Authors: M.C. Beaton,Prefers to remain anonymous
Death of a Poison Pen
Book 20 in the
Fans of the critically acclaimed Hamish Macbeth whodunits are in for a real treat with Death of a Poison Pen. Police constable Macbeth knows that, in most cases, the wild accusations and scandalous suppositions in poison-pen letters are an annoyance, not a genuine threat. But, from the first, Hamish suspects that what’s going on in the remote village of Lochdubh is no ordinary case. When the village postmistress is found dead with a poison-pen letter at her feet, the coroner confirms Hamish’s worst fears, that the woman’s apparent suicide was in fact a carefully concealed murder. Now it’s up to Hamish to trace the letters and the escalating violence to the source. His efforts are both aided and complicated by the arrival of Jenny Ogilvie, a lovely lady whose passion for Hamish is only equaled by her dangerous curiosity about the murderous poison pen who is her rival for Hamish’s attention.
I’m not a jealous woman, but I can’t see what he sees in her
I can’t see what he sees in her, I can’t see what he sees in her!
Sir Alan Patrick Herbert
enny Ogilvie was curled up on a sofa in her friend Priscilla Halburton-Smythe’s London flat. They had been talking for most of the evening. Jenny was secretly jealous of Priscilla’s cool blonde looks. Although an attractive girl herself with her mop of black curls and rosy cheeks, she longed to look as stylish and composed as her friend.
A desire to rattle her friend’s calm prompted her to say, “You’ve talked an awful lot about this village policeman, Hamish Macbeth. I mean, you’ve barely mentioned your fiancé. Come on. What gives? I think you’re still in love with this copper.”
A faint tide of pink rose up Priscilla’s face. “I was engaged to him once and we shared a lot of adventures. But that’s all. What about
love life? You’ve been letting me do all the talking.”
“Oh, you know me. I like to shop around,” said Jenny. “I’m not prepared to settle down yet.”
“What happened to Giles? You did seem frightfully keen on him.”
“He bored me after a bit,” lied Jenny, who had no intention of letting Priscilla know that Giles had broken off with her the minute she had hinted at marriage.
“You’ll find someone. Don’t worry,” said Priscilla with all the calm assurance of someone about to be married.
Jenny returned to her own flat, feeling jealous and cross. It was a pity, she thought, that Priscilla’s policeman should live in some remote Highland village or she would be tempted to have a go at him herself. He must be one hell of a man to occupy so much of Priscilla’s thoughts. She went to her bookshelves and pulled down an atlas of the British Isles. Now, where had Priscilla said that village was? Lochdoo or something. She scanned the index. There was a Lochdubh. That must be it. Maybe like ‘skeandhu,’ the dagger Highlanders wore with full dress. She looked it up in the dictionary. That was pronounced
. Also spelt ‘skeandubh.” So it followed that Lochdubh must be the place. She knew Priscilla’s parents owned the Tommel Castle Hotel there. Just to be sure, she phoned directory enquiries and got the number of the Tommel Castle Hotel and asked for the exact location of Lochdubh. Got it! She replaced the receiver.
She put down the atlas and sat cross-legged on the floor. She had holiday owing. What if—just what if—she went to this village and romanced the copper? How would Priscilla like that?
Not a bit, she thought with a grin. She would ask for leave in the morning.
The subject of Jenny’s plotting took a stroll along Lochdubh’s waterfront the next morning with his dog, Lugs. PC Hamish Macbeth was preoccupied with a nasty case. The nearby town of Braikie had been subjected to a rash of poison-pen letters. At first people had ignored them because the accusations in some of them were so weird and wild and inaccurate that they hadn’t been taken seriously. But as the letters continued to arrive, tempers were rising.
Mrs. Dunne, who owned a bed and breakfast on the waterfront called Sea View, hailed him. She was a fussy little woman who looked perpetually anxious and tired.
“Morning,” said Mrs. Dunne. “Terrible business about those nasty letters.”
“You havenae had one, have you?” asked Hamish.
“No, but I just heard that herself, Mrs. Wellington, got one this morning.”
“I’d better go and see her. Business good?”
“Not a bad summer, but nobody really books in now it’s autumn. I’ve got a couple of the forestry workers as regulars. Though mind you, a lassie from London is coming for a couple of weeks, a Miss Ogilvie. She phoned this morning.”
Hamish touched his cap and walked off in the direction of the manse, for Mrs. Wellington, large, tweedy, and respectable, was the minister’s wife.
Mrs. Wellington was pulling up weeds in her garden. She straightened up when she saw Hamish.
“I’ve just heard you’ve had one o’ thae letters.” Hamish fixed her with a gimlet stare to distract her from the sight of his dog urinating against the roots of one of her prize roses. “Why didn’t you phone the police station?”
She looked flustered. “It was nothing but a spiteful piece of nonsense. I threw it on the fire.”
“I can do with all the evidence I can get,” said Hamish severely. “Now, you’ve got to tell me what was in that letter. Furthermore, I’ve never known you to light a fire before the end of October.”
Mrs. Wellington capitulated. “Oh, very well. I’ll get it. Wait there. And keep that dog of yours away from my flowers.”
Hamish waited, wondering what could possibly be so bad as to make the upright minister’s wife initially lie to him.
Mrs. Wellington came back and handed him a letter. On the envelope was her name and address in handwriting now familiar to Hamish from the other letters he had in a file back at the police station. He opened it and took out a piece of cheap stationery and began to read. Then he roared with laughter. For the poison-pen letter writer had accused Mrs. Wellington of having an adulterous affair with the Lochdubh policeman—Hamish Macbeth.
When he had recovered, he wiped his eyes and said, “This is so daft. Why didnae you want to show it to me?”
“I know your reputation as a womaniser, Hamish Macbeth, and I thought this letter might give you ideas.”
Hamish’s good humour left and his hazel eyes held a malicious gleam. “I am in my thirties and you are—what—in your fifties? Don’t you think you are suffering from a wee bit o’ vanity?”
Her face flamed. “There are winter-summer relationships, you know. I read about them in
—at the dentist’s. And when I was in the cinema with my husband the other week, a young man on the other side of me put a hand on my knee!”
“Michty me,” said Hamish. “What happened when the lights went up?”
“He had left by that time,” said Mrs. Wellington stiffly, not wanting to tell this jeering policeman that during a bright scene on the screen, the young man had leant forward and looked at her and fled.
“And I am not a womaniser,” pursued Hamish.
“Ho, no? You broke off your engagement to poor Priscilla, and since then you’ve been playing fast and loose.”
“I’ll take this letter with me,” said Hamish, suddenly weary. “But rest assured, I have not the designs on you, not now, not ever!”
Back at the police station, he added the letter to the others in the file. There was a knock at the kitchen door. He went to answer it and found Elspeth Grant, the local reporter and astrologer for the
, standing there. She was dressed in her usual mixture of thrift shop clothes: old baggy sweater, long Indian cotton skirt, and clumpy boots.
“What brings you?” asked Hamish. “I havenae seen you for a while.”
“I’ve been showing the new reporter the ropes.”
“Pat Mallone,” said Hamish. “The attractive Irishman.”
“Yes, him. And he is attractive. Are you going to ask me in?”
“Sure.” He stood aside. Elspeth sat down at the kitchen table. The day was misty and drops of moisture hung like little pearls in her frizzy hair. Her large grey eyes, Gypsy eyes, surveyed him curiously. He felt a little pang of loss. At one time, Elspeth had shown him that she was attracted to him but he had rejected her and by the time he had changed his mind about her, she was no longer interested.
“So,” began Elspeth, “I hear Mrs. Wellington got one of those letters.”
“How did you learn that?”
“She told Nessie Currie, who told everyone in Patel’s grocery. What on earth was in it?”
“Mind your own business.”
“All right, copper. What are you doing about these letters? They’re weird and wild in their accusations, but one day one’s going to hit the mark and there’ll be a death. Haven’t you asked for a handwriting expert?”
“Oh, I’ve asked headquarters, right enough, but it is always the same thing. Handwriting experts cost money. The budget is tight. It’s chust a village storm in a teacup and will soon blow over, that’s what they say.” Hamish’s Highland accent always became more sibilant when he was excited or upset. “So I sit on my bum collecting nasty letters.”
“There is something you could do and I’ll tell you if you make me a cup of tea.”
Hamish put the kettle on top of the stove and lifted down two mugs from the kitchen cabinet. “So what’s your idea?”
“It’s like this. Someone always knows something. You could call an emergency meeting at the community centre in Braikie and appeal to the people of Braikie to help you. I could run off flyers at the newspaper and we could post them up in shops and on lampposts. Someone knows something, I’m sure of that. Go on, Hamish. I feel in my bones that death is going to come and come quickly.”
Hamish looked at her uneasily. He had experienced Elspeth’s psychic powers and had learned that, at times, they were uncanny.
“All right,” he said. “I’ll do it. Let’s see. This is Monday. We’ll make it for next Saturday evening.”
“No, make it around lunchtime, say one o’clock. There’s a big bingo game on Saturday evening.”
“Okay. I’ll leave it to you.”
Hamish made tea. “What sort of person would you say was behind these letters?”
“Someone living alone, no family. Maybe someone retired who once had some power over people. Probably a woman.”
“There are an awful lot of widows and spinsters in Braikie.”
“Never mind. Let’s hope this meeting flushes something out.”
After Elspeth had left, he noticed she had left him a copy of the
. Curiously, he turned to her astrology column and looked under ‘Libra.’ He read:
Romance is heading your way but it is a romance you will not want. You will suffer from headaches on Wednesday morning. You are not working hard enough. You are congenitally lazy, but remember always that mistakes caused by laziness can cause death.
Hamish scratched his fiery hair. What on earth was the lassie on about?
On Saturday morning, Jenny Ogilvie looked out of the window of the bus that was bearing her northwards and felt she was leaving civilisation behind. She had flown to Inverness and caught the Lochinver bus. She had been told, however, that the bus to take her on to Lochdubh from Lochinver would have left by the time she arrived, but a local taxi could take her the rest of the way. Moorland and mountain stretched on either side. Foaming waterfalls plunged down craggy slopes. Red deer stood as if posing for Landseer on the top of hills as the bus wound its way round twisting roads, breaking sharply to avoid the occasional suicidal sheep.
She had decided to book into a bed and breakfast in Lochdubh rather than stay at the Tommel Castle Hotel, in case Priscilla might learn from her parents of her arrival. The bus finally ground its way down into Lochinver and stopped on the waterfront. It was a fine day and sunlight was sparkling on the water.
Jenny climbed stiffly down from the bus and retrieved her luggage. She took out her mobile phone and dialled the number of a taxi service in Lochdubh she had tracked down by dint of phoning the Sutherland tourist board. Better to have someone from Lochdubh to collect her than get a cab from Lochinver.
A pleasant Highland voice on the other end of the line informed her that he would be with her in three-quarters of an hour and if she sat in the café on the waterfront, he would find her.
Jenny went into the café and ordered a coffee, forcing her eyes away from a tempting display of home-baked cakes. It was all right for Priscilla, she thought bitterly. Priscilla could eat anything and never even put on an ounce, whereas she, Jenny, could feel her waistband tightening by just looking at the things.
She was the only customer in the cafe’. She noticed there was a large glass ashtray on the table in front of her. Jenny was trying to cut down on smoking, but she hadn’t been able to have one all day. She lit one up and felt dizzy, but after two more, felt better. The sun was already disappearing and the water outside darkening to black when a man popped his head round the door. “Miss Ogilvie?”
Jenny rose and indicated her luggage. “The cab is outside,” he said. “I would help you with your luggage, but my back’s bad.”
Hoisting her two large suitcases outside, Jenny stared in dismay at the ‘cab.’ It was a minibus painted bright red on the front, but because the owner, Iain Chisholm, had run out of paint, the rest was painted a sulphurous yellow. Inside, the seats were covered in brightly coloured chintz with flounces at the bottom of each seat.
Jenny heaved her luggage in the side door and then decided to sit up in the front with Iain and see if she could pump him for some information.
The engine coughed and spluttered to life and the bus started its journey out of Lochinver and headed up the Sutherland coast to Lochdubh. “I’m up from London,” said Jenny.
“Is that a fact?” said Iain, negotiating a hairpin bend. Jenny glanced nervously down a cliff edge to where the Atlantic boiled against jagged rocks.