© Copyright 2013 by Eric B. Ruark
(Larry is an American Studies professor and Lara, his wife, is a cancer survivor. Sometimes they detect. Not because they want to, but because it appears to be the logical thing to do at the time.)
“Darling, you didn’t bring anything home from the old Potter place, last night, did you?” Lara Armstrong glibly asked while stepping into the study where her husband, Larry, was working on his latest lecture for his American Studies class. Wearing a white dressing gown that had a 40” front slit, she entered carrying a steaming pot of coffee and two empty cups.
“No, dear. Why?” Larry asked looking up from the computer screen and casting a long glance at the amount of thigh his wife was showing.
“The Mid-Day news just reported that several million dollars worth of paintings were stolen from there last night,” she said walking over to the desk and pouring them both a cup of coffee.
“Did they say what happened?” Larry asked.
“That’s the strange part,” Lara answered. “No one knows. According to the report, when the curator’s assistant opened up this morning, everything was just as she left it last night. There were no signs of forced entry. The alarm system was still turned on. Only several of the most expensive paintings were missing.”
Lara put the coffee pot down on one of Larry’s reference books and sat on his lap. She unbuttoned the top three buttons of his oxford shirt.
“I’m not sure Professor Trachtenberg would appreciate you using his book as a hot plate,” Larry said putting his arms around her waist.
“Well, what Professor Trachtenberg doesn’t know won’t hurt him,” Lara answered. She leaned down and kissed her husband on the forehead. Lara was 22 years younger than Larry. Larry was 55 and a professor of American Studies at a small college in Baltimore, Maryland. Lara had been the manager of the dry cleaners where Larry took his clothes to be cleaned. Lara thought he was sweet and kind and a terrible dresser. It took him almost two and a half years to ask her out despite the subtle hints that she had tossed his way. As their lips touched, she marveled how someone so smart could b so dumb. The phone rang interrupting them.
“Damn,” Larry said.
“Lara leaned back and reached for the phone on the side table. She answered it then handed it to Larry. “It’s for you. It’s the police.”
“Hello,” Larry said.
“Professor Armstrong, this is Detective Simon with the Baltimore Police. Have you been watching the news?
“I take it you’re referring to the robbery at the Potter Museum?”
“Then, you’ve seen the report?”
“No. My wife just told me about it.”
“Since you were there at the board dinner last night, I was wondering if you could come down to the museum at 3 o’clock this afternoon and answer some questions.”
Larry looked a the clock in the lower corner of his computer screen. “Is it OK if I bring my wife?” he asked.
“I don’t see why not,” the Detective responded.
“We’ll see you then.” Larry hung up.
Lara gave him a little shove. “Why me?” she asked.
“Let’s see,” Larry said holding up his hand and counting down with his fingers. “Million dollar robbery; you know the history of the place; you’ll know most of the people involved; this is your chance to see a major news story from the inside ; and you say I never take you anywhere.”
“Fair enough.” Lara kissed him on the cheek. “But we take the Mustang, top down and I drive.”
Lara loved the Potter mansion/museum. Larry had written about the house several times: first, for a small, prestigious architectural magazine, then for the Journal of American Studies. His architectural article had been picked up and republished in an English architectural journal generating several more article about the design and building of the estate. (Lara had typed up all his notes.) And his article for the Journal of American Studies had satisfied the “publish or die” requirement towards his tenure.
The Potter mansion was located on the outskirts of Baltimore overlooking the Chesapeake Bay. Built in 1815 by Joshua Potter, a merchant who made his fortune in the slave trade, the house was the architectural marvel of its age. Inspired by the popular designs of Andrea Palladio, the 16th Century author of I Quattro Libri dell’ Architettura, it consisted of five building: a main rectangular section flanked by four smaller rectangular “wings” each attached to the main building by a series of long corridors like the spokes of a wheel.
The house was enormous, more than 10,000 square feet. According to Charles Sukkar-Smythe, the curator of the museum, Joshua Potter had originally built the house for entertaining with a large drawing room placed on one side of a voluminous reception hall and an equally large dining room on the other. In addition to the main house, the estate also consisted of a carriage barn with stables, a bathhouse and a landing; a dairy; a smokehouse; an ice house; and slave quarters for the slaves that had once worked in the house and on the 300 acres on which it sat.
Larry’s American Studies article, on the other hand, dealt with the family, specifically Joshua Potter’s only surviving son, Amos. Unlike his father, Amos found religion. He became a Quaker and with his Quakerism adopted the Quaker stance on Abolition. From a slaver owner’s mansion, Amos Potter turned the house into a station on the Underground Railroad and a sanctuary for runaway slaves.
If Joshua Potter was rich by the standards of his time, Amos Potter and his descendants grew even richer. Amos put money into ships and shipping. His Baltimore Clippers sailed the seas bringing home the riches of the world. His immediate heirs invested in Pennsylvania oil fields. Later generations invested heavily in steel and the western oil fields. According to Larry, the Potters had graduated from stinking rich in the early 1900s to somewhere between disgustingly rich and they don’t make Swiss banks big enough by the turn of the next century.
Larry and Lara pulled into the museum parking lot where a uniformed officer directed to the staff parking lot. From there, they were escorted by another uniformed officer up the mansion stairs and down the long reception hall to what had originally been the “sewing” room and was now the curator’s office.
Despite being frequent visitors to the Potter house, Larry and Lara were always awed by the works of art that hung along the walls. But as Larry said, “It’s not like the Potters bought these painting at Christie’s . They picked them up when the artists were young and unknown and just held on to them. Time did the rest.”
The walls of the long hall were studded with oil paintings featuring the smaller works of the Hudson River School. The dining room was reserved for the works of the American Genre artists of the 1830s and 1840s. And the drawing room featured the Post Civil War art of Innes, Wyant and Martin. As they walked down the reception hall, Larry and Lara could see that in each room several of the paintings had been removed from their frames.
When they reached the curator’s office, Larry found everyone from last night’s Directors’ Dinner already there. Curator Charles Sukkor-Smythe, impeccably dressed, pressed and starched in a dark suit with a lavender shaded shirt and matching tie, sat behind the Louis XV mahogany desk. His assistant, Mrs. Arthur Blake, stood by the marble fireplace. Larry like to think of her as a typical Maryland grandmother type with white hair, a large bosom, and black orthopedic shoes (According to Lara, there were ‘sensible’ shoes not orthopedic.) Directors George Kaplan, Albert De Quincey and Peter Kingery, the hear-no-evil, see-no-evil, but speak-any-kind-of –evil-as-long-as-it’s-behind-the-other-person’s-back trio that rubber stamped all of the curator’s motions, sat on the leather couch by the two windows that looked out over the back garden. Marcia Potter Scott sat in the chair next to the curator’s desk, smoking a cigarette and answering Detective Simon’s questions. Marcia was Larry’s age although looked closer to Lara’s which was surprising because, as Larry told Lara, she despised plastic surgery, smoked like a chimney, and spent as much time as she could out in the sun. She was very proud of her tan and wore a St. John, Santana dress to show it off to perfection. (Lara recognized the dress; Larry didn’t.) Detective Simon, on the other hand, was a heavy set black man in his late 40s. He wore a dark gray suit and walked around the room with a small notebook that looked even smaller because of his large hands. When Larry and Lara entered, Detective Simon was concentrating all of his attention on Marcia. Marcia was sitting in the guest chair next to Sukkor-Smythe’s desk. As she spoke, Sukkor-Smythe would unobtrusively reach over and empty the crystal paperweight which Marcia was using as an ashtray.
“No, I didn’t like what father had done,” Marcia said in response to a Detective Simon question. “It was a foolish idea, leaving all this art and our home to the city as a museum and only leaving my brother, George, and me some piddling little bequests. Why, we even tried to break his will.”
Larry knew that Marcia Potter Scott wasn’t telling any secrets. The siblings attempt to break the will had made many of the national papers and all of the national tabloids.
Marcia Scott and her brother, George, were direct descendants of Joshua Potter. They had grown up in that house. It was only natural that they should look upon everything in it as theirs as , once upon a time, it had been… right up until the time their father, Mark Potter, pulled the antique Persian rugs right out from under them.
To Larry’s way of thinking, they really had nothing to cry about. When Mark Potter gave everything in the house away, he took ALL the tax deductions allowed by law and secured the rest of his money in irrevocable trusts. Mark had never been big on sharing and all the political talk of ‘redistributing’ the wealth was anathema to him. Mark was a Potter through and through. He knew how to play the game. By giving away everything and taking the tax write-offs, at his death, Mark Potter has assured his son and daughter tax-free incomes of over $10-million a year apiece for the rest of their lives. Larry found it mind-boggling that Marcia and George considered that amount of money “piddling” and had actually tried to break the will.
“So why did you come back?” Detective Simon asked.
“We grew up here,” Marcia answered. “George and I played hide-n-seek here with our nanny and the servants. This house has a lot of memories for us.”
“Where’s your brother now?” Detective Simon asked.
“He’s on a plane to South Africa,” she answered. “He’s a professional photographer and had to go on assignment for some magazine.” She turned to Charles Sukkor-Smythe. “You remember him telling you when you sent him the invitation that he could only stay for a short time.”
Sukkor-Smythe turned to Detective Simon. “That’s right. He said that he could only stay for soup and salad since he had to catch a long flight.”
Marcia Scott continued, “After my brother left, he called me from the airport to complain about the long wait because of all the added security. You can check my cell phone log.” She reached into her purse and handed Detective Simon her cell phone “There’s his number. You see, he called at about 9:30 last night.”
Detective Simon took the phone and looked at the incoming call log and then he pushed the redial button.
“Hello, is this George Potter?… I’m Detective Simon… No, nothing has happened to your sister… I’m using her phone… I’m sorry to tell you that there was a robbery at the museum last night… no, no one was hurt… What time did you leave?… Did you see anything suspicious outside as you were leaving?… When are you expected back in the States?…. Not for that long?… I’m going to need a set of your fingerprints… Yes, the embassy should be able to do that for you… Yes. Have them forward them to me, Detective Simon, care of the Baltimore Police Department… Yes…. Thank you.” He terminated the call and handed the phone back to Marcia.
Detective Simon turned to Larry and Lara. “And you are?”
“Larry and Lara Armstrong,” Larry answered. “We spoke on the phone a couple of hours ago. I was the keynote speaker last night at the Directors’ dinner.”
“He’s also the unofficial Potter family historian,” Sukkar-Smythe added.
“Hello, Larry, Lara,” Marcia said.
“Sorry to see you under these circumstances,” Lara said.
“Shit happens,” Marcia answered.
“That’s a hell of an attitude,” Detective Simon said.
“Well, it’s not like they’re my paintings any more,” Marcia snapped. “They were part of the trust that daddy gave away. I’m sure the trust had them insured. It’s their problem, now.” She turned to Sukkar-Smythe. “I’m sorry if I sound cold, Charles. But I just want you to know that I don’t envy your position at the moment.” She stubbed out her cigarette in the crystal and lit another.
Charles Sukkor-Smythe put on a brave face and nodded slowly. Lara pulled Larry’s arm and whispered in his ear drawing Detective Simon’s attention.
Detective Simon turned to them. “And where were the two of you last night?” he asked.
“Well, after leaving here,” Larry said, “I went home and waited for Lara.”
“And you were?” Detective Simon asked Lara.
“I was with my breast cancer support group until 11:30 last night,” she answered. “I can give their names and phone numbers if you’d like.”
Detective Simon’s eyes immediately went to Lara’s chest. “Uhmm, excuse me,.” Detective Simon reddened with embarrassment.
“It’s all right, Detective,” Lara said. “Don’t feel embarrassed. It’s a natural reaction.”
“And from 11:30 until this morning?” Detective Simon asked trying to quickly get back on the subject.
“We were alone, together,” Larry answered.
Detective Simon turned to Sukkor–Smythe. “Now that you’re all here, why don’t you tell me everything that happened last night.”
“Well,” Sukkor-Smythe began, “it was our usual semi-annual board meeting with two exceptions. This time we invited Marcia Scott and George Potter to be our guests, and in honor of their visit, I asked Professor Armstrong to give a little talk about the museum for their benefit. He’s published several articles on the museum and the Potter family. As Marcia said, George Potter put in a quick appearance. He stayed for cocktails and hors d’ouerves then had Mrs. Blake call him a cab. He needed to get to BWI to catch a shuttle to Dulles where he was going to catch the flight to South Africa…”
“…He needed to be there a couple of hours early because of the added security and the fact that he had a lot of photo equipment that had to be hand checked through security and customs,” Marcia interrupted.
“Quite so,” Sukkor-Smythe said. “After he left, we had our dinner. Larry spoke, and rather well, I might add, then we had our board meeting. Marcia objected to some of the things that the museum was doing. The board listened to her and took her comments under advisement.”
“What sort of things did you object to?” Detective Simon asked turning to Marcia.
“They’re thinking of selling my father’s collection of late 20th Century memorabilia,” Marcia said.
“It’s really the kind of thing you find on e-Bay,” Sukkor-Smythe said, “and has so place here in this kind of museum. Ask Larry.”
Detective Simon turned to Larry.
“It’s a question of poetics and politicized culture in museum displays and what cultural assumptions you want the people who view your museum collection to make,” Larry said. He took a deep breath and Lara recognized the beginning of a lecture.
“English, Larry, English,” she said.
“Oh, right. It basically boils down to the fact that the stuff in the back room doesn’t fit in with what’s on display,” Larry said.
Marcia lit another cigarette. “You know, at one time, there were a lot of people who considered all that priceless furniture out there just to be old junk,” she said waiving her hand in the general direction of the front of the building.
“Marcia, this is different,” Sukkor-Smythe said..
“The only difference is a couple of hundred years,” Marcia countered.
“How many of you have access to the pass codes to get in here?” Detective Simon asked trying to head off what appeared to be an unfinished argument.
“Only myself and Mrs. Blake.” Sukkor-Smythe nodded to the elderly woman standing by the marble fireplace.
“And you reported the theft?” Detective Simon asked turning to Mrs. Blake after checking his notes.
“As soon as I found the empty picture frames,” she said.
Detective Simon consulted his notes again. “You called this in at 5:30 am. What time do you usually get to work?”
“Normally not until 8:30, but last night was unusual,” Mrs. Blake answered.
“How so?” Detective Simon asked.
“The Directors’ Dinner is always held in the main dining room,” Mrs. Blake explained. “We use the original English silver, ceramics and glassware. For the dinner, the barriers are removed so that the directors and our guests have full access to all the original art and furniture. We try to make it appear as if they were actually dining in the antebellum period. The food is prepared by a local caterer to original recipes that were found in the pantry records or based on invoices that the kitchen staff kept from the various food providers in the area. Then, some of it is just guess-work since the plantation grew a lot of its own food.”
“Which doesn’t explain why you came in early,” Detective Simon said.
“Of course,” Mrs. Blake said somewhat flustered. “Despite the private function last night, this place is still a museum that’s open to the public. I came in early to make sure that everything was ready for us to open as usual at 9:30 am. We have lots of school children that come through here on prearranged tours.”
”And what’s your normal routine when you come in?” Detective Simon asked.
“Well, I turn off the alarm by punching in the correct code and leaving my thumb print on the number pad by the back door. Then, I unlock the door and enter. Then, I go to my office and call the alarm company to let them know that it was really me that unlocked the door…”
“You call the alarm company?” Detective Simon asked.
“It’s a double safety procedure,” Sukkor-Smythe explained. “We not only have to disengage the alarm, but we also have to call the security company to let them know that only an authorized person has disarmed the system.”
“How about leaving the building?” Detective Simon asked.
“Pretty much the same, but in reverse,” Sukkor-Smythe explained. “We call the alarm company; tell them that we are about to engage the alarm; close and lock the door; then engage the alarm. Once the alarm is engaged, the opening of any door will set it off.”
“What about the windows?” Detective Simon asked.
“All the windows in this museum are hermetically sealed because of the antique furniture and art. The museum is totally climate controlled. Any rupture in any of the seals would set off the alarm.”
“If anyone was locked in, could they get out without setting off the alarm” Detective Simon asked.
“I don’t see how,” Sukkor-Smythe said. “If anyone opened the door without first disconnecting the alarm from the outside, the alarm would go off. If anyone called the security company before opening the door and turning off the alarm, the security company would treat that breach of protocol as a break-in.”
Detective Simon made a few more notes on his pad. “Let me tell you my problem,” he said to no one in particular. “Last night all of you, except for Mrs. Armstrong, had dinner here. After dinner, you all left, leaving Mrs. Blake to supervise the caterers clean up. After the caterers left, Mrs. Blake closed up shop and turned on the alarm. Sometime between then and 5:30 this morning, several painting worth several millions of dollars were stolen from this museum. Now, according to both Mrs. Blake and Mr. Sukkor-Smythe, it is impossible to get in without the proper code and more importantly, it is impossible to get out without setting off the alarm once it has been activated. However, there is one way of getting out of here without setting off any alarm… and that’s if someone lets you out…”
“…Lets you out,” interrupted Marcia Scott. “Why that would mean that the thief had help.”
“It wouldn’t be the first time,” Detective Simon said. “Someone who had access to the codes and knew the procedures must have let the thief or thieves out when she came in this morning.” He looked directly over at Mrs. Blake.
“I don’t understand,” Mrs. Blake said. “Are you accusing me of stealing the paintings?” She reached out suddenly and grabbed on to the mantle of the fireplace. Larry, who was standing nearby, quickly took her by the arm and guided her over to the sofa and sat her down beside the three board members.
As Larry escorted Mrs. Blake to a seat, Sukkor-Smythe said, “That’s ridiculous. Mrs. Blake has been with me for over 10-years, not only here, but at my previous position with the Smithsonian.”
The door opened and one of Detective Simon’s assistants stepped in and handed him a slip of paper. Detective Simon read it. “Good,” he said. “Show him in.”
The assistant left and returned a few moments later with a distinguished looking man in his mid-thirties dressed in a dark suit. Although Larry didn’t know him, it was obvious that others in the room did.
“Good morning, Charles, Mrs. Blake, uncle Albert,” the man said in a deep melodious voice. As he spoke, he turned to each person he addressed.
“D-d-david, what are you d-d-doing here?” Albert De Quincey asked from the couch.
“I assume it has something to do with the theft,” David answered.
“I asked him,” Detective Simon explained. “For those of you who don’t know, David Makepeace, here is the CEO of the alarm company that services this museum.”
“Apparently, he is also, Albert’s nephew,” Larry said looking between the two of them.
“That’s right,” David said. “But before you all jump to any presuppositions about nepotism, my company also provides security for several museums in the Baltimore/Washington corridor as well as several of the private testing labs located around the Beltway. Because of Uncle Albert, here, we provide top-of-the-line security for the Potter House for far less than what we would normally charge for that level of service… and, except for the events of last night, my company has a perfect record. This theft will severely damage our image with our public.” He turned to Detective Simon. “If there is anything I can do to help, just ask. To say that I have a vested interest in what happens would be an understatement.”
“Apparently, Detective Simon here was just about to arrest Mrs. Blake for being an accessory to the crime,” Larry said.
Makepeace looked at Mrs. Blake sitting next to his uncle on the couch and then turned to Detective Simon. “You have got to be kidding me,” he said.
“When you’ve been a cop for as long as I have, it wouldn’t seem that strange,” Detective Simon said. “But, Professor Armstrong here is jumping the gun. I could just as easily build a case around you and Mr. De Quincey, here.”
“You c-c-can’t be s-s-serious,” De Quincey said. The other directors, Blake and Kingery moved a few inches away from him on the couch as if to avoid guilt by proximity.
“Certainly I can,” Detective Simon said. “The first thing you learn in this business is to do your homework. Mr. Sukkor-Smythe, you’ve told me that only two people had the access codes to the museum, you and Mrs. Blake. You forgot a third person, Mr. Makepeace here. He could have given them to his uncle who could have used them to enter the building last night after Mrs. Blake had locked up.”
“T-t-that is ab-b-bsurd,” De Quincey said.
“ Oh, really?” Detective Simon said. “Mr. Makepeace, who was on your security desk, last night… and be careful, I already know the answer.”
“I was,” Makepeace answered.
“And how hard would it have been for you and your uncle to work together to get into this building?” Detective Simon asked.
“Well, if you put it that way, it would have been relatively easy,” Makepeace answered.
“D-d-david!” De Quincey said.
“Oh, uncle Albert, relax,” Makepeace said calmly. “In my company, even the watchers are watched.” He turned to Detective Simon. “What you are suggesting could be done. But why would we do it?”
“For the money, of course,” Detective Simon answered.
“Well, I guess you’ll have to pull our bank records to find out,” Makepeace said.
“I’ve already requested a warrant,” Detective Simon answered.
“I don’t mean to interfere, but there might be another explanation,” Larry said.
“If there is, I’m open to hear it,” Detective Simon said.
Lara laughed. “Give’m Hell, Larry,” she said. Larry smiled back.
“Mrs. Blake, last night… the caterers… did they use the old fashioned wood stove in the kitchen?” Larry asked.
“Of course not. They prepared the food elsewhere and brought it here in their van,” she answered.
“That means that they had to go in and out of the back of the building on several occasions,” Larry said.
“Yes,” Mrs. Blake answered.
“So, for the duration of the dinner and up until you left for the night, the alarm was turned off,” Larry said.
“But the paintings weren’t stolen during the dinner,” Marcia Scott said. “They were hanging all around us while we ate and drank.”
“That’s right. They weren’t stolen during dinner. They were stolen after Mrs. Blake locked up.”
“Then how did the thief or thieves get out with them if she didn’t help them or if they didn’t have help from the security company?” Detective Simon asked.
“What makes you think that the thief left with them?” Larry asked.
“Are you trying to tell me that the paintings are still here in the museum?” Detective Simon asked.
“Well, if not IN the museum, at least, very close by,” Larry said. “Look at it this way: who gains the most by stealing the paintings? The thief won’t be able to sell them. They are too well known. Every one of the stolen paintings has been officially cataloged and there isn’t an art collector in the world who doesn’t know how to do due diligence on a work of art. No fool in his right mind would attempt to buy something stolen from the Potter Collection. But what if you weren’t stealing them to sell them? What if you were stealing them to get them back?”
“Get them back?” Detective Simon said as if trying to get his mind around the idea. “But they’ve never been lost,” he said after a moment.
“Sure they were,” Larry said. “Weren’t they, Marcia.”
“I’m sure I don’t know what you’re talking about,” Marcia Scott said shaking another cigarette from her pack.
“You said it yourself,” Larry said. “You grew up in this house. You played hide-n-seek here. Everything in this place… these were your things and your father took them away from you and gave them to a group of strangers to take care of. I’ll bet you and George even played under the dining room table when you were kids.”
Marcia was silent.
“Just after Lara and I came in, you handed Detective Simon your cell phone to show him that your brother had called from the airport last night,” Larry said.
“That’s right, he did,” Marcia said.
“I’m sure he did,” Larry answered. “Only, when Detective Simon hit the redial and spoke with him, I’ll bet you he was a lot closer than on a plane heading to South Africa.”
“What?” Detective Simon said.
“It was something Lara reminded me of earlier when she whispered to me,” Larry said. “You can’t call or receive calls using your cell phone from flights that travel over water.”
“But I use my cell phone on planes all the time,” Sukkor-Smythe said.
“Sure,” Larry said, “when you are flying between here and San Francisco or Chicago, where cell calls can be picked up by one of the numerous towers you’re flying over, if you are fortunate to lock on to one. Only there are no cell phone towers in the middle of the South Atlantic. Transoceanic planes aren’t equipped to handle cell phone calls. In another two or three years, the technology will allow for it. But not now. Now, if you want to make a call, you have to use the plane’s radio-phone.” Larry turned to Detective Simon. “You were right about the alarm system. Once you’re locked in, you’re locked in until someone lets you out. But then, what’s to stop you from waiting until the museum opens and leaving as if you are one of the paying customers?”
“But how would you get the paintings out?” Detective Simon asked.
“Once you’ve taken them off their wooden thing’a-ma-bobs, all you’d have to do is roll them up and hide them under your coat,” Larry said. “All George would need is the time and space to do it.”
“Are you suggesting that George Potter is still here?” Detective Simon asked.
“That’s ridiculous,” Marcia said.
“BWI is no more than 45 minutes away,” Larry said. “George could easily have taken a cab to the airport, called you and then taken a cab back or rented a car and driven back or maybe you planted a car there for him. However he did it, all he had to do was get back here and sneak into the house while the rest of us were having dinner. Mrs. Blake has already told us the place was unlocked. Marcia, you and George lived here for what? … Some twenty-five years? I’m sure you both know ways in and out of these buildings just like a couple of kids who played hide-n-seek here would know. With the alarm turned off, George could have come in a side door or a back door or even the front door. Nobody would have been looking. Then all he had to do was hide himself while we were eating.”
“My men have been all through this house,” Detective Simon said. “Nothing.”
“No offense, Detective, but Maryland was a slave state before the Civil War. Don’t you think the rich, abolitionist Amos Potter would have built more than a couple of Priest Holes to hide runaway slaves from their pursuers? Even with dogs, I sincerely doubt your men would have found anything. If you want those paintings, start looking for some secret rooms hidden behind these walls.”
“Why waste your time looking,” Lara said. “There might be a faster way.” Everyone turned to look at her. Lara turned to look at Marcia. “Marcia, you know all the old hiding places around here. Where would you hide if you wanted to stay out of everybody’s way?”
Marcia stubbed her cigarette out violently in the crystal paperweight. “Oh, all right,” she said. “There’s a big Priest Hole behind the far wall in the root cellar.”
“Lead the way,” Detective Simon said.
Marcia led them out of the old sewing room and down the hall towards the kitchen area. She led them down the stairs and into the root cellar. There was a floor to ceiling cupboard that took up most of the far wall. “Family legend says that Amos Potter used to keep this cupboard filled with all kinds of spices to confuse the blood hounds that the slave catchers brought with them.” She reached up and hit a toggle hidden between the cupboard and the wall. The cupboard swung open revealing the stolen paintings and a young man in his late teens. Everyone froze.
“Who in the Hell are you?” Larry asked.
“He was one of the waiters from last night,” Marcia said.
“He’s also Mrs. Blake’s grand nephew,” Sukkor-Smythe said.
Everyone looked around. “Where is Mrs. Blake?” Detective Simon asked.
“S-s-s-she was r-r-right behind us,” Albert De Quincey said.
Detective Simon reached to his belt and removed a small radio. “Attention everyone: Stop Mrs. Arthur Blake from leaving the parking lot.”
A few moments later, “Got her,” came crackling back over the set. The police escorted Mrs. Blake back to the sewing room where, when she saw her grand nephew in handcuffs, she confessed.
Faced with retirement and the prospect of living on her meager savings and Social Security, she had masterminded the heist. She had asked the caterers to hire her grand nephew as a perk for getting the catering contract. They did. He left with them, but came back before Mrs. Blake had closed the museum for the night. She let him back in then locked up. She had known about the Priest Hole and told him how to get to it. After the place was dark, he came out and took the pre-selected paintings down to the Priest Hole, locked himself in and waited for the museum to return to business as usual. The plan was for him to walk out with the paying customers with the paintings rolled up under his coat.
After she confessed, Larry walked up to Detective Simon. “You were right all along,” Larry said.
“That’s why I get paid the big bucks,” Detective Simon said. “But don’t take it so hard. You nailed that Priest Hole thing. They almost got away with it.”
“But I don’t understand. I was sure it was George Potter.” Larry turned to Marcia. “Marcia, he can’t be on a plane to South Africa. So where is he?”
“Probably on the beach in Ocean City, by now. He was so upset about losing the house and everything that he couldn’t bear to stay for more than a few minutes.”
“You know lying to the police is a prosecutable offense,” Detective Simon said.
“So sue me,” Marcia said digging in her Gucci purse for another pack of cigarettes.
After they were dismissed by Detective Simon, Larry and Lara walked out to their car. As they walked, Larry noticed that Lara was a little stand-offish. “What’s wrong?” he asked.
“I’m mad at you,” she said.
“Why?” Larry asked.
“Well, if you don’t know, I’m certainly not going to tell you,” Lara said.
“How about a hint?” Larry asked.
“You should have known about not being able to use your cell phone in an airplane over the ocean,” she said. “I shouldn’t have had to tell you.”
“Oh,” Larry said.
“That’s right,” Lara said. “That means that when you flew to England last month for that three-day conference, you didn’t once try to call me from the airplane, otherwise, you would have known. What were you doing that you forgot to tell me?”
“I wasn’t doing anything,” Larry said defensively. “I started re-reading Larry Lauter’s book on Emerson’s essays and before I knew it, I was at Heathrow.”
“Oh… so a book is more important to you than I am,” Lara said smiling.
Realizing that she was teasing him and that he wasn’t going to win this argument anyway, Larry opted for the next best thing.
“How about I apologize by taking you down to your favorite restaurant in Annapolis?” he asked.
“You’re so easy,” Lara said laughing.
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Hide ‘N Seek is one of the stories included in the CARD SHARP and other stories available as a kindle and nook download.