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My Very Best Friend, Page 2

Cathy Lamb

  Dr. Jekyll gently bit my hand. I tapped his head. He blinked a few times, then stood and licked my face. Mood disorders have serious effects on personality, even with cats.

  I’m not sure if my female readers like the adventures McKenzie Rae Dean has as she’s popping in and out of different time periods in the past or the fact that they get to live vicariously with her popping in and out of bed with new and luscious men in each book.

  Variety is healthy for the female mind.

  It does not, however, demolish writer’s block.

  That’s a problem.

  At least for me.

  I detest flying. You could correctly call it “pathologically afraid.” I cannot breathe on planes. I know that I am going to die a fiery death as we plunge into the ocean.

  I have studied planes, their engines, and why they stay in the air in depth. My studies took two years. I understand mathematical aerodynamics description, thrust, lift, Newton, and Bernoulli’s principle. I even had three tours at Boeing. I have talked to pilots and engineers and examined blueprints for planes. Yet the sensible part of me knows that the plane will crash at any moment because nothing this large, heavy, and rigid was ever meant to be in the sky.

  This knowledge is in direct contrast to my physics studies. I acknowledge this dichotomy.

  I sat down in my first-class seat. I need room if I fly. I don’t want to be sandwiched next to strangers who will be intruding upon my personal space by body part or by air. I prefer to die within my own confines.

  Inside my carry-on bag I had these things: Travel-sized bottles of Scotch. My list folder. A handkerchief. Travel-sized bottles of whiskey. My own tea bags—chamomile, peppermint, and for my adventurous side, Bengal Tiger. Three journals to write in if my writer’s block dissolves. Pictures of my cats. Travel-sized bottles of tequila. Two books on gravitational physics and evolutionary biology.

  I adjusted my glasses. If we’re going to crash, I want them to be sturdily placed on my nose so I can see our doomed descent. My glasses have brown rims. I affixed clear tape on the left arm, as it’s cracked. I’ve been meaning to go to the eye doctor to get it fixed, but the tape seems to be functioning well. It does make my glasses tilt to the left, though. Not much of a problem, except if one is worried about appearance, which I am not.

  I rechecked the top button on my beige blouse to make sure it was still fastened. I had been able to get most of the blueberry and ketchup stains out of it. If I end up in the ocean, I want to be covered. No need to show my ragged, but sturdy, bra.

  My underwear is always beige or white, and cotton. When there are more than two holes, I throw them out. High risers, you could call them. I like to be properly covered, no tiny, lacy, itchy tidbits for me, even though I put McKenzie Rae, the heroine in all of my time travel romance novels, in tiny lacy tidbits that do not itch her.

  If we crash, I can assure you that my underwear will stand up far better to the fire and flying debris than a tidbit would.

  I situated my brown corduroy skirt and took off my brown, five-year-old sturdy shoes and put on my blue slippers with pink rabbit ears that Bridget sent me. I took out a tiny bottle of Scotch, as my hands were already shaking.

  My seatmate, a man who appeared to be about my age, was white faced. “I hate flying,” he muttered. I heard the Texan drawl.

  “Me too. Here. Have a drink.” I pulled out another bottle.

  “Thank you, ma’am, I am much obliged.”

  We clinked our tiny bottles together. His hands were shaking, too.

  We both breathed shallowly. “Close your eyes, inhale,” I said. “Find your damn serenity. Think of your sunflowers . . . bells of Ireland . . . catnip . . . sweet Annies . . . wild tea roses . . .”

  “Think of your ranch . . .” he said, barely above a whisper. “Think of your cows. Your tractors. The bulls. Castration day.”

  The vision of castration day was unpleasant. I closed my eyes again.

  We inhaled.

  We drank.

  We shook.

  We took off. I started to sweat. So did he.

  “My turn,” he said when we were done with the first bottle. He handed me a tiny bottle of Scotch out of his briefcase.

  “Cheers to aerodynamics, thrust, lift, and Bernoulli’s principle.”

  “Cheers to your green eyes, darlin’. Those are bright twinklers. Brighter than the stars in Texas, may she reign forever.”

  “Thank you. May Newton’s laws reign forever.”

  Third round on me.

  Fourth on him, ordered from the flight attendant, who said cheerily, annoyingly, “Nervous flyers?”

  The fourth round did the trick. We decided to sing the National Anthem together, then “Frosty the Snowman” and two songs by Neil Diamond. One was “Cracklin’ Rosie,” which made him cry, so I cried, too, in solidarity. The annoying flight attendant asked us to be quiet. We sang “The Ants Go Marching Down” in whispery voices, then I taught him a Scottish drinking song about a milkmaid. We woke up in Amsterdam, his head on my shoulder.

  I wriggled him awake. “It was a pleasure getting drunk with you.”

  “The pleasure was all mine, green eyes,” he drawled in his Texan drawl. “It seems we have arrived alive.”

  “We did our part. Praise to Newton.”

  We stumbled off the plane, shook hands, and I caught the next flight to Edinburgh. I forgot to change out of my blue slippers with pink rabbit ears before I walked through the airport. No matter. The top button on my beige blouse was still buttoned and I was in one piece.

  I put my hand to my head. Lord. I hate flying and I hate airplane hangovers.

  The green hills of Scotland hugged both sides of the road, smooth and endless. The sun shone down like gold streamers, lambs ambled along, the ocean sparkled.

  The sky seems closer here than the sky off the coast of Washington, as if you could climb an extremely tall ladder and scoop the blue up in your hands and take it with you.

  The air was different here, too. Lighter, would be the way I would describe it, although that made no scientific sense. It was saltier than the air on my island, and it had the tiniest hint of cool mint tea, I don’t know why.

  I breathed in, held it. Can you miss air? I had missed Scottish air. I took a swipe at my eyes, which were tearing up. I prefer my emotions controlled, so this brought on some consternation.

  Our stone cottage was fifteen minutes, by car, outside of the charming old village of St. Ambrose, which was situated on the eastern side of Scotland on the North Sea. The village had cobblestone streets, at least three ancient stone churches with soaring ceilings and stained glass, and short doors for the short people who had built the buildings hundreds of years ago. I sniffled again. I had loved living near the village as a girl.

  I had taken a taxi from the airport, then rented a car. I was starving and stopped by a bar called Her Lady’s Treats. There was a full wall of liquor, a stuffed goat on the mantelpiece of the fireplace, and a steel reindeer head attached to the wall above my table. The reindeer had a furry moustache.

  I ordered one of my favorites, fish roulades with a side order of kailkenny, then picked up the paper.




  Part One

  By Carston Chit, Reporter

  Was Father Angus Cruickshank murdered?

  It is hard to believe that almost fifteen years have gone by since Father Angus Cruickshank disappeared. Father Cruickshank was the headmaster at St. Cecilia’s Catholic School for Girls, ten minutes outside of the village, bordering the Kinsey Woods.

  His shocking disappearance, on May 14, 1975, has become an enduring mystery swirling around our village ever since. His wallet, keys, and eyeglasses went with him, which suggests he left on his own. His Bible, however, stayed behind.

  Father Cruickshank was at St. Cecilia’s at lunch, on a Wednesday, giving a blessing, his dark head bowed, hands clasped, afte
r glaring at the girls, in their plaid skirts and white shirts, lined up at the tables.

  After lunch, he retreated to his small home, nestled in the trees on the far edge of campus, after upbraiding two of the nuns who had questioned him about how harshly he disciplined the girls, of which they strongly disapproved.

  “I did not ask for your approval or your commentary,” he said to former Sister Mary Teresa Doyle, who spoke with me at length for this article. “Please pray that God will hold your tongue.”

  “You are not to interfere with my discipline,” he said to Sister Angeline Aiken, who also talked with me at length. “Submit to my authority.”

  The nuns went back to their classrooms, furious.

  “Father Cruickshank had been with us for five years,” Sister Mary Teresa said. “How we missed Father Stephen, a kind and gentle spirit. Father Cruickshank was too punitive. Domineering. And secretive. He always wanted to be alone when speaking with the girls who had committed infractions.”

  Father Cruickshank did not show up the next morning, and his secretary, a pious, seventy-year-old woman, named Rorie Helene Cantor, was quietly delighted. Mrs. Cantor handled the parents, the students, and the teachers who came in with this or that question or comment. At the end of the day, Father Cruickshank had still not appeared.

  “My day was always blessed when Father Cruickshank was not around to spoil it,” she said.

  The next day Father Cruickshank did not show up, either. Mrs. Cantor did not bother to find out where he was, nor did any of the nuns or teachers. When he didn’t turn up for the fifth day, Mrs. Cantor assumed that he was on vacation. Sister Mary Teresa suggested this scenario, too. They decided to believe it.

  This was a wishful assumption to make, as Father Cruickshank took vacations only in the summer, when he visited his brother in various Scottish locations—at least that was what he said.

  Mrs. Cantor simply took over running the school, which is what she did anyhow. She was so much more competent at it than he was, in her opinion, and in the opinion of others with whom I spoke.

  It took ten days before anyone thought to go to Father Cruickshank’s home and check on him. To be completely accurate, Sister Angeline was checking on his cat. She was a cat lover.

  Father Cruickshank’s cat had silver fur and was especially affectionate. The most peculiar thing was, the cat didn’t like Angus Cruickshank. In fact, Father Cruickshank had complained that the silver cat kept biting him and he was going to give her away as she was a “devil cat.”

  It was then they discovered that Father Cruickshank was gone. Sadly, no one could find the cat.

  The police were called, an investigation ensued, and the Vatican was notified.

  The rumors started quickly, according to people in town.

  Had Father Cruickshank simply left, taking his wallet, keys, and eyeglasses with him? Perhaps he was tired of working at a Catholic girls school? Perhaps it was a midlife crisis? He was forty, after all. Perhaps he had a girlfriend? A mental collapse? Was any money missing from the school? No.

  Had Father Cruickshank been murdered for money, his body hidden? That would account for the wallet being taken. But who would do that? And why would a murderer take Father Cruickshank’s eyeglasses?

  Finally, there was the question of what Sister Margaret O’Diehl had said to the other nuns. Were her accusations true?

  As I have researched Father Cruickshank’s disappearance I tried to answer these questions, as he has never shown up again, anywhere.

  Was he murdered?

  Where is the proof?

  Who would kill him?

  Unfortunately, as I delved deeper into this mystery, the list of people who might have wanted to kill the priest is quite long.

  This is the first of a four-part series on Father Angus Cruickshank.

  I put down my fork. I had heard of Father Angus Cruickshank. Bridget had mentioned him in her letters when she was sixteen and went off to St. Cecilia’s on scholarship, as her fanatically religious father was so involved in the church and had befriended the priest. She hadn’t liked him, at all. Said he was creepy. Scary. I shivered as I folded the newspaper.

  I wondered if someone had killed the priest. Maybe. Maybe not.

  I thought of Bridget and felt my stomach lurch again.

  Something was wrong.

  Later, after three cups of coffee and Scottish macaroon snowballs with coconut and chocolate, and when I felt like a human again instead of a lab specimen, I climbed back in my car and drove through St. Ambrose.

  I slowed at the ruins of the castle with its drawbridge, then the ruins of the nine-hundred-year-old crumbling cathedral and graveyard, where Bridget and I had often played as children. We had active imaginations, and those two ruins were perfect places for princesses and knights, ghosts and goblins.

  I drove by the renowned golf course, stone homes built hundreds of years ago with double wood doors for carriages, the fountain in the middle of an intersection, university housing, and the village stores, including Laddy’s Café, Molly Cockles Scottish Dancing Pub, Sandra’s Scones and Treats Bakery, Estelle’s Chocolate Room, and antique and furniture shops.

  I drove out of town when the road ended at the blue gray ocean, then turned a corner and headed down the winding street our family cottage was on, built by my great-grandfather, and passed on to my granddad to my father, then to my mother and me, and now we were going to sell it.

  I felt an ache in my gut. As if someone had taken bagpipes and slugged me with them in the face.

  Sell it? Sell my family’s home? I drove past one farm, then the next, cottages and red barns, cattle and sheep, lambs and horses, rows of orchards, and fields that would soon be flourishing with fruits and vegetables.

  I stopped when I came to a fork in the road.

  I had gone too far. I hadn’t seen our house. I turned around, drove back, and when I hit the main road going toward the village again, I realized I had driven too far, once again.

  What in the world? How could I have missed my own home? I was only fifteen when I left, but surely I should know how to do this.

  I drove slowly this time, then braked.

  It couldn’t be.

  I gaped at our cottage.

  Our home was now a sloping, slipping, bungled, overgrown disaster. I climbed out of the car, then leaned against it, shocked, my knees weak.

  The roof of the cottage had partially cratered on one side. The white shutters, downstairs and on the dormer windows upstairs, were filthy and askew. The door was hanging on its hinges, the stone walls weathered and dirty. There was an old green car missing a door where my mother used to have an herb garden and another car, without an engine, parked sideways where there used to be a fountain of a little girl in galoshes holding an umbrella.

  The purple clematis was blooming, a purple wave, as Ben Harris said. It sprawled over the tilting white arch over the pathway into our property, and all along the white picket fence, which now looked more gray than white.

  I gritted my teeth when I saw the trumpet vine with the orange flowers near our red barn. That vine had to go as soon as possible. Immediately. I would get the ax and cut it to pieces, then dig out the root and trash the whole thing. It was the time of the bees when all that happened, and I didn’t need the reminder.

  I ran a shaking hand over my hair. It became caught in a tangle, and I yanked it out, hurting my head. I turned my back on that terrible orange trumpet vine and focused my attention on the willow, oak, and birch trees, which seemed to have grown three times in size.

  I didn’t understand. Mr. Greer wrote a check each month, which was deposited into an account here at a local bank. My mother withdrew the money from there.

  Once a year I wrote to Mr. Greer and asked him if he needed anything repaired or replaced. He always wrote back that he didn’t, that he had handled the minor repairs that came up. This was positively wrong. He had not handled minor or major repairs.

  “Charlotte,” I
told myself. “You’re a fool.” Of course the roof would need replacing. It had been twenty years. Of course the walkway would need to be fixed, the bricks all tumbled about and uneven. Of course it would need to be repainted.

  Why hadn’t I thought of those things?

  But I knew why. I tried not to think of this house, and my father, and his death, ever, for several jagged-edge reasons. I was assailed by memories, as if they were charging in on the Scottish wind, over the highlands, across the North Sea, and back to me.

  I took a deep, cleansing breath and thought of a complicated math problem to regain my sense of calm.

  Something furry ran by my leg and I flinched, my mind still in the dilapidated mess of my childhood home. A silver cat with light green eyes peered up at me and meowed. I automatically meowed back, then settled down on my haunches and petted her. “How are you, Silver Cat? My home is falling down.”

  She meowed again.

  “Meow back at you.” I briefly thought about the silver cat that bit the priest in the newspaper article. “Do you have a home?”

  I had hoped that I could stay the night here. I don’t know why I thought that was realistic. Perhaps my fear of flying blotted out all rational thought.

  The two-story stone cottage I remembered had been clean and well tended, my mother’s garden flowing, creative, a picture of landscape art.

  My dad was a farmer and grew lettuce: Lolla Rossa, Red Salad Bowl, Little Gem, and the Marvel of Four Seasons. The Lolla Rossa was purple and pink, the Red Salad Bowl lettuce burgundy and crimson, Little Gem was green and tight, and the Marvel of Four Seasons was red to green and gold.

  He grew strawberries, too: Rosie, Judibell, and Symphony, which he said he grew to be “fancy.”

  It was like looking at an organic rainbow.

  All of that was gone.

  I saw my father’s face, smiling, red hair, red beard, twirling me around in his arms. I heard him say, “You’re my Scottish butterfly, Charlotte. Eyes like emeralds, hair like a mermaid’s.” I heard his bagpipes, blaring, melodious, as he played “Scotland the Brave,” our red, blue, and green Clan Mackintosh tartan over his shoulder.