The Birth-place of Valour, the Country of Worth

"History" part 3

- Excerpts from The Highland Fling Murders by Donald Bain, adapted and expanded by Anne

 

Author's Note:

The title is taken from a line in Robert Burns' poem "My Heart's in the Highlands":

 

Farewell to the Highlands, farewell to the North,
The birth-place of Valour, the country of Worth;
Wherever I wander, wherever I rove,
The hills of the Highlands for ever I love.

My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart's in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go.

Farewell to the mountains, high-cover'd with snow,
Farewell to the straths and green vallies below;
Farewell to the forests and wild-hanging woods,
Farewell to the torrents and loud-pouring floods.


My heart's in the Highlands, my heart is not here,
My heart's in the Highlands, a-chasing the deer;
Chasing the wild-deer, and following the roe,
My heart's in the Highlands, wherever I go.

 

For various reasons Jessica's promised trip to Scotland for the holidays never materialized.To say that I was disappointed would be a gross understatement, but there was little I could do about it except sit back and wait for the next time the winds of opportunity blew her in my direction.

††††† As it turned out, that next time was almost a year after our last meeting, in June, when Jessica called to say that she was coming to Great Britain on a book tour for her British publisher.

††††† "Wonderful!" I exclaimed. "Once you've finished with your obligations, it will be a perfect opportunity for you to come spend a little time with me at my family's castle up in Wick."

††††† "I really can't," she replied."I'm traveling with other people - eleven of them."

††††† "Not a problem, Jessica," I told her."The old homestead has fourteen rooms.Since I seldom have a chance to get there, and because it costs a bloody fortune to maintain, it's rented out as a hotel most of the year.There's a staff, a fine kitchen and chef, the works.Please.You know I've been trying to entice you to Wick ever since we met.Say yes."

††††† Jessica laughed and gave in. "Yes," she said."I'll check with the others and let you know how many can extend their trip."

††††† As it turned out, all eleven of her companions opted to venture north with her to Scotland once her book promotion tour was complete.A week before they left Jessica sent me a list of who she would be bringing in her train.Some of the names were familiar to me from Jessica's correspondence; others were not.

††††† Dr. Seth Hazlitt and Sheriff Mort Metzger, Jessica's best friends, I had already met on one of Jessica's previous adventures in London two years earlier. Adele Metzger, Mort's wife, was frequently mentioned in Jessica's letters. She sounded like quite a character, and I was interested to see what she was like in person.

††††† Also along for the trip were the mayor of Cabot Cove, Jim Shevlin, and his wife Susan, the travel agent who had put the whole trip together; Peter and Roberta Walters, who owned a small radio station; Jed and Alicia Richardson, who ran a little small town airstrip; and finally baker Charlene Sassi and her fishing guide husband Ken. Counting Jessica, there would be twelve all together. Barring family, it was the most guests the castle had seen at any one time in years.

††††† According to their itinerary, the Mainers had reservations to stay at London's famed Athenaeum Hotel upon their arrival; I knew that Sally Bulloch would take excellent care of them during their stay.I also knew that Jessica had a full load of commitments scheduled for the day after they arrived - it was just like her to be off and running as soon as her feet touched the ground.She had mentioned the possibility of contacting me in time for dinner after she was finished, so it came as a surprise when she called me at home early that morning.

††††† "Jessica, so good to hear your voice," I said.

††††† "Did I wake you?" she asked tentatively.

††††† "No," I replied. "I have an early meeting at the Yard. Always seems to be a meeting to attend these days, most a waste of time. How was your trip?"

††††† "Fine. I -"

††††† "I can't wait to have you and your friends visit in Wick. I'll be going up a day ahead to -"

††††† "George, can we discuss this a little later?" Jessica asked, and I noticed the anxiety in her voice for the first time. "I have a problem I thought you might help with."

††††† "Anything," I said.

††††† "Two of the friends I'm traveling with are missing," she said. "Apparently they went out last evening after we arrived, but they never came back. One of us checked at the front desk - their room key was never picked up."

††††† Although I could think of several innocent explanations for the absence of her friends, I knew Jessica would not have called me unless she had already ruled those innocent explanations out. "I'll have an all points put out on them immediately," I told her. "Give me their names and descriptions."

††††† The missing couple, it turned out, was the airplane pilot and his wife, Jed and Alicia Richardson. "Any hint of where they might have gone last night?" I asked. "A destination? A direction? Do they have friends here? Relatives?"

††††† "Not that I'm aware of, George," she said. "I'm meeting one of my friends downstairs in a half hour."

††††† "I'll be there."

††††† "What about your meeting?" she asked.

††††† "This is a police emergency. See you in a half hour."

††††† I arrived at the Athenaeum Hotel to find Jessica watching Seth Hazlitt pace the lobby. As soon as I strode through the door my eyes locked with hers, and I felt a little ripple of excitement course through me. One year had done nothing to dim her beauty, or the golden glow that seemed to shimmer around her to my sight. I had so looked forward to the moment when I would see her again; I only wished it could have been under less stressful circumstances.

††††† And it was clear enough from her gaze that Jessica was under considerable stress. She was dressed casually in jeans, shirt, and sweater, with her trench coat draped over her arm, but her blue eyes were dark with worry, and she looked as tense as a bowstring.

††††† I smiled warmly as I came to her, my hand extended. She took it in both of hers and I kissed her on the cheek.

††††† "It's been too long since last laying eyes on you, Jess," I said to her.

††††† Jessica didn't answer, as she was aware of the eyes watching us. Instead she gave me a little smile in return, and then turned and introduced me to another of the couples from Cabot Cove, Ken and Charlene Sassi.

††††† "This is Scotland Yard Chief Inspector George Sutherland," she said.

††††† Ken and Charlene shook my hand, which I then offered to Seth Hazlitt. He shook it, but not without reservation; Seth, I deduced, was still not too sure about me or my intentions toward his best friend.

††††† "Now," I said once the round of introductions was over, "tell me about this missing couple."

††††† "I got up early and went to their room to see if Jed was up," Ken Sassi told me. "Jed and I, we're always up with the sun. But nobody was in their room. That seemed right odd to me, so I went down to the front desk to see if their room key had ever been picked up last night. The clerk told me that it hadn't."

††††† "I've put out an all points bulletin on your friends," I said. "Local police are looking for them as we speak. I suggest we gather together the rest of your party. Someone might have an idea as to where they've gone, what they intended to do last night."

††††† Jessica, Seth, and the Sassis all headed upstairs to rouse the others, and soon all ten of them were gathered together in the lobby. Seth filled in the latecomers on why they were there, which elicited a variety of responses and comments of dismay. As Sheriff, Mort Metzger immediately took charge, issuing orders, and also questioning whether the MPD and Scotland Yard were doing enough to find Jed and Alicia.

††††† I listened to him patiently, then said, "Every bobby in the city is searching for your friends. The Yard's missing person bureau has also joined the search. I'm going back to headquarters to coordinate the effort." I turned to Jessica. "Jess, I'll keep in touch through you."

††††† Jessica shook her head. "That will be difficult, George. I have a series of interviews all over the city."

††††† "No problem," Mort said to me. "I'll work with you, Inspector. We can talk lawman to lawman."

††††† "If you insist," I said. I winked at Jessica and left.

††††† I hadn't gotten far when my cell phone rang, and it was more bad news.If what I was hearing was true, it looked as if Jessica's friends were no longer lost. Unfortunately, they were in deeper trouble than any of us could have imagined. Grimly, I called the Athenaeum and asked to speak to Sheriff Metzger.

††††† "Metzger here."

††††† "I believe I may have found your friends, Jed and Alicia," I told him. "They may be at the Tower of London."

††††† "That so?" Mort said, sounding curiously unsurprised.

††††† "Aye. Unfortunately, they're in the company of a madman, who is holding them hostage. So it would seem that we have a much more serious situation on our hands than we previously thought."

††††† "Looks like it. Just heard about it ourselves," Mort said.

††††† "Their captor claims he's a descendant of Catherine Hayes, a woman who was burned at the stake in 1725 for petty treason," I continued. "He says he will kill the Richardsons unless he is allowed to speak before Parliament, and given a chance to clear her name."

††††† "I see," said Mort.

††††† "Anyway, I'm headed over there now to take charge of the hostage negotiations. I'll keep you posted."

††††† "Okay," the Sheriff said, and rung off.

 

††††† I had been at the fruitless job of negotiating for about half an hour when three taxis pulled up beyond the police perimeter that had been established, and Jessica and her companions spilled out.I spotted Jessica immediately from among the throng of onlookers, and approached her.

††††† "Is it them?" she asked me anxiously.

††††† "Don't have their names, Jess," I told her."The woman is a redhead and pretty, the fellow is husky, sort of blond hair, leathery face."

††††† "Jed and Alicia," Jessica said, confirming our fears."How bad is it?"

††††† "The man continues to demand time before Parliament," I said, gesturing over my shoulder toward the tower. "He says that if he doesn't get it, your two friends will join others who have lost their lives in the Tower.Intelligent chap it seems; spouts history when we talk to him. Seems to know a lot - but then he starts babbling about this long-lost relative, and the need to clear her name and reputation."

††††† "I take it he's armed," she said.

††††† I nodded. "We've seen two handguns."

††††† "Are you handling the hostage negotiations?"

††††† "By default," I said, shrugging.

††††† "Can we come with you, see firsthand what's happening?"

††††† "Afraid not.Well, you can, Jess. But just one person."

††††† "Hold on a second," Mort Metzger said. "As a law enforcement official of Cabot Cove, Maine, I am responsible for the safety of our citizens. That goes here, too. I'm comin' with you."

††††† I looked pleadingly at Jessica - do something, lass, I was thinking at her. But then I reconsidered - Mort wasn't a bad chap, and he did have experience gained on the streets of New York City. "All right, Sheriff," I said, relenting. "You and Jessica."

††††† I led them through the throng of officers to the place where I had been conducting my hostage negotiations with the abductor, behind a bullet-proof shield thirty feet away from the foot of the tower.The Richardsons were still there, visible through a window on the first floor of the Tower, kneeling at the feet of their captor.When Alicia Richardson saw Jessica, she raised her head and called out, "Jess! Go back."

††††† Jessica and Mort crouched next to me as I picked up the bullhorn and said, "It should be evident to you, sir, that you are surrounded.Killing these innocent Americans will accomplish nothing except a life in prison.If you released them now and come out peacefully, I'm sure the right people will listen to your grievances about your relative, Ms. Hayes; perhaps even allow certain members of Parliament to hear you out.But if you harm them, there can be no discussion.You will be killed."

††††† "I thought you fellas didn't use guns," Mort said.

††††† "Not in public," I said, my eyes never leaving the window."But if the situation warrants ..."

††††† "The government ruined my family name in 1725 and continues to do it," the madman called back. "I'll let these filthy rich Americans go if you promise me an hour before the bloody bastards of Parliament."

††††† Jessica glanced up at me. "George, can I respond?" she asked.

††††† "What? You?"

††††† "Yes," she said. "Please."She looked at me with an expression that made me incapable of denying her anything.

††††† Well, why not? I was getting nowhere. "Have a go, Jess," I said, and handed her the bullhorn.

††††† She took it gingerly. "Sir, my name is Jessica Fletcher," she said. "I write murder mysteries.The two people you're holding are very good friends of mine. They've done nothing to hurt you. If you have a gripe with your government, this is not the way to air it."

††††† The man said nothing. Then to my astonishment, Jessica rose to her full height.

††††† "Get down, Mrs. F," Mort said, grabbing her arm.

††††† I couldn't believe what happened next: her eyes fixed on the window of the Tower, Jessica pulled away from Mort's grasp, stepped around the shield, and started to walk toward the window.

††††† "Jessica," I said, reaching for her.

††††† Still focused on the window, Jessica neither turned nor acknowledged that she heard me.She continued to walk forward as though in a trance, her hands outstretched and open.

††††† "Jessica!" I cried out to her.

††††† I watched helplessly as the woman I loved continued to pace forward into the very teeth of danger, until she stood only a few feet from the window.

††††† "Young man," I heard her say to the abductor, "if you insist upon holding an American hostage, you can hold me.I'm a writer.I'll listen to your story.Let them go!"

††††† "No, Jess, stay away," Jed Richardson shouted to her.

††††† "Let them go," Jessica repeated."I'll see to it that you have a chance to vent youíre anger and concern. Don't be foolish. If you don't let them go, you'll ..."

††††† All at once I saw the madman step back, allowing the Richardsons to stand. A moment later a door opened and the captives stepped through it.They started toward Jessica, who told them to get behind the shield.

††††† There was a moment of tenseness as Jessica and the madman continued to stare at each other. It seemed to me as if the whole city was holding its collective breath: what was Jessica going to do now?

††††† After what seemed like an agonizing eternity, she deliberately turned around and took a step in our direction.I could practically feel the itch she must be sensing between her shoulder blades, as she reluctantly turned her back on a man who might very well decide to shoot her for breaking her promise in the prisoner exchange.She was white as a ghost, her fear evident in her wide blue eyes as she took another step, and another, and another.

††††† As soon as she was within reach, I grabbed her by the arm and pulled her behind the shield. As I did the madman fired, the blast causing all of us to jump as the bullet hit the shield with a deafening crack and ricocheted harmlessly to the ground. Jessica collapsed on the spot.

††††† I didn't have time to see to her just then as I rushed forward with the other officers to subdue the man and take him into custody.When I had made sure he was properly restrained and bundled off to the Yard, I returned to find her on her knees with her arms wrapped around herself, shaking uncontrollably and seemingly unaware of the chaos that swirled around her. Jed, Mort, and Alicia stood around her in a nervous huddle.

††††† I sank down on one knee in front of her and gripped her shoulders. "Jessica," I said to her. "Jessie, are you all right?"

††††† She drew a hitching breath, and finally her eyes focused on me. "I think so," she said, and smiled.

††††† I smiled in return, and placed my hand on her cheek. "Thank God," I said.

††††† I helped her to her feet - she was wobbly at first, but soon found her footing. Taking her by the hand I led her, Mort, and the Richardsons back out toward the street where the rest of her companions awaited.

††††† "Jess has been through a traumatic experience," I told them as they converged on her, all of them asking questions at once. "I suggest we get her back to the hotel and let her rest."

††††† Jed and Alicia went to police headquarters to give a statement while Mort and the others took cabs back to the Athenaeum.I drove Jessica back to the hotel personally, and was relieved to see her regain her colour as we went.

††††† "I just remembered I have interviews to get to," she said as I turned on to Piccadilly.

††††† "Cancel them, Jess," I advised her."You don't realize what you've been through.It will hit you later, like a truck."

††††† "No, I'll be all right," she insisted, glancing at her watch."I have just enough time to shower and change before my first interview."

††††† Ever the trooper. "You won't change your mind?"

††††† "No," she said. Then she glanced down and said, "Thank you, George."

††††† I laughed."For what?You saved the day for your friends."

††††† "For being here.For being - you."

††††† I pulled up in front of the hotel, turned to face her, and sighed."Not a very nice way to begin your visit, Jess."

††††† Jessica waved my words away. "Oh, just a little excitement.I have to go inside, George.You say you're going up to Wick a day or two ahead of us.Will I see you again in London before that?"

††††† "Absolutely," I said. "Jess, I have to ask you a question."

††††† "Go ahead."

††††† "Why did you do what you did this morning?Approach that madman."

††††† She didn't answer at first as she got out of the car and closed the door behind her.Finally she leaned in through the open window and said, "George, I have absolutely no idea why I did it.If I'd thought about it, I never would have.And now that I am thinking about it, I'm scared to death.I'll be in touch."

††††† She blew me a kiss, turned and ran into the lobby without looking back. I watched her go, marveling at her courage, her resiliency, and her sheer strength of will. I thought I'd been in love with her before, but after watching her this morning I was completely, utterly head over heels.

 

††††† I did not have a chance to see Jessica again until the day of my departure for Wick.I had a late afternoon flight out of Gatwick to Inverness, with just enough time for us to have tea before I left.

††††† "Well?" I said expectantly as I poured tea for both of us in the Athenaeum's charming conservatory.

††††† Jessica gave me a wry look. "You were right," she said grudgingly. "It did hit me - like a truck - right in the middle of my interview with the BBC."

††††† "It gives me no pleasure to know that my prediction came true," I said, passing her a platter of biscuits. "But I did try to warn you."

††††† "Yes, I know. Well, it turned out all right in the end. Once the initial impact wore off, I managed to stagger through the rest of the day without incident."

††††† "And since then? How has the rest of the book tour gone?"

††††† "Exceedingly well - better than expected, even." Then her face clouded somewhat: "Except for one thing."

††††† "What's that?" I asked.

††††† "The press - the tabloids, to be more precise. Somehow they caught wind of the fact that once I'm finished here, I'll be joining you in Wick.They seem to think that just because you and I are going to be spending some time together at your family home, there must be some sort of romance between us to report on."

††††† I chuckled. "The fact that we will have eleven chaperones from Cabot Cove with us hasn't blunted their appetite for gossip?"

††††† Jessica looked disgusted. "It has not."

††††† "Well, put it out of your mind, Jess. I doubt the perceived story is important enough to warrant the expense of sending paparazzi all the way to the farthest reaches of Scotland to track you down."

††††† "That reminds me," Jessica said, smiling. "I had dinner with Archie Semple - you remember him, from two years ago? Anyway, he had the gall to refer to Scotland as 'the land of the barbarians.'"

††††† I laughed. "Familiar with Finley Peter Dunne's Mr. Dooley Remembers, Jess?"

††††† "Vaguely," she said.

††††† I quoted: "'The well-bred Englishman is about as agreeable a fellow as you can find anywhere - especially, as I have noted, if he is an Irishman or a Scotchman.'"

††††† She laughed too. "I thought the proper term was 'Scotsman.'"

††††† "Dunne had his weaknesses. It is Scotsman."

††††† "I just thought of a line from George Bernard Shaw," said Jessica.

††††† "Which is?"

††††† "'Englishman - a creature who thinks he is being virtuous when he is only being uncomfortable.'"

††††† "I'd forgotten that one." I looked at my watch and sighed. "Well, this barbarian must be off. See you in Wick in a few days. Safe trip. And no more heroics, dear lady."

††††† "You needn't worry about that, George," Jessica said emphatically as we left the conservatory. Once on the street I gave her one last look, pressed my cheek to hers, and held her close for a long moment. Then I got into the waiting Scotland Yard car assigned to deliver me to Gatwick. Through the rear window I saw Jessica give me a final farewell wave, and disappear back into the hotel.

 

††††† "They're on their way," I announced to Mrs. Gower as I hung up the phone. An old schoolmate of mine headed up the security department at the Inverness airport, and I had asked him to call me when the Mainers' flight from Gatwick touched down in Scotland."They should be here in about three hours. Would you be so kind as to gather the staff in the drawing room for a final briefing?"

††††† "Yes, Mr. Sutherland," she replied neutrally. Her words were agreeable enough, but I could tell from the expression on my housekeeper's face that she clearly thought I was putting her through a lot of trouble for nothing. Then again, I reflected, when had Mrs. Gower looked any different? She always seemed to look as though I was putting her through a lot of trouble for nothing.

††††† A short time later my meager staff was assembled before me. Besides the redoubtable Mary Gower, they consisted of Daisy Wemyss, a sweet lass from the village who helped with the cooking and housekeeping duties; Malcolm James, a charming lad with a winsome personality but not much of a head for responsibility; and Dunstan Forbes, a recent addition, who acted as the castle's handyman and general jack-of-all-trades.I acutely missed the presence of Angus and Sophie Macguire, the older couple who used to live at the castle year-round and oversee its needs. They had decided to retire earlier this year, and I had rewarded their many years of service with a stone cottage of their own on the grounds, but they were absent much of the time, fulfilling their dreams of traveling the world.The group I had assembled to take their place, while adequate, could not yet hold a candle to the excellent service once provided me by the Macguires.

††††† "I know that I have emphasized to all of you in the past the importance of extending the utmost hospitality to our guests," I said, "but in the case of the group that is arriving this evening, it is particularly important."

††††† "Why?" Mrs. Gower asked pointedly. She was never one to mince words, or leave any authority unquestioned.

††††† "Because this group is Ö special," I replied vaguely.

††††† "One of 'em's special, tis what he means," Mrs. Gower said to the others. "Mr. Sutherland's lady is amongst them."

††††† I leveled a steely glare in her direction. "Mrs. Fletcher is nobody's 'lady,'" I informed her. "She is merely the leader of this particular group and a personal friend, and deserving of respect in her own right. Do I make myself clear?"

††††† "Aye," she said, but there was no hint of repentance in her expression.

††††† "There are twelve of them, coming from Maine," I continued. "For most, it is their first time visiting the UK. I have met them all, and they are as open and as approachable as any people you could hope to meet.They are not, however, soft tourist types that need to be patronized or led by the hand. They are all hard-working people who live on a seacoast just as hard and unyielding as Scotland's." I paused as I surveyed the line. "Forbes, would it kill ye to conjure up a smile once in awhile?"

††††† Forbes, who was best known for his dark, gloomy expression, made an attempt at what passed for a smile, but it came out more like a grimace, as if he had just tasted something very bad.

††††† "Forget it," I sighed. "You'll scare fewer folk if you just be yourself."

††††† "Mr. Sutherland, sir," Malcolm piped up, "this Mrs. Fletcher - she wouldn't be the lady-writer JB Fletcher, would she?"

††††† "The same," I replied. Seeing the hopeful look dawning on his young face, I added, "Don't even think about badgering her about your manuscript, Malcolm. She's here on holiday, not to critique books or make editorial suggestions."

††††† Malcolm's face fell somewhat, but I knew that if I didn't say something now, he'd be after Jessica practically the moment she arrived, wanting her to read this book he'd been working on. And Jessica, kind-hearted as she was, would never say no - and as a result, never have a moment's peace.

††††† "I suppose that about covers it," I concluded. "Thank you for sparing me a moment."

 

††††† I nervously paced the front portico of the castle as the sun drew closer to setting. I had dressed formally for the occasion of Jessica's arrival with her companions, donning a waist-length formal jacket over a white shirt and my kilt.A cold wind was blowing in off the North Sea, sending a broken wrack of dark clouds scuttling against the sky.At last, just as the sun's nearly level rays burst forth from the clouds one last time before nightfall, I heard the crunch of tires upon the gravel drive, and the chartered bus that carried the group from Inverness passed under the stone arch and into the courtyard.

††††† At this cue, Malcolm, who had also dressed in formal Highland regalia, stepped forward and began to play a lively tune on the bagpipes he carried.The bus came to a halt and its passengers disembarked to the strains of "Scotland the Brave," each of them pausing to look about them in wonder at the sight of the castle and its surroundings.

††††† Jessica was the last to step off.By now her companions had joined me on the portico, exchanging greetings and asking questions, but when I saw her hanging back I broke away from the others and descended the stone steps, extending my open arms out to her like a medieval lord receiving home his beloved lady.

††††† "Welcome, fair lassie," I said.

††††† Jessica looked up at the castle with wide eyes, "You were born and raised in this?" she exclaimed.

††††† I grinned and shrugged. "Afraid so."

††††† "You certainly weren't cramped for space."

††††† "No, but the winters were a wee bit chilly." I took her by the arm and led her to the front doors. "Come, Jessica. Make yourself at home."

††††† I ushered everyone into the castle foyer. It was obvious from their comments and expressions that they were impressed both by the scale of the room and its dťcor.

††††† "It's breathtaking," Susan Shevlin said. She was busy taking notes on everything she saw, no doubt for the benefit of her travel agency clients.

††††† Mort Metzger and Seth Hazlitt went to the foot of the stairs and looked up them. "What's up there?" Mort asked.

††††† "Your rooms," I replied. "But we'll get to them a little later. Your bags will be there and unpacked when you do. For now, cocktails await in the drawing room."

††††† I led them through the interior of the castle to the drawing room, where Malcolm, still wielding his bagpipes, played the group in. The drawing room was set up with hors d'oeurves and a bar, which was being tended by Forbes. I sighed inwardly; I'd asked Forbes to spruce himself up before the Mainers arrived, but his idea of "sprucing up" was to merely slick back his rat's nest of hair. At least he had changed into clean clothes.

††††† Throughout the cocktail hour, Jessica kept a close eye on her charges, on the lookout for any sign of need or discomfort.Alicia Richardson caught her attention, standing off to the side and looking ill-at-ease. She went over to her, placed an arm over her shoulder, and had a short conversation with her, after which Alicia seemed to relax. Once Alicia had been settled, Jessica next approached Jed Richardson, no doubt to alert him to his wife's nervousness.

††††† Finally, Jessica managed to get away from the group and pulled me away from the others.

††††† "Enjoying yourself, Jess?" I asked her.

††††† "How could I not?" she said. "I wish I'd taken you up on your invitation years ago, and that I had a few months to spend here."

††††† Me, too, I thought wistfully.

††††† "I've never been in a castle before - a real one, I mean," she continued. She glanced down, smiled, and added, "And it's the first time I've seen your knees."

††††† I laughed softly. "Not an especially inspiring sight, I'm afraid," I said apologetically. "I come from a long but proud family in which bowlegs prevail. You're right about the castle. It is real, all right - and haunted, they say."

††††† "Stop it," Jessica said, looking around anxiously to see if anyone else was listening. The reason for her caution became clear with her next words: "And please don't say that to Alicia Richardson. She's still trying to get over her experience with that crazy man."

††††† "I understand," I said, nodding. "Is the food to your liking?"

††††† "It's wonderful." She lowered her voice and gave me a questioning look. Haunted?"

††††† "According to some folks," I admitted.

††††† "Your relative, the descendant of that witch, Isabell Gowdie," Jessica said. "Is she this supposed ghost?"

††††† "I think so," I said.

††††† "Have you seen this ghost?"

††††† I shook my head - I had never been favored with an audience with the ghost of my own halls. "No."

††††† Jessica couldn't repress her natural curiosity. "What do others say she looks like?" she asked.

††††† "A lovely lady dressed all in white, but with a cross carved into her throat," I said. "The blood sometimes runs from the slashes and down over the front of her white gown. Sometimes it doesn't. She has orange eyes."

††††† Jessica shuddered. "It's cold in here," she said.

††††† "I'll get you a sweater."

††††† "No, thank you," she said. "No need - it's an internal chill."

††††† I smiled. "I'm so glad you're here, Jess," I said, looking in her eyes. "We must find some time together - alone. To talk."

††††† She averted her gaze shyly. "I look forward to that, George," she said. "I think I'd better mingle with my friends. They consider me their tour guide."

††††† "I can't think of a better one," I told her warmly.

††††† "By the way, Ken Sassi - he's the fishing guide - wants to know when he and I can find a day on the stream."

††††† I nodded, making a mental note. "I'll check with the gillie," I told her.

††††† "Gillie?" she asked, smiling.

††††† "Fishing guide - we call them gillies," I told her. "There are a few good ones in town. I'll check out where they're biting, what sort of bait to use, that sort of thing."

††††† "We don't use bait," said Jessica. "We use artificial flies."

††††† "Sorry, but I don't fish," I said with a chuckle. "Excuse the inaccurate nomenclature. I'll let you and Ken know first thing in the morning."

 

††††† After the cocktail hour was over, I showed the group to their rooms upstairs, and left them to freshen up for dinner, which would be served in the formal dining room an hour hence.

††††† At the appointed time I entered the dining room, accompanied by the other pair of couples that was staying in the castle: Brock Peterman and his flashy but empty-headed wife Tammy, and the rather odd Dr. Geoffrey Symington and his wife Helen.Jessica and Seth were already there, apparently the first to arrive from their group.

††††† ††††† "Jessica, Dr. Hazlitt," I said, "allow me to introduce our other guests at the castle. This is Mr. and Mrs. Brock Peterman. And this is Dr. and Mrs. Geoffrey Symington.Brock is a movie producer from Hollywood," I explained after Jessica and Seth had greeted the newcomers.

††††† "Oh? Might I have seen any of your films?" Jessica asked politely.

††††† "If you like quality horror flicks," he said, grinning like a shark. "The Reptile's Revenge?That's my latest."

††††† "I'm afraid I missed it," she said.

††††† Seth turned to Dr. Symington. "What sort of medicine do you practice, Dr. Symington?" he asked.

††††† "Research," Symington replied.

††††† Seth persisted: "What sort of research?"

††††† "Basic," he replied evasively. "Excuse me. I left something in my room."

††††† I saw Seth and Jessica exchange a look as the others from their group arrived. After introductions had been made, everyone took their assigned seats at the table and Forbes and Daisy began to serve the meal.

††††† I'd picked a traditional, but relatively non-threatening, Scottish meal: nettle soup and salmon roe pate for starters, followed by a main course of locally-caught stuffed trout and stovies. Whipt syllabub wrapped up the meal, which Charlene Sassi, Cabot Cove's resident baker, pronounced them the best she'd ever tasted - high praise indeed.

††††† As the evening progressed, the conversation turned to the rumors that Sutherland Castle was haunted.

††††† "Is it?" Susan Shevlin asked me with interest. "Is it really haunted?"

††††† I laughed and asked Daisy to refill everyone's wineglass. "Perhaps we should ask Mr. Peterman that question," I said. "He's here researching his next movie."

††††† "A ghost story?" Charlene Sassi asked.

††††† "A sci-fi horror flick with a ghost subplot," Peterman said. "I figure it needs a castle setting, so when I read about this place being open to guests, I told Tammy to call the travel agent."

††††† "You're going to shoot your new movie here at this castle?" the man with the booming voice, Peter Walters, asked.

††††† "Depends," Peterman said. "I keep telling Mr. Sutherland how much business my movie can generate for his hotel. But he -"

††††† I cut him off - this was an argument that I had heard before, and it was becoming rather tiresome. "Afraid this Scotsman is having trouble understanding why I should pay in order to have Mr. Peterman make his movie here," I said with somewhat forced lightness. "I thought it worked the other way around: you pay me for using my castle as your set."

††††† "It's marketing," Peterman said. "You need to market this place. The movie would be great. Bring in lots of business. Right, Tammy?"

††††† Yes, absolutely," Tammy Peterman said, suddenly straightening in her chair. Given her inattention throughout the meal, I suspected that she didn't have the faintest idea what her husband was talking about.

††††† "Have you found real ghosts here?" Susan Shevlin asked the moviemaker.

††††† He shook his head and downed his wine. "Nah," he said. "No such thing. The only ghosts and ghouls are the ones my special effects people create."

††††† "Jessica says she saw something on her way down to dinner," Seth said. "Might have been a ghost."

††††† "Was it, Jess?" Roberta Walters asked.

††††† "What did you see, Jess?" asked Susan.

††††† "I didn't see anything," Jessica said. "I thought I did, but -"

††††† "An apparition?" Dr. Symington asked her, speaking for the first time since dinner began.

††††† Jessica's eyes flickered toward Alicia; I could tell she was anxious to change the subject out of deference to her, but the others seemed determined to continue discussing ghosts. Fortunately, Alicia seemed to be lost in a world of her own, and didn't seem to be paying attention to the conversation.

††††† "Do you know anything about the supernatural?" Seth Hazlitt asked Symington.

††††† "A bit," he replied modestly.

††††† "Is that your research?" Seth continued. "Into apparitions?"

††††† "It is a particular interest of mine," the doctor replied.

††††† Seth's disapproval - and dislike - was clear from his expression. "Doesn't sound like anything a medical doctor would get involved in," he said.

††††† "A matter of opinion," Symington said. "There is much medical science can learn from the unexplained. Traditional medicine has operated with blinders on." He turned to the Daisy, who stood in a corner waiting to clear the table. "More wine!" he ordered.

††††† Helen Symington, who had a much better grasp of basic manners and civility than her husband did, placed her hand on his arm and suggested, "Perhaps you shouldn't, Geoff." But he merely scowled at her and held up his glass for Daisy to refill.

††††† Brock Peterman, who had been shooting dark looks at me ever since I cut off his whining about my stance on using the castle for his film, abruptly pushed his chair back from the table and urged his wife to her feet. "Excuse us," he said. "We need a walk, some fresh air."

††††† When they were gone, Mort Metzger said, "Strange pair."

††††† "From Hollywood," I offered by way of explanation.

††††† "What did you see, Mrs. Fletcher?" Dr. Symington asked Jessica.

††††† She looked at him and said, "Pardon?"

††††† "You said you saw something earlier this evening. I suggested it was an apparition. Was it?"

††††† Jessica didn't answer him. Instead her attention was drawn to Daisy, and following her gaze I saw that the girl was becoming increasingly upset by the subject of the conversation.

††††† "I think we're finished here, Daisy," I told her. "Forbes will take care of after-dinner drinks in the drawing room. You're excused."

††††† Daisy fairly bolted from the room. Wonderful, I thought to myself in despair. She'll probably quit now, too.

††††† At my suggestion we rose from the table and repaired to the drawing room, where the bar now held a selection of after-dinner liqueurs for sampling, once again served up by Forbes. From across the room I watched as Jessica, who had barely gotten a glass of seltzer for herself, was cornered by Dr. Symington. They exchanged a few words, and then Symington said something to her that made her gasp aloud, the colour draining from her face.

††††† I decided that I had seen quite enough. Putting down my own glass and excusing myself from the knot of conversation I was engaged with, I approached Symington with the intent of rescuing Jessica from his company. "Mind if I steal her away for a few minutes, Dr. Symington?" I asked him.

††††† Symington caught the dangerous look in my eyes. "Of course not," he said, inclining his head. "This is your castle, Mr. Sutherland. You do what you wish."

††††† "A little air?" I said quietly to Jessica. "You look pale."

††††† She looked at me gratefully. "I'd love a little air."

††††† Unnoticed by the others, I took Jessica's arm and led her out of the room, down the hallway and out into a small enclosed garden around the back of the castle, enclosed by stone walls on all four sides. The full moon had risen, its silver light obscured from time to time by the ragged clouds that continued to move on the wind. Even so, there was plenty of light to see by.

††††† "What a pretty courtyard," Jessica said as we stepped outdoors.

††††† "My favorite respite," I told her as I led her to a stone bench next to an ancient marble fountain, currently dry. "When I need to think about something, I usually come out here."

††††† "I can see why. It must be lovely in the daytime."

††††† "Yes, it is," I said. "Jess, what was this thing you saw before coming down for dinner?"

††††† "The lady in white." She said it casually, but I could tell that deep down she was shaken by the occurrence.

††††† "Oh." I didn't know what else to say.

††††† "I would have dismissed it as nothing more than the result of travel fatigue. I didn't even want to mention it," she sighed. "But then Dr. Symington asked whether I'd seen a woman in white, and I had. And you say there is such a woman."

††††† "Not that I can personally attest to," I told her. "Others claim to have seen her, but that doesn't mean she exists."

††††† "But Dr. Symington just told me he's seen her. And now I've seen her. That's got to be more than sheer coincidence, George."

††††† "Perhaps. But I don't believe in ghosts."

††††† "Nor do I," she said. "You're the chief inspector. How do you explain so many witnesses having seen her?"

††††† "I have no explanation for it, Jessica," I said, gazing up at the moon. "The power of suggestion perhaps - tell me not to think of purple elephants, and that's all I'll think of. I do know one thing."

††††† "Which is?"

††††† "That whoever - whatever this strange female creature in white is, she's becoming a bloody pyne in my neck."

††††† Jessica smiled. "I take it you mean 'pain.'"

††††† "Exactly. Ever since she started making her appearances, I keep losing staff," I complained. "Having the right people here is crucial, Jessica, because I'm so seldom here. I depend upon the staff to keep things running smoothly, satisfy the guests, maintain the property. But I've lost my best people recently and have had to settle."

††††† We sat in silence for a while, each of us lost in thought. I stole a glance at Jessica - the moonlight had turned her hair to silver-gold and her face to alabaster white, as if she had stepped out of a Shakespearian sonnet. The overall effect was absolutely beautiful.

††††† It was Jessica who eventually broke the silence. "George, has anyone who claims to have seen the woman in white reported her having spoken to them?"

††††† I frowned, thinking back. "No. Can't say that I have."

††††† "She spoke to me," she said quietly.

††††† This came as something of a shock to me. I turned on the bench and faced her directly. "She did? What did she say?"

††††† "I don't know - I mean, I don't remember," she faltered. "I didn't recognize the words, couldn't even begin to repeat them to you."

††††† "Words?" I asked. "More than one?"

††††† "Yes - it was a phrase, a sentence. Short, but definitely more than a single word."

††††† "Interesting," I said.

††††† She shrugged. "I was probably just hearing things," she said.

††††† "Yes. That's undoubtedly what happened." But I was no longer so sure.

††††† "We should get back to the others," Jessica said, standing up.

††††† I followed her example and rose to my feet. "I suppose so," I said reluctantly. "I trust you know that this brief conversation will not count toward our spending some time alone. I don't intend to squander those moments discussing nonsense like ghosts."

††††† "You're right," she said, looking up at me with a smile.

††††† "I thought perhaps we could steal off for a day while the others sightsee," I suggested. "I'll take you on a personal tour of Wick and its surroundings. We'll have lunch in my favorite pub, just the two of us. Time alone."

††††† "I'd like that," she said softly, once again avoiding my gaze. "Come. They'll be wondering where we've gone."

††††† When we re-entered the room Dr. Symington made a beeline for Jessica and tried once more to engage her in conversation about the woman in white, but she managed to deflect his questions and held him off by surrounding herself with her friends from Cabot Cove. The after-dinner gathering eventually broke up, and everyone headed for their rooms.

††††† I walked Jessica up to the head of the stairs. She was quiet, perhaps contemplating what she had seen and heard earlier that evening. "Everything all right, Jessica?" I asked.

††††† "Oh, yes, and will continue to be as long as I don't bump into the lady in white again."

††††† "Chances are slim that will happen," I reassured her. "People who've reported seeing her say it's a one time event."

††††† "I'm pleased to hear that," she said. "Well, good night, George. Thanks for a wonderful welcome to Sutherland Castle. See you at breakfast?"

††††† "Absolutely," I replied. "Go on, run along. I have some paperwork to do before getting to bed." I paused before turning away. "I'm happy you're here, Jessica," I said to her. "Very happy indeed."

†††††

††††† Breakfast afforded the Mainers' first glimpse of my stern and unsmiling cook, Mrs. Gower. She had prepared a wonderful breakfast for everyone, but served it as though we were privates in an army mess tent, setting the plates down with a thump and engaging in no unnecessary conversation whatsoever.

††††† "Wouldn't want to get on her bad side,' Seth Hazlitt muttered to me.

††††† I laughed. "Yes, Mrs. Gower does tend to fall on the dour side," I said.

††††† Jessica also laughed quietly. "A Scottish understatement," she said.

††††† "She's a good woman," I said. "A hard life: her husband was one of Wick's last herring fishermen. The Scandinavians came back in the sixties with their big, modern boats and scooped up all the herring. Set the town on hard times. Wick was once the herring capital of the world. Mr. Gower died at sea, like so many of the village's citizens over the years."

††††† "She cooks good," Mort Metzger observed.

††††† I sighed. "Which is why I put up with her lack of - what shall I say? - her lack of charm?"

††††† I had arranging for a bus to take those who were interested out for a tour of the countryside, driven by Forbes.Most of the Maine contingent eagerly signed on, but a few opted out, including the Shevlins, the Walters, and, somewhat to my surprise, Jessica. She spoke of no specific plans for the day to me, but I later learned from Mrs. Gower - who came to complain to me about Daisy Wemyss failing to show up for work - that she had set off on foot to explore the village.

††††† A couple of hours later she returned as I was busy pruning some of the overgrown bushes on the front lawn of the courtyard.

††††† "Pleasant walk?" I asked, setting aside the pruning shears.

††††† Her answer was unequivocal: "No."

††††† I noticed for the first time that she was visibly upset. "Sorry to hear that, Jessica," I said, taking her by the arm and steering her toward a bench. "Why?"

††††† She took a deep breath, looked at me, and said, "Daisy Wemyss was murdered, down in the village - in the same exact spot and in the same exact way as Evelyn Gowdie was. I had gone to have a look at the place - I saw the plaque the Historical Society had mounted directing toward it - and spotted her body, partially hidden under a cardboard box. I went to get help from a shopkeeper I'd just me, who turned out to be her uncle. He alerted the authorities - the constable is at the scene right now."

††††† I felt the blood drain from my face as I listened to her tale, and made no reply.

††††† "George," Jessica said, the troubled look in her eyes mirroring my own distress, "what's going on here?"

††††† "I don't know, Jessica," I replied grimly, "but it's obvious there's a madman out there."

††††† "The same one who killed Evelyn Gowdie twenty years ago?"

††††† I didn't answer her at first, but instead gazed off into the distance and recited an old passage that seemed particularly fitting at the moment: "'And from his wallet drew a human hand, shriveled and dry and black ... And fitting, as he spoke, a taper in his hold Ö pursued a murderer on this stake had died Ö'"

††††† "George." Jessica touched my arm, bringing me back to the present.

††††† "Southy," I explained, looking back at her again. "He wrote it in Thalabra. A popular belief, centuries ago, held that the hand of a man executed for murder, if prepared properly, could cast a perpetual spell over future generations."

††††† "You don't believe in such things, do you, George?" she asked.

††††† "I believe in good and evil, Jessica," I said. "Come. If spells can be cast over evil doers, I intend to try my best to cast one myself. This was not what I intended when inviting you and your friends to my family home."

††††† With a heavy heart, I went inside to find Mrs. Gower, Jessica trailing behind me. I found her in the kitchen, preparing lunch.

††††† "Mr. Sutherland," she exclaimed as we came in. "What can I do for ye?"

††††† "I come bearing some bad news, I'm afraid," I said. "Daisy Wemyss was murdered some time last night."

††††† She stood silent for a moment as she absorbed the news. Then she threw the dishtowel she was holding down on to the kitchen table with some force.

††††† "Crazy youngsters," she muttered darkly. "Always asking for trouble these days. I'll prepare some tea and scones for ye and your lady, Mr. Sutherland. If ye'll excuse me?"

††††† It was a clear dismissal, so I took Jessica by the arm and steered her back toward the door. "We'll be in the drawing room, whenever you have it ready," I said over my shoulder as we made our exit. Fortunately, Jessica had been so taken aback by Mrs. Gower's reaction to Daisy's death that she didn't even notice the reference to her being "my lady."

††††† Presently Mrs. Gower arrived with a small tea service and a platter of scones, leaving both with us and departing without a word.

††††† "I'm so sorry about this, Jessica," I said as I poured us each a cup, and handed one to her.

††††† "Please, George, don't be," she said as she accepted it. "It wasn't anything you could have prevented."

††††† I hesitated, then said, "I'm not certain that's true."

††††† She looked at me in surprise. "Why do you say that?"

††††† "It's hard to explain, Jessica," I said. "There's really nothing tangible to account for it, just a lot of Scottish lore involving my family, this castle, and Wick itself."

††††† "I'll do my best to understand," said Jessica.

††††† "Yes, I'm sure you will." I took a sip of the tea, waved off the plate of scones she offered me, and sighed. "Let me see, where to begin," I mused. "It started centuries ago, when this castle was built by my ancestors. They were a staunch, fearless people. 'Without fear' is our clan motto."

††††† "I saw that on the shield."

††††† "Ours is a proud clan, Jessica - a proud people. But from the beginning, the existence of this castle was viewed by some with skepticism, even outright hostility."

††††† "Why, for heaven's sake?" she asked.

††††† I shrugged. "Rumor," I said. "Superstition. Fear. Envy. Hatred."

††††† "Directed toward your family?"

††††† I nodded. "Yes."

††††† "Again, I ask, why?"

††††† "Because it has been believed since the day my family built this remarkable place that it's been occupied not only by members of the Sutherland clan, but by - well, by ghosts," I finished somewhat lamely.

††††† Jessica laughed a little. "Like the lady in white?" she asked.

††††† "Were it only about her, Jessica," I said. "No, over the centuries the people of Wick have blamed the castle and its occupants for almost every violent act occurring in the village." I drew a deep breath, a sense of deep remorse weighing heavy on my heart. "I should have told you all of this before inviting you and your friends."

††††† "Don't be silly," said Jessica firmly. "Some people in Wick might think there's some brand of witchcraft being practiced at Sutherland Castle, but I'm certainly not one of them. Nor are any of my friends."

††††† "Mrs. Richardson?" I asked her.
††††† "Alicia? I can understand why she's still upset," she said. "That incident at the Tower of London would leave anyone shaken."

††††† "Of course. But I can't help but wonder whether that incident wasn't preordained in some way. After all, the man who held her and her husband wanted to salvage the name of a distant relative accused of practicing witchcraft."

††††† "Sheer coincidence," she said, putting some cream on a scone and taking a bite.

††††† "Yes. But then we have Isabell Gowdie being murdered over three hundred years ago, put to death as a witch by a pitchfork in the chest, and a cross carved in her throat. Flash-forward to twenty years ago: Evelyn Gowdie is killed the same way. And now, twenty years later, Daisy Wemyss. Sheer coincidence?"

††††† "No, of course not," said Jessica - after all, the similarities between the deaths could not be denied. "But it has nothing to do with you or this castle."

††††† I said, "Intellect versus emotion, Jessica. Intellectually, you're right - there's no connection at all. But emotionally?" I paused, considering the matter yet again. "Well, it's hard to not wonder whether there's some sort of mystical link, no matter how vague or tangential."

††††† Jessica smiled. "I suggest you stick with your keenly honed intellect, George," she said. "You wear it well."

††††† I set my cup down. "You're right, of course, as usual. You mentioned earlier that Constable McKay seemed angry when he mentioned my name."

††††† She nodded. "Yes, I sensed that."

††††† "I'm not surprised."

††††† But Jessica was. "Why?" she asked.

††††† "He's a good man, Jessica," I said, "but he's between, as the saying goes, a rock and a hard place. Whenever something violent happens in Wick, he's buffeted between two forces - the reasonable citizens of the village, and another group that has carried forward this distrust of the Sutherland clan and Sutherland Castle. This latter group is very superstitious, steeped in old mythology and metaphor. In their eyes, every problem will be solved when and if I sell this castle."

††††† "How would that help anything?"
††††† "It wouldn't, at least not in the eyes of rational people," I said with a slight shrug. "But the others believe that the only way to break the curse this castle supposedly casts over Wick is for the last surviving member of my family, namely me, to shed any connection to this place and leave."

††††† Jessica took all of this in thoughtfully. "Are you considering that, George?"

††††† "Yes, although not for that reason," I admitted. "I've mentioned to you how difficult it is to hang on to this castle. It costs a bloody fortune, and finding the right help to keep it going as a hotel has become increasingly difficult."

††††† "So you said."

††††† "I should," I said, mostly to myself. "Sell it, that is. I visit here only a few weeks a year. London is my home and has been ever since I joined the Yard. But each time I come close to putting it on the market, there's a bond with my ancestors that keeps me from going through with it."

††††† "I can certainly understand that," Jessica said with a smile. "Is there a market for such a place?"

††††† I returned her smile, which was like a ray of sunshine in an otherwise dark and gloomy day. "It's hardly a place a family for four would want to buy as a home," I chuckled. "But its value as a hotel is considerable. There have been two investor groups that have made offers over the past few years - sizable offers, Jessica. They see this terribly depressed area of Scotland as having tourist potential far beyond what it enjoys today."

††††† "But you've resisted all offers."

††††† "Yes," I said. I looked at her. "Foolish?"

††††† "I don't know," she said honestly. "It' such a personal decision to make - pragmatism versus the heart."

††††† "Well put." I sighed and said, "I suppose I should go down to the village and pay my respects to Daisy's family. I know her father - he's a decent sort."

††††† "It was Daisy's uncle that I met in the shop on Bridge Street."

††††† "I know him, too," I said, nodding. "It's a small place, although that doesn't necessarily translate into everyone knowing everyone else. We Scots tend to stay to ourselves, especially in the smaller towns and villages."

††††† "George, before you do, can you conceive of anyone in Wick who would have so brutally murdered Daisy Wemyss?" Jessica asked.

††††† "No. But after all my years with the Yard, I've come to learn that there are people - too many people - capable of such horrific acts."

††††† We were interrupted when Malcolm entered the room. "There's someone to see you, sir," he said awkwardly.

††††† "Who?" I asked.

††††† "Constable McKay."

††††† I looked at Jessica, and drew a deep breath. This was not a conversation I was looking forward to having.

††††† Jessica rose from her chair. "I'll be in my room," she said.

††††† "No," I said, placing my hand on her arm. "Stay with me, Jessica."

††††† She nodded, and accompanied me to the sitting room adjoining my office, where Malcolm had shown the constable.

††††† "Horace," I said, shaking McKay's hand. "You've met Mrs. Fletcher."

††††† "Aye. And under unpleasant circumstances I'm afraid."

††††† "Extremely unpleasant," I said. "Please sit down. Tea? Whiskey?"

††††† "Whiskey. Two fingers."

††††† I rang for Malcolm, who delivered the whiskey to Constable McKay.

††††† "Well, Horace, this news about Daisy Wemyss has provided quite a shock," I said. "How is her father?"

††††† He downed the whiskey in one go. "Unhappy." Another Scottish understatement, to be sure.

††††† "Any leads?"

††††† "No," he said. His glance turned to Jessica, and he frowned. "George, might we have a word alone?"

††††† "Why?" I asked.

††††† "To discuss some of the other ramifications of this dastardly event."

††††† "Mrs. Fletcher is aware of those other 'ramifications,' Horace," I told him. "There's no need for her to leave."

††††† "As you wish," he said grudgingly. "People are beginning to hear about Daisy Wemyss, George. Some of them are threatening to take action."

††††† "What sort of action?" Jessica asked.

††††† McKay gave her a hard, scolding look, but Jessica did not back down. Instead she met his gaze steadily.

††††† "What sort of action?" she asked him again.

††††† "What they've threatened before," was McKay's answer.

††††† Now Jessica's gaze turned to me.

††††† "They've threatened to come up here and destroy the castle," I told her gravely.

††††† "That's terrible," she said. "But as long as they only threaten -"

††††† "Could be they'll go further this time, miss. They're in the black mood. Daisy was a good girl, liked by everyone. Might be different if she was killed by some angry young fella who hit here, maybe even shot her. But this is the Devil speaking, George, Satan himself. Pitchfork to the chest, bloody cross carved in her young neck. Like Evelyn Gowdie before her. And the witch, Isabell."

††††† "Excuse me," Jessica said in a reasonable tone, "but you are the constable."

††††† McKay looked quizzically at her.

††††† "Surely, as Wick's top law enforcement official, you don't buy into this notion of witchcraft and Satan."

††††† McKay said nothing; I had a sudden sinking feeling in my chest.

††††† Jessica would not allow him to abstain from making a stand. "Do you?" she asked.

††††† "I can't ignore half the citizens, miss," he said finally.

††††† "Half?" she exclaimed in dismay. "Half feel this way?"

††††† "There's a core that do," he said. "And they're very influential. Very influential indeed. They don't want trouble in Wick. There's been enough trouble and hard times to last everybody's lifetime."

††††† Not about to let McKay off the hook, Jessica said, "But you're paid to uphold the law, to keep people like this from reacting with violence."

††††† He smiled grimly, perhaps because of the awkward situation he found himself in yet again; perhaps because it stung him that Jessica had had to remind him of his duty. "Easier said than done, miss," he said. "Easier said than done."

††††† "What are you suggesting, Horace?" I asked.

††††† "Same thing I've suggested before, George," he said. "Sell this castle. Give it up. If you do, everything will settle down and Wick can grow. This sort of publicity, pretty young girl killed in a Devil-worship fashion, can't do the town no good. No good at all. Unless you do - I canít promise your safety, or anybody else's safety up here."

††††† McKay stood and went to the door. "No need to show me out, George. But you think about what I just said. Just announcing to the people that you plan to sell Sutherland Castle will do wonders for this town's spirits. Do wonders." He tipped his cap to Jessica. "Good-bye, miss," he said, and left.

 

††††† Those who had gone out on the tour with Forbes arrived back at the castle around four, happily reliving the sights they had seen, and the lunch they'd enjoyed at an inn on the outskirts of Wick.Jessica came downstairs to greet them, having spent the intervening time up in her room reading.

††††† Mrs. Gower provided a spread of salmon, caviar, and pate to go with cocktails poured by Forbes. Once everyone was gathered in the drawing room, I stood in front of the fireplace, Jessica joining me at my side.

††††† "May I have your attention, please? I'm afraid I have some rather bad news to report," I said when I had it. "Daisy Wemyss, the young lady who worked here and served dinner last night, has been murdered."

††††† My announcement generated the expected blizzard of questions, most having to do with who found her and where.

††††† "Jessica discovered the body this morning while walking in Wick," I said, holding up my hands. "A tragedy, to be sure."

††††† Now all the questions were directed at Jessica specifically. "Please," she said, not wanting to reveal any more detail than she had to, "I really don't know any more than George has told you."

††††† Still they pressed her, especially Mort, his law enforcement training coming to the fore.

††††† "She was killed in the same fashion as the witch George wrote about in his letter to me, Isabell Gowdie," Jessica said at last, though not without reluctance. "Someone rammed a pitchfork into her chest, and cut a cross on her neck."

††††† Alicia Richardson paled at the news and sat down unsteadily on a nearby chair. Her husband stood over her, a comforting hand on her shoulder.

††††† "Obviously, the local authorities are investigating," I said. "As dampening as this might be, we mustn't let it ruin your short stay at Sutherland Castle. I'll do everything I can to isolate you from this unpleasant and unfortunate situation. There's no reason for it to directly impact upon your vacation."

††††† "Easy for you to say," Seth said. "Wick is a small village. Could have been anyone killed the poor girl - includin' somebody workin' right here for you, Inspector Sutherland."

††††† "I rather doubt that," I said. "The citizens of Wick are good and decent people, hard-working and honorable. This is the perverted work of a madman, a single individual. Don't judge all of Wick by this incident."

††††† "Hard not to," Jim Shevlin said grimly. "What kind of town is this? Women branded as witches, pitchforks in their chests, crosses carved in their throats. How many now? Three?" Shevlin addressed the rest of the Mainers: "What do all of you think? I don't know, folks, but there's something in the air here, something sinister. I say we pack up and leave. What do you think, Mort?" he asked the sheriff. "And you, Seth?"

††††† I discreetly stepped back from the others and out of the debate, determined to let them make up their minds for themselves. As much as I hated the thought of them leaving en masse because of the murder, I did not want to exert any influence on them one way or the other.I exchanged a glance with Jessica, whose expression was one of sympathy. She obviously appreciated the situation I was in, and I felt a wave of gratitude toward her for understanding.

††††† Seth said, "Well, I think you're rushin' to judgment, Jim. I agree that this is plenty upsetting. But just because this Miss Daisy Wemyss has been killed by a nut doesn't mean we should be packin' our bags and scrurryin' out of here."

††††† Mort cleared his throat before adding, "I think what Seth said makes sense, something I don't always say. But I do think that since this murder has happened right under our noses, we should keep our guard up."

††††† "If we need to keep our guard up," Ken Sassi said, "we shouldn't be here."

††††† Now all eyes turned to Jessica. "What about you, Jess?" Seth asked her. "You're the one who suffered the shock of discovering the body. How do you feel about staying?"

††††† As the unofficial leader of the group, whatever Jessica said would be taken seriously by the others. If she opted to stay, likely the rest would stay as well. But if she chose to go, they would follow her. She glanced at me before replying, seeking guidance as to my thoughts on the matter; I gave her a slight shrug in return, indicating that she should do what she thought was best without regard for my feelings.

††††† She took a breath and said carefully, "We're all shocked and upset at what has happened to Daisy. That's only natural and right. But to turn tail and run away from this beautiful place would be, in my judgment, an overreaction. We've had murders in Cabot Cove. That didn't cause us to run away from there."

††††† "Because that's our home," Jed Richardson said from where he still hovered over Alicia.

††††† "And this is our home for the next week," she countered. "I can't decide for you whether to leave or not. That's up to each individual in this room. I'm sure George will be happy to arrange flights and transportation to the nearest airport for anyone who wants that. But I intend to stay. That's my decision."

††††† No one said anything. Finally, Seth spoke up. "I agree with Jessica," he said. "I'm stayin' too."

††††† "I suggest we all try to put the murder out of our minds and get on with our vacation," Ken said. "I didn't bring all my fishing gear for nothing. Right, Jess? You and I have a date on a river."

††††† She smiled. "We certainly do, Ken."

††††† "Will anyone be leaving?" I asked them. "If so, I'll start making travel arrangements straight away."

††††† "I'm sure you all agree that Alicia and I had a pretty big scare back in London," Jed Richardson said. "I'm over it, but I think Alicia here might not be." He looked down at his wife. "If you want to leave, honey, I'm with you."

††††† She glanced up at him, smiled weakly, and said, "No, Jed, I'd like to stay." Then she looked at the rest of the group she said, "We'll have a good time, won't we?"

††††† "We sure will," Susan Shevlin said. "That's what we're here for."

††††† "Let's eat," said Mort, signaling that the topic was closed.

††††† "Where's Pete and Roberta?" Seth asked.

††††† "In their room, I believe," I said. "They slept in this morning, and pretty much stayed there all day."

††††† "They're missing the food," Mort said. "I'll go rouse them."

††††† "That reminds me," Jessica said to me - "where are the Symingtons and the Petermans?"

††††† "The doctor told me this morning that he was spending the day at the Wick Historical Society," I told her.

††††† "Oh?"

††††† "'Research into something,' he said. The Petermans disappeared all day, and showed up a few minutes before your group came back from their tour. They and the Symingtons have paired up for dinner in town."

††††† "Strange combination," she said.

††††† "My thought exactly," I agreed. Changing the subject, I said earnestly, "Jessica, thank you for rallying your friends to stay. I would have hated to see them go. More importantly, I would have hated to see you go."

 

††††† There were two hours before dinner, and everyone drifted to their bedrooms. Jessica joined me in my office, where I offered her a glass of single-malt scotch, Old Pulteney, distilled and bottled in Wick. She declined, so I poured myself a glass instead.

††††† "A pleasant brew," I said as I did so. "After the events of the day, I rather think I'm entitled to it."

††††† "You're entitled to it no matter what the events of the day have been."

††††† "Thank you for that vote of encouragement, Jessica." I tasted the scotch, which was first rate as always, and said, "Well, dear lady, what do you think now that you've had a day to ponder Daisy's murder?"

††††† Jessica gave me a shrewd look. "What makes you think I've been pondering it?" she asked.

††††† I returned it with a knowing look of my own. "Haven't you?"

††††† She broke out into a smile. "Of course I have. I'm being facetious," she said. "I think that even though reason should prevail, there is something terribly strange going on in Wick. I mentioned that we've had murders in Cabot Cove. Not many, but a few. The difference is - and I decided not to make the point with the others - the difference is that those murders didn't involve witchcraft, or allegations of it. No pitchforks in the chest. No crosses carved on throats. Just plain old run-of-the-mill murders. Jealousy. Green. Ambition. A shot from a gun. The thrust of a kitchen knife. Poison in the tea."

††††† "Or in the scotch?" I asked, taking another sip.

††††† "Or in the scotch," she said. "The point is, there's never been anything mystical about murders in Cabot Cove. But this is so different, George. And as much as I dismiss as folly and overactive imaginations the notion of ghosts and witches, I must admit I've felt a certain chill up my spine since arriving at Sutherland Castle."

††††† "The lady in white."

††††† "Yes," she said quietly. "And now this. George, can I ask you a direct question, one that might put you on the spot?"

††††† "You know you can."

††††† She fixed me with a piercing gaze and asked, "Do you personally feel we're in any danger by staying here?"

††††† I looked at her for what seemed a very long time, finished my scotch, and set the empty glass aside. "Jessica," I said at last, having sufficiently weighed the risks in my mind, "if I thought you or any of your friends were in danger, I'd have you on a bus for Inverness within the hour, and I'd sell this castle to the first person with a check."

††††† Jessica didn't respond. Instead she continued to stare at me, as if trying to bore a hole into my soul with her eyes. Finally I asked, "Believe me?"

††††† She immediately softened. "Of course I believe you, George. Thank you for being direct with me."

††††† "I intend to be direct at all times, Jessica," I declared. "For instance, I will not allow this week to pass without us having our day together - alone!"

††††† "And let me be direct by saying that you can count on it," she replied. "By the way, did you ever contact the gillie about a day on the trout stream for Ken and me?"

††††† "As a matter of fact, I did," I told her. "Rufus Innes is a fishing legend in these parts. Old, craggy, crusty and irascible. But the best guide in Scotland. He'll take you out day after tomorrow, if that fits your schedule."

††††† "I'm sure it does, but I'll check with Ken." She stretched. "Time for me to get ready for dinner. Thank you, George, for being so reassuring. Just having you around will give everyone a sense of safety and -"

††††† The sound of a woman's shrill scream startled both of us. I was instantly on my feet and out the door, Jessica close behind.

††††† We ran up the main staircase to find Charlene Sassi standing on the second floor landing, her fist rammed into her mouth, her eyes wide with fright.

††††† "Mrs. Sassi, what's happened?" I asked urgently.

††††† "I saw her," Charlene managed to say.

††††† "Saw who?" Jessica asked.

††††† "That woman. The one dressed all in white. And -"

††††† "And what?" I asked her.

††††† "There was blood on her chest," Charlene gasped. "God, it was awful Ö" And she abruptly fell into a faint right in front of us.

††††† Jessica and I helped her to her feet and brought her into her room, where she sat her in a chair by the window. I handed her a glass of water, which she accepted gratefully.

††††† "Feeling better?" Jessica asked, and Charlene nodded.

††††† "Would you like me to call a doctor?" I asked.

††††† "No," she said with a firm shake of her head. "I'm all right. Sorry I passed out like that."

††††† "You were shaken," said Jessica.††††††††

††††† We left Charlene in her room and returned to the hallway, where by now the others had gathered, responding as we had to Charlene's scream. There were many questions, which we tried to diffuse as best we could. Eventually the group dispersed once again to get read for dinner.

††††† As it turned out, Dr. Symington and his wife joined the rest of us for dinner, surprising since they were supposed to be dining out with the Petermans. Helen Symington's explanation for the change in plans, when asked, was, "A most unpleasant sort. We prefer your company this evening."

††††† The tension level among the Mainers diminished as dinner progressed. They avoided the topic of Daisy Wemyss's brutal murder, but the lady in white's second appearance did come up over dessert. Seizing his opportunity, Dr. Symington broke his characteristic silence and began to hold forth on the topic of ghosts, delivering an impromptu lecture on the subject.

††††† "This alleged lady in white," he said, "and the reported sightings of her, clearing indicates an apparition of the first magnitude. The term apparition comes from three sources - the Middle English word apparicioun, the Old French term apparition, and the Late Latin apparitio."

††††† "That may be true," Seth Hazlitt said. "But no matter what you care to term it, Doctor, two real live women have seen this apparition."

††††† "They think they've seen her," Symington corrected him. "We each have an inborn level of suggestibility. It is my assumption - no, allow me to be more specific - my close observation of the two women in question, Mrs. Fletcher and Mrs. Sassi, convinces me that they possess a heightened sense of suggestibility, perhaps a four on a scale of one to five."

††††† "Excuse me for disagreeing with you," Mort said, "but you donít know what you're talking about. Mrs. Fletcher isn't suggestible at all. She's a cool and collected woman who doesn't see things that aren't there, especially dead women dressed in white."

††††† Dr. Symington listened patiently, his chin cradled in his clasped hands, then replied, "Perhaps you are right, Sheriff. No doubt in your official capacity you are a student of human behavior, particularly aberrant behavior, and you've questioned many witnesses, I assume, who report to you what they claim to have seen at the scene of a crime."

††††† "Of course. What are you getting at?"

††††† "What I'm getting at, Sheriff, is that many of those witnesses you've questioned have told you things they claim to have seen, yet really didn't."

††††† "I don't know about that," Mort said.

††††† "Sure you do," Peter Walters said in his deep, sonorous voice. "You're always complaining, Mort, about how witnesses can't be trusted to remember things accurately, even if they saw the event an hour ago."

††††† The debate went on for another half hour. Jessica didn't participate, content to take in the views of others at the table, nor did I.

††††† We'd no sooner retired to the drawing room for after-dinner drinks when Brock Peterman suddenly arrived, looking agitated. "Inspector Sutherland, I'd like to talk with you privately."

††††† I had been in the middle of a conversation with Jessica and Ken Sassi about their upcoming fishing expedition, and scowled at the film producer in annoyance at his rude interruption.

††††† "Sorry to interrupt," Peterman said by way of a belated apology, "but you'll love this. Trust me - you - will - love - this!"

††††† I groaned inwardly, and left the drawing room with Peterman to hear him out.

††††† "All right, Mr. Peterman," I said wearily when we were in the privacy of my office, "what is it exactly that I am going to love?"

††††† "My plan to turn this two-bit hotel into an international destination," he responded, nervously pacing. "While Tammy and I were in town, we ran into a guy who says he's got all the answers about the murders - not just the girl's, but Evelyn Gowdie's murder from two decades ago, and - get this - even Isabell's murder three hundred years before that."

††††† "Is that so," I said neutrally.

††††† "Even better, he has the inside scoop on Wick's present-day witches. He told me he could even arrange for me to meet with them, and film them in action."

††††† "He offered to do all this for you out of the goodness of his heart?" I asked skeptically.

††††† Peterman paused for a moment in his pacing. "Well, no, not exactly," he said. "He did mention something about a finder's fee, to compensate him for his trouble. But I'm sure it won't be that much money."

††††† The man hadn't even had the brains to find out how much money his "informant" wanted in exchange for the information. I found myself shaking my head in disbelief.

††††† "What?" Peterman asked irritably.

††††† "Nothing," I said. "So, what is it that you want from me?"

††††† "I need to get a camera crew here, to do the filming," Peterman said. "The closest one is in Edinburgh. Their rates are pretty reasonable, especially when you consider that you'll be providing the room and board Ö"

††††† "Wait a moment," I said, cutting him off. "I'll be providing the room and board?"

††††† "Right," he said.

††††† "And the crew's 'reasonable rates' - who is paying that?"

††††† Peterman looked at me as if I were witless. "You, naturally."

††††† "Me, naturally? Why on earth why I consent to do that?"

††††† "For the exposure, of course! This isn't about using your castle as the setting for a horror flick anymore - now we're talking about documentary material! Think of what a marketing coup that's gonna be for this place!"

††††† I resisted the urge to rub my temples and close my eyes. "First of all," I said, "I am not interested in your brand of marketing. Second of all, there are not enough available rooms in the castle to put up a camera crew, even if I were inclined to host them here."

††††† "That's no big deal," he said with a shrug. "Double-bunk some of the Mainiacs. They won't mind."

††††† "And finally," I continued, as if I hadn't heard his completely inappropriate suggestion, "I have already told you on multiple occasions that I will not pay you to make a movie in this place - I am not interested in paying you to film a documentary either."

††††† The director's face darkened with anger. "Thatís your finally decision, huh?"

††††† "That is correct."

††††† Peterman peered at me with narrowed eyes. "You're making a huge mistake," he said angrily. "You know what I might do, since you won't play ball? I might just walk out of here tomorrow and film this documentary anyway - and if I do, you can bet that I won't make any effort to show this castle of yours in a good light. I'll trash you and Sutherland Castle! How d'you like the sound of that?"

††††† "I don't think it sounds very intimidating, considering the fact that I highly doubt the film will ever be made, let alone find wide distribution in the media," I said. "Sorry to disappoint. And now, I think we should be getting back to the others, don't you?"

††††† The discussion clearly over, I accompanied Peterman back to the drawing room.

††††† "Where's Tammy?" he asked as soon as he entered.

††††† "She went to your room," someone replied, and he left immediately to go upstairs in search of her. I looked around for Jessica, and found her once again trapped in conversation with the irritating Dr. Symington, who withdrew as I approached her. There was something I wished to talk to her about this evening, and nothing, not even Brock Peterman's obnoxious proposal, was going to interfere with my goal.

††††† "Got a moment?" I asked her quietly.

††††† "For you?" she said. "Always."

††††† "In the mood for some fresh air?"

††††† She nodded. "Sounds inviting."

††††† We went outside to the castle's front courtyard. A dense fog had moved in from the sea, so thick that even the view into the drawing room was quickly obscured. Jessica looked back at the warm, misty light spilling through the windows, and sighed with relief that her friends were not allowing the murder to weight too heavily on their hearts.

††††† "Come," I said, taking her hand and leading her across the grass and through the castle grounds' main entrance. We crossed the road and stepped into a tiny park, where a bench was set next to the foot of a small bridge crossing a narrow running stream.

††††† "A pretty spot," she said as we sat down together. "I wish I could see more of it."

††††† "Tomorrow," I promised her, "when the fog lifts."

††††† "What did Mr. Peterman want?" she asked.

††††† "He wants me to pay for a camera crew to come here from Edinburgh, and put them up for a few days."

††††† "Why?" she asked forthrightly.

††††† "He claims to have met someone in town who claims to be -" I laughed, in spite of myself - "who claims to have all the answers to the murder of Isabell and Evelyn Gowdie, and poor Daisy."

††††† "Do you think -?" Jessica began.

††††† "No, I do not," I assured her. "This chap also told Peterman, at least according to him, that he knows the witches of Wick, and can arrange for Peterman to meet with them for filming purposes - for a price, of course."

††††† "Of course. Will you pay for a camera crew?"

††††† "No," I said. "Peterman is a volatile chap. Very angry that I declined to help him financially. Threatened to leave and use his next film to - how did he put it? - to 'trash' Sutherland Castle. On the telly."

††††† Jessica was just as incensed as I had been. "How dare he?"

††††† "My sentiments exactly. I wish he and his wife would simply leave."

††††† "Any chance of that?"

††††† "We'll see," I sighed. I looked at her in concern. "Are you all right?"

††††† "Yes," she answered. "Why do you ask?"

††††† "All these abominable things happening since you arrived," I said, shaking my head with regret. "Certainly, not what I intended your holiday to be."

††††† "Someone once said, 'Life is what happens while you're making other plans,'" she said lightly. "I subscribe to that philosophy."

††††† "The songwriter John Lennon."

††††† Jessica started in surprise. "Is that who said it?"

††††† "I believe so," I said, smiling. I paused. Go on, then, I told myself. It's now or never. Make a clean breast of it, and tell her how you feel. "How firmly do you believe in the sentiment behind those words, Jessica?" I asked, imbuing my tone with a note of seriousness.

††††† She averted her eyes, and didn't answer at first, as if she had perceived the full implications of my question. Finally: "I don't know."

††††† "I realize - you've expressed it quite clearly to me - that your plans do not include another man in your life."

††††† "I wouldn't say that, George," Jessica protested. "There are many men in my life."

††††† "I don't mean men you simply know - friends," I said. "I mean a man who might fill the same role your deceased husband, Frank, did so ably."

††††† Taken aback, all Jessica could say was, "Oh."

††††† "I won't beat around the proverbial bush, Jessica. You know I be keen o you."

††††† She smiled at the Scottish colloquialism. "I know," she said. "And I'm fond of you, too, but in a different way than when Frank was alive."

††††† "It's been a long time since you and Frank enjoyed life together," I observed.

††††† "A very long time."

††††† "People shouldn't be alone for too long," I told her. "It's not good for them."

††††† "I probably agree with you," she said thoughtfully. "But, in my case, I donít need to be as close to a man as I was to Frank in order to feel I'm not alone. It's hard to explain, George. I have a wonderful life. I've been blessed. I had many years with a wonderful man, who unfortunately died much too soon. I've been blessed as a writer. I never dreamed when I started that my books would be best-sellers, and that I'd travel the globe to talk about them. I live in what I consider a heaven of sorts, Cabot Cove. I love it there, love the people, some of whom are with me on this trip. It's a close-knit community, each person caring about the other Ö with a few notable exceptions," she added wryly. She paused and looked up at me, suddenly a little self-conscious. "Am I rambling?"

††††† "No," I told her. "Please go on. I have a feeling I'm about to hear the most elaborate explanation since meeting you of why my intentions are not to be realized."

††††† "I wish you wouldn't put it that way," Jessica said in dismay. "It makes me sad."

††††† "Oh, no, no sadness, Jessica Fletcher, and I apologize for making you feel that way," I said. "I'm not a bloody schoolboy. I expect nothing from people except what they wish to give me."

††††† "And I'm not a bloody schoolgirl," she said.

††††† "Two graduates of life. You were saying?"

††††† "I was saying that my life is idyllic. Full and fulfilling. I suppose if I were totally honest, I'd admit I am -" There was a catch in her voice, and she paused.

††††† "Yes?" I prompted.

††††† After a long moment she said, very quietly, "I am afraid to change my life, George. It has nothing to do with any lack of feeling I have for you. To be truthful, I felt a spark the moment we met at Brown's Hotel in London." She looked up at me then, her eyes sparkling at the memory. "Remember?"

††††† I smiled at her and said, "The spark singed me too, Jessica."

††††† "You questioned me regarding Marjorie Ainsworth's murder. I recall exactly what you wore that day. And I especially remember our parting on the sidewalk after tea, and watching you stride away."

††††† "Hmmm." I recalled the first time we met in vivid detail, and especially remembered the first time I was careless enough to look directly into her bright blue eyes, after which I was lost beyond hope."Any other fond memories of our first meeting?" I asked.

††††† "Just that as I went back to the Savoy, I kept thinking about you," she said, but then added, "Of course, those pleasant thoughts were mixed with concern about some of the questions you'd asked me. I was a suspect, and I knew it."

††††† "Only because you were there when Ms. Ainsworth was killed. Everyone was a suspect then."

††††† "As it should be." She wrapped her arms around herself and shivered. "George, would you mind if we went back inside? I'm cold."

††††† "Of course," I said. But I didn't get up from the bench immediately - instead I blurted out one final question: "Aren't you ever lonely, Jessica?"

††††† "Honestly?"

††††† "Nothing but."

††††† "No," she said. "My problem is finding the time to do everything on my agenda. I'm always working on a book. There are so many things in the house to tend to. I have my garden. And I've become obsessed with the labeling machine someone gave me last Christmas. I'm labeling everything in the house. My friends joke that they're afraid I'll label them when they walk through the front door." She sighed and smiled. "No, George, I'm not at all lonely."

††††† I groaned inwardly - it was apparent that my love for her would go forever unrequited.But her answer did not weaken my resolve to make a full confession of my feelings; there might never be more perfect opportunity than this. "I'm pleased to hear that, Jess," I said. "May I make an important announcement before we go inside?"

††††† "Of course."

††††† "You might not find it so important, but it's something I've had a need to say to you for quite awhile."

††††† "Yes?" she asked, waiting.

††††† It all came down to this. I took a deep breath, turned to face her fully, and looked deep into her eyes. "I am in love with you!"

††††† Jessica caught her breath in shock. "But -" she began.

††††† I stopped her protest with a gentle hand to her cheek. "And as ae door shuts anither opens."

††††† "Translation?"

††††† "We are never left entirely without hope." I took her hand in mine, and helped her rise. "Come. We can discuss it at another time."

 

††††† I rose early and headed down to the kitchen, on the expectation that without Daisy, Mrs. Gower would need a hand preparing breakfast. To my surprise I found a young woman I did not know already there, in the process of being shown around the kitchen by my dour cook.

††††† "Ah, Mr. Sutherland," Mrs. Gower said when she spotted me in the doorway. "This is Miss Fiona MacBride." Her frown grew a little deeper. "She's a friend a' Malcolm's," she finished.

††††† The young woman strode across the kitchen, a sunny smile upon her face. "Pleased to meet you, sir," she said as she shook my hand.

††††† Her personality matched her smile, as open and cheerful as Mrs. Gower's was stony and stern. I liked her immediately. "Pleased to meet you, too, Fiona," I said.

††††† "Malcolm's told me so much about you," she said. "An' he told me that you might be needing some help, what with poor Daisy being gone and all."

††††† "Well," I said, "we could certainly put an extra pair of hands to good use. I take it that Mrs. Gower has already asked you if you have all the necessary skills?"

††††† "Aye, that she has," Fiona said.

††††† I glanced past her to Mrs. Gower, who nodded in assent.

††††† "Well, then," I said, taking an apron off its peg and tossing it to her, "welcome aboard."

††††† Fiona slid into her new role as a member of the castle staff without a hitch, and was very well received by the guests when they met her for the first time at breakfast. I glanced around the table and was relieved to note that all of the Mainers seemed to be in remarkably good spirits despite the unsettling events of the day before, even Alicia Richardson and Charlene Sassi. Jessica was as buoyant as ever; nothing, not even discovering poor Daisy's murdered body, seemed to sink her spirits.

††††† "Where to today?" Seth asked Jessica as Fiona refilled empty coffee cups.

††††† "I haven't decided," Jessica replied. "Any suggestions?"

††††† "Thought I might stroll the village," said Seth. "Looks like a fat day comin' up. Sun should shine."

††††† "Mind if I tag along?"

††††† Seth nodded. "It'd be my pleasure."

††††† Jessica turned to Mort, who was without his spouse this morning, and asked, "Are you and Adele interested in some serious walking?"

††††† "I'm up for that," Mort replied, "but not Adele. She's sleeping in this morning."

††††† "We'll go with you," Roberta Walters said.

††††† "Us, too," said Susan.

††††† That settled, the group left the breakfast table to get ready, and reconvened a little while later in the front courtyard.

††††† "Have fun!" I called down to them from an open window. "Don't tyne the road."

††††† "What's that?" Mort shouted up at me.

††††† "Don't lose your way," I translated back.

††††† "Canít hardly do that," Mort replied. "You can see the castle from everywhere."

††††† Once they had gone, I settled in to do some work. I checked in on Fiona a couple of times to see how she was getting on, and was pleased to see that she was doing just fine, and taking Mrs. Gower's sullen attitude in stride.

††††† I was surprised when a few hours later a car pulled into the courtyard, and Jessica got out, bringing with her a bedraggled-looking Seth Hazlitt. I met them in the foyer.

††††† "Guid laird," I exclaimed. Seth was soaked to the skin, water dripping from his clothes to pool on the flagstones. "What happened?"

††††† "He, ah, had an accident down at the harbor," Jessica explained, "and went for an unexpected swim."

††††† The look she gave me said 'later,' so I didn't pursue the matter just then. "Let me help you to your room," I said to the doctor.

††††† "No, thank you, I can manage just fine," said Seth.

††††† "Well, I'm going with you at least," Jessica declared, and Seth had the good sense not to argue with her.

††††† At the foot of the stairs she paused. "I just remembered - I left my bagpipes at that shop, and he'll be closing up soon."

††††† I gaped at her in surprise. "Your bagpipes?"

††††† "Um, yes," she said, blushing slightly and shooting me another look that said 'later.'

††††† "Don't worry, Jess," I told her, thinking that it must have been a very eventful stroll into town indeed. "I'll send Forbes down to pick them up for you."

††††† "Thanks," she said gratefully, and went to help Seth up to his room and into a hot bath and a change of clothes.

 

††††† A little while later Jessica and I sat in the comfort of my office, the set of bagpipes sitting on the floor next to her in a canvas bag. She had given me a summary of what had transpired between her and Seth and Evan Lochbuie at the docks, but I simply could not get over my astonishment at her earlier purchase.Jessica was usually a very logical person who made rational, well-thought out decisions, yet here she had gone and done something completely on impulse.I rather liked the idea that she was capable of such rash spontaneity.

††††† "I can't believe you did it, Jess," I said, looking at the pipes and shaking my head.

††††† "Why? It seemed a natural thing to do."

††††† "Do you realize the difficulties you'll face?"

††††† She looked at me, doubt creeping into her expression for the first time. "Is it that hard?" she asked.

††††† "So I'm told," I said with a shrug. "I can't speak from personal experience, but I've known many pipers in my time. They all testify to the difficulty in learning to play the bagpipes." I laughed, then asked, "Will you be giving a concert after dinner?"

††††† Jessica smiled and held up her hands. "Heavens, no. I'm not even sure I want to try and play them in the privacy of my room. The castle's walls may be thick, but -"

††††† "I think you should play them to your heart's content," I said warmly. "Now, tell me again about this unfortunate incident with Evan Lochbuie and Dr. Hazlitt."

††††† "I didnít realize you knew Mr. Lochbuie, George," she said.

††††† "Everyone knows old Evan," I sighed. "He's sort of the town character."

††††† "A fair assessment," she agreed, thinking back. "He's a little scary, too."

††††† "How so?"

††††† "When he started uttering his so-called curse at us, I found myself frightened," Jessica admitted. "I didn't let on for Seth's sake, but it was there."

††††† "A curse? Turn you to stone, will he? Old Evan really has gone off the deep end."

††††† "Seems like it," she sighed. "I think I'll go up and check on Seth. I hope he doesn't catch cold - he shivered and shook all the way back to the castle. Lovely man drove us. After spending time with Mr. Lochbuie, I was beginning to wonder whether everyone in Wick was - well, was a little daft."

††††† "I admit that same thought has crossed my mind on occasion, Jessica, especially when they're railing against the castle and the 'spell' it's supposed to have cast over Wick." I stood and extended my hands to her, which she took. There was an awkward moment as we stood facing each other, looking into each other's eyes. I glanced away first. "Go check on your wet, cold friend," I told her. "Practice these bagpipes until you're ready for your debut at Royal Albert Hall. I have some annoying paperwork to catch up on. See you at dinner?"

††††† "Yes," she said. "Thanks for sending Forbes to get this."

††††† I picked up the bagpipes and handed them to her. "Heavy," I commented.

††††† "And unwieldy," she said as she hefted them. "See you later, George."

 

††††† Once she had gone, I intended to settle in to my work, but instead I drifted over to the window and gazed outside.Over the course of the afternoon the weather had taken a turn for the worse: it was overcast, and the rising of the wind warned that a storm was on its way.

††††† I continued to absently stare at the approaching storm, but my thoughts were on Jessica and her spur-of-the-moment acquisition. I couldn't help but think that perhaps this cast our conversation from the night before into a more hopeful light. In refusing my declaration of love Jessica had offered arguments that were entirely sound, sensible and, it had seemed to me at the time, unshakable. But now that I had been granted a glimpse of her more impulsive side, I found myself wondering: how deep did this reckless streak run in her?

††††† A blot of lightning sliced down from the sky, followed by the loud rumble of thunder. The electricity went out with no more warning than that, and I was left standing in the darkness. Well, so much for the paperwork.

††††† Released by circumstances from my more tedious obligations, I continued to stand at the window, watching the storm. Rain was spattering at the windowpanes now, falling harder until the wind had it coming at me in horizontal sheets, obscuring my view.

††††† My thoughts continued to dwell on Jessica.Her impetuous purchase of a set of bagpipes did not necessarily translate into the potential to suddenly decide that she loved me in return. Still, there was always that chance, enough of a chance at least to keep the flicker of hope burning within me.

††††† I sighed and rested my head against the window frame, watching as the wind whipped the trees into a frenzied dance. My own impulses were feeling equally stirred up and tormented.

††††† A particularly strong gust of wind shook the castle, howling as it sought a way inside the walls. I closed my eyes and allowed myself to indulge in a little wishful imagination. I pictured sharing a glass of single-malt scotch with her as we stood at the window and watched the fury of the rain and wind together. I pictured the two of us sitting in front of the fire in my study, wrapped snugly in a blanket while the storm raged impotently at us from outside. I pictured the lightning illuminating my bedroom in bursts as we made passionate love, the brilliant blue flashes revealing her in eerie radiance as she arched beneath me, the thunder drowning out her voice as she called out my name, the roar of the wind becoming the roar of the blood pounding in my ears as a mounting wave of indescribable pleasure carried both of us away Ö

††††† Another flash of lightning and crash of thunder brought me back from my reverie. I was alone, as I had been for so long - a single forlorn figure watching an indifferent storm through a cold, transparent windowpane in a dark, forbidding castle of stone.

††††† "Damn," I muttered to the storm. "Damn, damn, damn."

††††† There was a soft knock at the door, and Malcolm poked his head inside.

††††† "Yes?" I said, turning away from the window.

††††† "I've some candles for ye, sir."

††††† "Thank you, Malcolm." I took the candles from him and lit them at the fireplace. "Would you mind running upstairs and checking with Mrs. Fletcher to see if she needs anything?"

††††† Malcolm bobbed his head. "Yes, sir," he said.

††††† He withdrew, closing the door behind him, and I returned to my meditations as the storm continued to swirl around the castle.

 

††††† Power still hadn't been restored by the time dinner approached, so I and my staff made do with what we had. While Mrs. Gower cooked over the woodstove in the kitchen, Forbes and I gathered enough candles into the drawing and dining rooms to see by.

††††† Jessica came downstairs carrying a candle, shielding its flame with her hand. The golden, flickering light made her features hauntingly beautiful; I swallowed hard and went to fetch us something to drink.

††††† "Sorry about the dimness," I said as I offered her a glass of white wine. "The folks at the power company say that we might not have it restored until sometime tomorrow afternoon."

††††† "We'll survive," she said, accepting it. "Actually, the candlelight is -"

††††† "Romantic?" I finished for her, grinning. "If so, I might suggest they drag their feet fixing the lines."

††††† "I hope Seth is all right," said Jessica. "Jim Shevlin went to wake him."

††††† "A good stiff brandy will fix him up, I suspect." I handed her one of the glasses, and we touched rims. "To a more pleasant stay," I said, raising my glass slightly in a toast.

††††† "That sounds good," Jessica said with a smile. "By the way, Malcolm James stopped by my room."

††††† "I know," I said. "I sent him."

††††† "He's a nice young man. He gave me his manuscript to read - a novel based upon the murder of Evelyn Gowdie twenty years ago. I've read the first chapter." She looked to the door, thus missing my frown of consternation that Malcolm had disobeyed my edict not to pester her with that book. "Jim hasn't come back," she fretted. "I think I'll go check on Seth."

††††† "I'll go with you."

††††† On our way up, we met Jim Shevlin on his way down. "I was coming to get you, Jess," he said. "Seth is sick."

††††† Jessica sighed. "I was afraid this would happen," she said.

††††† We entered Seth's room - even by the meager light of the single candle burning at his bedside, I could see that the doctor was shivering violently beneath the covers. Jessica sat on the edge of the bed and placed a hand on her friend's forehead.

††††† "You have a fever, Seth," she said.

††††† "Ayuh," he replied weakly. "I'm burning up."

††††† Jessica shook her head. "That crazy old man," she said darkly, no doubt referring to Evan Lochbuie.

††††† "My fault," said Seth. "Lost my balance, that's all. Should have known better."

††††† "Well, be that as it may, you need a doctor."

††††† "I'll fetch Dr. Symington," I said, thinking of the only other doctor on the premises. But Seth did not receive my suggestion well.

††††† "Keep that man away from me," he said with sudden strength, sitting up in bed. "He's no doctor, no matter what degree he claims. He's a quack, researching into ghosts and that sort of nonsense."

††††† Jessica looked at me and asked, "Can we call a doctor from town?"

††††† "Aye," I said, "but the electrical outage might make it difficult to get one up here. I'll try."

††††† I left the room and headed off to look up Hamish Dawson's telephone number. Hamish was young - a fact that I realized might not sit well with Seth - but he was highly competent and well-respected. He would know what to do. But before I reached my office, I was detoured by Forbes, who said that Mrs. Gower needed more light to see by in the kitchen if she was to finish preparing supper. Knowing that Mrs. Gower did not like being put off, I dutifully headed for the storage closet to collect some hurricane lamps and lamp oil, and carried them to the kitchen.

††††† By the time I returned to the drawing room, Jessica had come back downstairs.People were getting ready to go to dinner, but paused when Jed Richardson came into the room. "Has anyone seen Alicia?" he asked.

††††† "Alicia?" said Jessica. "No. Isn't she with you?"

††††† "She was. About a half hour ago she said she was coming downstairs to check on the electrical failure. She never returned to the room."

††††† "Probably got sidetracked with something," Charlene suggested. "Maybe she ran across an interesting book."

††††† "And read it in this light?" Jed asked incredulously. "I'm worried."

††††† After listening to this conversation I spoke up and said, "I suggest we fan out and look for her. I'm sure she hasn't ventured outside, not in this blow."

††††† I divided the Mainers into groups of two, and assigned them various areas of the castle to search. Once they had all headed off, Jessica and I were about to follow suit when I suddenly remembered Forbes. I looked to the bar, intending to assign him the cellars, but he had inexplicably disappeared.

††††† "Where's Forbes?" I asked aloud, annoyance colouring my tone. "Always disappearing at the wrong time."

††††† "Like Alicia," Jessica said quietly, half to herself.

††††† We searched the area around my office, but didn't find any sign of Alicia.

††††† "Where could she have gone?" Jessica asked in frustration.

††††† I was about to open a door to a storage closet when we heard someone shout "Help!"

††††† Jessica homed in on the direction the voice had come from immediately. "That way," she said, grabbing my hand and pulling me down the hallway. At length we turned a corner and came upon Forbes and Dr. Symington, who was bent over Alicia Richardson. She sat with her back against the wall behind a large suit of armor; the accompanying antique battleaxe was lying on the floor next to her.

††††† "Alicia," Jessica said, kneeling at Symington's side. "What happened?"

††††† She shook her head and rubbed her eyes. Her cheek was marred by a small cut and a widening bruise.

††††† "I don't know," she said dully. "I was walking here and -" She broke off then, and began to sob.

††††† Dr. Symington helped her to her feet, and Jessica steadied her until she was sufficiently recovered to stand alone.

††††† "Did you find her?" Jessica asked Symington.

††††† "Yes," he said without elaboration.

††††† "Was Forbes here when you found her, Doctor?"

††††† I looked around; Forbes had disappeared yet again.

††††† "He arrived right after I called for help," said Symington.

††††† "Right after?" Jessica repeated. "He must have been close by."

††††† "I think we'd better get Mrs. Richardson to her room," I suggested.

††††† "A good idea," Jessica agreed. "Where's Jed?"

††††† "Still looking for his wife," Symington said. "I'll go get him."

††††† As we settled Alicia on the bed in her room, Jed arrived and came to her side. "What in hell happened?" he asked.

††††† "Looks like someone hit her," I replied.

††††† "No," Alicia said. I had given her some ice wrapped in a hand towel, which she held up to the bruise on her cheek. "I think I tripped."

††††† "Over what?" I asked. "The axe?"

††††† "Yes. Maybe. I just remembered something hitting me in the face, and falling down. I grabbed at the suit of armor to keep from falling. Maybe I grabbed the axe."

††††† The policeman in me thought that sounded highly unlikely, but the gracious host part of me decided to let the matter pass for now.

††††† "I'm just glad you weren't more seriously injured," said Jessica.

††††† Mort Metzger entered the room, drawn by the commotion. "What's going on here?" he asked.

††††† Jed filled him in, and then Mort turned to Jessica. "How's Seth?"

††††† "Sick." She turned to me and asked, "Any progress on a doctor?"

††††† I smacked myself in the forehead - I'd meant to call Hamish Dawson, but then allowed myself to get sidetracked. "I'll get to it straight away," I told her apologetically. "Forgot to do it in the events of the evening. Dinner is ready - provided, of course, you're still hungry after what has happened to Mrs. Richardson."

††††† "No sense skipping dinner," said Mort sensibly.

††††† "I'll check on Seth," said Jessica.

††††† "Mrs. Gower will send dinner to your room, Mrs. Richardson," I said to Alicia. I assumed that after her latest scare she would choose to remain in the confines of her room - but she surprised me.

††††† "No need," Alicia said, rising from the bed and standing. "Just clumsy me, tripping like that. I'd like to eat with the others."

††††† I left them then, and this time went straight to my office without interruption. Fortunately, the storm had not taken out the telephone lines, and I was able to contact Hamish at home. He promised to come up to have a look at Dr. Hazlitt as soon as he had finished his own supper.

††††† As Jessica came into the dining room after checking on Seth, I approached her and whispered that Hamish would be at the castle within the hour.

††††† "That's good news," she said gratefully. "Funny, but I am hungry."

††††† Alicia's fall had definitely affected the Mainers' collective mood. Conversation was markedly subdued compared to the previous evenings, and punctuated by periods of anxious silence. I saw Jessica watching Fiona with interest, but had no idea what it was about her that she found intriguing.

††††† Still, the Cabot Covers were nothing if not resilient - I suppose their little town's alarming crime rate demanded it - and by the time Mrs. Gower served us all a makeshift dessert of sherbet and oatmeal cookies, they had loosened up somewhat.

††††† Except for Jessica. I glanced over at her, and was startled to see her sitting absolutely still in her chair, oblivious to everything going on around her. I'd seen her in a state of meditative calm before, but this went far beyond that - it was if she was in a deep trance, open-eyed yet asleep at the same time.

††††† "Jess?" I said to her.

††††† There was no response, not even a flicker of acknowledgement.

††††† "Jess?" I said again, more urgently this time. "Are you all right?"

††††† The others picked up on my alarm, and before I had a chance to move they were on their feet and surrounding her. Mort Metzger placed his hands on Jessica's shoulders and gave her a gentle shake. This finally elicited a response; Jessica seemed to wake up from her trance, and her eyes focused on the sheriff's face.

††††† "Gorry," Mort said to her. "You looked like a stone statue."

††††† Jessica surveyed her friends standing over her. "What's the matter?" she asked, confused.

††††† "You seemed to have fallen into a spontaneous trance," Dr. Symington said.

††††† "Trance? Me?" She laughed. "Donít be silly."

††††† "You sure looked strange," Susan said.

††††† "Like a stone statue," Mort repeated.

††††† Jessica looked over at me. "Stone?" she asked me. "I looked like stone?"

††††† "Easily explained, Mrs. Fletcher," said Dr. Symington. He began to launch into another mini-lecture, but Jessica wasn't listening. Instead she stared at me, a worried look darkening her eyes.

††††† "Stone," I heard her say.

††††† I knew what she was thinking - that in a manner of speaking, Evan Lochbuie's curse had come true.

 

††††† Both Jessica and I were relieved when Hamish arrived at the castle to have a look at Seth.I took him upstairs to his room then returned to my office, where Jessica and I paced nervously, few words passing between us.

††††† Finally Hamish came back downstairs, and we all sat down to hear what he'd found.

††††† "No question about it," he said, "Dr. Hazlitt is ill. His fever is real, and so are his shakes. But I can find nothing to cause it - all vital signs are strong, and there's no hint of infection in his throat or ears. My suggestion is that we get him to the hospital in the morning and draw some blood, do other tests."

††††† Jessica looked skeptical. "Is that really necessary?" she asked. "It sounds to me like a good old-fashioned case of the flu. Of course," she added, dropping her gaze, "I'm not a doctor."

††††† "The man spent time in the water," I offered. "Got a chill from the air, was in his wet clothes for a period of time."

††††† "I really don't think Dr. Hazlitt fell ill because of that," Hamish said gently, with an indulgent smile. "Shall I call the hospital and arrange to admit him in the morning? They're struggling because of the electrical problem, but the generators are working."

††††† I didn't know Seth well, but I suspected he would not appreciate having decisions - especially medical decisions - made on his behalf. "Perhaps we'd better ask Dr. Hazlitt," I suggested.

††††† "I will," Jessica said, rising. "Only be a minute."

††††† Once she left the room, Hamish turned to me and lifted a single eyebrow. There was no need for him to say anything; his expression said it all.

††††† "Don't start, Hamish," I said in a warning tone.

††††† "Did I say anything?" the young doctor asked.

††††† "You didn't need to."

††††† But Hamish was not so easily dissuaded. "So? Are you and she Ö?"

††††† I groaned inwardly. "No, Hamish," I said. "We're just friends."

††††† "That's not what folks are saying in the village," he said.

††††† "Folks in the village are saying a lot of odd things these days," I replied.

††††† For a moment we were both quiet, until Hamish asked, "How long has it been since your Kathleen died?"

††††† "Too long," I replied, not really wanting to talk about it.

††††† I was saved from Hamish pursuing that line of discussion by Jessica's return.

††††† "Seth says thank you for your concern, Dr. Dawson, but he wants no part of your hospital," she said. "He insists that he just needs a good night's sleep."

††††† "Fair enough," Hamish said, inclining his head. "After all, the patient is also a physician."

††††† I had a sudden thought: "I wonder if you'd examine Mrs. Fletcher while you're here," I said to Hamish.

††††† Jessica whirled on me in surprise. "Me?" she asked. "I'm not sick."

††††† Hamish looked at her with concern. "Not feeling well, Mrs. Fletcher?"

††††† "I feel fine," she said defensively. "I wasn't the one who fell in the water."

††††† Jessica was not taking my suggestion as well as I'd hoped. "Jess," I said, keeping my voice soft and soothing, "we all saw what happened to you at dinner tonight. It wasn't natural. You went into a trace - Dr. Symington recognized it."

††††† "A trance?" Hamish said, his interest clearly piqued.

††††† "That's silly," Jessica said, apparently determined to dismiss the incident as nothing. "I was Ö daydreaming, that's all."

††††† "Looked like more than that to me," I said.

††††† Still Jessica dug in her heels. "Well, George, you're wrong. I've never felt better in my life."

††††† She was stubborn, but so was I. "You looked as though you turned to stone, Jessica," I persisted.The truth was, I had been honestly frightened by what had happened to her that evening, and wouldn't rest easy until I knew for certain that she was all right.

††††† Her patience clearly strained, she stood and went to the window and drew a deep breath. "I can't believe you said that, George," she said, her back turned to me. "'Turned to stone,' indeed. Maybe you'd better tell Dr. Dawson about the curse placed upon me."

††††† Hamish also stood. "Curse? Someone placed a curse on you, Mrs. Fletcher?"

††††† "Supposedly." She turned away from the window and told him about the incident at the dock with Evan Lochbuie.

††††† "Evan? Lochbuie?" Hamish said, laughing. "He's always putting curses on people. The man is certifiably insane - he belongs in an institution."

††††† "Exactly," I said, going over to where Jessica stood and placing my hands on her shoulders. She was very tense; I could feel it the moment I touched her. "But you must admit, Jessica, that you did act strangely at dinner."

††††† "All I did was drift off into a sort of reverie," she insisted obstinately. "No, I don't need a doctor. But thank you anyway."

††††† "As you wish," Hamish said as he shot me a sympathetic glance.

††††† We saw him to the front door of the castle, where he'd parked his car within an easy dash through the rain from the front steps.

††††† "Safe home, Hamish," I said.

††††† "Aye, that I will, George," he said. He turned to Jessica and said, "It was a pleasure meeting you, Mrs. Fletcher. Call again if your friend doesn't improve by morning. Hopefully, we'll have the power back on, and he'll be feeling tip-top."

††††† "Thank you," she said.

††††† "And Mrs. Fletcher, put Evan Lochbuie out of your mind," Hamish added. He tapped his head: "He's hae a want: mentally defective, poor devil."

††††† We watched him drive off, his tail lights soon lost in the fog that had rolled in from the sea.

††††† Back inside, Jessica confronted me about my mention of her trance. "Why did you bring up my little dinner episode, George?" she asked, clearly annoyed. "I felt foolish having Dr. Dawson hear that."

††††† "Because I care about you, Jessica," I replied honestly. "When I saw you at the table, I was worried." I sighed and gazed out the window at the fog. "I don't know. Maybe having you and your friends here was a bad idea. All these unfortunate things happening to you - I hae nae brou o this, Jessica: I have no liking for what's been happening."

††††† Jessica's expression softened, her annoyance forgotten. "I know that, George, but it's not your fault."

††††† "Mrs. Richardson falling tonight and hurting herself. I've never seen the like in aa my born days," I continued, shaking my head. "Bloody curses. Ladies in white with orange eyes. Young women killed with a pitchfork, like witches in olden days." I looked directly into her eyes then, and said, "I'm sorry I asked you here under these circumstances, Jess. I always wanted you to visit and share this place with me. Please accept my apology."

††††† "And I've told you that no apologies are necessary," she replied. "Tell you what - let's consider everything that's happened to be far in the past. In the morning, we'll start our real vacation at Sutherland Castle. Ken Sassi and I have a lovely day of fishing planned. What's the gillie's name?"

††††† "Rufus Innes," I told her. "The best fishing guide in northern Scotland. A little eccentric, but -"

††††† She rolled her eyes. "Another eccentric?"

††††† "Pleasantly so," I assured her. "You were saying?"

††††† "I was saying that tomorrow begins our official vacation," she said, brightening. "No more ghosts or curses or accidents - just fun. A day on the stream for Ken and me, tours of this spectacular countryside for the others. Good wine and food, and good conversation. The way it should be."

††††† I nodded and smiled, drawn out of my self-pity in spite of myself. "Is the glass always half full for Jessica Fletcher?" I asked her. "Never half empty?"

††††† "Oh, it empties from time to time, George, when I allow it to," she admitted. "But I don't intend to allow it to for the duration of my stay in Wick."

††††† I grinned at her as I took her hand. "You lift my spirits," I said.

††††† "Exactly what I meant to do," she declared. "Now, let's join the others. They said they were going to play charades - it should be fun. Ever play?"

††††† "No," I said.

††††† "Well, you're about to. I suspect you'll be very good at it."

††††† She was right - at least about the game being fun, and a welcome diversion from the earlier events of the evening. As far as my being a good player, I'm not so sure about that, but I do know that by the end of the evening the team I was on, led my Roberta Walters, had carried the day.

††††† By ten o'clock, the unspoken consensus was that it was time to retire.

††††† "A quiet brandy or sherry, Jessica?" I asked her before she went upstairs.

††††† "Afraid not," she said, smiling. "This lady is tired. And as you know, the fishing's always better early in the morning. You said the gillie would meet us here at five?"
††††† "Aye. And ol' Rufus is prompt."

††††† "So are we. Enjoy charades?" she asked. "You played well."

††††† A small compliment, yet it made me feel warm inside. "Quite a lot of fun," I replied. "We must do it again."

††††† "I agree. Good night, George. I'll peek in on Seth before I go to bed."

††††† "All right." As she turned to the stair I caught her sleeve. "I was thinking that the day after tomorrow might be a good day for us to get away together - alone," I said. "A private tour, lunch in my favorite pub, a relaxing time. The weather forecast is favorable, and I'll have caught up on my paperwork. Good with you?"

††††† "Good with me," she said, smiling. "Good night, George. Thanks for everything." She kissed me on the cheek then turned and went upstairs.

††††† I finished up my work downstairs and then headed for bed myself, but lay awake for a long time, listening to the crying wind and watching the swirling mists beyond my window.My bed seemed cold and empty. I recalled Hamish's words from earlier:

††††† "How long has it been since your Kathleen died?"

††††† "Too long Ö"

††††† Too long, indeed.

 

††††† I'd asked Forbes to cook a small, early breakfast at four-thirty for Ken and Jessica before they left with Rufus, and made a point of being up at that hour myself so I could join them. All of us were surprised when Seth Hazlitt, awake and dressed, appeared in the doorway of the candle-lit kitchen.

††††† "What are you doing up?" Jessica asked him, clearly shocked to see him.

††††† Seth shrugged. "All slept out," he replied.

††††† "But how are you feeling?"

††††† "Tip-top, Jessica," Seth replied. "That's all I needed, a good night's sleep. I'm rarin' to go." Even in the dim light, it was obvious to me that he looked much better than he had the day before.

††††† "That's wonderful," Jessica said. "But don't overdo it."

††††† "Listen to her," Seth said to Ken and me with a chuckle. "You'd think she was the doctor."

††††† After breakfast Seth returned to his room while Forbes set out the picnic lunches Mrs. Gower had assembled the night before and filled two thermoses with steaming hot coffee fresh off the woodstove. I accompanied Jessica and Ken to the front of the castle, where Rufus Innes sat waiting in his old pick-up truck, punctual as usual.

††††† "Rufus," I said, "meet Jessica Fletcher and Ken Sassi."

††††† Rufus got out of his truck and extended his hand first to Jessica and then to Ken. "A pleasure to make your acquaintance," he said to them with a bob of his head.

††††† "We're so happy to have you guide us," said Jessica. "George says you know where the big ones are waiting."

††††† Innes laughed. "If I could be sure of that, Mrs. Fletcher, I'd be a rich man. Might even own a castle myself."

††††† "You're lucky you don't," I told him wryly. "Better off being a gillie."

††††† "See you at dinner," said Jessica.

††††† "Many thanks for setting this up," Ken said.

††††† "Fish good," I bade them. "And stay away from rabbits."

††††† "What?" Ken and Jessica said in unison.

††††† "Rufus will explain," I said, laughing. "Have a splendid day."

††††† Rufus started the truck and pulled away, and after a final wave I returned inside to begin my day.

 

††††† It was scarcely midmorning when they returned. I looked up in surprise when I heard the old truck's engine drawing near, immediately abandoning my task of gathering flowers from the garden to grace the dinner table that night. I reached the truck just in time to see Jessica get out, completely soaked and looking thoroughly put out.

††††† "What happened to you?" I asked her, brushing a damp lock of hair back from her forehead.

††††† She gave me a sour look and answered, "I fell in the stream."

††††† I couldn't help but laugh at her mishap.

††††† Jessica didn't smile. "I'd laugh, too," she said, "if the reason for falling weren't so upsetting."

††††† Immediately the mirth died on my lips. "Why did you fall?" I asked her seriously.

††††† Jed and Alicia, who had also been outside at the time, joined us as she replied, "Let me get out of these wet clothes and into something warm. I'll tell you then."

††††† I watched her drag herself up the castle's front steps - so not just wet and cold, but completely exhausted and drained, as if she had been in battle. I turned to Ken, seeking an explanation.

††††† "She claims somebody threw a log at her from a bridge above where she was fishing," he told me.

††††† I passed a hand over my eyes wearily. "Another incident," I said. "Excuse me - I have a call to make."

††††† I went into my office and called Horace McKay.

 

††††† About an hour later we gathered in the sitting room - Rufus, Ken, the Richardsons, the Symingtons, Horace McKay, and Jessica and me. Electrical power had returned to the castle, but nevertheless I asked Malcolm to stoke up the fire.Jessica, now changed into dry clothes and wrapped in a blanket in front of it, seemed to drink in the warmth it gave. She had her hands wrapped around a steaming cup of tea, which she carefully sipped from time to time as she told her story.

††††† "Following Mr. Innes's advice, I headed maybe a hundred yards upriver and found a perfect place to fish, a spot of level river-bed within casting distance of a pool under a footbridge," she said, her eyes never leaving the flickering flames in front of her. "I was so engrossed in what I was doing that I didn't see the man approach until it was too late - all I saw was a glimpse of him as he hurled the log at me from the bridge. It was all I could do to avoid being hit by it, and in the process I lost my footing and my rod and fell into the water. My waders filled up as the current swept me downriver, so when I reached a deeper section of the river, I went under." She paused, and took another sip of her tea. "The next thing I knew, Ken had grabbed me and was pulling me to shallow water, with the help of Mr. Innes's fishing rod."

††††† "You didn't get a good look at the chap who threw it?" McKay asked.

††††† "No," she answered. "Just a fleeting glance."

††††† McKay frowned and grunted. Dr. Symington, who had sat silently while Jessica related her tale, now leaned forward in his chair and asked, "Mrs. Fletcher, are you certain you saw someone on the bridge?"

††††† "Yes," she replied.

††††† "But only a 'fleeting glance,' as you put it."

††††† "That's right," she said carefully. "A figure, just for a moment."

††††† "Like the lady in white?" Symington asked.

††††† Jessica was offended by the implied doubt in his question. "You aren't suggesting that it was my imagination Ö"

††††† "Oh, no, Mrs. Fletcher," he hastily assured her. "But in my many years of research, these sort of - how shall I put it? - these sorts of sightings often have to do with light refraction and other natural phenomena that cause us to think we've seen something that doesn't actually exist."

††††† Clearly keeping a rising annoyance in check, Jessica said, "I'm sure your research is valid and useful, Dr. Symington. But in this case, there was someone on that bridge who threw the log at me."

††††† "Did either of you see anyone throw the log?" Constable McKay asked Ken and Rufus.

††††† They shook their heads.

††††† "Did you see the log come floating by?" asked McKay.

††††† "No," Ken said. "We were too busy trying to save Jessica from drowning."

††††† McKay stood and stretched. "Well, I suppose I might as well go up there and take a look around. Won't find anything, I'm sure, but it's my job."

††††† "While you're there," Jessica said, looking up suddenly, "you might look for my rod - I lost it when I fell. It has sentimental value for me - my late husband gave it to me as a birthday gift."

††††† "Bamboo?" McKay asked her.

††††† "No," she said. "Fiberglass, an early model."

††††† "I'll keep my eyes open for it. Might have washed up on shore."

††††† "Think I'll come with you, Horace," Rufus said. "Two sets of eyes might be better 'an one."

††††† I showed them out, considering my own options.

††††† "I considered joining them," I said to Jessica once they'd gone and I'd returned to the room.

††††† Jessica threw the blanket off of her shoulders. "I'd like to go back," she said.

††††† "Me, too," said Ken.

††††† "May I accompany you?" Dr. Symington asked.

††††† 'Why not?" I said.

††††† "Do you know the spot?" Jessica asked me as we headed outside.

††††† "Aye," I told her. "I've done my share of fishing there."

††††† She smiled. "I thought you didn't fish."

††††† "Not any longer," I clarified. "But I did as a youth. You can't grow up in Scotland and not fish. Then you become older and find better things to do?"

††††† "Like what?" Ken asked.

††††† "Catching criminals. Come."

††††† The minibus was parked outside and we headed for it just as Forbes arrived with Seth Hazlitt and the Metzgers in the car.

††††† "Where are you headed?" Mort asked.

††††† "A fishing stream," said Jessica vaguely.

††††† The sheriff looked at her street clothes. "Wearing that?" he asked doubtfully.

††††† Jessica sighed. "I fell in earlier," she said by way of explanation.

††††† "How did you do that?"

††††† "It was easy," she said. "We're going back to try and find my rod. I lost it when I fell."

††††† "We'll come help," said Seth.

††††† If every person we encountered insisted on hearing the entire story from start to finished, we'd be there all day. "I suggest we get going," I said, trying to keep the growing impatience out of my voice.

††††† Adele Metzger declined to come along, and the rest of us set out. I could tell that Jessica was not particularly comfortable having Dr. Symington along; every time he approached her I could see it set her on edge.

††††† We reached the river and parked next to Constable McKay's car. He and Rufus Innes were far downstream, almost out of sight.

††††† "I fell upstream," Jessica said, pointing. "Near that bridge."

††††† "That's where you saw the man?" I asked her.

††††† "What man?" Mort asked.

††††† Wearily, Jessica repeated her story once more.

††††† Mort's reaction to it was a little balder than the others. "Somebody tried to kill you, Mrs. F?" he asked.

††††† "I donít know what the motive was, but yes, someone did throw a log at me while I was in the water."

††††† "This is a police matter," Mort said grimly.

††††† "That's why Constable McKay was called," I told him.

††††† "If this guy threw a log at you from the bridge, why are they all the way down there?" Mort asked.

††††† Jessica shrugged and said, "They're probably looking for my rod."

††††† "Uh-huh," Mort said, sounding unconvinced. "Let's take a look up on that bridge."

††††† Jessica stole a glance at me, but I kept my expression unreadable.Mort was her friend, and the fact that he tended to step on my toes from time to time was of little consequence.

††††† The narrow wooden bridge had seen its best days, and it creaked and groaned in protest as we stepped on to it.

††††† "Maybe we all shouldn't go on it at once," Seth suggested.

††††† Unconcerned about the bridge's ginger condition, Jessica had already reached the center to have a look around. Mort and I followed her, while Dr. Symington, Ken Sassi, and Seth remained safely on shore.

††††† "Where did you fall?" I asked.

††††† Jessica went to the shaky railing and pointed down to the spot in the river where she had been fishing when the log was thrown.

††††† "How close did it come to hitting you?" I asked her.

††††† "Close," was her response. "I had to twist my body to avoid it. That's why I fell."

††††† "And you say it was quite large. Six feet long? A half a foot wide?"

††††† "I think so," she said, trying to remember. "It happened so fast."

††††† "Would take a person of considerable strength to throw such an object that distance," I said. I turned to Mort, who was examining the opposite railing. "Wouldn't you agree, Sheriff Metzger?"

††††† "What?"

††††† "It would take a strong person to throw a large log to where Jessica was fishing."

††††† "Yeah, I suppose it would. Look here, Mrs. F."

††††† We went to where Mort stood at the opposite railing and looked at what he was pointing at - a cross, rough-hewn into the wood of the railing, its interior stained with something reddish-brown in colour.

††††† I gingerly touched one of the grooves, withdrew it, and examined it - nothing.

††††† "Looks like dried blood," Mort said.

††††† "Yes, I suspect it is," I said quietly. "No telling how long it's been here, although it doesn't look terribly old to me."

††††† "Looks like fresh cuts in the wood, though," Mort pointed out.

††††† I had to admit that he was right. "It does appear that way," I said, stepping back. "I suggest we wait until Constable McKay examines it."

††††† "Does Wick have a forensics lab?" Jessica asked me.

††††† "No," I told her. But he can send it to Inverness, or Glasgow."

††††† "Do you think it was carved by the person who threw the log at me?" she asked, meeting my gaze.

††††† "A distinct possibility."

††††† A creak of wood announced Dr. Symington's approach. He looked at the carved cross and shook his head. "I was afraid of this," he said solemnly.

††††† "Why do you say that, Doctor?" Mort asked.

††††† "Its symbolism," he said, running his finger over the cross.

††††† "I wouldn't touch that, Doc," Mort reminded him. "It's evidence."

††††† "Yes," Symington said, giving him a piercing look. "Evidence of what is really going on here."

††††† "Which is?" I asked him impatiently. I was weary of Symington's riddles and innuendos, and wished that just once he would get to the point. "What, in your opinion, Doctor, is really going on here?"

††††† Symington looked up at me with a tight smile that held no mirth. "Witchcraft, of course."

††††† "What's the cross got to do with witchcraft?" Mort asked.

††††† "Itís been carved here to ward off a spell."

††††† As we stood on the riverbank, Constable McKay and Rufus Innes approached. Jessica's face changed instantly from anxiety to pleasure when she saw Rufus carrying her fishing rod. "You found it," she said in relief.

††††† "Yes, ma'am," Rufus said, handing it to her. "Got itself wedged between some rocks. Doesn't look the worse for wear."

††††† Jessica accepted it with a smile. "Thank you," she said. "It means a lot to me."

††††† "Been on the bridge, Horace?" I asked McKay off-handedly.

††††† He shook his head. "Not yet."

††††† "Let me show you something."

††††† Mort beat me to the punch, so to speak. "I found it, Constable. I'll show it to you."

††††† I sighed, deferred to him, and leaned against a tree to watch as Mort led McKay to the middle of the bridge.

††††† "Think you want to cut it out and send it off for analysis?" I asked when they returned a minute later.

††††† "Nothing to be gained by that," McKay said gruffly. "Won't tell us anything we don't already know."

††††† "It will confirm whether it's blood," I reminded him. "And how long it's been there."

††††† McKay's face darkened - he did not like being offered advice from an outsider, no matter that I had been born and bred in the same town as he. Ordinarily I would have let his stubborn pride slide, but this concerned Jessica. This was important.

††††† "Mrs. Fletcher almost died here today because someone threw a log at her from that bridge," I told him, determined not to let his contrariness carry the day. "Whoever did that might have carved that cross as a signature of sorts. Dr. Symington says it could be an attempt to ward off a curse, or some other such thing. Not that I believe in such nonsense, but -"

††††† "All right," McKay finally snapped. "I'll send Bob up here in the morning with a saw, cut it out a' the railing, send it to Inverness. Anything else you want me to do?"

††††† "Not at the moment," I replied pleasantly, ignoring the sarcasm dripping in his words. Instead I turned to Rufus and said, "Much obliged, Rufus, for finding Mrs. Fletcher's rod."

††††† "Just sorry a good day of fishing turned out like it did," the gillie said. "Happy to take you out another day."

††††† "How about tomorrow?" Ken Sassi asked.

††††† "I'm afraid Mrs. Fletcher is committed all day tomorrow," I said quickly, stepping in before Jessica had a chance to respond.

††††† She smiled as she glanced at me. "Yes, that's right. Perhaps another day before we go home."

††††† "Give me a call," Rufus told us. "Been slow lately. I have some days available."

 

††††† That evening I did not join my guests in the drawing room before dinner, having decided to make a few private phone calls in my office. Once I hung up the phone, I remained where I was, choosing to be alone with my thoughts. Not that my thoughts were particularly good company: they were dark and conflicted.To sell the castle, or not?On the one hand I was fiercely opposed to the notion: even setting aside my sentimental attachments to the place, the stubborn Scot in me chafed at the notion that outside influences - human or supernatural - should force me to sell.But I could not ignore the fact that whatever those influences were, they were becoming more insistent, and more violent.

††††† I propped my feet up on the corner of my desk and gazed out the window, not really seeing what was beyond the glass.Daisy. Poor, poor, Daisy. I had known her since she was a wee lass.She didn't deserve what had happened to her. And I felt a heaviness on my heart knowing that no matter how much I tried to rationalize it away, I was at least partly responsible for her death.

††††† And now whatever this evil was, its focus seemed to have shifted to Jessica. There was no doubt in my mind that her fall in the river had been caused deliberately.I passed my hand over my eyes at the horrible thought that but for the quick action of Ken Sassi, she very nearly had not come home from that fishing trip. And if that had happened, then my casual send-off earlier that morning could have easily been our final parting. And what had I said to her? Something stupid about rabbits.

††††† A light tap on the doorframe interrupted my melancholy contemplation, and I looked up to see Jessica. "Mind if I interrupt your reverie?" she asked.

††††† I swung my feet down from the desk. "Not at all, Jessica," I said.

††††† "Something wrong?" she asked, looking at me closely.

††††† I laughed bitterly at her innocent question. "Wouldn't you say something was wrong?"

††††† "Because I fell in the stream?"

††††† "Because someone caused you to fall," I reminded her unnecessarily. "I just got off the phone with a man in London who's been trying to by Sutherland Castle for the past few years."

††††† Jessica nodded, remembering our earlier conversation. "You told me there were interested buyers."

††††† "And he's one of the most interested. Heads a business consortium with millions of pounds to spend. I think much of it comes from foreign investors - Arabs, the Japanese."

††††† Jessica took a seat in one of the chairs that flanked the desk. "Why are you telling me this, George?" she asked worriedly.

††††† I sighed. "Because I think I'll take him up on his offer."

††††† Jessica was quiet for a long moment. "That's quite a serious decision to make," she said at last. "Are you sure you aren't overreacting to what happened today?"

††††† "I don't think so," I said, shaking my head. "I don't want to make such a decision based upon emotion. And I'm sure you can understand why I'm not keen on having foreigners buy the castle. I'd like to see it, and Wick, remain in Scottish hands. But -" I trailed off helplessly and shrugged.

††††† "May I make a suggestion?" Jessica asked.

††††† "You know you can always do that."

††††† "Sleep on it, George," she said. "Give it a few days. Don't act impetuously."

††††† "A good thought, Jessica, but -"

††††† "For me, George," she insisted. "I would hate to see you give up something so dear to you because of a series of silly mishaps to me and my friends. Wait until we're gone. You'll be able to think more clearly then."

††††† There was wisdom in her words, I reflected.If the London buyer was truly interested, after all, a few more days probably would not make or break the deal. "Sage advice, as might be expected from you," I said, smiling.

††††† Jessica returned my smile. "If it's sage advice, take it. I think dinner is ready. Are you joining us?"

††††† "Yes. Of course," I said, rising to my feet and offering her my hand. "Don't mind me, Jess. Just a momentary lapse in confidence. Come. Mrs. Gower has cooked up haggis for us. She makes the best in Wick."

††††† Jessica gave me a worried look. "George," she said, putting a hand on my arm and stopping me just before we entered the dining room, "I'm sure Mrs. Gower makes the best haggis in the world. But I'm afraid my friends from Maine might not - no, let me be honest - I'm afraid I might not like it."

††††† I laughed, this time without any taint of bitterness in it. "Jessica," I said, "I learned years ago that haggis is not to the liking of most visitors. Mrs. Gower serves it up once a week for those adventurous enough to want to taste our national culinary treasure. But I always insist that she have ready plenty of plain roasted chicken, just in case."

 

††††† "It's really very good," Charlene Sassi said as Mrs. Gower proudly served each guest her own special creation. "Don't let appearances deceive you."

††††† "It's not the appearance," Seth Hazlitt said. "It's knowing what I'm looking at that matters."

††††† I smiled slightly at the reactions I was able to observe from my place at the head of the table. With the exception of Charlene, all of my guests from Maine - including Jessica - were looking very uncertain about their entrťes.

††††† "Do you like haggis, Inspector?" Susan asked me.

††††† "Aye," I answered readily. "I don't make a habit of it, but I enjoy a hearty haggis on occasion."

††††† "Well, I'm not going to let it get cold," Charlene said, and started in on her meal with enthusiasm. "Bon appetit," she said, raising her fork appreciatively. After she had taken her first bite, she nodded and smiled with approval. "Excellent," she announced. "My compliments to the chef."

††††† Jim said, "I think I'll try it. Hate to be accused of not being adventurous when it comes to food." He took his first bite and closed his eyes while swallowing.

††††† "How is it?" his wife asked.

††††† "Different," he replied - it wasn't a ringing endorsement, but there were worse first impressions it could have made, I suppose. " Obviously an acquired taste."

††††† "Jess," Roberta asked, "are you going to try it?"

††††† Before she could answer in the negative, Mort Metzger asked me, "Anything else on the menu tonight?"

††††† My grin was broader. "Roast chicken," I told him.

††††† There was a general sigh of relief from everyone at the table, except for Charlene and Jim. "Sounds good to me," Seth said. "Maybe heat this haggis up and have it another day."

††††† "Mrs. Gower will be disappointed," Charlene warned her companions.

††††† "She'll understand," I reassured them. "You're not the first group to request chicken."

††††† I rose from the table and went to the kitchen to break the news to Mrs. Gower.

††††† "Two out of twelve," I reported to her.

††††† Mrs. Gower had already taken the tray of roast chicken out of the refrigerator and was sliding it into the oven to reheat."That's all?"

††††† "It's better than last time," I reminded her. "Remember that group from Sweden? Not a one of them could bring themselves to even try it."

††††† "Hrumph," Mrs. Gower replied.

††††† "Not only that," I continued, "the cooking expert in the group, Mrs. Sassi, not only tried it, she raved about it. She asked to extend her compliments to you."

††††† "Well, at least one of 'em's got good taste," she said, her nose held high in the air.

††††† The guests enjoyed a green salad until the chicken was served by an especially dour Mrs. Gower, who said nothing in response to their feeble attempts to make excuses for their decision to opt out on her expertly prepared haggis.

††††† After dinner everyone drifted off in different directions instead of congregating in the drawing room as they had on previous evenings.Jessica had seemed fully recovered from her near-drowning at dinner, but now she appeared to be flagging and in need of some time alone.She decided to retire to her room, with the intention of resuming reading Malcolm's manuscript.

††††† "Would you like anything brought up to you?" I asked her. "Some tea? Decaf coffee?"

††††† "Tea sounds good," she said gratefully. "Thank you."

††††† "I'll have Fiona bring some up to you as soon as she's finished helping Mrs. Gower clean up the kitchen," I said.

 

††††† Once she had gone upstairs I returned to my office to continue plowing through my mountain of unfinished paperwork.The night was warm and moist, and I opened a window to allow the summer air inside. I hoped that the warmth was indicative of the sort of day Jessica and I would have tomorrow.

††††† A couple of hours later I'd caught up enough to be able to take an entire day for myself without guilt.I left the office, and was just about to head upstairs when I heard voices that I recognized as Jessica's and Seth's coming from the parlor.They were talking about Jessica's close call on the river - or rather, Seth was asking her questions about it, and Jessica was trying to answer them as vaguely as she could. In spite of myself I paused, my hand on the stair rail, and listened.

††††† "I just don't know," Jessica was telling Seth defensively. "It all happened so fast. Maybe Constable McKay will know more after they cut the cross out of the bridge's railing."

††††† There was a pause as Seth apparently gave her answer due consideration.

††††† "How much for your thoughts?" Jessica asked him. "You've never given them away for a penny."

††††† I heard Seth sigh. "Jessica, we've been friends for a very long time."

††††† "We certainly have."

††††† "And I've lived through most of your misadventures, either because I was with you, or heard about it over the television or radio."

††††† "And you've been staunch and loyal at every turn, Dr. Seth Hazlitt, for which I have always been very grateful," she replied. "Now, what's your point?"

††††† Seth responded to Jessica's directness with candor. "My point is, Jessica, I'm not at all comfortable staying here."

††††† "I suppose I can't say I don't understand," Jessica sighed. "But despite the things that have happened since we arrived, I'm actually having a good time."

††††† "Of course you are, considering you get to spend time with George Sutherland." There was a touch of acid to his tone that I didn't miss, and I couldn't help but wince.

††††† Jessica apparently did not miss it either. "And what does that mean?"

††††† "Oh, I don't know, Jessica," Seth said, sounding almost resigned. "It just seems to me that you and the handsome Scotland Yard inspector have an obvious mutual respect for each other."

††††† "Why shouldn't we?"

††††† "Of course you should," said Seth. But then he asked her, "Anything beyond respect, Jessica?"

††††† "Romance, you mean?" she said.

††††† "Ayuh," said Seth. "Always known you had pretty strong feelings for him. Knew that years ago when you met him in London. Fairly obvious to any astute friend. I know you pretty well."

††††† "You certainly do. But do you know what, Seth?"

††††† "What?"

††††† The firmness that she summoned into her voice carried no anger or warning, just a subtle reminder to her friend that he was approaching a line that she did not want him to cross: "As much as I adore you - and you know I do - I really don't think whatever feelings I might have for George to be - of interest to anyone but me."

††††† "And him, of course," Seth added.

††††† "Yes. And George, of course."

††††† Then Seth said something that surprised me: "Just don't want to see you get your feathers singed, Jessica. Only reason I bring it up."

††††† I could imagine Jessica shaking her head at his words. "I don't have any feathers, Seth," she said.

††††† "'Course you do," he told her, and the real affection in his voice was unmistakable. "Every beautiful woman's got 'em. You're no exception. I'm sure Sutherland has noticed 'em."

††††† Jessica seemed to be as taken aback by his words as I was. "I think it's bedtime," she said at last.

††††† I didnít wait for her to leave the parlor and find me standing at the foot of the stairs listening, but went upstairs as swiftly and quietly as I was able. As I did, one thing was beyond all doubt: the perceived jealously I'd sensed in Seth was more than just perception. It was very real.

 

††††† I was in the midst of a very pleasant dream - that Jessica was featured prominently in it should go without saying - when the ringing telephone by my bedside jarred me awake. "Hello?" I said as I looked at the clock for the time - it was six thirty in the morning.

††††† "Mr. Sutherland. I sincerely hope I didnít awaken you."

††††† I recognized the voice with the foreign overtones to its accent immediately - Gustav Beltavia, one of the representatives of the London-based developers who hoped to purchase the castle.

††††† "No matter," I told him as I sat up and ran a hand through my hair. "What can I do for you?"

††††† "My associate, Mr. Akimoto, and I arrived here in Wick late last night," Beltavia said, "and we were hoping that you could meet with us for breakfast, to discuss our offer for your property."

††††† Alarm bells were ringing in my head. During our last discussion the corporation had hinted that they might send someone up to Scotland for a face-to-face meeting, but the fact that they had done so this quickly spoke to their desperation to get hold of the castle.Still, a desperate buyer usually meant good news for a seller, even a reluctant one - it made sense to at least hear Beltavia and Akimoto out.

††††† "Breakfast would be fine," I told him. "Where are you gentlemen staying?"

††††† "At the Fisherman's Arms. May we meet you in the hotel restaurant in, say, an hour?"

††††† "Make it an hour and a half," I said, and rang off. This had better be good, I thought, to be worth meeting at such an early hour. But then it occurred to me that a breakfast meeting had another benefit: if I got talking to Beltavia and Akimoto out of the way early, I would still have most of the day ahead of me to spend with Jessica, as promised.

††††† With this somewhat more cheerful thought, I left the castle a short time later before any of the guests were up.

††††† The representatives didn't have much to offer that was new - yes, the London consortium was still keenly interested in acquiring the castle so they could develop it into a first class hotel, and yes, they were willing to increase their offer if it would help seal the deal before the end of the summer.The new offer was quite tempting - it was the highest I had seen yet from them or any of the other interested parties - but I kept Jessica's advice firmly in mind, and told them that I needed more time to consider it, at least another week.

††††† Beltavia's face reflected his displeasure at my words. "With all due respect, Mr. Sutherland," he said, "we have heard this familiar refrain from you time and again. At some point you must stop considering, and make your move - to either accept our offer, or decline it."

††††† "I know, and I understand the position your firm is in, waiting for me to make a final decision," I said. "But this has been a turbulent week - besides the disturbing events that have been happening, the castle is full of guests, and attending to their needs has taken up all of my available time."

††††† "We understand," Akimoto said, apparently playing the role of 'good cop' to Beltavia's 'bad cop.' "We would not wish you to make such an important decision in haste. Still, my colleague is right - you cannot put us off forever."

††††† "Nor do I intend to," I said, sensing a growing impatience coming from Mr. Akimoto as well, despite his efforts to hide it behind a mask of perfect politeness. "Another week, that is all that I ask."

††††† We concluded the meeting on that somewhat ambiguous note, and Beltavia and Akimoto retreated to their rooms, presumably to report back to their bosses in London.

††††† As I was leaving the hotel I ran into Horace McKay. The constable had an ugly scowl on his face that only darkened when he saw me, and with a sinking feeling I knew I was about to be handed more bad news.

††††† "George," he said, "we need to talk."

††††† "About?"

††††† "About your bloody castle, and why folk keep disappearing from it only to turn up dead."

††††† My heart sank right down to the soles of my shoes then. "Hold on a moment," I said. "Who has disappeared? Who turned up dead?" Please, Lord, I thought desperately, please don't let it be Jessica.

††††† "Fiona MacBride, that's who."

††††† "Dead?" I repeated.

††††† Horace backed off a bit. "Well, not confirmed dead, at least not yet," he admitted. "But her mother called me at the crack of dawn this morning. Poor woman was hysterical, because her daughter never came home from working up at the castle last night."

††††† "And there's no sign of her in the village?"

††††† "Not a soul has seen her since yesterday. We're still looking, of course."

††††† "Of course," I repeated weakly."Are you headed back to the station now?"

††††† "Aye. Need to check in with Bob, see if anything has turned up."

††††† "I'll join you there in a little while," I said. "First, I need to straighten something out."

††††† As soon as Horace's retreating form had disappeared around the corner, I retraced my steps into the Fisherman's Arms and used a house phone to call up Beltavia in his room.

††††† "Gustav," I said, "it looks like I won't need a week to consider your offer after all Ö"

 

††††† When I returned to the castle I headed straight for the sanctuary of my office, only to find Jessica already there.

††††† "I was just trying to track you down," she said.

††††† "I was in town."

††††† "I know. I just got off the phone with Constable McKay."

††††† "I was with him."

††††† "So he said. You know about Fiona?"

††††† "I certainly do," I told her. "No one has seen her?"

††††† Jessica looked distressed. "George, we found her dress and her shoes behind the stable. There was blood on her shoes."

††††† I winced - so McKay was right. "Good Lord," I said. "Another?"

††††† "But we haven't found her. That means there's hope."

††††† I didn't have the energy to match her perpetual optimism with any of my own. Instead, I slumped in a chair across the desk from her and wearily lowered my head to rest in my hands.The news about Fiona had been the final blow for me, and Jessica's flicker of hope seemed very small and remote against the looming shadow of everything else that had happened.As much as I wanted to cling to that hope myself, its faint promise was too uncertain to change my mind now, or undo what had already been done.

††††† "I'm selling Sutherland Castle," I told her quietly.

††††† Jessica's disappointment was heartbreaking. "I thought -"

††††† "I know," I sighed. "You suggested I wait until you and your friends had left. But the representatives from the London real estate consortium arrived in Wick last night. They've upped their offer. I met with them for breakfast this morning."

††††† "It's definite?"

††††† "Well, almost," I said. "I had reservations, and told them I needed another week to think it over. But then I bumped into McKay, who told me Fiona was missing. And now you tell me you've found her clothing, bloody at that. If anything has made up my mind, Jessica, it's this. The proverbial straw to break the camel's back. Itís best I put the peter on it."

††††† "Which means?"

††††† "Put a stop to the madness."

††††† "It's your decision, George. But I can't help thinking that -"

††††† "Another murder, Jessica," I said, banging my hands on the desk in frustration. "Enough is enough!"

††††† "We don't know that Fiona has been murdered," Jessica insisted.

††††† "Do you doubt it?" I demanded.

††††† "All I'm saying is that you not do something you might live to regret until we find out for certain what's happened to her."

††††† Her eyes were locked with mine, adamant and unyielding. I stared back at her, equally unwilling to waver from my course, and for a long moment we remained thus in a battle of wills.

††††† It was I who dropped my gaze first, resigned to the fact that she was right. "I don't know, Jessica," I sighed in defeat and not knowing what else to say. "I just don't know."

††††† "Constable McKay said he'd send his assistant here to look at the clothing - after he's finished cutting the cross from the bridge," she told me. "Why don't we take a look?"

††††† Well, why not, I thought, and I followed her out to the stables.

††††† Mort had strung a rope around the area in which Fiona's dress and shoes were discovered. We ducked beneath it, and I knelt to more closely observe the clothing. "Found exactly this way?" I asked her.

††††† "Not quite," she said. Ken picked up a shoe. That's when we realized there was blood on it."

††††† "It doesn't look good, does it?" I said sadly as I stood back up.

††††† Jessica wasn't willing to admit defeat just yet. "We just don't know," she said. "Finding her clothing, and finding her body are two different things. In fact, I can't help but wonder why this clothing is here."

††††† "Meaning what?"

††††† "It all seems - well, it seems a deliberate attempt to suggest the worst, without showing the worst," she said.

††††† "Why would anyone do that?" I asked her.

††††† "Why does anyone do anything, George?" Jessica sighed, casting her eyes towards the heavens. "Like kill Daisy Wemyss."

††††† I looked down at her hands, and noticed the bandage for the first time. "What happened to your hand?" I asked.

††††† "Oh, nothing," she said. "A cat got into my room last night. When I touched him this morning, he scratched me."

††††† "What cat?"

††††† Jessica gestured with her hands to approximate the cat's size. "A big, fat, black one."

††††† "That'd be Walter," I said, nodding, recognizing him by her description. "He lives in the barn with the other cats. Forbes feeds them. I should have warned you about leaving the window open at night - Walter likes to visit guests who do." I reached for her injured hand to have a closer look, but she drew it away.

††††† "It was nothing," she assured me, "just a little scratch."

††††† "Where's Malcolm?" I asked as we went inside the castle and returned to the living room.

††††† "I sent him to town to talk to Fiona's friends," Jessica said.

††††† "Good idea," I told her. "Forbes, would you please fetch us tea?"

††††† We said nothing as we sat in front of the fire and waited for Forbes to return. At length Jessica broke the silence.

††††† "Tell me more about these real estate people from London," she said.

††††† I shrugged. "Not much to tell. Very rich, for sure. They've been buying up country properties, most of them here in Scotland. They buy them up, fix them up, and turn them into profitable resorts."

††††† "I can see why they'd want Sutherland Castle," she said.

††††† "I can, too.I don't especially like the chaps they sent to Wick, but my personal feelings about them donít matter. Constable McKay told me this morning he's afraid the citizen group that's been trying to force me to sell might decide to take matters into their own hands now that Fiona is the next victim, and try to take over the castle by force."

††††† "That's absurd," Jessica scoffed. "Surely Constable McKay won't allow that."

††††† Mort Metzger wouldn't allow it, perhaps, but Mort was not Horace, and Wick was not Cabot Cove. "Not much he can do about it - it's just him and Bob," I said helplessly. "I told him about my breakfast meeting, and that I was going to sell the castle. He was much relieved; said it was the only way to avoid bloodshed."

††††† Jessica shook her head in disbelief at the situation I'd found myself in. "I can't believe in this day and age that citizens would be talking about storming a man's castle. That's - it's medieval. Barbaric." She trailed off, retreating to her own thoughts.

††††† "What are you thinking?" I asked her.

††††† "That I donít want to lose the day we've planned together," she said. "I'd like to get away from here for a few hours. Go to that pub you love and have a quiet lunch."

††††† "And we'll do it."

††††† Before I could say more, Horace and Bob arrived at the castle. After examining Fiona's dress and shoes and carefully collecting them in plastic bags, they settled back in the living room with us.

††††† "We'll find her body soon, I fear," McKay said.

††††† Jessica frowned. "Why wasn't her body with her clothes?" she asked.

††††† McKay and Bob looked at her curiously. "What are you getting at?" Horace asked her.

††††† "It just doesn't make any sense, that's all," said Jessica."It's as though someone wants us - wants somebody to believe Fiona has been murdered, like Daisy Wemyss was. But until her body is found, all we have is her clothing."

††††† "It's enough to me," McKay said. He looked at his deputy for confirmation of this opinion. "Enough for you, Robert?"

††††† "Aye, absolutely," said Bob, although he sounded a little bit doubtful, as though Jessica's words had made at least some impression on him. "Plenty for me."

††††† "You'll be checking the blood on the shoes, I take it," I said.

††††† "What for?" McKay replied. "We don't have her blood to compare it against."

††††† "But what if it's not human blood?" Jessica said suddenly.

††††† McKay and Bob again looked at Jessica, this time with open amazement - it was clear that Horace, at least, thought she had taken leave of her wits. "And what do you think red blood on a young woman's shoes might come from, Mrs. Fletcher?" he asked her with more than a trace of snideness in his tone.

††††† "I don't know," she said. "An animal, perhaps. The point is that Inspector Sutherland is right: the blood should be checked."

††††† "I'll be the judge a' that," McKay said firmly.

††††† "I'm sure you will," said Jessica, no longer able to disguise her disgust with his cocky attitude.

††††† Malcolm returned not long after Horace and Bob had left.

††††† "Any luck?" Jessica asked him hopefully.

††††† "No, ma'am," he replied. "It's like Fiona just disappeared from the earth. Have you learned anything?"

††††† Jessica and I looked at each other. "I'm afraid we've found Fiona's dress and shoes out behind the stable," I told him.

††††† "Oh, no," Malcolm groaned.

††††† "I'm afraid it's true," said Jessica. "And there was blood on her shoe."

††††† "Good Guid! Poor Fiona."

††††† Jessica hastened to reassure him. "It doesn't mean any harm has come to her, Malcolm."

††††† "What else could it mean?" he said. "Excuse me. I'd best see if Mrs. Gower gie a hieze."

††††† "What's that mean?" Jessica asked me when he was gone.

††††† "Odd expression - Archaic Gaelic: 'Lend a hand,' I think," I replied absently. "I have a few things to tend to before we set out for lunch. I want to gather all the paperwork on the castle, deeds and such, for the London buyers."

††††† "I suppose you should," she sighed. "I'll freshen up in my room. Meet you down here in an hour?"
††††† "Aye. That'll be enough time."

††††† I turned to head to my office, but Jessica's hand on my arm stopped me. "George."

††††† "Yes?"

††††† She looked down at the floor, then back up at me. "Whatever you decide to do, just know I'm proud to stand with you."

††††† I smiled at the sincerity I saw in her eyes. "You'll never know how much that means to this stubborn Scotsman, Jessica," I told her.

††††† "Then stay stubborn, George," she told me. "Don't be too quick to give in. Stubborn becomes you."

†††††

††††† An hour later I emerged from the castle ready to go, my favorite pair of field glasses hanging around my neck. Jessica was waiting for me outside, chatting with Seth.

††††† "Ready?" I asked her.

††††† "Yes. Just give me a minute to grab a sweater."

††††† She headed back indoors while I went to the garage. There I kept one of my most prized possessions: a vintage Mercedes SL convertible, black with a tan leather interior. I didn't have much opportunity to drive it, but I always made sure it was kept in tip-top shape for those rare occasions when I did. It started up without hesitation, and the hum of its well-tuned engine was like a balm to my weary soul.

††††† Jessica came back outside wearing her cable-knit sweater and carrying a jacket over her arm.She looked at the SL with open admiration.

††††† "Care to drive?" I asked her.

††††† She laughed. "You know I donít drive."

††††† "Aye, and I still wonder why you don't."

††††† "Just never got around to it," she said with a shrug.

††††† "I could teach you."

††††† "Oh, no," she said as she got in the passenger seat. "Even if I wanted to learn, it wouldn't be here, where everyone drives on the wrong side of the road."

††††† "That's presumptuous of you, Jessica," I said with mock severity. "I think it's you Americans who use the wrong side."

††††† Jessica held up her hands and laughed. "An argument that will never be resolved."

††††† Once we left the castle grounds I charted a course for the coast. Although the day had started out fair, the sky promised more active weather to come as the day progressed: bright blue sky alternated with white clouds whisked along on stiff winds.Some of the clouds were growing into towering black thunderheads, with rain streaking from them towards the earth below.

††††† There was a place I knew of where the coastal route came close to the cliffs that towered above the shoreline, and this is where I took her.I pulled off the road and into a little gravel parking area bounded only by some irregular boulders, got out, and came around to open the door for Jessica. Taking her hand, I led her right to the very edge of the sheer granite bluff, where we stood on the precipice and looked out over the vastness of the North Sea. Jessica caught her breath, dazzled by spectacular view spread before her from our lofty vantage point.Although I had been here many times in the past, seeing her experience this place for the first time renewed my appreciation for it as well, and for a long while we stood silent, taking in the splendor around us.

††††† The stiff wind was cold off the water, causing Jessica to pull her sweater closer about herself.I looked at her and saw that she was shivering, so I put my arm around her and drew her close to me to keep her warm.

††††† "Being born here must mean carrying this remarkable place with you always," she said, the wind nearly whipping her words away as soon as she spoke them.

††††† "Aye," I agreed, happy that she understood the depth of my connection to this place. "It does get in your bones and soul."

††††† "So beautiful - it's awe-inspiring."

††††† "I'm glad you can see the beauty in it, Jessica, through the ugliness of the other things that have happened."

††††† "I can," she readily agreed, her eyes still fixed on the horizon. She made a wide arc with her arm, encompassing everything she could see. "This is the way I want to remember Wick," she said. "This is the way I will remember it: this moment, this spot."

††††† "And so shall I." I paused, then began, "Jessica, I -"

††††† Jessica's demeanor instantly changed, and I felt her tense within the circle of my arm. "I'm cold," she said, and started to pull away from me.

††††† Chastened, I let her go.I had hoped to take advantage of the seclusion and beauty of this place to pick up where we had left off in the garden, but it was clear that Jessica was no more comfortable discussing the subject of my feelings for her now than she was then.I let the matter drop, though not without a pang of regret.

††††† "Let's get in the car," I said. "We'll go for lunch."

††††† I took Jessica to a favorite place of mine, The Birks of Aberfeldy, a pub set near the docks in the village.

††††† "What an unusual name," Jessica said when she saw it.

††††† "From a Burns poem, 'The Birks of Aberfeldy,'" I told her. I then translated the title for her benefit: "The birches of Aberfeldy, a Scottish town."

††††† Stepping inside The Birks was like stepping back in time.The long wooden bar, its surface scarred from ages of use, was crowded with patrons, and most of the tables, also old and well-worn, were similarly occupied.But there was one empty table available near the front window affording a view both of the pub's dark interior and of the harbor outside.

††††† Joan, who had been a fixture at the place for years, approached us as we settled ourselves at the table with a big grin on her face. "Good day, Inspector Sutherland," she said brightly.

††††† "Good day, Joan," I replied. "This is Mrs. Fletcher, a good friend and my guest for a week or so."

††††† Jessica extended her hand with a smile. As she took it, Joan said, "I know all about you, Mrs. Fletcher."

††††† "Oh?" Jessica said in surprise.

††††† "Not much to do here in Wick," said Joan. "Everybody's talking about you."

††††† Looking puzzled, Jessica said, "Talking about -?"

††††† "You and Inspector Sutherland." The pixie in her eyes matched the knowing smile on her lips, and I groaned inwardly.

††††† Jessica looked down at the table, clearly upset and embarrassed.

††††† "We'll be looking at menus, Joan, if you don't mind," I said, quickly changing the subject, "and hearing about today's specials."

††††† She returned moments later and handed us each a handwritten menu. "Two specials today," she said. "Tripe and onions, and toad-in-the-hole. We've got beef and Yorkshire pudding, though the beef's a bit on the tough side, if you know what I mean."

††††† "We'll need a few minutes," I said. "In the meantime, a drink, Jessica?"

††††† "I suppose I should at least taste a beer."

††††† I looked at Joan. "Two ales, please."

††††† Joan soon returned with a couple of pints for us. As soon as she had gone again to see to her other customers, I lifted my glass to Jessica: "To finally finding a few peaceful hours together."

††††† "That's worth drinking to," Jessica said emphatically, touching the rim of her glass to mine. I watched her closely as she tasted the ale - she had a thoughtful look on her face as if trying to decide if she liked it or not. "So, George," she said at last, putting it down again, "what is toad-in-the-hole?"

††††† I laughed and replied, "Sausages in batter. Quite good, actually. I'd take Joan's advice about the beef."

††††† She glanced up from her menu and asked, "Mad cow disease?"

††††† "No," I replied. "Tough-cut-of-beef disease. Like jellied eels?"

††††† Her answer was unequivocal: "No."

††††† "Nor do I. There's always the ploughman - chunk of cheese, crusty brown bread, butter, a few pickled onions."

††††† "Dover sole and spinach sounds just fine," she said.

††††† "We'll make it two."

††††† The ale was excellent as always, and while we waited for our lunch to be served I finished the first and ordered another. Jessica, who I knew was not much of a beer drinker, did little more than sip hers. It was a shame, but I admired her willingness to at least try something new.

††††† As we ate, I noticed that the conversation at the bar had grown louder, and more distinct than the usual babble of patrons enjoying a pint. One man who stood a full head higher than his companions was dominating the scene, and I recognized him as Taim MacDougall, a churlish chap with far more brawn than brains. Ordinarily people paid him little heed, but he seemed to have gathered a sympathetic audience of mates around him, and was holding forth on the subject of me and my castle in tones more appropriate for Parliament than a village pub. When he glanced over at our table, it became clear that his loud speech was only partially due to intoxication - he fully intended for Jessica and me to hear his words.

††††† "That clan and its castle have brought terrible things to this fine village," he was saying. "A curse, that's what Sutherland Castle is. We should burn it down, rid ourselves of it."

††††† A chorus of "Ayes," greeted his words.

††††† Jessica looked at me anxiously; she was also following the scene at the bar. "Maybe we'd better leave," she said.

††††† "We haven't had dessert," I replied in a perfectly calm voice that surprised even myself, my eyes still trained on Taim. "They make very good sweets here."

††††† "I'm sure they do, but Ö"

††††† I beckoned for Joan. "What sweets are you serving up today?"

††††† "Trifle," she said, counting the items off on her fingers, "gooseberry fool, flitting dumpling."

††††† Jessica smiled. "Translation needed," she said, also keeping one eye on the scene at the bar.

††††† "A 'fool' is a light, creamy sweet," I explained to her. "Gooseberries are in season. A flitting dumpling is a stout pudding. We can slice it and take it along when we 'flit' to another place."

††††† "That's wonderful," she said. "I'll have the gooseberry fool."

††††† "Trifle for me."

††††† Joan leaned close to us. "Sorry about the boys, Inspector," she said, aiming a dark look at Taim with her eyes. "They've had a wee bit too much ale."

††††† "Not a problem," I told her, fervently hoping that my words would prove true. "Coffee, Jessica?"

††††† "Yes, please."

††††† "Two coffees," I said to Joan, "and a check."

††††† Dessert was excellent as always, although I daresay we would have enjoyed it more without the increasing disturbance created by Taim and his supporters over at the bar. Neither one of us made any pretense of trying to ignore it; Jessica's attention was focused on it just as much as mine was, although she kept the fact that she was watching Taim carefully subtle. Once we had finished Joan produced the check, which I set on the table with enough money to cover the bill and her tip.I rose and helped Jessica on with her coat.

††††† Seeing us getting ready to leave, Taim decided to make his move. He pushed away from the bar and weaved his way toward us, coming between our table and the door.

††††† "Good afternoon," I said to him.

††††† "You've got nerve, Sutherland," he said to me, "comin' down here into the village."

††††† "And why might that be?" I asked.

††††† Taim knew as well as I did that I had as much right to be in the village as he had. For a moment he was at a loss for words, and stood there blinking stupidly as he tried to come up with an appropriate retort. It was easy enough to hear the rusty wheels grinding away in his thick head; conversation in the pub had ceased completely.

††††† "Good day, everyone," I said, taking advantage of Taim's momentary confusion. I touched Jessica's arm and guided her in the direction of the door, but Taim once again blocked our path.

††††† "Can I be of help to you?" I asked him impatiently, locking eyes with him.

††††† "Aye. You can sell that bloody castle and get yourself out of Wick." Some of his friends moved closer to the epicenter of the confrontation, forming a semicircle behind him.

††††† "I'll do what I wish, and do it when I wish," I said firmly. "In the meantime, you're blocking our way. The lady doesn't appreciate it."

††††† "'The lady,' is she?" Taim sneered. "Your lady, you mean."

††††† I managed - barely - to keep my temper in check.Joan was right - the whole town was talking about Jessica, and had come to its own conclusions about her without the benefit of the facts. "Get out of the way," I said to Taim. "Go on, Jessica. Wait for me outside."

††††† But Jessica stood her ground. "I'll leave with you," she said.

††††† I took her hand and made a move for the door, but the Taim repositioned himself right in front of it.I sighed inwardly - Taim was being an even bigger lout than usual, and it was clear from his stance and expression that he had no intention of letting us leave without a fight. Very well, I thought. Ask and ye shall receive.

††††† I pushed Jessica away from me with one hand while I shoved Taim in the chest with the other to push him out of the way. Taim didn't take kindly to that; he growled a curse and raised his arm to strike, but I had been expecting his reaction, and before he could swing at me I landed a blow squarely on his nose with my fist.Drunk as he was, my action sent him stumbling backwards into the waiting arms of his compatriots. I watched, fists still clenched, as he wiped his face and looked at the blood that came away on his hand in bewilderment.

††††† "You broke my nose," he slurred.

††††† "You asked for it," I told him calmly. "Are we finished here?"

††††† Taim had two options at this point - he could resume the charge, in which case I had no compunctions against laying him out flat on the floor of the pub, or he could quit while he had at least a few tattered remains of his dignity left.Fortunately, the tiny part of his brain responsible for rational thought prompted him to take the latter course of action.He cursed under his breath, turned his back to me, and leaned heavily against the bar, to submit to the tender ministrations of his cronies.

††††† I held out my hand to Jessica, who had retreated to a corner of the room in case the altercation grew into a full-fledged brawl.

††††† "Lunch was excellent, Joan," I said as I took her hand, and without a backward glance we left the pub together.

††††† It was only once we were safely outside that I began to feel the unpleasant tingling in my hand. I drew breath, and rubbed it to get the blood flowing properly again.

††††† Jessica looked at me in concern. "You're hurt," she said.

††††† "Nothing serious," I assured her as I shook out my hand. "No broken bones, except for his nose. Bloody fool," I continued, half to myself. "I hate fights, and will walk miles to avoid one. I feel black affrontit, Jessica - quite ashamed, subjecting you to violence."

††††† Jessica looked at me shrewdly. "You could have arrested him."

††††† "Aye," I acknowledged. "Any member of the Yard has jurisdiction throughout the U.K., even here in Wick, as far north as you can get in Scotland except for John o' Groat's. But it wasn't a police matter. Stupid bloke is drunk. He's cocked the wee finger too many times."

††††† She smiled, as she usually did when I slipped into my habit of speaking in Scottish idioms. "Don't be ashamed," she said. "You did what you had to do."

††††† I took a deep breath and let it out again, as though to clear the pub's unpleasant atmosphere from my lungs. "Feel like a walk, Jessica?"

††††† "Yes," she said. "It's a nice day for it."

††††† We strolled the dock area, breathing in the bracing salt air and reveling in the sun's warmth on our faces. At one point I caught a glimpse of what I thought was a reed bunting perched on a piling; a closer look with my field glasses confirmed it.

††††† "What is it?" Jessica asked, noting my action.

††††† "A reed bunting," I said. "Not many of them around these days."

††††† "I wondered why you were carrying those binoculars," she said, laughing. "I didn't know you were a bird watcher."

††††† "Strictly amateur, but I do enjoy spotting them." I passed the glasses to her so she could have a look for herself, but just as I did the bunting took the opportunity to fly off.Jessica looked through them anyway, taking in the harbor and the boats moving in and out of it.One seemed to capture her interest; she watched it for several moments without speaking.

††††† "Mr. Lochbuie is out there in his boat," she said at last, handing the glasses back to me.

††††† I looked through them at the boat she indicated, and saw not just old Evan, but another familiar face on deck with him. "That's interesting," I muttered to myself.

††††† "What is?"

††††† "The fellow with him. Look."

††††† She took the glasses back for another look at Lochbuie's boat and his unlikely guest. "Who is he?" she asked.

††††† "One of the buyers from London I had breakfast with this morning."

††††† "Oh? Why would he be out on a boat with someone like Evan Lochbuie?"

††††† "I haven't an answer, Jessica," I said thoughtfully. "Maybe you can come up with one."

††††† "Maybe I can," she said slowly.She looked up at me then with a sudden, eager light shining in her eyes. "Still feel like walking?"

††††† "I feel like doing anything except returning to the castle," I said, wondering at the change in her demeanor.

††††† "Then let's walk," she said promptly. "While we do, I'll tell you what I think might be going on, and more importantly, what we might do about it. I think it's time to bring this to a head."

 

††††† Despite the beauty of the day, Fiona's disappearance and the discovery of her clothing took the edge off the pleasure of being together. Conversation inevitably returned to that unpleasant subject, and so we headed back to the castle sooner than originally planned. Constable McKay and his deputy, Bob, were there waiting for me.

††††† "Hello, Horace," I said without enthusiasm.

††††† "Hello, George. Spare us a minute?"

††††† I nodded to Jessica, who headed upstairs to her room, and escorted McKay and Bob to my office.

††††† When we were settled, McKay said, "It should come as no surprise to you that Taim MacDougall wants to press charges against you for bloodying his nose at the Birks today."

††††† "On the contrary," I said, "it comes as very much of a surprise to me. Taim was drunk.Probably a dozen witnesses can attest to that, and to the fact that he swung at me first after repeatedly blocking my way."

††††† "That's not what he says," said McKay. "To hear him tell it, he was trying to have a friendly conversation with you, and you socked him without provocation. And he has a dozen witnesses that will back up his version as well."

††††† "Witnesses," I snorted, dismissing them with a wave of my hand. "His cronies at the bar, you mean. What good are they as witnesses? Donny Macbride, who's nearsighted when he's sober and blind as a bat when he's not? Tim Connaught, who can't be trusted to tell a story straight and who tips the bottle a wee too much? And John MacGinnes - ah, there's a trustworthy lad, with the IQ of a turnip and just as suggestible - aye, those are fine witnesses he has indeed. There's not a one of the lot that was with him that I'd trust as far as I could throw them."

††††† "Nevertheless, George, in the eyes of the law it comes down to his word against yours.Unless, of course, you're willing to admit that you may have overreacted because you were defending Mrs. Fletcher?"

††††† I caught the gleam in his eye, and realized what he was trolling for - confirmation that there was some truth to the local hearsay that Jessica and I were a couple, or, as Taim had put it so succinctly, that Jessica was "my lady."

††††† "I know what you're getting at, Horace," I snapped. "You want to be the first to validate the juicy rumors that are making the rounds in the village about Mrs. Fletcher and me. Well, I won't dignify that with an answer, let alone confirm what you're suggesting." Not to mention that Jessica would have my hide if she ever found out.

††††† "Taim's charge is not the only reason we came up here, George." McKay took a deep breath, looked me square in the eye, and said, "I came here mostly to warn you."

††††† "Warn me of what?"

††††† "That you and everyone here at the castle are in danger," he said. "The mutterings of the townsfolk have grown into a roar, and they are ready to take matters into their own hands."

††††† I looked at Bob for confirmation; he merely nodded.

††††† "And what exactly are they planning to do?"

††††† "The word is they intend to burn the castle to the ground, along with everyone in it."

††††† This was what I had feared, and to say that it was alarming would be something of an understatement.It struck me as odd, however, that McKay did not seem to share that alarm - rather, the way he said it made me think that he was merely complacent, as though resigned to the fact.

††††† "What are you planning on doing about it?" I asked him.

††††† "Nothing," he said.

††††† "Nothing?"

††††† "What do you expect me to do?"

††††† "Call in reinforcements. Establish a curfew. Arrest the ringleaders. Anything but stand to the side and watch this happen!"

††††† "You know I can't do any of those things without solid evidence," he replied. "The most I can do is warn you, so that you and yours aren't here when it happens."

††††† "So you're handing youíre authority over to mob rule?" I said.

††††† "Of course not," he retorted, growing angry at last. "Do you think I'm happy about any of this? Don't you think I would prevent this if I had the resources to do so? But I don't have the resources - the budget is tight, you know that. It's just Bob and me, and what are two men against an angry mob?The only person who has the power to stop this from happening is you, George."He paused to collect himself and regain a hold on his temper then said, "Now, my guess is that they won't move 'til nightfall - that gives you a few hours.Get away from this place, you and everyone else.Otherwise," he added ominously, "I can no longer promise the safety of anyone at Sutherland Castle."

††††† There was a heavy silence in the room as I considered his words against what Jessica had told me earlier.

††††† "Well," McKay said with an air of finality, "I've said my piece. Bob and I need to be getting back down to the village. Think about what I've said, George." He and Bob rose from their chairs to leave.

††††† McKay paused at the door of the office. "I almost forgot," he said. "I got the report back from Doc Lord regarding the cross we cut out of the railing of the bridge."

††††† "That was fast," I said. "What did he say?"

††††† The constable looked at me gravely. "It was blood, just as we thought," he said. "Human blood."

††††† My heart sank. "Whose?"

††††† "No way of knowing that without running more tests. Suffice to say, whoever is behind this is deadly serious."

††††† I escorted them out to the foyer just as Jessica was coming inside.

††††† "Excuse me," she said, starting past us.

††††† "You might want to hear this, Jessica," I said.

††††† She paused and turned. "Hear what?"

††††† "The big bloke in the pub today wants to press charges against me for assault."

††††† "Thatís preposterous," she exclaimed. "He went to hit you first."

††††† "Thatís what I told the constable," I said, "but our fat friend says otherwise."

††††† Jessica, ever willing to stand by me, declared, "Well, I assure you I'll be a witness if it ever comes to that. I'll fly here to testify from wherever I am."

††††† "Probably won't come to that, Mrs. Fletcher," McKay said. He then turned to me and said, "Think over what I said, George. Think hard and fast about it."

††††† "I will."

††††† After they left, Jessica said to me, "I take it they didn't come here just to tell you that the drunk in the pub wants to press charges."

††††† "You're right," I sighed. "The constable says he can no longer be responsible for the safety of anyone at Sutherland Castle. According to him, the townspeople are ready to take matters into their own hands."

††††† "Do you believe him?"

††††† "I don't know," I replied honestly. "If I buy what you said this afternoon, Jessica, I probably shouldn't believe him. But I'm not sure."

††††† We heard the warning beep of the lorry backing up.

††††† "What the devil is that?" I asked.

††††† "Mr. Peterman," Jessica replied. "He's back, with a film crew and equipment."

††††† "Why?"

††††† "He says he wants to make a documentary about the castle and what's been going on."

††††† "The bloody hell he will."

††††† I opened the front doors and was confronted with the unwelcome sight of Peterman's crew unloading huge black steamer trunks, dozens of lengths of pipe, lights, sound equipment, and other paraphernalia from a lorry.

††††† "Hi, Inspector," Peterman said brightly. "Thought you'd never see me again?"

††††† "Hoped" was the word I would have chosen."Move that truck."

††††† "Why?" he asked.

††††† I was in no mood to justify myself to this annoying little man. "Don't ask me why, Mr. Peterman," I growled. "Just pack your stuff and leave."

††††† "Now, wait a minute," Peterman said, getting defensive. "I'm a paying guest here."

††††† "Yes, you are," I acknowledged. "But they aren't."

††††† "They're staying in that other hotel down the road. All I need is a place for the equipment. We'll keep out of your way, shoot most of it outdoors. Mrs. Fletcher here is going to be our first interview."

††††† I sighed, tightened my grip on my temper, and said, "Mr. Peterman, I'm sure you are, at heart, a very nice person, but -"

††††† "George," Jessica said, interrupting what I was about to say, "maybe it won't be so bad. At least hear him out."

††††† "Right," Peterman said. "Hear me out."

††††† I looked at her in surprise at the notion that she would side with Peterman. "You've agreed to be interviewed?" I asked her.

††††† She shook her head. "No. But that doesn't matter. Come inside." She turned to Peterman and said, "Why don't you leave the equipment in the truck and park it behind those outbuildings. I'm sure it will be safe there."

††††† The three-man crew looked to Peterman for instructions; Peterman, in turn, looked at Jessica, who nodded.As for me, I went inside as she had suggested, and retreated to the sanctuary of my office, where I shut the door, sat down at my desk, and rested my head in my hands.This was all getting to be much too much.It was clear that Jessica had something up her sleeve, but I was still very much in the dark about it, as much a spectator as everyone else.All I could do was relinquish control of the situation to her - something I was not used to doing, especially in my own home. The reality of this left me feeling very uneasy.

††††† I only hoped that Jessica knew what she was doing.††††††††††

 

††††† The special dinner that night was "Cullen Skink," which I explained was a Scottish fish stew, usually based upon the use of haddock and dating back centuries. "Skink" was an old Scottish word for stew; Cullen referred to the fishing village on the Moray Firth where the stew was first introduced.

††††† Charlene Sassi told us gleefully that Mrs. Gower had allowed her to be in the kitchen to observe the preparation of the evening's fare. "She uses lots of bay leaf and leek, and has a heavy hand with the salt and pepper."

††††† "Not good for my blood pressure," Seth said.

††††† "Or your figure either," Charlene said. "Not with all the butter she uses."

††††† We were a full table again. Everyone from the Cabot Cove contingent was there, along with Dr. and Mrs. Symington and the Petermans. Naturally, talk turned to Fiona and her disappearance. As the others discussed it, I leaned over to Jessica, who was seated to my right, and said, "I forgot to mention that Constable McKay had the cross from the bridge analyzed."

††††† "I thought he had to send it away," Jessica said.

††††† "He can do basic blood testing," I replied. "It was human blood."

††††† She took in a sharp breath. "No doubt about it?"

††††† "Not according to him."

††††† "What about Fiona's shoes?"

††††† "He hasn't gotten around to that yet, said he'd try to get it done in the morning if he can steal some of Doc Lord's time. Lord is Wick's coroner, among other things. He did the test on the cross."

††††† Jessica looked confused. "Why didn't you call him when Seth was sick?"

††††† I chuckled and explained, "Lord is a vet."

††††† "Oh."

††††† Once the meal was finished we withdrew to the drawing room for the usual after-dinner conversation.

††††† "What's the entertainment tonight?" I asked, joining Jessica and a group of her friends from home.

††††† "Charades," Roberta said. "You'll play, won't you, Jess?"

††††† "Not tonight," Jessica answered.

††††† "Not feeling well?" she asked.

††††† "Feeling fine," she replied. "But Dr. Symington's belief that I might see the lady in white again tonight intrigues me. I thought I'd conduct a little experiment."
††††† "Oh?" Seth said. "What sort of experiment?"

††††† "Make myself available to her. Help the process along." She laughed and added, "Wouldn't it be interesting if I actually could will her to appear to me?"

††††† What, I wondered, had Symington said to her this time? Then I remembered our conversation from earlier this afternoon while we were walking back to the castle, and realized that she was already setting her plan into motion.

††††† Malcolm was making the rounds of the room, offering refreshments to the guests. "Something to drink, Mrs. Fletcher?" he asked.

††††† She turned to the others and asked, "Does alcohol enhance the ability to see spirits?"

††††† "Not likely," Seth said. "When do you intend to conduct this so-called experiment, Jessica?"

††††† "Oh, I don't know - in an hour. You're free to join me."

††††† "The lady in white might not like a crowd," Roberta said.

††††† "I'll take that chance," she said. "Besides, there should be witnesses to any experiment. Maybe you'll see her too."

††††† Malcolm was still waiting for her answer. "A soft drink," she said. "Lemonade?"

††††† "Aye, ma'am. We have that."

††††† After Malcolm delivered her drink, Jessica and I walked out into the courtyard.

††††† "Lovely night," I said, gazing up at the twinkling stars.

††††† "Exquisite," she agreed.

††††† We stood gazing at the heavens in silence for several long moments before I said, "So you're going through with your plan?"

††††† "Yes."

††††† "I'm afraid I still don't grasp the significance of the things you mentioned."

††††† "I'm not sure I do either, George," she admitted. "But if I'm right in my supposition, these disparate things support it. It's worth a try."

††††† "Peterman has agreed?"

††††† "Yes," she said. "He's really not a bad sort. He's just - well, he's just Hollywood."

††††† "Remind me to not vacation there - in Hollywood."

††††† I laughed and touched his arm. "I'll remind you at regular intervals. Can I make that call now?"

††††† "Of course," I said. "I left Lord's number on my desk."

††††† "Thanks, George," she said. "If it works, this nightmare you've been living might be over."

††††† "If it is, Jessica Fletcher, I'll be in your eternal debt." I smiled and added with a note of pixie in my tone, "A situation I would not find unpleasant."

††††† "Are you playing charades?" she asked.

††††† "No. But I'll watch until it's time for your ghostsighting adventure."

††††† "I'll join you."

††††† We went back inside so Jessica could call the veterinarian. Afterwards we returned to the living room, where everyone had gathered and chosen sides for the game. Jessica and I passed the hour watching them. As if on cue, the hour ended with Charlene's team acting out the motion picture The Ghost and Mrs. Muir. Seth guessed it, to the applause of his teammates.

††††† "I think it's time," Jessica said as she stood. "Ready?"

††††† Everyone followed her from the room to the wide staircase leading upstairs. Jessica paused, turned, and said, "Wish me luck."

††††† We ascended the stairs and gathered in the hallway.

††††† "This is where you saw her?" Mort asked.

††††† "Yes. I suggest everyone back off to over there." She pointed to a spot a dozen feet away, and they moved to it, joining Dr. Symington who stood holding a notebook.

††††† "How do you intend to summon her?" I asked.

††††† "I have no idea," she replied. Maybe I'll just ask her to appear."

††††† We were all distracted by sounds from outside the castle. Jessica looked at me, trying to read my expression.Knowing that the fate of the castle depended on her going through with her plan without interruption, I held up a finger to indicate that she should continue with what she were doing, and went downstairs to deal with the disturbance myself.

††††† Horace was right; what confronted me when I opened the doors to the front courtyard was nothing less than a full-fledged mob, carrying torches and armed to the teeth. There were dozens of men there, led by Evan Lochbuie, who was leading them in a chant: "Close the castle! Sutherland must go!"

††††† Forbes materialized at my side. "Sir," he said, "should I get us guns to defend ourselves?"

††††† "No," I said. "I will not fire upon our own neighbors. Besides, there are too many of them. Go back inside - when Jessica has finished her business upstairs, gather everyone in the living room, and wait for me there."

††††† Forbes nodded, and disappeared back indoors as silently as he had come.

††††† I looked over the crowd, recognizing many familiar faces. Some of the people there I'd expected to see, like Taim MacDougall. Others were surprises - men who'd never had anything but gentle words for me, men who I'd considered friends.Horace McKay and Bob were also there, but not as part of the mob. They stood off to the side, observing the goings-on but making no move to interfere.

††††† "Go home," I shouted to the crowd. "Don't be fools. Go home to your families."

††††† "Not until you've gone home for good," someone yelled. "To bloody London."

††††† I looked to McKay, who seemed disinterested in what was going on. "You'd better take charge, Horace," I said to him.

††††† "And I told you, George, it was out of my hands. Too much water under the bridge, too much evil."

††††† Something stirred at my side, and I looked to see Jessica standing beside me, the reflected torchlight glittering in her eyes.

††††† "Go back inside," I told her.

††††† "Not on your life," she said adamantly. Looking out over the sea of faces and torches, she quipped, "This reminds me of The Hunchback of Notre Dame."

††††† Her comment caused me to smile, if only for a moment.I watched as a change come over her: she became uncannily calm and resolute, oblivious to the peril before us as she stepped in front of me. I was reminded of her trance-like state at the Tower of London incident, but this time knew better than to try and interfere.

††††† Jessica held up her hands, and addressed the crowd in as loud a voice as she could summon: "You are all mistaken. There is no evil at Sutherland Castle - no ghosts, no witchcraft."

††††† "It's Sutherland's bloody lassie," a man said. "Pay no heed to her."

††††† "Listen to me," she cried, straining to be heard. "If you'll put down your torches and weapons, I can prove it to you." She then turned to me and said, "Can I invite them in?"

††††† "Invite them in?" I repeated in disbelief. "I think that would be -"

††††† "Please, George," she said earnestly. "At least let me try."

††††† There are moments in life when we have to surrender control and put our fates completely in the hands of others; if the look in Jessica's eyes was any indication, this was just such a moment.So I did the only thing I could do - I handed her the authority: "All right."

††††† "Put down your weapons and extinguish your torches," she said. "Then come inside. I'll show you what I'm talking about."

††††† There was a lot of muttering as they decided whether to accept the invitation. Jessica looked directly at Constable McKay, who seemed especially confused."Take charge, Constable," she said to him. "Tell them to do what I said."

††††† I reinforced my message: "Listen to her, Horace. If you don't, you'll have bloodshed on your hands."

††††† McKay looked to the others, held up his hands, and said, "Nothing to be lost hearing what she has to say," he shouted. To Jessica he said, "Just a few minutes, Mrs. Fletcher. No more. You can say your piece."

††††† Jessica nodded. "Fair enough."

††††† They followed us into the castle and to the living room, where the others had congregated. Even in the large space, the crowd spilled into the hallway. Brock Peterman had already set up a video screen in one corner.

††††† "Where's Malcolm?" Jessica asked Forbes.

††††† "In the kitchen with Mrs. Gower," he replied in his low, measured, flat voice.

††††† "Please get him and Mrs. Gower for me," she said.

††††† Forbes looked to me. "Go on," I told him. "Do what Mrs. Fletcher has asked."

††††† While waiting for them, Jessica went to where Peterman stood next to his video equipment. "All set?" she asked him.

††††† "Yup. I took a look while you were outside. Pretty clear, considering the lack of light. The lens I used is a monster - picks up images in damn near total darkness."

††††† "Good."

††††† Malcolm came into the room, followed by the glowering Mrs. Gower. He came to Jessica and said, "Mrs. Fletcher, I can't be staying. My mum's come down sick and -"

††††† "It will only take a moment, Malcolm," she told him. "I promise you that - just a minute."

††††† "Sorry, ma'am, but -"

††††† "You stay put," I said, placing my hand on the young man's shoulder.

††††† Jessica turned to Ken Sassi. "Ken, would you please get me that chair?"

††††† He pulled over a sturdy, broad wooden chair and held her hand as she stepped up onto it. She raised my hands, getting the attention of the assembly, and the conversations slowly dwindled to expectant silence.

††††† "Thank you," she said. "And thank you for allowing me these few minutes to explain what's been going on here at Sutherland Castle, and in your lovely village of Wick.You've come here tonight because you're afraid."

††††† "I not be afraid," a man said. "I fear nothing and no one."

††††† "I'm sure you're very brave," Jessica said. "You all are. You've proved that over many years of strife and hard times. But you have wives and children. You want the best for them, just as you want the best for your beloved Wick."

††††† "Is there something wrong with that?" another man asked.

††††† "No. And that is exactly my point," said Jessica. "The strange things that have been occurring here and in the village have set everyone on edge, which is perfectly understandable. The problem is that none of it is the result of some evil force being cast upon you by this castle or its owner, George Sutherland."

††††† "Young Daisy Wemyss was killed like she was a witch," her uncle said. "A dear and loving niece she was, killed with the pitchfork through her heart and a cross carved on her young throat. What do you say to that?"

††††† "I say her murder was a terrible tragedy, one that never should have happened," said Jessica with heart-felt sincerity. "But it was not witchcraft or evil spirits that killed Daisy Wemyss. It was not Sutherland Castle. It was not some bizarre link to the past, to the way Evelyn Gowdie was killed twenty years ago, or Isabell Gowdie more than three hundred years before that. Daisy was killed because -"

††††† She paused as she spotted Malcolm edging away from the crowd in the direction of a door. "Malcolm," she commanded, "don't leave."

††††† "What's he got to do with any of this?" someone asked.

††††† "I'll show you," she said. "Mr. Peterman, would you do the honors."

††††† "Somebody lower the lights," Peterman said, and I obliged him.

††††† "Go ahead," Jessica said to Peterman, who started the videotape. "Watch closely."

††††† Everyone squeezed close together in order to see the screen. The scene taking shape on the screen was of the upstairs hallway, videotaped from the secluded vantage point of the room across from the door that led to an upstairs storage loft. The room was deathly still. The tape rolled on, and Jessica's voice came through the speakers: "I suggest everyone back off to over there."

††††† My voice: "How do you intend to summon her?"

††††† "I have no idea. Maybe I'll just ask her to appear."

††††† This was the point where I had left to deal with the developing crisis outside, so what followed was as new to me as to the rest of the audience.

††††† "Can you see her?" Dr. Symington asked.

††††† "Yes! I see her."

††††† Now the chants from outside could be heard: "Close the castle! Sutherland must go! Close the castle! Sutherland must go!" The torchlight could be seen even on the tape recording.

††††† "Gie a heize."

††††† "What? Would you repeat that?"

††††† "What's goin' on out there?"

††††† "Let's go see."

††††† "No, wait," I said.

††††† "For what?" Jim Shevlin asked.

††††† "For Mr. Peterman to confirm he got it all."

††††† "What are you talking about?"

††††† "Mr. Peterman, come out. Did you get it?"

††††† "Sure did. Got it all."

††††† Dr. Symington's voice: "You put the Lady in White on film?"

††††† And Jessica's answer: "No. But he has on film who's behind what's been going on here."

††††† "Wait a minute, I don't get it," Mort Metzger said on the tape. "What are you saying, Mrs. F?"

††††† "I suggest we go downstairs and see what's going on outside. Once that's settled, we can gather in the living room and watch Mr. Peterman's video. I think you'll all find it v-e-r-y interesting."

††††† Peterman stopped the VCR, and I turned up the lights.

††††† "What's this all mean?" Constable McKay asked defiantly.

††††† "Did you really see the lady in white?" Charlene asked Jessica.

††††† "I'll get to that in a moment," she replied. "In the meantime, there's some more video to watch."

††††† I dimmed the lights again, and Peterman rolled the video from where he'd left off.

††††† Jessica and the others had left the upstairs landing and gone downstairs. Now a second cameral was trained on the door in the hallway from its hidden vantage point. We waited for something to happen. It took less than a minute - the door to the hallway opened, and Malcolm James was seen. He poked his head out, looked left and right, stepped from the doorway, closed the door behind him, locked it, and moved quickly out of frame.

††††† "Don't let Malcolm James leave," Jessica said directly to Constable McKay. McKay seemed unsure of what to do, but when Malcolm made another attempt to depart, the constable restrained him.

††††† "You've got your nerve," Malcolm said to McKay.

††††† "And you shut up," McKay replied, twisting Malcolm's arm behind him.

††††† "I still don't get it, Mrs. F," Mort said. "So we saw him coming through the door. What's that mean?"

††††† "It means this," she said. She held out her hand to Jim Shevlin, who handed a small tape recorder to her. She rewound the tape and pushed "Play."

††††† "Gie a hieze."

††††† I looked at Jessica. "What the lady in white said to you," I said.

††††† "Yes. And what Malcolm said one day. Remember?"

††††† "Yes. I remember."

††††† "Listen again," she said, and rewound the tape.

††††† "Gie a heize."

††††† "Anyone recognize that voice?" she asked the assembly.

It was Mrs. Gower who answered. "That would be Fiona."

††††† "That's right, Mrs. Gower," Jessica said, clearly pleased. "It's Fiona's voice, recorded by -"she looked directly at Malcolm, still in Constable McKay's grasp - "recorded by you, Malcolm."

††††† The young man made no reply, but he was clearly panicked as Ken helped Jessica down from the chair and approached him.Her face was hard and uncompromising as she asked him, "Where is Fiona?"

††††† "What are you talking about?" he managed weakly.

††††† "She isn't dead, is she? And you know where she is because you arranged for her to go there."

††††† "Mrs. Fletcher, I swear -"

††††† "I think we've heard enough," McKay said, cutting off his reply. "I'll take him to the nick."

††††† "The what?" Mort asked.

††††† "Jail," I translated for him.

††††† McKay started to push Malcolm through the crowd, but Jessica stopped him with, "I think you'd better answer a few questions, Constable McKay, before you haul him away."

††††† The constable slowly turned and fixed her with a glare, full of hatred.

††††† "Why did you lie about the blood found on the bridge, and on Fiona's shoes?" Jessica asked him.

††††† "You're calling me a liar, are you?" he demanded.

††††† Jessica didn't flinch at his bluntness, and responded with bluntness of her own. "Yes," she said. "I called Dr. Lord, the veterinarian, who tested the blood on both. You said it was human blood. But Dr. Lord told me it was animal blood. Why, Constable McKay, did you deliberately misrepresent his findings?" She then answered her question for him: "Because you wanted to perpetuate fear in the hearts of Wick's citizens."

††††† McKay again started to push through the crowd, and this time I stepped in his way. "I think you ought to hear Mrs. Fletcher out," I said to him. "In fact, as a ranking law enforcement officer, I insist that you do."

††††† Mort Metzger joined me, saying, "And I'm here to assist as duly elected sheriff of Cabot Cove, Maine."

††††† "Stand aside," McKay said. "Don't be breaking my law."

††††† "Your law," Jessica spat. "That's exactly it. You took the law into your own hands to serve the interests of others. How much did the London investors promise to pay you, Constable McKay? How much money bought your cooperation in creating an atmosphere of fear in order to force Inspector Sutherland to sell his family's homestead?"

††††† McKay didn't answer, so she turned to Malcolm.

††††† "Was having your novel published that important to you, Malcolm, that you went along with this scheme?"

††††† "They told me that -" Malcolm began.

††††† "Shut up," McKay said.

††††† "You go right ahead and keep talking, Malcolm," said Jessica. "If you don't explain yourself, you'll end up spending the rest of your life behind bars for the murder of Daisy Wemyss."

††††† "Oh, no, Mrs. Fletcher," Malcolm said earnestly in a choked voice, fighting back tears. "I had nothing to do with that.Not with poor Daisy. All I did was -"

††††† McKay's hand went to Malcolm's throat, but I had been expecting just such a move on his part, and countered it swiftly. I shoved McKay against a wall, my own hand at his throat in turn. Mort Metzger jumped in, helping to keep McKay in place.

††††† With McKay no longer restraining him, Malcolm let his confession run free. "I did nothing to harm anyone," he said in a high, shaky voice. "They told me if I'd set up the recorder and scare guests at the castle, they'd have my book published."

††††† "By Flemming House, a subsidiary publisher," said Jessica. "They paid that publisher to publish your novel. I happen to know something about Flemming House because my publisher in London bought the company. They'll publish anyone's book, Malcolm, good or bad, for enough money."

††††† "They told me they had connections," Malcolm said. "They told me Flemming House loved my book and thought it would be a bestseller all over the world."

††††† "They lied to you," Jessica said flatly. "Now, where is Fiona? She isn't dead, is she?"

††††† He sadly shook his head.

††††† "Where is she?"

††††† "John o' Groats, with a girlfriend," Malcolm finally admitted in defeat. "I sent her there. That's what he told me to do."

††††† "Who told you to send her there?" Jessica asked.

††††† Malcolm looked to where Mort and I still restrained Constable McKay.

††††† "Constable McKay?" Jessica prompted him.

††††† Malcolm shook his head. "No. Him." He pointed across the room to Evan Lochbuie, who stood apart from the crowd.

††††† "Mr. Lochbuie?" said Jessica.

††††† "He's the one. Told me Constable McKay got the word from the investors to get her away from Wick. He gave me money and sent a car to drive her."

††††† "And told you to leave her dress and shoes here so animal blood could be smeared on them to make it seem another murder had taken place."

††††† "That's right.They told me to do everything, Mrs. Fletcher. But I never wanted no one killed. Not Daisy, for sure. Not anyone."

††††† Jessica turned to say something to Lochbuie, but the cunning little scoundrel had slipped out of the room and was already gone. I saw the dismay on her face and reassured her, saying, "Don't worry, Jessica. I'll see that he's picked up, along with everyone else involved in this vile scheme."

††††† "Count on me too, George," Mort said. "Hey, we make a good team."

††††† I smiled at him, but only had eyes for Jessica.

 

††††† My time the next day was largely taken up with the investigation that followed the revelations of the previous night. A phalanx of Scotland Yard inspectors summoned by me soon arrived in Wick to take charge, bringing with them the welcome news that the group of foreign investors from London had been picked up easily and without incident. They were now in custody and proving to be very talkative, especially when the threat of charges relating to Daisy Wemyss's death was dangled over their heads.Beltavia and Akimoto, who had been closest to the action in Scotland, were particularly helpful in naming their local contacts, starting with Evan Lochbuie, Malcolm James, and Constable Horace McKay.

††††† The depth of the conspiracy to force me to sell the castle to the investors was alarming.People that I would never have dreamed would be taken in by such a scam were revealed to have participated, proving, I suppose, that grudges, fear, and the promise of easy money are a potent and persuasive mix.Even Rufus Innes, the gillie I'd hired to take Jessica and Ken out fishing, was involved. He and Taim MacDougall had conspired to bring them to the stream where Jessica nearly drowned - Taim was waiting for them there, and was the one who had thrown the log at Jessica - not to kill her, he claimed, but only to frighten her.Jessica was inclined to believe Taim's story, as was I, though for much less charitable reasons - even when sober, Taim's aim was terrible: he'd have trouble hitting the side of a barn with a Volkswagen.

††††† The most tragic aspect of the sordid tale was that Daisy Wemyss had to die merely for the sake of a luxury hotel.The investors claimed that her death had not been condoned by them, that it was an idea conceived by the locals, who had come to the conclusion that a real murder was necessary to push the rest of the townspeople over the edge.Daisy was their unwitting victim, sacrificed to the ignoble cause.It was unclear who had first suggested taking that drastic step, or who had actually done the deed, although Evan Lochbuie, slippery as an eel and still at large, seemed to top the list of suspects.

††††† "Well, George," Henry Worthington, the lead investigator for the Yard, said to me when the list of all who were involved in the plot was complete, "who do you want to press charges against?"

††††† I looked at the list, dishearteningly long, and sighed.

††††† "Just the ringleaders, Henry," I said, pushing it back across the table to him. "Let the foot soldiers go."

††††† Henry gave me a questioning look. "Are you sure?" he said. "Almost everyone on here was part of that mob that attacked your place the other night. You could have them for trespass, assault, intent to commit arson, criminal mischief Ö"

††††† "Yes, but what would it accomplish?" I replied. "I have to live with these people as my neighbors, remember. And if I prosecute them all, that will only add more taint to the bad blood that already exists."

††††† "As you wish," said Henry.

 

††††† There were only a few days remaining before the Mainers had to return to London and thence to home, but in comparison to what had come before, they were blissfully untroubled. Except for one thing: the townsfolk, ever suspicious of outsiders, became downright hostile toward Jessica.Although they should have been grateful to her for unmasking the conspiracy of fear in their midst, they had no liking for the fact that it was a foreigner that had served up some of their own to the authorities. I think also that they resented the fact that they could no longer blame their troubles on the convenient targets of the castle and me: in the aftermath of the confrontation, their troubles remained the same as they had the day before, but now they had to face taking the responsibility for them, at least in part, upon themselves.That this hard fact would have become apparent soon enough even if the mob had succeeded in burning the castle to the ground did not seem to enter their thinking.

††††† And so while the others enjoyed the same level of hospitality in Wick as they had before, Jessica was given the cold shoulder. People avoided talking to her or looking at her; what conversations they allowed were short and terse.Jessica was not unaware of the unfriendliness displayed toward her; after the first day of enduring the village's snubbing, she remained at the castle and did not venture into town at all.

††††† I found her wandering grounds one afternoon alone; everyone else had gone into town, but she had remained behind.She looked melancholy, and I hated to see her sad for any reason.

††††† "Come, take a walk with me, Jess," I said. "There's a hillside just a little ways off with a beautiful view I'd like you to see."

††††† She brightened immediately at my invitation. "All right," she said, "lead on."

††††† The hill was neither high nor steep, but it was tall enough to afford a view over the valley of the River Wick, including the castle and the village. As close to summer as it was now, the heather was just beginning to bloom, blanketing the hillside in purple that rippled in the wind like ocean waves.It was a warm day; the sun was shining and fair-weather clouds sailed across the sky.

††††† "What a beautiful spot," Jessica exclaimed as she took in the view. "You can see everything from up here."

††††† "Everything that matters, at least." I sat down amidst the flowers and patted the grass next to me, inviting her to do the same.

††††† "You seem a little doun i the mou - downcast," I said when she had seated herself beside me.

††††† "I suppose I do," she said, plucking a bloom of heather and turning it absently with her fingertips. "I feel discouraged about the way things turned out on this trip."

††††† "You should feel proud," I said. "You single-handedly saved my castle from destruction, uncovered a sinister plot motivated by greed, and possibly saved more than a dozen lives, my own included."

††††† "Perhaps," she replied, "but I still don't know who rammed the pitchfork into poor Daisy Wemyss's chest.Without knowing that, everything else feels Ö incomplete."

††††† "Aye, Daisy's murder. Well, so far the evidence would seem to indicate your favorite person and mine, Evan Lochbuie."

††††† "He's not really as crazy as he led people to believe, is he," Jessica said.

††††† "No," I said. "If Evan is crazy, then he's crazy like a fox - clever, with a keen sense for how to manipulate those around him into underestimating him.I'll not lie to you, Jessica. When we find him - and we will find him - it will be tough to prosecute him. There isn't much physical evidence so far to link him to Daisy's death, and that insanity act of his may sway a jury into believing him to be incompetent of committing such a heinous act. It will be very interesting to see how everything turns out."

††††† "What will happen to Malcolm and Fiona?" Jessica asked.

††††† "To Fiona, nothing, I suspect," I replied."She was only vaguely aware that something was going on, and went along with Malcolm's rather odd requests out of fondness for him, but she doesn't seem to have known any of the details of the plot. Malcolm, however, is a different story. His involvement runs much deeper, and although it's unlikely he'll be charged in connection to Daisy's murder, he was a full and participating member of the conspiracy."

††††† "Yes," Jessica agreed, a note of sadness in her voice. "He took up the investors' offer to have his book published in exchange for his help.The sad thing is, George, he didn't need their help to see that book in print: I read it, and he had more than enough talent to get it published on its own merits, if he was persistent."

††††† "The impetuousness of youth," I sighed. "Impatience was Malcolm's undoing. As it was the night you caught him: if he'd sat tight in his hiding place instead of leaving the instant he was sure the hallway was clear, he might have avoided being captured on film."

††††† "Perhaps." Jessica stretched and turned her face up to the sun. "What will you do now?"

††††† "I? I don't know, at least not for sure. Even without the curse and the ghosts this castle can be a bloody pain to keep up.I may yet decide to sell it - to legitimate buyers. But I think I will do as you suggested earlier, and take some time to give the matter more thought."

††††† "Good," she said.

††††† "I never had the opportunity to ask what it was that convinced you that the conspiracy was connected with the lady in white," I said.

††††† "It was Dr. Symington, of all people, who gave me the final piece to that puzzle," said Jessica."I'd found the tape recorder in the storage loft over my room earlier, but it was when he told me ghosts never speak when sighted that I realized how everything fit together, confirming what I had suspected all along. Thatís when I decided to attempt to set things up the way I did."

††††† "I told Brock Peterman that he could go ahead and film his documentary," I said. "I figured it was the least I could do, after he helped you out with his video equipment."

††††† "Yes, I'm afraid I would have had a difficult time getting the proof I needed without him. Anyway, I'm sure he'll do a good job with his documentary, now that he has a legitimate ending for it.Sutherland Castle could use some good press, anyway."

††††† "I suppose so," I chuckled, "even if it has to come from the likes of him."

††††† We sat quietly for awhile, listening to the birds singing and the warm breeze stirring in the heather.

††††† "Tomorrow is the Highland Games," I said.

††††† "And the day after that we head home," said Jessica.

††††† "Aye, the day after that you head home. I will miss you when you're gone, Jessica."

††††† "And I'll miss you too."

††††† "We never got the chance to talk further about Ö about what I said to you that night in the garden."

††††† Jessica blushed slightly and looked away. "No," she said, "we didn't. But if you don't mind, I'd rather Ö not discuss it now either."

††††† "Did my confession really come as a surprise to you?" I asked.

††††† "No Ö not really," she admitted, still looking off into the distance. "But that doesn't mean I was expecting it - it came as something of a shock."

††††† "And now that you know Ö?

††††† She smiled. "I think that I should follow my own sage advice, and 'take some time to give the matter more thought.'"

††††† I laughed at her precise echo of my own words. "Fair enough," I said. "But promise me that you will Ö think about what I said, I mean."

††††† Jessica looked up at me, her bright blue eyes meeting my own. "I promise," she said.

††††† "I hate to see you go," I said as I drove Jessica to Heathrow the morning after the group returned to London. Her traveling companions had gone to the airport separately in a chartered bus; this allowed us for one last opportunity to spend time together in private.

††††† "And I hate to go," she replied.

††††† There was a silence then, broken when I announced, "I've decided to keep Sutherland Castle."

††††† "I'm not surprised," Jessica said. "It's a lovely place. I'm sure with the right people running it as a hotel, it will do very nicely."

††††† "And I should be able to find the right people, now that everyone in Wick isn't afraid to work there," I said. "I've put Mrs. Gower in charge. She's rising to the occasion; told me it was about time I recognized her talents beyond the kitchen." I laughed. "And Forbes will stay. Maybe I'll pay for him to take a Dale Carnegie course."

††††† Jessica smiled. "Sounds like everything's falling in place."

††††† "Not everything," I said.

††††† "What's missing?"

††††† "You. I want you to return to Wick, Jessica. I want you to come back alone so we can spend truly productive time together. We barely had time to talk, with all that went on this past week."

††††† "But it ended up on a positive note," Jessica said. "I loved the Highland Games, although I must admit I was a little worried when that giant of a man came running in our direction, carrying that huge tree trunk."

††††† "Carrying the caber, he was." I said. "Afraid he'd toss it at you?"
††††† "It crossed my mind," she admitted.

††††† "He threw it quite far. Throwing the caber is the highlight of the games."

††††† "An impressive display of strength and balance," Jessica said. She paused, then added, "George, about my coming back - you know I will. I have a book to write. After I'm done, we'll plan to get together again. That's the best I can offer."

††††† "Aye. It will have to do," I said. "I'll take what I can get of Jessica Fletcher."

††††† The ride to the airport was much too short, and before we knew it, we were in front of the British Airways terminal.

††††† "I'll come in and wait with you," I said.

††††† Jessica put a hand on my arm. "Please don't," she said. "It's easier saying good-bye here. My friends will be waiting for me. Understand?"

††††† "Of course."

††††† There was a long, awkward moment of silence.How to say good-bye? I'd never been much good at it, and was extremely loathe to say it now.But it had to be done.

††††† "I won't put you in an awkward position, Jessica," I finally told her, not daring to look at her for fear I'd lose my resolve. "Go on. Get out. The porter there will take your bags. We'll be in touch."

††††† But instead Jessica touched my arm. "George."

††††† I faced her again. "Yes?"

††††† "Thank you for being you."

††††† She leaned close, her lips barely brushing mine, and gave my hand a squeeze. "Until next time," she said.

††††† "Aye. I pray it comes fast," I said. "Safe home."

††††† "Yes. Safe home."

††††† And then she was gone, off to rejoin her friends for the journey home. As for me, I slowly drove back to the city, to the Yard and my office where the day's work awaited me.

††††† "Well," I said to the staff sergeant, "what's on the agenda for today?"

 

The End