Sherlock and Me (The Case of the Starry Night) by SJ Slagle

My name’s Lucy James. I’m the assistant manager in a movie theater in downtown Reno, Nevada. I’ve worked since high school at this musty theater located right on the Truckee River that snakes through the city. To explain the musty smell, we had a terrible flood 
Sherlock and Me (The Case of the Starry Night)
Sherlock and Me (The Case of the Starry Night) by SJ Slagle

about ten years ago that swamped the theatre. Even though it rarely rains in Reno, that year it had rained for three days straight and the river finally rose. Water spilled right in the doors like it had bought a ticket. You wouldn’t believe all the crap I found floating in the lobby and behind the candy counter. Gross… Gone, but not forgotten and the slight smell of old socks remains.

Slogging away in this old theater pays the bills and there have been plenty because I can’t seem to graduate from college. Ten years? Ten years declaring major after major? Business: No… I’m not that good at math. Psychology: Definitely not. I can’t figure out how my mind works, so how could I figure out someone else’s?

My dad has finally given up and now refuses to pay for any more classes. Maybe I need to go to a fortune-teller and have my tea leaves read. I sure can’t figure out what I should be when I grow up. Maybe she could…

I’m hoping that my dream job will fall in my lap one of these days. Not looking for Prince Charming or Galahad or Lancelot either, thank you. A few times burned in the man department can leave you a bit shy to strike up a new romance. Well, it does me. Same music… different tune. And all those notes go sour in the end.

The theater manager, Kevin Reynolds, is a nice guy obviously stuck in a dead-end job with no hope of advancement. He’s been here as long as I have.

But that’s what you get when you marry just out of high school to a girl you got pregnant probably right after the graduation ceremony. I’ve known Kevin since the sixth grade, thus the easy job. He doesn’t make it hard for me and leaves me alone most of the time. My kind of boss…





But today – today was a little different.





* * *





“Somebody left this in theater two.” Kevin smoothed over his thinning hair and handed me the umbrella. “Probably left last night. Marvin cleaned that theatre.” He rolled his eyes.

“What do you want me to do with it?” I took it, looking it over. A splash of color – blues and yellows swirling around dark, slippery material. It felt damp. Opening it slightly -- don’t want to get hit with a blast of bad luck -- I recognized the pattern. It was a stunning copy of Van Gogh’s Starry Night. Gee, for a guy who could hardly sell anything while he was alive, Van Gogh was everywhere now. Somebody was making a lot of money off his Impressionist art.

Shrugging, Kevin walked away talking over his shoulder. “Stick it in Lost and Found.”

“Why an umbrella? It hardly ever rains.”

“…It did last night.”

“Really? Must have slept through it.”

“…If no one claims it in a month, it’s yours.”

“Why would I want an umbrella?”

He stopped for minute, looked back, a slight smile on his plump face. That got my attention since Kevin rarely smiles – He thinks it makes his face look fat… Glancing at his watch, he began moving away. “It’s just the sort of weird thing that will drive you nuts until you learn its story… Isn’t it?”

My jaw dropped. Well, for Pete’s sake. He sure had my number… I did like to figure out little puzzles. Wonder if I could get a job doing that?

Kevin shook his head and laughed. “Back to work, James.” He walked to his office leaving a question mark parked over my head.





What was its story?

Why would someone leave an umbrella in a movie theater, if it were raining outside?

And why should I care?





No one ever uses umbrellas in town. Rain always catches us by surprise and lasts ten whole minutes. Umbrellas mainly get in the way and then you’re stuck carrying it. Okay, so maybe that’s why it was left… Guy forgot he had it.





Maybe he had it for protection… Huh…

I suppose you could beat somebody away with an umbrella, but that seemed ridiculous. I conjure images of little old ladies with white hair not wanting help crossing the street.





No, the umbrella was needed for some other reason.

Sinister?

Decorative?

Playful?





Hmm… Or maybe it was a clue.





And that’s why I care – I enjoy figuring out little puzzles, like Kevin said. I stick in bits of information into my mind like clothes in a washing machine. It all spins and spins around in my brain, while I add in the soap and fabric softener. After a while, it all chugs to a stop and I open the door. Sometimes, if I’m lucky, a clean picture appears that brings a big smile to my otherwise bored face. Puzzles put a spring in my step and a boost to my flagging morale. And I’ve accomplished something – finally.

But today I didn’t seem to have the energy. I’ve got career choices to make and a job to do. I shook my head and walked to the office to put the umbrella in the Lost and Found box.





* * *





CHAPTER 2





“I don’t know why you just don’t do it.”

Cindy waved her taco at me while we were sitting at the Food Court in the mall. But malls make Cindy nervous – all the people everywhere. What’s that called when you’re afraid of crowds? So why on earth did we come here?

Cindy Floyd’s been my best friend and partner-in-crime since high school. We’ve been roomies for the past three years. She went off to the university in Las Vegas and actually got a degree, while I’ve been spinning my academic wheels ever since. She tries, I repeat tries, to keep me on track. But she’s been at it for a while now and my once hearty appetite has faded like yesterday’s news.

I wearily took another bite of my hamburger. Anxiety hit me in the stomach and the last bite was threatening to come back up.

“Look…I…I need to focus on a career. It’s getting ridiculous that I can’t decide on a major and finish school. Dad says I’m hopeless.” I chewed the bite into very small pieces in the hopes I can swallow it.

“…But it’s what you love to do, Lucy. And you’re good at it! Remember when you figured out that theft at the grocery store? Nobody but you put two and two together to discover the extra checkout lane that wasn’t supposed to be open. And that cashier who was raking in the money. Remember? Huh?”

I refrained from rolling my eyes, but it’s an effort. “The police didn’t appreciate my help, as I recall.”

“Regardless…” She waved that taco at me again. “The police lieutenant was just pissed you figured it out before he did.”

“I was practically banned from going into that grocery store again.”

“…Not by the store manager. He offered you a job.”

I did roll my eyes this time and glanced back at her. She was only trying to be helpful. Thank God someone was in my camp.

“Thanks, Cindy. I appreciate what you’re trying to do, but Dad’s right. I’ve got to quit fooling around and pick a career. Working at a movie theater with a pimply-faced teenager, an old guy, a drama queen and Kevin probably isn’t what I was meant to do with my life.”

Cindy looked around at all the noisy people in the Food Court. Too many restaurants together in one place for her and I could see beads of sweat popping out on her forehead. She dabbed them with a napkin and smiled nervously at me… Trying to be brave, I guess. Her taco went down on her plate and her breathing became labored.

“We didn’t need to…” I stopped, eyes forward. I noticed something move out of the corner of my eye. Jeez… a small spider was nonchalantly walking across our table, as if he had the right-of-way. Cindy and I both froze at the same time.

I stood up so quickly that I knocked over my chair. Cindy jumped up too, wiping the spider off the table with her damp napkin. It clung to the napkin and then jumped over on me! Yikes! All those feathery tentacles poking at me! I began to hop up and down, trying vainly to brush the spider of my arm!

“Get it off!” I wailed. “Get it off!” I danced around the Food Court with Cindy running after me. Whenever she got close enough, she brushed the napkin somewhere in my vicinity.

A manager ran over to see if he could help. Help? The only thing that scares me in this life is spiders! How can he help me with that?

He spoke soothingly and attempted to calm us both. Other people around us at the various restaurants darted worried glances in our direction, while we danced the dance of the insane…

Ten minutes later, Cindy and I found ourselves in a ladies bathroom splashing water on our faces and trying to calm down. Between agoraphobia and arachnophobia, we were both done in.

Water dripping from my face, I glanced in the mirror. My face was flushed while Cindy’s was stone pale. A red face goes with my auburn hair, I suppose, but Cindy’s a blonde – that pale face made her appearance look washed out. We’re quite a pair… bookends. Rick and rack.

“You okay?” I grabbed a paper towel from the dispenser and wiped the excess moisture off my face.

“No,” she said as she dabbed a wet towel on hers. She threw it away and glanced back at me in the mirror. Corners of her mouth began to tip up slightly and she bit back a smile. Her grin was now infectious and I grinned back like an idiot.

“Remember that old TV show? I Love Lucy? Well, that’s us – Lucy and Ethel.”

A giggle threatened to bubble out and did, followed by all its family. Her face contorted and my reflection showed mine doing the same. We burst out with loud peals of laughter. Cindy’s laughing so hard, she had to lean against the sink to stay upright. A lady in a stall peeked over the top, a worried expression on her face. She reluctantly opened the door a tiny bit and beat a hasty retreat as fast as her short little legs could go.

Cindy and I paused in our maniacal condition, watched her rushed departure and broke out laughing again as soon as the bathroom door slammed. I was weak from laughing now and my side’s beginning to hurt.

A perfect time for a phone call.

Cindy still tried to pull herself together while I searched frantically in my purse for my cell phone. The ringtone was Eric Clapton’s ‘I Shot the Sheriff’ and I knew my dad was calling.

“Hi, Dad…” It’s no use. I still couldn’t keep it together without laughing.

“Lucy? Is that you?”

“Yes…ha…Dad…What’s up?” I managed to get out.

“Did you sign up for any new classes this fall?”

“No, I didn’t.” I bit back my happy giggle and started to sigh instead.

“I thought you were going into that medical records program.”

Ick…Can’t think of anything I’d rather not do…

“…Ah…well, no, Dad. I’m still thinking that one over.”

“Lucy…”

“Dad…” I could hear the exasperation in his voice. He’s really had it with me this time.

“Come home for dinner this weekend. I’ve got some other career ideas for you to look at.”

“I’ll come home for dinner, but please spare me the lecture on careers. I really am trying to find something else. Honest…”

Even giving him my best positive voice wasn’t cutting it.

“Sweetie, you’re not getting any younger.” Great… Now he was pulling out the big gun.

“Dad… I get it. Times a’wasting. I promise to have a new major by Christmas.”

“Will I see you this weekend?”

“Sure. Can I bring Cindy?”

“Of course. Are you two ever apart?” He finally loosened up a bit and laughed.

“…Yes. We have different bathrooms…”

“Cute, Lucy. See you Saturday.” And he hung up.

I stuffed the phone back into my purse and looked up at Cindy. She was shaking her head.

“…Still on your case?”

“Always… It’s his main job in life – Nagging me about my career choices.”

“Well, he means well.”

I rubbed my forehead, a headache’s starting. “Yeah, I know. It’s just the only song he sings.”

“…Now that’s not quite true,” Cindy smiled. “Sometimes, the song is about the grandchildren he doesn’t have.”

“Right… careers and grandchildren. Wonder how he’d like it if I constantly harassed him about his thinning, graying hair?”

Cindy gave me one of her looks. “He is your father…”

I gave her the look right back. “Yeah and I’m his daughter. Doesn’t that count for something?”

She shrugged. “You’re so down, Lucy. I’m usually able to jolly you back to your smart-alecky self by now. Are you okay?”

I read with appreciation the concern on her face.

“You need a break.”

“…I sure need something.”

“Why don’t we get out of town this weekend?”

“It’s just not a good time.”

She fixed a pointed stare at me and shook her head.

“Let’s get out of the bathroom.”





We walked through the mall a little quicker than when we’d walked in.

It was fall and many stores displayed warmer clothing now and fall sporting items. A few autumn decorations…Thanksgiving…

Cindy had combed her curly hair and refreshed her pale pink lipstick in the bathroom. Several men glanced her way – She’s prettier than me, but that’s okay. I’m sure I have qualities that she doesn’t. I just don’t know what they are right this minute…

She poked me in the arm. “Well?”

“Well, what?”

“Are you going to find the owner of that umbrella? I know you’re still tossing that over.”

I waved both hands in the air. “Are you kidding me? When have I had a moment to think since you asked me? Tonight’s dinner has been a little exciting, if you’ll recall.”

She fluffed her hair. “…Just promise me you’ll think about it.”

“Why on earth do you care?”

“I don’t. You do…”

I stopped in my tracks. She was right, of course. I hate when that happens.





* * *





CHAPTER 3





Joe had to get a new tie. He’s been wearing that bright red bowtie for the ten years he’s been my advisor. The ends were shredding and there was lint on his dark blue jacket. Couldn’t he see it? He’d walked out of his office to get something and I glanced at his brown elbow patches as he strolled by. Elbow patches? The guy could seriously use a makeover.

But who am I to talk? I took a good look at my jeans – huh… I noticed a few rips for the first time. My tee shirt is the same kind of top that I’ve been wearing for the past ten years too. Maybe he’s saying the same things about what I wear. Cindy definitely dresses better. Her jeans are clean with no tears and she wears frilly blouses…

“I got you something, Lucy. You know, to commemorate our ten year relationship.”

He handed me a medium-sized box with Ninja Turtle wrapping paper and a big pink bow. Probably Joe’s idea of femininity…

I’m sure my face registered surprise. I thought he was pretty sick of me coming in whenever to moan about my inability to commit. He probably is… I glanced up into his smiling face – The round, black glasses and trimmed gray beard may make him look studious, but I know for a fact that he plays X-Box…

“Mr. Warner, you shouldn’t have,” I said while shaking the box by my ear. “Diamonds?”

“And normally I wouldn’t, but Lucy, we’ve known each other for a decade now. When I first became your advisor, ‘Lord of the Rings’ had just won eleven Academy Awards!” His smile showed lots of straight, white teeth.

“You and I are probably the only people to even remember that fact, Mr. Warner.”

“Hurricane Ivan hit Alabama?”

I shook my head. “…Only you and six meteorologists…”

“Well, lots has happened, I’m sure.”

“You skipped conveniently over the fact that I’ve had seven majors in the last ten years. That’s kind of momentous, don’t you think?”

I ripped off the bow and paper and was getting to the good part – opening the box. I wasn’t this excited last Christmas… Probably because my dad gave me a self-help book on ‘Finding Your Place in Life’. Right…I was still looking.

I lifted the corners of the dark brown box and peered inside. No! Not really!

“Is this what I think it is?”

Joe nodded, pushing back his glasses on his nose.

I plucked out a hat – But not just any hat… This was a black and white houndstooth, wool Sherlock Holmes cap, complete with earflaps neatly tied up on top. It had a bill in front and one in the back, I guess to keep the rain off Sherlock’s neck. And it can get rainy in Merry Old London.

My mouth opened but no words came out. I sat there holding Sherlock’s cap, marveling that at least there was one man on the face of this earth who understood me – a little…

“Thanks, Mr. Warner. This was really very nice of you and… unexpected.”

“You’re welcome, Lucy. It began as a bit of a joke, but I can read in your frozen expression that it means more to you than that.”

“…Um…”

“Listen, can I be blunt here?”

“Aren’t you supposed to be, as my advisor?”

“…Well, yes, but I’m usually wearing my tactful gloves.”

“…Take them off.”

“Good. Listen, Lucy… You must know you’re a dreadful student.”

“…Ah…”

“Can you still take it?”

“Yeah, shoot.”

“I think you’re a wonderful person, but you’re just a hopeless student. I bet even the university feels badly taking your money year after year.”

“Mine and my dad’s…”

“Yes, well…”

“… And?”

“You need to find a vocation and not an academic course of study. This just isn’t for you. You know – the Ivory Tower stuff.”

“But…”

“And I thought about what you really like to do -- solve puzzles. Puzzles that come up in life and manifest themselves as little things such as losing your glasses… all the way up to bona fide crime.” He looked at the cap. “You must know where I’m going with this.”

I put the cap on my head and modeled it. “You want me to be a hat model?”

He grinned. “…Good sense of humor too. Lucy, do this.” He pointed at the cap.

I looked up towards the cap on my head, but mainly, I could only see the bill. I looked back at him. “Are you suggesting…?”

“Yes. Job shadow a detective around for a while. Go to the Police Academy… some sort of job that lets you figure out puzzles. Well?” He patted me on the cap. “What do you think?”

“So I should become like Sherlock, is that it?”

“I think you must be Sherlock’s sister with the kinds of things you’ve untangled in the past. Remember when you helped figure out who was blackmailing the mayor? That was a pretty big case…”

“Yes, and it helped that my father knew the mayor, so I had access.”

“Whatever… Don’t downplay this. I could have access to the mayor and never figure out something as complicated as that was.”

I took off the cap and put it back in the box. “Thanks, Mr. Warner. I hear what you’re saying. Do you honestly think I could make a living doing detective work?”

“I think you’d probably need to be a policeman first or sign up with a detective agency. Sam Spade didn’t happen overnight.” He laughed. “There was probably a training period.”

“My dad would say that’s dangerous work.”

He arched an eyebrow. “What would you say?”

I picked up the wrapping paper and tossed it in the wastebasket. Slipping the box under my arm, I stood up. “I’ve got to go, Mr. Warner. Thanks again… I appreciate the gesture.”

He stood up and stuck out his hand. “Good luck, Lucy, if this is goodbye.”

I choked, clearing my throat. “…Goodbye? Are you that sick of me?”

“No, but you may be starting down another path -- A path on which I wouldn’t be advising you. If that’s the case, good luck. If your dad wins the argument, I’ll still be your advisor. But Lucy…”

He stroked his beard in thought. “In either scenario, I’ll still be your friend. Let me know what you decide.”

I shook his hand and gave him my bravest smile. “…Okay. Thanks again for the hat.” He really is the nicest man I know.





* * *





Twenty minutes later, I walked in the front door of my apartment and was met by a flying ball of fluff. Coming in, I saw him briefly hurtling down the hallway as fast as his pint-sized legs would carry him. It’s nice that there’s one male in my universe who’s happy to see me when I come home.

“Baskerville! Have you been a good puppy while I was gone?” I lifted him up to give him a smooch as he eagerly licked my face. Being a toy poodle, I could cradle him in my arms with no problem… He’s happy and I’m happy. Happiness is not overrated…

I took him out for a short walk around the neighborhood, informing him of my day. I pretend that he understands and he pretends to listen. Works out for us both.

“So I saw Mr. Warner after work today, Baskerville. You know, he suggested that I become a detective or a detective-in-training. What do you think?”

Baskerville had stepped delicately over by a tree to sniff out the information that other dogs had left. Reading the nightly newspaper is what I like to call it. He rubbed his puffy white head in the grass and then walked over to pee on the tree. When he looked back at me, I could swear he nodded his little poodle head. I might be projecting…

“So you think it’s a good idea, huh? Okay, that’s one for the plus column to balance the one in the negative column. Who’s that you ask, Baskerville? My dad, of course, will think it’s a lousy idea.”

“Hey, Lucy! How’s Baskerville?” called out Mrs. Murphy, our closest neighbor. She was leading an immense, gray Great Dane named Hamlet down the sidewalk toward us. The dogs knew each other well.

“Hi, Mrs. Murphy. He’s fine and how’s Hamlet? Still got that flatulence problem?” I bit my lip trying not to smile.

She laughed… A big, round belly laugh to match her big, round belly. Mrs. Murphy’s a nice lady and cooks a mean lasagna.

“…Aren’t you the kidder, Miss Lucy. Hamlet’s just fine now, although that was a problem for a while, especially when the meter reader came by last week. My stars, I thought that man was going to faint when Hamlet let go a big one!”

What a sight in front of us – a five-pound toy poodle nipping at the ankles of a worried, one hundred pound Great Dane. Baskerville was being the alpha dog, since he’s the male to poor Hamlet, stuck being a female with a male name. It happens…

We started to go our own ways when Mrs. Murphy called me back.

“Oh, I almost forgot. The UPS guy left a package with me, since no one was home at your place and I said I’d take it for you.”

“Great. Where is it now?”

“It’s on my porch. Just go in and get it. Hamlet needs the rest of her walk.”

I raised an eyebrow. “…Sure she does.”

Our tiny apartment building was in the middle of a quiet residential neighborhood. The zoning was haphazard around here at best. Mrs. Murphy’s house was an old two-story brick with one of those great airy front porches. Baskerville and I walked up the steps to her porch where I found a big box from a sporting goods store. How exciting, yet curious. I didn’t remember ordering anything, but dutifully picked it up and lugged it home. Baskerville wanted his dinner. He’s been such a good dog listening to me that I’m giving him a few bites of pastrami tonight, his favorite.

Although the box beckoned, I got distracted feeding Baskerville and listening to a few messages left on the answer machine. I hadn’t opened the box when Cindy came dashing through the front door. She never walked slowly – that girl is always on the run.

“Hey all!” She yelled out, slamming the door behind her. Before I could say anything about the loud slam, Baskerville was running down the length of the hallway to her, barking his miniature bark.

Cindy crouched down with arms outstretched and called out, ”Now where’s that hound we call Baskerville?” She says it every night and it never fails to make me laugh.

Baskerville ran into her arms and she gave him a big hug and kiss. That poor dog never gets any attention.

The hat was sitting on the table in the hallway and I knew Cindy saw it right off. She’s got sharp eyes and is very detail-oriented, much like me. Could be why we’ve been such good friends for so long – We’re a lot alike, sort of.

“Where’d this come from? I love it!”

“What do you make of it, Watson?” I teased.

“…Elementary, my dear Holmes. It’s a… hat!”

“You have a real talent for the obvious, Cindy.”

“So?” She put it on and checked her reflection in the mirror above the table. “Where’d you get it? Can I wear it?”

“No!” I snatched it off her head and held it behind my back. “…It’s mine!”

“When did we become five again, Lucy?”

“Just now. When was the last time I got a present that I liked from a man?”

She tapped a finger to her chin and crinkled her eyes. “I’d say just about never.”

“That’s right.”

“What man gave you this?”

“Mr. Warner.”

“…Warner gave you that?” Her voice squeaked up a few decibels. “No!”

“Yes and he suggested that I become a detective.”

Her face took on a mysterious look – I couldn’t read her at all.

“What?”

She glanced around the room.

“Did a box come for you today?”

“Yeah, Mrs. Murphy had it.”

“… Well?”

“Well, what?”

“Did you open it?”

I shrugged and turned around to point at the box on the kitchen table. Cindy got a knife out of a drawer and cut it open, while I tugged on the box flaps. Apparently, this was my day for presents.

“It’s a coat.”

“Not just any coat. Try it on.”

I swung the coat out of the long box and took a good look. Reaching my hands through the sleeves, I felt the soft wool on my skin, and marveled at the beautiful dark color. It was a double-breasted cape coat that I tugged luxuriously around me and then did a couple of swirls, right there in the kitchen. I buried my nose in it and took a good whiff. Mmm…smells new.

“Looks good.” Cindy gave me a thumbs-up sign.

“Do I look anything like Benedict Cumberbatch?”

“…Spitting image, honey.”

While I modeled, Cindy’s brow drew together. “Which do you prefer as Sherlock on TV? Cumberbatch or Jeremy Brett?”

“It’s a toss-up, Cindy. They’re both terrific.”

She ran to the hallway and brought back the houndstooth Holmes cap. Handing it to me, she picked up Baskerville and they watched solemnly as I put the cap on my head.

“Is this from you?” She nodded. “…Cindy, thanks but it must have cost a couple hundred dollars.” I turned to tilt my head. “It’s probably taking my fascination with Sherlock Holmes a bit far, don’t you think?”

“Think of it as a new uniform.”

“You don’t really think I’m going out in public like this, do you?”

I walked down the hallway and checked my reflection in the mirror. Unbelievable… Just envision Sherlock with the cape coat and cap, but superimpose my face – green eyes with a small, heart-shaped face framed by shoulder length, dark hair. The picture seemed off to me.

Both Cindy and Baskerville nodded their heads. Of course, Baskerville had a little help.

“Yes. It’s your new uniform for your new job.”

“What new job?” I peeled out of the coat and laid it on a chair. The cap joined it seconds later. “… I work at a movie theater, remember?”

“So Mr. Warner and I are just thinking ahead. Keep it all for when you want to wear it.”

I leaned over to take Baskerville out of her arms and walked back to the kitchen to collapse on a chair. “Dad’s going to have a shit fit when he finds out I haven’t signed up for any classes.” Baskerville commiserated by licking my face.

Cindy folded her arms and looked at me sternly. “Have you thought about the umbrella?”

I blinked at her. “Oh, all right! You’re not going to let up on me until I investigate that stupid umbrella. So I will, okay?”

Cindy beamed and moved toward the refrigerator. “… Don’t think of it as an umbrella.” She opened the door and took out some leftover lasagna. “Mrs. Murphy?”

I nodded. She transferred it to a plate and stuck it in the microwave. Setting the controls, she turned to me. “…Think of it as a clue.”

Hmm…

“Actually, I can do that.”

“Great! Let’s have some dinner and then the three of us will wrap up in a couple of throws on the sofa and watch a mystery.”

“… Which one?”

“Our cute little dog’s favorite.”

“Gotcha… ‘The Hound of the Baskervilles’ it is.”

“… But which version?”

“As much as I like the new one, I want to see the classic tonight.”

“Jeremy Brett it is…”

Getting down plates and finding the forks, I thought that life could be a lot worse. Having a loyal best friend and a tried-and-true dog for a support system was pretty darned good actually. I hung up my new coat in the hall closet and set the cap on the shelf above -- right where I could grab it, going out the door for my first case.

Turning on the television and DVD player, sinister music announced the start of the movie. The dark notes caused a familiar tingle down my spine. I smiled and felt better already.





* * *





CHAPTER 4





The next day at work was slow. I hate the slow days – They give me more time to get to know my co-workers, which I’d rather not do.

Looking around the large reception area of the theater, colorful posters advertising current and future movies screamed, Look at me! Down the hallway to the individual screens, I know there are framed photos of Betty Davis, Audrey Hepburn, Errol Flynn, Doug Fairbanks and one of my favorite actors, James Stewart. Yes, he’s a bit old-fashioned, but I like him anyway and sometimes wish I were more old-fashioned. Before I could think any further about anything, Marvin came limping toward me.

Marvin. He must be eighty, if he’s a day. Not that I have anything against senior citizens, but not all his wires are connecting these days. As assistant manager, I try to keep people doing their jobs and that makes my job impossible. It would be easier to run a circus.

“Marvin.”

“Hey, Lucy. How are you today?”

“Fine. You already asked me that about ten minutes ago… But never mind. Were you just cleaning out theatre two?”

“Just on my way.”

“Well, leave it for now. I need you to take tickets for a while. Bobby hasn’t come in yet and Megan is working the candy counter.”

“Where’s Bobby?

“And that, Marvin, is the question of the day. I have no idea. All I know is that he’s not here right now. I try to stay out of everyone’s private lives.”

Marvin’s face puckered a little. Was that a smile creeping out?

“Sure, I’ll take tickets, Lucy. If that’s what you need me to do.”

“Thanks.” I watched him walk away. He seemed to drag a foot and was slower than ever-lovin’ molasses. His gray hair hadn’t been combed in a few days and I’m glad we issue shirts for employees to wear. The one he’d worn in today had a few holes in it – I realize he’s not rich. He told me once he also worked as a docent at the art museum. Maybe he’s more energetic than he looks.

A few people were already beginning to line up by his post because he was taking so long to get there. I really do commiserate with the plight of the elderly, but Marvin pushes the envelope sometimes. I couldn’t watch him anymore and went over to help Megan try to get organized.

And then there’s Megan…

“Hey, Lucy!”

I walked behind the concession counter and glanced at her. She’s added a new bright pink to the rainbow of colors in her hair. The pink seemed to take center stage today but clashed a bit with the neon green nose ring. Or is it brass? I shook my head and got out my key to open the cash register.

“Megan. Love the new color.”

She beamed and smoothed her hair back. “I know! Doesn’t it just set off my complexion nicely?”

“Absolutely, Megan. You’re a kaleidoscope of colors today.”

She blinked a few times. “…A kaleidoscope? Really? Great word. I’ll have to use that in a poem tonight.”

Megan was in a group of people who sat around the local coffee shop, reciting their poetry to one another. I’d sat in on one of those recitations once and had desperately needed a shot of whiskey afterward. The poems were either fluffy and frothy, or downright depressing – man’s take on man. I finally did leave to hit the pub next door.

She started putting popcorn seeds into the heated popper and the smell of melting butter filled the air. I straightened up some of the boxes of candy that were jumbled. Must be tidy, Kevin says.

Speaking of Kevin… He took the day off to visit his lawyer. I think he and his wife are having trouble… That’s the rumor anyway and I’m sure not going to ask him. I’ve got my hands full with my own troubles.

An hour went by and Bobby finally dragged himself in. He looked like crap – wrinkled clothes, uncombed hair. What was that smell? Had he showered recently? Don’t think so.

“Sorry I’m late, Lucy.” He came behind the counter and started to work.

“Nope. Join me in the office, Bobby.”

I marched him out giving Megan a backward glance that said, ‘Take over for a few minutes.’ She shrugged and stepped over to help a customer.

When we were safely in the office and the door discreetly closed, I turned to him. “Bobby, what’s the big idea? You’re over an hour late! And is your dialing finger broken? Couldn’t you have called me if you had a problem?”

Bobby hung his head and shuffled his feet. His overall picture was one of constant change – spotty complexion, mismatched shoes… was his shirt inside out? Good grief. He made hobos look bad. Was that blue paint on his cheek?

“Did you just hop out of bed somewhere and run into work? You need to take more pride with your appearance, Bobby. This is a place of business.”

So sayeth the tee shirt and jeans queen…

“Yeah, I know, Lucy. Sorry. I was painting all night and just lost track of time. I fell asleep on my palette.”

“You fell asleep on a pallet? Like a straw mattress?”

“No, a palette – like painters use to mix their colors on.”

“Okay…fine. Whatever. I just need you to shower before work, so you look relatively normal to customers.” I tried not to stress the word relatively.

“Thanks, Lucy. I’ll set an alarm clock next time.”

“Great, now get a shirt from the box over in the corner. I keep extras just in case and head to the bathroom to wash the paint off your face. Then I need you to take over ticket collection from Marvin. You know he hates to collect tickets.”

“Sure, Lucy, sure.” Bobby exuberantly grabbed a shirt and dashed out the door. “Thanks!” he called out over his shoulder.

What was I supposed to do? Fire him? Nah, I’d only have to hire someone else. Interviewing prospective employees and chewing broken glass were two things I tried not to do in life. Talk about a nightmare…

I glanced around the theater and everything appeared to be going smoothly – for the moment. Megan was being polite to customers at the concession stand, always tricky for her, and Bobby had already taken over ticket collection. He was smiling and looked fresh-scrubbed. Where was Marvin? Hopefully not snoozing in the utility closet again. He’d better be running a projector somewhere. I decided to give him the benefit of the doubt and headed back into the office to find our Lost and Found box.



And there it was, sticking out of the box, that pointed display of swirling blues and yellows tucked in with clothing, shoes and other discarded items. I couldn’t even begin to fathom why someone would leave a pair of shoes at a movie theater, but I’ve seen weirder…

I plucked out the umbrella and held it up. It was beautiful and looked new. Throwing caution to the wind, I opened it fully to take a good look. And there, dangling from the handle was a little paper price tag. I held it, read the printed price and name. Name! Yay! It was from the Nevada Museum of Art, our downtown art museum, just a few blocks over.

Well, this was easier than I’d imagined. No mystery here… I’ll just call up the museum and see if they have a record of who purchased the umbrella. There was a number on the tag and maybe the museum kept records – Especially if a credit card was used.





Since everything was fine at the theater – for the moment – I looked up the museum’s number on my smart phone and punched it in. While waiting for someone to pick up, I looked at the messy office. I hope Kevin’s neater at home than in the office. What a disaster! Reports were stacked on a desk that needed dusting desperately. No clear places on the floor to walk since posters, placards and all kinds of movie displays, large and small, were everywhere. Some should be sent back to the movie distribution companies and others needed to be assembled. We really could use a better system here. Maybe I should…

“Nevada Museum of Art. May I help you?”

“Yes, I found one of your Van Gogh umbrellas and would like to return it.”

“Oh, you need Sue O’Dell. She runs the gift shop and does most of the ordering for various exhibits.”

“Fine. May I speak to her?”

“I’ll switch you over. Have a nice day!” sang the voice over the wire.

In a moment, someone picked up.

“Gift shop.”

“Hi. This is Lucy James and I’m the assistant manager at the downtown theater. We found an umbrella of yours left behind in one of our screening rooms and would like to return it to its owner.”

“Which umbrella?”

“…Well, it’s new. The price tag’s still on and it’s decorated with Van Gogh’s Starry Night.”

“…’Starry Night’ you say?”

I heard a tiny gasp.

“Is yours the movie theater on the river?”

“Yes. Century at the River…”

“Did you say you’re Lucy James?”

“Yep…”

“…I’ll be right down…” And she hung up.

Startled, I stood there stupidly with the phone still up to my ear, listening to a dial tone. What?





* * *





CHAPTER 5





By the time Sue arrived, I was about to tear out my hair. I’d just settled a dispute between Megan and a customer. Apparently, he was an old boyfriend of hers and she was close to making a big, fat scene. Quieting her down and placating the ex-boyfriend took my mind briefly off the fact that I couldn’t find Marvin again. Where did that man go? His hiding places were becoming infamous. Bobby and some new guy Kevin hired were doing a few jobs apiece and I was going to rag Marvin something fierce when I found him!

I turned around in a huff to see a slim woman about forty coming in the front door. She walked up to Megan… Nice business suit. Killer heels.

“Lucy James?”

That pissed me off right away. Megan stifled a smile and pointed a finger at me.

She stuck out a manicured hand. Nice looking watch and expensive rings. Professional attitude.

I nodded, shaking her hand. “That’s me.”

“Sue O’Dell from the art museum. Is there somewhere private we can talk?”

“Sure. This way.” I waved a hand toward the office with Private written on the door across the reception area of the theater. Uh-oh. I cocked my head, wondering what the heck this was about. Only one way to find out…

We went into the office and I tossed a few posters off a chair for her. Sue didn’t look impressed and perched tentatively on the edge of the chair. I picked up the umbrella and handed it to her. She took a good long look at it, as I leaned against the desk and gave her my full attention.

“That umbrella was stolen.”

Wow. And how do you do too. No preamble, just out with it.

“Okay. So?”

“It was stolen the night of that rain we had. Do you remember – a few nights ago?”

“… And I have to ask again: so?”

“I discovered it missing the very next morning and scoured the museum looking for it. I even called in the security guards who, despite their title, never seem to secure anything.”

I bit my tongue trying not to make a comment. This was obviously a sore subject of hers. Clearing my throat, I tried again.

“Miss O’Dell…”

“Sue.”

“All right, Sue. I fail to see what…”

“It’s an expensive umbrella, Miss James.”

“… Call me Lucy.”

“It’s just that I know it was there when I locked up for the night and it was missing the next morning.”

“And your security staff didn’t report a problem?”

“No, but I think they’re part of the problem. Do you mind if I take this from the top?”

“I wish you would, Sue. I’m pretty confused – and what does it all have to do with this theater?”

“I’ll get back to that.”

“…Okay.”

We spoke for about fifteen minutes. A new Impressionist art exhibit was at the museum now and things weren’t going well. A very wealthy family owned the paintings in the exhibition and loaned them out from time to time to various museums around the country. One of the family members usually accompanied the exhibition and an art historian came along to give talks and lectures about the art. Apparently, Sue was hosting the historian and showing him around town a little.

But museum management was tense, she said, because the family had hired their own security people. It wasn’t standard procedure and was the talk of the staff, but whenever the subject was brought up, the head curator was quickly shut down. It was unthinkable, a family representative declared, that anyone but their own guards be allowed near the paintings.

It was an expensive and impressive exhibition filled with one Van Gogh, one Renoir, two Manets, one Monet and three Cezannes. The museum had never been offered such a fabulous exhibit before and was thrilled they’d been chosen. Naturally, everyone acquiesced to the demands of the family who owned the art.

“What’s the family’s name?”

“Sandstrom. They’re a wealthy family with many art connections up in Wisconsin. The family rep is Warren Sandstrom III and prefers to be called sir.”

“Sue. I appreciate that you’ve taken me into your confidence about the exhibition, but I fail to understand why. Could you enlighten me?”

“Yes. I know your name from the former mayor’s office, where I used to work. You’re the Lucy James who cleared up the blackmail case a few years back, aren’t you?”

I nodded and wondered where this was all going.

“… Well, I don’t have any proof, just a gut feeling that keeps nagging at me. There’s something wrong at the museum and I’d like to hire you to find out what it is.”

I threw my hands out in front of me. “Hold on, Sue. I’m not a detective or whatever you think I am. You need a license for that type of thing. I’m the assistant manager of this movie theater.” I literally backed away from her.

She shook her head. “…That’s not what the mayor said or the cops who investigated and came up with nothing. They were impressed with your work and so were we. And I need an outsider – someone unknown to do the kind of snooping around that I feel this is going to take.”

I plopped quickly and unexpectedly in the desk chair. My mouth dropped open until I finally thought to close it. My mind was trying to understand what she had just said.

“…Um.”

“It may have been a fluke that the umbrella ended up in your movie theater, but Lucy… no one but you… would have taken the time to find out where it came from or who owned it.” She narrowed her eyes. “…Isn’t that correct?”

Damn… I couldn’t believe my ears. Mr. Warner gives me the hat. Cindy gives me the coat and now Sue O’Dell comes out of the blue to give me a big push. I blinked and leaned back in the chair. Maybe my stars were all in alignment. Too bad I don’t believe in astrology…

My mouth was extraordinarily dry…

“Sue. I still don’t have a license. I’d have to be more like Nancy Drew and just get in everyone’s way.”

“… I don’t care – Doesn’t matter...” Sue paused and thought a moment. “Okay, so I can’t hire you. Maybe, if you clear up whatever this is, the museum could do something for you in exchange. I’m on the board. I’ll help arrange … a… barter.”

She cocked her head at me. A slow smile spread across her face, like a snake crossing the road…

“Like what?”

“What do you want?”

Wow…I’ve never been offered a blank check before. What do I want?

I looked at her for a full minute while words and thoughts whirled through my mind at top speed.

“Do you have a business card, Sue? I’m going to have to give this a thoughtful going-over and get back to you.”

She fished a card out of her purse and handed it to me. She stood up quickly.

“…Don’t take too long. The exhibition is only going to be in town for two weeks and we’re a few days into that first week.”

“Less than two weeks?” I choked on my own saliva and coughed. “You need an answer immediately then.”

“Yes,” she said heading for the door. “I need your answer by tomorrow.” She reached for the doorknob and looked back at me. “I’m serious about all this, Lucy. I think you’re the right man for the job.”

And she left. I stood up quickly knocking over several movie displays and countless posters. What just happened? I couldn’t wait to tell Cindy and Mr. Warner. Maybe they were right. That means I might not need that fortune-teller after all…





* * *





“Well? You’re going to take the case, right?”

“I just don’t know, Cindy. I’m not a detective, remember.”

“No, but you figure things out and that’s what she wants.”

I glanced around at the small bar. Just around the corner from the movie theater, it resembled an old English pub. Wood everywhere, beautiful old mirror behind a well stocked bar, cricket rackets on a wall and stained glass windows separating sections of the room. Huge oak barrels sat on a shelf close to the ceiling and an old metal chandelier perched precariously overhead with diffused lighting from hanging pale globes. It was my favorite bar in town because it didn’t appeal to the college or preppy crowd – So it appealed to me. I liked the laid back approach to having a drink and not wanting crowds of people pushing at me while I enjoy it… It was after work now and I was beginning to relax.

I looked back at Cindy. She had asked the question and I was supposed to have the answer.

I took a sip of the stout ale I’d ordered and munched on a peanut from a tray on the table.

“Peanut?” I offered her one.

“Nope.”

Cindy pushed back some blonde hair that had fallen in her face and rolled her eyes at me.

“…You’re stalling.”

“Of course, I’m stalling. I don’t have an answer for you.”

“…Listen…”

“I talked to Marvin today.”

She blinked, probably surprised at my quick subject change. “What on earth about? I can’t believe you found him. Where had he disappeared to this time?” Cindy was interested in all the weird little goings-on at the theater. Broke the monotony from her tony job, I’m sure.

“He was curled up, you won’t believe this, in one of the projection booths.” I popped another peanut in my mouth.

Cindy laughed and laughed. “What’d you do?”

“…After I woke him up, I reminded him that he was supposed to be working and it was a jolly good thing that it was me who woke him instead of Kevin.”

“Kevin would have fired him?”

“Sure…”

“… But…”

“He had a funny look on his face. When I asked if he was all right, he said Sue O’Dell had come in the door and he knew her from the art museum. He’s a docent there, remember…”

“Yeah,” she took another sip of her drink. “Wonder if he stays awake at that job.”

I shrugged, wiped moisture off my glass. “…I couldn’t get much out of him really, but I got the impression he wanted to disappear because of Sue.”

“What does that mean?”

“It’s curious is all. I never asked him about Sue or the museum. He volunteered that information when nobody asked him.”

One nod from her head, but Cindy’s eyes leveled with mine.

“What are you doing tonight, Watson?”

Cindy snorted and slapped her leg. “…What’d you have in mind, Holmes?”

I reached into my purse and drew out a few bills. Tossing them on the table, I stood up and looked at her with, I hope, an arched eyebrow.

“… Watson, the game’s afoot.”





* * *





CHAPTER 6





Sue had invited me to come to the art museum tonight. The art historian she’d mentioned was giving a lecture on Van Gogh and his painting that was in the exhibition: Starry Night. Cindy and I had arrived early enough to sit in the auditorium and watch the various players as they came in. I changed out of my traditional jeans and tee shirt to a dress, which seemed more like the costume needed for this performance – that of interested appreciator of art. But I’m uncomfortable in a dress. Cindy says I need therapy but it doesn’t take a psychiatrist to figure out it goes back to my mother. She looked so beautiful in dresses and I’ll never look as good as she did. Any dress I wear makes me nostalgic and gives me pause.

It was chilly enough now so I could have worn my new Benedict Cumberbatch coat and Holmes cap, but I refrained, much to Cindy’s disapproval.

I hadn’t told Sue whether or not I was taking the case… er… puzzle yet and felt my detective gear was, as yet, inappropriate. Of course, Cindy disagreed.

The museum was really a nice one. It’s located on one of the quieter side streets that lead to the downtown area. Outside there’s a great Rodin looking statue of a kneeling man made of rocks and wire that would greet people as they entered. The black exterior was built to resemble the ancient black rocks of the Black Rock Desert, north of Reno and home to the infamous Burning Man Event. An enormous structure in the front resembled some kind of spidery type creature or maybe it’s a couple of butterflies. Anyway, it had a neat water feature in the center that threw water in every direction to be caught by a trough below. And recycled, I’m sure, in the drought-stricken West.

The inside of the museum was lovely and airy. Enormously high ceiling, built on different levels. The gift shop was to the left as I walked in, with colorful textured stars in the window, purses, books and jewelry advertising the wares within. I saw a small café on the right with windows all the way down the length of that side. The effect was open and spacious. A grand staircase in between ascended up, up, up to see the art on the next few floors. There’s a mesh copper structure hanging from the ceiling that threatened to drop on those walking below. We’d asked for directions to the auditorium and had wound our way behind the staircase to enter a small space with seats and a huge projection screen. It resembled a movie theater…

Cindy and I had been sitting and chatting for a few minutes as interested people filtered in. I checked them out but it wasn’t until nearly time for the lecture that the really interesting people filed in. Walking down the steps toward the mini-stage in front, three men wearing very expensive suits started to weave their way down my row. Since they had to climb past me to reach their seats, I got a good look. One man had a full head of silver hair wearing an immaculate double-breasted gray suit. It could easily have been silk and had to have been custom-made by a tailor in New York or London.

I made him out to be Warren Sandstrom III or Mr. Sir to all of us. I also noticed the interested glance he gave Cindy as he filed by. That could be useful…

The other men I assumed to be board members. They were friendly enough and said quick hellos going by. A fourth man had made his way down the stairs with Sue O’Dell. The art historian, I presumed. A quick look at the flyer we’d been handed coming in said his name was Eric Schultz, a professor at the University of Wisconsin, former curator of several museums and an author of many books. He wore an off-the-rack suit of some checkered design that didn’t quite meet the quality of the other men’s suits. An academic…at least he didn’t have elbow patches on his sleeves.





Dr. Schultz’s talk was very good. The lights in the auditorium dimmed and he began his presentation about Van Gogh on time. In one of my various student incarnations, I studied Art History and had taken a seminar on Vincent Van Gogh. If his life hadn’t been interesting enough, his art was overpowering. I had to be impressed. Van Gogh was a man who had never been appreciated or even loved in his whole entire life. Yet, he created a mountain of work in his short artistic career. Dr. Schultz remarked that Van Gogh only painted for ten years but produced some 1,700 works that had survived – nine hundred drawings and eight hundred paintings.

A difficult, frightening man, Schultz continued, Van Gogh had tried many professions before his dedicated brother, Theo, had encouraged him to take up painting. Discussing Van Gogh’s family difficulties yet extreme closeness to his brother, I felt a kinship to the artist. It seemed like we had the same sort of difficulties in our family relationships, but solid friendship with at least one member of the human race.

As Dr. Schultz showed and discussed interesting slides of Van Gogh’s work – Sunflowers, The Sower, Potato Eaters and several self-portraits – I began to feel uncomfortable.

He spent many minutes discussing the significance of Starry Night, the painting being shown in the present exhibit. Apparently, Van Gogh had painted this picture of the French village of St. Remy from gazing out his window in the asylum. As the world knows, the artist had had a nervous breakdown that resulted in his voluntary commitment at that time.

It bothered me that the art decorating an umbrella had burst forth from a man who literally poured his heart and soul into each individual painting. I could see Vincent swirling in the air with his strokes of wind, and now his art was being exploited.

I was uncomfortable with the man sitting two seats down from me… one of the board members, I assumed. A tall man in a woolen black suit who couldn’t seem to sit still. He crossed and uncrossed his legs. His attention was anywhere but on the slide presentation in front of us. He took off his glasses, cleaned them, put them back on. I was happy when he finally fell asleep – at least he wasn’t moving anymore. Was he just bored or did something bother him?

And the back of my neck was tingling. That happens when all’s not quite right… And it had to do with the Van Gogh painting, of that I was quite sure. If the umbrella hadn’t pointed the way, something else would have. Whatever this puzzle was, it had become personal to me and was worth troubling about, as Holmes would say. It was inexplicable. That was the best I could come up with for now.

But I knew it would be good enough…





After the slide presentation and a Q and A with the audience, Sue got up to thank Dr. Schultz. When she finished, Warren Sandstrom rose to give further kudos to our art historian. But his words of praise seemed less than genuine – Sandstrom was merely going through the motions and saying the words he was supposed to say. I glanced over at Schultz to see how he was taking it and was surprised to see he was glancing back at me. His expression was questioning. My thoughts exactly…

At the reception following the lecture, Sue came over to Cindy and me. We were grimacing over the awful wine they’d provided for the occasion. Jeez, a guy this rich couldn’t afford a few bottles of the good stuff? I threw my plastic wineglass in the trash and glanced up to greet Sue. I could read her face as easily as the morning paper.

“Lucy…”

“Sue…This is my good friend, Cindy Floyd. Thanks for the invite tonight.”

She nodded at Cindy and came right back to me.

“Well? Have you made a decision?”

“I have.”

“…And?”

“You want to talk here?”

“Yes or no, Lucy?”

“Yes, with a few amendments.”

“…Such as?”

“I’ll explain them as I go, but for right now, please introduce us to Dr. Schultz and Sir Sandstrom.” My tongue was only partially in my cheek.

Her shoulders relaxed and a small breath escaped. Relief marked her serious eyes.

“Will do.”





* * *





I hadn’t really taken a good look at Eric Schultz until Sue took Cindy and me over to meet him. We had to cross over to the café area where Schultz was standing with a few other people. I’d mostly stared at the slides he showed in his presentation and he’d become a disembodied voice to me.

But when he turned to us, I blinked and saw a wholesome Leonardo DiCaprio. Wow. I didn’t think professors looked this good… Dark blonde hair, blue eyes with that slightly scruffy facial hair that makes good boys look bad. In a heartbeat, I pictured him with a black leather jacket, white tee shirt, worn jeans and cigarette hanging from his mouth. When he smiled at me, I snapped to and shook the hand he offered.

“Dr. Schultz. Enlightening presentation.”

“Lucy James? Nice to meet you. I’m glad you enjoyed it.”

He was introduced to Cindy and came back to me.

“Dr. Schultz?”

“Eric, please.”

I could feel Cindy’s eyes drilling me.

“If I had a few more questions about the Van Gogh painting, could I talk with you again sometime?”

He was already nodding and reaching into his pocket. Bringing out a business card, he handed it over and smiled.

“…Please feel free. Here’s my cell phone number and I’ll be around for the time the exhibit is here. I would welcome questions and comments from you.”

He acted like he meant it. I liked this guy already.

Sue touched my arm. “Lucy, I want to introduce you to Mr. Sandstrom.”

I glanced at her. ”Sure.” My gaze returned to Eric who smiled pleasantly at me.

“Pleasure, Miss James.”

Cindy grabbed my arm this time and towed me after Sue. I didn’t want to leave Eric/Leonardo. Cindy whispered in my ear.

“Could you at least try to play hard-to-get?”

“What? What are you talking about?”

“You did everything but lick his face.”

I stopped full stop and gaped at her. “I did?”

“Yes, Lucy. For a budding detective, your face can sure give you away sometimes. You need to work on that. Think Humphrey Bogart.”

“…Shit.” I rubbed my forehead hard. “You’re right.”

Sue had walked faster and approached Sandstrom standing close to the grand staircase. She was already briefing him on who we were. Our cover was to be local art critics and friends of Sue’s. When we reached him, he smiled easily and offered his hand. Interesting that the smile didn’t extend to his eyes.





* * *





CHAPTER 7





“Miss James, Miss Floyd. Very nice to make your acquaintances… I hope you enjoyed the lecture tonight. Dr. Schultz is a top expert in the field of 18th to 19th century European art. His emphasis is Impressionism in the post-modern age.”

I wondered briefly if he was going to pause for breath.

“Mr. Sandstrom.” I shook his hand. “Dr. Schultz’s work is impressive, indeed. Thank you for bringing him with the exhibition.”

And then he turned his full gaze to Cindy. I took a good look at him while he was shaking her hand, with both of his, and his voice had taken on a more velvety quality. Tall with silver hair, his dark eyes registered interest. His expensive suit gave him a quality of substance. Snowy white shirt and crisp gray tie with a gold clasp. He looked like a man who knew what he wanted and usually got it. Right now he had honed in on my friend, Cindy. She knew how to take care of herself and deflected his subtle advances easily, but he did give her his card. Before we moved on, he’d asked if he could take her to dinner sometime soon. She wasn’t cornered then either and told him she’d call. The guy moved fast, but Cindy was faster…

After speaking with a few more people, I headed to the restroom, while Cindy spoke with a board member. I had to go a ways down a long hallway before I finally found it. After doing various necessities, I glanced at my reflection in the mirror. My hair looked pretty nice, for a change, and managed to still have a slight curl. Cindy had insisted that I wear lipstick and I hadn’t bitten it all off yet. Coming out of the restroom, I’d barely closed the door when I heard voices coming from a darkened part of the hallway. Farther down past the restroom, I knew there were offices.

“…are missing, I tell you.”

“Are you sure? You didn’t misplace…”

“No, I…”

“…slides…Gogh…”

I’d only heard bits and pieces, but it was enough to figure out what was going on. It was Eric and Sue – Apparently some of his slides were missing. Interesting…

I made a slight movement to leave unobserved, when approaching footsteps told me I was too late. I turned and they were there.

“Lucy…”

“Sue. Dr. Schultz.”

She seemed less than pleased to see me. Schultz’s eyes darted nervously.

“Hello again.”

Sue looked at Eric and back to me. “Well, I’ve got to get going. Lucy, I’ll speak with you again soon. Eric? Lunch tomorrow?” He nodded and off she went.

Schultz and I walked down the hallway together.

“Tell me, Dr. Schultz…”

“Eric, please.”

“…Eric. Why the fascination with the Van Gogh painting? You’re an expert on a couple of centuries’ worth of modern art, which encompasses many artists. But I felt you had a connection with this work.”

He glanced at my face and away quickly, avoiding my eyes.

“Oh… You caught that, did you? I’ve tried to keep that reverential tone out of my talks, but it creeps in sometimes with that painting.”

“I’ve noticed something almost spiritual about it myself,” I added, trying to keep him going. “Many analyses discuss the Biblical elements in Van Gogh’s work.”

His eyes widened, surprised. “…Why Miss James, I believe you’ve studied art history.”

“One of my many majors in college.” But I didn’t want to talk about me.

“What’s so special about it to you?”

He turned and gestured up the staircase. “Let’s go see, shall we?” His nice eyes lit up. “I can take you upstairs for a private viewing, if you’d like.”

Hmm… Fairly reminiscent of would you care to see my etchings?

“…Lead the way.” I almost added Leonardo…

Climbing up the staircase, I looked over the railing at the scene below. Sandstrom had caught up with Cindy again and they were engrossed in some kind of private conversation. I caught her eye briefly and she winked. Wonder what that’s about…

Sue O’Dell hadn’t left, as she said she was going to and was watching Eric and me ascend the stairs. Lines on her forehead indicated either deep thinking or maybe she needed Botox. It was a homogenous group of business suits and expensive dresses, everyone clutching glasses and talking, looking amused. It wasn’t really my scene, but I could blend in when I needed to.

And no matter how cute he was, I hadn’t decided if Dr. Schultz was friend or foe yet.





We walked up to the second floor, passed two security guards and onto the exhibition. As we stepped closer, Eric unlocked cool glass doors that opened to reveal an expertly displayed collection. The walls were alternating black with white. The cement floor didn’t always meet up with the slanted walls – strange effect -- and the ceiling looked corrugated with recessed lighting. I suppose you could call it artistic. A wall as we walked in displayed various pictures of the artists whose work was being exhibited. Accompanying biographical information was printed on that wall next to the pictures.

The recessed lighting was dimmed as this was after hours and patrons weren’t allowed in this area now. A creepy feeling crept over me like a daddy longlegs walking down my arm. I shivered…

The Van Gogh painting of Starry Night was prominently displayed in the center of all the paintings – it hung on a large panel of wood brightly decorated on shiny brown enamel. Certainly a different way to showcase the prize piece... Even I knew that and I’d never been a museum curator.

Eric said nothing for a few minutes, letting me get my balance upon first seeing the painting. I strode up quickly to the canvas to see all the colors wash into one another. Something I really liked about Impressionist art – it might look like a big mess up close, but from a distance the work danced with recognizable movement. Walking backward to see the painting from a distance, I smiled as the wind took shape, the Cypress tree began to sway and the tiny town sparkled in the background. I could feel Eric’s approval near me.

“…Beautiful, isn’t it?”

“It is indeed. One of his best.”

“You know…”

Eric began to talk more about the painting, but I tuned out. What was that smell? It couldn’t be, just couldn’t be…But it sure smelled like pastrami. Why would it smell like pastrami in here?

I tried not to act like I was sniffing, but my nostrils probably flared and Eric gave me a curious look. He stared back at the painting for another minute, his brows knit and he took a closer look. I assumed he had looked the painting over, in all its minutia zillions of times, but he acted like he’d never seen it before.

“…Um…” was all he said and he excused himself to hurry back downstairs.

“Goodbye, Dr. Schultz,” I yelled at him as he raced down the steps. I guessed my private viewing had come to an end as a guard came to escort me out.

When I rejoined Cindy downstairs, Warren Sandstrom was nowhere in sight. I poked her in the arm.

“Let’s get out of here.”

“I hear that. Where’d you go?” We started walking out of the museum.

“Schultz showed me Starry Night.”

“…Oh, really… “ Her eyebrows lifted up into her hairline practically.

“Don’t even say it… What happened with Sandstrom?”

“He’s still trying to get me to go out with him.”

“What’d you say?”

“I told him to call me next week.”

“Great… Now he has your cell phone number.”

“It’s all right, Lucy. I…”

I stopped full stop and Cindy nearly crashed into me.

“What?”

“Shh…”

I looked around. We had left the art museum and were heading out to the parking lot. It wasn’t far, but there were still dark places around with lots of corners of that building. The hair on my arms stood at attention just as I saw slight movement at one end of the building. A man was watching us, turned and went around to the back.

“Come on,” I whispered. Walking purposefully, yet quietly, we went around a corner to see two men lifting a crate into a truck parked in the alley by an old house. One man emptied a bag on the ground. They got into the truck and drove away.

I’d gotten a quick glance at the man who’d been watching us and these two didn’t look like him. No telling where he was now. I walked over to see what had been emptied into the alley. Picking up a few remnants, I took a whiff and crinkled my nose.

“What is it, Lucy?”

“…Pastrami…”

Her quizzical look probably matched mine. Weird… Okay, but life is made of a series of details. I’d file this away.

I smiled at her. “…Data, data, data. I cannot make bricks without clay.”

“You’ve watched Holmes way too many times.”

We walked back to the parking lot, got in the car and drove home. All the way I was thinking -- Pastrami was indeed data. But I needed more data to start making those bricks…





* * *





CHAPTER 8





My dad seemed to have that John Malkovich thing going for him. He looked like that actor from ‘Con Air’ who tried to bump off the rest of the cast during the course of the movie. Dad’s got this Don’t mess with me quality that I’d just as soon not tangle with. But I end up doing just that, time after time…

We blended like oil and water, figuratively speaking, of course. I went over to his house for dinner Saturday night to hear my monthly ration of You’re wasting your life. Why at your age, I was…

Cindy had bailed on me – Had to work one of her events. She works in the Public Relations department of one of the local casinos. She meets and hobnobs with lots of exciting people. I get criminals, mad co-workers from the theater and my father. Tonight I took Baskerville to keep Dad off balance.

“Put that animal on the floor, Lucy.”

“Oh, Dad. I’m just feeding him a bite or two. You made lots.”

“…Yeah. Lots for humans only.”

“Well, Baskerville’s hungry. I’m not going to eat in front of him.”

He sighed audibly. “…Whatever. Can we get back to the topic at hand?”

“If we must…”

He folded and refolded the napkin in his lap. “Come on, Lucy. Most people your age have decided what they want to do in life.”

“…But many haven’t, Dad. You need to give me more time.”

“Have you signed up for fall classes?”

I cleared my throat and fed Baskerville another bite from my plate. Glancing over at him, Dad gave me a look that said he knew I was stalling.

“You haven’t, have you?”

“Medical records just aren’t my cup of tea.”

“Do you want to work at a movie theater forever?”

“No… but…”

“Lucy, Lucy, Lucy…” He seemed to finally run out of breath. Suddenly, he took another one. “…You’ve got to pull yourself together. Why, Christine is on her second assignment in Europe now.”

“Dad,” I blew out a breath. “I have no desire to be a career diplomat.”

“…Lucy, it’s just that your sister is two years younger than you and is doing so well already.”

“Could we please talk about something else? I’m getting a stomachache.”

Baskerville licked my fingers and barked at Dad. “And now you’re upsetting Baskerville.”

I put the dog on the floor and got up to go to the bathroom. On the way, I spied a flyer sitting on a sideboard nearby and picked it up.

“Who’s this, Dad? Did you go to a funeral recently?”

“Yes. Friend of mine had a heart attack and died last week.”

“That’s too bad,” I said reading the short flyer. “…Nice man?”

“He and his wife were good friends for many years. But he’d had a heart attack the week before and I guess a big one got him.”

“Huh… Where’d he live? I don’t recognize the address.”

“It’s a house situated behind the museum. It faces the alley so the alley is probably the address.”

“The alley? Behind the museum? What – the art museum?”

“That’s right. Why?”

“… When did he die, Dad?”

He shook his head. “I’m not sure of the exact date but Maggie, his wife, told me he dropped dead outside on their stairs the night of that rain last week.”

My neck was tingling again.

“Would you mind if I took this flyer?” I grabbed Baskerville and placed him gently into my oversized bag. He liked to sit in there with my wallet, brush and things. He stepped around to get comfortable and stuck his fluffy white head back out.

Dad rose from his seat. “What? You’re leaving now? We haven’t even had dessert.”

I hurried to him and kissed him on the cheek. “Thanks, Dad, but I really need to take off. I’ll call you next week.” I headed for the front door.

“Lucy?” I turned back to look at him. “You’re investigating something again, aren’t you?”

I nodded and shrugged my shoulders.

“…Be careful, sweetie.”

“Thanks, Dad.” And I ran to my car thinking about the man’s death and remembering that Sherlock said there were no coincidences.





* * *





I called Cindy on the way. She didn’t pick up. Her event must be still ongoing and she’s working. Fine… I can do this alone.

Pulling up to the art museum, it was long past dark. The museum wasn’t a square building, but one that had odd lines and angles. That oddness made strange shadows, some identifiable but most not. I’d poked around in the dark in lots of strange places before, but this one took the proverbial cake. Long, irregular shadows cast the alley behind in an atmosphere of creepiness. Creepiness? God, I have such a way with words…

Baskerville insisted on getting out of the car with me, so I put him on his leash and set him on the ground. He was fearless and walked quickly to the alley. Good thing that’s where I wanted to go… He has a nose like a bloodhound and soon had me sprinting to the center of the alley, right by where the truck had been this afternoon. A porch light from a nearby house lent an eerie look at Baskerville. Bathed mostly in shadow, his white curly head stopped, not moving a muscle. I walked around him to see what had made him stop. He had his nose to the ground, sniffing. I crouched down by him and made out the faintest whiff of… there it was again – pastrami. Still? Or again?

I tugged on his leash to walk closer to the house – the house of Dad’s friend. Plucking out the little penlight I always kept in my pocket, I shined it around the staircase where the man must have fallen. I was pretty sure this was the house. It matched Dad’s description and was the closest house to the museum.

Baskerville was getting impatient, so I had to work quickly. The steps had been painted white at one time, but the paint had long since worn away. The house was old and not maintained well. Nicks and dents covered the stairs and I had no idea what I was looking for anyway. Baskerville was giving me a final tug when my penlight caught the tip of something shiny. On closer inspection, it looked like a piece of metal was lodged in the wooden railing. A nail? No, the shape was thicker.

I racked my brains to think of what I had with me. Picking up Baskerville, I dashed back to the car, put him in it and fished around in the console between the seats. Eureka! I found it! I grabbed nail clippers and ran quietly back to the house. Baskerville didn’t like being left and began his signature bark. Like a pebble dropped in a well, the sound echoed. Great… Let’s wake up everyone…

On the run, I pulled out the file from the nail clippers and as soon as I reached the steps began chipping away at the wood on either side of the piece of metal. It dug out quickly – dry rot. I shone my penlight at it and about did a double take – A bullet? I blinked rapidly… Inconceivable… I finally snapped to, tucked it in my pocket and made my way back to the car. Baskerville finally quit barking, although a few lights had come on in the house and I needed to get the heck out of there.

Driving away, I thought long and hard.

A bullet? Lodged in the staircase where the man had died.

Was it there before?

Did it happen the night he died?

If so, maybe his heart attack was caused by fright. Someone shooting at me would sure get my heart going.

Damn, this was just getting better and better, although I had absolutely no idea what was going on. Yet…





* * *





CHAPTER 9





Kevin was back at work the next day and asked with a smirk about the umbrella. He’d noticed it was gone and that got his curiosity up. I deflected his pointless question by turning around and going over to see Bobby. I’d seen him walk in looking a bit strange. He was helping Megan behind the concession counter.

“No, Bobby. Straighten up the candy. I don’t need help with the popcorn.” She was fussing, as usual.

“Sure, Megan.”

I took a good look at them both. Megan had gold glittering all through her hair today and several new silver studs in her ears. If that weren’t enough color, Bobby had yellow stripes down one side of his face. Don’t these people own mirrors?

“Bobby, you need to go wash your face. You’ve got stripes on one side. Sleep on your palette again?”

He smiled bashfully. He’s really a nice kid, just a bit eccentric. Join the club – “I did, Lucy. Sorry. I’ll go wash it off right now.”

“Oh, come on, Luce. The stripes give him a certain panache,” added Megan.

“Good word,” I said. “…Use it in a poem tonight.”

She glared at me and went back to making the popcorn. A burnt smell filled the air and she glared at me again. Like it’s my fault she burned the popcorn. I shook my head and opened my mouth to apologize for being such a smart ass when customers started lining up and she needed Bobby to pour the drinks. Hope he got back soon. I went off to find Marvin.

I bumped into Bobby coming out of the restroom. He looked clean and slightly damp.

“Hey, Bobby. Have you seen the Impressionist exhibition at the art museum?”

“Not yet.”

“Well, you’ve got to see it. Manet, Monet, somebody I forgot and Van Gogh! It’s Starry Night and just spectacular. Let me know what you think when you see it.”

“Will do, Lucy. Thanks.” And he scurried back to deal with a pissy Megan. Better him than me.

Marvin wasn’t in his usual hiding place, but I decided to sneak off for lunch anyway. I headed over to the café at the art museum, since Sue had suggested I come around as often as possible. I took her advice.

Walking in, all seemed pretty normal. Everyone was doing their jobs and there was a sprinkling of patrons in the gift shop… some were heading up the staircase to the exhibits. I went around the staircase to the small café in the back. Walking by small tables and chairs, a few people were eating and talking. Seemed like an average day…

Until I met the café owner…

A short, overbearing man with two strands of hair plastered across his otherwise bald head was berating some poor girl behind the counter. As I walked in, he lowered his voice, but she still quaked when he looked at her. I couldn’t help myself.

“Problem?” I asked.

“No, miss. Did you want to order something?”

“In a minute. Could I speak to you?”

“Sure.” He came out from behind the counter and the girl thanked me with her eyes. I nodded at her and backed the guy in a corner.

“You really should be nicer to your employees.”

He snorted. “What business is it of yours?”

“I’m a customer and don’t like what I see. That could cost you business.” One of the plastered strands of hair loosened.

He stood up straighter, but still wasn’t as tall as me.

“Listen, Mr…”

“Crowe, Russell Crowe.”

Like Bond, James Bond? I bit back a smile. “Your name’s Russell Crowe?”

“Yes and I’ve gotten that kind of smirk from people all my adult life or as long as that guy’s made movies. I’ll thank you not to go there.”

A giggle threatened. “…Russell Crowe? Well, you don’t look like him at least.”

“Jesus.” The second strand of hair popped up and he felt the top of his head to smooth them both down. “Did you need anything else?”

I swallowed the giggle. “Didn’t I see you at the reception the other night? After Dr. Schultz’s lecture?”

“Yes, I’m on the museum board and attend all those events. So?”

“Have you seen the exhibit? In particular, the Van Gogh painting?”

“I have… Most impressive. Now if you’ll excuse me, I have work to do. Enjoy your lunch.”

And he stalked off, probably still unhappy about the Russell Crowe remark. Really…I’ve never met anyone who looked less like Russell Crowe. He resembled Danny DeVito more. I shrugged and went over to the counter to order some soup. The girl he’d been berating flashed me a grin and said the soup was on the house.

“What will Russell Crowe say?”

She laughed. “He’s got the ‘Gladiator’ swagger too. Poor guy…”

Handing me the soup, I sat and took a load off. I’d begun a chart of the various characters I’d met so far and took it out of my purse to look it over. Sue, Schultz, Sandstrom, the dead guy from the alley and Russell Crowe… Adding his name to the list made me smile. I wrote a few descriptive comments about each person on the list and concentrated on my soup.

When I finished lunch, Sue met me on the way out the door.

“Come in the gift shop for a minute, Lucy. I saw you speaking with Mr. Crowe.”

“Ah, yes. I’ve laughed at that one already.”

She rolled her eyes. “…It might interest you to know that he has a brother just released from prison.” She closed the door to the gift shop.

“Really? Why was he in prison?”

“…Robbery. I know he stole some things, but I’m not sure what. Anyway…”

“…Yes?”

“I overheard Crowe talking on the phone to someone. He remarked that he couldn’t find the brother, who’s supposed to be in town, and Crowe fears that he’s active again.”

“Maybe that’s why he’s so grumpy with his employees?”

She laughed. “That and his name probably. I don’t know why he just doesn’t change it, if he hates it so much.”

Couldn’t think of anything to say to that, so I bid Sue goodbye and made a mental note to check out Randy Crowe. It was an interesting time for a thief to show up. For now, I headed back to work. Maybe it would be a good day and I’d see Marvin.





* * *





CHAPTER 10





Bobby didn’t come in to work the next day. Now what… I called over to his apartment but no one answered. We were short-handed which meant I ended up collecting movie tickets. Marvin was actually working in one of the theaters and Kevin ran a few projectors as well. Kevin was pissed that Bobby didn’t even bother to call in and was threatening to fire him – if we saw him again. Megan had to run concession all by herself and was performing her Poor me act. No one cared.

Cindy called to let me know Warren Sandstrom had called to invite us both to a members-only dinner at the museum tonight. I seemed to be spending most of my free time either in the museum or around it. Actually, he invited Cindy and she wangled an invite for me. That’s what friends are for…

Bobby still hadn’t called in by the close of my shift, so I drove over to his apartment looking for him. He didn’t answer the doorbell. Peering in the window didn’t net me any information, so I was walking back out to my car when someone yelled out at me.

“Hey! You looking for Bobby?”

“Yeah. Do you know where he is?” I turned to look at a mousy little guy wearing a Big Bang Theory tee shirt. He had paint on his face too.

“You a friend?” he asked.

“We work together at the movie theater and he didn’t show up for work. Not like him…”

The guy shuffled his feet and glanced nervously around him.

“What?”

“Bobby’s in the hospital.”

“What the hell happened?” I felt my stomach fall to my knees.

“…Someone beat him up. It’s not good.”

“Which hospital?”

“St. Teresa’s…”

“Thanks, ah…”

“Josh.”

“Thanks, Josh.” I jumped in my car and drove quickly over to the hospital. It wasn’t too far from my apartment. On the way, I called Kevin to let him know.

Kevin was less than sympathetic -- His wife had showed up at the theater and was currently raising hell at him in the office. Guess I was handling this on my own.

Arriving at the hospital, I checked with the Information desk and found what room he was in. I headed up the elevator, my lips curled in distaste. What is it about these places? Walls are all painted beige and the smell of disinfectant is everywhere. Once on his floor, a nutritionist walked by me carrying a tray with amazingly unpalatable-looking food. I’d sooner chew on the bedpost.

A policeman was just leaving Bobby’s room.

“Any trouble, officer?”

“Are you related to Mr. Springer?”

“No. I’m his boss at the movie theater where we work. I just heard about this. How is he?”

“Let’s go over here for a minute, miss.”

We walked over to a corner area with a couch and few chairs. We sat and the policeman gave me his sternest look.

“…We have an ongoing investigation at this time because Mr. Springer was attacked last night.”

I gulped. “Where and why did this happen?”

“I can tell you the where – it was outside the art museum, around in back by the alley. But as of yet, I can’t tell you why. Mr. Springer isn’t speaking very well just yet.”

That alley was getting a lot of traffic.

“How did this get reported?”

“A lady in a house nearby heard the noise and called us. We found him in the alley unconscious.”

I swallowed hard. Poor Bobby… “But you have no idea why he was attacked.”

“I’m not sure he knows. We got a little bit out of him before the doctor threw us out, and he really couldn’t tell us much.”

“Do you know where he was before he was attacked? Had he been in the art museum?” A sinking feeling began to crawl around in my spleen.

“Not sure, miss. Now could you give me your name and phone number, in case anything else comes up? We’d have a work contact for him at least.”

I finished giving the officer the information he wanted and walked back to see Bobby.

He looked terrible.

All swathed in white bandages, hooked up to various machines that beeped and buzzed… Serene beige walls made a startling contrast to the colorful bruises already blooming on his face and arms. He’d really been worked over. Since he was asleep, I decided to come back later. I had that thing tonight with Cindy, but suddenly didn’t especially want to go back to the art museum. That place was beginning to make me stomach churn. And I had a nagging feeling that I might have done this to Bobby…





* * *





Twenty minutes later, I opened the door to my apartment and was very happy to see that ball of white fluff hurtling down the hallway at me. I picked up Baskerville and gave him a big hug. Feeling vulnerable, I clutched him tightly, holding him close.

“Knock, knock.” I jumped a foot off the floor. “Hey! Lucy…Just me.”

Mrs. Murphy came through the door with Hamlet. Baskerville naturally had to show Hamlet who was boss. I put him down and he strode up to her smartly, while her tail went between her legs. Not an impressive sight for a Great Dane.

“Mrs. Murphy.” I had a hand on my chest and was breathing hard.

“Sorry if I scared you…”

“Yes. No. What’s up?”

“I have another lasagna for you. Cindy said you guys really enjoyed the last one and when I get cooking, I always make too much.” She handed me a big foil-wrapped pan. I peered in and took a big whiff of marinara sauce and mozzarella cheese. Mmm…

“Very nice of you. We love your lasagna.”

I headed for the kitchen and the refrigerator. Mrs. Murphy happily trailed after me, the bulky dress billowing behind her. Hamlet tried to follow too, but Baskerville wouldn’t let her. He plopped his tiny male, poodle body in front of her and she fairly quaked.

“Lucy, listen. I just wanted you to know that the cable guys were here today. I saw them come in and heard Baskerville bark for a few minutes.”

I stopped and turned back to her. “…Cable guys?”

“”Yes. That’s what the truck said. I thought it was great you were finally getting cable. How many times can you watch the same old mysteries? Lots of good, new programs are on.”

“Mrs. Murphy. Cable company people came into my apartment today?”

“…Well, yes. I heard them knock and looked out my kitchen window to see who was there.”

For once I was happy that she was so nosy.

“And?”

“I assumed you or Cindy were home because they went right on in with their equipment.”

“Cable box stuff?”

“I guess…”

I put the lasagna in the refrigerator and walked Mrs. Murphy back to the door to show her out.

“Thanks for the lasagna, but if that ever happens again, please call the cops.”

“…The cops?” She paled.

“Yeah. I didn’t order any cable service. I think I’ve been robbed.”

“Oh, my God, Lucy! I’m so sorry! I had no idea…” She tugged on Hamlet’s leash, releasing her spell from Baskerville. “…I’ll leave you in peace. I hope nothing’s missing.”

I was back in the bedroom when I heard Cindy come in the front door.

“Now where’s that hound we call Baskerville?” she called out. I heard his recognizable bark and nails clicking on the floor as he flew down the hall.

Coming out to the living room, she took one look at me and stopped.

“What’s wrong?” Even Baskerville stopped licking her to turn his little head and stare.

“I think we’ve been robbed, Cindy. Although…”

“Robbed? Although what?”

“I can’t find anything missing.” I looked around at the sparsely furnished apartment. “Not that we have that much to take anyway. I don’t care for lots of stuff and we both live like gypsies.”

“Who wants to buy stuff just for the sake of buying? I get what I need. So do you…”

“Regardless. We’re off track here. We had a break-in.”

“Shouldn’t we call the cops?”

“… Let’s sit down a minute and talk.”

She narrowed her eyes but sat on the couch with Baskerville curled up in her lap. He doesn’t like to be too far from the action.

So I took a few minutes and went through what she’d missed: Eating dinner at Dad’s, learning about his friend who died, going over to the friend’s house by the museum and digging a bullet out of the staircase railing. I told her about meeting Russell Crowe, the café guy and learning about his brother, the thief, who was just released from prison. When I got to Bobby, I had to take a deep breath. My eyes got misty and I reached for a tissue on the table.

“So Bobby’s in the hospital?”

“Yes…”

“And you think you might have put him there.”

I shrugged. “…Just don’t know. All I do know is that since he’s a painter, I thought he might enjoy the Impressionist exhibit at the art museum and mentioned it to him. Next thing I know he’s been beaten up and I’m talking to a cop investigating the incident.”

“Is he still in the hospital?”

I nodded.

“Can you talk to him?”

I shook my head.

“…Not yet. He’s under heavy medication and is out for a while. He looked terrible. I feel terrible.”

“Look, Lucy… Don’t blame yourself. It could just be a coincidence.”

“Sherlock and I don’t believe in coincidences.”

“No indeed.”

“… So I’m going to continue with full acceptance that everything that’s happened since I spoke to Sue O’Dell is happening for a reason.”

“You just have to figure out the reason.”

“That’s right.”

Cindy and I stared at one another for a moment. I got up and walked into the kitchen for a glass of water. I put the cool glass against my cheek and leaned against the sink.

“What the hell are we going to do?” I asked her.

Cindy had walked in behind me to feed Baskerville. She got down some doggie treats and gave him one. His pint-sized tail wagged energetically.

“…About what?”

“We can’t stay here, Cindy.”

She looked up at me wide-eyed. “Why not?”

“These guys could have put cameras around or something. I don’t have a clue what they were looking for, and maybe they weren’t looking for anything.”

“…Maybe they planted something. Do you know what spy cameras look like?”

“I know some and have looked, but I couldn’t find anything that resembled a camera. I think we need to stay someplace else for a while.”

Her jaw dropped.

“…Just until this business is completed.”

“You think we’re being monitored.”

“When you eliminate other factors, the one that remains must be the truth.”

“Are you going to quote Holmes dialogue to me all day?”

“Nope. Where can we go?”

She looked around the room, hunching her shoulders. “Maybe we should discuss it elsewhere.” Her eyes made a wide sweep of the place. “…Catch my drift?”

I nodded, my eyes sweeping everywhere with hers. “Yep.”

She headed back to her bedroom, Baskerville moving briskly at her heels.

“What are you doing?” I came up behind Baskerville.

“We have a dinner to attend at the art museum tonight. Remember?”

I rubbed my eyes. “Shit…I don’t want to go anywhere near that place, Cindy.”

“I know what you mean. I’m getting major bad vibes myself, but you told Sue you’d help.” She glanced over, tilting her head. “…Going to back off now? That’s not like you.”

“People are getting hurt.”

“…And more may get hurt, but you’re neck deep now.”





* * *





CHAPTER 11





I swallowed hard. “Yes. All right.” I squared my shoulders and stuck out my jaw. “… I can do this.”

“Yes, you can, but let’s start with what we’re wearing tonight. It’s not formal, but it is dressy.”

It took a while but we finally found dresses that we thought would do for the occasion. We packed a bag each too, since we needed to get out of here tonight.

“I’d rather dress at a gas station than here.”

“I hear you, so let’s do that.”

“…Dress at a gas station?”

“Yeah. Why not?”

Cindy looked at me and laughed. “This is another adventure for us, Lucy. You know that, right?”

I winked at her. “Gotcha, Ethel. Maybe Ricky will come save us.”

“We should be so lucky… Oh!” She stopped in the center of the room and smacked her hand lightly against her head.

“What?”

“What will we do with Baskerville?”

We both thought about that for a minute.

“… I could bring him in my oversized bag and stick him under the table…”

She frowned, shook her head. “You can’t take a dog to a formal dinner.”

“We could leave him in the car. Where are we going to spend the night anyway?”

Her eyes darted around again. “…Not now, remember?”

“Then we’ll have to leave him in the car until we figure something…”

I ran out of breath. Too many details in too short a time period. I needed a glass of wine and needed it now. I walked into the kitchen and poured a small glass.

I’d been feeling vulnerable when I came home after seeing poor Bobby in the hospital. Now I felt vulnerable and violated, having had uninvited guests in my apartment for whatever reason. I took a sip wondering who could have sent these guys and why.

Taking another sip, I wondered why Eric Schultz had left in such a hurry the night he showed me Van Gogh’s painting… Why would anyone beat up Bobby? I took a sip thinking of Sue’s complaint about the security guards and one more sip wondering why, oh why, was that umbrella ever left in the movie theater in the first place.

Cindy came along then and took the wineglass out of my hand.

“Too many sips and too little action. Come on… Let’s go. By the time we get dressed and get gas, it’ll be time to head for the dinner.”

I glanced at the kitchen clock and sighed deeply giving my wineglass a last lingering look.

“There’s more wine where we going,” she encouraged.

I grabbed my dress and luggage, heading for the front door. Cindy grabbed a dress, bag and Baskerville. I waited outside for her and locked the door behind us. Mrs. Murphy waved at us from her porch, a slight frown on her face.

Hmm… Mrs. Murphy… Food for thought. I’d talk to Cindy about that idea later.





* * *





Of course, we had to argue over where to stop for gas. I wanted to stop at a gas station closer to mid-town where I’d used the restroom before. It was clean… my major demand. Cindy argued that it was too far away and we were pressed for time. We settled on the closest place -- the mini-mart a few blocks over. It was run by that nice Pakistani couple who’d just bought it from that nice Iranian couple. Beads and elephants now decorated the interior of the mini-mart with incense burning by the door. Cindy went in to get the restroom key, while I lugged out my bag under one arm and Baskerville under the other. I met Cindy around in back where the restroom was located. When she opened the door, I stepped in and looked around. My eyes threatened to roll back in my head.

“Look at this place.”

“Why? What’s wrong with it?”

Cindy entered and took a quick glance, which is about all it took. The space was large enough for one sink, one toilet and two small people. Certainly not two regular-sized people and one toy poodle.

“I guess we’ll have to take turns.”

Cindy shook her head. “Look at the time.” She stuck the arm with her wristwatch up in my face.

“Well, if you hadn’t argued about where to go, we would have been somewhere sooner.”

“Yes, and…”

My hands flew up. “Never mind, but tell me -- How will we change in here together? And with Baskerville?”

Cindy, ace logistics person that she is, put on her imaginary thinking cap. She thought for a moment, her eyes brightened and she had it…I could almost see a cartoon exclamation point above her head.

“Easy. Just bring in exactly what we need. No bags. We’ll dress first and then go back out for the makeup.”

I gave her my best I-can’t-believe-you-said-that look. “…and the dog?”

She looked around. Maybe she was hoping the space would suddenly expand. “He can sit on the toilet.”

“Or for Pete’s sake…”

“Just do it, Lucy. There’s no time to dawdle.”

So we trudged back out to the car, opened the bags and took out what we needed for tonight’s dinner – shoes, clean underwear, dresses. I had put Baskerville’s leash on him, just in case he got any funny ideas about making a break for it.

The three of us went back into the restroom together and I just shook my head. I just didn’t see how this could work. I put Baskerville on the toilet and told him to stay. Sometimes he minds. Of course, this wasn’t one of those times. He jumped down off the toilet seat just as Cindy and I had begun removing our clothes.

You’d think we were performing some kind of ballet. Cindy said it would be easier if we did the same thing at the same time so… I raised my arms to take off my tee shirt, as Cindy did the same. We stood there together waving our arms in the air removing shirts, performing the first part of the ballet. I tried to get Baskerville to jump back on the toilet seat, but he just barked at me and hid under the sink.

Next we took off our jeans at the same time – Pretty tricky, since Baskerville’s little mind must have played tricks on him and he got the idea to tug on a leg of my jeans. He leaned in, clamped his jaws down on some material much too close to my leg. I was stuck now with my jeans half-off and Cindy suddenly got a case of the giggles. With the dog tugging and us dissolving into laughter, the next part of the ballet was unraveling – This was no Swan Lake… Cindy blew out a breath and we managed to get out of our jeans. Baskerville pulled mine under the sink and curled up on them.

Trying to put on the dresses at the same time wasn’t working well. I got an arm stuck in Cindy’s dress while she put a hand through my collar. We were twisted and turned around. I thought I was smoothing down my skirt and it was actually Cindy’s. Baskerville looked from me to Cindy, probably thinking we’d lost our minds. I was beginning to think so too.

“That’s it!” I said rather loudly when I finally got my dress on. “Zip me up and I’m going to the car for makeup.”

“Don’t you want to brush your teeth?”

“…Too much togetherness, Cindy. I’m out of this closet.”

Foundation, mascara, lip gloss… Not bad for using the tiny rearview mirror in my car. I could only see a small section of my face at one time, but I believe I put makeup on the appropriate facial features. Cindy hopped back in the car with Baskerville.

“Are you ready?”

“Yep. Let’s go,” she said. “Wait a minute.” She turned my face around to see it better. “You’ve got too much blush on. Could you actually see what you were doing in here?”

“Sort of. Rub it in.”

Cindy attempted to smooth out the blush on my cheeks, while I put the key in the ignition and started the car. This was the craziest way to get dressed that I’d ever experienced. Hopefully, I’d never do it again. And where was my brush? My hair was sticking up in the oddest places.

“Wait!” Cindy yelled. “You forgot to get gas. You’re on empty. Look!”

“Damn.” She was right. I pulled into one of the bays at the mini mart and got out to pump the gas. After putting in my credit card and punching the necessary buttons, I opened the gas cap and stuck in the hose. Gas soon began flowing into my tank. I absently glanced into the back of the car and saw Baskerville chewing on one of my shoes.

“Hey! Make him stop!” I yelled at Cindy. She dutifully tried to catch him but he dodged out of her grasp with my shoe in his mouth.

Now the car’s not that big and neither was the dog, but we still had trouble grabbing him and relieving him of one of the shoes I needed for this evening. I couldn’t go in my present flip-flops.

The gas clicked off just as I managed to get the shoe away from Baskerville. He pouted, or what I assumed was a doggy pout, as I got in the car, started it up and began to drive away. All of a sudden, the Pakistani couple was running beside the car and waving their arms at me to stop. I did and rolled down the window.

“May I help you?”

“Yes,” the man puffed. “…You’re taking my gas hose with you.”

I glanced out the window and sure enough… the hose was still in my car. I looked at Cindy who rolled her eyes.

“Super…”

I got out of the car. “I’m so sorry. Let me pay for the damages.”

They were both very nice and acted like it happened all the time.

“No… no. We wouldn’t hear of it. Just be more careful from now on.”

The man gingerly took the hose out and replaced my gas cap for me. Thank goodness the cap was attached by a little chain. I would have lost that sucker years ago…

By the time we arrived at the museum, I was about done in. Cindy looked a little worse for wear as well. Baskerville looked quite chipper.

And we had a dinner to get through…





* * *





CHAPTER 12





Small tables with white linen tablecloths had been set up in the gallery in the middle of the Impressionist exhibition. Square glass vases holding lovely lavender orchids graced the tables giving out a subtle aroma and adding a touch of class. White china and polished silverware rounded out the elegant dinner scene in front of us.

I glanced around, getting a real jolt out of the ambience. We were sitting by millions of dollars of fabulous art, sipping champagne and eating caviar. I’d just changed clothes in the bathroom of a mini-mart… What parallel universe had I stumbled into?

Cindy was at another table, seated by Warren Sandstrom. Mr. Sir… I noticed he was giving her the full megawatt smile and occasionally touched her hand. She was giving him the virginal maiden performance and I wondered what she was up to. I was sitting by Dr. Schultz whom I was still dying to call Leonardo. Man, this guy’s cute! Whoever made the seating arrangements – Sue probably – gets my vote.

I had just about bailed on the whole thing. We’d had cocktails downstairs in the open area by the café and I’d gone out once to check on Baskerville. He was still asleep in the front seat with one little paw curled around his curly head. When I returned, Marcie Crawford, of all people, came rushing up to me from out of nowhere. Damn, I hadn’t seen this flake since high school. Smiling viciously, she smoothed back her long, blonde hair and leveled those baby blues my way.

“Lucy James! Why, it’s been forever. How have you been?”

Now Marcie never did anything without a reason. I narrowed my eyes and scoped out the scene. She was speaking to me, but ogling Warren Sandstrom. That was probably the reason for the pseudo affectionate greeting. Once in high school, I’d managed to get a date to a basketball game with this really cute guy, Dave somebody. We were sitting in the bleachers when Marcie, a cheerleader, ended the cheer by doing the splits right in front of Dave and me. She’d even winked at him! That was my first and last date with the really cute guy. He dated Marcie a few times after that and then gave up on the both of us. I, of course, hadn’t forgotten…

“Um… Marcie. Yeah, it’s been a while. Have you met Dr. Schultz?”

“Of course, silly. I’m on the museum board.” She gave him a calculated look and her hand. “Eric, how are you this evening?”

Eric blinked. Maybe he was reassessing the situation. If she did the splits right now, I was going to have to take her down. But she’d set her sights higher and left us quickly to move in on Warren Sandstrom III. I smiled… Cindy could snuff her easily, if she so chose.

Luckily, Marcie was seated at yet another table by some board members and Sue O’Dell. Thanks, Sue. I’d have left for sure if that twit were at my table.

Also seated with us were the café owner and his wife.

“Dr. Schultz, have you met Russell Crowe and his wife, Marty?”

I could see the confusion. A flush crept over his handsome Leonardo face and he swallowed once before opening his mouth.

“How do you do?” He reached over to shake hands. “Ah…Russell Crowe, is it?”

Crowe gave him a pained look. “Yeah, that’s right and no smart cracks. I’ve had it up to here,” he pointed to his chin, “with comments about that dopey movie guy with my name.” He jutted out that chin. “…Had it, you hear?”

You’d think a guy who was short and round like Danny DeVito would be thrilled to be confused with a rugged guy like Russell Crowe, but apparently, that wasn’t the case here.

“Back off, Crowe. He didn’t mean anything by it…” I began.

Russell started to open his mouth and his wife elbowed him in the ribs. “Now Rusty, be good. You said you’d be on your best behavior tonight.” Crowe shook his head.

“…Um…Sorry, Dr. Schultz. I guess I’m a bit testy tonight. Let’s have a toast.”

We all blinked at that, but raised our flutes filled with fabulous champagne. “Here’s to a successful exhibition and that great Van Gogh painting…”

We clinked glasses, took sips and everyone at our table turned to admire the painting. I glanced at Eric who wasn’t smiling. Russell Crowe wasn’t smiling either. What gives here? They both knew something that I didn’t and I decided then and there that I would find out what. Eric looked over at Sue at another table. She didn’t look unhappy… It was more of a puzzled expression. So Sue wasn’t sure what he knew either. Hmm… That raised the stakes a bit.

Dinner was sumptuous with four courses and several exquisite wines. I was trying to keep my head, but somebody was always refilling one of my glasses. The fancy duck entree we ate was a far cry from the PBJ I’d made for lunch. No, I mused, I certainly wasn’t Julia Child, but then I never had known that Sherlock ate anything fancy either. That settled me down.

But soon my head was beginning to swim and in my semi-inebriated haze, I cut off the next server who came by wanting to refill my half filled glass. Eric excused himself to visit the restroom and Russell Crowe joined him quickly after. Glancing over at Cindy’s table, Sandstrom was still stroking her hand, while Marcie glared at them. Guess Cindy had shut her down all right.

I excused myself to splash water on my face. Walking down the dimly lit hallway to the ladies’ room, I heard voices. Feeling a bit wobbly, I leaned against the cool tiled wall for a minute.

“Now wait a minute, Schultz. You don’t know that, for sure.”

“Of course not, but it’s a fair assumption.”

“Well, have you seen him?”

“No, but that doesn’t mean he did it…”

I stood up straight and listened harder. It was Dr. Schultz and Russell Crowe. So they knew each other… Then why pretend they didn’t? What was going on here?

Using the bathroom facilities, I came out ready to go home. That stopped me cold. We had no home. We would have to go to a hotel or something tonight. What a holy mess this day had been.

After dessert, I begged off the brandy being poured while everyone was heading over to view the paintings. My haze was lifting somewhat and it was getting late. It didn’t seem like anything illuminating was going to occur tonight, so I went over to Cindy and told her we needed to leave. Warren was whispering in her ear and I tugged on her arm.

“Ready to go?”

Cindy took one look and could probably see the alcoholic haze I was in.

She nodded.

“Listen, Warren. I’ve got to go.”

“So soon? Why, the night’s young.” His smile showed off some very nicely capped teeth. He stroked her arm. “How about dinner next week?”

Cindy flashed one of those smiles that made guys go weak at the knees. Sandstrom was no different.

“Sure, Warren. Thursday will be fine.”

“Great. I’ll call you Wednesday about the arrangements.”

I noticed that Marcie was hanging on at the periphery of the conversation and couldn’t contain her disdain. It dripped off her. Pity…

We left the museum after thanking our hostess – Sue O’Dell – and various board members. It had actually been a fairly nice evening, although not as productive as I would have liked.

The outside lighting was dim and my nerves were shot around this place anyway. I jumped at one shadow and Cindy clicked her teeth.

“Tsk tsk… Jumpy, are we?”

“Cindy. Don’t start with me. A man died at that house over there, possibly being shot at, and Bobby was beaten up in this very alley. It’s a scene right out of a Hitchcock movie.”

“It is kind of a creepy setting. Let’s get Baskerville and figure out where we’re spending the night.” She hiccupped. “Maybe we should get a cab instead, we’ve both had…”

We walked to the car debating about the cab and wondering why the dog wasn’t barking. He always did when he heard us approach. It was his signature greeting. I opened the car door.

“Lucy. Didn’t you lock the car when you checked on him?”

“Jeez… Well…I…I thought I did…” My heart started beating rapidly. “He’s not here.”

Her jaw dropped. “…Not here? Where the hell could he be?”

I was desperately searching through the car. It didn’t take long. We looked up and down the alley, calling his name, but it was no use – Baskerville was gone…





* * *





CHAPTER 13





“Where could he have gone?” Cindy’s eyes popped wide.

“He couldn’t have gone anywhere on his own. His paws can’t open the door.”

I sat down on the seat, my lower lip beginning to quiver. “He must have been dognapped!”

“…Dognapped? You mean kidnapped.” Cindy’s eyes were misty.

“Kidnapped, dognapped… He’s still gone and someone must have taken him.”

I squirmed in the seat and heard a slight rustling sound. I lifted up and reached underneath me to see what was making the noise. Feeling paper, I pulled it out and took a look.





Hi. Don’t be alarmed, but your dog was barking his poor little head off, so I took him home. The car door was unlocked. I live at the white house, 215, right on the alley behind the museum.

Maggie Carmichael





“Incredible…” Cindy had read the note over my shoulder, rubbing her eyes. “And very nice of her actually.”

“I feel terrible leaving poor Baskerville here all alone. He must have awakened and gotten lonely.” I couldn’t have felt more rotten. We were eating caviar while the poor dog was probably scared stiff.

“…Or hungry. It’s past nine.”

We locked up the car and walked over to the big house on the alley, behind the art museum. How spooky was this? I’d actually been here a few nights ago and my memories weren’t pleasant ones. We walked up the stairs and knocked on the door. In a few minutes, we heard a lovely voice calling, “Be right there. Give me a minute.”

And then we heard barking…

She opened the door and Baskerville flew out, jumping into my arms! Cindy and I gave him a group hug. I might have sniffled a little…

“Thank you so much, Mrs…”

“…Carmichael. Maggie Carmichael. Please come in.”

I gathered Baskerville tightly to me and walked into her kitchen. From there, we went out to the living room where Maggie waved a hand for us to sit on one of her couches. I fell back exhausted with Baskerville licking my face. In a minute, he turned to Cindy and began licking her face.

“I can’t thank you enough, Mrs. Carmichael. We were so worried.”

“No… no… please. It’s fine. I don’t sleep well and I heard barking out by the alley. I went out to see what was up and saw him in the car, getting pretty excited. That’s when I tried your car door to see if I could help.”

I looked at Cindy and blew out a deep breath. “I can’t tell you how relieved we are. We’ve had the day from hell and had to leave him in the car when we attended a dinner at the museum. There’s no excuse for our bad behavior, other than we were totally stuck. Leaving him in the car was our last alternative.”

Maggie was an older woman, had short graying hair, and an appealing face. She looked like she’d had a happy life and her colorful house reflected that. She went to get us coffee and I looked around, while Cindy took Baskerville for a walk to do his business. Pots of flowers everywhere in a rainbow of colors overpowered the house with an abundance of fragrances.

“You have a lovely home, Mrs. Carmichael.”

“Please call me Maggie.”

“Sorry…I’m Lucy and my friend is Cindy.”

“Nice to meet you both… and Baskerville.”

She brought me over a steaming mug of coffee. “Do you need milk or sugar?”

“Neither thanks.” I blew into the hot liquid and took a tentative sip. Still hot. “Have you lived here very long?”

She nodded, testing her own mug of coffee. “Ray and I lived here for over twenty years – good ones too, but he died recently.”

“I’m sorry to hear that.” I thought of something. “You know…I believe you and your husband were friends with my father.”

“What’s his name?”

“Larry James…”

She brightened. “Larry’s your father? How come we haven’t met before?”

“…Don’t know, but it’s nice to meet you now.”

Her eyes registered recognition. “…Oh, yes…Lucy James. Your father’s mentioned you.”

“I bet he has…”

Eyes twinkling now, “…But in a good way…”

I let that go and took another sip of my coffee. “Was Ray sick for very long?”

“He’d had heart problems for the past few years. There was a pretty major heart attack last month and then the one that finished him off just last week.”

I squirmed in my seat. I was dying, maybe the wrong word, to ask her about the bullet I’d dug out of her staircase railing. How could I squeeze it into the conversation?

Cindy came back in then.

“Everything all right?” Maggie asked her.

“Yes, indeed and I’ll spare you the jokes,” Cindy laughed with her.

“Let me get you some coffee.”

Baskerville curled up on my lap and promptly fell asleep. I stroked his curly little head as Maggie brought in the coffee for Cindy. She nudged me with her foot and I had to quit stalling.

“Mrs. Carmichael…Maggie.”

“Yes, dear.”

“This may be difficult, so my apologies in advance. But could you tell us about the night Ray died.” She looked at me strangely and I had to say something. “I…I’m just curious.”

Maggie shrugged and took another sip. “Sure… Why not?” She looked out a window into the night and her memories.

“Ray was restless. He’d been doing a lot of physical therapy and I guess he had nervous energy… Anyway, he headed out the door saying he wanted a quick smoke. Of course, I had to scold him because he was supposed to stop.” She looked over at us. “Doctor’s orders.”

We nodded. “Please continue,” I encouraged.

“…He wasn’t out very long when I heard the rain begin. Little taps started on the roof and the wind must have picked up because I heard the rain next on the windows. Thunder rocked the house and I ran to the back to see what was keeping Ray from coming inside. That’s when I found him face down in the mud by the staircase.”

“He’d died?”

“No. He died on the way to the hospital.”

“I’m sorry to be so nosy, Maggie,” I said.

“That’s all right, Lucy. I don’t mind.”

“Did he say anything to you before he passed?”

She looked at me sharply. “No, and you’re the second person to ask me that.”

“Oh, did the police…” began Cindy.

“No. Miss O’Dell from the museum asked me a few days later when she came to pay her respects.”

“Sue O’Dell asked you?”

“Yes, and she asked me something else that was strange.”

“Like what?” I was sitting on the edge of my seat now.

“…Like did I hear anything unusual that night?”

“Did you?”

“No, but…”

She had me going… “But what?”

“I do now. I’ve been watching the museum for the past week. You know, since the new exhibition has been there. I don’t sleep well, as I mentioned, so I’ve taken a few walks down the alley at night.”

“Yes?”

“There is a lot of activity at night. Comings and goings for a few nights… Trucks pulling up. Trucks taking off. Boxes being loaded and unloaded. Seems awfully busy for an art museum – especially at night.”

I felt like I’d hit some kind of pay dirt.

“Has anyone seen you?”

“No, I don’t think so. And there’s something else, Lucy.”

“What’s that?”

She shifted in her chair. “I… I sometimes wonder if Ray saw something that night. Something that maybe upset him, causing another attack. Oh, I don’t know. That’s too fanciful.” She sat back quickly and reached for her now cold coffee.

“I think I’ll get a refill. Anyone else want one?”

I shook my head and decided to keep the information about the bullet to myself. It might upset her too much right now. “No, thank you, Maggie. Thanks for your hospitality and taking care of our Baskerville, but we should be off.”

“Thanks for the coffee, Maggie,” added Cindy.

We got into the car, neither of us speaking. Cindy had Baskerville, dead weight now that he was sound asleep. His evening had been almost as exciting as ours.

“Where are we going, Lucy?”

“Dad’s of course. I’m not too flush right now, so crashing at Dad’s seems like a good idea.” I glanced over at her. “What do you think?”

“Yeah, I guess so. If it’s only for one night.”

“I’ll work on that tomorrow.”

“But he hates Baskerville.”

“…Maybe Mrs. Murphy will keep him for the day. That’ll give me the incentive to figure something out.”

“Okay.”

So that’s what we did – slept at Dad’s for the night and left Baskerville with Mrs. Murphy for the day. We didn’t see too much of Dad, getting there late and leaving early… Mrs. Murphy was feeling so guilty about not reporting the robbery on our apartment that she gladly took in Baskerville. I’m not too sure how Hamlet felt about it though. She was backing up when I set him on the floor. The last time I looked, naughty Baskerville was inching towards an enormous, quivering Great Dane. I could have sworn he had a sinister expression on his little doggy face. I could have been mistaken…





* * *





CHAPTER 14





Work was eventful the next day. So far, I wasn’t having too many down days. Megan kept her cool with the customers at the concession counter, but practically exploded when the popcorn popper broke down. Damn! Try having a movie theater without popcorn! Some people actually wanted their ticket money back…

Kevin was interviewing a new employee. We were down one since Bobby landed in the hospital. Because we were short-handed, I lucked out and didn’t have to help with the interviewing. Blech… I’d rather break rocks in the noonday sun.

Another one of Kevin’s recent hires, Pete with the magenta Mohawk, was collecting tickets. Where does he find these guys? Pete was actually scaring moviegoers by occasionally whipping out his comb and fluffing up that hairdo! Marvin was pulling his usual disappearing act, but I caught glimpses of him by the bathroom and heading into theaters. He was invisible, but around.

And so was I. It seemed like I was everywhere at once. We had changed the slate of movies, which always brought in a big crowd the first day. I had several small fires to extinguish and had to help with concessions and projectors a few times too. Busy day.

At lunch, I’d called someone I knew at a security business about the break-in. After arranging for them to do a security sweep of our apartment, I’d dashed home an hour later to let them in. The sweep was clean, so after my shift I called Mrs. Murphy that we’d be going back home tonight and so would Baskerville. I could hear the relief in her voice.

After that, I drove over to the hospital. Buying some flowers in the gift shop, I traveled up the elevator to Bobby’s floor and met that guy… That friend of Bobby’s who told me he was in the hospital. What’s his name? Josh… He was just leaving.

“Hi…Josh, right?”

A small smile. “Yeah, that’s me. You’re that co-worker of Bobby’s.”

“Lucy.” I extended a hand that he shook.

“Nice to meet you.”

“Any change in the patient today?”

“…Not much. He was awake for a while, but some nurse just gave him another pain shot. He’s probably out now.”

“Has he said anything to you?”

“No. Every time I’m here, he’s pretty out of it.”

“…Could I ask you a question, Josh?”

“…Sure.”

“I noticed some paint on your face when we first met. Are you an artist?”

“Yeah. Bobby and I share supplies sometimes when we’re low on cash.”

“Have you gone to the art museum to see the new exhibit?”

“Nah… Impressionists aren’t my thing. My stuff’s abstract.”

“…Do you know if Bobby’s been there yet?”

Josh thought about that for a minute. “Isn’t that where they found him? In the alley behind the museum?”

I nodded and stayed quiet.

“I think maybe he’d gone that day. He said something about it… You know, wanting to see that great Van Gogh. Bobby’s really into swirling all the colors around on his palette like the Impressionists did. And the whirling wind of that painting is just…”

“Okay. I got it. Thanks, Josh.”

He smiled and I passed him by. Walking down the hallway to Bobby’s room, I felt something shift. I was going to have to put on my Sherlock cape and get my feet wet. Okay, maybe a mixed metaphor there, but I knew I’d have to go back to the museum tonight. It was literally time for a little cloak and dagger…

Standing in the quiet of Bobby’s room, it seemed too peaceful. Bobby was a happy guy, but I didn’t feel too happy looking around that room full of antiseptics, bandages and beeping machines. A nurse came in to check his vital signs. She smiled slightly.

“How is he?”

“Better. It’s just been a few days.”

“Does he sleep a lot?”

“Yes. His doctor feels that some of the internal injuries will heal better if he sleeps a good amount of time. He’s been on sleeping medication.”

Internal injuries. Wow… I felt that in the gut as though I had an internal injury as well.

“Thanks.”

I turned around and went home. No, Bobby wasn’t talking yet, so I couldn’t find out what he was doing in that alley… But he was getting better. It was obviously going to take some time. Time was something I didn’t have much of because the exhibition would be leaving in a week. I was going to have to make something happen… How could I do that?





We were thrilled to be back home tonight. I’d been reheating one of Mrs. Murphy’s lasagnas when I heard Cindy come in the door.

“Hey all! Now where’s that hound we call Baskerville?”

I laughed to see him tear off down the hallway, miniature bark at high volume and little legs moving as quickly as possible. She caught him and lifted him high in the air. His doggy tongue worked overtime trying to lick her face. Oh, it’s the little things in life you cherish…

Eric Schultz called while we were watching another Holmes mystery. It was the Musgrave Ritual and Brunton, the butler, had just coerced poor Rachel, the Welsh maid, to help him solve the family puzzle. She really wanted to help him with something else…

“Hello?”

“Lucy? Eric Schultz.”

“Hi.”

“Lucy, I was wondering if I could impose upon you.”

Hmm… “That all depends on the imposition, Eric.”

“Could you come down to the office tonight at the museum? I’d like to talk to you about something. Sue mentioned you were doing a little work for her and I…”

“Sure. What time?”

“Would ten o’clock be too late?”

“Ten? I guess not, but why then?”

“I want to talk away from nosy ears and prying eyes. About a serious matter…”

“Okay. Will you let me in when I get there?”

“Yes, I’ll come downstairs and meet you at the front door.”

“See you then.”

“Thanks.”





* * *





At first, Cindy told me I was nuts to be heading back to the art museum in the dead of night. But then she smiled when I swirled on my Sherlock coat and tugged the black and white cap on my head.

“Really? This is a Sherlock moment, is it?”

“Yep. Don’t wait up.”





It seemed like every time I walked up to the front door of the museum, my stomach would either sink or lurch. I parked my car in a side parking space and made sure it was locked this time. Walking quickly, I could hear the eerie echoes my shoes made connecting with the cement sidewalk. The kneeling man by the door seemed to be standing at attention. That’s when I realized it was a real man and not the statue made of stones and wire. I froze…

There were only a few fragments of light finding their way to the building, so my vision was handicapped. But then he moved… No way was this an inanimate object. His eyes blinked open and he saw me too! Adrenaline began coursing through my body and I felt stronger than usual. I could take him! I’d had that self-defense class last year and still practiced those moves -- occasionally.

Unless he had a gun. Then I’d be sunk… It would be hard to fight off a knife too, but there was no way I was going down without a fight…

The longer I stood there, the longer the man looked slightly familiar. Where had I seen that face before? His features were becoming more distinct and I couldn’t imagine what he wanted. He made no move toward me and I still stood in my frozen position ten feet away from the door. He appeared to be as nervous as I was.

Suddenly, a light came on from inside the museum. I saw Dr. Schultz walking toward the door to open it for me.

I looked at the man. He glanced at the lighted area, bent down and ran fast the other way. He zipped around the corner of the museum before I could yell Stop!

Schultz opened the front door to watch me run around the corner of the building. I looked in every direction and saw nothing. A few porch lights lit up surrounding homes, but no running man. The dark covered the area like a blanket. I walked back to Eric who stood there with his eyes like saucers.

“What the heck was that all about?”

“…Just thought I saw something.”

“Well, get in here. This place is creepy enough inside at night – I don’t want to have to think about it being as creepy outside.”

I walked through the door Eric held for me and he motioned me up the stairs to his office.

“Really? How is it creepy in here?”

He shrugged. “…Noises…Not sure what exactly, but I often work late and I just lock myself in. Makes me feel better.”

He glanced at me and blushed. “Probably doesn’t make me sound like a real brave guy though.”

I had to laugh. “…Stick with me, kid. I’ll protect you.”

“I bet you could.”

Then we were in his office. The museum had given him a small, corner office that seemed to fit him to a T. The tiny space was crammed with books on art history from every country and in a few languages. His messy desk spilled over to an even messier worktable piled high with papers and photo slides. A few well-placed lamps sprung up in the oddest places and threw strange shadows across the floor.

“You could use more light in here, doc,” I cracked.

“Maybe so,” he chuckled.

I picked up one of the art books. “What languages do you speak?”

“Hopefully, English… French and Italian.”

“Impressive.”

“…Saves money on translators. They cost a small fortune.”

Taking off my coat and cap, I hung them on a wall peg and moved some papers and books off a chair by the desk. I sat down and looked up at my host.

“What’s up, Eric? You didn’t just invite me down here to tell me you spoke French and Italian.”

“Indeed I didn’t.” He sat in the desk chair and swiveled it to look at me. “I haven’t been in this position before.”

“What position is that?”

“I don’t know what to do.” Eric leveled his attractive blue eyes at me and I straightened in my chair.





* * *





CHAPTER 15





“…About what?”

“About the uneasy feelings I have with this exhibition.”

“…Uneasy feelings…”

“Yes, but let me start at the beginning.”

“A good place.”

“…Well,” he looked down and smoothed a wrinkle out of his pants. “It’s been a…strange experience so far.”

“How so?” Boy, was I going to have to drag every word out of this guy?

“Warren Sandstrom really wanted me for this exhibition, even though I’m not the world’s greatest living expert on Vincent Van Gogh, the centerpiece artist.”

“Could have fooled me.”

“Well, thanks. My field of expertise includes the Impressionist painters, but Van Gogh is really considered post-Impressionist.”

“Okay…”

“So you’re wondering about Sandstrom’s motives.”

“In a word, yes.” This was interesting, but hardly worth swirling on my coat and hat.

“…What else?”

“Someone took some of the slides I use for my presentations.”

“Now that’s newsworthy. Which ones?”

“It’s mainly the slides of the painting Starry Night.”

“Can you think of any reason why someone would take them?”

“No.” He ran a shaky hand through his hair. “But I know the security guards aren’t worth anything.”

“How do you know that?” Sue O’Dell had made the same sort of comment.

“I came out of my office a few times to see one of them eating a sandwich, sitting on the gallery floor.”

I shook my head, trying to make sense of that information.

“…Huh…”

“Exactly. And we had that robbery.”

“What robbery?”

“…It wasn’t very big, but you must remember it. The umbrella… The Van Gogh umbrella that you brought back to Sue. How did it wind up at your movie theater?”

“The question of the day…”

“Well, it just has me concerned. Sandstrom is supposed to be providing fabulous security for the exhibition and he hires Laurel and Hardy. They’re sloppily dressed, laugh and eat food on duty. Hardly impressive…”

“… Let me flip this. You suspect Sandstrom of hiring security staff for possibly another reason?”

“Yes. When my slides went missing, I talked to Sue who agrees with me.”

“Agrees about what?”

“I think the Van Gogh painting may be a forgery.”

I blinked rapidly a few times as I tried to catch my breath. Now this was worth getting on my coat and cap.

“And you think Sandstrom is behind this?”

“Yes.”

“Why don’t you just go to the cops?”

Eric moved uneasily in his chair. “He’d just lawyer up and we’d never find out for sure.”

“If it’s a forgery or not?”

“Yes. All the paintings would disappear into someone’s vault, just to resurface in a few years when the furor had quieted.”

“… Why me? Why’d Sue bring in me?”

“You’re local and unobtrusive. Sandstrom would never expect that you were snooping around, getting information.”

“He’d never suspect me.”

“No and that would buy us time to find out.”

“Why do you think it’s a forgery? Looks pretty good to me.”

“I think it’s probably a fabulous forgery -- They exist. From the painting itself, it’s hard to tell, but there are other ways. The back for instance.”

“The back of the painting?”

“Sure. Old frames are sometimes cut down and placed on fake paintings to enhance their original period looks. Sometimes nails have been pulled from the frames and replaced.”

“Wow…”

“There’s the new stretcher bars on old canvases. Restorers may replace a bar but so might a forger. And then paper may be glued on the back. That could hide manipulations of the painting.”

“Why don’t you just look at the back?”

His laugh was dark. “…Sandstrom won’t let me. His security staff is the only one allowed to touch the paintings and to move them.”

“…Huh… Even though you’re the resident expert.”

“Even though…”

I sat back in the chair, rubbing my hands together, processing the information. My neck was tingling again, but I wasn’t too sure why this time.

Eric seemed sincere and trusted me. He seemed like a good guy and so I was going to take him at his word, for now. Warren Sandstrom seemed to deserve a second look. Maybe Cindy could help with that…

“I need to do a few things, Eric. I suggest we meet again tomorrow.”

He was already nodding. “How about dinner?”

“Okay. Sounds good.”

“Give me your address and I’ll pick you up – about six?”

I rose from my chair. He retrieved my coat and helped me into it. Handed me the cap…

“Nice clothes,” he smiled showing a whole lot of attractive teeth. “Anyone we know?”

I put on my cap, tilted it at a rakish angle. Buttoning up the coat, I had to laugh. “It’s a long story…”

“Maybe you can tell it to me tomorrow over dinner.”

“Sure, but hopefully I’ll have other things more interesting to discuss by then.”

He walked me downstairs and out to my car. There was no sighting of the man I’d seen earlier, so we said goodnight and I drove home.

He and Sue were pointing the evil finger right at Warren Sandstrom III. Why? Why would Sandstrom do something like this? Did he need the money? Time to put Cindy to work. She’s the one with the hot date…





* * *





Actually, the next night, we both had hot dates. Cindy was going out with Mr. Sir, while I got Leonardo.

Sigh… What should I wear? I couldn’t seem to do anything with my hair. Man! Is that me? I sound like such a girl.

My dad was breathing down my neck again to sign up for classes and quit fooling around. He’d spoken to Maggie and knew I was up to something. I called Maggie to ask her if she would please keep our conversation to herself. I wanted to continue flying under the radar.

While we were dressing, I filled Cindy in on what had happened at the art museum the night before. The running man, Eric’s missing slides and his suspicions about Sandstrom… Even as I spoke, a nagging thought or two were creeping around my brain, saying it was all too tidy… too neat. It was too easy – Look out when your own brain tells you something’s too easy.

Cindy agreed and promised she’d be cautious. She’d note every detail. She’s good at details and has always made a good Dr. Watson. I’ve always been able to bounce ideas off her and listen as she processes… and gives it all back to me. Don’t think she’s writing them down in a journal or blog though.

Huh. Will have to check that out.

Finally, we were both dolled up and ready to go. We glanced at our reflections in the hallway mirror.

“Jeez, Cindy,” I whined. “Why do you always look so much better than me when we get dressed up?”

Her eyes rolled up. “…Lucy, you don’t care about makeup. A little eyeliner and blush would bring out your eyes. You have nice eyes.” She turned and put her hands on her hips. “…And how many times how I told you this?”

“Okay… a few,” I mumbled. “But look at your clothes! They fit so much better than mine do. My dress looks like it’s draped on a hanger.”

This time she sighed. “…You could have worn that blue dress I suggested. It clings to your curves and makes you look sexier.”

Hmm… Wasn’t sure I wanted to look sexy. Cindy looked at my face and laughed.

“No, you don’t. That’s true,” she said.

“How in the hell do you know what I’m thinking?” I was enraged that she could crawl up in my mind like that.

“How many years have we been friends?”

She flipped her pretty blonde hair at me, shrugged and walked to the closet for a jacket. I tried to do the same – I flipped my pretty auburn hair at the idiot in the mirror, raised one shoulder and gave the idiot a sultry, pouty look with pursed lips.

From the hallway, Cindy laughed good and loud. She even woke up Baskerville. “…Not bad… Madonna? Jennifer Lopez? Betty Boop? Who else does pouty really well?”

“Me…” I breathed in my lowest, sexiest voice.

“Watch it. You’ll be doing Joan Crawford next… Scary time.”

Warren picked her up in a limousine. Jeez, Louise… Could he be any more ostentatious? But then again, how do I know how rich people act? Never been one.

He came up to the door looking like a million bucks in that snazzy suit and silver hair. The suit was a deep blue pinstripe that he wore with a pale pink shirt, dark gray tie and shoes of some kind of strange leather. Crocodile? Buffalo?

His eyes all but bugged out when Cindy walked up with her gorgeous, clingy wrap-around bright red dress. She’s all about making a statement and that statement had Warren’s tongue hanging out.

As Sandstrom helped her into her coat, Cindy winked at me and I weakly smiled. I wondered if Eric would be picking me up in a limousine. Somehow I doubted it…

I watched them leave from the front window. As soon as the sleek black limo had slithered away from the curb, a tiny, yellow smart car pulled up, screeched to a halt and took its place. Good grief… from the sublime to the ridiculous, but I had to admit… more my style.

I got my Sherlock coat from the closet and walked over to open the door. When I did, in walked Leonardo… Wow! Jeans, dark brown leather jacket, scruffy facial hair but where was the cigarette? This guy sure had the bad boy look down pat.

“Are you sure you’re a professor?” I handed him my coat.

“Yeah, why?” His eyes crinkled, puzzled. Another cute look.

“…You just don’t look much like Joe Warner, my erstwhile advisor.”

“How does Joe look?”

“…Bow tie, patches on his baggy tweed jacket. Beard…”

Eric blew out a small laugh like a gust of air. “…Nice. I can go back and change, if you’d like.”

“No,” I hurriedly added. “…Too much trouble.” I turned around for him to help me into the coat.

“You look nice too, Lucy. Date much?”

I looked at him sharply over my shoulder. “Not that it’s any business of yours, but no… Why do you ask?”

He lifted the hair off the back of my dress as he helped me into the coat.

“You’ve still got a price tag on your dress. I assume this is the first time you’ve worn it.”

“Nice deduction, detective.”

He smiled a very pretty smile. “…Just call me Bogie.”

Eric pulled off the price tag, handed it to me and helped me into my coat, fluffing my hair outside the collar. His smile lit up the hallway… even Baskerville looked on intently.

I really was beginning to like this guy. I sure hope I wasn’t going to have to testify against him in court or drag his sorry ass down to a police station for questioning. That might hurt our budding relationship.

Walking to his car, he chatted brightly about the restaurant where he’d made reservations and didn’t seem upset like he had last night. Eric obviously wore a few hats and tonight’s was the hat of the attentive date. I had a million questions to ask him and they buzzed around my face like a pack of bees. Something got in my eyesight, that’s for sure, because when he closed my car door, thinking I was peacefully seated like a sane person would be, I raised my hand and he caught my finger in the car door!





* * *





CHAPTER 16





“Yow!” I screamed and he automatically opened the door.

“Jesus, Lucy! Are you all right?”

“No,” I wailed as my finger began to throb and ache. “It hurts like hell!”

“What the devil was your finger doing there?” he asked wide-eyed.

“…Bees,” I puffed. “…Pain…lots of pain.”

I got out of the car and Eric tried to look at my finger. I pulled it away, hid it behind me and crouched, like a cornered animal.

“…Let me see it…”

“Why? Are you a medical doctor too?”

“No,” he laughed, “…but I’ve done this a time or two myself. Let me see.”

I hesitantly showed him my hurt digit and he nodded.

“Let’s go to the hospital. Blood’s going to start collecting at the base of the nail and it’s going to hurt like crazy from the pressure. A doctor can drill a little hole and release that pressure. You’ll stay sane that way.”

I got back into the car and made sure all my appendages were close to me when he closed the door this time. When he got in on the driver’s side, I balefully shook my head.

“Did you say bees?” he asked incredulously.

I thought it wiser to ignore the question.

“I’m all dressed up and we’re going to a hospital.”

“…Yeah,” he laughed. “Some Saturday night date you are…”

I almost noticed when his Leonardo blue eyes twinkled at me. Almost…





At the hospital, even though my hurt finger pounded like a drum at me, my thoughts went a few floors above, where Bobby lay. Maybe I could visit him if my finger didn’t need to be reattached. Damn… it hurt.

It was a good hour before a doctor could see me, so Eric tried to keep me entertained. He told me weird stories about professors at his university. Never thought the Ivory Tower bunch could be that interesting.

He was probably wondering how he could sneak away and have a decent dinner with someone not obviously nuts, but he stayed with me. I gave him plenty of opportunities to sneak away or just to walk away, but he refused. I had to give him points for being gallant… or at least tenacious. Professors from Wisconsin apparently were made of stern stuff.

The attending physician in the ER cocked his head at me when I gave him my lame reason for slamming my finger in the car door. I’m not too sure why it happened myself. I was busy ogling Eric, thinking of something or other, and all of a sudden, I’m in intense pain. The doc didn’t buy it either, although Eric smiled slightly. My wounded digit was telling me in vivid, colorful language that no guy was worth it. I had to agree.

Afterwards, we wound up in the cafeteria of the hospital. Visiting hours were over for the day and I couldn’t get in to see Bobby. A nurse told me he was better but not out of the woods yet. Eric and I decided to have a bite to eat here, since the huge bandage on my finger probably would have looked slightly out of place at the chic Italian restaurant where he’d made reservations… Where he canceled reservations.

I glanced around at the pale blue walls and crummy, fake plants decorating the lifeless room. Catching my sigh, Eric smiled.

“…Not what you had in mind for tonight, Lucy?”

“Ah… That would be yes. This is ridiculous. I’m surprised you’re not on the first bus back to Wisconsin.”

“I’ll say one thing for you – you’re not dull.” He reached for the ketchup bottle for his hamburger.

“And that, Dr. Schultz, is what I want all my dates to go home saying about me. By God! That Lucy’s not dull!”

He laughed as he sprinkled a dab of ketchup on his fries too.

“You know, I was really looking forward to being sophisticated and chic tonight, wearing one of my best dresses – new, as you know – and I was going to blow you away with my charm and elegance.”

“You can still blow me away with your intuition and intelligence,” he grinned.

“Not the same thing,” I mumbled.

“I think you look very pretty tonight, don’t you?”

“Apparently, according to my roommate, I need blush and eyeliner.”

Eric put down his hamburger and tilted my chin up with his finger. He took a good look at me, while I squirmed under the scrutiny.

“No blush or eyeliner needed…” He picked up his hamburger again and took a big bite. I couldn’t tell if he was being romantic or clinical.

As he happily chewed, I was having trouble visualizing the police putting him in handcuffs. Maybe I didn’t want to see him as a villain in this drama and that was rose-coloring my filter. Hmm… maybe.

With my good hand, I was able to lift a spoon to my mouth and got in a few sips of soup. Maybe I’d lose a few pounds on this new diet. The Finger-in-the-Car-Door Diet… I just might market it and make a fortune.

I swallowed and tried again. “Eric, we need to talk.”

“… Shoot…”

“I did a lot of Internet research on Warren Sandstrom III and he’s incredibly wealthy. A major art buyer and seller… He’s from old, inherited money – a great grandfather who made a fortune in steel and railroads. The guy can buy an island in Hawaii. Why would you suspect him of forging this Van Gogh painting? What would be his motive?”

“I’ve studied the guy for months, Lucy. I’ve been on the road with him, as the collection goes on tour, and something’s off.” Eric looked off into space. “…Maybe he needs the money and maybe he doesn’t. Maybe he gets his kicks from selling the originals under his family’s noses.”

He looked back at me. “…Maybe he’s always been a rich kid and thinks he can get away with anything.”

“…Even murder?” I asked looking him straight in the eye.

“Murder?” Eric blinked, surprised.

“…Accessory to manslaughter, at least.”

“What are you talking about?”

“A man across the alley from the art museum had a heart attack and died the night the exhibition arrived. I dug a bullet out of his wooden staircase railing a few days later.”

“A bullet?” Eric visibly gulped.

“Yeah,” I nodded. “I can’t help but think that someone took a shot at him because they think he saw something at the museum. Something he wasn’t supposed to see…”

“Like what?”

“Those inept security guards loading a crate or two in a truck. Other people have seen them too. All the paintings had been readied for display in the gallery by then, so what were they loading in a truck?”

Eric put down his hamburger and wiped his mouth with a napkin.

“You think there’s more going on here than just with this one painting, don’t you?”

I shook my head. “…Not sure, but as yet I’m ruling nothing out. Everyone is a suspect and everything is suspicious.”

“Sherlock Holmes?”

“…Lucy James…”

His slow smile was crooked. “Does that everyone include me, Lucy?”

I shrugged. “…Everyone is a suspect until they’re not.”

“Okay,” he said wearily. “…A least I know where I stand. What can I do to convince you I’m one of the good guys?”

“Tell me all you know. Take it from the top and leave out nothing. I’m especially interested in anything you’ve heard or seen when you stay late at the museum.”

“…All right,” he nodded. “…I can do that.”

We spent the next hour eating hamburgers and soup with Eric alternately chewing and telling me his life story. How he got the job with the Sandstrom family, what he did for them as an art historian, and his years as curator and professor. I asked him the zillion questions that I had stored up and his answers seemed genuine, sincere. I tried not to doubt him until he came to his relationships with Sue O’Dell and Russell Crowe.

“So, why did you confess your suspicions to Sue about the Van Gogh painting being a forgery?”

“When you’re in the art world, you meet a lot of people… Many of them over and over again. Sue’s one of those people.”

“She gets around?”

“…In the art world, yes. I’ve met her a few times. Did you know that she worked for your former mayor before this job and for the governor’s office in Wisconsin before that? And always as a public relations liaison to the arts.”

“No, I didn’t and suddenly she’s content to run a gift shop at a small art museum?”

“Well… Reno’s art museum isn’t that small and it’s well respected. I think Sue took the museum job because she wanted to be on hand when the exhibit came here.”

“She knew it was coming?”

“She helped to bring it here. Sue’s on the museum board.”

“Yeah, I knew that, but why bring it here?”

“I think there’s something going on with Sandstrom.”

“…Do you mean sexually?”

“No, although I suspect there may have been at one time. He does quite well. I’ve never seen him twice with the same woman and his exploits are well-known.”

Hmm… This wasn’t going down well --- Sandstrom was out with Cindy tonight. I thought about texting her, but then she’s wiser in the arts of love than I am. She’s probably figured Warren out already.

I moved my bandaged finger to another position and a small wave of pain hit me.

“You okay?”

“I think the pain medication has worn off.” I took a sip of my coffee. “Let me get back to Sue. Why did you confide in her?”

He refolded the napkin on his lap. “It was either Sue or the cops, and I have only suspicions, not confirmed evidence. I thought Sue, as a board member, should know.”

“How did she act when you told her?”

“…Surprised, but not really.”

“What does that mean?”

“She acted surprised, but her expression wasn’t genuine. I think she already knew and didn’t want to let on.” He shrugged. “Anyway, she told me not to worry and she would handle it.”

“Handle it how?”

“I didn’t ask.”

So that made two people now who suspected Sandstrom of having a fake painting in the gallery and neither of them doing anything about it. Except for telling me… Why me?

My neck began tingling again. As much as I wanted to like Schultz, this was beginning to feel like a set-up. If this was such a big deal, why involve little old me who didn’t even have so much as a PI license to shield her? My finger began to throb incessantly.

And again I was feeling out of my depth. Cindy’s words came back to me. No, I didn’t want to work at the movie theater for another ten years, but neither did I want to do ten years for being an accessory to grand theft of a major work of art. Maybe Schultz was just using me. I decided to tread more carefully.

I glanced at him. He had an open face or he was a good actor.

“And Russell Crowe?”

“…Crowe?”

“How do you know him?”

“I don’t. Just from seeing him at the museum and he’s on the board.”

That neither answered my question nor sounded like the truth. I felt strongly that Eric had just lied about knowing Russell Crowe. I’d overheard him talking in the hallway to Crowe about someone. Why lie about it?

“I have a question for you, Lucy.”

“…Sure.”

“Who’s the guy upstairs that you wanted to visit?”

“Bobby Springer. He works with me at the movie theater.”

“… Why’s he here?”

“He was beaten up in the alley…” I watched his face carefully. “Behind the art museum a few days ago. One evening after viewing the Impressionist Exhibition.”

Eric winced like I’d slapped him.

“Good friend?”

“Work colleague, but a good guy.”

“Wonder what happened.”

“… My question exactly and I plan to find out.”

Eric smiled at me. “I think you’re going to be a great private detective, Lucy. You already are.”

I smiled back. “Just need that license.”

He glanced at his watch. ‘Let’s head back to my office. I have a few more things I want to show you about this collection of paintings.”





* * *





CHAPTER 17





Taking Eric’s rented smart car to the art museum was almost claustrophobic for me now. I had this huge wad of gauze wrapped around my finger and we were too close together in the tiny car. I would have appreciated more space. The atmosphere was that of a little box with the air pumped out of it. I waved my padded digit in between us, like a room divider. Eric’s face had a curious expression and I’m not sure what he thought. That’s okay, because I’m not sure what I thought either.

And coming back to the dreaded art museum was like viewing the Bates Motel in ‘Psycho’. I almost expected that crazy actor with the knife to come swinging out of the bushes at us. The irregular shadows on the walls, the kneeling man of rock and wire by the door – Once a real man had been standing there. Trying to scare us? No, I don’t think so, but he accomplished that anyway. Two people had been hurt here and there were the mysterious paintings within.

I swallowed hard at the sight of the dimly lit building with the enormous spidery sculpture in front and the running water. Lights were on over at Maggie’s house throwing the only real light on the outside of the building. No trucks, I noticed. The museum had been closed for hours so no one was around, except for the security guards. They were supposedly here somewhere.

Walking in, I got a phone call that I let go to voicemail. It was Mrs. Murphy… probably telling me about another of Hamlet’s abdominal problems. I listened to a bit of it and I knew it could wait. While I was on the phone, I noticed another voicemail – from Joe Warner. What could he want? To inquire if I’d worn the hat he’d given me? Could be and I had, thank you, Mr. Warner. To ward against all bad things, I had swirled on my Sherlock coat and cap. I was prepared… or so I thought.





If I’d wanted to analyze the scene, which I didn’t, it could have been scary.

I was walking into a darkened building with a man I wasn’t too sure about. He could be a mad professor, for all I really knew, taking me to my doom. I clutched my coat around me and tried to remember if I packed the mace in my purse.

Long shadows fell on the sidewalk below our feet with pinpricks of light from a few neighboring houses. The only consistent sound, besides the loud beating of my heart, was the water rushing through that creepy sculpture and down into the trough below to be recycled. It spurted out at the top, fell all around the tentacles reaching high into the air and was scooped up at the bottom. I watched it out of the corner of my eye, as Eric took out a key from his pocket and opened the front door of the museum. The entrance was all glass that shimmered, reflecting my changing mood. He held the door for me.

It wasn’t too late to run, but if I did… I’d never find out what’s really going on here. This was merely another puzzle piece and I had to steel myself to accept that. Buck up, James. Control your fear…

Eric smiled at me and led the way upstairs. As we walked up the darkened staircase, I glanced over the railing and saw a small light in the café. Russell Crowe’s café. Was he working late?

Schultz wanted to show me something in the art gallery, so he flipped on a light switch when we reached the top of the stairs. As he unlocked the door, several small beams of light suddenly zeroed in on a few paintings. Where were the guards?

Movement, sound… Something.

Eric glanced at me as I reached into my purse – no mace. Damn it. I’d have to rely on that self-defense class I took with Cindy. Jeez, that’s another whole story…

“…Want to call the police?” he whispered.

“Might be a good idea,” I whispered back.

He got out his cell phone as I peered around a corner. There, in the middle of the exhibition, right below the immense Van Gogh painting was a body slumped over. We heard footsteps running down the staircase, so we flew back to see what we could see.

Backs of dark clothing hurrying away and out the door was all we saw.

Nothing recognizable, no one identifiable...

“Laurel and Hardy?” I suggested.

“…Could be. Who else has a key?”

“Lots of people, Eric. Security for this exhibit is crappy. Let’s go see what we’ve got.”

Now I’ve seen dead people before. That blackmail case with the mayor’s office didn’t end nicely and I’d had to identify someone in the morgue. It’s not fun. This time wasn’t either. We looked the man over with the small amount of light afforded us, until I remembered the app on my smart phone. More light from my phone app didn’t help much either. The body was of a male, in his forties or early fifties, bald, dark clothing – no one either of us knew, although he seemed familiar. Blood dripped down his head and streaked his body.

I called the cops. Glancing at Eric, his face was white and his breathing was shaky.

“First dead body?”

“Yeah,” he breathed. “…Don’t see much of this in the academic world.”

“… Know him?”

He shook his head and turned away. I thought he might throw up.





* * *





When the police arrived, everyone else arrived – Warren Sandstrom, without Cindy I noticed, Sue O’Dell and Russell Crowe. Crowe? What was he doing here? The security guards apparently had the night off, incredible as that was to believe. Millions of dollars of art and the guys take a night off? It was suspicious to the cops too, so we all trooped down to the local police station together.

Eric and I gave our depositions and told them every tiny detail we knew. I even brought up the possibility of a motive for the murder – that the Van Gogh painting he was killed in front of could be a forgery. The cops weren’t too interested in my cock-eyed theories, one of them said, and we were released when we’d finished. It finally hit me that the dead man could be Randy Crowe… I’d found an article with his picture while doing a little research into the Crowe brothers. So what was Russell Crowe’s missing ex-con brother doing at the art museum? Why did he end up dead? I assumed his brother identified him to the cops.

I noticed the security guards being released at the same time. Apparently, they’d been called in as well. I guess they had good reasons for not being on duty tonight. One of them glanced over at us, so I got a real good look at him. Of course, he also got a good look at me.

I told Eric that I’d had enough excitement for one evening and he took me home. Sandstrom had brought Cindy home before going over to the art museum, so we stayed up and talked for a while about her date with Warren and my adventures with Eric. Sitting on the couch with Baskerville on my lap, having a warm glass of milk, I finally came down off the adrenaline high I was on. Cindy’s idea about the milk…

She glanced at my illustrious finger. “Only you would slam a finger in a car door, go to a hospital and later find a dead guy… All on the same date.”

“Well, Eric said I wasn’t dull.”

“Got that right.”

I hugged Baskerville who gave me a doggy smile. “…Bobby was a little better.”

“Did you see him?”

I shook my head. “It was after visitors’ hours. Eric had a funny reaction when I told him about Bobby.”

“What’d he do?”

“…Strange expression on his face, like he’d experienced something painful, or took a bite of a lemon.”

“…Well, he is a professor. Your life as puzzle-solver extraordinaire is probably as far away from his life as you can get.”

“…Maybe.” I gave Baskerville to her and got up to get more milk. “…So…the hot date with Sandstrom. Where’d you go?”

She smoothed her hair back and settled in. Probably to tell me he whisked her off to Paris in his private jet for a romantic dinner by the Eiffel Tower. She’s in a jet and I’m at the hospital. Sounds about right…

“We went to the Steakhouse at the Atlantic Hotel.”

“Nice.”

“Yes, very and expensive. All during dinner, we talked about him mostly and his jet-set life when suddenly the chauffeur came up to whisper in his ear.”

I peeked around the refrigerator. “Why?”

“My question exactly. Warren excused himself and was gone for ten minutes or so. Long time – I was beginning to think he’d abandoned me when he came back.”

Returning to the couch, I sipped my new glass of milk. “…Where’d he go?”

“He wouldn’t say, but I noticed a track ticket in his hand before he stuck it in his suit pocket.”

“How’d he look when he returned?”

“…Not happy.”

“Hmm… Lost a bundle on a horse?”

“Or something. I didn’t catch any amount but I know it was a horseracing ticket. There’s the sports book downstairs from the restaurant where he can bet.”

I thought about that for a few minutes, drank down the rest of my milk and leaned back on the couch. Tapping a finger on my chin, I looked over at her.

“Let me shoot this by you.”

“…Got a theory?”

“Probably half-baked, but here goes… Sandstrom has been losing big at various gambling enterprises – horses, sports, whatever. He needs to cover his losses so his family won’t notice, so he sells the original paintings and puts forgeries in their places.”

Cindy scrunched her nose. “… But why bother to keep showing the paintings? If there’s a forgery or two, wouldn’t it get noticed if they’re on exhibition?”

“Possibly, but not likely. Most of us art-goers aren’t experts. A really good forgery can sometimes pass by the experts.”

“Why was Eric suspicious of the Van Gogh?”

“He said he saw something on the canvas in a different light than he’d seen before and it triggered the thought.”

“But then all his slides went missing, so he couldn’t prove anything.”

“Exactly… or until he can get further proof.”

“So he’s stuck in neutral and so is Sue…”

“…Which gives Sandstrom the time he needs to get the heck out of Dodge and the paintings back into a vault somewhere.”

“No one would be the wiser.” She looked hard at me. “Is that really what you believe?”

I glanced at her stern face and shrugged. “…I’d like to, but it’s too neat… too tidy. It’s too easy to be suspicious of him.”

“Someone else is calling the shots?”

“…Maybe… If the painting or paintings are indeed forgeries, I wouldn’t even know who to call to take a look. After all, we have Dr. Schultz, our resident expert, and even he’s not sure.”

“Too many unknowns here.”

I yawned and stretched. “It’s late, Cindy. Let’s tuck it in for the night.”

Glancing at the kitchen clock, I could see that it was late… eleven. All of a sudden, I straightened and my eyes popped wide open. I’d thought of something.

“What?” Cindy looked at me with concern.

“Remember the curious incident of the dog in the night?” I asked her innocently.

She smiled. “…The dog did nothing in the night.”

“And that, dear Watson, is the curious incident.”

I stood up and headed for the hall closet.

“What the hell are you doing, Lucy?”

I got out her coat and handed it to her. “The game’s still afoot.”

“… Where are we going, Holmes?” she asked warily, putting on her coat. She watched as I shrugged into my cape coat and cap.

“Back to the art museum, of course.”

I opened the door with Cindy’s mouth hanging open, gaping at me.

“…Coming, Watson?”





* * *





CHAPTER 18





Sue had given me a key to the museum, but this time we were going in the back way, from the alley. I was a bit nervous, what with the yellow police tape hanging on the front door and it was black, black, black out here. With no light on at Maggie’s house, I used my smart phone to shine some light on the keyhole. Otherwise, we might have been trying to open the danged door all night. But I wasn’t too successful, so Cindy finally took the wretched key away from me to try her hand at opening the door.

I looked around at the quiet, dark neighborhood. I’d lived in this city many years but seeing it at night was much different than during the day. What I was missing was the traffic and the noises people make just going about their daily business – laughter, chatter. My business seemed to be hanging around scary places at night. Hmm... Maybe I should rethink my priorities.

Before I could get myself too worked up over my career choices, Cindy had punched in the security code, opened the door and gently pushed it open. I was fortunate to have a brave Dr. Watson… I was sometimes a pretty timid Sherlock Holmes.

We crept in through the hallway leading to some offices. It was dark and Cindy held onto my coat to know where I was. The light from my phone wasn’t much, but I didn’t dare use any more light. We came to a back staircase that I didn’t know was there. The second we found it, footsteps and hushed voices were heard coming down the stairs. I pushed Cindy into a darkened hallway away from the back door and hoped like hell we couldn’t be seen. I swirled my black cape coat around me with Cindy curled up behind. It must have been the cloak of invisibility as well. The voices came down the stairs, a little too noisily, and went out the back, without discovering us. I whispered to Cindy to try to find out who the people were as I sneaked quietly up the stairs.

The paintings were hung on walls and on low panels. On my stomach, I was able to slink along the floor to where I could hide behind a panel and still see the bulk of the exhibition. Someone had turned on a small tract light that lit up a Cezanne still life. While I was complimenting myself for remembering which artist it was, my eyes fell to the floor by the low panel. Another painting, another priceless painting, was on the floor leaning against the wall. Just leaning there… Like it had decided to take a rest from hanging on the wall and decided to rest on the floor instead.

My mouth had just closed from having dropped wide open, when two dark figures came back up the stairs. I kept my swirled coat around me and stayed prone on the floor across the room. It was definitely Laurel and Hardy, the two ridiculous security guards. How could I tell? I could smell the pastrami sandwich one guy was eating from across the blooming room. Good thing Baskerville wasn’t here – He’d have flung himself over there to grab the pastrami from the man’s hands.

I had the data to make another brick.

All of a sudden, the men froze. The one without the sandwich had picked up the priceless painting leaning against the wall and he just quit moving. They both were poised, standing, listening… I hadn’t made a sound, so it wasn’t me they were wondering about. It had to be Cindy downstairs. Maybe she figured she’d create a diversion to help me escape.

But I didn’t want to escape. I wanted to wring these idiots’ necks and find out what the hell was going on. It seemed reasonably obvious that the original paintings were being replaced by forgeries. But by whom? And why?

In the dim, Laurel and Hardy looked at one another. One held up a hand and then pointed a finger down. Their idiotic pantomime probably meant they were going downstairs to investigate. When they sneaked down the stairs, Cindy sent me a text that she was outside, waiting around the corner of the building for me. I sent her a text to come back in when the security guards left.

She joined me about ten minutes later. I felt rather than saw movement creeping across the floor towards me.

“Psst… Cindy?”

“Yeah. Where the hell are you?”

“Over here.” I shined my cell phone in her direction.

She crept over and joined me sitting on the floor by the low panel amidst all the incredible paintings.

“The guys have gone?”

“… They put a painting in a crate and took off in a small truck. I actually got a picture.”

“You’re worth your weight in dog biscuits, Cindy.”

“Thank you. Now tell me,” she poked me in the arm. “What are we still doing here?”

“Checking out the curious incident of the dog in the night.”

I rose and started walking to the back offices.

“Cut the Sherlock dialogue and tell me what you’re talking about.”

I looked back at her. “Eric… He’s the dog in the night that didn’t bark. And why not? He either knew what was going on, knew the culprits or is involved.”

“You don’t think he’s an innocent bystander here?”

“…He’s just too close to the action not to know more than he says.”

By this time, we’d reached his corner office in the back. Of course, the door was locked. I was feeling pretty pissed about now that Eric could be so charming and even helpful when I was wounded, and then possibly be one of the guilty party here in this scheme.

“Have you got that key?”

“Surely it won’t open this door too,” Cindy whispered doubtfully.

“…I’m going to try… And don’t call me Shirley.” I smirked just as her eyes rolled back in their sockets.

“I can’t believe you used that old…”

“Shh…” I told her. “We’re breaking and entering here.”

The key actually unlocked his door too. Shock of all shocks…

We cautiously opened his squeaky door and took a brave step in when suddenly – his overhead light came on and there stood Dr. Schultz two feet away from me! His arms were folded across his chest, a frown sat on his face and a toe tapped on the floor.

I’d stopped so abruptly that Cindy plowed right into me. We tipped dangerously forward and fell together in a heap right on top of Eric!

“Lucy! What the hell are you doing?” Breathed the angry professor under me. “And get off! Your arm’s cutting into my windpipe…”

Cindy got up first and I struggled to get off him. He accidentally swiped my big, bandaged finger and the pain hit me hard.

“Damn it, Eric! Don’t do that!”

“You’re the one who shouldn’t even be here…”

I got back on my feet. “Well… tell that to Sue O’Dell. She knew I’d be sneaking around.” Then I glared at him. “And don’t tell me you don’t know what’s going on here! You have to… You’ve been sitting on top of this museum all this time. I bet you have video too, don’t you?”

His face changed from anger to chagrin pretty quickly. Obviously, he had something.

“What?”

Eric sat down hard on his desk chair and grabbed a tissue from a box on his desk. Wiping his sweaty face, he tossed the tissue somewhere in the vicinity of the wastebasket on the floor. He took his sweet time looking back at me.

“Yes…”

“Yes, what?”

“I’ve been watching these guys for a few days now. I put in a video camera in a corner and have them placing paintings on the floor for a while…then picking the art up and leaving with it.”

“Who have you got?”

“… Besides you creeping around like a cat burglar?”

I glared at him. “Yeah…”

“I’ve got legs and feet, but no faces.”

“No breadcrumbs? Literally?”

“I know it’s the two security guards, Lucy. Who else could it be?”

“Let’s see the footage.”

He shyly got out a small video camera, attached it to a projector and shined the images against a wall.

We watched incredulously as two pairs of feet shuffled from one wall to another. Sometimes the feet stopped and sometimes they kept walking. The shoes were just old brown work boots -- nothing eye-catching until…the feet started heading back the way they’d come in.

“Pause the video, Eric,” I demanded. I walked up close to the wall, looking hard. “What’s that?”

Cindy came up and squinted with me. “Looks like a brand name…Justin?”

“Okay. We’ve got a brand name for the boots.”

“Great. Now we have to check everyone’s shoes who walks in here?”

“Yes, starting with the security guards.”

“How do you propose to do that, Lucy?” asked Eric as he shook his head.

“… Not sure yet, but I’ll think of something.”





* * *





CHAPTER 19





I was preoccupied all the next day at work. I was tired and fidgety, finding it hard to concentrate on the job at hand. I just had a nagging feeling that the resolution to this puzzle was in my very backyard. Now why would I get a weird feeling like that?

Shoes were on my mind and it seemed like every other man coming into the theater to see a movie that day was wearing a pair of some kind of work boots. Deck shoes or loafers sure would be easier to identify. I was looking down so much that I forgot to look up and walked right into Marvin.

“Oh! Marvin!” I gasped. “Sorry. Didn’t see you there.”

“You look kind of spaced out today, Lucy. What’s up?”

“…Nothing much,” I said glancing at his shoes.

He followed my gaze. “What are you looking at?”

“I didn’t know you wore boots, Marvin.”

He shrugged. “They’re comfortable and keep my feet warm. My two most important criteria in shoes. What did you want me to do next?”

“Have you cleaned theater two?”

“…Nope. On my way. See you later.”

As he walked away, I shook my head. No. Absolutely no way… I was ashamed that my brain for one nanosecond could even think it. He sleeps his way through the job and holes up wherever. Marvin’s energy level wasn’t sufficient to keep a snail moving.

Whatever happened to ruling no one out, I argued with myself.

Let’s not be ridiculous. I went into the office to catch up on paperwork. Kevin was gone again today and had left a pile of bills and letters for me to go through.

The two new guys that Kevin had hired recently both had on work boots today too. Apparently, most men in the free world wore boots like that. We were going to have to raise Eric’s camera into a higher position to better identify these criminals.

After work, I headed over to the hospital. The rumor was out that Bobby was awake and I was concerned.

Concerned that whoever beat him up might come back…

Concerned that maybe he really saw something…

Concerned that his injuries were life threatening.

Sue had called to get a report from me and I promised to visit her the next day or two. I had quite a lot to tell her actually, but wasn’t really too sure how much I should say. I hadn’t ruled her out either. Both she and Eric were in my nebulous column of suspects. My brain kept flashing a message to me that I hadn’t looked hard enough at a few things. I was determined to look harder at everything.

At the hospital, Bobby was awake. His facial bruises had faded to lighter shades of blues and yellows in the healing process.

“Do you feel like talking, Bobby?”

“… Sure, Lucy. Have a seat. Nothing on the tube…” He gave me a winning smile and pointed toward a nearby chair.

“Glad to see you’re feeling better. The first time I was here, you didn’t look so hot.”

He gave a short, dark laugh. “…I bet. I wasn’t feeling so hot either.”

I glanced around the stark, sterile room. “You could use a brighter coat of paint in here.”

“To say the least. How’s work?”

“It’s fine. Listen, Bobby…” I shifted uncomfortably in my chair. Where’d this furniture come from – the Marquis de Sade’s sitting room?

“Do you remember going to see the Impressionist exhibition at the art museum?”

“I do…It was breathtaking.”

“Tell me your impressions.”

He smiled at my puny joke and pushed back some light hair from his forehead. “…Gee, where to start? The exhibition was terrific. I’d never been able to afford to go to Europe to see Cezanne, Manet, Monet or Renoir in the Louvre or the Prado. Having them come to me was a rare treat.”

“How long were you there?”

“Oh, hours… I gazed and wandered, looked and looked some more. I had a sandwich in that café downstairs and went back up to continue gazing. Then I started drawing a few of them.”

“In the café, did you see the owner?”

“…Who?”

“A short, balding man named Russell Crowe.”

“You’re kidding…”

I shook my head ruefully. “…’Fraid not.”

“No. No man like that was there.”

He glanced around the room, not quite meeting my eyes.

“You didn’t mention the Van Gogh painting, Starry Night.”

“Oh? Didn’t I? Great painting. Impressive brush strokes. Van Gogh really piled on the paint.”

“And…”

“And what?”

I hoped I was looking like I didn’t believe him. “That’s all you have to say about one of the world’s greatest artists?”

“…Ah. Yeah… Interesting painting.”

“Bobby…”

“Uh-huh?”

“What aren’t you saying?”

“What are you talking about?”

“… Were you drawing the Van Gogh? And if so, did you notice anything slightly off about the painting?”

His eyes finally slid over to mine. “Lucy…”

“I have my own suspicions. Hang on a minute.” I went to the door, looked both ways out in the hallway and then closed the door tightly. When I returned to my chair, Bobby’s eyes were wide and wary.

“Want to know what I think?”

“…Okay.”

“I think the Van Gogh is a forgery. I think most of the paintings in the exhibition are forgeries. How could you tell about the Van Gogh?”

Bobby shifted in his bed and cast his eyes everywhere, looking for I don’t know what.

“Bobby?”

He looked down at his hands. They looked relatively normal compared to his poor face. He spoke so low that I had to scoot my chair up to hear him.

“I was copying the Van Gogh when I noticed an odd brushstroke. It was very small and normally wouldn’t be seen, but the light was a little off in that section of the gallery. I think a bulb was blown or something and a fragment of light hit it just right. Or just wrong… However you want to think of it.”

“What did you think?”

“I know this painting very well and couldn’t believe my eyes. I even went downstairs to the gift shop and bought a book on Van Gogh to check to see if my memory was playing tricks on me like my eyes were.”

I leaned in. “… What did you discover?”

“That I was right and there was something wrong with the Van Gogh.”

“Now, Bobby. Think hard for my next question – Did you see anyone around?”

“Well, sure. There were various people looking at all the paintings in the exhibition.”

“Does anyone stand out in your mind?”

He thought about that for a minute.

“…The security guard.”

“What about him?”

“He just stared at me. I notice details… He was sloppily dressed for a guard. His shirt was missing a button and there were stains on the front.”

Bobby’s eyes grew very wide.

“What?”

“He followed me out, Lucy. I was one of the last to leave, it was dark and he spooked me. That’s about the last I remember. I turned around to see if he was still behind me and then… Bam! Lights out.”

The other security guard probably knocked him out from the other way. They’d obviously suspected that Bobby had seen something and were planning on getting rid of him. Thank God they screwed that up.

“Can you get away from here for a few weeks, Bobby? Anyone you can stay with somewhere else?”

“Sure. My folks live in Carson City.”

“Great. Keep it under your hat but get out of here today, if possible, and as quietly as possible. Do you need any money?”

He shook his head. “What are you planning to do?”

“Nail these bastards. It’s been coming a while and striking you down was one of the last straws. It’s personal, Bobby.”

“That’s the time to be careful, Lucy… Know that?”

“…Just get the hell out of here today. I’ll call you when the coast is clear. All right?”

His smile lit up his bedraggled face. “…Gotcha. Thanks for caring.”

“I do care.” Rising from my chair, I added. “I’m serious. Get out of here now. Can you do it?”

“…Sounds pretty important to my well-being, so yes, thanks – I can do it.”

“All right. You know how I hate to interview prospective employees, Bobby.”

He smiled again and reached for his phone.

I shook my head. “…Don’t tell anyone you’re going or where you are. I’ll cover for you at work. And above all, say nothing of this to anyone – for now.”

“Thanks, Lucy.”

I walked out and closed the door quietly behind me. Then I just stood outside until he came out, fully dressed, limping slightly.

“I called a cab.”

Sticking a couple of twenties in his hand, I cut him off when his mouth opened to object. “Go…” He stuffed the money in a pocket and walked toward the exit, not the elevator. I followed him out, making sure he got in that damn cab. Looking all around, I didn’t see any signs of Laurel and Hardy, whom I was going to have to rename. That comedy duo made people laugh and feel good. This duo had elements of comedy too, but nobody was laughing. I’m sure Bobby wasn’t feeling too good either, thanks to them.

I went home and once again did a sweep of my apartment. I was concerned that there could be a listening device somewhere. I’d read up on more advanced devices, plus I’d been home when that security company did the last sweep. I knew what to look for and looked, but I didn’t find anything. Baskerville sniffed with me, but neither of us could find anything amiss.

Cindy was at another public relations event that her office had organized, so I was on my own. Sometimes I get into trouble that way, but them’s the breaks, as Sam Spade would say. And as soon as the sun went down, I knew what I was going to do long before my conscious mind told me about it.

Sue O’Dell. My gut was asking questions I had no answers for. Time to get some answers.





* * *





CHAPTER 20





Unbelievable.

I’d been on a stakeout of Sue’s house for a few hours now. Unfortunately, I had to bring Baskerville, since he started whining when I swirled on my coat and cap again, leaving the house. Cindy was gone and I’d been gone all day. I couldn’t leave him alone all night too, so I took him on my stakeout with me. He wasn’t the most patient stakeout partner I’ve ever had.

First, he needed a walk to do his business. Great… Opening the car door even a little made the overhead light flick on. I made him hurry up, but he wasn’t terribly cooperative.

Then he wanted some food. Well, I didn’t bring any, but I let him share my water. That calmed him down for a while and I was happy when he finally fell asleep. Maybe I could get back to what I wasn’t doing.

I was starting to doze off when I saw a flicker of movement out the side door of Sue’s house. A figure was getting into a car in the driveway, starting it and backing out. I assumed it was Sue and ducked down until she went past me. Then I started my car and hung back a bit following her. Where was she going?

Just when I began to think that she was off to her book club or a late dinner with friends, her car pulled into the mostly empty parking lot of a shopping center. No real place for me to hide, so I kept driving and circled back around. When I came back, there was a sleek, black limousine parked by her car… Windows rolled down with Sue and Warren speaking from to one another from their cars.

Huh…Interesting.

Were the innocent parties getting worked up? Or were the rats leaving the sinking ship? Hard to tell from fifty yards away and I couldn’t stop. Circling around once again, the limo was pulling away. Sue took off and on a hunch, I decided to follow the sleek limo instead. Nearly two blocks away, Sandstrom pulled into a parking space by the side of the road. I was far enough back to pull over behind him a few spaces and see what was happening. Two big men, the size of gorillas, got out of the car in front of him and got in the car with Warren. I was shaking in my boots from a hundred yards away…I couldn’t imagine the fear he must have had. Or did he? Muscle-bound goons? Mafia?

I narrowed my eyes… What was Warren up to? Maybe the finger pointing was correct. After a half-hour, the goons got out and, of course, Baskerville picked that moment to bark. I hadn’t been paying enough attention to him obviously and he objected. Watching the goons, one heard something and turned back to look. I’d slunk down by the steering wheel holding on to the dog, petting him, trying to keep him quiet.

When I ventured another look, the goons had left, as had the limo. I breathed a very shaky, relieved breath and left for home too.

Cindy was there when Baskerville and I came in the front door.

“Where’s that hound we call Baskerville?” she called out. His toy poodle body squirmed out of my arms and rushed madly down the hallway to where she stood in the kitchen. His tail wagged constantly as she picked him up.

“Late night?” she asked with one eyebrow arched.

I hung up my Sherlock coat and cap, and joined her for a glass of wine. It had been a day and a half, and I needed a bracer… When I filled her in on my day’s activities, her other eyebrow joined the first.

“Wow! What do you suppose they were talking about?”

I shook my head. “…Don’t know for sure, but one of them should be heading for the hills by now.”

She glanced around the kitchen. “Is it okay to talk here?”

I nodded. “Yeah, I checked it out before I left for my stakeout.”

She looked at me for a minute. “Tell me what you think.”

“…No proof as yet, but the Van Gogh is definitely a forgery. Bobby’s a painter and has studied the Impressionists. He was positive it was a forgery. Now too many people have knowledge of the crime. I expect this will all wrap very soon and maybe that’s what they were discussing.”

“Do you think they’re in on it together?”

“I think that Sue and Warren are together somehow, but what precisely their relationship is, I’m not sure.”

“Do you think he’s pulling the strings here?”

“I’m not one hundred percent sure, no.”

“I know how we can find out – maybe,” she said slyly.

“… How?”

“Warren invited me over to his fancy mansion for a chic party for some of the well-heeled in town.”

“He invited you to his house?”

“Yes.”

“…Hmm…”

“That’s what I thought. Maybe I can smuggle you in somehow.”

“Exactly. I need to checkout his office or den. See what I can see.”





* * *





Later I made a phone call.

“Lucy… I’m not sure that’s such a hot idea.”

“Mr. Warner, listen. I feel things are coming to a head and there’s still so much I don’t know.”

He blew out a breath. I could hear his exasperation on the phone line. Maybe I shouldn’t have returned his call.

“Lucy, when I gave you that hat, somehow I didn’t think you’d be getting yourself into dangerous situations. Perhaps I’ve been naïve.”

“I guess you don’t remember how that blackmail case ended.”

“Yeah, I’d forgotten the blackmailer was shot.”

“… Not all puzzles are cute little songbird stories. Some of them have bad guys who hurt people. That’s what I’ve got here.”

“So you’re determined to see this through?”

“Yes, sir.”

Silence for a moment on the line…

“Okay,” he said wearily. “Can I help?”

I smiled. “I was hoping you’d say that. I’m doing some reconnaissance tonight and I may need some backup.”

“…Skip the jargon, Lucy. I don’t have a clue what you want.”

“Keep your phone on and with you. I may call and I may not.”

“…Sounds fairly nebulous, but okay, if that’s what you need.”

“It is. Thank you, Mr. Warner. I’ll explain everything once it’s done.”

“Be careful, Lucy…”





* * *





CHAPTER 21





Cindy dressed to the nines for this swanky party at Sandstrom’s elegant mansion on the south side of town. She wore a beautiful, emerald green cocktail dress with a full skirt and thin shoulder straps. With a little bling here and there, the dress sparkled and shone, and of course, she looked incredible in it. As she preened in front of the hallway mirror, I shook my head.

“What? Don’t you like it?”

“Now I could put that dress on and it wouldn’t look half as good as it does on you.”

She fixed a strap and patted the blonde hair piled on her head. Dangling earrings danced by her ears. She moved a few strands of hair around her pretty face, looking this way and that in the mirror.

“You’re so negative about your looks, Lucy. You’re cute.”

I rolled my eyes. “I’m cute, but you’re stunning.”

She turned to look at me. “Knock it off. However I look tonight, the focus is on information. I can get more if I look good as opposed to waddling in with sweat clothes on. Right?” She looked harder at me. “…Right?”

“Okay, okay, you’re right.”

“You’re dressed for your job and I’m dressed for mine.”

That had me glancing in the hallway mirror with her. I had on my black exercise pants, black tee shirt and black hoodie. Hair back in a tight ponytail…I shrugged.

“How do you want to play this?”

“Okay,” she said, turning back to the mirror. “Let’s drive together and you wait for my call. I’ll go to the bathroom at some point, try to find the office and then text you. Turn the sound off from your phone and just watch for my text. I’ll do the same, although once I get you in and rejoin the party, I’ll have my phone on vibrate.”

“How do you propose to get me in?”

“Don’t know yet, Sherlock. That’s to figure out when I see how his house is laid out.”

“…We play it by ear. But Cindy…”

“Yes?”

My eyes met hers in the mirror. “If anything stinks, don’t chance it. I don’t want this to go badly for either of us.”

She nodded. “…Gotcha.”

We said goodbye to Baskerville, who wasn’t too thrilled that we were both going out again. He barked a few times, but settled in his bed when I gave him a few bites of pastrami.

Driving across town, Cindy smoothed her lipstick in the overhead mirror.

“At least we didn’t need gas this time.” She looked over at me with a slight smirk on her pink lips.

“Very funny…I don’t plan on dragging any more gas hoses with me, thank you…”

“Well, that was kind of funny.”

“And I know what you’re trying to do here, Cindy.”

“What?” She gave me that innocent look that really wasn’t so innocent.

“… Trying to relax me for what’s coming up.”

“Is it working?”

I moved my hand from side to side. “…A little.”

“You’ll be fine.”

“I have to be… The exhibition only has a few days left and then it’ll be gone. I’m surprised Mr. Big hasn’t pulled it by now.”

“Mr. Big?”

“Oh, you know. Whoever’s pulling the strings here, the guy behind the curtain.”

“Good one, but how do you know it’s a guy? It could be Sue O’Dell.”

“…Possibly but probably not.”

We were driving through the southern area of town, just alongside a golf course, by some very expensive homes. Houses in classic brick or stone with massive, green lawns and tall, mature trees dotting the landscape faced the road. Large paved driveways and sidewalks snaked through grassy areas with Porsches, Lexis or BMWs parked beside. Huge swatches of color from beds of flowers hugged the sides of homes or lined the sidewalks. Streetlamps, small and large, complimented the landscape design and accented the homes well.

I pulled up to the address Warren had given Cindy and then drove another house down to park the car. He had valet parking for guests, but I didn’t want to do that. She got out of the car, picked up her wrap and leaned back down to talk in the window.

“You okay?”

“Good… You?”

“Don’t do anything crazy, Lucy.”

“…Back at you, partner.”

“Wait for my call…”

She straightened to leave, then leaned back down.

“Lucy.”

“Yeah.”

“I forgot to mention that I got you invited to this little soiree.” She beamed.

My head jerked up. “You did?”

“Sure, so technically you’re a guest, not a burglar.”

“A technicality but an important one. Thanks, BFF.”

I gave her a thumbs-up. She put on her wrap and walked her killer heels down the sidewalk to Sandstrom’s house. I started the car and decided to find a better place to park – maybe towards the back of the property… away from prying eyes. Good thing I had a little dark car…not so easy to spot.

After going around his block once, I had a pretty good idea where to park my car where it wouldn’t seen, but I could still get to it easily. I decided to stow the car on the other side of his property along a back street. I got out, locked my purse in the trunk and tucked my cell phone in a pocket. I reached over to pick up some dirt from a yard to rub on my license plate, obscuring a few numbers. Just in case – It doesn’t hurt to be too careful… A last glance at the car on the quiet street away from streetlights, and I walked quickly towards the back of Warren’s house.

All these homes had open areas in back and front – no fences. Thank God. If I’d had to hop over a fence and deal with a guard dog, I might be in real trouble. No fence, no dog… so far. But it looked like he had a security detail, at least one guy, walking the property, helping guests and watching. Great… How could I get around him?

I crouched in the massive bushes in the backyard and checked out as many windows as I could see. The whole house was lit up from inside -- Guests were overflowing to the back covered patio and all over the first floor. Food and drink were flowing too and so the security guy was busy with tipsy guests and people dropping plates of food. Maybe he’d be too busy to notice me…

This was certainly a rich neighborhood and a classy house, but Warren apparently was letting the good times roll. Music was oozing out the windows and doors and I could see people inside and out dancing. I spotted Cindy once in the living room. I’d left my hideout in the bushes to get ready for her call. There was a fire ladder attached to the side of the house that led up to dark and unpopulated rooms on the second floor. That was probably where I was going to go. For now, I stayed behind a maple tree whose massive trunk had split into two directions. That was lucky for me because I could hide easily behind and look out through the split trunk.

I waited.

Glancing at my cell phone, Cindy had been in the house for thirty minutes when I saw her go through the kitchen. Sandstrom was close behind her and I wondered what she was going to do. In another ten minutes, she sent a text.

‘In upstairs bathroom. Opened back window. Office 2nd floor corner.’

I texted back, ‘Ok.’

Watching for that security guy, I crept to the side of the house and made it unseen to the ladder. From there, I could see the window Cindy had referred to and started climbing. It was darker on this side of the house than any other, so I had that advantage. Unfortunately, that was also an attractive feature for a pair of tipsy lovebirds who decided to wander my way. I was more than halfway up the ladder, when this drunken pair came around the corner, flopped against the house and started to paw one another.





* * *





CHAPTER 22





Looking down, I blinked unbelievably when she grabbed his zipper and jerked down his pants. His hands were busy pushing her dress up and wrapping one of her legs around his hips. Lots of moaning… Between the thrusting and the dueling tongues, I don’t think they would have noticed me if I’d fallen off the ladder on top of them.

They were about done when I heard someone call out, “Tiffany?” I heard her say, “Shit, that’s my husband,” which made him finish and zip up his pants pretty quickly. I had to bite my lip to keep from laughing out loud. She left first, smoothing down her dress and hair, while he went the other way, tucking in his shirt.

Criminy! What a show…I climbed up the rest of the way and eased over to the opened window. There was a good ledge and I stepped on it from the ladder. The window flew up and I nearly died of heart failure. Cindy grabbed me before I fell off the ledge.

“Damn, Cindy! Could you have given me a heads-up that you’d be here.”

“Shh…” she whispered. “I tried but got no response from you.”

“Yeah, well, I was watching a quick peep show.”

“What?”

“Never mind.”

“Okay…I have to get back. Warren will be looking for me. Get out the same way. I’ll keep him busy.”

So Cindy left.

Once in, I took out my little penlight and began to search the office.

As home offices go, this one was spectacular and straight out of a magazine. Sandstrom must have rented someone’s house who was away in Europe for half a year or something. Enormous wooden bookshelves covered one wall with a slanted roofline coming down to meet the vast windows. Computers, printers, fax machines, desk lamps… anything you might need in an office was here in abundance.

This room stretched across the back and opened to massive windows covering half the room of the house. That would make my snooping harder. It might be possible for someone on the lawn downstairs to see me if they were still sober and looking up. I imagined the security guy might be doing just that.

So my trusty penlight went back in my pocket for the time being. There were fragments of light coming in from the outside porch lights, so I could see my way around the room fairly well. I crept purposefully over to the desk and started seeing what I could see.

Books, paper… paper and more paper. Jeez… did this guy ever throw anything away? I saw ledgers and blueprints, yellow post-it notes and mail stacked high. I’d been searching for several minutes and knew I couldn’t stay too long. I was thinking about beating it out of there, when my eyes spotted a small card with a flower on it sticking out from under the desk mat. I pulled the card out and it seemed feminine, not matching the ambience of the rest of the room.

I got out my penlight and shined it on the card. Frilly on the outside, chilly on the inside…

Warren,

I’m not discussing this anymore. You need to pay me what I asked and I’ll be leaving town with sealed lips. No more excuses or cockamamie stories.

S.





Well, that was certainly interesting. Who says ‘cockamamie’ anymore? And what stories was she talking about? I assumed the S was for Sue O’Dell. Apparently, their little talk the other night in the parking lot, car to car, didn’t net her the result she was seeking. Looked like blackmail to me…

I pulled out my smart phone and took a few pictures of the card – front and inside. Then I put it back where I found it.

Tucking the phone into the deep pocket of my hoodie, I did another quick look around and decided to get the hell out of there. I was heading for my exit window when I heard voices in the hallway. The sounds were muffled until they were closer, then the voices were obviously just outside the room. I hurriedly looked for a hiding place and saw it in a darkened corner under the massive L-shaped desk. I ran over and crouched down in the corner just as the door opened. Damn! Why hadn’t I thought to lock the door?

With the opening, came a spread of light that I prayed wouldn’t wash over me.

“Look, Tiffany…I saw you leave with that guy. Don’t tell me something didn’t go on back there,” said an unhappy male voice.

“Rex! What are you accusing me of?” snapped Tiffany. “You should be ashamed of yourself!”

“I should be ashamed? What the hell were you doing back there? Tell me.”

I could have told Rex what he wanted to know, but no way was I going to give up my hiding place. Besides, I was beginning to enjoy the little soap opera going on around me. Tiffany must be quite the looker…

“Nothing… He just had a question about some property we own. That’s all.”

“…I’ll bet.”

“Honest, Rex. I love only you… Don’t you know that?”

Her voice had subtly shifted from defensive to seductive. I had to bite my lip again to keep from chuckling out loud.

“…You do? Really?”

Rex must be pretty gullible…

And then I heard a thud against the door, another zipper unzipping and the beginning of more panting and moaning. I peeked out to see Tiffany in action and this gal had the situation in hand – literally. She had poor Rex shoved against the door and her hands down the front of his pants. I ducked back in my hidey-hole as he was pushing up her dress and tearing off her panties… I heard a not so delicate rip.

For Pete’s sake… Twice in less than an hour? This woman was something else…Apparently these guys sure thought so.

Luckily for me, Tiffany didn’t spend as much time having sex with Rex as she did with the unidentified guy behind the house. Their pants and moans became louder until they hit their peaks and the panting lessened. Thank God… I needed to get out of here sometime. Tiffany was making it as hard for me as she was for these men… I needed to escape before she found another guy and went for round three. I sure wouldn’t put it past her…

He was kissing her and saying he was sorry… Could she forgive him? I rolled my eyes clear up into my sockets… Poor Rex. Apparently, a little sex and he could be made to heel.

Would they ever leave?

Finally, he opened the door and they swept out of the room all lovey-dovey. I wanted to puke in the wastebasket I was hiding behind. I crawled out from under the desk and walked over to the window. Opening it a bit, I heard noises from down below. I could see the security guard rounding up a few drunken guests and trying to corral them another way.

I pulled back and took out my phone. I sent Cindy a text for help. Waiting a few moments and when she didn’t respond, I figured she was tied up with Sandstrom. I sat down in a desk chair and weighed my options. I was going to need help getting out of here and I couldn’t just walk out through the house. I needed a diversion – who could I get? I looked down at my phone.





* * *





CHAPTER 23





Joe answered, but he sure wasn’t happy.

“…You’re kidding, Lucy! You want me to ring the doorbell and create some kind of diversion?”

“Yes, Mr. Warner. This is the help I need that you said you’d provide. Remember that conversation?”

“Well…what…should I do? How do I create a diversion?”

I thought a minute.

“…Got it! Tell Sandstrom you’re a neighbor and his party is making too much noise. You’ll call the police if he doesn’t quiet down.”

“Sandstrom?”

“Rich guy. Silver hair. Expensive suit. Hopefully, his security guard, whom I am trying to avoid, will show up at the door with him. Cindy’s here too, so don’t look surprised if you see her.”

“…Too much noise?”

“Yeah. I need you to get really pissy, so that guard will be with Sandstrom.”

“Okay…I guess. This isn’t exactly in my job description as your advisor, Lucy.”

“…You gave me the cap, sir…”

He laughed at that. “All right… So this is all my fault, huh? Okay, I’m coming to save you, Miss James. Give me ten minutes. I was just watching my favorite program.”

“Masterpiece Theatre? In a smoking jacket?”

“…You’re cute. Ten minutes.”

I hung up and sat there. I sent a coded text to Cindy so she’d know something was up. She’d certainly figure it out once she saw Mr. Warner at the door.

I sat at the desk, bored as a stone, watching the minutes tick by on my cell phone. After fifteen, I was beginning to wonder what the heck was keeping Mr. Warner. That’s when I did a foolish thing…

I walked over and glanced out the window, putting my hand on the inside ledge. I could see the security guy down below, just as I felt something tingling on my hand. Looking down, my heart nearly stopped when I saw a spider taking a stroll on my skin. My hand involuntarily flew up and hit the window with a smack! Below someone yelled, “Hey!” and I didn’t need two guesses as to who that might be. I ventured a quick look at the same time the security guard was looking up. He just had to be there… Crap – This wasn’t going according to plan.

I blinked at him and his mouth dropped open when he saw me. He started up the ladder going faster than a freight train. I froze. My mind finally kicked in gear -- I closed and locked the window, then ran to the door and locked it.

Super… He might be locked out, momentarily, but I was also locked in. Not a great situation.

I hid out of sight when a face came up to the window. He couldn’t budge it and I was hoping like hell he wouldn’t break it. Apparently, he changed tactics and I heard him rushing back down the ladder. For an instant, I thought he might try to remove the ladder, but it must have been permanently built into the side of the house. He jumped on the ground. What he did next, I can only guess.

He would probably run through the house, upstairs, grab his key and open the door. I hurried to the window, trying to get it unlocked. Unfortunately, my shaking hands used precious minutes before they began functioning normally. I finally got the window open and I was heaving myself out, when I heard him running up to the door. Man, that guy could sprint! His key was rattling in the lock and I was out on the ledge, my heart in my mouth.

I jumped to the ladder and almost missed it. Clinging to a rung and nursing a banged-up knee, I climbed as fast as I could down the ladder. The guard stuck his head out the window and saw me! Shit! I heard him yell to someone that he’d be right there. I climbed faster and jumped off the last two rungs. Then I started running like a deer towards my car.

What happened to Mr. Warner? Maybe that’s what the man was responding about… But my mind wasn’t really concerned with anything at this moment except for escape.

In the dark, I ran through the trees and bushes, branches smacking me every step of the way. If I could think, I might have thought about the bruises I was going to get. Running hard along the quiet neighborhood to my car, my mind had shut down. For a few minutes, all I heard was the sound of my own fleeing footsteps and then… I heard another set of footsteps behind me. I wasn’t about to look and pulled my key out of my pocket, hitting the open button of my key fob. The second I had the door open, I tucked myself into the driver’s side and stuck my key in the ignition with one slick move. Starting the car and pulling away, I finally sneaked a quick glance in my side mirror.

Boy, the car manufacturer wasn’t kidding with that sentence on the mirror that things are closer than they look. I’d barely started driving when the guard was pounding on my bumper. Yikes! I hit the gas and turned a corner on two wheels praying the dirt still obscured my license plate number. Next time I break and enter, I’m using another car…





* * *





Just in case I was followed, I took a crazy route home, checking in my rearview every minute. When I was satisfied that no one was hot on my heels, or wheels as it were, I started to calm down and drove more slowly home.

My heart was beginning to beat normally by the time I pulled into my parking space at the apartment. I turned off the ignition and just sat still, counting body parts and brain cells. It seemed that I was still in one piece and I made a resolution to start jogging again…

Cindy got home about an hour later. She opened the door and called out, “Now where’s that hound we call Baskerville?” As usual, he took off going ninety miles an hour down the hallway, his doggy legs flying. She gathered him up and walked into the living room where I was wearily sitting and nursing a glass of wine.

“I could use one of those too.”

She put down Baskerville and headed for the kitchen, pouring herself a glass. Coming into the living room, she kicked off her killer heels and pulled the pins out of her hair. Her sunny hair fell around her shoulders and she shook her head, making the rest of her hair fall out of her upswept do.

“Tough night?” I asked.

“I could ask you the same thing,” she smiled, sipping her wine.

“I’ll tell you my sad little story if you’ll tell me yours.”

“… Fair enough.”





* * *





CHAPTER 24





Cindy had had as tough as night as I did. For one thing, she’d had to put up with the constant advances of Warren Sandstrom III, who apparently thought he was God’s gift to women. Cindy thought otherwise.

“Well, there were people absolutely everywhere,” she began, “and I think I could count on one hand how many of them were sober.”

“… You, for one…” I helped.

“I was practically the only one.”

“It was a crowd, Cindy. How’d you do?”

She nodded. “That threw me at first and I almost started to hyperventilate.”

“Oh no!”

“Oh yes! But I took a few deep, calming breaths and sucked it up. I knew you couldn’t do it without me.”

“Wow! That’s like a breakthrough or something.”

“… Or something,” She looked away for a minute and then back at me.

“It’s an interesting thing to do…”

“What is?”

“To be the only sober person at a large party.” She settled back onto the couch and put Baskerville on her lap. She stroked his little head and his eyes sleepily closed.

“Was Sandstrom drunk?”

“…On his way… He kept pouring me drinks – champagne – and I kept pouring them out in all the plants and flowers in the various rooms.”

“He tried to get you drunk?”

“Oh, yeah. Big time.”

“What else happened?”

“You know, Lucy,” she glanced over at me, “I’ve been to lots of parties in my life but this one was a real doozy.”

“Why?”

“Not only were people drunk, but they were dropping food everywhere, breaking things – the house was a disaster…Did you see that security guard? He had an awful time with the guests.”

“Oh, yeah. He and I got to be buddies.”

“Huh?”

“You finish your story first.”

“Anyway, I was trying to escape Warren and find a place to text you from, but it was impossible. I sent him off time after time for more champagne and then I’d duck into a hallway or bedroom to try to send a text.”

“…And?”

“People -- slick, rich people -- were everywhere in various stages of kissing and groping. It certainly wasn’t what I expected…”

I blinked. “Really? Is Sandstrom a swinger?”

She shook her head. “I really don’t know and I don’t plan to find out, but it was crazy. I would have thought with his status and money, his party would have been refined and tasteful. Nope…” She patted Baskerville. “I finally dodged people and went up to the second floor to find a bathroom that wasn’t occupied. That’s when I found the office and sent you the text.”

“Sandstrom was, no doubt, trying to seduce you too.”

She gave me a look. “…He’s way past seduction and he tried once to drag me off into a bedroom.”

“Would he have behaved like that if he hadn’t been almost drunk?”

“Yes, but that’s how I got his keys.”

“Keys to what?”

“I figured he’d lock the office, so I plunged a hand into his pants pocket and snagged them.”

I about swallowed my tongue. “What did Sandstrom do?”

“Got excited of course. He thought I was trying to feel him up.”

“… Then what?”

She shrugged, smoothing the dog’s fur. “So I kept up that routine for a while, having him get me drinks, pouring them out in the plants, dodging his advances and hoping like hell I could leave soon. I was in the living room, not so politely pushing some drunk away from me when the doorbell rang. Somebody opened the door and there was Mr. Warner standing on the doorstep.”

“Yeah, I called him.”

“Well, his eyes were enormous when he glanced in at some inappropriate behavior in front of him. Warren yelled for his security guy and when he finally got there, they talked to Warner together. But not for long.”

“No?”

She shook her head. “Just a few minutes and then the security man flew out of the room and took off running.”

I nodded. “…That would have been for me.”

She rolled her shoulders and stifled a yawn. “I’m exhausted. Your turn.”

I filled her in on my part of this sordid saga. Avoiding the security guy, going up the ladder, overhearing Tiffany’s romantic trysts…

“I know her – Tiffany March,” Cindy smiled. “She’s married to that real estate guy, Rex March. His family has more money than Sandstrom’s.”

“Interesting that she’s making it with other men then.”

“… Not so interesting… I dated Rex once long ago and he was only looking for sex anyway. He found his match in Tiffany because she was well-known even then to be a player.”

I twirled my empty glass. “…It would be unique at this point to meet a decent, rich person. I hope there are some.”

“Copy that. And then what happened?”

“I got stuck in that room, called Warner to help get me out and then the security guy chased me all the way back to my car. I didn’t think I’d escape in one piece, Cindy. It was pretty touch and go.” I looked across the room and blew out a breath. “…And there… was a… spider.”

“A spider? Where?”

“On the window ledge. That’s how the security guard saw me. I flicked the spider away and my hand hit the window.”

Cindy shook her head, small smile on her face. “We’re quite a pair…”

“Got that right.”

We sat watching Baskerville snoring on Cindy’s lap for a minute.

“Well, was it all worth it?”

I smiled and set my glass on the coffee table. Cindy narrowed her eyes at me until I reached into my pocket, pulled out the phone and found the photos.

“Here. Look.”

Still squinting at me, she took the phone and glanced at the different shots. She thoughtfully read the card through. Then she read it through again and looked over at me.

“… Sue?”

“I think so.”

“She’s blackmailing him…”

“It would appear so.”

She scratched her chin. “…It seems pretty damning for Sandstrom. He must be behind this.”

“It sure looks like it.”

“…You sound doubtful.”

“I still need more data to make those bricks.”

“What are you planning to do?”

I leaned back on the couch and looked at Baskerville. He woke up, barked at me, jumped down and ran into the kitchen. I got up and followed him, thinking over what she’d asked. After getting down a doggy treat for Baskerville, I opened the refrigerator and there it sat – the package of pastrami I’d bought to give him for snacks.

I reached in and pulled it out. Holding it up for Cindy to see, I replied, “Pastrami!”

Cindy joined me in the kitchen. “… And that’s supposed to make sense?”

I walked around the kitchen swinging the package of pastrami. Baskerville began jumping up as I walked, trying to get the package out of my hand. Abruptly, I stopped and looked at her.

“The exhibition is scheduled to leave the day after tomorrow. They’ll be breaking it all down tomorrow night.”

“…So?”

“Pastrami…Laurel and Hardy…Eric…Sue…It all comes to a screeching halt tomorrow night.”

“…And you’re going to…”

“That’s right.”

“Lucy, you had one close call tonight. You really want to go back into the lion’s den tomorrow?”

“It’s the end of the trail, Cindy. I can feel it in my gut.”

“You need to get that gut looked at…”

I felt pretty good. “But in the meantime…”

She sighed wearily. “…We go back to the art museum.”

“Where it all started and where it all will end.” I looked at her sharply. “You game?”

“You know, I think it’s worth troubling about, Holmes…”

“Why is that, Dr. Watson?”

“…Because it’s inexplicable.”

I shook my head. “…Not for much longer…”





* * *





CHAPTER 25





I was way past fidgety at work the next day. Kevin couldn’t keep up with me when I hurried from one task to another. I got the office cleaned up and the old movie displays ready for the UPS guy to pick up and send back to the distribution companies. Kevin was amazed when I handed him the accounting audit that had been lost for a week --I uncovered it when I cleaned out the desk.

No one talked about Bobby, which was good, because I didn’t have a great cover story lined up about him. But I would have thought of something, had anyone asked. Megan and I got the concession counter organized in tip-top shape and the new popcorn popper was working well at maximum speed. I smiled at her and we were getting along pretty well.

We had two new guys now, since Bobby was out, who seemed to be doing credible jobs at selling and collecting tickets. I even ran across Marvin once or twice since I was in and out of the projection rooms more times than I could count. He didn’t seem as sleepy as usual and I managed a quick wave at him.

After lunch, it occurred to me that I hadn’t heard from Eric and was wondering if he’d found the owners of the work boots from his video. Somehow I sort of doubted it, but didn’t think it would soon matter much anyway. I could feel the puzzle closing in on me. My peripheral vision was almost decreasing because of the feeling…

It was amazing, yet not, that Sue hadn’t been calling me for that long-overdue progress report. She’d also seemed pretty nervous the last time we saw one another. But there was no way that I was going to talk to her now… Not until I had followed all the threads to the end of the trail.

When I got home, I took Baskerville out for a walk and met Mrs. Murphy coming the opposite way with Hamlet. She didn’t seem as happy as usual and I hoped it wasn’t my fault.

“Hey, Mrs. Murphy… How’s it going?”

She still didn’t smile. “…Um. Hi, Lucy.”

“…Something the matter?”

She looked down at Baskerville who was sniffing a quivering Hamlet.

“…I…I… was hoping that…”

“…Hoping what?”

“That you and Cindy weren’t mad at me.”

I blinked in surprise. “Why would we be mad at you?”

“Because I didn’t call the police when those guys broke into your apartment. I’ve been feeling horrible ever since about it.”

I shook my head. “…Forget it. Trust me… I am many miles down the road from that occurrence. Really… forget it.”

She noisily swallowed and reached for a tissue in the pocket of her billowy dress. A faint smell of lavender met my nose and I wondered if she sprayed her tissues. Really?

“Thanks, Lucy. I’ve felt terrible.” She sniffed into the tissue and brightened. “Hey! I’ve been cooking and made more lasagna. Would you like one?”

I laughed and tugged on Baskerville’s leash. He was trying to nip poor Hamlet’s ankles. “Sure, I’d love one. How about I pick it up after I walk Baskerville?”

She waved that suggestion off. “No, no. When I see Cindy come in, I’ll bring it over.”

“That’s really nice of you, Mrs. Murphy. I look forward to it.”

That wasn’t the only thing I was looking forward to tonight…





After dinner, Cindy and I checked and rechecked what we needed: penlights, cell phones, water, tissues, mace… I wasn’t going anywhere without the mace this time.

I’d told Cindy what was going down and she didn’t demur. Luckily, I had a trusty Watson when I needed one. When it was good and dark outside, I went to the closet for my coat and cap. As I was putting my arms in my Sherlock coat, Baskerville came running down the hallway and began barking his feisty bark at me.

“No, Baskerville. You can’t come…I walked you when I got home. That’s got to hold you.”

Apparently, he disagreed because he barked some more and then clamped his teeth on the hem of my jeans.

“Damn it, Baskerville,” I tried pulling him off. “…Knock it off!”

Cindy had walked up to get her coat too. “Come here, Baskerville. Let me pick you up.”

But the little dog wasn’t having any of it. He knew in the recesses of his doggy brain that we were leaving again and it wasn’t going down very well. He wanted to come with us and that was that…

He began running circles around us and neither Cindy nor I could catch him. We finally straightened and looked at one another.

“Don’t even say it, Cindy…”

“…He won’t be in the way…”

“He sure will be! Where do you propose we put him? In a coat pocket?”

“Well…” she shrugged helplessly, “maybe…”

“Nope. He can’t come.” I folded my arms and gave her what I hoped was my sternest face.

“…Want to tell him that?”

We both looked at the dog sitting at our feet with a sad little face, whining pitifully. He’d changed tactics and was pretty good at plucking the heartstrings… He’d had lots of practice. I rolled my eyes up at the ceiling.

“Jeez Louise, Cindy. This is a major mistake.”

She grinned and picked him up, talking softly to him.

“Now you’ll be a good little doggy, won’t you, Baskerville? I just know that you won’t make any noise.”

She was holding him and he had a doggy smile now as he snuggled in for the duration. I refrained from rolling my eyes again.

“…And I repeat. What are we going to do with him? He won’t stay in the car. I don’t want him on a leash.” I looked at her. “Well? You come up with something.”

Cindy stood there, a slow smile spreading across her face. Of course, she’d thought of something. She usually did… It was annoying.

“Maggie Carmichael…”

That gave me pause. “…The woman who lives behind the museum?”

“Yes, remember? She rescued Baskerville from the car when we’d left him for the museum dinner. He knows her and she’s close by. I bet she’d keep him for us.”

I slowly began to nod my head. “…Not bad, Watson. Maybe I’ll keep you around after all.”

Half an hour later, we’d driven over and explained what was going on to a fascinated Maggie Carmichael, who was more than happy to keep Baskerville with her. She asked good, pointed questions and seemed to know a bit more than I thought she did. Maggie repeated her suspicion that her husband had seen something he shouldn’t have the night that he died. I had a feeling she wanted to help get the guys who might have had a hand in quickening the end of her husband’s life. I didn’t blame her…

She stood in the hallway of her house, holding and patting Baskerville’s curly head. A determined look on her face.

“You both take care now, all right? I’m going to turn all the lights off and watch out my back window.”

“Thanks, Maggie. That’s a fabulous idea. If you see or hear anything that doesn’t look right, feel free to call the cops.”

“That won’t be hard to do, Lucy. They’ve had a car patrolling ever since that body was found at the museum.”

I nodded and went out the back door. Cindy patted Baskerville and joined me at the stairs. We buttoned up our dark coats, checked our pockets for the few supplies we wanted and quietly began walking over to the art museum.

It wasn’t far across the alley from Maggie’s house to the back of the building, but in the dark, extended shadows loomed. Each step we took down the staircase creaked with the dry wood. In the vast silence, those steps echoed around us. I skipped the final step and jumped down to the ground to avoid any further echoes.





* * *





CHAPTER 26





There were no streetlights in the alley. We only got fragments of light from a lamp at the very end. It washed over a small part of our path, creating our ghostly shadows as we walked along. Cindy and I were silhouettes to one another. We dodged the few trees and utility poles on the edge of Maggie’s property and crossed the alley as quietly as we could. As luck would have it, a slight rain began to fall and coated our clothes with a fine mist. I turned up the collar on my coat and pulled down the earflaps of my cap. Cindy pulled on a woolen cap she’d brought.

No one was around, so we took up our post on the side of the museum where we could see both the front door and the back loading area. Moisture dampened the alley and the light fragments reflected off the ground. It was easier to see with the mist, but we were getting wet. We sought a roofline to keep the rain off us.

And we continued our stakeout for some time. I wanted to avoid movement and light, so we kept still and remained watchful. We had no idea of the time or how much had passed. The air smelled fresh with the rain that had already stopped, and my wandering thoughts took me back to the Van Gogh umbrella that started this whole…thing. I almost wished I had that umbrella now – closure… I needed closure.

I ventured a glance at Cindy who was stifling a yawn. Even bored, she probably thought this was more fun than dodging Warren’s advances at that horrible party. She smiled, reading my mind maybe.

That’s when we heard it…

A small truck went by us down the alley and parked towards the back of the museum. The driver got out and went in the back door. It was almost eerie hearing any kind of sound… We weren’t used to noise right now. A few minutes passed and two men came out carrying a small crate. I knew it had to be one of the paintings from the exhibition and was ready to leap out from the stakeout post. Cindy grabbed my arm and shook her head.

After loading the crate, one man stayed by the truck and the other man went back inside. Who was it? Laurel and Hardy? Maybe. About ten minutes later, my eyes popped wide to see Eric coming out the front of the museum followed by one of the guards. Going around a dimly lit corner, I could see something pointed at his back. A gun? Eric got into the truck with the crate. I had a funny feeling that Eric would be unloaded the same way the crate would be. But with less effort.

I had to do something, anything before the truck took off… Eric’s life possibly depended on it. Cindy grabbed at my arm again as I slipped out of the dark post and ran silently down the alley, stopping to hide behind a huge tree off to one side. I pulled out the canister of mace from my coat pocket. I crept forward, slowly…slowly until I was on one side of the truck. A man came out and was startled to see me crouching by a wheel. I stood up, stuck my canister in his face and sprayed him.

Screaming, he went down clutching his face and trying to wipe away the spray. I quickly opened the door and told Eric to get out. By this time, Cindy was behind me spraying the first guy with another round of mace. He was definitely out of action when out the back door came the other guard with another man. As he drew near, my mouth dropped to see Marvin walking up casually holding a gun at me.

“Marvin! What the hell are you doing here?” Smoothly, I stuck my canister back in my pocket.

He shook his head. “Oh, Lucy…I could ask you the same question.”

“Are you involved in this?”

“…Up to my sleepy eyeballs. I guess that’s how you see me.” He looked around me. “Cindy, you’d better drop that mace.”

Cindy’s eyes were as wide as mine. She dropped the canister by her feet.

“You’d better come a little closer too. I don’t want you sprinting away.”

I looked at his dull eyes. “What’s happening next here, Marvin?”

“Well, I’m not going to clean theater two, that’s for sure,” he laughed. But I didn’t see any humor in what he said.

We stood there for a minute, looking at one another… Guesses whipped through my mind. I glanced at Eric whom I could now, for certain, put in the good guy column. He looked pissed. I was pissed… Marvin looked much too happy and took a step forward, putting his other hand on the top of his gun.

“…Lucy, I hate to do this, but you’re way too smart for your own good…”

At that moment, we heard movement from an object barreling across the alley, nails clicking on the cement. A blur of white streaked in front of me planting his teeth into Marvin’s pant legs. Baskerville! He was barking and growling and tugging enough to throw Marvin off balance.

Cindy quickly picked her mace and shot the second guard with it. He went down for the count, grimacing and shrieking. At the same time, I pulled out my canister and aimed it right in Marvin’s grim face. He changed the direction of his gun and was now pointing at the dog -- We both fired at the same time…

Marvin lurched back, grabbing and wiping his face and dropping the gun. I picked it up and looked around for Baskerville. When the gun exploded, he’d taken off and I couldn’t find him. But I saw a few small drops of blood on the street – my heart flew to my mouth.

From across the street, Maggie yelled that the cops were coming, but Cindy and I sprayed the guards and Marvin again anyway. I was so angry that Marvin could be this smart and act so dumb. And I owed him one more spray of mace for shooting my dog! Actually, I was ready to beat the crap out of him, but there were more pressing things to do.

Eric helped round up the guards and put them alongside the truck. I gave him the gun to keep all three men in place, while I went to look for Baskerville.

Cindy went over to wait for the cops with Maggie.

As I ran around to the front of the building, rain began falling again. I looked back at the art museum with all its shadows, and it just didn’t look so scary to me anymore. That’s when I heard it – whimpering coming from the fountain. I ran over to the spidery-shaped sculpture in the center of the fountain and that sat my little dog! He’d jumped up on the lower part of one of the metal tentacles and barked when he saw me. Honest to God! That’s the first time I ever saw a spider in a good light… A spider was guarding my dog – or so it looked at the time. Cindy would call it a breakthrough. Huh…

I ran over and picked up my wonderful Baskerville whom I cuddled while checking for a wound.

“Oh, Baskerville. You probably saved my life!”

He licked my face and I found some spots of blood on his right side. He’d been shot for sure – I carried him back over to Cindy and Maggie just as the police arrived. The guards and Marvin were loaded into the police car and we all trooped down to the police station. Maggie took Baskerville over to the emergency vet hospital.

In the car on the way over, I looked at Cindy. Her face was pale and she seemed a little shaky. When she glanced at me, I gave her my bravest smile.

“This was scarier than that blackmail case, Lucy.”

“Only because you weren’t there when the blackmailer was shot by the cops. I was hiding in a corner, scared to death.”

“Okay…whatever.”

“Did you talk much to Maggie? How did Baskerville get loose?”

“Maggie saw the whole thing… She called the police when she saw the gun to Eric’s back. When she opened the door a few minutes later, thinking she had to do something to help, Baskerville slipped out and ran right for us.”

“It’s amazing he realized we were in danger.”

“…He’s better than Lassie, that brave dog on TV.”

I turned to her, feeling a smile spread across my face. She looked at me too and we burst out laughing. What a goofy thing to say…

Nodding, I agreed. “He’s a great dog and has earned today’s pastrami treat, that’s for sure.”





* * *





An hour later, we were still at the police station, talking to detectives and telling them the whole story. We’d been shown into a single room with two detectives who looked nothing like any television detective I’d ever seen. These two men were as plain looking as the color of the room and desk between us. But their steely eyes were penetrating. A small tape recorder on the desk recorded everything Cindy and I said. I, for one, was thrilled to be handing the whole thing over to the cops. It was a weight lifted off my weary shoulders.

“And that’s about it, officers.” I wrapped up what I had to say.

The detective with steely gray eyes stopped the tape recorder and then looked over at me. “Don’t I know you?”

I swallowed. This question sometimes popped up whenever one of my puzzles came to a close. I shrugged.

The other detective with steely brown eyes started to nod. “Yeah, I remember you. Lucy James? Hell, yeah… The grocery store robbery…” He didn’t seem pleased.

I cleared my throat. “…Ah…”

Gray Eyes began nodding as well. “…And the blackmail case in the mayor’s office.” His lips formed a smirk.

Brown Eyes laughed. “Always poking your nose in like Nancy Drew, Miss James?”

I’d about had it with their condescending attitudes. “…More like Sherlock Holmes, officers. May we go?” I stood up, buttoned my coat and grabbed my hat. Cindy stood up too.

“Nice coat…” Gray Eyes stifled a smile.

“…And matching hat,” added Brown Eyes.

That did it.

I headed for the door…Cindy at my heels. With my hand on the doorknob, I turned to give them my version of a steely look.

“It was worth troubling about, officers.”

“Why’s that?”

“…Because it was inexplicable…”





* * *





CHAPTER 27





Their mouths dropped open, which was the effect I’d desired. I opened the door and swept out, as Cindy closed the door behind her.

A few minutes later, outside the station, Cindy touched my arm.

“Pay no attention to those guys, Lucy. You did a great job. This isn’t the first time the police haven’t been appreciative.”

A lump had positioned itself in my throat, a slight smile on my face.

“Thanks, Cindy. Let’s go home.”

I glanced at my phone and read a text from Maggie. Baskerville was all right, bandaged and getting lots of attention from everyone at the vet hospital. I grinned and stuck the phone in my purse.

“What?” asked Cindy.

“Baskerville. He’s good and being appreciated way more than I am.”

In a few minutes, we were in the car. I put the key in the ignition and started the engine. At that moment, a sleek black limousine pulled up in front of us and Warren Sandstrom III got out. He walked quickly into the police station with another man. Neither looked very happy.

“Who’s that with Sandstrom?”

“I met him at the party. That’s his attorney.”

“He’s got a lot of answering to do now. It should keep him busy for some time.” I chuckled. “…Couldn’t happen to a nicer guy.”

Before pulling away, Sue O’Dell went into the police station, not two minutes behind Sandstrom. Sue saw me and nodded.

“Going to talk to her, Lucy?”

“…Depends on if she goes to jail or not. She had a big hand in this whole sordid mess.”

“You’ll have to testify if there’s a court case.”

“Yeah, so I better wait to talk to her to see which way this wind is blowing.”





* * *





When we got home, Maggie was sitting with Baskerville on Mrs. Murphy’s front porch. Mrs. Murphy seemed happy and Hamlet was keeping her distance from a haughty, if slightly wounded, Baskerville.

We parked the car in front of our apartment and Maggie walked over clutching a bandaged Baskerville. He squirmed out of her arms and ran over to us, little doggy tail wagging up a storm.

“Where’s that hound we call Baskerville?” Cindy cried as she scooped him up. He licked her face nonstop until I took him and he licked my face.

I cuddled our toy poodle, the hero of the day, and glanced over at Maggie.

“How is he?”

She smiled. “The vet said the bullet grazed his side, breaking skin, but that’s it.”

I looked at Cindy. “Marvin was a poor shot.”

“…Thank God,” she said.

“Thanks, Maggie, for everything.”

“…You’re welcome, Lucy. I was proud to help. It’s helped me with understanding how Ray died. I’d rather know than not know.”

I stuck out my hand to shake hers.

“Good luck, Lucy. Maybe I’ll see you two around,” she said. “…And Baskerville.”

“…Maybe…” We watched as Maggie got into her car, waved at us and drove away.

“Lucy!” called out Mrs. Murphy from her porch. “…I’d love to hear your side of the story.”

I laughed at her and shrugged. “And you will but not right now. I’m pooped and need a rest…”

“Later then,” and she went into her house, tugging on Hamlet’s leash to follow her. Hamlet, of course, had her eyes posted on Baskerville.





* * *





We all slept like the dead that night… Me, Cindy and even Baskerville. I doubt I even moved that night in bed. In the morning, I awoke to rays of sunlight shining through my window, warming my face. It felt good and I felt better.

I called in sick to work that day. First time in probably two years and stayed home to be with my wonderful dog and to rest. It had been a long couple of weeks – Seemed more like months, instead of days. I wandered around the house, fed Baskerville some pastrami, watched TV and, in general, did nothing. It was heavenly…

Later that afternoon, I got an unexpected call.

“Lucy? How are you?”

“Eric… I could ask you the same question.”

“How long were you at the police station?”

“…Too long.”

“Yes, it wasn’t exactly the kind of case they like doing. I’ve been asked to be the expert on the paintings to prove their authenticity.”

“…Are you going to do it?”

“Probably. I’ve called a curator I know to give me a hand.”

“Good for you…”

He paused and I listened to his steady breathing.

“…Say, Lucy?”

“Yes, Eric.”

“I’d like to cook you dinner tonight to thank you for all your help.” He paused again. “…No car doors to get in our way this time. What do you say?”

I was already smiling and nodding, even though he couldn’t see me. “I’d love to come over. What can I bring and where do you live?”

He gave me directions and I hung up with a huge smile on my face. I know it was there because when I went into the bathroom to take a shower, I glanced in the mirror and it was still planted on my face.

Hmm… It had been a while since I actually liked a man. Like I’d said earlier, I wasn’t looking for Galahad or Prince Charming, but it sure would be nice to just have dinner and conversation with a man that I liked. A man who liked me too…

I looked forward to the evening and happily went about the rest of my day babying Baskerville. When Cindy came home, I was dressed and ready to go.

Handing her the dog, she gave me the once-over.

“Who called and where are you going?”

“Over to Eric’s. He’s invited me over for dinner.”

“…Wow! Really? Cool. I see you snagged my leather jacket to wear over your tee shirts and jeans.”

“There’s no way I’m dressing up, Cindy. This is me – take it or leave it. I’ve done enough dressing up in the last two weeks.”

“Yup. I hear that.” She patted Baskerville. “Well, have fun…”

“Thanks, let’s hope so…”





* * *





CHAPTER 28





Half an hour later, I was sitting in Eric’s living room, waiting for him to return with my glass of wine. I glanced around at the lovely room. One couch and chair were made of brown rattan with yellow pads and cushions. I looked out a French door of dark wood complemented by the winter white walls and hardwood floor. For a professor, it was all so much nicer than I expected, but then this was a pretty good hotel. I was still admiring the room when he came back in, handing me a beautiful crystal glass filled with a dark red liquid.

“I hope you like Merlot.”

“…I do. Thanks.” I took a sip. “Delicious.”

“You were looking around the room, Lucy. What don’t you like?”

I shook my head. “No, no…I like it very much. It’s just that…”

“It’s just what?”

“Not what I expected.”

“…Which is?”

“Books, papers, stuff, everywhere… You know, like your office.”

“Thanks, I guess.” He smiled and took a sip from his glass. “This is good…” He looked at me expectantly. “So…”

“So?”

“Let’s hear the story. Start to finish. Tell me what I don’t know because I really don’t know all the details. And you do, don’t you?”

I squirmed a bit on the couch and glanced around the room. “…Maybe…”

“Maybe, nothing. If you want dinner tonight, you have to work for it.”

I smiled at him. He really was cute…”I’ve always thought you looked like Leonardo DiCaprio.”

“Really? I’m flattered, but I don’t see it.”

“I do.”

His blue eyes smiled as he shook his head, shaggy blonde hair shifting.

“…Let’s come back to my cuteness. Right now, I really want to hear how this went down.”

“Okay.” I set my wineglass down on the glass table in front of me. Settling into the couch, I cocked my head at him. “Comfortable?”

“Enough…”

“Well, you were right about Sue.”

“How?”

“… She knew it all from the beginning. She found out somehow, maybe when they’d been intimate, that Sandstrom had a forgery in the gallery and she guessed it was the Van Gogh. She brought the exhibit to Reno to spring a blackmail trap on him but I think he called her bluff.”

“Yeah?”

“I saw them together talking and saw a card she wrote to try to sway him, but he was immoveable. She brought me in to put pressure on him and make him nervous.”

“Did she succeed?”

“Yes. He put the moves on my roommate, Cindy, to get information out of her as to what I was doing, what I had learned. Which didn’t work, by the way.”

“… Okay.”

“So Warren had made the one forgery, I think to pay off some gambling debts, and somehow, Marvin Ross, found out about it.”

“Was he that guy who pulled the gun on you?”

“Yep. We worked together at the movie theater and I always thought he was the dimmest bulb in the drawer. Apparently, he fooled me.

“Marvin worked as a docent at the art museum and found out what was going on. He’s pretty good at playing invisible. Apparently, our shy little Marvin also had mob contacts who had forgeries waiting in the wings for the right opportunity. These were first-class forgeries done in Europe by top-notch guys who know what they’re doing. This had all been set up for a few years in advance of what went down here in Reno.

“Marvin told the cops he coerced Sandstrom into going along and splitting the profits with him. Sandstrom didn’t want his family to find out about the whole mess, so he went along with Marvin’s scheme.”

“So those horrible security guards?”

“…Worked for Marvin and Sandstrom couldn’t do anything about it.”

I chuckled to myself.

“What?”

“I always wondered where the heck Marvin was at the movie theater. He wasn’t even there a lot of the time. He was off doing whatever dastardly thing he needed to do at the museum.”

I glanced over at him. Eric seemed to be thinking hard.

“To tie up a few loose threads,” I continued, “when I found out a few more things than Sue thought I would, she had those guards break into my apartment to scare me. And it worked…

“However, she didn’t count on your finding out about the forgery, nor about the video camera you’d placed in the gallery.”

“Which didn’t really help much.”

“…No, but led us to looking for shoes. Marvin wore those work boots we saw in the video, but I discounted him immediately.”

Eric laughed. “What about your philosophy of everyone’s a suspect until he’s not?”

“…Exactly. I screwed up there.”

“What about the dead guy?”

“Right. That was Randy, Russell Crowe’s ex-con brother. He was just there to rob from his brother. The cash register had been broken into. Laurel and Hardy dispatched him quickly. Crowe told me he blames himself for his brother getting shot. He wouldn’t have anything to do with Randy once he was out of jail.”

“I assume the guards have been arrested.”

“Yes and I would assume, Sandstrom and Sue as well.”

“What did Russell Crowe know?”

“Not much. He’s just an idiot and a crummy boss.”

Eric thought about all the information for a minute. A shadow crossed his face and he glanced at me shyly.

“I have a small confession, Lucy. I confided in Crowe about the missing slides since Sue started acting so weird. He’s on the board too, but I asked him not to tell anyone.”

I shrugged. “No damage done.”

“…I have one more question, Lucy.”

“Shoot…”

“Why was the umbrella left at the movie theater?”

I smiled… So he really could keep ahold of what was important. Impressive…

“It had rained that night and one of the guards borrowed it from the gift shop as they took paintings out to the truck. Weird, I know, but I’ve seen weirder. Then a man across the street went out for a smoke and saw them. I’m sure he saw that colorful umbrella as well. It might have been night, but there were lightning flashes that probably lit up the area for a minute. It was enough time to see, at any rate.”

“That was the man who had a heart attack?”

“Yes. I met his widow, Maggie Carmichael, who filled me in on the constant comings and goings at the art museum. She saw plenty and suspected her husband did as well.”

“…The umbrella?”

“Laurel and Hardy shot at Ray Carmichael, probably saw him keel over and ran down the alley to the movie theater, just a few blocks away. I’m guessing they panicked and ran, instead of just jumping in the truck to drive off. Maggie said the truck was parked there for some time. Anyway, they hid out in theater two and left the umbrella. It was still damp from the rain when my boss found it.”

Eric’s eyebrows lifted in doubt.

“No one said these were very bright guys.”

I crossed my legs and shifted on the couch. “That was Marvin’s theater to clean and nobody gave it a second thought when he didn’t clean there. Marvin had a history of not being great at his job…I enabled him. I’m not happy about that.”

I looked back over at Eric. “…Then there was Bobby Springer.”

“Who was he again?”

“One of my work colleagues who went to the exhibition and sniffed out the Van Gogh forgery. The guards saw him and tried to shut him up. They probably would have killed him, if Maggie across the alley hadn’t called the police.”

“Wow…Lots of threads to pull, Lucy.”

“I know it.”

He looked at me for a long minute. “Would you like more wine?”

“… No.”

Eric moved over on the couch by me. “Would you like dinner?”

He was closer to me now and I stared into his handsome Leonardo face. His eyes grew darker. We looked at one another for a moment that stretched into two.

“No…” I said in a husky voice that wasn’t even recognizable to me.

“Would you like me to kiss you?”

I sighed. “Yes…”

Oh, boy. I’d forgotten how great it was to be with a man I liked who was also a great kisser. His hands touched the sides of my face and he drew me to him. Eric brushed his soft lips to mine, once…twice and then angled his mouth to kiss me more passionately.

I wound my arms around his neck, running one hand through his dark blonde hair. He pulled me tightly into his arms and we were wrapped around one another like strands of ivy. I could feel his heart beating rapidly, as he continued to kiss my lips, my face, my throat. Wow… if I’d been wearing glasses, steam would have been coating them by now.

I’m not sure how long we’d been kissing, but I was definitely ready for the next step when… His cell phone rang.

I broke off one fabulous kiss to whisper, “Don’t you need to get it?”

“No.” He continued on to another fabulous kiss.

The phone stopped ringing.

He started to lay me down on the couch when the phone began ringing again. My eyes popped open and I pushed him back a bit.

“You sure you don’t need to get that? They sound anxious to reach you.”

He glanced at the readout on the phone to see who it was. When his eyes widened slightly, I grabbed the phone and read the name myself.

“Who’s Allison?”

Eric raised himself up by one hand and stared in my face. “She’s…she’s my sister.”

He hit the red zone on my bullshit meter and I pushed him back farther. “You aren’t a good liar, Eric. Who is she?”

“… She’s… my girlfriend… in Wisconsin.”

I blinked at him… surprised as all get out.

I pushed him all the way back and sat up. “Your girlfriend?” My voice squeaked uncontrollably.

“Well, technically yes, but not really.”

I stood up angrily and walked over to pick up my jacket. “…Shit, I knew it.”

“Wait a minute, Lucy. I tried to break up with her before I left Wisconsin on this trip, but she won’t believe me. It’s over between us, honestly.”

“Yeah and my name’s Dumbo.” I stuck my arms through the jacket sleeves, grabbed my purse on the table and headed for the door.

“Lucy…wait.”

I turned to look at him, sticking my jaw out. “I see my rotten luck at men hasn’t changed. This wasn’t cool, Eric. I liked you…”

“And I like you, Lucy. Let me explain…”

“Nope,” I said opening his front door. “Don’t bother to call me again. You’ve gotten all the information you’re going to get out of me. Have fun with Allison.”

I beat it out of there, leaving the door open and listening to him call after me. I rushed down to my car, parked streetside, wrenched open the door and sat down just in time for the dam to burst. Pushing away tears from my eyes, I put a shaky key into the ignition and started for home. When I arrived, I swept into the apartment, threw my jacket in the vicinity of the closet and stopped abruptly when Cindy came out of the kitchen.

She took one look at my face and went to get the box of tissues. I collapsed on the couch and spit out the evening’s events, one strangled sentence at a time. Cindy handed me tissues, there-there’d me and Baskerville licked the tears off my cheeks. It was nice to have friends and I needed them as I cried out my disappointment.

Cindy made me a glass of warm milk, her tonic to any sort of problem, gave me Baskerville and turned on a Sherlock Holmes mystery – The Blue Carbunkle. Oooo, it was a good one! A huge blue diamond with a curse disappears and there’s geese and brandy… Soon I was relaxing with the milk, my good friend beside me… a nice throw tucked around me, and my little dog asleep in my lap. Life can be very sweet indeed. Who needs a man?





* * *





CHAPTER 29





The next day was sunny, sunny, sunny. Although it was actually overcast with a good chance at rain, my disposition couldn’t have been dragged down. The world was good and I was alive!

As I wandered around the movie theater, dealing with problems and people, I really want to give myself a big hug. Another puzzle solved! There is absolutely and positively no better feeling in this whole wide world than when it all comes together and the puzzle is solved. All the pieces fit and I’m walking on air…

Bobby had come back to work. I called to give him the All’s Clear sign and he came in the next day. He was ready for his life to begin a semblance of normalcy. We had a small talk and he didn’t blame me for what happened to him that night. I still had reservations and looked out for him that whole day. I had a feeling I would be watching out for him for some time to come.

Megan was happy, for a change, that we were all back together again – except for Marvin, of course. She proclaimed righteous indignation at all of us having been duped by such a smart senior citizen. When I remarked that the criminal mind had no particular age, she shrugged.

Kevin was not as happy as the rest of us. Sure, he was glad to see that Bobby was all right and back to work, but his wife had just had divorce papers served to him. His attitude was a bit subdued… Understandably.

Marvin, Warren, Sue, Laurel and Hardy had all been arrested, but were currently free on bail. At the theater, we all promised to look out for one another and call if any of those guys were in sight or bothering us. Of course, the District Attorney’s office called to see who would testify against them and my name was at the top of that list.

Eric had called probably six times trying to apologize and wanting me to meet with him before he left town. I finally spoke to him and told him in no uncertain terms to drop dead.

Joe Warner called me with the best news ever…

“Lucy. Are you sitting down?”

“Well, no, Dr. Warner. I’m walking from theater one to theater two right this minute. Why? What’s up?”

“I think you should sit down.”

I sighed. “Joe…I don’t have time to sit down. I’m busy. Say what you’ve got to say… please.”

“Lucy… As your advisor for the past ten years, I’m asking you to sit down.”

That stopped me in my tracks. Jeez – what happened? Was he calling from the hospital? Did his dog get run over? Did he get a promotion to Yale? He piqued my curiosity, so I walked into theater two and sat in one of the cushioned chairs looking at the darkened screen. It was actually nice to take a load off.

“Okay. Go…”

“I made a few inquiries and the Bret Holmes Detective Agency in town is looking for a trainee. Bret’s a friend of mine, and I told him about you. I also called the mayor’s office and got them to send over a recommendation.”

I was stunned at his news and happy that he’d made me sit down. My first thought was that my dad wouldn’t like it, which made me smile. My second thought was that I would like this very much, which made my smile bigger.

Sitting there in theater two with a huge grin on my face, I heard him speak again. “Lucy? Are you there?”

I straightened and spoke in a clear voice. “Dr. Warner?”

“Lucy James…”

“You’re the best advisor in the whole wide world…”

“… So you like it?”

“I don’t like it…I love it. What do I do now?”

Joe laughed and laughed. “I knew it! This is the right path for you, Lucy. Especially after winding up this forgery case at the art museum.”

“Thanks, Joe. This is wonderful news.”

“Just go over to his agency tomorrow and tell him who you are. Bret will take it from there.”

“…Did you say his name is Holmes?”

“Yes, I did.”

I could hear the smile in his voice.

“Irony?”

“You bet, Lucy. Karma’s the best.”

We spoke for a few more minutes and I hung up. I’d been walking in the clouds today, but after this conversation, I was walking on cloud nine – the highest cloud in the sky.

A detective agency trainee position? I wanted to kick my heels in the air and shout Yippee Ki Yay! I settled for a celebratory soda at the concession counter with Megan and Bobby, who were pretty thrilled at my news.

Then we watched in virtual slow motion as Kevin sauntered up to me holding a walking cane made out of a dark wood. I glanced from the cane to Kevin. I’m sure my quizzical look was a match to his huge lopsided grin.

He handed it to me.

“What’s this?”

“I don’t know, Lucy. Found it in theater two -- Interested in finding out?”

I laughed and took the cane from him. “…Always… Let’s see where this one leads…”

Glancing over to an applauding Bobby and Megan, I shrugged with what I hoped was a devil-may-care look on my face.

“…I figure out puzzles. It’s what I do…”

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