The Secret Portrait The Secret Portrait The Secret Portrait Book Club

The Secret Portrait

The Jean Fairbairn/Alasdair Cameron Series, Book One
Five Star Publishing, April 2005
ISBN: 1594143072
Hardcover

WorldWide Mystery Book Club, May 2008

Wildside Press, April 2007
ISBN: 978-1-55742-923-0
Trade Paperback

Find the Book| Reviews | Excerpt |

 

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 Flowers o' the Forest are a' wede awa'."

Fleeing an academic scandal and a broken marriage, Jean Fairbairn has come to Scotland to work for an Edinburgh-based history and travel magazine.  Writing about the Scottish national pastime of playing illusion off reality is just the quiet, scholarly pursuit she needs to soothe her burned-out emotions.

But when Jean heads for the Highlands to investigate the 18th century mystery of Bonnie Prince Charlie's lost treasure, she finds herself involved in a contemporary murder case--and not as an innocent bystander, either.

Alasdair Cameron, the police detective in charge, has his own perspective on reality and illusion.  The American dot-com millionaire living out his tartan fantasies in a restored mansion is the loosest of loose cannons.  His trophy wife isn't necessarily standing by her man.  Their housekeeper knows what's going to happen before it does.  And their youth piper is a kilted daydream, even though his parents are nightmares.

At Glendessary House, old wounds and old glories aren't distant memories evoked over a glass of single-malt, to the skirl of the pipes.  Here, they are up close, personal, and deadly.

It's a good thing Jean has back-up in Edinburgh, including Michael and Rebecca Campbell-Reid from Ashes to Ashes and Dust to Dust, returning in cameo roles.  Because if butting heads--not to mention hearts--with Cameron isn't enough to do her in, then a killer is waiting and watching, with a motive for murder not hidden nearly deeply enough in the past.

 

 

waterfall

The waterfall between The Dark Mile and Loch Arkaig, from The Secret Portrait

The road emerged from the dark tree-lined tunnel. To the right whiskey-colored water plunged down the  hillside, leaping and foaming over boulders smooth as bones. Jean guided the car into the parking lot next to  the falls, shut off the engine, and sat with her hands braced on the steering wheel.

Cameron faced the window. All she could see of his expression was a thin reflection against the rocky slope.  But she knew what he looked like, lips crimped, eyes frosted, each hair rigidly in place. His breath must be  cold—it wasn’t fogging the glass.

Ben Nevis

Ben Nevis from the Commando Memorial, from The Secret Portrait

The . . . hump of Ben Nevis resembled a huge terrestrial whale breaching the surface of the land, earth  rolling away in waves from its flanks. All around rose smaller mountains, shaggy below, craggy above. Clouds  sailed through an achingly blue sky, dragging shadows across the hills.

The landscape lacked only a soundtrack, an emotional Celtic folk/rock piece or a movie score by John  Williams or Howard Shore, something that would complement the sensation Jean felt in her chest. Either her  heart was expanding with a desire she wasn’t prepared to analyze, or her lungs were expanding with oxygen.

 

scarlet portrait

The actual Secret Portrait is in the West Highland
Museum, Fort William, Scotland, with Lillian's
nose prints on its glass case.

 

Reviews

""Mystery, history, and sexual tension blend with a taste of the wild beauty of the Highlands: an enjoyable tale."
--Kirkus Reviews

"Carl's skillful story-telling, Scotland's history, and the discussion of how conspiracy theories and genealogies effect the past and the present make The Secret Portrait a mystery worth reading.  Her story and her characters had me reading every spare moment I had.  MacLyon's conspiracy theory moments had me laughing out loud.  She had me guessing until the end."
-- Chrstine McCreedy, Christine's Book-list

"An excellent book with a bit of woo-woo and a lot of painlessly delivered culture and history.  Throw in a gold coin from the Bonnie Prince Charlie's missing horde and a couple of men who look fine in kilts, a dash of bagpipes, and descriptions of Edinburgh so vivid you can almost taste the haggis and you have a most enjoyable read."
-- Shirley Wetzel, OverMyDeadBody.com

"The Secret Portrait is a terrific tale that mixes Scottish lore and legend with murder, madness and the paranormal. The author's characters are richly drawn and authentic. The pacing (is) perfect for an entertaining read. The dialog is sharp and witty. Lillian Stewart Carl's unique style and voice is sure to continue to attract new fans."
-- Roberta Austin, Murder and Mayhem Book Club

"In pursuit of information about Bonnie Prince Charlie's legendary lost gold, reporter Jean Fairburn discovers a new corpse instead. An entertaining blend of policing and sleuthing."
-- Library Journal

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Excerpt
Chapter One

Jean Fairbairn sat on the stone window sill of her office, if hardly in command at least in admiration of all she surveyed.

The bloodstained walls of Edinburgh Castle loomed over a shopping mall. The dour medieval houses of the old town turned their backs on the sprightly Regency facades of the new. Car parks overlooked cemeteries. Businesspeople carrying cell phones and brief cases threaded their way among tourists dawdling over their maps, all pretending not to see the homeless.

Edinburgh itself, Jean thought with a smile, was the protagonist of native son Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde. It was an appropriate place for her to either find herself or lose herself, depending on her mood of the moment. And right now her mood was upbeat, confident, eager to explore. She must be getting in touch with her feline side, and not only in posture.

"You’ll have me barring the window," said a voice behind her. "We can’t have you falling out and scaring away the paying customers."

Jean looked around to see Miranda Capaldi, her friend of twenty years and business partner of four months, peering into the room. Jean’s smile grew into a grin. "Funny how the tourist brochures never show the throngs of tourists. It’s quantum travel. The act of looking at the sites changes the nature of the sites you look at."

"Oh aye. The cafe up at the Castle is serving iced tea. Seems you Yanks can’t leave home without bringing your bad habits along with you. That much for their authentic Scottish experience." Laughing, Miranda strolled across to the window and sat down on the other half of the sill.

Jean gathered in her denim skirt, not that Miranda’s svelte figure needed much room. The subtle fragrance of her Chanel moderated the odors of diesel and frying food rising from the street four stories below. Jean’s perfumes usually evaporated into a brown sludge, sour with reproach, before she remembered to use them. Speaking of odors, she said, "Two hundred years ago people were emptying chamber pots out this very window. If tourists want authenticity...."

"Authenticity? Not a bit of it. They come here chasing romantic fantasies. Like you, I’m thinking."

"Me? I’m a hard-bitten old cynic. Look at the articles I was doing for the magazine even before I moved here, about legends hitting the road and blowing a tire. Playing reality off illusion."

Miranda cocked a tweezed eyebrow.

"Okay, okay." Jean raised her hands in surrender. "I wouldn’t have moved here if I didn’t think the grass was greener or the tartan brighter, whatever. It’s merciful fantasy that keeps you going. Still, I maintain that anyone who moves to Scotland in January isn’t chasing illusions, romantic or meteorological."

"Oh aye, the winter was dreadful, right enough. But look now, a May afternoon with sunshine enough to warm the cockles of your heart."

Yes, just as the sunlight transformed Edinburgh’s Calvinist grey to cosmopolitan color, some similar alchemy was going on in that part of Jean’s psyche known as "heart", whether that included the ambiguous "cockles" or not. Home is where the heart is, she thought. Heart of Midlothian. My heart’s in the Highlands. Queen of. . . .

"Is living here what you were expecting, then?" Miranda, as always, cut to the chase.

"Scotland is. Owning half the magazine is. Living alone, that still seems strange."

"Just you wait, you’ll meet someone new."

"No way," stated Jean. That was the last thing she needed, another man to complicate the life she’d gone to such lengths to simplify.

Miranda’s other brow rose to meet its mate, but she held her tongue. A soft knock on the door announced Gavin, the teenager who minded the reception desk. "Ms. Fairbairn, you’ve got a visitor."

An elderly gentleman peered around Gavin’s shoulder. His diction betrayed his national origin south of Hadrian’s Wall. "I wasn’t quite sure I should call in, I suppose I should have rung for an appointment. . . ."

"Come on in." Jean stood up.

Miranda sauntered away, her murmured "I’ll leave you to it, then," pierced by a curious backward glance.

"Good of you to see me. I’m George Lovelace, Leicester University, retired." The old man extended his hand.

Jean took it. "No problem."

While many old men had a handshake that felt like an empty glove, his was firm, almost fierce. He stood so ramrod straight his ivory-headed walking stick must be not support but swagger stick. Maybe his gray regimental moustache, thick glasses, and tweed suit—sturdy old-fashioned tweed, not today’s lighter fabric—boded less an hour of polite boredom than an interesting new story-quest to complement the day’s sunlit affirmations.

"Please, sit down. What can I do for you?" Adjusting her own glasses, Jean maneuvered around the corner of the desk and into her chair.

Lovelace took the other chair in the room, a straight-backed number that belonged in a collection of torture devices, and looked vaguely around at Jean’s books and papers before looking somewhat less vaguely at her. "Miss Fairbairn. Dr. Fairbairn, rather."

Her doctorate had been awarded to Jean Inglis. Just because the marriage was over didn’t mean the degree wasn’t valid. Still, she defaulted to, "It’s Jean."

"I’ve been enjoying your articles in Great Scot, er, Jean. Fine magazine, that. Miss Capaldi has made a good fist of bringing it to life again. It was one of my childhood favorites, Scotland being another world to me as a lad in the Home Counties. Happy days, those, when I’d play at William Wallace or Arthur and his knights or Bonnie Prince Charlie in the heather. Not that we had heather in Orpington."

Jean had seen Orpington. It was a suburb of London teeming with industrial parks and traffic. She suspected Lovelace would not agree with those who thought the change meant progress.

"Well now." He leaned forward, focusing. "I most especially enjoyed your article about Prince Charles. Not the present one, of course. The Young Pretender, the Bonnie Prince of the 1745 rebellion. History creates different versions of such figures, doesn’t it?"

"Like running them through a hall of mirrors."

"Quite right. That’s how history is transmuted to legend. Not that I mean to disparage legend. As you said yourself, legend is the yeast that makes history rise. Nice turn of phrase, that."

Miranda had wanted to edit out that flight of verbosity. Jean decided Lovelace was a charming old gentleman.

"I understand," he went on, "that you had a most distinguished career at a university in America."

Her biography was printed in the back of the magazine. The fact that her academic career was dead, buried, and eulogized was not. She said neutrally, "I taught British history for almost twenty years. What’s your field?"

"Eighteenth-century literature, specializing in first editions, ephemera, arcana, curiosa, and marginalia."

"Love letters, diaries, political pamphlets, penny dreadful novels, and menus from the Titanic—well, not in the eighteenth century. Menus from the Bounty, maybe. Historical gossip columns."

"Very much so. Fascinating, but quite tiring to the eyes, which is why I took to watching birds. I spent many a holiday in the Western Highlands, and finally moved house there. Stationed at Achnacarry for a time during the war, don’t you know. That was a shocker, coming to such rough country after my youth in Kent. Although that’s the point of commando training, to toughen you up. They used live fire in those days, mind you, none of this limp-wristed please and thank you business you see today. But our backs aren’t against the wall today, thank God. We lost too many young people then, too many who gave their todays for our tomorrows. . . Well, I’m sure old soldiers since Marathon have been uttering the same sentiments."

"It comes with the territory, yes."

"So does my bewilderment with today’s culture, I suppose. Music, clothes, the telly—not mine to criticize, though. Must keep up with the times. But oh dear, this modern food, a few stunted vegetables in a pool of muck with some contrived bit of protein perched on top. What happened to the good honest chop, potato, and veg, I ask you?"

He shouldn’t ask Jean. She was grateful for the proliferation of exotic foodstuffs like nachos and curries on menus all over Scotland, let alone in sophisticated Edinburgh. But food, like humor, was a very personal subject.

Lovelace’s watery blue eyes blinked rapidly. "I’m rambling. Old men have a tendency to ramble. Too many memories stored in the gray matter, I expect, can’t quite lay your hand on the point of the exercise."

"I’m still with you," she assured him, although as yet she had no idea where they were going.

"Well then." Reaching inside his jacket, he produced a flat white box and set it on the desk. He whisked away the lid like a magician pulling a rabbit from a hat.

Good Lord. Jean’s eyes bulged. Without looking away, she fumbled for the desk lamp and turned it on.

Inside the box, on a bed of white cotton, lay a massive coin. Its surface blazed a fiery gold. Every mound and furrow of the face stamped on it was finely etched, the double chin, the long, sloping forehead.

From a long way away Lovelace’s voice said, "Have a look at the reverse."

She reached out, mentally slapped her own hand, and instead opened the desk drawer where she kept her supply of tissues—in Edinburgh in the spring you soaked the rain up through your feet and blew it out your nose.

The tissue covering her fingertips, Jean gingerly picked up the coin. Yes, it was heavy, and even through the tissue ice-cold. On the back was a design of the Palace of Versailles, every window so finely detailed she expected to see Madame de Maintenon pull aside the drapes.

She turned the coin face-up again. The words surrounding the haughty, regal visage—grace a dieu—yes, they were in French. Exhaling through pursed lips, she settled the coin back into its cotton bed and looked up. "That’s a Louis D’or. King Louis XIV in gold."

Lovelace was staring at her, no longer blinking. "An excellent specimen. Almost three hundred years old, and bright as the day it was minted."

"You must have found this in Lochaber or Moidart."

He managed a thin, asymmetrical smile. "Well done! But then, a scholar like you would know where Bonnie Prince Charlie’s French gold was hidden."

"I don’t know exactly. No one does, which is just the point, isn’t it? You’ve found a clue." Jean beamed on the old man. Oh yes, this promised to be a very exciting story, a historical treasure hunt, no less. "So as a child you played at being the Bonnie Prince on the lam, and as an adult you find a coin that has to have come from his lost hoard. That’s karma for you. Fate."

Did he shudder at that? Or did he just droop wearily over his hands knotted atop the walking stick? "Especially when you consider how often I double-timed it through that same area as a youth. Although having bullets whistling past one’s ears is hardly favorable to prospecting."

"Now, though, you walk slowly around watching birds, and turn up a needle in a haystack."

"I wasn’t searching for the coin," he said, still talking to his own hands, his diction slurred. "You’ll excuse me if I don’t reveal just where I found it."

The coin glowed like a good deed in murky world. Many a bad deed had been done for just that glow. Was Lovelace worried that bad deeds would follow his discovery? If so, then why not just chuck the coin into his desk drawer? "You’ve come to the press with this," Jean pointed out.

Abruptly Lovelace sat up straight, as though bracing himself to some unpleasant duty. His gaze was so direct she almost expected him to start barking orders like a drill sergeant. In spite of herself she shrank against the back of her chair. Was it something I said?

"I’ve come to you, Jean, because I’d like for you to help me have the coin declared treasure trove. I’m a widower, so have only myself to support on my pension, but a bit of the ready wouldn’t go amiss—the taxes nowadays, some inheritance for the grandchildren."

She managed to lean into his fixed look, like swimming against a current, and said, "I’m not up on the laws of treasure trove, but I know a curator at the new Museum who is. I’ll set up an appointment for you."

"Thank you, but no. I’d much prefer you take the coin there yourself."

"Oh." Jean didn’t exactly frown, but her eyebrows tightened. "Well yes, I can do that. There’s really no need, though, they’re very discreet."

"I would greatly appreciate your seeing to the matter." Funny how he was no longer discursive, but as direct as though he’d rehearsed his spiel before he got here.

He must be embarrassed to admit that he needed money. "I’ll have to tell the Museum people your name, but they won’t pass it on. I won’t either, but still I’d like to do something for Great Scot about the coin, maybe work it into an article about the lost hoard."

"Yes, yes, that goes without saying. You must make your efforts worthwhile and all. But please leave the particulars unclear. Don’t want to cause a gold rush, we have quite enough people beating about the area as it is, leaving gates open, littering, frightening the sheep. . . ." His voice ran down. So did he, bowing over his walking stick again.

Growing more intrigued by the moment, Jean asked,"Are you planning to look for more coins?"

"Oh, no, no, not at all."

Why not? she wondered. More coins, more money.

"This coin," he mumbled, "is worth much more as a historical artifact than as its component gold, I expect. I should hate to see it destroyed."

Now he was evading the issue as deliberately as he was evading her eyes—hot cold, hot cold. She tried reassuring him. "The Museum’s bottom line is historical value, yes. They won’t destroy it. They’ll probably want to buy it."

"Right. This is where you can reach me, then." Lovelace reached inside his jacket, pulled out a metal case, and extracted the small white rectangle of a business card.

Jean took it. His hand was trembling. Did he need some sort of special treatment beyond that provided by the National Health Service? Was that why he needed money?

This time she did frown, hiding her expression by looking down at the card. It was engraved with, "George Albert Lovelace", followed by his address and phone number. "Corpach, by Fort William. That’s a beautiful area. What’s the name of the American millionaire who bought the old mansion out there? Surely you’ve heard of him."

When Lovelace didn’t answer Jean looked back up. All she could see was the top of his head, the gray hair meticulously parted and pomaded. "Ah yes, I’ve heard of the man. We’ve all heard of the man. One of the local celebrities. We get quite a few celebrities in the area, film stars and the like. I remember Mel Gibson." He sat up abruptly, eyes hard and somehow hurt.

Yeah, well, Jean was not a fan of Gibson’s Braveheart, but she had a feeling that wasn’t the problem.

"If you’d be so good as to give me a receipt for the coin," Lovelace said to the wall behind her, "I’ll leave the matter in your capable hands."

"Sure." Might as well play along, Jean told herself. She swivelled around to her computer, tapped out "Received from George Lovelace one Louis D’or in excellent condition," printed the message on the magazine’s letterhead, signed, and dated it.

He took the paper and folded it into his pocket. "Thank you. Now if you’ll excuse me, it’s almost time for my train. I didn’t drive, my automobile is a bit of an old banger and the traffic in the city is . . ."

"A circus," Jean concluded when he didn’t.

Lovelace levered himself to his feet and for a moment stood supporting himself heavily on his stick. Then he drew himself to attention. Mission accomplished. Nodding gravely at Jean, even while avoiding her eyes, he started toward the door.

Climbing back out from behind her desk, she walked Lovelace through the hallway and past the reception alcove. "I’ll be in touch," she told him, and opened the door.

He stepped out onto the stair landing, then spun back around, focused, intent. "Miss Fairbairn, Jean, I think you should know . . ."

That was one sentence she couldn’t finish for him. "What?"

Again he blinked rapidly, bent over his stick, and turned away. "Ah no, I beg your pardon, I shouldn’t speak out of turn. Good day."

What the . . . But he had started down the stone spiral of the medieval turnpike stair. Jean stood, arms crossed, monitoring his progress down the steps by the receding pad of his shoes and the tap of his stick. She was afraid if she shouted after him, asking for explanations, she’d hear the sound of a falling body. After centuries of use, the narrow triangular treads were hollowed and lopsided, and even at her tender age, comparatively speaking, she had been known to catch her heel or stumble.

But no. The slam of the outside door echoed up the stairwell, punctuating Lovelace’s departure like an exclamation mark after a shout.

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