When I first got the case, I figured chasing down stolen art might lead to refined people with money and taste. It led to murder. The sinister tale began, like most of my cases, after my answering machine jarred me from a dreamy snooze on my couch.
“Mysterious Private Investigations,” the perky recorded voice announced. “Our agents are in the field, please leave your name and contact information.”
What the perky recorded voice calls “the field,” of course, is the couch I nap on, which I call “my office.” A man responded to the recording right away. He sounded like a phony, but with plenty of money. The second part of that equation interested me.
“Mr. Wellington Cathcart calling,” he said. “I require your investigative services to recover three magnificent paintings, artistic creations of exceptional value, which were stolen from me with cunning wickedness.”
Cunning wickedness? I recalled my last case, an alibi rundown for a jewelry heist. No problem, I decided. Cunning wickedness owes me one.
I returned the call to get some basic background on the case and set up a meeting. Mr. Wellington Cathcart revealed that he lived in a creaking, two-hundred-year-old family mansion burdened with a patchy security system. A small gallery on the second floor displayed his substantial art collection. A thief simply leaned a ladder against the side of the house, entered through the gallery window, and made off with the three paintings while no one was home.
“Nothing fancy about that,” I said.
“Years ago,” Cathcart replied, “thieves used the same technique to steal a world famous painting from a splendid European gallery.”
Cathcart also claimed he already knew who stole his three paintings, a former handyman his son had hired, and he knew how to find the man too.
“Why do you suspect him?” I asked.
The client explained that he’d fired the handyman a month ago, after learning of his prior criminal record. Additionally, the man had repaired some eaves above the gallery window, so was adept at using a tall ladder, would have seen the gallery’s location, and could have noticed the window had no alarm wiring.
“Call the cops,” I said.
“I’ve done that, of course, but the local police provided little help. They have neither the interest nor the capability to investigate art theft. It isn’t the type of common street crime they train for, and they assume the insurance investigators will manage just fine.”
“The theft also has been entered into an FBI database, which will alert the proper authorities in the unlikely event someone attempts to sell the paintings in a legitimate transaction.”
“And the insurance?”
“The paintings are insured for their estimated value at auction, four million dollars.”
I suggested we meet at Cathcart’s home so I could see the gallery, but he insisted we meet at his country club, where he said he always “lunched” on Wednesdays. He agreed to bring photos and the police report, though he considered it a waste of time because, as he’d told me once, he already knew who stole the paintings and how to find him.
The country club dining room was whisper quiet, a muted contrast of dark wood, rich burgundy carpets, and perfect white tablecloths. I guessed the impeccably groomed men and women “lunching” here could steal more in an hour with a pen than an ordinary thief could haul down a ladder in a year.
Cathcart sat alone. A reedy man about fifty years old and graying, he flaunted a perfect haircut and thick eyebrows. I’d arrived five minutes early, but my client had started without me. He was eating something green that looked expensive.
A waiter hovered, smiling at me. I told him I wouldn’t need a menu.
“Black coffee and a turkey club with double bacon and double mayo,” I said.
Cathcart peered at me as if about to instruct a five-year-old to stop wiping his nose on his shirtsleeve.
“They don’t serve that kind of sandwich here,” he informed me. “But the Pheasant Confit Tomatillo is delightful.”
The waiter nodded his agreement. “The Pheasant Confit Tomatillo is excellent today.”
I wondered why he’d said “today.” Was it lousy yesterday?
“Just coffee,” I told him.
I studied the photos and police report Cathcart had brought. His gallery still boasted seven paintings and four miniature sculptures, with a combined value far higher than the three stolen paintings. Discolored blank spaces on the wall outlined where the missing paintings had hung. The size of the blank spaces indicated the stolen paintings were much larger than the seven paintings still hanging on the wall.
“Did the thief leave the frames behind?” I asked. “Any sign at all the stolen paintings were removed from their frames?”
“Thankfully, no. That is precisely how paintings become damaged.”
I’d already finished examining the report and the photos. The ladder had been propped against the house to reach a narrow window that faced the display wall. The second floor of the house had no security alarms anywhere, and the burglar didn’t trip any first floor alarms. So apparently the ladder and upper window were used for both entry and exit.
In other words, my client’s story didn’t make sense. No way. I began to tell him why, but he interrupted me, shaking his head.
“Art theft is different,” he lectured. “You cannot rely on a prosaic deductive formula to unravel an art theft.”
His gaze drifted past me. “What do you know about the robbery of the Isabella Gardner Museum in Boston, some twenty-five years ago?”
“Google it. A fascinating story!” He lowered his voice and leaned toward me. “A half billion dollars worth of art was stolen and the robbery remains unsolved, though it probably was committed by New England mobsters. Imagine! And the mobsters took only select pieces, leaving behind an immeasurable fortune in artwork, just as valuable items were left behind in the theft from my gallery.”
Cathcart paused and raised his eyebrows, seeming to savor every morsel of his curious tale.
“And in a most peculiar twist,” he whispered, “each stolen Gardner piece was exquisite, except one.” He paused again, making me wait.
“In addition to taking a dozen nearly priceless works of art, the Gardner thieves stole a practically worthless little gee-gaw, a small bronze figurine from atop an antique flag staff. Taking that piece created one of the great mysteries of art theft. Why steal such a mundane and valueless item, but bypass other works of obviously immense value?”
He gave a smug look.
“Because art theft is different,” he repeated. “Like the Gardner Museum, I am hardly the victim of an ordinary street crime.”
But the theft from Cathcart’s gallery was not as different as he contended, I knew. He had completely missed the most important point I’d wanted to make about his stolen paintings.
He handed me a list of three names: Dominic Kilgorn, the former handyman and suspected thief, Dominic’s mother, who Cathcart said was confined to a suburban nursing facility, and his girlfriend Zandra, a waitress at a local comedy club.
“This man’s mother and girlfriend will know where to find him,” Cathcart told me. “Find Dominic Kilgorn and you’ll find my paintings.”
“I also want to talk to your son to find out how he met Dominic, and call the insurance investigator. You’ve got their contact info?”
“If you mean Mr. Beckman at World Vigilance Insurance, you needn’t contact him. Contact only the names on the list and me. Nobody else, certainly not Mr. Beckman. And most definitely not my son.”
He pulled out a checkbook and began scribbling.
“Is one thousand dollars a suitable retainer to start?” he asked.
A chorus of angels began ringing cash registers in my head. I nodded and he continued scribbling.
“Excellent,” he said. “I’ll give you half now, let’s say three hundred dollars, and the remainder upon satisfactory completion of your assigned duties.”
“But even half of a thousand would…”
He’d already placed the check in front of me and returned the checkbook to his jacket’s inside pocket.
“Very well,” he said, and he began making a slow backhanded fanning motion as though cooling a bowl of hot soup.
But he wasn’t cooling soup. He was dismissing me from the table.
“Why me?” I asked.
“Let’s just say I’ve heard things about you.”
He smiled and made the fanning motion again.
My client had given me two leads, a short paycheck, and nothing to eat, so I headed to a quick-serve burger joint. Afterward, I’d visit Kilgorn’s mother at the nursing facility and then talk to his girlfriend at the comedy club tonight.
“Welcome to Giant Big Burger. May I take your order?” the bubbly teenage girl behind the counter asked.
“Giant Coffee, black. Giant Fries.”
“One Giant Coffee and one Giant Fries,” she repeated. “You want fries with that?”
“Fries with my Giant Fries?”
“We’re supposed to ask on every order. Otherwise we get in trouble.”
I took my Giant Coffee, Giant Fries, and fries to a table, doing my part to keep a teen out of trouble.
Cathcart’s burglary still didn’t make sense to me. In their frames, each of the three stolen paintings measured nearly as large as the gallery’s narrow window opening. That made shoving the paintings out the window an almost impossibly tight squeeze, even for just one painting at a time and with an accomplice staying on the ladder to make the grab. And carrying such large, unwieldy items down the ladder would have been a handful, requiring three shaky trips. All that, when a thief could have stuffed a satchel with smaller items of higher value and made a quick escape.
And recounting the peculiar Boston heist only showed Cathcart didn’t understand his own history lesson. The so-called gee-gaw was small and easy to conceal and carry. Taking that piece jibed with what I knew about burglars: They like to nab small, easy items if they see them, exactly the opposite of what happened in Cathcart’s gallery.
Finally, regardless of whether art theft is as different as Cathcart supposed, Dominic Kilgorn sounded like an ordinary Joe of a petty thief, not a big-money criminal mastermind. There was a possibility, I realized, that someone coveted only those three paintings, and custom-ordered their theft. But it seemed like a long shot bet that a guy like Dominic would get the job.
Cathcart’s odd fascination with art theft had also aroused my curiosity, though I eventually concluded he probably studied the topic after his gallery was burglarized, perhaps from information his insurance company had provided.
None of my doubts mattered for now, though. I owed it to my client to check out his leads.
When I arrived at the nursing home, I told the woman in charge I needed see Ms. Kilgorn and then flashed my identification and a costume badge I use.
“P.D.,” I said. “I need to ask her some questions.”
The initials I’d spoken meant Private Detective, of course. But not many people grasped that.
“Police Department?” the woman squeaked. “What’s wrong?”
“Nothing. I just need to ask Ms. Kilgorn a few questions.”
“Fine, officer. But I don’t know what kind of answers you’ll get.”
She led me to a cramped, dreary room. A tiny, white-haired woman huddled inside, wrapped in a thin pink blanket. She gaped at the wall as if in a catatonic trance.
“Hello,” I said.
She kept gaping. I left. My client’s first lead was a bust.
The comedy club looked like a dump and smelled like stale cigarette butts and spilled beer. I flashed my identification and costume badge again.
“P.D.,” I told the bartender. “I need to talk to Zandra.”
“Petey? What kind of name is that for a cop?”
“Just get Zandra,” I said.
He ambled to the other end of the bar and began talking to a skinny blond waitress. He pointed toward me and she made a disgusted face. At the same time, a gangly comic wearing huge eyeglasses leapt onto the stage and started his comedy routine. The microphone made his voice reverberate a little.
“I had lots of pets as a kid, but they all hated me.”
The blond waitress swaggered toward me, swinging her thin arms at her side and still making a disgusted face. The comic continued.
“I had a dog, for instance. I tried to teach him to shake hands, but he kept flipping me the bird instead.”
The bartender returned and stayed nearby as I introduced myself to Zandra. She said she hadn’t seen Dominic “in forever,” suggested I could find him “skin diving in some bimbo’s panties,” and told me she had nothing more to say unless I showed her a warrant. The bartender kept listening and the comic kept riffing.
“When I was a toddler, we had a cat. She used a litter box, but whenever she saw me in my sandbox, she covered me up too.”
How long was “forever?” I asked Zandra. Eight months. The bartender confirmed that Dominic hadn’t come to the club to see Zandra in months, and he doubted she knew his whereabouts because she’d mentioned kicking him out of her apartment long ago.
“I even had a pet lizard, the kind that sheds its tail. Every time his tail fell off he’d moon me.”
I asked the now smoldering waitress if she was sure there wasn’t anything more she could tell me. She told me to go to hell and stomped away.
“These days I only have plants. But when I water them they spit it back at me.”
So my client’s second lead was a bust too, and that made me suspicious. Tomorrow, I’d make a run at the people he’d demanded I leave alone. I’d start by calling his insurance company. Then I’d know if my rich client was playing me for a dimwit.
“Thank you! You’ve been a wonderful audience! Thank you very much!”
The next morning, I went to a nearby diner to review the case again and call the insurance company. I visit the diner a lot, just for coffee and a place to think. I made the call, hoping my suspicions proved wrong.
“World Vigilance Insurance, how may I direct your call?”
“Mr. Beckman, please.”
He answered after two rings.
“Beckman. Fraud Investigation Unit.”
Exactly what I’d expected. We had a short, stilted conversation because Beckman couldn’t reveal anything. And regardless of what I thought of Cathcart, he was my client, so I couldn’t say much either.
Beckman ended our call and I phoned Cathcart. He began speaking as soon as he recognized my voice.
“I assume you’re calling because you’ve heard the news,” he said. “Let me assure you that I was shocked, absolutely shocked to learn of these developments and, believe me, I had no involvement whatsoever in this despicable crime.”
“And let me add that I am horrified, completely horrified by the outlandish and irresponsible implications of this newspaper story.”
Newspaper story? What?
“Mr. Cathcart… I think we need to… discuss this in person.”
I ended the call and picked up a rumpled copy of today’s newspaper someone had left on the diner’s counter. A headline read: Murdered Man’s Body Found With Fake Paintings. I scanned the story:
Dominic Kilgorn, a local handyman, was discovered murdered in a downtown motel room last night. Police found three paintings with the body, and an outside expert determined they were faked copies of artwork wealthy collector Wellington Cathcart had reported stolen from his home in a multi-million dollar theft.
A police spokesperson said Kilgorn had been shot execution style, probably by mobsters in the stolen art trade.
“We think the victim tried to sell the fakes on the underground market,” the spokesperson said. “But experienced criminal buyers usually bring someone along to authenticate the art, just like a drug dealer confirms the quality of dope before making a big buy.”
Police also said Cathcart, the collector who reported the multi-million dollar art theft, had been questioned and released, but was still considered a “person of interest.” Mr. Cathcart declined through his attorney to comment for this story.
Cathcart hadn’t wanted to see me, but I’d insisted. I wondered whether his attorney, or maybe a couple of mobsters, would join our meeting. But my client greeted me by himself, and if anyone lurked near us in Cathcart’s house I couldn’t see or hear them.
“Tell me about the fakes,” I said.
“You mean the copies, and they are brilliant. Please don’t call them fakes.”
Cathcart explained that he commissioned the copies from a renowned artist years ago because he worried about displaying the originals at a lavish charity event he’d agreed to host.
“I’d just begun collecting at the time, and hadn’t set up the gallery yet. Those three paintings were my first pieces, openly displayed in the Great Room. I felt concerned about someone damaging them. Inadvertently, of course.”
“Who knew about the copies?” I asked.
“The artist, certainly, though I trust his discretion explicitly. And besides me, just my late wife, God rest her soul. And my son, Reginald.”
“Where were the copies kept?”
“In a storage room, just below us in the basement. They’ve gone missing, of course. Just like the originals.”
“Who knew the storage location?” I continued.
“Only me. And my son.”
“Where is your son now, Mr. Cathcart?”
“Reginald’s social position and family resources afford him a special… freedom at this stage of his life.”
“You don’t know where he is.”
“Did the police ask you the same questions I just asked?”
“My attorney allowed the police minimal information.”
When I left, Cathcart looked as sad as any man as I’d ever seen. And I needed to make a phone call I knew would sadden him further. What he’d told me was evidence in a murder investigation. I had to report it. The police dispatcher transferred my call to the cop in charge of the Dominic Kilgorn case, a Detective Janessa Ann Harley.
Harley already wanted to interview Reginald, of course, because he’d hired Dominic for handyman work at the Cathcart mansion. But his likely involvement in a criminal conspiracy that ultimately caused Kilgorn’s death moved Reggie to the top of Harley’s list. Reggie could be charged with felony murder whether he pulled the trigger or not. Harley seemed tough and thorough and I had no doubt she’d find Reggie soon.
The cops arrested Reginald Barrymore Cathcart the next day in a luxury hotel suite he’d generously furnished with champagne, cocaine, a couple of hookers, and the three paintings he alone had stolen from his father.
The news covered every bit of the scandal reporters could unearth, and my client, Beckman, and Harley each tossed me other scraps of the twisted story. From all that, I put together most of what happened.
Reginald hired Dominic as a handyman so Reggie could buy drugs from Dom using the Cathcart household maintenance budget instead of his own money. Stealing art from the gallery had been Dominic’s idea, and he had indeed spied the artwork while making repairs outside the gallery window.
Reggie agreed to the burglary, both because he resented his father spending Reggie’s eventual inheritance on an art collection, and because he planned to double-cross Dominic and keep the loot for himself.
Dominic had unwittingly planted the idea for Reggie’s double-cross by demanding to hold and sell all the stolen art himself, and to give Reggie a share of the money only after the sales were completed. That demand hatched Reggie’s plot to stick the untrustworthy Dominic with just the three fake paintings, which Reggie remembered were stored in the basement.
To make his double-cross work, Reggie needed to persuade Dominic they should steal only three specific paintings, and nothing else. So Reggie devised a simple but effective lie: His father, Reggie told Dominic, hated those three paintings and would rather collect the insurance money than ever see them again. But if anything else was taken, all the Cathcart family wealth and power would bear down with relentless fury to find and punish the thieves. The three paintings were easy money, Reggie had convinced Dominic.
With Reggie as an “inside man,” the conspirators’ scheme never included hauling anything through the narrow gallery window. Instead, Reggie opened the window from the inside while Dominic propped the ladder against the house. The two then met at the back door, where Reggie handed off the fake paintings. He slipped away with the real paintings later that night, before his father returned home. The final twist occurred when Dominic tried to sell the fakes.
Wellington Cathcart hired a top law firm to defend Reggie. When the trial started, the defense attorneys told the jury Reggie should be found “not guilty” of Kilgorn’s murder because Dominic, a known criminal, caused his own death when he tried to sell fake paintings to other criminals. Reggie had made some youthful mistakes, the attorneys explained, but hadn’t caused a murder.
My instincts told me otherwise. From what I’d learned, Reggie didn’t seem like he’d settle for whatever money he could get for three paintings and then walk away from the rest of the family fortune. More likely, he intended to sell the real paintings, return to Daddy’s mansion, and maybe even try to collect twice on the crime by pestering his father for some of the insurance settlement.
But to do that, Reggie would need a strategy for dealing with Dominic, who’d want tough payback for the double-cross. I guessed Reggie had instigated Dominic’s murder by simply putting out the word that Kilgorn was preparing to hustle fakes onto the market. After all, Reggie planned to sell the real paintings to the very same underground Dominic had contacted.
My client, Wellington Cathcart, was never accused of wrongdoing. Even Beckman’s fraud unit involvement was a routine insurance procedure for a large theft. And Cathcart simply didn’t know enough about Kilgorn to discount the stale leads to Dominic’s mother and Zandra that Reggie had provided him. But none of that meant I liked Cathcart, especially after I tried collecting the rest of my fee.
He reminded me that he’d hired me to recover his paintings, but I hadn’t actually done that because the paintings were locked in a police evidence room. And as to my thousand-dollar retainer, he recalled a conversation about paying me half of it already.
Somehow we settled on another two hundred dollars, in addition to the three hundred “half” he’d already paid. And then I slogged back to my office. For a nap. Rich people wear me out.
“Mysterious Private Investigations,” the perky recorded voice announced. “Our agents are in the field, please leave your name and contact information.”
I fell into a gentle sleep before hearing whether the caller left a message. Maybe I had another case. Maybe not.
Peter DiChellis concocts sinister and sometimes comedic tales for anthologies, ezines, and magazines. He is a member of the Short Mystery Fiction Society and an active (published author) member of the Mystery Writers of America, Private Eye Writers of America, and International Thriller Writers. For more, visit his site Murder and Fries at http://murderandfries.wordpress.com/
This story, which originally appeared in the anthology The Shamus Sampler II in June 2014, is an original work of creative fiction. The people and events described or depicted are entirely fictional, with the exception of the Isabella Gardner museum robbery, which occurred in Boston in 1990. Specifics about art theft, including the Gardner museum robbery, are based on published information from multiple sources.