MatchUp, p.17Lee Child
are in sight. But I spot a small canvas shelter pitched away from the prisoners, a blue plume of smoke rising from a fire inside. Evidently the guards are keeping out of the wet.
I approach the work group cautiously, not sure whether to speak to one of the prisoners or one of the soldiers. Either could be friend or foe. Coming closer, I see that it is the same group from yesterday, and I spot the same tall redheaded man, wearing fetters, climbing up out of a wide dark scar of a pit in the green of the moor. Big Red sees me too and heads straight for me with a hasty stride. A clink of iron accompanies each step.
“How is it ye wear tartan, a charaidh?” the man says, giving me a narrow-eyed look. His voice is husky, with a slightly hollow tone to it.
I stand my ground. “It’s Scotland, isn’t it? Doesn’t everyone?”
The man throws out a short, humorless laugh. “No one these ten years past, man. Ye risk being shot on sight, should the soldiers see ye in it. Or maybe only arrested and hanged later, if they’re too lazy to shoot ye.”
Big Red glances at the canvas lean-to and so do I. Voices raise from an argument inside.
“Come,” the Scot says, grabbing me by the arm, hurrying me to the pit. “Get ye into the moss-hag. And keep still.”
The Scot moves away and I follow the order, hopping down and pressing my back against the black wall of crumbling peat. I hear rapid Gaelic being spoken above and murmurs from the other prisoners. Distant laughter and the talk of the guards grows in intensity. Then the English voices recede and Big Red drops down into the pit beside me.
“Who are ye, man? Ye’re no a Scot nor yet a German or an Irishman, and that’s no a tartan from any Highland regiment I ken.”
“My name’s Cotton Malone. And yours?”
“I’m Jamie Fraser.”
I TAKE STOCK OF THE man standing before me.
Fraser is tall, over six feet, and though he’s as thin as the rest, his chest is that of a lumberjack, the forearms grooved with muscle. He has high cheekbones, a long, knife-edged nose, a strong jaw, and his long red hair is tied back in a tail that hangs below his shoulder blades. His eyes cast a dark blue gaze, open at first glance, disconcertingly wary at a second.
“Where are ye from?” he asks me.
I rub a hand across my stubbled face. There’s no good answer to that question, so I decide to come to the point, “I’ve been lost on the moor for a couple of days. I’m looking for a group of stones. In a circle. Five or six, with a tall one standing high. It’s got a thing carved into it that looks like a ring with a cross through it. Have you seen something like that?”
Puzzlement in the Scot’s blue eyes is replaced by understanding. Fraser is soaked to the skin, the rags of his shirt clinging to him like cellophane, rivulets of water running down the side of his stout neck and off his broad shoulders. Suddenly his big hand shoots out and grips me by the shoulder.
The impassive mask crumples.
“Do you know of the year 1948?” he asks.
What an odd question in so ancient a setting. But it grabs my attention. At least I’m not the only one going nuts around here. His hard eyes stay fixed on me for a long time and I wonder if this man came from another time too. Then I decide to be more cautious in my reply.
“I know that year.”
The Scot regards me with a look of astonishment and something that seems almost like excitement. “Then, aye. I ken those stones.”
Excitement grows warm in my veins. But I have to know something. “What year is this?”
Underlying my shock is a thread of awe. I am 262 years in the past. Unfrigging believable. With only one way out. “Can you tell me how to find the stones?”
“I can tell ye how to go.”
I swallow the saliva of anticipation as we climb from the pit and he points out landmarks in the moor, invisible until I am shown them, by which to steer my course. “The clouds are shreddin’. Ye’ll have the sun for another two hours and the moon’s already risen. Keep it over your right shoulder as ye go.”
Maybe, just maybe, the world might make sense again. I clasp his hand. It is deeply calloused and hard as wood. “Thank you.”
He returns the shake, then steps back, suddenly ginger in his manner, as though he would rather not have made contact. But one thing is clear. This man understands my problem.
“If”—the Scot begins, then smothers his question behind compressed lips.
“Tell me. I’ll do what I can for you.”
“If when ye find your own place again. If ye should happen on a woman called Claire—” He swallows, then shakes his head. “No. Never mind.” A sadness touches his face as he glances away.
“Speak your mind.”
I allow my tone to take on the tinge of an order.
Fraser glances back at me, taking his time, but makes up his mind. He draws himself up to his full height, which is considerable, and speaks formally.
“Aye. Should ye meet with a woman called Claire Fraser—no, she’d be Claire Randall then—” A dark shadow crosses his face at the words, but he shakes it off. “A healer. Tell her that James Alexander Malcolm MacKenzie Fraser, the Laird of Lallybroch, blesses her and wishes her and her child both health and joy.” His gaze goes far away for a moment, and he swallows again, before adding in a low voice, “Tell her that her husband misses her.”
I should probe that statement more, but there is no time. So I simply say, “I will.”
“Have ye a woman? There, I mean?”
I nod. “Her name is Cassiopeia.”
Just saying her name makes me smile. She would have loved this adventure. He stares sharply at me, as though suspecting a joke, but seeing that it isn’t, he nods soberly. “Think of her, when ye come to the stones. Go wi’ God, and may Michael and Bride protect ye.”
“Thank you,” I say again, which feels wholly inadequate.
I turn to leave and my eye falls on the canvas shelter, from which a muffled, drunken song is now issuing. “Does anybody ever try to escape? Surely it wouldn’t be that hard?”
He stares out across the endless moor, with eyes that seem incapable of illusion. “Where should we go? All that we knew is gone, and all that we have is each other.”
DARKNESS HAS FALLEN WHEN I find the stones, but a three-quarter moon, high on the scudding clouds, showers down a surreal ivory glow. I catch the quick, silent streak of a falling star across the southern curve of the heavens. A sign of good luck? Hopefully. But an owl hoots a sinister warning.
I stand for a minute, staring, afraid to look away for fear I am imagining them and the stones might disappear if I blink. A chilling air of pathos rises from the ruins. I have gone well past the point of feeling hungry, now more dizzy with tiredness than from a lack of food. I have no idea what I’ll say, if it works and I am sent back to my own time. How will I explain Kuznyetsov? The lost grimoire? Where I’ve been, and all that happened? As a Magellan Billet agent I’ve been involved with some incredible things. But the past two days has climbed to the top of that amazing list.
I walk around the stones and begin to be aware of a low buzzing noise, like a hive of bumblebees. I didn’t notice that before. Am I to utter some magic words? I smile at the thought. Then recall what Jamie Fraser said.
Think of her, when ye come to the stones.
The Scotsman had obviously been thinking about someone special. Claire. His wife. The memory almost painful.
I decide to take the man’s advice.
Placing one hand on the tallest stone, I whisper, “Cassiopeia.”
MY EYES ARE CLOSED, BUT scattered recollections flicker though my mind, fading, then growing stronger. There’s not as much motion or force in the journey like the first time—or maybe it’s just that I know what to expect—more like a silent process of shifting lights and shapes.
My lips quiver.
A shiver of panic tries to free itself from my brain. Familiar faces I had almost forgotten swim in and out, blur,
Then everything goes quiet.
I open my eyes to a dazzling radiance, bright to the point of burning my pupils. Shadowy figures hover over me. Faces approach, then recede. I raise an arm to shield my vision and hear a voice shout, “He’s alive.”
I struggle to focus and see that I’m being loaded into the back of a van. All I can see is the beam of a bright flashlight, which confirms what I need to know. I made it. Then I catch a stench of blood and death. Beside me in the van lies a huge dead boar on a sheet of blue plastic. A man scrambles inside. My mouth is dry and sticky, and the sudden roar of an engine drowns out the first words I try to say.
“You awake then, mate?” a Scottish voice says. “How ye feeling?”
It belongs to a man in his fifties, with a deeply weathered but friendly face, wearing a waxed jacket.
“Where are we going?” I ask, resisting the urge to swat the flashlight away.
“Aye, well, if your name is Malone, we thought we’d maybe take ye to your friends at the castle. If ye’re no him, though, we should maybe carry ye down to the village. They’ve a wee cottage hospital there.”
“I’m Malone,” I assure him, then shut my eyes again, trying to gather strength, my memories a whirlwind of confusion.
Was the whole thing a dream?
By the time the van turns into the paved drive that leads to the castle—once more ablaze with electric floodlights—I’m sitting up, passing a flask back and forth with one of my saviors.
“Archie McAndres, purveyor o’ fine game,” the man tells me, with a companionable slap on the flank of the dead boar. “The lad and I were headin’ along to the castle, when we saw ye stagger out o’ the moor. Thought ye were drunk, but then I remembered Mr. Chubb showin’ me the wee photie of ye when we brought the pheasants yesterday.”
“They were . . . looking for me?”
“Ach, aye. When they found your man Nyetski or whatever, lyin’ dead on the moor wi’ a bullet in him, there was a clishmaclaver from here to Inverness. When they found the things in his pockets, they thought ye maybe—”
“Things?” I ask. “What things?”
“Oh, I cannae just charge my mind, but it was bits o’ ivory, maybe icons. Was it icons, Rob?” the man bellows toward the cab. “What the Russian fella had?”
“Jewels, I heard it was,” Rob’s voice comes back over the thrum of the motor.
The flask returns to my hands.
“Have another drink. Seems the dead one wasn’t named Nyetski a’tall. He was one of the East European fellas. Known to the polis.”
I pass on more from the flask. Talk of Kuznyetsov makes me think of the missing grimoire I found at the base of the stone. In the dream I tucked it at the small of my back, beneath my sweater. Then lost it on the boat. I reach around and feel, but no book is there.
The van stops and the rear doors open.
A blue sky overhead promises a new beginning.
I am back at Castle Ardsmuir.
THE QUESTIONS COME IN RAPID fire, but I decide a lie is better than saying I may have traveled 262 years back in time. Besides, I’m not sure any of it ever happened. Kuznyetsov is definitely dead, though, but there is nothing linking me to that fact. Apparently, my gun has not been found. So it’s better to just do a Sergeant Schultz. I see nothing. I hear nothing. I know nothing.
“Ye don’t offer much,” a local police inspector tells me, businesslike and composed. “Ye never saw the Russian?”
I shake my head.
“No idea how he got shot and dead?”
This is the fourth time we’ve been through it, but I know the drill. Have someone say something over and over enough until they mess up. “Like I’ve already explained, I have no idea what happened to him.”
“Detective Inspector,” Malcolm Chubb says, interrupting. “My friend is exhausted. He’s been out on the moors with no food for nearly two days. For God’s sake, look at him. Can’t this wait until tomorrow?”
The finality of Chubb’s voice seems to outlaw any further discussion, and the policeman doesn’t look happy.
“Aye, for the present, sir. But I’ll be back later.”
The inspector leaves the drawing room.
“Do you want to clean up, old fellow?” Chubb asks. “I’ve organized some sandwiches and coffee, but say the word and we can do you some steak and eggs, jam omelet, you name it.”
“Sandwiches and coffee sounds perfect.”
The food arrives and I eat. Compared to the moor, the drawing room seems like an oasis. A crackling fire, comfortable chair, quiet warmth. Chubb sits watching me in companionable silence.
“We naturally put off the auction, after they found Kuznyetsov—or whatever his name turns out finally to be,” Chubb says. “The guests had to stay to be questioned, and since everything seems to have quieted down, the police have agreed that we can have the sale tomorrow. If you’re still interested in that old grimoire, I mean?”
I wash the last of a venison sandwich down with the first cup from the second pot of coffee.
Time to fess up.
But before I can, Chubb says, “Apparently that was the one thing Kuznyetsov actually didn’t steal. We turned the whole castle upside down, as discreetly as possible, and were just considering how to question the guests when word came about Kuznyetsov’s body being found. Then all hell promptly broke loose.”
I wait for more explanation.
“You know how, when you’ve lost something, you keep looking over and over in the same place, because you can’t really believe that it isn’t there?” Chubb nods toward the glass cases across the room. “And blast me if it wasn’t right there. Have a look. I wouldn’t have believed it either, but there the bloody thing is.”
I stand and walk over.
Chubb unlocks the glass case, slipping on a pair of white gloves and carefully lifts out the book, holding it like a relic. I stare in amazement. It is the incunabulum 15th-century grimoire—the same one Kuznyetsov stole, the same one I found at the stone, the same one that went with me to 1755.
The same one I dropped in the boat.
A chill bristles the hair on the back of my neck.
How is that possible? Then I know. It was in my family for hundreds of years. That’s what Eleanor LeBlanc said. Passed down, until some impoverished ancestor sold it.
Chubb closes the case, seemingly pleased with everything.
A quote from Shakespeare rolls through my mind.
What is past is prologue.
Had Melisande Robicheaux apparently become the inadvertent owner of the incunabulum. Left in the boat by a man who rowed her out to the silkies’ island, then passed down to her heirs, and they to theirs, through the centuries, until making its way here. That’s nonsense. Ridiculous. It was all a dream. The missing book was simply found here at the castle, as Chubb said.
My host pours two generous measures of whisky. The silence in the room exaggerates the clink of the bottle against the rim of the glass.
“You’re sure you’re all right, old man? No need for a doctor?”
“I’m fine,” I say, knowing that I can now keep the whole experience to myself.
I accept the drink and enjoy a sip. It is one of the peaty Highland malts with fumes that can clear the head of crazy dreams.
Exactly what I need.
But a thought occurs to me. The flintlock pistol in the boat. I reach down and open the sporran that hangs from my waist.
Inside lies the wad and load.
Not a dream.
Then I wonder if someday the rusted remnants of my watch and gun will make their way inside some collector’s case too.
MatchUp by Lee Child / Mystery & Detective / Thrillers & Crime have rating 5 out of 5 / Based on40 votes