Bill Williams sent over a chapter from his entry in the Clockwork Storybook 30 Day Writing Challenge – The Lichtenstein Frame-up, that you can check out, after the jump.
Chapter Three- So Long Batman!
The next afternoon, I was waiting by the ornate front door to Lester Teal’s mansion out by the lake. The sprawling home was done in the style of an Italian villa complete with a burbling fountain in the center of the looping cobblestone drive. The grass was closely cropped and it swept wide all of the way back to the entry gate and the parking lot beyond. The home was built at the end of the street in one of the pricy West Austin neighborhoods. The estate had recently been used as an exterior in one of Robert Rodriguez’ movies as the home of the bad guy.
Lester opened the stained glass door and stuck out a hand. “You must be Arthur Quinn,” he said through teeth that were a little too perfect.
“I am,” I said as we shook hands in the doorway. Casually, I handed over one of my new business cards. Lester noticed the minor scuffs on my hand and the bandage on my temple.
He checked me again with a quick look and asked a reasonable question. “Are you okay?”
“May I ask what happened with the…?”
I nodded and did my best to put on a bashful act. “Who’s the detective here?” Late last night, a kindly paramedic had cleaned the wound on my forehead and superglued it closed. A large bandage was stuck to my forehead to keep the gawkers from getting a better look into what I was thinking. An MRI this morning had confirmed no real damage to the kneecap but it hurt like hell. Now, I was in a nice suit with a good watch on my arm and I was punishing a guy for something stupid that I’d done.
“Sorry,” he said.
“Don’t be. The other guys got the worst of it.” I stepped into the foyer, working not to show the limp. The floor was done in a pearl-colored marble tile. A lazy staircase swept up to the second floor in a slow curve that showed off the cut glass windows that matched the front door. “How do you know Amanda?”
Lester closed the front door and locked it behind us. “I knew her father. He gave me my first job out of engineering school.”
“Do you do software or hardware?”
“Software.” He gestured out across a living room straight out of Architectural Digest to a covered lounge area outside. “Can I get you something to drink?”
“Water,” I said. “Last night was a long one.”
“I remember that from college.”
“I sort of remember going to school.”
“What did you study Mister Quinn?”
“You can just call me ‘Quinn,’” I said. “I think I majored in golf and cheerleaders.”
Lester chuckled. He had dark brown hair parted on the side above a dusting of gray on the temples. He was an inch or so taller that I was making him six foot one. Lester was fit and he wore a set Tommy Bahama sportswear like he lived at the beach.
“You could say I had a short stay in college.”
“I see.” We walked through patio doors to a wide lounge that was in the October afternoon but shaded by the roof line. Expensive wicker furniture had been arranged to create a second living area by the outdoor kitchen. Beyond that was a wide resort style pool that looked out over the lake. “You come highly recommended.”
His lake house made mine look like a bootlegger’s shack. I sat carefully on a pale sofa cushion near the pool. “What can I do for you, Mister Teal?”
“My wife’s disappeared.” He handed over a bottle of Fiji water. His water bottle was on top of a closed manila file. “Her name’s Patricia Teal.”
“How long’s it been since anyone saw her?”
Lester cracked the seal on his bottle and removed the cap as he considered his answer. “Day before yesterday. I was the last one to see her.”
“Did you two fight?”
“What do you mean?”
“Never mind, keep going,” I said.
Lester took a long drink from the bottle. “I’m a bit old to do the full marathons anymore, but I run mini-marathons a few times a year. Well, I went out for a run and when I came back she was gone.”
“Did Patricia pack a bag?”
“She take her passport, car keys?”
“Yes to the car keys.”
I took a pull off of the water bottle and looked out at the lake. If the drought dropped the water level any further, you’d be able cross it in a go-cart next year. “So she drove off and nobody saw her after that.”
“Mister Teal, you’re coming up on two days. If you don’t bring the police in on this, you’re going to look like the bad guy.” I worked my bad thumb and it cracked loud enough to throw an echo off of the Italian tile.
“I’ll take that into consideration.”
“She ever do this before?”
“Never,” he said with a little too much conviction. “Look. I don’t want to tell you how to run your life, but you’re old enough to be a better liar. The police detectives you chat with will catch an awful whiff off of you unless you pick up your game a little.”
“Are you sure the police have to be involved?”
“You contacted me. That means you’re not sure she’s coming back on her own.” I took a long drink. “Why don’t you just trust my reputation and level with me?”
“She’s missing. But something else is gone too.”
With great effort, I managed to avoid the obvious joke about dogs playing poker. “Do you think she took it?”
“Who else could have taken it?” Lester looked at the water for a long moment. “It’s worth a great deal of money.”
I weighed Lester Teal for a moment, not sure what he wanted back more, his best girl or his last investment. “I’ll need photos.”
“I can let you see a photo of the painting, but it can’t leave the house.” He sat up straight and picked up the file folder.
Now he made more sense. “Lester, did you have a stolen painting lifted from your house? By your wife?”
“She loved the painting, but I doubt she’d risk leaving the house with it.”
“Let’s see the picture.”
Lester came over and sat close enough for a hug. He pulled a picture from the file folder and placed it flat on the table. The photo was taken somewhere in the house judging by the architecture in the background. Lester was standing next to an attractive blond woman who was about five eight and curvy. They were in evening wear. “That’s my ‘Trish and the ‘So Long Batman.”
“So what, what?”
“That’s the name of the painting.”
Behind them on the wall was a large squarish comic book panel about five feet wide and four feet tall. After a better look, I could see light reflected in the brush strokes in the flat color especially on the solid black line work. It was in the style of the old reprint comics. Batman was punching a guy in a cobra cloak in lower left. There was a stylized batshadow on the wall. A girl in a batmask and a skirt was going out a window and saying, “So long Batman!” Stiff buildings were in the distance out of the window. In the lower right, Robin looked on with a thought bubble coming from his head. It held the quote, ‘I should ask Batman about girls’.
Pointing at the photo, Teal said, “it’s a Lichtenstein.”
“It sure is,” I said.
Lester looked at me like I was the slowest dog on the sled team. “Paintings by Lichtenstein sell for millions of dollars at auction.”
“This is a lost masterpiece of his. Fear of litigation drove him to sell it to a private collector and it found it’s way into my hands.”
“Wha’d you pay for this lost masterpiece?”
I nodded because I had nothing better to do and it was the kind of response Lester Teal probably expected. “When did you acquire this lost masterpiece?”
“I bought the painting a few months after we got married.”
“Who found the painting, you or your wife?”
“I had an art dealer that was searching for deals for me,” he said.
“How long have you known the dealer?”
Lester was a bit twitchy about the art dealer, so I steered us a different direction. “Your wife, Tish, she looks familiar.” I had the feeling we were looking at different things in the photo. “Where do I know her from?”
“She was a local television anchor. When we first met, she was working for KAUS.”
“That’s the ABC affiliate, right?”
I tapped the photo. “Do you have a photo of your wife I can take with me? It might be helpful.”
“I can email you something.”
“My email account is a little glitchy, can you just send it right to my iPhone?” I finished my bottle of water and smiled at my host.
Lester’s brows crashed into each other as he considered the fact that he was working with a low-tech detective. “Sure.”
“Can we test it now, just to make sure it works.”
He nodded and walked into the house leaving the folder open and the photo of the happy couple and the lost masterpiece on the table.
I pretended to be checking my phone as I took a couple of photos of the photo. Something about the secrecy surrounding the five million dollar painting was out of place. There was an art thread to pull when I got the chance. I checked the email account a couple of times. Sure enough, a couple of publicity stills came through to my email account from Lester. The wife’s name was Patricia Gray. On the set with the news desk, she looked less real than she did in front of the painting. That’s showbiz.
The husband walked quickly back out to where I was sitting. “Did they come through?”
I showed Lester the photo on the screen. “She was partnered with Don Sanchez for a year or so, wasn’t she?”
“Three years. They were broadcast partners when she left the station.”
“Why did she leave?” I put the phone away before the husband could put two and two together.
“When we got married she said she’d like a break,” he said. “It was wonderful. We got to travel. We made it to Greece before it got bad over there.” Lester used a sorrowful tone about that time in his life, like he was remembering a dead realtive.
“I’ll need to talk to whoever sold you the painting.”
“Not possible, really.” A range of emotions played across his face as Lester reconsidered. He had to clear his throat before coming back with a question. “May I ask why?”
“You’ve got a load of expensive items in the house. It might help me to know why that single item went missing instead of another piece.” It occurred to me that the wife might be trying to fence the painting and the dealer would be a logical first stop. Lester would clearly object to that line of inquiry and might make a run at doing it himself.
“I see.” Lester stared at nothing as he considered releasing that info. “Let’s talk about your fee.”
“I usually work for free. Or favors.” In Lester Dent’s case, I might be willing to make an exception.
“That makes no sense.”
“That’s life,” I said.
“I can pay you a thousand dollars a day.”
“Is that for eight hours, or do I work the full twenty four?” A wide smile let him know I was joking.
“I’m serious Mister Quinn.”
“Well if you’re serious, make it fifteen hundred a day in small unmarked bills with a one week minimum.”
“Done,” he said as he stuck out a hand I ignored. “Of course, I’ll need you to sign a non-disclosure agreement.”
My first instinct was to suggest he perform a physical impossibility on himself. “No,” I said as I got to my feet. “You being this tense is understandable, but all of this dodginess is a red flag.”
“A non-disclosure agreement is standard business proceedure.”
“Sure. When you have something to hide.”
Lester stood and nodded sadly. “What about my wife?”
“When the cops get involved, and they will if your wife doesn’t come back on her own, they’ll want a chat with me. That leaves me between the cops and your NDA. I’m not doing that.”
He shook my hand and got a last look at my card before handing it back to me. “Then I’m afraid we’re at an impasse, Mister Quinn.”
“I guess so,” I said. He gestured and I started to the door with him a couple of steps behind me. Before entering the house, I turned for a final word of caution for the rich man. “You’s better get your story straight Mister Teal. And I’ll assume that you’re going to get in touch with the police as soon as I leave.”
He nodded slightly, a hard look decorating his face as I made my way back out to the courtyard.
The joy of being self-employed was that I could work for whoever I wanted. At the moment I wanted to find out what had happened to Patricia Gray or Patricia Teal. And I wanted to find out who had managed to get five million dollars for the painting called the ‘So Long Batman’.
Bill Williams draws the long-running webcomic Sidechicks. For more about what else Bill is up to, go to billwilliamsfreelance.com