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The Case of the Pilfered Painting


by nafisa_s_rasul

--------

Laurel strutted down her gallery. All around her multicolored paintings flashed and glittered. In fact, Laurel herself was a work of art. An elegant Faerie Lenny, her rich peacock-blue plumage was well groomed and neat. She walked up to a pair of thick, blue, velvet curtains the same exquisite shade as herself. Beyond them was Laurel's most prized possession – a painting of a gorgeous Faerie Lenny named, "The Monalenny". Among the many paintings of many prices, this was undoubtedly the most beautiful, and expensive. Laurel drew the golden rope of the curtain and gasped. "No! It can't be!" she cried in a hoarse whisper. "Fyora forbid, my lovely painting – it's gone!"

     *************

     Artimin looked at the paintings. He had his notebook in one hand, and was chewing the end of his pencil with a look of deep thought on his face. The young Brown Lutari was evidently quite puzzled. This was to be his first major case as a private detective. His method was simple – always go by facts and nothing but facts, and treat even the slightest detail as a possible clue.

     He ran his hand over the frame. "The portrait was evidently cut away from the frame with a simple pen knife. But where is it now? Surely someone would have noticed if a Neopet was seen carrying such a large piece of paper, scrolled or otherwise; unless..."

     "So, will you be able to help me?" asked Laurel, rather uncertainly. "You are my only hope. I am unwilling to call the Defenders. A friend of mine, who is a retired detective, once happened to mention you and comment on how you seemed to be a detective with a lot of potential, so I sought your aid in this problem."

     "It truly is an intriguing case," he replied, rising from his inspection. "There are no fingerprints, no footprints, nothing. The large window here has bars so tight, even a JubJub could never squeeze through. The door was locked and you had the keys. But the fact remains, the painting is gone and someone, somehow, managed to take it. You have told me that the only people who could have got in with spare keys are your maid, butler and the gardener, who tends to the indoor plants in this room. Do you suspect any of them?"

     "No, I don't. My maid, Sariya, has worked for me for five years and there has never been a cause for concern. She is such an old darling. My butler recently retired. Jock is quite new, just six months, but his credentials are impeccable. He used to work for quite a noble family. Tobith, the gardener, is very trustworthy too, not to mention an excellent gardener."

     "And family?"

     "I live alone, with exception of Rondal, my nephew, who has come to spend the summer at my lovely estate. He lives in Qasala, but my brother sent him here for some change in weather. I don't expect he took it either. Why would he? My brother is just as wealthy as I am, but to be honest, I really can't be sure. We never had much of a family bond, you see."

     "Hmm, well, I'll carry on my investigation here while you go get some rest. Today must have been an extremely stressful day for you. Before you go, please tell me one detail; what is the exact value of that painting?"

     "Well, currently that painting has no value. It's priceless. It was a gift to me from a very famous artist, whose works all range over the high hundred millions of Neopoints. No one ever offered a price for it. Oh, by the way, when you're done investigating here, I expect you will like to interview the servants, right? I'll arrange that for later this afternoon. Also, when you are finished here, there are a few tidbits and a cup of borovan waiting for you in the lounge."

     "Thank you."

     Artimin paced the gallery. There were around twenty exquisite paintings in ornate frames. The room was medium sized and quite bright and airy, thanks to its large window. About fifteen paintings, large and small, hung from the walls. There were even a number of ornate vases with cheerful flowers planted to add liveliness. There was also a large fireplace with the mantel piece decorated with photos of an elegant faerie Lenny and one family photo, displaying a rather sullen looking blue Xweetok among the other cheerful neopets.

     Artimin glanced at the other things in the room. There was an elegant red settee, a foot stool and a low coffee table. There was also a fairly large mirror on the wall opposite the window, thus doubling the amount of light that passed through the translucent lilac curtains that hung in front of the window.

     Suddenly, the young Lutari's sharp eyes caught a faint glimmer under the settee. A closer examination revealed a small, gold tie pin. "That's odd," thought Artimin. "Laurel wouldn't wear a tie pin, so what is it doing here?"

     The young Lutari had one main fault; he was rather vain, and in accordance to that, Artimin walked up to the mirror and tried the pin on. He lazily ran his fingers along the bottom edge of the mirror frame, but stopped abruptly. He could feel a series of distinct scratches on the bottom right corner of it. This got Artimin thinking. He took the footstool and placed it in front of the mirror. Getting up onto the stool, he saw that there was not a speck of dust on the mirror-frame top. "Curious," he muttered to himself, gazing at the mirror with a far-away expression on his face as a theory started to form in his mind. Taking one last glance at the gallery, he turned around and walked out the door, careful to lock it behind him.

     Artimin was on his way to the lounge, his mind buzzing with facts that needed to be organised, when a lithe, furry figure bumped into him. "Oh, I'm so sorry," the Xweetok said hurriedly. "I really should learn to pay attention to where I'm going. I just heard about the whole incident from my aunt. You must be the private detective that she said she has hired. Good luck. I hope you find it. 'The Monalenny' was my aunt's most prized painting. Well, I must be off. I plan to take a nice, relaxing walk through the Neogarden. Bye."

     *************

     "So you are Sariya, Miss Laurel's personal maid," commented Artimin.

     "Yes," she replied nervously, with her soft gentle voice. Sariya was a classic Plushie Gnorbu, short and stout, with kindly eyes and a reserved, slightly aged face.

     "Tell me, have you noticed anything amiss or anyone acting strangely the past few days?"

     "No, nothing as such, but..." She hesitated, before plucking up the courage to go on. "If I may say so, the other day I noticed Master Rondal walking around in the gallery when I had gone there to dust the place. He was looking very closely at the paintings. At first, I thought nothing of this, but he was not aware of my presence, so I let off a small cough to let him know. When he heard me, he practically jumped out of his fur! He turned around, mumbled an excuse and almost ran away."

     "I'll keep that in mind. Anything else?"

     "No, sir."

     "And what about you? The theft happened sometime in the night. Do you have an alibi?"

     "Yes, sir. The parlor maid and cook both sleep in the same room as me. The room is quite small and it would be impossible to sneak out without waking at least one of them. Especially since Cook is a very light sleeper."

     "Very well. I will conclude my interview with one last question. How often do you give the gallery a full cleaning?"

     Sariya seemed a little surprised by this question, but answered after a moment's hesitation "Well, I usually do it once every four months, and the last time I cleaned it thoroughly was about three months and a fortnight ago."

     "I see. You may go. Send in the butler."

     "Yes, sir." The Gnorbu got up, gave a brief curtsey and left the room.

     Soon after, a tall very respectable Gelert walked in.

     "I am Jock, the butler," he announced haughtily.

     "Good. Tell me, what is your opinion in this case?" replied Artimin, ever so slightly taken aback by his attitude.

     "It is undoubtedly young Master Rondal who has taken the painting," he announced.

     "You can't possibly be serious!" blurted out Artimin, thoroughly taken aback by this blatant accusation.

     "I am completely serious. Yesterday at around midnight, I was on my way to bed, when I heard footsteps in the corridor which led to the gallery. My curiosity aroused, I went to investigate. What I found was the young Master walking around in the moonlit passages. He claimed that he was having trouble sleeping, but tell me, sir, would not anyone caught out of bed say that?"

     "Right. I'll keep that in mind. Is there anything else? What did you do afterwards?"

     "I accepted his excuse at that time and went to bed. However, circumstances have undoubtedly changed."

     "Is there anything else?"

     "No, sir."

     "Then that concludes our interview. You may go. Please send Tobias the gardener."

     Soon after, a jolly, ruddy-faced Skeith entered the room.

     "You are Tobias, I presume?" inquired Artimin.

     "Aye, that I be, but I have not a smidge of a clue where the painting may be, or who the thief is." Tobias hesitated at this point. "I don't know if it's true or not, but I think that Master Rondal is up to something. I have no proof, but I get a bad feeling from him. Also, Jock told me about seeing him sneaking around the Manor all the time. Not to mention how preoccupied he looks. Moreover, this morning I was trimming a hedge when I noticed him leaving the manor. From the way he was looking this way and that, it was obvious that he did not want to be seen, but did not notice my being there because I was behind a large bush and saw him through that bush."

     "I see. Is there anything else that you may wish to tell me?"

     "No, sir."

     "Then you may go."

     The room was quiet, as the last rays of the setting sun slowly descended and met with the horizon. Artimin gazed out the window, looking at the last rays of the dying sun. One thing puzzled him. It struck out like a sour note. "Why is it that all three servants are convinced of Rondal's guilt?" It is obvious he must have done something that caught their attention. Could he be brazen enough to steal the painting; why would he? Or were the servants trying to throw scent off their own trails?

     Outside, the halls with their big arching windows were bathed in sunlight. Artimin began to make his way back to his bedroom. On his way, he chanced upon a scrap of paper. It appeared to have been hurriedly folded and stuffed into a pocket, but had fallen out. "This is the corridor where I bumped into Rondal. Did it fall out of his pocket?" he recalled as he unfolded the paper. It was a list of items, with their prices next to them, but one glance showed that they were all mediocre items, very few rising over ten thousand Neopoints. "I think I'll have a little chat with young Rondal tomorrow."

     **************************

     It was a bright sunny day, and the garden was serene and picturesque; a classic Neogarden, with bright bushes of alternating pink and purple hydrangea bushes, skirted by Rowzez. Rondal was sitting in the patio, enjoying the warmth of a new day. "I'd like to ask you some questions. Is that okay with you?" asked Artimin as he came up to Rondal.

     "Have a seat. I'll be more than happy to oblige to your questioning."

     "My first question is, is this yours?" He showed him the tie pin.

     "No, I've never seen it before. I wonder who it may have belonged to."

     "That's strange. I was sure it would be yours. By any chance, is this yours?" This time, Artimin showed him the list.

     Rondal's eyes widened with shock. For a moment, he stared at it, with a look of utmost dismay. Finally, he plucked up the courage to ask, "Where did you find that?"

     "On the floor."

     Rondal uttered a low groan, before hesitantly saying, with a mirthless laugh, "I suppose it is time I tell you the truth. I will make it clear right now that I had no hand in the theft of 'The Monalenny', though.

     "It all started back in Qasala, just after that Wheel of Extravagance was released. I was one of the first people to try it out. Back then, one hundred thousand 'points was a considerable sum, but not one which I did not have ample amounts of.

     "But things got worse. A friend of mine managed to win a very valuable item from it and that was what started it all for me. I would return every day and hand over the Neopoints, in the false hope that I too would win something valuable. Soon, the difference in my savings became all too clear, but I refused to give up. I kept telling myself that I would get all those 'points back when I won something valuable. Sadly, that was not to be the case at all. Eventually, I became broke. I did not have enough Neopoints to spin the wheel anymore.

     "That was when I started to get really scared. What would my father say if he found out about my state? I started to lose weight and became ill. Dad began to worry about my health and sent me here to recuperate. Here, I began to plot ways of earning back the Neopoints. I had lost all attractions towards gambling, but still wanted easy 'points. I was wicked enough to even consider stealing one of Aunt's paintings. Not 'The Monalenny', mind you. I was thinking along the lines of a smaller one that might not be missed so easily. But I never got the chance. I was seen by the maid when I was looking at them and was scared out of my wits. I decided that thievery was not a profession I could handle.

     "Then, I found a ray of hope - the Money Tree. I heard a rumor that careless and kind people often donate valuable things there. Obviously, I was delusional. That sort of luck was not meant for me. I have managed to grab a few items, but most were junk. The few that did have value, I registered in that paper, meaning to sell them back in Qasala. As you can see, they are not many. Here ends my story. Sorry, but I'm not your thief. I hope you believe me."

     "I do. It is not easy to spontaneously create such a long story, and I doubt you anticipated my finding out about any of this."

     There was a look of profound relief on the young Xweetok's face. "Thank you. You have set my mind at ease."

     *************

     Artimin had retired to the gallery. It was late afternoon and twilight was fast approaching. Nothing made sense to him. He paced the gallery thoughtfully, stopping every so often. A mysterious tie pin. "Well, that could have belonged to one of Miss Laurel's guests," he muttered to himself. A trio of suspicious servants and the lost painting. How did these seemingly dissimilar things relate to each other?

     Suddenly, Artimin noticed something flash through the corner of his eye. Looking around, he saw that it was just that the mirror had reflected the sun at just the angle to flash at his eyes. An unexpected sense of excitement suddenly gripped the young Lutari. It all became clear to him. "Time to call everyone."

     *************

     It was dusk. All the inhabitants of the house that may have had a hand in the theft were in the gallery, awaiting Artimin's verdict.

     "Miss Laurel, I know exactly who the thief is and where your beloved portrait is. I will start by bringing the picture out. I have already called the Defenders; they will be here shortly.

     "It all started two nights ago," began Artimin. "Our thief had spent quite some time planning for this heist; months, in fact. He already had a set of keys. All he needed was an opportunity. This came in the form of the night before last night. Our thief snuck into the gallery, when he was sure that no one was around, and carefully cut the picture from its frame using a small pen knife. But he had a dilemma. The picture was quite large and would be difficult to move unharmed with so many people around, not to mention the fact that a sudden disappearance would throw light on his guilt. So what does he do? He removed the portrait from the frame but did not take it with him, planning to bide his time and take it when the excitement had died down. Even now, that painting is still in this room, hidden in an ingenious if a little clichéd place."

     A murmur of surprise ran throughout the people in the room, as Artimin walked up to the mirror. He pulled it off the wall and set it down on the table with a little difficulty, for the mirror was quite heavy. After this, he started undoing the clasps that held the frame, mirror and backing board sandwiched together. The clasps were undone and the backing board was removed. There, between the mirror and board was the fifty million Neopoints painting – "The Monalenny". Laurel gasped with joy and ran over to the painting. "But who is the thief?" she asked tentatively.

     "I guessed that this was the hiding place of the painting when I had first come, but decided not to expose it until after I found out who the thief was, in case the thief decided to run for it after seeing that the game was up. It was a very good place to hide it, but had two fatal flaws. To remove the fingerprints that were made during the move, the mirror was thoroughly cleaned. But the top was too high for short old Sariya to bother cleaning regularly. She cleaned it once every four months and that was enough. So why was it spotless over three months after her last main cleaning? There was one other clue as well. I happened by it by chance, but noticed that there were a number of scratches on one of the corners of the mirror, that could only wave been made by a careless move – not the kind Miss Laurel would organise. These were what got me thinking and led me to my assumption. Now, the question is who is the thief?

     "My primary suspect was Rondal. A number of the people here now suspected him. He fit the character of a thief almost perfectly. Almost, but not quite," he added when Rondal opened his mouth to protest. This comment made both Sariya and Tobith flush, although Jock remained as impassive and unreadable as ever. "His own statement, coupled with my impression of his character saved him. However, one thing puzzled me. Why were all three servants so convinced of his guilt? Then I suddenly had a brain wave. What if the thief had dropped a few casual comments beforehand to the servants that made them think that he was the culprit? All he had to do was make just one comment that questioned his innocence and they would subconsciously see all his actions as acts of menace. That is a flaw in the nature of all thinking beings.

     "But the question arises, who was it? Surely an ordinary thief could never be that cunning, but this was no ordinary thief. What if we were dealing with a professional, one who is a master of disguise? Sariya is already off the list. It was down to Tobith and Jock. I probably wouldn't have been able to definitely prove who it was, without one clue. That was this tie pin. Rondal said that he never saw it. He could easily have dropped it in the gallery if it really belonged to him. That was why I was confused as to who the owner of the pin was. That was when I realised that although a gardener would never have such little luxuries, a butler could. That left just one suspect – Jock, or should I call you..."

     Artimin did not get a chance to finish his sentence, because Jock had already got up and burst out the door. However, outside, he met a pair of burly Lupes – Defenders who had been waiting outside by request of Artimin, for the young sleuth had guessed that Jock would try to run away.

     "Did you really think that I'd be stupid enough to leave that door unattended? I was hoping you would run, to further confirm your guilt, Jefrig. Yes, his name isn't Jock. That was just an alias. He is the famous Jefrig of the Thieves Guild! His job is to handle big thefts like this one, using his profound talent for foresight and sublime manipulation, not to mention being a master actor. However, this time, you were caught at the hands of Artimin!"

     *************

     It was the next morning. The sun shone gaily from beyond the clouds. Artimin was getting ready to go back home, and was being seen off by Laurel and Rondal.

     "Thank you so much for your help," said Laurel breathlessly. "I am truly in debt to your service. I feel that I could never show you enough gratitude, even if I tried."

     "It was nothing, I assure you," replied the suave young detective.

     "I too must thank you," added Rondal. "Yesterday, I plucked up the courage to tell my aunt about my problem. She was very sympathetic and offered to help me rebuild by finding me a good job. If it weren't for your coming here and forcing me into a position where I had to confess, who knows what I would have done."

     "It was nothing. Well, so long. I must be off. I have a little sister to look after. Bye!"

     Artimin took one last glance at them, smiled and left, but this is by far, not his last case.

The End

 
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