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Holy Terror in the Hebrides
A Dorothy Martin Mystery
By Jeanne M. Dams
Severn House Publishers LimitedCopyright © 1997 Jeanne M. Dams
All rights reserved.
If the universe behaved in the foreshadowing manner it used to in thirties thrillers, a thunderstorm would have been in progress, or threatening, or at the very least clouds would have been gathering as the little bus jolted over the road across Mull. But weather these days seems to have abandoned its role as a prophet of doom. After, admittedly, a rather gray dawn, Scotland had pulled itself together and put on its best face for its tourists. The brisk sunshine positively sparkled, with that crystalline quality of the very best autumn days. I bounced along, holding on to my hat and trying not to let my head hit the roof, uncomfortable but deeply content. Sighing with pure pleasure, I gazed out the window, wishing the bus would stop long enough for me to trap the view in my memory forever.
On either side of the road, rugged slopes of rocky meadowland soared sharply to the sky, with now and then a narrow stream — "burns" they were called in Scotland, I remembered — tumbling down in a mad rush of white water. Sheep grazed here and there, keeping their footing by magic, apparently, and wandering across the road when they felt like it. I found their meanderings charming; the bus driver didn't, but he managed not to hit any, also presumably by magic. Pheasants and grouse (or so this ignorant, town -bred American supposed) whirred up every so often in colorful display, and once a small herd of stags leapt across the road, achingly beautiful with their magnificent racks of antlers and their proud bearing, like dancers, like kings.
I was crossing the island of Mull in the Scottish Hebrides, and doing it on a bus, because of a complicated series of events. I've never quite understood why my life tends to complications. Other people seem able to get organized, but even after sixty-odd years of trying to live tidily, I find myself in one entanglement after another. To begin with, my four-hundred-year-old house in the southeast of England was being renovated, and the mess had just reached the unbearable stage when the Andersons (friends and fellow American expatriates; they live in London) called to invite me to spend a couple of weeks with them on the tiny island of Iona.
"It's a magical place, Dorothy," said Lynn in her emphatic Katharine Hepburn style; I could picture her thin, elegant hands waving at the other end of the line. "Rocky hills with lots of sheep, air like wine, fuchsia hedges growing twelve feet tall, I swear ..."
"Come on! Fuchsias? In Scotland?"
"It's the Gulf Stream, D.," Tom chimed in on the extension. "Keeps the weather much more temperate than you'd expect that far north. And for once my charming wife isn't exaggerating. The hedges do grow at least that high, and they're covered with blooms this time of year. And you know I haven't got any imagination, but there's something about the atmosphere of the place ... anyway, you'd love it. We've rented a cottage, and there's room for three."
"There's lots of fresh crab, Dorothy, and the most exquisite salmon!"
That did it. Lynn knows my weaknesses, and unfortunately the palate is one of them. Despite my constant efforts to be sensible, my figure shows my deep and abiding love for good food. And then there was the dust and noise of rebuilding — and besides, I was lonesome. My dear friend, or ... well, dear friend would do ... Chief Constable Alan Nesbitt, was away in Brussels at a European Community police conference, and I was at loose ends.
"We-ell ..." I said to the telephone.
"Good! Be sure to pack warm clothes, sensible stuff — sweaters and slacks. It can get cold even in the summer on Iona, let alone in September, and nobody ever dresses up. We're leaving a week from Monday; we'll call and let you know when we'll pick you up. And Dorothy, we're so glad you're coming!"
I'd limited my shopping to the recommended sensible clothes, indulging in my passion for hats with just one jaunty tam-o'-shanter affair in red velvet with a tartan band and a feather cockade, and happily told my boss at my volunteer job that I'd be away for a while. But the phone call, when it came a few days later, was to tell me that Tom was suffering severe chest pains and had been sent to the hospital. "His doctor wants to watch him, Dorothy," said Lynn, as subdued as I'd ever heard her. "He says it's probably not an actual heart attack, but he's been warning Tom for years that he needs to lose weight and get more exercise, and this is a good excuse to run a lot of tests and see just what the situation is. I — I'm sort of scared." She sounded more like a little girl than the wealthy, witty, self-assured society woman I'd known for years.
"I can sympathize," I said with feeling. My husband Frank had died of a heart attack that had come with no such warning. But Lynn didn't need right now to be reminded of my experience. "Do try not to fret yourself into a state, Lynn. That won't help Tom at all. Look upon this as a fire alarm, a chance for Tom to get out safely."
"Well, at least I can finally make him go on a diet," she said with a hint of familiar determination. "But we both feel so badly about letting you down."
"Good grief, Lynn!"
"Yes, I know, but we do. Look, why don't you go ahead anyway? I know you won't want to drive, but the train connections aren't too bad. We looked them up. And the cottage is already paid for; it'd be a shame to waste it. We might be able to join you later, when Tom is feeling better. I know he'll just go on stewing about it if you don't go."
Lynn was right about the driving. Driving in the UK, even after living here for over a year, is for me an exquisitely refined torture. But I had begun to look forward to getting away, and Tom wouldn't cure himself by worrying. So I packed my sweaters and slacks (and long underwear just in case), made arrangements with my amiable next-door neighbor Jane Langland to look after my two cats, and hopped on the train to London for the first leg of a trip that would involve two more trains, a ferry, a bus, and another ferry, with an overnight stay in the little port town of Oban. The entire distance to be covered was less than five hundred miles as the crow flies, but distances are relative. In Britain they can take a lot longer to cover than in America.
Now, though, I was nearing my journey's end. I glanced at my watch. In fifteen minutes or so we'd arrive at the tiny village of Fionnphort (pronounced, oddly, finna-fort) to catch the ferry to Iona. The landscape was beginning to flatten out and grow less interesting as we made the descent toward the sea, and I'd been up at six, to catch the seven o'clock ferry from Oban. I stretched out my legs and closed my eyes.
I suppose the conversation behind me had been going on for some time, but I hadn't noticed. Now, with my eyes shut, I couldn't seem to ignore it.
"Can't say I care much what they do with each other, but with AIDS and all that these days, I'd just as soon not have to mix with them." It was a rather flat voice, American in accent, low in volume, but irritated enough to carry.
"An abomination unto the Lord!" The second voice, also American, was rich and deep, a warm contralto. "'Men with men workin' that which is unseemly.' Romans 1:27. But never you mind, Sister Douglas, the Lord'll strike 'em down in His own good time. He says —"
The bus driver changed gears to negotiate a sharp bend onto a narrow stone bridge, and the rest was mercifully drowned out in the roar of the engine and the beat of tires over cobblestones. I sat up again and looked out the window unhappily. The nastiness of the little exchange I'd overheard had blighted the view. I wondered what they looked like, these rather unpleasant compatriots of mine, but I didn't glance back. If I caught their eye, they might draw me into a discussion I wanted no part of.
And then we were hurtling down a steep street that ended near the water's edge in a parking lot full of cars and tour buses. Our driver pulled up next to a green-and-cream behemoth and applied his hand brake with a screech.
"End of the road, ladies and gentlemen," he announced in a strong Scottish accent. "If ye're goin' to Iona juist for the day, the last bus for Craignure leaves at two forty-five; ye'll want to catch the two-thirty ferry. And I want ye to know, yon deer were laid on specially for your entertainment. No extra charge!"
Amid the laughter I heard several American voices asking, "What did he say?" A good many of my countrymen were apparently traveling to Iona today. Maybe, I thought hopefully, the disagreeable pair were on a day trip, and I wouldn't run into them again. As we all got off the bus I gave them a casual glance. They looked all right, a wiry little woman with a tanned, weatherbeaten face, dressed in a rumpled khaki jacket and pants, and a large, amiable-looking black woman, her comfortable folds encased in a bright pink sweat suit. All the same....
I straightened my hat, collected my luggage, and walked the few steps to the boat that was waiting for us at the jetty.
It was the tiniest excuse for a ferry I'd ever seen. There was room for two cars, maybe three if they were all subcompacts. No wonder tourists couldn't take cars over! Only one vehicle was making the crossing this time, and after it was situated, the foot passengers boarded by the same ramp, getting our feet a little wet as a wave curled up under the boat and licked the jetty. Most of the car deck was open to the sky, but there was a steep ladder leading to the rudimentary upper deck that circled the boat, so I abandoned my bags and climbed.
This was a true British Tourist Authority kind of day. The sun glinted off the waves, the ultra-blue sky held only a few decorative clouds, artfully positioned, and the chill, salty air was a tonic. I could feel my town-tainted lungs growing cleaner with every breath. Gulls screamed overhead, a stirring sound for those of us who must spend most of our lives far inland. I sighed happily and surveyed the horizon.
There, dead ahead as the boat left its harbor and veered out into Iona Sound, was the fabled Isle of Iona, spread out before me, drawing nearer every moment.
I'd done some reading about Iona. Its important history goes back to the year 563, when a monk named Columba established a monastery there from which Christianity spread to all Scotland. The island is tiny, about four miles long by a mile or so wide, and from where I stood in the bow of the ferry it looked even smaller than I'd imagined; I could see both ends of it. The Abbey was unmistakable, the only substantial building in sight. In fact, aside from a little clutter running along the middle of the near shore, presumably houses and shops, there were no other buildings visible at all. I could unfocus my eyes a little and imagine the island as it must have looked when St. Columba, not yet a saint, just a monkish exile from Ireland, approached it with his fellow monks in their frail little boat. Except, of course, coming from the south, it would be another viewpoint he got —
"Just like the Irish to send a saint off to a bleak place like this, isn't it?"
The accents were American, and belligerent. I turned, a little startled. A young woman in blue jeans and T-shirt had come up behind me and was surveying Iona with a critical look. In her twenties, I guessed, tall, slender, and very attractive, or she could have been if she'd made any sort of effort. All the effort seemed to be in the other direction, however. Her curly, dark hair was cut short, no makeup sullied her pale cheeks or lovely, dark eyes, and her clothes were much too large for her. She disdained any kind of sweater or jacket, despite the brisk wind. Her backpack was businesslike and well-worn.
"I'm afraid I don't know a lot about the Irish, actually. Are you —?"
"Italian-American. Teresa Colapietro." She held out a hard, cold hand and gripped mine firmly.
"Dorothy Martin. You seem to know something of Iona's history. I'm afraid I'd never heard of it until a week or so ago, so I've only read a little."
"If you can believe what you read. Most religious history is a load of crap. Miracles, cures, who-knows-what, all performed by a lot of dead white males, and written down by a lot more of them."
A pugnacious attitude always makes me take the opposite point of view. "But surely there are many famous women in the history of the Church. I mean, take Teresa of Avila, for example —"
Her namesake shrugged off Teresa of Avila. "Hysterical. If reported correctly, which isn't likely. The original pack of male chauvinists, that's the Church. Now when God gets Her way, and women get to be priests and cardinals and popes, it'll be a different story. I'm a nun, by the way, Congregation of St. Hortense, but don't bother to call me 'sister'; I don't believe in titles for the religious."
Well! I'd known that some of the new nuns were pretty political, but I was taken aback, all the same. Fortunately, I didn't have to come up with a reply. A series of loud clunks from below meant the big car hatch was opening; we were there.
"See you later." Teresa-not-of-Avila waved and sprinted down the ladder. I followed at a creakier pace. By the time I'd remembered where I'd put my luggage, and found my ticket to show as I disembarked, I was the last one off the boat.
I don't know exactly what I'd expected, but the scene on the jetty wasn't it. Of course there weren't any taxis lined up to meet the boat; this wasn't a city. My reading had told me that there were only about ninety inhabitants of the island, most of them crofters — part -time farmers. But how was I to get my luggage to the cottage?
The only transportation I could see was a couple of horse-drawn wagons lined up behind a sign advertising tours of the island. They looked appealing; the horses were well-groomed animals, the wagons clean and freshly painted. I approached the first one, driven by an attractive young woman.
"I'm staying in a cottage some friends rented for a couple of weeks. They said it's at the end of the road, and I'm not sure I can carry my bags that far. Dove Cottage, it is. Could you take me there?"
"Surely," she said, her voice soft and lilting. "Climb up; I'll see to the bags." She dealt easily with the suitcases, climbed onto the driver's perch, and clucked to her horse, who woke from his gentle snooze, obediently wheeled the wagon around, and headed up the village street. "Why 'Dove Cottage,' by the way? Does it have a dovecote or something?"
My driver chuckled. "Ye'll find a good many things on Iona have to do with doves. 'Iona' means 'dove,' ye see, in Hebrew. And 'Columba' is 'dove' in Latin."
"What a coincidence, then, that Columba happened to come here. Or does the name of the island date from after he came?"
She shrugged. "That's the sort of thing ye might ask the people at the Heritage Centre. They know the history of this island back millions o' years to when it thrust oot o' the sea. I'll show ye the centre, if ye like."
"I'd like that very much, but later, perhaps. I'm tired, and I want to get settled."
We rode past small houses on our left, while on our right gardens stretched down to the sea in a riot of color. There were all kinds: well -disciplined gardens with roses and neatly clipped lawns, gardens left to their own sweet will with wildflowers, heather, and several different kinds of thistle, one untended garden that was little more than a weed patch, but all of them bright with blossoms. And, sure enough, hedges of fuchsia towered everywhere, so thick with purple-and-magenta blossoms that I could hardly see the leaves, and so sweetly scented that a sort of living veil of bees surrounded them. I decided to admire them from a discreet distance.
Just before the narrow street became someone's drive, my driver pulled her horse to a stop. "Here we are, then. Dove Cottage. If ye have your key, I'll help ye with the bags."
I stayed where I was, on the high backseat of the wagon, in a sudden horrified paralysis.
My key. The key Lynn had driven down from London especially to give me. Where was it?
I rummaged frantically in my purse, but I already knew. I could see the key, exactly where I had put it so as not to forget it, on the little hall table right next to the door.
I looked at my driver, who stood waiting, a quizzical expression on her face. "I can't believe I've been so stupid, but I think I left the key at home. Do you know where the owners live? They might have another one they'd be willing to let me use ..."
Excerpted from Holy Terror in the Hebrides by Jeanne M. Dams. Copyright © 1997 Jeanne M. Dams. Excerpted by permission of Severn House Publishers Limited.
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