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Death of a Maid
By M.C. Beaton
Grand Central Publishing Copyright © 2007 Marion Chesney
All right reserved.
Chapter One I would any day as soon kill a pig as write a letter. -Alfred, Lord Tennyson
The letter lay on the doormat just inside the kitchen door of the police station in Lochdubh.
Police Constable Hamish Macbeth picked it up and turned it over. From the address on the back, he saw it was from Elspeth Grant. Elspeth worked as a reporter on a Glasgow newspaper, and he had once considered proposing marriage to her but had dithered and left it too late.
He carried the letter into the kitchen and sat down at the table. His cat, Sonsie, stared at him curiously, and his dog, Lugs, put his paw on his master's knee and looked up at him with his odd blue eyes.
"What's she writing to me about?" wondered Hamish aloud. Personal letters were rare and curious things nowadays when most people used e-mails or text messages. He opened it reluctantly. Elspeth always made him feel guilty. She had once jeered at him that he was married to his dog and cat.
"Dear Hamish," he read, "I have a few weeks holiday owing and would like to come back to Lochdubh. As I can now afford it, I shall be staying at the Tommel Castle Hotel. Knowing your vanity, I am sure you will think that I am pursuing you. That is not the case. I am not interested in you or your weird animals any more.
"This letter is just to clear matters up. Yours, Elspeth."
"Now, there wass no need to write such a thing," said Hamish, scratching his fiery hair. "No need at all." The sibilance of his accent showed he was upset. "Herself can chust keep out of my way, and that'll suit me chust fine."
But he was hurt and he felt guilty. He had treated her badly, blowing hot and cold, and the last frost had been caused by the news that his ex-fiancée, Priscilla Halburton-Smythe, was returning to work at the Tommel Castle Hotel, owned by her parents. He could never quite rid himself of the attraction Priscilla held for him. But she had come, seen him infrequently, and then after a month had left again for London. He crumpled up the letter and left it on the table just as someone knocked at the door.
When he opened it, he looked down at the squat figure of Mrs. Mavis Gillespie. Mrs. Gillespie was a charwoman, although in these politically correct days, she was referred to as "my maid." She was considered an amazingly good cleaner. Hamish remembered with a sinking feeling that he had won her services in a church raffle.
She bustled past him into the kitchen and took off her coat. Mrs. Gillespie was a round little woman in her fifties with rigidly permed grey hair, ruddy cheeks, and a long mean mouth. She was carrying a metal bucket and an old-fashioned mop.
Hamish did not like her. "I've decided you don't need to do anything," he said. "The place is clean enough."
"Don't be daft." She glared around. "This place needs a good scrub, and what would Mrs. Wellington say?"
Mrs. Wellington was the formidable wife of the minister.
"All right," said Hamish. "I'll be off for a walk."
"And take your beasties wi' you," she called to his retreating back. "They fair gie me the creeps."
"Women!" muttered Hamish as he strolled along the waterfront, followed by his dog and cat. He knew that the households Mrs. Gillespie worked for probably all had buckets and mops, but she carried her own around with her like weapons. He had once called on Mrs. Wellington when Mrs. Gillespie was cleaning and had winced at the clatter and banging as she slammed her bucket against the furniture and knocked out cables from the back of the television set with her mop.
Why the redoubtable Mrs. Wellington should put up with such behaviour was beyond him. Then he realised that he himself had shown cowardice.
He knew Mrs. Gillespie to be a gossip. Everyone in the north of Scotland gossiped, but Mrs. Gillespie was malicious. If there was anything bad to say about anyone, she would say it. He felt he should go back and order her out, but as he gazed out over the still sea loch to the forest on the other side, a feeling of tranquillity overcame him. He watched seagulls squabbling over the harbour.
Behind him, peat smoke rose lazily from the chimneys of the little whitewashed cottages along the waterfront. Lugs lay across his boots, and Sonsie leaned against his uniformed trouser leg.
The great thing about the peace of Lochdubh, thought Hamish dreamily, was that it acted like a balm on the soul. The guilt and worry about that letter from Elspeth faded away. As for Mrs. Gillespie, let her get on with it. There wasn't much at the police station that she could break.
It was autumn in the Highlands of Scotland, and the rowan trees were heavy with scarlet berries. The locals still planted rowan trees outside their houses to keep the witches and goblins at bay. People said, as they said every year, that the berries were a sign of a hard winter to come, and therefore they occasionally got it right.
Pale sunlight glinted on the water of the loch. A seal surfaced and swam lazily past.
Hamish felt suddenly hungry. He decided to put his animals in the police Land Rover and motor up to the Tommel Castle Hotel to see if he could cadge a sandwich from the kitchen.
Hamish was met in the foyer of the hotel by the manager, Mr. Johnson. "What brings you?" asked Mr. Johnson. "The only murders here now are the fake ones on these murder weekends where everyone gets to play Poirot."
Hamish did not want to say outright that he would like something to eat, so he asked instead for news of Priscilla.
"Still down in London." Mr. Johnson eyed the tall, gangly figure of the red-haired policeman suspiciously. "I suppose you want a cup of coffee."
"Aye, that would be grand," said Hamish, "and maybe a wee something to go with it."
"Like a dram?"
"Like a sandwich."
"You're a terrible moocher, Hamish, but come into my office and I'll send for something."
Soon Hamish was happily demolishing a plate of ham sandwiches while surreptitiously feeding some of them to his dog and cat.
"Did you come up here for a free feed?" asked the manager.
"I've been driven out of my station," said Hamish. "I won the services of that Gillespie woman in a raffle."
"Oh, my. Couldn't you get rid of her?"
"Too scared," mumbled Hamish through a sandwich.
"The trouble is," said Mr. Johnson, "that nobody wants to go out cleaning these days. Now that the big new supermarkets have opened in Strathbane, they prefer to work there. The staff here has mostly changed. Most of them are from eastern Europe. Mind you, they're good. But those names! All consonants."
"Who does the Gillespie woman work for these days?"
"Let me see, there's old Professor Sander at Braikie. Also in Braikie, Mrs. Fleming and Mrs. Styles, then Mrs. Wellington here, and a Mrs. Barret-Wilkinson at Styre."
Styre was a village to the south of Lochdubh. "I havenae been in Styre in ages," said Hamish.
"Why not? It's on your beat."
"I'm thinking the whole of damned Sutherland is on my beat these days. Besides, there's never any crime in Styre."
"By the way," said the manager, looking slyly at Hamish, "we've a booking for Miss Grant."
Hamish pretended indifference, although he could feel his tranquillity seeping away. "Herself must be earning a fair whack to be staying here," he said.
The Tommel Castle Hotel had once been the private residence of Colonel Halburton-Smythe, but faced with bankruptcy, the colonel had turned his home into a hotel because of Hamish's suggestion, although he still claimed the bright idea had been all his own. The hotel was one of those pseudo-Gothic castles built in the nineteenth century when Queen Victoria had made living in Scotland fashionable.
"Not bothered about her coming up?" asked Mr. Johnson.
"Not a bit," lied Hamish. "I'll be off. Thanks for the sandwiches."
He hung around the village until he saw Mrs. Gillespie leaving. She drove off in her old battered Ford. Filthy smoke was exiting from the exhaust. Hamish stepped out onto the road and held up his hand.
She screeched to a halt and rolled down the window.
"Your exhaust is filthy. Get to a garage immediately and get it fixed, or I'll have to book you."
By way of reply, she let in the clutch and stamped on the accelerator. Hamish jumped back as she roared off.
Back inside the police station, he looked gloomily around. The kitchen floor was gleaming with water which should have been mopped up. The air stank of disinfectant. Then he looked at the kitchen table. The letter from Elspeth, which he had crumpled up and left there, had gone.
He searched the rubbish bin, but it had been already emptied. He had heard stories that Mrs. Gillespie was a snoop.
He decided to drive over to Braikie, where she lived, on the following day and confront her. He guessed she would protest that it was a crumpled piece of paper and she had just been clearing up, but he thought that he and others had been cowardly long enough.
Then Hamish swore under his breath. He had forgotten to lock the police station office. He went in. The cables had been detached from the computer. He replugged it and then looked around the office, glad that he had at least locked the filing cabinet.
He went back to the kitchen, got out his own mop, and cleaned up the water from the kitchen floor. The work made him relax and count his blessings. With police stations closing down all over the place, he had still managed to survive.
But down in a bar in Strathbane, Detective Chief Inspector Blair was wondering again how he could winkle Hamish Macbeth out of that police station of his and get him moved to the anonymity of Strathbane, where he would just be another copper among many. As he sipped his first double Scotch of the day, Blair dreamed of getting Hamish put on traffic duty.
"I'll have a vodka and tonic," said a hearty voice beside him. A man had just come up to the bar. Blair squinted sideways and looked at him. He was balding on the front, with the remainder of his grey hair tied back in a ponytail. He had a thin face, black-rimmed glasses, and a small beard. He was dressed in a blue donkey jacket and jeans, but he was wearing a collar and tie.
"Are you from the television station?" asked Blair.
"Aye. Who are you?"
Blair held out a fat mottled hand. "Detective Chief Inspector Blair."
"Pleased to meet you. I'm Phil McTavish, head of documentaries."
Blair thought quickly, the whisky-fuelled cogs of his brain spinning at a great rate. In the past, Hamish Macbeth had always sidestepped promotion, knowing that promotion would mean a transfer to Strathbane. But what if there were to be a flattering documentary about Hamish? The top brass would feel they really had to do something, and he could swear they had a party every time another village police station was closed down, sending more money into their coffers.
"It's funny meeting you like this," said Blair, giving Phil his best oily smile. "I've got a great idea for a documentary."
The following day, Hamish had to postpone his trip to Braikie. He had been summoned by his boss, Superintendent Peter Daviot, to police headquarters for an interview.
The day suited his mood. The brief spell of good weather had changed to a damp drizzle. Wraiths of mist crawled down the flanks of the mountains.
Strathbane had once been a busy fishing port, but new European fishing quotas had destroyed business. Then under a scheme to regenerate the Highlands, new businesses were set up, but drugs had arrived before them and the town became a depressed area of rotting factories, vandalised high-rises, and dangerous, violent youths.
Hamish's spirits were low as he parked in front of police headquarters and made his way up to Daviot's office, where the secretary, Helen, who loathed him, gave him a wintry smile and told him to go in.
Daviot was not alone. There were two other people there: a middle-aged man with a ponytail and a small eager-looking girl.
"Ah, Hamish," said Daviot. "Let me introduce you. This is Mr. Peter McTavish, head of Strathbane Television's documentary programmes."
Hamish shook hands with him and then looked enquiringly at the girl. "And here is one of his researchers, Shona Fraser." Shona, although white, had her hair in dreadlocks. Her small face was dominated by a pair of very large brown eyes. She was dressed in a denim jacket over a faded black T-shirt, jeans ripped at the knee, and a pair of large, clumpy boots.
"Detective Chief Inspector Blair has told Mr. McTavish that your colourful character and exploits would make a very good documentary. Miss Fraser here will go around with you initially to take notes and report back to Mr. McTavish."
Daviot beamed all around, his white hair carefully barbered and his suit a miracle of good tailoring.
Shona looked curiously at the tall policeman. He was standing very still, his cap under his arm. He seemed to have gone into a trance.
What Hamish was thinking was: I bet that bastard hopes to make me famous so they'll feel obliged to give me a promotion and get me out of Lochdubh. He knew it would be useless to protest.
Instead, he gave himself a little shake, smiled, and said, "Perhaps it might be a good idea if I took Mr. McTavish and Miss Fraser to the pub to discuss this informally."
"Good idea," said Daviot. "Put any hospitality on your expenses."
Once they were settled over their drinks in the pub, Hamish said solemnly, "You've got the wrong man."
"How's that?" asked Phil.
"You see, Blair is a verra modest man. Let me tell you about him." Hamish outlined several famous murder cases which he himself had solved but had let Blair take the credit for. He ended up by saying, "I'm just a local bobby. There's no colour for you there. But Blair! Man, he'll take you to the worst parts of Strathbane. You'll be witnesses to drug raids and violence."
Their eyes gleamed with the excitement of the naïve who have never really been exposed to anything nasty.
When Blair was told later that he was to be the subject of the documentary, rage warred with vanity in his fat breast, but vanity won.
Hamish whistled cheerfully as he drove back to Lochdubh. Mrs. Gillespie could wait until the next morning.
Elspeth Grant was having lunch with Luke Teviot, another reporter. She found Luke attractive. Although a good reporter, he cultivated an easy-going manner. He had thick fair hair and a rather dissipated face. He was very tall.
"So you're off on your holidays," said Luke. "Where?"
"Back to Lochdubh."
"You got a good story out of there last time."
"It's normally the sleepiest, most laid-back place in the world," said Elspeth. "Just what I need."
"I've never been to the Highlands," said Luke.
"What! You're a Scot, a Glaswegian."
"You know how it is, Elspeth. I mean the real Highlands. The furthest I ever get is covering people stranded in Glencoe in the winter. I've never been further north than Perth. When the holidays come along, I head abroad for the sun. I've got holidays owing. Mind if I come with you?"
"Not a bit of it."
"But why? It's not as if we're an item."
"Don't have to be. I hate taking holidays on my own."
"Never been married?"
"Twice. Didn't work out. Mind you, I was lucky. Both women were rich and were so glad to get rid of me, they didn't want any money."
"Why were they glad to get rid of you?"
"You know what reporting's like, Elspeth. I was hardly ever home. Come on. Let's go together. It would be fun. I could do with some clean air to fumigate my lungs."
"How many do you smoke?"
"Sixty a day."
"You could stop, stay in Glasgow, and get clean lungs that way."
"Think about it. You could at least have company on that long drive."
Elspeth thought about Hamish. It would be rather pleasant to turn up accompanied by Luke and show him she really didn't care.
"All right," she said. "You're on."
Hamish set out for Braikie the following morning. Braikie was not Hamish's favourite town, although it was miles better than Strathbane, and much smaller. The posher locals referred to it as "the village." It had some fine Victorian villas at the north end, a depressing housing estate of grey houses all looking the same at the south end, and a main street of small dark shops with flats above them stretching out on either side of the town hall and library. A few brave souls lived in bungalows on the shore road facing the Atlantic. They often had to be rescued when November gales sent giant waves crashing into their homes. The main town, however, was huddled several damp fields away, out of the sight and sound of the sea.
Mrs. Gillespie lived in the housing estate. When Hamish called at her home, he noticed to his surprise that she had bought her house. He could see this because she had had picture windows installed, and householders who rented their homes from the council were not allowed to change the buildings. House prices, even this far north, were rising steeply, and he wondered how she could have afforded the purchase price.
Now that he was actually on her doorstep, he could feel his courage waning. He reminded himself sharply that it was high time someone put Mrs. Gillespie in her place.
Excerpted from Death of a Maid by M.C. Beaton Copyright © 2007 by Marion Chesney. Excerpted by permission.
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