A Question of Substitution
Sarah Jane Smith tapped her pen against her lower lip as she read over her latest piece. Coming back to work after her travels with the Doctor had been a shock to the system in many ways, not least in terms adjusting back to the day to day routine of making a living. Still, Sarah reflected, the reduction in the chances of her being shot at, temporarily blinded, tortured or summarily executed had done wonders for her nerves. Fortunately, her reputation as a journalist had held her in good stead and she was getting by reasonably comfortably as a freelancer, getting regular commissions for magazine articles and investigative series for newspapers, which she supplemented with the occasional review. Her task for the morning was to write up her notes on the latest science fiction blockbuster, which had been previewed the previous day and which had contained so many errors about the nature of space and time that she was almost tempted to write to the director to put him right. Sarah took a deep breath and repeated the mantra she had adopted in these cases;
“It’s only a film. It doesn’t matter. It’s only a film. It doesn’t matter.”
Just as she was about to start typing again, the phone rang.
“Hello, Sarah Jane Smith speaking?”
“Miss Smith? Oh good. This is Amelia Ducat.”
“Miss Ducat! How nice to hear from you,” replied Sarah, surprised. What could Amelia Ducat want to talk to her about? And more to the point…
“I hope you don’t mind me calling you at home. The editor at Ladies’ Weekly was kind enough to give me your number.” Was he indeed? “I’ve done some work for them in the past, so we go back quite a long way. I remember when I first…”
“And how can I help you, Miss Ducat?” put in Sarah, trying to stem the flow of reminiscences.
“What? Oh, yes. Ahem. Miss Smith, have you ever visited the gallery at the Botanical Society Halls?”
“No, I haven’t.”
“Ah, I hoped you would have.”
“I’m afraid not. I’ve meant to, but, you know, time gets away from me. But I know they have your work in the collection and I’d really like to see those.”
“Ha! Well, there you would have a problem!”
“I beg your pardon?” asked Sarah.
Miss Ducat’s voice sank to a conspiratorial whisper.
“My dear Miss Smith. There are indeed paintings exhibited there under my name but I can assure you, at least one of them is not my work!”
Sarah was momentarily speechless. Then her mind caught up with what she had just heard.
“You mean it’s a fake?”
“Yes, a forgery!”
“I have no idea! But I know my own work and that picture is not it!”
Sarah was tempted to ask if she was sure, but managed to stop herself just in time. Instead she grabbed her notebook and pen and maneuvered the phone into a more comfortable position.
“Ok, Miss Ducat, when did you visit the gallery?”
“Yesterday evening. I was attending a function at the hall and popped up to the gallery for a few moments. And a few moments was all I needed!”
“And before that?”
“Pardon? Oh, I see what you mean. I’m not sure. To be honest I tend to avoid the place if I possibly can. They are always trying to cadge money off members. As if a starving artist can afford that!”
Sarah Jane smiled at the thought of Miss Ducat as a starving artist, but felt they were getting away from the point a bit.
“What I meant was, when did you last see the original picture, before it was, er, substituted?”
“Oh, I see. Well, I suppose it must have been shortly after I presented it, so, say, about a year ago.”
“That’s quite a long time. So the original was replaced with the forgery at some point in the past year?”
“Yes. Bit of a teaser, I’m afraid.” Miss Ducat paused. “Look here, Miss Smith, will you help me get to the bottom of this? You’re a bright girl and, as my mother used to say, you can see further through a brick wall than most people I’ve met. What do you say?”
Sarah had promised herself that, after leaving the Doctor, she wouldn’t get involved in any more hare-brained adventures, but she was tempted. She looked at her typewriter, where the blank page of her unwritten film review taunted her. She had planned to take the next few days off and visit her aunt Lavinia in Wiltshire, but that lady had phoned the previous evening to say that she was flying to Argentina as a last minute replacement for a speaker at a conference. Sarah had been disappointed, but not surprised. Cancelled visits were a frequent feature of Lavinia’s globetrotting career. Sarah made up her mind.
“OK, Miss Ducat, you’re on.”
“Wonderful! When can we meet? Are you free this afternoon?”
Sarah calculated rapidly how long it would take her to finish and file her review. She replied;
“I should be free after two.”
“Excellent. Now, where can we meet. I know! D’you know Giovanni’s café near the Society Halls?”
“No, I’m afraid not.”
“Never mind! It’s on the left as you come out of the tube, two doors down from the Hall. I’ll sit outside. You’ll recognise me, I’m sure. Say about half past three?”
Sarah resisted the temptation to say that Miss Ducat was a perfect illustration of the phrase ‘once seen never forgotten.’ Instead she accepted the invitation and, after exchanging goodbyes, hung up and returned to her review.
Later that day, Sarah Jane emerged from the Underground and made her way towards the Botanical Society buildings. She caught sight of her contact sitting at a table outside a small cafe. Miss Amelia Ducat looked exactly as Sarah remembered her, her outfit of skirt, blouse and cape in shades of green and brown topped with the inevitable bright red hat. Miss Ducat looked up as Sarah approached and waved.
“Hello! Miss Smith!”
Sarah waved back and ran over to the café. Once her guest had sat down, Miss Ducat waved to attract the attention of a waiter and ordered espressos and pastries for two.
“Now, then,” she said, lighting a cigarillo, “let’s get down to brass tacks. Where’s that notebook of yours?”
Sarah Jane laughed and reached into her bag for her notebook and pencil.
“So,” she said, turning to a new page, “the painting on display in the gallery is a forgery.”
“Does the Society have any more of your works in its collection?”
“The other two are in storage then… would that be on site here?”
“Yes, there’s a secure vault in the basement.”
“I see. And who has access to the vault?”
“I’m not sure…” Miss Ducat drew on her cigarillo and considered. “The curator, of course, presumably the President, possibly others with their permission. Were you thinking that the exchange took place in the vault?”
“It seems a less risky proposition than the gallery. For the thief, I mean. There would be fewer people around and … does the gallery have security cameras?”
“I assume so, I can’t say I’ve ever looked. But you’re right, the vault would seem to be the more likely place. Ah, thank you,” This last to the waiter who brought their drinks and food.
There was a brief silence as the waiter arranged the cups and plates. After he left, Sarah took a different tack.
“I take it you haven’t spoken to the police?”
“Not yet,” Miss Ducat sipped her coffee, “aaah! That’s better. Best espresso in London, I’ve always said so. Where was I? The police. No. I’d prefer to have a bit more evidence. If I went to them now, they would probably think I was dotty old woman making a fuss about nothing.”
Sarah turned away to hide her smile.
“I’m sure they wouldn’t. You’re the artist, you would surely know your own work.”
“Hmm. So you might think. I’m not so sure. In any case I would want to go to Scotland Yard. I can’t see local lot dealing with something like this. One of my neighbours was burgled and the local police were about as much use as a troupe of performing badgers!”
Sarah Jane lowered her coffee cup, coughing. Miss Ducat slapped her vigorously on the back.
“My dear girl, are you alright?”
“I … yes, thank you.”
“Good. No, I don’t think we should talk to the police just yet.”
Sarah ducked down to pick up her notebook, which she had knocked off the table during her coughing fit, and tried to put performing police badgers out of her mind.
“Ok, we’ll leave that aside for now. We’ll need to get into the gallery, and, really, the vault too. Is there anyone in the Society you know and trust?”
Miss Ducat looked thoughtful.
“You know, I’ve been a member of this society for the best part of forty years, and I can’t say I know any of the top brass particularly well. I have spoken to the curator, Grant, his name is, obviously, when I arranged to loan them the pictures…”
“The pictures are on loan?”
“Yes. I wasn’t going to give them for nothing and the stingy beggars wouldn’t give me a good price, so they are on loan until such time as I want to flog ‘em.”
“I see,” said Sarah, making a note, “I’m sorry, I interrupted you. You were saying you had spoken to, Mr. Grant, was it?”
“Dr. Grant. Yes, we had some correspondence. I would have put him near the top of the list of suspects though, given that he has access to the vault and the gallery whenever he likes.”
“Yes,” replied Sarah, thoughtfully. “There is one thing though. Presumably he is responsible for deciding which pictures go up in the gallery?”
“If he knew that picture was a forgery, would he have chosen to put it on display?”
It was Miss Ducat’s turn to look thoughtful.
“I see what you mean. Yes, that’s a very good point. But I don’t think we can discount him entirely.”
Sarah had been considering something else. “How good is the forgery? I mean, you could see immediately that it wasn’t right, but would the curator have been fooled by it?”
“If your suspicion is correct then he seems to have been. I’d say it was pretty good, certainly enough to fool a casual viewer and maybe even some of the so-called experts.”
Sarah didn’t ask which experts Miss Ducat was talking about, but she wasn’t entirely surprised to find that the artist didn’t see eye to eye with them. She returned to the question of access to the paintings.
“Even if he was involved, I don’t see why we shouldn’t ask Dr. Grant if we can go into the vault, or, at least, look at your pictures. We could say I’m doing an interview with you and you want to show me the paintings.”
“Excellent, that will do admirably. It’s a bit late to arrange an appointment for today, I suppose.” She looked at her watch. “Suppose we call it a day for today and I will go straight home and ring up Dr. Grant. I’ll call you about … sixish?”
“Yes, that’ll be fine. I’ll do a bit of background checking in the meantime.”
“Good, I’ll just settle up, no, of course I’m buying,” said Miss Ducat, waving away Sarah’s offer to share the bill, “you get off home and I’ll speak to you later on.”
Feeling it wasn’t worth arguing, Sarah headed home. When she got in, she took out her contacts book and dialed the number of a colleague from the financial pages of one of the broadsheets.
“Hello, Bob Ford here?”
“Hello, Bob, it’s Sarah Jane Smith.”
“Sarah! Good Lord, how long has it been? How are you?”
“Very well, thanks. How’s the world of business and finance?”
“Oh so so, you know. Ups and downs. What can I do for you? I take it you haven’t called me out of the blue to ask me to dinner?”
“Ah, Bob, sorry, no, it’s not your lucky night. No, I wondered if you knew anything about the Botanical Society.”
“Botanical Society? I’ve heard of it, but… is it a charity?”
“Of a sort, I believe. It’s a membership organization at any rate and accepts donations. I’m doing a piece on Amelia Ducat, the artist, and some of her work is on display there. I thought I’d do a bit of digging and see what kind of place it was.”
“Oh. I see, so you’re interviewing an artist and you call me? Come on Sarah!”
“OK, OK, I knew I wouldn’t get that past you. I AM interviewing Miss Ducat, but I’m also looking into the Botanical Society, particularly in terms of funding and financial stability. I can’t say what for at the moment, but you’ll get full credit, of course.”
“Of course! No, it’s alright, Sarah, don’t get grumpy with me. I haven’t got anything to hand, but I’ll have a look and ring you back. Say about eight? In the meantime you can decide where you’re taking me for dinner!”
This was a long standing joke between the pair, so Sarah just laughed and thanked him. Her next call was to the deputy editor of Art and Art History Magazine, with whom she had been to college.
“Maggie? It’s Sarah.”
“Sarah? Hi! How lovely to hear from you. How’s things in freelanceville?”
“Oh you know, muddling along. Listen, Maggie, who would I talk to, to find out about forgeries?”
“Modern or historical?”
“Right. Then that would probably be… wait a minute, when you say ‘forgeries’ do you mean people who know about them, or people who actually do them?”
“Oh! I was thinking of people who know about them, at least to start with.”
“Um…” Sarah wasn’t sure how much it was safe to say, so settled for, “still life, watercolours.”
“Ok.” There was a pause as Maggie considered. “In that case, I’d say Professor Hoegben at the Dale, she’s an authority on still life and flower painting, and she was on the committee that reviewed the attribution of two alleged Fantin-Latours. I know that’s 19th century, but she does lecture on 20th century artists too. Anyone in particular on your radar?”
“I can’t say at the moment, sorry.”
“Ah, like that is it? Never mind. Shall I give Julia, that is Professor Hoegben a call for you? On the understanding, of course, that you spill the beans in due course.”
“Oh, that goes without saying! Would you? You know her and I don’t.”
“I wouldn’t say I knew her, but our paths have crossed now and again. I’ll give her a call and pass on your number and she can contact you, that OK?”
“You’re an angel, thank you!”
“Don’t thank me yet,” said Maggie, laughing, “I will demand full disclosure at a later date!”
“And you’ll have it,” replied Sarah, also laughing. “Thanks a lot, Maggie. Bye!”
Sarah replaced the receiver and glanced at the clock. Bob wouldn’t be calling back for at least another couple of hours, and, though she wasn’t sure what time Miss Ducat would be calling, her stomach was reminding her that it had been a while since the pastries. Deciding to chance it, Sarah made a quick meal of beans on toast with a generous helping of grated cheese on top, poured herself a glass of wine and took her plate and glass to her desk, so as to be near the phone if it rang before she had finished eating. Sure enough, just as the first forkful was on the way to Sarah’s mouth, Miss Ducat called.
“Ah! Miss Smith. I won’t keep you long. I’ve arranged for us to see my works tomorrow at midday, will that suit you? I spoke to the curator, he sounded a bit harassed, but he seemed happy enough for us to come.”
“Oh, yes, that’s fine,” replied Sarah, putting down her fork to make a note in her diary, “shall I meet you there?”
“Yes, why not. Oh and Miss Smith?”
“It seems a little overfamiliar, but as we are working together, may I call you Sarah?”
“Of course! I’d prefer that to Miss Smith any day.”
“Thank you, my dear, and do call me Amelia. If we are going to be solving this case together, we can’t be constantly ‘Miss Smith’ and ‘Miss Ducat-ing’ each other!”
“I quite agree,” said Sarah Jane, smiling, “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
“Yes, see you then, goodbye!”
With an eye to her rapidly cooling meal, Sarah had decided not to tell Miss Ducat about her phone calls. Anyway, she didn’t have any results to show for them, yet. Beans on toast eaten and the plate and saucepan in the sink to be washed at some unspecified time in the future, Sarah Jane pulled the phone over to a low table by her sofa and curled up to look over her notes to await Bob Ford’s call.
The call came at about half past eight from, by the sound of it, a bar. Sarah rolled her eyes as she tried to distinguish Bob’s voice from the clashing of glasses and clamour of voices in the background.
“Ah, yes, hello! Sorry about the noise, meeting a contact in a minute.”
“Of course you are.”
“What? I did a bit of digging for you… sorry ….”
While Bob apologised to whoever it was at the other end of the line, Sarah grabbed her notebook.”
“Sorry about that. Yes. It looks as if the society is in a pretty good way, financially. They’ve got steady income from membership and they have legacies and other donations that keep them ticking over. Of course they are sitting on a goldmine with their property in London, not to mention the art collections, but those are mostly tied up in trusts and agreements so they can’t be sold.”
“I see.” Sarah noted this down. “But they aren’t in need of cash?”
“Not as far as I can see … (his voice became faint as he turned from the receiver) what? No, not much longer… no, (back to Sarah again) they seem to be doing pretty well.”
Sarah considered this. If that was the case, the forgeries and thefts were not being carried out on behalf of the Botanical Society itself…
“Sarah? Are you still there?”
“Sorry, yes, thanks a lot Bob, that’s a great help.”
“You’re welcome! Sorry, I’ve got to go, got to get back to drowning my sorrows because you
won’t take me to dinner.”
“Ha! Bye, Bob.”
Sarah Jane smiled as she hung up. As she looked at her notes, her face became serious again. If the Society wasn’t behind the thefts, who was? Whoever they were, presumably they had an insider to get them access to the collections? Some obsessed collector? Possibly, but, on the other hand, Miss Ducat’s works were still for sale and the lady herself was still working. There were plenty of easier ways to get hold of an Amelia Ducat painting. Sarah sighed. She felt sure the answer lay somewhere at the Botanical Society. Oh well, she might as well carry on with the background research while she was at it. Sarah Jane got up from the sofa and took down a volume from her shelf of reference books. She sat down again and flicked through the pages of the book, a quick reference guide to charities and charitable institutions in Britain.
“B… B… Botanical Society.”
The entry was brief but gave a bit of information. The society had been founded in the mid-nineteenth century by a group of scientists who had a keen interest in botany and plant collecting. The original meetings were held in a room near the site of the British Museum, but later moved to the purpose-built buildings it currently inhabited. The names of the current board of governors and president were also listed, and Sarah noted them down. That seemed to be as much as she could do for the moment, so she put the book away and packed up what she would need for the morning, then decided that reading in bed with another glass of wine and the remainder of a box of chocolates she had received as a sample from a magazine publisher seemed like the best way to spend the rest of the evening.
The next morning, Amelia Ducat rose at her usual early hour. Having breakfasted on toast and jam and with a strong cup of coffee in her hand, she made her way to her studio. In contrast to her somewhat eccentric and haphazard appearance, Miss Ducat’s studio was clean and neat. Her drawing and painting materials were tidied into drawers to the side of her desk, and sketch books and canvases were organised by date and either stored against the walls or on shelves. An alarm clock stood, somewhat incongruously, on one of the shelves. Its purpose was revealed when Miss Ducat set it to alert her so she would have time to get ready for her appointment with Sarah Jane. That done, Miss Ducat arranged her brushes and paints and sat down to begin her morning’s work. She had barely begun when she heard the sound of the telephone bell. Muttering under her breath, the artist put down her brush and went through to the hall.
“Miss Ducat, I’m so glad I caught you at home. This is Frank Thrupp.”
Now Miss Ducat knew where she was. Thrupp was a well-known watercolourist and illustrator who specialized in book illustrations of botanical subjects.
“Mr. Thrupp. What a pleasant surprise! (Miss Ducat tried to sound pleased, but her canvas was calling to her) What can I do for you?”
“Oh, ah. I wonder. I was at the Botanical Society the other day and, ah, have you visited lately?”
“Yes, I was there for the event on the 13th.”
“Ah. Well I was there yesterday and … oh, do excuse me [Miss Ducat caught the distant sound of a doorbell] my guest is here. I really must speak to you though, tried to speak to that curator fellow, left him a message but … [the doorbell sounded again] May I call back later on?”
“Yes, of course. Any time after four should be fine.”
“Thank you, Miss Ducat, it really is very troubling. Thank you, goodbye.”
Miss Ducat put down the receiver and looked at the phone for a moment, as if she was expecting it to explain what had just happened. She wouldn’t have expected Thrupp to call her, they were acquainted but they didn’t know each other particularly well. Thinking back to the times they had met before, Miss Ducat pictured a small, thin man with piercingly blue eyes, somewhat distracted of manner, but generally even tempered. What could have happened to upset him so much that he felt the need to call a casual acquaintance out of the blue? Miss Ducat shrugged. She would find out when he called back later on, assuming he did call back. In the meantime, she had a good three hours left to work before she needed to get ready to go out and she intended to make the most of it.
At a quarter to twelve, Sarah Jane and Miss Ducat met at Giovanni’s, both of them having felt that a coffee would be a good idea before their appointment. Having fortified themselves, they went into the Botanical Society building and approached the reception. Sarah looked around with interest as Miss Ducat introduced herself to the receptionist and asked to speak to the curator. The entrance hall reminded Sarah a little of the Natural History Museum at South Kensington, but without the exposed brickwork. Carvings of plants, some of which she recognised, but others unknown to her, trailed tendrils round the pillars that supported a high, vaulted ceiling. The entrance doors were set with stained glass panels depicting two of the founding botanists collecting plant samples and the sunlight streaming through the glass shone colours on the floor, giving a strangely church-like atmosphere to the room. Sarah turned back as she heard her name.
“And this is Miss Smith, who will be interviewing me. Miss Smith, this is Dr. Grant.”
Sarah wasn’t sure what she had expected the curator to look like, she had in mind a thin, dusty figure, possibly resembling an elderly heron, but Dr. Grant couldn’t have been much more than 40. In contrast to the tall, thin figure of Sarah’s imagination, he was of medium height and, while certainly not fat, would probably have been described as “well covered” by a well-meaning friend. His round face was topped with dark, curly hair and a sprinkling of freckles on his nose completed the impression of an overgrown schoolboy. He smiled as he held out his hand.
“Delighted to meet you, Miss Smith.”
“Now, if you’d like to come this way?” Grant turned and gestured towards the grand stairs at the back of the entrance hall, “we can go to the gallery and then I’ll take you to see the stores.”
His visitors followed him up the grand staircase at the back of the entrance hall, Sarah noting the tendrils of wrought iron ivy that coiled around the spindles under the wooden bannister. She appreciated the skill and attention to detail that had gone into designing and creating this building but found the whole effect more than a little creepy. Sarah shook herself, mentally, and followed Dr. Grant and Miss Ducat up the stairs and through an imposing wooden door to the gallery. The door handles, she noticed, were also shaped like ivy stems. Nothing if not consistent. The gallery resembled those usually found in stately homes, a long corridor with windows on one side, mostly shaded with blinds to protect the artworks. Plain white plinths stood between the windows, holding vases decorated with subjects from nature, and paintings and drawings were displayed on the opposite walls. Two glass cases contained sketchbooks and other fragile materials and were covered in a protective sheet which could be drawn back by visitors. The sheets were dark green, as were the walls, and Sarah Jane had the impression that she often had in some museums, that she was entering a space preserved against the outside world, where the years passed more slowly. The voices of Miss Ducat and Dr. Grant recalled her from her reverie.
“It’s in the cabinet here, I think?”
“Yes, Miss Ducat. We put it there to give it a little extra protection from the light.”
“Quite right too! Here, Miss Smith, this is the work I was telling you about.”
Sarah approached the case and looked in at the painting, a watercolour of a single peony flower on a stem, with a bud on a smaller stem and the parts of the flower separated and depicted next to the main bloom. As with all great botanical art, the painting managed the rare feat of being intricately detailed, scientifically accurate and beautiful, the colours glowing like jewels in the dim light of the gallery. Had the artist not told her it was a fake, Sarah Jane would have said without hesitation that the painting was an Amelia Ducat. And, even though it wasn’t by Miss Ducat, the picture had clearly been painted by a skilled artist. At a nudge from her companion, Sarah cleared her throat.
“Ah, yes, it’s beautiful, thank you so much for showing it to me.”
Dr. Grant smiled.
“You are most welcome…”
What he might have been about to say was cut off by the arrival of a woman wearing jeans and a jumper. A cloud of fair curly hair was escaping from a scarf round her head, and she looked worried and harassed.
“I’m sorry to interrupt, Dr. Grant, but Sir John has just been into the office, he wanted to check that you’d got his message to say he wanted to see you as soon as you’re finished with your visitors.” She paused, realising how that last remark must have sounded. “I’m so sorry! I didn’t mean that … it’s been one of those days, I…”
Dr. Grant cut off the stream of apologies,
“It’s quite alright Jenny, we didn’t think you meant anything of the sort.” He went over and held the door open, ushering Jenny out of the door. “Thank you for letting me know, I’ll go and see him as soon as I can. Will he be in his office?”
“I, yes, that’s what he said … he sounded…”
Her last words were muffled as she went out. Grant exchanged a few words with her outside the gallery, then came back in, still smiling, but with a slight impression of concern.
“I’m sorry about that. Miss Whiteacre is one of my assistants. It seems the President wishes to see me.”
“Ah!” replied Miss Ducat, “Well, then, you must certainly go.”
“Oh I will. As soon as I have shown you the store. Jenny, that is , Miss Whiteacre said I should go as soon as your visit had ended, at least (with a wry smile) that’s what she meant to say, so if you’ll follow me?”
Miss Ducat and Sarah exchanged glances behind their host’s back. Something was clearly the matter, but they understood that he wouldn’t want to let them in on whatever it was. Sarah broke what had become a rather awkward silence.
“Please, if it’s urgent, don’t feel you have to. We can always come back later on, or on another day.”
The curator paused as they walked downstairs and said, somewhat curtly;
“It’s really no trouble, Miss Smith.” He sighed and began again. “I’m sorry, I didn’t mean to snap. I did, of course, get the President’s message this morning and I had called his secretary to confirm, but I suppose that, either he hasn’t spoken to her, or he wanted to make doubly sure. Either way, I have got the message!”
He continued down the stairs, which brought them to a door in the back of the entrance hall. Another door took them to another flight of stairs and they descended to the basement. Dr. Grant led his guests along a corridor with white painted brickwork and a bare concrete floor that was a definite contrast to the upper floors. He paused by a door labeled “Store. Authorised personnel only” and pulled out a key ring with a bewildering number of keys on it. He then typed a code into a keypad on the wall near the door frame and glanced at a temperature gauge underneath. After selected two keys he turned one, then the other in the locks. The door was heavy and Sarah and Miss Ducat felt a blast of cold air as it opened.
“Do come in. We keep the temperature low to help preserve the artworks, but I’m sure you know that. It’s chilly at first, but it can be quite refreshing on a hot day!”
He smiled, evidently trying to make up for any bad impressions. Sarah smiled in response.
“I’m sure it is! I don’t think I’d like to be in here for long though, it reminds me of a bank safe.”
“In a way, it is, though it’s better ventilated than those generally are. This way.”
Dr. Gibson led the way through the ranks of shelving, some static, some mobile, to a large table at the back of the room. Two paintings had been placed on the table, apparently identical in style to the one on display upstairs. The visitors inspected the works, Sarah looking for similarities with the picture she had just seen. Miss Ducat frowned for a moment, then looked at Sarah and nodded. Sarah turned to their host with her most winning smile.
“Thank you so much for showing us these, they are beautiful. Can I ask, if it’s not too much trouble, to see how they are stored? I think my readers would be interested to know how you look after these wonderful works.”
Dr. Grant smiled back at her.
“No trouble at all. All the works are assessed and catalogued on arrival, and then the smaller and more delicate works are wrapped in tissue and stored in boxes (he gestured to a nearby set of shelves bearing rows of grey boxes, all labeled with a code consisting of letters and numbers) and the larger works are stored on these racks.”
He stepped to one side and pulled on the handle at the end of one of the mobile stacks, which, to Sarah’s surprise, moved outwards instead of sideways. Instead of shelves, the stack had two sides of metal grille, to which paintings had been attached as if they were hanging on a gallery wall.
“Oh, I see. What a good idea! I suppose it makes checking on their condition much easier like this?” asked Sarah.
“It certainly does. I’ll show you where Miss Ducat’s works would be.”
He closed the stack and pulled out another one, where a gap showed the place where the paintings on the table and in the gallery would have been hung. Sarah stepped forward and looked at the labels that identified the works.
“And is this like a library classification system?”
“It’s more like a museum system, but there are similarities.”
“Oh.” Feeling that she should say something else, Sarah asked, “and who are these by?” she bent closer to read the label on a watercolour of a vase of tulips, “Frank Thrupp?”
Miss Ducat started at the name, but hid her surprise. Dr. Grant joined Sarah by the grille.
“Yes, he’s known mostly for his illustrations. We are really lucky to have these larger works. I was pleased to be able to put one on display recently.”
Sarah took this cue to get an answer to one of questions that she and Miss Ducat needed an answer to.
“Yes, I had been meaning to ask, how often do you change the display in the gallery?”
“We try to do a rehang at least once a year, more often if we can. I think it’s important to rotate the works on display to make sure all the artists get a fair amount of exposure, but it’s also important from the preservation point of view, it’s better for the works to be in this controlled environment and out of the light. It’s a bit of a balancing act really. The last rehang was actually only a fortnight ago.”
Miss Ducat and Sarah Jane exchanged glances.
“Really?” asked Miss Ducat.
“Er, yes,” Replied the curator, startled by her tone, “yes, I had hoped that the people attending the event the other night would take the opportunity to go and have a look, but, unfortunately, it seems very few of them did.”
“I certainly did,” said Miss Ducat, “I wonder who else went up?”
“We can check the visitor’s book if you’re interested, I don’t see any harm in that. I’ll need to go back through the gallery to get to the President’s office, if you don’t mind me leaving you to make your own way back to reception from there?”
“Not at all.”
“Thank you, then I’ll just close up here and we can be on our way.”
They left the room and the Dr. Grant reset the alarm and locked up behind them. As he put his keys away, Sarah said;
“I suppose access to the stores is strictly limited? You must have a lot of very valuable art in there.”
“Yes, our insurers insist on that, but we would limit access in any case.”
He didn’t seem about to expand on that, and Sarah decided not to push her luck by asking exactly which people had access. Instead she followed the others back up the stairs and through the doors that led to the gallery. The visitors’ book, a large, leather bound volume with a pen attached to it with a ribbon, was on a low table near the entrance. Dr. Grant flicked through the pages.
“Here we are. There’s your name, Miss Ducat, and a George Whittlesford and Jasper LeRoy… and that’s it for that night. Since then, oh, Mr. Thrupp was in yesterday, I see, but that’s it, at least according to the book.”
Standing behind the curator, Sarah noted down the names quickly and then slipped her notebook back in her bag. As Dr. Grant turned back to that day’s page, Miss Ducat remarked
“Only four of us, that’s a shame.”
“Yes,” agreed her host, “although, of course, not everybody signs the book.”
“Well, I wouldn’t for instance, or if one of the Society’s officials came in, they probably wouldn’t because they are in the building and can come in and out as often as they like.”
“Ah, yes, I see what you mean,” Miss Ducat exchanged a significant glance with Sarah. “Well, we’ve taken up enough of your valuable time, Dr. Grant, thank you again for showing us round. I do hope the President isn’t in too much of a flap.”
Her host grinned.
“You are most welcome. And I doubt it’s anything very vital, he does like to meddle … ah .. to get involved in the workings of the collections, so it’s probably that.” He looked slightly worried at having said to much, but Miss Ducat gave him her most disarming smile .
“Don’t worry, young man, we’ve all suffered from the efforts of amateurs in high places!”
Dr. Grant smiled again.
“Thank you. I wouldn’t want you to think…”
“Oh not at all. You’d better be on your way, and we had better be on ours, hadn’t we Miss Smith?”
Sarah took the cue and came forward, her hand held out.
“Yes, we had, thank you Dr. Grant.”
They shook hands all round and Grant escorted them out of the gallery, then left them to find their way downstairs and out of the building, while he went along the corridor on the upper floor to the President’s office.
The two women went out of the main entrance in silence, then paused outside. Miss Ducat spoke first.
“Well. That was quite an informative visit.”
“Yes,” replied Sarah, thoughtfully.”
“Such an odd coincidence about Frank Thrupp. I hadn’t time to tell you, but he called me this morning.”
“Really? What about?”
“No idea! We were interrupted before he had a chance to tell me, but he did ask if I’d been here recently. He said he’d tried to talk to Dr. Grant too. I wonder…” Miss Ducat shook her head. “Anyway he is going to call again this afternoon and we’ve got enough to be going on with without speculating about him. I don’t know about you, but I could do with getting warmed up after being in that mausoleum of a storeroom.”
“Definitely!” Sarah Jane shuddered. Being in the store had brought back memories of a whole host of airless, chilly spaces that she would rather forget.
“Good! As well as doing the best coffee in London, Giovanni also does excellent soup. What say we continue our deliberations over lunch?”
Sarah agreed heartily and they made their way to the café.
Once they had taken their seats inside the café and Miss Ducat had ordered two coffees and two bowls of minestrone soup, and lit a cigarillo, Sarah took out her notebook and they began to discuss what they had learned. Sarah drew a table in her book and began to enter the evidence.
“Right. So we know that the gallery was rehung very recently, so we can assume that your pictures were in the store from close to the time you loaned them until then.”
“Yes,” her companion turned her head and blew a stream of smoke away from the table. “that seems a reasonable assumption. We also know that at least four people visited the gallery on the night of the event; I did, Frank Thrupp did and so did those other gentlemen, who, I take it were members of the society as it was a members only event.”
“Right,” Sarah frowned, “Will we need to check on them? I suppose it depends where the substitution took place.”
“Yes. And then there’s the fact that the gallery is open to anyone who works at the Society. I’d say an insider was more likely than an outsider, but we’ll have to keep them in mind. Ah, thank you (this to the waiter who brought their food and drinks). Tuck in, my dear and get yourself warmed up!”
Sarah put down her pencil and picked up her spoon and there was silence for a few moments while she and Miss Ducat started on their soup which was, indeed, excellent. Eventually she said;
“and what about the President? Sir John …(she turned back to find her notes from the previous evening) Cathcart. Do you think he has anything do with it?”
Miss Ducat paused in the process of dunking a piece of bread in her soup. She laid the bread down on the rim of her soup plate and looked at her companion.
“That’s a very good question. He was certainly very keen to see our curatorial friend about something, wasn’t he? By the way, unless young Dr. Grant is a very good actor, I’m inclined to move him down the list of suspects.”
“Yes, so am I. It wouldn’t make sense for him to put your picture on display if he knew it was a forgery.”
“And the other two works? The ones in the store?”
Miss Ducat’s bread had made its way to her mouth by then. She chewed, swallowed and said;
“Fakes. Both of ‘em.”
“All three then. So, at some point, between you bringing them to the Society and the gallery being rehung, all three of your works have been replaced with forgeries, with good forgeries, and the originals removed and, what, sold?”
Miss Ducat nodded.
“That would be my guess. Whoever did the substituting would have needed to pay the forger, and those people don’t come cheap, so I can’t see that they would steal my paintings without expecting to gain from it in some way.”
The mention of the forgers diverted Sarah’s thoughts.
“Have you got any idea who the forger might be?”
The conversation was interrupted by the arrival of the waiter to remove the empty soup plates and ask if his customers would like anything else.
“Oh, yes, please, we’ll have the apple tart and another two coffees,” said Miss Ducat, before
Sarah could say anything. As the waiter left to fetch the order, the artist smiled at her companion.
“Don’t look like that Sarah, we deserve a treat after all this investigating! Now, where were we?
Oh yes, forgers. Well, I don’t really keep up with that side of things, I’m afraid we artists tend to be a bit self-absorbed and don’t really notice what other people are up to.” She paused, considering, “Well, there’s Henk Austerlitz, not his real name, of course, but he mostly works in oils, at least he did, not heard anything of him for years. I did hear of a new name a little while ago… now what was it?”
While she thought, the apple tart arrived and Sarah, looking at the thinly sliced, glazed apples on top of delicate pastry, with a little jug of cream to go with it, was very glad that Miss Ducat had ordered it. Seeing the look on Sarah’s face, Miss Ducat laughed.
“Yes, I thought you’d enjoy that! Come to that so will I.”
There was another silence while they ate, then, suddenly, Miss Ducat exclaimed;
Sarah Jane was puzzled, “I beg your pardon?”
“The forger. Bobby something. Can’t remember the last name and the first could well be an alias, so it doesn’t get us far. But someone mentioned the name at the RA the last time I was there, they’d seen some astonishingly good knock-offs that were being put up for auction and had fooled a few people, and they thought this Bobby, whoever they are, might have been behind them.” She paused and sipped her coffee. “As I say, that doesn’t get us very far. Did you say you were going to see Julia Hoegben at the Dale?”
Sarah nodded, her mouth full of apple tart. She had mentioned her telephone conversations of the previous evening when she had met Miss Ducat earlier. Finishing her helping, Sarah asked;
“Do you know her?”
“Very slightly. She’s a few years younger than me, of course, I still can’t quite believe she is old enough to be a professor! That aside, she was, or rather is, a talented painter in her own right. I remember seeing her works exhibited. I was a bit surprised when she turned to academia (this last word pronounced with slight distaste), but I suppose it’s a steady wage and she’ll still have time for painting without having to do it to earn a crust.”
“I see,” Sarah looked at her watch. “I’d better get back and check if Maggie has left a message.”
“Ah, yes, and I had better go and get back to work and wait for Frank Thrupp to call.”
Miss Ducat waved to the waiter, who brought the bill and once they had settled up, she and Sarah left the café and headed back towards the underground. They parted company in the booking office, promising to call each other with the latest developments, should there be any.
The red light was blinking on Sarah’s answering machine when she got in. She pressed rewind, then hung up her coat and went to put the kettle on. The coffee at Giovanni’s was good, but there was only one thing she wanted at that time of the afternoon, and that was a cup of tea. Sarah Jane came out of the kitchen as the machine beeped and began to relay the messages. The first was from one of her colleagues working at Ladies’ Choice magazine, inviting her to be her plus one at a show by the newest hot fashion designer. The second was from the Nightly News, thanking her for the film review and confirming payment. Sarah sighed and was about to go back into the kitchen again when the final message began.
“Hello, Miss Smith, this is Julia Hoegben. I’ve had a call from Margaret Wilkes. I gather you have some queries about forgers and forgeries. I have a late lecture this evening, so I will be in my office until six this evening if you’d like to call round, or we can talk on the phone, my number here is…”
Sarah dived for the machine and stopped the tape, then grabbed her telephone pad and restarted the tape to take down the number. The kettle boiled just as she finished writing, so she went back and made her tea, leaving it to brew while she phoned the professor.
“Hello, Julia Hoegben speaking.”
“Hello, Professor Hoegben, this is Sarah Jane Smith, you were kind enough to leave a message?”
“Ah, yes, Miss Smith. I don’t usually speak directly to the press, but I must say I was intrigued by what Mrs. Wilkes told me about your interests. Do you want to talk now, or would you care to come to my office? I have some examples of flower painting you might be interested in seeing. Originals, I hasten to add, not fakes!”
She laughed and Sarah felt drawn to the friendliness in her voice. She hadn’t intended to go out again, but why not?
“That’s most kind of you. I’ll be over in (Sarah looked at her watch, trying to work out how long it would take her to reach the Dale) about three quarters of an hour?”
“Say an hour. I don’t want you to have to rush and my lecture doesn’t start until a quarter past six.”
“Oh, thank you. Yes, I’ll see you then.”
“Good. I’ll let reception know, just give them your name and they will call me.”
“See you soon!”
Sarah Jane hung up and looked wistfully at the teapot. Oh well. The case came first. Perhaps the Professor would have tea in her office. She sounded like the sort of person who might. In any case… Sarah went back into the kitchen and came out with two digestive biscuits shoving one into her mouth and juggling the other from hand to hand to mouth as she put her jacket back on and picked up her bag. Brushing the crumbs off her jacket she hurried to the underground station.
Amelia Ducat had intended to get to work immediately when she got home, but something about the call from Thrupp, and the knowledge that he, too had been disturbed by something he had seen at the society, preyed on her mind. She tried to settle to her painting, but she couldn’t concentrate. Eventually she sighed, put down her brush, and went to the shelf where she kept her directories. A quick search found Frank Thrupp’s telephone number and she went through to the hall to call him. Miss Ducat fiddled with the phone wire as she waited for an answer. The phone rang for what felt like an eternity, but nobody picked up and, eventually, she was cut off. She tried again, with the same result. Tutting, Miss Ducat hung up again and walked slowly back to the studio. Perhaps he had gone out. Sitting down on her stool, Miss Ducat decided that, if he hadn’t called her by four, she would, however reluctantly, call the police. That decision made she picked up her brush and went back to work.
It was half past five when Sarah Jane arrived at the nearest station to the art school. The Evening News was on sale at the station entrance and she bought a copy, unfolding it to look at the front page as she walked. Her eyes scanned the page, taking in the headlines and then moving on to a smaller story on the left of the page. The next moment she stopped dead. A man hurrying along behind her bumped into her, causing him to drop his briefcase and her to drop the paper. A flurry of apologies and he was on his way again, Sarah moving to the inside edge of the pavement to be out of the way. She looked around and then ran towards a telephone box a short distance away. Inside the box, she propped up the paper and fished in her bag for change and for her address book, then dialed and tried to get her breath back while she waited for an answer. After a few moments the familiar voice said;
“Miss Ducat, sorry, Amelia, it’s Sarah Jane.”
“My dear, what on earth is the matter?”
“I’m sorry, I just… have you seen the evening paper?”
“No. No, I came straight home. Why?”
Sarah picked up the newspaper and tried to speak more calmly.
“It says here that Frank Thrupp was found dead early this afternoon.”
“Good Lord! Are there any details?”
“Not many. (Sarah read aloud) ‘artist Frank Thrupp, best known for his illustrations of nature books, has been found dead at his home earlier today. The body was discovered by Mrs. Audrey Williamson, who had let herself into the house to clean.”
“Yes. ‘ The police declined to comment when asked if they suspected foul play, but they have asked that anyone who has had recent contact with Mr. Thrupp to contact them on the following number.’”
“Hmm,” said Miss Ducat, “that sounds fishy if you ask me.”
“It does rather. I know you didn’t want to call the police but…”
“Oh, I agree, it looks as if I will have to. One moment, (a scuffling sound suggested Miss Ducat was trying to find a pen) you’d better give me the number.”
Sarah read off the number and then, after a pause, tried to find a tactful way to say what was worrying her.
“Amelia, you won’t, I mean, you will take care, won’t you? If this has anything to do with forgeries you could be in danger.”
She expected a scornful reply, but, to her surprise, Miss Ducat said.
“I hope not, but I fear you may be right. I shall speak to the police directly.” Then she surprised both herself and Sarah Jane by saying; “I don’t suppose… you wouldn’t care to come and stay, until this business is sorted out? Safety in numbers and all that?”
“Oh. I’d be glad to. I’m on my way to see Professor Hoegben, but I can call in at my flat and pick up some things and come straight over afterwards. What’s your address?”
It was Sarah’s turn to search for a pen. She noted down Miss Ducat’s address and the route and then, looking at her watch, realised she would need to hurry to make her appointment.
“I’m sorry, I have to go. I’ll see you later though.”
“Yes, thank you my dear, I’ll call the police and we can have a proper conference when you
“Right, bye for now then.”
Miss Ducat hung up and stood still for a moment, wondering what had come over her. She would normally have scoffed at any advice to take care, but, somehow the news of Frank Thrupp’s death, together with the knowledge that someone had been forging her work, had disturbed her. Miss Ducat fetched a chair and sat down next to the telephone table. If she was going to talk to the police, she was going to do it in comfort.
When Sarah Jane reached the art school, she paused for a moment to tidy her hair and try and regain some of her composure, then climbed the imposing front steps and made her way to the reception desk. In contrast to the Biological Society, the entrance hall of the Dale School of art was strikingly Art Deco in style. The walls were paneled with geometric designs in a variety of woods and the tiled floor had similar designs. The walls, light fittings and furniture all showed the smooth curves that characterized the period adding up to a whole that was polished, but not unwelcoming. Sarah crossed the entrance hall and introduced herself to the receptionist, who suggested that she take a seat, then turned to phone Professor Hoegben. The Professor arrived after about ten minutes and came forward with her hand held out.
“Miss Smith, so nice to see you, do come through.”
Despite Miss Ducat’s insistence that Julia Hoegben was “too young to be a professor,” the lady who greeted Sarah seemed, to her eyes at any rate, to be in early middle age. Her dark grey hair was pleated on the back of her head and sparkling drop earrings emphasized the gracefulness of her neck. She was taller than her guest and her high heeled shoes, which matched her elegantly tailored dark red suit, made her taller still. Her manner was not imposing, however, and Sarah found herself chatting quite naturally as they made their way to the lift that would take them to the second floor and the Professor’s office. The upper corridors were painted, rather than paneled but had the same lighting as the reception area. The Professor stopped in front of a dark oak door bearing a small brass plaque that read:
History of Art.
Professor R. Julia Hoegben RWS.
Having done a little research, Sarah knew the post nominal letters showed that the Professor was a fellow of the Royal Watercolour Society, which showed that Miss Ducat hadn’t overstated her talent as an artist. The office was really more of studio, Sarah was surprised at the size of it, compared to the cubby holes occupied by her lecturers at University. The walls were lined with shelves, filled with books and ornaments and paintings were hung in the spaces between the shelves. A desk stood under the window, its surface covered in trays and neatly piled documents and, on the other side of the room an easel stood next to a drafting table, which had been tilted to display three watercolours. A larger oil painting, depicting a vase of roses occupied the easel. Professor Hoegben watched as Sarah looked around and smiled.
“You’re admiring my office?”
“Yes! I mean, yes, what a lovely space to work in.”
“It is. Academia can be a bit of a grind at times, but it does have its perks. Now, do sit down. Mrs. Wilkes tells me you are interested in forgeries?”
“Yes, I’m doing a bit of background research for an article.”
“How interesting! The Professor sat down at her desk and leaned forward, “can you give me
any details, or are you sworn to secrecy?”
“Oh, I’m just at the beginning, really, doing the groundwork before I start in earnest.”
“Ah! A very diplomatic answer. But you are here to ask questions of me, not the other way around. How can I help?”
Sarah took out her notebook and pencil and settled herself more comfortably in her chair.
“Well, firstly, if you were asked to examine a picture that was suspected of being a forgery, how would you go about proving that it was, or wasn’t what it said it was?”
“Ah, getting straight to the point. Well, these days, there are a few things we can do. Thanks to scientific developments, we can test the paint, to see if it has the right composition for the period and we can x-ray the painting to see how it was executed and whether there is any underpainting, that is (she explained) to see if the artist had reworked the subject of if the canvas had been used before.”
“I see… and what about the artist’s technique?”
“Well we can compare the work under investigation to other works that have definite provenance,” the professor looked at Sarah to make sure she understood the term. Sarah nodded and made a note. Julia Hoegben smiled and carried on, “so we would compare the details, the brush-strokes, has the painting been executed with confidence, or cautiously? And we’d look at the signature too, if there was one. Hopefully, that would give us enough evidence to make a decision, but, sometimes it still comes down to instinct on the part of the assessors. The work of a great artist will give you a feeling that a lesser practitioner cannot hope to rival. She smiled and shrugged. “It sounds imprecise, compared to the rest, I know, but there it is.”
Sarah made a final note and looked up.
“Thank you. And (she paused) why do they do it? Apart from for money, I mean. Forgers are artists, but if they are successful, nobody would ever know that they had done the paintings, they couldn’t. Wouldn’t an artist want some recognition?”
“That’s the dilemma. I can’t say for sure, of course, but in some cases it seems that a forger enjoys fooling people. Getting one over on the establishment, you might say. If they feel their talent wasn’t sufficiently recognised, they might feel they had scored a victory by proving that the so-called ‘experts’ weren’t able to identify the fake. And they would appreciate the praise the work was getting, even if that praise was directed at the wrong artist. Does that answer your question?”
“Yes, I think so. Thank you.”
“Good,” the Professor stood up. “Now, let me show you some of my small collection.”
Sarah got up and followed her host over to the easel. Professor Hoegben explained the structure and technique the artist had used to create the work, demonstrating the use of a palette knife with a sweep of her arm and wrist. Next, she turned to the watercolours, a series of paintings of tulips. Sarah had no need to feign her admiration.
“Oh, these are exquisite! So much detail, they look as if they are really alive.” She looked more closely, examining the signature. “They’re yours?”
“Oh, no, I…” Sarah tried to cover her embarrassment. “I’m sorry, I…”
But the Professor laughed.
“It’s quite alright, Miss Smith. I set a trap for you, I admit. People do tend to forget that art teachers are also artists.”
Sarah had recovered some of her composure.
“They are beautiful. I don’t suppose you get much time for your own work when you are teaching.”
“Oh, I dodge it in, here and there. It wouldn’t do to get rusty. There’s too much competition to make a living out of it, especially in botanical art, but I keep my hand in.”
“I’m glad to hear it.”
“Thank you, Miss Smith and now, I’m afraid, I must ask you to leave. I need to sort out my notes and get to my lecture.”
“Of course, thank you so much for taking the time to speak to me, I really appreciate it.”
“You are most welcome. Let me show you to the lift.”
Professor Hoegben escorted her guest to the lift, shook hands with her, then went back along the corridor to her office. As the lift descended, Sarah Jane considered what she had been told and the impression the Professor had made on her. She had been drawn in by the friendliness and the warmth of the Professor’s welcome but, now she was alone again, the lingering impression was that she had been part of a performance, that the professor had been almost over-friendly. Sarah came out of the lift and waved to the receptionist on her way out. Perhaps she was being too sensitive. After all, Professor Hoegben was a busy woman and eminent in her field, she must be used to turning on the charm for people she didn’t really want to meet. Sarah Jane looked at her watch. Quarter to six. The tube would be packed still, but she wanted to get home quickly to get her things together. She’d drive to Miss Ducat’s but … a cab came close to the kerb and she made up her mind. “TAXI!”
In her office, Professor Hoegben seemed to be making no effort to prepare for her lecture. In fact there was no lecture that evening. The fictional evening lecture was a ploy she had used several times to put a time limit on visits, and it had served her well again. She sat down at her desk and picked up the phone, dialing from memory. As she waited for an answer, she picked up a framed photograph from her desk and moved it slightly, running her finger down the glass. The photograph showed a woman and a child on a beach, both grinning at the camera. The child was wearing dungarees and a cotton sunhat and had a bucket and spade in its hands. A few curls peeped out from under the hat. The woman wore a long sundress and a wide brimmed hat and one of her hands rested on the child’s head, while the other held a sketchbook. The Professor swung absentmindedly in her office chair, then stopped as her call was answered.
“Hello, darling. Yes, fine. How was work?”
A pause as she listened to the answer, a frown creasing her brows.
“Oh, I’m sorry … yes, what a pain. But don’t forget you won’t be there for much longer.”
“Yes, she’s just left. Nice girl, asked some sensible questions … well, yes, I did. I think I gave her enough to be going on with.”
Professor Hoegben laughed.
“No, not at all. At least I don’t think so, but we will need to... Good. Oh? No, actually, it was a lot easier than I thought it would be … yes, went right over. But we will have to … Yes, he had … bit of a nuisance really. But I’ll tell you all about it later and we can decide then. Yes, bye darling.”
The Professor hung up, then stood up and looked out of the window. She could see no sign of her visitor, so she wouldn’t be at risk of being spotted. Good. Professor Hoegben put on her coat, which was as elegantly tailored as the rest of her outfit and picked up a large leather handbag. As she turned off the lights, she smiled to herself at the memory of the meeting that had just taken place.
Sarah Jane reached Miss Ducat’s house at a little after seven that evening. To her surprise, the police were there, at least an Inspector, who introduced himself as Inspector Evans and a uniformed Sergeant named Patrick. The Inspector explained that, after speaking to Miss Ducat on the phone, he had decided that it would be better for all concerned if he came and spoke to the two of them together. While Miss Ducat prepared an omelette for her guest (she had dined earlier in the evening), Inspector Evans took a statement from Sarah about her involvement in the case, including her conversation with Professor Hoegben and her perspective on the visit to the Botanical Society, and checked her perception of the timing of events against Miss Ducat’s. Sarah gave her statement in her usual, considered way. Her adventures and her experience as a journalist had taught her that even apparently insignificant details could be vitally important.
The interview over, Inspector Evans thanked Sarah and had a brief discussion with Sergeant Patrick while Miss Ducat brought in Sarah’s meal and coffee for her and the others. While Sarah ate, the Inspector explained why he had come.
“Apart from taking your statements, which will be very helpful, I wanted to talk to you about the whole question of the forgeries. Our regular expert isn’t available, and we could do with your expertise, Miss Ducat.”
“Then you believe me?”
“Certainly. I think I can trust you to know your own paintings when you see them. And now with the death of Mr. Thrupp…”
“Good heavens!” exclaimed Miss Ducat. “You suspect foul play?”
“Let’s just say there are some questions I’d like answered.”
“Can you tell us?” asked Sarah, pausing with a forkful of omelette, “oh but if it’s confidential then of course you can’t.”
The Inspector considered.
“As we are consulting you about the forgeries, I think perhaps I can. Oh yes, you’re included in the consultation Miss Smith, provided none of the details find their way to your colleagues before we give permission.”
“Oh, that goes without saying.”
“Good. In that case then, we have been unable to find out who interrupted Mr. Thrupp while he was speaking to Miss Ducat. So far nobody has answered our appeal to say that they visited him.”
“I see,” said Sarah. “Well, perhaps they didn’t see the paper?”
“Possibly, but we had a spot in the evening television news too. I’d have thought that the person in question would have been keen to get in touch, as you were,” he nodded to Miss Ducat, “so, while I take your point, I do have to treat this lack of contact as suspicious.”
“Yes, I see that,” said Sarah. “May we … how did he die?”
“The preliminary examination suggests a heart attack. We’ve spoken to his consultant, he was seeing a chap in Harley Street, and apparently he’d had problems for several years. The consultant says he’d advised him to, well not to take it easy exactly, but to avoid overexertion or anything that might have put a strain on the heart. If he’d followed the advice, and as far as the consultant knew he was following it, he should have had at least another ten years left, if not twenty.”
“Oh!” said Miss Ducat, rather put out by the Inspector’s matter of fact attitude, “so are we to assume that he overexerted himself in some way?”
“There was no sign of him having done so, but it seems that a sudden traumatic event, a violent shock, say, could have the same effect.”
Sarah laid down her fork. “So he could have been frightened to death?”
“It appears so. Which makes it all the more important that we find the person who was at the door when you called, Miss Ducat.”
The artist frowned.
“I wish I could be of more help, but he mentioned no names. Although he did say he had been trying to contact the curator at the Botanical Society?”
“Yes, after we spoke on the phone I called Dr. Grant. He says he had no such message.”
“Interesting,” replied Miss Ducat, “and do you believe him?”
“We are trying to find out who took the message, if, indeed it was taken. The most likely person would be Miss Whiteacre, Dr. Grant’s assistant, but she wasn’t available when I called. The one point in Grant’s favour, if I may put it that way, is that he can account for his movements at the time your call was interrupted. He was attending a meeting of the gallery committee and his presence can be vouched for by the other members of the committee.”
“That seems fairly conclusive,” said Miss Ducat, “unless the entire committee is in on the conspiracy, which seems unlikely.”
“We have to consider it, but I agree,” replied the Inspector. “That being the case, the story would seem to go like this. Mr. Thrupp visits the gallery. Like you, he realizes that the painting displayed there has been forged. He is, understandably, horrified, but isn’t sure what to do. I’m not clear as to why he doesn’t talk to anyone at the Society, perhaps he isn’t sure who he can trust. Either way, by the time he gets home, he has decided to speak to Dr. Grant. Unfortunately for him, the message is left with a person who is in on the conspiracy and either they or an accomplice goes round to see him and that visit results in Thrupp’s death.”
“Are we assuming that whoever it is at the Botanical Society is the forger?”
“It’s possible,” the Inspector replied, looking at his notes, “this operation seems to be relatively small scale, although we don’t know how many other artist’s work have been faked and replaced.”
“No.” Sarah paused then something else occurred to her, “but weren’t they taking a risk, forging the works of living artists?”
“If we are assuming that one of them works at the Society, then they would know that Thrupp and I hardly ever visit,” put in Miss Ducat, “so they would be on fairly safe ground. It was just their bad luck that young Grant decided to have a rehang and we decided to visit.”
“I see,” said Sarah, thoughtfully. “So who is on the list. Not Grant, unless he has another accomplice… Inspector, Miss Ducat said that there had been talk of a forger called Bobby something, do you know anything about him?”
“Our team that deals with art and artefacts has heard the name, but they haven’t got any solid leads. Whoever Bobby is, he seems to specialize in watercolours though, so he could be our man.” He smiled “I was considering speaking to Professor Hoegben myself, actually, but you
beat me to it!”
Sarah smiled back.
“Nice to beat the police at their own game occasionally! I’m afraid I didn’t think to ask about Bobby.”
“Not to worry, we can always follow up with the Professor, though it sounds like she gave you plenty of information in any case.”
Miss Ducat put in, “And you got to see her pictures too. She doesn’t exhibit much these days, you were lucky.”
“They were really lovely,” said Sarah, “but she said she couldn’t earn a living with them, so she had to teach too. She didn’t say anything about exhibiting them.”
Miss Ducat stood up and went over to a large bookshelf.
“I think the last show she did was a retrospective to celebrate her appointment at the Dale… sure I’ve got the catalogue here somewhere …”
“I thought artists didn’t take notice of other people’s work?” asked Sarah, teasing.
Her host turned and wagged a finger at her.
“I see you’ve been paying attention! Well, as it happens, I don’t. But I do take a bit of notice of the up and coming names in my own field and I was impressed with her work, so I bought the catalogue.” She turned back to the shelf for a moment, then took down a slim, hard-back volume. “Here we are.”
She passed the catalogue to Sarah Jane, who opened it and turned the pages with interest.
“Oh, these are beautiful.”
The Inspector came and looked over Sarah’s shoulder.
“Talented lady. Shame she couldn’t make it pay.”
Miss Ducat nodded. “Yes, it was a pity. I don’t know a lot about her background, obviously, but I believe at the time someone saying they were glad she had been appointed because it would make it easier for her with her family. “
“I did see a photo of her with a child on her desk,” put in Sarah.
“Yes, not sure if she was divorced or widowed, none of my business really.”
Sarah turned to the biographical note at the back of the catalogue as Miss Ducat cleared the dining table and the Inspector went to the phone to check if there were any messages for him at the station. Suddenly, Sarah gave an exclamation. Sergeant Patrick, who had been collating her notes at a small table in the corner of the room, looked up.
“Have you found something?”
When Sarah didn’t reply, the Sergeant got up and went over to her.
“What is it?”
Sarah let out a long breath, then pointed at the page and read aloud,
“’Roberta Julia Hoegben was born in Salisbury’ Roberta. Her first name is Roberta. Don’t you see? I saw the initial R on her office door, but it didn’t register. She could be Bobby!”
Sergeant Patrick looked at the page.
“I see what you mean. I don’t know why we assumed Bobby was a he.”
“Perhaps because the famous forgers have mostly been men. The ones I’ve looked up have been, anyway. More fool us.”
“Yes. Sir?” this to the Inspector who had just come back in, “Miss Smith has found something.”
Between them, the two women explained what Sarah had discovered and what they thought it might mean. Inspector Evans looked doubtful.
“I don’t know. Is it too much of a coincidence? I know she doesn’t use her first name, but it’s not like she is keeping it a secret. Why would she use an alias that was so close to her actual name?”
“For the thrill of it, I expect,” remarked Miss Ducat, who had come back in and heard the conversation. The others turned to look at her.
“You think it could be her?” asked Sarah
“I think it’s very likely,” replied her host. Miss Ducat sat down and held up one hand, then proceeded to count off points on her fingers. “What do we know about her? A talented artist who, for one reason or another, is unable to earn a living by painting. She pursues a career in academia which allows her to continue to paint, but isn’t wholly satisfied with this path.”
“How do we know that?” asked the Inspector.
“From what she said to Miss Smith. And from the trick she played. She is frustrated to be perceived, as she sees it, as an academic, rather than an artist. She could have shown Miss Smith the paintings and told her that they were hers. Instead, she let Miss Smith discover it and enjoyed her discomfort, making her feel obliged to apologise. Then there’s the question of money. She will be earning what would we would count a reasonable wage for her post, but she wanted to be paid for her art. Taking part in this conspiracy could be her way of getting back at those who she felt did not recognise or reward her talent. Those who disregarded her are now admiring her work without knowing it, while she and her accomplice are stealing from them and profiting by it.”
“I see,” said the Inspector, “you make a good argument, I must say.”
“Thank you!” replied Miss Ducat, briskly. “Now, the next thing we need to discover is who is she working with?”
“Hang on, hang on,” put Inspector Evans. “I said you made a good argument, I didn’t say I was completely convinced by it. We’ll need to do some digging of our own before we go any further down that route.”
“Do it,” replied his hostess, serenely, “you’ll find that I’m right!”
The Inspector suppressed a smile and looked at his watch.
“Records will have knocked off for the night, so I can’t start looking at her bank balance now, but I will get them on to it first thing tomorrow. They may be able to turn up a connection to the Society too.”
Sarah frowned in thought.
“Could it be a relative?”
“It could be,” said the Inspector, “That would fit with the revenge motive. Why they chose the Botanical Society in particular …”
He looked at Miss Ducat, who shrugged.
“I’m afraid I can’t answer that one for you, Inspector. We don’t know if the accomplice was already working there before the plan was hatched, in which case it might just have been a convenient target, or, if they started working there because of the plan, she may have some grudge against the Society that we know nothing about.”
“I see. Well, “ the Inspector stood up, “we will have to leave that until tomorrow. If you ladies will take my advice, you’ll take care when you answer the door, at least for the next few days.”
“Oh, you need have no fear on that score,” replied Miss Ducat. “In any case I keep a golf club handy.”
Sarah Jane had the misfortune to catch Sergeant Patrick’s eye and the two of them turned away hastily to hide their laughter. The Inspector’s eyebrows went up.
“I think I’ll forget you told me that, Miss Ducat, but as long as you’re careful, now if it’s OK with you I’d like… ”
He walked towards the door as he spoke, his hostess and the sergeant with him and Sarah put the catalogue down on the dining table and stood up. For a moment she stood still, not really knowing what to do with herself, then she walked over to the bookcase and began to look at the titles, running her fingers down the spines. She looked up as Miss Ducat came back into the room.
“That’s that then! I don’t know about you, but I could do with a cocoa and an early night after all this excitement and carrying on. Your room is all ready for you, help yourself to a book if you want one.”
Sarah smiled and accepted the cocoa and the book with gratitude. She was soon ensconced in Miss Ducat’s spare bedroom, a steaming mug on the bedside table beside her and a history of the early Renaissance open on her lap. She smiled to herself as she remembered her visit to Italy with the Doctor and wondered if she would find a portrait of anyone she knew. She was just beginning to nod off, and was thinking of turning out the light, when the telephone bell shrilled from downstairs. Sarah Jane got out of bed and went to the door of her room, where she met Miss Ducat, who was fastening her dressing gown and muttering to herself. When she saw her guest, she waved her back.
“No, I’ll go, my dear. Goodness knows who it is calling at this ungodly hour, if it’s one of those nuisance calls I’ll give them a piece of my mind!”
She set off down the stairs, Sarah following her down, partly out of curiosity. By the time Sarah reached the hall, her hostess had already answered the phone. She spoke curtly to the person on the other end, then turned to her guest and said, with a puzzled expression, “she wants to speak to you.”
Sarah took the receiver wondering who on earth could be calling and who would know she was there. In answer to her “hello?” a vaguely familiar voice said;
“Oh. Is that Miss Smith? I’m so glad I’ve found you. I tried to call your number but you weren’t there. Then I thought you might be with Miss Ducat and I…”
Sarah cut off this stream of words.
“Who is this speaking?”
“Oh, I’m so sorry. I should have… I don’t know if you remember, we met this afternoon. At the
Botanical Society. My name is Jenny Whiteacre.”
“Yes, I remember,” said Sarah, frowning. “Is something the matter? Can I help you with something?”
“Yes, well, I don’t know. I’ve found something out, quite by accident. I think that Frank Thrupp was murdered, and I might have found out who did it, but I don’t want to go to the police in case the person finds out … and … and there’s something else. I think someone here has been stealing the artworks.”
“And do you know who?”
“I think so, but I’m not sure. Can you come and meet me? There’ll be nobody there now, we can go in the staff entrance, I’ve got the keys because I often have to work late.”
“Now? It’s … but?”
“I know I’m asking a lot, but I don’t know who to trust. They might all be in on it. I have to show someone.”
Sarah Jane thought hard. She didn’t like the idea of going off alone to meet Jenny Whiteacre, who she hardly knew, but, on the other hand, the girl did sound genuinely frightened and she might have information that could help them. Perhaps, Sarah thought, she could go and meet her and persuade her to come with her to the police. It was worth a try.
“Ok, Jenny, where shall I meet you?”
“Come to the side of the Hall, that’s where the staff entrance is. How … how long will you be?”
Sarah looked at the hall clock.
“I’ll bring the car, there won’t be much traffic at this time of night, say half an hour?”
“Right. Thank you. I’ll see you there. I’ve been so frightened, I can’t tell you.”
“Ok. Try and stay calm. I’m on my way.”
Sarah hung up and looked at Miss Ducat, who was standing by with a questioning expression.
“That was Jenny Whiteacre from the gallery. She wants me to go and meet her, she says she’s found out something about Frank Thrupp’s murder and she’s too scared to go to the police. And she has found some evidence of the thefts.”
“Hmm. Really? I don’t want to doubt her, but … in the middle of the night? I don’t like it, Sarah.”
“I know. But she sounded really scared and this could be important. I’ll try and persuade her to come to the police with me.”
“Oh very well, I see your mind is made up. Be careful, though, and if you aren’t back in two hours I’ll call the police myself.”
“Right.” Sarah went back upstairs and dressed hurriedly, grabbing her shoulder bag from the coat rack as she went out. Once outside, she realised she’d forgotten her jacket, but the night was warm and it wasn’t worth going back in. She got into her car and pulled away as quietly as possible, trying not to disturb Miss Ducat’s neighbours. Inside the house, Miss Ducat stood for a moment, scowling at the closed front door. Then she sighed. There was just no telling young people. As she was up, and intended to stay up until Sarah came back, she might as well have a cup of tea and a biscuit or two to keep her going. Having made that decision, she hitched her dressing gown more comfortably around her and went to the kitchen.
As Sarah had guessed, there was little traffic on the roads that night. She parked her car outside the Halls and made her way to the side of the building. In the dim glow of the safety light above the door, she saw a figure waiting. As she approached the figure came forward and resolved itself into Jenny Whiteacre, wearing a long coat over her jeans and jumper, one hand thrust into a pocket, the other holding a torch.
“Oh, Miss Smith, thank you so much.”
“Please, I must show you what I found.”
“Yes, OK, but afterwards I want you to come with me to the police. They will make sure nothing happens to you. You need to speak to them.”
Jenny Whiteacre stepped back.
“I … don’t know. If you’ll come with me?”
“Of course I will,” said Sarah, in her most reassuring voice. “Now, what have you found out.”
“It’s in the store. I was working down there this evening and … but it’ll be easier to explain once we’re there.”
Jenny let the way into the building. The interior was eerily quiet, the shadows seeming to gather and threaten as Sarah Jane and her guide passed through the entrance hall and down the stairs. Sarah shivered as they walked along the corridor. Jenny glanced at her.
“I’m sorry, it’s cold down here.”
“Oh, don’t worry, it’s just the contrast to outside.”
“Right,” Jenny drew a deep breath. “We’re here.”
She entered the security code and unlocked the store door, holding it open for Sarah to enter. Sarah Jane took two steps inside, then got a shove in the back that sent her stumbling into the room and falling to the ground. As she turned and tried to get back on her feet, she saw Jenny standing in the doorway. This wasn’t the pale, frightened girl she had met at the entrance, that she had spoken to on the phone. This Jenny was standing straighter, her mouth curved in a cold smile, a gun in her hand. Sarah gasped as she stood up.
“Yes. Little scared Jenny. No, that’s close enough,” she waved the gun and Sarah stepped back, “you fell right for it didn’t you? Mother said you would. I thought you were brighter than that, but you couldn’t resist a sob story, could you?”
“Mother?” Sarah’s mind raced as she looked around for something, anything to help her, “Professor Hoegben?”
“Got it in one. Yes, that’s her maiden name, of course. No,” as she saw Sarah edging towards a chair, “stay where you are. I will use this if I have to, but then I’ll have to get rid of your body, which will be awkward. I’d rather leave you here and let nature take its course.”
“What do you mean, nature?” asked Sarah, trying to keep her captor talking for as long as she could. What time was it, she wondered. Would Miss Ducat have called the police yet?
“Oh, it’s quite simple really. A careless journalist wanders into a building and gets shut in a storeroom. Unfortunately the temperature has been set rather lower than usual, and there’s nobody in the building to open the door. So, by the following day, well, curiosity will have killed the cat.”
Sarah ran forward, shouting “No!” then flinched and retreated as Jenny fired at a nearby chair.
A puff of dust and fibre erupted from the seat. Sarah looked at it in horror, then back at her
“I told you. I will use this if you force me to. Now, go over there. That’s right, right back against the wall. Good.”
“But you won’t get away with it,” said Sarah in desperation, “Miss Ducat knows…” she stopped, wishing she had bitten her tongue.
“Oh, does she? Not to worry. Mother will be sorting her out soon.”
She laughed lightly.
“But we’ve told the police. They know…”
“What? What a nosy journalist and a mad old bat of a painter suspect? They’ll have trouble proving it. In any case we will be gone by the time they work it out. If they ever do. Sorry I won’t be here to find you tomorrow, that will be dear Dr. Grant’s job. I hope he isn’t too upset. Now, why don’t you sit down,” she waved the gun towards the chair and Sarah sat in it, “and have a little snooze? You won’t feel much in the end. I’ve made it nice and cool for you. Oh and don’t think about trying to set off the alarm, it’s disabled. Sleep well.”
As she closed the door, Sarah rushed towards it, thumping on it with her fists and shouting for help. She heard the keys turn and Jenny’s footsteps retreating down the corridor. Sarah Jane sank to the floor. Shivering, she curled up against the door and wrapped her arms round herself as the cold began to bite.
Miss Ducat glanced at the clock. Not time to call the police yet. But she was worried, nonetheless. She knew that Sarah Jane was far more experienced in this kind of thing than she was, but she couldn’t help being concerned. Miss Ducat put aside the magazine she had been leafing through and picked up the catalogue of Julia Hoegben’s exhibition, turning the pages aimlessly. Reproductions of the paintings were interspersed with photographs. One showed a young couple with a child. Miss Ducat adjusted her glasses and looked at it. She recognised the young Professor Hoegben, but the man was a stranger to her. Her curiosity aroused Miss Ducat looked at the caption underneath:
“Julia with her former husband, Thomas W….”
With an exclamation Amelia Ducat jumped to her feet and ran to the telephone. She drummed her fingers impatiently while she waited for an answer.
“Hello? This is Amelia Ducat. Is Inspector Evans there? No? Well, what about Sergeant Patrick?
Oh… yes, please…. Sergeant. Amelia Ducat here. You must get some men to the Botanical Society. Quickly. What? Miss Smith is in danger… she… yes.”
Miss Ducat answered the Sergeant’s urgent questions, then sat down on the bottom of the stairs, her heart pounding. She had done what she could, she only hoped that Sergeant Patrick and her men would be in time.
Sarah Jane paced the store, rubbing her arms to try and keep warm. Her breath steamed in the cold air and she shivered almost continuously. Stay awake. She must stay awake. She looked at her watch. Surely Miss Ducat would have called the police? But supposing there was nobody at the station? Supposing Professor Hoegben had already gone to “sort out” the artist. Sarah shuddered and looked around. The door was smooth, the keyhole only accessible from outside, and she already knew about the alarm. But thinking about the alarm gave her an idea. Sarah made another circuit of the room, keeping as close as she could to the wall. There. There it was. Mounted close to the desk where she and Miss Ducat had looked at the paintings was a small rectangular box marked “in case of fire, break glass.” Sarah reached out to press the glass in, the paused. She remembered that some archive stores had gas extinguishant systems. Setting off the alarm might release a flood of carbon dioxide or halon gas into the room. But then again, if she didn’t try, she would be dead by the morning. Already her shivers were getting further apart, and her mind was becoming fuzzy. Sarah took a deep breath and pressed in the glass panel, which snapped, then pressed the button beneath. Nothing. No noise, no gas, no sign that anything was happening. Sarah Jane let herself slide down to the floor again. She was so tired. Surely a short rest … her head drooped, and her eyelids began to close.
Two police cars stopped with a screech of brakes outside the Botanical Society Halls. Sergeant Patrick got out of the first car, calling to her team to follow her. As they gathered their equipment, a fire engine arrived, followed, unexpectedly by a mini. The police officers watched as the firemen got down from the engine and a dark-haired figure got out of the car. This was Dr. Grant, who on seeing the police, came over with the lead fireman to find out what was going on.
“Sergeant Patrick, Sir, we have reason to believe that Miss Smith is trapped in the building, possibly being held hostage.”
“My goodness!” Grant’s pale face grew even paler under the streetlights. “The fire alarm has been triggered in the store. When it goes off it sends a signal to the fire service and they called me to supervise recovering the collections I …”
The Sergeant stopped him.
“Where is this store?”
“In the basement, it’s a secure room and …”
“Right. Come on.”
The Sergeant led the way inside and sent some of her team to search the upper levels of the building, while she, Grant and the firemen went down to the basement. They reached the door and the fireman put the back of his hand against it.
Grant was looking at the temperature gauge.
“It’s at least 20 degrees colder than it should be! What on earth? And the alarm is turned off.”
Sergeant Patrick stepped forward and knocked loudly on the door.
“Miss Smith? Miss Whiteacre? Are you in there?”
There was no reply. The Sergeant turned to Dr. Grant.
“Open it. Quickly.”
The curator fumbled with his keys, his hands shaking, and unlocked the door, then stepped back. Two of the firemen stepped inside, looking for any sign of fire, then one of them exclaimed and ran over to the desk. Sarah Jane was huddled under it, curled up, her eyes closed, apparently asleep. One of the firemen removed his glove and felt for a pulse. Sarah’s eyelids flickered. She mumbled something, then moved slightly as if turning in bed. The fireman called out.
“She’s alive!” and Sergeant Patrick turned to the curator once again.
“Have you got any blankets?”
“I, yes. In the workroom, we use them to …”
“Go and get them.”
Grant ran off down the corridor and the Sergeant held the door open as one of the firemen carried Sarah Jane out of the store. His colleague closed the door behind them, shutting in the cold air. The fireman carried Sarah towards the stairs, where they were met by the curator, his arms full of coarse grey blankets.
“Good, thank you Dr. Grant.”
The Sergeant spread out two of the blankets and Sarah was lowered on to them and wrapped up, then picked up again and carried out of the building and carefully placed on the back seat of one of the police cars. Sergeant Patrick nodded her thanks to the fireman.
“No point waiting for an ambulance, we’ll take her straight to hospital,” she said.
“Right, we’ll finish up here and get off then,” he replied and turned back to reenter the building.
Having given brief instructions to one of her team, the Sergeant got into the car and, lights blazing and siren blaring, the car pulled away and drove off at speed down the empty street.
At eight o’clock the following morning, Miss Ducat’s doorbell rang. The artist put down her coffee cup and went to answer the door, a wry smile on her face. Standing on the doorstep was Professor Hoegben, looking as elegant as she had when Sarah had met her. When the door opened, she smiled and stepped forward and held out a hand encased in a smart leather glove.
“Miss Ducat. You probably don’t remember me. We met so long ago. Julia Hoegben. May I
Miss Ducat shook the proffered hand and said, “Of course,” then stood back to let her guest enter. She showed the Professor into the front room and gestured to a wing-backed chair near the fireplace. The room looked bright and welcoming, the morning sun streamed in through the bay window and gleamed off the gold lacquer work on a Japanese screen that Miss Ducat had drawn across to divide the room and conceal the dining table. Professor Hoegben looked around her and sat down with a sigh.
“What a charming room. I would have expected nothing less from an artist of your calibre. Now Amelia, I may call you Amelia?” (Miss Ducat nodded) “Thank you. I expect you are wondering why I’ve come?”
“I assumed you wanted to kill me,” replied Miss Ducat, bluntly. “You do want to kill me, don’t you, Roberta?”
Professor Hoegben laughed. The same warm, delighted laugh that she had given when she had met Sarah Jane.
“Oh, you have discovered my name. Clever of you. I suppose it was careless of me to become known as Bobby.”
“Nonsense,” replied Miss Ducat. “You wanted to be found out. Oh, not consciously. But you wanted the recognition of your talents.”
“Did I?” said the Professor, thoughtfully. “Perhaps. It would have been nice, after all these years of getting the brush off from pompous stuffed shirts who were only interested in ‘established artists.’ But the money is some compensation, of course, as is knowing that I’ve fooled them.”
Miss Ducat was intrigued, in spite of herself.
“How many have you actually done?”
“Oh, one loses count after the first twenty or so,” said the Professor, carelessly.
“I don’t believe that for a moment,” replied Miss Ducat, tartly. “But, that aside, why did you choose my work to imitate? I’m still alive, at least for the time being.”
“I needed a new outlet. My work was becoming recognised in certain circles and one of my contacts was keen to have a specific example of your work, so…” she shrugged. “Jenny checked and found that you barely visited the Society and that the paintings my contact wanted had been in storage since you donated them, so we took a chance. As it turned out, that was a mistake, but I live and learn.” She smiled, “but I’m getting sidetracked. Where were we? Oh yes, you were asking if I intend to kill you.”
“And do you?”
Professor Hoegben laughed again.
“My dear Amelia, of course I do. Why else would I be here at this unsociable hour?”
Miss Ducat smiled, grimly, and said, “you know that I have spoken to the police? They are aware of your alias and the scheme you hatched with your daughter.”
The Professor flinched but remained calm.
“Really. You have been doing your homework. But that doesn’t change anything. We have the money, and we will be leaving the country today. Names and appearances are easy to change, you know. We can start again and begin to enjoy our lives at last. And, even if the police suspect us, they will find it difficult to prove the forgeries once the artists have died. It is a shame about Miss Smith, she was a clever girl and might have had a bright future, but she couldn’t be allowed to interfere. And neither can you.”
“And Frank Thrupp?” asked Miss Ducat.
“Oh, he made it easy for me. When Jenny told me he had phoned, I went round to see him. Jenny found his address for me in the files at the Society. His heart gave out before I needed to make good on any of my threats. I couldn’t have hoped for better, really. I suppose,” she added, hopefully, “I can’t expect the same from you?”
“Certainly not!” snapped her intended victim, “and, that being said, may I ask what you intend to do to me? Assuming that I don’t run out of the room and call the police, or raise merry Hell?”
As she said this, Miss Ducat got up from the sofa and moved quickly towards the door, but the Professor was before her. She sprang from the armchair and stood with her back against the door. She took a small cosh out her coat pocket and slipped the strap over her wrist, gripping the shaft in her left hand, then moved towards Miss Ducat. The artist retreated as the Professor approached her.
“That’s better.” Julia Hoegben spoke quietly, “sit down, please, Amelia, there is no need for a fuss.”
Miss Ducat obeyed, sitting back down on the sofa. The Professor sat down again too, the cosh resting on her knee.
“Now,” she said, reaching into her handbag, “as you’ve been so cooperative and because I really can’t abide a fuss, I am going to give you a choice.”
She pulled a small bottle out of the bag.
“I’ve got something here for you to take. It’ll send you off to sleep and then I’ll put the bottle upstairs in the bathroom and the police will assume you muddled up your dosage and took too much by accident. A nice, tidy, unfussy death.”
“And the alternative?” asked Miss Ducat, drily.
“Oh,” said the Professor, putting the bottle down on the arm of the chair, “the alternative is that I knock you on the head and stage a burglary. Much more painful for you and much more of a nuisance for me.”
“I see,” replied Miss Ducat, in the same dry tone, “and supposing I decide not to choose either option?”
Professor Hoegben seemed genuinely puzzled.
“There isn’t an alternative. I’ve given you your choices. Now, why not make it easier for both of us and take your medicine?” she leaned forward, holding out the bottle, “I haven’t got time to waste arguing.”
Miss Ducat sat back on the sofa.
“No, I don’t think I will. I’ve considered your offer and I don’t accept it. I think,” she raised her voice slightly, “that’s enough.”
The Professor’s frown deepened. She stood up and raised the cosh.
“Then I must choose for you. I…”
A sudden movement made her turn. She found herself face to face with Inspector Evans, who gripped both of her wrists and shouted “Briggs!” The door opened and a uniformed constable came in. Between them they wrestled the cosh away from the Professor, who had turned from an elegant, genteel academic to a raging fury. She writhed in the Inspector’s grip, screaming and spitting. Once the police officers had succeeded in handcuffing her, Constable Briggs took her to the door. She turned towards Miss Ducat, a triumphant smile on her face and said viciously.
“This won’t bring your precious journalist back, though, will it?”
Miss Ducat smiled serenely, disconcerting her attacker.
“You mean Miss Smith? She’s upstairs, sleeping off the effects of last night.”
At that, Constable Briggs opened the door and steered Professor Hoegben out of it. Her curses echoed in the hall, until the slam of the front door told the Inspector and Miss Ducat that she had been taken outside to be driven to the Police station. Inspector Evans let out a long breath.
“Thank you, Miss Ducat, that’s everything we needed.”
“I should hope so!” replied the artist.
The Inspector smiled.
“I’d better go and escort my prisoner to the station. Sergeant Patrick is upstairs, I’ll ask her to come down for a bit and keep you company.”
Miss Ducat was about to reply that she was old enough not to need keeping company but stopped herself. Truth be told, she was feeling shaken after her ordeal. Inspector Evans nodded to her and went out to the hall and upstairs to the spare room. He tapped gently on the door. Sergeant Patrick answered, opening the door just enough to peer through, then came out onto the landing.
“How is she?” asked the Inspector.
“Good, I thought the noise might have disturbed her.”
“No, not a peep” replied the Sergeant softly.
“Excellent. If you think she’ll be alright for a bit, I’d like you to come down and sit with Miss Ducat for a bit, perhaps get her a cup of tea. She won’t admit it, but she’s been put through the wringer and could do with some company.”
The sergeant grinned.
The two of them made their way back downstairs and Sergeant Patrick went through to the kitchen to make some tea. The Inspector stuck his head round the door of the front room long enough to explain that he would either telephone or call round when he had any more news, then left, taking Constable Briggs and the Professor, who had subsided from rage to frozen silence, with him.
It was the following day when Inspector Evans and Sergeant Patrick returned to the house. The Sergeant had stayed on for a couple of hours, until the Inspector phoned to confirm that both the Professor and her daughter were safely locked up. The relief at this announcement used up the last of Miss Ducat’s energy and, after checking on Sarah, she went to bed. The Inspector phoned again in the morning, to check if he might call round that afternoon and, on finding out that he was planning to come at half past one and bring the Sergeant with him, Miss Ducat said they would be most welcome, provided he didn’t mind picking up a meal she was going to order from a restaurant round the corner.
“There’ll be enough for everyone. They don’t usually do take-away but I’m a regular customer and they are happy to indulge me from time to time.”
Inspector Evans raised his eyebrows at this, but then laughed and said he would be happy to run the errand as long as he got a good meal at the end of it.
“Oh, you certainly will. The stroganoff is exceptional.”
Thinking that Miss Ducat sounded none the worse for her ordeal, the Inspector hung up and informed his sergeant of the arrangements. At a little before two, the police officers arrived, bearing two large dishes and one smaller one, which held dessert. Miss Ducat welcomed them and said,
“Come through, the table’s laid already. I wasn’t sure if you were allowed to drink on duty, so I’ve got some lemonade.”
Laughing at this, her guests went through to the dining room, where they found the table set for lunch and Sarah Jane, still pale, but looking more her usual self, sitting at the table. Miss Ducat bustled around, unwrapping the food containers and putting them in the centre of the table for people to help themselves.
“No point standing on ceremony!”
The Inspector sat down and looked at Sarah.
“How are you feeling, Miss Smith?”
Sarah gave a smile and replied, “much better, thank you,” then turned to the Sergeant and said, “and thank you for getting me out.”
“You’re welcome,” replied Sergeant Patrick, briskly, “that was a good idea of yours to set the fire alarm off.”
“It was the only thing I could think of,” replied Sarah, shivering a little.
Miss Ducat looked at her sharply.
“I think that’s enough about that for the time being. Lunch first, then we can talk it over when we’ve fortified ourselves.”
The Inspector, who was serving himself a helping of steaming rice to go with the stroganoff, nodded.
“I agree. Tell me, Miss Ducat, how do you choose the subjects for your paintings? Do you work to commissions, or is it your own choice?”
Amelia Ducat was always happy to talk about her work, and she and the Inspector kept the conversation going for the length of the meal, with occasional interjections from Sarah Jane and the Sergeant. Once they had finished dessert, a fruit and cream confection that reminded Sarah a little of Angel Delight, Miss Ducat brought out coffee and suggested they move to more comfortable seats for what she described as “the debrief.”
Having handed out the coffee cups and settled herself in her chair, Miss Ducat looked at the Inspector.
“Well, Mr. Evans, it seems we are all sitting comfortably, so you had better begin.”
The inspector smiled at her.
“It seems a bit incongruous to be talking about murder and forgery after a such a pleasant meal, but that’s why we are here, so I shall begin. Or, if you prefer, you could ask me questions and I will attempt to answer them.”
“Ok,” said Sarah Jane, “Has Professor Hoegben talked?”
“She has,” the Inspector replied, “and at some length.”
“Ha!” put in Miss Ducat, “I knew she wouldn’t be able to resist the chance to swank.”
“You were quite right. She told us everything, how she’d begun forging pictures as a way of proving to herself and others that she was unfairly treated by the art establishment, how she’d attracted the attention of a middleman who sold pictures to collectors who didn’t ask too many questions and began to supply him with works to replace the ones he stole and how she decided to do without him and work with Jenny, to get a bigger cut of the profits. I got the distinct impression she was expecting me to be in awe of her cleverness and make admiring comments. I’m afraid she was doomed to disappointment.”
Sarah had another question.
“Why did she choose the Botanical Society collection? Did Jenny get the job there first, or was her going to work there part of the plan?”
The Inspector leaned back in his chair.
“It was a lucky opportunity I think. She does seem to have had a particular grudge against the gallery committee, she submitted some works for the collection earlier in her career and had them rejected in terms that still rankled with her. The collection was ideal for her in other respects, a little known gallery that has few visitors and many of its works in almost permanent storage. So, when the assistant curator post was advertised, it seemed too good a chance for her and Jenny to miss. She worked on the forgeries, advertising the possibilities for sale to her select group of buyers, and Jenny effected the substitutions. It was her mistake to decide to move to copying the work of living artists, and her misfortune that Dr. Grant decided to shake up the collection a bit more regularly.”
“Hmm,” muttered Miss Ducat. “Do you know why she did that? I know what she said, but do you believe her?”
“I think the truth of the matter is she got greedy,” replied Inspector Evans, “She’d been so successful she must have begun to feel invulnerable. For criminals the temptation of one last job, one last payday, can be irresistible.”
Miss Ducat sighed in agreement.
“That seems the most likely explanation. I don’t suppose the paintings will ever be recovered?”
“They are on our watch list, of course, but I’m afraid I don’t think it’s likely. The Professor has destroyed her customer list and, with the circles some of her clients are likely to have moved in, it would be in her interest to keep quiet about who they were. If any of the works comes up for sale, we may be able to intercept it, otherwise, I doubt we will see them again.”
“I see. Oh well. At least I’m still here to paint some new ones!”
“Indeed,” said the Inspector, smothering a smile, “and for many years to come, we hope.” He looked at his watch. “Now, if you’ll excuse us, we should get back to work. Following up on the case with witnesses is one thing, but dining out on the company time might be frowned upon.” He stood up, as did Sergeant Patrick. “In any case, you both had a very long day yesterday, so I suspect a bit more rest wouldn’t go amiss.”
Miss Ducat put down her coffee cup. “I shall be spending the afternoon in my studio, that will be soothing enough for me. Miss Smith, on the other hand, will be going back to bed.”
Sarah protested at this. “Oh, but I’m quite well now, really! I don’t want to be a nuisance to you, I can drive home and rest there…”
Inspector Evans smiled as he and the Sergeant went out into the hall and heard Miss Ducat say, firmly, “Now don’t argue with me, Sarah. Sergeant Patrick told me what the doctor said. You only just escaped severe hypothermia and that sort of thing takes time to recover from. Up you go and have a nap and we’ll see about you driving home later on.”
Half expecting to see his hostess taking her guest upstairs by the ear like a naughty child, the Inspector put his head back round the door and said “Goodbye Miss Ducat, Miss Smith.”
“Goodbye, Inspector, Sergeant Patrick, let me show you out,” replied Miss Ducat.
As Sarah Jane climbed the stairs to go and have the rest which, she privately admitted, she really was in need of, she reflected that life without the Doctor looked like being almost as eventful as it was with him. She sat down on the edge of the bed and sighed, promising herself that her next story, whatever it was, would not involve as much danger as this one had.