At the waters edge, p.1
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       At the Water's Edge, p.1

           Sara Gruen
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At the Water's Edge

  At the Water's Edge is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are the products of the author's imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.

  Copyright (c) 2015 by Sara Gruen All rights reserved.

  Published in the United States by Spiegel & Grau, an imprint of Random House, a division of Penguin Random House LLC, New York.

  SPIEGEL & GRAU and the HOUSE colophon are registered trademarks of Penguin Random House LLC.

  Library of Congress Cataloging-in-Publication Data Gruen, Sara.

  At the water's edge: a novel/Sara Gruen.

  pages; cm

  ISBN 978-0-385-52323-3

  eBook ISBN 978-0-81299789-7

  1. Fathers and sons--Fiction. 2. Socialites--Fiction. 3. Loch Ness monster--Fiction. I. Title.

  PS3607.R696A94 2015

  813'.6--dc23 2014027470

  eBook ISBN 9780812997897

  eBook design adapted from printed book design by Caroline Cunningham Cover design: Tal Goretsky Cover images: Richard Jenkins (woman), Getty Images (water), The Image Works (sea monster) v4.1


  One Crow for sorrow,

  Two Crows for mirth,

  Three Crows for a wedding,

  Four Crows for a birth,

  Five Crows for silver,

  Six Crows for gold,

  Seven for a secret, never to be told.



  Title Page




  Chapter One

  Chapter Two

  Chapter Three

  Chapter Four

  Chapter Five

  Chapter Six

  Chapter Seven

  Chapter Eight

  Chapter Nine

  Chapter Ten

  Chapter Eleven

  Chapter Twelve

  Chapter Thirteen

  Chapter Fourteen

  Chapter Fifteen

  Chapter Sixteen

  Chapter Seventeen

  Chapter Eighteen

  Chapter Nineteen

  Chapter Twenty

  Chapter Twenty-one

  Chapter Twenty-two

  Chapter Twenty-three

  Chapter Twenty-four

  Chapter Twenty-five

  Chapter Twenty-six

  Chapter Twenty-seven

  Chapter Twenty-eight

  Chapter Twenty-nine

  Chapter Thirty

  Chapter Thirty-one

  Chapter Thirty-two

  Chapter Thirty-three

  Chapter Thirty-four

  Chapter Thirty-five

  Chapter Thirty-six

  Chapter Thirty-seven

  Chapter Thirty-eight

  Chapter Thirty-nine

  Chapter Forty

  Chapter Forty-one

  Chapter Forty-two

  Chapter Forty-three

  Chapter Forty-four

  Chapter Forty-five

  Chapter Forty-six


  Author's Note



  By Sara Gruen

  About the Author


  Drumnadrochit, February 28, 1942



  JANUARY 14TH, 1942



  APRIL 2ND, 1909-JANUARY, 1942

  The headstone was modest and hewn of black granite, granite being one of the few things never in short supply in Glenurquhart, even during the present difficulty.

  Mairi visited the tiny swell of earth that covered her daughter's coffin every day, watching as it flattened. Archie the Stonecutter had said it might be months before they could put up the stone with the frost so hard upon them, but the coffin was so small the leveling was accomplished in just a few weeks.

  No sooner was the stone up than Mairi got the telegram about Angus and had Archie take it away again. Archie had wanted to wait until the date of death was verified, but Mairi needed it done then, to have a place to mourn them both at once, and Archie could not say no. He chiseled Angus's name beneath his daughter's and left some room to add the day of the month when they learned it. An addition for an absence, because Angus--unlike the wee bairn--was not beneath it and almost certainly never would be.

  There were just the two of them in the churchyard when Archie returned the headstone. He was a strong man, heaving a piece of granite around like that.

  A shadow flashed over her, and she looked up. A single crow circled high above the graves, never seeming to move its wings.

  One Crow for sorrow,

  It was joined by another, and then two more.

  Two Crows for mirth,

  Three Crows for a wedding,

  Four Crows for a birth

  Archie removed his hat and twisted it in his hands.

  "If there's anything Morag and I can do, anything at all..."

  Mairi tried to smile, and succeeded only in producing a half-choked sob. She pulled a handkerchief from her pocket and pressed it to her mouth.

  Archie paused as though he wanted to say more. Eventually he replaced his hat and said, "Well then. I'll be off." He nodded firmly and trudged back to his van.


  It was Willie the Postie who had delivered the telegram, on Valentine's Day no less, a month to the day after the birth. Mairi had been pulling a pint behind the bar when Anna came, ashen-faced, whispering that Willie was on the doorstep, and would not come inside. Willie was a regular, so Mairi knew from that very moment, before she even approached the door and saw his face. His hooded eyes stared into hers, and then drifted down to the envelope in his hands. He turned it a couple of times, as though wondering whether to give it to her, whether not giving it to her would make the thing it contained not true. The wind caught it a couple of times, flicking it this way and that. When he finally handed it to her, he offered it up as gently as a new-hatched chick. She opened it, turned it right side up, and let her eyes scan the purple date stamp--February 14th, 1942--added by Willie himself not half an hour before, and then



  She took in only three things: Angus, killed, the date. And they were enough.

  "I'm sorry, Mairi," Willie said in a near whisper. "Especially so soon after..." His voice trailed off. He blinked, and his eyes drifted down, pausing briefly on her belly before coming to rest again on his hands.

  She could not reply. She closed the door quietly, walked past the hushed locals and into the kitchen. There she leaned against the wall, clutching her empty womb with one hand and the piece of paper that had brought Angus's death in the other. For it did seem as though it was the paper that brought his death rather than simply the news of it. He had been dead for more than six weeks, and she hadn't known.

  In the time between the arrival of the telegram and the return of the headstone with Angus's name on it, Mairi had begun to blame Willie. Why had he chosen to hand her the telegram? She had seen his hesitation. He would have been complicit in what, at worst, would have been a lie of omission, especially if it meant she could believe that Angus was still out there somewhere. Even if he was doing things she couldn't comprehend, things that might change him in the terrible ways the men who had already been sent home had been changed, she could believe he was alive and theref
ore fixable, for surely there was nothing she couldn't love him through once he came home.

  They had lied to her about the baby, and she had let them.

  Since she had first felt the baby quicken, she was keenly aware of its every movement. For months, she had watched in wonderment as little braes poked up from her belly, pushing their way across--an elbow, or perhaps a knee--a subterranean force that constantly rearranged the landscape of her flesh. Was it a boy, or a wee girl? Whichever it was, it already had strong opinions. She remembered the moment it occurred to her that it had been hours since she felt it move, on Hogmanay, of all days. At midnight, precisely when Ian Mackintosh struck in his pipes to form the first chord of "Auld Lang Syne" and seconds before corresponding shots rang out from the doorway of Donnie Maclean, Mairi began poking her belly, trying to wake it, for they said that unborn babes slept. She yelled at it, screamed at it, and finally, realizing, wrapped her arms around it and wept. Thirteen days later, her pains started.

  Her memories of the birth were vague, for the midwife had given her bitter tea mixed with white powder, and the doctor held ether over her nose and mouth at regular intervals, putting her under completely at the end. They told her the baby had lived a few minutes, long enough to be baptized. Their lie became her lie, and that was what went on the headstone. In truth, she'd probably lost both child and husband on the same date.

  The promised letter never arrived. Where had he died? How had he died? Without the dreaded details, she had only her imagination--her terrible imagination--and while she wished she couldn't fathom what his last moments might have been, she could, with distinct and agonizing precision, in a million different ways. Please God that they were moments indeed, and not hours or days.


  The murder of crows descended in a noisy fluster, settling in a row on the stone wall, huddling into themselves, their blue-black feathers puffed and their heads tucked in as though they'd pulled up their coat collars. They stared accusingly, miserably, but without their usual commentary. Mairi counted them twice.

  Seven for a secret, never to be told.

  She knew then that she would never know the details, would never know what had happened.

  A bone-chilling wind stirred the fallen leaves until they formed cyclones that danced among the graves. Mairi crouched and fingered the names of her child and husband in the black stone.



  A third of the stone was still blank, at the bottom. There was room for one more name, one more set of dates, and these would be accurate.

  She stood without taking her eyes off the stone. She wiped her eyes and nose on the handkerchief, and kept it in her hand as she wrapped her arms around herself and walked through the black iron gate, leaving it swinging. She headed toward the inn, except when she got to the crossroad, she turned left instead of going straight.

  A light snow began to fall, but despite her bare head and legs she trudged right past the Farquhars' croft. She'd have been welcome there, as well as at the McKenzies', where she could see the fire glowing orange through the window, but on she went, teeth chattering, hands and shins numb.

  Eventually the castle rose on her left, its majestic and ruined battlements like so many broken teeth against the leaden sky. She had played within its walls as a child, and knew which rooms remained whole, where you had to watch your footing, where the best hiding places were, where the courting couples went. She and Angus had been among them.

  The snow was heavier now, falling in clumps that collected and melted on her hair. Her ears were past stinging. She pulled her sleeves over her frozen hands and pinched them shut with her fingertips. Through the gatehouse, past the kiln, pushing through the long grass and scrub gorse, bracken, and thistles, straight to the Water Gate.

  She paused at the top, staring at the blackness of the loch. Thousands of tiny whitecaps danced on its surface, seeming to move in the opposite direction of the water beneath them. It was said that the loch contained more water than all the other bodies of water not just in Scotland but also in England and Wales combined, and it held other things as well. She had been warned away from it her entire life, for its depth came quickly, its coldness was fierce, and the Kelpie lay in wait.

  She picked her way sideways down the slope, letting her icy fingers out of her sleeves to hold up the hem of her coat.

  When she reached the bottom, the water lapped around the soles of her shoes. The edge of the loch looked seductively shallow, slipping over the gravel and back into itself. She took a step forward, gasping as the water flooded her shoes, so cold, so cold, and yet it had never frozen, not once in recorded history. Another step, another gasp. Bits of peat swirled in the water around her ankles, circling her legs, beckoning her forth. Another step, and this time she stumbled, finding herself knee-deep. Her wool coat floated, an absurd umbrella, first resisting and finally wicking water, pulling her deeper. She looked back at the landing, suddenly desperate. If only she had a hat, she could throw it back onto the thorny gorse. If she'd had anything that would float, maybe they'd think it was an accident and let her be buried with her daughter. Maybe they'd think the Kelpie took her. And then she remembered that the loch never gave up its dead, so she spread her arms wide and embraced it.

  Chapter One

  Scottish Highlands, January 14, 1945

  "Oh God, make him pull over," I said as the car slung around yet another curve in almost total darkness.

  It had been nearly four hours since we'd left the naval base at Aultbea, and we'd been careening from checkpoint to checkpoint since. I truly believe those were the only times the driver used the brakes. At the last checkpoint, I was copiously sick, narrowly missing the guard's boots. He didn't even bother checking our papers, just lifted the red and white pole and waved us on with a look of disgust.

  "Driver! Pull over," said Ellis, who was sitting in the backseat between Hank and me.

  "I'm afraid there is no 'over,' " the driver said in a thick Highland accent, his R's rolling magnificently. He came to a stop in the middle of the road.

  It was true. If I stepped outside the car I would be ankle-deep in thorny vegetation and mud, not that it would have done any more to destroy my clothes and shoes. From head to toe I was steeped in sulfur and cordite and the stench of fear. My stockings were mere cobwebs stretched around my legs, and my scarlet nails were broken and peeling. I hadn't had my hair done since the day before we'd sailed from the shipyard in Philadelphia. I had never been in such a state.

  I leaned out the open door and gagged while Ellis rubbed my back. Wet snow collected on the top of my head.

  I sat up again and pulled the door shut. "I'm sorry. I'm finished. Do you think you can take those things off the headlights? I think it would be better if I could see what's coming." I was referring to the slotted metal plates our one-eyed driver had clipped on before we'd left the base. They limited visibility to about three feet ahead of us.

  "Can't," he called back cheerfully. "It's the Blackout." As he cranked up through the gears, my head lurched back and forth. I leaned over and cradled my face in my hands.

  Ellis patted my shoulder. "We should be nearly there. Do you think fresh air would help?"

  I sat up and let my head flop against the back of the torn leather seat. Ellis reached across and rolled the window down a crack. I turned toward the cold air and closed my eyes.

  "Hank, can you please put out your cigarette?"

  He didn't answer, but a whoosh of frigid air let me know he had tossed it out the window.

  "Thank you," I said weakly.

  Twenty minutes later, when the car finally came to a stop and the driver cut the engine, I was so desperate for solid ground I spilled out before the driver could get his own door open, never mind mine. I landed on my knees.

  "Maddie!" Ellis said in alarm.

  "I'm all right," I said.

  There was a fast-moving cloud cover under a nearly full moon, and by its light I first laid eyes
on our unlikely destination.

  I climbed to my feet and reeled away from the car, thinking I might be sick again. My legs propelled me toward the building, spinning ever faster. I crashed into the wall, then slid down until I was crouching against it.

  In the distance, a sheep bleated.


  To say that I wished I wasn't there would be a ludicrous understatement, but I'd only ever had the illusion of choice:

  We have to do this, Hank had said. It's for Ellis.

  To refuse would have been tantamount to betrayal, an act of calculated cruelty. And so, because of my husband's war with his father and their insane obsession with a mythical monster, we'd crossed the Atlantic at the very same time a real madman, a real monster, was attempting to take over the world for his own reasons of ego and pride.

  I would have given anything to go back two weeks, to the beginning of the New Year's Eve party, and script the whole thing differently.

  Chapter Two

  Rittenhouse Square, Philadelphia, December 31, 1944

  "Five! Four! Three! Two!"

  The word "one" had already formed on our lips, but before it could slide off there was an explosion overhead. As screams rose around us, I pitched myself against Ellis, tossing champagne over both of us. He threw an arm protectively around my head and didn't spill a drop.

  When the screams petered out, I heard a tinkling above us, like glass breaking, along with an ominous groaning. I peeked out from my position against Ellis's chest.

  "What the hell?" said Hank, without a hint of surprise. I think he was the only person in the room who hadn't jumped.

  All eyes turned upward. Thirty feet above us, a massive chandelier swung on its silver-plated chain, throwing shimmering prisms across the walls and floor. It was as if a rainbow had burst into a million pieces, which were now dancing across the marble, silks, and damask. We watched, transfixed. I glanced nervously at Ellis's face, and then back at the ceiling.

  An enormous cork landed next to General Pew, our host at what was easily the most anticipated party of the year, bouncing outrageously like a bloated mushroom. A split second later a single crystal the size of a quail's egg fell from the sky and dropped smack into his cocktail, all but emptying it. He stared, bemused and tipsy, then calmly took out his handkerchief and dabbed his jacket.

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