ARTFUL DODGE
by Joe Giordano

Maxey’s eyes welled. “Adriana held the shotgun inches from my face. She demanded I kneel.”

Nicknamed the Dog of Flatbush, Maxey always attracted the prettier girl when we hung around together as teens in Brooklyn, an annoying tendency. During the last decade, he hit the bottle rather hard and our lives drifted apart, so my eyes widened in surprise when he showed up at my office door in Brooklyn South dressed like a cover model for GQ. My name’s Bragg, and I’m a homicide, gold-shield detective.

“Obviously, you survived,” I said.
He reddened. “I nearly pissed myself”
“Perhaps that was her intent.” Years and alcoholism had transformed Maxey’s face into parched desert, but I supposed women thought him ruggedly handsome. My long day made me insist he get to the point.  “Do you want to press charges?”
“There were no witnesses.”  
“‘Homicide,’ not ‘Help for the Lovelorn,’ is stenciled on my office window.”
Maxey implored.  “My best suit stinks from putrid sweat.”
“Try dry cleaning.”
“Couldn’t you talk to her?”
I puffed out a long, frustrated breath. “Is Adriana the hot blonde with green eyes I saw you with at Lombardo’s trattoria?”
“That was Lenore. Adriana’s a brunette. She confronted me over Monica, a redhead.”
“Three women?”
“We can’t change our nature.”
“What would you like me to tell her?”
“Keep her distance. A cop’s warning should be sufficient.”
“Get a restraining order,” I said.
“I don’t have any lawyer friends.”
“You’ve gotten cheap in your old age.”
“Just poor. Do me this one favor.”
“You still maintain a Rolodex-worthy list of girlfriends?” I asked.
Maxey managed a hapless smile.
I said, “One of these days you’re going to mess with the wrong woman, and either she, her husband, or boyfriend will hand you your ass.”

Maxey hadn’t left my office five minutes, when I received the call. A homicide at an address on Willow Street near the Brooklyn Bridge in the DUMBO, Down Under Manhattan Bridge Overpass, section of Brooklyn. Surrounding residents termed it the DUMB part of Brooklyn, leaving the “O” off the acronym in an envious jab at the arty, swanky neighborhood.

The interior of the red-brick home shouted ‘money.’ A maid discovered the body. Christopher Lewison, sixty, shot once in the chest, lying on a parquet-floor living room with a crystal chandelier, a suede leather couch, muted-tone upholstered furniture, the largest flat screen TV I’d ever scene, with the walls and niches crammed with paintings and sculpture.

Living alone, no family, rather reclusive according to my canvas of neighbors, I found no indication he had enemies or anyone holding a grudge. He left his estate divided among the major art museums in New York. Going through his bank records, I found a check to Sidney Master for eight-hundred-thousand dollars with the hand-written notation, “Frida Kahlo piece.” A search of the apartment found none of the Mexican artist’s work.

Master lived in a lower East Side Manhattan apartment. Before confronting him, I stopped at the Helman Art Gallery in Chelsea. I’d known the owner for years.

John Helman chuckled when I mentioned Sidney Master’s name. He said, “A sly old fox with a spotty reputation.”

“How so?”
“I’d worked with him for years, but his last consignment, a Jack Wilkinson Smith coastal landscape, Waves Crashing on Rocks, turned out to be fake. Now, I’d give his pieces a proctological exam before hanging them in the gallery.”
“Know any collectors who’ve had experience with Master?”
“Try Richard and Emily Hunt. They own an apartment on Fifth Avenue.”

The doorman at the Hunt’s building called ahead before I arrived at their door.  Mr. Hunt, fifties, graying, in a royal-blue cardigan, bade me to enter his vaulted, cream-colored foyer and led me to a Louis XIV appointed living room.

After showing him my credentials, I asked if he knew Sidney Master.

His face soured. “Elder gentleman. Art dealer. I bought a few paintings from him.”

“Any problems with provenance?”
“No, and I was pleased with our relationship until he offered me a Frida Kahlo.”
At the mention of the artist, I leaned forward. “What happened?”
“Master pressed me for a quick decision saying that a number of his clients were ready to bid on the piece.”
“That was unusual?”
“He asked for nine-hundred-thousand dollars with no time allowed for authentication or appraisal. Claimed the painting was from his personal collection.”
“You didn’t bite.”
“The Kahlo looked genuine, and the paintings I’d previously purchased from Master were authentic and a good buy. Detective, perhaps you’ll understand, an avid collector develops a sort of fever in these situations. I wanted that Kahlo. I’d taken out my checkbook when my wife Emily interjected. She said if she were contemplating a fraud, she’d first butter up the victim by selling him less expensive, legitimate works at good prices.”
“She convinced you to back off.”
“In a sense. Are you married?”
I shook my head.
“What echoed in my brain was the endless rebuke I’d hear from Emily if the Kahlo turned out not to be genuine. I closed my checkbook.”

 Unannounced, I called on Sidney Master. He opened the door wearing a three-piece beige suit with purple tie. Seventy-five, tousled white hair, glasses, his merry face reminded me of Santa Claus without the beard.

I showed him my badge and said, “I’m investigating the murder of Christopher Lewison. Do you know him?”
“I do.” He greeted me like an old friend. “Come in, Detective.”
Rather cool for a perp, I thought.

His small apartment looked like the aftermath of a 6.0 earthquake. Paintings and sculpture lay strewn around the room, some hung crookedly, others bunched atop a pedestal, many on the floor or leaning against a wall. He lifted a pile of wooden frames off the couch before I could sit.

“Cup of tea?” he asked.
“No thanks. What was your relationship with Mr. Lewison?”
“A client. I recently sold him a fine painting by Frida Kahlo.”
“How much did he pay?”
“Eight-hundred-thousand. My asking price was a bit higher, but he negotiated hard, and I was anxious to sell.”
“You needed money?”
Master said, “I’m sure you know, Detective, one can’t live in Manhattan earning the wage of a Walmart greeter. Plus, my old bones have tired of New York winters, and I plan to relocate to Florida.”
“How did you acquire the Kahlo?”
“My father purchased the picture from her estate in the mid-fifties. A private transaction, the piece enjoyed considerable appreciation over sixty-plus years.”
“Do you have any paperwork on the original sale?”
“Lost, I’m afraid.”
“You’re an active art dealer?”
“My only means of support outside of a meager social security check.”
“May I see your business books?”
“Record keeping isn’t my strength.” His smile widened.

On an end table stood a bronze ballerina, a miniature replica of Edgar Degas’s Little Dancer Aged Fourteen. I picked up the statue and asked, “Shouldn’t genuine Degas’s be numbered?”

Master’s grin wavered a millisecond. “That piece isn’t for sale.”
“I see. Do you own a pistol?”
“My father owned a 9mm. Also lost.”
“We couldn’t find the Kahlo in Lewison’s apartment.”
“Ah. The murder was probably a theft gone wrong”
“Please describe the piece.”
“A self-portrait, flowers in her hair.”
“That describes a lot of her work.”
“True enough.”
“Easier to fake. Do you paint?” I asked.
“Poorly, I’m afraid. Not well enough to forge a masterpiece, if that’s what you’re implying.”
“Did Lewison discover that the Kahlo was a forgery and demanded his money back?”
“Really, Detective? Wasn’t that an episode of Law & Order?”
“Shooting Lewison was preferable to returning his money and exposing your fraud. Jail time at your age must’ve been a frightening prospect. What did you do with the fake Kahlo?”
Master stood. “If that’s all, Detective Bragg, I have appointments to attend.”

Reluctantly, I left the apartment.

***

I checked the art fences and pawn shops in the city. Nobody had been approached to buy a Frida Kahlo. I obtained a warrant and searched Master’s apartment but didn’t find the murder weapon or anything to connect him with the slaying of Christopher Lewison. Almost all the art in his apartment were fakes, and he had no record of transactions. I couldn’t find anyone in the art community who would admit to being defrauded by Master.

I brought my dilemma to my supervisor, Lieutenant Dixon, a grizzled African-American.

I said, “I’m certain that Master murdered Lewison, but the DA won’t authorize his arrest on circumstantial evidence.”

“What did your gallery friend call Master, ‘sly fox’?”
I said, “If he slips this noose, he’ll continue his frauds.”
Dixon asked, “Isn’t he moving to Florida?”
“Yeah.”

He emulated a Pontius Pilate hand-washing motion. “He’s Dade County’s problem. Move on.”

Dixon was cynical, but right. I had one card to play. After Master moved to Miami, I contacted the IRS and gave them his Florida address along with a photocopy of Lewison’s eight-hundred-thousand-dollar check. Not being able to prove Al Capone’s many crimes, the Feds sent him to prison over tax evasion.

***

I finally got around to visiting Adriana, Maxey’s girlfriend. Miles of cleavage, a chocolate brunette with blazing hazel eyes and blood-red lipstick opened her door. Even after flashing my badge, she looked me up and down before letting me in.

Sitting across from me, she crossed shapely legs.

I said, “Do you deny putting a shotgun to Maxey’s head?”
“He’s a three-timing son-of-a-bitch, but I keep the weapon next to my bed for defense against intruders. That’s all.”
“You’ll stay away from him?”
“He’s so damn good looking. Did he piss his pants and run to you?”
“Basically. Yes.”
“Good. Want a drink?”
“I’m on duty.”
“When you’re off duty, why don’t you bring your baby blue eyes here for a nightcap?”
“That’s probably not a good idea.”

She uncrossed her legs, leaving them parted. “Why not?”

I swallowed and said, “I’m not as good looking as Maxey. Me, you’d shoot.”

As I left her apartment, her comment smacked my back. “Scaredy-cat.”

About the Author:

Joe Giordano’s stories have appeared in more than one hundred magazines including The Saturday Evening Post and Shenandoah. His novels, Birds of Passage, An Italian Immigrant Coming of Age Story, (2015), and Appointment with ISIL, an Anthony Provati Thriller (2017) were published by Harvard Square Editions. His third novel, Drone Strike, will be published by Rogue Phoenix Press in 2019. Joe was among one hundred Italian-American authors honored by Barnes & Noble Chairman Len Riggio to march in the 2017 Manhattan Columbus Day Parade.

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