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Murder At Castle Leoch

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“Well, that’s the last of it loaded and ready.  Are you sure you don’t want me to come back just before show time and pick you up?” I glanced meaningfully at Dottie’s soft casted foot.

Dottie laughed, her eyes dancing in merriment. “What are you going to do for the rest of the summer now that Dr. Fraser has cleared me to drive, Rach?”  

“She cleared you this morning.” I reminded her, “and I am not so sure that’s a good idea. You can’t spend more than a ½ hour standing let alone walking.Your leg still gets sore and cramps a lot—can you imagine that happening when you are behind the wheel?”

“Which is why I watched you load all the last minute food into the van and why I’ll let you do the lion’s share of the set up at Castle Leoch.” Dottie agreed. “Stop worrying, get going, you. Everything is going to be great tonight. I think we have outdone ourselves!”

I found myself smiling as I walked out to the van. Colum MacKenzie’s 60th Birthday Bash was the social event of the season. Everyone who was anyone in Fraser’s Ridge would be there. For Dottie’s fledgling catering company, Carolina In Season (“CIS”), it was a huge  opportunity. Our catering company, I reminded myself, we were a team now.

A couple of months earlier, Dottie had called me in a panic. “I broke my leg and I need help.”

“Oh, Dottie! After all that effort!” I knew how much was on the line for her, she’d taken the rest of her savings and borrowed a little from her uncle John besides.

“I have most of the summer booked. I can assist with prep and the back end administration, but I won’t be on my feet for weeks.” I could hear her sniffle which alarmed me considerably because Dottie was one of those people who always just rolled with whatever life presented to her.

“Honestly, Rach, my business might go down the drain if I can’t fulfill all the contracts I have out.” She confessed.

“What about the Culinary Arts Institute, are there any promising interns?” We had both graduated from there a few years ago and the program was known for it’s excellence, but also its small class size.

“I called there from my hospital bed as soon as I realized how badly I’d been injured but I was a week too late, everyone is spoken for.”

My heart ached for her and I made the offer from instinct, without any thought to the obstacles. “What can I do to help?”

“I was wondering if you still hated working in Cali?”

Dottie had been trying to get me to move back to the East Coast for years.  But, for reasons that escape me now, I couldn’t turn down the offer from Chez Germaine in the heart of the Silicon Valley.  Yes, the weather was perfect, but my schedule left me no time to enjoy it. On top of that, the pay wasn’t that great and despite my excellent performance reviews, I had been passed up twice now for promotions that should have been mine. Kitchens are known for being rough work environments, places that attracted the salty and tempermental but my boss was in an ass class by himself. Last month he threw a meat cleaver at a server— ok in all fairness— at the wall next to her — but, still, it sent a very strong message.  

So I took the chance.  In retropect it was a little sad that everything I owned fit into the back of my wagon. It was also shockingly easy to say goodbye to my West Coast friends.  I had no family to speak of except my brother Denny- but he wasn’t even in the US right now. His medic unit had been deployed to Indonesia, originally just for a month but he’d been there closer to three now. I missed him terribly.  He didn’t care where I lived as long as I was safe, among friends and still had his dog.

Rollo was a rambunctious mixed breed with a serious shoe fetish.  Denny adopted him from a shelter only a couple of weeks before he’d shipped out. Rollo and I had reached an understanding, of sorts, after I found my only pair of heels buried in the backyard. Namely, that I would keep my shoes on the top shelf of my closet and save him from temptation. I loved my brother dearly, but I’d also loved those shoes, and my Tretorns, and even my horrible gym flip flops. All lost to that four pawed shoenavore.

Thinking of Rollo invariably brought Oggy’s face to mind. A lanky, gap toothed ten year old, who was my new dog sitter. Oggy lived half a mile from me and had been recommended by Bree MacKenzie after Fraser Ridge’s sheriff, William Ransom, had found Rollo ripping into Maura MacKenzie’s garbage and plowing under her prize rose bushes.  Bree was Maura’s great niece— most of the population on the Ridge, I had learned, was loosely related to one another.

Sheriff Ransom—  Will (I could never, under any circumstances, refer to anyone as “Willie” no matter how adorable I thought it was when other people did)— had scared the hell out of me. It’s not every day a six foot two man carrying a badge and a gun knocks on your door.  I’d heard any number of things about him, but the gossip hadn’t fully prepared me for the reality. His face was breathtakingly handsom, high, sharp cheekbones, a Viking nose and piercing blue eyes. They held a familiar cat-like slant, but it wasn’t until later that I was able to place it.  Alas, I’d have to take everyone else’s word for it regarding his charm because, standing there writting me a ticket for having an unregistered pooch and giving me a stern warning about the leash law, made that bit of gossip difficult to credit.  

Bree and her husband Roger were my landlords— they’d just moved to a larger home to accommodate their growing family and I was the happy recipient of their old digs. The cabin-on-the-green was centrally located, small, rustic and perfect for me. But my hot diggity dawg was going to get me kicked out if he continued to terrorize the neighborhood.

“I’ve never had a dog before. Actually, he’s not even mine.” I appologized when Bree popped over, having heard through the grapevine about the incident. I realized then where I had seen Will’s eyes before for there they were staring out at me from her face. She’d been very understanding, even after surveying the turf war in the backyard and suggested that I give Oggy a try.

“What’s an Oggy.?” Bree laughed and told me she’d make the arrangements.

Later that afternoon, I answered a knock on my door.  Another man over six foot stood there. Unlike the last one, this one wasn’t handsome— but on the plus side, he wasn’t carrying a gun or writing me a citation. He was long— long hair swept back in a pony tail, long legs and arms, long face— with broad shoulders and warm brown eyes.

“Yes?” I asked expectantly.

“Ye have a wee beastie needs help?” The Scottish burr completely caught me off guard.

“A what?”

“A canine.” Pipped up a little voice from behind him.  Oggy Murray, son of one Ian Murray, looked almost exactly like his father with a dustier complexion. He stared at his feet and I reached my hand out to introduce myself. But he stayed silent.

“Bree sent us, aye?” Ian said by way of explanation. I loved the way her name rolled off his tongue.

“I’m Rachel. You must be Oggy?” There was a long pause, during which the boy completely ignored my outstretched hand.

“Why must I be?” He said completely deadpan. I laughed but he didn’t even crack a smile.

“Rollo?” There was a brusque eagerness in the tone, which was surprisingly deep considering how young he was and I stepped back from he door. Ian gestured for Oggy to follow. The boy and Rollo played for a half hour in the back yard while Ian and I watched them.

“I should tell you a little about my son.” Ian’s soft eyes watched me.  “He’s probably not like a lot of kids you know.”

I frowned at him. “Are you sure? Because I know very few children, so he’s got no competition as far as that goes.”

Ian laughed softly but whatever it was that he was going to say, he didn’t. Which was just as well as Oggy and Rollo chose that moment to burst in.

“He’s not a canis familiaris.” Oggy announced. “You shouldn’t refer to him as a dog.”

“Do you have a better suggestion?”

“He’s got a lot of wolf in him.” Oggy informed me. I let that one sit for a moment.

“Yer sure, lad?” Oggy gave his father a look of withering scorn and proceeded to document the considerable ways in which Rollo deviated from the norm.

“Oggy, can I ask you something?” Ian ventured “Is it terribly important that we be strictly accurate about this because once folks hear you calling him a wolf, it won’t make him any more welcome in the neighborhood.”

Oggy thought for a moment. “He knows he’s not like other dogs. And you always tell me it’s ok to be different.” A note of confusion crept in Oggy’s voice.  

“Of course it is!” I jumped in, not sure what exactly I was doing, but sensing some deep undercurrents. “Yet, I do wonder….You know one of the reasons I got in trouble is that I didn’t fill out the right forms at the town hall for him. Sheriff Ransom says I’ll get another ticket and he might even lock Rollo up if I don’t register him.” I was laying it on thick, and I resolutely ignored Ian’s raised eyebrows. “I have his vet report here. Can you help me?” I booted up my laptop to the registeration page. “Here, do you want something to eat? Maybe some pretzels and apple juice?” I looked at Ian and he nodded, moving a chair out for Oggy.

“Sure.” Oggy sat down eagerly, he was obviously at home on computers.

“Ok, so the last vaccine was two weeks ago, ok yes, right there. Ok almost done, we just need to fill in the breed.” I gesutured for him to contiue on his own while I put the dishes in the sink. Oggy started scrolling. He clicked up and back twice before he called me.

“What’s up?” I asked, funnily enough, that caused Oggy to glance at the ceiling and then back at me. I pointed at the screen to indicate what I’d meant.

“They don’t have wolf as a choice.” He said.

“No?” I put on my best worried face which didn’t impress him at all. “Well, if I can’t register him, I guess the sheriff will take him away.”

“Oh!” Oggy looked from me to his father. “That would be bad.”

“Hmm.” I agreed. “Maybe — is there any choice that would be— maybe not completely accurate but close enough to allow me to keep him?” I wondered. Oggy scrolled again.

“Mixed-breed?” His tone was a question.

“That sounds perfect! Mixed-breed it is.”  I made a show of thinking hard. “And that is like saying he’s lots of different things. Lots of folks say a dog like that is a mutt. Means the same thing. When neighbors ask, do you think we should say mixed breed or mutt?”

“There is no mutt on the form.” Oggy said a little crease of worry on his forehead.

“Ah. Well then mixed breed it is!” I smiled.

From the corner of my eye I caught Ian looking at me with open-mouthed wonder.

I’d been an exchange student for a year in England. My host family included a little boy I’d come to love and still called and emailed to this day who reminded me a lot of Oggy.  Before leaving, Oggy and I mapped out a schedule for him.  He lived close enough to bike or walk which made planning easy. As Oggy was saying his goodbyes I pulled Ian aside.

“What did you want to say to me about Oggy?” I watched his face.

“Och, nevermind, you’ll get on fine.” Ian demurred.

“Its ok to be different.” I whispered to him. I waited until he looked at me and when he did I could see the years of struggle in their depths and something fluttered in my chest. “He’s on the spectrum?” I wanted to make sure.

“Yes, HFA. High functioning autsim.” Ian confirmed. “He’s mainstreamed with an aid in school— actually he’s reading ahead of his class, middling in math, chews pens, plastic water bottle caps and ice like a fiend, gets long winded when he’s talking about something he’s interested in, ignores whatever he isn’t and he’s terrible at recess.”

Luckily for me and Rollo, right now Oggy was interested in him. Within two weeks, he’d trained Rollo to shake, rollover and beg on command. He was now training him to walk on the leash without pulling my arm out of it’s socket. I’d had only one additional report of Rollo misadventure but in fairness, Maura’s cat had started it by coming into our yard, the pizza delivery kid just happened to be in the wrong place, at the wrong time and the Baconbuster was Rollo’s favorite pie .

I wondered briefly if I’d see Oggy’s father tonight. We’d run into one another a few times since Oggy had come into my life, but, by and large, Ian seemed content to let me and Og develop our own way of working together without much input from him. Og was the most reliable child I’d ever met. I could practically set my watch by him. The one and only time he’d been late had been a thunderstorm so intense that it had spawned a microburst downing trees all over the Ridge.

As I drove toward the Leoch, I realized that I would. He was the great nephew of the birthday boy and he worked as a columnist for the area’s most popular newspaper, Je Suis Press. The name of the local paper was a play on the motto of the city’s founding father. He’d been a highlander transported following his imprisonment for his role in the Rising in 1745. The Press was famous for predating the birth of the country and for being one of the oldest continuously published papers in the United States. Another Jamie Fraser, named for the Ridge’s founder, ran it now. And, I had learned, owned several radio stations, cable outlets and local network affiliates.

Colum’s party was a huge event. He owned Kilt Built Enterprises, a huge construction conglomerate with projects all over the southern states. Dottie and I had spent weeks trying out and perfecting the final offerings for his big day. She was still nervous and I understood why but I was full of confidence. It was almost August and our team had been tested by four weddings, one funeral, two corporate picnics, six baby showers and a couple dozen other celebrations.  Yes, this would be our largest event ever, but I thought we had it well in hand. There were a thousand little things that could go wrong from equipment malfunctions to overcooked offerings, to drunken guests and staffing issues, but we’d been though every one of those difficulties before and managed to emerged with glowing reviews each time.  

As the van circled the bend and the mansion came into view, I felt my excitement build. I didn’t think there was anything we couldn’t handle. Of course, at the time, I had no idea that hours later I’d be tripping over a body in the library.