Juno Books

An Excerpt From Blackness Tower

By Killian Stewart Carl

[ Information on Blackness Tower ]

Chapter One

Lauren Reay had come to the end of the world. Across the sea she glimpsed the blue-tinted hills of the next. White gulls called. The wind and the waves whispered, The water is wide, I can’t cross o’er...

Rational thought swam up from the depths of her mind, informing her she had only come to the northern end of Britain, and now stood on the coast of Scotland looking across to Orkney.

Only? She was here at last. She seemed to be standing outside her own body. And yet she was very much in her body, hyperventilating with the excitement, with the jet-lag, with the fear of what would happen now. She should have followed the advice of her distant cousin and native guide, Emily, and waited until tomorrow to finish her journey. But Lauren could never have made Emily understand why she couldn’t wait another minute, let alone another day. Why coming here wasn’t finishing her journey at all.

This day was still, the sun warm, the air moist, and a dark haze like a deep blue shadow hung low over the sea, so the smooth peaks of the islands seemed to be suspended in midair, unsupported as a dream.

In her dream, Lauren had never smelled this north wind, scoured clean by salt and ice and yet, on this August afternoon, no more than a sigh against her cheek, soft as a lover’s caress. And perhaps as false.

Her lips tightened in a scowl of impatience. Taking a firm step to her right, she eyed Blackness Tower planted atop the low green hillock of its “ness”, a word meaning “headland” in the ancient Norse language once spoken here.

The original L-shaped tower house, built in the sixteenth century, was crowded by later additions, stone walls and slate roofs sticking out at odd angles. Its flanks were coated by harling, a sort of stucco that, instead of glinting black or even gray, glowed a delicate rosy gold in the late afternoon sun. The walls were capped by gables and turrets and a saw-toothed parapet that was more likely Victorian imitation than medieval. If the tower had ever had a moat and drawbridge, they were long gone. Now it was encircled by a stone wall, a barricade holding back the rolling turf of the headland.

In Lauren’s dream, the windows of the tower were empty sockets, dark and deep. Now she saw the small antique panes, each one reflecting the sunshine in watery ripples of light, so bright they appeared opaque. If he stood behind that glass, gazing out at Lauren and Emily, she couldn’t see him. Him, the mysterious David Sutherland, who refused to return her calls or answer her letters.

Fine. Be that way. She’d get into Blackness Tower. She’d ask her questions. She’d find her answers.

“Well then, is it what you were expecting?” asked Emily’s voice with its lilting accent.

Lauren jumped, startled out of her—not a dream. She knew dreams, and this wasn’t one. “I’m not sure what I expected. Pictures aren’t, well, they’re just pictures.” From her shoulder bag she pulled out a page cut from a wall calendar and enclosed in a plastic sleeve, and handed it over.

The seams of Emily’s face pursed less in curiosity than caution, no doubt taking the measure of this stranger from another generation, who had arrived on her doorstep like an explorer on the shore of a mythical land.

The photo of the tower had been taken from this angle, revealing two faces of the building. It had been taken at this time of year, when the wall barely restrained the flowers and leaves of a garden. Even the sky in the picture was the same, a blue so deep it had an almost purplish tinge, so solid it seemed as though, if she could only reach it, Lauren could flick it with her fingernail and produce the trembling chime of crystal.

Printed beneath the photo were the words Blackness Tower, Reay, Caithness. If those words weren’t yet carved on her tombstone, she had at least felt footsteps crossing her grave the moment she first saw them.

She remembered the stack of mail addressed to Donald Reay. The same name on a hospital door, beside a janitor’s trash bin filled with wilted poinsettias. The man laid out on a bed, his fragile shell monitored, chained up by wires, tied down like a technological sacrifice. Grandpa, I have your mail. Said in the artificially bright voice used to children and invalids. Look, it’s a calendar from Scotland. Look, March is Edinburgh Castle, April is Loch Lomond, June is Ardnamurchan Lighthouse.

Look. August. Blackness Tower. Reay. Caithness.

Her heart hanging in her chest, a diver poised at the edge, dizzy with vertigo and anticipation. The acrid, antiseptic air catching in her throat. The old man’s foggy eyes meeting hers and the thin gray lips emitting a ghostly whisper. Is that it, Lauren? Blackness Tower? Is that the place you’ve been dreaming about?

Yes. It was the place in her recurring dream, the one that had haunted her for a decade now. Only Grandpa knew about that dream. Who else could she trust with it?

Craig? “You’ve got a heck of an imagination there, honeybunch,” her ex-fiancé would have said, affection cut with impatience.

Her mother? “You studied history in college, you work with books, you’ve seen a picture of that place before. Like grandfather, like father, like daughter,” she would have said, affection cut with rue, not needing to add her usual, all three of you, away with the fairies.

If the fairies lived here, so be it.

With a slow nod and hint of a frown Emily returned the photo. Her clear blue-gray eyes fixed on Lauren’s face.

Lauren attempted an innocuous smile. “I can always blame this on you, you know, sending Grandpa the calendar.”

“I didna send him a calendar,” Emily replied.

“What?” Lauren glanced back at the tower, half-expecting an upper window to shiver in a wink, acknowledging her as fate’s fool. Not that fate normally sent packages via Royal Mail. “The envelope was postmarked Thurso, and you’re the only person Grandpa was writing to there.”

“He was likely corresponding with someone else as well.”

Then why hadn’t he said so? But Lauren couldn’t ask him, not now.

She went on, hoping Emily wouldn’t notice the strain in her voice, the tension that suggested falsehood when in reality it was simply—reality. “Grandpa always wanted me to pick up the genealogical baton, so to speak. The photo in the calendar, it was a sign, an omen. There, in the hospital, two days before he died, he made me promise I’d finish the family tree. I hadn’t intended to do it just a few months later. But the publisher I was working for went under, and my fiancé bailed out on me, so it’s not like I had anything else to do.”

“Things happen,” Emily told her. “Things change, through no fault of our own.”

“Yeah.” And some things stayed the same. Like her dream. Lauren slipped the photo and its plastic shroud back into her bag. Salt-sweet air filled her chest. She was here. Here at last. Atop the cliffs, the sea foaming at their feet.

Her fingertips touched velvet. She fished a blood-red jeweler’s box from her bag and balanced it on her palm. “Grandpa left me a request, that I go on a quest, and he left me a bequest . . .” She puzzled over that, then decided she was punch-drunk. “He left me this.”

She opened the box. Inside, nested on a bed of crimson silk, lay a metal skull a bit smaller than her fist. It glinted in the sun like treasure trove. Mottos and sketches were engraved on its polished surface, and a band of decorative openwork ran from temple to temple.

Emily gasped. “Well now, you’ve got a bonny wee bauble there, and no mistake! That’s never gold!”

“It’s silver gilt.”

“A pocket watch, is it?”

Good for Emily! No one else had ever guessed its use—most people turned away with a grimace or a lame joke . . . Oh. “Grandpa told you about it, right?”

“That he did. Said it was by way of being a family heirloom.” Another frown, like a reflection from the watch, raced across Emily’s face and vanished. “Interesting, what will come down in families.”

“You’ve got that right,” Lauren stated, even as she wondered, why the frown? There was no problem with Grandpa telling Emily about the watch. He’d never have betrayed Lauren’s confidence by telling Emily or anyone else about her dream.

Lauren upended the skull, evoking a faint silvery tinkle, and flipped open the hinged jaw. Inside, a clock face marked with Roman numerals was bordered with more engraving. An inscription read, Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax, bonae voluntatis. “It’s a watch, but it’s never kept time, not that I know of. It still chimes when you joggle it.”

“Well then.” Emily turned her curious, cautious—concerned—gaze from the watch’s face back to Lauren’s. “A wee bit grisly, it is. A work of art, but grisly.”

“The Victorians really knew how to romanticize death. At least, I assume it’s Victorian. It belonged to Grandpa’s grandmother.”

“Susanna Mackay. She’s buried in yon graveyard.” Emily gestured over her shoulder.

Lauren closed the box on the watch, on the memento mori, a souvenir of death—remember that you, too, will die—and tucked it into her bag. “Grandpa knew who his grandmother was. The question is, who was his grandfather?”

“There’s a question worth the asking.”

“That’s why I’m here, to ask questions.”

“To find answers.” Emily’s features, plain as pudding but considerably more intelligent, crumpled again.

Okay, Lauren thought, what do you think I don’t know? That she stood on uncertain genealogical ground? Saying, “Well yeah, of course,” she made a deliberate about-face away from Emily’s scrutiny and from the impassive facade of the tower as well. Her back prickled. But then, what part of her body didn’t?

Before her, atop a green swell of land tufted with sheep, sat the ruins of a tiny chapel. The slender stone slabs of its walls and the bulkier ones framing its trapezoidal doorways hinted of prehistoric chambered tombs and ceremonies conducted by torchlight. And yet the structure was probably medieval, a Christian foundation.

Grave monuments huddled to one side of the roofless ruin like a frightened congregation. Some of the carved stones were lichen-splotched and worn by wind and rain, others were so polished and pale Lauren wondered if they glowed in the night. In the real night, not the one of her dream.

In her dream, she walked down from the tower, beside a stream with its whiskey-colored water, and up this hill to the chapel. Sometimes she walked in daylight, when the sea rolled away billow upon gleaming blue billow past the islands to the edge of sight. Sometimes she walked in rain, cloud and mist hiding the cliffs and magnifying the low roar of the waves. Sometimes she walked at night, a light hanging about her even though she carried no lamp or flashlight, and with every step she drew as close to the peril of the cliffs as to the sanctuary of the chapel.

Now she walked up the hill for real, consciously, if not quite awake. When she slipped on a muddy patch, Emily grabbed her arm. Lauren barely felt the older woman’s solid grasp.

Her dream was non-corporeal, as though she walked through a painting, without sound or smell or touch—as though she glided, her feet not touching the ground. But now she heard the nervous scamper of sheep, felt the sun hot on her cheeks and the turf spongy beneath her shoes, smelled the tang of mildewed stone. Still, even with her senses overflowing, she felt unreal.

So what was real?

Lauren stopped at the low wall made of stacked slabs of stone that surrounded the chapel. A rabbit shot out of a burrow almost beneath her feet and bounded away. She jerked back and again Emily steadied her.

The rabbit was an ordinary brown one, not white. It wasn’t wearing a waistcoat and carrying a pocket watch. She was the one carrying a watch. A broken watch, no longer counting the hours and the years, still as death, assuming death was indeed still.

Lauren set her hands on the triangular stones topping the wall. Beneath their gritty warmth she sensed a damp cold, like that proverbial long dark night of the soul. Which grave was Susanna’s? The one topped by the statue of an angel, its features eroded into blandness, a cancer of orange lichen marring the smoothness of its wings?

Wait a minute. In the graveyard, rows of small, neon plastic flags marked off a grid pattern, as though a Lilliputian circus was setting up a show. Two shovels leaned against the inside of the wall. Surely no one was planning to build here. The chapel was a listed ancient monument.

Spinning back around, Lauren glared at Blackness Tower. What was Sutherland up to? He might own the tower, but Historic Scotland owned the chapel . . . That agency cared for a long list of ruinous buildings, many in more populated and accessible areas. In this far northern county, Sutherland could probably get away with anything short of tearing the chapel down and building a McDonald’s on its ancient foundations.

Lauren told herself to be fair, fairness being as elusive these days as it had always been. She’d developed a prejudice against David Sutherland and his curt, British answering-machine voice. Just because he’d gone to the trouble and expense of fixing up the tower didn’t mean he owed anything to curious descendants of its earlier inhabitants.

She asked Emily, “Do they still have funerals here? I know the chapel’s been decommissioned or deconsecrated or whatever, but people have family ties to old graveyards. I have family ties to this old graveyard, with Susanna, at least.”

She imagined Susanna Mackay’s funeral: a black glassed-in coach and horses wearing black plumes, or black-clad pallbearers struggling down the path with a coffin. Her grandfather’s grandmother had died at the age of thirty-seven, ten years older than Lauren was now. “How did Susanna die? Disease? Accident? Murder? That might explain a little inter-generational trauma.”

“Murder, is it?” Emily darted her a sharp glance.

Lauren backpedaled. “That’s way too dramatic. Never mind.”

“Mind you, history is dramatic.” Emily turned back to the graveyard. Her strong, stubby hands grasped the wall as if she planned to dismantle the stones and rebuild. After a moment, she said, “I saw in the newspaper, there’s to be a dig here.”

“Oh. Archaeology. That’s okay, then. That’s cool.”

“A fine coincidence, your arriving just now.”

“Grandpa used to say there was no such thing as coinci—” Lauren bit back her words.

“Important archaeological site, Black Ness, with a long history and longer tradition. Ghost stories and the like.”

“Ghost stories,” Lauren repeated. Dreams seen by other people. Or Seen, with the capital-S of Second Sight, Celtic ESP.

Swaying, she clutched at the wall—any minute now she’d float up and over the headland and out to sea, only to be lost forever in some undiscovered country.

Again Emily gripped Lauren’s arm. She laughed and shook her head, probably forgiving Lauren for not being what she’d expected. And what had she expected, a character from Sex and the City? “You’ve had yourself a look at the place. There’s time enough to be getting on with your plans. Just now you’ll be wanting your tea and a good night’s sleep.”

No kidding. Lauren hadn’t slept for thirty-six hours. Her last meal had been a paper cup of lukewarm tea on the flight from London to Aberdeen, and a protein bar from her bag on the flight from Aberdeen to Wick.

She smiled, and the smile spread into a laugh of her own. She might as well laugh. She’d spent enough time in tears. “Plans? What plans? I’m making this up as I go along.”

“We’re all after doing that. Come along now.” Emily led the way down the grassy hillside and onto the walkway that ran beside the stream, then up a long slope.

Placing her feet very carefully, Lauren followed. She couldn’t cross a small bridge and take the path toward Blackness Tower, not now. But she looked toward it even so—it pulled at her the way a magnet pulls at iron filings, an invisible but undeniable current.

Something flashed like a signal from high on the tower, like the way the silver skull had glinted in Lauren’s hand.

She stopped. Had David Sutherland opened a window to see who was encroaching on his territory? No, the windows were still opaque, even secretive. The flash had come from the roof walk.

A small gargoyle sat on the parapet. It hadn’t been there before. At least, Lauren didn’t think it had been there before. And was that a woman standing behind it, in the shadow of the topmost turret? Her hair cascaded over her shoulders and she wore a long white dress that reminded Lauren of her own never-used wedding dress, now buried in her mother’s back closet.

Lauren closed her grainy eyes and opened them again. The gargoyle sat motionless. But what she’d thought was a woman was a doorway in the shadowed side of the turret, its discolored paint suggesting wraiths of lace.

Taking a deep breath, she turned away. And heard music, so faint at first she thought it was a lingering jet-engine resonance in her ears.

Then the melody strengthened, high, clear notes played on a flute or a whistle, rising and falling, growing and fading, circling around so that they went in where they came out, rousing her senses like a lover’s kiss on the back of her neck. She almost recognized the tune, she knew it . . . It died away into the murmur of wind and wave.

The nerve endings in her mind, along her spine, in the pit of her stomach, quivered with a similar, more familiar song. The water is wide, I can’t cross o’er, And neither have I wings to fly, Give me a boat that can carry two, And we shall row, my love and I.

My love and I, she thought. Right.

And “crossing over” was a synonym for dying.

“Lauren?” called Emily from the top of the slope. The top of the brae. “Come along. You’re looking a wee bit peaky.”

Peaky? Meaning what? Stubborn? In need of a keeper? “I’m coming,” Lauren replied, and set her feet into motion once again, walking away from Blackness Tower like she did in her dream.

In her dream, she never reached the Tower, and yet she kept returning to it.

Once she might have doubted either dream or tower hadmeaning, and believed the people who told her both were nothing more than imagination, as though imagination was ever nothing.

Then she’d discovered the tower was real. And now, here, today . . .

Now she knew her dream was, too.

Chapter Two

Lauren sat at Emily’s kitchen table, all the usual domestic objects and a few unusual ones—was that a toast rack?—rotating slowly around her, caught in a perceptual eddy. “What does ‘peaky’ mean?” she asked.

“Puny. Sickly. No offense.” Emily splashed milk into a mug, filled it with black tea, and added sugar. She pressed the resulting brew into Lauren’s hands. “Drink up. Tea will be ready in a tick.”

But this was tea. Oh. The meal Emily was cooking was called “tea.” Check.

Lauren drank, scalding her tongue but charging up her brain, and inhaled the scent of baking scones. Her mouth watered. Food was good. Appetite was good.

She had sat both stunned and hyper-alert as Emily drove through the village of Reay—blink and you miss it—and back toward the east, the road paralleling the shadows cast by the lowering sun and pointing toward a pale, slightly flattened moon, the gibbous moon beloved of poets.

Trying not to cringe every time a car passed them on the right, Lauren had told herself that being in a mirror-image of reality made as much sense as dreaming about a place she’d never seen. But then, her definition of “sense” was taking a beating.

Now she looked out Emily’s kitchen window, past her garden teeming with flowers, to where the slow swells of Thurso Bay shone a deeper blue than the sky. They were shielded on the left by the green arm of Holborn Head, a white lighthouse tucked into its elbow. And why wasn’t that a “ness,” too, Lauren wondered.

Beyond the bay, the waves rippled toward a horizon closed by the hills of Orkney. The islands rose above the haze like the grayish blue humps of a great sea monster, with the stark vertical of The Old Man of Hoy—a pinnacle of rock separated from the mainland—forming either the head or the tail. Imagine waking up every morning with that view instead of the vista of office buildings and steel-choked highways Lauren saw from her apartment complex in Dallas.

Emily plunked a plate in front of her. “With the heat I’d normally be having a salad or cold sandwich, but you’ll be wanting more than that.”

“Heat?” Lauren asked, picking up her fork. “It’s barely seventy.”

Smiling at the outlander and her strange notions, Emily removed a sheet of scones from the oven. She scooped them into a basket and, with a squeal of chair legs across linoleum, sat down.

The older woman was getting the raw end of the deal, facing Lauren’s pale, sagging face rather than the window. At least, Lauren assumed her face was pale and sagging. She hadn’t dared check herself out in the mirror when she unpacked in the cozy bedroom upstairs.

She forked up a chunk of yellow omelet oozing golden cheese. The salt-savory flavors melted on her tongue. The scone was crusty and airy both, and the red jam was sweet with the memory of ripe strawberries. Bliss. Paradise. Valhalla. Or, since this was Scotland, Tir nan Og, the Celtic Otherworld, island of eternal youth and beauty.

Lauren was young, although she was catching glimpses of her thirtieth birthday like a storm cloud on the horizon. As for beauty, her long nose, generous mouth, and deep-set brown eyes were too strong for contemporary tastes, and despite the application of diet and exercise, her body was shaped more like an old-fashioned hourglass than a trendy stick.

And her hair! Stylishly sleek and smooth it wasn’t. The thick russet-brown waves hung like a theater curtain down her neck, pulling her chin up and her head back. She might as well wear it long. Short, it made her look like she’d crawled off Dr. Frankenstein’s electric operating table.

Both her father and her grandfather had hair as bright and unruly. Men of their respective generations, the one had worn his in a crew-cut even into the hirsute eighties, and the other had pasted his down with the contemporary equivalent of bear-grease. Although at the end, Grandpa’s hair had lost its texture and color and become spider webs clinging to his naked skull.

Between her appearance and her imagination, not to mention a tendency toward gravity beyond her years, Lauren had spent her adolescence half-paralyzed by self-consciousness. Then, in college, she’d discovered art history. The ever-changing images of beauty and varieties of imagination proved that the times were out of joint, not her. Encouraged, she’d stumbled into a part-time job sitting for Life Drawing classes, not in the nude—she hadn’t abandoned all her inhibitions—but in garments and draperies that would have swallowed a lesser woman.

The rustle of paper, the soft scrape of pencils, the teacher’s murmured instructions reminded her of medieval monks copying their psalms beside the cloister walk. Posing was meditation, not vanity, she assured herself. And the finished sketches were a revelation, the images not capturing her soul but releasing it.

Her mother, as mothers did, told her to straighten to her full five foot nine and carry herself like a queen. But it wasn’t until she saw the lush, romantic sketches of herself as Guinevere, or Cleopatra, or Helen of Troy, that Lauren felt regal instead of ungainly. Not that she intended to launch any ships, but she supposed that Helen hadn’t intended to, either.

Then there were the sketches that she laughed about with her girlfriends, the ones that made her resemble a clown or a cow, Nicole would say, or Picasso’s worst nightmare, Rachel teased.

Well, the occasional reality check factored into self-acceptance. Like the occasional scone, calories be damned. By the time Lauren mopped up the last morsels and drained her second cup of tea—strong life-giving caffeine and carbs, none of this lettuce leaf fear-of-food business—sanity was in her grasp.

She put down her fork and looked up at Emily. Who was, once again, looking at her.

It was Emily who was sane. No make-up concealed the jovial creases of her cousin’s apple cheeks or the clarity of her blue-gray eyes. Her wiry silver hair was cut short and her blocky body was swathed in a loose blouse and canvas pants. She wore no jewelry except for a wedding band, worn and scratched, that she probably couldn’t remove over the chapped knuckles and plain, square-cut nails of hands, she’d told Lauren, that had sheared sheep and stacked hay bales.

Her appearance was every bit as no-nonsense as her personality, well-grounded. Like Lauren’s mother, Emily would never allow anything weird to sneak up on her. Lauren had to satisfy Emily’s conspicuous curiosity about her young relative without revealing the metaphysical facet of her persona, her recurring dream. Emily wouldn’t believe that. She might even retreat with a shudder of revulsion and a dismissive sneer.

“Thank you for taking me in like this,” Lauren said. “Nothing like having a second cousin or whatever it is appear out of nowhere.”

“My granny was Susanna’s sister Florence, meaning we’re second cousins twice removed or something of that nature. No matter. I’m delighted you’ve come. Donald mentioned your name in his first letter—you’re his only grandchild, aren’t you now?”

“Yes. My father was an only child, and so am I. The family tree’s more of a shrub.”

“You’re using the past tense about your own father, now.”

“He’s been gone a long time.” Lauren stuck to the facts and just the facts. “Grandpa was my father, he always came to my piano recitals and spelling bees.”

“That was very good of him.”

“I think he felt responsible for . . .”

Emily let the unfinished sentence twist slowly between them.

“Well,” said Lauren, with what she meant to be a casual shrug but was more of a galvanic jerk, “even Grandpa used to say that my dad was away with the fairies. That’s a Scottish idiom, isn’t it? He probably got it from his own father. Away with the fairies, you know, a little too, um, imaginative.”

“Ah,” Emily said under her breath, and then, louder, “Oh aye, it’s meaning that, right enough. Though the young people nowadays are using ‘away with the fairies’ meaning ‘drunk’ or ‘drugged’.”

The last crumbs of the scone turned to ashes in Lauren’s mouth. Surely Grandpa didn’t know the more recent transatlantic version. Surely his “away with the fairies” was not the equivalent of telling a child that the stork brought babies, a fable covering an inconvenient truth. Her mother’s despairing “nuts” was bad enough, cutting too close to the bone. To add “drunk” . . .

An electronic bleat made her look around. Emily reached across to a sideboard, plucked a portable phone from its combination base and answering machine, and responded with her number.

Lauren cleared her throat by draining her cup of tea down it. Saved by the bleat from revealing the details of Donny’s—Donald Junior’s—disappearance when she had been all of nine years old.

He and his father had never gotten along. They were too much alike, her mother said, although even she thought Donald was charmingly eccentric, while Donny’s alcohol-fueled music-and-poetry weirdness had been the contributing factor in the divorce. Whether recent advances in drug or cognitive therapy might have helped him didn’t matter. Neither did it matter whether Mom’s practicality was a response to, or a contributing factor in, Donny’s madness. He was gone, as completely as though he’d been abducted by aliens. Or fairies.

“Oh aye, she’s arrived,” Emily was saying. “Genealogy and Blackness Tower, right enough.” And, a moment later, “I’ll be telling her. Cheers.” Punching a button on the phone, she laid it on the table and explained to Lauren, “Rosemary Gillock, she’s a librarian at the public library. She’s saying she’d be pleased to help you with your inquiries, refer you to the Local Family History group and the like, accustomed as she is to colonials looking out their ancestors.”

So Emily had been telling her friends that Lauren was coming. Her visit was a big event. Okay. No problem.

She smiled at “colonials.” “That’s nice of her. Although I don’t have much to go on. Grandpa knew squat about his family, as we’d say in Texas. His father, John, flat refused to talk about his parents. He didn’t have any photos, he never got any letters, nothing. All he said was that he’d come from the Auld Country, Scotland, in 1907, and good riddance to it. He might just as well have been conceived in a Petri dish.”

“I’m sorry I exchanged no more than three letters with Donald before he passed on. A fine old chap, he seemed to be.”

“A shame he never got the hang of e-mail. Y’all could have gotten to know each other. But then, you don’t have e-mail either.”

“The computers, they’re mysterious creatures. I’ve learned the workings of the till at the shop, and the calculator, and the remote for the telly. Those will do. That telephone, I have troubles enough with that.”

And Lauren felt empty-handed without her computer and cell phone. No calls, no instant messaging, no texting. No keeping in touch with friends who were willing to cut her—call it dreaminess—some slack. But her phone wasn’t set up to work here and her laptop didn’t need to be dragged a quarter of the way around the world.

That world had changed more in a hundred years than it had in centuries before that. Being out of touch for two weeks wasn’t comparable to immigrants never seeing their friends and relatives again. For them, heading out to another country was almost like dying.

“What of the skull watch, then?” Emily prompted, her head tilted like a bird’s.

Her pose made Lauren feel like a worm. “During the Depression, Grandpa and his older sister were scouring the house for things to sell. They found the watch in John’s wardrobe. Their mother didn’t even know about it. John wouldn’t sell it, even though the money would have tided them over some hard times. Grandpa said that was the only time John ever said anything about his mother, when he told them the skull had been hers.”

“That’s all?” Emily asked quickly. “There’s no more than that?”

“That’s all. Grandpa figured there’d been a scandal or a tragedy in Susanna’s life. But he didn’t have the time and resources to do any research until recently, and then he didn’t have the energy to travel. I found some stuff on the Internet about Clan Mackay, but it wasn’t until Grandpa hired a guy named Hawkins at Scotland’s Folk in Edinburgh that he got anything about Susanna herself.”

Emily’s gaze didn’t waver from Lauren’s face.

Maybe the older woman was having more trouble understanding Lauren’s accent than Lauren was understanding hers—not for nothing had she been watching A&E and BBC America. She tried to speak more clearly. “What got Grandpa going was finding out John wasn’t born a Reay. He changed his name from Mackay when he got to the U.S. in July of 1907. Since his birthday’s the same as mine, May 7, he was barely fifteen. Just a kid, all alone. His birth certificate, registry entry, whatever, listed his mother as Susanna Mackay.” Lauren pronounced the name the way Emily had, as muhkeye, to rhyme with the organ of sight. “By the way, do you even know how Susanna died?”

“She died.” Emily glanced down only long enough to line her fork and her knife diagonally across her plate.

“Oh. Well, John’s birth certificate says she was a spinster of Reay Parish. That’s it.”

“Aye,” said Emily with a sigh, “John was illegitimate. And the shame of it on his head as well as his mother’s, that being the custom in the old days. He might have wished for that Petri dish, had he known about such things.”

That was it, Lauren told herself. Emily thought she’d be sensitive about John. But she wasn’t in her seventies and nostalgic for the fifties. “No wonder he headed out for less judgmental climates. It wasn’t like today, when having a baby without getting married is standard procedure.”

“That changed round and about the time ‘spinster’ became ‘bachelorette’,” Emily said, not betraying any nostalgia, either. “It looks like being scandal and tragedy both. Donald was a wee bit embarrassed about that, I’m thinking.”

“I’m thinking so, too.” Lauren was embarrassed about her own father’s scandal, tragedy, mystery—she changed her opinion of it daily. Some days she was angry and resentful. Some days she felt compassion. But no reaction, positive or negative, would bring Donny back.

Emily drained the teapot into Lauren’s cup and nudged the milk pitcher and sugar bowl in her direction.

“Susanna was born July 12, 1870, died February 2, 1907, and was buried at St. Bride’s Chapel, Black Ness,” Lauren recited. “Grandpa liked to think she was a lady of good breeding since she was descended from the James Mackay who built Blackness Tower, especially since he was related to the branch of the Mackays that was the Lords Reay. I bet John chose his last name from the village, though. Of course one of the early Lords Reay was reputed to be a wizard, which makes sense . . .” Oops. Once again she’d almost said too much. Damn her tiredness, and Emily’s kindness, and a full stomach.

“Quite so.” Emily leaned forward. “That’s likely why another Lord Reay busied himself studying Highland Second Sight. The Seeing Gift, it’s called. He exchanged some right interesting letters with Samuel Pepys on the subject, round and about 1700 or so.”

“Oh.” Leaning back, Lauren picked up her cup and this time drank the tea straight up, straight down, letting its astringency clear away any lingering fat—and any lingering fancies as well.

Emily waited a moment, then, when Lauren offered nothing else, started clearing the table. “Any road, by the time Susanna came along, the Mackay lands in Strathnaver had been sold to the Lords Sutherland.”

“That’s how David Sutherland got Blackness Tower? He inherited it?”

“No, he bought the place from Caithness County Council on the cheap, agreeing to restore it.”

“You know him?”

“He stops by the shop for the odd soup spoon and the like. An officer and a gentleman, he is, though he keeps himself to himself, no matter the lasses making eyes at him.”

The man must be attractive in appearance, then, if not in personality. And she’d been expecting a grizzled old goat.

Well, he had to be at least middle-aged, to be retired. He was probably one of those crusty military types. And wealthy enough to make him attractive. No matter, Lauren would be knocking on his door tomorrow. Or staking it out, if he tried to keep on ignoring her, although there was always the possibility he didn’t know anything that would help her.

Gathering together her plate and cup, Lauren stood up. “I interrupted you. By the time Susanna came along . . .”

“The Mackay lands were sold, the Reay title had gone to a relative in the Netherlands, and the family was known mostly for its piety.”

The zeal of the convert? Or protective coloring? Lauren knew about protective coloring.

Maybe the weirdness in the family tree had blown like a dead leaf to America and landed, tickling, on the back of her own neck. Highland Second Sight. The Seeing Gift. That part of her that was her mother’s child said, don’t go there. But her father’s child, a Reay, a Mackay, was long accustomed to going on treks over the hills and far away.

She laid her dishes beside the sink, then walked over to the window. The light was thinning, tinting land, sea, and sky with pastel colors. A couple strolled along the walkway that edged the bay. With a distant buzz like a mosquito, a jet-ski sliced across the water, trailing a white plume that rained down to puncture the lazy blue swells.

Lauren slumped against the sill. She was a long way from home, she was tired, she was alone with a woman who seemed kindly enough, but who kept looking at her with the intensity of a cat waiting at a mouse hole.

Maybe, unlike her friend at the library, Emily had never met an American before. Or maybe there was some dark secret perched like a raven in the branches of the family tree that Emily didn’t want her to find out.

Right. Lauren herself was the one with the dark secret. Speaking of which . . .

She turned away from the window, picked up the dishtowel, and asked casually, “Second Sight. That’s like ESP, right? Except the seers only see the future. And they have, er, waking visions, not dreams.”

“Sometimes having the Sight simply means seeing the invisible,” Emily replied, “whether backwards, forwards, or sideways. Visions, dreams, call it what you like. Supposedly families passed on Second Sight, generation to generation. Your Donald was right interested in that, wasn’t he?”

“Well . . .” She tried a dismissive laugh, but it barely passed her lips. “He said he never dreamed, though I think he just never remembered his dreams. Maybe that was in self-defense—his father had nightmares that he never talked about. And then there was my dad, he was a musician, a poet. You—ah—you have to wonder what a modern psychotherapist would have done with the old seers.”

“You canna reason away the uncanny, it’s with us always.”

The uncanny was with some people more than others, Lauren thought, only to have a sudden beeping noise jerk her around.

Emily grabbed the phone and jabbed at it, her expression that of a bomb-disposal expert ripping out a trigger. The beeping stopped. With a frustrated sigh, she restored the phone to its docking port. “Punched the wrong buttonand didn’t sever the connection. As I was saying, these modern electronic devices are a bit much for me.” She returned to the sink, rescued a wet plate, and held it out.

Taking a deep breath—calm down—Lauren burnished the dish until it shone. The circular motion of her cloth made her head spin. Tired. Depressed, even. Well, that was jet lag.

She found something else to say. “Thanks for turning up that old book, the one that says Susanna lived at Blackness Tower the same time as Francis Weir and Rupert Beckwith, the painters. Grandpa was thrilled about that. Or as thrilled as he could be, when he was fading so fast.”

“Ah, it’s Charles Innes in the shop next to mine who needs thanking. Mind you, he thinks himself no small beer, but he’s a dab hand with the old books. There’s me, thinking he might have a source, and right enough, he recognized Susanna’s name straightaway. He swapped me the old book for a new carving knife. Quite a nice one, Solingen steel. It’s in the sitting room, you can have a go at it after the washing-up.”

Lauren assumed she meant the book, not the knife, was waiting in the sitting room. Good. Burying her head in a book meant she could avoid any more conversation without being rude.

“I’ve not had the time to read more than a few pages,” Emily went on. “Slow going it is, and then some. Still, there’s Susanna sitting for paintings as Guinevere and as Helen of Troy and—there was another. Morgan le Fay. Her sitting might have been a wee bit scandal itself, if she was a lady rather than a woman.”

Lauren grinned. Emily should teach a Women’s Studies course . . . Oh.

Susanna, too, had sat for paintings of Guinevere and Helen of Troy.

Chapter Three

That Lauren herself sat for sketches, not paintings, and for students, not for professional artists, was a distinction so feeble that it didn’t begin to stop those psychic feet from pacing again across her grave. This time, though, it wasn’t a chill that trickled down her spine but sweat, as though she’d fallen into a fever . . .


She wasn’t feverish. Seventy degrees was warm, when the house was built to keep the heat in. Only two small panels atop the kitchen window could be opened, and they admitted no more than a periodic cool breath. Lauren forced her attention back to Emily.

“Near as I can tell, everyone in my branch of the family led lives of unsurpassed propriety, so dull no one could be bothered to write about them, Lord Reay or no Lord Reay stirring his newts like Macbeth’s witches in the family tree. And yet . . .”

Lauren had to ask. “And yet?”

“My granny told stories of Blackness Tower. Of Black Ness itself, come to that, and St. Bride’s Hope, the bay just behind, though she only rarely ever mentioned Susanna. An unlucky place, Black Ness, she’d say. It still is—my cousin Tam’s farmhouse burned to the ground not five years since.”

“Things happen.” Lauren repeated Emily’s own words.

“Aye, they do that. Like as not my cousin left his cigarette smoldering. Still, folk are never falling over the cliffs or boats smashing against the rocks by chance, no, it’s all ghosts, fairies, selkies. The usual tales, if not so usual when you’ve got a personal connection to . . .” Well.” Not looking at Lauren—very carefully not looking at Lauren, for once—Emily took the dishtowel and draped it over a rack. “There. Let’s have us a sit-down.”

Ghosts, fairies, selkies. Washing them down the drain was an exercise in futility. They’d peer out at you from the P-trap, beady eyes glistening. Maybe Emily could see them, after all. Her practical acceptance of the uncanny, if that’s what it was, might open up new vistas, hints of unexplored lands and strange customs. But Lauren wasn’t about to ask. That would be like asking a new acquaintance how much she weighed, or what she liked in the way of sex.

Silently, she let Emily guide her into a living room and seat her on a couch. From there she eyed the modest, comfortable furnishings and their patina of personal items, photos of Emily and her late husband and the children, vacation souvenirs, books and magazines, plants on the windowsill that reflected in the glass like ghosts of the bushes and flowers outside. A clock ticked on the mantelpiece, above an electric fire and below a framed print of Highlanders dancing in swirls of tartan. The room was pleasant. Domestic. Tidy, more so than Lauren’s apartment with its nests of books and stashes of chocolate. More so than Lauren’s life right now.

Emily handed her a book, switched on a lamp, and, murmuring excuses about accounts to settle, sat down at a desk in the corner.

Lauren pried the musty pages apart. Even when she turned them toward the light, the type crowded onto the sepia-edged paper swam before her eyes. The name “Susanna” did not jump out at her, although the name “Francis Weir” did. A faded black and white photograph tipped into the book was labeled in microscopic type as one of his paintings. Lauren turned the book from side to side, and finally decided that the title was “Catherine’s Destiny.”

Catherine? Of Aragon? De Medici? The Great? She remembered no mythological Catherines, unless you counted two saints, one known for being martyred on a wheel, the other for starving herself for God. The painting must depict some private-citizen Catherine.

Lauren could see little more than a woman’s figure clothed in a long gown, hair streaming over her shoulders, framed by an archway. Judging by the angle of her head and set of her shoulders, she was peering intently and yet warily outwards, like a diver debating her leap. She lifted a rounded object in her outstretched hands. A large egg? An apple? Probably not a baseball.

What was she looking at? All Lauren could make out were a few faint lines against a murky background.

Francis Weir and his colleague, poet and painter Rupert Beckwith, had been late disciples of the Pre-Raphaelite movement, devoted to idealizing nature and romanticizing the past. Perhaps with the revival of artists such as Rossetti, Millais, Holman Hunt, Waterhouse, and Burne-Jones, Weir and Beckwith’s reputations would be rehabilitated. Although that wasn’t going to produce any information about Susanna in the next two weeks, before the return date on Lauren’s plane ticket.

She closed the book. Its title and author had been embossed in gilded letters on the binding, but now only a dusting of gold looked like King Midas’s acne on the disintegrating leather. Squinting, she read, Life and Times, by Gideon Bremner.

The title was dull, the book far past its prime. Still, the book dealer might have been able to sell it for a lot more than a carving knife was worth. “Why did Mr. Innes agree to a swap?” Lauren asked. “This book is pretty valuable.”

“Eh? Is it then?” Emily asked. Her reading glasses glinted in the evening’s glow. “Charles is keen on the history of Blackness Tower and was right pleased to hear you were coming. And he’s a wee bit eccentric as well.”

That kind of eccentricity wouldn’t cause a blip on Lauren’s normality radar. “Let me pay you for the book.”

“Ah no, lass, it’s yours. A welcome home gift.”

Home? “Oh. Well, thank you very much.” Lauren made a mental note to send Emily a book of Ansel Adams photos or something similar and turned back to the book she held.

Who was Gideon Bremner, anyway? What was he to Susanna and the artists, and what life had he led that he felt compelled to write about it, the compulsion to write about it being unrelated to anyone’s wanting to read it? Although Lauren did want to read it, her eyelids were lead-weighted, and her head seemed too heavy for her neck.

She made one last effort. The flyleaf was water-stained but otherwise pristine, not inscribed. She recognized the publisher as one long out of business. Laboriously she converted the date of publication, “MDCCCXCVIII,” to “1898.” The chapters were listed by numbers, except for an appendix with the intriguing title of “Superstitions of the Scottish Highlands.”

Intriguing, yes. Maybe even important to her quest. But she’d lapsed into illiteracy for the moment. Setting the book down on the coffee table, Lauren considered her options.

Grandpa’s agent in Edinburgh had milked the public records for all they were worth, or so he had said when Lauren contacted him, but she had multiple sources in Thurso. Maybe, she thought with a yawn, she should just take out an ad in the local newspaper: “Bewildered American searching for dirty linen.”

“Have a look at the telly,” said Emily.

“Thank you.” Lauren surfed through the four available channels but saw nothing except her own thoughts. Conscious thoughts, under her control, not visions. She wondered if Emily had actually met anyone with the Sight. If, confronted with the loose cannon of such awareness, she would retreat toward the drugstore and the psychotherapist’s couch.

Grandpa had discussed Lauren’s dream with her, even whether it was ESP, the Sight, whatever. But he was gone now. A lot was gone. There should be a statute of limitations on how many parts of your life you could lose in the space of less than a year—Grandpa, Craig, her job.

Although, to be brutally honest—and she’d gotten good at brutal honesty, like a cold shower after an erotic dream—she might have formatted high school yearbooks and coffee-table art and photography tomes until she withered and blew away like the flowerson Grandpa’s grave. After all, gainful employment was nothing to be abandoned lightly, not even to fulfill her promise, and most especially not to chase the wild goose of her dream.

And, while she was being honest, she admitted it was easier to have lost Grandpa to death than to have lost Craig when he dumped her a couple of months before the wedding, telling her she was too shy, too spooky, too screwed up. Even though she’d never been entirely honest with him.

On the television, dissolving images of castles, standing stones, and antique portraits indicated the beginning of a history show. Sweet! Lauren pried her eyelids further open.

The camera panned past the sagging black and white facade of a half-timbered house to a man wearing a pricey leather bomber jacket. “I’m Magnus Anderson,” he said in a deep, unmistakably North American, voice. “This week we’ve brought our instruments to Mumford Manor in Sussex, where legends of a ghostly nun have persisted for almost five centuries.”

Magnus. Odd name for an American or Canadian. He was of Orcadian ancestry, maybe, with St. Magnus and everything. His features were craggy, assembled from disparate and assertive elements: an arched nose, a wide mouth, ears peeking coyly from carrot-red hair. A tidy goatee provided the centrifugal force that held his face together and framed a grin that was neither innocent nor ironic.

“Later on in the program, we’ll investigate Glastonbury Tor, supposedly shaped into a three-dimensional labyrinth by the same ancient hands that built Stonehenge and Avebury stone circles. This is The Paranormal Files, where science meets superstition. Spooks and specters, haunts and hags, bogles, boggarts, and blights—we have them all in our sights.”

What, Lauren thought, no fairies? And what was a blight? Like the blighted heath where Macbeth met the three witches? Or was that a blasted heath? A yawn almost split her face in two.

Tomorrow and tomorrow and tomorrow was another day, another chance to get in touch with her uncanny side. Lauren switched off the TV and heaved herself off the couch. “I’m turning in before I pass out and you need a fork-lift to get me into bed.”

“Good night, then. Sleep well,” Emily returned with a smile free of the—expectation?—that had been its sub-text the rest of the day.

Upstairs, Lauren levered the bedroom window outward and tasted the cool air and its strange scents, smoke, fish, salt, frying bacon. A car drove past. Several people strolled along the walkway. A trailing skein of music faded into the thrum of the sea and the slow blink of the lighthouse watched over the bay. The crest of each parallel wave was edged with pink or peach, so that the sea shimmered like watered silk, the fabric of fairy banners, perhaps. Above the indistinct smudge of Orkney the sky glowed a clear indigo sheened with silver.

Morgan le Fay, the witch, the enchantress, a relative of King Arthur’s as well as his nemesis. Hadn’t she come from Orkney? Maybe the “Fay” meant “fairy,” signaling her occult powers, as well as “fey,” that antique word that meant knowing your fate, knowing you were doomed. But then, “doom” circled back to fate or destiny. Like Catherine’s destiny. Like walking in a dream, unreal.

Lauren collapsed gratefully onto the bed. The pillowcase smelled of fresh air. She closed her eyes . . .

. . . and was walking down from Blackness Tower, the wind whipping at her, tugging her hair loose from its bindings and setting her skirts to flapping madly around her legs. She stumbled over stones and heather roots, slipping in the mud, drawn toward the precipice overlooking the sea.

Cold salt spray stung her cheeks and her eyes watered. Mountainous gray-green waves dashed themselves to froth on the shelves of slate below, were sucked back into the depths, hurled themselves forward again. They thundered in invisible caverns beneath her feet, so that the rock itself shuddered, threatening to throw her over the rim of earth into the tormented water.

Shouts echoed from the cliffs. Then a beam of sunlight broke through clouds as turbulent as the sea, picking out a ship wallowing in the waves. Its high stern glinted with furtive bits of gold still clinging to weathered and stained wood. Its masts were broken, their jagged tips reeling against the sky. Human figures clung to its heeling deck.

The waves drove the ship against the rocks, slowly, slowly, crushing the smooth curve of the hull, overthrowing and splintering the stumps of the masts, casting the men into the water or against the rocks like so many gutted fish. The shriek of rending wood, the cries of the doomed men, the howl of the wind mingled in Lauren’s ears and swirled inside her skull.

And the ground she stood on fell away, sending her spiraling down the glassy sides of a whirlpool into blue-green depths where deformed creatures swam. She screamed but made no sound, or else she screamed but her cry was swallowed by the other noises . . .

The dream drained into an abyssal silence and she woke up with a gasp, drenched in sweat cold as the sea spray. The static air felt clammy against her skin. The last echo of that wail of lost souls twisted in her gut like a demon taking possession of her body.

She lay blinking into the darkness until her breaths lengthened and her heartbeat slowed. She was in Emily’s house. She was in Scotland. She was here at last. She was alone.

She had dreamed the familiar dream. But now it wasn’t of a mysterious landscape, tinted with melancholy, it was of pain and horror so immediate, so personal, that her head spun.

It was only a dream, she told herself. It was only a nightmare. It wasn’t real.

A repetitive noise broke the silence. The rhythmic drip of water from a faucet? No, the bathroom was down the hall. It wasn’t raining outside. The sound was muffled but unmistakably there, close by.

A sudden silvery chime, like a ripple of crystal, jerked Lauren to her feet, toes curling on the cool carpeted floor and every follicle erect. Slowly, fearfully, knowing she had no option but to look, she sidled across the room to the dresser and opened the bottom drawer. She lifted out the red velvet box and, standing in the attitude of the woman in the painting, posed like Catherine at her door or window, she flipped up its lid.

The watch was ticking, beating a cadence steadier than that of her own heart. It had chimed midnight, the witching hour.

She lifted her forefinger as if to touch the silver gilt forehead—who are you, what are you?

Lauren curled her forefinger back against her palm, slammed the box and thrust it into the drawer. She closed the window, darting only one glance toward the smoked-glass swells of the bay. She saw the slow, wise blink of the lighthouse on its far side. She did not see the galleon, gliding silently, illuminated not by stars or moon but by the ashen faces of its doomed crew.

The ship hadn’t raced to destruction in the bay, though, but in the open sea, on the windward side of Black Ness.

Shivering with more than cold, she threw herself back into the bed and pulled the covers up to her nose. The watch had been activated by joggling around in her bag, that was all. Not by her dream. Not by her arrival here. Besides, the bedside clock said one-twenty, not midnight. The watch was wrong. So there.

And something deep in her mind seemed to whisper back, no, here.

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Copyright © 2008, Lillian Stewart Carl. All Rights Reserved.

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