Chapter 1

 

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 on 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; within a few months of each other in age. Both were 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 pages 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.

“No, maybe I’m just being 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 pulled open a drawer in his desk and lifted out a sheet of vellum paper. It contained a handwritten message which he gave to his client.

“Thank you,” Bryce accepted the page and once again recognised his father’s handwriting. He read aloud. “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 my will has been read and accepted by Bryce.”

Bryce paused and glanced at the solicitor before reading on. “My life was directly threatened recently, which is why I have taken the step of preparing this message from beyond the grave. Due to the nature of the risks, should my 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.”

There was a knock at the office door.

“Wait!” The solicitor’s tone was sharp and unlike the quiet voice used when conducting the business of William Crawford’s will. He turned t his client. “I apologise, Bryce.” He loosened his 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 Morgans.”

“Would you mind expanding on why you thought this?”

“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 client under foreign influence, or sensitive about background checks.”

“Did my father suggest how to deal with such a thing if it occurs, after you’ve ended the meeting?”

“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 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 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’ll 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 regular are the buses into the city from that stop down there?”

“It’s rare that anybody waits for longer than fifteen or twenty minutes. Are you taking a bus back towards your place?”

“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 youth 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 shelter, and Bryce saw the youth in the leather jacket shake his head and the confused bus driver closed the doors and drove 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.

This was an area 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.

 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 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. He paused and concentrated on his mobile phone, which looked out of place. Most young people tended to use such a device as they walked.

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 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 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 junction. 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 from beyond the grave, 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 before.

‘I’ve sent a package to our solicitor. I love you, son.’ William Crawford had said.

“I love you too, Dad—” Bryce had been saying the words when the call ended. Now, as he looked at the envelope in his hand and recalled their final brief conversation, he 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.

Bryce poured a cup of tea and continued to stare at the envelope, challenging it to give him a clue before it was opened. The young artist sipped his tea and ate his 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 and tore open the package.

He withdrew three sheets of writing paper and a bundle of tissue paper which was wrapped around a small silver key. Bryce glanced at the key before rewrapping it and thrusting it deep into his trouser pocket. He read the letter and closed his eyes briefly when he reached the end. He read it all again before returning the whole package to an inner pocket.

“Bloody hell, Dad,” he whispered. “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. It would take little effort to be offered much more than her smile.

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 he paused to look in souvenir store windows, but he’d already spotted something of interest. A young 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, but kept an eye on the man who he reckoned was supposed to be keeping an eye on him. The amateur tail looked across at Bryce before stepping back into a doorway. Bryce grinned as he left the postcards and went inside. From deep within the store he could look across the street.

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 close, Bryce ran for a few minutes until he reached St Patrick’s Parish Church. He ducked into the small car park and crouched down behind one of the few cars.

Sure enough, two minutes later the youth in the leather jacket came running past. He paused at the gates of the church, looked around and then headed down onto Cowgate, where he would once again have to make a decision to go left, or right. 

*

Bryce arrived at the Grassmarket, having strolled from the church car park. There had been no sign of the human 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 per cent 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 left her to deal with the preparation of the painting.

Barbara Speake was one of three art students who worked for Bryce in his art and framing shop. Barbara 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. She often experimented with mediums. Several of her works had sold within days of being shown 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 envelope and letter from his pocket and secured them in the safe. Fifteen minutes later, he 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 outfit. Physical comfort allowed his mind to wander or concentrate as needed.

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 Harriet, one of her colleagues in Bryce’s shop. Harriet Lund was the same age as Barbara, but where Barbara was a pretty blonde, Harriet was a stunning brunette.

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

“Come in, Harriet.” 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. “Thank you, and how are you this good day?”

“I’m better now,” Harriet said. “I’ve got some home study to do on the old masters, but I prefer the company of 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 a pair of shapely legs. Harriet could have modelled short skirts or stockings.

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 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 soldiers through the centuries.

“Planning and preparation.” Bryce sipped his coffee. “Be aware of enemies, but avoid letting them know.” The artist and dealer were 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 the piece.

*

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 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 enjoyed 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. The Chariots series of paintings were real, Bryce’s dad had died in unusual circumstances and Bryce was going to investigate both. A connection between his father’s 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 Morgan, a local artist, had been associated with the business for three 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 shop. 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 forehead 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 making 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.”

“Thank you. He talked about you regularly, mate.”

“Yes, we knew of each other 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. The girls have both 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.”

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 neat 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.”

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 Harriet has toned down her outfits a little.”

“Yes, and I have a feeling it was due to Barbara’s attitude that Harriet fell into line.”

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

“I’m well aware of how important they are, mate.”

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

“I suppose we should leave the girls and 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?”

“I’m afraid so, 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 girls continue with their shifts as normal?”

“Yes. I have a feeling I’ll be in the UK for a couple of days to confirm a few details before any trips abroad, but, effectively the place would be run by you instead of me for perhaps a week. 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 at the moment. 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 when there are two of us to attend to the place?”

“Of course, mate. Obviously, I’ll also pay you a casual tax-free sum for your troubles.”

The pair left the office and went through to the sales floor of the small, but well-presented shop. They shook hands and when Bryce paused before going back through to the office, he saw  Patrick stop to chat to Barbara before leaving.

***

 

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