Matchup, p.16
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       MatchUp, p.16
 

           Lee Child

  But after two hours of walking the only other signs of life I see are seagulls and a fox that crosses the road. The landscape casts a somber, eerie quality, tranquil but ominous. Then a pair of horses approach and I decide to flag the riders down.

  A man and a woman.

  The man is older and plainly not well, hunched in the saddle, half falling. The woman is tall, slender waisted, and buxom. Her complexion is a creamy blond with hair to match, done up in a loose coiffure, half hidden under a lacy blue cap. Her eyes are a deep shade of green and I catch a glint of interest within them as she looks me over. They are both dressed nothing like someone from the 21st century, their odd clothes as jaded as my nerves.

  I decide to use some southern charm. “I beg your pardon. I wonder if you could tell me how far it is to Clebost?”

  “Who are you?” the woman asks. Her long-lashed, slightly slanted eyes add a troubling, mysterious quality to her.

  “My name is Harold Earl Malone,” I say, deciding that “Cotton” might be hard to explain. “And you are?”

  “Melisande Robicheaux,” she says, with a one-sided curl of her mouth that makes me realize that is definitely not her name. “That’s Duncan Kerr,” she adds, with an offhanded nod toward her companion.

  The old man slides off his horse with a moan, making a croaking, gargling sound, like speech, but inarticulate. He staggers into the bracken where he throws up and collapses.

  “I told him not to risk the jellied eels,” she says. “But do men ever listen? Where did ye come from, then?”

  “Castle Ardsmuir. I drove there last night. From Strathpeffer.”

  “Did ye indeed?” she says, looking at me intently. “Ye drove, was it?”

  I catch an instant of recognition in her question and my self-imposed restraint breaks down. “Do you know what I’m talking about?”

  “Aye, maybe.” Her lids are half lowered in thought. “If ye’re staying at the castle, what is it ye’re seeking in Clebost, though?”

  I catch her evasion of my inquiry, but decide to go where she’s leading. “I came out for a walk across the moor after breakfast and didn’t pay attention to where I was going. I’m lost.” I gesture at the vast expanse of undulating green. “If I can get to the village, I can make arrangements for someone to take me back to the castle.”

  I choose my words with great care, but I still have the impression that she understands what I mean by “drove.” She slides off her horse in a flounce of petticoats, shakes herself into order, and steps close. I can’t help but stare at the creamy skin that shows at the neck of her dress. She seems supremely aware of her femininity and notices my interest. The corners of her mouth turn up.

  “I have a proposition for you, Mr. Harold Earl Malone. I find myself in urgent need of a man.”

  The hell you say, I think.

  This woman radiates a sexual vibe I can almost touch.

  But I’m not about to try.

  Her expression looms easy and calm, but her eyes are intent on me, studying, judging. Her face shimmers in soft peach and vanilla tones and she tosses me a smile that shows her teeth but not her thoughts.

  Then she gently touches my arm.

  “Duncan’s not able today,” she says, with a careless wave at the other man, curled up in a heap amid the bracken. “And my errand’s urgent. If you’ll help me, I’ll see you safe on your road home.”

  “What kind of errand?” I ask cautiously, and she motions toward the west, where I again hear the faint rush of an unseen ocean.

  “I need a man to row me out to one of the bittie wee isles just off the coast. It’s not far, but the current’s tricky and it takes a strong back. It’ll not take long,” she adds, seeing my curious look. “I’ll have ye back on dry land and on your way home before sunset.”

  Every radar synapse in my brain rings an alarm. I try to let my emotions subside, my mind to stop questioning the fantastical. A sense honed from my years as a Magellan Billet field agent tells me she’s trouble, but what choice do I have? My options are severely limited. And experience has taught me that in every operation there comes only one course—blind risk—where trust has to be placed in something that might otherwise be senseless and all you can do is hope for the best.

  Like now.

  So I tell her yes, hoping she’s not spotted any of my skepticism.

  Pleased, she offers me the other horse, leaving her former companion lying in the bracken. We ride, with her in the lead, across the moor to the cliff edge and down a precipitous rocky path to a small settlement that huddles at the bottom. There she bargains with a fisherman in rapid Gaelic, paying him with coins. The man counts them carefully, nods, and gestures toward a small boat lying upturned on the rocky shore just above the tide line. She removes a saddlebag from her horse and, with a jerk of the head, leads me toward the sea.

  “We’ll take that one,” she says. “The red-and-yellow one. It’s painted that way to ward off the bad spirits and coax a good catch from the sea, aye?”

  “You sound like an expert.”

  She shakes her head. “No but what I’ve heard.”

  The small wooden boat has no oarlocks, but I develop enough rhythm to propel us through the surf and out into open water. She sits on the gunwale, one hand shading her eyes. I glance back over my shoulder and spot at least six tiny islands ranging from a knob covered with birds to a couple big enough that it would take half an hour to traverse. Overhead the sky rolls with clouds bound to storm. Not here, maybe, but somewhere.

  “Which one do you want?” I ask, and almost drop an oar when a wayward current slams into the stern and whirls us around.

  She lets out a hoot of laughter at my mistake and points over my left shoulder. “That one. The silkies’ isle.”

  I know a silkie is a seal. And I have already heard their hoarse barking, coming in snatches on the wind. A quick look, taking care to hold on to the oars and be mindful of the swells, and I see the island—a dark, rounded hump with flat ledges, packed with the sausage shapes of slick-wet seals. After fifteen minutes of fighting the current, I ask her why she just didn’t pay the fisherman to row her out.

  “Because he lives here,” she says. “I don’t want him to know where I’m going, nor what I do when I get there. You”—she smiles, as though to herself—“will be gone, away to your own place by nightfall.”

  The currents are murder, and a chilly breeze stirs the water to a froth. I’m relieved when we finally reach the island. I skirt the shore, searching for a landing place, fending off a few of the curious residents who pop up alongside the boat. Finally, I spot a small notch wide enough for the boat to pass through and nestle against a rocky ledge. A narrow, slitlike crevice eats up into the cliff face and winds a path to its top.

  “Stay here,” she says, hopping out. “Take care the boat doesn’t get loose. It gets damned cold on these isles at night. Hand me the bag there, aye?”

  She likes to give orders. But I actually like strong women. And even in this strange place, I still seem to attract them. So I hand her the saddlebag. She digs around inside for a few seconds before removing a wooden box, about a foot long and half that wide. It rattles and clinks with the unmistakable sound of coins. I glance up at her, but she says nothing, nor does she even look at me. She merely hands the saddlebag back, then hikes up her skirts and scrambles up the rock without a backward glance. I watch until she disappears from sight, then I wrap the rope of the painter around a thumb-shaped chunk of rock. My shoulders are tired and I hope to hell the tide will be going in when we head back.

  A loud wark to my left makes me jump.

  A big seal has decided to investigate the newcomer, the black-olive eyes intent with suspicion. I pick up one of the oars, ready just in case, but the silkie only offers some menacing head waving and more barking, backed up by a chorus from his nearby harem. After a cloudy exhale of fish-scented steam, the seal disappears beneath the water.

  I sit for a few minutes.

  T
he solid coldness of stone, sea, and wind leach the heat of rowing from my muscles. I blow warm breath into my palms. I’m growing hungry. Another half hour and I succumb to temptation, grabbing the saddlebag for a look inside.

  And find food.

  Flat oatcakes, like cardboard. A packet of strong-smelling dried fish. And a knob of rock-hard white cheese. I break off a chunk and eat the cheese with one of the oatcakes. Not the tastiest treat in the world, but filling.

  The bag also contains a number of small corked bottles, each wrapped in rough cloth with Latin labels. I open one and sniff, catching a tangy, herbal scent from the dark liquid inside. A small wooden box with a sliding lid is full of dried seaweed, with a strong iodine smell. And another holds what looks like dead bugs. At the bottom I see something especially interesting. A small, square package, done up with paper and a layer of oiled silk beneath. I glance across the landscape of rock and seals, but there is no sign of Melisande. So I unwrap the bundle and find myself holding a book. I reach around and claw at my waist. Malcolm Chubb’s grimoire is still there, safe inside its plastic cocoon.

  The cover of the new book I hold is limp with no boards, made of a fine-grained leather. I gently stroke it. Unborn lamb, perhaps. Its pages are handwritten in French, but an archaic version, one I don’t recognize, the book lavishly illustrated with drawn images, beautifully detailed, traces of the original gilding and color still clinging to many of them.

  I catch their meaning.

  Alchemy.

  I scan more of the thin parchment pages, each in wonderful condition despite their obvious age. My brows go up seeing a remarkably explicit—though beautifully rendered—drawing of a woman having her way with a four-horned goat. I’ve risked enough exposure to the elements for this treasure, so I close the old book. As I do, I catch a glimpse of the title page.

  Le grimoire du Le Compte Saint-Germain.

  I free the other book from my kilt’s waist band and compare the size and thickness. About the same. Nearly identical, in fact. What did Chubb say about the 15th-century grimoire? We think it’s a copy of a much older volume. One perhaps by Saint-Germain himself. Is this the original manuscript from which the book I hold had been printed?

  Suddenly I’m yanked from my thoughts.

  By a scream.

  I STAND IN THE BOAT and listen, but catch nothing other than the shriek of gulls. Perhaps I mistook one of their cries for something more human.

  I carefully rewrap Melisande’s book and replace it into the bag. I notice something else inside, bulky at the bottom. I dig down through the bottles and boxes and discover a flintlock pistol, loaded and primed, protected by a holster. Etched into the leather is a name.

  Geillis.

  I wonder.

  Is that relevant to this woman?

  Hard to say, but the flintlock is a fine specimen. Quite deadly from short range. Its presence raises a ton of questions about my benefactor, several of which I’ve already asked myself. So I decide to not take any chances. I withdraw the weapon and shake the cartridge and wad out into my hand. I stuff both into the sporran at my waist, then replace the weapon, now useless, in the bag.

  An explosion of seal hysterics warns that someone is coming and I see Melisande pick her way down the rocks, now minus the coin box. Her movements are quick with a nervous vitality, and her shoulders rise and fall in concert with her rapid breathing.

  “Let’s be away,” she says, stepping into the boat. “The tide’s just on the turn.”

  I nod, not bothering with conversation. I’m as anxious to get back to the mainland as she is—possibly more so. The afternoon looms pale and without warmth and she’s right. This is no place to be stranded. She’s also right about the tide. It is turning, and the currents remain bizarre, pulsating and lifting us with each swell.

  I keep my rowing in time with the shallow, jerking pitch.

  Eventually we come to land and, with a final surge, the tide shoves us onto a pebbled shore. Close to the black cliff small thatched cottages stand, built of the same dark stone, smoke curling from holes in the thatch and the flicker of firelight just visible from a narrow window here and there. She bends to retrieve her bag as I scramble ashore to secure the boat to a barnacle-crusted iron ring sunk into the rocks. I just finish tying the rope when I hear a click behind me and the immediate pop of a flash in the pan, signaling the firing of a primed gun with no load. I turn around to see Melisande, holding the weapon, aiming at me. Her expression bears a mix of anger, contempt, and surprise.

  Luckily, my suspicions proved correct.

  “I’m not that stupid,” I say to her.

  Then I spot a package, wrapped in clear plastic, in the shadows under the slats of one of the seats.

  Damn.

  I dropped Chubb’s grimoire.

  She leaps over the gunwale and I catch the glint of a knife in her hand. She brings it toward me in a wide, flailing arc. I grab her wrist, but she’s strong, twisting like a snake. Her knee slams into my thigh and twists me sideways. She jabs with the blade and I dodge her attacks. I grapple with her for a few moments then decide enough of being a gentleman and smash the back of my hand across her jawline. Her head flies up in a cascade of hair that snaps her teeth together with a loud smack and makes her totter backward. Her eyes go wide, then she moans and collapses onto the beach, skirts blooming around her.

  “Hoy!”

  Shouts reach me from the water, and I stare out to see three boats with men standing up, waving their arms. The doors to the nearby cottages open and more burly men flood out. Melisande suddenly rises to her knees. Blood seeps from a gash in her lip.

  “Help me. He’s a murderer,” she screams.

  Rage fills her eyes.

  This apparently is not going according to her plan.

  No time to snatch up the lost book. So I retreat and make for the trail, bounding upward in a wild scramble, scree sliding under my feet. I reach the top winded and sweat drenched. A quick look below shows me that Melisande is no longer lying on the beach and that a couple of the fishermen and several of the other men are making their way up the trail. I run off across the moor, with no idea where I’m going. I jog and walk alternately, as fast as I can, my lungs pumping like bellows. After a while I slow, fairly certain that nobody is following. God knows what that woman is telling her saviors, or what she would have told them if she’d succeeded in killing me.

  I’ll have you on your way home by sunset.

  Home, all right. Dead, more likely.

  And now I know exactly why she didn’t hire the local fisherman. She preferred a corpse nobody either knew or would miss.

  I regret losing the grimoire, but there is no way to double back and retrieve it. Too many people around. I have to keep moving. I’m way past tired, my senses growing dull, my thoughts fragmented, the only constant the whine of the wind in my ears. Daylight gradually fades and I finally stop, overcome as much by confusion as by weariness. No amount of training could prepare anyone for this experience. Whatever this experience actually is. All sense of past and future seems gone.

  Only the present matters.

  I decide not to keep going any farther as darkness grows around me.

  So I find a bit of high ground with no standing water, huddle up in the shelter of a clump of broom, and fall headlong into a dreamless sleep.

  I COME AWAKE TO A morning rain across the trackless, rough, uneven moor, the night’s chill deep in my bones. The past few hours of impossibility flow with a calm finality through my mind. No visible sun aids my sense of direction, so all I can do is walk away from the faint sound of the distant sea and hope to find someone who might prove helpful. In the uneasy realms of sleep my mind seems to have accepted the insane notion that I have been displaced in time. Also it’s clear that the ragged little group of stones has something to do with my dilemma. So that’s what I need to find. The stones. And see what, if anything, might happen if I touch them again.

  I walk for several hours
, growing wetter by the minute. The few structures I pass seem as weathered and worn as the pitted road. I read once that the thick wool of a kilt and sweater traps body heat like a diver’s wetsuit. I’m pleased to discover that the observation proves at least partially correct. I’m not comfortable, but I’m not freezing, either.

  Just wet.

  And hungry.

  I should have eaten more of what I found in Melisande’s saddlebag. Thinking of her, I spare a brief thought for Duncan Kerr. What on earth had led the old man to keep company with such a murderous bitch? Did she go back after him? Or had she just left him in the heather? I push aside those thoughts and trudge on.

  Ahead, I hear faint voices.

  I speed up, but skirt the side of the road, out of sight, and soon come upon another gang of prisoners cutting peat. Bricklike chunks of moss, decayed into a black, fudgy substance, are being hacked from the ground by poles with angled blades at the end. Their presence offers me hope. I could just wait and follow the work detail back to the castle, which was where they came from yesterday. Though not necessarily a place of safety, I don’t want to risk spending another night on the moors. No red-coated guards
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