'The Avant-Garde Artist's Problem'
by Phineas Redux
Summary:— John Drage is a private investigator in an East Coast American city, in the 1930's. He and his fellow investigator, Claire Baxter, take on the task of protecting a modern artist from her detractors.
Disclaimer:— All characters are copyright ©2020 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.
The Coylston Art Centre, Delacote City, NH, was now, after a sticky start in the Art Nouveau period, galloping along at the head of the Moderne Art movement; though, as it routinely championed Expressionist artists primarily influenced by the earlier Der Blaue Reiter and Fauvism groups, there were plenty of critics, detractors, or downright antagonists towards their products. The present exhibition, on this sunny morning of June 1934, showed signs of such interaction between artist and public. In the Main Hall—the building being single-storey though extensive—was a mixed exhibition of paintings and sculpture. The fact that most uneducated viewers—at least in this Art Form—could see no sign of Reality in either painting nor sculpture, probably having an effect on the fact that daily viewing figures could be counted in the low teens rather than high hundreds. But this was not the principal reason why Lysistrata Maynard, Head, Manager, and Owner of the Centre had called in a private detective to lend a hand in a moment of crisis.
Which effectively brings to the fore the presence, in the chair facing Lysistrata on the other side of her office desk, of John Drage of Drage Private Investigators. Standing—though admittedly he was seated at the moment—some 6 feet in height, with a thatch of greyish hair, a well-muscled frame, and a square face which reflected a contented nature rather more effectively than mere good looks, John, who was in his early thirties, had only just met the lady opposite and was, therefore, full of questions, eager to get to grips with his latest case.
"Somebody broke a vase?" He going over what little he had heard about the main facts of the case so far. "And tore a painting? Hot stuff."
Lysistrata wasn't having any of this.
"Mr Drage, either you wish to help, or you can return my down payment and get lost."
John thought about this request for several seconds, whilst warily eyeing the fire-breathing Valkyrie his client had suddenly now shown herself to be.
"Ah!" He deciding to take the safe course. "These things certainly happen; and they are, of course, definitely crimes in their own right. So, details?"
Faced with the fact she disliked this representative of Private Law, but having no other, better, recourse—Private Dicks coming in rather more expensively than she had been led to believe by her reading of thriller novels, and this Drage being by far the cheapest available—Lysistrata sighed and got on with it.
"This morning I came in to find Alouette Petronis' and Serena Mackleson's works of Art had been destroyed;—destroyed, Mr Drage—works of Art! Torn to shreds and smashed to atoms."
Seeing his client was clearly about to work herself up into a passion John, not unaccustomed to such scenes, took control like an expert.
"Actions which can lead to the apprehension of the culprit remarkably quickly, ma'am."
"Eh! What?" Lysistrata taken off-guard and halted in her tracks.
"Destruction of this nature, on this level, gives the experienced inverstigator all sorts of openings—to both character, motive, and method." John waffling like a circus speiler. "I hope t'God you haven't already had the maid clear up the mess, by the way?"
"—er, no, of course not." Lysistrata regaining some of her former bearing. "Do you take me for an idiot?"
Forbearing to answer, hard though it was, John merely nodded in a wholly neutral manner which could have meant anything and proceeded.
"What about the cops? They interested?"
"Why do you ask, if I may ask?" Lysistrata being mean, just to get her own back a little.
"If they're involved I, as a private dick, can't push my oar into an official investigation. The cops taking deep umbrage at such, y'see."
"Oh; well, anyway, no, they're not involved."
John took the time to stare at his client, somewhat mournfully.
"Why? Why, what?" Lysistrata now out of her depth.
"Why ain't the cops interested?" John sticking to his main theme. "It matters, you know."
Lysistrata sat back on her chair, contemplating her visitor once more—her thoughts on the young man remaining, however, a deep secret.
"I did contact them, but when the situation had been explained to a person whom I believe was a desk sergeant he as much as said broken crockery and a painting falling off the wall were none of his, nor his Precinct's, concern and goodbye." Lysistrata here glaring at John as if he had been the man in question.
"Ah, that way, eh?" John now wholly clear on the matter. "Well, at least it gives me a clear run; that's good. So, if you'd like to take me along to the scene of the crime I can get started, thanks."
"Hmm, this way."
The Hall in which the incident had occurred was twenty feet wide by forty in length, lit by long ceiling windows. The floor was bare varnished boards, while the walls were painted a dull matt crimson. Several paintings lined each of the left and right hand walls, with the centre of the Hall taken up by a series of stands on which pieces of sculpture, of bronze, porcelain, stone, and some unidentified materials, were placed. About a third of the way down the hall the floor was covered in splintered fragments glistening in the overhead electric lights, and on the left wall there was a painting which had been substantially shredded by some sharp-edged instrument, leaving pieces of canvas hanging in tatters from the frame which was still attached to the wall.
"Yes, well, a bit of a mess, certainly." John thinking his client wanted his opinion on the sorry sight. "A torn painting, and a broken—what was it, again?"
"A vase—A Work of Art, Mr Drage." Lysistrata taking the whole thing far too personally. "Both, Works of Art—destroyed. When you catch the culprit, or culprits, I should like first dibs on shooting the swine, thank you very much."
John paused to consider this remarkable manner of utilising American Law.
"What about the concept of innocent unti—"
"You find them; I shoot them: figuring out a story later to cover up will be little trouble, I'm sure."
John again stopped in his examination of the torn painting to regard his client, this time with a cold stare.
"Madam, if you take that attitude our paths will have to diverge widely." John shook his head decisively. "I find the criminals, I hand 'em over t'the cops—they send 'em to Court, and the Law takes over. That's the way things go in America. You foreign, or what?"
"I'm from Indiana, if you must know; and, of course, I was only joking, about shooting the criminals." She back-tracking swiftly. "I would have thought a man of your wide intellect would have understood that from the start?"
"Not so much me, as the cops." John making things plain. "You come out with that speil to them, you'd a'been hauled-off t'the cells pronto, no questions asked. It's a criminal act, to threaten someone with being shot at short notice, you know."
"Oh, is it?"
"Yeah, it is." John fed up with the conversation and wanting to get on. "If you'd like to leave me to it, I can start seeing about what's going-on here. May take me an hour or so to complete my primary investigation, if that's alright with you. You're not letting any customers in here in the meantime, I hope?"
"Of course not; what do you take me for—an idiot?"
Seeing John simply staring silently at her Lysistrata, just realising she was repeating herself, took the wrong interpretation, turning away with a cold sniff of disdain.
"Let me know when you are finished, if that's not too much trouble."
The Hall was, to John at least, strangely silent; then he realised it was probably because as a public arena he was expecting what was not there at present—the Public. Sighing to himself he got down to the task at hand, where there were two sites shouting out to be investigated; the remains of the vase and the remnants of the painting: although John realised the totality of the large Hall would need a close inspection too.
Seeing it was nearer John stepped across to the stand which had held the vase, now laying in fragments on the plain board floor. The stand itself had sustained no visible damage, seeming to indicate the vase had been swept off with a single swing of a hand or other instrument. Bending John stared at the larger fragments, assessing their size and thickness and realising the vase, when whole, had been exceptionally thin in form; not porcelain, but some kind of stoneware. It also did not seem to have been covered in coloured glazes; the surface, so far as such survived, appearing to simply be the base material. Neither, from his close examination, did it appear to have been incised with any kind of design.
Crouching down, resting on his heels, John picked around among the various pieces; his aim being to locate the point of impact of whatever had caused the breakage. But this proved impossible, the vase being now in so many disparate fragments of various sizes. Sighing again, he rose and headed over to the far left-hand wall and the damaged painting.
Here he was confronted with another type of destruction—one which might allow of a more certain outcome. The canvas had clearly been cut apart by a sharp knife, most of the slashes running diagonally across the canvas from the top left to the bottom right.
John nodded to himself, happy to have made at least one likely assumption, though he was too experienced to imagine it was anything other at this point. Several strands of thin canvas hung down, but most of the painting was still on the frame and able to be examined by the spectator—and here John experienced his first difficulty with Expressionist Art; what on earth was, or had been, the subject of the work?
"It ain't a landscape—at least, I don't think so." John inclining his head from side to side in an effort to recognise something in the remaining painting. "Or is it a portrait? Nah! What's left, dam'mit!"
He stood back a pace, not quite realising why, but it didn't help.
"A seascape, maybe? Is that a sheet of water, along the bottom? Nah! Are those clouds along the top? Nah! Jay-sus, what the hell was it?"
He spent another minute doing his best to be, if not an art critic, at least a competent member of the Public, but it didn't help.
"Oh, God!" A thought had just, that moment, crossed his mind which made him somewhat nervous. "Is it one of those, what, Abstracts? God, I hope not."
John had been brought up, as a kid, in a realistic world surrounded by realistic Art; when more modern Art genres came in he had found himself almost unable to understand any of them. Having known Art Nouveau as a child, the present Moderne style was something he had been having to deal with for several years and was still not quite sure if he had yet gotten to the bottom of it.
Just as he was dealing, or trying to do so, with this face-to-face stand-off with a variety of Art he couldn't appreciate there was a bang at the other end of the hall as someone came in the door, flinging it wide.
"God, am I glad t'see you, Claire. Come an' look at this."
Claire Baxter, second-in-command in John Drage Private Investigators, was a tall brunette lately new to the art of Investigation, and so far doing very well, too.
"Ooh, what happened here; it's been torn t'shreds."
A minute's discussion put her in control of the facts in the matter, after which she re-examined the painting more intently.
"What about it, then?"
"What is it—or, what was it, thanks?"
"It was a landscape, originally."
John looked at what was left of the picture, narrowing his eyes in the effort.
"What makes you think that?"
"You ever seen any of Raoul Dufy's works?"
John turned to his partner, still in a cloud of unknowing.
"Well, if you had you'd recognise the style—it was a landscape; actually a seascape, with boats. Why? Does it matter?"
Pinned to the mast so succinctly John shrugged in answer.
"No, I suppose; it's damaged, anyway."
"Yeah, the basis of our case, I take it." Claire coming to the heart of the matter. "Found anything useful yet?"
"Just some tattered canvas, and bits of broken pottery on the floor over there." He pointing to the spot in question. "As to discovering who the culprit was—From little acorns great oaks do grow, so I'm told."
"Not without a great deal of time and effort being put into it, boss!" Claire being coldly pragmatic.
The office to which Claire and John were directed when they went to discuss their findings with Miss Maynard was remarkably small, but well-appointed—in the modern bright airy style, as was only to be expected. The investigators, safely settled in two chairs which, if not providing any degree of comfort at least made a splendid artistic statement, immediately got down to the nitty-gritty.
"From what my partner and I have seen the culprit came already provided with the necessary tools for the purpose." John making these facts known in a tone which begged no discussion.
"Oh?" Lysistrata sounding as though she were hardly convinced.
"Vase smashed with a hard-headed tool, probably an ordinary round-headed hammer." Claire consulting her notebook as she provided the gruesome details. "Painting attacked with a sharp-bladed knife, maybe a long-bladed kitchen knife. Which means it wasn't a spur of the moment act, by some disgruntled conservative art-lover. The whole thing would only have taken a few seconds from start to finish."
"A door at the rear of the premises, quite secluded, was forced—the entry point for the criminal or criminals." John raising his eyebrows towards the Mistress of the Centre. "You might want to do something about that, for the future."
"Oh?" Miss Maynard obviously feeling an echo served a useful purpose in the circumstances.
"What we want you to do now, Miss Maynard, is look out for a note in the post, come the next few days." John going on to their next topic associated with the crime.
"Oh?" This time Lysistrata thought something more was called for. "Why?"
"It could be a middle of the road crime, associated with blackmail." Claire presenting the details in logical order. "What you've seen this morning being what you might call a visiting card; the criminals letting you see what they can do if pushed to it. They send you a note asking for a contribution to the Old Folks' Home that'll see them right in their old age, as it were; then everything in the garden'll be lovely afterwards."
"Ha!" Lysistrata changing her tune but not her tone.
"Or it could be an actual hate crime." John getting down to specifics himself.
"Whoever did it really doesn't like modern art, and has let you know their feelings in no uncertain manner."
"This group," John now smiling as if enjoying himself. "is usually made up of two disparate types—one, they break an object, and that's that—they've expressed their feelings and have so gotten over their bloodthirsty needs. Second, though, they hate specific Art genres—in your case Expressionism—I take it that being the general corral the damaged items fell into?"
"Yes, Expressionism; yes, yes." Lysistrata somewhat taken aback by the unfathomable attitudes of some members of the generally appalling Public.
"If it's this second group you might want to increase your security." Claire laying it on the line. "They have a tendency to think a job ain't well done till it's done in toto, as it were."
"What?" Lysistrata returning to her monosyllabic mode.
"Hate criminals come in two groups," Claire sharing her recent reading on the subject with pleasure. "One type's amateurish and unfocussed—they destroy one item, then call it a day. The second group are professional and focused—they have a plan in mind, destroying art works according to their pre-planned schedule, and not stopping till their long-term aim is achieved."
"Aah." Miss Maynard, at the moment, simply having nothing more to say.
"So what we want you to do is wait, over the next few days, for a letter or note of some kind." John explaining the facts of life as simply as possible. "When—if, indeed, you get such—get on the blower and call us pronto."
"Keep the note, and the envelope; for evidence, you know." Claire reciting from memory the legal requirements involved. "But don't try to communicate with the criminals before you let us in on it, OK?"
John was up for this imbecilic question.
"Because you'd certainly do more harm than good, is why." He shaking his head sadly as he spoke. "You receive a note, you tell us, over the phone, we get on it hot-foot, and try our best to clear matters up—we being private dicks, an' all."
"Such being our business, and the reason why you hired us." Claire making what was already plain absolutely clear. "You receive a note, the only persons you talk to about same is us, got that, Miss Maynard?"
"Right." John, feeling a job had been well done, rising to leave.
"OK." Claire stepping alongside him, equally confident they had the case under control. "Remember, Miss Maynard, you get a letter, you call us, you do nothing else till we arrive to take over. OK?"
"Excellent; see ya."
The office of Drage Private Investigators lay on the 3rd floor of the Bernstein Building on Haverstock Road, Delacote City, NH, near but not in the city centre; an old Art Nouveau brownstone relic from 1895 consisting of five floors and some truly fantastic stonework ornamentation on the façade. The interior was no better, consisting of long winding inter-connected corridors expressly designed to catch the unwary client out on their first journey within; their second and further appearances also, actually, if they were not careful. The office suite itself hardly attained to greatness; being only three rooms in all—the secretary's reception room, with uncomfortable sofas for the unsuspecting client, a long private office where both John and Claire carried out their ancient alchemical researches; ie, investigations; and a small bathroom with all necessary conveniences.
The day after their visit to the Art Centre John and Claire were hunched over various photographs Claire had taken of the crime scene, spread out on the wide desk.
"Hmmph." John agreeing, abstractedly.
"I've been pondering over these snaps for hours and my conclusion, boss, is there's nothing t'be gained from them." Claire wrinkling her nose to make her point even more positive.
"Well, yes." John unwillingly admitting the truth of this observation.
"So, what's the next step?"
John considered this request for clarification with a great deal of seriousness, mostly because he wished he had an answer to it.
The intercom buzzed on his desk.
"A Miss Serena Mackleson to see you, urgently—to do with the Coylston Art Centre affair."
"Oh-ah! Send her in."
Claire sat looking at John, who returned the compliment; both wondering who the lady in question might be, and what she had to offer.
"Ah, good morning, Miss Mackleson." John rising to do the needful, seating his new client beside Claire before returning to his own throne behind the tatty desk. "What can we do for you? About the Coylston Art Centre, I believe?"
"The vase." She revealing a tenor voice like unto a lark singing.
"Destroyed willfully, at the Centre." She raising both her eyebrows and voice to a sharper level. "Mine."
"Yours? You bought it before it was, er, attacked?"
"No, I made it. I am the artist."
Finally au fait with the situation John sat back considering his guest.
"Ah, so what can I do for you?"
Given the opportunity so expressly Miss Mackleson sat forward, pinning the detective with an eagle eye.
"You can find the b-st-rd who did it, is what you can do; then stand back and smoke a cigarette while I cut his balls off with a rusty palette knife!"
A gentle quietude wafted through the office, one of the three windows being partly open, allowing of such. Then, not quite liking the tense atmosphere, it hurriedly left by the same route again.
"That—er, that would not go down well with the 5th Precinct, you know." Claire here judging it time to add her penny-worth to the discussion.
But this only added to the distraught artist's ire.
"Who cares what the dam' cops think?" Miss Mackleson grinding her teeth, grasping the arms of her wooden chair with a grip that seemed likely to tear them off the frame. "I made the vase; I fired it; I incised the pattern; it was my objet de vertu. And I want revenge!"
John tried to pour oil on troubled waters, but without much success.
"No doubt, no doubt; but the fact remains we can't oppose outrageous crime with outrageous crime—"
"What crime?" Serena obviously firing on all cylinders. "Retribution is the word you seem unable to grasp. Retribution—wholehearted, and panoramic in scope. A retribution so all-encompassing it would make the ancient Greek Gods wake up and take notice."
Faced with this level of personal anger and perceived insult by his client towards her moral qualities, not to mention her products, John sighed inwardly and returned to the fray, hero that he was.
"Anyway, we already work for Miss Maynard, at the Centre. Can't take on a second client, dealing with the same crime, y'know."
Claire butted in here.
"It is the same crime, which means it would be the same investigation." She laying out the ground rules of How To Investigate A Crime. "We'd only be crossing our own paths needlessly, you see. Wouldn't get us any further forward, two clients and one crime. Best to simply sit back and wait for the results of our investigation for Miss Maynard."
"Huurph! Fat lot of good that'll do." Serena clearly not impressed.
"It's the best way, in the circumstances." John coming it the experienced schoolmaster. "We'll get as much done for Miss Maynard as we could do for you too. We'll keep you posted on what we discover, as it happens, don't worry. And when the case is brought to a conclusion you'll be first, well, second to know."
With which inconclusive remark the irate artist left the office, taking a dark cloud almost visibly hovering over her head with her.
"Nothing like a mother defending her kids." Claire making this random statement rather aimlessly.
"Yes-yes,—she certainly wasn't happy, I give her that." John sitting back down and wiping his brow with a silk handkerchief printed in contrasting shades of deep purple and bright yellow.
"Jee-sus, John, where'n hell ya get that awful object?"
"What? This kerchief?" John wholly innocent of any idea of wrongfulness. "Got it from an Aunt—Christmas present, y'know."
"She obviously doesn't think much of you."
The morning, after Miss Mackleson's departure, did not return to its former calm; an hour later the intercom buzzed once more.
"A Mr Barton, wanting to discuss the Coylston Art Centre with you?"
"Who is he?" John suspicious as all get-out.
"An agent for a large company dealing in the sale of works of the type exhibited by the Centre." Sonia could be heard talking with the visitor on the other end of the intercom. "He's worried about the safety of the works produced by the artists under his contracts."
"Oh, dam'. Send him in, then, thanks."
"Mr Barton, what can we do for you?"
Mr Barton turned out to be a large man; a very large well-built specimen, indeed. In fact, quite seriously, he looked as if coming into personal conflict with a medium military tank the tank would lose.
"Josiah Barton, agent for the Consolidated Art Corporation, of Detroit, offices on the West and East Coast." His voice reverberating in the long room with the tone of a bass church bell. "This Coylston Art Centre incident—well?"
The assertive tone in which this question was put, almost as a physical attack, had no effect on John, who had weathered much worse in his career.
"Mr Barton, when did you become a client of mine—just for the record?"
Taken somewhat aback Barton, as he sat opposite, puffed out his expansive cheeks before replying.
"You hardly seem aware of the great influence and power inherent in the Consoli—"
"Mr Barton, don't try to threaten me."
"I don't care a fig for the company you work for." John instructing his visitor in some home truths. "You are not a client of mine; your Company is not a client, either. If you have any substantial contractual commitment with various artists who may be exhibiting at the Coylston Centre that is purely a private matter between them and you. My client has asked me to investigate the incident which took place there, which I am doing—the whole thing being completely private between my client and I. Neither you, nor your company, have any part in those investigations—Goodbye."
Mr Barton, stopped in his tracks so absolutely, gasped like a fish out of water, looking around for help; at last rising to his feet, opening his mouth with a snarl, clearly meaning to say something very impolite indeed.
"Mr Barton, one word out of place and I break your nose—that's a fact." John too, rising to confront the bully across the desk. "I ain't scared of you, your power, or the people you work for. Get lost."
Puffing and blowing some more and now wholly at a loss Mr Barton, outwitted, finally turned silently and got lost.
The following two days were almost an oasis of calm for the two detectives though, the Coylston Centre not being the only case they were presently working on, their time was fully accounted for with other activities; then, on the third morning, the intercom rang in their office once more.
"Miss Maynard on the phone." Sonia carrying out her secretarial duties with poise and efficiency.
"Put her through." Claire switching the call to the speaker on the intercom. "Hallo, Miss Maynard, any news?"
"I got one."
Claire mulled this esoteric remark over for a few seconds.
"Letter." Lysistrata clarifying her meaning. "You remember, Mr Drage said, if such happened, to tell you instantly? Well, the morning mail came an hour ago, and there it was—a threatening letter."
"Keep hold of it." John swinging into action at this dramatic turn in the affair. "Don't handle it overmuch, don't throw the envelope away, don't reply to their requests, if any were made. In fact sit tight and don't do anything until we arrive. OK?"
"Yes—er, yes, certainly."
"Right—goodbye. Come on, Claire, let's get to it; what was it Sherlock used t'say in similar circs?"
"Haven't the foggiest."
"Ah, well, anyway, got your coat an' hat; time's precious, y'know."
"You got yours'?"
"Me? My what?"
"Hat, don't see it on your head, or anywhere else near."
"Oh, sh-t; that dam' hat'll be the death o'me yet." John glanced round the office, without seeing the object in question. "Oh, leave it—I won't die of not having it, for once."
"Ya sure, boss?"
"Very funny; come on, let's hit the trail—Miss Maynard's goin' grey waitin' for us."
Miss Maynard's demesne, the Coylston Art Centre, was open for business and apparently thriving as a result of its new-forged almost-notoriety. She took them along the corridor to her office, the trio having to squeeze past the crowd milling about even outside the two exhibition halls. Having callously sat the detectives in the same moderne chairs they had previously suffered martyrdom in, she then got down to the nitty-gritty.
"It came in the post this morning; just as you said it probably would."
"Can I see it?" John leaning forward expectantly.
Lysistrata opened a draw below her desk and handed across the offending item.
"Hah, look here, Claire." John holding the envelope in his hand so his partner could have a close look. "Typed address, that's good. Now, let's see—yeah, typed letter, too. Excellent."
"Why so, Mr Drage?" Lysistrata working in a fog. "Wouldn't hand-writing have provided better evidence?"
"Not necessarily." John shaking his head with a confident air. "Typewriters have their own idiosyncracies, as well as the human hand, you see. Letters not on the line, or with chipped edges, or some sharp-edged while others are rounded or blurred. It's possible to identify a particular machine, if given enough examples of its work."
"Look there, John." Claire hovering a pink-varnished finger-nail over the point in question. "The capital T's got a broken right-hand top arm."
"Yeah, and notice the smudges; the inky patches between the lines?" John himself noting another curiosity of the letter. "And the colour of the type? This is a carbon copy; not the original letter."
"They obviously took the trouble to hide their presence that one step further, yeah." Claire nodding herself.
"What does all that mean?" Lysistrata hoping for great things. "Does it help, at all?"
"Oh, it will, eventually." John hedging his bets in a wholly professional manner. "We'll take it with us, and subject it to various tests. You'd be surprised what you can learn from even the plainest of letters, exposed to a proper level of examination. Anything else come? Or did you have any telephone calls?"
"No, just that one letter."
John took the time to settle back to read the document's contents; Claire doing likewise at his elbow.
'Miss Maynard, You will by now be aware of the delicate position your exhibits are in. Damage and accident can occur at any time; so it would only be wise to protect against any such recurrences. On Friday, at midday, a messenger will arrive and ask for Mrs Hobothen. Made aware of this request you will place in his hands a brown envelope containing $250. The same request being made on the same date of each further month for the length of time of your exhibitions, you will find no other accidents occur. I hope I make myself clear. D. D. R.'
"D.D.R.?" Claire looked at Miss Maynard enquiringly. "Any ideas? Ring any bells?"
Lysistrata considered this question with frowning brow, but to no effect.
"No, sorry. I can't bring anyone to mind with those initials."
"Hmm, no matter, we've got enough here to be going on with." John rising to make his exit. "This's a good start; but just remember, any further letters, or telephone calls, or communication from the enemy in any shape or form—don't do anything about such till you've contacted us, OK?"
"Yes, of course."
"Right, thanks again, Miss Maynard; and don't be worried, we're on the case and everything will work out in the end."
"I sincerely hope so." Lysistrata reverting to the pragmatic outlook. "I'm not used to paying private detectives by the week; and, even at your, er, reasonable rates, it's still a mighty dollop of dollars down the drain, expence-wise."
"Aa-iirph." John feeling somewhat put-down by this attitude.
"All you got'ta remember, ma'am, is we're worth the outlay, is all." Claire sticking a haughty nose in the air and giving her client the Medusa stare. "We'll come through, don't worry."
Drage Private Investigators being a small hand to mouth organisation John was used to farming out many of his investigative needs to specialised experts; such being the case in the present circumstances, as he explained to Claire.
"That letter, and its envelope; they both need analysing scientifically." He nodding in agreement with himself. "The inks involved, the paper, the stamps and date-stamps; all that sort of thing can come up trumps in the right hands."
"So that's why you sent the letter to Greg Phelps?" Claire raising an eyebrow enquiringly.
"He's a genius with inks, and typewriters." John smiling broadly. "There isn't a type of, er, typewriter ever made he hasn't got at his fingertips. From the first ever to the modern ones."
"That's a mighty fine assumption." Claire hardly believing what her boss was telling her.
"Oh, I speak from experience; Phelps' has come up with some great answers in the past, believe me." John sticking by his expert's capabilities. "If there's anything to be gained from that letter, Phelps'll find it, sure as doughnuts."
"Oh well, heigh-ho." Claire not yet fully convinced.
This conversation was taking place a week after they had received the letter, and one week yet before they would need to consider whether to agree to its terms or not. On this latter point John having strict opinions.
"Never give in to blackmail." He making himself clear to his partner on the matter. "It only ever leads to worse, later. Whatever the original subject was, always come clean and go to the police immediately; it's the only way for it to work out to your advantage in the end. Simply paying up's a mug's game."
This made Claire take another direction on the subject.
"This isn't strictly blackmail at all—it's extortion, isn't it?"
"Well, yes." John unable to nay-say this outlook. "Much like blackmail, though. The same threats of something awful happening if you don't play the game, under the blackmailer's, or extortioner's, rules."
Claire had another question pertaining to this aspect of the case.
"If push comes to shove would you instruct Miss Maynard to pay-up? At least in the short-term?"
John was adamant on this, though.
"In this case, no; certainly not." He shaking his head vigorously. "It's, as you say, extortion plain and simple. What we want at the Art Centre is added security, which Miss Maynard's already instituted; that'll put paid to any future vandalism, and with what we learn from the letter I've sent to Phelps I have high hopes of nibbling at the culprits' heels pretty quickly."
The outcome of Phelps' examination of the letter and envelope arrived the next morning by special messenger; John laying out the documents on his desk with Claire in close attendance.
"Well, what have we here?" John having cast a quick eye over the covering letter, Claire doing likewise. "Typewriter a Johnson Mark Nine Superior—hmm, interesting."
"Get us anywhere?" Claire knowledge of such machines being minimal in the extreme. "I not calling myself a typist by any stretch of the imagination, sadly."
"Could do; they're high-end, top of the market machines." John reading from the document supplied by Phelps and adding from his own knowledge. "Find 'em in newspaper offices, really expensive Companies, and rich people's hang-outs. Fancy literary authors and suchlike."
"Hardly seems the domain of a extortioner seeking Protection money?"
"Might be some sort of loose connection, maybe." John pondering the information with frowning brow.
Claire picked up one of the other documents from the number supplied by Phelps, reading its contents closely.
"The threatening letter's definitely a carbon copy though, still, on special paper according to the watermark." She pursing her lips as she continued reading the report. "Milwaukee Mills Ultra-Bond Laid. Comes in at around three times the price, per thousand sheets, as ordinary paper—Jeez! This guy really must be loaded; what does he want Protection money for? Loose change?"
"The extortion—the Protection money—'ll be why he's loaded?" John making the obvious assumption.
"Ah, yes." Claire coming to the same conclusion. "But why give away such clues to his status? I mean, they point straight to some rich bozo, don't they? Can't be many of those still engaging in the old Protection racket, surely? Can ya name any, off the top of your head, John?"
John was up for this request.
"All the extortioners I've ever come across are now either pushing up the daisies or doing time in the Big House. Blackmailers too."
"Hum!" Claire thereby coming up against a brick wall. "Could it be someone new, then? Maybe arrived from out of town? Slumming it in Delacote City?"
"Ha!" John smiling at this take on the matter. "Some big boy from the Windy City or NY, maybe? Nothing to say it ain't, I admit. Wait a mo', though."
Something had occurred to him which needed instant attention; he sitting back in his chair to consider the matter; then he came back to life.
"He's clearly rich or, at least, temporarily loaded." He sharing his conclusions. "He's a criminal; he's probably new to the City; he'll almost certainly be living in a hotel, not wanting the danger of a private or even rented residence while he's working on his extortion grift—that'd tie him in place too firmly."
"So, if we rake through the top-end hotels in the City, we stand a good chance of finding him?" Claire perking up mightily as the idea suggested itself to her. "He's also probably gon'na have enough of a criminal aura, if not straight-out record, about him you'll be able to recognise such on sight?"
John considered this point with more than the usual level of interest.
"Yeah, I might, on a good day. You got a Gazetteer handy? How many posh hotels are there in Delacote? Hope t'God it don't go t'double figures."
"Gim'me a mo' and I'll be right back with ya." Claire heading for the door to the reception room. "Sonia, ya got a City Gazetteer on ya? If ya find one fling it in post-haste, OK? This might be the break we've been hoping for."
"Let's dam' well hope so."
The early afternoon found the detectives standing in the lobby of the Hutcheson-Lambert Hotel on Fallow Walk Road; an edifice rising twenty storeys into the pure air surrounding Delacote City, with a front façade which ran for almost quarter of a block; built in 1888 of brownstone it had the solidity of a battleship and, being high-class in every imaginable way, exuded swank and elegance at every pore. Both John and Claire felt somewhat out of place, dressed in everyday shopworn garb as they were.
"I feel like a scullery-maid in a P. G. Wodehouse story." Claire making her embarrassment public in a quiet depressed tone.
"I ain't far behind ya, Claire." John himself feeling the atmosphere bearing down on his personal self-respect. "God, where's the manager?"
"Suppose we got'ta try the desk." Claire inclining her head to the left where the position noted took up most of the far wall of the lobby. "Looks like it's manned by a platoon of marines of both sexes, mind you. You do the talking, boss."
The crew behind the dark oak counter were, in fact, all female except for one lonely man in his forties, each wearing the hotel uniform of conservative dark crimson with thin silver linings.
"Can I be of assistance, sir?" The man coming to the fore, smiling politely with only the faintest trace of condescension.
"I'm a private dick, on a rather important mission." John, flashing his business-card as unobtrusively as he could, hoping his throat didn't dry up halfway through his explanation. "If the manager could see myself and my partner it'd be useful. It being a matter dealing with the, ah, present welfare and well-being of the Hotel."
The counter attendant examined the two persons before him with the glance of a hungry Great Eagle; taking in their exact social standing, their moral worth, and finally their likelihood of being trustworthy: he having had twenty years experience whilst rising to his present position, thereby also attaining to a capability of reading people's characters that would have made Jung, or even Freud, swoon with envy if they had known.
"If you will wait here a moment, sir; I shall send a bell-boy to convey your message to the manager. The chairs over to your right-hand are most comfortable. Will you be requiring coffee? No, very well, sir. It may only be a few minutes, thank you."
In fact less than ten minutes later John and Claire found themselves in the swankiest office they had ever seen. The Manager himself waving them to the deep leather covered armchairs beside his desk.
"I'm Mr Thompson, Keith Thompson." His tone one of carefully neutral superiority. "I have been informed that you are private investigators? That is so? Ah! So, what may I help you with? Noting, of course, that my customers have the privilege of complete privacy at all times, unless owing to the most unusual of circumstances."
Taking a deep breath John got down to the messy business of detailing exactly why they were there; what he, and Claire's, intents amounted to; and what they thought of the moral nature of, possibly, at least one of his high-class customers. Mr Thompson's mien becoming ever more frostier as the sad saga unfolded.
At the close of John's explanation Mr Thompson sat back, leaning his elbows on his desk and steepling his hands, fingers gently caressing his chin as he considered the ins and outs of what he had just learned.
"From what I make out you, Mr Drage, have made an assumption—based on your professional experience, certainly—that my hotel may be the hiding-place of a criminal of the worst possible sort?"
While not quite liking the manner in which this question had been put John had no choice but to nod silently in answer.
"Ah, that is unfortunate." Mr Thompson seeming to find the whole topic highly distasteful from a number of viewpoints. "Excuse me."
Here he flicked a switch on the intercom on his desk.
"Miss Armstrong, kindly ask Mr Linquist to attend my office, please." He then turning his attention back to his visitors. "Mr Linquist is the Head of the hotel's security division. He will have some useful input regarding your request, I'm sure."
"You got more'n one hotel dic—er, detective, then?" John impressed by the thought of a platoon of undercover security guards roaming the halls and corridors of the establishment.
"Oh, yes. Five in toto." Mr Thompson clearly proud of the fact. "This is a large establishment, with hundreds of guests of the very highest social class; it being hotel policy to provide sufficient security at all times, to all concerned. Ah, here is Mr Linquist."
Another five minutes passed while explanations were again provided by John, clarifying his position and laying out the grounds on which he and Claire had based their suppositions. Linquist turning out to be a solidly-built individual in his early fifties with cropped grey hair and a round face whose natural expression was one of total disregard for the conventions, whilst also presenting a stonewall façade to all ideas of sympathy toward the officious or needlessly over-bearing.
"Yeah, I get ya, bud." His voice ranging from deep bass to earthquake level with his mood of the moment. "Big-time grifter, pulling his lay on the high tightrope? Lots of money, lots of swank, lots of brazenness; yeah, I got the type sized up, no worry. So, ya think he's operating from this here joint, eh?"
For once John, finding himself able to empathize with someone he regarded as on his own level, relaxed accordingly.
"Could be holed up in any one of a multitude of top hotels across the city." He setting out the dry bones of his case. "You being the first we've tried. What we're looking for is someone who's arrived, say within the last month, who seems t'have lots of dough, and whom you might regard as operating somewhat above their usual station. Any ideas?"
Linquist sat back on his own chair, mulling over this request, stroking his chin with a finger as large as a German sausage with, apparently, well-formed abdominal muscles of its own.
"Yeah, as it happens, I got some doubt of at least one bozo in the joint—"
"Mr Linquist, how many more times do I have to ask you to refrain from calling the Hutcheson-Lambert this joint?"
"Sorry, sir." Linquist obviously not in the least put out. "Anyways, yeah, there's a character on the third floor—Mr Davidson, Frederick; room three-oh-seven. He'd stand a good sizing-up, for sure."
"What makes you say so?" Claire putting in her pennyworth.
Linquist turned his attention to the lady in the room, obviously finding the sight not in any way offensive.
"Well, ma'am, some people is born with a silver spoon where silver spoons can do the most good; others merely aspires t'same, but usual fail miserably, try as they may; that latter's the goon in three-oh-seven."
Claire looked enquiringly at John who returned the glance, then they both looked at Mr Thompson, who came up trumps without turning a hair.
"I have complete confidence in Mr Linquist's capabilities; if he says he can spot a bad 'un at twenty paces, I take him at his word. Shall we go?"
"Go? Where?" Claire not quite in the groove.
The corridors of the Hutcheson-Lambert were as the Palaces of ancient days in the Far East; paved with carpets apparently of cloth-of-gold, while the walls were lined in crimson silk decorated here and there by painted works of the modern, and other only recently deceased, masters: or so it appeared, anyway, to the uninitiated—and John and Claire were uninitiated enough to fall for the full effect; gasping inwardly, as they progressed, at such blatant luxury on display in every direction. At the end of the corridor lay Room 307, inside which resided Mr Frederick Davidson, who eventually came to open the door in answer to Mr Linquist's authoritative and sustained knocking.
"What the hell, cain't ya knock any louder, I hardly heerd ya, the first time—Oh-Oh!"
Linquist stood proud and firm against this frontal assault.
"Mr Davidson, I'm Hotel Security. These here's two private dicks, of both sexes; the other guy's the Manager, he being more'n a little riled and mean, in course of you being some under suspicion of dark practices in the night-time. Wha'd'ya say, shorty?"
"That was easy."
John laughed, he and Claire once more entrenched in their office in the Compton Building, Delacote City, NH, going over the details of their latest successful case.
"Glad you think so, Claire." He shaking his head in wonder at the naivety of the young. "Wait till you've had a few more years experience. But, yeah, it went well, all things considered."
"Not the least part being Miss Maynard making free with the spondoolicks." Claire focusing on the point that mattered. "We're in the money, partner; where should we go first? Biarritz, Deauville, or Monte Carlo?"
"Har-har-har." John not rising to this bait. "Pat's Diner, on Grant Street, meb'be."
"Wii-iirph! Swanky!" Claire being sarcastic as by nature allowed. "OK, mine's a hot-dog, with all the trimmings."
Another 'John Drage, Private Detective' story will arrive shortly.