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Excerpt from The Gilded Seal

Prologue

Macarena, Seville, Spain
14th April (Holy Thursday) – 2.37 a.m.

“It started with a whisper; a barely voiced tremor of suppressed anticipation that rippled gently through the expectant crowd.

‘Pronto. Pronto estará aquí.’ Soon. She’ll be here soon.

But the whisper evaporated almost as quickly as it had appeared. Snatched from their lips by a capricious wind, it was carried far above their heads into the warm night only to be casually tossed between the swirling currents like autumn leaves being chased across a park.

It was replaced, instead, by the distant sound of a lone trumpet, its plaintive, almost feminine cry echoing down the winding, cobbled street. This time, people made no attempt to conceal their excitement, and their faces flushed with a strange inner glow.

‘Ahora viene. Viene La Macarena.’ She’s coming. La Macarena is coming.

The crowd, almost ten deep on both sides of the street, surged forward against the steel barriers that lined the route, straining to see. In between them, the dark cobblestones flowed like a black river, their rippled surface glinting occasionally in the flickering light.

The man allowed himself to be carried forward by the breathless host, sheltering in the warm comfort of the anonymity they provided. In the crowd, but not of it, his eyes skated nervously over the faces of those around him rather than the approaching procession. Had he lost them? Surely they wouldn’t find him here.

He caught his own reflection in the polished rim of a lantern being carried by a woman in front of him. Leathered skin, dark eyes glowing like hot coals, the steep cliff of his jaw, the ruby-coloured razor slash of his lips, his wild mane of white hair. The unmistakeable mask of despair. He had a sudden vision of an ageing lion, standing on some high promontory, taking one last look at his territory spooling towards the horizon and at his pride, lazing beneath him in the setting sun’s orange-fingered embrace, before heading quietly into the bush to die.

A cheer drew his gaze. The first nazarenos had swung into view. Sinister in their matching purple cloaks and long pointed hats, they trooped silently past, their faces masked with only narrow slits for eyes, a black candle grasped solemnly in one hand. Behind them, a marching band dictated a steady pace.

‘¡Está aquí! ¡Está aquí!’ She’s here! She’s here! A small boy with long golden hair had fought his way through to where he was standing and was jumping to try and get a better look. The man smiled at his eagerness, at his uncomplicated and breathless excitement, and for a moment forgot his fear.

‘Todavía no. ¿Ves?’ Not yet. See? He swept the boy off the ground and lifted him above his shoulders to show him how far the procession still had to run before the solid silver float containing the statue of the Virgen de la Esperanza Macarena would appear.

‘Gracias, Señor.’ The boy gave him a faint kiss on the cheek before diving through the legs of the people in front with a snatched wave.

The first flower-strewn float shuffled past – the sentencing of Christ by Pontius Pilate. The faint aroma of incense and orange blossom drifted to him on a mournful sigh of wind and he breathed in deeply, the smells blending harmoniously at the back of his throat like cognac fumes. How had it come to this? It had all been so long ago now. Forgotten.

He looked back to the procession and saw that the nazarenos had given way, temporarily at least, to two rows of penitentes – those who sought to repent of their sins by walking the processional route barefoot and with heavy wooden crosses slung over their shoulders. He smiled at their bruised and bloodied feet ruefully, part of him wanting to take his place alongside them, the other knowing it was too late.

A sudden break in their sombre ranks afforded him a clear view right through to the other side of the street. There several monaguillos, children dressed as priests, were handing out sweets to the people standing in the front row.
He froze. A man, phone pressed to his ear, was staring straight at him.

‘They’re here,’ he breathed. ‘They’ve found me.’

He turned away, instinctively heading against the flow of the procession to make it harder for anyone to follow him. Elbowing his way through the throng, he came to a narrow street and darted up it, past a drunk pissing in one doorway and some kids making out in another, the boy’s hand shoved awkwardly up the girl’s top. Halfway along, he veered right down a side alley where bright banners and wilting flowers hung lazily from low, sagging balconies.

He skidded to a halt outside a large wooden gate. The sign nailed to it indicated that the building was currently being renovated by Construción Pedro Alvarez. That meant it was empty.

It only took him a couple of seconds to spring the padlock open. He stepped inside and carefully closed the door behind him, finding himself in a small courtyard littered with paint-spattered tools and broken terracotta tiles. A dog had fouled the large pile of sand immediately to his left.

In the middle stood a well. He made his way to it. It was disused, a black grille over the opening rendering the bucket suspended above it purely ornamental. This was as good a place as any.

A match flared in the darkness and he held it to his small notebook. The dry paper clutched at the flame, drawing it in like water, the fire gnawing hungrily at the pages until only the charred spine remained. He glanced towards the gate. He still had time. Time to leave some clue as to what he had discovered before it was too late.

The knife bit into his palm, the blood welling up through the deep gash and then oozing through his fingers, sticky and warm. He had barely finished when the door burst open.

‘Está allí. Te dijé que le iba a encontrar. ¡Venga! ¡Venga! Antes de que se vaya.’ He’s in here. I told you I’d find him. Quick! Quick! Before he gets away.

He looked up and recognised the little boy he had lifted above the crowd earlier, pointing triumphantly towards him, a cruel look in his eyes, blond hair shimmering like flames in the darkness.

Five men shot through the door, two of them overpowering him instantly by bending his right arm up behind his back and forcing him to his knees.

‘Did you really think you could hide from us, Rafael?’ came a voice from behind him.

Rafael didn’t answer, knowing it was pointless.

‘Get him up.’

The grip on his arm relaxed slightly and Rafael was dragged to his feet. A cold, blinding light snapped on. Rafael held his other hand up to his face, shielding his eyes. A video camera. The sick putas were filming this. They were filming the whole thing.

A shape materialised in front of him, a solid black outline silhouetted against the white light’s searing canvas, the world suddenly drained of all colour. The figure had a hammer in one hand and two six-inch masonry nails in the other that he had scooped up off the floor. An undershirt of tattoos disappeared up each sleeve and formed a rounded collar where they reappeared just below the neck line of his unbuttoned shirt.

Rafael felt himself being lifted so that his wrists were pressed flat against the wall either side of an open doorway. The video operator took up a position so he could get both men in shot.

‘Ready?’

Outside, Rafael heard cheering and the sound of women wailing and crying. He knew then that La Macarena had finally appeared on the adjacent street, glass tears of grief at the loss of her only son frozen on to the delicate ecstasy of her carved face.

She was here. She was here for him.

 

Part 1

Drumlanrig Castle, Scotland
18th April – 11.58 a.m.

As the car drew up, a shaft of light appeared through a break in the brooding sky. The castle’s sandstone walls glowed under its gentle touch, an unexpected shock of pink against the ancient greens of the surrounding hills and woodlands.

Tom Kirk stepped out and drew his dark blue overcoat around him with a shiver, turning the velvet collar up so it hugged the circle of his neck. Six feet tall, slim and square shouldered, he had an athletic although not obviously muscular build, his careful gestures and the precise way he moved hinting at a deliberate, controlled strength that was strangely compelling to watch.

It was his eyes that were most striking, though, an intense pale blue that suggested both a calm intelligence and an unflinching resolve. These were set into a handsome, angular face, his thick arching eyebrows matching the colour of his short brown hair, the firm line of his jaw echoing the sharp edge of his cheekbones and lending an air of measured self-confidence. The only jarring note came from the series of small fighting scars that flecked his knuckles, tiny white lines that joined and bisected each other like animal tracks across the savanna.

Ahead of him, blue-and-white police tape snapped in the icy wind where it had been strung across the opposing steps that curved up to the main entrance. Looking up, he was suddenly struck by the almost deliberate extravagance of the castle’s elaborate Renaissance finery compared to the dour, grey functionality of the neighbouring village he had just passed through. No doubt when it had been built that had been precisely the point, the building a crushing reminder to the local population of their lowly position. Now, however, it looked slightly out of place, as if the castle had emerged blinking into the new century, uncertain of its role and perhaps even slightly embarrassed by its outmoded finery.

In the distance, a police helicopter made a low pass over the neighbouring forest, the chop of its rotors muffled by the steady buzz of the radios carried by the twenty or so officers swarming purposefully around him. Tom shivered again, although this time it wasn’t the cold. This many cops always made him nervous.

‘Can I help you, sir?’ A policeman on the other side of the tape shouted over the noise. At the sound of his voice the thick curtain of cloud drew shut once again, and the castle faded back into its grey slumber.

‘It’s okay, Constable. He’s with me.’

Mark Dorling had appeared at the top of the left-hand staircase, a tall man wearing a dark blue double-breasted suit and a striped regimental tie. He waved him forward impatiently, Tom recognising in Dorling’s ever so slightly proprietary manner evidence, perhaps, of time spent visiting friends with houses of a similar size and stature� � .

The policeman nodded and Tom stooped under the tape and made his way up the shallow and worn steps to where Dorling was waiting for him, shoulders back, chin raised, fists balanced on each hip like a hunter posing over his kill. Oxford had been full of people like Dorling, Tom reflected. It was the eyes that gave them away, the look of scornful indifference tinged with contempt with which they surveyed the world, as if partly removed from it. At first Tom had been offended by this, resenting what appeared to be an instinctive disdain for anyone who didn’t share their privileged background or gilded future. But he had soon come to understand that behind those dead eyes lurked a cold fury at a world where the odds had so clearly been stacked in their favour that their lives had been robbed of any sense of mystery or adventure. Far from contempt, therefore, what their expression actually revealed was a deep self-loathing, maybe even jealousy.

‘I wasn’t expecting you until later.’ Dorling welcomed him with a tight smile, his accusing tone suggesting that he didn’t like surprises. That figured, Tom thought to himself. Control freaks rarely did. It disturbed the illusion of order and control they worked so hard to conjure up around themselves.

‘I thought you said you were in Milan?’ Dorling continued, sweeping a skiff� � of thinning blond hair back off his forehead, a large gold signet ring gleaming on the little finger of his left hand.

‘I was.’ said Tom. ‘I got the early flight. It sounded important.’

‘It is,’ Dorling confirmed, his pale green eyes narrowing momentarily, his jaw stiffening. ‘It’s the Leonardo.’ A pause. ‘I’m glad you’re here Tom.’

Dorling gripped his hand unnecessarily hard, as if trying to compensate for his earlier brusqueness, his skin soft and firm. Tom said nothing, allowing this new piece of information to sink in for a few seconds before answering. The Madonna of the Yarnwinder. One of only fifteen paintings in the world thought to have been substantially painted by da Vinci. Conservatively worth $150 million. Probably more. In his business, it didn’t get much more important than that.

‘When?’

‘This morning.’

‘Anyone hurt?’

‘They overpowered a tour guide. She’s bruised but fine. More shocked than anything.’

‘Security?’

‘Rudimentary,’ Dorling gave an exasperated shrug. ‘It takes the police thirty minutes to get out here on a good day. These guys were in and out in ten

‘Sounds like they knew what they were doing.’

‘Professionals,’ Dorling agreed.

‘Just as well it’s insured, then, isn’t it?’ Tom grinned. ‘Or aren’t Lloyd’s planning to pay up on this one?’

‘Why do you think you’re here?’ Dorling replied with a faint smile, the lines around his eyes and tanned cheeks deepening as his face creased, his eyes darkening momentarily.

‘The old poacher-turned-gamekeeper routine?’

‘Something like that.’

‘What does that make you, I wonder?’

Dorling paused to reflect before answering, the pulse in his temple fractionally increasing its tempo.

‘A businessman. Same as always.’

There were other words dancing on the edge of Tom’s tongue, but he took a deep breath and let the moment pass. He had his reasons. Dorling’s firm of chartered loss adjusters was the first port of call for Lloyd’s underwriters whenever they had a big-ticket insurance claim to investigate. And during the ten years that Tom had operated as an art thief – the best in the business, many said – Dorling’s company had co-operated with the police on countless jobs which they suspected him of being behind.

All that had changed, however, when word had got out a year or so back that Tom and his old fence, Archie Connelly, had set themselves up on the other side of the law, advising on museum security and helping recover lost or stolen art. Now the very people who had spent years trying to put them both away were queuing up for their help. The irony still bit deep.

Tom didn’t blame Dorling. If anything he found his shameless opportunism rather endearing. The truth was that the art world was full of people like him – crocodile-skinned and conveniently forgetful as soon as they understood there was a profit to be made. It was just that the memories didn’t fade quite so fast when you’d been the one staring down the wrong end of a twenty-year stretch.

‘Who’s inside?’ Tom asked, nodding towards the castle entrance.

‘Who isn’t?’ Dorling replied mournfully. ‘The owner, forensic team, local filth,’ The slang seemed forced and sat uneasily with Dorling’s clipped sentences and sharp vowels. Tom wondered if he too felt awkward about their past history and whether this was a deliberate attempt to bridge or otherwise heal the gap between them. If so, it was a rather ham-fisted attempt, although Tom appreciated him making the effort at least. ‘Oh, and that annoying little shit from the Yard’s Art Crime Squad just showed up.’

‘Annoying little shit? You mean Clarke?’ Tom gave a rueful laugh. In this instance the description was an apt one, although Tom suspected that it was a term Dorling routinely deployed to describe anyone who hadn’t gone to the same school as him, or who didn’t feature on his regular Chelsea dinner-party circuit.

‘Play nicely,’ Dorling warned him. ‘We need him onside. We’re co-operating, remember, not competing.’

‘I will if he will,’ Tom shrugged, unable and perhaps unwilling to suppress the hint of petulance in his voice. Clarke and he had what Archie would have called ‘previous’. It didn’t matter how much you wanted to draw a line and move on, sometimes others wouldn’t let you. Tom felt suddenly hot and loosened his coat, revealing a single-breasted charcoal-grey Huntsman suit that he was wearing with an open necked blue Hilditch & Key shirt.

‘There’s one more thing you should know,’ said Dorling, pausing on the threshold, one foot outside the house, the other on the marble floor, his square chin raised as if anticipating a blow. ‘I had a call from our Beijing office. They only just heard, but Milo’s out. The Chinese released him six months ago. No one knows why. All very hush hush.’

‘Milo?’ Tom froze, not sure he’d heard correctly. Not wanting to believe he had. ‘Milo’s out? What’s that got to do … you think this is him?’

Dorling shrugged awkwardly, his bluff confidence momentarily deserting him.

‘That’s why I called you in on this one, Tom. He’s left you something.’

© James Twining 2007

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