The Corpse Wore Tartan
“Sure are a lot of kilts in town,” Sadie Le Blanc said to her two companions.
Her housekeeping cart rolled silently ahead of her along the second floor hallway of The Spruces. Six months earlier, this stately, historic hotel in rural Moosetookalook, Maine had reopened its newly renovated doors to the public, providing employment for a good many of the tiny village’s residents.
“Long as they got money to spend in them sporran things, I don’t care how silly their clothes are.” Rhonda Snipes pushed her own well-maintained cart over thick carpeting that still had a trace of new-rug smell to it. She was short and squat, with no bosom to speak of.
“Sporran? You mean that leather pouch that looks like a purse?” Sadie sniggered. In contrast to Rhonda, Sadie was a beanpole, one of those painfully thin women who always look as if they’d blow away in a good wind.
“It is a purse,” Rhonda said. “Though why they’d want the thing banging against them at crotch level is beyond me.”
Like Sadie, Rhonda had been hired to clean guest rooms and, on special occasions, to help out the small wait staff. Neither job paid all that well, but sometimes there were tips. She rubbed the back of her neck as she headed for the service elevator. It was the end of the shift, but all three of them would be back in only a couple of hours to help serve drinks and canapés at the cocktail party that preceded the Burns Night Supper.
“Disgraceful, I call it.” Dilys Marcotte’s voice was rife with disapproval. “I hear some of them don’t wear a blessed thing under their kilts. Take a peek and you’d see bare skin all the way up.”
“Who told you such foolishness?” Sadie demanded. “Stands to reason it’s too cold in January not to wear something underneath.”
Two bright flags of color stained Dilys’s plump cheeks. “Never you mind. I know what I know.” She appeared to be a little older than the other two and was of middling stature.
The elevator doors slid open with a quiet whoosh and the three women hauled their housekeeping carts inside for the ride down to the basement. The carts would be stored there overnight and restocked with towels and other supplies in the morning.
Liss MacCrimmon, a tall, slender brunette in her late twenties, waited another minute to be certain the coast was clear before she stepped out from behind a potted palm. Her face wore a broad grin. She’d had to struggle not to laugh out loud during the conversation she’d just overheard.
Eavesdropping on members of the housekeeping staff had been accidental, but once she’d realized what they were talking about, she hadn’t wanted to embarrass them by revealing her presence. After all, she was the one who’d asked the three local women to put in overtime this evening.
Dilys had it wrong, of course. Would she be disappointed, Liss wondered, to know that most men preserved their modesty by wearing cut-offs or swim trunks under their kilts? The more daring made do with regular underwear. That modern Scotsmen wore nothing at all under their kilts was just another of those ridiculous things that “everyone knew” was true. In other words—nonsense.
Liss was confident she was right. Even though she’d only visited Scotland once, as a teenager with her parents, she was very familiar with the Scottish-American community. She’d grown up competing in Scottish dance competitions at Scottish Festivals and Highland Games. Then she’d performed for nearly eight years with a Scottish dance troupe, until her knee gave out and ended that career. Now she was half-owner and sole employee of Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium, a small shop in the village that sold Scottish imports and other items with a Scottish theme. She was in the process of buying out her aunt, Margaret MacCrimmon Boyd, just as Aunt Margaret had bought out Liss’s father when he retired and went to live in Arizona.
These days, the Emporium relied heavily on online and mail order sales to stay in the black, but the brick-and-mortar store was in no danger of closing. Furthermore, Liss’s aunt would continue to be her landlady even after she sold Liss her share of the business.
With a glance at her watch, Liss headed for the service stairs leading to the mezzanine. It was already four. She’d be late if she didn’t hustle.
Ever since Christmas, Liss had spent almost as much time at the hotel as she had in the shop. Aunt Margaret had a new job—events coordinator at The Spruces. As such, she had a lot on her plate. Liss had agreed to help out by acting as a liaison to the Scottish Heritage Appreciation Society.
SHAS was a small group. Most of the members came from the Portland, Maine area, with a few from as far away as Portsmouth, New Hampshire. All were proud of their Scottish roots. Because of that, they gathered every twenty-fifth of January to celebrate the birthday of Scottish poet Robert Burns. One quirk of the organization was that the Burns Night Supper was never held in the same location twice. The Sinclair House in Waycross Springs had been its venue the previous year. When The Spruces had been chosen as the next site, everyone had been thrilled. The booking was for two dozen of the hotel’s most expensive rooms plus a private dining room. That was no big deal by city standards, but it was a life saver for a small town business that was hanging on by a thread.
Three people waited for Liss in that dining room. Eunice MacMillan was a raw-boned woman in her mid-fifties who stood only an inch or two shorter than Liss’s five-foot-nine. She had sharp features and an intense gaze that Liss found disconcerting. During the weeks of preparation for the Burns Night Supper, Liss had spent considerable time with Eunice. She couldn’t say she’d come to know the woman particularly well—just enough to dislike her.
Looking for all the world like a pair of bookends, Phil and Phineas MacMillan stood on either side of Eunice, who was Phil’s wife. Liss could not tell one twin from the other. Their graying hair was styled exactly the same way and their features—square jaw, beak of a nose, and close-set dark brown eyes—were identical. So were their outfits. Although they were not yet in formal Scottish attire, they were wearing kilts in the MacMillan tartan, a pattern of bright yellow and orange.
“Ah, Ms. MacCrimmon, so good of you to join us,” one bookend said. He’d been using his skean dhu—a small knife—to clean under his fingernails while he waited. Without looking, he put it away in a sheath tucked into the top of his right kilt hose.
“I swear,” Eunice muttered, “one of these days you’re going to slice your leg open doing that. You should be sensible, like your brother, and let the blade go dull.”
“No point in sharpening it,” the brother in question chimed in. “I don’t plan to shave with it.”
“No, you use yours as a letter opener.” He turned on Eunice. “For God’s sake, woman, don’t fuss at me. It’s not as if I’m going to slip and cut my own throat with it.”
“Har. Har,” his brother said, imbuing the mock laugh with enough sarcasm to sink an ocean liner.
There was no need for any of them to expand on the reference, Liss thought. They all knew that famous bit of Scottish history. The story went that when the Scots had at last been soundly defeated by the English, all weapons had been forbidden to them. The only exception had been the skean dhu, which was declared to be “only big enough for a Scotsman to slit his own throat with”—an outcome to which the English apparently had not had any objections!
Liss forced herself to keep smiling until the three MacMillans finally lost interest in bickering among themselves and turned their collective attention to her.
“Well?” Eunice demanded.
Liss held up the clipboard she carried. “Everything seems to be running right on schedule, Ms. MacMillan. All the members of your group have checked in.”
“This meeting was supposed to have started ten minutes ago,” complained the twin who preferred a dull blade. He looked pointedly at his watch.
“Don’t give the girl a hard time, Phineas,” Eunice chided him. “She’s doing the best she can.”
Damned with faint praise, Liss thought, and kept smiling. Her facial muscles already ached.
Phineas was Phineas MacMillan, president of SHAS. He was scheduled to give the opening remarks and make the toast. Liss could see no way to distinguish him from his brother, except to keep an eye on both of them and remember that the one currently standing to Eunice’s left was her husband, Phil. Even their voices—complete with undercurrents of disdain—sounded identical.
While Liss watched, Phineas examined every place setting and piece of stemware in the dining room. He seemed disappointed when he couldn’t find anything to complain about. Then his eyes lit up. He pounced on the clip-on microphone lying beside the plate at the center of the head table.
“I can’t use this fiddly little thing.” Phineas held it up with two fingers. From the expression on his face, Liss would have thought it was a cockroach he’d caught crawling across the tablecloth. “I want a real microphone. Something with some heft. And an on/off switch.”
In other words, Liss thought, a big honking phallic symbol that he could wave around as he spoke. He probably thought wearing a small mike attached to his collar wasn’t macho enough.
Schooling her features to show only a calm, helpful façade, Liss promised to take care of the matter before the supper got under way.
“See that you do,” Phineas said.
“Is there anything else I can do for you?” Liss asked. She hoped not. She had a full plate already.
“Eunice forgot to pack toothpaste,” Phil said.
“We stock several brands in the gift shop just off the lobby,” Liss told him.
For a moment, her smile was genuine. The gift shop also carried a number of items from Moosetookalook Scottish Emporium. With any luck, members of SHAS would be inclined to buy a few of them, or at least pick up one of Liss’s catalogues.
A first-rate hotel would supply the basics for free,” Eunice said in a snippy voice.
Liss gritted her teeth, kept smiling, and did not give voice to what was on her mind. “I can assure you that the gift shop’s prices are reasonable,” she said instead.
“Come along, kiddies,” Phineas said, putting one hand on Eunice’s elbow and the other on Phil’s shoulder. “We’ve got a busy evening ahead of us.”
When they’d gone, Liss switched the microphones herself. That small task took only a few minutes. It was 4:30 when she left the private dining room. She decided she had just enough time to pay a visit to the hotel kitchen and grab a bite to eat before the cocktail party. For that she was profoundly grateful. Dealing with the MacMillans had worked up an appetite.
From the top of the stairs that led down from the mezzanine, Liss had a bird’s-eye view of a scene of Victorian splendor. Polished wood floors were dotted with large plush rugs to create cozy seating areas and these were further divided into small pockets of privacy by a series of pillars. At the far end of the lobby was a huge fireplace with a tile-lined hearth and an ornate marble mantel and huge mirror above. Nearer at hand, at the foot of the gently curving staircase, sat a check-in desk made of rich woods polished to a high gloss. Behind it, backed up against a wall of old-fashioned cubbyholes used to hold guest keys and messages, stood Mary Winchester.
Liss frowned. That wasn’t right. And Mary’s expression was a classic—wide eyes and dropped jaw. Following the direction of the other woman’s gaze, Liss spotted two men wearing kilts and cable-knit sweaters. At first glance, they appeared to be playing a game of tag around the pillars.
Then Liss noticed the bagpipe. One of the men held it like a club. He was attempting to beat his companion over the head with it. The tableau gave new meaning to the bagpipe’s designation—by those same English authorities who’d permitted Scots to keep their skean dhus—as an “instrument of war.”
Liss hurried down the stairs. She flashed a reassuring smile at Mary as she passed the desk but didn’t stop. The two men were both strangers to her, but one wore the Grant tartan and the other sported the colors of Clan Erskine. Members of SHAS—no doubt about that!
“This is a worthless piece of junk!” shouted Grant, the man wielding the bagpipe. He slammed it down on Erskine’s left shoulder. A sick-sounding blat issued from the bag as a small pocket of air was expelled. “This bag is dried up.” Whack! “The drones are cracked.” Thunk! “I want my hundred dollars back.”
Shielding his head with upraised arms, Erskine did not appear to be in any immediate danger of serious injury. He bobbed and weaved, kilt swirling with every movement, and he managed to keep a series of wingback chairs, sofas, and coffee tables between himself and his attacker.
“Let the buyer beware!” he hollered, and ducked when Grant lunged. From the shelter of a pillar, a distinct whine in his voice, he attempted to reason with the other man. “You looked it over before you paid me. What did you expect for a bargain price?”
“Better than I got!”
Liss caught Grant’s sweater-clad forearm as he reared back to throw the bagpipe. “Settle down,” she said in a firm voice. “There’s no need for violence.”
“Who the hell are you?” Grant demanded. His eyes narrowed in his flushed face, but the interruption had thrown him off his stride.
“I’m your liaison with the hotel.” She looked him right in the eyes. The moment he lowered his arm, Liss grabbed hold of the bag and tugged the instrument out of his hands.
“This is neither the time nor the place for violence. If you must fight, take it outside.” Maybe the cold January air would cool them off!
Erskine sidled up to her. “We didn’t break anything.”
“For which we are all grateful.” She glanced at him, then away. Grant was the volatile one. She hefted the bagpipe, looking it over with an expert eye. “You’re right,” she told Grant. “This is worthless. But you should have spotted that for yourself before you bought it. Or asked someone knowledgeable to take a look at it.”
Grant glowered at Erskine. “I thought he was my friend.”
Out of the corner of her eye, Liss caught sight of Eunice and Phil MacMillan watching them from a spot near the elevators. They were, she supposed, on their way back to their suite after a toothpaste run. She hoped neither would try to “help.”
Meanwhile, a stubborn look had come over Erskine’s face. “I’m not giving the money back,” he muttered. “He bought it as is, fair and square.”
“I don’t want it anymore.” Grant sounded like a sulky child.
“Okay,” Liss said. “Here’s what we’re going to do. I’m tossing this in the trash.” She hefted the bagpipe. “You got a problem with that?”
The would-be piper gave a deep sigh. “No, ma’am.”
Erskine smirked, but the expression vanished when Liss glared at him. She addressed Grant again. “There’s a shop Waycross Springs. Tandy’s Music and Gifts.”
“Yeah. Russ Tandy’s place.”
“If you want to buy a bagpipe, go there. He even gives lessons. As for you—” She gave Erskine a firm poke in his wool-clad chest. “If you have any conscience at all, you’ll offer to chip in on the cost.”
Shifting his weight from foot to foot like a bully caught acting up in the schoolyard, Erskine had the grace to look ashamed of himself. After a moment, he nodded. “I guess I could do that.”
“Excellent.” Carrying the bagpipe under her arm, Liss left them to work out the details. She returned to the check-in desk and gave Mary another reassuring smile.
The other woman sagged in relief. “I can’t believe you did that, Liss. I froze. Absolutely froze. I didn’t even have the presence of mind to pick up the phone and holler for help.”
“Just as well you didn’t. Those two are here with the Scottish Heritage Appreciation Society. As a group, they’re annoying, but mostly harmless. Besides, they’re my responsibility.”
“That doesn’t mean you have to risk your neck breaking up a fight.” Mary’s molasses-brown eyes still had a slightly glassy look.
“Sit down before you fall down,” Liss ordered. “Are you okay?”
Mary was pregnant again, though she hardly showed. Like everyone else in the Ruskin family, Mary Ruskin Winchester worked long hours.
Joe Ruskin, Mary’s father, had bought The Spruces after it had been closed for most of a decade. He’d poured money and time into restoring it to its former glory with the hope that reopening the hotel would bring prosperity to everyone in Moosetookalook. Six months in, he was struggling to make ends meet. Mary and her brothers, Sam and Dan, temporarily held positions everyone devoutly hoped would soon be filled by experienced—and well-paid—professionals.
Running one hand through her short, sandy-brown hair, Mary took a few deep breaths and forced herself to smile. “I’m fine. It was just a little disconcerting.” She cast a wary look at the bagpipe Liss still held cradled against her chest. “What are you going to do with that thing?”
Liss passed it over. It was awkward to handle—a leather bag covered with tartan cloth with three wooden drones and a chanter hanging off it at odd angles—but it wasn’t heavy. It would have taken a lucky blow from Grant—or one aimed with savage viciousness—to have done any real damage to Erskine. “You’re going to toss it,” she told Mary. “It’s trash.”
Gingerly, Mary set the instrument down behind the check-in desk. “I’ll put it in the dumpster in the basement on my way off duty.”
The ding of the arriving elevator drew Liss’s attention. Belatedly, she realized that Phil and Eunice were only now entering the cage to return to their third floor suite. She knew the elevators weren’t that slow. They must have chosen to remain in the lobby until the show was over.
Grant and Erskine, Liss was glad to see, seemed to have resolved their differences. Arm in arm, they were just leaving the lobby, heading in the direction of the hotel lounge.
Mary sent Liss a worried look. “I should probably tell Dad what happened. Or Dan.”
“There’s no need to bother them. I’ve handled it. The crisis is over. We’re good.”
“Well, if you’re sure.”
“I’m sure. When do you get to go home?”
“At five, and it’s almost that now. Thank goodness! I can’t wait to put my feet up.”
The two women chatted for a few minutes. Or rather Mary chattered about her husband and her son Jason, a toddler. Then Liss, definitely hungry now, resumed her trek to the kitchen.
She could well understand Mary’s inclination to turn her troubles over to one of the Ruskin men. Liss smiled to herself as she walked briskly along a narrow service corridor. She’d rely on one of them more often herself if she weren’t so afraid that such dependence might be habit-forming.
Dan Ruskin, all six-foot-two of him, had become a fixture in Liss’s life soon after she moved back to Moosetookalook. She wasn’t quite sure where their relationship was headed, but she knew there was a special bond between them. Dan was easy to get along with and even easier to count on when there was trouble. He wasn’t hard on the eyes, either. Years of working for Ruskin Construction had developed muscles in all the right places.
The sound of raised voices reached Liss’s ears when she was still a hundred yards away from the entrance to the kitchen.
“Here we go again,” she muttered, and broke into a run.
Please note that this excerpt is taken from the author's original manuscript. There may be minor changes and corrections to style and grammar in the published version, thanks to the much valued contributions of an editor and copy editor.