“Cunning grows in deceit at seeing itself discovered, and tries to deceive with truth itself.”
― Baltasar Gracián, The Art of Worldly Wisdom
Several weeks had passed since my Uncle Horatio Hollingsworth arrived unannounced at my home near Cripple Creek. This was quite a feat, because he made the forty-mile hike from the airport at Colorado Springs, at night, when the northern winds were unrelenting and a frozen blanket covered the Ute Pass that led to my secluded canyon.
I welcomed his company, since I had been living alone for over a year after the sudden death of my beloved wife Candace, who had lost a brief and agonizing battle with ovarian cancer. Candace was my best friend and inseparable companion for over thirty years, and my lingering depression after her passing had been compounded by the isolation of my surroundings. Uncle Horatio’s arrival was perhaps a divine intervention at a time when my life was sinking faster than the antique barometer hanging on my front porch. What I thought was going to be a visit for a couple of days, turned into several years. To this day, I believe he considered my home his own. He was wealthy beyond measure and could live anywhere in the world, yet in many ways he lived like a pauper. In short time, we developed a blood-on-blood bond that kept us close. I think he felt secure in our Aspen-lined hideaway, and in me, I believe he found a needed confidant and trusted friend.
His singular approach to life and anomalous ways inspired me to write a brief remembrance of our time together, if for nothing else, to put the myths behind the legend in perspective — to document the human side of a remarkable man, of whom I knew very little. One example indelibly etched in my memory occurred shortly after his arrival. I had awoken after a particularly bad dream that saw Candace walking away from me in silence in her nightgown, and turning back in tears, as I waved goodbye. I tried to muffle the grief in my pillow, but in short time, Uncle Horatio was at my bedside in the dark with an arm on my shoulder, in silence, where he remained until I regained my composure. I didn’t speak a word of it afterwards, and to his credit, neither did he. He was certainly an enigmatic figure — at times he could be as mordant as a wrongly convicted felon, or as openly compassionate as a country doctor making house-calls. When his moods were light, he became effusive to the point of distraction and when his disposition turned somber, he was as subdued as a shadow. I discovered he was as real as the rising sun and as mystical as a new moon. With Uncle Horatio, you knew where you stood, and if you weren’t sure, he reminded you repeatedly.
In formulating my narrative, and in keeping with my own pragmatic nature, I decided to sketch a rough outline of the fascinating man who now resided in my home — a strict vegetarian, who practiced Tai Chi mediation naked at dawn, without regard to the weather — who got immense pleasure from solving “Spot The Difference” challenges in near-identical photographs in the back of old tabloids I had stacked in the garage, who constantly feared he was being hunted, but who also had an easy laugh and irreverent sense of humor. In order to help clarify his unique character, my initial observations were as follows:
- Uncle Horatio is approximately seventy-four years of age; in excellent health with a resting heart rate of thirty-five beats per minute, which I verified personally by checking his pulse.
- He is a strict vegetarian and consumes enormous quantities of chia seeds, brown rice, and anything in the legume family.
- He drinks water and whole-food juices and consumes large quantities of Curcuma Longa tea which can only be described as pungent boiled grass.
- He meditates every morning and walks at least five miles a day, regardless of the weather.
- He has an encyclopedic knowledge of poisons and weapons, and is a master of the Israeli art of self-defense called Krav Maga which he learned while living in a Kibbutz on the occupied Left Bank.
- He can cite from memory, unsolved criminal cases going back a hundred years and has an impressive working understanding of political science, chemistry, physics, world history and literature.
- He has little knowledge of pop culture and could not name one song played on the radio out of a sample of fifty.
- He is borderline hypochondriac, anal in his daily habits, and exhibits very little social skills to the point of discourtesy.
- He also exhibits an almost paranoid concern for being stalked and takes great care to maintain a near-invisible social footprint.
- He has no driver’s license, no social security number, no cell phone, and no laptop computer.
- For travel, he keeps several passports with multiple identities hidden in the lining of a daypack. One shows a man from Jellico Creek, Kentucky and the other, a retired soldier from Banff, Canada.
- He is fluent in Russian, German, Spanish, and French and has a working knowledge of Chinese dialects including Mandarin, Xiang, and Guangzhou.
- His primary means of contact with the outside world is through emails received and sent from computers found at public libraries and pay-to-use internet cafés.
- He carries no credit cards, has no checking account and pays cash for everything. When queried about the state of his finances, he assured me he had a fortune stashed away in hard currency managed by a long-time trusted associate who would wire funds via western union to anyplace in the world when requested.
I had just finished a breakfast of sausage and scrambled eggs, prepared in a cast-iron skillet and was on my second cup of coffee, when Uncle Horatio came in from his morning meditation. “Truman, you keep eating fat, salt and cholesterol disguised as food and you’ll soon have arteries as constricted as the antiquated plumbing in this house. And try as you have to conceal it, your continued smoking will only exacerbate your climbing blood pressure and neuropathy.”
“But I keep my pack tucked under my mattress — how on earth could you possibly…”
“Truman, in this way, I might be the bane of your existence, but my attention to detail leaves very little to the imagination, or in your case, the clandestineness of your bad habits. As you know, I reconnoiter the grounds on a regular basis and pay careful attention to details that a casual observer would surely ignore. It was without much effort that I observed three spent paper matches on the south-facing side of the garage, an area that is comfortable protected by the north wind that allowed me to conclude you are smoking again. Don’t look so surprised and don’t think I’m being judgmental — nicotine is horribly addictive and I congratulate you on your attempt to cut back. What say we take a trip into town to that lovely internet café? I need to check my messages.”
“You’re welcome to use my own desktop,” I replied.
“And announce your IP address to the assassins of the world? Hardly a way to express appreciation for my favorite nephew.”
“I’m your only nephew.”
“That’s beside the point — I’d make the hike, but am feeling a bit of tenderness in my left ankle.”
“Have it your way, I’m ready when you are.”
We hopped into my Subaru and made the fifteen minute drive up a steep grade on the county highway to the bustling, mining-turned-gambling town of Cripple Creek just as the sun was rising on the horizon creating a fiery outline on the scattered clouds. The Back-Range to our west was illuminated like the ragged edge of a cross-cut saw. Steam was rising from several of the exhaust escapes on the rooftops along Bennet Avenue, as the neon lights were beginning to fade into dawn. The blackjack and craps tables, and one-armed bandits sat mostly vacant, save for a few glossy-eyed gambling addicts nurturing their losses at the tail-end of a long night.
We walked into a building called The Aspen Mining Company where a dark chestnut-paneled internet café was nestled in the rear playing new-age Indian music over the sound system. Several locals were occupied reading papers in high-backed upholstered chairs or bent over laptops on bistro tables staggered around the room. At the counter, we were greeted by a balding thirty-something man, wearing a beaded Indian choker and a checkered Pendleton shirt with sleeves rolled up to the elbows. His face was distinguished, almost intellectual accentuated by the round, rimless glasses he wore, and he spoke in a thick Boston dialect, “You didn’t pahk yah cah out front did yah — today’s sweepin day,” he said, with both hands on the counter.
I ordered a black coffee and blueberry scone, and a cup of hot water for Uncle Horatio’s tea and handed the barista ten dollars for thirty-minutes of internet access.
I pulled a chair next to Uncle Horatio who logged in and began scrolling down a page of old messages. It didn’t take long for his eyes to light up as began reading a message that filled the screen.
“Ah ha! The world still turns Truman! There is no rest for the wicked and you can’t keep a good man down…and what other cliché’s can I offer up on this splendid morning?”
“Is that good news or bad?” I asked, perplexed.
“Anytime I get a message from the managing director of claims at Lloyds of London, the day is sure to hold the promise of adventure, intellectual stimulation and lots of money.”
“I’ve found that large insurance companies make the best clients. Their problems generally involve large potential losses that aren’t widely publicized, and most of the work is discrete and under the radar. And when I solve their problems, they reward me handsomely without delay.
“Are you up for a trip to Denver?” he asked, smiling and chasing his tea with a handful of Chia Seeds that he grabbed from a soft leather pouch attached to his belt.
“Sure, my old stomping ground, what’s our destination? Denver is a big city,”
“The Van Gogh Exhibit at the Museum of Art.”
“Good God, has a Van Gogh been stolen?” I asked.
“We’ll soon see, however if the facts represented in the email are accurate, it may mark the return of one of the most ingenious criminal organizations the world has ever known. For now, I can only hypothesize. I suggest we finish these wonderful drinks and then reserve a room for a few nights at a decent hotel near the Museum. Perhaps the Warwick? The tab is most assuredly on me, and you would do us a great favor by booking the room in your name, non-smoking, with a view of Grant Street. My client is en-route from London and won’t arrive until late this afternoon.”
When we returned to the house I went to my desk to make the on-line hotel reservation. “You said a few nights, can you be more specific,” I asked.
“I’d say three should suffice, however, if this is the work of the Pink Panthers, we may just need dinner reservations.”
“The Pink Panthers?” I asked.
“Yes, as ridiculous as the name might sound, the Panthers are a highly organized group of some of the world’s greatest criminal minds. In a little over a decade, they have pulled off some of the most inspired, unsolved thefts in history. In 2002, they were behind the infamous jewelry heist at the Museon Museum, in the Netherlands. Their ingenuity was admirable. On a balmy night in July, they emptied 28 display cases filled with diamonds and other precious jewels while security guards stood watch 24 hours a day — in a building with cameras covering every square inch of the grounds, and further protected by motion detectors in the area where the cases stood. And then there was the 2008 theft at the Harry Winston Store in Paris where $107 million worth of jewelry was stolen by four armed robbers, dressed in drag, with long blond tresses, sunglasses and winter scarves. They strolled in with a small valise on wheels, then pulled out a hand grenade and pistols and smashed the display cases and then shouted orders to employees, many of them by name. In less than 20 minutes, they made off with millions of dollars-worth of emeralds, rubies, and large diamonds. I was called in on both cases, and while I wasn’t able to recover any of the stolen goods, I was able to pin most of the blame on several members of the Serbian based Panthers who I came to discover had over two-hundred members throughout Europe, North America, and Africa.
“So the jewels and diamonds were never found?” I asked.
“Not a solitary solitaire, however, four men are behind bars based on my investigations, and I now have a price on my head that rivals most heads of state.”
“Why do you suspect it’s the same group of thieves?
“Because they usually target priceless assets at high security establishments that are considered impenetrable. Here are the facts presented by Baily Quarter, chief adjuster at Lloyds of London, who will be arriving at 8:00 p.m. tonight, weather permitting, from a connecting flight in New York:
Two nights ago, the Van Gogh Exhibit ended what was a successful one-month run in the mile-high city where an entire floor of the Art Museum was dedicated to a display of seventy of the master’s greatest works created during his formative years in Paris. This was quite an undertaking and included paintings on loan from over twenty museums around the world including the Musée d’Orsay in Paris, the Tate Museum in London, and the J. Paul Getty Museum in Los Angeles.
The day after the exhibit ended, there was a private showing among the Museum staff and important collectors and art aficionados from around the country, followed by a black-tie dinner in the main gallery of the building located on the first floor. After the exclusive showing, immediate preparations were to begin for the crating, logging and removal of the works by the various crews affiliated with the museums around the world who made the loans. During dinner, which was served promptly at 7:00 p.m., there was a loud explosion in the circuit room located in the basement, which caused an immediate power outage.”
“But what about a back-up system, surely the Museum…”
“Allow me to finish, my impetuous nephew. The back-up generator had also been sabotaged by the power cables being cut that ran to a back-up circuit board. This system was designed to restore power immediately but it took over 30-minutes for the lights to come back on.
In the confusion that ensued, loud screams were heard from the second floor where a small exhibit known as the “Left Bank Wing,” was located in the northwest corner. This small room housed four of Van Gogh’s most important works including Self Portrait With Straw Hat, and View of a Park in Paris. The curator of the museum, Dr. Sydney B. Preston raced from the dinner hall with several VIP’s and security in tow to the second floor where a room by room security check was conducted. Due to its location, the Left Bank Wing was the last room to be checked, and upon entering, the now panicking curator found six workers lying unconscious on the floor and the four masterpieces vandalized. Each had been spray painted with black letters that read, Fascist Pigs!”
On discovering this, the museum was placed on immediate lockdown. I should also mention that a locked exit in the basement had been forced open and “Revenge” spray-painted on a wall adjacent to the open door. When calm ensued, a call was then made by Dr. Preston to the managing director and curator of the Sharps Museum in London, Sir Richard Bonnington, who had authorized the loan of the paintings that had been vandalized. Sir Bonnington was beyond furious when he heard the news and ordered the immediate crating of the desecrated works to be shipped back to the safe confines of the Tate Museum, where an accurate assessment of the damage could be made and repairs begun. Dr. Preston was vehemently against it, citing security concerns, but the disgruntled Sir Bonnington was adamant and referred to the specific terms of the loan that included an immediate return of the works at the sole discretion of the managing director of the Tate Museum, a clause that had never been exercised in the previous 100 years in any exhibit around the world.
Last night, on route back to London, the privately chartered Embraer 170 Jumbo Jet commissioned by the Sharps Museum to return the four damaged works, disappeared from London ATC, somewhere over the North Atlantic, 400 miles west of Cornwall. As of the email this morning, there was no sign of life or wreckage to be found. A fact that also bears noting is that there was no distress call or indication of any emergency on the flight.
Due to the delicate nature of the events, and the vast potential losses about to be recognized, the entire episode has been kept out of the press. Lloyds, who partially underwrote the insurance on the exhibit for the Sharps Museum, sent their top adjuster and my esteemed client to Denver, who in desperation contacted me.”
“And you think this is the work of the Pink Panthers?” I asked, while packing my suitcase.
“There are aspects to the problem I’d associate with their methodology, however until I make my observations, it is mere speculation, and I hold the same limited expectation of success as I place on your ability to overcome temptation, and quit smoking.”
“It’s been three days.”
“More like five hours.”
The drive north to Denver took about two hours due to icy conditions. The snow-covered front-range that ran parallel to the highway was partially hidden under a sky that resembled a dark lid. To the east, the vast prairie lands stretched out like an off-white bed-sheet ruffled after a long sleepless night. By 5 p.m. the city was just beginning to light up and men and women on the streets were dressed in long coats and gloves and hats. At the intersection of Grant and 16th a blinking red light had trafficked backed up for several blocks and the honking and angry shouts reminded me of visits to New York.
Uncle Horatio was anxious to get to the museum so we went directly there before going to the hotel. We parked in a garage across the street and went to the entrance which was manned by two glowering security guards who looked at us like we were an inimical intrusion of their important vigil.
I knocked on the heavy glass door which was locked and the shorter of the two, a man who resembled a penguin with a bad comb-over and jiggling paunch, shouted from behind the opening, “You see the sign, it says closed.”
“We’re here by invitation?” Uncle Horatio replied, testily.
“Sir, would you please call your supervisors and tell them Grayson Tufnell and Truman Ellsworth are here at the request of Lloyds of London, that we’ve traveled some distance and are beginning to develop frostbite and mild pneumonia standing in this cold winter chill.”
“The penguin ignored the taunt and placed a call on his cell phone.” After a brief conversation, he unlocked the door and let us in. “Dr. Preston will be here shortly,” he replied.
“Grayson Tufnell?” I asked, looking at my uncle who had a twinkle in his eyes.
“Yes, I forgot to mention, on assignments like this, I typically use an alternative ID. As I’ve discussed with you, several of my formidable adversaries believe I’m dead, which makes for a comfortable environment in which to work. I’m quite certain there will be malevolent eyes and ears upon me when I conduct an investigation of this magnitude. Best to be safe.”
“You don’t think you’re overreacting just a tad?” I replied.
“Truman, you haven’t seen the effects of a dart, tipped in poison from the acokanthera plant. I assure you, the agonizing effects of the paralysis and cardiac arrest are best saved for the Springbok and other South African bush-meat.”
A distinguished looking gentleman of slight build with a precise white beard, perhaps in his mid-sixties with glasses hanging from a neck-lanyard, dressed in tailored silk slacks with a camel-hair sports coat, walked briskly down the marble foyer to greet us.”
“Hello, I’m Sydney Preston, the museum curator,” he said, extending his hand to me. His smile was genuine but he had an air of immediacy that portrayed much deeper concerns.”
“Yes, Dr. Preston, I’m Grayson Tufnell and this is my assistant Maynard Parker,” Uncle Horatio said, extending his own hand. “Has Mr. Quarter arrived?”
“Not yet, but he called from the airport and should be here within the hour.”
“Fine, if at all possible, I’d like to begin my own investigation immediately. Would you kindly show me the door in the basement that was forced open?” he asked.
“Don’t you want to see the exhibit space that was vandalized first,” The curator asked.
“They’ll be time for that. For now, my immediate concern is the exit in the basement.”
“Have it your way, please follow me.”
We approached an elevator and Uncle Horatio asked, “Can we please take the stairway instead of the elevator.”
“Of course, it’s the door on our right.”
“I presume this stairway leads to all floors of the building.”
“That is correct — we assume the person or people responsible for this crime used these stairs to make their exit in the dark.”
We were soon standing in a drab, concrete basement that was well lit and used for extensive storage and displays. It smelled of dust, and mildew and old wood. We walked across the crowded space a set of double doors that had been forced open. The words “Revenge” had been hurriedly spray-painted on the wall.
“Where does this exit lead?” Horatio asked, going to his knees and carefully examining the ground in, and around, the doorway.
“It goes to a service alley and then a small parking lot behind the building. It is rarely used since most deliveries arrive at a loading ramp on the far side of room. It was more of an emergency exit and is always kept locked.”
“Have many people have been here since the Museum was locked down two nights ago?”
“To my knowledge, only a few security personnel and myself. The publicity will kill us and I’m trying to keep this whole nightmare as quiet as possible until we have more information. After all, nothing was stolen.”
“So only you and a few of your security staff have been at this location.”
“That is correct.”
“Interesting, what type of shoes were you wearing on the night of the theft?”
“I was wearing patent leather, black oxfords with my tuxedo.”
“You’re about six-foot-one?”
“And approximately how tall are your security guards?”
“John and Farley are average height — I’d guess maybe five-eleven to six-feet.”
“Is anyone in your security staff or administration short, say around five-feet?”
“Not to my knowledge.”
“Most interesting! I need to make a brief inspection of the walkway leading to the parking lot, but I’m confident, I know what I’ll find. I’d like to ask that both of you stay here. This will just take a minute.”
In short time he was back, with a bright almost frenetic look in his eyes. “Amazing! Let’s now turn to the infamous Left Bank Room where the vandalism took place. Dr. Preston, please make sure no one else is allowed down here until the investigation is complete.”
We walked upstairs to the second floor where we found a beehive of activity as the exhibit was still in the process of being dismantled, crated and prepared for return to the various museums around the world. The interior was an impressive combination of black marble flooring and exotic hardwood trim, with richly upholstered benches and gold plated drinking fountains. Walking down a main corridor, we passed a large painting, the size of a garage door, depicting a village scene, with Van Gogh’s trademark broad strokes in vivid yellows and purples that exploded from the canvas. It was slowly being removed from the wall by ten workers wearing white gloves who were preparing it for placement in a large wooden crate resting on a table in the middle of the room. Ceiling cameras with blinking red lights were located in each room, and appeared to cover all the available space.
The Left Bank Room was located in the rear of the exhibit, past several rooms and a long mirrored hallway. Flat, rectangular metal boxes the size of a playing cards, with wires protruding from them, indicated where the four vandalized works had been displayed.
“The outlets you see on the walls are hard-wired security devices that connect to a plate on the back of each picture frame. After our exclusive showing, the devices were naturally turned off to allow the workers to begin the removal process. The vandal could have easily removed one of the works with a pair of dikes. It appears he was simply bent on destroying the pieces. We think in the darkness and chaos, he entered the room and sprayed some form of sleeping gas to immobilize the workers, then desecrated the works and left the building before the power was restored. He could have easily walked down the stairway to the basement, broke the lock on the door, and exited on foot. The workers in the various rooms are all independent and it’s doubtful they would have recognized a stranger in the dark.”
“And you called the curator of the Sharps Museum shortly after discovering the damage?”
“Yes, Sir Bonnington was furious when I gave him the news. He used insults I’d only expect on my Grandson’s Rap records — called me, and the museum a bunch of idiotic amateurs. He said, he’d make sure I’d become the laughing stock of the art world. He then assured me we would be sued and run out of business, which of course is preposterous, that’s why we have things like insurance.”
“I’m curious as to why he requested that the paintings be returned without allowing for a thorough investigation?”
“We got into a huge shouting match over it, I cited security concerns, but he would have none of it. He reminded me that a clause in our contract specifically stated that the works were to be returned to the Sharps Museum at the sole discretion of the Sharps administrator. With works of this importance, it’s a standard addendum, but to my knowledge and having worked in the field for over thirty years, I have never heard of it being exercised. His crew was already at the museum and he warned me that any delay would be grounds for additional litigation.”
“What about Lloyds. I understand they underwrote the insurance for the loan. Didn’t they object?” Horatio asked.
“Baily Quarter was of course concerned, which is why he sent a representative from their New York office immediately to the museum. The representative, Loudon Tanner observed the crating of the works and accompanied the Sharps crew on the return flight which apparently disappeared off the coast of Cornwall.”
“Had you ever met any of the Sharps Museum Crew previously?”
“I didn’t know them personally, but it was the same six who flew from London and worked with our staff in the initial preparation of the exhibit. You must understand these works are priceless and handled with the utmost care — not even a frame is touched unless it’s done under the direct supervision of an authorized representative of the lending Museum.”
An attractive woman in a form fitting, knee-length maroon skirt with matching pumps and a blue tooth in her left ear entered the room.”Dr. Preston, The gentleman from Lloyds is in your office. Should I send him up?”
“Yes, thanks Leigh.”
“And you say the representative from the New York office was here when the crew from Sharps removed the paintings?”
“Yes, he was in this room by noon the following day, and I was here with him when the paintings were crated and sealed.”
“And he travelled with them to the airport?”
“Yes. He followed the moving van when it left the loading dock and to my knowledge was on the flight when it left for London.”
“What about TSA screening at the airport?”
“The flight was a private charter and waiting at the Signature Flight area, which is used for VIP functions. TSA typically sends their personnel directly to the hanger area and at no time were the paintings out of sight.”
A tall stout man with a thick gray beard and disheveled appearance entered the room, “Grayson, my lord, thank you for coming. How on earth did you arrive so quickly,” he said, walking over to Uncle Horatio to shake his hand. He was red-eyed and had a stain like ketchup on the lapel of his jacket. He took long deep breaths before each sentence, as if to ward off a cardiac arrest waiting to happen.
“By coincidence old friend, I was visiting my former adjutant and bridge aficionado, Maynard Parker who lives near Colorado Springs. Maynard, I’d like to introduce you to Lloyds of London’s director of claims, Baily Quarter,” Horatio said, turning to me with a sparkle in his eye.
“Sir, it’s a pleasure to meet you, sounds like you’ve all had a rough patch of late,” I said, shaking Quarter’s hand.
“Words simply can’t describe it.”
“Baily, who was the representative you sent from New York?” Horatio asked.
“Loudon Tanner,” he said, gasping while trying to catch his breath. “He’s a good man, I’ve known him for over twenty years. His youngest son just had twin boys. What a shame,” he said, shaking his head.
“I imagine he was in constant communication with you once he arrived here.”
“Of course,” he said, sitting on a bench near the door. “He watched the crew from Sharps prepare the paintings for shipment and then called me from the airport when the flight departed. He also placed a call to me about an hour after they were en-route.”
“I don’t mean to be probing, but what is your relation to Mr. Tufnell?” Dr. Preston asked, turning to Quarter.
“Grayson and I go back many years. He’s a private investigator we’ve used in several investigations. His methods go far beyond the typical standard forensics we find with most private agencies. How long have we known each other?” he asked, turning to Uncle Horatio.
“I’d say we go as far back as the “Deets Prize” affair in ‘82, which as you might recall, involved the disappearance of the aspiring three-year-old, triple crown contender and Derby winner that disappeared while on route to Pimlico. It was an insurance scam, as most are, and we were able to return the somewhat malnourished thoroughbred to her owners a day before the Preakness, where she lost by a head to the mob-sponsored champion, “Pure Glory.”
“Please Grayson, tell me you’ve found something, anything. We stand to pay out over $100 Million Dollars on this claim,” Quarter said, looking up to Uncle Horatio.
“I can tell you this old friend; there’s more here than meets the eye. and I fear it may involve murder as well as theft.”
“Good God, what are you saying? Both I and Loudon Tanner observed the paintings as they were being packaged, and transported to the jet, which apparently crashed.”
“The answer, I’m afraid may lie in London,” Horatio replied.
“London? What on earth could you possibly…”
“Dr. Preston, the facts presented here are overtly obvious, and one can’t help but draw palpable conclusions from the chain of events. In fact, my inspection here is almost finished, and aside from a quick viewing of the control room, I believe the answers we now seek are awaiting us in the lovely, historic city on the Thames.”
“You think the paintings were stolen?” Quarter asked.
“Ah, my dear friend, you know my methods; you’ll need to be patient for another few days, but I will guardedly suggest that a large insurance payout may be wholly premature. Dr. Preston, is there a decent whole-foods juicing store in the vicinity?”
At Horatio’s request, I cancelled the hotel reservation. On the drive back to Cripple Creek, he was noticeably pensive. In just a few short weeks, I had learned it was best to not force a conversation when he entered these moods. At his suggestion, we packed for a one-week stay.
A day later, we were on a flight to London, with a brief layover in Philadelphia. Uncle Horatio was traveling under the assumed name of Grayson Tufnell, a retired business executive, from Banff, Canada. His passport showed stamps from over 100 countries. After the meeting at the museum, he refused to discuss any details of his inspection or hypothesis about the affair. On the flight to Philadelphia, I spent the entire time listening to a loquacious rant about the endurance of the Tarahumara Indians who reside in the Copper Canyon area of Mexico. Finally, on route over the Atlantic, I pressed him for details. “I don’t mean to be intrusive, but you spent less than two hours at the Denver Museum, and have concluded that the affair was more than simple vandalism. Isn’t that going a bit out on a limb?”
“I’ll say this — greed brings about the absolute worst in men who will sometimes do anything to bring about the illusory satisfaction that great sums of money can bring. Greed is the destroyer of marriages, families, businesses, and in some cases lives. As Siddhartha Gautama once wrote; “There is no fire like passion, no shark like hatred, no snare like folly, and no torrent like greed.” The facts presented to me in Denver, leave but one elucidation, and that elucidation depends on the exit in the basement. As I’ve told you several times, there is no perfect crime and it is sometimes the slightest piece of evidence or lack thereof that demands a conclusion. At the Denver Museum, immediately after the purported vandalism, I can say with the utmost assurance that no one left the building through the basement. Beyond that, I refuse to discuss my reasoning, because as much as I hate to admit it, I’ve discovered that when I’m wrong, which is as rare as hair on a baseball, I look like a complete ass.”
We landed at Heathrow around noon and were soon were hailing a cab in a cold dense fog.
“Where to Yanks?” the cabbie asked.
“The Charring Cross Hotel please,” Horatio replied.
We arrived at our accommodations around 4 p.m. after an unmercifully slow crawl through London, whose streets were congested in every direction. Horatio, who was anxious to get to our room, complained during most of the ride about London’s failure to bring its roads into the twenty-first century. Our hotel was located a few blocks north of Trafalgar Square on the Strand and our executive suite was on the third floor with a magnificent view of the Victoria Embankment and Thames River. While I was unpacking, he told me he was going to the lobby to make a few phone calls. I was already sufficiently familiar with his ways to know he insisted on making calls from public phones whenever possible. One hour later, he returned to the room satisfied with his progress.
“Truman, this whole affair may turn out to be simpler than I imagined. We’ll call on Sir Bonnington tomorrow morning.
“You’d like me to attend?” I asked.
“Yes, if things go as I suspect, I may need a witness for what he decides to tell us. Are you up for it?”
“Of course, I’d feel guilty if I didn’t do something to earn this all-expense paid trip to London.”
“That’s the spirit. Since nothing more can be done tonight, I suggest we take the Underground to the East End where there is a fabulous Indian Restaurant I’ve been to many times with the best Masala Daal on the planet.”
My sleep was off due to jet lag and a curry-fueled indigestion that burned throughout the night so I was up early enough to witness Uncle Horatio’s naked Tai Chi exercises in the living room of our suite. He was mouthing a series of low-pitched hums that reminded me of my early attempts at playing a scale on the Tuba in High School. When he saw me enter, he did a final exhale and bend similar to that of a ballet dancer doing a grand plié.
“Truman, glad you’re up, did the shot of Vodka help you sleep?”
“You mean to tell me you counted the liquor bottles in the mini-fridge?”
“Ahhh, I detect a bit of cynicism. I’ve saved my life on more than one occasion by noticing and memorizing the smallest things. Sometimes the most innocuous details can be the most deadly. When we left the room for dinner, I knew what the bottle count was, as well as the inventory of chips, candy, nuts and sundries and I also knew the exact location of the remote control. I might be a bit paranoid, but I never use the hotel soaps, lotions, shampoos, or conditioner. For a trained assassin, these are easy conduits for an assortment of deadly poisons. At least you had the courtesy to step outside to smoke your cigarette in clandestine secrecy without having to face the wrath of my assured condemnation. Your ruse to visit the magazine stand across the street was clever, if not ill-played. My guess is that you visited the H.M.S Victory Bar opposite the registration desk where smoking is allowed. Were the retired baseball player and his mistress still enjoying martinis from the table by the window?”
I sat down on a richly upholstered divan and shook my head. “I’m not sure you make the best travelling companion. You have the unique ability to both annoy and mystify a person with this supernatural attention to detail. Let’s start with the drink. Yes, I did remove a Grey Goose bottle from fridge. That is easily explained, but how did you know that I didn’t leave the hotel, or that Art Bremer of the Yankee’s ‘86 World Series winning team was sitting with a woman in the hotel pub?”
“Truman, one doesn’t step foot onto a London street in this weather without showing significant signs on his shoes. Yours showed none whatsoever when you returned from your smoke-op. Had you not changed into your tennis shoes instead of wearing the scotch-tasseled loafers you wore to dinner, which still show signs of weather a child could see, the conclusion would have been baseless. No, you put on comfortable shoes that showed no weather marks and returned within twenty minutes. Since you didn’t go outside, and smoking is prohibited, except in the restaurant and pub, your destination became quite obvious. Also, as you recall, when we returned to the hotel, I briefly excused myself to the restroom in the pub, not to relieve an angry diabetic bladder, but to observe who might be sitting in a spot where a stay of several hours, by a hostile observer, under the guise of lonely drinker, would be quite commonplace. What better place to observe the coming and going of patrons through the lobby? Since it is my habit to observe everyone, I couldn’t help but notice the two opulent rings on the right hand of the once athletic gentleman in the booth near the window, and the expensive western boots he wore. The look cried American, and the rings denoted a two-time decorated champion, unlikely as a basketball player due to his lack of height, and equally improbable as a football player due to his lack of size. The woman opposite was attractive, wore no wedding band, was at least thirty-years younger, had the Cockney tone of an East-End tart, and was dressed for a trip to nowhere but the bedroom. Are you following this?”
“Well, you can’t be certain she was his mistress,” I replied haughtily.
“No, and I can’t be certain about what we’ll learn today, but unless I’m grossly mistaken, and the world has shifted on its axis, what is, is, and cannot be ignored, or denied. The weather appears greatly improved, and much more pleasant for our walk to the museum for our meeting with Sir Bonnington.
The weather was indeed improved. The fog had disappeared and the soft yellow sun was shining through a fine satin sheet on its morning rise. The air was crisp and we could see the condensation of our breathing, but the lack of wind made it quite comfortable. We walked past magnificent Trafalgar Square which was already crowded, as the immortalized figure of Nelson stood watch atop his glorious Dartmoor-granite column, guarded by resting lions constructed from the bronze of cannon captured at the celebrated eponymous naval battle.
The Sharps Museum, located a few blocks west of the square was an imposing structure built in the Georgian style with straight lines constructed in red brick and accented by four, white marble ornamental columns framing the entrance. The immense paneled front doors were topped with rectangular windows resembling a transom and capped with an elaborate crown entablature supported by decorative pilasters. Inside we walked across a large marble foyer to an admissions counter.
“We’d like to meet with Sir Bonnington,” Horatio said to a pleasant middle aged female attendant.
“I’ll have to call his office — please have a seat — he’s often out and about and not easily accessible. May I tell him who’s calling,” she asked.
“Yes tell him, Loudon Tanner from Lloyds of London.”
She went to a desk behind the counter and placed a call. A few minutes later she returned. “I’m dreadfully sorry, but Sir Bonnington is in a meeting and will be tied up for the rest of the day. You’ll have to come back later in the week.
Uncle Horatio frowned and said, “I’m afraid that’s quite impossible,” and walked to the counter where he quickly scrolled a few words on a brochure and handed it to the attendant. “Please give him this message,” he said, in a measured tone.
Somewhat annoyed, the attendant walked back to the phone and spoke to someone, then shortly returned and said, “He says he’ll see you his office. It’s on the third floor, at the end of the stairway, turn right, to the end of the hall.”
“What on earth did you write,” I asked, as we walked up the elaborate pink-marble staircase to the third floor landing.
“The name of a man he fears.”
We entered the office through thick, mahogany doors with a gold plaque that read “Sir Richard Bonnington, Museum Director.” A proper-looking woman in an expensive burgundy dress with a matching silk scarf pinned with a large gold broach greeted us with a contemptuous look as if we were both as a distraction and annoyance in her busy day. “Sir Bonnington is waiting,” she said, gesturing to a closed door.
Without saying a word, we walked into the office of the director and curator of one of Europe’s most important collections of impressionist art outside of Paris and the El Prado Museum in Madrid. Sir Bonnington was an imposing figure with silk white hair and matching full-beard coiffed with the precision of a laser. He wore a stiff white shirt with button down collar and an emerald silk tie and matching kerchief square, tucked into an expensive tartan cashmere blazer. He didn’t rise and beckoned us to take a seat with the wave of his hand.
“What do you want from me,” he asked, blinking nervously and frowning with his forehead.
“I want the truth,” Horatio said, sternly.
“And who are you, and who is Andjela Davidovic?” he asked.
“My name for now is unimportant as is my assistants’. Let’s just say I represent a client who stands to lose millions of dollars unless the Van Gogh paintings stolen from the Denver Museum are returned. I also believe the reason we’re sitting here is that we both know who Mr. Davidovic is. Sir Bonnington, no need to act oblivious or obtuse, it will serve no purpose in these discussions. I’ll get right to the point — what I believe was intended as an ingenious theft, has now turned into the murder of three innocent people. As dreadful as that is, my first duty is to my client, and I have no intention of pursuing you or anyone else in the murders if the paintings are returned. What happens after the works are returned is entirely up to you and the law. I will disappear without a trace. ”
“That’s preposterous, get out, what kind of a scam is this?” he yelled, with eyes squinting and cheeks flushed red.
“Sir Bonnington, you’ll need to get hold of yourself. If I leave here without answers, I assure you, your only fate will be that of an extended guest in Her Majesties Prison in Wakefield, which I’ve heard is referred to as The Monster Mansion. Your choice — either tell me now, what your involvement was, or I assure you, my next call will be to Scotland Yard.”
With that, Sir Bonnington put his hands and head on the desk and started sobbing uncontrollably. “What have I done, what have I done — it wasn’t supposed to end like this. I’m mired in debt. One day, this Mr. Davidovic, approached me out of the blue, and said he represented one of my private creditors. He said if I didn’t pay them in full that they would harm members of my family. He showed me pictures of my grandsons playing on the beach in Brighton. I simply didn’t have the means to pay, and my credit had long run out. He then told me he had an alternative solution that would require my assistance. His plan involved the theft of our Museum’s four prized Van Gogh’s that were being loaned to Denver. These paintings are like my own children, I spent much of my career at the Museum in their pursuit. It was one of the factors in me achieving my Knighthood. Davidovic assured me no harm would come to them. I was desperate and I…”
“Allow me to finish sir,” Horatio said, calmly. “You agreed to loan the paintings to the Denver museum, and with the help of Davidovic, set up an elaborate plan to fake the vandalism. When the power was turned off, thanks to a timed C-4 explosion in the control room, his crew quickly removed the Van Gogh’s from the frames and placed them in the bottom of the crates in hidden compartments sent by you for transportation back to the Sparks Museum. The crew from Serbia then put high-quality counterfeits into the original frames and spray painted them in a fake act of vandalism. Someone, probably Yuri Krakow, known as “Little Yuri” ran downstairs and broke open the lock in the basement exit, and spray-painted the wall. This of course was just a ruse. My inspection of the exit door and alley showed no signs of anyone leaving the museum. Back in the Left Bank Exhibit, the vandals then self-administered a compound, probably Fluothane, which put them to sleep and beyond reproach when the lights came on. You then took center stage and demanded the immediate return of supposed vandalized works. The details get hazy at this point, but I surmise that the plan was for the Serbian Crew to board the chartered flight with the crated paintings and on route, remove the originals and parachute off, with the stolen works safely wrapped in an number of watertight containers. If it was me conducting the operation, I would have anesthetized the crew since they would have been on auto-pilot, brought the jet to a lower altitude, set up a slow-flight and then abandon the aircraft. The crew would then wake up and could have landed safely. However things went horribly wrong; who knows why; perhaps the crew put up a fight or the unlucky claims agent from Lloyds discovered the plan. No matter, the plane went down, and I’d bet my first fortune that the Serbs are somewhere in Middle East trying to sell four, near priceless works of art. My question to you Sir Bonnington is what was your share and to whom were the thieves going to sell the paintings? Sir, keep in mind, extortion is a powerful alibi. Who in this world would judge you harshly for wanting to protect your family?”
Sir Bonnington looked up with the color drained from his face, “Sir you are either a wizard or the devil in disguise, but your summary is almost entirely accurate. The crew in the aircraft were also involved, but weren’t associated with Davidovic. They were to report engine trouble and land at Newquay in Cornwall, where the paintings were to be offloaded. We didn’t count on a Lloyd’s representative being on board, and I suspect he may have put up a fight. We planned on selling to a wealthy Kuwaiti sheik, who I believe to be Abdullah II Al-Sabah who Davidovic claimed had offered €100 Million Euros for the works. I can’t verify this, but Al-Sabah has coveted Van Gogh’s since he was a young prince. The museum was also going to receive at least the same amount of cash from Lloyds of London. The Sharps Museum has been underwater since the market crash of 2008, and the insurance payout would have put us in the black for decades. I’ve argued for years that the museum should sell a few of its works, but the conservators have unanimously rejected my requests at every turn. According to Davidovic, the sheik offered an earnest money deposit of €10 Million Euros and this was deposited two months ago to a small bank in Yorkshire where Davidovic held an account. To date, I haven’t heard from either party.”
“And I’m conjecturing you won’t. Sir Bonnington, the Pink Panthers with whom you were dealing are one of the most adroit organizations in the world. As I mentioned, my duty is to my client first and foremost, and I hope you’ll appreciate, that there will be no insurance payout coming from Lloyds. I will see to that. Since the jet apparently crashed, I doubt there will be a murder investigation. I will keep the affair to myself — however, you are never to mention this meeting again. If you do, and this somehow comes back to me, your fate will be sealed. Do we understand each other?
Sir Bonnington didn’t say a word but slowly nodded in the affirmative.
“Mr. Parker Do you have any questions?” he asked, turning to me.
“Very well then, our business here is concluded. Sir Bonnington, if you ever need to reach me you may do so by contacting Baily Quarter at Lloyds of London. We’ll let ourselves out.”
Outside, on the walk back to the hotel I spoke to Horatio who had begun whistling the theme to The Bridge On The River Kwai, “that was one of the finest displays of forensic elucidation I have every witnessed. If you don’t mind me asking, what do you stand to earn from all this?”
“Twenty percent of the claim — Truman, we just earned Twenty Million Dollars.”
“Good God, that’s amazing, but what about the Lloyds representative who may have gone down with the jet?”
Uncle Horatio, kept walking and replied, “Oscar Wilde once wrote, It often happens that the real tragedies of life occur in such an inartistic manner that they hurt us by their crude violence, their absolute incoherence, their absurd want of meaning, their entire lack of style. They affect us just as vulgarity affects us. They give us an impression of sheer brute force, and we revolt against that. Sometimes, however, a tragedy that possesses artistic elements of beauty crosses our lives. If these elements of beauty are real, the whole thing simply appeals to our sense of dramatic effect. Suddenly we find that we are no longer the actors, but the spectators of the play. Or rather we are both. We watch ourselves, and the mere wonder of the spectacle enthralls us.”
“Truman, life can sometimes be cruel beyond measure. Greed is the countenance of evil. We can try to fight it, overcome it, save the world, and protect the innocent, or we can choose to have a cup of tea. I prefer the latter.”
Audio rendition of the above story