DISCOVERING FINE ART
(Part I – a priceless Renoir has been stolen from the de Young Museum in San Francisco. A museum curator, Dr. Jones, has called Sam Reynolds, PI, to ask for his help.)
“Yes, Police Chief Roscoe told me all about you when I called. He was very chatty actually.” Dr. Jones, museum curator for the de Young Museum, in San Francisco, smiled at Sam.
In turn, he tried to not look too startled. He wasn’t sure if this was a good thing or bad thing. “All about me, huh?”
She laughed. “He was actually very complimentary. Said you’re a good PI and good at finding things.”
“Ah, well ….” Sam Reynolds shrugged.
“So, you’re not sure if it was a woman or a man? In the museum? You were there right?”
Dr. Jones walked over to the coffee bar to get Sam a cup of black. Hitting the button on the top of the black carafe; the dark steaming liquid poured out. She placed the china cup and saucer on a short tray, complete with a tiny mug of crèam and crystals of rock sugar in a petite bowl. The sugar had its own tiny set of silver tongs and a small spoon.
Sam took this all in as he was about to pick up the blue china cup with a gold rim. He paused a moment, picked up the cup carefully and decided it was an old style, but not an old cup. Should be safe. He proceeded to pour a dab of crèam into the coffee and gave up on the sugar tongs. No point in attempting that and looking like a complete country clown.
He sipped the coffee. Hum, good.
Ms. Jones gave him a minute with the coffee things. She had poured herself a cup as well and had re-seated herself, elegantly, in her large black leather swivel chair. She rocked a bit. Her long, slim legs bounced lightly against each other; the only subtle indicator of impatience.
Sam looked up from his cup and saw Ms. Jones appraising him. He might have been sixty-six years old, but Sam still knew when a woman was checking him out. And Ms. Jones was doing just that. He smoothed down his mustache with his free hand.
“To be perfectly honest, I can’t say. Sam took another sip from his cup. “The perp was short enough to be a woman, but with small hips. Since the face and hair were completely covered, it’s hard to say.” He carefully placed the cup back into its saucer and wiped his moustache.
She nodded at him, a gleam in her hazel eyes.
“I would say one thing, though.” He grew thoughtful. “Him or her, whichever, was going up that rope to the helicopter hand over hand.” He made motions with his hands. “And moving fast. Now, I wouldn’t say a woman couldn’t do that, but, it’s just that I have seen more men able to pull that off, like in military training camps.”
“Hum,” was the return comment.
“Also, it reminded me of something, and I can’t remember exactly what.” Sam gazed into middle distance trying to think.
“And who were you with just then?” she asked. Your sister someone said.”
Sam took a fortifying sip. “Ah, with my girlfriend, yes, Kristie Nichols and her two daughters.”
The slightest shadow of disappointment passed over Ms. Jones’s face and then disappeared.
Might as well get it out, better sooner than later, Sam thought to himself.
There was a pause in the conversation, each in their own thoughts.
“So,” Ms. Jones put her cup down and pressed her fingers together, “I understand you don’t know a lot about art but you are good at finding people.”
“Well,” Sam blushed a little, “a time or two.”
Dr. Jones flipped open a thin file. “A boy in Indonesia, who got in with the wrong people, a young man in Vegas, who likewise picked the wrong playmates. Also, you gave assistance in the capture of an alleged killer, who was on the loose in Yosemite Park. Let’s not be too modest, Mr. Reynolds.”
She smiled at him and little dimples appeared at the corners of her mouth. He was flustered a moment. For a museum curator, she was pretty good looking.
He shook himself. “So, how can I be of help?”
“I think I may know who took the painting.”
“What makes you say that?”
“Because I met him.”
“Right here in this building, three weeks ago.”
Sam stared at her.
Dr. Jones leaned over to her intercom and pushed a button. “Jules, we’ll be heading out for a bit. Could you hold my calls?”
“Oh, yes, Dr. Jones!” The young man nearly jumped through the wire in his enthusiasm.
She abruptly pushed herself up from her desk. Her thin gray jacket fell forward across a pale blue silk blouse. “Let’s take a walk.”
Sam got up, and she lead the way out of her sixth story corner office, with its spectacular view and plush navy carpet. She guided him through the outer chamber, where her assistant, scrubbed to within an inch of his life, dazzled them both with a huge smile.
“Need anything, Dr. Jones?”
“I’m good, Jules. We’ll be about forty minutes.” The man looked like he was just about to salute but stopped himself.
Sam almost laughed. The merest smile flickered across the curator’s mouth, as she held the door for him.
Once in the hall Dr. Jones paused and pushed a lock of deep auburn hair aside.
“I know, it’s a bit much, huh?”
“Hey, I wasn’t going to say anything.”
“Yeah, I bet,” she said and grimaced. “Anyway, back to art. We’re going to take a little tour and I’ll be your guide.”
They reached the elevator and she hit the button to the second floor. They entered the elevator which glided silently down. The doors opened with a soft whoosh to a large poster advertising The Impressionist Exhibit Is Here! She looped a slim arm around the crook of his elbow and they strolled through the exhibit.
She paused at a grouping of paintings. “What do you think?”
He peered at one, got close and then backed away. The little gold plaque read Degas.
“I don’t know. They look a little dauby. Like, well, like daubs of paint were just kind of stuck on there. I don’t know. Sort of unfinished.”
“Yes,” she replied smoothly, “but back away from it a little and look again. See if it doesn’t look more clear, more uniform.” He did as she asked and stared at the painting.
“You know, I think you’re right. You almost need a little distance from the thing to really see it.”
She clapped her hands and laughed. “Oh, Mr. Reynolds, what a good student you are!” Taking his arm, they made the circuit and she suggested they go to the coffee shop. “They have some great rolls down there, you’ll have to try one.”
At eleven o’clock it was still a little early for lunch, but Sam could always fit in a snack. They made their way to the same coffee shop he had been to before, a week earlier with Kristie and the girls.
They both got rolls, he got a plain bottle of water and she ordered a tea. When he pulled out money, she waved it away and showed the cashier a plastic card she wore on a loop around her neck.
Dr. Jones steered them to a corner away from the other customers. “This way we can talk without … interruptions.”
Sam was all ears. He had to admit, when you got past the façade, Dr. Jones was intriguing.
“Have you ever heard the name Rene Auguste La Salle?”
He shook his head.
“No, well you wouldn’t. French, industrialist, into natural gas, oil, petroleum products. You know, all those things that make people a lot of money.”
Sam bit into his roll, nodded.
“Right, well money. He has a lot of money.” She nibbled on her roll. “The scuttlebutt around the art world is that he may be the long lost illegitimate great-grandson of Rene Auguste Renoir.”
When Sam gave her a questioning look, she laughed. “I am originally from Missouri, Mr. Reynolds. The bible belt. Father was a farmer, my mother was the high school art teacher. Dad, ex-military, like you.” She gave him a little wink which caught him off-guard. “Always had the dream to come and live in the big city, and, here I am.” She waved expansively at the café.
“Well …” Sam didn’t know quite what to say.
She grinned at him. She is enjoying this a little too much, he thought ruefully.
“Anyway, back to La Salle. Industrialist but fanatical art collector, of all things French. And, by the by, no price is too high.”
“Which gets us to your collection …”
“Which get us to this collection. Three weeks ago, we had the gala opening of the collection and always have a private viewing before the public gets to come tromping in.”
“Ah … and …”
“And,” the words started to come out more slowly, “the guest list was comprised of individuals who had made donations to the museum.”
“Yes, and for the most part, mostly the largest donations got on the list.”
The pieces were starting to fit together. “And Mr. La Salle of course …”
“Had made an extremely generous donation to the museum this year.” She wrinkled up her nose a little like there was a bad smell.
“Ah … large donation.”
“Very large donation. Which, of course, guaranteed him a ticket into the pre-screening gala which he accepted.”
“And came all the way from France?”
“Yup, all the way just to see our little show.” Dr. Jones frowned.
“Let me guess,” Sam picked at the last little crumbs of his roll. “He liked the exhibit but he really liked the Renoir painting.”
Dr. Jones squirmed a little in her chair and for a moment looked a lot younger.
Kind of reminds me of my daughter when she was in trouble, Sam mused.
“Ah, yes. That is about it. Liked the collection but really did like the Renoir. Even asked me if it was for sale.”
“What did you tell him?”
More squirming. “Well, first I laughed at the idea. Then, I realized he wasn’t kidding and had to tell him it is a priceless piece of art and not for sale at any price.”
“What was his response to that?”
There was a pause. “Well, he just smiled this big smile and said “Naturally.”
Very, sort of French, you know how they are. Ah, maybe you don’t but, he didn’t seem mad or upset or anything. Just smiled and drifted away. I went to talk to other guests. I thought that was that until last week and the theft …” She gazed out to the gardens.
“Hum …” Sam could tell how upset she was. “So, now what?”
Dr. Jones seemed to gather herself together and looked at him. “There is insurance to cover the theft. But, what I said is true. It is a priceless piece of art, it should belong to the public and stay in a museum where people who know what they are doing can care for it properly.”
“Who actually owns it?”
“Harvard Art Museum,” she looked down.
“So, to be a little blunt, Dr. Jones, what happens to you if it is not recovered?”
She sighed. “Oh, it’s not like I am going to lose my job or anything like that. I am not in charge of security. But, it was my responsibility getting the art here for the exhibit and it doesn’t look good for me or the de Young.”
“Ah …” Sam tapped his finger against the table.
“And you want me to …?” He raised his eyebrows at her.
There was a deep intake of breath. “La Salle is a French citizen and lives on a luxury estate in the South of France. We have absolutely no proof that he was involved in any of this and no jurisdiction over him.”
Some of the elegance that Dr. Jones exuded slipped away and a note of desperation edged into her voice. “There is an insurance adjuster already assigned to the case by Lloyds and he is supposed to be pretty good. But …” She paused.
“But, I don’t know. The guy seems like a lot of bluff and bluster to me and I don’t have much confidence.”
“Have you shared your theory/feelings with anyone?”
“I told all this to my boss and he told me I am grasping at straws because I’m desperate.”
“Desperate? Yes. Grasping at straws? I don’t think so.”
She turned and looked intently into Sam’s eyes. “Did you ever just have a feeling, a really strong feeling about someone? Something about them that was creepy or not right, or something, and you couldn’t put your finger on it. But, was there?”
Sam grinned and nodded.
“Well, it’s the same thing here, Mr. Reynolds. If you could have seen him look at that painting. It was a little weird, he almost tried to touch it but stopped himself. That look on his face, like he was hungry.” She shrugged helplessly. “I don’t know how else to explain it. I absolutely hate the phrase women’s intuition it is so cliché. But, the feeling I got was so strong. What do you think? Give it a stab?”
“Well,” Sam responded slowly. He recognized the helplessness in her voice and the sheer nature of the dilemma. He also knew that people didn’t get corner offices anywhere without a tremendous amount of work. “I don’t work for free.”
“The museum has given me a budget.”
“I might have to get some help.”
“We’ll pay. It will be worth it.”
“No guarantee of results and you still have to pay the fees.”
“Okay then, Dr. Jones. I guess we got us a deal.”
To Sam’s immense surprise, Dr. Jones leaned over and gave him a big hug. He thought he saw a little tear in the corner of her eye when they got up.
She grabbed a paper napkin and dabbed at her face.
“Come on back to my office and I’ll have Jules do the paperwork. Oh, and geese!” She stared at her watch. “I have got to get to a meeting! Can you find your way back upstairs?”
He told her he could. She grabbed his hand and shook it. “Thank you so much, Mr. Reynolds. So much!”
“You’re welcome young lady and you can start your thanks by calling me Sam.”
“Okay, Sam. Talk to you soon!” She started to walk away, then stopped and turned back. “Yes, and I’m Ellen!” With a spin, Ellen, turned on her heel and was out of the café in a flash.
“Whew,” was all Sam could say. “Okay, Jules, let’s get this horse on the road.” He went to track down the obsequious Jules.
Continued on in Part III