Authors: Lyn Hamilton
The Orkney Scrolls
Before he went mad, Bjarni the Wanderer hid the cauldron in the tomb of the orcs. It’s an intriguing declaration to be sure, one that requires more than a little explication, and in some ways an irritating way to put finis to a story. For some, though, it is a beginning rather than an end, a statement of such promise that hopes and dreams are pinned on it, as if believing would make it so. To decide whether you come down on the side of the dreamers or the skeptics or rather somewhere in between, you will have to go back to the beginning, and that means more than nine hundred years.
I do not know if Bjarni’s saga is true. My grandfather used to say that it was not inconsistent with the facts. You will perhaps not see this as a ringing endorsement, but then you didn’t know my grandfather. I can tell you that the tale has been passed down through my family for longer than anyone can remember. My grandfather believed that at first the story would have been transmitted orally, the structure and cadence of the poem being an aid to the memory, so that it would always be accurately told. At some time, no one knows when, it was written down, possibly in Norn, but more likely first in Latin, stories of this sort appealing to twelfth-century clerics it seems, then passed from one generation to the next. It was my grandfather who translated it from Latin. That was how I learned my letters, by copying the story in a notebook, actually several of them, my grandfather watching to make sure that I made no error, left nothing out. And that, I suppose, is why we have the story still, copied over and over again by successive generations. I think for some of us, the preservation of Bjarni’s saga became a sacred trust.
I suppose over all that time liberties were taken with it, errors of omission and commission both, so much so that its true meaning may well be lost. Then again, perhaps not. It is possible I am the last to treasure it. My sons have no interest in it. One doesn’t understand it. The other believes it to be of no worth. Still, I have hopes for one of my granddaughters. She’s a restless spirit, but she comes by that honestly, a true descendant of Bjarni the Wanderer. She used to like me to tell her the story, and demanded that I recite it with her. I will leave the notebooks to her when I die.
So now that you’ve heard the requisite disclaimers, the attempt, however feeble to encourage you to view everything I say with some suspicion, do you still want to hear the story of Bjarni Haraldsson? Of course you do. Who could resist a tale that ends with the words, before he went mad Bjarni the Wanderer hid the cauldron in the tomb of the orcs?
Of Trevor Wylie it was often said that he was a rogue and you should keep your hand firmly on your wallet when he was in the vicinity, but that you couldn’t be upset with him for long. Somebody, though, stayed angry long enough to kill him.
Trevor lost his life over a piece of furniture, at least that’s the way it looked, although it didn’t take long for any of us to figure out there was a lot to Trevor that wasn’t the way it appeared. The object in question was a desk, or rather more correctly a writing cabinet, and for a short time it belonged to a lawyer by the name of Blair Baldwin. Trevor was the antique dealer who sold it to him. In contrast to the charming Trevor, Baldwin was a difficult man to like. That was because he was arrogant and had a hellish temper which he unleashed at the slightest provocation, usually in front of a TV camera. At one point in time though, I think Blair considered me a friend.
I first met Blair in my early days as an antique dealer when he turned up in the doorway of McClintoch & Swain with a piece of cameo glass carefully wrapped in tissue, a vase he’d spent a lot of money to acquire because he believed it to be by the master of Art Nouveau glass, Emile Galle. Blair’s law offices were down the street from my shop, and I expect he dropped by in part to show his acquisition off to someone who would appreciate it, but also looking to me to corroborate his find. Baldwin’s difficult reputation had preceded him, and so it was with some reluctance that I had to point out to him that somewhere between the factory in Romania where the vase had been manufactured and his hands, someone had managed to grind off the letters TIP which would have indicated that the piece was done in the style of Galle, but not by Galle.
It was a tense moment, but Baldwin took it with amazingly good grace. He paid close attention as I showed him what to watch for, had a careful look through the magnifying glass I offered, and asked if there were books on the subject I could recommend. At the end of his visit, it was no longer Mr. Baldwin and Ms. McClintoch, but rather Blair and Lara, and later, it became Blair and “babe.” Not that I was happy about the “babe,” mind you, but Blair was a really good customer. He’d suggested that first day that if I saw anything I thought he might like, I should give him a call. Baldwin was absolutely addicted to Art Nouveau, and for many years I was fortunate to feed his habit. I say fortunate because he had the wherewithal to buy pretty much whatever he fancied, having been hugely successful defending some pretty unsavory characters. He lived in a spectacular house, big enough to accommodate whatever he bought, and paid whatever he had to for something he fancied. Blair Bazillionaire, we called him at McClintoch & Swain.
I’ve had mixed feelings over the years about Baldwin. I’d seen him way too often strutting his stuff for the cameras outside a courthouse, fingers hooked under his suspenders so that he looked as if he were about to take flight, and crowing about how he’d got some scum off on a technicality. Not that he called them scum, of course. That would be editorializing on my part. I believe “my wronged client” was the term he used.
Still, when business was slow at McClintoch & Swain, slow here being used as a euphemism for on the verge of bankruptcy, Baldwin seemed to know it, and he always purchased something spectacular close to month end, whether he needed it or not. He recommended me to his wealthy pals, many of whom became regulars at the shop. When his wife Betsy left him, being the lawyer he was, he could have tied her up in knots forever, legally speaking, but he didn’t, and they seem to have parted reasonably amicably, at least from my perspective, she with what I’d call a small fortune to see her through. There was obviously more than one side to Blair Bazillionaire.
As for antiques, over the years he developed a pretty good eye. After that first unfortunate episode, he wasn’t often fooled. He’d expressed his displeasure over the Galle by tossing it into my wastebasket, which fortunately was full, allowing me to retrieve it in one piece after he’d left. I have it still. It’s lovely, really, no matter who made it, but then I didn’t pay a fortune for it as Baldwin had. He still relied on me for a second opinion on the big ticket items, and that is why I was called to Scot Free, Trevor Wylie’s antique shop to have a look at something special Blair was thinking of buying.
I was late, having spent an unexpected hour or two with the local police force. It turned out I was merely the latest victim of a rash of robberies of antique shops in my neighborhood, something the constable attributed to the opening of a Goth bar just down the street. I wasn’t so sure. For one thing, my sort-of stepdaughter Jennifer patronized the bar, and she said it was just a bunch of people who liked to wear black and talk about themselves. For another, this looked like theft to order to me: someone wanted a pair of eighteenth-century candlesticks and sent a rather professional crew to get it. The thieves had used glass cutters at the back door, bypassed all sorts of expensive merchandise and had taken only the candlesticks. They got out before the security company was able to respond. I was not in a good mood.
The appointment with Blair and Trevor did not start out well. First, I had to push my way past a very large Dober-man in Trevor’s doorway: by large I mean we were almost eyeball to eyeball, a somewhat intimidating way to start. The dog’s owner, who was about as wide as he was high and would have looked more at home keeping the riffraff at bay at the door of the aforementioned Goth bar than in an antique shop, was admiring a not particularly appealing bronze lamppost, and obviously eavesdropping at the same time.
Blair was impatiently tapping his fingers on Trevor’s front counter and looked as if he were about to tear my face off for my tardiness. Trevor, on the other hand, resembled the proverbial cat that swallowed the canary, and I just knew he was going to lord his find, whatever it was, over me.
“You’re late, babe,” Baldwin said, through clenched teeth, as a rather scruffy looking individual in a rumpled beige suit with bicycle clips holding his pant legs edged past the Doberman and into the shop. The new visitor didn’t look as if he belonged there any more than the bouncer did. Given the time I’d just spent with the police on the subject of robberies, I viewed him with some suspicion.
“This is going to blow you away, hen,” Trevor said, kissing me on both cheeks. Trevor was from Scotland and looked and sounded a little like a young Sean Connery, which is probably why I tolerated him. “Hen” is, I believe, Glasgow slang for any female. All this hen and babe stuff was making me nauseous. “This way,” he said, indicating the back room. The man with the bicycle clips, trying to look nonchalant, tripped over a pair of flatirons and almost fell down.
“Are we ready to be impressed?” Trevor asked, hand on a sheet that covered a fairly substantial object of some kind, maybe four feet high and three wide. Baldwin swallowed hard and nodded.
“Lara?” Trevor said.
All this drama was getting on my nerves. “Get on with it, Trevor,” I said. “Although maybe you want to close the door?” I could see both Mr. Doberman and Mr. Bicycle Clips edging toward the office. When Trevor went to the doorway, Bicycle Clips clomped up the stairs to the shop’s second floor.
“No one to guard the merchandise, I’m afraid. So… lights,” he said, flicking a switch that turned a little spotlight on the object. “Gloves,” he added handing both Blair and me a pair.
“Ta dah!” Trevor exclaimed, as he swept the covering away.
After all this, I didn’t expect to be impressed, but this piece just blew me away. Standing under the spotlight was a single piece of furniture, a writing desk, or rather a writing cabinet. It was exquisite, ebonized wood, mahogany, and when you opened the doors, which Trevor did with a flourish, there was a lovely leaded glass panel, and some perfect inlaid woodwork. There were slots, pigeonholes for papers, and drawers that opened beautifully. Beside me, Baldwin made little squeaking sounds.
“It can’t be, can it?” I said, turning to Trevor.
“I wasn’t sure when I found it,” he replied. “I took a chance, but I’m convinced it is.”
“Babe?” Baldwin managed to say.
“It looks to be the right age,” I said carefully. “The style is definitely Glasgow School. I’d have to do some research.”
“I’ve done it already,” Trevor said, handing me a file. “Be my guest.” Baldwin impatiently leaned over my shoulder as I opened it.
There was only one sheet of paper in the file. It was a drawing of the desk in question, complete with exact specifications. And it was initialed: CRM/MMM.
“Good lord,” Baldwin gasped and sank into a chair.
“Charles Rennie Mackintosh,” Trevor said. “Margaret Macdonald Mackintosh.”
“Are you all right, Blair?” I said. “You aren’t going into shock or anything, are you?”
“I’ll make tea,” Trevor said. “And perk it up a bit with this.” This was a bottle of rather fine single malt scotch. Trevor was feeling pretty cocky.
“I know this looks convincing,” I said. “But it isn’t definitive.”
“There’s more,” Trevor said, bringing a book down from a shelf above his desk and opening it. “Here’s something similar. Take your time.”
“How much?” Baldwin said.
“Blair!” I cautioned. The book in question was a very good text on Art Nouveau, an international style that emerged about 1890 and was highly popular until it burned itself out in about 1904, but which had names associated with it—like Tiffany and Lalique—that remain famous today. Several brilliant individuals were part of this movement, of which Glasgow’s Charles Rennie Mackintosh was one. Mackintosh, while not terribly favored in Britain at the time, was a huge influence on European designers like Josef Hoffman and the Weiner Werkstatte. His work, like the Art Nouveau movement itself, was something of a flash in the pan, but after some decades of neglect is now much sought-after. Very occasionally a piece comes on the market. Trevor had marked a page in the book with a yellow sticky and there was a photograph of a writing cabinet similar, but not absolutely identical to the one in front of me, in the book.
“I think Mackintosh made two to this design,” Trevor said. “That is not, after all, unprecedented. He sometimes made a second piece for himself when he’d been commissioned to design something for a client.”
“Where did you find it?” I said, nodding toward the cabinet.
“I was on my regular trip in Scotland,” Trevor said. “One of my pickers told me that an old lady was holding a contents sale on the weekend and might have some interesting stuff. I went over early, and had a look, and charmed her into selling the piece to me, a couple of pieces, actually. The other one didn’t pan out. This one did. Lucky for me. If it hadn’t, I’d have been royally screwed. I paid a lot for it, way too much if my hunch wasn’t right. But that’s the business we’re in, eh, hen?”
“I suppose. Where’d you find the drawing?”
“In the right-hand drawer! Can you believe it? It was under about a hundred years’ worth of liner paper. I didn’t find it until later.”
“It could still be a copy,” I said. Trevor’s exuberance was trying, or maybe I was just jealous.
“It could, but it isn’t,” Trevor said. “I’m convinced of it. Charles designed and built the furniture. His wife Margaret did the stained glass. It has her stamp all over it. You’ll notice it’s in remarkable condition, just a bit of wear on one of the drawers and the legs.”
“How much?” Baldwin repeated.
“One very similar sold at auction in the late nineteen-nineties for something in the neighborhood of one-point-five million U.S.,” Trevor said. “But I’m prepared to negotiate.” As he said one-point-five million, there was a crash upstairs and some scuffling. Mr. Bicycle Clips had apparently tripped over something else. I would have been up the stairs in a flash. Trevor ignored it.
“Babe?” Baldwin said.
“I don’t know, Blair,” I said. “All I can say at this moment is that I can’t find anything wrong with it.”
“I’m sure we can work something out,” Trevor said, winking at me. At that very moment the phone rang. “Sorry,” Trevor said. “I should take this. You two can chat. Dez!” he said into the phone. “You got my message?” Blair paled. There may be a lot of Dez’s in the world, but only one who would be calling Trevor right at this minute. Desmond Crane was also a lawyer, and Crane and Baldwin often found themselves on the opposite sides of various lawsuits. Word was the antipathy they displayed toward each other in court was absolutely genuine: they disliked one another intensely. It did strike me as a little overly convenient that Dez had chosen this very moment to call, but perhaps Trevor had suggested the time, all part of the plan to entice Blair to buy on the spot.
“Do you think it’s genuine?” Blair asked quietly.
“I think it could be,” I said, albeit reluctantly. I really wanted more time.
“It may still be available,” Trevor said, looking right at Baldwin. “I’m talking to Blair right now.”
“I’ll take it!” Blair said.
Trevor nodded and smiled in our general direction. “Call you back, Dez,” he said. “Sorry.”
“I’m off,” I said. I didn’t want to know what Blair was going to pay for this passion of his, and I sure didn’t want to find myself in the middle of a dustup between Baldwin and Crane. After all, both were customers.
“I’ll be at the Stane later,” Trevor called as I dodged past the Doberman again. “If you’ll join me, hen, I’ll stand you to a single malt or three.”
I didn’t take up Trevor’s offer of a scotch at the Stane, or rather The Dwarfie Stane, his favorite bar, there being only so much gloating I can stand in one day. I did see him a few days later, however. Baldwin, never one to quietly enjoy a victory over a competitor, held a rather grand cocktail party in his Rosedale mansion to show off his purchase. Trevor came with his latest girlfriend, Willow somebody or other. There was no point trying to remember her last name. If the relationship followed the normal course, she wouldn’t be around long enough for it to matter. She had the standard Trevor girlfriend look, long dark hair and even longer legs, a certain innocence of expression. Like most of them, she had an unusual name. McClintoch & Swain was represented by both me and my business partner—and ex-husband—Clive Swain. I brought my life partner, Rob Luczka, as my date, and Clive brought his, my best friend Moira Meller.
Blair’s home was a shrine to Art Nouveau. It was a little over the top, but far be it for me to criticize, given I’d helped him to acquire a lot of it. Even the powder room walls had been covered in genuine Art Nouveau fabric. Not a copy, the real thing. Every room was a little museum, decorated to the point of excess and beyond. He had pieces from many of the masters of Art Nouveau, including some lovely furnishings by Josef Hoffmann, Carlos Bugatti, Henry van de Velde, and Victor Horta among others, and now of course he had a Charles Rennie Mackintosh. In the smaller items, he had much from Steuben and Tiffany, Sevres and Meissen and many lesser known but still important pieces dating to the period, and of course, determined as Blair was to erase his first mistake, a few genuine pieces of Galle glass. All were carefully placed, and artfully lit, none more so than the Mackintosh writing cabinet which was on a raised platform in an alcove off the living room all by itself. It was, to continue the shrine analogy, the holy of holies in Blair’s residence, the spot where he placed his prized possession of the moment.
I idly wondered what had happened to the objects previously displayed there. At one time the alcove had held a Josef Hoffman walnut-veneered sideboard, another time a rather unusual carved wood chair by Antoni Gaudi no less. I hadn’t seen either of those pieces in awhile. I wondered if he sold stuff he got tired of, or simply stored it in the basement, which would be unfortunate. Blair had paid just over a hundred thousand for that one chair, which was a deal considering how unique it was. He’d got it for a few tens of thousands less than the going rate because it had a very small cigarette burn on the seat. A shame really, which is perhaps why the chair was nowhere to be seen anymore. The Mackintosh writing cabinet was, if not his proudest acquisition, then perhaps his most extravagant. Blair was a Collector, with a capitalC.
“Do you like this stuff?” Rob asked as we wandered from room to room. “All these swirls on everything?”
“I do, but not all in one place. I prefer a home to be a little more relaxed,” I replied. “Consistency can be a virtue of course, but rigid adherence to one particular design aesthetic may not be an entirely good idea if you have to live with it. There comes a point where it’s just too much, and with Art Nouveau, that point may come sooner rather than later. I haven’t told Blair that, of course. I’m not that stupid. Actually maybe I am. I did tell him once early on that he might consider mixing stuff up a little. I believe all he said was ‘babe’ in a pained tone.”
“Personally, I believe a home decorated entirely in one style is the product of a diseased mind,” Clive said. He does, too. A house like this makes Clive, who is the designer of our team, nauseous. Given his surroundings, on this particular occasion, he was holding up rather well.
“I think I’d have to agree with you there, Clive,” Rob said. This was something. Rob and Clive agreed about once every year or so. “The desk thing is nice, though. It seems cleaner in design.”
“Yes, Mackintosh’s furniture is more pleasingly geometric than most of the pieces from that period.”
“It’s the bugs on everything I wonder about,” Moira said.
“But that’s the point, you see,” I interjected. “Art Nouveau appeared in the late nineteenth century as a reaction to industrialization, the mass production of everything. The people who espoused it believed objects should be made by hand, by artists and real craftspeople, and the motifs went back to nature, tendrils, leaves, insects and crustaceans, organic designs really.”
“Okay, but who wants to eat off platters with bugs on them?” Rob said.
“Just about everybody, apparently,” Clive said. “Have you seen the way people are attacking the mounds of shrimps and oysters and lobster, to say nothing of the gallons of real champagne being swilled? You can fault Blair’s design sense, but you can’t complain about the food.”
He was right. The party was an extravagant event. Blair didn’t seem to know how to do anything in a quiet way. I confess I do not enjoy parties like this, but both Blair and Trevor were so excited about the Mackintosh it would have been churlish to refuse to attend, and furthermore, as Clive is always pointing out, it is good for business for us to be seen in such company. Everybody, but everybody was there: media types, film stars, the usual hangers-on, titans of industry, various civic leaders, including the mayor, and even the chief of police, which was a bit of a surprise, considering how a fair number of Blair’s legal successes must have galled him and how many of Blair’s clients, some of whom looked to be auditioning for a part inThe Sopranos,were also in attendance.
“Didn’t I arrest that guy for something?” Rob said. He’s a Mountie, an officer in the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, so he can ask questions like that.
“The guy on the far side of the buffet table scarfing down all the shrimp. What is he doing here? I’m sure I arrested him for something.”
“If you didn’t, you should have. Anyone who wears a green suit like that deserves to languish in a dungeon forever,” Clive said.
“You are such a design snob, Clive,” Moira said.
“Yes, I am. Someone has to try to set some aesthetic standards for this great city of ours. Tough job, I’ll grant you. Ah, Trevor, there you are. Nice sale. We at McClintoch and Swain are consumed with envy.”
“What? Oh, thank you, Clive,” Trevor said, before he hastily moved on to the next room.
“What’s eating him, I wonder?” Clive asked. “It’s not every day I hand out a compliment. I expected him to be revoltingly cheerful, if not downright triumphant about the whole thing, and he just looks kind of nervous. Maybe he’s having a fight with his girlfriend. Attractive one, that. What’s her name? Balsam or something?”
“Willow, you twit,” Moira said, giving him a dig in the ribs.
“Well, I knew it was a tree.”
“Is that Desmond Crane?” Rob said. “The lawyer who competes with Baldwin to get the most slime off on technicalities? It is Crane, isn’t it?”
It was. On Dez’s arm was his wife Leanna, who was tipsy as usual. The two lawyers’ dislike for each other both in court and out didn’t stop Blair from inviting him and Dez from showing up.
“I can’t believe you’ve brought me here,” Rob said. Usually he is very amiable about the social events I ask him to accompany me to, finding something interesting in all of them to talk about later. Now he sounded grumpy.
“I came to that Christmas party at one of your police pal’s home, you know, the one where the host looked down the front of my dress the whole time, and some young kid drank so much he almost puked on my suede shoes. You were perhaps thinking I would accompany you again this year?”
“Great party,” he said, giving my waist a little squeeze. “I think I’ll go and have some shrimp if that sleazeball left any for the rest of us.”
Dez steered his wife over to the writing cabinet, where they both looked at it carefully, or at least he did. “Nice,” he said to Trevor, sending a cheery wave in my direction. For some reason I expected more than that, Dez being almost as competitive and arrogant as Blair. Perhaps he was determined not to show his disappointment at being bested by Baldwin. So unperturbed by the Mackintosh being in his rival’s hands was Dez that I found myself wondering if the telephone call to Trevor at the very moment Blair was deciding whether or not to purchase the cabinet had been faked, with someone else entirely on the line. Faked or not it had had the desired effect on Blair. There didn’t seem to be any way that I could ask Dez, and it didn’t really make any difference anyway. Blair was going to buy the cabinet that day no matter what it cost. I was also very curious to know what Blair had paid for it, but I didn’t know how to ask that question directly either, and my subtle attempts to find out from both Trevor and Blair had been roundly ignored.
In truth, most people paid the writing cabinet scant attention, being more interested in the food, drink, and company. It caught my eye often, though. There was something about it that bothered me, a feeling that I put down to my ambivalence on the subject of ownership of such a beautiful piece. While I’d love to sell just about anybody an antique for any reason at all, should my advice be asked, it will always be to buy something you like and something you’ll use. You wouldn’t catch me slapping my laptop and coffee mug down on a one-point-five million writing cabinet, believe me. Perhaps more importantly, while Blair was obviously enthralled and that was nice, I always feel that something of this quality, created by the hand of a master like Mackintosh, really belongs to everyone, not just one bazillionaire. I was hoping that after he’d had it for a while, Blair could be persuaded to donate it to an art museum. I was sure there would be many who would prize it.
One who clearly was not only interested but also covetous was the curator of the furniture galleries at the Cottingham Museum. Blair was either rubbing Stanfield Roberts’s nose in it, since the Cottingham was probably eager to have such a piece in its collection, or he was genuinely pleased to show off his acquisition to a man who would certainly agree with me that the Mackintosh belonged in a museum. Stanfield had barely had time to blurt out the required social niceties in the entrance hall before he rocketed right over to the writing cabinet. He posed, there is no other word for it, looking very artistic and interested, his chin resting on his left hand, while the elbow was supported by his right. Finally, after a few minutes of contemplation, he approached the cabinet and had a much closer look. After examining it carefully, he stepped back with a very slight smile on his face. I didn’t know whether this meant he was thrilled to be in the presence of such a wonderful piece, or something else. I do know that Trevor watched his every move and gesture.
“I’d love to have a closer look, privately,” Stanfield said to Blair who approached him. “I wouldn’t dream of doing it now, with everyone here, but might I come over some time this week?”
“Of course,” Blair said. “You and your colleagues at the Cottingham are always welcome to study my collection.” For a man who had pulled himself up by his bootstraps, this must have been a rather important moment for Blair.
“I look forward to it,” Stanfield said, but for some reason he looked amused rather than pleased.
As the evening wore on, Leanna, who by this time was really plastered, managed to weave her way over to Blair and immediately spilled some champagne on his jacket, which clearly annoyed him. I can’t say I’ve ever seen Leanna completely sober, but then I only ran into her at events like this. It may well be that she is sober on numerous occasions, but this wasn’t one of them. Clive liked to call her Leanna the Lush—not to her face of course.
As Blair tried to sponge his jacket off with a cocktail napkin, Leanna leaned over and whispered something in his ear, then started pulling on his arm. Blair shook his head, but she persisted, finally leading him over to the writing cabinet. She peered at everything, opening and closing the doors and the drawers before Dez came and dragged her away. After she left, Blair stood stock-still staring at the cabinet for a full minute, I’d say, and then, his face dark as thunder, he went over to speak to Stanfield Roberts of the Cottingham. Both men went over to the cabinet for a brief consultation, before Blair quickly left the room, as the party rolled on without him.
I was standing with Rob, Clive, and Moira in the crowd not far from the cabinet when Blair returned. He was carrying an axe. He walked up to the writing cabinet, swung the blade, and in a few short seconds had hacked it into several pieces. Jaws dropped, hands flew to mouths, and several people started heading for the door. “Wylie!” Blair shouted, looking around the room. “Where are you, you bastard?”
But Trevor was nowhere to be seen. Blair then turned his attention elsewhere. “You!”—he pointed right at me—“are either a crook, too, or incompetent. Either way, you’re finished, babe!” He looked for a moment as if he were going to come right over waving the axe, but Rob stepped between us. Instead, Blair picked up the biggest piece of the furniture, walked to the French doors that opened on to a patio and began to throw the furniture out piece by piece.
“Outta here!” Clive said.
“I’m with you,” Rob replied.
“Just a minute…” I said, looking at the furniture as it flew out the door, but Clive grabbed one arm and Rob the other, and together they hustled me out the front door.
One thing we all agreed on, as we sat around my dining room table eating the lovely dinner Rob had cooked, was that as parties went, that one was a dud. All of them, Rob, Moira and even Clive tried to cheer me up, being the lovely people they are. They were very solicitous, but in a rather irritating way. “You can’t be right every time, hon,” Rob said in a soothing tone, after I’d gone on and on about it. What bothered me most, as I told them at least a hundred times, was that several of our customers were at the party. What, I asked, would they think?
“He didn’t give you the time you needed to make a proper assessment,” Moira said. “You told him it wasn’t definite.”
Surprisingly only Clive, who is usually the bane of my existence even if I’m still in business with him, and who spends most of his time, I’m convinced, trying to come up with ways to annoy me, said anything remotely comforting. “I’d like to see a piece of that wood,” he said after a couple of glasses of wine.
“Why would you want to do that?” Moira asked.
“I didn’t get a chance to get close to it at the party, what with everybody else drooling over it. I’m just wondering,” he said.
“Wondering what?” Moira said. “And no one was drooling over the furniture. They were drooling over the oysters and champagne, and jockeying for position with the celebs, just as you were.”
“Stanfield Roberts was drooling. I’m thinking Lara doesn’t make a lot of bad calls, except perhaps divorcing me. I’d just like to see the wood for myself.” Considering Clive stood to lose as much as I did if our customers were put off by Baldwin’s accusation, I thought this comment was very generous of him.
“Do you think Baldwin destroyed the real deal thinking it was a fake?” Rob said. “That would be a bad mistake to make, wouldn’t it? I mean, I don’t know anything about antique furniture, but it looked good to me.”
“It was a beautiful piece of furniture, and even if it was a fake. Blair shouldn’t have done that. And if it was real Charles Rennie Mackintosh, he should be charged with something for destroying it, shouldn’t he?” Moira asked. She directed her question to Rob, who as a Mountie is supposed to know this kind of thing.
“I’m not sure,” Rob said. “He owned it, and I don’t know of any heritage legislation that would protect it under the circumstances. He sure could be made a fool of, though, and Lara would be exonerated. We would make certain of that. But is that what you’re saying, Clive?”
“I don’t know what I’m saying,” Clive said. “I guess I’m thinking maybe we were a little hasty in dragging Lara out of there before she could get a closer look. I’d just like to see a piece of that thing for myself.”
I decided that it was still a good idea to have a look at a piece of wood, which is why I found myself early the next morning hiding out in a hole in the cedar hedge surrounding Blair Baldwin’s home. I’d been there when Baldwin had chosen one of his six cars for the day. He had this turntable device in his huge garage, so that he pressed a button until the right car was facing out. It made me think of an aircraft carrier, and I can’t even imagine how much this all cost. In any event, he’d chosen a silver Porsche and driven off in a spray of gravel. A few minutes later the maid had swept the patio where large chunks of furniture had been tossed the previous night. They weren’t there now. The yard was the picture of good gardening practice. There wasn’t a blade of grass out of place, and just about no chance the gardener had missed a piece of furniture.
There was, however, a large dumpster at the back, and I was formulating a plan that entailed a dash across the yard, or perhaps a dodge up from the laneway behind, followed by an athletic scaling of the dumpster, whereupon I would find a piece of writing cabinet right on top and make my getaway. It was a ridiculous idea, I know, and I felt like a complete idiot hunched over in the hedge. I also had no idea what I would say if someone in the house saw me and called the police.
While I stood there gamely trying to convince myself I could do this, a large disposal truck came up the drive, picked up the dumpster, and emptied it into the back. I heard the compactor come on, and despaired. Trevor’s writing cabinet might or might not be a fake. I would never know. I could have cried. Instead, I stood there, crouched over in the branches, watching as the dumpster backed down the drive.
And then there it was: a chunk of wood, thrown free, perhaps as the dumpster had been tipped. I crashed through the hedge, sprinted to the driveway, grabbed the wood and within minutes was coming through the back door to McClintoch & Swain.
“Is that new perfume? You smell like a Christmas tree,” Clive said. “And did you know you have scratches on your face?”
“Writing cabinet,” I said, holding my treasure aloft.
“Well done!” he said. “A good-sized piece, too, with the lock, no less. Turn on that light!”
“Mahogany,” I said.
“Yes,” he agreed. “Old wood. Beautiful finish. All hand work. Rather well done.”
“Yes. Master craftsman, for sure.”
“Too bad about that lock,” he said.
“It is,” I agreed.
“When do you figure it was manufactured? Maybe fifteen minutes ago?”
“Something like that.” I was trying to keep my tone light, but in truth I was absolutely mortified.
“Amazed you’d not see that,” he said. “You must have been feeling really pressured by Blair Bazillionaire, or was it charmed by Trevor the Rogue?”
“I checked the lock,” I replied. “I don’t know how I missed it.”
Clive was silent for a moment. “It’s okay,” he said finally, patting my shoulder. “We’ll survive.”
I really hate it when Clive is nice to me, and the only person I could think to take it out on was Trevor, who surely deserved it. “Trevor had lots of time to look at the lock. I’m going to take this over to Scot Free for a little chat.”
“Are you going to hit him with it?”
“Maybe. After that I am going to get Blair his money back, on the assumption Trevor won’t do it willingly, and that Blair will be too proud to ask.”
“Be careful,” he said. “This is bad enough as it is.”
The door to Scot Free was open, and the bell jangled, but Trevor did not show his face. Perhaps he’d seen me coming and quite correctly surmised that I wasn’t happy. I went partway up the stairs to the second floor and called his name, but silence greeted me.
I headed straight for the office, had a quick look around to make sure I was alone and then started through Trevor’s desk. There had to be something there that would tell me what I needed to know. You would never call Trevor a tidy person, nor a particularly efficient record-keeper, but he at least kept his customs forms and shipping documents in one file and his diary seemed up-to-date. By referencing the dates of his trip to Scotland, and some bills of lading later, I was able to find the documents for a large shipment from Glasgow. There were dozens of items listed, and I was just making my way through them, when I noticed an envelope, unstamped, addressed to me. I was about to open it when I heard a creak in the ceiling over my head.
“Trevor, you little worm!” I said, heading for the stairs. But it wasn’t Trevor. It was Mr. Bicycle Clips peering over the railing, his glasses now held together at the bridge of his nose with what looked to be duct tape. “What are you doing here creeping about?” I demanded.
“The same thing you are,” he replied belligerently.
“And what might that be?” I said.
“Snooping around,” he said. “I could see you from up here, going through the stuff in the desk.”
“I was looking for this,” I said, holding up the envelope. “It’s addressed to me. I told Trevor I’d pick it up.”
The man had the good graces at least to look embarrassed. “You took a long time finding it,” he said, finally.
“That’s because Trevor didn’t leave it where he said he would,” I replied, compounding my lie without so much as a qualm. “Now where is Trevor and why are you snooping around?”
“I have no idea where he is,” the man said. “I’m just looking around. I like this shop.”
“You were eavesdropping when I was here last,” I said. “I don’t believe you.”
“I don’t believe you either,” he said.
“I’m calling the police,” I said, turning and walking toward the office.
“I’m just trying to help my grandmother,” he said.
“Your grandmother?” I said, my voice dripping with disbelief.
“Honest,” he said. “It belonged—belongs!—to my grandmother. See,” he added, pulling out his wallet. “I have a photo of her with it.” I looked at the picture he proffered. It was the Mackintosh, and there was a very nice looking older woman standing beside it. “She wasn’t completely, you know—she suffered from dementia, and that slime Trevor Wylie sweet-talked her into selling it to him before anyone could stop her. She wasn’t ready to sell and didn’t remember what she had. Trevor had a truck backed up to her door within an hour. He knew exactly what he had, and he paid her much, much less than it was worth. She didn’t have a receipt or anything, and he paid cash, but she thought he was from Toronto, even though he sounded Scottish, and she knew his name was Trevor. We can’t afford a private investigator, so I flew over and here I am. I thought if I explained about my grandmother he’d reconsider. She needs the money. It was to pay for her care. I don’t know whether you are in this scam with Wylie, but if you are…” He looked as if he were about to cry.
“I’m not,” I said. “And I’m sorry about your grandmother. The truth is, though, that she may have done as well as she could on the deal. It was a fake. I suppose you know that.”
“A fake?” he said. “It is not.”
“Yes,” I said. “It was.”
“It is!” he said. “What do you mean by was? Don’t you mean is?”
“I mean it’s gone. It has been destroyed. Whatever it was, it is no longer.”
“No!” he exclaimed. “You can’t be serious.”
“I’m afraid I am. I’m sorry about your grandmother. Trevor shouldn’t have done that, but it wasn’t the genuine article.”
“But it was!” he said again.
“Several people were fooled by it,” I said. “Several of us,” I added. I was going to have to learn to live with this.
“We won’t know now, will we? Who destroyed it?” he said.
“A man by the name of Blair Baldwin. Trevor sold it to him, and I guess he was a little peeved when he found out it was a fake.”
“I’ll kill him,” the man said.
“Kill whom?” I said. Like Trevor, his’s‘s sounded more likesh,which reminded me of Sean Connery once again, but there the resemblance stopped. He was neither old nor young, maybe forty, rather thin and pale, and in his khaki pants complete with bicycle clips, which added a comical twist, he looked kind of harmless. I didn’t think he was the killing sort.
“Maybe both of them,” he said. “Or maybe not.” He looked completely dejected.
“I’m Lara,” I said. “I really am sorry about your grandmother and this whole business.”You have no idea how sorry,I thought.
“Percy,” he said after a moment’s hesitation. “Are you going to open it?” he asked pointing at the envelope.
There was a note inside scribbled on lined paper.Hen— the note began. I was liking this hen business less and less all the time.I know you’re mad at me. But I’ve had a spot of bother lately, and lo and behold there’s a way out. I’m not going to let this opportunity pass me by. Don’t bother looking for me. I’ve too much of a head start. Cheers, Trev
“What does he say?” Percy asked.
“I have no idea what he’s talking about,” I said. “But it is very irritating. I think we need to find him. Did you look closely upstairs?”
“He’s not there. Nobody’s here. Can I read it?” he asked, pointing at the letter.
“Be my guest.”
“Is this all there is?” he asked when he’d finished. “Nothing else in the envelope?”
“Nothing,” I said. “He’s here somewhere you know. How carefully did you look upstairs?”
“There’s nobody up there,” he replied. “Anyway, that letter sounds as if he’s taken off to parts unknown.”
“He’s here,” I repeated. “Unless you broke in here.”
“I did not!” Percy said indignantly. “The door was unlocked.”
“So he’s here,” I said. “Believe me, antique dealers do not leave their stores unattended, even for two minutes. I mean stuff gets stolen even when we’re there.”
“Maybe he wanted it to look as if he were coming right back,” Percy said.
“He hasn’t left,” I said, pointing to the envelope with my name on it. “See, no stamps. He’d have mailed this first.”
“I thought you said he asked you to pick it up,” Percy said.
I hate it when I trip over my own lies. “Neither of us is exactly innocent. Come on,” I said. Percy looked chagrined and meekly followed me up the stairs. There we opened every seaman’s chest and blanket box, armoire and credenza, or at least I did. I peered behind the large pieces, under the beds. No Trevor.
While I was doing this, Percy kept opening and closing drawers in a most annoying way, and then rechecking every place I looked. “He’s not hiding in a drawer, Percy,” I said.
“Oh,” he said. “I know. I was just checking for clues.”
“Downstairs,” I sighed. We did the same search on the main floor. Still no Trevor.
“I told you,” Percy said. “He’s not here.”
“I expect there’s a basement,” I said.
“Okay,” he sighed. “I’m game if you are.”
The door that led to the basement was locked, but it didn’t take long to find the key in Trevor’s desk. A nasty open staircase with no railing led down to a rather dark and dingy place. I was a woman on a mission, though, so down I went, followed closely by Percy. The place was just generally unpleasant, damp and vaguely sewerlike, and it looked pretty empty except for a worktable with a broken chair on it, several mousetraps in the corners and cobwebs here and there. I was regretting this excursion very much, but wasn’t going to admit it. There was nothing of interest in the first room, nor in the second, even behind the furnace. In the third room, the light switch didn’t work.
“I don’t want to go any farther,” Percy whined. “I don’t think he’d stay down here. Anyway, it smells bad. Let’s go back.”
“Oh, for heaven’s sake, Percy, it’s just a basement. There was a flashlight on the shelf in the first room. Go and get it.” He did what he was told. The flashlight wasn’t much to speak of, but I stepped into the room anyway and swung the beam around.
Trevor was there, not that I got any satisfaction from being right. I may not have known what that self-serving gibberish in Trevor’s letter was all about, but I was reasonably sure that having an axe buried in what was left of his skull was not what he’d meant by head start.
My family traces its roots in Orkney back almost a thousand years to one Bjarni, son of Harald, also known as Bjarni the Wanderer. Bjarni came from a good family in Norway and journeyed to Orkney during the time of Earl Sigurd the Stout, who gave him land in Tankerness. Bjarni, you see, was Earl Sigurd’s man, a warrior as well as a farmer. In Orkney, in those days, there were three social classes: the wealthy and powerful earls who inherited their estates; free farmers and warriors of which Bjarni was one; and thralls or serfs who worked the land. Bjarni spent the winters in Orkney, but every summer, he joined Sigurd’s raiding parties to Caithness, the Hebrides, and as far away as Ireland. They were looking for booty, of course, but also for land, trying to extend the power of the earls of Orkney throughout the British Isles. There’s a story about Sigurd, that his Irish mother, a sorceress, made him a magical raven banner: whoever carried the banner would die, but victory would go to the man before whom it flew. It was in Ireland that Sigurd died, and it’s said he himself was carrying the banner.
True or not, it was then Bjarni’s fortunes changed. Sigurd had four sons in all, but one of them, who would later be Earl Thorfinn the Mighty, one of the greatest earls of Orkney, was still a lad at the time. The other three, Sumarlidi, Brusi, and Einar took over Orkney when Sigurd died. They were a fractious lot, especially Einar, known as Wry-Mouth, and not disposed to share the land equally. As often happened in those days the competition turned bloody.
Rivalries both within families and without were intense in those days, and power changed hands often, making it rather easy to find oneself on the wrong side of a political struggle. And so it was with Bjarni. Bjarni sided with Earl Brusi in the dispute over the control of Orkney and killed Thorvald the Stubborn, one of Einar’s men, in the struggle. While Bjarni offered to make a settlement over the killing of Thorvald, and to hold a great feast in the earl’s honor, Einar, a hard man, was not disposed to accept it. Men of goodwill interceded on Bjarni’s behalf, but to no avail. Einar’s men came for him and burned down his house, but Bjarni, having been warned of the attack, was able to make his escape with the help of some like-minded men.
A family conference was held and there was much discussion about what was to be done. Finally Oddi, Bjarni’s brother spoke. “I’m not blaming you for what you’ve done, Bjarni. Thorvald the Stubborn deserved what he got. But it seems to me if you stay around here, your head and your shoulders will soon be parted. I’m thinking a voyage of some distance and some duration might be in order here. I say we take two longboats, and some men who are willing, and head for Scotland. It may be that those who care for Sigurd’s young lad Thorfinn can intercede on our behalf with Einar, persuade him to have a change of heart. In the meantime, we will be out of harm’s way. We won’t be the first to leave Orkney because of Einar. Nor will we be the last.”
All agreed that this was the best course of action. And so it was that Bjarni, Oddi, and some of their kin, including theskaldor “poet,” Svein the Wiry set off in two longboats on a voyage that would take some of them farther than they ever dreamed.
You are thinking I am making this up, which I can certainly understand, but you’ll find the stories of Sigurd the Stout, his sons Brusi and Einar, Sumarlidi and Thorfinn if you look. The lives of all of them are therefor anyone to see in the pages of the Orkney inga Saga. As I’ve said, our story is not inconsistent with the facts. True, you’ll not be finding Bjarni the Wanderer or his brother Oddi in the saga. No, you’ll not be finding them.
You didn’t need a degree in criminology to guess the number one murder suspect in the death of Trevor Wylie. After all, Blair Bazillionaire had been swinging an axe about in front of approximately seventy-five people, one of whom was the chief of police. Not that anything was said about an axe-murderer, mind you, that being evidence the police were keeping to themselves. It was suggested strongly to me that I do the same.
For a while, though, it seemed to me that I was spending as much time at the local police station as Blair was. Like Blair, I had to be fingerprinted. The police said it was to eliminate mine from the many at the scene, which made sense, I suppose, given my prints were all over just about everything, even a half-empty coffee cup I’d moved so that I could get at Trevor’s files. Blair’s prints were all over the same things mine were, with one unfortunate addition: the axe. Neither Blair nor the staff at his residence were able to produce the axe he’d so publicly used to chop up the furniture, so while it couldn’t be proven definitely, it pretty much looked as if the same one had been used to chop up Trevor’s head.
It looked open and shut as they say, and not good at all for Blair, and just about everything I said to Detective Ian Singh only made it worse.
“Take me through this,” Singh said, after I’d explained that I’d gone to Scot Free to discuss Baldwin’s purchase of the writing cabinet. “Baldwin was a good customer, and you went with him to Trevor Wylie’s establishment to check out this desk that Baldwin wanted to buy.”
“I met him there, yes.”
“You thought it was genuine, the desk, I mean.”
“I thought it might be,” I said, reluctantly.
“And Baldwin bought it on your say so.”
“I guess so.” This was going to be really painful. “I did point out I’d like to do more research.”
“And Baldwin later found it to be a fake.”
“Did you tell him it was?”
“No. I don’t know who told him.”
“But it was a fake.”
“I think so. I did manage to get a piece of it, after it was chopped up, and had a good look. The lock used was not consistent with the supposed age of the cabinet. It was brand-new, in fact.” I really hoped he didn’t ask me how I got that piece of wood. I still had the scratches.
“How much was the desk thing worth?”
“Under the circumstances not much,” I said. “A few thousand, maybe. It was a nice piece regardless of who made it.”
“Let me rephrase the question. How much would it have been worth if it was genuine?”
“A similar one sold for a million and a half not that long ago.” Trevor had been right about that. I’d checked it myself later.
Singh’s eyebrows went up. “So, in your opinion, Baldwin, thinking it was genuine, might have paid well over a million for it.”
“I guess so. I don’t know, though. I left before they discussed price.”
“I’d like to ask you a few questions about your relationship with Baldwin.”
“He was a longtime customer, at least ten years.”
“He bought a lot of merchandise from you over those ten years?”
“How did he normally pay?”
“How did he pay for this merchandise?”
“The usual way. Check, credit card, cash.”
“How often did he pay cash?”
“I can’t recall. From time to time, I guess, for the smaller purchases.”
“Can you recall the largest purchase he paid cash for?”
“Would he have paid, say, a hundred thousand in cash?”
“Hardly. We don’t carry that kind of merchandise often. He might give us a couple of hundred dollars in cash, on occasion, maybe four hundred? Anything over that, and he wrote a check or paid by card. Why are you asking this?”
“Just part of our investigation,” Singh said.
“Surely it’s academic. He couldn’t have paid cash for the writing cabinet,” I said. “Could he?”
Singh didn’t answer. Instead, he went on to ask about the evening at Baldwin’s, which we went over in excruciating detail, and then back to my unfortunate discovery of the body.
“The shop was empty when you got there,” he said.
“It was. No, it wasn’t, but I thought it was. There was a customer upstairs.”
“So you waited.”
“As did this customer wait with you?”
“And then you both went looking for him.”
“Yes. The shop was open. I thought Trevor had to be there somewhere. You don’t just go out and leave the merchandise for all takers. For one thing, there have been a number of robberies at antique stores around here. So far there have been no arrests.”
Singh ignored the jibe. “And this customer, what did you say his name was? Percy?”
“Yes. He looked for Trevor, too.”
“I don’t know. We didn’t get that far.”
“So, you and this fellow with whom you are on a first-name-only basis decided to look in the basement?”
“Isn’t that a little odd?”
“As I said, Trevor had to be there. I mean, what if he’d had an accident and fallen down there?”
“An accident,” he repeated, and he almost smiled. “And this Percy came downstairs with you.”
“I didn’t want to go by myself,” I said. That was partly true, I suppose.
“And when you found Trevor, then what?”
“I ran upstairs and called nine-one-one.”
“He ran outside. I don’t think he was feeling well.” Actually, he’d made little retching sounds and dashed up the stairs.
“I don’t suppose you know where Percy might be found,” Singh said.
“I told you already that I don’t. He said he’d flown in from Scotland recently. That’s all I know.”
“But you saw him in the shop before, the day you wenttolook at the desk I believe you said.”
“Yes. Is he a suspect?”
“We have only your word that he exists,” Singh said. “But on the assumption your story is true, he would of course be of interest to us. You did say he was there when you got there?”
“Yes.” I was certain Percy hadn’t killed Trevor. He was such a timid-looking man. Furthermore, killing Trevor wasn’t going to get his Granny’s writing cabinet back. I hadn’t seen him at the party either, so how would he have known about the axe business, and how would hegetthe axe? I said none of this to Singh.
“Did you see Wylie socially?” Singh asked.
“There’s a bunch of shop owners in the neighborhood who get together for drinks from time to time, maybe once a month. We talk about issues affecting the area and whine about business and stuff. Both Trevor and I are, were, part of it. Trevor liked The Dwarfie Stane. It’s a bar named for some tomb in Scotland. Maybe you know it. It’s the place that has a hundred different single malt scotches, or something like that. We often get together there. Trevor was working his way through all one hundred. Other than that, I’d see him every now and then at parties. We had some clients in common.”
“Did you like Wylie?”
“He was very charming,” I said. “And I liked him well enough up until that cabinet turned out to be a fake.”
“About this friendly little note Trevor left for you,” Singh said. “What did you think the note meant?”
“I have no idea. I thought he was just being a jerk.”
“Wylie could be a jerk, could he?”
“I thought so.”
“But you spent a lot of time with him.”
“No, I didn’t. I told you already that I saw him only occasionally.”
“Your fingerprints are on every piece of furniture in the place.”
“I was looking for him.”
“In the furniture?”
“Yes, in the furniture. I thought he was hiding from me.”
“You didn’t by any chance receive a—what shall we call it?—a commission on the sale of this desk?”
“I did not!” I said.
“Would you not perhaps have felt entitled to a… um… commission? It was on your say so that Baldwin bought the desk.”
“I did not bring Baldwin to Trevor. Trevor called him all by himself. If there were to be a finder’s fee, it would only be paid if I brought Baldwin to Trevor. Even then, I would not have asked for a commission. Baldwin was a good client. He asked for my help from time to time, and I gave it, free.”
“I guess it was worth what he paid for it,” Singh said. I took that to be payback for my remark about the lack of arrests, and I suppose I deserved it. “So no discreet palming of an envelope filled with cash? A little undeclared and therefore tax-free income?” he said. “If so, I’d report it now if I were you.”
“There was absolutely no commission, tax-free or otherwise,” I said. “Nor was it expected.”
“You have received nothing of any sort from Wylie?”
“I have not.”
“Assuming what you say is true, you must have been just a little annoyed with Wylie yourself.”
“I was,” I said. “But I don’t axe people, if that is what you are implying. Do I need my lawyer?”
“Up to you.”
“You know what?” I said, rising from my chair. “I don’t believe you can keep me here, and I’m tired of all these questions that imply I am a murderer, a liar, or a thief. So let’s just say this discussion is over.”
“Please sit down,” he said. “Nobody is accusing you of anything. Did anyone else see this Percy?”
“There was just the two of us there. Blair might remember him because he was there when Blair and I first went to look at the cabinet. Just a minute: there was another person there, too, that first time, a rather unlikely-looking person to be interested in antiques. He had a big dog, a Doberman.”
“A Doberman? Was this strange-looking person about the same height as the dog and maybe as wide?”
“Yes,” I said. “You know him?”
“I might,” Singh said. “You do meet the most unusual people.” He made a note on the pad in front of him. “If this man with the dog is who I think it is, then you really keep bad company, Ms. McClintoch.”
“I wasn’t the one keeping company with this person,” I said.
“I suppose,” he said.
“I’m leaving now,” I said rising from my chair and heading for the door.
“I require some of that free advice of yours,” he said to my back.
“I guess whatever advice I’d give you will be worth what you pay for it then,” I retorted, but I stopped my retreat.
“There is no record of a transaction between Baldwin and Wylie,” Singh continued.
“What are you saying?” I said.
“I’m saying it’s not just Percy that’s missing. No check has cleared Baldwin’s bank accounts, at least not the bank accounts we know about, nor has there been a significant deposit in the order of magnitude we’re talking about here, in Wylie’s. There isn’t a credit card transaction on any of the cards we can find for Baldwin either. Wylie had about eighty dollars on him when he died. We’ve searched his house and the shop. No cash.”
“So if Baldwin hadn’t yet paid for it, why did he get so annoyed about the fake?” I asked. “Or are you saying he had other accounts, offshore or something?”
“I need you to go with one of my forensics people to look at Wylie’s records,” he said. I said nothing. There was obviously no point in asking a question, because Singh had already demonstrated he wasn’t for answering any of them. “Forensic accountant, that is,” he added.
“Baldwin couldn’t have paid cash, could he?” I said. “That’s what you were getting at when you asked how Blair paid for merchandise. It would be way too much.”
“We need you to identify the records pertaining to this desk thing. We can’t find any record for it, either.”
“It’s probably not called a desk,” I said.
“That would be why we need your help,” Singh said. “You cannot be compelled to assist, but perhaps you might like to do so.”
“I might not,” I said.
“My mistake,” he said. “I assumed given your relationship with a fellow law enforcement professional…”
“What has my relationship with Rob Luczka have to do with it?” But he had me. I could hear Rob’s speech now, something along the lines of how honest citizens needed to come forward to assist police in their investigations or we would all go to hell in a hand basket or something. “Okay,” I said. “When?”
“How about right now?” Singh said.
About thirty minutes later I found myself sitting once again at Trevor’s desk, going through his papers. This time I wasn’t snooping, or rather I was now snooping officially, in the company of a policewoman by the name of Anna Chan. Chan was an accountant as well as a police officer, and she struck me as rather good at both.
“I can’t find any reference to a desk in these documents,” she said.
“That’s because it’s a writing cabinet,” I said. “Or rather it was a writing cabinet. A desk, well, we all know what a desk is. A writing cabinet has doors that you open to reveal the work surface and the drawers. This one had beautiful inlaid work, leaded glass. It was really lovely. So we’d be looking for a different listing.”
“So can you find it?” she asked.
The office looked pretty much the way it had when I’d left it to find the elusive Percy upstairs. I handed Anna the relevant files right away. I had, after all, been looking at them before.
“You found those rather fast,” she said, with a hint of suspicion in her voice.
“They were right on the top of the desk,” I said. “Trevor must have been working with them when… you know.” I glanced toward the basement door.
“I’ve checked the declared value for customs,” she said in a disapproving tone a few minutes later. “There is nothing listed anywhere close to a million dollars. I suppose our customs officials are concentrating on finding terrorists and weapons, not furniture that is seriously undervalued.”
“That doesn’t make Trevor a criminal,” I said. “The reason this was supposed to be worth as much as it was rested entirely on the claim that it was by one of the masters of the Arts and Crafts movement, Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Trevor, when he bought it, might have wanted it to be Mackintosh, but he wouldn’t necessarily have known that it was. He would have to do his research. So he would have valued it at what he paid for it, which was probably a decent sum for a writing cabinet, but a pittance for Mackintosh. People take chances on this kind of thing all the time. It doesn’t make them dishonest.”
“Tell that to the poor sod he ripped off,” she said.
“Not entirely fair,” I said. “Trevor did his research. The owner didn’t.” I felt a stab of sympathy for the nice old woman with dementia in Percy’s photograph, but still I continued. “Trevor took a chance. He paid to ship it. If it wasn’t what he thought it might be, he’d be out a lot of money. If you’re going to sell something like this, then maybe you have to do some work to find out about it. If you don’t, then people prepared to take a chance may be the winners. I wouldn’t knowingly rip somebody off, but I might take a chance on something, and win, and I wouldn’t be too happyifthe owner came back to me and claimed I’d ripped him off. Now let’s have a look at all this stuff.”
“He seems to have done better shipping back to Scotland,” she said a few minutes later.
“We ship all over the world. I can only assume Trevor did the same.”
“For your sake I hope you have this kind of business. This one is valued at just under million bucks. It’s a chair. It must have been some chair!”
“Wow! Let me see.” I looked at the paperwork she showed me. “I guess Trevor was doing better than I thought.”
“Not exactly,” she said, pulling out another file. “Looks to me as if he shipped it but he only got a commission, just under ten thousand, plus shipping and handling. So that means he sold it for someone else, I presume.”
“I guess so.”
“Would that be unusual?”
“Not unprecedented. We take some pieces on consignment from time to time. The markup is usually pretty good.”
“Would one percent or so be considered good in your business?”
“For consignment, no, but the percentage would be lower on a high-ticket item.”
“But not that low.”
“I guess not.”
A few minutes later Anna spoke again. “Baldwin,” she said. “Why am I not surprised?”
“It was Baldwin’s million-dollar chair. He cashed a check for nine hundred and fifty thousand, and paid Baldwin, less the small commission and expenses.”
“Blair had a chair worth nine hundred and fifty thousand? Not from me.”
“I’ll say. Let me see.” It looked to me as if Anna were right. The chair was marked as museum quality, which it would have to have been. The merchandise was delivered to a dealer in Glasgow. There was a copy of both checks in the file.
“Is there really such a thing as a nine-hundred-and-fifty-thousand-dollar chair in real life?” she asked.
“Obviously, there is. Not in my league. I helped Blair buy an Antoni Gaudi chair for something over a hundred thousand once.”
“That’s nowhere near this one. Name one chair that would be worth that much.”
“King Tut’s throne?” I said. I was being facetious of course, but I was also making a point.
“You found that desk thing yet?” she said.
“Not yet.” In fact, it took a couple of hours going through Trevor’s files. I’d known Trevor for years, but never this intimately. I felt as if I were going through his underwear drawer. To make matters worse, I couldn’t keep my eyes off the door to the basement, and half expected Trevor’s ghost to come floating past. It was not a pleasant experience. I tried to concentrate.
Trevor had specialized in Scottish antiques, obviously, given his background and the name of his store, and when I’d first known him he’d gone to Scotland at least three times a year. In the past year, however, he’d gone only once, and that was about six months earlier. He’d shipped back a container of furniture at that time, which had arrived about three months before. There wasn’t anything specifically referred to as a writing cabinet in that shipment, but there was something I was reasonably certain was it, a lacquered mahogany cupboard. The dimensions were about right. Its value was listed as $15,000 U.S. I pointed it out to Chan.
“You think this is it?” she said.
“I think so. There isn’t anything else that qualifies.”
“Nice markup if Wylie got over a million for it.”
“I guess he hasn’t been doing too well financially,” I said. “Up until the transaction with Baldwin.”
“Why would you think that?” she said.
“He only made one trip this year to Scotland, which would indicate he wasn’t selling enough to make another trip.”
“Hmmm,” she said. Another police officer not inclined to answer my questions. When I thought about it, though, I realized that wasn’t right. I’d had to check invoices and receipts as well, and he wasn’t doing too badly. He didn’t have any employees, just minded the shop himself, and while the rent in the neighborhood was considerable, as I very well knew, he’d managed to sell a decent amount of merchandise.
“I wonder what this is,” I said aloud a few minutes later.
“What?” she said.
“Another shipment from Scotland about a month later. It’s only one piece, though.”
“And that would be unusual because?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “I suppose it just didn’t make the container, for some reason. It’s expensive to ship one piece all by itself, that’s all.” But that wasn’t really it. This shipment was for one black cabinet, valued at $10,000 U.S. “I guess this one could be the writing cabinet, too. It got here about eight weeks ago. That would have given him a few weeks to get it out of customs, do the research, and approach Baldwin. I’m sorry, but I think it could be either of these.”
“If you had to choose one?”
“I don’t know. Have you found receipts or invoices for this trip? There might be more information there.”
“Wylie did keep all the paperwork for that trip in one file. Let me see. Here,” she said, a few minutes later. “A receipt from an antique shop on George’s Square in Glasgow called J.A. Macdonald and Sons Antiques, for the right amount, and it refers to it as a lacquer cupboard.”
“Let’s see,” I said. “This looks like it, and you’re right, when you do the currency conversion, it’s about fifteen thousand dollars. Is there something for the other one?”
“Not that I can find,” she said. “Hold on. It’s in another file. This one is for someone by the name of, well, I can’t read the name, it’s handwritten, but the address is, are you ready for this? St. Margaret’s Hope. Where do you think that is?”
“I have no idea. I think that has to be the one, though. Percy, the man Detective Singh does not believe exists, said the cabinet was purchased from his grandmother, and the first one we found was purchased from an antique dealer. I wonder if St. Margaret’s Hope is near Glasgow. So my vote is with the second one. It’s called a cabinet, for one thing, and I don’t think Trevor would have waited four months to contact Baldwin once he knew what he had.”
“But he didn’t have it, right? He would need some time to set up the scam?”
“Right,” I said. “Something that should be said here is that there is a very real possibility that Trevor was fooled, too, that he was the victim of the scam and not its perpetrator.”
“I don’t think so,” Chan said.
“Why not? You don’t know that,” I protested. “Have a look around. The furniture in this place is good quality. It’s genuine. It’s not overpriced. It’s not inexpensive, but it’s worth what you pay for it.”
“I wouldn’t know,” she said.
“I would. There is nothing I can see here that indicates Trevor was a crook.”
“Except the Mackintosh,” she said.
I was trying to think of a suitable retort when Chan’s cell phone rang. After a word or two, she told me that my statement was ready, and that Singh was wondering if I’d mind stopping by the station to sign it. “I will later,” I replied. “A bunch of us are getting together at Trevor’s favorite bar, The Dwarfie Stane, for a bit of a wake. I’ll stop by after that.” Chan relayed the message.
“You haven’t told me why you’re sure Trevor wasn’t fooled along with me,” I said.
“No,” she said, and that was it.
The gang was already at the Stane when I got there. McClintoch & Swain was well represented, as we had a part-time employee, a student, to close up the shop. Clive came, as did Alex Stewart, our part-time employee and friend. Moira, who owns the Meller Spa came, too, looking perfect as usual. She was sporting a very chic haircut, very short all over. It suited her, even if the circumstances weren’t the greatest. Moira’s had some health problems, chemotherapy, in fact. Elena, the craft store owner was there, as was Kayleigh, who’d bought the linens shop a year earlier. A local restauranteur by the name of Kostas dropped by, as did several others I didn’t know very well. Even Dan, who had once owned an independent bookstore in the area, showed up, back from his new home in Florida. I was very happy to see them all, particularly because not one person mentioned the affair of the fake Mackintosh, at least not at first.
The first round was on the house. We all had Highland Park Single Malt, Trevor’s favorite. “Here’s to Trevor Wylie,” Rendall Sinclair, the publican said. “He had his faults, but his choice of whisky wasn’t one of them.” It was a good toast, and kept the event from being too maudlin, and soon everyone was sharing their favorite story about Trevor. I decided that, under the circumstances, I wasn’t about to contribute to this, but the tales, tall some of them, were funny, and I found myself warming to Trevor a little once again.
When I thought about it, though, all the stories had one thing in common. Elena was telling a story about how she’d been bested by Trevor in some business dealing or other. “I could have killed him,” she concluded. “Oops! I didn’t mean that.” Everyone assured her they knew that, that it was just an expression.
“Why would anyone want to murder Trevor?” Dan said.
Clive opened his mouth to speak, but I gave him a look that should have turned him to stone. Moira added a jab in the ribs.
“Were you going to say something, Clive?” Dan asked.
“I was just going to suggest we order some snacks,” Clive said. Moira smiled at me.
But that had been the nub of it, surely. Trevor, for all his charm, was always getting the better of people, always taking shortcuts of some kind at other people’s expense, but doing it in such a way we all forgave him. Except for one person, whoever that might be. Trevor had taken his little escapades just one step too far, with someone who was not only immune to his charm, but had a short fuse. Someone like Blair Bazillionaire.
As I listened in a rather subdued fashion to the conversations around me, I thought about Anna Chan’s conviction that Trevor knew what he had, and her comment about his needing time to set up the scam. It occurred to me that I’d been seeing rather more of Trevor in the last couple of months than at any time previously. He’d regularly made dates at the bar for the shopkeeper’s association we’d set up in the neighborhood, and in fact had to all intents and purposes become the leader of the group, which was fine with the rest of us. Dan the bookseller had done it for a while, but he’d closed up shop when one of the big chains had opened up nearby and retired to Florida. After that the group had languished until Trevor had taken an interest. Was there, I wondered, something more to Trevor’s enthusiasm than met the eye? In other words, had he been setting me up for the two months since the second cabinet had arrived? I was losing my edge, charmed by a guy who looked like Sean Connery. Any warm feelings engendered by the wake evaporated.I should sell my half of the business to Clive,I thought.I should follow Dan to Florida.
The Dwarfie Stane was a very pleasant place, rather modern in design despite being named after some ancient tomb, with lots of comfortable chairs and alcoves, and a beautiful granite-topped bar with lots of mirror and chrome to show off the single malts, of which there were many. I had a sense that someone was watching me, and sure enough, sitting facing the bar but watching in the mirror was Detective Singh. I’d heard about police attending the funeral of a murder victim, but not the wake. This did not improve my mood any. This seemed rather tasteless of him to me, but then everything was making me crabby these days, something Clive and Rob had both pointed out to me. I walked right up to the bar, told Rendall I’d like to buy the next round, and then said, “Hello, Detective Singh. Off-duty are we?” He had a glass of something in front of him, but it might well have been soda and a folded newspaper.
“Seen the late edition of the paper?” Singh said. I could tell that Rendall had not only heard, but was interested in the conversation.
“Not yet,” I replied. He unfolded the newspaper to the top of the front page and slid it along the counter toward me. “Axe Murderer at Large,” the headline screamed.
“Only one person other than our small team at the station knew about the axe,” he said.
“Two, including Percy,” I said. “I have told no one.”
“The elusive Percy,” he snorted. “Well, it doesn’t matter now. If it did, you wouldn’t be sitting here swigging single malt. You’d be down at the station with me.”
At this point I just wanted to go home, but I went back to the group, not wanting to seem rude. As I sat there, who should come in but Percy himself. “Percy,” I said, standing up. He turned at the sound of my voice, then sprinted back out the door. It took me a minute to climb over everybody, wedged as I was in the middle of a large sofa, and behind a long table, but as soon as I was able, I, too, was out the door and running down the street in the direction I thought he’d gone. I caught sight of his head a couple of times, but it was soon pretty clear I’d lost him. I made my way back slowly, peering into the shops that were still open, of which there were not many, and going into my own to say good night to Ben, our student. Detective Singh was standing at the door of the Stane when I got back.
“Lose somebody?” he said.
“Percy,” I replied. “The guy who doesn’t exist?”
“Really,” Singh said. It wasn’t a question. He didn’t believe me.
“Yes, really,” I replied.
“How convenient,” he said. “Just when I’m in the neighborhood.”
“Come on! You can’t help but have noticed he ran away when I called his name.”
“Not that I saw,” he said, returning to his seat at the bar. I decided it was time to go home and went to the bar to pay my tab.
“Lara,” Rendall said, appearing from the back. “Call for you. You can take it my office. I’ll show you the way.”
That seemed a bit odd to me, given I have a cell phone, but I followed Rendall down a corridor and into a back room. “There’s no phone call,” he said. “I need your advice. First, that guy you went chasing after. He’s been in here a fair bit. He was asking about you. He’s Orcadian, and…”
“What’s Orcadian?” I said.
“From Orkney. It’s the name of the place that attracted him I’m sure. The Dwarfie Stane is a tomb on the island of Hoy in Orkney. He was also asking about a fellow Orcadian called Trevor Wylie.”
“I thought Trevor was from Glasgow,” I said.
“Not originally. He was born on the Mainland.”
“The Mainland of what?”
“I’m not sure I know exactly where Orkney is,” I said. “All I know is that wherever it is, Trevor was glad to have left it.”
“Dull as dishwater is what he called it.”
“That doesn’t sound like Trevor.”
“Aye. Perhaps I edited it for your delicate ears. Boring as shite is what he said.”
“That sounds more like it. So where is Orkney?”
“Group of Scottish islands and too small a place for our Trevor. The thing is I told that fellow where to find Trevor. You don’t think…”
“That he killed Trevor? No, I don’t. He looked pretty harmless to me,” I said. “His name is Percy, right?”
“That’s not the name I recall. Arthur, that’s what it was.”
“Are you sure?” I said, but it was a stupid question. Like all good publicans, Rendall didn’t forget a name.
“I’m pretty sure it was Arthur. Do you think I should tell the police?”
“I don’t think it would help,” I said. “Singh, the policeman at the bar, didn’t believe there was anyone by the name of Percy at Trevor’s place, and if you tell him the name is Arthur, he’ll be really skeptical. But you decide. As far as I’m concerned, we never had this conversation.”
“What conversation?” he said. “You’re not worried he was asking who you are?”
“Not really. I’m just as suspicious of him as he is of me.”
“I told him you owned an antique shop down the street. He seemed to be satisfied by that.”
“Okay. It’s not a secret. You wouldn’t happen to know of a place called St. Margaret’s Hope, would you?”
“Indeed, I do. Lovely little town on South Ronaldsay. You should visit Orkney some time.”
“I just might do that,” I said.
My day ended as it began, at the police station with Singh. I arrived there at the same time that Betsy Baldwin, Blair’s ex-wife did. She, too, came to sign a statement and gave me a tight little smile. I’d always liked Betsy and was sorry when she and Blair parted. I didn’t think it looked good for Blair that she was there.
In what I can only describe as a stroke of bad luck, our exit from the station coincided with the arrival of Blair, handcuffed and surrounded by dozens of reporters and cameras. The media was all over this one, in all its gore. Through the chaos, though, Blair saw me. “This is your fault,” he hissed, as the crowd swept past. I noticed he hadn’t called me “babe.”
“I wonder how he knew about my statement,” Betsy sighed. “I didn’t want to give it, not that I had any choice. They knew.”
“He blames me for his being pulled in for questioning, but I don’t know how he’d know what I said,” she replied.
“I think he was blaming me,” I said. “He thinks I misled him on something.”
“I’m sure he meant me,” she said. “The police looked into his background and discovered I’d once called them about his violent behavior. He hit me, you know. More than once. That’s why I left him.”
“I had no idea,” I said. “I’m sorry.”
“That’s why he didn’t contest the divorce. I agreed to shut up about it, and he paid up big. Now, though, with the police all over this, I didn’t have much of a choice. He has such a temper. There were times when I was afraid he was going to kill me, and for sure he hurt me a lot. Now maybe he has killed someone. I think my statement will be rather damning. I’m sorry he blames me, though. I did love him. Still do.” I left it at that. I knew Blair had meant me, but it seemed a rather silly argument to have with her under the circumstances.
Before I proceed with the tale, there are one or two facts you should know about Bjarni, germane to the subject at hand. First, Bjarni Haraldsson was a Viking. Please do not misunderstand me. Viking is not an ethnic term, despite the way we use it now. Some say it is derived fromvik,the word for a “bay” or “cove.” I don’t agree. I believe it to be what we might call a job description. Ethnically, Bjarni was Norse. The wordVikingrefers to a specific activity, and that activity when you come right down to it was raiding. In other words, Vikings were pirates, and the term suited Bjarni and his friends rather well. Oh, they’d trade if it suited them. If not they just took what they needed. Every spring, when the weather was good and the sowing done, all able men headed out on raiding parties to see what they could find. Sometimes they went in autumn after the harvest as well. They had the fastest ships on the sea, light, with shallow drafts that allowed them to beach almost anywhere, and they were exceedingly adept sailors and fierce and skilled fighters. They came in fast, looted, burned, raped in increasingly violent attacks and then moved on. No wonder they were feared wherever they went. No wonder prayers rang out from pulpits across Europe asking that the faithful be saved from the Viking scourge.
The second salient point is that Bjarni was a pagan. While Earl Sigurd the Stout had converted to Christianity. Bjarni had not accepted the new faith. Wiser people than I have made the point that Christianity was not a natural fit for a Viking. Their code was different. Men fought together, raided together and their loyalty was to those with whom they fought, and to those who behaved in a way that merited it. Family was extraordinarily important. Blood ties were sacred for the Vikings. If you killed someone’s kin, the victim’s entire family was obliged, and to say nothing of inclined, to kill you. An eye for an eye was really the code of the Viking. Turning the other cheek wasn’t something a proud Viking was too likely to do, and the idea of the meek inheriting the earth would seem merely laughable. Still by Bjarni’s time, Christianity was being accepted all over the Viking world and under some duress in Orkney. Earl Sigurd converted only because Olaf Tryggvason, King of Norway, forced him to be baptized. It was either that or have his head cut off by Olaf. Sigurd had to promise that everyone on Orkney would be baptized. We don’t know whether Bjarni was baptized or not, but we do know that he clung obstinately to his belief in the old gods of northern Europe.
I suppose we would say now that Bjarni was something of a throwback, a relic of some earlier more violent time, when the earls of Orkney and their Norwegian kings dreamt of a Norse-Orcadian dominion throughout what is now the British Isles. Whether they knew it or not, those hopes died with Sigurd in Ireland at the Battle of Clontarf.
At the very least Bjarni was out of touch with his times. The world of a thousand years ago was rapidly changing. The Vikings were gradually settling down. For example, those in Northern France, the people we now know as Normans, were pretty firmly established. Other peoples were doing the same. The Magyars, those marauding horsemen who had terrorized much of Europe, were now settling peacefully in the area we know as Hungary. And monks, now finding it less necessary to protect their treasures from the heathen hordes, were flexing power, both spiritual and political. It was only in Britain that the Vikings still had the power to instill fear, and even there life was changing. While life on Orkney had for well over a hundred years been one last raid after another, and one battle after another, too, even Sigurd’s grandfather, the aptly named Thorfinn Skull-Splitter had managed to die of old age, rather than from his wounds. It was not just the old religion to which Bjarni clung, it was the old ways as well.
But to continue with his story: those sailing from Orkney usually waited for good conditions in the spring, but Bjarni was not in a position to time his exit to fair weather. He left in February, kissing his wife Frakokk and two sons good-bye, and promising to return. Neither he nor they had any idea what was in store for our Bjarni.
Three events of some significance occurred in rapid succession that night following the wake at the Stane. The first was that while I was dreaming about disembodied heads, Blair was officially charged with the murder of Trevor Wylie. The second was that sometime in the wee hours, perhaps while the police were congratulating themselves on a quick resolution to the murder, McClintoch & Swain suffered another break-in. So, as it turned out, did Scot Free, Trevor’s shop, an event that was to annoy Detective Singh no end.
The third was that I had this little epiphany, somewhere around 3 AM. Even though I didn’t want to, I was replaying the business about the writing cabinet, a rather unpleasant habit I’d developed. I suppose it was better than dreaming about Trevor’s head, but it was exhausting nonetheless. I tried to picture the cabinet, going back over in my mind the examination, one I thought I had been careful about the first time I saw it in Trevor’s store. I imagined myself opening the doors, looking at the leaded glass and then the wood, the dovetailing, the finish, and then the lock. I was sure the lock was fine.
I then went back over my conversation with the elusive Percy, or Arthur, or whatever he was called. When I’d told him the cabinet was a fake, we’d got into one of those “Is, too; Is not” conversations. Clearly he had been convinced of the authenticity of his grandmother’s writing cabinet. But the piece of it I’d foolishly and painfully crawled through a hedge to get, said it wasn’t. Wrong lock, no doubt about it.
Then I went over in my mind the documentation I’d searched for on behalf of Anna Chan. There had been one lacquered mahogany cupboard, valued at $15,000, in the big shipment from Scotland, purchased from an antique dealer on George Square in Glasgow by the name of John A. Macdonald & Sons. There had been a second shipment with only one object, a black cabinet valued at $10,000 from somewhere called St. Margaret’s Hope. Who could forget a name like that? So there were two black cabinets, and I’d had a difficult time deciding which would have been the one I’d seen in Trevor’s store. What if the cabinet Trevor had shown to Blair and me that fateful day had been a real Mackintosh? What if there was a second cabinet, a forgery? What if Blair had paid for the real one, but received the fake? I knew that was unlikely. Forging furniture is very difficult to do. Still, I had to wonder.
I called the police station expecting to leave a voice mail for Singh, but got the man himself. He sounded tired, but jubilant. He told me that Blair had been charged and that he appreciated my assistance. I told him I thought there were two cabinets.
“Isn’t that a little unlikely?” he asked. “I’ve been reading up on your man Charles Rennie Mackintosh. Never heard of him until now, but I see he’s famous. It sounds like a lot of work to forge a second desk thing.”
“Not if you can sell it twice,” I said.
“Interesting,” he said. “Bait and switch. But it doesn’t make any difference, does it? Wylie may have shown you and Baldwin the real deal, but he delivered the fake. That’s still a motive for murder. It may say something about Trevor’s ethics, but it doesn’t change the fact Baldwin took an axe to Trevor’s head. It doesn’t make any difference to the case.”
“It makes a difference to me,” I said.
“I can see that. Your credibility as an antique dealer is on the line, so it would be better for you if the one you saw was authentic.”
“Surely it does show that something else was going on here,” I said.
“I’ll tell you exactly what was going on, because it will be public information in the morning. Trevor Wylie had a gambling problem, by which I mean he couldn’t stop, and he owed almost eight hundred thousand to someone, who, when he couldn’t collect, sold the debt for fifty cents on the dollar to a guy who likes to intimidate his prey by showing up with his Doberman. That, you see, was why I was interested in your comment about the man with the dog. We’ll be having a little chat with this guy, whose name is Douglas Sykes, better known as Dog, as soon as we can find him, and I’m willing to bet Trevor paid him in cash, which is the only thing he accepts, just before he died. You understand how it works, right? Man with Doberman pays the original lender half, in other words four hundred grand, and then sets out to collect the full amount, which is how he makes his money. Wylie was about to get himself very badly hurt if he didn’t come up with the money, so he concocted this scheme to sell a fake Mackintosh to Baldwin, for cash, and presto, he’s out of trouble.”
“Maybe the man with the Doberman killed Trevor.”
“Not good for business. You rough them up to scare them, but you keep them alive so they can pay up and then rack up more debts.”
“I guess so,” I said. “But you don’t know this for a fact.”
“Guess nothing. Safe money says that’s the way it is. Thanks for calling me, though. Hold on a sec.”
I waited. He had put his hand over the mouthpiece, so all I could hear was a muffled conversation. “McClintoch and Swain in Yorkville,” he said finally. “That’s you, right?”
“Sorry to have to tell you you’ve had a break-in,” he said. “You might want to go over there now.” There was a pause. “You’re kidding,” he said. “Shit!”
“Sorry,” he said. “It seems the perps hitting antique stores are at it again. Wylie’s shop has been broken into as well. Okay, I’m on my way.”
My partner Rob, who lives right next door and who spends a lot of time working nights, was pulling into his parking spot as I came out. When I told him what had happened, he very generously insisted on coming with me, even though he looked as if he could use some sleep.
The shop was in some disarray this time, rather different from the time before when it was left in perfect order except for the missing candlesticks. It hadn’t been trashed, though, I’ll say that. It’s just that every drawer, credenza, chest and cabinet in the place had been opened and left that way. The office had fared worse than that, with every drawer having been emptied.
Singh showed up as I was surveying the place. “What’s missing?” he said.
“I’m not sure. I don’t see anything. We’ll have to do an inventory tomorrow.”
“We’ll dust for prints,” he sighed. “Here and at Wylie’s. If it makes you feel any better, his place looks worse. Fortunately, Anna Chan took the files with her when she left yesterday. I suppose you’re going to tell me that it was Percy looking for his grandmother’s chest.”
“No,” I said. “I don’t think he’d be looking in an armoire for a writing cabinet. But somebody was certainly looking for something.”
“Money,” he said. “Did they get any?”
“I don’t think it was money. There’s only the petty cash, and the box hasn’t even been opened. The lock wouldn’t hold up to much prying, either.”
I saw Rob looking around. “Someone was looking for something very specific,” he said. “How did they get in?”
“No visible signs of entry,” Singh replied.
“So someone with a key?” I said. “I don’t think so. There’s just Clive, Alex, Ben, our student, and me. I’d vouch for all of us. In any event, anyone with a key would know the combination to the security system.”
“How fast did the security company respond?”
“We were here in about six minutes,” Singh said. “I don’t know how long they waited to call us.”
“A lot of activity here for six minutes,” Rob said.
“What are you saying?” I said.
“Either you could use a new security company or someone was hiding in the store when it closed.”
“You mean the alarm went off when they left?”
“Maybe. Let’s go home,” Rob said. “There’s nothing you can do now.”
“I’d better call Clive and warn him,” I said.
“I’d appreciate it if you’d cast your eyes over Wylie’s place later, let me know if you think anything’s missing,” Singh said. “Say ten o’clock, so I can go home and have a shower.
“Sure,” I said.
The sun was just coming up when we got home, so I made breakfast for Rob. It was the least I could do. I told him my thoughts on the writing cabinet. He was very nice about it, but I knew he thought it completely unlikely. He told me I should forget the whole business and just get on with my life.
“Does Blair’s arrest not look a little too pat to you?” I asked Rob. “I mean, Blair uses an axe in front of dozens of people, including the chief of police, and then uses the same axe on Trevor? Did he think no one would remember the axe business? He’s smarter than that.”
“You’re assuming it was premeditated,” Rob said. “Maybe he went to the store to get his money back, and Trevor refused to give it to him.”
“He went to the store with an axe?” I said.
“I guess that’s why he’s charged with murder,” he said. “Maybe he just intended to scare him, and Trevor was his usual cocky self.”
“Blair’s a lawyer,” I said. “He’s gotten some pretty sleazy people off.”
“You can say that again,” Rob said. “Some of them were guilty as sin.”
“Maybe one of these sleazy types had a grudge against him and framed him for it.”
“Or maybe one of the sleazy people did the job for him,” Rob replied. “Some of them at least must feel they owe him big time.”
“The police can’t find any record of a check or credit card transaction,” I said. “I mean they can’t even prove that Blair paid for the thing. There’s that business about Trevor owing eight hundred thousand dollars to his bookie, of course. I get the impression the police think Trevor rook cash and paid off the debt.”
“Eight hundred thousand in cash?” Rob said. “Then Blair has more problems than a murder charge.”
“Nice law-abiding people like you and me don’t have that much cash around,” he said.
“But he’s very rich.”
“If he came into your store and offered you, say, a hundred grand for something, would you accept payment in cash?”
“No,” I said. “I know that significant sums of money like that have to be reported.”
“Exactly,” he said.
“But Trevor needed cash to pay his gambling debts. Maybe he gave Blair the deal of a lifetime, at least what would have qualified as that if the cabinet had been genuine Mackintosh. It’s worth a lot more than eight hundred thousand. Blair would think it was a really great deal and pay the cash.”
“Think this through, Lara. Honest people do not keep that kind of cash around. Have you ever thought how much space that kind of money takes up? Let’s say it’s in fifties, hundreds being hard to spend sometimes. So each bundle of one hundred bills is five thousand dollars. You’d need one hundred and sixty bundles of fifties. Four hundred if it’s in twenties, which most people want. You don’t just throw that in a shopping bag and take it to your favorite antique dealer, now do you? Good deal or not, Blair had money he shouldn’t have.”
“What are you saying?”
“I’m saying he must have had a reason to have so much cash on hand, and it would tend to be an illegal one.” Rob should know, of course. Right at this moment he was running a restaurant. He knows nothing about the restaurant business. He does know about money laundering, however, and that was what he was doing, hoping, of course, to catch some bad guys doing it. He tells me he is making pots of money by laundering illicit cash, but that he still hasn’t nailed down what he calls the substantive offense, the crime, in other words, that resulted in all this money that needs to be laundered. He was given this assignment because he’s of Ukrainian descent, and apparently there were some Ukrainians in town who were interested in doing business of this sort. What do I know? I was just not entirely happy he had to consort with people like this, who in my opinion probably would kill you if you looked at them wrong. Still I was not prepared to concede the point.
“He’s a lawyer,” I said.
“And your point is?”
“I don’t know,” I said. “Maybe he has an aversion to paying income tax. Singh seems to think I’d accept cash so I wouldn’t have to declare it. Maybe Blair does that. I just think it’s all too pat. Blair has a temper, certainly, but I just don’t see him as a murderer.”
“That may be because you don’t want to.”
“Isn’t it time you got some sleep?” I said.
“Sorry, I’m coming down hard on you, aren’t I? Baldwin was the defense lawyer in a case that I worked on. I know the guy was guilty, and Blair got him off, and believe me, our streets are more dangerous as a result. I’m accusing you of bias, and I should be pointing the finger at myself.”
“I’m just in a bad mood because I missed the lock,” I said. “And for sure I’m sympathetic about how you feel about all the slime Blair got off. But you know somebody has to defend them. That’s the way our system works, even if it’s galling from time to time. Furthermore, Blair told me once about how he grew up poor, and when he wanted to go to university his grandfather took a bundle of cash out from under the mattress and gave it to him. Don’t roll your eyes! I know rags to riches is a cliche. His grandfather’s wad of cash paid for his first year of university and he was able to take it from there. His grandfather believed in cash, and maybe Blair does, too. Okay, so he has more cash than other people. I understand what you’re saying, but just having it does not make you a criminal. Surely it’s what you do with it that counts.”
“Where I come from it’s ”not only what you do with it, but where you got it in the first place,“ he said. ”But I take your point. I can’t assume because he gets slugs off he’s a slug himself. Nor can I assume that because he has cash, he was doing something illegal, or that he sank an axe into Trevor’s head. I stand corrected, or at least moderately chastised.“
“Thank you. I appreciate that concession. Now, you get some sleep, and I’ll go to the shop, and maybe we’ll have an early dinner before you head out to catch bad guys.”
“Great idea. Promise we won’t discuss Baldwin, Wylie or locks, okay?” he said.
“Absolutely not,” I said. “I still think there were two writing cabinets, though.”
“Call Ben and ask him if there was a chance someone hid out in the shop,” he said. “That idea I’m sticking to.” So I did. Ben told me that he had been in the office just before closing when he heard the bell that rings when someone enters or exits, but when he went out there was no one there. He said he looked in both showrooms but saw no one, and assumed that someone had looked in and then left right away. He was devastated to think he might have missed a thief, but I told him it could have happened to any of us. I told him I didn’t think anything much had been taken, and that was to prove correct.
Singh was right about Trevor’s shop. It really was a mess. Furniture had been overturned, drawers pulled out of everything. The place essentially had been trashed. Singh and I just stood in the middle of the chaos and looked around.
“I don’t think I can tell you much of anything in this mess,” I said. “There may be stuff missing, but I’m not sure I could say.”
“I can understand that,” he said. “And I guess it doesn’t matter that much with Wylie dead. He won’t be complaining, will he?”
“Does this look like a different thief to you?” I said.
“Hate to think we have two of them,” he said. “But yes, it does.”
“I’m glad mine was neater,” I said. “And you’re right, it’s a good thing the records were removed yesterday or it would be days before we got them straightened out.”
“I know it’s a long shot,” Singh said, “but have a look around.”
As I did so, a piece of paper caught my eye. It was facedown in the middle of the room, but it looked like a check. I picked it up, took one look, and handed it to Singh.
“Tell me again about how Trevor used the money Blair gave him to pay off the guy with the dog, or rather the man called Dog,” I said. The piece of paper in question was a check, dated the day I’d gone to the store with Blair, payable to Scot Free Antiques and signed by Blair, for eight hundred thousand dollars. It was not the first time I’d thought that Trevor had chosen a very stupid name for his store, unless, of course, he planned to give away antiques, but this was not the issue right at this moment.
“It doesn’t change anything,” Singh said. It was beginning to sound like his mantra.
“It does sort of take the edge off the motive,” I said. “If Trevor hadn’t cashed this yet, then why would Blair kill him?”
“He killed him,” Singh said, simply as he pulled out a plastic bag and put the check into it. “Don’t know how we missed this the first time.”
“I expect Trevor hid it somewhere until he could take it to the bank, except that he didn’t get there. It just got dislodged, wherever it was, in the break-in.”
“How long would you hold on to a check like this? It doesn’t do much for your theory that there were two of these desks, either,” Singh said.
“You’re just bitter.” I could hardly wait to rush home and tell Rob that he’d been completely wrong about Blair having illicit cash hanging about in huge piles, and that he had misjudged the man, as had Singh. My small moment of righteous indignation did not last long, however. Despite what I’d thought, the check made Blair look even guiltier, if that was possible. It turned out the check number was out of sequence: in other words, after Trevor was dead and Blair under suspicion, Blair had signed a check and backdated it to the day he’d purchased the cabinet. The two checks with numbers immediately before it were dated after Trevor died. It looked as if Blair had arranged to have someone break into Trevor’s shop and leave it there in a faked robbery. If so, it had been really dumb of Blair not to think about the numbers on the checks, although he claimed, according to Singh, that he had postdated a couple of checks that he was sending through the mail. The trouble with that one was that when the police went through the recycling bin of one of the check recipients, they found the envelope, postmarked after Trevor had died. It seemed incredibly inept for a man of Blair’s obvious intelligence, but once again the police were back to having no record of the transaction.
Anna Chan, who continued to phone me from time to time with questions about Trevor’s paperwork, told me they’d caught the man who’d trashed Trevor’s place, although not mine, I’m afraid. His name was Woody somebody or other, some lowlife Blair had successfully represented on a charge of a particularly vicious house invasion. Apparently Woody’s gratitude extended to planting the check at Blair’s request, but not as far as lying about it when caught. It seemed pretty open-and-shut, as they say, at this point, and a rather inept attempt to subvert the course of justice on Blair’s part.
Percy never showed up again, not even at The Dwarfie Stane. Rendall had promised he’d call me if he did. It was as if he’d never existed.
I tried just to get on with life, to forget it, but that was very hard to do. For one thing Blair’s journey through the justice system was very big news, and every court appearance, however brief, filled the newspapers with lurid headlines about the Skull-Splitter killer, and much was made of there having been a dispute over a piece of furniture. Stan-field Roberts, the curator at the Cottingham who’d been at Blair’s ill-fated party, was quoted about unscrupulous antique dealers. Fortunately my name didn’t come into it, but that didn’t make me feel any better, as my role, however anonymous in the whole sordid business, continued to rankle. I alternated between being sure I’d been right about the cabinet and being completely down on myself for my ineptitude. It had to be that I was so besotted by either the cabinet or by Blair’s money or Trevor’s charm that I missed something as obvious as the lock. At my age!
My self-flagellation on the subject of the lock was made worse by my conviction that Blair was not the murderer. It was, as I kept saying to anyone who would listen, just too pat. I also clung to the notion that the saga of the two cabinets was crucial to my understanding of what had really happened. There was absolutely no concrete support of any kind for this feeling of mine, which just made me more upset.
Various people continued to try to cheer me up; the rest avoided me. I could hardly blame them. I was rather tiresome on the subject. Mention locks, for example, or even a word that rhymed with it, like shock, or bring up the subject of Scotland, or furniture, something it’s easy enough to do when you’re an antique dealer, or heaven forbid, utter the word forgery, and I was off on a little tirade. I did mention to Clive and Moira that I thought there might have been two cabinets, and while they seemed enthusiastic, I knew they really thought I was just rationalizing my mistake, and I only felt worse. Clive went on being nice to me, a situation I found intolerable. Moira tried a lecture or two. “Self worth is not measured by how many antiques you identify correctly,” she intoned. I didn’t retort that lack of self worth might be measured in the number of times you’d got something so wrong another person had been killed because of it, but that was what I was thinking.
What surprised me was that all of this didn’t affect our business adversely. In fact, business had rarely been better. That was almost entirely due to Desmond Crane, who may or may not have been in competition with Blair for the writing cabinet. Shortly after Blair was charged, Dez, who had never been a customer in the same league as Blair, although he did buy from us occasionally, came into the shop, had a look around, and then asked me if I would consider decorating his daughter Tiffany’s condo.
“I bought her a little place as a graduation present,” he said. By little, I was soon to learn, he meant about two thousand square feet, which is bigger than my house. “She loves antiques, unlike my son who won’t look at anything designed before the year 2000,” he said. “And she has absolutely no furniture, because she lived at home during her years at university. Will you come and have a look?”
“I’d love to, Mr. Crane,” I replied. “But you do know I was involved in that business with Blair and Trevor Wylie?”
He gave a dismissive wave of his hand. “I’m sure it wasn’t your fault,” he said. “And please call me Dez.” I suppose he could afford to be magnanimous, given that his chief rival for all those high profile and lucrative court cases was out of commission. “Let’s make an appointment to meet at the condo. It’s a surprise. She’ll be back from her summer job in about four weeks. Can you do it?”
Of course I could. It was a huge success, too. It was actually Clive who did most of the work. I find the antiques, but he’s the designer. Tiffany had inherited her grandmother’s china, which her mother, Leanna the Lush, said Tiffany loved, and Clive picked up the colors in that for the walls and the accents. We ransacked our showrooms and warehouse for furniture and carpets, silverware, art for the walls. What we didn’t have, I went to auctions and found. Clive and I were both there when Dez and Leanna, who reeked of stale booze, brought Tiffany over, and after she commented on what a smashing place it was, we handed her the keys. Tiffany cried, Dez and Leanna cried, and I could have cried, but with relief, too. Even Tiffany’s brother Carter—Clive maintains that Carter’s real name is Cartier and that he and his sister are named for their parents’ favorite places to shop—asked me if I thought he could mix a few antique pieces with his modern furniture. When I said yes, he came over to the store and bought a huge armoire for his stereo system and another for his kitchen. Soon people Dez had referred to us started buying stuff, too.
“There is one small problem with all this business Dez has sent our way,” Clive said.
“We have no merchandise?” I said.
“Exactly,” he said. “This is a nice problem to have, I know, but we aren’t going to have stock for the Christmas season, which is not good at all. How will we take advantage of that ridiculous time of year when everyone waits until the last minute to shop and is therefore forced to spend obscene amounts of money at McClintoch and Swain if we don’t have anything to sell? We’re okay on the Asian stuff, but Crane and his friends and relatives have almost cleaned out our European collection. I’ve been over to the warehouse, and it’s practically empty.”
“Relax. It’s only August,” I said. “I’ll e-mail our pickers and agents in Europe and head over there next week, assuming, that is, that Detective Singh will let me go. If I do it right away, there’ll be plenty of time to get it here.”
“It’s too bad you have to make an extra trip,” he said. “I know you did double-duty here while Moira was having chemo.”
“I don’t mind,” I said. “I’ll e-mail our people in Italy and France, and maybe Ireland, and see what they can come up with on short notice. I’ll head out as soon as I hear back.”
“I’ve got to hand it to you, Lara,” Clive said. “I thought we were doomed, but you’ve pulled it out of the bag.
“Mmm,” I said. The truth was that while I was publicly rehabilitated, privately I still felt like dirt. A week or two far away from home seemed like a very good idea to me.
That might have been the end of it, had I not become better acquainted with Willow Laurier, Trevor’s last girlfriend. We’d been introduced at Blair Bazillionaire’s ill-fated cocktail party, and I’d seen her briefly at Trevor’s funeral, but we’d not exchanged more than a few words. Still, I knew her well enough to know that it was she who was sneaking into the alley beside Trevor’s former store at about one in the morning one warm August night.
I’d been working very late trying to get everything organized for my trip to Europe and was locking up and heading for my car when I saw her. She wasn’t good at stealth, obviously, because she stood under a street light for a minute or two looking up and down the street in a rather furtive fashion, before darting into the alley. A few minutes later a dim light, most likely a flashlight given the way it moved through the shop, glowed in the window.
There was only one way out, really, either through the back alley which led nowhere but out to the street again, or the front door which deposited you right on the street. I found myself a perch on a stone wall across the road and waited.
At least twenty minutes passed, and Willow had not yet appeared. Worse yet, the roving light was gone. My imagination, already inclined to the macabre where that store was concerned, started working overtime. What if Willow had fallen in the darkness, was lying there, and would be until the landlord showed up, heaven knows when. Or, and this was a really unpleasant thought, a murderer had been waiting there for her. That was ridiculous, I knew. Blair Bazillionaire had not been granted bail, given the horrendous nature of the murder and the fact that with all his money, he was considered a flight risk. Still I wasn’t convinced Blair had done it, so maybe, improbable though it might be, the real axe murderer had returned to the scene of the crime at the very moment Willow decided to enter it. I did not want to go into the store at night, or any time for that matter. But after almost half an hour, Willow still hadn’t shown up.
Very reluctantly, I went down the alley and tried the back door. It was unlocked, which seemed rather careless of her. I hesitated in the doorway for a few seconds, slid my hand along the wall in a vain attempt to find a light switch. By now my eyes were adjusting. There was some street light filtering through the front window, and much to my regret, a light in the basement, which probably explained why I couldn’t see it from the street. Fighting back nausea, to say nothing of terror, I went to the top of the stairs.
“Willow?” I said. “It’s Lara McClintoch.” There was no sound. “Willow?” I said again. Still no reply. There was nothing for it: I was going to have to go down.
She was standing in the back room where I’d found Trevor’s body, and she was crying. “Leave me alone,” she sobbed.
“Willow,” I said. “I am not going to leave you alone. You shouldn’t be here. First of all, it’s illegal, and furthermore, it is not nice down here. You really have to come upstairs. I’m going to take you for a coffee, or maybe something a little stronger.”
“I’ve looked everywhere,” she said. “Even behind the furnace. I’ve looked for signs the floor has been dug up and new floor put down. I’ve looked in every piece of furniture upstairs. I even looked to see if it would be possible to hide stuff in these pipes.”
“Willow,” I said. “What are you looking for?”
“I thought he loved me,” she burbled on as if I didn’t exist. “He said he did.”
“I’m sure in his way he did,” I said in a soothing tone.
“Don’t patronize me,” she said, turning on me. “I know he was a first-class jerk. What I really want to know is where did he put the money?”
“Look,” she said. “You may think I’m naive, but I’m not. I’m not overcome with grief, either. Even if I might have been, I found his packed suitcase and in it the airline ticket: an around-the-world ticket. You know what those things cost? Thousands! Almost exactly what I lent him a week before he died. I know he was planning to make a run for it. He’d only booked the first leg of it, to Orkney via Glasgow, and after that, parts unknown.”
“A fugitive, you mean?” I said.
“Exactly right,” she replied. “So where, I ask you, is the money? He made a big score, didn’t he, with that fake desk thing? Hundreds of thousands of dollars? So where is it?”
“The police say he was a compulsive and unlucky gambler. They think he paid off his debts to a bookie with it.”
“I guess that’s what they meant with all their questions about what Trevor did in his spare time, is it? I knew he played the horses, and he sometimes went to a casino. I went with him a couple of times. I liked the shows. But there had to be more. He was heading out, but not with me. I knew there was something going on, but I never thought he’d run out on me.”
“Maybe he was going to ask you to come with him?”
“There was only one airline ticket,” she said. “He was leaving me.”
“Perhaps he thought, given his gambling problem, that he should do you a favor?”
“There you go again, patronizing me,” she said. “He was a rat.”
“You’re right. I’m sorry. He pulled the wool over my eyes, too, in a different way of course.”
“He convinced you it was the real deal?” she said. “That desk thing?”
“Writing cabinet,” I said. “Why does everybody have so much trouble with the name? Come on, let’s get out of here. The police have been all through the place. There is no stash of cash here.”
“If it is, I can’t find it,” she said. “But if not here, where?”
“I’m trying to tell you there may not be any.”
“There is,” she insisted.
“Look, Blair Baldwin claims to have paid eight hundred thousand dollars for the writing cabinet. The police say that’s pretty much what Trevor owed his bookie. He took the cash, paid the bookie, and that’s it. If he was leaving, he was leaving broke.”
“I don’t believe it,” she said. “We only have Baldwin’s word for the eight hundred thousand. What if he paid more than that? A lot more than that?”
“Possible,” I said.
“Exactly. That thing, the writing cabinet, was worth more than eight hundred grand, wasn’t it? I mean if it had been real?”
“So where’s the rest of the money?”
“But Baldwin said…”
“He’s an axe murderer,” she interrupted. “Why would we believe him?”
“Good point. We don’t know he’s the murderer for sure, and I rather think maybe he isn’t. However, I’ve been thinking… Could we discuss this upstairs? This place is creeping me out. In fact, could we discuss this at the all-night coffee shop down the street?”
“What have you been thinking?”
“I’ll tell you when we are out of here. How did you get in?”
“Key,” she said. “If it weren’t for that yellow police stuff across the door, it would almost be legal.”
“Almost,” I agreed, as we locked up the store and headed back to the street.
With a couple of decaf cappuccinos in front of us, we went back to our chat. “I’ve had the feeling, and I may be rationalizing, that there were two writing cabinets,” I said.
“I’m not sure what you mean.”
“There was a real Mackintosh writing cabinet, shown to me and to Baldwin. And there was another one, a forgery that was delivered to Baldwin, the one he chopped up at the party.”
“So we’re looking not for money, but for a second writing cabinet?” she said. “I’m still not getting this.”
“Maybe Trevor sold the Mackintosh twice,” I said. “Maybe he showed the real one to two different people, sold it to both of them, and shipped the fake to Baldwin, and the real one to someone else.”
“Like who?” she said.
“I don’t know. I realize thinking that there is someone out there forging Charles Rennie Mackintosh furniture is a little far-fetched, but no more so than a huge amount of cash hidden in the basement.” The person who was most likely to have the cabinet was, of course, Desmond Crane. I’d been to Crane’s home several times lately and hadn’t seen it, but then it would be rather foolish of him to have it on display while I was present.
“And the reason you think there were two is?”
“Percy was convinced it was real. I’m not the only one who thought so.”
“Who is Percy?”
“Percy’s grandmother once owned the cabinet. Percy or Arthur, that is.”
“Who is Arthur?”
“He’s Percy. He told me his name was Percy and he told Rendall at the Stane his name was Arthur.”
“Two different names? He sounds about as reliable as an axe murderer,” she said. “Wouldn’t it be difficult to make an exact copy? Wouldn’t you have to completely dismantle the original in order to do so?”
“Very difficult, but a lot easier if you had the complete drawings and specifications, which Trevor did, and if you’d seen the original, also possible in this case. That and a few photographs, and some paint chips that matched and you’d be away. The color wouldn’t have to be absolutely exact anyway, because you would never see the two pieces together.”
“I knew it!” she said. “There is money somewhere. Lots of it.”
“It isn’t in the shop. As my partner the RCMP officer has pointed out, that kind of cash takes up a fair amount of space. And for sure it isn’t in Trevor’s bank account. I think it was irresponsible of him to not have a will, but I know the landlord, and he’s told me he is going to auction off Trevor’s merchandise for back payment of rent as soon as the police and the courts will let him.”
“I lent Trevor rent money from time to time,” she said. “Quite often, now that I think about it. The creep owes me quite a fair chunk of cash, and I’d like it back. No chance of that, I guess. I have no record of it. I mean we practically lived together. Why would I ask him for a receipt? I tried approaching the lawyer the court appointed, but it doesn’t look good. He went on about when people die without a will, the money would go first to a spouse, and if there isn’t one, and I guess I don’t qualify, then they look down first, by which I think he meant children, then up to parents, and then out almost indefinitely to relatives, you know siblings, then cousins.”
“Did Trevor have siblings or close relatives?”
“He’s never mentioned any, but they’ll probably come up with somebody. Still, I figured I was played for a fool, and at the very least, I’d like my money back. I suppose I could plead my case with whomever they find out there to give the money to. I mean you never know: unlikely as it is, I might find a decent human being. That would make them quite unlike Trevor. So I’m thinking if I find the money it would make my life simpler.”
“If you found the money, you’d have to turn it over to the police,” I said.
“I know, but it might be about ten thousand short when I did,” she said. “I was saving that money for a down payment on a house. You probably think that’s terrible of me to even contemplate keeping some of it.”
“No. If I could find some way of salvaging my reputation as an antique dealer at the expense of Trevor, I’d do it in a flash.”
She smiled at last. “He had a way with women, didn’t he? I thought he looked and sounded a little like Sean Connery.”
“I did, too. I think that’s why I let him get away with stuff.”
“Stealing good customers right from under my nose.”
“Do you have a card?” she asked. “I’d like to stay in touch if I may.”
“Of course. Give me yours as well. Is your name really Willow by the way?”
“Yes, it is. I don’t have a card,” she said. “I’m a dental hygienist. You don’t need a card for that. But I’ll give you my number. I’m thinking we might collaborate.”
“Salvaging your reputation and recovering my cash. I figure there would have to be at least a reward for its return, don’t you? Where do we start?”
“I wouldn’t mind a chance to visit Scotland, to go to John A. Macdonald Antiques on George Square in Glasgow and see what they have to say for themselves. Maybe even go to Orkney. You can’t generalize, of course, but if a piece of furniture is forged, it does tend to have been in the country of origin of the authentic piece. I’ll be in the general area anyway, so maybe I’ll just pop up there and talk to them.”
The tiny part of my rational brain that was still functioning, the part that had been banished to a position floating somewhere near the unpleasantly bright neon light fixture in that coffee shop, looked down on two sadly deluded, if not delusional, women and wept.
Bjarni had some choices to make in terms of where he should go. He could go back to Norway, of course. It was where he was born, and he still had kin there. But he wasn’t sure in what favor he’d be viewed, or whether Einar’s ties were stronger than his, and frankly retracing his steps does not appear to be something Bjarni liked to do. He knew, of course, of the route via the Shetlands and Faroes to Iceland, and he probably had kin there. Icelandic ships put in at Orkney, and Bjarni doubtless knew all about the land of fire and ice, the harsh and unforgiving terrain, and the long cold nights. Iceland fared rather poorly in comparison to the lush and fertile lands of Orkney, it had to be said, even if it did have an air of adventure to it. It did not take him long to decide Iceland was not somewhere he wanted to go. He’d heard rumors, too, of lands even farther west and even less hospitable. So Bjarni heeded his brother’s advice and took the route he knew as well as any other, to the west, to the lands where he’d raided every year with Sigurd, and where he thought some support in his difficulties with Einar might lie.
And so Bjarni headed for Caithness in northern Scotland. Caithness fell under the control of the earls of Orkney some of the time and was fertile hunting ground for loot most of the time. Indeed, the Orkney earl credited with taking Caithness was an earlier Earl Sigurd, this one known as Sigurd the Powerful. There is a legend about this Sigurd, that he died because he tied his vanquished enemy’s severed head to his saddle. The dead man bit Sigurd’s leg and Sigurd succumbed to the wound. A good story to be sure, and probably not true, but it does give some idea of the animosity that existed between the Vikings on one side and the Picts and Scots on the other.
At this particular juncture, Caithness and neighboring Sutherland to the south belonged to Einar’s youngest brother Thorfinn, who had been given it by his grandfather King Malcolm of Scotland. The boy was too young to rule but advisors were appointed by the king. A number of Orkney men who had suffered under Einar’s tyranny, or like Bjarni had provoked his wrath, had gone to Caithness to enjoy the support of young Thorfinn.
But this would not be true for Bjarni. You’ve probably already guessed by now that Bjarni was of somewhat intemperate disposition, rather prone to setting disputes with his Viking axe rather than negotiation. He had left Orkney a little short of provisions, given his haste, and so he did what he’d always done: he helped himself to what he needed. The trouble was he met with some resistance in the form of the brother of one of Thorfinn’s advisors. Bjarni emerged from the little set-to as the victor, but it didn’t do him much good. The brother was dead, and Bjarni was once again on the run.
Glasgow is Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s city. It was here that he was born, where he studied at the Glasgow School of Art, and here that he formed the Glasgow Four, with fellow draftsman Herbert McNair, and two sisters, Frances and Margaret Macdonald, both members of a group of women art students who called themselves, rather fetchingly, the Immortals. The Four developed a unique body of work, an unusual design aesthetic, which is often now referred to as Glasgow School, a subset of the Arts and Crafts movement, and indeed of Art Nouveau. Herbert went on to marry Frances, and Charles married Margaret, who collaborated with her husband from that time on.
Mackintosh’s work is everywhere in Glasgow, having finally achieved the hometown recognition denied him during his lifetime. Not that Mackintosh was deterred by this lack of acceptance while he lived: he boldly laid claim to being Scotland’s greatest architect. True or not, the remaining examples of his work have become places of some modest pilgrimage for those who love Arts and Crafts design. Mackintosh’s designs for furniture, textiles, posters, lighting, clocks and so on, are now much admired and indeed coveted. You can eat Scottish salmon on brown bread in the faithfully reproduced Willow Tearooms that Mackintosh designed for Miss Catherine Cranston. You can walk the hallowed halls of the Glasgow School of Art where Mackintosh not only studied, but which he later designed when new quarters were called for. You can see the rooms in which he and Margaret lived, every piece of furniture designed by them, carefully reconstructed in the Hunterian Art Gallery. You will have barely scratched the surface.
I did all of these things. I went to every place that exhibited authentic Mackintosh. I talked to every expert I could find. I peered at every detail, most particularly the locks. I came away convinced that the first cabinet I’d seen was authentic.
While I had no trouble finding Charles Rennie Mackintosh’s ghost in Glasgow, what I couldn’t find was the real John A. Macdonald Antiques. Not on George Square, the address on the receipt in Trevor’s files, nor anywhere else for that matter. In my heart of hearts, I knew I wasn’t going to find them. I just wasn’t prepared to admit it. Before I left home on the buying trip, I’d checked Glasgow telephone listings on the Internet and had done a dealer search on the British Antique Dealers’ Association Website, as well as on other Websites that featured Scottish antique dealers. No John A. Macdonald Antiques.
Still, my optimistic, or perhaps desperate, little soul had decided if I went there I’d find them. Once I’d convinced myself of the notion that I had not been wrong about the writing cabinet, further self-delusion was not only possible, but essentially effortless.
Glasgow had not been a regular stopping place for me, and I had been looking forward to it. It has a reputation for being one of the, if not the, most stylish city in Britain— edgy, fashionable, and exciting. I had not had time to put my usual careful plans in place for the trip, given the events of the spring and summer, so it was rather more haphazard than usual: I started in Rome, moved on through Tuscany, the south of France, Paris, then over to Ireland, before ending up in London. All along I took digital photos of the merchandise I’d purchased and e-mailed them to Clive so he would first of all know I was on the job, and secondly that he’d have something to show anyone who thought our showroom looked a little bare. From London, I called him to say I couldn’t get a flight back right away, so was going to head for the English countryside for a couple of days for a break. He was actually nice about it, which just served to make me feel guilty, although not guilty enough to forego my intended excursion to Charles Rennie Mackintosh country.
The trouble was, while Glasgow was every bit as interesting as everyone says it is, I got absolutely nowhere on my mission. Indeed it was one step forward, two or three steps back. After walking around George Square twice—it’s a rather impressive place except for rather tatty-looking tents set up in the middle of it for some conference or other—and thence along George Street, and West George Street, too, all without success, I entered the premises of the one antique dealer I could find in the immediate vicinity of George Square, one Lester Campbell, Antiquarian.
“I have a client in Toronto,” I said, after we’d been through the social niceties, and I’d had a brief look around his shop which was rather posh, just the place to look for outrageously expensive furniture. “Someone who is most enchanted by Charles Rennie Mackintosh. He will buy anything by Mackintosh. Do you know of something on the market?”
“I don’t,” Lester Campbell said. “I wish I did. I’d be only too happy to have a client like that.”
“Anybody with a private collection who might be prevailed upon to sell part of it? My client is not without means.”
“No, again. There are lots of reproductions and copies out there, and I suppose a few downright fakes, you know,” he said. In fact I did know that only too well. “The odd piece comes up from time to time. There was a very nice writing cabinet from the mid- to late nineteen-nineties that fetched a rather becoming price at auction.”
“Yes, about one-point-five million U.S. if I recall. My client wouldn’t even blink at that price. Unfortunately that was before he started collecting. He has come to this passion of his relatively recently.”
“Aren’t you the lucky one?” he replied.
“Yes, indeed,” I said, with an inward cringe. “This is not the kind of antique I usually carry, but I was given the name of an antique dealer here in Glasgow who dealt in Mackintosh, so I thought I’d look him up. For some reason, I can’t seem to locate him. John A. Macdonald?”
“Never heard of him,” Campbell said.
“Nobody has,” I said. “Strange that.”
“Strange, indeed. Perhaps someone is having you on?”
“Could be,” I said. “Annoying that.”
“I hope it didn’t cost you money,” he said.
“Not money, no. Reputation, maybe.”
“Ah,” he replied.
“You have my card,” I said. “If you hear of anything, would you let me know?” I tried not to sound too out of sorts even if the inescapable conclusion was that if the invoice for the black cupboard was a fake, then so, too, was the cabinet.
“Of course,” he replied. “Here is my card as well.”
I had a brief look at it and looked again. The name was wrong, which is to say, it was clearly marked as Lester Campbell, Antiquarian, but the typeface was similar to what I recalled on the invoice from John A. Macdonald. Now there is no law that says you can’t use the same typeface as another dealer, but this one was a bit unusual. It was designed to look like handwritten script. “Are you sure you’ve never heard of John A. Macdonald Antiques?”
“Absolutely certain. Do you want me to check the British Antique Dealer’s listings for you?”
“I’ve done that. I’m baffled.”
I must have looked rather dejected as I headed for the door, because as I reached it, he called me back. “You wouldn’t be planning to stay over a day or two would you?”
“I could, I suppose.”
“You might want to consider a little charity,” he said, reaching to pick up a card on the counter and waving it at me.
“There’s a fund-raiser tomorrow night,” he said. “It’s being held at the residence of Robert Alexander and his wife Maya. He’s a big man about town, philanthropist obviously. He’s paying the shot for the evening, so all proceeds go to charity. He’s also a big collector, furniture, paintings, the works. If anybody has a Mackintosh or three, it would be him. And he can often be persuaded to sell them if he wants to make a big gesture for one of his favorite causes. I expect there’s a ticket or two left.”
“Thank you,” I said, taking the card. “I just may go to that. Will I see you there?”
“You will,” he replied. “You have to stay in with these kind of people.”
“You do,” I agreed, thinking about the last big party of a customer I’d attended. “I owe you for this.”
“Yes, you do,” he agreed. “See you there. I’ll introduce you to the Alexanders if the opportunity arises.”
If I couldn’t find the elusive, if not entirely fictional John A. Macdonald, I did find Percy Bicycle Clips. Not that it helped any, mind you. In fact, it put me in a really foul mood. He was riding his bicycle, of course, his jacket flapping around behind him, and I hailed a cab the minute I saw him. “See that fellow on a bicycle?” I said to the driver. “I think he’s a friend from Toronto. Can you see if you can catch up to him for me?”
It wasn’t as easy as it might be. Percy cycled along at a fairly good clip, and he didn’t have to sit in traffic. The cab driver was a pro, however, and managed to keep him in sight. Then Percy wheeled on to Buchanan Street which unfortunately had been blocked off to traffic.
The cab driver, never one to give up, apparently, whipped along a parallel street and then pulled up on Argyll where it crossed Buchanan. I handed the driver the fare and stepped out of the cab as Percy wheeled up. “Percy,” I said. “Remember me?”
Percy made to turn around, but I had my hand on his handlebars and to get away he was going to have to drag me with him, which would have caused quite a scene in this very busy shopping area. “Let go,” he said.
“I won’t! I want to talk to you.”
He tried to pull the bicycle away from me, but I held firm. “If I talk to you, will you leave me alone?” he said, defeated.
“I guess so. If I let go and you make a run for it, I’m going to scream thief at the top of my lungs. Just so you know.”
“I understand,” he said, pushing his glasses up on his nose nervously.
“Do you want to go for a coffee?”
“No. Just say what you want to say.”
“I’m trying to track down the source of the writing cabinet,” I said. “You say it was your grandmother’s, but there is an invoice and receipt for it, from an antique dealer here in Glasgow by the name of John A. Macdonald.”
Percy looked perplexed. “An antique dealer here?”
“Yes. So I’m wondering if the cabinet, the one you showed me a picture of, really belonged to your grandmother.”
“The cabinet?” he said.
“The cabinet in the photo of your grandmother, if that’s who she is, the one that’s possibly worth one-point-five million.”
“One-point-five million what?” he said.
“U.S. dollars,” I said.
“That thing was worth one-point-five million?” he said.
“If it was real it was,” I said.
“Real what?” he said.
“Charles Rennie Mackintosh. What else?”
“Whoa,” he said.
“You were looking for it,” I said.
“Well, yes, I guess I was.”
“You guess? I have this idea there were two, so I’m interested in your grandmother, where she might be, some way of getting in touch with her.”
“Two what?” he said.
“Two writing cabinets,” I said, in a rather impatient tone. Apparently I could not stay calm on this subject.
“Two of these things worth a million and a half? Is that each, or for both of them?”
“One was worth that much. The other was a fake.”
“A fake,” he repeated.
“Don’t play dumb with me. You told me your grandmother didn’t know what it was worth.”
“I did,” he replied. Then inexplicably he started to laugh.
“What is so funny here?” I asked, after watching him chortle for a while. He couldn’t reply because he was laughing too hard. “Are you going to let me in on this little joke?”
“I knew he had it,” he said at last. “That guy with his head chopped up.”
“Trevor Wylie,” I said, through gritted teeth. “You didn’t kill him, did you?”
“Nooo,” he said. “Did you?”
“No. You did run away.”
“I suppose,” he said, calming down a little. “I felt sick. I didn’t want to get involved, either. It might have derailed my quest.”
“Your quest? What were you doing in the shop?” I said, as he started giggling again.
“Same thing you were, I expect,” he said. “Or maybe not. You’re telling me that there are two of those things. Or rather were two of those things. One was destroyed, right, but there is another?”
“That’s my theory anyway.”
“So the one that was destroyed was a fake,” he went on.
“I think so. It had a new lock.”
“A lock,” he said in a perplexed tone.
“Never mind. Look, I’m going to tell you what I think happened. You’ll think I’m crazy, but hear me out.” So I told him. I told him how embarrassed I was about making a mistake, but then started to think I hadn’t, how Trevor had needed money to cover his gambling debts, and that selling the one cabinet may have covered his debts but didn’t put him any further ahead, and that whether he had intended to do so at first or not, the presence of a second cabinet had been too much for him, and he’d baited Blair Baldwin with the real one, shipped him the fake, and then sold the first a second time. I told him I was in Scotland trying to prove there had been two cabinets even if everybody else in the world thought I was nuts. Percy listened as I rattled on and on.
“So it’s possible the real one is still out there?” he said, when I’d finished.
“I think so.”
“It could be anywhere.”
“But it’s in Canada?”
“Probably. Both the real one and the fake were brought over from either Glasgow or Orkney or both. Trevor needed to have both of them for this to work.”
“First you raise my hopes, and then you dash them,” he said. “I guess I might as well go home.” With that he hopped on his bike and rode away. I just stood there too depressed to make good on a threat to yell thief. It took me a minute to realize I still didn’t know his name!
So that was two illusions shattered. I’d half thought that Percy, once found, would confirm something about the real writing cabinet and maybe even point me in the right direction for getting to the bottom of this mess. Now I found that he hadn’t a clue about its value, even if he’d shown me a picture of his grandmother standing in front of it. Clearly he was not the person to confirm that the cabinet I had seen was authentic. He was on a quest, to use his quaint expression, but not for the same reasons I was. Maybe he really just wanted to help his grandmother retrieve a piece of furniture the family thought had sentimental value. Maybe telling him what it was worth was going to make my own little quest harder. It was in a rather grumpy state of mind that I went to the party the following day.
Tickets for this exclusive little event that Robert and Maya Alexander were hosting were five hundred pounds each, a rather breathtaking sum for a few shrimp and a couple of small glasses of champagne. But still there was the charity, a new drop-in center for drug addicts, and, of course, the cachet. Cachet does not come cheap. Neither, of course, does obsession, at least certainly not mine. Every day that I persisted in my hunt for the sources of two writing cabinets put a bigger and bigger dent in my wallet.
On the bright side, transportation was included, a bus that picked up those of us with tickets on George Square and then took us out into the countryside. I had no idea where I was, but it was very pleasant wherever it was with fine views of water and a rather splendid home.
With the exception of the Scottish accents, the ticket prices and the admirable fact that no one was chopping up the furniture, the party seemed remarkably similar to one I had attended earlier in the summer. There were important-looking people, even if I didn’t know who they were, the requisite number of fawning hangers-on, and enough food to feed a small country.
Still, the house was spectacular. The invitation had said the affair was limited to a mere one hundred guests, and like Blair’s, this place could hold them. Unlike Blair’s, which was the living embodiment of his rather obsessive love of Art Nouveau, this home was furnished in a much more attractive and eclectic fashion. I liked it a lot better than Blair’s, even if I hadn’t made a cent on it. The art and the furnishings were of exceedingly good quality, but they had been chosen by someone with a good eye for the whole. Pieces were put together because they looked good that way, not because they belonged to a particular school of design or period. It was also, I suppose, more relaxed because of the country vistas with the lights of the city visible only in the distance.
I was very happy to see Lester Campbell arrive, given he was the only person I knew at the party, and one of only two people, if one could include Percy Bicycle Clips, that I knew in all of Glasgow. He had waved and was making his way toward me when there was some clinking of glasses, and a woman’s voice, amplified by a microphone, could be heard above the din.
“Could I have your attention for just one minute,” the voice said, and I moved into the main room to see an earnest-looking woman of about thirty at a small podium. “I don’t want to interrupt this lovely party, but I cannot let the occasion pass without a heartfelt thank-you to our hosts, Robert and Maya Alexander.” There was an enthusiastic round of applause. “You all know, I’m sure, what a terrible problem drugs are in Scotland, in Edinburgh particularly, but also here in Glasgow. The suffering these drugs cause for individuals and their loved ones, the huge costs, social and economic to our community, must be addressed. And Robert and Maya are doing something about it, supporting as they have our new center in a very significant way. I don’t know what we’d do without you, Robert and Maya, and others like you. I’d like to thank all of you for coming, and I’d like to ask Robert to say a few words.”
To a second round of applause, a rather attractive man of about fifty, with lovely silver hair and dark eyes took the microphone. “Thank you, Dorothy,” he said. “I want you to know that how delighted Maya and I are to be able to help even in a small way.”
“Hardly small,” Lester whispered to me. “He’s given them a million pounds.”
While Robert was talking, Maya, delighted to be able to help or not, hung back a bit, shy perhaps. She was wearing a lovely silk dress, but what really caught my eye was her gorgeous necklace. It was simple but beautifully designed, with what looked at this distance to be garnets and pearls. I have a weakness for antique jewelry. We don’t carry much of it in the shop, and I can’t afford the good stuff for myself, so I usually just admire it from afar, as I was doing now. People think jewelry has to have lots of precious stones to be worth much, but an antique with great design and a good designer or manufacturer can be costly even with just semiprecious stones. I’d seen one very similar at home, in fact. Blair Bazillionaire had been thinking of buying it for his wife, but they broke up soon after, so I guess that hadn’t happened. The one he’d been looking at was worth about ten thousand dollars, so there was no way I was going to buy it if he didn’t. Let’s face it, my lifestyle doesn’t involve enough sparkling social events to justify jewelry worth even a tenth of that price.
“We are relatively new to this community,” Alexander continued. “Ten years, I think. And you’ve been most welcoming, considering I’m English and my wife’s American— not at all what I heard about Scottish reserve.” People applauded a bit more. “Well, perhaps at bit reserved, at least at first, but not nearly as bad as we expected.” Everyone laughed. “And there is no question Scotland has been good to us. Who would have thought a boy from Liverpool, a former army captain, a kid who joined the army just to get a cheap education and see the world, would end up with a house like this, and a spectacular wife like Maya!”
“You’re a captain of industry now, Robert,” someone called out, as Robert kissed Maya’s hand and everyone applauded.
“We wanted to repay the community in some way. We are so glad to have been able to make even a small contribution to helping make our streets a little safer. We thought about it a great deal before making a decision as to how we could best help. Dorothy is very persuasive, believe me.” Everybody laughed and clapped, and Dorothy blushed. “Seriously now, it’s the least we could do, and really, the thanks go to each of you,” Alexander continued. “Maya and I are perfectly aware that you can find champagne and Scottish salmon for less at other establishments.” More laughter greeted that comment. “Please enjoy the evening. Our home is at your disposal, although we do hope you won’t stay the night.”
“Pleasant fellow,” I said, turning to Lester. “Nice sense of humor.”
“Yes, but don’t get on his bad side,” Lester replied. “You don’t go from army captain to millionaire many times over by being nice to everybody.”
“I suppose not.”
“Have you had the beautiful homes tour?”
“I was just starting to have a look around when the speeches started.”
“I’ll escort you, shall I? An antique dealer’s guided tour? Let’s get some more of that vastly overpriced champagne to take with us.”
Lester was very amusing and also very knowledgeable. It was fun, really, seeing the place through his eyes, and he seemed to enjoy it, too. I knew enough about the stuff he’d sold to the Alexanders to make the appropriate appreciative noises, and so he was happy as a clam. They had clearly spent millions on the place, but all in very good taste, and Lester had helped him do it. It made me think of my former relationship with Blair. I wished I could be as proud of that as Lester seemed to be.
The house really was open for everyone to see. I was in heaven. I love open houses. I drop in at real estate open houses all the time, just to see how other people live. I insisted upon looking in every corner, every bathroom, any room that wasn’t locked, and there really weren’t any that I could find. Yes, there were people who were obviously making sure we guests didn’t abscond with the Meissen porcelain, but it was all very tastefully done. You’d hardly guess the gorgeous young people in artistic black were security guards.
Upstairs there were many bedrooms. The master bedroom was all Art Deco, and really spectacular with a huge balcony that ran the length of the room. There was also an upstairs den, and in it a couple of Charles Rennie Mackintosh chairs, both with neat little signs on them asking us to please refrain from sitting on them and a bookcase, also Mackintosh.Bingo,I thought.
“I see you do know your Mackintosh,” Lester said, as I walked right over to them.
“I’ve become something of an expert in the last few weeks,” I said. “Did you sell them these?”
“I regret to say I didn’t. In fact, this is the first time I’ve seen them.” He peered at them carefully. “Undoubtedly authentic.”
“Authentic, I’m sure, but I must say those chairs look uncomfortable. What do you bet even their owner doesn’t sit in them?”
“They were designed to be uncomfortable. Miss Cranston, for whose tearooms Mackintosh designed these chairs, thought her staff sat around too much, so she asked him to design uncomfortable furniture for the staff room.”
I laughed. “You obviously know a lot about this.”
“I’m Glaswegian,” he said. “I love the way he has these doors on the bookcase. Every detail is perfect. All that hand work. You just never see something like this these days. Look at these hinges and the lock.”
“Oh, believe me, I have,” I said. “I wish I had a photograph of the writing cabinet,” I added half to myself.
“What writing cabinet?”
“Umm, I mean the kind of writing cabinet my client would be interested in. Maybe Alexander has one in his basement or something.”
“Why don’t you get a book on Mackintosh and copy a photo of something similar so you’ll have something to show?” Lester said. “I’d be happy to take it to Alexander for you, for only a small commission if he sells it to you.”
“I’ll do that. Have we seen the whole place?”
“Just about,” he replied. “Now, come and meet a few people.”
Lester knew everybody. He introduced me to various people whose names I would never remember, and finally, in the dying minutes of the soiree, he introduced me to the Alexanders themselves. We were admiring what Lester referred to as the garden room, furnished with lovely old rattan with lots of orchids everywhere, when the Alexanders walked in.
“Lester!” Robert said. “Good of you to come.”
“Entirely my pleasure. May I present Lara McClintoch,” Lester said. “Ms. McClintoch is an antique dealer from Toronto.”
“Welcome to our home,” the great man said.
“Ms. McClintoch is interested in Charles Rennie Mackintosh. She’s looking for a writing cabinet for a client.”
“We know an antique dealer from Toronto,” Maya said. “Don’t we?”
“I’m not sure whom you mean,” Robert said. “We have some Mackintosh upstairs. I hope you saw it: a couple of supremely uncomfortable chairs and a bookcase in my office cum den.”
“You know,” she said. “That cute young man who came to see us.”
“Maybe I wasn’t here at the time,” Robert said, putting his arm around his wife’s shoulders. “There are always cute young men around my wife, I have to tell you.”
“Not really,” she said in my general direction.
“Have you seen upstairs?” Alexander said. “And the kitchen? The kitchen is Maya’s domain. I think it’s officially off-limits, but given you’ve come so far, we’ll make an exception, won’t we, darling?”
“Trevor somebody or other,” Maya said. “He was admiring our stuff. He liked Mackintosh, too.” She slurred her words very slightly and was leaning against her husband. It occurred to me that this party, like Blair’s, came complete with a dipsomaniacal spouse. Like Leanna the Lush, Maya must have started into the champagne before the rest of us got there.
“Doesn’t ring a bell,” Robert said. “You, Lester?”
“Not to me,” Lester said.
“You’ll be making Lester jealous, darling. He’ll think we’re fickle, dealing with other antiquarians.”
“Heaven forbid,” Lester said.
“I must say this one is much better looking than you, Lester,” Robert said. “Toronto, did you say? Do you have a card, Ms…”
“McClintoch,” I said. “And yes, I do.”
“You traitor,” Lester said, but I could tell he was kidding.
“Wylie,” Maya said. “Trevor Wylie. Do you know him?”
“Actually, I do. At least I did.”
“Did?” Maya said vaguely.
“Unfortunately he’s dead.”
“Oh, no,” she said. “Wasn’t he awfully young? He can’t have been much more than forty, could he?”
“An accident, I expect,” Lester said.
“Mmm,” I said.
“I don’t recall the name at all,” Robert said. “Would you like some more champagne?”
“I thought he was really cute,” Maya said. “What happened to him?”
“Aren’t you being a little ghoulish, darling?” Robert said.
“Urn, he was murdered,” I said.
“No!” Maya gasped. “That can’t be possible. How? Was he shot?”
“My word!” her husband said.
“He was, er, sort of stabbed,” I said.
“I had no idea Toronto was such a dangerous place,” Lester said.
“Did they catch the person who did it?” Maya said.
“They have charged someone, yes. How do you know Trevor?”
“I can’t really recall, but I’m sure he was here.”
“Perhaps he’s an old boyfriend,” Robert said. “Maya and I are still in the honeymoon phase of our life together. I’m afraid there were other men before me, Ms. McClintoch.”
“I’m certain we met him together,” she said. “Didn’t we? I suppose I’m a little under the weather right now.”
“These evenings are so difficult for my wife. She really prefers to just putter in the garden. Come, darling, we must say our good-byes. The buses are scheduled to arrive about now to take everyone back into the city. Lovely to meet you, Ms. McClintoch. If we’re ever in Toronto, we’ll look you up, and do give us a call if you’re back in Glasgow.”
“Or maybe he came to our place in Orkney,” she said, as her husband lead her away.
“The buses are here,” someone called out in the next room.
“Yes, I’m sure that’s it. Orkney. We have a place there,” she called over her shoulder. “We’ll be there this weekend. Come and visit, and you can tell me about Trevor.”
“Really, darling,” Robert said. “I believe you are making this up.”
“If you ever consider selling the Mackintosh, I hope you’ll think of me,” I said. “I’m interested in anything by Mackintosh, but I’m particularly keen on locating one of his writing cabinets.”
“Most certainly,” Robert said, “if Lester doesn’t object.”
“You can have it only if I don’t want it,” Lester said, laughing. “I suppose you’ve noticed she drinks a bit,” he added when they were gone. “But really she’s terrific when she’s sober, and as you can see, he adores her. If you get a chance, you really should take her up on her offer to visit in Orkney. They own an equally fabulous place there. No weekend cottage, you understand. It’s practically a palace. It’s on Hoxa.”
“Near St. Margaret’s Hope. Lovely little town.”
This was just too good to be true. I was zeroing in on a revelation of great proportions, I was certain of it. “So have you ever heard of Trevor Wylie, an antique dealer from Toronto? He’s originally from Scotland.”
“I don’t think so. Wait, he wasn’t the one killed with an axe, was he? You said stabbed. Were you trying to be delicate? I read about it in the paper.”
“One and the same.”
“My, my! Hard to think Maya Alexander would know someone who ended up like that. It was over a piece of furniture or something, wasn’t it?”
“Something like that.”
“Come to think of it, I’m sure that explains all. She read it in the paper, just as I did, and in her present state, by which I mean a little tipsy, recalled the name, and decided she must have met him. The name obviously means nothing to Robert.”
“I’m sure you’re right,” I said, but I really didn’t think so. My heart soared. Maybe at last I was on the right track. Maybe this whole obsession of mine was not just me being silly. Forget that ridiculous conversation with Percy. Percy didn’t matter. Who cared if he was looking for the same writing cabinet I was? Surely this could be win/win for both of us. So I hadn’t been able to find an antique dealer by the name of Macdonald. That was too bad, but it was no longer a real problem. What mattered was that I had found a connection with Trevor Wylie in both Glasgow and Orkney, a connection, furthermore, which owned some Mackintosh furniture. Real Mackintosh! The following day I would be on a plane heading for Orkney. I decided I just might take Maya Alexander up on her lovely offer.
And so Bjarni sailed for the Hebrides, or what he would have known as Suoreyar, the Southern Isles. There was always loot to be had there, especially in the churches and monasteries, and being a pagan, Bjarni had no qualms about helping himself to what he could find. To reach the Hebrides from Orkney and indeed Caithness, however, required rounding the aptly named Cape Wrath, something the Vikings did only when good weather permitted. But Bjarni did not have the luxury of waiting for that, and confident in his abilities as a sailor, he set sail. It was then that Bjarni’s troubles began. It has to be said that neither Bjarni nor Oddi, who was captain of the second ship, lacked confidence in their skills as seamen. In Bjarni’s case that confidence was not misplaced, but in Oddi’s, perhaps it was. They hoped to outrun a storm that was brewing over the Atlantic, dark ominous clouds low on the horizon, but they didn’t make it. Bjarni made landfall, but Oddi didn’t, and his ship was thrown up on to the rocks near Cape Wrath. Several of Oddi’s men perished, but Oddi himself was saved.
There were many Norsemen in northern Scotland, although never as numerous as the Picts and Scots, but Oddi was fortunate at least that he was found on the shore by fellow Norsemen, who took him in. It took several days, but Bjarni and Oddi were at last reunited. Chastened by the storm and the loss of some of their comrades, several of the men opted to stay where they were, and take their chances with Einar, but Bjarni and Oddi sailed on. Now with only one ship, Bjarni and Oddi sailed for the Hebrides.
The Hebrides were well known to the Vikings. Some say the Viking Age began in 793 with the raid of the monastery on the English island of Lindesfarne. But it was at lona in the Hebrides in 795 that the Vikings and the Scots first made contact, with the terrible sacking of the Irish monastery there. Many have written since of it, the ferociousness of the attack, the heartlessness of the marauders, the fear that struck every Scottish heart. It was on the crucible of Lindesfarne and lona that the reputation of the Vikings as terrifying and destructive heathens was forged. And those raids were just the beginning. The monastery at lona was sacked four times by Vikings between 795 and 826 alone, and it would continue to be a target for three centuries more. Even though a few years before Bjarni arrived, Olaf Sihtricsson, the Norse King of Dublin, had retired there as a penitent after his defeat at Tara in Ireland, the raids continued. For some, old traditions die hard. So Bjarni did what he had always done: alone under cover of darkness he slipped ashore. But this time the monks were waiting for him, and he barely escaped with his life.
His reception in Ireland wasn’t any better. Sigurd had been defeated at Clontarf by the Irish King Brian Boru. The King died when Sigurd did, but there was no haven for Bjarni’s type of Viking anymore. Bjarni, of course, had no idea that the Vikings in England would be defeated by their cousins the Normans within a few years, that essentially their glory days were over. It is interesting to speculate whether he felt the occasional twinge of awareness that things were not as he would have them. He would surely be surprised to find that Vikings and Celts were living peaceably together in what he considered to be Viking Dublin. So Bjarni and his remaining men kept going, and from here on it was, at least for Bjarni, uncharted territory.
In the COLD hard light of dawn, my optimism evaporated. Gone was the lovely buzz of the champagne, the good cheer generated by pleasant company and exceptional surroundings. Gone, too, was the pale sunshine of the day before, to be replaced by a dismal drizzle. I was back to replaying my conversation with Percy. What had that conversation with Percy actually meant? I kept trying to recall his exact words and the possible interpretation of them. He could have been lying about his knowledge or the lack thereof of the writing cabinet’s value, but he’d have to be a pretty good actor to look as surprised as he had. This did not bode well for this ridiculous trip to Orkney.
Then there was the small matter of John A. Macdonald Antiques. It didn’t exist. I was sure there was something hugely important in this, beyond the obvious fact that it put the actual transaction into grave doubt. But this bogus transaction had to be part of something much bigger, something involving not one but two writing cabinets. I just could not fathom what this big something might be. After all, Trevor could have imported two writing cabinets from two different places with perfectly genuine paperwork for each piece. Did that mean that he’d stolen one of them? I’d checked all international databases that listed stolen items such as this, Interpol, for example, before I left. If it had turned up, then the fake invoice made sense. But it hadn’t, so I was right back where I started.
These ruminations made me exceptionally irritable, and I stayed that way when the rain stopped somewhere between Glasgow and Inverness and even when the sun came out just as the aircraft crossed the coastline. Below were lines of oil rigs, a blight on the landscape, but interesting nonetheless, and farther out, visible through wisps of white clouds, a chain of the greenest islands I had ever seen. Given our flying time, I could only assume those islands were my destination.
The truth of the matter was that if it hadn’t been for my rather quixotic quest, to use Percy’s word, for a second writing cabinet, I wouldn’t know where Orkney was. Oh, I knew what we call the Orkney Islands, and Rendall the publican called Orkney, were somewhere off the coast of Scotland, but where, exactly, I wasn’t sure, and until now I hadn’t had cause to ask. There were all those islands, some of them apparently quite beautiful, the Hebrides, Skye, the Shetlands, the Isles of Man and Arran, different, or at least I thought so, from the Irish Aran Islands where I’d actually been. Really, I didn’t have a clue which was which. I think I had labored under the illusion that I would go to Glasgow, civilized place that it was, would find the antique dealer, and all would be made right. Instead I was reduced to consulting the route map in the magazine in the seat pocket in front of me, to find out that Orkney lay north and east of Scotland. Even with that, I still had no idea what the climate was like, had not booked a hotel, and just hoped that transportation would be available, whatever transportation, that is, that was required. From the air, I could see there were several islands, and I could only hope and pray that my destination was the one with the airport.
This is an embarrassing admission for someone who plans her buying trips with military precision, and who makes a point of knowing as much as possible about her destination before she arrives, but there you are. I was entering uncharted territory, and this fact alone left me feeling anxious and out of sorts.
The trouble was, all efforts to the contrary, I couldn’t hold on to my vile mood. The airport was a dear little thing, and I had my suitcase within five minutes of entering it. Or maybe it was only three minutes. I was so nonplussed by this unseemly haste in unloading the baggage from the aircraft and getting it into the passengers’ hands that I was about to say to the staff person who called out to ask if this was my luggage, now spinning all by itself on a miniature carousel, that it might look like mine but it couldn’t possibly be mine, given I’d only just arrived. I hadn’t even bothered to go look for it right away. I figured I had at least a half hour before the luggage carousel beeped loudly and turned on, only to circle empty for an eternity, and had gone to the gift shop to buy a map.
Ten minutes after that shock to my system, I had a car. The car rental agency was a counter in what would be a closet at home. The woman staffing it took my credit card imprint, and then, stuffing it into a drawer, told me it was a bank holiday of some sort, and she wouldn’t be putting the charges through on my credit card for a couple of days or three. She didn’t have one of those machines that charge you in a nanosecond, nor did she phone the credit card company to verify that I could actually pay for this vehicle of hers. She just handed me the keys, told me to enjoy my stay, and advised that if she wasn’t there when I departed, I could just throw the keys in a box.
I eyed her suspiciously. In those three days, was she going on a buying spree with my credit card documentation, or even, heaven forbid, stealing my identity? Even if she had no such plans, was there sufficient security on this closet of hers, that my credit card documents wouldn’t be stolen in the night? Those of us who live in big cities, especially those of us in a place of business that has recently suffered not one but two robberies in short order, know we have to be eternally vigilant. I decided I was just going to have to risk it. I asked for directions for St. Margaret’s Hope, and rather than whipping some unreadable map off a desk pad, she painstakingly wrote out the directions by hand, explaining everything carefully as she did so.
But that was not the end of the startling events. Even more disconcerting, if not downright alarming, was the fact that actually getting to the rental car did not require a bus or train to transport me to the real car rental office a hundred miles or so from the airport. Indeed it was only a few steps from the terminal door to my car.
I was transfixed. I felt as if I had fallen off the edge of the civilized world, or more accurately, that I had fallen off the edge of an uncivilized world into paradise. There was one small problem in paradise ahead of me, though, and that was the right-hand drive, and the consequent necessity to shift gears with my left hand. I was a tiny bit apprehensive about pulling my little gray Ford into traffic, so I decided to circle the airport parking lot once before I headed out, just to get the feel of the car. That took approximately twenty seconds, thirty if you count the time it took me to find reverse and back out of the parking place. I crept up to the road in first gear, foot resting on the clutch the whole way so I’d be ready for anything, then stopped and carefully looked both ways. You have to do that when you start to drive on the left. It’s hard to know until you get used to it, from which direction they’ll be coming at you. Astonishingly, there was no car in sight, in either direction. “Good grief, where am I?” I said to the windshield, as I pulled out on to what my map said was a numbered highway. In what outpost, far from the aggravations of life as I knew it, was I exactly?
I had a rather jolly time of it, coasting along in third gear, no other vehicles in sight, and admiring the scenery, heading, at least I hoped that was what I was doing, for St Margaret’s Hope, home to one of the writing cabinets, if Trevor’s documentation could be believed, which obviously it couldn’t, given the business about John A. Macdonald Antiques. Somehow, despite the directions, I made the wrong turn, and found myself heading, not for St. Margaret’s Hope, but rather into the capital city of Kirkwall. By and large I try to avoid driving in foreign capitals, especially on my first visit. They are large, aggressive, and scary if you don’t know your way about. I can even get lost in Washington, or rather not lost exactly: I know where I am. I’m just always in the wrong lane for where I want to go. I’ve driven in London, Rome, and Paris and therefore don’t think I need to prove anything anymore. So Kirkwall was to be avoided.
In a few minutes, however, the highway—I use the term reluctantly—turned into a street lined with houses, a handful of cars appeared to share the road with me, and shortly after that I found myself on a very narrow street, what I’d call a lane at home, with a tree in the middle of it, a tree that required some maneuvering to get around, I might add. Just ahead was a soaring cathedral in rather beautiful red stone that dominated the entire town.Kirk,“church,” I thought. This really is Kirkwall. It was, well, small. It was also a bit complicated, at least for me. In my efforts to get out of town again, I did the unforgivable: I turned on to a one-way street from the wrong direction right in front of a policeman. Needless to say I was pulled over.
“I am so sorry,” I said, putting on my very best contrite face. “I’m terribly lost. I was trying to get to St. Margaret’s Hope.”
“I’m afraid you’re a long way from there,” the policeman said. “I’m sorry about our street signage. We all know where we’re going, you see, and sometimes the street signs are not as clear as they might be. You’ll find that, especially outside of Kirkwall. You’ll be following signs for places and then all of a sudden they’ll disappear.”
A couple of pedestrians came up at this point. “She’s trying to get to St. Margaret’s Hope,” the policeman told them.
“That’s a peedie bit of a drive,” one of the women said.
“Aye. At least twenty minutes, maybe more,” the other added. I didn’t ask what peedie meant, although I was to later learn it meant small. Apparently they intended the opposite at that moment. I declined to mention that I have a twenty-minute drive to my local dry cleaners.
“I know I made an illegal turn,” I said. “And I’m going the wrong way.”
“Sorry. It’s not easy to find your way here,” the other woman said. What followed was a polite disagreement on the subject of whose fault it was I found myself in this particular spot. I couldn’t believe my ears, and I’m a Canadian: Step on my toe and I’ll apologize to you. These people were arguing it was their fault I was going the wrong way on a one-way street. Not only that, when they’d given me new directions, the policeman made two drivers who had the legal right of way back out of the street so I could proceed! In some places in the world, I’d have been in handcuffs by then. There was something seriously the matter with these people.
In about two minutes, I was out of the bustling metropolis of Kirkwall, and on my way again. So unnerved was I by the display of the milk of human kindness I had just witnessed, however, that even with the new set of directions, I got lost a second time, and found myself on a road signed not for St. Margaret’s Hope, but for Ophir. For some reason, I didn’t care anymore. I rather liked the sound of someplace called Ophir; it had a rather exotic ring to it. Exotic it wasn’t, although it was very pleasant, just a few houses on the side of the road. I barely had time to gear down before it was time to pick up the pace again.
Just outside of Ophir, there was a sign for something called a Bu, and the Orkneyinga Saga Centre, and having no idea what either might be, but curious, I turned off and had a look. I found the ruins of an old church and dining hall, called the Earl’s Bu, once the haunt of Vikings and the site of a rather gruesome murder, if the film in an empty visitor center was anything to go by. In the film, which obviously was linked to some kind of motion detector because I didn’t see another soul anywhere and it turned itself on the minute I sat down, they told some of the stories in something called the Orkneyinga Saga, the history of the Viking earls of Orkney. These Viking earls lived in what were obviously rather violent times. Still, I thought it was all very nice, except for the murder part, particularly alarming given axes were a weapon of choice. I was, however, surprised to learn that Orkney had been an important part of the Viking world, and indeed remained more Scandinavian than Scottish for a very long time. I gathered that the people here were rather proud of their Scandinavian heritage. I’m not sure what entitled me to be surprised, given that until a few hours ago I had had no clear idea of Orkney at all, but I was.
Soon, much better informed, I was back on the road. The sea was to my left, beautiful, really, and to my right, some hills. Across the water even higher hills were shrouded in mist. It was spectacularly beautiful, really, in a sedate, well-managed sort of way. But still, no people. I was beginning to wonder if this particular bank holiday was one in which everyone left the island, or indeed, if the world had come to end since I’d left Kirkwall and somehow I’d missed it. One car overtook and passed me, but that was all. Then I found myself heading downhill in the direction of a little town, its name, according to the sign, Stromness.
Stromness is built on a steep hill sloping down to a harbor. There is a ferry terminal, and indeed a large white ferry was just pulling away. The houses are mostly stone, and the streets the same, even narrower, if anything, than Kirkwall. I edged my way through the town in first gear. I had to keep my eye on the road ahead, as in several places the main street went down to one lane because of the corners of buildings that jutted out into the road. At the far edge of town I decided I had enough driving for one day, and was going to stay in Stromness, to regroup and get my bearings, but also to see if it really was as nice as it looked. After all, what was the rush?
I abandoned my car in a parking area that appeared to be free, as unlikely as that might be. I couldn’t find any way to pay, but perhaps this was what they did to foreigners: they hid the meters and then towed our cars. After several passes up and down the main street on foot, admiring the lovely gray stone houses, the cobbled streets and charming steep laneways with amusing names like Khyber Pass, and the last flowers of the season still blooming in window boxes, and actually having been smiled at by several people, I chose a bed-and-breakfast run by one Mrs. Olive Brown. She wasn’t much for conversation, our Mrs. Brown, but she was pleasant enough and the place was spotless. She even had a place for my car, although the place I’d left my car was okay, too, and no, of course I didn’t have to pay to park there. I told her I’d be staying a day or two. She didn’t ask for a deposit, but I insisted on paying for two nights on the spot. I mean, certain people must be protected from themselves, and Mrs. Brown was one of them.
I went out again late in the afternoon. There was a very fine little art gallery in a converted warehouse or two down on the pier, with some rather splendid twentieth-century British artists, Barbara Hepworth and Ben Nicholson, for example. I also found a pleasant bistro down by the ferry docks for dinner, and stuffed my face with local seafood. As I climbed up to the third floor to my little attic room overlooking the harbor, I decided Orkney couldn’t be the cultural backwater that Trevor had always implied his birthplace was, not with art and food like that. I thought the place was splendid. Even my little room was lovely, in pink and purple and white, and best of all, I had a rather fine view. I could see the street, the harbor, the ferry docks and the sky, clear now and filled with stars. I curled up on the window seat in my bathrobe, the shot of lovely single malt scotch Mrs. Brown had offered in hand, and watched as a ferry sailed in. The street was almost deserted except for the odd person or two, probably leaving the pub down the street.
For a while I sat and thought about Blair and the Mackintosh, and all concrete evidence to the contrary, I decided once again that everything was going to be all right. I suppose it was the place that made me feel this way, Mrs. Brown’s quiet hospitality, the view, the sheer beauty that lay before me. It was one of the nicest places I had ever been, and therefore I was going to find the source of the writing cabinet, my reputation would be restored, to say nothing of my sense of personal worth, and somehow I was going to get Blair Bazillionaire, who really was a nice guy despite his temper, out of jail. I could almost hear him apologize for yelling at me both at his home and the police station.
I spread out the map I’d purchased at the airport and found St. Margaret’s Hope. It was a town on an island called South Ronaldsay, but it looked to me as if I didn’t need to sail or swim to get there. It was attached to the island on which I found myself, called rather quaintly the Mainland, by a series of causeways called the Churchill Barriers. The town itself was much smaller than Stromness and therefore entirely manageable. I also found Hoxa where the Alexanders holidayed. I would go there in the morning, visit any antique dealers there might be, inquire if need be in the local pub for a furniture maker, and presto I would find the source of the fake Mackintosh. Either that or I would make inquiries and find the former owner of the real Mackintosh. Doubtless either or both of these people would, like everyone else here, be terribly polite, honest as the day is long, and even possibly glad to see me in their quiet, reserved way.
It was once again, I’m afraid, a feeling I was unable to maintain for long, because as I sat there feeling positively mellow, passengers began to disembark from a ferry and make their way coward the town. One moment the spot under a streetlight between me and the ferry docks was empty. The next moment, a woman I could have sworn was Willow stood there. She was wearing jeans and a leather jacket, almost identical to what she’d been wearing when I had found her snooping about Trevor’s store. I did not know what Willow would be doing standing under that particular light in that particular place. I’d told her I would go to Glasgow and if necessary on to Orkney, and she had seemed content with that. I had been completely open about my plans. If this really was Willow, she had not shared my candor.
I pulled on my jeans and a sweater, intent on getting a closer view and to berate her if it indeed was Willow. I made it down to the street just in time to see a motorcycle ridden by a man in snappy red and blue gear and helmet pull up beside her and the two of them speed off. I was to spend the next forty-eight hours trying to convince myself I was mistaken, that it wasn’t Willow. If it wasn’t she, though, then Willow had a double in Scotland.
I had no such doubts about the second sighting. As I stood there completely frustrated, someone else came off the ferry. This time I knew who I was looking at. It was Percy Bicycle Clips. He was walking his bike toward the street when I intercepted him.
“You!” he said. “Stop following me.”
“I’ve been here for several hours, Percy,” I said. “You just got off the boat. That means you are following me!”
“I live here,” he said.
“Does your grandmother live here, too, because I’d really like to talk to her. What is your name, anyway?”
“Go away!” he said, leaping on to his bicycle. I tried to stop him, but he eluded me and before I knew it was pedaling furiously away from me. It was a scenario that was becoming a tad repetitious, because once again the outcome was the same. I chased after him for a minute or so, but I knew I wouldn’t catch him. I watched his back disappear over the top of the hill from whence I’d entered the town. He appeared to know his way around the place rather better than I did. I still didn’t know his name.
As I mounted the stairs to my dear little attic room, it occurred to me than while twenty-four hours ago I barely knew where Orkney was, I was acquainted with a lot more people on this island than I would ever have dreamed. Orkney was getting just a little crowded for my taste.
The next morning it was kind of hard to know where to begin. Should I look for Willow, ask her why she’d come to Orkney without telling me? Should I try to find Percy and shake him until he told me who he was and what he was doing? Should I go to this town with the lovely name of St. Margaret’s Hope (what did St. Margaret hope for, I wondered) and try to locate the dealer who sold Trevor the other cabinet, or should I seek out Hoxa and the Alexanders’ palace?
What I really wanted to do was wander the lovely streets of Stromness and gaze out at the water, and indeed I did permit myself a short walk along the pier. The morning was clear and the town was perfectly reflected in the absolutely still waters of the harbor. I could have stood there forever, but finally I told myself to get moving. I made a half-hearted attempt to consult the local phone directory for Wylie, but there were a lot of them, and Willow had said Trevor had never mentioned any relatives, and he’d left Orkney a long time ago if one were inclined to believe what he said.
I decided to take a more direct route back to Kirkwall, reasoning that the capital city with its hotels and shops would be a likely place to find Willow and possibly Percy. It would also take me back to a place where I could pick up my missed route to St. Margaret’s Hope. The highway, again loosely defined, was much busier than the Ophir road. I swear I saw at least five other cars. The island had a rather gentle typography, rolling farmland more than anything else, although I could see dark cliffs off in the distance. As I was whipping along at a stately forty miles per hour, I noticed, at the side of the road, a rather pathetic-looking creature, thumb out, a decidedly damaged bicycle at his feet. It was my pal Percy again. I pulled over and got out.
He was a mess, shirt sleeve badly torn, hair definitely askew, has hands cut up, and his pants were covered in mud. I don’t think he recognized me at first, because he was trying to keep broken glasses on his nose and not particularly successfully. When he did realize who it was, though, he did the predictable. “Go away,” he said.
“Have you noticed how few cars there are on this road?” I asked. “I wouldn’t be so hasty. What happened?”
“I fell,” he replied sadly. “Straight into a ditch and then into a barbed wire fence.”
“I’ll give you a lift,” I said. “If you’ll tell me your real name.”
“It’s Percy,” he replied. “Just Percy.”
“Then why does Rendall Sinclair, the publican at the Stane think that it’s Arthur? I’ve never known Rendall to get a name wrong.”
“Arthur Percival,” he said after a long pause, as another car sped by. “Everybody calls me Percy.”
“Put your bike in the back and get in,” I said.
He hesitated. “How do I know you won’t kill me? Maybe you killed that antique dealer.”
“Do I look like an axe murderer to you?” I said.
“I don’t know what an axe murderer looks like.” I glared at him. “Perhaps not,” he agreed.
“You could be the axe murderer,” I said. “You were there when Trevor was showing the writing cabinet, and you were there again when I arrived the time that, well, you know, that unpleasant business with the axe.”
“Do I look like an axe murderer to you?” he said, looking morosely down at his stained and rumpled pants and his torn shirt sleeve.
“Perhaps not,” I said. “Anyway, we’ve had this conversation before. Put your bike in the back, and let’s go.” I watched him fumble around a bit peering at the back of the car for the latch, and realized he could hardly see a thing. I got my bag out and found a safety pin. “Here,” I said. “Give me your glasses.” I managed to attach the arm to the rest of the frame, and I cleaned them up a bit. “These will do until you get home.” He put them on. If anything he looked more comical than ever, but I tried very hard not to laugh.
“Thank you,” he said. “This is good.”
“Kirkwall, I suppose. I will have to try to find somebody who can fix my bicycle right away or maybe rent me one in the meantime. Just please don’t ask me questions.”
“I don’t think that’s fair. I’ve told you everything I know or suspect in this matter. In fact, I’ve poured out my heart to you, and you have told me nothing.”
“I can’t,” he said. “For one thing you would think I’m crazy.”
“Try me,” I said, but he wouldn’t.
“Your first trip to Orkney?” he asked in a conversational tone after a few minutes of silence.
“Yes. It’s wonderful.”
“It is. Have you seen that?” he said, pointing to a small hill a few hundred yards from the road.
“What is it?”
“Maze how,” he said.
“M-A-E-S-H-O-W-E,” he spelled. “Maeshowe. You don’t know what it is, do you?”
“Obviously not,” I said. “As we’ve already ascertained,I’venever been to Orkney before.”
“You still should know what it is,” he replied.
“But I don’t, so why don’t you enlighten me? I can tell you’re dying to.”
“Pull over,” he said pointing. “There, beside that building. You buy two tickets, and I’ll go clean myself up a bit,” he said. I did what I was told. Before I knew it we were across the highway and walking toward a hill. Percy definitely looked better with the blood washed off, and his hair slicked down. We were greeted by a perky tour guide at the entrance of what looked to be a big hill of grass.
“Welcome to Maeshowe,” she said. “One of the world’s greatest Neolithic chamber tombs.”
“Wow,” I said. Percy looked smug.
“You are in what UNESCO calls Orkney’s Neolithic Heartland,” she went on. “It’s a World Heritage Site, actually a combination of sites, most of a ceremonial nature. Over there in the distance you can see the Ring of Brodgar, and the Standing Stones of Stenness, and, of course, farther north, you can visit the ancient town of Skara Brae.”
“You mean a ring like Stonehenge?” I said peering off into the distance in the direction of the guide’s pointing finger. Percy gave me a “Don’t you know anything?” look.
“Not identical, but yes, a henge ring of standing stones,” she said.
“Why didn’t I know about this?” I said to Percy. “I love this kind of thing.”
“Shush,” he said, so I did. I soon found myself bent over and entering a long passageway, the walls of which were made out of the most amazingly large stone slabs, and thence standing in a large, somewhat beehive-shaped stone chamber. It was extraordinary, very sophisticated in design and construction, and dating apparently to almost five thousand years ago! It must have been one of the greatest architectural achievements of those times. First Vikings and now this! Who knew?
Maeshowe might date to Neolithic times, the most important but not the only chamber tomb to dot these islands, but apparently it had been reused by Vikings, possibly as the tomb of some important person in the ninth century, then looted three centuries later. There were inscriptions on the walls, Viking runes that had been translated, and if you judged the Vikings by these runes, they were a lusty lot. There seemed to be several claims to sexual exploits. There was also a reference to well-hidden treasure, but apparently none had been found there.
“You mean to tell me that Orkney is just covered with Neolithic tombs?” I said to Percy when we’d finished our tour.
“There are lots of them,” he said. “They’re still finding them on a reasonably regular basis. They just look like hills or mounds of earth, and they’re often found by accident. Mine Howe in Tankerness, for example, was found because a cow fell through the roof of it. Others are found when somebody’s sitting out admiring the scenery and the leg of the stool breaks through or something like that. There are lots here as yet undiscovered, I’m convinced of it.”
“And you want to find one?”
“Yes, I wouldn’t mind that at all.”
“I got the impression you knew how to read those runic inscriptions.”
“Sort of. I can’t do it without a textbook in front of me, but yes, with some effort I can.”
“That’s amazing. Can we go see these standing stones, seeing as we’re in the neighborhood?”
“I guess,” Percy said. He sounded a bit resigned, but when we got there he proved to be an able and enthusiastic tour guide.
The Ring of Brodgar is simply astonishing, a perfect circle of megaliths or stone slabs that measures something over three hundred feet in diameter, the slabs themselves up to about fourteen feet high. It is surrounded by a ditch, and has as its backdrop the lovely water of a loch. Purple heather blooms in and around it. There are thirty-six stones now, but apparently there were sixty, and this monument, too, dates back to the Neolithic Age. The Stones of Stenness, part of another stone circle that was in use beginning about five thousand years ago, are very tall stone slabs, a little under twenty feet. Sheep graze amongst the stones, the circle empty except for them and Percy and me. I was absolutely enchanted. What ancient ceremonies would have taken place there? What deities did these people believe in? When had the Vikings arrived? I wanted to know.
Percy insisted we drive farther north to a place on the coast called Skara Brae, site of a Neolithic village. It was an extraordinary place. You could actually see how people lived thousands of years ago, with their built-in box beds and their hearths. There were several layers of homes built over time, covering many, many centuries of habitation. I had thought, I suppose, that Stone Age peoples lived in ghastly huts, and was surprised by how sophisticated these houses were. Skara Brae was another of those serendipitous finds, having been revealed in 1850 when a terrible storm stripped the surface away.
Percy eventually tired of my endless questions and exclamations of delight, and he was limping more obviously the farther afield we went. “Kirkwall,” I said, taking pity on him. “I’ll come back and see these again later. Thank you for showing them to me.”
“That’s okay,” he said.
“I don’t suppose you would tell me why you were in Glasgow,” I said.
“Same reason you were, I expect,” he said.
“And what would you say that was?”
“I don’t know. The startling revelation, perhaps. The easy solution.”
“I didn’t find either of those.”
“Nor I. Wishful thinking, then,” he said. “For both of us.”
“We could join forces. To find the source of the second writing cabinet.”
“I don’t think so.”
“Fundamentally we’re looking for different things,” he said. “Yes, we are both looking for a piece of furniture on one level, but you are really seeking vindication.”
“When you put it like that, I suppose you’re right, but I am also looking for justice, and I remain unconvinced that justice is being served in the arrest and trial of Blair Baldwin.”
“Okay, justice, too,” he said. “I suppose.”
“Thank you for that concession.” He almost smiled. “And what is it you are looking for?”
He paused for a moment. “I’m not sure. Salvation, maybe?”
“And what form will this salvation take?”
“The Wasteland,” he said. “Since you won’t stop asking until I tell you.”
“I see. Are we talking a wasteland, orThe Wastelandwith capitalT,capitalW?”
“So many questions.The Wasteland,”he said, with the emphasis on ‘the’. “The Wasteland, the maze, the wounded king.” He laughed then, but it was a humorless sound, more bark than anything else.
“The Wasteland,” I repeated. “As in T S. Eliot. It doesn’t look very wastelandish here. In fact, it’s one of the greenest places I’ve ever been.”
“I’ll find it,” he said. “I hope we will both find what we’re looking for.”
“But we can’t do this together?”
“No, I don’t think so. It is a solitary quest, after all. We have to choose our own paths. It is simply a matter of asking the right question, and each of us in our own way will have to do that.”
Great,I thought.It’s possible I’m in a car on a relatively untraveled road with a delusional and possibly seriously disturbed person.I wanted to ask more, to tell him to stop being so obscure, but in the end I didn’t press him. Perhaps the native niceness was wearing off on me, or maybe I wasn’t in the mood for riddles. I could tell his injuries were really starting to hurt him now, and he looked very discouraged. I parked on the edge of town where he directed me, and I watched him limp away, his bent and twisted bicycle in his arms. As he reached the first corner he turned back for a moment, and I had the impression he was coming back, that there was something more he wanted to say. But he only inclined his head toward me. At the time I took that to be a silent thank-you, but since I’ve wondered if it was an acknowledgement that we were two of kind, kindred spirits, both of us unable to rest until our questions, both temporal and spiritual in the broadest sense of the word, had been answered. It is a picture of him that will stay with me a very long time.
Bjarni and Oddi would endure tremendous hardship before they would reach landfall again. Buffeted by waves in the Channel and then fierce storms in the Bay of Biscay, they finally ran aground in Galicia in what is northern Spain. At the turn of the last millennium, Galicia was something of an anomaly, a rather isolated place, surrounded by sea to the north and west, cut off from the rest of Europe by mountains to the east and the armies of Muslim Spain to the south. The cape that juts out into the sea in Galicia is not called Finisterre, the end of the world, for nothing.
Exhausted and hungry, Bjarni and his men tried to steal food, but once again their plans went awry. Galicia had been raided for years by Vikings, and by Saracen pirates from the south, and the landowners were ready for them. Ever the opportunists, however, the Vikings abducted the younger daughter of the landowner whose larder they’d unsuccessfully tried to rob and demanded a great ransom for her safe release. It was a heinous crime, of course, the act of desperate men, and it had unexpected consequences.
While Bjarni was negotiating his price for the return of the young woman, whose name was Goisvintha, Oddi was put in charge of guarding her, which put the two of them, strapping Viking and comely young woman, in constant contact. I suppose the inevitable ensued, first pleas for freedom on her part, words of sympathy on his, then jest, and eventually passion: Oddi and Goisvintha fell in love or at least in lust, and Oddi was not for sending her back to her father, one Theodoric by name, no matter the price, nor was she for returning. Oddi sent his brother back to negotiate a marriage rather than a ransom, and Theodoric reacted as one might expect. No daughter of Theodoric’s was going to marry a Viking pagan. Bjarni told a disappointed Goisvintha and Oddi of her father’s intractability on that subject.
“I’ve come up with a plan,” Oddi told his brother. “We’ll dress one of the thralls in Goisvintha’s clothing, and you’ll exchange him for the money.” Thralls were servants or slaves really and didn’t have much to say about what happened to them. “In the dark, Theodoric won’t notice until it’s too late. The rest of us will wait for you at the boat, and we’ll all be on our way, including Goisvintha. as soon as you and the money arrive.”
What Bjarni thought of this plan, we’ll never know, but apparently he agreed to it. Theodoric, perhaps knowing his daughter’s nature very well, or being at least as crafty as Oddi, was not fooled at all, and what Bjarni got for the thrall in woman’s clothing was a sack of sand. Bjarni made a run for the boat, Theodoric and his fellow landowners hot on his trail. What ensued was a rout, one in which Bjarni’s only boat was destroyed and the other Vikings killed. Only Bjarni, Oddi, and his Goisvintha, and the poet Svein were able to escape into the night. But they were not free for long.
* * *
Maya Alexander was on her knees weeding in her garden when I found her, her long ash blond hair tied in a pony-tail, in jeans and a sweatshirt. She was being helped by a rather muscular man in army fatigues, with short-cropped hair and dark eyes, the kind of man you notice partly because he’s good-looking, but also because he’s a bit intimidating. It had been quite easy to find her. I just followed the road across the Churchill Barriers, causeways that linked a small chain of islands, and then turned on to the road to Hoxa. Then I simply stopped at the largest house I’d seen since I’d arrived.
Maya looked genuinely pleased to see me, even if my name eluded her. “It’s… I’m sorry, I’m just so bad with names. You’re the antique dealer from Toronto and your name is?”
“Lara McClintoch,” I said. “This is very presumptuous of me to just show up, but Lester described your home very well, and I knew it had to be yours the minute I saw it. It is as spectacular as he said it is. I won’t stay. I just wanted to say hello.” Lester had likened the Alexanders’ Orkney residence to a palace, but it wasn’t really. It was, however, a very fine three-story stone house with acres of land around it, a tree-lined drive, and a wonderful view across Hoxa to the sea.
“But I invited you,” she said. “I may have had too much champagne that evening, but I remember that very well. Please come in. I’ll just wash my hands. Drever, this is Lara McClintoch. Lara, this is Drever Clark, who looks after the place for us. Drever, you’ll have to carry on without me.” Drever nodded in my general direction and then went back to his work.
Soon we were comfortably ensconced in a sunroom, filled with plants and flowers, and white wicker furniture. The view from this side of the house was also fine, but marred by a rather decrepit-looking structure, this one a real castle of sorts, but terribly run down, with a garden that hadn’t been tended in years. There was some kind of hedge that was completely out of control, and weeds everywhere, and a barn way out back that looked about to fall down. Maya found me looking at it as she brought in a tray of tea and shortbreads. She’d changed into a cashmere sweater and leggings. “Awful, isn’t it?” she said. “I don’t know what to do. I cannot understand why anyone would take so little care of a place like that. I want to run out and fix up that garden every time I look at it. The worst part of it is the dogs. I don’t know if the neighbors were breeding them or what, but they were big and vicious, at least I think so, and they kept running all over our property, and there’s this man who lives there who just hangs around. There’s something the matter with him. He’s not quite right, if you see what I’m saying. The concept of private property seems to be meaningless to him. He just wanders over here whenever he feels like it.
“Robert tells me to relax, to live and let live, you know, be an accommodating neighbor. He says he’ll buy the property at some point, and tear that ghastly medieval thing down. The owner won’t sell right now, but Robert says he’s elderly, his wife died very recently, and he has been unwell himself for years, some World War Two injury apparently. He will have to leave eventually, one way or the other. I just grit my teeth and pretend it’s not there. Heaven knows what it’s doing to the value of our property, but I guess we don’t want to sell. I don’t anyway.”
“Everything around here is so pretty,” I said. “It does rather stand out. Most of the houses are beautifully kept up. Orkney seems to be such a nice, orderly place, with really pleasant people.” As I spoke a cyclist hove into view and just as quickly disappeared. I was reasonably sure it was Percy, but there was nothing I could do about that at this very moment.
“It is pretty, and everyone is genuinely nice. I love it here. I wish I had friends, that’s all. People are very pleasant, but they don’t really warm to outsiders. I tried throwing a party when we first came here, but the only people who would come were tourists like me.”
“Maybe they were afraid they’d have to reciprocate. Your home is a little overwhelming, you have to admit.”
“Maybe,” she said. “I remain convinced they’ll get used to me eventually. But you’re here now and I’m so glad.”
The property itself was beautifully landscaped, taking real advantage of the rolling terrain. “Is that a golf course I’m looking at?” I said pointing out the side window.
“Sort of. It’s a driving range, and there’s a putting green down by the water. Robert is nuts about golf. I complained about being a golf widow, so he put this in so he could play here part of the time. Ridiculous I know. Drever spends more than half his time working on it, I swear. I don’t know what Robert was thinking.”
I laughed. “If he can afford it, why not?”
“He can afford it,” she said. “I can also tell you he loses most of his balls in the sea.”
We talked for a while, small talk really. Maya struck me as a little bit sad in some way, as if life hadn’t quite turned put the way she wanted it to. Most of us would kill to have a beautiful home in Orkney, another in Glasgow, and, apparently, a condo in Spain. This place in Orkney was her favorite she said. She’d stay all year long if she could, but her husband’s business dealings prohibited that.
Maya kept bringing the conversation back to my antique shop, which was fine with me. I knew she was working her way around to asking me about Trevor, just as I was interested in finding out where she and her husband acquired their furniture and if Trevor had played a role. That opportunity came for both of us when she gave me a tour of her house. We were in the master bedroom, which was completely white, or rather ivory, not what I would have chosen in this northern climate which seemed to me to cry out for something warmer, but striking just the same. I knew what it had been modeled on, right down to the last detail: the bedroom Charles Rennie Mackintosh had designed at 78 Southpark Avenue, now reassembled and part of the Hunterian Art Gallery of the University of Glasgow. I knew that because I’d seen it.
“Lovely Mackintosh reproduction,” I said. “Fabulous workmanship. Where did you get this made?”
“Isn’t it real?”
“Some of it is, but the bed is a reproduction for sure. It’s a queen for one thing. The real bed was smaller.”
“I wish I knew more about it,” she said. “I should, I know, because Robert is so keen on it. This was Robert’s home long before I moved in. He and his first wife lived here. You would have to ask him. I would have liked to change it, not because it isn’t attractive, but you know, when you follow another woman into a home you’d prefer to, um, erase all traces of the previous relationship. But I can’t. I have been able to change a lot, but not the bedroom, wouldn’t you know, nor Robert’s dressing room and study next door. He’s not here, so we can take a peek at that, too, if you like.”
“I would,” I said. We went down a short corridor, and into a rather dark room, its large window covered with heavy drapes. It was filled with dark furniture, pleasantly masculine, and lined with photos of Robert at important moments of his life. In one or two he was in military uniform, not surprising given his comments about his past as an army captain at the fund-raiser, in others he was with various important people including a couple of British prime ministers, a wedding photo in which both he and Maya looked very fetching, and a photograph of a woman I didn’t know. I noticed Maya’s eyes were fixed on that photo.
“Was your husband in the military for long?” I asked, trying to get her to stop looking at the photo.
“Several years,” she said. “I think he was planning to be a career soldier, but he got interested in business, and certainly he has been very successful. I don’t think he has any regrets about leaving the military, although he does talk about it a great deal. He was in a lot of the hotspots, Croatia and places like that, so I guess there was a lot of male bonding. Some of his men still drop by to see him from time to time. That’s how we found Drever. Drever served in the army and was posted with peacekeepers in Afghanistan. He left the forces when he came back, did odd jobs for a while before Robert offered him the job here. He is not what you would call a natural at gardening or anything, but he’s willing, and it’s good to have someone here all the time. There’s a very nice little apartment in the house and he lives there. He tends to the place when we’re in Glasgow. I guess what I’m saying is that while Robert’s army career is over, it’s still very much a part of him.”
“What business is Robert in?” I said.
“Lots of things,” she said. “He invested in a few businesses with a couple of his army buddies, light manufacturing, textiles and so on, and now I guess he makes most of his money on his investments. I don’t really know, to tell you the truth.”
“It’s a very attractive man’s room, but I like your white wicker in the sunroom better,” I said.
“Me, too,” she said. “That room I got to decorate exactly the way I like it.”
“I think the pieces in this room are genuine, unlike the bedroom,” I said. “Did you know that Trevor Wylie was killed over a piece of reproduction furniture?”
“Trevor Wylie,” she said. “You know I thought that name was familiar when you mentioned it in Glasgow, but I can’t recall who he is, or was. I must have confused him with someone else. Or maybe I did meet him somewhere else. You did mention he was killed, I recall.”
“I’m afraid so. He was a Toronto antique dealer, but born here in Orkney, I understand.”
“Really? Maybe that’s why the name is familiar. My husband can’t recall the name at all, so if we did meet, it can’t have made much of an impression. I expect I’m just confused. I’m having trouble with names these days. I believe it’s common with women my age.”
“It does seem to be,” I said, and we both laughed.
“Robert thinks I must have read about him, about the murder, and just assumed I knew him. Do I recall your saying he was killed over a reproduction?”
“Yes. Apparently he sold a fake Mackintosh writing cabinet to the wrong guy. That man has been charged with Trevor’s murder. I guess he figured it out and wasn’t happy.”
She thought about that for a minute. “Did you not say you were looking for a Mackintosh writing cabinet?”
“Because I have a client who wants one.” I justified the lie by telling myself that if I found one I could almost certainly sell it. “I’d prefer it to be the real thing, but now that I see the reproductions here, I have to say I’m impressed. No wonder Trevor could pass one off as real if there is workmanship as good as this around here. At least I assume it’s around here, given you have several pieces.”
“I really don’t know. It was here when I got here. Robert hasn’t let me change a thing in this room either. I think he wants it to remain exactly the same forever.”
Actually, I didn’t think that was true. Indentations in the carpet of Robert’s room indicated to me that the furniture had been rearranged at some point in the not too distant past. Maybe Maya knew that, and maybe she didn’t. Maybe she didn’t get into this inner sanctum often, a wild guess on my part that was confirmed when Maya looked out the window and quickly led me from the room. A minute or two later, we heard the front door open. “I’m back, darling,” Robert called out.
“I’m upstairs,” Maya replied. “With a guest.” By the time Robert found us we were sitting in Maya’s dressing room cum den looking at photographs of their condo in Spain.
“You remember Lara McClintoch,” Maya said. “I invited her to visit and here she is. She was just driving down the road and she saw me working in the garden.”
“Wonderful! I saw a mystery car in the driveway, and wondered who was visiting. Will you stay for dinner? Maya would love to have company here, as would I.” He was speaking to me but he was looking at Maya.
“Please do,” Maya said.
“I’d love to, but I am meeting a friend for dinner.” What I meant was that I was planning to do what I’d done unsuccessfully the previous evening after dropping Percy off, which is to say to comb the restaurants of Kirkwall looking for Willow. She was a tourist. She had to eat somewhere.
“Some other time, then,” Robert said.
“Lara is wondering where you got the reproductions in the bedroom,” Maya said. “I couldn’t help her.” Robert turned his full attention to me.
“I think I told you I was looking for a Mackintosh writing cabinet for a customer,” I said. “Which I am, so if you hear of one, and you don’t want it for yourself, of course, I’d love to know about it. But I was just blown away by the reproductions in the master bedroom. It is such a gorgeous room. I do carry some reproductions, plainly marked as such, of course, and given most people can’t afford their own Mackintosh and he’s so popular now, I thought that might be a good line for our shop. Can you tell me who made it for you? It must have been custom work.”
“It was, but I don’t think I can recall, if indeed I ever knew,” Robert said. “I’ve had it for at least fifteen years, got it when I first bought this place. We, I, hired a designer who found it for us.” Maya winced slightly at the “us” and “we” that didn’t include her.
“The designer? No. Edinburgh, I think. It was Bev, that is to say my first wife, who arranged it all.” He took a deep breath. “Sorry, darling.”
“Please, Robert, it’s quite all right. I’m not at all upset about it.” She was, of course, lying.
“I’m sorry,” I said. “I’m the one who is upsetting everyone. I’ve obviously said something quite inappropriate.”
“Please! How could you know?” Robert said. “My first wife died. Drugs. It’s why we support the drop-in center in Glasgow. Maya has been very understanding. I’m sure she has charities she’d like to support, too, but really, I feel responsible in a way for what happened. I didn’t see, I didn’t comprehend what was happening to her. I should have known, but I didn’t and she died of a massive overdose of cocaine. Bev was a wonderful person until she was caught in the grips of that monster. I’m fortunate to have been able to rebuild my life, thanks to Maya. Maya and Bev were friends, and Maya was a rock when Bev died. I don’t know what I would have done without her.” The understanding Maya rested her hand on her husband’s forearm and gave me a beseeching glance. I didn’t know what she was pleading for: my understanding, my sympathy, my hasty exit?
“I’d like to help you, I really would,” Robert said. “We share a passion for Mackintosh, after all. But I can’t recall much about it, I’m afraid. We, I, did bring in a lot of furniture from our home just outside of London, and we purchased furnishings in both England and Glasgow, and presumably here, too. But sorry, I just can’t recall if the craftsman was here or somewhere else. It just wasn’t my bailiwick, you understand, the decorating. I just paid the bills. Now really, can we persuade you to stay for dinner?”
“I’m afraid not,” I said, feeling like a complete jerk. I had lots more questions, like was there any chance the furniture had been made locally, but even I, compulsive seeker for information that would justify my petty existence, could not bring myself to ask them. I could hardly wait to drag my hopelessly shallow self out of their lives. “I must be going. Thank you, though, and thank you for tea, Maya. It was a real pleasure talking to you.”
“It was for me, too. I hope you’ll come again,” she said, and I think she meant it. She stood at the door waving to me as I left, a woman with a ghost looking over her shoulder, a woman who slept with her husband in a bed chosen by her predecessor. My Rob had been a widower when I met him, but he’d been that way for quite a long time. I knew he’d married his high school sweetheart over their parents’ objections, he being Catholic, she a Baptist, and I knew she had died long before the bloom was off the rose where their relationship was concerned. Still, while I might have worried about his ex-girlfriends, particularly one young and perky paragon of virtue by the name of Barbara who immediately preceded me, and I might fret about being a suitable stepmother to Rob’s daughter, Jennifer, I didn’t think for a minute I was sleeping with a ghost. For that I was suddenly exceptionally grateful. I resolved to call Rob that very night to tell him so.
But first I was going back to Kirkwall. Even then I took a little detour, to look at the house I’d seen from the sun-room windows. It was an interesting contrast to that of the Alexanders. Both were that typical gray stone, very large and imposing. There the similarity ended. Where one was in remarkably good nick, to use the British expression, with manicured lawns and exquisitely designed gardens, including the putting green, fresh paint on every wood surface, not a twig out of place, the other, while possibly even grander at one time, almost castlelike with a tower on one end, was a mess. What might once have been a kitchen garden was now all weeds and plants gone to seed. The gate was hanging by a thread, the front porch used for storage, and there was a dry and cracked fountain that would have been at the center of what might have been a geometric garden of some sort. Out back, visible in the distance was a rather dilapidated barn.
As I watched, fortunately from some distance, a van pulled into the driveway, and a man got out. He went around to the back, and pulled something out, which it took me a minute at this distance to realize was a wheelchair. An older man was assisted into it and rolled up the driveway to the house. After a few minutes, the first man headed toward the barn, which like the house was in serious disrepair. I looked back at the Alexander house, and noticed that Drever was watching the place, too. The whole scene rather depressed me.
Where the Alexanders’ home looked across a splendid vista of rolling hills and beautifully tilled fields to the blue waters of Scapa Flow, this one looked across windswept terrain to what appeared to me, as I got closer, to be huge chunks of broken concrete on the shore. I drove along to see what this would be, and after parking my little car and walking along a road found myself on a cliff top overlooking the water. I wandered for a while among these concrete structures before I realized I was looking at bunkers. This could only have been a lookout point during two World Wars. It was desolate, attractive only to a military buff, and somehow very sad. I went down the steps into one of the bunkers and looked across the water. Men must have spent hours, days, months watching for German ships and submarines eager to destroy the British fleet in Scapa Flow from this cold, unpleasant spot. I saw no sign of Percy.
Almost equally depressing was the time I spent roaming the streets of Kirkwall for an hour or so. No Willow, and no Percy either, but at least I had another fine seafood dinner. It capped off a spectacularly unsuccessful day.
I’d wandered the streets of St. Margaret’s Hope, a picturesque little village to be sure, and it was soon clear to me that neither the dealer who sold the real writing cabinet, and the craftsman who made the fake one, were in St. Margaret’s Hope. I’d stopped in at the antique store, and had asked at the artists’ cooperative in the harbor area, and while there was some very beautiful work on display, silver jewelry, fabulous knits and pottery, for me there was no joy. I was rapidly coming to the conclusion there had been not one but two fake invoices, one for an antique dealer in Glasgow who didn’t exist, and another for a dealer in St. Margaret’s Hope who didn’t either. I wasn’t sure what that meant exactly, but maybe in some way it was good news. It could mean that this was one enormous scam involving two writing cabinets, which of course was exactly what I wanted to hear.
Finally I went back to Stromness and my lovely little attic room and called Rob. I caught him just as he was leaving for the restaurant where I suppose he saw to it that the Chicken Kiev was placed promptly in front of the Ukrainian gangsters who were counting on him to launder their funds, while Rob and his fellow law enforcement pals were trying to figure out from which revolting activity these funds had come.
“How’s it going?” I asked. “The restaurant business and all?”
“Oh, all right, I guess,” he said. “The joke around here is how good I am at money laundering. I’m making a fortune for the taxpayers. As one of them, you should be grateful.”
“I am. I’d like you to get out of this, though.”
“Not until I reel in the big fish. It’s drugs, you know, that and people smuggling. The substantive crime, that is, the one that is generating all this money they need me to take care of for them. I’d like this to be over, too. I am ceasing to enjoy being a restaurateur. Once this is over, I may never cook again, and I’m sure not doing dishes.”
“I hope you’re not counting on me to do all the cooking and the cleanup, because it’s not going to happen,” I said.
He laughed. “We’ll have to order in and eat off paper plates.”
“Any developments in Blair Bazillionaire’s case?”
“It’s working its way through the system. The big news is that he fired his lawyer.”
“Don’t tell me he’s going to try to defend himself! I know he thinks he’s the best lawyer there is anywhere on the planet, but what is it they say about lawyers who defend themselves?”
“They have fools for clients. Baldwin isn’t a fool whatever else you might say about him. No, he’s retained Desmond Crane.”
“I thought they disliked each other. No, stronger than that, I thought they loathed each other.”
“Maybe some of that was for show in court, part of the performance. Really, though, isn’t that exactly the kind of person you want to have in your corner, the opposing lawyer who gave you the most trouble? I think it’s smart of him. It’s bought him some time, too, which may also have some thing to do with it. Crane has petitioned the court for more time so he can prepare the case. As a result, you will have a longer wait before you’re called as a witness.”
“What would he want to buy time for, given he’s going to spend it in jail? I could understand it if he were still free and wanted to prolong that. I wish I were completely convinced he did it, given I’ll have to testify about both finding the body and the little dustup at his party. On a happier subject, at least I think it is, have I ever mentioned how happy I am not to be sleeping with a ghost?” I told him briefly about the fund-raiser at the Alexanders, and my visit to their home in Hoxa.
He chuckled. “No, you haven’t mentioned it, and I sup pose this is where I’m supposed to confess that I’ve had a few bad moments about your still being in business with your ex. I’m getting over it, though, and I never figured I was sleeping with him.”
“Good,” I said.
“Where are you and these people you’ve met exactly?”
“Orkney. It’s the most wonderful place. I’m quite infatuated. I want us to come here for a real holiday next spring. It has all these Neolithic sites to visit, tombs and houses and there were Vikings here, too. It’s beautiful, and the people are really, really nice.”