The Blue HackleThe Jean Fairbairn/Alasdair Cameron series, Book Five
Five Star Publishing, November 2011 ISBN 978-1-59414-922-1
The Jean Fairbairn/Alasdair Cameron series, a cross-genre (mystery, romance, paranormal) series featuring Michael and Rebecca Campbell-Reid from Ashes to Ashes and Dust to Dust in cameo roles.
In a stately home, no one can hear you scream . . .
Alasdair Cameron and Fergus MacDonald were childhood friends. Their fathers' caps carried a blue hackle, badge-feather of a distinguished Scottish regiment. Now the feather in Fergie's cap is decaying Dunasheen Estate on the Isle of Skye. His desperate schemes to save his home depend on a collection of historic artifacts, a handful of guests paying for a traditional Scottish NewYear celebration, and the help of Alasdair and Jean Fairbairn.
For Jean and Alasdair, the bells of the new year are also wedding bellstheir rings are ready, their guests invited, and the Gothic folly of Fergie's chapel is waiting.
Then a guest is found murdered, lying in blood that's thicker than seawater, the sea that carried generations of Scottish soldiers and settlers to distant shores even as their descendants' hearts turn homeward.
The police crash the party, Alasdair is forced out of retirement, and he and Jean once more find themselves juggling knowledge, belief, and a list of suspects whose secret agendas raise more than few hackles.
Is that the icy winter wind, or the banshee-wail of a MacDonald chatelaine still tending the house two centuries after her murder? Is she affirming that only Fergie's motives are true-blue? Or is she warning that even he is hiding a secret agenda beneath his fool's cap and bells?
Ring out the old, ring in the new. But if Alasdair and Jean can't untangle the threads of the past and use them to net a present-day killer, then they and their wedding rings won't get to the church on time---and more blood will flow for the sake of Auld Lang Syne.
The grave slabs at Ardchattan Priory, similar to those in an important scene in The Blue Hackle:
“The special gravestones are over here.” Jean walked the child over to a shed topped by a sheet of green corrugated plastic better suited to protect cows or sheep than rare artifacts. But then, in Scotland, artifacts like these weren’t all that rare.
Beneath the roof lay a row of fissured gray slabs, patched with moss, lichen, and the occasional strip of concrete. Hands long gone to dust or mud had carved them with armored men holding spears or swords, or, in a couple of cases, just the sword itself, surrounded by raised cords and knotwork like a medieval fetish. Several other slabs were graced by a cross, a skull, or both. A few patches of moss had recently been peeled away from one,
revealing damp, corroded stone.
Lillian Stewart Carl is very adept at placing her readers in her geographical settings. 'The Blue Hackle' takes us to Scotland and with Carl's descriptions you feel that you are right beside Alasdair and Jean. Carl weaves an interesting plot with myths, legends and the paranormal along with a secondary storyline for the upcoming wedding. In 'The Blue Hackle' each and every character is skillfully portrayed with diversity. A most enjoyable read intertwined with Scottish history and geography.
--Connie Gregory, conniesreviews.blogspot.com
At the start of Carl's spirited fifth mystery featuring American travel journalist Jean Fairbairn and her Scottish fiancé, retired detective inspector Alasdair Cameron (after 2009's The Charm Stone), the pair are happily anticipating their New Year's wedding on the Isle of Skye at Dunasheen Castle, owned by their friend Fergus "Fergie" MacDonald. They almost cancel their nuptials after the stabbing murder of Greg MacLeod, an Australian staying at the castle's inn with his wife. Jean later finds the murder weapon, an antique dirk stolen from Fergie's display of family weaponry. Was it wielded by Colin Urquhart, a hermit in love with Diana, Fergie's daughter; Scott Krum, a visiting American antique dealer; or some disgruntled local? Seonaid MacDonald, Fergie's ghostly ancestress (aka "the Green Lady"), interacts with Jean and Krum's young daughter, Dakota, to diverting effect.
-- Publishers Weekly, 9/27/2010
"This mystery has enough false leads and misdirection to make it nearly impossible to guess the killer prior to the reveal. However, once it all comes out -- it's easy to go back and see the clues scattered about the narrative. Normally, I can figure out mysteries quite early, so it is a joy to find books where I can't guess until nearly the last page.
If you're yearning for a bit of armchair sightseeing along with your mystery, with a good dollop of history thrown in, get yourself a copy of The Blue Hackle. If you enjoy it as much as I did, you can then read the earlier works since each one can stand alone. "
-- Gayle Surrette, Gumshoe Review
"The author is a master at painting a vivid portrait of the beautiful and often unforgiving Scottish landscape, and delivering history lessons as a natural part of the story. I especially appreciate the depiction of Jean and Alasdair's middle-aged romance, so much different than the over-heated, wildly passionate scenes common in books with younger protagonists, but with a certain amount of discreet lust and longing. This is another winner by the very talented Ms. Carl."
--Shirley Wetzel for OverMyDeadBody.com
Jean Fairbairn peered over the railing of the footbridge. If sufficiently motivated—chased by bloodthirsty swordsmen, for example—she could have dangled by her hands from the walkway and dropped into the rocky, muddy gully that had once been a moat. She’d be skewered anyway, but giving up and going quietly had never been part of her vocabulary.
Nor was it part of the vocabulary of Scotland, where the past had played out in scenes of blood and thunder, fire and sword. Now popular memory and the Scottish Tourist Board elided here, revised there, and edited fierce bloody-mindedness into high Romance. Though history could still be perilous, as the thud and blunder of Jean’s own, lowercase, romance had proved.
Alasdair Cameron, the object of her romantic inclinations, inspected the ruined castle that rose above the far end of the narrow walkway even as he said, “No need to go chucking yourself over the edge just yet, the wedding’s not ’til the third.”
“Thank you, light of my life,” Jean returned. “Was it this Dunasheen Castle or the other one where Rory MacLeod tried to jump from wall to tower to see his lady love?”
“This one, I’m thinking, it being a medieval tale. Though it goes that he reached his lady love via the stairs, her husband came breaking in, sword in hand, and he made the leap from tower to wall, meaning to escape.”
“Both versions are variations on a theme, the lover’s leap, fatal or otherwise.” That brought Jean back around to the choice she did not, thank goodness, have to make, between a sharp edge and a hard place—her imminent matrimonial plunge notwithstanding.
She hadn’t intended to fall for anyone, let alone a Scottish detective inspector. And now-ex-policeman Alasdair hadn’t meant to fall for a part-time historian, part-time journalist, full-time inquiring mind wanting to know. But their hearts had led, leaving their heads to play catch-up, and here they were, on a bridge both literal and symbolic.
Smiling, Jean also considered the snaggle-toothed battlements of the ancient castle keep. Outside the tower, lichened blocks of dark gray stone imperceptibly became lichened bedrock, knitted together with tussocks of grass and tufted by saplings springing from crevices. Inside the tower, seabirds nested in empty windows and in hollow fireplaces now suspended from sheer walls. The wooden floors where people had stood warming their chilblains, cooking their food, and thanking goodness for strong defenses atop a small, craggy islet—moats and drawbridges making good neighbors—had decayed into nothingness long ago.
The old castle was dignified in its desolation, and yet Jean also sensed an air of sadness for times past and regret for lives spent. She wouldn’t be surprised if it was also haunted, but she hadn’t lingered long enough for her spectral early warning system to activate.
Alasdair raised his camera, took several photos, then jotted something on a notepad.
“Now what? Secret passages? Buried treasure?” Jean pulled her hands up into her sleeves in an attempt to warm them up.
“That path running outside the enceinte, the boundary wall,” he replied. “It’s partially eroded, right dangerous, and wants blocking off. Or rebuilding with a railing, but Fergie’s saying he can afford only what will keep the place standing.”
“Structural faults aren’t really in your line of work.”
“Oh aye, here’s Fergie—and wee Diana as well—thinking I’ll be advising him on locks and the like for the new castle, not on shoring up the old one, but it’s something I can be doing to help. This bridge, now, is likely no more than thirty years old. A bit damp, mind. It wants checking for rot.” He stamped on the walkway, sending a reverberation through the wooden slats beneath Jean’s feet.
A good thing she wasn’t acrophobic. Claustrophobic, yes, and dubious about darkness. She’d declined a visit to the dungeon in the foundations of the old tower, more like a cave than a cellar, never mind Alasdair and his flashlight. The issue wasn’t only its impenetrable shadow and low, vaulted ceiling, but its smell; dead fish, defunct rats, decaying seaweed, mold and mildew.
She inhaled deeply of the cold wind and vaporized Atlantic that scoured her cheeks—out with the bad air, in with the good—and looked up at the sullen gray sky. Sea gulls spiraled like flecks of white confetti, their harsh squawks piercing the thrum and seethe of the waves against the far side of the islet. “What isn’t damp? This is the Isle of Skye. It’s a giant soggy sponge. Look at those clouds, it’s going to rain again any minute. Sleet. Snow.”
“It’s not cold enough to sleet or snow.”
“Coulda fooled me.”
Alasdair glanced at his watch. “It’s getting on for half past three. Sunset, this time of year.”
“Tell me about it. I moved to Edinburgh from Texas last January. That was a shock. It wasn’t until it was still light at midnight in June that I thawed out and dried up.” Not least because it was in June that she and Alasdair stopped circling each other like duelists and surrendered to their mutual attraction.
If he caught her reference, he showed no sign of it. Grasping her gloved but cold hand in his, he pulled her toward the mainland—or main island—side of the bridge. “Skye can have positively brilliant days in December and January. We’ll be seeing one yet. Just now, though, we could do with a cuppa.”
“No kidding.” Tea, Jean thought. Chocolate biscuits. Caffeine and cocoa, two of the basic food groups.
Their rubber wellie boots clumping, they scrambled up the mud-and-gravel path to the top of the brae. This hill might not be nearly as tall as the towering cliffs propping up other stretches of the Skye coastline, but still it commanded a view. Or would, when one of those brilliant days came along. Fergie promised a panorama, from the islands of the Outer Hebrides across several miles of open sea to the north to the peaks of the Black Cuillins to the south, beyond the end of Loch Roy, a narrow inlet of the ocean that formed the eastern boundary of Dunasheen Estate.
Now, though, either sinking cloud or rising mist blotted the horizon, and the waves where loch met sea, below the ramparts of old Dunasheen, gleamed gunmetal gray. The terrain resembled a tattered crazy quilt laid over the bones of the earth. Patches of olive drab, rusty brown, and more gray were lumped around weathered boulders and pocked by reed-fringed pools scummed by ice. A few blots of light in the murk were all Jean could see of the village of Kinlochroy, at the far end of the loch.
But she and Alasdair weren’t walking to the village, not when the magnificent Scots Baronial pile of new Dunasheen Castle lay just ahead. The warm glow of its windows and the red and green fairy lights edging its eaves made the building into a humongous Christmas card. All it needed to complete the effect was snow softening the stark, black limbs of the trees tucked in behind garden walls.
“All right!” Jean pulled Alasdair to a halt. “Take some photos to go with Fergie’s interview. Look, there’s even a guy in a red jacket walking out of the courtyard—perfect timing, very photogenic.”
Muttering something about electricity rates and Fergie not knowing when to stop, Alasdair raised his camera. “The interview’s covering the estate, the renovations, the paying guests and all. You’re not meaning to encourage his fancies and odd notions.”
“Define your terms. You think not putting milk in your tea is an odd notion.”
His slate-blue eyes that could be chill as the North Sea sparkled like a tropical lagoon. A wry crumple only deepened the graceful curve of his lips.
Jean ignored his silent retort. “Sure, that’s the deal, your security expertise and my journalistic skills in return for a New Year’s Eve party and a wedding. The weird stuff is off the record. It would hardly scare away the customers, though. A lot of people love weird stuff. I love weird stuff. But Fergie’s your friend, so he gets a free pass. Especially now, during the Daft Days between Christmas and New Year’s Eve.”
“Especially as we’re all a bit daft, in our own ways.”
That was one concession, Jean thought, he would not have made even a few months ago.
Either rain or sea spray drifted across her face and glasses, making her squint at the suddenly blurry landscape. But the welcoming windows and cheerful lights still shone, and with Alasdair at her side she walked toward them.
It wasn’t her step that was springy, it was the ground she walked on—water, peat, layers of cultivation both literal and cultural. Skye, An t-Eilean Sgithanach, the wing-shaped isle, a name to conjure history, legend, and the dubious shores between. She could create multiple articles for Great Scot, the magazine that was partly her investment and fully her employment, without getting too close to Fergie’s more marginal notions, although his notion of making a self-sustaining business of a Scots Baronial white elephant was the point of the exercise.
“New” being relative in this part of the world—new Dunasheen dated to the early 1600s, when the local MacDonald laird had, after years of conflict, at last dispossessed the local MacLeod laird. He’d then abandoned the old castle and proclaimed his wealth and sophistication by erecting a manor house a la mode. Since then, generations of Lords Dunasheen, MacDonalds all, had renovated, rebuilt, and recreated. Annexes and towers encrusted the original building. Bow windows sprouted from walls, and dormer windows from moss-lined slate roofs edged by crow-stepped gables. Conical turrets called bartizans seemed to hang onto corners by sheer will power but were actually supported on corbels, protruding stones set in decorative tiers. Chimneys both tall and short capped the exuberant, if time-stained, structure like exclamation points.
Even in the dull light, the stucco-like lime harling that protected the stone walls from the uncompromising elements reflected a sheen of pink. The original had been colored by the bull’s blood used as a gelling agent, Fergie had said, just as the mortar holding together the bare stones of old—eight hundred years and more old—Dunasheen had been coagulated by the eggs of sea birds. You used what resources you had here at the outer rim of civilization, thought Jean. You called in favors from old friends. You promoted your white elephant as a fairy-tale castle.
The man in the red jacket marching along the footpath toward her and Alasdair must be a product of Fergie’s marketing scheme, moats and drawbridges now making good customers. They met up with him just where the path twisted between fissured, lichen-encrusted boulders, half-concealed by unblooming heather.
His bulbous nose was red, too, and his square, blunt face was burnished by the wind. Sandy hair streaked with gray fluttered back from his wide forehead. Hunkered down into his thickly padded jacket, his hands thrust into his pockets, he was still taller than Alasdair, who in turn was taller than Jean. But then, most people who were not children or hobbits were taller than Jean.
The man’s face creased into a triangular grin, wider on one side than on the other, filled with uneven teeth. His oddly pale gray eyes gleamed with humor. “If this was a golf course, it’d be all rough and no fairway.”
“Oh aye,” Alasdair replied. He and Jean turned sideways, giving the man passing room.
He maneuvered past, saying “Scuse me, mate” in a twang squeezed against the roof of his mouth. “You too, Missus. Is this the way to the church?”
He was either Aussie or Kiwi, Jean deduced, her ear for Down Under accents not tuned finely enough to detect the difference. She’d have to ask.
Alasdair answered, “The old church or the new one?”
“The one with the crusader tombstones that was burned down by the MacLeods in 1645.”
Who had surrounded the building, Jean added silently, swords drawn, as the congregation of MacDonalds perished inside—clan conflict fed on religious conflict and vice versa. But the delectable odor of smoke teasing her nostrils this afternoon was that of smoldering peat, implying warmth and sanctuary.
“Then, no, you’ve gone the wrong way,” said Alasdair. “That path runs from the garden at the western side of the house. The new castle. But you can follow the beach below the old castle round to the left, past the wee promontory, and then climb the brae to the church.”
Jean assessed the slight pucker between Alasdair’s eyebrows as a mental note: Tell Fergie to lay on directions to the local sights.
Her own mental note was a selfish one. The horrific events at the old church trumped its historical interest, and she was just as glad the wedding was scheduled for the new one, a charming Gothic Revival folly. Not that she’d sensed more than a melancholy chill at the old church—churches, plural, walls layered atop more walls layered atop ancient foundations—when she and Alasdair had stopped there on their tour of inspection.
She tried luring the stranger into conversation with, “You’re already familiar with the history of the area, then.”
“Yeah, I’ve been tracing the family tree. I’m a MacLeod myself. Greg MacLeod, Townsville, Queensland, Oz. You’re at the castle, too?” He extended his right hand.
“Aye,” Alasdair said, without introducing the topic of weddings. “Alasdair Cameron, Edinburgh.” He exchanged a firm handshake and passed the friendly hand on to Jean.
To her cold fingers, Greg’s hand seemed almost feverishly warm, slightly damp, and linty from his pocket. “Jean Fairbairn, also Edinburgh, though I started in Texas. But you’ve come a lot further than I have, all the way from Australia.”
“Not so far, not these days. My multiple-great grandfather, though, came out on a leaky ship. Transported near two centuries ago, and not for nicking a loaf of bread. For murder.” Despite his words, Greg’s grin evened into a rectangle, revealing a few more teeth—Jean wondered if they were issuing extra ones in the southern hemisphere.
“Murder,” Alasdair repeated, if not amused, then not alarmed, either.
Abruptly the light wasn’t dull at all. A gleam of sunlight pierced the cloud, glanced off the sea, and swelled like a scarlet wound along the southwestern horizon. Every puddle, pool, and trickle of water in the surrounding moorland glittered.
Dazzled, Jean said, “After two hundred years, having a murderer in the family seems more exotic than shameful. In fact, I hear having ancestors among the convicts in the First Fleet provides a bit of cachet in Australia these days, when for years it was something you hid beneath the antimacassars. Or was your ancestor in the First Fleet?”
“Not at all, no. Tormod MacLeod left Skye in 1822. He wouldn’t have had an easy go down under, but he missed out the worst days of Botany Bay. Though I’m starting to think the old guy crossed up the law to get himself a ticket to a warmer climate.” Greg returned his hands to his pockets and his shoulders to a crouch. “But here I am. Blood is thicker than water.”
“You’ve not chosen the friendliest time of year,” said Alasdair.
“Christmas in London, though! Lights, music, food, grand museums, galleries. And Harrod’s, Debenham’s, and Burlington Arcade for the wife. Now my credit card needs resuscitation. I’ll have to take out a second one to pay the overweight luggage fees.”
Jean smiled. Alasdair nodded agreement.
“Now for Fergus MacDonald’s New Year’s package, a traditional Hogmanay here on the old home ground.” Greg stamped his athletic shoes against the black dirt of the path, producing a slight squish and runnel of brown water. “Bloodstained ground. The MacDonalds and the MacLeods went at it like billy-o, once.”
“Putting rings on each other’s fingers and daggers in each other’s hearts, to quote some old historian.” And Jean added to herself, oh yes, Skye was conjuring magazine articles. She’d have to ask Greg for more details of his rogue ancestor. In her previous life, she’d learned that putting a personal face on history added entire minutes to her students’ attention spans. The same ploy worked with readers. “Did Tormod MacLeod murder a MacDonald?”
“It’s not so clear in the old family story just what happened. That’s why I’m here, to get the facts, if there are any facts to get. Our local clan group and the genealogy sites on the Internet only go so far. I found Dunasheen’s website, though. Dun na sithein, fortress of the fairies. I could hardly resist following up on that.”
“Sithein can mean fairies,” allowed Alasdair. He’d already expressed caution at Fergie’s take on the subject, not to mention Fergie’s promise of a private showing of the famous Fairy Flagon and the unveiling of yet another notion.
Jean, though, was sharpening her pencil for the revelation. “But what are fairies? The little people who lived here before the Celts arrived? Nature spirits? Lingering ghosts of the dead?”
“The old Celts remind me of our aboriginal people, seeing spirits in the landscape. You think any of my old MacLeod rellies are still hanging about to answer my questions, give me the good oil now?” Greg laughed, a peal of unaffected merriment. The wind snatched the sound from his lips and whisked it away.
Jean and Alasdair shared a glance. If Greg was allergic to the paranormal like they were, then his old MacLeod relatives might well answer his questions. Or not. No one knew the capriciousness of ghosts better than the team of Fairbairn and Cameron.
White gulls sailed overhead, stained pink by the ray of sunlight. Of sunset. “My old granny,” said Alasdair, “she was fond of saying that gulls carried the not-yet-departed spirits of the dead.”
“Hopefully my old rellies are well and truly departed. I’d rather read ghost stories than end up in one.” Greg raised his arm to inspect his watch, a massive number that probably displayed stock quotes as well as time and date. “Well then, I’ve got time for a squint at the old castle first. It’s straight on, is it?”
“That it is.” Alasdair pulled the small flashlight from his jacket pocket. “Have a care, the paths are rough and narrow, and there’s no artificial light. You’d best be using this torch. Just bring it back to the house when you’ve finished. It’s Fergie’s.”
“Ta. See you later, then.” Greg squished away toward the old castle.
Alasdair squelched away toward the new one. Jean fell into step beside him, not without a cautionary glance at his rosy face. “When did Fergie get nicknamed that, anyway?”
“My dad was calling him Fergie Beg before I was born. That’s what his own dad called him, himself being Fergie Mor.”
“Little Fergus and Big Fergus. But your dad wasn’t Alasdair Mor.”
“No, he was one of dozens of Allan Camerons. Likely there were more than a few murderers amongst the old ones. Raiders, robbers, rapists. Rum crew.” He spoke casually, just stating a fact.
“I’ve wondered if your choice of profession was overcompensation for a colorful family tree.”
“Mind that my own dad went for a soldier. And his dad as well.”
“That, too. Being born to a middle-aged, retired officer would shape your worldview. I’m sorry I never met your dad.”
“He was right tolerant of colonials such as Americans and Australians.” Alasdair glanced back at the old castle, then stopped and turned. Jean followed his gaze.
There was Greg, like Jean herself, an outlander called back to the dark and bloody ground of his forebears. Maybe he was a policeman, too, or a chartered accountant, or another mild-mannered academic-cum-journalist.
He worked his way up the path outside the enceinte and disappeared into the keep. A few moments later the red jacket appeared atop the tower, gleaming like a tiny flame.
The clouds thickened, the sun sank, and land and sea, loch and castle, fell into shadow. A patch of pale light sparked on the ruined battlements—Greg had switched on the flashlight. The spill of light over the rough and tumbled stones, part man’s work, part nature’s, seemed brighter than the indistinct human shape. Then both man-shape and light eased down behind the wall and were gone.