Authors: M.C. Beaton
To Julian Spilsbury
Hamish Macbeth fans share their
‘Treat yourself to an adventure in the Highlands; remember your coffee and scones – for you’ll want to stay a while!’
‘I do believe I am in love with Hamish.’
‘M. C. Beaton’s stories are absolutely excellent … Hamish is a pure delight!’
‘A highly entertaining read that will have me hunting out the others in the series.’
‘A new Hamish Macbeth novel is always a treat.’
‘Once I read the first mystery I was hooked … I love her characters.’
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O fat white woman whom nobody loves
– Frances Crofts Cornford
It was a blue day in the West Highlands of Scotland as PC Hamish Macbeth strolled along the waterfront of the village of Lochdubh. Not blue meaning sad, but blue coloured by a perfect day, blue coloured by the sky arching above and the sea loch below. Mountains rearing up were darker blue, marching off into a blue infinity of distance, as if Sutherland in the north of Scotland had no boundaries, but was some sort of infinite paradise of clean air and sunlight.
It had been a bad winter and a damp spring, but summer, which usually only lasts six weeks at the best of times in the far north, had finally arrived in all its glory, strange to the inhabitants who were used to rain and damp and high winds.
Little silken waves curled on the shore. Everything swam lazily in the clear light. Never had the roses in the little village gardens been more profuse or more glorious. Dougie, the gamekeeper on Colonel Halburton-Smythe’s estate, told everyone who would listen that unusual blossoming meant a hard winter to come, but few wanted to believe him. It was as if the whole of Lochdubh was frozen in a time capsule, with one perfect day following another. Life, never very energetic, slowed down to a crawl. Old quarrels and animosities were forgotten.
All this suited Hamish Macbeth’s easygoing character. There had been no crime at all for some time; his superior and frequent pain in the neck, Detective Chief Inspector Blair of Strathbane, was on holiday somewhere in Spain. Hamish planned to walk along to the harbour for a chat with any fisherman who happened to be mending nets, and then perhaps he would go up to the Tommel Castle Hotel for a coffee with Priscilla Halburton-Smythe, once the love of his life if she only but knew it.
Fisherman Archie Maclean was sitting on the edge of the harbour wall, staring out at the loch where the boats rocked gently at anchor.
‘Aye, it’s a grand day, Hamish,’ he said as the policeman came up.
‘Not verra good for the fish,’ rejoined Hamish amiably.
‘The fish is chust fine. Fair jumping into the nets, Hamish. Got a cigarette on you?’
‘You forget, I gave up a whiles back,’ said Hamish regretfully. Would he ever get over that occasional longing for a cigarette? It would be great to light one up and puff away contentedly.
‘Ah, well, I’ll chust go along to Patel’s and get some.’ Archie prised himself off the harbour wall. Both men walked in the direction of the village general store.
Priscilla Halburton-Smythe was just coming out of the store with a bag of groceries in her arms. ‘I’ll take these, Priscilla,’ said Hamish. ‘Where are you parked?’
‘Round the side of the shop, Hamish. Morning, Archie.’
‘Why are you doing the shopping?’ asked Hamish curiously.
‘Wanted an excuse to get away,’ said Priscilla, unlocking the car.
Priscilla’s father, Colonel Halburton-Smythe, had turned his home into an hotel after losing his money. The hotel was thriving. Mr Johnson, former manager of the Lochdubh Hotel, now closed, was running the business, and so Priscilla was usually carefree. But Hamish noticed she was looking rather strained.
‘What’s up?’ he asked.
‘Come back with me and we’ll have something to drink and I’ll tell you.’
Hamish got in the car. He glanced at her sideways, reflecting that she looked more beautiful than ever. Her golden hair shone with health and her skin was lightly tanned. She was wearing a sky-blue cotton dress with a broad white leather belt at the waist and her bare tanned legs ended in low-heeled brown leather sandals. Some of the old desire tugged at his heart, but she was so cool and competent, so expert a driver, so seemingly oblivious of him as a man, that it quickly died. He felt illogically that she would be quite devastating if she did something wrong for once, crashed the gears, dropped something, had a hair out of place, wore the wrong shade of lipstick, or was guilty of any simple little human lapse at all.
The fake baronial pile that was Tommel Castle Hotel soon loomed up. She told Hamish to leave the groceries at the reception desk and then led the way through to the bar, formerly the morning room. ‘Want a whisky, Hamish, or will we have coffee?’
‘Coffee’s just fine.’ She poured two mugs of coffee and they sat down at one of the tables.
‘So what’s been happening?’ asked Hamish.
‘Well, everything was running smoothly. The new gift shop that I am going to run is nearly finished and I’ve been off on my travels accumulating stuff to display in it. We were expecting eight members of a fishing club. But they cancelled at the last minute. Their chairman was trying to land a salmon somewhere down south and the fish turned out to be more powerful than he and dragged him in and down the rocks and over the rapids. He’s recovering in hospital. He was an old friend of Daddy’s and it turned out that Daddy hadn’t even charged any booking-fees. So we had another booking which Daddy wanted to turn down flat. It’s from the Checkmate Singles Club. Daddy has gleaned a lot of knowledge of singles’ bars from American films, and so the very word “singles” started him foaming at the mouth. Mr Johnson said, quite rightly, that we should take their booking to make up for the lost fishing party, but Daddy wouldn’t be moved, so Mr Johnson called me in to talk sense into his head.
‘This Checkmate Singles Club is actually one of the most expensive dating and marital agencies in Britain. I told Daddy they must have half the titles in the country on their books, which is a wild exaggeration, but the old snob fell for it,’ remarked Priscilla, who often found her father a trial. ‘It’s actually mostly a marriage agency. The thing that clinched it was the woman who runs it, Maria Worth, dropped in on us to check the place out and she was so impeccably tweedy and blue-blooded – she even has a tweedy mind – that Daddy caved in and smarmed all over her. So everything’s settled, but I felt so limp after all the arguments and stupidity, I felt I had to get away just for a little and volunteered to do the shopping.’
‘You mean this Maria Worth is something like a marriage-broker?’
‘Sort of. She charges enormous fees. She’s bringing eight of her clients up to get acquainted.’
‘Dear me,’ said Hamish, scratching his fiery-red hair in puzzlement, ‘they must be a sad bunch of folk if they have to pay some woman to find them a mate.’
‘Not necessarily. Usually they’re people who want someone with money to match their own fortunes or middle-aged people who don’t want to go through the indignities of dating a stranger. It’s very hard dating in this day and age, Hamish,’ said Priscilla seriously. ‘I mean, isn’t it better to have an agency check the other person out first? Find out all about them? I might try it myself.’
‘Don’t be silly,’ said Hamish crossly. ‘We both know almost everyone in the whole of damn’ Sutherland and what we don’t know we can soon find out.’
‘Who says I want to marry someone from bloody Sutherland?’ Priscilla glared at him.
Hamish suddenly grinned, his hazel eyes dancing. ‘So you’re human after all.’
‘Of course I’m human, you great Highland drip.’
‘It is just that you always seem so cool about everything, like a nice chilled salad.’
‘I don’t like scenes and confrontations, that’s all. If you had a father like mine, you would shy away from dramatics as well.’
‘Why doesn’t the wee man just jack this hotel business in?’ said Hamish, not for the first time. ‘He’s making a mint. He can go back to being lord of the manor and take down the hotel sign.’
‘He loves it. Some of his old army friends book in here and he tells them long stories about how he had nearly shot himself when he lost his money and how courageously he had fought back single-handed, just as if Mummy and I hadn’t done all the work, not to mention Mr Johnson. It’s the new legend. “The Plucky Colonel”. Still, I’m being catty. He’s happy. His rages don’t mean anything. They never last for long, and then he can’t even remember what all the fuss was about. Anyway, you’re having a lovely life. No murders.’
‘Thank goodness for that,’ said Hamish. ‘And not a cloud in the sky.’
But the clouds that were about to darken his tranquil sky in the shape of the members of the Checkmate Singles Club were soon approaching Sutherland.
On her way north a week later was the organizer, Maria Worth. She was a stocky, cheerful woman who had made a success out of the business. She never had large get-togethers for her clients. She always assembled them in small groups and in some romantic setting, but usually in or near London. She had heard from friends about the Tommel Castle Hotel and decided it would be a perfect setting for the most difficult of her clients. She would not have thought of such an adventurous scheme had Peta been around. Peta Gore was the bane of Maria’s otherwise successful life. Peta had put up half the money to launch Checkmate, becoming a partner. When the business flourished, Maria had tried to buy her out, but Peta refused. For Peta was a widow on the look-out for a husband and she hoped to pick up one at one of Maria’s get-togethers. She never troubled her head with any of the nitty-gritty of office work or with interviewing or researching clients. But she had a nasty habit of turning up, uninvited, and throwing the carefully chosen guest-list out of sync.
Maria had come to hate her old friend. For not only was Peta noisy and vulgar, she was a glutton. There was no softer word for it. She was not just ‘fond of her food’ or had ‘a good appetite’, she sucked and chomped and chewed with relish, all the while inhaling noisily through her nose. She was a party-pooper extraordinaire.
But Maria had been determined that Peta should not find out about the visit to Tommel Castle and so had kept quiet about it until Peta, thinking there was nothing in the offing, had said she was taking a holiday in Hungary.
Sitting in a first-class carriage on the Inverness train, Maria opened her Gucci brief-case and took out a sheaf of notes and thanked God that Peta was far away, slurping and chomping her way up and down the shores of the Danube.
She ran over her notes to double-check that she had paired her singles correctly.
There was Sir Bernard Grant, who owned a chain of clothing stores. A photo of him was pinned to the notes. He was in his late forties, small, round, plump and clever. He was a widower. He had approached the agency because he had found himself too busy and too reluctant to begin dating again at his age. And by the time he joined, it was well known that Checkmate only catered to the rich.
Maria slid out the next sheet of paper. He was to be paired with Jessica Fitt, owner of a florist’s shop in South Kensington. Jessica had a degree in economics from Newcastle University. After various jobs she did not like very much, she had taken a training course in floristry, opened up a shop, and then used her excellent business brain to make it pay. She was a grey lady: grey hair, grey face, and she even wore grey clothes. In her shop, she had confided to Maria, she was deferred to by her staff and known by her regular customers. But outside the shop, people seemed to treat her as if she was invisible. She had recently come round to the idea that a husband would be a good thing, not for sex or romance, but to have someone with her who could catch the eye of the
in a restaurant. Sir Bernard only wanted a wife because he needed a hostess. Yes, they should hit it off.
The next photograph showed a pleasant-looking young man with a square face, rather small eyes, and a rather large mouth. This was Matthew Cowper, a yuppie, twenty-eight and surely the last person to need the aid of Checkmate. But he had climbed fast in the world from low beginnings and he wanted a wife with a good social background to help him go further. He expected Checkmate to introduce him to the sort of people he would not otherwise meet socially.
He was to be matched with Jenny Trask. Jenny was a legal secretary with a private income from a family trust. She was fairly attractive in a serious way: black hair and glasses, a good mouth, and large blue eyes. She was, however, painfully shy.
Maria put that lot to one side. The train roared across the border into Scotland. It had been muggy and overcast, but now the skies were clear blue and the sun was shining. And Peta was far, far away.
Maria smiled and returned to the rest of her notes. The good-looking features of Peter Trumpington smiled up at her from a large colour photograph. Now,
was a prize! He had a large fortune and did not work at anything at all, quite unusual in this age of the common man. But like any other rich man, he was tired of being preyed on and needed the agency to sort out the wheat from the chaff. He had been engaged to a film starlet who had relieved him of a sizeable chunk of money before dumping him. Then a typist caught his eye, a typist whose looks hid the fact that she was dull and rather petty, but he had found that out in time and he had dumped
. Although tall and handsome, with dark hair and melting dark eyes, he did not have much personality. He also did not evince any signs of great intelligence.
So chosen for him was Deborah Freemantle, also with a private fortune, who worked as an editorial assistant to a publisher in Bedford Square, London. She still spoke like a schoolgirl with many exclamations of ‘Gosh! I
!’ and thought everything was FUN and had joined Checkmate for ‘a giggle’, or so she said, although her parents had made the booking.
The last man on the list was John Taylor, QC; in his sixties, widower, dry and chalky-skinned and fastidious, grey hair still quite thick, contact lenses, punctiliously dressed. He wished to be married again to spite his son and daughter. He hoped for someone young enough to still bear children but did not want ‘some silly little bimbo’.
Selected for him was Mary French, a demure spinster in her early thirties. She was an English teacher at a public school not
rich, but comfortably off and made up in breeding what she lacked in wealth, which had made her acceptable to Checkmate. She was third cousin to the Earl of Derwent. Maria squinted doubtfully down at the photograph. Mary was a teensy bit rabbit-toothed and perhaps her ears did stick out a trifle, but then John Taylor was hardly an Adonis and he was quite old.