“He loves it. Some of his old army friends book in here and he tells them long stories about how he had nearly shot himself when he lost his money and how courageously he had fought back single-handed, just as if Mummy and I hadn’t done all the work, not to mention Mr Johnson. It’s the new legend. ‘The Plucky Colonel’. Still, I’m being catty. He’s happy. His rages don’t mean anything. They never last for long, and then he can’t even remember what all the fuss was about. Anyway, you’re having a lovely life. No murders.”

“Thank goodness for that,” said Hamish. “And not a cloud in the sky.”


But the clouds that were about to darken his tranquil sky in the shape of the members of the Checkmate Singles Club were soon approaching Sutherland.

On her way north a week later was the organizer, Maria Worth. She was a stocky, cheerful woman who had made a success out of the business. She never had large get-togethers for her clients. She always assembled them in small groups and in some romantic setting, but usually in or near London. She had heard from friends about the Tommel Castle Hotel and decided it would be a perfect setting for the most difficult of her clients. She would not have thought of such an adventurous scheme had Peta been around. Peta Gore was the bane of Maria’s otherwise successful life. Peta had put up half the money to launch Checkmate, becoming a partner. When the business flourished, Maria had tried to buy her out, but Peta refused. For Peta was a widow on the look-out for a husband and she hoped to pick up one at one of Maria’s get-togethers. She never troubled her head with any of the nitty- gritty of office work or with interviewing or researching clients. But she had a nasty habit of turning up, uninvited, and throwing the carefully chosen guest-list out of sync.

Maria had come to hate her old friend. For not only was Peta noisy and vulgar, she was a glutton. There was no softer word for it. She was not just ‘fond of her food’ or had ‘a good appetite’, she sucked and chomped and chewed with relish, all the while inhaling noisily through her nose. She was a party-pooper extraordinaire.

But Maria had been determined that Peta should not find out about the visit to Tommel Castle and so had kept quiet about it until Peta, thinking there was nothing in the offing, had said she was taking a holiday in Hungary.

Sitting in a first-class carriage on the Inverness train, Maria opened her Gucci brief-case and took out a sheaf of notes and thanked God that Peta was far away, slurping and chomping her way up and down the shores of the Danube.

She ran over her notes to double-check that she had paired her singles correctly.

There was Sir Bernard Grant, who owned a chain of clothing stores. A photo of him was pinned to the notes. He was in his late forties, small, round, plump and clever. He was a widower. He had approached the agency because he had found himself too busy and too reluctant to begin dating again at his age. And by the time he joined, it was well known that Checkmate only catered to the rich.

Maria slid out the next sheet of paper. He was to be paired with Jessica Fitt, owner of a florist’s shop in South Kensington. Jessica had a degree in economics from Newcastle University. After various jobs she did not like very much, she had taken a training course in floristry, opened up a shop, and then used her excellent business brain to make it pay. She was a grey lady: grey hair, grey face, and she even wore grey clothes. In her shop, she had confided to Maria, she was deferred to by her staff and known by her regular customers. But outside the shop, people seemed to treat her as if she was invisible. She had recently come round to the idea that a husband would be a good thing, not for sex or romance, but to have someone with her who could catch the eye of the maitre de in a restaurant. Sir Bernard only wanted a wife because he needed a hostess. Yes, they should hit it off.

The next photograph showed a pleasant-looking young man with a square face, rather small eyes, and a rather large mouth. This was Matthew Cowper, a yuppie, twenty-eight and surely the last person to need the aid of Checkmate. But he had climbed fast in the world from low beginnings and he wanted a wife with a good social background to help him go further. He expected Checkmate to introduce him to the sort of people he would not otherwise meet socially.

He was to be matched with Jenny Trask. Jenny was a legal secretary with a private income from a family trust. She was fairly attractive in a serious way: black hair and glasses, a good mouth, and large blue eyes. She was, however, painfully shy.

Maria put that lot to one side. The train roared across the border into Scotland. It had been muggy and overcast, but now the skies were clear blue and the sun was shining. And Peta was far, far away.

Maria smiled and returned to the rest of her notes. The good-looking features of Peter Trumpington smiled up at her from a large colour photograph. Now, he was a prize! He had a large fortune and did not work at anything at all, quite unusual in this age of the common man. But like any other rich man, he was tired of being preyed on and needed the agency to sort out the wheat from the chaff. He had been engaged to a film starlet who had relieved him of a sizeable chunk of money before dumping him. Then a typist caught his eye, a typist whose looks hid the fact that she was dull and rather petty, but he had found that out in time and he had dumped her. Although tall and handsome, with dark hair and melting dark eyes, he did not have much personality. He also did not evince any signs of great intelligence.

So chosen for him was Deborah Freemantle, also with a private fortune, who worked as an editorial assistant to a publisher in Bedford Square, London. She still spoke like a schoolgirl with many exclamations of “Gosh! I say!” and thought everything was FUN and had joined Checkmate for ‘a giggle’, or so she said, although her parents had made the booking.

The last man on the list was John Taylor, QC; in his sixties, widower, dry and chalky-skinned and fastidious, grey hair still quite thick, contact lenses, punctiliously dressed. He wished to be married again to spite his son and daughter. He hoped for someone young enough to still bear children but did not want ‘some silly little bimbo’.

Selected for him was Mary French, a demure spinster in her early thirties. She was an English teacher at a public school not that rich, but comfortably off and made up in breeding what she lacked in wealth, which had made her acceptable to Checkmate. She was third cousin to the Earl of Derwent. Maria squinted doubtfully down at the photograph. Mary was a teensy bit rabbit-toothed and perhaps her ears did stick out a trifle, but then John Taylor was hardly an Adonis and he was quite old.

With an increased feeling of well-being, she packed away her notes and closed her eyes. Nothing could possibly go wrong.


Jessica Fitt, had Maria but known it, was further down the train in the second-class dining car, trying to catch the eye of the waiter so that she could order more tea, but the waiter slouched past her as if she did not exist. She gave a little sigh and wondered, as she had wondered so many times before, why she did not have the courage to raise her voice and call him. She thought of Checkmate and wondered whom they had found for her and experienced a sudden spasm of nerves that made her nervously scratch her armpits and then one hip. She belonged to that nervous breed of women who are forever scratching themselves. She did hope it would be different from the other two events organized by Checkmate: one dinner party, and one cocktail party in the Whistler Room at the Tate Gallery. The man selected as her escort on each occasion had drifted off to talk to some other woman. If it had not been for the attentions of Maria Worth, she would have been left entirely alone. But perhaps this time it would work. It was a whole week in which to get someone to notice her. She sighed. Someone – anyone – kind would do. She had lost hopes of romance long ago.


Sir Bernard Grant drove his large car northwards through the clear empty Highland landscape. If he did not find a partner at this affair, he would drop Checkmate and try one of the other agencies. He was very rich, but that did not mean he liked wasting money, he told himself virtuously. He needed a wife, a good hostess, someone with a bit of style. He wasn’t much interested in sex. He could always buy that.


Also driving north was Matthew Cowper, still young enough at twenty-eight to dream of a mixture of social success and romance. He wanted one of those cool society girls. For although there were a lot of yuppies like him working in brokerage houses in the City, chaps from ordinary working-class backgrounds, he knew the old guard stuck together. The correct wife would give him that edge he needed.

He turned in at the gates of the Tommel Castle Hotel, silhouetted against the blue sky, turrets and pinnacles and battlements and all. It was a fake castle, built in Victorian times, but Matthew did not know that. It reminded him of a castle in a boy’s book about knights of old that he used to treasure.

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