Chapter 8


George changed into his good clothes relatively quickly and left Jessica upstairs, while he returned to the lounge chairs poolside, relaxing with his legs stretched out in front of him.

A short time later he heard her speak his name from behind him:


He turned around and felt his jaw drop involuntarily when he saw her. She was wearing an almost ankle-length evening dress of smooth silk the color of pink hibiscus flowers that flowed over her in a way that was very flattering to her figure. Over it she wore a matching organza jacket that came just to her waist with three-quarters length sleeves and delicately ruffled hemlines and cuffs. The jacket was modestly held closed with a simple tie, but the sheer fabric allowed him to see what was underneath, a sculpted bodice with a deep v-neck that was held up by thin spaghetti straps that crossed at her back. In addition to taking its cue from the tropical colors that surrounded them, the glowing deep pink highlighted her own natural coloring, allowing her to get away with a minimum of make-up. Strapped sandals of complimenting pale pink with a low, comfortable heel – Jessica didn’t need anything to enhance her height – and a necklace and earrings of pearl completed the look. The overall effect was stunning.

“Oh, Jessie,” he finally managed to say. “You look absolutely beautiful! I shall look like an unkempt cad next to you.”

“Nonsense,” she laughed. “You look perfectly handsome. I wouldn’t change a thing.”

“That color is really you.”

“Pink for Valentine’s Day,” she replied lightly as she adjusted the strap of her small purse on her shoulder. “Are you ready to go?”

Their first stop was Mallory Square, where they hoped to take in the Sunset Celebration before heading off for their seven o’clock reservation at the restaurant George had picked for the occasion.  The square was much as Jessica remembered it from her previous visit there with Seth and Truman. It was a raucous place, part street carnival, part crafts fair, a constant party-in-progress that became more animated and crowded as the sun dipped closer to the horizon. 

They strolled around the perimeter of the square taking in the myriad sights it had to offer: here there was an acrobat performing daring tricks on a unicycle, there a juggler keeping five flaming torches whirling in the air at once.  A clown dressed in all the colors of the rainbow was amusing a group of young children while their parents stood by indulgently watching. A slightly more mature crowd gazed on in rapt attention as a man whose signboard announced him as “The Great Rondini” freed himself from a straightjacket while hanging upside down from a metal frame.  Almost every kind of food that one could imagine serving on a stick was for sale by one vendor or another. Crafts, jewelry and unique articles of clothing were for sale from portable booths and racks set haphazardly amongst the performing acts.

At one end of the square they found a particularly unusual sight – a man and his group of house cats that performed tricks usually reserved for lions in the circus.  One of the cats, barely more than a kitten, walked across a high wire strung up nine feet in the air before leaping down to his trainer’s shoulder. Another cat sat on a wooden perch contemplating two flaming hoops in front of her; at a whistle from the trainer, she smoothly flew through the hoops without touching even a hair to the flames.  The assembled onlookers gasped in amazement and clapped; impressed, Jessica dipped into her purse and placed a ten dollar bill in the cat trainer’s upturned hat, earning her a smile of thanks.

Watching their fellow Ceremony attendees, Jessica decided, was just as interesting as the acts they had come to see. There were people of all ages and walks of life gathered on the brick paving of Mallory Square, everyone from families with young children in strollers to elderly couples walking hand-in-hand. Some of the assembly Jessica pegged as likely locals; others were clearly tourists fresh from the cruise ships.

As she attempted to take all of this in, George touched her shoulder and said, “We should go find a place to stand and watch the sun set.”

They found a place at the southwestern end of the square near the water, close by a bagpipe performer whose talent was good enough to make George feel like he was home in the Highlands.  Boats of every size crowded the waters of the harbor before them, their decks filled with people looking forward to a topside view of the coming show. As the sun continued to sink in the west, the performers paused in their acts and the spectators that filled the square began to drift closer to the waterfront as well. 

Jessica gave George’s hand a gentle squeeze. “I’m glad you suggested that we stake out a spot early,” she said. “Had we been much later, we would never be able to see the horizon from behind this crowd!”

The lower rim of the molten-red sun touched the edge of the Sea, lighting a fiery path across the rippling water from dockside to horizon. The piper struck up the tune to “Scotland the Brave” as the sun slowly slipped over the rim of the world, drawing down with it a palette of oranges, reds, yellows, and pinks.  When the last flash of light had vanished the scattered puffy clouds overhead carried the sun’s memory still, reflecting a pink that, to George’s eyes at least, exactly matched the color of Jessica’s dress. 

As the last strains of the piping faded into the twilight and the crowd broke into spontaneous applause, George gathered Jessica into his arms and kissed her passionately without care for how many people might be watching.

“Sorry, Jess,” he said with an impish grin as he let her go to catch her breath. “I couldn’t resist. Must have been the pipes.”

Jessica, surprised and a little flustered but apparently not displeased, tried to collect herself.  “It was either that, or the sunset,” she said with a smile.

Around them the crowd began to disperse, some to sample the island’s cuisine, others undoubtedly intent on joining in the Key West nightlife. As for Jessica and George, they chose to linger at the edge of the square to watch the colors in the western sky continue to fade to rose and purple and finally velvety blue.

“Well, Elf,” George said at length, hooking his arm through hers, “ready for dinner?”


They walked a few short blocks from Mallory Square to the restaurant George had chosen for the occasion, a place called Kelly’s that was housed in the same building that Pan American Airlines had been born in. Set on a corner of Whitehead Street, the place appeared to be two houses connected by a breezeway. A bar occupied the first floor of one side, while an indoor dining room could be found in the other; the hostess’s station, approached by a short flight of steps, was set up in the open breezeway between them.

As the hostess greeted them and collected a pair of menus, Jessica caught a glimpse of a garden courtyard, typical of many homes and businesses in Key West, on the other side of the breezeway.  She could see tables covered with white linens and assumed that this was where they would be seated, so she was surprised when the hostess instead led them through a door next to the bar. Here there was an interior staircase that led up to the second floor and an open air deck, overlooking the garden and diners below.

Jessica caught her breath when she stepped out on to the deck: it was like stepping on to the balcony of a treehouse in some fairy country. A giant banyan tree rising from the middle of the courtyard dominated the space, its spreading branches overarching the entire dining area and deck together. White lights had been strung along its branches practically all the way to the top – how this had been managed she had no idea. Below the deck the courtyard was similarly lit with a multitude of white lights set in the trees and foliage that ringed the space; moon-like globe lanterns cast a more general illumination over the area. Candles set on each table completed the picture. On the deck itself potted plants strung with lights and more globe lamps continued the effect that could be seen below.

The hostess seated them at a table for two at the railing of the deck, overlooking the courtyard. Jessica tried to concentrate on picking something from the diverse entrees presented on her menu, but found her eyes continually wandering back to take in the beauty of their surroundings.

“Nice place, isn’t it,” George commented.

“It’s more than just ‘nice,’ George,” she replied looking up at the star-like lights strung in the branches of the banyan tree above them. “It is absolutely wonderful.”

“Yes, well, wait til you finally get around to looking at your menu,” he teased, having noticed her distraction. “They have quite an interesting selection of dishes.”

Jessica laughed. “All right, I’ll save my daydreaming until after we’ve ordered,” she said, and re-addressed herself to her menu.

When their waitress came to take their orders, Jessica had settled on the crab stuffed ravioli, while George opted for the Caribbean-grilled chicken. Jessica asked for a glass of chardonnay, while George was delighted to discover that Kelly’s had a selection of microbrews created right on the premises.

As their salad course was delivered, Jessica asked, “Ready for another round in our game of ‘Twenty Questions?’”

“Certainly,” he replied, drizzling the house’s lemon poppyseed dressing over his bowl of mixed greens. “You may go first.”

“All right … what is your favorite room in Sutherland Castle?”

George paused and looked at her, a forkful of lettuce halfway to his mouth. “Now, that’s an odd question,” he said. “Why would you want to know something like that?”

“You’d be surprised how much you can learn about a person based on little things like that,” she replied. “To say the library might indicate a bookish person; the study, a possible workaholic. And the bedroom …”

“Aye, I get the point,” he said, chuckling. “The answer to your question is, the kitchen.”

“The kitchen? Really?” she said. “I’m not sure I would have guessed that.”

“I can understand why; Mrs. Gower regards it as something of her domain, and intruders are not always welcome. But when I was growing up, back in the days when my grandmother was the matriarch of the family, I spent a great deal of time there.”

“Why?” Jessica asked.

“That was where the food was, for one thing,” George replied, grinning. “And a growing boy needs adequate sustenance, or so Grandmother insisted. Also, it was the warmest room in the castle.”

“I do remember that many of the rooms were a bit on the chilly side,” Jessica said, thinking back to her previous visits to George’s ancestral home.

“And you were there close to high summer,” he reminded her. “Imagine how difficult it was to keep the place warm in the wintertime. But even more than the food and the warmth, there was Grandmother herself. She would tell stories and dispense wisdom to any members of the family that were about while she was cooking, which was frequently. I learned a great deal from her even as I was fetching ingredients for her from the pantry.”

Their main dishes arrived, and for a time the conversation turned to other matters – the quality of the food (which was excellent), their plans for the remainder of their stay in Key West, and wondering if Seth would learn anything interesting at Truman’s alternative medicine seminar. Neither of them was inclined to discuss the disturbing events of the past few days, so the topic of Thomas’s murder never came up.

 Once their plates had been cleared away and they had both been served after dinner tea, George returned to the Twenty Questions.

“My turn,” he said. He took Jessica’s hand in his and held it up so that her wedding ring glowed golden in the candlelight.  “I have always wondered … why you do not wear your engagement ring with your wedding band, as many women do.”

            “The answer to that question is easy enough,” she replied. “I never had an engagement ring, so there is none to wear.”

            George looked at her in surprise. “Frank never gave you an engagement ring?”

            Jessica smiled softly, a faraway look in her eyes. “No. When he asked me to marry him, we were both struggling, and poorer than church mice,” she said. “I had just graduated from college, and Frank was working on a fishing boat and getting paid only sporadically. Then he was drafted by the Air Force for the second half of the Korean War … and suddenly time was something we no longer had in abundance.  So Frank proposed to me in the spring of that year, even though he couldn’t afford a ring. But he gave me something better instead.”

            Still holding her hand, George asked, “And what was that?”

            “My nickname.  When he was apologizing for the lack of the ring, he said to me, ‘No diamond in the world could compare to your bright eyes.’ And so that’s what he called me: Bright-Eyes.”

            George looked into her eyes, which were even now sparkling with the happy memory. “A very apt name for you,” he said with approval.

            “It came to mean more to me than any ring would have,” she agreed. “Later, once the war was over and our situations stabilized, on more than one occasion Frank offered to buy me a ring after the fact, but I always refused. And I think he knew why.” She was quiet for a moment, then returned George’s question in kind: “And you?  Do you have any nicknames?”

            “Only when I was a wee lad,” he replied. “My mother used to call me ‘Donnell’ – her ‘brown-haired warrior’ – because I was always stepping in to defend the smaller children in the village from bullies.”

            Jessica nodded in approval. “It’s a nickname you haven’t really outgrown,” she pointed out.

            George ran a hand through his hair with a wry smile. “Aye, you’re kind to say so, Elf, but there’s hardly enough brown left now to fit the name,” he said. Since they were swapping questions of a personal nature, he decided to follow-up with another one. “How did you and Frank meet?” he asked.

            “Backstage, in a small community theater,” Jessica replied. “We were both doing summer internships while we were in college. He was an understudy to the lead actor.”

            “Let me guess,” George said. “You must have been the leading lady’s understudy.”

            Jessica laughed. “Oh, no, no, no,” she said. “Nothing nearly as glamorous as that! I was part of the stage crew. One afternoon someone – unwisely – assigned me to paint scenery on to a set flat.”

            “And painting is not one of your stronger talents.”

            “It is not! Unless you’re talking about painting walls, or painting the trim around a window,” said Jessica. “Anyway, I was making a right mess of it, and getting more and more frustrated in the process. Then Frank happened to come by.”

            “And he helped you salvage your flat?” George asked.

            “Yes,” said Jessica, “but not before he told me that it was the worst paint job he had ever seen.”

            This made George laugh in spite of himself. “So it wasn’t exactly love at first sight.”

            “Not quite,” Jessica said. “But it was close.” She gazed down at the garden filled with diners below, the lights sparkling on wine glasses, silverware, and jewelry.

            At length she resurfaced from her memories and looked at George again. “Turn about is fair play,” she said to him. “How did you meet your wife?”

            Ahh,” said George, taking a sip of his microbrew. “I met Kathleen in much the same way as I met you, Jess – in the line of duty.”

            “Oh?” said Jessica with interest. “Not a murder investigation, I hope.”

            “No, and unlike you, Kathleen was most definitely guilty of the crime that had been committed.”

            “Really?” She sounded incredulous. “What crime did she commit?”

            George grinned. “Speeding.”

            When he didn’t elaborate immediately, Jessica prompted him for the rest of the story: “I assume that there were extenuating circumstances?”

            “Actually, yes. As it so happens, she was rushing her pregnant sister to the Edinburgh hospital to deliver her first baby. Of course, I didn’t know that at the time when I first pulled them over. It didn’t take me long to get the story, though – Kathleen’s Irish temper was as fiery as her hair. Before I knew it, she’d commandeered me to be their police escort.”

            “Did you get to the hospital in time?” Jessica asked, bemused.

            “Yes,” said George. “But it was a close thing – I almost got to know my niece before I knew her aunt’s name!”

            “I take it that once the baby was safely delivered, Kathleen’s attitude toward you softened,” said Jessica.

            Erm,” George said uncomfortably.

            Jessica’s eyes widened in surprise. “It didn’t?”

            “Ah, no … the next time I saw her, she had come to the station annoyed because she had not received the summons for her speeding violation in the mail, and wanted to know what the delay was all about,” he explained. “It was only when I explained that I had ripped the ticket in half and deposited it in the rubbish bin at the hospital that she became more civil towards me.”

            “And the rest is history?”

            “Aye. We got to talking about how her sister was doing, and her brand-new niece, and she told me how grateful she was for the escort that allowed them to get to the hospital in the nick of time.” George shrugged. “It was perhaps an unusual way to start a relationship, but we laughed about it ever after. And five years later, the niece whose birth had introduced us was the flower-girl at our wedding.”

            “What a wonderful story,” said Jessica warmly, her eyes glowing.

            “You think so?”


            George looked at her fondly. “I think you would have liked her, Jess,” he said. “She had an incredibly strong will, a lot like yours, and she was completely fearless.”

            Jessica met his eyes. “I know I would have liked her very much,” she said, “just knowing that she loved you.”


            As they were walking back toward the inn from the restaurant, they passed a tobacconist’s shop, a modest little storefront set inconspicuously between a photographer’s gallery and a real estate office. George looked up at the sign and stopped.

            “I promised one of the chaps back at the Yard that I would pick out some first-class cigars for him if I came across any,” he said. “Do you mind if I pop in just for a moment?”

            “Not at all,” Jessica assured him. “It’s such a beautiful night, I’ll wait for you out here.”

            George leaned in to give her a quick peck on the cheek. “I won’t be long,” he promised, and disappeared inside.

            Jessica paced up and down the sidewalk in front of the shop, turning just in time to see Brook Fernando striding up the street towards her.

            “Oh,” she said in surprise. “Good evening, Lieutenant Fernando.”

            “Hello, Mrs. Fletcher,” he said casually. “And how is the Angel of Death this evening?”

            Jessica stared at Fernando in shock. “What did you call me?”

            “You’ve been holding out on me,” the lieutenant said. “I had a chat with a friend of yours back in New York – apparently, you have quite a reputation! Everywhere you go, someone dies.”

            “That’s not my fault,” she said in feeble defense.

            “Maybe not, but it certainly is an interesting quirk,” Fernando said. “I don’t know whether to be glad you’re here to lend your input from your vast experience, or concerned for the welfare of the citizenry.”

            Jessica had never faced such a blunt assessment of the darker side of her career, and was left completely at a loss as to how to respond. She was saved from having to come up with something by George, who happened to exit the shop at that moment, a small bag tucked under his arm.

            “Ah, Lieutenant Fernando,” he said. “Enjoying an after-dinner stroll, even as we are?”

            “Oh yes,” Fernando replied. “Well, it’s time that I moved on. Enjoy the rest of your evening, folks.” He nodded to Jessica, and sauntered off down the street.

            George watched him go, then turned to Jessica, and noticed for the first time that she was trembling where she stood, and pale. “What’s troubling you, Elf?”

            She turned away, her eyes dark and troubled even though she tried to resume an air of nonchalance. “We exchanged some words,” she managed to tell him. “We can talk about it when we get back to the inn.”


They returned to their room, Jessica tossing aside her handbag and sliding out of the sheer jacket as she came in the door. She was still clearly upset as she sank down on to the upholstered divan and began to undo the straps of her shoes.

            George removed his coat, draped it over the back of a chair, and took a seat next to her, setting his purchase from the tobacconist’s aside. “Come here,” he said, beckoning her to move closer to him. “I know of a way to make you feel better.”

            Jessica hesitated a moment, then moved over and let George put his arms around her, resting her head on his shoulder.

            “You’re very tense, Elf,” George told to her. “Take a deep breath, let it out, and let the tension go with it.”

            Jessica did so, inhaling the familiar scent of his cologne and letting it out in a sigh.

            “That’s the way,” George said encouragingly. “Try it again.”

            This time when she exhaled he felt a noticeable release of tension from her body, as though a pressure gauge had been turned down a notch. He began to massage the muscles of her neck with one hand, chasing away the tautness that stress had strung into them. As he did he noted her breathing become more regular and even, a sure sign that he was having some positive effect.  He did not press the topic of what words had been exchanged between her and the Key West police lieutenant, trusting that she would bring it up herself when she was ready.  His trust did not go unrewarded.

            “Do you know what Lieutenant Fernando called me, just before you came out of the tobacconist’s?” she asked after a little while, breaking the silence that had settled between them.

            George brought his hand upward and ran his fingers through her hair, an action that he was pleased to note made Jessica relax a little further. “What did he call you, Elf?”

            “The Angel of Death.”

            To her immense relief, George didn’t laugh. “Is that so,” he said, continuing to stroke her hair.

            “It’s not undeserved, I suppose,” she continued. “In fact, I’m surprised that people don’t run in the other direction when they see me coming.”

            “It’s hardly your fault,” George pointed out reasonably, “if you find yourself in the wrong place at the wrong time.”

            “I know,” she sighed.

            “My poor, misunderstood Jessica,” George murmured, holding her closer. “Angel of Death, indeed.” He bent his head and kissed her on her forehead.

            It was a kiss meant to comfort, not inflame, and so he was taken aback somewhat when the simple gesture had the effect of sending a tremulous thrill through her body. He glanced down at her in surprise just in time to meet her eyes as she glanced up – and once that happened, all thoughts of mere comfort fled far from his mind.

            “Bewitching vixen,” he said to her. “I wasn’t trying to seduce you, you know.”

            “We can stop if you like,” she said teasingly as she reached up to loosen his tie.

            “No,” he replied, “I like to finish what I start.” He brought his lips to hers and kissed her, delighting in the easy way she moved up to meld with him. She raised her hand upwards to his cheek, and though her touch was feather-light, it sent a tingling sensation rippling through his entire frame.

            Without disengaging his mouth from hers, he slid his hands around to the back of her dress, found the zipper, and slid it downwards. In response she went to work on the buttons of his shirt, and soon had it open to his waist and pushed off his shoulders.

            George gently removed her hands from him long enough to free her arms from her straps, and slid the dress down past her hips. When he picked her up to carry her to the bed, it slipped off her long legs to the floor and lay there forgotten.

            Pausing for just a beat to rid himself of his trousers, George joined her on the bed and gathered her into his arms once again.

            “You looked amazing in that dress tonight, Jess,” he said as he floated light kisses over her cheek and brow.

            “Thanks,” she replied, positively glowing at the compliment – or was it from his touches? “You looked very distinguished yourself.”

            He chuckled as he moved around to kiss her neck. “I should hope so,” he breathed into her ear. “If one is going to go on a date with the Angel of Death, one needs to look one’s best.”

            This made Jessica laugh a little in spite of herself. She didn’t respond to his teasing comment, but then by that point, mere words were no longer needed.