Authors: M.C. Beaton,Prefers to remain anonymous
Death of a Travelling Man
The ninth book in Hamish Macbeth series
M. C. Beaton
Police Sergeant Hamish Macbeth’s new promotion means more money, but it also means that an eager beaver of a policeman has been thrust upon him, interfering with Hamish’s easygoing way of life. Fans of the lazy Hamish will delight in seeing him pitted against a zealous young officer while solving a disturbing murder.
From his brimstone bed, at break of day,
A-walking the Devil is gone,
To look at his little snug farm of the World,
And see how his stock went on.
olice Sergeant Hamish Macbeth was never to forget that fine spring day. It was the day the devil came to Lochdubh.
Hamish was strolling along the waterfront of the tiny Highland village, glad to be free for a brief spell from the bloodhound efficiency of his sidekick, PC Willie Lamont. Although his promotion to sergeant had meant more pay, it had also meant that this eager beaver of a policeman had been thrust upon him, interfering with Hamish’s easygoing life and home. Willie was also a cleanliness fanatic and Hamish was tired of living with the all-pervading smell of disinfectant.
The day was fine and warm, unusual for March in the Highlands. Snow glittered on the twin peaks of the mountains which soared above the village, and the sea loch lay calm and placid in the morning sun. Peat smoke rose from cottage chimneys, seagulls swooped and dived.
And then Hamish saw it, parked in front of what was once the Lochdubh Hotel, still up for sale. It was a battered old bus which had been converted into a travelling home. At one time in its career the bus had been painted psychedelic colours but even these had faded into pastel streaks overlaid with brown trails of rust.
Hamish went up to it and knocked at the door. The door jerked open. A tall man smiled down at Hamish. He was incredibly handsome. Jet black hair grew to a widow’s peak on his forehead. His eyes were green, grass-green without a fleck of brown in them. His face and arms were tanned golden-brown. He was wearing a blue-and-white checked shirt and blue jeans moulded to long muscular legs.
“You are not allowed to park here,” said Hamish, wondering why he should take such an instant and violent dislike to this handsome man.
“I am a traveller,” the man said in a cultivated English voice. “My name is Sean Gourlay.”
Hamish’s face hardened. Sean would have been called a hippie not so long ago and a beatnik a long time before that. Now he belonged to that unlovable crowd who euphemistically referred to themselves as travellers, the itinerant race who descended on places like Stonehenge complete with battered unlicensed vehicles, dirt, drugs and dogs. To some charitable souls who had never had their sheep ripped apart by dogs or their land turned into a sewer, the travellers carried with them an aura of romance, like the gypsies they pretended to be. Living on the dole, they travelled aimlessly from place to place. The reason these nomadic layabouts claimed to be ‘travellers’ or sometimes ‘new travellers’ was that they demanded the privileges and camping rights given to gypsies, privileges often dating back centuries. Hamish was tolerant of gypsies and knew them all. He had no time for these so-called travellers.
“You are not a gypsy,” said Hamish, “and therefore have no rights. This is private property.”
A girl squeezed in beside Sean at the doorway. She had straggly sun-bleached hair, a small dirty face, and a thin, flat-chested body.
“Get lost, pig,” she said, in the guttural accents of Glasgow.
Hamish ignored her. He addressed himself to Sean. “I can direct you to a place up on the moors where you can camp.”
Sean gave him a blinding smile. “But I like this village,” he said.
“And so do I,” retorted Hamish, “which is why I am ordering you to move on. Let’s see your driving licence.”
A stream of four-letter words erupted from the girl. Sean dug into the back pocket of his jeans and produced a clean new driving licence, issued only a few months ago. The girl had now jumped down from the bus. She was very small in stature. She leapt up and down in front of Hamish, cursing and yelling. ‘Pig’ was the politest epithet. There was a peculiar, almost sinister magnetism about Sean. He paid no attention to the girl whatsoever and Hamish found himself doing the same. He examined Sean’s insurance and the road-tax disc on the bus. Both were in order.
He handed back the papers and said firmly, “Now, get moving.”
Sean grinned. “Certainly, officer.”
The girl told Hamish to perform an impossible anatomical act on himself and then suddenly bolted back into the bus, like some small hairy animal darting into its lair.
“Pay no attention to Cheryl,” said Sean lazily. “Rather an excitable type.”
“Her full name?” snapped Hamish.
“Cheryl Higgins, like the professor.”
Hamish waited until Sean had climbed into the driver’s seat, and the bus clattered off. He stood with his hands on his hips and watched it go. Then he shook his head. He should not have allowed Sean to upset him. If they parked up on the moors, they would not stay long. He knew the travellers preferred to be with their own kind. It was unusual to find just two of them and one old bus. This fine weather was unusual. Soon there would be the ‘lambing blizzard’, that last vicious fall of snow which always arrived in the late spring to plague the shepherds.
His mind turned to the problem of PC Willie Lament. He would not have minded at all having a helper. All policemen, however crime-free the area they lived in, were landed with a lot of paperwork. Hamish regarded the police station as his home, his own home, and he wished he could manage to get Willie to live somewhere else in the village. As he ambled back again in the direction of the police station, he saw that his dog, Towser, was once more tied up in the garden. Poor Towser was always being banished outside these days, thought Hamish. Willie must be scrubbing the floors…again. He decided to go up to Tommel Castle Hotel where his friend, Priscilla Halburton-Smythe, was working in the hotel gift shop. Priscilla’s father, Colonel Halburton-Smythe, had turned his home into a hotel to recoup the vast losses he had made by trusting his money to a charlatan. The hotel had prospered, having excellent shooting and fishing and high enough charges to appeal to the snobbish and the parvenues who thought the colonel’s high-handed manner with his guests was a sign of true breeding, rather than the mixture of arrogance and sheer bloody-mindedness that it, in truth, was.
As he unhitched Towser and led the dog to the police Land Rover, Hamish reflected sadly that having Willie in the police station was like being married to a nag of a wife. Archie Maclean, the fisherman, spent most of his time either in the pub or sitting on the harbour wall to get away from his wife’s perpetual cleaning.
The new gift shop was a pleasant place, full of the very best of Scottish goods: Edinburgh crystal, Caithness glass, silver jewellery, fine woollens, along with a multitude of cheaper goods for the tourist to take home—shortbread, locally made fudge, guidebooks, postcards, souvenir pens and pencils, and stuffed toys.
Priscilla was wearing her new tourist uniform of frilled white shirt and short tartan skirt. Hamish wondered what the tourists made of her, this graceful woman with the smooth blonde hair and the superb figure who looked as if she had stepped out of the pages of
She saw Hamish and smiled. “I’ve had a coffee machine put in here. You must have got word of it.”
“I am not mooching,” said Hamish, who nearly always was. “But I will have the coffee, nonetheless.”
“What brings you here, Sergeant?” asked Priscilla as she poured two mugs of coffee. She never tired of calling him Sergeant these days, he reflected. He knew she took his promotion as a sign that he had finally come to his senses and decided to be ambitious.
“It’s Willie,” he said. “Cleaning again. I cannae call my house my own.”
“You’re too easygoing, Hamish,” said Priscilla firmly. “You should put your foot down. Find him something to do.”
“Well, I was thinking of phoning the superintendent and pointing out that there is not the work here for two men.”
“And then what would happen?” demanded Priscilla. “The police station would be closed down and you would be moved to Strathbane and you would hate that. I mean, it’s not as if you want to be demoted, is it?”
“As a matter o’ fact that waud suit me chust fine,” said Hamish, whose Highland accent became more marked when he was upset. “I had the good life afore the last murder and I should ha’ let Blair take the credit for solving it.” Detective Chief Inspector Blair was the bane of Hamish’s life, but in the past he had let him take the credit for solving cases, not wanting any promotion to disturb his calm life. But at the end of the last case, during which Blair had been more than usually obnoxious, Hamish had cracked and told the superintendent that he had solved the case himself and so the result had been promotion to sergeant—and the arrival of Willie.
“Oh, Hamish, you’re just saying that.”
“No, I am not. I had the fine life afore I got these wretched stripes. I want Willie and his scrubbing brush out and I don’t know how tae go about it.”
She sat down on a high stool behind the counter and crossed her legs. They were excellent legs, thought Hamish not for the first time, but he wasn’t going to be daft enough to fall in love with her again. He had enough trouble in his life with Willie.
“Look,” said Priscilla, “here’s something we could do.”
Hamish brightened at the sound of that ‘we’. He found another stool and perched on it, facing her over the glass counter. There was a sample bottle of a scent called Mist o’ the Highlands. He sprayed some on his hand and sniffed it. It was very strong and very sweet and cloying.
“Pooh,” he said, scrubbing at his hand.
“Can’t you leave any free sample alone?” said Priscilla. “You’ll smell of that stuff for weeks. Believe me, I’ve tried it. It’s immune to soap and water. Now about Willie. He’s a bachelor, right?”
“Aye, and likely to remain so,” said Hamish with feeling. “What woman can compete with all thon cleaning and polishing and cooking? Besides, he’s a terribly finicky eater.”
“That doesn’t matter. An awful lot of people are finicky eaters, and there are a lot of women who would be delighted to have a housekeeper.”
“What are you getting at?”
“Find him a wife,” said Priscilla. “If he gets married, there’s no room in that station for a married couple. They’d need to find him new quarters.”
Hamish’s face brightened. Then it fell. “Who is there who would even look at the beast?”
“We’ve got a new hotel receptionist. Doris Ward’s her name. Prissy, fussy, competent, not all that good-looking. Invite Willie up to the castle tonight and we’ll all have dinner. It’ll start his meeting females anyway.”
“All right,” said Hamish. “I’ll try anything.”
He was driving back slowly through the village but he slowed to a mere crawl as he saw a vision standing outside Napoli, the new Italian restaurant. The vision was shaking out a duster. She had an old-fashioned figure, that is, she had a voluptuous bust, a tiny waist and a saucy plump backside. She was wearing a short, skimpy black dress over which was tied a frilly checked apron. She had a heart-shaped face, a tiny nose and a wide soft mouth. Her hair was a riot of dusky curls. She was wearing very high heels and she had firm-muscled calves, like you see on dancer’s legs.
Must be one of old Ferrari’s relatives, thought Hamish. Mr Ferrari was a Scottish Italian, that is, his father had settled in Scotland at the turn of the century. From his father, Mr Ferrari had inherited a prosperous restaurant in Edinburgh, but having retired and turned it over to his sons, he found time lying heavy on his hands. And so he had started the restaurant in Lochdubh and staffed it with remoter relatives from Italy.
Hamish arrived at the police station in time to meet Willie, who had his uniform on and was preparing to leave.
“Where are you off to?” asked Hamish.
“There’s gypsies up on the field at the back o’ the manse,” said Willie.
Hamish’s eyes narrowed. “An old bus?”
“I’ll come with you. They’re not gypsies but travellers.”
“Commercial travellers, sir?”
“No, I’ll tell you about them as we go along.”
Sure enough, there was the bus in the grassy field behind the manse.
Followed by Willie, Hamish knocked at the door. Cheryl opened it. “Two pigs,” she said in disgust.
“Here now,” said Willie, “there is no reason at all, at all to be using nasty words.”
“Go screw,” said Cheryl, and then, suddenly, she covered her face with her hands and began to sob pathetically, saying between her sobs, “Why are you always persecuting me?”
“And just what do you think you are doing, Sergeant?” demanded a wrathful voice from behind Hamish. He swung round. Mrs Wellington, the minister’s wife, stood there, and behind her was Sean, rocking lightly on his heels, a mocking look in his green eyes.
“I am moving these people on,” said Hamish.
“You have no right to do any such thing,” said Mrs Wellington wrathfully. “I gave this young man permission to put his bus here, and that is all there is to it. These poor young people are hounded from pillar to post by bureaucratic monsters like yourself, Hamish Macbeth. These people of the road should be admired for their life-style.”
“If you have given your permission,” said Hamish, “then that is all right. But I shall be calling on you later.”
As he walked off with Willie, he heard behind him Sean’s light, amused laugh. “Get on to Strathbane,” said Hamish to Willie, “and see if they have anything on their files on Sean Gourlay and Cheryl Higgins.”
“Herself was a bit dirty-mouthed,” said Willie, “but he seemed nice enough.”
“He’s as bad as she is and I have the feeling that he’s dangerous.”
“Well, now, sir, I am in the way of being a student o’ human nature,” said Willie. “I took a correspending course in the psychotry.”