Celtic Remnants

Celtic Remnants by Deborah O'Toole is a powerful novel of enduring love and betrayal set in the political turbulence of Ireland, glamour of London and wilds of Scotland.

From Chapter Seventeen

Christmas 1992

Pikestaff Lodge, Daviot, Scotland



CHRISTMAS MORNING CAME with a flourish of bright sunlight, which only lasted a short time. It was quickly replaced with a fast deluge of dark clouds and heavy snow.

David awoke in his bed feeling refreshed, remembering the previous day. His room was a few doors away from Ava, but he had gone to bed without seeing her again. She had fallen asleep shortly after dinner, and although he kept peeking in on her, she never awakened. Bart teased his friend: "She'll be there in the morning, Davey. She needs rest to recover. Ava is not about to sprout wings and disappear again, heaven forbid."

Instead, David spent the better part of the evening in the company of his daughter. Bart, Tim and Siobhan joined them as well, although Sophie begged off to her room. David sensed Sophie felt the need to return to her prayers on a daily basis, but did not want to dampen the mood of the group by saying so.

Bart and Siobhan eyed each another warily for the remainder of the evening, while Tim sat morosely by the fireplace, smoking cigarettes and drinking endless cups of coffee. David coaxed Chee into playing a game of chess after he placed the board on a small table near Tim. In typical fashion, Tim offered comments as he saw fit, especially when David lost a game to Chee.

"The Irish win every time," Tim had quipped as Chee clapped her hands together in delight. "The sooner you realize it, the better I'm thinking it'll be, Locksley."

David smiled in his bed as he remembered the evening. Chee was vibrant and happy, and seemed to enjoy herself. She offered to help him put away the chess board, and then proffered her hand in a good night shake.

He rose from his bed, thinking: "I can't wait until her handshake turns into a big hug." Dressing quickly in a knit-sweater and a pair of jeans, he slipped on black canvas shoes and decided to go downstairs. He glanced at his wristwatch, noting it was six o'clock.

He went directly to the kitchen and flipped on the coffee maker. The house felt cold, so he went into the drawing room to light a fire in the grate. He looked over at the Christmas tree in the corner and shook his head. They arrived at Pikestaff on such short notice the only tree he could find was located in Daviot Wood, which he felled with Tim's help yesterday afternoon. There was no time to decorate the tree or adorn it with lights, so it stood alone and naked.

He lit the fire in the grate, touching a long match to paper spills to ignite three wood logs. He walked over to the tree and noticed there were plenty of presents underneath, which amazed him. Who had time to shop for gifts? Sophie and Siobhan had gone into the village the day before and returned with several packages, but David had no clue as to their contents. He felt himself flush a deep red: he had no presents for anyone, but in all truth there had been no time prepare. What could he possibly give Ava or Chee, anyway? He didn't know Chee well enough to be familiar with her preferences. Did she like toys? Games? Books?

"Penny for your thoughts," he heard Ava's voice from the doorway. He swung around to look at her.

His eyes widened when he saw Ava leaning against the frame of the door, one hand gripping the outer edge. Despite her pale complexion, she had managed to dress herself in a pair of beige sweat pants and a dark blue sweater. Her long hair was combed and free, and her eyes were alert and bright. She seemed to be mocking him with her gaze, with one eyebrow characteristically raised in question.

He flew to her side. "What are you doing out of bed? You shouldn't be moving around. How in the hell did you get down the stairs?"

"Very carefully," she replied dryly. "Didn't you hear me? Were you so lost in your own thoughts you didn't notice the thumping sounds I made hopping down on one leg?"

He touched her arm. "Bart will kill you. Let me carry you to a chair."

She laughed. "You'll seize any excuse to get me into your arms, won't you?"

Ignoring her comment, he bent slightly and lifted her carefully yet effortlessly into his arms. Her hands circled around his neck. She moaned as he moved toward the chair by the fireplace.

"Am I hurting you?" he asked.

"It's just the movement," she said softly. "It jars my hip, but I'm okay."

When she spoke, her breath fanned his cheek. He felt his heart flutter. She molded against him as he carried her, and he could feel the slightness of her frame. A surge of protectiveness came over David, and he marveled at it. He never thought of Ava as vulnerable or in need of help, but she was both of those things right now. He came to a stop in front of the chair, still holding her in his arms. He looked into her eyes. She returned his stare, their faces merely an inch apart.

He tilted his head and kissed her, desire for her overcoming common sense and knowledge of her possible anger. The second his lips touched hers, a thousand memories came flooding back to him, hidden and denied for twelve long years. It was as if he had never left her; kissing her was like coming home, and it thrilled him to his core. He parted her lips with his own, and began to explore her mouth. He closed his eyes naturally, although part of him knew he did so from fear of reprisal and her accusing stare.

But Ava wasn't shocked or angered by David's actions. She admitted to herself that she wanted him to kiss her. She responded in kind, placing her hands on the back of his head to pull his face closer to her. She felt like a starving woman finally being offered a feast. Ava drank of David and relished in him, having denied herself for so long, yet she cursed her weakness and then felt awe in one fell swoop.

He could sense Ava was losing her breath. Regretfully he stopped kissing her, but did not relinquish his hold on her. He was not about to let her go now.

Ava looked at him through sleepy eyes. When she spoke, her voice came as a whisper: "Are you happy now, David Lancaster?"

David chuckled as he lowered Ava into the chair. He was careful to ease her down gently. She let go of him slowly, still looking up at him. "You always manage to twist the truth," he said with humor. "Am I happy now? I didn't seem to notice your loud protests over the matter."

"You took me by surprise," she insisted, but her eyes were dancing.

"You had plenty of time to stop me," he declared.

She lowered her eyes, suddenly feeling very shy. "I know."

David regarded her warmly, his entire body flushed with heat. "Would you care for a cup of coffee?" he asked.

She glanced at him, a tentative smile on her face. "I'd love a cup. Remember, I only take cream."

"Yes, I know." He bent over and kissed her quickly on the mouth. "Sit tight and I'll be right back."

She raised her eyebrow at him. "I don't think I'll be running any races today," she told him sardonically. "Unless it's a one-legged arse-kicking contest."

He laughed. "You'd win hands down, my dear."

"Or arse-down," Ava muttered as David left the room to fetch coffee.

She leaned back into the chair, noticing its high-back and wide armrests. It was an antique, of course. Even in their far-flung vacation homes, the Lancaster's only had the best. Her eyes roved around the room. She smiled as she saw the Christmas tree. Chee had told her about the tree yesterday, that it had no decoration but stood proud all by itself. Chee liked the tree as it was, declaring it was "as pure as God made it."

Ava looked at the four tall windows in the room, all of which were covered by sheer curtains with heavy damask shades of dark burgundy. One of the shades was partially open, where she saw snowfall careening against the window pane. The light from the fireplace illuminated the room with a warm glow, reflecting off the table lamps and oak walls in the room. The furniture was old and overstuffed, but seemingly of good quality. It was quiet and peaceful, and for a change Ava felt her instinctive wariness diminish a notch. She closed her eyes and laid her head against the chair's backrest.

When she awakened that morning and decided to go downstairs no matter the effort, she hoped David would be there alone. And he was. She was perplexed by her softening regard for her former nemesis. Ava had been so angry with David for so long, but he had pulled through this time by bringing her and Tim to safety. Seeing David again had chipped away at her deep-seated anger. She was fed up with being in a rage over him. It was debilitating, and a waste of time. She knew she could say it was for Chee's sake, but it wasn't the only reason. Ava had buried her feelings for David so deeply they resurfaced only because she was forced to be near him by rote of circumstance.

The tranquility of Pikestaff Lodge made Ava languid, as did the knowledge David would never betray her to the authorities. One nagging worry in the back of her mind was the possibility locals from Daviot Village might be roused to suspicion, but the lads on the "fringe" were keeping an eye on things. Ava made a mental note to somehow recompense Mike Creed and Jeff Mullen for their time at Daviot during the holidays.

"I'd give more than a penny for your thoughts," David said softly as he stood before her, a steaming cup of coffee in his hand.

Ava took the cup gratefully. "Thank you." She sipped the brew and smiled. "Actually, I was thinking how peaceful it is here. The solitude is lovely, and the snow falling on Christmas morning is just perfect."

He pulled over a large footstool from near the fireplace, placing it next to her. It was on the tip of his tongue to ask her if he could come to her room tonight, but he held himself in check. "Let the day bring what it may," he thought, scolding himself. "If I rush things now, she's apt to get nervous. You need to calm down, Locksley. Let events transpire naturally."

She sipped her coffee again. "Did you call your family?"

He made a show of rolling his eyes heavenward. "I telephoned Amber Court and spoke with my father. He wasn't too pleased, but that's where I left it. I told him I wouldn't be coming home for the so-called festivities. He made a bit of a ruckus, but here I am so no worries."

"What about Bart's father?" She wanted to know. "Is he upset?"

"Bart called him and broke the news. Guildford is a good egg. He knows he'll see Bart before the holiday season is over, so he didn't complain much."

"What in bloody hell are you doing out of bed?" Bart bellowed from the doorway of the drawing room, startling both David and Ava.

He stepped into the room, advancing on them. He was dressed in blue-print pajama bottoms and a white tee-shirt. His hair was disheveled and his eyes were bleary, the lower half of his jaw darkened with beard growth. He was barefoot as well, forcing David to smother a laugh. It was unlike Bart to parade around in such a manner. He was usually dressed to the nines with not a hair out of place, even when he adorned casual garb.

"I feel better," Ava defended herself. "I made it down the stairs quite well, thank you. Bart, this is Christmas morning. I wasn't about to hold court from my bed like one of your bloody queens."

Bart came to a stop in front of her chair. He still appeared disgruntled as he felt her forehead, took her pulse and looked at her eyes, holding one of her hands all the while. Ava accepted his ministrations calmly. Finally, he let go of her hand.

"Your color is better," he admitted, surprised. "How is the pain?"

"Still there, but better than yesterday," Ava replied, finishing her coffee and handing the cup to David. "I tell you, I feel fine. I won't try and do too much today. I'll just stay downstairs while Chee opens her gifts, maybe have a bit of breakfast, and then I'll go back to bed. I promise."

Bart seemed appeased for the moment, so David spoke up: "I have to ask. Why are you looking so out of sorts, my friend?"

Bart flushed slightly. "I didn't sleep well. I kept tossing and turning. I could hear Siobhan and Sophie talking in the room next to mine."

Ava chuckled. "You're still soft on Siobhan, aren't you Quantrill?"

"Not in the least," Bart said quickly. "I simply couldn't sleep over the noise."

"My bloody hell," Siobhan said cheerfully as she walked into the room. She came to stand next to Bart, glancing at him. "We quit talking at midnight because Sophie fell asleep. How do you account for the other five hours?"

Ava started to laugh as Siobhan ribbed Bart. David allowed himself to watch the friendly interplay, warmth filling his heart. The scene reminded him of the old days when they spent the summer in Monasterboice so many years ago. Only now all four of them were older and hopefully wiser. There was a glimmer of sanguinity in David's mind that somehow Bart and Siobhan would get back together. There was nothing keeping them apart, no ugly history and certainly no recriminations.

"Unlike Ava and me," David thought with a quiet sigh. "We have so much baggage, and so much to get through."

CHEE WAS DELIGHTED on Christmas morning. Despite the oddness of the circumstances, she couldn't remember when she'd had a better time with her mother, Siobhan, Sophie and Uncle Tim. It had nothing to do with gifts. It had to do with being family and enjoying the closeness of it. In Chee's case, she knew the peace and tranquility could be shattered at a moment's notice and her mother would be gone again.

Chee also felt surprising warmth toward David Locksley. She was prepared to dislike him - he was a sasanach, after all - but he was helping her mother, which alone made him shine bright in her eyes. He was awfully nice in general and very good looking. Chee was simply unable to resist David's charm.

The Egan family, along with Tim, Bart and David gathered in the drawing room at Pikestaff Lodge midmorning on Christmas day. The snow continued to fall heavily, so David added several more logs to the fire. Ava remained in her seat by the hearth, while Chee snuggled around her feet with a thick, multicolored comforter.

"Who gets to open a present first?" Tim asked, looking at Chee as he spoke.

She laughed. "Well, since I'm the only kid here, I suppose that would be me."

David chuckled at Chee's remark. She sounded so much like Ava, wording comments in the same cryptic vein without realizing it. It was uncanny, but fascinating. David remained seated on the footstool near Ava, next to Chee. Bart couldn't resist taking a few photographs with the instant camera he purchased in Daviot Village the day before.

"The three of you make quite a picture," Bart muttered in David's ear as he handed him one of the instant pictures. David glanced down at the photograph. It depicted Ava in her chair, a light throw draped over her knees, with Chee at her feet and her head on Ava's knees. Ava's right hand rested atop Chee's head lightly, with her other hand poised on the chair's arm rest. David sat next to them on the footstool, his head turned slightly toward Ava as he gazed at her.

David nudged Ava and handed her the picture. She looked at it briefly. Then she met his eyes, where he saw slight tears forming. Despite her uncharacteristic show of emotion, he still could not read her or even attempt to guess what she was really thinking, but knew she was touched by the photograph.

Chee was opening the present from her mother. She chortled with glee when she finally saw it. She raised a leather jacket out of a box and held it up for all to see. "I've wanted one of these for ages," Chee exclaimed happily. "Mummy said I was too young, but this is just my size." She jumped to her feet and kissed Ava on the cheek. "Oh, thank you Mummy. I'll treasure it."

Ava regarded her daughter's shining eyes and broke into a grin. Chee was supremely happy, and it stirred her soul. "You nagged me long enough," Ava told her playfully. "Tim finally talked me into getting the jacket for you in London last autumn. He said he'd heard enough of your begging, too."

Chee giggled. "Whatever works, I always say."

Tim came over and put his arm around Chee's shoulder. "You're just like your mother," he said, pretending to be stern. "What in God's name will we be doing with two of you?"

"Love us twice as much," Chee responded, hugging Tim around the waist.

"And that I already do," Tim said softly. The remainder of the gift-opening progressed rather quickly. It was unspoken among all that the holiday event and get-together was precipitated by unusual circumstances, with no one having time to shop properly for presents. Nonetheless, Ava was speechless when she opened the gift Chee made for her. It was a homemade book constructed from stiff cardboard paper, covered in needlepoint. The stitching depicted the Holy Trinity of Ireland, bathed in a milky green background. The contents of the book were in Chee's own handwriting, and related the history of Ireland as she saw it. The cover title was also stitched, and read: My History of Éire by Shenachie Maura Egan, 1992. Given with love to my mother, Ava.

Sophie spoke up from her place by the Christmas tree. "Chee worked on her book project for almost a year," she said proudly. "She insisted on doing everything herself."

Ava was stunned as she held the priceless gift in her hand, deeply moved by Chee's devotion. Then she set the book down on her lap and held out her arms to her daughter. Chee wrapped herself in the embrace.

Even David felt the hot seep of tears in his eyes as he looked at mother and daughter. Any doubts he may have had about Chee's happiness and well-being were completely erased in that moment.

CLIVE BENDER WAS having a time of it. Not only was he stuck in Daviot for the Christmas holiday, he was failing miserably in his purpose for the visit. Samuel Gisbourne was relatively little help, and in fact seemed to be possessed of some sort of after-guilt for talking to Clive about David Lancaster. Since the first evening they met at Buttons Pub, Gisbourne had made himself scarce. Clive decided not to bother with the man again. He was more interested in finding out if Ava Egan was holed up at Pikestaff Lodge, and in the ensuing fifty thousand dollar reward if he could provide police with information leading to her capture.

Christmas morning was a virtual blizzard of snow, but Clive set out on foot from his room above the Buttons Pub, bundled in an oversized brown down-coat and gloves. The main street of Daviot was deserted. Holiday lights of red and green blinked above closed shop doorways and at the village's two intersections. The snow continued to swirl around him as Clive buried his chin deeper into his coat. He left the pub and walked out of the village, following the general directions Gisbourne had given him to Pikestaff.

The lodge was only about a mile from the village, but the weather slowed Clive considerably. He became irritated as he kept slipping on the slick snow, almost falling to the ground several times. He hated the circumstances he found himself in, but he had no other recourse. He was convinced Ava Egan was hiding at Pikestaff, and he desperately needed the bounty on her head. All signs pointed to her whereabouts, not only with the presence of David Lancaster at the lodge during the holiday, when he would normally be ensconced at Amber Court with his family, but also with Lancaster's dismissal of Gisbourne for the duration of his stay. What other reason could Lancaster have for isolating himself at the lodge?

Still, Clive cursed the ill-fortune which forced him to be in Daviot. Ever since he stopped working for Lancaster, his financial situation had been precarious at best. Clive knew it was his own fault, the root of his problems linked to an over fondness for gambling and imbibing one too many pints. He could have spent the holidays with his brother Simon in London, but it would have been fruitless. He needed to act as quickly as possible.

It was through a friend in Belfast that Clive heard of Ava's situation. He didn't know many details, but word came Ava was injured in an ambush in Oxfordshire and was taken to a remote location to recover. It was all Clive had to go on, but he put two and two together and did a little investigating. David Lancaster was not at the family seat for the Christmas holidays, and Siobhan Egan was not spending the season at the Blackwater Inn in Monasterboice. It stood to reason Ava would have been unable to travel far with her injuries, so Clive decided to explore the possibility that they all scattered to Pikestaff Lodge. If Gisbourne's information was accurate, Clive was about to hit pay dirt.

Clive paused in his stride, trying to catch his breath. The snow was coming down so hard he could barely see in front of him. The white images of tree branches caught his eyes to the right and left, the snow having fallen so heavily the branches were leaden and drooping. He began to panic. He wasn't sure if he was on the road leading outside of Daviot anymore, or if he was headed in the direction of Pikestaff. Even if he turned around and tried to head back to the village, he was uncertain if he would be going back the way he came.

"What a damn pickle I've gotten myself into," he grumbled out loud, rubbing the outside of his arms with his gloved hands. "I was so busy cursing my bad luck that I went ahead and stepped right into more."

"You most certainly did, mate," a voice hissed in his ear.

Before he could react, Clive fell to the found with a thud. It would be the last thing he remembered for quite awhile.

JEFF MULLEN HATED cold weather, but tolerated the elements because he was on assignment for the Irish Militant Council. After meeting Mike Creed in Inverness a few days ago, Jeff came to the tiny village of Daviot and the estate known as Pikestaff. Not only was Scotland miserably cold, the snow seemed to have no intention of abating. To make matters worse, it was Christmas Day. He had foolishly volunteered for the gig and was sorry he put himself up for it.

Jeff and Mike were holed up in an old tool shed on the Lancaster property. The shack had seen better days. It was freezing, but because of their desire to remain invisible they hadn't been able to light a campfire. Mike brought large batteries that he and Jeff used for two electric blankets, but it wasn't quite enough. Tim O'Casey slipped over to see them at least once a day, always bringing a thermos of hot coffee and a small canvas bag filled with sandwiches, crisps, hard-cooked eggs and soft drinks. Jeff and Mike were able to communicate with Tim through a pager he kept with him at all times, although neither man had seen the sense in bringing their laptop computers to Daviot. The hardness and discomfort were facts of life in the IMC. They were protecting their own. Not only Ava Egan, who was an elemental part of the IMC, but Tim O'Casey as well. Not to mention the presence of Ava's daughter, her sister and aunt.

Nothing out of the ordinary had taken place at Pikestaff since Jeff and Mike arrived, apart from a brief appearance by the caretaker Samuel Gisbourne. No one else had been seen snooping around the lodge. Jeff and Mike took turns roaming the estate, with one man lagging behind at the tool shed. They rotated by the hour, so neither one of them had gotten much sleep.

Jeff was making his last round on the outer edges of the lodge when he saw a man on the road, almost stumbling upon him. The heavy snow made visibility less than ideal. Jeff sensed the man was lost, but then wondered what the hell he was doing at Pikestaff in a blizzard on Christmas Day. Because of the man's winter attire, Jeff could not make out his features but he knew it was not Tim O'Casey, and he assumed it was not David Lancaster or Bart Quantrill. The man in front of Jeff was walking from the direction of Daviot Village. Jeff knew no one had left the lodge in several hours.

Because of the suddenness in which Jeff found himself behind the stranger, he acted swiftly but carefully. He conked him over the head with his pistol with just enough force to knock him cold. Tucking the pistol back in his belt, he leaned over to remove the man's hat. He was shocked when he recognized the face.

Clive Bender? The useless blighter investigator? The alcoholic gambler who couldn't find his way out of a sack of potatoes? Jeff almost laughed out loud, but he held himself in check. There would be time for levity later. Right now he had to get Bender back to the shed and decide what to do with him.

"ARE YOU SHAGGIN' nuts, bringing a body here?" Mike Creed exploded when he saw Jeff drag the lifeless form of Clive Bender into the tool shed. "Who in bloody hell is that?"

Jeff dropped Bender's body just inside the door of the shack. "I came upon him in the road," he defended himself, shutting the door. "I didn't exactly have time to pussy-foot around." He glanced down at the man on the floor. "This is the one and only Clive Bender, at your service. His fame precedes him, thanks to his bumbling search for Ava a few months ago. "

Mike rolled his eyes and shook his head, rubbing his hands together. He regarded Bender first, and then his eyes traveled to Jeff. The man was soaked to the skin and out of breath. He must have carried Bender for quite a distance. Jeff's short blond hair was plastered to his head and his week-long growth of beard was dusty coal in color, almost a match to the deep shadows under his eyes.

The shed was small, but Mike and Jeff managed to arrange two thin bedrolls on the creaking wooden floor. Slats missing in the walls had been covered with old newspaper and rags, which barely kept out the cold. A solitary candle burned on a small wire crate in the middle of the sparse room.

Mike Creed had been a member of the IMC for more than twenty years, and he was also a personal friend to Ava and Tim. Well into his forties, Mike had a shock of white hair on his head. There were creases in the corners of his eyes and around his mouth. He liked Jeff Mullen well enough, although he was a bit leery as the lad had only been with the IMC for two years.

Mike walked over and knelt down in front of Clive, looking him over. "Did you talk to him?"

Jeff shook his head. "No. I knocked him out as soon as I came up behind him. I think he was walking from Daviot, and became lost."

Mike glanced up at Jeff. "Bender being here is no coincidence, I'm thinking. Who might have sent him?"

Jeff shrugged. "Not Locksley, that's for sure. Bender went off his payroll awhile back."

"What about the Earl himself?" Mike wondered aloud.

Jeff whistled slowly, his eyes widening. "I hadn't thought of that. But why?"

Mike stood up, facing Jeff squarely. "O'Casey told me the Earl was a tad upset when Locksley didn't make it home for the holidays, but it's not just cause to send out a private dick. Besides, the Earl knows Locksley and his doctor friend are at Pikestaff. No, I think Bender has some wild hair about doing something on his own. He's aware of the price on Ava's head, and perhaps he was miffed when Locksley let him go. Bender had just enough information to put some things together, and maybe he checked out Locksley's current whereabouts more thoroughly." Mike grinned. "That's just a possibility, mind you."

"But a good one," Jeff admitted. "You utterly amaze me, Creed. Your powers of deduction sometimes border on the bizarre, but in this particular case you make sense." Jeff had known Mike to be quick on the draw when evaluating circumstances, and nine times out of ten he hit the mark. It seemed to be a particular talent for men who had been in the IMC for many years.

Clive began to moan on the floor, his body moving slightly. Wordlessly, both Jeff and Mike pulled their black ski masks over their faces, adjusting the fabric so the eye holes fit into place. Jeff knelt down next to Bender, muttering. "Now, how do we get rid of him? Scare him and let him go?"

Mike pursed his lips. "No. Bender knows too much. Maybe not about the particular situation at Pikestaff, but he knows enough about Ava and Locksley to be a liability. I don't trust him. If we let him go, he'll either find some way to come back or he'll alert the coppers."

"We can't keep him here," Jeff said, aghast at the thought.

Mike rested his eyes on Bender's form. "I know. Let me think for just a minute." Bender was a royal pain, Mike thought grimly. Clive's brother Simon was a physician of some note in London, while Clive made his own reputation in private investigation. When the IMC had gotten wind Clive was snooping around Belfast and Kylemore Abbey some months ago, asking questions about Ava, most of those loyal to the IMC went on alert. Clive was known to be rather talented at finding lost family members and locating people who skipped on their bills, but he was in over his head when he started looking for Ava. Bender simply didn't have the wherewithal or the stamina - much less the intelligence - to wade around unscathed in the world of the IMC. He was pegged from the beginning and watched carefully, but as he seemed harmless and not likely to unearth anything of much import the IMC let him roam at will.

The current situation was different. Bender was too close for comfort now, and something had to be done about it.

Jeff watched Mike closely, and then exclaimed: "You're not thinking of elimination, are you?"

Elimination was the term used by the IMC to remove a person permanently. It was a tactic rarely used and only with great forethought, never to be taken lightly. Violence for the sake of violence was not how the organization operated, although they would be hard put to convince the world of their ethos.

"What else can we do?" Mike finally asked.

"We talk to him, reason with him, threaten him," Jeff said, almost pleadingly. "But for God's sake, we don't eliminate him for snooping around."

"And then trust he'll take our threats seriously?" Mike's response was another question.

"We have to," Jeff replied. "If he flaps his gums, we can get Ava out of here quickly."

"Is it worth the alert, and the consequences?" Mike pressed him. "If Bender gets the coppers into this, not only will Pikestaff be pegged as a 'safe-house' for the IMC, but Locksley will be under watch as well. You know I'm not one to condone violence just for the sake of it, there has to be a god-damned good reason first, but I can't think of another alternative for this bloody bastard."

Jeff hesitated. Mike was his superior, but he was having doubts about eliminating Bender. It just didn't seem necessary. "I say we badger him," Jeff finally said weakly. "If we can sense he's not going to abide, then we'll undertake your suggestion."

"One of us has to be keeping watch," Mike pointed out. "We don't have a lot of time to sit here and mollycoddle this baboon."

"It's your turn to do the watch," Jeff said. "I'll stay here with Bender and talk to him."

Mike nodded. "Fine. I'll be back within the hour to see what you've come up with."

After Mike left, Jeff stared down at Bender. His eyes were starting to open slowly. He clutched his head with both hands, moaning anew.

The sight which greeted Clive when his eyes focused scared the living daylights out of him. The figure of a man was bent over him, wearing a black ski-mask with holes in the eyes and mouth. The eyes behind the mask were intent upon him, and devoid of emotion. Clive knew he had stepped right into the IMC, and he was frightened beyond words. The ski mask was a dead giveaway. He didn't even bother trying to take stock of his surroundings. He knew he had to give the right answers to any questions they posed to him in order to preserve his life.

"Where am I?" Clive asked, his voice cracking.

"Where you shouldn't be," the man behind the mask spoke coldly. "What are you doing in Daviot, Bender? Taking the highland air for your health, are you?"

Clive swallowed and noticed his throat was dry. He did not respond.

"You'd best be answering me," the man spoke again. "Tell me the truth, and there might be some hope for your future."

Clive knew he had to think fast, but also realized giving a glib response could prove fatal. Clive had heard about IMC "inquisitions." It was rumored they could sense when a person was merely trying to save their own skin and not telling the truth.

"Keep in mind no one knows where you are, including you," the man spoke again. "And no one can hear you." The man chuckled, but it was an impersonal sound. "Your fate is entirely in your own hands."

Clive tried to sit up, but Jeff pushed him back down. "Stay as you are," he warned. "Start talking, Bender."

Clive raised himself slightly on his elbows. His head was throbbing, but he forced himself to speak. "I was trying to find out if Ava Egan was in Daviot," he croaked, deciding in a split second to be completely honest with the man staring at him. "I've been down on my luck since Locksley discontinued my services. I still have various connections in Ireland, and I was told Ava was hurt in an ambush. Locksley left Amberwood before Christmas, and Siobhan Egan was not in residence at the Blackwater Inn. I sort of put two and two together."

"And you figured you'd do a bit of follow-up, and maybe collect a big reward, aye?" Jeff finished for him, the tone of his voice scathing.

Clive flushed. "Yes, to be honest. I told you, I was down on my luck."

"More like down on hooch and dice," Jeff snapped. He inched his face closer to Bender. Clive could see cold, steel-blue eyes through the ski mask. They were unflinching. "In all your time as a so-called investigator, haven't you ever come to the conclusion that it's not wise to cross over and snoop where you don't belong?"

Clive nodded. "Yes, I realize that. But I was desperate."

"Desperate enough to trade your life for your foolishness?"

"No," Clive answered, his voice shaking with the real fear he was feeling.

Jeff regarded Bender for a long moment. "And you still think your prize money is to be had by snooping around here?"

Clive nodded. "Yes. It simply stands to reason."

"Your reasoning is wrong," Jeff stated flatly. "And typically English. I'm thinking something needs to be done about you, but what is the big question."

Clive was silent. He dared not speak.

Jeff stared at Bender, his gaze steady and unblinking. The seconds stretched into minutes, and still Jeff did not move or talk. Bender felt his nerves stretch as far as they would go, until he thought he would snap.

The silence spoke volumes, and sealed Clive Bender's fate.



CELTIC REMNANTS ©Deborah O'Toole. All rights reserved.

"Celtic Remnants" may not be reproduced in whole or in part without written permission from the author. "Celtic Remnants" is a work of fiction. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead is purely coincidental.