Irish Firebrands

 

CHAPTER 1

 

THE scribe had borne down hard, his pen strokes reversed in high relief amongst the pinholes dotting the back of the card. Lana Pedersen’s fingertips explored the Braillelike bumps as she read:

 

To Let. Drumcarroll. 2-storey stone & slate farmhouse, orchard & outbuilding, on 6 acres. Shared access to peat & pond. Negotiable. Ring D. Carroll on:

 

She compared the punctured handwriting to the message on a board that hung askew on a gatepost guarded by a large clump of thistles. Below the words ‘To Let’, the telephone number matched.

 

Just like Brigham Young said, ‘This is the right place.’ But that dang donkey blocked the way.

 

Tourism adverts notwithstanding, this was the only donkey she’d seen — Ireland having leapt out of the Third World while riding the back of the Celtic Tiger. The creature had been peering over the top of a stone fence when Lana stopped her bike to check her Ordnance Survey atlas, and she couldn’t resist stroking the animal’s shaggy forelock. When she stopped petting it and walked her bike to the gate, it had followed her on emphatically thumping hooves. Now, its barrel shaped body wedged the gate shut.

 

Lana slapped the donkey’s rump. “Get up, Eeyore!”

 

The animal just stared at her reproachfully.

 

She tried shoving the gate. “Shoo, Benjamin!”

 

The bolshie beast still refused to budge.

 

Spoiled rotten. Must be somebody’s pet.

 

Lana was out of polite names, and it was getting late — soon she’d have to pay for another night’s lodging in town. She scanned the fence for a gap to squeeze through, but it was intact. Nettles and briers reinforced the thistles, on both sides.

 

In photos that she’d seen of the west of Ireland, fields were interlaced with miles of drystone fences, but in this eastern county, most farms were enclosed with impenetrable hedges, interspersed with mundane barbed wire. This farmstead followed local custom, but it also had a stretch of stone fence fronting the road. Part of the fence had been set in mortar, making a wall, with sharp rocks set on end in the top row, like bared teeth — an effective deterrent to climbers. The gate stood in the middle of this section.

 

Gates used to be rare in stone fences. To pass from one field to the next, you dismantled a section of rocks, you drove your sheep or cows through the gap and then you rebuilt the fence behind you. It sounded like an awful lot of work.

 

Lana had learned this when she’d stopped at a newsagent with the name ‘K. CONLON’ in big white letters across the shopfront. She’d asked the proprietor about lettings outside of town. He removed a layer of cards from a cluttered notice board, and then handed her one that had been poked full of holes.

 

“Here’s one. Drumcarroll. Historic but homely. The new house was built after the Great Hunger, about eighteen-fifty.”

 

It amused Lana to hear what Europeans considered ‘new’. “I suppose it’s been in the family forever.”

 

“Not really. The family’s only been here since nineteen-thirty-five. They were colonists.”

 

“Colonists?”

 

The newsagent seemed delighted to enlighten her. “The colonists were from Connemara, where people still spoke Irish. The Government wanted to ease crowding and promote the language, so it acquired land in this County and organised three Gaeltachts. Each family who resettled got twenty-two acres, a horse and a pig, and money to build or improve a house and farm buildings. Drumcarroll was part of an estate that was bro-ken up into holdings — it’s the part with the original buildings. It’s on the edge of the smallest Gaeltacht.”

 

“But I don’t speak Irish.”

 

“Not a problem. It’s compulsory in the schools, but every-body’s bilingual. You’ll hear Connacht Irish in the village. There are Ulster and Munster dialects, too. If you live here long enough, you’ll learn to tell the difference.”

 

Lana had already begun to detect differences in the Irish-accented English she heard. She was amazed that there should be such a variety of pronunciations of the same language on an island that was only as big as the State of Indiana.

 

“The acreage is let to a farmer, but the house is empty,” the shopkeeper continued. “The owner closed it up after his wife died.”

 

“When was that?”

 

“Em … back in ’ninety-five, I think.”

 

“’Ninety-five!” Was it derelict? She’d seen such places online, at the national inventory of historic buildings. Picturesque but primitive. In her youth, she’d often slept rough, but she was get-ting a bit old for that, now, and she preferred having a roof over her head that didn’t leak. The man behind the counter noticed her doubts.

 

“It might be a bit dilapidated, but himself isn’t the kind to let it go completely. He and his wife refitted the house back in the ’eighties — all the mod cons except central heating. But turf warms the place well enough.”

 

I could live with that. “Where would I get turf?”

 

“You can buy it from a hardware shop, or cut it, yourself. The farm has its own bit of raised bog. It’s just about the last bog that’s left in the County.”

 

“I see. Is it far to Drumcarroll?”

 

“Right up the road, it is.”

 

That, she’d learned, meant it was at least five kilometres away, but once you got there, you couldn’t miss it.

 

The proprietor followed her out to the footpath. “You’ll see a stone fence with a gate across the boithrín through the orchard. He built it to keep livestock out. Stray pigs were coming in through the wire fence after the apples, and swine are that hard on tree roots, there’d have been no orchard left. If the gate’s locked, you’ll have to knock down the fence to get in.” He went on to explain in detail how to do it.

 

The gate had no lock, but that fat donkey made a good substitute. Lana untied her mackintosh from behind the saddle of the bicycle, unrolled it and fished in a pocket for her last apple. Taking a large bite, she waved the juicy remainder under the animal’s nose, and when she had its attention, she pitched the fruit as far away from the gate as she could. The greedy beast ambled away to find it.

 

No sacrifice was too great, if Drumcarroll turned out to be the right place.

 

The wide board gate was heavy, and the dense weeds growing against both sides made it difficult to move, but she managed to open it wide enough to drag the bicycle through. Then she resettled her rucksack on her shoulders, mounted the bike and pedalled along the lane’s twin ruts.

 

A blizzard of apple blossoms blew across her path. Many downed limbs lay amongst the tufts of coarse grass under the trees. For the time being, there’d be plenty of firewood. Lana stopped and picked up a short, sturdy piece of branch.

 

When she emerged from the orchard, she saw that the trees ended on the right, where a rough hillock sloped upwards. To the left, they swept round a semicircle of lawn and stopped shortly beyond a stone house that looked so rooted to the landscape, it might have sprouted from the ridge upon which it stood. A colossal oak tree guarded one front corner of the house — a sentry for centuries.

 

She scrutinised the roof … no slates missing on this side, at least. She’d noticed that thatched roofs were rare; most Irish houses were roofed in utilitarian tile or slate. Slate wasn’t as appealing as thatch, but it was better than the rusty corrugated metal roofing she’d seen on a lot of decrepit old vernacular houses — cabins, she’d heard them called — that were still in use as sheds and barns.

 

But this was a ‘three bay’ farmhouse, not a humble cabin. Two large ground floor windows, like eyes, flanked the wide, flat nose of a door, and three dormers wrinkled the forehead of a roof above three first floor windows — all the features slightly off centre, like a Picasso face. The denuded mast of a television aerial, fastened to the side of one chimney stack, leant at a rakish angle, like a pen tucked behind an ear.

 

Lana laid the bike down in the grass and mounted the broad front stoop. Unlike others she’d seen, this house was not lime-washed, and she reached out to savour with her fingertips the surface of the irregular golden stones of the rustic wall beside the doorway.

 

The front door was divided in half across its width, like what she’d grown up calling a ‘Dutch door.’ She’d seen enough of these in Ireland to begin to think that ‘Dutch’ was a misnomer. The wood was badly weathered, but it sounded solid when she rapped on it with her stick.

 

Descending the stoop to the right, she waded through tangled dead stalks in what must once have been a flourishing flower border. She leant upon the stone windowsill, and peered through a hazy pane.

 

The flagstone ground floor appeared to have been overlaid with hardwood floorboards. Opposite the front window were French doors in the back wall. A fireplace in the end wall faced bookshelves that were built into the side of a central staircase. There was a closed door to the right of the shelves.

 

A look through the other big window revealed the kitchen. Another back door filled the corner between the end of the kitchen worktop and the staircase wall. An old-fashioned enamelled iron cooker stood on the hearth in the end wall beyond a side door. There were no modern appliances, but there were empty spaces for them, as well as what looked like a tap and drainpipe for a clothes washer, beside an alcove in the staircase wall.

 

She cupped her hands round her face to shut out the glare and squinted through the glass. Cabinets hung on both sides of a sliding sash window over the sink. It looked like a hole had been drilled into the meeting rails of the window, but she was pretty sure there was no peg in the hole to lock it shut.

 

Lana walked the bike round the house to the back garden, which sloped away from the walls of a brick terrace behind the house. It still seemed odd to find palmettos growing at this northern latitude; here the semi-tropical plants were entangled in rampant English ivy that blanketed the terrace and the back of the house, and straggled across the garden. On the far side of the unkempt lawn stood the outbuilding: a vernacular house sporting that ubiquitous rusty roofing. A broken corner of its flaking limewashed wall revealed a rubble stone core.

 

She wedged the bicycle against the wall of the farmhouse; then she balanced herself on the frame and reached for the muntin bars in the window. A couple of determined shoves won enough space to insert her piece of branch and prise up the sash. The window wouldn’t stay open, so she propped up the sash with the stick. Then she gripped the windowsill and lunged upwards, grappling with her elbows, but she lost her purchase on the edge of the window and slipped, striking her nose on the stone ledge.

 

“Dang!” She hung onto the windowsill with one hand and pinched her nostrils with the other. When the pain and bleeding eased, she wiped her fingers on her jeans and tried again. This time she got her elbow firmly lodged in the corner of the window; then she writhed across the windowsill and grabbed the kitchen tap with her other hand. After a kick and a wriggle she was perched triumphantly in the sink — bloody nose and broken fingernails notwithstanding.

 

She paused for a minute to catch her breath. Even thirty years ago, climbing through that window would’ve been a challenge — but then, doing things the hard way was how she’d always solved problems.

 

It had seemed like a good idea at the time — rather like Lana’s notion of becoming an American expatriate consulting genealogist and researching her way around the world on tourist visas. She’d been part of the baby boomer backpacker generation, and it would be like going back to her roots. Armed with her new credentials as a certified genealogist, she’d travel light and go far on her savings, supplemented with research commissions. Her first client having engaged her to research in Ireland, she’d found a tenant for her house and a buyer for her car. Then she’d invited her kids to dinner to break the news.

 

“You’re doing what?” they chorused.

 

“Vagabonding — in style. Bag lady, par excellence!

 

“Mo-om! Now, stop it!” Beth, her eldest, mothered everybody, even Lana.

 

“I’m not joking.”

 

Middle child Drew saluted her with his goblet of sparkling grape juice. “Here’s to those who fail to remember the past,” he intoned.

 

Lana had rolled her eyes. “Thanks for your vote of confidence, Santayana.”

 

Nick, her streetwise youngest, cocked a practised eyebrow. “Mum — have you thought this out?”

 

“Bishop Swanson knows,” she’d said.

 

The kids exchanged glances.

 

Well, I didn’t say he approved. She’d recently returned to full fellowship in the Church, so that wasn’t surprising. But how better to launch a new life, than by closing the circle of the old one?

 

“Look — I promise to stay in touch. Besides, I’ll be attending church over there. I found the meetinghouse online — I even have the bishop’s phone number.”

 

The looks on their faces told her they were not quite convinced of her sanity.

 

“Come on — have you ever known me not to do something, once I set my mind to it? Besides, it’s just another one of life’s great adventures.” That was Lana’s old motto, the one that had always got her through.

 

But it was hard to be philosophical about what had happened to the exchange rate after she’d crossed the pond. As much as she liked living in a cosy Band-B that overlooked the ruins of an Anglo-Norman castle, she needed to find cheaper lodgings. Perhaps rural living would prove to be a bit easier on her budget — isolated Drumcarroll, lost amid the gentle hills north of town, was worth a try.

 

Now, Lana put her legs over the edge of the sink and dropped to the floor, raising a cloud of motes that danced in the slanting bars of sunlight from the window. Not derelict. Just dusty. Kind of like me.

 

There was nothing in the kitchen drawers, but that was to be expected. The door handles of the iron stove squeaked the way all the other stove handles she’d ever turned had done. Mounted above the stove was a contrivance crowned with an ornate cornice. It was made of very narrow boards with small holes drilled through its sides, but it lacked shelves, and it didn’t look like any gun rack she’d ever seen.

 

In the parlour, plaster fragments from the ceiling crumbled underfoot, and only the faint, soot edged shadow of a picture frame appeared on the wall above the mantelpiece. Lana surmised that the French doors were a late addition — perhaps to replace a window — because of how the door posts and lintel had been cut to frame the uneven opening in the thickly plastered stones. There were mouse droppings on the dusty built-in bookshelves, and the door to the right of the shelves concealed a tiny water closet.

 

The stairs to the first floor creaked charmingly under her tread. A casement window on the landing overlooked the back garden. To the right of the landing was the door to a big bedroom that took up that whole end of the house. The open hearth in the end wall was flanked by a window and a purpose-built wardrobe that covered the wall from floor to ceiling.

 

A linen press had been built into the corner to the left of the landing window. Beside the press, a door led into a bathroom that was plumbed with delightful antique fixtures, including a deep, clawfoot tub. Lana inspected her tender nose in the bathroom mirror — it was red and swollen, but not bruised.

 

The next door belonged to a smaller bedroom that apparently also had been a large room, but then had been subdivided to create the bathroom, for its hearth was close to the corner. The remaining space was nearly filled by another massive wardrobe, and a built-in four-poster bed frame draped with cobwebbed curtains; its mattress shrouded with dusty sheets. The landing continued round the stairwell past a window that was the twin of the back casement, and terminated at a second door to the big bedroom.

 

The alarm rang that Lana had set on her phone. She hurried downstairs, shut the kitchen window and let herself out the back door. She rinsed her hands and splashed her face with the water she carried in her backpack, and gingerly blotted her nose on her shirt tail. Then she hit the road in high gear, back to the newsagent.

 

“Did you find it all right? Whoa! Let me get you something for that nose.” The proprietor gave her a plastic bag of ice chips wrapped in paper towelling. “You weren’t knocked down, were you? Hurt anyplace else?”

 

“No — I just fell.” The ice felt good. “I found the house, okay. I rang the owner, and left a message. Do you know him well? Will he be back soon?”

 

“I do — but there’s really no telling when he’ll be back. He could be anywhere — in Dublin — even out of the country.”

 

So much the better — no rent until he shows up. It’s just a bit of harmless claim jumping, and I could give the house a good going-over…. Her sweat equity from cleaning the place would easily pay for her first month there — and of course, she’d keep trying to contact the owner.

 

Lana had once read a novelist’s speculation that people looked like the pets they kept, but her take on it was that people were more like their houses. Doubtless, the owner of Drumcarroll could use an overhaul as badly as his house did — but she had no interest in maintaining that kind of property.

___

 

DILLON Carroll detested makeup artists — but having a receding hairline meant there was no getting away from them, when cameras were involved.

 

He also avoided watching his television appearances, but tonight when he emerged from Passport Control and Customs into the ground floor concourse of the Dublin terminal, he came face-to-face with himself — duly powdered against the glare — on a large, flat screen telly suspended from the ceiling. Well, at least the bloody volume’s turned off.

 

This reluctance was never due to concerns about his performance, for his delivery was flawless and his reasoning indisputable. And as one of Europe’s leading analysts of international affairs, when Dillon talked, people listened — if only while they were waiting for their next pint to be pulled and to settle.

 

So, it wasn’t what he said — it was the language he said it in. As the senior political editor of the country’s biggest newspaper, using formal English had been his business for more than thirty years, but he didn’t like hearing himself speak it. A career largely spent away from Ireland — and culminating in more than a decade in the States — had softened his brogue and given him a trademark accent that was a dead giveaway to his identity.

 

Foreign languages — including English — had always come easily to Dillon, but the older he got, the more he dreamed of retiring to the Gaeltacht, where he might speak nothing but Gaeilge if he so desired. He believed that ageing talking heads like himself lacked the sex appeal to risk being mobbed by fans or pursued by paparazzi, but like his practice of wearing contact lenses when he was on camera and wearing spectacles when he wasn’t, the stratagem of reverting to the Irish of his childhood had enabled him to evade the occasionally unpleasant consequences of being a notoriously controversial media pundit.

 

Then, amidst the cacophony of the concourse a familiar voice haled his heart into his throat— “Dillon!”

 

 

He nearly cried out in reply, when he recalled that no one was there to meet him. Indeed, not one in the milling multitude in the meeting area beyond the barricade noticed that the face behind the bifocals matched the one on the television. Amongst all those happy eyes, none were alight with recognition for himself; in the exchange of glad greetings, no ears were eager to hear his voice.

 

Once again, hiding in plain sight had served him well — so, why did his heart sink? After all, life had been like this for more than ten years — it was silly to imagine it would change, now.

 

With a quick shake of his head, Dillon turned his mind to his prospects for supper … but even after waiting for the shuttle, riding to the nethermost car park and finding his pickup truck, he was still undecided. He was familiar with the fare in every pub and restaurant in the city, but tonight every menu in Dublin seemed to merge with all the other menus he knew from the rest of Ireland, the EU and beyond. And there being a limit to what he could concoct on a two-ring portable hob in his flat, it had been years since he’d enjoyed a home-cooked meal, too—

 

This time the shake of his head was accompanied by a thump of his fist on the steering wheel. He tried to focus on his dining decision … but the hurly-burly of the capital, thronged with tourists and milling motorists, muddled his carefully cultivated mindset — blocking the simplest decisions, whilst enabling forbidden, forgotten ideas to intrude….

 

Bone-weary after a deafening day of jet travel from central Asia, he decided to head for the peaceful country town he called home. He’d unwind over some quick pub grub and a pint at his local, and then settle into his little flat for a quiet night and a long lie-in tomorrow.

 

As always, upon returning to civilisation he listened to the voicemail on all of his phones — office, mobile, and home answering machine — although there was never anything on the answering machine but routine messages from his staff reporters. Except this time.

 

“Hello, Mr Carroll. My name is Lana Pedersen, and I’d like to talk to you about Drumcarroll. You can reach me—”

 

About the farm?

 

After an interval, he heard her voice again. “This is Lana Pedersen. I’m still interested in renting Drumcarroll. Please ring me, any time—”

An American woman?

 

Then once more. “Hello, it’s Lana, again—”

 

And a pushy one, at that.

 

It was the first time a prospective tenant had contacted Dillon about Drumcarroll — and for once, he didn’t know what he wanted to do. He couldn’t bring himself to live there, but he wasn’t sure he wanted to see anybody else living there, either. Besides, who on Earth would ever be interested in taking a down-at-the-heels farmhouse on the edge of an out-of-the-way Gaeltacht?

 

Even so, now that Ireland’s celebrated Celtic Tiger economy was losing its teeth, his pension fund and investments were at risk. He had income from letting the acreage at Drumcarroll, but it was beginning to look extravagant to be renting a flat and keeping an empty house he wasn’t willing either to live in or to sell.

 

Thus, half hoping, half believing he’d never have to take any decision about the farm, he’d posted that advert — but now the impossible had happened, after all. Well, tomorrow being Sunday, he could still get away with a lie-in — he’d ring the woman at noon, and tell her to call round at three. Then he’d decide.

 

Geary’s pub was chock-a-block with patrons who’d come to hear a session — and the number of unfamiliar faces meant Dillon would be speaking Irish, already. He recognised the members of the trad-band, with their fiddle, bodhrán, and guitar, but he’d not be staying to hear them play. It had been a long time since he’d paid any attention to music in pubs — or anywhere else, for that matter. Music had left his life so many years ago, that since then whatever passed for it had become merely background noise.

 

He slid his elbow and shoulder between the patrons occupying tall stools at the crowded bar, and then ordered supper and stout. At the sound of his voice, one of the men turned towards him.

 

“Welcome home, Mate!” It was Frank Halligan, one of the most regular of Geary’s regulars. Frank addressed the barman. “Charlie! Dillon’s first is on me!”

 

“Go raibh maith agat!” Dillon said. “Thanks! But I’ll not be staying long enough to return the favour.”

 

Frank shrugged. “Catch me later, then.”

 

The barman proffered a pint. Dillon took it, and he saluted Frank. “Sláinte!”

 

“Health!” Frank tossed back his own drink and then signed to the publican for another. Dillon stepped away from the bar, and a young woman took his place. Frank promptly slid off the tall stool. “Take my seat,” he said; then he lounged against the bar beside her. “And what are you having, yourself?”

 

Dillon found a seat at the table in the corner farthest away from the musicians. He sat wearily, pushed up his spectacles and then he rubbed his face.

 

“Fáilte, a Dhíolúin!” He looked up and saw Seán Murtagh, the neighbour who rented the acreage at Drumcarroll.

 

“Tá athas orm thú a fheiceáil, a Sheáin.” It was good to see Seán, in whose firm handshake Dillon felt more of a welcome than in Frank’s careless largesse.

 

Seán looked Dillon over. “How are you keeping? You look whacked, Lad. Will you be staying home for a while, now?”

 

“Tá mé go maith.” Dillon stifled a yawn, and then repositioned his glasses. “I’m well. But I think I’ll be taking a break from the city.”

 

“Fair dos — you deserve the rest. Anyhow — I’m afraid the grandkids’ donkey’s been getting into the orchard, again.”

 

The barman brought soup and bread. Dillon tucked into his meal. “Well, he doesn’t do any harm — not like the pigs.”

 

“He’s fat as a pig, from eating the apples! But what I was going to tell you, is that when Tom went round to catch him, he thought he saw a light in the house.”

 

“When was that?”

 

“Monday night. He wasn’t real sure about it — it was there, and then it was gone, like a candle being put out. He checked the doors and looked in the windows, but he didn’t see it again.”

 

“Any Travellers halting in the neighbourhood?”

 

“Not since gardaí evicted that lot in caravans outside the village, last fall.”

 

“Hm … say, can Tom tidy up out there, tomorrow? I may be letting the place.”

 

“Give me a key and I’ll send him over.”

 

After supper, Dillon left the pub, retrieved his bag and briefcase from his truck in the car park and headed for home. But the food and fresh air had perked him up, and on his way upstairs, he decided to take a quick look at the farmhouse, himself, tonight. It would be dark out there without power — but that had its advantages, too.

 

He left his luggage on the bed beside the door and crossed the room to his desk. He raised the tambour door, fished out a key from a little drawer and put it on his fob, replacing the one he’d given Seán. Then he extracted a packet of tobacco from a pigeonhole, and on his way back to the door, he took a brier pipe from his bag.

 

When Dillon pulled up at the gate, he saw it was too overgrown to trouble with trying to open it wide enough to drive the truck through — but that was okay, for having been away from his treadmill for a week, he wanted the exercise. He re-trieved a torch from behind the seat, and put it in the pocket of his suit coat. Then he filled and lighted his pipe, and strolled up the lane towards the house.

 

It was a fine night — unusually calm and clear. The moonlit apple trees striped the lane with long shadows. As he approached the house he scanned the façade … the ground floor windows were dark … as were those on the first floor…. Shading his eyes from the moon, his gaze travelled upwards … and above one chimney stack, brilliant stars shimmered through waves of heat…. There is somebody in there.

 

Dillon reached into a pocket and pulled out his mobile phone to summon An Garda Síochána … but there was just enough of an investigative reporter left in him to make him hesitate. I don’t think I’ll be wanting the guards.

 

He let himself into the house through the side door, and straight away felt warmth radiating from the iron cooker. He crouched before the stove door, rotated the handle with silent expertise and peered into the firebox. Whoever was in the house knew how to smoor a fire the way his granny had done, to keep embers alive overnight.

 

The firelight revealed nothing else unusual in the shadowy room, so he carefully closed the stove door and approached the foot of the stairs. He was getting up the nerve to ascend into the gloom, when he heard something he hadn’t expected to hear.

 

Somebody began whistling.

 

It was quite good whistling, too: the kind that sounded like a canary warbling. Then it became music, and Dillon recognised an aria from Handel’s Messiah. Curiosity overcame his chariness — but he counted the stairs as he climbed, so he could finesse the treads that squeaked.

 

It helps that I was reared here, even if I haven’t been back since— Again, he interrupted himself with a shake of his head — a thought-stopping technique that had become like a reflex over the years.

 

The moonlight spilling through the landing window showed that all of the doors to the upstairs rooms were closed, but he still kept his eyes away from the big bedroom. The whistling came from the bathroom, and now it was accompanied by the sound of splashing water. He must have found the hand pump behind the sean tigh out back.

 

A faint, wavering glow issued from beneath the bathroom door. Well, there’s that candle.

 

Dillon sidled past the bathroom and stopped in front of the small bedroom. He turned the china doorknob slowly, to keep the mechanism from rattling, and he raised the door a bit, to keep the old hinges from squeaking. Then he peered round the edge of the door.

 

No one was in the room. On the hearth, there burnt a small fire that smelt of apple wood. A creepie stool that must have come out of the sean tigh, stood in front of the fireplace. A sleeping bag lay unrolled atop the mattress on the four-poster bed, and the heavy bed curtains now darkened the windows. That’s why I didn’t see the firelight.

 

The whistler now started the Promenade from Mussorgsky’s Pictures at an Exhibition. This virtuosity was accompanied by the sound of water gurgling down a plughole. It was time to act.

 

Dillon stepped into the bedroom and quietly closed the door. Crossing to the fireplace, he moved the creepie into the corner behind the wardrobe. Then he sat on the stool, leant his back against the side of the wardrobe and stretched out his legs towards the hearth.

 

The bathroom door squeaked open, and there was the sound of feet on the landing. The bedroom door hinges creaked — the door latched with a sudden click — hurried footsteps approached the hearth — and Dillon found himself face-to-face with … a barefoot woman in shiny pink satin pyjamas.

 

He was just as surprised as the interloper, who hauled up abruptly when she saw him, and lost her grip on a teacup that held a candle. She caught and righted the cup, but hot wax splashed on her skin.

 

“Ow! Dang, that hurts!”

 

It was the voice of that pushy American woman.

 

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