On a Midsummer Eve
“Legends and Songs” part 2
--Written by Anne Del Borgo, Adapted by Stephanie
Note: A special thank you to Anne for allowing me to tinker with her story and for giving me a great deal of creative freedom in doing so. Also, as you may recall, Anne’s original story came with a warning. This story is no different and the warning is still in effect.
story is the second part of the “Legends and Songs” trilogy, the first part of
which is “The Banks o’
In the timeline, this story would have happened
sometime between the episodes “A Killing in
The character of George Sutherland is of course Donald Bain’s own marvelous creation; to him I owe a debt of gratitude for providing the story that inspired the prequel to this sequel (did that make any sense?).
On a Midsummer Eve …
I idly cut a parsley stalk
And blew therein towards the moon;
I had not thought what ghosts would walk
With shivering footsteps to my tune.
I went, and knelt, and scooped my hand
As if to drink, into the brook,
And a faint figure seemed to stand
Above me, with the bygone look.
I lipped rough rhymes of chance, not choice,
I thought not what my words might be;
There came into my ear a voice
That turned a tenderer verse for me.
Jessica sighed almost silently and absently adjusted the sling on her left arm. Poor lass was most certainly frustrated by the events of the past several days, as was I.
had only recently been visiting
had been in
The desk clerk of Kilcleer’s most venerable hotel, the Thistle Inn, was looking down at her book, her brows knitted in a puzzled frown. She flipped the page, and her frown deepened.
“Is something the matter?” Jessica asked.
“Well … I have you booked for a room for all five days, but I can’t seem to find your reservation for a second room.”
“No matter,” Jessica reassured her. “Can I reserve the second room now?”
“Well …” the receptionist smiled apologetically. “You see, ‘most any other weekend you could have, but with this being the lead-up to the Solstice, I’m afraid we have no second room to spare.”
“No room at the inn,” I commented. “I guess we’ll have to share a room, Jess,” I suggested good-naturedly.
“If it wouldn’t be too much of an inconvenience?” the poor desk clerk asked hopefully.
Under less extraordinary circumstances it most likely wouldn’t have bothered her too much, but based on her delayed response, it was a major inconvenience.
Had I thought before speaking, I would have realized that between her aching shoulder and the maelstrom of confused feelings she still had to sort out about us, the last thing she would want to do was share a room with anyone, much less with me. Still, there was no help for it, and before I could retract my poorly thought out suggestion, she answered, “It will do.”
Relief flooded the desk clerk’s face. “Thank you for being so understanding, Mrs. Fletcher. Here is your key – room 243. Take the central staircase in the lobby to the second floor, turn right, follow the corridor ‘round to the left, and it’s the seventh room on the left. I hope you both find it comfortable. Shall I ring for someone to get your bags?”
“No, thank you, that’s not necessary,” I said, slinging Jessica’s carry-on over my shoulder. “I can manage just fine for the both of us.”
“Please don’t hesitate to ring the desk if there’s anything you need,” the receptionist said as we departed.
Jessica merely smiled and nodded at the desk clerk but there was an entirely different or rather completely foreign (to me at least) emotion reflected in her eyes. Frustration? Annoyance? Bitterness? I wasn’t certain which but headed for the stairs and she followed.
The inn was very old indeed; from the looks of it the building had served in this same capacity for at least a couple of centuries, and probably longer. From the central structure of the inn two wings extended out and back, forming three sides of a square, central courtyard. The fourth side was taken up with what appeared to have once been stables, now converted into a more modern kitchen and banquet room. Where horses had once been rubbed down and re-shod, the courtyard was now filled with a stately formal garden, with flag stone-paved paths bordered by precisely-trimmed hedges meeting at an ornately carved marble fountain in the exact center of the space. The stone walls of the surrounding inn echoed and amplified the soft music of the falling water, lending the space an air of serenity and peace.
The rooms themselves were small, as all rooms in ancient inns tend to be. I unlocked the door and pushed it open to reveal a compact space holding a double bed, freestanding wardrobe, two armchairs facing a modest fireplace, and a tiny desk and chair, its varnish darkened with age. A door of clearly more recent vintage led to a compact bathroom; judging by its size it appeared that the room next door had been sacrificed and divided in half to provide a private bath for each of the rooms on either side – a necessary concession to the expectations of modern guests.
“It’s charming!” I exclaimed in an effort to boost Jessica’s spirit. In actuality, it was charming, but normally I’m not one to become overly excited about a hotel room, any hotel room.
I set our luggage down on the bed and then motioned Jessica inside. “And I’ll wager that the fireplace really works – else why provide us with a bin of dry wood?”
“A fire will be welcome tonight,” she replied. “It may be June, but the nights are still very cool.” I watched as she walked over to the window and pushed it open to let in the fresh breeze and the sound of the fountain.
“Jess, I know you’re upset that we didn’t get separate rooms,” I began, “but if it makes you feel any better, you know you can count on me to be a perfect gentleman at all times.”
“It’s not that,” she hastened to reassure me. “I know I can trust you.” She paused after that proclamation, as though thinking something silently to herself while all I could think was I’m glad you can trust me because I don’t know if I can trust myself.
of our thoughts were interrupted by the phone ringing. Jessica crossed the room and answered it.
I could hear an excited female voice coming from the receiver as clearly as if the woman was right there in the room with us. “It is you! I asked Kelsie at the front desk to give me a jingle when you arrived. How was the trip?”
Jessica answered with a laugh. “I’ve only just come over from
“Oh yes, I forgot. And with … I’m sorry, Jess, Kelsie didn’t give me a name, she just said you were with a ‘gentleman friend.’”
“That would be George Sutherland. He’s a Chief Inspector at New Scotland Yard. We’re taking a short vacation here together.”
“I think that would work out,” Jessica said. “Hang on, let me check with George.”
“He’s in your room?”
Ignoring this last remark, Jessica placed a hand over the receiver and turned to me.
“This is Shannon Kilcannon, one of my oldest and dearest,” she said, “and she’s extended us an invitation to have dinner with her. Are you interested?”
I had been busy hanging up my things in the wardrobe and trying my best not to eavesdrop but in my own defense, it had been nearly impossible. And based on what I had just heard, I was eager to meet Jessica’s old friend. “Fine by me, Jess,” I answered. “I’d enjoy meeting your friend.”
“I’m sure it will be mutual.” Returning to the phone, she said, “George says that sounds good. Where and when?”
“How about the Fisherman’s Arms, at seven? You remember where it is?”
I do! See you then. Bye,
tell me about
knew each other in college,” Jessica said. “I suppose we gravitated toward each
other because we were both originally from the
“How did she come to be in Kilcleer, of all places?”
“A charming tale,” I commented. “She found her true home.”
We walked across the picturesque village square to the restaurant, which sat back off the street behind a cobblestone courtyard. On a bench in the yard sat a woman who looked to be about Jessica’s age. Her dark auburn hair shot with silver was confined in a tight braid that hung halfway down her back, and there was a merry twinkle in her eyes – but Jessica could not help but notice the worry lines around her mouth.
“Jessica,” she said warmly as she stood and took her friend’s hands in both of hers. “It’s been too long! What on earth happened to your arm?”
a long story,” said Jessica, giving her a quick one-armed hug. Then she stepped
back to introduce me: “Shannon, this is my friend from
“Please – call me George.”
“All right then, if you insist ... George.” She opened the door to the restaurant with a flourish. “Shall we?”
she said when we were seated, “how long are you in
five days,” said Jessica. “I can’t stay
away any longer; I’m supposed to be in
thought we were going to hike across
my farm,” said
Jessica settled back and allowed me to tell the tale of how we had come to know each other, oddly enough, in the middle of a murder investigation.
who was taking a sip of white wine, nearly choked. “Romance?” she said. “Oh,
I watched in amusement as the two women exchanged glances full of meaning at each other – Jessica’s was saying “topic closed,” while Shannon’s plainly said “we’ll discuss this more later” – and tried not to burst out laughing, which would have undoubtedly landed me in hot water with both of them.
well, that’s a long story, Jess,”
“Please,” I said. “I think I speak for both of us when I say we’re anxious to hear. Maybe we can help.”
looked up sharply in surprise. “Sell the farm?
had two very attractive offers,” she said.
“To accept either would allow me to live anywhere in the
“Yes,” she admitted, “but lately I’ve been wondering if the farm is more trouble than it’s worth.”
and I shared a worried look. Hadn’t I,
just one year ago, been nearly forced into the same course of action that
“Perhaps you’d better start at the beginning,” I suggested, knowing well how she must have been feeling.
“Did you report any of this to the police?” Jessica asked.
the incidents with the sheep or the cistern,”
“And what did Sergeant Boyle have to say about it?”
“Not much. The area around the hay ricks is so trampled by the sheep that he couldn’t find any misplaced footprints, nor did they find any accelerants in the hay itself. He didn’t close the investigation, but he didn’t hold out much hope that he’d be able to find out much more about it either.”
“If I may say so,” I interrupted, “it sounds to me as if someone is deliberately trying to run you off your farm.”
so, maybe so. But I have no enemies,”
“Well, what about someone who covets your property? They may be trying to make life so unpleasant for you that you’ll sell out.”
there you may have something, George,”
Jessica shook her head ‘no’, but I had certainly heard of them. “They’re a regional bottled water company, Jess. I think their market is limited pretty much to the British Isles.”
“They’re fixing to change that, I think,” said Shannon. “They’ve had a couple of representatives scouting around Kilcleer, testing the wells and looking for new springs. They came to have a look at my well and asked if they could test my well water. They said they’d let me know if any dangerous impurities turned up in it. I thought ‘what’s the harm in that?’ and I let them have their sample.”
I was listening very carefully to her story and nodded my head in agreement. It sounded reasonable to me. “What’s the harm, indeed,” I concurred. “What happened after that?”
“It seems they liked what they saw,” Shannon told him. “When they came back ‘round they made me an offer for the land. I turned them down flat. No one’s going to build a bottling factory on my beloved farmland.”
“Now that is very troubling,” Jessica said gravely. “Does Sergeant Boyle know about that?”
“Aye. ‘Tis the first thing I told him about when he came out to have a look at my burned hay rick. He knows they’ve been hanging around the village, of course. But the night of the fire they were both holed up in the Cannery Arms all night, so there’s the alibi.”
“Still, they could have hired a third person to come in and start the fire,” Jessica pointed out. “I’d be interested to know if they also have alibis for the times when the sheep were let loose and the cistern was damaged.”
“I didn’t think to ask that,” Shannon said glumly. “And now it’s probably too late to go back and check.”
“Not necessarily, Shannon,” said Jessica. “I’ve met Sergeant Boyle before, and he is very thorough and determined. It might not be too much of a stretch for him to ascertain where these bottling company people were on those two occasions. Don’t rule him out, in any event.”
“Shannon, earlier you said that you’d had a couple of offers for the property,” I reminded everyone. “Who made the other offer?”
“Ah,” said Shannon. “The second offer was from Colleen Kirk – she works with the Cork Nature Conservancy. Now, there is a group I’d actually entertain talking to. Colleen told me that the Conservancy’s mission is to buy up tracts of land throughout southwestern Ireland, preferably land with historical significance or especially notable natural features. She’s been interested in my farm for quite some time, on account of my having that old druid circle up on the hill towards the back of my property. I’ve always put her off, but now … now I’m starting to think about the Conservancy’s interest more seriously.”
“Do you know anything about their past dealings with other land owners?” I asked. “Are they fair, for the most part, or are they heavy-handed in their negotiations?”
“I couldn’t say. Colleen Kirk has never been anything but polite with me.”
“I wonder if they are running out of patience,” mused Jessica.
Our entrees arrived then, and talk turned to more pleasant subjects for the duration of the meal … at least until our after-dinner coffee was served. That was when Shannon, who had been staring at Jessica’s sling since the dessert course, brought up the subject of her injury.
“All right, Jess, give – how did you hurt your arm?”
Jessica hesitated and looked at me.
“Go on, Jess, you tell her – I told the ‘how-we-met’ story, so it’s your turn,” I said.
“Oh, all right. We got into some trouble while I was visiting George in Wick …” Jessica told the tale as plainly and succinctly as she could, trying to downplay the more dangerous elements and completely leaving out most of what had happened in the hunting cabin that night. Nevertheless, Shannon’s eyes grew larger and larger as Jessica related her story, until by the end of it she was sitting up straight in her chair with a look of utter astonishment on her Irish features.
“My word, Jess!” she exclaimed as Jessica concluded her narrative. “What a nightmare! No wonder you two decided you needed to come to Kilcleer to get away from it all.”
“Yes,” Jessica admitted. “I think we both needed a vacation from our vacation.”
“Well,” said Shannon, raising her coffee cup as though for a toast, “here’s to hoping you find a more restful time in Ireland than you found in Scotland.”
“Here, here,” I seconded, and the three of us clinked our cups together in acknowledgement of Shannon’s wish.
It was late when we returned to our room. Jessica stifled a yawn as she reached for the light switch inside the door, tossed her purse aside, and collapsed into one of the chairs by the fireplace.
“Don’t fall asleep just yet, Jess,” I said as I hung my coat up on a peg. “You still need to do your physiotherapy exercises.”
Jessica groaned and didn’t move. “It’s been a long day, George. I think I’d rather just get to bed tonight.”
“Come, Jess,” I coaxed her. “You know you have to get your movement back before you can start strengthening your shoulder again.” I had a wicked thought then, and added, “If you don’t get your strength back, you’ll have to ask Seth to put up your storm windows for you this fall.”
That did it; Jessica shot me a look that made it clear this affront to her cherished self-reliance had buckled her resistance. She reluctantly pushed herself up out of her chair and allowed me to help her shrug out of her light linen jacket. Underneath, instead of the full-sleeved shirt I expected, was …
“A camisole top?” I’m sure my jaw must have dropped practically to the floor.
Jessica took back her jacket, folded it neatly, and laid it across the foot of the bed before reaching up with her good hand to undo the tie of her sling. “It’s much easier to get a strap over my bad arm than it is to get it in a sleeve,” she explained. “I don’t have to lift it as high.”
“Sensible,” I remarked, trying to control my breathing. “But also beautiful. You have lovely shoulders, Jess,” I said, stifling the urge to kiss her there. “You should show them off more often.”
Jessica blushed as she made a few tentative stretching motions with her left arm. “Thank you,” she said. “Though I’d really rather not display this one with it still so bruised.”
Remaining as calm and composed as possible under such dangerously tempting conditions, I took up my position slightly behind her and started out with the light massaging motions that Hamish Dawson had taught me. After a few minutes, Jessica sighed and began to relax while I, on the other hand, was beginning to feel increasingly more tense. This was the worst possible type of torture – being allowed this very intimate contact with no hope of it escalating into something more.
“All right, Jess,” I said once she seemed loosened up enough to begin and I had endured as much as I could while maintaining my sanity. “Now … we need a weight, something not too terribly heavy …about half a kilo,” I added as I looked around the room. My eyes lighted on my shaving kit where it rested on the bedside table. It was perfect – the bag was made of soft leather, and the items inside were not too bulky. I picked it up, tested the weight and then removed a few items. After testing the weight again, I deemed it appropriate and handed it to her. “This should do,” I said. “Lean forward a bit, drop your arm, and make little circles while holding on to that.”
Jessica did so, and I watched her carefully as she performed the exercise.
“Remember, don’t swing your arm actively. Use you legs to create momentum and let your arm swing like a pendulum,” I coached.
Jessica altered her technique slightly and continued.
“Does it hurt at all?” I asked, noting an occasional twinge of pain cross her face.
“I can feel a strain down the inside of my arm,” she said, “but it doesn’t feel like my shoulder is going to pop out or anything.”
“Good – that’s what Dr. Dawson said to expect. Do you think we should try something heavier? I think this piece of kindling wood looks to be a little more than a kilo.” I relieved her of the shaving kit and in return handed her a short log from the hearth, wrapped in a towel to protect her from splinters. But as soon as she took the log, she winced and let it drop to the floor with a muffled thump.
“That was a sharper pain,” she said, looking up at me apologetically. “I couldn’t hang on to it.”
“Too much too soon, then,” I observed regretfully. “After all, you only had your cortisone shot a couple of days ago. Here, take back my shaving kit and try your circles again.”
Jessica repeated the first exercise, and seemed more comfortable doing it. After about ten minutes with a break in between, I relieved her of her burden.
“That should do for tonight,” I said. “We’ll try it again tomorrow.”
She nodded, reaching up to massage the ache away with her right hand. This instinctive act did not go unnoticed. “Does it still hurt?” I asked.
Jessica dismissed his concern with a slight wave. “It’s nothing,” she said. “It just feels a little tight, that’s all.”
“Here – sit down and let me give it a little more massage. Hamish wouldn’t want you to try and sleep with it tensed up.”
Jessica sank down onto the bed with her feet tucked under her. I took a deep breath and reminded myself, ‘That which does not kill us makes us stronger’ before sitting behind her and starting to repeat the massage. I had already proven that I could do this once without completely losing it. I could certainly do it again if that’s what she needed. It was my bloody fault that she was in this predicament and I was determined to do whatever was necessary to help her through it.
After a few minutes, I had a sudden thought: “Wait here, Jess, I just thought of something that might help.” I went into the bathroom and came back with a small plastic bottle.
“Body oil,” I explained as he assumed my position behind her once again. “I thought I saw a little bottle of this, in the basket with the shampoo and conditioner.” I poured a little in my hand and rubbed my palms together briskly to warm it up. “Tell me if that feels too cold,” I said as I replaced my hands on her shoulder.
“Mmm. No, it’s just right.”
“Good. Oh – we need to get this out of the way,” I said, fingering the strap of the camisole. “May I?” I asked tentatively.
I carefully slid the strap off her shoulder and down her arm, then reapplied my hands. I was very careful, trying to remember the advice that Hamish had given me – start lightly, and deepen the pressure a little with each stroke. The longer I worked at it, the more attuned I became to her body and where the pain was, and how to make it better. Jessica appeared to be enjoying the effect and sank deeper into relaxation, letting her head bow forward.
I chuckled at her. “Too tired to hold your head up, sleepy?” I teased. “Lie down if you want, and I’ll work on the front of that shoulder of yours next.”
She did so without questioning, letting her head fall back on the pillows and closing her eyes. I moved up beside her and continued to work the oil into the muscles of her upper arm and chest.
As the pleasant warmth spread from my hands to her skin, a memory flashed through my mind unbidden: we was back in Scotland, in my family’s hunting cabin, and I was massaging her injured shoulder while she lay next to the fire, just like I was doing now. I remembered how she had gazed up at me then. Had she seen the hunger in my eyes, amplified by the effect of the firelight flickering on my face? It hadn’t seemed to bother her before in the cabin, but would it now? Was she now enjoying the same memory as I?
All of my questions were answered as soon as Jessica opened her eyes. The change in her demeanor was rather obvious, and I immediately removed my hands, wiping them with a washcloth.
“That should help,” I said with forced lightness. “I doubt you’ll have any further trouble tonight.”
Jessica turned her head aside, hoping to hide the fact that her face was flushed but I had already noticed the change. “Thanks, George,” she said. “It feels much better. I think I’ll get ready for bed now.”
“Good idea,” I hastily agreed. “Like you said – it’s been a long day.”
We settled in for the night then, each taking deliberate care to remain on our respective sides of the bed. I gave her a quick, chaste kiss on the cheek and turned out the light. After that, each of us was alone with our own private thoughts in the darkened room.
Jessica seemed to be trying to will herself to sleep, but she couldn’t relax. Was she as uncomfortably aware of our nearness in the darkness as I was, and was it both a torment and a temptation for her as it was for me?
Looking back at the events of the evening, I recognized, but hated to admit to myself, that her reaction to my massage had been involuntary, beyond her conscious control. Would she recognize that as well? And would she realize that my reaction to her was likewise beyond my conscious control. A lack of control – when could anyone have accused either one of us of suffering from a lack of control? She had that effect on me, though it seemed. Something about her mere presence stirred up such turbulent feelings in me that instinct had a way of overruling everything else, with unpredictable results – like tonight. Was she struggling with the same feelings now as she lay next to me trying unsuccessfully to find sleep?
Finally, she turned over and buried her face in the down pillow. Apparently, I wasn’t the only one who was having difficulty keeping a firm hand on his (or her) emotions. Why couldn’t she just admit that “There’s always been a spark between us, ever since the first time we met?” And why did she fight so bloody hard to convince herself that she was not ready for anything more than friendship, when it was rather obvious that at least a part of her thought otherwise. As long as she remained conflicted with herself, this was going to be a problem – for both of us.
Still, Jessica’s iron will had not gained its reputation without cause. At length, she seemed to finally rein in her restless mind and stifle her internal debate (at least for the night), and in due course found the sleep she was looking for.
Beside her, I also eventually fell into an uneasy sleep. Random images flitted across my dreaming mind, only to depart as quickly as they came and leaving only scant memory of their content behind. But one dream, more solid than the others, stayed with me.
I was back in Scotland, with Jessica, in the hunting cabin. It was raining outside, but the fire burning on the hearth made the rustic little room warm and cozy. In my dream we weren’t running from anything, and Jessica’s shoulder had never been injured … so this time, when I kissed her and ventured the next step of easing her down on to the blankets by the fire, there were no interruptions, and no impediments to my intentions. The firelight danced over her bare skin as I undid the buttons of her shirt and slid it off her shoulders …
All at once I was awake and sitting straight up in bed, my breath coming in short gasps. I looked down at Jessica lying beside me, but she was still serenely asleep, unaware of my abrupt awakening. Well, that was a mercy, at least. Jessica would not be pleased at all if she knew what I had just dreamed about her.
I got out of bed and went into the adjoining bathroom to splash cold water on my face. A cold shower would have been more effective but I didn’t want to risk waking her. I looked at my image in the mirror; a pair of well-intentioned but tired green eyes stared back at me.
“Ah, me,” I sighed to myself as I made my way back to bed. “It's weel that oor fauts is no written in oor face. (It’s a good thing our faults are not written on our faces.)”
If I had any more troubling dreams that night, come morning I did not remember them.
The next morning we had breakfast in town, and lingered in a street-side café over coffee – it seemed that a strong cup of java made up for a restless night, at least for Jessica. As for me, it took two. Afterwards we strolled aimlessly around the village square, looking in shop windows and taking in the atmosphere. It was a grey morning with a light misty rain sifting down from the low-lying clouds, but the weather did little to dampen our spirits.
Suddenly struck by an idea that might make things a little easier for Jessica, I paused in front of one shop, a little hole-in-the-wall storefront that sold woolen clothes and outerwear.
“I have an idea,” I said, taking her hand. “Come inside with me.”
Always easily intrigued, Jessica followed me inside. The store was little more than a long narrow room lined on either side from floor to ceiling with wool of all different colours and textures. The shopkeeper, at his counter in the back, nodded to us and wished us good morning as we came in.
“Guid morning,” I replied with a smile.
“Is there something I could help ye with?”
“As a matter of fact, yes,” I replied. “We need to find a good piece of outerwear for the lady here, something she can manage one-handed and wear over that sling.”
“Aye,” he said, noting Jessica’s condition. “You’ll not be wanting to put that arm through any sleeves for some time yet, will ye, lady.”
“I suppose not,” she replied, glancing at me.
“A good woolen cloak is what ye be needing, then,” the shopkeeper determined. He took a step back and gave Jessica an appraising look. “Nigh on six feet, unless I miss my guess, and I never do,” he said at length. “A tall one, then. Come with me.”
He took us to a section of the shop near the back, where cloaks of all sizes and colours hung from a wooden rack. Bypassing all the shorter ones – some looked to be tailored even down to a child’s size – he selected four of the proper length.
“Here,” he said, handing her a black one. “Try this on for size.”
I helped her out of her coat carefully, and draped the cloak over her shoulders. The clasp at the throat, worked in silver, was simple enough to be latched or unlatched with one hand. When she had settled it so it felt comfortable, I guided her to a full-length mirror so she could see the effect.
“Stunning,” I said. “A perfect fit.”
“I never miss my guess,” the shopkeeper said with quiet pride.
Jessica had to admit that she liked the effect. The wool, though tightly woven, was much lighter than she had expected, and draped around her to nearly ankle-length in flattering folds while the full hood, when not in use, formed a soft yoke around her shoulders.
“It’s beautiful,” she said. “But I don’t think I would choose to wear black.”
“Perhaps not,” the shopkeeper said, pacing around her. “Ye be too fair for that much black. Something lighter, then.” He took back the black one, and sorted through the others, holding up and discarding in turn forest green (“Still too dark for ye”) and brick red (“Mayhaps … but I think we can do better yet”). That left one in heather grey.
“What about that one?” I asked.
“Aye, what about it, now? Try it, lady.”
Jessica put it on, then turned to face the mirror and caught her breath at the image reflected therein.
The effect was amazing. I had never before seen Jessica’s eyes so blue. “My word, Jessica,” I said. “You look absolutely beautiful in that. Like an elf princess.”
Jessica laughed and blushed slightly. “Oh, I wouldn’t go so far as to say that, George Sutherland!”
“He has a point,” said the shopkeeper. “This one matches your eyes, lady. If ye’d accept my advice – and I’ve been selling woolens for nigh on thirty years – this be the one ye should take.”
“All right, then,” she said, relenting. She started to look for the price tag, but at a sign from me the shopkeeper snipped it off with his scissors and palmed it before she had a chance to see it.
“George …” she protested, but I held up my hand.
“Please, Jess,” I said. “I feel responsible for the condition of your shoulder. Let me get this for you as a gift.”
“You’re not responsible for my shoulder, but all right,” she said, relenting. “You’re a very sweet man, George. Thank you.”
Rather than putting her own awkward coat back on, the shopkeeper folded it neatly and placed it in a bag as I paid for the cloak. As I took the bag from the counter, Jessica said, “Wait for me outside a moment.”
Jessica gave me a mischievous look. “Because I said so.”
I sighed, wondering what she was up to. When she didn’t give an inch, I decided it best to do as I had been told. “Right, then. I’ll be outside.”
A few minutes later, Jessica emerged from the store with a bag of her own, and joined me on the bench I was sitting on.
“Here,” she said, handing it to me. “I got these for you, as a thank you.”
I reached into the bag and pulled out a bundle wrapped in tissue paper. When I opened it, I found a gentleman’s scarf and matching cap, both a subtle shade of pale grey-green.
Jessica picked up the scarf and held it up. “For when you’re driving along the cliffs of the North Sea in your car,” she explained. “And yes, I do believe they match the colour of your eyes.”
I burst into laughter and kissed her on the cheek. “I guess that makes us even,” I said. “Thank you, Jess.”
We continued to walk around the village of Kilcleer for the rest of the morning, and as the sun drew near its zenith it succeeded in burning through the low grey clouds and chasing them away. Every bedewed blade of grass and raindrop-touched leaf shone as though it had been sprinkled with diamond dust.
Before leaving the restaurant the evening before, Shannon had extended an invitation to us to come take a walking tour of her farm the next day. Jessica was particularly curious to see the stone circle on the hill that her friend had spoken of, so after a light lunch and a cup of tea we made our way out to her place, about a mile from the edge of the village.
As we walked down the drive, we were greeted by Shannon’s border collie, Shep. He ran around us in eager circles, barking enthusiastically, until we approached the stone cottage and Shannon herself came outside.
“I see you’ve been greeted by the welcoming committee,” she said. “Shep, heel!”
The border collie snapped to attention, then obediently trotted to his mistress’ side.
“What a well-trained dog,” I said, impressed.
“He needs to be out of necessity,” said Shannon. “He earns his keep about the place by herding the sheep. Sorry if he startled you.”
“Not at all,” I said smoothly. “We could tell he was just happy to see us.”
“I think,” said Jessica, “that just now, he thought he was herding us!”
Shannon laughed as she scratched the dog behind his ears. “Show him more than one of anything or anybody, and he’ll do to them what he does best,” she said. “So – you’ve come to ramble through my fields and forests with me. Good! Let me grab my walking stick, and we’ll be off.”
We went past the barns and the stone well that supplied them with water, and out into the wider pastures where Shannon grazed her sheep. On the higher land beyond the pastures were meadows filled with grasses and wildflowers and scattered woodlands with trees just coming into full leaf. A stream ran through one of these, hurrying down the ridge toward the river valley below.
We emerged from a belt of trees at the foot of a low hill separate from the rest of the higher ground. It was treeless and barren, except for a ring of fifteen standing stones at its crown.
“How old is this?” Jessica asked as they made the final approach to the circle.
“Near as anyone can tell, three millennia,” Shannon answered. “The stones are not local – a geologist friend of mine determined that they had been hauled halfway across Ireland to come here.”
“Incredible,” I commented. To have moved such massive stones that far a distance would surely have been an arduous task.
We reached the circle’s edge, and stepped inside the ring through a wide gap on the southern side. This had clearly been the entrance once upon a time; the gap was flanked by two stones taller than the rest. A lintel might have once rested atop them to frame a doorway or arch, but if so it had long ago fallen down with time and decay, or been hauled off to make some farmer’s front step. A few of the stones leaned at odd angles this way and that, but most remained surprisingly straight and tall, like silent sentinels waiting for the return of a legendary king.
I guessed that the space inside the stones was roughly twelve meters wide, and so flat and level that it could only have been made that way by the hand of man. Whatever had been inside the ring before, now all that could be seen were weeds, sparse grass, and discarded pieces of wood and bracken.
On the western edge of the ring, one stone of the group was different from the rest, its chief feature being a hole carved straight through it about eight feet off the ground. It was perfectly round and smooth, and big enough to pass a melon through. Jessica, curiously drawn by this unusual feature of the ring, approached the stone and placed her hand against it. The stone’s flank must have felt warm to the touch, having absorbed the sun’s energy.
“What was the purpose of this stone, Shannon?” she asked.
“That is the hole stone, and it was used for astronomical measurements,” her friend replied. “At dawn on the Summer Solstice, the first light of the rising sun shines through the gap between those two stones on the eastern side, and through the hole down into the valley beyond.”
“Does the beam of light from the hole shine on a particular feature down there?” Jessica asked.
“In fact it does,” said Shannon. “It lights on my front door. I got up before dawn on Midsummer Day when I first moved here, and witnessed it for myself. Ever since then people from Kilcleer gather in my dooryard at dawn on the Summer Solstice to witness the event for themselves. It’s become something of a tradition.”
“Do you think that’s why the cottage was built on that spot in the first place?” I wondered out loud.
Shannon shrugged. “Maybe so, who can say? The foundations are old – I know that the current building was built on the remains of another, and that was built on the remains of another before that. But if there was once some ancient monument there, it’s long since gone.”
We returned from our walk as the sun was setting in the west, touching the green fields and hills with a golden summer light as warm and thick as honey. As we approached the stone cottage, Jessica noticed a man she did not recognize in the dooryard.
“Shannon,” she said, “who is that, and what is he doing?”
Looking up then, I saw him as well, and he appeared to be walking in slowly expanding circles, his attention on the ground before his feet.
Shannon shaded her eyes against the setting sun with her hand, and laughed. “That’s my friend, Shamus O’Malley,” she said. “He’s a mason here in town. I was talking to him about the troubles going on around the place, and he offered to look into it with his dowsing rod.”
“He’s a dowser?” I asked.
“Aye,” Shannon said. “I don’t know whether I really believe in it or not, but he was so kind to offer his help, I could not say no.”
As we reached the gate leading from the fields Shannon nimbly climbed over the wooden slats, undid the latch, and let us through, Shep standing alert as a rear guard of sorts until the gate was safely latched again. We approached the house, and got our first good look at Shamus O’Malley. He was a middle-aged man, tanned and well-muscled from years of hard work with stone in the out-of-doors. He had compensated for a lack of hair on the top of his head by growing a beard, which was a mix of black and white but kept neat and trim. In his hands he held a forked stick shaped like a “Y,” with the stem held parallel to the ground. His eyes were closed, and he seemed to be lost in deep concentration. As we approached him he continued pacing out his circle until Shannon hailed him:
“Find anything, Shamus?”
O’Malley stopped in his tracks as his eyes snapped open. “Now, then, Shannon-lass, ye know better than to distract me in the middle of a divination!”
“Sorry, sorry,” Shannon said, as Shep ran circles around the newcomer. “Shamus, I’d like you to meet my friends – Jessica Fletcher, who I’ve known since my days at university, and Inspector George Sutherland of Scotland Yard.”
“Limey, aye?” O’Malley said as he took my hand and shook it. “Well, I’ll not hold it against ye. I’m pleased to make your acquaintance, sir.” Had he not been such a jovial chap, I may have felt the need to correct him, as I am not a Brit but rather a Scot.
Shannon gave Jessica a weak smile to indicate that she had not missed this somewhat back-handed comment, and said, “I told George and Jessica about the misfortunes that have been going on ‘round this place over dinner last night.”
“Did ye now? Well, I think I’ve found the source of your troubles.” Shamus went over to the flagstone path that ran from the field gate to Shannon’s front door. “Watch this.” He closed his eyes again, held out the dowsing rod, and stepped on to the path. As he did, the dowsing rod began to quiver in his hands and then move up and down as though with a will of its own. We all looked on with keen interest.
“That’s the source of your troubles,” he said, stepping off the path again. “Ye have a ley-line running right under this place. ‘Tis a wonder ye haven’t had troubles before now.”
“Where does it go?” Shannon asked.
pointed to the distant stone ring on the hill.
“From yonder henge … right to your front door.”
“The stone ring?” said Shannon in astonishment. “How do you figure?”
“Ye know that the Ancients set their monuments over points of power in the earth,” O’Malley explained to her. “Well, I paid a visit up there, took some sightings, did some figuring … anyway, turns out that on the morning of the Summer Solstice, the sun rising between two stones on the eastern edge of the ring and shining through the hole stone on the western edge casts a path of light straight to your door. That’s how I knew where to look.”
While he was explaining his logic to Shannon, Jessica quietly walked across the flagstone path and back again. I doubted if she sensed anything unusual but made a mental note to ask her about it later.
“I know that the Celts were very precise about the astronomical alignment of their monuments,” she said, “but what does the path made by the sunrise on Midsummer Day have to do with the things that have been happening around Shannon’s house?”
“’Tisn’t the path itself, but the energies that run along it that affect the world above,” said Shamus. “The line itself is two hundred and sixty-five feet beneath the surface – that’s the depth that solar energy sinks to when it enters the earth at a node. From there it travels in a path that’s straight as an arrow, up to thirty miles or more to the next node.”
“So the stone ring is the node,” I said, curious to hear what else he had to say, “and the direction of the path is determined by the alignment of the sun on prominent Celtic holy days.”
O’Malley seemed pleased by my grasp of the subject, “Exactly,” he said with a smile.
“And what effect does solar energy have on the surface?” asked Shannon.
“Solar energy increases other energies,” said Shamus. “Anything with a tendency toward chaos will become more dangerous if solar energy is influencing it. And some ley-line energies are negative, which can have a disastrous impact on anything above it.”
Jessica took a step forward to get a closer look at O’Malley’s dowsing rod. “How does the dowsing rod sense the ley-line?”
“It doesn’t,” he answered. “I sense the ley-line. Certain people will always resonate with the energy when they come upon it. The dowsing rod merely amplifies the effect so that others can see it.”
“So dowsing for a ley-line is like dowsing for water,” I mused. To Jessica I said, “When I was a child, our well ran dry. My father hired a dowser to come find a good spot for a new well, and damned if he didn’t indicate the perfect place. That new well hasn’t even come close to going dry since.”
“So I have a ley-line running through my dooryard,” Shannon said. “What do I do about it?”
“Nothing,” Shamus said promptly. “That line has been there for nigh on three thousand years. Ye can’t ask it to move now. If ye’d take my advice, ye’d sell this place. It pains me to say so, ye’ve been here for so many years – but take my word for it, there’s no cure for the effect that line’s having on your farm. The best ye can hope to do is get away from it.”
Shannon’s face fell, as though her worst fears had been realized.
“Thanks for the advice, Shamus. I’ll take to heart what you’ve said.”
“All I can ask ye to do. Be seeing ye on the morrow, Shannon-lass.” Shamus O’Malley nodded to Jessica and me, blew a light kiss to Shannon, and let himself out the gate.
“Well,” said Shannon as she watched him leave. “So that explains that.”
“Oh, I don’t know about that, Shannon,” Jessica said warily. “Call me a skeptic, but it seems far-fetched to me that underground energy fields are responsible for the very real damage you’ve experienced here.”
“So you’re saying that Shamus is wrong?”
“No,” she said. “For all I know, he could be right. I’m just saying that it would be wise to rule out all the perfectly ordinary possibilities for what’s been going on before accepting his explanation as the correct one.”
Shannon sighed gustily. “I suppose you’re right, Jess,” she said as she turned and headed up the path to her door. “It’s just that I’ve known Shamus for many a year. I can’t imagine him leading me astray.”
As we followed her inside, I glanced at Jessica. The look on her face told me quite plainly that she did not share Shannon’s faith in Shamus O’Malley’s theory of ley-lines and negative energies. Not being one to put much stock into the idea of mystical energies or the paranormal myself, I was skeptical as well. Even the success of the dowser that I had watched as a child could probably be explained away by the fact that if one were to drill deep enough, he would surely find the water table sooner or later.
As twilight deepened into dusk, the three of us shared a quiet meal in Shannon’s home. The atmosphere in the cottage was warm and cozy. Shep was stretched across the stone hearth, snoring gently as the firelight in the grate sent wavering shadows dancing across the plaster walls and woven rugs. We spoke of small things over our meal, Shannon sharing tales of local interest. Watching Jessica, I noted that she was pleased to see that as the evening progressed, her old friend’s mood seemed to lift back to its normal buoyant level. Inevitably, however, over after-dinner tea the talk returned to the subject of what to do about the farm, and her various options for selling it.
“I don’t know what to do, Jess,” Shannon sighed as she stirred fresh cream into her cup of green tea. “I did two tarot readings on myself on two consecutive nights. The first one indicated ‘sell,’ but didn’t specify to whom. The next night the message was ‘don’t sell.’ Where does that leave me?”
“You know how to read tarot cards?” Jessica asked. “I didn’t know you could do that.”
Shannon laughed her surprise off. “It’s almost a required field of study for someone like me with an interest in mythology and fairy tales,” she said. “I never let it actually dictate my actions, but sometimes I feel like I can get a glimpse of what my subconscious mind is thinking when I read the cards. Hey now – I should do readings for the two of you.”
Jessica, ever curious, accepted the invitation. “What do I do?”
Shannon went to her desk, rummaged around, and produced a deck of cards, bent at the corners and a little yellow with age. She placed them into her friend’s hands.
“Shuffle these,” she instructed. “Don’t think about anything in particular while you do it, unless you have a particular question you need guidance on. Keep shuffling them any which way until you’re satisfied.”
Jessica did so; after a minute or two she handed the deck back to Shannon.
“Ready as I’ll ever be,” she said with a smile. She didn’t admit it to Shannon, but a sudden change in body language seemed to reflect a slight feeling of apprehension on Jessica’s part.
Shannon gestured her over to her kitchen table, and took a seat across from her. “This is a modified Celtic Cross pattern,” she explained as she laid out the cards face down. She put the top card of the deck on the table first, crossing it with the next. The following four she arranged around them, north, south, east, and west.
“This card,” she said, tapping the one in the center, “is your current situation, the problem at hand.” She flipped it over for Jessica to see. A figure robed in black carrying a scythe and a white rose was inscribed on its face.
“Death,” said Jessica softly.
Death, I thought worriedly as I stood from my chair.
“The Death card rarely signifies actual physical death and dying,” Shannon reassured her. “More often, it signifies a life change – ‘as one door closes another one opens.’ That sort of thing.”
That doesn’t sound too bad, I decided. As a matter of fact, I thought more positively, it could be a very positive sign…for us.
Next she turned over the card that crossed the Death card. It showed the image of a strong king bearing a long jeweled staff. “The King of Wands,” said Shannon, “is what we call the Major Influence, the external force coming to bear on the current problem that will help shape its outcome. Sometimes it is a force working in tandem with the seeker, and sometimes it is in opposition. The King of Wands himself represents a strong, charismatic man of noble bearing. He is conscientious, but occasionally acts too boldly or with too much haste. Such a man will have much to do with how you will deal with the problem of an approaching life change.”
Jessica’s eyes flickered over to where I was now standing at the entrance to the kitchen, a slight smile on my lips. ‘A strong, charismatic man of noble bearing…conscientious…’ – a compliment to be sure, one that I hoped Jessica was in complete agreement with. Fortunately, something told me that she was. Now that second bit - but occasionally acts too boldly or with too much haste – that sounded exactly like the words that she would use to describe me.
Looking away again, Jessica refocused her attention on Shannon, who had turned over the card in the north position. “North equates the Distant Past,” she said. “It’s what has made you what you are today, Jess.” She peered at the card. “The Star. Well, that fits you well enough. The Star represents what I, at least, have always known you to do – blending the best of past and present, accepting both for what they are with serenity, and never relinquishing hope and faith in the future. There is also indication of an awareness of the dual nature of the world, of power over the Seen and Unseen.”
The east position card was next. “The Nine of Wands,” Shannon said, “summarizes your Recent Past, though how recent only you can determine. This card speaks to recent trials that have required all your stamina to endure. You are battle-scarred and on the defensive, but you have not yet been broken. What does not kill you will ultimately make you stronger.”
Prior to this moment, I had merely been a casual observer to Jessica’s reading but now, Shannon had my complete attention. Did she truly have a gift – the gift of being able to read people - or did she simply know her friend this well. Then again, that didn’t explain the cards. She couldn’t have planned that. I watched Jessica shuffle the cards myself.
Jessica looked at the image on the card, that of a soldier with his arm in a sling leaning on the last of nine staves as if using it for a crutch. “That fits,” she said wryly.
“Here is your Near Future, in the south,” Shannon continued. The card she turned over bore the image of the moon, with two hounds baying at it from below. “It would be better, I daresay, had this card turned out to be the Sun, not the Moon. But there it is: the Moon is the sign of apprehension and fear, a warning that not all is as it appears, and that unseen enemies lurk in the darkness. It isn’t all bad, though – in proper context, the Moon can inspire us to let our imagination run free. Perhaps it speaks to your next book, Jess.”
It was only a flicker but I saw it – a sudden stab of intense apprehension before she managed to cover it with a look of calmness and serenity. “Perhaps,” was all she said in response to Shannon’s interpretation. “What about this last card, in the west?”
“That is the Ultimate Outcome in this pattern,” she said. “Nothing about it is set in stone; it is merely a window on your hopes or fears for the future.” She flipped the card over, and sat back and laughed softly to herself. “I could have predicted this one as well, Jess – it’s Justice, holding her scales and her sword. This is what you hope for – balance, and truth. You have worked to achieve these things in the past. The card here indicates you will continue to work for these things in the future – provided you can see your way through whatever changes lie before you, without being snared by the danger implied by the Moon.”
I imagine that a part of Jessica’s subconscious thought strongly identified with the image on the card and was drawn to it as though to a haven in a storm. The figure of Justice, a marble statue that was as cool and unruffled as the surface of a frozen lake, brought an unexpected feeling of comfort … or at least familiarity … to what was otherwise an unsettling pattern of cards.
Shannon waved her hand over the whole of the pattern. “It’s highly unusual to see so many major arcana in one reading,” she said. “Taken as a whole, it tells me that you have powerful energies swirling around you, Jess. The trick is to harness them without being overwhelmed by them.”
Jessica sat back in her chair, clearly impressed. The entire reading had taken no longer than ten minutes, yet she felt like she had been sitting there for hours. “That’s a lot to think about,” she remarked.
“Don’t try to understand it all at once. Sleep on it, and see if it becomes clearer over the course of the next few days. As I told you before, I don’t let the cards dictate my actions, just provide me with a source of insight.” She waved me over to the table. “Your turn, George.”
Jessica relinquished her seat to me, but I hesitated. “Er, I don’t know, Shannon …” If she had been so brown bread on with Jessica’s reading, I didn’t know if this was a wise thing to do.
“Come now. I can’t do a reading on one of you without doing the other. Sit down and shuffle the cards.”
I did so, but unlike Jessica, who I’m sure had kept her mind open, I chose to concentrate on one important question while my hands shuffled the cards. At length I pushed the deck back across the table to Shannon. Jessica hovered nearby, interested in hearing what Shannon had to say.
“An open-faced reading for you, I think,” her friend said, eyeing me closely. “It often seems to work better for men that way.”
Here goes nothing, I thought silently to myself, unsure of what to expect.
With practiced hands, she laid out the six cards in their cross-wise pattern. Shannon looked down at them, considering their message, then quickly back up at me.
“You’re in love with her.” It was a statement, not a question, and I nearly fell off my chair. I had certainly expected the topic to come up in some way, shape, or form, but not like this.
I wasn’t sure how to respond – after all, I had only met Shannon the day before, and could only call her an acquaintance at best. I briefly wondered whether Shannon was actually basing her statement on the cards spread out between us, or if she was instead merely articulating a truth that I thought I had succeeded in hiding behind my much-lauded British “stiff upper lip.” If it was the latter, were my feelings really so obvious that even a casual onlooker could read them? If so, how would Jessica react? Not well, I guessed.
Shannon took my silence as permission to go on, and continued the reading as though nothing had happened, although every now and again her eyes darted towards Jessica as if trying to read her reaction to what was being said.
“Your current situation,” she said, “is here, represented by the Knight of Cups. It is an opportunity that you have been presented. Most tarot readers would say it is an opportunity for romance.” Here she cast another glance across the table at Jessica, but her friend's face remained impassive and unreadable, as it tended to do when discussing such things.
“Your crossing card, the Major Influence that is complicating matters, is the Queen of Swords. She represents a strong, self-confident woman of many experiences, intensely perceptive and quick-witted. And that’s all I’m going to say about that.”
That’s Jessica, I thought to myself smugly. Shannon needn’t have said more even if she had wanted to. Maybe there was something to this tarot thing after all.
“Your Distant Past, what has made you who you are, is Justice and your untiring work in its service. More recently, you have been suffering the effects of the Nine of Swords – slander, worry, guilt, the agony of seeing a loved one in pain. The Nine of Swords warns us that your troubles may not yet be over; you may have sleepless nights yet to endure.”
I looked at the picture uneasily; it showed a figure sitting up in bed with his head in his hands, nine ominous-looking swords hanging above him like the stroke of doom. I remembered how I had felt when Jessica had been hurt – angry, helpless, and worried sick – and could easily identify with the haunted figure portrayed in the card’s image. That experience had been bad enough – in fact, it was difficult to imagine anything worse than what I had felt that day – yet the card indicated that such trials were not wholly in the past. What was it that Horace McKay said when we had arrived in Wick – that we had fled danger into danger? Was history about to repeat itself so soon? I couldn’t help but wonder.
My anxious thoughts were interrupted when Shannon tapped the south position card.
“Now to your brighter future,” she said. “In the Near Future, the Seven of Wands indicates an opportunity to take a stand for what you believe in, to prevail against obstacles, to be brave. It is a battle card – you can see from the picture that this soldier is fighting – but if you stand firm, you will come out with the victory. What you hope for – or fear will happen – is here, in the west. Well, this card at least should be self-explanatory.”
Indeed, I thought. The last card, the Hopes-and-Fears card, was the Lovers.
Jessica, looking over my shoulder, saw the card and was no longer able to hide her dismay. She took an involuntary step back, and when I looked over my shoulder at her, I noticed that she had looked away. Although I knew that neither she nor I was superstitious and placed no rational significance in the cards, there seemed to be no escaping the fact that the readings had stripped away the carefully constructed surface of our relationship like waves washing away sand on a beach, revealing the much more turbulent undercurrents for Shannon to see.
Sensing Jessica’s obvious discomfort I chose not to pursue the deeper meaning of the final card, and though sure that she knew that I had not missed her reaction, I didn’t draw attention to it. Instead I glanced at my watch and rose from the table, knowing full well that we had both had enough for one night.
“Marvelous dinner, Shannon,” I said, “and a most entertaining evening. Have you ever considered taking your act on the road? You could make a fortune telling fortunes.”
Shannon laughed as she put the deck of cards away. “Nay, George, that would never do for me,” she said. “If I’m so good, why haven’t I won any lotteries? I’ll leave the fortune-telling-for-profit to the other charlatans, thank you.”
“That’s probably for the best,” I agreed. “Come, Jess, it’s late – we should be getting back to the hotel.”
“Breakfast tomorrow?” Shannon asked as I helped Jessica with her cloak. “The Seven Loaves Bakery has really superb scones. My treat.”
“Sounds good,” Jessica said with a smile. “What time?”
“Make it nine. I’m intending to sleep in.”
“Done.” We started to leave, but at the door Jessica turned and paused. “Shannon – one last thing before we go. Could I trouble you to loan me some of your books about the stone circles?”
“Sure, Jess,” she said. She went to her bookshelves, which were overflowing with written materials of her own as well as others’ making, and selected a few volumes that she thought would serve. “What are you hoping to find?”
Jessica took the books and glanced at their covers. “I haven’t the faintest idea – but I’ll be sure to let you know when I find it,” she said. “Good night, Shannon.”
Shannon’s house was only a modest walk from the center of Kilcleer, and the road was easy to navigate even at night. On our way back to the village and the hotel Jessica was much quieter than usual, with her eyes staring straight ahead at the road before us. I could tell she was upset, and walking next to her in near silence was becoming more awkward with each step, so I tried once again to engage her in conversation.
“I take it you don’t put much faith in what Mr. O’Malley told Shannon this afternoon.”
The question succeeded in stirring Jessica from her private thoughts. “About a ley-line being responsible for the incidents at the farm? No, I don’t believe it for a minute.”
“Neither do I. It just seems like too pat an explanation, and of course, it is a theory that is utterly unprovable.” I looked toward the line of hills in the east where the moon was just beginning to rise, as if I’d find the answer to today’s problems on the distant horizon. “No,” I said, “much as he would like us to believe that there is supernatural mischief going on about that place, I think the true cause is much more mundane.”
“Why would he tell her such things, then?” Jessica wondered aloud. “If he is truly concerned for her safety, why distract her with the supposed results of his dowsing expedition?”
“I don’t know, Jess. He has no direct stake in the sale of the farm as far as we can see. Maybe he truly believes himself what he told Shannon today.”
“Maybe.” Jessica kicked a small stone absently as we walked and watched it skitter off the pavement and into the tall grass at the roadside, her mind clearly elsewhere.
Growing frustrated, I tried again to pull her back to the present by using a different … and, I knew - believe me, I knew - more dangerous … tack. Maybe I wanted to clear the air or maybe I wanted her to face the facts. To this day, I’m not sure which.
Here goes nothing. “So you’re convinced the ley-line theory is rubbish. What about Shannon’s tarot readings?”
My question had its intended effect; it caught Jessica off-guard, and she looked up at me sharply.
“Oh, I don’t really put much stock in those either. Except …” She trailed off into silence and would not give voice to her thought.
“Except what?” I asked impatiently.
“Nothing?” I’m sure I practically bellowed the word as I came to a complete halt in the middle of the road and took her by the arm so that she had to look at me. “It’s not ‘nothing.’ I saw you back there in Shannon’s kitchen. You were plainly upset by what you were hearing and seeing.”
Jessica refused to meet my eyes. “It’s just that … I didn’t expect the cards to be so accurate,” she reluctantly admitted. She started to pull away, clearly anxious to resume walking and leave the topic behind, but I would not let her – not when we were finally getting close to the heart of the problem.
“Yours?” I said. “Or mine?”
There was another reluctant pause. “Mostly yours,” she said at last, and she wrapped her cloak tighter around herself as if to ward off a chill.
I pressed my free hand to my eyes and took a deep, calming breath. Lowering my hand, I asked quietly, “Was the message you saw in my cards really so surprising?” How could she possibly have thought that my feelings for her had diminished? If anything, they had grown.
Jessica shifted uncomfortably where she stood, still avoiding my gaze, and nervously drew an arc in the gravel roadbed with the toe of her shoe. “No … it’s just that I thought we had settled that. In Scotland.”
I sighed with exasperation and cast my eyes towards the heavens. “Maybe you thought we had,” I said, failing to keep a hint of bitterness from creeping into my tone. “But as for me, do you really expect me to be able to turn my own feelings toward you on and off like a light switch? I’m only human, Jess.”
“And so are you,” I reminded her gently, wanting desperately to pull her close.
She did not reply; instead she succeeded in slipping my grip and resumed walking toward the lights of the village; this time I did not try to stop her. The moon rose higher; in its silver light and with her face set like flint, Jessica looked as if she had been carved from alabaster, an image that, at least at the moment, I found particularly apt.
“You know, your cards were right on the mark as well,” I said, once again falling into step beside her. “Especially your last one. Justice. But it wasn’t just the implied meaning that fits you so perfectly. Sometimes you match the image of the card as well.”
“What do you mean?”
“Sometimes it feels like you’re just as unapproachable as that marble statue, Jess.” There, I had said it. It could no longer be unsaid. “When you want to, you put up an emotional shield so impenetrable and unreadable that nothing gets past it. You won’t let my feelings in, and heaven forbid you let your feelings out.”
I expected an angry outburst at that. I deserved one in fact but instead of protesting my admittedly harsh assessment, Jessica said nothing at all.
And in a way, that was much, much worse … if only because it proved my point.
The rest of the short walk was conducted in deafening silence. So too did we enter the hotel lobby and head up to our room in silence, and get ready for bed in silence. Since the accident with her shoulder I had become accustomed to helping Jessica get in and out of the sleeves of her clothes, but this time when I touched her arm gently with an offer to help, she flinched away and insisted on doing it herself. Thus rebuffed, I had to be content with watching her struggle through the process alone. It took her twice as long and more than once I saw a fleeting wince of pain cross her face. It pierced my heart to stand aside in silence but I knew better than to dare to make the offer a second time. Reminding her to do her physiotherapy exercises was quite out of the question.
By the time I turned out the light, I was feeling perfectly rotten for what I had said to her. Rotten, but not sorry – I knew I had spoken from my heart, and that for me at least what I had said was true. Even if it was an unpleasant truth, that did not make my feelings on the matter any less valid.
“Keep a calm sooch, George,” I silently reminded himself: “Hold your tongue.” So I endured her silence and kept my peace.
What had Shannon said earlier that evening? “The Seven of Wands indicates an opportunity to take a stand for what you believe in, to prevail against obstacles, to be brave. It is a battle card – you can see from the picture that this soldier is fighting – but if you stand firm, you will come out with the victory.” Perhaps this is precisely what she had been alluding to – not a physical battle but rather an emotional one?
I was just about to drop off into an uneasy sleep; reciting silently to himself as I did all the words in the English language I could think of for ‘stubborn’ (“Intractable! Obstinate! Willful! Countermacious”. Aye, she could be all of those things. Then why do I love her so much, you might ask? An easy question to answer: Because she's warm, intelligent, witty, beautiful, passionate. I could go on and on but you get the picture. I love everything about her. Aye, even the fact that she's stubborn.
Suddenly, Jessica spoke aloud into the darkness: “You’re right.”
Her words jolted me awake straightaway. “Come again?”
“You’re right,” she said again. “About everything. I haven’t been fair to you at all. And I’m sorry.”
There are no words, English or otherwise, to explain how low I felt just then. “I was very harsh on you,” I admitted.
“Yes, you were,” she said honestly. “And it hurt.” She paused, and then added quietly, “But I can also accept that what you said was true enough.”
I propped himself up on my elbow and looked at her in the dim light coming through the curtains from the lamps of the courtyard below. Jessica was lying on her back, tense as a bowstring, her eyes open and fixed on the ceiling. I could tell that it had cost her a great deal – at least in terms of personal pride – to say what she had just told me.
“I don’t know why I thought telling you that I wasn’t ready for ‘that kind’ of relationship would just put an end to the issue,” she continued, her eyes sparkling with unshed tears.
Who knew my heart could ache even more?
“Maybe it’s because I’ve gotten quite good at burying my own emotions. Maybe it’s because I’ve written so much fiction it’s become easy for me to turn a blind eye to reality.”
“Maybe it’s because you don’t want to be hurt again,” I pointed out, hoping that she would understood that I appreciated how she felt. “It must have been agony for you when Frank died.”
Jessica curled up into a tight ball of misery and faced the wall. “Yes,” she said.
It’s now or never, I thought to myself, still fearful that I may have damaged our relationship beyond repair. It was then that I took a calculated risk, and put a comforting hand on her shoulder. This time she did not draw away from my touch. “I remember enduring that pain myself, when my Kathleen died in that car accident,” I told her sympathetically. “It’s the sort of pain that one does not easily forget – or willingly risk enduring again.”
“That’s not the whole reason …”
“No, I never said that it was,” I said, stroking her golden hair. “But I think it’s at least part of the reason. Think about it logically, Jess: the closer someone is to the center of your heart, the more it hurts to lose them. The solution, therefore, is simple – betray no weakness to anyone, and admit no one into the guarded realm of your heart. You’ve become quite good at this, Jessica. You rarely display any hint of vulnerability to anyone, even to me.”
At last she began to relax. “I know,” she sighed. “Forgive me?”
“There’s nothing to forgive,” I said promptly. In the time since our argument on the road, I’d had time to examine my own words and actions, and had not found myself completely faultless. “It is who you are at this moment. My error was in trying to push you further into intimacy – and the risk of pain that goes with it – before you were ready.” I paused, and then added, “It has been difficult for me to come to terms with the possibility that you may never be ready.”
The words hung in the space between us for a long moment.
“Then, of course, there is the other problem,” Jessica said at length as she turned to face me at last.
She smiled. “I’m a damned, stubborn, mule-headed Mainer.”
I had to laugh at this. “Even here, across the wide Atlantic Ocean, the folk of Maine are well known for their … oh, how shall I put it … singularly stoic, unyielding nature.”
This made her laugh as well. “That’s putting it kindly,” she said. “But we need to be strong, else we’d never survive the Maine winters.”
“Fair enough,” I said as I lay back on the pillows, relieved. “Jess, do you think it’s possible that you and I are the Immovable Object and the Unstoppable Force, respectively?”
Jessica yawned sleepily. “Well,” she replied, “if we are, then the Immovable Object at least is tired, and has no intention of being moved until tomorrow morning at the earliest.”
“So be it,” I said, in full agreement. “Good night, Jessica. Sleep long and well.”
“Good night, George. And thank you, as always, for being you.”
I woke first the next morning, well after first light. Rising carefully so as not to wake Jessica, I tiptoed to the bathroom to shower, shave, and dress. When I returned to the main room, I was surprised to find Jessica still fast asleep. Good Lord, she was lovely – snuggled under the blankets, warm and content. I hated to have to wake her.
I sat down on the edge of the bed, reached over, and shook her gently. “Jessica.”
She stirred and sighed, but didn’t wake up.
“Jessica, wake up. The hour grows late, and we’re to meet Shannon for breakfast at nine.”
“Mmph. All right. What time is it?”
“Nearly eight,” I said, consulting his watch. “You had a long sleep.”
She sat up in bed and ran her hand through her hair. “I guess I needed it,” she said with a rueful smile. “I’m not used to doing that much walking!”
I stood and stretched. “You’re not the only one,” I said. “You skipped out of you physiotherapy exercises last night, you know. I would have reminded you, but you didn’t seem to be in much of a mood to hear it.”
Jessica hung her head. “I know. And I’m sorry.”
“Then we’ll just have to pick up tonight where we left off.” I leaned over and gave her a quick peck on the cheek to show her there were no hard feelings.
This brought a smile back to her face. “Just let me take a shower and pull myself together, and we’ll go.”
We arrived at the Seven Loaves Bakery at the stroke of nine. Shannon was already inside, finishing her first cup of coffee and picking out a loaf of rye bread to accompany her dinner.
“Good morning!” she said brightly as we walked in the shop. “I already got us a table over there in the corner.”
When they were all seated with scones and coffee, Jessica gave Shannon an appraising look over the top of her cup.
“You seem particularly upbeat this morning,” she observed of her friend.
“Aye,” Shannon said, spooning strawberry jam on her scone. “I had a good night’s sleep to think things over, and things are looking much better by morning’s light.”
“You sound like you’ve made a decision concerning the farm,” I observed.
Shannon nodded around a mouthful of scone. “I called Colleen Kirk first thing when I got up this morning, and left a message on her voice mail to come to the farm at noontide to discuss the Nature Conservancy’s offer in greater detail.”
“Ye be making a big mistake, Shannon-lass.”
We looked up and saw Shamus O’Malley standing next to our table.
“Beggin’ your pardon, Mrs. Fletcher, Inspector,” he said. “I came to see how ye were doin’ this morn, Shannon. D’ye mind if I join ye for a moment?”
“Pull up a chair, Shamus,” Shannon said, gesturing with her half-eaten scone.
O’Malley took an unoccupied chair from a neighboring table and sat down in it. “Did I hear ye right, Shannon, that you’re goin’ to be talking with that Colleen Kirk at noon today?”
“That’s right,” she said.
“The Emerald Spring people will give you the better value for what’s yours,” Shamus pointed out. “How much can you expect a nature conservancy to pay for your land?”
Shannon set her coffee cup down with a decisive thump. “It’s not the money that’s important, Shamus,” she said with a touch of exasperation. “There are things far more important to me than money. Colleen assures me that if they purchase the farm, they will continue to let me stay on, and that means more to me than a whole wagonload of money.”
Shamus became agitated in turn. “If ye stay on, ye’ll still be subjected to the effects of that damned ley-line!”
But Shannon waved away his objection. “Colleen says a cottage can always be built for me on a different site. In any event, I’ll do what I please, and those bloody bottled water purveyors be damned.”
Shamus backed down then, but he still did not look happy. “I didn’t mean to start a quarrel with ye, Shannon-lass. Ye know I’m just looking out for your best interests.”
Shannon’s mood softened then, and she put her hand on O’Malley’s. “I know,” she said. “Don’t worry about it, old friend. Things will work out just fine.”
“I hope so,” he said, draining his mug and rising. “For your sake, I hope so.”
After he had gone, Shannon looked over at us with a weary smile. “He means well,” she said. “He just doesn’t know when to stop.”
“I wouldn’t be too worried about him,” I said. “Whatever happens, if he sees you happy, I think he’ll come around.”
In no hurry to be anywhere, we all accepted refills on our coffee and discussed the upcoming Midsummer Day celebrations.
“The festival will actually begin on Midsummer Eve, at sunset on June 23rd,” Shannon said. “Bonfires will be lit to encourage the sun to rise after what has traditionally been observed as the shortest night of the year. Those who keep the vigil will be the first to welcome the sunrise on the Summer Solstice. Even children are allowed to stay up to wait for the dawn.”
“Your pardon, Shannon,” I said, “but I thought that the longest day of the year was on June 21st.”
“You’re right, it is,” she said. “Still, it’s always either the 23rd or the 24th that sees the Midsummer celebration. ‘Tis always been so. Who knows, three thousand years ago the actual longest day of the year may truly have been June 23rd or 24th – after all, the earth does not stand still in its orbit. The ancients were well aware of the astronomical significance of the day - many of the ancient Neolithic stone monuments are aligned to the dawn on Midsummer.”
“Does anyone observe the solstice at the stone circles?” Jessica asked.
“Nay,” Shannon said with a smile. “Midsummer is one of three days in the course of the year when the veil between our world and the realm of hidden things is thin, and the fairy folk and elves join humans in their celebrations. But it is not wise to tempt fate, or venture to sacred places where the veil is thin enough to tear! Although tradition holds that spending Midsummer Eve in a stone circle can bestow one with the powers of a bard, it is equally likely that you will be spirited away by the fairies or go stark raving mad. No one wants to take a risk such as that!”
“Pardon,” their waitress said, coming to their table. “I was asked to give this message to you, Ms. Kilcannon.” She handed Shannon a folded slip of paper. “Bethany took the message from someone calling on the telephone, looking for you.”
Shannon accepted the message and read it.
“Well!” she said with some surprise. “Speak of the devil. The message is from Colleen Kirk. She got my message, it seems, but is too busy to come to Kilcleer. She wants to meet me outside of Bandon for our little chat.”
“That’s odd,” said Jessica. “Bandon is only twenty minutes away – is she really so busy that she can’t come here to see you?”
Shannon shrugged. “Perhaps she had another meeting around the same time, and couldn’t be in two places at once,” she said. “Either way, I’ll find out soon enough.”
Much later that evening, Shannon related to us how she had returned from Bandon in a frustrated mood, having not found out anything at all – she had spent all afternoon waiting at a lonely rest area outside of the hamlet for Colleen, who had failed to show up for their supposed meeting.
“The nerve!” she had said to Shep as she flung her shoulder bag and keys to the counter. “Why ask me to go all the way to Bandon if you don’t intend to show up yourself? This doesn’t cast them in a flattering light, Shep.”
She exchanged her good coat for one more appropriate for barn chores, kicked off her shoes, and slid on a pair of boots.
“Come on, then,” she said to Shep, who sprang to his feet, his tail wagging in tight little circles with his eagerness to be off. “It’s time and past time we let the sheep in from the fields.”
Together they headed out the back door toward the barns, and the well beyond.
“Just let me draw some water for the trough, Shep,” Shannon said to her dog. She grabbed a plastic bucket from the barn, and headed for the well, her aggravation at the wasted afternoon lending extra purpose to her stride. Shep bounded along beside her, but as they approached the well, he abruptly stopped in his tracks and shied away, whining with his tail tucked between his legs.
Shannon was surprised at the behavior of her normally fearless border collie. “Here now, what’s the matter, Shep-boy?” she asked. “Come along.”
But Shep refused to take another step toward the well. In the fading light Shannon could not make out whatever it was that was frightening him, so it was with a certain trepidation that she went on towards the well by herself.
She saw the shoes first, sticking out from behind the stone wall that rimmed the well. Looking around the corner she was dismayed to find that the shoes were still filled, as the body of Colleen Kirk came into her view. Colleen’s deadened eyes were open wide and staring at nothing, permanently freezing the look of surprise she must have worn the instant someone had caved in the back of her skull with Shannon’s own garden shovel. The shovel itself was lying nearby, the crimson stain on its metal blade matching the one that had stained the ground beneath Colleen’s head.
Horrified, Shannon dropped the plastic bucket that she was surprised to find she was still carrying. Then she backed away slowly, putting at least some distance and darkness between herself and Colleen’s body before she turned to run back to the house, Shep following hard on her heels.
Not surprisingly, Shannon was not able to remember if she had called Jessica or Sergeant Boyle first, only that we had arrived at approximately the same time. Everything after that was surely a blur. The local police went out to secure the crime scene at the well, with me accompanying them. Jessica remained behind at the house, hoping to comfort her friend. When I returned to the cottage, followed closely by Sergeant Terry Boyle, I found Jessica seated on the sofa, with a comforting arm around her friend’s shoulders. Shannon clutched a hot cup of tea in her still trembling hands.
The head law enforcement officer of Kilcleer was a serious young man with a sharp eye, prone to frowning when he was deep in thought. He was wearing that frown now as he stepped across the threshold and removed his hat.
Jessica stood and came to my side. “George – how did it happen?”
I cast a glance Shannon’s way before answering. “It looks like blunt trauma to the back of the head,” I told her quietly. “There was a shovel lying on the ground nearby; it had traces of Ms. Kirk’s blood on it.”
Shannon winced at his words.
Sergeant Boyle took center stage then, stepping into the middle of the room to address Shannon, who had not moved from her seat on the couch. He held up a plastic bag; inside of it there was a tattered card bearing the image of a heart pierced by three long swords.
“Ms. Kilcannon,” he said, “do you recognize this card?”
“Yes,” she said forthrightly. “That is the Three of Swords from my tarot deck. Where did you find it, Sergeant?”
“We found it clutched in the victim’s hand,” he said as he put the plastic bag back into his coat pocket. “Any notion how it might have found its way there?”
“None at all, Sergeant,” Shannon said, confused. “I had the deck out last night – I was doing readings for Jessica and George here – but I know all the cards were accounted for when I put it away in my desk.”
“Ms. Kilcannon,” Boyle said, “if you don’t mind my asking, where were you today between the hours of eleven and five?”
“I was in Bandon … or rather, just outside of Bandon,” Shannon answered. “I’d been given a message this morning to meet Ms. Kirk at a picnic area just outside of town. I waited there all afternoon – I figured she must have been delayed – but she never showed up.”
“Shannon,” Jessica said, “did anyone see you there?”
Shannon shook her head, her hands still clasped tightly around the tea mug in her lap. “No. A car or two may have driven by while I was waiting there, but no one stopped. I suppose that means I have no alibi.” Unfortunately, she was quite right.
“I’m afraid that’s true, Ms. Kilcannon,” Boyle said. “If you wouldn’t mind, I’d like you to come with me into town. I have some more questions to ask you while the laboratory staff is finishing up here.”
“What about Shep?” Shannon asked as she set down her mug.
Boyle looked at her quizzically. “Shep?”
“My dog,” Shannon said, and as if to illustrate her explanation, the border collie, who had been lying quietly by the fire, rose to his feet and stood at his mistress’ side.
“George and I will take Shep up the valley to Tom and Kate Dempsey’s lodge,” Jessica said. “They have plenty of room and they love animals. He’ll be well looked after there.”
“Thanks, Jessica,” Shannon said gratefully. “I owe you one.” She took her coat off its hook, and followed Sergeant Boyle out of the house.
“I don’t know about you, Jess,” I said as I watched them go, “but I could use a pint.”
That wish led us to the common room of the Cannery Arms. I ordered my desired pint of Guinness, while Jessica contented herself with tonic water.
“Never developed a taste for ale, Jessica?” I took a sip, and sighed with contentment.
Jessica watched me savor the ale with amusement. “Not for anything as dark as that,” she said.
“You don’t know what you’re missing,” I said, and took another draught. I leaned back and watched her over the rim of my glass.
Suddenly Jessica sat up straight. “George – look over there.”
“What is it?”
Jessica nodded in the direction of a table across the room. “Isn’t that Shamus O’Malley over there with those two men?”
I took a discreet look, then turned back to my ale. “Aye, it sure looks like him. But who are the gents he’s talking to?” I wondered out loud.
“Judging by the cut and quality of their clothes, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were the Emerald Springs representatives that Shannon spoke of.”
“Hmm. Now I wonder why would he be speaking to the likes of them?” I asked, pondering the question myself.
Jessica swirled the ice cubes in her glass of tonic water and considered. “He is a dowser,” she said thoughtfully. “Perhaps they are engaging his services to look for new springs.”
“Aye, could be,” I conceded although I was not convinced. “I wonder if he’s as successful with his dowsing as the ones who did it back home in Scotland?”
“I don’t know – but it could be interesting to ask around town and find out.”
“Speaking of tomorrow,” I said, placing my hand on hers, “I was thinking – why don’t we go off and have a picnic supper tomorrow evening, in celebration of Midsummer Eve. Just you and me – what do you say?” A chance to spend some of that ever-elusive “quality time” together and perhaps a step toward further repairing the damage that I had done the previous evening.
“What can I say?” Jessica said. “I accept!”
The evening drew on, and Jessica and we eventually returned to the Thistle Inn, where Jessica immediately dove into the pile of books that Shannon had lent her while I sat up in bed perusing the day’s newspaper.
“What has you so absorbed, Jess?” I asked at one point, putting down my paper and removing my reading half-glasses.
“Research,” she replied without looking up.
“Research – for a book?”
“No,” she said as she marked her place, closed the volume she was reading, and stretched in her chair. “I was researching stone circles, and ley-lines.”
“Find anything useful yet?”
“No,” she sighed. “Leastways, nothing useful beyond what Shamus O’Malley told us yesterday.”
“The man does seem to know his subject well,” I agreed as I swung my legs over the edge of the bed to get up.
“I suppose he does,” she conceded, rubbing her stiff left shoulder.
The subconscious gesture could not have gone unnoticed, “Oh, Jess, your shoulder’s acting up again, isn’t it.”
“It’s not ‘acting up,’” she said stubbornly, “it’s just a little twinge.”
“Well, little twinge or no, you’re not getting out of your physiotherapy two nights in a row. Into the shower with you, lassie,” I said as I stood. “And as soon as you’ve warmed it up with the hot water, report back here for your exercises.”
She grinned and gave him a mock salute. “Yes sir, Inspector.”
Smart alec, I thought to myself…with a great deal of affection, of course. It was good to see her acting more like herself again.
After her shower, I could tell that her shoulder felt looser already, just by the way she moved when she emerged from the bathroom wrapped in her light satin robe. “All right, I’m ready. Where do we start tonight?”
“Sit on the edge of the bed first, Jess, and I’ll give you a quick massage.”
Jessica sat down beside me and laughed. “Can ‘quick’ and ‘massage’ even be used together in a sentence?” she asked.
“Not in reference to any massage worth its salt, I suppose,” I admitted. “But this is just meant to warm up your shoulder a bit more.”
“Are we doing this with oil or without?”
I gulped. To use oil would mean sliding the satin robe off her shoulder at the very least – and I wasn’t at all sure I would be able to handle that. As a matter of fact, I was pretty sure that I couldn’t.
“Without, I think,” I said with somewhat forced lightness. If Jessica caught any hint of discomfort on my part…and there was a great deal at that moment…she didn’t indicate so.
“You know, you’re quite good at this, George,” she said drowsily as I worked on her shoulder and arm. “Perhaps you missed your calling in life – you would have made a wonderful masseuse.”
“Thank you, but I’ll stick to what I know,” I said. “I’m sure any true professional would see me for the rank amateur that I am.” Still, I had to admit to myself that her comment had pleased me.
When it seemed that Jessica’s muscles were relaxed enough to be stretched, I had her lie down close to the edge of the bed, then pulled up a chair and sat in it next to her.
“All right, Jess,” I said. “Just relax, let me move your arm for you - and let me know if anything hurts.”
I started out by having her lay her arm naturally at her side, then put one hand lightly on her shoulder, and used the other to draw her hand outward from her body in a slow arc. But before I had her arm raised out much more than halfway, she winced and squeezed my hand.
“Did that hurt?” he asked.
“Yes, a little,” she replied.
“We’ll work on that, then,” I said, and repeated the exercise several more times, gradually working back up to the point where I had started but stopping short of the pain. “Does that still hurt?”
“No,” she said with a touch of surprise.
“Good. See, we’re making progress. You’ll be putting up your own storm windows in Cabot Cove in no time.”
Jessica smiled at that, and I continued to put her shoulder through its paces.
“You really should see it, you know,” she said.
“See what?” I asked, arranging her arm for the next set of exercises.
“Cabot Cove. I think you would like it.”
“My dear Jessica,” I said, “if you are there, then I know I shall love it.”
“Flatterer. But seriously, you really should come and visit me there. I’ve come to Wick twice now.”
“We did have San Francisco, didn’t we?” I said as I carefully rotated her shoulder slightly inwards.
“Yes, we did, but this would be … different. San Francisco was, how shall I put it … neutral ground. Cabot Cove is home.”
I chuckled softly as I moved her arm a little further into rotation. “All right, I’ll give you that. You’ve been to my home twice, and I’ve been to yours not at all. I promise I’ll give the matter serious thought, and come when I can – agreed?” But would it be wise, I asked myself. After what had happened the previous evening at Shannon’s cottage, I was certainly in no rush to put her in a position where she would have to answer a horde of questions about ‘us.’ And she would undoubtedly have to do that if I visited her in Cabot Cove.
Jessica smiled softly as her eyes drifted closed. “Agreed.”
She looked angelic, and that was when all hesitation on my part slipped away. How could I possibly turn down such a warm invitation from the woman I loved so deeply?
“Jessica, George, I swear that I had nothing to do with Colleen’s death,” Shannon said when we came by the police station early the next morning.
“Of course not, Shannon,” Jessica said, trying to reassure her friend. “But convincing Sergeant Boyle of that is another matter altogether!”
“Aye,” Shannon said dejectedly. “And here am I, with no alibi to speak of.”
“The matter of the tarot card is very curious,” I said, wondering how someone might have gotten into the cottage while she was away. There had been no signs of forced entry, at least none that I had seen on my cursory inspection of the doors and windows. “How might someone have gotten hold of that?”
Shannon groaned. “You don’t actually think that I bother to lock my cottage when I’m out, do you?”
I caught myself rolling my eyes at her comment, not bleedin’ professional, but rather a bad habit that Jessica has accused me of when someone I’m dealing with has done something that I consider to be extremely foo…not particularly intelligent. “Bloody marvelous,” I muttered. “How many people know about that?”
“Er … all of Kilcleer?”
“That’s what I thought.” When would people learn to start locking their doors? Jessica was well aware of my thoughts on that particular subject, being one herself who religiously locked up her apartment in New York but then left her own door in Cabot Cove unlocked unless she was going to be gone for an extended period of time.
“So the card doesn’t really help narrow down our list of alternate suspects,” said Jessica, bringing me back to the problem at hand. “Apparently, anyone could have gone into the cottage, taken the card from the deck, and planted it on the body.”
“Afraid so, Jess,” said Shannon.
“What about those Emerald Spring people?” I asked. “They would have as good a motive as anyone to kill Ms. Kirk, if they thought that they were going to lose their chance to purchase your farm to her group.”
“It’s a good thought, George, and I would dearly love to see them get the blame,” Shannon said. “But when I was talking to Sergeant Boyle last night, he told me that they have an iron-clad alibi for the whole day.”
“And what is that?” Jessica asked her.
“They had a meeting back at headquarters in Dublin,” Shannon said with a sigh. “The meeting started at noon, there had to be a dozen witnesses that could vouch for their whereabouts. And there’s no way they could get from Kilcleer to Dublin and back again with enough time to spare to murder poor Colleen.”
Jessica frowned. “Did Sergeant Boyle mention what time they got back to Kilcleer?” she asked.
“He didn’t specify, but he did say it was late.”
“Must have been,” I commented. “We saw them last night ourselves, over at the Cannery Arms.”
Jessica put her hand on her friend’s arm in a gesture of reassurance. “Don’t worry overmuch, Shannon,” she said. “We’ll get to the bottom of this, you’ll see.”
“I hope so, Jess,” Shannon said, tears glittering in her eyes. “Sergeant Boyle said he’d take me back to the cottage tomorrow morning to watch the Midsummer sunrise, as I always do. The usual crowd will be there – say that you’ll be there too, will you?”
“We will,” Jessica said emphatically. “I promise.”
“What are your plans for the next few hours?” I asked Jessica as we stepped outside of the police station.
“Well, I need to go to the library, to look up some more information on ley-lines that was referenced in one of Shannon’s books,” Jessica said. “And I wanted to photocopy one of the maps she loaned me, so I can make some notes on it. After that … well, I’m not sure about after that.”
“That will probably keep you busy for quite some time,” I decided. “While you bury yourself in your books, I’ll ask around town about how good a dowser Shamus O’Malley is. After that, I’ll stop by the market and pick up some supplies for our picnic tonight. What time shall we meet back?”
Jessica thought for a moment before answering. “Let’s say four, at the Thistle,” she said.
“Then it’s settled. Good luck with your errands, Jess.”
“And good luck with yours,” she replied, giving me a light kiss on his cheek. “See you later this afternoon.”
Some time later, Jessica told me of her afternoon, her exploration, and her discovery. She had taken her early-afternoon tea at an outdoor table in front of the Green Gosling, one of Kilcleer’s popular pubs, while scrutinizing the map she had photocopied out of Shannon’s book on Irish antiquities. She had drawn a straight line from the hole stone of the ancient stone ring to the cottage, based on where she knew the sun rose every Summer Solstice, and wasn’t happy with what it was showing her. Despite checking and rechecking her angles and figuring, the first light of Midsummer Day dawn coming through the keyhole in the standing stone always landed in the same place: squarely in the middle of the door of Shannon’s cottage.
Pushing aside the map with a sigh, she stirred her tea and resolved to finish it before it cooled off any more than it already had. The sun was warm but the breeze felt cool, and it was sapping the warmth out of her teacup. Rather than dwell on the problem of the map, she had found it much more pleasant to drink tea and watch the activity going on in the town square around her. People were making their final preparations for the Solstice celebration that would begin at sunset; she saw city workers hanging paper lanterns from the trees and fixing torches to the lamp posts around the square, and people hurrying in and out of shops making last minute purchases of food and drink. They hailed each other as they met in the street, everyone feeling especially good-natured in the spirit of the holiday.
Only the children seemed unaffected by the anticipation of the adults; they played their usual games together without sparing any special attention for the preparations taking place around them. Two girls spun a pair of jump ropes between them while a third skillfully danced in between them, her twinkling feet never tripping despite the blur of the ropes around her. Another child was drawing a hopscotch board on the stone pavers with colored chalk, while nearby her younger brother and sister played with a bright plastic top. Jessica would surely have smiled as she watched the little boy set the top to spinning while his sister solemnly counted to mark how long it stayed upright before it fell over. When it did, they switched, the little girl spinning the top while the boy counted. Jessica had remembered being impressed. They had obviously practiced the game quite a bit; the average time the top stayed upright was a count of 18, with it only starting to wobble on its axis around 12. As a child, Jessica said she couldn’t remember ever getting a top to stay up past the count of 10.
Yet, she admitted, that was not the reason why she continued to watch their game with such fascination. There was something about the motion of the top that she felt was important somehow, yet couldn’t put her finger on why. But then, as she watched the little boy’s next turn near its end as the top’s spin deteriorated into an uncertain wobble, the significance of the toy’s motion finally hit her full force. She drained her teacup, collected her map, left a few pound notes on the table to cover the bill and tip, and started briskly back for the inn, where she had left Shannon’s other books.
The one that she picked up first when she arrived back in the room was about ancient Druid astronomy. She quickly found the information she was looking for, and used it to plot a second straight line on her map. This time when she had finished she set her pencil down, feeling satisfied and relieved, and knowing that things were not so hopeless after all.
“’After all, the earth does not stand still in its orbit,’” Jessica had reminded herself, repeating Shannon’s words. I cringed internally as she continued to tell me her tale.
Of course, she had needed to test the theory to make sure she was right, and pick out some landmarks to prove her point – and all of this preferably before dawn the following day, thus the reason for her impetuous decision to go off without waiting for me to accompany her. Everything would come to a head the moment the first rays of the sun peeped through that keyhole in the stone, and there must be no mistakes, because it was all but certain there would be no second chances to prove what she had just learned.
I was expecting to meet her in our room around four, so I imagine she figured that if she left immediately, she could hike up to the stone ring and back long before my return. That should have given her plenty of time to find her proof. Leaving the map behind her on the desk, she grabbed her cloak and my field glasses and headed back out the door on her mission.
The first thing she did when she reached the ring was shed the cloak –it had been cool in the shade of the trees down below, but on top of the hill the sun was beating down and it was much too warm for it. She went over to the hole stone, but found the keyhole too high up for her to look through. For a moment, she was at a loss to what to do. I can easily imagine her chewing on her lip as she tends to do in such instances. She searched the grounds and discovered a sawn ring from a log nearby in the grass. Fortunately for Jessica (and for Shannon), it had been just the right height to help her look through the keyhole, permitted she stand up on the tips of her toes.
Taking out my field glasses, she scanned the territory below her, looking for Shannon’s house. There it was, but it was difficult to get a good fix on it when she was holding the glasses one-handed, so she slipped her left arm out of its sling and by holding it close to her body, she was able to lift up both hands to hold the glasses steady. She most likely would have forgotten to tell me of this little detail had I not asked, but when put on the spot, she shrugged as though to say, “what else was I to do?”
Anyway, back to the story - she took a long look at the cottage, then lowered the glasses, turned a little toward the south, and looked again. To her delight, she was now looking at just what she had expected to see.
What she did not expect was what happened next: someone grabbed her left wrist and twisted her arm behind her back, making her gasp in sudden pain. The pain in her shoulder must have been excruciating as her attacker continued to twist her arm, and even she admitted a rising panic, certain that her shoulder would dislocate again.
“Drop the glasses,” a low voice commanded her.
She obeyed, and winced as she heard the glasses break apart when they hit the rough stony ground. They had been my best pair but replacing them was nothing more than a minor inconvenience when compared to my concern over Jessica’s welfare. She, on the other hand, had probably been at least momentarily concerned about it.
“Now come down from that log, slowly,” she was instructed
She did so gingerly, concentrating on keeping her balance – if she slipped, her shoulder would pop out for sure.
“Please, Mr. O’Malley,” she said as she stepped down, “you’re hurting me.”
“Is that so? Well, soon that will be the least of your worries. I take it ye aren’t surprised to see me,” he continued, suddenly applying more pressure on Jessica’s arm until she was forced to her knees. “Ye be extremely clever, Mrs. Fletcher. Too bad ye weren’t clever enough to notice that ye were being followed when ye came up here.”
It was too late to lament that oversight now. Tears pricked Jessica’s eyes, and her breathing shortened into pants. The bloody git - it still sets my blood to boiling just thinking of it.
She strained to look at O’Malley over her shoulder, just in time to glimpse the gleaming hypodermic needle he held before he plunged it into her arm.
O’Malley let go of her then, but that was small relief in the face of this new pain. The injection burned like liquid fire, and as she grabbed at her shoulder with her good hand, she felt her left arm start to go numb.
“What was that?” she demanded angrily, glaring at him.
Shamus O’Malley stepped back and busied himself with making a low pile out of the stray tree branches and left over bits of wood from past bonfires that littered the ring. “Don’t worry, it won’t kill ye,” he said. “It’s a simple paralytic, with a healthy dash of sedative mixed in. Your body falls asleep first; your mind falls asleep somewhat afterwards.”
Jessica tried to speak, but the drug was fast acting and already she couldn’t seem to form the words. The numbness had spread just about everywhere and her eyelids were too heavy to keep open, yet she says that she was oddly aware of everything around her as she slipped the rest of the way to the ground, unable to move even a finger’s breadth.
She could hear the clatter of wood as O’Malley continued to dump sticks on the pile of scrap wood. “Ye know,” he said off-handedly - whether he was speaking to himself or to her she wasn’t sure - “the druids used to offer human sacrifices from circles such as this one, usually by burning their victims alive.”
Idiot, Jessica wanted to spit at him. At least that’s what she told me, although I suspect it had actually been a much more harsh term. The Druids at least had the common courtesy to kill their sacrificial victims humanely before they cremated them.
She felt herself being picked up, and roughly put down again on the jagged bed of wood. The next thing she knew, she was breathing in the burning fumes of gasoline as it was poured over her liberally. The shock of it roused her mind to prompt her to try and struggle one final time, but her body remained stubbornly unmoving and unresponsive; she could not even pry open her eyes.
“The other interesting thing about this circle and its hole stone is that every afternoon it focuses a ray of light that moves across the center and hits the base of the stones opposite it,” she heard O’Malley say as he arranged more sticks and pieces of dry wood around her. “Quite remarkable, really. Today, I’m going to give it a wee power boost.”
Jessica sensed rather than saw him pick through the remains of my field glasses and find one unbroken lens. He held it up, admiring it as the sunlight reflected off of its smooth surface and sparkled on its edges. She heard him cross the ring and set it on a narrow shelf of rock in front of the stone’s carved keyhole. It focused the light streaming through it into a narrow, intense beam, causing little ringlets of smoke to curl up from the grass where it illuminated the ground.
“There – that should be strong enough to start a merry bonfire when it strikes ye,” he mocked. “Good-bye, Mrs. Fletcher – by the time the sun sets, ye’ll be nothing more than ashes scattered on the breeze.”
With that, he left her alone in the circle.
Without the stimulus of a voice to focus on, Jessica soon found her mind beginning to drift down towards dark unconsciousness. The lulling warmth of the sun and intoxicating smell of gasoline were overpowering; try as she might, she could not hold on to stay awake in a body that had already fallen asleep. The whisper of the wind among the standing stones became a toneless lullaby.
At last Jessica lost the battle and surrendered to the darkness, letting it overwhelm her like a cresting wave. But there was no rest to be found in it, no forgetfulness, not even any relief from the pain.
There were terrors in the darkness, and they were waiting for her.
But so was someone else – a light that she mentally reached out to in hope and desperation. The glowing presence caught her, and drew her into its loving embrace, sheltering her from the darkness.
“Hullo, Bright-Eyes,” a familiar voice said to her. “Did you miss me?”
If it is possible to weep in spirit, then Jessica burst into tears and cried until she had exhausted the last of her strength.
I returned to the inn, carrying with me a bottle of white wine in one hand and a small hamper with sandwiches and other picnic fare in the other, with a light blanket draped over one arm. I was in high spirits, whistling a tune as I headed up to the second floor, anticipating a pleasant afternoon and evening alone with Jessica before rejoining the villagers around a bonfire in celebration of Midsummer Eve. But as I approached our room, I noticed that the door was ajar, as it should not have been. I set down bottle, hamper, and blanket, approached the door, my policeman instincts kicking in, and listened – there was no sound of anything stirring inside. In one fluid motion I kicked open the door, stood back as it banged against the wall, then cautiously looked inside.
The room was a complete shambles. Not a piece of furniture was left upright, the bed clothes were lying in a tangled heap on the floor, every drawer had been emptied, every item in the room thoroughly searched before being carelessly discarded. And worst of all, there was no sign of Jessica!
I had visited many crime scenes like this and worse in the course of my career without batting an eye, yet this one left me feeling a very personal dread. A quick scan of the room turned up no sign of blood, which provided me with some small measure of comfort, but there was no doubt that it was on Jessica’s account that the room had been ransacked: her belongings had been subjected to far greater violence and violation than had mine, and every book and map that she had been using in the course of her research had been dumped in the fireplace and set alight. I could tell from that last atrocity how long ago the intruder had been there – all of the books had been reduced more or less to ashes, but the coals were still glowing. Not long, then.
I paced around the room in a circle, feeling hot and cold, numb and furious all at the same time. Where to start? Someone had gotten to Jessica, clearly, but where she was, and whether she was even alive or dead, I had no idea.
She is still alive, came the certain thought.
I paused in my pacing, startled – where had that idea come from? I certainly had no way of knowing if she was still alive. Yet I believed it to be true, as true as if I had verified the fact with my own eyes.
As I pondered this odd mystery, I realized that the feeling of cold dread was ebbing and being replaced with an increasing sense of warmth, and care, and, strangest of all, approval. This new awareness became so strong that it became almost like a separate presence in the room; that was when I was certain that it hadn’t originated from me.
I am a practical man; one who didn’t rise to the position of Chief Inspector without a certain pragmatism. I didn’t believe in ghosts, or fairies, or anything otherworldly – in my opinion, such things existed in wives’ tales and children’s stories alone. Yet I could not shake the sense that I was not alone in the room.
“Who are you?” I asked, in spite of himself.
A touch of bittersweet wistfulness leavened with a hint of good-natured humor grazed the edge of my perception.
“Can you help me? Do you know what happened here? Where is Jessica?”
A tongue of flame leapt up from the embers with a hiss. On the updraft it created, a piece of paper that had somehow escaped the fire floated up from the ruins of the books and drifted out of the fireplace to land softly at my feet. I picked it up; it was a fragment of a photocopy of a local map of the area, centered on Shannon’s lands, and showing the area of the stone house and the ring of standing stones. There were numbers scribbled on it in pencil in Jessica’s hand, and a pair of lines drawn with a straightedge, both originating from the edge of the ring and radiating outward. Without knowing how I knew, I realized that I had to go to the ring. Unwilling to waste time analyzing how this could be so, I grabbed my coat and headed back out the door.
Don’t forget your things, George, I suddenly remembered.
“Thanks,” I said aloud to no one in particular as I grabbed the picnic items and broke into a run down the hall.
It is with great heartbreak and joy that I relate the next part of this story. It’s difficult to explain, so I’d best just continue without any further commentary.
Frank held his wife in his arms until she had cried herself out.
“There, now,” he said, brushing a last of her tears from her cheeks. “Feel better?”
“Am I … am I dead?”
He shook his head. “Not yet.”
“Where am I, then?”
“A place both deep inside and far outside of yourself,” he told her. “An ‘in between’ place.”
Jessica frowned as she tried to understand. “Then … what are you doing here?”
Frank smiled and held her closer. “What I have always done,” he said. “Watching over you.”
They were silent for awhile, until Frank asked, “Are you afraid of death, Bright-Eyes?”
“No,” she answered quietly.
“Not even of a painful death, like the one that has been prepared for you today?”
“No,” she said again, “so long as I know that you’re waiting for me.”
“What are you afraid of?”
This was a good question, and she gave her answer careful thought before speaking. “I suppose I’m afraid of regret,” she said at length. “And since we’re talking about death, I’m afraid of dying with regret that I didn’t live as fully as I might have.”
“A wise answer,” Frank said. “You have lived a very full life, Jess. But there is something that you have resisted doing that I think you would deeply regret if you died today.”
She looked up at him with a searching look in her eyes. “What’s that?”
“Telling poor George that you love him, for pity’s sake.”
Frank silenced her with a gentle kiss. “Jessica, Bright-Eyes, my only true love. I know what you’re going to say - but there are different kinds of love, Jess, and being in love with George doesn’t diminish your love for me in the least. He is a worthy man, well-deserving of your affection. Why, then, do you deny yourself - and him - a chance for happiness?”
“Because …” she began, but then fell silent as she considered what Frank had said – put that way, she no longer knew why “because.”
Frank gave her a squeeze, then took a step back and looked at her intently, putting his hands on her arms for emphasis. “I love you, Jessica. And more than anything, I want you to be happy,” he said insistently. “If you come through this alive, remember these two things, if nothing else. Promise me?”
“I promise,” she whispered in response.
As I approached the stone circle, I depositing the picnic things in a glade amidst a copse of trees next to the stream, and went the rest of the distance up the hill cautiously, every sense alert. I was uncomfortably aware that the sun was sinking in the west, and that if Jessica was not to be found in the ring, I would soon be running out of daylight in which to look for her elsewhere. The breeze freshened, rippling over the grass, carrying with it the sweet scent of wildflowers, and fresh-mown hay, and …
“Petrol?” Seized with a sudden panic, I ran the rest of the way to the ring of standing stones and burst into their midst. An intense pinpoint of light, unnaturally bright, caught my attention first, moving across the floor of the ring as the sun continued to sink, its passage marked by a charred line of burned grass. In its path was…Jessica! She was thoroughly doused with gasoline, lying in an unconscious heap on a hastily assembled pile of deadwood, tinder-dry. The point of focused sunlight was just inches away from the kindling - if it reached it, it would have the whole makeshift pyre ablaze with fire in seconds.
I shielded my eyes against the blinding light, spotted the remains of the field glasses on the ground, then looked up and saw a flash like a diamond set in the rock above. Instantly I knew what was causing the laser-like beam and what I had to do to stop it - I sprang across the ring, reached up to the keyhole, and removed the glass lens from the shelf of rock. When I did, the achingly painful spot of brilliance vanished, and the sunlight streaming through the hole resumed its usual gentle warmth and appearance.
Letting out a sigh of relief, I leaned against the rock for a moment to collect himself, certain in the knowledge that if I had arrived even a few minutes later, I would have been much too late.
Pocketing the lens, I returned to where Jessica lay, now bathed in a golden puddle of sunlight. I felt for her pulse and found it, strong and steady but slow. I shook her gently and called her by name, but she did not wake up. The reason for this became apparent when I found the discarded syringe lying nearby – no doubt intended to be destroyed in the expected fire along with its victim.
There was no question that I could not leave her where she was to wake up – the murderer might come back at any time to make sure that the job had been done. I thought of the secluded glen by the stream – it was close enough to carry her to, but far enough away for us not to be found without determined searching. It was as good a place as any to wait for her to recover, so I carefully picked her up and carried her back down the hill.
Jessica didn’t stir, not even when I set her down on the ground. She could rest here in reasonable comfort but first I needed to remove her soaking wet garments. They were wet through and the fumes had already given me a tremendous headache. I could only imagine the effect that they might be having on her, especially when combined with whatever foul drug she had been given.
Looking back, the task was much more difficult and much less pleasurable than I had ever previously imagined. Of course, in my personal fantasies, Jessica’s clothing didn’t reek of petrol and didn’t stick stubbornly to her skin. In addition, she was like a rag doll and not one bit of help.
It wasn’t until later, when she was wrapped snuggly in her cloak that I even considered how she might react once she discovered that I had disrobed her. Honestly, I doubted she would be pleased about it.
After making certain that she was as comfortable as possible, I sat down next to her and waited for her to awaken. It wasn’t long before a chill came over me and I realized that I, too, was soaked with petrol. Bloody good idea, bringing that blanket along for our picnic, I thought as I huddled beneath it later, shivering…and waiting.
Time could not have passed more slowly as I watched over her. With each passing moment my fears grew – fear that she had suffered a permanent injury, fear that we would never share another waking moment together. I knew that she needed to rest, to recover, nevertheless, I found myself praying that she would awake soon. What could I do but wait as I watched the rhythmic rise and fall of her chest as she lay otherwise deathly still.
Rest, she needed to rest, and I needed to do…something. At length, I collected our clothing from the ground and carried them to the edge of the stream where I found a new outlet for the pent up anger and fear that lie hidden just beneath the surface.
“My Jessie’s asleep by the murmuring stream;
Flow gently, sweet Afton, disturb not her dream.”
Without thinking, I found myself reciting Burns’ words as the sun began to set. For a moment, I thought that I had heard Jessica call my name but a quick glance over my shoulder assured me that she was still asleep. It had obviously been wishful thinking.
This time I was sure that I had heard my name and I turned to see a confused Jessica sitting up and leaning against the bole of the tree that she had been lying under. “George … what happened to my clothes?”
I scrambled up the bank to Jessica’s side. “Jessica – you’re finally awake! How do you feel?”
She drew in a breath and let it out before answering. “Fine, I think. Just some bruises.” She moved her left arm experimentally. “No more damage to my shoulder than there was before, I guess. George, my clothes?”
“They’re over there, drying in that tree,” I said, nodding in their direction. “They were soaked with petrol. I had to get them off of you and wash them in the stream. Don’t worry,” I added, trying to look gallant, “I averted my eyes and thought about cricket the whole time.”
Jessica laughed in spite of herself and drew the cloak tighter about her. “If it were anyone but you, I would be dead of embarrassment.”
To tell the truth, I had been so focused on the task at hand that I hadn’t needed to avert my eyes or to think about cricket at the time, a far cry from any prior fantasies that I may have had about undressing her.
“And what happened to your clothes, if you don’t mind my asking?” she added.
“Not at all. I got them almost equally soaked in petrol carrying you out of that cursed stone ring.”
“I don’t suppose they’d be dry by now.”
“Not a chance. I don’t think I wrung them out as much as I should have. But then, I’ve never had to do laundry on a rock by the river before.”
This earned me another smile from my companion. “How long was I asleep?” she asked.
I hadn’t intended it but my tone became grave. “Probably two or three hours,” I said. “And it was a near thing, finding you in time to get you out. Your assailant intended to make a Midsummer Eve bonfire out of you. I got to you with about … oh, five minutes to spare.”
Jessica opened her eyes wide. “Five minutes?”
“Well … it might have been less than that,” I confessed.
A long moment of silence passed between us. At length Jessica cast her eyes downwards and said, “I thought I would never see you again.”
“Aye, Jess,” I replied. “When I realized you were missing the same thought crossed my mind.”
“Do you remember …” Jessica began, trailing off. She took a deep breath and began again: “Do you remember the first time I came to Wick with all of my friends from Cabot Cove, and you asked me if I ever was lonely?”
“Aye. And you told me that you never were,” I recalled. Even a year later, the memory was still vivid and the wound tender.
“I know. But earlier today in the stone circle, before I lost consciousness, I felt lonelier than I’ve ever felt in my life … and suddenly the most important thing in the world to me was seeing you again. And I had dreams … at first they were nightmares, but then I saw Frank …” Here she put her head down on her knees and drew a great, shuddering sob before continuing. I wanted so badly to reach out and hold her but hesitated at the mention of her late husband. “And he looked exactly the way I remembered him. And I asked him if I was dying, and he didn’t know. But he said that if I did live through the experience, I needed to really live … live without regrets.”
She had related this tale to me with downcast eyes, but now she looked up and met my gaze. “If I had died, it would have been with the eternal regret that I never told you … never showed you … how much I care … how much I love you.”
I thought that my heart would burst. “Oh, Jessie,” I exclaimed. “You cannot fathom how much I have yearned to hear you say that.”
“I know. I’m only sorry it took this long and a near-death experience to realize it for myself.”
“Nay, no sorrow, Jessica,” I whispered, my lips drawing nearer to hers. “How can there be sorrow, now that it’s been said?” On impulse I took her face in both of my hands and kissed her.
She hesitated at first, but then began to return my kisses with an intensity that caught me off guard. I experienced an even greater shock when she moved to push the blanket I was wearing back from my shoulders, even as she deliberately let the grey cloak slide off of hers. The chill in the air did little to dissipate the warmth that passed from skin to skin. The sensation of her body against mine, oft dreamt of but until now never realized, made me feel positively lightheaded.
Before I even had a chance to stop and think about what we were doing, she was pulling me down to lie in the grass with her.
“I think I should warn you,” she told me between kisses, “I’m somewhat out of practice.”
“No more so than I, love,” I admitted.
For being “out of practice,” I was pleasantly surprised to find Jessica to be a very passionate and responsive lover. I traced the line of her collarbone with my lips, eliciting a shuddering sigh. The taste of her was intoxicating; her scent…difficult to describe, really...like rosewood, lavender and bergamot…lovely to be sure and unbelievably sensual. And her skin…radiant and delicate beneath the touch of my roughened hands…her breasts, waist, hips, and thighs…more perfect than I had ever imagined…and no longer forbidden.
She playfully nibbled at the tip of my earlobe, making me gasp in pleasure. Her hands, soft and gloriously teasing in their exploration, aroused sensations in me that had long lain dormant. Finally, when the buildup of tension was more than I could bear, I willingly passed the point of no return and entered into her embrace. The spasm of pain that crossed her face set me into a panic. She had already been through so much pain I could not bear to cause her any more. Regretting my impetuous decision, I started to pull away, but Jessica clung to me all the tighter and put a finger to my lips when I started to protest.
“It will pass,” she assured me.
I looked in her eyes, saw the desire and need burning in them, and could not look away. Apple-green eyes locked with sea-grey as I surrendered my trust to her and proceeded, slowly and cautiously at first, then with increasing confidence, determined that she would not regret this decision. We were no longer two but one, and it was with a fierce satisfaction that I watched her come to a climactic height that made her let out a cry of pure ecstasy before I myself was overcome with a blinding wave of joy that burned through every fiber of my being like fire.
How much time passed before I came back to myself and moved off to lie beside her, pulling the cloak up over both of us, I could not tell.
“Ye gods!” was all I could say when I found my voice again.
“I – I hope I wasn’t too forward,” Jessica said softly as she nestled closer to me.
“Forward? Ah … no,” I replied. Then I looked down at her and was shocked to see tears streaming down her face. I was suddenly appalled by my behavior. I had obviously hurt her. “Jess, are you all right? I didn’t hurt you too badly, did I?” I asked hopefully.
Jessica smiled through her tears, and the effect was like the sun coming out during a summer rain shower.
“All right? I’m better than all right,” she told me, putting my concerns to rest. “In fact, I’m better than I’ve been in a long, long time.”
Feeling perilously close to tears myself, I gathered her in my arms and held her close as she rested her head on my shoulder. For many long heartbeats we were silent until Jessica said, “Thank you, George.”
“For being me?”
“For being you. For saving my life again. And … for everything.”
It took a surprisingly long time for our clothes to dry completely. All the better as far as I was concerned.
By the time they had, the sun was long gone and it was fully dark. The stars peeped through the canopy of leaves above us as we sat next to each other beside the babbling stream on my blanket, picking at our much-belated picnic.
“I hate to say this, Jess, but you’re still in danger,” I said, reluctantly breaking our companionable silence. “The bleck who did this to you is still out there, and my guess is that some time tonight he will come back to the stone circle to make sure everything went off according to plan. He won’t be happy when he finds out you escaped.”
“The bleck is Shamus O’Malley, George,” Jessica said, holding out her wine glass for me to refill.
This made me sit up straight in surprise, my hand halfway to where I had left the bottle of white wine chilling in the stream. “You saw him?”
“When it was too late to do anything about it, yes. But I suspected it was him before that – that was why I went to the circle in the first place.”
I was stunned by this unexpected revelation, so much so that it made my hand shake as I poured from the bottle. “Why didn’t you say so sooner?” I asked her.
Jessica took a sip of her wine appreciatively. “Because there were more important things to say at the time.”
I was not about to argue with that sentiment! “Nevertheless, I feel I need to go back up to the ring to wait for him, and collar him if possible,” I said reluctantly. I wanted to do far worse to him at that moment but couldn’t say so.
Jessica set down her wine glass. “I’m going with you.”
I hesitated, uncertain about what to do. She should be safer here, by the stream, but who was to say that one of O’Malley’s associates wouldn’t find her there? He most likely wasn’t working alone and solely for his own benefit, I knew. And what was the chance that her stubborn streak had disappeared or even faded within the past day or two? “Are you sure that’s wise, Jess?”
“Well, there’s no way I’m going to sit here shivering by myself, wondering if you’re all right,” she replied.
I was about to reject her offer but caught the determined look in her eyes and bit back my protest. Obviously, she was still as strong-willed as ever. “I have no liking for this, Jessica,” I said instead, shaking my head in resignation. “I would far rather leave you here in the glade, where you’re safe.”
“I know that,” she said as I helped pull her to her feet. “Nevertheless, I’m going with you.”
Leaving everything behind in the glade except the blanket and her cloak, we made our way back up to the crown of the hill. The stones of the ring, casting long black fingers of shadow by the light of the rising moon, appeared even more imposing than usual as they reared up to pierce the night sky.
We entered the deserted ring, and settled themselves on the blanket underneath the hole stone, sharing the cloak for warmth. We spoke of insignificant things while the stars slowly wheeled overhead. At length I ventured to ask the question that had been nagging me since I had found her, but had been reluctant to bring up.
“Jess,” I said carefully, “what happened up here? Can you talk about it?”
For a long time she didn’t answer and I was afraid that I had broached the subject too soon. But then, just as an apology was forming on my lips, she began to speak.
“I went to the circle to test a theory,” she began quietly, her voice unusually empty of emotion, “hoping to prove to myself that what Shamus O’Malley was claiming about Shannon’s cottage could not be true. I needed to look through the hole stone myself, before the solstice happened, so that I would be ready to prove my point the next morning. But I was so wrapped up in my own thoughts, I didn’t notice him following me out of the village.” Here a wave of guilt and self-reproach bordering on disgust clouded her features. “So he caught me looking through the keyhole – he got hold of my bad arm, so he was able to overpower me easily. He injected me with drugs to keep me from struggling – a paralytic mixed with a sedative, if I’m remembering correctly – and set me up on that pile of wood to burn to death when the focused sunlight hit me.”
“But why wait?” I asked, confused, probably more so by raw emotion than by the man’s daftness. “Not that I’m complaining, but why not simply light a match, throw it down, and walk away?”
“Too risky. Someone might have spotted the smoke, and seen him returning from the ring, and put two and two together. The beauty of letting the sun and the lens do the lighting was that it gave him a solid hour to get away from the ring and back into the village – preferably to someplace with a lot of people to vouch for his whereabouts when the fire actually got started.”
I took her clenched hands in both of mine and kissed them tenderly. That it had never occurred to her to wait for me before going to the ring alone was a foregone conclusion, but I could not find it in my heart to hold that against her.
“Don’t be too hard on yourself,” I told her. “You did what seemed best at the time.”
Jessica looked away. “I suppose so.” She didn’t sound convinced.
I cupped her face in my hand and coaxed her to look at me again. “If you had to do it again, would you have done anything differently?”
“Well, there you are then,” I said warmly. “A life without regrets. Everyone should be so lucky, Jess.”
This brought a wry smile back to her lips. “Most people would go out of their way to avoid my kind of ‘luck,’ George Sutherland!”
“Not me,” I replied, and gave her a slow and loving kiss.
Jessica rested her head on my chest as I gathered her into his arms and sighed. It felt wonderful to hold her so close. “I’m happy for that,” she said. “Very happy indeed.”
The eastern sky was beginning to lighten by the time Jessica woke up. Only the brightest stars still pricked the deep blue sky. In the west the moon was still high, but its silver light was beginning to give way to the rosy glow of the approaching dawn. Like the steady beam of a lighthouse, the morning star hung above the horizon, heralding the rising of the sun.
The rising of the sun … Midsummer …
The events of the night before came flooding back into her memory, and she realized that she was lying on the blanket inside the stone ring. She had fallen asleep, when she had promised me she would stay awake to help me keep watch for Shamus O’Malley! But that was all right with me. She needed to rest.
In sudden panic she flung aside her cloak and sat bolt upright to look for me.
“Good morning, love,” I said.
She turned to find me sitting right next to where she had been laying, my knees drawn up against the early morning chill and a warm smile on my face. Jessica melted with relief.
“George!” she exclaimed. “Did Shamus come? What time is it? Why did you let me fall asleep?”
I looked at the illuminated dial of his watch. “Where shall I begin? The answer to your first question is ‘not yet,’ the answer to the second is ‘almost quarter to five in the morning,’ and the answer to the third is ‘because you were so worn out after yesterday,’” I replied calmly. “Does that suffice?”
“I suppose so.” She reached up to run her fingers through her tousled hair, and encountered something she didn’t expect – a wreath of flowers set on her head. “What’s this?”
“It’s your Midsummer present,” I said promptly. “I made it myself, while you were sleeping.”
Jessica carefully removed the woven crown of bright yellow blossoms and turned it over in her hands. “It’s beautiful,” she said. “I didn’t know you could weave.”
I grinned. “Neither did I.” But it had kept me busy while I watched over her and waited for O’Malley’s return.
“Are these flowers what I think they are?”
“Most likely,” I said. “After all, St. John’s wort is the traditional flower of the Summer Solstice.”
Jessica gave me a sly look. “I certainly hope you don’t think I’m depressed.”
“After last night? Hardly. How could I possibly think that?”
She caressed one of the buttery yellow petals between her thumb and forefinger and breathed in the flower’s delicate scent. “What is the Latin name … ah yes, Hypericum, symbolic of the sun.”
“And not just that,” I told her. “Celtic folklore holds that this flower has the power to ward off evil, and if you sleep with it under your head on Midsummer Eve, St. John will bless you and guard you from death during the coming year.”
“Hmm.” Jessica set the wreath aside and stretched. “It’s getting late,” she said. “Where is Shamus?”
The distant sound of a twig snapping made us both freeze motionless.
“I scattered some of the twigs from the pyre at the base of the hill, on the path approaching the ring,” I told her in a hushed whisper. “I didn’t want him to take us unawares. Come.”
I stood and took her right hand to pull her to her feet, then bent down and picked up the discarded cloak. Then I led her to the opening of the ring, where we positioned ourselves behind the stones that marked the entrance, one on each side.
“Here,” I said, handing the cloak back to her. “Put this back on. The grey color will help camouflage you among the stones.”
As Jessica swung the cloak back over her shoulders and raised the hood over her head, she had a sudden idea: “Half a moment!” She went over to the pyre and picked out a sturdy-looking stick, about five feet long. I didn’t have time to question her as to what she planned to do with it; by the time she had repositioned herself by the entrance, the approaching footsteps were nearly upon us.
The visitor to the ring paused before entering, apparently ascertaining if the way was clear or looking for some sort of trap. Jessica held her breath, afraid that the thudding of her heart would give her away, and gripped her stick tighter.
At last Shamus O’Malley stepped into the ring. The first thing he beheld in the strengthening twilight was the pile of sticks, unburned and without its crowning centerpiece. He spat an oath under his breath, and started across the ring to look for the lens. Before he had taken more than a step, Jessica swung the stick low across his path, striking his shins and causing him to trip and sprawl flat on his face. Good girl, I thought proudly as I sprang on him, pinning him to the ground with his knee and twisting his arm behind his back.
“Jessica,” I said, “would be so kind as to lend me the laces from your shoes?”
Jessica knelt down and deftly undid the laces from the hiking shoes she had worn up to the ring the day before, knotting them together to make a longer whole. She handed them to me, and I used them to bind O’Malley’s hands securely behind him.
“There,” I said. “That should hold him for the time being.”
“What the hell do ye think you’re doing?” O’Malley protested, trying to twist around and glare at me.
“Placing you under arrest for the murder of Colleen Kirk and the attempted murder of Jessica Fletcher,” I replied.
“I don’t know what ye be talking about!” O’Malley spat. “I didn’t murder anybody!”
“No?” Jessica stepped into his line of vision, causing the captured man to blanch the moment he saw her. “You definitely intended to kill me. And I can prove that you killed Colleen Kirk.” She looked at me. “How much longer ‘til sunrise?”
“Half an hour, more or less,” I said.
“I think we should take Mr. O’Malley down the hill to Shannon’s cottage. We can just make it – and everything should become clear there.”
With a firm hand clamped on his shoulder, I marched Shamus O’Malley back down the hill from the stone ring towards Shannon’s cottage. Jessica walked along beside us, holding her stick, notably anxious about the possibility of having to use it again. Luckily for her and her left shoulder, O’Malley did not make any move to escape my grip.
We came through the sheep gate and entered the dooryard just minutes before sunrise. Around fifteen people from the town and its environs were milling about a bonfire burning low in the yard, waiting for the Summer Solstice dawn. Shannon spotted us, detached herself from the crowd, and ran forward. Sergeant Boyle, who was keeping a close eye on her, followed at a slightly more dignified pace.
“Jessica!” Shannon cried. “Where on earth have you been? I kept calling your room at the Thistle Inn, but there was no answer!” She stopped a few paces short of our trio and stared. “You two look like you’ve been out all night!”
I held up a hand to forestall any more questions. “We have been out all night,” I said. “We were hunting. And this is who we caught – Colleen Kirk’s murderer.”
“Shamus O’Malley?” Boyle said in amazement. “What’s this all about, now?”
Jessica looked anxiously over her shoulder at the eastern sky. “Perhaps it would be best if I explained everything down at the house,” she said.
We both recognized some of the people gathered for the sunrise; others were strangers to us.
“Shannon Kilcannon did not kill Colleen Kirk,” she said once we had the attention of the group, “and when the sun comes up, it will prove to everyone why.”
A murmur of astonishment mingled with doubt ran through the crowd.
“Look, Jess,” I said quietly. “The sun is about to rise.”
The assembly looked to the northeast, and held its breath. The sky turned rose, then golden, and then, at last, the sun peeked above the horizon. A few moments later a slender beam of golden light spilled across the threshold of Shannon’s front door. The crowd gasped aloud.
“There, you see?” O’Malley cried. “I was right! The ley-line runs right under her cottage.”
“No, Mr. O’Malley, if anything that light only proves how wrong you are,” Jessica said, stepping forward. “The fact that the light falls here means that there is no ley-line under the cottage.”
Everyone turned back towards us, where my hand was still firmly planted on O’Malley’s shoulder.
“What are you talking about?” O’Malley said. “Are you blind? The light goes straight from the hole stone to the house at dawn on Midsummer Day – that’s where the ley-line goes!”
But Jessica shook her head. “No,” she said. “Something Shannon said to me made everything fall into place: ‘The earth does not stand still in its orbit.’ It doesn’t – it wobbles on its axis, and over time that changes the position of the sunrise and sunset on any given day of the year. In the three thousand years since the stone ring was erected, the position of the sunrise on Midsummer Day has moved a full degree to the north of where it once was. That changes the angle of the beam of sunlight coming through the hole stone by a degree as well. So if today that beam of light falls on Shannon Kilcannon’s cottage door, then three thousand years ago it fell in a completely different spot south of the house. I did the calculations, then checked my math by looking through the hole stone myself. That spot is where Shannon’s well is now.”
“So if ley-lines exist, or ever existed, the one from the henge followed a path from the hole stone to the well,” I clarified. “Not, as Mr. O’Malley would have had us believe, from the hole stone to Ms. Kilcannon’s front door.”
“On the surface, Shamus O’Malley doesn’t have a motive for the murder, or for concocting a story to convince Shannon to sell her farm,” she continued. “But then George and I saw him speaking with the two representatives of Emerald Spring Bottle Water.” Here Jessica turned and looked squarely at O’Malley. “How much did they offer to pay you, Mr. O’Malley, if you convinced Shannon to sell out to them?”
O’Malley stared back at her in defiant silence for a moment, but then under the pressure of her gaze he bowed his head. “One hundred thousand pounds,” he muttered.
“Your plan worked, at least to an extent,” Jessica went on, continuing to glare at him. “You set up the accidents around the farm, and then you convinced Shannon to sell by blaming the accidents on a ley-line. The only problem was she had decided to sell to Emerald Spring’s competition, the Cork Nature Conservancy. So, knowing that Colleen Kirk was coming to meet with Shannon at noon, you arranged for Shannon to be conveniently elsewhere – without witnesses, naturally – then you killed Ms. Kirk and set up Shannon to take the blame, knowing full well that with Shannon in jail, the farm would eventually be put up for auction. Emerald Spring is a big enough company. It would have easily outbid any other group or organization interested in acquiring the land.”
“You also knew that Shannon doesn’t make a habit of locking her door,” I added. “After you killed Ms. Kirk, you went inside, picked out a card that would seemingly implicate Ms. Kilcannon – the tarot card that represents betrayal – and placed it in her hand so the police would find it.”
“That card, the Three of Swords, was well chosen, but not for the reason you intended,” said Jessica. “It did indeed point to a betrayal – but of a friend betraying a friend.”
“Was Shamus’s dowsing completely faked, then?” Shannon asked, her face pale.
“Not entirely,” I acknowledged. “Mr. O’Malley is a genuine dowser – for water. He’s successfully pinpointed the locations for seven new wells in and around Kilcleer over the years. When he was dowsing your dooryard, Shannon, he was probably picking up on a real line, but it was a water line, not a ley-line. It’s probably this underground water line that feeds your well … and it’s the main reason why Emerald Springs was so desperate to gain control of your farm.”
“I’ve heard enough,” Boyle said. “Come along, now, Shamus.”
Boyle led O’Malley away, guiding him into the back seat of his patrol car and driving away. The rest of the crowd soon followed suit, departing in groups of twos and threes. Jessica watched them go, a comforting hand on Shannon’s shoulder.
“Bastard,” Shannon said. “I cannot thank you enough, Jessica. To think that I trusted that man …” She took a deep, shaky breath and wiped away angry tears as her friend looked on sympathetically. “Well. He’ll get what’s coming to him, I’m sure.”
“What are you going to do now, Shannon?” I asked her.
“I don’t know. I need some time to think about it. But as for right now, I think I’ll go collect Shep from Tom and Kate. I missed him terribly every minute I was locked up in that horrible jail.”
“Good idea,” Jessica said.
As Shannon made her way into the house, I put my arms around Jessica and was concerned to feel her trembling.
“Are you all right, Jess?”
“I’m fine … no, I’m not. The enormity of everything that’s happened, the terrible reality of what could have happened … I think it’s starting to catch up with me. And now, even though it’s over … I’m scared to death.”
I held her tighter. “Poor lassie. It’s natural after everything you’ve been through. You just need some time, a hot shower, and then a proper breakfast.”
“Those all sound good. Especially the hot shower.”
“Good,” I said. “I need to go collect the picnic things from our refuge by the brook, lest Shannon’s sheep trample them to dust. Why don’t you catch a lift back to the hotel with her when she goes to fetch Shep, and I’ll meet you back there after you get that shower?”
“All right,” Jessica said wearily.
I released her then, although I hadn’t wanted to, just as Shannon re-emerged from the cottage with her car keys in hand.
Back in our room at the Thistle, Jessica let the hot water of her shower fall over her like rain, a balm to both her spirit and her body which, it had become plain to her, had suffered several bruises in the course of her misadventure the day before. Besides the ever-present background ache of her left shoulder, she had bruises from being mishandled by O’Malley in the stone ring, bruises from being dropped on to a pile of scrap wood, and bruises from sleeping with little more than a thin blanket between her and the stony ground. Jessica lost count of them all and continued to let the hot water work its small miracles.
When she finally emerged from her long shower she was feeling somewhat better than before. The thick robe of deep blue terrycloth provided by the hotel felt wonderful as she shrugged it on, and it had an ample enough sleeve that she didn’t even have to struggle to pull it over her stiff left arm. She had just finished drying her hair and was in the process of brushing it when she heard the sound of a key in the lock and I came into the room.
“Oh!” she said when she saw me. “I didn’t expect you back quite so soon.”
“You’re not unhappy to see me, are you?” I asked, fearing from her tone that she was now regretting our actions from the previous evening.
“Of course not,” she said as she finished her last few strokes with the brush. “But I would have been dressed by now if I’d known when you were coming back.”
I came up behind her and put my arms around her. “So instead you’ve been lounging around in that sumptuous bathrobe, indulging in unaccustomed luxury.” She was radiant and still somewhat flushed from the heat of the shower. I bent my head and kissed her tenderly on her neck. “I daresay you’ve earned a little indulgence, Jessica. Don’t you?”
Jessica willingly leaned back into my embrace, something for which I was thankful. “Well, maybe a little.”
I let her go then and went to where I had left the retrieved items from the previous night on the desk. I returned with the wreath of flowers.
“You left this up at the stone circle,” I said as I replaced it on her head. “There. Now you really are my elf princess.”
Jessica looked at her reflection in the mirror and admired the effect of the yellow blossoms and green leaves against her rich golden hair. “Elf princess,” she repeated with a smile. “You do have an active imagination, George.”
I sat on the edge of the bed and patted the quilt next to me for her to come join him. When she had seated herself next to me, I looked fixedly at a point on the floor and said, “Um, Jess, about last night …”
“What about it?”
“Well … I recognize that you were feeling a great deal of stress at the time, and moreover you were recovering from whatever foul drugs it was that O’Malley put into you.”
I paused then, struggling to find the right words, so Jessica filled in the gap: “You’re afraid, then, that I didn’t mean what I said to you when I woke up?”
“Aye, something like that. And it’s all right if, having had time to reconsider, you want to recant.” I prayed that it wasn’t so and continued on, “Just like at the hunting cabin back in Wick, the situation was highly charged emotionally. It would hardly be fair of me to hold you to what you said under such circumstances.”
Jessica sighed and picked at a thread that had raveled loose on the sleeve of her robe.
“I appreciate what you’re saying,” she said. “I suppose that being a gentleman demands it. But I assure you I had full control of my wits last night. I knew exactly what I was saying then, just as I do now. Look at me, George.”
I looked up and met her eyes, renewed hope dawning in my heart.
“Surely you, a seasoned Inspector for Scotland Yard, will recognize sincerity when you see it,” she said to him, taking my hand in both of hers.
“Aye,” I said, smiling again. “I recognize it. Jessie, I love you so much. I didn’t mean to doubt your word.” Truthfully, I felt a bit foolish for having doubted her.
Jessica planted a playful kiss on my lips. “I love you too. And I know you were just making sure we were doing the right thing.”
I took a deep breath and let it out gustily, suddenly relieved and deliriously happy all at the same time. “Well! Now that that’s out of the way … I believe it’s time for that proper breakfast.”
I started to rise, but Jessica caught me by the sleeve and pulled me back down.
“Not just yet,” she said, a mischievous smile playing about her lips.
This time when we made love there was no urgency; just love and patience, as though we had all of the time in the world – time to explore, time to discover, time to unselfishly indulge one another.
Later, as we lay wrapped in each other’s arms, I traced a feather-light fingertip down the length of her torso, causing her to giggle and squirm away. “Who knew?” I asked playfully as I pulled her back to me.
“Knew what?” Jessica asked, trying not to laugh as I kissed her neck.
“You’re kittlish,” I announced joyfully.
“Ticklish, you Americans say.”
Jessica tried again, unsuccessfully this time, to squirm away when I gently traced a fingertip down her arm.
“Not usually,” she said with another laugh.
“Just after making love, then,” I said, amending my earlier observation. “But that’s not all I’ve learned about you in the past day.”
Jessica leaned back slightly to look at me as she swatted my roaming hand away. “And what else have you learned about me,” she asked in far too serious a tone.
“Well,” I answered contemplatively. “There’s this one little spot…”
The unmistakable sound of pleasure that escaped from her lips when I found it made me smile uncontrollably. “Aye, that’s the one.”
“George,” she began to protest.
Undeterred by her complete lack of sincerity, I continued. “Just let me finish,” I said. “There’s this one little spot that seems to drive you absolutely mad.”
The next time she uttered my name was not in protest but with an impatient sigh. “George.”
I did, and as a result, by the time we shared that “proper breakfast,” it was actually more of a “proper brunch.” To be quiet honest, though, neither of us seemed to mind a bit.
That day was our last in Kilcleer. Jessica’s plane home was scheduled to leave from Dublin the next morning, so that evening we met with Shannon and Sergeant Boyle for a farewell drink around the fireplace in the Thistle Inn’s grand common room.
“Not only did we nail Shamus O’Malley for the murder of Colleen Kirk, he’s given us enough information to go after those people from Emerald Springs for conspiracy and bribery charges,” Boyle told them, sounding pleased. “They’ll not be troubling Kilcleer again.”
“What have you decided to do about the farm, Shannon?” I asked.
Shannon considered the ice cubes in her glass. “Even though I know now that what Shamus was telling me about ley-lines was complete bunk, I’m still going to sell the old place,” she said.
“Really?” Jessica asked, her eyes wide in surprise. “To whom?”
“To the Nature Conservancy.”
“I thought Colleen Kirk’s death would put that deal on the skids,” Boyle said.
“I thought so too, Terry. But they contacted me this afternoon, and they still want to go ahead with the sale – and keep me on permanently as caretaker,” said Shannon. “The Conservancy folks are in a much better position to provide for all the fields and buildings than I. And all I really want is my home, my sheep, and my dog.”
“And the people of Ireland will have access to the historic sites on the property,” I pointed out. “It sounds like a happy ending for you after all, Shannon.”
“Aye. And I owe it all to you and Jessica.” She smiled then, taking note of the fact that we were not only seated next to each other but that we were discreetly holding hands, apparently not discreetly enough.. “Of course, happy endings for me seem to also mean happy beginnings for some others,” she added with a wink at us.
When we arrived back at the inn the last thing that I wanted to do was to spend any part of our few remaining hours together doing Jessica’s physiotherapy exercises. Despite her assurances to the contrary it was quite evident, even to me, that Jessica’s recent ordeal with Shamus O’Malley had left her even more sore and stiff than before. That being the case, there was no denying what needed to be done.
I watched as Jessica worked through her pendulum exercises. Watching her arm swing rhythmically back and forth had a bit of a hypnotic effect on me, and had my mind wandering to more pleasant pursuits.
When I snapped to, Jessica was standing upright, her arm hanging loosely at her side, smiling at me.
“Sorry, love,” I apologized. I stood from the edge of the bed so that she could lie down. “My mind was elsewhere for a moment.”
“Well, before you tell me just exactly where, I think we’d better finish up the rest of my exercises,” she teased as she stretched out on the bed.
Slightly embarrassed, I sat down next to her and began moving her arm gently through its various movements, trying very hard to concentrate on what I was doing and not her bare leg that was now only partially hidden by the bottom flap of her robe.
As I lowered her arm for the final time I noticed a deep cut in the center of her palm. I inspected it more closely and then gave it a gentle kiss.
“I don’t remember that being part of my exercise routine,” she commented after a relaxing sigh.
“You’ve a cut on your hand,” I explained innocently enough.
The bruise on her wrist was even more troublesome to me. With great tenderness, I placed another kiss on the undersurface, where O’Malley had obviously held a tight grip.
The one on her elbow wasn’t nearly as severe but required proper attention as well, I decided, kissing the sensitive inside of her arm.
Jessica laughed. “George, what are you doing?”
I looked up at her and answered simply, “First aid.”
“Oh, is that what they call it now days?” she laughed.
“Aye.” I replied before folding back the collar of her robe and in turn, addressing her shoulder…neck…collar bone…and…
“George,” Jessica exclaimed, stopping me mid-kiss. I could feel her heart racing now, and looked up at her quizzically. “What?”
“I’m pretty sure I don’t have a bruise there.”
I looked down at the area in question. “By George, you’re absolutely right.”
“Then what are you doing?”
“Well, if you must know, I’m fast becoming rather fond of this particular spot,” I began to explain before kissing her there again. She gasped. “Aye, very fond indeed.”
Satisfied, I returned my attention to caring for Jessica’s injuries: a long, thin scratch on her right flank, abrasions on the fronts of both knees…
“I know, love,” I said after kissing the sensitive area on the back side of her knee, “no bruises here, either. But I’m fond of this spot as well.”
When I paused to look at her for a moment, she sighed and stretched, almost lazily. “Is that all of them?” she wondered, her eyes closed.
“Two more,” I informed her before attending to a particularly nasty contusion on the front of her hip and then finally a very small knick on her cheek bone.
“Feeling better?” I asked once I had finished.
Jessica’s eyes opened slowly just as a smile crept across her lips. “You missed a spot.”
“Aye,” I answered, knowing exactly the one that she meant. Leaning down, I kissed her softly, then more fervently on her perfectly unblemished lips.
Jessica quickly worked my shirt free from my trousers. “Are you sure, Jessie,” I asked between kisses. “If you’re too exhausted from everything that’s happened, we could just cuddle up together in front of the fireplace.” I can’t believe that I even suggested it.
The sparkle in her eyes told me otherwise, but my heart still sank when she felt it necessary to preface her reply. “I’ll admit,” she said as she tried to manipulate the top button on my shirt, “that’s exactly what I had in mind when we returned tonight.” She paused for a long moment and after a bit of a struggle finally succeeded in unfastening the top button, a difficult task with only one good hand.
“But,” she continued, much to my pleasant surprise, “I’ve been…persuaded,” she explained with a smile. I was relieve and elated.
Shaking her head in mild frustration, she added, “I’m going to need some help with the rest of these.”
I looked down to see that she was still working diligently on the second button, so I obliged. “The belt and the trousers, too, Inspector.”
“Jess,” I said in mock surprise. “That’s a little forward, don’t you think?” I teased.
“Not after that opening act,” she replied.
I smiled and nodded cordially. “Whatever my leading lady wants, she shall have,” I replied, hastily doing away with my belt.
Jessica laughed as she pushed my shirt from my shoulders. “Trying to charm the critics now, are you?”
“Something like that,” I admitted before opening the curtain on the next act.”
Much later, after acts two and three, a brief intermission, and an encore, I lay quietly with Jessica wrapped in my arms, waiting for my heart beat to slow and my breathing to return to normal. “Sensational,” she said, whispering her completely unbiased review into my ear. Well, perhaps it wasn’t completely unbiased but it did make me smile. “Aye, Jessie, you are that…and more.”
By virtue of my Scotland Yard badge and authority as Chief Inspector, I was able to accompany Jessica through Dublin International Airport’s customs and security all the way to the gate. We spoke of this and that until, during an awkward pause, I reached into my coat pocket and produced a small jewelry box, which I handed to her diffidently. To be quite honest, if I had had more time, I would not have chosen this particular location for what I was about to do.
I know now that Jessica’s heart sank when she saw it, guessing what I had in mind; nevertheless, curiosity got the better of her. She took the box from my hand, opened it, and found the diamond solitaire ring she was afraid she would see. Holding it up, she observed how the gemstone threw off the harsh overhead lights in a thousand glittering rainbows. She had never been given an engagement ring before. When Frank had proposed to her, they were young and poor and struggling just to make ends meet; by mutual agreement, they had decided to forgo the formality of a ring. “Besides,” he had told her, “no diamond on earth could match the light of your bright eyes.”
At this point in our lives, I wanted her to have the best. It had taken some doing but after coaxing her into taking a nap, I had gone out to ‘run a couple of errands.’ I had failed to mention that my errands would take me to Cobh – truth be told, I hadn’t know that they would - where I eventually found a jeweler who had exactly what I was looking for.
“This is beautiful, George,” she said quietly, a lump forming in her throat, “but I can’t accept it.”
“Wait, Jess,” I said. “What I’m trying to say is …”
“I know what you’re trying to say, George,” she said as she closed the box and folded it back into my hand. This was not going at all as I had planned. Somehow, it seemed important for her to stop me from actually saying the words. “And believe me, I wish I could say yes, but … I’m sorry … I cannot marry you.”
“Why not?” I asked, confused. Truthfully, I hadn’t given much consideration to the possibility that she might decline.
“Because my home is not here. It’s in Maine, and that is where I belong, as surely as Shannon belongs in Kilcleer and you belong to Scotland.”
I searched for an adequate response to this, but finally settled for, “What is there in Maine that I … that you can’t find in the United Kingdom with me?”
In reply, Jessica took a plain envelope out of her handbag and tucked it into the breast pocket of his jacket.
“Come and see,” was all she said.
I could see from the sad but determined look on her face that this was not an argument I was going to win, at least not today. And at that moment the boarding call for Jessica’s flight came over the public address system.
“I’ll cherish my memories from this visit,” I whispered to her as I drew her into one last long, loving embrace. “Safe home, Jessie. Come back to me soon.”
“I will,” she promised. “Safe home, George.”
She pulled away, leaving wet marks on the breast of my coat from her tears, picked up her bag, and headed for the waiting plane. At the gate she turned and looked back at me one last time, and then she vanished down the jetway and was gone.
I paced slowly over to the terminal’s windows and gazed out of them unhappily as I watched the Boeing 747 slowly back away from the gate and head for the taxiway. What had just happened, I asked myself as I stared out the window. A few minutes later, with no answer to my question, I watched the great jet race down the runway and leap into the sky, soaring away into the west. It was only when it had dwindled to a speck and was lost to sight that I took the envelope that Jessica had given me out of my pocket and opened it.
Inside were a set of round trip plane tickets on British Airways with open-ended dating, passage for one from London’s Heathrow Airport to Boston’s Logan International, with a connecting Continental flight to Portland, Maine.
“’Come and see,’” I repeated to myself.
With new resolve and lighter spirits, I strode away from the gate towards my own waiting flight back to London.
The remainder of the story was told to me by Jessica several months later.
Waiting for Jessica’s plane to land, Seth impatiently paced back and forth in the small waiting area that served Portland Jetport’s Gate 7. Her flight home from Boston had been delayed, but finally – finally! – the plane had arrived at its destination, and was even now taxiing to the gate. Eventually, once the aircraft’s engines had been shut down and the jetway affixed to its door, a stream of weary passengers disembarked, Jessica near the end of the line. As she emerged into the gate area, naturally the first thing he noticed was the sling.
“What happened to you?” he asked before he had even welcomed her home.
Jessica quirked a smile that was slightly strained from tiredness – she had expected the sling to garner just this sort of reaction, and would have been almost disappointed if it had not. Still, she wasn’t about to let Seth get away with his blunt greeting.
“Nice to see you too, Seth,” she said pleasantly. “Did you miss me?”
Her words had their intended effect, and Seth immediately softened his attitude. “Sorry,” he said. “Of course I missed you.” He embraced her carefully, mindful of the sling. “How was your trip?”
“So I see,” said Seth wryly as he relieved her of one of her bags and they headed down the airport concourse. “So – now can I ask what happened to you?”
“This?” Jessica said, glancing at her sling. “Just a dislocated shoulder. Nothing serious.”
“I beg to differ, Jessica,” Seth said, injecting a note of seriousness into his voice. Jessica was trying to shrug this off – so to speak – and he wasn’t about to let her get away with it. “If not treated properly, a dislocation can lead to serious long term joint problems. As soon as we get back to Cabot Cove we’re heading over to my office so I can have a look at it.”
Although she didn’t mention it, I’m sure that Jessica groaned in response. “Seth, I’ve been away for two weeks! All I want to do is get back to my house, drop my luggage in the foyer, and put my feet up with a nice cup of tea!”
“Another half an hour won’t make that much of a difference after two weeks,” Seth pointed out reasonably. Damn it all, she was not going to win this argument! Not when her health was at stake. And not when he knew he was right.
Jessica tried to change his mind for most of the way back to Cabot Cove, but he stood firm, and before she knew it they had pulled up to the curb in front of his office. She went inside with obvious reluctance; Seth knew she’d been counting on at least a brief respite at home before facing the inquisition, but part of his plan in bringing her directly to his office was to catch her off balance and hopefully get some straight answers to some simple questions – such as, first and foremost, how she had come to hurt her shoulder.
“I fell,” she replied shortly as she slid her arm out of the sleeve of her blouse so he could examine her.
“Ay-yuh, you fell. Jess, you know that I know that there’s more to this story than that, so why don’t you just tell me what happened and get it over with?”
Jessica complied while he put her shoulder through various exercises and manipulations designed to test her range of motion, and if truth be told, he got more than he had bargained for in the hearing of her tale. Nearly being shot on the streets of London? Angry, irrational mobs storming the castle? Sentries posted to prevent escapes? I’m sure that from his vantage point, it didn’t sound good at all. Hell, from anyone’s vantage point it didn’t sound good.
“So it was Sutherland who popped it back in for you?” he asked.
“Yes,” she admitted. “It hurt a lot at the time, but afterwards it wasn’t so bad.”
“And when did you get this bruise here?” Seth asked as he continued his exam.
“That was from Ireland,” she replied. When he seemed to be expecting more of an answer than that, she added, “From lying on a pile of dry wood. It wasn’t my idea, I assure you.”
“I’m not sure I want to know whose idea it was,” Seth grumbled. “What about this one here?”
“Spending the night out, sleeping on rocky ground.”
“As I said, it was an interesting trip,” Jessica said carefully, mindful that Seth’s nurse, Beverly, was probably just outside the door, hanging on her every word. “Look, I’d really rather not talk about it now. How about dinner tonight, and I can fill you in on the details then?”
“All right,” Seth sighed, signaling that she could pull her blouse back up with a wave of his hand. “What’s on the menu?”
“Chicken of some sort, I suspect,” she replied, shrugging her arm back into her sleeve. “I think I have some frozen that I can use. And the vegetables in the fridge should still be good. I’ll think of something.”
“Anything’s fine with me,” Seth said, scribbling some notes on her medical chart. “I’ll provide something for dessert, and I’ll even bring along a bottle of white wine someone gave me as a gift that I’d like to try out. Your shoulder’s in better shape than I feared it would be, by the way.”
Jessica smiled with a little pride. “I was working at the exercises George’s doctor prescribed the whole time we were in Ireland.”
“We?” Seth repeated, putting down his pen and leveling a stare at her over the tops of his glasses. “Sutherland went to Ireland with you too?”
“Well, after everything that happened in Wick, he needed the break just as much as I did,” Jessica explained.
Seth decided to let the matter drop for the time being. “You’re still going to need several more weeks of physical therapy to make sure that shoulder doesn’t freeze up on you,” he told her. “I’ll set you up with Maura over at the hospital for some weekly sessions. She’s good; everyone I’ve sent over to her has spoken very highly of her.”
“All right,” said Jessica. “Just let me know where and when.”
“In the meantime, no unnecessary activity with that left arm. No pulling, reaching, or especially lifting. Typing,” he added, anticipating her next question, “you can do, so long as your forearm is on a stable surface and there’s no strain on your upper arm at all. And keep your turns at the computer to no more than thirty minutes at a time, with generous rest periods in between.”
“I’ll try my best,” Jessica promised. “Now will you please take me home?”
Once Jessica was safely ensconced in her house, her luggage in the foyer and her feet up with a cup of tea just as she had requested, Seth drove back to his office to fill out the paperwork for a physical therapy referral. As he did, he pondered what had seemed different about his friend. It wasn’t just the fact that she’d come home with her arm in a sling. There was something more, something subtle that he couldn’t quite put his finger on, something he had been trying to figure out ever since he’d picked her up at the Portland airport. He gazed idly out the window of his office, watching the sun duck in and out of the fluffy fair-weather clouds that drifted across the sky.
The sight of the sun and clouds provided him with the answer: she was glowing.
Not literally, of course, but just as he could tell where the sun was even when it was hidden behind one of the fair-weather clouds, he could sense her glowing behind the nonchalance about her shoulder injury and her reluctance to discuss the details about her trip. There was a lightness there he had not seen before, something that, despite whatever dire situations she had found herself in over the course of her journey, had filled her with unforeseen happiness.
She’d told him that I had gone on her unscheduled visit to Ireland with her.
Knowing what I know now, I imagine Seth wasn’t sure he liked the direction things were heading. Neither would I if I’d been in his shoes.