Death of a Nag (Hamish Macbeth Series #11)by M. C. Beaton
From the author of the Agatha Raisin television series...DEATH OF A NAG: A Hamish Macbeth MysteryLochdubh constable Hamish Macbeth is more dour than ever after losing both his promotion and his girl, the loyal Priscilla Halbourton-Smythe. A trip to a charming seaside inn with his dog Towser is meant to raise his sagging spirits. Instead, he arrives at "Friendly House" to find the ambiance chilling, the food inedible, and his fellow guests less than neighborly. There's an amorous spinster, two tarty girls, a retired military man, a secretive London family, and Bob Harris, who so nags his wife, Doris, that everyone wants to kill him. Then somebody does. Soon Macbeth is called upon to act -- to dig into the past and deep into the heart to deliver something more daunting than merely the culprit: Justice.
Read an Excerpt
O the disgrace of it!
The scandal, the incredible come-down!
Sir Max Beerbohm
Hamish Macbeth awoke to another day. His dog, Towser, was lying across his feet, snoring rhythmically. Sunlight slanted through the gap in the curtains. The telephone in the police office part of the house shrilled and then the answering machine clicked on. He should rise and go and find out what it was. It was his duty as a police constable of the village of Lochdubh and part of the surrounding area of the county of Sutherland. But all he wanted to do was pull the duvet over his head and go back to sleep.
He could not really think of any good reason for getting up to face the day.
He had, until his demotion from sergeant back to constable and the end of his engagement with Priscilla Halburton-Smythe, daughter of a local hotelier, been very popular, a happy state of affairs he had taken for granted. But somehow the story had got about that he had cruelly jilted Priscilla, she who had been too good for him in the first place, and so, when he went about his duties, he was met with reproachful looks. Although Chief Superintendent Peter Daviot had also been angry with him over the end of the engagement, that was not why Hamish had been demoted. He had solved a murder mystery by producing what he firmly believed was the body of the murdered man to elicit a shock confession from the guilty party. The ruse had worked, but he had had the wrong body. It had turned out to be a fine example of Pictish man and the police were accused of being clod-hopping morons for having soroughly handled and used such a prime exhibit. Someone had to be punished, and naturally that someone was Hamish Macbeth.
Hamish was not an ambitious man. In fact, he was quite happy with his lot as ordinary police constable, but he felt the displeasure of the village people keenly. His days before his disgrace had pleasantly been given up to mooching around the village and gossiping. Now no one seemed to want to spend the time of the day with him, or that was the way it seemed to his gloomy mind. If Priscilla, whom Hamish considered remarkably unaffected by the end to the romance, had stayed around to demonstrate that fact, then he would not be in bad odour. But she had left to stay with friends in Gloucester-shire for an extended visit, so as far as the villagers were concerned, Hamish had driven her off and she was down in "foreign" parts, nursing a broken heart.
Mrs. Halburton-Smythe did not help matters by shaking her head and murmuring "Poor Priscilla" whenever Hamish's name was mentioned, although what Mrs. Halburton-Smythe was sad about was that she was beginning to believe that her cool and aloof daughter did not want to marry anyone.
With a groan, Hamish made the effort and got up. Towser gave a grumbling sound in the back of his throat and slid to the floor and padded off towards the kitchen.
Hamish jerked back the curtains. The police station was on the waterfront and overlooked the sea loch, which lay that morning as calm as a sheet of glass.
He washed and dressed and went through to the police office. The message was from headquarters in Strathbane reminding him he had not sent in a full statement about a break-in at a small hotel on the road to Drum. He ambled into the kitchen and made himself a breakfast of bread and cheese, for he had forgotten to light the stove. Priscilla had presented him with a brand-new electric cooker, but he had childishly sent it back.
He fed Towser and stood on one leg, irresolute, looking like a heron brooding over a pond. Depression was new to him. He had to take action, to do something to lift it. He could start by typing that report. On the other hand, Towser needed a walk.
The phone began to ring again and so he quickly left the police station with Towser at his heels and set out along the waterfront in the hot morning sun. And it was hot, a most unusual state of affairs for the north of Scotland. He pushed his peaked cap back on his fiery-red hair and his hazel eyes saw irritation heading his way in the form of the Currie sisters, Jessie and Nessie.
The eyes of the village spinsters constantly accused him of being a heartless flirt. He touched his cap and said, "Fine morning."
"It is for some. It is for some," said Jessie, who had an irritating habit of repeating things. "Some, on the other hand, are breaking their hearts."
Hamish skirted round them and went on his way. Resentment and self-pity warred in his bosom. He had once helped the Currie sisters out of a dangerous jam and had destroyed evidence to do so. Damn it, he had helped a lot of people in this village. Why should he be made to feel guilty?
His thoughts turned to Angela Brodie, the doctor's wife. Now she had not turned against him. He walked up the short path leading to the doctor's house, went round the back and knocked at the kitchen door. Angela answered it, the dogs yapping at her feet. She pushed her fine wispy hair out of her eyes and said vaguely, "Hamish! How nice. Come in and have coffee."
She cleared a space for him at the kitchen table by lifting piles of books off it and placing them on the floor.
"I don't seem to have had a chat with you in ages," said Angela cheerfully. "Heard from Priscilla?"
Hamish, who had just been lowering his bottom onto a kitchen chair, stood up again. "If you are going to start as well ..." he began huffily.
"Sit down," said Angela, startled. "Start what?"
Hamish slowly sat down again. "You haff been the only one who hass not gone on about Priscilla," he said, his Highland accent becoming more sibilant, as it always did when he was angry or upset.
"Oh, I see," said Angela, pouring him a mug of coffee and sliding it across the table towards him. "I only asked about Priscilla because I assumed that you and she were still friends."
"And so we are!" said Hamish. "But ye wouldnae think so with this lot in Lochdubh. You would think I wass some sort of Victorian philanderer the way they go on."
"It'll blow over," said Angela comfortably. "These sort of ideas spread through these villages like an infection. Mrs. Wellington started it." Mrs. Wellington was the minister's wife. "She started it by complaining that you were a feckless womanizer and things like that. You know how she goes on. But you brought that on yourself!"
"She happened to overhear you doing a very good impression of her to delight the boy scouts."
"And so she got a resentment to you and shared it around. Resentment is very infectious. It has always fascinated me the way, for example, one malcontent can bring a whole factory out on strike and keep everyone out on strike until the firm folds and they all lose their jobs. Also, you're going around being so gloomy. That fuels it. You look like a guilty man."
"I'm a bit down," confessed Hamish. "The fact is I've taken a scunner tae Lockdubh and everyone in it."
"Hamish! You love the place!"
"Not at the moment."
"You're due some leave, aren't you? Get right away on holiday. You could get one of those cheap holidays in Spain. Or some of the African package holidays are very cheap."
"I'll think about it," said Hamish moodily. "I might just take a wee holiday somewhere in Scotland, seeing that the weather's fine."
Angela got up and began to rummage through a pile of old magazines on a kitchen chair. She extracted a battered Sunday-paper colour supplement. "What about this place?" she said, flipping open the pages. "Skag. Have you been to Skag?"
"That's over on the Moray Firth. I havenae been there, though I've been into Forres, which is quite close." He looked at the coloured photographs. It looked like a Cornish resort with long white beaches, pretty village and harbour. There was also a page of advertisements for hotels and boarding-houses in Skag. "I'll take this with me, Angela, if you don't mind."
"Keep it," said the doctor's wife. "It's one less piece of junk. I can never bring myself to throw magazines out or even take them along to the waiting-room."
"What's the latest gossip?" asked Hamish.
She sipped her coffee and looked at him in that vague way she always had. Then she put down her coffee-cup and said, "Well, the biggest piece of gossip apart from yourself is Jessie Currie."
"What about her?"
"Angus Macdonald, the seer, told her she would be married before the year's out."
Hamish's hazel eyes lit up with amusement. "She didnae believe him, did she?"
"She says she didn't, but she's been casting a speculative eye over the men of the village and Nessie is worrying about being left alone."
"And who is this charmer who's going to sweep our Jessie off her feet?"
"Angus will only say it's going to be a divorced fisher-man."
"We don't have any divorced fishermen!"
"I pointed that out to Jessie and she said, 'Not yet.' "
"Chance'll be a fine thing," said Hamish. "Dried-up old spinster like her."
"Hamish! That's cruel."
"Aye, well, she should mind her own business instead of ither folks'."
"I really do think you need to get away. Willie Lamont was saying the other day that when you go to the restaurant, you're always complaining about something."
Willie Lamont, Hamish's one-time sidekick, had left the police force to marry a young relative of the owner of the Italian restaurant and worked there much harder than he had ever done when he was a police constable.
"The portions are getting smaller and smaller and the prices higher."
"Still, it's not like you to complain. I'll bet if you had a break from all of us, you'd be very happy to come back and see us again."
Hamish got up. "We'll see. Thanks for the coffee."
He walked along the waterfront and perched on the harbour wall. Towser sighed and lay down. Hamish studied the magazine article. There was an advertisement from a boarding-house called The Friendly House "situated right on the beach with commanding sea views, old-fashioned cooking; special low terms for July, halfboard."
Hamish lowered the magazine and looked over at the village. It was a largely Georgian village, built all in the same year by one of the dukes of Sutherland to enlarge the fishing industry, trim little square whitewashed houses facing the sea loch. He knew everyone in the village, from people who had lived there all their lives like the Currie sisters, to the latest incomers. He felt better now he had talked to Angela, much better. He had been seeing things through a distorting glass, imagining everyone was against him.
So when he saw Mrs. Maclean, Archie, the fisherman's wife, stumping along towards him, carrying a heavy shopping basket, he gave her a cheery smile. "Lazing about as usual?" demanded Mrs. Maclean. She was a ferocious housekeeper, never seen without a pinafore and smelling strongly of soap and disinfectant. Her hair was twisted up in foam rollers and covered with a headscarf.
"I am enjoying the day," said Hamish mildly.
"How ye can enjoy anything wi' that poor lassie down in England eating her heart out is beyond me," said Mrs. Maclean.
Hamish studied her thoughtfully and then a gleam of malice came into his eyes. "Priscilla isn't nursing a broken heart, but some poor fisherman's wife is soon going tae be."
"Whit dae ye mean?"
Hamish slid down from the wall, rolled up the colour supplement and put it in his trousers pocket. "Aye, Angus Macdonald told Jessie Currie she'd be married afore the year was out and tae a fisherman, a divorced fisherman. How's Archie these days?"
"Archie's jist fine," said Mrs. Maclean, her eyes roving this way and that, as if expecting to see her husband. It was well known in the village that Archie, when not fishing, spent most of the day avoiding his wife, in case she scrubbed him to death, as he put it. "Anyway, it's all havers," she said. "Jessie Currie. The very idea."
And then, to Hamish's delight, he saw Archie in the distance. He came abreast of the Curries' cottage and Jessie called something to him over the garden hedge and he stopped to talk to her.
"There's your man ower there," said Hamish happily, "and talking tae Jessie."
Mrs. Maclean stared in the direction he pointed and gave something that sounded like a yelp and set off at speed. But Archie saw her coming and left Jessie and darted up one of the lanes leading up to the back village and was gone from view.
Hamish strolled back to the police station, phoned Strathbane and said he wanted to take three weeks' immediate holiday. Permission was easily granted. The bane of his life, Detective Chief Inspector Blair, was in Glasgow, there had been virtually no crime at all for months, and so it was agreed that Sergeant Macgregor over at Cnothan could take over Hamish's duties as well as his own. He was free to leave at the end of the week. He phoned the boarding-house in Skag and learned to his delight that, thanks to a cancellation, they had one room free for the very time he wanted, and yes, dogs were allowed.
Feeling happier than he had felt for some time, he then set out to arrange for his sheep to be looked after, his hens and ducks as well, and then decided to pay a visit to the seer to find out what had possessed the old sinner to wind Jessie up like that.
Angus Macdonald, the seer, a big, craggy man like one of the minor prophets, peered all around Hamish looking for a present before he let him in. The villagers usually brought him something, a bottle of whisky or a cake.
"No, I didnae bring you anything," said Hamish, following him into his small living-room. "I don't want your services. I simply want to know what you were doing telling Jessie she was going tae marry a divorced fisherman."
"I seed it," said Angus huffily. "I dinnae make things up."
"Come on, man. Jessie!"
"Well, that's whit I seed."
"That sort o' rubbish could start gossip."
"Maybe that's whit you're hoping fur, Hamish."
"Stop them gossiping about you and your lassie."
"I think you're an old fraud," said Hamish. "I've always thought you were an old faker."
"You're jist bad-tempered because ye think nobody loves ye. Here's Mrs. Wellington coming."
Hamish jumped up in alarm. He scampered off and ran down the hill, seemingly deaf to the booming hail of the minister's wife.
"That man," said the tweedy Mrs. Wellington as she plumped herself down in an armchair. "I'll be glad to see the back of him."
"Is he going somewhere?" asked Angus.
"I met Mrs. Brodie just before I came up here. She said that Hamish was thinking of going over to Skag for a holiday."
"Oh, aye," said Angus. "Now whit can I dae for you, Mrs. Wellington?"
"This business about Jessie Currie. It can't be true." Her eyes sharpened. "Unless you've heard something."
"I see things," said the Angus.
"And you hear more gossip than anyone I know," said Mrs. Wellington sharply. "I brought you one of my fruit-cakes. It's over on the counter. You see, Mr. Patel at the stores told me that he had seen Archie Maclean talking to Jessie Currie and when he saw his wife at the other end of the waterfront coming towards him, he ran away."
"I'm saying nothing," said Angus mysteriously. "But we'll jist have a wee cup o' tea and try that cake."
* * *
Early on Saturday morning, Hamish Macbeth hung a sign on the door of the police station, referring all inquiries to Sergeant Macgregor at Cnothan. He locked the police Land Rover up in the garage, put Towser on the leash, and picked up his suitcase. Then the phone in the police station began to ring. He decided to answer it in the hope that someone in the village might have phoned up to wish him a happy holiday.
The voice of the seer sounded down the line. "I wouldnae go tae Skag if I were you, Hamish."
Hamish felt a superstitious feeling of dread.
"Why not?" he asked.
"I see death. I see death and trouble fur you, Hamish Macbeth."
"I havenae time to listen to your rubbish," said Hamish sharply and put the receiver down.
At the other end of the line, Angus listened to that click and smiled. Called him a fraud, had he? Well, that should give Hamish Macbeth something to think about!
Hamish left the police station and walked along to the end of the harbour to get the bus to Bonar Bridge. From Bonar Bridge he would get another bus to Inverness and then buses from Inverness over to Skag.
The bus was, as usual, late, twenty minutes late, in fact. Hamish was the only passenger. He often thought the driver, Peter Dunwiddy, deliberately started off late so as to have an excuse to break the speed limit, even with a policeman on board. Hamish hung on tightly and Towser flattened himself on the floor of the bus as it hurtled up out of Lochdubh and then began to scream around the hairpin bends on its way to Bonar Bridge. He expected to feel a lightness of heart as Lochdubh and all its residents fell away behind him. But he felt an odd tugging sadness at his heart. To match his mood, the day was grey, all colour bleached out of the landscape, like a Japanese print. He hoped the good weather would return. Perhaps he should not have been so parochial as to holiday in Scotland. When did Scotland ever guarantee sunny weather and water warm enough to go for a swim?
By the time he reached the village of Skag, he felt as tired as if he had walked there. He asked directions to The Friendly House and then set out. It was about two miles outside the village, and not on the beach exactly but behind a row of sand dunes set a quarter of a mile back from the North Sea.
It was an old Victorian villa, vaguely Swiss-chalet design, with fretted- wood balconies and blue shutters. He glanced at his watch. Half past five. Tea was at six.
He entered a dim hallway furnished with a side-table holding an assortment of tourist brochures, a large brass bowl holding dusty pampas- grass, a carved chair, and an assortment of wellington boots. He pressed a bell on the wall and a door at the back of the wall opened and a thick, heavy-set man came towards him. He had blond hair and bright-blue eyes and a skin which had a strange high glaze on it, like china. Hamish thought he was probably in his fifties.
"You must be our Mr. Macbeth," he said breezily. "The name's Rogers, Harry Rogers. You'll find us one happy family here. Come upstairs and I'll show you and the doggie your room."
The room boasted none of the modern luxuries like telephone or television. But the bed looked comfortable, and through the window Hamish could see the grey line of the North Sea. "The bathroom's at the end of the corridor," said Mr. Rogers. "As you see, there's a wash-hand basin in the corner there. Tea's at six. Yes, none of this dinner business. Good old-fashioned high tea."
Hamish thanked him and Mr. Rogers left. Towser, tired after the long walk, crawled onto the bed and closed his eyes. Hamish quickly unpacked, taking out a bowl which he filled with water for the dog, and a can of dog food, a can opener, and another bowl. He filled the second bowl with the dog food and put it on the floor beside the water. Spoilt Towser did not like dog food, but, reflected Hamish, he would just need to put up with it for the duration of the holiday. Of course, maybe he could buy him some cold ham as a treat. Towser was partial to cold ham. He changed into a pair of jeans and a checked shirt, debated whether to wear a tie and decided against it, and then went downstairs and pushed open a door marked "Dining-Room." A small, birdlike woman who turned out to be Mrs. Rogers, hailed him. "Mr. Macbeth, your table's here ... with Miss Gunnery."
Hamish nodded to Miss Gunnery and sat down. All the other diners were already seated. Mr. Rogers appeared and introduced everyone to everyone else. Hamish's quick policeman's mind noted all the names and his sharp eyes took in the appearance of the other guests.
Miss Gunnery on the other side of the table had the sort of appearance which even in these modern days screamed spinster. She had a severe face, gold-rimmed glasses and a mouth like a trap. Her flat-chested figure was dressed despite the humidity of the day in a green tweed suit worn over a white shirt blouse.
At the next table was a man with his wife, a Mr. and Mrs. Harris. Both were middle-aged. She had neatly permed brown hair and neat, closed features, and was dressed in a woollen sweater and cardigan and a black skirt. Her husband was wearing an open-necked shirt and a trendy black leather jacket and jeans, the sort of outfit that tired businessmen in a search for fading youth have taken to wearing, almost like a uniform. He was grey-haired, had large staring eyes and a bulbous nose.
Beyond them were Mr. and Mrs. Brett and their three children, Heather, Callum, and Fiona, aged seven, four, and three, respectively. Mr. Brett was a comfortable, chubby man with glasses and an air of benign stupidity. His wife was an artificial redhead with a petty face and pencilled eyebrows. Either they were plucked, a rare fashion these days, thought Hamish, or they had fallen off, or she had been born that way. She had pencilled in arches of eyebrows, which gave her a look of perpetual surprise.
At the window table were two girls called Tracey Fink and Cheryl Gamble, both from Glasgow. They both had hair sun-streaked by chemicals rather than sunlight and white pinched faces under a load of make-up, and both were wearing identical outfits, striped black-and-white sweaters and black ski pants with straps under the instep and dirty sneakers. And in a far corner was a solitary man who had the honour of having a table to himself. His name was Mr. Andrew Biggar. He had a tanned face and thick brown hair streaked with grey, small clever brown eyes, and a long, humorous mouth.
High tea, that famous Scottish meal now hardly ever served, consists of one main dish, usually cold ham, and salad and chips, washed down with tea. In the middle of each table was a cake stand. On the bottom were thin slices of white bread scraped with butter. On the next layer were scones and teacakes, and on the top, cakes filled with ersatz cream and covered in violently coloured icing.
"Grand day," said Hamish conversationally to Miss Gunnery, for every day in Scotland where it is not exactly freezing cold and pouring wet is designated a "grand day."
Her eyes snapped at him through her glasses. "Is it? I find it damp and overcast."
Hamish relapsed into a crushed silence. He wished he had not come. But Mr. Harris's voice rose above the conversation at the other tables, he of the trendy leather jacket, and caught Hamish's attention.
"Well, this holiday was your idea, Doris," he said.
"I only said the tea was a trifle weak," protested his wife.
"Always finding fault, that's your problem," said Mr. Harris. "If you exercised more and thought less about your stomach, you might be as fit as me."
"I only said "
"You said. You said," he jeered. He looked around the room. "That's women for you. Always nit-picking."
"Bob, please," whispered his wife.
"You know." She cast a scared look around the dining-room. "Everyone's listening."
"Let them listen. I'm not bound by your suburban little fears, my dear." His voice rose to a high falsetto. "What will the neighbours think."
And so he went on and on.
The severe Miss Gunnery, who prided herself on "keeping herself to herself," was driven to open her mouth and say to the tall, lanky, red- headed man opposite, "That fellow is a nag."
"Aye, the worst kind," agreed Hamish, and then smiled, and at that smile, Miss Gunnery thawed even more. "Mrs. Harris is right," she said. "The tea is disgustingly weak, the ham is mostly fat, and those cakes look vile. I know this place is cheap ..."
"Maybe there's a fish-and-chip shop in the village," said Hamish hopefully. "I might take a walk there later. My dog likes fish and chips."
"Oh, you have a dog? What breed?"
"Towser's a mixture of every kind of breed."
Miss Gunnery looked amused. "Towser! I didn't think anyone called a dog Towser these days or Rover, for that matter."
"It started as a wee bit o' a joke, that name," said Hamish, "and then the poor animal got stuck wi' it."
"What do you do for a living, Mr. Macbeth?"
The nag's voice had temporarily ceased. There was silence in the dining- room. "I'm a civil servant," said Hamish. He did not like telling people he was a policeman because they usually shrank away from him. And he had found that when he said he was a civil servant, it sounded so boring that no one ever asked him where he worked or in what branch of the organization.
"I'm a schoolteacher," said Miss Gunnery. "I've never been to Skag before. It seemed a good chance to get a cheap holiday."
"When did you arrive?"
"Today, like the rest. We're all the new intake."
Mr. Rogers and his wife hovered about among the tables, snatching away plates as soon as any diner looked as if he or she was finished. "We have television in the lounge across the hall," announced Mr. Rogers. His wife was carefully packing away uneaten cakes into a large plastic box. Hamish guessed, and as it turned out correctly, that they would make their appearance again during the following days until they had all either been eaten or gone stale.
The company moved through to the lounge. Bob Harris had temporarily given up baiting his wife, but Andrew Biggar made the mistake of asking Doris Harris what she would like to see.
" 'Coronation Street' is just about to come on," said Doris shyly. "I would like to see that if no one else minds."
Her husband's voice cut across the murmur of assent. "Trust you to inflict your penchant for soaps on everyone else. How you can watch that pap is beyond me."
Hamish walked over to the television set, found "Coronation Street," and turned up the volume. "I like 'Coronation Street,' " he lied to Doris. "Always watch it."
He sat down next to Miss Gunnery. He was aware of the nag's voice all through the programme, sneering and jeering at the characters. He sighed and looked about the room. The chairs were arranged in a half-circle in front of the television set. The fireplace was blocked up and a two-bar electric heater stood in front of it. There was a set of bookshelves containing battered paperbacks, no doubt left behind by previous guests. The Rogerses were probably too mean to buy any. The chairs were upholstered in a scratchy fabric. The carpet was a worn-out green with faded yellow flowers. There were various dim pictures on the walls, Highland cattle in Highland mist, and a grim photograph of a Victorian lady who stared down on all. Probably the original owner, thought Hamish.
At the end of the programme, which he had only stayed to watch for Mrs. Harris's sake, he rose and said to Miss Gunnery, "I'm going to walk my dog along to the village and see if there's a fish-and-chips shop. Want to come?"
"I don't eat fish and chips," she said primly, looking down her nose.
The tetchiness that had been in him for months rose to the surface again. "So you prefer that high-class muck we had for tea?"
There was an edge of contempt to his light Highland voice and Miss Gunnery flushed. "I'm being silly," she said, getting to her feet. "I'd enjoy the walk."
Hamish went up to get Towser, but when he descended to the hall again it was to find not only Miss Gunnery waiting for him but the rest of the party, with the exception of the Harrises.
They did not say anything like "We've decided to come too," but merely fell into line behind the police-man like obedient children being taken for a walk.
Mr. Brett was the first to break the silence. "A stone's throw from the sea," he exclaimed. "You would need to have a strong arm to throw a stone that distance."
"Are ye sure there's a chip shop, Jimmy?" asked Cheryl. She hailed from Glasgow, where everyone was called Jimmy, or so it seemed, if you listened to the inhabitants.
"I don't know," said Hamish. "May be something in the pub."
"I'm starving," confided Tracey, stooping to pat Towser. "I could eat a horse between two bread vans."
Cheryl slapped her playfully on the back and both girls giggled.
"It's a pity little Mrs. Harris couldn't come as well," said Andrew Biggar. "Don't suppose she gets much fun. Are you in the army, by any chance, Mr. Macbeth?"
"Hamish. I'm called Hamish. No, Andrew. Civil servant. What makes ye say that?"
"When I first saw you, I thought you were probably usually in uniform. Got it wrong. I'm an army man myself. Forcibly retired."
"Oh, those dreadful redundancies," said Miss Gunnery sympathetically. "And us so soon to be at war with Russia again."
"Don't say that," said Mrs. Brett, whose name turned out to be June, and her husband's, Dermott. "It's been a grim-enough start. That man Harris should be shot."
"You can say that again," said Dermott Brett, so June predictably did and the couple roared with laughter at their own killing wit.
"I don't know if I'm going to be able to bear this holiday," murmured Miss Gunnery to Hamish.
"Och," said Hamish, who was beginning to feel better, "I think they're a nice enough bunch of people and there's nothing like a common resentment for banding people together." He winced remembering how common resentment had turned the villagers of Lochdubh against him.
"Harris, you mean," said Miss Gunnery. "But his voice does go on and on and it's not a very big place."
They arrived at the village of Skag. It consisted of rows of stone houses, some of them thatched, built on a point. The river Skag ran on one side of the point and on the other side was the broad expanse of the North Sea. The main street was cobbled but the little side streets were not surfaced and the prevalent white sand blew everywhere, dancing in little eddies on a rising breeze. "Getting fresher," said Hamish. "Look there. A bit of blue sky."
They walked down to the harbour and stood at the edge. The tide was coming in and the water sucked greedily at the wooden piles underneath them. Great bunches of seaweed rose and fell. Above them, the grey canopy rolled back until bright sunlight blazed down.
Hamish sniffed the air. "I smell fish and chips," he said, "coming from over there."
They set out after him and found a small fish-and-chips shop. Hamish suggested they walk to the beach and eat their fish and chips there.
They made their way with their packets past the other side of the harbour, where yachts were moored in a small basin, the rising wind humming and thrumming in the shrouds. There was a sleazy café overlooking the yacht basin, still open but empty of customers, the lights of a fruit machine winking in the gloom inside.
A path led round the back of the café, past rusting abandoned cars and fridges, old sofas and broken tables, to a rise of shingle and then down to where the shingle ended and the long white beach began.
"You spoil that dog," said Miss Gunnery as Hamish placed a fish supper on its cardboard tray down in front of Towser.
Hamish did not reply. He knew he spoilt Towser but did not like anyone to comment on the fact.
"Why does a woman like Doris marry a pillock like that?" asked Andrew Biggar.
June Brett nudged her chubby husband playfully in the ribs. "They're all saints before you marry them and then the beast comes out."
Dermott Brett snarled at her and his wife shrieked with delight. Faces could be misleading, thought Hamish. June looked rather petty and mean when she was not speaking, but when she did, she became transformed into a good-natured woman. The Brett children were making sandcastles down by the water. They were remarkably well behaved. Heather, the seven-year- old, was looking after her young brother and toddling sister, making sure the little Fiona did not wander into the water. Long ribbons of white sand snaked along the harder damp surface of the sand underneath and then there came a haunting humming sound, "Whit's that?" cried Cheryl, clutching Tracey.
"Singing sands," said Hamish. "I remember hearing there were singing sands here but I forgot about it."
"It's eerie," said Miss Gunnery. "In fact, the whole place is a bit odd. It never gets dark this time of year, does it, Hamish?"
He shook his head, thinking that the place was indeed eerie. Because of the bank of shingle behind the beach and the flatness of the land behind, there was a feeling of being cut off from the rest of the world. He remembered the seer's prediction with a shudder and then his common sense took over. Angus had heard the gossip about his holiday and had invented death and trouble to pay Hamish back for having called him a fraud.
Miss Gunnery was carefully collecting everyone's fish-and-chip-papers when Hamish heard Dermott Brett say, "He's got worse."
"Who?" asked Andrew, lazily scraping in the sand for shells.
"You know him?" asked Hamish.
"Yes, he was here last year."
Miss Gunnery paused in her paper-gathering. "You mean you stayed here and came back!"
"New management," said Dermott Brett. "It was owned by a couple of old biddies. They did a good tea, but their prices were quite high for a boarding-house. We weren't going to come back, because with the three kids it was coming to quite a bit. Then June saw the ad with the new cheap prices, but it said nothing about new management."
"What happened to the old women who owned it?" asked Hamish, ever curious.
"They were the Blane sisters, the Misses Blane. Rogers said they took a small house for themselves in Skag. Might call on them, if I can find them."
"So Harris is worse now?" pursued Hamish.
"He was bad enough last year, but in fits and starts. Didn't go on like he does now the whole time. Maybe he'll have settled down by tomorrow. Doris Harris wanted to come with us, but he ranted on at her when you were upstairs getting your dog about wasting good money on fish and chips when she had already eaten."
There was a scream of delight from the Brett children. Heather had placed the three-year-old Fiona on Towser's back. Towser was standing patiently, looking puzzled, his eyes rolling in Hamish's direction for help.
"Leave him be," shouted Hamish. Heather obediently lifted Fiona off Towser's back and Towser lolloped up the beach and lay panting at Hamish's feet.
"Time I got those kids in bed," said June. "They've been on the train all day."
"Come far?" asked Hamish.
Dermott got to his feet and brushed sand from his trousers. He walked up to the children and swung the toddler onto his shoulders. June joined him, and the family set off together in the direction of the boarding- house.
"That's a nice family," said Miss Gunnery, returning from a rubbish bin on the other side of the shingle, where she had put the papers. "Perhaps we should be getting back as well."
"Whit aboot the night-life o' Skag?" sniggered Cheryl. "Me and Tracey'd like a drink."
"How old are you?" demanded Miss Gunnery severely.
Cheryl tossed her long blonde hair. "Old enough," she said. Her heavily made-up eyes flirted at Hamish. "Aye, old enough fur anything, isn't that right, Tracey?"
"Sure is," said Tracey in a dreadful imitation American accent. "So let's just mosey along to the pub."
"Bound to be bottled beer up here," said Andrew, "but I'm willing to try it. What about you, Hamish?"
"As long as they'll let Towser in."
"He's married tae his dug!" shrieked Cheryl.
Hamish's thin, sensitive face flushed angrily. He was ashamed of his affection for his dog, ashamed sometimes of Towser's yellowish mongrel appearance.
"I think a drink's just what we all need," said Andrew quickly. "Come along, Hamish."
Hamish had a sudden desire to sulk. But Miss Gunnery said, "I saw the pub near the harbour. It looked quite pretty. I think I'll go after all." She linked a bony arm in Hamish's as he stood up and the small party set off.
It was a pretty thatched pub with tubs of flowers at the door, more like an English inn than a Scottish one. But inside it was as plastic and dreary as the worst of Scottish pubs. A juke-box blared in the corner and a spotty moron was operating the fruit machine with monotonous regularity, his mouth hanging open as he fed in the coins. Hamish had noticed a table and chairs outside and suggested they take their drinks there. Cheryl and Tracey had rums and Coke, Miss Gunnery, a gin and tonic, Andrew, a bottle of beer, and Hamish, a whisky and a bag of potato crisps for Towser.
"There's a carnival here tomorrow," said Hamish. "Side-shows and everything. I saw a poster about it on the pub wall."
"I didn't see a fairground," said Andrew.
"It'll be here tomorrow all right," said Hamish, wise in the ways of Highland gypsies. "They come in the night like a medieval army and the next day, there they all are."
They finished their drinks and walked slowly back to the boarding-house. Cheryl and Tracey had decided to compete for the attention of Hamish Macbeth and so they walked arm in arm with him while Miss Gunnery and Andrew followed behind.
When they went into the boarding-house, Hamish collected a couple of paperbacks from the bookshelves in the lounge and went up the stairs to his room.
It was then that he found out that the Harrises had the room next door. Bob Harris's voice rose and fell, going on and on and on, punctuated by an occasional whimper from his wife.
Hamish wondered whether to go next door and tell the man to shut up, but as a policeman he had found out the folly of interfering in marital problems. Doris would probably round on him and tell him to leave her husband alone.
Or rather, that's what the lazy Hamish Macbeth told himself.
Meet the Author
M. C. Beaton has won international acclaim for her New York Times bestselling Hamish Macbeth mysteries. The BBC has aired 24 episodes based on the series. Beaton is also the author of the bestselling Agatha Raisin series, which will air as an eight-episode dramatic series on Sky1, starring Ashley Jensen. She lives in the Cotswolds with her husband. For more information, you can visit MCBeaton.com.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
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I really love cozy mysteries and this is one of the best series I've tried. This is the 1st in the series I've read as some of the earlier ones aren't available as Nook Books and totally enjoyed it. Hamish MacBeth is a unique, interesting detective. I really enjoy the Highlands locale and local "characters." The books are a bit short, but well-written and there's plenty of character development and detecting packed in.
Ms. Beaton writes with such easy charm, you want to visit the beautiful little village of Lochdubh again and again. I have done just that, starting with book one of the series, and after finishing the 18th book can honestly say, it is one of my favorite series of books. Hamish Macbeth manages to do what the big wigs in the bigger nearby town cannot, solve crimes, mainly murders. He digs into the personality of the persons involved, and some not yet suspect, and always comes up with a winner...ah...killer. I intend to read all of the series and can with no hesitation suggest this series for you.
This is a great night-time story. Am reading the series.
In ¿Death of a Nag,¿ M.C. Beaton returns with her eleventh Hamish Macbeth mystery, and he is continuing to keep Lochdubh safe and sound. And the Scottish Highlands couldn¿t be in better hands! Aside from his on-again, off-again romance with Priscilla Halburton-Smythe, Macbeth takes his responsibilities quite seriously (there are those in the village who think of him as lazy, no-good, and quite irresponsible for ¿letting¿ Priscilla go!). In this episode, Macbeth has taken off a few days to ¿recharge his batteries,¿ but, alas, the charming seaside resort (Friendly House) is teeming with the usual Beaton characters. Macbeth finds the company tiresome, the food inedible, and, sure enough, a body: that of one of the guests, a terrific nag. And who better is the suspect that the victim¿s wife, whom he publically ridiculed (and nagged!). Beaton makes sure that all of the characters are suspects (a ¿regular¿ ingredient of Beaton¿s works!), but only Macbeth is able to sort out the culprit. Charming, easy-to-read, and worthwhile.