Read The Blue Hackle Online

Authors: Lillian Stewart Carl

Tags: #suspense, #ghosts, #history, #scotland, #skye, #castle, #mystery series, #psychic detective, #historic preservation, #clan societies, #stately home

The Blue Hackle (10 page)

BOOK: The Blue Hackle
7.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

She almost caromed off Scott Krum, who was
lifting the lid of an ivory-inlaid chest opposite the door of the
Charlie suite. He dropped it with a thud and whoosh that made the
Grainne tapestry ripple. His teeth gleamed in a fixed smile framed
by his dark—no, what Rab Finlay had was a beard. Scott’s goatee
looked like it had been traced on his face by a black marker.

“Oh,” he said. “Hi. I forgot the camera, the
girls want snapshots, I came back upstairs—this is your room,

“Mine and my fiancé’s, yes.”

“Your fiancé is here, too?” He sidled

With a suspicious glance at the chest—Fergie
probably wasn’t keeping the family silver in there—and another at
Scott—she didn’t see any cameras about his person, but a digital
one would fit in a pocket—Jean locked the door and allowed herself
to be led toward the staircase. “We’re getting married at St.
Columcille’s, the Dunasheen chapel, on the third.”

“Great, great. After you.” Averting his eyes
from the bedizened suit of armor, to say nothing of the mistletoe,
Scott waved her onto the turnpike stair.

Jean stepped past the tripping stane and the
chill spot, and at the second-floor landing asked, “So are y’all
enjoying the Wallace suite?”

“Heather hasn’t found much to complain about
yet, and that’s saying something.”

They walked down the first flight in silence,
Jean breathing in the odors of roasting meat and baking pastry. Her
stomach’s pitiful grumble reminded her she’d missed tea and Nancy
Finlay’s superior baked goods, but then, she’d feasted on them
yesterday, so it averaged out.

Safely in the entrance hall, Scott said, “I
guess you’re wondering why I was on the third floor.”

“The question had crossed my mind.” Jean
turned around to face him.

He’d abandoned the smile for an embarrassed
grimace, but his eyes were guarded. “I work for an auction house in
Maryland, doing appraisals, estate sales, that kind of thing. You
Antiques Roadshow
stuff. I was curious about what the
MacDonalds have tucked away here. The older the house, the greater
the chance of something really cool lying forgotten in a

No kidding,
Jean thought, but what she
said was, “Something that could be bought cheap and then sold on
for a lot of money?”

“I don’t cheat anyone. Reselling is part of
the business.” He dropped the grimace as well. “So what do you and
your fiancé do for a living?”

“I’m a journalist and part owner of
magazine in Edinburgh.”

“I’ve heard of that. Pretty good worldwide
circulation, right? Both paper and electronic?”

“Yes, we’re blanketing the world with dead
trees and pixels both.”

“You think you could cut me a deal on
advertising rates?”

“You’d have to check with my partner, Miranda
Capaldi. She’s the boss.” And the various departments such as
Advertising, Circulation, Editorial, Printing, and Web Design were
scattered from Leith to Dalkeith, hardly out of Miranda’s sight,
but pretty much out of Jean’s mind. “Alasdair—Alasdair Cameron—is
the head of Protect and Survive, the security agency.”

Scott nodded. “Oh yeah, they’ve got a good
reputation. I’d like to touch bases with him. Where is he?”

“He’s . . .” She redirected her statement in
midstream. “He should be here for dinner.”

“Great. We’ve got drinks first, huh? The
library, Diana said. Down this way?” Smile restored, he bowed Jean
toward the hallway.

“Yep, this way.” She glanced back at the two
black sheaths, establishing that the one on the right was still
empty. Scottish regimental dirks were collectible items, but if
Scott had decided to help himself, he’d have taken the sheath with
its silver fittings and diminutive knife and fork as well.

Just because he was checking the place out
didn’t mean he was a thief. Just because Jean’s curious nature had
developed a suspicious streak didn’t mean there was anything
suspect in an art dealer like Greg and an antiques dealer like
Scott turning up in the same place at the same time. They’d both
been attracted by the house itself. And Fergie certainly had things
to sell, if not actively for sale.

Like books. Passing beneath another stag’s
head, this one wearing a Sherlock Holmes–style deerstalker hat
complete with an eagle feather, Jean led Scott into the

Glass-doored cabinets lined the room, rank
after rank of books old and new glimmering behind polished panes
like treasure at the sea bottom. The cabinet holding the Fairy
Flagon was closed—Fergie was understandably protective of his
family talisman. A peat fire burned in the fireplace, with both of
the dogs, the lab and the terrier, lying broadside to it and
absorbing most of the warmth. New Age interpretations of Christmas
classics emanated from hidden speakers. In front of the center
window sparkled a Christmas tree, every light reflected in the

Jean tasted the air like she would a fine
wine—a trace of smoke, a soupcon of old paper and leather, the
sharp odor of evergreen, the silken hint of spices. No wet dog,
though. The animals looked as though they’d been blow-dried.

Had they reacted at all to the black-clad man
standing alone, wet, and cold in the parking area, looking not at
the police vehicles but up at the lighted windows of the house? Or
did they know him?

Heather Krum waited in the middle of the
room, her arms folded across a beaded and embroidered jacket, her
narrow glasses perched below a heavy fall of bangs letterboxing her
eyes. “There you are,” she snapped to Scott. “I thought you’d met
up with that Diana woman.”

“Our hostess?” he retorted. “I ran into Jane
on the staircase, okay?”

“Jean,” Jean corrected, without continuing on
to correct Scott’s geographical ambiguity.

Heather’s slitted eyes looked Jean up and
down. “Are you here alone?”

“No, I’m here with my fiancé for our wedding
on January third.”

“Oh.” Despite her tight ski pants, Heather
flounced into a chair.

Jean wasn’t sure whether her soon-to-be
married status or her age had absolved her of threatening the
Krums’ relationship. She hesitated between being insulted and
laughing, but neither seemed appropriate.

Dakota was methodically working her way along
the shelves, her head tilted as she considered Fergie’s impressive
array of books, not just peeling and yellowed ones dating to
generations past, but also contemporary titles ranging from
astronomy to crypto-zoology, from archaeology to geomancy, from
history to frenzied fringe tomes claiming that alien astronauts had
not only built ancient structures from Stonehenge to Angkor Wat to
Teotihuacan, but also that alien astronauts were humanity’s
primeval gods.

Odd notions, yes, and Alasdair was justified
in questioning Fergie’s taste for them, but then, like all odd
notions, they were thought-provoking, horizon-expanding, and
downright entertaining.

Atta girl,
Jean thought at Dakota,
and, at the same time,
Watch out, you’ll end up like me.
Although there were a lot worse places to end up.

“So,” Scott said to Jean, just a bit too
loudly, “What about the guy—it’s a guy, right?—who fell down at the
old castle? Is he okay?”

“I told you,” said Heather, “we didn’t hear
any sirens, so he must be all right.”

Jean was intended to be counselor as well as
jester, then.
Thanks, Diana
. “Ah, um.” She looked down at
her feet planted solidly on the faded rug. “I’m afraid there was no
need for sirens. No rush. He, ah, didn’t make it.”

“You mean he died?” Heather’s nostrils flared
as though someone had just handed her a bucket of muck.

“That’s what ‘didn’t make it’ usually means,”
Scott informed her.

Dakota looked around, smooth features

“The police are here,” Jean said quickly,
“and they’re taking care of everything, and the local doctor’s with
his wife. Greg’s wife, that is. The man who—didn’t make it.”

“Good,” said Heather. “I mean, bad. I mean,
I’m sorry.”

Dakota turned one way and Scott the other. He
stared up at the painting over the mantelpiece. This one depicted
Calanais stone circle on the island of Lewis. The glow of a small
fire at the base of the tallest, square-shouldered, megalith
diffused upward and met a similar glow in the lowering sky,
probably the rising moon. Over the fire crouched a figure that
would have been human except for wings catching both light and dark
in subtle grades of color, like a pigeon’s breast.

Beneath it, on the mantel, stood an olivewood
nativity scene, presented straight up. At least, Fergie had tucked
the E.T. action figure behind one corner of the stable, not
substituted it for baby Jesus in the manger.

Scott made no remarks—or photographs, either,
never mind his expedition to retrieve the family camera. Heather
inspected a fingernail the same color as the painted sky. Dakota
looked at the bookcase, but Jean could see her expressionless face
in the glass, while the peppy features of the teen idol on her
sweatshirt floated ghostlike below.

She considered injecting the sudden silence
with something artificially cheery, such as the suggestion they
could all consider the unfortunate event as a real-life mystery
weekend. But over and beyond having to expand “he died” into “he
was murdered,” this was no game.

A musical rattle from the corridor, like
glass wind chimes, fell joyfully on her ears. “The drinks are
here!” she announced, probably giving the Krums the impression she
was an alcoholic needing a fix.

The door opened, admitting Fergie. He now
wore a beautifully cut dark suit over a tartan waistcoat—somewhere
a Savile Row tailor was weeping—and pushed a serving cart laden
with bottles, glasses, and steaming punch bowl. Not, Jean thought,
that the red liquid splashing behind the cut glass had to be
particularly hot to steam. Beyond the fire’s aura, the room was
cold. The two dogs looked up but didn’t get to their feet.

“Good evening, how are we getting on?” Fergie
said with a grin. If St. Patrick had had such an affable grin, he
could have charmed the snakes out of Ireland instead of ordering
them to go.

Scott essayed a smile. Heather did not.
Dakota stared.

“I’m Fergus MacDonald, the poor chap
responsible for this castle. And you’re the Krums, from the U.S,
like Jean here. Scott, Heather, Dakota. Welcome, welcome.” He was
working uphill, but, trouper that he was, went gamely on, “Are the
dogs all right for you? No allergies?”

“We’re fine, thanks,” said Scott. “Heather’s
got a poodle at home.”

“The lab is Bruce,” Fergie said, “and the
terrier is Somerled. Good lads, aren’t you?”

The dogs fluttered their tails against the
tile of the hearth and with grunts of satisfaction let their heads
fall back down.

“We have several fine single malts, a
continental aperitif or two, or—’tis the season and all—we have
wassail. My special recipe. And lemon squash for the lass.”

Dakota crept forward. “Squashed lemon?”

“It’s kind of like Seven-Up or Sprite with
lemon,” Jean explained. And to Fergie, with a deep inhalation of
cinnamon and nutmeg, “I’d love a cup of wassail. Do you make yours
with cider?”

“Oh yes, and with wine, fruit, and spices.
The latter two used to be quite special, mind you, in these
northern climates.” Delicately Fergie pushed aside several
clove-studded lemon and orange slices and ladled out a cupful.
“Here you are. And you, Mrs. Krum?”

“I guess you don’t do cosmopolitans,” Heather

“If that’s what you’d prefer,” began Fergie,
“I’m sure I can . . .”

“Let it go, Heather.” Scott extended both
hands. “We’ll take wassail, thanks.”

“Very good.” Fergie placed two more cups in
his hands, the small, smooth hands of someone who’d only worked
with his mind, then gave Dakota a tall glass adorned with mint and
a cherry.

Scott drank deeply. After a tentative sip
over her protruding lower lip, Heather allowed, “It’s good,” and
retracted the pout.

Reminding herself that the drink was full of
alcohol and her stomach was full of air, Jean let one swallow of
insidious sweetness slide down her throat. Then she cradled the
warm cup between her cool hands and pushed aside any comparison of
the crimson drink to crimson blood. Nor did she ask if Thomson or
Portree had taken Fergie up on his offer of sandwiches in the staff
sitting room . . . no, wait, was that a door opening far down the
hall and a couple of male voices?

“What’s that burning in the fireplace?” asked

“Peat,” Fergie answered, and launched a
soliloquy about peat bogs, and wood as a precious resource, and the
Yule log in the Great Hall among other observances planned for
tomorrow night—his smile was that of a child anticipating Santa
Claus—and how the Log represented the Yule bonfire, which was a
major observance along the outer rim of Scotland and its islands,
the areas heavily influenced by the Norse, as evidenced by the fire
festival Up-Helly-Aa in the Shetlands every January.

None of the Krums blinked. Jean edged closer
to the door. Yes, her internal sonar detected Alasdair’s voice.

“This is the time of year,” Fergie went on,
“when trows or trolls come out from the underworld and carry
mortals away. Not to worry, though, we’re protected here at
Dunasheen by our Green Lady.”

Not necessarily, Jean thought.

“The Green Lady’s our resident ghost or
fairy, a
green being the fairy color. The story
goes that you can hear her singing, in a fashion, when something
either bad or good is going to happen. Or you can see her gliding
silently toward the house . . .”

The glass wobbled in Dakota’s hand and her
eyes expanded to fill half her face. Heather reached out a
protective hand, but her slice of a gaze turned toward Fergie.
“You’re scaring the kid, Mr. MacDonald.”

BOOK: The Blue Hackle
7.18Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub

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