The Blue Lady cover

The Blue Lady

By Robert Edward Eckels

Appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, October 1969

© 1969 by Robert Edward Eckels, reprinted by permission of the author

It has often been said that a writer’s most important sale is his or her first—the “breaking into print,” the auctorial baptism as a professional. True, the first sale is usually a long awaited turning point in a writer’s career; but a cogent argument could be made to prove that a writer’s second sale is equally important—perhaps even more important –than the first.

We described Robert Edward Eckels’ first story, “The Man in the Revolving Door” (in the June 1969 issue of EQMM) as “extremely smooth and unusually entertaining.” Well, Mr. Eckels’ second story can be described in exactly the same words; and this second story, like the first, has “an added quality of appeal”: it’s a con-man story—and we confess that we have always been suckers for good con-man stories…

Keep ‘em coming, Mr. Eckels!

Lovell was waiting for me in the park across from Carter’s mansion. As I walked up the path I could see him fidgeting on the bench. If he’d been a less sedentary man he would have been pacing back and forth. If he’d been less of a health nut he’d have been on his second pack of cigarettes. That’s how nervous he was.

“You’re late,” he said accusingly as I came up to him.

“Only fourteen minutes,” I said. “That counts almost as being on time.”

“That’s easy to say, but now you’ll be late seeing Carter.”

I sat down on the bench beside him. “How can I be late when he doesn’t know I’m coming?” Nodding toward the package he clutched in his lap I said, “Is that the painting? Let me have it and I’ll beard Mr. Carter in his lair.”

Lovell let go of the painting with one hand and clamped onto my arm. “Maybe we shouldn’t go through with this, Harry.”

“Don’t be silly,” I said. I pried his fingers loose and flicked my own across my sleeve to smooth out the creases. “Of course we’re going to go through with it. If that painting is half as good as you say it is, Carter might as well start counting out the money right now.”

I took the painting from him and hefted it in my hands. It was surprisingly light; most of the bulk came from the wrapping. The picture itself was perhaps a foot and a half high by a foot wide. “Van Diemen’s The Blue Woman,” I said, “and our key to fortune.”

“The Blue LADY,” Lovell corrected. “And it’s good all right.” The quality of his work was the one thing you couldn’t shake Lovell on. “Van Diemen himself couldn’t tell this one from the one he painted two hundred years ago.”

“Then there’s nothing to worry about,” I said and left him still fretting on the bench.

I walked up the curving white gravel driveway to Carter’s front door. Arriving by car would have been classier, but cars have license plates and can be traced. Not particularly wanting to be traced, I walked.

There was a fancy bell-pull arrangement beside the door. I ignored it and rapped with my knuckles. A few minutes and several raps later, the door swung open and a girl in a black and white maid’s uniform gazed at me out of dark, liquid eyes.

“Yes?” she said.

“My name is Lang,” I said. “I’ve come to see Mr. Carter.”

“I don’t know,” the girl said doubtfully. “Mr. Carter is very busy—” Her voice trailed off indecisively. She spoke with a heavy accent—German, I supposed. And from the way she acted she hadn’t been in this country very long—at least, not long enough to lose her awe of Americans or to acquire the arrogant attitude that most rich men’s servants display to their masters’ supposed social inferiors.

Nevertheless, she wasn’t going to let me in. But I’d expected that.

“Tell him it’s about The Blue Lady,” I said. When she still hesitated I made a shooing motion with my fingers. “Go ahead,” I said, “tell him. He’ll understand what I mean.”

“Wait,” she said and closed the door gently in my face.

I turned away from the house and rocking back on my heels casually inspected Carter’s front lawn. It was a beauty. A lot of time and money had been spent on that landscaping. Carter’s money, I surmised, but somebody else’s time. Nothing in my research on Carter had led me to believe that he was the type to find the slightest pleasure in puttering with petunias. His sole passion was collecting. He’d started with money. And when, after his 20th or 30th million, that had palled, he had turned to art—particularly Van Diemens. Hence, Lovell’s carefully recreated masterpiece. Carter had tried to buy the original six months before but had been outbid by a consortium on behalf of the Whitfield Museum.

There was a slight noise behind me and I turned around. The maid was back, holding the door open for me. I smiled at her encouragingly.

“Come with me, please,” she said.

She led me to a small office off the entrance hall where a man with a round unlined face and a shock of startling white hair sat behind a desk.

“Mr. Carter?” I said although I knew he wasn’t.

“No,” he said. The frost in his voice contrasted with his southern accent. “I’m Mr. Ward, Mr. Carter’s secretary.” A good part of his duties must have been performed around the swimming pool, because his face and hands were deeply tanned. It set off the white hair well and vice versa. And I’m sure Ward was well aware of it. “Now what’s all this about?” he asked.

“I have,” I said, “a painting here that I’m sure Mr. Carter will be interested in seeing.” I started to take off the wrapping. It was an awkward job because I had to hold the package steady with one hand and use the other to rip off the bits of sealing tape that Lovell had stuck on every conceivable crease and opening. Finally I smiled apologetically at Ward, set the package down on his desk, and went to work with both hands. It wasn’t class, but it was efficient. I had the picture out in a matter of seconds.

In the meantime Ward had risen and was now staring distastefully at the jumble of brown paper and sealing tape on his desk. His attitude changed quickly enough, though, when he saw the painting. He took it from me and examined it front and back. He pursed his lips and clucked his tongue and went through all the other little mannerisms that people use when they’re called on to inspect something they really don’t understand.

“Yes,” he said finally, “I believe Mr. Carter would be interested in seeing this. Wait here.” Almost as an afterthought he waved a hand airily in the general direction of some modernistic assemblages of improbable curves and angles. “You may use one of those chairs,” he said.

And with that he bustled out of the room. I picked out the chair that looked least uncomfortable, sat down, crossed my legs, and lit a cigarette. And waited.

In exactly 17 minute the cops were there.

There were three of them, two blue caps and one plainclothes detective named Ryker, from the Fraud-Bunco squad. Ryker left me in the custody of the two blue caps and went upstairs to confer with Ward and presumably with Carter himself. I did my best to look properly ruffled and indignant but gave it up when I saw it wasn’t impressing the blue caps.

I was on my fourth cigarette when Ryker and Ward came back. Ryker was holding Lovell’s copy of The Blue Lady negligently in one hand. He shook his head sadly at me.

“Of all the dumb crooks,” he said, “that I’ve met in my life you sure take the cake. Not only do you pick the one guy in the country sure to spot a phony Van Diemen a mile off to sell your fake to but the picture you copy is one even an idiot would know is now hanging on the East Wall of the Whitfield Museum.”

I was tempted to ask Ryker when he’d learned that last interesting bit of information, but I didn’t. Instead I merely said, “I’m afraid there’s been some mistake.”

“Sure has,” Ryker said, “and you made it.” His free hand made an upward lifting motion. “On your feet. We’re going downtown.”

I remained seated. “No,” I said. “What I meant is, I never claimed that painting is an original Van Diemen. Nor did I indicate in any way that I intended to try to sell it to Mr. Carter. As I recall, all I said was that I believed Mr. Carter would be interested in seeing the painting.”

Ryker’s eyes narrowed. He swung to face Ward. “Is that right?” he demanded.

Utter dismay swept across the secretary’s face. “I—uh—well—” He wet his lips. “Well, I—uh—really don’t remember his exact words, but—”

But it was only too clear—to Ryker as well as to me—that Ward was remembering only too well.

Ryker turned back to me. “Smart guy, aren’t you?” he said. “Well, we’ll keep an eye on you. So you watch your step.”

I stood up and smiled at him. “May I have my painting back, please?”

Ryker handed me the picture roughly. “Okay,” he said, nodding toward the door, “you can go now.”

I kept the smile on my face and shook my head politely. “No,” I said. “I still think Mr. Carter would like to see this painting.”

Ryker glanced at Ward, got no response, shrugged, and left the room followed by the two blue caps.

“All right,” I said to Ward, “the fun and games are over. You can take me to your boss now.”

Ward turned his back on me, picked up the phone on his desk, and spoke softly into it. Then he listened for a few moments, put the phone down, and beckoned me to follow him. He didn’t look as if he enjoyed it.

Carter was seated at his desk at the far end of his office when Ward and I entered. He didn’t look up but kept his head bowed so that his face was partially hidden and only the bald top of his head showed clearly. I was willing to bet that what he was scribbling away so furiously at was something like “The quick brown fox” or “Now is the time for all good men.”

He let us stand in front of his desk for several minutes before he threw down his pen violently and scowled up at me.

“All right,” he said, “how much?”

“How much?” I said. “How much for what?”

“Don’t be coy with me,” Carter said. “You baited your trap and I let this”—he glared at his secretary and Ward paled beneath his tan—”stampede me into falling for it. I mean, how much to assuage your wounded feelings and maligned reputation.” He paused to pick up his pen again. “You might as well settle now,” he went on. “Lawyers’ fees will eat up anything more you’d get by going to court. I guarantee my lawyers will see to that.”

“I think it would be best if you and I spoke in private, Mr. Carter,” I said.

“Not a chance,” Carter said. “Any time I talk to someone as tricky as you I want a witness.”

“As you wish,” I said. Without waiting for an invitation I sank down into one of the armchairs facing Carter’s desk. His frown deepened and Ward looked as if I’d defiled a cathedral. I ignored them both and went on blandly, “I’m afraid you’ve misjudged me, Mr. Carter. I’m not a swindler. I’m a thief.”

Carter’s eyes dropped from my face to the painting lying on my lap, then flicked to his secretary. “You,” he said. “Get out!”

As the door closed behind Ward, Carter’s gaze swiveled back to me. “You mean to say,” he said, “that that—” His voice failed him.

“Really is The Blue Lady—the genuine one?” I smiled and shook my head. “No, it’s a copy. But a very special copy made by an artist associate of mine using the same techniques used by that Dutchman who passed off so many fake Old Masters on the Germans during the second World War. You may recall that the fraud was only discovered when he confessed to save himself from being charged as a collaborator.”

I passed the painting over to Carter. “Frankly, Mr. Carter,” I continued, “nothing short of a detailed spectrographic analysis will distinguish this painting from Van Diemen’s original. No, let me take that back. There is only one other way. If you’ll look closely on the back you’ll notice there is a small x in indelible ink in the lower left corner—put there to preclude any possibility of confusion among those few of us who are—ah—shall we say, in the know.”

Obediently, Carter reversed the canvas, nodded when he found the x, then resumed his study of the painting itself.

Finally he set it down on his desk and sighed somewhat regretfully. “Very interesting,” he said. “But I wouldn’t be interested in a copy—not even one as good as this.”

I nodded. “I didn’t expect you would be, Mr. Carter. For a true collector like yourself it’s the real thing or nothing. But,” I added seriously, “isn’t it true that the fact of possession is what’s important? That what others think doesn’t matter as long as you possess the original and you know it?”

Carter’s eyes were now narrow-slitted with interest. “Yes,” he said slowly, “I suppose that is true. What’s your point?”

“Very simply this, Mr. Carter,” I said. “As I told you I’m a thief.” I hitched my shoulders, then let them drop. “I propose to steal The Blue Lady from the Whitfield and leave this copy in its place, then sell the original painting to an interested collector—yourself for example—for $100,000, payable on delivery in, say, five weeks.”

After a long moment he shook his head. “You’d never get away with it. Somebody would be bound to notice.”

“Would they?” I said with a hint of amusement in my voice. Then, more seriously: “Tell me truthfully, Mr. Carter, wasn’t your initial decision that this painting was a fraud based largely on the assumption that the original was hanging in the Whitfield Museum?”

“That did play some part in my thinking,” Carter admitted gruffly.

That was as much of an admission as I’d get from him, but it was enough. “In the same way,” I said, “art experts and critics the world over look at paintings in museums and galleries and assume that because the paintings are where they are they must be what they purport to be, the originals.”

I shook my head slowly, “I’d hate to tell you, Mr. Carter, how many beloved masterpieces are actually fakes. It would be years, if ever, before the Whitfield submitted The Blue Lady—this copy—to the kind of testing necessary to expose it. And you could display The Blue Lady in your possession confident that everyone who saw it would assume it to be a copy.” I permitted myself a small laugh. “You could, in effect, have your cake and eat it too.”

I watched cupidity and caution battle to a standoff behind Carter’s eyes. Finally he said, “No, it’s still impossible. The Whitfield is the most security minded museum in America.”

“More security minded than the Prado or the British National Gallery?”

That was the clincher. Carter’s mouth dropped. “You mean,” he said, “that you’ve substituted paintings in the Prado and the British National Gallery?”

I just smiled.

It took Carter a moment to recover his composure. “You understand,” he said at last, “that I couldn’t afford to be implicated in this in any way.”

“You wouldn’t be. I have a reputation to maintain, so protecting you is as much to my interest as to your own.”

Carter nodded. “All right then,” he said. “It’s a deal. $100,000 for The Blue Lady.” He looked up at me from under his eyebrows. “I suppose you’ll want the payment to be in cash.”

Now it was my turn to nod. “Yes,” I said. “Checks have such an embarrassing habit of turning up where you least expect them to.”

Carter stood up and I rose to meet him as he came around the desk to hand me back the painting.

“Good luck,” he said.

I tucked the picture under my arm. “Luck,” I said, “plays no part in my operations.”

He started to ring for his secretary, but I told him I could find my own way out.

Lovell caught up with me when I was two blocks away from the house. He was breathing hard, as if he’d been running.

“Man,” he said between gasps, “I thought I’d die when the police showed up. I mean, it really got me.”

“It shouldn’t have,” I said. “We expected him to call the police. It was part of the plan.”

“I know, but still—” Lovell shook his head. “I’m not cut out for this sort of thing. And the worst was yet to come—robbing the Whitfield Museum!”

“Lovell,” I said patiently, “you are an excellent artist. You may even be a genius in your own twisted little way. But you have one very bad fault. You don’t listen. How many times do I have to tell you? We’re not going to rob the Whitfield Museum. We are going to take this painting back to your studio, remove the supposedly indelible mark from its back, and then in five weeks sell it to Carter for $100,000.

“After all, we’re swindlers, not thieves.”