The Key

Episode 1: Montreal

It was a dark sombre evening in Montreal where, in early autumn, the weather can alternate between summer and winter in the space of a few hours. This evening definitely was more winter than summer – dark cold and wet, with a cold drizzle that felt as if it was from the west coast of Scotland rather than from the east coast of Canada and where the dark clouds had blotted out the joy of a moon.  Unusual for this time of year, to take the cold off the evening, a blazing fire burned in the massive dining room fireplace in the stone-built Scottish baronial-style house in Mount Royale near McGill University, where the Fraser family were emerging from the inner shadows of the dark house for dinner.

Earlier in the day the family, dressed as if for church, had driven down to the docks in Alastair Fraser’s new black Ford car to bid farewell to Great Aunt Philomena. They had settled her into her cabin on the Donaldson Line’s ship Laurentia, along with several cases of luggage and a packing case holding six paintings which she was taking across to her son in Glasgow.  Alastair, his wife Laura and their teenage children Bruce and Robert, had waved farewell to their aunt and watched as the liner had moved from the docks in Montreal and the lights slowly disappeared down the St Lawrence River towards the Atlantic Ocean.

Just as the maid Alice was about to serve tonight’s dinner of steaming hot roast beef, almost at the point where she was about to lift the serving spoons into the air, a sudden knocking echoed through the house and startled everyone.

Who could it be at this time of night and on such a foul evening?

Irritated, Alastair Fraser pulled himself wearily out of his chair and told Alice to continue serving dinner to the rest of the family.  He left the dining room and crossed the hall, carefully opening the heavy oak front door against the wild and windy attack of the storm.  In front of him was a policeman who, although clad in weatherproof clothing, was a sorry sight – wet from head to toe.

“Come in man – you’ll be soaked”, Alastair shouted above the beating rain. The officer entered the hall, shook off some of the rain from his dark woollen coat onto the limestone floor and introduced himself as Inspector Renee, Canadian with a slight and affected French accent.  He wished to know the details of Mr Fraser’s aunt’s journey to Scotland.   Very discrete, he gave nothing away but eventually, after persistent questioning, he had to come clean and admit the reason for his enquiry.  When the Laurentia had left the port, the land-crew had set about tidying up for the next departure in a week’s time.  Behind a pile of empty timber chests, they had found the body of a man, who they had initially thought was a vagrant as they often try to hide and sleep in the harbour buildings, hoping to be able to sneak onto a boat or liner to take them to a new country and a anew life.  This guy was was an ugly man, his face gnarled with many years at sea and his body covered with the most obscene and disgusting tattoos.  When they had the courage to peel away his evil stinking clothes, they found inside his pockets a wallet contained over 1000 Canadian dollars in cash and a torn scrap piece of paper on which, barely decipherable, was the name of Alastair Fraser’s aunt’s Philomena and an address in Glasgow. Puzzled, Alastair Fraser carefully looked at the scrap of the paper and confirmed that it was indeed the address of his cousin in Glasgow where his aunt was going to stay for the next two months.

Episode 2: Glasgow

A week later, the MacFarlane family were having a quiet afternoon in their west end mansion near the university and the botanic gardens.  Built a century earlier as the upper middle classes had moved westwards in Glasgow, little had changed apart from the artwork on the walls. John MacFarlane had inherited the house and all its contents from his parents. He had respected the stunning collection of antique furniture and Persian rugs that he had inherited but had wanted to made his own mark on the house and had given the Kelvingrove art gallery in Glasgow the magnificent collection of Spanish baroque paintings including works by Murillo, Ribera and Zurbaran which were not to his taste and he felt should be appreciated by the wider community.  His parents had been shipping magnates and enjoyed spending their wealth on acquiring a magnificent collection of art, furniture and other antiquities which had filled their house from the basement to the attics.

To replace the paintings, John Macfarlane was collecting and hanging the best contemporary art from Scotland and from North America, bought on his frequent visits to Montreal, Boston and New York where he had so many relatives and business interests. In the background, but unexplored, was another branch of the family in Chicago that he had never met. His great-uncle Anthony had left Glasgow in the 1850’s and had risen to become the city architect in Chicago and was now buried in Graceland Cemetery along with his wife Laura.  There were also family links with Cuba, through his great uncle, but he had never explored there, though he would like to.

It was a cold wet, typical Glasgow autumn day, the weather similar to that in Montreal a week before. John and his assistant David were in his study examining a proposed new purchase by Francis Cadell, one of the Scottish Colourists on “loan” from the Fine Art Gallery that he thought would hang well above the side table in the hall and fit well with the other works he had bought. He heard the door bell ringing and sent David to see who it was. After a couple of minutes David returned with two policemen who introduced themselves as Inspector Allison and Constable Bell from the Glasgow police.

“Sorry to disturb you, Sir” the elder man said as John MacFarlane waved the men into his study. “Thank you Sir. I understand that tomorrow you are going down to Greenock to meet the Laurentia. You should be aware that the Montreal police have found the body of a vagrant in the Montreal docks, with a substantial amount of money and a note with your aunt’s name and your address on it.  We are therefore worried for her and your safety and would like to be with you when you go to meet her at the docks tomorrow. Is there any reason that she should be picked out. Was she, for example, travelling with anything valuable?”

“I don”t think my aunt carries valuable jewellery when she travels – she knows too much what might happen.  She is however bringing across four paintings for me by Jackson Pollock who has recently died and two by the new and upcoming American artist Andy Warhol.  I can’t think that any vagrant would even have heard of these artists, let alone think the works to be valuable.  They are rather too modern for many people!

“Of course, we will be happy to meet up with you tomorrow in Greenock”.  “My aunt is one of the sweetest ladies you could ever meet. I’m sure she will appreciate anything to keep her “hail and hearty”.

“Thank you Sir.” “We’ll see you there tomorrow; I’ll bid you good night”.

John Macfarlane saw the policemen out; as he did so, his face changed and his forehead furrowed. “What on earth could this be about?” he thought as he went back through to his study and his painting.

Episode 3: Havana

It was a warm balmy early evening, with the blue skies changing to night and a bright circular moon shining through.  Carlos Enrique was strolling along the Malecon with two of his young research assistants from the university, Alberto and Roberta. They were in good humour, laughing and joking as they walked along with music still blasting out of many of the open windows of apartment blocks facing the sea.   While Carlos owned a bright red Pontiac sports car imported from Miami, he preferred to walk.  It was then that he could clear his head and think about what he had to do next day at the university.  He disliked being in an office, although he had one at the university which was full of his research books and papers.  He much preferred the fresh air and even held his meetings with students in open air cafés, waving away the inevitable musicians who tried to interrupt them.

The sea was crystal clear, reflecting the brilliant and changing blue sky. In the background was the shadow of the Morro Castle. Suddenly, they saw an animated group shouting and screaming along the edge of the Malecon, pointing and waving at the sea.  Carlos walked over and saw what looked like a mass of bright red seaweed, but he didn’t know of any such seaweed.  He pushed his way through to the front of the crowd and then realised, with horror, that the seaweed was in fact long flowing hair. Red hair was unusual in Cuba; then the rest of a female body became obvious, her dark skin contrasting with the blue sea. As two of the group went into the sea to bring the body out, Carlos had to hold back a shriek of horror – he recognised her as one of his students, Ana. The body was limp and lifeless; he couldn’t see from where he stood any obvious marks or bloodstains. How had she died? Carlos remembered that she loved the sea and was a strong swimmer and also enjoyed diving in the reefs. This was a safe area for swimming, no sharks or other hazards, so what could have happened? Then her hair fell back to reveal on the left side of her face, a dark area of cut and broken skin, matted with blood. this was not a natural death.  Someone had done this to her.

Alberto and Roberta could see that Carlos was shocked so they held him close and took him to their favourite bar the Floridita for a drink, a twenty minute walk.  Several Bacardi rums later, Carlos had just about recovered when there was a commotion and he spotted Ana’s mother crying and weaving her way through the bar to their table.  She hugged Carlos tight and wept.  “I knew I would find you here.  How could this have happened?” she cried. “Carlos, you were her friend; you must find her killer; you must avenge her.” “Promise me”. She cried.  Roberta tried to gently pull her away but she clung hard to Carlos and cried out over and over again “Promise me! Promise me! Promise me!”.

“I will”, promised Carlos as he hugged her tight and let her tears flow out down his jacket.