A Case of Identity
The bar was settled by the side of the canal, as the boats moved slowly up and down, as the car pulled into the car park.
“Interesting place,” the woman said as she stepped out of the car, “What is the name of the bar? “ She was in her late fifties, with long dark hair that was streaked with grey, and stood about five foot five tall, with a slightly plump body. A long black coat covered a grey denim skirt, and a grey checked blouse over a white roll neck sweater, while a pair of black baggy leather boots covered her feet.
“It’s called the Ropanga,” the man said as he locked the car, “and it has a very select clientele.” He was about six foot tall, broad shouldered, and wore a blue blazer over a mustard coloured jumper and light grey trousers. “Come in – I’ll introduce you to the landlady.”
The couple walked into the bar, the man holding the door open for the woman, as the barmaid looked over and stared.
“Do my eyes deceive me, or is that John Jacobs crossing my threshold?”
“Good to see you as well, Jean – it’s been a while.”
“Years – but you look well.”
“So do you – Jean, this is Daphne Porterhouse. Jean is the owner of this fine establishment.”
“Pleasure to meet you,” Daphne said as she shook Jean’s hand. “So what is so special about this place?”
“It’s all right, Jean,” John said quietly, “she is as much a part of the circle as I am these days.”
“Well, this fine establishment caters mostly to a professional clientele,” Jean said, Daphne nodding as she realized what they were saying.
“In her day, Jean was known as The Vixen,” John said quietly. “We’re meeting someone, Jean.”
“Yeah – she’s in a room in the back. When I saw her, I realized this was going to be a different day.”
“Time change Jean, times change,” John said as he escorted Daphne through the bar, and into a private room.
Daphne saw two women sitting there at a table. One she recognized – a red haired woman, dressed in a red jumper and knee length skirt with black leather boots. The other woman was a stranger to her – tall, thin, with long dark hair, wearing a designer trouser suit with high heeled shoes and a white collarless blouse underneath.
“Hello Penny,” she said as John closed the door, “I didn’t know you would be here for this meeting.”
“Well, I was asked to arrange it,” Penny said with a smile, “on behalf of my employer.”
“Daphne,” John said, “I have the honour to introduce you to Shirley Xavier.”
“Charmed,” Daphne said as she held her hand out.
“The pleasure is all mine Dr Porterhouse,” Shirley said, Daphne taken aback by the depth and richness of her voice, “you were a great help to us in the matter of the Robinson painting and the Krakas family.”
“How on earth did – oh my,” Daphne said as she looked at the woman, “you’re the mysterious Madame X?”
“On a professional basis,” Shirley said as she inclined her head, “but I would like to hope we may meet as friends on this occasion.”
“Recent events in the United States have led to Shirley becoming a little more public,” John said as he held a seat out for Daphne, “but on this particular occasion, I am as much in the dark as you are.”
“Then I will endavour to enlighten you,” Shirley said as the door opened and Jean brought in a tray of drinks. “Thank you,” Shirley said as Jean laid the tray down, smiled and closed the door.
“So how can we – and particularly Daphne – be of assistance to you today,” John said as he sipped his beer.
“Well, my American friends recently came across a most perplexing situation, which affected me, so they asked if I would make some enquiries here and convey the information back to them. I’ve asked both of you here to consult on the issue, as you each have expertise to bring to the matter.”
“And the matter is,” Daphne said as she took a Martini and soda, wondering for a moment how this woman knew her favourite drink.”
“Art fraud,” Penny said, “on a particularly large scale.”
“How large,” John said as he raised an eyebrow.
“A Mondrian, a Chagali, a Meuser, and a Modigliani,” Shirley said as she sipped her wine.
Daphne and John looked at each other, before Daphne said “I think you had better start at the beginning.”
“I will not go into the full details,” Shirley said quietly, “but my friends in America are planning to raid an art show in the very near future, some items of which will join my collection. Before they do so, however, they very prudently wished to address some concerns of the authenticity of some items, so they conducted tests – and they showed these four items in particular were fakes.”
“Not the first time it has happened,” Daphne said, “although finding so many in one place is somewhat rare. Which show are we talking about?”
Penny took a catalogue out and passed it to John, who flipped through it and then looked at Shirley.
“That Mondrian?” he said as he showed Shirley a picture, then handed it to Daphne who read the accompanying text.
“Ye gods,” she whispered, “that’s an expensive fake. I’d heard about this show – so forgive me if I ask no further about the actual plan.”
“I would not know even if you asked,” Shirley said. “My question is, why would someone do this?”
“Forgive me,” Daphne said, “but what would have raised suspicions in the mind of your contact?”
“In that particular case, I believe she was unhappy with the shade of yellow used.”
Daphne nodded, and said “Whoever they are, they’re good.”
“Your contact,” Daphne said with a smile. “John?”
“In my experience, when something like this has happened in the antiques world it’s for one of two reasons – insurance fraud or theft. As was the case with the work did for you, the forgery is sold, then an expert declares it a fake, and the vendor takes the money and runs.”
“And the insurance fraud?”
“More prevalent in my world than John’s,” Daphne said. “The idea is someone makes a copy of the painting, loans it to a gallery or a collector, and then a robbery is staged, during which the fake is destroyed or damaged. The insurance company has to pay up, and the original stays safely hidden.”
“For the antiques world it’s a home invasion that is staged, but it does happen,” John says. “But usually only one, maybe two. Four in a show, Daphne?”
“Speaks of a coordinated effort to defraud. Also speaks of a very sophisticated operation – you need to forge provenance, sales catalogues, and the painting itself.”
Daphne looked at John and nodded. “That was the name that came to mind as well, but that was years ago, and I do not believe he is active anymore.”
“He’s not,” Penny said, “we checked. There is a name our friend uncovered however, that is associated with all four paintings in the past.”
“Oh,” John said, “and the name is?”
Shirley watched as John and Daphne looked at each other. “Now that’s a name you don’t hear too often – but it would fit,” John said as he rubbed his chin.
“So you are familiar with the name?”
“As a matter of history yes – have you heard of him Daphne?”
“Oh yes – I studied some of the papers where he outlined the techniques used, but I had to sign the Official Secrets Act to do it.”
“History? The Official Secrets Act?” Penny looked at both of them and said “Who is he?”
“Tell me, have you heard of Operation Bernhard,” John said as he sipped his drink.
“Indeed – the Nazi plan to flood the UK economy with forged bank notes towards the end of World War Two,” Shirley said.
“That’s right,” Daphne said, “at about the same time, Han van Meegeren in Amsterdam was producing his forgeries of the Dutch masters, one of which ended up in Goering’s private collection.”
“So how does Watkins tie in with this?” Shirley looked to them for an explanation.
“As I heard the story, someone in British Intelligence heard about van Meegeren, and recruited a number of young artists to create forgeries of British artists that could then be slipped into auction houses behind enemy lines. The idea was they would sell for top dollar, and the funds be used to fund the resistance movement in those countries.”
“And if they ended up in the hands of Hitler’s inner circle, then they would be worthless as a way of liquidating capital,” Shirley said quietly. “A truly ingenious plan. So Watkins was one of that group?”
“Indeed,” Daphne said, “in many ways the premier member of the group. His skills were legendary – aging the canvas, mixing the pigments, mimicking the strokes. In fact, there is some speculation amongst those who know this that the reason the truth has never been revealed is he was too good – and some of his work hangs under the original artist’s names in our top galleries.”
“My god,” Penny said, “a forger so good he still fools people today. So what happened to him?”
“A nice fat pension and the thanks of a grateful government,” John said. “The last I heard he had an art restoration practice in the West Country, but that was over twenty years ago. Do you know any different Daphne?”
“No,” Daphne said as she shook her head, “except he was in his twenties during the second world war. So he must be in his nineties now – could he still be active?”
“Well, the records my friend has seen puts him in Penarth, but what you say confirms the thinking in my mind he might be involved in this. It may be a coincidence – do you know if he had a family?”
“He might have, but I can’t say for certain,” Daphne said.
“Very well then,” Shirley said, “it would appear we need to investigate further, but your insight has been invaluable. May I call on you again if the need arises?”
“In a professional or a private capacity,” Daphne said.
She looked at John and then nodded. “Excellent – well, we can do no more at this stage, so let us talk of other matters…”
“An art forger still active in his nineties? Is that likely – and on this scale?”
“I grant you, it sounds unlikely,” Madame said as she sat with Penny and Lily in her penthouse. “But we cannot rule out the possibility – Lily, I need you to track down Mister Watkins and visit him.”
“Already got someone working on tracking his whereabouts in Penrath,” Lily said, “as soon as I have an address, I’ll set off.”
“Be gentle with him – this is a courtesy call after all.”
“I’ll sneak in and out like a mouse,” Lily said with a smile as the door opened and one of the girls handed Lily a sheet of paper. As she looked at it, she said “well, maybe not quite like a mouse.”
Rhoda Jones was not having a good morning. The previous evening her boyfriend had politely informed her that he was leaving her in favour of her best friend, and this morning she had been rudely woken up by a masked blonde woman, who had used the best part of a roll of duct tape to bind her arms to her body and her legs together, as well as keeping a flannel in her mouth as she wound it round her head.
“I truly apologise for the inconvenience,” the blonde said as she finished fastening her white tunic and looked at Rhoda, “but I need to pay a little visit to your place of work, and I prefer to do it unannounced. Say good night now.”
“Gddnhttmmnnnnnnnnnnn” Rhoda said as the chloroform soaked rag went over her nose and taped mouth, and her eyes closed, the blonde checking her pulse before she put on Rhoda’s coat and left her on her side on the bed.
As she left the house, Lily looked at the faded photograph on the identity badge and smiled. It wasn’t a very close match, but she was banking on the close physical resemblance she noticed yesterday, as well as the fact nobody really looks at identity badges in these places, to get her through this visit.
When the assistant had told her Geraint Watkins was in a place called Lllanwit Major Rest Home, something had told her having a chat with him might be difficult – and a circumspect approach might be best.
The drive was short, and she arrived in front of the old manor house fairly easily. She walked in and smiled at the receptionist, hung her coat in the staff room, and walked round the building until she found one with “Watkins, G” on the door.
As she opened it, she saw a frail old man sitting in a large chair by the window, staring into the sky outside. Lily walked over and looked at his face, the eyes that seemed to be looking at nothing, the arms trembling as they lay on the arm rests.
“My god,” she whispered to herself before she heard a voice behind her say “New girl?”
“Yeah,” Lily said as she turned round, “first day. They said to take Mr Watkins to the day room?”
“Typical, tell two of us to do the same thing,” the brunette said as she brought the wheelchair in. “Can you help me lift him in? It’s easier with two.”
Lily nodded as they lifted the frail old man into the chair. “Poor guy,” the other woman said, “the Alzheimer’s really started to hit six months ago. Before that he was at least painting, but now all he does is sit and watch.”
“Does his family visit?”
“He only has a granddaughter left – she comes most weekends, but the rest of the time, he’s in his own little world, like so many of them.”
Lily nodded as they wheeled him into the day room, looking at the faces of the other people already there. She made no comment as they locked the brakes of the wheelchair where Geraint could look out onto the red and yellow trees in the garden, and left the room, slipping into the ladies toilets for a moment.
When she came back out, she blinked to try and reduce the redness in her eyes, and made her way quietly to the office, waiting until it was empty before she made her way to a terminal and brought up the records for Geraint Watkins. Taking a stick from her pocket, she downloaded a copy of the information, and then carefully retraced her steps, before the secretary returned.
Smiling, Lily left the room, and slipped out of the home, getting into her car and heading back to London.
“You are sure of this Lillian?”
“I saw him with my own eyes, Madame – there is no way he could hold a paintbrush, much less have taken any active part in these forgeries. Accept my judgement on this.”
“I do,” Madame said as she sat back at her desk, “but it makes the situation all the more perplexing. You say he has a granddaughter?”
Penny looked at a printout on her desk. “Annabeth Watkins Stone. 49 years old, married, one daughter living at home while studying at UCL. She works as an archivist at the V&A Museum.”
“Does she now? According to Heather, part of the fraud may involve the falsifying of records at that establishment. Will it be possible to pay Mrs Stone a visit, Lillian?”
“I have already secured the plans for the house, Madame – I will report in two days time.”
The house stood in a leafy avenue in Wimbledon, and on this particular day the street itself was quiet as the Prius drove into the driveway.
The driver was a woman in her late forties, with long ash blonde hair held back in a ponytail, wearing a black coat dress with a wide leather belt around her waist, and short black felt boots. As she got out of the car, she said “Fancy a cup of coffee Geri?”
The tall, thin girl nodded as she said “Sure mum.” She wore a green padded sleeveless jerkin over a candy striped shirt with a granddad collar, a brown belt around her waist, black leggings and knee length straight leather boots.
“All right then,” her mother said as she unlocked the door, “let’s make the coffee, and then we can discuss what to do when…”
She stopped in the hallway as she and Geri were confronted by a woman coming out of the front room, dressed from head to toe in black – including the balaclava that only showed her eyes and lips.
“Mrs Stone I take it,” she said as she pointed a .45 at both women. “Please, nice and naturally, close the front door, and then I want you both to come into the room, hands in the air.”
“What the hell…”
“Mrs Stone,” the woman said, “please inform your daughter of what you see happening if she does not cooperate.”
“Geri, please – she has a gun…”
The younger woman nodded as her mother closed the door, and they walked with their hands raised into the front room.
“You strike me as a young woman who enjoys all the latest gadgets,” the masked woman said as they stood in the centre of the room, “Do you have music installed on your player or phone?”
“Yes, why,” Gerri asked.
“Put your earbuds into your ears, and turn it on, then turn round and put your hands behind your back.”
“Do as I say,” the masked woman replied as she held up a roll of white tape, “no reason why you should be bored.”
“Oh my god, you’re not going to tape me up, are you?”
“No,” the woman replied, “your mother is. Now, please, do as I say or we forego the music part.”
Slowly, Geri put the earbuds in, the music playing as her mother was told by the intruder to put her hands together behind her, palm to palm, and then she felt the tape forcing her wrists together, before it was taken down to cover her hands.
The intruder then forced her mother to wrap more tape around her waist, to secure her hands against her back, before bands are wrapped around her arms and body above and below her chest.
“You’re doing very well,” was all the masked woman said as Geri was forced to sit on the long leather couch, and watch as her mother taped her ankles, calves and thighs, the bands of white forcing her legs to be locked together.
“Open your mouth,” she vaguely heard the masked woman say, and as she felt the gun against her head she nodded and allowed her mother to push a sponge ball in, then wrap the tape tightly round her head to cover her mouth.
“Close your eyes.”
Geri did as she had been ordered and felt something like cotton wool placed on her eyelids, before the tape went round her head again, this time covering her eyes and ears as the earbuds were held in place.
The older woman watched as the masked intruder made Geri lie on her side on the couch, and turned up the volume on her phone. The intruder then took her by the arm, marching her into the kitchen and making her sit down. She saw the canvas bag on the kitchen table, and said nothing as her own wrists were pulled behind her back, and secured tightly together, the rope going around and between her arms.
“All right,” the masked woman then said as she sat down, leaving the gun where they could both see it, “we can talk without being disturbed. You are Annabeth Watkins Stone, correct?”
“That’s right,” Annabeth said as she tried to move her hands. “Please, if this is a robbery, just take what you want and leave us.”
“Well, I will be robbing you,” the woman said as she looked at Annabeth, “but that’s not the main reason I am here.”
Annabeth suddenly looked round at the masked woman. “It’s not? Then why are… Oh god, no…”
“No,” Lily said as she removed her mask and shook her hair out, before saying “there – less frightening now?”
“I don’t understand,” Annabeth said, “what is this about?”
“It’s about your grandfather, Annabeth, and why his name has turned up in association with an attempt to defraud the art world.”
“My grand…” Annabeth stared at the young woman, before she started sobbing and saying “oh sweet God what has he done…”
“I know you’re not talking about Geraint – I saw him the other day, and I am sorry this has happened to him. And yet, my employer has found his name associated with this matter – and she wishes to know why.”
Lily stood up and walked behind Annabeth, putting her hands on her shoulders. “I brought you in here, with your daughter unable to hear or interfere, so that you can feel free to tell me everything. Only then can my employer decide what course of action to take.”
She waited as Annabeth collected herself, and then said “What attempt? What happened?”
“I cannot go into the full details,” Lily said quietly, “but my employer wished to obtain certain works of art that were part of an exhibition in New York. She is a cautious woman, however, as were those obtaining the art, so they tested certain paintings, and discovered them to be fakes.
“Upon further investigation, your grandfather’s name was discovered as being associated with their history, especially in past sale catalogues. Normally, my employer…”
“Who is she?”
“I’m sorry,” Lily said as she looked at Annabeth.
“Your employer – who are they?”
“She is a person of some power and influence.”
Annabeth nodded as Lily continued “normally, she would let such matters pass, but on this occasion others were disappointed as well as her, so she asked me to investigate further.”
She sat down to face Annabeth again, and said “I know something of his history, and of his service. My question however is, given his current illness, how did this happen? Given your current occupation and role as well…”
Annabeth looked at Lily, and then said “If I tell you, I need some reassurances – how powerful and influential is your employer?”
“Very – why do you ask?”
“Can I trust her to protect me and my family?”
Lily looked at Annabeth, and then said “Tell me what happened, and I give my word we will do what we can.”
Annabeth threw her head back, looked round and said “About five years ago, I was at a reception at the V&A when I met a man. He was charming, erudite, and paid attention to me which, at the time, I was not getting at home.”
“I see,” Lily said, “forgive an impertinent question, but…”
“No – I am still married, but my husband was having an affair at the time. That has ended, and we are stronger now than before.
“But then, I was hurt and vulnerable, he was attentive and charming, one thing led to another, and…”
Annabeth gave a weak smile as Lily nodded. “I believe I understand what happened next. You would not be the first, or the last, to face that situation.”
“Even so, would I be the first or last to be deliberately targeted?”
“Again, sadly no,” Lily said. “What happened next?”
“Nothing until my grandfather fell ill and had to be placed in the home. A few weeks later, the man approached me in the museum, and said he needed my help. He wanted to – borrow certain items from the archives, and return them a few days later.
“Naturally, I refused, but then… Then……”
She started crying, great loud cries of shame and despair as Lily came over and held her. “You need not explain anymore,” she said “he presented some sort of evidence and used it to blackmail you, correct?”
Annabeth nodded as she looked up. “Since then, I’ve had to allow him access at certain times. I had no idea why until now – he must have been using my grandfather’s name to cover his own tracks.”
“Very well – what can you tell me of this man?”
“He is tall, thin, black hair, wears wire rimmed glasses.”
“And his name?”
“Stevens – StJohn Stevens. He works for Lloyds – that’s all I know.”
Lily looked at the woman, and then said “He threatened to expose you to your husband, correct?”
Annabeth nodded as Lily dried her eyes.
“It is an old story, but I think we can help you resolve this. Will you place yourself in the hands of my employer and I on this matter?”
“Will you end this?”
“We will – but you must trust us and do as we say. In return, we will protect you and keep what happened hidden.”
“I don’t really have a choice do I?”
“You could tell your husband.”
“NO – no, I cannot. We are working on rebuilding our relationship – this would destroy it.”
Lily nodded as she said “Where is your purse?”
“In the front room.”
“Do not move,” Lily said as she walked out, returning with Annabeth’s handbag. She withdrew her purse, and then took a business card from her own bag.
“This had a contact number for me. If he contacts you again, call – and do as he and we say for now. We will watch, we will observe. And we will end this for you and your grandfather.”
She slipped the card into Annabeth’s purse, and then replaced it in the bag. “And now, with deep regret,” Lily then said as she produced more rope, and started to secure Annabeth to the chair back, “I must rob you. It will be easier, and less disruptive, if you tell me where your jewellery is, and any items with sentimental value – those will remain here.”
“You really can protect us?”
“I will consult with my employer, but I believe we can,” Lily said as she tugged the rope tight. “Now, tell me an answer to my question, before I bind your legs and gag you as well.”
“You did well, Lily,” Madame said as she sat with Lily and Penny, “and I approve the course of action you have taken. Heather is here next week – can we get a full profile on this Stevens character by then.”
“I have already ordered it Madame,” Penny said.
“Good – then we can do no more at this stage. What is next?”