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Death of a Chimney Sweep
By M. C. Beaton
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Death of a Chimney Sweep: A Hamish Macbeth Mystery
In the south of Scotland, residents get their chimneys vacuum-cleaned. But in the isolated villages in the very north of Scotland, the villagers rely on the services of the itinerant sweep, Pete Ray, and his old-fashioned brushes. Pete is always able to find work in the Scottish highlands, until one day when Police Constable Hamish Macbeth notices blood dripping onto the floor of a villager's fireplace, and a dead body stuffed inside the chimney. The entire town of Lochdubh is certain Pete is the culprit, but Hamish doesn't believe that the affable chimney sweep is capable of committing murder. Then Pete's body is found on the Scottish moors, and the mystery deepens. Once again, it's up to Hamish to discover who's responsible for the dirty deed–and this time, the murderer may be closer than he realizes.
Table of Contents
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Golden lads and girls all must,
As chimney-sweepers, come to dust.
The village of Drim in the county of Sutherland at the northwest of Scotland was rarely visited by outsiders. Not even the most romantic member of the tartan lunatic fringe of the lowland cities could claim it to be a place of either interest or beauty.
It was a small village situated at the end of the long arm of a sea loch where towering mountains dropped down sheer into the water so that the loch looked black and sinister even on a fine day. It consisted of a huddle of whitewashed cottages and one general store. There had been a murder committed there some time ago, temporarily bringing in the outside world, but since then Drim had settled back into its usual torpor.
There was no longer a resident minister, although the church was served every three Sundays by a visiting preacher. The old manse stood empty, and no one showed any signs of buying it. Furthermore, it was said to be haunted because the last minister had hanged himself after his wife had run off and left him.
The nearest policeman, Police Sergeant Hamish Macbeth, was some miles away across mountain and moorland in the village of Lochdubh, and although Drim was on his beat, he rarely had any reason to visit the place.
There was, however, a brief burst of excitement when newcomers bought an old Georgian mansion up on the brae above the village. It had lain empty for some time, the previous owner having been an eccentric old lady. The house had been on the market for five years before it was bought by a Captain Henry Davenport and his wife, Milly.
It was a square three-storeyed building in red sandstone, as unprepossessing and as grim as the village. It would have commanded a good view of the surrounding landscape had not the house been surrounded by laurels, Douglas firs, stands of birch, and one giant monkey puzzle.
A few of the villagers had called on the English couple when they first moved in four months before with presents of cake but were repelled by the pompous manner of the captain and the faded timidity of his wife. They drove down to the nearest town, Strathbane, to do all their shopping, and so Milly Davenport did not even visit the local store.
Captain Henry Davenport had retired from the army, slightly bitter at not having risen higher in the ranks, but determined to be still addressed by his military title. Nowhere else in the country could he have afforded to buy such a large house, and it suited his grandiose ideas.
Milly, his wife, also English, still showed signs of having once been pretty. She would have liked to employ one of the women in the village to help her with the cleaning, but her husband said acidly that she had nothing else to do with her time and it would be a waste of money.
The captain had discovered that a peat bank belonged to the house, and so he employed a local man, Hugh Mackenzie, to keep him supplied with peat. But the fire smoked dreadfully. One evening, the captain received a rare phone call. He came back from the phone, which was still located in the draughty hall where it had stood since the days when it was first installed, his face flushed and worried.
"Who was on the phone, dear?" asked Milly.
"Just an old army friend. Look, do something useful. I'm going out for a walk tomorrow. Get some exercise. Get the sweep in and get the damn chimney cleaned! If anyone calls, tell them I've gone abroad."
In less remote parts of Scotland, people had their chimneys vacuum-cleaned. But in Drim, villagers relied on the services of the itinerant sweep, Peter Ray, with his old-fashioned brushes.
Chimney sweeps are still regarded as lucky at weddings, especially if they kiss the bride. Pete made extra money from being hired to kiss brides even though people swore he had only two baths a year: one at Christmas and the other at Easter. Mostly he was as black as the soot he took from the chimneys. He lived in a hut high up on the moors between Lochdubh and Drim. He drove an old-fashioned motorcycle with a sidecar to carry his brushes.
Milly obtained his phone number by calling the local store. Just before he arrived, the captain said mysteriously that he planned to be out for some time and repeated that if anyone asked for him, she should say he had gone abroad.
The sweep arrived just after he had left. Milly took one look at his soot-covered appearance, gave him a mug of tea, and then rushed to spread newspapers and old sheets over the drawing room carpet. She then said she was going to walk down to the village to get some groceries. She asked Pete how much it would cost and then gave him the money, saying if she was not back by the time he had finished to leave by the kitchen door, lock the door behind him, and put the key through the letter box. She had a spare key. Milly was determined to be out of the house for as long as possible in case whoever it was her husband wanted to avoid should come calling. Milly knew herself to be incapable of lying without giving herself away.
Also, she had had little chance of meeting any of the women from the village and was longing to talk to someone, anyone, who was not her husband. She spent very little in the local shop, knowing that her husband took a malicious delight in not giving the locals any custom, but she chatted to several of the women and a Mrs. Mackay invited her back for tea.
Happy for the first time in ages, Milly returned home after several hours. She was annoyed to find the kitchen door standing open, and then assumed that either the sweep had forgotten to lock it or her husband had come back. Milly picked up the sheets from the floor and put them in the laundry room. There were still crumpled newspapers in the hearth where she had left them to catch any fall of soot. She decided to have a glass of whisky before she did any more cleaning. She took one of her husband's precious bottles of malt whisky from the sideboard and poured herself a generous measure. Her husband would not approve, but he was often so drunk in the evenings that she was sure he would assume he had drunk the whisky himself.
She sat down in the drawing room, sipping her drink and staring at the large stone fireplace. She had enjoyed her little bit of freedom. If only her husband would go away more often! If only, whispered a nasty little voice in her head, he were dead.
Feeling guilty, Milly took another sip of her drink, listening all the while for her husband's return. The wind had got up and was blowing around the house.
Plop! Plop! Plop! Milly stiffened. What was that noise? A leaky tap in the kitchen? No, the noise seemed to be coming from the fireplace. Darkness was falling. She got up and switched on all the lights.
The noise was coming from the fireplace. She walked over to it and stared. Something dark was falling in drips onto the paper. The chimney was old. If you bent down and looked up it, you could see the sky. Perhaps it was rain.
She caught a drop on the back of her hand and then held her hand under a lamp on a table by the fireside.
Milly let out a whimper of fear. Blood!
By the time Police Sergeant Hamish Macbeth arrived from Lochdubh, Milly had shut herself in the kitchen. "It's blood dripping down the chimney," she cried when she opened the door to the tall policeman.
"Now, then," said Hamish soothingly. "It may be a bird or animal stuck up there."
"But the sweep was here and cleaned the chimney."
"When was that?"
"And where is your husband?"
"He went out for a walk. He's not back yet."
"In the drawing room, you said?"
"Yes, let me show you." Milly led the way. The drawing room was sparsely furnished with Swedish assemble-it-yourself furniture, unsuited to what had once been an elegant room.
Hamish took out a powerful torch, crouched down, and shone it up the chimney. The torchlight fell on a dangling pair of highly polished brogues.
He sat back on his heels. "I'm afraid there's a body stuck in the chimney."
"Oh, that poor sweep!" gasped Milly.
Hamish did not like to tell her that Pete had never worn anything on his feet but dirty cracked old boots. He telephoned police headquarters and demanded the lot—ambulance, fire department, Scenes of Crimes Operatives, and police.
He turned to Milly and said gently, "Chust you be going ben to the kitchen. This iss not the place for you."
While he waited, Hamish fretted. What if the man up the chimney was not dead? But if he pulled the body down, he would be accused of having ruined a possible crime scene.
To his relief, he heard the wail of sirens approaching. Hamish stood back to let the white-suited SOCO men into the room first and then went into the kitchen to join Detective Chief Inspector Blair, a thickset Glaswegian who hated him, and Blair's sidekick, Jimmy Anderson.
Hamish reported what he had found. "I think it's Captain Davenport," he said. "And we'd better find that sweep."
"Then get to it," snapped Blair, "and leave this to the experts."
There was a short drive at the front of the house, shadowed by trees and bushes. Tyre marks at the side in the gravel showed that the sweep had ridden round to the kitchen door at the side.
Hamish went to the general store first where Jock Kennedy and his wife, Ailsa, served behind the counter. He told them what had happened and then appealed to Ailsa, "I think Mrs. Davenport could do wi' a bit of female company."
"I'll get up there right away," said Ailsa.
Hamish then headed up over the moors to the hut in which Pete Ray lived. He knocked, but there was no reply. He walked around the hut amongst bits of old rusting machinery but could not see the motorbike. He tried the door of the hut and found it unlocked. He entered flashing his torch this way and that because he knew the hut did not have any electricity. It consisted of one room with a calor gas stove in one corner, a dirty unmade bed against one wall, an old iron stove, and a jumble of magazines heaped on the floor beside the bed. A curtained recess contained one good suit and, lying underneath the suit on the floor, a heap of underwear and dirty sweaters.
He went back outside, experiencing a feeling of dread. He could not see Pete committing such a pointless and elaborate murder. Hamish took out his phone and called Jimmy Anderson. "Can't see Pete anywhere," he said.
"Blair's got an all-points out on him," said Jimmy, "although I don't see how a sweep on an old-fashioned bike should suddenly become invisible."
"I can," said Hamish gloomily.
"What if the murderer was interrupted by the sweep, killed him, drove his bike off to the nearest peat bog, and made the lot disappear?"
"Trust you to go complicating things."
But the next day, Pete was found dead up on the moors. It appeared his motorcycle had struck a hollow hidden in the heather and had catapulted him onto a sharp rock. His neck was broken. He was clutching a tyre iron matted with hair and blood. In the sidecar were found silver candlesticks, the captain's wallet, and Milly's jewellery. Case closed. Pete had been caught by the captain and had killed him.
The following evening when Jimmy called at the police station in Lochdubh, he found Hamish Macbeth in a truculent mood.
"I dinnae believe it," exclaimed Hamish. "Not Pete. He was a gentle soul and he loved his chimneys. He was a bit simple in a way. But vicious? Neffer!"
"Oh, calm down and give me a dram," said Jimmy.
Hamish poured him a measure of whisky. "It's like this," he said. "Davenport tells the wife that he is going out for a walk and if anyone asks for him to say he's gone abroad."
"You've been hacking into the police computers again," accused Jimmy.
Hamish ignored that remark and went on: "So say this person meets him and they walk back to the house. This person quarrels with Davenport and bashes his head in wi' a tyre iron, and then like a bad elf, down the chimney, out pops Pete. It's one of thae old-fashioned chimneys with climbing rungs inside from the days when the sweep sent a boy up. Pete could get up there himself. He was all skin and bone. The murderer kills him, takes a few objects to make it look as if Peter was a robber as well, gets him in the sidecar, and goes off over the moors to fake the whole thing. Returns to the house and searches for something he wants, can't find it, and in a rage he stuffs the captain up the chimney, the captain himself being pretty skinny, hoping it'll be some time before the body is found."
"Oh, come on, Hamish. Let it go."
"No! I bet forensics never examined that sidecar properly. I want to see it."
"It's eight o'clock, laddie."
"Come on, Jimmy. Let's go."
"All right. Leave your beasts behind. They give me the shivers."
Hamish's "beasts" were a dog called Lugs and a wild cat called Sonsie. Jimmy should have known that Hamish would no more consider leaving them behind than he would a pair of small children.
Hamish set off driving his Land Rover while Jimmy followed in his unmarked police car.
There was a mildness in the evening air as if winter were at last releasing its grip on Sutherland. Great stars blazed above, with the towering mountains black silhouettes against the bright sky.
The head of SOCO was a beefy truculent man called Angus Forrest. "I'm packing up for the night," he growled.
"We just want a wee look at that sweep's sidecar," said Jimmy.
"I was going to go over it tomorrow. Doesn't seem much point. Open-and-shut case."
"Won't take us long," said Jimmy stubbornly.
The motorcycle and sidecar were parked in a garage at the side of police headquarters. Angus switched on the overhead lights. "I'm off to the pub," he said. "Phone me when you've finished. But suit up and get your gloves on."
Jimmy and Hamish struggled into their blue forensic suits and boots. "Now," said Hamish, his hazel eyes gleaming, "let's see what we can find. I suppose the tyre iron and the jewellery and wallet have all been bagged up, but it's that sidecar that interests me. We need luminol."
"What do you think this is?" grumbled Jimmy. "The telly? Got a fingerprint kit?"
"Got it with me."
"Okay, dust away. I'll sit over there and watch you."
Hamish carefully began to dust the sidecar and motorbike. He finally straightened up. "Whoever drove this wore gloves. When did Pete wear gloves?"
"When he'd just murdered someone," said Jimmy, stifling a yawn.
"But there are no fingerprints, and the sidecar has been wiped clean."
"Pete's fingerprints were found on the candlestick and on the captain's wallet."
"Aye, you can press a dead man's hand on the stuff. I need a damp cloth."
"Never mind. I'll use my handkerchief." Hamish ran it under a tap and wrung it out. Then he bent into the sidecar and gently dabbed at the floor.
He straightened up. "There's blood on the floor."
"Aye, well, laddie, there would be. The captain's blood."
"What is going on here?"
Superintendent Daviot appeared in the doorway. "Macbeth, you are not a member of SOCO or forensics. How dare you tamper with evidence?"
"Sir," said Hamish, "there's blood in the sidecar, and I think you'll find it belongs to Pete."
"What are you trying to tell me?"
Once more, Hamish expounded his theory.
"I want you to get out of here and leave it to the experts," snapped Daviot.
"I don't think they were even going to bother," said Hamish. "It's dangerous to let the real murderer go free."
"Are you trying to tell me how to do my job?"
Hamish raised his hands. "A brilliant man like yourself? Oh, no, sir, wasn't I chust saying to Jimmy that a brain like Superintendent Daviot's could never be fooled by faked evidence."
Daviot shifted uneasily. He considered Hamish Macbeth a maverick but one who had an awkward way of getting things right.
"Phone Forrest and get him back here," he said.
When Angus appeared, he was ordered to take samples of the blood from the sidecar and get the DNA checked as soon as possible. "And check those fingerprints on the wallet," said Hamish eagerly, "and see if they look genuine or if a dead man's hand could have been used to make the marks."
"See to it," said Daviot. "On your way, Macbeth. Anderson, I want a word with you."
As Hamish left, he could hear Angus's protesting voice raised in anger. He looked at his watch. It was too late to call on Milly Davenport. He would go and see her in the morning. Why had the captain left his wallet behind? Or had it been taken from his body?
But on the following morning, Hamish received a call summoning him to police headquarters. On his arrival in Daviot's office, he was told he was suspended pending enquiries into his unorthodox behaviour by investigating a crime scene when he did not have the necessary forensic skills.
"You are so anxious to close the case, sir," said Hamish angrily, "that nothing would have been properly inspected."
"Don't be insolent and get out of here before I fire you," said Daviot.
Hamish met Jimmy Anderson on his way out. "I hope I didn't get you into trouble, Jimmy."
"Not me. I know when to grovel and crawl when necessary."
"Do you think they won't bother with the DNA?"
"Oh, they'll bother all right. Blair's rubbing his fat hands and demanding a rush on it. He's so confident of proving you wrong. Anyway, you're in deep doo and I'd suggest you think about packing up your sheep. And you're not to speak to the press. They're all over the place."
Jimmy watched as Hamish walked sadly away. He felt in sudden need of a drink. He went to the local pub near headquarters and ordered a double whisky. He turned and surveyed the bar; his eyes lighted on Tam Tamworth, nicknamed "the pig," because with his large ears and beefy face, short nose and pursed lips, he did look piggy.
Jimmy strolled over to him. "I'm not supposed to speak to the press," he said in a low voice, "but see if you can use this. Mention my name and I'll have to kill you."
"So is it about thon murder?" asked Tam.
"Aye, thanks to our Hamish Macbeth, it may turn out to be two murders. Say you happened to have been passing the garage at the side o' headquarters last night, this is what you heard." He rapidly described Hamish's suspicions, saying that if Macbeth turned out to be right, he should be getting a commendation rather than suspension.
"Man, what a story," said Tam. "I'm off. I can get it into the morning paper."
Thanks to an excellent sports section, the Strathbane Journal had a good circulation. Daviot read it next morning with a sinking heart. Blair went out and got drunk, praying between drinks that the DNA would prove Hamish wrong. Headquarters was besieged by press and television demanding a statement. Hamish Macbeth was nowhere to be found. He had packed up his camping equipment, taken his pets, and set off to hide out in the moors.
The previous forensic team had all been sacked because of too many reports of drunkenness. A new laboratory had been built and an expert from Glasgow coaxed up to head the new team. They worked long hours and at last had a full report. The blood in the sidecar belonged to Pete Ray. The fingerprints on the wallet and candlesticks had obviously been put there after the man was dead because it looked as if fingers had been simply pressed down on the items. Pete would have grasped the candlesticks, not put a neat set of fingerprints on them. His neck had not been broken by a fall; someone had broken it by twisting his head back. There were signs that Pete's body had then been stuffed into the sidecar.
And there was worse. Angus Forrest had said there was no use bothering forensics with the motorcycle and sidecar. It was an open-and-shut case, in his opinion, and his superiors had told him to wrap it up fast.
Jimmy was told to get hold of Hamish Macbeth, return him to his duties, and keep away from the press. Phoning Hamish on his mobile, Jimmy gave him the good news. "But you're to keep away for another week," he said, "until Daviot thinks the press have stopped looking for you."
"Suits me," said Hamish laconically, turning sausages on a frying pan balanced on a camp stove outside his tent.
"Aye, but there's something else. You'd better clear out that spare room at the station. You're to get a constable. His name is Torlich McBain and he's a wee sneak. I think he's supposed to keep an eye on you and report to Blair. He's a bit o' a Bible basher. He'll preach you the word."
Milly Davenport had enjoyed a few days of what she guiltily thought of as freedom. The women from the village were kind. She loved the gossip over cups of tea, and she loved the company.
They worked like a pack of guard dogs to keep the press away from her and give Blair a hard time. Blair had worked out a scenario in his fat brain where Milly had a jealous lover and would have browbeaten her had not the women sent a letter of complaint to Daviot.
But on the morning that Hamish Macbeth returned to his police station, Captain Henry Davenport's sister, Miss Philomena Davenport, arrived at Milly's house. "I'm come to stay with you, Milly," she said. "It's what my dear brother would have wanted."
Philomena was a tall woman with big hands and feet. She had cropped grey hair and slightly prominent pale green eyes. She was dressed in gear she considered suitable for the Highlands: knee breeches, lovat wool socks, a green army sweater, and a leather fleece.
She disapproved of Milly "consorting with the local peasantry" and so banned them from the house.
Milly felt she had lost one bully only to find another.
Hamish watched sadly as a scrap dealer from Alness drove off with the contents of his spare room: an old fridge, bits of a plough, rusting screwdrivers, two old televisions, and myriad iron bits and pieces. Although he had previously cleaned it out, when the female constable who had nearly tricked him into marriage was supposed to take the room and was billeted at the manse instead, he had just put everything back in again. Mrs. Wellington, the minister's wife, arrived with a cleaning squad. A bed, wardrobe, and side table were delivered from a Strathbane shop, the bill to be footed by the police.
Torlich, nicknamed Tolly, arrived to take up residence. He had never risen in the ranks due to failing all the necessary exams. He was small for a policeman, with a wrinkled, sagging grey face and weak watery eyes.
"I'll let you get settled in," said Hamish. "I'm off to Drim to have a word with Mrs. Davenport."
"That should be left to your superiors," said Tolly.
He had been told Hamish Macbeth was an easy-going layabout. But the hazel eyes that looked down into his own were as hard as stone. "You will do what you are told, Constable," said Hamish. "In future, you address me as 'sir.' You have the day to get your things unpacked."
He turned on his heel and marched out, followed by Sonsie and Lugs. Tolly decided to spend the time going through Hamish's papers and belongings. If he was a spy, then he would be a good spy. God had given him this chance to prove his mettle.
Hamish drove to the captain's house in Drim and rang the doorbell. A tall tweedy woman answered it. "I am Miss Davenport, my poor brother's sister," she announced, "and Mrs. Davenport has had enough of the police. Good day to you."
- On Sale
- Jan 1, 2012
- Page Count
- 256 pages
- Grand Central Publishing