Of Books and Bagpipes: New Excerpt

Of Books and Bagpipes by Paige Shelton is the 2nd book in the Scottish Bookshop Mystery series (available April 4, 2017).

Delaney Nichols has settled so comfortably into her new life in Edinburgh that she truly feels it’s become more home than her once beloved Kansas. Her job at the Cracked Spine, a bookshop that specializes in rare manuscripts as well as other sundry valuable historical objects, is everything she had dreamed, with her new boss, Edwin MacAlister, entrusting her more and more with bigger jobs. Her latest task includes a trip to Castle Doune, a castle not far out of Edinburgh, to retrieve a hard-to-find edition of an old Scottish comic, an “Oor Wullie,” in a cloak and dagger transaction that Edwin has orchestrated.

While taking in the sights of the distant Highlands from the castle’s ramparts, Delaney is startled when she spots a sandal-clad foot at the other end of the roof. Unfortunately, the foot’s owner is very much dead and, based on the William Wallace costume he’s wearing, perfectly matches the description of the man who was supposed to bring the Oor Wullie. As Delaney rushes to call off some approaching tourists and find the police, she comes across the Oor Wullie, its pages torn and fluttering around a side wall of the castle. Instinct tells her to take the pages and hide them under her jacket. It’s not until she returns to the Cracked Spine that she realizes just how complicated this story is and endeavors to untangle the tricky plot of why someone wanted this man dead, all before getting herself booked for murder.

ONE

A WEEK LATER

“Wow!” I said as I stepped out of the cab and looked over its top toward the castle. “It’s beautiful.”

“Aye, ’tis,” Elias said grudgingly. “We’ve our fair share of these sorts of places around ’ere, I s’pose.”

“We aren’t very far out of Edinburgh. I thought we’d have to go farther to see something like this,” I said.

“No, not far at all.”

“The Edinburgh Castle is stunning, but this one’s different. This one is much more … primitive.” I stepped around the cab and moved next to Elias.

“Aye,” he said after a brief pause.

“What’s wrong?”

“Just wondering where everyone is. This is usually a popular place for the tourists; I’ve driven one or two oot here myself. Not raining and not too cold right now either.” He looked around the small parking lot, empty except for us and his cab. “More on the weekends, I s’pose.” He lifted the cap from his head and then replaced it. His eyes scanned again, this time peering up at the castle and then into the surrounding trees.

I didn’t think it was the lack of other visitors that bothered him. He was uncomfortable about the reason we were there. He and his wife, Aggie, had made their concerns perfectly clear. The empty parking lot and the lack of other visitors bothered him more today than they would have under different circumstances.

“Well, it’s not as cold as it has been, but it’s still pretty cold, and it’s bound to rain sometime soon,” I said too cheerily as I looked up at the dark, cloudy sky and the old castle.

Elias grumbled.

Elias and Aggie had been the perfect landlords as well as a kind and loving surrogate family, but sometimes they were a wee bit overprotective. They hadn’t had children of their own. They’d never gone through the process of watching a child grow and become independent. As a result they sometimes forgot that I was an adult. In fact, I was close to thirty, but to them, I was “their Delaney, their lass from Kansas in America” who’d only come into their lives a few months earlier. Most of the time this was ideal; I welcomed their care and concern, and though I’d made the move across the world to prove to myself that I could be brave and bold, I’d had a few moments when the comfort from parents, even surrogate ones, had been appreciated.

But I still had a job to do. I’d known my boss, Edwin MacAlister, was mysterious and eccentric from the first moment I’d walked into his bookshop, The Cracked Spine, so this newly assigned task hadn’t seemed too strange. But this morning when I told Elias and Aggie the bare bones of the assignment—that I was going to meet someone on the top of the Castle Doune, just outside of Edinburgh, to pick up a comic book for Edwin—they’d first been intrigued, then curious, then wide-eyed with worry. They’d already decided that Elias would take me in his cab long before I could ask him for the ride.

Edwin had asked me to meet someone at the castle who would bring with him an item that Edwin had purchased, or at least acquired in some sort of transaction. Edwin, seemingly on purpose, had avoided sharing more specific details about said transaction. However, I would know the person who was to hand over the item by their clothing. We would share some secret words to confirm that we’d been successful in finding each other, and the hand-off would follow. It was all very cloak-and-dagger but Edwin had assured me I would be completely safe. I suspected he thought the whole notion of clandestine meetings was something I enjoyed. He was correct. I liked the secretive nature of his world. I liked that he’d been slowly letting me in on his many secrets. I thought that this assignment was doled out in the manner that was “just his way.” Elias and Aggie knew Edwin but not as well as I did, so though I was working very hard to look unconcerned for Elias’s sake, I did feel a tiny tug of a smile because Edwin would be pleased with the dark clouds adding to the atmosphere.

My contact atop the roof would be wearing tights and a long tunic with a belt, similar to an outfit I remember wearing when I was in junior high school. He would be dressed as a famous Scottish historical figure who had lived and fought during the thirteenth century, a good three hundred years before kilts became a component of Scottish men’s wardrobes. According to Edwin, back then men, particularly fighting men, wore whatever they had. They were poor, didn’t even wear military garb as they fought for their independence or to defend their property. They were rarely without their longswords though, their wicked and heavy instruments of battle and bloodshed. Edwin made sure to tell me that my contact was not going to bring his sword.

My contact was an actor, a reenactor actually. He spent much of his time near a castle in Stirling, in a clearing next to a nearby William Wallace monument. He acted a role in a playacted battle that, when it was real back in the thirteenth century, had ultimately taken the Stirling Castle away from England and put it back into Scotland’s possession. It had been a big win for the Scottish.

My contact wasn’t the only William Wallace reenactor in Stirling, but I got the impression from Edwin that he took his role and his contribution to teaching Scottish history very seriously. I didn’t quite understand the depth of what was truly behind Edwin’s proud tone of voice, but I knew that the history of William Wallace was particularly meaningful to him and, evidently, the man I was to meet.

Edwin was a man of his country; the history of Scotland was infused into his consciousness and bloodstream.

When I’d once had a conversation with Elias and Aggie about William Wallace, they’d both puffed up a little, their faces becoming stern and serious, their reverence showing, though neither had become quite as emotional as Edwin had.

I moved closer to Elias and hooked his arm with mine as he scowled at the castle. I said, “It’s okay. It’s just a comic book. It’s not worth as much as some of Edwin’s treasures.”

The comic book was a collectors’ item, though it wasn’t like the thin, flimsy comic books I knew from back home. This one was a much more solid book, an annual, a collection of two years’ worth of Oor Wullie comics, a popular strip that has been a part of The Sunday Post in Scotland since 1937. A new annual had been published every other year except during World War II. The annual I was to gather was from 1948, the first one published after the war. It was, apparently, in mint condition and probably worth a few thousand dollars, which was not much when compared to some of Edwin’s other acquisitions and collections.

“Aye, ye’re probably correct,” Elias said. “It’s probably not worth as much as some things. I just dinnae understand why we had tae come oot here tae pick it up. It seems like someone is trying tae hide something. Why not just deliver it tae the bookshop, or mail it, special messenger even?”

“That wouldn’t be nearly as much fun.”

Though mysterious and eclectic, my boss was also a caring man. He and Elias were a lot alike when it came to what my grandmother called the meat and potatoes of a person, even if they had come from completely different places. Edwin had been born into and raised around money. Elias had come from no money—less than no money according to some stories that Aggie had shared with me. Both of them were good men, all the way to their cores, kind people who cared for and put others first. They were much more alike than different and they both saw that. A friendship had formed.

As caring and kind as they were, though, they both had their fair share of secrets and they knew how to keep things lively and interesting, like with adventures such as this one. My time in Scotland hadn’t been boring, and considering the friends I’d made and my vast array of duties at The Cracked Spine, boredom wasn’t in my near future.

“Maybe Edwin thought I’d like the adventure of it all,” I continued. “I do. It’s fun. He probably knew I’d get you to bring me out and thought I’d like to see the castle with you.”

“Meebe,” Elias said.

I laughed, pulled my arm from his, rubbed my gloved hands together, and gathered my coat collar up around my neck. “Come on. Let’s wait inside for the guy in some tights with a comic book. We’re early and we’ll let him find us.”

Surreptitiously, I looked toward the parking lot entrance, but no one else was coming this direction.

“I suppose ye’re right,” Elias said unconvincingly.

It had been drizzling first thing that morning in Edinburgh. Clear blue skies had followed for about ten minutes, and then the clouds had come back, darker and promising more than just a drizzle. Blue skies and shining suns were rare things in Scotland, even more so in late November. My parents had e-mailed me a picture of their farm’s front yard after a recent winter storm. Mom’s green sewing yardstick had been stuck into the snow just off the front porch, illustrating that there were already twelve inches of the white stuff over their patch of Kansas farmland. The highlands of Scotland had snow, but those of us around Edinburgh hadn’t seen any yet. I was told we might not, that it usually didn’t snow much in that part of the country, maybe a couple of inches around December and January. If we didn’t, it would be the first snow-free winter of my life, as well as the darkest one. The sun set around midafternoon this time of year in Scotland. For the most part my internal clock had adjusted, but during the rare moments when I wasn’t busy, afternoon naps had become more tempting than ever.

Castle Doune was located about an hour away from Edinburgh, off the Glasgow Road motorway, and at the end of a short trip down a curvy two-lane road. From the parking lot and the walking path to the castle, it was impossible to know that we were close to a small town—Dunblane, Elias had said—and still close to the motorway. The traffic noise didn’t reach us, and Dunblane was in the other direction, past some rolling hills.

I’d never been on those roads before, and for the first time I had noticed that the road signs were in miles, not kilometers. Elias hadn’t had a good explanation as to why; he’d shrugged and said that’s just the way it was.

As we walked up the path we still didn’t see or hear any other visitors. We were in a hidden pocket of the countryside and I didn’t want Elias to sense I was spooked at all, but I was glad he was with me.

Castle Doune wasn’t like the Edinburgh Castle. There were no ticket booths outside, no tour guides or docents to move us from one spot to the next, no fancy decorations. It was simply what remained of an old stone castle. It was smaller than the castle in Edinburgh, but almost as well preserved. It was made with simple straight lines and corners, intimidating high walls with only a few spots cut for windows and arrow loops, slits that real arrows had been fired through back in the day.

“’Tis a courtyard castle,” Elias said. “Once we’re through that doorway, ye’ll see the courtyard. Up there,” he pointed to the roof, “we’ll be able tae see the countryside and the River Teith.”

“Are those the battlements?” I looked up at the ragged border along the top. Time had given the castle a worn charm and had taken away a few stones that made up the original and onetime straight and even roofline.

“Aye.”

“That’s where we’re supposed to meet him.”

“Aye.”

“We’ll be careful,” I said with a reassuring smile. I cupped my hands around my mouth and yelled upward, “Hello! Anyone there?”

No one answered.

Elias grumbled again.

As he had said it would, the doorway we went through led us directly into a courtyard, an open square-shaped patch of land enclosed by more castle walls. A tall stairway was attached to the courtyard wall to our right and would take us up to the living spaces.

“I’ll lead the way. Stick close tae me,” Elias said.

I was still prone to moments of awe because of the authenticity of Scotland. We were at the edge of a courtyard of an old castle that had been built a long time ago; a place where real people had lived and fought and died. It wasn’t some ride at an amusement park or a place to simulate a bygone experience. I’d spent many a moment in Scotland simply soaking in the atmosphere, letting my crazy imagination move back in time and run amok.

“Lass?” Elias said from the top of the stairway. “Close tae me.”

“Oh. Sorry.”

I hurried up the stairs and followed him inside the living quarters.

“Shall we go directly up tae the battlements?” he said.

“We’re early,” I said again as I looked at my watch. “I bet it will be even colder on the roof. How do we get up there?”

Elias pointed to a narrow opening where I spotted part of a circular stairway. The walls around the steps were tight and claustrophobic. We’d only want to go up once.

“Give me a quick tour down here and then we’ll go,” I said.

We still hadn’t come upon other visitors, but Elias wasn’t in much of a mood to play tour guide. We moved very quickly, and I didn’t ask the questions I wanted to ask about the Great Hall, the large kitchen, and the other rooms that made up the living spaces. I made mental notes for later.

A long worn wooden table with thick round legs had been placed in the Great Hall, but there was no other furniture on the faded stone floors, no throw rugs, no tapestries on the walls. I sensed the history and was strangely, briefly, and unreasonably saddened that it was no longer anyone’s home.

Living inside old castles wouldn’t make much sense. Stone walls and floors, no insulation, no modern heating or cooling systems, no plumbing, at least in the sense we twenty-first-century folks were accustomed to. They were not designed for modern comfort. Still, castles had once been homes, places that were fought fiercely for.

I hadn’t yet encountered my first Scottish ghost, at least one that I was sure of. I’d had unusual moments that included breathy tickles on the back of my neck or a flash of something out of the corner of my eye. I’d had similar moments back in Kansas but here, in Scotland, those moments had seemed somehow stretched longer, both more solid and more made of vapor too. Real but fleeting.

As I stood still and let myself just “be” in the kitchen with its gaping wide stone fireplace, as tall as me and still darkened with soot, I wished for a spectral visit.

Unfortunately, Elias wasn’t on the same page. My moment of silence wasn’t given a full moment.

“Lass, are ye awright?” He stepped next to me and looked at the fireplace like he was missing something.

“Fine. I was hoping to sense a ghost.”

“Aye,” he said as he looked around with a one-eyed squint. “No doot there are plenty close by, but they dinnae accept invitations. They’re on their own clocks. Ye need not work so hard tae see one. They’ll find ye when they want tae. Some arenae all that friendly either. There’s no rush.”

“Right.” I looked around one more time.

Elias rubbed his finger under his nose. “Meebe we should go up. We can better see who’s coming from up there anyway. Ye will let me lead the way.”

“Sure.”

There must have been a good reason for having a cramped, circular stairway, hidden from the living spaces and behind a wall. It probably had something to do with heating and cooling, or perhaps efficient use of space. The stairs were just means and modes to get from one floor to the next, but they hadn’t been an integral part of the cosmetic design.

“Elias, what’s with the tight fit?” I asked as we continued moving spirally upward, on a trek that was taking much longer than I would have predicted.

“Och, dinnae ken, lass. If I think aboot it though, it might have been a way tae keep close track of who’s coming in and going oot. Scots are suspicious folks. Back then even more so. If ye didnae have a moat to deter yer enemies, at least ye could watch the stairs and trap someone ye didnae want inside, kill them dead before they caused any harm.”

“Of course,” I said. “I should have thought of that.”

By the time we made it to the roof I was breathing like I’d just done a few hundred-yard wind sprints, and the cold wind was even colder. I would not have made a good fighter—even the stairs would have made me want to surrender.

“Oh, it is beautiful though,” I said as we stepped next to the edge.

We weren’t in the highlands, but the nearby view was made of rolling hills, less green and lush in their winter states, but still appealing. Large estates dotted the countryside here and there. Edwin lived in a country estate—though it was more like a castle than an estate—and his was like these; fairly new, big, and built with modern amenities inside, old-world charm on the outside.

A wide river snaked around the hills, homes, and trees. The highlands, topped with snow, beckoned from far off in the distance. Perhaps my ghost waited for me there. I hadn’t yet had time to see and experience that part of Scotland, but I wanted to. As I looked at the faraway mountain range, the desire to visit the highlands deepened. They called to me. I was going to have to make the trip a priority.

“Aye,” Elias said, his breathing similar to mine, as he rested his arms on the stone facing. “’Tis beautiful. They could see their enemies coming at them. ’Tis why all the castles are built up on hills.”

I’d known that, but I nodded and made an agreeable sound.

My eyes moved to the parking lot. The cab was still the only vehicle there.

“I’m beginning to wonder about the tourists too.”

Elias shrugged. “Aye. Weel, ebb and flow, I guess. No guided tours, but I ken that tour vans stop here. We must be in between groups.”

I cleared my throat and stepped back from the ledge. I turned in a slow circle so I could take in the entire 360-degree view, but I only got about 100 degrees around.

We were on one end of the roof, but it wasn’t all flat. There was a bricked peak that ran down the middle of the space, followed by more open space. I thought I spotted something on the ground on the other end of the peak.

“Is that a sandal? A sandal on a foot?” I said as I pushed past Elias and moved quickly in between the peak and the battlements. It wasn’t an overly tight space and there was no concern that I’d go over the edge, but I leaned inward anyway.

The angle at which I saw what I thought was a foot made me think that someone was flat on their back over there.

Unfortunately, my eyes hadn’t been playing tricks on me. The foot was attached to a person—a man’s body extended backward down a short flight of stairs, his head at the bottom, his sandaled and tights-clad feet at the top. Two things became immediately clear: the man was dead, and he was surely my contact.

“No! It’s him! The man I was supposed to meet!” I yelled, and stomped my foot. I threw my hands up to my mouth and looked at Elias with wide, confused eyes. I became frozen in a surreal sense of unreality. Something in me wanted to scream, something else wanted to run. Part of me wanted to faint.

Involuntarily, I doubled over and started to breathe even more loudly, quickly, and noisily than just after the trip up the stairs.

Gently, Elias moved me away from the scene, guiding me to sit down at a spot away from the body and back from the battlement wall. He said things, but I didn’t register the words. Oddly, the only things I could focus on were those faraway snowcapped mountains. I’d sensed that I needed to go to them.

Now, I wished I was already there.

 

Copyright © 2017 Paige Shelton.

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Paige Shelton had a nomadic childhood as her father’s job as a football coach took the family to seven different towns before she was even twelve years old. After college at Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa, she moved to Salt Lake City where she thought she’d only stay a few years, but she fell in love with the mountains and a great guy who became her husband. After a couple of decades in Utah, she and her family recently moved to Arizona. She is the author of Of Books and Bagpipes.

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