Read The Avalon Chanter Online

Authors: Lillian Stewart Carl

Tags: #mystery, #ghosts, #history, #scotland, #king arthur, #archaeology, #britain, #guinevere, #lindisfarne, #celtic music

The Avalon Chanter (9 page)

BOOK: The Avalon Chanter
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A scrape of footsteps made her jerk around.
Niamh hurried along the road toward Gow House. The front door
opened and Maggie stepped out onto the porch. Onto the stage. She
stood motionless as the younger woman brushed by her and vanished
into the house. If either of them spoke, Maggie asking Tara’s
whereabouts, for example, Jean didn’t hear.


Poor Maggie, getting reacquainted with
police procedure,” she told Alasdair.


It’s no crime finding a body. You and
me, we’d be banged up good and proper if it were so. Concealing the
discovery, now, for how long and why . . .”


That’s the issue,” Jean finished for
him.

Steps on her other side almost gave her
whiplash. But the rounded male figure, light shimmering on his bald
head, was Hugh Munro, now accompanied by a stocky, black-haired man
wearing a kilt. Where had she seen . . . Oh, yes. He was the piper
who’d been conducting a class on the doorstep of the music
school.


There you are.” Hugh paused to catch
his breath. “I’ve just come across Hector here, setting out for the
hostel and amazed to find the polis have landed.”


Almost missed the whole thing,” said
Hector’s mild voice from the darkness. “I thought Farnaby was going
to be the boondocks, you know, quiet as the grave. I guess
not.”

Jean choked back a gurgle—quiet as the grave,
yeah, right—and introduced herself and Alasdair, adding, “It sounds
like you’re from the same part of the world I am.”


Santa Fe, New Mexico,” he said.
“Hector Cruz, piper.”


He’s the school’s other
artist-in-residence the week,” Hugh added. “A McCrimmon on his
mother’s side. The Scots, they got around.”

“ ‘
The Rovin’ Dies Hard.’ ” Hector
offered the name of Hugh’s classic song with its chorus about
Fortune dealing the Scots the wildest of cards.

Jean connected with the extended hand of
Hugh’s “Spanish influence,” as he’d joked in the pub when she
misheard Niamh’s name. Then she passed his hand over to Alasdair,
who shook politely, even as he craned past Hector’s broad shoulder
toward the chapel. He’d never gotten the hang of being a gawper, a
looky-loo, rather than an investigating officer.

The wind had stilled, and an almost
transparent mist veiled the priory—the accumulated breaths of the
spectators, Jean assumed, although the air seemed to be thickening
behind her as well as before her. If it weren’t for the flaring and
retreating beams of light, the bare ruined choir would be
invisible.

She stepped closer to Alasdair. Her arm
brushed the cold, damp metal of the Land Rover and a chill rippled
up her spine—whoa—that chill was paranormal as well as natural . .
. No. The ghost, the spirit was no more than a hint, and quickly
gone.

An inhabited body pushed its way through the
watchers, accompanied by a reflective jacket. A nasal, acid voice
announced, “I’m in charge here. I’m wanting a car. No good going
about shanks’s mare and falling into every pothole—typical
villagers, lazy sods can’t be bothered maintaining the roads.”

An indignant murmur percolated through the
gathered islanders.


We’re wanting an incident room as
well,” the voice went on.


There’s an empty shop along the main
street,” replied a familiar, much warmer voice. “I’ll fetch the
key.”

The beam of a flashlight targeted James’s
rotund figure and held him fast. “Who are you?”


James Fleming. I own the
pub.”


Nice work, that. Spend loads of time
straining beer through that moustache. Fetch the key then, give it
to my sergeant here, there’s a good chap.”

The flashlight waved right, waved left, and
bagged the quartet by the car. Jean flinched as the bright light
hung in her face, blinding her.

But the light wasn’t focused on her. “Well,
stuff that for a game of soldiers. Alasdair Cameron. And here’s me
hoping the local plod’s, Crawley, Crawford—hoping he’s
hallucinating saying you’re here. But it’s not enough we’ve got
prats of our own, is it? Scotland’s sending theirs to
interfere.”


Hullo, George,” Alasdair said evenly,
but Jean sensed his body go even colder than the car.


Who’s your entourage,
then?”


Hugh Munro and Hector Cruz from the
music school. My wife, Jean Fairbairn.”

Again the light dazzled her eyes. “One of
those, are you, girl? Too pleased with yourself to take your
husband’s name?”

She wouldn’t have detailed the whys and
wherefores of her name choices to a much more affable person, never
mind this man. Following Alasdair’s example, she offered a terse,
“Hello.”

People milled about, going from priory to
village to the road and back. Jean was vaguely aware of twin dots
of lime-green carrying Pen back to her post at the B&B, and of
Hugh seizing the arm of Hector’s windbreaker and pulling him away
into the surrounding darkness. She was much more aware of
Grinsell.

A car came up the road, lurched into a
pothole, and after a brief spin of its wheels lurched out again.
Its headlights caught the man like an insect in amber. He stood
about the same height as Alasdair, but was more slightly built, bar
the protrusion of a small pot belly. Thinning reddish hair, a sour
slit of a mouth, the sly sideways cant of his eyes close together
in a long face, a sharp chin—he resembled a fox, Jean thought, and
she didn’t mean foxy as in attractive.

Handsome is as handsome
does.
At five-foot-eight, Alasdair was hardly on the
tall side, but he stood with his usual quiet reserve, at ease if
also poised, having no need to prove his manhood or anything
else.

The headlights went out. Grinsell again
assumed the power position, legs spread, shoulders braced beneath
the weight of their chips. “What’s your business here, Inspector?
Oh, excuse me.
Chief
Inspector.”


My wife is here writing a magazine
article on Farnaby Priory. I’m having myself a bit of a busman’s
holiday. Nowadays I’m head of Protect and Survive in
Edinburgh.”


Edinburgh?” The word was a sneer in
Grinsell’s whine. “So you’ve taken on some namby-pamby job with the
greenies. Made the Northern Constabulary too hot to hold you, eh,
playing the knight in shining armor?”

Yes, Alasdair had once made a very
painful decision to do the right thing. Jean tightened her lips
over her teeth and clasped her hands behind her back so tightly the
bones squeaked.
Don’t let him know his
words have any effect on you.

The tall man in the suit and reflective
jacket loomed up beside them. “Sir, I’ve had the lads set up the
incident room in the vacant shop.”


You have, have you?” Scenting new
prey, Grinsell spun around. “You’re taking a lot on yourself,
Darling. Feeling ambitious, are we?”

Say who?
Jean
wondered if once again she’d heard a name incorrectly.

Alasdair extended a hand. “Alasdair Cameron,
Northern Constabulary, retired.”


Detective Sergeant Rufus Darling,
Berwick,” replied the other man.

Oh.
Like Hogg,
Darling was a Borders name. And setting up an incident room was a
sergeant’s job. Grinsell had pretty much told him to do so. No
surprise the young man’s features, even in the uncertain light of
the flashlights, seemed to be pinched in a vise. “Jean
Fairbairn,
Great Scot
,
Edinburgh.”


Good to . . .” Darling began, but was
overridden by Grinsell’s, “The Lauder woman lives just there,
Crawford’s telling me. That looks to be her at the gate. Stop
wasting time and escort her to this shop of yours. We’ve got no
girls along, have we?”


We have no female constables with us,
no.”


You.” Grinsell took such a long step
toward Jean she shrank back against the icy side of the Land Rover.
“Friend of this Maggie Lauder, are you?”


We’ve met.” Jean glanced toward Gow
House. Yes, Maggie now stood to attention by the front gate. All
she needed was a blindfold and a cigarette.


Come along then,” ordered Grinsell.
“Sit in on the interview, but no giggling or gossiping, got
that?”

Jean’s jaw headed south and her brows headed
north. “Excuse me?”


Are you deaf? I’m telling you to keep
your gob shut.”


I’ll walk her down to the village,”
said Alasdair, his voice edged as Niamh’s song.


No need. I’ll have the local plod see
to her. Unless you don’t trust her out of your sight.” Chuckling,
Grinsell strode into the darkness. Darling offered Jean an
apologetic nod and hurried off after him.

She pulled herself away from the chill of the
car, not that the front of her body felt any warmer. “Holy fricking
moly! I know what you said earlier, but I didn’t think . . . That
guy makes your old sergeant look like a charm school graduate!”


He does that, aye. I reckon he’s been
ordered never to interview a female witness on his own, and your
being a policeman’s wife gives you a reference. Suits you and your
curiosity, does it now?”


Well, yeah. And then I can tell you
all about it, right? Unless Grinsell will think you’re
interfering.”


He’ll be thinking that in any event.
In for a penny, in for a pound. Have a care.” Another beam of light
illuminated Alasdair’s face. His eyes glinted ice-blue, but still
he asked politely of the body-shape in the gloom, “Is that you,
Crawford?”


Aye, that it is,” said the local
plod’s deep voice. “Miss Fairbairn?”


Sure. Glad to help.”

 

 

Chapter Nine

 

 

Jean walked off beside Crawford and his
flashlight, grateful his long legs were taking slow steps, so she
wouldn’t have to hurry and fall over something. Or into something,
although she suspected she’d already fallen into something. And
she’d been so worried they wouldn’t get here in time for the
opening of the grave.

She looked back at Alasdair. He held his cell
phone before his face. In its thin, pale light, his features seemed
harsh and cold as a glacier, layer after layer of snow compacted
into ice. It had been a long time since she’d seen his temperature
dip quite so far below zero.

Who was he calling?

She turned her eyes front in time to avoid
colliding with Lance Eccleston. He stood alone, in his bulky down
jacket, looking like a young troll cast out from his bridge. She
dodged around him. He didn’t react.

Beyond the glow of the village, past the dark
gulf of the sea, the mainland seemed to blend with the now overcast
sky. Jean could only tell which was which by the distribution of
lights.

The slightest of breezes whispered in the
grass beside the flight of steps down to Cuddy’s Close. The plants
in back of the B&B stood motionless behind their protective
wall. The undulating mirror of the harbor shimmered like watered
silk. When she stepped through the door Crawford opened for her,
the sudden light made her wince.

It came from a fluorescent bulb fixed to the
water-stained ceiling of a long, narrow room. Off-white walls were
smudged by traces of signs. Torn shag carpet, its original color
something between periwinkle and mud, revealed a dirty but
otherwise attractive stone floor that continued on through a partly
open door at the back. Through it Jean glimpsed little more than
darkness, although one anemic beam of light did illuminate a
tilting shelf scattered with what looked like old newspapers,
cardboard file folders, and several hardcover books without dust
jackets.

What had someone once sold here? Books?
Clothing? Fishing gear? Had they gone broke, retired, moved on to a
shop somewhere else?

The room’s musty, stale smell and its aura of
better days long gone fitted Grinsell’s rancid expression. Jean sat
down in the folding plastic chair he indicated, next to a folding
plastic table, trying not to look closer into his face now that it
was fully illuminated.

His brown, beady eyes held no such
compunction. He stared at her. One side of his mouth lifted in
distaste. “Mrs. Cameron. Oops, sorry, that’s Miss Fairbairn, isn’t
it? Or Ms.” He dragged out the “S” so that the title hissed.

Again she wanted to blurt,
It’s not our fault
, if not something
considerably stronger. Instead, she said, as evenly as she could,
“Either Miss or Ms. works fine.” No good adding fuel to his flame
by telling him she was also Dr. Fairbairn, thanks to that
Ph.D.

Crawford opened the door to admit Maggie, who
was almost as tall as Sergeant Darling beside her. The murky light
didn’t do either of them any favors, although Jean estimated that
Darling would clean up nicely—and lose several years—once his
square jaw and high forehead released their hunted expression. At
least his cap of dark hair seemed to be a natural brown, unlike
Maggie’s purple and red streaks.

She looked even worse than she had earlier,
like death not warmed over but left out in the rain to mildew. As
she sat down in a second chair, shooting a curious glance at Jean,
Jean caught a whiff of her breath. She’d found at least some of her
supper in a bottle. Like daughter, like mother, except Maggie
hadn’t been drinking anything so mild as Tara’s beer. Jean tried an
encouraging smile, but it withered on her face.

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