By M. C. Beaton
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Death of a Policeman: A Hamish Macbeth Mystery
Local police stations all over the Scottish Highlands are being threatened with closure. This presents the perfect opportunity for Detective Chief Inspector Blair, who would love nothing more than to get rid of Sergeant Hamish Macbeth. Blair suggests that Cyril Sessions, a keen young police officer, visit the town of Lochdubh to monitor exactly what Macbeth does every day. Macbeth hears about Blair's plan and is prepared to insure that Cyril returns back to headquarters with a full report. But Cyril is soon found dead and Hamish quickly becomes the prime suspect in his murder.
A watched pot never boils.
—proverb, mid-nineteenth century
The fact that all the police forces in Scotland were to be amalgamated into one large force struck terror into police headquarters in Strathbane. It was said that all over Scotland three thousand auxiliary jobs would be lost, which would mean more work for the actual police themselves. Then would they start chopping heads of the very police force itself.
Only one man was happy at the news—Detective Chief Inspector Blair. Surely this might be the opportunity to get rid of Police Sergeant Hamish Macbeth and winkle him out of his cosy station in Lochdubh. He could not understand how Hamish had been able to hang on with local police stations closing down all over Scotland.
But he experienced a setback when he broached the idea to his chief, Superintendent Daviot. “Sutherland is a huge county,” said Daviot, “and it is surely economical to have Macbeth cover all of it.”
“But most of the time, he and his sidekick, Fraser, just mooch around doing nothing,” complained Blair.
“We have no proof of that,” said Daviot severely. “You should be worried about your own job.”
“I am sure we will have officials soon crawling all over us to see what they can cut,” said Daviot.
Blair took himself off to the pub to crouch over a double whisky and try to work out a plan. If he could prove that Hamish Macbeth did little, then he could send in a report to the new authorities. But who would be low enough to spy on Macbeth?
After another double whisky, his brain seemed to clear. Cyril Sessions was a fairly new constable, nicknamed Romeo because of his good looks. Shortly after his arrival from Perth, Blair had uncovered evidence that Cyril had been enjoying the favours of a prostitute, without paying her a penny. She had finally cracked and reported Cyril. Blair got the complaint and confronted Cyril. Cyril had pleaded and begged and said he would do anything if Blair made the complaint go away.
Cunningly, Blair decided to keep this ally in the bank, so to speak, until such time as he would need to draw on him. He phoned headquarters and asked Cyril to join him.
Women in the pub stared appreciatively at Cyril when he entered. He was of medium height with glossy black hair, blue eyes in a square handsome face, and a muscular figure.
“Sit down, my lad,” said Blair. “I’ve a wee job for you. I want evidence that Hamish Macbeth in Lochdubh does bugger-all when it comes to policing.”
“Isn’t that the man who’s got a grand reputation for solving murders?”
“I was me that solved them,” said Blair, “while that slimy toad took the credit. You owe me a favour, or do I need to remind you that I had to threaten that brass nail to keep her painted mouth shut?”
“Where have you been? Brass nail. Screw. Get it? That prossy you were banging.”
“Oh, aye. That.”
“Aye, that. Here’s what you’ve got tae do. Take a fishing holiday in Lochdubh and get photos of Macbeth lounging around. His policeman, Dick Fraser, often sleeps in a deck chair in the front garden. Get a good shot o’ that. Macbeth doesn’t know you, so you can get real close. Chat with the locals. Pick up gossip.”
“I don’t fish.”
“Well, rambling or something like that. The Highlands are fu’ o’ hairy-legged bastards farting ower the hills.”
“When do I start?”
“Soon as you can. I want this done and dusted before numpties from the new police arrangement descend on us.”
Cyril looked at him shrewdly. “Have you tried this before?”
Blair shifted his fat haunches on the bar stool. He had, in fact, and it had ended with his spy nearly getting killed. But he had no intention of telling Cyril anything about it.
“No, just thought o’ it,” he said. “Get moving and fix that holiday.”
Hamish was actually working at that moment. Lairg sheep sales are the biggest in Europe, and he was policing them with Dick at his side. Because of the size of the sales, Strathbane had sent up two policemen to assist him. The importance of the yearly event meant that crofters were often dressed in the sort of finery people thought were the reserve of tourists: deerstalkers, tall crooks, kilts and sporrans.
Hamish and Dick strolled into the beer tent late in the day and found their other two colleagues. “Everyone upset about the new Scottish police force?” asked Hamish, joining them.
“You can say that again,” said one of them. “Take off the civilian staff, and think o’ the extra paperwork.”
“And how’s my dear friend, Blair?” asked Hamish.
The other policeman sniggered, “I think he’s in lurv.”
“Who’s the lucky lady?”
“It’s a bloke. Fairly new copper called Cyril Sessions. Real handsome chap. Blair’s been seen drinking with him all over the place. Can’t get enough of his company.”
As they walked out of the beer tent, Dick said sententiously, “It does happen, you know.”
“What does?” asked Hamish.
“Fellows when they get on a bit. They wake up to the fact that they prefer other blokes to their missus.”
“Oh, aye? Well, the only love affair Blair’s ever had is with the booze. He’s plotting something.”
“Do you mind if I hurry off?” said Dick anxiously. “I’m due down in Strathbane.”
“Aye, and the prize is a brand-new Volvo.”
“Off you go. Things are quiet here.”
Hamish switched on the television that evening. Dick had such a reputation for winning quiz competitions that Hamish was surprised they let him on.
The questions seemed to be very difficult. Six contestants were quickly whittled down to two, Dick and a shabby old man. And then Dick lost at the last question: how long does it take light from the moon to reach the earth?
The old man said quickly, “One point two six seconds.” There was a roll of drums and cheers from the audience as he was led to the gleaming new car.
Hamish waited up until a weary Dick arrived home. “Not like you to lose,” said Hamish. “That must be the first time.”
“I couldnae do it to him,” said Dick.
“He was an auld crofter. He’d never been on one of thae quiz shows before. The stories o’ hardship he told me in the green room. It would ha’ been wicked not to let the poor auld soul win.”
“What was his name again?”
“Henry McQueen. Got a bittie o’ a place outside Bonar Bridge.”
“I wonder if there’s anything on the computer about him,” said Hamish.
“Just a hunch. I’ve got a feeling I saw him at the sheep sales.”
Dick followed Hamish into the police office. Hamish switched on the computer and searched for Henry McQueen’s name. “There’s something here from last year’s Highland Times,” said Hamish, clicking it open. “There you are. I thought I’d heard of him. He took top price for his lambs two years’ running. You were conned. Oh, here’s another link. Five years ago he came out top on Mastermind. Subject. The Epistles of St. Paul.”
“I’ll murder the auld creep,” raged Dick.
“Oh, leave it. I’m sure he’ll crop up again,” said Hamish soothingly, “and then you can wipe the floor with him.”
The following day, Cyril checked into Mrs. Mackenzie’s bed-and-breakfast on the waterfront at Lochdubh. He dumped his haversack in a small room and wondered how long he could put up with pretending to be a rambler, particularly as he had arrived in his car. He had pointed out to Blair that he was surely not going to be able to follow Macbeth around on foot.
The room was at the back of the house. It was cold. There was a meter on the wall with a sign that pound coins had to be deposited for electricity. The bed was narrow and covered in rough blankets under a pink candlewick spread. A print of Jesus feeding the multitude with loaves and fishes hung over the blocked-up fireplace. Underneath was the legend, HIS EYE IS ON THE SPARROW. On a rickety table by the bed was a large Bible. The room was fairly dark. Cyril popped a coin in the meter and switched on the light in a glass bowl above his head full of dead flies. He hung his clothes in the curtained alcove which served as a wardrobe. There was neither a phone nor a television set. The only reason, he thought, that she got any customers was because Mrs. Mackenzie charged cheap rates.
He decided to go out for a walk around the village and start work.
The day outside was warmer than his room. A pale October sun shone down on a row of whitewashed cottages, fronting the sea loch. It looked like a picture postcard. Cyril walked towards the harbour. He brightened when he saw a pub. He would start with a drink and see what he could find out from the locals. There was a silence when he entered. He ordered a vodka and tonic.
A small man in tight clothes materialised at his elbow and said, “Are you on holiday?”
“Yes,” said Cyril. “I’m Jamie Mackay up from Perth.”
“Archie Maclean,” said the little man.
“Let me buy you a drink,” said Cyril, “and maybe we could sit over at that table by the window. I’d like to get to know a bit about the village.”
Archie ordered a double whisky. Cyril realised that Blair had said nothing about paying for his work. Conversation rose again as they made their way to the table.
“So what are you doing here?” asked Archie.
“I came up by car, but I might do a bit of walking.”
Archie’s sharp blue eyes in his nut-brown face dropped to look at Cyril’s highly polished black shoes. “I hope you’ve got boots with you,” he said. “You won’t get far in those.”
“Yes, I’ve got boots,” said Cyril. He wondered why the little man wore such tight clothes, not knowing that Archie’s wife washed all his clothes so that they shrank.
“So, much crime around here?” asked Cyril.
“No, it’s fair quiet.”
“I saw a police station. Not much for a copper to do up here.”
“Hamish Macbeth, the police sergeant, covers a big part o’ Sutherland,” said Archie. “He’s got a lot tae do. Thanks for the drink, laddie. Got tae go.”
Hamish was seated at the kitchen table when Archie burst through the door. “What’s up?” asked Hamish.
“’Member the time when that scunner Blair put a copper on yer tail to report on ye?”
“As if it were yesterday,” said Hamish. “Has he sent another?”
“Could be,” said Archie, sitting down at the table. “Could I hae wan o’ your espresso coffees? The wifie doesnae hold wi’ coffee.”
“That’s Dick’s machine. I don’t know how to operate it. I’ll fetch him. He’s sleeping in the garden.”
Hamish strolled round to the front of the police station just in time to see the figure of Cyril snapping a photograph of Dick asleep in his deck chair. He nipped round onto the road and confronted Cyril. “What’s so special about a photograph of a man in a deck chair?” asked Hamish.
“I’m a bit of an amateur photographer,” said Cyril. “I thought I’d enter it for a competition and call it Sleeping Policeman.”
“Yes. Good place for walks.”
“Where are you staying?” asked Hamish.
“Mrs. Mackenzie’s. I’ll be getting along.”
Cyril strode off. Hamish stared after him. Then he went into the office and phoned Detective Jimmy Anderson.
“How are things up in peasantville?” asked Jimmy.
“It’s aye weird up there.”
“There’s this fellow turned up and took a photo of Dick asleep in the garden. Handsome chap with black curly hair, tall, blue eyes, little half-moon scar above the right eye, but with policeman’s shoes on and black socks. Says he’s going to be going for walks. Anyone missing from headquarters who looks like that?”
“There’s one smarmy bastard who sucks up to Blair. Cyril Sessions.”
“I knew it!” exclaimed Hamish. “Blair is out to get proof that there’s no crime up here. I’ll get that photo back somehow.”
Hamish woke Dick up and explained the situation. He ended by saying, “Let’s see if we can lose the cheil for an hour. Give Archie a mug o’ espresso first.”
They walked over to the harbour fifteen minutes later, where Archie Maclean was sitting on a bollard, rolling a cigarette. “No tourists today?” asked Hamish. Fishing stocks were dwindling, and so Archie supplemented his income by taking tourists on trips round the loch.
“I’ve only got a couple. They’ll be along in a minute.”
“Do me a favour. Yon chap you met in the pub is one o’ Blair’s snoops. He’ll be hanging around. He’s staying at Mrs. Mackenzie’s. Offer him a free trip in your boat.”
“Aye, right. Want me to tip him ower the side?”
“No, just keep him away. If he’s got his camera with him, try to stage an accident to it that makes it look as if it’s his fault.”
Archie scurried off. He found Cyril outside Mrs. Mackenzie’s. Cyril was delighted to accept. It would be a chance to find out more about Macbeth.
Hamish stood at his living room window, watching, until he saw the fishing boat sail out into the loch. Then he hurried along to Mrs. Mackenzie’s bed-and-breakfast.
Before he got there, he met the Currie sisters, twins Nessie and Jessie, on the waterfront. They were very alike. Although the day was sunny, there was a nip in the air, and so they had reverted to their winter wear of camel-hair coats, headscarves, and brogues.
“Grand day,” said Hamish. “Have you seen the newcomer?”
“We have that,” said Nessie. “Like a fillum star.”
“Fillum star,” echoed the Greek chorus that was Jessie.
“It’s refreshing to find a young man who kens so much about the Bible,” said Hamish. “He’s out with Archie, but when he gets back, you should invite him to tea. Right religious, he is.”
“We’ll do that,” said Nessie. “It will be nice to talk to a clean young man instead o’ a lazy philanderer like yourself.”
“Like yourself,” came her sister’s echo.
Hamish walked on and knocked at the door of the bed-and-breakfast. Mrs. Mackenzie was a small woman, wearing a flower-patterned overall and with her hair tied up in a headscarf. The lines on her face were permanently set in disapproval.
“Whit?” she demanded.
“I would like a look at the newcomer’s room,” said Hamish. “We’ve had a tip-off.”
“Then he can pack his bags and get out.”
“No, no,” said Hamish soothingly. “Don’t tell him I called. Chust a routine enquiry. You don’t want to go losing a paying customer at this time of year. Chust a wee peek in his room.”
“Oh, all right. Top o’ the stairs on the left. The door isnae locked. I was up there cleaning.”
Hamish nipped up the stairs and into Cyril’s room. There was a computer lying on the bed, but what he wanted was the camera. There was no sign of it. He could only hope that Archie would find a way to get rid of it.
Archie let his mate, Ally Harris, take the wheel while he pointed out various landmarks to the two tourists, a husband and wife, and Cyril. Cyril was standing at the side of the boat, his camera slung round his neck.
Moving behind him, Archie took out a sharp knife and sliced almost through the strap at the back of Cyril’s neck.
He said, “If youse will look ower the side, that’s where the kelpie is supposed tae live.”
“What’s a kelpie?” asked the female.
“It’s a creature that appears as a sea horse and sometimes changes into a beautiful wumman,” said Archie. “It goes after wee bairns. It gets them to stroke it and it’s adhesive and when they stick to it, it drags them down into the loch and eats them. It’s supposed to live right down there. Lean right ower and you’ll maybe see it.”
Cyril and the tourists leaned over. “There is something down there,” said Cyril excitedly. A black shape could be seen moving in the murky depths. His camera was swinging from his neck by the strap. Just as he was reaching for it, the strap broke and his camera dropped down into the water.
A seal surfaced and stared up at them as Cyril let out a wail of dismay.
“You should ha’ got yourself wan o’ thae wee yins you can carry in your pocket,” said Archie. “I hivnae seen wan like that in years. If you go to Patel’s shop, you can buy wan o’ thae cheap throwaway ones.”
“It was a friend’s camera,” said Cyril. He cursed Blair, who had given him an old Rolleiflex camera out of storage at headquarters, saying it was better than any newfangled one. He did have a Canon pocket one inside his jacket. At least he would be more comfortable using that.
Archie telephoned Hamish to say that Cyril’s camera was now somewhere at the bottom of the loch, and Hamish heaved a sigh of relief.
Before, when he had been under threat, he had manufactured a crime wave with the help of the locals. But Hamish was feeling lazy, enjoying the rare good weather of the autumn.
Cyril had read up on Hamish’s successful cases and knew that several had taken place in the town of Braikie. The following day, he decided to visit the town, hoping the residents there might have less favourable ideas about Hamish than the villagers. He had gone to the village stores and after leaning on the counter, talking about the weather, he asked the owner, Mr. Patel, what he thought of the local policeman. Mr. Patel had smiled and launched on a paean of praise about Hamish.
Cyril had then gone to the Italian restaurant for dinner and quizzed the waiter, Willie Lamont. His heart sank when it turned out that Hamish was godfather to Willie’s child. Was no one going to criticise the man?
But in Braikie, his hopes sank lower. The people he talked to did not know Hamish personally but knew his reputation for solving murders and seemed to be proud to have such a policeman looking after them.
He was passing the library when he noticed they had a sign outside saying there were books for sale. Cyril decided to buy some light reading and walked into the Victorian gloom of the building.
Hetty Dunstable, the librarian, saw a handsome man looking around and teetered forward on her high heels. “Can I help you?”
Cyril saw a small, thin woman in her early forties wearing a near-transparent white blouse over a tight skirt. She had a small, pinched face and bulging brown eyes. Cyril thought sourly that she looked like a rabbit with myxomatosis. But he gave his most charming smile and said, “I saw that you had books for sale.”
“Yes, they’re over here,” said Hetty, leading the way to a wooden bench. “These are the ones that are too damaged to remain on the shelves. Are you new to the area?”
“Just on holiday,” said Cyril. “I’m over in Lochdubh.”
“Keep clear of the police station. Hamish Macbeth is useless.”
“I’d like to hear more,” said Cyril. “I enjoy a bit of gossip with a pretty girl. When do you get off?”
“We close up in ten minutes.”
“Let’s go for a drink.”
“Yes, I would love that,” said Hetty.
Hetty had no intention of telling this gorgeous man her real reason for disliking Hamish. She had once invited Hamish to a party at her flat after having met him on one of his investigations. Hamish was not interested. But she had drunk too much and had thrown herself at him, calling him her darling. Hamish had gently pushed her away and gone home. Her friends teased her about it until she began to think Hamish had wronged her. She told them so many times that Hamish had led her on that she began to believe it.
Cyril was often seen in Hetty’s company in the following days. Then to Hetty’s dismay, he said he would be too busy to see her. Hetty began to feel guilty. She was sure Cyril was spying on Hamish and wondered if he was a villain. She had made up a lot of malicious stories about Hamish’s laziness. If anything happened to Hamish, the investigation would lead back to her.
She at last phoned Hamish and said someone called Jamie Mackay had been asking a lot of questions about him.
“Don’t worry,” said Hamish. “I know all about him,” correctly guessing that Jamie was Cyril.
“What will you do?” asked Hetty.
“Take my shotgun and blow the bugger’s head off,” said Hamish and rang off.
“Let’s give Cyril something to do tomorrow,” Hamish said to Dick. “We’ll race off tomorrow up north and give the lad something to chase. The beasties are getting fat. They need some exercise.”
Hamish’s “beasties” consisted of a wild cat called Sonsie and a dog called Lugs. “I’ll get a picnic ready,” said Dick.
Hamish felt a stab of irritation. He wished Dick would not be so—well—domesticated. He felt Dick had taken the place of a possible wife, and Hamish often dreamt of marriage. His love affair with television presenter Elspeth Grant had recently fallen through. He had once been engaged to Priscilla Halburton-Smythe, daughter of the retired colonel who owned the Tommel Castle Hotel, but it just hadn’t worked out.
At that moment, Cyril was ensconced in the Currie sisters’ parlour, balancing a cup of tea on one knee. He had hoped the sisters would give him some gossip about Hamish, but they seemed hell-bent on quizzing him about the King James version of the Bible.
“Beautiful words,” said Nessie. “‘I am the voice of one, crying in the wilderness.’”
“I couldn’t agree more,” said Cyril, ignoring Jessie’s echo. He thought, if I don’t get out of this damn place soon I’ll go mad. “You were saying something about the local policeman.”
“No, I wasn’t,” said Nessie.
“Bit of a layabout, is he?”
“We do not gossip in this village,” said Nessie righteously. “Pass me the Bible, Jessie, and we’ll hear this nice young man read to us.”
It was a large Victorian Bible, illustrated with steel engravings. Feeling trapped, Cyril began to read, and, as he read, he began to experience a strange feeling of doom. His mobile phone suddenly rang and he grabbed it out of his pocket. It was Blair, asking if there was any progress.
“Can’t talk now, Mother,” said Cyril. “I’ll call you later.” He rang off.
“You shouldn’t cut your mother off like that,” chided Nessie.
“How right you are.” Cyril stood up and put the Bible and his cup on the table. “I’ll get back to my digs and call her from there.”
“We’ll see you in the kirk on Sunday,” said Nessie.
If I’m still alive and not dead with boredom, thought Cyril, making his escape.
“Where are we off to?” asked Dick the next morning as he climbed into the Land Rover beside Hamish.
“Do you know Sandybeach?”
“No, where’s that?”
“Tiny little place up north of Scourie. Grand place for a picnic. I’ll put the siren on and get Cyril chasing us.”
“It’s only seven in the morning,” said Dick. “Think he’ll be up yet?”
“Probably not. But I’ve phoned Jimmy. Blair’s bound to ask if there’s been a report of a crime so I told him to say there was a burglary at Sandybeach.”
“So what do we do if the scunner catches up with us?”
“He won’t. It’s so quiet up there, you can hear a car coming for miles. We’ll take off for somewhere else.”
The sound of the siren woke Cyril. He tumbled out of bed and dashed to the window, opened it and hung out. He could just see the Land Rover racing out over the humpbacked bridge. He scrabbled into his clothes and phoned Blair, asking him to find out where Hamish had gone.
He had gone a mile out of Lochdubh when Blair rang. “Burglary at a place called Sandybeach.”
- "Series fans will welcome another visit to Lochdubh...charming and tenacious."—Library Journal
- On Sale
- Jan 27, 2015
- Page Count
- 304 pages
- Grand Central Publishing