Read an Excerpt
Death of a Greedy Woman
By Beaton, M. C.
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2011 Beaton, M. C.
All right reserved.
O fat white woman whom nobody loves
—Frances Crofts Cornford
It was a blue day in the West Highlands of Scotland as P. C. 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 were 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 were 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 prized 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 a 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 were 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 road 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 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 were 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 maître d’ 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, he 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 her. 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 say!” 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, Q.C.; 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 that 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.
With an increased feeling of well-being, she packed away her notes and closed her eyes. Nothing could possibly go wrong.
Jessica Fitt, had Maria but known it, was further down the train in the second-class dining car, trying to catch the eye of the waiter so that she could order more tea, but the waiter slouched past her as if she did not exist. She gave a little sigh and wondered, as she had wondered so many times before, why she did not have the courage to raise her voice and call him. She thought of Checkmate and wondered whom they had found for her and experienced a sudden spasm of nerves that made her nervously scratch her armpits and then one hip. She belonged to that nervous breed of women who are forever scratching themselves. She did hope it would be different from the other two events organized by Checkmate: one dinner party, and one cocktail party in the Whistler Room at the Tate Gallery. The man selected as her escort on each occasion had drifted off to talk to some other woman. If it had not been for the attentions of Maria Worth, she would have been left entirely alone. But perhaps this time it would work. It was a whole week in which to get someone to notice her. She sighed. Someone—anyone—kind would do. She had lost hopes of romance long ago.
Sir Bernard Grant drove his large car northwards through the clear empty Highland landscape. If he did not find a partner at this affair, he would drop Checkmate and try one of the other agencies. He was very rich, but that did not mean he liked wasting money, he told himself virtuously. He needed a wife, a good hostess, someone with a bit of style. He wasn’t much interested in sex. He could always buy that.
Also driving north was Matthew Cowper, still young enough at twenty-eight to dream of a mixture of social success and romance. He wanted one of those cool society girls. For all there were a lot of yuppies like him working in brokerage houses in the City, chaps from ordinary working-class backgrounds, he knew the old guard stuck together. The correct wife would give him that edge he needed.
He turned in at the gates of the Tommel Castle Hotel, silhouetted against the blue sky, turrets and pinnacles and battlements and all. It was a fake castle, built in Victorian times, but Matthew did not know that. It reminded him of a castle in a boy’s book about knights of old that he used to treasure.
He saw Priscilla Halburton-Smythe walking across the drive in front of the castle and his heartbeat quickened. What a stunner! Thank you, God!
Jenny Trask had a lot in common with Jessica Fitt. Although she was attractive and in her twenties, she was painfully shy outside the confines of her job in a legal office. She hated dating because either the man dashed off right after dinner, which was a painful rejection, or he stayed on, obviously expecting the evening to end in bed. Jenny felt she did not belong to the world that her contemporaries inhabited. They thought nothing of leaping into bed with someone on a very short acquaintanceship. They were, or so Jenny thought, hardheaded and practical. Jenny dreamt of romance and longed for the days, now long gone, when a girl could expect to be courted. She had only recently joined Checkmate, and this visit to the Highlands was her first experience with the agency.
Hope sprang eternal. Jenny had flown to Inverness and then caught a bus to Ullapool, then changed at Ullapool to a creaking local bus to take her to Lochdubh. Her hopes soared with every mile. So remote from London and so very beautiful. She was seeing the mountains and moors of Scotland as they are rarely seen, benign in sunlight. It had cost an awful lot of money, but already she felt sure it was all worth it. Somewhere at the end of the journey was the clever, sensitive, and romantic man of her dreams.
Peter Trumpington drove his Mercedes with the real leather seats competently through some of the most dazzling scenery in the world—like Switzerland without people—and was completely unaware of the beauty around him. He would have been just as happy in London. But if this long journey meant a suitable bride, then this long journey had to be completed. All that was in his mind was the thought of a long cool drink and a hot dinner. He did not know Deborah Freemantle had been chosen for him, or anything about her.
Deborah was also driving along the one-track roads near journey’s end. She was employed as an editorial assistant with Dumbey’s Publishing, who produced large coffee-table books on art or country houses or other inoffensive and expensive subjects. She had been hired not for her brains, but because she did not expect to be paid very much, because her grammar was quite good and her enthusiasm boundless. She also had one great asset. She did not aspire to take her boss’s job. Dumbey’s was not a competitive firm, and editors liked to have inferiors who would not threaten their position. Her enthusiasm was not an act. She was genuinely enthusiastic about everyone and everything, which made up for her clumsiness and large backside. She had heavy Hanoverian features and rather thin brown hair. She bounded and giggled much as she had done at the expensive boarding-school she had once attended. She had made her come-out as a débutante, but things, her parents had decided, were not handled as in the old days, when a good dowry was enough to thrust a beloved daughter into marriage. Checkmate had been their idea. As with Jenny, this would be the first get-together she had attended. She was not very worried about it all. Mummy and Daddy usually knew best.
John Taylor, Q.C., alighted from the station at Inverness. He recognized Maria Worth, who was walking along the platform in front of him, but he did not hail her. To him, she was a sort of employee and he was not going to demean himself by sharing his taxi north with her.
The taxi-driver he asked to take him to Lochdubh explained it would probably cost him in the region of forty-five pounds. “Oh, get on with it,” snapped John, and climbed into the back seat.
Money was no object when it came to spiting his children. The trouble had started last Christmas in the family get-together at John Taylor’s country home in Buckinghamshire. His wife had died when the children were still young, and he considered he had done the best anyone could for daughter Penelope and son Brian. Brian was a lawyer like his father and quite a successful one. Penelope had married an affluent stockbroker. All was what it should be.
And then, coming down the stairs one morning before Christmas, he had overheard Brian and Penelope talking. “I wish we didn’t have to endure these ghoulish family affairs,” Brian was saying. “The old man has about as much Christmas spirit as Scrooge.”
Penelope gave her infuriating giggle and said, “He hasn’t been quite the same since they abolished hanging. He’s still boring on about bringing back the birch and the treadmill.”
And Brian had rejoined, “Only a few more days to go and then we can escape from his pontificating. But be sweet to him, Penelope. Your kids and my kids will soon be ready to go to public schools and you know what a mint that’s going to cost us. He can’t last much longer. He looks like a cadaver warmed up. He’s made his will and we both get the lot. So let’s continue to ho-ho-ho our way through this awful Christmas.”
John had retreated back upstairs. Hatred burned inside him. To cut them out of his will would not be revenge enough. After he was dead, he wouldn’t be around to see their stupid faces. He thought long and hard about ways to get even and then he decided to go to Checkmate and order them to find him a bride. They probably had someone on their books desperate enough.
Mary French had already arrived at Tommel Castle Hotel. Mary was always early for everything. She turned up at dinner parties at least an hour early. She had taken the train up to Inverness the day before and had got the first bus in the morning to Ullapool and then a cab from Ullapool to Lochdubh. She was not nervous in the slightest. Maria Worth might regret the fact that Mary had buckteeth and jug-ears, but Mary saw rare beauty when she looked in the glass. She taught at a girls’ school, one of the few that still employed only female teachers. That was why, she knew, she was not married. Men could only admire her from afar. The fact that she met plenty of men on her annual holidays did not count. Her aristocratic breeding had put them off. Checkmate would find her the right sort. They’d better, she thought with true aristocratic thrift. She was paying enough.
Maria got down to business with Mr. Johnson as soon as she arrived. There was to be a drinks party before dinner; not in the bar, but in a small private room off the dining-room.
Priscilla Halburton-Smythe was upstairs in her room, cursing as she took out a black dress. Two of the waitresses had gone off sick with summer colds. She could not risk getting some untrained woman from the village. She would need to act as waitress herself, and that meant taking round the trays of drinks before dinner as well. Thank goodness her father retained enough distaste for Checkmate to want to play “mine host,” or he would foam and huff and puff at the sight of his daughter in a waitress’s uniform, blissfully unconcerned that if she did not help, the dinner would be a disaster.
The programme for the week had been posted up in each of the Checkmate clients’ bedrooms. They were expected to present themselves for drinks at six-thirty. Priscilla went along the corridor to the maid’s cupboard and selected and tied on an apron. She hesitated over the cap but then decided she had better put one on and look the part.
She went down to the bar at six-thirty. Jenkins, the Halburton-Smythes’ former butler, now the maître d’hôtel, gave her a scandalized look as she walked through the hall. Jessie, the one waitress on duty, followed Priscilla into the room off the dining-room. Maria was already there, wearing a scarlet evening gown. The barman was ready to take orders. All Priscilla and Jessie had to do was go to the bar and fetch them and, after that, serve the dinner, which Jenkins, with averted eyes, told her was all ready.
Maria saw nothing wrong with the daughter of the house acting as waitress. Tommel Castle was a terribly expensive hotel and she expected the best of service.
“I have checked the place-settings,” said Maria. “Everything is correct. The right people will be sitting next to each other. Nothing can go wrong. They should be here any minute.”
And then she looked over Priscilla’s shoulder to the doorway and turned a muddy colour. Startled, Priscilla turned round.
A large fat woman was standing there. Her hair was dyed a flaming red. She was wearing a huge loose flowered blouse over a pair of trousers and an old-fashioned corset, to judge from the bumps and ridges. Her small, cornflower-blue eyes were sunk in pads of fat, and she had a small, petulant mouth.
“Surprise!” she cried.
Maria recovered with an effort. “Peta,” she said in a hollow voice. “What are you doing here? I thought you were in Hungary.”
“Changed my mind,” said Peta triumphantly. “I called in at your office this morning and that silly secretary of yours said she didn’t know where you were. So I checked the computer and found the address. I got the plane to Inverness and a cab up. Don’t you think I’m clever?”
Maria rallied with a visible effort. “Peta, I’m sure this isn’t your scene.”
“Darling, of course it is. You know me… the merry widow. Oh, there she is. You haven’t met my niece, Crystal Debenham, have you? Just back from finishing school in Switzerland.”
Maria stared. Disaster upon disaster. Crystal was so very beautiful in a smouldering kind of way: voluptuous figure, smoky-blue eyes, masses of brown hair highlighted with silvery-blonde streaks, pouting mouth, and wearing a dress so short it made her long, long legs look like a dream of desire. What man was going to look at any of her female clients with Crystal around?
“Pleased to meet you,” said Crystal in a languid, husky voice. She would have once, thought Priscilla, half-amused, half-exasperated, been called a vamp.
“Perhaps there are no rooms free, Peta dear,” said Maria.
“No, I called before I left London and got a couple of rooms.”
“Wouldn’t you like to change?”
“I never go in for that formal stuff,” said Peta cheerfully. She turned round. “This your lot?”
Headed by Mary French, who would have been there much earlier had she not laddered two pairs of tights and spent some time looking for another pair, came the clients of Checkmate.
Crystal just stood and smouldered. The men clustered round her and the females stood a little way away, watching gloomily, not even talking to each other.
“What can I get you to drink?” Priscilla asked Maria.
“Get me a double gin,” said Maria waspishly. She looked at Peta with loathing.
“And get a double arsenic for her.”
The best laid schemes o’ mice and men
Gang aft a-gley.
To Maria’s relief, the little knot of men around Crystal began to break up and she was able to seize arms and introduce the various clients to their proper partners. Crystal pouted slightly and swayed over to join her aunt.
The fact was, thought the ambitious Matthew Cowper shrewdly, that Crystal Debenham was the kind of girl one took to the pub to impress the other fellows. She was not the kind one married. She was extremely dull and had no talent for conversation whatsoever, the narcissistic Crystal considering looks enough.
Maria made it firmly obvious who was meant for whom, and Matthew was not sure that Jenny Trask was at all suitable. She was painfully shy and he wanted a firm, confident woman to help him in his career. The blonde beauty he had seen on his arrival, the one he had been so sure was meant for him, had turned out to be nothing more than a hotel waitress. He glanced at Priscilla and now saw only the uniform and not the beauty.
Jenny, ever polite, was struggling to make conversation by telling him about her job. He barely listened, his eyes roving over the rest of the females and coming to rest on Mary French, the schoolteacher, she of the sticking-out ears and buck-teeth. Now there was class, from her pale, arrogant, self-satisfied look to her pearls and expensively dowdy dress. She had a hectoring carrying voice. He waited until Jenny had paused for breath, said, “Excuse me,” and slid off.
John Taylor was relieved to see him. Although he was well aware that he, John, was old and could not expect a young beauty to be put his way, Mary appalled him. When Matthew came up, John crossed the room and joined Jenny, found out she was a legal secretary in Lincoln’s Inn Fields in an office near his own, and happily began to talk shop.
Sir Bernard Grant barely saw the grey Jessica Fitt. He could not believe this was to be his partner. So he looked beyond Jessica’s dull face, looking for another candidate, and fell on Deborah Freemantle, who was bouncing and wriggling in front of Peter Trumpington. He heard her loud laugh and decided she looked like more fun than anyone else there. So he joined her, and Peter Trumpington, who for all his shallow-mindedness was nonetheless kind, went to speak to Jessica Fitt.
Maria took a deep breath of relief. They were not pairing off the way she had intended, but at least they were all talking to each other and the beautiful Crystal was ignored. Besides, once they found their place cards at the dinner table, they would once more be with their rightful partners.
But when she led the way into the dining-room, it was to find that Peta had already taken the chair at the head of the table, with Crystal next to her. Then the others just ignored the place cards and sat down and talked to the person they had been talking to before.
The first course was cock-a-leekie soup, Tommel Castle priding itself on its traditional Scottish dishes. Peta rolled up her sleeves and got to work. She gurgled, she slurped, she inhaled soup like a human vacuum cleaner, first breaking great clumps of bread into it and mashing them up with her spoon.
“Who on earth is that great fat woman?” muttered Sir Bernard to Deborah. Deborah laughed wildly and said, “Gosh! I don’t know. Sickening, isn’t she?” and Sir Bernard began to think more and more that Deborah was his kind of girl.
The soup was followed by dishes of prawns in a delicate sauce. Peta wolfed hers down and turned to John Taylor, who was on her other side and looking at her in horrified amazement, said, “I see you’re not eating yours,” and before he could protest, snatched his dish and ate those too.
The next course was unfortunately a rich venison casserole with a wine sauce and the casserole was placed at the head of the table in front of Peta. Peta waved Priscilla away and said she would serve. So the others soon found themselves looking down at small portions and then at the heaped mound of meat and sauce on Peta’s plate. She bent down and snuffled at it appreciatively before diving in. She also ate great piles of vegetables and three large baked potatoes with a whole dairy of butter. She then called for more bread and, pulling the casserole close to her ballooning bosom, she began to mop up the gravy, making appreciative smacking sounds with her lips.
Priscilla was sorry for Maria. She wanted to tell her that her party was going to be a success, not despite Peta, but because of Peta. They were all being drawn together by a communal resentment. And Crystal, because of being the horror’s niece, had rapidly lost any charms she might have had in the eyes of the assembled men.
The dessert was unfortunately meringues with cream and chocolate sauce. Powdered meringue soon dusted the glutton’s face, almost covering up the gravy stains. When the petits fours came along, Peta upended the plate of them into her capacious handbag. “I’ll keep these for later,” she said, beaming all around.
Maria turned to the hovering Priscilla and said in a thin voice, “Coffee in the lounge, I think, and some more petits fours, please. Peta, darling, you have had an exhausting journey. Why don’t you go and lie down?”
“You know, I think I might,” said Peta, and yawned, a cavernous yawn, showing a coated tongue and bad teeth. She winked at Sir Bernard. “I’ll see you in the morning, sweetie.”
Crystal floated off in the wake of her aunt. Maria arranged her guests in a corner of the lounge, glad no other hotel guests were present.
John Taylor rose to his feet and hooked his thumbs into his waistcoat and faced the group with that steely look in his eye and commanding appearance which had made him a highly paid prosecuting counsel. He began his cross-examination. “Now, Miss Worth, tell us (“in your own words,” thought Jenny) about this Peta woman. Who is she?” He stabbed a finger at Maria. “Why is she here? Is she one of your clients? Tell us.”
“If you will allow me to speak, I will,” said Maria, who had already made up her mind what she had to do. “Mrs. Peta Gore is my partner. She put up half the money to help me get started. I tried to buy her out last year, but she would not go. I tried to keep this excursion to the Scottish Highlands a secret from her and I thought she was in Hungary. But she found out where I was. This has happened before, but not at anything so ambitious as this. So I am going to make you an offer. Each of you. Anyone here who has not found a marriage partner by the end of the week will have the cost of the hotel bill and travel refunded.”
There was a long silence. Then Deborah spoke up. “I think that’s jolly fair,” she cried. Sir Bernard said, “I’ll accept that,” and the others nodded agreement. John sat down feeling rather sulky. He had expected Maria to excuse and protest like a criminal in the dock. But she had behaved handsomely and spoilt his fun.
Priscilla bent over the table and arranged the coffeepots. John said suddenly, “You know, my memory’s going. I feel I’ve seen someone in this group before, but in court.”
There were startled gasps. “Who?” cried Deborah, bouncing up and down on her large bottom. “You mean we might have a chain-saw murderer amongst us?”
John shook his head. “I’m probably wrong. The trouble is, I see so many criminals that everyone begins to look like one.”
Jenny Trask said, “I remember that famous case where you were the prosecutor for the Crown, that triple murderer, Jackson.”
“Tell us about it,” suggested Maria, accepting a cup of coffee from Priscilla.
He began to talk. Priscilla, standing on duty in the corner with the other waitress, remembered reading about the case in the newspapers. She felt uneasy. There never had been, surely, any really concrete evidence, and yet John Taylor had done a brilliant job and the man had gone to prison for life. Even talking about the case, John ceased to be a tired-looking man in his sixties and became enlivened with fire and venom. A columnist had once written that his success was due to the fact that he appeared to have a genuine hatred of the people he was prosecuting. The legal department of the newspaper must have had too liquid a lunch that day, for the column was printed and John Taylor had sued the newspaper for some reportedly vast sum, although the whole thing was settled out of court. And the female columnist came out of it unscathed because she was having an affair with the newspaper proprietor.
Then Priscilla saw her father coming into the room. The colonel had learned that there was an eminent Queen’s Counsel among the guests and so had decided to favour them with his presence. When the barrister had finished speaking, he asked them grandly if they were comfortable and then his choleric eye fell on his daughter in cap and apron.
“What the hell do you think you’re doing dressed up as a waitress?” he roared.
“Sheena and Heather are off sick,” said Priscilla calmly. “I had to help out.”
“Consult me next time you think of slumming,” raged the colonel. “My own daughter!”
Mr. Johnson, the manager, used to averting scenes, came quickly into the room and muttered something in the colonel’s ear and drew him out.
Matthew Cowper had just learned from Mary French that she was the Earl of Derwent’s third cousin, but the news that the blonde beauty was the daughter of the house made him look at Priscilla speculatively and he hardly heard what Mary was saying. He glanced round the lounge, formerly the drawing-room, of the well-appointed hotel. Must be a mint of money here, not that it was money he was after, but it all helped. This Priscilla was a stunner, and classy, too. She did not have the vulgar sultry beauty of Crystal, and any girl who mucked in and acted as a waitress wouldn’t be too snobby.
Maria was just announcing that she had arranged a trip out on a fishing boat the following morning, urging them to be ready early, for Peta slept late. Matthew wondered whether to skip that trip and try his luck with the fair Priscilla.
But when they all finally rose to go to bed, he volunteered to help Priscilla clear away the coffee-things. She gave him a cool smile and said firmly, “That won’t be necessary.”
He thought that after all she might be a sheer waste of time and went upstairs to set his alarm.
Jenny Trask lay awake a long time. No knight on a white charger had come along. She was bitterly disappointed in Checkmate. Matthew Cowper was the sort of young man she would normally have gone out of her way to avoid; that was, if such a young man had ever shown an interest in her. Nothing was as she had expected it to be. And that dreadful Peta! Someone should put that woman out of everyone else’s misery.
Hamish Macbeth was roused from gentle dreams about nothing very much by a hammering at the door. He crawled out of bed and went to answer it. “Why, Ar-chie,” he said, recognizing the fisherman, “what’s wrong?”
“Naething’s wrong,” said Archie with a grin. “I forgot to tell you that I’m taking a party frae the castle out on the boat the day and I wunnered if you would like to come along and gie me a bit o’ a hand. Grand day and free food.”
Hamish thought quickly. Blair was away in Spain. Nothing had happened recently. “Is herself coming?” he asked hopefully.
“Aye, I think I heard Miss Halburton-Smythe wass coming along,” lied Archie.
“Yes, I’ll join you. What time?”
“Eight o’clock. They are haffing their breakfast on the boat.”
Hamish said goodbye to him and began to wash and dress quickly. He checked his sheep had water and fed his hens, and then ambled along the waterfront in the direction of the harbour. The day was as perfect as all the previous days.
Jessie and Nessie Currie were standing by their garden gate. Hamish tried to walk past quickly, but Jessie said severely, “And where are you going, young man? Where are you going?”
“Just along to the harbour,” said Hamish evasively.
“I noticed you haven’t your uniform on, you haven’t your uniform on,” remarked Jessie, who had an irritating habit of saying things twice over.
“Undercover work,” said Hamish desperately. “Drug smugglers.”
“My, my!” marvelled Nessie. “They get everywhere, don’t they. It was saying on the telly…”
But Hamish had moved on. He felt it was odd to be walking through this Mediterranean landscape. No clouds marred the sky. A normal Scottish Highland day would either be weeping misty drizzle, or high winds with cloud shadows chasing each other down the flanks of the mountains and fitful gleams of sunlight. Archie’s fishing boat, the Jaunty Lass, lay still at anchor.
Hamish climbed on board. “I thought ye would have found more help, Archie,” he said. “Where’s your crew?”
“Say to a man they willnae stir frae their beds for a lot of rich English parasols.”
“Parasites?” suggested Hamish.
“Aye, them. Anyways, all you’ve got to do is help me cast off and then take a wee turn at the wheel. Sean Gallagher, the cook frae the castle, is cooking the breakfast in the galley. All we really have tae do is sharpen up the old knife and fork and dig in wi’ the rest o’ them.”
“What?” Priscilla stared sleepily at the hotel manager, who had come to rouse her. “What do you mean, Sean is refusing to go?”
“Just that, the wee scunner,” said Mr. Johnson with feeling. “He says he gets seasick. He says nobody told him he had to cook on a boat. He says it’s beneath him.”
“What’s he gone temperamental for?” said Priscilla crossly. “He’s from Glasgow, not Paris. Did you threaten to fire him?”
“I wouldnae dare. He might go, and then where would we get another cook to match him? So I thought… you see, it’s not really cooking. Jist a kedgeree for breakfast and a cold lunch, and the lunch is all packed up.”
Priscilla groaned. “Meaning you want me to go?”
“Well, it’s a grand day out for ye.”
“All right. All right. But I know why Sean isn’t going, and it’s nothing to do with seasickness. He was raving on about that glutton, Peta, last night. Said she was an insult to his art. The idiot came up to the doorway of the dining-room during the serving of the main course and he saw that big woman guzzling most of it. He went off and got drunk. I’ll handle it, but don’t tell Daddy.”
Ian Chisholm, the local garage owner, had renovated an old Volkswagen minibus, after he had learned that a party at the castle would be needing transport. He had sprayed the front of it bright red and then run out of that particular colour of paint, and so he had sprayed the rest primrose yellow. It had an odd carnival appearance, but at least the new coat of paint hid all the rust. The seats were badly damaged, as the previous owner had used it as a hen coop, but his wife had made some nice chintz loose covers to hide the defects.
Jenny, first to climb on board, felt her spirits lift. The ridiculous bus, combined with another beautiful day, made her feel she was indeed on foreign territory, with the pollution and bustle of London so far away. Matthew Cowper was next. He saw her, backed off the bus, waited until Mary French had taken a seat, and then got back on and sat down next to her. “Social-climbing little runt,” thought Jenny bitterly and then reminded herself that she did not want him anyway, and as she was bound to be partnerless at the end of the week, she would get a refund, and so she should make the best of this free holiday. The next to arrive was John Taylor in an old blazer, white panama hat, and white trousers, looking as if he were going to Henley Regatta rather than to a West Highland fishing boat. He raised his hat to Jenny and then sat down next to her. Outside the bus stood Maria Worth holding a clipboard which she felt made her look efficient. She was praying they would all get off before Peta rose and decided to join them. She did not relax until they were all on the bus, Deborah shrieking with delight at the chintz seat covers.
Jenny noticed Priscilla had joined the party, after overseeing the packing of cartons into the back of the bus.
The engine rattled and coughed and then finally roared into life. Off they went down the drive and out onto the one-track road which led down into the village of Lochdubh. Purple heather was blazing in all its glory, and far above two buzzards sailed lazily in the clear sky.
Priscilla stood up and faced the passengers. She was wearing a white blouse and a short denim skirt. She balanced easily in the swaying bus and her clear voice rose above the noise of the engine. “I have brought along some bottles of sun-barrier cream,” she said. “The air up here is very clear and you can get very badly burned indeed unless you take the necessary precautions.”
I would like to be like that, thought Jenny. Cool and competent.
Lochdubh was calm and quiet under its Sunday torpor: rows of little white cottages, a few shops, and then the harbour.
A tall, red-haired man with hazel eyes and an engagingly shy smile welcomed them on board the Jaunty Lass. He was wearing a faded blue shirt and faded blue jeans. Jenny smiled shyly back at him, her interest quickened. Here was the sort of man she could go for. Not some pushy lout of a yuppie like Matthew Cowper. She wondered what it would be like to be a fisherman’s wife in this remote spot. Her romantic soul visualized living in one of those little cottages, waiting at dawn with a ragged tartan shawl about her shoulders and her hair streaming in the wind for the fishing boats to come home.
Then the dream was rudely shattered as she heard Priscilla hail the red-haired man with, “Hullo, copper. Why aren’t you on your beat, Hamish?”
“Archie asked me to help out,” rejoined Hamish. “And what is yourself doing here?” he added, not wanting her to know that the reason for his own presence was because Archie had told him she would be with the party.
“Sean Gallagher’s got the sulks, so I’ve to do the cooking, Hamish. So you can start by helping me load these boxes.”
“Can I help?” asked Jenny eagerly.
Priscilla smiled. “You’re on holiday. Go and find a nice seat in the sun.”
Jenny watched as Hamish and Priscilla, with the help of the driver and Archie Maclean, carried the boxes on board. She noticed that Hamish and Priscilla had the ease and familiarity of old friends. But they were not engaged. Priscilla wore no ring. There was hope yet.
“Is that everything?” asked Maria.
“Yes, all set,” said Hamish. “I’ll just cast off. Wait a bit. Are you expecting anyone else? That’s the castle Range Rover coming down the hill at a fair pace.”
“No,” screamed Maria in sudden panic. “Get going, man, for God’s sake.”
Hamish quickly loosened the ropes from the capstans, shouted to Archie they were all set, and sprang on board. The short gangplank had already been pulled up. But Archie was fumbling about in the wheel-house as the Range Rover roared nearer, the horns going and the lights flashing. It screeched to a halt on the harbour and Peta lumbered down.
“Wait!” she called.
“Can’t!” shouted Maria cheerfully. “Too late!”
But Archie had nipped down from the wheel-house and was looking at her in surprise. He was hoping for tips, and as far as he was concerned, the more the merrier. “Och, it won’t take a minute to get her on board,” he said. “Hamish, jump down and tie her up again.”
The passengers watched gloomily as Hamish sprang onto the harbour. As he busied himself with the ropes, he said to Mr. Johnson, who had brought Peta, “Couldn’t you have driven a bit slower? Nobody seems to want her.”
“Are you kidding?” demanded the manager. “She was screaming at me the whole way. If she’d had a whip, she’d have lashed at me to make me go faster.”
The gangplank was lowered. Peta waddled on board wearing a huge loose flowered dress like a tent. “Gosh, I’m starving,” she cried. “When’s breakfast?”
“Any minute now,” said Priscilla. “Archie, Hamish will need to help me in the galley.”
“What’s for breakfast?” asked Hamish. “Bacon and eggs?”
“No, kedgeree. I’ve a big pot of it. Sean keeps a ton of the stuff in the freezer and I defrosted it before I left. Heat up the rolls, Hamish, and put out the butter. Give them all a plate, cup, knife and fork—you’ll find them in that box over there—and then the coffee and tea’s in those giant flasks. They’re the kind with spouts, so all you’ve got to do is twist and pour. Serve Peta first and that’ll keep her quiet.”
Jenny came down into the galley. “I’m sure you need help,” she said, but she looked at Hamish and not Priscilla.
To Priscilla’s annoyance, Hamish promptly relayed the orders she had just given him to Jenny. “Now what are you going to do?” asked Priscilla, half exasperated, half amused as Jenny bustled off.
“I’ll light the stove for you. It’s tricky,” said Hamish, “and then when you’ve got the kedgeree heated, I’ll hold the casserole while you dish it out.”
“I hope you won’t faint from exhaustion before the day is over,” said Priscilla sarcastically.
“I’ll do just fine.”
When the kedgeree was heated, Priscilla piled a plate high and handed it to Jenny, who was now waiting behind her. “Take that to Peta,” said Priscilla. “There’s loads here. Tell her to leave room for lunch.”
The members of Checkmate were sitting on the small deck. Peta broke off flirting with Sir Bernard when she saw the food arrive. Her eyes gleamed. Jenny cast one horrified look at Peta shovelling kedgeree into her mouth and darted off down the companion-way to get the food for the others. She felt brisk and efficient and quite confident now that she had something to do. She hoped that attractive policeman noticed just how brisk and efficient she was.
A policeman’s wife might be no bad thing. He was, she judged, in his thirties and should surely have been promoted to a higher rank by now if he were any good. But with a wife behind him, he might do wonders. He looked clever. She could see him now, solving cases in a sort of Lord Peter Wimsey way, throwing in the occasional apt quotation.
But that dream dissolved when she got downstairs again. Hamish was lying on one of the bunks, reading a newspaper. He did not look the least like an ambitious man.
Feeling slightly flat, she served the others before taking her own plate and sitting down to join them. The kedgeree was excellent, but they were all picking at their food and it was obvious they were trying to look anywhere and everywhere but at the glutton. Priscilla had made the mistake of bringing the remains of the casserole up, which Peta seized with both hands. She not only ate that but cleared up everyone else’s left-overs. She was a mess of crumbs and rice and fish. This mess, once temporarily sated, began to flirt again with Sir Bernard, who edged away from her and asked Deborah if she would like to go to the side and see if there were any seals.
“Probably basking on rocks in this weather,” said Deborah, but she joined him at the side. And then Sir Bernard felt a pudgy arm steal about his neck and Peta’s cooing voice saying, “You know, you’re my sort of man.”
Her fishy breath fanned his cheek. He could feel her blubbery body pressed against his side and wondered desperately why it was that men were always being accused of sexual harassment and never women. He had never before felt at such a loss, he, the business tycoon, who was used to handling all sorts of situations. He remembered visiting one of his stores to talk to the manager. He was leaving by walking through the shop after closing time when he had seen a light on in one of the fitting rooms. He had pulled back the curtain to switch the light off and had been confronted by a shop girl clad only in bra and pants, who had wet her lips and smiled at him seductively and he had immediately known she had staged the whole thing, had known he would leave by the shop floor and would see the light. He had jerked the curtain closed and had gone to fetch the manager, knowing the girl would be dressed by the time he returned. He therefore did not mention how he had found her but demanded the manager interrogate her as to why she was still on the premises after closing time. She made some lame excuse about getting ready to go to a party. He had drawn the manager aside afterwards and told him to wait three months, then find fault with the girl and sack her, and in the intervening period, he never went near the store. He had handled that properly. But there was something so repulsive, so frightening about Peta. She caused emotional claustrophobia. There was something almost cannibalistic about her. He jerked away from her and said desperately, “Now, now, Mrs. Gore, you will be making my fiancée jealous.”
Peta looked at him sulkily. “Fiancée? What fiancée?”
“Deborah,” said Sir Bernard.
“Oh, well…” Peta rolled off in the direction of John Taylor to try her luck there.
“Sorry about that,” said Sir Bernard awkwardly. “I shouldn’t have said that. You must be very embarrassed.”
“Gosh, no,” said Deborah. “I was awf’ly flattered. For a moment I thought you meant it. Never mind. Look at that rock over there. What an odd shape.”
Sir Bernard looked at her fondly. She was far from pretty with her heavy face and limp brown hair, not to mention the backside, which was shown in all its glory in a brief pair of striped shorts, but she was clean and healthy and a good sort. Nothing messy or clingy about her.
“I don’t know that I didn’t mean it,” he said, taking her hand. “But it doesn’t do to rush things.”
“Gosh, no,” said Deborah. “I mean, we hardly know each other. I feel like one of those Victorian heroines. ‘This is so sudden.’ Chin up! I’m not going to sue you for breach of promise.” But she left her hand in his and the pair suddenly beamed at each other.
Thank God, thought Maria, covertly watching them. “Not what I had intended, but who cares? Oh, if only Peta would fall overboard.”
The headland fell away and the boat chugged on into the oily swell of the Atlantic. Down in the galley, Priscilla said to Hamish, “Get up and help me start preparing the lunch. I’m beginning to feel seasick.”
Hamish amiably swung his long legs down from the bunk. “Show me where the stuff is and then take yourself up on deck for a breath of fresh air.”
“It’s cold salmon for lunch. The hollandaise is in that plastic container and the other container holds the salad-dressing. You’ve got to tear up the lettuce and stuff in that box and make a big bowl of salad. Then there’s quails’ eggs to be shelled and salted. Lots of French bread. The wine’s still cold and it’s in that crate over there, along with some beer in case anyone wants that. Oh, Jenny, what is it?”
“The skipper’s complaining that he wants some real food. He couldn’t eat the kedgeree. He says it’s foreign muck.”
“He’s got some becon and eggs here,” said Hamish, stooping down and looking in a small cupboard. “Fry him up some and add a couple of slices of fried bread and then give him a cup of strong black tea and he’ll be happy. You are looking a bit green, Priscilla. Off with you. We’ll manage.”
Priscilla took in great gulps of fresh air and then went into the wheel-house. “Can you find us somewhere on dry land for lunch, Archie?” she yelled above the noise of the engine.
“There’s Seal Bay if I turn down the coast,” said Archie, swinging the wheel. “Usually too rough to get near it, but it should be chust fine the day.”
Priscilla went back out and joined Maria. “How’s it going?” she asked.
“No one seems interested in the ones I chose for them,” mourned Maria. “I must be losing my touch. And Peta! What a disaster. Look, she’s oiling around John Taylor and he’s walked away from her several times.”
“The others seem all right,” said Priscilla. Sir Bernard and Deborah were holding hands. Peter Trumpington was being charming to Jessica Fitt—Jessica, who had actually managed to find a grey ensemble even for holiday wear; grey blouse with a thin white stripe and grey trousers. Matthew Cowper was showing off to Mary French, who was looking as smug as any woman who thinks she is a combination of Cleopatra and Princess Di usually looks.
And then Peta abandoned John and lumbered towards Matthew Cowper. “Oh, dear,” said Maria. “Now would you look at her! She thinks she’s irresistible to men, no matter what age. I sometimes think all that food has lodged somewhere in Peta’s brain. She’s barmy.”
Matthew was backing towards the side of the boat away from Peta, who was flirting and ogling. And then Priscilla saw the sudden naked hatred in Mary French’s eyes as she looked at Peta and shivered despite the heat.
“You must send her away,” said Priscilla urgently.
“Peta? My dear girl, I would if I could. We’ll all just need to survive the week.”
“But she’s repulsive. There’s something awful about her,” said Priscilla. “She’s the sort of woman who gets killed.”
“No hope of that,” said Maria.
The boat had swung in towards the shore, bucking up and down in the landswell.
Soon Priscilla recognized the sandy cove which was Seal Bay. It was a beautiful spot, almost inaccessible from the land and barely accessible from the sea except on rare summer days like this.
The Jaunty Lass chugged into calm water and then the engines died. Hamish appeared from below and helped Archie to drop anchor and then they lowered the boat’s dinghy, Hamish going first to row the lunch ashore. He had had to do very little preparation. Jenny had fixed everything, even Archie’s breakfast, and Archie, feeling he had had “proper” food, was joining in the holiday atmosphere.
Peta demanded to go ashore before the rest. By common consent, she was allowed the dinghy to herself. Hamish, rowing her ashore, hoped she would not sink the dinghy, for she was so heavy that the stern was dangerously low in the water.
She climbed out, wading through the shallows, and then flopping on the sand like a beached whale.
Soon they were all on shore and Jenny was spreading a white table-cloth on the sand. Peta sat at the edge of the cloth with a fork in one hand and a knife in the other, her piggy eyes gleaming. Priscilla was glad of Jenny’s efficient help, although she knew Jenny was doing it all for Hamish. But then Hamish always attracted that limpet type of female, thought Priscilla sourly.
John Taylor moved around to the far side of the cloth to put a distance between himself and the glutton. But when Peta began to eat, he realized his mistake. He had a perfect view of all that gorging and stuffing. If she would only eat silently, he thought, it would not be so bad. But she snorted and chomped and breathed heavily through her nose.
“Where’s Crystal?” asked Priscilla, wondering if she could slow Peta down by engaging her in conversation.
“Asleep, probably,” said Peta through a spray of breadcrumbs. “Very fond of me, she is. Doesn’t like her parents much and I can’t say I blame her. Pair of old bores.”
“That does not say very much for her,” snapped John. “Children should honour and obey their parents.”
“You must have come out of the ark, sweetie,” said Peta and then roared with laughter. “You should be a judge. You know, one of those ones who live in the Dark Ages and says things like, ‘What does the witness mean by heavy metal music?’ ”
And John, who did not know what heavy metal was but had no intention of betraying the fact, said instead, “You have not been very well brought up, Mrs. Gore, or rather, that is my impression.”
“Wine, anyone?” said Priscilla desperately.
“Oh, what makes you think that?” Peta batted her eyelashes at him. “I know. You think I am a terrible flirt.”
“You are indeed a terrible flirt,” he said in his dry, precise voice, “in that you have no delicacy of manner. Your eating habits are disgusting.”
They all held their breath. But Peta had noticed a spare salmon steak and that was enough to make her temporarily deaf. She reached out and picked it up with her fingers. It began to disintegrate, but she hurriedly crammed it into her mouth. Then she seized the table-cloth to wipe her hands and everyone’s glasses of wine went flying.
Jessica Fitt found that the very sight of Peta made her feel physically ill. She liked her life to be well ordered. She liked beautiful flowers and beautiful paintings. She did not bother much about the sort of clothes she put on because, like most women of low self-esteem, she did not consider herself worth embellishing.
“Are you all right?” she heard Peter Trumpington ask.
“I’m sorry,” she said. “I shouldn’t let her get to me. But this”—she waved a hand around the white sandy beach to the clear blue sea—“it’s so perfect, so beautiful, and there she sits in the middle of it like a great pile of excrement.”
“You mean the Peta woman?”
“Would you like to know what to do about her?”
“There’s nothing up with her that a well-thrown hand-grenade wouldn’t cure.”
“Come on, Jessica. Spare me. Look at the size of her. There’d be bits of her splattered from here to America. Can you imagine bits of Peta raining down on New York City?”
Jessica stifled a sudden giggle. “What would you do, Peter?”
He leaned behind him and pulled a bottle of white wine out of the crate and then picked up a corkscrew. “I’d get drunk,” he said. “Let’s get through this bottle before she gets to it.”
Something sad and repressed and rigid inside Jessica seemed to melt. She laughed and held out her glass. “Here’s to sanity,” she said.
“Have you ever thought of committing a crime?” John asked Jenny. His panama hat was pulled down over his face so she could not see the expression in his eyes.
“Well, no, I don’t think so. I feel like killing her.” She waved a hand in Peta’s direction. “But I mean, it’s just a thought. But you don’t mean murder, do you? Do you mean theft or arson or shop-lifting?”
“I have dealt with so many criminals,” he said in a tired voice. “Very few of them show any remorse. They are angry at getting caught out, that’s all. They go to prison and the taxpayer has to pay for their keep.”
“You don’t mean you want to see hanging brought back?”
“Why not? Why should we work and slave all our lives to keep them cosseted in jails, to keep them fed, to pay for prisoners’ rehabilitation, to pay for therapists?”
“I suppose you have a point,” said Jenny diplomatically. She looked longingly in the direction of Hamish Macbeth, but he had gone to sleep. “Priscilla’s about to dish out the fresh fruit salad,” she said. “I must help her.”
“Go ahead,” he said wearily. “I’m going for a walk.”
“But you’ll miss dessert!”
“I’ll miss the sight of that swine eating it!”
He turned and strode off.
The castle cook, perhaps to ease his conscience, as he had probably decided before preparing the lunch not to go, had made enough fruit salad for twenty, and Peta ate most of it. No one else was hungry. Jessica Fitt and Peter Trumpington were drinking steadily and whispering to each other, snorting with laughter and then looking furtively around like bad children. They were vying with each other over the best way to kill Peta.
At last, gorged with food, Peta fell asleep. She lay on her back with her mouth open, snoring. Maria thought, she’s going to get a horrendous sunburn, but she did not move. Let her get burnt, and with luck burnt so badly that it puts her out of commission for the rest of the week.
With Peta asleep, a relaxed air took hold of the party. John returned from his walk in time to join in the general, lazy conversation. Sea-gulls swooped and dived for scraps of food.
“Do you remember that film, I forget the one, but where they killed this chap by tying him into a rowing-boat and then tied a fish on his head? The cormorants dived for the fish and split his skull open.”
“What made you think of a gruesome thing like that?” asked Priscilla.
“Oh, nothing,” said Peter and nudged Jessica, who laughed immoderately and then held out her glass for more wine.
Priscilla applied sun-barrier lotion to her face and arms and then, with a casual familiarity which grated on Jenny, she walked over to the sleeping Hamish Macbeth and started gently putting lotion on his face and arms. Hamish stirred in his sleep and smiled.
When she had finished, Priscilla said, “Well, we should think about getting back. Want to help me put the stuff away, Jenny?”
“Do it yourself,” said Jenny. “That’s your job,” and then blushed scarlet and got up and walked away.
Damn Hamish, thought Priscilla. She poked him in the ribs. “Wake up. Help me with this stuff.”
Hamish sleepily struggled up. “Where’s my helper?”
“If you mean Jenny, she’s gone off after reminding me sharply that packing up is my job. The shy clinging kind certainly go for you, Hamish, and you do nothing to discourage it.”
“Why should I?” he said maliciously. “She’s a fine-looking girl. Talent’s a bit thin on the ground in Lochdubh.”
“You having already run through most of it!” Priscilla began to rattle dishes with unnecessary force. Jenny came back, muttered “Sorry,” and began to help.
Once back on board, Mary French decided to show off her organizing skills by getting them to sing a round song. “You first,” she ordered, as if dealing with a class of backward children. “Then you.”
“Just like Joyce Grenfell,” said Peter and Jessica shrieked with laughter, then found she couldn’t stop laughing and ended by bursting into tears.
The boat began to bucket up and down again as it approached the point of land which sheltered the sea loch of Lochdubh.
Priscilla had just produced afternoon tea—hot scones with Cornish cream and strawberry jam—and spread it on the deck when Peta was suddenly and violently sick over it. Horrified, the rest backed off to the sides while Peta vomited and vomited. A normal person would soon have been reduced to dry heaving, but Peta had a capacious and overloaded stomach. The clients of Checkmate fled to the bow and huddled together, even Jenny, until they were joined by Priscilla and Maria.
“I can’t take it,” said Maria with her handkerchief to her mouth. “Hamish’ll need to cope.”
They all stayed there until the Jaunty Lass edged into Lochdubh harbour.
Still they stayed until they saw Peta being helped ashore. With a sigh of relief, they saw Hamish talking to one of the locals, who had a small pick-up truck, and then he helped Peta into the back of it.
They edged round to get off the boat. The decks were clean, glistening with water.
Hamish appeared on board again.
“Brave man,” said Priscilla. “Did you stack the stuff downstairs?”
“No,” said Hamish. “I just tied the lot up in the table-cloth and threw it over the side.”
Hamish thought he never wanted to see anyone being sick again, but he found a couple of fishermen outside the local bar that evening being violently ill. It turned out that Archie was regaling the locals inside with such a colourful story of his day out that Peta’s sickness was more horrible in the telling than the actuality.
He walked on. A new restaurant, run by a Scottish-Italian family, had just opened on the waterfront. He heard the hum of voices from inside and was glad to see it was doing a good trade. He looked in the window and grinned.
The members of Checkmate had escaped and were enjoying dinner on their own. They were seated round a large table, talking and laughing. He felt sorry for Maria. But surely Peta would not be up to eating any more that day.
But Peta was working her way steadily through the dinner that had been meant for the whole party while Maria looked on with horrified loathing. She wondered why Crystal, who was lazily picking at her own food, was unaffected by her aunt’s behaviour. Once the horrible meal was over, Maria plucked up her courage and followed Peta up to her room.
“Let’s get down to business,” said Maria firmly, “or what’s left of it. Peta, you have succeeded in driving our clients away. They approached me and said they could not sit through another meal with you and I had to arrange dinner for them at a restaurant in the village.”
“Never mind that! Listen to me. I want to buy you out.”
“No need for that. I’m an asset, Maria. And don’t give me that rubbish about them dining elsewhere because of me. You arranged it. And do you know why?”
“No, do tell me, Peta, darling.”
“It’s because you’re jealous of me. You know I’ve got a way with the fellows and you’re jealous.”
“And you’re mad!” shouted Maria, her temper snapping. “And hear this! If I’ve got to kill you to get rid of you, then by God I’ll do it!”
Jenkins, the maître d’hôtel, who had been walking along the corridor outside, stopped and listened to this with interest before going on downstairs to irritate Mr. Johnson by telling him that if one allowed common-type people into the hotel, then murder would be done, and mark his words!
Jenny Trask woke with a cry during the night and sat up in bed, her heart palpitating. She had just had a terrible dream in which Peta’s dead body had been carried into the hotel dining-room by Hamish Macbeth, who smiled at her and said, “Roasted to a turn,” and then he had stuffed an orange in Peta’s mouth before picking up the carving knife.
The room was stuffy. She got up and opened the window wide and leaned out. Then she gasped, staring at the mountains beyond. A great dark shadow was creeping down the mountains and sliding towards the castle, blotting out everything in its path. Then she realized it was only the shadow of a cloud crossing the moon and drew back with a nervous laugh. But the fear caused by that shadow would not go away. There was something sinister and evil approaching the castle, and no amount of logical thought would seem to make the fear go away.
Excerpted from Death of a Greedy Woman by Beaton, M. C. Copyright © 2011 by Beaton, M. C.. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.