The Banks o’
“Legends and Songs” part 1
-- Written by Anne
This story is a follow-up to Donald Bain’s eighth “Murder, She Wrote” novel, The Highland Fling Murders, and it really helps to have read that to get what’s going on here. But that’s okay, it’s a good book, the best so far in the Bain series. Many of the characters contained herein are Donald Bain’s creations; to him I owe a debt of thanks for providing the story that inspired this sequel.
By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes,
Where the sun
shines bright on
Where me and my true love were ever wont to gae
On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Lock Lomond.
O ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak’ the low road,
An’ I’ll be
But me and my true love will never meet again
the bonnie, bonnie banks o’
‘Twas there that we parted in yon shady glen,
On the steep,
steep side o’
Where in the purple hue the Hieland hills we view,
An’ the moon comin’ out in the gloamin’.
O ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak’ the low road,
An’ I’ll be
But me and my true love will never meet again
the bonnie, bonnie banks o’
The wee birdies sing and the wild flow’rs spring,
And in the sunshine the waters are sleepin’;
But the broken heart it kens nae second spring,
Tho’ the waefu’ may cease frae their greetin’.
O ye’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak’ the low road,
An’ I’ll be
But me and my true love will never meet again
bonnie, bonnie banks o’
the bonnie, bonnie banks o’
-- author unknown
The weather was miserable – even by
Inside New Scotland Yard, Chief Inspector George Sutherland’s mood was nearly as gloomy as the weather outside. Rain streaked down the windows of his office, obscuring the view – not that he would have been able to see much anyway, but the added opacity made the office seem all the more cramped and dark. The only light came from his desk lamp, as he worked doggedly on a boring report concerning a minor crime that he had been only marginally involved with solving.
The knock at his office door jolted him back to the present. “Yes?”
A junior staff officer opened the door and looked inside. “Sir, someone here to see you.”
George had not been expecting any appointments, and was not feeling up to seeing unexpected drop-ins. “I’m rather busy now, Sergeant,” he sighed, turning back to the papers on his desk. “Please ask them to come back tomorrow morning.”
“Tomorrow morning?” another voice asked. “Are you sure?”
George recognized that voice, and snapped his head back up, the report instantly forgotten.
Instead of the staff sergeant, there in the doorway stood Jessica Fletcher. She was wearing a creamy white trenchcoat and a radiant smile; the overall effect in the dim room was as dazzling as if the sun had come out.
George was speechless. Finally he managed to find his voice and say, “Please excuse us, Staff Sergeant. And shut the door behind you.”
“Very good, sir,” the officer said, and withdrew.
Once he had gone, George crossed the office in two steps and caught Jessica in a tight embrace.
“Jess!” he exclaimed. “What are you doing here? I didn’t expect you for another three days!”
Jessica shifted slightly in his arms so she could breathe. “I changed my flight,” she said simply. “Cashed in some of my frequent flier miles. Lovely weather you’re having here.”
“Aye, well …” George said as he released her. “What’s a little rain?”
“To some blessed time alone in your company,” George said as he raised his glass. “And may it be far more carefree than your last visit.”
“More heartfelt words were never spoken.” Jessica raised her own glass and touched its rim to his.
It was evening, and outside the little restaurant the rain was coming down as hard as ever, but somehow neither of them seemed to care. The room they were seated in was warm and inviting, the food was uncommonly good, and neither found anything lacking in the other’s company.
“I regret that I have to work tomorrow,” George said at length. “I may be able to arrange for some leave towards the end of the week, but unfortunately tomorrow at least you will be on your own.”
“That’s fine with me,” she replied. “I need a little time to myself. There are lots of little things that I need to do. Once I’ve seen to those, well, the rest of the week can look after itself.”
George smiled. “Good. Jess, you will never know what a boost it was to my spirit to see you walk into my office this afternoon.”
“Oh, I think I have a fair idea,” she said, laughing. “You should have seen the look on your face!”
At the end of the evening George dropped her off back at her hotel, with a promise to meet her again after work the following night. After he had gone Jessica went up to her room and fell into bed, feeling very happy and content.
When Jessica awoke the next morning she felt surprisingly refreshed, and lay in bed ticking off in her mind all the things she wanted to do that day. Having done that she got up, and set forth to accomplish just about all of them.
The final item on her agenda was the one she had been most looking forward to. At six o’clock, Jessica met George outside of New Scotland Yard; he took her by the arm, and together they walked down the street, bound for a little restaurant he knew of and had highly recommended. The clouds had begun to break after an afternoon rain, and strips of twilight blue sky were reflected together with the kindling street lamps in the mirror-like puddles on the street.
“How was your day?” Jessica asked.
“Quite good,” George replied. “I attended a minor committee meeting, signed off on some procedures reports, reviewed the files from the St. Martins case, and made our dinner reservations – which quite made the day. You?”
Jessica laughed. “Nothing quite so productive as yours,” she said. Suddenly her step faltered, and her grip on his arm tightened.
George looked at her in concern. “Jess, what’s the matter?” he asked.
“A chill just ran up my spine,” she said, scanning the area around them with wide eyes. “It felt … like a warning.”
“We’re in the middle of a busy
The answer came in the form of the sharp report of a gun, and the loud metallic ping as its bullet glanced off a lamp post not three feet from them.
“Jessica, I swear that I will instantly duck for cover if you should ever mention your blood running cold again,” George said as he offered her some tea in a styrofoam cup. It wasn’t fancy, but it was the best that could be done on such short notice. They were back in George’s office at Scotland Yard, which was now milling with detectives and constables investigating the shooting.
Jessica accepted the cup gratefully and wrapped her hands around it, breathing in its warmth. She didn’t answer; instead she took a sip of the tea, closed her eyes, and seemed to huddle further into herself. George noticed her shivering, and put a hand on her arm.
“Are you all right?” he asked in concern.
“I’m fine,” she answered, “except that I’m still cold.”
“It’s at least seventy degrees in here,” George said.
“I know.” She took another sip, and set the cup aside.
There was a seemingly endless parade of inspectors of varying levels that spoke with them in turns, but to George’s relief Jessica seemed to shake off her chill and come back to herself. After about three hours, the interviews were over for that night and they were permitted to leave Scotland Yard.
“That was more than enough excitement for one evening,” George said as the last detective constable concluded his questioning. “We both need some rest. Let me get you back to your hotel, Jess, and then I believe I’ll head back to my flat.”
“Can’t do that, sir,” the detective constable said.
George leveled the officer with his gaze. “What do you mean, ‘can’t do that’?” he asked.
“We had a report from over that way, Inspector – someone fired two shots at your flat, broke a window pane or two. I’m afraid the whole building’s been sealed off until at least noon tomorrow. Orders from the forensics squad.”
George groaned. “Well, that’s a jolly good bit of news!” he exclaimed. “Where does the forensics squad expect me to sleep?”
“With me,” Jessica said.
Both George and the constable’s heads whipped round to stare at her.
“A poor choice of words,” she amended, colouring slightly. “What I mean is, there’s a perfectly good roll-away bed in the sitting room of my suite at the hotel. You could spend the night on that, and maybe by morning things will have sorted themselves out a little.”
George rubbed his temples wearily. “I’m too tired to argue with you, Jess,” he said. “I think I’ll take you up on that kind offer. Will you be needing anything else from us, Constable?”
“Ah, no, sir, not at this time,” he said, closing his notebook. “If there is, we’ll know where to find you.”
“You certainly will,” George said, favoring the constable with a look that seemed to warn him against trying. “Come on, Jessica – let’s call it a night.”
The first thing next morning they grabbed a hasty breakfast and headed over to New Scotland Yard, where the detective in charge of the case had more questions for them, but very few answers. Jessica’s interview, which was first, was relatively short, but George’s was considerably longer – no doubt because they were combing through his recent case files looking for possible suspects. Jessica paced the narrow waiting area outside the interview room until he emerged. The expression on his face was a mixture of irritation and amusement.
“What is it?” she asked.
“Do you want the good news or the bad news first?”
“Better give it to me all at once,” said Jessica.
“Very well. As they no doubt have told you already, they have absolutely no leads at this time as to who it was that shot at us, or even which of us was the intended target. Given my position at the Yard, they want to take no chances – I am at risk until proven otherwise. And so, in light of the recent events, the Superintendent has given me two options. The first is that I accept a twenty-four hour police guard.”
Jessica’s face mirrored her dismay.
“No, I was not particularly enthusiastic about that idea either. The second option was that I leave
“Well,” Jessica admitted, “that does sound sensible.”
“I thought so too. I was thinking of going home to Wick. Would you come with me?”
Jessica took his hand and gave it a squeeze. “I would love to,” she said. “When do we leave?”
“Today,” said George. “It won’t be quite as comfortable as I would hope; both Forbes and Mrs. Gower are away on holiday. We’ll have to look after ourselves.”
“Look after ourselves?” Jessica said with a smile. “I can hardly wait!”
Wick looked much the way Jessica remembered it – it was, she supposed, one of those small towns that never changed, which had looked like this a hundred years ago, and would look the same a hundred years hence.
“Ah, look,” George said wryly as they pulled up to a corner. “Here is an old friend.”
The ‘old friend’ turned out to be none other than Constable Horace McKay, who Jessica remembered with less than fondness from her last visit. The fact that he was still here, and in uniform, no less, took her aback.
“Hullo, George,” McKay greeted him. “Come home for a little holiday, I see.”
“A forced one, unfortunately, Horace,” George said.
“Ah, yes, I heard about the incident in
“The feeling is mutual, Constable,” Jessica said as pleasantly as she could manage.
George could sense the strain. “Well, we’ll be seeing you, Horace,” he said, and they continued on.
The castle was chilly and a little damp when they stepped inside, owing to its vacancy.
“Mrs. Gower and Forbes won’t be back until early next week,” George said as he set their bags at the foot of the stairs. “I’ll get a fire going; that will drive away the chill.”
“Would you like some help?”
“Ah, no … actually, why don’t you head upstairs and rest for a couple of hours? I have some things I need to attend to down here … business and all. What say I call you down around dinner time?”
Jessica was a little confused, but caught the eager glint in his eye and smiled.
“Well, that sounds like a good idea,” she agreed. “Give me a few hours, and then I’ll be down.” Whatever it was he was planning, that should give him enough time.
“Fine,” said George. “You remember which room is yours?”
Jessica picked up her overnight bag and slung it over her shoulder. “Of course,” she said, and headed upstairs. She paused halfway up and glanced back once, then sighed, shook her head with a smile, and went on to her room to unpack.
George met her at the foot of the stairs as the ancient clock in the foyer struck six. “Close your eyes,” he said.
“Close my eyes? Why?”
“Humor me, Jess,” George insisted, so Jessica closed her eyes and allowed George to take her by the hand and lead her into the dining room.
“Can I look now?” she asked.
“Yes,” said George. She opened her eyes, and took a breath.
“What do you think?” he asked.
“You have truly outdone yourself,” she exclaimed. George had taken exquisite care in setting the table for two. Silver glittered on a snow white tablecloth, reflecting the warm glow of the candles. A bottle of white wine, cork removed so it could breath, was carefully placed in a container of ice. Everything was perfect.
The meal he had prepared was magnificent, and they spoke of this and that until toward the end of the dinner, when Jessica asked the question that had been troubling her since that afternoon.
“I was surprised to see that Constable McKay is still the chief of police in Wick,” she said. “I would have thought that after everything that happened during my last visit – Daisy Wemyss’ murder, the plot to make you sell the castle - that he would have been removed from office. What happened?”
George put down his fork. “Let’s see … all that happened about a year ago, yes?”
“Just about,” Jessica said.
“Well, it all took a long time to
clear up, as you might expect. The
investigation dragged on for months,” George told her. “I was in
Jessica looked at him in astonishment. “What do you mean?”
George refilled her wine glass and set the bottle back on ice. “Well, for instance - you remember that it was strongly suspected that Evan Lochbuie had murdered poor Daisy Wemyss, but in the end there wasn’t enough solid evidence to prove it, and he walked away free. And as for the plot to force me to sell the castle, the people behind that got off mostly with slapped wrists and hurt pride.
“As for Horace McKay, he was able to distance
himself from the whole mess; he didn’t even lose his position as the chief
constable of Wick. Malcolm, I heard,
“Yes,” said Jessica. “Very disappointing. I can’t help but think that justice has not yet been done, at least not as far as poor Daisy is concerned.”
George sighed, and pushed back his chair. “What’s done is done,” he said. “Come, take a walk with me, and we’ll put the unpleasant memories of the past behind us for awhile. The dishes can wait.”
“All right,” Jessica said, and rose from the table.
Outside a gentle breeze was rippling the trees as ragged shreds of clouds skittered across the sky. The moon, nearly full, cast a bright silver light over the world, strong enough that they had no need of flashlights to make their way.
“Everything looks so different in the moonlight,” Jessica said softly, looking around.
“Yes,” said George. “Even the familiar takes on a newness when seen in a different light.”
He reached out and took her hand, and for awhile they walked along the gravel path in silence.
The moon slipped behind a cloud, casting a shadow of such complete blackness that Jessica tripped over something unseen in the path. She caught herself, then stopped and turned to see what had caused her to stumble. The moon sailed out from behind the obscuring cloud, and by its light she could see a pale, motionless human hand. She took a step closer, and recognized the face of the person it belonged to. She jumped back, trembling, as George took her by the arm and steadied her.
“Jess,” he said. “What is it?”
Jessica looked up at him, a haunted expression on her face. “The murder of Daisy Wemyss has been avenged,” she said. “It’s Evan Lochbuie … and he’s dead.”
“Aye, he be dead, all right,” Constable McKay said as he looked down at Evan Lochbuie’s body. “Shot twice in the heart. How did you come to find him here?”
“We were out taking a walk,” George said, “and Jessica tripped over him.”
McKay gave her a strange look. “So it would seem.”
“How long do you think he’s been dead?” Jessica asked.
“Hard to say. At least a few hours. Hamish Dawson, the doctor, will be able to tell us better. Tell me, did either of you hear anything this evening up at the castle?”
Jessica and George shook their heads. “Nothing,” she said. “But, then, that’s hardly surprising.”
McKay cocked his head. “Hardly surprising? How do you mean?”
“The killer, whoever he was, used a makeshift silencer, probably a pillow – there are goosedown feathers all over the place.”
“So I see. Anything else, Mrs. Fletcher?”
“Only that it’s a fair assumption that Evan knew his killer. He was shot by someone facing him,” Jessica said. “And the way he fell – I think he met this person here on the path, and in the bright moonlight there would have been little question as to who he was meeting.”
“Unless that person came in disguise,” McKay said.
“But if that were the case, I very much doubt Evan would have let a stranger come as close as he did – see, the wounds were inflicted at close range, maybe just a few feet. Evan may have been unbalanced, but he wasn’t stupid.”
“Hmph,” McKay said. “A fair assessment. But a word of warning: I would be careful about who hears your theories, Mrs. Fletcher.”
Jessica looked up at him. “What do you mean?”
McKay sighed. “You
remember, I am sure, the unrest that surrounded your last visit. About the
“I do,” said Jessica. “I also remember that you had a hand in it.”
“Leave that aside for a moment,” he told her. “What you don’t know – and I had nothing to do with this – is that after your departure, the legend of the castle curse took on a more substantial form, thanks, in no small part, to Evan Lochbuie.”
“And what exactly had Evan been saying?” George asked with growing anxiety.
“That Mrs. Fletcher is the curse incarnate.”
Jessica was speechless.
“You must be joking,” said George.
“I wish that I were, George. But Mrs. Fletcher’s reputation for bringing trouble in her wake wherever she goes is well known, and that provided plenty of grist for Evan’s fever-brained mill. And everyone remembers how Daisy Wemyss was coincidentally killed during her last visit – suffice to say, Evan found more than a few receptive ears for his words.”
“Is Jess in any danger?” George asked.
McKay shrugged. “I don’t know how many people share Evan’s opinion. Maybe. But seeing as how you’ve both fled danger into danger, I see no reason for you to leave.”
“We wouldn’t dream of it, Constable McKay,” Jessica said. “Not until this has all been cleared up, anyway.”
“Good,” McKay said, and he motioned to the members of the town rescue squad to come forward and remove the body.
It was late before everyone had left the castle grounds, and George fell into bed with a profound sense of relief when at last they had gone. Jessica had gone to bed somewhat earlier, unable to remain awake thanks to the lingering effects of the time change. She’d finally given in and retired to her room after he had caught her dozing at the kitchen table. George admired her ability to be a light sleeper or an oblivious one almost at will.
For himself, he had some trouble falling asleep. For a long while he stared at the ceiling of his bedroom, thoughts and worries chasing round and round his tired mind. So much had happened in these past two days, and Jessica was, as ever, at the center of it. Was she in danger? If she was, could he protect her? More to the point, would she let him protect her? He finally dropped off to sleep.
His dreams were not quiet.
George woke with a start, sitting straight up in bed. He looked at the clock; it was only half past five. Throwing on a robe he went over to Jessica’s room, driven by an overwhelming need to make sure she was all right. The room was empty.
Going downstairs, he found her sitting in the window seat of one of the castle’s tall bay windows, sipping a cup of instant coffee and gazing out at the strengthening morning light. Her feet were bare, and she had put a light robe on over her nightclothes; the shimmering satin flowed over her like water in a way that made his heart beat just a little bit faster. Jessica was unaware of his presence, lost in her own private thoughts, until he spoke.
Jessica looked up with a start, then smiled. “No,” she said. “I don’t know why; I should feel like it’s six hours earlier than it is.”
“Well, there has been a lot of activity. It’s hardly any wonder.”
Jessica made room for him on the windowseat and tucked her feet under her, looking at him closely. “George, are you all right?”
so. Jess, I’m starting to think that I
should put you on a flight back to
He looked at
her in surprise. “No? Since you’ve set foot in the
“Plenty of reason,” she said. “But I’ve waited this long to get some time alone with you, I intend to make the most of it, and nothing Evan Lochbuie can do living or dead is going to dissuade me from doing just that.”
George smiled in spite of himself, and took her hand. “Jess, you are the most headstrong person I have ever met.”
“Thank you.” She stood up, took a deep breath, and let it out again. “Well, we might as well start the day. Give me a few minutes to get dressed and pull myself together, then we’ll have breakfast – and this time, I’m cooking.”
With morning the castle again became a center of police activity. Later, when things had settled down somewhat, Jessica and George took a walk into town, Jessica having expressed an interest in putting some distance between where she’d found Evan Lochbuie’s body and herself for at least a little while.
They paused in front of one storefront, a tailor shop. Jessica recognized the proprietor’s name on the sign.
“Ben Wemyss,” she said. “Is he …”
“Daisy’s father, yes,” George said. “Shall we go in?”
“All I can say is, good riddance to bad rubbish,” Ben Wemyss, the unfortunate Daisy’s father, said. “I know in my heart of hearts that he murdered my daughter in cold blood, for no better reason than to advance his own agenda. I’m only sorry that someone didn’t do him in long before.” He gave Jessica a sharp glance. “Odd that it should happen now, with you in Wick again, lady … just like the last time.”
Jessica felt slightly uncomfortable under his implied meaning. “An unfortunate coincidence,” she said.
“Unfortunate. Quite.” He turned back to his sales slips.
“Ben,” said George, “forgive me for asking this – especially seeing as how I have no official role in this investigation as of yet – but where were you last night?”
“I didn’t kill him, if that be your meaning,” the tailor said. “Me and my brother, we were out walking on the moors last night, looking for his dog.”
“Did you find it?”
“Yes,” Ben said. He offered nothing more, and George didn’t pursue the issue.
“So Daisy’s father and uncle have no alibis – unless you can count the dog,” George said. They were seated at table in a dim corner of the local pub, sharing a pot of tea and a brief rest.
“It would seem that way,” said Jessica. “And yet, Ben Wemyss doesn’t strike me as the sort of man who would necessarily resort to violence to avenge his daughter’s death.”
“No, I’ve known the man for many years,” George said. “Though when an only child is lost, anyone could snap and lash out. Love is a very powerful motivator.”
Suddenly Jessica shuddered; she looked past George with alarm.
George had seen that look of intensity before, and he didn’t like it. “Jess, what is it?” he asked. His back was to the rest of the tavern, and he started to turn to follow her gaze, but Jessica reached out and seized his hand.
“Don’t turn around,” she said. “Just listen.”
There was a knot of men standing by the bar, and their conversation had started to heat up.
“That’s more of Evan Lochbuie’s nonsense,” one man said. “I canna believe you’ve fallen for that man’s false prophecies.”
“Don’t speak ill of the dead,” another voice shot back. “There be plenty of sense in what he said. She carries a curse - everywhere the woman goes, death walks beside her. Look at what happened the last time she was here, and now this!”
“That’s not a curse, that’s plain bad luck,” someone else said.
“Maybe. But there’s more – how do ye explain a lady her age looking the way she does? She hasn’t aged a day since she was here.”
“There’s witchery in it, for sure,” the man continued. “Only witches and the fairy folk have the power to remain forever young. How else do ye explain it?”
George caught Jessica’s eye; her response was to pull the loose hood of her jacket up so that it covered her hair and shadowed her face. A mutual understanding passed wordlessly between them – they needed to get out of there, the sooner the better. There was a side entrance near at hand; George placed a few pound notes on the table, then they stood and made a very quiet, unobtrusive exit.
“Well, so how do you explain it?” George asked teasingly as they walked down the street, away from the pub and its angry mutterings.
Jessica threw back her hood and let out an exasperated
sigh. “Good genes?” she said. “
He held his tongue and grinned instead.
“That was pretty scary,” Jessica said. “If they had looked back and seen us …”
“The mood in this town is growing ugly again,” George agreed grimly. “Come on, Jess, let’s duck in here and see if Horace has learned anything new.”
They stepped inside the constabulary, where they were greeted by Bob.
“Constable McKay was just about to call you,” he said.
“Aye, indeed I was,” McKay said as he himself appeared at the doorway of his office. “Come inside, both of you. I have something to show you.”
There was only one chair in front of the constable’s desk; George offered it to Jessica then stood beside her.
“Horace,” he said, “I hope you’ve had a break in the case of Evan’s murder, because the sentiments of several people out there are running high, and I trust not a one of them to not take their frustrations out on Jessica.”
“Well, as a matter of fact, there has been a break, Inspector,” McKay said. “It may have this whole thing neatly settled ‘fore long. This arrived in Evan Lochbuie’s letter box this morning.”
He handed George a battered envelope, postmarked from the day before and addressed to Evan – except that the return address in the upper corner was also Evan’s. George looked at McKay quizzically.
“He mailed a letter to himself?”
“Read it,” McKay said.
George removed a slightly soiled, clumsily folded
sheet of paper from the envelope, scanned it, then
passed it down to Jessica, who read it for herself. It was written in verse with sloppy
handwriting, mimicking the old Scottish ballad, “The Banks O’
“For the castle’s curse has come hither again
From way far away o’er the
‘Tis for sake of her, the lass with the golden hair,
That we meet once again, my killer and me.
O he’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak’ the low road,
An’ I’ll be leavin’
For me and my killer will meet but once again
In the shadow of curs’d Castle Sutherland.
The wee birdies sing and the wild flow’rs spring,
And in the sunshine the waters are sleepin’;
But my broken heart it kays nae second spring,
Tho’ the waeful’ may cease frae their greetin’.
O he’ll tak’ the high road and I’ll tak’ the low road,
An’ I’ll be leavin’
For me and my killer will meet but once again
In the shadow of curs’d Castle Sutherland.”
“Seems pretty clear to me, what he’s trying to say,” the constable said when she had finished reading the letter. “’The lass with the golden hair’ – that can only be you, Mrs. Fletcher, especially given Evan’s recent comments concerning you.”
“Even if Evan did intend that line to apply to me,” Jessica countered, “why should that necessarily mean that he is pointing the finger of accusation at George?”
“Because he says that his murderer would kill for her sake – for your sake,” said McKay. “And there’s only one person in Wick, I think, who would do that.”
George took a step forward. “You have absolutely nothing to back that up,” he said angrily.
“I have the word of a dead man,” McKay said, taking the letter back from Jessica and holding it up. “And that is worth more in a court of law than a live witness, sometimes.”
“I can’t believe this,” Jessica said in annoyance. “You are accusing George of murder based on the posthumous ramblings of a lunatic!”
“Those be your words, not mine,” McKay said to her. He then turned to George. “Between the danger to both of you here in the town and this letter, I think it would be best if you and the lady go back to the castle and stay there, until further notice.”
George looked at the constable incredulously. “You mean you’re confining us to the castle? Under house arrest?”
“Not house arrest,” McKay said. “And if I’m confining you both to there, it’s only for your own protection.”
George was going to protest, but then he looked down at Jessica, whose expression told him that this was a decision she was leaving up to him and McKay.
“All right then,” he said at last. “We’ll go home and stay there, until we hear from you, Horace.”
“I’m glad you’ve come round to see the sense in that,” McKay said. “Now get the lady home before something happens that I won’t be able to prevent.”
On their way out of the office, Jessica paused at the deputy constable’s desk.
“Bob,” she said, “I was wondering if you could do me a favor.”
“For you, Mrs. Fletcher? Anything.”
Jessica smiled. “When you get a moment,” she said, “do you think that you could make a photocopy of Evan’s letter, and run it up to the castle so I can take another look at it?”
“I surely can,” said Bob.
“Thanks. Oh, and one other thing – it might be best … if you did this without the knowledge of Constable McKay.”
“Aye. I’ll see what I can do.”
Back at the castle, Jessica tried to settle in with a book, but found it impossible to concentrate, so she tossed it aside and returned to pacing the floor instead. The copy of Evan’s poetic letter lay on the table; a messenger had brought it up about an hour before and she had read it through several times, but no new insight dawned on her.
“Jess,” George said as he watched her from a chair, “you’ll wear a path in the stone flags if you keep that up.”
“I can’t help it,” she said. “The tension in the village is so high, I can practically feel it up here.”
Her own anxiety level was so high, he could practically feel it from his chair. He wanted very much to comfort her somehow, but Jessica was radiating very strong ‘don’t touch me’ signs, so he remained where he was.
Suddenly he smiled and chuckled softly to himself.
Jessica paused in mid-step and looked at him. “What’s so funny?” she asked him.
“The irony of all this,” he said. “You, the hunter of killers, and me, accused of this present crime. I’d be willing to bet that you’ve never had an accused murderer bear such affection for you. Quite the opposite, I should think.”
“Not true,” said Jessica. “The last man who kis… who bore such affection for me not only was accused of murder, he was guilty of it. Twice.”
“You uncovered the truth of his guilt, no doubt.”
“Yes,” she sighed. “It was a difficult thing to do.”
“An understatement, Jess. It must have torn you apart.”
Jessica, remembering her shattering confrontation with Preston Giles years ago, nodded mutely.
“What became of this man?” George asked. “Is he still in prison?”
“No,” said Jessica. “He is dead.”
There was a long moment of silence. George didn’t know what to say – after all, what could be said? Finally Jessica pushed her memories aside, and resumed her pacing.
“If we look at this from Evan’s point of view, I see no lack of enemies with strong motives,” she said, coming back to the present. “Maybe we should start there.”
“So who’ve we got?” George asked.
“Well, there’s Daisy’s family – her father, her uncle – with all the whisperings that Evan was the one who murdered her, they might have sought an eye for an eye.”
“Perhaps,” said George. “Or one of the developers who’d hoped to buy the castle may have done it – another business arrangement, maybe, except that this one went bad.”
Jessica sighed. “And then there’s that large segment of the population who believes in the curse. One of them might have decided to ‘help things along’ by killing Evan.”
“Or it could have been someone with a personal grudge against Evan, and his murder had nothing to do with the castle or the curse,” George said. “There are so many possibilities, Jess, and all we have is that damned letter!”
Jessica picked up the photocopy of Evan’s letter to himself again and stared at it pensively. “It’s odd,” she said, half to herself.
“Odd? Of course it’s odd. Consider the author.”
“No, I mean, the way he wrote it. There are only two verses – the one he made up about the return of the castle’s curse, and then another, the last verse of the song, I believe. He left it alone … except that I think he misspelled a word.”
George looked over her shoulder. “You’re right, Jess,” he said. “It kays nae second spring.” It’s supposed to be ‘kens,’ not ‘kays.’”
Jessica stared at the page transfixed. All of a sudden she said, “It is supposed to be ‘kens.’ That’s the key to the whole puzzle! George, would you get me a phone book, please?”
Taken aback by the sudden light that had flashed to life in her eyes, George obeyed, though not without question.
“The key to the whole puzzle? Jess, it’s just a misspelled word …”
“Well, I’m not so sure about that,” Jessica said. She ran her finger down the page, lighted on the number she was looking for, and picked up the phone.
“Yes – could you please transfer me to Security and Customs?”
“One moment, please.”
A moment later, a man came on the line. “Customs, how may I help you?”
“Hello, I have a question that I hope you’ll be able to answer for me – I assume that British Customs at the airport keeps track of foreigners entering the country?”
“That is correct, ma’am.”
“Is that information ever given out? What I mean is, could someone ask to be notified of a specific person’s arrival and passage through customs?”
“The general public cannot request notification, no. Only members of the law enforcement community have access to that information,” the man said.
“I thought so,” said Jessica. That was when the line went dead.
Alarmed, Jessica went to the window and very carefully looked out. “George, you had better come look at this,” she said quietly.
He joined her at the window. “Bloody hell,” he muttered under his breath.
A crowd was gathering in the castle courtyard, growing by the minute. They were being deathly silent, and their serious expressions - and dangerous looking makeshift weapons they carried – left little doubt as to what their intentions were.
“They’re going to storm the castle,” George said.
“What can we do?”
“Nothing, except make sure that we’re not in it when they get in here,” he told her. “Come on.” He grabbed her hand, and led her out of the room, down narrow hallways and stairwells, heading for the inconspicuous servants’ door in the back. There was no one watching as they slipped out of it and crossed the back courtyard, heading for the wall that marked the rear boundary of the castle grounds.
There was an iron gate in the stone wall, which separating the grounds from the woods beyond. The trees grew right up to its foundations, branches overhanging the wall and casting the gate in shadow.
George opened the gate with an ornate metal key hidden in one of the cracks of the stone wall, and stepped through. Jessica followed, but at that moment a figure loomed up out of the overgrowth beside the wall. It was one of the men from the village, evidently posted there as a guard against their escape. Before either of them could react, he had seized Jessica by the arm and jerked her away from George. The action was so forceful that Jessica gave a cry and fell to her knees at his feet, her left arm suddenly rendered useless.
Her shriek startled her attacker, causing him to let go and take a step back – just enough time for George to send him sprawling backwards unconscious with a well-placed fist.
George came over to where Jessica had fallen, her face white with pain.
“Your shoulder,” he said urgently – “is it dislocated?”
“I – I think so,” she answered tensely.
“I may be able to fix that,” George told her. “Either way, you won’t be able to go on unless I try.” He helped her stumble over to a nearby tree, then made her kneel next to it and encircle the trunk with her right arm.
“Here,” he said, offering her his handkerchief. “Bite down on this, and whatever you do, don’t let go of the tree.”
Jessica obeyed – she clamped down on the cloth, squeezed her eyes shut, and held on to the tree for dear life, bracing herself for what was to come.
When George guessed that she was ready, he put one hand on her shoulder and the other on her arm – then pushed and twisted simultaneously. Her muffled scream, despite the gag, obliterated the sharp click as her shoulder popped back into place, and rent a sympathetic gash through George’s soul.
She spit out the handkerchief and leaned heavily against the tree panting, while George stroked her forehead and fought back tears.
“I’m sorry I had to do that,” he said.
“You did … what had to be done,” she replied. “Thank you.”
“You won’t be able to use that arm for while, but at least you won’t be in excruciating pain,” George told her. “Can you stand up?”
Jessica took a deep, ragged breath, swallowed hard, and nodded. “Yes, I think so.”
“We’d better get moving then,” George said, helping her up. Together they entered the shadows of the woods.
At length, just as the heavy dark clouds began to spatter a little rain, they came upon a little stone cottage set on a dirt road.
“What is this place?” she asked.
“An old hunting cabin belonging to my family. I used to come here as a child to play. I don’t think anyone has used it for years and years.”
The cottage was cold and dusty, but dry. The rain made tracks down the dingy windows, and cold ashes lay in the hearth. But the roof was sound, and there was a pile of dry kindling stacked neatly in one corner; it would do.
Jessica was exhausted by her physical ordeal; she dragged herself over the threshold and leaned wearily against the doorframe. George appeared at her side.
“There now, Jess, just a few more steps,” he said. “We’re safe now.”
Jessica shed her coat and let it fall to the floor as she made her way to an old wooden chair set at an ancient table varnished black. She immediately sank down into the chair and put head down on her arm.
George put some of the kindling in the hearth and set a match to it. The dry wood caught immediately, and the bright flames threw their light and even a little warmth into the room. Some old woolen blankets hung on a peg behind the door, probably horse blankets in their day, but still warm and relatively clean. He took them down, spread them in front of the fire, and helped Jessica down onto them, where she sat shivering with her legs tucked under her. George placed her coat over her shoulders for warmth, and sat down next to her.
“Well,” he said. “Alone at last. Though I might have wished for more accommodating circumstances.” He paused, then said, “This has been all my fault. It’s one thing to put myself in danger, but quite another to drag someone into danger with me – which is exactly what I have done. Jess, I’m sorry.”
Jessica looked up at him. “Sorry for what?” she asked. “George, I walked into this with my eyes open. How could I let you face this alone?”
“Even if it means dying with me?” he asked bitterly.
Jessica stared wordlessly back at him, the firelight glinting in her golden hair as she struggled with her feelings. Then she bowed her head and said, very quietly, “If necessary, yes.”
George cupped her chin in his hand, and tilted her face up toward his. In the firelight her face took on an ageless glow, her tired eyes glittering bright with tears. The expression in them was too complex for him to name, but it pierced his heart and released a flood of emotions that came together as a lump in his throat. He bent his head to hers, and gently kissed her on the lips.
To his surprise, Jessica didn’t pull away; instead she responded as though he had struck some resonant chord deep inside her, and returned the kiss, measure for measure. Their next kiss was deeper and lasted longer, and the next deeper still. The coat slipped unnoticed from her shoulders as they drew closer and closer together. At length George risked the next step, and eased Jessica down onto the blankets beside him.
Her gasp of pain pulled him up short.
“What is it?” he asked. Then he remembered: “Oh, my poor bonnie lass, your shoulder!”
Jessica, teeth clenched, nodded as she lay on the blankets clutching her injured left shoulder, eyes fixed on the ceiling.
George was deeply distressed. “Forgive me,” he said. “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”
“Forgiven,” she replied. “It’s nothing, really,” she added as she tried to sit up on her own, but the effort only earned her another sharp stab of pain.
“Don’t get up,” George told her as he gently pushed her back down. He met her eyes, and saw in them a mix of pain … and absolute trust. With that silent permission, he carefully reached down and undid the first couple of buttons of her shirt, just enough to expose her left shoulder. The aftermath of the injury was apparent enough. He clamped down on his emotional response, and began to lightly massage her shoulder.
Caught between the warmth of the fire and the warmth of his hands, Jessica felt the pain begin to subside. George noticed her visibly relax.
“Does that feel better?” he asked.
“Yes,” she answered, a distant, dreamy look in her eyes.
George stared down at her, wanting nothing more than to follow through on his desire for her, but Jessica was exhausted and hurt; he simply couldn’t without hurting her more. And was she really as ready as she seemed, or had the stress she had been subjected to weakened her defenses? It was with an inward groan that he tucked a blanket around her and turned away.
“George,” she said unexpectedly.
“Thank you … for being you.”
The words melted his heart. He had intended to sleep apart from her, but heartened by her words, he instead slipped under the blanket with her, and drew her - carefully – into his arms.
“Ah, Jessie,” he sighed as he stroked her hair. “You’re so strong. But just this once, won’t you let someone share the burden with you?”
“Well … maybe just this once,” she murmured before dropping off to sleep.
The fire had died down to glowing embers when Jessica awoke. The rain had stopped, and the windows let in a grey light that signaled the approaching dawn. For a long moment she lay very still, reluctant to leave the warmth of the blankets and the arms that enfolded her. Beside her George slept peacefully; no doubt he had been just as worn out last night as she was. She sighed inwardly; how she wished she could stay just like this forever! But that was not a choice.
Jessica managed to slip out of George’s embrace and from under the blanket without waking him, and sat up, supporting herself with her good arm. A few tentative attempts at using her left shoulder confirmed that it had stiffened up overnight.
She gazed at George’s sleeping form with misty eyes. It would, she knew, take her a long time to sort out everything that had been said and done last night, how much she truly felt and how much had been the natural response to extreme trauma. But she didn’t have time to think about it now; right now she had a task set before her to accomplish, and for better or worse, she must try to accomplish it alone.
Getting to her feet as quietly as she was able and ignoring the protests of her shoulder, Jessica retrieved her coat and shrugged it on, leaving her hurt arm out of the sleeve. She held it closed about her with her right hand, then took a deep breath and stole over to the door. She looked back at George one last time as she lifted the latch, and then she was gone.
She estimated that the village lay about three miles away; that gave her three miles to figure out what she was going to do next.
The sun was just rising over the horizon when Jessica stepped into the courtyard of Sutherland castle. Immediately she found herself surrounded by people from the village, some carrying farm implements, a few carrying stones. One young man turned and bolted inside when he saw her – probably to make a phone call, she suspected.
“Ye shouldn’t have come back, lass,” one of them said, stepping forward with a pitchfork in his hand. “You’ve been hurt once; don’t ask for it again.”
“I had to,” she answered. “The truth leaves me with no other choice.”
“The truth? We know the truth – Sutherland murdered Evan Lochbuie!”
“No, he didn’t – and I can prove it,” she said.
At that moment, Constable McKay appeared in the courtyard, followed by a crowd of people from the town.
Jessica sighed impatiently. “Constable McKay,” she said, “can’t you do anything in this town without bringing a mob along to back you up?”
“Lassie,” McKay said, coming toward her, “I’d watch your tongue, if I were you.”
Jessica reached into her coat pocket and pulled out her copy of Evan Lochbuie’s letter, brandishing it for all to see.
“This,” she said, “proves George’s innocence. It’s a familiar Scottish poem Evan twisted to his purposes. In it he indicates that his murder would be committed because of me. But that person was not George, because Evan names his killer in the next verse!”
Jessica paused for breath, looking around to make sure her audience was still listening. They were; a circle of intent faces stared at her, waiting for her to go on.
“Evan Lochbuie was not a stupid man,” she continued. “He knew he was playing a dangerous game, knew when the meeting on the castle grounds was set up that he might be double-crossed. That’s why he wrote this, and mailed it to himself. And in the final verse he misspelled a word … except that he didn’t misspell it, he replaced it with the name of his murderer –“ here Jessica paused and looked straight at McKay – “your name, Constable McKay.”
McKay was speechless. “Lies,” he finally was able to spit out. “Damned lies!”
of lies, that is one of the things that gave you away,” Jessica went on. “When George and I first arrived in Wick, you
already knew what we were fleeing from in
McKay looked at her coldly. “Aye,” he said. “I pulled the trigger that night. ’Tis a bloody shame I missed. Do ye think I’ve forgotten the humiliation you handed me these many months ago? Not bloody likely, lassie - I’ve neither forgotten it nor forgiven you. I’ve been biding my time, waiting for you to return so that I could take my vengeance, and bring you so low you’d have no hope of rising again.”
“So Evan was merely a pawn for your revenge. You killed him in order to frame George for murder, knowing that would break my heart,” Jessica said. “You did it not just to silence him, but especially to hurt me. Or in the victim’s own words … it was for my sake that you killed Evan Lochbuie.”
She whipped her head around in the direction the voice had come from, and saw George come through the castle gate, bringing with him Bob the deputy constable, Ben Wemyss, and his brother. But McKay wasn’t willing to concede defeat yet; before anyone could react, he had grabbed Jessica and flung her to the ground, the copy of Evan’s letter fluttering beyond her reach. He seized a pitchfork from the hands of a man who stood nearby, and when Jessica scrambled to sit back up, she found herself with its tines mere inches from her chest.
“Take one step closer, George,” McKay warned, “and I swear to ye, I’ll spill her blood all over your family’s ancestral ground.”
George stood stock still, and held up his hand signaling those behind him to do the same. “Horace, don’t do this,” he said.
Out of the corner of her eye, Jessica could see one of McKay’s men pick up Evan’s letter, glance at it, and pass it on to those around him. She took a desperate chance, and addressed the crowd one final time.
“There is evil here,” she said in a clear voice, “but I did not bring it with me. It has been here all along. Evan Lochbuie knew it; he was part of it. If you don’t believe me, read his words for yourselves.”
One man – she recognized him as the one who had hurt her during the escape through the back gate – took the sheet of paper, read it, then crumpled it up and threw it to the ground. Her heart sank, until she heard him speak:
“What she says is the truth,” he said. “We’ve all been deceived.”
Seeing his support evaporate, McKay threw the pitchfork aside. Bob came forward to take him into custody as the crowd dissipated; as for George, he rushed forward and helped Jessica to her feet.
“Jess,” he said, “I do so love you. When I woke up and you were gone … well. Anyway, I’ve sent for Hamish to come take a look at your shoulder. What else do you need? A good, solid meal? Ten hours of uninterrupted sleep?”
Jessica looked up at him wearily. “Those all sound good,” she admitted, “but right now, what I want more than anything else in the world … is a long, hot bath.”
“The key was the timing,” Jessica told George a
little while later. She’d had her
much-needed bath, and now sat up on a table wrapped in a thick robe hanging
loosely off her shoulder as the doctor, Hamish Dawson, examined her
injury. “It didn’t occur to me at first,
but when I thought about it, it suddenly seemed strange that all of these
disparate – and supposedly unconnected – events should have happened starting
so soon after my arrival in
“But even if someone had known when you were planning on coming to London, there’s no way they could have known that you’d changed your plans and arrived early,” George said.
The only way for them to know so quickly that I was back in the
“And the only person with a motive to harm you – or me – who fit that description was Horace McKay.”
“Yes,” said Jessica.
“It made sense – after all, it would take a certain amount of time for
him to get from Wick to
“And killed Evan Lochbuie,” said George. “But why go through the trouble of framing me? Why not another direct attack?”
“I believe I can answer that,” Dr. Dawson said. “In the past few months, Evan had started to go on about being smarter than he looked, and knowing secrets. Nonsensical hints dropped on the ears of passers-by, or in the pub. No one paid much heed, but it’s my guess that Horace thought Evan likely to blow the whole plot open again, if only to gain more notice for himself.”
“Killing Evan served a dual purpose,” Jessica said. “It provided the vehicle of his revenge, and it silenced a potential liability.”
“So who was the intended target the night he shot at us? You or me?”
“We may never know for sure,” she said. “It could be that he meant to kill me – Evan Lochbuie’s letter would seem to say so - but then shifted his attention to you with the plot to frame you for Evan’s death. Or you may have been the intended target all along … anyway, it’s all academic now.”
The doctor gave Jessica’s good shoulder a pat. “Aye, you’ll be fine, lassie,” he said. “That shoulder of yours will heal up nicely, so long as you don’t overdo it.”
Jessica pulled the robe back up over her shoulder and smiled. “Thank you, Doctor.”
“No, thank you,” Hamish Dawson replied. “This town owes you a debt of gratitude, for shaking a few of its bad apples out of the tree.”
The next day Jessica felt refreshed, and dressed in a snow-white blouse and an ankle-length plaid skirt, she prepared to salvage what was left of her visit.
George knocked at her open door and poked his head inside.
“May I come in?” he asked.
George stepped all the way into the
room. “A good idea this is, getting away
from here and going to
Jessica smiled. “So I figured,” she said. “Besides that, I’ve been to your ancestral home twice now; it’s only fair that you should visit mine. I think you’ll like Kilcleer.”
“I’m sure I will.” He gently touched her sleeve. “How are you feeling?”
“Much better,” she answered. “The anti-inflammatories have helped a lot. My shoulder’s still stiff, but at least I can use it.”
George looked visibly relieved. “Good,” he said. “Jess, I have a special favor to ask of you, and I’m hoping you’ll grant it.”
“What is it?”
He came up to her and put his arms around her, drawing her close and kissing her tenderly on the lips. “I want to thank you for everything you did for me … properly.”
Jessica looked in his eyes, read the significant meaning in them … and pulled away.
“I can’t do this,” she said.
“Because … because I still don’t understand everything that happened the other night. Because my own feelings are in such a mess I don’t know what’s real, and what isn’t.”
“Does it matter?” George asked. “Jess, just because stress brought some latent feelings to the surface doesn’t mean that they’re any less real.”
Jessica shook her head. “I can’t do this,” she repeated. “It isn’t your fault. Believe me, if it were to be anybody, it would be you, but … I’m just not ready for that kind of relationship. Not yet.”
“I understand,” George said. “We are never left entirely without hope. But promise me one thing, Jess.”
Jessica looked up. “What?”
“If you do change your mind, someday … promise me that I’ll be the first to know.”
Jessica smiled, reached out, and took his hand.
“I promise,” she said.