Drums of Autumn

Author: P Hana

Page 106

   

“No,” he said aloud. Leave it at that, for now. He wasn’t about to go into everything now, on the phone with a near stranger. “She’s a woman; there wasn’t that much public notice of what individual women were doing, then—not unless they did something spectacular, like get burned for witchcraft, or hanged for murder. Or be murdered.”

“Ha ha,” said Abernathy, but he wasn’t laughing. “She did make it, though, at least once. She went—and she came back.”

“Aye, she did.” Roger had been trying to take comfort in that fact himself, but there were too many other possibilities forcing themselves upon his consciousness. “But we don’t know that Brianna went back as far—or farther. And even if she did survive the stones and come out in the right time…have you any idea how dangerous a place the eighteenth century was?”

“No,” Abernathy said dryly. “Though I gather you do. But Claire seemed to manage all right there.”

“She survived,” Roger agreed. “Not much of a sell for a vacation spot, is it, though—‘If your luck’s in, you’ll come back alive?’ ” Once, at least.

Abernathy did laugh at that, though with a nervous undertone. He coughed then, and cleared his throat.

“Yeah. Well. The point is—Bree’s gone someplace. And I think you’re probably right about where. I mean, if it was me, I’d have gone. Wouldn’t you?”

Wouldn’t you? He pulled to the left, passed a lorry with its headlights on, plodding its way through the gathering fog.

I would. Abernathy’s confident voice rang in his ear.

INVERNESS, 30, read the sign, and he swung the tiny Morris abruptly to the right, skidding on wet pavement. The rain was drumming down on the tarmac, hard enough to raise a mist above the grass on the verge.

Wouldn’t you? He touched the breast pocket of his shirt, where the squarish shape of Brianna’s photo lay stiff over his heart. His fingers touched the small round hardness of his mother’s locket, snatched at the last moment, brought along for luck.

“Yeah, maybe I would,” he muttered, squinting through the rain streaming over the windscreen. “But I would have told you I was going to do it. In the name of God, woman—why did you not tell me?”

31

RETURN TO INVERNESS

The fumes of furniture polish, floor wax, fresh paint, and air freshener hung in throat-clutching clouds in the hallway. Not even these olfactory evidences of Fiona’s domestic zeal were able to compete with the delectable aromas floating out of the kitchen, though.

“Eat your heart out, Tom Wolfe,” Roger murmured, inhaling deeply as he set down his bag in the hall. Granted, the old manse was definitely under new management, but even its transformation from manse to bed-and-breakfast had been unable to alter its basic character.

Welcomed with enthusiasm by Fiona—and somewhat less by Ernie—he settled into his old room at the top of the stairs, and embarked at once on his job of detection. It wasn’t that difficult; beyond the normal Highland inquisitiveness about strangers, a six-feet-tall woman with waist-length red hair tended to attract notice.

She’d come to Inverness from Edinburgh. He knew that much for a fact; she’d been seen at the station. Also for a fact he knew that a tall red-haired woman had hired a car and told the driver to take her out into the country. The driver had no real notion where they had gone; just that all of a sudden, the woman had said, “Here, this is the place, let me off here.”

“Said she meant to meet her friends for a walking tour across the moors,” the driver had said, shrugging. “She had a haversack with her, and she was dressed for walking, sure enough. A damn wet day for a walk on the moors, but ye know what loons these American tourists are.”

Well, he knew what kind of a loon that one was, at least. Curse her thick head and fiendish stubbornness, if she thought she had to do it, why in hell hadn’t she told him? Because she didn’t want you to know, sport, he thought grimly. And he didn’t want to think about why not.

So far he had gotten. And only one way of following her any farther.

Claire had speculated that the whatever-it-was stood widest open on the ancient sun feasts and fire feasts. It seemed to work—she had herself gone through the first time on Beltane, May 1, the second time on Samhain, the first of November. And now Brianna had evidently followed in her mother’s footsteps, going on Beltane.

Well, he wasn’t going to wait till November—God only knew what could happen to her in five months! Beltane and Samhain were fire feasts, though; there was a sunfeast between.

Midsummer’s Eve, the summer solstice; that would be next. June 20, four weeks away. He ground his teeth at the thought of waiting—his impulse was to go now and damn the danger—but it wouldn’t help Brianna if his impulse to rush chivalrously after her killed him. He was under no illusions about the nature of the stone circle, not after what he’d seen and heard so far.

Very quietly, he began to make what preparations he could. And in the evenings, when the fog rolled in off the river, he sought distraction from his thoughts, playing draughts with Fiona, going to the pub with Ernie, and—as a last resort—having another bash at the dozens of boxes that still crammed the old garage.

The garage had an air of sinister miracle about it; the boxes seemed to multiply like the loaves and fishes—every time he opened the door, there were more of them. He’d probably finish the job of sorting his late father’s effects just before being carried out feetfirst himself, he thought. Still, for the moment, the boring work was a godsend, dulling his mind enough to keep him from fretting himself to pieces in the waiting. Some nights, he even slept.

“You’ve got a picture on your desk.” Fiona didn’t look at him, but kept her attention riveted on the dishes she was clearing.

“Lots of them.” Roger took a cautious mouthful of tea; hot and fresh, but not scalding. How did she do that? “Is there one you want? I know there are a few snaps of your grannie—you’re more than welcome, though I’d like one to keep.”

She did look up at that, mildly startled.

“Oh. Of Grannie? Aye, our Da’ll like to see those. But it’s the big one I meant.”

“Big one?” Roger tried to think which photo she could mean; most of them were black-and-white snapshots taken with the Reverend’s ancient Brownie, but there were a couple of the larger cabinet photos—one of his parents, another of the Reverend’s grandmother, looking like a pterodactyl in black bombazine, taken on the occasion of that lady’s hundredth birthday. Fiona couldn’t possibly mean those.

“Of her that kilt her husband and went away.” Fiona’s mouth compressed.

“Her that—oh.” Roger took a deep gulp of tea. “You mean Gillian Edgars.”

“Her,” Fiona repeated stubbornly. “Why’ve you got a photo of her?”

Roger set the cup down and picked up the morning paper, affecting casualness as he wondered what to say.

“Oh—someone gave it to me.”

“Who?”

Fiona was normally persistent, but seldom so direct. What was troubling her?

“Mrs. Randall—Dr. Randall, I mean. Why?”

Fiona didn’t reply, but pressed her lips tight shut.

Roger had by now abandoned all interest in the paper. He laid it down carefully.

“Did you know her?” he said. “Gillian Edgars?”

Fiona didn’t answer directly, but turned aside, fiddling with the tea cozy.

“You’ve been up to the standing stones on Craigh na Dun; Joycie said her Albert saw ye comin’ down when he was drivin’ to Drumnadrochit Thursday.”

“I have, yes. No crime in that, is there?” He tried to make a joke of it, but Fiona wasn’t having any.

“Ye know it’s a queer place, all circles are. And don’t be tellin’ me ye went up there to admire the view.”

“I wouldn’t tell you that.”

He sat back in his chair, looking up at her. Her curly dark hair was standing on end; she rumpled her hands through it when she was agitated, and agitated she surely was.

“You do know her. That’s right; Claire said you’d met her.” The small flicker of curiosity he had felt at the mention of Gillian Edgars was growing into a clear flame of excitement.

“I canna be knowing her, now, can I? She’s dead.” Fiona scooped up the empty egg cup, eyes fixed on the discarded fragments of shell. “Isn’t she?”

Roger reached out and stopped her with a hand on her arm.

“Is she?”

“It’s what everyone thinks. The police havena found a trace of her.” The word came out “polis” in her soft Highland accent.

“Perhaps they’re not looking in the right place.”

All the blood drained out of her flushed, fair face. Roger tightened his grip, though she wasn’t trying to pull away. She knew, dammit, she knew! But what did she know?

“Tell me, Fiona,” he said. “Please—tell me. What do you know about Gillian Edgars—and the stones?”

She did pull away from him then, but didn’t leave, just stood there, turning the egg cup over and over in her hands, as if it were a miniature hourglass. Roger stood up, and she shied back, glancing fearfully up at him.

“A bargain, then,” he said, trying to keep his voice calm, so as not to frighten her further. “Tell me what you know, and I’ll tell you why Dr. Randall gave me that picture—and why I was up on Craigh na Dun.”

“I’ve got to think.” Swiftly she bent and snatched up the tray of dirty crockery. She was out the door before he could speak a word to stop her.

Slowly he sat down again. It had been a good breakfast—all Fiona’s meals were delicious—but it lay in his stomach like a bag of marbles, heavy and indigestible.

He shouldn’t be so eager, he told himself. It was courting disappointment. What could Fiona know, after all? Still, any mention of the woman who had called herself Gillian—and later Geillis—was enough to rivet his attention.

He picked up his neglected teacup and swallowed, not tasting it. What if he kept the bargain, and told her everything? Not only about Claire Randall and Gillian, but about himself—and Brianna.

The thought of Bree was like a rock dropped into the pool of his heart, sending ripples of fear in all directions. She’s dead. Fiona had said of Gillian. Isn’t she?

Is she? he had answered, the picture of a woman vivid in his mind, green eyes wide and fair hair flying in the hot wind of a fire, poised to flee through the doors of time. No, she hadn’t died.

Not then, at least, because Claire had met her—would meet her? Earlier? Later? She hadn’t died, but was she dead? She must be now, mustn’t she, and yet—damn this twistiness! How could he even think about it coherently?

Too unsettled to stay in one place, he got up and walked down the hall. He paused in the doorway of the kitchen. Fiona was standing at the sink, staring out of the window. She heard him and turned around, an unused dishcloth clutched in her hand.

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