Dougal nodded soberly, then turned to Angus.
“Tell me about the man above,” he said. “When did that happen—and what d’ye ken about it?”
MacLaren’s face lost a little of its natural high color, and he looked as though he wanted his beer back.
“Six days past, a ghoistidh.” He gave a brief, and much less atmospheric, account than he had the night before—but it was the same story.
Dougal looked thoughtful, tapping his fingers gently on his knee.
“The woman,” he said. “D’ye ken where she’s gone?”
“I . . . uh . . . heard as how she’d gone to Cranesmuir, sir.” MacLaren’s color had all come back, with interest, and he carefully avoided his wife’s hard eye.
“Cranesmuir,” Dougal repeated. “Aye, well. Perhaps I’ll seek her out, then, and just have a word. What’s her name?”
“Isbister,” MacLaren blurted. “Geillis Isbister.”
Roger didn’t actually feel the earth shake under his feet but was surprised that it hadn’t.
“Isbister?” Dougal’s brows went up. “From the northern isles, is she?”
MacLaren shrugged in elaborate pantomime of ignorance—and unconcern. He looked as though someone had made a serious attempt to boil his head, and Roger saw Dougal’s mouth twitch again.
“Aye,” he said dryly. “Well, an Orkneywoman maybe won’t be hard to find, then, in a place the size of Cranesmuir.” He lifted his chin in the direction of his men, and they all rose as one when he stood. So did Roger and Buck.
“Godspeed to ye, gentlemen,” he said, bowing to them. “I’ll have word put about regarding your wee lad. If I hear anything, where shall I send?”
Roger exchanged glances with Buck, nonplussed. He couldn’t ask for word to be sent to Lallybroch, knowing what he knew of the relations between Brian Fraser and his brothers-in-law.
“Do ye ken a place called Sheriffmuir?” he asked, groping for some other place he knew that existed at the present time. “There’s a fine coaching inn there—though not much else.”
Dougal looked surprised but nodded.
“I do, sir. I fought at Sheriffmuir with the Earl of Mar, and we supped there with him one night, my father and brother and I. Aye, I’ll send word there, if there is any.”
“Thank you.” The words came half choked but clear enough. Dougal gave him a sympathetic nod, then turned to take leave of the MacLarens. Stopped by a sudden thought, though, he turned back.
“I dinna suppose ye really are an angel, are ye?” he asked, quite seriously.
“No,” Roger said, smiling as best he could, despite the coldness in his belly. And it isn’t you that’s talking to a ghost.
He stood with Buck, watching the MacKenzies depart, Geordie and Thomas keeping up with little effort, as the horses went slowly on the steep, rocky path.
The phrase “Blessed are those who have not seen but have believed” floated through his head. It was maybe not the believing that was the blessing; it was the not having to look. Seeing, sometimes, was bloody awful.
ROGER DELAYED their own departure as long as he decently could, hoping for the return of Dr. McEwan, but as the sun rose high in the sky, it was plain that the MacLarens wanted them gone—and Buck wanted to go.
“I’m fine,” he said crossly, and thumped his chest with a fist. “Sound as a drum.”
Roger made a skeptical noise in his throat—and was surprised. It hadn’t hurt. He stopped himself putting a hand to his own throat; no need to draw attention to it, even if they were leaving.
“Aye, all right.” He turned to Angus MacLaren and Stuart, who’d helpfully filled Roger’s canteen in the hope of hurrying them on their way and was standing with it dripping in his hands. “I thank ye for your hospitality, sir, and your kindness to my kinsman.”
“Och,” said MacLaren, a distinct look of relief coming over his face at what was plainly farewell. “That’s fine. Nay bother.”
“If—if the healer should come along, would ye thank him for us? And say I’ll try to come and see him on our way back.”
“On your way back,” MacLaren repeated, with less enthusiasm.
“Aye. We’re bound into Lochaber, to the Cameron lands. If we find nay trace of my son there, though, we’ll likely come back this way—perhaps we’ll call at Castle Leoch for news.”
MacLaren’s face cleared at that.
“Och, aye,” he said heartily. “Good thought. Godspeed!”
IN WHICH THINGS CONVERGE
“NOW, IT’S NOT that I dinna want to be helping your mam,” Mr. Buchan said, for the third time. “But I canna be having ructions going on in my house, and criminals coming and goin,’ not with my girls there, now, can I?”
Jem shook his head obediently, though Mr. Buchan wasn’t looking at him; he was peering into his rearview mirror and looking over his shoulder now and then, like he thought somebody might be following them. It made Jem want to look, too, but he couldn’t see behind without getting up on his knees and turning round, and Mandy was passed out asleep, half on his lap.
It was late, and he yawned, forgetting to cover his mouth. He thought of saying, “Excuse me,” but he didn’t think Mr. Buchan had noticed. He felt a burp coming and did cover his mouth this time, tasting vinegar from the fish and chips. Mr. Buchan had bought an extra fish supper for Mam; it was in a brown-paper bag on the floor by Jem’s feet, so as not to get grease on the seat.
“Ken when your da’s expected back?” Mr. Buchan asked abruptly, glancing down at him. Jem shook his head, feeling the fish and chips rise up in a queasy ball.
Mr. Buchan’s mouth pressed tight, like he wanted to say something he thought he shouldn’t.
“Daddy . . .” Mandy murmured, then pushed her head into his ribs, snorted, and went back to sleep. He felt terrible. Mandy didn’t even know where Da was; she probably thought he was just at lodge or something.
Mam said Da would come back, as soon as he figured out that Jem wasn’t there with Grandda. But how? he thought, and had to bite his lip hard not to cry. How would he know? It was dark, but there was a glow from the dashboard. If he cried, Mr. Buchan would maybe see.
Headlights flashed in the rearview mirror and he looked up, brushing his sleeve furtively under his nose. He could see a white panel truck coming up behind them. Mr. Buchan said something under his breath and stepped on the gas pedal harder.
BRIANNA HAD SETTLED into the hunter’s wait: a state of physical detachment and mental abeyance, mind and body each minding its own business but able to spring into unified action the moment something worth eating showed up. Her mind was on the Ridge, reliving a possum hunt with her cousin Ian. The pungent stickiness and eye-watering smoke of pine-knot torches, a glimpse of glowing eyes in a tree, and a sudden bristling possum like a nightmare in the branches, needle-toothed and gaping threats, hissing and growling like a flatulent motorboat . . .
And then the phone rang. In an instant she was standing, gun in hand, every sense trained on the house. It came again, the short double brr! muffled by distance but unmistakable. It was the phone in Roger’s study, and even as she thought this, she saw the brief glow of a light inside as the study door was opened, and the ringing phone abruptly stopped.
Her scalp contracted, and she felt a brief kinship with the treed possum. But the possum hadn’t had a shotgun.
Her immediate impulse was to go and flush out whoever was in her house and demand to know the meaning of this. Her money was on Rob Cameron, and the thought of flushing him like a grouse and marching him out at the point of a gun made her hand tighten on said gun with anticipation. She had Jem back; Cameron would know she didn’t need to keep him alive.
But. She hesitated in the door of the broch, looking down.
But whoever was in the house had answered the phone. If I was a burglar, I wouldn’t be answering the phone in the house I was burgling. Not unless I thought it would wake up the people inside.
Whoever was in her house already knew no one was home.
“Quod erat demonstrandum,” her father’s voice said in her mind, with a grim satisfaction. Someone in the house was expecting a call.
She stepped outside, with a deep breath of the fresh cold scent of gorse replacing the dank musk of the broch, her heart beating fast and her mind working faster. Who would be calling him—them? To say what?
Maybe someone had been watching earlier, seen her coming down the forestry road. Maybe they were calling to tell Rob she was outside, in the broch. No, that didn’t make sense. Whoever was in the house, they’d been in there when she arrived. If someone had seen her come, they’d have called the house then.
“Ita sequitur . . .” she murmured. Thus it follows: if the call wasn’t about her, it must be either a warning that someone—the police, and why?—was coming toward Lallybroch—or news that whoever was on the outside had found the kids.
The metal of the barrel was slick under her sweating palm, and it took a noticeable effort to keep a firm grip on the gun. Even more of an effort not to run toward the house.
Aggravating as it was, she had to wait. If someone had found the kids, she couldn’t reach Fiona’s house in time to protect them; she’d have to depend on Fiona and Ernie and the City of Inverness police. But if that was the case, whoever was in the house would surely be coming out right away. Unless that bastard Rob means to hang around in hopes of catching me unawares, and . . . Despite the gun in her hand, that thought gave her an unpleasant squirm deep inside—one she recognized as the ghostly touch of Stephen Bonnet’s penis.
“I killed you, Stephen,” she said under her breath. “And I’m glad you’re dead. You may have company in hell pretty soon. Make sure the fire’s lit for him, okay?”
That restored her nerve, and dropping to her haunches, she duckwalked through the gorse, coming down the hillside at an angle that would bring her out near the kailyard, not by the path, which was visible from the house. Even in the dark, she was taking no chances; there was a rising half-moon, though it showed erratically through scudding cloud.
The sound of a car coming made her lift her head, peering over a tuft of dry broom. She put a hand in her pocket, thumbing through the loose shotgun shells. Fourteen. That should be enough.
Fiona’s remark about ballistics flitted through her mind, along with a faint reminder of the possibility of going to prison for wholesale manslaughter. She might risk it, for the satisfaction of killing Rob Cameron—but the unwelcome thought occurred to her that while she didn’t need him to locate Jem anymore, she did need to find out what the hell was going on. And while the police might track down the man from the dam, if there was some sort of gang involved, Rob was likely the only way of finding out who the others were—and what they wanted.
The headlights jounced down the lane and into the dooryard, and she stood up abruptly. The motion-detecting light had come on, showing her Ernie’s white panel truck, unmistakable, with BUCHAN ELECTRICS/FOR ALL YOUR CURRENT NEEDS, CALL 01463 775 4432 on the side, with a drawing of a severed cable, spitting sparks.
“Bloody hell,” she said. “Bloody, bloody hell!”
The truck’s door opened and Jem tumbled out, then turned round to help Mandy, who was no more than a short dark blot in the recesses of the truck.
“GET BACK IN THE TRUCK!” Brianna bellowed, leaping down the slope, skittering on rolling stones and bending her ankles in spongy patches of heather. “JEMMY! GET BACK!”
She saw Jem turn, his face white in the glare of the light, but it was too late. The front door flew open and two dark figures rushed out, running for the truck.
She wasted no more breath but ran for all she was worth. A shotgun was useless at any distance—or maybe not. She skidded to a halt, shouldered the gun, and fired. Buckshot flew into the gorse with a whizzing sound like tiny arrows, but the bang had halted the intruders in their tracks.
“BACK IN THE TRUCK!” she roared, and fired again. The intruders galloped toward the house, and Jem, bless his heart, leapt into the truck like a startled frog and slammed the door. Ernie, who had just got out, stood for a moment gawking up the slope, but then, realizing what had happened, came suddenly to life and dived for his own door.
She reloaded in the glow of the spotlight. How long would the light stay on with no one moving in its range? She racked a fresh shell and ran for Ernie’s truck. More headlights jerked her attention toward the lane. Holy Mary, Mother of God, who was this? Please, God, let it be the police . . .
The light winked out, then on again almost at once, as the second vehicle roared into the dooryard, moving fast. The people inside the house were hanging out of the drawing room casement, yelling something at the new truck—yes, it was another panel truck, much like Ernie’s, save that it said POULTNEY’S, PURVEYOR OF FINE GAME and had a picture of a wild boar.
“Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death . . .” She had to get to Ernie’s truck before—too late. The FINE GAME truck revved up and rammed Ernie’s truck in the side, shunting it several yards. She could hear Mandy’s scream above everything, sharp as an augur through her heart.
“Bloody Mother of . . . Jesus H. Roosevelt Christ!” She couldn’t take time to circle the dooryard. She ran straight across it, took close aim, and shredded the front tire of the FINE GAME truck with a blast of buckshot.
“STAY IN THE TRUCK!” she shouted, chambering the second shell and pointing the gun at the windshield in the same motion. A blur of white as at least two people ducked down out of sight below the dash.
The men—yes, both men—inside the house were yelling at each other, and at the people in the truck, and at her. Useless adjurations and insults, mostly, but one of them was now pointing out to the others that her weapon was a shotgun. Useless except at short range, and only two shots.