We were up early the following morning. It was one of those rare bright winter days where there is no wind and the world looks made anew under its carpet of shimmering frost. The sky was an achingly blue vault with the only clouds a couple of puffs left over from God's cigar. It isn't possible not to feel glad to be alive on such a morning, whether you're Man or dog.
Liam and Niall strolled off in opposite directions through the dunes to spy out the land while Angela, Trotsky, Magic and I headed down on to the beach for an early morning walk. Magic ran in circles in his own loopy, uncoordinated way while Trotsky paced beside us, ears erect, his great bush of a tail held high and curling over his regimentally straight back. Periodically he would spot a particularly brazen seagull that refused to concede his passage and he'd charge off in full hunting mode until the offending bird took to the air, leaving him with a lolling tongue and slightly sheepish air.
Angela held my hand and we talked lightly as we strolled. Once I saw Liam standing watching us at the edge of the dunes and he raised a hand, as if in benediction. Angela waved back gaily and he disappeared from view, a cell-phone clamped to his right ear, the picture of a professional. I found a piece of driftwood and hurled it into the sea for Magic. He plunged in, unbounded joy showing in every fibre. His two favourite occupations - swimming and retrieving; he must have thought Christmas had come early.
We walked for an hour or so. Ours were the only prints defiling the pristine sand. The sea was that particular hue of green, which characterises that stretch of coastline. It was only marred by the silty brown stain that marked the river's effluence. The North Sea is too shallow ever to be truly blue, whatever the weather. This is the Wash, where legend has it King John lost the Crown Jewels. The land and sea lie constantly at war. One can imagine hearing the faint tolling of bells in drowned steeples when the wind rises. All around, the flat country recedes from the eye, interrupted only by occasional evidence of human habitation and the odd stump of a church tower. The coastline sweeps away to east and west, vanishing into a blurred and low horizon. It is a bleak place, bleak and beautiful.
The seductive smell of frying bacon greeted us on our return. Niall was busy in the kitchen and Liam was stacking fresh-hewn logs in the outhouse. His shirtless torso glowed with health. The muscular perfection of his body was only spoiled by two livid purple marks of puckered flesh just below his ribs. I knew these to be the legacy of a fierce night engagement on Tumbledown Mountain in the Falklands War. Neither brother would ever talk much about their experiences but I had seen the citation for Liam's Military Cross. He had been hit twice early in the fighting but had continued to lead his platoon throughout the night. He was hit once more later on and was eventually persuaded to go to the First Aid post. He walked out; four miles over rough country in the darkness. It was later discovered that the last bullet had broken his ankle. Recalling this, I was once more grateful those two lunatics were on our side.
Over breakfast we made our respective plans for the day. Angela and I had to go to the police station in Cromer to settle the matter of her disappearance. We decided to stick to the truth but leave out the inconvenient bits. Angela had found her place trashed, got scared and come to London. There was nothing taken so it could just be a case of vandalism. Then I had to speak to Ted Allen at the Capital Taxes Office to find out who might know a bit more about this ikon. Liam and Niall offered to come with us to Cromer but it was clear that they were merely being polite. They agreed, instead, to do a bit of 'snooping' locally, just in case the opposition were about. Half an hour later I loaded Magic and Trotsky into the Volvo and we set off, surrounded by the pungent aroma of wet dog.
The Cromer police were icily polite and made no secret of their annoyance. Like most policemen, they trod warily around a lawyer, punctiliously correct but no more. We breathed a sigh of relief when they eventually let us go after Angela had given a statement. I doubted very much we'd hear from them further. We drove back to the cottage slowly. Angela pointed out various places of interest. This was her manor; I was the visitor. I felt a certain reluctance to get back into the world of Russian ikons and Chechen Mafia. The morning walk, the weather and, not least, our growing intimacy, had lulled me into a false sense of well-being. Now it was time to plunge back into the murk once more.
Ted Allen was all cheery bonhomie. "Christ, Martin," he said, "Never saw you as the devotional type. George Allardyce is your man. You might not remember George, bit before your time. George took the hump when the Department moved out of Somerset House. He started up a little gallery in Chester. I think he still does valuations for some of the esoteric stuff. He's quite brilliant but a prickly old sod. If George doesn't know it then it doesn't exist." We chatted for a couple of minutes more about mutual acquaintances and I thanked Ted and hung up. I got the number for the Allardyce Gallery in Chester from Directory Enquiries and placed the call.
A voice as dry as old parchment with more than a hint of irritation answered. I explained who I was and what I was seeking. The timbre of the voice changed utterly and enthusiasm poured down the wires.
"12th Century Triptych on Boxwood, eh? The most famous one, and there are only four we know of, was given by Rasputin to the Czarina. That one is in the Hermitage in St Petersburg, another is owned by the Patriarch of the Orthodox Church in Moscow. That leaves two in private hands. One of these I'm certain isn't available. That Greek oil chap, Nikolaides, owns it. He doesn't part with anything. That leaves the fourth and that has a very interesting little history.
"Now this one was brought out of Russia by a Wehrmacht officer during the latter stages of World War Two. Unusually, for those times, it wasn't looting. Seems that this German chappie had saved a monastery from the attentions of the SS. Apparently he was the religious type and he lined up his tanks and threatened to blow all the Blackshirts to Kingdom Come. They wanted to fire the place as a nest of partisans. Our hero wasn't having any. The Abbot or whatever presented him with this ikon as a sign of gratitude. They shot him eventually, of course, but the ikon was passed on to his sister."
"What happened then?"
"Old Fat Hermann grabbed it for his collection at Karenhall. There was the dickens of a fight after the war with the Reds wanting it back. However, Fraulein Sussmann or somesuch had the provenance. She got it back, has it still, to my knowledge. Hmmm. Advertised as the 'property of a lady', you say? My money's on this one."
"Any ideas how we might contact this Fraulein Sussmann?"
"Frau Meyer, she is now."
"What did you say?"
"She got married, boy. Her name is now Meyer. Mrs Helga Meyer. Rich as Croesus and a patron of the Arts. Mad as a bat, of course, but then women of that age often are. Hope that answers your questions, I've got things to do. Goodbye."
And with that, he hung up. I sat there in stunned silence for a full minute. Angela was gazing at me, her eyes brim full of concern. "What did he say?" Her voice had a nervous edge. I repeated what Allardyce had told me. It was Angela's turn to be stunned. "Frau Meyer?" She kept repeating the question softly to herself. Liam and Niall came in and we told them the full story. "It doesn't make sense," said Niall. I shook my head. Something was stirring uneasily at the back of my mind. I wasn't there yet but I had the first glimmerings.
We kicked it back and forth, worrying at it like Magic gnaws a stick. That elusive little tickle at the back of my mind came and went. After a while, Angela said, "Let us summarise." Niall pulled out a note pad and wrote as Angela spoke.
"Frau Meyer is my patron. She has bought some of my work. I think she has supported others but she doesn't speak of it. Her brother gave her the ikon before he died. The Soviet Government contested her ownership after the War but she won. We think she is now selling the ikon through Hervey's in London."
We all affirmed that this was accurate thus far.
"This is where I don't understand," she went on. "Some people, who we think are Chechens, break into my house looking for something. Then Martin has a visit from this Mr Cornell. He tells Martin lies about my father. Later, he changes his story and says they are looking for a stolen ikon. Martin says Hervey's won't sell an ikon if the seller can't prove where it came from. This, I believe. But if it is Frau Meyer's ikon, then what has my father got to do with any of this? He doesn't know Frau Meyer. She became my patron after I left Estonia. It makes no sense at all."
From the glum looks all around, I could tell we were all equally flummoxed. Niall threw his notepad onto the low table between us. "These are the notes I made," he said. He had drawn a diagram with the word 'ikon' in the centre. A line ran to Frau Meyer and, through her, to Angela. Another line ran from the ikon to the name 'Cornell' then onwards to 'British Government' and then, in dotted form, to 'Russian Government.' Another dotted line linked the legend 'Chechens?' with both 'Cornell' and 'Russian Government'.
We studied Niall's chart like soothsayers reading the entrails of a sheep. "The truth is, me darlin'," said Liam, "your father doesn't fit into the pattern at all. Either the ikon is the bloody red herring or your father is. I just don't get it." Again, I felt that faint nudge from my subconscious. We talked on in circles for a while. Angela was becoming heated. She marched to the sideboard and pulled a batch of letters out of the drawer. She shuffled through them, extracting one. She pulled the phone towards her and dialled a long number. A conversation in German ensued. The only words I understood were 'Frau Meyer' and 'ikon'. After a while she hung up and turned towards us, a gleam of triumph in her eyes.
"It is Frau Meyer's ikon," she said. "It seems she has recently decided to get rid of all her religious pieces. She has a quarrel with God, it seems." A smile played briefly around her face. "She has found me a quantity of bronze and she is shipping it over. It should have been here last month but there was a problem with the shipping firm. Finally, she wishes to commission three new pieces from me; they are to be of my own choosing." We all congratulated Angela on her new commission. I knew, even if the twins didn't, how hugely important such things were to relatively unknown artists.
"Well," I said, "we now know the ikon is for real. I don't see how that helps us, though. One thing we can do, however, is tell Cornell. It might get them off our backs once and for all." The others agreed and I rose and crossed to the phone to call Cornell. My call was answered on the second ring. "Chief Inspector Howard," a disembodied voice announced, "Who's speaking?" "My name is Martin Booth," I replied, "I'd like to speak to Mr Michael Cornell." There was a snort from the other end of the line. "Then you're going to need a bloody ouija board, Mr Booth. I hope he wasn't a close friend of yours because Mr Michael Cornell is dead."
I was shocked to silence. The policeman carried on speaking as if he'd said 'it's raining in London today.' I stammered through an explanation, winging it but basing it loosely on the truth. Cornell had come to see me asking about ikons. I'd promised to enquire among my contacts. I assumed it was a Government matter. He sounded narrowly suspicious as he questioned me further. I didn't mention Angela, Chechens or anything else. He thawed a little when I said I'd been in Norfolk with friends since the previous evening. I agreed to call him when I returned to London. He barked his number at me and rang off. The others sat in silence as I relayed the conversation. I reckon we were all thinking furiously but no one had a single thing to say.
At length we drifted away from the parlour. Angela gave me a tight squeeze but shook her head when I started to say something. She gazed into my eyes with a look that was almost fierce with the love that was in her. "Not now, my Martin," was all she said. I knew she was right. We needed time to think. We both noticed the grim look that passed between the twins. Something unspoken was agreed upon and I thought I knew what it was.
We spent the afternoon separately. I returned to the beach with Magic and Trotsky, to walk and think and try to clear my head. Angela went to her studio and, assisted by Niall, began to repair the damage in preparation for the new commission. Liam patrolled the dunes, keeping an eye on me and the approaches to the cottage. I noticed, with a sinking feeling in the pit of my stomach, that his jacket bulged beneath his shoulder once again. I had been right with my interpretation of that grim look.
Continued in Chapter 9