Authors: Dan Andriacco
Tags: #Sherlock Holmes, #mystery, #crime, #british crime, #sherlock holmes novels, #sherlock holmes fiction
Out of Control
The impact of Lynda Teal's gaze - those wide, brown eyes flecked with gold - is one of the strongest natural forces known to mankind. Only with great effort did I withstand the soulful expression she laid on me.
“I thought you'd send Maggie Barton,” I blurted out.
“Sorry to disappoint you,” Lynda said. “Maggie broke her ankle in a parachuting accident. You know Ben worked late last night. I didn't have anybody else to send but me.”
Maggie Barton is almost seventy and has hair the color and consistency of pink cotton candy. I made a mental note to send her a get-well card.
“I'm very sorry, Ms. Teal,” I said coolly, “but if you want to ask about the theft yesterday I don't have anything to add to what I told Ben Silverstein last night. I'd be glad to get back to you, though, after I talk to Campus Security.”
“That's not what this is about and you know it.” She did not actually add an unladylike “a-hole,” but that was implied. “I want to discuss
.” Did I mention that her throaty voice drives me wild?
“Ms. Teal, there is no
,” I said with determined reserve. “You made that quite clear four weeks and two days ago.”
Not that I've been counting.
“Damn it, quit calling me Ms. Teal! I want us to still be friends.”
I didn't think she meant “with privileges.” I'd heard this tune before, back when she'd given me the old heave-ho the previous month. I hadn't seen her much since, but I'd never stopped thinking about her.
“Of course we're friends.” I smiled like a politician while my stomach did gymnastics. This wasn't going well.
“Like hell we are! You've been avoiding me ever since we broke up, Jeff.”
“I distinctly remember that it wasn't my idea to stop seeing each other.”
She threw up her hands. “If you hadn't been so controlling, so self-righteous, so neurotic-” Lynda is half-Italian and sometimes expressive.
“Excuse me,” I said, cutting off the litany of my finer points as I moved away from her. “I have to deal with the broadcast media.”
The team from TV4 Action News had just appeared at the top of the escalator.
Saved by the bell.
“You're not getting off the hook that easily, Jeff Cody,” Lynda called after me. “I'm going to be here all weekend!”
The photographer sent by the Cincinnati TV station was an old hand named Sam Gardner who seemed to have taken on a permanent lean from thirty years of lugging television cameras, starting when they were a lot heavier than they are now. He'd acquired other baggage as well - a heavy dose of gray in his hair, a perpetual scowl on his ebony face, and a cynical outlook on the world at large. He was known in the trade as Smiling Sam. I liked him.
“New intern for you, Cody,” he said without bothering to look at me. “You can break her in.” Knowing Sam, I didn't think the smutty double meaning was an accident.
She said her name was Mandy Petrowski but she was thinking of changing it to Preston or Peters or Prescott and what did I think?
I thought she should change the Mandy, but I said, “On you, Petrowski works just fine.”
She flashed me a smile without a hint of a flirt in it. I felt ancient.
Mandy was no more than twenty-two and a senior at Miami University in Oxford, Ohio. But she seemed to have all the right ingredients for a career in TV journalism - lush auburn hair done up in anchorwoman style, perfect teeth, a generous mouth, a cute nose, a clear-channel voice devoid of accent, and a Saks Fifth Avenue wardrobe.
Channel 4 viewers wouldn't get to enjoy any of that, however. As an intern working during spring break, Mandy wouldn't show up on the air. She would ask the questions, the videographer would record the answers, and the anchorman would read the lead-in, probably written by Mandy and re-written by somebody else.
She held up a clipping of Ben Silverstein's theft story. “This kind of changes things.”
No flies on you, kid.
“Maybe a little,” I conceded, “but I was hoping it wouldn't distract from the main story of our colloquium and the official presentation of the Woollcott Chalmers Collection.”
“I'm sure you were. I'd like to talk to you on-camera about the theft and the campus police investigation.”
“Fine. But first why don't you get a few minutes of Woollcott Chalmers talking? That was the original plan, and he's up next. Besides, he'll probably say something about last night's incident.”
She bought it and had Smiling Sam set up his equipment at the back of the Hearth Room while Al Kane was taking questions from the audience after his talk.
When I was sure that everything was under control, I ducked down the hall and called Campus Security. I know that using a cell phone so much might cause me to have a tumor the size of an orange in my head some day, but it's an occupational hazard.
“So what have you got?” I asked Ed Decker.
“We haven't got jack.”
“Would you care to elaborate?”
“Not for the press.”
“Then I'll tell them you're working on it.”
“That would be accurate.”
I found voicemail messages left on my phone by two of the other three Cincinnati TV stations. I returned both calls quickly and confirmed the AP story. Neither pressed me for on-camera comments.
Back in the Hearth Room, the TV light was on but the camera wasn't whirling yet. Dr. Noah Queensbury was on his feet, apparently engaged in a dialogue with Kane.
“... just as there are those who believe that Francis Bacon or a Jewish woman or someone else wrote Shakespeare's plays,” he was saying. “However, the notion that Dr. Watson's literary agent, A. Conan Doyle, wrote the doctor's accounts of Sherlock Holmes should not be given credence at this colloquium.”
The assertion was greeted with some laughter, but more cheers. Kane shrugged it off.
“I won't debate you, Dr. Queensbury,” he said. “Let me just say that anyone who's read my novel,
The Baker Street Caper
, knows how I feel. And anyone who hasn't read it - ought to. It's on sale at the back of the room.”
If it was a competition for getting laughs, Kane won. That set the stage nicely for him to clear out and let Chalmers take the lectern after a brief “man-who-needs-no-introduction” introduction from Mac.
Even though he used his cane to walk, Chalmers seemed younger, more vigorous as he stood at the front of the room. Perhaps he was even a touch defiant as he blinked his blue eyes in the glare of the TV lights.
“I'm sure you're all expecting me to say something about the theft yesterday,” he said, “so I'll do that and get it over with. As you all know by now, some very valuable pieces of the Woollcott Chalmers Collection were taken. But I don't want anybody to lose sight of the fact that much more remains. The original sampling that was to be on display today is in a room sealed by the police. However, Professor McCabe and I worked with a campus librarian early this morning to put together an impromptu substitute in the rare book room of the Bennish Library. I promise you a full measure of unique and interesting items. No thief is going to spoil our weekend!”
With my brain rattling from the thunderous applause that greeted Chalmers's pronouncement, I wondered if what he and Mac had done was such a good idea. The specter of hordes of Sherlockians overrunning the rare book room by no means comforted me.
Several rows in front of where I was standing at the back of the room, Lynda leaned over to whisper to Hugh Matheson. I shifted my focus to Renata Chalmers, who was revving up the laptop set up in the middle of the room. Her husband used a remote control to click to the first PowerPoint slide. It showed a large room stuffed with books and all manner of other materials, apparently the Woollcott Chalmers Collection in its natural habitat.
“And now for a few observations on the pursuit of Sherlockiana,” Chalmers said. “In four decades of collecting, I have had many disappointments, but-”
DA-da-da-da - DA-da-da!
Indiana Jones. Apparently I had accidently switched my phone from vibrate to ringer mode when I returned it to my pocket. Heads turned my way from all around the room, but Chalmers talked on without a pause (“-many more triumphs”) while I quickly exited through the rear door near me at the back. In the hallway I pulled out the phone to see who was calling. The little screen was filled with a photo of Darth Vader.
“Good morning, Ralph,” I said. “I thought you'd call earlier.”
“I only just now bought a newspaper, Cody, having waited in vain all morning for my subscription copy to show up on the lawn.”
has a robust website for a small paper, and Lynda is pushing it strongly into social media as well with an active Facebook fan page. But apparently Ralph doesn't read the online version. The tone of his voice was accusatory, as though it were somehow my fault that he didn't get his paper. I hadn't stolen it, although that wasn't a bad idea. I made a mental note.
“Listen,” Ralph went on, as if I had a choice, “you let that story get completely out of control. âA case for Sherlock Holmes' - this is just the sort of sensationalist nonsense that I feared.”
“That little thing? Probably nobody even saw it.”
“You know bloody well it dominated page one! I'll be getting phone calls from the corporate sponsors about this as soon as they get off the golf course.”
“Appeal to their sense of humor.”
“They have none. Not when it comes to money. These are businessmen who have shareholders or partners to answer to. When they put up the funds to maintain this Chalmers Collection they didn't expect some of it to be stolen out from under us almost immediately.”
“Then you should have had your curator-”
“Cody, you've got to get control of this thing. We need some positive press.”
“I'm working on it. A TV4 crew from Cincinnati is taping Chalmers right now. I'm going to try to get them to stay for the presentation this afternoon, so don't forget to comb your hair.”
With Father Pirelli in Rome for an important conference of his religious order, the Congregation of the Transfiguration of Our Lord, Ralph was on deck to accept the Chalmers Collection on our president's behalf at the ceremony.
“Hmmm,” Ralph said, “that certainly would be helpful publicity. And I'll be sure to mention the corporate sponsors. Perhaps, Cody, you can stave off the disaster in this situation after all. You might even save your job.”
Ralph's last three words were still ringing in my ear as he hung up the phone. He was happy for the moment, but I wasn't. I knew only too well that you could never count on a story going the way you hoped. Ralph's big moment could just as easily show up on the cutting room floor as on the six o'clock news. Even worse, it could be a disaster if he got caught saying the wrong thing on camera.
Smile for the Camera
“There are only three limitations to collecting Sherlockiana or anything else,” Woollcott Chalmers said, leaning forward against the lectern. “They are time, space and money. The most precious of these is time. I have taken up enough of yours. Thank you for your interest.”
Renata Chalmers took her huge purse off her lap and hopped up to power down the laptop. Smiling Sam waved his camera around the room to get shots of the crowd clapping.
I met Mandy Petrowski in the corridor.
“I could go on camera now if you like,” I told her, “but it's going to be too noisy to do it here. Chalmers will probably be taking questions from the audience for another fifteen minutes.”
But the mind inside that beautiful head of hers was going off in a different direction altogether. “How about if we get B-roll inside the room where the stuff was stolen?”
B-roll is video. I shook my head. “Sorry, no can do. It's been sealed by the police. Why don't you hang around for the ceremony where Chalmers officially presents his collection to the college? It's been moved to the library and some of the collection will be on display there.”
“Well...” Her hair bounced like a Slinky when she cocked her head in thought.
“Our provost will be there,” I prodded. “We consider this a very important event.”
“We don't have time for that crap,” Smiling Sam said, coming up behind me. “There's a two o'clock assignment back in Cincinnati.”
So much for Ralph's TV debut.
“Then maybe I can get Mr. Chalmers to go over to the library with us as soon as he finishes here,” I suggested. “He and his wife can walk you through the display. I guarantee that'll look better on the tube than the talking head of him giving his lecture. And the outside of the library would make a nice backdrop to shoot me talking about the police investigation.”
“You've got all the angles covered, haven't you?” Mandy said, laughing.
“I try. Let me round up Mr. Chalmers.”
I slipped back into the Hearth Room. Sebastian McCabe, his immense body scrunched into a chair to the side of the podium, saw me immediately. He stirred himself to raise one eyebrow like a question mark, then returned his attention to Hugh Matheson at the center of the room. If this was the amateur sleuth at work, Max Cutter had nothing to worry about.
Matheson was standing at his chair.
“... taste and selection have anything to do with it, Woollcott?” he was asking. “Or are all your efforts simply focused on acquiring things that other collectors want simply because they want them?”
Chalmers forced a twisted smile onto his face and froze it there. “I only go after what I want, Hugh,” he said in a surprisingly strong voice. “Trouble is, I want everything.” Some chuckles responded around the room. “And as you well know, I usually get it.”
“What a shame for you that getting isn't always the same as keeping,” Matheson retorted.
I was glad the TV camera was no longer recording the action as Matheson sat down. The look Chalmers gave him was venomous.
* * *
The Lee J. Bennish Memorial Library is one of the oldest buildings on campus, a solid brick Georgian structure with ivy climbing up the sides. As I'd promised, it made a picturesque background for my on-camera appearance as college spokesman. Since Mandy and I had discussed the questions in advance - and I'd even suggested a few of them - there were no surprises. I described what was taken and how the loss was discovered.
“How much were the stolen items worth?” Mandy asked.
“The loss is incalculable, really, because everything taken was unique. But it's safe to say they were worth several hundred thousand dollars to a collector. The college had the entire collection insured, of course.” Well, that was true, but nobody had any idea yet how much the insurer would cough up for the stolen goods, which had not been separately insured. Have you ever tried to reach
insurance company on a weekend?
“How did the thief get in?”
“That is still under investigation by Campus Security.”
“Do they have any leads?”
“The investigation is ongoing.”
After the interview we found Woollcott and Renata Chalmers already in the rare book room with our young curator, Gene Pfannenstiel. The place smelled like it had been closed up since about 1840. It was roughly the size of the Hearth Room, but felt even larger because of the thirty-foot ceiling and a balcony running around all four sides. Guards seemed to be all over the place - at least today - which eased my mind considerably about security.
Highlights from the Chalmers Collection were set up in the center of the room, many of them in glass cases - this time locked. There were foreign language editions of the Holmes canon, comic books, miniatures, artwork, statuary, dolls, and playbills.
“We had to kind of slap it together this morning,” Gene apologized.
“This is incredible!” Mandy bubbled. “How can there be so much stuff about Sherlock Holmes?”
“Oh, what you see is but a small sampling of the Woollcott Chalmers Collection,” Chalmers assured her. He seemed to enjoy saying the full name. “I've given forty years of my life to this.”
his life,” Renata said dryly.
“Can we get on with this?” Smiling Sam said as he turned on the camera light, an unlit cigarette dangling from his lip. I think he needed a nicotine break.
Chalmers launched a guided tour of the display, showing a surprising adeptness at honing in on the materials that would play on television better than some beat-up old books.
“This playbill,” he said, picking it up, “advertises the American actor William Gillette as Sherlock Holmes in the first production of his famous melodrama. It was Gillette whose preference for a curved pipe on stage fixed forever the public idea of what a Sherlock Holmes pipe looks like. That's his inscription in the corner.
“This battered tin dispatch box is just like the one where Dr. Watson kept his accounts of the adventures for which the world was not yet prepared. And these six plaster busts of Napoleon represent the central mystery in âThe Adventure of the Six Napoleons.' But this hunk of sculptured wax over here is one of my favorites.”
With his cane he pointed to a colorless wax bust that was clearly supposed to be Sherlock Holmes.
“It was made by Oscar Meunier of Grenoble for Sherlock Holmes of Baker Street,” Chalmers said, which was pure B.S. but I could see Mandy was eating it up. “Holmes used it to foil an assassination attempt by Colonel Sebastian Moran in âThe Adventure of the Empty House.' Moran had planned to shoot the detective at night from across the street, using an air gun specially manufactured by the blind mechanic Von Herder. His aim at the silhouette in the window of Holmes's flat was, as you see, impeccable.”
Chalmers pointed to a clean hole in the forehead of the bust.
“Awesome,” Mandy said.
As Smiling Sam swept the display with his camera to give an overview of its size and scope, I noticed a particularly handsome violin in one of the display cases.
“Is that yours, Renata?” I remembered that she played the instrument professionally.
“I wouldn't dare touch it,” she said with a sparkling laugh. “It's a genuine Stradivarius, probably worth more than what was stolen yesterday.”
“What's it got to do with Sherlock Holmes?” Mandy asked.
“His own violin was a Strad,” Chalmers explained. “He bought it from a pawn broker in Tottenham Court Road for fifty-five shillings. This one cost me considerably more.”
Forty years and many thousands of dollars Chalmers had spent amassing his collection. How much it must have hurt him, I thought, to see part of it stolen. After Mandy and Smiling Sam had left, I was still thinking about how this whole business had affected Chalmers.
Maybe that was the idea
, the Max Cutter in me suggested. Maybe the whole point of the theft wasn't to possess the stolen books, or to sell them, but merely to hurt Woollcott Chalmers by stealing them.
“You don't seem to get along that well with Hugh Matheson,” I told Chalmers in a careful understatement. “Do you think it's conceivable that he had anything to do with the thefts?”
Renata liked the idea, if I read the look it her dark eyes correctly, but Chalmers shot it down.
“Hugh Matheson wouldn't have the nerve or the imagination to do anything so bold,” he said dismissively. “The man never dirtied his hands on anything in his life. That's why I came out the winner again and again in any competition between us to acquire some interesting piece of Sherlockiana.”
“Well, then,” I said, frustrated, “who knew about the display and exactly which books in it were most valuable?”
To my surprise, the gnomish Gene Pfannenstiel, who had been practically invisible as he busied himself about the display cases, blurted out, “Graham Bentley Post, I bet.”
The name meant nothing to me.
“Director of the Library of Popular Culture,” Gene explained. “It's a small museum and library started about ten years ago to preserve popular literary works. Post has been trying to buy the Woollcott Chalmers Collection from us ever since the word went out on the grapevine that we were getting it.”
“But you can't sell my collection,” Chalmers snapped. “That's one of the conditions of the gift.”
“That's what I keep telling him,” Gene said, “as did my predecessor before me.”
Chalmers shook his white-maned head. “The fellow just won't give up, I'll grant him that. He hounded me to sell for years, but I didn't want the Woollcott Chalmers Collection to be on display up in Massachusetts with a bunch of comic books and pulp novels.”
“No matter how pushy he is,” I said, “I can't believe he'd come to Erin for a spot of breaking and entering.”
“Maybe not,” Gene said, “but he did come to Erin. He stopped by here yesterday. He said he'd be in town two or three days.”
Gene scurried into a back room and returned with a business card on which Graham Bentley Post had written his hotel room number next to his cell phone number.
“I'll give him a call,” I promised, pocketing the card.
Sure, it was far-fetched that a library would use crime to stock its shelves. But this was a private library, not a public one, and I didn't know how reputable it was. Besides, Post being on the scene was too much of a coincidence to just ignore. I put him on the suspect list right along with Hugh Matheson, who was still in the running in my book.
While Mac had been stuck at the colloquium, I'd flushed out two hot prospects. Max Cutter was going to solve this case, not Sherlock Holmes.