Chapter 1 of White Light
'I'm too old and too fat for these shenannigans.' Tanisha Peck grumbled at her niece. 'And stop with the eye rolling, dear. If the wind changes you'll be stuck like that.'
'Aunty Hen.' Erika stopped to hitch her backpack into a slightly easier position, using it as an excuse to catch her breath. 'Age goeth before beauty.' She was rambling, the thought made her snort. It had been Aunty Hen's idea to trek out into the middle of god-knows-where, 'A wee tak' o' the way.' She should have known better. When her aged relative relapsed into the Isles accent of her youth, it always meant midges, mossies and muck. Erika was a city girl. She sighed. Aunty Hen Peck had nagged her into a wilderness week as a cure for her latest broken heart. Now her beloved Nemesis was complaining.
'Aunty Hen, what...?' Tanisha prompted as she gestured upwards with one of her trekking poles. 'We'll take a break at the top of the ridge. There's a fine view.' She studied her sweating niece and shrugged. That huge backpack had ten tons of mascara and ten changes of underwear. The wee daftie. 'And I need a rest.' A grunt was her sole reply. There was no need to mention Willi's message yet. She did not want Erika going off on an impetuous, disastrous blinder.
As they trudged up the steepening trail, Tanisha used the click of her poles on the rocky path to pace her thoughts. Willi Peck, her little brother, had grown rich as a 'person transporter'. Before she had retired from her post as Head of Department M, there had been occasional mentions of his organisation in the decrypted traffic that passed across her desk. Department M, where 'M' was, officially, the next in alphabetical order, unofficially, it was M for 'Misfits'. A collection of weirdos whose collective brains decrypted hidden messages that the whizz-kids in HQ either did not see or had the sideways skills to deal with. Being based in Cambridge Science Park, they were accepted as members of the Nutty Clan and, as such, pitied, ignored or envied. Tanisha had been proud of them, they had risen above their so-called disabilities and pulled the sausages out of the fire often enough to keep the budget money arriving. When she had retired, Dept M had been dispersed not long after.
Gone, but not forgotten. She had been enjoying a peaceful retirement, running short on funds, when she had been dragged out into the underworld by a wild goose chase after a hoard of Nazi gold, old weapons of mass destruction and one of Willi's rare mistakes in kidnapping the wrong person. It had been a rollercoaster of adrenaline highs and nail biting terror. Without help from old M colleagues it would have been a disaster. Now she was properly retired, again, but with more than adequate funds. And bored. So, when Joka had run her wheelchair over her foot, Tanisha had taken the hint and gone for a cuppa with the best, and most morose, cryptologist on the scrapheap.
'No one wants to give a black, disabled, lesbian a job.' Joka muttered. 'Except a Peck.' Trust Willi to hoover her up. Her abilities would be in constant demand. No wonder she had an up-market, all singing, all dancing chair. 'He sends his regards, by the way.' She sipped her Americano. 'Do you remember Fred?' One of Joka's eyelids flickered. Tanisha made a polite noise. 'Well, apparently, he got moved on and stuck in a dead-end job.' Tanisha made another polite noise, her brain racing. 'Then he got head-hunted by Willi but couldn't get out of the contract. So Willi told him that it wasn't like Hamish's office but Fred said it was worse.' The hackles on the back of her neck quivered to attention. 'Anyways, Willi couldn't do nothing about it.' She slurped her Americano noisily and glanced at her watch. 'I got a meeting of the Tangram Club soon and what with Erika needing to be on holiday with you in Scotland, we've got to sort out lots of stuff.' She finished lamely. 'It was good to run over you again.' She held out her hand. It was a squeeze that could have cracked walnuts. 'Take care of yourself and your delicious niece.' Whirling her chair around, she managed to crack the shins of middle-aged man blocking the doorway. 'Sorry.' As an apology it had the full force of insincerity.
Tanisha had sat for a full hour mulling over the encounter. Item: she had no recall of any Fred, whatsoever. Item: Joka hated coffee. Item: Hamish. Item: couldn't do nothing, a double negative. Item: Tangram. Item: the slip of paper palmed to her by Joka.
Old Hamish had lived in squalor in a black house, one of the old, traditional crofter's dwellings, away down by Lochmaddy. He was bad enough sober but with the whiskey inside him, he was as free with his tongue and fists as their father had been. Tanisha had never heard the full tale of how the barely teenage Willi had been imprisoned there and forced to work the croft. Neither had she any clear idea of how he had freed himself and made his way to her student digs in Glasgow. When the police came calling, she swore blind that he had been staying the full week and could not have been at the black house when Hamish drank himself to a stupor and died up on the moor on a cold October night.
'OK.' Erika's snap said much. 'What's going on?' She made to unbuckle her backpack. So much for curing broken hearts. Aunty Hen had always been the shoulder to cry on, the person to bail her out in the wee small hours, but to take her hiking?
'Let's get up top.' It was not far now and she always thought better on top of a mountain. 'Uncle Willi sent me a message. There's a bit of a wee pickle.' In silence they moved on. She did not have to see Erika's face to know that it mirrored a rat-race of emotions. A 'wee pickle' was family code for trouble of the major kind, so first would be dread and apprehension. Then a big grin. Life was getting interesting. Again. Erika had discovered a taste for adrenaline, and gold, when she had been caught up in the wee pickle a couple of years ago that had them following ancient clues from Scotland to Malta to Israel. They had not found the promised Crusader treasure but a couple of tons of Nazi gold hidden by Wilhelm Peck when he had deserted from the Afrika Korps made up for that. She had no qualms in claiming her share. After all, it was her grandfather who had hidden it. Besides. It was cash.
The view was totally spectacular. Below them the fields of Appin of Dull flattened out to the River Tay. Beyond that the side of Craig Hill, half wooded, half rocky scree slopes, rose up in the muted browns and greens of an early Scottish autumn. Above that, thickening grey clouds were lowering themselves to wrap mizzle around peak and pine. But, where they sat, there was still blue sky and the sun was flooding the valley below with that peculiar buttery gold that only the Highlands saw.
'It'll be dreich tomorrow.' Erika dug around in her pack for her lunch. 'Bloody midges.' She scrubbed her face and, currently scarlet, hair. 'How come they don't bother you?' It was more of an accusation than a question.
'They dinnae fasch me because I'm of the Isles.' Tanisha was aware of the little monsters crawling in her thatch of white hair. Growing up in North Uist, she, and her little sister, Kristobel, and, the even more wee, Willi, had learned to ignore the predations of the midges.They had been the least of their troubles. 'Have you got your mobile handy?' It was the sort of off-hand comment that made Erika frown. She nodded and fished it out of her pocket and handed it to her aunt. 'Ach! You've let the battery go flat.' With one hand, Tanisha shook it, with the other, she raised a finger to her lips. Then pried the back off the phone and popped out the SIM card, the memory card and the battery. She squinted inside and handed it back to its owner. 'Can't see a damn thing without my specs on. Does it look OK to you?'
'I think so.' Erika poked at the innards with a fingernail. 'And I made sure it was fully charged before we left the hotel.' She raised her eyebrows and mimicked peering over spectacles. 'So?'
'The short version is that Willi was commissioned to take a certain Fred out of -wherever- and deliver him to safety in the States but the Yanks have not treated him kindly. My guess is Guatanamo Bay, or some secret lookalike. Willi is going to reclaim Fred, it's probably not a good idea to know how. As for us, he needs us to be in his bothy by tonight.' Tanisha tapped the phone. 'We should be off-grid now, for a space. They'll be using it to track us and probably as a bugging device but I don't want them to be suspicious, so we'll put the battery back in a few minutes and feed them the idea that it's recharging from a power pack.' Her own phone was in pieces in the bottom of her pack. She was notorious for forgetting to charge it.
'The Yanks?' Erika was surprised. 'So much for the Special Relationship. And why would they be tracking us?' She thought it through. 'Because Uncle Willi has, or is, rescuing, uh, Fred and they, whoever 'they' are, think that we'll lead them to Uncle Willi?' A slow nod. 'Because he needs our expertise?' Another slow nod. 'Or are we bait?'
'To be honest,' Tanisha spoke in her normal, crisp English, 'I hadn't considered the bait option. We're meeting up with him later, he'll fill us in then. For the moment, all we have to do is get to the bothy and see what's what.' She gestured to the sky. 'I hope it clouds over, that will mess up satellite surveillance.' If Willi had become caught up in some sort of American black op, then any form of surveillance was possible. The hints were there: black house, a prison with painful benefits and Americano, black coffee. But what else? She had only parts of the puzzle. And who was 'Fred'?
With true Scots precision, Tanisha's wish was granted. The grey clouds flowed across the Tay valley and wrapped their wet tendrils around Creag Loisgte behind them. They flowed down the hillside as both women zipped into waterproofs and plodded on.
'I told you it was going to be dreich.' Erika was hiding her enjoyment under a thick plaster of wet misery. 'Are we there yet?' She repeated the question after an hour. Then: 'Aunty Hen? Have you got any dry rice? My mobile's got wet. It's dead.' Tanisha did an epic eye-roll and heard Erika's comment about the wind changing. Just when they needed to be tracked. Oh well. There was no need to make it too easy and, by now, it should be obvious that they were heading for Willi's fishing bothy on Loch Glassie. With any luck, the place would be under surveillance already.
It was the gloaming as they dropped down through the woods on a deer path. The bothy looked like a ramshackle log cabin, not expertly built, but full of character. The roof was a tad too steeply pitched, the walls made of thick, overlapping planks, some with the remains of bark peeling off. On one end a large window was protected by an iron grid and a misting of greyish spray paint. The site was sloping, so the bothy had been built suspended on squared-off timbers of different sizes, so that inside, the floor would be flat. They walked around to the other end wall, where the roof had been extended over an extension of the floor, making a rough, open veranda. A massive door of studded oak glowered over this little bit of fiefdom.
'He nicked it when House Cairnforth was being renovated.' Tanisha said. 'Then he built the bothy to go around it.' Typical Willi.
'How on earth did he get planning permission?' Erika sank on the step and began fighting the clip buckles to loosen her load.
'Planning permission? Willi?' Tanisha laughed. 'He's the Laird.' She dropped her pack beside Erika's and fished around in the top pocket for a large, heavy and ornate key. Inserting it into the keyhole, she twisted it until it clicked. 'Open sesame!' The door did not budge. She pushed harder. It was still stuck. 'Cursed electronics. Open sesame!' She spoke clearly and leaned heavily against it.
'Mill Vale School for the Gifted.' Erika was laughing at her. In the famous cartoon a clever, pimply pupil was heaving at a door that clearly said, 'PUSH'. Tanisha pulled and, with a theatrical groan, the door swung open. They grabbed the top hauling straps on their backpacks and dragged them into the dark interior. When Erika pulled the door shut behind them, they stood in almost total night. Then lights flickered on.
'Oh wow!' Erika breathed. It was typical Willi. The walls had been lined and plastered, whitewashed but coloured by small spotlights. Above them, a low half mezzanine platform made a sleeping platform with a large mattress taking up most of the space. Under it, a black marble counter ran across the bothy, with cupboards under, the doors surfaced with bright red formica. A pair of deep, studded chesterfield sofas faced each other across a low table with a chess game, half played. The pieces were replicas of the squat Lewis men. Leaning against the wall, a folding table and chairs casually stacked as if the owner had forgotten to obey his compulsive tidiness and pack them away. On the walls either side of the door, four, square, tv screens waited to be powered up. To one side of these, a stack of fishing rods and a couple of creels had been left for the salmon hungry. Underfoot, bare boards had been smoothed and polished with a single rug in glowing colours covering half the floor.
'I wonder if Uncle Willi has left a note.' Erika mused. Tanisha looked at the lights, the chessmen, the fishing rods, the carelessly stacked furniture and nodded her head.
'He has, my dear. He has.'