Read The Celtic Riddle Online

Authors: Lyn Hamilton

Tags: #Fiction, #General, #Mystery & Detective, #Women Detectives, #Women Sleuths, #Detective and Mystery Stories, #Mystery Fiction, #Treasure Troves, #Political, #Ireland, #Antiquities, #Celtic Antiquities, #Antique Dealers, #Women Detectives - Ireland, #McClintoch; Lara (Fictitious Character), #Archaeology, #Antiquities - Collection and Preservation

The Celtic Riddle

BOOK: The Celtic Riddle
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Celtic Riddle
By Lyn Hamilton

PROLOGUE

HERE'S a story attached to that, you know. It happened a long, long
time ago, before mairgen and the Sons of Mil set foot on these shores,
'efore the children of the goddess Danu retreated to xe sidhe. Not so
far back as the plague that killed the ons and daughters of Partholan.
Not so far back as lat. But a long time ago, even so.

In those days, there were giants roamed the earth, nd creatures with
one leg and one arm, like serpents, ame out of the sea. Back then,
unsheathed weapons told tales, the sky could rain fire, and the shrieks
of ie Hag would be heard in the night. And it was then tat the fiercest
of battles, the struggle of light over drkness, were fought and won by
the Tuatha de Da-aan. First they routed the Fir Bolg, then banished the
readed Fomorians in the Battles of Mag Tuired.

The tales of their heroes, their leaders in battle, we tell to this
day: Lugh, luminous, shining, destroyer of the Evil Eye; Diancecht, the
healer; Nuada Silver land; and first and foremost, the Dagda.

Now there was a god! An excellent one, by his own description. A
giant, with appetite to match. It was the Dagda had a cauldron in which
pigs were cooked. This was no ordinary cauldron, nor ordinary pigs. Was
always a pig ready, and the cauldron never empty, no matter how many
came to dine. And, to top it all, the cauldron's contents were said to
inspire the poet and revive the dead.

Anyway, one day the Dagda went to the camp of the Fomorians to ask
for a truce, and also, for he was a crafty one, to spy on their camp.
The Fomorians, some of them giants themselves, prepared for him a
porridge of eighty gallons of milk, another eighty of meal and fat.
Into this they put pigs and goats and sheep, then poured it all into an
enormous hole in the ground.

"Eat all of it, " the Fomorians said, "or die."

"I will then," the Dagda replied, and taking his ladle, so big a man
and a woman could lie down in its bowl together, he started to eat. As
the Fomorians watched, he swallowed every last bit of it, scraping up
the crumbs in the dirt with his massive hand where the ladle couldn't
reach, then lay himself down to sleep.

"Look at his belly," the Fomorians cried, pointing at the sleeping
Dagda, his gut rising like a mountain from where he lay. "He'll not be
getting up from here."

And what do you think happened then? The Dagda awoke, grunted,
hefted his huge bulk up and staggered away, his club dragging behind
him, cutting a furrow the width of a boundary ditch. Even then he was
not spent, for later that day, he lay with the Morrigan, the Crow,
goddess of war. But anyway, that's another story.

I was there then, you know. Yes, I was. Who's to say that I wasn't?

Chapter One

I AM THE SEA-SWELL

ONE of the very few advantages of being dead, I've discovered, is
that you can say whatever you like. Freed from the burden of exquisite
politeness, you can utter whatever painful truths, cruel jibes,
gut-wrenching confessions, and acid parting shots you wish, without
having to endure the drama, endless protestations, embarrassment, or
threats of retaliation such candor inevitably elicits.

Eamon Byrne thought as much, I suppose, but in saying what he did,
he unleashed a howl of rage and bitterness so intense, perhaps not even
he could have imagined its consequences. Certainly, when I heard him
speak from the grave, I thought him merely churlish and insensitive,
although not altogether mistaken. But that was before I had more than a
passing acquaintance with the people of whom he spoke.

"I suppose you're wondering why I called you all together," Byrne
began, a smirk on his face that turned into a grimace, then a gasp.

"Eamon always did like to be the center of attention," Alex Stewart
whispered to me, leaning close to my ear so the others wouldn't hear.

"Eamon also had a way with a cliche, apparently,' I whispered back.

"Particularly," the man went on after a few seconds of labored
breathing, "particularly," he repeated, "seeing as how I'm dead."

"Bit of a comedian too," Alex added with a sigh.

The face on the videotape leaned toward the camera, blurred, then
lurched back into focus, the camera adjusted by some invisible hand. It
was not an easy face to look at, sunken cheeks and eyes, an oxygen tube
extending from one nostril, gray hair plastered to his head, but I
could see the shadow of a proud and once handsome man.

"I'm amazed he'd allow himself to be videotaped in this state," I
whispered to Alex.

Alex inclined his head toward me again. "I never had the impression
he much cared what people thought, Lara. Quite the contrary, as a
matter of fact." As he spoke, a foot-long tortoise inched its way
across the oriental carpet.

"Shhhh," the pinched-faced woman in the row in front of us hissed
over her shoulder. Two other like-faced women in the same row turned at
the first's admonition to glare at us, mother and daughters, like three
peas in a pod, the family resemblance that pronounced. I resisted the
temptation of saying something unkind, and contented myself with
glaring back and thinking uncharitable thoughts.

It was an unpleasant little group, I thought: the three women, and
seated between them, like spacers of some kind, two men. The men had
taken their jackets off, the oppressive heat and staleness of the room
vanquishing any attempt at acknowledging the solemnity of the occasion.
They slouched in their chairs, two white shirts and pale necks topped
by fair hair, as much as I could see of them. For a moment they made me
think of the cotton batting they stick between your toes when you're
having a pedicure to keep you from messing up the wet nail polish. It
was a surprisingly apt metaphor I was later to learn, not just because
of what it said about the two men, but because of the way they divided
the women of the family in life.

To our left, the big toe, was the mother, Margaret, tall, fair and
stylishly thin, neat in a suitably black nubbly-wool suit, with the
short, boxy jacket and braid that one associates with Chanel. She was
justifiably proud of her legs, good for her age, which she crossed and
uncrossed at regular intervals. Next to her sat the first ball of white
fluff, her son-in-law, Sean McHugh, then his wife, Eithne, Margaret's
eldest daughter, also tall, fair and thin, with an edginess about her
that suggested she was the worrier of the family; then the next ball of
cotton, Conail O'Connor, seated next to his wife Fionuala, the second
daughter, who looked much like the others, except not quite so tall and
with a certain blousiness that marked her as the vamp of the threesome.
The women were united by both a rigidity in the spine and a bitterness
of outlook that had carved itself into the features in their faces,
most noticeably for the mother, who looked as if she had a chronic bad
taste in her mouth, but already, too soon, for her daughters. The men,
on the other hand, were characterized by a softness about the chin and
belly that matched what I saw to be, in the very short time I'd known
them, a propensity to indolence.

The next toe, had she chosen to sit with the others, would have been
Breeta, the youngest daughter. Instead, she sat slouched in an
armchair, as far away as she could, in that crowded room, from her
mother and siblings. She seemed a bit younger than her sisters,
mid-twenties, I would have said. While the older sisters were the usual
two or three years apart, there were at least six or seven years
between Breeta and the next youngest, Fionuala. Breeta was, perhaps,
the little surprise at the end of the childbearing years, or a last
ditch effort to save her parents' marriage. If it were the latter, it
was unsuccessful, I'd warrant a guess. Overweight, with a rather pouty
demeanor, but pretty nonetheless, she took after her father, I thought,
looking at the face on the TV screen, with her dark hair and pale eyes,
and bore only passing resemblance to the other three women. Her
attitude was one I'd seen in others of her generation, a kind of
studied indifference to the world around her. Whether this total lack
of interest in the day's proceedings was feigned or genuine, I couldn't
begin to guess.

The only person in the room who showed any evidence of regret for
the passing of the deceased was a young man with flaming red hair, his
face, flushed by the sun and sprinkled with freckles, genuinely solemn,
I thought. He looked to be a man who did physical labor outdoors, his
muscles straining the seams of his plain but neat suit jacket, his worn
shirt collar tight around his neck. His name was Michael Davis, I'd
learned, and in addition to being one of the few in the room who
mourned Eamon Byrne, he was also one of the two people in the room
treated with the same coolness by the rest of them as was Alex.
Appropriately enough, Michael was stuffed into the back row with Alex
and me, along with the other social outcast, a man I had been told was
a lawyer representing an as yet unidentified person.

The group was rounded out by two lawyers who were looking after
Eamon's estate, a maid by the name of Deirdre-I'd mentally named her
Deirdre of the Sorrows because of her morose expression, whether
habitual or brought out for the occasion I didn't know, and because, as
a loyal retainer at the Byrne estate, she was apparently entitled to
the use of only one name- and another indentured individual by the name
of John, also of one name only, who smelled of stale booze and whose
hands shook as he pointed everyone in the direction of their seats.
John kept backing out into the hall from time to time for what I
assumed to be a wee nip from a flask, something I might not have
noticed, save for the fact that his shoes, black lace-ups, squeaked
when he walked. Nor should I fail to include in my list of those
present, the tortoise, a family pet that had the run, or should I say
the slow walk, of the house. It was a new experience for me, having to
keep a sharp eye out to avoid stepping on a pet tortoise, and it gave
me a whole new appreciation for the way Diesel, Official Guard Cat for
the antiques store I co-own, manages to stay out of everyone's way.

Aside from the tortoise, what I found interesting sitting there
watching all of this reasonably dispassionately, was that, although I
could not see the faces of the five family members seated in front of
us, except from time to time in profile or on the rare occasion on
which they chose to acknowledge our presence by hissing at us, it was
still quite possible to get an impression of how they felt about
everything, and everyone.

It was quite evident from the back, for example, that while they
were seated together for the occasion, and despite their similarities
in appearance and attitude, most notably a chilly disdain, if not
outright ill will toward Alex, they didn't get along. All the marks of
a warring family were there. They rarely looked at each other, all the
women sitting ramrod straight, heads resolutely forward, the men
slouched down but never looking at anyone except their partners next to
them. They also assiduously avoided looking at Breeta, although she
from time to time glanced their way, and they absolutely ignored
Michael and the mystery lawyer. It must have taken a great effort of
will not to look about the room or to turn one's head as the door
banged, but iron will was something they apparently had in abundance.

It should be evident by now that I was not fond of these people. If
any of them, with the possible exception of Michael Davis, had any
redeeming qualities whatsoever, I hadn't come across them so far. As I
glared back at the three women, I began to wish I hadn't come to
Ireland at all, a thought I immediately regretted. If Alex Stewart felt
the need of my presence here, then my presence he would have.

Alex Stewart is a very dear friend of mine, a retired gentleman who
lives a couple of doors away from me and who comes in on a regular
basis to help us out at Greenhalgh & McClintoch. That's an antiques
and design shop in a trendy part of Toronto called Yorkville, so
trendy, in fact, that we probably can't afford to be there. Some months
earlier, Alex suffered a blow on the head and what the doctors
described as a very tiny stroke during his convalescence. It barely
slowed him down, just a little numbness on one side for a few days, but
it scared the living daylights out of me. I'd been clucking and fussing
over him ever since in a way that I'm sure nearly drove him mad.

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