The Mortsafe

The Mortsafe

A Short Jean Fairbairn/Alasdair Cameron Mystery, Story Six

Available in electronic and paper editions

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The Jean Fairbairn/Alasdair Cameron series, a cross-genre (mystery, romance, paranormal) series featuring Michael and Rebecca Campbell-Reid from Ashes to Ashes and Dust to Dust in cameo roles.

The lights went out...

A mortsafe is an iron cage locked over a grave to deter body snatchers. They haven’t been seen in Scottish kirkyards for almost two centuries. So why is a mortsafe lying next to a pair of decayed bodies in one of Edinburgh’s infamous underground vaults? 

Newlyweds Jean Fairbairn and Alasdair Cameron are called out on the cold case, in the coldest part of the year, brightened only by the red paper hearts of Valentine’s Day in the shop windows.

It's when living, beating hearts are stopped too soon that memories can become cages stronger than iron. No deaths are ever entirely forgotten, not when businessmen from ghost hunters to restaurateurs can profit from them. Not when earning a living can sometimes become secondary to simply staying alive.

It's February in the ancient city of Edinburgh, where footsteps echo in secret passages, and lovers don't always have the time to make memories together.

The Mortsafe is a complete novel, half the length of the previous books in the series

Mortsafe MapA simple street map of the area of Edinburgh where The Mortsafe takes place.


Edinburgh VaultsA side view of Edinburgh’s infamous South Bridge vaults.

"This series mixes the historic and the present crime to give readers a clever, realistic, educational, and exciting mystery with characters that are believable as well as relatable. I've enjoyed this series as it has developed and The Mortsafe is another great addition."
-- Gayle Surrette, Gumshoe Review

"Lillian Stewart Carl takes readers into the history and mystery of Edinburgh, Scotland in her fascinating new mystery, The Mortsafe. Although readers would have an easier time of it if they've read previous books featuring Jean Fairbairn and Alasdair Cameron, a new reader can catch on quickly. I know that because I had not read previous books in the series.

Jean and Alasdair are now married and settled in Edinburgh, where she works as a journalist. He has retired from his position as a Detective Chief Inspector, and is now working for a company that specializes in security for historic properties. That's why they both end up at the scene when bodies are found in a vault underneath a pub. One body turns out to be a young woman who went missing fifteen years earlier, while the remains of the other is almost two hundred years old. Jean and Alasdair, who can see and sense ghosts, are interested in the second for historical purposes. But, it's the young woman's corpse that stirs up trouble in present-day Edinburgh.

Carl manages to combine history, ghosts, and mystery into an intriguing story.

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Chapter One

Jean Fairbairn handed her section of The Scotsman across the table, then snatched it back, just missing the teapot and the toast rack. “Whoa,” she said.

Alasdair Cameron didn’t look up from his own carefully folded page. “Eh?”

“Wow!” She angled the newsprint toward the lamp, since precious little light was leaking through the window this drippy, dreary—dreich, in Scotspeak—Edinburgh dawn.


Jean peered over the edge of the paper, and over the rings on her left hand holding the paper, at her husband. Her new, improved, husband. Who’d have guessed that her first marriage would turn out to be a twenty-year-long beta test? What his first marriage had been . . . Well, no point in going there, not again.

“Alasdair, we haven’t been married long enough to talk to each other in monosyllables.”

“Right.” His keen blue eyes sparked above the rims of his reading glasses. “I might as well be asking what you’ve found in yon paper, then, as you’ll be telling me about it anyway.”

“Come on. You’re as curious as a cat.”

Removing his glasses, he turned his gaze toward the gray fur lump on the window seat that was Dougie. The sleeping cat looked like a frayed sweater, carelessly abandoned. Alasdair swiveled back to Jean, one brow cocked in his best Mr. Spock impersonation.

Since Jean had read in a psychology magazine that rolling your eyes at your significant other meant problems in a relationship, she focused steadily on a small block of type at the bottom of the page beneath the transcript of some arcane political discussion in the Scottish Parliament. Parliamentary fog no doubt explained the weeks of cloud and drizzle, just as the hot air emanating from the Texas Legislature, back on her native turf, explained summer heat waves.

“Protect and Survive has a contract with the owner of that new pub on the South Bridge, doesn’t it? You know, the one going into the old Playfair Building, across the street from Lady Niddry’s House?”

“We’ve got contracts with half the businesses in that area, not to mention the university. I don’t doubt the pub’s one of them, aye. Why? Did they have a break-in?”

It had taken her an entire year to get it into her head that “I doubt” sometimes meant “I suspect”, and then he threw the usual meaning at her. “They had more of a break-out. A couple of plumbers were doing their thing in the cellar and part of the wall collapsed into one of the vaults beneath the bridge.”

“There’s—what? Eighteen vaults holding up the street? Nineteen? And only the arch over the lower street, the Cowgate, not invisible.”

“In the strict sense of invisible, yes, in that with all the buildings along the top of the bridge and down the sides there’s only one place you can tell that the South Bridge street is really that, a bridge. But vaults don’t swim in and out of the space-time continuum.”

Crinkles were forming at the corners of his eyes, complementing the one at the corner of his mouth and making him look more like a low-key Captain Kirk than Mr. Spock. “Depends on who you’re asking, eh?”

“Well, yeah. It does. Anyway, the plumbers, being a heckuva lot braver souls than I am, climbed through the gap in the wall and found a chamber containing two dead bodies. Although in this context, ‘bodies’ would imply dead.”

“How dead?” The crinkles went lopsided. He reached for the page with his left hand, its plain gold band glinting in the lamplight, and with his right hand replaced his glasses.

Jean handed the page over. “It doesn’t say, but I doubt—I don’t think—they’re recent. Not that the environment of the vaults and how it affects human decay is anything I want to consider over breakfast.” She spread the last piece of toast thickly with butter—when in Scotland, butterfat wasn’t calories, it was insulation—and heaped on strawberry jam.

Alasdair said, half to himself, “The bodies were found late yesterday afternoon and Lothian and Borders Police is investigating. They’ll not yet have removed them, I reckon . . .”

The electronic melody of “Hail to the Chief” interrupted him. Abandoning her toast, Jean went to find first her mini–backpack and brain storage unit, and then, inside it, her phone.

From the second floor of the apartment came the double bleat of Alasdair’s ring tone. Abandoning the newspaper, he headed off toward the room that Jean called his man-cave but that he, dignity affronted, referred to as his study. A good thing they’d bought the flat next door to the one where she’d been living alone. Two tiny apartments combined into a small-to-medium one equaled enough space they could live together, independent but contiguous entities.

Jean switched on the phone and pressed it to her ear. “Good morning, Miranda.”

“Good morning to you.” This time of day Miranda’s voice was smoky from Lapsang Souchong tea served in fine china, not from single-malt served in cut glass. “You’ve seen the paper, then?”

Miranda’s ESP, Jean thought for the hundredth time, was much more useful than her and Alasdair’s ghost-activated sixth senses. “The article about the workmen breaking into the vault beneath the new pub? Oh yeah, I’ve seen it.”

“No flies on you, Jean. Got it in one. Are you thinking what I’m thinking?”

“Of course I am. Since it all seems to be more historical than contemporary, it might in due course make a fine article for Great Scot. Just as long as I don’t have to spend too much time blundering around in the South Bridge vaults.”

“Ah, the tourist companies have those vaults mapped out like interchanges on the M6. Lights, cameras, action, the lot. No need for your claustrophobia to go acting up.”

“And how about my . . .” She wasn’t going to use the word fear, even to one of her best friends, and her only employer and business partner. “. . . lack of interest in blundering around in the dark? There’s many a story of tour groups getting down into those vaults and the lights going off.”

“And ghosties and ghoulies pinching and scratching. Oh aye.” Paper rustled and china rang.

Jean strolled back to the table and refilled her mug. “This part of Edinburgh’s teeming with so many ghost stories the poor souls would have to take numbers and wait their turn before saying boo. The Castle, the Vaults, Mary King’s Close, Greyfriars Kirkyard across from the Museum.”

“Are there that many poor souls still out and about, Jean?”

“A few, yes, but they’re outnumbered by the story-mongers and the gullible. And there are none right here in Ramsay Garden, let me hasten to add, any more than there are in the office.”

“Makes no matter to me. I’m not sensitive. Few to none of the tourists are, either, but there’s no need for such tales to be true to come a treat to them. A good shiver and a nice wee dram afterwards, part of the Scottish experience. The owner of the new pub likely ordered the tradesmen to ca’ down the wall, the better to increase his trade. He’s named the place The Resurrectionist Bar.”

“The Resurrectionist?”

“Not the best name, from a marketing standpoint.”

“Well, it’s a bit more elegant than Body Snatchers Are Us.” Jean laughed, if wryly. How many of Scotland’s darkest moments, even body snatchers or resurrection men like Burke and Hare, were now no more than scenic overlooks along the historical trail?

Through the arched opening between her old living room—now the dining room—and the new one echoed Alasdair’s voice: “The city’s honeycombed with forgotten passages and cellars. Dozens of bodies are likely moldering away in obscure corners. If I was owner of The Resurrectionist, I’d be more concerned about living bodies breaking, entering, vandalizing—the lot.”

Ah, so someone had contacted Protect and Survive, the agency specializing in security for historic properties that Alasdair was now heading up. Was the owner concerned about concealed postern gates below his property? Or did Lothian and Borders, the local cop shop, want ex-cop Alasdair’s opinion on the convergence of history and—well, no one had suggested any crimes, not yet.

“We’ll see how wedded Vasudev is to The Resurrectionist when we’re interviewing him the day,” Miranda was saying. “He might be taking suggestions, still.”


“Vasudev Prasad. He’s by way of owning the property, though my own Duncan holds a high enough percentage that Vasudev was quite obliging when I rang him up and suggested he call at the office soon as may be.”

“No flies on you, either, Miranda. Barely nine in the morning and you’re hard at work.”

“As am I.” Alasdair walked back into the dining room, carrying not his cell phone but his toothbrush. “Herself is sending you to the scene, is she? You might as well have a wee dauner down that way with me, then. I’ve been called out as well, Lothian and Borders rang Ian at the office, saying a D.I. Knox wants a word.”

“There’s a good Edinburgh name, Knox. Any relation to the sixteenth-century theological gadfly, I wonder?” Jean turned back to her phone. “Miranda . . .”

“Well done,” Miranda told her. “You and Alasdair can be interviewing the police as a team, see what sort of mystery’s been brought to the light of day, eh?”

“Or whether there’s any mystery at all,” Jean replied, well accustomed to playing the damp blanket to Miranda’s commercial exuberance. “The bodies are probably those of some poor—literally poor, as in low or no-income—people who didn’t have anywhere else to live, or die, for that matter, and when the vaults were walled up so were their bodies.”

“Oooh. There you are. What’s that story by Edgar Allan Poe about the jester bricked up in the wall? ‘A Cask of Amontillado?’ A grand sherry, Amontillado.”

“So would this be ‘A Cask of Single Malt?’”

“If you’re turning up a whisky-distilling angle, better and better. I’ll have a look amongst our advertisers, see who was in business—when were the vaults closed up?”

Jean quelled her laugh. She had to stop teasing Miranda—it was like shooting fish in a barrel. Although why you would want to shoot fish in a barrel, she had no idea. “Late 1800s, depending . . .”

Using the heel of the toothbrush to point to his watch, Alasdair called loudly, “Later, Miranda.”

“I’ll be waiting at the office, Jean,” Miranda said, “with bated breath and hot coffee. Cheerie-bye.”

“Bye-bye.” Jean switched off the phone, inhaled the last bite of toast—even preserved in thick syrup, the strawberries hinted of summer fields warmed by sunshine—and washed it down with tea.

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