M.C. Beaton

Death of a Glutton

Hamish Macbeth #8

1993, EN

? Death of a Glutton ?


O fat white woman whom nobody loves.

—Frances Crofts Cornford

It was a blue day in the West Highlands of Scotland as PC Hamish Macbeth strolled along the waterfront of the village of Lochdubh. Not blue meaning sad, but blue coloured by a perfect day, blue coloured by the sky arching above and the sea loch below. Mountains rearing up were darker blue, marching off into a blue infinity of distance, as if Sutherland in the north of Scotland had no boundaries, but was some sort of infinite paradise of clean air and sunlight.

It had been a bad winter and a damp spring, but summer, which usually only lasts six weeks at the best of times in the far north, had finally arrived in all its glory, strange to the inhabitants who were used to rain and damp and high winds.

Little silken waves curled on the shore. Everything swam lazily in the clear light. Never had the roses in the little village gardens been more profuse or more glorious. Dougie, the gamekeeper on Colonel Halburton-Smythe’s estate, told everyone who would listen that unusual blossoming meant a hard winter to come, but few wanted to believe him. It was as if the whole of Lochdubh was frozen in a time capsule, with one perfect day following another. Life, never very energetic, slowed down to a crawl. Old quarrels and animosities were forgotten.

All this suited Hamish Macbeth’s easygoing character. There had been no crime at all for some time; his superior and frequent pain in the neck, Detective Chief Inspector Blair of Strathbane, was on holiday somewhere in Spain. Hamish planned to walk along to the harbour for a chat with any fisherman who happened to be mending nets, and then perhaps he would go up to the Tommel Castle Hotel for a coffee with Priscilla Halburton-Smythe, once the love of his life if she only but knew it.

Fisherman Archie Maclean was sitting on the edge of the harbour wall, staring out at the loch where the boats rocked gently at anchor.

“Aye, it’s a grand day, Hamish,” he said as the policeman came up.

“Not verra good for the fish,” rejoined Hamish amiably.

“The fish is chust fine. Fair jumping into the nets, Hamish. Got a cigarette on you?”

“You forget, I gave up a whiles back,” said Hamish regretfully. Would he ever get over that occasional longing for a cigarette? It would be great to light one up and puff away contentedly.

“Ah, well, I’ll chust go along to Patel’s and get some.” Archie prised himself off the harbour wall. Both men walked in the direction of the village general store.

Priscilla Halburton-Smythe was just coining out of the store with a bag of groceries in her arms. “I’ll take these, Priscilla,” said Hamish. “Where are you parked?”

“Round the side of the shop, Hamish. Morning, Archie.”

“Why are you doing the shopping?” asked Hamish curiously.

“Wanted an excuse to get away,” said Priscilla, unlocking the car.

Priscilla’s father, Colonel Halburton-Smythe, had turned his home into an hotel after losing his money. The hotel was thriving. Mr Johnson, former manager of the Lochdubh Hotel, now closed, was running the business, and so Priscilla was usually carefree. But Hamish noticed she was looking rather strained.

“What’s up?” he asked.

“Come back with me and we’ll have something to drink and I’ll tell you.”

Hamish got in the car. He glanced at her sideways, reflecting that she looked more beautiful than ever. Her golden hair shone with health and her skin was lightly tanned. She was wearing a sky-blue cotton dress with a broad white leather belt at the waist and her bare tanned legs ended in low-heeled brown leather sandals. Some of the old desire tugged at his heart, but she was so cool and competent, so expert a driver, so seemingly oblivious of him as a man, that it quickly died. He felt illogically that she would be quite devastating if she did something wrong for once, crashed the gears, dropped something, had a hair out of place, wore the wrong shade of lipstick, or was guilty of any simple little human lapse at all.

The fake baronial pile that was Tommel Castle Hotel soon loomed up. She told Hamish to leave the groceries at the reception desk and then led the way through to the bar, formerly the morning room. “Want a whisky, Hamish, or will we have coffee?”

“Coffee’s just fine.” She poured two mugs of coffee and they sat down at one of the tables.

“So what’s been happening?” asked Hamish.

“Well, everything was running smoothly. The new gift shop that I am going to run is nearly finished and I’ve been off on my travels accumulating stuff to display in it. We were expecting eight members of a fishing club. But they cancelled at the last minute. Their chairman was trying to land a salmon somewhere down south and the fish turned out to be more powerful than he and dragged him in and down the rocks and over the rapids. He’s recovering in hospital. He was an old friend of Daddy’s and it turned out that Daddy hadn’t even charged any booking-fees. So we had another booking which Daddy wanted to turn down flat. It’s from the Checkmate Singles Club. Daddy has gleaned a lot of knowledge of singles’ bars from American films, and so the very word ‘singles’ started him foaming at the mouth. Mr Johnson said, quite rightly, that we should take their booking to make up for the lost fishing party, but Daddy wouldn’t be moved, so Mr Johnson called me in to talk sense into his head.”

“This Checkmate Singles Club is actually one of the most expensive dating and marital agencies in Britain. I told Daddy they must have half the titles in the country on their books, which is a wild exaggeration, but the old snob fell for it,” remarked Priscilla, who often found her father a trial. “It’s actually mostly a marriage agency. The thing that clinched it was the woman who runs it, Maria Worth, dropped in on us to check the place out and she was so impeccably tweedy and blue-blooded – she even has a tweedy mind – that Daddy caved in and smarmed all over her. So everything’s settled, but I felt so limp after all the arguments and stupidity, I felt I had to get away just for a little and volunteered to do the shopping.”

“You mean this Maria Worth is something like a marriage-broker?”

“Sort of. She charges enormous fees. She’s bringing eight of her clients up to get acquainted.”

“Dear me,” said Hamish, scratching his fiery-red hair in puzzlement, “they must be a sad bunch of folk if they have to pay some woman to find them a mate.”

“Not necessarily. Usually they’re people who want someone with money to match their own fortunes or middle-aged people who don’t want to go through the indignities of dating a stranger. It’s very hard dating in this day and age, Hamish,” said Priscilla seriously. “I mean, isn’t it better to have an agency check the other person out first? Find out all about them? I might try it myself.”

“Don’t be silly,” said Hamish crossly. “We both know almost everyone in the whole of damn’ Sutherland and what we don’t know we can soon find out.”

“Who says I want to marry someone from bloody Sutherland?” Priscilla glared at him.

Hamish suddenly grinned, his hazel eyes dancing. “So you’re human after all.”

“Of course I’m human, you great Highland drip.”

“It is just that you always seem so cool about everything, like a nice chilled salad.”

“I don’t like scenes and confrontations, that’s all. If you had a father like mine, you would shy away from dramatics as well.”

“Why doesn’t the wee man just jack this hotel business in?” said Hamish, not for the first time.

“He’s making a mint. He can go back to being lord of the manor and take down the hotel sign.”

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