The weather of Scotland was different. Not different from any other place I’d been, but different from one moment to the next. A fog could roll down the moors and trap you for hours or maybe even days, forcing you to eat the upholstery in your hotel room or risk starvation. Or the sun could shine down on you and warm you through and through, leaving you with that warm fuzzy feeling you get from clothes just taken out of the drier. Then thirty seconds later it would be drizzle again. I experienced everything except the forced starvation on my journey northward. That was just as well because the cloth upholstery on the train wouldn’t have been near as tasty as hotel bed linen.
I glanced out the window of my compartment and watched the sun shine its rays across the wetlands that made up the moors. My train rattled along the tracks toward what I hoped would be a vacation I wouldn’t remember. With nothing better to do, my mind wandered back to the boardroom after a tense meeting between my boss, the chairman of the board, and the representatives of another company situated in the United Kingdom. If somebody had brought a knife they could have cut the tension and made us all some nice tension pies.
The deal had gone through. Our company would prosper, angels would sing, virgins would weep, and I would fly back to the States for a well-needed vacation from the dogs of war and the fogs of London. I stood on the side of the long, narrow conference table with my boss, Mr. Elroy Jackson, seated at the head beside me. He was a rough customer if you got on his bad side, but turn him around and he was a lighthearted, mischievous imp who I wondered how he made it out of his youth without more spankings.
“What did you think of those men, Miss Conroy?” Mr. Jackson spoke up. My full name was Elizabeth Conroy. Beth to the few acquaintances I had, and Miss to my superiors.
“Tense, Mr. Jackson,” I replied.
He chuckled. “Always straightforward with me, aren’t you?” he mused.
“It’s easier to tell the truth than hide a lie,” I returned. I learned that from a fortune cookie.
“That sounds like something from a damn fortune cookie,” he replied. He was never one to mince words, either. Born and raised in the not-so-wilds of the West, Mr. Jackson was rowdy, but honest. Usually it was the other way around with businessmen, but Mr. Jackson was the minority. “But to your reply, yes, it was pretty tense. They didn’t want to give in, but we did it, didn’t we? Got that merger done with and we can go home.”
“Yes, sir,” I replied. Shorter responses meant I could go back to my hotel bedroom sooner and catch a wink of sleep.
He scrutinized my face. My puffy eyes probably stuck out like two vegans at an all-you-can-eat carnivore buffet. “How late did you stay up getting prepared for this meeting?”
“How late did you call me asking for those reports?” I countered.
Jackson paused and rubbed his chin. “I’d say about two.”
“Then I was up until three,” I told him. Otherwise known as garbly-goop in the morning. My memories were a muddled mess of minutes, seconds, and an hour here and there.
“And when was the last time I gave you a vacation?” he wondered.
“Long enough that I almost need to reference a dictionary to know what the word means,” I replied.
He guffawed. That was what I liked about Mr. Jackson. Any other boss would have guffawed me straight to the unemployment line.
“Then it’s high time I give you one, isn’t it? Why don’t you start for it today?” he suggested.
“You mean after the six-hour airplane ride?” I reminded him.
He grinned and shook his head. “Nope, I mean right now. This instant.”
I frowned. His sense of geography must have been off. “But we’re in London, sir,” I pointed out.
He shrugged. “Did that ever stop anybody from taking a vacation?”
“I’m an American citizen on a work visa,” I persisted.
“What’s that matter? Don’t you have your passport?” he asked me.
“But nothing! I’ve got the perfect plan for you, and you’re going to love it!” he insisted.
My heart, stomach, and other internal organs sank. His plans were sometimes a little-well, outlandish. Like that one time he tried to get us into the White House dressed as chefs. We made it as far as the east wing before we were directed to the kitchen to cook lunch. The ensuing food poisoning of the pinnacle of the executive branch was terrible, and Mr. Jackson saved face only because he offered to pay for catering for a month. The press laughed it off, the innocent victims recovered, and Mr. Jackson didn’t learn a thing about propriety. Or cooking, for that matter.
“I’m fine, sir. I could go without a vacation for a few more-”
“Nonsense! I’ve got it all scheduled for you. Your train leaves for Scotland in one hour, so you’d better get packing,” he told me.
I blinked. “Scotland, sir?”
“Scotland, Miss Conroy,” he affirmed.
“What am I going to do in Scotland?” I asked him.
“See the sights! Smell the fresh air of the moors! Relax! Vacation!” he insisted.
“But where in Scotland, sir? Edinburgh?” I persisted.
He chuckled. “Nothing that fancy. There’s an island off the western coast. It’s a small place I used to visit with my parents, bless their souls.”
“They’re still alive, sir,” I reminded him.
“Well, bless their souls, anyway, for showing me that grand place. It’s a large enough island, about five miles long and nearly that wide. You’ll love it. It’s got fishing-”
“I don’t fish.”
“I don’t boat, sir.”
“I can’t swim, sir.”
“I don’t dance.”
“-and a lot of other neat things you’ll learn to like, and learn how to live while you’re at it,” he finished.
I sighed. This was so far beyond absurd that I couldn’t even make out the word in the distance. “Sir, I’m grateful for the offer, but I just couldn’t accept it. I don’t know anyone up there, nor even my way around. I’m sure I’d get lost and end up having a terrible time,” I told him.
Damn it, but he grinned that evil grin. That was the one he used right before he convinced me to go skydiving with him. I still had nightmares about being Wile E. Coyote plummeting to the ground and creating a cute hole in the ground with a skirt-and-flailing-arms outline.
“I have just the fellow who’s going up there himself to see the island. He’s a nice enough chap, as they say around here. A little odd like me, but I’m sure that won’t bother you a bit,” he explained. Now that worried me.
“Really, Mr. Jackson, I can’t accept this vacation-”
“No more arguing or you’ll miss your train,” he scolded. He stole my briefcase, swept me out of the conference room and into the arms of one of the security personnel who was waiting outside the door. “See that she gets to the limousine waiting out front,” he commanded the man.
“Yes, sir,” the man replied.
Jackson looked to me with a wide grin. “You’ll be in good hands, Miss Conroy. My friend will meet you at the Glasgow station and lead you from there.”
I was then marched prisoner-style to the elevators, across the lobby, and out to the waiting stretched limo. It would have been a treat if I hadn’t imagined the thick glass windows as iron bars and the security guard as my bailiff. Even the chauffeur morphed into an overweight prison bus driver, minus the smell. It wasn’t a pleasant picture. He drove me to the train station where I caught the northward bound express heading to Scotland.
And that is how I ended up bumping and bouncing my way to the drizzly land of leprechauns and haggis. The bright, shining sun didn’t last long as clouds covered its rays and brought with it more rain. The soft specks of water patted against the window and the clouds darkened the room. I sighed, leaned against the window frame, and cupped my chin in one hand.
“What has he gotten you into this time, Beth?” I wondered to myself.
The door to my compartment slid open. I spun around to find a man of about thirty-five standing in the entrance. He had short brown hair that was combed back, and the brightest blue eyes I’d ever seen. His height was a smidge below six foot, and he wore a worn suit on his body and a smile on his face. Even in the dim light I could see he was handsome in an unconventional way. In one hand was a small, worn bag brimming with the clothes contents.
He spoke with a hint of a Scottish accent tempered by a long duration in England. “I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to startle you. I was merely looking for someone,” he apologized. He glanced over my luggage above me, and surprised me by stepping inside and closing the door behind himself.
“I don’t think you’re going to find who you’re looking for in here,” I told him.
The stranger seated himself on the cushioned bench opposite me. “Maybe not, but you look like you could use the company just the same,” he commented. “Where are you headed?”
“North,” I replied. I didn’t feel like divulging my travel plans to this pushy stranger. Also, I didn’t know my travel plans beyond going to Glasgow.
His smile never faltered. “Then it seems we’re going the same path. What takes you northward?”
“A vacation,” I told him.
He leaned back in his seat and chuckled. “You don’t sound too excited about the prospect of a vacation,” he commented.
I shrugged. “I guess it was kind of forced on me,” I replied.
“A vacation forced on you? What rogue would do that?” he teased.
All these questions triggered my usually dormant suspicious behavior, and I scrutinized my unwelcome guest. “My boss, but why are you traveling north? Going home?” I asked him.
“Aye. It’s been a while since I visited and business forces me up there for a few days,” he told me.
“So you don’t live there?” I wondered.
He shook his head. “No. I work in town, London, that is, but I rent a small bit of land to tourists when they’re in season and visit when they’re not.”
“Where is this land?” I inquired.
He smiled and tilted his head to one side. “You’re a very curious sort, aren’t you?” he mused.
Caught in the act of snooping, I blushed and stammered an excuse. “N-no, it’s just that I don’t know my way up here and I thought you might help me.”
His eyebrows raised. “Going on a forced vacation with no idea of the land? You’re a bold one to be going on such an adventure.”
“No, my boss is just more stubborn than I am,” I admitted.
He chuckled and held out his hand for me to shake. “My name is Finlay MacLennan, but you may call me Fin,” he introduced himself.
I took his hand and gave it a firm shake. “Elizabeth Conroy.”
“Now that we have the formalities out of the way, where are you heading north? And don’t tell me Glasgow, for I know this is the train to that city,” he insisted.
“To be honest I don’t know where I’m going beyond Glasgow. My boss, Mr. Jackson, told me I was going to meet my guide at Glasgow, a friend of his,” I explained.
Fin stared at me with a strange look in his eyes. “Did this Mr. Jackson happen to mention the name of his friend, or what he looked like?”
My eyes widened and my jaw dropped down. “No,” I croaked. I hurriedly pulled my phone from my pocket, dialed his number, and pressed the phone to my ear.
“This is Elroy Jackson. If you want to talk to me about business I’m on vacation. If this is Miss Conroy, stop calling me and enjoy yourself. If I see your face in less than a week then you’re fired. Goodbye.” Click. No answering machine, no hope of getting a hold of him.
My hand holding the phone dropped onto the cushion beside me and my eye twitched. Visions of ways I could kill my boss flashed through my mind, but none of them would help me now. I was on my own for a week in a country I didn’t know with a guide I had no idea how to find.