From where he stood hidden among the trees, he could see the cottage. The American girl was leaning against the doorpost in the sunlight. She wore a red turtle-necked sweater and jeans. She was chatting with her worker, the boy, as he cut lengths of lumber on a plank set up on two sawhorses. Ah, the boy! Dakin. Tall for a sixteen-year-old. Dark-haired, narrowly built. The photos had shown an aristocratic-looking face with a high-bridged nose. Aristocratic. A bit of irony there.
A few feet from Dakin, a kid in skinny black pants and sweatshirt and wearing a brimmed cap was sitting on a log, whittling. It would be Dakin's sister, maybe ten years old. She didn't concern him. It was Dakin. Only him. Dakin was the key. So easy! So easy!
He pinched out his cigarette, unfolded his cell phone, and dialed. Watching, he saw the American girl an instant later lift her head at the sound of the ringing phone. She said a word to Dakin, then turned and went into the cottage.
Torrey came from the cottage and held out her portable phone. "Dakin? It's for you." She smiled at him. There was a faint blue bruise on his cheekbone, courtesy of the bigger of the two young thugs who'd yesterday tried to knock her offher new Peugeot bike on the access road. Pedaling on the road with her groceries from Ballynagh, she'd seen the driver of the Dublin-to-Cork bus order the pair of them off the bus, heard his furious "Off my bus with yor fookin' drugs!" Then, standing on the road, they'd spotted her. Well, too bad for them--and lucky for her--that two minutes later Dakin, then a stranger to her, had happened along on foot.
Funny, the coincidence, that it was Dakin who'd turned up this afternoon. Last night she'd called Winifred Moore up at Castle Moore. It was mid-October and unexpectedly cold. She'd built a fire of peat and coal to warm the kitchen, but a kitchen window frame, well over a hundred years old, and rotting, had collapsed, letting in drafts of icy air. She'd needed a carpenter. In the village, a half mile down the road, smoke rose from chimneys up and down Butler Street, from O'Malley's Pub to Miss Amelia's Tea Shoppe, to Nolan's Bed and Breakfast.
"Lucky you called me," Winifred had said. "I've somebody who does carpentry. He's just finishing up a bit of work for me; I'll send him over tomorrow afternoon."
Dakin had arrived at three o'clock next day, his kid sister tagging along. "You!" Torrey had said, and laughed with pleasure at seeing her defender again, but sorry about the blue bruise on his cheekbone in her defense. The Peugeot had been new, she'd paid three hundred pounds for it. But it was the ugliness of the encounter, something feral in the two boys on pipestem legs and in leather jackets who'd wanted the bike--or her?--that had been so disturbing. Anyway, it was over. Yesterday's news.
By four o'clock, when the phone call came for Dakin, he had measured and cut narrow lengths of lumber for a new window frame, carefully selecting pieces from a miscellany in the back of his jeep. The sun shone down on his dark head. Torrey, handing him the phone, was thinking of offering himand his little sister a mug of hot cider, maybe with a cinnamon stick; she was sure she had a jar of--
"If what?" Dakin, holding the phone to his ear, listening, was staring blankly back at Torrey, his eyes wide, startled, "If I don't what? You'll what? My mother? Are you crazy? Who is this? I said, who--" He broke off. Torrey could hear the crackle of the caller's voice. Abruptly Dakin clicked off the phone.
At once the phone rang again. Torrey looked questioningly at Dakin. His face had gone pale, perspiration dampened his brow, he looked sick. Something cruel and ugly was happening. The phone kept ringing. "Shall I? ..." Torrey began, and hesitated, looking at Dakin. He shook his head.
But because Torrey was who she was, she impulsively snatched the phone from him, clicked it on, and said sharply into the receiver, "Enough of that! Who is this?"
Silence. Then, "Ah," the voice said softly, a man's voice, "you who live in that groundsman's cottage. Meddling, are you? Unwise. Even dangerous." A monotone, the voice, it made her shiver. She knew the accent. Couldn't quite place it.
"You--" she began. But the phone went dead.
A half hour later, at four-thirty, the lengths of wood mitered and stacked just inside the cottage door, Dakin left, trailed by Lucinda, his kid sister. Tomorrow he'd build the frame. Torrey had learned nothing about the phone call. "What is it?" she'd asked him. "Anything I can do?" But he'd only managed a stiff, "No, thanks."
"Well, then, tomorrow. Four o'clock. Right?"
"Yes." Automatic as a robot. His hazel eyes, under dark brows, were troubled. His mind was somewhere else. His mustard-colored jersey was wet with sweat. He shrugged into his jacket.
Torrey waited until Dakin and his sister were out of sight.Then she walked west toward where the woods were thickest. When she'd picked up the ringing phone in the cottage, she'd been facing the window and had glanced out. Something had glinted from the woods. Maybe the dying sun reflecting on a glass bottle someone had thrown away. Still--
She stood now beside a leafy oak a hundred yards from the cottage. Nothing here. Only bent grass that might have been where a rabbit had lain, or a chipmunk.
But neither a rabbit nor a chipmunk smoked cigarettes. She bent down and looked closer. A cigarette butt. She picked it up. Too dark now, under the oak, to read the brand. She wrapped the cigarette butt in a crumpled tissue from her jeans pocket.
She stood a moment then, looking about. Leaves rustled, twigs snapped, an unidentified animal squealed. What was she doing out here in the woods, the frosty evening drawing in, so that she shivered? It was none of her business. But the boy's appalled face! Dakin Cameron, her rescuer, her worker, whom she liked so much. Who was he?
Back at the cottage, Torrey turned on lights and drew the kitchen curtains closed. Then irresolute, she stood. She ought to call Inspector O'Hare at the Ballynagh police station.
But ... to report what? To report a phone call that she suspected Dakin Cameron would deny had been threatening? Or ... how do you report an apprehension?
Besides, Inspector O'Hare didn't view her fondly. She'd seen him raise his eyes to heaven at sight of her. They were enemy beasts who'd met in a forest, she and O'Hare. She was a professional interpreter. A year ago, she'd bested him, solving a murder with her knowledge of foreign languages. Even more exasperating to Inspector O'Hare was that he knew of her past as a thief. It was no wonder he wished she'd disappear in a puff of smoke.
"Well, too bad, my dear Inspector," Torrey said aloud, "Because here I'm staying." She'd fallen in love with the cottage two years ago. She had been on an interpreting job in Dublin, neutral ground for a Mideast conference, when she'd first seen the decrepit old groundsman's cottage with its latticed windows. The cottage was a ten-minute bike ride from the village of Ballynagh in this northwest corner of Wicklow. Now it was her jumping-off place for her interpreting assignments in Europe. Someday she'd return to the States. But not now. Not yet.
Seven o'clock, already full dark. Outside, a wind had sprung up; a cold draft came in through the damaged window. Torrey rolled up an old sweater and stuffed it around the window frame. She started a fire in the fireplace next to the bake oven, adding coal to the peat to make the fire last longer. She'd arrived back at the cottage only two days ago from an interpreting assignment in Prague. Besides the bedroom and tiny bath, there was just the kitchen with its worn old couch and chairs.
It had smelled damp and unlived-in. In the bedroom, the cotton rug looked as though gnawed by mice. Arriving late, she'd dined at the kitchen table on a can of sardines and some soda crackers she'd had in a tin, and a pot of tea. She'd felt comfortably relaxed. Two weeks before her next assignment. Budapest. She'd have to bone up a bit on her Hungarian. So in Dublin, on the way to Ballynagh, she'd stopped at Waterstone's Bookshop on Nassau Street and bought three Georges Simenon Inspector Maigret paperbacks that had been translated into Hungarian. Before each interpreting assignment, she liked to read a Simenon or two in that particular language to reinforce her facility in it. Luckily, Simenon had been published in fifty languages. Not that she herself knew more than a handful of languages. So far. Though she'd studiedhard for years. A linguistics professor at Harvard had written a paper about her, explaining that her facility with languages was genetic. Was it? She had no idea. But Interpreters International in Boston kept the assignments coming, mirabile dictu. Wonderful to relate.
Before going to bed, she'd unpacked the jump rope from her luggage. It weighed four ounces, and she was never without it. Sometimes, skipping rope was sheer enjoyment, and it kept her fit. She was twenty-seven, sleek and slim, despite being hooked on chocolate bars with almonds and on pasta with gorgonzola. She kept her dark wavy hair short; it was easier to handle when she traveled on assignments. Her eyes were gray, and her eyelashes, though short, were so black that they starred her eyes, a startling effect, so she didn't have to bother with mascara.
Other times, skipping rope seemed to help her think. And often it made her remember her happy childhood in North Hawk, happy only until the day when she was eleven and her Romanian father departed the town, deserting her and her seamstress mother who'd borne the New England name of Hapgood. Vlad Tunet, watchmaker. Tunet, "thunder" in Romanian. An adventurer, looking for fortune, to whom Torrey's mother had been that beloved fortune for twelve years, until his restlessness won. Skipping rope, Torrey could often see him laughing, the white teeth a brilliant slash in his tanned face. He'd kissed the top of her head before he left, and given her the scarf. The peacock bandana, as she thought of it. Silk. Turquoise-and-gold peacocks, outlined in black and splashed with silver streaks. Through the years she wore it often; sometimes around her waist, sometimes as a scarf, most often as a bandana. Strange that the peacock scarf gave her a sense of security when her father had deserted her and her mother to go off adventuring. Was his search for adventure something in his blood? And hers? As for her poor dearmother, surprisingly, instead of pining for Vlad Tunet, she had married the North Hawk pharmacist.
Torrey, yawning, had hung the jump rope and the peacock scarf on the pegs beside the kitchen door and gone early to bed.
She'd slept well. The next day had dawned brisk and sunny. She'd pedaled off to Ballynagh on the Peugeot for groceries; on the way back, she'd been stopped by the two trouble-seeking lads who'd been thrown off the bus. Thank God for Dakin!
Now, standing beside the kitchen table, Torrey took the tissue from her jeans pocket and unwrapped the cigarette butt. It was a brand she didn't recognize. Sinbad. She put it in a cup on the dresser.
In the fireplace, a bar of peat shifted with a soft, whispering sound. The kitchen had warmed up. Suppertime.
Corn soup. Out of a can. What about putting pepper in it? Or curry? Jasper would know.
Jasper. "My Irish lover," Torrey said aloud, smiling. Jasper, a dozen pounds overweight, with navy blue eyes and dark curly hair that was already receding though he was only thirty-six. Jasper, who handled two jobs that never acknowledged each other: He was Jasper who wrote a weekly culinary column in the Irish Independent. He was also Jasper Shaw, the investigative reporter.
Curry. Or maybe dill? Where was Jasper?
She put down the can of soup. At her desk in the corner she tapped into her E-mail. Well, well! A message from Jasper:
My darling, my love, try this: Boil leeks twelve minutes, drizzle with melted butter mixed with a teaspoonful of Dijon mustard. Sprinkle of Parmesan. Am in Belfast, the usual political contretemps. Arriving in Ballynagh next week with my winning ways ... you to be wood and won again.
"That's wooed," Torrey said aloud. "Wooed!"
At ten o'clock she went to bed. Half-asleep she thought, Dakin Cameron. She saw the alarm in his eyes, saw his face go pale. Yes, first thing tomorrow. Winifred, at Castle Moore.
Copyright © 2002 by Dicey Deere.