Extract: Painting in the Dark by Russell James

Gottfleisch took a third croissant and dipped it in his blue Delft mug of drinking chocolate. The corpulent, silk-shirted man had lingered so long over breakfast that his drink had cooled, and when he raised the croissant to his fleshy lips a shroud of chocolate skin hung from the sticky pastry like the folded wings of a desiccated bat. When he bit into the croissant the brown skein came unstuck and drooped across his mouth. He slurped at it, sucking the sweet fragments from his lips while keeping his eye on the conservatory door in case Turmold should return. The man was taking an unconscionable time in the lavatory. Perhaps he had been distracted by one of the porno books.
In his white cast-iron two-seater settee, Gottfleisch shifted his massive bulk forward to pick up the newspaper, its front pages dominated by the announcement of the 1997 General Election in six weeks time. John Major claimed to be ‘confident’ of turning round his party’s huge deficit but the press, it seemed, had written him off. He was yesterday’s man. Bright tomorrow lay with Tony Blair.
Gottfleisch scrunched the pages impatiently, looking for the short piece which had earlier caught his eye. Though buried deep inside, the story had been illustrated by a familiar painting. The article itself was captioned Death Of A Keene Agent. Five paragraphs. Gottfleisch hadn’t realised that Murdo Fyffe was the Keene family’s agent. He hadn’t realised Fyffe knew the Keenes at all, though with hindsight perhaps he should have guessed. Miss Keene herself – what was her name? Sidonie – had approached Gottfleisch once directly in his role as art dealer, and had asked if he might be interested in a watercolour – one of Naomi’s, naturally – which for some reason Sidonie wanted to sell. A straightforward, legitimate transaction – which made a pleasant change for Gottfliesch. Since Naomi’s paintings were valuable and rare he had asked if there were any more, but the old lady had replied vaguely. There might be one or two somewhere, she had said, playing dumb.
And now Murdo had stiffened his brush in the old lady’s backyard. The newspaper didn’t give her address— ‘a secluded cottage in rural Surrey’ was all it said. But because of the painting he had sold for them, Gottfleisch knew he must have her address recorded in his files. It was odd, really, that he had not followed up.
Having finished his croissant he lifted the Delft mug and shook it to gauge the viscosity of the remaining chocolate. Still quite fluid. No wrinkly skin. He took a sip. Littered across the white iron table before him were the remains of his continental breakfast: rye bread and skofa, several more croissants, one last brioche, an untouched plate of crispbread biscuits, a bowl of butter, three kinds of jam, a little muesli, a compote of fruit, some cheese and an empty carton of Greek yoghurt. In summer Gottfleisch preferred to breakfast lightly. He did not eat sausages till winter.
He leant back in his chair, belched, twisted round, and peered into the house for any sight of the absent Turmold. Bladder problem or constipation? The latter, at a guess. The man was so thin that every muscle in his puny body seemed permanently clenched.
So, Gottfleisch mused, Murdo Fyffe had croaked. When they had last met, Fyffe had seemed fit enough for his – what, three score and ten? Yet he had checked out, according to this article, half way through a pleasant afternoon having tea with Miss Sidonie Keene. Fancy that.
In the last ten years Fyffe had brought Gottfleisch several Naomi Keenes but until this story linking him with her sister, Gottfleisch had assumed that Murdo had acquired the paintings by means best not enquired into. Why else would the Scotsman bring them to him to sell? The obvious had not occurred to Gottfleisch – that Fyffe had a direct link to the family – though if the sister were the source, surely she could have achieved a better price on the open market? Though certainly she was wise to use a dealer rather than risk a public auction: prices were unreliable and the wait – three months before the actual sale, followed by at least a month before the auction house paid up – might not have suited her. Murdo always prefered cash on the nail. And in those transactions Gottfleisch had not behaved too dishonourably: he had helped himself to an inevitably generous commission, but it had been based on the price the paintings made. They were ‘particular’ and sold only to a limited clique of keen collectors (an old tired pun), and Gottfleisch was able to place them with minimal publicity. There were so few Keenes on the open market that as their scarcity increased, so did their price.
And by dealing privately one avoided tax. Taking things all round, old Murdo had been rather shrewd. Gottfleisch would not have been the only channel through which Keene paintings passed. Other dealers acquired them and occasionally a work appeared at auction: Property of a Gentleman. Perhaps that gentleman had been Murdo Fyffe? Perhaps he was the conduit through which the old lady slowly released a little hoard of her sister’s paintings. If that were so and if the old lady had lost her conduit, who would she use now? Could there be many paintings left? Might there be a small hoard of previously undiscovered Naomi Keenes?
Gottfleisch plucked an apricot from the fruit compote. When he had sucked the syrup from his fingers he unfolded the newspaper and turned to a page of crime reports. The mention of the Blackheath burglary was bland and vague, suggesting that the police had found no clues so far. He inhaled complacently. Now that the morning sun had risen high above his conservatory, those stolen antiques should be on a freight ship out of Harwich for the Hook of Holland. Gottfleisch checked his watch and nodded. He hoped the police would continue to search most diligently – in Blackheath.
At last he heard a footstep. Turmold appeared in the doorway from the house – thin, sallow, with the anxious grin of a man who knew he had spent too long in the lavatory – rubbing his hands together and yanking at the bulky belt he wore on his grey flannel trousers. The leather strap draped around him like a kiddy’s hoop.
‘I’d better sally on to the jolly old office.’
‘So soon?’
‘Should have been at the desk by nine.’
‘Hardly possible now.’
‘The phone starts ringing, you know?’
‘Who wants to talk insurance at nine o’clock?’
‘You’d be surprised. Sometimes there’s a queue on the doorstep, waiting for us to open.’
‘Accidents in the night?’
‘Or perhaps the occasional burglary.’
Turmold grinned and stepped further inside the heated conservatory. ‘Sometimes one of ours.’
Gottfleisch waved him to a seat. ‘A little more breakfast before you go. Those chairs you mentioned – they are accredited?’
‘Oh yes, Queen Anne. Our client saw a set just like them on TV – the Antiques Road Show. He heard the price and… fell off his chair!’
Turmold laughed dryly, like a distant engine refusing to start. ‘He’s got ten of them in the house, you see? Two carvers.’
‘But he has had them properly accredited?’
‘He has now. Written. Lapada. For insurance – we insisted.’
‘Who did you place him with?’
‘Ecclesiastical. Recently we’ve done Cornhill, Sun Alliance, L&G, Commercial Union, all of those – but not Ecclesiastical.’
‘Ten Queen Anne chairs…’
‘By using different insurance companies no one spots the common thread. No reason to connect separate burglaries to one single broker.’
‘You reckon twenty thousand pounds – that’s insurance value, I take it?’
‘Which is twelve to fifteen, say, at auction. I might manage to move them for seven or eight.’
‘Oh, Mr Gottfleisch!’
‘They are stolen goods,’ Gottfleisch said reprovingly. ‘Has he anything else?’
‘Quite a good table—’
‘Difficult to carry out through the door.’
‘Some Georgian cutlery – he thinks it’s Georgian.’
‘Not Queen Anne?’
‘Heavens, no. I advised him to have the cutlery valued.’ Turmold smiled. ‘I suggested a gentleman from Dorking – an irritating type.’
‘Oh yes. I like a valuation before a burglary.’
‘In case the cutlery’s worth taking too?’
‘The main thing is to get another dealer in before we lift the chairs. Then the police will smell a rat.’
‘And look for the rat in Dorking? Very good, Turmold. Most dealers have a dodgy reputation – even in Dorking. Where does your client live?’
‘Outskirts of Whyteleafe.’
‘Perfect. Do have more breakfast.’
Gottfleisch selected a croissant and dipped it in his jam. ‘There’s a commuter train calls in at Whyteleafe which the police have nicknamed the Burglar’s Special. Apparently, thieves slip down from Victoria or Clapham, knock off a house or two which they have spotted earlier from the train, then catch the late train back. I’ve heard it said that on some evenings the wicked rascals do four or five houses in a row, all inside an hour. Pick a night when there’s a decent programme on the telly.’
‘Like the Antiques Road Show?’
‘That’s on Sunday, dear boy, when trains run less frequently. Tell me, can one see your client’s house from the passing train?’
Turmold frowned at his untouched breakfast. ‘I don’t think so. I don’t use the train.’
‘Pity. The police are very keen on this trainspotting theory. That’s a beautiful nectarine you have there.’
‘Hm?’ Turmold blinked at his plate as if he hadn’t noticed it before.
‘Don’t you want it?’
Gottfleisch reached across and took the fruit. ‘Your Whyteleafe client sounds rather fun. We can leave the police to ponder whether the dastardly deed was perpetrated by your dodgy Dorking dealer or by teenage trainspotters.’
‘Ten large Queen Anne chairs—’
‘Oh yes, quite, quite. The lads could hardly carry them back to town on a train. Bad news for the Dorking dealer, I’m afraid. It sounds as if he will be their man.’ Gottfleisch spat the nectarine stone delicately into a spoon. ‘A small red herring, nothing more.’
‘The client did mention a Victorian painting which he thinks might be by Pinwell.’
Gottfleisch helped himself to a chocolate chip muffin.
‘And a few pieces of Netsuke.’
‘Ah. Where does he keep them?’
‘I suggested he didn’t bother to have them valued. Sometimes when an old buffer like this has a valuation and finds himself worth a couple of hundred thou’ more than he had thought, it makes him act unpredictably. Starts installing burglar alarms.’
‘A couple of hundred thousand?’
Gottfleisch studied Turmold, who looked away self-deprecatingly. ‘It’s possible. He said something about ‘bits and pieces that had been in the family’. Porcelain, I believe.’
‘Turmold, dear boy, you are dribbling out the details like a poacher setting bait. So there’s a good deal more there than a set of chairs?’
‘I’ve brought a copy of his inventory. And his holiday dates. They’re taking a two-week Spring break in France. I arranged the Green Card for him.’
Turmold could not restrain his leathery smile as he handed the envelope across. ‘I really must be leaving now.’ He stood up. ‘In the unfortunate event of my client having to make a claim I shall insist on giving it my personal attention.’
‘So you can put an accurate figure on his losses?’
Turmold was all smiles now. ‘The usual fifteen per cent?’
‘You can trust me, Turmold. A drop more breakfast?’
‘Goodness, I’ve had enough,’ Turmold said, though he did not appear to have eaten anything. He shuffled to the door.
When Gottfleisch was alone with the remains of breakfast he glanced again at his election-dominated newspaper and skipped to where the photograph smiled back at him in smudgy black and white. The little story was there only because of its tenuous connection with Naomi Keene; any snippet linked to her allowed the press to resurrect highlights of her past. Gottfleisch blinked and blew out his cheeks. Since Murdo Fyffe had had access to someone’s collection, and since he had been on tea-taking terms with Naomi’s sister, there must be every chance that two and two made four. Or two and two made Fyffe. Gottfleisch smiled. Fyffe had always been circumspect – nay, secretive – about the paintings and because he’d have distributed them through several outlets, few people reading the article would realise its true significance. Few people. One or two, perhaps.
With surprising agility the huge man projected himself from the double seat, strode to the rear of his conservatory and gazed across his leafy Greenwich garden. Beneath the mature bushes the earth lay dark from overnight rain. The lawn looked lush and in need of mowing. But Craig could do that.
Gottfleisch returned to the metal table and picked up the telephone. This was not a job for Craig; he was better suited to healthy outdoor tasks. This job would suit another of his little helpers, one who at this time of morning was no doubt still swaddled in his disgusting sheets. As he punched the number Gottfleisch imagined the little tyke burrowing beneath his filthy bedclothes to ignore the phone. He let the phone keep ringing until there was no chance the man would reply.
Gottfleisch put the phone down and chose himself a pear – so ripe and perfect that it soothed his initial impatience. He would call back later. There was no real hurry. Ticky might be an irritating little toad, but he was useful.

Click to visit the ‘Painting in the Dark’ page

Other books by Russell James
(published by The Do-Not Press)
Oh No, Not My Baby
Pick Any Title

About Russell James