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Chapter 1 - A Diversion for Mrs Pollifax by A.J. Hall

The concourse breathed despair. People did not simply sit in LAX Terminal 4. They drooped. They endured. They existed. Mostly uncomplaining, they waited.

All these dispirited remnants had once had a purpose. Everyone here had intended to travel onwards to some specific destination. But, Emily realised abruptly, by now none of them truly believed their journey had an end. This purgatory would endure forever, their flight would never be called, their gate would never open, their misery would never be alleviated.

All, it seemed, except one: a young woman with huge eyes, a preternaturally perky manner and vivid, mis-matched jewellery. Even in Emily’s grief-numbed state, her eyes could not help following the young woman as she bounced up and down from news-stall to coffee shop, from bathroom to gate-barrier, as if she could first summon and then propel God-knew-how many tons of steel and high-octane fuel across the Atlantic by sheer force of will.

The announcement reverberated through the room.

“Mrs Emily Pollifax, Miss Ella Lopez, travelling to Glasgow, please come to the American Airlines customer service desk.”

Emily’s heart leapt into her throat. Could a message have come through from Scotland? Could they have found Cyrus? And, if the message should be the news she had been dreading ever since Tammy-Christine’s phone call yesterday, how could she bear the trans-Atlantic trip, knowing that all that awaited her at the end was concrete evidence that she was — for the second time in her life — a widow?

She tried to comfort herself with logic. Surely, Tammy-Christine would call Emily’s own cell phone, not the airline. But then, suppose she’d mislaid the number or written it down wrong?

She moved towards the indicated desk. After a minute or so, she became aware of an excited presence on the edge of her vision: the restless young woman with big eyes.

“Miss Lopez, and Mrs Pollifax?” The attendant was a polished, perfectly manicured example of her type, her narrow, professional smile painted over a substrate of disapproval and condescension. Her gaze passed over Emily’s hat and Miss Lopez’s jewellery with an identical air of faint disapproval.

They proffered proof by means of passports and boarding passes that they were, indeed, the individuals in question. The gate attendant’s smile broadened, though it still did not reach her eyes. She tapped away at a keyboard, the printer disgorged two new boarding passes, and she handed them over.

“I’m delighted to tell you that you’ve both been selected for a complimentary upgrade to business class. Have a great flight.”

“Hey, cool!” Miss Lopez did a little jig on the spot. “Good work, big fellow!”

She pulled a St Christopher medallion out of her shirt front, and kissed it. The tiniest gleam of levity stirred within Emily.

“Don’t forget to thank the saint for me, too. I never thought of praying for an upgrade, but I’m very grateful, all the same.”

Miss Lopez spun to face her, her mobile face drawn into a frown until she caught sight of the twinkle in Emily’s eye. She raised her right hand and wagged her forefinger reprovingly.

“That’s not how the big guy does things. He’s not interested in what you think you want. He’s only interested in giving you what he knows you need. So, if we both got upgraded, we’ll find out why in the big guy’s own good time.”

Something about her shining sincerity sparked memories: a temple deep in the jungles of the Golden Triangle of South-East Asia, a tent on the Turkish plains. Over the course of a long life, it seemed, Emily had been lucky enough to stumble over a handful of people who possessed true faith. The creeds they professed had varied; they had each been very different from one another. But they had been united in that all-encompassing faith.

“The faith that moves mountains,” she said aloud. At the mention of ‘mountains’ the memory of Tammy-Christine’s hateful, self-important voice saying, “Emily — I may call you Emily, mayn’t I? —I’m afraid you’re going to have to prepare yourself for quite the shock” jangled in her ears. To her eternal shame, her eyes welled up, and she stumbled.

She felt a warm arm slipped into hers, and heard a firm voice say, “Excuse me, which direction’s the Flagship lounge? My friend needs somewhere quiet to sit down, and a drink. No, thanks, I’ve got this. Be seeing you.”

The lounge was cool, practically empty, and had deep, soft sofas into one of which Emily sank gratefully, while Miss Lopez — Ella — ordered her on no account to move a muscle before she’d rustled up a barman.

The drink, when it arrived, was a dry martini. Emily, who had expected Ella to produce a gaudy cocktail hung about with pink plastic flamingoes and fruit on sticks, felt faintly guilty for the misjudgment. It was a particularly excellent martini, too: it could have been mixed by her first husband, Virgil Pollifax, who had rather prided himself on his cocktails.

She sat up very straight and sipped it, while Ella roamed the lounge with the air of an anthropologist doing fieldwork in an unknown location.

Emily mentally applauded the younger woman’s tact. It was only when she had discreetly mopped up all trace of tears that Ella returned to sit next to her, carrying her own drink (which did, indeed, resemble a fruit salad) and a carefully selected plate of the complimentary food. Emily stole a cautious glance at the departures board, but their gate number had not yet been called.

Ella fixed her with what she probably intended to be a steely glare, and pushed the food pointedly across to her.

“So, come on, girlfriend, give. You’re in trouble of some kind, aren’t you? What can I do to help?”

How kind the young were. She had found that out so often, especially during that unexpected part of her life that had begun many years ago (but still, she recalled, when everyone she knew had concluded she was too old for everything beyond the Garden Club, yoga and a little light volunteering at the hospital.) Nevertheless, each time she encountered it, it seemed like a revelation.

Gradually, Ella coaxed the whole story out: Cyrus and his party off on that Easter birdwatching and climbing cruise around the Inner Hebrides in the miniature cruise ship Caledonian Shieldmaiden under the gimlet-eyed direction of Tammy-Christine, the tour guide. Emily heading in the opposite direction to the opening of her old friend John Sebastian Farrell’s retrospective exhibition in Los Angeles —“The dates couldn’t have been worse. But Cyrus told me to do the exhibition, he’d do the cruise, and then we’d meet up in Paris, take the train down to Montpellier and tour the Camargue; I’ve always wanted to do that.” The gallery owner, making his way through the vivid, chattering crowd, telling her that she needed to come to the gallery office, an urgent email had come through from Scotland and he needed to take her somewhere quiet to take a phone call. And then Tammy-Christine’s voice, unexpectedly reminiscent of a teacher at Emily’s high school, long ago. Miss Bellow had certainly lived up to her name but had never been able to keep order, and had finally broken down weeping in the middle of algebra and never been seen again.

“Tammy-Christine told me that there’d been a rock fall, just where Cyrus and two other passengers had planned to go that day. The rescue parties found one of them — not Cyrus — unconscious, badly injured, on the edge of the fall, and no sign of the others. But there’s so much fallen rock, and they’re on an island so they can’t get heavy lifting gear out there, not for days, so they don’t know — at least, they haven’t found — “

She could not go on. Unexpectedly, she found arms flung about her. “Aww, you so need a hug.”

The comfort of a human touch was indescribable. The dark clouds lifted a little more. Then Ella drew back and looked at her, a frown on her face.

“What I don’t understand, though, is why they’re waiting on earth-moving gear. If I were running the site, I’d have used cada— sniffer dogs, and ground penetrating radar and electrical resistivity checks if the dogs didn’t find anything. That way, you’d know if you needed to dig at all.”

She ought, Emily thought belatedly, to have been shocked by that swift flip from sympathy to practicality. Instead the words fell on her ears like rain on dry ground. There had been something about the way in which Tammy-Christine had cut short her questions with a “That’s all being taken care of. You don’t need to worry yourself” that had sounded off to Emily’s ears, as if the reason Tammy-Christine deflected questions was not that she had thought of everything, but rather because she feared having her deficient knowledge exposed.

“You seem to know a lot about it,” Emily essayed.

“I should. It’s my day job. Well, all-round-the-clock job. I work in forensics. LAPD. Look; they’ve called our gate. We’re going to have to move.”

It was only once they were airborne that it occurred to Emily the flow of information had all been in one direction, and it behooved her to redress the balance.

“So, what’s taking you to Scotland?”

Ella’s face twisted in an expressive grimace. “Bethany. She’s my roomie. There are three of us, but we never see much of Juanita; she works nights at the hospital and she’s dating one of the radiographers, so she’s mostly over at her place.”

“And who’s Bethany dating?” People could be so revealing when talking about other people’s partners, Emily had found.

Ella’s face crumpled. “Man, Bethany is such a loser when it comes to guys. She’s from some town in the boonies, the kind of place where nothing happens except church socials, football and the school play. And Bethany’s an OK actor, but she’s not Juilliard class, know what I mean? Trouble is, everyone she knew back home told her she was the next Meryl Streep. The minute she graduated high school she came to LA, and you can imagine how that turned out.”

And all the stars that never were are parking cars and pumping gas,” Emily quoted, recalling something Farrell had said with respect to a gaggle of lovely but isolated young ladies at the exhibition, before The Message had come.

“You get it. You so get it. That’s exactly what me and Juanita said to her. But she wouldn’t hear a word of it. She told us her big break was just around the corner. But, sister, by the time she came to room with us she’d been in LA for five years, so seems like it wasn’t coming out from round that corner any time soon.”

“Poor girl,” Emily said impulsively.

Ella’s eyes grew even bigger. “Say it, sister. I mean, we tried to get Bethany to wise up. But there was nothing we could do. And the guys just seemed to sort of smell it, you know? Like sharks. I could tell you some stories —”

“So what was she doing? I mean, to earn a living?” Emily had some vague idea that hopeful actresses resorted to waiting tables, which she had always understood was terribly badly paid. And no place for an attractive girl with dreadful taste in men, either.

Ella spread her hands expressively. “This and that. But then she landed a job as a receptionist in a plastic surgeon’s practice in Beverley Hills. Major break. She was doing OK there, too. That is, until Phil came along.”

Now they were getting somewhere. “Phil?”

“Philip Forbes-Napier. He’s this fancy British man who showed up at the practice needing work done on his nose; said he’d broken it when the head of a polo mallet came off during a game.”

From the emphasis which Ella put on the word “said”, it seemed she suspected the true story was rather less glamorous. From Emily’s knowledge of human nature, she was inclined to agree.

“Anyway, he came in as a patient, but before he’d finished his final checkup, he was the senior partner in the business and, what’s more, he was dating Bethany.”

Emily raised her eyebrows. “Quick worker.”

“You said it, girlfriend. Way I heard it, the doctor who started the practice was a real hotshot surgeon, but he’d just gone through a bad divorce. His ex cleaned out their joint accounts, maxed out his credit cards and skipped to Tijuana with the pool boy. Phil’s investment must have looked like a blessing from St Jude. At first, anyway. Later, not so much. I mean, plastic surgeons in LA have to be discreet — no-one ever admits to having had work done even when it’s obvious they’ve had work done — but from what Bethany let slip, the practice began to take it to a whole new level. Its security arrangements made the Pentagon look like a shopping mall. And they were treating patients who booked in under names that had to be pseuds, and who came in through the service entrance, after dark. Like I said, I work for LAPD. You hear stories. Not just actors need to redesign their faces in a hurry.”

The noise of the engines revving for takeoff covered Emily’s initial reaction, which was fortunate. By the time they were airborne, she’d collected her wits enough to say,

“So why Scotland? Has Bethany gone there?”

“That’s where she said she was going. I don’t mean in person. I came home from work about three weeks ago to find she’d left a note on the fridge door; Phil had had to fly home to Scotland in a hurry, and he’d taken her with him. According to her, he’d had a crisis blow up on the family estate.”

At this, Emily raised sceptical eyebrows and Ella laughed.

“I know, sounds totally phoney, right? But it exists, all right. On Bethany’s birthday, Phil took us all out for drinks at Lux — that’s a club owned by a friend of mine, he’s British too, and of course he came over to say hi. So when Bethany heard his accent, she’s all, ‘So you’re from England too? Do you and Phil know each other?’ “

“And did he?” It seemed improbable, given the sixty million or so inhabitants of the British Isles, but stranger things had been known.

Ella frowned. “Well, if he didn’t know him, he sure knew who he was. He looked Phil up and down like he’d put him in an MRI scanner and didn’t like what was coming up on the screen. And then he said, ‘We haven’t met, but I’ve come across a few members of your family, over the years. Tell me, do you still carve people up alive in the dungeons under that Highland castle of yours?’”

Startled, Emily exclaimed, “That’s — not very friendly.”

Ella nodded so vigorously Emily became alarmed for her earrings.

“You said it. For a moment, I thought Phil was going to punch him. But he just said, ‘Oh, we gave that all up centuries ago. Got to move with the times.’ But the way the two of them looked at each other — well, it made my skin crawl. Anyway, Bethany’s had some real shitty boyfriends in the past, moochers and losers, so a guy with a Scottish castle and more money than God sounds just too good to be legit, don’t you think?”

Indeed, the thought had crossed Emily’s mind. “But there must be more, surely?”

“Yup. Two days ago, she sent a text.” Ella thumbed it up on her phone.

Phil needs me here for now. Don’t know when I’ll be back. Clinic cool about it. Will wire rent. Missing you guys loads. Give Minxty scritches for me, and plenty of treats. Lots of Love Bethany.

She read it once, then again. The second reading was no more enlightening than the first. “So what about that got you on a flight to Scotland?”

Ella’s voice dropped to a whisper.

“Minxty. Bethany hated that cat. She’s not big on cats in general, and then Minxty sort of adopted us — she’s got an owner, but he’s bad about keeping her in, and Minxty just wanders round the neighbourhood begging treats. Anyway, Minxty scratched her once, I mean it was like a total accident but Bethany totally freaked out about it. After that, she’d go and lock herself in her room when Minxty was in the kitchen.”

Over the course of a long and interesting life, Emily had devoted rather more thought as to how to convey the message Help! I’ve been kidnapped and all my messages are being read by the enemy than Ella might imagine. Her hat was safely stowed in the overhead locker, but mentally she took it off to Bethany.

“Yes. That does seem conclusive. She’s lucky she’s got a friend like you, who’s bright enough to spot it.”

Ella eyed her as if she thought Emily might be about to turn into a frog, then impulsively beckoned the stewardess and whispered in her ear. The resulting champagne was both unexpected and curiously welcome. Ella raised the tiny airplane glass in a toast.

“Girlfriend, did you know what Juanita said when I showed her that text? That I was ‘imagining things’. Chloe was the same. And Dan. And the one guy who might have sided with me was out of town for the weekend.”

“How deplorably prosaic of them all,” Emily said demurely.

Still, she pondered the matter further once their late evening meal had been served. Sleep eluded her, and as dawn broke pink and golden over the approaching coast of Ireland, Emily reached a decision.

Cyrus — she had to face the thought — was either dead or beyond any help she could provide. There was nothing she could do for him but wait for news. But Bethany was alive, in trouble and apparently not free to escape. And Emily had more experience than Ella could possibly suspect when it came to rescuing prisoners. Surely, a Scottish castle could not be more formidable than a Bulgarian jail or a Chinese prison camp?

That decision made, she turned her head away from the window, and settled down for a final forty minutes’ sleep.

Once they reached Glasgow Airport, another unexpected problem reared its head. The only cars left at the rental place were all manuals.

“Good heavens. Eisenhower,” she exclaimed out loud.

Ella gawped. “You remember President Eisenhower?”

A little grimly, Emily said, “I remember President Roosevelt.” Prudently, she added, “Franklin D. of course, not Theodore. Anyway, I last drove stick some time in Eisenhower’s second term. And it’s not like riding a bicycle. Oh, this is awkward. I wonder if we ought to get the shuttle bus into the city centre, and see if we can hire an automatic there?”

“Pfui,” Ella said inelegantly. “I grew up hotrodding. I can drive anything with four wheels and an engine, and I’ve managed with three wheels and less than half an engine before now. So, give us the best you’ve got, mister, and let’s get going.”

They left Glasgow Airport rather more rapidly than Emily would have chosen, though Ella had certainly not exaggerated her driving ability. They covered a great deal of ground most efficiently, although Ella exclaimed repeatedly about the time it seemed to be taking to get between two points which appeared so close together on the map.

The weather closed in as the hills around got higher. The hilltops vanished beneath low cloud. Increasingly frequent sleety showers made visibility even worse. The GPS did what it could, and Ella and Emily did their best to believe it, but, four hours after leaving Glasgow, if they had been told it had been enchanted by an evil wizard to spew garbage, they would have believed it without difficulty.

Worse, it became apparent that the car was eating gas at a ridiculous rate. Forty miles short of their destination (at least, if the GPS were to be trusted) the red icon symbolising low fuel blinked awake on the dashboard. As they drove across wide swathes of bleak moorland, Emily had visions of them being benighted here, out of gas.

They were spared that, though the eventual gas station was so tiny that it had only two pumps, one of which bore a large sign saying “out of order”. A big SUV with blacked-out rear windows stood at the working pump, its front seats empty. Minutes passed, and still its driver did not return.

Ella tapped her foot impatiently, and essayed a short blast on the car’s horn.

As if drawn by the noise, a hand reached forward from the dark rear of the SUV and placed itself on the driver’s side window, wriggling as if feeling for something.

Emily’s own hand went to her mouth. She nudged Ella, pointing.

Another sleet shower made it hard to see, even so close, what the hand’s owner thought she (almost certainly; the wrist was narrow and the nails long) was doing. Emily could guess, though. If the child-locks were engaged on the doors, escape by the windows would be the only option for an unwilling passenger.

She cracked open her own door, about to run to the prisoner’s assistance. Then she sharnk back into her seat as a tall man emerged from the gas station and walked over to the SUV.

Abruptly, Ella ducked below the dashboard, as if to retrieve something from an overturned purse, except Ella’s purse lay still tucked behind her seat, as it had been ever since Glasgow. Ignoring whoever was in the back, the tall man unlocked the SUV, swung into the driver’s seat and roared away from the gas station in one smooth, practised movement.

Ella’s head popped up. “That was Phil. And I bet Bethany’s in the back. Let’s go, sister.” She turned the key in the ignition.

Emily caught her wrist. “No point. We can’t chase them on fumes. Fill her up, and I’ll find out what I can about that SUV from the people at the gas station, when I pay.”

Had Ella been intending to argue, one glance at the gas gauge decided her against. “You said it, sister. Go with it.”

The woman in charge of the gas station was young, bored, and uninformative. Only when Emily, clicking her tongue against her front teeth in the manner of a particularly disapproving great-aunt, had remarked on the dangerous and inconsiderate driving of a (mythical) SUV who had almost forced them off the road near Spean Bridge did she become animated.

“Och, that’ll have been one of those Londoners doing what they call the North 500. We get an awfu’ lot of bad drivers up here when that starts: they think they own the road and none of them have the sense to back up and let you pass when it gets narrow. Did ye ken the lad who drew up just before you arrived in one of those beasts?”

Emily nodded.

“His family own the castle at Ardcruden, about five miles down the glen. Not that there’s much to it these days; it’s more than half a ruin. They were talking a few years back about making that into a hotel for the North 500 trade, but nothing came of it. I doubt they found it too expensive, when they came to drawing up the plans. But he’s just back from America, he was telling me, so maybe he’s got one of those Silicon Valley billionaires to invest. That would be a fine thing for the district.”

Emily paid, pondering all the time. Another inconsistency: Phil’s castle was real, but the money which he had flashed so abundantly around Los Angeles seemed to have faded into the Highland mists.

The weather worsened. By the time they reached Ardcruden the yellow lights of the pub shone out like a lighthouse amid the storm. Unfortunately, their welcome, though heartfelt, was qualified: all the pub’s rooms were full. Nor were there any other places in the vicinity which had rooms to let, not even hostels or bunkrooms. Emily made five or six phone calls before the truth had to be faced, and, once faced, relayed to Ella.

“What are we going to do?” It came out almost as a wail. Evidently, the stress of glimpsing her friend but being unable to speak to her, the refusal of room at the inn, the truly horrible weather outside, jet-lag and trying to decipher the thick local accents had brought the ever-chirpy Ella close to breaking point.

Emily drew a deep breath. “The first thing, I think, is to have a drink. And after that, a good meal. And use the bathroom. In fact, if we’re going to be sleeping in the car tonight, I think we probably should take full benefit of that wonderful wood fire right up until the pub shuts, don’t you think?”

This decisive approach found its mark. Ella nodded.

“What are you drinking, sister?”

Bearing in mind the night ahead, Emily murmured, “I think it would be rude not to drink whisky, as we’re here, don’t you think? Please could I have whichever the barman recommends. Make it a large one.” Recalling Cyrus, she added, “With a very little water, but no ice, please.”

Ella was at the bar when the pub door was flung back, and a middle-aged couple, enveloped in waterproof clothes, blew in. The landlord reached behind the bar even before they could have gathered breath. While their drinks were being poured, the two newcomers stood back and surveyed the assembled company.

Quite unbelievably, beneath the bushy brows and dishevelled white hair of the male half of the couple, Emily recognised a stocky, dusty young man she had met in Istanbul, so many years ago and, beside him, a woman whose former chocolate-box prettiness had been transmuted by the years into the perfect image of a dowager marchioness painted by Gainsborough.

Without conscious thought, she stood up and called across the bar,

“Colin! Sabahat!”

The man whipped his head round. “Good grief! Emily Pollifax!”

He floundered towards her and, behind him, she saw Ella shrug, collect their drinks and make her own way over. Colin’s companion smiled, and did the same.

“So,” Ella said rather obviously, once all four had converged on the table in the alcove near the fire, “you guys know each other?”

“Yes, indeed, but I haven’t seen — it must be years — Ella, meet Colin and Sabahat Ramsey. Very old friends of mine.”

“Colin Ramsey the film-maker?” Ella’s eyes opened very wide indeed.

Colin gestured towards Sabahat. “I direct films. My wife makes them — she first charms people into funding them and then stops me strangling the money people when they interfere. She persuades the camera crew not to walk out when I’ve yelled at them once too often. She keeps me sane and finds me chocolate raisins and nougat in weird bits of the world you’d be surprised even to find shops. If any films get made, that’s my wife’s doing.”

“Wow. Wow. That is just so cool. If only Bethany were here —” She fell silent. Emily patted her hand.

“Don’t worry. Luck’s on our side now. I can tell.”

Colin’s eyes glittered. “Emily, is this one of your — um — look, has Carstairs got anything to do with this?”

“Don’t be absurd,” Emily said staunchly. “You know perfectly well Carstairs retired years ago. Bishop’s very good at sending round a letter at Christmas with all the news — well, all the news he’s allowed to share, anyway. And even he’s retired now. Last year. I made him a celebration cake.”

“I trust,” Sabahat said demurely, “that he did not drive too soon after partaking of it.”

“I know you, Emily. Stop deflecting.” Colin looked round the crowded pub bar. “But if it is one of those, I don’t suppose here is the place to discuss it. Where are you staying?”

It seemed rather forward to mention their currently homeless state. Emily hesitated, but, after an awkward pause, Ella piped up, “In our car, looks like. Everywhere around seems to be either shut, or full.”

“Absurd. You are, of course, coming to stay with us,” Sabahat said.

Colin lit up like one of those dreadful quartz lamps which Roger had persisted in festooning his room with, back when he’d been about fourteen.

“Excellent. These days, Emily, we live at the lodge when we’re not off filming. I inherited it from Uncle Hu — you did hear about Uncle Hu, didn’t you? When Magda — went — it was if his main spring had gone, too. I suppose having got used to having lost her once, in the war, he couldn’t face going through it again.”

She nodded, her throat too tightly closed for speech. He looked her up and down, and his eyes narrowed. “There is something wrong, isn’t there? No, don’t tell me here. Finish your drink and we’ll be off home. Though I warn you, you’ll find it a good bit colder and damper than Turkey.”

“One can tell my husband never grew up on the Anatolian plains,” Sabahat said, twinkling. “I recall the summer dust storms in Yozgat with little nostalgia. As for some of the locations where we find ourselves working — I look forward to the Scottish rain more and more. It never disappoints me.”

Colin and Sabahat, it appeared, lived half way up a mountain, through a forest, and at the end of a deplorably primitive track. For sheer relief at having acquired such formidable allies, Emily would have run the whole way barefoot. Once Sabahat’s glorious pilaf had been produced from the stove, Ella too would have fallen down and worshipped both of them.

They were slumped into overstuffed armchairs by the glowing wood fire, replete and exhausted, and Colin had poured whiskies for them both, when he fixed them with an interrogator’s eye and said, “Tell us everything.”

“This,” Emily puffed, “will never work.”

Colin looked at her sideways beneath the stream of water pouring from the hood of his jacket.

“Why not? If people put off walking in the Highlands because it rained, fourteen hundred hiking gear shops would go out of business. Anyway, I can’t have you losing your nerve on me now. Think how it will shatter my illusions.”

She snorted. “What illusions? Colin, I’m old. I’m tired. And I’m frightened.” Her hand flailed in the air for a moment. “I’m not frightened of what might happen to me in the castle — well, yes, I am, a bit, because of Hong Kong — but I’m afraid of letting you all down. And then a tiny bit of me is afraid that I may be making a huge deal about nothing, because I want to feel needed and important, rather than old and useless.”

He turned to her, frowning.

“You know, you sound exactly like someone I used to know. Haven’t heard that voice in years. But you can drop any idea that you’re self-dramatising. Everything about this smells off. Not a bit off, either, but stinking green and rotten. Look, everyone round here knows everything about everyone else. Phil’s dad was a Lloyd’s Name who lost a pile on asbestos claims in the 80s. Since then, they’re tried a dozen schemes to turn that collapsing ruin into a cash cow, and all of them have run aground for lack of capital. I’d be surprised if Phil had the ready cash to buy a toothbrush in LA, let alone a plastic surgeon’s practice.”

“So where’s he getting the money from?”

Colin shrugged. “This morning, while you were having a lie-in, I made a couple of phone calls, starting with the brightest of my military nephews. Phil left the Army in a hurry about ten years ago; I thought it was worth finding out why. The moment I mentioned the name ‘Forbes-Napier’ there was one of those listening silences on the other end of the line. You know the kind I mean.”

Emily, improbable veteran of upwards of a dozen CIA missions, certainly did.

“Anyway, of course, he wanted to know why I was interested. I said a very reliable source told me he’d been splashing a lot of money he definitely hadn’t got buying a shady plastic surgeon’s practice in Los Angeles, and that a girl who worked there had gone missing and we thought she might be over here with him, not entirely voluntarily. Silence again. Then he told me to wait fifteen minutes before calling a number I had to memorise and not write down. The woman who answered didn’t give me her name. I didn’t expect her to. But she knew yours, all right.”

“Perhaps she’s a student of ancient history.” She could feel a trickle of rainwater going down the back of her neck, which made her feel even scratchier. “Anyway, it’s very nice that, if we fetch up dead when this scheme goes wrong, they may get round to investigating then. But if she’d offered you her support, we wouldn’t have to be here, trying your crazy scheme.”

From the way Colin avoided her eyes, that shot had gone home. At that moment, though, they emerged from the woodland and saw, down the valley, the silhouette of the crumbling castle against a clearing sky of the palest possible blue. The sheer beauty caught at her heart. As if for the first time, she experienced how sharp and perfect landscapes glimpsed at times of intense danger looked.

Her mood lifted. She turned to Colin, and smiled. “Ah, well. Wotthehell!”


They bumped fists, before starting their descent towards the castle.

“Have you finished?” Sabahat asked, coming out from the house to the car port bearing an aromatic mug of coffee. Ella tightened a final screw, slammed the van’s bonnet down, and looked up.

“You bet. That engine’s — quite the surprise to find in an old beater.”

Sahabat smiled. “We are film-makers. People do not always wish our films to be made. Sometimes, it helps to be able to leave locations faster than they expect.”

Sweet. Look, any time you guys need an extra driver, I’m your woman. I could make that beauty sing, given half a chance.”

“I may hold you to that. But now, drink that, and be prepared to leave when I say. Colin will try to text when he and Emily enter the castle, but if he finds it difficult we will have to use our judgment as to when to cause our diversion.”

“It’s your call, sister. I’m all yours.”

The castle door was opened by a grey-haired woman whose sheer normality Emily found almost shocking, the more so since she recognised Colin instantly, and became wreathed in smiles.

“Mr Ramsey! Glad to see you’re back. Jessie was saying you and your lady wife looked into the Drovers last night.”

“Indeed we did, Marie. And met an old friend, Emily Pollifax. She’s over here from the States. Unfortunately, I persuaded her to come out walking today and — well, the weather descended. She’s feeling pretty cold and she had a bit of a dizzy spell just as we were crossing the park. I wondered if it would be OK with Phil if we came in and let her warm up a bit, while I call Sabahat to fetch us?”

“I can’t think he’d have any objection — ah, here’s Mr Forbes-Napier himself.”

Emily gulped a little as she recognised the tall man from the gas station, who had emerged into the hallway, and who had plainly heard every word. So this was Phil. At first sight, as he smiled hospitably at them, a flicker of doubt intruded, but recollection of that desperate, questing hand reaching from the back of the SUV dispelled it.

“Mrs Pollifax? What a pleasure to meet you. Oh, dear, you do look chilled to the bone. Our Scottish weather hasn’t given you a very good welcome, I’m afraid. Look; the only thing that works properly in this barracks is the furnace room. Suppose you have a hot bath, while we get your damp things dried off?”

Colin shot her an alarmed glance which she had little trouble in decoding. How could they possibly make their escape if Emily’s clothes had been carried off, and she left only with a towel? Nevertheless, the excuse of a bath could give plenty of time for her to carry out an exploration at her leisure. And it would reinforce their cover story in case Phil were wondering about their arrival. No spy would pause to take a bath in the middle of casing a joint.

She turned her eyes on him with a mixture of distress and entreaty. “That would be lovely — if you’re quite sure I’m not imposing?”

His smile broadened; she found herself wondering, irrelevantly, whether his tame plastic surgeon had done work on his jaw as well as his nose. It certainly looked too perfect to be natural.

“Not in the slightest. Marie, please show Mrs — um — Pollifax where everything is, and find her towels and so forth. Now Colin — how about a drink? Liked that last thing of yours, by the way. Tell me, how did you get access? Isn’t it supposed to be virtually barred to Westerners?”

Emily was shown to a bathroom which had once been very grand, perhaps thirty years ago. Now a long streak of green-blue oxide ran from the base of the tarnished taps to the plug-hole of the great lion’s-feet tub. The tub’s enamel was chipped and worn, and there were patches of what looked like black mould up on the high corniced ceiling.

Marie found her towels and a navy-blue dressing-gown in a severe, masculine style, designed for someone much taller and wider than she was. Perhaps it had belonged to Phil’s father, the one who had lost the family fortunes. She fancied it had a depressed air to it.

Left to herself Emily started running water and humming tunelessly to herself. Once she thought anyone watching the bathroom door might reasonably have got bored and wandered off, she turned the flood of water to a trickle, pulled out the plug so it could waste itself down the drain, donned the dressing gown and set off exploring.

She tried one door, then another along the passage, finding them locked. The faint sounds of sobbing from behind a third drew her like a magnet. With infinite care, she eased it open. A slender blonde girl lay sprawled across a spindly antique couch, her face buried in her arms.

She tiptoed across to the couch. When she was only inches away she bent and murmured, “Bethany?”

The girl sat bolt upright. “Who the hell are you?”

Her face was tear-streaked and there were huge dark circles under her eyes, but Emily had little difficulty in seeing how Bethany could have thought she had a shot at movie stardom.

“Ssh. I’m Emily. I’m a friend of Ella’s. We’re going to get you out of here.”

At the mention of Ella’s name, the girl’s face crumpled once more.

“She got my message. She came.”

“She did. But I haven’t got much time — I’m pretending to be having a bath — so you’d better tell me as quickly as possible what we’re up against.”

Bethany nodded, mopped her eyes, and said, “OK. But I’ll have to roll it back a bit. I suppose Ella told you about my birthday at Lux?”

“A little,” Emily conceded. “Do you know why Ella’s friend, the nightclub owner, took so badly against — um — Phil?”

“I didn’t then. I think I do now. But everything started there, somehow. Every time I think about it, it all leads back there. You see, the guy who owns Lux has got this weird reputation. He’s a kind of a fixer; does people favours, but expects a quid pro quo, know what I mean? And he’s really into it. Calls himself ‘Lucifer Morningstar’, can you imagine?”

“I’ll try to make the effort,” Emily said solemnly, and was rewarded by a faint giggle on Bethany’s part.

“I suppose it does sound crazy. But you’ve not met Lucifer. Anyway, after the fight they’d had, I asked Phil if he wanted to bail. But he sort of shrugged me off, told me it was nothing. And about an hour or so later I looked round the bar, and found he was missing. So I asked around, and someone said he’d gone upstairs with Lucifer. Naturally, I was scared they’d gone to fight. So I followed them. Lucifer’s got this fancy penthouse with a private bar and a grand piano, Ella’s told me about it. And a balcony. That’s where they were standing, that’s why they didn’t see the lift open, and I was able to steal up quite close behind them, just in time to hear Lucifer say, ‘So, Phil, what is it you truly desire?’”

“Goodness,” Emily exclaimed. “And what did he say?”

Bethany shuddered. “That was the weird part. It sounded like he was being hypnotised, like he couldn’t control what came out of his mouth. And what he did say, didn’t make sense. He said, ‘I just want to get Aristotle off my back. I just want to get out of this mess alive.’”

Aristotle?” Abruptly, Emily’s knees gave way, and she sank down on the couch. She felt Bethany’s hand on top of her own.

“You know Aristotle?”

“It can’t be the same man. The man I knew — it was years ago, in Africa —”

“Africa?” Bethany’s voice had a new urgency. “Where in Africa? It wasn’t at some place called Namacambale, was it?”

“I’ve never even heard of Namacambale. Where did that name come up?”

The girl sounded ragged and desperate. “It was what Lucifer said to Phil next: ‘I take it you’ve found out the hard way that if you lie down with dogs, you get up with fleas? But you must have been a long way down that road before you even met Aristotle. Namacambale wasn’t his idea, was it?’ So Phil just sort of gasped, ‘But no-one knows about Namacambale!’ And Lucifer said, ‘You bet dead men would tell no tales? Bad luck.’ “

Emily had to take three very deep breaths. So, some incident in Africa, perhaps the one which had precipitated Phil’s exit from the Army. Something very bad. But not as bad as Aristotle, a hit man who she had thought vanished into a Zambian jail decades ago for his attempt to murder President Kaunda.

Fear choked her. She caught at Bethany’s arm. “Tell me. Tell me about Aristotle. How does Phil know him? What does he look like?”

Bethany’s eyes grew very wide. “I don’t know what he looks like now. I’ve not seen him with the bandages off. But don’t you get it? He was the reason for it all. Turns out, he paid for the practice; Phil was just a front. Aristotle was the mystery patient.” She dropped her voice. “And he’s in the house now.”

At which moment, the doorknob began to turn.

The ormulu clock on the mantelpiece signalled another quarter hour’s passing in a tinkle of delicate notes. What on earth could Emily be doing? Surely no-one could believe anyone could take so long having a bath.

Abruptly, Phil said, “There is something I’d better mention to you. My girlfriend, Bethany, is going to be coming down to join us. But before she does — Well, with everyone round here being up in everyone’s business, I don’t know if you’ve heard any rumours —?”

Colin focussed his gaze on a peculiarly ugly (and, given the poverty-stricken nature of the rest of the castle’s decor, quite probably fake) Sèvres cake-plate on a stand next to the ormulu clock, and hoped Phil would take it for abstraction, rather than a fervent determination to maintain a poker face at all costs.

Unheeding, Phil maundered on.

“Well, the thing is, Bethany’s been going through a very tough time. I think the long and the short of it is that she’s got some mental health issues, but she’s very wary about getting psychiatric help, or even a diagnosis. Given some of the horror stories she’s told me, I don’t blame her. But please keep this in confidence: Marie knows all about it, I had to confide in her, but I don’t want everyone to be speculating about ‘my mad girlfriend’ in the hikers’ bar of the Drovers.”

“You have my word I won’t gossip.” Colin had, over the course of a long career as a documentary film-maker, explored every last nuance of the NDA, the off-the-record comment and the Chatham House Rule. He had found that people were surprisingly good at hearing what they expected, rather than what had been said.

“Thanks. Well, I’m afraid that Bethany — well the kindest thing to call it is that she got into the habit of self-medicating. She’s clean now, and doing really well, especially now I’ve got her away from — well, take my word for it, her friends in the US weren’t doing her any good at all. But the pressure of trying to stay clean does cause tension, and I wouldn’t want you to get the wrong impression if she were to have an outburst. And — look — there’s no way to soften this. Occasionally she gets a bit paranoid. Almost — I hate to say this, but you have to know — almost delusional.”

He nodded soothingly, a trick worth a fortune on a fractious location shoot. “I understand completely.”

Indeed he did. Marie’s appearance at the castle door had shaken him. His faith in Emily Pollifax was not more profound than his faith that Marie was the most honest person he knew, the last woman to be party to a shady scheme. But if Phil had spun her this plausible line, much was explained.

The door whispered open, and a lovely young lady sidled in apologetically.

“The neighbours have come to call. Go down and show yourself. Make sure they know it’s nothing but happy families here. You don’t want to upset Mr Forbes-Napier again, do you? You know what happens when you do that.”

The flat, hateful tones in which the man spoke to Bethany reached deep inside Emily, alerting reflexes she had thought buried deep as the ocean. The sideways chop to his neck as he came boldly through the door behind which she stood came as natural as breathing. So, too, did it feel to look down on her unconscious enemy. It was only when she looked up to meet Bethany’s half-elated, half-horrified eyes that she felt anything other than mild satisfaction.

“Karate,” she explained briskly. “Now, suppose we find something to gag him — not his T-shirt, I need something to wear apart from this ridiculous dressing-gown. And sweat-pants too, how convenient. Lucky he’s so short.”

Once given direction, Bethany proved surprisingly competent at stripping and binding their captive. Fortunately the room’s soft furnishings ran to swags, tassels and twisted silk cords. He had recovered consciousness by the time they had finished, but was by that time solidly and efficiently trussed to the curtain pole, and so thoroughly gagged that while Emily could read in his eyes exactly what he was calling them both, nothing but grunts were audible.

“Now,” Emily said, a trifle breathlessly, “if you’re wanted below, you’d better go. My friend Colin Ramsey is holding the fort — yes, that Colin Ramsey, the one who won the Oscar for Best Documentary a couple of years ago. You should have plenty to talk about. In fact, I really hope you do.”

Whatever anyone could say about Bethany, she wasn’t stupid. Her face altered into an expression which was almost amused. Emily patted her shoulder, sending her on her way. Barefoot, she padded off in search of Aristotle.

Sabahat’s cell phone emitted a sharp “Brr-ping!” announcing an incoming text. Ella craned her neck.

“Diversion needed at castle NOW. Prepare for quick getaway.”

The smile on Sabahat’s face looked positively luminous. “Did I tell you, the first day I met Colin he asked me to arrange a diversion so we could rescue Mrs Pollifax from a bad man who was threatening her? And now, we have been married for decades and I am a grandmother, and here it comes round once more. Bad man, Mrs Pollifax, diversion. I will need two of the thunderflashes, I think, and three of the drones we need for filming. But most of all, I shall need a getaway driver.”

Solemnly, Ella held out her hand. “Shake, sister. I’ve got this.”

An enormous bang sounded above them, so close that the window-glass flexed in and out with the pressure wave.

Colin deployed his best directorial bellow. “Good God! Some absolute imbecile’s attacking the castle. Marie, go and phone the police now!”

Reflex reaction sent her out of the room in a moment, even before Phil could recover his breath. When he did, he exploded.

“What the hell did you tell her to do that for?”

He dived for the door; Colin caught at his arm, dragging him back, his expression all carefully crafted puzzlement.

“Phil, some idiot’s just let off a sodding great explosion on your premises. Why wouldn’t you want the police called?”

For half a moment, Phil hesitated. Then, he nodded significantly at Bethany, pressed one side of his nose, and sniffed, conspicuously.

A whole range of responses surged through Colin, chiefly the impulse to punch Phil right in his lying face. Before he could act on any of them, the door swung wide. He gasped, as Emily stumbled through. Behind her, driving her on, came a thin, almost prim elderly man, his face such a mass of swelling and bruises that Colin at first assumed he’d been beaten up.

“You shouldn’t have taken the bandages off yet!” Bethany exclaimed.

The injured man grimaced; a second later Colin identified it as a smile.

“Then perhaps this senile old idiot should not have blundered into my room, necessitating my rising to take care of matters personally.” He jabbed again into the small of Emily’s back. With horror, Colin realised he was jabbing her with the muzzle of a hand-gun.

“That, I resent,” Emily said, barely a wobble in her voice. “I was trying to find you. Bethany, Colin: this is Aristotle. He’s a hitman. Or rather, he was. I put him into a Zambian prison many years ago, so I don’t think he’s what he used to be.”

“And yet —” He waggled the gun contemptuously.

Something small, moving very fast hit the main window of the room, shattering it into a thousand, thousand shards. Instinctively, the gunman spun to confront the new threat.

At which point, three things happened at once. Bethany grabbed the equivocal Sèvres plate from its stand on the mantelpiece, and sent it frisbee-style, hard and accurate, into the gunman’s wrist. The gun went off; a bullet discharged itself harmlessly into the ceiling. Emily spun and, with a blunt chop down onto Aristotle’s already injured wrist, forced him to drop the gun, which she kicked accurately into the far corner of the room. A second blow into his solar plexus doubled him up with pain.

Phil dived for the gun. Colin stuck out his leg and sent him sprawling, winning the race to the gun by a fingernail. He kept it trained on Aristotle, watching Phil out of the corner of his eye.

“Emily, Bethany, run. The van should be close by. Go!”

They needed no second warning.

Aristotle looked straight at Phil for one eternal second. “Now I know I should have had you killed when I had the chance.” He ran from the room.

Ridiculously, the atmosphere relaxed with his departure, though Colin kept Phil covered with the gun.

Are you going to shoot me?” Phil enquired.

“God, no.” Prudently, Colin added, “At least, only in self-defence. Are you going to make me have to?”

“Not in a million years.” Phil’s brows drew down. “Prison’s going to look like a holiday resort after Aristotle. He has — had three bodyguards — thugs — in the house. And they’ve been controlling the phones, and so forth. They barely let me drive Doctor Evelen to Glasgow Airport yesterday. They forced me to take Bethany with me so it all looked respectable, but really I think, they’d got my head twisted round to think that the real danger was Bethany escaping, and so I had to keep an eye on her, and it was only when we got back to the castle that I realised, Hell, yes, we could both have made a clean break for, it.”

Twenty miles to Glentunny, the nearest police station. The police should be almost here, assuming they’d taken Marie seriously. Colin looked sideways at Phil. He disliked the man intensely: he was a snob, a bully, a fool and very probably a war criminal.

But he was also, however unpleasant he might be, a neighbour. Uncle Hu had fished for salmon with his father. He and Colin had even been to the same school, albeit many years apart. Come to think of it, after that experience, small wonder if prison held few terrors for him.

“Don’t you think,” he said, “that it might make sense for you to get on to your solicitor?”

Phil paused for a moment. Then he ran from the room. Colin waited until he was clear, and then took himself in search of Marie

“They’re gaining on us,” Emily reported. “And someone’s leaning out of the SUV window. Looks like he’s got a —”

There was an enormous bang. Emily saw the side of the van peel back, glimpsed scudding, rain-washed forest through the hole. Then an agonised burning began in her shoulder. She raised her other hand to the centre of the pain, and saw it blossom bright red between her fingers.

She turned disbelievingly towards Ella. “I’ve been shot!”

“Hang on!”

Ella swerved the van down a forest track in a right-angled turn which tilted it at a forty-five degree angle. There was a sharp whistling sound as more bullets passed through empty air, possibly underneath them. The van’s offside wheels came back to earth with a jolt.

“Keep hanging on!”

In the back, Sabahat sat up. “They shot at my guest. And my van. And they have damaged both. This is intolerable. ”

Determinedly, she began to claw at the fastenings of a box.

“What are you doing?” Bethany screamed.

“Let us see if the drone trick works again. On my word, Bethany, open the back door of the van. And make sure you don’t fall out.”

“Open the back door? But there are people shooting at us!”

“And they will continue to do so unless we stop them. Ella, what are they doing at present?”

“Getting closer. Whatever you’re planning, dude, now would be good!”

Dark mists were closing over her; dimly Emily was aware of Sabahat shouting “Yes, yes, door, now!” There came another tremendous bang, the van rocked, Ella swore, and then blinding light flooded in.

There came a massive noise, then a roar like a thousand furnaces, a noise like thirty thousand demons screaming. Ella shouted, “It got them! The drone got them! The SUV’s wrecked.”

The van rocked wildly once more. Ella swore, imaginatively. “Hang on! Looks like the bastard got my wheel with that last one.”

Emily’s head slammed into the dashboard, and all went dark.

A deeply familiar, exceedingly disgusted, voice boomed from the opening between the corridor and the ward.

“Damn it, Emily, what have you been doing to yourself now? Storming castles, rescuing damsels in distress, capturing assassins, getting yourself shot; it really won’t do, you know.”

Her head whipped round so fast she stifled a cry of pain as the movement jerked the IV line in her arm.

“Cyrus! But it can’t be. You’re dead!”

He grimaced, and lumbered down the ward towards her bedside, favouring one side in a way that she was not too tired to notice, even if the curious wrung-out feeling inside her deprived her of the ability to comment. Something within her noted in a clear, cold, sensible voice:

In Heaven, he would not be limping. And in Hell, he would not be Cyrus.

Abruptly, her husband was by her bedside, sinking gratefully into the spindly chair allotted to visitors.

“No, my dear. The reports of my death have been greatly exaggerated. This really is me, and I’m not a ghost or anything of that sort: look, see — no, better yet, feel.”

He enveloped her in his arms, careful, nonetheless, not to displace the IV. She buried her face in Cyrus’ shoulder. The familiar smell of sandalwood soap and freshly ironed cotton washed over her, and she let herself soak, luxuriously, for what felt like hours. Then, she roused herself, and looked him in the eye.

“But, Cyrus, she said —- I mean, that awful woman, Tammy-Christine, said —”

“Ah, yes,” Cyrus murmured. “Tammy-Christine. Our esteemed tour co-ordinator.”

An incipient headache made itself felt behind Emily’s eyes. She defied it, and pressed on.

“Tammy-Christine called me, from Harris or Barra, or wherever it was that your birdwatching boat had got to, to tell me you and two other men had been buried under a rock fall on some mountain: one man was in intensive care, but there was no chance —”

Her throat swelled and choked her into silence.

In equal silence, Cyrus stroked her back, over the hospital nightdress.

“So what happened?” Emily burst out, at last.

He exhaled. Somehow, she felt this was an explanation he had been repeating for several days, and saw no chance of respite any time soon.

“Well. Three of us left the boat at dawn: me, Harry and Joe. Our cabins were next to each other, along the upper deck, so we knew we could steal out early without disturbing anyone else. And we’d arranged with the steward to have him leave packed lunches in the galley fridge as well as the usual breakfast stuff. Tour rules, of course, said anyone planning to leave the boat early had to tell Tammy-Christine the night before where they were planning to go, and when they expected to be back, and so we had: Harry and I told her we were off to Sgeir nan Each. It’s a tiny islet with a lot of off-lying rocks. That time of year, you get the chance of spotting all sorts of accidentals, blown off course when they migrate.”

He drew a deep breath.

“Trouble was, earlier on in the evening, before the whisky started circulating quite so fast, Joe’d told her he’d be away at dawn to Sgùrr nan Each. It’s a crag about five miles inland. He’s a climber. But what we hadn’t allowed for was Tammy-Christine’s inability to tell one place from the other. As per her note, we were all off scrambling up Sgùrr nan Each, and when none of us came back, that’s where she sent the rescue parties.”

Emily tried hard to focus her mind.

“And Sgùrr nan Each was where they had the big rock fall —?”

“You bet. I’ve not been, but I’ve seen the photographs. The whole front of the cliff just seems to have sheered clean off. The Mountain Rescue team found Joe, unconscious, on the periphery of the fall, and hauled him off to the hospital. Sounds as if it was touch-and-go for 48 hours or so, but the doctors say he’ll make it, and last I heard he’d regained consciousness. But, meanwhile, Tammy-Christine convinced everyone in the neighbourhood Harry and I must be under about three hundred tons of Torridian sandstone, there being no sign of our having shown up anywhere else.”

“So where were you?”

Cyrus grimaced. “The old guy we’d hired to take us out turned out to have skimped on boat maintenance. Cut a long story short, the boat engine failed, the fog came in, and the three of us ended up stuck on Sgeir nan Each with no way of getting off. Good news, there’s a hide on top of the cliff, so we weren’t without a roof over our heads, and it rained enough that there was no problem with water, either. Bad news, our VHF was in even worse shape than the engine, and there’s no phone coverage to speak of. So the three of us had to stay until the fog lifted and we could attract the attention of a fishing boat. But I am so sorry to have caused you so much pain, my heart.”

Tears started behind her eyes. “Why on earth didn’t Tammy-Christine have the sense to double check? I’ve spent nearly a week convinced you were dead.”

Cyrus patted her hand soothingly.

“Look at it this way. If that idiotic woman hadn’t panicked, you wouldn’t have been travelling to Scotland at the same time as Miss Lopez, and then you wouldn’t have been in a position to rescue Bethany, or stop Aristotle. And even Forbes-Napier got out of the whole thing alive, though he’s going be spending a few years in jail. My Great-Aunt Sarah would have called that result Divine Providence. But then, she was from Connecticut.”

Emily, who had found the last four days more trying than she could possibly admit, finally snapped.

“Divine Providence, poppycock!”

“I couldn’t agree more,” purred the dark, handsome young man who happened to be passing the end of her bed, bearing an extravagant arrangement of gloriosa lilies and sparkly helium balloons in the shape of letters: two ‘L’s, an ‘E’ and an ‘A’. “Dad had absolutely nothing to do with it.”

Sgeir == skerry, crop of rocky islands
Sgùrr == craggy peak.