Ewan Calder is an archaeologist looking for a galleon from the Spanish Armada, one rumored to have wrecked on the rugged Scottish coast.
Magnus Anderson is a television presenter looking for proof of the paranormal.
David Sutherland is an ex-soldier looking for restoration not only of Blackness Tower, but of his own life
Lauren Reay is looking for answers about her family’s mysterious past-and about her own compelling dreams. Dreams can’t hurt you, she thinks. Neither can her ancestors. The past is past.
Or is it? It is Lauren’s past, her presence, the shape of her face, the depths of her spirit, that will open the secret at the heart of Blackness Tower.
Lauren Reay had come to the end of the world. Across the sea she glimpsed the blue-tinted hills of the next. White gulls called. The wind and the waves whispered, The water is wide, I can’t cross o’er…
Rational thought swam up from the depths of her mind, informing her she had only come to the northern end of Britain, and now stood on the coast of Scotland looking across to Orkney.
Only? She was here at last. She seemed to be standing outside her own body. And yet she was very much in her body, hyperventilating with the excitement, with the jet-lag, with the fear of what would happen now. She should have followed the advice of her distant cousin and native guide, Emily, and waited until tomorrow to finish her journey. But Lauren could never have made Emily understand why she couldn’t wait another minute, let alone another day. Why coming here wasn’t finishing her journey at all.
This day was still, the sun warm, the air moist, and a dark haze like a deep blue shadow hung low over the sea, so the smooth peaks of the islands seemed to be suspended in midair, unsupported as a dream.
In her dream, Lauren had never smelled this north wind, scoured clean by salt and ice and yet, on this August afternoon, no more than a sigh against her cheek, soft as a lover’s caress. And perhaps as false.
Her lips tightened in a scowl of impatience. Taking a firm step to her right, she eyed Blackness Tower planted atop the low green hillock of its “ness”, a word meaning “headland” in the ancient Norse language once spoken here.
The original L-shaped tower house, built in the sixteenth century, was crowded by later additions, stone walls and slate roofs sticking out at odd angles. Its flanks were coated by harling, a sort of stucco that, instead of glinting black or even gray, glowed a delicate rosy gold in the late afternoon sun. The walls were capped by gables and turrets and a saw-toothed parapet that was more likely Victorian imitation than medieval. If the tower had ever had a moat and drawbridge, they were long gone. Now it was encircled by a stone wall, a barricade holding back the rolling turf of the headland.
In Lauren’s dream, the windows of the tower were empty sockets, dark and deep. Now she saw the small antique panes, each one reflecting the sunshine in watery ripples of light, so bright they appeared opaque. If he stood behind that glass, gazing out at Lauren and Emily, she couldn’t see him. Him, the mysterious David Sutherland, who refused to return her calls or answer her letters.
Fine. Be that way. She’d get into Blackness Tower. She’d ask her questions. She’d find her answers.
“Well then, is it what you were expecting?” asked Emily’s voice with its lilting accent.
Lauren jumped, startled out of her—not a dream. She knew dreams, and this wasn’t one. “I’m not sure what I expected. Pictures aren’t, well, they’re just pictures.” From her shoulder bag she pulled out a page cut from a wall calendar and enclosed in a plastic sleeve, and handed it over.
The seams of Emily’s face pursed less in curiosity than caution, no doubt taking the measure of this stranger from another generation, who had arrived on her doorstep like an explorer on the shore of a mythical land.
The photo of the tower had been taken from this angle, revealing two faces of the building. It had been taken at this time of year, when the wall barely restrained the flowers and leaves of a garden. Even the sky in the picture was the same, a blue so deep it had an almost purplish tinge, so solid it seemed as though, if she could only reach it, Lauren could flick it with her fingernail and produce the trembling chime of crystal.
Printed beneath the photo were the words Blackness Tower, Reay, Caithness. If those words weren’t yet carved on her tombstone, she had at least felt footsteps crossing her grave the moment she first saw them.
She remembered the stack of mail addressed to Donald Reay. The same name on a hospital door, beside a janitor’s trash bin filled with wilted poinsettias. The man laid out on a bed, his fragile shell monitored, chained up by wires, tied down like a technological sacrifice. Grandpa, I have your mail. Said in the artificially bright voice used to children and invalids. Look, it’s a calendar from Scotland. Look, March is Edinburgh Castle, April is Loch Lomond, June is Ardnamurchan Lighthouse.
Look. August. Blackness Tower. Reay. Caithness.
Her heart hanging in her chest, a diver poised at the edge, dizzy with vertigo and anticipation. The acrid, antiseptic air catching in her throat. The old man’s foggy eyes meeting hers and the thin gray lips emitting a ghostly whisper. Is that it, Lauren? Blackness Tower? Is that the place you’ve been dreaming about?
Yes. It was the place in her recurring dream, the one that had haunted her for a decade now. Only Grandpa knew about that dream. Who else could she trust with it?
Craig? “You’ve got a heck of an imagination there, honeybunch,” her ex-fiancé would have said, affection cut with impatience.
Her mother? “You studied history in college, you work with books, you’ve seen a picture of that place before. Like grandfather, like father, like daughter,” she would have said, affection cut with rue, not needing to add her usual, all three of you, away with the fairies.
If the fairies lived here, so be it.
With a slow nod and hint of a frown Emily returned the photo. Her clear blue-gray eyes fixed on Lauren’s face.
Lauren attempted an innocuous smile. “I can always blame this on you, you know, sending Grandpa the calendar.”
“I didna send him a calendar,” Emily replied.
“What?” Lauren glanced back at the tower, half-expecting an upper window to shiver in a wink, acknowledging her as fate’s fool. Not that fate normally sent packages via Royal Mail. “The envelope was postmarked Thurso, and you’re the only person Grandpa was writing to there.”
“He was likely corresponding with someone else as well.”
Then why hadn’t he said so? But Lauren couldn’t ask him, not now.
She went on, hoping Emily wouldn’t notice the strain in her voice, the tension that suggested falsehood when in reality it was simply—reality. “Grandpa always wanted me to pick up the genealogical baton, so to speak. The photo in the calendar, it was a sign, an omen. There, in the hospital, two days before he died, he made me promise I’d finish the family tree. I hadn’t intended to do it just a few months later. But the publisher I was working for went under, and my fiancé bailed out on me, so it’s not like I had anything else to do.”
“Things happen,” Emily told her. “Things change, through no fault of our own.”
“Yeah.” And some things stayed the same. Like her dream. Lauren slipped the photo and its plastic shroud back into her bag. Salt-sweet air filled her chest. She was here. Here at last. Atop the cliffs, the sea foaming at their feet.
Her fingertips touched velvet. She fished a blood-red jeweler’s box from her bag and balanced it on her palm. “Grandpa left me a request, that I go on a quest, and he left me a bequest . . .” She puzzled over that, then decided she was punch-drunk. “He left me this.”
She opened the box. Inside, nested on a bed of crimson silk, lay a metal skull a bit smaller than her fist. It glinted in the sun like treasure trove. Mottos and sketches were engraved on its polished surface, and a band of decorative openwork ran from temple to temple.
Emily gasped. “Well now, you’ve got a bonny wee bauble there, and no mistake! That’s never gold!”
“It’s silver gilt.”
“A pocket watch, is it?”
Good for Emily! No one else had ever guessed its use—most people turned away with a grimace or a lame joke . . . Oh. “Grandpa told you about it, right?”
“That he did. Said it was by way of being a family heirloom.” Another frown, like a reflection from the watch, raced across Emily’s face and vanished. “Interesting, what will come down in families.”
“You’ve got that right,” Lauren stated, even as she wondered, why the frown? There was no problem with Grandpa telling Emily about the watch. He’d never have betrayed Lauren’s confidence by telling Emily or anyone else about her dream.
Lauren upended the skull, evoking a faint silvery tinkle, and flipped open the hinged jaw. Inside, a clock face marked with Roman numerals was bordered with more engraving. An inscription read, Gloria in excelsis Deo, et in terra pax, bonae voluntatis. “It’s a watch, but it’s never kept time, not that I know of. It still chimes when you joggle it.”
“Well then.” Emily turned her curious, cautious—concerned—gaze from the watch’s face back to Lauren’s. “A wee bit grisly, it is. A work of art, but grisly.”
“The Victorians really knew how to romanticize death. At least, I assume it’s Victorian. It belonged to Grandpa’s grandmother.”
“Susanna Mackay. She’s buried in yon graveyard.” Emily gestured over her shoulder.
Lauren closed the box on the watch, on the memento mori, a souvenir of death—remember that you, too, will die—and tucked it into her bag. “Grandpa knew who his grandmother was. The question is, who was his grandfather?”
“There’s a question worth the asking.”
“That’s why I’m here, to ask questions.”
“To find answers.” Emily’s features, plain as pudding but considerably more intelligent, crumpled again.
Okay, Lauren thought, what do you think I don’t know? That she stood on uncertain genealogical ground? Saying, “Well yeah, of course,” she made a deliberate about-face away from Emily’s scrutiny and from the impassive facade of the tower as well. Her back prickled. But then, what part of her body didn’t?
Before her, atop a green swell of land tufted with sheep, sat the ruins of a tiny chapel. The slender stone slabs of its walls and the bulkier ones framing its trapezoidal doorways hinted of prehistoric chambered tombs and ceremonies conducted by torchlight. And yet the structure was probably medieval, a Christian foundation.
Grave monuments huddled to one side of the roofless ruin like a frightened congregation. Some of the carved stones were lichen-splotched and worn by wind and rain, others were so polished and pale Lauren wondered if they glowed in the night. In the real night, not the one of her dream.
In her dream, she walked down from the tower, beside a stream with its whiskey-colored water, and up this hill to the chapel. Sometimes she walked in daylight, when the sea rolled away billow upon gleaming blue billow past the islands to the edge of sight. Sometimes she walked in rain, cloud and mist hiding the cliffs and magnifying the low roar of the waves. Sometimes she walked at night, a light hanging about her even though she carried no lamp or flashlight, and with every step she drew as close to the peril of the cliffs as to the sanctuary of the chapel.
Now she walked up the hill for real, consciously, if not quite awake. When she slipped on a muddy patch, Emily grabbed her arm. Lauren barely felt the older woman’s solid grasp.
Her dream was non-corporeal, as though she walked through a painting, without sound or smell or touch—as though she glided, her feet not touching the ground. But now she heard the nervous scamper of sheep, felt the sun hot on her cheeks and the turf spongy beneath her shoes, smelled the tang of mildewed stone. Still, even with her senses overflowing, she felt unreal.
So what was real?
Lauren stopped at the low wall made of stacked slabs of stone that surrounded the chapel. A rabbit shot out of a burrow almost beneath her feet and bounded away. She jerked back and again Emily steadied her.
The rabbit was an ordinary brown one, not white. It wasn’t wearing a waistcoat and carrying a pocket watch. She was the one carrying a watch. A broken watch, no longer counting the hours and the years, still as death, assuming death was indeed still.
Lauren set her hands on the triangular stones topping the wall. Beneath their gritty warmth she sensed a damp cold, like that proverbial long dark night of the soul. Which grave was Susanna’s? The one topped by the statue of an angel, its features eroded into blandness, a cancer of orange lichen marring the smoothness of its wings?
Wait a minute. In the graveyard, rows of small, neon plastic flags marked off a grid pattern, as though a Lilliputian circus was setting up a show. Two shovels leaned against the inside of the wall. Surely no one was planning to build here. The chapel was a listed ancient monument.
Spinning back around, Lauren glared at Blackness Tower. What was Sutherland up to? He might own the tower, but Historic Scotland owned the chapel . . . That agency cared for a long list of ruinous buildings, many in more populated and accessible areas. In this far northern county, Sutherland could probably get away with anything short of tearing the chapel down and building a McDonald’s on its ancient foundations.
Lauren told herself to be fair, fairness being as elusive these days as it had always been. She’d developed a prejudice against David Sutherland and his curt, British answering-machine voice. Just because he’d gone to the trouble and expense of fixing up the tower didn’t mean he owed anything to curious descendants of its earlier inhabitants.
She asked Emily, “Do they still have funerals here? I know the chapel’s been decommissioned or deconsecrated or whatever, but people have family ties to old graveyards. I have family ties to this old graveyard, with Susanna, at least.”
She imagined Susanna Mackay’s funeral: a black glassed-in coach and horses wearing black plumes, or black-clad pallbearers struggling down the path with a coffin. Her grandfather’s grandmother had died at the age of thirty-seven, ten years older than Lauren was now. “How did Susanna die? Disease? Accident? Murder? That might explain a little inter-generational trauma.”
“Murder, is it?” Emily darted her a sharp glance.
Lauren backpedaled. “That’s way too dramatic. Never mind.”
“Mind you, history is dramatic.” Emily turned back to the graveyard. Her strong, stubby hands grasped the wall as if she planned to dismantle the stones and rebuild. After a moment, she said, “I saw in the newspaper, there’s to be a dig here.”
“Oh. Archaeology. That’s okay, then. That’s cool.”
“A fine coincidence, your arriving just now.”
“Grandpa used to say there was no such thing as coinci—” Lauren bit back her words.
“Important archaeological site, Black Ness, with a long history and longer tradition. Ghost stories and the like.”
“Ghost stories,” Lauren repeated. Dreams seen by other people. Or Seen, with the capital-S of Second Sight, Celtic ESP.
Swaying, she clutched at the wall—any minute now she’d float up and over the headland and out to sea, only to be lost forever in some undiscovered country.
Again Emily gripped Lauren’s arm. She laughed and shook her head, probably forgiving Lauren for not being what she’d expected. And what had she expected, a character from Sex and the City? “You’ve had yourself a look at the place. There’s time enough to be getting on with your plans. Just now you’ll be wanting your tea and a good night’s sleep.”
No kidding. Lauren hadn’t slept for thirty-six hours. Her last meal had been a paper cup of lukewarm tea on the flight from London to Aberdeen, and a protein bar from her bag on the flight from Aberdeen to Wick.
She smiled, and the smile spread into a laugh of her own. She might as well laugh. She’d spent enough time in tears. “Plans? What plans? I’m making this up as I go along.”
“We’re all after doing that. Come along now.” Emily led the way down the grassy hillside and onto the walkway that ran beside the stream, then up a long slope.
Placing her feet very carefully, Lauren followed. She couldn’t cross a small bridge and take the path toward Blackness Tower, not now. But she looked toward it even so—it pulled at her the way a magnet pulls at iron filings, an invisible but undeniable current.
Something flashed like a signal from high on the tower, like the way the silver skull had glinted in Lauren’s hand.
She stopped. Had David Sutherland opened a window to see who was encroaching on his territory? No, the windows were still opaque, even secretive. The flash had come from the roof walk.
A small gargoyle sat on the parapet. It hadn’t been there before. At least, Lauren didn’t think it had been there before. And was that a woman standing behind it, in the shadow of the topmost turret? Her hair cascaded over her shoulders and she wore a long white dress that reminded Lauren of her own never-used wedding dress, now buried in her mother’s back closet.
Lauren closed her grainy eyes and opened them again. The gargoyle sat motionless. But what she’d thought was a woman was a doorway in the shadowed side of the turret, its discolored paint suggesting wraiths of lace.
Taking a deep breath, she turned away. And heard music, so faint at first she thought it was a lingering jet-engine resonance in her ears.
Then the melody strengthened, high, clear notes played on a flute or a whistle, rising and falling, growing and fading, circling around so that they went in where they came out, rousing her senses like a lover’s kiss on the back of her neck. She almost recognized the tune, she knew it . . . It died away into the murmur of wind and wave.
The nerve endings in her mind, along her spine, in the pit of her stomach, quivered with a similar, more familiar song. The water is wide, I can’t cross o’er, And neither have I wings to fly, Give me a boat that can carry two, And we shall row, my love and I.
My love and I, she thought. Right.
And “crossing over” was a synonym for dying.
“Lauren?” called Emily from the top of the slope. The top of the brae. “Come along. You’re looking a wee bit peaky.”
Peaky? Meaning what? Stubborn? In need of a keeper? “I’m coming,” Lauren replied, and set her feet into motion once again, walking away from Blackness Tower like she did in her dream.
In her dream, she never reached the Tower, and yet she kept returning to it.
Once she might have doubted either dream or tower hadmeaning, and believed the people who told her both were nothing more than imagination, as though imagination was ever nothing.
Then she’d discovered the tower was real. And now, here, today . . .
Now she knew her dream was, too.