Hide and Seek, Excerpt Three: An Encounter in the Gardens
Monique had been disappointed on her arrival that afternoon to find that except for a couple of the officers she'd seen, the soldiers didn't wear kilts while on duty in the castle. When she'd asked, she'd been told that the Argyll and Sutherland Highlanders she'd met guarding the king in Caithness the previous September were exceptions because of their ceremonial duties. The ordinary soldiers at the castle wore what she had been told were called Balmoral bonnets, like floppy berets with a broader top and a small pom-pom on the crown that was, like the hat itself, khaki in colour. Other than their hats, all that set them apart from all the other khaki-clad army soldiers she'd seen in London, Edinburgh or anywhere else was a red and white chequered badge on the upper left arm.
Monique spent a moment debating whether she could manage without a coat before deciding it was too cold. She turned and headed for the slightly anonymous door close to the near end of the building that ran along the high side of the Inner Close, to her left. This, according to her guide earlier, was called the King's Old Building. The door gave access to some of the officers' accommodation and Monique had been allocated a room on the first floor. Her room was at the rear of the building and on arrival she'd seen that the view from its window was simply magnificent, extending from a high vantage point over a broad plain to distant mountains.
A few moments later she re-emerged into the Inner Close, now wearing her beige raincoat. She turned left and headed for the upper end of the Chapel Royal. She knew from her earlier tour that there was a rather quaint passage there that made its slightly indirect and rather uncertain way between the chapel and its neighbour, a continuation round the corner of the close of the King's Old Building she was staying in.
The gardens beyond had seemed a lovely oasis when she had first seen them on her tour, and she wanted more time to enjoy the views she'd only glimpsed earlier from the raised wall walk that ran round the perimeter of the gardens.
Monique paused for a moment on emerging from the archway at the far end of the passage onto the paved area beyond it. The gardens were deserted and easily quiet enough to allow her to hear birds singing. She turned half-right past the rear of the Chapel Royal and crossed to a set of stone steps leading up to a higher part of the wall walk, then slowly followed that round, taking in the views of distant mountains to the north and then to the west, where the aftermath of the sunset was still clearly visible on the horizon.
After a while, Monique began to feel cold, even with her coat on. She didn't want to give up the views but needed to move. She decided to go to the officers' mess bar for a drink with the commodore, if he was still there, before having an early night. She reluctantly descended from the wall walk to the gardens using a second set of stone steps.
As she walked back towards the passage, she got a strong sense that someone was nearby, watching her. She stopped and looked around, then scanned the windows overlooking the gardens from the north end of the King's Old Building. In what was left of the daylight there was no obvious sign of movement and all the windows she could see seemed to have closed internal shutters, but the uncomfortable feeling persisted. She turned and carried on.
Monique jumped slightly when a figure emerged from the end of the passage just as she approached it. With a sinking heart, she recognised Bill Douglas, now wearing an expensive-looking black overcoat, artfully left unbuttoned to show off what was obviously an equally expensive suit beneath it.
'Hello, Vera! It's lovely to see you again after all this time.'
'It's Monique these days, Bill. And I wish I could say I feel as warmly about seeing you as you apparently feel about seeing me. Did you follow me here?'
'Let's let bygones be bygones, shall we? Water under the bridge and all that. I don't hold a grudge against you for that pint of beer. It just shows the filly has a little spirit, which I really admire in a woman.' He had a final pull on the cigarette he'd been smoking and flicked the butt some distance away onto the grass.
'Can we get one thing straight, Bill? You obviously didn't get the message last time we met so I will try to be as clear as I can. If you were the last man on Earth, I wouldn't go to bed with you. That was true before I became engaged and it's even more true now.'
'Congratulations! Who's the lucky man? I see you're not wearing a ring, though.'
Monique only wore it when off-duty and wasn't about to explain herself to Bill Douglas.
'Just stand aside, Bill, I've somewhere else I want to be and other people I'd prefer to be with.'
'Are you going to abandon me in my gardens so heartlessly? To answer your earlier question, no, I'm not following you. I'm simply making use of an opportunity to spend some time in a place that is rather special to me. It's made this damn-fool meeting of Peter Maitland's worth the trip. Something of a pilgrimage, even, because I've not visited these gardens since I was at school. I had no idea you were here, though I'm glad you are.'
'What do you mean, your gardens?' Monique realised too late that she shouldn't have risen to such obvious bait.
Douglas turned away from her and pointed up at a window she'd not previously noticed above the arch at the near end of the passage. 'That's the Douglas Window up there with the Douglas Room beyond it, and what you've been enjoying are called the Douglas Gardens.'
'It's a common enough name,' said Monique.
'True, but I'm descended directly from a man called James Douglas, who from 1452 was the 9th Earl of Douglas. He was the last of the branch of the family known as the Black Douglases to have an earldom. But while his titles were forfeited in 1455 and he went off into exile in England, the family retains significant estates in south-west Scotland, where I grew up. When my father dies, I will inherit them.'
'Do you find the “I'm really rich so you should sleep with me” approach works with many women?'
'You might be surprised. But you misunderstand. I was named William Douglas after the 8th Earl of Douglas, who was my many times great-grandfather's older brother. He grew powerful enough to be seen as a threat by King James II of Scotland and the two agreed to meet here at Stirling Castle in February 1452 to discuss their differences. The meeting didn't go well, and the king personally murdered my namesake with a dagger before another man bashed his brains out. It all happened up there, in the room beyond the Douglas Window. The king's courtiers then inflicted further wounds on the body before throwing it out of the window and into the gardens, just here, where we are standing. It was the unsuccessful revolt that my ancestor, the 9th Earl, raised in response that led to him being stripped of his titles.'
'Is that true?'
'Up to a point. This building, the King's Old Building, was only built in 1496 and seems to have replaced the one in which the murder took place. And what you see today owes much to a major rebuild after a serious fire less than ninety years ago. It follows that what is called the Douglas Window can't be the actual window they threw the 8th Earl's body from or the room beyond the window the one in which the murder took place. But the paving we are standing on is in the place where the body is believed to have ended up and the rest of the story is completely true.'
'It's a shame it wasn't the 9th Earl, your ancestor, who was murdered, and preferably before he'd fathered any children. Then you'd not be here spoiling my evening walk.'
'Oh, come on, Vera, Monique, or whatever you want to call yourself this week. Don't be like that. How about a quickie just for old times' sake? We can do it here if you must, but I'd prefer it if we went back to one of our rooms.'
'Go to hell!'
Monique tried to push past Douglas. She saw him glance back along the passage as if judging whether they could be seen by anyone in the Inner Close. Then he caught her arm and swung her round before throwing his weight against her and driving her a couple of steps backwards into a corner formed by the walls of the building. She felt her back and head hit what felt like a drainpipe as he leaned in, presumably to kiss her. He was physically larger than her and she'd not expected him to resort to force so quickly, so was caught off-balance.
'Let me go!'
'You always did have far too high an opinion of yourself, Vera. I know what a slut like you needs. Come on, you know you want to.'
Monique regained her balance and brought her right knee up, driven by the power of her anger and fear, into Douglas's crotch. Her coat impeded her movement a little, but she still made satisfyingly solid contact. The man doubled up and, as he did so, she punched him in the throat. He collapsed to the ground, gasping for breath.
Monique stepped over him as her only way out of the corner she was in. Douglas was lying on his side and still doubled up and he seemed to be having real difficulty breathing. His back was to her, and she resisted the temptation to kick him as a parting gift. Instead, she turned and walked through the passage to the Inner Close beyond. The idea of a drink no longer appealed but she did walk across to the sentry by the entrance to the Palace.
The soldier came to attention again.
'There's a man in the Douglas Gardens who seems to have fallen ill,' Monique said. 'You had better get someone to check on him.' She then turned and headed towards her room.