Daria’s roommate, Aileen, plays guitar in a metal band, but one of her bandmates is branching out musically and asks Daria to craft a kilt for an upcoming bagpipe competition. The locals in Laurel Springs, Pennsylvania, are really looking forward to the Highland Games, and the Scottish regalia needs to be just right.
Then one of the athletes collapses during the event, a victim of poisoned whiskey. As suspicion spreads and the police turn their attention to Aileen, Daria vows not to let the real killer get off scot-free . . .
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I'd never seen so much plaid in one place. Every booth was festooned with swaths of tartan fabric. Little girls in lace blouses and kicky plaid kilts scurried past me, searching for their dance troupes. Men and women wearing kilts and dress shirts with regimental epaulettes circled up on the edges of the field to tune their bagpipes. Even the lettering on the banner at the entrance to the event was in plaid, welcoming visitors to Laurel Springs' First Annual Highland Games.
I was lucky to get a booth at the Games. I thought it would be a great venue to showcase my historical sewing business, A Stitch in Time. I teamed up with Letty Overby, who had an antique shop on the Commons in downtown Laurel Springs. We called our booth, "Scottish Treasures, Old & New." I doubted Letty's antiques actually came from Scotland, and my handiwork was obviously made in Pennsylvania, but at least we were faithful to the theme. My handicrafts included fabric bags and placemats in a variety of tartans, an array of bow ties spilling out of a small wooden treasure chest with wrought-iron hinges, and a collection of stuffed Loch Ness monsters under a calligraphied sign that read, "Nessie." I hung a few traditional women's skirts and velvet vests along the side of the booth to highlight my skills, with the hope of taking orders for custom-made Scottish apparel. The Laurel Springs Games was early in the competition season, so I stood a good chance of drumming up some business for the rest of the summer. But even if I sold nothing but a few Nessies, I was happy to spend the day in the sunshine surrounded by the sights and sounds of eastern Pennsylvania's tribute to its Scottish heritage.
Letty's wares included an assortment of glassware and silver jewelry on a long table on the other side of the booth, piles of delicate embroidered linens, and a selection of antique dressers and side tables. She had just finished setting up and had disappeared for a cup of coffee when I got my first customer.
"You got one of these in the McCarthy tartan?" Sean McCarthy leaned on the edge of the folding table that displayed my handicrafts, to focus his camera lens on a single bow tie in the distinctive red, green, and yellow of the Royal Stewart tartan. I caught the flash of joy and wonder on his face as he turned the lens ever so slightly to bring the image into focus, working his magic with the camera. He never got tired of that moment of revelation, and I never got tired of watching him.
"Sorry, no McCarthy tartan. It's an Irish name, you know. We're pure Scots today."
He straightened up and grinned at me, his eyes crinkling up in his tanned face. "Ah, so Daria Dembrowski is pure Scottish, right?"
I couldn't help laughing. "Well, she's selling the Scottish stuff anyway, handmade in Laurel Springs, Pennsylvania." I eyed his white button-down shirt with the sleeves rolled up. "A tartan bow tie would put you in the mood while you take your pictures for the newspaper. How about the Dress MacLeod? It's the only yellow one in my book." I handed him a tie with a yellow and black pattern shot through with red and pointed to the picture in my handy Guide to the Clans and Tartans of Scotland booklet.
He turned it over dubiously. "Can't say I've ever worn a bow tie before."
I took it from him and slid the ribbons under his collar, brushing aside his dark blond ponytail to adjust the catch in the back. "They're better than neckties because they come pre-tied. There. Now you'll fit right in, despite your Irish name."
He peered at his reflection in the tabletop mirror next to the chest of bow ties. "I look like a walking advertisement for A Stitch in Time's Scottish line." He handed me his camera. "Go ahead, get a picture. I don't promise to wear it all day, though."
I adjusted the focus, like he'd taught me, and snapped a picture. "That'll be for advertising or for blackmail, whichever I have most need of."
He snatched the camera out of my hands. "I'm not sure how you'll manage to blackmail me with a photo from my own camera, but more power to you." He slung the camera back around his neck, knocking the bow tie askew. "Speaking of fitting in, here comes Aileen."
With her black, skin-tight leather pants and red corset embroidered with skulls in black metallic cord, Aileen might fit in at a punk bar in Scotland, but here at the Highland Games she stuck out like a bagpiper in a symphony orchestra. Which is exactly what she wanted. Lead guitarist in a metal band, the Twisted Armpits, she shared my house with my older brother Pete and me. I got the formal dining room for a fitting room for my sewing business, Aileen got the basement for her band studio, and Pete got the third-floor bedroom, where he could get away from the bustle of customers and the unholy noise of the band. Of late, Aileen's bandmate Corgi had added a bagpipe to the cacophony after joining the Laurel Springs Pipe and Drum Corps. I had always experienced bagpipes as extremely loud instruments, so it amused me to no end when Aileen described the need to mic the pipes to allow them to rise above the guitar and bass in the mix. Imagine a bagpipe getting drowned out! I could hear several bagpipes skirling, and the noise was overpowering even in the open air.
Aileen didn't seem to notice. She clomped through the growing crowd in her knee-high red patent-leather boots with the six-inch chunky heels and approached my booth.
"The bagpipe competitions are about to start. Any idea where Corgi got to?" She looked at McCarthy and said, "Whoa. You look like your thyroid has jaundice."
He straightened his bow tie and bowed as if he were James Bond on his way to a white-tie event. Affecting a thick Scottish accent, he drawled, "Even the Irish are Scottish on this day."
Aileen rolled her eyes. "Whatever. Have you seen Corgi anywhere?"
I shook my head, trying to control my laughter at McCarthy's ridiculous accent. "Is he going to compete? I thought you said he's only been playing for a few months now."
"Yeah, but he's fired up by all this competition nonsense. You wouldn't think it to look at him, but he's totally motivated by contests. He's been practicing day and night ever since he decided he wanted to compete."
She was right, I wouldn't have pictured Corgi as a competitive guy. He was a small, quiet man whose laid-back demeanor was in direct contrast to Aileen's flamboyant personality. He played bass for the Twisted Armpits, and his performances at gigs were appropriately energetic, but I'd learned it was all an act. When he wasn't helping his mom run her bed-and-breakfast, he was happy to lounge on the porch with a novel or drowse in front of the TV. He shared Pete's love of the Phillies, and the two of them could talk about double plays and relief pitchers for hours on end. But I couldn't imagine him actually playing baseball, much less participating in a bagpipe competition. This should be something to see.
I spied Letty wending her way back to our booth with two cups of coffee clutched in her hands. Tall and shapely, with masses of dark, curly hair cascading down her back, she was dressed in a clingy T- shirt that proclaimed, "Kiss a Scot," paired with a pleated plaid skirt that approximated a kilt, although it fell midthigh rather than just above the knee. She slipped back into our booth and handed me a cup. "I got you a mocha latte. I hope that's all right." Without waiting for an answer, she turned to Aileen and McCarthy with a big smile. Her eyes widened at the sight of Aileen's black leather, but her professional demeanor carried her through. "Top of the morning to you! Oh, dear, that's what we say on St. Patrick's Day, isn't it?" She flipped her long hair over her shoulder in a coquettish move and gazed at McCarthy. "I see Daria's already sold you one of her superb bow ties. Can I interest you in some antiques? Maybe a monogrammed beer stein from the 1950s, or a vintage handkerchief for a special lady?"
I laid a hand on Letty's arm, halting her before she could break out her entire line of vintage linens. "Letty, do you know Sean McCarthy from the Laurel Springs Daily Chronicle? He's taking photographs of the Games for the newspaper. And this is Aileen, my housemate."
Letty smiled at Aileen and turned back to McCarthy. "How about a photo of our booth for the front page?" She tidied her hair and shifted a few of her wares to the front table before throwing her arm around my waist and aiming a brilliant smile at McCarthy.
He obliged with a quick photo.
"Letty, do you mind watching the booth for a few minutes? I want to check out the bagpipe competition." I showed her my price list and slipped out before she could attempt to sell Aileen some glass candy dishes or an intricately carved cuckoo clock.
McCarthy adjusted his tie once more and waved a jaunty goodbye. "I'm off to document Pennsylvania's Scottish diaspora!"
Aileen snorted. "Whatever." She grabbed my arm and hustled me through the Scottish Marketplace toward a gazebo surrounded by various Scottish flags fluttering in the light breeze. A piper in full regalia stood in the middle of the gazebo, playing an impossibly fast tune on the bagpipes. He was dressed out in a military jacket and red and black kilt held down with a horsehide sporran slung around his waist on a silver chain. Corgi had explained to me that this small pouch was useful for carrying money or car keys, but its chief purpose, other than to keep the kilt down in a breeze, was to hold the piper's flask of whiskey.
Corgi stood in the group of bagpipers waiting their turns in the competition. I was used to seeing him in black leather and chains, so I hardly recognized him in his kilt and jacket. Although, when I looked closer, I could see that his outfit wasn't quite as natty as that of the piper who was currently playing. Corgi's blue-and-green-plaid kilt hung lower on the sides than in the back or front, and the tartan fabric looked far more lightweight than the substantial wool of a traditional kilt. His sporran was leather rather than horsehair, and he wore ordinary black dress shoes rather than the distinctive ghillie brogues with their elaborate laces twining around the ankles that the other pipers wore. He looked like what he was: a beginner. I hoped the judges wouldn't go too hard on him.
Aileen poked me in the shoulder. "He's up next. They'll grade him on his musical technique, how he holds the bagpipes, and whether or not his shoelaces are tied correctly. Bizarre way to look at music, if you ask me."
"Yeah, your idea of good music is the loudest volume possible," I teased.
She opened her mouth to retort but didn't get the chance. Someone from the crowd clapped her on the shoulder, and a man's voice called out, "Well, look who's here! Long time no see."
Aileen whirled at the touch and glared at the newcomer, a large man in his early forties wearing a muscle shirt and a solid black canvas utility kilt with spacious pouch pockets on both sides. Instead of a sporran, he wore a trio of heavy chains draped around the front of his kilt, and a thick leather belt with a brass buckle depicting an eagle in flight. His dark, wavy hair curled against his shoulders, enhancing the sensuality of his muscular physique. Wide-set eyes shaded by thick eyebrows appraised Aileen from her red leather boots to her dyed black hair held back by dozens of dragon-shaped hair clips.
"Look at you, all punked out like this. I never thought I'd see you at a Highland games."
"I never thought I'd see you again this side of hell," Aileen shot back. "Get out of my sight!" She grabbed my arm and shoved her way through the crowd to the other side of the gazebo, leaving the muscleman chuckling behind her.
I straightened my skirt and repositioned my bag on my shoulder, breathless from being dragged through the crowd. "Old friend of yours?"
Aileen glared at me. "What do you think?" She folded her arms across her chest and stared pointedly at the gazebo. "Corgi's up."
I turned my attention to the bagpiping, realizing that the better part of wisdom was to leave Aileen alone when she didn't want to discuss something. Still, I found myself looking over my shoulder. The muscleman was gone.
Corgi stepped up to the center of the gazebo and blew into his blowpipe, filling his bag with air. He punched it with his arm, starting up the drones with only a couple of squeaks. He launched into his tune, his fingers flying on the chanter, one arm pumping rhythmically on the bag. All bagpipe tunes sounded pretty much the same to me, but I could tell this one was far less complicated than that of the previous piper. I hoped the judges had different categories based on skill level, so Corgi wouldn't be competing with someone with a lot more experience than he had.
A group of young Highland dancers scurried past, led by their dance teacher, Breanna Lawton. Breanna was one of my bridal clients, engaged to a man from Philadelphia I'd never met. She was a serious woman in her midthirties who was getting married for the first time and enjoying every minute of the planning. With her glorious red hair, it was easy to imagine her at the center of the Celtic-themed ceremony she dreamed of. I hoped her groom-to-be was okay with all her plans.
I waved to Breanna and the girls, admiring their soft plaid skirts held out by the numerous petticoats they'd donned for the Scottish country dances. They were simple elastic-waist skirts anyone could whip up in an hour, but they looked sweet with the girls' ruffled white blouses and French-braided hair. The youngest dancer couldn't have been older than five, while the oldest, Gillian King, who I knew from church, was fifteen. Somehow, she managed to wear her wholesome dance outfit in an alluring manner, swaying her hips as she walked and adjusting the wide neckline to reveal more cleavage than any reasonable dress code would allow. I knew her dad had his hands full with Gillian. There was that one time she'd snuck out during a youth group retreat at the church and hadn't returned for several hours while the frantic chaperones searched the downtown streets for her. Another time, her dad had caught her hanging out with dubious company under the Waterworks Bridge that crosses the Schuylkill River in a sketchy part of town. Gillian had started dancing with the Highland dancers shortly thereafter, and tales of her escapades decreased.
I tore my eyes away from the dancers to catch the end of Corgi's performance. I half expected him to fling himself to his knees the way he did at the end of every Twisted Armpits gig, but all he did was fold up his bagpipe and stride out of the gazebo. Another eager piper took his place.
Aileen clapped him on the back. "That's showing them!"
"Very nice," I echoed. "What was that last tune you played?"
He bent over his bagpipe case, stowing the instrument. "It's called 'Rowan Tree.' I messed up a couple times there at the end — could you tell?" He wiped his forehead and slipped a small flask out of his sporran for a quick nip.
"I didn't notice anything," I said truthfully, for what it was worth.
"Yeah, well, you're just getting started, so we'll cut you some slack," Aileen said. "That bit at the beginning of 'Rowan Tree' would make a great riff in 'Midnight Hollow,' right after Pinker finishes his drum solo."
I left the two of them discussing musical composition for the Twisted Armpits and hurried back to my booth. It was probably time for me to give Letty a chance to stroll around and take in the Games.
I slipped past the small crowd milling about in front of our booth. Letty was in her element. She chattered with the customers, shook out antique linens for their inspection before folding them up again with a professional flourish, and held up delicate glassware to catch the light. She sent one elderly man off with a pair of purple glass earrings for his wife with the promise that, "They'll bring out the roses in her cheeks and the romance in her heart."
"Oh, Daria, you're back," she said. "Someone stopped by to ask about your making a dress. I didn't want to commit you, so I told her to come back in half an hour."
"Did you give her one of my cards?" I indicated the small basket holding my business cards.
She shook her head, whisking off to greet another passerby.
I shrugged it off. If the woman really wanted me to make her a dress, she'd come back, and if she didn't, then I didn't need to waste my time. I'd found that people were genuinely interested in the idea of custom-made clothing, but most weren't patient enough to wait for the finished product. Brides were the exception — most women considered that once-in-a-lifetime wedding gown to be worth the wait.
I tidied my selection of bow ties and placemats, noticing that Letty's linens had migrated onto the front of my table to overshadow my own items. I chuckled as I repositioned my Nessies. There was room for both of us here. I turned to speak to a small child looking longingly at a red plaid Nessie with a jaunty green tam o' shanter on its head.(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Royally Dead"
Copyright © 2018 Greta McKennan.
Excerpted by permission of KENSINGTON PUBLISHING CORP..
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