Oh do not tell the priest our plight
For he would call it a sin
But we have been out in the woods all night
A-conjuring summer in.
“Mr. Holmes, Dr. Watson,” the sad-eyed young woman said with a certain stiff formality as she positioned herself on the clients' chair, nodding at them and extending her hand. “Miss Martha H. Lithgow. I thank you for being willing to meet with me.”
“You've made a long trip, Miss Lithgow,” Sherlock said. “I'm a little curious as to what brings a deeply religious Scottish Highlander all the way into the black heart of sinful London.”
“How did you . . . “
“Please. Your accent and the mud on your shoes pinpoint your point of origin down to the nearest loch. Linnhe, as it happens. You have old-fashioned habits; you took a train from Fort William even though a flight from Glasgow would have shaved off hours. You move like someone highly reserved around strangers and careful of appearances. You are neither wealthy nor poor, but the trappings and customs of the urban middle class of your age group are unfamiliar to you, and you have a hint of disdain that you can't quite hide. This clearly isn't based on class status markers, so I suspected it comes from believing yourself a member of a different type of elite. The gold cross around your neck isn't a mere decoration, it has wear marks from being fondled often in stressful situations. You were doing it just a second ago, completely unconsciously. It brings you comfort and reminds you of your overdeveloped sense of duty.”
John tried not to feel glee at the expression on her face that he couldn't help just because Sherlock was so damn good, but there it was. A fleeting, complex mixture of anger and fear. A small, self-aware hint of a laugh. Would John describe it that way later, if this case turned out worth blogging?
“Mr Holmes, I'm not in the habit of approaching . . . consultants. But you are correct. I have great faith in our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. And until recently, I also had faith in the rule of law. Only the second one has wavered. Three years ago, my fiancé, Sgt. Neil Howie of the West Highlands Constabulary, went to investigate an anonymous report of a missing child in a remote place called Summerisle. He never communicated with me while he was there, and he never returned.”
She presented a photograph of a man in sharp, impeccable police uniform. His smile was real, if thin, but his eyes were cold.
A newspaper picture. Not a lover's keepsake.
Sherlock was playing it careful and cool, but by now John knew him well enough to recognize the tiny quivers in his stiffly steepled fingers and the quicksilver flashes in his eyes. He was beginning to be interested.
“Let's get the tediously obvious out of the way first,” he said. “Why did you wait three years?”
“As I said,” Miss Lithgow looked down and then up again, steely proud. “I had faith in the law. I was assured that the best of the Scottish police were on the case, and would certainly bring me information soon. For years I've held onto that belief, until I could no longer sustain it. You're my last resort, Mr. Holmes, not my first best hope.”
“Unfortunate,” Sherlock said. “By this time, the trail will be very cold indeed. And supposedly Scotland's finest couldn't even confirm the two most likely possibilities: that your fiancé is either dead, or living somewhere else far away, probably with another woman.”
Her prim little fists in her old-fashioned gloves tensed, and John was pretty sure she wanted to slap him. She wasn't the first and she wouldn't be the last. “Mr. Holmes,” she said, all cold rage. “I'm not stupid. I'm holding out no real hope of seeing my Neil again in this world. I want to know what happened to him, and I want justice so that my heart can rest easier when I meet him in the life everlasting.”
There followed a high priest of uncomfortable silences. “I suppose would some say it's 'closure' you're after, then,” Sherlock all but sneered. “Therapists, for example. They're all for that, aren't they, John?”
“Yeah,” John murmured. “Ella believes in closure.” Wanted to make sure I got some when you were dead, he thought. Look at how that turned out. He doubted Miss Lithgow would have a similar outcome, but you never know.
“So will you help me?” Miss Lithgow asked. “Please?”
“Maybe,” Sherlock said, commandeering John's laptop. A few moments of clicking, a hmm and a quizzical sound, and then Sherlock slammed the lid down and nodded. “Yes. I'll take your case.”
“Were you checking your schedule to see if you could fit me in?” she asked.
“No. I was confirming something a common mind might call a hunch. I was correct. There are no pictures whatsoever of Summerisle on Google Earth. No streetviews. No maps. No tourist-ridden bed-and-breakfast reviews. Nowadays, it might as well not exist.”
“I assure you, it does,” Miss Lithgow said, eyes narrowing.
“Oh, that I don't doubt,” Sherlock said.
“Will you need me to accompany you?” she asked. “If I must, I will. I'm a teacher, though, I'll need to give advance notice.”
Sherlock turned and faced her with a gleaming gaze. “No, Miss Lithgow, at least not at first. John and I can handle this just fine. I will certainly need to ask you a few more questions, if you don't mind.”
- - -
“You know the answer already, don't you?” John asked after Miss Lithgow had left.
“I know that Howie's almost certainly dead, but that's not the point. We're going to Scotland, John. We'll get you fitted for a kilt.”
John blinked. “Well, that's a nice thought, but I have one already.”
“I know that. A better one. Cancel all your shifts; it's a long trip and we'll be gone at least three days.”
Curse him, John thought. He really needed the money, and he really needed to be seen as reliable. Somehow. And yet – for long days before, Sherlock had been in one of his deep funks, rarely lifting so much as a limb from the sofa that by now permanently bore his body's imprint. Seeing his friend excited and engaged again, well, what could John do? And if this case was more exciting than it seemed (as it likely was), how could he miss it?
He sighed. The Scottish Isles were lovely and it would be nice to visit them again. Getting far clear of London had a way of refreshing the mind.
- - -
The trip was long. A flight from Gatwick to Inverness, and from there a hired car to the harbour at Kyle of Lochalsh, over the bridge to Skye (speed, bonnie cab, like a bird on the wing), and then a long drive in a rented car north up that island to the ferry port at Uig. They'd have to leave the car there, because the road had ended. Sherlock showed no interest in its fate. There were boats to Summerisle, they were told, but no regularly-scheduled ferry. The only way to get there was if someone deigned to allow it, and somehow word had traveled ahead of them. After a long, long awkward wait, eventually a finely-painted 19th-century cargo ship had pulled in and accepted them as passengers, and the dinghy rowers had beckoned to Sherlock and John after dropping off their cargo of bottles at the pub.
They got on that lovely ship with its empty crates of apples, and so sailed the unfriendly chop of the Little Minch into the tight little harbour at Summerisle.
“There's a West Highlands Police hydroplane somewhere beneath us, completely submerged,” Sherlock muttered to John, with his hands on the railing and looking down at the cold grey water. “As far is the law is concerned, Sgt. Howie's body is there too, though it's never been found. Foul play is not officially suspected.”
“Well,” John said quietly. “We've come a long way if that's true.”
“You know my methods, John,” Sherlock said with his finest sociopath's smile.
The unwelcoming faces of the grizzled men watched intently as the dinghy pulled up at the little stone quay, and Sherlock Holmes and John Watson first set foot on Summerisle.
Far, far from the bustle of London was this place. The keening cries of seagulls and the constant low roaring lap of the sea. The uncanny-wise faces of the seals in the harbour.
John knew that type of people well – all those hostile faces, distrustful of outsiders, could have been well out of his family album, but at least fifty years past. And Sherlock, well, he had no care for the opinions of some backwater villagers. Just fine for him, he wasn't the one who'd slipped while climbing out of the little rowboat with the painted eyes, so he wasn't walking down the high street with one wet shoe.
Say this for their tight-lipped client at least, someone had got them past the stern-faced town gatekeepers and into the Green Man Inn to get a room. Only one room, of course, and that with only one bed.
“Sorry, boys,” said the landlord with an implication he wasn't sorry at all, “May Day is upon us, so it's a miracle there was a room at all. Someone must be favouring you.”
“Yes. I wonder who,” Sherlock said, taking the key.
The room was cosy but definitely not fancy. Retro, even, John thought – a big brass bed, a side table, an open window letting in the spring seaside air, and nothing but. This place was old, and not reworked for modern tastes.
“So – we're staying here, then. Okay.”
“No other choice and it could be much worse,” Sherlock said.
“I didn't mean . . . of course I've had worse,” John said. Truth be told, he didn't hate it at all. The Green Man was clearly a fine tavern of the old school, at least a century's worth, and as few outside travelers as this island likely had, he was glad there was such a place at all. The pub downstairs looked promising; from the gleeful singing of the people inside, he thought the local brew must be rewarding.
John thought that if he were in this environment alone, he'd be able to navigate – but he'd have to share this town with Sherlock. Who was here to find out truths that the locals would not want revealed.
And he'd have to share that bed with Sherlock. Sherlock who could deduce any intent or desire or grudge from a scar or a glance or a hair, and yet had steadfastly missed every single signal that John knew he was lousy at hiding for all the years they'd shared a flat.
No. Sherlock was on a case, and he rarely slept during that particular frenzy of his, certainly not during normal hours – but if he wanted to, then John would take the floor. But it was no time to worry about such things yet. Sherlock had a lot of exploring to do. John watched him run the length of the room, standing on his tiptoes to study the tops of the window sashes, down on his knees to examine the baseboards. He paused for a moment at another door, that seemed to connect the room adjacent. Locked. He seemed satisfied by whatever unfathomable thing that communicated to him.
The island was completely unlike anything John expected. In his limited experience, the Hebrides were chilly and stony and treeless, full of blasted heaths and rugged mountains, just barely hanging on against the sea.
Summerisle was sweet and warm with a sultry sea breeze – gentle like the tropics, profoundly un-Scottishlike – and green and fertile, riddled with palmettos around the streets and buildings, and dark with the promise of a proper forest on the edges of the flowering orchards. The little cobblestone high street that trickled down a steep hill from the inn should have been either sparse and poor or full of tourist-trap frippery that no locals could afford – but instead it was full of the normal businesses of a half-century before: the butcher, the dressmaker, the tea house, the boatman, the grocer, the chemist.
Dusk was approaching, late as it came this far north. Weeks past the Spring Equinox, weeks still to go til the Solstice. John was hungry, but he was sure Sherlock would want to start walking the little streets and interrogating people, right away.
“Are you hungry, John?”
“Well, yeah, but . . . ”
“Let's have dinner! I'm sure the pub has excellent food, don't you think?” Sherlock wore a giddy grin, and John was about to ask who he was and what had he done with Sherlock, when Sherlock winked, locked the room and led John downstairs.
The pub was full of people gathering for the evening's festivities. John noted with pleasure this seemed to be the kind of place you went for craic; the little cluster of young people softly playing folk music nodded at him, absorbed in their tune.
. . . Lord Donald he jumped up / and loudly he did bawl / he struck his wife right through the heart / and pinned her against the wall . . .
Sherlock had the shepherd's pie, John the fish and chips, and both had the dark golden Summerisle ale, presented in pint glasses by a pretty teenager. “Here for the May Day?” the girl asked cheerfully. “We don't have a lot of outsiders here. You must be a guest of Lord Summerisle.”
“Yes, he knows we're here. Your pub came highly recommended,” Sherlock said, turning on the charm.
“Well, welcome,” she said.
“We've come a long way and your ale hits the spot,” Sherlock said, getting downright oily. Oily enough that the middle-aged man behind the taps was starting to give him a shifty look from a two-sided face; cheerful for the regulars, drawn and wary for the strangers. Deliberately oblivious, Sherlock held out his hand. “I'm Sherlock Holmes, and this is my friend, Hamish Watson.”
John almost dropped his pint and turned to Sherlock with murder in his eyes.
“So the MacGregor family owns this pub – are you a MacGregor too?”
“Oh no, I'm just helping out in the busy season. That's Alder MacGregor there and his daughter Willow. My name's Rowan Morrison.”
“Lovely name for a lovely young lady. Thank you, Miss Morrison,” Sherlock said, while John tried to keep a bit of vinegary potato from falling straight out of his mouth. Neither the landlord nor his daughter looked best pleased, though Willow's calculating look had a different tone from her father's.
“John,” Sherlock said under his breath. “If you make a trip to the toilet any time soon, you might want to take a look at those photographs along the wall. The girls are much too young for you, but you also enjoy food, so the pictures of the harvest might interest you. Our Rowan herself was one of those future May Queens, posing with the crops, not so long ago. She was cheated, I'm afraid, that wasn't one of Summerisle's better years.”
Then his voice dropped even lower. “She was also the missing child that Sgt. Howie came to search for. As you can see, she's alive and well and accounted for.”
“Oh. Well, I don't need to go just yet.”
Alder MacGregor had left his post behind the taps as the singing got louder and more raucous, and insinuated himself up to John and Sherlock's table. “Is everything to your liking?”
“It's fine, thanks,” John said. “Hey, before I forget, what's the password to the WiFi here?”
The pub fell silent as MacGregor fixed him with a pitying look. Then laughter burst out, increasing a bit at John's bewildered expression. “What's so funny?” he demanded.
MacGregor shook his head. “Mainlanders. Can't live a minute without their little toys.”
John was even more enraged to see that Sherlock was apparently sharing in the general mirth at his expense. Filled with a sudden, horrible thought, John whipped his mobile out of his pocket. No signal. Not even the hint of a bar.
“It's no use, John,” Sherlock said. “I'm sure we left our last mobile tower behind at Kyleakin.”
“You knew!” John said in an angry whisper.
“I knew you'd figure it out eventually,” Sherlock said.
John took another long pull of ale. So he faced a long night ahead with Sherlock in a tiny room – with no internet to distract him and no way of contacting anyone on the mainland. Sherlock might bluff now, but that lack of connection was going to drive him barking in three. . . two . . . one, whether he was willing to admit it or not.
“Relax, John,” Sherlock said. “I'm finding it refreshing. Facing this puzzle with no tools at hand but my senses and my reason – it's almost exhilarating. How would I have functioned a hundred years ago? I'd have had to truly rely on my wits, wouldn't I? I'm sure I'm up to the challenge.”
“You sound like you've signed up for one of those wilderness survival shows.”
“We have,” Sherlock said.
“I didn't,” John said sulkily.
Back up in the room, John now felt trapped and hemmed in by the room in a way he hadn't before. Sherlock was sitting in the chair by the window, perusing a book on the plant life of the western isles and to all appearances utterly content. “Cheer up, John. There's a chance the chemist or the post office has some suitably trashy reading material for you. We'll go looking tomorrow.”
“I thought you weren't acting like yourself before. Now you are. I think I like it better the other way.”
“No you don't,” Sherlock said firmly and turned back toward the book.
John sat back on the bed, staking out space there. The singing from downstairs was almost pleasant – mostly fine old folk songs, he imagined, and he wished he knew more of them. But then there'd been that one about the landlord's daughter, and while it probably was authentically old, it wasn't the sort of thing you'd hear at the better class of folk revival concerts. Willow hadn't reacted the way he'd have expected her to – she seemed sincerely flattered, and even her father wasn't the least bit put out by the lewdness.
He'd almost drifted off napping when he happened to glance over at Sherlock, who was now no longer even pretending to read. His attention was fixed on the window, and John could almost hear the gears turning in his head as he watched something.
“What is it?”
“Look. But stay out of the window, try not to be seen. Not that they'll be paying much attention.”
At first, all John could see was darkness beyond the edges of the inn's garden. But as his eyes adjusted and the moon waxed above the sharp lines of the hill, he saw movement in several places – directly below him, and out on the green. The ones against the pub wall, that was clear enough: a cluster of people, two men and a woman, moving and clutching together, kissing and groping. The ones farther out, though – he saw pale light reflected on bare skin, entangled pairs moving in obscene, delighted ripples and rolls of their shameless bodies.
“There's people out there . . . having sex. Out in the open in front of everybody. And it's a lot of them!”
“I appreciate the explanation, John. Otherwise I might have been confused,” Sherlock said, snickering.
“What is this place?” John asked, mostly to himself. He thought he ought to look away, it wasn't the kind of thing you just watched . . . except here, apparently you did.
His attention was so far out in the fields with the coupling couples he didn't even notice the approach to the window below. Sherlock did, though, watching with keen eyes.
Two men in Highland formalwear, kilts and sporrans and lace at their throats. One was young and virtually quivered with nerves and anticipation. The other – well, the other was just regal. He was much older, perhaps a distinguished if youthful fiftyish. He was very tall – he'd slightly tower over Sherlock – and wore his regalia like a royal robe on his broad shoulders. He had flecks of grey at his temples and a keen wit in his dark eyes. With a deep voice, he called out to the window, and John almost started until he realised the man was calling for Willow MacGregor. She put her pretty blonde head out of the window of the room next to theirs.
“Lord Summerisle,” she said happily. So this was the great laird himself. He certainly looked the part.
“I bring a sacrifice for the Goddess of Love,” Lord Summerisle said, with a respectful little bow. “I present Larch Campbell.”
She giggled and nodded. “Welcome, Larch. Come on up, don't be shy.”
Lord Summerisle nudged the young man forward, and John watched as he disappeared into the pub. The music changed abruptly. This was no bawdy romp or bloody ballad, this was an earnest, sensual love song, all plaintive Highland tenor and throbbing bodhrán.
“Sacrifice?” John said a little worriedly. “You don't think ... ”
“I wouldn't worry,” Sherlock said. “I think Larch will enjoy being sacrificed.”
Indeed, it appeared he did. And if John had thought that being trapped in a tiny room with Sherlock, with one bed and no internet and too much folk music, was a stressful situation, it was nothing compared to being there when the music was overridden by intimate laughter and ecstatic moans and the steady thump and squeak of a well-used bed, just on the other side of the wall in the next room.
“It's nice of the local laird to take such a personal interest,” Sherlock had quietly muttered in the dark. “You don't see that kind of noblesse oblige anymore.”