A Brilliant Plan

Chapter 9

THE NEXT MORNING was a typical San Diego autumn day with sunshine and 70 degree temperatures. Mundy snored lightly on his couch as I tiptoed around him to dress. The house was still asleep when Ron picked me up and we rode to Andrew Altward’s apartment in Downtown San Diego’s Marina district.

During the ride, Ron rattled off some information about Altward, most of which I already knew.

I asked, “By the way, do the guys from the gallery have alibis?”

“Let’s see. The second partner, Faulkner, is still away on business in Mexico City. He’s supposed to come up tonight. Pretty solid. We’ll talk to him tomorrow. Serge, the assistant, was out with his boyfriend, seen by several people. They were out partying most of the night. Altward was dining out with a customer and afterwards he went home. His alibi is the weakest, cuts the time frame pretty tight.”

Altward lived in a penthouse with an expensive view and a terrace garden. A Spanish maid opened the door and led us onto the roof top terrace. Potted palms provided shade, a small fountain was making soothing sounds and wind chimes were dangling away somewhere out of sight. Andrew Altward was like a small-scale version of Thomas Cornelius. Scratch all the old money and one or two zeroes on the personal worth and you got an art dealer with a very good local reputation with the museum and collector community and some valuable connections to the East Coast and the L.A. and San Francisco scenes. He looked younger than his middle fifties, dark hair without specks of gray, fashionably long. He sported a thin mustache that started to twirl on the edges giving him a pre World War One look.

He looked worried. On shaking hands, he immediately asked, “When will I be able to reopen my gallery, Detective?”

Ron gave him a professional smile. I was making a sport out of reading his face and deciding which mimic was genuine and which one was purely professional. He replied, “The crime scene investigators have finished. You need to clean up, of course, but from our side you could start business right away.”

“And the Calder?”

“Impounded, of course.”

Gesturing with considerable bravado, Altward threw an agitated hand in the air, “You know how much that piece is worth?”

“I understand your problem, Sir,” Ron explained patiently, “but it is a murder weapon. Therefore, it is evidence and can only be released after we are sure that it will not be needed in an eventual trial.”

Altward looked as if he was ready to explode as he mentally calculated the months or years until he would see the Calder mobile again.

To lighten the mood, I said, “But imagine the collector’s value of a Calder murder mobile.” My concept of playing good cop, bad cop.

Altward gave me a sharp glance as if he had noticed me for the first time and Ron took the chance to introduce me. “Miss Moonstone is acting as a consultant in this case.”

Altward and I shook hands and he asked, “Are you from the insurance company, too?”

“No, independent freelance,” I answered, deadpan.

“We do that sometimes to help us with certain aspects of a case.”

“You are from here? Have we met before?” Altward inquired.

I shook my head. “I have a store in Redondo Beach. I design jewelry.”

Whether he recognized my name, or me, he didn’t say. Then he gave me another long look as if to decide into which category to put me. Altward offered us sodas, which we declined, and seats, which we took. We situated ourselves around a large wooden dining table. Placed centrally on the large terrace, it was obviously used for all kinds of work and living purposes.

Altward patted a small stack of paper and files. “You asked for photos and descriptions of the stolen goods.” He spread out several high-resolution color photographs from a large envelope. “Here are the four pieces that are missing.”

Ron and I bent over the photos and he gave me a questioning look. Time to work for my consultant fee. “All four pieces were created by a French jeweler shortly before the French Revolution in 1775. Patrice Montenhaute was one of the royal jewelers. He did repairs and modifications and created a large number of smaller pieces.”

Altward gave a curt nod and added. “His family was from Malta originally and settled in Paris around 1750. He learned the trade and developed his own style; the double row of small stones framing his subjects is one of his trademarks.”

I pointed out to Ron what Altward had meant on the photographs.

“What is the value of the pieces?” he asked.

Altward gave the predictable answer. “They were insured for a total sum of about five hundred thousand dollars. Mr. Wynn, the insurance agent, verified this fact for me last night.”

“How can the thief turn them into money?” Ron thought along practical lines.

“Same way he can turn a car radio or a stolen TV set into money. By offering it to the right people.” Andrew Altward looked a little impatiently at Ron. “Isn’t that your line of work, Officer?”

Ron gave a polite smile. “What I meant is do you know any of the fencing sources in this area?”

“Excuse me?” Altward appeared a little shaken. Again, his impatience showed.

“Forget the question, Sir,” Ron said and pulled another one. “Where were you at the time of the murder?”

“I gave you that answer yesterday, out with a customer and then in bed,” Altward was visibly annoyed.

“No real alibi, if you ask me.”

“Is that a statement or a question?”

“A statement,” Ron answered.

“Had I known I needed an alibi, I would have arranged for one,” Altward shrugged. “Had I planned to raid my own shop, I would offer you a very solid alibi, indeed. Otherwise, it would be plain stupid.”

“You wouldn’t believe it, but some thieves are,” Ron was all business. “Can we keep those pictures?”

“Please, take them. What a nightmare.”

Ron continued down the items in his notebook. “Do you have any idea why this particular set of pieces was stolen? I noticed that the displays in your safe are all secured the same way with hardened glass and a Definer-lock.”

“Sorry, I can’t tell you that. As you said, after entering the main safe room, he had free choice.”

Time to earn some of my free lunches. “In your opinion, was the Montenhaute set selected for a specific reason?”

Altward rubbed his hands. Was that an indicator of not telling the truth? Had to ask Ron about that later. “Montenhaute has his aficionados; that is for sure.”

I nodded in agreement, old Patrice certainly did.

“Did many people know of the Montenhaute set on display?”

Altward gave Ron another ‘Do-I-pay-for-your-questions-with-my-taxes’ look.

“What Officer McCloseky means is did any of your customers show particular interest in the Montenhaute set lately?”

Altward looked at me again and from the corner of my eyes, I could see a smile playing around Ron’s lips.

“Yes, there were some, of course. There are not too many pieces on the shop market. Most of them go through the big auction houses.”

I was in full detective mode now. “Could you try to remember the names or times so we could run the names and faces against our computers?” Our computers, I was one of ‘them’ now.

“Some of the names I know, I will find them in my client database. I will also have to ask Paul Faulkner and our assistant. With faces, do you mean the security tapes?” I nodded eagerly. “Sure, I know the approximate dates and times. The security company can send me the DVD and I will try to do the spotting.”

“DVD?” Ron asked.

“Oh yes, Officer.” Altward said with a patience usually reserved for the elderly clients who were interested in Montenhaute kitsch. “All of the security cameras record digital today. The security company stores them on hard disks and digital tapes and archives them on CD. I can watch them on my PC at home, if needed.”

“I am impressed with the standard of security you have in your gallery,” Ron said with a feigned look of simplemindedness.

Altward, once more with forced patience, “I consider your remark to be ironic as it was obviously not enough security.”

“How do you guess that the murderer entered the safe?”

“I don’t know. I thought that’s for the police to find out.”

“Not really, the how is not as important to me as the who.” Ron explained. “The how is in the interest of Mr. Wynn.”

“Mr. Wynn indicated that the thief might have hacked into the security company’s computer to override certain security alerts.”

“That, of course, is an explanation,” Ron said with a shake of his head, indicating that all other options were still open as well.

Ron and I walked back to the car. It was still a beautiful day, sun shining, and nice temperature. Time for strolling and sitting in street cafes, sipping hot espresso and holding hands with a handsome policeman.

“Where next?” I asked hopefully, sounding a little too eager.

Ron laughed. “Someone is on the move here.”

I blushed a little. “It is exciting, I must confess.”

He opened the car. “Well, we covered one of the most likely suspects for insurance fraud, the owner.”

“Altward is a suspect for you?”

“Of course, everyone is at this stage,” Ron delivered that one deadpan, looking me evenly in the eye. “Statistically speaking, when it comes to theft, we have the owner as suspect number two.”

Ron started the car, turned around and drove north.

“And suspect number one?” I asked.

“Convicted felons,” Ron laughed out, couldn’t hold back.

“Thank you! Luckily I am neither felon nor convicted.” I folded my arms.

“Now, we are turning our detecting eyes toward suspect number one when it comes to murder.”

“Hannibal Lecter?” I guessed hopefully.

“Next of kin. We are going to visit the daughter of the dead night watchman, Phoebe Eastman.”

“She already knows about her father?” I dreaded a tearful scene like those you see on TV.

“Yeah, Juanita and I took care of that unpleasant task at noon yesterday. She was very upset, so we didn’t do much questioning.” Ron explained, then he radioed in and asked for messages, there were none.

He settled back into his seat, moving his sexy tush left and right, settling in. “So, any thoughts about our Mr. Altward?”

“Some,” I stated. “One thing I don’t understand is why the Montenhaute?”

“Well, you gave an explanation, didn’t you? Custom job for a frog lover.”

“Sure. And I can even profile the customer for you—male, between 70 and 90, gray hair, and collector of French royal art, pre-Revolution. Look for someone who is tight on money, maybe his kids got burned in the dot-com bubble.”

“Not too bad. What about a little fanatical element?”

“Agreed. He is a fanatical collector of that stuff. So much so he prepares to steal a piece instead of reselling some other items of his collection to finance the buy of Altward’s Montenhaute with that money.”

“Hey, you are worth your money. You saved me the trip to the local FBI field office,” Ron laughed.

“I just wanted to look competent. What do I know about hired thieves?” I said smugly. “But another interesting point from my perspective was why Altward had such a set in his possession and on display? Everything we saw in there was in line with his typical standard. The twentieth century art, like the Calder mobile or the Gottlieb lithographs on the wall, the modern jewelry collection, everything I saw there was second half nineteenth century and later, plus the Mexican artists. Plus, his business associate Thomas Cornelius fits into that scheme as well.”

“The French grandma stuff was a little bit out of line, you mean?”

“Exactly. Why did the thief steal this one particular set of jewelry that didn’t fit in anyway? And nothing else. I mean, the Montenhaute wasn’t even that valuable.”

“Five hundred thousand doesn’t sound like a Radio Shack stereo to me,” Ron remarked dryly. “And people are killed for a pair of Nike’s every day.”

“But the Calder mobile alone is probably worth that much. The thief could have easily doubled his take by not dropping the murder weapon.”

“And removing incriminating evidence. OK, I agree, good point.”

“But what do we make of it?” I looked over at Ron, who drove easily through the thick Thanksgiving Friday pre-lunchtime stream.

“Relax, nothing makes sense immediately. It will in the end.”

“Oh, I thought you detectives form a theory right away and deduct everything from there.”

“Watson, it is called a hypothesis and the deduction is not my task. I ask, I listen, I read and I write a lot of reports. If a solution jumps out, it is good for me to take it to the D.A. If not, it is not worth worrying over.”

“I am disappointed. Really!”

“Thank you for your insight so far. It is valuable to me.”

We rode silently for a few minutes. Then I asked, “Say, how do you know that a suspect is lying. I noticed, for example, that Altward was rubbing his hands a lot.”

“Oh sure, that is always a sign.”

“Of lying?”

“No, of dry hands.”

We shared a good laugh and Ron turned serious again. “Think, Calendar,” he tapped his head playfully.

I thought for a minute but nothing regarding either lying or dry hands came to mind. So I looked back at Ron.

He explained. “Did you notice something when we entered the penthouse?”

“It was expensive.”

“It smelled of Turpentine.”

My finger shot up. “So he did some heavy cleaning before we came. Removing bloodstains?”

Ron rolled his eyes. “Altward moves in the art scene. His CV, courtesy of Mr. Fowler Wynn, states that he was an art major at UCAL in the seventies. So it is likely that he does a little recreational painting in his spare time.”

“I see. He does oil painting, uses Turpentine a lot to clean the brushes and his skin. Therefore, dry hands,” I deducted.

“What did we learn, Calendar?”

“Use your nose?” I offered.

Ron rolled his eyes. “Do your homework.”

“I amimpressed.” Really, I was.

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