Myles Gallagher approached the site in the peculiar shuffling movement of somebody with little experience of wearing snowshoes. He took several photographs of the famous standing stones and the unique geological phenomena that distinguished them from any other such Neolithic structure before fumbling in his backpack for a more unusual piece of technology. It was something he had designed himself with components he had taken home from the university science department where he worked. He could have built it in the lab, but if any of his colleagues had known that he was making a device to monitor unnatural phenomena they would have ribbed him mercilessly. Worse, the funding for his main work on ultra frequency sound waves might be affected by his pursuit of what was, after all, just a very time consuming hobby.
The local legend was that the stones were a gateway to some sort of fairy land. He was convinced it was a gateway to other worlds of the cosmic sort - a portal between earth and an alien planet.
Yes, he had seen the film and the television series – all seven seasons - and the straight to DVD mini-series’ about such a 'gate'. That was why he kept quiet about his theories even with his more open minded friends.
He was excited. His resonance metre was going off the scale. There was definitely something here.
He stepped between two of the stones, watching the scrolling digits on the LCD screen.
Then he screamed. He felt as if his veins were full of fire. He couldn't see clearly. There was nothing but a red haze through which he thought he could make out the outlines of silent figures watching him. His ears were full of a roaring as if he were in the midst of the fire of a volcano. His flesh was melting in the heat, transforming, hardening into another substance entirely.
Then there was silence except for the wind blowing across the snow-covered mountain.
But Miles Gallagher didn't even hear that.
Toshiko Sato pushed herself off down the ski slope with a sensation of unbridled joy. There was nothing to beat the rush of adrenaline as she hurtled downhill in full control of her descent and yet with the ever present knowledge that it could all get out of control at any moment.
She could hear Owen whooping with delight as he followed her down the pristine slope. They were alike in that respect. Their idea of a holiday pastime was as thrillingly fraught with potential hazards as their job. They craved these life and death moments even in leisure.
They were both totally reckless and irresponsible giving in to such primal urges. They had two children, after all. Who would look after Etsuko and Genkei if they both broke their necks in a ski accident? Munroe MacDonald and his alien sex worker girlfriend were a strange pair of childminders, let alone foster parents.
But even thoughts like that couldn't persuade either of them to slow down until they reached the nearly flat ridge where they turned north-east and headed towards the second part of their descent into Gleann Fir from the slopes of Sgurr an Cheann Déag.
"We should be aiming for the Old Men," Owen called out to Toshiko. "The standing stones. They're our landmark along this valley. Bearing east from them brings us into a pass between the mountains. Easy skiing back to the hotel for drinks in the lounge before a lunch and a little nap in that gloriously comfortable king sized bed in our premier style room."
Of course, when he said 'nap' he meant sex. Toshiko knew that perfectly well. That was one of the luxuries of a holiday without the children - uninterrupted sex. It had been the pattern of their days since arriving at the ski resort – early breakfast and a morning on the slopes and an afternoon in bed.
But she was thinking about something else just now. She had it in the forefront of her mind as they pushed off again and skied along the ridge then down into the valley separating four great walls of snow covered granite with virtually unpronounceable Gaelic names.
The standing stones that Owen had alluded to had interested her from the first day they arrived at the resort hotel. The welcome brochure left in the room had several glossy photographs of this local place of interest.
The funny thing was that there was no mention of the stones in the website where they had gone to book their holiday and when Toshiko searched for them on her laptop she could find nothing except for a rather silly tale about it being a faery ring where the incautious would be stolen away from the land of the living until a willing victim gave his or her self up and the ring closed.
Even Google Earth let her down. The aerial view of the valley was obscured by clouds.
It looked as if the stones were a very well kept secret outside of the glen.
Which was why Toshiko was quite excited to be heading towards the stones. She really wanted to see them for herself.
Several miles of exhilarating cross country skiing brought them to the place. Owen was a half a minute behind, by which time Toshiko was already slowly skirting the perimeter of the site.
There were twenty six stones altogether. At least she thought there were. Her first count was twenty-four and her second twenty-seven. She stood her binoculars on one as a marker and counted twenty-six twice, so she decided that had to be the correct number.
They were in a circle with a circumference of at least two hundred metres. She found herself thinking about gadgets back at the hub in Glasgow that would make all the measurements necessary in seconds.
Then she remembered that she was on holiday and didn’t need to measure it at all.
But there was something about the place that compelled her interest in the same way a Torchwood mystery compelled her.
"Come on, take a couple of pictures for the holiday album and let’s get going,” Owen told her. “It’s bloody freezing standing around."
It wasn’t. Their thermal lined ski clothes kept them perfectly warm. He just wasn’t interested in the Old Men except as a rare landmark pointing him towards his pre-lunch drinks.
That was Owen to a T. It didn’t take him long to get bored with countryside.
"I just want to look at it properly," Toshiko answered. "Have you noticed that there is no snow inside the circle? Isn't that weird. Very nearly Torchwood weird."
"There will be some sort of geological explanation," Owen responded. "Some kind of geothermal thing going on."
"Maybe," Toshiko conceded. "But look at it. It’s like a different season inside the circle. Look. There are dandelions flowering in there.
"The geothermal thing," Owen insisted.
'Yes," Toshiko agreed, since she couldn’t think of an alternative explanation other than it was a fairy ring.
"Hang about!" Owen suddenly became interested. "Some fool left their gear here. Looks like some expensive stuff.”
Toshiko looked where he had bent between two of the stones. He picked up a backpack that contained, along with food and drink and a warm change of clothes, an iPad, a good quality pair of binoculars and a very expensive camera. Toshiko reached for something else that was nestled beside one of the stones.
"What’s that?" Owen asked her.
"I'm not sure," she answered. "It looks like something I might have put together myself. Except a bit more Heath Robinson. I wouldn't have had this circuitry so exposed. And I haven't the foggiest idea what it does.”
"Why do I think you mean to find out?" Owen asked.
"Something happened to the owner of these things," she said. "You know it did, don't you?"
"I agree," Owen conceded. "But I don't think it was anything sinister. People get lost up here in the snow. Some of them are daft enough to think lightening the load will help and drop their kit."
“One week in a ski resort and you’re an expert on the subject?” Toshiko challenged his assertion pointedly before returning to what really concerned her. “Besides, I think it was more than that. Don’t ask me to explain, but I feel sure it was something… something terrible.”
Owen looked on the verge of a scathing remark about women’s intuition but changed his mind when he saw the expression on her face. He wasn’t going to get into THAT argument in the middle of a deserted mountain valley, knee deep in snow.
Besides, even if Toshiko was over-reacting the fact still remained that somebody had left their gear in a very strange place to leave anything. He looked more closely at the backpack contents, noting that there was no form of identification in it. Of course, it would be pointless to bring credit cards or passports on a cross country trip into the middle of nowhere.
He turned to the packet of food. There were sandwiches in shrink wrapping and a printed label that indicated the ingredients and the use by date.
“Prawn salad,” he said. “They should have been eaten four days ago. They don’t look too bad.” He opened the packet and sniffed the sandwich filling.
“You’re not going to EAT that, are you?” Toshiko asked, thoroughly appalled.
“Not a chance. I don’t want salmonella. It IS off, but only just. Being out here in zero temperatures had a refrigeration effect.”
Toshiko was looking at him quizzically and asked him when he became such an expert on food safety.
“I know about flesh kept in refrigerated conditions,” he replied. “The point is, the owner of this backpack left it four days ago when the sandwiches were fresh. If he hasn’t turned up somewhere civilised by now, he must be dead.”
“You missed a point about the sandwiches. That little shield logo printed on the wrapping. They were made in the hotel kitchen. The hotel we’re staying in. They do packed lunches on request. The missing man was a guest up to four days ago.”
“We’ve been there six days. I didn’t notice any fuss about a missing guest.”
“Perhaps they don’t know. I mean… it’s a bit thick of them not to notice, but not impossible.”
Owen conceded the possibility. He repacked the backpack, including the sandwiches, and shouldered it along with his own pack.
"We had better bring this stuff back to the hotel and report a possible missing person," he said. “They might still be charging him for breakfasts he hasn’t eaten.”
Toshiko agreed. Owen didn’t notice her slipping the hand-made device into her own backpack for further examination.
Owen was more than slightly irritated by the time they reached the hotel that was the base of their holiday.
Irritated at Toshiko.
"It wasn't a bloody race,” he complained as they took off their outer wear in the lobby and headed for the reception with the possibly dead, certainly missing, man's belongings. "I expected us to take our time coming back."
"Yes, but then we found those." She pointed to the backpack with the expensive consumer goods in it.
"He's already dead out there in that snow. A few minutes isn't going to make any difference. "
The hotel manager was a retired ski champion called Cavendish McKenzie Frazer. Toshiko thought he sounded like a retired estate agency. He had a curiously frozen expression as if he had spent far too much time on the piste, and even Owen had got bored with the jokes that could be made out of that.
Cavendish McKenzie Frazer listened to their story and glanced cursorily at the contents of the backpack.
"I don't think the gentleman was a guest here," he said. "Our kitchen DOES supply sandwiches to the ski centre – day visitors often purchase them. I will call the police right away, though. Let me put these things under lock and key meanwhile, so there is no misunderstanding."
Toshiko wondered what sort of misunderstanding he might have in mind. Owen reluctantly handed over the backpack to go into the hotel safe before heading to the lounge where pre-lunch drinks were available.
"He's lying," Owen commented, looking into his glass like a gypsy fortune teller consulting her crystal ball. "He has no intention of calling the police."
Toshiko looked as if a dozen conspiracies, some of them involving alien intervention, were forming in her mind. She even wondered briefly about the faery ring idea, but that was too silly for words.
"He doesn’t want a death associated with the resort.” Owen glanced around the quiet lounge. Of course, a lot of the guests were out on the slopes, but the breakfast room had hardly been busy, either. At the height of the ski season the hotel was far from full. “I don’t think this place is doing as well as their website makes out. Something like that would kill it off."
"It’s disgusting," Toshiko declared loud enough for the other guests to hear before lowering her voice and leaving them to work out for themselves exactly what was disgusting.
"Are we going to let him do that?" she asked.
"Well, I'm buggered if I'm going out searching for a frozen body. I can find plenty of those at work. But I'm getting that expensive kit back. Finders bloody keepers."
Owen made it sound as if he was just interested in laying claim to the expensive consumer goods for their monetary value – the motive they both suspected of the manager, for that matter. Toshiko knew that was just his way of saying he wanted to investigate. His curiosity was piqued as much as hers.
"I would like to look at his iPad to see if there are any clues to his identity,” she said. “And maybe the camera had some pictures."
"Lunch first," Owen insisted. “Then that nap we promised ourselves. Then we'll do some professional snooping."
The sex was mutually satisfying. The afternoon sleep that followed was refreshing. When Owen woke up he noticed that Toshiko wasn't in bed with him. He sat up and saw her on the comfortable sofa that could turn into an uncomfortable single bed if three people really wanted to sleep in the same room. Toshiko was downloading images from a camera onto her laptop.
"How did you get that?" Owen asked, wrapping a hotel dressing gown around his naked body and joining her. He recognised the camera straight away as the one he had found at the stones.
"I robbed the safe while Mr Estate Agent was dealing with Mrs Banford, that sweet but batty old dear who always wants the radio in the lounge tuned to some Irish station.”
"I don't know why she doesn't go to an Irish hotel," Owen said. "But she's good for a diversion. I suppose you cracked the safe in about twenty seconds?”
He grinned widely. His wife's talents with locks of all sorts would have made her an excellent burglar if she hadn't chosen a more legitimate career.
“Not even that. The dumb idiot had the combination taped to the door.”
“So what have you found?"
"The missing man's identity. He's Myles Gallagher from the University of Stirling. I found his Facebook account on the iPad. Nobody knows he's missing, yet, because he told them he was going away for a week without his phone."
"If Mr Double-Barrelled had his way they'll never know anything," Owen noted.
"He WAS a guest here, by the way," Toshiko said. "I hacked into the electronic guest register. There WASN'T a guest by that name in recent weeks until I ran my Palimpsest Programme. That showed up where the database had been edited and what had been deleted – Gallagher’s name, home address and phone number. The deletion was made this afternoon after we reported him missing."
"I still think it was to avoid bad publicity," Owen told her. "But I don't see why he should get away with that. We've got police connections we can contact. They can launch a search for the body and contact his next of kin - and give his nibs a bollocking for trying to hide the connection to his sodding hotel."
"Before you do that, can we investigate the possibility of something totally weird - like the idea that Myles Gallagher never left the standing stones. He IS one of the stones, now, transformed by some kind of supernatural or alien weirdness of the Torchwood kind."
Owen said nothing. He waited for Toshiko to explain herself.
"Look at these pictures in the welcome brochure," she said, indicating the glossy images of the standing stones. "According to the byline, those pictures were taken last winter by a photographer called Andrew Walker."
"Count the stones."
Owen did, twice.
"Now look at this picture I got from Myles Gallagher’s camera."
Owen looked. He looked back at the brochure image. He counted the stones in the image taken sometime this very week.
"Twenty-five," he said. "How the fuck...."
"THAT stone wasn't there when the brochure pictures were taken." Toshiko pointed her long, slender index finger at a talk stone that, if you squinted at it and used a lot of imagination, looked like somebody back-packing.
"Now look at the pictures I took, today," she added.
Owen looked and swore profusely.
"Standing stones don't multiply overnight."
"They don't eat people, either."
"Can we be sure about that?" Toshiko asked. "The things we've seen in Torchwood... Orgasm aliens who turn humans to dust...."
“Fairies that murder child molesters.”
“Drugged up Blowfish car thieves.”
“Lesbian ghouls who eat human hearts."
"You had to bring her up," Toshiko retorted. "But the point is we've seen all sorts. Anything is possible. And there's this." She held up the amateur device that was among Mr Gallagher’s belongings. “This is a primitive meisson detector. Meisson energy does all sorts of things – including transformation and transplantation of matter. I think he was measuring the levels of energy around the stones when he became a victim of them.”
"Ok,” Owen conceded, especially with technology that backed up the theory. “I accept the possibility. What do you want to do about it?"
"My first thought would be to call the team up here to fully investigate these stones. I think we also need an historic check on how many people have disappeared around there. How many stones were there to begin with?"
“Buggered if I know,” Owen replied.
“It was a rhetorical question,” Toshiko told him.
“It was a rhetorical answer. Calling up the team is a last resort. Let's see what we can find out for ourselves, first. I'm going to start by getting the truth out of Mr Double-Barrel.”
Owen confronted Mr Cavendish McKenzie Frazer as he was coming from the lounge where most of the guests were now gathering for pre-dinner drinks. He was, as many people were, surprised by the ferocity and the strength of the wiry framed doctor and was bent over his own reception desk before he had a chance to protest.
Toshiko quietly reached for the book version of the guest register which was signed as well as keeping the computer database. She found the relevant page.
"It's quite a decent bit of misdirection," she said. "Going over Mr Myles Gallagher with the same pen, making the e into an o and the rest. It looks like you had a guest called Mylos Gallosso. You wrote in the checking out date the day before Myles disappeared. I suppose you cleared out his room yourself. "
"I didn't do anything to him. I haven't broken any law. I didn't even charge the room to his credit card."
"You knew he was dead and there was no body to find. How?"
"When he didn't come back, I went up to the Old Men. I counted them. I knew."
Owen relaxed his hold on the manager, letting him stand upright before pushing him into the staff only room behind the reception. If the tale was going to get unpleasant there was no need for others to hear.
"You know this has happened before," Toshiko said to him in a softer tone than Owen. It wasn't exactly a good cop/bad cop routine, but he responded better to her questions after Owen's hard line.
"When I was a boy, there were only twelve Old Men," he admitted. "Over the years they've taken their victims... sacrifices.... chosen companions. My uncle was the Thirteenth. My father and I both witnessed the transformation. We both heard him scream in agony as his body turned to stone and he took his place in the circle."
"What bollocks is this?" Owen demanded.
"You've seen. You must have or you wouldn't be asking. You've counted the stones."
"Twenty-six. Who was the other victim since your brochure was printed?"
"I don't know. Somebody nobody would miss. They... they do that. The victims are... at least as far as I know... all single men, and all at least fifty years old. They choose old men with no dependants.
"Choose?" Toshiko queried. "You mean they're sentient? Why men over fifty? That's not VERY old."
"It might have been when the first stones were placed," Owen suggested. "When average life expectancy was thirty, fifty was old and venerable."
"Ok. But the query still stands.”
"I don't know,” McKenzie Frazer said. “I've just lived with the secret for most of my life. I tried to research the stones, but there's nothing on them anywhere, no books, hardly any internet sites.”
"Yeah, the conspiracy freaks who might be interested are single men,” Owen noted caustically. “They probably get turned before they can upload their theories."
"I don't know," Cavendish McKenzie Frazer said again. "Please don't hurt me."
"I'm not going to hurt you," Owen answered. "But you ARE going to make sure nobody else goes near those stones. I don't care how you do it... bury them in concrete, blow up a chunk of mountain and block the pass, drive a steam roller over them.... whatever. If I go back up there and find twenty-seven stones I'll arrange for the bodies of the missing men to turn up in your kitchen freezer. Don't think I can't. I've got contacts. I can arrange a fit up like that any time."
"Are you police? " McKenzie Frazer asked, suddenly even more fearful than before.
"Worse. We're Torchwood. If that doesn't ring any bells, look us up on the internet. We ARE on the conspiracy sites, and we will come down on you like a ton of bricks."
"I...I'll try," he promised.
"Right. That'll do for now. My wife and I will be having drinks in the lounge before dinner. Tomorrow we'll want packed lunches. We're going out for the day in the opposite direction to Sgurr an Cheann Déag."
"You know something," Toshiko said as they sat with their drinks beside a roaring log fire in the lounge. "I just realised something. Sgurr an Cheann Déag. I thought it meant mountain of the red head... like a woman with fiery hair... very Scottish, very celtic. But ceann also means hat or cap. Redcap... it’s a bloodthirsty Scottish elf. Do you think it has any bearing on the Old Men... are they Redcap victims?"
"I'm fucked if I either know or care," Owen answered. “I really just wanted a holiday with no Torchwood shit, and for the next five days at least that is what we're having. After that if I have to arrange to airlift a bulldozer into the valley, then so be it."
And that was how it might have stood if Cavendish McKenzie Frazer hadn't done as Owen suggested and looked up Torchwood. What he found in the conspiracy sites worried him so much that it led him to take action a more sensitive man than Owen Harper might have felt guilty about.
It was getting on for two o'clock in the morning when he reached the Old Men. Cavendish McKenzie Frazer looked grimly at the granite stones stark against the snow in the moonlight. The patch inside where different weather conditions applied was even darker. It might, to the imaginative and easily persuaded, look like a gaping hole in the ground.
He walked around the stones, looking at the shapes that, in the stark contrasting shadows of a moonlit valley could, again to an active imagination, look a lot like men standing around mutely.
Maybe not so mutely. As he identified the newest stone, the latest victim, set purely by chance, next to the one that had once been his uncle, he thought he heard voices. One of them was screaming for help. Another was pleading.
One might have been calling his name.
"If I come to you willingly, will you stop taking people by force?" He asked. "One willing sacrifice. That’s what the old tale used to be. My dad used to say it... before it took Uncle Malcolm. He never said it after. He wouldn't talk about that day at all. But if it IS true, then take me and make an end of....”
He stopped speaking and screamed. His vision blurred. His veins burned as rock heated by volcanic forces burned. His tongue cleaved to the roof of his mouth while his scream became less and less human. Soon there was no sound at all except the wind whistling through the stones.
A fortnight later, a Torchwood team that didn't include Munroe MacDonald who was over fifty, or Darius Petkus who, in addition to being WELL over fifty, found sunlit snowscapes problematic, counted twenty-seven stones but registered no unusual energy signals from them. They did notice that the centre of the circle was now covered in snow.
"Perhaps the legend about needing a willing sacrifice was TRUE," Dougal Drummond remarked, looking at Toshiko's notes and a photocopy of the very curious suicide note Cavendish McKenzie Frazer had left in the hotel reception. He had mentioned the sacrifice, and also told anyone looking for him to 'count the stones'.
"Or maybe it’s all bollocks and nobody can fucking well count," Shona responded, though she wasn't convinced that could be true of a science geek like Toshiko. "Anyway, the boss said leave the body with the hotel manager's ID on it where the snow will cover it quickly. By the time it thaws nobody will want to argue about whether it is him or not. Case closed, mystery solved.”