“I’m tellin’ ye, it was the Black Dog. Now what the hell are ye gonna do about it, Hayden MacLairty?”
The dead sheep, all four of them, made a grisly spectacle on what remained of the green summer grass. All of them had their throats crushed and bloodied, and two had their stomachs torn open, too, inviting flies to the feast. Hayden couldn’t quite wrap his head around it.
There were no bears or wolves in Scotland. A vicious pet or zoo animal might have gotten loose. Or perhaps it was a pack of stray dogs that had gone rogue. But what would kill four sheep and not feed? The animals were not so much eaten as displayed.
Hayden knelt down by one of the disemboweled sheep, trying to get a closer look at its wound. It looked torn, as from claws or teeth, not cut with a knife.
“I’ll take ’em to the vet in Ullapool. See if he can tell me anythin’ about what done this.”
“I told ye what done this! It was the Black Dog!”
Hayden straightened up to his full height, not averse to using his size to shut up Dylan Mitchell. Dylan was one of many colorful characters in Hayden’s precinct. He drank, and he saw things, and normally Hayden could ignore his wild stories. But not today, not with four dead sheep.
“Now you listen here, Dylan. There ain’t no such thing as the Black Dog.”
“I seen it! Why, just two nights ago—”
“And whatever killed your sheep is real, not some supernatural phantom, and that means I’ve gotta catch it. I’m not likely to catch it if I’m wastin’ my time lookin’ for spooks.”
Dylan’s face clouded with anger. “Ye don’t never listen to me, Hayden. But I know what I saw. Seen that thing five times now, the first time when I was nigh on ten year old, and there weren’t no liquor involved then. And I drink plenty without seein’ the damn thing. When I see it, it’s because it’s there. So what’re ye gonna do about it, hey? I can’t afford to lose four head.”
“I’ll post watch for a couple of nights,” Hayden agreed reluctantly. “I’m not arguin’ with you. We gotta find this thing.” And if you didn’t get drunk as a lord every night, you could watch your land your own damn self.
“’Course we do! My sheep one night, maybe my wife the next…! I wanna know what yer gonna do about that monster.”
“Now, Dyl, it won’ do a lick of good to berate the man.” Laith Mitchell spoke up, thank heaven. She was a good woman with a heck of a lot more sense than her husband.
“How ’bout you?” Hayden asked her. “You seen any animal in these parts that might have done this?”
She shook her head regretfully. “No, Hayden. The O’Ryan’s lab goes wanderin’ from time to time, but he’s gentle as a kitten. Ain’t seen nothin’ else.”
Dylan glowered harder.
“Right, then. I’ll just load ’em up.” Not for the first time, Hayden wished he had a subordinate to give such menial work to. He spread out plastic bags in the back of his Land Rover that was marked with the cheery yellow and blue check of the Scottish police. Then he hauled the heavy, bloody sheep into the boot. He had to drive them over an hour each way to Ullapool. But anything that ever had to be done, Hayden did himself. He was the only constable in the small hamlet of Laide and its surrounds. He covered a territory of nearly a hundred miles square, and he himself was the entire breadth and width of the law here. He might call in help if there was real trouble, but not for sheep. And decidedly not for a phantom black dog.
It was nearly dark when Hayden got back to Laide. He passed the Black Dog pub. There was a strange car in the lot, a rental, so apparently Angus had tourists in. Hopefully, they were there for the night and not just a meal. It was a good day when Angus could let out one of his upstairs rooms.
Maybe Dylan would show up at the pub tonight and spout off about the Black Dog. Nothing like a little local color to give the monster-hunters that chill up the spine. The wild northern end of Scotland was popular with long-distance cyclists and the occasional hardy hiker. But the few who stopped in the tiny hamlet of Laide had the legend in mind.
Hayden sighed. How he’d love to put up his tired feet at the pub and have a pint. But he had other obligations.
At home, Hayden let himself in quietly. As always the house smelled sourly of camphor and rose water and cabbage.
“Hullo,” he said to Ruth as he entered the kitchen. “And hullo, Mom.” He kissed his mother on the top of her head, assessing her condition automatically. Her crazy thick black hair, shot through with gray, was freshly washed, a task Ruth only managed a few times a week. She was wearing a thick purple cardigan. It was a bit too small on her large frame, but it was clean. And she had on real trousers today—some old khakis—not PJ bottoms.
His mother looked up at him and smiled. “Hayden! Ruth made us supper. Isn’t that nice?”
It was a good day then. Deep inside, where fear gripped his stomach in greedy handfuls, the tension eased.
“That’s lovely, Mom. What’re we havin’, then?”
“Pot roast! Can’t you smell it? I’m surprised the whole town isn’t outside the door wantin’ to be let in. Smells delicious!”
Hayden swallowed and looked at Ruth. She shook her head a little. “I’ve got some baked chicken in the oven,” she said quietly.
His mom ignored Ruth, going on and on about the pot roast. He sighed. A year ago he would have chased that phantom. But he’d learned better. Even if he went out and got a pot roast now, and they cooked it right away, by the time it was done, his mother would have forgotten all about it. She’d pick at her food like she always did, taking a few bites, and then claiming she was stuffed and couldn’t manage another morsel. He had no idea why she wasn’t a skeleton by now.
“I’m sure it’ll be wonderful,” he said. “I’m starving. I’ll just go wash my hands, shall I?”
After dinner, his mother settled in to watch her programs on TV while Hayden helped Ruth with the dishes.
“What is it, Hayden?” Ruth asked, giving him a leery expression. “I know that face.”
He sighed. “Ah, Christ. I hate this.”
“Go on. Hemming and hawing won’ make it any easier.”
He bit his lip. “Dylan Mitchell lost four sheep last night. I’m thinking it’s a pack of dogs. Told him I’d watch out tonight. Our farmers can’t afford to be losin’ livestock.”
Ruth rinsed the dish soap from her hands and turned to face him. “Hayden, of course I’ll stay, but this is what I’ve been tellin’ ye. You can’t manage. You can be called out any time day or night with that job o’ yours. And she shouldna be left alone.”
The anxiety in Hayden’s stomach returned with a vengeance. Dear God, he’d be growing a family of ulcers in there. “I can’t afford to hire a nurse, even if she’d take to one. What am I supposed to do?”
“Well, you know what I think! One of those fancy brothers o’ yours should be helping out.”
He didn’t disagree with the general concept. It was the particulars that were the problem. Jamie and Loren were both taking graduate courses in London. Jackson, Levi, and Moby had jobs and families of their own to care for hundreds of miles from here. And Sam was on a ship somewhere with Her Majesty’s Navy.
They’d all gotten away from Laide. And Hayden, the youngest, was left the loser in the MacLairty game of musical chairs. Last one standing. Then he felt guilty. He wasn’t the one with dementia. He shouldn’t be whinging about his own troubles. Besides, he honestly had no desire to leave Laide.
“You know that’s not gonna happen,” Hayden said tightly. “And you know how she is. Last time that social welfare lady stopped by, Mom screamed bloody murder, and she didn’t calm down for days. She won’t abide a stranger.”
“I know,” Ruth said quietly. “Which is why I told my niece and her husband they could have my cottage for the summer. And why I’m gonna be bossy and tell you I’m movin’ into the spare room.”
It was so welcome and yet too much at the same time. Hayden leaned against the counter, light-headed with relief. “I canna ask you to do that. I can’t pay you for more hours, and it’s not fair to you. You have a life.”
Ruth gripped his hand. She had a lot of strength for an old lass. And the light in her fierce eyes made it clear there was no faltering in her faculties either. “I’ve had a life, and, God willing, I will have one again. But right now Becca needs me. And you need me. And she’s been my best friend since we were six year old, and that doesn’t stop because she can’t remember what year it is. Of course, I don’t want any more of your money, Hayden MacLairty.”
Hayden swallowed. “That’s… I don’t know how to thank you.”
Ruth smiled, but she still looked worried. “It’ll be a relief to be able to keep me eye on her, to tell you the truth. You’re a right bonny son, and no mother could ask more. But if you ain’t workin’ nights, you sleep like the dead, and don’t think I don’t know it.”
“Hayden!” His mom called from the other room.
“Thank you, Ruth. Really.” His throat felt thick with gratitude.
Ruth snorted. “Yes. I’m sure any healthy young man would be itchin’ to live with two old crones. Go on, then. See what she wants.”
Hayden went into the living room. His mother waved frantically at the TV screen.
“Hayden, look at that dog! Isn’t he the cutest thing!”
Hayden sat on the arm of his mother’s recliner and took her hand. “He’s sweet, isn’t he?”
“You’ve asked and asked for a dog, but you know how your father feels about it. Maybe this Christmas, if you get that A in Maths. Do you think you could do that, lad?”
“Sure, Ma. I can do that.” His father had been gone for ten years, and Hayden had been out of school far longer. He often wondered how his mother could look at him and see a teenager instead of a man just turned thirty-two. But her misfiring brain had its own rhyme and reason.
Becca frowned. “I had a dog once. His name was Bandi. Did I ever tell you?”
Hayden rubbed her cold hands. “No, Ma. Tell me about Bandi.”
“He was a German shepherd. Used to sleep right by my bed. And he’d follow me to school. And I’d say ‘Thank you, Bandi! Now go on home!’ when we got there.”
“And do you know what happened to that dog? He got into the neighbor’s chicken coop and ate a chicken. Oh, did Pa gave him what for! Lord, Hayden. But Bandi, he’d got a taste for it, ye ken. And he wouldn’t stop. So Pa took a rifle and put him down.” There were no tears in her eyes, but her voice got soft. “Ma said Bandi ran away, but the neighbor’s son told me the truth. Pa shot him.”
“I’m sorry, Mom,” Hayden said, like he always did.
“Oh, look! It’s Bette Davis. Isn’t she lovely!”