Chapter 1 - Castle Sonas by A.J. Hall
The authorities are unanimous; an innkeeper is required to offer accommodation to all well-conducted travellers, provided only there is room and the traveller able to pay. So runs the code of Hammurabi, the Digests of Justinian, and the ratio in Constantine v. Imperial Hotels Limited. But there is one guest all hoteliers must admit, whether or not they have a vacant room, and neither payment nor conduct is ever taken into account.
There were four of us stuck at Southampton Airport awaiting the Aberdeen flight on that particular afternoon, one of the ember days between Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve. Tendrils of fog caressed the terminal building, and all the boards showed solid red blocks of DELAYED, CANCELLED and WAIT IN LOUNGE.
That’s how Irish coffee came into being, by the way: Shannon Airport, persistent fog, restive passengers, ingenious barman. Following precedent, we ended up in the bar, occasionally glancing at the board to check progress.
It turned out we were all engaged in the hospitality industry, one way or another. I did my usual, and copped to a role in “back office and security systems” leaving the others to assume I was something in computers. Apart from me, there was a lean, dark man from the Scotch Malt Whisky Society; a red-faced bloke with an Essex twang, who ran an alleged gastropub somewhere on Deeside (“Royal Deeside”, he emphasised) and a shy Korean girl enveloped in a charcoal-grey winter coat which, to my certain knowledge, retailed for north of £3,000 at Harvey Nicks. She was in her third year at Bournemouth University, studying catering, tourism and hospitality.
We started swapping yarns, of course. The man from the Malt Whisky Society went first, with a shaggy dog story about Sir Fitzroy Maclean breaking into the local gauleiter’s HQ somewhere in Occupied Yugoslavia, abstracting a crate of brandy and returning the bottles the night after refilled with the urine of the partisans who’d guzzled it. So slick was the operation, they’d left the Nazi officers not a pfennigthe wiser — until the bottles came to be decanted on a subsequent mess-evening. He claimed he’d heard the great man tell the story himself, after a tutored tasting in Edinburgh Castle, and I almost believed him.
I contributed the tale of the ghost at a country-house hotel in the Welsh Marches, who took such violent objection to the new owners’ plans for radical redecoration that, whenever the contractors brought in paint in any colours other than pastels, it tipped it down the outside drain. Which, in due course, got the owners a blocked drain and some terse admonitions from the Environment Agency. I left out what the owners discovered once they had the drains up to clear the blockage. That would have spoilt the mood, as well as making it much easier to identify the hotel.
The Korean girl gave a deferential nod towards the red-faced man, inviting him to go next.
“Well, this isn’t something they teach you at catering college,” he blared. “It was my second full-time job, at a nice old place in the Cotswolds. We had this one guest who was a politician. You —” The red-faced man’s gesture encompassed both me and the man from the Malt Whisky Society. “I expect you can guess who I mean. Anyway, one day he turned up with a dazzling red-head, half his age, legs up to her armpits — definitely not Mrs Shadow Cabinet Minister. They checked into their rooms at about lunchtime, and neither of them emerged until well after six. That was when she came down to the bar, ordered a martini and told the barman that she was just waiting until her boyfriend finished his bath and was ready to join her in the restaurant.
“The barman reckoned she thought it was going to be the night he finally told her he’d made up his mind to leave his wife and marry her. He’d have been more convinced if he hadn’t heard the same thing from the guy’s last girlfriend. And the one before that. He’d worked at the hotel a few years longer than me.
“But the Shadow Minister doesn’t come down and doesn’t come down, and his girlfriend’s a couple of martinis in, and she’s been fiddling with her long, dangly earrings all that time. And then she snaps one off just below the post, and has to go back up to her room to put in a fresh pair.”
He leant confidentially across the bar, almost plonking an elbow in the Korean girl’s gin and tonic.
“This place still had those massive brass key tags, with the room numbers engraved on. They only had one per room, and her boyfriend had kept it. So she totters up to the room on her four-inch stilettos and bangs on the door. No answer. So she totters back down to the front desk. I was on reception that evening. And I go up to let her into the room with the master-key.
“And that’s when we found him. Dead, in the bath. Grey and wrinkled with blue lips. What with his strenuous afternoon —” he smirked “— and the hot water, his poor old ticker had given out. His girlfriend started having hysterics, and I was trying to dodge round her to call 999, when a commotion started at the door. It was Mrs Politician, doing her nut and calling the girl and her husband, dead as he was, every name under the sun. Turned out, she’d put private detectives on him, and, as luck would have it, she’d picked this very night to show up and catch them in flagrante.”
I winced: mostly, in sympathy with the private detectives who must have spent weeks and months of painstaking work to gather that intelligence, and would have preferred it weren’t squandered on momentary drama in a hotel corridor. Information achieves peak value when you’ve got it, the other side knows you’ve got it, and any potentially interested third parties don’t yet have it, but when and if they do lies entirely in your hands.
The red-faced man grinned at what he imagined to be my reaction. “Well, quite. Caught between those two harpies, I found myself feeling jealous of the corpse. What a night that was. You never forget your first stiff. But at least mine was just a heart attack. My business partner can’t have been more than nineteen when he opened up one bedroom he thought was empty, and found its previous guest dangling from the light fitting by her neck.”
The Korean girl rose and bolted in the direction of the loos. The red-faced man rolled his eyes, and muttered, “Never going to cut it in this business if she’s that sensitive.”
I didn’t bother arguing; I shoved back my bar stool and went after her. As I crossed the threshold of the Ladies my other sense pinged. I ignored it. Any less likely place for a ghost to hang out than the loos at Southampton Airport would be impossible to imagine. In any event, once I got fully inside it was obvious the only person in there — alive or dead — was the Korean girl, who was hunched over the furthest basin sobbing her heart out.
“Is there anything wrong?” I asked, and then, more sensibly, “Can I help?”
Her accent was thick and her English not quite fluent (though infinitely better than my Korean) and the crying fit didn’t help. But I gathered she was travelling north to a family funeral, which explained a great deal. Also, she added, the red-faced man was a gross imbecile who would not have lasted five minutes in the hotel where she’d interned when in high school. Even without knowing the hotel, I could see her point, and said so, which cheered her up considerably.
She splashed water on her face, redid her makeup and, by the time we re-emerged, our flight was being called. She went to a seat at the front, the red-faced man to the rear and I ended up sitting next to the man from the Malt Whisky Society, who, from one or two hints dropped earlier, I guessed worked in an adjacent sector to my own. We spent the flight talking convoluted shop about the problems of tracking down counterfeit and adulterated spirits (a surprisingly high percentage of which end up on the optics and top shelves even of reputable establishments) and exchanged contact details on landing. It never hurts to have a subject-matter expert in your address book.
The Korean girl was well ahead of me leaving the plane, but I’d almost caught up by the time we exited onto the concourse, where a young man on the far side of the barrier hollered, “Yu-Na!”
She dashed into his open arms, practically burrowing into his hug. Big brother, not boyfriend, I guessed. Something about the nature of the embrace. You can generally tell. Whatever, I was delighted he’d showed up for her. Funerals are bad enough at the best of times, and attending one alone in a foreign country must be pretty close to Hell.
I intended to wish her all the best, say goodbye and then find my own lift. But halfway across the space between us, my other sense went off — not the mild unease I’d felt in the loos at Southampton, but full-on mouth-drying, stomach-churning horror. A patch of focused malevolence roiled between me and her. Her brother spun on the spot, thrusting himself between Yu-Na and — whatever that thing was.
For one horrible, eternal second we both stared at the same fixed point — and then it was gone. I sagged with relief. Yu-Na’s brother’s head snapped up, and for a moment our eyes met. Both of us knew what had just passed through the concourse — and knew the other knew, too. I opened my mouth to say something, and then felt the light pressure of a hand on my arm.
“So there you are,” Malcolm Innes murmured. “The haar was so thick earlier, there was nothing landing or taking off for three hours. I feared you’d never make it.”
I grinned, though I was still shaken and hard-put to conceal it. “You know me. If they’d cancelled the flights, I’d have just had to hop on a train. Or a coach.”
“Aye, and when would that have got you here? Day after tomorrow, no doubt and God help you if we got another snowfall in the meantime — ah, good evening, Mr Koo, I didn’t see you there. Did you get everything you needed from the Fiscal?”
I turned to see Yu-Na and her brother, very close by.
The young man bowed. “Yes, thanks to your help. All the paperwork is complete, and the funeral is tomorrow.”
“Then I hope the snow keeps off. It can be bitter indeed up at the crematorium,” Malcolm said.
Yu-Na nodded shyly to me. “Thank you for your kindness, back at Southampton.”
“Think nothing of it. And I hope everything goes well for you tomorrow. I’ll be thinking of you.”
In normal circumstances, I would have added I’m sorry for your loss. Not in this case. Whoever that malignant spirit had been in life, no-one sane would regret losing them. Also, and very much to the point, I was far from sure it had actually gone as opposed to being temporally absent and I guessed Mr Koo had similar doubts. I wondered whether the Church of Scotland ran to deliverance ministries, and how best to find out without letting it cut across my official business up here.
Malcolm cleared his throat. “Well, don’t forget what I said. You’d both be very welcome to come over to us after the funeral, should you fancy a drink and something to eat. Just give me a call.”
Both the Koreans bowed, and headed off towards the car-park, Mr Koo casting a glance over his shoulder at me as he went.
“You know him?” I enquired as we headed car-park wards in our turn, my wheeled case occasionally cannoning into the back of my legs, like a rather dim King Charles spaniel which had grasped walk to heel but was struggling with how far behind.
“Andrew Koo? Oh, aye. He’s the coming man. Hotel Business Magazine ran a profile on him last year. He works for one of those Far East conglomerates, but he’s based in Europe at present. They’re doing a big push into the luxury boutique trade. When they bought Cairnmichael House in April, he was up here three or four times to supervise the renovations. With the builders at their worst, it wasn’t fit to house cattle, so his bosses booked him into my place.”
“They must think a very great deal of him,” I observed, drily. Malcolm laughed. Tighnadobran Lodge bills itself as a “restaurant with rooms” but the restaurant has a Michelin star, and room rates start at £250 per night, even in the off-season. Plus, it has a glorious location on a steep, wooded hillside with views north-west towards the Spey estuary. Nothing, though, to Cairnmichael House, five miles further inland, a pastiche Loire chateau built in the 1890s by one Angus Kennedy off the back of selling jams, jellies and marmalades to the vast captive market which was the British Empire in its heyday.
Cairnmichael House. The muscles on the back of my neck clenched. I’m a pattern-matcher by training and instinct, and there were too many patterns forming around me for comfort.
Long ago, when I was young and very foolish, I’d fallen for a man older, wealthier and more sophisticated than I could ever imagine becoming. But I am older now than he was then, and he will grow no older. Nor will the girl who replaced me in his bed. Who could, so easily, have been me.
One iron-cold January he’d whisked me away for a weekend at Cairnmichael House, and I’d fallen in love. It was the first time I’d ever stayed at a country-house hotel. It was the first time I’d eaten in a Michelin-starred restaurant, and had people bring me glasses of incomparable wine in a woodsmoke-scented library bar. My lifelong love affair with the hotel trade was born that weekend.
Coincidentally, that was also the first time I experienced the supernatural. Possibly my subconscious took the view that, since neither my mother, my closest friends nor my common-sense had managed to get the message through, it was damn well summoning help from beyond the grave to get me out of that relationship in time.
I could have done with my other sense just going away afterwards, though.
Malcolm, oblivious to this introspection, remarked, “They’ve gone back to the old name. It’s Castle Sonas, now.”
Of course, no batshit Victorian jam magnate would ever name his Highland retreat after the local clachan, even though the settlement at Cairnmichael goes back before the Bruce. No: for Angus Kennedy it had to be “Castle Happiness”, done into the Gaelic.
(Shortly after the building work was completed, Kennedy’s wife ran away with a spectacularly unpleasant baronet, his only daughter succumbed to tuberculosis and most of his investments failed. Personally, in the unlikely event I end up naming a mansion, I think I’ll go for “Castle Mustn’t Grumble” or “Castle Doing Not Too Badly So Far, Thank You.”)
“And the Fiscal?” It was freezing in the car-park; our breath came out in white clouds, and snow-flakes were already drifting down across the orange glare of the lights outside. I clicked my seatbelt into place, and felt glad the big car was four-wheel drive.
“Ah. Yes, Bad business, that. The man took his own life — I take it that poor lassie would be his daughter? Why do they choose to do it?”
That, I interpreted as “Why do they choose to do it in hotels?” as opposed to “Why suicide?” The answers to the latter are as myriad as pebbles on the beach; the former come down, in most cases, to one. In the main, hotel suicides “don’t want to cause trouble for anyone”, and have a distinctly stunted definition of who counts as “anyone”.
Not, I thought, in this case, especially what I surmised about the personality of the dead man. My voice had an edge to it.
“I’m sorry for Mr Koo. Imagine doing that to your own son, in his own hotel.”
Malcolm shook his head.
“You’re mistaken there. From what he told me, the deceased only had the one child, Miss Kim, the lassie who flew up with you. She interned at a hotel Mr Koo managed in Korea, when she was just a schoolgirl. I grant you, though, he’s acting more like family than any of her own blood. Her mother isn’t even coming to the funeral. Aye, she and the deceased were divorced years ago, and the woman’s said to be in bad health, but can you credit the selfishness of it?”
Malcolm paused to allow a white Land-rover Defender to pass through the barrier ahead of us. I glimpsed Yu-Na in the passenger seat, hunched down in her coat, looking small and vulnerable. My heart went out to her. Still, it was Malcolm who deserved my full attention. He was paying enough for it, after all.
“So,” I said, “leaving all that aside — did the lobsterman talk?”
In essence, all chain-of-supply scams are alike. In detail, each chain-of-supply scam is unique.
This one was a work of art; its architect’s grasp of intrigue would have done credit to a eunuch chamberlain at the court of Basil the Macedonian. The scale was immense, the cut-outs immaculate, the rake-offs modest enough to slide under the radar for a very long time. Nevertheless, those modest percentages had accumulated over the years to a sum which made me blink a couple of times when I did the maths.
When Malcolm first cornered me towards the tail end of a very long night, at the best of several after-parties following the National Restaurant Awards a year and a half ago, he’d murmured as passport the name of someone whose new venture had just made an explosive entrance into the top forty during the formal part of the evening. Since there was no official link between her and me, I guessed what he wanted, and made arrangements for meeting him the next afternoon (late afternoon) to talk business.
He had exhorted me to keep an unbiased mind, refused to tell me who, if anyone, he suspected of being behind the anomalies he kept finding: anomalies which could be explained away, which might, after all, be nothing but imagination, wisps in the corner of one’s eye, or a cold draught on the back of one’s neck.
Over a number of carefully staged chance meetings, and many more Skype calls, we teased out, first, the existence of the scheme, and then started, with infinite care, to gather details which might — at some future date — be credible enough to make the foundations of a case.
Against whom, though? This scam stank of fall-guys and patsies: useful idiots and disposable tools. It was not a scheme which lent itself to partnership, not even the edgy, backwards-looking alliance of partners in crime.
We were looking for a single architect, and yet there were two people, each of whom had the position, brains and connections to bring the scam off. For a frustratingly long time it proved impossible to tell which it was.
Peter Benetti was a smart-aleck, a self-proclaimed whiz with computers, a man on his way up, polishing his CV with carefully judged management positions in increasingly prestigious establishments until he’d reached his current role five years ago. “Brand leverage for vertical integration” was his creed. Now, besides Tighnadobran Lodge and the Edinburgh restaurant, there was the smokehouse near Banff, the Moray Firth lobster cooperative, the oyster fishery in Argyll and the cookery school.
Neil Macmillan was Malcolm’s business partner, the man who’d long ago taken a chance on an ambitious young sous-chef and backed him with his own money. In the succeeding decades, they’d won practically every award going. In the trade, Macmillan and Innes was a pairing to conjure with, like Alcock and Brown or Lillee and Thomson.
And now, as those long-distance photographs taken at a garlic farm on the Isle of Wight yesterday showed, Dantès and Danglars. Neil Macmillan might have been wearing a big Puffa jacket and a woolly hat, but his features were unmistakeable. I also had an unbroken paper trail showing the reasons for his clandestine meeting, and the steps he had taken to keep it from Malcolm’s knowledge. The flash drive had been burning a hole in my handbag all the way from Southampton.
As we continued our way down the files, Malcolm’s face got redder, his knuckles more and more white. Finally, he pushed back his chair and stood up. His jaw was set, his fists clenched and his Adam’s apple worked.
“That fuckin’ wee treacherous bastard. That weasel-faced, shit-featured cunt.”
Two uncles in Barlinnie Gaol, and Malcolm heading in the same direction, but for a pot-scouring job at the Ubiquitous Chip nearly forty years ago which set him on a different path. I’d heard the tale, but not paid attention. It’s a competitive industry, and hoteliers cultivate their own mystique.
Tonight, I believed every last word, and thanked all the powers, whether on earth, over or under it that Neil Macmillan would be stuck in Edinburgh until after Hogmanay.
“Yup. All of that. But you’ve still got to get through Hogmanay without the case breaking wide open, or it’ll put the business where there’s no coming back. Let’s take it past the staff party on the 3rd — there’re still people I need statements from —”
“So I’ve got to take that fuckin’ bawbag strutting round thinking he’s put one over on me for five more fucking days and just suck it up?”
That was when the phone on his desk rang. Code-switching is a glorious thing. Malcolm’s “Tighnadobran Lodge? Oh, hello Mr Koo, and what can I do for you?” would not have caused comment in a Morningside tea-shop or at High Table with the Provost of St Andrews.
After a moment’s listening, he put his head on one side. “If I can stop you there, Mr Koo; it seems I’d better make sure the door to my office is properly closed before we continue. Would you be good enough to give me a moment?”
His thumb hit the mute button, but he made no move to the door: unsurprisingly, since it had been both shut and locked since before I’d fired up my laptop.
My mouth was dry. “What on earth? Is Yu-Na —?”
“Miss Kim?” His mouth set in a grim line. “I doubt the lassie’s in the forefront of his thoughts at present. No. Andrew Koo seems to have some serious concerns regarding his lobsters. Which he buys from our people. And, as you’ll appreciate, that’s no’ just an area where we can stand scrutiny at present.”
As we both knew, the scam went far wider and deeper than the Moray Firth lobster cooperative. But once someone started digging —
The clock on the wall had a prominent second hand. It had jerked through at least thirty seconds since Malcolm muted the phone. Mr Koo must know something was up by now.
“Don’t argue: let Mr Koo know that I’m already working with you on — lobster-business — and we’d find it enormously useful to share current intelligence. Tell him we’ll drive over at once.”
My work is done in the shadows; to the extent possible, my name never appears. But people in the trade recognise it, all the same. Hotel Business Magazine had named Andrew Koo a “coming man”. If he didn’t already know, he would certainly know who to ask.
Malcolm’s mouth opened and shut like a goldfish. But he unmuted the phone and picked up the receiver, nonetheless.
“Mr Koo? I think it might be better if we talked through this in person. Both of us will be with you as soon as we can. Both? Ah, I need to explain - “
The five mile drive between Tighnadobran Lodge and Castle Sonas was unspeakable. The cold front had come through with a vengeance, turning those occasional drifting snowflakes to a near-horizontal blizzard. Also, the Arctic conditions had brought out the lemmings, who apparently had never read the bits of the Highway Code about adjusting one’s driving to the conditions. I was recalculating the odds on death by hypothermia versus fatal car-crash when the paired griffins which mark the main entrance to Castle Sonas loomed like angels of mercy out of the whirling white.
The revamped entrance hall was a blaze of light and colour — all, of course, in the best conceivable taste. It was also, gloriously, hot: not merely was there a blazing log fire in the great hearth, but the recent refurb had clearly involved replacing the central heating wholesale.
What a contrast to the Arctic atmosphere inside Mr Koo’s office — speaking purely metaphorically, of course. Despite greeting us with a steaming pot of tea and a platter of exquisite petits-fours, Mr Koo left neither of us in any doubt that the reputations of Malcolm and his lobsters were currently hanging by the thinnest of threads.
On Malcolm’s side, his body language conveyed a lot more plainly than I’d have preferred that, although the real target of his anger was almost 200 miles away, punching someone in the kisser would relieve his feelings nicely, and he wasn’t especially choosy about whose kisser.
As you might imagine, it was not an easy meeting.
We reassured Mr Koo as to the provenance of his lobsters and demonstrated, by means of graphs, that even after the fraudster had skimmed off his cut, both lobstermen and hoteliers still came up better than the open market. We pointed out that we had made great strides in identifying the bad apples, and had been in very process of devising a scheme to eject them forcibly from the barrel when we’d received his call.
He regarded us with the air of a man who had heard that one before, hadn’t bought it then, and had even less intention of entering into negotiations with a view to purchase this time round.
I drew his attention to the idiocy of someone of Malcolm’s reputation risking it by deceiving Castle Sonas’ new owners in this way. (It wasn’t one of my better arguments; Neil Macmillan also had a reputation, after all.)
Mr Koo countered with a crack about how everyone who embarked on fraudulent schemes did so with the assumption that not merely other humans but the gods themselves were too stupid to see what they were up to. (I think the long digression about the awful consequences of engaging in dirty poker with the aid of a ghost who could read the other players’ cards was a metaphor, but, having seen what I had at the airport, I wouldn’t have bet the farm on it.)
I tried (within the bounds of ethics) to suggest that the scheme (while, obviously, deplorable) nevertheless (so far as we knew) had a limited and circumscribed nature. He made some pithy comments about some crates of over-quota langoustines offered to his kitchen team by one of Malcolm’s guys. That had me making rapid but discreet notes on my laptop. Either one of Neil Macmillan’s poodles was trying to get into business on his own account, or yet another tentacle of this scam remained to be uncovered.
In short, Mr Koo hinted he had no idea whether or not Malcolm and Neil Macmillan were birds of a feather, and rather more than hinted that from the point of view of Castle Sonas, the best option was “Kill them both. The gods will know their own.”
That, finally, got Malcolm to boiling-over point.
“I’ve heard everything you’ve said, aye, several times over. And I don’t agree with one single word of it.”
Mr Koo’s eyebrows conveyed how little he cared. I saw the knuckles on Malcolm’s clenched fists go white, and the veins on his temple start to throb. I took a deep breath, and stood up.
“Look. Both of you. This situation may be an aberration for you, but trust me — this sort of thing is my bread and butter. In one place or another, year after year, I’ve heard everything each of you have been saying, in every conceivable permutation, scores of times. And may I make one thing very clear indeed? In situations like this, recriminations simply don’t help.”
They shut up and goggled at me.
“Thank you. Now, Mr Koo. If I can summarise, the first priority for Castle Sonas is that you need to be assured of your lobsters for Hogmanay —”
“Our Hogmanay lobsters are already in my viviers.”
Some viviers. Judging by the menu for their New Year’s Eve gala dinner, that must amount to over fifty lobsters. The menu featured crab, as well. You can’t put crabs in the same viviers as lobsters; in the inevitable fights, the crabs always win. Turns out, being able to sidle edgeways at your enemy gives you an inbuilt advantage over the head-on technique.
I snapped my fingers.
“Lunar New Year, then. Burns Night. In any event, you know quite well this is in no sense of the word a good time to change your lobsterer.”
“It is never a good time. But if it’s the appropriate time, Castle Sonas will cope.”
It would, too, if the steely determination in his voice were any guide.
In a good cause, I can be determined, too.
“But, if you will forgive me, you represent the new owners of a long-established concern. Cairnmichael House has a reputation in these parts for dealing locally. Changes to that policy won’t go down well. Whatever your explanation.”
Or, to be brutally honest, in this remote community the number of people whose livelihoods depended on Castle Sonas was frightening. That ought to have put the balance of power squarely on Mr Koo’s side. Anywhere else, it might have done. But this was the Highlands, and the locals round here practically invented the mutually destructive, many-branched, multi-generational clan feud. If Mr Koo wanted to start a war, Team Tighnadobran couldn’t win it. But we could make him lose. I hoped he knew his Scottish history.
There may have been a shade less assurance in his voice when he responded,
“We wish to continue to deal locally. With honest traders.”
I grabbed Malcolm’s wrist and pressed hard on his pulse point with my thumb. Thank God, he sank back into his seat.
“And so do we. This scam hasn’t — in fact — cost Castle Sonas a single penny. Yet. At least, not as far as we know. Nor should it in the future — if we are able to manage the current crisis.”
“I refuse to be party to a cover-up.”
I had, of course, Googled Andrew Koo before leaving Malcolm’s place. But even if I hadn’t, his air of self-righteous superiority lightly seasoned with pomposity would have clued me in.
Harvard MBAs. You can tell them anywhere. But you can’t tell them much.
I gritted my teeth. “And that’s not what we’re proposing. We are trying to get to the bottom of a complicated scheme, to remove the perpetrators as effectively and completely as possible, to preserve the livelihoods of the people who’ve been caught up in this through no fault of their own, and, most importantly, take the time to make sure we know which is which. Mr Koo: do you seriously want your employers to get the reputation as the kind of people who destroy local businesses without giving a damn? Do you want Castle Sonas to end up being talked of like they used to talk about that monstrosity down at Balmenie? If so, it’s in your hands, with your decision tonight. But you know the saying: Take what you want — and pay for it, says God.”
That was the arrow that finally pierced his armour. Mr Koo bowed, smartly slapping his closed fist crosswise into his chest, like a Roman cohort centurion transferring command of a fort on the Wall.
“For fifty years, Cairnmichael House has been the greatest hotel in this district. We — my principals and I — hope Castle Sonas will continue that legacy for at least another century. You are right; we cannot afford to damage relations with our suppliers based on mere suspicion and rumours. So. Please. Share what information you have. I can advise them properly then.”
Once he got his sleeves rolled up and into the nitty-gritty of the scheme, he turned out to be surprisingly sharp at calculating angles and connections. A few times he pointed out what Neil Macmillan probably intended by some of his more puzzling manoeuvres. I don’t know if the Harvard MBA syllabus includes a module on Advanced Level Devious Bastardry And General Shenanigans, but, if it does, Mr Koo had clearly aced it.
In short, détente broke out, in no small measure due to the frankly fantabulous spiced crispy chicken brought in by one of the Castle Sonas team at the point when most late-running meetings call for pizza, and really bad meetings end up raiding the nearest fridges for leftover custard tarts and forgotten M&S ham and mustard sandwiches.
At last, Malcolm licked the last crumbs off his fingers and pushed back his chair. “Well, I think we’d better leave it there. We’d best be getting off. You’ve to be up early tomorrow, I know. As I said, if you’ll let me know the numbers, feel free to come by for some food and a drink after the ceremony.”
Mr Koo bowed again. “Thank you —”
He was interrupted by a knock at the door. It was not good news. A lorry, no doubt trying to avoid one of the lemmings who had dogged our journey here, had jack-knifed on the road near the end of the drive, and ended in a ditch. Given the snow, the impossibility of getting a sufficiently robust tow-truck out until the morning, and the general operation of a bloody-minded fate, the police had closed the road in both directions. We were stranded in Castle Sonas for at least the next twelve hours. To make matters worse, the place had only reopened in September, scored a rave review in The Observer within a matter of weeks, and then featured as the location for a music video by one of those Kpop bands whose name sounds rather like a WWII bomber. You know. All random capital letters and numbers thrown together for decoration.
In consequence, every room in the place had been booked solid for the Hogmanay weekend.
“At least —” Mr Koo didn’t meet my eyes. “There is one room vacant. And one of you is very welcome to take it. But —”
Both Malcolm and I knew exactly which room he meant. Hospitality workers aren’t quite as superstitious as actors or sailors, but I swear they’re at least twice as judgmental. No hotelier with half a brain would re-let a suicide’s room before the funeral. The story would follow them forever.
Malcolm looked at me. “Ladies first. You should have it.”
I shuddered. “Not on your life. Just let me bunk down on the sofa in the office, and I’ll be happy.”
“But I can’t take the only bedroom, and leave you on the office couch!” His eyes narrowed. “It’s because of the dead man? You aren’t telling me you’re superstitious? You?”
My grin was a sorry effort. “No, of course I’m not superstitious. It’s just — it doesn’t feel right.”
“Excuse me.” Mr Koo bowed and whisked out of the room,.
In point of fact, I am not superstitious. I knew damn fine there was a vengeful ghost loose in these parts. No way on earth was I spending the night in the very room in which he’d chosen to sever body and spirit. However, that’s not the sort of thing one can tell a client. Not and expect them to trust anything else you may tell them afterwards. Accordingly, I was losing the argument when Mr Koo reappeared, Yu-Na trailing behind him.
“If you don’t mind sharing,” he announced, “I think I have the solution for both of you to have beds for the night. Miss Kim’s room is a twin. As she has a spare bed, she would be happy for you — ” he nodded in my direction — “to make use of it.”
Yu-Na stepped out of Mr Koo’s shadow, and bowed.
“Not happy. Honoured. Please. Come with me.”
Behind the surface politeness I saw entreaty in her eyes. Whether she’d felt anything at the airport or not, and whether or not Mr Koo had enlightened her if she hadn’t, her father was due to be cremated tomorrow. No wonder she wanted company during the dark watches of the night.
“Thank you. That’s very kind. I’d be delighted to accept.”
Twin room, my arse. That suite was practically the size of my London flat. I dumped my coat and bag on the spare bed, and avoided looking at the en-suite. I’d been in the same clothes for seventeen hours, and a shower was one of the temptations of the flesh I needed to resist, just for a trifle longer.
Some things couldn’t wait. I glanced at Yu-Na.
“I think I should call down for room service. I — um — look, this is going to sound a little odd, but I really need some salt.”
Her eyes widened.
“Against evil ghosts?”
I blinked. “What — what do you know about evil ghosts?”
By way of answer, she ran to that charcoal-grey coat, which she had thrown over a sofa in the sitting room, and scrabbled in the pockets. When she turned to face me again, she was holding a packet of top-quality pink Himalayan rock salt.
“Koo Chan-sung told me to scatter this. And also to light incense.” She looked as if she was screwing up her courage to ask an embarrassing question. “Do you — do you see ghosts?”
“No.” I shook my head to underscore my denial.
Technically, that’s true. It’s impossible to describe my other sense; the best I can come up with is that I get a very strong sense of energy emanating from a specific spot. What varies is how I sense it: most often as vibration or high-pitched humming, once, nauseatingly, as something which played directly on my sinuses. The only other person I’ve ever met who admitted to something similar called it “radar.” I suppose that description worked for him.
Yu-Na looked as if she suspected my equivocation. I got in ahead of her.
She ducked her head. “Not any more. Except — sometimes in my mirror.”
That wasn’t something I wanted to delve into. I assumed a brisk, no-nonsense air.
“So, since we’ve established that neither of us can see an evil ghost coming, let’s get with the salt and incense programme, shall we?”
Once we finished, I celebrated by running myself a large and lavish bath. Castle Sonas laid on complementary rubber ducks, fluffy bath robes and the most exclusive bath essences. The plumbing had clearly been overhauled just as thoroughly as the central heating. I may not actually have burst into ‘The Hippopotamus Song”, but it was a close-run thing.
A package from Mr Koo had arrived while Yu-Na and I were finishing up the purification ritual. It looked like the product of a raid on the leisure centre shop: navy leggings and a long-sleeved top in a particularly fetching shade of teal. I wasn’t sure if it was by way of thank-you for my efforts in preserving his lobster pipeline, or an attempt at softening me up for the negotiation of finer points yet to come in the deal to which I was certain he would be seeking to tie Malcolm, as the price of his cooperation. Whichever, I felt like a new woman when I emerged: warm, clean and changed.
Yu-Na was already asleep. I stole across to my own bed, collapsed beneath the duvet, and nodded off more readily than I had expected.
What woke me was a soughing, gasping noise, not loud, but horribly intense.
It was dark in the room, an oily, absolute blackness like that of a mineshaft or a cellar. Aiming for the noise, I blundered into the window embrasure, flailed, grabbed for support at the full-length curtains and brought curtains, rail, pelmet and all down in tumbling ruin to the carpet. A shaft of blue-white light sliced into the room.
Outside, the blizzard had stopped. The risen moon hung, full and pitiless, above the crest of the opposite hills. Its blue-white glow showed Yu-Na, pinned flat to her bed as if someone had his knees on her chest: her arms flailing, legs kicking uselessly. And, throughout, that awful low choking.
With an almost audible crack of neck-wrenching bone, the spirit turned its attention to me. It felt as if the weight of a sarcophagus lid was crushing me. Moving from the window was beyond me: standing, even gripping the window-cill for support, took all my strength. Yu-Na might as well have been in Aberdeen for all the help I could give her. As for yelling for reinforcements, Cairnmichael House was your typical piece of Victorian over-engineering. A foghorn would struggle to be heard through these walls.
“Fuck off and leave her alone,” I raged at the malignant presence. “You’ve fucked up your own life — let her live hers. And get the fuck out of Castle Sonas.”
The world tilted. Another presence was with us, one I remembered from half a lifetime ago. Not like this, though. This time, it razored through my body, leaving me gasping, and cannoned into the other spirit with the force of an All Blacks’ winger on his own five metre line. Angus Kennedy may have had a soft spot for damsels in distress but to get someone where it really matters, violate the thing they’ve spent their own blood and sweat building up. Especially if they’re Glaswegian.
Yu-Na scrambled off the bed and scooted to the furthest corner of the room, where she slid to the ground and sat hugging her knees and making little whimpering noises.
I grabbed the telephone and stabbed down on the ‘0’ key. Bless first-class hotels: the duty manager picked up within two rings.
“Please, get Mr Koo. Yes, I do know what time it is.” (I didn’t.) “But I need Mr Koo personally. Tell him Miss Kim’s suffering a sharp attack. Ask him, please, to come up urgently.”
I have absolutely no idea whether Mr Koo simply hadn’t bothered going to bed in anticipation of nocturnal trouble, or whether he was the fastest quick-change artist in the history of fashion. Whichever it was, he turned up minutes later in a suit so sharp it might have been intended to slice any recalcitrant ghost into ribbons.
Behind him came another man: a square-headed MMA bruiser in unrelieved black. By contrast to Mr Koo’s conservative, if stylish, tailoring, the new arrival’s design aesthetic could be summed up as “Cassock, by Yohiji Yamamoto”.
“Saja!” Yu-Na greeted him. He barely acknowledged her; his focus was on the bed, his arm extended at full stretch, fingers back, palm outwards.
I felt the oily, writhing presence rear up for a new assault and then — go out, a paper tissue torched by a flamethrower. Not banishment or exorcism: utter annihilation.
As for the man in black —
Courtesy of a boss who got seasick in his bath, my first taste of serious field-work had been on a cruise ship in the South Pacific. It was one of those massive floating palaces: the great engines which transported more than six thousand souls across the unimaginable wastes of ocean were barely noticeable. Until, that is, I disembarked in Sydney, and spent the first two days troubled by the absence of that all-pervasive thrumming.
I wondered if I would sense a similar absence when the man in black (who was neither man nor ghost) left the room.
It didn’t stop my accepting the large, smoky whisky he poured for me from a decanter on the sideboard, which I had not previously noticed. I needed it, not just from reaction to the damnation we had just witnessed, but because Andrew Koo was currently sitting on my bed having an animated discussion with the ghost of Angus Kennedy.
From the half of the conversation I could hear, Mr Koo appeared to be explaining, politely, logically and persuasively, that grateful as we all were for Mr Kennedy’s help, what we’d just witnessed was an object lesson in what might happen to ghosts who hung around too long nursing their grudges (even justified ones) and that Castle Sonas was now in as good hands as Mr Kennedy could ever hope to leave it.
I could have sworn that at one point Mr Koo gestured out of the window, and appeared to be recommending another hotel, somewhere out in that moonlit landscape, which would be much better adapted to dealing with the needs of the dead. (I trusted he didn’t mean Tighnadobran Lodge. Malcolm had troubles enough as it was.)
His argument seemed to get home. At least, when Mr Koo and the man in black departed, about half an hour later, they took Angus Kennedy with them. They left the whisky, though.
Mr Koo’s assistance proved invaluable over the next few days. I tied up several annoying loose ends, and, as these things tend to, found strings which unravelled to reveal entire new fields for investigation. For example: the over-quota langoustine business was, as I’d suspected, one of Neil Macmillan’s stooges off on a frolic of his own, but it turned out to be an awfully useful lever for finding out just what had been kicking off at the smokehouse, all the same.
The good news, though, was that Castle Sonas and Tighnadobran Lodge were now locked in solid alliance. Given the visible and invisible resources Mr Koo had at his disposal, I really didn’t fancy Neil Macmillan’s chances once the balloon went up. Malcolm was deep in planning for that confrontation.
At the Scottish end, all I could do was done, so I booked my flight home. As it happened, Mr Koo had unrelated business in the East Neuk of Fife (I suspected he wanted to scope out a couple of Michelin-starred establishments down there, with an eye to either poaching their staff or nicking their recipes.) Accordingly, he offered to drop me at Aberdeen Airport on the way.
Being tête à tête in the Land-rover offered a perfect chance to tie up some of the other loose ends from the last few days. We were barely out of Castle Sonas’ drive when I popped the sixty-four thousand dollar question.
“So why did her father’s spirit attack Yu-Na?”
Mr Koo’s eyes were fixed on the road ahead; sensibly enough, given it was snowing again.
“Some things are only for Yu-Na to tell you, if she wishes. But I may tell you his death caused the vengeful ghost to realise Yu-Na was not his real daughter.”
I recalled Yu-Na’s mother was divorced, and had boycotted the funeral. Evidently the problems in the marriage went back a lot further than that. From the little I’d known of him, I could only say it couldn’t have happened to a nicer guy. Still, I could see why his reaction had been extreme, if unfairly directed at Yu-Na, rather than her mother. Finding out that your putative daughter had been fathered by another man would be upsetting enough: doing so posthumously added the extra sting that it would now be impossible to change your Will. In the dead man’s case, that was a serious issue. Whatever had been the precipitating factor in his suicide, money troubles weren’t it. Yu-Na wouldn’t have to look for a job when she graduated; she could buy herself her own hotel if she chose. Or, if she preferred, a 50% interest in an established, vertically-integrated food and leisure business in NE Scotland, unexpectedly on the market at a bargain price.
Anyway, Mr Koo’s manner warned me off any further digging. We talked about chain of supply scams for the rest of the journey, and avoided the supernatural.
Nonetheless, I exchanged contact details with him before I went into the terminal. After all, it never hurts to have a subject matter expert in your address book.