Vicky waited, and eventually kicked me under the table.
“Come on!” she said. “What have you found?”
I passed the notebook back to her, open at the page I’d been staring at.
“Clarkson-Clothier?” she said, looking up at me.
“Hmm. It’s an odd name, and that’s twice I’ve seen it in the last few days. Like I say, I don’t do coincidences.”
“Well they do happen,” said Vicky with a smile. “that’s why they have a word for it.”
Everybody’s a comedian…
“So think.” she said. “Where have you been recently? What have you done? Looked through the phone book? Address book? Seen it in the paper?”
I racked my brains, but it was like trying to grab a bar of soap with wet hands.
“It’ll come to me.” I said.
Vicky finished leafing through the book for a second time.
“Definitely no Lindhoffer in there. What about the other chap. His partner in the art firm. Do you think he’s changed his name too?”
“Almost certainly,” I said. “Le Milanais is probably Henry Jones or somesuch. We’ll do some digging when we get back to the office. That sort of thing should be a matter of public record. Maybe his family are in here somewhere.”
I tapped the book that Vicky had placed on the table.
“Talking of this notebook. Two safe deposit boxes and three hours on a train?”
“It’s basically evidence, circumstantial evidence admittedly, but evidence nonetheless, of every job I pulled. Sure, I could have made it all up, but it would have been pretty damning if it had appeared in court. I made sure it wasn’t going to be found easily. Like I say, no offence, but I will be moving it.”
“What’s done is done.” I said. “You’ve served your time.”
“Well,” she said. “Most of it. What I was charged with and what’s in here doesn’t quite tally.”
I looked at her, frowning.
“Whaddya mean, doesn’t tally?”
“Well the prosecutors took into account every job they knew about. The ones with my card at the scene. But they only knew about the ones that were reported. There’s a handful that for whatever reason, the victims never spoke up about. I can only speculate as to why. Maybe the things I took shouldn’t have been there in the first place. Who knows? But let’s just say I’d prefer to keep that book away from prying eyes.”
I nodded. I‘d had a few cases in the past where I’d been asked to retrieve something, and then it turned out that the client who wanted it back wasn’t as entitled to it as they’d have me believe.
There’s a lot of crooked people out there, folks. They don’t all have a heart of gold like me.
Still. Crooks keep me in business.
I looked around to make sure there was no-one in the carriage within earshot.
“So what did happen to all the things you took? I remember looking at the original case notes, and one of the biggest problems the cops had was that you never seemed to fence any of the things that you stole. Still got them stashed away in a safe deposit box somewhere?”
She looked at me for the longest time, then stared out the window. I could almost hear the wheels in her mind turning.
Suddenly she looked back.
“I was wrong! I know two interesting things about Poughkeepsie. It’s where Sterling Morrison from the Velvet Undergound comes from.”
She put the notebook back in her bag, and the rest of the trip passed in silence.
o o o o o
Back at Grand Central we returned to the bank, where presumably Vicky returned the key for the Poughkeepsie safe deposit box back into this safe deposit box. She didn’t tell me and I didn’t ask.
Back on the subway, I looked at my watch. It was just after 2pm and my stomach was beginning to think that my throat had been cut. My survival instinct kicked in, and before 3.00 we were in a booth at the Cup ‘O’ Joe.
Lucy came over with a pad.
“Hi Chuck, what’ll it be?” she said, snapping her gum.
“Hamburger and fries please, Luce. Vicky?”
“Do you have a green salad?” she asked.
Lucy stopped chewing.
“Green salad? Like the stuff in a hamburger?”
“So you want the hamburger too?” She pronounced it ‘hamboiger’.
“No, no. Just a green salad, please.”
“Hang on…” Lucy walked over to the hatch.
“Lee! Can you make a green salad?” she hollered.
Lee’s head appeared through the hatch.
“What? Nobody comes in here for sal…”
He spotted us.
“Hi guys. Sure. Salad - no problem.”
Lucy came back over.
“You want a drink with that?” she asked.
We got two coffees.
“Say Luce, where’s Nancy? She off today?”
“Naww. She just stepped out while it was quiet. Had somethin’ to post I think. She’ll be back soon.”
She brought the coffees over, and ten minutes later, Lee came out and served us himself. I looked at Vicky’s plate. I’ve seen what passes for salad in the Cup ‘O’ Joe, and I got the distinct impression that Lee had run to the Fruit and Veg store up the street and bought everything fresh, five minutes ago. Maybe Vicky had an admirer.
He lowered his voice.
“So how’s the case going? Have we had a breakthrough yet?”
We? What’s with the we?
“Well,” I said, though a mouthful of hamburger. “The stiff was an artist called Lindhoffer, although he called himself Tony Le Stephanois for some reason. Worked with a guy called Le Milanais.”
Lee suddenly looked excited.
“Le Stephanois and Le Milanais?” he said.
“Yes,” I said, wiping mustard off my chin. “Why? Heard of them?”
“And you say they were artists.”
“That’s right.” chipped in Vicky. “They had a company called ‘Art Must Be Free.’ ”
“You sure that wasn’t just a front?” said Lee. “You sure they weren’t jewel thieves?”
I stopped with the hamburger halfway to my mouth.
Lee slid onto the seat - next to Vicky rather than me, I noticed - and lowered his voice to a whisper, despite the fact that Lucy was the only other person in the place.
“Who?” I said.
“Not who.” said Lee. “What. ‘Le Rififi Chez Les Hommes’. It’s a 1950’s film about a jewel heist. The whole robbery takes place in real time over about 30 minutes, in complete silence. It’s an absolute classic of the genre. And two of the main characters are Tony Le Stephanois and Cesar Le Milanais.”
I looked at Vicky, baffled, while Lee just looked excited.
“It’s gotta mean something, right?” he said, his enthusiasm rising by the second. “They must have been big time jewel thieves and the whole art thing was just a cover, and all the time they were laughing at the establishment. They probably got access to all sorts of places as artists, then cased the joint, then came back at night, drilled a hole though the ceiling in an homage to Jules Dassin and…”
He was interrupted by Vicky’s phone ringing. She answered, and after about thirty seconds, she hung up.
“Brenda wants to know how the case is going and what she can do to help. We have to meet her for dinner tonight, 7.30 at Pizzarella’s, corner of Fitch and Wilshaw.”
“Great,” said Lee, “that’ll give me time to get cleaned up. I’ll see you there at twenty past.”
With that he disappeared back into the kitchen.
I wondered idly to myself, as I ate. When, exactly, did I get so many partners? And just what sort of theories we were going to get when we put Lee and Brenda in a room together.
o o o o o
We got back to the office at about 4.30. Vicky fed Ella while I tried to think where I’d seen the name ‘Clarkson-Clothier’ recently. It eluded me like a tenant who was three months behind on the rent.
While I let that tick away in the back of my head, I went online and found the State Of New York court records. There was a mountain of stuff in there, but fortunately M. Le Stephanois and M. Le Milanais weren’t the first people I’d had dealings with who’d changed their name, so I had an idea of where to look. I set up a search and left it running.
I paced up and down the office.
“Sit down, big guy,” said Vicky in her best Lauren Bacall, “you’ll wear a hole in the carpet.”
I sat down, and Ella took advantage of the suddenly available lap. Within moments, she was asleep.
While I was incapacitated, Vicky sat on the couch and read through her notebook again. She looked like she was a million miles away. I guess after you’ve been an international jewel thief, selling books is a bit mundane.
After about 15 minutes, the machine beeped to say the search had finished. I rolled the chair over to the desk without waking the cat and looked to see what had come up.
Sure enough, there was a record of Carlton Lindhoffer changing his name to Tony Le Stephanois and on the same day, one Raymond Steenrod became Cesar Le Milanais.
It was nearly fifteen years ago.
o o o o o
At 7.15 we walked up Fitch towards Pizzarella’s. I could see Lee waiting outside already. Oh well. I guess four brains are better than one. He waved as we got closer, and held the door open for Vicky as we arrived.
“Hi guys!” he said. “I don’t know what your friend looks like, so I don’t know if she’s here yet.”
We couldn’t see Brenda, so went up to the bar to get a drink while we waited. Lee had pulled out all the stops: clean shirt, hair combed to within an inch of its life and smelling of something vaguely musky.
Vicky and I hadn’t changed, but then again, we hadn’t been standing over a griddle all day.
Dead on 7.30, the door opened and Brenda came bounding through. She gave Vicky a peck on the cheek, and said ‘Hi’ to me.
“Brenda this is Lee,” I said, “Lee this is Brenda. Brenda, can I get you a drink?”
“No thanks,” she said. “Let’s eat. I want to know what’s going on. Sounds like I’m way behind.”
A waiter showed us to our table, and, with Vicky and Lee chipping in, I started to get Brenda up to speed, while we picked over a bowl a bowl of olives.
“So let’s take this from the top. Ten years ago, Vicky’s reign of terror is ended by the handsome ‘tec.” I pointed at her with an olive. “And you go to jail.”
Vicky musta had a cold - it would explain the snorting noise.
I carried on.
“But before that, back around the time you started, Lindhoffer and Steenrod change their names to these French guys…”
“Which they got from the film ‘Rififi’.” said Lee, butting in.
“Right, which they got from this film about jewel thieves. You serve your time and get released. Eighteen months ago you get an anonymous note. Then nothing for a year or so.”
“Then a few months back I got another one.” said Vicky. “And then that last one about a week ago.”
“Then the gallery gets turned over.” I said. “At first it looks like it was a prank, and your card was left, but then,”
“Then the anonymous phone call to the Police!” said Brenda. I guess she was feeling left out.
“Then you got arrested, and while you were languishing in jail, Chuck came to see me and we discussed theories as to the motive behind the fiendish crime!” squeaked Brenda, who was fidgeting so much I thought she’d fall off her chair.
At that point the waiter arrived with our pizzas, and it all went quiet for a while.
I took advantage of Brenda having a mouthful of quattro formaggi to wrap it up.
“Then someone rings the bookshop and drops Vicky in it there. We think it’s Lindhoffer. Then we set Vicky and Lee up on a date. Sure enough, Lindhoffer tries to spoil the party, but in doing so, gets a knife in the ribs, courtesy of person or persons unknown, but probably the guy I saw at the phone booth just before Lindhoffer.”
I put down my slice of pizza.
“So our problems are. One. We don’t think that Vicky hit either Lindhoffer or Steenrod’s places in the past, so we don’t know what their beef is. Two. We have no idea who the knifeman is or how he fits into the picture. And three, I can’t remember where I’ve seen the name ‘Clarkson-Clothier’ before, but I’m sure it’s tied up with this somehow.”
Everybody thought hard while they finished their pizza.
“Hey, there’s another thing!” said Brenda suddenly. “We forgot about the brooch! That’s gone too. I know the Musuem are going crazy about that. They’re doing everything they can to keep it quiet, but it’s bound to get out sooner or later.”
I stared at Brenda.
“What?” she said. “Have I got cheese in my teeth?”
“No,” I said. “But now I know where I’ve seen that name before…”