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On a dark, damp Sunday evening, a man taking a shortcut home sees a hand reaching out in supplication from a bundle of sacks. In an instant he knows something terrifying has happened.
In the Highlands in the late 1950s, much of the local newspaper’s success was due to Mrs. Smart, the no-nonsense office manager who kept everything and everyone in ...
On a dark, damp Sunday evening, a man taking a shortcut home sees a hand reaching out in supplication from a bundle of sacks. In an instant he knows something terrifying has happened.
In the Highlands in the late 1950s, much of the local newspaper’s success was due to Mrs. Smart, the no-nonsense office manager who kept everything and everyone in line. Her murder leaves her colleagues in shock and the Highland Gazette office in chaos. Joanne Ross, a budding reporter and shamefully separated mother, assumes Mrs. Smart’s duties, but an intriguing stranger provides a distraction not only from the job and the investigation but from everything Joanne believes in.
Beneath the Abbey Wall brilliantly evokes a place still torn between the safety of the past and the uncertainty of the future, when rock ’n’ roll and television invaded homes, and a change in attitudes still came slowly for many. As the staff of the Highland Gazette probes the crime, they uncover secrets deeply rooted in the past, and their friend’s murder becomes the perfect fodder for strife and division in the town and between her colleagues.
Beneath the Abbey Wall
After twenty-five years as a journalist, McAllister was used to late nights, so when the doorbell rang at twenty past eleven he was awake, reading, and on his third single-malt whisky of the evening. As he put down his book and rose to answer the door, he felt uneasy. Who would be awake in this Scottish Highland town this late on the Sabbath?
Police Constable Ann McPherson stood on the doorstep. “Mr. McAllister. We’ve found a woman. She’s dead. One of my colleagues thinks she works—worked—at the Gazette . . . ”
WPC McPherson saw a flash of dread cross McAllister’s face. “It’s not Joanne.”
Ann McPherson knew McAllister and liked the editor of the Highland Gazette; liked his wit, his intellect, and secretly admired his tall dark brooding elegance. She had also guessed at his fascination with Joanne Ross, a reporter on the Gazette, a woman fifteen years younger than his forty-five, a woman whose smile and changeable-as-the-ocean-blue-green eyes and ever curious mind had entered his dreaming—awake and asleep.
“Come in.” Not waiting for an answer, he went straight to his sitting room to pour another dram.
“Who is she?” he asked after he gulped the whisky down.
“That’s why I’m here. We need your help to identify her.”
He noted she did not say what had happened and knew this was not good. “I’ll get my coat.”
Until now, September had been glorious. A late burst of warmth and color and crystal nights, the glens and mountains orange and red and ochre, the islands in the river that cut the town in half, were decked out in an outburst of beauty that made the heart glad. But this Sunday, winter gave advance notice with a grey dreich-damp cold shroud, covering the town and mountains, spiced up by a steady nor’easterly straight off the North Sea that sent even the seagulls inland. It seemed a fitting day to end in death.
McAllister was grateful that on the short journey across the river, WPC McPherson said nothing.
The car park for the mortuary was at the back of the building and dark except for a single faint light above a door marked “Entrance.” The exit was not marked, but McAllister was aware of the tall robust brick chimney and wondered if it was the exit, or perhaps entrance, to the underworld.
They said no more. Detective Inspector Dunne led the way down a corridor and held open the thick green doors to the high-ceilinged room, where a mortuary attendant was waiting beside a trolley. A rubber sheet—green, color-coordinated to match the door and tiles—covered the figure awaiting McAllister’s verdict. He mentally blessed the deities, in which he had little faith, for the three shots of malt he’d had earlier. Or was it four?
He took a breath through his mouth, then nodded.
The light was harsh, making shadows. It highlighted the look of surprise that McAllister fancied he saw on the brow of her clearly dead face. He never understood that epitaph on tombstones, “Only sleeping.”
“Enough,” was all he managed to say, before turning and walking out into the corridor.
“I have to ask you formally . . . ” DI Dunne came up behind him.
“Can I smoke?” McAllister asked.
“In here.” WPC McPherson indicated a waiting room.
The police officers waited until McAllister filled his lungs, exhaled, before putting the formal question.
“Mr. McAllister, do you recognize the deceased?” the inspector asked in a formal policeman’s voice.
“I do. It is, was, Mrs. Smart, business manager at the Highland Gazette. I don’t remember her first name.”
As he said this he felt a rush of guilt. This was the woman he had worked beside for a year and a half. This was the woman who made sure the Gazette functioned, the woman who was as essential to the newspaper as the printing press.
“I’m sorry, it’s the shock.”
He knew it wasn’t, and he knew he would be ashamed of this lapse of memory for the remainder of his life. He turned away. He wanted to remember her differently—alive, clearheaded, calm, an anchor in the newsroom, an older woman, once pretty, who had grown into a handsome understated elegance. He wanted his vision of her, hair in a chignon, never a stray strand, no makeup and the only touch of vanity a perfume that Joanne had assured him was called Joy, to remain intact, not sullied by the sight of her in death. And he needed to breathe, to affirm he was alive.
“I need air,” he said. He didn’t add that the mortuary was thick with the presence of death, and he could only breathe through his mouth, and he needed a cigarette, and he needed a whisky, and he wanted to talk to someone but he was too old to talk to his mother, and he was once again regretting his aloofness, his self-isolation, facets of his character he never saw as a fault, until lately.
Mrs. Smart is dead.
DI Dunne walked with McAllister along the corridors, out into the fresh air, saying nothing. The detective was a good man. And sensitive. He knew when to say nothing.
McAllister refused the offer of a lift home. He wished DI Dunne a good night, knowing it would never be that. WPC McPherson had left. Probably off to break the news to the husband. That seems the lot of a woman police officer.
McAllister took the Infirmary footbridge across the river, the quickest way home. Halfway across he thought, Her husband—all I know is that he is a retired military man. Again he tasted the bitter tang of guilt. I know so little about that splendid woman, and now it is too late.
A church bell was striking one o’clock as he opened his front door. He went to the kitchen, put on the kettle. Remembering his mother’s recipe for shock, he added sugar to his tea. Taking his mug to the sitting room, he added a slug of whisky—his recipe for shock. He threw a log on the embers of the fire, settled down to search for the name. Still the answer eluded him.
She was a private woman. I’ve worked with her since I came to the north from Glasgow, I liked her, I respected her, but I could never say I knew her. She was always Mrs. Smart to everyone—even to Don, but I should know her first name.
A calm efficient woman, he had inherited her and his deputy, Don McLeod, when he was brought in as the editor of the Highland Gazette. It took only one day for him to recognize that he did not need to tell them their jobs, and that they could run the place without him.
McAllister was there for a different reason—to bring the newspaper out of the nineteenth century and into the nineteen fifties. It had taken more than a year, but 1957 was the rebirth of a newspaper unchanged for more than a century.
Why in Heaven’s name would anyone want to murder her? It must be a mistake.
He had always thought her name appropriate—Mrs. Smart—the model of an efficient office manager; quiet, well-mannered, capable, able to grasp his new ideas for the Gazette and implement them without fuss. She was fine-looking in an elderly, middle-class way. She seldom offered an opinion until asked, did not gossip, and kept her private life private.
Wasn’t her husband a war hero from somewhere in the Far East? Don will know. They’ve worked together since before the war. Should I tell him? Is one o’clock in the morning too late? Who would want to murder her? Why was she in town at nine thirty on a Sunday night? How are we going to get the paper out without her?
And in the maelstrom of thoughts he kept returning to the question that bothered him most—what was her first name?
* * *
McAllister had had little sleep, but he wanted to be early; he felt it his responsibility to break the news to the others on the Gazette. He walked down St. Steven’s Brae, brain not quite in the land of the living, the homing instinct guiding him to the office. The incoming tide of Academy pupils on their way to school in their blue blazers, chattering like a flock of starlings, in groups or dragging bicycles, in solitary despair because they were not part of a popular group, in panic over homework not done, dragging their Monday-morning feet up the steepness, parted around and oblivious to the gaunt man.
He continued down Eastgate in the suitably Monday-morning dreich. To a passerby who knew him slightly and who was ignored when he lifted his hat to McAllister, the man seemed to be searching for something or someone. Which he was; he was searching for an answer.
He reached the ornate eighteenth-century town house that loomed over the end of the High Street and paused to light a cigarette. He would need all the nicotine his body could absorb to get through this morning.
Climbing the spiral stone staircase to his office, he heard the clatter of what sounded like a bucket. Through the half-open door of his office he saw a cleaner mopping the floor. He knew the Gazette employed a cleaner, he had seen the payments in the budget, but he had never been in early enough to meet her.
“I’ll no’ be a minute,” she said without looking up.
“Fine.” He walked the five steps across the landing to the reporters’ room, where the floor was still wet. He took a tall chair at the end of the long High Table, as Don McLeod, his deputy, referred to it. He lit another cigarette and waited.
As he stared out of the solitary window at the dark grey cloud cover, he started to mentally compose the obituary. A nice woman, with an impressive bosom; can’t put that in an obituary. He half smiled, his first since seeing the chrysalis of her body, covered by the sheet, her hair still tight in that immaculate French roll she had worn as long as he had known her.
A good woman—no, that doesn’t do her justice.
“Goodness, you gave me a fright.” Joanne Ross stood in the doorway. “Never expected to see you in so early.”
McAllister busied himself stubbing out a cigarette in the metal ashtray with “Souvenir from Ayr” stamped around the edge.
She stared at him for a moment, seeing the darkness around and in his deep, almost navy blue, eyes. “What’s wrong?”
“Let’s wait for the others.”
She knew that was all she would hear until Don McLeod, deputy editor; Rob McLean, her fellow reporter; and Mrs. Smart, the business manager, turned up. She took off her Fair Isle beret; finger combed her heavy chestnut hair, hung up her scarf and coat, stuffing her gloves into the pockets. It might be mid-September, but cycling across the river, the North Sea wind could penetrate right to the bone.
“Tea?” she asked.
Joanne and McAllister were awkward alone with each other. The sound of Rob running up the stairs was welcome. Following him came the wheeze of Don’s breathing, clearly audible from a half-flight of stairs above.
Sitting at the reporter’s table that filled up most of the narrow room, facing the Underwood typewriter that she thought of as ancient and unforgiving and imbued with the spirit of John Knox, Joanne grinned at Rob as he came in.
Rob grinned back, shook the wind out of his overlong straw hair, threw his motorbike jacket at the hatrack, which wobbled but stayed upright, and holding his hands in the air, declared, “Goal!”
Don McLeod had to climb into the tall chair beside McAllister. They always made an incongruous pair—he short and barrel shaped, the editor long and pole shaped. He sat for a moment to get his breath back—the climb up the stairs on Monday always seemed steeper than on other days. His glance at the railway station clock registered the editor’s early attendance, he winked at Hector Bain, Gazette photographer and serial nuisance who had crept in, taking the chair next to Joanne, knowing she at least would not shout at him, he muttered Good morning, lass, to Joanne, ignored Rob—it being too early for a twenty-two-year-old’s version of wit—and began the search of his numerous pockets for his little red pencil, the one that kept the Gazette reporters up to the mark. He found it and put it behind his right ear. Now he was ready to start the week.
McAllister stubbed out yet another cigarette. “I have some news . . . ” he started.
“Well, we are a newspaper,” Rob pointed out.
Joanne threw a scrunched-up ball of paper at him. He ducked. She missed. They grinned at each other like small children misbehaving behind the teacher’s back. Don McLeod looked at them as though he were their teacher not editor. He started to waggle his finger at them, then realized what was wrong.
“Where’s Mrs. Smart?” he asked, knowing that for the ritual Monday-morning news meeting she was always in before the others.
McAllister saw he had lost control of his hands. He put them under the table, holding on to the underledge.
“Mrs. Smart won’t be coming in. She’s . . . ” He couldn’t continue.
It was Don who understood first.
“Has she had an accident?”
Before McAllister could reply, the sound of voices echoed up the stairwell.
“You can’t go up without an appointment.” Gazette secretary Betsy Buchanan’s voice, although shrill, was completely ineffective—the two sets of footsteps were already halfway up the stairs.
Detective Inspector Dunne hesitated in the doorway. The uniformed policeman behind him was visible only as a navy blue blur. But the detective, in a smart wool jacket, white shirt, regimental tie, raincoat open, hat respectfully removed, with the face of an off-duty funeral director, made everyone instantly nervous.
“Mr. McAllister, can I have a word?” Detective Inspector Dunne asked.
“Where’s Joyce?” Don stood, his body tensed, ready for a blow.
Joyce. Of course. McAllister was furious with himself.
Rob had a flash that this was going to be bad. Joanne’s face went pale, emphasizing her freckles. Hector looked as though he was about to cry. And DI Dunne realized that Mrs. Smart’s colleagues had yet to learn the news.
“Say what you have to say to all of us,” McAllister told the inspector.
DI Dunne took a step into the room. He took a deep breath as though he was about to announce the next psalm, and, looking up at the high window, the one decreed by the original architect to let in light but not the stunning view of castle ramparts, said, “At approximately half past nine last night, the body of Mrs. Archibald Smart was found on the steps off Church Street leading to the Greig Street Bridge.”
Then, ever-vigilant police detective, he shifted his gaze downwards to take in the reaction of Mrs. Smart’s colleagues.
There was a distinct moan, like a beast lowing in pain. It came from Don. He leaned forward, elbows on the table, head in hands, rocking backwards and forwards as though at prayer.
Joanne stared at Rob, who put his arm around her shoulder.
“How did she die?” Rob asked.
The police inspector paused for a moment to consider whether to tell, then answered, “She was stabbed. I’ve been told she died instantly.”
More as a puzzle than a question, Rob blurted out, “Why would anyone kill Mrs. Smart?”
“We don’t know yet,” the detective answered.
“Late last night I was asked to identify the body and—” McAllister began.
“And you never told me?” Don turned on him with a ferocity that made Joanne shrink back in her chair.
“It was early morning when I got home.” The editor knew his mistake.
“We need to talk to all of you. I’ll send someone back in an hour or so—give you all time to digest the news.” DI Dunne had barely finished the sentence when he felt himself being propelled to one side.
“Mr. McLeod. Sir.” The uniformed policeman called down the stairs. There was no response, only the echo of heavy footsteps.
“We’ll need to speak to Mr. McLeod, as he worked with her the longest.” DI Dunne nodded at McAllister, giving him the responsibility for his deputy editor.
When the policemen left, the silence stretched, no one knowing what to say.
“Does this mean Mrs. Smart was murdered?” Hector was the first to speak.
“It would seem so,” McAllister answered.
The crack in McAllister’s voice frightened Hec. “That’s no’ right,” he said to one in particular. He rubbed his hands through his sticking-up carrot-colored hair, and sniffed. “That canny be right. She was a really nice woman.”
“McAllister, how did it happen?” Rob looked at the editor, the man who knew almost everything—in Rob’s eyes. “And why?”
“I don’t know. All I know is I saw her body. That she was stabbed is news to me.”
McAllister looked at Joanne, who was sitting with her head in her hands saying nothing. Rob too looked lost, fiddling with his pencil, staring at the table. Hector was sniffing, trying his best not to cry.
The shrill ring of the telephone made everyone jump.
“Rob. Beauchamp Carlyle here. May I speak with Mr. McAllister?”
Rob thought that Beech, as he was known, had no need to introduce himself. His voice alone—that educated upper-class born-to-rule drawl—would identify him. His guffaw that passed for a laugh and always made the listener join in even when they didn’t get the joke endeared the man to all he met. Rob passed the receiver over.
“There’s a disturbance at Mr. and Mrs. Smart’s house,” Beech said. “I’m at my sister’s—she lives next door. It seems Mr. McLeod is involved.”
“I’ll be right over.” McAllister hesitated before asking, “Have you heard? No? Mrs. Smart died last night. Yes. Terrible news. I’ll see you in five minutes.”
“I’m coming too.” Rob was off before McAllister could stop him.
“Joanne. Could you hold the fort?” McAllister asked. “Any calls about Mrs. Smart—just say nothing.”
It took Joanne a minute or so to realize Hec had sneaked out. She looked at the long expanse of empty table, wondering how they would be able to meet this week’s deadline without Mrs. Smart, when the phone rang.
“Gazette. Oh, hello, Betsy. No. Mrs. Smart won’t be in.” Hearing the panic in the Gazette secretary’s voice, Joanne knew she would have to break the bad news. Knowing that Busty Betsy, as the printers called her, hated climbing the narrow stone stairs in what Joanne considered too high-heeled shoes for a workday, she said, “You’d better come upstairs.”
Thanks a lot, McAllister; dealing with a hysterical Betsy Buchanan is just what I don’t need. But deal with Betsy she must; she had assured McAllister that knowing that her husband, Bill, was living with Mrs. Betsy Buchanan, war widow and assisted blonde, was not a problem.
It keeps him away from me, she had told McAllister. She would never admit her niggles of resentment; Betsy could wind Bill Ross round her little finger, whereas all Joanne had managed in ten years was to rile him, provoke him into hitting her—and worse.
* * *
The disturbance was over by the time Rob came roaring down the hill on his red Triumph motorbike. He parked on the pavement and went through the open gate leading to the back garden. The back of the large turreted mansion house faced the road leading to the south side of Loch Ness. The substantial gardens, bound by high stone walls, faced the river.
When he came in the garden gate, Rob saw three policemen: one talking to Mr. Beauchamp Carlyle, the other two talking to a man in a wheelchair. Holding onto the handles of the wheelchair stood a slight, Asian-looking man who seemed half the height of Mr. Beauchamp Carlyle’s six foot five. Beech wrote the “Countryside” column for the Gazette, and unknown to most, he was a major shareholder of the newspaper. There was no sign of Don.
Rob waved to Beech, who mimed Two minutes. Rob saw the man in the wheelchair, guessed he was Mrs. Smart’s husband, and wondered if it would be too crass to approach him. The arrival of a police car with Detective Inspector Dunne and a taxi with McAllister solved his dilemma.
Wee Hec, hiding behind a broken rhododendron bush, was pointing a camera, clicking so fast it sounded like a mad metronome.
McAllister waved Hec away with a shooing gesture but, ever the journalist, not before he was satisfied Hec had enough shots of the scene. McAllister also watched Rob prowl the perimeter of the lawn, taking in the people, the back door that looked as though it had been attacked with an axe, the broken garden pots, and remains of geraniums, chrysanthemums, and lavender shrubs lying like casualties on a battlefield.
Rob came over to him and asked, “Whatever happened?” The editor shrugged in a “search me” gesture. He took out a packet of Passing Cloud and lit up. Whatever happened, McAllister was thinking, was done in great anger.
“There’s nothing much for you here, Rob. Get back to the office; you and Joanne can cobble together the basic pages for the next edition.”
Rob looked at him, the question obvious on his face.
“I’ll write up . . . ” McAllister hesitated. “Murder” was the worst swear word in the world, he always thought. “I’ll write about Mrs. Smart. Front page obviously.”
McAllister stood for a moment, sighed out a long stream of smoke, and turned away, his head shaking slightly from side to side.
Rob knew this was all the answer he would get. But as he sat astride his bike, he had to put both feet on the ground and hold tightly to the handlebars, unable to kick-start the engine. The reality of what had happened hit him. Mrs. Smart is dead, murdered. Who the hell would want to kill her? And why the hell has Don McLeod vandalized her house? When he eventually drove off, for the first time ever he drove well within the speed limits.
“I can’t bring myself to believe it,” Beech said as he showed McAllister into the next-door house belonging to his sister—another substantial mansion built in grey stone in the Scottish baronial style, with crow-step gables and French doors opening onto a front lawn large enough for a bowling green. “Mrs. Smart dead.”
“A police officer thought he recognized her in connection with the Gazette. I was asked to identify the body, so I know she is dead. But murdered . . . ” McAllister too was having trouble with the idea.
“Quite.” Mortimer Beauchamp Carlyle had witnessed many deaths—even murders in his time as an administrative officer in the Sudan, but the murder of a family friend, in this quiet town—this was different.
Beech ushered McAllister into a sitting room the size of most people’s houses. “Last night, I heard someone call next door—very late, nearly midnight. The police no doubt.”
“My sister will be devastated. She and Joyce Mackenzie—Mrs. Smart—have been friends for about twenty-five years, ever since they both returned from abroad.” He saw the question on McAllister’s face and went to elaborate. What he didn’t see was McAllister searching for an ashtray, wondering if he could light up in such a splendid sitting room.
“My sister was in China . . . ” Beech started.
“I can see,” said McAllister, looking at the Oriental furniture, such an odd contrast to the heavy wooden paneling and the equally elaborate paneled ceiling. But he could spy no ashtrays.
“Joyce Smart was in India. Came home in the early thirties. A few years later, her husband, Archibald, had an unfortunate accident with an elephant—so the story goes—and he too returned to Scotland.”
McAllister detected a twinge of doubt in that remark.
Beech paced across the room as though measuring the dimensions of the faded Persian carpet. “Look here, McAllister, do you think it too early for a dram? I don’t mind admitting I’m pretty shaken.”
“Shaken? What’s happened? And why is there a police car parked next door?”
A tall slim woman who could be mistaken for Beech’s twin, not his elder sister, had come quietly into the room without the men noticing. Elegantly dressed in tweed skirt and moss-green jumper, her hair in a loose knot at the nape of her neck matched the plentiful silver frames of the photographs of groups of Asian children crowding the top of the baby grand piano. She did not seem nervous, but it was obvious she knew something was amiss.
McAllister had met her before but could not say he knew her. He stood. “Countess Sokolov.”
“Please, no formalities, I prefer to be know as Mrs. Sokolov. Even though I am legally a countess, it sounds so pretentious.”
As she smiled, McAllister saw that her eyes, as pale blue as a duck’s egg, had that ethereal quality which, in a photograph, would make the eyes seem empty.
“I can see by your dram it must be . . . unfortunate.” She said this to her brother. “Do you want to tell me now or shall I make tea first?”
“Tea first, please.” Beech believed not so much in tea for shock, more in the tea ritual.
The three sat around a small table set by a window overlooking a profusion of flowerless shrubs that McAllister, being a Glaswegian, guessed to be azalea, the only garden plant he knew.
Rosemary Sokolov poured, saw her brother stir two spoons of sugar into his cup, and knew this was not going to be good news.
“Mrs. Smart has been killed.” Beech was gentle but direct in his speech. They were both of an age where they had seen too much of death to use platitudes. “There is no way to soften this—my dear, the police are saying she was murdered.”
Rosemary looked into her cup as though searching for an explanation in the tea leaves—or perhaps to hide the salt water in her eyes. “That poor woman—after all she has been through . . . ”
They were silent for a moment, the pause like the one minute’s silence on Armistice Day, to reflect on the dead. The phrase would stick in McAllister’s mind. After all she has been through.
“I’m sorry,” McAllister said putting his teacup carefully back into the delicate saucer, “there is not much I can tell you. But if and when I do hear more, I’ll let you know.” He stood. “Please excuse me, I must get back to the office.”
Beech saw him out. “I’ll come in this afternoon,” he said, “see if I can be of any help.”
“I’d be grateful.”
They shook hands. The idea of Beech in the office was reassuring. The much older man had a calming presence and a good sense of the milieu of a newspaper. He knew all the casual correspondents and contributors. His name alone was enough to calm the most querulous complainants. His voice, when he telephoned to ask a favor or two from recalcitrant councilors or noble lords, made the listener believe that their opinion mattered. Plus, the family name, and that of the matriarchal lineage, made him a formidable figure in Highland society.
Thank goodness I can rely on Beech, was McAllister’s thought as he strode off along the river to the town and the next edition of the Highland Gazette. We will surely need all the help we can get.