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 (2 page)

BOOK: The Blue Hackle
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“New” being relative in this part of the
world—new Dunasheen dated to the early 1600s, when the local
MacDonald laird had, after years of conflict, at last dispossessed
the local MacLeod laird. He’d then abandoned the old castle and
proclaimed his wealth and sophistication by erecting a manor house
a la mode. Since then, generations of Lords Dunasheen, MacDonalds
all, had renovated, rebuilt, and recreated. Annexes and towers
encrusted the original building. Bow windows sprouted from walls,
and dormer windows from moss-lined slate roofs edged by
crow-stepped gables. Conical turrets called bartizans seemed to
hang onto corners by sheer will power but were actually supported
on corbels, protruding stones set in decorative tiers. Chimneys
both tall and short capped the exuberant, if time-stained,
structure like exclamation points.

Even in the dull light, the stucco-like lime
harling that protected the stone walls from the uncompromising
elements reflected a sheen of pink. The original had been colored
by the bull’s blood used as a gelling agent, Fergie had said, just
as the mortar holding together the bare stones of old—eight hundred
years and more old—Dunasheen had been coagulated by the eggs of sea
birds. You used what resources you had here at the outer rim of
civilization, thought Jean. You called in favors from old friends.
You promoted your white elephant as a fairy-tale castle.

The man in the red jacket marching along the
footpath toward her and Alasdair must be a product of Fergie’s
marketing scheme, moats and drawbridges now making good customers.
They met up with him just where the path twisted between fissured,
lichen-encrusted boulders, half-concealed by unblooming
heather.

His bulbous nose was red, too, and his
square, blunt face was burnished by the wind. Sandy hair streaked
with gray fluttered back from his wide forehead. Hunkered down into
his thickly padded jacket, his hands thrust into his pockets, he
was still taller than Alasdair, who in turn was taller than Jean.
But then, most people who were not children or hobbits were taller
than Jean.

The man’s face creased into a triangular
grin, wider on one side than on the other, filled with uneven
teeth. His oddly pale gray eyes gleamed with humor. “If this was a
golf course, it’d be all rough and no fairway.”

“Oh aye,” Alasdair replied. He and Jean
turned sideways, giving the man passing room.

He maneuvered past, saying “Scuse me, mate”
in a twang squeezed against the roof of his mouth. “You too,
Missus. Is this the way to the church?”

He was either Aussie or Kiwi, Jean deduced,
her ear for Down Under accents not tuned finely enough to detect
the difference. She’d have to ask.

Alasdair answered, “The old church or the new
one?”

“The one with the crusader tombstones that
was burned down by the MacLeods in 1645.”

Who had surrounded the building, Jean added
silently, swords drawn, as the congregation of MacDonalds perished
inside—clan conflict fed on religious conflict and vice versa. But
the delectable odor of smoke teasing her nostrils this afternoon
was that of smoldering peat, implying warmth and sanctuary.

“Then, no, you’ve gone the wrong way,” said
Alasdair. “That path runs from the garden at the western side of
the house. The new castle. But you can follow the beach below the
old castle round to the left, past the wee promontory, and then
climb the brae to the church.”

Jean assessed the slight pucker between
Alasdair’s eyebrows as a mental note:
Tell Fergie to lay on
directions to the local sights.

Her own mental note was a selfish one. The
horrific events at the old church trumped its historical interest,
and she was just as glad the wedding was scheduled for the new one,
a charming Gothic Revival folly. Not that she’d sensed more than a
melancholy chill at the old church—churches, plural, walls layered
atop more walls layered atop ancient foundations—when she and
Alasdair had stopped there on their tour of inspection.

She tried luring the stranger into
conversation with, “You’re already familiar with the history of the
area, then.”

“Yeah, I’ve been tracing the family tree. I’m
a MacLeod myself. Greg MacLeod, Townsville, Queensland, Oz. You’re
at the castle, too?” He extended his right hand.

“Aye,” Alasdair said, without introducing the
topic of weddings. “Alasdair Cameron, Edinburgh.” He exchanged a
firm handshake and passed the friendly hand on to Jean.

To her cold fingers, Greg’s hand seemed
almost feverishly warm, slightly damp, and linty from his pocket.
“Jean Fairbairn, also Edinburgh, though I started in Texas. But
you’ve come a lot further than I have, all the way from
Australia.”

“Not so far, not these days. My
multiple-great grandfather, though, came out on a leaky ship.
Transported near two centuries ago, and not for nicking a loaf of
bread. For murder.” Despite his words, Greg’s grin evened into a
rectangle, revealing a few more teeth—Jean wondered if they were
issuing extra ones in the southern hemisphere.

“Murder,” Alasdair repeated, if not amused,
then not alarmed, either.

Abruptly the light wasn’t dull at all. A
gleam of sunlight pierced the cloud, glanced off the sea, and
swelled like a scarlet wound along the southwestern horizon. Every
puddle, pool, and trickle of water in the surrounding moorland
glittered.

Dazzled, Jean said, “After two hundred years,
having a murderer in the family seems more exotic than shameful. In
fact, I hear having ancestors among the convicts in the First Fleet
provides a bit of cachet in Australia these days, when for years it
was something you hid beneath the antimacassars. Or was your
ancestor in the First Fleet?”

“Not at all, no. Tormod MacLeod left Skye in
1822. He wouldn’t have had an easy go down under, but he missed out
the worst days of Botany Bay. Though I’m starting to think the old
guy crossed up the law to get himself a ticket to a warmer
climate.” Greg returned his hands to his pockets and his shoulders
to a crouch. “But here I am. Blood is thicker than water.”

“You’ve not chosen the friendliest time of
year,” said Alasdair.

“Christmas in London, though! Lights, music,
food, grand museums, galleries. And Harrod’s, Debenham’s, and
Burlington Arcade for the wife. Now my credit card needs
resuscitation. I’ll have to take out a second one to pay the
overweight luggage fees.”

Jean smiled. Alasdair nodded agreement.

“Now for Fergus MacDonald’s New Year’s
package, a traditional Hogmanay here on the old home ground.” Greg
stamped his athletic shoes against the black dirt of the path,
producing a slight squish and runnel of brown water. “Bloodstained
ground. The MacDonalds and the MacLeods went at it like billy-o,
once.”

“Putting rings on each other’s fingers and
daggers in each other’s hearts, to quote some old historian.” And
Jean added to herself, oh yes, Skye was conjuring magazine
articles. She’d have to ask Greg for more details of his rogue
ancestor. In her previous life, she’d learned that putting a
personal face on history added entire minutes to her students’
attention spans. The same ploy worked with readers. “Did Tormod
MacLeod murder a MacDonald?”

“It’s not so clear in the old family story
just what happened. That’s why I’m here, to get the facts, if there
are any facts to get. Our local clan group and the genealogy sites
on the Internet only go so far. I found Dunasheen’s website,
though.
Dun na sithein
, fortress of the fairies. I could
hardly resist following up on that.”


Sithein
can mean fairies,” allowed
Alasdair. He’d already expressed caution at Fergie’s take on the
subject, not to mention Fergie’s promise of a private showing of
the famous Fairy Flagon and the unveiling of yet another
notion.

Jean, though, was sharpening her pencil for
the revelation. “But what are fairies? The little people who lived
here before the Celts arrived? Nature spirits? Lingering ghosts of
the dead?”

“The old Celts remind me of our aboriginal
people, seeing spirits in the landscape. You think any of my old
MacLeod rellies are still hanging about to answer my questions,
give me the good oil now?” Greg laughed, a peal of unaffected
merriment. The wind snatched the sound from his lips and whisked it
away.

Jean and Alasdair shared a glance. If Greg
was allergic to the paranormal like they were, then his old MacLeod
relatives might well answer his questions. Or not. No one knew the
capriciousness of ghosts better than the team of Fairbairn and
Cameron.

White gulls sailed overhead, stained pink by
the ray of sunlight. Of sunset. “My old granny,” said Alasdair,
“she was fond of saying that gulls carried the not-yet-departed
spirits of the dead.”

“Hopefully my old rellies are well and truly
departed. I’d rather read ghost stories than end up in one.” Greg
raised his arm to inspect his watch, a massive number that probably
displayed stock quotes as well as time and date. “Well then, I’ve
got time for a squint at the old castle first. It’s straight on, is
it?”

“That it is.” Alasdair pulled the small
flashlight from his jacket pocket. “Have a care, the paths are
rough and narrow, and there’s no artificial light. You’d best be
using this torch. Just bring it back to the house when you’ve
finished. It’s Fergie’s.”

“Ta. See you later, then.” Greg squished away
toward the old castle.

Alasdair squelched away toward the new one.
Jean fell into step beside him, not without a cautionary glance at
his rosy face. “When did Fergie get nicknamed that, anyway?”

“My dad was calling him Fergie Beg before I
was born. That’s what his own dad called him, himself being Fergie
Mor.”

“Little Fergus and Big Fergus. But your dad
wasn’t Alasdair Mor.”

“No, he was one of dozens of Allan Camerons.
Likely there were more than a few murderers amongst the old ones.
Raiders, robbers, rapists. Rum crew.” He spoke casually, just
stating a fact.

“I’ve wondered if your choice of profession
was overcompensation for a colorful family tree.”

“Mind that my own dad went for a soldier. And
his dad as well.”

“That, too. Being born to a middle-aged,
retired officer would shape your worldview. I’m sorry I never met
your dad.”

“He was right tolerant of colonials such as
Americans and Australians.” Alasdair glanced back at the old
castle, then stopped and turned. Jean followed his gaze.

There was Greg, like Jean herself, an
outlander called back to the dark and bloody ground of his
forebears. Maybe he was a policeman, too, or a chartered
accountant, or another mild-mannered academic-cum-journalist.

He worked his way up the path outside the
enceinte and disappeared into the keep. A few moments later the red
jacket appeared atop the tower, gleaming like a tiny flame.

The clouds thickened, the sun sank, and land
and sea, loch and castle, fell into shadow. A patch of pale light
sparked on the ruined battlements—Greg had switched on the
flashlight. The spill of light over the rough and tumbled stones,
part man’s work, part nature’s, seemed brighter than the indistinct
human shape. Then both man-shape and light eased down behind the
wall and were gone.

 

 

Chapter Two

 

 

With a slight shrug, Alasdair turned from the
old castle toward the new. “Old Tormod was transported rather than
hanged, and in those days judges and juries weren’t likely to split
hairs. He may have killed the man in self-defense. Or else the jury
was packed with MacLeods. At any rate, Greg’s right, there’s more
to that story. Eighteen twenty-two’s a bit late for a clan feud.
And for religious conflict, come to that.”

“I wouldn’t think even your finetuned
instinct for the criminal could do much about a two-centuries-old
case,” Jean told him.

“Does anything need doing about it? Other
than you writing it up for
Great Scot
.”

“Well, no,” conceded Jean. Several raindrops
raked her face.

They walked on toward the welcoming, if
expensive, glow of Dunasheen’s windows and what had to be a mile
and a half of fairy lights. Her ears and nose felt brittle as ice,
and her hair waved so wildly around her wool scarf that the chill
wind penetrated to her scalp. A flock of black-and-white birds
whorled upward from the moor, their cries eerier than those of the
gulls. Gulls sounded like rusty screen doors. The cry of the
oystercatchers, though, carried a trailing bittersweet that made
Jean think not of soon-to-depart souls, but of lost ones.

The call of the birds faded into the silence.
Or, rather, into the absence of human noise—no car engines, no
voices, none of the constant electronic hum of modern life. All
Jean heard was their own footsteps, the sigh of the wind and the
unceasing rise and fall of the sea, like distant thunder. The snap
and flap of the blue-and-white Scottish flag flying from
Dunasheen’s highest tower. And the ring of a telephone.

Hiking up his coat, Alasdair dug into the
pocket of his jeans and eyed the glowing screen of his cell phone.
“Ian said he’d phone before the office closes down for Hogmanay.
Half a tick, Jean.”

Typical Alasdair, to set the ring tone of his
mobile to the ordinary double bleat of a British telephone. Typical
Alasdair, to double-check with his provider before leaving
Edinburgh and make sure his mobile would work here in this remote
northwestern corner of Skye. He’d been dependent on her phone when
they were in the United States in November. Now she was the one
restricted to Fergie’s land lines. Funny, Jean thought, how even a
portable phone on a base unit looked like an antique while a rotary
dial seemed antediluvian.

Beyond Alasdair and his electronic umbilical,
the faintest of blushes still tinted the waves of the loch. Loch
Roy probably meant Red Lake, from
ruadh
, red. Although the
stones here weren’t red, not like those on the far side of Skye.
Had the waters of the loch been tinted red with blood from various
clan battles? More likely, the name came from a person’s name—Rory,
also from
ruadh
, as in red hair. Or, considering the
climate, red face, red from the cold or red from the reaction to
that bright yellow globe in the sky when it condescended to
appear.

BOOK: The Blue Hackle
4.48Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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