Sixteen

‘It is a pleasure to meet you, Miss Rose. You are clearly on a path to glory!’

Henry Wills’s small brown eyes twinkled as he shook the Detective Inspector’s hand. She looked at him, curiously.

He explained. The first time I ever met Andrew Martin he had just left the post which you now occupy, as ADC to my friend Bob. He made the jump to Special Branch at an early age, and, of course, he’s moved up the ladder since then. After Andy, Brian Mackie followed the same route. So obviously, one will have great expectations of you.’

Maggie looked at him, sceptically.

Wills raised his hands in mock horror. ‘Detective Inspector, please don’t think that I’m being patronising. I mean every word quite sincerely. I have all the time in the world for Andy and Brian. As for Bob Skinner, why I’ve known him since I’ve been in this post, and I know that he chooses his personal assistants with the greatest care.’

Rose smiled, at last. ‘In that case, thank you for your kind words. I hope I can live up to them.’

`There’s no doubt of that.’

Wills paused. ‘Speaking of Andy, how is he? I mean personally, rather than professionally.’

`Fine, as far as I know,’ Rose answered, non-committally.

`Good. It’s just that I haven’t heard from him since he came to see me, a couple of months ago, to give me back the keys to my place in Florida. Poor chap was terribly depressed. He didn’t give me all the details, but it was clear that something had gone disastrously wrong between him and Alex.’

Maggie felt her stomach drop. Had Wills been looking at her he would have seen a sudden expression of uncontrolled astonishment sweep across her face, until she recovered herself.

`You know, when they came to ask if they could rent the place for a couple of weeks, I couldn’t have been more pleased for them. I’d only met Alex once before, when she did that Festival thing last year, but she struck me as a very dynamic young lady — her father’s daughter all right. For all that there must be at least ten years between them, she and Andrew seemed perfect together. They couldn’t have been happier. Alex said they were going to surprise Bob with their news. She asked me to keep our arrangement to myself, for a while.’

`Twelve years,’ said Rose, quietly.

`Pardon?’

`There’s twelve years between them in age. Alex is twenty-one.’

Is she? Well, no matter. They seemed as well suited, as my mother would have said, as Sarah and Bob. That’s what made it such a shock when it went wrong. All that Andy said was that they had had a row, and that Alex had gone off on some sort of tour of Europe. But for it to have happened on the day they were due to leave, it must have been pretty catastrophic. No wonder the chap jumped at the chance of getting out of Edinburgh for a while. Bob must be pretty sad too.’

`You know Mr Skinner,’ said Rose. ‘He keeps things pretty tight.’

`Yes; thought Henry Wills. ‘And so do you. Bob has chosen well.’

Aloud he said, ‘Well anyway, let’s just keep our fingers crossed. Now to the business of the day. Which of our radical foreign students is in trouble this time?’

Maggie smiled, more in relief at the change of subject, than at Wills’s ironic question. ‘None that I know of, sir. That’s DCI Mackie’s province. No, this is more of an academic matter. Mr Skinner thought you might be able to help us, since I gather it’s your field’

Intriguing. Most people forget that I was a pure academic before I lost myself in this administrative jungle! So what is it?’

She put her briefcase on Wills’s desk, which seemed huge in the small, dusty office, at the upper rear of the Old College Building. Taking care not to scratch the surface with the sharp metal studs on the base, she opened it and took out a folder of papers, and the tape cassette box.

`First of all,’ she said, ‘I take it that you’ve read about the murder of Michael White’

He nodded vigorously. ‘Yes. Damn shame. Quite a benefactor of this University, in a quiet way.’

And have you read today’s Scotsman?’

`No, not yet. I have a frightful confession, Miss Rose. I’m a Guardian man’

OK.’ She took a copy of the newspaper from her folder and passed it across the desk. ‘Read the front-page story, please.’

As Wills read his expression changed from puzzlement to intrigue. ‘How strange,’ he said, putting the paper down on the desk. Rose passed him a copy of the original scrawled letter.

He studied it closely for more than a minute, his excitement growing visibly.

It looks like a line from the old Witch’s Curse.’

`What’s that?’

It’s part of the East of Scotland folklore from the time of the persecution, around the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. None of that stuff was ever properly documented, and not just because illiteracy was the order of the day. The people who led the witch-finding did it to divert people’s attention away from the real evils of poverty, servitude, and the local laird having power of life and death over ordinary folk. The witch-burnings were no more than lynchings. They had little basis in law even in those days, so no one involved wanted to be tied too closely to them.

`Most of the stories survived only by word of mouth, until they were written down decades, sometimes centuries, after the event, invariably in garbled form.’

He paused. ‘The Witch’s Curse relates to the burning of one Agnes Tod, spelt with one “d”, in East Lothian in the late sixteenth century. The Marquis of Kinture claims to own the site of the burning. I understand he’s built his new golf course around it.

As far as I know, the curse has only ever appeared once in written form, in a mid-nineteenth-century history of Haddingtonshire. It said that Agnes Tod, as the flames were lit, cursed all there with blade, water and fire, and that since then the hill on which she and her coven are said to have met, and where they were burned, has been a place of strange happenings.

`Not history at all really, that stuff, just legend and superstition’

Maggie Rose produced a small Walkman-style cassette player from her jacket.

In that case sir, listen to this tape. It was made in 1977. The teacher you’ll hear is Mr Skinner’s first wife. It’s been stored in his loft ever since.’

Wills frowned, but took the player from her. She watched him as he put on the headphones, inserted the tape, and pushed the play button. She watched him as his eyes widened, and his mouth dropped open. She heard the indecipherable hiss of sound escaping from the earpieces, and she heard its sudden stop. Wills blinked and rewound it, then played it once more.

Eventually he took off the headset.

`That is amazing,’ he whispered. ‘What was the child’s name again?’

`Lisa Soutar.’

`Then she’s a Teller.’ Rose looked at him, puzzled.

`There are old legends,’ he explained, ‘which are handed down within families. They are passed on through the female line by word of mouth, skipping generations where necessary.

The bearers are called “Tellers of Tales”. If Lisa Soutar was told this story by her great-grandmother, then I think you’ll find that in her family she was the first girl of the line for three generations.

`That story has never been set down in full before. It’s so pure. Did you hear the child’s voice? It’s as if she was hypnotised by her great-grandmother, and the story implanted in her mind. Maybe she was! Maybe they can do that, these “Tellers of Tales”.’

Is it possible,’ said Maggie, ‘that the child could have built the story up herself? Could she have seen the earlier account?’

Wills shook his head. Not a chance. There’s only one copy, and it’s in the National Library of Scotland, accessible only to academics.

`No, young Miss Lisa Soutar got this story straight from the horse’s, or rather the old mare’s mouth. D’you know what? If you dig into the parish records, you could, just possibly, trace the line of Tellers right back to the burning of Aggie Tod!’

Rose whistled, and shook her red locks. ‘I may do just that! At least I know where to begin.’

`Well, here’s another strange thing for you to ponder on,’ said Wills. ‘I remember that 1977

East Lothian history project. There were very few copies of the finished work. The schools involved kept one each, one went to the Queen, with a letter signed by all the children who took part, one went to the National Library, and one came to the University. I remember it; I read it. And I’m quite certain that tale didn’t appear in it.

Either Myra Skinner decided not to include it in the typed up chapter which her class contributed to the book, or someone decided that it shouldn’t be published!

`So there’s yet another mystery for you, Inspector. Did someone want the Tale of Aggie Tod’s curse to be suppressed?’ He stood up. ‘Now, Miss Rose, it’s close on one. Can I tempt you to lunch?’

Maggie shook her head. ‘That’s very kind, but another time, perhaps. Right now, I must go back to school!’

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