THE WITCH OF TINAHELY
Vicky Miller stumbled dizzily out into the darkness, away from the house and the stranger who lay dead inside it – the man she had just killed. Beyond the rectangle of light thrown from the open doorway, the night’s gloom swallowed the old woman and she stretched her hands out in front of her to feel the way.
She could smell smoke from somewhere. It was hard to tell where it was coming from, because she was so disorientated. Her head spun and her vision, which had long been fading with age, was even worse now. Everything was blurred. Everything was dark. There were blackthorn bushes at the bottom of her garden and she stumbled into them, pulling herself free with an exasperated gasp. What was wrong with her? Why was she so weak?
Vicky stopped as she realized that she could feel the damp grass beneath her feet. Why had she left the house without her shoes? And she was in her nightdress. There was blood on her arm and it had stained the white cotton. The old woman stopped meandering about her garden, staring down at a line of cabbages that bordered the vegetable patch. Pull yourself together, girl, she thought to herself. What’s wrong with you?
She remembered killing the man. Feeling pain as she woke, she’d acted on reflex. The stranger was just standing there in the low light of the lamp on the sideboard. He was unarmed, he wasn’t attacking, but he was in her home and she had been scared. Old reflexes, born of a childhood spent among villains and killers – her hands had moved of their own accord. Then she’d noticed the door was open and she had staggered outside. And now she was here. Outside. In her nightdress . . . without any shoes. The smell of burning was stronger now.
Gazing back at her house, Vicky became alarmed. Had she knocked over the oil lamp on her way out? Everything she owned was in that little cottage. The walls were stone, but the floor was wooden and if the thatched roof caught . . . She moaned with fear.
There was no other dwelling for miles around. Even if she screamed for help, there was no one to hear. Water! The well was on the other side of the house. Vicky made her way clumsily round the side of the cottage, past the shed and the small stable. The well was only a few yards away when her legs finally gave out beneath her. With a wheezing thud, she hit the ground. No matter how hard she tried, she could not get up again. What was wrong with her?
There came the sound of a scream that was not her own. It came from somewhere near the house, piercing the night. Vicky let out a frightened whimper. She did not believe in the mythical banshee, the woman whose shriek foretold your death. She did not believe . . .
The odour was very strong now. Her nostrils twitched, her nose wrinkling. It didn’t smell of paraffin, or wood, but . . . Her senses spun in a whirl, the world rolled around her. It was a wonderful relief to close her eyes, to just lay her face on the cool grass.
The night was cold; she could feel it in the air. But her skin felt hot, as if the fire was right beside her, instead of being inside the house. The house. Lifting her head from the ground, Vicky pressed her hands against the ground and pushed herself up. Her strength failed before she could even lift her belly off the grass. Collapsing with a grunt, she started crying, tears streaming down the spider’s web of lines that age had woven into the skin of her face. Unable to do anything else, she called out hoarsely for help, knowing it was useless. Nobody could hear. By the time anyone saw the fire, it would be too late.
She heard the scream again. It sounded loud and raw in the empty night.
Her own cries used up what little breath was left in her withered breast and with a last, feeble call, she passed out. Her head slumped limply into the grass and she was dead to the world. Then flames began to flicker into life along her body.
The cottage had two small windows looking out onto the back garden. They were lit from within, not by a raging fire, but by the oil lamp, which sat undisturbed on the sideboard in her bedroom. The windows watched without expression as Vicky Miller’s motionless body ignited, flames spreading over her back and shoulders and down her thighs. Vicky was right. It was some time before anybody noticed the fire. By then, there wasn’t much of Vicky left.
And that was how the Witch of Tinahely met her death.
A COUSIN’S GRIEVANCE
Roberto Wildenstern was the Patriarch, the eldest living son of the late Edgar Wildenstern, Duke of Leinster and ruler of the family’s vast business empire. As the richest man in Ireland – indeed, one of the richest and most powerful men in the British Empire and, therefore, in the entire world – he had extraordinary resources at his disposal. As chairman of the North America Trading Company he controlled the fates of many thousands of people, and influenced the lives of millions more in dozens of countries across the globe. The Wildenstern business interests stretched east through Europe, south to Asia and Africa, west across the Atlantic to North and South America, and on across the Pacific. The Wildensterns had huge merchant fleets, as well as special charters empowering the company to commandeer ships of the Royal Navy and draft armies in Ireland. There were few countries in the world that could match the company’s might, and even fewer business empires that could. Roberto Wildenstern controlled it all.
And he was thoroughly sick of it.
‘If I have to endure one more of these bloody meetings, I’m going to have a seizure,’ he moaned as he waited for another gaggle of visiting envoys. ‘I’ve seen furniture with more life in it than some of these yaw-yaws. Couldn’t they just put it all in a letter?’
‘We’ve been over this a hundred times, Berto,’ his wife replied. ‘It’s not just the negotiations with these people that are important; they need to see you in control. Your father ran this business with an iron fist for decades and everyone has to understand that you’re in charge now.
‘You want to force this family to mend their ways; you’ve said it enough times. So you have to stamp your authority on everything your father left behind – especially the business – or we’re going to have the whole family fighting over whatever piece of the pie they can snatch out of your hands.’
‘Good luck to ’em,’ Berto muttered, running his fingers through his carefully styled, dark-blond hair. ‘They can have it . . . and the bloody great headache that goes with it.’ ‘Don’t start that again. I thought you were beginning to enjoy doing some good.’
‘Hmph!’ He began sticking the point of his dip pen into the back of his hand, leaving black-stained dots along it.
They were sitting in his study. Berto was behind his desk, a warm mahogany slab that did, he was forced to admit, make him feel very business-like. It also hid the fact that he was in a wheelchair, a state he had hoped would be temporary. These hopes were fading. From time to time, he would adjust the thin gold discs on the belt that pressed against his bare back. The Wildensterns had long ago found that applying gold to an injury helped speed up their unique healing powers. Every day he grew less confident that it was doing any good.
The heavy blue velvet drapes had been pulled back from the tall windows to let in the late-afternoon light. This corner room, high up in the towering house, looked out on the Wicklow Mountains to the south, with the coast visible to the east and, if one stuck one’s head far enough out of the window, the near edge of Dublin, blanketed in smog, to the north. The study was sumptuously decorated, with dark green ivy-printed wallpaper, mahogany furnishings, two large bookcases and an impressive collection of Japanese prints.
Berto’s wife, Melancholy – or Daisy, as she preferred to be known – was sitting in an upright, but comfortable, chair with a notebook on her lap and a pen in her hand. Daisy had decided as a child that one’s name could affect one’s fate, and she would not spend her life as Melancholy, despite her mother’s love for tragic romance novels. And what Daisy decided in her family home more often than not became policy. Now, she managed her husband’s affairs with equal deliberation. Her dark hair was pinned up, her blue crinoline dress and matching shoes were as comfortable as fashion would allow. She kept the minutes of the company meetings and, discreetly, acted as Berto’s advisor. Many of the men who came to meet the Patriarch were amused by her interest in her husband’s business affairs and tolerated her womanly whims with a patronizing civility. They would have been appalled to know just how much power Daisy was capable of wielding – and not just by nagging her husband until she got her way. Berto relied heavily on his wife’s analytical skills, but he was slowly getting to grips with the massive responsibilities heaped upon him.
‘I’m just bored,’ he sighed, adjusting his tie and patting down his waistcoat. ‘They’re all such dry sorts – and you’ve never met such a bunch of asses and toad-eaters in all your life. I haven’t had a good laugh in ages.’ Waving to Winters, his manservant, he sighed again and added, ‘All right, then, show the next lot in. I know how to take punishment – I went to public school, you know.’
‘Begging your pardon, your grace,’ Winters spoke up. ‘Master Simon would like a word. If I might be so bold as to say, he seems a bit . . . restless, sir.’ Berto let out a breath and nodded. Simon – ‘Simple Simon’, as he was known to crueller members of the family – was a somewhat distant cousin who, at the age of seventeen, had the mind of an eight- or nine-year-old. Berto, a sensitive individual at heart, patiently put up with Simon’s constant need for attention. It wasn’t the boy’s fault he was dull-witted, after all, and he had a lightness of heart that was sorely lacking in most of the rest of the family.
But Simon’s usual gormless smile was missing as he stumbled into the room. His suit was as rumpled as always, despite being provided with a freshly pressed one at the beginning of every day. His wild tufts of brown hair stood out from his head in every direction. He stood by the door looking furtively to right and left as if reluctant to come any further inside. ‘What’s on your mind, Simon?’ Berto asked.
‘Need to talk,’ Simon muttered. ‘Just with you, Berto . . . if I may.’
It was unusual for the boy to speak in anything other than a breathless gabble and Berto looked at him with concern. He glanced at Daisy, who nodded slightly and stood up, straightened her bulky skirts and walked towards the door. Simon turned towards Winters as if afraid the footman might jump on him. Tall and thin and immaculately groomed, Berto’s manservant had been trained from childhood not only for domestic service, but also as a bodyguard.
Berto lifted his chin to the servant and Winters nodded, following Daisy out the door and closing it softly behind him.
‘What’s on your mind, old chap?’ Berto asked again.
Simon wouldn’t meet his gaze, fixing his eyes firmly on the floor. He kept plucking at the collar of his suit jacket.
‘You sent my mother away,’ he said in a near-whisper.
‘You sent my mother away!’ Simon growled, tears welling in his eyes. For a moment, he glared at his older cousin.
Berto saw the expression on the boy’s face, but could not believe what it was telling him. So he was slow to react. The knife was already drawn from inside Simon’s jacket – what the boy lacked in wit, he made up for in speed. With a flick of his wrist, he hurled the blade at Berto’s heart.
Berto was already pushing his wheelchair back from the desk, turning his body to bring it side on to the path of the knife, which cut across his chest, but missed its target. It thudded into the wall behind him.
‘What the bloody hell—!’ he shouted, before Simon leaped onto the desk, another knife in his hand.
The door was thrown open. Voices cried out. Simon raised the knife, but Berto was by no means defenceless. Grabbing the sawn-off shotgun clipped under his desk, Berto wrenched it free and swung it in one smooth move, sweeping Simon’s legs out from under him. The boy fell hard on his back onto the desk, but was up again with the slickness of an eel. Berto could not bring himself to shoot the youngster. He fired both barrels into the ceiling over Simon’s head, the blast and then the burst of exploding plaster above making the boy flinch away. But the shot was rushed, the recoil of the gun tipped Berto backwards and he tumbled out of his chair.
Before Simon could follow through on his attack, four strong hands seized him from behind and threw him to the floor. A foot kicked the knife out of his hand. He was rolled onto his front and gripped roughly in a ground hold that pinned both his arms behind him and pressed his head and chest to the floor. Berto’s younger brother, Nathaniel, continued to hold the boy while Winters snapped a pair of handcuffs onto Simon’s wrists.
‘You sent my mother away! You sent my mother away!’ Simon yelled over and over again, tears streaming down his face.
Nathaniel and Winters pulled him to his feet and the servant dragged him away. Berto was sitting up, trying to set his chair back on its wheels. He wrenched at it, swearing at his limp and useless legs, his movements jerky with confused anger and embarrassment. Nathaniel righted the wheelchair and helped his brother into it as Daisy hurried into the room.
‘Oh my God!’ she gasped. ‘Berto, darling, are you hurt?’
‘What the hell was that about?’ Nate asked, as he picked up the smoking shotgun.
Berto ignored both questions until he had settled his nerves, straightened out his clothes and hair, and taken a few deep breaths.
‘No, I’m fine . . . and I have no idea what that was about,’ he said in a shakey voice. ‘But I mean to find out. You should have seen the hatred in the boy’s face. I never knew he had that kind of venom in him. What do you think he meant about his mother?’
‘Don’t know,’ Nate replied, breaking open the shotgun and letting the spent shells fall out onto the desk. ‘I’ll have a word with him when he’s calmed down a bit.’
‘Don’t be unkind to him,’ Daisy cautioned her brother-in-law. ‘This didn’t come out of nowhere. It’s clear that someone put him up to it. We must discover who has been pulling his strings.’
‘Obviously. Are there any other aspects of my job on which you’d like to offer instruction?’
‘You seem to have it well in hand,’ she replied brightly. ‘Except, of course, for the simpleton who managed to slip two throwing knives past your security.’
Nate’s face went red, but he did not reply. He took a couple of shells from a drawer in Berto’s desk, reloaded the weapon and swung it closed.
‘All right, so we’ve a snake in the house,’ he grunted as he clipped the shotgun back into position under the desk and assessed the damage to the ceiling. ‘Some treacherous cur with murder on his mind.’
‘So it seems,’ Berto said sourly. ‘The family’s all home at the moment. Do you think we should mention it at dinner?’
‘If you like. But frankly, I don’t think any of them would own up.’
‘It’s probably better not to say anything,’ Daisy sighed, shaking her head as she wrapped her arms around her husband. ‘You don’t want to go giving the rest of them ideas.’
Berto nodded grimly.
‘Ah. There’s no place like home.’