For the benefit of newbies to my blog/sense of humour: my recent holiday up north coincided with popping my Jack Reacher cherry, having previously missed out on Lee Child’s bestselling thriller series. I read ’61 Hours’ in Aberfeldy. But there’s a problem. Now I can’t stop thinking in taut, clipped, prose. As if I was the real Jack Reacher.
He watched the two guests from the moment they parked in the car park.
The booking looked perfectly normal. A reservation through what appeared to be a conventional hotel website. Nothing to see. Nothing to trigger other watchers.
He was waiting at the bar for them. ‘Can I help?’
‘I have a reservation.’ Simple, direct, straight to the point. ‘Ferguson.’
They looked like any normal middle-aged couple, but he focused on the man. Tall, a little over six feet, he estimated. Taller than that Tom Cruise fellow, that was for sure. ‘Of course, Mr Ferguson,’ he said. ‘We have you in the suite. Four nights?’
Ferguson said nothing. He looked like he could handle himself, at least when it came to checking into a hotel. Choosing between a sauvignon blanc and a pinot grigio in a tight spot too, the hotel guy figured. He’d read the file.
They concluded the formalities quickly, with minimum fuss. They were both professionals at this kind of transaction. Then the hotel guy said, ‘We have a proposition for you, Mr Ferguson.’
On the way up to the suite, Ferguson’s razor sharp mind was working through what the hotel guy had said. Aberfeldy was on borrowed time, and the clock was ticking. Only two weeks till lockdown, and the licensed trade was in crisis. They’d had three influencers and four vloggers on the way up from England to give one last boost to the project. Fill the hotels and restaurants, and the wheels stayed on.
No tourists, and certain people would start calling in other people. Tough people. People that looked only at the bottom line. Banks, mostly.
‘Here’s the thing, Mr Ferguson,’ the guy had said. ‘The four vloggers are all subject to local restrictions in places like Hartlepool. The three influencers got taken down by the virus itself. Situation critical.’
Ferguson said nothing. He’d been to Hartlepool. He said, ‘But I’m just passing through. Nothing to do with me.’
‘You’re booked in for four nights,’ the hotel guy said. A bead of sweat started its long descent down his temple.
Ferguson shrugged. ‘True. But all I do is blog. I have 149 followers. Some FB friends, but only those that make it through a weapons-level vetting procedure. Twitter followers? Pah. Minimal. I’m not your guy.’
The hotel guy said, ‘You’re all we’ve got.’
* * * *
That first night, dinner was at the hotel itself. Normally the hotel guy left it to his people to do things like waiting tables. Tonight was different. He approached the Fergusons’ table.
Ferguson said nothing, at first. He’d been trained not to speak with his mouth full. It had been a rigorous training, the kind that stayed with you all your life.
‘The Chilean Merlot’s as good as it needs to be – hint of steel vat about it, but it’s okay. The Negroamaro’s more interesting.’
The hotel guy nodded. ‘And the food?’
‘Good combination to add rasperry compote to the lemon posset. The lamb stifado surprised me. The side of watermelon, red onion, feta and lime was a real concatenation of flavour.’
The hotel guy grinned. ‘Concatenation. You’re good.’
Ferguson shrugged. ‘I’m old school. Not a single apostrophe got misplaced on my watch, back in the day.’
The hotel guy said nothing. He didn’t need to. Ferguson noticed, though, that his wife hadn’t finished her fish and chips. It was that kind of attention to detail that had made him what he was.
Over the next four nights, Ferguson went to work. He and his wife started at the edges: they made the long walk (over a mile) to Weem, to a place called Aileen Chraggan. The coffee was good and the scone handmade, but the place didn’t have what it took to get in the review. Nothing wrong with it, but sometimes Ferguson just had a sixth sense about these things.
On the way back, they stopped for a drink on the terrace at the Black Watch Inn. If it was a soldiers’ pub, they were operating under deep cover, like Ferguson himself. No one he knew. Then, suddenly, there was someone he knew.
‘Yvonne!’ his wife called out. It was Melville, and his wife. Melville was an old colleague, and as close as Ferguson let anyone get to being a pal. The two of them had done several tours together in the Democratic Services Black Ops Division, before the team was broken up for good. ‘Yvonne’ was the code word, should they – apparently by coincidence – run into each other. It was also Melville’s wife’s first name, but that really was a coincidence.
The four of them had a drink together, Ferguson ordering a half pint this time of an excellent local brew called Ossian. He wanted to stay sharp for later. He agreed with Melville they should rendezvous the next night. A mission like this could always use extra firepower, and there was little Melville didn’t know about electoral registration. Although that admittedly might have limited relevance on this mission. Anyway, they agreed to meet, ok?
Meantime, having been less impressed by the food arriving at nearby tables in the Black Watch than the beer and friendly service, Ferguson and his wife decided to eat that night at the Schiehallion. This time, Ferguson took care of the fish and chips himself. He couldn’t fault it, nor the sticky toffee pudding he shared with his wife after that. It was one of the best meals they had.
Each morning, they tested the people at the Town House thoroughly with their unpredicable breakfast routines, searching for chinks in their defences. One day it would be a need for non-dairy. Another, his wife demanded the fruit salad and the granola be combined in a single bowl, just to ruffle them. Tea and coffee had to come at the same time as the cooked stuff, instead of right up front. The hotel staff caught everything.
Ferguson was impressed. Even so, he said nothing. Unless he really had to.
Before meeting Melville, Ferguson decided to reconnoitre the venue for the final night’s meal, The Inn on the Tay. Unfortunately, the only way to do that unobtrusively was to sign up for a white-water rafting trip that ended just outside the hotel. They arrived, wet but still watchful, late afternoon. Ferguson cased the entire place without incident.
There was one last diversionary tactic before meeting Melville. Ferguson and his wife tried the Schiehallion a second time, to throw them off guard. He tested out their glasses of white wine, and they countered with a more than acceptable Chilean sauvignon blanc. Ferguson paid and headed over to the Three Lemons.
Ferguson and his wife had history with the Three Lemons. As in, they’d eaten there before. They weren’t to know it, but they were to eat there the following lunchtime, too. They couldn’t know that because the place didn’t take lunchtime bookings. The food was good – so was the company – but the best thing Ferguson tasted was at the lunch the next day, which was a Scotch Egg rolled in pork and chorizo. That was what stood out for him.
The Inn on the Tay wasn’t strictly in Aberfeldy. In fact it wasn’t strictly on the Tay either, but on the riverbank. I mean, to be on the Tay itself would have involved a lot of civil engineering. Stilts, probably. Ridiculous idea. Anyway, it was like the other restaurants in Aberfeldy: high quality, without being exceptional. Ferguson had the cod with pancetta, samphire and potatoes. He couldn’t fault it. The wine was pleasant.
The next morning was check-out day. The hotel guy looked expectant, but Ferguson had one last twist for him. ‘Could I have poached instead of steam-fried egg with my breakfast special?’
The hotel guy didn’t even blink. ‘Of course,’ he said.
Ferguson relented. ‘Here’s the thing. All the places we’ve been to have been great. Really, very good, all of them. The food’s a mix of solid favourites like fish and chips and slightly more daring stuff. We even had lunch in the community cinema cafe a couple of times, and it’s decent, honest soup and sandwich type material there, too. But we’ve been looking in the wrong place.’
The hotel guy raised an eyebrow. ‘Really? I thought you were old school.’
Ferguson smiled thinly. ‘I am. I was focusing on lunches and dinners. But I never expected the breakfasts to be as good as this. Every stunt we tried – poached instead of fried, non-dairy, granola and fruit salad in the same bowl – your guys were on it. They’re all the right side of friendly, and super-efficient. The room is tastefully decorated, warm, and light. Great shower, and a separate bath. That’s the real top review, not the restaurants.’
The hotel guy’s face was unreadable. ‘Where will you go next?’
Ferguson glanced over at his wife. She was still working on the granola. ‘I hear Hartlepool has a problem,’ he said.
Mr Child stayed at the Town House, Aberfeldy. And paid for it himself. If it’s any of your damn business.