The Maltese Duck: A Lisette Rivers Case
Chapter One: Lady Stella Sampling
The bedside phone roused Lisette from a REM dream in which Rasputin Thermodux the First and Fluggy Baskerville the Pomeranian, wearing berets and black and white striped sweaters, were dancing a torrid Tango as a threesome with a sleek lady cat in a dimly lit bar.
Lisette groped for the phone: “Urrrmh?”
“It’s Stella Sampling, Miss Rivers. Lady Stella Sampling. You don’t know me. I’ve just found your detective agency in the Yellow Pages. I need your help.”
“At 3.30 in the morning?” asked Lisette, coming up onto her elbows and shaking the dream from her head.
“I know it’s awfully late, but it’s awfully important. I need your advice.”
“Can’t it wait for a more civilized hour?”
“No. I mean … I’m in danger. They’re looking for me, and I don’t know where to turn.”
“The police …?”
“No! Not the police! The matter is too … complicated.”
“All right, I’ll come, but I don’t like it.”
“Thank you.” Stella Sampling gave her address. “Be careful Miss Rivers. Come to my apartment from the underground garage. Not the front entrance. They could be waiting for you there. Or for me.”
“I’ll be careful.” Lisette rang off. Who could be waiting? “This time I shan’t forget my gadgets,” she told herself aloud as she slid from beneath the blankets.
“Frruft,” said Rasputin Thermodux the First from his embroidered satin cushion at the foot of Lisette’s bed. The big Persian rolled onto his side and stretched all four limbs and sets of claws before curling up to continue his disturbed dream with Pussy Plenty of the Kats Klaw Bar.
Lisette peeled off her silk nightdress and quickly slipped into black satin panties, dark stockings, a matching bra, and a full slip with a lacy bodice that complemented the bra. Over it all she slipped on a full-skirted shirt maker dress in blue satin with a wide belt around the waist. Around her neck she arranged a string of freshwater pearls interlaced within a small white silk neck square, a fashion touch she found unusual and pleasing ever since she saw the old 1950s movie This Island Earth. She brushed back honey-gold hair that had recently been trimmed to a full pageboy cut bobbed at the back of her head. It was an elegant change of style, although she was a little sad to see the rich shoulder length fashion go.
This Island Earth,(1955), Faith Domergue, scan by Brian Sands
The belt held the first of her gadgets, a slender flat blade with a serrated edge that would cut through rope, telephone flex or computer cable with ease. One pearl in the necklace contained a microchip that broadcast a signal that could be picked up by a Global Positioning System (GPS) when activated. She slipped onto her feet a pair of blue shoes to go with the outfit. They were chic but at the same time were sensibly equipped with sturdy heels. Inside the sliding compartment of one heel was a miniature mobile phone, a backup if ever the one in her clasp bag was taken or lost. In the heel of the other shoe nestled a bugging device that could be stuck beneath the top of a desk or table or upon a wall. She compared the black Browning automatic against the pearl-handled two-shot Derringer and opted for the Browning, which she dropped into her bag. At that time of night she was in a black mood.
Thus equipped Lisette Rivers put on a semi transparent plastic trench coat, white with a hint of pink, for protection against the rain and fog that blanketed the city. She was ready for whatever the early morning might bring.
Stella Sampling’s stipulation of an underground parking garage had given Lisette the wrong idea. She had thought that the address in Chelsea would be a modern block of apartments. Instead, it was an old terrace house of several floors facing a small green square. The square and the house both were ringed with six-foot high iron fencing. The garage was entered at the side and clearly serviced the one building. The security gate to the short driveway was open and the roller shutters of the garage were raised. Lisette wondered how this tallied with Lady Sampling’s fears that she was being watched. But when Lisette drove down the in-ramp she noticed that the entrance to the garage was well screened by a thick hedge that also gave privacy to the front of the building where the ground floor was concerned. On the other hand, the hedge offered plenty of cover for anyone bent on waylaying the Lady of the house.
There was space in the garage for two vehicles. One berth was filled by a gleaming chrome plated Rolls Royce. Lisette drew her little Renault into the empty bay alongside the luxury car. As she alighted, there was a whirr of machinery and the roller shutters unfurled, closing and sealing off the interior of the garage from the outside world. Her entrance had been observed. With not a few misgivings, Lisette found her way to the lift well. She decided to take the lift. The small cabin that carried travellers two floors only, from the garage basement to the ground floor, moved almost soundlessly.
Lisette stepped from the lift into a wide foyer. The front door, closed and bolted, was in clear view at one end. A broad staircase with a wooden railing upon a copper filigreed parapet, green with age, led upwards. The lift appeared to be the only new item in the building. It had been installed recently. Workmen’s tools still lay up against one wall, detracting from the otherwise attractive appearance of the foyer. Lisette’s client had rooms upstairs.
Her feet sank into plush carpet as she walked to the balustrade. The carpeting continued up the stairs, silencing her progress. Impressed, she mounted the stairs, one hand on the railing, negotiated a small landing, and came at last to a second foyer that was a mirror image of the one below except for being smaller in area. A hallway led off in one direction but a sturdy door faced her immediately opposite. Lisette went to it and knocked.
There was a pause during which Lisette became aware that she was being observed through the security peephole. The door opened as far as three inches which was all that two chains allowed, one at eye level and the other at the level of the handle. The strained face of a pretty long-haired blonde peeped around the edge.
“Miss Lisa Rivers?”
“Oh thank god! Are you alone?”
The chains rattled. The door opened, but only wide enough for Lisette to squeeze through. She stepped into the room. The blonde quickly closed the door and replaced the chains with shaking hands.
Lisette took in the room with a gasp. It was sparingly but tastefully furnished: thickly carpeted, a wide sofa flanked by two equally commodious armchairs at one end. A spotlessly clean servery partially screened a kitchen equipped with a gleaming glass and chrome oven and microwave, dishwasher, and refrigerator. At various places around the walls on stands or in niches stood exotic figurines and sculptures of all sizes, from life-size to miniatures a few inches high.
She stopped before a display of the latter, sculptured figurines arranged in a row upon a shelf. The figurines, no larger than around five inches, depicted women bound in different ways. That of a naked woman trussed in a ball tie held Lisette’s attention.
Lady Stella Sampling came to her side. “They’re genuine Leigh Heppell,” the blonde volunteered. “That one’s particularly good isn’t it? It’s pewter. The model’s name is ‘Zuleka.’ She’s described as bound with her own silk stockings. I find it delicious, though I don’t think I’d enjoy experiencing it myself.”
Leigh Heppell Erotic Sculpture, UK. ‘Zuleka’ 5” (12.5cm long x 2” (5cm) high http://www.exotic.co.uk/erotica/zuleka_pewter.html
Lisette shivered. “I agree.” She knew how a ball tie felt.
“But this is what I want to talk to you about,” said Stella Sampling, moving on.
She led Lisette further down the room to another display. Taking pride of place in what looked almost like a shrine was a particularly striking figurine. It was that of a long legged bird with a thin curved bill. It was … different. Lisette could not drag her eyes from it.
“You like it I see,” said Lady Sampling, considerably overstating Lisette’s stunned reaction. The woman moved close beside her. “It’s my favourite and most valuable piece. The Maltese Duck.”
“Is that gold leaf, burnished to resemble wood?”
“Very much so. Very thick gold leaf.”
The woman walked to the figurine, took it reverently in her hands and placed it in an oblong wooden box that lay upon the dining table. The box had a silk lined mould that took the shape of the figurine. Stella Sampling closed the lid and snapped two catches shut. Lisette shook herself mentally and returned to the real world.
“Lady Sampling, you said you were in danger. Is it anything to do with these works of art? Many of them look priceless.”
“Yes dear, and please call me Stella. I’ve been Curator of the Pimlico Museum of Antiquities for several years. These art works you see around us are on, uh, loan, only recently. You see I couldn’t resist them. It’s a case of taking my work home with me I suppose. Oh they’re in good hands, perfectly safe. There’s a foolproof security system for this building as you may have noticed. Those objets d’art are a lot safer than I am at the present. But sit down and I’ll tell you. Would you like a drink? I’m certainly going to have one.”
When Lisette had been ensconced in one of the armchairs, a brandy and dry in her hand, Stella Sampling curled up at one end of the couch, a double whisky by her side, and began her story.
“You know there’s a huge black market in antiquities. You’ll have come across it a lot in your line of work.” Lisette nodded. “A month ago in the gallery – that’s the Galerie des Artes, in the most secure wing of our little museum – I noticed a man and a woman taking an unusually deep interest in the main exhibit. Well, every connoisseur does that of course, but there was something about the man – furtive I’d call it. It was sort of a giveaway because the woman looked as though butter wouldn’t melt in her mouth. I followed them at a distance and watched them leave from the window of the little shop at the front, where we sell souvenirs. Two days later a woman phoned and asked for a private meeting. That’s not unusual either. Buyers do that all the time to help make their choices and so that other potential buyers don’t hear their bids. When she arrived it was the same woman. She got straight to the point. She said that ‘they’ knew I was in the habit of ‘minding’ art works in my apartment and she threatened to tell the Board of Directors unless I cooperated with her group. It was blatant blackmail. They had photographs of the interior of this apartment. They had plenty of evidence … Like another drink?”
“No thank you.” Lisette raised her half full glass to indicate that she was not finished and added: “I think I can guess what they wanted from you.”
Stella Sampling poured herself another generous shot and continued. “Yes, they wanted me to make copies of the best art works, second copies you understand because I’d had copies made of the ones I like to keep here, very good replicas to fill their spaces in the gallery. Anyway, I refused and made a counter-threat to go to the police. They threatened in return that if I did so it would not only be my reputation at stake but also my life. It was not an empty threat. When I drove out to visit a client they’d cut the tyres of the car in such a way as to cause a slow puncture. There was very nearly a bad accident. Then a day later I could have been crushed beneath the bust of Queen Victoria when it fell from the Museum’s rooftop.”
“Very nearly,” said Lisette thoughtfully. “They made sure to miss you. Otherwise they’d be killing the goose that was potentially laying their golden eggs!”
“I admit I was a goose to get myself into this situation, vulnerable to blackmail. Since then I’ve been locked away in here, afraid to go out. But they phone and remind me that I have to act soon, and what they want to start with is …”
“The Maltese Duck,” said Lisette astutely.
“Exactly … Please, can you help me?” Stella Sampling tossed back the rest of her drink and reached for the bottle.
Lisette came to her feet and took the bottle from Stella Sampling’s hand. “This won’t do,” she said firmly. “If you’re going to hide out here you must keep a clear head. Obviously the gang will be in touch with you again. When they do, pretend to go along with them. They want the Duck so they’ll probably tell you to deliver it somewhere, like a ransom drop. When you get their directions you’re to tell me. In the meantime I’ll do some investigating. I’ll visit the museum. I’ll also need the address of the person who makes those copies for you.”
“Is he a suspect?”
“He has to be, considering his past services.”
“But Pierpont is beyond reproach!”
“How long have you known him?”
“A year. It’s been an arrangement highly suitable for us both.”
“A year is not long in business, or in most other relationships, so I’ll be the judge of that after I’ve met him.” Lisette picked up her bag in preparation to leave when a thought came to her. She stopped and turned back to the woman. “Miss Sampling … Stella, it would be better to hide the Duck than to have it remain on display here in your home. If you agree, this is what we can do …”
Half an hour later Lisette was walking across the concourse of the Victoria Railway Station, having just deposited the Maltese Duck in a station locker, heavily wrapped and taped in old newspapers. She paused at a post box near the entrance, addressed an envelope to herself, dropped the locker key into the envelope, and slipped the envelope through the mail slot. It was a staple plot element in many mystery novels, but it served as good a purpose as any for temporarily hiding the aquatic fowl.
© Brian Sands 2009.
The Bondage Fiction of Brian Sands