Czech Mate

From Beyond the Grave

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Tuesday 10th June 2014



Bryce left his small art gallery in the hands of two staff and headed east along the Grassmarket. He was keeping an appointment with his solicitor, but his thoughts drifted once again to the deaths of his parents. Bryce’s mother had been killed in a traffic accident the previous year, but his father had died much more recently and in circumstances which left many unanswered questions.

One thing was certain. If it came to light that either of them had not died accidentally, he would be demonstrating skills in areas far removed from oil painting and salesmanship.

Bryce paused at the kerbside to look both ways before crossing the road. Fifty metres away, a man in a leather jacket and jeans stopped abruptly mid-stride to turn and look in a shop window. This might not have seemed odd, but for how quickly he’d stopped, and his sudden interest in a funeral parlour.

* * *

Alan Wheeler lifted the document from the desk in front of him. “I’ll read your father’s will and testament before I pass you an item I’ve kept securely.”

“Please, take your time, Alan.” Bryce nodded and sat with his back straight, his hands clasped on the solicitor’s large desk. The two men had known each other since childhood. Both were thirty-five and a little under six feet. Alan had succumbed to a relaxed, comfortable lifestyle, was overweight, and had a full beard. Bryce was energetic, had a muscular physique and maintained a fashionable stubble.

The solicitor read aloud the document from the top of the first page to the final word on the third page. When he’d finished, he placed the sheets flat on the desk and turned them to face his client. He waited and watched as Bryce read the will, then took a pen from an inside pocket to sign and date the accompanying confirmation sheet.

“Thank you, Alan. I’m satisfied that all is in order.”

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

“Okay.” Bryce nodded as he accepted the padded envelope from the solicitor and stared at the distinctive handwriting. A smile teased his lips as he thought of the care his father took when writing anything. He looked up. “Are you sure you’re all right, mate? You sound on edge, and we don’t need such formality between us.”

“Maybe I’m just paranoid about veiled threats, and passing on secret items.”

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

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

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

‘Mr Wheeler,

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

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

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

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

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

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

There was a knock at the office door.

“Wait!” The solicitor’s tone was sharp, unlike the customary calm tones in which he’d earlier conducted the business of William Crawford’s will. He turned to his client. “I apologise, Bryce.” He loosened his tie and collar before continuing quietly. “Although your father didn’t say as much, I was left with the impression that he was compelled to do business with, shall we say, foreign powers.”

“Would you mind expanding on your theory?”

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

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

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

“Thank you, Alan, and knowing my father’s standards, he’d be impressed.” Bryce stood and lifted the small package in his left hand to place it inside his jacket. “We must get together soon and chat without the red tape, eh?” He reached out with his right hand as the solicitor stood.

The two men shook hands.

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

Bryce saw how far his old friend was from his habitual composure. “It’s been an interesting half-hour, and I think I’ll leave my affairs in your hands.” He glanced out of the window. “How many different buses into Edinburgh use that stop down there?”

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes, please.”

Bryce had chosen a window seat to allow a view up Canongate towards the crossroads. The tea and cake would deal with one need, and seeing the contents of the package left to him would satisfy his curiosity. He wanted to take this next step before returning to the gallery.

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

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

“I’ve sent a package to our solicitor. I love you, Son.”

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

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

Bryce poured a cup of tea, stirred in a sweetener and continued to stare at the envelope, challenging the inanimate object to give him a clue before it was opened. He sipped his tea and used the small fork to lift a piece of cake, but his mind was on the envelope. He dreaded opening it because he had convinced himself it was terrible news. Of course, he’d already lost both parents, so how could it get worse? Only when he’d finished his cake and poured more tea, he relented, inhaled deeply and tore open the package.

Bryce withdrew three folded sheets of writing paper, and a small bundle of tissue which was wrapped around a silver key. He turned the key over in his hand, but it meant nothing to him, so he rewrapped it and thrust it deep into his trouser pocket. Bryce read the letter and closed his eyes briefly when he reached the end. He reread it before returning it to the envelope and to an inner pocket. At least now he knew what the key was for, and where to go next.

“Bloody hell, Dad,” he whispered and slowly shook his head. “You believed that The Chariots exist.” He finished his tea, and when paying the bill gave the girl a handsome tip. The way she looked at him confirmed the feeling he’d had earlier. Judging by her smile and expression, on any other day when his mind wasn’t elsewhere, he’d be happy to get into a conversation with her.

When he left the cafe, Bryce turned left and headed up The Royal Mile towards Edinburgh Castle. After he’d crossed at the traffic lights on the crossroads, he paused to look in a souvenir store window. He’d already spotted something of interest. The same man he’d seen earlier in a leather jacket and jeans was pacing up and down across the street, apparently having a heated discussion on his phone.

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

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

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

* * *

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Was his interest in Edinburgh, or castles?”

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

“Well, we’ve got plenty of castles in Scotland, and I’m happy to work for a regular customer.” He went through to his small office, leaving her to deal with the preparation of the painting. On the way, he winked at Gordon, the latest addition to the staff. The teenager was studying one of Bryce’s oil paintings which was on display.

Of the three art students who worked for Bryce in his art gallery and framing shop, Barbara had been there the longest. She was twenty and a graphic design student, and though there was no need for painting skill in her course, she loved producing work in acrylic. Barbara often experimented with mixed mediums. Several of her works had sold within days of being displayed in Bryce’s window.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Come in.” Bryce turned from his latest work and smiled. “Hi, Julia. I thought Barbara was bringing my drink.”

The attractive young woman walked across the room and placed the mug of coffee on the nearby wooden stand. “I’ve been studying the Old Masters, but I thought I’d start my shift by studying a young master.” She winked and turned to go, but paused to look over her shoulder as she went through the doorway. Her timing was perfect.

Bryce was caught gazing at the back of her shapely legs. He grinned and shook his head. Apart from having a beautiful face, Julia could have modelled any fashion.

“I’m going downstairs now, Bryce, but if you need me, I’m always available for you.” Her giggling echoed as she descended the stairs. The flirting was regular but harmless and had begun one day when Julia had caught her handsome boss checking her out.

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

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

* * *

Wednesday 11th June 2014

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

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

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

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

Patrick Power, a sixty-year-old local artist, had been associated with the business for many years. He had worked with Bryce’s father before Bryce took over the day-to-day management. Patrick was originally from Limerick, in Ireland, and had no known relatives. He was successful in his own right but enjoyed the association with the small private gallery. In the same way that the art students were permitted to display pieces for sale in the shop window, so too was Patrick. He didn’t work in the shop daily but was happy to step in occasionally to provide management cover. It had been the arrangement when William Crawford was running the place, and William had recommended that his son should continue the practice.

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

“As are you, mate.” Bryce met his friend in the middle of the shop and they shook hands. “Thank you for taking the time to come around.”

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

Bryce held up an open hand. “My dad reminded me recently about your regular visits to Europe.”

“We knew each other by reputation for a long time, and it was great that we got to know each other so well.”

“I know he felt a strong bond with you.”

Patrick was thoughtful for a moment. “Do we have one of your lovely young ladies coming in today?”

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

“I take it business is cruising along?”

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

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

They both laughed and then they chatted about a hundred and one things while they waited for Barbara. She turned up early, as usual.

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

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

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

“Thank you, Barbara,” Bryce said. “Nothing is outstanding.”

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

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

“She’s a lovely looking girl,” Patrick said, “and I’ve noticed her outfits are no longer so understated,”

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

“Julia, on the other hand, has always dressed to catch the eye.”

“Yes, and I have a feeling she gave Barbara the confidence to do the same.”

“They’re both real lookers, even in simple outfits, so I reckon you have those girls to thank for a lot of your passing trade.”

“I’m well aware of how important they are, and they’re both talented artists.”

“I saw a young fella in here a few days ago.”

“Yes, that would have been Gordon, my latest recruit.”

“Is he from one of the universities?”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Yes. I have a feeling I’ll be in the UK for a couple of days to confirm some details before I go abroad. Effectively the place would be run by you instead of me for two weeks. If it was okay with you and I confirmed with a phone call, I might need your help for longer. Both girls are capable of working unsupervised, but their studies would prevent them from doing too much overtime.”

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

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

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

Bryce nodded. “Banking is rare these days because most transactions are completed by card.”

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


Tom Benson – Author Website

8 responses to “Czech Mate

    • Thank you, Lesley. An excerpt from your review is featured on the back cover of the paperback. I’m hoping the next one will do the same but getting it just right is taking time. Quality before speed. 🙂


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