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Castle Mòr, Scotland

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TRAVEL GUIDE ENTRY:
¶ C Here Be Dragons, Cautiously Friendly ONLY If Approached With Respect and The Attitude of 'Do No Harm To Permanent Occupants'
Ω Supernatural Presence of Various Sorts -
Ç Use Caution - in all cases, especially with the residents. And the liquor! And with the meals - while most are quite delectable, do avoid the 'Dunter's Surprise' on the menu unless you get a full description of the ingredients and method of preparation. Better safe than sorry.
≈+E Overall Rating - Quite Acceptable, If Caution Is Taken, But Far Beyond Our Pay Grade
≈H Food and Lodging Outside The Castle - Claire's, in the village below. A good place for a pleasant meal; less caution is necessary than in the castle proper, though a few questions as to ingredients might not go entirely amiss there as well. She also has a small number of rooms for visitors, although we have no personal experience with those, but they have a good repute.

Contact: Aubris Dunter, or current management. WARNING: Do NOT attempt to manipulate, trick or in any way use any such individual for your own ends; it will NOT turn out well!

Note: 'Avoid Castle Mòr If At All Possible' is our best advice, and we suggest you move heaven and earth to MAKE that avoidance possible. Otherwise, what can we say? The accommodations are luxurious, the scenery unparalleled, the food outstanding, the service impeccable - far beyond our usual pay grade, even for the most senior agents.

HOWEVER, the dangers, seen and, more to the point, unseen, are equally top of the scale. Read the Visitor's Guide left in your room, note the prohibitions. These are NOT suggestions(!) and Management is NOT forgiving of violations. While they do not post signs 'Offenders Will Be Eaten', perhaps they should?

Be aware, no matter how pleasant a venue, this is a very complicated environment, and one best avoided if at all possible. Negotiating the various currents takes knowledge (of which we have little), experience (of which we have only slightly more), and a fantastical (word used advisedly) amount of luck. Again, avoiding would be best. If circumstances lead you in that direction, contact current management and place your situation and your fate in their hands. Do not seek to involve yourself in the resulting resolution.

We offer no guarantees, but that will at least increase your chances of success, indeed, your chances of survival.

As a final word, DO NOT think to use the weight of the U.N.C.L.E. as leverage; frankly, the U.N.C.L.E. HAS no weight in that locality.

 

PROLOGUE:

The U.N.C.L.E. Agents' Cautionary Guide To Travel had an entry for Castle Mòr in Scotland, though it probably wasn't necessary. How likely would it be for an agent from the U.N.C.L.E. to end up at that remote, if exclusive, mountain-top hotel?

Even if one sought a reservation, it was doubtful the request would be accepted; Castle management was quite particular about who they allowed within, even as a paying guest. And, although it wasn't spoken of freely, there was that unfortunate bit of history between Mr. Kuryakin and Mr. Ecks. Well, let's just say the Russian's old adversary had at least as much of a favorable connection there as the UNCLE agent did, perhaps quite a bit more. Yes, it was complicated - wasn't that so often the case with family and friends?

Still, it had happened once, with four of the organization's people arriving at that remote location, so it just might happen again. And if it did, those four wanted to leave SOMETHING in the way of a hint, something that might allow their fellows to walk out again. For that was by no means certain, as history proved so well.

(You might almost say the Castle was far ahead of its time, a precurser to The Eagles' song 'Hotel California' perhaps, as Mark noted years later when that song was released. "Although not really, I suppose, since most ARE allowed to leave the Castle, if not all. Still, does make you wonder if the bloke who wrote it spent much time in Scotland, you know?". April had been a little concerned about how the family at the Castle would take that comment, but Aubris and Peirla had just laughed, suggesting to Mark maybe they should contact the musical group to see if that was a possibility, though they didn't remember the name from their guest book.)

Anyway, there was a great deal to be said about their own experiences there, much they'd want any other agent to be aware of - although, by necessity, it all had to be coached in less than straightforward language. Anything more would likely to be discarded as being the result of a joint hallucination, or perhaps a bad practical joke.

Accordingly, the entry they put together was a little longer than many. Those writing the entry were counting a great deal on the potential readers being able to read between the lines. At least, if they were not able to avoid the venue entirely, which was, of course, much more the desirable course of action.

 

INTRODUCTION:

Seven members of a powerful and influential cartel, four UNCLE agents, four THRUSH agents, Alexander Waverly and two shadowy 'friends', and a Dunter. Oh, and two young women from Clan O'Donnell, although in heavy disguise so that no one but April Dancer and the owner/manager of Castle Mòr knew who they really were.

(Well, the women of Clan O'Donnell DID have a rather uncomfortable history with Illya Kuryakin and Napoleon Solo - at least one of the Family did, and that was enough to make recognition inadviseable - it would only complicate matters more than necessary.)

Mark Slate, once it was all over and he was looking back on the whole misbegotten sequence of events, proclaimed in a rather disgruntled tone, "we might as well have had a sing-a-long while we were at it. All together now - 'And a partridge in a pear tree!'

In fact, if you were talking 'complicated', perhaps bizarre assignments, the UNCLE teams of Solo/Kuryakin and Slate/Dancer would be inclined to toss the affair at Castle Mòr into the competition. Chances are they'd win, too, hands-down. That is, if they were willing to tell the whole story, tell the whole truth about what had happened at that castle on top of a mountain in Scotland.

But since there was no way in hell telling the whole story was going to happen, (particularly since no one but April knew anything NEAR the whole story!), someone else would walk away with the so-called 'glory' of having the most complicated assignment.

But that was okay.

In fact, it was just fine with all four of the UNCLE agents who'd experienced that little trip to Castle Mòr. After all, they'd survived, THRUSH had been confounded, the bad guys vanquished, the good guys triumphant (if you took a liberal view of who the good guys were), and Waverly seemingly satisfied with their performance and their results, (although there was just a hint of inner conflict in those faded blue eyes, as if it had not totally been a win-win situation, but perhaps not the worst of possible outcomes), and they felt that was more than enough.

Well, even just that last would have been an unusually gratifying experience, since it didn't happen all that often. Though that seeming conflict in their superior WAS a trifle worrisome, they were becoming accustomed to that, sadly to say.

And really, as for any TRUE explanation, no one would believe it anyway.

I mean, here we have Gerard Dumont, fantastically-wealthy and influential industrialist, motivating force behind a cartel of other wealthy industrialists, him trying to take the cartel in a new direction AND develop a personal alliance with THRUSH, both goals necessitating getting rid of two of his more inconvenient compatriots first.

We have THRUSH thinking it an idea opportunity to not only furthering their wealth and influence in an underdeveloped country, making a new alliance (ie. future puppet) with an influencial cartel, but also an opportunity for making UNCLE look bad, maybe even getting rid of an UNCLE agent or two in the doing. And, to achieve those goals, discreetly asking Dumont to invite, nay, specifically request UNCLE to provide protection for an important upcoming meeting.

We have Aubris Dunter, owner/manager of Castle Mòr, trying to protect his ancestral home and dependents, though curious about a member of his family he'd never met before, reaching out to his old college friends (members of Clan O'Donnell) for their assistance.

We have Clan O'Donnell, specifically the Head of Clan O'Donnell, otherwise known as 'The Grandmother', pressuring Alexander Waverly to agree to provide agents (four specific agents) to supposedly protect the attendees, though presumably she had other, unproclaimed, reasons. Well, she usually did. Much like Waverly, The Grandmother dealt in complexity by her very nature.

We have Alexander Waverly and a compatriot working toward the removal of an irritating thorn in said compatriot's side, along with additional possibility of removing a similar annoyance on Waverly's side - not such an easy task when said thorn is one of their own respective agents, both men had to agree.

And we have our four intrepid UNCLE agents trying to figure out just what the hell was going on and where their loyalties should lie.

Well, at least April Dancer had something solid to go on - she'd received a little upfront information that she wasn't totally sure how to share with the others. Along with how much, of course; part of it she had no INTENTION of sharing! After all, her plans didn't include a lengthy stay in a secured psychological-observation facility!

 

THE BRIEFING - UNCLE Headquarters, New York:

"Do we have any idea of what we're looking at this time, Napoleon?" April Dancer asked as she and her partner, Mark Slate, exited the elevator to find Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin waiting for them.

The two senior agents paused to take an appreciative look at the young woman, this time dressed in a dashing mod outfit in colors that reminded one of pumpkin spiced pudding and whipped cream, garnished with just a sprig of spearmint. It went remarkably well with her auburn hair, as well as being a delightful hint of the autumn weather now approaching.

"Not a clue, unless you consider my partner here regaling me with the history of the haggis, what it's made from, and never mind what it tastes like, whether it's considered safe to eat," Napoleon grumbled.

Mark looked at Illya and grinned wryly, "and what did you decide, Illya? Fancy a nice bit of haggis, do you? Figure it's worth the risk, whatever the so-called experts are saying?"

Illya Kurakin, who'd shared many a strange dish with the likeable Englishman on many an occasion, nodded appreciatively.

"While, as a scientist, I can understand the concerns some are currently expressing, the rumen from the animals in question prone to the intense microbial activity in that part of the body, that being easily transferred to the lungs during the slaughtering process, and thus to the finished product, still, it is an intriguing, though not uncommon, use of the perishable parts. After all, it is not only the haggis, though that is perhaps the better known example in the Western world. That reminds me, when next we are farther East, Mark, perhaps we will all once again enjoy a meal of kishka together."

Mark laughed, assuring Illya that he'd enjoy that, kishka being an old favorite of his.

April wrinkled her nose at that, having experienced both haggis AND kishka within the past few months, Mark being just fine with the food on his plate being a mixture of unusual, frequently unrecognizable things, far more than she was.

"I think you should count me out; I still remember that nice waiter so joyfully explaining what was in that kishka you treated me to in Romania. I liked it just fine until he did that."

"Well, better the truth than what that bloke at the next table was teasing you about, trying to tell you it REALLY was. Even that wasn't so bad, since you didn't understand a word of what he was saying, but when he stood up and started to use the hand motions? Thought I was going to have to flatten him, right then and there. Luckily the manager thought that was a bit off too, there being other ladies in the room, and shuffled him off," Mark chuckled.

April giggled softly, "it wasn't funny, not then, just terribly embarrassing. It wasn't til later when you explained that it became amusing. At the time, I thought he was just bragging, that he was just drunk and being crude and explaining why I should come away and spend the night with him!! I'll never look at a kishka in quite the same manner again!"

By then they'd reached Waverly's office, which was just as well, because the debonair Napoleon Solo had a totally appalled look on his face; he'd had kishka but somehow had never made the connection with any portion of the male anatomy before. While kishka certainly had never been one of his favorite meals, he doubted he'd ever be able to eat it in equanimity again.

Inside they quietly settled around the big round table and waited til Mr. Waverly deigned to acknowledge their presence. It took awhile, but finally he lifted his head from the file in front of him and began.

"There is to be a high-level international meeting of industrialists, a cartel you might call it, here, at Castle Mòr," Alexander Waverly told them, using the pointer to indicate an area vaguely to the north of St. Andrew's, Scotland, at least initially, though the tail end of that wide swing encompassed Greenland and Ireland as well, so who really knew?

Remembering Waverly's directions during their trip to Estalarra, for them to "head south from Mexico City and if you reach the Pacific Ocean, you will know you have gone too far!", and other similar incidents, the agents knew they'd need to look up the specific location for Castle Mòr once they got back to their offices rather than depend too heavily on what was being given here.

Just to be sure they were in the right country, to begin with, you know. And even if that original touch of the pointer was accurate, they really didn't relish the idea of wandering around Scotland asking, as Mark quipped later, "how are things in Castle Mòr - ah, and oh, by the way, any idea how we get there??"

They had never figured out if their superior was geographically-challenged, or just liked to keep them on their mettle. The consensus seemed to differ each time, depending on just how lost he'd managed to get them.

"It will not be the first such gathering in that location, of course; Castle Mòr has billed itself as the ideal venue for such events for a goodly number of years now, since well before The Great War. In recent years it has become quite well-known not only for being extremely expensive and very accommodating, but also for being most particular as to which of those applying for the privilege it will elect to allow within its walls. That this group was able to secure the location for their meeting was quite the coup for the leader, Monsieur Gerard Dumont."

"And we have a part to play," Napoleon said in a slightly-inquiring tone.

"Indeed, we do, gentlemen, Miss Dancer. We need to ensure everyone who arrives also departs. To be more precise, we need to ensure everyone departs alive and well, aside from some possible indigestion from the rich food they are known to serve."

Mark raised his eyebrows, looked around the table. No one else seemed to understand that remark any more than he did.

They waited for Waverly to continue, but he seemed to be focusing on getting his pipe to draw better and perhaps even had forgotten them.

Mark cleared his throat, "and is there a considerable possibility of it being otherwise, sir?"

Waverly harrumphed, giving the young man a stern look, "obviously, Mr. Slate, or I would not have called for the four of you!"

No one rolled their eyes, not outwardly anyway, though there was some such activity going on internally. Sometimes you'd ask a question and get an approving nod for being proactive; sometimes, not so much. But then again, if you sat back, waited silently, half the time the Old Man would seem annoyed at "your obvious lack of interest; perhaps I should see if anyone in the Secretarial Pool might like to take a run at this".

Napoleon almost always tried to play the game, finding it an amusing challenge to see which route would be best. He could get away with it much better than Mark; at least he had a chance of guessing right, and Waverly didn't seem too put out even if he didn't.

Mark, on the other hand, was going to get a reprimand 90% of the time. Sometimes it seemed as if Waverly changed the board just in order to make that happen. April had asked Mark once, whether it was worth playing the game, considering, but her partner had just grinned and told her "one thing about having the deck stacked against you, April-luv; when you DO win, it's all that much more satisfying." She wasn't sure she agreed, necessarily, but it was his choice.

Illya found playing such games distasteful and simply refused to be a part of it, even in the executive briefing room. He absorbed any resulting rebukes from their superior with stoic equanimity.

April also avoided the game, but more because she felt Waverly tended to give her a 'pass', whatever her guess, and she found that both slightly embarrassing and equally annoying.

Finally Waverly sighed, his pipe now operating as he felt it should, and deigned to give them the details, such as they were.

"The Castle Mòr is currently owned and managed by Aubris Dunter, and operates on a seasonal basis for the most part - April through September. It has the usual stream of extremely private and quite wealthy individuals who are willing to make the journey to enjoy the amenities, as well as having the distinction of being able to boast of having stayed there. It is quite exclusive, though in perhaps not quite the usual fashion. Money alone will not gain you entrance; nor position; nor family, but perhaps some particular combination of those and other factors known only to those who own the castle.

"I have sometimes wondered just what the guidelines are, for it would appear there are some individuals who are turned away that most such places would be honored to host, while others are welcomed who would be looked at askance at other equally-august venues.

"The Castle also, on rare occasions, allows guests outside the usual Season, such as for the meeting scheduled for the middle of this month. And it IS a rarity, gentlemen, Miss Dancer, very much so, happening perhaps once or twice every few years.

"For one thing, transportation is more difficult, specially-equipped conveyances being required due to the frequent storms. Frankly, it hardly sounds inviting, many of the outside activities being severely curtailed, and I cannot imagine anyone deliberately seeking out reservations then, except for the near-total privacy, along with the obvious cachet of having obtained the near-unobtainable.

"And there is an added complication. The rest of the year the staff is made up of locals, most of whom are second or even third generation employees or greater. They are known, trusted, considered above reproach. However, during the off-season, those individuals are not available.

"Indeed, for some reason I have not been able to determine, they completely refuse to set foot on the rather extensive grounds from sundown at the close of season to daybreak of the next season's starting. That means the owner of Castle Mòr must hire outsiders for any such events, everyone from bellmen to chefs to maids and all else. Although they hire from established firms with good reputations in Edinburgh or elsewhere and provide transport in both directions, that still means there are a goodly number of individuals who have no steady ties to the place. And in many cases, in THIS case, we will have very little time to vet them properly."

Napoleon looked around at the others. "Yes, we see the difficulties. But why are you anticipating trouble? It's apparent that you ARE. Is there something in particular about this Monsieur Dumont and his colleagues? Is THRUSH involved?"

Waverly sighed with exasperation, though this time not at anyone in the room, but simply his usual annoyance at a situation where he had far too insufficient information, and where he was not the only one pulling the strings, so to speak.

"The U.N.C.L.E. has no official indication that THRUSH is involved, or indeed, would have any reason to be. However, it seems that whenever Castle Mòr opens during the off-season, people on their guest registry tend to perish in some manner or simply disappear. Sometimes only one, sometimes several, but there has rarely been a time, as far as I have been able to determine, that there has not been at least one disappearance or untimely death. In fact, the waiver the Castle insists on all guests signing specifically covers such occurrances. It appears to be part of their cachet, however ridiculous that may be.

"That must NOT happen this time, gentlemen, Miss Dancer. The impact on the industrial community should even one of these leaders disappear would be most troublesome, not to mention the impact on UNCLE's reputation since we have been asked to provide security."

It was left to April to ask the question on each of their minds.

"Sir, if THRUSH is not involved, why us? I mean, there are any number of security organizations better suited . . ." Her voice tapered off as she received a glare quite unlike his usual expression when addressing her.

His voice was pained, each word spit out like it left a foul taste in his mouth. "Because I say so, Miss Dancer. Considering our relative positions in this organization, surely that will suffice??!"

He had intented to turn Dumont down when the request first came in; then there had been those two additional communications. In any case, he had no intention of telling these impudent young agents of his that he was being blackmailed into this by a pair of old friends (if you took a slightly sideways approach to the word 'friend', along with a crosswise approach to the word 'blackmail'). Not only taking this on, but assigning these four agents, in particular, to the task, as had been 'requested' by the first 'friend', and approved by the second. Well, at least one of the four he would have included anyway; he supposed it only made sense to agree to the entire four. Not that he had much of a mind to disagree anyway, considering who was asking.

Ruena O'Donnell, Grandmother of Clan O'Donnell, had a temper like what he'd never before encountered, well suited to her other name 'Banshae D'Or' - the Golden Banshee - and while he'd only set off that temper once, in earlier days when he really hadn't known any better, he had NO intention of doing so a second time. He had the uncomfortable feeling that there would BE no third time, no matter HOW much she (and he) enjoyed their chess games and other sparring matches and related games.

Even if all he did was annoy her, she might rescind that open invitation to visit her, to speak with her via that special wave length few outside her Clan were aware of. And he would miss those chess games as well, their quiet little talks, and all else.

Well, her occasional discreet reproof, the occasional suggestion that "you might rethink that, Alexander; I do not see that ending well for you," those he could have foregone, but no relationship was perfect. He was confident he could work around any little qualms she might have over some of his actions. There was something so reassuring about the time he spent with her. No matter how much younger she was than he, sometimes she seemed almost ancient in her wisdom, her understanding, and much else.

No, if doing her a minor favor kept him in HER favor, these four young people would just have to deal with it!

The favor to his other old friend, well, that made complete sense, and he fully agreed with the necessity.

And besides, there was a possible opportunity for shifting another playing field, a little closer to home, a bit more in his favor, and he would be a fool if he didn't consider that. One didn't get to be in his position by ignoring even happenchance possibilities for a gain.

The four young people in question headed back to the office shared by Napoleon Solo and Illya Kuryakin. A quick check of the atlas confirmed they were indeed headed to Scotland, nearest major population center possibly Aberdeen. Though, in Waverly's defense, you DID in fact pass through St. Andrews, provided you took the out-of-the-way coastal scenic route before turning sharply inland and continued northward for a considerable distance. It wasn't necessarily the most efficient way, but for Waverly, it was pretty spot on.

"So, let's split this up. Mark, April - work on the transportation logistics and research the Castle, whatever you can find. Illya and I will see what we can dredge up on this cartel and its members."

Mark nodded, but just had to ask. "Am I the only one thinking there's something missing from that briefing?"

A quick look around at the rueful looks on the others' faces told him, no, he wasn't alone in his skepticism. He wasn't alone, and as it turned out, he wasn't wrong.

 

A PRIVATE BRIEFING - Rovington House:

The phone call April received from Cousin Charles - Charles O'Donnell DeWitt - came as no real surprise. They weren't particularly close, as such, not given to socializing, but he'd been her primary contact with her distant family on many an occasion when Cousin Caeide felt it best not to intervene directly.

He was the one who arranged for her to have the use of Rovington House for her annual Halloween Party, after all, and all resulting from a casual mention to Caeide that she wanted to expand that annual event far beyond her tiny flat, but needing someplace relatively safe and away from 'civilian' eyes and ears.

The timing wasn't the best for a meeting, not with a job in her immediate future, but she HAD left a message about the possibilities for using the place for the party she was planning for THIS Halloween. She wasn't any too sure how receptive Charles would be, not after the fiasco of her LAST party there. Still, it shouldn't take long.

She drove to Rovington House, got out and went inside, trying not to remember the scene in the ballroom when she'd walked in on that orgy in process.

But this time it wasn't about the Halloween Party that Cousin Charles had summoned her, either that disaster of a last one, or her proposed next one. No, this time it was about quite a different business - U.N.C.L.E. business.

"April, I have been informed there is a good possibility that you and your Mark Slate and perhaps other of your friends, Mr. Solo and Mr. Kuryakin, are headed to Castle Mòr.

"While I am sure your Mr. Waverly will be briefing you, if he has not already done so, he does not know everything about the situation, the location, or the inhabitants, and probably isn't being totally forthcoming on what little he DOES know. Even his preferences for the outcome might be a trifle, hmm, multi-layered, shall we say??? He is much like the Grandmother; does like his little manipulations and side games, I'm sure you know. I won't ask if you find that as annoying as I would; I'd not like to draw you into an indiscreet response.

"Still, there are some things you need to know since you're to be venturing there, especially since the Clan had more than a little to do with your being assigned to the job. AND you need to know, be prepared for the fact that you will be stepping into a mare's nest, more than likely. Best pour yourself a drink, my dear cousin; I feel sure you will need it."

And, truth be told, she did. If it wasn't for the drive back to her place, she probably would have had more than one before the long conversation was over.

{"There is absolutely no way to explain THIS to Mark, never mind Illya and Napoleon!"}.

Still, information was information, and at least she had a better idea of what they would be facing. Though she had to wonder, if the Clan thought Aubris Dunter, "a real dunter, you know - it's not just his name", the proprietor of Castle Mòr (and she was going to HAVE to look up what a 'dunter' was, since Charles seemed to assume she would automatically know!) was looking at serious trouble, both with a dangerous cartel leader AND THRUSH, why was the Clan taking an interest in the first place?

Charles had explained, at least somewhat. "No, Aubris Dunter isn't Clan, Family, but it seems he is a close friend of various of the cousins, including one of Cousin Caeide's daughters. It seems he's a good chap, if a rather unusual one, and the Grandmother seems to have a soft spot for him. Says he's quite intelligent, quite resourceful but these adversaries might be a little out of his area of expertise unless he falls back on traditional methods he's tried most sincerely to at least curtail somewhat. Says she'd hate for the whole nonsensical mess to cause trouble for him, just because someone is trying to take advantage.

"Oh, and you might find a couple of those cousins there as well; they went to university together, and it seems they aren't willing to keep at arms length if he might be at risk, they're that fond of him. They'll be disguised, of course, what with your Mr. Solo and Mr. Kuryakin being along. Well, that only makes sense, what with Cousin M'Coury having a rather tense history there, though they're not taking up the sword on her behalf, not now anyway. I'm sure they'll make themselves known to you even if you don't recognize them at first.

"Frankly, they could probably take care of matters themselves, between the two, well, three of them - them together having temperament and fangs and claws, so to speak, enough for the job - but the Grandmother thought your involvement might make things go down better, politically speaking. An occasional fatality or disappearance is one thing; wholesale mayhem is something far more likely to draw unwanted attention.

"And there's one other little thing you might want to be aware of - one involving your partner and your Mr. Waverly. Forewarned, and all that, you see."

Somehow, none of the rest, none of the questions that brought to mind were ones she really wanted to dwell on, not with that sly smile on Charles' face. Maybe she'd come see him again before they left. AFTER she'd had another drink or two to digest what she'd already been told.

Once she got home, poured herself a drink and got out the reference books and looked up 'dunter', she KNEW she'd be heading back to Rovington House for another 'little discussion'!

 

YOU COULD ALMOST CALL IT A FAMILY TRADITION - Pied a Terre, 14 Rue de Gardin, Paris, France:

Gerard Dumont had worked hard to get where he was, the head of a huge corporation AND the current head of a cabal of other such leaders. It had taken hard work and ambition, along with determination and a goodly share of what he called 'Scottish practicality' (although that struck some as a strange thing to be vaunting, since the Dumont family was French), and he was unafraid of using all of those things with a practiced hand. Some admired him, many feared him, but all admitted he was a most formidable man, and few thought to oppose him.

But appearances can sometimes be deceiving, especially where heritage is concerned. His father's side was indeed French - had been early merchant princes, as those of their power were once called; had retained their ambitions and a goodly portion of their wealth through the twists and turns of time and politics, even though the wars of this century and the previous had bruised their circumstances somewhat.

However, although it was not widely known, Grandmother Dumont was Scots in origin, and from her, he got his sheer iron-jawed determination and what the family called 'Scottish practicality'. Some others called it 'bloody-minded ruthlessness', but his grandmother Elaine always said that was only because it was a trait the onlookers failed to possess and were jealous of.

Now, having achieved nearly all he had ever set his mind to, and having no doubts about his achieving the few that remained, a new goal had presented itself. A world-wide organization had reached out to him, interested in how they might benefit each other. He had done his research and decided that, yes, this 'THRUSH', as they called themselves, just might be a group of individuals he could find common ground with. And all they asked, at least for the moment, was that his cabal lean one way, rather than another, with regard to certain investments in a backward country with rather vast resources.

Frankly, the investment return looked to be about the same either way, and if it benefited him otherwise, he had no problem in slightly shifting his position. The problem was, not everyone in the cabal felt the same, especially Emil Bouchet and Richard Castleman. Some nonsense about environmental hazards and dangers to the local rabble of the area.

If it had been Grouper or Vidorsky, or even Cole, he could have argued them around with strictly business considerations. Had it been Beaumont, he would have made a few half-hearted (soon to be swept aside) promises of 'of course, we will make sure no one is displaced, and it is a clean operation, nothing hazardous to the area at all'. However, Bouchet and Castleman were stubborn men, convinced the cabal had 'an ethical responsibility'. How the two ever became as wealthy as they were with that kind of an attitude, Dumont couldn't begin to understand. Yes, well, they had inherited a vast sum to begin with, but still . . .

After the last of several closed door meetings with each of the two men, making no progress, he finally realized the only way forward was WITHOUT those two. And there really was no time to lose. He had to get rid of Bouchet and Castleman before they got suspicious, got close enough to start asking the wrong questions, to realize just where he was leading the group, who he was making alliances with.

How to do that without drawing suspicion onto himself, though, that was the question. Then he remembered a bit of family history, and slowly smiled in deep satisfaction.

{"Yes, I think that just might work. She swore it was truth, and from what I have been able to determine, I believe she was right. Yes, now to put it all in motion. Castle Mòr - an ideal location for our meeting, a highly prestigious one the other members will applaud me for being able to arrange, AND an equally ideal location for my old friends Bouchet and Castleman to mysteriously vanish, or at least come to an unfortunate and accidental end."}

Gerard Dumont's grandmother, Elaine Balfour-as-was, was Scottish, had told him of that place, the legends, the pitfalls. He had always been a favorite of hers, especially in her later years, and she told him many a thing she'd never told another living soul - well, maybe she had TOLD others, but no one else listened and believed. Many thought her mind was wandering, many in the family had been shocked or deeply ashamed of her revelations, but not Gerard. He was enthralled, in awe of what she told him, for truly she was one after his own makeup, one who set a goal and met it, no matter the cost.

For example, she claimed that, as a seventeen year old not-quite-a-newlywed, she had become overly-weary of her first husband, a profligate Englishman selected by her grasping gambler of a brother.

That husband had seemingly bent on going through both her own tiny inheritance and his own far larger one within the first year of their marriage, all in the pursuit of wine, women, song, not to mention fast horses and even faster cards. He had other displeasing ways, as well, ways she had no desire to spend the rest of her life enduring.

And so she had made good use of such local knowledge as was available in the huts of the elderly so-called 'wise women' in order to free herself. She had paid a price, she'd told him, but one well worth what she'd received in return. She claimed she had no regrets of the bargain she'd struck one dark night in the shadows of the mountain.

"A dunter's bargain, grandson, is not an easy one, but he'll not shortchange you. He'll abide by the bargain to the very eyelash. Just to be sure you understand what the bargain truly IS, both sides of it, before you make your promises. There's those who were not so cautious about such things, and they lived to regret it. Or not, perhaps, depending on the dunter's mood."

Now he focused on remembering all she'd told him, and set out to make plans.

Interestingly enough, when he explained his plans to those men from THRUSH, they had a suggestion of their own to make those plans even more productive. Oh, for THEIR side, not his, but they'd made it clear how much they would appreciate his efforts in accommodating them.

Yes, these were obviously his kind of people! He could foresee a long and lucrative relationship. All he had to do was make a deal with the proprietor of Castle Mòr, arrange for the removal of two of his partners and the UNCLE agents likely to be assigned to security detail. Really, it was hardly even a gamble, more a sure thing.

 

OLD FRIENDS ARE THE BEST - Castle Mòr, Scotland:

Aubris Dunter had met the four young members of Clan O'Donnell while he and they were attending the same university in Edinburgh, a few other of the family during various breaks and visits. He'd felt oddly at home with them, a group as unusual and secretive in their way as he was in his. Well, they each had cause, but between them, keeping those secrets seemed less urgent, more easily shared. And share them they did, to some extent - Aubris and the four O'Donnell cousins, Peirla and Marida and Kat and Nealan, along with Rhonnie Lucas, of course.

They'd kept in touch ever since, enough he knew about Rhonnie returning to her People of the Crimson Star, remaining there to take up the duties of Heir. Enough to know Kat and Nealan O'Donnell had joined her, as Consorts to the Heir. He and Peirla and Marida had laughed over some of the complications inherent in all that, but they were all happy for the three to find their niche, their proper places in life.

Now, when the request had come for the out-of-season reservation for that corporate group, he knew this was something he wanted to talk about with the two not yet settled, his friends, Peirla and Marida.

Oh, it wasn't something he could share with many, not as complicated as the history was, as complicated as the current situation promised to be, but he felt their input would be beneficial. Maybe he was just a little lonely, too, having been apart for so many months, and his father off visiting distant relatives.

He had opened that letter requesting an out-of-season reservation for a small group, thought to send a polite note of refusal, then noted the signature, recognized the name - Gerard Dumont.

His father had always said it was wise to keep track of your bargains, and anything connected thereto, and so it was with this grandson of Aubris's female parent, Elaine. (Aubris hesitated to call Elaine his mother, since he had no memory of her, and there had been no communication between them since he was born.)

He knew, for his father has also told him, many a time, those who sought out Castle Mòr during the off-months were either remarkably unknowing, perhaps stupid, but usually just wanting to use the Castle and its residents for their own purposes. Whether that was allowed, that had depended on whether the Dunter at the time thought it would be beneficial in some way. Or at least, whether it might be potentially amusing.

Aubris himself had negotiated a few 'Dunter's Bargains' since he took over management. He was very selective, of course, but there were occasions when it had proved mutually beneficial. Well, usually far more beneficial to Castle Mòr than to the petitioner, but then, any Dunter worth his salt knew how to word a bargain so as to obtain the proper benefit.

"If she who bore me sought to reach a 'Dunter's Bargain', it would not be so unlikely that my, what, my nephew? would seek to do so as well," Aubris considered from behind his desk in his office. "Otherwise, what are the odds of him selecting the Castle for this meeting?"

To accept, not to accept? He pretty much tried to avoid most of the out-of-season guests anymore. Their diet, even his father's, had expanded far beyond the traditional, now seeing not just fresh red meat and roasted marrow on the kitchen menu, but even offerings from a variety of cuisines. (He had a particular liking for Chinese food with noodles, the spicier the better, while his father preferred French rustic fare.) They had no real financial (or any other) need to bother with bargaining, since the place had become comfortably profitable, and there were other sources of amusement.

It was a great break with tradition, of course, but the days of the traditional occupation of the Dunter, sometimes known as the Red Cap, were pretty much in the past. Walking around bashing strange humans for their meat, taking time to dye your wool cap in their blood so it ran red - it was so 'old hat', pun intended. It was just as well that Aubris had turned the Castle in a new direction. He'd decided blood red just wasn't his color; he much preferred green and blue and a few others, especially in the form of paper currency.

Still, the other part of being a Dunter - the challenge of formulating a bargain that met all the requirements of the requester, yet, perhaps not in the way that smug human thought? One that left that human standing there wondering what in blue blazes had just happened?? Yes, that was ever-tempting, and something no Dunter worthy of the name could totally discount.

And he had a curiosity to meet this relative of his, but was unwilling to tie himself down to putting what he was entrusted to guard at risk in doing so. He was, after all, a Dunter, and the Dunter as a group were pragmatic, and knew full well not everyone would see their role in the scheme of things (either the traditional role or their more recent one) with an approving eye. Of course, the Dunter had never sought the approval of outsiders; they did what they felt best. That was something else he and his people had in common with Clan O'Donnell.

Still, in this, the matter of Gerard Dumont, he felt the need for an understanding ear, one that would hear his internal debate and help him sort it out, and while his father was most knowing and quite cunning, this was perhaps something his dearest friends from college might be able to help him with even better. They, or at least some of them, had contacts he did not, sources he did not.

He smiled as he reached for the telephone. It had been too long since he'd spoken with any of them anyway, though now it would be Peirla O'Donnell, or her cousin Marida, not the others. Kat and Nealan O'Donnell were now firmly ensconced with Rhonnie, or whatever name their friend now went by, in Rhonnie's home, trying to provide support to their Bondmate as Rhonnie tried to learn everything she (he?) could about her (his?) duties as the Heir to The Guiding Star.

Aubris smiled and chuckled to himself, "at least I don't have to deal with those pesky pronouns. Well, maybe outsiders might not agree. With me, they would be wondering whether it should be 'he' or 'it', I suppose. Depends on how they weigh things. I know some cultures insist on a 'one drop' rule, others on a 'half' or 'quarter' rule. Usually to set aside from consideration any of whom they disapprove or wish to discount."

'He' or 'it'??? Oh, yes. For while Aubris thought of himself as a Dunter, first, last and always, his mother had been something else, a human woman who had traded with his father, Colis, a true Dunter, for a favor, a 'Dunter's Bargain', as it was often called. One of the oldest types of favors among his kind - a life for a life, or so the old stories told.

Colis had thought it over and agreed, as the Dunter were thinning out, and he had become uncomfortably-resigned to having no one to follow him, no one to whom to hand over his territory, his guardianship. Yes, they were a long-lived breed, but still, he wouldn't live forever.

So a bargain was set, and in due course, the woman's unpleasant husband had taken a stroll during the couple's 'complementary vacation' at the Castle and met with an unfortunate accident, resulting in the young woman now becoming a widow with more resources at her disposal than she would have had should the profligate man have survived even another twelve months.

The widow, in her 'grief', had gone into a year's long seclusion in an out-of-the-way cottage at the outskirts of the Dunter's realm. In due time, once the child had been sired and born, though certainly not weaned, she had handed it over to the eager hands of the Dunter in exchange for a heavy pouch of coin, and departed to make a new life for herself, never to be heard of again.

If she had ever regretted leaving that child behind, she'd never spoken of it; in fact, had only told the story when she had become quite old and less careful in what she revealed of her earlier life, and even then, after a few appalled reproaches from the listeners, mostly to her grandson Gerard who seemed to take after her far more than her own children ever had. Well, at least the children she had bore AND raised.

Aubris had heard the story time and time again, and once had asked his father if that was why he was so different, in looks and in abilities, than the dunters who had guarded this place before. They had been much like his father, at least according to the scrolls and paintings in their home - white of hair even from their earliest days, slightly hunched, sharp-featured. He, Aubris, had dark hair with an auburn gleam to it, stood straight, if not being particularly tall, and his features had a slightly softer edge to them. He could have passed for full-human, his father had told him when he was young, but had never encouraged him to do so. At least, not til he became much older.

"They have differing ways, Aubris, and I've never found them easy to understand in their customs."

Still, when Aubris had decided the dunters needed to join the modern world (to some extent, anyway), to take the family lands and castle in a NEW direction, hopefully a somewhat more profitable one, one more suited to the modern age, Colis had not objected. In fact, he had raided his treasure box to provide for the education Aubris felt would be essential to making a success of the venture.

And so, Castle Mòr entered a new time, one of not just being a sturdy castle with an uncertain history, one that occasionally accepted guests, but one that ever increasingly became known as an esteemed destination for those in the know.

 

THE GAME IS ON:

They stretched as they got out of their car, took a look around at the small village they'd been directed to. They were very late, construction, traffic slowing them down much earlier in the trip, weather playing its own part later on. Oh, and the fact that Napoleon had gotten them lost while trying to spot a few historical landmarks.

"Our transport left when we didn't arrive on schedule," Mark reported as he returned from the small office in the middle of the main street, one that served any number of a variety of purposes if you could judge by the sign over the door, 'Allsorts - Inquire Within'.

"The proprietor assured me he will notify them, and they will be back in two hours. And no, we cannot just drive on to the Castle. Poor soul almost choked laughing at the idea! It would appear Mr. Waverly was right about the difficulties in the ascent. We're headed up there, it would seem, right near the top."

They all looked upwards in the distance, to the jutting mountain that dominated the horizon. The Castle was not visible from this distance, the low-hanging clouds concealing it and the track, what they could see of it, (one could hardly call it a proper road) was one of a series of sharp switchbacks and tight curves. No, their rental car wouldn't really suffice for that.

"Then perhaps a bite to eat," Illya suggested hopefully. "There is a place over there, if they are open. 'Claire's', which doesn't tell us much, but the signs seem to indicate food is available."

And indeed food was available, and Claire quite willing to provide whatever they elected from the menu board. It wasn't haute cuisine, but it was quite acceptable, and Claire was friendly and welcoming.

Her attitude changed somewhat when she heard they were headed for Castle Mòr. That pretty smile turned to an apprehensive frown that only slightly diminished when she was assured they were expected by the proprietor. That she saw fit to wish them well, wished them a safe stay, and urged them to be careful, that raised more than one eyebrow among them.

They left for the business office to meet their conveyance and driver, very aware that Claire was standing in the doorway to her cafe, watching them.

"You get the feeling she's wondering if she'll ever see us alive again?" Napoleon quipped.

April nodded, not in a particularly happy frame of mind. "Most likely, Napoleon. She's probably seen quite a few head in that direction and NOT come back down alive, you know. It seems not that uncommon an occurrence."

If she had meant that to be reassuring, it wasn't, as evidenced by the looks on her fellow agents' faces.

The trip had been cold, even with the heater at full blast; it was even colder now, they realized, stretching as they emerged from the odd-looking vehicle that had lumbered across the drawbridge and deposited them at the front entrance to Castle Mòr. The driver quickly turned the bulky vehicle and headed back the way they'd come after depositing their luggage at a small side door, obviously to be collected by others on the staff. Perhaps it was telling that even HE didn't want to hang around for long.

"Well, it's certainly impressive enough," Napoleon Solo admitted, taking his time taking in all that was before them. The Castle looked to be timeless, but in extremely good shape, even the moat and stone surround looking well-cared for.

Mark took a long apprehensive look back down the side of the cliff they'd so ponderously climbed in that covered half-track. Yes, it was an expensive vehicle, clean, well-cared for, the seating quite comfortable, but nothing could quite disguise the utilitarian purpose of something that was sure-footed enough and heavy enough to safely convey passengers up the side of a mountain during a severe storm.

"Don't know that's going to be any more pleasant going down that it was coming up," he commented, getting a rueful nod from his partner.

"It could be worse, Mark," Illya reminded him. "We could have been required to WALK up from the village. And at least we were able to have a pleasant lunch at that small place there, 'Claire's'."

Napoleon Solo admitted that the lunch had been pleasant enough, "but somehow the looks we were getting, from Claire herself, and the waitress, and the others in there, that was a little uncomfortable. Well, once they realized we were headed up for the Castle. Did you hear all the whispering going on?"

"Yes, but none of it made any sense. Do you think the others have arrived yet? I know we were to get here first, but with those two delays, we are cutting it close at best," Illya reminded his companions.

April saw the wide front doors start to glide open, saw the short, slender figure standing there to greet them.

"It looks as if we are about to find out. Come on, gentlemen, I'm getting colder by the moment," she urged them and moved forward to be greeted by a smiling Aubris Dunter, their host.

"No, no," Dunter assured them when Napoleon inquired. "The others also met with delays, and I just received word it will be several hours before they arrive. Just as well. I would like to get you settled first. Come, let's get started."

Later, in one of the two connecting suites, Napoleon had to admit, "an impressive layout, if a bit 'ancestral heap' for my tastes."

April laughed. "Napoleon, mind your manners! Didn't you hear Aubris? This IS his 'ancestral heap', and I think it's in remarkably good condition for the reputed age. And our rooms are quite comfortable, at least mine and Mark's is, and I don't see any sign of you and Illya going wanting either," as she looked around the luxurious sitting room adjoined to a bedroom with two oversized beds draped with heavy cotton sheets, woolen blankets and a coverlet that was half quilt, half tapestry. Thick carpets covered the floors, keeping away the chill, and equally thick draperies shielded the stone-edged windows enclosures as well as large expanses of the stone walls themselves.

"Better than that 'ancestral heap' I inherited, well enough," Mark commented approvingly. "Hopefully this one has no ghosts or other assorted attractions; I imagine we'll have more than enough on our hands with the other guests. Though a bit more information about what causes those odd disappearances or 'accidents' wouldn't go amiss."

April cleared her throat cautiously, "well, as to that, I might just have a little to add to our reservoir of information. I did some asking around, you know, a friend of a friend of a friend, that sort of a thing. And my mother's people had connections in the area, so they were able to help a little too. Of course, hearsay and legend and all that, but you know how often we've found that to be more accurate than one would suppose."

"More accurate than we would have liked, in a few cases," Illya commented, tracing the odd markings on the walls with his fingertips. "Do you think there are secret passages? There is something odd about the depressions in the stone mortar, a beveling that seems to indicate that possibility, although I ascertain no obvious means of activating them."

A cheery voice came from behind them, causing them to whirl and reach for their weapons. A curvy young woman stood there, dark brown hair with just a touch of auburn, brown eyes shining in amusement at the expression on their faces at her sudden appearance out of nowhere.

"Yes, actually, Mr. Kuryakin, there are. How perceptive of you," Peirla said with a smirk, the solid grey stone wall behind her now showing a black rectangle through which she had entered. "I'm Peirla Harpee. I told Aubris I'd give you the lecture and the tour for some of the special features inside of the Castle, explain about the added attractions he omitted in what he gave your Mr. Waverly earlier. My cousin, Marida Wolfe, will show you the more interesting aspects on the outside, but that's for tomorrow, when there is more light. It would hardly do to go wandering around in the dark; even at twilight it can be rather precarious footing.

"Aubris would rather the hired help not know about any of the less public ways, you see. Oh, he has no real reason to find any of them suspect, but he says it is so tiresome to have to retrieve someone who's gone exploring but hasn't the wherewithall to find their way back again. And in some cases, retrieval is, shall we say, past the point of usefulness? And the agencies DO complain so when he returns the seasonal hires in less than pristine condition."

Slowly the four agents reholstered their guns, glancing at each other apprehensively.

"Does that happen often?" Mark asked cautiously. She seemed uncommonly offhand about such possibilities, to his way of thinking.

"Well, at least once or twice during every influx of temporary help. Aubris complains it wouldn't be so bad if they'd take a feather duster along with them and actually do something productive while they're wandering around, but they don't. And all the wailing and banging from inside the walls tends to make any guests nervous, you know? Things like that could give a place a bad reputation, make people think it's haunted, or has monsters, or something like that," she confided in them as she stepped forward and let the seemingly-solid wall silently glide shut behind her.

"He becomes quite frustrated at their not listening to instructions, you know. The experience always oversets their nerves, if nothing else, and they are totally useless for the rest of their stay, and it's ever so expensive to arrange for special transportation back to their employers on an individual basis. His usual staff either know enough not to go wandering, or their families have worked at the Castle for so long, it's simply old-hat to them. Many remember playing in the passageways when they were children."

Moving to another portion of the room, she stopped in front of a wide picture showing a night scene, lit by pale moonlight. A shadowy group of misshappen and distorted figures gathered around a fire, with what appeared to be a rope-bound man splayed against the cliffside behind, the disturbing details hinted at but never clearly seen. She pushed at one corner of the wide frame and stepped back as it swung outward. Inside was a tidy space, now rigged as a liquor cabinet.

She pointed out the various decanters. "Scotch, from a very fine private distillery; a select bourbon from an even more private one; gin, vodka, pretty much the usual variety of tipple, though of high quality, of course.

"Now, this is the house specialty," she remarked, reaching for a tall blue bottle. "I've heard it compared to a dragon's breath in its impact. It does have a certain, well, presence. One small glass is considered the appropriate dosage. One of THESE glasses," she repeated as she held up something that probably held three tablespoons at most. There were six of those tiny glasses lined up around the bottle, though there was a full assortment of larger ones in a variety of shapes on the other side, in racks.

"Hardly seems worth the effort, then, for that drop or two," Mark said under his breath, getting a sharp elbow in the ribs from his partner, along with a hissed "rude, Mark! Rude!" He flushed, since it was obvious his partner wouldn't have been the only one who'd heard that remark.

Peirla just laughed. "Oh, it's well worth the effort, I assure you! It has a lovely flavor, and that tiny amount has much the same effect as much more of some lesser offering would provide. Any greater quantity of THIS, however, and you'll find yourself with a hangover like you've never thought could exist, though, so a word to the wise."

"Now, about that tour? We can talk while we wander. Best not take any refreshments with you; it is SUCH a chore to clean up shattered glass from the jointings of the stone floors," and she touched an unmarked spot on the wall, in a different area of the room from where she'd entered, and led them into the darkness, a darkness lit only by the occasional glowing oval of light on the stone walls.

A wave of her hand caused the illumination to brighten, enough they could see easily the various paintings and sculptures installed in convenient niches. Perhaps TOO easily for their comfort. Many were interesting, though few overly-pleasant in terms of subject; the ancient chart showing a guide to the best rendering of a carcass for the table was particularly disturbing, since that carcass was unmistakably human in origin. Though many of the inked terms were unknown to them, still some were obvious - 'steu' and 'róst', for example. None of the four inquired about the other, less obvious, terms.

Napoleon cleared his throat, exchanging an uneasy glance with his companions.

"I must say, you seem quite comfortable here, Miss Harpee, quite at home. We were given to understand there was no permanent staff here at this time of the year. Perhaps you might give me a more intensive, PRIVATE, tour later, while my friends rest from the trip, " Napoleon suggested with a great deal of charm, attempting to hide his suspicion. Yes, Aubris Dunter lived here year round, but their information had led them to believe he lived alone except for perhaps an aged father.

It was a legitimate concern - was Waverly misdirecting them yet again, or was there information even their gruff leader was unaware of?

Whatever the case, he was sure he could get this lovely young woman to tell him whatever else there was to know; that WAS his talent, after all, the inveigling of impressionable females.

That suggestion got a bright smile in return, but with a hint of feminine amusement, as if finding the debonaire agent's reputed allure somewhat less than he might have hoped. She seemed to have no hesitation with responding, though, at least to his words, his implied question about her position at the castle.

"Oh, I'm not staff, neither Marida nor myself, just old friends who are visiting Aubris and helping out while we are here. But comfortable? Yes, quite.

"Our Uncle Logan lives in a castle much like this one, you see, and we've spent a great deal of our lives running wild there. Well, you know what they say - when you've seen one castle, you've seen them all," she answered in a breezy manner before elaborating.

"Hidden passages, moats, dungeons at least partly converted for wine and liquor storage and other less dire uses than perhaps once they had, kitchens you could feed a hundred or more from, fireplaces and hearths designed to hold a full ox. Turrents and walkways where the wind might try and sweep you away from one moment to the next. Cold in winter, assuredly, but there are ways around that, as you can see by the heavy carpets and wall tapestries and bed drapes in your rooms. But lovely in the summer's heat, I must admit.

"And, whatever else you might say, there is just something comforting about the privacy of being in a remote location, on top of a mountain, surrounded by tall stone walls a few feet thick and a few other old-fashioned protections.

"Of course, there are a few new protections as well, here and in a few other of the old castles. My Uncle Logan, for example, has introduced a new breed of piranha into his moat, specially bred to handle the colder weather of Scotland. Takes care of the overly-curious birdwatcher's tendency to just 'drop-in' unexpectedly, you see. He finds uninvited guests to be ever so annoying, Uncle Logan. Aubris says he finds the idea of piranha intriguing, but with there being guests here so much of the year, he fears it would be impractical."

Illya noted, "it would seem the briefing given Mr. Waverly was somewhat more innocuous than the one you are giving us, Miss Harpee."

That got a conspiratorial chuckle. "Just think of it as the difference between your 'official reports' and what you put in that 'Travelers' Guide' of yours, Mr. Kuryakin. There are things the Powers That Be want to know, and things those with their boots on the ground NEED to know. Then, of course, there are those things which NO ONE needs to know, other than those directly involved. The key is keeping track of which is which, which I am sure you will keep in mind when filing your reports on the Castle."

If there was a subtle warning in that response, it really wasn't all THAT subtle, and none of the four agents were in any doubt of the meaning. Though how the young woman knew about that 'U.N.C.L.E. Agent's Cautionary Guide To Travel' they had no idea.

"Dinner will be in an hour. We DO dress for dinner, at least what you would perhaps call cocktail attire. Suits and ties for the gentlemen; I am sure Miss Dancer needs no additional guidance to thoroughly captivate the table. The other guests have arrived and I am sure you are anxious to meet them," Peirla offered smoothly as she left, this time through the actual door.

"Remind me not to go wandering in there on my own, Napoleon, not unless there is no other choice," Illya commented later, once they were safely ensconced in their rooms again, and Peirla was off and gone.

Napoleon Solo shuddered, looking that the wide expanse of walls that contained such secrets. "Only if you promise to do the same for me. Not my idea of a place for an afterdinner stroll! I never did see how she managed to activate those lights."

The paintings on the walls of those inner corridors, the manacles hanging from where they were embedded in the stone, the damp chill - no, none of it was conducive to a romantic stroll.

"And speaking of dinner, shall we change and go meet the other guests?" April suggested from the connecting door.

"Yes, let's."

 

Dinner had been interesting, to say the least. The food was quite acceptable, though the memory of those paintings had left the UNCLE agents with less of an appetite than they might have had otherwise. The members of the cartel had been politely pleasant when introductions were made, though no mention of UNCLE was included, of course.

The one man not in either group, introduced as Mr. Bergdorf, was absolutely smarmy in his approach to the agents, especially April. Everybody's best friend, that was Mr. Bergdorf.

Peirla Harpee sat at the middle on Dunter's right, another young woman introduced as Marida Wolfe in the middle on his left; they were composed, with a polite and gracious, if not particularly effusive, manner.

Conversation was stilted at first, but gradually became a little more relaxed. It was not particularly fascinating, running the gamut from the superficial to the banal and back again, but at least there wasn't dead silence over the dishes.

What their host thought of the strange assembly, no one could really have said. He presided over the table with smiling grace, answering questions about the amenities with ease, but offering little in the way of illuminating information, other than extending an offer of a tour of the castle to any who were interested, "although no more than two at a time, if you please. It makes for a much more, umm, intimate experience that way." It was interesting to note that Gerard Dumont had eagerly seized on that invitation, as had Mr. Bergdorf.

The four UNCLE agents convened back in the suite shared by Napoleon and Illya, keeping their voices low. They'd swept the rooms for listening devices and found nothing, but considering those seemingly-solid stone walls allowed the knowledgeable individual to come and go at will, they could not discount the possibility of listeners as well.

"So the others I recognized from the photographs in the file, the members of the cartel. Did anyone else pick up on the other man, the one who didn't belong - Mr. Bergdorf, or so he claims?"

Kuryakin nodded glumly, "Milo Bird. THRUSH Operations. And I spotted three of his underlings lurking in the shadows. So either Mr. Waverly was mistaken in thinking THRUSH had no hand in this affair, or . . . "

They all let that just rest in the air, no one quite liking to suggest openly that Waverly might have purposefully misled them. Of course, if he had, it wouldn't be the first time. Though, always, of course, he had good and just reasons for doing so, or that was what he eventually told them later.

"So, what now?" Mark asked.

"Now, we report in, make it official. THRUSH is here, is making a play, though we don't know what yet. I'm not sure if that makes our job easier or harder, or maybe just different," Napoleon grumbled.

Even after that conversation with their superior, they really couldn't have made a sound determination. Well, that crisp, impatient reprimand coming from the pencil-shaped instrument was quite clear - "well, deal with it, whatever it is, gentlemen, Miss Dancer! Surely you do not expect me to fly there and do your jobs for you! I have quite enough on my plate as it is, you know."

"No, sir, of course not," Napoleon had sighed, though Waverly had already closed the connection, as he capped the communicator and tucked it into the breast of his jacket.

"Spread out, take a look around, ask questions, discreetly, of course. Let's see what we can find out about the cartel and Mr. Bird and his fledglings."

 

A DUNTER'S BARGAIN:

The smiling young woman, a strawberry blonde with green eyes, had motioned Dumont to follow her, and he had complied. He'd been expecting something of this nature once he'd left his carefully-worded request for 'a dunter's bargain' in that note slid into the box.

Well, during that initial tour, hadn't their host laughingly referred to that jewel-encrusted box set firmly into the wall as "not quite a 'suggestion box', but something my father told me was the 'request box'. Something about a 'dunter's bargain', he would say and laugh. Family history, I suppose, you know how odd that can be sometimes. Been there since the castle was built, or so the story goes."

She'd shown him to this shadowy room, an office if that large desk was any indication, lined with portraits, filled with treasures of many sorts, some behind glass or metal grills, some laying about casually as if there was no risk of anyone making away with any of it. There were probably several fortunes here, he thought enviously, wondering at the age and disparate origins of the various items.

Gerard Dumont wandered for a few minutes, a little annoyed at being kept waiting after being escorted here.

Then he stopped, shocked. Now he stood staring up at the portrait on the wall, a short, hunched, sharp-featured, white-haired man - not old, not young, somehow ageless - really, he seemed outside any ready description Dumont found coming easily to mind.

Next to it was another portrait, this one of a dark-haired young woman filled with a cold determination, a smug, self-satisfied look on her face. He recognized that young woman, or at least saw in her the woman she had become.

A faint whisper came from his lips. "Grandmother Elaine!"

"Yes, nephew mine. Elaine Balfour. Or rather, Elaine Balfour MacPherson Matthews Dumont. Such a busy lady! Your grandmother. My mother."

Dumont whirled to face the young man, his host, leaning up against the stone wall, watching him so casually.

"Mother??! But that's not possible! You're . . ."

Aubris laughed gently. "Oh, I am far older than I look, nephew. Now, in that note you left in the message box you said something about a proposed bargain? Come, sit, let us discuss what you had in mind. But I am forgetting my manners. Would you like a drink? There is the usual assortment, plus the speciality of the house. We call it rioga tuirc-ghorm, 'the blue royale', from the exquisite turquoise blue coloration, you see."

And a drink was shared, and the bargain was laid out on the table. Well, a bargain such as Gerard Dumont was used to making in his business affairs, one based not on shared need, or even a balanced give-and-take of differing needs, but one based on veiled threats that would obtain for him what he desired. He had rarely had that approach fail, saw no reason to differ his course this time

"Because you have built a solid establishment here; it would be a shame if anything disturbed either its reputation or its viability. Such could so easily happen, you know. My colleagues - well, they are most concerned that this go well," Gerard Dumont offered in his wrap-up, with a smug, self-satisfied look on his face. "I'm sure you see the benefit to such a bargain as what I have offered."

The proprietor of Castle Mòr listened, a faint apprehension clearly visible in his young face, obviously considering that not-so-veiled threat and the bargain, if you could call it that, that had been placed in front of him.

{"It would appear he and his friends from THRUSH truly DO want this bargain. And such an interesting way to present it, such an interesting manner in which to encourage me to accept. Surely it would be rude to turn him down,"} thought the Dunter.

And perhaps it was not so unlike the bargain Elaine Balfour-As-Was had made with Colis Dunter. There were certain similarities if you paid attention to the nuances - a life given/taken in exchange for the future security of Castle Mòr.

Well, two lives actually, as far as the bargain itself was concerned. As Dumont had put it, "remove the two who threaten the continued growth of our cartel, and you will find yourself free of threat to your own enterprise. You needn't worry about the UNCLE agents; my associates will take care of them - indeed, will be quite pleased to do so."

And finally, with a careful nod, Aubris Dunter accepted the bargain as proposed, and the two parted ways, Dumont to be led back to his quarters by the same young woman who'd brought him there, Dunter to remain in his private office to consider what had gone before.

It wasn't long before Marida returned, to join Aubris as well as Peirla, who was now seated in one of the chairs in front of the desk.

"Amazing, he looks so very much like her," Aubris pondered, looking up at that portrait.

"It would seem he thinks a great deal as she thought, as well," Marida commented over a tiny glass poured from that blue bottle.

Peirla nodded, "so, a bargain. I suppose you know who he thinks imperils the growth of that cartel of his?"

Peirla had been concealed in the small anteroom, having full visual and hearing quite clearly, though undiscoverable to any not aware of the handy little area. Marida had listened at the small tube concealed outside the door to the office.

"Oh, yes. Emil Bouchet and Richard Castleman - it seems they have an uncomfortable degree of ethical responsibility, which he and his new 'partners', those men from THRUSH, find inconvenient. They are both quite articulate men, Bouchet and Castleman, quite persuasive, and my dear nephew is aware that they might sway the others in the cartel to their way of thinking. Without them, however, he thinks the others of his cartel will fall in with his way of thinking with little effort."

"A dunter's bargain - always an interesting thing, from what you have told me. Tell me, Aubris, was I mistaken in what I heard?" Peirla asked. "I know he mentioned two of his compatriots and their inconvenience to his plans, but otherwise was careful to be rather vague. Perhaps a little TOO vague for a sensible man to put forth in requesting a bargain with the Dunter.

"It was easy to see what he was asking of you. However, was the bargain that was struck, what you agreed to, really what he thought you were agreeing to? 'The removal of the men who threaten the continued growth of the cartel' - an interesting turn of phrase, with perhaps more than one meaning. It seems to me that he left the specifics rather too much open to interpretation, was too quick to accept your just as carefully-worded response. Growth of the cartel - ah, but what direction would truly be considered 'growth', hmm? And which two men are inhibiting THAT growth? Therein lies the rub."

She had a slight smile at the beginning of that, one that widened into a knowing smirk. She wasn't a Dunter, but being an O'Donnell, and one of the more unusual categories of even that select Clan, she had enough in common to find this all highly amusing.

Marida, not quite as devious of mind as her cousin, choked on the drink she was just swallowing. "But . . . That could just as easily . . . ."

And the two young women laughed with appreciative glee, and Aubris Dunter laughed right along with them. Yes, a dunter's bargain was one where details were ever so important, where even an eyelash of difference could change the outcome entirely. It just could be that Gerard Dumont should have paid a little more attention to his Grandmother Elaine - she HAD mentioned that, after all.

The next was an exercise in the game of 'I Spy'. The three THRUSH agents trailed the four UNCLE agents, or as many as they could locate at any one time. The four UNCLE agents took turns trailing after Dumont, and after Bird - sometimes those two were together, but just as often not. The ones not trailing Dumont and Bird either circled to see what the three THRUSH agents were up to, taking care not to run up their heels and give the game away. One UNCLE agent, by turns, would keep a weather eye on the other members of the cabal. It's a wonder they didn't all get dizzy!

Aubris, Peirla and Marida occasionally stopped in whatever they were doing and watched all the activity in amusement from the various outlooks the castle provided.

"I wonder what they will say if they all turn corners and come square face to face - all nine of them!" Marida noted with a chuckle.

"I'm not sure. I don't really think 'Oops!' would cover it, though," Peirla laughed. "Surely they are more, well, TOGETHER - you know, sly, cunning, professionally sneaky the REST of the time. This is just embarrassing to watch!"

Soon things came to a head though, Dumont getting a little antsy by the time Aubris gave him the nod that all was in order for the bargain to be realized. Dumont passed the word to Milo Bird, who told his men to take care of the UNCLE agents immediately after dinner, and all was in place for the games to come to an end.

That Peirla managed to give April the nod as well, to let her know she and her fellow agents needed to be prepared for immediate action, no one thought to mention to Dumont or Bird. April told Mark, and Napoleon and Illya, and they made their own plans for the evening.

 

So it was, that two men - Gerard Dumont and Milo Bird - went for a walk along the parapets of the castle to discuss how both the cartel and THRUSH would benefit from the removal of Emil Bouchet and Richard Castleman.

"Dunter is taking care of the matter even as we speak. My men are taking care of the UNCLE agents as well, so there'll be no trouble from that end. For a moment, you know, I thought they'd recognized me, but it appears not. I'd find that harmful to my self-esteem if it wasn't working so well to our advantage," Bird laughed smugly.

"I imagine after this, provided they were able to give a description to their headquarters, that will no longer be the case," Dumont warned as he sipped at his glass. He looked at the heavy brandy snifter he held, or at least in the direction of the glass, the dim moonlight not allowing more than an occasional glint of the intense turquoise blue to be seen.

"'Rioga tuirc-ghorm' they call this, 'blue royale'. Really is quite amazing, isn't it? Their own private distilling, I believe. I believe I'll see to ordering up a case to take with me. This is only my second glass and already it is quite warming, even invigorating."

The Thrush man nodded in agreement, but while drinking and enjoying that blue liquid well enough, was more atuned to enjoying the approval this project would bring him from THRUSH Central. Finally he would be one step ahead of that insufferable Victor Marton, blast his arrogant hide! They'd played cat and mouse for long enough; now Marton would find out just who was top dog - er, well, something of that order. Bird was finding his thoughts just a trifle scrambled - probably a combination of the heady surge of triumph, the moonlight, the glorious night, and just perhaps, that lovely blue aromatic spirits in his glass.

"Then, it's a done deal," Milo Bird, now destined for an eventual seat at the Leaders' Council of THRUSH, said with a great deal of satisfaction, if with a bit of slurring of the last two words.

"Yes, a done deal. The one I made the deal with, he never fails, or so I've heard. It's not the first time my family has dealt with him, you know, or at least with his people. He'll get the job done, tonight, and then we can be on to other, more important matters," Dumont assured the THRUSH representative.

"Tonight," Bird said with satisfaction, lifting his glass in a toast.

"Tonight!" Dumont replied, his own glass raised aloft.

There seemed to be a slight echo, if an echo could come in three parts, each with a different tone. Perhaps it was the wind, perhaps the rising mist - who knows?

"Tonight," repeated a low growling voice.

"Tonight," seemed to agree the higher melodic voice.

"Tonight," came more firmly, this voice masculine with more than a hint of amusement.

The two men looked at each other, puzzled at the odd echo, then glanced around as if to seek the source.

And there, in the darkness of the crenellated sheltering wall of Castle Mòr, there was a sudden swirling of the air, quickly moving shadows from all directions, from above and from the sides, and wild cries of terror, then pain, then twin shrieks of despair in the night, and the two men were indeed on their way to other, more important matters. Or at least, on their way to the hard and rocky ground so far below.

In the echoing silence, three figures perched on the walls, looking downward into the night. Two seemed to be far from human, but then shimmered in the moonlight, their forms shifting and turning, til once again, three people - two female, one male - leaned forward past the crenellations to focus on the two bodies visible on the stone outlining the moat.

"Well, if nothing else, he was right about that. A dunter's bargain gets the job done, provided you are very, VERY careful of just what bargain you strike," Aubris remarked casually, to be answered by a soft feminine laugh close to his side, echoed by another only slightly farther away.

"Yes, I'd say, with the right leadership, the cartel's future growth is assured, and the same with Castle Mòr," Marida agreed. "Now, who's for a drink and a game of cards? I doubt anyone will discover the remains til morning, and the night is still young."

Peirla didn't bother commenting, just deepened the congratulatory kiss she was offering to Aubris, one he was returning just as eagerly.

 

On the next level below, still far above the ground, on the wide archers' walk surrounding the castle proper, Mark Slate looked up from where he was trussing up one of the three Thrush operatives. He'd gained a bruised forehead, and the other three UNCLE agents had their own souveniers, but they were all standing, weapons at the ready, while the three THRUSH agents were ready to be shoved into some safe place before being transported back to an UNCLE holding cell.

"Did you hear something? A scream, a screech? Something?" he frowned in concentration. He looked upwards and stopped, frozen as he took in the tableau on the castle wall.

April cast a quick look upwards and just as quickly looked away, shaking her auburn head resolutely. "Just the wind, most likely, Darling. It gets quite fierce here, at least that's what I've always heard."

Illya followed her lead, and Napoleon followed his partner's. It was either that, or acknowledge those three figures, only one of which appeared human, or at least appeared so at this distance. Considering the other two, he wasn't going to be too quick to make rash assumptions about that third. And really, when he'd blinked a time or two, it was obvious it was only their host and the two young women, perhaps taking the night air, gazing over the castle wall. So foolish, what the night and the moonlight and the mist could have you think you were seeing!

None of the men intended to discuss what they'd seen - no, what they'd THOUGHT they seen, OR heard - obviously a trick of the mist and the moonlight and the atmosphere. April didn't intend to discuss it either, except maybe with her partner, and even with him, only if she felt it was truly necessary.

And if, in the morning, they thought again about those screams, that screech, - those silent figures looking over the castle wall - it was primarily upon the discovery of Gerard Dumont and Milo Bird, or what was left of them, found at the base of the castle wall, shattered bits of glass from the heavy brandy snifters scattered here and there.

Amazing what sheer determination and wilful blindness will allow, and what sheer comfort it can bring to the human spirit.

 

AFTERMATH:

The final meeting at Castle Mòr was a solemn one, as was appropriate given the tragic demise of Gerard Dumont, along with their fellow guest, Mr. Bergdorf. (The other three THRUSH agents had never made themselves be known to the guests, so their absence went unnoted.)

The meeting of the cartel was led by the new Chairman, Emil Bouchet, given an able assist by his newly-placed co-chair, Richard Castleman. Their election had been unanimous, guided in part by the papers found in Dumont's business file in his suite.

(Marida really WAS quite skilled with the forgery pen, and Peirla the most accomplished of what their Cousin Caeide's Bondmate, Peter Newkirk, called 'the voice', the mimicking of written tone that moved the skill of forgery into an absolute art form. Well, Caeide was an expert at such herself, of course, or so Peter had always claimed.)

If it had been somewhat of a surprise to the cabal members that, in amongst all the rest, there had been instructions of the direction he saw the cartel taking, and if anything should happen to him, who he saw best leading the group, it was a welcome one, helping to avoid anything near like a power struggle. The heartfelt 'Letter to My Cabal Brothers' was brief, but convincing, and the other members could only see the logic behind that suggestion for future ledership.

It really had been generous and forward-thinking of Dumont to consider the future of the cabal, especially with all else that the man obviously had on his mind, and they would always think of him with respect for that.

That he should have taken the opportunity at this particular time to express that hope was perhaps better explained by that brief if rather vague mention in another scrap of correspondence of some previously undisclosed ailment, the detailed symptoms seeming to sway between the physical and the psychological. Dizziness - hallucinations, both ocular and auditory - periods of blackouts, even - all were mentioned with a certain sense of his own mortality.

No one knew quite which of them had put forth the theory that perhaps their leader and their fellow guest, Mr. Bergdorf, had been enjoying a quiet conversation and a drink when Gerard's symptoms got the better of him. Perhaps he had listed toward the edge, and in his gallant attempt to keep Gerard from falling, Mr. Bergdorf had overbalanced and - well, the rest was obvious. (That at least two had overheard those two young women whispering about the possibilities, including that Gerard hadn't appeared all that well when they saw him last, that might have influenced them slightly.)

"Yes, I believe we can safely say the cartel will move forward to even greater profit in the future. AND, I think we can all take comfort in knowing we can do this while avoiding damage to either the indigenous populations or to the environment," Emil nodded carefully.

The others looked at each other carefully. It wasn't that they were opposed, so much, it was just . . .

It was Vidorsky who cautiously brought up the subject. "At our last meeting, it seemed Dumont felt paying overly-much attention to such matters would greatly impact our profit potential, and in a negative fashion, as well as alienate possible investors."

Castleman gravely looked at the others seated at the table.

"Yes, he did, of course, to begin with, but surely the letter he left for us showed he was rethinking that. He seems to have become aware that one's legacy is of importance too, gentlemen, as well as profit. How will those who come after us see us, our endeavors? Perhaps his time here, absorbing the long history of this place, of stories of those who have cared for it and the surrouding area for generations had some deep personal impact. Perhaps it was the onset of his illness that made him rethink his own legacy. Who can know for sure?

"The one thing I DO know for sure, we are leaders, gentlemen, by the grace not only of our own actions, but our families and their legacy, as well as a great deal of sheer good fortune. And because we are leaders, others pay attention to our actions. Are we to proclaim profit is god, that human life and dignity unworthy of consideration should those values get in the way of that profit? Are we to proclaim we have the right to tear from the earth her sweet treasures to enrich our own coffers, leaving nothing to the people who dwell in that land? I do not want to have such said about me in this life, written about me after I am gone."

It was not an easy discussion, but without the sly and forceful intervention of Gerard Dumont, the cartel decided to temper their financial goals with others just as, if not more, worthy.

They ended their meeting with a resolution to formally thank their host, Mr. Dunter, for his professionalism in seeing to the gathering in of their dear departed leader's remains, of arranging appropriate transportation back to France for a proper burial in the family plot there.

And if there was a certain knowing amusement in the dark eyes of Aubris Dunter as they thanked him for his hospitality, for his solicitous and gracious 'taking care of all the details in taking care of our Mr. Dumont', well, it would have taken a sharper eye than they possessed to see it. And even if, by chance, they had caught a glimpse, they'd never know the true reason behind it.

 

"Has it ever occurred to you, Napoleon, that any more we are leaving as much out of our reports as we are including? Perhaps more, at least on some occasions?" Illya asked as he mulled over the past few days while sipping some excellent clear spirits. While it was not a brand of Russian vodka that he was familiar with (and he thought he knew them all), still, it could have formed a decent substitute for even the best, in his highly judgemental mind. In fact, he was wondering if the Castle could perhaps ship him a few bottles now and again. {"Probably far too expensive for one on my rather limited pay, I suppose,"} he decided regretfully.

Napoleon nodded in wry agreement. "Still, if you put together the official report and the entry to the Traveler's Guide, once we get it completed, you get the whole story."

Mark snorted in amused denial at that amazingly naive statement by the senior agent. Between what April had shared with the men, what she had shared privately with him, and what he had surmised after he freed his mind from the fetters of logical thinking, there was one hell of a lot left unreported!

"Maybe half, Napoleon, no more than that. At least in this case; there's just too much we CAN'T put in, you know, not without having each of us spend a prolonged visit in Psych Med, and that is NOT my favorite place."

That faint allusion to the events of the fateful evening was all that passed between them, but it was enough. Besides, none of them really wanted to discuss it any further.

"But, maybe half - since that's about the best we could hope for, I'd not turn up my nose at it. Especially if Waverly buys it. And Illya, pass over that blue bottle, will you? I know April keeps reminding me that it's supposedly very potent, and that I need my head examined if I even try it, but my curiosity just got the better of me."

The Russian shrugged, "it's your head, Mark, and your hangover as well," and passed the tall blue bottle over. Napoleon hesitated, but when Mark started to hand the bottle back to Illya, held out his glass to be filled. Illya sniffed at the open bottle, then decided it couldn't be any stronger than the vodka he habitually downed with such ease, and filled his own glass. The whiskey glass they'd each already been using, in each case, since all three decided those tiny little glasses really weren't worth the effort. There might be some very daunting things about Castle Mòr, but the contents of that blue bottle could hardly compete with all the rest.

April glanced in an hour later, seeing the three men in various stages of consciousness, and shook her head ruefully. She'd warned them, Aubris, Peirla and Marida, they had ALL warned the three men, but yet, there they were, drunk as a trio of well-soused skunks.

Napoleon looked rather like a cartoon rendering of Old King Cole, wide, idiotic smile on his handsome face, still sitting upright, but swaying heavily, obviously only moments from toppling over. He appeared to be counting his fingers, one by one, of all things, giggling softly to himself the entire time!

Illya had braced himself in the corner of the big couch, and with the sharp degree of inturning of the arms, wasn't likely to fall off; she knew he would be flat on his face otherwise. There was no sign of intelligent life whatsoever in those blue eyes, just a blank stare at the empty glass in his hand, as if the secrets of the universe were contained there, secrets he could unravel if he stared long enough.

Mark? HE was stretched out on his side on the second couch, smiling gently at her; his eyes were open and she could tell he recognized her and that the smile was for her alone, though she doubted he could move even if the place caught on fire. There was something in those blue eyes that rarely appeared, something sweetly personal, something only extreme influence seemed to bring out (or maybe relax his vigilence enough to allow to COME out), and she gave in to the urge to walk closer.

Pausing to take the glass from Illya's hand and setting it aside, seeing the Russian's eyes close as she did so, his head falling back against the sofa, she turned toward Mark.

Leaning down, she brushed his hair back out of his eyes, gently kissed him on his forehead and whispered softly, "you are going to be SOOO sorry in the morning, partner-mine! Don't you even THINK of blaming this on me, you beast!"

He'd garnered the energy and wit to push the wattage in the smile a little more and nod a tiny fraction of an inch and give a deep contented sigh, {"Heaven KNOWS what he thought I said to him!"}, then his eyes had closed, and with another sigh, he was out like a light.

"They just will not listen!" she whispered to her cousins waiting at the door, though there was obviously no need for whispering. A cannon wouldn't have made much of an impression on her fellow agents, not the state they were in.

She was more than content with the red currant wine Aubris had suggested. It had been a delightful complement to the animated conversation and laughter they had shared, but it wasn't going to leave her with a massive hangover.

Well, she might have a lovely tingly feeling and be slightly tipsy at the moment, otherwise that light kiss to Mark's forehead probably wouldn't have happened, but SHE was still upright and moving, making her the only one of their combined teams to be doing so.

She was also the only one able to greet the morning with ease, and the only one able to do more than groan for the next two days, and had spent the time most enjoyably in the company of her distant cousins, Peirla and Marida O'Donnell, as well as Aubris Dunter, Hereditary Dunter of Castle Mòr.

 

"So it's finished," Alexander Waverly said in some satisfaction when Napoleon reported in through the fog of a hangover that he really couldn't find words foul enough to describe.

"Yes, sir," Napoleon answered into the communicator, wincing at the booming voice that issued from the tiny instrument. {"Does he have to SHOUT??!"}

"The cartel is under new leadership, the THRUSH agents are in custody. Well, except for Mr. Bird, otherwise known as Mr. Bergdorf, who fell from the wall in the same accident that took Mr. Dumont. Their bodies are being shipped back to their home addresses, along with a copy of the disclaimer and waiver they each signed. You know, holding the Castle, the proprietor, etc. harmless for any such accidents. I doubt there will be any further trouble along those lines."

Waverly disconnected, gave a puff or two on his pipe, wondering if he should call Ruena or await her call to him. He'd already spoken with Victor Marton, and that worthy had been well satisfied with the outcome. Well, the unfortunate Mr. Bird HAD become rather a thorn in Victor's path, and the successful removal of that thorn, all without a wisp of blame being cast in the senior THRUSH agent's direction, was what the two old partners had been aiming for, among other things. The sacrifice of three field-level THRUSH operatives had been well worth it, in Victor's estimation, and Waverly conceded that was Marton's call.

That the other aim, not a primary one, or even a secondary, but one that it would still have been satisfying to achieve, at least on Waverly's side, had gone unachieved. The annoying young Mr. Slate would be returning with his compatriots after all. A minor nuisance, one keeping this whole affair at less than a total win, but one that could be dealt with at a later time.

The official written report, once he saw it, plus the Guide entry, would tell him much of what had occurred, but that there was more to the story than he would be given, from either the O'Donnell leader or his own teams, he knew that quite well. Yes, he was curious as to what had been left out, wondered if the details wouldn't have made a proper entry into that special file of his, the one holding sometimes near-unbelievable happenings. Still, it seemed counterproductive to go poking and prodding at things, not when there had been such a satisfactory conclusion.

And besides, he had that meeting with the representive from that unnamed Middle Eastern country; he had enough on his plate for the afternoon. He'd think about the oddities of Castle Mòr later, perhaps.

 

Aubris sighed as he watched the four U.N.C.L.E. agents make their way to their conveyance. He was sorry to see them go, would have liked them to have stayed longer. He had enjoyed the past few days and nights, the conversation, the camaraderie. Still, he had things to do, and he really needed to get focused if he was to have everything organized by the opening of the official season.

Being a Dunter was sometimes challenging; being the heir and manager to Castle Mòr even more so. For one thing, he just HAD to find someone to figure out what was wrong with the stove in the main kitchen; the unexplained variations in the oven temperature was highly unacceptable. That was the problem with using high-end commercial equipment; repairs were never easy, neither parts or repairmen being thick on the ground in remote locations like theirs. The huge open fireplace and spit were far more reliable, but did SO limit their offerings in the dining room.

And there were those requests for 'special' reservations, the out-of-season ones, that he'd been pondering. For now, the answer to all three of those would be a polite, slightly regretful, but firm 'No'. They'd had quite enough activity for now. Besides, the village depended on them, and he had a business to run. That last 'special reservation' had taken up far too much of his time already, though he had to admit it had been both challenging and quite amusing overall.

Besides, reservations were quickly coming in for the first quarter of the new season, and the list of things to be done grew longer every day.

Still, now he would have help, as Peirla had informed him at breakfast, in answer to his hesitant, rather shy question.

"Well, of course, I'll be staying, Aubris dear; I didn't realize there was any question of that. And Marida has expressed an interest in learning more about the destination hotel business, so SHE intends to stay as well, at least for awhile. You don't mind, do you?"

And he'd looked into those pretty amber eyes with the golden flecks, (now that she'd removed those dark contact lenses), that mischievous smile, the flowing red curls (previously shielded by that brown wig), and couldn't help but laugh in sheer joy, as he had so often during the past few days, or rather nights, when she'd joined him in his bed.

So, he was a dunter. She and her family knew that, but didn't object, just as he didn't object to her casting herself off the highest turrent during her more exuberant moments.

Ah, so lovely! In fact, he'd never seen anything so graceful as his Peirla in full flight, talons curved and sharp, glistening in the moonlight, wings as majestic and proud as any eagle he'd ever seen, head thrown back and red flowing curls tossing in the wind, laughing voice returning down to him as he watched from the castle wall.

He was sure she was the most beautiful of her sort, though he'd never actually SEEN one of her sort before; she was certainly nothing like the illustrations he'd seen.

Before he went away to college, met Peirla and the others from Clan O'Donnell, he'd been frightfully naive about some things. Just to think, he'd always sort of assumed harpies were just one of those myths that the humans talked about, but it would seem that was not so, not within Clan O'Donnell anyway. Harpies, dragons, hippogryphs, wolves, leopards, hawks - Clan O'Donnell contained all of those and much else, it would appear. None could possibly be as lovely as Peirla, though, he was sure of that.

Oh, Marida was a most attractive she-wolf, of course, but his Peirla, his own sweet Peirla - - - Ahhhhhhhh!