Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 105

   

He stared at it for a moment, then folded the note and put it in his shirt pocket. Squatting carefully, he got hold of the top crate and lifted it in his arms. Christ, it must weigh sixty pounds at least!

Sweating, Roger dropped the crate on the floor of his sitting room and went through to the tiny bedroom, where he scrabbled through a drawer. Armed with a screwdriver and a bottle of beer, he came back to deal with the box. He tried to damp down his rising feelings of excitement, but couldn’t. Will you keep it with yours? Did a girl send half her belongings to a bloke she meant to break off with?

“History, eh?” he muttered. “Museum quality, by the way you packed it.” The contents had been double-boxed, with a layer of excelsior between, and the inner box, once opened, revealed a mysterious array of lumpy, newspaper-wrapped bundles and smaller boxes.

He picked up a sturdy shoe box and peeked inside. Photographs; old ones with scalloped edges, and newer ones, glossy and colored. The edge of a large studio portrait showed, and he pulled it out.

It was Claire Randall, much as he had last seen her; amber eyes warm and startling under a tumble of brown-silk curls, a slight smile on the lush, delicate mouth. He shoved it back in the box, feeling like a murderer.

What emerged from the layers of newsprint was a very aptly named Raggedy Ann doll, its painted face so faded that only the shoe-button eyes remained, fixed in a blank and challenging stare. Its dress was torn but had been carefully mended, the soft cloth body stained but clean.

The next bundle yielded a tattered Mickey Mouse hat, with a tiny pink foam-rubber bow still fixed between its perky ears. A cheap music box, that played “Over the Rainbow” when he opened it. A stuffed dog, synthetic fur worn away in patches. A faded red sweatshirt, a man’s size Medium. It might have fit Brianna, but somehow Roger knew it had been Frank’s. A ragged dressing gown in quilted maroon silk. On an impulse, he pressed it to his nose. Claire. Her scent brought her vividly to life, a faint smell of musk and green things, and he dropped the garment, shaken.

Under the layer of trivia there was more substantial treasure. The weight of the crate was caused mostly by three large flat chests at the bottom, each containing a silver dinner service, carefully wrapped in gray antitarnishing cloth. Each chest had a typewritten note tucked inside, giving the provenance and history of the silver.

A French silver-gilt service, with rope-knot borders, maker’s mark DG. Acquired by William S. Randall, 1842. A George III Old English pattern, acquired 1776 Edward K. Randall, Esq. Husk Shell pattern, by Charles Boyton, acquired 1903 by Quentin Lambert Beauchamp, given as a wedding present to Franklin Randall and Claire Beauchamp. The family silver.

With a growing puzzlement, Roger went on, laying each item carefully on the floor beside him, the objects of vertu and objects of use that comprised Brianna Randall’s history. History. Jesus, why had she called it that?

Alarm pricked the puzzlement as another thought occurred to him, and he grabbed the lid, checking the address label. Oxford. Yes, she had sent them here. Why here, when she’d known—or thought—that he meant to be in Scotland all summer? He would have been, if not for the last-minute conference—and he hadn’t told her about that.

Tucked in the last corner was a jewelry box, a small but substantial container. Inside were several rings, brooches, and sets of earrings. The cairngorm brooch he had given her for her birthday was there. Necklaces and chains. Two things weren’t.

The silver bracelet he had given her—and her grandmother’s pearls.

“Jesus bloody Christ.” He looked again, just to be sure, dumping out the glittering junk and spreading it on his counterpane. No pearls. Certainly no string of baroque Scottish pearls, spaced with antique gold roundels.

She couldn’t be wearing them, not to an engineering conference in Sri Lanka. The pearls were an heirloom to her, not an ornament. She seldom wore them. They were her link with—

“You didn’t,” he said aloud. “God, tell me you didn’t do it!”

He dropped the jewel box on the bed, and thundered down the stairs to the telephone room.

It took forever to get the international operator on the line, and a longer time yet of vague electronic poppings and buzzings, before he heard the click of connection, followed by a faint ringing. One ring, two, then a click, and his heart leapt. She was home!

“We’re sorry,” said a woman’s pleasant, impersonal voice, “that number has been disconnected, or is no longer in service.”

God, she couldn’t have! Could she? Yes, she bloody could, the reckless wee coof! Where in hell was she?

He drummed his fingers restlessly against his thigh, fuming, as the transatlantic phone line clicked and hummed, while connections were made, while he dealt with the endless delays and stupidities of hospital switchboards and secretaries. But at last he heard a familiar voice in his ear, deep and resonant.

“Joseph Abernathy.”

“Dr. Abernathy? This will be Roger Wakefield here. Do you know where Brianna is?” he demanded without preliminary.

The deep voice rose slightly in surprise.

“With you. Isn’t she?”

A cold chill washed over Roger, and he gripped the receiver harder, as though he could force it to give him the answer he wanted.

“She is not,” he made himself say, as calmly as he could. “She meant to come in the fall, after she took her degree and went to some conference.”

“No. No, that’s not right. She finished her coursework the end of April—I took her to dinner to celebrate—and she said she was going straight out to Scotland, without waiting for commencement. Wait, let me think…yeah, that’s right; my son Lenny drove her to the airport…when? Yeah, Tuesday…the 27th. You mean to say she didn’t get there?” Dr. Abernathy’s voice rose in agitation.

“I don’t know whether she got here or not.” Roger’s free hand was clenched into a fist. “She didn’t tell me she was coming.” He forced himself to take a deep breath. “Where was she flying to—which city, do you know? London? Edinburgh?” She might have meant to surprise him with a sudden, unexpected arrival. He’d been surprised, all right, but he doubted that was her intention.

Visions of kidnapping, assault, IRA bombings, drifted through his mind. Almost anything might have happened to a girl traveling alone in a large city—and almost anything that could have happened would be preferable to what his gut was telling him had happened. Damn the woman!

“Inverness,” Dr. Abernathy’s voice was saying in his ear. “Boston to Edinburgh, then the train to Inverness.”

“Oh, Jesus.” It was both a curse and a prayer. If she had left Boston on Tuesday, she would likely have made Inverness sometime on the Thursday. And Friday was the thirtieth day of April—the eve of Beltane, the ancient fire feast, when the hilltops of old Scotland had blazed with the flames of purification and fertility. When—perhaps—the door to the fairies’ hill of Craigh na Dun lay widest open.

Abernathy’s voice quacked in his ear, urgently demanding. He forced his attention to focus on it.

“No,” he said, with some difficulty. “No, she didn’t. I’m still in Oxford. I had no idea.”

The empty air between them vibrated, the silence filled with dread. He had to ask. He took another breath—he seemed to be taking them one at a time, each one a conscious effort—and changed his grip on the receiver, wiping his cramped and sweaty palm on the leg of his trousers.

“Dr. Abernathy,” he said carefully. “It’s just possible that Brianna’s gone to her mother—to Claire. Tell me—do you know where she is?”

The silence this time was charged with wariness.

“Ah…no.” Abernathy’s voice came slowly, reluctant with caution. “No, afraid I don’t. Not exactly.”

Not exactly. Great way to put it. Roger rubbed a hand over his face, feeling the stubble rasp under his palm.

“Let me ask you this,” Roger said carefully. “Have you ever heard the name Jamie Fraser?”

The line was utterly silent in his hand. Then there came a deep sigh in his ear.

“Oh, Jesus Christ on a piece of toast,” Dr. Abernathy said. “She did it.”

Wouldn’t you?

That was what Joe Abernathy had said to him, at the conclusion of their lengthy conversation, and the question lingered in his mind as he drove north, barely noticing the road signs that whizzed past, blurred by the rain.

Wouldn’t you?

“I would,” Abernathy had said. “If you didn’t know your dad, never had known him—and all of a sudden, you found out where he was? Wouldn’t you want to meet him, find out what he was really like? I’d be kind of curious, myself.”

“You don’t understand,” Roger had said, rubbing a hand across his forehead in frustration. “It’s not like someone who’s adopted, finding out her real father’s name and then just popping up on his doorstep.”

“Seems to me that’s just what it’s like.” The deep voice was cool. “Bree was adopted, right? I think she’d have gone before, if she hadn’t felt it was disloyal to Frank.”

Roger shook his head, disregarding the fact that Abernathy couldn’t see him.

“It’s not that—it’s the popping-up-on-the-doorstep part. That—the way through—how she went—look, did Claire tell you—?”

“Yeah, she did,” Abernathy broke in. His tone was bemused. “Yeah, she did say it wasn’t quite like walking through a revolving door.”

“To put it mildly.” The mere thought of the standing stone circle on Craigh na Dun gave Roger a cold grue.

“To put it mildly—you know what it’s like?” The far-off voice sharpened with interest.

“Yes, damn it, I do!” He took a long, deep breath. “Sorry. Look, it’s not—I can’t explain it, I don’t think anyone could. Those stones…not everyone hears them, obviously. But Claire did. Bree does, and—and I do. And for us…”

Claire had gone through the stones of Craigh na Dun on the ancient fire feast of Samhain, on the first day of November, two and a half years before. Roger shivered, and not from cold. The hairs stood up on the back of his neck whenever he thought of it.

“So not everybody can go through—but you can.” Abernathy’s voice was filled with curiosity—and what sounded vaguely like envy.

“I don’t know.” Roger rubbed a hand through his hair. His eyes were burning, as though he’d sat up all night. “I might.”

“The thing is…” He spoke slowly, trying to control his voice, and with it, his fear. “The thing is—even if she has gone through, there’s no way of telling whether, or where, she came out again.”

“I see.” The deep American voice had lost its jauntiness. “And you don’t know about Claire either, then. Whether she made it?”

He shook his head, his vision of Joe Abernathy so clear that he forgot again that the man couldn’t see him. Dr. Abernathy was no more than average size, a thickset black man in gold-rimmed spectacles, but with such an air of authority that his simple presence gave one confidence and compelled calm. Roger was surprised to find that this presence transferred itself over the phone lines—but he was more than grateful for it.

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