Studying the picture in the newspaper, Charlie Chief thought, this could be the break they’d been hoping for.
Sunlight filtered through the Low-E glass windows and pale-blue curtains. A painting of woods and water from Charlie’s North Woods and Native American origin hung on the wall in the living room of the Victorian in Woodstock, Illinois. Framed photographs of his and his son’s fiancée graced the top of the mahogany hutch.
Charlie leaned forward on his recliner and rested his hands on the teak coffee table. “Look at this photo in the newspaper, Jimmy.” He didn’t give a hint as to his reason for asking.
After stretching, Jimmy got up from the leather recliner and peered over his father’s shoulder at the picture. “Why would Pat Strom have his picture in the newspaper?”
A robust man in his mid-twenties, Jimmy always seemed to have a smile lingering just behind his rugged features. Except for streaks of gray in Charlie’s black hair and a few wrinkles in his bronze complexion, he and Jimmy could have been brothers.
Handing Jimmy the paper, Charlie said, “That’s not Pat, but he sure is a dead ringer for him. That’s an art expert, Gene Ness…”
Without letting his father finish, Jimmy said, “Are you thinking what I’m thinking about our client and that Maxwell Conn guy?”
Their client, Alicia Gomez, a chunky brunette with a stubby nose, complained to the Chiefs about being cheated by Maxwell Conn when Alicia sold a painting for $200.00 to Maxwell at his gallery. She had gotten the painting with its HO initials at a local auction for about a hundred dollars several years earlier. At first it fit into her décor, but she redecorated. She took it to Maxwell Conn, who gave her two hundred. A relative noticed the missing Merry Woodland Folk, the title of the painting. Alicia told her relative of the painting sale. The woman said, “You’re kidding? You sold an original Horace O’Toole for two hundred? It’s worth plenty.” No sooner had Alicia heard the story then she went back to see Maxwell Conn; however, the transaction was legal with a signed bill of sale. Alicia had no recourse. She then decided to consult with private detectives, Charlie and Jimmy Chief. The Chiefs had no solution until…
Smiling, Charlie said, “Exactly. Now we approach Pat for a favor, an acting assignment, identifying the Horace O’Toole painting as a copy - not an original.”
While his father talked, Jimmy got out his cell phone and punched in Pat Strom’s phone number.
“While you’re at it, you might as well give Alicia a call, too,” Charlie said, “and tell her we might have a scheme to get her Horace back. Not a sure thing though.”
Sitting stiff, somber and upright in the Chief’s office, Pat shifted his glance from side to side while Jimmy and Charlie went over the scenario. Usually happy-go-lucky with a ready smile, Pat pressed his lanky back into the leather chair as though to escape.
Jimmy said, “A couple weeks ago Dad and I talked with employees in nearby stores to find out anything about Maxwell Conn. ‘A shrewd business man,’ we were told. We couldn’t find that he’d ever crossed the line and done anything illegal.
“Next I went into Maxwell Conn’s Gallery. We didn’t want to wait too long in case another buyer turned up.” Pat clenched his hands together in front of him, listening. “I looked around casually. I saw the Horace O’Toole painting hanging on a wall. He signs HO on his paintings. The painting shows an outdoors scene with forest folk at play. I asked the price. Maxwell, I call him Maxie, tells me – ‘Sale price, $2,500.’ Both Dad and I went to the gallery, once for each of us. No headway for either of us. You could say so far it’s been a Maxie Conn standoff.”
Pat’s eyes opened wide. He gulped. Then he interrupted. “That’s a lot of money for a painting. What if I goof up the scheme?”
“Calm yourself, we’d be no worse for trying then we are now,” Charlie said. “We’ll rehearse you. We have art world experience from our links with the Aurora Borealis Extraordinaire caper, as Jimmy likes to call it. You’ll have everything down pat, Pat, before we’ve finished. Go ahead, Jimmy.”
Pat stood up. “OK, if you guys have faith in me, let’s get started.” He shook their hands before settling back, ready to rehearse the caper.
Parking his BMW in front of Maxwell Conn’s Gallery, Pat Strom turned off the ignition. Immersed in the identity of Gene Ness, he leaned back in the leather seat, muttering to himself: “Brushstrokes, artist initials, color choices.”
Jimmy waited while Pat settled his thoughts, then he said, “Walk in boldly, head up. Kind of look down your nose at the displays. Remember there’s a woman in there ready to greet you as Ness. That in itself should convince this Conn guy you are really Gene Ness. Now relax and go with the flow, Pat – rather Gene”
Alicia Gomez had gotten one of her lady friends to play the part of a Gene Ness fan. .
The two men got out of the car and sauntered into the gallery. An expansive room greeted their eyes. A myriad of paintings hung on the walls, and statues decorated tables, all artfully displayed.
At the far end of the gallery, a man they supposed to be Maxwell and a woman stood talking. She shook her head and walked away.
The woman wearing a floppy hat and a stylish, gray dress approached Pat and Jimmy. Wide eyed, she clapped her hands together. “Oh my. Mr. Gene Ness, the art expert. How thrilling! I read all about you in the newspaper and here you are in the flesh.”
Jimmy’s cell phone beeped. He stepped away and answered it. “Yes, speaking. Hi, Alicia. Oh, thanks for letting me know. So far so good. Yes, here’s hoping. Bye.” He hung up and looked at Pat and the woman. He had to warn Pat that Alicia couldn’t get the woman friend to go to the gallery. Well, maybe not. To himself he said, “”Who the ‘H’ is that woman? She’s really convinced that Pat is the art expert, so who am I to shatter her illusion.”
His hands on his hips, Jimmy stood several feet from the action, watching and ready to dash to Pat’s aid if needed.
The manager, Maxie, trailed behind the woman, smiling. He hovered a few feet away, listening.
Not expecting such a vocal welcome, Pat froze for an instant, but he remembered the rehearsal. He looked to Jimmy. Jimmy nodded and forced a smile. Pat said, “Yes, Ms, and thank you.”
He was about to move on, but she persisted. “May I shake your hand?”
Better than that, Pat hugged her while she giggled. “Thank you. I must toddle off now.”
Jimmy guided Pat towards the Horace O’Toole. It really stood out with the oranges and yellows in the background and a bright blue sky, certainly a joyful creation. All smiles, Jimmy said, “That was a nice touch that Alicia thought of, wasn’t it?” He didn’t mention that the woman Alicia was to have sent couldn’t make it. Why bother Pat with details and fluster him now.
Out of the corner of his eye, Jimmy saw the woman reenter the gallery. “Excuse me, Pat.” Jimmy strode up to the woman, wondering if she’s smelled a mouse. “Hi, Mr. Ness is busy just now. Can I help you?”
“Well, how long will Mr. Ness be in town? The paper said that he wouldn’t be available for appearances while…”
“Yes, true, but I coaxed him to do this one favor.”
“Oh, yes… I must be toddling.”
Jimmy walked back to where Pat stood. “Whew, that was close.” Jimmy wiped his brow from perspiration.
Pat nodded while staring at the painting.”Hmm. Very well done, but…”
“But what?” Jimmy responded in a loud voice while staring at the painting.
“Not quite well done enough.” Pat said. The H. O. is off as are the brush strokes and color ever so slightly.”
Jimmy put his lips to Pat’s ear. “You mean it’s…”
Aloud, Pat replied, “Right, Jimmy, I’d say. Hmm, offer about $200.00 for it.”
Jimmy turned and bumped into Maxie Conn. Jimmy said, “I like the painting and want to buy it. I’ll pay you, let’s say $250.00. Is…”
“Maxie grabbed Jimmy’s hand and said, “Sold!”
The triumphant group sat in the Chiefs’ Victorian home. They lifted glasses of Riesling wine and toasted the Horace O’Toole painting propped up on the sofa.
Smiling after a glass of wine, Jimmy said, “I think it was the HO initials being slightly off that sold Maxie on what Pat said.”
Alicia said, “What ever. Thanks, Pat, Charlie and Jimmy, for getting Merry Woodland Folk back for me.” She hugged each man and kissed each one on his cheek.
Ever ready, Charlie said, “You could say that Pat was our Trojan Horace at the gallery.”
They all chuckled, except for Jimmy’s “Oh, no.” His brain whirred, searching for a pun to top his father.
“Now,” Alicia said while opening her purse, “How much do I owe for a job well done?”
Pat boomed out, “$2,000.”
Grabbing the painting, Alicia bopped Pat on the head with it, cracking the frame. She said, “Take that!”
“Hold off, Alicia, he’s joking,” Charlie said. “You are joking, Pat?”
Rubbing the top of his head, Pat smiled and nodded. “This role playing can get dangerous.”
“Oh. Oh,” Alicia said. “Sorry, Pat.” She gave him a second hug. “Guess I’m still uptight about the Horace finagling.”
Setting things straight, Charlie said, “A couple of hundred dollars is plenty.
Jimmy spoke up, “Now that makes Horace c-e-n-t-s.”
Ed Pahnke’s first short story appeared in “Et Al” in 1971. Since then he’s had numerous short stories and articles published in periodicals and online. He wrote and edited a bimonthly newsletter for twelve years.
In 2004 he published Northern Knights, a mystery novel set in Wisconsin’s North Woods in the early 1930’s.
In 2009 he published a chapbook of “jest for pun” jokes.
Recently, Calderwood Books published The Chiefs Investigate, a book of fifteen mystery stories featuring a father and son team of Native American private investigators. More Chief mysteries and a sequel to Northern Knights are forthcoming.