I stopped on the landing halfway down the stairs and peered between the railings. I didn’t want to pop into the lobby and into the arms of the cousins, or Mr. Big or ReallyBig, or the police, or whoever else I wasn’t ready to deal with right now.
A quick glance around the lobby from the landing didn’t reveal anything scary. I knew that was wrong, so I took a better look. Still nothing. Ah, well. A little paranoia doesn’t hurt.
Sticking to alleys and the spaces between buildings as much as possible, I made my way out of town. I’d decided that hitchhiking was out, but begging a ride wasn’t quite the same thing. I also figured that retracing my path to some extent might not be a bad idea. Or maybe everyone thinks that, and I was being obvious.
I hiked back down the road toward Kilfenora and my academic acquaintance who’d given us a ride earlier. We’d never gotten his name, which put me at only a slight disadvantage, since the village was so small. It put any pursuers at a bigger disadvantage, though, because if he was willing to help me, he’d be hard to find without a name to pin on him.
I was rested, fed, showered, and excited. I made much better time now that I wasn’t dragging my feet, and was back in Kilfenora in less than an hour, I think. It was early afternoon, and I was hoping our schoolteacher would be free soon.
I stepped into Linnane’s, and apparently startled the locals. The publican stopped mid-pour, staring. All the guests turned just enough to see me, and froze as well. They didn’t look frightened; they just looked like I’d interrupted a private conversation, and they hoped I wouldn’t take long.
“Um, local schoolteacher? I mean, I met a gent this morning who . . . I was hoping . . . “
“Wheeler. Mossie. Home in half an hour or so. Half-mile that way. Can’t miss the house; bright blue like the burren flowers.”
“Half-mile. Blue like the flower. Got it. Thanks. Thanks. Thank you.”
I retreated in defeat. I’d heard endlessly, and experienced myself, the open-handed kindness and warmth of the Irish people. But it wasn’t the first time I’d popped into a pub in a tiny village and gotten this reaction. I always chalked it up to the small-town view of strangers. Whenever I’d had the time to stay a while, they’d always warmed up and made me feel like family. I hoped I wouldn’t have that kind of time in Linnane’s, however nice it might be.
I trudged up the road toward the gentian blue house, visible from quite a distance. I had time; half a mile wouldn’t take me half an hour.
It stood by itself on what was more of a cart path than a road. No fences or any reason to keep out, so I sat down on the front step, leaning against the door, to wait in the warm afternoon sun.
O’Quinn’s voice was soft, but more frightening because of it. “You think you’ve outsmarted me, schoolboy? Fearghal won’t forget you. Fearghal doesn’t like you, no he doesn’t.” Mr. Big chimed in. “Sloppy thinking, Dr. Martin. Untidy.”
“Look, I’m doing the best I can. I don’t even know what all this is about. I’m just trying to survive long enough to turn myself in to the police.”
“Bah! You think they don’t already know where you are?”
“How could they?”
“Think; Martin, think. Why is someone always one step ahead of you, unless they’re leading you?
“No one’s leading me; no one knows where I am or what I’m doing. I’m alone, but not for long.” Erg; shouldn’t have let that slip out.
“You’re wasting my time. Shoot him.” This last to Mr. ReallyBig, who was at least 12 feet tall until he leaned over to grab my left elbow. But instead of shooting me, he shook it gently. “Wakey wakey!” I laughed, despite my own advice to the contrary.
I finally opened my eyes and looked into the face of Mossie Wheeler, educational compatriot, and, I hoped, a generous man with time to spare.
“If you’d slide aside half a mo’, I’ll go in and make us some tea, and we can talk.”
I slid, and then stood and followed him into his kitchen.
It was blue; not like the exterior, more of a pale sky blue, but greyish. A nice color. It suited the clearly refined taste of its owner.
The living room beyond as a similar shade of rose; greyish, as if it were made of stone.
He smiled. “I choose my colors from those found in the Burren, just as Ms. Chowen at the perfumery chooses her scents from those occurring in nature. Keeps us in touch with the land.”
“It’s nice. Soothing, but not like I want to nap. Well, not more. Stimulating, mentally, somehow.”
“Exactly! When I can’t get out on the stones, this is where I do my thinking, and it helps that it’s conducive to such. Now, you were about to tell me where your acquaintance of this morning is, what trouble you’re in, and how I can help you.”
I’m not sure my jaw dropped, but it probably did.
“Please. Come. Sit. Sip your tea, and I’ll tell you about me, and then, if you’re ready, you tell me about you.”
We sat at the square kitchen table, Formica, but in like-new condition despite its obvious age. Matching chairs which wouldn’t have looked out of place in Ralph and Alice’s kitchen, again in perfect condition. The tea matched everything else: ancient and new at the same time.
“What many of my superstitious neighbors refer to as ‘the gift’ or ‘the sight’ is really, I think, just an extremely heightened sense of perception. I have it; at least, to a degree which I find most helpful in ferreting out the miscreants among my students. It’s sometimes hard to determine, though, when they’re confessing because I’ve actually caught them, and when it’s because they have such confidence in my ‘gift’ that they surrender prematurely.”
“In either case, there’s a further distinction: those who cause trouble, and those who are in it. The former require discipline. The latter require help, if they’re willing to accept it. Some aren’t. The smart ones, or the especially desperate, usually do. I’m glad to say I’m in a position to provide it, as a general rule. My teaching is the result of passion, not economics, despite the appearance of my humble surroundings.
“Your turn. I can help you; in fact, watching you this morning, I was only slightly surprised to see you asleep on my stoop. But you’ve got a long story, and I suspect you’re in a hurry to be elsewhere.”
“I am. Since you seem to expect plain speaking, I’ll speak plainly: I came back here hoping you’d drive me to Galway. I have no money, so I can’t offer to pay for gas, but I may be meeting a friend there who’d be glad to—”
“Nonsense. This isn’t about money, for either of us. Finish your tea, and put together some sandwiches” with a wave toward the fridge “while I make arrangements in case I’m not back tomorrow.”
I started to protest, but he wasn’t having it. “I smell adventure, and I’m certain you’re no danger to me. I wouldn’t have given the two of you a lift this morning if I’d been uncertain about you. Perhaps it’s true what they say about an honest man knowing another honest man? Now, sandwiches: plenty of mustard, not so much mayo, and don’t skimp on the meat and veg. Reason most Americans need to go out to buy a sandwich is because they make such pitiful affairs at home. Pile it on! We’ll need nourishment for body and mind!”
I sliced thick brown bread and piled it with ham and cheese and spinach? yup, spinach and thin-sliced onions and tomatoes. Mayo on one side, mustard on the other; cheese against the mustard, ham against the mayo, veg between so the bread didn’t get soggy.
Look, this guy knew his sandwiches; I wasn’t gonna be caught making second-rate stackers.
As I was wrapping them in wax paper I’d found in exactly the drawer where I would have put it in my own kitchen, he returned with a small brief case and a coat over his arm.
“Do you spin your yarns best while driving or riding?”
I’d never thought about it. I did now. “Well, driving, actually.”
“Excellent. I’ll take notes, if you don’t mind, so we can review the salient points of what I’m beginning to feel will be quite a fascinating series of unfortunate events. Leading, I hope,” he finished, “to a satisfactory conclusion.”
“You and me both; you and me both.”
We went out through the rose living room, then through what would have been the front door in anyone else’s house. Across a small neat area of what looked like burren limestone situated with flowers of all kinds in the seams and cracks, and small squares of grass here and there.
I stopped, looked around at the limestone, then continued.
“It’s fake. Homemade, I mean. I’d never take it from where it belongs. This is concrete I poured in holes in the ground. Paint it with yogurt to encourage appropriate insect and microbial activity, and within a short time, you’ve got authentic-looking limestone. No reason at all to steal the real thing.”
“Well, since we’re discussing it, how ’bout the flowers?”
“Buy the seeds online. I promise, anyone can reproduce the Burren without ever causing damage to it. All you need’s a decent location, or even a greenhouse.”
“Okay, okay; you win.” Next time I’d assume that I was confused, rather than assuming he was a hypocrite.
The detached garage was the same color as the house, but with a large white wooden door. “White, like the center of the gentian.” He really loved this stuff.
He rolled the door sideways, and there sat an absolutely brand new Mini Cooper S convertible.
“You’re drooling, Mr., uh, what would it be, then, since you’ll be driving my car?”
“Not medical, I assume?”
“Fine, then; we’ll leave it at that. Keys are in it; bad habit, I know.”
I may have stopped drooling, but I couldn’t stop grinning. Maybe not the most practical car in the world, but quite possibly the perfect car for racing across the Irish countryside.
It started almost before I touched the key. He closed the garage door after I’d backed out, and got in the right-hand side.
We rolled gently down the cart path from his house toward the road proper, and I told him my story.