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Shall man into the mystery of breath
From his quick breathing pulse a pathway spy?
Or learn the secret of the shrouded death,
By lifting up the lid of a white eye?
Hamish Macbeth drove along a rutted one-track road on a fine September day. The mountains of Sutherland soared up to a pale blue sky. There had been weeks of heavy rain and everything seemed scrubbed clean and the air was heavy with the smell of pine and wild thyme.
It was a good day to be alive. In fact, for one lanky red-haired Highland policeman who had just discovered he was heart-whole again, it was heaven.
The once love of his life, Priscilla Halburton-Smythe, had been home to the Highlands on a brief visit. They had gone out for dinner together and his mind had probed his treacherous heart but had found nothing stronger lurking in there but simple liking.
The sun was shining and somewhere out there were charming girls, beautiful girls, girls who would be only too happy to give their love and their lives to one Hamish Macbeth.
The vast heathery area of his beat which lay outside the village of Lochdubh had been crime-free, and so he had little to do but look after his small croft at the back of the police station, feed his sheep and hens, mooch around in his lazy way and dream of nothing in particular.
His beat had of late merely been a series of social callsa cup of tea at some farm, a cup of coffee in some whitewashed little croft house. He was on his way to visit a crofter called Parry McSporran, who lived up in the wilderness of moorland near the source of the River Anstey, justoutside the village of Glenanstey.
There are two types of Highlander, the entrepreneur and the cowboy. The entrepreneurs are hardworking, and set up schemes to earn money from tourists, and the cowboys are usually drunken louts, jealous of the entrepreneurs, and set out to sabotage their efforts. A taxi driver, for instance, who started to build up a successful business would suddenly find he was getting calls to pick up people in remote places and when he got there, he would find the call had been a hoax. One who had started a trout farm found the water had been poisoned.
Parry McSporran had built three small holiday chalets on his land. During the building of them, he had experienced some trouble. Building materials had mysteriously gone missing; rude spray-painted graffiti desecrated his house walls.
Hamish had tracked down the youths who had done the damage and had threatened them with prison. After that Parry had been left in peace. He had recently started to take in long lets. He said this way he saved himself the bother of changing linen every week and cleaning the chalets. It was a good move, for the tourist season in Sutherland, that county which is as far north in mainland Britain as you can go, was very short.
Parry was moving his sheep from one field to the other when Hamish arrived. He waved. Hamish waved back and leaned against the fence to watch Parry's sheepdogs at work. There was nothing better, he reflected lazily, than watching a couple of excellent sheepdogs at work on this perfect day. All it would take to complete the bliss would be a cigarette. Stop that, he told his brain severely. He had given up smoking some time ago, but occasionally the craving for one would come unbidden, out of nowhere.
The transfer of the sheep being completed, Parry waved Hamish towards the croft house. "Come ben," he said. "You are chust in time for the cup of tea."
"Grand," said Hamish, following him into the stone-flagged kitchen. Parry was not married. According to all reports, he had never wanted to get married. He was a small, wiry man with sandy hair and an elfin face with those light grey eyes which give little away, as if their bright intelligence masked any feeling lurking behind them in the same way that a man walking into a dim room after bright sunlight will not be able to distinguish the objects lying around.
"Got anyone for your chalets?" asked Hamish, sitting down at the kitchen table.
"I haff the two long lets," said Parry, "and the other one is booked up by families for the summer."
"Who are your long lets?" asked Hamish as Parry lifted the kettle off the black top of the Raeburn stove which he kept burning, winter and summer.
"In number one is Felicity Maundy, English, Green."
"You mean she's a virgin?"
"Come on, Hamish. Don't be daft. I mean one o' thae save-the-world Greens. She is worried about the global warmings."
"In the Highlands!" exclaimed Hamish. "A wee bit o' the global warming up here would chust be grand."
"Aye, but she chust shakes her heid and says it's coming one day."
He put a mug of tea in front of Hamish. "Pretty?" asked Hamish.
"If you like that sort of thing."
"What sort of thing?"
"Wispy hair, wispy clothes, big boots, no makeup."
"And what is she doing up here in Glenanstey?" asked Hamish curiously.
"Herself is finding the quality of life."
"Oh, one of those."
"Aye, but she's been here three months now and seems happy enough. Writes poems."
Hamish lost interest in Felicity. "What about the other one?"
"Nice young man. Tommy Jarret. Early twenties. Writing a book."
"Oh, aye," said Hamish cynically. The ones who locked themselves away from civilisation to write a book were usually the ones who couldn't write anywhere.
"Jarret," he mused. "That rings a bell."
"Meaning he has a criminal record?"
"Probably not, Parry. I'll check into it if you like."
"Aye, do that. I'd be grateful to ye, Hamish."
"Mr. McSporran," called a soft voice from the open doorway. "I wondered if I could buy some eggs from you."
Hamish swung round. This, then, must be Felicity Maundy. The sunlight streaming in through the kitchen door shone through her thin Indian-style dress of fine patterned cotton and turned the wisps of her no-colour hair into an aureole. She moved forward into the shadow revealing herself to be a thin, young girl with a pale anxious face and nervous pale blue eyes which slid this way and that.
She was wearing a heavy string of amber beads which made her neck look fragile. Under the long skirts of her dress, she was wearing a pair of what looked like army boots.
"I'll get some for ye," said Parry. "Sit down. This here is Hamish Macbeth." Felicity nervously eyed Hamish's uniform. "I'll just stand." Her voice was as soft and insubstantial as her appearance.
"How do you pass the time up here, Miss Maundy?" asked Hamish.
"What do you mean?" There was now a shrill edge to her voice.
"I mean," said Hamish patiently, "it's a wee bit remote here. Don't you find it lonely?"
"Oh, not at all!" She spread her arms in a theatrical gesture. "The hills and the birds are my companions."
"Och," snorted Parry, returning with a box of eggs, "you should put on some makeup and heels and go down to Strathbane and have some fun."
"I do not wear makeup," said Felicity primly.
"Why not?" asked Parry. "You could do with a wee bit o' colour in your face."
"If one wears makeup," declaimed Felicity as if reciting a well-rehearsed line, people cannot see the real you."
"I shouldn't think anyone could see you, real or otherwise, hidden out here," remarked Hamish.
Felicity ignored him.
"How much do I owe you for the eggs?"
"No charge today."
"Oh, thank you. You are just too, too kind."
Felicity whipped up the box and disappeared out of the kitchen door.
"That one's got you for a sucker," remarked Hamish.
"Aw, she's chust the wee bit o' a thing. Needs building up. Will you check up on Tommy Jarret for me, Hamish?"
"I'll do it now," said Hamish. "Won't be a minute. I've got a phone in the car, although thae mobiles can be a pain. The number of places in the Highlands where they won't work!"
He went out to the police Land Rover and picked up his mobile phone and dialled police headquarters in Strathbane and got through to Jenny McSween, nicknamed the Keeper of the Records.
"Wait a minute, Hamish," said Jenny. "I'll just feed that name into the computer."
Hamish leaned against the side of the Land Rover and waited, enjoying the feel of the sun on his face. The three holiday chalets were hidden behind screens of birch trees to give the occupants privacy. Through the flickering leaves of birch he could see Felicity's pale face at a window.
Then Jenny's voice came on the phone. "Thomas Jarret, arrested last year, for possession of ecstasy and cannabis. Got off a pushing charge. Said they were for his own use and since only small amounts were found, he got away with it. Arresting detective, Jimmy Anderson, thinks he was pushing but couldn't make anything stick. Thomas Jarret was or is a heroin addict, you see."
"I see," said Hamish bleakly. "Thanks, Jenny."
He went back into the croft house and told Parry what he had learned.
"I'll haff that cheil out on his ear," growled Parry. "I cannae thole drugs."
"Let's go and have a word with him," said Hamish. "He may be reformed. I'm all for giving folks a break."
Parry, his face grim, walked ahead of Hamish and towards one of the chalets. He knocked at the door. "Mr. Jarret, we'll chust be having a wee word wi' ye."
The door opened and a pleasant-looking young man stood there. He had a mop of curly brown hair and brown eyes in a tanned face. Those blinked rapidly when he saw Hamish's uniform.
"Can we come in?" asked Hamish.
He backed away into the chalet living room. A word processor was on a table by the window, surrounded with piles of manuscript.
"Sit down," said Tommy nervously.
"I'll get straight to the point," said Hamish, sitting down and taking off his peaked cap and then twisting it round and round in his hands. "You were arrested for possession of drugs. The arresting detective was convinced you were pushing."
"I've been clean for six months. Honest," pleaded Tommy. "And I wasn't pushing. I went to a rehab in Strathbane. Ask anyone. In fact, I'm writing a book about my experience with drugs to warn other people what it's like."
"Why were you found in possession of ecstasy and cannabis when you were a heroin addict?" asked Hamish.
Tommy gave a rueful smile. "If you can't get your drug of choice, you'll go for anything." He rolled up his shirtsleeves. "Look, no track marks, and Mr. McSporran here will tell you he's never seen me other than sober."
"It iss not the drink I'm worried about," said Parry.
"It's therapy-speak," explained Hamish. "Sober means he hasn't taken any mood-altering chemical. Am I right, Tommy?"
"Yes, I never even drink booze now. Please give me a chance," said Tommy earnestly. "You know I haven't been any trouble, Mr. McSporran, and I pay my rent on time."
"Aye, that's right," said Parry reluctantly.
Hamish made up his mind. "I'd let him be for the moment, Parry. I believe what he says."
Outside in the sunlight, Parry said, "You seem mighty sure of yourself, Hamish."
"Like I said, I'm all for giving folks a chance. He seems a nice fellow to me. Come on, Parry. Strathbane's become a sink o' iniquity. I've seen a lot of good young people wrecked. This one seems to have pulled himself together."
"I s'pose," said Parry. "He's no trouble. Let's hope your judgement is right, Hamish Macbeth."
"Och, I am never wrong," said Hamish with simple Highland vanity.
But when he had returned to Lochdubh and locked his hens away for the night, Hamish went into the police station office and phoned Detective Jimmy Anderson.
"Tommy Jarret?" said Jimmy in answer to Hamish's query. "I mind him. Got away with possession and up in front of a lenient sheriff. Got nothing more than a stay in a rehab and a hundred days' community service."
"Wait a bit," said Hamish. "He was a heroin addict?"
"That's a pretty expensive drug to be taking in the Highlands of Scotland. Where did he get the money?"
"Some aunt of his left him money, seems to be true. Respectable parents. Well off. Father a bank manager. Neat bungalow outside Strathbane, member of the Rotary Club, polishes the car on Sunday, get the picture? So he can afford heroin. I tell you another thing that made me mad. Couldn't get out of him where he got his supply from. I mean, he's lucky to be alive."
"I believe there's a lot of adulterated stuff around and some bastard at the Three Bells pub down at the old docks was pushing talcum powder. The street price of heroin in Aberdeen was a hundred pounds per gram. Why are you asking about Tommy Jarret?"
"The name cropped up," said Hamish.
"Meaning the wee bastard's in your parish. I don't trust any o' thae junkies."
"Lot of drugs in Strathbane?" asked Hamish.
"Aye, it's a plague. It's the new motorways. We're no longer cut off up here so they zoom up the motorways from Glasgow and Manchester. The drug barons make money and more young people die every year."
"What would happen, I wonder," mused Hamish, "if the stuff were legalised? I mean, there would be controls on the quality of the stuff and all the drug barons and drug cartels would be out of business."
"Whit! It's statements like that which explain why you're a copper and I'm a detective. That's a load of dangerous rubbish you're talking, Hamish."
"Just thought I would ask," said Hamish meekly.
He rang off and then changed into his civilian clothes and went out for a stroll along the waterfront. He didn't mind at all being a mere village copper. Hamish Macbeth had sidestepped promotion to Strathbane several times. The waters of Lochdubh lay placid under a pale sky, with only the ripples from a porpoise to disturb the calm surface. The violent world of cities such as Strathbane seemed pleasingly remote.
Hamish, who had been leaning against the harbour wall, turned and found Dr. Brodie's wife, Angela, surveying him with amusement.
"I was thinking of pretty much nothing," said Hamish. "Except maybe drugs."
"I don't think we've got any cases in Lochdubh."
She leaned against the harbour wall beside him and he turned back and rested his arms against the rough stone, still warm from the day's sunshine.
"Why do people take drugs, Angela?"
"Because they like the effect. You should know a simple thing like that, Hamish. Then in the young, it's bad and exciting."
"But all those warnings," protested Hamish. "All those kids dying from ecstasy pills."
"Addicts never think it'll happen to them. And the young feel immortal anyway."
"What if it were legalised?"
"I don't know. I don't think so. The illegality itself is a deterrent. Can you imagine if young people, children maybe, had unlimited access to LSD?"
"You're right," said Hamish with a sigh. "What's the solution?"
"Everyone starts refusing?"
"I cannae envisage that."
"It could happen. Just become unfashionable. Like smoking. You're having a quiet time these days, Hamish."
"Long may it last. I wouldnae like to see another murder in Lochdubh."
"There may be one shortly."
"Nessie and Jessie Currie are joint chairwomen of the Mothers' Union at the church this year."
"Oh, dear." Jessie and Nessie were middle-aged twin sisters, both unmarried.
"The others are complaining it's like being run by the Gestapo."
"Can't they vote them out?"
"Not for another year."
"What are they doing that's so bad?"
"Well, at the cake sale, they criticised the quality of the baking and reduced little Mrs. McWhirter to tears for one. Then they have lately become obsessed with germs and the church hall has to be regularly scrubbed. They have pinned up a cleaning rota and all women must remove their shoes before entering the hall."
"I'll have a word with them."
"Would you, Hamish? I don't know what you can say. Everyone's tried."
"I'll have a go."
Hamish said goodbye to her and strolled off in the direction of the Currie sisters' cottage.
He knocked at the highly polished brass lion's head on the door. Jessie answered, blinking up at him through her thick glasses. "It's you. It's you," said Jessie, who had an irritating way of repeating everything.
"I just dropped by for a wee word," said Hamish easily.
"Come ben." Hamish ducked his head and followed Jessie into the living room, where sister Nessie was seated.
Nessie was knitting ferociously, steel pins flashing through magenta wool. "What brings you?" asked Nessie.
Hamish sat down. "I'll get tea. I'll get tea," said Jessie.
Hamish raised a hand. "Not for me, thank you. This'll only take a minute."
Jessie folded her arms and eyed the tall red-haired policeman nervously. "It must be serious for you to refuse a free cup of tea, free cup of tea."
"It iss the little matter o' the Mothers' Union."
Nessie stopped knitting. What's up wi' the Mothers' Union?"
"The pair of you are what's up with it."
"What d'ye mean, d'ye mean?" demanded Jessie. "We run it wi' an iron hand, iron hand."
"Well, now, ladies, the iron hand seems to be the trouble. Ye cannae go on like the Gestapo."
"Who's complaining?" demanded Nessie wrathfully.
"Chust about everyone," said Hamish Macbeth.
"We've done nothing wrong, nothing wrong," said Jessie. "We've made sure the church hall is clean, and that place was a sewer, a sewer."
"Yes, and it iss the grand job the pair of you are doing at fighting the germs, but is there any need to fight the others?" Hamish reflected it was an odd world when the Mothers' Union was being run by two childless spinsters. Did anyone ever use the word "spinster" anymore? What was politically correct? "Miz" was irritating and pretentious. Single? And why should women who were not married be considered strange in any way? He was not married himself. "I'm speaking to you, Hamish Macbeth," shouted Nessie, penetrating his thoughts, "and all you can do is sit there like a gormless loon after insulting us."
"Insulting us," chorused Jessie.
"I wass thinking about Margaret Thatcher," lied Hamish.
"What about her?" asked Nessie, a look of reverence in her eyes.
The sisters adored Margaret Thatcher.
"Well, now, Mrs. Thatcher"
"Baroness Thatcher," corrected the Currie sisters in unison.
"Lady Thatcher, then. Now, herself would run that Mothers' Union with a firm hand. But she would delegate responsibility, draw everyone in. You get more out of people if they like you. Diplomacy is the word, ladies."
"And what do you know about Lady Thatcher?" jeered Nessie.
Hamish half closed his eyes. "It wass the great day," he crooned, his Highland accent becoming more sibilant as he worked himself up to telling one massive lie. "I wass down in Inverness and there she wass, just doing her shopping like you or me."
"When was this, when was this?" cried Jessie.
"Let me see, it would be June last year, a fine day, I 'member."
"What was she buying?" asked Nessie, her eyes shining.
"It was in Marks and Spencer. She wass looking at one of thae tailored blouses she likes to wear. Silk, it was."
"And did you speak to her?"
"I did that," said Hamish.
"What did you say?"
"I asked her to autograph my notebook, which she did. I asked her the secret of success."
Both sisters leaned forward. "And she said?"
"She said the secret was the firm hand."
"But with kindness, she said. She wass as near to me as you are now. She said she never let herself get bogged down wi' bullying people or bothering about the small stuff. ?If you work hard,' she says to me, ?you do the service for others chust because you want to. The minute you start pushing people and bragging about how hard you are working for them, they turn against you. Nobody wants a martyr.'"
The sisters looked at each other. "Maybe we have been a bit too strong, bit too strong," said Jessie.
"Aye, maybe we'll go a bit easier," said Nessie. "And then what did she say?"
"Dennis, her husband, came up at that minute and he says, ?You're neffer going to buy that blouse, Maggie. The colour's wrong.' It wass the purple silk."
"I'll bet she told him to take a running jump," said Nessie.
"Not herself. She chust smiled and said, ?Yes, dear, you're probably right.'
You see there wass the security men all about her and a lady like that wasn't going to stoop to be petty."
"What a woman, what a woman," breathed Jessie. "We shall neffer see her like again."
Hamish stood up, his red head almost brushing the low ceiling. "I'll be on my way, ladies."
"Can we see that autograph, Hamish?"
"Och, no, I sent it to my cousin Rory in New Hampshire. He has it framed and hung over his fireplace."
Hamish made his way out. In the small hallway was a framed photograph of Margaret Thatcher. He winked at it and let himself out.
He ambled back towards the police station. As he approached Patel's, the general store, he recognised the waiflike figure of Felicity Maundy. In the same moment, she saw him and her face turned a muddy colour. She unlocked the door of an old Metro, threw her groceries onto the passenger seat, climbed in and drove off leaving a belch of exhaust hanging in the air.
"Now, what's she got on her conscience?" murmured Hamish. "Probably went on some demo when she was a wee lassie at school and thinks the police still have a eye on her."
He shrugged and proceeded along to the police station. His rambling roses at the front were still doing well and their blossoms almost hid the blue police lamp.
Hamish began to plan a relaxed evening, maybe put on a casserole and let it simmer and go to the pub for an hour. The new alcopops had turned out to be a menace, those sweet fizzy alcoholic drinks. They had been designed, in his opinion, to seduce the young, but it was the Highlanders, the fishermen in particular, every man of them having a sweet tooth, who had become hooked on them. So Hamish meant to combine pleasure and duty by keeping a sharp eye on the drivers who were drinking over the limit. Then he would return at closing time and start taking away car keys.
He opened the kitchen door and went in. The phone in the police station office began to ring shrilly. He went quickly to answer it. He experienced a blank feeling of dread and tried to shrug it off. It would be nothing more than a minor complaint. Or a hoax call.
He picked up the receiver. "Lochdubh police," he said.
"Hamish, this is Parry. It's yon fellow, Tommy Jarret. He's dead."
"Dead. How? Why?"
"They think it's an overdose. They found a syringe."
"I'll be right over."
Cursing, Hamish rapidly changed into his uniform. How could it all have happened so quickly? he thought. The lad had been all right. What had happened to his, Hamish Macbeth's, famous intuition? He could have sworn Tommy Jarret was not in danger of returning to his drug taking.
He drove off up the winding road leading out of Loch-dubh towards Glenanstey, his heart heavy. Large black clouds were building up behind the mountains. They seemed like black omens, harbingers of trouble to come.