When San Francisco literature professor Rose Sweeney is sent to England to research the long-lost secret notes of Robert Graves, her unhappy fiddler husband Niall follows. Rose plans to work with her friend, Euan, in his home village near Exmoor. Niall Sweeney’s only plan is to save their fraying marriage.
But both plans screech to a halt when they discover the doddering and despised lord of the local manor dead in his garden, and his equally unpleasant son missing. Sweeney and Rose are swept into Euan’s frantic search for the son and the truth about the old man’s death. But they’ve barely begun when they are first nearly barbecued at the hands of a midnight arsonist, then sent a bloody pagan warning.
Frightened, Rose tries to continue her research while helping Sweeney and Euan penetrate the baffling network of lies, greed, distrust, and ancient hatred binding the village together. As Sweeney searches for answers in his music, fiddling in the pub with strange locals and deranged Morris dancers, Rose explores the fairy-ringed hills with eccentric village folklorists. Together, the outsiders learn they are faced with four seemingly unrelated threads of menace-each worth murdering for.
Even after locating a lost fortune in gold coins and being forced into a violent confrontation with twisted lust and adultery, Sweeney and Rose find they are still in mortal danger. Delving deeper into Graves’ notes for his mythic masterpiece, The White Goddess, Rose realizes that some of Britain’s forgotten pagan past wasn’t forgotten after all. Rose is the only one who can connect Graves’ poetry with the current malevolent denizens of Exmoor to find the key to a pair of murders. But in finding the key she unearths a secret more real, more desperate, and more deadly than she’s prepared for.
In the terrifying climax, Rose must battle both a human monster and the ancient gods of Britain to try to save her own sanity and the three lives that hang in the balance.
A biting West Country wind whipped like a distant cry along the irregular, serrated edges of Faucille Manor’s ancient slate roof tiles. Leaning into the wind, a large, leathery man nearly as ancient as the roof slates tottered down the worn stone steps leading from the blocky, windowless outbuilding to the kitchen entrance of the manor house. Tall, barrel-chested and spindly-legged, old Sir William Batt struggled under a small armload of firewood.
“Elizabeth?” he called out in a hoarse, barbed voice. With small steps he felt his way the last few feet to the door set in the crumbling and neglected stone, then cursed as his fingers slipped and the wood clattered to the ground. He reached over and pushed the heavy door inward. He pulled at his stained and moth-eaten gray cardigan, then shouted again down the long, unlit passageway.
“Elizabeth? Aren’t you back yet, woman?” He squatted in obvious pain and picked up a few sticks of split beech, tucking them under one arm and straightening back up with an effort.
Two hen pheasants skittered across the gravel in front of the manor, drawing Sir William’s bleary, saturnine gaze. Across the stream the cows had bunched up at the low corner of the field and seemed to be gnawing at the flimsy gate that was barely hanging on its rotten hinges. Sir William grunted in disgust.
“Where is that bloody woman?” he muttered, running a square, calloused hand through the few wisps of white hair still clinging to the scalp above his ears. “Can’t even make the bloody tea on time. As if I haven’t better things to do…” And without bothering to fumble for the light switch, Sir William creaked down the hall he’d known for eighty-eight years.
He never heard the muffled steps coming up behind him or the sound of the stone coming down.
Rose Sweeney did not travel well. Sleepless all the way from San Francisco to Heathrow, only to be handed the keys to a cramped little Vauxhall with a manual transmission. Her heart was still running a bit too fast after the uncomfortable and nerve-wracking solo drive up to Oxford. Now Rose sat on a carved Georgian chair outside the office of the Acquisitions Curator of the Bodleian Library, trying at least to appear polite.
But Rose waited, determined to make a good first impression. After all, for a lowly untenured associate professor of English from San Francisco State University, this amounted to the chance of a lifetime. The Robert Graves Bibliography papers were in from Majorca and were now somewhere in this very building. For decades historians swore that these documents did not exist. She’d always maintained they had to be somewhere. Now Dean Dechter had picked her to unravel their mysteries. No, she wouldn’t get two chances like this.
She sat stiffly but as usual she couldn’t keep her hands still. She took her auburn ponytail out of the polished leather barrette, then fussed it back in again. The secretary had been gone an awfully long time. And Rose kept thinking how the secretary was so obviously more formally dressed than she was.
Well, tough, she thought, they hired me for my mind, not my wardrobe. In the next instant, though, she had to suppress her fear that her casual manner might get her in trouble here in Oxford if she wasn’t careful. Somehow she couldn’t quite shake the notion that she’d arrived at the opera in shorts. It irked her that she even cared.
Rose straightened her red, pleated skirt and wondered what had possessed her to pick this blouse. With a flash of longing she thought of her comfy Pendleton shirt and soft, worn sweat pants stuffed in her bag down in the car, then banished the thought. She’d prove Byron Dechter wasn’t completely out of his mind when he picked her for this job. She took in a deep breath and let it out slowly.
At least she wasn’t without allies here in England. She found that thought comforting. Her old friend Euan Thorne at Oxford University Press would be loads of help. Just knowing that Euan would pick her husband up at Heathrow had lifted her spirits. Yes, let Euan try to brighten Niall’s day. She was fed up with his moods. When he was ready to be civil again she’d meet him halfway. Okay, so there hadn’t been many bright days for him lately. But Niall was bound to perk up out in West Somerset. Euan would see to that. And she’d join them in a few days, after getting this Oxford job off and running.
Off and running, she found herself musing. What I wouldn’t give right now for an open road and a good run.
Her calves ached from the flight and the drive and the waiting and the excitement. Back home she could so easily slip out and indulge in the pleasure of an hour’s sweaty endorphine rush, a Californian Atalanta in a sweat suit, sweeping away the cares of the day and thoughts of anything profound. This trip would be different. She’d have to get used to the new rhythms and keep her mind from drifting back toward California.
I wonder where Niall is this minute, she thought. He must have taken off by now. Her grey-flecked brown eyes misted over momentarily as she pictured him as she’d left him, tense and silent, standing slender and vulnerable in the departure lounge, unable to meet her gaze.
Her reverie was interrupted as the inner office door opened and a tallish, smiling, heavy-set man with wire-rim glasses strode across the room toward her with his hand outstretched. Rose felt a touch of slightly amused relief wash over her. Good. He wasn’t wearing a tie.
“Delighted you could come, Professor Sweeney,” he said airily, giving her hand a short, awkward jerk. “Duncan Shaw. Resident archivist. Dean Dechter has spoken quite highly of you.”
“Thank you,” she smiled, noticing that she was trying to be both guarded and ingratiating at the same time. “I hope this is a good time to start. I must say I can’t wait.”
“Well, there are those who would view the job of tackling this horrendous pile as a descent into hell. Happily, it’s not an ‘abandon hope all ye who enter here’ sort of affair. At least Graves’ hell indulged in more of a revolving door policy.” He grinned a nervous librarian’s grin.
“But I must admit,” he continued, “I’ve been rather looking forward to it myself.” His eyes fairly twinkled behind the lenses. “Come with me.”
Love will you marry me, marry me, marry me
Love will you marry me and take me out of danger
Out of danger, thought Sweeney with the part of his brain that wasn’t trying to sing. Oh, sure… and when this plane hits the ground they won’t find a piece of me big enough to put on an hors d’oeuvre… oh, why did I…
He started involuntarily as he felt the landing gear come up with a clunk.
No I won’t marry you, marry you, marry you
No I won’t marry you, for why you are a stranger
Stranger and stranger… I’ve become a goddamned stranger… oh, Rose, why can’t I just open my mouth and make the words come out when I’m looking into your eyes?… why can’t I…
Why didn’t you tell me so, why didn’t you tell me so?
Why didn’t you tell me so before you done the harrum?
Who did what harrum to whom?…
What harrum did I do, what harrum did I do?
What harrum did I do by roll’n you in me arrums?
And if I’d agreed to come to England before it was too late to get a seat on her plane, I could have made the trip with Rosie sleeping on my shoulder… maybe…
Sweeney felt a tap on his arm.
“So what’s your game, pal?” inquired the toothy, balding man wearing a power tie. He had somehow managed to cram most of his sagging bulk into the window seat next to Sweeney.
Sweeney hadn’t even known he was there. He consciously loosened his grip on his armrests. He glanced out the window in an effort to believe that the widebody jet wasn’t going to crash immediately after takeoff. He sure as hell didn’t want to talk.
The guy was opening his mouth again. Sweeney figured he’d have to say something. He raised one side of his sandy moustache in something less than a warm smile.
“Fiddling,” he said. “I play Irish fiddle. That’s what I do. It’s not a game, though.” He dropped his moustache back to neutral, staring a noncommital, cornflower blue stare, hoping that would be the end of it. When relaxed, his youthful, rosy-cheeked, unlined face could be infuriatingly hard to read.
The fat man looked him up and down with a pinched, bureaucratic expression. He was wearing too much of some vaguely sweet cologne.
“Jeez, no, you know what I mean. What do you do really? I mean, for a living?”
Aw, Christ, thought Sweeney. He felt an all-too familiar blackness welling up inside him. He drove it back with an effort but remained annoyed.
Why me? he thought. I can’t take this all the way to London.
“Nothing,” he replied evenly. “I used to program computers for a bank till I got fired. I was accused of knifing a music critic to death outside an Irish bar. Never could get my ex-boss to believe I didn’t kill the guy. Got his guts spilled all over the sidewalk.”
He paused but the other man’s bovine expression did not change.
“The critic, that is, not my boss.” Sweeney trailed his eyes down to the paunch wedged into the next seat and back up the power tie to the slack-jawed face.
“I cashed in my severance check to get a change of scene and a little peace and quiet.” There, that ought to do it, he sighed to himself, closing his eyes and fishing for some tune to hum.
His companion was silent for a moment, then guffawed unpleasantly. He leaned forward. “Oh, I get it. Joke. Severance. That’s good. I’m in marketing myself. Take this flight two, three times a month. Maybe you’ve heard of…” Sweeney made a low groan, spun to his right and stopped a passing flight attendant with a sharp tug on her pant leg.
“Excuse me, miss,” he hailed her a little louder than necessary. “Could you bring me a larger bag? I’m afraid it’ll get all over everything like last time if I try to hit this one. Oh, and hurry, will you?”
Sweeney turned back to his left as the alarmed young woman scurried up the aisle. The fat man had somehow redistributed his body to the far side of his seat and wasn’t even crowding the armrest. Suddenly, he looked more interested in cirro-stratus clouds than further conversation and was evidently holding his breath. That suited Sweeney just fine.
Over the pole from San Francisco to London would be ten hours and change. That was ten hours to catch some sleep and try to see some way out of the blue funk he’d been in for—how long now? It seemed like months. He could be flip about it to an asshole on an airplane, but the fact remained that his life had changed and he felt completely helpless about it.
Thirty years of living had not prepared him for it—being unjustly accused of master-minding a byzantine money-laundering scam, being fingered for a murder he didn’t commit, losing his job, losing most of the people he’d thought were his friends, losing his faith in himself, almost losing his music. And if he wasn’t careful, letting Rosie drift beyond the point where he could hope to reach her again.
As he hurtled east with a distant roar in his ears, Sweeney couldn’t shake the thought of how unreal the last few months seemed. Could he really have lashed out at Rosie so cruelly—have said what he had said? Could he ever have believed, even wrapped in his blackest nightmare, that she had turned her affections elsewhere, betrayed him, flayed his heart open for the birds to pick at? No, it was impossible. And yet…
All he really wanted was for life to be the way it used to be—to play his fiddle again, to be happily married again. Sure, he hadn’t the slightest idea how to make it happen. Still, that’s what he wanted.
And though he hadn’t felt like playing for ages, the battered leather case with the fiddle inside was tucked away in the overhead compartment, just in case. Who could tell? Tunes of joy might leap off those strings again.
And Rosie would be there waiting for him in England. That was for certain. They weren’t supposed to link up for a couple of days, though maybe—just maybe—she’d be there when he arrived even though she’d said she wouldn’t be. He had ten hours to think of just the right words to say to her. Or maybe if the words still wouldn’t come, he could find the right tune to play. She’d always been the better talker. Better at saying the important things, anyway. He’d tried—oh, how he’d tried. But some of the most important things just wouldn’t come out as words…
He pulled his scuffed suede jacket a little closer against the chilly hiss of air coming from somewhere above him. Sitting there with 400 fellow travelers, Sweeney felt miserably alone.