A Brilliant Plan

Chapter 42

WE TOOK A short break to refill our refreshments.

Ron sat down again and pointed at the flat box on the coffee table. “Calendar, will you do the honors?”

I carefully lifted the lid of the box, put it aside, one-by-one lifted the items out of the box, and carefully placed them on the table.

“I agree that they are a little dusty, but we had to look for fingerprints first,” Ron apologized.

Even so, the Maximilian Set looked stunning. Simple eternal beauty. Ten pieces, each with a unique identity but lying side-by-side they formed a whole. A classic combination of white gold and diamonds formed the basic character, straight lines with only a minimum of ornament and playful rounding. The gold was brushed to give it some understatement and it was engraved with beautiful Aztec ornaments, a string of precious colored stones along the perimeter of the ornaments. The stroke of genius was the combination with sparkles of rubies and emeralds, giving it a European seriousness paired with Latin American joyfulness. The necklace I had seen before was the least spectacular, the most common piece of the group. Maybe the reason why Phoebe Eastman had used it for everyday wear. The other ones, the small crown, the diadem, the two arm-rings and finger-rings were spectacular. Far ahead of anything else from that era.

Even Altward, who had the gems in his possession for some time now, appeared to be moved, still.

In another satin pouch, I uncovered the Montenhaute pieces. In comparison to the Maximilian Jewels, boring.

“Grandma stuff,” mumbled Juanita.

“It was some kind of accident, wasn’t it, Mr. Altward?” Ron asked in a quiet voice as if not to wake any one of us from our respective reveries.

We all looked at Altward in silence. This was the question we had worked to answer in this whole setup. If Altward were a cool customer, he would simply say, ‘What do you mean?’ He could still deny any involvement in the death of Wally Eastman. The plan had been to lure him out, surprise him and rattle him. Billy Bounce’s spontaneous involvement had definitely worked to our advantage and far surpassed any rattling from us.

Ron didn’t push any further; he just sweated him out.

“You know,” Altward began, slowly, as if he had to find the right entry point. “I was in shock. After Eastman died, I couldn’t think straight.” He looked at us. “Imagine, I had just killed a man, whatever the circumstance, and didn’t know what to do. What if somebody found out?” He probably meant the police but, on the other hand, he could have meant his customers. “I was thinking about how to get away with it. And the most stupid thing to do came to my mind first: fake a burglary. Such madness.”

“You must have known that your safe room is almost impregnable and that suspicions might fall on you. Insurance fraud, most likely,” Fowler said.

Altward nodded. “Of course, I was aware of that. After Eastman and I had that… fatal row, I called my partner Paul Faulkner.”

“He was traveling at the time,” Ron pointed out.

“In Mexico, but I reached him on the cell phone. I told him about the mess in the gallery.”

“You seem to have a lot of faith in him. Telling him about a murder and all,” Ron tried to coax Altward here and there to get a feel for the story.

“We are close and I was desperate.” Altward breathed in and out several times, put his ice bag on the table. “And he had a plan. He gave me the number of a friend of his who would be able to help me fake a break-in to the safe.”

“Must have been a wizard to break into such a computer driven safe.”

“Yes, it turned out that he was. I finished the call to Paul, closed the door of the safe again and about half hour later his friend came with some fancy electronics and a computer. It was obvious that he knew exactly what he was doing.”

“Scary,” Fowler growled, slumped in his seat.

“He cut some wires and hacked away on a laptop. In no time, there was the usual click and the safe door was open. He told me that there were now no traces of any opening of the door in the alarm system logs that night.”

Altward paused, Ron continued. “You opened the door to retrieve something later that night and you closed it before the hacker arrived. The hacker opened the safe again. None of these accesses were logged because the hacker was able to override everything?”

Altward nodded again. “Like an alibi. Which it was. Perfect.”

“Wasn’t the safe cracker scared by the dead body of Mr. Eastman?” Ron asked.

“He didn’t see him. He was under the impression that we planned to perform some insurance swindle. I doubt that the hacker would have gone along with covering up a murder.”

“After the electronic barriers had been bypassed and the lock was open, you didn’t open the door?”

“No, I told him to leave it as it was. He shrugged, packed his stuff and left.”

“Did the hacker wizard have a name?”

Altward shrugged. “You will have to ask Paul.”

“What did you call him that evening?”

“I didn’t call him by his name at all, far as I remember.”

“How was he paid?”

“No idea, Paul arranged that as well.”

“You didn’t give him a little piece of art, jewelry or anything else?”

Shake of head again.

Ron put a photo of Hans Polter on the table. “Is that the guy?” Altward looked astonished. “Yeah, that’s him. You already have him?”

Ron took the photo away without answering. “So the door was open, the hacker left, you were alone with Mr. Eastman’s body and you continued with your plan to fake a break in.”

Altward continued. “Such madness. I was searching for something ‘to steal,’ took the Montenhaute jewels out of the display and began to close the safe when another thought occurred to me. The police would surely come and search the premises, the safe room. The insurance guys would arrive and enforce an inventory count. I had stored the Maximilian Jewels in the safe, the safest place in the world for me. They would have been discovered. So I removed them from the safe room.”

“And you brought them here right away?”

“No, that was probably the biggest mistake I made.” Altward was forgetting the killing, but who was splitting hairs here. “The first place that came into my mind was with the person I had a date with that night. My girlfriend, Phoebe Eastman.”

Although Ron had to be careful not to lead too much with his questions, in his posture, I could see a panther ready to leap. He was close to bursting with anticipation. “You stored the Maximilian Jewels in the apartment of Miss Eastman in La Jolla?”

“Yes. I drove there right after I closed the shop again.”

“You switched off the lights, left the safe room open and locked up the gallery. Took the Montenhaute and the Maximilian Jewels with you. Why did you kill Mr. Eastman?”

“I didn’t kill him. Don’t make it sound as if I were a vicious murderer. It was an accident, an argument escalating, and the heat of the moment.”

“About Phoebe,” I said.

“Yes. About Phoebe. Her father couldn’t stand the fact that I was seeing his daughter. The rich and renowned gallery owner having an eye on his beloved daughter. The dirty old man and the young thing. At first he held back with comments but later as my relationship with Phoebe got more serious he started bickering whenever we happened to be alone in the gallery at night.”

“He complained or foulmouthed you?”

“It was more like he was talking to himself. He made his rounds in the gallery or in the office and spoke to himself.”

“And that evening it was a little more than usual?”

“Yes, I had to fetch something from the safe that I needed early in the morning for a last minute customer. That was the reason I had to open the safe room. While I was checking the jewels, Wally came sneaking in, waving his large flashlight like Charlie Chaplin, and ‘talking’ to himself again. But that night I wouldn’t take it no more.”

“Why did you employ him at all? You could have requested his replacement.”

“On behalf of Phoebe. She was afraid that he would lose his job if I requested a change, which was probably true.” Altward shrugged.

“He got you enraged.”

“You can say that. We had a heated argument that went on for several minutes. Push came to shove and suddenly I hated that pathetic little man and his stupid protective hand over his daughter’s life. I should be ashamed to use his daughter… that she deserved better… and so on.”

“So you hit him over the head with the Calder statue.”

“Mobile. We had become a little physical, pushing and slapping. I tried to end the argument several times by finishing my errand and going back to the office but he wouldn’t let go. Pushed me, poked me with his nightstick two or three times. I pushed back. And then… ” He covered his face again. “I hit back with the first thing that came into my hand.”

“The Calder.”

“You know, the thing is, in a clear state of mind I would never, never have taken one of my pieces of art and used it for whatever, door opener, hammer, much less as a weapon. But some fuse inside of me clicked. It just clicked.”

We were silent for a minute.

“Just clicked,” Altward repeated several times. “And now they are all dead, all dead.” Altward started to cry.

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