijacked to Cuba.'
He went through to the office and examined the files in a tall filing cabinet in the corner. It was full of sheep-dip papers and little else. Not dipping one's sheep seemed to be considered the major criminal offence in Cnothan. There came a crashing and rattling from the kitchen. He ran through. Towser had his large head in one of the bottom cupboards, which Hamish had left open, and was rummaging through the pots and pans.
'Get out of it, you daft animal,' said Hamish. 'I'll just away to the shops and see if I can get us some food.' He searched until he found a bowl and filled it with water for the dog. Then he ambled out of the house and down the main street. The lunch hour was over and the shops were open again. People were standing in little knots, gossiping, and as he passed, they stopped talking and stared at him with curious and unfriendly eyes.
He bought two bags of groceries and then made his way down to the garage, which also sold household goods. He asked if he could rent a television set and was curtly told by a small man whose face was set in lines of perpetual outrage that no, he could not. To the shopkeeper's irritation, Hamish did not go away, but kept repeating his question in a half-witted sort of manner, looking around the other customers as he did so.
A small, thin, birdlike woman with sharp features came up to him. 'You will be Mr MacGregor's replacement,' she said briskly. 'I am Mrs Struthers, the minister's wife. Can we expect to see you at church on Sunday?'
'Oh, yes,' said Hamish amiably. 'My name's Macbeth. I am a member of the Free Church myself.' Hamish had taken careful note of the denomination of Cnothan's main church. He was not a member of the Free Church, or, indeed, of any other church.
'Well, that's splendid!' cried Mrs Struthers. 'Now, I heard you asking about a telly. We have a black-and-white one we are going to raffle at Easter. I could lend you that.'
'Very kind of you,' said Hamish, smiling down at her. That smile changed his whole face. It was a smile of singular sweetness.
In no time at all, Hamish was resting his boots on a footstool in the manse and being plied with tea and scones.
'I am thinking, Mrs Struthers,' said Hamish, 'that it will be a wee bit difficult for me here. They never did like incomers in Cnothan.'
'Well …' said Mrs Struthers cautiously, going to the window to make sure there was no sign of her husband returning from his rounds, her husband having preached about the iniquities of gossip the previous Sunday, 'people here are very nice when you get to know them. All it takes is a few years.'
'I haven't got the time,' said Hamish. 'I'm only here for three months.'
'They'll come around quicker,' she said, 'because they're all united against a really nasty incomer.' She looked around and her voice dropped to a whisper. 'An Englishman.'
'Oh dear,' said Hamish encouragingly. 'They do not like the English?'
'It's not that,' said the minister's wife. 'It's just he's such a know-all. It's a crofting community round here. They don't like being told how to run things, particularly by an outsider, but Mr Mainwaring, that's his name, will tell them what they are doing wrong. Not in a nasty way, mind. But as if he's laughing at them. His poor wife. He won't even leave her to run the house, but supervises her cooking. He even chooses her clothes for her!'
'The fiend!' cried Hamish, registering extreme shock, very gratifying to the minis-ter's wife, who had not had such an appreciative audience in years.
'Have another scone, Constable. Yes, she is a member of the Women's Rural Institute and gave us a very good lecture on how to dry and arrange flowers. Most stimulating. She was doing very well, but he walked in at the question time and started grilling her – his own wife!'
'Yes. And she turned as red as fire and began to stammer. Wicked it was. And …'
The sound of a car crunching on the gravel outside made Mrs Struthers turn as red as fire herself. 'I had better go,' said Hamish, not wishing to waste time talking to the minister.
But as he rose to his feet, Mr Struthers, the minister, came in. He had a pale face and pale-blue eyes and a thin mouth. His tow-coloured hair was carefully sleeked down. Mrs Struthers, rather flustered, made the introductions. 'I trust you have not been gossiping,' said the minister severely.
'On the contrary,' said Hamish, 'your good lady has just been encouraging me to visit the kirk on the Sabbath. She was telling me all about your powerful sermons.'
He shook hands with the minister, collected the small television set, and said goodbye. The minister's wife went to the window and watched the tall figure of the constable as he walked away with a rather dreamy smile on her face. 'Such a fine man,' she murmured.
Hamish ambled up the main street, comfortably full of tea and home-made scones and jam. At the top, opposite the police station, he noticed an old cottage, set a little back from the road, with a sign outside which said, PAINTINGS FOR SALE.
There was what appeared to be a teenage girl digging the garden. As if aware she was being watched, she turned around, saw Hamish, and came up to the garden gate. Her figure was as trim and youthful as a girl's, but Hamish judged her to be about the same age as himself – in her thirties. She had an elfin face, a wide smile, and a mop of black curls.
'Jenny Lovelace,' she said, holding out a small, earthy hand.
'Hamish Macbeth,' said Hamish, smiling down at her. 'Is that an American accent?'
'And what are you doing in the wilds of Sutherland, Miss Lovelace?' asked Hamish, putting down the television set and two grocery bags on the ground and shaking her hand before leaning comfortably on the gate.
'I wanted peace and quiet. I came over on a holiday and stayed. I've been here four years.'
'And do you like it? I gather they don't like incomers here.'
'Oh, I get along all right. I like being alone.'
'I get the idea life has been easier for the incomers since a certain Mr Mainwaring arrived. He sounds like a right pain in the neck.'
Jenny's face hardened. 'Mr Mainwaring is about the only civilized person in the whole of this place,' she said sharply.
'I always go and put my big foot in it,' said Hamish sadly. 'It comes from not being in the way of talking to pretty girls. My mind gets all thumbs.'
Jenny giggled. 'Your mind doesn't have thumbs,' she said. 'Gracious! What's that terrible howling coming from the police station?'
'It's my dog, Towser. He wants his food, and when he wants his food, he screams for it. I'd best be on my way.'
'Drop round for a coffee,' said Jenny, turning away, as Hamish stooped to pick up his belongings.
'When?' Hamish called after her.
'Any time you like.'
'I'll drop by the morn,' called Hamish, feeling suddenly happy.
Towser's howling stopped when he saw his master. He lay on the kitchen floor and stared at Hamish with sorrowful eyes. 'I've got some liver for ye,' grumbled Hamish, pouring oil in a pan. 'See, low cholesterol oil, good for your fat heart.' The doorbell on the police-station extension sounded shrilly. Hamish made a move to answer it. Towser started to howl again.
Hamish ran and wrenched open the door. A middle-aged man stood on the step. He was tall, well-built, and had a large round head and neat prim features, small round eyes, a button of a nose, and a small primped mouth. Although he must have been nearly sixty, he had a thick head of brown hair, worn long so that it curled over his collar. He was wearing a waxed coat with a corduroy collar, gabardine breeches, lovat stockings, and brogues – and a red pullover. English, thought Hamish. They aye love thae red pullovers.
'Come in and I'll be with you in a minute,' gabbled Hamish as Towser's howling rose to a crescendo. Hamish darted back to the kitchen and put the liver in the frying pan. When it was ready, he cut it up into small pieces, arranged it on a dish, and put it in front of the dog.
'So we've lost one fool of a policeman to find another,' said a sarcastic upper-class-accented voice from the doorway of the kitchen. 'Let me tell you, Constable, that I am going to write to your superiors and say that feeding good butcher's meat to a spoilt mongrel takes precedence in what's left of your mind over solving crime.'
'Sit yerself down, Mr Mainwaring,' said Hamish, 'and I'll attend to you. I havenae had time to draw breath since I arrived.'
'How do you know my name?'
'Your reputation goes before you,' said Hamish. 'Now, we can stand here exchanging insults or we can get down to business. What's the crime?'
William Mainwaring drew out a kitchen chair and sat down and looked up at the tall policeman. He took out a pipe and lit it with precise, fussy movements. Hamish waited patiently.
'You ask me what the crime is?' said Main-waring finally. 'Well, I'll tell you in one word:
There's one parish church for all the people,
whatsoever may be their ranks in life or their
Except for one damp, small, dark, freezing cold,
little Methodist chapel of ease,
And close by the churchyard there's a stonemason's
yard, that when the time is seasonable.
Will furnish with afflictions sore and marble
- On Sale
- Apr 30, 2013
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Grand Central Publishing