Chapter 1

From Beyond the Grave

Tuesday 10th June 2014

Edinburgh

Scotland

Alan Wheeler positioned the brown padded envelope to his left and lifted the document on the desk in front of him. “I’ll read your father’s will and testament before I pass you the item I’ve kept securely.”

“Please, take your time, Alan.” Bryce nodded and sat with his back straight, and hands clasped on the solicitor’s large desk. The two men had known each other since childhood. Both were thirty-five and a little under six feet, but where Alan had succumbed to a relaxed, comfortable lifestyle, Bryce had maintained his physical fitness.

The solicitor read the document from the top of the first page to the final words on the third page. When he’d finished, he placed the sheets flat on the desk and turned them to face his client. He waited and watched as Bryce read the document himself, silently.

Bryce took a pen from an inside pocket. He signed and dated the confirmation sheet the solicitor placed in front of him. “Thank you, Alan. I’m satisfied all is in order.”

Alan pulled the signed sheet around to face him, and he too signed and dated the bottom. “In the course of my duties I’ve held documents and small packages for many clients, but I have to say, I’m pleased to hand this one over.”

“Was there some problem?” Bryce accepted the padded envelope from the solicitor and stared at the distinctive handwriting. A smile teased his lips as he thought of the care his father took when writing anything.

“No, maybe I’m just paranoid.”

Bryce squinted. “You’re giving me the impression that this isn’t a run-of-the-mill business.”

“This is a special case, Bryce. As you know, our fathers were friends and trusted each other. My father was your family solicitor for many years. I think he’d expect me to enlighten you regarding my instructions.” Alan Wheeler unlocked and pulled open a drawer in his desk. He lifted out a sheet of vellum paper. It contained a handwritten message which he gave to his client.

“Thank you,” Bryce accepted the page, briefly met the solicitor’s gaze, and looked down, once again recognising his father’s handwriting:

‘Mr Wheeler,

While I do not wish to appear to threaten, I would ask that the package addressed to my son, Bryce, is not seen or handled by anybody but you. If it should be tampered with in any way, the consequences would be most unfortunate for whoever deemed to do so. I would further ask that the package is not handed over until the details of my will have been read and accepted by Bryce.’

Bryce paused and glanced at the nervous solicitor before reading on:

‘My life was directly threatened recently, which is why I have taken the step of preparing this message for use from beyond the grave. Due to the nature of the risks, should the package be interfered with, or not passed on to Bryce, I respectfully remind you of our conversation when we last met.’

The instruction was signed, William Crawford, Lieutenant Colonel (Retired).

Bryce handed the instruction back to his solicitor. “Thank you. I can only imagine you have a good reason for wishing me to see such a message.”

Alan inhaled and breathed out slowly. “Your father only spoke to me in person on a few occasions, but at our last meeting he watched me place the package in my safe and swear secrecy.”

There was a knock at the office door.

“Wait!” The solicitor’s tone was sharp and unlike the quiet voice anyone might be accustomed to, including how he had spoken earlier when conducting the business of William Crawford’s will. He turned to his client. “I apologise, Bryce.” He loosened his tie and collar before continuing quietly. “Although your father didn’t say as much, I was left with the clear impression that he was compelled to do business with, shall we say, foreign powers.”

“Would you mind expanding on your theory?”

“Your father told me he was working in conjunction with a British government department and said I should be aware of any new clients who had foreign interests. He suggested I avoid being interviewed by or taking on any British client or any person who might be under European influence. He also warned against any person who was sensitive about background checks.”

“Did my father suggest how to deal with such a thing if it occurred?”

“I have a phone number to use and a single word to say before hanging up.” Alan glanced around his small office as if there might be listening devices. “Your father also swore me to secrecy regarding both the number and the codeword.”

“Thank you, Alan, and knowing my father’s standards, he’d be impressed.” Bryce stood and lifted the small package in his left hand to place it inside his jacket. He reached out with his right hand as the solicitor stood.

The two men shook hands.

“Thank you,” Alan Wheeler’s eyes blinked several times and he drew in a deep breath. “Should you wish to continue your business affairs elsewhere I will understand, but until you say otherwise, I’ll be at your service.”

“It’s been an interesting half-hour, mate, and I think I’ll leave my affairs in your hands.” Bryce glanced out of the window. “How many different buses into the city use that stop down there?”

“There is only one bus route that passes here but it’s rare that anybody waits for longer than fifteen or twenty minutes. Are you taking a bus back to the city centre?”

“No, it was a passing thought.” Bryce walked across the small office to the door.

The solicitor looked out of the window. A young man in a black leather jacket and jeans was standing at the nearby bus stop using a mobile phone. The man turned to look towards the building and then nodded as he continued to chat. Alan turned and walked to the door to see his visitor out.

*

Bryce went downstairs and stood outside the building looking around. A bus pulled up at the bus stop. Bryce saw the man in the leather jacket shake his head and the confused bus driver closed the doors before driving off. Bryce glanced left and right before walking left along Dalkeith Road towards the city centre.

Five minutes after leaving the solicitor’s office, Bryce paused where the name of the main route to town changed from Dalkeith Road to The Pleasance. The artist’s lips curled into a smile as he considered the quaint name for the stretch of road. From humble beginnings, as a local house name in the early 16th century, it had grown into a desirable area for homeownership.

This was a part of the Old Town which Bryce rarely visited, but he was aware of many points of interest. He looked across at the impressive block of old buildings used by the Edinburgh Students’ Association. It was strange to think that the complex was utilised every August as one of the venues for the Edinburgh Festival Fringe. Students’ Association funds had to be raised by several means.

 As he strolled on down the gradient towards the crossroads with Cowgate and Hollyrood Road, Bryce glanced over his shoulder. There was no traffic to prevent him from crossing, but he continued downhill to the traffic lights and pressed the button.

While he waited for the flashing green man signal, he absently looked around again and noted a young man wearing a leather jacket. It was the guy who’d been standing inside the bus shelter near the solicitor’s office. The man paused and concentrated on his mobile phone, which looked out of place. Most young people tended to use their mobile as they walked as if on auto-pilot.

When the lights changed, Bryce crossed the road quickly, turned left and crossed again, opening up his pace as he walked up St Mary’s Street. Five minutes later at a busy junction with The Royal Mile, he negotiated a large group of camera-wielding tourists and turned right. He walked a short distance to Mimi’s Little Bakehouse.

“Good morning, what can we get you, Sir?” The pretty brunette teenager met his gaze.

“A pot of tea, and whatever you’d suggest from your cake display, please.”

“Would you like something with fresh cream?” Her smile broadened.

“Yes, please.”

Bryce had chosen a window seat to allow a view up Canongate towards the crossroads. The tea and cake would satisfy one urgent need, and seeing the contents of the package left to him would satisfy his curiosity.

As he pulled the small envelope from his inside pocket Bryce murmured. “What are you going to tell me, Dad?” For a few seconds before opening the package, Bryce stared at the immaculate copperplate handwriting. ‘Personal for Bryce Crawford – addressee eyes only’.

Bryce thought back to the last short phone conversation he’d had with his father, two weeks previously.

“I’ve sent a package to our solicitor. I love you, Bryce.” William Crawford had said.

“I love you too, Dad—” Bryce had been saying the words when the call ended. At the time the sincerity of his dad’s tone had struck a chord deep in his psyche. Now, as he looked at the envelope in his hand and recalled their final brief conversation, Bryce was glad he’d reciprocated. The next time Bryce heard anything about his father was from the police who delivered the news of his death.

The pretty girl delivered the order of tea and cake, smiled and left her customer to his snack.

Bryce poured a cup of tea, stirred in a sweetener and continued to stare at the envelope, challenging it to give him a clue before it was opened. The artist cut the cake in half, sipped his tea and ate cake, continuing to focus on the envelope. He dreaded opening it because he had convinced himself it was bad news. He’d already lost his dad so how could it get worse? Only when he’d finished his snack and poured more tea, he relented, inhaled deeply and tore open the package.

Bryce withdrew three sheets of writing paper and a bundle of tissue paper which was wrapped around a small silver key. He turned the key over in his hand but it meant nothing to him. Bryce rewrapped it and thrust it deep into his trouser pocket. He read the letter and closed his eyes briefly when he reached the end. He reread it before returning the package to an inner pocket.

“Bloody hell, Dad,” he whispered and slowly shook his head. “You believed that The Chariots exist.” He finished his tea, and when paying the bill gave the girl a handsome tip. The way she looked at him confirmed the feeling he’d had earlier. Judging by her smile and expression it would take only a little effort to try for a date if he was so inclined.

When he left the cafe, Bryce turned left and headed up the Royal Mile towards Edinburgh Castle. After he’d crossed at the traffic lights on the crossroads he paused to look in souvenir store windows, but he’d already spotted something of interest. A certain man in a leather jacket and jeans was pacing up and down on the opposite side of the street, having a heated discussion on his mobile phone.

Bryce stood in a shop doorway and flicked through a carousel of postcards. He used the reflection of the store window to observe the man whom he reckoned was supposed to be keeping an eye on him. The amateur tail stepped back into a doorway but he was hardly a chameleon. Bryce grinned as he left the postcards and went inside. From deep within the store he could look across the street to get a better look at his admirer. Bryce moved forward to the inside of the window and while shielding his body behind a display, used his smartphone to capture an image of Leather Jacket.

When he left the souvenir store empty-handed, Bryce looked up and down the street as if considering his next move, and then he turned left and set off uphill. He walked a few metres before taking a short cut through South Gray’s Close, one of many narrow alleyways in the Old Town. Once in the short close, Bryce ran for a few seconds until he was clear of the enclosed area and houses in the lane at the back. He reached St Patrick’s Parish Church on the left and ducked into the small car park where he crouched down behind one of the few cars.

Sure enough, two minutes later, Leather Jacket came running past. He paused at the gates of the church, looked around in confusion and then headed down onto Cowgate, where he would once again have to make a decision to go left, or right. A simple task had become complicated.

*

Bryce arrived at the Grassmarket, having strolled from the St Patrick’s Church car park. There had been no sign of the shadow he’d spotted earlier.

As Bryce approached his gallery, he saw one of his assistants removing a painting from the window.

He pushed open the door of Crawford Creations, to the chiming of the bell. “I hope you’re not removing that piece to make room for something else.”

“Hi, Bryce,” Barbara said. “This one has been bought by an American gentleman. He was sorry to miss you, but he’ll be coming back later to pick it up.”

“Did you suggest we could have it sent to him?”

“Yes, but apparently he’s got a fifty percent stake in a freight container which is headed across the pond next week.” The pretty assistant raised an eyebrow.

“Was his interest in Edinburgh, or castles?”

“Castles, and he’s increasing his collection, which is why he hoped to speak to you personally. I have a feeling he might want to commission a few more pieces.”

“Well, we’ve got plenty of castles in Scotland, and I’m happy to work for a regular customer.” He went through to his small office, leaving her to deal with the preparation of the painting.

Barbara Speake was one of the art students who worked for Bryce in his art and framing shop. She was twenty-two and a graphic design student. There was no need for painting skill on her course, but she loved producing work in acrylic. Barbara often experimented with mixed mediums. Several of her works had sold within days of being displayed in Bryce’s window.

 Fortunately for Bryce, Barbara was a great salesperson too. Her increasing ability in the area of customer service was bearing fruit every week. Barbara regularly turned a casual query into a sale or order.

Bryce removed the key and letter from his pockets and secured the items in the safe. Fifteen minutes later, he’d left the office and was upstairs, where he changed into paint-spattered rugby shirt and old jeans. When he was painting, Bryce didn’t conform to any rules regarding costume. Physical comfort allowed his mind to wander or concentrate as required.

A light tap on the door was followed by Barbara’s sweet voice. “Are you decent?”

“Yes, come in.” Bryce laughed. “I heard you coming up the stairs.”

“I thought I’d check, just in case. Would you like coffee?”

“Yes, please, Barbara. Who’s in this afternoon?”

The Temptress and I nipped up to let you know she’s here early, so unless you want her to take advantage of you, don’t get undressed with the door unlocked.”

Bryce was laughing as Barbara’s footsteps faded down the stairs. The Temptress was the nickname Barbara had given to Julia, one of her colleagues in Bryce’s shop. Julia was the same age as Barbara, but where Barbara was a pretty blonde, Julia was a stunning brunette.

Ten minutes later there was a gentle tap on the open door of the studio.

“Come in.” Bryce smiled and concentrated to prevent his eyes wandering as the young woman walked across the room. The mug of coffee was placed on the nearby wooden stand. “I thought Barbara was bringing my drink. Thank you, Julia, and how are you this good day?”

“I’m better now that I’m here,” Julia said. “I’ve got some home study to do on the old masters, but I’d prefer to study a young master.” She winked and turned to go, but paused to look over her shoulder as she went through the doorway. Her timing was perfect and Bryce was caught gazing at the back of her shapely legs. Julia could have modelled short skirts or stockings. The flirting was constant but harmless and had begun one day when Julia had caught her boss checking her out.

Concentration was lost after the intoxicating presence of the student. Bryce stopped work and wiped his hands on a rag before lifting his coffee. He walked across the small studio and stared through the large skylight window at the splendour of Edinburgh Castle. Occasionally, when he had a tough decision to make, Bryce would gaze at the fortress high above and remember the guts and determination required by fighters through the centuries.

“Planning and preparation.” Bryce sipped his coffee. “Discover who your enemies are and learn their weaknesses.” The artist and dealer was standing in his attic studio in Edinburgh, but his mind was many miles away. He continued to contemplate as long as his coffee lasted. When he placed the empty mug on the wooden stand he went back to his latest work in progress and engrossed himself in painting.

*

Wednesday 11th June 2014

Bryce used his all-terrain bike to cycle casually to work from his house in Mount Castle Drive, in the Abbeyhill area. The journey from the east of Edinburgh into the city was straightforward. When he cycled to work he didn’t use his racer, preferring to keep the faster bike for his long rides.

As he sipped an early coffee in his office, Bryce played over his intentions once more. He’d enjoyed an early meal on the previous evening, and read his father’s message again, and again. Much of the note was cryptic which led Bryce to believe he should avoid recording any of his own decisions. He would commit everything possible to memory.

From the outset, three things were clear. Bryce’s dad thought The Chariots series of paintings were real, Bryce’s dad had died in unusual circumstances and finally, Bryce was intent on investigating both his father’s death and the paintings. A connection between the untimely death and the legendary paintings was clear. There had been no doubt Bryce would step up to the challenge, but he felt with each reading of the mysterious letter, it sparked a new angle from which to approach the task. He dialled a number.

“Hi, Patrick, how are you mate?” He chatted to the Irishman for a few minutes.

Patrick Power, a sixty-year-old local artist, had been associated with the business for five years and had worked with Bryce’s father before Bryce took over the day to day management. Patrick was originally from Limerick, in Ireland and was successful in his own right, but enjoyed the association with the small private gallery. In the same way that the art students were permitted to display pieces for sale in the shop window, so too was Patrick. He didn’t work in the shop on a daily basis but was happy to step in to cover for a few days occasionally. It had been the arrangement when William Crawford was running the place, and William had recommended that his son should consider the practice.

At ten o’clock, Patrick strolled in and raised a forefinger to his head in mock salute as he approached from the doorway. “You’re looking good, Bryce.”

“As are you, mate,” Bryce said as the two men met in the middle of the shop and shook hands. “Thank you for taking the time to come around.”

“I’m always happy to help.” Patrick’s smile faded. “I was sorry to hear about your dad — he was a great man. I was annoyed about not making it to the funeral, but my trip was already scheduled and—”

Bryce held up an open hand. “My dad told me about you and your regular visits to European clients, mate. ”

“Yes, we knew each other by reputation for a long time before we ever met. It was good when I eventually put a face to a name and got to know him personally.”

“I know he felt the same.”

“Do we have one of your lovely young ladies coming in today?”

“Yes, I’m expecting Barbara at half-past ten, and she’ll be here until four o’clock. I must ensure she has a decent break for lunch.”

“I take it business is cruising along?”

“Yes, I’m pleased to say things are going well. Two of the girls have sold work this week, and yesterday one of my castle-ruin paintings went to an American.”

Patrick laughed. “Aye, you’ll always be able to count on our cousins from across the pond. If there is one type of building you don’t see dotted around America, it’s castles or their remains.”

They both laughed and then the pair chatted about a hundred and one things while they waited for Barbara. She turned up ten minutes early.

“Good morning,” Barbara said as she crossed the floor. She was wearing a cream blouse and navy mini-skirt with black court shoes. Her long blonde hair was pulled back in a high ponytail.

“Good morning, Barbara,” the two men chorused.

“I’ll bring my coffee out here and you two can disappear to talk in private.” As good as her word, Barbara was back on the floor within a few minutes. She placed her coffee under the small counter area at the back of the shop. “I’ve poured your coffees.”

“Thank you, Barbara,” Bryce said. “There’s nothing outstanding.”

“I’ll be fine. Off you go.” She went for a stroll around the open display area admiring the various paintings and drawings.

The two men went through to the office and sat either side of Bryce’s desk.

“She’s a lovely looking girl, although her outfits are always understated,” Patrick said.

“When she started here she asked me if she should wear something low-key, and I asked her why.” Bryce smiled and shook his head at the memory. “She told me that she didn’t think it would be right for her to try to upstage the artwork she was trying to sell.”

“I’ve noticed on my most recent visits to help that Julia has toned down her outfits a little.”

“Yes, and I have a feeling it was due to Barbara.”

“Julia is still a real looker, even in a simple outfit. I reckon you have those girls to thank for a lot of your passing trade.”

“I’m well aware of how important they are, mate. Paul is my latest recruit and I don’t think you’ve met him.”

“No, is he from one of the universities?”

“Yes, he’s a nice-looking lad. Paul’s only eighteen and not far into his course. He’s studying package design but just like the girls, he’s building a portfolio of personal artwork. Paul is a dab hand at drawing animals so when he’s comfortable with the idea I’ll introduce some of his work.”

“They’re all lucky to have landed a part-time job but especially one where they can display and sell their art.” 

For a few minutes, the pair discussed how much of an asset it was to a small business to have knowledgable staff. The conversation drifted to how accomplished both of the girls were with paint although neither would expect to make a living from their hobby.

“I suppose we should get to the reason I asked you to drop by,” Bryce said. “I’ve got a business trip coming up, but as yet I haven’t booked anything.”

“If you’re not mentioning destinations I’m assuming this one is a bit hush-hush, just like your dad did sometimes?” He laughed. “He would have made a good spy, your dad … always heading off to meet up with an art dealer or contact in some foreign city.”

“I’m afraid I’m following in his footsteps on this trip, mate. I’ve recently picked up on a lead for a rare piece, and with respect, I’d rather not tempt fate by discussing it with anybody. I haven’t finalised my travel plans yet, but if you can step into the breach from this Friday, it would be a massive help.”

“Would the three staff continue with their shifts as normal?”

“Yes. I have a feeling I’ll be in the UK for a couple of days to confirm some details before any trips abroad, but, effectively the place would be run by you instead of me for perhaps one week. If it was okay with you and I confirmed with a phone call I might need your help for two weeks. Both of the girls are capable, but their studies would prevent them from doing too many more hours.”

“I’m not tied down by anything. I’ll come by tomorrow afternoon to pick up the keys and note anything you have to brief me about.” He paused. “Would it be okay to bring in one of my canvasses to work on, for whenever there are two or three of us in the place?”

“Of course, mate. Obviously, as usual, I’ll pay you a casual fee for your troubles.”

Patrick nodded towards the safe. “I take it you’ll leave me the latest combination for access to that thing in the usual way, a date mentioned in your briefing notes?”

Bryce nodded and smiled. “Banking is rare these days because most sales are done by card.”

The pair left the office and went through to the sales floor of the small, but well-presented shop and gallery. They shook hands and when Bryce paused before going back through to the office, he saw Patrick stop to chat to Barbara before leaving. The Irishman might be twice the age of the two girls but he was an incurable ‘ladies man’.

***

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