"THE STAFF OF FIRE"
Four days later, Olivia joined her mother, her grandmother, Cecile, Paige, Cousin Margaret and Colin's wife - Lesley - on a shopping expedition to nearby Inverness. On Wednesday morning, the seven women boarded a local train at the small Dunleith station that conveyed them to the nearby historic city. Upon their arrival in Inverness, the group split up. The older women decided to focus their attention on the city's shops and stores. Olivia and her two friends ended up visiting many of the city's historical and tourist sites.
Although Edinburgh remained Olivia's favorite city in Scotland, Inverness never failed to dazzle her. No matter how many times she has visited. One of her favorite sites happened to be the regal Inverness Castle near the River Ness. She loved the reddish-brown structure, which invoked images of the Middle Ages and the Renaissance period. Which seemed ironic, considering that the present castle had been erected around 1830, and was not a real castle - like the one in Edinburgh. But it did appeal to Olivia's sense of history.
But the red-haired witch also enjoyed shopping. She looked forward to meeting the older women on one of the city's premiere thoroughfares - High Street. There, she and her two friends met the older women at a local restaurant for lunch. After a surprisingly delicious meal, the seven women visited an old bookstore called MacDonald's, in the nearby shopping areas, Eastgate Centre.
"Wow! Look at this place!" Paige declared breathlessly. She scanned the tall bookshelves that filled the store. "It could rival Barnes and Noble. Or Bretano's."
Olivia's mother added, "Even better, it also sells a great number of old editions. Wait until you see the Occult section."
While Gweneth led Paige, Leslie and Cousin Margaret to the Occult Section; Olivia, her grandmother and Cecile headed for the History Section. The latter was situated near a large window that overlooked the street, beyond. "Hey, look at this!" Cecile declared. She displayed the book in her hand. Olivia read the title - "Like Lions They Fought". Cecile continued, "It's about the wars between the Zulus and the British. Very interesting."
"Do you see any books on American History?" Gran asked.
Both Cecile and Olivia scanned the shelves. "Not over here," Olivia said. She faced the shelves behind her. "Wait, here they are." She grabbed a large, brown book. "Here's one on the California Gold Rush."
After Gran took the book from Olivia, the latter glanced out of the window. The redhead spotted a dark-blue Morris-Oxford parked across the street. Her eyes narrowed with suspicion. There was something familiar about that car. "Something wrong?" Cecile's voice cut into her thoughts.
Nodding toward the window, Olivia said, "See that car, outside? The Morris-Oxford across the street? Doesn't it look familiar to you? I think I may have seen it in Dunleith."
Cecile glanced out of the window. She shook her head. "No, not really." Her eyes still fixed on the car, she added, "Then again, maybe I have. That model is pretty common in Britain."
"Do you ladies need any help?" A store assistant appeared beside the three women.
Taken aback, Olivia tore her gaze away from the window, while her grandmother smiled at the assistant. "Yes," the elderly woman replied, "Do you have a book on a Scottish immigrant named Archibald Grant? The book is a journal of his experiences during the California Gold Rush." The shop assistant focused his attention to Gran, while Olivia and Cecile moved away to join the others in the Occult Section.
The two friends found Olivia's mother recommending a book to Paige. "Now here's an interesting book," the middle-aged redhead was saying. "'The Book of Druidry'. It's about Druidism and it's very good."
Leslie, an attractive blond in her mid-fifties added, "And here's another." She handed the book to Paige.
"Fire in the Head: Shamanism and the Celtic Spirit," Paige read. She looked questioningly at Colin's wife. "Shamanism?"
Cecile explained, "It's the same as being a witch, a priest or priestess or any other kind of spiritual Pagan figure."
"We all are," Cousin Margaret added.
Mom handed Paige one last book. "Now, I would highly recommend this one. 'Drawing Down the Moon'. It's about the different forms of Paganism in America. Excellent book."
"A book on American Paganism in a bookstore in Scotland?" Paige exclaimed. "Now why does that sound odd to me?"
Cousin Margaret declared, "Nonsense! Why this store has books on every form of Paganism. But this book - the one that Gwen is recommending, is about the different forms of Paganism practiced in America. Including those religions that originated on other continents. Like ours."
While the other women continued to discuss the books with Paige, Olivia returned to the History section in search of her grandmother. She found the latter still in deep conversation with the shop assistant. And after glancing out of the window, Olivia discovered that the mysterious Morris-Oxford had disappeared. Interesting.
Colin McNeill frowned. "A dark-blue Morris-Oxford? Here in Dunleith?" He paused momentarily and glanced at his middle child. "Jaime, do you know something about this?"
"Sorry Father," Jaime replied, "it's like I had told Olivia - I haven't seen one around." He faced his American cousin. "You say that you had spotted this car in Inverness? But why would you be suspi . . .?"
Olivia interrupted. "I may have seen it, yesterday. In Dunleith." She paused. After the women's return from Inverness, she had asked several members of the household about the car. Including the servants. No one knew the identity of the car's owner.
Nodding, Colin said, "Perhaps we should speak to the local constable about this. Eh, Jaime?" His son worked as an inspector for the Inverness Branch of Scotland Yard.
"I don't know," Olivia said, feeling slightly embarrassed by the attention. "Maybe I'm just imagining things. Even on vacation, I can't stop acting like a cop."
Colin patted Olivia's arm. "Jaime and I will speak with Inspector Grant, all the same. With the Aingeal ceremony coming up, perhaps it's best to be cautious."
"Considering your nose for trouble, I certainly think it's a good idea," Jaime added.
Olivia pecked the cheeks of her two cousins. "Thanks, Colin. Jaime." She rushed out of the library, nearly colliding with one of the servants. Then she headed upstairs and found Cecile and Paige inside the room they shared.
"Cecile was telling me about that car you had spotted in Inverness," Paige said. "I wonder if that's the car I had saw."
Olivia frowned. "You did? When?"
Cecile added, "Paige saw it outside your parents' house in London. Last Thursday night."
Olivia continued to stare at Paige, who nodded. Then she grabbed the Charmed One's arm and dragged the latter out of the bedroom. "Olivia!" Paige protested. "What are you doing?"
"You . . . are going to have a talk with Colin. And hopefully, the police. C'mon!" The two women rushed out of the bedroom.
Russell Pierce and his small band of warlocks met in a large cottage, less than a mile from the lake's north shore. He glared at one of his men and demanded, "Did you finally get rid of that bloody car, like I had asked?"
Len responded with a nervous nod. "Yeah. Sorry Russ. Me and Sean had stashed it in Inverness, like you asked. Could I get reimbursed, since we had to get rid of it?"
The warlock slowly walked around the kitchen table. "Tell me something, Len. Why didn't you and Sean leave that bloody car behind in London? Like I had told you to do?"
"I . . ." Len hesitated. "Uh, well . . . Sean and me . . ."
Sean spoke up. "Len and me thought we could save money on renting a car, Mr. Pierce. So we decided to drive up north in Len's car."
"Save money?" Russell spoke in hushed tones. "Well guess what, Sean? Both that McNeill witch and . . ."
Sean interrupted, "Which one, Russ?"
Slowly, Russell turned his head to glare at the Irishman. "That red-haired bitch we're after. Who else?"
Russell continued, "As I were saying, you were spotted by both the McNeill witch and one of her friends. The other redhead. Who, by the way, had seen your car back in London. Thankfully Keira," he nodded at the sole female inside the cottage, "had overheard our illustrious laird speaking to the local pigs."
"I had overheard them in the library," Kiera said impassively. She was a vaguely pretty woman with hazel eyes and dark blonde hair cut short. "One of the Yanks . . . the other redhead . . . saw Len's car in London. The other two - Olivia McNeill and that Voodoo woman - saw it in Inverness, yesterday."
A sharp, hunting knife appeared in Russell's hand. Both Len and Sean squirmed with discomfort, as he slowly made his way toward the pair. "Now, I had you two keep an eye on the witch and her family, just in case someone had appeared to warn them about our client. And if it weren't for the fact that I need the pair of you to help me deal with the McNeill woman . . . you two stupid bastards would now be at the bottom of the bloody lake!" His roar caused the two men to jump out of their seats. Russell continued, "However, I'm giving you two one last chance. If you bugger it up, you can forget about a reward or a new car." He paused dramatically. "And your lives. You follow?"
"Yeah Russ," Len surreptiously replied.
Sean swallowed visibly and nodded. "Aye. I understand."
"Good." Russell turned to his other capable lieutenant - a dark-haired man with a razor-sharp visage named Dave. "All right Dave, what can you and Kiera tell us what's going on?"
Dave exchanged a quiet look with the blonde woman. "Well, the staff ceremony will be held this Saturday night."
"Before that," Keira added, "there will be some kind of fête for the relations. Dave and me think it would be the perfect time to snatch our cargo."
Russell frowned. "Couldn't we snatch her in the morning? Doesn't she do some kind of morning exercise or something?"
A sigh left Dave's mouth. "Oh yeah. Riding. She likes to go out riding in the morning. Especially with that mate of hers . . ."
"Belthazor," Russell murmured.
Dave continued, "Right. The laird and the witch's parents also ride. Her brother and the laird's daughter like to go jogging. Keira's right. It's best we snatch her during the fête, when there's a better chance she'll wander on her own. She has a habit of doing that, you know. I had noticed last Sunday."
Russell nodded. "Right. Saturday, during the fête. Here, take this." He handed a small vial to Dave. "It's a potion that our client gave me - a powerful sleeping draught. For Belthazor. Just in case he might prove to be a problem. It should be strong enough to put him to sleep."
"Do you mind if I ask you a question, Russ?" Len asked.
Len hesitated. "Why don't we just kill her? The witch?"
Russell replied, "Don't worry. We will. Just as soon as our client gets her hands on that staff. She'll let us know."
"But why do we have to wait for . . .?"
"Len?" Russell gave the other warlock a hard stare. "I've allowed you one question. And only one. Don't stretch your luck."
"The police weren't able to find that car," Olivia told Cole. The couple strode side-by-side, within the castle's maze of hedgerows. They had just finished dinner and had decided to enjoy an evening stroll in the garden.
Cole replied, "Is there a problem?"
"Well yeah," Olivia protested. "That car couldn't be found. And I ended up looking like a paranoid idiot to the local police."
"You, Cecile and Paige," Cole corrected. "Perhaps the car had simply left."
Olivia added, "Or maybe someone had dumped it. If that's the case, it means that someone found out that he or she had been spotted."
Cole sighed. "Olivia . . ."
"But how?" Olivia continued. "Colin, Paige and I were in the library when he called the police, yesterday. Which means that someone at the police station isn't whom he or she seems to be."
Exasperated by her paranoia, Cole cried out her name for the second time. "Olivia!"
Cole continued, "Will you please calm down? Or put your mouth on pause, for a minute?"
Green eyes flared with intensity. "Don't you understand about all of this? I'm being followed. And I bet it has something to do with the staff." Olivia paused. "Or do you agree with the good Inspector Grant? That I'm imagining things?"
"No, I don't." Cole paused in his tracks to face Olivia. "You have pretty good instincts about such matters. And since Paige was the first to notice that car back in London, you probably have a good reason to worry. However," he wrapped his arms around her waist and gently pulled her toward him, "you need to relax. It's one thing to be paranoid. It's another to show it. And you never should. Especially if you don't want to alert your enemy. Isn't that what you always keep reminding me?"
Olivia placed her head on Cole's shoulder. "I am relaxed," she murmured. "Somewhat."
"Oh really?" The pair stood in the middle of the garden's maze, their arms wrapped around each other.
Then Olivia sighed. "Okay, maybe I have been acting a little anxious, today. And I'm not talking about the car."
"Oh, I see. The Aingeal staff?"
Another sigh left Olivia's mouth, as she nodded. Cole led her to a nearby marble bench, and the pair sat down. "I guess . . . I guess I feel a little anxious about the whole thing."
"Anxious that you might not become the staff's bearer?" Cole asked. "Or that you might?"
Olivia's mouth gaped open. Then she closed it, before shaking her head. "I guess I can't fool you, huh?" she muttered.
"It's not that," Cole said, as he wrapped an arm around Olivia's shoulders. "You should see the look on your face, every time someone mentions the staff. Especially Harry."
Rolling her eyes, Olivia asked, "Is it that obvious?" She sighed. "I think Harry is taking this staff business a little too seriously."
"You don't think he wishes he could be the staff bearer?" Cole asked. One hand began to rub the edge of Olivia's right shoulder.
The redhead shook her head. "No, I think Harry's just anxious that the next Aingeal bearer won't be an American. Ever since he found out that Dennis and Fiona had also manifested pyrokinesis, he has suddenly developed this patriotic fervor."
Cole frowned. "Hasn't there been an American staff bearer in the past? I thought your great-grandfather was one."
"My great-great-grandfather," Olivia corrected. "William McNeill. He was the last American to possess the staff. From 1889 to 1936."
The name struck a familiar chord within Cole. "William? That was his name?"
After a brief hesitation, Cole continued, "Oh, nothing. It's just that's the name of my godfather. A mortal godfather. He was a friend of my father's."
"Oh." Olivia continued, "Anyway, Great-great-grandfather William was about 78 years old when he died in 1936. Before him, a great-great aunt or something named Deborah McNeill Carwood, was the last American to have the staff before him. She became the staff's bearer around 1769, I think. And she held it for nearly forty years."
His hand still caressing Olivia's shoulder, Cole added, "And now, there's a chance you'll be the next American."
Perhaps." Olivia paused. "Unlike Harry, I won't be disappointed if I don't become the bearer."
Cole gave her shoulder a quick squeeze. "Liar!"
"Okay, perhaps I would be a little disappointed if Fiona becomes the next bearer. But . . ." Olivia sighed. "I don't know. I guess I've never been interested in being some all-powerful witch. Simply being a witch, is fine with me. Period. Unlike some, using magic as some kind of weapon to simply vanquish daemons or other evil has never appealed to me."
Magic as a weapon. Cole ignored what seemed like a swipe at the Halliwells' use of witchcraft. Instead, he remained silent and allowed Olivia to continue. "As for that car, maybe I'm getting excited over nothing. Hell, Paige wasn't even able to identify the color. Especially since she saw it at night. Perhaps you're right. If it was here, it's probably left by now."
Cole heaved an inward sigh and silently hoped that Olivia was right.
END OF PART III