Losing Ground

A Sloan and Crosby Mystery

Detective Chief Inspector C.D. Sloan (Volume 21 of 23)

Catherine Aird

Minotaur Books

CHAPTER ONE
‘There’s something I want, Stu,’ said Jason Burke, indicating a piece of paper he’d just tossed on the table in front of Stuart Bellamy. ‘Get a load of that.’
Bellamy picked up the paper and read out slowly, ‘A view of Tolmie Park near the market town of Berebury photographed from the air.’
‘That’s right.’ Burke strummed a few notes on a guitar. ‘It’s over Calleford way.’
Bellamy peered at the picture more closely and said warily, ‘Jason, this is a picture of a socking big country house in the middle of a large park.’
‘That’s right.’ Jason bent more carefully over the guitar and twanged the same notes over again. And again. ‘It’s in the middle of nowhere, actually.’
‘A country house that looks as if it’s falling down,’ pointed out Bellamy.
‘It does, doesn’t it?’ agreed Jason, reaching for a sheet of music. ‘I expect it is, too. It’s pretty old.’
‘It looks it,’ said Bellamy, adding studiously, ‘Jason, you’ve got a house already. A nice one.’
‘Sure,’ said Jason agreeably, ‘but I want this one, too.’
Stuart Bellamy said nothing for a moment. Working as the manager of Jason Burke, who was known to the wider world of Pop Music as Kevin Cowlick, had already led him into the wilder areas of finance – ones that had not been covered by his own accountancy apprenticeship. Actually, Bellamy hadn’t completed his apprenticeship to become a fully qualified accountant – not that Jason cared about that – but every now and then he wished he had. This was one of those times.
Eventually, sounding as if he understood his employer’s way of thought, he said, ‘Of course, it’s bigger than this one you’ve got now.’ He waved towards the forty-track synthesiser at the other end of the room. ‘And there’d be much more room for extra equipment.’
‘Oh, it’s not that,’ said Jason casually, his hand straying to the lock of hair that fell across his forehead and was the inspiration for his stage name. ‘It’s for sentimental reasons. That’s why I want it.’
‘Ah…’ murmured Stuart Bellamy.
‘First big bike ride me and my mate took out of Luston – we were only nippers at the time – we fetched up at this Tolmie Park and I thought that if I got to be rich and famous that I’d like to live there.’
‘I see,’ said Bellamy. And he did. Jason was not the only young man to have spotted a goal early in life and used it as something to aim for or to lay at the feet of some lady. The difference was that Jason was still young…and so far there was no lady.
‘And now I’m rich and famous,’ said Jason simply, ‘I’m going to have it.’ He resumed playing his guitar.
‘That may be easier said than done,’ pointed out Bellamy cautiously. ‘Whoever owns it may not want to sell.’
‘Every man has his price,’ responded Jason. This was one thing that success and its consequent great wealth had already taught the young pop star.
‘True,’ said Stuart Bellamy, ‘very true, but don’t forget it may cost.’
Jason Burke let his glance travel meaningfully over a rack of albums all with the name of Kevin Cowlick on them before he said again ‘I want it.’
‘Sure,’ said Bellamy.
‘So go get it for me, Stu – oh, and Stu…’
‘Yes?’
‘Get me another djembe, too.’
‘Okey dokey.’ Stuart Bellamy thought how like Jason it was to want him to buy for him both a vast country estate and a new drum in the same breath. ‘Will do.’
‘It’s an outrage,’ spluttered Marcus Fixby-Smith, curator of the Greatorex Museum in Granary Row, Berebury. ‘An absolute outrage.’
‘It would appear to be a case of theft,’ pronounced Detective Inspector CD Sloan, rather less emotionally. He was head of the tiny Criminal Investigation Department of F Division of the Calleshire County Constabulary. As such almost all matters that could not be diverted to Traffic Division or the Family Case Officer landed up on his plate.
This was one of them.
‘Robbery with violence,’ insisted the curator, pointing to the damaged glass top of a showcase.
‘Breaking and entering,’ countered Sloan briskly, indicating the smashed window of the gallery and broken glass.
The museum curator tossed his long hair out of his eyes and said, ‘Inspector, the thief, whoever he was, as well as stealing a portrait, did violence to this show cabinet and quite possibly to the exhibition pieces on display inside it.’
‘I can see that that is very likely, sir,’ agreed Sloan, peering at the damaged piece of museum furniture and its disarranged contents.
‘He must have gone through the glass top while he was standing on it to reach up to get at the portrait,’ declared Fixby-Smith.
‘You could well be right about that,’ said Sloan equably. ‘Where would this showcase have been standing in the ordinary way?’
Marcus Fixby-Smith waved a hand and pointed to the middle of the room. ‘Just over there. Easy enough to drag it up against the wall and hop onto it.’
The museum curator had at his side his assistant, an intelligent and able young woman wearing glasses, called Hilary Collins. Her low-key sandy-coloured blouse and skirt were in direct contrast to the flamboyant clothes of her boss.
Detective Inspector CD Sloan, known to his friends in the Force for obvious reasons as ‘Seedy’, had not been quite so fortunate. He had with him at his side at the museum as his assistant Detective Constable Crosby, dressed – at least in theory – in what was officially described in police circles as plain clothes.
Crosby, though admittedly young, was not really up to being at the cutting edge of detection. What Superintendent Leeyes had said when the call from the museum had come through was: ‘Take him with you, Sloan. He can’t do any more damage there and he might even learn something.’
Seeing the constable advancing at the double on the broken glass of the show cabinet now, Sloan wasn’t so sure of either the premise or the possibility. ‘The Scenes of Crime Officer will want to examine that first, Crosby,’ he said swiftly, motioning him back.
All four of them were standing immediately under the place on the wall of the museum where, until recently, had hung the portrait of Sir Francis Edward Petherton Filligree, 4th Baronet, of Tolmie Park, near Berebury. The oil painting had been cut neatly from its ornate gilt frame. Along the lower edge of the frame was inscribed in black letters the subject’s name and dates. Above this now in the place of the portrait was just an old wooden backing board.
Detective Inspector Sloan turned over a new page in his notebook and wrote down the place, date and time. ‘Would this have been a particularly valuable painting, sir?’
The curator threw out his chest. ‘We have many more important pieces here in the museum naturally, but any portrait by Peter de Vesey has its own value.’
‘Who he?’ asked Detective Constable Crosby insouciantly.
Marcus Fixby-Smith favoured him with the pained expression of an expert talking to a total ignoramus. ‘A well-known local artist, very popular with the eighteenth-century landed classes of Calleshire.’
‘He painted most of them in his day,’ put in Hilary Collins helpfully. ‘We’ve got several more works by the same artist in our collection here and there are some others over in the Calleshire museum and Art Gallery.’
‘We have the best ones, though,’ put in Fixby-Smith quickly.
Sloan, who could recognise a turf war as well as the next man, tried another tack. ‘Would you care to put a value on what has been stolen?’
‘Impossible,’ declared Fixby-Smith histrionically.
‘Not easy,’ explained Hilary Collins. ‘De Vesey portraits so seldom come on the market these days. Families that have them do like to hang onto them, you know.’
‘Ancestor-worship,’ said Detective Constable Crosby under his breath.
‘So why haven’t the Filligrees still got Sir Francis?’ enquired Sloan mildly.
‘I think it could just be because there aren’t any of them left. Filligrees, I mean,’ said Hilary Collins. ‘But I don’t know that for sure.’
‘Perhaps they were broke and had to flog him off,’ put in Crosby. ‘Like selling the family silver.’
The museum curator grimaced. ‘Worse, we might even have been given him. Then we’d have had to have him – I mean, it – whether we liked it or not.’ Since this didn’t quite accord with his earlier stance he added hastily. ‘Of course, we’re always pleased to have anything by Peter de Vesey. Naturally.’
More practically, Hilary Collins said, ‘I turned up our Accession List before you arrived, Inspector, and it looks as if the portrait came into our collection at some time in the late nineteen-thirties. We have it in our records as having got it on long term loan from the family.’
‘There would have been very little market for this sort of work just before the war,’ put in the museum curator authoritatively. ‘Things were very flat in that field then.’
‘They were hard times,’ said Sloan, who had his grandparents’ memories of those years to go on.
‘And I believe the Army requisitioned the house in the war…’ said Hilary Collins.
‘Harder times still,’ said Sloan. That he’d learnt from his own parents.
‘Then after the war,’ she resumed, ‘I understand the authorities used it for a while to house delinquent children…’
It would be a toss-up, thought Sloan, whether they would have done more or less damage than the rough soldiery. ‘And then?’ he asked.
‘I have an idea tat at one time someone wanted to carve the place up into self-contained flats but keeping the façade and the style,’ replied Hilary Collins. ‘That was after the delinquent children.’
‘You know the sort of thing, Inspector,’ the curator interrupted her, ‘grand country house living without having to worry about the roof or the drive all on your own.’
‘I do,’ said Sloan. They knew all about the aspirational society in the criminal investigation world, too.
‘Delusions of grandeur, if you ask me,’ muttered Crosby.
‘And then there was a rumour about having a golf course there.’ Hilary Collins frowned. ‘I rather think something went wrong with a bank loan at that stage but that was only hearsay. I’m not sure.’
‘So?’ asked Sloan, mindful of more important problems than a break-in and the history of an old building awaiting him back at the police station. Bank loans that had gone wrong were not exactly hot news there either.
‘I expect the planning people wouldn’t wear any development,’ said Fixby-Smith. ‘Listed building status and all that. All they ever want is for everything to stay “as is”. Still do.’
‘Then?’ asked Sloan patiently.
Hilary Collins screwed up her eyes in the effort of recollection. ‘After that I think it was empty for a long while – got thoroughly neglected. The damp got in and then wet rot.’
‘Disgraceful,’ said Fixby-Smith automatically.
‘I have an idea the local council tried to serve repair notices on the owners but they couldn’t find them.’
‘Neither could the bank, I expect,’ put in Crosby.
‘No responsibility, some people,’ said Fixby-Smith.
‘No money, more like,’ offered Detective Constable Crosby, who lived nearer the ground.
‘I heard that a rather dodgy printing firm moved in after that,’ said Hilary Collins steadily. ‘They put one of their heavy presses in the old billiard room – that sort of thing but who they paid their rent to, I couldn’t say.’
‘If they did,’ said Crosby.
The curator gave a snort and said, ‘Disgraceful, when you come to think about it. Pure sacrilege.’
‘Needs must,’ contributed Crosby. ‘Or the march of progress or something.’
Fixby-Smith looked at the detective constable as if he was seeing him for the first time. ‘I may say that if that’s what you are pleased to call progress, Constable, then…’
‘Sir,’ Detective Inspector Sloan interrupted him swiftly, turning away from the blank space on the wall where the portrait had been and pointing instead at the damaged display cabinet below it. ‘Do you know what will have been in that?’
The curator frowned. ‘Anglo-Saxon artefacts, I think. That right, Hilary?’
‘Yes, Mr Fixby-Smith. Local ones from the site near Larking. Part of the Professor Michael Ripley bequest.’ She advanced on the display case and peered in. ‘I know there was a bronze shield in it – yes, that’s still here. I’d have to check the other items in our records to see if anything is missing.’
‘That’s the Dark Ages, isn’t it?’ said Detective Constable Crosby chattily. ‘The Anglo-Saxons, I mean.’
The curator immediately launched into hortative mode. ‘Calleshire was quite an important place in post-Roman times. There was a big Anglo-Saxon settlement over Larking way and another one near Almstone, both excavated by the late Professor Michael Ripley, a well-known local archaeologist.’ He waved an arm. ‘There is some suggestion that the name relates to the re-use by the Anglo-Saxons of Roman stone there beside the river Alm.’
‘Waste not, want not,’ observed Detective Constable Crosby to no one in particular.
Detective Inspector Sloan who, among other problems, had a complicated case of transactional fraud on his hands back at the police station, returned to the matter in hand. ‘As you will know, sir,’ he said to the curator, ‘there are well-established mechanisms for informing the art world of thefts such as these…’
‘Yes, yes,’ Marcus Fixby-Smith interrupted him testily, ‘the Art Loss Register, but I want that portrait back and I also want to know why it has been stolen.’
‘So do we,’ Sloan reassured him. Actually the police priority was to find out who it was who had done the stealing and then charge him – or sometimes, but not often, her – with burglary but he saw no reason to say so. His own priority just now was to get back to work on the more pressing matters awaiting him back at the police station.
Marcus Fixby-Smith tossed his flowing mane back like an irate horse. ‘Even so, Inspector…’
‘And this means, sir,’ he said firmly, ‘that you will have to keep this gallery closed for the time being.’
Hilary Collins nodded intelligently while the curator snapped, ‘How long for exactly?’
‘Until our enquiries are complete,’ responded Detective Inspector Sloan smoothly, silently acknowledging to himself that well-worn formulae did have their uses. ‘May I take it that this was just a straightforward portrait?’
‘Typical painting of the period,’ the curator came back promptly. ‘Portrait of Sir Francis Filligree leaning against a tree near the house, his new wife at his side, with a distant view of the village church at Tolmie in the background and some lobster shells at his feet.’
‘Lobster shells?’ said Sloan. Kinnisport and the sea were quite a distance away from Tolmie.
‘Lobster and crab shells, actually,’ Hilary Collins made the correction diffidently. ‘I believe there are similar shells in the Filligree coat of arms, too.’
‘In his day,’ explained the curator, ‘Sir Francis was a member of a group of young rabble-rousers called the Crustaceans.’
‘A sort of Hellfire Club, I’m afraid,’ supplemented Hilary Collins.
‘So what’s new?’ observed Detective Constable Crosby, victim of several Saturday night fights with the young and drunk with nothing else to do.