A Skirl o’ Pipes
The Glenshee Spittal
In the Glen Shee and Shee Water area
Perth and Kinross, Scotland
This time, Alex led the fifteen-mile trip back to Glen Shee while Rory and Thistle were content to follow. If he was being honest with himself, Rory had been startled and even a little fearful of leading an investigation. What if the clue to the missing man was in front of his face and he missed it? What if he asked the wrong questions and ended up on Patricia Finley’s “higher and deeper” shit list? What if the man’s very life depended on his own flawed judgment…?
But Alex must have read his mind—as usual. The man was gifted when it came to understanding human nature. His nature. Besides, he noticed the lad really had wanted him, a three-thumbed novice, to be part of his serious work. That thought alone put a fire in his belly and a steel resolve in his attitude. He had watched the way Alex-the-cop worked these last three or four months. Now, determined to emulate his mate’s carful observations and his way of seeing like a camera’s eye, he just had to find the confidence to stuff marrow into his backbone.
Back at Tayside, Grant MacHugh had solemnly handed them police notepads with the air of a priest dispensing psalm books. He knew without asking—whatever he wrote down might later be the difference between life and death for someone. Or at least the difference between someday being Alex’s partner and merely his mate.
He wished that same man was on the seat beside him right now. He’d pick his brain, ask pertinent questions, learn a little about cop procedure. Lacking that, he would have to rely on his instinct.
Och, like letting a bee use his instinct against a bear.
He smiled as he pulled in next to his own Wrangler at the rebuilt Glenshee Spittal.
Someone’s idea of OK Corral-meets-Caledonia…whoever had directed the architecture of the place was surely hoping for more than he got. The place was rustic, Rory thought, with the accent on “rust.” The name had been engraved over the entry with a clumsy thumb on a twin of his childhood wood-burning set. Part of the longish building was simulated redwood logs; part was whitewashed stucco.
So much for tradition, and civilization. There had been some sort of inn or resting place here for a thousand years, and modern man had erected—this. A tribute to the need and greed for tourist money. He searched his memory but could not recall what had stood here before the recent fire. But he thought it had to be more…more Scottish than this.
He saw no other vehicles besides the Jeepster and the Rover. Did no one stay here past ski season? The old fashioned petrol pumps seemed like tombstones, erected to take in a few pence in case the tourists did not stay overnight or stop for a meal.
Alex was waiting for him on the stoop.
“Alejo, I think we won’t be long here. I wonder where the people went?”
His mate shook his head. “Back to their Evil Day Jobs, no doubt. Let’s get this over with.”
Inside the spittal stood an old-fashioned high counter, like a hotel registry, made of the same faux-redwood as the outside. Beyond, he saw the opening to a dining area, unlit. But there was nary a sound outside their own voices.
“Help you, please?”
They turned to the high note of a girlish voice. A young woman, no more than sixteen, emerged from a door behind them, across from the dining room. She was solemn of eye and plain of appearance, twisting her hands together in front of a frilly apron.
Remembering that he was supposed to lead this merry chase, Rory offered his blandest smile and softest voice.
“Och, thank you. We’re looking for a…a friend. His name is Andrew MacCallum. Sixties, red hair…used to live here, before the fire. Do you know him, or where we can find him, lassie?”
The girl tilted her head and gazed upward. “’Twas more than a year ago we moved back in. And a year before that when it burned. I was a child then. So, I don’t remember. You’d have to ask my great-grandfather.”
“All right. And where might he be?”
She cocked her head again. “Time for his morning nap. So, in his room? Or…” She shrugged. “I’m sure I have no idea.”
“Could you look in his room?”
“I could.” And she stood rock-still, looking from him to Alex with round blue eyes. “But he never talks to strangers. So, there’s that.”
Ten minutes later, after the lass had disappeared and re-emerged shaking her head, he lifted his brows at Alex.
“We can come back later. When he’s back from where ever he went. Are your folks about?”
“They have gone for groceries.”
“Then we will talk with them some other time.”
“Fine. You don’t want a room, do you? Or something to eat?” She was daring them to say yes.
“Och, not right now. Thanks for your help. Is there anyone else about this morning?”
“Nae. We are temporarily vacant.”
Aye, lass, that you are.
Back outside, he waggled his brows at his companion. “I refuse to give up so easily. Wait for me while I walk around to the back. If I don’t return in ten minutes, send Thistle.”
“Our search so far is a zero. A bust. At least I hope I find you if we have to come looking.”
Rory walked along the rough boarded walkway, past a row of simple benches, and turned to the rear of the spittal, toward a set of tall pines leaning together, whispering into each other’s branches like conspirators. Behind rose Ben Gulabin, bereft of snow. Under the trees sat a weathered bench. And on the bench sat an old man.
Rory reckoned the man was in his eighties. He was thin as a pole, wearing a jacket and an old-fashioned ghillie shirt whose open laces revealed a mass of gray chest hair. Under a cloth cap his hair was ample too, flying around his head in the breeze, but also gray, and wispy as clouds.
A pair of ancient blue eyes regarded him and then rolled to contemplate the sky.
Foog. Another dead end.
Refusing to admit defeat, Rory began to use his Drummond brain. He’d studied a bit of the old Scots tongue in college, so he knew just enough to be dangerous. And of course all Scots knew the common polyglot. After all, this man must be able to speak to little Annie, and he’d wager a pound to a penny she knew nary a word of the old language.
“Madainn mhath. Good mornin to ye.”
The old man nodded and lowered his watery eyes to look at him.
“What is your name? Um, Dè an t-ainm a th’ ort?”
“Is mise Murdoch.”
“Chan eil Gàidhlig mhath agam.” He apologized for his inability to speak the common language and sat down a foot from him on the bench.
“Mr. Murdoch, I need your help. Am faodidh tu dhuim cudicheadh?”
Murdoch looked pained—whether with his bad Scots Gaelic, or his uninvited presence.
“Och, oot wi’ it mon.”
Rory laughed out loud. This man could speak enough English to be understood. And no doubt he could understood every word of common English—if he chose to do so.
“I’m looking for a friend. Um, to be honest, a friend of my father. The man’s name is Andrew MacCallum.”
The pale eyes seemed to flare with interest. “An wha man wants tae know?”
He hesitated only a fraction of a second. Bluidy hell with police procedure.
Rory took off his ring and handed it to him.
“Someone whose name you may remember.”
The old Highlander turned the ring around and around, and then brought it up close to read the inscription, “GANG WARILY.”
Rory was astounded. That was his grandfather’s given name.
“Ye knew him?”
“Auld lang syne.”
Those words startled him too. They could mean a long time ago, or even for a long time.
“He lives in Edinburgh now.”
The old man nodded as if to say, “I already know.”
“My family’s property is close by.”
“Tha I ken also. At Glen Lochsie Burn.”
“Aye. Will you tell me about MacCallum?”
“What d’ye need tae ken?”
“He is missing. My father has sent me to find him.”
The old man’s face tipped into his collar. “I war right.”
That could have been a tear on the corrugated cheek, but Murdoch wiped his face with a large handkerchief before he could be sure.
“Dand carried me fro ta hoose, when it war ableiz.”
“Why did he not return, after the fire?”
He shrugged. “Eechie ochie. Howkin awa’ frae ta deil, fer a’what enny man ken.”
Hiding from the devil?
“Where did he go?”
“I dinna ken whaur. But close by, hen. I could hear ta skirl o’ pipes some nights…”
And then Rory saw tears gather again in the corners of his eyes.
“Tell me about the skirl of pipes.” The moaning of the bagpipes. The words sent a cold shiver down his spine.
“He’d play his pipes on the moor. So he wudnae disturb folk, or sae he said. But he liked tae bide alone. Like meself.”
“And how could ye hear it, lad, if he moved away?”
“He war close. Och, I heerd him eight nights ago.”
It took a while, but Rory pieced together the story. Murdoch had celebrated a birthday eight days ago. During all the time MacCallum and he had known each other, the piper would play his favorite song every year, in honor of his day. It was a way of talking without words. The song was “Loch Lomond,” a song to make all grown Scots cry.
“I heerd ta start of me song. An it stopped. An never came again. So ta deil took him away.”
“I need to know about this devil. Who is it?”
“He wouldnae tell me. An neer will.”
He looked up. Alex was standing near the bench, with Thistle at heel.
“I sent out a rescue team.”
“Give me a few more minutes, lad. Alone.”
He nodded and walked away. Rory turned again to his companion. “What time did you hear the skirl o’pipes, Mr. Murdoch?”
At sundown, eight days ago. “March 28, and not since?”
He shook his head, and now the tears ran down a deep crease in the aged cheeks.
“Fhag me leum fhein.”
He wanted to be left alone. Rory stood.
“I am sorry, Mr. Murdoch. I hope we find him. I will let you know first, I promise.”
But he reckoned the old man had ended their conversation, maybe for all time. He walked back to find Alex, understanding he had discovered something precious, but wishing to god he had not.