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Death of an Outsider
By M. C. Beaton
Grand Central PublishingCopyright © 2013 M. C. Beaton
All rights reserved.
See, the happy moron,
He doesn't give a damn,
I wish I were a moron,
My God! perhaps I am!
Constable Hamish Macbeth sat in the small country bus that was bearing him away from Lochdubh—away from the west coast of Sutherland, away from his police-station home. His dog, Towser, a great yellowish mongrel, put a large paw on his knee, but the policeman did not notice. The dog sighed and heaved itself up onto the seat beside him and joined his master in staring out of the window.
The bus driver was new to the job. "Nae dugs on the seats," he growled over his shoulder, determined not to be intimidated by Hamish's uniform. But the constable gave him a look of such vacant stupidity that the driver, a Lowland Scot who considered all Highlanders inbred, decided it was useless to pursue the matter.
Misery did make Hamish Macbeth look dull-witted. It seemed as if only a short time ago he had been happy and comfortable in his own police station in Lochdubh, and then orders had come that he was to relieve Sergeant MacGregor at Cnothan, a crofting town in the centre of Sutherland. In vain had he invented a crime wave in Lochdubh. He was told that protecting the occasional battered wife and arresting a drunk once every two months did not amount to a crime wave. He was to lock up the police station and go by bus, for Sergeant MacGregor wished his stand-in to keep his car in running order.
Hamish hated change almost as much as he hated work. He had the tenancy of some croft land next to the police station at Lochdubh, where he kept a small herd of sheep, now being looked after by a neighbour. He earned quite good money on the side from his small farming, his poaching, and the prize money he won for hill running at the Highland Games in the summer. All that he could save went to his mother and father and brothers and sisters over in Cromarty. He did not anticipate any easy pickings in Cnothan.
Crofters, or hill farmers, always need another job because usually the croft or smallholding is too small a farm to supply a livelihood. So crofters are also postmen, forestry workers, shopkeepers, and, in the rare case of Hamish Macbeth, policemen.
It was the end of January, and the north of Scotland was still in the grip of almost perpetual night. The sun rose shortly after nine in the morning, where it sulked along the horizon for a few hours before disappearing around two in the afternoon. The fields were brown and scraggly, the heather moors, dismal rain-sodden wastes, and ghostly wreaths of mist hung on the sides of the tall mountains.
There were only a few passengers on the bus. The Currie sisters, Jessie and Nessie, two spinster residents of Lochdubh, were talking in high shrill voices. "Amn't I just telling you, Nessie?" came the voice of Jessie. "I went over to the Royal Society for the Prevention of Cruelty to Animals at Strathbane last week and I says to the mannie, 'I want a humane trap to catch the ferret that has been savaging our ducks.' He gives me the trap, and he says, 'You take this here humane trap, and you humanely catch your ferret, and then, if you want my advice, you will humanely club the wee bastard to death.' Sich a going-on! And him supposed to be against cruelty. I have written to our Member of Parliament to complain most strongly."
"You told me a hundred times," grumbled Nessie. "Maybe he was right. For all you caught in that humane trap was the minister's cat. Why don't you tell Mr. Macbeth about it?"
"Him!" screeched Jessie. "That constable is a poacher and it was probably his ferret."
The bus jerked to a halt and the sisters alighted, still quarrelling.
Three months in Cnothan, thought Hamish, absent-mindedly scratching Towser behind the ears. They say Lochdubh is quiet, but nothing ever happens in Cnothan, and nothing ever will. Did I not have the two murders in Lochdubh?
He thought of the murder that had taken place last summer and how it appeared to have brought him closer to the love of his life, Priscilla Halburton-Smythe. But Priscilla, the daughter of a local landowner, had then left, just before Christmas, to go to London to find work. She never stayed away for very long. She might even be heading north now, and would return to Lochdubh to find him gone.
"And she will not be caring one little bit!" said Hamish suddenly and loudly. The bus driver bent over the wheel and congratulated himself on his decision to leave this crazy copper alone.
Hamish knew Cnothan and thought it must be the dullest place in the world. Although designated a town, it was about the size of a tiny English village. He remembered the inhabitants as being a close, secretive, religious bunch who considered anyone from outside an interloper.
At last, he was the only passenger left on the bus. The bus lurched and screeched around hairpin bends, finally racing out of the shadow of the tall pillared mountains to plunge down into the valley where Cnothan stood, in the middle of Sutherland.
Hamish climbed down stiffly and collected his belongings, which were packed into a haversack and an old leather suitcase. The bus departed with a roar and Hamish pushed his peaked hat back on his fiery hair and looked about him.
"High noon in Cnothan," he muttered.
It was the lunch-hour, which meant all the shops were closed and the main street was deserted. A savage wind screamed down it. Not even a piece of scrap-paper was borne on the wind. The town had a scrubbed, grey, antiseptic look.
Cnothan stood on the edge of an artificial loch caused by one of the ugliest hydroelectric dams Hamish had ever seen. What you saw was what you got. There were no quaint lanes or turnings. One straight main street led down to the loch. There were four grocer's shops, which all sold pretty much the same sort of goods, a hardware, a garage, a craft shop, a hotel, a fish-and-chip shop, a butcher's, a pub, and an enormous church. The government-subsidized housing was tucked away on the other side of the loch, segregated from Cnothan's privately owned houses, which were all very small and drab and looked remarkably like the government ones.
The town was so barren, so empty, it reminded Hamish of scenes in a science-fiction movie he had once seen.
And yet he was aware of eyes watching him, eyes hidden behind the neatly drawn lace curtains.
He opened the garden gate of the bungalow nearest him, called Green Pastures, and went up and rang the brass ship's bell that hung outside the door. Silence. A plaster gnome stared at him from the garden and the wind moaned drearily.
A mail-order magazine protruded from the garbage bin beside the door. Hamish twisted his head and read the name on it. Mrs. A. MacNeill. At last he heard footsteps approaching. The door was opened a few inches on a chain and a woman's face peered through the crack, one of those sallow Spanish types of faces you find in the Highlands of Scotland.
"What is it?" she demanded.
Now Hamish knew in that instant that the woman knew exactly who he was. Her manner was too calm. For in a relatively crime-free area, the arrival of a policeman on the doorstep usually creates terror because it means news of a death or accident.
"I am Constable Macbeth," said Hamish pleasantly, "come to replace Mr. MacGregor who is going on holiday. Where is the police station?"
"I dinnae ken," said the woman. "Maybe it's up the hill."
"At the top of the main street?" asked Hamish. He knew the woman knew perfectly well where the police station was, but Hamish was an incomer, and in Cnothan, you never told incomers anything if you could help it.
"It could be, but why don't you ask someone else?" said the face at the door.
Hamish leaned against the door jamb and studied the sky. "Aye, it iss blowing up," he said in his soft Highland voice, which became more sibilant when he was angry or upset. "Now, Mr. MacGregor, he will be going to Florida to visit his brother, Roy. It will be hot there this time of year."
"Aye, it will," said the woman.
"And I call to mind he has the sister in Canada."
The chain dropped and the door opened another few inches. "That's Bessie," said the woman. "Her that is in Alberta."
"True, true," agreed Hamish. "And you are Mrs. MacNeill?"
"Now, how did you ken that?" asked Mrs. MacNeill, opening the door wide.
"Oh, hass not everyone heard of Mrs. MacNeill," said Hamish. "That's why I called. People are not often anxious to give directions, but I said to myself, that Mrs. MacNeill, being a cosmopolitan sort of lady, would help if she could."
Mrs. MacNeill simpered awfully. "You are asking about the police station. Yes, as I was saying, it is right at the top of the main street on the left. They are packed and ready to leave."
"Thank you." Hamish touched his cap and strolled off. "Cantankerous auld bitch," he muttered to Towser, "but there was no point in asking anyone else, for I suppose they'll all be the same."
At the top of the main street was a long, low, grey bungalow with the blue police lamp over an extension to the side. A small angry police sergeant was striding up and down outside.
"What kept ye?" he snapped. And then, before Hamish could open his mouth, he went on, "Come in. Come in. But leave that dog outside. There's an old kennel at the back. It can sleep there. No dogs in the house."
Hamish told Towser to stay and followed the sergeant into the house. The sergeant led the way through to the extension. "Here's the desk, and don't you mess up my filing system. And there's the keys to the cell. You'll have trouble wi' Sandy Carmichael of a Saturday. Gets the horrors something dreadful."
"If a man has the DTs, isn't it better to get him to the hospital?" asked Hamish mildly.
"Waste o' public money. Jist strap him down on the bunk and let him rave away until morning. Come ben and meet the wife."
Hamish loped behind the bustling policeman. "She's in the lounge," said Sergeant MacGregor. Mrs. MacGregor rose to meet them. She was a thin, wispy woman with pale eyes and enormous red hands. Hamish's pleasantries were cut short.
"I like to keep the place nice," said Mrs. MacGregor. "I don't want to come back from Florida and find the place like a tip."
Hamish stood with his cap under his arm, his hazel eyes growing blanker by the minute. The living-room in which he stood, which had been exalted to a lounge by the MacGregors, was a long, low room with pink ruched curtains at the windows. A salmon-coloured three-piece suite, which looked as if it had been delivered that day, stared back at him in all its nylon velveteen overstuffedness. The walls were embellished with highly coloured religious pictures. A blonde and blue-eyed Jesus suffered the little children to come unto him, all of them dressed in thirties school clothes and all of them remarkably Anglo-Saxon-looking. A carpet of one of the more violent Scottish tartans screamed from the floor. There was a glass coffee-table on wrought-iron legs in front of the sofa, and a glass-and- wrought-iron bar stood in one corner, with glass shelves behind it lit with pink fluorescent strip lighting and containing, it seemed, every funny-looking bottle ever invented. An electric heater with fake logs stood in the fireplace. In the recesses of the room were glass shelves containing a startling variety of china ornaments: acid-green jugs in the shape of fish, little girls in pastel dresses holding up their skirts, bowls of china fruit, dogs and cats with Disney smiles on their highly glazed faces, and rows of miniature spun-glass objects, of the type of spun glass you see at fairgrounds. On a side table lay a large Victorian Bible, open at a page where there was a steel engraving of an epicene angel with scaly wings throwing very small anguished people in loincloths down into a fiery pit.
Mrs. MacGregor then led him from one frilly overfurnished bedroom to another. The bungalow boasted five.
"Where's the kitchen?" asked Hamish, finding his voice.
She trotted on her high heels in front of him, head down, as if charging. "In here," she said. Hamish stifled a sigh of relief. The kitchen was functional and had every labour-saving device imaginable. The floor was tiled, and there was a good-sized table. He decided to shut off that terrible lounge for the duration of his stay.
"Have you got television?" he asked.
Mrs. MacGregor looked up at the tall, gangling policeman with the fiery-red hair and hazel eyes. "No, we don't believe in it," she said sharply, as if debating the existence of little green men on Mars.
"I see you have the central heating," remarked Hamish.
"Yes, but we have double glazing on the windows, so you'll find you hardly need it. It's on a timer. Two hours in the morning and two in the evening, and that's enough for anyone."
"Well, if I could chust haff a word with your good man ..." began Hamish, looking around for the police sergeant, who had disappeared during the tour of the house.
"There's no time, no time," she said, seizing a bulging handbag from the kitchen counter. "Geordie's waiting with the taxi."
Hamish looked at her in amazement. He wanted to ask MacGregor about duties, about where the keys to the car were kept, about how far his beat extended, about the villains of the parish. But he was sure the MacGregors were cursed with what he had rapidly come to think of as Cnothanitis: Don't tell anyone anything.
He followed her out to the taxi. "So you'll be away three months, then?" said Hamish, leaning on MacGregor's side of the taxi. The sergeant stared straight ahead. "If you'd get out of the road, Constable," he said, "we might be able to get to the train on time."
"Wait a bit," said Hamish. "Where are the keys to your car?"
"In it," snapped MacGregor. He nodded to the taxidriver and the cab moved off.
"Good riddance," grumbled Hamish. He jerked his head to Towser, who followed him into the kitchen. Hamish took the central heating off the timing regulator and turned up the thermostat as high as it would go and started to examine the contents of the kitchen cupboards to see if there was any coffee. But the cupboards were bare; not even a packet of salt.
"You know, Towser," said Hamish Macbeth, "I hope they get hijacked to Cuba."
He went through to the office and examined the files in a tall filing cabinet in the corner. It was full of sheep-dip papers and little else. Not dipping one's sheep seemed to be considered the major criminal offence in Cnothan. There came a crashing and rattling from the kitchen. He ran through. Towser had his large head in one of the bottom cupboards, which Hamish had left open, and was rummaging through the pots and pans.
"Get out of it, you daft animal," said Hamish. "I'll just away to the shops and see if I can get us some food." He searched until he found a bowl and filled it with water for the dog. Then he ambled out of the house and down the main street. The lunch-hour was over and the shops were open again. People were standing in little knots, gossiping, and as he passed, they stopped talking and stared at him with curious and unfriendly eyes.
He bought two bags of groceries and then made his way down to the garage, which also sold household goods. He asked if he could rent a television set and was curtly told by a small man whose face was set in lines of perpetual outrage that no, he could not. To the shopkeeper's irritation, Hamish did not go away, but kept repeating his question in a half-witted sort of manner, looking around the other customers as he did so.
A small, thin, birdlike woman with sharp features came up to him. "You will be Mr. MacGregor's replacement," she said briskly. "I am Mrs. Struthers, the minister's wife. Can we expect to see you at church on Sunday?"
"Oh, yes," said Hamish amiably. "My name's Macbeth. I am a member of the Free Church myself." Hamish had taken careful note of the denomination of Cnothan's main church. He was not a member of the Free Church, or, indeed, of any other church.
"Well, that's splendid!" cried Mrs. Struthers. "Now, I heard you asking about a telly. We have a black-and-white one we are going to raffle at Easter. I could lend you that."
"Very kind of you," said Hamish, smiling down at her. That smile changed his whole face. It was a smile of singular sweetness.
In no time at all, Hamish was resting his boots on a footstool in the manse and being plied with tea and scones.
"I am thinking, Mrs. Struthers," said Hamish, "that it will be a wee bit difficult for me here. They never did like incomers in Cnothan."
"Well ..." said Mrs. Struthers cautiously, going to the window to make sure there was no sign of her husband returning from his rounds, her husband having preached about the iniquities of gossip the previous Sunday, "people here are very nice when you get to know them. All it takes is a few years."
Excerpted from Death of an Outsider by M. C. Beaton. Copyright © 2013 M. C. Beaton. Excerpted by permission of Grand Central Publishing.
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