A Brilliant Plan

Chapter 5

RON AND I drove downtown in his unmarked Ford Crown Victoria; the type that you always mark as a ‘police car.’ The first minutes we rode in silence, the police radio sporadically crackling incomprehensibly and the computer console between us beeping intermittently. He knew the way. I did, too.

“Want to use siren and lights?” He asked suddenly.

I sat up startled. “Excuse me? Isn’t that at your discretion? Is it that urgent?”

Ron gave a laugh; he had a nice laugh indeed. “No, it is just that sometimes civilians riding in a police car have the strangest wishes. Like touching the gun. Or driving through the traffic with sirens and flashing lights.”

“What a pickup line!” I had to laugh. Calendar, do be careful of Freudian slips. “No, sorry, no such wish. I never wanted to become a policeman or a fireman. My parents raised me with a solid ounce of doubt against all types of authorities. Not that I don’t trust you, but my parents used to shower in your tear gas.”

“That rubs off. But you are different. We are talking expensive stuff, jewels, diamonds, gold… ”

“Yes, I became something of an artist. Some may say an artisan. But the money isn’t what drove me. For me, it is the fascination with the material itself. Rare, beautiful and passionate. I want to translate that longing into something special.”

“You create it just for museums or for John Doe, too?”

I gave him a laugh. “It is for the rich John Does of this world, the ones who are willing to pay the price. The museums will display me when I am dead and famous, no Sir, no money there. Museums are more for the ego and a certain degree of fame, like my stuff is on display in the Amsterdam Museum of Royal Art.”

“They are?” Then, slightly confused, “since when is Amsterdam in England?”

Now he had me confused. “Amsterdam is the capital of the Netherlands. Not England.”

“Amsterdam is neither the capital of England nor the Netherlands,” he answered.

“I thought that a Royal Museum must be where the royals live. And don’t they always live in the capital city of a state?”

“Ahh, so the Netherlands is a kingdom, too.” Brilliantly delivered.

This guy was too good to be true. I had a laughing fit, pounding the dashboard.

“So you are really a museum piece?”

“Yup. There was a competition for a royal set for the inauguration. Not the crown, which was handed down from King Mom, but a ring and a scepter. I participated and won. Some years back.”

Ron was impressed. “You must be good then.”

“I am.” We were almost at the gallery but I looked straight ahead not giving anything away.

As we passed the gallery, he gave me a look-over from the corner of his eyes. I didn’t even change breathing; we all have our tricks up the sleeves. After a minute, he realized his ‘error,’ gave a small phony curse, did an illegal U-turn at the next light and headed back.

The Altward Gallery resided in one of the poshest locations in San Diego’s Downtown district, the Gaslamp Quarter. On that particular stretch, all of the high-price boutiques and high-class galleries competed for the swipe of the customer’s platinum AMEX. If I had opened my shop in San Diego instead of Redondo Beach, this would have been my location, too.

The gallery offered about sixty feet of prime retail window front on the first floor, topped by a second floor of equal grandeur. The shop sign offered only an understated but absolute tag line “Altward Fine Arts.” The heavy and polished ground floor blinds were closed. The second floor windows were unshielded, featuring extra thick glass for the displays that held larger showpieces such as gold statues, helmets, jewelry-covered boxes and one large gold chain that would have fit on any gangster rapper’s thick neck. Quality stuff that impresses rich collectors. Exactly the point the gallery owner tried to make.

The pavement in front was cordoned off with police tape, forcing the pedestrians to step on the street to pass the store. Two officers directed the thick traffic of onlookers and Thanksgiving strollers. At the gallery front door, a lone policeman appeared relaxed as he watched the passing crowd.

“No TV around?” I asked.

“Too late for the fifteen minutes of fame,” he answered. “They were here in the morning and throughout the day, covered the story for the ten o’clock news and then went to dinner.”

Ron explained the setup of the store, which, of course, I already knew inside out. “Altward Gallery is run by Andrew Altward and Paul Faulkner. It was named after a foundation of one of Altward’s ancestors. Andrew Altward carries on the family tradition, if you will. Altward is divorced, no kids, 52 years old. Very active in the art world, organizing auctions, exhibitions of all types of fine art, especially jewelry of the 19th and 20th century. Don’t look at me as if I am the specialist here, you can read all that stuff on their website. The gallery is well known in your trade.”

“Even to me. His name and rep made it up to L.A., too,” I smiled.

Ron continued, “The second partner is Paul R. Faulkner, comes from back East, was a curator at the Getty Museum in Malibu at the time when they ramped it up, left to start up a gallery on his own in San Diego, which eventually merged with Altward’s. Forty-five years old, no kids, no wife.”

“I know them both by reputation. I mean, they are no celebrities but they are doing some serious business. Their auctions host good stuff and they represent some of the finest SoCal artists. Altward is more the ‘aficionado’ type, for the love of the art. Faulkner always struck me to be more businesslike, but also has a good eye for art. I have never been introduced to either of them in person, though,” I added.

“Let’s get inside,” Ron proposed and led me toward the front door of the gallery.

I gave him a sideways look, “You sure managed to dig up a lot on Altward and Faulkner on short notice.”

His face remained impassive. “We had help from the folks at the insurance company. The rep from New York that I told you about in the interview; he’s a pain in the butt but a good source.”

I wondered what Fowler Wynn had given the police on me.

Ron gave a mock raised salute to the officers, got a quick update and opened the gallery front door. The overhead lights were on, bathing the gallery interior in dramatically effective light, all the high beams pointing on the displays.

“The ground floor hosts paintings and sculptures, all original paintings and drawings. I sneaked a peek at the price tags, nothing below six figures on that floor.”

I scanned the paintings, good stuff; some of it was really spectacular. Not my style though. The sculptures all had a Latin American twang, which seemed to be Altward’s specialty. Not my favorite region but it was a market.

“Like it? Is it valuable?” Ron inquired.

“Want some advice from the expert?” I asked back.

“Sure, ready to learn,” he nodded.

“Want to recognize good art? Trust your intuition.”

“Oh, Calendar, I could have gotten that answer from my colleague Juanita.”

“But this is it. The only criterion for good or bad art is you and you alone. The eye of the beholder. Which one of the paintings do you like the most?”

“I have no clue.”

“Come on, form an opinion. Like you do on people you meet for the first time.”

Ron gave the exhibition the first nonprofessional look of the day. Studying the paintings with interest, not with suspicion. He pointed to the far wall. “That one over there is all right.” Still life watercolor table setting with lots of green through an abstract cubist filter.

“Would you put it in your bedroom?”

“Or over the TV, sure.”

“See, you are now an art expert.”

“That’s all? I say ‘I like this piece’ and suddenly it is good art?” Ron gave me a doubtful look.

“Well, that’s the lesson of the day. But… ”

He laughed, “I knew there had to be a ‘But… ‘”

I smiled. “The only thing you have to do now is convince other people that this particular piece is good art.”

“Other people, uh?”

“Sure, the buyer, the press, other art critics, the galleries, the auctioneers, the museums, the world and the afterworld, too.”

“No wonder Rembrandt cut off his ear. Must have been out of despair.” Ron’s complete knowledge of art history.

A clipped British voice right from an Alec Guinness movie rang from the staircase at the other end of the room. “So, Miss Moonstone returns to the scene of her crime. Did she already confess, Detective Closeky?”

Fowler Wynn, together with an earnest young man, walked over to us, some papers under his arm, ready to leave. He wore a light gray summer suit without a tie because he liked to match the style of the locals to blend in. He had not changed much since our last meeting a few years back.

I gave him a cool nod, “Fowler.”

“Calendar,” he looked me straight in the eye and sent over his usual telepathic death threats.

“Fine, thank you. I see your suspicions are still alive and kicking.”

Fowler Wynn waved his free hand nonchalantly around. “My dear, you walk a thin line and we both know it. You are bound to fall.”

“I should sue your fake British ass off,” I growled. “This can’t go on forever. Harassment is a feeble description for your actions.”

Fowler leaned forward; we were almost head-to-head, like two rams ready to crack skulls. “I wish you would, my dear Calendar. Truth will prevail in the end.”

Ron followed our little exchange of repartees with an amused face and slight curiosity. I wondered what his conclusions were—whom he trusted more. He cleared his throat. “Not that I want to disturb Miss Cat’s and Mr. Dog’s genetically programmed behavior. But the fact is, Mr. Wynn, whatever your suspicions are, Calendar’s alibi is watertight. As to the reason why she is here, I asked her to help me with the case.”

Fowler was a good play actor and he responded, “I hope it wasn’t my person who accidentally gave you the idea that Miss Moonstone is a specialist in jewelry art.”

“Dear chap,” Ron gave an intentionally bad Californian impersonation of a British accent. “I am afraid you did.” He steadily held Fowler’s glare. Fowler looked at me with all the patience of a hawk waiting for a rabbit to appear from its burrow, his gray eyes and bushy eyebrows slightly twitching.

“Let’s not hope that anyone here made a mistake,” I said to no one in particular, as I held his stare. Let that prick suffer.

“My thinking, exactly,” Fowler growled.

The young man at Fowler’s side was in his twenties, black hair, black suit and a black polo. Did I mention black shoes? Ron took me by my left arm and introduced the young man as the “assistant to Mr. Altward, Serge Beauchamp.” He pronounced it the English way, ‘Bitchum.’

“Pleased to meet you,” was Serge’s hesitant response, he couldn’t yet place the banter between Fowler Wynn and me. We shook hands and exchanged goodbyes. Fowler and Beauchamp left and Ron and I made our way upstairs.

“I hope you were not shocked at Mr. Wynn’s accusations against me?” I asked, keeping my tone light, as we climbed the stairs.

“Be glad that you have an alibi. There are not many leads yet that we could follow. A suspect like you would come in handy.” Delivered with the playful smile of a shark evaluating a group of swimming tourists. So much for presumed innocent.

“So my alibi is watertight after all. You believe my friend Mundy?” I tested the water.

“Mundy’s alibi is one thing. The fact that you two have been, eh… heard by some of Mr. Mundy’s neighbors is another,” Ron showed a little embarrassment in his voice and I played on it.

“Hear what?” I asked innocently.

“You know… the noises people make when they get serious… in bed.” Ron’s ears turned reddish and I was laughing myself silly on the inside.

I managed to show a little color, reddened my ears on demand, a little trick I learned in drama class in college. And in my mind, I gave myself a high-five for Mundy’s DVD solo performance.

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