North out of Glasgow, urban sprawl and railroad yards gave way to glowering, shadowed mountain peaks. Exhausted with the overnight train ride from London, the young man's crewcut head nodded against the window, his mouth falling slightly open, as the woman read her detective novel, the story of a young couple murdered while on vacation. Her eyes blinked sleepily.
And then suddenly she sat bolt upright. Thick fingers wrapped about her neck, trying to crumple her windpipe. She screamed as she stared into bulging, red eyes.
"Why don't you scum stay home? Don't you know what you are?" The strangler's breath was foul with garlic. Gasping for air, Sylvia raised fluttering hands, trying to jerk free of the powerful fingers. Then suddenly her husband was there. He hurled himself forward, sending the stranger bowling backwards into the aisle of the otherwise-deserted railcar. As the wife struggled to scream, the intruder reached inside his Rangers jacket and produced a straight razor.
"David!" But before the words escaped, the husband, blocked the intruder's blow with a muscular forearm just as the conductor and a police officer rushed down the aisles. They pinioned the arms of the panting stranger as the woman stared in horror.
"I'm sorry. We beg your pardon, ma'am," the conductor explained crisply as the police officer helped David staunch the bleeding on his forearm. The stranger was on a mission, a skin head who hated foreigners on Scottish soil, particularly if they had darker complexions like Sylvia.
"But, there's nothing to fear now, ma'am. Assuredly this wretch is not representative of our hospitality. He'll soon enough be under lock and key."
"Jesus, I hope so," David said, comforting his new wife who was still trembling.
"Oh God, David, are you all right?" Sylvia said, massaging her throat as the intruder was dragged off in handcuffs.
"Nasty little bastard, wasn't he?" David replied. "Hey, I'm fine. But what about you? Still want to be here?"
Sylvia smiled uncertainly. "Of course, I want to be here. It was just so frightening. So random. I feel so vulnerable."
David laughed his hearty linebacker's laugh. "Yeah, they didn't mention right wing crazies in the guide books. But, look, Syl, it was a one in a million. Nothing to worry about now. C'mon, put your head on my shoulder and relax." With that he patted his wife, feeling the tension escape from her with a long sigh.
Meanwhile the train rattled on. Above the solemn mountain face an unsettled sky loomed, bursts of blue suddenly dissolving into sullen storms clouds. The woman closed her eyes and tried not to think of the madman, but rather how nice it would be when they reached the school, and she and David could begin their new lives as teachers in a remote part of Scotland. David would handle the gym classes and teach the boys American football, and she would have a wonderful group of enthusiastic sixth graders.
Letting her head fall back, she studied her husband's face. His thick blond hair was cropped athletically short, and his features were clean-cut and perfect if not for his somewhat thick, impulsive lips that seemed to deny the innocence of the rest of his face. She was so glad he'd indulged her fancy to teach on foreign soil even if he thought it was a dubious idea. Her eyes finally closed.
She awakened to David's lips lightly brushing her face. "You've been asleep over an hour, Sylvia.We're nearly there."
"Is that the ocean over there?" She pointed to a black scar that lay far below them beyond a skein of twisting track.
"That's it. That's the bay at Oban."
"Oh David, I'm so excited to be in Scotland despite that awful little man." She took her husband's muscular hand and felt reassured.
He ran his fingers through her hair. "Hey, I'm excited about Scotland, too -- rugby, bagpipes, straight razors."
"David, don't joke about that incident! It was frightening."
"Hey, who got the slashed forearm?"
"I know. I'm sorry."
They kissed as the train halted in the rain beside the tiny station at Oban. Grabbing their bags, they stepped down onto the platform and trudged into the enchanted-looking village, the rain-soaked main street of which curved gracefully along the bay.
Sylvia hesitated at the station exit.
"C'mon, kid, under the umbrella, " David said. We've got a long walk."
"Do you remember the address?" Sylvia huddled close against the rain.
David fished a damp card out of his wallet.
"31 Upper Crump Road. Miles Pendley Ph.D., Prefect. Should we hail a cab?"
"You know we can't afford it, David. It won't hurt us to walk, but let's get some coffee first."
They found a little restaurant in the first block, a cheerful place with checkered blue curtains. A tidy, little waitress with glowing cheeks took their order. Sylvia looked around, playing her favorite game, surmising information from strangers' non-verbal cues. Her eyes fell on a tall, horsey-faced man with shoulder-length red hair seated at the counter. He wore a rumpled, ill-fitting hounds-tooth suit, an ear-stud in each ear, and his fingernails glowed an electric green.
Sylvia nudged David, "What would you say that one does?"
"Prime minister? No let's see he's a Nazi recruiting sergeant."
"Don't joke about that! Oh, David look!"
Sylvia pointed to a photograph of a beautiful blonde haired child. "1,000 pound reward for clues leading to the apprehension of this child's murderer."
"Isn't that sick, David?" Sylvia said.
He touched her hand. "Yeah it's rough. I guess Scotland is part of the real world, huh?"
A few minutes later they were exiting the restaurant in driving rain and wind, when a red Escort came roaring around the corner, showering them with gutter spray.
"Watch it, dammit!" David shouted as Sylvia recognized the horsey-faced driver, who shook his fist.
"These people don't know how to drive," David groused.
Soaked to the bone, a half hour later they knocked on the door of the Thornhill Private Academy. The ancient brick mansion that housed the school lay at the back of a long circular drive that exited Lower Crump Road at the far eastern edge of the town. The school sat a third of the way up a small mountain. When no one answered, they found the front door unlocked. Leaving their wet luggage, they searched for the principal's office. The echoing halls were dimly lit by a single bulb at the far end.
"Yoo hoo, Doctor Pendley," Sylvia called out as their footsteps echoed eerily in the silence.
Then, suddenly, a gaunt figure in a dark suit materialized out of the gloom. The eyes were sunken and hopeless, and to Sylvia's surprise Dr. Pendley was a woman.
"Just barge in, do you? Well you must be the Americans then." Dr. Pendley folded her arms tightly across her narrow chest. Tall and cadaverous, she wore severe low-heeled Oxfords and a suit of dark tweed. Everything about her suggested austerity and the knobby joints of a ball-handled cane. Her long toothy face was crested with iron-gray hair, severely knotted behind in a bun.
"Yes, we're the Johnsons. I'm Sylvia and this is my husband David," Sylvia bubbled.
"It's a pleasure," Dr. Pendley said coldly.
"I'm sorry we look such a mess," Sylvia went on, noting the forlorn look in her new employer's cavernous eye-sockets. "We had to walk up here in the rain, and we got soaked by a crazy driver."
"You should have brought umbrellas," Dr. Pendley scolded.
"We knew that," David said with a little edge in his voice. "Unfortunately ours turned inside out in the wind."
"Oh." Dr. Pendley said, "in that case you'll want some tea." She led them into a high-ceilinged office with no books beyond two gigantic manuals of teaching regulations, a cryptic, blocky sculpture of a hanged man with his tongue dangling, and an unmistakable photo of the horsey-faced man in the hounds-tooth suit.
Sylvia's eyes moved uncertainly between the frightening sculpture and the photo on Dr. Pendley's unpolished desk. "What a strange work of art," she finally said, nudging David.
"Yes, my nephew sculpts; that's his photo." Dr. Pendley handed Sylvia a cup of weak tea minus sugar or cream.
"Now let us get down to business." Dr. Pendley seated herself behind the imposing desk that was raised several feet higher than the uncomfortable chairs where Sylvia and David sat. She explained their teaching assignments for the coming school year, the binding nature of their contracts, and then she paused.
"Sounds like its going to be an exciting year," Sylvia said.
Dr. Pendley sat up rigidly. "There is one other thing. Since we last communicated by E-mail, there has been an unfortunate development here at the school. At the end of the spring term a child was found strangled on the grounds of Thornhill. The police have been very, very intrusive, but as yet no arrests have been made. I feel it is my duty to warn you of the situation."
Looking towards David with alarm, Sylvia said, "Do they have any theories or suspicions, Dr. Pendley?"
"I'm not at liberty to divulge any details of the investigation." Dr. Penley steepled her fingers. "In fact I'd think we'd best drop the subject. Now if you don't mind I have much work to be done, so I will direct you to your accommodation."
Sylvia nervously babbled about the nephew and the murder as she and David climbed the steep path to what Dr. Pendley called the "accommodation." It was a classic stone, two-story shepherd's cottage that lay several hundred yards behind the school along a twisting, beaten-dirt path that led even farther up the hill.
"Oh God, it's beautiful," Sylvia said as they neared their new home.
"Not so fast, kid. Let's find out if the plumbing works," David said.
Idyllic from the outside, the stone house left more to be desired within. Strips of pealing plaster dangled from the walls of the two rooms downstairs; the floors were linoleum; and creaky, rickety steps led to a loft that required stooping in half of each bedroom. One poorly-insulated window both up and down was the sole source of outside light.
"No computer," David said, a little crestfallen.
"Oh, it's cute, Dave."
"Toilet more or less flushes and the sink works; I guess it'll be okay." .
"Oh, David, come on; it's an instant voyage to the 18th Century. It's not like we'll live here forever," Sylvia said. "Look at the glorious view."
Far below sat the faded red bricks of the academy, and then another layer down lay the town, and finally the black scar of the ocean opened across the bay towards Ireland. Sylvia shivered with pleasure, then realizing she was chilled to the bone with the drizzle and the 50ish temperature said, ""I'm going to take a hot bath, David."
"Sorry, Good Looking," David said, "we've got water, not hot water. We'll have to put the kettle on first."
As the kettle sat on the gas stove futilely trying to boil, Sylvia gazed out the window, growing pensive.
"What do you suppose happened to that child that was strangled?" She thought of the man on the train.
"Don't know. Gives me the willies though." David had begun to wash out the cupboards.
"Didn't you think she seemed awfully close-mouthed about it?"
"Yeah, well if you had a nephew like that creep of hers, you'd be too. On the other hand, maybe it's just the way these Scots are. Remember we don't know this country yet."
Sylvia's tone shifted. "David, come over to the window a minute. There's something strange."
She pointed to two men in dark jackets shambling along in the drizzle towards the school at an angle to the house. Hard to estimate their age, it was obvious, however, they were not young, and one of the two limped and clearly was afflicted with a hunched back.
"What do you suppose they're doing walking about in the rain like that?" Sylvia said. "Isn't this private property?"
"Uh, let's see there headed to bagpipe practice," David said. "C'mon, calm down. For all we know they're the custodians of the building or even our teaching colleagues."
Sylvia laughed at herself. "Of course, I'm a little jumpy over what happened on the train and everything."
"I understand," David replied. "But c'mon, your water's ready. A hot bath will make you feel like a new woman."
"And then what will happen?" Sylvia teased.
"We'll see about that when the time comes," David answered. "Uh, you want someone to wash your feet?"
That evening they took the long hike to the village for a pint of beer and were wending their way back up Crump Road in the twilight when the skies suddenly opened up. Soaked to the bone again, they arrived at the cottage 15 minutes later to discover the door unlocked and standing open. David flipped on the first lamp he could run too as the back door of the cottage slammed shut with a bang. Two sets of muddy footprints zigzagged across the linoleum floor. Sylvia and David threw open the back door of the cottage, staring up the dark, purple face of the mountain, but there was not a sign of a human in sight.
"David, this is beginning to get scary," Sylvia said. "We've got to call the police."
"Just one problem. No telephone."
"Then we've got to walk back to town or over to Dr. Pendley's and call from there."
"Another two mile walk in the rain? No way. I'm bushed. Whoever it was probably just looking to steal something and got an unexpected surprise when we popped in."
"I don't know, David; it scares me; I won't be able to sleep." Sylvia twisted her hands together.
"OK, I'm a little wrought up too. We'll just stay up for awhile and make sure they're not coming back. And then tomorrow we're getting the lock on the front door changed."
Sylvia put her arms around her husband and earnestly looked into his blue eyes. "You don't suppose there's some connection to the death of that little girl, do you?"
"C'mon, Worry Wart. That we'll leave to the police."
The constable rode up the hill on his bicycle the next morning. He had a ruddy, doggy face and a reassuring, bristling brown mustache.
"Nothing about the murder, mum. What it was, was tramps most likely. There's been nobody living in the cottage for many a month, and they've probably been spending their nights there. Nothing to worry over I assure you. But you let us know if there's any more trouble."
Sylvia felt so much better after the policeman visited. Life at a private college in Vermont had not prepared her for break-ins and strangulations and train crazies. She was beginning to question whether a year of teaching in Scotland had been such a wonderful idea after all. The reality was David would never have done it had it not been for her urging. She was the romantic, the one who wanted to know new countries and experience things. Her linebacker would have just as soon have been coaching football at some junior high.
It was late in the afternoon of the second day as David, bushed after whitewashing the inner walls of the cottage, lay taking a nap. As he slept, Sylvia, full of curiosity, ventured up to the peak of their small mountain and stared down the other side. A series of craggy boulders and startling purple heather merged with a grassy valley far below where a scattered herd of the whitest sheep she'd ever seen grazed along the green banks of a meandering stream. She just had to get closer.
Full of enthusiasm, she raced from boulder to boulder and was just venturing onto the grassy meadow below when a large white dog suddenly sprang out at her, baring fangs, and growling in a menacing tone.
"Hey, hey, stop!" Sylvia cried retreating a few yards behind a boulder as her heart thumped. The dog stood its ground, an ugly, threatening roar rumbling from the back of its throat. Ears laid back, the mastiff stared angrily.
Then suddenly a scruffy man, hurried up behind the dog. One-armed, red-faced and unshaven, clad in a colorless, woolen shirt, he was carrying a shepherd's staff. Calling off the dog, he looked at Sylvia and spoke in a thick Scots' burr.
"And what do ye think that ye're doing here?" he said.
"I'm the new teacher, I live in the cottage over the hill. I was just out for a walk when I came upon your dog." Sylvia's heart thumped fearfully, and she realized she was speaking as fast as a schoolchild caught in a lie.
"Well, you do know you're trespassing?" The man's eyes seemed to say it was a crime tantamount to murder.
"No, I didn't. I'm sorry."
"Sorry are you, lass? Well this is the property of Laird Angus of Duff, not your damned murthering school people, you see."
Sylvia apologized again as the shepherd held the big dog by its collar. Meanwhile Sylvia hurried back to the cottage and poured out the story.
"Look I'm sorry, Syl, but you're the one who took off on your own." David's eyes were fiery."You can't just wander around any damn place you please in a foreign country. It's not that safe. You know that."
Suddenly he began to laugh. "Anyway, it's a stupid country, isn't it?"
"Oh, you don't like it and think it's funny because I got scared. I guess you think I'm a nervous, little twit then? Think I can't take care of myself?" Sylvia knew she was over-reacting, but it hurt that David wasn't showing any sympathy.
"No, I didn't say that."
"But you meant it."
"No, I didn't mean it. Dammit!"
Before she knew it they were in the middle of their first quarrel. She felt terrible. Scotland! David was right. What a horrible place! She wished they'd never come.
That's when he said, "Well this whole damn trip was your idea in the first place. Bag pipers and mists on the moor --- what nonsense! Hell, I'm going into town and see if they've got a rugby team."
"Well just go then!" Sylvia slammed the door and ran in the bedroom, throwing herself on the bed, her eyes hot with tears.
Before long she was over her pique. David had a right to be aggravated. She didn't have to be such a wimp. Heck, maybe David just went to town to prove that he didn't think she was too frail to cope for herself. Well, by gosh, she could!
She imagined him marching down the hill in the gloaming, his boots making a dark trail along the soggy turf. "OK," she told herself. "I'm not afraid. I'm perfectly safe. I can work on lesson plans."
She sat down at the huge desk. However, David was not back by dark. Meanwhile huge, black clouds began to drift inland from the ocean. Sylvia stood at the window and stared at the trail, hoping to see David coming along. But the sun died in the west, and a sharp rain blew in off the bay. She'd been transfixed at the window for a long time when she suddenly heard scratching sounds in the vicinity of the kitchen.
"Who's there?" she cried out. There was no answer, but the scratching continued. By the dim light of the lone ceiling bulb that faintly illuminated each room, she went to the kitchen to investigate. The scratching emanated from the northwest corner below the kitchen. Strange, she thought, we didn't notice a basement before, but now she saw the distinct outline of a trap door that must obviously lead to the cellar.
Her heart drummed as she worked her fingers into the groove, for in truth the door to the cellar was nothing more than a hole cut in the floor. With some difficulty she managed to swing the trap door up and out. Using a miniature flashlight, she could see rude wooden steps leading under the house. The scratching increased.
"Who's there?" Her voice was reedy as remembered the strangler. The scratching stopped. Sitting on the kitchen floor, she lowered her legs so that her feet touched the topmost step. The circumscribed beam of the flashlight illuminated a dank, unfinished hole that apparently ran the entire breadth of the cottage. Then the scratching erupted again in the darkness.
Lowering herself into the dismal basement, she suddenly saw the source of the scratching. Three blackbirds fussed over some scattered garbage; then behind them she saw a series of green finger-nailed modernistic sculptures of figures in obvious agony, either headless or clutching at their throats as if to ward off a strangler.
Shuddering, Sylvia uttered a low moan just as a sharp banging at the front door startled her.
"David? Is that you? Come quick!" There was no answer. She wrenched herself free of the cellar-way and stumbled to the door with a choking feeling in her throat. She hesitated uncertainly behind the heavy wooden door.
"For God's sake,it's raining out here," a strident voice demanded. "Do open up!" Sylvia dimly recognized the voice of Dr. Pendley.
Relieved, she threw open the door. A blast of whiskey struck Sylvia as she saw her employer, teetering there in a raglan and a soaked rain hat.
"Oh, I'm so sorry. You're soaked. Come in." Sylvia sighed with relief.
Dr. Pendley staggered inside, dripping in her rain gear. Words came slowly from her sad, twisted mouth.
"I wondered if you and that husband of yours were in bed. Isn't that what you Americans live for, sex?"
"Oh no, David, went into town for a drink," Sylvia replied, embarrassed for her new employer, but ignoring the insult. She ushered Dr. Pendley towards one of the two ancient fan-back chairs that constituted the living room furniture.
"Well, now, that's fine. I like a man that drinks," Dr. Pendley said, her tired, bloodshot eyes, staring disapprovingly at the cottage's barren innards.
"I'm afraid I don't have anything to offer you to warm you up," Sylvia said, perching uncomfortably on the edge of the other chair, watching the puddle form under her employer.
" I've had enough anyhow," Dr. Pendley said. To Sylvia she looked like a tall corpse that had somehow come dripping from the grave. "And whose idea was it to come to Scotland anyhow, you or your husband's? No doubt yours. Childish romantic notions of rustic simplicity. Let me tell you, though, my sweet young innocent, Oban has every species of depravity that your America can boast of. Stupid, naive innocents abroad. I suppose you thought you'd bring the gift of your advanced culture with you, eh?"
"No, we thought of our year here as broadening," Sylvia said, registering the subtle rope burns scarring Dr. Pendley's throat.
"Advanced culture?" Dr. Pendley mocked, ignoring Sylvia. "You Americans have no culture. You probably feel you're underpaid here, but in terms of your massive ignorance, you're lucky to be paid at all. Do either you or your husband speak a foreign language? Can you recite a single poem? Can you identify the Battle of Bannockburn?"
"No, I'm afraid not," Sylvia blushed.
"Quod est demonstrandum," Dr. Pendley said. "The two of you will be lucky if you know more than your students."
"Does it always rain like this in Oban?" Sylvia said, valiantly trying to change the subject.
"I suppose you were shocked by the murder of the little girl, were you not?" Dr. Pendley said, "and revolted by my nephew's sculpting? He lived in this cottage you know?"
Sylvia didn't answer, studying the sallow, craggy lines of her employer's face. She was reminded of nothing so much as an ill-fed, chronically-unhappy horse. Why didn't David come back? She was so uncomfortable with this drunken woman. Then abruptly Dr. Pendley stood up and lurched for the door.
"Let me point out that murder, my dear, is the most human of all experiences. Don't let it frighten you. After all this is the land of Macbeth. You do know Macbeth, I suppose? Just remember to keep your door locked. Must get on with my nightly stroll. So good to have seen you, Mrs. Johnson."
At that Dr. Pendley flung herself out into the rain, lurching forward and disappearing into the blackness on the side of the mountain.
The most human of all experiences? Sylvia shivered. The decision to drag David to Scotland had been a horrible mistake. She'd convince him in the morning that they must resign and bring this whole fiasco to an end. She longed for the suburban predictability of Providence.
It was at that same moment that a wicked bolt of lightning crashed into a sheet of rock on the side of the mountain, a nasty blast of thunder ripped through the rain, and the cottage was plunged in total darkness. Sylvia shivered, feeling dreadfully alone and vulnerable. To the village, she must get to the village and find David! Flinging on a flimsy jacket, she plunged into the rain.
The path had turned into a muddy mess as she careened down the hill under torrents of water bucketing from the sky. Ahead near the school she saw a wan, gray light. Was it Dr. Pendley stumbling about with a flashlight in the storm? Could Dr. Pendley be the murderer of the child? Or was it the perverted nephew? Sylvia had to talk to David! Her heart slamming against her rib cage, she blanched as a wicked flash of lightning momentarily illuminated the devilish sky, and she saw something resembling a ghost wrapped in a sheet, swinging from the ancient oak, far ahead of her in the vicinity of the school.
The ensuing thunder clap was so loud that Sylvia stumbled and pitched forward, muddying her knees in the process. Crying "Shit," she flung herself back to her feet and careened along. Then in the next lightning's flash she saw what it was in the tree, not ten yards off the path. An elongate body was suspended from the lowest limb, a cord knotted about its neck, feet dangling limp and pendulous. At that same instant she recognized Dr. Pendley's scuffed Oxfords and screamed.
Sylvia didn't stop. In a few more terrified strides she had reached the gravel firmness of Upper Crump Road. The village was still plunged in darkness. Frantically she ran in the direction of the railway station, shouting "David! David!"
Then as she passed by an ancient mansion that stood separated from the sidewalk by stone steps she heard the sound of shoes with toe taps pounding the pavement behind her.
Too unnerved to dare look backwards, Sylvia barreled along, her tongue dry in her mouth, her breath rasping fitfully. Someone was following her! It was only as she reached the edge of the Oban business district that the village electricity flickered on momentarily then died again. By the burst of light she caught a glimpse of a tavern's signboard, The Boar's Head. Hearing voices she scrambled that direction, the toe-taps behind pounding in her ears.
Then, suddenly, the lights of the village lurched on with firmness and determination. Desperately Sylvia turned and confronted her pursuer. An ancient hag with a bulging eye threw up her hands in a mysterious Gypsy sign and screamed.
Sylvia gathered herself for action. "One more step and I'll lay you out" she croaked through her terror as the hag suddenly backed off, laughing madly. Heart thumping wildly, Sylvia turned and dashed towards the warm sounds emanating from The Boar's Head tavern. A raucous chorus of drunken male voices sang, "Those were the days my friend, we thought they'd never end..."
With a last burst of energy Sylvia flung herself through the beveled glass door of the tavern to be confronted by the cheery glow of hundred of candles and what must have been 30 beer stein-waving-males roaring happily at the top of their voice.
"David!" she screamed beyond the point of embarrassment. When she regained consciousness, she was on the floor of the Boar's Head, surrounded by a sea of concerned male faces. David was kneeling over her holding her hand. Sylvia didn't know where to begin; she was so full of relief and frustration - the scratching sounds? Dr. Pendley's visit and her body swinging from the oak? the witch in toe-taps chasing Sylvia through the storm? Finally it all tumbled out in a confused mixture with David stroking her hand while the constable's ruddy, doggy face beamed with satisfaction.
"Och," the police inspector finally said in a reassuring tone. "We'll be cutting Dr. Pendley down in the morning. Comes as no surprise you know. The woman's tried it many a time before. Chronically depressed that one is. How she kept on with her work I do not know."
Then David's fingers traced Sylvia's forehead, and he apologized for what an ass he'd been, but he was obviously bursting with some news that he had to convey.
Still distraught, Sylvia was not so imperceptive that she couldn't sense David's excitement. There was something he had to tell her.
"You'll never guess why we were celebrating, Sylvia. They arrested the little girl's strangler this afternoon. Dr. Pendley's nephew, the sculptor. Long record as a child molester, but they finally broke his alibi. Several DNA and fingerprint matches. I just got swept along with the celebration."
"Oh David," Sylvia sighed, feeling faint as she squeezed her husband's hand. "Let's go back to Vermont and the simple life. Right away. Promise me, please?"
"Oh, c'mon, Sylvia," David grinned, "you got to be kidding. Vermont is dullsville next to this town, kid. Let's stick around; I think I'm finally beginning to see the charm of noble, old Scotland. Besides I found out the local ruggers have been looking around for a good, fast American fullback."