of a Village
By M.C. Beaton
Published by Warner Books
February 2003; 0-892-96677-7; 256 pages
all my travels I never met with any one Scotchman but what was a man of
sense. I believe everybody of that country that has any, leaves it as
fast as they can.
The way propaganda works, as every schoolboy knows, is that if you say the same thing over and over again, lie or not, people begin to believe it.
Hamish Macbeth, police constable of the village of Lochdubh and its surroundings, had been until recently a happy, contented, unambitious man. This was always regarded, by even the housebound and unsuccessful, as a sort of mental aberration. And he had been under fire for a number of years and from a number of people to pull his socks up, get a life, move on, get promotion, and forsake his lazy ways. Until lately, all comments had slid off him. That was, until Elspeth Grant, local reporter, joined the chorus. It was the way she laughed at him with a sort of affectionate contempt as he mooched around the village that got under his skin. Her mild amazement that he did not want to "better himself," added on to all the other years of similar comments, finally worked in him like the end result of a propaganda war and he began to feel restless and discontented.
Had he had any work to do apart from filing sheep-dip papers and ticking off the occasional poacher, Elspeth's comments might not have troubled him. And Elspeth was attractive, although he would not admit it to himself. He felt he had endured enough trouble from women to last him a lifetime.
He began to watch travel shows on television and to imagine himself walking on coral beaches or on high mountains in the Himalayas. He fretted over the fact that he had even taken all his holidays in Scotland.
One sunny morning, he decided it was time he got back on his beat, which covered a large area of Sutherland. He decided to visit the village of Stoyre up on the west coast. It was more of a hamlet than a village. No crime ever happened there. But, he reminded himself, a good copper ought to check up on the place from time to time.
After a winter of driving rain and a miserable spring, a rare period of idyllic weather had arrived in the Highlands. Tall twisted mountains swam in a heat haze. The air through the open window of the police Land Rover was redolent with smells of wild thyme, salt, bell heather, and peat smoke. He took a deep breath and felt all his black discontentment ebb away. Damn Elspeth! This was the life. He drove steadily down a winding one-track road to Stoyre.
Tourists hardly ever visited Stoyre. This seemed amazing on such a perfect day, when the village's cluster of whitewashed houses lay beside the deep blue waters of the Atlantic. There was a little stone harbour where three fishing boats bobbed lazily at anchor. Hamish parked in front of the pub, called the Fisherman's Arms. He stepped down from the Land Rover. His odd-looking dog, Lugs, scrambled down as well.
Hamish looked to right and left. The village seemed deserted. It was very still, unnaturally so. No children cried, no snatches of radio music drifted out from the cottages, no one came or went from the small general stores next to the pub. Lugs bristled and let out a low growl. "Easy, boy," said Hamish. He looked up the hill beyond the village to where the graveyard lay behind a small stone church. Perhaps there was a funeral. But he could see no sign of anyone moving about.
"Come on, boy," he said to his dog. He pushed open the door of the pub and went inside. The pub consisted of a small whitewashed room with low beams on the ceiling. A few wooden tables scarred with cigarette burns were dotted about. There was no one behind the bar.
"Anyone home?" called Hamish loudly. To his relief there came the sound of someone moving in the back premises. A thickset man entered through a door at the back of the bar. Hamish recognised Andy Crummack, the landlord and owner.
"How's it going, Andy?" asked Hamish. "Everybody dead?"
"Just a tonic water." Hamish looked round the deserted bar. "Where is everyone?"
"It's aye quiet this time o' day." Andy poured a bottle of tonic water into a glass.
"Slainte!" said Hamish. "Are you having one?"
"Too early. If ye don't mind, I've got stock to check." Andy made for the door behind the bar.
"Hey, wait a minute, Andy. I havenae been in Stoyre for a while but I've never seen the place so dead."
"We're quiet folks, Hamish."
"And nothing's going on?"
"Nothing. Now, if ye don't mind. . ."
The landlord disappeared through the door. Hamish drank the tonic water and then pushed back his peaked cap and scratched his fiery hair. Maybe he was imagining things. He hadn't visited Stoyre for months. The last time had been in March when he'd made a routine call. He remembered people chatting on the waterfront and this pub full of locals.
He put his glass on the bar and went out into the sunlight. The houses shone white in the glare and the gently heaving blue water had an oily surface. He went into the general store. "Morning, Mrs. MacBean," he said to the elderly woman behind the counter. "Quiet today. Where is everyone?"
"They'll maybe be up at the kirk."
"What! On a Monday? Is it someone's funeral?"
"No. Can I get you anything, Mr. Macbeth?"
Hamish leaned on the counter. "Come on. You can tell me," he coaxed. "What's everyone doing at the church on a Monday?"
"We are God-fearing folk in Stoyre," she said primly, "and I'll ask you to remember that."
Baffled, Hamish walked out of the shop and was starting to set off up the hill when the church doors opened and people started streaming out. Most were dressed in black as if for a funeral.
He stood in the centre of the path as they walked down towards him. He hailed people he knew. "Morning, Jock. . . grand day, Mrs. Nisbett," and so on. But the crowd parted as they reached him and silently continued on their way until he was left standing alone.
He walked on towards the church and round to the manse at the side with Lugs at his heels. The minister had just reached his front door. He was a new appointment, Hamish noticed, a thin nervous man with a prominent Adam's apple, and his black robes were worn and dusty. He had sparse ginger hair, weak eyes, and a small pursed mouth. "Morning," said Hamish. "I am Hamish Macbeth, constable at Lochdubh. You are new to here?"
The minister reluctantly faced him. "I am Fergus Mackenzie," he said in a lilting Highland voice.
"You seem to be doing well," remarked Hamish. "Church full on a Monday morning."
"There is a strong religious revival here," said Fergus. "Now, if you don't mind. . ."
"I do mind," said Hamish crossly. "This village has changed."
"It has changed for the better. A more God-fearing community does not exist anywhere else in the Highlands." And with that the minister went into the manse and slammed the door in Hamish's face.
Becoming increasingly irritated, Hamish retreated back to the waterfront. It was deserted again. He thought of knocking on some doors to find out if there was any other answer to this strange behaviour apart from a religious revival and then decided against it. He looked back up the hill to where a cottage stood near the top. It was the holiday home of a retired army man, Major Jennings, an Englishman. Perhaps he might be more forthcoming. He plodded back up the hill, past the church, and knocked on the major's door. Silence greeted him. He knew the major lived most of the year in the south of England. Probably not arrived yet. Hamish remembered he usually came north for a part of the summer.
When he came back down from the hill, he saw that people were once more moving about. There were villagers in the shop and villagers on the waterfront. This time they gave him a polite greeting. He stopped one of them, Mrs. Lyle. "Is anything funny going on here?" he asked.
She was a small, round woman with tight grey curls and glasses perched on the end of her nose. "What do you mean?" she asked.
"There's an odd atmosphere and then you've all been at the kirk and it isn't even Sunday."
"It is difficult to explain to such as you, Hamish Macbeth," she said. "But in this village we take our worship of the Lord seriously and don't keep it for just the one day."
I'm a cynic, thought Hamish as he drove off. Why should I find it all so odd? He knew that in some of the remote villages a good preacher was still a bigger draw than anything on television. Mr. Mackenzie must be a powerful speaker. When he returned to Lochdubh, Hamish found all the same that the trip to Stoyre had cheered him up. The restlessness that had plagued him had gone. He whistled as he prepared food for himself and his dog, and then carried his meal on a tray out to the front garden, where he had placed a table with an umbrella over it. Why dream of cafés in France when he had everything here in Lochdubh?
He had just finished a meal of fried haggis, sausage, and eggs when a voice hailed him. "Lazing around again, Hamish?"
The gate to the front garden opened and Elspeth Grant came in. She was wearing a brief tube top which showed her midriff, a small pair of denim shorts, and her hair had been tinted aubergine. She pulled up a chair and sat down next to him.
"The trouble with aubergine," said Hamish, "is that it chust doesnae do."
"Doesn't do what?" demanded Elspeth.
"Anything for anyone. It's like the purple lipstick or the black nail varnish. Anything that's far from an original colour isn't sexy."
"And what would you know about anything sexy?"
"I am a man and I assume you mean to attract the opposite sex."
"Women dress and do their hair for themselves these days."
"It's true, Hamish. You've been living in this time warp for so long that you just don't know what's what. Anyway, I'm bored. There's really nothing to report until the Highland Games over at Braikie and that's a week away."
"I might have a wee something for you. I've just been over at Stoyre. There's a religious revival there. They were all at the kirk this morning. Seems they've got a new minister, a Mr. Mackenzie. I was thinking he must be a pretty powerful preacher."
"Not much, but something," said Elspeth. "I'll try next Sunday."
"The way they're going on, you may not need to wait that long. They've probably got a service every day."
"Want to come with me?"
Hamish stretched out his long legs. "I've just been. Have the Currie sisters seen you in that outfit?" The Currie sisters were middle-aged twins, spinsters, and the upholders of morals in Lochdubh.
"Yes. Jessie Currie told me that I should go home and put on a skirt and Nessie Currie defended me."
"Really! What did she say?"
"She said my boots were so ugly that they made everything else I had on look respectable." Hamish looked down at the heavy pair of hiking boots Elspeth was wearing.
"I see what she means." Elspeth flushed up to the roots of her frizzy aubergine hair with anger. "I don't know why I bother even talking to you, Hamish Macbeth. I'm off."
When she had gone, Hamish lay back in his chair, clasped his hands behind his head. He shouldn't have been so rude to her but he blamed her remarks about him being unambitious for having recently upset the lazy comfort of his summer days.
The telephone in the police station rang, the noise cutting shrilly through the peace of the day. He sighed, got to his feet, and went to answer it. The voice of his pet hate, Detective Chief Inspector Blair, boomed down the line. "Get yoursel' over to Braikie, laddie. Teller's grocery in the High Street has been burgled. Anderson will be there soon."
"On my way," said Hamish. He took his peaked cap down from a peg on the kitchen door and put it on his head. "No, Lugs," he said to his dog, who was looking up at him out of his strange blue eyes. "You stay."
He went out and got into the police Land Rover and drove off, turning over in his mind what he knew of Teller's grocery. It was a licensed shop and sold more up-market groceries than its two rivals. He was relieved that he would be working with Detective Sergeant Jimmy Anderson rather than Blair. He parked outside the shop and went in. Mr. Teller was a small, severe-faced man with gold-rimmed glasses. "You took your time," he said crossly. "They've taken all my wine and spirits, the whole lot. I found the lot gone when I opened up this morning, and phoned the police."
"I was out on another call," said Hamish. "How did they get in?"
"Round the back." Mr. Teller raised a flap on the counter and Hamish walked through. A pane of glass on the back door had been smashed. "The forensic people'll be along soon," said Hamish. "I can't touch anything at the moment."
"Well, let's hope you hurry up. I've got to put a claim into the insurance company."
"How much for?"
"I'll need to total it up. Thousands of pounds." Hamish looked blankly down at the shopkeeper. He had been in the shop before. He could not remember seeing any great supply of wine or spirits. There had been three shelves, near the till, that was all.
He focused on Mr. Teller. "I haven't been in your shop for a bit. Had you expanded the liquor side?"
"I remember only about three shelves of bottles."
"They took all the stuff out of the cellar as well."
"You'd better show me."
Mr. Teller led the way to a door at the side of the back shop. The lock was splintered. Hamish took out a handkerchief and put it over the light switch at the top of the stairs and pressed. He stood on the top step and looked down. The cellar was certainly empty. And dusty. He returned to the front to find that Jimmy Anderson had arrived.
"Hullo, Hamish," said the detective. "Crime, isn't it? A real crime. All that lovely booze. Taken a statement yet?"
"Not yet. Could I be having a wee word with you outside?"
"Sure. I could do with a dram. There's a pub across the road."
"Not yet. Outside." Under the suspicious eyes of Mr. Teller, they walked out into the street.
"What?" demanded Jimmy. "He is saying that thousands of pounds of booze have been nicked. But when I pointed out to him that he only kept about three shelves of the stuff, he said they had cleared out the cellar as well."
"The cellar floor is dusty. Even dust. No marks of boxes and, what's more to the point, no drag marks. It is my belief he had nothing in that cellar. He could have been after the insurance."
"But the insurance will want to see the books, check the orders."
"True. Well, we'd best take a statement and then talk to his supplier." They returned to the shop. Hamish took out a notebook. "Now, Mr. Teller, you found the shop had been burgled when you opened up. That would be at nine o'clock?"
"You didn't touch anything?"
"I went down to the cellar and found everything gone from there."
"We'll check around and see if anyone heard or saw anything. What is the name of your supplier?"
"Frog's of Strathbane. Why?"
"The insurance company will want to see your books to check the amount of the lost stores against your record of deliveries."
"They're welcome to look at them anytime."
"Have you seen anyone suspicious about the town?"
"Now, there's a thing. There were two rough-looking men came into the shop two days ago. I hadn't seen them before. They asked for cigarettes and I served them but they were looking all around the place."
"One was a big ape of a man. He had black hair, foreign-looking. Big nose and thick lips. He was wearing a checked shirt and jeans."
"Did he sound foreign?"
"I can't remember."
Two men in white overalls came into the shop carrying cases of equipment. "We'll stop for a moment while you take the forensic boys through the back to check the break-in," said Hamish.
"What do you think?" Hamish asked Jimmy when the shopkeeper had gone through to the back shop with the forensic team.
"Seems a respectable body. Still, we'll check with Frog's. If he'd had the stuff delivered, then he must be telling the truth."
"I don't like the look o' that cellar floor."
"Well, if there's anything fishy, the forensic boys will find it."
They waited until Mr. Teller came back. "Now," said Hamish, "what did the other fellow look like?"
"He was small, ferrety. I remember," said Mr. Teller, excited. "He was wearing a short-sleeved shirt and he had a snake tattooed on his left arm."
"Maybe dark but his head was shaved. He had a thin face, black eyes, and a long nose."
"Like a told you, he had a short-sleeved shirt on, blue it was, and grey trousers." Hamish surveyed the shopkeeper with a shrewd look in his hazel eyes. "I'm puzzled by the state of your cellar floor."
"There were no marks in the dust. No signs of dragging."
"Well, maybe they just lifted the stuff up."
Jimmy Anderson was exuding the impatient vibes of a man dying for a drink. "Come on, Hamish," he said impatiently. "Let forensics get on with it while we go over what we've got." Hamish reluctantly followed him over to the pub. "Maybe I'll nip back and tell those chaps from forensic about that cellar floor."
"Och, leave them. They know their job." Jimmy ordered two double whiskies.
"Just the one, then," said Hamish. "I don't trust that man Teller one bit."
Finally he dragged a reluctant Jimmy away from the bar. Mr. Teller was serving a woman with groceries. "I think you should close up for the day," said Hamish. Mr. Teller jerked a thumb towards the back shop. "They said it was all right."
"Let us through," said Hamish.
Mr. Teller lifted the flap on the counter. Hamish and Jimmy walked through to the back shop. "How's it going?" Jimmy asked one of the men. "Nothing much," he said. "Looks like a straightforward break-in. Can't get much outside. There's gravel there. Nothing but a pair of size eleven footprints at the top of the cellar stairs."
"Those are mine," said Hamish. "But what about the cellar itself, and the stairs? When I looked down, there seemed to be nothing but undisturbed dust."
"Then you need your eyes tested, laddie. The thieves swept the place clean and the stairs."
"What?" Hamish had a sinking feeling in his stomach. "Have a look. We're finished down there." Hamish went to the cellar door, switched on the light, and walked down the steps. He could see sweeping brush marks in the dust.
"Those weren't there before," he said angrily. "Teller must have done it when you pair were out the back." Hamish retreated wrathfully to the shop, followed by Jimmy. "Why did you sweep the cellar?" he demanded angrily.
Mr. Teller looked the picture of outraged innocence. "I never did. I went back outside to ask them if they wanted a cup of tea. I am a respectable tradesman and a member of the Rotary club and the Freemasons. I shall be speaking to your superior officer."
"Speak all you want," shouted Hamish. "I'll have you!"
"Come on, Hamish." Jimmy drew him outside the shop. "Back to the bar, Hamish. A dram'll soothe you down."
"I've had enough and you'd better not have any more. You're driving."
"One more won't hurt," coaxed Jimmy, urging Hamish into the dark interior of the bar. When he had got their drinks, he led Hamish to a corner table. "Now, Hamish, couldn't you be mistaken? When anyone mentions Freemasons, my heart sinks. The big cheese is a member." The big cheese was the chief superintendent, Peter Daviot.
"I'm sure as sure," said Hamish.
"So what do you suggest we do if the wee man's books are in order and tie in with Frog's records of deliveries?"
"I don't know," fretted Hamish.
"It's your word against his."
"You'd think the word of a policeman would count for something these days."
"Not against a Freemason and a member of the Rotary," said Jimmy cynically.
Hamish made up his mind. "I'm off to Frog's. You can have my drink." Jimmy eyed the whisky longingly. "I should report what you're doing to Blair."
"Leave it a bit."
"Okay. But keep in touch. I'll see if I can sweat Teller a bit. The wonders o' forensic science, eh?"
"There's something up with that lot from Strathbane. It seems to me they're aye skimping the job because they've got a football match to go to or something."
Hamish drove to Strathbane after looking up Frog's in a copy of the Highland and Islands phone book he kept in the Land Rover. Their offices were situated down at the docks, an area of Strathbane that Hamish loathed. The rare summer sunshine might bring out the beauty of the Highland countryside but all it did was make the docks smell worse: a combination of stale fish, rotting vegetables, and what Victorian ladies used to describe as something "much worse."
The offices had a weather-faded sign above the door: "Frog's Whisky and Wine Distributors." He pushed open the door and went in. "Why, Mary," he exclaimed, recognising the small girl behind the desk, "what are you doing here?" Mary Bisset was a resident of Lochdubh, small and pert. Her normally cheeky face, however, wore a harassed look.
"I'm a temp, Hamish," she said. "I cannae get the hang o' this computer."
"Where's the boss?"
"Out in the town at some meeting."
"Who is he?"
"Not Mr. Frog?"
"I think there was a Mr. Frog one time or another. Oh, Hamish, what am I to do?"
"Let me see. Move over." Hamish sat down at the computer and switched it on. Nothing happened. He twisted his lanky form around and looked down. "Mary, Mary, you havenae got the damn thing plugged in."
She giggled. Hamish plugged in the computer. "What do you want?"
"The word processing thingy. I've got letters to write."
"Before I do that, do you know where he keeps the account books?"
"In the safe." Hamish's face fell.
"But you're the polis. I suppose it would be all right to open it up for you."
"Do you know the combination?"
"It's one of thae old-fashioned things. The key's on the wall with the other keys in the inner office." Hamish went into the inner office. "Where is everyone?" he asked over his shoulder.
"Tam and Jerry-they work here-they've gone into town with Mr. Dunblane."
Hamish grinned. There on a board with other keys and neatly labelled "Safe" was the key he wanted. "Come in, Mary," he said. "You'd better be a witness to this." Hamish opened the safe. There was a large quantity of banknotes on the lower shelf. On the upper shelf were two large ledgers marked "Accounts." He took them out and relocked the safe. He sat down at a desk and began to go through them. "Keep a lookout, Mary," he said, "and scream if you see anyone."
"What's this all about?"
He grinned at her. "If this works out, I'll take you out for dinner one evening and tell you."
Chief Superintendent Peter Daviot had finished his speech to the Strathbane Businessmen's Association. He enjoyed being a guest speaker at affairs such as these. But his enjoyment was not to last for long. He had just regained his seat to gratifying applause when his mobile phone rang. He excused himself from the table and went outside to answer it. It was Detective Chief Inspector Blair. "Macbeth's landed us in the shit," growled Blair.
"Moderate your language," snapped Daviot. "What's up?"
"Teller's shop up in Braikie was broken into and all his booze stolen. Macbeth's accusing Teller of covering up evidence and Teller is threatening to sue."
"Dear me, you'd better get up there and diffuse the situation."
"Anderson's up there."
"Go yourself. This requires the attention of a senior officer. And tell Macbeth to report to me immediately." When Daviot returned to police headquarters, he was told to his surprise that Hamish Macbeth was waiting to see him. "That was quick," he said to his secretary, Helen."Where is he?"
"In your office," said Helen sourly. She loathed Hamish.
Daviot pushed open the door and went in. Hamish got to his feet clutching a sheaf of photocopied papers. "What's this all about, Macbeth? I hear there has been a complaint about you."
"It's about Teller's grocery," said Hamish. "He claims to have had all his booze stolen, booze that was supplied by Frog's. These are photocopies of the account books at Frog's. They are an eye-opener. The last delivery to Teller is recorded in one set of books. But this other set shows five more shopkeepers from all over who claimed insurance and were paid fifty per cent of the insurance money."
"How did you come by this?"
"Dunblane, the boss, and two others were out. I know the temp. She let me into the safe."
"Macbeth! You cannot do that without a search warrant!"
"So I need one now. The temp won't talk. We'd better move fast."
"I sent Blair up to Braikie because Teller was threatening to sue. I'll issue that search warrant and we'll take Detective MacNab and two police officers and get round there." It was late evening by the time Hamish Macbeth drove back to Lochdubh. He was a happy, contented man. Blair had returned from Lochdubh in time to hear about the success of the operation. The five other shopkeepers were being rounded up. They had claimed on supposedly stolen stock, taken it themselves, and hidden it. So they gained half the insurance money and still had their stock after they had paid Dunblane.
That strange half-light of a northern Scottish summer where it never really gets dark bathed the countryside: the gloaming, where, as some of the older people still believed, the fairies lay in wait for the unwary traveller.
As Hamish opened the police station door, Lugs barked a reproachful welcome. Hamish took the dog out for a walk and then returned to prepare them both some supper. There came a furious knocking at the kitchen door just as he had put Lugs's food bowl on the floor and was sitting down at the table to enjoy his own supper.
He opened the door and found himself confronted with the furious figure of Mary Bisset's mother. "You leave my daughter alone, d'ye hear?" she shouted. "She's only twenty. Find someone your own age."
Hamish blinked at her. "Your daughter was of great help in our enquiries into an insurance fraud," he said. "I couldn't tell her what it was about but promised to take her out for dinner by way of thanks and tell her then."
"Oh, yeah," she sneered. "Well, romance someone of your own age. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. Casanova!" And with that she stormed off.
Hamish slammed the door. Women, he thought. I'm only in my thirties and I've just been made to feel like a dirty old man.Copyright © 2003 Marion Chesney
Reprinted with permission.
The aromas of wild thyme and Highlands heather waft through Lochdubh, home to M. C. Beaton's eccentric policeman, Hamish Macbeth. Yet what the irascible constable smells in his latest case is the acrid scent of fear as an entire town is entrapped in something dark and deadly...
During the eerie half-light of a far north summer night, a crime spree-from scams to burglary-strikes the Highlands. Suddenly Hamish Macbeth, never an ambitious man, has more police work than he desires. After all, Macbeth's preferred activity is watching the waves dance on the loch. Yet as he deftly investigates the summer's high crimes and misdemeanors, he attracts the attention of his superiors. They feel a promotion and transfer will give him a larger playing field than Lochdubh. That's the last thing Macbeth wants. Now the laconic lawman needs a clever way to quash the move without losing his job entirely.
He also needs to solve one more case--the baffling problem in Stoyre. The inhabitants of this remote fishing village are acting, well, fishy. On a routine visit, Macbeth finds the pub empty, and the church unexpectedly full. Faces are hostile, mouths tightly closed. Fear permeates the very air. Then an explosion levels a holiday cottage, and locals call the blast an "act of God."
Macbeth disagrees. He has an outrageous theory about Stoyre that can make national news...if he's right. With the help of journalist Elspeth Grant, and an assist from his dog Lugs, he's dreamt up a scheme to ferret out the truth without alerting his superiors to what may be another stroke of his special genius. Or a complete disaster. As any good Scotsman knows, the best laid plans oft go awry. And Macbeth's may go desperately wrong with an old friend's death, a scandalous rumor, and the loss of one so brave and true that it might break his heart.(back to top)
M.C. Beaton is the pseudonym for Marion McChesney. Under her own name, she has published over 100 historical romance novels. She also publishes under many other pseudonyms: Marion Chesney, Sarah Chester, Helen Crampton, Ann Fairfax, Jennie Tremaine, Charlotte Ward. M.C. Beaton is the pseudonym she reserves for her mystery novels.
Marion Chesney was born in Glasgow, Scotland, in 1936. She has worked as a fiction buyer for a bookseller, as womens fashion editor for the magazine Scottish Field, as a reporter and theater critic for the Scottish Daily Express (Glasgow), and as a reporter for the Daily Express (London). Like her amateur sleuth Agatha Raisin, Chesney and her husband live in a cottage in the English Cotswolds.