Authors: M. C. Beaton
Copyright © 2008 by Marion Chesney
All rights reserved. Except as permitted under the U.S. Copyright Act of 1976, no part of this publication may be reproduced, distributed, or transmitted in any form or by any means, or stored in a database or retrieval system, without the prior written permission of the publisher.
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Previous Hamish Macbeth Mysteries by M. C. Beaton
Death of a Maid
Death of a Dreamer
Death of a Bore
Death of a Poison Pen
Death of a Celebrity
Death of a Dustman
Death of an Addict
A Highland Christmas
Death of a Scriptwriter
Death of a Dentist
Death of a Macho Man
Death of a Nag
Death of a Charming Man
Death of a Gossip
Death of a Cad
Death of an Outsider
Death of a Perfect Wife
Death of a Hussy
Death of a Snob
Death of a Prankster
Death of a Glutton
Death of a Travelling Man
To Leslie Caron
The villages of Lochdubh, Grianach, and Braikie, and the town of Strathbane, are figments of the author’s imagination, as are all characters in this book,who bear no relation to anyone living or dead.
There is a lady sweet and kind,Was never face so pleased my mind;I did but see her passing by,And yet I love her till I die.
The English who settle in the north of Scotland sometimes find they are not welcome. There is something in the Celtic character that delights in historical grudges. But the exception to the norm was certainly Mrs. Margaret Gentle. Gentle in name, gentle in nature, said everyone who came across her.
“Now, there’s a real lady for you,” they would murmur as she drifted along the waterfront of Lochdubh in the county of Sutherland, bestowing gracious smiles on anyone she met.
Lavender was her favourite colour. And she wore hats! Dainty straws in summer and sensible felt in winter, and always gloves on her small hands.
No one knew her age, but she was considered to be much older than her looks because she had a son in his late forties and a daughter perhaps a year or two younger. She had silvery white hair, blue eyes, and a small round face, carefully made up. Her small mouth was usually curved in the sort of half smile one sees on classical statues.
She had bought an old mock castle outside Braikie. It stood on the edge of the cliffs, a tall square building with two turrets. Mrs. Gentle’s afternoon tea parties were in great demand. For some reason, she preferred to shop in the village of Lochdubh which only boasted one general store and post office rather than favouring the selection of shops in Braikie.
Perhaps the only person who did not like her was Hamish Macbeth, the local policeman. He said she made his skin crawl, but no one would listen to him. The Currie twins, village spinsters, shook their heads and said that it was high time he married because he had turned against all women.
Mrs. Gentle had moved to the Highlands about a year ago. Hamish had waited until she was settled in and then called on her.
As he had approached the castle, he had heard voices coming from the garden at the back and ambled around the side.
His first sight of Mrs. Gentle was not a favourable one. She was berating a tall, awkward-looking woman whom he soon learned was her daughter. “Really, Sarah,” she was saying, her voice shrill, “it’s not my fault that Allan divorced you. I mean, take a look in the mirror. Who’d want you?”
Hamish was about to beat a retreat, but she saw him before he could. Immediately her whole manner went through a lightning change.
She tripped daintily forward to meet him. She was wearing a long lavender skirt and a lavender chiffon blouse. On her head was a little straw hat embellished with silk violets.
“Our local bobby,” she trilled. “Please come inside. Will you have some tea? Isn’t it hot? I didn’t think it could get as hot as this in the north of Scotland.”
“I’ve come at a bad time,” said Hamish.
“Oh, nonsense. Children, you know. They’d break your heart.” Her daughter had disappeared. Mrs. Gentle hooked her arm in his and led him into the cool of the old building. Hamish remembered hearing it was a sort of folly built in the nineteenth century by a coal-mine owner. It was perilously near the edge of the cliffs, and Hamish shrewdly guessed that she had probably managed to buy it for a very reasonable price.
The drawing room was country-house elegant with graceful antique furniture and paintings in gilt frames on the walls. She urged him to sit down and rang a little silver bell. A tall, blonde, statuesque girl appeared. “Tea, please,” ordered Mrs. Gentle.
“Is that one of your family?” asked Hamish.
Again that trill of laughter. “My dear man, do I look as if I could have given birth to a Brunhild like that? That’s my maid. I think she’s from Slovenia or Slovakia or one of those outlandish places. I got her through an agency in Inverness. Now tell me all about yourself.”
Hamish suppressed a frisson of dislike. Perhaps, he thought as he chatted amiably about his police work, it was because of that remark to her daughter he had overheard.
Tea was served; a splendid tea. Hamish felt too uncomfortable to enjoy it. He later described his experience to his friend Angela Brodie, the doctor’s wife, as “drowning in syrup.”
He left as soon as he could. As he stood outside the front door, he noticed that the lace on one of his large regulation boots was untied. He bent down to fix it.
Behind him, inside the house, he heard a voice he recognised as Sarah’s. “Well, have you finished oiling all over the village bobby?”
Then came Mrs. Gentle’s voice: “Such a clown, my dear. Improbable red hair and about seven feet tall. These highlanders!”
“If you don’t like highlanders, you should get back down south, Mother. Of course you can’t, can you? Can’t play lady of the manor down there.”
Hamish walked off slowly. He felt uneasy. He had felt it before when some incomer had started to spread an evil atmosphere around the peace of the Highlands.
“Evil!” exclaimed Angela Brodie when he met her later on a sunny afternoon on the waterfront. “That’s a bit strong. Everyone adores her. Do you know, she has just promised a large sum of money to the church to help with the restoration of the roof ?”
“I still don’t like her,” grumbled Hamish. His cat, Sonsie, and his dog, Lugs, lay at his feet, panting in the sunshine. “I should get the animals indoors where it’s cool.”
“Have you heard from Elspeth?” Elspeth Grant, once a local reporter, was now working at a Glasgow newspaper: Hamish had toyed too long with the idea of marrying her so she had become engaged to a fellow reporter. But the reporter had jilted her on their wedding day.
“No,” said Hamish curtly.
Hamish moved off. He liked Angela but he wished she would not ferret about in his love life—or lack of it. He had once been engaged to Priscilla Halburton-Smythe, daughter of a colonel who ran the local hotel, but had ended the engagement because of her chilly nature.
In the comparative coolness of the police station, where he also lived, he suddenly felt he was being overimaginative. Mrs. Gentle was, in his opinion, a pretentious bitch. But to think of her as evil was going too far.
Autumn arrived early, bringing gusty gales and showers of rain sweeping in from the Atlantic to churn up the waters of the sea loch at Lochdubh. Hamish was involved in coping with a series of petty crimes. His beat was large because the police station in the nearby village of Cnothan had been closed down. He was soon to find out that his own station had come up again on the list of closures. The news came from Detective Inspector Jimmy Anderson, who called one blustery Saturday.
“Got any whisky?” he asked, sitting at the kitchen table and shrugging off his coat.
“You’re not getting any,” said Hamish. “Have coffee. You’ll get caught one day and off the force you’ll go.”
“You’ll want a dram yourself when you hear what I have to say,” said Jimmy.
“You’d best start selling off your livestock.” Hamish kept sheep and hens. “This police station is being put up for sale.”
Hamish sank into a chair opposite Jimmy, his hazel eyes troubled. “Tell me about it.”
“Do you ken a woman called Gentle?”
“Oh, her, aye. What’s she got to do with it?”
“It’s like this. I was at a Rotary dinner last night—”
“I didn’t know you were a member of the Rotary Club.”
“Not me. But Sergeant MacAllister couldn’t go and gave me his ticket. Anyway, the super was there, and Blair.”
Detective Chief Inspector Blair was the bane of Hamish’s life.
“And? What’s this Gentle female got to do with it?”
“Well, she was seated between Superintendent Daviot and Blair. They were all over her. She was fluttering and flirting—odd at her age.”
“Get to the point, man.”
“I went to have a pee and when I got back into the room, I heard her say your name. My place was at the other end o’ the table, but I waited for a bit. She was saying that she was surprised that the police would go to the cost of maintaining a police station in Lochdubh when everyone knew you did practically nothing.
“Daviot said you were a good officer and had solved a lot of murders. Blair weighed in and said there weren’t any murders now and no drug problems because most of the young people went south to the cities. He said that house prices were astronomical these days and that the police could get a lot of money for your station. Mrs. Gentle shook her little head and said sadly that you were short on social skills—that you had called on her without an invitation and stayed eating her out of house and home before she could get rid of you.
“Then Blair turned round and saw me and demanded to know what I thought I was doing, so I didn’t hear any more.”
“That woman iss a slimy wee bitch!” raged Hamish, his accent becoming more sibilant as it always did when he was angry.
“Well, maybe. But she charmed the socks off all the bigwigs.”
The phone in the police office rang. Hamish went to answer it. It was Daviot’s secretary, Helen, telling him to report to headquarters at the earliest opportunity.
Hamish trailed back into the kitchen. “I’ve been summoned.”
Superintendent Daviot smoothed back the silver wings of his carefully barbered hair and tugged at the lapels of his expensively tailored suit before instructing his secretary to send Hamish in.
“Sit down, Hamish,” he said. “Helen, some tea and biscuits would be nice.”
Hamish noticed the triumphant gleam in Helen’s eyes, and his heart sank. Helen detested him.
“Now, er, Hamish,” said Daviot. “It has come to my attention that there is not enough work up there for a man of your skills. We have a big drug problem here in Strathbane, and we need good officers. Ah, thank you, Helen. No, we will serve ourselves.”
When the door closed behind the secretary, he went on. “A man like you should be taking the detective exams with a view to joining the CID.”
“May I say something, sir?”
“By all means. Have an Abernethy biscuit or would you like a Penguin?”
“Tea will be fine. Mrs. Gentle is a vicious woman. Do not listen to a word she says.”
“I use my own judgement, Macbeth,” said the super, colouring up. “But since you have raised the lady’s name, it seems you imposed on her hospitality.”
“I called on her as part of my duties. As you know, I frequently call on people on my beat. She was having a spiteful row with her daughter. She likes to create the image of being perfect. I was not to be forgiven for having witnessed her at her worst. Such is the way of psychopaths like her.”
“Macbeth! I have met the lady and consider myself to be a good judge of character. She is charming and kind, very much a lady. You don’t see many of them like her these days.”
“No, thank God.”
Daviot’s face hardened. “That’s enough. You have six months. You will be supplied with a flat in police accommodation in Strathbane. And no pets. You’ll need to get rid of that odd cat of yours, and the dog. You may go.”
Hamish stood up. “You should keep me where I am, sir, because there’s going to be a murder.”
“Get off with you!”
Jimmy waylaid Hamish on the way out.
“That Gentle woman’s done the damage all right. I’m losing the station, I’m to move into one o’ thae poxy police flats, and no pets. I’m going to resign. Mind you, I went over the top and called Mrs. Gentle a psychopath and said someone was going to murder her.”
“Come and have a drink. One for the road.”
As soon as they were in the bar and seated over their drinks, Jimmy lit a cigarette. “That’s against the law,” exclaimed Hamish. “No smoking in Scotland.”
“So sue me. Do you care?”
“Someone might report you.”
“Like who? Nothing but coppers in here, and the barman smokes himself.”
“Be a good lad and put it out. I’m not going to sit here, aiding and abetting a crime.”
“Oh, all right, Mother. Are you just going to take this lying down? Last time the villagers got up a petition.”
“I’m weary. I seem to have been living under constant threat of eviction for years. But I tell you one thing, before I leave, I’m going to get that woman out of the Highlands.”
“Wait and see.”
Back in Lochdubh, Hamish began to gossip busily. The news of his forthcoming eviction and subsequent loss of his pets spread like wildfire throughout Sutherland. Matthew Campbell, the local reporter, wrote up the story, saying that Hamish’s banishment had been instigated at a Rotary dinner by Mrs. Gentle, a newcomer to the Highlands.
Mrs. Gentle, arriving back in Lochdubh a week later followed by her tall maid, felt a definite chill in the air that had nothing to do with the clear autumn day. It was as if she suddenly did not exist. People avoided eye contact. Her greetings went unnoticed. Mr. Patel, who ran the local store, packed up her groceries in silence.
Her temper was rising, but she masked it well. As she left the shop, she met Mrs. Wellington, the minister’s wife. At that moment, Mrs. Wellington was more interested in the repairs to the church roof than the banishment of Hamish Macbeth.
“Good morning,” she said breezily. “A fine brisk day. I hate to rush you but my husband needs that cheque for the repairs to the church roof.”
Mrs. Gentle gave her little curved smile. “What cheque?”
“You promised to donate a generous amount of money towards the church.”
“Did I? How stupid of me. I am holding a family reunion next week and I have just discovered I am quite low in funds. Such a pity. I am sure you will find the money somehow.”
Mrs. Gentle returned home in a bad mood. The sight of her daughter slumped in front of the television set with a large gin and tonic in her hand made her erupt into rage. She switched off the set, walked round, and stared down at her daughter.
“Sarah, I want you out of here after the family get-together.”
“But you asked me up here. You said I could stay as long as I liked.”
“I’ve changed my mind. I’m changing my will as well. It’s time you got a job.”
“But I’m fifty, Mother.”
“You’ll find something. Andrew has a good job.” Her son, Andrew, was a stockbroker. “The grandchildren are doing well. You’ve always been a failure. Ayesha, take that stuff into the kitchen and stop gaping.” The maid went off. Mrs. Gentle watched her go, then followed her into the kitchen. Ayesha had been working as a maid in a London hotel when Mrs. Gentle had offered her the job although she maintained the fiction that she had hired the girl through an agency.