Authors: Jack Higgins
Chavasse covered the two miles from the lodge to the loch in exactly twenty minutes, following the track beside the river, clear in the moonlight. Already the weather was changing and when he looked beyond the mountains, a blanket of dark moved in from the sea snuffing out the stars one by one. All he needed now was a little rain for conditions to be near perfect and with luck he might even get that before very long.
He moved away from the river as he neared the loch, cutting across the moor to drop down into the quiet bay from which he had fished that morning. The moon still shone brightly and he put down the canvas grip, took off his rucksack and crouched on the edge of the water, looking out towards the island.
The north end was the place to make a landing, rocks and sandbanks scattered over a wide area, bushes growing down to the shoreline. He marked it well and as clouds started to pass across the face of the moon, turned and set to work.
He opened the rucksack and took out the aqualung that he might or might not need, depending on what happened. The collapsible boat came next. He took it out of the canvas grip, activated the compression cylinders and the boat started to inflate with a soft hiss.
He had been aware of the movement in the heather behind him for at least two full minutes and when he turned and jumped into darkness, it was with the speed of a tiger. His hands gripped soft flesh savagely and Asta gasped his name.
'Paul! Paul, it's me!'
A cloud moved away from the face of the moon and he gazed down at her for a moment and then sat back, squatting on his haunches as darkness descended and rain began to fall.
'All right, Asta,' he said calmly. 'I think you'd better start talking.'
'Max killed Fergus tonight,' she said flatly.
'Back at the house. The body's still there in the cellar, hanging from a hook like an animal. He beat him to death, Paul.'
'Does he know you saw him?'
She shook her head. 'I slipped away quietly, took Murdoch's bicycle from the garage and rode over to Ardmurchan Lodge to you.'
'And arrived just as I was leaving?'
'That's right.' She gripped his arm and leaned forward, her face a pale blur. 'Tell me, Paul. Tell me everything! I must know!'
He had little choice and knowing that he took her hands and held them tightly. 'All right, angel. You asked for it. I'm a NATO Intelligence agent and your step-father and his friends are working for the other side, it's as simple as that.'
Her hands tightened in his and then suddenly she fell forward against him. He gave her only a moment and raised her chin with a finger. 'Whose side are you on, Asta?'
She gripped his arms fiercely and gave him a little shake. 'Damn you, Paul Chavasse, do you need to ask?'
The hissing stopped behind them as the compression bottles emptied themselves and he stood up. 'Where are you going--the island?'
'That's right. Donner's up to something out there and I'd like to know what it is.'
'I thought so. I knew that's what you were watching this afternoon on the hillside through the binoculars. Can I come with you?' Before he could protest she went on, 'I might as well wait for you in the boat as here on the shore.'
'All right,' he said, 'but no nonsense when we get there and you do exactly as you're told.'
She settled herself into the prow with the aqualung and he pushed off and scrambled into the stern. The moon was completely obscured by cloud and a thin rain was falling as he paddled in a wide circle that carried them into the path of the emptying river so that the current swept them in towards the northern point of the island.
Asta leaned over the prow, fending off the rocks and, when they grounded on a bank of sand and shingle, Chavasse scrambled over into the shallows, and ran the boat into the shelter of overhanging bushes.
'Now wait here,' he whispered. 'I shouldn't be very long. If you hear any kind of fuss at all, cast off, paddle back to the beach and get to Ardmurchan Lodge as quickly as you can. Colonel Craig will know what to do.' She opened her mouth to protest and he closed it firmly with one hand. 'No arguments. If the worst comes to the worst, I can swim for it. Now be a good girl.'
He splashed through the shallows, following the shoreline before cutting up through the bushes to the base of the castle wall. At this point, it was crumbling badly and he pushed his way through a wasteland of nettles, scrambling across a jumbled mass of broken stones to a point where he could see inside.
The walls formed a rectangle enclosing a paved courtyard. There was a roofless building to his right and a line of half ruined pillars stretching towards the arched gateway.
To his left, the tower of the keep lifted squarely into the night, dark and silent and he moved towards it, mounting stone steps to the battlements. At this end of the building, the walls seemed to be almost intact and where they joined the tower, there was a broad rampart and two decaying cannon still at their stations.
He peered over the edge and saw water breaking in white spray over jagged rocks forty feet below. He turned to examine the tower. It raised its head another twenty feet into the night and he stiffened suddenly. There was a light showing from the window near the top, only the merest chink as if a curtain had been carelessly drawn, probably not even visible from the shore.
A crumbling buttress made a natural ladder, but as he moved towards it, the silence was shattered by the sound of an engine breaking into life on the far side of the loch and the motor boat moved towards the island.
Chavasse hurried across to the wall and a couple of minutes later, the engine was cut and the boat drifted in. He couldn't see the jetty from that point, but he heard the sound of the landing, and the scrape of a shoe on stone.
He moved cautiously back along the battlements, crouching in a corner of darkness where the tower joined the wall and peered down. Two men crossed the courtyard talking in low voices. They paused directly beneath him and opened a door in the base of the tower. It was Donner and Murdoch. As a brief shaft of light fell across the flagstones he saw them clearly and then the door closed again.
He descended the stone steps to the courtyard and moved towards the tower, keeping to the shadow of the wall. He could hear voices, a low murmur that sounded as if it was coming from somewhere beneath him. He listened carefully at the door for a moment, then opened it gently.
An oil lamp stood in a niche, briefly illuminating a dank stone chamber whose walls glistened with moisture. To his right, circular stone stairs lifted into the darkness. To his left, another door stood open slightly. The voices were coming from inside.
He pushed it open an inch or two at a time. There was a stone landing, then the beginning of some steps, dropping away to his left. The roof was supported by ribbed vaulting, he could see that, and then someone crossed his narrow angle of vision and paused to light a cigarette.
He wore the grey-green uniform of a private in the German Army, his face a dark shadow under the peak of the combat cap. The sight was so unreal, so unexpected, that Chavasse momentarily closed his eyes. When he opened them again, the man had gone.
He pushed open the door a little further and crawled inside on his stomach, peering cautiously over the edge of the landing. The room below was large, iron, military-style beds ranged around the stone walls. Max Donner leaned over the table in the centre, Murdoch at his side, a map spread out before them and the men who crowded round him all wore German Army uniform, except for two who were in British Army battledress.
The voices were a low murmur and then one of the men spoke as if asking a question. Donner laughed harshly and when he replied, Chavasse could hear him clearly.
'It's all taken care of. Nothing can possibly go wrong. Now let's have a drink and then we'll go over it again.'
Chavasse backed out slowly, closing the door behind him and stood up. Now that his eyes had become accustomed to the half-light he could see that above his head, the spiral stone staircase halted at a wooden door. Remembering the light from the room above, he went up the stairs quickly and tried the handle, but it was locked.
But someone was up there, so much was evident. Someone who had to be kept under lock and key, which was interesting. He let himself out into the courtyard, crossed to the steps and went up on to the battlements quickly.
When he reached the rampart beneath the tower, the chink of light still showed clearly from the window above his head and he started to climb the buttress, taking care where he placed his weight on the crumbling surface.
The window was barred and a glass casement had been fitted inside. He crouched down, hanging on to the bars and peered through a narrow gap where the drawn curtain had failed to join.
At first he could see little of interest. Stone walls, the end of a bed and then he changed his angle and excitement surged through him. The man who sat at the table in the centre of the room reading by the light of an oil lamp was Boris Souvorin. There was no doubt about it, Chavasse had been shown too many photographs of the man to be mistaken.
He reached through the bars and tapped on the window. Souvorin sat up at once, a startled expression on his face. Chavasse tapped again and the Russian glanced towards the window. He put down his book and crossed the room slowly.
When he pulled the curtain and found Chavasse peering in at him, he recoiled, fear on his face. Chavasse made an urgent gesture. The Russian hesitated, then he opened the casement.
'Who are you? What do you want?' he said in a whisper.
'My name is Chavasse. I'm a NATO Intelligence agent. You're Boris Souvorin.'
'You're here to help me?' Souvorin gripped the bars tightly. 'Thank God. The past few days have been a waking nightmare. Can you get me out?'
'Not right now. Your host, Max Donner, is down below holding some kind of briefing with a group of men, dressed in the main as soldiers of the Federal Republic of West Germany. Have you any idea what he's up to?'
'None at all.' Souvorin shook his head. 'They brought me here three days ago and I haven't been out of this room since. Where is this place?'
'Moidart--the North-West coast of Scotland. One of the loneliest spots in the British Isles. Has he told you what he intends to do with you?'
'I am to be taken to Russia and soon. He was very certain of that when he spoke to me.'
'Right,' Chavasse said. 'I'll have to go now, but don't worry. I'll be back. They're not going to take you anywhere you don't want to go.'
Souvorin closed the window and as the curtains were pulled across, Chavasse went back down the buttress. He hurried along the battlements, went down the steps and crossed to the gap in the wall.
It was raining quite hard now, falling through the darkness with a violent rush that killed all sound and disregarding caution, he ran through the bushes and splashed along the shore. He found the boat at once, but there was no sign of Asta and then she moved out of the darkness to join him.
'Where in the hell were you?' he demanded savagely.
'Sheltering under a tree from the rain,' she said. 'It's been pretty foul waiting here. I'm soaked to the skin.'
She got into the boat and he pushed it out into deep water and scrambled over the stern. At the same moment the engine of the motor boat coughed into life. Chavasse waited, listening to its sound fade across the loch, then he started to paddle.
Asta leaned forward. 'I was beginning to get worried. When the motor boat turned up, I didn't know what to think. Who was it?'
'Your step-father and Murdoch. They've got a bunch of goons in the basement of the tower dressed as German soldiers.'
'God knows. The only thing I know for certain is that Boris Souvorin, a Russian rocket engineer who's been working for the British Government and who disappeared from his home a week ago, is locked in the room at the top of the tower, awaiting a quick passage to Russia.'
She drew in her breath sharply. 'You're sure of this?'
He nodded. 'I've just been talking to him. Unfortunately his window was barred and I couldn't very well take on the whole crew single-handed.'
'What are you going to do?'
'I'll get back to Ardmurchan Lodge as quickly as possible, but it'll take time to get in touch with my people--set things in motion and so forth.'
'Can I help?'
He hesitated, but it had to be said. 'You could, you could help a lot. You see it's unlikely that we'll be ready to move in on Donner before tomorrow and whatever happens, I don't want him to suspect that there's anything wrong before then.'
'And you'd like me to go back to Glenmore House as if nothing had happened?'
'I hate asking you,' he said. 'But if Donner finds you missing, he's bound to start looking for you. That could upset everything.'
The boat grounded and he went over the side and dragged it up on to the sand. She stepped out and turned to face him. 'I'd better be off then,' she said calmly. 'I think I can get back in without being seen.'
Chavasse unzipped the front of his rubber suit and took out a Smith & Wesson .38 magnum. 'Take this. I don't know if you've ever used one, but it might come in handy.'