SMOKING OUT A KILLER IN SCOTLAND.
Parson Jonathan MacLean is too healthy and widely loved to die so young. Yet suddenly and mysteriously he's dead. Archivist Ben Reese, in Scotland to appraise the treasures of Balnagard Castle for his old friend Lord Alexander Chisholm, suspects cold-blooded murder. And he is absolutely certain it was one of Jonathan's kith and kin who slipped into his picnic hamper the bees that triggered his fatal allergy. What Ben doesn't suspect is that the same venomous killer is now arranging a most creative death for Ben himself. . . .
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Friday, May 12, 1961
On the other hand, Jon could have returned and not seen him, if he'd only looked down the main street, since he himself had been off reading Bede on the far side of a rather large tree. Jon might well have gone on into the village, thinking he was late instead.
Therefore, after one last look at the causeway, Alex started into town, in his old tan tweeds with his rucksack on his back, his long legs whipping ahead as though they had a life of their own, while the entire visible population of Beal watched him with some curiosity.
He was thinking intently, not noticing, really, much of what he passed, trying to put himself in Jon's place.
Jon might well have gone somewhere for a bite to eat. So Alex stuck his head in the tea shop and surveyed the handful of tables, before crossing the street and winding his way through the side rooms and niches of the Wolf and Hare--the only restaurant and the only pub in town.
No. No Jonathan MacLean in either.
And no messages left behind by him.
It was two-fifteen. Jon was an hour and a quarter late. And Alex decided to call Jon's wife on the north coast of Scotland near Inverness.
He ducked his head and held his hat in his hand as he stepped through the door of the small, cluttered post office that sold sweets and tobacco and biscuits, while providing a public phone.
He laid an assortment of large coins on the wooden shelf, while he dialed Jon and Ellie's number. He was prepared for difficulties and delays, like anyone in Britain in the early sixties. And he smiled to himself as he remembered how once, when he'd lived in London, he'd answered the phone, only to find a gentleman in an Edinburgh hotel on the other end calling the concierge.
It was ringing. Finally. That was something. Though no one appeared to be home, unfortunately. And he was just about to disconnect when he heard an unfamiliar throat being cleared and a very faint voice say,
"Ellie? Is that you?... It's Alex here. I've been waiting for Jon for something over an hour, and I thought perhaps there'd been a change of plans. Have you heard from him by any chance?... Ellie?... Hold on a tick, I have to shovel more coins into this blasted machine ... Has there been a change of plans and he wasn't able to reach me?... No!
Surely not!... Ellie, please don't disengage! Are they certain it was Jon? Perhaps ... No, I see ... Of course not ... I'm so sorry. I don't know what to say. It doesn't seem possible a'tall."
Alex knew he was babbling, but he was afraid that if he stopped, she'd hang up, as she'd started to do more than once. He couldn't let her go before he'd had time to think. For there had to be something he could do to be of help and he had absolutely no idea what. "How did he die?
He was so fit ... Well, if they don't know, there'll have to be an inquest ... No, let me! Please. I shall take the train up to Berwick-upon-Tweed and identify the body myself ... I see ... You're certain it has to be family?... Well, Hugh, then. Surely he could do it for you ... Aye,
I should've known. The season has started with a vengeance. It's an American couple he's driving, is it? So he couldn't very well leave them on their own ... Really? Why would you wish to?... Ah. Yes, I suppose one would want to see him again. I would, if it were Janie."
Ellie MacLean had stopped in the middle of a sentence and it sounded to Alex as though she'd had to, as though her voice had started turning into someone else's, an injured animal's or an abandoned child's.
And yet he still had to persuade her to stay on the line. "Ellie,
please listen, my dear, just a moment longer. Let me call Jane and get her to meet your train in Edinburgh, and then the two of you can come on to Berwick together. I'll arrange rooms in a hotel, and then meet you at the station, shall I?... Good. I think that's very wise ...
When will you arrive in Edinburgh?"
They sorted out the timetables and the practical details and Alex told Ellie again how sorry he was and felt like an incompetent fool.
He phoned his own wife next, at Balnagard, and explained the situation, and the schedule, and remembered at the last moment to ask her to bring him a suit.
Shortly after midnight, Dr. Allen Curzon, chief pathologist of the Berwick Infirmary, held the heavy metal door that said AUTOPSY for Ellie MacLean and then followed her into the small white room. Alex came in after him and stood beside Ellie looking like nothing could have kept him from being there, even if he didn't know what to do.
Ellie was holding herself in, very tall and too erect, and she kept her hands in the pockets of her long tan trench coat as though she couldn't trust herself with them without a place to put them. Her heavy dark hair was pulled straight back, wrapped in a wide braided chignon. And her face was stripped of everything but sorrow. Her chin trembled every so often, and her breath came intermittently in audible sighs as though the act of making an acceptable sound helped control the anxiety, and the adrenaline, and kept her from breaking down.
She did not want to be surprised by anything that was about to happen,
and her large green eyes inspected the white walls and the olive green concrete floor as well as the large metal autopsy table in the middle of it. She saw the small wooden block lying at one end of it, and the shiny metal scale hanging above it, and tried not to think about what they might be for, as she scanned the cabinets and the workbench across the back wall.
There was only one place Jon could be, and the thought of it made her flinch. She swallowed methodically, trying to keep herself from being sick, and closed her eyes for several seconds, before she turned toward the long stainless steel refrigeration unit with the two wide horizontal drawers.
There was a metal handle on each end of each one.
And Curzon was reaching for the two on the top drawer.
Ellie wanted to stop him, but she didn't. She just clutched the fabric in the pockets of her coat and watched Curzon's small broad hands as they pulled on the polished handles.
The drawer was hinged on the bottom and opened down from the top to form a shelf, and when Curzon reached inside and slid a body out on a metal tray it rested on the open door.
Ellie froze for a minute with her eyes on the floor, while the speaker in the ceiling crackled and a woman's voice paged Dr. MacClellan.
Blood pounded in her ears and her throat, in that small soft hollow between her collarbones. But she forced herself to move. To put one foot in front of the other. Until she stood beside Jon and looked down at his empty face.
It was a husk he'd broken out of. A bone house that had been abandoned. A poorly done mask he'd cast aside like a bad wax model from a cheap museum.
But Ellie nodded at the doctor, with her eyebrows pinched together and her lips pulled in between her teeth, while she fought against an almost uncontrollable urge to whimper. She knew she couldn't. It wouldn't be right to make Alex, or the other one, whatever his name was, any more uncomfortable than they already were.
Alex was standing by Jon's feet looking battered, but like he wished there was something he could do for her.
Curzon looked embarrassed and pretended to read the note he'd already written on his clipboard.
And then he began pushing Jon back inside the cooler.
Ellie put her hand on his arm and said, "Wait. Please. I'd like to be alone with him for a minute." Her voice was dry and brittle and her American accent sounded harsh to her, and far too loud for a small hard room.
Curzon didn't answer right away. He turned and studied Ellie, as he pushed his horn-rimmed glasses up his long thin nose. "I'm sorry, Mrs.
MacLean, but I don't think that would be--"
"Please. Just for a few minutes."
"Are you sure?" There were tears on Alex's chin, and yet he was watching Ellie as though what he saw on her face was beyond his comprehension.
"I won't be long, Alex. And then I'll answer the medical questions. I promise."
Ellie waited, tight and silent, till they'd closed the door behind them and she was left alone with Jon. With his beautiful strong athletic body lying cold on a metal tray.
She pulled the sheet back--the way strangers would after she was through--and looked at Jon's whole body.
It was sagging already. And it was bruised underneath. Purple along the whole length of him. Jon. Who'd been so fluid and so full of energy. So quick, so physical, so hard.
The face she'd always thought was remarkably handsome, with its strong bones and the Adam's apple she loved and the incredibly blue eyes, was sunken and disintegrating.
And that was terrifying enough. But his mind and his soul and his wit were gone. And she couldn't even grasp what that meant.
Jon. Who was interested in everything. Who was very perceptive and very smart. Who could make her laugh more than anyone else.
Who understood her too, in all her private places. And wanted her to be exactly what she was.
Yet the single most amazing thing about Jon, the thing that made living with him so satisfying and so easy, was that he really did, in the center of his soul, want to do what was right. He didn't always do it. But he wanted to. And he wanted her to tell him what she thought,
every time, whatever way she saw it, even when it was critical or when it hurt.
They'd helped each other with that. With seeing themselves as they were. With trying to become more of what they ought to be.
And now she had to learn to live without him.
Ellie had always thought open caskets were barbaric, and she'd never had the least desire to touch a dead body.
But she ran her fingers down Jon's left arm. And she stroked his cheek and his forehead. She traced his lips, which had been so soft and large and resourceful, and kissed them one more time.
Tears were sliding down her face and she was crying with that tearing,
gagging, searing kind of sob that contorts your face and constricts your throat and makes your skin hot and your eyes ache.
And then, in a tight strangled desolate voice, she said, "Jonathan,
please don't leave me here all alone! I don't think I can stand it without you!"
Because how could she live and not talk to him?
He was the only person she'd ever met she didn't get tired of,
eventually. The only one she'd ever talked to who understood precisely what she meant, yet surprised her all the time with the twists and the edges of his own mind.
How could she survive without that?
And what could ever make her want to live again?
To get up in a cold bed. In a cold world.
Day, after day, after day.
There was nothing she could do but pray.
And she prayed with her eyes closed and her hands on his arm. And then she remembered what she'd forgotten.
Only Jon's death would have made her forget.
The door flew open unexpectedly, and a lab technician in a white coat,
who was reading something on a pad of paper, shuffled in sideways singing Buddy Holly. He'd gotten to the "Oh Peggy...my Peggy Su-oo-oo"
part, when he saw Ellie and looked stricken. He mumbled, "My apologies, madam," quietly, and turned around and left.
Ellie hadn't paid much attention. She was thinking about picking Jon's hand up for a minute and holding it in hers, but she was afraid to try in case rigor mortis had set in and she couldn't stand it.
She laid her cheek on it for a second instead, before she turned and walked to the door. Where she stopped and looked back at Jon one more time.
She stepped into the hall. And Alex and Jane, who'd been talking together with their backs to her, halfway to the elevator, rushed over as soon as the door had slapped shut.
But not before Ellie had put a handkerchief across her mouth and rushed toward the lavatory they'd passed on the way in.
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Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Ben Reese is one of the best-developed heroes in all of mystery writing and once again, he is stellar in this story. As always, Sally Wright's settings are also so well-developed that they almost become characters in the book and in PRIDE AND PREDATOR she comes up trumps with setting much of the action on one of my favorite spots on earth--the Holy Isle of Lindisfarne off the coast of Northumbria. if you can't afford to take a vacation there, simply buy the book. And if you can go there, be sure to read the book first to help prepare you for a magical experience.
An excellent read, and a fantastic start to a great new detective series. The plot unravels without huge leaps and unrealistic twists that cause one to toss a book aside with disgust. Reese reminds me of Inspector Morse with his painful memories and dark side.
I loved this one even more than the first Ben Reese Mystery. It's harder to figure out who the murderer is and very in depth and captivating. I would recommend this book very highly!