The first recorded sighting of the Loch Ness Monster was by Saint Columba in A.D. 565. The most recent occurred just last year.
“There’ll be a sighting every year,” Kristin Daniels muttered as she peered at her laptop. “Wouldn’t want to screw with a multi-million-dollar tourist industry.”
Unless, of course, you were the host of the public television show Hoax Hunters. Kris planned to screw with it a lot.
In fact, she planned to end it.
Kris scribbled more notes on her already-scribbled-upon yellow legal pad. This was going to be her biggest and best project to date. The debunking of the Loch Ness Monster would not only put Hoax Hunters on the national radar—hell, she’d probably get picked up for syndication—but also would make her a star.
She glanced up. Her boss, Theo Murdoch, stood in the doorway of her office. He didn’t look happy. Theo rarely did.
Public television was a crapshoot. Sometimes you won; sometimes you lost. But you were always, always on the verge of disaster.
“Hey, Theo,” she said brightly. “I was just planning our premier show for next year. You’re gonna love it and so—”
“Hoax Hunters is done.”
Kris realized her mouth was still half-open and shut it. Then she opened it again and began to babble. She did that when she panicked. “For the season, sure. But next year is going to be great. It’ll be our year, Theo. You’ll see.”
“There is no next year, Kris. You’re canceled.”
“Ratings, kid. You don’t have ’em.”
Fury, with a tinge of dread, made Kris snap, “It’s not like we were ever going to compete with Friday Night SmackDown.”
“And we don’t want to.” Theo’s thin chest barely moved despite the deep breath he drew. The man was cadaverous, yet he ate like a teenaged truck driver. Were there teenaged truck drivers? “Cable’s killing me.”
Or maybe it was just his high stress and two-packs-a-day diet.
In Theo’s youth, back when he still had hair, PBS had been the place for the intelligent, discriminating viewer. Now those viewers had eight hundred channels to choose from and some of them even produced a show or two worth watching.
In the glory days Planet Earth would have been a PBS hit. Instead it had played on the Discovery Channel. Once The Tudors—sans excessive nudity of course—would have been a Masterpiece Theatrestaple. Now it was Showtime’s version of MTV history.
“Who would have thought that public radio would do better than us?” Theo mumbled.
To everyone’s amazement, NPR was rocking even as PBS sank like a stone.
“Not me,” Kris agreed. And too bad, too. Not that she could ever have done Hoax Hunters for the radio even if she had possessed a crystal ball. The show’s strength lay in the visual revelation that what so many believed the truth was in fact a lie.
Hoax Hunters, which Kris had originally called Hoax Haters, had come about after a tipsy night with her best friend and roommate, Lola Kablonsky. Kris had always loathed liars—she had her reasons—and she’d been very good at spotting them. One could say she had a sixth sense, if a sixth sense weren’t as much of a lie as all the rest.
Why not make your obsession with truth and lies into a show? Lola had asked.
And full of margaritas and a haunting ambition, Kris had thought, Why not?
She’d used her savings to fund a pilot, and she’d gotten that pilot onto the screen through sheer guts and brutal determination. She wasn’t going to let something as erratic as ratings get her down.
If she debunked the Loch Ness Monster, every station in America—no, in the world—would want that film.
Talk about a dream come true.
* * *
“Scotland,” Lola said. “Does anyone really go to Scotland on purpose?”
Kris tossed a few more sweaters into her suitcase. “Just me.”
September was cold in the Highlands, or so she’d heard. Not that she wasn’t used to the cold. She was from Chicago. Cold moved in about October and hung around until June. There’d even been a few July days when the breeze off the lake was reminiscent of the chill that drifted out of her freezer when she went searching for double chocolate brownie yogurt in the middle of the night.
“Are you sure, Kris?” Worry tightened Lola’s voice. “You’ll be all alone over there.”
Alone. Kris gave a mental eye roll. Horrors! Like that would be anything new.
Her mother had died of leukemia when Kris was fifteen, insisting to the very end that she was fine. Kris’s brother had left for college when she was seventeen, swearing he’d visit often. If “often” was once the following year and then never again, he hadn’t been lying. Her father hung around until she turned eighteen. Then he’d taken a job in China—no lie. He hadn’t been back, either.
So Kris was used to alone, and she could take care of herself. “I’ll be okay.” She zipped her suitcase.
“I’d go with you—”
Kris snorted. Lola in Scotland? That would be like taking Paris Hilton to … well, Scotland. Kris could probably shoot a documentary about it. The film would no doubt receive better ratings than Hoax Hunters.
And wasn’t that depressing?
“Aren’t you getting ready for the season?” Kris asked.
Lola was a ballet dancer, and she looked like one. Tall and slim, with graceful arms and never-ending legs, her long, black, straight hair would fall to the middle of her well-defined back if she ever wore it down. However, Lola believed that style made her already-oval face appear too oval. As if that could happen.
Kris didn’t consider herself bland or average until she stood next to Lola. She also wasn’t a washed-out, freckle-nosed, frizzy-headed blonde unless compared with Lola and her porcelain complexion surrounded by smooth ebony locks. The only thing they had in common was their brown eyes. However, Lola’s were pale, with flecks of gold and green, while Kris’s were just brown, the exact shade of mud, or so she’d been told by a man who’d said he was a poet.
The two women were still friends because Lola was as beautiful inside as out, as honest as a politician was not, and loved Kris nearly as much as Kris loved her. In all her life, Kris had never trusted anyone the way she trusted Lola Kablonsky.
Lola set her long-fingered smooth, elegant hand on Kris’s arm. “If you needed me, I’d go. Screw the season.”
Kris blinked back the sudden sting in her eyes. “Thanks.”
They had met while living in the same cheap apartment building—Kris attending Loyola University and Lola attending ballet classes on the way to her current stint with the Joffrey Ballet. On the basis of a few good conversations and a shared desire to get out of their crappy abode, the two had found a better one and become roommates.
Kris hugged Lola; Lola hugged back, but she clung. Kris felt a little guilty for leaving her—Lola wasn’t used to being alone—but she didn’t have a choice. She couldn’t start over again with another show. She believed in Hoax Hunters.
She also believed that the Loch Ness Monster was ripe for debunking and she was just the woman to do it.
Kris gathered the backpack that contained her laptop, video camera, mini-binoculars, and purse. “I’ll be okay,” she assured her friend for the second time. “It’s not like I’m going to Iraq or Colombia or even the Congo. It’s Scotland. What could happen?”
* * *
Though it felt like a week, Kris arrived in Drumnadrochit, on the west shore of Loch Ness, a day later.
She’d been able to fly directly from Chicago to Heathrow; however, unlike the rest of the people on the plane, she hadn’t been able to sleep. Instead, she’d read the books she’d picked up on both Scotland and Loch Ness.
Loch Ness was pretty interesting, even without the monster. The lake itself was a ten-thousand-year-old crack in the Earth’s surface. Because of its extreme depth—nearly eight hundred feet—the loch contained more freshwater than all the other lakes in Britain and Wales combined and never froze over, even during the coldest of Highland winters.
There had been over four thousand reported sightings of Nessie, which no doubt fueled the $40 million attributed to her by the Scottish tourism industry. With that kind of income at stake, it wasn’t going to be easy to debunk this myth. Kris certainly wasn’t going to get any help from the locals.
By the time London loomed below, Kris’s eyes burned from too much reading and not enough sleeping. However, she couldn’t drag her gaze from the view. She wished she had the money to tour the Tower and Buckingham Palace; she’d always dreamed of walking the same streets as Shakespeare. Unfortunately, she was traveling on her own dime and she had precious few of them.
The city sped by the window of the bus taking her to Gatwick Airport, where she boarded a flight to Inverness. A few hours later, she got her first glimpse of the city. Why Kris had thought Inverness would be full of castles she had no idea. According to her guidebook, it had over sixty thousand people and fewer than half a dozen castles. Still she was disappointed. Quaint would play very well on film.
She got what she was hoping for on the road south. The countryside was quaint squared, as was Drumnadrochit. White buildings framed by rolling green hills, the place should have been on a postcard—hell, it probably was—along with the wide, gray expanse of Loch Ness.
The village was also tourist central, with a wealth of Nessie museums, shops, and tours by both land and sea. Kris would check them out eventually. They’d make another excellent setting for her show. The charm of the village would highlight the archaic myth, illuminating how backward was a belief in fairy tales. The excessive glitter of tourism would underline why the locals still pretended to believe.
Kris had once adored fairy tales, listening avidly as her mother read them to her and her brother. In those tales, bad things happened, but eventually everything worked out.
In real life, not so much.
Her driver, an elderly, stoic Scot who’d said nothing beyond an extremely low-voiced, “Aye,” when she’d asked if he often drove to Drumnadrochit, continued through the village without stopping. For an instant Kris became uneasy. What if the man had decided to take her into the countryside, bash her on the head, and toss her into the loch, making off with her laptop, video camera, and anything else she might possess? Sure, Lola would miss her eventually, but by then Kris would be monster bait.
A hysterical bubble of laughter caught in her throat. She didn’t believe in monsters—unless they were human.
She lifted her gaze to the rearview mirror and caught the driver watching her. He looked like anyone’s favorite grampa—blue-eyed, red cheeked, innocent.
And wasn’t that what everyone said about the local serial killer?
The vehicle jolted to a stop, and Kris nearly tumbled off the shiny leather seat and onto the floor. Before she recovered, her driver leaped out, opened her door, and retreated to the trunk to retrieve her bag.
Kris peered through the window. They’d arrived at Loch Side Cottage, which, while not exactly loch side, was damn close. Kris would have to cross the road to reach the water, but she’d be able to see it from the house. The village of Drumnadrochit lay out of sight around a bend in the road.
“Idiot.” Kris blew her bangs upward in a huff. “No one’s going to bash you over the head. This isn’t the South Side of Chicago.”
She stepped out of the car, then stood frozen like Dorothy opening the door on a new and colorful world. The grass was a river of green, the trees several shades darker against mountains the hue of the ocean at dawn. The air was chill, but it smelled like freshwater and—
A short, cherubic woman with fluffy white hair and emerald eyes stood in the doorway of the cottage. For an instant Kris thought she was a Munchkin. She certainly had the voice for it.
“I made a batch of Empires to welcome ye.” She held out a platter full of what appeared to be iced shortbread rounds, each topped with a cherry.
Kris hadn’t eaten since the flight to Heathrow, so despite her belief that a biscuit should only be served warm, dripping with butter and honey, she took one.
At the first bite, her mouth watered painfully. The Empires were crisp and sweet—was that jelly in the middle?—and she couldn’t remember eating anything so fabulous in a very long time.
“It’s a cookie,” she managed after she swallowed the first and reached for a second.
The woman smiled, the expression causing her cheeks to round like apples beneath her sparkling eyes. “Call it whatever ye like, dearie.” She lifted the platter. “Then take another.”
Kris had to listen very hard to distinguish the English beneath the heavy brogue. She felt as if she were hearing everything through a time warp, one that allowed the meaning of the words to penetrate several seconds after they were said. She hoped that the longer she stayed, the easier it would get.
“Thanks.” Kris took two cookies in each hand. “I’m Kris Daniels.”
“Well, and don’t I know that.” The plump, cheery woman giggled. The sound resembled the Munchkin titters that had welcomed Dorothy to Oz. Kris glanced uneasily at the nearby shrubbery, expecting it to shake and burp out several more little people.
Then she heard what the woman had said and caught her breath. If they already knew her here, knew what she did, who she was, her cover was blown and her story was crap before it had even begun. Why hadn’t she used a false name?
Because she hadn’t thought anyone in the Scottish Highlands would have seen a cable TV show filmed in Chicago. And how, exactly, would she present herself as Susie Smith when her credit cards and passport read “Kristin Daniels”?
“You know me?” Kris repeated faintly.
“I spoke with ye on the phone. Rented ye the cottage. Who else would be arriving today bag and baggage?”
Kris let out the breath she’d taken. She was no good at cloak-and-dagger. She liked lying about as much as she liked liars and was therefore pretty bad at it. She needed to get better and quick.
“You’re Ms. Cameron,” Kris said.
“Euphemia,” the woman agreed. “Everyone calls me Effy.”
Effy’s brilliant eyes cut to the driver, who was as thin and tall as she was short and round. “Ye’ll be bringing that suitcase inside now, Rob, and be quicker about it than a slow-witted tortoise.”
Kris glanced at the old man to see if he was offended, but he merely nodded and did as he’d been told.
Kris’s lips twitched. She’d have been tempted to do the same if Effy had ordered her around.
Rob came out of the cottage, and Effy shoved the plate in front of him. “Better eat a few, ye great lummox, or ye’ll be starvin’ long before supper.”
He took several. “If ye didnae cook like me sainted mother, woman, I’d have drowned ye and yer devil’s tongue in the loch years ago.”
Looming over the diminutive Effy, deep voice rumbling like the growl of a vicious bear, Rob should have been intimidating. But there was no heat to his words, no anger on his face. He just stated his opinion as if he’d stated the same a hundred and one times before. Perhaps he had. The two did seem well acquainted.
Effy snorted and shoved the entire plate of biscuits into his huge, worn hands with a sharp, “Dinnae drop that, ye old fool”; then she reached into the pocket of her voluminous gray skirt and pulled out a key, which she presented to Kris. “Here ye are, dearie. And what is it ye’ll be doing in Drumnadrochit?”
“I’m … uh…” Kris glanced away from Effy’s curious gaze, past Rob, whose cheeks had gone chipmunk with cookies, toward the rolling, gray expanse of the loch. “Writing.”
“Letters?” Rob mumbled.
“Why would she need to travel all this way to write a letter?” Effy scoffed.
“I’m writing a book,” Kris blurted.
There. That had even sounded like the truth. Maybe the key to lying was thinking less and talking fast. No wonder men were so good at it.
“A children’s book?” Effy asked.
Kris said the first thing that popped into her head: “Sure.”
Silence greeted the word. That hadn’t sounded very truthful.
“Mmm.” Rob gave a throaty Scottish murmur, drawing Kris’s attention away from the loch and back to him. Luckily for her, it also caught Effy’s attention.
“Ye ate them all?” She snatched the empty plate from his hands.
“Ye said not to drop them. Ye didnae say not to eat them.”
“And if I didnae tell ye not to drive into the water would I find ye swimming with Nessie of an afternoon?”
Rob didn’t answer. Really, what could he say?
“Nessie,” Kris repeated, anxious to keep their attention off her inability to lie. “Have you seen her?”
“Mmm,” Rob murmured again, this time the sound not one of skepticism but assent.
“If ye live in Drumnadrochit,” Effy said, “ye’ve seen her.”
Kris laughed. She couldn’t help it. “Everyone’s seen her?”
Effy lifted her chin to indicate the loch. “Ye have but to look.”
Kris spun about. All she saw was waves and shadows and rocks.
* * *
Not long afterward, Effy climbed into Rob’s car, admonishing him all the while: “I need to get home, but dinnae drive too fast. Ye give me a headache. And—”
Rob shut the door on the rest of her comment. “Ye give me a headache,” he muttered, moving around the rear bumper toward the driver’s side.
“Effy lives close to you?” Kris asked.
Rob lifted sad eyes. “The woman lives with me.”
Kris’s eyes widened. “You’re—”
“Cursed,” he muttered, and opened the driver’s side door.
Effy’s voice came tumbling out: “Ye can walk anywhere ye like, dearie, but stay away from the castle.”
“There’s a castle?” Kris forgot all about Rob and Effy’s living arrangements—were they were married or living in sin? What did it matter? There was a castle.
“Urquhart Castle. Ye must have heard of it.”
Kris had read about it. The structure overlooked Urquhart Bay, where many Nessie sightings occurred, and had figured prominently in the history of the Highlands, with many famous names like Robert the Bruce, Andrew Moray, and Bonnie Prince Charlie sprinkled through the tales.
“Is it dangerous?” Kris asked.
Effy’s Munchkins-in-the-shrubbery laugh flowed free. “Ach no. But they charge a fee, and the place is naught but a ruin. If ye want to know about Urquhart or the loch or even Nessie come to me.”
“Why not me?” Rob climbed into the car. “I’ve seen her more than you have. I drive this road every day.”
“I’ve seen her twice as many times as you, ye old goat.”
Thankfully Rob shut the door on the rest of the argument, then drove away.
The sun was setting, though it was hard to tell considering the gray, gloomy sky and incipient threat of rain. Still, by her calculations, Kris had an hour of daylight left. She didn’t want to waste it.
She hurried inside, casting a quick glance around the cottage as she moved to the bathroom to throw cold water on her face and smooth back her wildly curling hair. The damp air in Scotland was going to ruin any prayer she had of keeping it smooth.
The house possessed a living area that shared space with a small kitchen, a bedroom complete with a decent-sized bed, a chest of drawers, a night table, and a teeny-tiny closet. Luckily she didn’t need, and she hadn’t brought, very many clothes.
The place was warm—Effy must have turned on the heat—and it smelled of cookies.
“Biscuits,” Kris murmured, and her stomach growled. Thankfully Effy had also been kind enough to stock the small refrigerator with a few staples to tide Kris over until she could get to the market.
Kris made a quick jam sandwich, slugged a glass of milk, then, armed with her video camera, a Loyola University sweatshirt, and her best pair of walking shoes, set out.
The western horizon glowed a muted pink and orange, the tourist boats that had bobbed in the distance now disappeared. Nevertheless, Kris filmed a bit of the loch. She had to start somewhere.
The water slid past, dingy in the fading light and pockmarked by several bits of wood. Kris could see how someone with an active imagination might invent a lake monster, especially when everyone else was doing so.
Just as Kris lowered her camera, something splashed. She froze, squinting into the gloom, but she could see nothing beyond the first several feet of flowing, murky water.
“They grow the fish big here,” she muttered.
From the sound of the splash and the suddenly larger swell of the waves, they grew them as big as a tank.
Kris was tempted to return to the cottage. Not because she was afraid, but because she hadn’t brought the proper equipment needed to film in the fast-approaching night.
Kris cursed her lack of foresight. She wasn’t used to being her own cameraman, and she hadn’t thought she’d find anything so soon. But if she wanted to have clear, perfect footage of whatever—make thatwhoever—had made that noise, she’d need the light she’d left in her backpack.
Then she heard another splash, nearer the shore, just past that next grove of trees, and before she could think any more about it Kris plunged into the gloom.
The ground was slick beneath the cover of the branches, and she slid a bit, had to slow down. But it wasn’t even a minute before she popped out on the shore of Loch Ness.
She looked left, right, across. The far side was hazy—too far away to really see, and she’d forgotten her binoculars along with the light. But still she was pretty certain she saw—
“Nada.” Either the culprit was track-star fast or there really was a fish the size of Cleveland in the loch.
Which would explain a few things.
Kris frowned. One of the theories about Nessie was that an unknown creature lived in the depths. Current cryptozoological speculation set the amount of undiscovered species between half a million and ten million—no one really knew. Which meant—
“There could be damn near anything out there.”
And that was fine. That was good. Proving that Nessie was a big, toothy, prehistoric fish would debunk the lake monster theory, too.
Kris emerged from the trees, intent on returning to the cottage, then unpacking and taking a shower until the hot water gave out, before jumping into bed and sleeping until the jet lag went away. She even made her way up to the road and turned in that direction.
Then she noticed the castle below.
Despite the fading sun, Kris lifted her camera. The ruins were too spooky to resist—all Gothic and Jane Eyre–ish—perched on a precipice. She could well imagine locking a mad wife in that tower. Back when it still had enough walls to keep someone in rather than allowing her to tumble right out.
A shadow shimmied at the edge of Kris’s screen, and without thought she zoomed in—
On a man slipping through the ruins of Urquhart Castle, the last of the light sparkling in his glistening wet hair.
Copyright © 2011 by Lori Handeland