MURDER IN THISTLECROSS
Arthur Tucker sat on the floor, slumped sideways, head resting against the sharp edge of the nightstand. His eyes were closed. Blood seeped from a wound above his left ear.
Minutes earlier, in a drunken stupor, he had tried to crawl into bed and missed the mark, hitting his head on the nightstand and causing the deep gash on his scalp.
In a rising panic, he called for help in a voice that, though feeble and confused, somehow remained imperious and harsh.
A person stood in the shadow of the doorway, watching with ambivalence as the lifeblood flowed out of Arthur. The person had every intention of calling for an ambulance, but not until Arthur was good and dead.
It tool longer than the person expected for Arthur to finally take in one last, ragged breath. Blood had stopped spreading beside him and was already starting to congeal. The person watching from the doorway waited another minute or two, then walked over to Arthur, careful to avoid stepping in the blood, and felt his wrist.
No pulse. It was over.
The person went downstairs and called for an ambulance.
"Eilidh, I'm going to need quite a lot of help with this."
I smiled at Annabel, who tended to ask for quite a lot of help with everything, though she was perfectly capable of doing most of it herself. She had a way of making me feel needed, which I loved about her.
"That's what I'm here for," I answered.
"I'll make a list while you run into the village and pick up my package at the dress shop."
My room was at the end of a long stone hallway, punctuated at regular intervals by old iron sconces which had been wired for electricity. I passed Brenda on the way to my room, bustling by with a broom and dustpan. I greeted my eighteen-year-old coworker cheerfully.
"How are you this afternoon, Brenda?"
She scowled. "Ach-y-fi. It's always somethin' around here."
I didn't want to get involved in whatever the problem was this time, so I kept walking. The arched wooden door to my room creaked softly when I pushed it open. Every time I went into my room I was transported back to the first time I had seen it—between the stone floor and the damp stone walls, I was sure I would freeze to death. That was before I noticed the fireplace. And I didn't really have a choice, so I bucked up and told myself—and Aunt Margot—it would be an adventure to live in an ancient castle, updated, of course, with all the modern conveniences.
And I had been right. Living on Annabel's estate, in her magnificent home, for the past two years had indeed been the experience of a lifetime. Not only had I learned all about the job of being the manager of a big estate, but I had made friends and come out of my shell. Since I had come to Wales alone, divorced, and bewildered, I had been forced to mature very quickly.
I was lost after I divorced Callum. Far from feeling free and exhilarated, I sank into a miasma of despair. How was I going to support myself? Where was I going to live? I couldn't stay in Cauld Loch, not with all those people whispering behind my back, or worse, pitying me.
It was my Aunt Margot, Greer and Sylvie's mum, who came to my rescue, who lifted me out of my depression when she convinced me to take a job in the village of Thistlecross, in Wales. Her longtime friend, Annabel Baines, was looking for someone to help manage her estate, Thistlecross Castle. Aunt Margot, with her typical good sense, had realized that Annabel and I had certain things in common that would make us natural friends.
I was hesitant at first, not knowing anything about managing property and employees. My previous jobs in Scotland had been as an antique shop and gallery assistant for my cousin, Sylvie, and her husband, Seamus, and as a clerk in a potter's shop. But Aunt Margot wouldn't take no for an answer, and I'm grateful she insisted that I step out of my comfort zone and into the responsibilities of being Annabel's assistant.
I grabbed my purse from the heavy mahogany armoire in my room and walked back to where Annabel was waiting for me in the siting room, my footsteps echoing through the corridor.
She was sitting at an old desk, its burnished wood shining in the lamplight of the late afternoon. "Let me see," she said, tapping her pencil against the jasmine-scented notepaper. I could smell it even from where I stood. "I've started making a list of what we need to do before everyone arrives tomorrow evening. We're going to be busy."
I smiled, knowing I would be busy and that Annabel would take a more supervisory role. "Do you want to talk about it now, or do you want me to pick up your dress first?" I asked.
"The shop closes at five," Annabel answered, glancing at her wristwatch, "so you'd better go there first and we can talk when you get back."
I hurried outside to the small parking area where we kept the cars. It never ceased to amaze me that I was lucky enough to work in such a magnificent place. The four-story castle, built like a fortress, was made entirely of stone, with a huge turret at each corner, though one of the turrets, crumbling and unused, let to an ancient part of the castle that was decrepit. No one ever ventured into that wing, as it was too treacherous. The blue-gray slates on the many levels of the roof had a matte look to them. They looked wet from this distance.
Most of the rooms on the upper floors of the castle were unused, though there were a few Annabel loved to visit. She made sure those rooms were comfortable and beautifully furnished. Most of the rooms were used only for storage. I had been amazed at the amount of space necessary to store the castle's supply of Christmas décor, as well as the light furniture and bedding which Brenda swapped out at the beginning and end of each summer.
Maneuvering my car past the stone walls of the enclosure, I headed down the mile-long drive, past the rolling hills that made up the "front yard" of the estate, and made a right to take the main road into the village. Thistlecross Castle had been built in the fifteenth century to protect Thistlecross, which was larger at that time. The village was quaint and charming, with stone houses situated side-by-side and colorful wooden signs hanging over the pavement in front of the shops and the local pub. A swollen stream tumbled along behind the homes and shops on the main street.
I parked in front of the ladies' boutique where Annabel bought most of her clothes and made my way inside.
"Hello, Mrs. Carrington," I called.
"Is that you, Eilidh?" came a voice from the back of the shop. "I'll be with you in a moment, dear."
I smiled. Mrs. Carrington was the village grandmother. She always had a kind word for everyone so I didn't mind when she called me "dear."
I browsed through the dresses I couldn't afford while I waited. Mrs. Carrington appeared, struggling with a big box wrapped in pink paper and tied with a pink satin ribbon. "Here's Annabel's dress. Just in time, isn't it?" she said, hefting the box onto the counter. I reached out to help her.
"Yes. Her kids arrive tomorrow evening and I know she's looking forward to wearing this," I answered.
Mrs. Carrington fixed me with a shrewd look. "Do you think this is a good idea?" she asked. Mrs. Carrington wasn't just the village grandmother—she was the village gossip, too, but she always seemed to gossip in the most innocent and pleasant manner. She never seemed petty or mean.
I needed to choose my words carefully when I answered her, or they would be repeated all over the village until they made their way back to Thistlecross Castle and Annabel's ears.
"Annabel is very much looking forward to seeing her boys," I said. "We're hoping everything goes smoothly."
Mrs. Carrington winked at me. She knew I couldn't say more than that. I took up the box and the elderly lady went around the counter to open the front door for me. I stashed the box in the boot of my car and waved to her as I drove off toward the castle.