A Question of Honor cover

A Question of Honor

By Robert Edward Eckels

Appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, June 1970

© 1970 by Robert Edward Eckels, reprinted by permission of the author

Remember Robert Edward Eckels’ “The Blue Lady” in the October 1969 issue of EQMM? It introduced a pair of con men, Lang and Lovell, who specialized in forged paintings. Well, the double-L boys are back, and as we said before, we’ve always been suckers for god con-men stories. Con for confidence (men and games)—but also con for concealment (usually deep and devious), for conscience (usually lacking), and for consummation (usually devoutly to be wished)…

The girl behind the secretary’s desk looked up and appraised me coolly. If she was impressed she did a good job of concealing it. “Yes?” she said.

“My name is Lang,” I said. “Please tell Mr. Frelling that I’m here to see him,” I smiled.

The girl drew a short line with her pencil through something typed on a sheet of paper in front of her and placed the paper in a metal tray at one side of her desk. “Do you have an appointment?” she said.

She was, I decided, very like her desk—sleek and modern and functional. Only her eyes kept her from being beautiful. They were hard and brittle around the edges.

“No,” I said, “I don’t, but—”

The girl turned her attention back to the papers before her. “Mr. Frelling sees no one without an appointment,” she said.

I sat down in the visitor’s chair beside her desk, folded my hands across my stomach, leaned back and crossed my legs. “Oh,” I said, pretending I didn’t notice her frowning stare, “I imagine he’ll see me. Just tell him the man who sold him the Westmacott painting six months ago is back.”

The girl’s eyes turned thoughtful. I could appreciate her dilemma. On the one hand there was the rule—no appointment, no admittance. On the other was the fact that Frelling was almost as passionate about collecting art as he was about collecting money. She tapped the eraser end of her pencil against the desk while she tried to make up her mind.

I winked at her. “Go ahead,” I said. “Live dangerously and call him.”

She shrugged, swiveled around, and picked up her phone. She spoke softly and quickly into it, listened for a few moments, then swiveled back to face me. Her eyes had grown appraising again.

“Through there,” she said, nodding slightly to point the way.

“There” seemed to be a solid oak wall. But the girl didn’t look like the type that went in for fun and games, so I stood up and stepped out briskly. My faith was justified. As I was about to bang into the wall it slid apart silently from the middle and I went into Frelling’s office.

Actually, it was more like a throne room than an office. Frelling sat in a high-backed armchair at the far end of the room, where light from the windows cast him and the man who was standing slightly to his left rear in sharp relief. Instead of a desk, a large, low coffee table stood before him. Only the intercom on one corner indicated that the table served any purpose other than decoration.

“Well,” Frelling said jovially as I approached, “Mr. Lang. This is a surprise.” He was a stocky man with a leonine head set low and forward on his shoulders so that he seemed almost neckless. Surprisingly for a man of his bulk, he spoke in a hoarse tenor voice.

Now he turned to the man beside him. “You remember Mr. Lang, don’t you, Charles? Mr. Lang sold me a painting by Abner Westmacott some six months or so ago. A very fine painting—and a bargain too.”

“Yeah,” Charles said, “I remember him.”

I remembered Charles too. He was Frelling’s bodyguard and all-purpose goon. A giant ape of a man whose carefully tailored suit couldn’t disguise the fact that he’d have been more at home in the prize ring—or swinging from a tree.

“I suppose,” Frelling went on to me, “that you have another bargain for me.”

“No, sir,” I said, sitting down uninvited in one of the smaller and, of course, lower-backed chairs across from him. “As a matter of fact, I’ve come to buy back the Westmacott.”

The smile disappeared from Frelling’s face. “Buy it back?” he said sharply. “Why?”

“Well,” I said, “this is rather embarrassing to admit. But I’m afraid we’ve both been victimized. I’ve just found that the painting I sold you is a forgery. Naturally—” I smiled earnestly—“I want to make good.”

Frelling’s eyes had narrowed to two unreadable slits. “I see,” he said. He laced his fingers together and rested his chin on them. “How did you learn about it being a forgery?”

“How I did,” I said, smiling more earnestly than ever, “isn’t important. What is important, though, is that I have here—” I patted my breast pocket— “a certified check for the amount you paid for the painting, $25,000, which I’m prepared to refund for the painting.”

“Mm-mm,” Frelling said. “Let me ask you again: why?”

“Why?” I said, bewildered. “Why, what else can I do?”

“You could,” Frelling said, “do nothing. From what my lawyers have told me, a person can’t be held liable in cases like this unless it can be proved that he wasn’t acting in good faith—or had knowingly misrepresented the object.”

“Well,” I said, “I suppose from a strictly legal point of view I’m not liable. But I look on this as a question of honor.”

“Now that,” Frelling said, “is very interesting. Especially since when you sold me the Westmacott I was given the distinct impression that it had been stolen. And that was why I was getting it at half price.”

I stopped smiling. “Now,” I said, “I’m certain that I said nothing—”

“No,” Frelling interrupted, “you didn’t. But you worked very hard to give that impression without saying it.” He waved a hand impatiently. “In any case, it’s immaterial now. I couldn’t return the Westmacott even if I wanted to. I sold it over a month ago to the Municipal Museum of Art. For, I might add, $60,000. I’m surprised you haven’t heard of it; it was in all the papers.”

“You sold it!” I cried. “You don’t know what you’ve done. You—” I caught myself and bit the words off. I stood up, the smile back on my face. “Well, in that case,” I said, “I won’t take up any more of your time. I’ll—”

“Not so fast,” Frelling said. “There’s something going on here that I don’t understand. And you’re not leaving here until I get to the bottom of it.” He spoke over his shoulder. “Charles, help Mr. Lang back into his seat.”

Charles covered the distance between us in three brisk strides. “Sit down,” he said. He put a huge hand on my chest and shoved.

I sat down.

“Now,” Frelling said, “I want the truth. And so that you won’t waste time telling more lies, let’s get a few things straight. You,” he went on, pointing a blunt finger at me, “are nothing but a cheap con man. I spotted you for that when you first walked in here with that phony Westmacott.”

“Then why—” I began.

“Why did I buy it?” Frelling finished for me. “Because it was an unusually fine copy, and I saw a chance to make a profit on it. With my reputation behind it no one would think of questioning authenticity.” He smiled dreamily. “So all I had to do was wait a few months and then sell it for more than twice what I paid you for it.”

I laughed bitterly. “I hope you’re happy with your profit.”

Frelling studied me thoughtfully. “Maybe you’d better explain that remark,” he said at last.

I glanced up at Charles glowering down at me, then I shrugged. “The game’s over,” I said. “So why not? The truth of the matter is that I work partners with a character named Lovell.” I smiled wryly. “Lovell’s a nut about the food he eats and he’s as nervous as your Aunt Nelly in a hailstorm. But he has some compensating characteristics.

“For one thing, he’s an artist with a large if somewhat specialized talent. He can forge a painting by any artist living or dead and do it so well that the original artist himself would be hard put to tell the difference. Although to be on the safe side we generally stick to the dead ones.” I grinned up at Frelling. He didn’t grin back.

“Go on,” he said.

“Well, anyway, Lovell mixes his own paints—using only the materials and methods the original artist would have used. And he has his own special ways of ‘aging’ the painting.”

“The big problem is getting the right kind of canvas. They literally don’t make canvas like they used to. What we do is buy a cheaper painting of about the same age as the one Lovell is going to forge and then he paints over it. It’s easier than scraping the canvas clean. And the practice wasn’t uncommon among the Old Masters themselves. They weren’t ones to waste a canvas if they could help it.”

“All this is very interesting,” Frelling said, “but I fail to see the point.”

“You will,” I said. “We bought the canvas the Westmacott was painted on at an estate auction. There were two paintings by the same unknown artist for sale. And as luck would have it, one other character besides Lovell and myself was interested in them. Rather than bid each other up, we made a deal and split the two paintings between us.”

I paused and shot a sour glance up at Frelling. “The other painting has been identified as an early work by Pieter De Jong. It sold for a quarter of a million last month. Now I think you can see why I wanted to get the Westmacott back.”

Frelling leaned forward. “A De Jong,” he said, almost reverently. Then more harshly, “And I let it get out of my hands.”

“Yeah,” I said, “but you didn’t know what you really had.” I furrowed my brow in thought. “But then,” I went on slowly, half to myself, “neither does anybody else—including the museum.” I turned my attention back to Frelling. “Maybe the game isn’t over yet. I wouldn’t stand a snowball’s chance of getting the painting away from the museum. But you just might.”

Frelling looked at me speculatively. “And how might I do that?”

“By simply telling the truth,” I said. “Or rather that part of the truth we want the museum to know—that you’ve found out the Westmacott is a forgery and want to buy it back from the museum. It’s a natural and if we can work it right I’m sure we can pull it off.”

“Me?” I said. “I’m the guy who can prove the painting’s a forgery. You can’t do it without me.” I smiled. “And, of course, I’d expect you to be properly grateful when it’s all over.”

Frelling smiled back, a wintry twist of the lips that didn’t quite reach his eyes. “Of course,” he said. He settled back in his chair. “Well, Charles,” he said to his bodyguard, “what do you think?”

“I don’t like it,” Charles said gruffly. “I wouldn’t trust this guy a dime’s worth. He’s the kind that can go in a revolving door after you and come out first.”

Frelling nodded slowly. “All in all,” he said thoughtfully, “I’m inclined to agree with you, Charles, about Mr. Lang’s character. But in this particular case self-interest seems to have bound us together. And,” he went on, his eyes fastened on my face, “I think Mr. Lang is smart enough to realize I’m not the kind he can safely play any tricks on. So, on balance, I think we’ll go along with his little scheme.”

He pressed down one of the buttons on his intercom. “Miss Ryan,” he said, “what’s the name of the managing director at the Municipal Museum?”

The girl’s voice came back, clear but slightly tinny: “Murchison, Mr. Frelling.”

“Yes,” Frelling said, “that’s the one. Well, call him and tell him I want to see him right away in my office. Tell him it’s a matter of the utmost importance.”

He released the button without waiting for a reply and gave me another of his bleak smiles. “It won’t be long,” he said. “Now tell me, just how did you plan to handle Mr. Murchison?”

* * *

“Oh, dear,” Murchison said. “Oh, dear, this is terrible.” He was a slight, balding man with a sharp nose in a thin face and a jawline that merged almost imperceptibly with his throat. His eyes flicked around the room like a nervous bird’s. “I don’t suppose,” he went on, “that there’s any possibility that it isn’t true.”

“None whatsoever,” Frelling assured him. “The forger himself confessed to Mr. Lang here, who of course immediately got in touch with me.” For obvious reasons we weren’t letting Murchison in on my part in the original swindle. “I investigated thoroughly,” Frelling added. “Most thoroughly. And there can be no doubt. The Westmacott is a forgery.”

“Oh, dear,” Murchison repeated. “I wish I knew what to do There’s going to be the most awful scandal when this gets out.”

“Why should it get out, Mr. Murchison?” I said smoothly. “Surely the three of us can agree to handle the whole thing discreetly.”

“You don’t understand,” Murchison wailed. “I’ve got to report this to the trustees. And I’m sure they’ll demand a full investigation.” He looked down mournfully at his hands clasped in his lap. “and no matter what happens I’m going to be made to look like the most awful fool for recommending the purchase in the first place.”

Frelling shot a quick, anxious glance at me. The last thing he wanted was a thorough examination of the painting.

“Oh,” I went on to Murchison, “I think we can avoid that. What would happen if you presented the trustees with a fait accompli? Suppose, for example, you were to tell them that on further investigation you had discovered that the Westmacott was a forgery, that you approached Mr. Frelling, and that he insisted on taking the picture back and refunding the purchase price.”

“Yes,” Murchison said slowly, “that might work…No.” He shook his head emphatically. “It’s too risky. If I went over the heads of the trustees that way they would fire me.”

“Now listen—” Frelling began, his face flushed with anger. I cut him off by standing up and motioning with my head for him to follow me. I walked over to the window, and after a moment he grudgingly got up and came after me.

“What is it?” he demanded.

I glanced back at Murchison. He seemed too preoccupied with his own problems to pay any attention to us. Still, I kept my voice low and confidential. “Look,” I said, “Murchison’s afraid to jump because the way he sees it he’s going to lose either way. So what you’ve got to do is make it profitable for him to jump your way.”

“You mean a bribe?” Frelling shook his head. “I doubt if that would be wise. He’d be bound to suspect something then.”

“If the money’s enough,” I said, “it won’t matter what he suspects. Offer him $25,000. That’s twice what he makes in a year. And you’re still getting the De Jong cheap.”

Frelling thought it over for a long minute, then turned abruptly on his heel and went back to his chair. “You know, Mr. Murchison,” he said as he sat down, “I feel somewhat responsible for the predicament you find yourself in. And I think it would be only fair that I compensate you for the possible damage to your reputation…”

In a quarter of an hour Murchison was on his way back to the museum with Frelling’s refund check for $60,000 in his pocket. Charles was to follow later to pick up the painting and give Murchison his “compensation”—$25,000 in cash.

“Well,” Frelling said after Murchison had gone, “that wraps everything up very neatly.”

“Except for one thing,” I said, smiling.

“Except—oh, yes,” Frelling said, “you expect me to be properly grateful. Well, rest assured Mr. Lang, I am. Thank you very much.”

Charles was grinning from ear to ear, and for the first time that day Frelling’s smile had reached his eyes. I opened my mouth to say something, but Frelling held up a hand to forestall me.

“Don’t press your luck, Mr. Lang. You can’t have everything. Just be thankful that nothing worse happens to you.”

There was, of course, no answer to that, so I turned and left.

Their laughter followed me until the oak doors closing behind me cut it off.

I found Murchison later that evening sitting in the rear booth of a small bar halfway across town from the Municipal Museum.

“Hi,” I said, sliding in opposite him. “Charles pick up the painting all right?”

“Yes,” he said. He shoved a thick white envelope across the table to me. “Here—take this. It’s yours.”

Out of force of habit I riffled through the bills in the envelope. “Hey,” I said, looking up surprised. “This is the whole $25,000. Our deal only called for me to get half.”

“Take it all,” Murchison said fervently. “I’m going to have enough trouble explaining this to the trustees without having to account for an extra $12,500.” He rubbed his hands across his eyes and shook his head. “I don’t know why I let you talk me into this anyway. When you first came to me and I checked your story out and determined that the painting really was a forgery, I should have gone right to the trustees and let them handle it. Legally.”

“Sure,” I said, “and then Frelling would have sat back and claimed that he’d acted in good faith and couldn’t be held liable for the museum’s bad luck. And the museum would have been stuck with a phony painting because you never could have proven otherwise. Lovell and I didn’t think the museum deserved that. So we came up with a plan where everybody ends up with what he deserves. The museum has its money back. And—” I patted my jacket pocket where the envelope now resided—“Lovell and I have our just reward.”

“And Frelling?”

I grinned at Murchison. “Oh,” I said, “more than anybody Mr. Frelling gets just what he deserves. I do regret that I can’t be there when he scrapes the paint off that canvas and finds absolutely nothing beneath it.

“But then,” I finished up philosophically, “you can’t have everything.”