The Purloined Oil
by Edward Ahern
“Somebody stole my picture.”
I pretended to type a note on my laptop. “How valuable?”
“Fungus Riddled Iris by Emma LaRue. It’s appraised at seven million.”
“I’ve seen a picture. Nasty looking ergot.” I focused in on her. Sylvia Plaith. Off-blonde hair. Attractive mid-thirties striving for that twentyish look. A bodacious emerald ring. Clothes tailored to fit her petite frame. “Have the police made progress?”
She let out an annoyed hiss. “Don’t be dense. If they had, I wouldn’t have to be here. The cops are as clueless as you seem to be. I’m only here because the insurance company assigned you to the case.”
“With a payout of seven mil, Pound & Ezra is having palpitations in the money chest. They bring me in when they get these anxiety attacks.”
“And won’t pay me until you’re done poking around.” Sylvia snapped the card I’d given her between thumb and fingers. “The Lost and Found Department? You need to hire a marketing firm.” She glanced again at the card. “What kind of weird name is Adalson?”
“Obscure. The seven million I assume is replacement value? So an auction value would be around six?”
She gave me a hard stare. I sucked in my stomach. “That’s none of your business.”
“Ah, touchy. So maybe only five million. Tell me about the theft.”
The story she told echoed the police report. Only the painting taken, no signs of entry or exit, no one home at the time, alibis for Sylvia, her soon to be ex-husband Wallace Stevens and her sister.
She was being taped, so I slid past her words and focused on reading her. Pretty much what a medium does during a séance while conning a grieving widow, but I did it better. Probably because I could reach out and, usually, sense the emotions of the speaker.
The painting’s really off the wall. And she’s lying by omission. And she doesn’t like me, despite my charm. And she despises her live-in sister, who owns half of everything.
“And then, excuse me, but could you not stare at me with your mouth open?”
“Ah, sure.” I gave her my “fond of children and pets” smile. It flunked. “There’s an excellent chance I can recover the painting.”
Sylvia scowled. “There’s an excellent chance you can fail and die from syphilis.”
She bounced up, didn’t offer her hand to shake, and turned toward the door. “You’re wasting our time, Stokes.” As she opened the door to go I called out. “Why do you hate your sister so much?”
“You’re concerned about the painting and repulsed by your almost-ex. But you despise your sister.”
“I never said...” She turned and strode back up to my desk. Nice legs. “My sister’s of no concern in this matter.”
“And I’m going to join a monastery later this afternoon. You’ve never mentioned your sister’s name.”
I raised an eyebrow.
“Our father had four wives.”
“Any other children?”
“None. After breeding with the first two women, he relied on latex.”
“Who else comes and goes?”
“The staff had the day off. Only Mary, Wallace and I were in the house. It’s got a museum-level security system, and the alarms weren’t tripped while we were out”
“Why do you think it was taken that afternoon while you all were gone?”
“Because the maid reported seeing it at noon. Didn’t you read the police report?”
“What about your boyfriend?”
“What... what boyfriend?”
I gently shook my head from side to side. “Sylvia, if we’re going to find this diseased plant, you have to struggle for honesty. You pulled off your wedding ring maybe two weeks ago, so you and hubby aren’t best friends. And your makeup doesn’t quite cover the hickey on your neck.”
She sat back down, glared at me, and shrugged. She had an attractive glare. “Okay, let’s get this over with. What do you need to do?”
“Inspect the house and interview you, Wallace, and Mary.” I pulled two sheets of printed paper out of a drawer and handed them to her.
“Your agreement to allow all reasonable investigation. Putting things on paper reduces bickering. I heard the whir of her thinking, warped gears lubed with cold cream. “All right,” she said, “but try not to get any creepier.”
I keyed the intercom. “Sara, could you please come in and witness something?”
Sylvia held the two sheets in her fingertips like they carried HIV. Sara came in.
“Sylvia Plaith, meet Sara Trusdale. Sara, Sylvia.”
Sylvia skimmed through the agreement and signed it.
“Are you going back home?”
“I need to check out the house. Could I stop by in an hour and a half?
Sylvia hesitated, and I sensed why. “I need to talk to Wallace as well,” I explained.
She nodded. “Okay, but wash your hands afterward.”
Once Sylvia had left I asked Sara to come back in.
Sara listened in, and she raised an eyebrow at me. “She’s just your type: manipulative and elegantly slutty.”
“Isn’t she, though? But rich and soon divorced. Should I upstage the boyfriend?”
“Don’t. I’d tip her off that no one can live with you. My antennae aren’t as sensitive as yours are, but I don’t think she likes you.”
“There’s that. How’re we doing on the checks on hubby and sis?”
“Close. I’ve already sent you the material on the painting. Apparently, a childlike rendering of plant rot qualifies as high art. There’s about a dozen collectors unscrupulous and rich enough to buy the painting. None of them appears to have had contact with the family, nor to be making any unusual arrangements. Why don’t you ever let the client know how much you already know?”
“Because, if they think I’m ignorant, their lies get sloppy and easier to pick apart.”
* * *
I guessed that Wallace or Mary would avoid me, and got to the house an hour early, just in time to block Wallace from backing out of the garage. He hopped out of his car and strode over to me. “You’re blocking me. Get out of my way.”
I did a quick study. Pear-shaped. Bully-boy attitude, big, forties, no scars, serious pudge, bad muscle tone. Voice just a fraction of an octave higher than he wanted it to be.
“Right after we talk.”
He put his hands on my open car window and leaned in. His cologne smelled expensive. “Get out of my way or I’ll make you sorry.”
“Bad line, Wallace.” I grabbed his left index finger, pulled it in and twisted. He screamed, which pretty well demolished the image he was trying to project. I kept a strain on his finger while I opened the door and got out, then let go.
Wallace gingerly massaged the finger. “You broke it!”
“Not yet. Let’s be friends. I need answers and you need your fingers for golf. How bad is your pre-nup arrangement?”
He scowled. “None of your damn business!”
“Okay, so not more than half a million. Good reason to steal the painting.”
“Where the hell would I sell it? It’s too well known.”
I took him back through his statements to the police. A bad liar repeats his story verbatim, afraid to vary it. Somebody remembering forgets things, and changes his wording. Wallace meandered. I read him while he talked. Still the bully boy front, but he’s afraid, of all 170 pounds of me, of Sylvia for some reason. And something else...
“Tell me about Mary Olipher.”
His body stiffened. “Ah, Sylvia’s half-sister lives here, Not married, not working.”
“And not normal.”
“I never said that!”
“You did, sort of. Does she ever leave the house?”
Wallace paused. “No. She has anxiety attacks, high-strung artist.”
“Why does Sylvia let you stay here?”
“I run the estate for her.”
I stifled a laugh. He wasn’t the diddler any more, but he was still the butler.
“Okay, Wallace, I want you to take me on a quick tour of the house.”
He clinched his fists and took a threatening step closer. I got another whiff of rare spices. “Do it yourself, or get Sylvia to do it. Now get out of my way before you get hurt.”
I looked down at him and put on a glare. “Wallace, if you take a swing, I’ll break your kneecap.”
He wilted. “You’re an asshole.”
I nodded. It felt satisfying to be a bully, especially since I had no idea how to break a kneecap.
Wallace tried to quick step me, but I slowed him down, paying minimal attention to the details of the rooms, sighting in on his wordings, eye movements and body language. Halfway through we encountered a slender, well-proportioned woman.
“Stokes, this is Mary Olipher. Mary this is—”
“Adalson Stokes, Mary. Delighted to meet you.”
“What an interesting name.”
“If it’s easier, my friends call me Dali. I’d like to talk with you a little later.”
“Of course, that’s my suite over there. Just knock.”
Wallace and I continued our tour. The mansion, a hundred and fifty years old, held lots of cubbies and culs-de-sac, paneled almost everywhere in oak wainscoting. There were twelve bedrooms and fourteen bathrooms, so more opportunity to defecate than to sleep.
We finished up in the two-story entry hall. “I’m leaving now, Dali.”
“You don’t get to call me that. When are you returning?”
“For dinner. Don’t come back.”
“Not planning on it.”
What I didn’t tell my tour guide was that I wasn’t leaving. I zigzagged back to Mary’s rooms, paying more attention to the layouts and furnishings. She answered my second knock.
“Mary, I’d like you to give me a tour of the house.”
“That’s silly, Wallace just gave you one.”
“I know, but I need to see the place through your eyes as well.”
Mary showed me her studio, crammed with oils executed in the realistic styles of Edward Hopper or Jacques-Louis David. I made polite sounds about them, and she glowed. “Wallace and Sylvia don’t like them, but I think art should show the world clearly.”
“What do you think of ‘Fungus Riddled Iris’?”
She cringed. “Sylvia says I can’t talk about it, that it’s a police matter.”
“It is, but it’s okay to tell me what you thought of it.”
Mary leaned in toward me, her breath gently blowing on my ear. “I thought it was truly ugly.”
I laughed, the sound echoing off the wood. “What do you know about the disappearance of the painting?”
“Nothing. We don’t normally go through that hall. It was there earlier that day, gone when we got back from the theatre.”
“Whose idea was it to go to the theatre?”
“Nobody’s. We have a foundation that contributes to the performances and have to put in appearances once or twice a season.”
She was telling the truth about the disappearance. Seems to always tell the truth, which means I need to figure out the right questions.
Mary moved through the house with a doe’s hesitant steps, her moods evanescent. She registered strongly at the empty space where the painting had hung.
“Thanks for the tour, Mary. Would Sylvia be inside the office you showed me?”
“I think so.”
Silvia was. I knocked and entered when she told me to. She didn’t get up from her desk. “So sorry that Wallace left—”
“Actually I was able to grab him before he took off. We had such a nice visit. Mary as well.”
She scowled. “So that’s that.”
“Not quite. I need to have you give me a tour of the house.”
“I don’t have the time to spare for you.”
“You need my verification before you can collect on the insurance. Let’s play nice.”
“I checked with some other Pound & Elias clients Your mind-reading act annoyed some important people.”
I smiled winningly. “There’s no bad publicity. Shall we start?”
Sylvia’s glances were possessive, nodding slightly at the expensive artifacts. I threw out pedestrian questions while I studied her. She spiked several times with bad memories, but I couldn’t tell what of.
“Are you always this boring, Stokes?”
“Depends on the company. Let’s go back through the study.”
“We were just there.”
“You’re as cracked as Mary.” But she turned around and led me back into the room. She kept her eyes rigidly forward, but her body strained in another direction.
Once back at her office door, Sylvia turned around, blocking me from entering. “We’re done,” she blurted.
“Not quite.. I need to go back through the house on my own, although I’d be greatly pleased with your company.”
“Not a chance.”
“Okay. I’ll wait in the library until dinner time, when I’d like to join you, Mary and Wallace for dinner and tell you all what I’ve learned. Please inform the cook.”
“You patch of back-alley slime, I’m not eating with you.”
“You should if you want to hear my recommendation. Just picture me as a truffle garnish.”
She pursed her lips so hard they almost disappeared, then nodded curtly and entered her office, slamming the door behind her.
* * *
Copyright © 2017 by Edward Ahern