By M. C. Beaton
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Death of a Prankster: A Hamish Macbeth Mystery
Admittedly, there's a touch of black humor in the case. Rich, old practical joker Andrew Trent summons his kin to remote Arrat House in the dead of winter for a deathbed farewell. They arrive to find him in perfect health and eager to torment them with a whole new bag of unfunny jokes.
But this time the body that falls out of the closet is Andrew Trent's own. And nobody's laughing.
Especially not Constable Hamish Macbeth, who is hard put to glean any information from Trent's unappealing nearest and dearest. And when the lanky constable's former flame, Priscilla Halburton-Smythe, inserts her beautiful self into the case, Hamish must muster all his native guile to carry him through. Fortunately, he has a few clever tricks up his own sleeve, which enable this most endearing of crime fighters to get the best, and last, laugh.
Full well they laughed, with counterfeited glee, At all his jokes, for many a joke had he;
– Oliver Goldsmith
Money, or the prospect of it, makes hope spring eternal, and so that was probably the reason a small group of people were packing their bags to travel to the very north of Britain to stay with Mr Trent.
Without that lure of money, it was doubtful whether any of them would have decided to go. But Mr Andrew Trent had written to his relatives to say that he did not have long to live. Mr Trent was a practical joker and, although in his eighties, age had not dimmed his zest for the apple-pie bed or the whoopee cushion. He was a widower, his wife having died some twenty years before, driven to her grave, said his relatives, by her husband's relentless jokes. His home, Arrat House, outside the village of Arrat in Sutherland, was difficult to get to. The thought of his practical jokes made all his relatives shudder. Possibly that was the reason they all lived in the south of England, as far away from the old man as they could get. But now he said he was dying, and with all that money at stake, the long journey and the prospect of an uncomfortable and possibly humiliating stay must be faced. Of course, the old man could be joking …
'I'll kill him if he is,' said his daughter Angela. Angela prided herself on plain-speaking. She was a tall, ungainly woman with iron-grey hair and an incipient moustache. She wore mannish clothes and had a booming voice. She and her sister Betty were both in their fifties. They had never married, although both had been fairly good-looking in their youth. Rumour had it that their father's dreadful jokes had driven any prospective suitors away. They lived together in London, as they had done for quite some time, and detested each other but were bound to each other by rivalry and habit. Betty was small and quiet and affected a certain shy timidity but seemed expert at coming out with sharp and wounding remarks.
'You're always saying that,' said Betty, 'and yet when you see him, you positively cringe.'
'No, I don't. Stop being spiteful. Have you seen my long underwear?'
'You won't need it. Dad has good central heating.'
'Pah!' said Angela, finding and holding up a long pair of woollen underpants. 'You don't think I'm going to stay locked up in that house with him all day long. I want to get out and take some brisk walks. Do you think he's really ill?'
Betty put her head on one side and pursed her lips. 'Good chance. The writing was shaky, not like his usual style.'
'Then that's that,' said Angela. 'Can't risk not going. What if he left it all to that wimp of a son of his?'
The wimp referred to was Mr Trent's adopted son Charles. He was in his late twenties, a very beautiful man with golden curls, blue eyes and an athlete's body. His short life of failure did not seem to have affected his sunny good nature. He had done comparatively well at school, but everything had gone downhill from then on. He had lasted only one term at Oxford University before dropping out. After that, he had drifted from one job to the other. He always plunged into each job with great enthusiasm, an enthusiasm which only lasted a few months. He had been a photographer, an insurance salesman, an advertising copy-writer, among other things, and was now selling Lifehanz vitamins to shops around the country. He too was packing, while his fiancée, Titchy Gold, dithered about his studio flat in bra and panties. Titchy Gold was assumed to be a stage name, although she protested in a wide-eyed way that she had been christened that name by her parents, who had been Shakespearian actors, although what that had to do with it nobody knew, the great Bard not having run to names like Titchy. She was a television actress, currently playing the part of a floozie in a popular crime series. Marilyn Monroe was her idol, and as Titchy was blonde and busty, she did her best to look like her.
Charles had read his father's letter out to her. 'Is he really very rich?' asked Titchy.
'Rolling in it,' said Charles. 'Masses and masses of dosh, lolly and gelt, my sweet.'
'He'll leave it to you,' said Titchy. 'Bound to. You're his son. He'll probably fall for me. Old men always do.'
'I don't know,' said Charles. 'He really despises me. Says I'm shiftless. Might leave it to his brother.'
Mr Andrew Trent's brother Jeffrey, a stockbroker, was a thin, spare, fastidious man. He was fifteen years younger than his brother, and his wife, Jan, was twenty years younger than he, a second marriage, Jeffrey having divorced the first Mrs Trent. Jan was a cool, elegant, bitchy woman. 'He's got to die sometime,' said Jan. 'I mean, living up there is enough to kill anyone. Do you think he'll leave you anything? I mean, he must, surely.'
'He might leave it all to Charles.'
'He won't,' said Jan firmly. 'He loathes that boy. Now Paul is a different matter. I told Paul to pack his bags and report to the bedside.'
'He won't leave Paul anything,' exclaimed Jeffrey.
'He might,' said Jan. 'Paul is everything Charles is not.' Paul was her son by her first marriage.
A day later, Paul was standing in front of the departure board at King's Cross station, waiting to board the train to Inverness. He was an owlish young man of twenty-five who was a research assistant at some atomic establishment in Surrey. He was very precise and correct, three-piece suit and horn-rimmed glasses. His mother did not know he was bringing a girlfriend with him, which was just as well because Melissa Clarke was just the sort of girl the chilly Jan could be guaranteed to loathe. Her appearance was vaguely punk – black leather jacket and trousers, heavy white make-up, purple eye-shadow, white lips, and earrings that looked like instruments of torture. She was awed at the idea of a country-house visit and so had a slight sneer on her face which she hoped disguised the fact that she felt extremely gauche and wished she had worn more conventional clothes. Also her hair was dyed bright pink, hacked in shreds and backcombed. She worked with Paul in the research establishment. She had not even known he fancied her. This peculiar trip north was their first date.
He had marched up to her in the lab, sweating lightly, and had simply asked her if she could get leave and come with him. Intrigued, she had accepted. She liked Paul. He had only seen her before in sensible blouse and skirt and white lab coat. She had reverted to the fashion of her student days for the journey. She cursed that camp hairdresser who had talked her into the pink fright which was what was left of her once thick and glossy brown hair. She felt near to tears and wanted to run away and the only thing that stopped her running was the fact that Paul appeared genuinely grateful for her support and did not even seem to have noticed her new appearance.
'You must be very fond of him,' she volunteered.
'Who?' asked Paul vaguely.
'Why, Mr Trent, the one we're going to visit,' said Melissa.
'Oh, him! I hate him. I hope he's dead when we get there. I'm only going to please my mother. She's going, of course.'
'Your mother!' squeaked Melissa in alarm. 'You didn't say anything about your mother. My God, why didn't you tell me?'
'There's our train,' said Paul, ignoring her remarks. 'Come on.'
* * *
Melissa had never before travelled farther north than Yorkshire. Paul had fallen asleep as soon as the train had pulled out of the station and so there was no opportunity for any more questions. She made her way to the buffet car and bought herself a gin and tonic and a packet of crisps and returned to her seat. Outside the windows of the train, the bleak February landscape rolled past.
Paul awoke at Newcastle. He stretched and yawned and then blinked at Melissa for a few moments, as if wondering who she was. 'Your hair's different,' he said suddenly. Melissa stiffened. 'It's odd,' said Paul, 'but I like it. Makes you look like a bird.'
'I thought you hadn't even noticed,' commented Melissa.
'I nearly didn't recognize you at the station,' confessed Paul. 'But then I saw your eyes. No one else has eyes like that. They're very fine.'
Melissa smiled at Paul affectionately. What man, since the days of Jane Austen, had ever told a girl she had fine eyes? 'You'd better tell me who's going,' she said. 'I thought it was just to be us. But you said something about your mother …'
'Oh, they'll all be there,' said Paul, 'waiting for the old man to drop off his perch and leave them something. Mother will be there with Jeffrey, my stepfather. He's a stockbroker and a dry old stick. He's Andrew Trent's brother. Then there's old Andrew's adopted son Charles, a layabout, and his fiancée, who rejoices in the name Titchy Gold. His sisters, Angela and Betty, arsenic and old lace, will be there as well.'
'And what is Mr Andrew Trent like?'
'Perfectly horrible. A practical joker of the worst kind. I can't stand him.'
'Then why are we going?'
'Mother ordered me to go.'
'And do you usually do what your mother orders you to do?'
'Most of the time,' said Paul. 'Makes life more peaceful.'
'Paul, don't you think it's a bit odd of you to ask me to go with you? I mean, it's not as if we've been going out and, I mean …'
'I wanted someone from outside the family with me,' said Paul. 'Besides, I like you an awful lot.'
Melissa smiled at him to hide the fact that she was dreading the meeting with his mother.
'Where do we go after we reach Inverness?' she asked.
'There's no train further north today. I wanted to stay the night in Inverness and travel up in the morning, but Mother said to take a cab. She wanted me to motor up with them, but I don't like Jeffrey much.'
'How much will a cab cost?'
'About fifty pounds.'
'Gosh, can you afford that?'
'Mother can. And she's paying.'
Mother, mother, mother, thought Melissa uneasily. Would there be a shop open in Inverness where she could buy a hair dye?
But the train was late and it was nearly nine o'clock on a freezing evening when they landed on the platform at Inverness station. There was a taxi waiting for them at the end of the platform. Jan had ordered it to pick her son up.
As the cab swept them northwards, it began to snow, lightly at first and then in great blinding sheets. 'Just as well we decided to get to Arrat House this evening,' said Paul. 'We'll probably be snowed in in the morning.'
'Perhaps the others won't make it,' suggested Melissa hopefully.
'I'm sure they will. Jeffrey drives like a fiend. As far as I could gather, the rest were flying up to Inverness and going on by cab as well.'
Melissa relapsed into an uneasy silence. What did it matter what Paul's mother thought of her? She wasn't engaged to him. They hadn't even held hands.
But her courage deserted her when they drove up to Arrat House. The house was floodlit and the snow had thinned a little, so she saw what looked like a huge mansion, formidable and terrifying.
The taxi driver said bitterly he would need to spend the night in the village. No hope of getting back to Inverness.
A manservant – a manservant! thought Melissa – came out of the house and took their bags and they followed him in. The suffocating heat of the house struck them like a blow. The entrance hall was large and square. There was a tartan carpet on the floor and antlers and deerskins hung on the wall. Two tartan-covered armchairs, a different tartan from the carpet, stood in front of a blazing log fire.
They followed the manservant up the stairs. He opened a bedroom door and put their bags into it. 'You'd better find a separate room for Miss Clarke, Enrico,' said Paul.
'I will ask Mr Trent,' said the servant.
'Bit cheeky of him to think we were sleeping together,' said Melissa.
'You weren't expected,' said Paul patiently. 'I haven't been here for ages. He probably thought we were married.'
Enrico returned and picked up Melissa's suitcase and asked her to follow him. Her room turned out to be three doors away from Paul's. It was hot but comfortable with a large double bed, a desk and chair at the window, and a low table and chair in front of the fire, but somehow impersonal, like an hotel room. Enrico murmured that she was expected in the drawing room, which was to the right of the hall. As soon as he had gone, Melissa turned off the radiators and opened the window. A howling blizzard blew in and she quickly closed it again. She found she had a private bathroom. She scrubbed the white make-up from her face and found a plain black wool dress in her suitcase. She had one pair of tights and a pair of plain black court shoes with medium heels. I look like a French tart, she thought in despair, but went along to Paul's room, only to find he was not there.
Fighting back a feeling of dread, she went down to the drawing room.
All eyes turned to meet her. The room was covered in tartan carpet of a noisy yellow and red. The sofa and chairs were upholstered in pink brocade and the lamps about the room had pink pleated silk shades.
Her host, Mr Andrew Trent, was standing in front of the fire, leaning on a stick. He looked remarkably healthy. He had thick grey hair and a wizened, wrinkled face, small eyes, large nose, and a fleshy mouth. He looked like an elderly comedian of the old school, the kind who pinched bums and told blue jokes. He was wearing a black velvet jacket, a lace shirt, tartan waistcoat and kilt, which revealed thin old shanks covered in tartan stockings.
Paul came forward and introduced Melissa. Melissa murmured good evening to all and found a chair in a corner. She was hungry and there were plates of sandwiches on a low table in front of the fire, but she did not dare move to get one. Which was Paul's mother?
Titchy Gold was immediately recognizable, and the incredibly good-looking young man at her side must be Charles. The two frumps must be the arsenic-and-old-lace sisters. That left a dry stick of a man and a thin elegant woman who was glaring at Melissa as if she could not believe her eyes. She could be none other than Paul's mother.
Melissa cowered in her corner. Why didn't Paul join her?
Melissa had belonged to off-beat left-wing groups when at university and adopted their style of dress, not out of any political commitment but out of a working-class inferiority complex. She was actually painfully shy and tried to cover up her shyness with noisy clothes and an occasionally abrupt manner. Somehow, for a brief period, neither clothes nor shyness had troubled her at the research centre. She was too absorbed in her work. It was a strange job for someone who had previously marched in anti-nuclear protests, but she had secured an excellent physics degree and had been offered a well-paying job at the research centre and had taken it without a qualm of conscience.
A woman of Spanish appearance dressed in black entered the room. She picked up the plates of sandwiches and began to hand them round, eventually approaching Melissa's corner. Melissa gratefully took three. The woman asked her if she would like a glass of wine and Melissa murmured that she would.
She was just biting into her first sandwich when Jan came and stood over her. 'Paul hadn't told us about you,' said Jan.
'I mean, it was a bit rude to spring you on us. He might have warned us.' Jan stood with one hip jutting out, one skeletal beringed hand resting on it. Her eyes were slightly protuberant, the sort of eyes usually found in a fatter face. Her mouth was very thin and painted scarlet. 'How long have you known my son?'
'I have been working at the research centre for some months now,' said Melissa. 'Paul is a colleague, that's all. He asked me to join him on this visit.'
'And of course you jumped at it,' said Jan contemptuously. 'Do you always wear your hair like that?'
'Are you always so rude?' countered Melissa.
'Don't be cheeky,' said Jan. 'I can tell by that accent of yours, Surrey with the whinge on top, that you are not used to this sort of society. Nor will you become so, if I have anything to say about it.'
'Piss off,' said Melissa furiously.
Jan gave a mocking laugh and returned to her son. She said something to him and he shrugged and then crossed the room and sat down next to Melissa. 'Your mother doesn't think I'm good enough for you,' said Melissa.
'Don't let it bother you. She wouldn't consider anyone good enough.'
Melissa was twenty-three, an age she had hitherto felt classified her as a mature woman. Now she felt quite weepy and childlike. She thought of her parents, Mum and Dad in the shabby terraced house in Reading with its poky rooms and weedy garden. She had her own flat now, but as soon as she got out of this hell-hole, she would go and see them. Never again would she be ashamed of her background. There was love and warmth there and comfort. Sod Paul for having dragged her into this!
But her mood was soon to lighten. Jan was complaining about the heat from the fire. 'Sit over here, Jan,' urged old Andrew Trent, his eyes twinkling. He indicated an armchair a good bit away from the fire. Jan sank down gracefully into it and then there came the sound of a large long-drawn-out fart. Jan flew up, her face scarlet. 'It's one of those damned cushions,' she started to rage, but then, mindful of the reason for the visit, she forced a smile on her face. 'What a joker you are, Andrew,' she said, and the old man cackled with glee.
'I think Mr Trent's rather an old duck,' said Melissa.
'Don't say that,' said Paul. 'Wait till he really gets started. He isn't ill at all, you see. He must have been feeling lonely. Now he's got a whole houseful of people to torment.'
'Can't we just leave … in the morning?'
'It's snowing a blizzard. Enrico says we'll be trapped for days.'
Melissa looked across the room. Mr Trent was watching her. He drooped one eyelid in a wink. Melissa smiled. She thought he was sweet.
The party broke up at eleven o'clock and they all went off to their respective rooms. Paul accompanied Melissa to her door. He stood for a moment moving from foot to foot and staring at her. Then he seized her hand and shook it. 'Good night,' he said and scurried off to his own room.
Melissa shrugged and pushed open her door, noticing as she did so that it was already a little ajar. A bag of flour, which had been balanced over the door and was intended to burst over her, fell instead in one piece, striking her a stunning blow. She clutched her head and reeled forward and sank to her knees on the carpet. 'Ha! Ha! Ha! He! He! He! Haw! Haw! Haw!' cackled a voice. Still holding her head, she stumbled to her feet, looking around wildly as the hideous cackling went on and on. She found a joke machine, which was producing the hellish laughter, had been hidden behind the clock on the mantelpiece. She seized it and shook it but it went on laughing, so she wrenched open the window and threw the thing out into the white raging blizzard.
Paul Sinclair had been prepared for jokes, but came to the conclusion that he was to be left alone and began to relax. He opened his shirt drawer to take out a clean shirt for the morning and two clockwork paper bats flew up into his face. Nonetheless, he felt he had got off lightly.
Angela Trent found her father had sewn up the bottoms of her pyjamas. Betty, who was sharing a room with her sister, lay in bed giggling as Angela swore terrible oaths as she looked for her sewing scissors to cut the bottoms of the pyjama legs open. But as Betty lay laughing, she clutched her favourite hot-water bottle in the shape of a teddy bear to her bosom. It began to leak all over her and her laughter changed to squawks of outrage and dismay. Her father had punctured her hot-water bottle.
Charles lay stretched out on the top of the bed and watched Titchy Gold as, clad only in a brief nightie, she went to see if the housekeeper had hung away her clothes properly. Charles and Titchy were not sharing a bedroom, but Charles planned to enjoy a little love-making before retiring to his own room. Titchy opened the carved door of a massive Victorian wardrobe and a body with a knife thrust in its chest fell down on top of her. She screamed and screamed hysterically. The bedroom door opened and Andrew Trent stood there, leaning on his stick and laughing until the tears ran down his face. Behind him gathered the other guests.
'It's a joke, Titchy. A dummy,' said Charles, taking the hysterical girl in his arms. 'Come to bed. It's too bad of you, Dad. Your jokes are over the top.' When Mr Trent and his guests went away, Titchy howled that she was leaving in the morning.
Charles soothed her down. 'Look, I've been thinking, Titchy. Dad's an old man. He's enjoying himself and, yes, he tricked us all into coming here by saying he was at death's door. Why don't we just charm the old money-bags and pretend his jokes are funny? He can't live for ever. If he drops off, then I inherit, and we'll have loads of money.'
'Are you sure?' Titchy dried her eyes and gazed up at him.
'Sure as sure. He's Trent Baby Foods, isn't he? Worth millions. Come to bed.'
The fastidious Jeffrey Trent removed his contact lenses and said to his wife, 'Well, at least he has had the decency not to play any tricks on me. But dying he most certainly is not. I will get out of here as soon as possible even if I have to charter a helicopter to do so.'
His wife held up the phone receiver of the extension in their room. 'Dead,' she said. 'We're cut off.'
'Tcha!' said Jeffrey. He went into their bathroom to urinate before going to bed.
But he did not notice until it was too late that the practical joker had covered the top of the toilet with thin adhesive transparent plastic.
Melissa slept heavily and awoke to the sound of a gong beating on the air. The door opened and Paul walked in. 'Aren't you dressed yet?' he exclaimed. 'We're all expected at the breakfast table at nine. House rules.'
'I haven't telepathic powers,' groaned Melissa. 'Why didn't you tell me last night? God, I feel sick. That old bastard put a bag of flour over the door and it hit me a stunning blow on the head. He should be certified. Did anything happen to you? And poor Titchy.'
'I got clockwork bats in the shirt drawer. I'll see you downstairs.'
'No, you don't!' Melissa scrambled out of bed. 'I'm not facing that lot on my own. What's the weather like?'
Paul pulled aside the curtains. Together they looked out at the bleak whiteness of driving snow. 'Damn!' muttered Melissa. 'Trapped. Wait here, Paul. I won't be a minute.'
She grabbed some clothes and went into the bathroom. She stripped off her transparent pink nightie – Paul hadn't even noticed it – and pulled on her underwear and an old pair of jeans and a 'Ban the Bomb' sweater.
'I wouldn't wear that,' said Paul firmly. 'Not the sweater. We're working on nuclear power, remember?'
'But not bombs. Wait! I'll put on a blouse instead. This place is too hot for a sweater anyway.' She stripped off the sweater. Would Paul notice the fetching lacy bra? No, Paul was staring in an unseeing way out of the window. She put on a man's white shirt and tied the ends at her waist.
The dining room was in an uproar when they entered. Betty was sitting with yellow egg yolk streaming down her face. Charles and Titchy were laughing in a forced way. Andrew Trent was laughing so hard he looked as if he might have a seizure, and Jeffrey, Jan and Angela were in states of suppressed rage. It transpired that the old practical joker had put a device under the tablecloth and under Betty's breakfast. He had then pressed a connecting lever and some wire spring had hurled the contents of Betty's plate straight into her face.
'You old fool,' growled Angela. 'One day someone will throttle the life out of you and it might be me.'
- On Sale
- Jun 1, 2012
- Page Count
- 224 pages
- Grand Central Publishing