The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues (7 page)

BOOK: The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues
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“Somebody close the window, quick,” shouted her sister-in-law Blanche, bent over the ironing board. “The dirt’s flying all over my clean uniform.”

“Back and forth, back and forth,” Dickory muttered in imitation of her brother as she closed the window. Once again she picked up her brush and contemplated the canvas propped against the wall. Her composition consisted of a single object balanced against a mass. If done right, the eye will always come to rest on the isolated object, Professor D’Arches had explained. She was working on the mass, covering the entire bottom third of the canvas with blocks of overlapping color, thinking out each brushstroke carefully so that no one color would pop out more than the others. Now she knew why Garson wanted a quiet assistant; even painting a mass of colors in oils took intense concentration.

“And just what do you know about back and forth, Miss Pablo Picasso?” her brother asked. “Maybe if someone had supported me when I was your age, I’d be doing something better than driving a bus back and forth, back and forth.”

“I pay my way,” Dickory replied. In generosity she did not mention that her brother had lost the hock shop to his bookie; but then, she had lied about her salary, telling them the twenty dollars a week she paid for room and board was half of her wages. She was saving her money to move out of this crummy walk-up railroad flat. She wanted her own crummy walk-up studio, all to herself. She wanted to become an important artist—or would she rather be a rich hack artist, like Garson, and live and work in a fine house?

“Well, I’ll say this,” Blanche said, ironing ruffles on her nurse’s cap. “I’d rather be driving back and forth, back and forth, than doing what I’m doing. How’d you like to be drooled on by senile great-grandfathers?”

“Yeah,” Donald argued. “Yeah, well I’ll give you just one day driving back and forth, back and forth. . . .”

 

Professor D’Arches brushed the back of his hand over the expensive linen canvas, thick with pure oil pigments. “What did you do, Dickory, rob a bank?” That was all he had to say about her single object versus mass. He spent the rest of the period castigating the cluttered, poorly designed street signs.

“I thought your composition was really fantastic,” George III said, trying to slow his long-legged stride to the angel’s serene pace. “The mass of color was really good, and the single object—that was a stroke of genius. Just one little black dot.”

“Thank you, George. I found your design quite original, too,” she replied with heavenly charity. “Imagine, balancing a watermelon on top of a pea.”

“Wow, is this where you live?” They had reached Number 12. “Is that your father in the window?”

Dickory uttered a haughty laugh. “Of course not, that’s our janitor.”

“Really?” Even gullible George was incredulous. “That fat man in white, your janitor?”

Dickory was about to explain that they had very clean garbage when Shrimps appeared next to Mallomar. “That little man in black is our janitor; the fat one in the white suit is our cook.”

Pleased that the derelict was not around to spoil the elegance of Cobble Lane, Dickory unlocked the door to her house, leaving George on the sidewalk gawking at her wealth.

“Who’s the character outside, the one eyeing the joint?” Mallomar’s questions always sounded like threats.

Head held high, Dickory floated through the hall in an aura of silent sanctity.

“I’m talking to you, you snotty kid; and I’m expecting an answer.” The angry fat man spun her around and grabbed her nose between two greasy knuckles.

Dickory kicked him in the shins and escaped up the stairs, praying that the steep flight was too great a challenge to Mallomar’s corpulence.

It was. “I’ll get you, if you don’t stop that snooping. Just you wait.” From the bottom of the stairs he shook a white-knuckled fist at her.

“Get stuck in the bathtub, you fat greaseball,” the Piero della Francesca angel shouted down. “You fat blackmailer, you.”

Mallomar’s bulging eyes glared. Dickory glared back, realizing the truth of what she had said. He
was
a blackmailer. He was blackmailing the Smiths and the Joneses. And Garson.

Dickory tore herself away from the ugliness below and walked into the studio, caressing her sore nose. What did Mallomar have on Garson? What dark crime blackened Garson’s past? No questions, no questions; she couldn’t ask Garson or dare touch on the subject even if he had been home.

“Garson?” she called. No answer. She looked out of the front window. No one was in Cobble Lane, just George still gaping. He saw her, smiled brightly, waved, and walked away.

Maybe she should quit this job, in spite of the good pay. It wasn’t the ugly tenants or the blackmail that troubled Dickory as much as what she was learning from Garson. She was learning to be a phony.

 

The canvas on Garson’s easel told the beginnings of the Cookie Panzpresser portrait, the underpainting already shaping the dignity of the sitter.

The second easel was again draped. Next to it sat a manikin dressed as a drum majorette, a plumed hat atilt on its blonde curly wig.

“Garson?” Dickory called again to make certain he was not around. Cautiously, she lifted a corner of the red velvet drape and nearly jumped out of her sneakers when the doorbell rang. Deciding to let Mr. Smith or Mrs. Jones wait, she raised the drape.

The canvas was primed, but unpainted. Blank.

Disappointed that her transgression had led to nothing but a nervous sweat, Dickory ran down the stairs to answer the insistent bell. The suspicious Shrimps peeked into the hallway, reminding her of her sore nose. She opened the front door.

“I’m sorry, Garson isn’t home,” she said, on hearing that the crippled man’s name was Fetlock.

“I will wait, thank you.” Fetlock spoke in a high, piping voice. His hair was black. His eyes were hidden under bushy brows. His bent body was disguised by a long, collared cape. One boot had a sole three inches thicker than the other. Slowly, painfully, he dragged his deformed leg up the steps, his left hand clutching the banister, his right hand quivering on a gold-handled cane.

“I see you’ve begun the Cookie Panzpresser portrait, Mr. Fetlock,” Dickory said to his crooked back.

The bent man straightened. “How did you know it was me?”

“The tremor in your right hand.”

Garson banged his cane against the wall and stormed up the stairs as best he could in the uneven boots.

It was no longer just a game. What was it then, she wondered as she slowly climbed the stairs. Why was Garson testing disguises?

 

Again the doorbell rang.

“Hello, Chief Quinn,” Dickory announced loudly toward the crack in Mallomar’s door.

“Hello, Hickory. Garson in?”

“Come on up, Chief,” Garson called. Disguise discarded, he looked like the portrait painter again, except for his bare feet. He had not had time to find his loafers. “Did you find the horrible hairdresser?”

“Sure did,” Quinn replied cheerfully, sitting on the desktop next to the telephone. “Frances was ensconced in the premises of her new beauty parlor.”

“Her?”

“All right, I thank you and pat you on the back. The hairdresser is a woman with a mole on her left cheek. The only place you went wrong is her last name: Ocher.”

“Ocher is a color,” Dickory insisted.

“An earth color,” Garson said. “Tell me, did the widows get their money back?”

“Not yet, but they’re happy with the arrangement. Frances Ocher bought a beauty shop with their money, so the widows settled for a percentage of the profits and free hair sets in perpetuity. Of course, the formula will be destroyed.” The chief sighed. “Victims of their own vanity.” He shook his head philosophically and removed the cigar for his next serious pronouncement. “Vanity, greed, jealousy, hatred—eliminate them and you eliminate three-quarters of all offenses. Vanity. Greed. Jealousy. Hatred. The four horsemen of modern crime.”

A phone call interrupted the Quinn theory of the criminal mind. “Yeah, he’s here,” the chief mumbled angrily, cigar back in his mouth. Dickory thought she heard the caller whine something about one entrance and Jim. Quinn’s cigar danced crazily. “Okay, come on back; but you lose him once more and you’ll be directing traffic in the Lincoln Tunnel.” He slammed the receiver, eased himself into the wing chair, and stared at Dickory. The smile returned to his ruddy face.

“Hickory Dickory Dock,
The mouse ran up the clock,
The clock struck three,
The mouse did flee,
Hickory Dickory Dock.”

 

Dickory turned away.

“Come on, Hickory Dickory Dock, don’t be sore,” Quinn said. “Not everyone can make people happy just by telling them their name.”

Dickory Dock was a name for a tap-dancing, curlyhaired tot, she thought. And it certainly did not make her happy.

“After all, it’s not really a funny name.” Chief Quinn would not give up. “It’s not a funny name like Wyatt Earp. I always thought Wyatt Earp sounded more like a belch than a name. You’ve got to be tough with a name like that one.”

Dickory thought of her tough brother Donald, who beat up anyone who dared quack at him.

“Speaking of names,” Quinn said, “what do you make of this one: Eldon F. Zyzyskczuk?”

Dickory shrugged. It was an unusual name, but not especially funny. “How do you spell it?”

“Exactly the way it sounds.” The chief burst out laughing at his little joke.

“You know what I think about that name?” Garson had returned wearing shoes. “I think there must be one, and only one, Eldon F. Zyzyskczuk.”

“I knew you’d say that, Garson, but this time you are wrong. There happens to be not one, but two Eldon F. Zyzyskczuks. Two Eldon Feodor Zyzyskczuks,” the chief repeated. “One’s an importer, who lives at 734 West 84th Street; the other’s an exporter, who lives at 743 East 84th Street. A few years back the importer lost his wallet and sent away for a new Social Security card; now both Eldon F. Zyzyskczuks have the same Social Security number.” Quinn chuckled over the unhappy plight of the tax authorities, two banks, five department stores, and six credit-card companies, none of whom could collect on their mixed-up bills.

“I hope you’re not asking me to paint a double portrait of the two Eldon F. Zyzyskczuks,” Garson said.

“No, no, there’s no crime involved here. It’s just one big, beautiful mess, and thank heavens the police are not involved.” Quinn rose and withdrew an envelope thick with money from his pocket. “But I would like your help on another case. The feds are in on this one, and I’d like to wrap it up before they do.” He handed a bill to Garson. “And here’s one for you, Hickory. Don’t spend it all in one place.”

Dickory studied the Lincoln Memorial on her bill. The color looked right; the paper felt right; the engraving looked right; but the police would not be passing real money around. She turned over the counterfeit bill and gasped at what she saw.

A car horn honked twice.

“Let me know what you make of that portrait, Garson. By telephone this time, if you please.” The chief headed for the door. “Oh, by the way, I call this one: The Case of the Face on the Five-Dollar Bill.”

3

 

“Has he gone?” Garson asked, examining the counterfeiter’s portrait on the five-dollar bill.

Dickory checked the window. Quinn seemed to be warning the derelict, rather angrily, it seemed. His words were obviously wasted, for as soon as the chief’s car disappeared around the bend, the drunk returned to his stoop and went to sleep.

Out came the hats. Inspector Noserag lit his pipe and leaned back in his chair. “A most intriguing case, Sergeant Kod, most intriguing. What is your learned opinion of my fellow-artist who usurped Lincoln’s oval?”

Dickory tried to forget about the derelict and concentrate on the counterfeiter’s face on her counterfeit bill. “He must want to get caught.”

“Not necessarily, Sargeant. Examine the face carefully and describe it to me.”

There was little to describe. “Ordinary,” Dickory replied with a shrug.

“Handsome?”

“Maybe. In an ordinary sort of way.”

“Precisely. My counterfeiter could pass these bills for a lifetime without being apprehended. Cashiers cannot examine each and every five-dollar bill that passes through their hands. By the time they discover that the bill is counterfeit, they cannot remember who passed it. And if some of them did remember, ‘Ordinary,’ they would say. And if they saw him again, would they recognize him? ‘I doubt it,’ they would say. ‘He looked just like anybody else. Ordinary.’ ”

“But the counterfeiter’s face is right here,” Dickory argued. “Anyone can see exactly what he looks like.”

“Remember, Sergeant Kod, this is a portrait, not a photograph. Would you recognize my lawyer in the flesh from the man in the portrait? I think not. We are dealing here with one of Quinn’s four horsemen: vanity.” Garson, aware of Inspector Noserag’s lapse in character, coughed and changed his British to Bogart. “Any guy who plasters his mug on a phony five-spot has got to be vain. Get the palette ready, kid. Inspector Noserag is going to paint from handsome to real.”

 

“Your palette, Inspector.” Dickory placed a pen and a bottle of India ink on the taboret top and smirked.

Eyebrows raised, Noserag looked from the “palette” to the black-and-white portrait on the engraved bill. “Quite right, Sergeant, I shall draw this likeness in pen and ink. But what is this? Can it be possible? Eureka!” The bill fluttered in his shaking hand. “Quick, Sergeant Kod, my glass.”

Dickory hastened to the kitchen counter to pour him a drink.

“Not a drinking glass, a glass!” the inspector shouted. “My magnifying lens. In the desk. Never mind, I’ll get it myself. Look at your bill, Sergeant. Does it also have a thumbprint on it—a red, smudged thumbprint?”

It did.

“Aha,” he exclaimed, examining both bills under the lens. “Unquestionably this is the thumbprint of my counterfeiter.”

“How do you know it belongs to the counterfeiter?”

“Elementary, my dear Kod. The exact print appears on two different bills. I dare say, the police would not leave their own thumbprints on the evidence, at least not red ones.”

BOOK: The Tattooed Potato and Other Clues
4.49Mb size Format: txt, pdf, ePub
ads

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