Authors: Dan Andriacco
Tags: #Sherlock Holmes, #mystery, #crime, #british crime, #sherlock holmes novels, #sherlock holmes fiction
Sleuths on the Case
On my way out the front door of the Bennish library I almost collided with the tall figure of Dr. Noah Queensbury, who was rushing in. He excused himself profusely.
“I don't know why you're in such a hurry,” I said. “You're already ahead of everybody else.”
“My plan precisely. I intend to beat the others at asking a few salient questions.”
He struck a Sherlockian pose, which was not too difficult considering that he was wearing a deerstalker cap.
“Others?” I repeated weakly. I was getting a grim premonition.
“Of course! Surely I am not the only one planning to apply the techniques of the Master to this case.”
I had a sudden vision of seventy-five, eighty Sherlockians trampling across the quadrangle, peering into office windows, sneaking through the physical plant...
“Wait a minute,” I said. “Don't get carried away. This is police business. If you muck things up by sticking your nose in, you could get yourself into some real trouble.”
“The Scotland Yarders are imbeciles.”
This guy just didn't know when to stop playing the Game. He was even worse than Mac.
“The press account of this crime mentioned the curator of rare books, one Gene Pfannenstiel,” Queensbury continued, mispronouncing the last syllable as
.“How long has he been in this position?”
“About a month. He came highly recommended from Bowling Green State University. What the hell is that question supposed to mean?”
“Perhaps nothing at all. I am merely collecting data. âData! Data! Data! I can't make bricks without clay.' - âThe Adventure of the Copper Beaches.' I should very much like to talk to this gentleman.”
“You can talk to him all you want,” I said, “but not about the crime. I'm the only source of information on that, and I can't tell you any more than you already read in the morning paper. Sorry.”
“I am not quite so easily thrown off the scent, I assure you,” Queensbury sniffed.
“Just remember what I said, Doc: Police business.”
It was a parting shot. I took off across campus, eager to drop in on Decker and schmooze with him a little on his turf, maybe exchange some information.
Campus Security is located on the lower level of the Physical Plant. Cops and janitors, we keep 'em together. The cop shop is underground at the front, but opens to grade at the rear. Decker's office enjoys an entire wall of glass facing a greenbelt that should stay green for at least another three years until it gets paved over for parking. Decker was in.
“Don't you know it's a Saturday?” I joshed.
“What the hell,” he said, “you think I work full professors' hours - two classes a week and all summer off?”
He had a printed form in one ham-like hand and a pen in another. Paperwork always makes him grumpy.
Without waiting for an invitation, I sat myself in a stuffed chair in front of Decker's Formica-topped desk. The desk is a huge thing, not elegant but practical. The framed photo on top pictured Decker's wife and four kids. The girl, Cindy, is a student at St. Benignus. There wasn't anything else on the desk except a LIEUTENANT J. EDGAR DECKER nameplate, a telephone, a laptop computer, a fancy pen holder, and a piggy bank made out of a coffee can by Decker's third-grader.
“How's Cindy doing, Ed?” I asked.
“Not good enough. She's smart, should be getting straight A's. You didn't come here to talk about my daughter's academic career, Cody.”
“Well, I did hope we could discuss this Chalmers Collection case. It's kind of politically sensitive for me because of Ralph and the corporate sponsors and the bad press, if you see what I mean.”
Decker grunted. He didn't want to hear about campus politics.
“So,” I continued, “I was hoping you could tell me a little more than you did on the phone.”
He exhaled a bushel of air. “Means of entry still unknown. Somebody got in and out of that room with the goods clean as a whistle. It's weird, man.”
“Anything else taken?”
He shook his head. “No. Pfannenstiel ran the inventory for us last night and this morning. Spent hours on it.”
“How about fingerprints?”
“Pretty useless. We picked up partials from Chalmers and his wife and Pfannenstiel, of course, and a lot of unknowns. But hundreds of people must use that room every week.”
“So what's your best hope?”
“Off the record?”
“Beats me. A lot of crooks get nabbed when they try to fence the goods, but this time...” He shook his head again. I knew what he was thinking: No ordinary fence was going to handle this kind of merchandise.
“Can't you do something visible,” I said, “just so Ralph and his friends in the business community know that something's being done?”
“Investigations aren't supposed to be visible, Cody. But how about this: I can send my team in to interview everybody at this...”
I scotched that idea before it was even out of his mouth. “No, thanks, Ed. There are a couple of people you might want to keep an eye on, though.” I explained about Hugh Matheson's antagonism toward Woollcott Chalmers, apparently exceeded only by Graham Bentley Post's lust for the Chalmers Collection.
“Sounds pretty thin for me to do anything,” Decker said.
“I know,” I admitted gloomily. “Well, I'll be seeing these people around. I'll let you know if I come up with anything more solid.”
“Yeah, you do that.”
So there I was, practically commissioned by Lieutenant Ed Decker himself to investigate this crime as well as challenged into it by Mac. And what had my brilliant brother-in-law been up to in the meantime?
At least, I assumed so. According to the agenda for the colloquium, chowing down had been underway for half an hour.
I did a quick-step to Muckerheide Center, to the President's Dining Room on the same floor as the Hearth Room. The luncheon crowd already had thinned out considerably from what it must have been, though, and Mac's corpulent form was nowhere in view. Off sleuthing somewhere? Doubtful. I did see Bob Nakamora heavy into conversation with a student I recognized as one of Mac's protÃ©gÃ©s, poor kid. And nearby, the woman with gray-blond hair that I recalled from last night's party sat alone, picking at a salad. Several tables away Lynda Teal was not alone. Seated obscenely close to Hugh Matheson, she seemed to hang on the lawyer's every word, a level of attention I myself had once commanded. Apparently she wanted to be his friend, too.
I went through the salad bar, picking up cottage cheese, tomatoes, onions, and peppers, while eschewing the greasy slices of pepperoni even though I love the stuff. For dessert I grabbed a banana. When I had piled my tray high with nutritious food - and made a mental note to tell Lynda about that article I read saying neurotic people live longer - I maneuvered through the sparsely populated dining room as if searching for a seat in a crowded bar. Finally I stopped at the woman sitting by herself.
“Excuse me,” I said. “Mind if I sit here?”
“Not at all. I've been deserted.”
Her name tag identified her as Molly Crocker from Cincinnati. Well, the Cincinnati contingent was a big one. She was in her early forties, I estimated, and took no pains to appease the Cult of Youth and Beauty. The gray streaks in her ash blond hair were untouched by dye. The hair itself had been cut in an unflattering page boy she might have done herself with a pair of scissors and no mirror. But she had a good face, handsome if not pretty. And the eyes behind her magenta glasses were lively. She was clothed in a simple print dress that bulged slightly at the tummy. Too many cookies and late night snacks or was she expecting an addition to her family? This time I remembered to check for a wedding ring - and saw one.
“Having fun?” she asked.
“Fun doesn't begin to describe it,” I assured her. “I'm Jeff Cody, Sebastian McCabe's brother-in-law.”
“Molly Crocker. I saw you at Mac's party, but we didn't formally meet.”
“Right. Since you're from Cincinnati, what can you tell me about that dude?” I pointed discreetly at Hugh Matheson.
“Hugh? Enormously successful in his field, but you must know that. Just last week he won a damage award for six and a half million dollars based on a woman's loss of pleasure as a result of unnecessary radiation treatments to her uterus. The total award against the doctor and the radiologist, lawyer's fees included, was eight million three hundred thousand, of which Hugh took a third.”
I stopped peeling my banana, impressed. “You're really up on that stuff.”
She chuckled. “I ought to be.”
“Opposing counsel?” I guessed.
“I was the judge in the case.”
I dropped the banana. “Obviously you know a lot more about Matheson than what you read in
Judge Crocker pushed away her salad, half eaten. “That's a valid deduction. What's your interest, Jeff?”
My main interest was in showing up Mac in the sleuthing department, with getting Ralph off my back a close second. But total candor was not called for in this situation.
“I'm fascinated with the collector mentality,” I replied. “Chalmers spent - what, forty years? - building his collection, then today I heard that Matheson is a Holmes collector as well.”
She nodded. “You've hit on a good phrase there. I know both of those men and they do share a certain âcollector mentality.' It isn't restricted to Sherlock Holmes, either, especially not with Hugh.”
“What do you mean?” I looked across the room at Matheson and Lynda. He gestured with his hands, the classic motion signaling a slit throat. Lynda laughed.
“I mean,” Judge Crocker said, “that he also collects women.”
* * *
I took my cup of decaffeinated coffee and plunked myself down next to Lynda.
“Jeff!” said she, so startled she almost knocked her camera off the table.
“Sorry to intrude,” I lied.
“Then why did you?” Lynda said. I noticed she was chewing gum, apparently a new vice acquired in the past month.
“Because I wanted to meet Mr. Matheson. Won't you introduce us?”
In a rather graceless fashion (“Jeff does PR for the local college”), she complied.
“What's your theory about the Great Sherlock Holmes Theft?” I asked.
Matheson raised his tailored eyebrows. “Do I have to have a theory?”
“Maybe not,” I said, “but everybody else seems to.” Actually, I hadn't talked to everybody else, but that's what came out of my mouth.
“As a matter of fact, Lynda and I were just talking about that.”
I bet you were, pal.
“The obvious guess is that some collector did it or, more likely, paid to have it done. You hear about things like that with art masterpieces. Maybe what was stolen isn't worth as much as a minor Dali, but it would be priceless to a Sherlockian collector. Woollcott managed to assemble about a hundred pages of
The Hound of the Baskervilles
in Conan Doyle's own hand - more than anyone else has ever owned since the manuscript was broken up. The other
that was stolen, the first edition, was inscribed by Conan Doyle to his friend Fletcher Robinson, who inspired the story. And the
Beeton's Christmas Annual of 1887
, with the first Sherlock Holmes story, is one of only about a dozen known to exist. That alone would make it worth thousands, but this one was the presentation copy inscribed to the author's mother. That sends its value off the charts.”
“You sound like you know those books almost as well as Chalmers does,” I said.
“That's because Woollcott outbid me on the
nine years ago, screwed me out of the Fletcher Robinson
, and beat me to the punch more times than I have fingers and toes while he was scooping up all those manuscript pages.”
“That nice old man?” Lynda said.
Matheson snorted. “He's done me the dirty more than a few times over the years, and every time that nice old man went further than I ever thought a person would go just to beat me out.”
He rattled off a few examples - Chalmers bribing a taxi driver to get Matheson lost on the way to an important auction, Chalmers arriving at the home of a famous but impoverished Sherlockian just a few hours after his death to make the grieving widow a seemingly generous offer for his entire collection, Chalmers canceling Matheson's wake-up call at his hotel in Sussex, England, on the morning of an estate sale featuring some Conan Doyle letters.
It was a fascinating insight into the questionable methods of my college's benefactor, if true, but that wasn't getting the stolen goods back.
“Do you know a man named Graham Bentley Post?” I asked Matheson.
“I've certainly heard of him,” Matheson said. He explained to Lynda about the Library of Popular Culture. “Post has a reputation for being a tiger once he goes after something.”
“He's after the Chalmers Collection,” I said.
“Really? But that would be for public exhibit. Stolen books wouldn't do him any good. You want to look for a private collector.”
“Makes sense,” I conceded, looking at the collector. “Who do you know who would be that devious and determined?”
“Only one person,” Matheson said. “Woollcott Chalmers.”
“Isn't there anybody else you can think of?” Lynda said. “Maybe somebody who resented Chalmers's hardball tactics?”
“If you put it that say,” Matheson said with a smile, “I suppose I'd make a pretty good suspect myself.”
I couldn't argue with that.