“Ah.” Brian sat for a moment staring into his whisky, thinking. Finally he cleared his throat and looked up, meeting Roger’s eyes. “I maybe shouldna say such a thing, but it may be in your own mind already. If he’s taken the boy only because the lad kens where yon treasure is . . . well, was I a wicked man with no scruples, I think I might force the information out of the lad, so soon as I had him alone.”
Roger felt the cold slide of the suggestion down into the pit of his belly. It was something that had been at the back of his own mind, though he hadn’t admitted it to himself.
“Make him tell—and then kill him, you mean.”
Fraser grimaced unhappily.
“I dinna want to think it,” he said. “But without the lad, what is there to mark him out? A man alone—he could travel as he liked, without much notice.”
“Yes,” Roger said, and stopped to breathe. “Yes. Well . . . he didn’t. I—I know the man, a little. I don’t think he’d do that, mur—” His throat closed suddenly, and he coughed violently. “Murder a child,” he finished hoarsely. “He wouldn’t.”
THEY GAVE HIM a room at the end of the hallway on the second floor. When his family would live here, this would be the children’s playroom. He undressed to his shirt, put out the candle, and got into bed, resolutely ignoring the shadows in the corners that held the ghosts of giant cardboard building blocks, of dollhouses, six-guns, and chalkboards. The fringed skirt of Mandy’s Annie Oakley costume fluttered at the corner of his eye.
He ached from follicles to toenails, inside and out, but the panic engendered by his arrival had passed. How he felt didn’t matter, though; the question was—what now? They hadn’t gone where they thought, he and Buck, but he had to assume that they had ended up in the right place. The place where Jem was.
How else could they have come here? Perhaps Rob Cameron knew more now about how the traveling worked, could control it, and had deliberately brought Jem to this time, in order to frustrate pursuit?
He was too exhausted to keep hold of his thoughts, let alone string them into coherence. He pushed everything out of his mind, so far as he could, and lay still, staring into the dark, seeing the shine of a rocking horse’s eyes.
Then he got out of bed, knelt on the cold boards, and prayed.
“FOR MANY MEN WHO STUMBLE AT THE THRESHOLD ARE WELL FORETOLD THAT DANGER LURKS WITHIN”
October 31, 1980
BRIANNA COULDN’T open her own front door. She kept trying, rattling the big iron key all over the escutcheon plate, until the WPC took it from her shaking hand and got it into the keyhole. She hadn’t started to shake until the police car turned up the lane to Lallybroch.
“Rather an old lock,” the police constable observed, giving it a dubious look. “Original to the house, is it?” She lifted her head, peering up the white-harled front of the house, pursing her lips at sight of the lintel, with its carved date.
“I don’t know. We don’t usually lock the door. We’ve never had burglars.” Brianna’s lips felt numb, but she thought she’d managed a weak smile. Luckily, Mandy was unable to contradict this bald-faced lie, as she’d seen a toad in the grass by the path and was following it, poking at it with the toe of her shoe to make it hop. Jemmy, glued protectively to Brianna’s side, made a low noise in his throat that reminded her startlingly of her father, and she looked down at him, narrowing her eyes.
He made the noise again and looked away.
There was a rattle and click as the lock opened, and the constable straightened up with a pleased sound.
“Aye, that’s done it. Now, you’re quite sure as you’ll be all right, will you, Mrs. MacKenzie?” the woman said, giving her a dubious look. “Out here by yourself, and your man away?”
“He’ll be home soon,” Brianna assured her, though her stomach went hollow at the words.
The woman eyed her consideringly, then gave a reluctant nod and pushed open the door.
“Well, then, you know best, I expect. I’ll just check to see that your phone’s in order and all the doors and windows locked, shall I, while you have a look round to be sure everything’s as it should be?”
The lump of ice that had formed in her middle during the long hours of questioning shot straight up into her chest.
“I—I—I’m sure everything’s fine.” But the constable had already gone inside and was waiting impatiently for her. “Jem! Bring Mandy inside and take her up to the playroom, will you?” She couldn’t bear to leave the kids outside by themselves, exposed. She could scarcely bear to have them out of her sight. But the very last thing she needed was to have Mandy tagging helpfully along, chatting to Constable Laughlin about Mr. Rob in the priest’s hole. Leaving the door open, she hurried after the WPC.
“The phone’s in there,” she said, catching up with Constable Laughlin in the hall and gesturing toward Roger’s study. “There’s an extension in the kitchen. I’ll go and check that and see to the back door.” Not waiting for an answer, she strode down the hall and nearly threw herself through the swinging door that led to the kitchen.
She didn’t pause to check anything but jerked open the junk drawer and snatched up a big rubber-covered flashlight. Meant to assist farmers lambing at night or searching for lost stock, the thing was a foot long and weighed nearly two pounds.
The .22 rifle was in the mudroom, and for an instant, as she walked through the house, she debated killing him, in a dispassionate way that would probably scare her if she had time to think about it. She had Jem back, after all—but no. Constable Laughlin would certainly recognize the sound of a shot, in spite of the muffling green baize on the kitchen door. And there was apparently more she needed to learn from Rob Cameron. She’d knock him unconscious and tape his mouth.
She stepped into the mudroom and quietly closed the kitchen door behind her. There was a deadbolt, but she couldn’t lock it from this side without the key, and her keys were on the table in the foyer, where Constable Laughlin had left them. Instead, she dragged the heavy bench over and jammed it catty-corner between the door and the wall, concentrating on the logistics. Where was the best place to hit someone on the head so as to render them unconscious without fracturing their skull? She had a vague memory of her mother mentioning that once . . . the occiput?
She’d expected an outcry from Cameron at the sound of her entry, but he didn’t peep. She could hear footsteps above, the confident stride of an adult going down the hall. Constable Laughlin on her tour of inspection, no doubt checking the first-floor windows, ladder-bearing burglars in mind. She closed her eyes for an instant, envisioning the constable sticking her head into the playroom just as Mandy was regaling her brother with the details of her own adventures the night before.
Nothing to be done about that. She took a deep breath, lifted the grate over the priest’s hole, and shone the light down into the shadows. The empty shadows.
For a few moments she went on looking, swinging the torch beam from one side of the priest’s hole to the other, then back, then back again . . . her mind simply refusing to believe her eyes.
The light caught the dull gleam of duct tape—two or three discarded wads, flung into a corner. There was a cold feeling at the back of her neck, and she jerked round, flashlight raised—but it was no more than apprehension; no one was there. The outer door was locked, the mudroom windows secure.
The door was locked. She made a small, frightened sound and clapped her hand hard over her mouth. Like the door between mudroom and kitchen, the mudroom’s outer door locked with a deadbolt—from the inside. If someone had gone out that way and left the door locked behind him—he had a key to the house. And her rifle was gone.
THEY’RE TOO LITTLE, she kept thinking. They shouldn’t know about things like this; they shouldn’t know it’s possible. Her hands were shaking; it took three tries to open the sticky drawer in Mandy’s dresser, and after the third failure, she pounded it in fury with the side of her fist, whispering through gritted teeth, “You goddamned f**king bloody buggering thing! Don’t you dare get in my way!” She crashed her fist on top of the dresser, raised her foot, and smashed the sole of her sneaker into the thing so hard that it rocked back and thumped into the wall with a bang.
She grabbed the drawer pulls and yanked. The terrorized drawer shot out, and she snatched the whole thing free and flung it into the opposite wall, where it struck and exploded in a rainbow spray of underpants and tiny striped T-shirts.
She walked over and looked down at the battered drawer, lying upside down on the floor.
“So there,” she said calmly. “Teach you to get in my way when I have things to think about.”
“Like what, Mam?” said a cautious voice from the doorway. She looked up to see Jemmy hovering there, eyes flicking from her to the mistreated drawer and back.
“Oh.” She thought of trying to explain the drawer but instead cleared her throat and sat down on the bed, holding out a hand to him. “Come here, a bhalaich.”
His ginger brows flicked up at the Gaelic endearment, but he came willingly, cuddling into her arm. He hugged her hard, burying his head in her shoulder, and she held him as tightly as she could, rocking back and forth and making the sorts of soft noises she’d made to him when he was tiny.
“It’ll be all right, baby,” she whispered to him. “It will.”
She heard him swallow and felt his small, square back move under her hand.
“Yeah.” His voice quivered a little and he sniffed hard, then tried again. “Yeah. But what’s going to be all right, Mam? What’s going on?” He drew away a little then, looking up at her with eyes that held more questions and more knowledge than any nine-year-old should reasonably have.
“Mandy says you put Mr. Cameron in the priest’s hole. But he’s not there now—I looked.”
A cold hand stroked her nape as she remembered the shock of the empty hole.
“No, he’s not.”
“But you didn’t let him out, did you?”
“No. I didn’t let him out. He—”
“So somebody else did,” he said positively. “Who, do you think?”
“You have a very logical mind,” she said, smiling a little, despite herself. “You get it from your Grandda Jamie.”
“He said I got it from Grannie Claire,” Jem replied, but automatically; he wasn’t to be distracted. “I thought maybe it was the man who chased me at the dam—but he couldn’t have been here letting Mr. Cameron out at the same time he was chasing me. Could he?” A sudden fear showed in his eyes, and she choked back the overwhelming urge to hunt the man down and kill him like a rabid skunk.
The man had got away at the dam, running off into the dark when the police showed up, but, God help her, she was going to find him one day, and then—but this was not the day. The problem now was to stop him—or Rob Cameron—from getting anywhere near her kids again.
Then she got what Jemmy was saying and felt the chill she’d carried in her heart spread like hoarfrost through her body.
“You mean there has to be another man,” she said, surprised at how calm she sounded. “Mr. Cameron, the man at the dam—and whoever let Mr. Cameron out of the priest’s hole.”
“It could be a lady,” Jemmy pointed out. He seemed less scared, talking about it. That was a good thing, because her own skin was rippling with fear.
“Do you know what Grannie called—calls—goose bumps?” She held out her arm, the fine reddish hairs all standing on end. “Horripilation.”
“Horripilation,” Jemmy repeated, and gave a small, nervous giggle. “I like that word.”
“Me, too.” She took a deep breath and stood up. “Go pick out a change of clothes and your PJs, would you, sweetheart? I have to make a couple of phone calls, and then I think we’re going to go visit Auntie Fiona.”
IT’S BEST TO SLEEP IN A HALE SKIN
ROGER WOKE SUDDENLY, but without shock. No sense of abandoned dreams, no half-heard noise, but his eyes were open and he was fully aware. It was perhaps an hour before sunrise. He’d left the shutters open; the room was cold and the clouded sky the color of a black pearl.
He lay motionless, listening to his heart beat, and realized that for the first time in several days it wasn’t pounding. He wasn’t afraid. The fear and turmoil of the night, the terror of the last few days, had vanished. His body was completely relaxed; so was his mind.
There was something floating in his mind. Absurdly, it was a line from “Johnny Cope”: “It’s best to sleep in a hale skin; for ’twill be a bluidy morning.” Weirder still, he could hear—could almost feel—himself singing it, in his old voice, full of power and enthusiasm.
“Not that I’m ungrateful,” he said to the whitewashed ceiling beams, his morning voice cracked and rough. “But what the hell?”
He wasn’t sure whether he was talking to God or to his own unconscious, but the likelihood of getting a straight answer was probably the same in either case. He heard the soft thud of a closing door somewhere below and someone outside whistling through his or her teeth—Annie or Senga, maybe, on the way to the morning milking.
A knock came on his own door: Jenny Murray, tidy in a white pinny, dark curly hair tied back but not yet capped for the day, with a jug of hot water, a pot of soft soap, and a razor for shaving.
“Da says can ye ride a horse?” she said without preamble, looking him up and down in an assessing sort of way.
“I can,” he replied gruffly, taking the towel-wrapped jug from her. He needed badly to clear the phlegm from his throat and spit but couldn’t bring himself to do that in front of her. Consequently, he just nodded and muttered, “Taing,” as he took the razor, instead of asking why.