Ashes to Ashes
The photo on the print cover of Ashes to Ashes is the best one yet of Craigievar Castle, the original of the story's Dun Iain.
Historian Rebecca Reid comes to a replica of a Scottish castle in Ohio to catalog a collection of historical artifacts. James Forbes, the castle's owner---who was recently found dead at the foot of a stairway---owned the Erskine letter, a letter which might prove that Mary, Queen of Scots' son died at birth and was secretly replaced by another woman's. It’s just what Rebecca needs for her Ph.D. dissertation. At Dun Iain Rebecca finds herself saddled with a co-worker, Michael Campbell, a Scottish academic sent from the Museum of Scotland to choose which among the Forbes' family treasures should go home to Scotland. He has a tartan chip on his shoulder and, Rebecca suspects, a hidden agenda. Sparks fly.
Sparks of a different kind fly between Rebecca and Eric Adler, the charming, handsome executor of the Forbes estate. Then there’s Dorothy, the eavesdropping busybody of a housekeeper, and other locals, all of whom always seem to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. Ghostly presences stalk the halls, throw dishes in the kitchen, turn lights on and off, and move objects around. When valuables start vanishing and accidents start happening, Rebecca suspects more than just ghosts are at work. Someone wants her and Michael out of Dun Iain. And amid all the precious artifacts, she can’t find the Erskine letter. Introducing Rebecca Reid and Michael Campbell, who also appear in the Jean Fairbairn/Alasdair Cameron series.
"...a real page-turner of a
story...descriptive detail brings the reader on the
scene...characters come to life through Carl's ear for everyday
dialogue...especially spell-binding is the realistic description of
the ghostly presence that stalks the twisted corridors...the reader
is drawn into the mystery as well as the love story that unfolds...a
believable story laced with historical fact and delicious humor. I
highly recommend it."
--Barbara Leskey, Ohioana Quarterly
"The cover blurb says it's
'In the bestselling tradition of Barbara Michaels'...for once, a
cover blurb is pretty accurate...the story is mostly
mystery-romance, with enough ghosts in it to qualify as a fantasy,
and enough humor to make it enjoyable. I had fun reading it."
--Robert S. Coulson
"Gothic fans will be
overjoyed...all the trappings of that subgenre are present--the
brooding men, sinister servants, and a mysterious mansion--but the
setting is decidedly modern...will make the reader glad that the
author is planning a sequel."
--Toby Bromberg, Rave Reviews
"There are ghoulies and
ghosties (honest) and long leggety beasties (a wonderful cat) and a
myriad of things that go bump in the night...a host of suspects to
sift through...not your common romance, but then, who said romance
should ever be common?"
--CC, Heartland Critiques
"...a Gothic novel with a
twist...this is a fantastic mystery in more ways than one...a novel
of gradually intensifying tension, as the incidents go from the odd,
the mildly frightening, to the very dangerous...a very fine book,
well worth reading."
--Timothy Lane, Fosfa
"Lillian Stewart Carl is a
master hand at providing light, entertaining reading. The haunting
of the castle adds tension but is not the sort of thing to keep the
timid reader up nights. Ashes to Ashes is a fun read and I look
forward to reading more of the series."
--Christine Duncan, Murder Express
Note: This book was
inspired by the actual castle in Scotland, Craigievar. When I
visited there again, right before the book was published, I found a
young Oklahoman named Rebecca acting as tour guide. She's probably
wondering to this day why I kept staring at her.
The castle’s turrets rose like a beckoning hand above a crimson sea of maple leaves. Rebecca would have missed the exit from the interstate if it hadn’t been for that stone imperative, a seventeenth century Scottish castle springing from the soil of central Ohio like a burp in time and space. The incongruity was both engaging and unsettling.
Two miles of narrow asphalt corrugated by the wheels of farm equipment brought Rebecca to a cast-iron gate in a stone wall. A board creaking from a signpost proclaimed “Dun Iain.” She wrestled her Toyota into the driveway and stopped. The gate was open. They’d told the man from the museum her date of arrival. Good. It wasn’t polite to arrive unannounced.
To arrive here at all was a victory of exasperation over comfort. Rebecca’s stomach trembled with the same blend of anticipation and anxiety she’d feel when Ray teased her into jumping off the high diving board. But he hadn’t teased her into coming here. That had been her own idea, whether he liked it or not. They were just engaged, not married. Rebecca tightened her jaw, quelled her stomach, and accelerated up the driveway.
The castle was impressively picturesque at the end of its avenue of trees. Its builder, John Forbes, had studied his prototypes well. The Scottish stately homes that had been on the tour Rebecca and Ray had taken last year—Scone, Glamis, Blair—had all been entered through avenues of trees.
Only this avenue was of Canadian maples that flamed like torches in the crisp October afternoon.
The trees parted. The castle loomed over her like a megalith at Stonehenge. Rebecca drove cautiously over the gravel of the parking area and stopped beside a red Nova with a rental agency sticker on the bumper. Her car exhaled a cloud of exhaust and subsided. It would have to be replaced soon, with money she didn’t have and wouldn’t be getting here.
“So,” Ray had said. “You’re spending part of the fall semester sorting junk at some two bit San Simeon for nothing more than room, board, and a pittance from the executor? Just what are you trying to prove, Kitten?”
As if they both didn’t know. When she’d left her engagement ring with him, for safekeeping, of course, Ray had looked at her with the hurt appeal of a puppy put out for the night.
Rebecca thrust the car keys into her purse, threw open the door, leaped out, and slammed it shut with a much harder push than was necessary. A butterscotch and white cat, sunning himself on a low wall beside the parking area, regarded her with sardonic detachment. Dun Iain’s scattered windows peered down at her, multiple eyes sparkling in a sly and secretive humor.
She’d stewed over Ray all the way from Missouri, and gabbled endlessly about him to Jan during her quick visit in Putnam, just across the highway. “Something you’d like to recommend?” she asked the cat. He closed his eyes in the feline equivalent of a shrug. You’re here. That’s a start.
“Right,” said Rebecca. The breeze fanned the heat from her cheeks.
She might have come a hundred miles from Putnam and the interstate; the only sound was of the crimson leaves shuffling in the wind, and the distant hum of an airplane. She squinted into the brilliance of the sky. There it was, a tiny insect toiling eastward. Something about the echo of those distant engines on a fall day was unbearably poignant; her heart swelled with longing for—for something. Decision, probably.
Her eye followed the plane until it vanished behind the castle. A fairy tale castle, the State of Ohio guidebooks would say. But Dun Iain was a large house, only suggesting an L-shaped medieval keep.
The walls were beige harl, a kind of pebbly stucco, tinted pink by the maple leaves which surrounded them. They leaped in one sheer expanse from the ground to the fifth story, where they blossomed not into toothed parapets but into turrets and dormers. Atop them jostled chimneys and cupolas, which were in turn elbowed aside by a platform with a balustrade. Its severe right angles failed to intimidate the subtle curves of the rest of the building.
The roofs were a dark greenish gray. Eriskay slate, Rebecca remembered, imported at horrendous expense. Authenticity at all costs, even to the shot holes concealed by grinning gargoyles in the stonework at the base of each turret. A magnificently quixotic, defiantly eccentric structure, Dun Iain, less Camelot than Alice in Wonderland.
A fairy tale, she told herself. The innocent gloss of some fairy tales couldn’t hide the surreal twisting of the ordinary, the dark obsession, which lay beneath. Even the Disney version of Alice in Wonderland had once terrified her, the red queen shouting “Off with her head!” while Alice can’t wake up from her dream turned nightmare.
The airplane was gone. A cold gust of wind sang through the trees. Rebecca shivered and turned briskly to tidying up the car. From the trunk she took her suitcases and the sacks of food. If the man from the museum was like all men, he’d been living on nitrate-laced bologna on white bread and chemical-doused sweet rolls. From the back seat she took the jug of apple cider purchased at a roadside stand; hopefully it wasn’t contaminated with salmonella or whatever bug caused food poisoning. Biology wasn’t her field.
She scooped the Burger King wrappers from the floor where Jan’s children, despite their mother’s admonitions, had let them fall. Not for the first time she tried to feel condescension toward her former roommate, who had dropped out of college to marry. Not for the first time she failed.
Locking the car, Rebecca hoisted her packages and crunched over the gravel toward Dun Iain. The only apparent door was set in a bulge at the internal angle of the building’s “L”. It was a massive affair of wooden slabs and iron braces that looked ready to repel invaders at any moment.
Someone was looking out a window above and to one side of the door. Rebecca couldn’t produce a friendly wave with her arms full, so she tilted her head with a smile of greeting. But as soon as she focused on the window the shape was gone, plucked away into the shadowed interior, leaving her with a quick impression of a tall, thin figure and a pale face.
Well, if that was the way Dr. what’s his name Campbell of the Museum was going to be to his new colleague. . . An agonized shriek shattered the stillness. The cat dematerialized in a puff of fur. Rebecca’s heart plummeted into her stomach. Her feet did a quick jig on the gravel—run away, no, run forward. She dropped the suitcases, laid down the sacks, and sprinted for the door, her purse on its shoulder strap flying behind her.
The door was heavy. She threw her entire weight against the wood and it yielded without the hideous screech she’d have expected. She took two bounds into the interior and stopped, blinking in the abrupt musty dimness. There, dim light spilled down a staircase.
Another high-pitched shriek thinned into hysteria. Rebecca stumbled past a massive shape that only resolved itself in her mind’s eye into an open coffin, its occupant’s hands folded in prayer, when she was already on the bottom step of the staircase. What kind of place was this, anyway! She raced up the steps and into a wide doorway.
She burst past a carved screen into the Great Hall of the castle and collided with the end of a table. The room was small, as halls went, but large enough to contain her entire efficiency apartment. A vast hearth and mantel opened on her left. To her right were the smeared panes of a window glinting in the light of a wrought iron chandelier.
Something was wheezing, half strangled. She spun around. Above her, on a wooden musician’s gallery, a tall, slender man stood arguing with a decrepit set of bagpipes. Rebecca deflated with a wheeze of her own.
The pipes were winning the argument. The man blew mightily into the mouthpiece and squeezed the bag of faded tartan under his arm. The instrument emitted another squeal of indignation, like a woman goosed by a sailor.
“Thou unravished bride of quietness?” suggested Rebecca giddily.
The man jerked as though jolted by an electric shock. His face blanched and snapped toward her voice; his eyes bulged. The pipes in his suddenly flaccid arms whistled in a long exhalation like a gramophone record running down.
Now she’d scared him in turn. Nothing like starting off on the wrong foot. Rebecca tried a smile somewhat less broad than the Cheshire cat’s. “Ah, excuse me—I’m Rebecca Reid. I guess you must be. . .” She dredged frantically and his first name plopped onto her tongue. “. . .Michael Campbell from the British Museum.”
Michael closed his eyes for a moment, allowing the natural glow of the Scot to return to his face. He laid the bagpipes down, disappeared, and reemerged through the wooden screen. Wiping his hands on a T-shirt which read, “Disarm today, dat arm tomorrow”, he seized her hand, shook it perfunctorily, and dropped it. His mouth emitted an unintelligible string of diphthongs and glottal stops.
This was more than embarrassing, it was positively mortifying. Rebecca’s smile expired. Michael waited patiently, head cocked to the side, one side of his mouth tucked in a grimace that offered no assistance. Then, with a rush, some synapse in the back of Rebecca’s brain wrenched the sounds into words: “From the National Museums of Scotland. And there’s nae need tae go creepin’ aboot the hoose like that.”
“I wasn’t creeping,” Rebecca protested. “You saw me from the window, you knew I was here.”
“Oh aye?” His blue eyes widened and then narrowed, as if surprise gave way to cunning. He turned away, his shoulders moving in something between a shiver and a shrug.
He had to have rushed downstairs from the window and snatched up the pipes as soon as he’d seen her. He must be very shy. Or ill mannered. Unless. . . “Is there someone else here? The housekeeper?”
“She’ll no be in until the morn. There’s no one else here.” He stood, hands braced on the carved back of a chair, looking at a spiral notebook laid on the table amid a scattering of dishes and bric a brac. His fingers were interesting, long and lean, but his back was singularly uncommunicative. Rebecca peeked around him to see a page filled with neat columns of words and figures preceded by the script “L”s of pound signs.
Rebecca plowed doggedly on into the silence. “I’m from Dover College in Missouri. I answered the advertisement in the Journal of British Studies placed by the State of Ohio.”
“Who’ll be takin’ the house in January whether I’ve finished skimmin’ the cream or no.”
You’ve skimmed the cream? Rebecca’s head tilted inquisitively. Each burred “r” in young Dr. Campbell’s voice was a tiny buzz saw; obviously he resented the state thrusting an assistant on him. Maybe he was one of those paranoid types afraid some other scholar would steal his academic thunder. And yet he was simply taking inventory.
Maybe he thought she was there to check up on what he chose to take back to Scotland, as if he couldn’t be trusted to be fair and honest. She said in her most professional voice, “I exchanged letters with Mr. Adler, James Forbes’s executor. I’ve studied up on Dun Iain and both the Forbeses, father and son. I’ll be getting my own doctorate in British history as soon as I finish my dissertation, so I’m qualified to help you skim the cream, as you say.”
Michael released the chair, slapped shut the notebook, and turned back to her. A glance no doubt identical to the one he’d use to appraise a letter or a vase took in her stockings, sweater, and tartan skirt—an ersatz tartan, at that—the careful makeup and shoulder-length brown hair that was lovely but pathetically impractical.
So I like to look nice! Rebecca spoke more tartly than she’d intended. “Mr. Adler assured me I could do my own research while I—we—catalog the artifacts. There’s no better collection of Scottish historical artifacts on this side of the Atlantic. I know how to work, don’t worry. I supplemented my scholarships slinging hash at a Steak and Ale.”
Michael’s eyes glazed. That bit of slang was apparently beyond him, and he wasn’t about to ask what it meant. “Of course there’re no better collections. Forbes was a glorified thief, preyin’ on the poverty of the old families and plunderin’ the birthright of Scotland.”
Typical man—when in doubt, attack. “The laws on the exportation of antiquities weren’t as strict seventy or eighty years ago. If some of the old families had to sell the contents of their attics to feed, clothe and educate their children, maybe they thought they got the better end of the deal.”
“Thirty pieces of silver for the history of Scotland?”
“Which has been dirtied by a bunch of bloody Yanks?” Rebecca asked. “That history belongs to us, too, you know. My great-grandfather Reid left Ayrshire a hundred years ago because he couldn’t support his family in Scotland the Brave.” She cut herself off with a swallow and inspected the dusty toes of her shoes. Hard to believe that was her own voice being so rude to a foreigner, even a contentious one.
She glanced back up to see those brave Scottish eyes sparking not with anger but with a humor as sharp and dry as single-malt whiskey. “And today the old families can’t even sell their birthright. They have to make Disneylands out of their homes. People who a hundred years ago would never have been allowed in the back gate now stand gawpin’ over the Countess of Strathmore’s knickers. You have to be independently wealthy to live in Scotland the now—all the jobs are in soddin’ great factories in Birmingham and Manchester.”
Rebecca, having enjoyed the Countess of Strathmore’s antique underpants, couldn’t resist adding, “In England.”
“Among the Sassenachs,” he returned. “Chance would be a fine thing.”
She assumed that remark was meant as sarcasm, something along the line of “that’ll be the day”, and offered him a grin of complicity. “Sassenach”, huh? The word was more or less Gaelic for “southerner”, but had come to be a derogatory epithet for “English”. No wonder Michael had flared at her when she’d inadvertently assigned him to an English museum; he was a patriot, working for a pittance for his country. Such idealism was refreshing.
The angle of his chin repelled her grin. He scooped impatiently at the strands of hair falling across his forehead. His hair was also brown, shorter on the top and sides than in the back, where it reached the neckband of his shirt. The style was part intellectual, part rock star, part uncivilized Highland chieftain. Rebecca wondered whether he’d had it cut that way on purpose or whether he’d been the victim of a schizophrenic barber.
“Well then,” Michael said, “I’ll help you wi’ your cases. It’s time for tea.” He strolled to the door and clicked off the chandelier.
Twilight surged into the room. The windows, although large, admitted only a thin brassy gleam. The chairs and table, the fireplace and gallery, became only quick sketches of objects, without substance, like shapes in a dream. “Thank you,” Rebecca said to her erstwhile colleague, but he was already out of the room. With a shrug, she followed.
From a solitary bulb in the ceiling of the landing a few watts of light trickled down the steps, causing the oblong shape in the shadowed pit of the entrance hall to phosphoresce. Michael started down two steps at a time. Rebecca walked more slowly, asking, “What is that?”
“What?” He turned at the foot of the stair.
“That. . .” She couldn’t say coffin, it couldn’t be that. “That box there,” she ended lamely.
“This?” He found another switch. The shape coalesced into a white marble sarcophagus topped by the effigy of a woman, her cap, gown, and steepled hands finely detailed. Michael bowed, his hands sketching an elaborate flourish. “May I present Her Majesty, Mary, Queen of Scots? Poor, lovely, romantic, stupid Mary. I thought you said you’d studied Forbes and Dun Iain.”
“I have,” Rebecca returned. She knew that the elder Forbes had been besotted by the tragic story of Mary Stuart, and that he’d had a half-size replica of her tomb in Westminster Abbey carved of white marble. “I just didn’t know he kept his toy sarcophagus in his front hall.”
Another quick glint of humor, and Michael went striding across the parking area. Stupid Mary? A fine sentiment for a patriot. Rebecca spared a quick look at the marble face. Supposedly it had been modeled on Mary’s death mask; its serene half-smile suggested the queen had welcomed death, however gruesome. Off with her head indeed!
Rebecca hurried out the door and almost collided with Michael coming back in. “Get your pokes,” he said.
She rescued her sacks of groceries. The bronze evening sunlight, filtered through the maples, swam with russet dust-motes. The farm road was out of sight beyond the trees. Next to the house was a clapboard and shingle shed, and across the dark green lawn, not far from the driveway, was a dovecote, a low rounded structure perforated by stone lattices.
“I need to be lockin’ up the now,” Michael called.
“All right, I’m coming.” Rebecca checked to make sure her car was locked. She barely made it back inside before he swung the door shut with a crash and brandished a ridiculously large iron key. “I suppose,” she said, swept against a set of flags furled at Mary’s regal feet, “the really valuable things in Dun Iain don’t look valuable. You know, all that glitters isn’t gold.”
He shot her a sharp and suspicious glance. She raised her brows indignantly; come on, that remark hardly expressed criminal intentions! “Kitchen’s in there,” he said, jerking his head toward a door to the left of the staircase, and he rammed the key into a massive lock.
Rebecca bit her tongue before she said, “Yes, your grace,” and dropped him a curtsey. Who did he think he was, the Duke of Argyll? Probably whatever scion of the Campbell family was the duke, he was more polite than this, his poor relation. She couldn’t imagine anyone looking—and being—less of a threat than she was.
She found the light switch inside the kitchen door. A wonderfully bright bank of fluorescents illuminated a kitchen much younger than the house. Range, refrigerator, telephone—more incongruities, but she wasn’t about to complain. She laid the sacks on a vinyl-topped work island and put up the perishables: low-fat milk, skinned chicken breasts, and broccoli. She hadn’t been far wrong about Michael’s eating habits. The refrigerator contained only a package of processed cheese, two tomatoes, and an open can of frozen orange juice protruding a spoon like a sneering tongue. A couple of cans of Canadian beer sat on the counter. Efficiently she stowed them away, too, and turned to look for a bread box.
Michael’s Reeboks were padding up the staircase from the entry. “Your room’s on the second floor. The char aired it out yesterday.”
Rebecca abandoned the rest of the groceries, hurried out of the kitchen and up the stairs behind him. She squinted into the room across the landing from the Hall. This was her room?
“This is the study,” Michael announced. A shaft of sunlight picked out a Chippendale secretary piled with papers and trinkets. Beyond the boundary of the light, the shadows, even darker by contrast, swarmed with opaque shapes that might be cabinets and bookcases. A human form stood with preternatural stillness against the far wall. Rebecca’s eyes narrowed. “Suit of armor,” said Michael, and started up the next flight of stairs.
Rebecca rolled her eyes, as much at herself as at him, and followed. What he called the second floor Americans called the third; in British the first floor was the ground floor. Some people had the knack of making her feel dumb. And she’d thought Ray was exasperating.
This staircase was a circular one, so steep and narrow the only banister was a rope wound around the central pillar. The stone treads spiraled upward into shadow. The two sets of footsteps, magnified by the thick walls, wafted faintly up the stairwell and died away in the dark recesses of the upper stories. The shaft was a giant chimney flue, stirring with a chill draft like the breath of the house itself. Rebecca tasted acrid dust, musty leather, and furniture polish.
Michael led the way into a corridor. A solitary light bulb revealed three doors, one in each wall. Michael threw open the one across from the stairwell. “Bathroom and toilet.” The porcelain fixtures were of 1920’s vintage, forty years after the house was built. Fortunately the Forbeses’ taste for authenticity hadn’t extended to chamberpots under the bed.
“Bedroom.” Michael dropped the suitcases inside the left-hand door. One last ray of sunshine illuminated a canopied bed, a huge carved armoire like something out of The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, a dressing table, and an inappropriate but welcome space heater installed in the fireplace. It looked clean and comfortable; Rebecca hadn’t expected a luxury hotel.
Something oozed suddenly around her ankles. She jerked, imitating Michael’s electric jolt of startlement. The butterscotch and white cat crouched at her feet, the fur on his neck bristling, yellow eyes focused on some infinite point beyond the confines of the landing or of the castle itself. How did he—that’s right, she’d left the front door open when she’d rushed in.
“Well,” said Michael, nudging the animal with his toe and getting a disdainful glance in response. “Greyfriars Bobby watchin’ for old James?”
“I beg your pardon?”
“Didn’t you know, then, the man was found dead by the caretaker at the foot of yon staircase?”
Rebecca’s hair bristled like the cat’s. “Here? I—I thought he died in the hospital, I guess.” She cleared her throat. No, there was no chalk mark outlining a body on the broad planks of the floor, just the cat crouching and looking at—at something. “Not surprising a 96-year-old would fall down a spiral staircase. The cat was James’s? What’s his name?” She bent to stroke him. He hollowed his back evasively and glided up the stairs.
Michael actually emitted a chuckle. “James had more of a sense of humor than his dad. He named the cat Darnley.”
“For Henry Stewart, Lord Darnley, Mary’s second husband?”
“Always thought old Harry was a bit of a tomcat, myself.”
“He probably fathered more than James I, you’re right.”
“James VI of Scotland, James I of England,” Michael corrected. “If you don’t question that James was really Mary’s bairn.”
Rebecca stared. That was an uncanny shot, coming so close to the subject of her dissertation. If the Erskine letter was really here at Dun Iain, it might answer that exact question. His comment was a good omen, she told herself, and stepped into the bedroom.
The sunlight brightened a magnificent Sargent portrait, a woman in 1890s Gibson Girl garb, hair piled lavishly on her head, bosom upthrust, jewels at her throat. But her face was thin and pale, her eyes too big, hinting of anguish. The jewels seemed to choke her. The artist had skillfully shown the discrepancy between luxury of dress and poverty of emotion. “Mrs. John Forbes?” Rebecca asked, looking up at the painted face. “The candidate for martyrdom? No wonder she died young; it must’ve been quite a burden putting up with the old crock.”
“She could’ve flitted anytime.”
“No, she couldn’t. Back then a woman’s place was with her husband and son. Especially a wealthy woman, with no skills beyond piano-playing and embroidery. Where could she have gone, what could she have done?”
“If you choose to suffer fools gladly, there’s no excuse for you,” Michael prounounced.
And that, Rebecca responded mutely, is certainly something you’ll never be accused of. She pointed to the doorway opposite the bedroom. “What’s in there? More skeletons in closets?”
If Michael heard her teeth grinding he ignored them. “That’s the piper’s gallery. Naething there but a set of ill-tempered pipes. No bogles to leap out and scare you.”
“And you?” she replied with a laugh. “You almost cartwheeled when I spoke to you.” Through the door she glimpsed an elaborate plaster ceiling half erased by twilight, the vault of the two-story Hall.
“You crept up on me,” he repeated indignantly.
Her laugh evaporated for lack of nourishment. Rebecca realized she was exhausted; she’d gotten up before dawn to drive here. She threw her purse onto the bed and flicked open the closest suitcase. “I’d better unpack now.”
Michael thrust his hands into the pockets of his jeans and with disgruntled courtesy asked, “Would you like a cuppa?”
The soft pad of his footsteps faded away. Somewhere wood creaked and something, a hot water pipe, probably, sighed. Somewhere the cat glided through the shadows searching for its master, James Forbes, the bachelor, the miser. He’d mised enough to keep this place, with its compelling, disturbing discrepancies, going. And his heart was in the right place, to have willed the fruits of his father’s rapacity back to Scotland.
Rebecca laid her makeup case on the dressing table. In the frame of the slightly tarnished mirror was a postcard picture of Dun Iain. Or was it? She pulled the card out and turned it over. The legend declared the structure to be Craigievar, the Aberdeenshire castle which was Dun Iain’s prototype.
If Rebecca had known last summer she’d be working at Craigievar’s bastard child in America, she’d have rented a car in Perth and gone there. But then, Ray would have pointed out that the tour bus was already paid for, the countryside was the equivalent of the wilds of Africa, and the natives drove on the wrong side of the road. “That’s just the way things are, Kitten,” he’d have said patiently, and emitted another cloud of smoke from his pipe.
Prying Ray from his routine for that trip had been quite a feat, even though once there he’d followed her in bemused pleasure from site to site. But then, back home, it’d been back to the schedule. Tuesdays they’d eat pizza, half black olives for him, half green peppers for her. Sundays they’d attend the concert at Clemens Auditorium. Fridays he’d bring his overnight bag to her apartment and turn another page in The Joy of Sex.
Three years ago his calm, quiet, predictability had been endearing, evidence of his conscientious effort to do right by her. Rebecca wasn’t sure when it’d become stultifying. She’d told him she’d eat olives if he’d eat peppers, that she’d buy tickets to a football game if he’d go with her, that some Friday she’d like to wing it without the book.
He’d responded with loving pats on the head. She’d been considering dynamite in his coffee when she heard about the position at Dun Iain.
Rebecca unpacked her tape player, found a plug, and snapped in a Mozart tape. The music was tinny and shallow, absorbed by rather than dispelling the silence. The walls seemed to lean disapprovingly inward. She turned off the player. On the mantelpiece she laid her dog-eared copy of John Forbes: Man of Iron; the thirty-year-old biography had cost her quite a trek through the secondhand bookstores in Kansas City.
She’d left her typewriter in the car. No great loss if it disappeared; it was a manual her parents had given her as a high school graduation present almost ten years ago. Oh, for a computer.
A programmer’s job, Ray frequently pointed out, would pay much better than her teaching job. And grad school was such a financial drain. If she wrote off her quest for a Ph.D., she could get that new car, that computer, a larger apartment. She already knew word processing, after all. Like a human Cuisinart she processed the musings with which Ray fertilized assorted philosophy journals: “Aristotle’s Poetics Revealed in ‘Saturday Night Live’“, or “Sartre’s ‘Being and Nothingness’: the Paradigm of the Eighties.”
“Publish or perish,” he’d say cheerfully. “You’re such a big help, Kitten. I’m all thumbs when it comes to a keyboard.”
The armoire reeked of lavender. Rebecca searched for a plastic air freshener but found nothing. She hung up her blouses and dresses and left the doors open, threw her satin stocking bag into a drawer and checked the level of fluid in her contact lens case. A picture of Ray, looking professorial against a row of fake photographer’s books, went on the bedside table beside the case holding her glasses. Last Friday she’d had a headache; Ray, the Joy of Sex page all picked out, had been miffed. This was a man so set in his ways he’d ordered bourbon in Edinburgh.
Rebecca leaned on the embrasure of the windowsill. Publish or perish. Even if she—when she—published the Erskine letter and joined Ray in the rarefied atmosphere of a doctorate, nothing would change. On that hypothetical future date she could marry him, and nothing would change.
Her jaw ached, a sure sign of words left unsaid and emotions unexpressed. Elspeth Forbes gazed down from the paneled wall, not completely unsympathetic. Jan, amid the riot at the Burger King, had opined that distance fanned a large flame and extinguished a small one. Only 24 hours distant, Rebecca told herself, and she already had a damn good idea just which one she’d singed her fingers on.
The sunlight ebbed from the world outside. The maple trees faded to gray. She was inside those multiple eyes looking out. In the twilight the lawns and trees lost all depth, as though they’d been painted on the panes of glass. If she raised the window, she might raise the landscape itself, seeing behind it nothing, the castle the only reality.
Rebecca shook herself, turning back into the room. It was almost dark, illuminated only by the feeble light from the corridor. She clicked the switch by the door but the bulb in the midst of the ornate plaster ceiling didn’t respond. She tried the bedside lamp with the same result. All right then, time to make Dr. Campbell disgorge a couple of light bulbs as well as that cup of tea. And a sandwich would be good. A little food and a stress vitamin would steady her nerves.
Rebecca closed the door into the piper’s gallery and peered up into the darkness blotting the upper staircase. She would explore the rest of the house tomorrow, in the daylight. If it contained enough of what Ray called junk, working even with His Grace Michael the Grouch Campbell would be worthwhile. After all, she was here to do two jobs, her own and the state’s.
Starting down the staircase, she visualized Michael, festooned in the great kilt of the 17th century, lifting a lamp on the landing. In his informal twentieth century clothes, longish hair and defensive posture he appeared barely twenty. He was probably closer to thirty, one of those aggravating men who look like boys until they’re forty, at which time they become distinguished.
Something bumped on the staircase over her head—the cat, no doubt. The breath of the castle wafted coldly down the back of her sweater. Not sure if she was joking, Rebecca repeated under her breath the old Scots prayer: “From ghoulies and ghosties and long-leggety beasties and things that go bump in the night, Good Lord deliver us.”
She skimmed by the black yawning apertures of Hall and study. The bright light from the kitchen made the model tomb look like a child’s plaster of paris school project. Michael was singing something to the effect that it’s good to be young and daring. His bravado scraped her mind like chalk skreeking across a blackboard. No one could really be daring, given the constraints of culture and sex and economics.
At least he sounded more cheerful now. She hadn’t crept up on him. He’d seen her from the window. . . The cat, Darnley, wasn’t upstairs but sat licking his paws on Mary’s marble stomach much as his namesake must once have curled against Mary’s skin.
Rebecca stopped dead in the entry. From the kitchen Michael’s voice stuttered to a halt. One beat, two, and then he bellowed, “Blast you, woman, if I’d wanted my beer cold I’d have put it in the fridge myself!”
And then again, Rebecca thought with a frustrated stamp at the unforgiving stone of the floor, wasn’t there also a prayer about deliverance from the wrath of the Campbells?