and place a request for the porridge, then make my way across to a table at which Madame LeBlanc has just sat down.
“May I join you?” I ask.
“By all means.”
She’s chosen a light breakfast of sliced melon with raspberries—obviously a special order from the kitchen as I’ve seen none of that on the buffet—with a tiny medallion of steak and a dab of baked beans.
She leans toward me. “Have you heard?”
“All I heard this morning was a lot of seagulls screaming on the roof.”
She laughs. “I caught those too.”
I butter my toast, add a few slices of bacon, a fried egg, fried tomatoes and mushrooms, then another slice of buttered toast and create my own Scottish Egg McMuffin. She observes me with an indulgent smile, but one that doesn’t quite erase the deep line of concern between her brows.
“It appears that one of the books for the auction has gone missing,” she tells me, glancing sideways to be sure she isn’t being overheard. But the dining room is sparsely filled. Most of the guests appear to be sleeping in.
A thump of adrenaline forms in the pit of my stomach, one that has always primed me for action in my former occupation. But I also know the value of a poker face. So I keep my attention on the sandwich and ask, “I take it you don’t mean mislaid? Missing as in gone?”
Her mouth twitches with mischief, but her eyes are serious. “Malcolm didn’t want to raise an alarm. Not yet. He hasn’t made an announcement, but I couldn’t sleep last night, and when I came down about two o’clock, all of the lights were on. The servants were everywhere, quite plainly making a thorough search. Malcolm saw me on the landing and told me what had happened.”
I listen as she explains that the books had all been locked inside their glass cases following the cocktail hour. Malcolm and his factor, John MacRae, had come into the drawing room at midnight to see that all was in order for the detailed inspection to be held at eleven this morning. All had seemed to be as it should, but something had tingled Malcolm’s antiquarian sense and he returned for a second look.
“It was the incunabulum. The little grimoire,” she says. “There was a book in the case of the same size and also with a rough leather cover. But it had been put there so only the back cover showed. When turned over, it was revealed to be a first edition of Izaak Walton’s The Compleat Angler. Certainly valuable, but nothing compared to the 15th-century grimoire.”
My porridge arrives, fresh and steaming, along with a silver cream jug and a dish of sugar lumps.
“Oh, that looks good,” Eleanor says, sniffing the heady steam that rises from the bowl.
“I tell you what. You have this one. I have to make a phone call. I’ll order another when I come back.”
I stand and place the bowl ceremoniously in front of her with a bow.
Then leave the breakfast room.
I’m concerned about the gun in my travel bag.
I flew in on a private charter that Malcolm Chubb arranged. In my former profession I went nowhere without a weapon, but in those days I carried an official United States Justice Department badge that granted me security exceptions. I still carry a badge, though unofficially, given to me by my former boss, Stephanie Nelle, since I often work for her as contract help. My display of it had satisfied Scottish customs. But the people in this house are another matter. Its presence will raise a lot of questions.
The first thing that occurred to me when Eleanor noted that the servants were searching the castle is that they’d certainly search the guests’ rooms too. Most likely discreetly, after the occupants come down for breakfast. And, sure enough, I watch as one of the maids lightly raps at a door near the end of the hallway in which my own room is located, a stack of fresh towels in her arms by way of an excuse for her presence. I hang back behind a Victorian stand until the woman, receiving no answer to her knock, lays the towels aside and steps quietly inside. I quickly open my own door, find the Beretta, and tuck it into the kilt’s internal waistband, concealing its presence with the baggy Arran sweater.
I descend the narrow zigzag stairway, one hand on the slick banister, back to ground level. More people are now around and I feel a suppressed air of consternation in the scraps of muted conversation I manage to hear. I don’t think it will come to a physical search of the guests. Not yet, anyway. But I don’t want to explain why I’m carrying a gun inside a remote Scottish castle. So I find the foot of the stairs and stride purposefully through the entrance hall, straight for the front door.
A young servant is on duty there.
Or maybe on guard?
“Off for a morning walk, are you, sir?”
I nod. “I thought I’d take advantage of the nice morning.”
“Best move fast, then,” the young man says. “Weather here changes every quarter of an hour. If you’re going to walk along the cliffs, be sure to keep to the marked footpath. There’s no missing it—some of the other guests went that way not ten minutes since.”
I toss the guy a cheery wave. “I’ll keep an eye out for them.”
Outside, another servant at the front gate, this one wearing a Barbour jacket and flat cap with his kilt, evidently doesn’t trust the weather any further than his pal inside. The young man adds the suggestion that if I mean to traverse the moor, I should stick to the road.
“It looks flat, but it’s not,” the young man says. “Up and down, it is. Lose sight o’ the castle and ye won’t know where ye are.”
I assure him I will take care and set off up the paved road. The warning is a good one, though. I can feel the grade rise, then gently subside in the deceptively rolling terrain. I’m not afraid of getting lost, I just want to kill some time and give things back at the castle a chance to cool down. Once my room is searched and nothing found, I can replace the Beretta in my bag. Malcolm Chubb has to be in a panic. The missing grimoire is worth tens of thousands of pounds.
I walk for nearly an hour until I spot, in a hollow, a small cluster of pale boulders barely visible from the road. It’s the first thing I’ve seen definite enough in the moor to make for a landmark, and I leave the pavement for a closer look. The going is rough, as stretches of spongy peat moss give way under my feet and soak my shoes and socks. Growths of scratchy heather and all kinds of other prickly plants grab at my hose and the hem of the kilt. Nothing that looks like a path leads to the stones, and it takes me a half hour to reach them. Why I feel the need to get closer to them baffles me.
It’s just that I need to.
I stop for a moment and gather myself. A quick look back and I see that my passage through the brush has left no visible track, the moor so wild that it immediately swallows every trace of my presence. I’m also now out of sight of the castle, which had disappeared some time ago, along with the road.
I scramble down to the clearing, among the stones.
They might have once made a circle, but now they lie hither and yon, as the Scots would say, like teeth in a long neglected mouth, the remnants thick with lichens. Stonehenge, it isn’t, but there is one that sticks up proud, like a hitchhiking thumb, and I make my way toward it. It has a faint mark chiseled into it, so faint I can’t be sure what it is. Maybe a half circle with a cross of some kind above it? I spot a flowering plant on a slight mound at the base, its blue petals obvious among the muted heather. Then I notice that the heather is broken, several stems cracked and hanging loose. Fresh, too. None of the leaves have wilted. I squat and catch a glimpse of something that isn’t a plant. A rock, maybe? No, not that either. I reach into a cavity that someone has dug under the heather and find a small rectangular package, tightly wrapped in clear, thick plastic.
About five by seven inches.
“Put that back where you found it,” a voice says from behind me.
Which is startling, considering all I’ve heard for the past hour has been the wind gusting across the moor, tugging at my clothes. I stand and slowly turn, still holding the package
I stay cool and assess the situation.
Obviously, this man has been here all along able to see my approach. Luckily, this isn’t my first rodeo. I’ve faced down many guns.
“This yours?” I ask, motioning with the wrapped book.
“I told you to put it back.”
I decide to see how much nerve this guy really possesses. “If you still want it, here.”
And I feign tossing the book across the ten feet of air that separates us. At the same time I dive behind the sole standing stone, reach for my Beretta, and fire past the edge of the rock. A shot comes in return, which ricochets off the stone.
Chips and dust spew in my face.
I grab the stone to steady myself, bracing for another shot.
Everything turns inside out.
The rock, the heather, the sky, even me. It all flies apart in a strange, rapid disintegration. Like a jigsaw puzzle disassembling. I’m aware for a split second of being there, behind the stone, then in the next I fight to keep myself physically together. A blinding light sears across my eyes and I’m overwhelmed by an incredible force.
One I have never felt before.
And cannot fight.
Lying on the ground in a patch of wet peat moss, cold water wells up between my legs through the kilt. I roll over and push up onto my hands and knees. My head pounds and feels too heavy to lift and my thoughts make little sense. I see the wrapped book lying on the ground where I apparently dropped it. Then I realize that the gun is still in my hand, my fingers numb from gripping it.
I glance up at the sky.
More clouds have arrived, but the sun is still there, at about the same height. So not much time has passed. Things are coming back to me and, with a jolt of adrenaline, I remember Kuznyetsov.
I spring to my feet and look around. But no Kuznyetsov. I glance down at the gun and see shreds of blackened, melted plastic clinging to my fingers where the butt had once been. The gun itself is destroyed. The hammer fused tight, its form misshapen.
What the hell?
I shake away the plastic, as if it’s an unwanted insect.
I bend down and lift the wrapped book. Through the clear wrappings I see that it’s Chubb’s missing 15th-century grimoire. How long have I been out? I glance at my watch. Magellan Billet standard issue with a GPS tracker. But the bezel has cracked with a hole the size of a fingertip, the watch face beneath showing a similar hole, black at the edges.
Then I notice something odd.
The edges of the hole in the watch face curl outward, as if something inside has exploded. Is this the cause of my confusion? Is that what knocked me out?
I unstrap the watch and toss it away, along with the useless gun.
My mind seems a blur of questions and I shake my head to rid a light-headed sensation. I need to think, but what I really need to do is get back to the castle. Kuznyetsov is gone. Either he’d been hit but is still mobile and heading back to the castle for medical help, or he hadn’t been hit and is heading back to get his story heard first. More than likely, though, the Russian took a bullet. Otherwise, why hadn’t he hung around to recover the book?
I hesitate for a moment, wondering if I should rehide the grimoire, but decide against it. My bringing the prize back will count in my favor and, luckily, I haven’t freed the book from its wrappings. That means my fingerprints won’t be there and, with any luck, Kuznyetsov’s will.
I tuck the wrapped book inside the kilt’s waistband at the small of my back. Then leave the stones and head through the moor, back from where I came, brushing scabs of heather off my sweater as I walk. I reach the road, which is different. Not paved. Dirt. Is this the same route? I’d been warned that it was easy to get turned around in the moor.
I set off at a jog, the wet kilt flapping against my legs. I maintain a good pace for a half hour with no sign of Kuznyetsov. Could the man have been hit seriously enough that he’d staggered off and collapsed? I’ll find out soon enough, and increase my speed, wiping sweat from my eyes.
Castle Ardsmuir appears ahead.
But its hulk looks different. The big torches by the gate are gone and so is the paved drive. The castle itself appears damaged, strewn with debris of broken masonry, with gaping holes in the walls and one tower collapsed. No such disrepair had been there last night.
The castle gates swing open.
Instinct tells me to flee the dirt track and crouch behind a prickly gorse bush where I can observe out of sight. Creaking and clopping noises are at first faint, then louder as a horse-drawn wagon emerges, followed by a knot of ragged-looking men in filthy shirts and breeches.
Most wear manacles.
Then three red-coated soldiers appear, each carrying bayoneted muskets angled on their shoulders. The soldiers are nearly as ragged and filthy as the prisoners. The scarlet uniforms all dirty, faded and patched. The day’s breeze stiffens and the wind brings the repulsive stink of men who live in their clothes, never bathe, and lack even a rag to wipe their asses. All sense of time seems distorted, and I stare at the spectacle in numb fascination. A thought occurs that this is some sort of reenactment, but I quickly dismiss the idea, as another more outlandish conclusion is rapidly taking its place.
The wagon clanks away and the group marches down the road, passing close enough that I can hear snatches of talk among the prisoners. It isn’t English, or any other language with which I’m familiar. The objective commentator in the back of my brain, which is already on high alert, a voice I’ve learned to trust, tells me that it might be Gaelic.
One of the prisoners staggers, stumbles, then falls flat in the dirt.
A tall, redheaded man in irons, built like an oak tree, runs toward the fallen man. All the other prisoners start to converge too, and the soldiers glance warily at each other then take a fresh grip on their muskets. Another work party—if that’s what this is—shambles out of the castle gate. It looks as bad, if not worse, than the first one.
The big redheaded prisoner stands, crosses himself, and shouts toward the soldiers. “This man is dead.”
In Scottish-accented English.
The soldiers relax into irritability, like this is a nuisance they’ve encountered many times before. One of them trudges over to have a look, poking the body gingerly with a booted foot, kicking it once or twice to make sure, then steps back.
“Get ’im off t’road.”
Big Red seems not to like the order. He stands a foot taller than the runty soldier and draws himself up close to the redcoat, who makes a hasty retreat, then stops and points his rifle. No, it isn’t a rifle.
“We’ll put him in the wagon,” Big Red says in an even voice. “And bury him on the moor.”
The soldier glances involuntarily over his shoulder and the oldest of the infantrymen shrugs, frowns, and nods.
The prisoners are already lifting the dead man, handling him with reverence. I hear clanking from inside the wagon as tools are moved aside in order to lay the corpse in the bed.
What is this?
All I know for certain is that Castle Ardsmuir may no longer be a place of safety. I knew that once, long ago, it had been a prison.
Was that now?
In the distance comes the boom of surf signaling the sea. Soldiers and prisoners alike seem preoccupied. So I seize the chance and, staying crouched, I duckwalk backward away from the road. Finally, I stand and run for it, bounding through the moor, then cutting back to the dirt road so as to move faster.
I hear shouts behind.
And the distinctive pfoom of a black-powder weapon.
The shot hadn’t come my way, but I decide not to wait around to see if my presence had been noticed. I keep running. I’m in good shape for a guy st
So the smart play is to head for the village and see what I can learn.
MatchUp by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on40 votes