Never Trust a Partner cover

Never Trust a Partner

By Robert Edward Eckels

Appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, March 1972

© 1972 by Robert Edward Eckels, reprinted by permission of the author

I confess to a weakness for the light-hearted swindle, especially when the target also hasn’t the cleanest hands. Mr. Eckels has for some time been detailing the capers pulled by Messrs. Lang and Lovell, and here he is again, with the usual fiendish double twist at the end.

The girl at the typist’s desk looked at me dubiously. “I don’t know,” she said. “Mr. Kelmartin doesn’t like to be disturbed unless it’s somebody with an appointment.” She was a stocky girl in her late teens or early twenties with a pleasantly unintelligent face.

I smiled and scribbled on the back of a business card: There are 10,000 reasons why you should see me.

“Give Mr. Kelmartin this,” I said, “and see what he says then.”

The girl looked even more dubious than before, but she took the card and went through the door marked “Private” behind her. A couple of moments later she was back.

“He’ll see you,” she said. She sounded surprised and vaguely let down.

I winked at her and went past her through the door, letting her close it after me.

For one of the city’s more successful art dealers, Kelmartin certainly was Spartan in his tastes. Although paintings lined the walls of his showroom outside, his own office was bare of decoration and scarcely large enough to accommodate the old-fashioned rolltop desk set square against one wall and two armless wooden chairs. In some ways, though, it was the kind of office you’d expect to find a man like Kelmartin in. He was tall and spare, with the thin sharp-featured face of an old-time Yankee trader and frosty eyes behind small, octagonal, rimless glasses.

He removed his glasses as I came in and began to polish them carefully with a handkerchief he drew from his breast pocket. “Just what is it I can do for you, Mr. Lang?” he said. “Or better still”—he glanced down at my card on his desk—“what did you have in mind to do for me?” His voice was so precise as to be almost biting.

I smiled affably. “I understand you’re cataloguing the art collection of the late Bernice Magruder,” I said.

Kelmartin resettled his glasses on his nose, folded the handkerchief and stuffed it back in his pocket. “That’s hardly a secret,” he said. “It was in all the papers.”

“Yes,” I said. “It was also in the papers that Miss Magruder was as eccentric as they come and bought pretty much as the fancy moved her. And kept what she bought stored away in her back rooms.”

Kelmartin eyed me speculatively. “So?” he said.

“So,” I said, “until you finish cataloguing the collection no one really has any idea as to what is or isn’t in it. And it seems to me that under those circumstances the way is clear for a couple of clever men to make a nice little profit for themselves.”

Kelmartin didn’t say anything, just continued to study me.

“Suppose,” I went on, “a really valuable painting were to be found hidden in the collection. The honest thing to do, of course, would be to list it in the assets of the estate. Which would make the heirs happy, but since they’re second or third cousins and already stand to inherit more money than they can spend during the rest of their lives, their lot would hardly be improved. On the other hand, the painting could be quietly sold to a third party and the money diverted to far more deserving individuals.”

“Such as you and me,” Kelmartin said drily.

“Precisely,” I said.

Kelmartin nodded curtly and turned back to the papers on his desk. “Unfortunately, Mr. Lang,” he said, “for your little scheme to work it would be necessary that the Magruder collection contain at least one valuable painting. Let me assure you it does not. Bernice Magruder’s tastes were as execrable as they were eccentric. I ought to know. I sold her most of the junk she had. And even if there were a pearl in all that dross I certainly wouldn’t need you to help me dispose of it. So, good day, Mr. Lang.” He picked up a pencil and began to make notes on the margin of one of his papers.

I didn’t move. “No,” I said, “you wouldn’t need me. But because there isn’t anything valuable in the collection you do need me. I can supply the painting.”

Kelmartin paused in his writing and looked up at me over the edge of his glasses.

“I work partners with a man named Lovell,” I said. “Now, Lovell has his little peculiarities, as who doesn’t? He’s as jumpy as a bean on a string and a real kook about the food he eats. But more importantly he’s an artist with a very real if somewhat specialized talent. He can forge a painting by any artist living or dead and do it so well that only a spectroscopic or electro-luminescent examination can distinguish his copy from the artist’s genuine work.

“Most recently he’s been concentrating on the French artist Lamartine, because at one point in his development Lamartine did a whole series of paintings of wheatfields. According to Lovell, Lamartine was experimenting with light and shadow effects and didn’t consider the paintings to be of any value. So he gave them to his friends and creditors pretty indiscriminately.”

“Yes,” Kelmartin said thoughtfully, “he did. Some of them have turned up in the oddest places over the years, and I doubt if Lamartine himself knew how many he’d given away or who had them.”

“So,” I said, “would it be so unbelievable for one to turn up in the Magruder collection?”

“No,” Kelmartin said, steepling his fingers before his face and rubbing his thin lips along them. “And with the way Lamartine’s reputation has been growing since his death, it would be a valuable painting indeed.” He paused and glanced up at me obliquely. “Still it would have to be a very good forgery, and all I have is your word for how good your partner is.”

“Judge for yourself,” I said. “I’ve got the painting out in my car right now. I would have brought it in with me except that I didn’t think it would be wise to let your girl see me carrying it.”

Kelmartin looked at me for a long moment. “You’re very sure of yourself, aren’t you, Mr. Lang?” he said at last.

“If I am,” I said, “it’s because I do my homework and know my man before I approach him.”

Kelmartin nodded soberly. “Very wise of you,” he said, “I’m sure.” He got up and opened the door to the outer office. “Miss Jones,” he said, “I ordered some supplies from Bartlett’s this morning. They’re supposed to deliver them, but I find I can’t wait. Would you mind running over and picking them up?” It was phrased as a request but his voice made it clear that she had better not mind, and the stocky girl got up with something near to alacrity.

As soon as the outer door had closed after her, Kelmartin turned back to me. “All right,” he said. “now let’s see that painting of yours.”

He spent a good half hour examining the painting in both artificial and natural light. Finally he set it and his magnifying glass down. “There are a couple of flaws, I think,” he said, removing his octagonal glasses and rubbing his hand across his eyes. “But that may only be because I know it’s a forgery. It’s hard to say how I’d react if I came across it cold.” He sighed and put his glasses back on. “All in all, though, I’d say your partner is almost as good as you claim he is.”

“Then it’s a deal?” I said.

“That would depend on the deal,” Kelmartin said drily.

“Well,” I said, “a Lamartine ordinarily goes for $50,000 to $60,000. Under the circumstances, though, a buyer would expect a real bargain. So I’d say we ask $20,000 and go partners, splitting it down the middle--$10,000 apiece.”

Kelmartin hesitated. “It’s tempting,” he said. “Still, we’d have to approach a prospective buyer and that could be risky.”

“No problem,” I said. “I already have a prospective buyer in mind.”

Kelmartin raised his eyes. “Who?” he said.

“You wouldn’t know him,” I said. “He’s more of a speculator than an art collector, interested primarily in picking up something he thinks he can turn around and make a quick profit on.”

“I see,” Kelmartin said. He chewed thoughtfully on his lip for a moment, then nodded. “All right,” he said. “Bring your buyer around here tonight after everyone else has gone.” He permitted himself a bleak, wintry smile. “Partner.”

I smiled too and left.

* * *

It was a little after 7:00 and just beginning to turn dark when I rang Kelmartin’s bell. With me this time was a tall heavyset man named Hasso. He stood slightly behind me and looked on impassively, his hands stuck deep in his topcoat pockets against the slight evening chill. With his balding forehead, bulbous nose, and drooping lower lip he resembled nothing so much as a grownup version of the grumpy dwarf in Snow White.

When there was no motion from within I rang the bell again, more insistently. This time Kelmartin came to the door, peeked out around the drawn shade, and when he saw who it was opened up to let us in.

“Mr. Kelmartin,” I said, making the necessary introduction, “this is Mr. Hasso. I’d like him to see the painting we discussed this afternoon.”

Kelmartin’s eyes flicked suspiciously from me to Hasso.

“It’s all right,” I said reassuringly. “Mr. Hasso understands the need for discretion.”

Kelmartin continued to study Hasso for a moment, then still without uttering a word turned and led us back to his office. Leaving us there, he disappeared into his showroom only to return a few minutes later with the Lamartine. He’d added to the authenticity of our story by fitting it into an ornate and timeworn oak frame.

Hasso took the painting in both hands and studied it silently, his thick lips pursed and a reflective frown creasing his forehead. “What’s so great about this?” he said finally. “It’s just a picture of a cornfield.”

“Wheatfield,” Kelmartin corrected. “And as for what’s so great about it, nothing really. It’s the reputation of the artist that makes it valuable.”

“How valuable?” Hasso demanded.

“In today’s market?” Kelmartin said, shrugging. “I’d say upward of $50,000.”

“Then how come you are willing to sell it for $20,000?” Hasso said harshly. His eyes caught and held the art dealer’s. Kelmartin clearly hadn’t expected this bluntness and he opened his mouth somewhat like a startled fish.

“As I told you, Mr. Hasso—” I began.

Hasso shot a quick glance at me and jerked his head in Kelmartin’s direction. “I want to hear it from him,” he said.

By now Kelmartin had recovered his composure. “Let’s just say,” he intoned smoothly, “that there are certain irregularities about the transaction that make it inadvisable for me to give a bill of sale or offer my usual guarantee. So I’ve adjusted my price accordingly.”

“Sure,” Hasso said, “let’s say that.” He looked back at the painting. “How do I know this thing is genuine, though?”

“I know something about these things, Mr. Hasso,” I put in. “I can vouch for its authenticity. And I’m the one taking the risk. All I want you to do is lend me the money to buy it.”

“Um-hmm,” Hasso said. He looked straight at Kelmartin. “What if I asked to have an expert of my own examine this?”

Kelmartin thought that over for a few moments. “It would be risky,” he said. “But I suppose it would be all right—as long as he didn’t know where the painting came from and agreed to examine it on the premises here.” That last part was a touch of genius. It insured that Hasso’s expert wouldn’t be able to make an examination scientific enough to expose the forgery.

Hasso nodded his satisfaction. “That’s good enough for me,” he said. “If you’re willing to risk an independent check, there’s no reason to insist on one.”

“Then you’ll lend me the money?” I said eagerly.

Hasso shook his head. “No,” he said. “I’ll buy it myself.”

“Now wait a minute,” I began.

Hasso ignored me and turned to Kelmartin. “You wouldn’t have any objection to selling to somebody other than Lang?”

“Of course not,” Kelmartin said. “Money’s money, not matter where it comes from.”

“Exactly what I say myself,” Hasso said. “I assume you don’t want a check.”

“Under the circumstances,” Kelmartin said, “I think it would be best to keep this a cash transaction.”

Hasso pursed his lips and nodded. “It’ll take me a day or two to get the cash together,” he said. “You’ll hold the painting for me?”

Kelmartin opened his mouth to agree, but I cut him off. “Don’t make any promises,” I said. “At least give me a chance to raise the money somewhere else.”

Kelmartin hesitated, then nodded. “All right,” he said. “I’ll sell to whoever shows up first with the money.”

“Fair enough,” Hasso said. He set the painting down and grinned at me. “I’m not worried, Lang,” he said. “If you could have gotten the money from someone else, you’d never have come to me.” He turned back to Kelmartin. “Be seeing you,” he said, and left.

As soon as I heard the front door close after him I grinned at Kelmartin. “That went very well, I’d say.”

“Perhaps,” Kelmartin said. “But I expected your man would have the money with him.”

I shrugged. “Hasso’s not as rich as he likes to pretend. He’ll have to arrange a loan to come up with the money. But his reputation’s good with the money boys and he’ll get it. And since he thinks he’s got competition he won’t dawdle or try to beat the price down.”

“I hope you’re right,” Kelmartin said.

“I am,” I said. I picked up the painting from where Hasso had put it down and looked for something to wrap it in.

Kelmartin frowned. “What are you doing?” he said.

“Taking this with me,” I said. I found a copy of the afternoon paper in Kelmartin’s wastebasket, smoothed it out on his desk and began folding it around the painting. “I have one standing rule,” I said. “Never trust a partner. And as long as I hold onto this I’m sure you won’t make a private deal and cut me out.”

“How very prudent of you,” Kelmartin said drily. “Perhaps I should insist on similar insurance from you.”

“You already have it,” I said. “Hasso thinks I’m a rival for the painting. He’d be suspicious as hell if I suddenly showed up trying to sell it.”

“Perhaps,” Kelmartin said. “But I prefer more concrete insurance.” He opened a drawer to his desk and flicked a switch. There was a hum and then a tape recorder began to play back our conversation of that afternoon. Kelmartin let it play about halfway through, then switched it off.

“If you do try to cheat me,” he said, “I’ll see that this tape gets to your friend Hasso.” He smiled his humorless smile. “Somehow I don’t think he’s the kind of man who would take lightly to having been swindled. And I’m willing to gamble that he’d vent his ire on you, not me.”

I inclined my head in acknowledgment of his thrust. “Well, partner,” I said, “we seem to be well matched.”

“It would appear that way, wouldn’t it?” Kelmartin said quietly. “And now, good night, Mr. Lang. I’ll call you at your hotel when Hasso has the money ready.”

* * *

I spent the next day loafing around the hotel, reading and catching up on my sleep, while Lovell kept running in and out, easing his nervousness by indulging in yogurt sundaes. Then on the second day Kelmartin called.

“Bring the painting,” he said. “It’s settlement day.”

Lovell looked at me anxiously as I set down the phone. I winked at him. “Right on schedule,” I said.

I found Kelmartin alone in his office, the stocky girl having probably been sent on some other fool’s errand. He snatched the painting away from me, unwrapped it, and set it up against the back of his desk with solicitous care.

“When’s Hasso coming?” I said.

“This afternoon,” Kelmartin said, tearing his eyes away from the painting. “But the more I think about it, the more convinced I am that it wouldn’t be wise for you to be here when he comes.”

I started to protest.

“Don’t worry,” Kelmartin cut in half irritably. “I have your money for you.” He took an envelope from his desk and handed it to me. “You can count it if you like,” he said.

I took him at his word and counted it. It came to $10,000 right on the nose. I slipped the envelope into my jacket pocket.

“If you don’t mind,” I said, “I’d like that tape too.”

“Of course,” Kelmartin said. He played enough of the tape to prove to me it was the right one, then handed it over.

“Well,” I said, “it’s been a pleasure doing business with you. If the occasion ever comes up again—”

“Of course, of course,” Kelmartin said and ushered me out so hurriedly that if I had been a more sensitive soul I might have suspected that he was trying to get rid of me.

Hasso was waiting where my car was parked two blocks away. “You have something for me, I trust,” he said.

I reached into my pocket for an envelope—not the one Kelmartin had given me but another one—and handed it to him. “As agreed,” I said, “$1000.”

Hasso stuck the envelope in his own pocket.

“Better count it,” I said.

“Naw,” Hasso said. “I know you wouldn’t cheat me.” He looked at me quizzically. “Tell me one thing, though, Harry. How did you get Kelmartin to pay you off before he collected himself?”

“Well,” I said, clearing my throat, “unfortunately not everybody in this business is as trustworthy as you and me. So when Kelmartin was approached by a second prospect who offered $30,000 for the painting he saw no reason to split the extra $10,000 with his partner. The only trouble was he couldn’t collect until he delivered the painting. And I had the painting. So”—I smiled innocently—“he had to pay me off first.”

“I see,” Hasso said. “Only who’s going to pay him $30,000 for that thing?”

“As a matter of fact,” I said, “nobody. His second prospect was Lovell.”