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 (9 page)

BOOK: The Blue Hackle
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On the gilded chair, Dougie’s ears pricked
forward, then back again. Jean, too, heard a faint crunch of
gravel. She looked through the window to see a figure muffled in a
yellow raincoat walking swiftly away from Lionel Pritchard’s
cottage and down the drive. Shutting the gates, as Diana had
directed, would discourage the reporters. But with the pleasant
village of Kinlochroy providing food, drink, and sanitary
facilities, they would roost for a while, if only to justify being
called away from their Hogmanay celebrations.

Jean reminded herself just as she had
reminded Diana that she was a journalist, not a reporter. Either
way, she needed to check with base camp. Michael and Rebecca were
valuable references and moral support, but Miranda Capaldi was both
Jean’s partner and her employer in the travel-and-history magazine,
roles that Miranda balanced as gracefully as a fine Royal Doulton
cup in its translucent saucer.

Jean pressed a number and was momentarily
startled when the call was answered by a male voice: “
Great
Scot
.”

It only seemed like midnight. In real time,
the office was still open and receptionist Gavin was duly minding
reception. “Hi,” Jean said. “It’s me. You mean Miranda’s making you
work all the way to six p.m.?”

“Oh aye,” the lad returned. “My filing wants
sorting before I’m allowed away on holiday. How are you getting on
at the Misty Isle?”

“It’s misty,” Jean said. “Downright murky,
even. Put me through to Miranda, please, and she can tell you all
about it.”

“Righty-ho.”

A click and a buzz and Miranda’s
smoke-and-honey voice answered. “Miranda Capaldi.”

“Hi. It’s me,” Jean said again.

“You’re supposed to be honeymooning,
Jean.”

“No, I’m supposed to be writing a puff piece
about Fergus MacDonald, advertising executive turned stately
homeowner. The honeymoon doesn’t come until after the wedding.”

“Tell Alasdair that,” Miranda said with a
laugh, and then her laugh trailing away into caution, “Please tell
me you’re not phoning because there’s been criminal activity.”

Really, Jean thought, Miranda’s ESP was
uncannier than her own, and much more useful. “I’m afraid so. An
Australian visitor’s been stabbed to death on Dunasheen Beach, mere
minutes after getting here. Alasdair’s in full police mode and the
troops are assembling.”

“Ah,” Miranda said. “Well then. Pity.” After
a suitable moment of silence, she asked, “Australian, you’re
saying?”

Jean told her everything she knew, little as
that was, of Greg MacLeod’s artificially shortened life:
Townsville, Queensland. Clan societies and genealogy. A souvenir
factory. Property. The art market. A museum of religion a la St.
Mungo’s. “Although,” she concluded, “I bet his museum has another
attribution, since St. Mungo is peculiar to Glasgow.”

“There’s something to be said for, say, the
Woolloomooloo Museum of Religious Life and Art.”

Jean surprised herself by laughing, if
shortly. “You went Down Under year before last.”

“Aye, that I did, attending a benefit in
Sydney for the descendants of the Scottish masons who built the
harbor bridge. Whilst I was there I spoke to several clan
societies, including the MacLeods, and made the round of galleries
and museums as well. The Ozzies lay on lovely receptions, all in
the interest of British/Australian business and cultural relations,
of course.”

“Of course,” said Jean, with a knowing nod.
She heard either the soft chatter of Miranda’s keyboard or the
discreet jingle of her jewelry.

“No Greg MacLeods are named in my notes, nor
have I a business card on file. You’ve tried an Internet search on
the man, have you?”

“If you’ll look in the next office, you’ll
see my laptop sitting on my desk.”

“Oh aye. And here’s me, saying, no, you’ll
not be wanting your computer, being a blushing bride and all. Half
a tick.”

Jean refrained from pointing out that she and
Alasdair were past the blushing stage, even though, with Jean’s
fair to fish-belly-white skin, flushing was always an option.

“There’s more than a few Greg MacLeods in the
world,” Miranda announced. “Here’s yours, though, in a newspaper
article from last year. He sold Waltzing Matilda Gifts to Gung Hay
Fat Choy International for a tidy sum, however you’re defining
tidy.”

“That confirms what he told Fergie, though I
don’t know why he’d lead Fergie on.”

“Here’s another bit in the same newspaper,
last March. MacLeod gave a donation—another tidy sum, I reckon, or
it would not be in the papers—to the Bible History Research Society
for excavations in Israel.”

“That connects him with the museum.” Jean
frowned—somewhere in the storage closet of her brain, the name
Bible History Research Society rattled like a skeleton shifting
uneasily.

“Just coming, Gavin!” called Miranda. And,
back into the telephone, “Sorry, Jean, must run.”

“Fergie says I can borrow his computer,” Jean
told her. “And maybe Tina MacLeod will be up to answering questions
when D.C.I. Gilnockie gets here. The guy who replaced Alasdair at
Inverness.”

“You’ll soon be hearing the bellow of the
alpha males, then.”

This time Jean’s laugh was more of a snort,
the skeptical retort of the alpha female. “Alasdair promises no
territorial disputes this time around. I think he’s finally
accepting he’s in another business now. And he told me Gilnockie’s
a good cop.”

“You’ll be keeping me up on events, then.
I’ll try asking about among my Ozzie contacts, but with the holiday
and all, they’re more likely hanging about Bondi Beach than
answering e-mail.”

It always seemed odd to Jean that Christmas
and New Year’s were mid-summer events Down Under. But that was her
own cultural bias. “Thanks. I’ll talk to you again before I see you
on the second.”

“You’re still holding the wedding, then?”

“Oh.” Jean looked around the room, from the
painted dragon above the mantel to the sleeping moggie on the posh
chair, but neither was offering any advice.

Maybe she and Alasdair should cancel the
festivities. Maybe holding a wedding under the shadow of an
unsolved crime would taint their marriage. Or maybe she and her
equally stubborn beloved shouldn’t let some bloody-minded person
control their destiny any more than various bloody-minded people
had already done.

“Jean?” Miranda asked.

“Yeah, we’re still holding the wedding.”

“That’s the spirit! Keep your pecker up,
eh?”

“I should hope so.”

“It’s not too late to be organizing a release
of doves. Saw it done once at a wedding in Hampshire, just lovely,
off they flew into the blue sky . . .”

“. . . and were probably picked off by hawks.
Thanks anyway, Miranda.” Jean shook her head, round-filing
Miranda’s dove idea with her other ones: arriving at Dunasheen
chapel in a horse-drawn carriage draped with roses, exiting while
military re-enactors formed an arch of swords, champagne fountains
and a cake shaped like Edinburgh Castle at the reception.

“You’ve got no taste for bells and whistles,
do you now,” Miranda said sadly.

“No. And neither does Alasdair. Talk to you
again soon.” Jean hit
End
and leaned against the stone bar
separating two windows. It felt like a cold finger tracing down her
back.

Her smile ebbed. Her ears echoed with the
absence of Miranda’s familiar voice. With the absence of any sound
at all except for the eerie whistle of the wind in the chimney. The
shadowed room in front of her seemed to fade away, and she saw the
lights of Edinburgh and the crowds jostling along the sidewalks,
fireworks over the Castle and rock bands playing.

No lonely beaches there, just the occasional
lonely alley, and all the agitations of the city. There was
something—there was a lot—to be said for mountains, sea, and sky,
even a clouded one. Caledonia, stern and wild, harsh and beautiful.
She’d committed herself to Scotland before she’d committed herself
to Alasdair.

Sitting up, she looked into the darkness, at
the lights of the village blurred by the mist and rain, at the
fluorescent stripes on the police cars shining in the lights of the
house, at the man standing—

The chill on her back surged through her
body, tightening every follicle. A human shape stood below the
window, so still she’d have thought he was one of Fergie’s
sculptures, if there’d been a sculpture in the parking area. The
posture, feet planted wide apart, hands thrust into pockets,
indicated a man. But it wasn’t Pritchard, the manager. He’d been
wearing a yellow raincoat. And why would he stand there when he had
a nice warm cottage or even nicer, if cooler, castle to go to?

This man wore mottled black, boots, pants, a
long jacket with a hood. A hood pulled so well forward that it
encompassed only shadow, like one of Tolkien’s ringwraiths or a
specter of Death.

Then he moved, tilting his head back so that
the light revealed his face, white as old bone. He spotted Jean in
her window, outlined against the dim light, and his body
straightened from a merely cautious pose to an alert one.

She didn’t move. She didn’t breathe. She
returned stare for stare with those hollow eyes.

Did he slump slightly? Or did he hear the
front door opening? Just as light gushed outward and ran off his
jacket like water, a yellow-coated figure ran up the driveway and a
male voice shouted, “You there!”

The dark figure faded into the night.

 

 

Chapter Seven

 

 

Jean exhaled between teeth clenched so
tightly her jaw hurt.

Yellow-coat ran into the parking area, still
yelling. “Here! You there!” Which seemed a bit contradictory, but
she was hardly in a position to criticize. She didn’t recognize the
voice, and the figure was too slender to be either Fergie or Rab
Finlay. Pritchard, probably.

Below Jean, presumably from the front porch,
Diana’s cool voice cut the heat of the male’s. “Mr. Pritchard,
Lionel, if you please, there’s no need to shout.”

“Diana, we can’t have the man hanging about.
Your own father . . .”

“No harm done. Someone in the village likely
told him about—the unfortunate event—and he stopped by on his way
home to have a look at the police vehicles.”

His gait as smooth as a hobby horse’s,
Pritchard strode to the door. Jean had to lean forward and press
her ear to the icy glass in order to hear him say, “We’re hardly on
his way, the path runs beyond the garden wall. He had no call . .
.”

The slam of the front door echoed upward,
vibrating as subtly in Jean’s ear as distant thunder. She sat back
on the window seat. Who was “he”? Where was “home”? And was
Pritchard’s accent English rather than Scottish?

Well, so was Diana’s. And Fergie himself had
been infused with a “proper” accent, as befit the nephew of a
baronet, never mind his thistle-strewn Highland ancestry. Although
with Fergie, the infusion hadn’t quite taken.

The clock on the mantelpiece chimed six
times. She’d promised to be in the library at six-thirty. With one
last searching glance out the window—no mysterious figures, no
irascible managers, no police people—she pulled herself to her feet
and headed into the bathroom.

Her cosmetics bag was wedged between a
ceramic lizard studded with fake gems and Alasdair’s nylon shaving
kit, which in turn sat next to a Chinese vase holding fresh if
odorless flowers. Maybe instead of donning the cap, bells, and
motley of a court jester, she should don war paint. She applied eye
shadow and mascara, chose a colorful tapestry vest over a basic
skirt-and-turtleneck combo, added necklace and earrings, and traded
her walking shoes for decorative flats, all the while pondering
what Diana had called the unfortunate event.

It was too much to expect the mysterious man
in the parking area to be the murderer. Murderers, in Jean’s
thankfully limited experience, didn’t stand around looking
sinister. Besides, Diana and Pritchard both knew him, or of him, at
least. He must be some local character.

If one of the two military dirks in the
entrance hall was the murder weapon, then the murderer must have
come from inside the house. Or passed through it. Or known someone
with access to it. Did that mean the murder had been a
collaborative effort, and that there were two killers to apprehend?
Great.

In the bedroom, the telephone lay where she’d
left it, on one of the tasseled pillows piled on the four-poster
bed. Its little screen gazed up at her blankly.
No, he doesn’t
need you right now.

She tried a telepathic message instead:
Alasdair, let everyone else deal with the crime scene. Come get
dinner.

Her summons produced only Dougie, who trotted
out of the dressing room licking his lips, leaped onto the bed, and
snuggled down amidst the pillows. Jean regarded him with a touch of
envy. Not so long ago she’d been proud of her hard-earned
self-sufficiency, the sort of pride that went before falling in
love. Now she was incomplete without a man, if far from just any
man.

They had been through more together in less
than a year than she and her first husband had experienced in two
decades. Alasdair had never met her ex, a man who was all ground
and no imagination, but she’d met his, a woman who was all
imagination and no ground. All four had promised to have and to
hold until death did them part. But it wasn’t death that had parted
them, although divorce was a sort of death.

Fergie had lost his wife to disease. And Tina
had lost Greg to murder.

Jean jerked to attention as the clock struck
six-thirty. Places to go, people to see, clues to ferret out.
Tucking the phone into her second-best evening bag, a small leather
pouch on a long strap, she gave her engagement ring a quick polish
against her skirt and charged out into the hall.

BOOK: The Blue Hackle
6.93Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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