'The Portrait Painter's Incident'
by Phineas Redux
Summary:— Fiona 'Fay' Cartwright & Alice 'Al' Drever are lovers and private detectives in an East Coast American city, in the 1930's. A High Society painter's varied works cause the ladies a great deal of trouble.
Disclaimer:— All characters are copyright ©2018 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 some light swearing in this story.
"Not Sargent, is it?" Alice contemplated the portrait on the wall with a dubious eye.
"Nah, by someone called, lem'me consult the brochure here—Tamara de Lempicka."
"Well, she certainly has a, er, style."
"Can't fault yer there, doll." Fiona regarded the picture with as much doubt as her loved partner. "What d'yer think? Looks suspiciously Moderne, t'me."
"Umm. Can't get any Moderne'er. Ha, see what I did there, lover?""
"Baby, yer losin' it, an' fast." Fiona turned from the unusual picture on the wall of the Museum, searching for other fruit. "So, where's this Barkstrom guy's effort? Shouldn't be hard t'find, a full-length portrait, after all."
"Lady, look around, they're all mostly full-length portraits, o' the great an' the good."
"More o' the former than the latter, eh?"
"Oh, developing a moral outlook are we, at last?"
"Al, y're too much fer me, I surrenders." Fiona laughed softly. "Let's try in that room over there, less crowded."
In the side-room they found the walls covered with slightly larger works, in oils; most indeed portraits of various, as far as the ladies were concerned, unknown subjects. But also, to their combined relief, another woman could be observed closely examining one of the efforts on display; to this person they rushed, as if to a water-hole in a desert.
"Elaine." Alice grabbed the lady's elbow, as if it were a life-buoy in the ocean. "God, glad t'see you; Fay an' I need rescuing, real fast. Where's bloody Barkstrom?"
"Far as I last heard, Monte Carlo." The tall blonde-haired temptress, looking more like a film star than usual, smiled easily. "It's gon'na be a costly long-distance phone call, if y'want to speak to him."
"Nah, there's one o'his daubs hidin' around here somewhere, we jest can't find the dam' thing, is all." Fiona gave their old friend a gentle tap on the shoulder in greeting. "You're jest what we needs, t'point us right."
Elaine Palmer, art and literary critic for several newspapers and magazines in New Hampshire and the East Coast, nodded understandingly; she being well-used to her friends' lack of the social graces and refinements.
"Barkstrom, eh?" She rustled her own copy of the exhibition catalogue. "He's showing a portrait, ain't he?"
"Yeah, some bozo called Henry Carrington Rausemeyer, he's in cars, apparently." Alice, as ever having the cold facts at her delicately painted finger-tips. "Apparently it's causing quite a consternation in the local Art circles."
"Seems he's broken out of his rut, an' tried t'copy people like that Tamara gal, back there." Fiona's lack of interest in Art showing well to the fore.
"Well, I wouldn't go that far." Elaine prevaricated, but with a smile. "Just a little change, for the better one hopes, certainly."
"Why, wasn't his stuff up t'the mark, previous?" Alice, searching out gossip, like a wolf on the trail of its supper.
"Fairish enough, but you know how it is in the Art world." Elaine tossed this off with a casual air.
"No, tell me." Alice, never one to let anybody off the hook easily.
"One gets into that horrendous rut, doesn't one." Elaine sounding like an old-school critic, enjoying every moment. "The same boring picture style year after year, whatever the subject. One figures out what the Public likes, or liked, in say, 1899, and then proceeds to deliver said goods fer the rest o' your working life."
"Ah, I see." Alice actually didn't, not quite.
"In times like these, for instance," Elaine continued her general theme with enthusiasm. "The Jazz Age; short skirts; flappers; Moderne, an' all that; these amazing new styles of architecture; all white concrete and curved lines: well, tastes change, don't they, an' it ain't Art Nouveau or the Gibson Girl anymore, is it? Same with Painting."
"So you're sayin' Barkstrom's strivin' t'get back amongst the top guns in his field, after a dry spell in the order-book?" Fiona being pragmatic as only she could.
"An' this Rausemeyer effort is, he hopes, gon'na be the key t'the larder?" Fiona made an impolite noise between her lips. "How old's Barkstrom, by the by?"
"Haven't you both met him?" Elaine paused to regard her friends with raised eyebrows. "Thought, by the way you're talkin', you were on a case for him?"
"We only talked t'his secretary, a bozo called Carlton Castermaine, if y'can believe such." Alice looking as dubious of this monicker as she felt about it.
"Tallish guy, athletic build, walks like a ballet dancer, affects a cream silk suit, brown shoes with spats, an' a white Borsalino?"
"That's him, t'the veritable tee." Alice nodded her agreement.
"Met him a couple of times; no future in the wedding stakes fer me, there." Elaine made this obtuse personality assessment with a gleam of mischief in her eye, knowing full-well what her friends' reactions would be. "Wha'd'ya say, gals?"
"I say it takes all sorts, an' so does my inamorata here, too; don't'cher, lover?" Alice up for fun with the best, grinning widely.
"Yeah, yeah, can it, babe." Fiona giving Elaine a long-suffering glance. "So, about Barkstrom? His age, an' all that?"
"Oh, yes," Elaine nodded, motioning her companions to follow as she moved along the row of pictures on the wall. "Barkstrom's sixty-seven this year. Give you some idea of his milieu when I tell you he was a close friend of Whistler, used to carouse at the Ritz in London with Oscar Wilde, and had a close association with Aubrey Beardsley."
"Aub—who's he?" Fiona once again showing her lack of knowledge of the Art world.
"Oh, just a second-rate Victorian magazine illustrator." Elaine waved a dismissive hand in the air. "You wouldn't like most of his work, take my word for it. This here's Barkstrom's Rausemeyer—what d'you think?"
Fetching up in front of the hard to find picture, Fiona and Alice stood silent, taking their fill of the prospect.
"Dam' lot'ta paint he used, didn't he?" Fiona was unimpressed. "Covers bloody acres o'canvas. Is there any need fer that much—muchness?"
"It's a full-length portrait, after all." Elaine sniggered, always amused at the simple naievety of her friends. "And Rausemeyer does stand six foot two in his Egyptian cotton socks, too."
"Oh well, that explains it." Alice, even less moved by the picture than her heartmate, raised a critical eye at the object on the wall. "Wouldn't give it space in our condo, would we, Fay?"
"Couldn't get it through the front door, so that's out." Fiona, always being one for the practical things in life. "Where does this supposed reflection of modern art technique come in, in it, then, Elaine?"
"Mostly the light and colour-tones." Here Elaine was on firm ground. "His old pictures tended to have dark browny backgrounds, with no detail—"
"Like paintings of Bank Directors, y'see hung in Banks." Alice was up for this discussion with the best. "Standing proudly, one thumb in their waistcoat fob-pocket, staring into nothing, in front of a dark enveloping nothingness?"
"That's the thing." Elaine nodded. "No future in that these days, though. Got'ta move with the times, or be left behind. And Barkstrom's obviously striving t'stick with the vanguard, as y'can see."
"Still, it ain't anywhere near that Tamara de Lempicka dame." Alice musing on the general tone of the painting before her, and finding it lacking. "Doesn't, y'know, say anything much about the sitter, does it? I mean, Fay, does this tell ya anything about Rausemeyer at all, as a person?"
"Never met the bozo, have we, lady?" Fiona had the answer to that silly question.
"But you're supposed t'see, I don't know, hidden depths in a person's character from lookin' at their portrait in oils. Ain't you, Elaine?" Alice appealed to the expert, with a frown of annoyance. "Far as I can tell, there ain't nuthin' in this picture that says anythin' about Rausemeyer, of any worth."
"Does that mean there's nuthin' in Rausemeyer's personality t'bring out in his portrait, then?" Fiona, standing with feet beginning to ache, curled a derisive lip as only she could. "That he's, in fact, a pale nonentity? Wouldn't that make Barkstrom's portrait, here, a work o'genius, then?"
Both Elaine and Alice paused to direct their attention back to their companion; each wondering whether Fiona was being straightforward, or pulling their legs.
"Hardly that." Elaine came out fighting. "Barkstrom hasn't the genius for that sort of thing, believe me. No, this is simply a perfectly competent portrait, maybe produced with perhaps a little too much emphasis on modern technique, but pretty good, all the same."
"Oh, well, glad y'found the dam' thing fer us, Elaine." Fiona had obviously decided to cut her losses. "Might'a wandered around this maze all day, otherwise. Al an' I better mosey along; be seein' ya."
Back out in the main exhibition room the women headed for the exit, their duty done.
"Barkstrom hardly seems the sort'a painter anybody'd lose sleep over tryin' t'rip off."
"Well, someone thinks jest the opposite, or Castermaine wouldn't have employed us."
On their return visit to Hamilton Gardens, Todmorton, a luxurious district on the outskirts of Delacote, basking in wealth and excess consumption on this bright sunny morning of Tuesday 17th April, 1934, the ladies found Mr Castermaine still beavering away in his employer's interests, at the combined house-studio set in its own gardens in Chiswick Road.
Fiona, having free entrée along with her partner, they both strode in the front door and up the large marble staircase to the second floor where Castermaine's office lay; after, of course, apprehensively negotiating the highly nerve-racking, somewhat censorious, presence of Harrison, the long-established butler of the premises.
"Ah, you're back; what did you think of the portrait, then?"
Carlton Castermaine stood five foot ten inches high from floor to ceiling; sporting a cream silk suit and brown shoes with sparkling white spats. His naturally thin jaw giving him an air of elegance and intelligence which may have been more than skin-deep. His voice, when he spoke, held all the refinement of an old Boston family, and Harvard. Essentially, he had both it, and It. That's to say spondoolicks, and grace of manner; sex appeal to you. But not for the opposite set; no, Carlton batted exclusively for the home team at every game; which, as Alice opined in private to her partner, sort of almost made him family—a baseless assumption which had made Fiona snort derisively at the time.
"Well, it gives ol' Rausemeyer some level o'status, at least." Alice holding forth as art critic without a blush. "Is the guy really as dominating an' hard as his portrait makes him out?"
"Hell, no, he's a pussy-cat in person." Carlton shook his head, laughing quietly the while. "Couldn't find a nicer, quieter, pleasanter guy if y'searched Delacote for a week. Yeah, I noticed that, too; the painting seems t'have bleached all his real personality out, an' left, oh, I don't know, a sort of empty cold shell behind. I don't give much for Barkstrom's ability these days, I'm afraid."
Fiona and Alice, meanwhile, took the weight off by settling into a couple of deep leather-upholstered armchairs, both sighing quietly in relief.
"God, that's better." Fiona rolled her eyes in near ecstasy. "Goin' on safari round a crowded bloody Art Gallery of a mornin' takes it out'ta a gal. Never thought the search fer Art, intellectual sustenance, an' the nourishment o'the soul was such a dam' slog."
"The more ya suffer, the more ya gain, lady." Alice smirking to herself with no apparent sympathy for her inamorata at all. "My old nanny told me that when I was nine, y'know."
"Did she indeed?" Fiona raised a critical eyebrow. "Her usual litany, when she was spankin' yer backside fer whatever miscreancy ye'd carried out that day, eh?"
Before Alice could find a ready reply to this unfounded aspersion Castermaine got down to business.
"Hope you both don't think I'm biting the hand that feeds me when I say that about Barkstrom?" He waved an elegant hand in the air. "I've been working for him for just under six months now, so can safely say I've formed a definite opinion of his place in the contemporary world of Art, is all."
As the pause in the conversation after this avowal lengthened in the otherwise silent office, Fiona finally took up the topic and ran with it.
"Seein' as he's domiciled fer the duration of the Winter in Monte Carlo, I expec's y'can say whatever-the-hell y'like about him." She leaned forward in her chair, fixing the playboy-like secretary with a basilisk stare. "An old-time painter, who's long outlasted whatever reputation he ever had; who's scrabbling, nowadays, with styles an' techniques clearly beyond him; an' in a Society that ain't about t'credit him with any sort'a re-born capability, no-ways? Who'd wan'na flog-off his paintings, in counterfeit, t'unsuspecting patrons? I mean, where's the profit in that? I don't get it; d'ya get it, doll?"
So encouraged to join the discussion, Alice curled her upper lip as only she could, looking from one to the other of her companions.
"A forged painting? First I've heard such a thing could be." She shook her brunette shingled locks with certainty. "Have you seen the things he makes? Oh, o'course you have; what I meant was, they're so big? There's so much of them; such a lot of bloody paint; an' don't style, technique, an' method, come in'ta it? Surely anyone half-knowledgeable in the subject could tell a real Barkstrom from a forgery at a glance?"
For answer Castermaine turned to his desk, covered with photographs, open volumes, and files with loose reproductions of sketches. He sorted through the mass, picking a few illustrations and a couple of books from the total and going over to the seated detectives, handing them out and standing beside them as he indicated various details.
"Forging paintings is actually big business, and has been for many years, I'm afraid." He leaned casually against the wide arm of Alice's chair, pointing to the open volume he had placed in her hands. "Those are illustrations of works by the French Post-Impressionist Vincent van Gogh—"
"Euugh, I could do better'n that." Alice was not impressed. "Looks like he was about ten, if that; y'got'ta be joking? An' what's with all the yellow paint?"
Castermaine, shaken but unbowed before this Vandal-like reaction, went on the offensive.
"You see this illustration here? The one with the wooden chair and bed, in the small room? That sold in France a few months ago for $35,000."
"F-ck me." Alice, awestruck, attesting this with confidence knowing she was on safe ground, stared at the coloured picture in the book the while. "Well, just shows, the more money y'got t'throw around, the more idiocy there is in yer make-up. Which fool paid that amount fer such a daub?"
"Oh, a major American collector." Castermaine sighed deeply, struggling to keep his end up. "Perhaps this isn't an inappropriate moment to allow that I took a degree in Modern Art at Harvard, not so long ago—so I know what I'm talking about, just sayin'."
Suddenly aware of an unexpected faux pas noisily flapping its wings in the rapidly cooling atmosphere Fiona reverted to a defensive stance.
"Ah. So, how many forgers are there operating in this area, these days?"
Castermaine took time to consider before replying.
"Depends what you mean by forger, or practitioner." He ambled back over to his desk; sitting behind it once more, chin cupped in hands. "There are uncountable basic daubers, capable of turning out something like an original. If passed-off quickly—with some degree of sleight-of-hand, you might say,—they have a good chance of catching their mark unprepared and making-off with the money undetected, at least in the short-term. Real forgers, though; the experts who can turn out a realistic copy of a masterpiece; they're harder to number, but there's several on the go as we speak. That's where you two come in; the copies of Barkstrom's work that're going the rounds at the moment originate in France—"
"France?" Alice frowned at this information. "Why's that?"
"Because the best forger, or forgers, live there, simply." Castermaine bucked up visibly, on home ground he understood completely. "In fact, we can tell—that's other experts and I—exactly who is responsible for the forgeries, in this case."
"You've pinpointed the culprit?" Fiona here raised a dark eyebrow. "So what's stopping the authorities from bearding the guy in his studio, an' haulin' him off t'the Big House?"
Castermaine was au fait with this complication, too.
"International Law, ladies." He raised both hands in a gesture of frustration. "We'd have to go for extradition, and all that sort of thing. And in France, I can tell you, that sort of thing would take years, no kiddin'. And, anyway, the character we have in mind doesn't work in the open; he doesn't live in a large studio, with spectators coming in to applaud his work. No, he beavers away somewhere out of sight, protected by big names in the underworld—there being such a huge profit resting on the results. The first we know of any particular incident is when some collector presents himself to the authorities and starts complaining about having been taken for a ride. That's where things begin to be somewhat complicated."
"How so?" Alice was now deeply interested, gazing intently at the secretary.
"First we, the experts that is, have to investigate and examine the picture in question." Castermaine sat back as he placed the fingers of both hands together in thought. "Is the picture, so castigated by the new owner, actually a forgery at all; or, in fact, a perfectly reasonable original? Some so-called collectors having as much professional artistic knowledge as a garden snail, if the truth be told."
"We get clients like that." Fiona nodded gloomily, going over some such memories in her mind's eye. "Bunch o'idiots. Sorry, go on."
Unfazed Castermaine nodded happily, the whole puerile panorama at his fingertips.
"Then we have to ascertain if the picture isn't simply an early sketch; a preparatory work." A wide contented smile crossed the secretary's face. "Almost all artists of worth, y'know, start with preliminary sketches, in black and white or watercolour or oils; then work up a picture in the general form they see as the finished item; only then d'they complete the final original work—all the earlier preparatory works still being around to complicate matters, y'see."
By this time both Fiona and Alice were wholly engrossed, taking in these details for later mutual discussion.
"What happens to all these sketches, preliminary works an' so forth?" Fiona almost as interested as a real art student. "Does the artist destroy 'em? Or just keep them gathering dust in his studio? Or sell 'em, or what?"
"Pretty much all of those possibilities." Castermaine nodded, ticking off the points on his fingertips. "Some early sketches, black and white drawings mostly, are destroyed by most artists. The sketches in colour, watercolour or oils, they generally keep for future use; though sometimes some are sold to collectors. The preliminary full-scale sketch, before the final work, can often seem as fully finished as the final work. Though they tend to be freer in workmanship; less precise in detail. Good examples of this method would be JMW Turner or Constable. The later Impressionists, because they worked with smaller canvases in the open air and needed to quickly capture passing elements of Nature, simply produced one single completed work in one or more sittings."
"And Barkstrom?" Alice brought the lecture back to the discussion at hand. "Where does he fit into this school of thought?"
"He's a conservative," Castermaine waved an arm in the air, taking in the wide horizons of the artist who was his present employer. "Always worked, and still does, in the same way. Prelimary watercolour sketches; a full-size oil sketch, worked up in wide loose strokes; followed by the completed work itself. I have to say, I've seen many of his preliminary sketches, and must admit to thinking them better, generally, than a number of the finished works; but there we are."
There was another pause while the detectives absorbed all this new material, then Alice came to the fore as was her nature.
"So, you're sayin' when a collector comes cryin' on his knees t'the experts, what he's been off-loaded with might all the same be an original work of the artist the collector wanted—only not quite the work he imagined he was payin' for?" She frowned in thought. "Is that a crime, at all; or just an idiot collector, with little knowledge an' even less sense?"
"Well, both actually." Castermaine shrugged non-committally. "Dam' difficult t'prove any criminal intent in the matter; falls to the seller saying they sold the collector a bona fide work by the artist required, and if said collector then kicks back against the reins what have they, the seller, to do with the matter?"
"And if the work really is a fully-worked-up forgery, not a preliminary sketch?" Fiona now feeling they were approaching clear ground. "A full-scale oil painting, pretending to be by some big name, but actually a dud? Where are you an' the experts on that scenario?"
The secretary sat behind his desk, studying the women across from him; gazed up at the ceiling for a few seconds, then came to a decision.
"I'm not really a private secretary, y'know."
"Hell, Fay an' I figured that out the first day we met you." Alice gave one of her celebrated grins, signifying complete understanding of a complicated problem. "Didn't take any effort of the intellect t'realise you were a plant. What are you, a G-man?"
Castermaine laughed for the first time, apparently wholly at ease.
"Hah, no, an A-man, maybe." He smiled at his listeners. "Art-man, perhaps; though there ain't such a Department. Just say I'm something Government-biased, that'll do nicely as a description."
Fiona had also come to certain realisations concerning the matter in hand.
"You know there are real forgeries, of completed works, goin' the rounds." She too nodded, well aware of the situation as it now unfolded. "You even know, I bet, who the various forgers responsible are. Working with the Surete, are ya? That'd answer some questions Al an' I've been contemplatin' in the dark reaches of the night, recently."
The revealed Government agent twisted his lips in what might have been meant as a knowing smile, but came across as a contented smirk.
"Minor details, you don't need to get involved in." He sat forward suddenly, aiming his own sharp glance at the women. "What you can be told is, we know the actual forger in question has come across to America himself; a big collector having been picked out as next victim, and the forger's presence being necessary for the final act of the grift, y'see. That's where you both can help; you can scour this town from end to end, and find his hide-out; then we, the Government agency that is, send in our best operatives and grab the sun'nava-b-tch with his hot little fingers still covered in cobalt violet, so to speak. How's that sound, gals?"
Fiona glanced sideways at her paramour; Alice doing the same in her turn, then an unspoken decision was clearly reached between them—Fiona taking on the burden of replying for them both.
"Castermaine, y'really are some kind'a a deep-dyed creep." Once started on such a censorious diatribe Fiona always liking to throw the reins aside and let herself go with a vengeance. "For starters, why'd ya keep us in the dark from the get-go o'this sorry affair? Think we ain't mature enough t'understand the details o'the whole thing, did ya? Then, havin' scuttled around behind closed doors all over the place, ya think you'll set us up t'take the shrapnel when it all kicks-off for real, an' the bullets begin t'fly all over the place—while you sit here, comfortably safe in this here armour-plated office o'yours, twiddlin' yer thumbs an' gloatin' over yer comin' promotion? What kind'a fools d'ya take Al an' I fer, bozo?"
"You're beautiful when you're angry, lady; have I ever told you that, before?" Alice leaned over to grasp her partner's wrist; giving Castermaine, meantime, her famous stare of Death. "You may be a G-man; you may be an Art expert; but you're also a bloody idiot; Fay an' I're out'ta here. G'bye; no, don't get up, we know the way out."
Back in their office on the 5th floor of the Packer Building on Rosemount Street Fiona and Alice settled in their chairs at the long desk, contemplating severally the ubiquitous and dissolute nature of modern man.
"Taken for a ride, yet again." Alice telling it like it was. "D'we never learn, doll?"
"Seems not, lover." Fiona sighed heavily. "Should'a realised, when we first fingered him as a undercover guy, he was never gon'na be on the up-an-up with us."
The afternoon was easing along towards evening, they had no other case in hand to complicate matters, and therefore did have some quiet time to consider their options, which they now proceeded to take advantage of. Alice sat at the right-hand side of the long desk, while her compatriot took the other end. Resting on the level top was an intercom with several switches, while two telephones, of the newer cradle variety with earpiece and mouthpiece combined in one hand-held unit, with a circular number dial on the cradle, sat before each individual detective. Alice thought this the height of modernity, while her more conservative partner bewailed the end of the old box on the wall or candlestick unit and separate earpiece. The intercom buzzed warningly, then Fiona's telephone rang shrilly.
"Yeah, what is it, Helen?" Fiona speaking with their secretary in the outer office. "Oh. Oh, yeah? Hang on. It's Castermaine, probably tryin' t'explain his deviousness. Wha'd'ya say, lover?"
"Maybe he wants t'apologise." Alice looking on the bright side for once. "Put him on—let's hear what the sap has to say. At the very least it'll give us a laugh."
"Put him through, Helen, thanks." Fiona adopted a faraway official tone, though with a tight grin—she was going to enjoy this. "Hi'ya Castermaine, what is it? Forgotten somethin', or what? Spit it out."
Fiona listened with attention; while Alice, running through her never extensive patience in an instant, took up her own receiver and joined in the listening audience.
"—which is why I—what's that? I heard another click; someone else listenin' in, here?"
"It's me, Carlton, old boy." Alice dearly loving a joke. "Now you've got an even bigger audience. So, what's eating you? Fay an' I've both got our feet up in slippers an' are just waiting for the crumpets to brown nicely; Fay's pouring from the silver teapot now,—you keeping busy, at all?"
"Yeah, I get it." Castermaine's voice, even across the wires, sounded mighty peeved. "Suppose I deserved that. Sorry if I came across all brotherly an' dominant, earlier—didn't mean to. What I wan'na know is—can we start again, d'you think? This whole set-up being dam' important, all things considered. I'd be grateful if you both could see your way to taking up the strain once more. It'd be all kinds of a great help, y'know."
The women gazed along the desk at each other for a few seconds, then Alice shrugged with a twist of her lips.
"OK, laddie, we're back." Fiona sighed extravagantly. "What's the next step in the drama, then?"
"—er, people I know; to be honest, other agents in my Department, have been beavering away on their own over the last few weeks—"
"Just another example of not letting your right hand kinow what the left's up to, eh?" Fiona going in for the kill. "Your left mitt, metaphorically speakin', bein' us—Al here an' I?"
The telephone line crackled for several seconds with static and the hum of the wind in the wires as Castermaine absorbed this left hook to his ego.
"Aah, umm, that is, yeah, kind'a might look that way." He finally gave up all pretence and came clean. "Look, ladies, it's like this—you've been very helpful over the last few days, an' your continued help is highly desired; both by me and my, er, commandant. We need you both, t'tell the honest truth. Lem'me clear things up; it's like this, my other agents have finally found out where the guy under investigation is—Alfredo's the code-name we know him by. You know who I mean by Alfredo, ladies?"
"Yeah, the mastermind, the Professor Moriarty behind the for—what we were talking about earlier, right?" Alice frowning so severely that if Castermaine had seen her he would have blanched at the awful sight.
"Yes, yes, exactly." Castermaine sounded relieved, even at a distance. "They've found the general locality where he has his, er, office; but they have not yet pinned him down to a particular building. That's where your expert local knowledge will be most helpful. Can you climb in your cars and come to, er,—where are we, Rob? Oh, yeah, Cubert Street, Garstone—you know the area?"
"Yeah, we'll be there in half an hour." Fiona took up the reins with a firm tone. "Don't do anything we wouldn't, in the meantime. Garstone, suppose it couldn't have been anywhere else, really? OK, wait fer us, we won't be long."
After replacing the receiver and waiting for her partner to do likewise Fiona regarded her lover with a raised eyebrow.
"So, we're back on the job? Got your trusty point thirty-eight loaded an' oiled?"
"Gon'na be a shooting match, y'think?"
"Well, Al, I always say, come prepared—can't do any harm, right?"
"Right. Who's driving? You? Me? Oh, me—right, well, let's get goin'; Time waits for no woman on a mission. Pick those feet up, lady."
The salubrious district of Delacote City going under the pseudonym of Garstone was a depressed area—a mighty depressed area, in fact. Having once been the heart of the industrial, or at least the manufacturing, district it had in present economic conditions fallen-off sadly. Many of the former factories or warehouses were now empty; many jobs had disappeared, like crops in the dry windy Dustbowl; and life generally was just a slog for the remaining inhabitants. Amongst this array of closed buildings and enterprises was a perfect cover for any illegal enterprises going; so neither Fiona nor Alice were at all surprised to learn this was presently the lair of the gang of forgers under observation. Alice pulled her Plymouth two-seater coupé up with a shuddering jerk, she having never really mastered the use of the brake as such.
"Where are we?"
"Cubert Street, like Castermaine said. He ain't here."
Alice, who had paused to look up the street, then twisted in her seat to gaze out the rear window, now turned to her passenger with a displeased expression.
"Tell me something that ain't obvious, sister." Alice shrugged, then shuffled around, preparatory to exiting the vehicle. "Come on, move it; he can't be far away."
They stood on the sidewalk, looking not only up and down, but across the thoroughfare, to no end result; they were the only human beings in sight. The street was about three hundred yards long; its horizons defined by a distant dead-end in front of the women, and the corner they had just rounded behind them. On both sides rose three or four storey brownstones which had the air of having been put to a variety of uses in their past lives; not all functional or benign to their architectural capabilities judging by the now crumbling repairs variously on show everyhere.
"Hey, someone popped out that building, along there. Can you see who it is?"
Fiona, so pressed, gazed with narrowed eyes into the distance, but not for long.
"It's Inspector Fletcher."
"God, thought I recognised that loping waddle." Alice showing all her renowned politeness towards others. "Well, him being present pretty much allows the whole thing's gone belly-up, eh?"
"Could be. Come on, pick up the pace; let's get along there an' hear the spiel from the horse's mouth."
This being pretty much the Inspector's normal response to being presented at short notice with the two best female private detectives in Delacote City neither Fiona nor Alice took any notice.
"Hi'ya, ol' pal." Fiona always ready to elbow a hesitating Angel out of her way and get on in there. "What's the score? Me an' the girfriend here're in the pay of ol' Castermaine, too, y'know."
"Oh, that jest means I an' the boys'll need two more pair of handcuffs, then." Fletcher accompanied this relatively gentle greeting with his renowned sneer of disapproval—it, by long association, now having no effect whatever on the ladies. "What for are ya both wearing the leather off yer shoes in this deadbeat place for, then?"
"Come off it, Fletcher." Alice wasn't having any shilly-shallying on her watch. "Castermaine's got the French forger dead t'rights. He, the forger,—what was his code-name again?—"
"Alfredo." Fiona always ready to help a deserving cause.
"Yeah, Alfredo." Alice stuck her chin in the air, in Fletcher's direction. "We know all about the forgeries of old man Barkstrom's daubs, so out with the gen; what's going forward as we speak? Fay an' I both having thumbs in the pie, too, y'see."
"Yeah? Well ya both can jest unstick 'em an' go about your business." Fletcher growling in a surly manner, as was his normal want. "Not having been in the stream of current news till about an hour since, you may say I am not a happy member of Delacote City's police force. Some moronic Government Department slithers in'ta my Precinct, without as much as a note of greeting; then proceeds to organise a secret operation unknown to the local policing forces; and finally employs two two-bit private dicks, still without as much as a glance in my direction; then finally ring me up out'ta the blue an' as much as orders me to come at once an' bring the Heavy Brigade with me, here? What kind'a a mood d'ya think I ought'ta be in, dam'mit?"
The three had been walking back along the street during this diatribe, and now Alice noticed, as they went past the open gate, two police cars sitting in an abandoned yard on the left side of the street.
"So, you're not alone, Fletch?" Alice nodded wisely. "Good move. You can shoot bloody Castermaine; your boys can dig the grave in that yard there; then Fay an' I'll shovel the earth back in: nobody'll ever know—job done, eh?"
The Inspector paused as they reached the open door of a somewhat disheveled brownstone, eyeing Alice in particular with a beady glare.
"Ah, I see his genteel manners has gotten up your noses, too? Mighty fine, mighty fine." Fletcher stood, easing his weight from one foot to the other for a few seconds in what the women recognised as his usual mode of deep cogitation; then he sprang to life again. "What we got before us here, ladies, is a wholesale failure t'communicate. Castermaine, dam' his evil eyes, kept himself to himself, far's my official standing goes; he employed you two, under less than brilliantly lighted auspices—"
"Whew, didn't realise you knew what that word meant, Fletch?"
"—give over, lady; where was I?" Fletcher bared teeth in a silent snarl. "Oh, yeah,—an' finally he comes the overbearing General, ordering my units to follow his orders as if he were bloody Napoleon. Well, ladies, I'm here t'tell ya both it won't do: no, not by a bloody long way."
At this juncture the person under discussion appeared adroitly, if unwantedly, from the dusty passage beyond the open street-door. Castermaine looked a little crumpled, but appeared to be bearing up like a hero under trying circumstances.
"Ah, hallo, ladies." He at least had the grace to blush a little, looking some embarassed. "Things seem to have, er, gone a trifle astray, I'm afraid."
"What this gentleman means, ladies, is that his whole operation has fallen apart." Fletcher pinned the undercover agent with a disapproving eye. "Secret operations; no local police communication; using private detectives without fully informing them of the dangers or details; leading an armed raid against unknown persons who might, or might not, be engaging in illegal activities; an' finally ordering the local Police forces around like a General at the Battle of the Somme? Well, Castermaine, what I—and likely my superiors, too—are looking to hear now is a comprehensive explanation;—and, I warn you, it can't be comprehensive enough. Perhaps we all better repair to the Fifth Precinct, shall we? That there bein' a dam' order, Castermaine. Get yer legs in motion an' follow me; you're travelling with me in my squad car: me not wanting t'find you've been called away on urgent Government business in the length o'time it'd take ya to reach the Precinct on yer tod. Over here, thank you. See you ladies at the Precinct, OK?"
And so the Siege of Cubert Street came to an end—not that it had ever actually started, as a matter of fact.
"Jeez, Fletch's fired up, an' no mistake."
"Wouldn't you be, too; if you'd been given the run-around like Fletcher has?" Fiona shaking her head sadly. "Come on, lets get back t'your car; I think we'd better treat ol' Fletcher with kid gloves for the rest of the evenin', if we don't wan'na find ourselves spending the rest of the night in a police cell, too,—like maybe Castermaine will."
"One can only hope, dearest." Alice nodded, with an evil smile, as they retraced their footsteps along the broken sidewalk. "Fletcher being far short of a happy chappie, at the moment. Come on, squeeze your long frame in, doll, I'm gon'na show Nuvolari how it should really be done, on our way back across town."
Late evening, the sky shining a bright greeny-blue from a cloudless heaven, Alice and Fiona settled on the long sofa in the living-room of their condo on the ninth floor of the Collister Building, Casemount Street, The Heights, just getting into their first glasses of light sherry, all peaceful and quiet as could be.
"So, Castermaine wriggled out'ta Fletcher's clutches, then?"
"Yeah, the Fourth Amendment, or the Fifth, or perhaps it was the Sixth?" Fiona wasn't any too clear on the Constitution. "Anyway, he's clear an' gone—t'wherever Government undercover agents go, when their plans fold around their necks. Good riddance, too."
Another comfortable silence reigned unopposed in the light airy room; while its occupants nestled shoulder to shoulder, perfectly happy together.
"It occurs t'me, Fay,—"
"What? What occurs t'ya? That ya wants yer sherry glass refilled? It ain't even half empty, yet."
"Nah, fool; did ol' Barkstrom even know what the hell was going on behind his back?"
This time Fiona took time to consider this really highly interesting suggestion.
"Yeah, there's that." She sipped her cream sherry appreciatively. "Now ya comes t'mention the fact, dear, it looks mighty like he didn't have the faintest; him bein' domiciled in the South of France previous to an' during the whole sorry debacle. Y'mean Castermaine put the whole game t'gether off his own bat, jest t'catch that forger, Albert?"
"Har, hardly matters now, lover." Fiona allowed herself to giggle gently. "Probably halfway home t'France, on the Mauretania, by now."
"Huh, if he takes that boat he'll be in for a surprise." Alice always au fait with the better class of ocean liners and their offered voyages to exotic places. "It only does short cruises, these days. He'll find himself in Nova Scotia, actually; wonder if he can speak Canadian?"
"Are there any worthwhile painters in Canada, dear?" Alice on a roll; never giving up, like a well-trained terrier. "Can't think of any."
"Fool. What did we manage t'save from the wreck, as it happens?" Fiona always having a sharp eye on the profit and loss account. "Castermaine said he'd be payin' top whack, on Barkstrom's account, when he brought us aboard. Wonder if Barkstrom'll scratch the check, or what? Ya really should'a given that reptile Castermaine a better goin' over, investigation wise, y'know, before ya accepted his offer an' brought us both aboard what's turned out t'be a sinking ship—that's finally foundered. Like that other big liner, years ago, can't remember its name;—now, was it—"
But Alice, ever alert, like a cobra with a grudge to settle, had fixed on the weak point of her loving partner's argument.
"Darling of my heart, are you in any way suggesting that this whole sorry facdiddly-dum, just passed, was entirely my fault?" She gently placed her half-empty sherry glass on the low table by the sofa, preparatory to action of an aggressive nature. "—'cause that's what it sounds like from my, wholly innocent, perspective. Is there, anywhere in the cold ice-clad object you calls your heart, any consideration of offering an apology? Before an even colder Ice Age arrives, with malice aforethought—only askin'?"
Faced with mutiny, opposition, and the definite prospect of having to spend the cold shivering night sleeping alone on the sofa they were presently utilising for its bona-fide purpose, Fiona folded like a lily in the storm.
"Dear, how could ya think anythin' o'the kind?" Fiona putting on her snivelling, whining, child pretending it hadn't been responsible, act. "Nuthin' further from my intentions, lover. Here, come t'Fay an' let me kiss ya happy. How's about it?"
And Alice, though not taken in by her lover's devious attitude for an instant, found that, yes, she was all for it.
"Oh, alright; but just watch your step in future, lady. Mmmm, that's nice; got any more? Ooh, aammm."
Another story in the 'Drever and Cartwright' series will follow shortly.