A cold front drifted in from the northwest, thick and gray, and blanketed the loch in ...
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BENEATH STILL WATER'S
A cold front drifted in from the northwest, thick and gray, and blanketed the loch in ghostly silence.
On slanted wings, a flock of Esder ducks dropped silently to the water with a small splash of white close in against the reed banks.
Bella and Daniel made a disparate couple. He was tall, though slightly bowed, his silvering hair catching the last of the sunlight. She was young, in her mid-twenties, slim, alert, and vibrant. Her hair was thick and dark brown, falling to her shoulders in long burnished curls. Bella felt the ambiance of the stillness, and its splendor stirred inside her chest.
From the highest point on the rocky embankment, they looked out over the dark blue waters. The water, a mirrored image of the tree-line that stretched along the far bank, now darkling in the fading light.
“Oh, what a delightful sight,” she uttered through a winded breath and pulled herself closer up against her husband. “Have you ever seen something more breathtaking before, Daniel? ”
“Only you, my flower,” he whispered close to her ear.
He smiled down at his young wife, fondly. She was his second wife. Most things excited her youthful soul, and he admired the way she opened herself to the surprises that life tossed her way. He was older than Bella, by fifteen years. They first met when she had joined his class of 2010 at the University of London, where he lectured on dinosaur’s reproduction. She was then in her final year. She was a hardworking student and had majored in paleontology. "Paleontology is one of the historical sciences, along with archeology, geology, astronomy, cosmology, philology, and history itself," she had told him many times. "You can’t understand one without the other." And Daniel marveled at the way she approached each with the same eagerness and delight.
As both her parents were dead and she the only child, he had taken her affections as nothing more than the longing for a father figure. The year after she graduated, the University approached Daniel to lead a dig in the Highlands of Scotland, where the River Ness widened to form the Loch Ness. It was then that Daniel had approached Bella and offered her the position as his assistant. It was during that time he began to realize the true nature of her feelings.
A tall, slender man slipped into the front passenger seat of an old Toyota Corolla, parked against the curb in the Leachkin suburb, and slammed the rust-eaten door closed beside him. "We were told not to kill anyone, you fool. What were you thinking?"
The heavy-set driver turned in his seat. “You have no right to raise your voice at me, Addas. You were there. You are as much to blame as me.”
"You are the expert at demolitions, not me, Amid. Just a few loosened nuts and bolts would have been enough. But no, you had to loosen so many that the entire scaffolding fell over. You could have killed many more, causing the site to close permanently."
"What does it matter now?" Amid Ahemed scoffed. "No one suspects anything. The builders of the scaffolding will get blamed for poor work." He grinned through a mouth filled with tobacco-stained teeth. "For the next six weeks, the site will be our's Addas."
"We don't know that, Amid. As we speak, the police might be investigating this matter."
Amid Ahemed turned the ignition, and the small Toyota coughed to life and sped away from beneath a cloud of blue-gray oil smoke. "Where to now, Addas? The site?"
"No, you fool. You heard what Mr. Brown said; we must stop the messenger at all costs."
Bella rose to her tiptoes and kissed her husband on the cheek, “You make my life complete, my husband." Her words came to him at the same moment, the soft, warm breeze of her breath touched his face. "With every breath I take, my love, I take one for you too."
Then, laughing playfully, she pulled away from him, and stuffing her long dark hair into a bun at the top of her head, she started down the slope toward the loch. As she bounced from one rock to another, she called to him, “Follow me, Daniel. Race with me to the water.”
Daniel watched her skip light-footed down the dark forms, arms outstretched and waving with a shoe dangling loosely from each hand. Her long tan slacks flapping about her ankles as she skipped. On the last of the rocks, Daniel slipped and tumbled through the air, then she was rolling over the loose gravel to the edge of the water. For a moment, she lay in a heap on the damp, cold ground like an old discarded rag, ruffled hair, and her clothes and cheeks were caked in chocolate-colored mud. She let out a loud squeak of disbelief as she sat up, then raising her hands up toward Daniel, she called out to him, “Why am I alone, my husband? You should be down here by my side!”
Daniel smiled. Never had he thought it possible for him to love again, but somehow this half-English, half-Jewish young woman, had brought back the feeling of youth to his life, and he loved her dearly for that.
"You look all squishy." He laughed as he stopped beside her. "Come, let's go and get you cleaned up. Mrs. MacCabe will not be amused if we are late for our supper."
They walked hand in hand along the bank of the River Oich and up the embankment to the main road. They crossed the metal bridge that spanned the loch. The green lawns on either side were now deserted, not like earlier during the day when the tourists flock to watch the rise and fall of the waterway as the boats pass through it.
Then they turned right into a narrow lane as the last of the sunlight faded behind the swirl of dark gray, threatening clouds. They hurried past the newsagent's store just as the southwest wind arrived, bringing with it the first of the large, bone-chilling raindrops that splashed down on the pavement with such force that they burst into millions of tiny droplets resembling that of many miniature water fountains.
Mrs. MacCabe was standing at the entrance to the Inn, watching the approaching storm when they charged through the opening. A short, heavy-set woman with a small round face and chubby pink cheeks.
"My dear, what happened to you?" she asked Bella. Her concern showing the true manner of the Irish. "Upstairs with you. Quick, quick, now, before you catch your death."
Later that evening they sat in the dining room at their reserved table beside the window overlooking the loch. The curtains were drawn now to lessen the sound of the driving rain beating against the cottage window panes. They ate a lobster dinner with a side plate of oysters and clams. Daniel ordered a bottle of vintage Mouton Rothschild for Bella, which he had every intention of helping her finish later that evening up in their room. For now, he ordered himself a single malt whiskey with just a splash of soda so that he might enjoy the smoky flavor of it unadorned.
Bella looked over the rim of her long-stemmed wine glass at Daniel as she sipped at the blood-red liquid slowly, enjoying the aroma. "I wonder what Professor Bruce has found?” she asked between sips. “What could be so important that he couldn't say over the telephone? The mystery of it all is why he asked us to meet him here? The excavation site is on the opposite end of the loch.”
"Patience,” Daniel said softly and reached out across the table to touched her hand. A thin smile parted his lips as he watched the excitement glow in her big brown eyes. “You must learn to control yourself, my dear,” he said. “We’ll find out soon enough tomorrow when Professor Bruce arrives.”
“You know I can’t do that. The excitement of a dig is overpowering. Only you can make my heart pound faster, you know that. But tonight, I think of both you and the dig.”
Daniel stood up from the table. “Come, my dear,” he said, “we have a little work to do before we can settle in for the night.”
Bella was the first to enter their room, with Daniel following close behind, the bottle of vintage Mouton Rothschild in one hand and their two wine glasses in the other. He placed them down on the dressing table and poured a little wine into each glass. Bella went straight for the big, leather briefcase they had stuffed beneath the bed when they had first arrived. She pulled it out now and set it down on the bed.
“What papers would you like first?” she asked.
“Let's start with the aerial photographs. They are older than the computer images and will give us a better idea of a past era."
Bella carried the photographs across to the dressing table where Daniel was seated on the dressing stool. He looked up as she laid them before him and he noticed that the mystical mood of excitement had not left her eyes.
“What are we looking for? Bella whispered. She leaned forward, looking over his shoulder. Daniel took the magnifying glass from her hand and peered down through it, at the area on the photograph where they had spent so much time together, digging through many years of history. Eighteen months into their work, he had picked up the courage to ask Bella to be his wife. At first, Daniel felt the heart-wrenching pain of betrayal for the woman who had been his wife for nearly twenty years. The two women showed the same keen interest in his work and he felt it might be the only reason he was attracted to Bella. But as the months passed, Daniel felt a great longing for her every time she had to leave the dig to return to the University of London to research the artifacts they had unearthed. Over time, his confidence had grown, the feeling of betrayal toward his first wife lessened, and he took comfort in the thought that she now looked down on them from heaven with that same breathtaking smile he remembered so vividly.
At that moment, he was distracted by a knock at the door, and he lifted his head. “Who can that be at this time of night?” His voice changed, sharping with alarm.
“Maybe it’s the professor.” Bella offered up with delight. "Wouldn't that be exciting?”
“We won’t know until we open the door, will we.”
Bella crossed the room and opened the door slightly without removing the security chain and peeped out into the passage. “It’s the night porter,” she said over her shoulder.
“So late—what does he want?”
“He has a parcel for us.”
“Who is it from?" Daniel inquired from the porter.
“I don’t know, sir. A gentleman dropped it off at the reception a few minutes ago. He told me to bring it to you immediately.”
“Did he say who he was or who sent him?”
“Sorry, sir, he didn't say. But he did seem to be in an awful hurry, though.”
Bella closed the door and rejoined her husband back at the dressing table. The parcel was roughly wrapped in a dirty cloth and bound with a single piece of string. Daniel removed the string and carefully peeled off the dry, mud-stained fabric.
“What is it, Daniel?”
“Just another moment, my love,” he told her.
Daniel let the dirty cloth fall to the surface of the dressing table, then set about studying the two small stone artifacts he held in his hands. Each approximately four inches square. He looked them over carefully, then handed one to Bella, and continued to study the one he held under the magnifying glass.
“Mine is still covered with sand and earth,” Bella remarked. “Where did they come from, my husband? And who left them here at the Inn for us?”
Alongside the dressing table was a small wash hand basin. Bella turned on the cold water tap and let the water run over the small artifact while she carefully rubbed her fingers over it.
“Is it washing clean?” Daniel asked, without looking up.
“No,” she answered, “not really.” Bella reached out in front of Daniel to retrieve her night bag that he had pushed into the far end corner of the dressing table. She opened it and removed her toothbrush, and began to stroke the artifact gently with it. Slowly the years of dirt began to wash away. But not entirely. From many years of being buried beneath the earth, the soil had hardened at the edges of the carving distorting the image.
“It will take more than water to remove this crusty earth,” Bella declared. As she handed it back to Daniel, she noticed a small piece of paper protruding from beneath the dirty cloth. “Is that a note…?” She pointed to it and Daniel slipped it out, and with it came a small round coin.
Daniel picked up both. First, he studied the coin by flipping it over several times between his fingers. Then he held it in the palm of his hand and squeezed it tightly with his eyes closed as if trying mentally to draw from it the life and soul of its history. When Daniel opened his eyes again, he unfolded the paper. For a moment, he looked at it then handed it to Bella. “It's a scribble, my dear. Your eyes are better than mine. You read it, please.”
Bella took the scribbled note and began to read it out loud:
Daniel, I must be short. As you know, I am extending your dig
near the Ness. I have unearthed artifacts from the early Picts
area. With them, I have found a few Roman artifacts as well. It’s
a historical find, but because I’m in fear for my life, I’m leaving
for London in the morning.
Yesterday my assistant Michael Weatherspoon met with a fatal
accident when the scaffolding, holding our sponsors, fell over.
The police suspect foul play. I beg you, return to London immediately,
you may be in grave danger. I have asked one of my workers to
drop off a small package at the Inn, just in case, something should
happen to me before we meet in London.
Be careful, Daniel.
"Oh, my God!" Bella gasped with alarm. "This is terrible, Daniel. What must we do?"
“Be calm, my dear. It won’t help us by getting all worked up. Please, give me a moment to think.” As Daniel spoke, there came a disturbance from the lane below their window. Daniel rose instantly from the stool and went over to the terrace doors, unlocked them, then pushed them wide open. The rain had stopped, but a cold breeze met him at the entrance as he stepped out into the night air, and the dampness of it stung his face. He stopped at the metal railings and looked down into the lane.
In his hurry to reach the terrace, Daniel had not opened the curtains completely and now the sides of the drapes fluttered feathery at Bella's sides as she called after him, "Be careful, Daniel. What do you see?"
"There is the car, Amid," Addas spoke softly. The two men moved up the lane towards the Inn like two airy shadows flung up against the building walls by the street lights that silhouetted them from the opposite side of the lane. "Mr. Brown said the messenger would be driving a dark-green Fiat panel van."
"I can't see through the misted windows," said Amid. "We must go closer."
The Fiat panel van stood in front of the entrance to the Inn. As they came alongside it, Addas Ajam stepped from the shadows and ran, in a crouched manner, to the rear of the vehicle. He quickly peered in through the rear window, then returned to Amid's side.
"He is not there," Addas said with disgust. "It's empty."
"You can't blame me this time, Addas," Amid protested. "The rain and mist slowed us down."
"He must be inside," Addas told him. "We must wait." He scouted the shadows outside the entrance for a suitable cover. "Remember Amid," Addas added sternly, "do not hurt the man. We only want the parcel he's carrying."
"What if he has already handed it over?"
"Then he must tell us what room he left it at."
The two men had hardly enough time to tuck themselves tightly up against the wall before a short average built man, dressed in a heavy dark overcoat with a cap pulled down to his ears, emerged from the Inn. He hesitated for only a moment to remove his keys from his overcoat pocket before heading directly for the panel van.
Amid moved first; he leaped from the shadows taking a firm hold around the man's neck. He twisted the man violently, and the sheer weight and size of Amid, lurched the man clear off his feet. He hung in Amid's grasp, helpless and gasping for breath.
"Where is the parcel?" Addas joined them.
The man opened his mouth to speak, but the forearm of Amid's that rested against the man's throat blocked the flow of his words.
"Talk!" Amid shouted. "We want the parcel — now!" Amid swung his shoulders hard to his left, and the man's body followed the forceful movement, his legs swinging out from beneath him. Amid tightened his hold and raised the man high above his head. He held him as if he were a trophy, then threw him down onto the bonnet of the Fiat. The man lay helplessly watching as Amid's right hand come down forcibly into his face, and Amid felt the man's front teeth buckle under the pressure from his blow.
Suddenly a loud voice came from the terrace on the first floor above them, and Addas looked up.
"What is going on down there?" The voice traveled clearly down to the pavement. "Leave that man alone."
"Look!" said Addas, taking hold of Amid by the shoulder. "It's Professor Daniel from London. "I saw his photo only yesterday in the newspaper. It's him, I tell you. Leave this man — Come."
The two men hurried through the entrance to the Inn, and immediately they were confronted by the old night porter. He had heard the noise outside and was halfway across the foyer to investigate the disturbance. Addas side-stepped him, heading for the staircase at the far end of the lobby. He had captured a mental image of the terrace where professor Daniel stood, the third terrace to the right of the stairway. As Amid approached the porter, he didn't move to his right or left. Instead, he shouldered the older man heavily in the chest, and he dropped to the floor with a panic groan of hot rushed air.
At that moment, the foyer lights came on. Mrs. MacCabe stood at the reception counter dressed in her nightgown, with her Scottish Terrier at her side; it's barking, only broken by intermittent deep low growls and grunts.
Amid didn't hesitate; he drew from his shoulder holster a handgun and fired off two rapid shots.
Addas turned to the explosive roar. "Are you stupid, Amid!?" he shouted. "Why did you do that!?"
Daniel turned from the metal railings to look at his wife.
"Do you hear that?" Bella asked.
"Yes," Daniel answered. "It's Mrs. MacCabe Scottish Terrier. The two men who were fighting in the street have just entered the building. They must have set him off."
"What's happening, Daniel? I'm scared. The note —!"
The words had hardly left her mouth when the sound of two gunshots reverberated through the Inn. Bella screamed and lunged toward her husband. "Hold me, Daniel," she cried out in horror. "Hold me please, I'm scared."
Daniel wrapped his arms around her. "Be still, my love," he petted her gently. "I will not let any harm come to you. I promise my flower."
Just then, a voice came from outside the door, followed by a loud banging noise that rattled the wooden door violently against its frame. "Open the door. We know you are in there, professor."
Bella knew her husband hadn't the strength to fight off an assailant. He had passed his prime. Besides, he was a learned man and knew only how to attack the pages between two dusty covers of a Paleontology book. She held on to him with trembling hands, and she could hear her blood as it raced through her ears. To the sound of the constant hammering at the door, she pulled herself even closer to him so that she thought she might crush her own heart against his. Softly she whispered up at him. "My husband, I am so sorry, I think I have soiled you. I have peed myself," and Daniel felt the warmth of her body mingling with the cloth of his trouser legs.
Not wanting to embarrass her further, he said, "I think you are right, Bella. They have come for the artifacts." Gently he pushed her away and turned back toward the metal railings." Maybe we can escape down over the terrace." He looked for a drainpipe or something they might use as a make-shift ladder, but there was nothing they could use. The front walls of the building were made of various sized stone blocks and offered little finger or foot support for their escape to the pavement. Their only possibility was a four-inch water pipe that ran vertically along the full length of the building. Daniel judged it to be approximately twenty feet off the ground. He pointed to it.
"No, Daniel! I can't climb down there!"
"We must, my dear. It's our only chance."
The door shook violently again, and they both looked across the room as the door tore free at the handle, dislodging the locks, and Bella let out a sharp gasp as two men burst through the opening.
"Where is the parcel!?" Addas shouted. "We know you have it!"
Daniel shuffled forward slightly, placing Bella between himself and the metal railing.
To be continued .....