We gathered again in the Bishop’s study. Robert Tappister was caught between irritation that I had information to give and satisfaction that his own man had found out so much. The Bishop leaned back in his chair, staring vacantly into space, absorbing what I had to tell. Jimmy perched on the edge of the table.
I had brought the forged coins, the notes I had retrieved from the house and the ticket, if that was what it was, to Seraph, whatever that was. The notes were a little disappointing. The coins had come from an office in a small warehouse of Antczak’s, near the pier on which his body had been discovered. Had Vernon actually been present as the body was set alight? He didn’t say and now we would never know.
‘Why in hell did he hide all this? How long was Vernon out there, alone?’ The Bishop broke the silence. Anger and frustration simmered below his level tone. There was another silence. ‘Robert?’ Jimmy and I exchanged glances, the storm was brewing.
‘Austen…’ Robert dried up.
‘I am afraid I made a mistake. I didn’t take him seriously. We had an awful argument about it when he came here to present that last report. I felt it had become an obsession. He’d been chipping away for months and had no proof. He had suspected a link between one or more of the major gangsters and the forgeries early on and he had been convinced for ages that there was an Emirati angle to the increasing drugs supply, but he didn’t have anything. Nothing we could use. Certainly nothing that would have stood up in court if we wanted to tidy the criminal side away. He still hasn’t shown a Northern connection.’
‘I see. So he decided to go away and get the goods properly, got killed doing it and took most of what he knew with him to the grave.’
‘Yes.’ Robert ducked his head, avoiding the Bishop’s eye.
‘So what are we going to do now?’
‘There isn’t much to go on. Antczak was obviously involved somehow in the import or distribution of the forgeries, presumably Garson too.’
‘Import, if the Emirate is behind the dodgy ones?’ Jimmy growled from his perch.
‘We have Seraph, whatever that may mean,’ I put in.
‘True, but I can hardly raid that without reason. We don’t yet know who or what we are dealing with there,’ Robert had a point and again we sank into gloomy silence.
‘The note on the places that Vernon checked up on adds to our knowledge of Garson and Antczak’s activities. Perhaps a closer look at the warehouse?’ The Bishop suggested.
‘Sorry Austen but it might just drive the whole lot deeper underground; a new base and we are back to the beginning. At the moment they don’t know how much we know.’
Jimmy growled from his corner, ‘Someone killed those two an’ it makes sense that the same someone killed Phil. They’ve got muscle and they don’t mind using it. Question is why kill any of ‘em?’
‘And how in hell did they find him? Does that mean that they know who he really was?’ The Bishop was warming to his theme, ‘Do we really have someone on the inside?’
‘I imagine that Garson and Antczak were working with whoever is doing the forgeries,’ I suggested. ‘Maybe they got greedy? Or maybe whoever it is thought there was more for them without partners? We still don’t know for sure where this stuff is coming from.’
We kicked ideas around for a while longer but without coming up with anything better. Our best line of investigation would appear to be Seraph. It was agreed that I would use the ticket at the next opportunity and try to find out where the place fitted in the problem and what connection, if any, it had with the three deaths and with the Emirate. Robert would see to discrete enquiries about the places mentioned in Vernon’s notes to see if any common threads emerged there.
We adjourned and I went home, back to my studio. I had nearly two weeks to wait until the next date for Seraph and my other clients could not be put off for ever.
Sitting And Waiting
ext morning I was up early again. The day was cold, rain drove nearly horizontally on a blustery wind as I scampered down the path to my studio. I got the stove lit and warming the place up while I went back to the house and made breakfast and bread for the week. As I kneaded the fresh dough I could hear the traffic outside building up, hand carts clattering on the cobbles heading up to the market. The coffee bubbled away and thick slices of bacon sizzled comfortingly.
I was looking forward to this morning. Annabel was one of my favourite clients, the wife of a big wine importer. Her husband doted on her. Like everyone else I loved her. Tiny, outrageously loud and forthright, gossipy, pretty and funny the three sittings so far had been a complete joy. The picture was nearly finished, a final sitting to check the likeness and some work on the background, a still life of a port decanter sitting on top of her concert piano, a few carefully selected books just visible in the warm dark shadows behind her.
I had a busy few days ahead, this picture to finish, another due to start and supervising the final touches for the set on “The Battle”. As I worked the dough backward and forward on the board I reflected that I had a week clear before I had to start planning for my appearance at Seraph. I would need an upmarket evening mask and a perfect shirt not to look out of place. My best evening suit was perfectly acceptable, a very expensive gift to myself after my first big commission from the Bishop, a portrait of the Basque ambassador, which had really made my name.
I set the loaves to prove under cloths and cut the rest of the dough into rolls for lunch. Annabel’s husband, Peter, might drop by to inspect progress so a light lunch for three was in order. By a little after nine I had my baking well in hand and a thick pea and ham soup simmering on the hob, so I went back to the studio, stoked the stove again and opened the skylight shutters.
The picture was on the easel opposite the model’s dais, the face very nearly finished, the clothing blocked out and the background sketched in. My camera lucida was setup ready and the sitter’s area was set out as a small stage set, part of the outside of an old piano with its keyboard, a bottle sitting on the top and a fake bookcase behind. I was very proud of my dais; I had rigged a system of water pipes underneath it to the chimney of the stove and hot water circulated to provide a warm space for the sitter, whatever the weather.
Half-finished and drying pictures sat in racks at the back of the studio and the walls were covered with sketches and cartoons for larger pictures or pieces under discussion. Another easel was covered with the sketches for the set of “The Battle” and an old card table had a scale cardboard model of the stage that I used to work out some of the details.
My palette was in its tin on the paint spattered side board in the corner of the room. While I waited for Annabel I worked on the background, blocking in the keys on the piano and the basic form of the wine bottle and the book backs. Overall the tone of the background was dark and warm, deep crimson hid in the shadows and showed off Annabel’s mane of pale blonde hair. Rain began to drum on the roof and hiss against the skylight. I stoked the fire again and put a coffee pot on the top. I like Turkish coffee in the morning, a small mound of grounds and a block of sugar went in to the pot. The smell of brewing coffee began to overcome the sweet smell of linseed oil and paint.
The bell by the studio door rang. I had fitted two, one for the front door and one for the garden gate. I hurried through the rain back into the house to let Annabel in. She grinned widely at me from under a huge, dripping, oilskin hat and followed me out to the studio. Shedding the oversize oilskin coat and the ridiculous hat she turned to me.
‘Benedict, darling, what a beautiful morning,’ she offered one perfectly groomed cheek for a kiss. ‘How are you? Busy I trust?’
She sailed over to the mirror and checked her immaculate appearance.
‘No difficulties with those thesps I hope? Peter and I have been invited to dinner and the play. I suspect business will be talked through most of the meal,’ she said gloomily. ‘Will the play be worth it or should I make sure that I have some of Peter’s best brandy with me?’
‘Well,’ I started cautiously, pointing at the model, ‘the set is fine. I am told that the play is well calculated to please our guests.’
‘Oh God, long on morality, women in their place and the infidels trampled on.’
‘That’s about it. A bit short on laughs.’
‘Oh well,’ she sighed theatrically, ‘the food will be lovely and I will get to be catty about the dresses.’
I fussed over her for a few minutes, sitting her comfortably, regaining the pose and then settling down to work. I looked through the lenses and tweaked a little, just a suggestion of a smile, a little smoothing of the laughter lines around the eyes, a slightly different line to the scarf at her throat. I took some liberties with the colour of her dress, darkening it a fraction and getting it to fade more into the background. Something was needed though, a little detail to light the whole scene up.
‘I love the ring.’ She was wearing a lovely square cut emerald.
‘Oh yes! Peter bought this for me on our tenth anniversary.’
‘You weren’t wearing it the last time you were here.’
‘Wasn’t I? I often do wear it though, I absolutely adore it.’
‘Is there a brooch to match it?’
‘I think it will make the picture,’ I sketched in the ring and an emerald brooch with a gold setting in the same style of knot work.
‘Is Lucia in the play?’
‘Yes indeed, playing one of the Sultan’s ladies.’
‘I am sure Austen will appreciate that. The ambassador will be shocked.’
‘You really think so?’
‘Of course not, bottom pinchers one and all.’
‘Hopefully not, that might cause a diplomatic incident.’
‘Lucia is more than capable of looking after herself. She certainly seems to be playing Austen very nicely, very discreetly. I take it that you will be going on Saturday?’
‘I shall certainly be at the play. The cast are likely to be presented after the performance.’
‘You might be lucky and get supper too.’
‘Maybe.’ Truth to tell, although such events were excellent for drumming up more business the table talk was usually dull and I didn’t look forward to them.
We chatted on as I made my final adjustments to the likeness, improved the detail on the visible hand and worked up the highlights on the dress. About lunchtime there was a quiet tap at the studio door and I found Peter standing outside. He ducked as he came in, huge and ebullient, fifteen years older than Annabel, with a ring of thick greying curls around a bald crown. He surveyed the picture, looking from the canvas to his wife and back again.
‘Excellent. Absolutely bloody brilliant. Though,’ he peered more closely, ‘that brooch will be giving Bella expensive ideas!’
‘Thank you,’ I couldn’t help smiling at his enthusiasm, ‘and thanks to the model,’ Annabel curtsied neatly.
We adjourned to the kitchen for lunch, I put the rolls in the oven and ten minutes later the room was filled with the smell of fresh bread and the soup. I asked Peter about business, which was brisk, the latest fleet had made it home from Portugal and his consignment was selling well.
‘I’ll be able to afford that picture! Got a very pleasant little claret just arrived too if you are interested and old Marshall has got a smashing Madeira in on the last boat, you must buy it. I reckon a year or two in the cellar and it will be perfect.’
We talked wine through the rest of lunch and I let them out in a pause in the rain. I watched them up the street, his shambling bulk with an arm around her petite and elegant shoulders. Twenty five years married and he still looked like a teenager.
I went back to the studio and worked on the picture until the light began to fade. By then it was progressing well, another day and I could let it dry. I should be able to deliver it by Christmas. After stoking the stove and turning the damper right down I splashed back through the garden.
As my supper bubbled on the hob I opened a bottle of beer and sat at the table sketching. Diego’s fraudulent idea about Old Master altar pieces was obviously not a good one but maybe there was a market for new ones.
It was warm by the range. The rain beat insistently on the windows and the light shining through my glass cast an amber glow on the page of my sketch book. I laid out diptych and triptych forms, crucifixion scenes, choirs of angels. Dissatisfied with this antique pastiche I sat back on the bench and took a slow drink.
My religious convictions were not that deep. I didn’t understand the overt piety and conformity of the Church. God certainly exists, in my mind, but I am not convinced that he dwells within the body of the Church, or any other religion for that matter. The wars of the last century and the on-going standoff should surely make people think. How could I represent this view and still appeal to the orthodox? Maybe I should focus on the historical accounts, avoid the supernatural and simply represent Jesus and the Apostles as men. Men who believed.
As I spooned down my supper I tried again. Scenes from the New Testament poured into the book. I was rather pleased with a triptych for a resurrection scene, nicely balanced, a basic triangular structure for the figures. I might get some interest in it from someone in the Norman delegation. The church clock struck seven and I realised that I had spent most of the day sitting down. I got up and went to the Services Club.
I was a member of the club because, like every adult man, I had done two years of military service after leaving school, in my case in the infantry. Thankfully I had never seen action. Three six-month postings to quiet frontier observation forts up in the hills had passed uneventfully with rounds of guard duty, training and tending the veg patch and animals that we kept to brighten up our rations. We had all got quite fond of our chickens and when the cockerel passed away we had a wake, with him as guest of honour and main course.
I had kept up the habit of competitive fencing that I learned in the army. The fencing hall was flanked by a gymnasium and a swimming pool, with a comfortable bar at the end by the Porter’s lodge. I got changed and worked through my basic drills and then sparred for half an hour before finishing in the gymnasium.
People I knew arrived and we changed and adjourned to the bar, which was busy with out of town members staying over in the club dormitory. Tomorrow was a big livestock market and much of the talk was about prices for finished animals and breeding stock. Christmas on the horizon also meant a busy round of shopping for the treats that they couldn’t get at home.
More coming next week. Extract from ‘Renaissance’ an adventure thriller by Jeremiah Hope. Copyright Jeremiah Hope 2019.