Wee Hec, hiding behind a broken rhododendron bush, was pointing a camera, clicking so fast it sounded like a mad metronome.
McAllister waved Hec away with a shooing gesture but, ever the journalist, not before he was satisfied Hec had enough shots of the scene. McAllister also watched Rob prowl the perimeter of the lawn, taking in the people, the back door that looked as though it had been attacked with an axe, the broken garden pots, and remains of geraniums, chrysanthemums, and lavender shrubs lying like casualties on a battlefield.
Rob came over to him and asked, "Whatever happened?" The editor shrugged in a "search me" gesture. He took out a packet of Passing Cloud and lit up. Whatever happened, McAllister was thinking, was done in great anger.
"There's nothing much for you here, Rob. Get back to the office; you and Joanne can cobble together the basic pages for the next edition."
Rob looked at him, the question obvious on his face.
"I'll write up . . . " McAllister hesitated. "Murder" was the worst swear word in the world, he always thought. "I'll write about Mrs. Smart. Front page obviously."
McAllister stood for a moment, sighed out a long stream of smoke, and turned away, his head shaking slightly from side to side.
Rob knew this was all the answer he would get. But as he sat astride his bike, he had to put both feet on the ground and hold tightly to the handlebars, unable to kick-start the engine. The reality of what had happened hit him. Mrs. Smart is dead, murdered. Who the hell would want to kill her? And why the hell has Don McLeod vandalized her house? When he eventually drove off, for the first time ever he drove well within the speed limits.
"I can't bring myself to believe it," Beech said as he showed McAllister into the next-door house belonging to his sisteranother substantial mansion built in grey stone in the Scottish baronial style, with crow-step gables and French doors opening onto a front lawn large enough for a bowling green. "Mrs. Smart dead."
"A police officer thought he recognized her in connection with the Gazette. I was asked to identify the body, so I know she is dead. But murdered . . . " McAllister too was having trouble with the idea.
"Quite." Mortimer Beauchamp Carlyle had witnessed many deathseven murders in his time as an administrative officer in the Sudan, but the murder of a family friend, in this quiet townthis was different.
Beech ushered McAllister into a sitting room the size of most people's houses. "Last night, I heard someone call next doorvery late, nearly midnight. The police no doubt."
"My sister will be devastated. She and Joyce MackenzieMrs. Smarthave been friends for about twenty-five years, ever since they both returned from abroad." He saw the question on McAllister's face and went to elaborate. What he didn't see was McAllister searching for an ashtray, wondering if he could light up in such a splendid sitting room.
"My sister was in China . . . " Beech started.
"I can see," said McAllister, looking at the Oriental furniture, such an odd contrast to the heavy wooden paneling and the equally elaborate paneled ceiling. But he could spy no ashtrays.
"Joyce Smart was in India. Came home in the early thirties. A few years later, her husband, Archibald, had an unfortunate accident with an elephantso the story goesand he too returned to Scotland."
McAllister detected a twinge of doubt in that remark.
Beech paced across the room as though measuring the dimensions of the faded Persian carpet. "Look here, McAllister, do you think it too early for a dram? I don't mind admitting I'm pretty shaken."
"Shaken? What's happened? And why is there a police car parked next door?"
A tall slim woman who could be mistaken for Beech's twin, not his elder sister, had come quietly into the room without the men noticing. Elegantly dressed in tweed skirt and moss-green jumper, her hair in a loose knot at the nape of her neck matched the plentiful silver frames of the photographs of groups of Asian children crowding the top of the baby grand piano. She did not seem nervous, but it was obvious she knew something was amiss.
Excerpted from Beneath the Abbey Wall by A. D Scott. Copyright © 2012 by A. D Scott. Excerpted by permission of Atria Books. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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