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In honor of the referendum on Scottish Independence

TROUT SNUGGLES

A Sophie George Mystery – Excerpt

Chapter One

“You don’t really want me down there,” Sophie said firmly. There was no question.

She had expected a sparkling, shallow brook rambling over moss-covered stones between grassy banks. That’s what his letters had suggested. But here was a torrent of brown water swirling beneath the swaying footbridge which was itself at least 50 years old. Now she was supposed to clamber down an ancient stone staircase to a muddy path, just to get under the wooden slats to fish, with the pleckety-plecking of steady rain to keep her from hearing what Donald says. And it will drizzle miserably onto her head and shoulders.

“Are you warm enough, Sophie?” he called back at her. He had so far ignored all her protests, she realized. Not once when she expressed doubt about these new activities, quintessentially Scots, of course, had he given her a choice. He appeared to be challenging her to prove that she was worthy of his invitation.

“Aggh-choo.” With the sneeze she bucked sideways and braced her right hand against the rope railing, remembering to keep her left side safe. He had warned her not to use the pole – no, beg pardon, the rod –as a walking stick, hence her heart skipped a beat whenever the cables holding the bridge in place shifted back and forth. What if she fell and broke it?

Dressed in an old, dull green MacIntosh, which hung unevenly just below her knees, its clownish sleeves rolled up above her wrists, and the smelly creel bumping against her hip, she felt about as old and ugly as she could imagine. She took a brave step forward, the better to get it over with and go back to the lodge.

“Hold on, girl,” her host shouted amiably as she staggered.  “Come on. I will help ye down.” He was beckoning with a grin under his red, scrub brush moustache, as if this was the easy part and she was foolish to be terrified. “Here, girl,” he cooed as he motioned her toward him. Now she felt like his pet dog. Would he reward her with biscuits? Most definitely.

Damn stupid discontent.  She had been bored with summertime in Florida. Annoyed at Sam making a fool of himself. Jealous of her daughter-in-law, now pregnant, making her a grandmother, a dubious honor. And even stupider, the sentimental memory of getting onto a tube train in London for the first time, where she had been jerked off her feet into the lap of this – this Glaswegian! When he wrote to her last winter, she had done an Internet search on Scotland and was seduced by images of restored castles and bottomless lochs, surrounded by mounds of heather and gorse, with craggy mountains as a backdrop.

Two days ago, Donald MacLachlan had met her at the airport outside Edinburgh, where she had been delivered on a commuter plane from Dublin. It had been hard to believe the major city in Scotland was so cut off from America that there were no direct flights. And it still had as its centerpiece an RAF aerodome left over from World War II. What a jerk backward in time that was! Luckily, from there the drive was not far, and she was glad to come to rest, even in a dark red stone house – hardly a castle — made even darker by the gathering clouds. It had rained all yesterday, so this little “pitter-patter” today was considered nothing at all to complain about, and Donald had insisted she take the opportunity to learn to do what he loved to do best.

She had looked at Ellen Woodbine, the housekeeper, with pleading eyes, hoping she would come to her defense when she asked to be let off the hook, “no pun intended.” Ellen did not smile, much less laugh at the little joke. Instead, she just raised her dark arched eyebrows and gave a flap to her sail-like apron before turning back to her duties. Sophie had gotten the distinct feeling that icy Ellen disapproved of her. She was just another guest to disturb the dust.

***

 “Well, what is she like?” asked Annie Woodbine, glancing out the window at the drizzle.

“Kind of bony,” her mother replied. “Sort of average, otherwise.”

Annie looked at her out of the corner of her eye, judging the red hair that had come from a box recently. Whenever a female guest was due to show up, her mam went through her self-improvement routine, trying to restore the fresh beauty that once was there, or almost. Looking brazen like this, she couldn’t hold a candle to that last one, that svelte, raven-haired barrister’s wife who came up on her own for trout fishing lessons. If this one was so clever, then she will know the housekeeper has her thumb on Donald MacLachlan.

Annie is in charge of the old tea room in town, a business her mam started years ago, and from which mam was able to squeeze out enough income to send her two children to university. Not enough to buy herself a fashionable wardrobe however. When Ellen agreed to help Donald and Alan make this house into a hotel, Annie had suggested they drive into Glasgow to shop for proper clothes. She offered to close the tea room for a day. Ellen said it would be a waste, as she would be wearing this big striped apron over a black skirt for manageress duties, and a series of housedresses, the wraparound kind, in the kitchen. She was changing from manageress to cook now.

“Does she have a fair face, this Mrs. George?” Annie asked, following her mother into the pantry.

“She’s not as crinkled and crusty as I am,” Ellen replied, “but she wears spectacles. Looks like a bird. Talks like one too, and from what we seen this morning, ets like a bird.”

“Is there anything attractive about Mrs. George?’

“Salt and pepper curls.” Ellen envied the curls, which were convincingly natural. “And she is sharp. Sharper than any before. She works, too. At a library or something.”

“And she is your age?”

“Older, I’d guess.” Ellen felt satisfaction at that.

“Maybe she’s here on business. Maybe she is going to invest in the place.”

“I guarantee that,” her mother replied, pushing her hands into a bowl of dough. “Hain’t we all?”

“I’d better get to work myself, mam,” Annie said and kissed her mother on the side of her forehead, brushing aside the longish fringe that constituted a new look for the older woman. “I’ll bring you a couple of Alice bands to keep your hair out of your eyes.”

“Do that, dear,” Ellen said, knowing well she would never wear one. She stopped her kneading to watch the girl – now a 45-year-old, unmarried woman, trot down the path toward her little sports car that she bought off Alan when he got his new one. That seemed to suit her. Other than that she was hard-like, probably from her years working for the Bank of Scotland in the city. Ellen suspected Annie’s prim demeaner did not extend to the evening hours. How many men had she gone through, loved and left, or who left her? Not at all like her dad – or like herself, for that matter, though she had tried her best.

“Leave that rod here,” Donald instructed Sophie, who was lagging behind as he stomped his feet on approaching the kitchen with his creel sliding off his shoulder. He pointed to a wooden cupboard next to the door where a face appeared frowning, and soon Ellen was greeting them and lifting the bounty basket off her employer’s arm. She dumped its slippery contents into a Belfast sink in the laundry room and began to chatter away about what isn’t available for dinner, completely ignoring Sophie, their only guest. Sophie followed behind a few steps and then stopped to let the Macintosh drop off her stiff body into a heap on the floor.

***

At seven-thirty Sophie headed back downstairs, still shivering from a quick bath in tepid water. The dark staircase descended in three, creaky, wood-encased parts, fortunately with generous landings. As she stepped onto the slates in the vestibule, she observed the estate agent’s magazine that lay folded open on the hall table. Now for sale, the MacLachlan Lodge is Grade B listed by Historic Scotland, and described as “an exuberant multi-gabled L-plan villa with Jacobean Renaissance detailing, an ogee-roofed round tower and prominent barge boarding.” There are six bedrooms. Three have their own baths, including the one she just used, with is wainscoting and hexagonal tiles.

Stepping through the wide opening to the sitting room, she realized that the house, though gloomy, had been outfitted to an extremely high standard. There are modern fitted carpets here, a concession to guests who demand comforts, but two spectacular orientals were laid between antique sofas covered in richly textured, ivory brocade fabrics. Cashmere paisley throws were folded over dark green velvet ottomans. The room was lit by a wide bay window with built-in seating and a spectacular view of a sloping lawn. To the right of the bay, double-doors led to a kind of sun room where wicker chairs had been lined up facing a wall of French windows that open on the terrace and, below, an overgrown tennis court. Looking down the lawn, Sophie can just make out the far edge of the burbling brown river that curves around the promontory on which this sandstone castle sits, and whose threatening turbulence nearly did her in.

Beyond the sun room, through another set of french doors, Sophie wanders into the dark dining room. The glossy, pedestaled,  Duncan Phyfe table is not yet set. She heads down the hall to the right, toward the kitchen, to offer help. The kitchen, which absorbs most of the space in this wing, is dominated by four ovens of various vintages taking up one wall. A porcelain sink with wide drainboards takes up the other. Parallel, running down the middle of thekitchen, is a very long, wooden workspace with cupboards beneath, and at the far end of the room are two humming refrigerators, neither one from this century. Sophie sees Ellen framed in a doorway  leading to the servants’ dining room.

“I thought maybe I could set the table,” Sophie offers, arriving beside her at a small maple table that looked like something popular in the 1940′s. A teapot sits on a lace cloth. At Ellen’s elbow is an empty cup.

“Oh, my dear, we are not going to mess thet fine polish. We will be eating in here,” Ellen tells her, getting up, and leading her to a glass-fronted cabinet displaying stacks of unmatched plates and cups. Sophie holds out her hands for the everyday china.  With an armload, surely more than they need, she moves to the servants’ table. Just then Donald appears from the fish cleaning operation.

“Whoa be it, Ellen,” he warns. “Mrs. George is a guest. Lay the table in the state dining room, biddie.”  Ellen’s cheeks redden as she shuts the cabinet doors and snaps her fingers at Sophie to leave the heavy plates on the table. Donald looks cross. “Mrs. George must not be treated like live-in labor,” he adds. “I put her through a pretty pace this afternoon. She must be weary, aren’t you dearie?” Sophie is sure this is not an intended rhyme.

“Well, if we are going to be fancy, then I shall dress,” she says cheerfully, eager to get out of this atmosphere of tension. Wearing a more glamorous outfit surely will put Ellen in her place.

At the top of the front staircase is a corridor leading away from the three main guest suites to two further bedrooms, a bathroom, linen cupboard, and two separate WCs. A narrower staircase at the back leads down to the kitchen and beside it is a matching one leading up to a maids’ dormitory. The rooms on the third floor are no longer in use, according to Donald, who guided her on a tour this morning. From up top, the view includes gardens on either side of the lawn. They are somewhat neglected these days, Donald admitted, but they were designed with a wide variety of plants, including wonderful old trees — oak, horse chestnut, yew, cedar and several fruits.

She decides to have another look at the lay of the land. Looking down from the narrow window at the end of the corridor she can just see, at each end of the stone paved terrace, a flight of sandstone steps leading down through the gardens and eventually to the river and its precious brown trout. On the right she can make out the original timber-framed greenhouse and a stone cottage where the ghillie lives.  Frank, Donald explained at length in his letters, is his friend from long ago. His job is to take the guests fishing and deer stalking. When she arrived, Donald spent some time telling her about the traditional role of the gamekeeper to discourage predators of the local wildlife. It made her realize that a hunting lodge in one location had to be near another location where the deer and birds that were meant for the dinner table actually were available, probably stocked, and therefore somewhat unromantically commercial.

 Trout were another thing entirely. Donald owned rights to fish a few steps from his own castle.

***

Dressed in deep rose velvet skirt and a black satin blouse, Sophie lets Donald guide her to the table where he pulls out an elegantly arched side chair for her, and seats himself in a throne-like armchair at the end.  Ellen comes in with a steaming soup tureen and begins to serve, allowing the ladle to tip a few drops of thick tan broth onto the tablecloth next to Sophie’s goblet. Sophie catches Ellen glancing at Donald to get his reaction, but is too embarrassed to remain looking to see what it is.

This has the most welcoming aroma,” he says to both of them. “I appreciate being given the royal treatment, as I shall probably never return in my lifetime.” She turns to Donald in particular: “Thank you, Donald, for taking a chance on me. We hardly know each other.” By now Ellen has taken her place opposite Donald, but about eight feet away from their end of the table. Donald, noticing her placement for the first time, seems flummoxed by both his housekeeper and guest. He sits with his back straight, right elbow on the table, holding aloft his sparkling wine glass, ready to make a toast. For a moment he does not speak. The women wait.

Air do shlàinte!” he suddenly spits out.

***

Donald had excused himself after a nightcap, warning her that he was used to getting up early. He urged her to do the same, which meant she was to retire soon. The sun was just sinking below the horizon and everything around them looked bluish gray in the mists. Tired from their fishing expedition, but reluctant to lie down right after a hearty meal, Sophie had decided on a walk down the drive about a quarter mile and back.  She would have gone farther but the road curled downward through the  forest, and she was unable to see a light anywhere after she had traipsed a few yards. Coming back up the incline would take longer. Earlier, Donald had called her attention to the sound of a wolf calling to its mate. She wouldn’t want to disturb a romantic interlude. The night air was heavy and cool, almost cold, as she trudged back to the wide stone steps. Ellen opened the front door for her.

“That meal was lovely, Ellen,” Sophie said, looking around for a hook on which to hang the jacket she had grabbed from the hall tree earlier. Ellen took it from her, nodding. “You really don’t have to wait on me,” Sophie added. Ellen smiled, nodded again, and turned away, disappearing in the feathery shadows.

A few minutes later, after Sophie had locked her bedroom door, there was a gentle rapping. Opening it again she found Ellen with a wooden tray, teapot, cup, pitcher, brown sugar cubes and biscuits. She was hardly in need of more nourishment, but let her in. Ellen bustled around a low table and then went to the trio of windows and pulled the drapes. Sophie thanked her again and expected her to leave.

“I hope you are not taking the laird verra seriously,” the housekeeper said, and stood there with her lips pressed together.

“I am not sure what you mean, Ellen,” Sophie answered, startled that she had spoken to her at all.

“I’m given ye advice. Donald MacLachlan is a joke with the ladies.’

“A joke? You mean a joker, full of pranks?”

“More like tricks,” Ellen said, hands on hips.  “Watch yersself. He’s a charmer, he is. It don’t mean a thing.”

“Just what are you suggesting?” Sophie replied, vexed by the housekeeper’s determined unpleasantness.  She still hoped for a good visit. She would have it, though Donald, as she had learned this afternoon, was not always charming. Who was this woman trying to fool? It was plain as day that she didn’t like interlopers in the household routine. And this was supposed to be a hotel?”

“Jest remember he has women coming here all the time, women he’s met here and there and everywhere. Some of ‘em catch on real quick. Others — well, I don’t want to say, but I do believe they’ve lost some money innit.”  She turned gloomily and went out the door, shutting it tightly.

Now Sophie felt chilled. She poured herself a cup of tea and sat in the wing chair facing the fireplace, which someone had thoughtfully lit while she was walking. Was that Ellen’s doing, too?  The woman was priceless.  But why would she betray her employer with such tittle-tattle?

Donald had been writing the loveliest letters for the better part of a year. The first one arrived in her mailbox in Dorado Bay, Florida, some months after they became acquainted in London, on a tube train, when a jolt at a station stop sent her from her standing position into his lap. They had exchanged repartee and talked about the stupendously high cost of men’s hankies at Harrods. She had pulled her purchases out of a bag to show him. Afterward, Donald wrote that he had found her copy of a shipping label, complete with her address, at his feet.

He took pains, writing by hand, to explain who he was: a native Scots whose parents had owned a shop selling the very best quality fishing equipment. He had gone away to university at eighteen, but returned to work “on the estate.” In the third letter to her, he had revealed that, when they crossed paths in London, he has been to see his solicitor, having made a life-changing decision. Some years before he had turned “the family estate” into a hotel for discriminating guests but that venture had “run its course.” He was now living comfortably in retirement and “entertaining friends.”  He wondered if she would be interested in making a wee visit to “the better part” of Great Britain.

Sophie avoided answering that question immediately, but in due time she received one of his left-over MacLachlan Lodge brochures that showed a rather handsome house (hardly her idea of a lodge, which in her mind was an exaggerated log cabin). It had turrets and porches and lots of tall windows overlooking a lush lawn and woods.

Sophie had never traveled abroad alone. In fact, she had hardly traveled abroad at all until her son and his wife Anita had persuaded her to meet them in London a year ago. Could she manage on her own, and at her advanced age?  She quickly convinced herself that the benefits of taking up Donald’s offer outweighed the dangers.

Chief of Detectives, Rueben Samuels, was not even curious when she told him she needed a little vacation from criminal investigation. A career librarian at the main branch next to his police department, she had helped him solve several murders by her clever research methods. When he let it be known he needed a personal assistant – and asked if she would help him find someone just like her — she retired. He was willing to pay out of his own pocket, as the City did not have the funds.  It wasn’t much, but it was acknowledgment of her professionalism. Since then she had developed a reputation with him and also on her own, with his blessing, of course, and had become a certified sleuth. Her trip to London the previous year had been fortuitous, as she had managed to solve a murder and also locate their host’s missing sister (never mind that she had also stirred the hornet’s nest in that family).

In the past few months, her boss, “Sam,” seemed to be unusually busy with other things. He often visited his former wife, now sliding into Alzheimer’s Disease, but to whose welfare he is devoted. He spent time arguing with their daughter about her mother’s need for institutionalization. He was brooding about  his son who was living somewhere far away doing something he could not talk about. Then there was the young neighbor, blonde, buxom, and stupid, always needing his help with something. In January this fuzzbrain had gone back to school and he began tutoring her in law enforcement — four or five nights a week and sometimes on Sunday afternoons.

That left only Fridays for her, when they had their weekly briefing over dinner. In her ample spare time her mind wandered back to her hostess in London, Alison, and Alison’s lively brother and sister-in-law in Oxford. She thought about the charms of the young Oxford mathematician, Hanny Hinton, who had encouraged and aided her investigations. England was a civilized place. Perhaps the rest of Great Britain was as interesting. Why not start to find out?

 As for her son Robin, she did not tell him the whole story. He was caught up in the excitement of decorating a nursery for the new baby, due in three months. She just said she was going on a brief holiday to Scotland “to join a friend with Scots heritage,” and gave him the MacLachlan Lodge information, letting him think she is in a tour group. Anita was happy for her. What better mother-in-law could there be than one who is independent?

But now she is wondering: Was this a mistake? Was she so eager to get away from Sam, her only client and (former) steady companion, one now taking her for granted, that she was blinded by Donald’s apparent interest in her? And had she gotten herself out of the frying pan into the fire?

Is Donald a gold-digger?

 

 

___________________

MORE ABOUT “TROUT SNUGGLES”  – Eldersleuth Sophie George is  enticed by a charming acquaintance into accepting his Scots hospitality — only to find her restful vacation  in a castle-like “lodge” on a trout stream challenged by two murders in the first few days.  Fearing her host has had something to do with the crimes, she decides to leave, but finds herself compelled by curiosity to stay nearby. Driven to learn about the complicated relationships among the host, his quietly  institutionalized wife, the young man who is like a son to him, his ghillie, his housekeeper, and his housekeepers daughter — not to mention the ghillie’s very difficult daughter and the very difficult wife’s attending physician —  she has to poke her nose into Scottish inheritance law, and then figure out what is left to give.