The Banks o’ Loch Lomond - In Another Voice

-- by Anne

Here’s another “In Another Voice” entry, this time of my own “Banks of Loch Lomond” story with Stephanie’s additions from her own IAV treatment of “Loch Lomond” tossed in for extra seasoning. The point of view is Jessica’s.

As stated in the original, Jessica belongs to MCA/Universal, George and many of the Wick-based characters are Donald Bain’s, and I ... am just playing in their sandbox.

By yon bonnie banks and by yon bonnie braes,

Where the sun shines bright on Loch Lomond

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 in Scotland afore ye;

But me and my true love will never meet again

On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond.

‘Twas there that we parted in yon shady glen,

On the steep, steep side o’ Ben Lomond,

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 in Scotland afore ye;

But me and my true love will never meet again

On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond.

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 in Scotland afore ye;

But me and my true love will never meet again

On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond,

On the bonnie, bonnie banks o’ Loch Lomond.

-- author unknown

I’d seen it rain in London before – but I’d never seen it rain like this.  As the black London taxi cab plunged through yet another deep puddle in the street, I was glad that I hadn’t tried to walk from my hotel to New Scotland Yard. 

I was glad to escape the wet, gloomy outdoors into the dry, well-lit lobby of the venerable institution. At the reception desk I identified myself, and a junior staff office was assigned to accompany me up to George’s office.  When we reached our destination my escort knocked on the door.

“Yes?” came a familiar voice from within.

The junior staff officer opened the door and looked inside.  “Sir, someone here to see you.”

“I’m rather busy now, Sergeant,” I heard George say.  “Please ask them to come back tomorrow morning.”

At this I decided to take the situation into my own hands, and stepped past the staff sergeant. “Tomorrow morning?” I asked.  “Are you sure?”

George’s head snapped up at the sound of my voice, and for a moment it seemed that he had been rendered 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 me in a tight embrace.

“Jess!” he exclaimed in delight.  “What are you doing here?  I didn’t expect you for another three days!”

I shifted slightly in his arms so I could breathe.  “I changed my flight,” I told him.  “Cashed in some of my frequent flier miles.  Lovely weather you’re having here.”

“Aye, well …” George said as he released me.  “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.”  I raised my 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 us seemed to care.  The room we were seated in was warm and inviting, the food was uncommonly good, and neither of us found anything lacking in each 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,” I 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,” I said, laughing.  “You should have seen the look on your face!”

At the end of the evening George dropped me off back at my hotel, with a promise to meet me again after work the following night. After he had gone I went up to my room and fell into bed, feeling very happy and content.

When I awoke the next morning I felt surprisingly refreshed, and lay in bed ticking off in my mind all the things I wanted to do that day.  Having done that I got up, and set forth to accomplish just about all of them.

The final item on my agenda was the one I had been most looking forward to. At six o’clock, I met George outside of New Scotland Yard; he took me by the arm, and together we 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?” I 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?”

I laughed.  “Nothing quite so productive as yours,” I said.  Suddenly I felt an odd sensation between my shoulder blades, an uncomfortable feeling like I was being watched by unfriendly eyes. I shivered, and my grip on George’s arm tightened.

He looked at me in concern.  “Jess, what’s the matter?”

“A chill just ran up my spine,” I said softly, scanning the area around us with wide eyes.  “It felt … like a warning.”

“We’re in the middle of a busy London street at the dinner hour,” George said.  “Where is the danger?”

The answer came in the form of the sharp report of a gun, and the loud metallic ping as its bullet glanced off a lamp post not three feet from us.  

George pushed me to the ground and threw himself on top of me as pandemonium broke out all around us. Bystanders screamed and scattered in all directions, and there was the sound of screeching tires as a car sped away.

“That was probably our gunman,” George said grimly as he helped me stand up again.  In the distance police sirens could be heard approaching the scene.  “Are you hurt, Jess?”

“No, thank goodness.”

“I’m afraid so we’ll have to cancel our dinner plans,” George said as the first Metropolitan police car screeched up to the curb next to us. “This could take awhile to get sorted.”

“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 me some tea in a styrofoam cup.  It wasn’t fancy, but it was the best that could be done on such short notice.  We were back in George’s office at Scotland Yard, which was now milling with detectives and constables investigating the shooting.

I accepted the cup gratefully and wrapped my hands around it, breathing in its warmth.  A profound chill had settled over me in the aftermath of the shooting, and I couldn’t seem to stop shivering.  Maybe the tea would help - I took a sip, closed my eyes, and tried to focus on being warm.

George noticed my shivering, and put a hand on my arm. “Are you all right?” he asked in concern.

“I’m fine,” I replied, “except that I’m still cold.”

“It’s at least seventy degrees in here,” George said.

“I know.”  I took another sip - Too bitter! - and set the cup aside.

The questions and the interviews seemed to go on forever, but my chills, at least, dissipated as the time went by. Finally, after about three hours, the investigation was over for the night and we 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.

We stopped in our tracks in surprise.  George leveled the officer with a dangerous look.  “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 in dismay.  “Well, that’s a jolly good bit of news!” he exclaimed.  “Where does the forensics squad expect me to sleep?”

“With me,” I said.  When both George and the constable abruptly turned to stare at me in astonishment, I realized, belatedly, that I’d just uttered a major double entendre.   “A poor choice of words,” I amended as I felt my cheeks flushing.  “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.”

It was late, past the closing times of the hotel’s restaurants, but neither of us was in the mood for a sit-down dinner now anyway. Instead we opted for a light antipasto plate to-go (or “for take-away,” as George said) from the American Bar and carried it up to my room. After sharing the plate of sliced cold meats and focaccia with olive spread, I got up to get ready for bed while George turned on the television to catch the late news.

When I emerged from the bathroom, I was surprised to see him staring down at the sitting room sofa with a frown.

“What’s the matter?” I asked as I tied the sash of my robe.

He shrugged. “I don’t think it folds out,” he said, heading for his turn with the bathroom. “But no matter - I’ll manage.”

“I could take the couch, and you could have the bed,” I called after him.

He paused at the bathroom door. “Nae on your life, lassie,” he said. “I’ve slept on many a sofa in my day, most of which were in far worse shape than this one. I’ll be fine.  See you in the morning.”

He said it with an air of finality, so I sighed, closed the door to my bedroom, and turned in.  If I had any dreams that night as I slept, I didn’t remember them.

I came out of my room fully dressed the next morning to find George sitting up on the sofa amidst a tangle of blankets, rubbing the back of his neck. The evidence suggested that he had not had a comfortable night, and I felt a pang of guilt that I hadn’t insisted that he sleep in the bed.  He looked so pathetic and sore that after finishing my breakfast I rose from the table, stood behind him, and tried to massage away some of the pain.  It was, I felt, the very least I could do.

“Guid laird, Jess,” he groaned as I kneaded my fingers into the bowstring-taut muscles of his neck.

“You should have taken me up on my offer,” I said unnecessarily.  

“I’m afraid you’d have faired no better…”  His words trailed off as he tipped his head to the side so that I could work on a particularly stubborn knot.  I started off with gentle pressure that I increased by degrees until I was satisfied that I had worked my way into the center of the tightness, not stopping until the stiffness had melted away.

“Then we should have shared the bed,” I said matter-of-factly as I straightened his collar and stepped away.

He whipped his head around to look at me – not an advisable maneuver in his current state – and was rewarded with the predictable sharp stab of pain.  He muttered a Gaelic curse under his breath, which made me chuckle softly.

“We’re grown adults,” I reminded him as I patted him on the shoulder sympathetically.  “I’m sure we could have managed to get a decent night’s sleep without either one of us being uncomfortable.”  With that I headed back to my bedroom to pack.

More questions were waiting for us when we returned to Scotland Yard later that morning, but very few answers.  My 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.  I anxiously paced the narrow waiting area outside the interview room until he emerged wearing an expression on his face that was a mixture of irritation and amusement.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Do you want the good news or the bad news first?”

“Better give it to me all at once,” I sighed.

“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.”

My face clearly mirrored my dismay.

George laughed.  “No, I was not particularly enthusiastic about that idea either.  The second option was that I leave London for awhile, get out of town and lie low until the matter has been cleared up.”

“Well,” I admitted, “that does sound sensible.”

“I thought so too.  I was thinking of going home to Wick.  Would you come with me?”

I took his hand and gave it a squeeze.  “I would love to,” I 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?” I said with a smile.  “I can hardly wait!”

Wick looked much the way I remembered it – it was, I suppose, one of those small towns that never changed, which had looked like this a hundred years ago, and would look the same a hundred years hence.

“Ah, look,” George said wryly as we pulled up to a corner.  “Here is an old friend.”

The ‘old friend’ turned out to be none other than Constable Horace McKay, who I remembered with less than fondness from my last visit.  After his involvement in the plot to force George to sell his castle had come to light, I assumed he would be removed from his position - yet here he was, still in uniform, and still in charge of Wick’s small police force.

“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 London.  Lucky neither of you were killed.  Well, no worry, nothing will happen to you here if I have anything to say about it.”  He looked across at me.  “A pleasure to see you again, Mrs. Fletcher,” he said, tipping his hat .

“The feeling is mutual, Constable,” I replied as pleasantly as I could manage.

George could sense the strain. “Well, we’ll be seeing you, Horace,” he said, and we continued on.

The castle was chilly and a little damp when we stepped inside, owing to its vacancy.

“Mrs. Gower and Forbes won’t be back until early next week,” George said as he set our bags at the foot of the stairs.  “I’ll get a fire going; that will drive away the chill.”

A fire sounded appealing. “Would you like some help?” I asked.

George hesitated. “Ah, no … actually, why don’t you head upstairs and rest for a couple of hours?” he suggested.  “I have some things I need to attend to down here … business and all.  What say I call you down around dinner time?”

At first his reaction confused me, but then I caught the eager glint in his eye and smiled.

“Well, that sounds like a good idea,” I agreed.  “Give me a few hours, and then I’ll be down.”  Whatever it was he was planning, that should give him enough time to carry it out.

“Fine,” said George.  “You remember which room is yours?”

I picked up my overnight bag and slung it over my shoulder.  “Of course,” I said, and headed upstairs.  Halfway up I paused and glanced back once, then sighed, shook my head with a smile, and went on to my room.

I lit the gas fireplace and let it begin the job of warming the room while I unpacked. It was still chilly by the time I finished so I slid under the covers of my bed to read. I didn’t get very far into my book before the stress of the past few days caught up with me and I fell asleep.

I woke at five to a delightfully toasty room and enough time to properly get ready for dinner.  George met me 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 with a sigh I closed my eyes and allowed him to take me by the hand and lead me into the dining room.

“Can I look now?” I asked.

“Yes,” said George. I opened my eyes, and took a breath.

“What do you think?” he asked.

“You have truly outdone yourself,” I exclaimed.  And so he had, taking 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.

It was only with a great effort of will that I was able to hide my shock when George served up our meal. Sliced, smoked salmon and herbed goat cheese on pita bread, angel hair pasta with truffle oil, strawberries and candied ginger dipped in chocolate ... I looked up at George in surprise and asked, “Where did you get all of this?”

“Just bits and bobs from the pantry,” he replied. “There wasn’t much to work with, so I did the best I could with what the staff left behind for me.”

His face was completely guileless: clearly he had no idea what he had done. I had a dawning realization that someone on the castle staff was having a joke at poor George’s expense, but who? Forbes? Mrs. Gower? Surely not Mrs. Gower ...!

I put the matter out of my mind as we spoke of New York and London, work, family, and friends. Finally, toward the end of the dinner, I asked the question that had been troubling me since that afternoon.

“I was surprised to see that Constable McKay is still the chief of police in Wick,” I 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.”

“Well, it all took a long time to clear up, as you might expect.  The investigation dragged on for months,” George told me.  “I was in London during most of it, so I only got word of what was going on in Wick sporadically.  But from what I was able to gather, very few of the players were actually punished.”

I looked at him in astonishment.  “What do you mean?”

George refilled my 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, left Scotland and is now living in France.  A pretty unsatisfactory conclusion to the matter, wouldn’t you say?”

“Yes,” I sighed.  “Very disappointing.  I can’t help but think that justice has not yet been served, at least not as far as poor Daisy is concerned.”

George shook his head 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,” he added before I could make a move to clear the table.

“All right,” I said, and rose from the table to take his offered arm.  

As we descended the front steps of the castle I said to him, “My compliments to the chef.”

“That’s hardly necessary,” George replied modestly.  “I simply did my best with the ingredients that were at my disposal.”

I laughed.  “If I didn’t know better, I might suspect that you have an ulterior motive this evening.”  

Taken aback by my comment, George stopped and turned to face me.  “Why would you think that?” 

I hesitated, looking for a way to break the news to him as gently as I could. “Because,” I said at last, “that magnificent meal that you just served was…”

I paused, and George looked at me expectantly.

“…was almost entirely made up of aphrodisiacs,” I finally finished.

George was dumbstruck - further proof that indeed he had not designed that evening’s menu with any forethought in that direction. But the damage was done; I was blushing furiously, and not just from embarrassment. I was relieved when George suggested we continue our walk; the cool air was exactly what I needed.

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 we had no need of flashlights to make our way.

“Everything looks so different in the moonlight,” I said softly, looking around.

“Yes,” said George.  “Even the familiar takes on a newness when seen in a different light.”

I allowed him to take my hand, and for awhile we walked along the gravel path in silence.

The moon slipped behind a cloud, casting a shadow of such complete blackness that I tripped over something unseen in the path.  I caught myself, then stopped and turned to see what had caused me to stumble.  The moon sailed out from behind the obscuring cloud, and by its light I could see a pale, motionless human hand.  I took a step closer, and recognized the face of the person it belonged to.  Startled, I jumped back, trembling, as George took me by the arm and steadied me.

“Jess,” he said.  “What is it?”

I looked up at him and said hollowly, “The murder of Daisy Wemyss has been avenged.  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 me a strange look.  “So it would seem.”

“How long do you think he’s been dead?” I 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?”

George and I shook our heads.  “Nothing,” I 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,” I 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.”

I looked up at him.  “What do you mean?”

McKay sighed.  “You remember, I am sure, the unrest that surrounded your last visit.  About the Sutherland Castle curse and all.”

“I do,” I said, somewhat icily.  “I also remember that you had a hand in it.”

“Leave that aside for a moment,” he told me.  “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.”

I was stunned into speechlessness.

“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,” I 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.

The past two days had been, to say the least, stressful, and when the initial surge of adrenaline from finding Evan Lochbuie’s body wore off, exhaustion took its place.  I tried to stay awake as George conferred with the Wick constables and investigators, but ultimately it was a losing battle.

“Go to bed, Jess,” George said sympathetically when he caught me dozing at the kitchen table.  “I can handle things from here.  No sense in both of us staying up til all hours.”

“Are you sure?” I asked, stifling a yawn.

He nodded. “I’m sure.”  He offered me his hand and helped me up from my chair.  “Pleasant dreams.”

Pleasant dreams!  I appreciated the thought, but with the image of the moonlight reflected in Evan Lochbuie’s lifeless eyes haunting me, my dreams were guaranteed to be anything but.

I woke early, despite the fact that I was still under the influence of the time change. It was only a quarter to five, but I knew there was no going back to sleep.  Instead I got up, slipped into my satin robe and headed downstairs to the kitchen, where I made myself a cup of instant coffee.

There was a window seat set in one of the castle’s tall bay windows, and I settled myself on its cushions with my cup to watch the dawn.  As I sipped my coffee I tried to sort through yesterday’s events.  Who would have wanted Evan dead?  It was true that I had very little love for the man, and abhorred what I knew he’d done to Daisy Wemyss, but I’ve never believed in eye-for-an-eye justice.  Despite his crimes, not even Evan Lochbuie deserved to be murdered.

“Couldn’t sleep?”

George’s voice startled me out of my thoughts. “No,” I said, smiling.  “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.”

I shifted to make room for him on the window seat next to me and looked at him closely. He looked tired and anxious. “George, are you all right?”

“I suppose so.  Jess, I’m starting to think that I should put you on a flight back to Maine straightaway.”

My answer to that was unequivocal: “No.”

He looked at me in surprise.  “No?  Since you’ve set foot in the United Kingdom, we’ve been shot at, discovered a body, and stirred up the unfriendly emotions of the superstitious residents of the town.  You don’t think that is reason enough?”

“Plenty of reason,” I 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 my hand.  “Jess, you are the most headstrong person I have ever met.”

“Thank you.”  I 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, we took a walk into town, at my request: for a little while, at least, I wanted to put some distance between me and where I’d found Evan Lochbuie’s body.

We paused in front of one storefront, a tailor shop.  I immediately recognized the proprietor’s name on the sign.

“Ben Wemyss,” I said.  “Is he …”

“Daisy’s father, yes,” George confirmed.  “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 me a sharp glance and added, “Odd that it should happen now, with you in Wick again, lady … just like the last time.”

I felt slightly uncomfortable under his implied meaning.  “An unfortunate coincidence,” I assured him.

“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.  We 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,” I said.  “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.”

I had been listening with half an ear to the conversations going on around us, and took note when one exchange among a knot of men standing by the bar began to heat up.  When I heard my name mentioned, they suddenly had my full attention.

George noticed my alarm.  “Jess, what is it?” he asked.

“Don’t turn around,” I said, seizing his hand before he could look over his shoulder.  “Just listen.”

“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.”

“Well …”

“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 my eye; my response was to pull the loose hood of my jacket up so that it covered my hair and shadowed my face.  A mutual understanding passed wordlessly between us – we needed to get out of here, and the sooner the better.  There was a side entrance near at hand; George placed a few pound notes on the table, then we stood and made a very quiet, unobtrusive exit.

“Well, so how do you explain it?” George asked teasingly as we walked down the street, away from the pub and its angry mutterings.

I threw back my hood and let out an exasperated sigh.  “Good genes? Maine maritime air?  Don’t you start,” I warned, as George looked about to add something.  

He held his tongue and grinned instead.

“That was pretty scary,” I admitted.  “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.”

We stepped inside the constabulary, where we were greeted by Bob.

“Constable McKay was just about to call you,” he said.  

“Aye, indeed I was,” McKay said as he himself appeared at the doorway of his office.  “Come inside, both of you.  I have something to show you.”

There was only one chair in front of the constable’s desk; George offered it to me while he remained standing.

“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 me so I could read it for myself.  It was written in verse with sloppy handwriting, mimicking the old Scottish ballad, “The Banks O’ Loch Lomond:”

“For the castle’s curse has come hither again

From way far away o’er the Western Sea,

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’ Scotland afore him;

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’ Scotland afore him;

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 I 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,” I 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 me and holding it up.  “And that is worth more in a court of law than a live witness, sometimes.”

“I can’t believe this,” I 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.  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 glanced at me. I gave a slight shrug - this was a decision I was leaving up to him.

“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, I paused at the deputy constable’s desk.

“Bob,” I said, “I was wondering if you could do me a favor.”

“For you, Mrs. Fletcher?  Anything.”

I smiled - Bob had never bought into any of the rumors about George, the castle, or me, and could always be relied upon.  “When you get a moment,” I 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,” he said knowingly.  “I’ll see what I can do.”

Back at the castle I tried to settle in with a book, but found it impossible to concentrate, so I ended up tossing it aside and 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 I had read it through several times, but no new insight dawned on me.

“Jess,” George said as he watched me from a chair, “you’ll wear a path in the stone flags if you keep that up.”

“I can’t help it,” I said anxiously.  “The tension in the village is so high, I can practically feel it up here.”

Suddenly George smiled and chuckled softly to himself.

I paused in mid-step and looked at him.  “What’s so funny?”

“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,” I said.  “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.” I sighed at the unhappy memory George’s comment had evoked: “Oh, Preston, I'm so angry I don't know whether to scream or cry!” “It was a difficult thing to do.”

“An understatement, Jess,” George said quietly. “It must have torn you apart.”

I nodded mutely; he didn’t know the half of it.  "I'm sorry, Jess, I truly am.  Another time, a different place, and we might have had something ..."

“What became of this man?” George asked.  “Is he still in prison?”

“No,” I said.  “He is dead.”

Why did it still hurt to think about this?  Even after all this time ... I finally pushed my memories aside, and resumed my pacing.

“If we look at this from Evan’s point of view, I see no lack of enemies with strong motives,” I 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.”

I 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!”

I picked up the photocopy of Evan’s letter to himself again and stared at it pensively.  “It’s odd,” I said softly, half to myself.

“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 my shoulder.  “You’re right, Jess,” he said.  “It kays nae second spring.”  It’s supposed to be ‘kens,’ not ‘kays.’”

I stared at the page transfixed as my thoughts fell into place. That’s it!  “It is supposed to be ‘kens.’  That’s the key to the whole puzzle!  George, would you get me a phone book, please?”

“The key to the whole puzzle?” George said doubtfully as he handed me the volume.  “Jess, it’s just a misspelled word …”

“Well, I’m not so sure about that,” I said.  I ran my finger down the page, lighted on the number I was looking for, and picked up the phone.

“Heathrow Airport, main switchboard,” a pleasant female voice said.

“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.”  That was when the line went dead.

Alarmed, I went to the window and very carefully looked out.  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. “George, you had better come look at this,” I said quietly.

He joined me at the window. “Bloody hell,” he muttered under his breath.  “They’re going to storm the castle.”

“What can we do?”

“Nothing, except make sure that we’re not in it when they get in here.  Come on.”  He grabbed my hand, and led me out of the room, down narrow hallways and stairwells, heading for the inconspicuous servants’ door in the back.  There was no one watching as we 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, stepped through, and beckoned me to follow.  As I did a figure loomed up out of the overgrowth beside the wall, grabbed me by my arm, and yanked me off my feet.  There was a burst of excruciating pain from my shoulder, a feeling of intense wrongness, and I heard myself let out an agonized cry as I fell to my knees.

I neither saw nor heard George land the punch that rendered my attacker unconscious, only becoming aware of him when I sensed him kneeling beside me.

“Your shoulder,” he said urgently – “is it dislocated?”

I swallowed against the wave of lightheadedness and nausea that threatened to overwhelm me. “I – I think so,” I managed to say.

“I may be able to fix that,” George said grimly. “Either way, you won’t be able to go on unless I try.”  

He helped me to my feet, guiding me to a nearby tree on unsteady legs. He eased me back down to my knees beside it, guided my good arm around the trunk to hold on to it, and offered me his handkerchief.

“Here,” he said.  “Bite down on this, and whatever you do, don’t let go of the tree.”

The expression on his face left me with no doubt that this was going to hurt, probably a lot.  There was nothing for it - I clamped my teeth down on the cloth, squeezed my eyes shut, and braced myself against the tree for all I was worth.

George put one hand on my shoulder and the other on my arm, then pulled down and twisted simultaneously.  My scream, muffled by the handkerchief, was involuntarily as my shoulder popped back into place.  I spat out the handkerchief and leaned heavily against the tree, panting, while George stroked my forehead.

“I’m sorry I had to do that,” he said, his voice thick as though he was fighting back tears.

“You did … what had to be done,” I replied.  “Thank you.” Already the pain was significantly lessened from what it had been before, and the mist obscuring my vision was lifting.

“You won’t be able to use that arm for while, but at least you won’t be in excruciating pain,” George told me.  “Can you stand up?”

I took a deep, ragged breath, swallowed hard, and nodded.  “Yes, I think so.”

“We’d better get moving then,” George said, helping me up.  Together we entered the shadows of the woods.

I had little awareness of how far we walked, or for how long. I was conscious only of pain, and of needing to stop frequently to rest until the latest wave of lightheadedness had passed.  George was ever at my side, taking my arm in his to help me walk, or hovering protectively over me as I rested.

At length, just as the heavy dark clouds began to spatter a little rain, we came upon a little stone cottage set on a dirt road.

“What is this place?” I asked.

“An old hunting cabin belonging to my family,” George said, nostalgia in his voice. “I used to come here as a child to play.  I don’t think anyone has used it for years and years.”

He pushed open the door and stepped inside, while I wearily dragged myself across the threshold behind him. There I stood, leaning against the doorframe for support, while he gave the cottage a cursory inspection. He evidently liked what he saw, because a few moments later he reappeared at my side. 

“There now, Jess, just a few more steps,” he said.  “We’re safe now.”

He didn’t need to tell me twice; I was desperate for a chance to rest. I shed my coat and let it fall to the floor as I numbly made my way inside and gratefully sank down into an old wooden chair set at an equally ancient table.  Oh, how good it felt to sit down and be still! I cradled my injured arm in my lap, rested my head upon my other one, and closed my eyes.

I don’t remember falling asleep, but the next thing I knew George was shaking me gently by my right shoulder and coaxing me to get up. A fire was going in the fireplace, filling the room with its warmth and light.  George had spread some old woolen blankets on the floor before it, which he helped me settle down upon. Shivering, I drank in the warmth of the flames, while George retrieved my coat from where I had left it and draped it over my shoulders.

Sitting down next to me, he sighed. “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.”

I looked up at him.  “Sorry for what?” I 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.

I stared back at him - could it really come to that? I thought back to the first assault upon the castle - the crowd had been deadly earnest then, and it was even more so this time. Yes, it could definitely come to that. But it didn’t matter. I would not abandon George, not even in the face of death. Bowing my head to hide the tears that had welled up in my eyes, I said, very quietly, “If necessary, yes.”

George cupped my chin in his hand and tipped my downcast face up towards his. For what seemed like an eternity we stared at each other, reading the emotions in each others’ eyes. Finally he bent his head to mine, and - very gently - kissed me.

For many years desire had been ashes on a cold hearth until George had come into my life, sparking them back to life. Now as his lips touched mine the glowing embers suddenly burst into full flames that I was powerless to control.  I quickly succumbed to the heat that rushed through me and returned his kiss, and those that followed, with passion I didn’t realize I still possessed. My coat slipped from my shoulders as he took me fully into his arms, his hands stroking, caressing, fanning the flames still higher. 

Caught up in the moment as we were, we both forgot that I was injured. When George tenderly laid me down upon the blankets, the pain that exploded as soon as my left shoulder came in contact with the floor was enough to snap me back to reality. 

“What is it?” George asked in concern.  Then he remembered:  “Oh, my poor bonnie lass, your shoulder!”

Teeth clenched, I nodded as I clutched at my left shoulder and concentrated on looking at the ceiling, willing the renewed pain and nausea to go away.

“Forgive me,” he said in dismay.  “I didn’t mean to hurt you.”

“Forgiven,” I replied promptly.  “It’s nothing, really.” I tried to sit up but wrenched my shoulder again in the process.

“Don’t get up,” George told me as he pushed me back down. I met his eyes again - they were filled with distress, but also boundless love and a request: Let me help you.

Reassured, I gazed back at him, the message in my own eyes equally clear: Go ahead - I trust you.

With that silent permission, he carefully reached down and undid the first couple of buttons of my shirt, folding back the collar just enough to expose my left shoulder.  I saw him flinch at the sight of it - though he quickly regained his composure - before tentatively placing his hands on it and beginning a light massage.

By this point I had been pushed so far beyond the limits of my endurance that I was no longer really thinking, just feeling.  I relaxed, letting the gentle strokes of the massage drive away the pain. A sense of profound well-being stole over me: the fire was deliciously warm against my skin, and so were George’s hands.

“Does that feel better?” he asked quietly.

Still lost in that distant, untroubled place beyond rational thought, I answered, “Yes.”

As George continued his massage, I let my thoughts wander idly in directions I would never have let them go if I hadn’t been completely exhausted, both mentally and physically, by my ordeal. The sweetness of George’s kisses still tingled on my lips, and the memory of them sent heat coursing through me again.

But then he removed his hands and rebuttoned my shirt, tucking a blanket around me.

“George,” I said suddenly as he turned away from me.


“Thank you,” I sighed, “for being you.”

He slipped beneath the blanket then, carefully drawing me into his embrace. “Ah, Jessie,” he said as he stroked my hair. “You’re so strong.  But just this once, won’t you let someone share the burden with you?”

“Well … maybe just this once,” I murmured before finally surrendering to sleep.

The rain had stopped and the fire died down to glowing embers when I awoke. Grey light filtered through the rain-streaked windows, signaling the approaching dawn. For a long moment I lay very still, reluctant to leave the warmth of the blankets and George’s arms. He was still asleep - no doubt he had been just as worn out by yesterday’s events as I had. I sighed inwardly; how I wished I could stay just like this forever!  But that was not a choice.

Carefully, I managed to slip out of George’s embrace and from under the blanket without waking him, and sat up.  I made a few tentative attempts at using my left shoulder, and found that it didn’t hurt as much as it had the day before, but, as I had feared, it had stiffened up overnight.

I gazed at George’s sleeping form with misty eyes. It would take me a long time to sort out everything that had been said and done last night - how much was what I really felt but had been holding inside, and how much was a natural response to extreme trauma? 

Would I have let George seduce me if he’d tried?

I shook my head - there was no time to think about it right now. As conflicted and confused as I was, I had to push it all aside and focus on the task at hand - a task that, for better or worse, I had to try to accomplish on my own.

Ignoring the protests of my shoulder, I got to my feet as quietly as I could, retrieved my coat, and shrugged it on, leaving my hurt arm out of the sleeve. As I lifted the latch to the door I took one last look back at George, then slipped outside and closed it quietly behind me.

All around me the woods was still and quiet. The village, I estimated, lay about three miles away; that gave me three miles to figure out exactly what I was going to do next.

The sun was just rising over the horizon when I stepped into the courtyard of Sutherland castle.  Immediately I found myself surrounded by people from the village, some carrying farm implements, a few carrying stones.  One young man turned and bolted inside when he saw me – probably to make a phone call.

“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,” I 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.”

At that moment, Constable McKay appeared in the courtyard, followed by a crowd of people from the town.

I sighed impatiently.  “Constable McKay,” I said, “can’t you do anything in this town without bringing a mob along to back you up?”

“Lassie,” McKay said, coming toward me, “I’d watch your tongue, if I were you.”

Ignoring McKay for the moment, I reached into my coat pocket and pulled out my copy of Evan Lochbuie’s letter, brandishing it for all to see.

“This,” I 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!

I paused for breath, looking around to make sure my audience was still listening.  They were; a circle of intent faces stared at me, waiting for me to go on.

“Evan Lochbuie was not a stupid man,” I 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 I paused and looked straight at McKay – “your name, Constable McKay.”

McKay was speechless.  “Lies,” he finally was able to spit out.  “Damned lies!”

“And speaking of lies, that is one of the things that gave you away,” I went on.  “When George and I first arrived in Wick, you already knew what we were fleeing from in London.  The only problem with that was, George never told anyone where we were going.  A quick call to Scotland Yard will confirm that no one there informed you of the incident.  The only way you would have known … was if you were there yourself, in London, pulling the trigger.”

McKay looked at me 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,” I 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.”


I whipped my 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’d grabbed me by the front of my coat and flung me to the ground. The copy of Evan’s letter fluttered beyond my reach as I landed heavily on my side.  I gritted my teeth against the pain in my shoulder and scrambled to sit back up, only to find the sharp points of a pitchfork’s tines mere inches from my 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.

I continued to stare at McKay as I tried to catch my breath, but of the corner of my eye, I could see one of the other men pick up Evan’s letter, glance at it, and pass it on to those around him. I took a desperate chance, and addressed the crowd one final time.

“There is evil here,” I said in a clear, steady voice that surprised even me, “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 – I recognized him as the one who had hurt me during the escape through the back gate – took the sheet of paper, read it, then crumpled it up and threw it to the ground.  My heart sank, until I 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 me to my 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?”

I looked up at him wearily.  “Those all sound good,” I admitted, “but right now, what I want more than anything else in the world … is a long, hot bath.”

The bath felt heavenly, exactly what I needed. Afterwards, as I wrapped myself in a thick, warm robe, George called through my door that Hamish Dawson had arrived to check on my shoulder.

“The key was the timing,” I told him a little while later as I sat upon a table with my robe hanging loosely off my shoulder.  Dr. Dawson examined my injury with skilled hands, probing my bruises and lifting my arm a little at a time to check my range of motion.  “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 England.  The shooting incident in London happened within a day of my landing at Heathrow, and then Evan Lochbuie died the same night that we arrived in Wick.  It was as if trouble was following my steps.”

“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.

I nodded.  “Exactly.  The only way for them to know so quickly that I was back in the United Kingdom was if they had asked someone to keep an eye out for my arrival – specifically, they asked British Customs to notify them if I should enter the country.  My call to Heathrow Airport confirmed what I suspected – that only the police have the right to request such notification.”

“And the only person with a motive to harm you – or me – who fit that description was Horace McKay.”

“Yes,” I said.  “It made sense – after all, it would take a certain amount of time for him to get from Wick to London, explaining why the attack happened the second night I was there, not the first.  When that attempt failed, I believe that he guessed correctly that you and I would leave London, and where else would we go but Wick?  So he came back here straightaway, to arrive ahead of us.”

“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,” I 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,” I 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 my 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.”

I pulled the robe back up over my 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 I felt refreshed, and ready to salvage what was left of my visit.

George knocked at my open door and poked his head inside.

“May I come in?” he asked.

“Of course.”

George stepped all the way into the room.  “A good idea this is, getting away from here and going to Ireland.  I love Wick, it’s my home … but after the past few days, I wouldn’t mind putting a little distance between me and it for awhile.”

I smiled.  “So I figured,” I 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 my sleeve.  “How are you feeling?”

“Much better,” I 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 and put his arms around me, drawing me close.  I could feel his heart beating in his chest as our lips met, and I once again experienced that wonderful flush of feeling that comes of desire and being desired.  When the kiss ended he looked deep into my eyes and said, “I want to thank you for everything you did for me … properly.”

I met his gaze, and read in it the full implications of what he was asking for.  Suddenly I felt panicked, and pulled away from his embrace.

“I can’t do this,” I said.

“Why not?”

I struggled to explain to him something I couldn’t adequately explain even to myself. “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.”

I shook my head.  “I can’t do this,” I repeated.  I turned away from him, to hide my distress as much as to avoid seeing the disappointment on his face.  “It isn’t your fault,” I told him.  “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.”

I looked up.  “What?”

“If you do change your mind, someday … promise me that I’ll be the first to know.”

I smiled, reached out, and took his hand.

“I promise,” I said. 

The End