'The Cellini Salt Cellar Incident'
by Phineas Redux
Summary:— Fiona 'Fay' Cartwright & Alice 'Al' Drever, lovers, are private detectives in an East Coast American city, in the 1930's. They guard a rich woman's art collection while on public exhibition.
Disclaimer:— All characters are copyright ©2016 to the author. All characters in this story are fictional, and any resemblance to real persons living or dead, is purely coincidental.
Caution:— There is a certain amount of light swearing in this story.
"I ain't never heard o'such before; but the books, here, tell me there was only ever one o'them."
"Oh yeah? Certain, are ya?"
"Yeah, I am, Fay." The brunette bent over an open art-volume with black and white illustrations lying before her on the desk in their office in the Packer Building, Delacote City, NH, on this crisp but bright morning of Tuesday, January 23, 1934. "Made in the 1540's, for a Cardinal, or a King of France, or somebody. But definitely only one, not two."
"So, where does that leave Mrs Barlington's specimen, now presently on show at the City Design an' Arts Museum, Pataloc Avenue?"
"Patently a fake, o'course." Alice was determined to stick to her guns. "No other explanation. Probably thrown t'gether last century, an' foisted on some poor sap ancestor of hers by a passing grifter. Y'know how easy it is t'take advantage o'these rich art patrons; why, Hell, look at Modern Art, for instance."
"Modern Art? Wha' d'ya mean?"
"Haven't you ever inadvertently wandered into the Museum, an' come face-to-face with a Dufy, for starters?"
"What's a Dufy, darlin'? Does it bite, or what?"
"Gods! Raoul Dufy; a French artist. Very bright an' showy, an', well, modern."
"Can't say I have." Fiona raised an eloquent eyebrow lazily, as she sat beside her partner. "What's he got t'do with Mrs Barlington, anyway? Oh, I see; she's been lumbered with some of his garbage too, eh?"
"Jeez, these modern painters' works sell for thousands; ain't you got any idea of artistic matters at all, lady?"
"I like some o'the pictures y'get on the sides o'breakfast cereal packets; or story-illustrations in monthly magazines; that sort'a thing." The proto-critic sneered lightly. "I know perfectly well people like t'festoon their walls with daubs in oil by all sorts'a so-called experts in the field; but that ain't fer me, ducks. Anyway, what's the problem; Mrs Barlington isn't showin' any paintings, just, er, wha'-d'ya-call-it, pieces, er, objects, arr, things—y'know."
"No, I don't know; please elaborate." Alice, slightly spitefully, but with the ghost of a twinkle in her brown eye, gazed innocently at her compatriot.
Fiona paused to return the glance of her revered partner, pouting her red lips musingly the while. She was well-used to the ways of her brown-haired companion and readily realised she was being taken for a ride on this particular subject. Turning her attention away for a few seconds Fiona casually unfastened the single button closing her short green woolen jacket, revealing the pale pink silk blouse beneath. Then she leaned back in her chair; one arm draped over the back, hand swinging loosely. The picture, in fact, of someone wholly uninterested in the subject under discussion.
"Well, Dufy or Cellini, who cares—as long as nobody tries t'filch the dam' thing on our watch?" She tossed her long black locks from side to side; thereby catching her lover's full attention. "Say, what was that the Barlington said, when she engaged us for this bunfight two days ago, about some book the artist wrote that we should read?"
"Cellini's Autobiography." Alice was, as usual, on top of the situation. "Haven't read it myself; but I believe it's rather hot stuff. He bein' not shy in comin' forward about his adventures, military, personal, and amatory. Must find a copy somewhere."
"Bit of a lad, eh?"
"Apparently." Alice sniffed censoriously. "Mrs Barlington seems quite taken with his history. Because she owns one of his most famous works, I suppose."
"Where is this other, honest-t'goodness, specimen, then."
Fiona only asked for politeness sake, not really being interested; but you have to keep your lover happy when she's deep in something of concern to her.
"The Vienna Art Museum. So my informants tell me."
"Oh, y'got snitches in the Art world now, baby? First I heard o'it."
"Don't be silly, Fay." Alice snorted derisively. "Just reading the right books, is all. Y'might try the same procedure sometime too; expand your general intellect or brain or, ha, intelligence. You'll enjoy it."
Faced with mutiny of this outrageous sort there was only one thing left for a brave Captain of troops to do and Fiona, rising from her chair like Venus from the waves—only with more clothes on—proceeded to take command of the situation.
Mrs Barlington's salt cellar, real or fake, would just have to wait its turn.
There were a fair number of the proletariat wandering around loose in the halls of the great Victorian Palace of Arts on Pataloc Avenue the following morning; it being a public exhibition hall, with free entry to boot—a valuable asset to the passing stroller on a wet or cold day.
The fact that it was the proud holder of two of Joseph Mallord William Turner's large oil paintings, from his best period; and had, tacked to the walls somewhere within its precincts, no less than five of Lawrence Alma-Tadema's Grecian/Roman fantasies in the same medium, were facts of note to the local aficionados but not of great interest to the general public—the monthly low viewing figures being a constant worry to the management.
The General Administrator of the Museum, Andrew Cairnsley, was a Virginian in his late fifties. Grey hair, though still thick and wavy; a straight jaw; good teeth; and an athletic figure, gave him a handsome appearance still. He had presided over the artifacts on show, and stored in the vaults of the Museum, for the last fifteen years; but the real dynamo of the whole concern was his Departmental-Manager Dorothy Dalley. She was thirty-five, but usually snarled when the topic came up; five feet eleven inches tall, but generally took the missing inch for granted and called herself a six-footer—nobody argued; had a Degree from one of the most revered University's on the East Coast; and finally if there was something she did not know about Art, then that something wasn't Art.
She was presently meandering through the high-ceilinged display rooms ranged along the front of the building; facing, through their second-storey windows, onto the Avenue itself. Two Alma-Tadema's were ensconced somewhere on this level, though no-one ever took much note of them. But today her interest was solely on Room 4; where the Cellini salt cellar, in design and style an exact copy of its more famous sister in Vienna, was displayed in a small glass-sided case standing freely on the Museum floor so viewers could walk round it. This stood about waist high; the glass was bullet-proof; or, at least, had been loudly guaranteed so by the makers; the ordinary Museum guards, of which there were generally two on duty on this floor, had been doubled; while she had personally taken on the help of 'Drever and Cartwright', one of the most highly esteemed detective agencies in Delacote City. At the moment her intention was to find, and engage in conversation, the two females in question. And her hopes were confirmed on entering the room to find them both in deep and, it must be allowed, somewhat loud converse with one of the dark-blue uniformed male guards.
"No, y'can't. We say so, see."
"Hell lady, what you say, an' what the management o'this pile says, are two different things; an' we guards go by the latter, that's all."
"Look, ya palooka, if—"
"Who're ya callin' a palooka? Listen babe, I've—"
"Gordon, can it." Dorothy took firm control, before the altercation came to the notice of the, admittedly few, members of the public present in the long room. "What's the problem; an' please keep your voices down; this ain't a dam' football stadium."
""This here tall piece o'—"
"Hell, this lady says she's got overall control o'the security around this here gold figurine in the case." Gordon, in his early sixties though still hale and extremely hearty, toyed idly with the butt of his holstered revolver—a habit he had when put out. "I been tryin' t'tell her you're the lady who says what's what in the security line here, but she ain't havin' any o'it. So, what d'we do here? Do me an' the boys take orders from you, Miss Dalley, or this here—this lady?"
"A shadowy area, Mr Prescott." Dorothy smiled coldly, this being a situation she had been dreading for some time. "You an' the boys have overall control of the general security within the whole o'the Museum; but the ladies here have been given the word t'stand guard over the Cellini. Only the Cellini mind, nothing else. All the rest's still under your guard. But the Cellini here's their pigeon for the duration."
"So, what you're sayin', Miss Dalley, is they work in here—in Room 4, while outside'a that we say what's what?"
"Y'got it, Gordon." Dorothy smiled wanly at the two less than happy female detectives. "Miss Drever, I'm sure you'll corroborate what I've just said?"
"Lady, I've bin tryin' for the last ten minutes t'corroborate it into this guy's head. Glad y'moseyed along t'confirm things." Alice spoke softly, but with the undertone of a distinctly riled rattlesnake. "If Mr Prescott's presently happy, maybe we can all go about our several duties, then?"
Dorothy nodded to the guard in question; who returned the gesture with a dark frown, but walked off to join his three companions on the other side of the room. Alice sighed gloomily and Fiona, after taking her gaze—that of the Medusa eyeing four definite contributors to her next performance—away from the group of uniformed cicerones in the distance also turned to her client.
"It's only the first day an' things are already gettin' complicated." Fiona's expression hovered between a scowl and a sneer. "Dam' messy business, all this doubling of concerns. Y'should'a taken my advice, yesterday, an' laid-off the uniforms an' let Alice an' I bring our own team in."
"Not a chance." Dorothy shook her head decisively. "This is a City Corporation-run enterprise. That means the guards are City too. They're on contracts; they're members of a Union; an', if they're laid-off, even for a few days, the legal dust won't settle for the next decade. I can't chance it. You work together, that's it."
"Lot'ta trouble, over such a small thing." Alice nodded absently at the object in question in its case beside them. "Hardly seems worth bothering about; rather overblown piece o'cra—er, art, seems t'me. Are y'sure it's the genuine article?"
"Hells-teeth, everyone—just everyone keeps asking the self-same question." Dorothy had reached the end of her tether; at nine thirty-five on this sharp-set Wednesday morning—a new record for her. "The Museum Directors; the Press; various art-lovers in the city an' state; in fact, just dam' everybody. Yes. Yes. It is genuine. We got records goin' back t'1543 from everywhere—London, Paris, Florence, wherever; helpfully provided by Mrs Barlington. They all say yeah, it's by Cellini, an' real as vanilla ice-cream. Satisfied?"
The two detectives exchanged glances and nodded, though with no great conviction.
"So all that's required is for you to protect the dam' thing, while it's domiciled here in Room 4." Dorothy sniffed, aristocratically. "Not that we expect a flood of the locals t'come swarming in to view it. Oh no, that'd be too much to ask. But it is a world-renowned treasure; and Mrs Barlington has graciously allowed us to exhibit it; and there may be, I hope, some sort of positive publicity about it in the papers. That's virtually all we can realistically hope for, here in the Museum. So, ladies, it's your baby for the next two weeks. You know where to find me, if there's any trouble; or, contrarily, I'll just follow the sound of the gunshots, if anything takes off. Goodbye."
The Departmental Manager made a swift exit, before any further uncomfortable questions might be asked; making a beeline for the door which expertly avoided the two detectives; the few members of the Public ambling about indifferently; and the group of still obviously disaffected guards standing by the far wall.
"So, that's that then." Alice peered around, from under her perfectly manicured thin eyebrows. "What d'we do now, till Pete an' Clarice arrive t'relieve us? Just stand here, like shop dummies, looking daggers at anyone who comes across t'eyeball this dam' piece o'crap, or what?"
"Too much like hard work." Fiona knew which side her bread was buttered. "You stay here, an' do that; I'll mosey around the rest o'the joint, lookin' professional. See ya in twenty."
"Oh, just great."
The salt cellar, as a direct result of its supposed relation to its more famous sister in Vienna, was in fact an object of interest to the knowing connoisseur; of which there were, unfortunately, few in New Hampshire. Alice and Fiona had been taken on as security for the piece's exhibition; it having an insurance value of approximately, according to Mrs Barlington, some $2,000,000. The fact, however, of its still rather shady connection to Cellini's celebrated original—including the circumstance that most people harboured the unsubstantiated, but strongly held, view that this American late-comer to the world of Art might well be a Victorian fake,—didn't help matters. To put it bluntly the general Public, assailed over the last few weeks by advertising in the local papers and magazines about the coming exhibition, and hearing some faint echo of the literary and critical in-fighting over its authenticity, had long made up their collective mind; determining to stay away in droves and listen to the Ball-game on the radio instead.
Even the local gangsters and ordinary cat-burglars of the great city had considered the matter, only to cast any intention of kidnapping the exhibit out along with the morning's bath-water; both groups having calculated, with excellent pragmatism, that the simple weight of the melted down gold content wouldn't come near covering the danger of the enterprise.
As that pinnacle of the local underworld, Guistino 'Jimmy' Favelli himself, said to one of his accomplices, in his eyrie in Todmorton,—"I've searched the back-alleys, strip-joints, speakeasys, an' vegetarian coffee-houses from one end o'this dump t'the other, an' I ain't found one single so-called conny-sewer willin' t'part with a red cent for the dam' thing. In fact those I did run to ground, laughed in my face; wha'd'ya think about that? Nah, don't bother answerin', it was a rhetorical question."
The 'East Coast Art Review', long-established mentor of all that was tasteful in the Arts, had for the last five years been the unhappy source of the monthly salary check for none other than the acerbic, and wholly dis-liked over several states, critic and essayist Herbert Johnson Galbraith—before whom editors and other critics cringed in terror. He, alone amongst his equals, had taken it into his head to visit the exhibition and cast his beady eye over the subject under contention—the Heavens knew why; but there he was, this bright but dam' chilly morning, running up the wide granite central staircase of the main Hall three at a time, fairly bursting with enthusiasm to view the Great Imposter in person; his white Borsalino fedora, complimenting his pale grey silk suit, at a snappy angle. His delight waning, of course, on entering Room 4 to find two of the most Wagnerian Valkyrie-like detectives he had ever encountered standing over the exhibit in question, like ravening wolves. He decided to display his credentials, in the only way he knew how—a big mistake.
"Ladies, if you would just stand aside, if you will." His tone was that of the Emperor Caligula, on an off-day. "I shall require space and privacy to examine this work of art; perhaps you both wouldn't mind leaving the room altogether for the next half-hour? Take those dam' guards over there with you too; I like my privacy, when contemplating. Be off with you, dears."
To say the last Ice Age now made a sudden unheralded re-appearance within the confines of Room 4 might be exaggerating slightly, but only slightly. The tall black-haired representative of Wagner's most famous operatic characters straightened slowly; finally, to Galbraith's astonished gaze, appearing to reach nearly to the high ceiling of the room. Her companion, though more petite, also managed to project the suggestion that her grandmother was a shark, while her mother was a whole shoal of piranhas. The art critic began to harbour the possibility that he may well have put his foot in it.
"Hi'ya, bozo." Fiona fairly licked her lips appreciatively, not being given a chance like this more than once in a blue moon; her low voice booming like the echo in a cathedral undercroft. "Come in out'ta the cold, did ya? Wan'na warm the chilblains on y'r feet, eh? Decided to pass among the hoi polloi for a laugh? Listen buster, we're guarding this here International work of Art; if ya wan'na look at it, look at it. But if y'pull any fancy moves me an' my confederate here'll fill ya full'a lead before y'can say Tamara de Lempicka, if ya know who she is. Get me?"
Galbraith, faced with an opponent far stronger and menacing than he could ever be, quailed, turned pale, began to shift on his well-booted feet, and gave an inward curse as the nervous twitch in his left cheek made its unwanted appearance. He looked at Fiona; he looked at Alice; he tried to imagine a plan of the room in his mind, for instant retreat to the door behind him if necessary—and he began to think it was going to be unequivocally necessary. It took three tries before he found his voice; now conciliatory, rather than oppositional—he knowing when he was beat.
"—er, perhaps I can, umm, examine the salt cellar as things stand." He bared his teeth in what was meant as a friendly smile, but actually gave the impression of someone about to throw up. "I'll just, er, walk round it and, er, see what's what. Don't take any notice of me, I assure you."
"That's better, sonny." Alice nodded grimly; removing her empty hand from her handbag in a meaningful way. "Take your time, don't let us get in your way. Make notes, if you want; but no photographs, we wouldn't like that."
Fiona stood back, a yard or so away from the display case; while Alice took position the same distance diagonally opposite on the other side; Galbraith having to walk round the case within the circumference of their cold gaze. He had a sudden memory of that time, as a spotty youth, when he had stolen Becky Armstrong's sticky bun at a church picnic, only to realise that that imposing replica of Goliath, Mrs Rowbotham, had seen his every move; the resulting confrontation still, to this day, making him wake at night in a cold sweat. He easily recognised the similarity to the present scene, while a cold rivulet of sweat ran down his spine: he now invariably finding the presence of strong women within his immediate milieu intolerable.
He had indeed brought along an expensive leather briefcase, within which resided the usual tools of his trade, wormwood and gall,—er, that is, a fountain pen and fine paper. But any idea of relaxing and making notes had disappeared entirely from his plan for the day. All he really wanted now was to effect a swift escape. Finding no other clear logical cool-minded plan for making a dignified exit entering his dis-arranged mind, he fell back on bending over the case; making humming and hawing noises; and seeming to find the dam' salt cellar a thing of hypnotic interest. Actually it was virtually invisible to his increasingly nervous state of mind. At last, unable to bear the strain any longer he straightened, glanced sideways at the two female detectives in turn without meeting either's eye, and mumbled something along the lines of being satisfied. A moment later he once more found himself at the top of the main staircase. Seconds later he was in the street, only yards away from his car. Even years later he could bring to mind no memory of his exiting the Hall, or his journey home; all he did recall with a vivid intensity being the two double-whiskies he took on entering his apartment, to steady his nerves; he having now a fairly comprehensive idea of how Julius Caesar felt on those damn Ides.
"Anybody else lookin' like they're thinkin' o'causin' trouble?"
Fiona glanced around the long room, taking no notice of the single uniformed guard now standing by the far wall pretending the women didn't exist.
"Nah, it's been quiet as the grave since that bozo left two hours ago." Alice sniffed, in a bored manner. "Who was he, anyway?"
"Just some clown from a local rag, tryin' t'impress the gals." Fiona sneered coldly. "Well, bet he ain't impressed now. So, are Pete an' Clarice ever comin' to relieve us?"
"Yeah, here they are." Alice glanced over to Room 4's door. "OK, let's go, I got some serious shoppin' t'do t'day; come on, pick 'em up lady, don't slouch."
Article in the 'East Coast Art Review' for Monday, February 5, 1934. 'Mrs Barlington's Salt Cellar', by Herbert Johnson Galbraith.
'The world-renowned salt cellar, at present on display in the KunsthistorischesMuseum, Vienna, Austria, is revered as one of the greatest works of the master Benvenuto Cellini. It is indeed a thing of beauty and a joy forever, as I personally can authenticate; having been allowed the privilege by the Museum's overseers, on no less than two occasions, of closely examining it.
In these circumstances, as happens sad to say on too many occasions, the underworld springs into action and attempts to make its own contribution to the world's art. In short, fakes and copies abound globally, as we speak.
In recent weeks the respected City Design and Arts Museum, Pataloc Avenue, Delacote City, NH, has unfortunately felt impelled to host a small exercise in biting the hand that feeds it. In short it has been railroaded into displaying one of these dubious replica's of Art. Mrs Barlington, a newly-arrived but seemingly wealthy denizen of the City, has—for whatever reasons we will probably never understand—sent what she fondly believes to be another authentic Cellini salt cellar for display at the above premises.
That there is no sensible or realistic professionally accepted evidence this is indeed what it purports to be—no matter the several realistic-looking letters and receipts, from several countries, personages, and centuries, collected by the indefatigable lady—does not appear to have troubled the Museum authorities to any great degree. That the object in question however, lately on show in the Delacote City Design and Arts Museum, is no more by Cellini; is no more a bona fide work of great Art than a tin of beans is a pot of caviar, is self-evident to the meanest intellect. I have examined the thing, under trying circumstances be it said, and can give my opinion, my expert opinion, that this is the case. For the Vienna Cellini salt cellar I would happily part with ten million dollars, if I had such. For Mrs Barlington's effusion, I wouldn't give five red cents.
Over the last few weeks I have been fondly caressing the thought that some local enterprising gangster, someone with surface taste but minimal knowledge, might well spring into action and, as the lower orders say, blag the swag. In effect, steal the obnoxious object; but such has not been the case. I can only attribute this to a shocking lack of imagination and business enterprise on the part of our home-grown criminal fraternity. From personal experience I can assure them now that, if they had only put their minds to it, the security laid on by the Museum authorities would have proved ineffectual in the extreme. There were several strong-looking uniformed guards on display—over and above the usual dusty, mostly unregarded, ancient artefacts commonly considered such usually to be found in similar places—when I visited, along with the more normal peripatetic inhabitants of the Museum's rooms; but as none of these appeared less than fifty-five years old, I hardly think they would have proved an obstacle to any budding Jesse James. Neither would the extra, private, security have troubled any reasonably accomplished thief. After all, what level of concerted opposition could a couple of women have put forth against determined professional thieves? The idea is laughable. The fact Mrs Barlington's—hem, object—has survived the last few weeks on public display can in no way be attributed to such foolish, and feeble, representatives of the security industry.
In short, if you want to examine a verified and genuine Cellini salt cellar go to Vienna; there, and only there, resides the one single and authentic example existing in the whole world today.'
"I'll sue. I'll murder the dam' b-st-rd. I'll make sure he never has any more babies, if he was ever capable of such before. Where's my forty-five? I'll—"
"Calm down, Fay. It ain't the end o'the world." Alice was more pragmatic, seeing no reason to let her hair go grey. "So the ape's an idiot, with hardly two functioning brain cells t'rub together; let him stew in his own juice. I hear the Museum's suing his rag, and him personally; that'll be fun."
"Hah, should dam' well hope so." Fiona sighed heavily; but allowed her better, and calmer, half to guide her to one of the office's well-upholstered chairs. "Dam' fool. Who'd a'thought he was harbourin' such mealy-mouthed ideas, when he was leanin' over that dam' piece o'crap in its case? And sayin' we weren't capable; that's a suing matter. I'm sure we can sue. For God's sake, lem'me sue the b-st-rd, Al."
"Easy, easy." Alice was well-used to soothing troubled waters, but for the last ten minutes a veritable hurricane had been raging through the long office. "He'll get his come-uppance, don't worry. And who cares, anyway? You know what they say about publicity? Any publicity is good publicity. Hell, ain't it the case we've had no less than nine clients falling over themselves in the last week to claim our services? That's way over the average, as you well know. We ain't taking any bad publicity over this, baby; put your mind at rest on that score. Come on, I'll make us a nice pot of strong coffee; then I'll send out for the afternoon papers, t'see if he's had the libel court orders served on his sorry ass yet. Just sit back, take deep breaths, and relax."
Any further discussion was interrupted by the ringing of the inter-office phone on the wide desk. Alice picked it up and listened for a few seconds before replacing it and giving her still fuming partner a curious look.
"I ain't in the mood fer games. What?"
"Helen's just had a call from the great and the highly miffed." Alice grinned widely, as she relayed their secretary's message. "Mrs Barlington requires our immediate presence at Barlington Towers, Todmorton; pronto, quick as a flash, as fast as we can—in short, why ain't we there yet, an' can we please haul ass like greased lightning."
"Oh God, she's gon'na implicate us in some dam' silly off-shoot o'this dam' salt cellar thing. Don't she ever give up?" Fiona groaned melodramatically, passing a hand over her face like a bad actress on the movies. "Tell Helen t'say we've gone t'Vermont—no, tell her to say we've taken an ocean cruise an' won't be back fer three months; God knows I need sich."
Alice herself was no stranger to vivid daydreams, especially when driven to it by unchecked evil forces beyond her control.
"Maybe she's going to offer us a few thousand bucks, t'take ol' Galbraith out into the wild secluded nowhere, up-state, an' bury the b-gger in a shallow grave? Works for me."
"Hah. Works fer me too, doll." Fiona laughed as she rose from the armchair. "Oh well, better go an' see what she really wants, I suppose. Can we add this t'our legitimate salary expenses, d'ya think?"
"Can but try." Alice knowing well how to make a pile of greenbacks an even bigger pile of greenbacks, given the slightest opportunity. "Let's hit the road. Your Buick? I think it's time we made an impression on the old Barlington, don't you?"
There was no sign of the milk of Human Kindness emanating from the vicinity or person of their hostess when the detectives rolled up at 'The Eaves' 1731, Heathfield Road, Todmorton, on the outskirts of Delacote City. Mrs Barlington had been perusing the newspapers and magazines over the last week, and now exuded an air of having finally come to the conclusion that all the world's stock of available trials and mishaps in Life were presently aimed solely in her direction. She rose to greet the appearance of her guests in her living-room with regal grace; though a sharp diamond-like, perhaps not wholly rational, light glimmered in her eye.
"I suppose you've read about this,—this clown Galbraith? His imbecile rantings are highly distasteful, and I fully intend to see him in court at the earliest opportunity."
"You'll have t'stand in line, Mrs Barlington." Fiona produced her best sneer for the occasion. "The Museum has slapped writs all over him as we speak."
"I'm glad to hear it." The Lady of the House tossed her head in disgust at the topic under discussion. "However, there is a rather more important aspect of this whole sorry affair which has reared its head. Sit down, please. Sally, tea and scones, if you please. I have something important to ask of you both. It is in the way of being another job of work which I should like you to carry out for me; if you find yourselves agreeable to the details, that is."
The idea that their host was indeed about to ask them to knock over their reviled opponent, and lose the remains somewhere nice and quiet, crossed both detectives' minds for a brief instant; before common-sense prevailed.
"Ahh, what would that be, ma'am?" Fiona's voice was non-committal and reserved.
"Nothing beyond your capabilities, I assure you." Mrs Barlington sniffed energetically; the toils and tribulations of life weighing heavily on her capable shoulders at the moment. "I have recently had an offer, a monetary offer, for my salt cellar; and am inclined to accept, what with one thing and another."
"Oh, some sap—person's, gon'na buy it?" Alice raised an impressed eyebrow. "Didn't think you'd have much chance of such, in the present climate."
"There are still, thankfully, intelligent connoisseurs who can see past the headlines of the day, to perceive the bedrock of reality and beauty beneath." Mrs Barlington paused, smiling for the first time at her own exquisite turn of phrase. "Mr Reginald Culverson, the Third, has agreed to take the object off my hands, for a reasonable consideration. I need hardly name the price; though I must say it is by no means what I would have expected, before the present untimely events unfolded. But still, it is not inconsiderable. What I want you to do is to deliver the salt cellar to its new owner, then collect my payment."
Fiona looked dubious at this, but Alice came to the fore with the spoken thought.
"Why?" The brunette fixed the lady with a basilisk eye. "Sort'a underhanded, ain't it? Tryin' t'outfox the IRS, or something? We don't go in for that sort'a thing, I'm afraid."
It was the turn of the cicerone of the present pile to register disagreement, in full measure.
"Hah, I'd love to outfox, as you so eloquently put it, the IRS; but have had no previous success; neither do my Accountants recommend such a course." Mrs Barlington sighed deeply, and came clean. "I can see there is no other option open, so;—Mr Culverson,—wholly in agreement with me as to the bona fides of the salt cellar, but at the same time fully aware of the chance for a bargain—has agreed to pay $350,000 for it; in new $50 banknotes. I have already been in contact with my Accountants and my Bank; everything, you will be happy to hear, being completely above-board. So, what do you say?"
Fiona and Alice exchanged glances once more, then this time Fiona spoke up.
"Still doesn't explain the fly-by-night drop-off an' exchange." The black-haired warrior smirked quietly, staring into her client's eyes enquiringly. "Why the spy stuff? Why can't you just find a servant, or somebody trustworthy, or simply go yourself to fulfil the deal?"
"I do not wish to appear publicly in the matter." Mrs Barlington took on an aura of moral rectitude. "Everyone would simply think I was disposing of an acknowledged fake, in the easiest way I could find. There might even be public accusations that I was knowingly trying to pass the thing off on an unsuspecting recipient; a criminal act, you see. I couldn't possibly take that risk."
"Ah." Fiona glanced over again to her partner and, receiving a nod in answer, turned once more to the unhappy owner of the salt cellar. "Well, in that case, better give us the relevant details—where, when, how, who, and so-forth. Not to say either Alice or I are quite happy, but we'll do our best. How much room does the—does the $350,000, take up? And how heavy is it?"
"Thank you, you cannot believe what a relief it is that you are doing this for me." Mrs Barlington became positively effusive with relief and thanks. "As to the money, Mr Culverson tells me it fits comfortably into a fairly ordinary small suitcase, which will be securely locked, of course; one of you should find no difficulty in carrying it—at least for short distances. The salt cellar will be in its own leather box; though it also will be quite easy to carry. Well, as to the details of the place where the, er, business will take place. I confess that, because of, umm, certain reservations Mr Culverson has on his own part we have decided to make the exchange at—"
"Fay, I don't think this is a good idea." Alice shivered, under her thick woolen coat. "In fact, I'm certain; this ain't a good idea."
"Bit late now, lady." Fiona sniffed unfeelingly. "Here we are, halfway along the Coast Road, an' you suddenly get a case o'the chilly-willies. Everything'll be fine, once we reach the beach-house Mrs Barlington described. Y'got that map she drew for us?"
"Keep your eyes on the road, dear; this Buick sedan moves like a goddam tank, y'know." Alice dug in her handbag, stealing a glance at the square leather case lying on the backseat of the machine as she did so. "Here it is. Yeah, another two miles should see us there. Fay, have you noticed that truck way behind us? It's been there ever since we came onto the Coast Road; I ain't happy about it."
"Hell, it's the middle of the night, black as pitch all round. Probably some trucker transporting his load to market for the morning." Fiona, concentrating on driving at a fair speed along the wholly-unlit coastal highway at this hour of 11.30pm, wasn't interested in what lay behind, but what was ahead or off to each side at what seemed even to her far too close quarters. "Wish they had some lights on this dam' stretch o'road. The drop to the beach, just across the right verge there, for the next mile or so is off a twenty-five foot nearly vertical cliff; an' only a few wide-spaced white posts t'show safety."
For the past thirty minutes of their run Alice had been pondering details of their situation and course of action, and had been becoming more and more disenchanted with both as time went on. For the last five minutes she had stolen surreptitious glances back, eyeing the suspicious vehicle following them; and now finally could take the strain no more.
"Fay, we're definitely being followed." She turned in her seat to gaze back through the Buick's rear window. "Whoever he is, he has designs on the salt cellar; or perhaps the money, on our way back."
"Why not both? Maybe take us all down at the exchange point?"
"Huh, yeah, why not indeed." Alice grunted, slipping her hand into her handbag to pull out her trusty .38 revolver. "If he comes any closer I thin—"
Unseen by Alice, and hardly glimpsed by Fiona, a solid dark shape slid into view on the road ahead. It was on the same side as the speeding Buick, but coming head on for it, without lights. Fiona just had time to register a vast bulk, like another heavy truck, coming straight for her bonnet, then she wrenched the wheel over to the right. Her aim was to slide past the side of the rogue vehicle but her speed, and the fact the truck's front fender struck her car just in front of the rear wheels, made her lose control. Suddenly there was blackness all round; a curious feeling of floating as the Buick slid over the road edge into thin air; then a terrific crash as it hit the rocky sloping side of the short cliff. With a horrible grating of metal as the underside of the car slid over the sharp rocky surface, the car fell nose-first down the steeply-inclined raw cliff. It met the beach surface with a solid thump as the bonnet hit the sand, then the vehicle fell sideways to crash to a halt on its right side; the engine having given up the ghost along the way.
"Y'alright?" Fiona, in complete darkness, pulled herself off the soft body beneath her, but got no reply. "Al, can ya hear me? Al?"
There was a curious smell of leather and hot metal in the confines of the car. It being on its side made it difficult for Fiona to pull herself upright, take her weight off the still body of her partner; and try to get to grips with the situation. Then, outside the vehicle, she heard two voices talking in loud tones.
"Can ya see the dam' thing? It must be about here; it crashed right off the road just above us there." The voice was tenor. "Nice going, by the way, Bert."
"Christ, will ya stop callin' me by name, ya b-st-rd; this ain't a dam' church picnic we're on." This other man had a deep bass. "You go to your right; I'll go along t'the left. Jeesus, it's a dam' Buick, a whackin' great sedan; it can't be far away. It should be easy t'find. An' for God's sake don't light a dam' match, at least not yet; I can smell leaking gas everywhere."
While this conversation was ongoing Fiona had taken the opportunity to reach into the glove compartment and had rescued her own weapon. Holding the .45 Colt automatic in a steely grip she listened carefully to the approaching crunch of someone's footsteps over the dry gritty sand. The door window beside her, now blackly staring above her head, had been shattered into oblivion; so she would simply need to dart her head and hand out the open space to gain a clear shot. She waited quietly.
"Hey. I say, Hey."
"Over here, I can see the dam' thing." It was Bass who had made the discovery. "Come on. There's no sign o'life. It's pretty well battered too; think they're both dead. Unconscious, anyway. That'll make it all the easier, after we've got the loot, t'torch the dam' thing. Make it look like a honest-t'God-accident, ha-ha."
"OK, got'cha." Tenor peered at the wreckage, as he came up alongside his cohort. "Christ, what a mess; that is one deceased car, an' no mistake. You wait here, while I climb up an' wrench the rear door open. The case should be somewhere in the back. An' be careful, there's loose fuel all over the place. OK, gim'me a leg up, will'ya. Right, lem'me get a grip o'the door-handle—"
At this point, like an Avenging Angel or a Wagnerian Valkyrie in full flight, Fiona pulled herself up till her head and shoulders were through the door-window frame, and let loose.
Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang! Bang!
She paused for a moment, then hurriedly scrambled the rest of the way onto the side of the up-turned vehicle. She dropped to the ground, crouching low, and listened with the ears of an owl. Nothing stirred, no sound came to her but the easy throb of the waves rising and falling some hundred yards away behind her. A few steps forward and she came to a body lying supine and motionless on the sand. A quick examination by hand showed there was no life there. Another few steps and another body appeared, equally lifeless—she, obviously, having made every shot count.
Returning to the wrecked Buick Fiona spent the next ten minutes extricating Alice's unconscious body from its dangerous surroundings. Finally she was successful; dragging the inert brunette some way along the sand, to be well away from injury if the gas from the ruptured fuel tank caught fire. Then she scrambled back up to the road and stopped the first passing vehicle that came along; an old Ford, which appeared after a tense ten minute wait—she using the simple expedient of standing right in its approaching headlights until it had no other recourse but to stop. Thankfully the man and woman occupants were young and strong enough to lend much needed assistance in transferring Alice to the proto-ambulance, and soon they were headed back into Delacote to the Hospital.
"She'll be alright." The woman in the car spoke with reassuring confidence. "Just a simple knock on the head. No reason she shouldn't wake up in a few minutes, I'm sure."
"She better." The tone in Fiona's voice heralded a upcoming fast trip to the Seventh circle of Hell, for those responsible. "Whoever is behind this little caper is gon'na wish they'd never been born, mark my words, lady. I got plans for them, an' they ain't nice ones, no sirree."
Much against her better judgement Fiona had decided to call in the expert presence of the 5th Precinct. She had left Alice under sedation at the Hospital awaiting an operation for several broken bones, including multiple fractures of the right arm; not to mention what the doctors had told her might end in being a severe concussion. Rather than wait anxiously at the hospital, chewing the scenery, she had decided to go on the trail of whom she pretty well knew must be the silent mastermind behind the whole sorry affair. But she had also, for Alice's sake, chosen to put the facts before Inspector Fletcher. They were now domiciled in his untidy office, going over the situation before heading out to confront the responsible party.
"Run it past me one more time."
Inspector Jacob Fletcher liked to have a clear picture of events in any particular criminal investigation. His methods may not always have been entirely logical, but they were comprehensive and all-inclusive—he loving his paper-work.
"Gods, right, here's how it all panned out—"
Fiona, resisting the urge to scream then go off on her own like a Visigoth rampaging over the Roman Campagna, buckled-to the business of explaining the whole affair for the third time. The time, in fact, now being somewhere past six o'clock in the morning.
"—and so we were run off the dam' Coast Road, down a bloody cliff onto the beach." Fiona was once again fuming as these events came fresh once more to her memory. "The ol' jalopy went sideways, buckled an' bent; Alice only just didn't go through her side-window and be crushed; but she took the full force of the car hitting the rocky foreshore on her side, an' got beat up somethin' awful. She's back at the Hospital, bein' put back t'gether as we speak. An' what I wan'na impress on you, Jacob, is the fact that I know, an' have clear evidence, of whom the perpetrator of the whole dam' thing is—Mrs Barlington."
Fiona very rarely used Inspector Fletcher's forename; showing the depth of her concern over the matter, as he fully realised.
"Sure, I'm sure." Fiona growled angrily, shifting nervously on her hard chair. "She planned the whole thing from the get-go. She always knew that dam' salt cellar was an' old last century fake. Covered in gold, an' beautifully designed by a real craftsman, no doubt; but still a dam' fake, with nowhere near the value of the original Cellini over in Vienna."
"I see. And—"
"She decided to create a false public image for the thing; boost its presence and price; then sell it for a fortune t'some idiot collector." Fiona paused to snarl with bared teeth; an action which made even the battle-hardened Inspector jerk back defensively in response. "The whole Museum display was only for that purpose alone. The Museum authorities didn't have their own experts go over it with a fine tooth comb; they just took her word, as she well-knew would be the case. The rest y'can figure out fer yourself."
""But why the dramatic chase, an' attempt t'kill ya both?" Fletcher sat forward behind his desk. "What was in it for her, doin' that?"
"Don't ya see—an insurance scam?" Fiona nodded energetically, all the small details now running together in her imagination into a concerted whole. "The article that dimwitted fool, Herbert Johnson Galbraith, printed in the 'East Coast Art Review' finally put the verifiable kibosh on the whole scam; pulled the rug right out from under her feet. All the careful planning she'd done, to give the impression of authenticity t'her fake, now torn open to the world through Galbraith's critique-based article. With that kind of well-informed negative publicity no connoisseur with any sense would look at the dam' thing for a second. All her potential buyers upped stakes an' left the scene o'the con; leavin' her at a loose end, with a fake piece she badly wanted t'dump at the earliest opportunity. Her Plan B was, of course, the insurance. Remember, she'd somehow managed t'insure it for what, $2,000,000?"
"Indeed." Fiona nodded in agreement. "Some o'these insurance companies ought'a have their head's examined. So, she tells Alice an' I a pack o'lies—there never was a buyer for the thing. Nor would there have been any money awaiting us, if we'd managed t'make it t'the end o'the trail where Culverson was supposed t'be biting his finger-nails pending our arrival. He's in it too, bless his little cotton socks; obviously expectin' a wad o'dough from the Barlington in return for his backing her up on the seller-exchange farrago. But the fake salt cellar was in the box we were carryin'. Figure she felt she had t'send it with us, in case of the need to open the case en route to take a look at it; police, or idle curiousity on someone's part, or somethin'. Anyway, the salt cellar was with us in my Buick when we headed out to this fictitious meeting-place."
"An' Mrs Barlington had employed a couple o'hoods t'run ya both off the road; regain the salt cellar; then make the wreck look as if you'd had an accident." Fletcher nodded knowingly. "The fire they started, havin' no concern for the car's occupants, would destroy all evidence of the salt cellar, apart from some small fragments of gold y'say she'd probably given the hoods t'throw into the wreck before settin' it alight; t'create later evidence of the cellar's ostensible presence for the investigatin' cops. The salt cellar, in reality, they'd return t'Barlington fer a big reward, then fade out themselves."
"Only I faded 'em out in a much more comprehensive manner." Fiona bared her teeth in satisfaction. "But now, Inspector, what we want is to catch the lady before she realises the game's up an' makes a run fer freedom. Let's go."
"Oh, you're comin' along on a professional police matter?"
"Dam' straight. I wan'na see the light in her eye when I breeze up t'say g'mornin' t'her." Fiona snarled for real this time, shocking Fletcher once again. "Can't wait. So, come on, let's hit the road. I got an appointment back at the Hospital around ten this mornin', an' I don't intend bein' late."
'The Eaves', on this glorious sunny morning, sat in quiet splendour—a situation which wasn't to endure for very much longer, either inside the building or out. No less than four police cars rolled up to the portico, in a business-like manner, and a veritable army of blue uniforms exited the vehicles in an orderly and determined fashion; Inspector Fletcher and Fiona leading. A loud sustained rapping upon the front door finally bringing a female servant to enquire what the ruckus was all about.
"Police. We wan'na see Mrs Barlington, an' we wan'na see her now. Get her." Fletcher exuding all his hard-boiled professional coldness for the occasion. "In fact, we're comin' in. Where is the dame?"
"She's in her bedroom, just risen." The servant, a woman in her forties, seemed taken aback by the sudden intrusion of the boys in blue into her domain. "Shall I go to her?"
"Yeah, get the broad down here, pronto; faster, if possible. I got words t'parley with her."
This cry, in tones of unhinged rage, came from the balcony on the second floor at the top of the grand staircase. A figure in white appeared there, like a ghost in a Victorian melodrama. Mrs Barlington, con-woman extraordinaire, realising her carefully-laid plans had come to nothing, had gone off the deep end of sanity. Brandishing a small revolver she suddenly let fly indiscriminately down into the throng of uniforms below her.
Fiona felt a stab of pain in her left shoulder, while an invisible force seemed to grab her with red-hot talons and throw her to the ground with a bone-jarring crash.
For Mrs Barlington the consequences of her action were far more comprehensive. A large force of police-officers, being suddenly fired on with intent, obviously had no recourse but to take such personally. Within seconds of the first shot a concerted fusillade opened up, rather like the front ranks of an army firing in unison at the distant enemy. The noise was tremendous; the wooden balustrade on the second floor disappeared in a mass of flying shrapnel; and the white-shrouded figure was thrown backwards out of sight as if punched by a Titan. Mrs Barlington, in spirit if not body, had left the building, permanently.
"Are ya alright?"
"Jeez, I'm hit." Fiona still had enough of her senses functioning to spot the broader picture. "No, I ain't alright, I'm bloody hit. Jeez, it hurts; is it bleedin' bad?"
"Nah." Fletcher was an old hand at examining bullet wounds; and giving a fast, but expert, opinion. "Hit in the shoulder; but I think it was a .32. Don't think any major arteries are damaged. We'll get ya t'the hospital, an' they can dig the slug out. Don't worry, y'll be OK, eventually."
"So, what happened, exactly?"
The hospital ward was bright and airy, holding no more than six beds of which four were occupied. Fiona's sat beside that of her injured lover, so they could exchange confidences more or less in private. Fiona's chest and left shoulder were wrapped in bandages; while Alice had a more comprehensive white cast covering the whole length of her right arm, as well as bandages encircling her own chest. Out of sight under the sheets her right leg also boasted its individual cast, from knee to ankle. Suffering from a variety of other knocks and bruises all over her body Alice was, in fact, a wreck, just like Fiona's late Buick.
"Oh, turns out Mrs Barlington was a con-lady from way-back,—Idaho, in fact." Fiona sniffed grumpily, then wished she hadn't when a twinge of pain shot through her chest. "Gaarh. How're ya feelin', Al? They say they filled me full'a pain-killers, but I'm still in bloody agony. How about you?"
"Urrph, I'm fine." Alice even offered her suffering partner a small smile. "Broken t'bits, severally, all over; but filled t'the tonsils with morphine. I think the world's wonderful, just wonderful, don't you, babe. Anyway, I feel like a laugh; go on, tell me how it all panned out in the end."
"Jeez, my partner's high as a kite, an' wants a good laugh. What next?" Fiona grunted in despair, but faced the situation bravely. "The Barlington had some funds behind her; with her I think it was always a case of 'ill-met by moonlight', for anyone she got her claws in'ta. Anyway, she foisted the whole nine yards about that dam' salt cellar on everyone locally who would listen. An' there are an amazing number of so-called experts who have a naivety-level that'd rock the world, if it ever got out. The rest y'more or less know. It was only because of that dam' fool Galbraith the whole thing fell apart."
"So Galbraith was the deus ex machina, in the whole affair?"
"Y'could say that, I suppose." Fiona agreed unwillingly. "His determined belief that the object was indeed as fake as a three-dollar bill set her whole plan in disarray. She had no choice but t'fall back on the insurance; try t'fry us in my Buick's wreckage, purely as an added bonus for herself; then skip out with the insurance loot, still havin' the dam' salt cellar to use at some point in the distant future on some other poor sap."
"Well, it's all over now."
"Y'never said a truer word, doll." Fiona turned her head carefully, to avoid any more sword slashes of pain, and looked across at her lover. "So, what's on the agenda now?"
"I figure—I've had some time t'figure things out here, Fay,—I figure Pete Cawsley an' Clarice Ulverston can take over the office for a while. Just till we both recover, y'know. They're both good women, an' great detectives. Not as good as you an' I, o'course; but still, they'll do."
"Uh-huh. An' what exactly will we be doin', in the meantime?"
"Well, Doctor Carter tells me she'll have me mobile, in a wheelchair, in about another week." Alice lay back, pondering the highlights of her cunning plan to come. "You'll be running around by then like a mad steer at a rodeo, too. So, then we can board ship for pastures new, for a couple of months on the ocean blue. Hey, is that poetry?"
Fiona considered the matter for a few seconds; then came to the obvious conclusion she had no choice in the matter, her brunette companion being, once again, too sharp by half for her.
"Oh, OK." The black-haired slightly battered warrior surrendered with as much dignity as she could muster in her present condition, which wasn't much. "What ship, an' where'll it take us? Only askin'."
"From the brochures I've been collectin' surreptitiously at the office over the last six weeks," The brunette obviously had no shame whatever about her actions behind her lover's back. "I see's the SS Myrina is goin' on a Caribbean cruise, then through the Canal t'head on over t'Hawaii. Works for me; whatabout you, sis?"
"Oh God, bring it on, I suppose."
To be continued in the next story in the 'Drever and Cartwright' series.