This story is by Tracy Woodfield and was part of our 2017 Spring Writing Contest. You can find all the Spring Writing Contest stories here.
It wasn’t as if the world was about to end although it certainly felt like it to Simon Brown. At twenty-five Simon considered himself an up-and-coming artist. His ambitions lay in the realms of famous portraits and landscapes; his reality was making money painting the pets of the wealthy. He was sufficiently good at it to make an okay living even if he felt as if it were sapping his creative juices into a dry desert of boredom. And right now he was standing in the “drawing room” of Lady Penelope Whitlaw’s Hampshire townhouse facing Detective Inspector Grey with the marks on a wall where a painting had been. And it wasn’t going well.
“Lady Whitlaw says you are the only person who has been in this room since yesterday morning when you were here to finish off the painting of Gerald.” The Detective Inspector said calmly. “The maid was the first person to come into the room after you this morning to clean and she discovered the missing painting. Lady Whitlaw has said that you have commented on the painting of Leonardo Fields many times and have expressed a desire to have it for your own.”
“Well…yes but, have you seen the painting? It is one of Field’s best works – The Lady of Lammas – and it an amazing blend of portrait and landscape. Of course I’d love to have it but I didn’t steal it.”
“Can you prove that?”
And therein lay the problem. Simon shook his head. “No but can you prove I did?” The police had to have proof, didn’t they? Not just circumstantial evidence.
Detective Inspector Grey eyed him thoughtfully. He held up his hand. “If you were here to finish a portrait why did you arrive with a canvas and leave with a canvas? It appears when you entered the room the painting was there and when you left it had gone. This makes you a prime suspect.”
Simon shook his head. “But I didn’t do it.” He could tell the Inspector didn’t believe him. After all what was he – a poor working artist. He was indeed the most likely candidate. “I was here to paint that -” he pointed to his very realistic portrait of the pug that was the current apple of Lady Whitlaw’s eye. “I have been painting her pets for past three years – all eight of them.”
“And by the tone of your words, Mr Brown, it has not been a pleasant experience so what better way to get your revenge on a difficult client by stealing her favourite painting.”
“And screw up my living in the process – are you mad?” Simon exclaimed in disbelief. “You can’t eat a painting.”
“You can if you sell it and pocket the proceeds. And I believe you did have something to do with the theft. You had motive, means and opportunity. Best if you come with me and go over the events at the station. This way, sir.”
Simon paled. This wasn’t supposed to happen. He’d just painted that silly pug. Lady Whitlaw called him about three times a year to paint her animals and for which – to be fair – she paid him handsomely and had recommended him to her friends.
She had always been pleasant in an old-fashioned aristocratic sort of way and as jobs go it wasn’t too demanding really. But once word got out about this, no one would want him to paint their doorstep let alone portrait of their pets. He would be branded by suspicion alone as a thief and not to be trusted. Persona non-grata and all his dreams dead in the water before he even had a chance to show the world his true talent.
The Detective Inspector was waiting. The police car was in the street and there were enough spectators out there watching with interest to see what it was doing outside. Nosy lot in this street. Simon was sure the news would have spread all around the neighbour before he even got to the police station. The sinking feeling that this would be his last few minutes of freedom was impinging on his conscious mind and what was worst – he was innocent!
He dully watched the streets flash by and wondered what it would be like to be in prison for a crime he didn’t commit. “
Simon hated thinking like this but he couldn’t see anyway of proving his innocence. There was a witness who had seen him take a canvas out of the room, it wasn’t the painting but how to prove it.
Watching too many cop shows had given Simon an exaggerated view of the police. They would stitch him up because he was too convenient and Lady Whitlaw would be demanding that they do something and her contacts were still worth something in today’s world. Still it wouldn’t give her the painting back. He didn’t have it.
All too soon it seemed, they arrived at the “station” and he was led into a room with only two chairs, a table and a recording device. He waited for the Detective Inspector to begin the “interview”.
The Detective nodded at him. “Now for the record, your name is…” he began.
“Simon Adolphus Brown, aged 25 and I live in Apartment 4b 10 Cowlisham Lane, Hampshire, Artist. Currently painter of pet portraits for the wealthy.” Simon recited obligingly.
“And where were you yesterday, Monday 25th May from 10.30am onwards.”
“I was in my flat until 11.00am, then I caught a taxi to the residence of Lady Whitlaw.”
“And what happened next, sir.”
“I was shown into the drawing room, waited for about ten minutes, Lady Whitlaw came down and we talked for a bit then I left about twelve. She asked me to lunch but I was supposed to meet Sir Bernard Trent – painting his beagle – Wilbur. He cancelled last minute. Went home and stayed there. “
“How did you meet Sir Bernard?”
“Lady Whitlaw often recommends me to her friends. To steal from her wouldn’t make sense. The painting is only worth about 3.0 million, insurance, and that isn’t enough to set yourself.”
“Really? But it is enough to set yourself up as an artist – you have ambitions of a different life don’t you sir?”
“Well I don’t want to paint animals all my life,” Simon agreed readily. He leaned forward. “I want to paint portraits of famous people and amazing landscapes. Cornwall has some beautiful seascapes that have yet to be put on canvas. You’d be surprised…”
“Yes sir, but to continue.”
Simon settled back. “I went back to my flat and put the second canvas away. Stayed inside until this morning when Lady Whitlaw rang. I didn’t go out so if I have the painting, I guess it must be in the flat – the taxi driver will attest I went straight back to my flat. If you want to search – get a search warrant.”
“The driver did and you’re right.” The Detective waved a piece of paper at Simon with a grim smile. “I have a search warrant. My officers will go with you now?”
Simon nodded and they both rose.
Back at his flat, Simon pulled out the sketches he’d made of Gerald and looked at them for a long while. The final sketches didn’t show the painting l and just had Lady Whitelaw’s signature scrawled over them. He pulled the secondary canvas out of its place and handed it over to the officers. “That’s what I brought back with me.”
The Constable took it and looked at it with disdain. He shook his head. “I’m sorry sir, but if you’d care to stay here while we search the rest of your flat.”
Simon shrugged. They could search to their hearts content. The painting wasn’t there. But standing and watching them go through his things was an uncomfortable experience and not one he cared to repeat ever. Although to do them justice, they replaced his belongings careful and didn’t trash the place as he half expected.
Finally getting bored, he sat down and waited. It took them three hours to go through everything. They had found nothing. Well – they had discovered his collection – small and well- hidden though it was – of porn magazines.
The Constable returned and came across. “Sir?”
“Yes?” Simon eyed the man wearily.
“Shall we return to the station, sir?”
Detective Inspector Grey was waiting for them. “Nothing?” He asked the Constable.
“Nothing, sir but there was the strong smell of oil paints and a stack of porn mags – legit ones.” The Constable said dryly.
“Nothing?” The Detective repeated disbelievingly.
“No sir and we spoke to the other flat owners and most could confirm Mr Brown didn’t go out yesterday afternoon. They said it was quite common for him to stay in, him being a painter and all.” The Constable answered stoically.
The Detective looked annoyed. He turned to Simon and said, “if you’d just tell us what you did with the painting, sir. This will be all over. I know you stole it yesterday morning so stop lying and tell us the truth.”
Simon sighed. This was well and truly getting beyond a joke. He thought and said the first thing that came into his mind, “I’ll… I’ll take a lie detector test,” and was surprised when the Detective swiftly agreed.
That was how Simon found himself, sat in a bland white room attached to the machine and taking the test; going through all the rigmarole required to prove that at least he believed in his own innocence.
It was only after all that he remembered. “I can prove the canvas I took out of the room wasn’t the painting.”
Detective Inspector Grey frowned. “Really?”
Simon began to smile. Yes, really. “Well the maid saw only one canvas under my arm and I went into my flat with that same canvas then it would have to be the painting – yes?”
“Yes,” the Detective admitted warily.
“Well… when I was walking up the stairs, Lucy was coming out and I showed her it.” How he wished he had remembered this earlier.
“Lucy Williams flat 201 just below me…”
The Constable nodded. “We spoke to a lady in 201 and she said that she’d been out Monday afternoon so couldn’t say if Mr Brown left his flat or not.”
“Go and ask her if she saw Mr Brown that day and saw the canvas he was carrying,” Grey instructed grimly.
Luckily for Simon Lucy remembered it all rather well – because, as she explained to the Constable, she really didn’t like pugs. They were horrible ugly little dogs – not at all like her lovely Dalmatian, Dolly.
Detective Inspector Grey sighed and looked at all the evidence in front of him. There was nothing that would stand up to a Court; no way hewould get a conviction even though he just knew that Simon Brown was responsible for the theft of the painting. He had no choice but to let the man go.
Simon left the station and hailed a cab. He watched the streets flash by and began to smile. But he didn’t really laugh until he got inside his own flat. Whoever had stolen the painting had no idea of its true value. It was worth all of 3000 pounds. It certainly wasn’t worth the insurance figure of three million.
And he should know. It hadn’t been hard to make a copy and replace the original painting. Private collectors don’t ask any questions and neither did Sir Bernard.
Simon had never lied. He didn’t steal the original yesterday. He had “replaced” it two years ago. No one had noticed not even the person who had stolen it. He wondered who that was but it wasn’t him.
No in this case he was most definitely innocent.