The Banks O’
- Excerpts from The
Banks O' Loch Lomond by
The weather was miserable – even by
Inside New Scotland Yard, my mood was nearly as gloomy as the weather outside. Rain streaked down the windows of my office, obscuring the view – not that I would have been able to see much anyway, but the added opacity made the normally comfortable confines of my office seem all the more cramped and dark. The only light came from my desk lamp, as I worked doggedly on a boring report concerning a minor crime that I had been only marginally involved in solving.
The knock at my office door jolted me back to the present. “Aye?” I answered, a tad put out by the interruption.
A junior staff officer opened the door and peered in at me. “Sir, someone here to see you.”
I had nae been expecting any appointments, and was not feeling up to seeing unexpected drop-ins. “I’m rather busy now, Sergeant,” I sighed, dismissing him and turning back to the papers on my desk. “Please ask them to come back tomorrow morning.”
“Tomorrow morning?” another voice asked. “Are you sure?”
The sudden recognition of just who that beautiful voice belonged to snapped my head back up, making me forget instantly about my report.
Instead of the staff sergeant, there in the doorway stood Jessica. She was wearing a creamy white trench coat and a radiant smile; the overall effect in the dim room was as dazzling as if the sun had come out.
I was speechless. She was every bit as lovely as I had remembered. Finally I managed to find my voice. “Please excuse us, Staff Sergeant. And shut the door behind you.”
“Very good, sir,” the officer said, and withdrew.
Once he had gone, I crossed the office in two steps and caught her in a tight embrace. For just a moment I indulged myself, taking in her intoxicating scent, enjoying the feeling of holding her in my arms.
“Jess!” I exclaimed. “What are you doing here? I didn’t expect you for another three days!”
She shifted slightly in my arms, mostly likely so she could breathe. Admittedly, I may have let my enthusiasm get the best of me. “I changed my flight,” she said simply. “Cashed in some of my frequent flier miles. Lovely weather you’re having here.”
“Aye, well …” I said as he released her. “What’s a wee bit of rain?”
“To some blessed time alone in your company,” I said as I raised my glass. “And may it be far more carefree than your last visit.”
“More heartfelt words were never spoken.” Jessica raised her own glass and touched its rim to mine.
It was evening, and outside the charming, little restaurant where we dined, the rain was coming down as hard as ever. But somehow, neither of us seemed to care. The room we were seated in was warm and inviting, the food was uncommonly good, and neither of us seemed to find anything lacking in the other’s company. Perhaps that was part of the chemistry that drew us together, the chemistry that I couldn’t seem to ignore no matter how hard I tried, and the chemistry which she was reluctant to openly acknowledge.
“I regret that I have to work tomorrow,” I said at length. “I may be able to arrange for some leave towards the end of the week, but unfortunately tomorrow at least you will be on your own.” If I could have managed differently, I would have done so in a heart beat. I hated the idea of Jessica being alone in the city. Not that she wasn’t a well-seasoned traveler who was quite familiar with London but because I feel an innate need to shield her from harm, not surprising considering the way that trouble seems to find her wherever she goes.
“That’s fine with me,” she replied. “I need a little time to myself. There are lots of little things that I need to do. Once I’ve seen to those, well, the rest of the week can look after itself.”
I smiled. “Good. Jess, you will never know what a boost it was to my spirit to see you walk into my office this afternoon.”
“Oh, I think I have a fair idea,” she said, laughing, her blues eyes sparkling brilliantly. “You should have seen the look on your face!”
At the end of the evening I dropped her off back at her hotel, with a promise to meet her again after work the following night. After driving home, I fell into bed, as I hoped she had, feeling very happy and content.
At six o’clock the following day, Jessica met me outside of New Scotland Yard. I took her by the arm and together we walked down the street, bound for a little restaurant I knew of and which I had recommended to friends and colleagues on numerous occasions. The clouds had begun to break after an afternoon rain, and strips of twilight blue sky were reflected together with the kindling street lamps in the mirror-like puddles on the street.
“How was your day?” she asked me.
“Quite good,” I replied. “I attended a minor committee meeting, signed off on some procedural reports, reviewed the files from the St. Martins case, and made our dinner reservations – which quite made the day. You?”
Jessica laughed. “Nothing quite so productive as yours,” she said. Suddenly her step faltered, and her grip tightened on my arm.
I looked at her in concern. “Jess, what’s the matter?”
“A chill just ran up my spine,” she said, scanning the area around us with wide eyes. “It felt … like a warning.”
“We’re in the middle of a busy
The answer came in the form of the sharp report of a gun, and the loud metallic ping as its bullet glanced off a lamp post not three feet from us.
“Jessica, I swear that I will instantly duck for cover if you should ever mention your blood running cold again,” I assured her as I offered her a Styrofoam cup filled with tea. It wasn’t fancy, but it was the best that could be done on such short notice. We were back in my office at Scotland Yard, which was now milling with detectives and constables investigating the shooting.
Jessica accepted the cup gratefully and wrapped her hands around it, breathing in its warmth. She didn’t answer; instead she took a sip of the tea, closed her eyes, and seemed to huddle further into herself. Her abnormally pale complexion and noticeable shivering gave me cause to be concerned.
I placed my hand gently on her arm in a gesture that I hoped would comfort her. “Are you all right?”
“I’m fine,” she answered, “except that I’m still cold.”
“It’s at least seventy degrees in here.”
“I know.” She took another sip, and set the cup aside.
We endured the usual endless parade of inspectors of varying levels that spoke with us in turns, but to my relief Jessica seemed to shake off her chill and come back to herself. After nearly three hours, the interviews were over for that night and we were permitted to leave The Yard.
“That was more than enough excitement for one evening,” I declared as the last detective constable concluded his questioning. “We both need some rest. Let me get you back to your hotel, Jess, and then I believe I’ll head back to my flat.”
“Can’t do that, sir,” the detective constable informed me.
I leveled the officer with a steely gaze. “What do you mean, ‘can’t do that’?”
“We had a report from over that way, Inspector – someone fired two shots at your flat, broke a window pane or two. I’m afraid the whole building’s been sealed off until at least noon tomorrow. Orders from the forensics squad.”
I groaned audibly. “Well, that’s a jolly good bit of news!” I exclaimed. “Where does the forensics squad expect me to sleep?”
“With me,” Jessica answered in her very matter of fact way.
Both my and the constable’s heads whipped round to stare at her.
“A poor choice of words,” she amended, colouring slightly. “What I mean is, there’s a perfectly good roll-away bed in the sitting room of my suite at the hotel. You could spend the night on that, and maybe by morning things will have sorted themselves out a little.”
I rubbed my temples wearily. “I’m too tired to argue with you, Jess,” I said. “I think I’ll take you up on your offer. Will you be needing anything else from us, Constable?”
“Ah, no, sir, not at this time,” he said, closing his notebook. “If there is, we’ll know where to find you.”
“You certainly will,” I said, favoring him with a look that warned him against trying. “Come on, Jessica – let’s call it a night.”
Having missed the opportunity to catch a bite at one of the hotel’s restaurants because of the late hour, we opted for something light and to-go from the American Bar. After snacking on sliced cold meats with olive mix and focaccia, Jessica readied herself for bed and I caught a few minutes of the late news before tackling the fold out sofa.
“What’s the matter?” Jessica asked later when she emerged from the bathroom and found me staring at the floral patterned piece of furniture.
I shook my head and shrugged my shoulders in response. “I don’t think it folds out but no matter,” I assured her as I made my way to the bathroom. “I’ll manage.”
The next morning I woke from a fitful sleep with a stiff neck and aching back, and wondered why I hadn’t taken Jessica up on her offer to take the couch and give me the king size bed. Even if I had been able to get comfortable, I would never have been able to sleep – not as long as she was sleeping only a stone’s throw away in the adjoining room.
Over breakfast, we planned out our day – first a stop by my loft for a change of clothes and then on to Wick.
I must have looked pathetic because when she got up to leave the table, she stopped directly behind my chair and began to knead her fingers into the taut muscles on the back of my neck. “Guid laird, Jess,” I groaned between clenched teeth.
“You should have taken me up on my offer,” she said, pointing out the obvious.
“I’m afraid you’d have faired no better…” My words trailed off as I tipped my head to the side so that she could work on a particularly stubborn knot. She gently and then more aggressively applied deep pressure into the area with her thumbs. Bloody hell, it hurt! But when she released the pressure, the knot was nearly gone and the pain was far more manageable.
“Then we should have shared the bed,” she commented as she straightened my collar.
I whipped my head around to look at her – obviously having temporarily forgotten about my neck – and was rewarded with a sharp, stabbing pain that had me cursing to myself.
Jessica chuckled and patted me on the shoulder. “We’re grown adults. I’m sure we could have managed to get a decent night’s sleep without either one of us being uncomfortable.”
I watched as she disappeared into the bedroom to collect her bags. Who’d have ever thought that Jessica Fletcher could be so naďve.
I imagine that Wick looked much the way Jessica had remembered it – it was, I suppose, one of those small towns that never changed, which had looked like this a hundred years ago, and would look the same a hundred years hence.
“Ah, look,” I said wryly as we pulled up to a corner. “Here is an old friend.”
The ‘old friend’ that I spoke of was none other than Constable Horace McKay, who I’m certain Jessica remembered with less than fondness from her last visit. The fact that he was still here, and in uniform, no less, took her aback.
“Hullo, George,” McKay greeted me. “Come home for a little holiday, I see.”
“A forced one, unfortunately, Horace,” I explained.
“Ah, yes, I heard about the incident in
“The feeling is mutual, Constable,” she replied as pleasantly as she could manage.
Sensing an obvious stiffening in Jessica’s posture and a strain in her voice I bid McKay farewell and we continued on our way.
The castle was chilly and a little damp when we stepped inside, owing to its vacancy.
“Mrs. Gower and Forbes won’t be back until early next week,” I said as I set our bags at the foot of the stairs. “I’ll get a fire going; that will drive away the chill.”
“Would you like some help?”
“Ah, no … actually, why don’t you head upstairs and rest for a couple of hours? I have some things I need to attend to down here … business and all. What say I call you down around dinner time?”
Jessica seemed a little confused and I suspect that I may have given myself away because after a momentary hesitation she smiled and agreed that a short rest sounded like a good idea. “Give me a few hours, and then I’ll be down,” she said, giving me plenty of time to carry out my plan.
“Fine,” I agreed, taking her elbow and guiding her to the bottom of the stairs. “You remember which room is yours?”
She picked up her overnight bag and slung it over her shoulder. “Of course,” she answered, and headed up the steps.
As I turned in the direction of the kitchen, I caught a glimpse of her out of the corner of my eye. Inquisitively, she paused midway up the stairs and glanced back momentarily before shaking her head with a smile and then climbing the rest of the stairs to her room.
Had she forgotten something? Or more likely, had something I said or done tipped her off to the fact that I was planning what I hoped would be a special evening for the two of us. If so, at least she was being a good sport about it, I thought as I opened the refrigerator and contemplated the evening’s menu.
I met her at the foot of the stairs as the ancient clock in the foyer struck six. “Close your eyes,” I said.
“Close my eyes? Why?”
“Humor me, Jess,” I insisted. Trusting me, she closed her eyes and allowed me to take her by the hand and lead her into the dining room.
“Can I look now?” she asked.
She opened her eyes, and took a breath.
“What do you think?”
“You have truly outdone yourself,” she exclaimed as she ran a fingertip along the edge of a piece of china. I was glad that she thought so as I had taken great care in setting the table for two. Silver glittered on a snow white tablecloth, reflecting the warm glow of the candles. A bottle of white wine, cork removed so it could breath, was carefully placed in a container of ice. Everything was near perfect.
The meal I had prepared was...adequate, considering the meager ingredients that I had to work with – sliced, smoked salmon and herbed goat cheese on pita bread, angel hair pasta with truffle oil, and strawberries and candied ginger dipped in chocolate.
At ease with each other, we spoke of
“I was surprised to see that Constable McKay is still the chief of police in Wick,” she said. “I would have thought that after everything that happened during my last visit – Daisy Wemyss’ murder, the plot to make you sell the castle - that he would have been removed from office. What happened?”
I put down my fork and tried to recall the exact sequence of events. “Let’s see … all that happened about a year ago, yes?”
“Just about,” Jessica said.
“Well, it all took quite a long time
to clear up, as you might expect. The
investigation dragged on for months,” I told her. “I was in
Jessica looked at me in astonishment. “What do you mean?”
I refilled her wine glass and set the bottle back on ice. “Well, for instance - you remember that it was strongly suspected that Evan Lochbuie had murdered poor Daisy Wemyss, but in the end there wasn’t enough good, solid evidence to prove it, and he walked away free. And as for the plot to force me to sell the castle, the people behind that got off mostly with slapped wrists and hurt pride.
“As for Horace McKay, he was able to distance himself from the whole
mess; he didn’t even lose his position as the chief constable of Wick. Malcolm, I heard, left
“Yes,” said Jessica. “Very disappointing. I can’t help but think that justice has not yet been served, at least not as far as poor Daisy is concerned.”
I sighed, and pushed back my chair. “What’s done is done, I said. “Come, take a walk with me, and we’ll put the unpleasant memories of the past behind us for awhile.”
“The dishes can wait,” I added before she could even consider clearing the table.
“All right,” Jessica said, and rose from the table to take my offered arm. As we descended the front steps of the castle, she commented about dinner, “My compliments to the chef.”
“That’s hardly necessary,” I replied. “I simply did my best with the ingredients that were at my disposal.”
Jessica laughed. “If I didn’t know better, I might suspect that you have an ulterior motive this evening.”
Perplexed by her comment, I stopped and turned to face her. “Why would you think that?”
“Because that magnificent meal that you just served was…”
She paused and I looked at her expectantly.
“…was almost entirely made up of aphrodisiacs.”
That was news to me, thus it took me some time to respond.
Perhaps that was the reason that I was feeling even more of a connection between us than usual, the reason that I had immediately sensed the temperature of her skin rising. I’m certain that she was blushing as well, although I couldn’t see well in the shadows cast by the castle’s front wall. Sensing her embarrassment I assured her that our menu had been the result of happenstance and that my motives were nothing short of honorable before suggesting that we continue our walk.
A gentle breeze was rippling the trees as ragged shreds of clouds skittered across the sky. The moon, nearly full, cast a bright silver light over the world, strong enough that we had no need of flashlights to make our way.
“Everything looks so different in the moonlight,” she said softly, looking around.
“Aye,” I replied. “Even the familiar takes on a newness when seen in a different light.”
I reached out and took her hand, and for awhile we walked along the gravel path in silence.
The moon slipped behind a cloud, casting a shadow of such complete blackness that Jessica tripped over something unseen in the path. She caught herself, then stopped and turned to see what had caused her to stumble. The moon sailed out from behind the obscuring cloud, and by its light she must have made out the pale, motionless human hand that lay across the path. She took a step closer, and most certainly recognized the face of the person it belonged to. She jumped back into me, trembling, and I took her by the arm and steadied her.
“Jess,” I said. “What is it?”
She looked up at me, a haunted expression on her face. “The murder of Daisy Wemyss has been avenged.” Her voice was a ghostly whisper. “It’s Evan Lochbuie … and he’s dead.”
“Aye, he be dead, all right,” Constable McKay said as he looked down at Evan Lochbuie’s body. “Shot twice in the heart. How did you come to find him here?”
“We were out taking a walk,” I explained, “and Jessica tripped over him.”
McKay gave her a strange look. “So it would seem.”
“How long do you think he’s been dead?” she asked.
“Hard to say. At least a few hours. Hamish Dawson, the doctor, will be able to tell us better. Tell me, did either of you hear anything this evening up at the castle?”
We both shook our heads. “Nothing,” she said. “But, then, that’s hardly surprising.”
McKay cocked his head. “Hardly surprising? How do you mean?”
“The killer, whoever he was, used a makeshift silencer, probably a pillow – there are goosedown feathers all over the place.”
“So I see. Anything else, Mrs. Fletcher?”
“Only that it’s a fair assumption that Evan knew his killer. He was shot by someone facing him,” Jessica added. “And the way he fell – I think he met this person here on the path, and in the bright moonlight there would have been little question as to who he was meeting.”
“Unless that person came in disguise,” McKay said.
“But if that were the case, I very much doubt Evan would have let a stranger come as close as he did – see, the wounds were inflicted at close range, maybe just a few feet. Evan may have been unbalanced, but he wasn’t stupid.”
“Hmph,” McKay said. “A fair assessment, but a word of warning: I would be careful about who hears your theories, Mrs. Fletcher.”
Jessica looked up at him. “What do you mean?”
McKay sighed. “You
remember, I am sure, the unrest that surrounded your last visit - about the
“I do,” said Jessica. “I also remember that you had a hand in it.”
“Leave that aside for a moment,” he told her. “What you don’t know – and I had nothing to do with this – is that after your departure, the legend of the castle curse took on a more substantial form, thanks, in no small part, to Evan Lochbuie.”
“And what exactly had Evan been saying?” I asked, my anxiety growing.
“That Mrs. Fletcher is the curse incarnate.”
Jessica was speechless.
“You must be joking,” I replied.
“I wish that I were, George. But Mrs. Fletcher’s reputation for bringing trouble in her wake wherever she goes is well known, and that provided plenty of grist for Evan’s fever-brained mill. And everyone remembers how Daisy Wemyss was coincidentally killed during her last visit – suffice to say, Evan found more than a few receptive ears for his words.”
“Is Jessica in any danger?” I hated to over-react but I needed to know.
McKay shrugged. “I don’t know how many people share Evan’s opinion. Maybe. But seeing as how you’ve both fled danger into danger, I see no reason for you to leave.”
“We wouldn’t dream of it, Constable McKay,” Jessica responded unwaveringly. “Not until this has all been cleared up, anyway.”
“Good,” McKay said, and he motioned to the members of the town rescue squad to come forward and remove the body.
It was late before everyone had left the castle grounds, and I fell into bed with a profound sense of relief when at last they had gone. Jessica had gone to bed somewhat earlier, unable to remain awake thanks to the lingering effects of the time change. She’d finally given in and retired to her room after I had caught her dozing at the kitchen table. I have to admit that I admired her ability to be a light sleeper or an oblivious one almost at will.
As for me, I had some difficulty falling asleep. For a long while I stared at the ceiling of my bedroom, thoughts and worries chasing round and round in my tired mind. So much had happened in these past two days, and Jessica was, as ever, at the center of it. Was she in danger? If she was, could I protect her? More to the point, would she let me protect her? After what seemed an eternity, I finally dropped off to sleep, but my dreams were not quiet.
I woke with a start, sitting straight up in bed. As was habit, I looked at the clock; it was only half past five. Throwing on a robe I went directly to Jessica’s room, driven by an overwhelming need to make sure she was all right. Much to my dismay, the room was empty.
Descending the stairs, I found her sitting in the window seat of one of the castle’s tall bay windows, sipping a cup of instant coffee and gazing out at the strengthening morning light. Her feet were bare, and she had put a light robe on over her nightclothes; the shimmering satin flowed over her like water in a way that made my heart beat just a little bit faster. Jessica was unaware of my presence, lost in her own private thoughts, until I spoke.
She looked up with a start, then smiled. “No,” she said. “I don’t know why; I should feel like it’s nearing midnight.”
“Well, there has been a great deal of activity. It’s hardly any wonder,” I said as I descended the last few steps.
Jessica made room for me on the window seat and tucked her feet under her, looking at me closely. “George, are you all right?” she asked.
so,” I answered, unable to outright lie to her.
Fighting my own selfish desire to have her stay, I suggested the
unpleasant alternative. “Jess, I’m
starting to think that I should put you on a flight back to
was emphatic and I looked at her in surprise.
“No?” I repeated in astonishment.
“Since you’ve set foot in the
“Plenty of reason,” she said. “But I’ve waited this long to get some time alone with you, I intend to make the most of it, and nothing Evan Lochbuie can do living or dead is going to dissuade me from doing just that.”
I smiled in spite of myself, and took her hand. “Jess, you are the most headstrong person I have ever met.”
“Thank you.” She stood up, took a deep breath, and let it out again. “Well, we might as well start the day. Give me a few minutes to get dressed and pull myself together, then we’ll have breakfast – and this time, I’m cooking.”
With morning the castle again became the center of police activity. Later, when things had settled down somewhat, we took a walk into town, Jessica having expressed an interest in putting some distance between the scene of the crime and herself for at least a little while.
We paused in front of one storefront, a tailor shop. Jessica recognized the proprietor’s name on the sign.
“Ben Wemyss,” she said. “Is he …”
“Daisy’s father, aye,” I said. “Shall we go in?”
“All I can say is, good riddance to bad rubbish,” Ben Wemyss, the unfortunate Daisy’s father, said. “I know in my heart of hearts that he murdered my daughter in cold blood, for no better reason than to advance his own agenda. I’m only sorry that someone didn’t do him in long before.”
He gave Jessica a sharp glance. “Odd that it should happen now, with you in Wick again, lady … just like the last time.”
It was obvious, at least to me, that Jessica felt slightly uncomfortable under his implied meaning. “An unfortunate coincidence,” she replied.
“Unfortunate. Quite.” He turned back to his sales slips.
Unable to set years of instinct and training aside, I asked, “Forgive me for asking this – especially seeing as how I have no official role in this investigation as of yet – but where were you last night?”
“I didn’t kill him, if that be your meaning,” the tailor said. “Me and my brother, we were out walking on the moors last night, looking for his dog.”
“Did you find it?”
“Yes,” Ben said. He offered nothing more, and I didn’t pursue the issue.
“So Daisy’s father and uncle have no alibis – unless you can count the dog,” I said, almost to myself. We were seated at a table in a dim corner of the local pub, sharing a pot of tea and a brief rest.
“It would seem that way,” said Jessica. “And yet, Ben Wemyss doesn’t strike me as the sort of man who would necessarily resort to violence to avenge his daughter’s death.”
“No, I’ve known the man for many years,” I agreed. “Though when an only child is lost, anyone could snap and lash out. Love is a very powerful motivator.”
Suddenly Jessica shuddered; she looked past me with alarm.
I had seen that look of intensity before, and didn’t like it. “Jess, what is it?” I asked. My back was to the rest of the tavern – not my preferred position, but Jessica had chosen her seat first. I started to turn to follow her gaze, but she reached out and seized my hand.
“Don’t turn around,” she said. “Just listen.”
There was a knot of men standing by the bar, and their conversation had started to heat up.
“That’s more of Evan Lochbuie’s nonsense,” one man said. “I canna believe you’ve fallen for that man’s false prophecies.”
“Don’t speak ill of the dead,” another voice shot back. “There be plenty of sense in what he said. She carries a curse - everywhere the woman goes, death walks beside her. Look at what happened the last time she was here, and now this!”
“That’s not a curse, that’s plain bad luck,” someone else said.
“Maybe. But there’s more – how do ye explain a lady her age looking the way she does? She hasn’t aged a day since she was here.”
“There’s witchery in it, for sure,” the man continued. “Only witches and the fairy folk have the power to remain forever young. How else do ye explain it?”
I caught Jessica’s eye; her response was to pull the loose hood of her jacket up so that it covered her hair and shadowed her face. A mutual understanding passed wordlessly between us – we needed to get out of there, the sooner the better. There was a side entrance near at hand; I placed a few pound notes on the table, then we stood and made a very quiet, unobtrusive exit.
“Well, so how do you explain it?” I asked teasingly as we walked down the street, away from the pub and its angry mutterings. If asked, I would have had to agree that she looked younger than ever. From what I could tell, she hadn’t aged a day since we had met years earlier, while in the same span of time, I had added a fair amount of gray at my temples.
Jessica threw back her hood and let out an exasperated
sigh. “Good genes?” she offered. “
I held my tongue and grinned instead.
“That was pretty scary,” she confided. “If they had looked back and seen us …”
“The mood in this town is growing ugly again,” I agreed grimly. “Come on, Jess, let’s duck in here and see if Horace has learned anything new.”
We stepped inside the constabulary, where we were greeted by Bob.
“Constable McKay was just about to call you,” he said.
“Aye, indeed I was,” McKay said as he himself appeared at the doorway of his office. “Come inside, both of you. I have something you should see.”
I offered Jessica the lone chair that sat in front of the constable’s desk and then stood beside her.
“Horace,” I said, determined to make certain that he understood the importance of finding Evan Lochbuie’s killer quickly, “I hope you’ve had a break in the case because the sentiments of several people out there are running high, and I trust not a one of them to not take their frustrations out on Jessica.”
“Well, as a matter of fact, there has been a break, Inspector,” McKay said, addressing me. “It may have this whole thing neatly settled ‘fore long,” he said as he picked up a piece of post from his desk. “This arrived in Evan Lochbuie’s letter box this morning.”
He handed me the battered envelope with a cancellation mark from the previous day. It was addressed to Evan but strangely, the return address in the upper corner also belonged to the deceased. I looked at McKay quizzically.
“He posted a letter to himself?”
“Read it,” McKay said.
I removed a slightly soiled,
clumsily folded sheet of paper from the envelope, scanned it, then passed it down to Jessica, who read it for
herself. It was written in verse with
sloppy handwriting, mimicking the old Scottish ballad, “The Banks O’
“For the castle’s curse has come hither again
From way far away o’er the
‘Tis for sake of her, the lass with the golden hair,
That we meet once again, my killer and me.
O he’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak’ the low road,
An’ I’ll be leavin’
For me and my killer will meet but once again
In the shadow of curs’d Castle Sutherland.
The wee birdies sing and the wild flow’rs spring,
And in the sunshine the waters are sleepin’;
But my broken heart it kays nae second spring,
Tho’ the waeful’ may cease frae their greetin’.
O he’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak’ the low road,
An’ I’ll be leavin’
For me and my killer will meet but once again
In the shadow of curs’d Castle Sutherland.”
“Seems pretty clear to me, what he’s trying to say,” the constable said when Jessica had finished reading the letter. “’The lass with the golden hair’ – that can only be you, Mrs. Fletcher, especially given Evan’s recent comments concerning you.”
“Even if Evan did intend that line to apply to me,” Jessica countered, “why should that necessarily mean that he is pointing the finger of accusation at George?”
“Because he says that his murderer would kill for her sake – for your sake,” said McKay. “And there’s only one person in Wick, I think, who would do that.”
Instinctively, I took a step forward. “You have absolutely nothing to support that accusation,” I said angrily.
“I have the word of a dead man,” McKay said, taking the letter back from Jessica and holding it up. “And that is worth more in a court of law than a live witness, sometimes.”
“I can’t believe this,” Jessica said in annoyance. “You’re accusing George of murder based on the posthumous ramblings of a lunatic!”
“Those be your words, not mine,” McKay said to her. He then turned to me. “Between the potential danger here in town and this insinuations in this letter, I think it would be best if you and the lady go back to the castle and stay there, until further notice.”
I looked at him incredulously. “You mean you’re confining us to the castle? Under house arrest?”
arrest,” McKay said. “And if I’m
confining you both to
I was prepared to protest, but then I looked down at Jessica, whose expression told me that this was a decision she was willing to let me and McKay make.
“All right then,” I said at last. “We’ll go home and stay there, until we hear from you, Horace.” There is no doubt that my infuriation was not well concealed.
“I’m glad you’ve come round to see the sense in that,” McKay said. “Now get the lady home before something happens that I won’t be able to prevent.”
On our way out of the office, Jessica paused at the deputy constable’s desk.
“Bob,” she said, “I was wondering if you could do me a favor.”
“For you, Mrs. Fletcher? Anything.”
Jessica smiled. “When you get a moment,” she said, “do you think that you could make a photocopy of Evan’s letter, and run it up to the castle so I can take another look at it?”
“I surely can,” he replied.
“Thanks. Oh, and one other thing – it might be best … if you did this without the knowledge of Constable McKay.”
“Aye. I’ll see what I can do.”
Back at the castle, Jessica tried to settle in with a book, but found it impossible to concentrate, so she tossed it aside and returned to pacing the floor instead. The copy of Evan’s poetic letter lay on the table; a messenger had brought it up an hour before and she had read it through several times, but no new insight had dawned on her.
“Jess,” I said as I watched her from a chair, “you’ll wear a path in the stone flags if you keep that up.”
“I can’t help it,” she said. “The tension in the village is so high, I can almost feel it up here.”
Her own anxiety level was so high, I could practically feel it from my chair. I wanted very much to comfort her somehow, but she was radiating very strong ‘don’t touch me’ signs, so I remained where I was.
I must have smiled or chuckled softly to myself because Jessica paused in mid-step and looked at me. “What’s so funny?” she asked.
“The irony of all this,” I said. “You, the hunter of killers, and me, a Scotland Yard inspector, accused of this present crime. I’d be willing to bet that you’ve never had an accused murderer bear such affection for you. Quite the opposite, I should think.”
“Not true,” said Jessica. “The last man who kis… who bore such affection for me not only was accused of murder, he was guilty of it. Twice.”
“You uncovered the truth of his guilt, no doubt.” I already knew the answer to my question but sensed that she would want to tell me more.
“Yes,” she sighed. “It was a difficult thing to do.”
“An understatement, Jess. It must have torn you apart.” I could see on her face that it had, and her sadness wrenched my heart.
Jessica, obviously remembering a shattering confrontation with this man, nodded mutely.
“What became of him?” I asked. “Is he still in prison?”
“No,” she answered. “He’s dead.”
There was a long moment of silence. I didn’t know what to say – after all, what could be said? Finally Jessica pushed her memories aside, and resumed her pacing.
“If we look at this from Evan’s point of view, I see no lack of enemies with strong motives,” she said, coming back to the present. “Maybe we should start there.”
“So who’ve we got?” I asked, more than willing to help her put an end to this.
“Well, there’s Daisy’s family – her father, her uncle – with all the whisperings that Evan was the one who murdered her, they might have sought an eye for an eye.”
“Perhaps,” I said. “Or one of the developers who’d hoped to buy the castle may have done it – another business arrangement, maybe, except that this one went bad.”
Jessica sighed. “And then there’s that large segment of the population who believes in the curse. One of them might have decided to ‘help things along’ by killing Evan.”
“Or it could have been someone with a personal grudge against Evan, and his murder had nothing to do with the castle or the curse,” I proposed. “There are so many possibilities, Jess, and all we have is that damned letter!”
Jessica picked up the photocopy of Evan’s letter to himself again and stared at it pensively. “It’s odd,” she said, not really talking to me but more so to herself.
“Odd? Of course it’s odd. Consider the author.”
“No, I mean, the way he wrote it. There are only two verses – the one he made up about the return of the castle’s curse, and then another, the last verse of the song, I believe. He left it alone … except that I think he misspelled a word.”
I looked over her shoulder. “You’re right, Jess,” he said. “It kays nae second spring.” It’s supposed to be ‘kens,’ not ‘kays.’”
Jessica stared at the page transfixed. All of a sudden she said, “It is supposed to be ‘kens.’ That’s the key to the whole puzzle! George, would you get me a phone book, please?”
Taken aback by the sudden light that had flashed to life in her eyes, I obeyed, though not without question.
“The key to the whole puzzle? Jess, it’s just a misspelled word …”
“Well, I’m not so sure about that,” Jessica said. She ran her finger down the page, lighted on the number she was looking for, and picked up the telephone.
“Yes – could you please transfer me to Security and Customs?” Jessica asked.
A moment later, someone from Security and Customs had obviously come on the line.
“Hello, I have a question that I hope you’ll be able to answer for me – I assume that British Customs at the airport keeps track of foreigners entering the country?”
Of course, they did, I thought to myself as I now began to pace, impatient to find out where this was leading.
“Is that information ever given out? What I mean is, could someone ask to be notified of a specific person’s arrival and passage through customs?”
Any senior law enforcement officer could access that information, I knew.
“I thought so,” said Jessica. That was when the line went dead.
Before I could ask what was wrong Jessica went to the window and very carefully looked out. “George, you had better come look at this,” she said quietly.
I joined her at the window. “Bloody hell,” I muttered under my breath when I saw the scene outside.
A crowd was gathering in the courtyard, growing by the minute. They were being deathly silent, and their serious expressions - and the dangerous looking makeshift weapons they carried – left little doubt as to what their intentions were.
“They’re going to storm the castle!” I exclaimed.
“What can we do?”
“Nothing, except make sure that we’re not in here when they get through the front door,” I told her. “Come on.” I grabbed her hand, and led her out of the room, down the narrow hallways and stairwells, heading for the inconspicuous servants’ door in the back. There was no one watching as we slipped outside and crossed the back courtyard, heading for the wall that marked the rear boundary of the castle grounds.
There was an iron gate in the stone wall, which separated the grounds from the woods beyond. The trees grew up to its foundations, branches overhanging the wall and casting the gate in shadow.
I opened the gate with an ornate metal key that had long been hidden in one of the cracks of the stone wall, and stepped through. Jessica followed, but before I could close the gate behind us, a figure loomed up out of the overgrowth alongside the wall. It was one of the men from the village, evidently posted there as a guard against their escape. Before I could react, he had seized Jessica by the arm and jerked her backward, away from me. The action was so forceful that Jessica gave a cry and fell to her knees at his feet, her left arm suddenly rendered useless.
Her shriek startled her attacker, causing him to let go and take a step back – just enough time for me to send him sprawling backwards unconscious with a fist to the jaw.
I shook my throbbing hand and went to Jessica, where she had fallen, her face white with pain.
“Your shoulder,” I said urgently – “is it dislocated?”
“I – I think so,” she answered tensely.
“I may be able to fix that,” I told her. “Either way, you won’t be able to go on unless I try.” I helped her stumble over to a nearby tree and take hold with her good arm, then made her bend forward at the waist, letting her injured arm dangle.
“Here,” I said, offering her my handkerchief. “Bite down on this, and whatever you do, don’t let go of the tree.”
Jessica obeyed – she clamped down on the cloth, squeezed her eyes shut, and held on to the tree for dear life, bracing herself for what was to come.
Heaven help me, I thought as I put one hand on her shoulder and the other on her arm – then pulled downward toward the ground and twisted. Her muffled scream, despite the gag, obliterated the heavy ‘clunk’ as her shoulder popped back into place, and rent a sympathetic gash through my soul.
She spit out the handkerchief and leaned heavily against the tree panting, while I stroked her forehead and fought back tears.
“I’m sorry I had to do that.”
“You did … what had to be done,” she replied. “Thank you.”
“You won’t be able to use that arm for while, but at least you won’t be in excruciating pain,” I said, hoping that was true. “Can you stand up?”
Jessica took a deep, ragged breath, swallowed hard, and nodded. “Yes, I think so.”
“We’d better get moving then,” I said, helping her up carefully.
Together we entered the shadows of the woods.
At length, just as the heavy dark clouds began to spatter some rain, we came upon a little stone cottage set on a dirt road.
“What is this place?” Jessica asked.
“An old hunting cabin belonging to my family. I used to come here as a child to play. I don’t think anyone has used it for years and years.”
I opened the door and found the interior to be cold and dusty, but dry. The rain made tracks down the dingy windows, and cold ashes lay in the hearth. But the roof was sound, and there was a pile of dry kindling stacked neatly in one corner; it would do.
Jessica was exhausted by her physical ordeal yet before I was able to finish my cursory inspection of our accommodations, she had dragged herself over the threshold and now stood, leaning wearily against the doorframe.
“There now, Jess, just a few more steps,” I encouraged her as I led her into the center of the room and then closed the door behind her. “We’re safe now.”
She shed her coat gingerly and let it fall to the floor as she made her way to an old wooden chair set at an ancient table that had been varnished black. She immediately sank down into the chair and put her head down on her good arm. Fear and hatred burned in my gut – fear for Jessica and hatred for any man who could inflict such pain on a woman, especially one so dear to me.
Reminding myself that Jessica was safe now but still injured, I focused my energies on her immediate needs. After putting some of the kindling in the hearth, I set a match to it. The dry wood caught immediately, and the bright flames threw their light and even a little warmth into the room. Several old woolen blankets hung on a peg behind the door, probably horse blankets in their day, but still warm and relatively clean. I took them down, spread them in front of the fire, and then helped her down onto them. Shivering - from fear or cold, I did not know which - she sat quietly with her legs tucked under her. I retrieved her coat from the dusty floor, gave it a good shake and then wrapped it around her shoulders for warmth before sitting down next to her.
“Well,” I said trying to cast away some of the gloom that hung over us. “Alone at last, though I might have wished for more accommodating circumstances.” I paused, then added, “This has been all my fault. It’s one thing to put myself in danger, but quite another to drag you into danger with me – which is exactly what I have done. Jess, I’m sorry.”
She looked up at me with tired eyes. “Sorry for what?” she asked. “I walked into this with my eyes open. How could I let you face this alone?”
“Even if it means dying with me?” I asked bitterly.
She stared wordlessly back at me, the firelight glinting in her golden hair as she struggled with her feelings. Then she bowed her head and said, very quietly, “If necessary, yes.”
I cupped her chin in my hand, and tilted her face up toward mine. In the firelight her face took on an ageless glow, her eyes glittering bright with tears. The expression in them was too complex for me to name, but it pierced my heart and released a flood of emotions that came together as a lump in my throat. I bent my head to hers, and gently kissed her on the lips.
To my surprise, she didn’t pull away; instead she responded as though I had struck some resonant chord deep inside her, and returned the kiss, measure for measure. Our next kiss was deeper and lasted longer, and the next deeper still. The coat slipped unnoticed from her shoulders as we drew closer and closer together. At length I risked the next step, and eased her down onto the blankets beside me.
Her gasp of pain pulled me up short.
“What is it?” I asked. Then I remembered: “Oh, my poor bonnie lass, your shoulder!”
Jessica, teeth clenched, nodded as she lay on the blankets clutching her injured shoulder, eyes fixed on the ceiling.
It was deeply distressing to see her in such pain. “Forgive me,” I said. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“Forgiven,” she replied. “It’s nothing, really,” she added as she tried to sit up on her own. But the effort only earned her another sharp stab of pain.
“Don’t get up,” I told her as I gently forced her back down. I met her eyes, and saw in them a mixture of pain … and absolute trust. With that silent permission, I carefully reached down and undid the first couple of buttons of her shirt, just enough to expose her injured arm. The aftermath of the trauma was apparent enough. I tried to clamp down on my own emotional response and began to lightly massage her shoulder, hoping to alleviate some of her pain. Her skin was like cool satin beneath my rough hand but soon began to warm.
Caught between the warmth of the fire and the warmth of my hands, she felt the pain begin to subside and I could feel her relax, yet I could also feel her heart begin to race in response to my touch.
“Does that feel better?”
“Yes,” she answered, a distant, dreamy look in her eyes.
I stared down at her, wanting nothing more than to follow through on my desire for her. But she was exhausted and hurt, and I simply couldn’t without hurting her further.
And was she really as ready as she seemed, I asked myself, or had the stress she had been subjected to weakened her defenses?
Fighting back on a flood of emotions and the longing that coursed through me, through us, I slowly withdrew my hand from her injured shoulder. No, I decided for both of us. If she were to decide to give herself to me, it would be of her own free will – something that I was far from certain was the case. And I’d be damned if I’d risk hurting her further by seducing her under our present circumstances.
It was with an inward groan that I tucked a blanket around her and turned away.
“George,” she said unexpectedly.
“Thank you … for being you.”
Her words melted my heart. I had intended to sleep apart from her, but heartened by her words, I slipped under the blanket with her, and drew her – carefully, very carefully – into my arms.
“Ah, Jessie,” I sighed as I stroked her hair. “You’re so strong. But just this once, won’t you let someone share the burden with you?”
“Well … maybe just this once,” she murmured before dropping off to sleep.
The fire had died down to glowing embers by the time I awoke. The rain had stopped, and the windows let in a grey light that signaled the approaching dawn. We had slept peacefully; no doubt having been worn out from our harrowing escape. There would be things to sort out in time, but for now, my only wish was that we could stay like this forever – beneath the warm blankets, with Jessica enfolded in my arms. Those were my only thoughts as I allowed myself to drift back to sleep.
When I awoke again Jessica had already gotten up. “Where could she be?” I murmured to myself as I scanned the cabin through still sleep-laden eyes. Suddenly, I realized that she hadn’t simply gotten up, she was gone!
With my heart already racing with fear, I ran back toward the castle. Wherever she was, she would be in danger if I didn’t get to her quickly. Even then she would still be in danger, I realized as I came to a point where the overgrown path divided.
I could no longer make out her footprints but was almost certain that she would have continued on to the castle. Praying that she had instead chosen the path to Wick and if not, that I would have enough time to get back to the castle, I changed my own route and headed toward town. With any luck, I’d find her there. And if not, I’d at least be able to recruit help, or so I hoped.
The sun must have just been rising over the horizon when Jessica stepped into the courtyard of the castle. She would have almost immediately been surrounded by people from the village, some carrying farm implements, a few carrying stones. I was too far away to do anything but I could make out voices being carried my way on the wind.
I could make out Jessica and one of the mob with pitchfork in hand and quickened my pace.
I couldn’t make out all of her words but Jessica’s voice was strong, and my spirits were raised that we would reach her in time.
“The truth?” I heard one of them say. “We know the truth – Sutherland murdered Evan Lochbuie!”
“No, he didn’t – and I can prove it,” she countered.
We had just reached the gate and Bob, the deputy constable, pulled me back out of view at the same moment that Constable McKay appeared in the courtyard, followed by a crowd of people from the town.
Jessica sighed impatiently. “Constable McKay,” she said, “can’t you do anything in this town without bringing a mob along to back you up?”
“Lassie,” McKay said, coming toward her, “I’d watch your tongue, if I were you.”
I would have been on McKay in another minute if I hadn’t been pinned against the stone wall that fortified the gate. Bob motioned for me to watch and listen as Jessica reached into her coat pocket and pulled out her copy of Evan Lochbuie’s letter, brandishing it for all to see.
The Wemyss brothers finally loosened their grip on me as they, too watched and listened.
“This,” she said, “proves George’s innocence. It’s a familiar Scottish poem Evan twisted to his purposes. In it he indicates that his murder would be committed because of me. But that person was not George, because Evan names his killer in the next verse!”
Jessica paused for breath, looking around to make sure her audience was still listening. They were; a circle of intent faces stared at her, waiting for her to go on.
“Evan Lochbuie was not a stupid man,” she continued. “He knew he was playing a dangerous game, knew when the meeting on the castle grounds was set up that he might be double-crossed. That’s why he wrote this, and mailed it to himself. And in the final verse he misspelled a word … except that he didn’t misspell it, he replaced it with the name of his murderer –“ here Jessica paused and looked straight at McKay – “your name, Constable McKay.”
McKay was speechless. “Lies,” he finally was able to spit out. “Damned lies!”
“And speaking of lies, that is one of the things that gave you away,”
Jessica went on. “When George and I
first arrived in Wick, you already knew why we were fleeing
McKay looked at her coldly. “Aye,” he said. “I pulled the trigger that night. ’Tis a bloody shame I missed. Do ye think I’ve forgotten the humiliation you handed me these many months ago? Not bloody likely, lassie - I’ve neither forgotten it nor forgiven you. I’ve been biding my time, waiting for you to return so that I could take my vengeance, and bring you so low you’d have no hope of rising again.”
“So Evan was merely a pawn for your revenge. You killed him in order to frame George for murder, knowing that would break my heart,” Jessica said. “You did it not just to silence him, but especially to hurt me. Or in the victim’s own words … it was for my sake that you killed Evan Lochbuie.”
“Have you heard enough?” I said to Bob before bolting through the gate.
“Jessica!” I must have yelled her name at the top of my lungs.
She whipped her head around in my direction, and saw me come through the castle gate, bringing Bob, Daisy’s father and uncle with me. But McKay wasn’t willing to concede defeat just yet; before anyone could react, he grabbed Jessica and flung her to the ground, the copy of Evan’s letter fluttering beyond her reach. He seized a pitchfork from the hands of a man who stood nearby, and when Jessica scrambled to sit back up, she found herself with its tines mere inches from her chest.
“Take one step closer, George,” McKay warned, “and I swear to ye, I’ll spill her blood all over your family’s ancestral ground.”
I stood stock still, and held up my hand signaling those behind me to do the same. “Horace, don’t do this,” I said.
I watched Jessica closely, and followed her eyes as one of McKay’s men picked up Evan’s letter. He glanced at it, and passed it on to those around him. She took a desperate chance, and addressed the crowd one final time.
“There is evil here,” she said in a clear voice, “but I did not bring it with me. It has been here all along. Evan Lochbuie knew it; he was part of it. If you don’t believe me, read his words for yourselves.”
One man – Jessica most certainly recognized him as the one who had hurt her during our escape – took the sheet of paper, read it, then crumpled it up and threw it to the ground. My heart sank, just as I imagine Jessica’s did as well, until we heard him speak:
“What she says is the truth,” he said. “We’ve all been deceived.”
Seeing his support evaporate, McKay threw the pitchfork aside. Bob came forward to take him into custody as the crowd dissipated; as for me, I rushed forward and helped Jessica slowly to her feet.
“Jess,” I said, “I do so love you. When I woke up and you were gone … well. Anyway, I’ve sent for Hamish to come take a look at your shoulder. What else do you need? A good, solid meal? Ten hours of uninterrupted sleep?”
Jessica looked up at me wearily. “Those all sound good,” she admitted, “but right now, what I want more than anything else in the world … is a long, hot bath.”
“The key was the timing,” she told me a little while later. She’d had her much-needed bath, and now sat
up on a table wrapped in a thick robe hanging loosely off her shoulder as the
doctor examined her injury. “It didn’t
occur to me at first, but when I thought about it, it suddenly seemed strange
that all of these disparate – and supposedly unconnected – events should have
happened starting so soon after my arrival in
“But even if someone had known when you were planning on coming to London, there’s no way they could have known that you’d changed your plans and arrived early,” I reminded her.
Jessica nodded. “Exactly. The only
way for them to know so quickly that I was back in the
“And the only person with a motive to harm you – or me – who fit that description was Horace McKay.”
“Yes,” said Jessica. “It made
sense – after all, it would take a certain amount of time for him to get from
“And killed Evan Lochbuie,” I added. “But why go through the trouble of framing me? Why not another direct attack?”
“I believe I can answer that,” Dr. Dawson said. “In the past few months, Evan had started to go on about being smarter than he looked, and knowing secrets. Nonsensical hints dropped on the ears of passers-by, or in the pub. No one paid much heed, but it’s my guess that Horace thought Evan likely to blow the whole plot open again, if only to gain more notice for himself.”
“Killing Evan served a dual purpose,” Jessica said. “It provided the vehicle of his revenge, and it silenced a potential liability.”
“So who was the intended target the night he shot at us? You or me?”
“We may never know for sure,” she answered. “It could be that he meant to kill me – Evan Lochbuie’s letter would seem to say so - but then shifted his attention to you with the plot to frame you for Evan’s death. Or you may have been the intended target all along … anyway, it’s all academic now.”
The doctor gave Jessica’s good shoulder a gentle pat. “Aye, you’ll be fine, lassie,” he said. “That shoulder of yours will heal up nicely, so long as you don’t overdo it.”
Jessica pulled the robe back up over her shoulder and smiled. “Thank you, Doctor.”
“No, thank you,” Hamish replied. “This town owes you a debt of gratitude, for shaking a few of its bad apples out of the tree.”
The next day Jessica felt refreshed, dressed in a snow-white blouse and an ankle-length plaid skirt, she prepared to salvage what was left of her visit.
I knocked at her open door and poked my head inside.
“May I come in?” I asked.
I stepped all the way into the
room. “A good idea this is, getting away
from here and going to
Jessica smiled. “So I figured,” she said. “Besides that, I’ve been to your ancestral home twice now; it’s only fair that you should visit mine. I think you’ll like Kilcleer.”
“I’m sure I will.”
I gently touched her sleeve. “How are you feeling?”
“Much better,” she answered. “The anti-inflammatories have helped a great deal. My shoulder’s still stiff, but at least I can use my arm a small bit.”
I was relieved. “Good,” I said as I mustered the courage ask of her more than I ever had before. “Jess, I have a special favor to ask of you, and I’m hoping you’ll grant it.”
“What is it?”
I took a step closer and put my arms around her, drawing her close and kissing her tenderly on the lips. “I want to thank you for everything you did for me … properly.”
Jessica looked in my eyes, read the significant meaning in them … and pulled away.
“I can’t do this,” she said.
“Because … because I still don’t understand everything that happened the other night. Because my own feelings are in such a mess I don’t know what’s real, and what isn’t.”
“Does it matter?” I asked. “Jess, just because stress brought some latent feelings to the surface doesn’t mean that they’re any less real.”
She shook her head. “I can’t do this,” she repeated. “It isn’t your fault. Believe me, if it were to be anybody, it would be you, but … I’m just not ready for that kind of relationship. Not yet.”
“I understand,” I told her. How could I blame her for wanting to sort out her feelings solely because my own had never been more certain.
“We are never left entirely without hope,” I decided. “But promise me one thing, Jess.”
She looked up. “What?”
“If you do change your mind, someday … promise me that I’ll be the first to know.”
Jessica smiled, reached out, and took my hand.
“I promise,” she said.