A Good Scot is Hard to Find
“I’m no’ certain I should let ye go in there, Vi.” Aila Marshall pulled her car to a stop in front of a tidy cottage of white-washed stucco and shot her companion a skeptical grimace. “I promised Brontë I’d keep ye out of trouble.”
“What kind of trouble can I get into at a wake?” Violet’s unusual blueish-lavender eyes twinkled with humor.
“A wake? With that racket? Until I see a body, I’m going to assume we’re going to a rave.”
Saying such a thing in reference to an eighty-plus-year-old lady might seem odd, but if living with Vi had taught Aila anything, it was that Violet Graham might act the frail, elderly grandmother, but she didn’t fool Aila. She was more trouble than a recalcitrant teenager.
Aila would know — she’d been one of the worst.
“My goodness, you’re a sassy thing.”
“We work to our strengths.” Aila shrugged philosophically then focused once more on the house that emanated shouts and thumps loud enough to be heard down the street.
Every house — moreover, every building in the village of Inveraray — was a tidy one. On a spring afternoon with the sun shining and flowers blooming, it was like something from a fairy tale. The main avenue followed along the bank of Loch Fyne in western Scotland. It was lined on both sides with white-washed brick, stone, or stucco buildings. Some had two stories, some three. Some were adorned with dormers, others had unsullied rooflines punctuated by a chimney at each end. But for a few notable exceptions, every single building in town was white with a black roof and black painted doors and window frames.
It provided for a soothing aesthetic though an unfortunate standard for those inclined to express any individuality. Pretty as it was, Aila would hate living here. Restriction of any sort had always chafed.
She’d wager Violet would feel the same. That’s why they got along so well.
Their camaraderie was the reason Aila accepted her friend Brontë’s invitation to move in with her grandmother and keep Vi from getting lonely while Brontë “travelled” with her new boyfriend. She’d also promised to take care of her. That meant more than helping Vi out of the car and holding her arm as she shuffled along the wobbly cobbles with her cane.
This cottage sat a few short streets from the main avenue, yet practically on the outskirts of the small town. As it conformed to the village’s standard, it was therefore virtually indistinguishable from the others around it.
Except for the ruckus coming from within.
Enough of a ruckus for Aila to be hesitant about going inside. “Are ye certain this is the place?”
“I am. Though, I’d rather it were a rave.” A hint of melancholy chased away the light in the older woman’s eyes. “I’ve been coming to these bloody things too often of late. That’s the problem with having reached my age. My friends are dropping like flies. Bessie Boyce was one of the best.”
“Dinnae fash, Vi, ye’ll go on forever,” Aila offered.
“Why would I want to? Enjoy those around you while you have them, dear. You never know when you’ll end up alone.” Violet clucked her tongue. “Heavens, listen to me. Poor you, carting an old woman around when you should be having fun with your friends or finding a nice young man to spend your time with.”
“Ye are my friend, Vi,” Aila assured her. “Besides, there’s no’ a man in this century worth the effort as far as I’ve seen.”
“You’re not dead yet, dear.”
“Neither are you.”
Violet’s mood had wavered between extremes during their two-hour drive from Leith outside of Edinburgh to Inveraray. The loss of her friend had hit Violet hard. All of the condolences in the world hadn’t help. Even so, Aila couldn’t refrain from offering a sympathetic pat of the older woman’s hand. Violet turned her hand and caught Aila’s, giving it an affectionate squeeze.
Violet tapped her cane against the plastic boot cast encasing her right foot. “They better at least have booze at this thing.”
That was more like the Violet she knew. Aila smiled. “Somehow I dinnae think ye need worry about that. If there’s no’, I noticed a couple of whisky shops in town.”
A notable feature in a village of only about five hundred souls. And a good thing if what they heard out here was any hint of the atmosphere inside the cottage. She’d need a glass or two of something strong herself.
“You’re a kind and generous soul, my dear.” Violet grinned with a wink. “My granddaughter would have suggested wine if she were here. As if that would suffice. Thank goodness I have you to keep me in good company while she’s away.”
Aila rolled her eyes as Violet patted her cheek. “I’m here because ye promised me food and drink, Vi. Fresh-caught salmon and a hundred whiskies to choose from, if I recall correctly. That’s all the incentive I need. At any rate, I could hardly let ye go off on yer own, could I?”
“A kind way of reminding me that I’m incapable of doing so?” Violet knocked a stray stone out of her path with the tip of her cane. “Can’t wait to get this last contraption off my foot. Then life can finally return to normal.”
Only a broken foot and ankle from a fall down the stairs had slowed Violet down — if what she’d seen in the past two months could be considered slow. Vi had more of a social life than Aila ever dreamed of having. She cringed at the thought of what would come in the months ahead when Violet was freed from her final shackle. Thus far in their acquaintance, she’d learned that book clubs didn’t seem to involve books or reading and that a senior dance class could be called something else entirely when the seniors weren’t the ones doing the dancing, but rather watching men do it…half naked…on stages and in bars.
Having the bobbies call her to pick up a gaggle of octogenarians for disorderly behavior had been the highlight of Aila’s year. On one hand, she could only hope she had such excitement in her life when she was that age. On the other, she cringed at what Vi’s “normal” would entail.
Keeping her out of trouble had become a full-time job.
More unintelligible shouts punctuated by vividly recognizable profanities rang from within the walls of the “wake.”
“No’ a rave, eh?” Aila murmured under her breath. “Sounds like a party to me.”
As if to prove the point, amid more yelling a window broke and spewed glass onto the walk at their feet. A pewter tankard rattled to a stop a few feet away.
“Hmm,” was Violet’s only reaction.
“I cannot believe they’d go at it already,” the old woman muttered in disgust. “Bessie’s hardly got both feet in the grave! Why, she’s not even capable of rolling over in it yet!”
“Go at what?” Aila asked, her curiosity roused another notch.
“Bessie would never let any of her greedy clansmen rip up her floorboards while she was alive,” Violet said as if that explained everything. “Her father and grandmother before her were the same way. Her family’s been in that house for more than two hundred years. Poor Bessie with no bairn left to protect the place now that she’s gone. Those who’ve been itching for a chance to find it cannot even wait until her body is cold.”
Violet cast her an impatient glance. “The treasure. Haven’t you been listening, dear?”
“Aye, to a lot a rubbish,” Aila shot back. “What sort of treasure? And why would anyone be daft enough to assume it’s still there two centuries later?”
“Clever lass.” Violet nodded her approval. “Thinking with a logical mind rather than a greedy heart. Why would it still be there, indeed.”
More shouting and the cottage seemed to shudder from the force of whatever caused the thud that sent the birds in nearby trees into flight. This mythical treasure really must be something to justify anyone getting so worked up over it. Prying up floorboards? Really?
“For argument’s sake, what kind of treasure are we talking about?”
The older woman shrugged. “Bessie never knew, though she felt certain someone would have found it by now if it were in her home. That’s why she was adamant no one search for it. According to her family lore, there had been something. Something priceless, she said. A gift given to her ancestor by the Duke of Argyll himself.”
“The same duke whose descendants live in that castle outside of town?” Aila clarified.
While her travel companion had visited the village and her old friend dozens of times, Aila had never set foot in this region of her native land. A lass from the Orkneys didn’t have much reason to frequent wee towns in the middle of nowhere. To rectify that, Violet planned for them to tour Inveraray Castle following the wake and to spend the night in one of the local inns rather than drive back to Leith that night.
“The very same.” Violet nodded. “A reward of some sort after the ninth Earl of Argyll was granted the title of the first duke.”
“A reward for what?”
“It’s been three hundred years. Who knows?”
They both looked at the cottage, quiet for the moment.
“A smart ancestor would have melted down whatever the duke gave them and spent it long ago,” Aila surmised.
“As I said, you’re a clever lass.”
“If they didn’t, though….” Aila lifted her shoulder and let it drop with a grin. “It would make for one undeniably wicked tease to their future generations.”
“That it would,” Violet agreed with a smile.
The melee inside kicked into high gear once more with a string of expressive profanity that made even Aila, no stranger to vulgarity — mostly from her own lips — cringe.
Violet merely shook her head. “I think I’ll be needing that drink, after all. Would you mind fetching a bottle of something enticing enough to bring everyone involved in this nonsense to heel?”
“Are ye certain ye’ll be alright on yer own?”
“Certainly. I’ll establish order and be ready to toast an armistice by the time you return.”
The shops were only a few streets away, Aila reasoned. On her own, it wouldn’t take long. Nodding her assent, she turned and jogged up the street.
“Go to that wee shop down at the far end,” Violet called. “They’ll know what’s best for a situation like this.”
A Fyne Auld Whisky Shoppe. Aila appreciated the play on words as she pushed open the door. A tinkle of a bell roused a massive black German shepherd lying in a shaft of sunlight near the shop windows. He lifted his head and she stopped at the sight, more from surprise than wariness of the dog’s size.
“Dinnae mind Rab,” a deep, heavy brogue spoke from the far side of the shop. “He willnae harm ye.”
“I wouldnae think so.” She dropped down on her haunches as the dog hefted himself to a sitting position, their eyes now on the same level, his dark brown and somber as he considered her almost thoughtfully. Scratching the underside of his jaw, she offered a smile and cooed softly, “Ye’re no’ a fighter, are ye lad?”
Thump, thump. His tail knocked against the wooden floor twice in agreement, his mouth opening far enough to let his tongue loll in appreciation.
“He likes ye, lass.”
“Dogs always ken who likes them.” Aila loved them really, despite the fact she’d never had one of her own. With a regretful sigh, she gave Rab one last scratch. “Wish I had time to play,” she whispered for his ears only. “But I cannae leave Vi alone too long. Who kens what mischief she’ll get into, aye?”
Climbing to her feet, she absently stroked the dog’s head as she looked over the whisky bottles and branded boxes displayed on rows of shelving six high behind the long wooden counter. The light from the windows reflected off those closest to her. The rest of the shop, however, was dimly lit leaving those farther on cast in shadows. More were arranged in glass cases around the two remaining walls and on tables set in front of the windows. There had to be hundreds of them.
“Can I offer ye any assistance, lass?”
She scanned the shelves, doubtful that choosing one by merit of the prettiest bottle or label would be her best option. Whisky wasn’t wine. “Aye, what do ye have that’s good for making peace?”
A rough chuckle echoed through the space. “Bessie’s kin clamoring for the treasure already, are they?”
With a blink of surprise, she tore her eyes from the infinite stock of scotch and peered toward the far end of the counter. An old man sat on a stool behind the worktop, one elbow propped on the scratched surface and the other holding a small tasting glass with a fair amount of amber liquid in the bottom. A gray wool flat cap covered the top of his head, leaving his ruddy ears free to stand out. His cheeks were rosy as well. Too much drink? Then what could one expect of someone surrounded by whisky all day? He looked like he could have been sitting there, just like that, for the past century or more.
He also looked somewhat familiar, though Aila couldn’t immediately place him. Odd, her memory rarely failed her.
“They are,” she responded. “My friend asked that I come here and find something to soothe the greedy beasties, as it were.”
“It’ll take something exceptional to calm that bunch down.” He slid off his stool and paced the length of the counter with a thoughtful frown that further creased his wrinkled face as he perused his inventory. “How is Vi doing? Foot still giving her trouble?”
“She’s…” She paused with a frown of her own. “How did ye…?”
“Ken that Violet Graham was the one who sent ye?” the shopkeeper finished for her with an impish smile. “Who else would think to combat the dregs of the Clan Boyce wi’ a bottle of Islay’s finest?”
Her brow rose, not quite believing his excuse. He waved away her skepticism and continued his evaluation. “Nay, no’ that one.” Bypassing another row, he reached for a bottle only to draw back with a firm shake of his head. “Nay, that willnae do a’tall.”
“Wheesht, lass. I’m thinking.”
He continued to mutter to himself as he moved on. Aila glanced down at the shepherd who’d taken up position by her side. “Is he always like this?” The dog’s head tilted to the side with a gurgling half-growl. “Aye, I thought so.” She turned back to the merchant. “Listen, I need to—”
“Aha! I’ve got it!” The old man snatched a bottle off one of the shelves and held it high in triumph. “Perfect for mollifying frayed tempers and mending family squabbles. Also known to allow hard truths to sink in more palatably.”
“Truths? Such as the harsh reality that there is, in fact, nae treasure to be found?” Aila eyed the bottle doubtfully. She’d never been one for miracles. Or fairy tales, for that matter.
“Ye think it isnae real, lass?” He swung the bottle away as she reached for it.
“Folklore rarely is.”
He chucked his tongue with obvious disapproval. “Ye dinnae believe in the fey folk then? The kelpies?”
“The Fairy Flag?”
She shook her head. “I dinnae even believe that Molly Whuppie managed to sew the giant’s wife up in a sack.”
For all his outward expression of horror, mischief danced in the old man’s pale blue eyes. “Kate Crackernuts?”
A fable written in her home region of the Orkneys by chance. “Distracting fairy babies by rolling nuts?” she answered with a dismissive sniff. “What does that even mean?”
“The blue men of Minch?”
“Pure rubbish.” She flicked her wrist.
His lips twitched. “Auld Nessie then?”
She arched a wordless brow and was hard put to maintain her playful hauteur as he tapped his cheek in search of another option.
With a snap of his fingers, he pointed at her, eyes alight. “How about falling through cairn stones to travel through time?”
“Now ye’re truly talking nonsense,” she shot back with an exaggerated eye roll.
“Nothing but drivel.”
The old man nodded slowly, his expression now solemn. His gaze intent on her. “Because of course we all ken that’s no’ how one travels through time, aye?”
The fun and games fell away and Aila stared, dumbfounded. His words were no offhand, jesting observation. They were a lure. A tease. An indication that he knew. Truly knew knew. Everything. Every secret. Every truth. How?
“I’m no’ cer —”
He waved her words away and held out the bottle of whisky once more. “Dalmore King Alexander III. Single malt, rich and fruity wi’ a peppery finish. Well-rounded enough to satisfy even the most temperamental palate. Named after a Scottish king best known for a treaty of peace. The perfect choice to solve yer problem.” He withdrew his offering a fraction and presented his other hand, closed in a fist. “Or better still, how about we keep the problem in the past where it belongs and ye take this to solve the mystery at its origins?”
With those cryptic words, he opened his fingers one by one to reveal a flat oval object of smooth white ceramic. A dull buzzing crowded Aila’s mind, pressure building until she thought her head would burst. The phrase mind blowing became something more clearly defined in that moment.
The fragments of the mental explosion contracted with a snap leaving her mind crystal clear and her memory of where she’d seen this man before fully restored.
“Aye, lass.” His enigmatic smile was back. “’Bout time ye remembered.”
“Inveraray is a long way from Edinburgh,” she retorted.
Yet, Edinburgh’s Royal Lyceum Theatre had been where she’d first met the man so many referred to as Auld Donell. Not that she’d had much direct contact with him in her position as a makeup artist. He’d been acting as the stage manager of a traveling production of Cyrano de Bergerac that passed through her workplace the previous year.
What was he doing here now acting as the owner of this wee whisky store? Acting being the key word there, she thought.
Because she knew this man was no more a mere whisky shop owner than he was a theater stage manager. What he was exactly, she wasn’t quite sure, but she did know that he had more mischief up one sleeve than Violet could manage with her entire wardrobe. He’d proven himself to be a master manipulator, a man with a plan, as it were. One unafraid to lure in unsuspecting participants into his schemes, though he’d been — purposefully, she suspected — vague on the exact details of that plan.
While her path had rarely crossed with Donell’s, his had with Brontë’s — Aila’s closest friend and Violet’s granddaughter — with astonishing effect. Brontë had been inadvertently given an object precisely like the one the old man offered Aila now. A time travel device. A time machine, to be more precise. Her friend had spent months stumbling around in the past, saving lives only to lose them again. Back and forth she’d gone, trying to change the history books to suit her purpose.
Her friend had later discovered that Auld Donell had a firm hand in steering Brontë about. Aila would have been bloody well pissed being toyed with like that. Brontë might have as well.
If she hadn’t wound up with a deliciously scrumptious Edwardian lover as a result.
Now Brontë was in love, planning a wedding, and living two lives with her true love. One in her time and one in his. While the pair seemed to enjoy their tumultuous life, the thought of such chaos entering hers when she’d only just settled into the eye of her own personal hurricane gave Aila a chill.
“Och, ye can get that thing away from me, auld mon.” She held up her hands with a firm shake of her head. “I want nothing to do with any of that. I’ll no’ be another puppet for ye to jerk about.”
“Puppet? Nay.” Donell clicked his tongue mournfully. “’Tis adventure I offer, and since when are ye no’ up to adventure, Aila Marshall? Ye’ve spent yer entire life grasping life by the horns.”
“Aye, and look where that’s gotten me,” she retorted without addressing how he knew anything about her. She’d learned enough from Brontë’s tales that the old man had a way of knowing more than he ought. No doubt, nothing in her twenty-seven years of life was a mystery to him. “Homeless and alone.”
“Aye, naught to keep ye from a noble quest a’tall,” he agreed. “Though I would argue that ye are neither homeless nor alone. Ye’ve got friends enough to envy and a home at the heart of them.”
A pang of love clenched at Aila’s chest at the truth of his statement. She slid onto one of the wooden barstools on her side of the long counter with a sigh. Rab settled himself, draped over her feet with a similar exhalation. His warm, heavy body pressed up against her shins, his presence comforting where Donell’s was disturbing. Despite the old man being right.
After a rough breakup with her longtime boyfriend six months earlier, Violet and Brontë had given her a place to live under the pretense of the elderly woman’s need for a caretaker. What they really provided was a home and a family. Support and friendship.
Things Aila had been missing most of her life.
Stability in the midst of a life that — contrary to Donell’s assessment — had been more packed with foolery and failure than adventure.
“Och,” Donell’s scornful dismissal tore through her sentimental thoughts, “I’ll no’ for one minute believe ye content in such passive muck, lass. Ye’ve more spirit in ye than to settle for that.”
“Ye ken nothing about me, auld mon,” she argued, though in truth, she was quite afraid he actually did. Brontë had said he had an almost mystical way of perceiving her thoughts and feelings before she had a chance to express them herself. And in some cases, even experience them.
“I ken ye love a mystery,” he contended. “That ye appreciate a challenge.”
Her boyfriend, Kyle, had been both of those in the beginning. Look where that had gotten her. She was stubborn, too. A trait that had kept her from seeing the truth until it was nearly too late.
“Tenacity isnae a bad thing,” Donell carried on, continuing to follow her thoughts. “In the right instances, it can be a powerful tool. The stubborn can be a force to contend wi’. Why, wi’ curiosity enough and a daring disposition, an obstinate lass could solve a centuries-old mystery.”
“Nice segue,” Aila said dryly. “Pour me something, would ye?”
Five minutes of conversation with him, she needed it.
Donell grunted and turned away to fetch a bottle from its velvet cradle in a polished wooden case at the center of his vast display. The contents sloshed up the inside of the bottle as he sat it before her. She ran a finger down the angular slope of the thick crystal container mentally comparing the shape to a genie’s bottle, pointedly ignoring the time travel device he’d left on the counter as he gathered up a pair of tasting glasses.
“’Tis Lalique,” he said in his thick gruff brogue, popping the notched crystal stopper to fill the glasses with far more than a mere taste. Setting the bottle aside, he lifted his glass. “Slàinte.”
“Slàinte.” Aye, she had health if nothing else. Aila took her glass and sipped the amber libation, enjoying the smooth taste on her tongue and its warm descent down her throat.
“Macallan 72.” His burr thickened with appreciation. “Tastes like the Highlands in autumn, aye?”
She nodded in agreement. It really did. The aroma of peat greeting her nose as she recognized the flavors of green apples, vanilla, raisins, and ginger. “It’s good.”
“It ought to be,” he told her as she lifted the glass to her lips once more. “Only six hundred bottles were made. Cost upwards of a hundred thousand pounds a bottle.”
The whisky caught in her throat until it burned, and her eyes watered as she choked down the swallow. “A hundred bloody thousand pounds?” she coughed out once she could speak. “Why are ye drinking this? Ye should be saving it!”
“Saving it for what, lass?” he asked as he sipped more of his portion. “Whisky is like life. ’Tis no’ to be saved but to be savored. Each sip like a day of yer life, relishing the taste, the smell, the feel. Experiencing it in that moment for all it’s worth because ye never ken when the bottle will run dry or yer days will run out.”
How poignantly poetic. Aila grunted in a pseudo-agreement to his philosophical soliloquy and took another cautious sip of her drink, appreciating it more this time around. “Aye, but on the flip side, ye never ken when life will bite ye in the arse, either.”
Donell nodded. “True, ye never ken what ye’ll get served up wi’ if ye rashly pour out a bottle wi’out reading the label.”
“Life doesn’t come with warning labels unfortunately.”
“On the other hand, for good or bad, ’tis always an adventure to taste the unknown.” He held up his glass, swirling the amber liquid around the sides as light played off its depths. “Once ye’ve had a dram or two, does it no’ leave ye wanting more?”
Rocking her own glass to set the whisky swooshing from side to side, she met his gaze directly once more. “Ye ken, it takes talent to work such circular bullshit all the way around an argument without once addressing the core of what ye want from me.”
He bobbed his chin in gracious acceptance of the backward compliment. “Why thank ye, lass.”
“So, what do ye want from me? Precisely?” Aila pressed when it became clear he wasn’t going to offer the information freely.
“Want? No’ a thing.” He shrugged as if that were obvious. “I merely thought a lass such as ye would enjoy the opportunity to solve the mystery of the treasure’s whereabouts.”
“Me, or any lass who happened to wander by?”
“Ye, of course.”
Again, as if his purpose were clear as day rather than being murkier than Scotland’s deepest bog. And the bogs could get mighty murky here.
“Why no’ look for it yerself?” she pressed warily. “Why me?”
Donell shrugged. “Mayhap I already ken what it is. And would ye no’ like to ken?”
“It would be nae more than a puzzle to work out then?” she clarified. Like reading a mystery novel that had already been written. What could go wrong? Ha, with Donell? A lot. “Nae ancestors to save from desperate assassins? Nae wrongs to be righted or the like?”
“Do I need to have an ulterior motive?”
“I get the impression that ye typically do.”
Donell said nothing more, merely stared at her over the rim of his glass as he finished off the costly libation, his fathomless blue eyes steady on her as if he might hypnotize her into compliance. Finished, he smacked his lips with a nod. “Ye should be on yer way, lass. Vi will be wondering what’s come of ye.”
Aila slid off the stool and squatted down to smooth her fingers over Rab’s head. His brown eyes were adoring. “Ye’re a good lad, Rabbie.” With a tweak of his ear, she stood and went to the door feeling his grumble of disappointment.
“Ye forgot this.”
She turned back to Donell, prepared to have him thrust the time machine into her hands. Instead he held out the bottle of Dalmore he’d selected for Violet. She took it and made her way to the door without further delay. Hand on the knob, she glanced over her shoulder.
“That’s it? Ye’re going to let me leave without argument?”
“I dinnae like to force these things upon anyone, lass,” he said, then added under his breath, “No’ anymore at any rate. Learned my lesson there.” A smile touched his lips again, creasing his forehead into deep horizontal rows. “Moreover, I suspect ye’ll return on yer own soon enough. Once ye get a glimpse of the Clan Boyce in action, ye willnae be able to resist.”
“Will I no’?”
“Curiosity has its own reason for existence,” he answered. “One cannot help but be in awe when he contemplates the mysteries of eternity, of life, of the marvelous structure of reality. It is enough if one tries merely to comprehend a little of this mystery each day.”
“Well, aren’t ye the poet.”
“The words are Albert Einstein’s, no’ my own,” Auld Donell told her. “Fine mon.”
She wondered if he knew from personal experience.
“He was brilliant, aye. Still a dullard when it came at times. Sometimes couldnae see the obvious for the need to see the logic in all things,” he went on. “Sometimes the best things in life are the unexplained.”
“Ye’ll see soon enough.”
“Nay, I willnae!”