A Deadly Venture – Chapter One

Frank Russo was on the phone, sounding like he had a mouthful of focaccia.

“You’d better repeat that,” I said. “But swallow your grub first.”

I heard him gulp and he tried again. “We’re holding that artist buddy of yours, Roger Bruce, at the Barton Street Jail. And he’s asking for you, Max.”

“What the hell? Holding him for what?”

“Says he was doing art repairs or some damn thing for a client who’s turned up dead. And your boy’s the main suspect because it looks like he was the last person who saw him alive. Get over to the station house in five minutes and I’ll drive you down to the jail. Fill you in on the way.”

“Gotta be some mistake, Frank. I’ll leave right away.”

I slumped at my desk, stunned … Roger Bruce? Commit murder? Never.

I lied about leaving right away. Instead, I stared out the window, unfocused for a moment, trying to digest the impossible news of Roger’s arrest while I waited for my assistant to arrive for work. The bleat of car horns caught my attention and from my third-floor office I looked down at the early morning traffic – bumper to bumper along King Street, pedestrians bending their heads into a cool October wind, hustling to their jobs at Eaton’s, The Right House, the Bank of Commerce; a single-mindedness about them. There was an energetic hum in the air in 1947 as Hamiltonians were anxious to get back to normal after the trials of wartime.

I spotted my legless friend, Bob, setting up to sell his pencils in front of the Capitol Theatre, and he might have been invisible, even wearing his army field cap and his medal, for all the attention the walking tide was paying him. But the war was already old news for many Canadians. Poor old Bob had given his legs and, of course, the rest of his life for his country. But did anyone give a damn?

I sprawled on the office couch and propped up my wounded leg, a souvenir from a beach in Normandy, grateful that I could still walk or, at least, limp. And I was puzzling over why I’d awakened today in such a crappy mood. Maybe it was a premonition, if you believed in that kind of stuff. Maybe a premonition about Roger Bruce.

The office door rattled and I heard my assistant, Isabel O’Brien, chatting with our secretary, Phyllis, as they arrived. I scrambled to my feet and quickly explained Roger’s situation. I could read the distress on Isabel’s face: we’d gotten to know Roger well during our last case when he helped us identify a painting looted by Nazis and subsequently bought by a Hamilton collector. Since then we’d become good friends with him and I knew Iz was as convinced as I was that Roger Bruce was incapable of committing murder under any circumstances.

I guided her over to the couch and sat her down, holding her hand. “I know it’s quite a shock, but see if you can get a hold of Stan Onischuk and have him meet me at the jail.” Stan was a defense lawyer who’d recently hired Max Dexter Associates to do investigative work for his firm. “I should know what’s happened by the time he arrives.”

Detective Sergeant Frank Russo, my boyhood friend, was drumming his fingers on the steering wheel of a dusty black Ford idling at the curb when I limped the short couple of blocks from my office to the station house on King William Street, dead leaves skittering around my feet. I slid in beside him, grateful to be out of the chill fall wind, and he grunted something resembling a greeting. The same as with me, mornings weren’t his favourite time of day.

“Listen to that game Saturday night?” he asked me.

“What game?”

“Leafs and Detroit.”

“Nah. I hit the sack early. Who won?”

“Nobody,” he said. “Two-all tie. They played again Sunday night and Detroit won two-nothing. That young guy from Saskatchewan for the Wings, the one they brought up last year? He’s gonna be a helluva player.”

“Yeah, I heard about him. Howell or something?”

“Howe. He’s a tough bugger – Gordie Howe.”

Frank made a left at Ferguson and from there it was just a few minutes’ ride down to Barton Street where the high stone pillars and spiked iron fence enclosed the notorious old jail. Frank seemed deep in thought as he hunkered behind the wheel. Was he thinking about my pal Roger behind bars or was his mind still on the hockey game? I just couldn’t tell.

“So … Roger Bruce. What’s the story, Frank?”

“Something about restoring a painting, like I said on the phone. I just came on duty, so I don’t know all the details but your pal was working at some rich guy’s place up by St. Joe’s Hospital and according to the housekeeper they had a loud argument. Short time later she discovers her employer’s dead body; your artist friend’s long gone.”

“Did he say anything when he was picked up?”

“Said what they all say: I’m not guilty, Officer. Arrest report says he admitted to arguing with his client – claims he then quit the job, packed up his tools and left in a huff.”

Holy Hell! That didn’t sound like Roger Bruce and I wondered what had gotten him steamed enough to stomp away from a paying commission.

Frank signed us in at the entrance to the jail while I stood beside him, my first time in this place and I felt the creepy gloom of the dank old building closing in on me. Some folks referred to it as The Barton Street Bastille and I could see why. I’d read in The Hamilton Spectator that the family of the jail’s Governor lived on the third floor here and I shuddered, trying to imagine their lives. I wondered how they could lead a so-called ‘normal’ family life in these bleak surroundings. Especially since this was also the place where criminals sentenced to death were hanged and buried. Right here on Barton Street, for Pete’s sake.

A guard led us down to the basement holding cells where a sour odour like boiled cabbage hung in the air and he pointed to a makeshift reception room. A few mismatched wooden chairs were pushed against the government-green wall facing an ancient wooden desk in the corner of the room. On the desk a red mantle radio was playing at low volume – one of those nutty novelty tunes, Open the Door, Richard – probably a frequent request by the inmates here.

An old guy in a rumpled blue uniform was bent over a desk shuffling papers and pretending not to see us. I noticed a Peller’s Brewery calendar thumbtacked to the wall beside him, the previous days x-ed out, and I made a bet with myself that retirement day was on the horizon and couldn’t come fast enough.
He finally looked up and said, “Be right with you,” as he brushed at the breakfast crumbs decorating his shirt.

“Take your time,” Frank told him. “I can see those time sheets must be a helluva lot more urgent than police business.”

The old boy did take his sweet time to snap off his radio and set his papers aside, then looked up at Frank with patient blue eyes and spoke in a quiet tone.

“Thank you for your understanding, Officer. Now, who do you wish to see and I’ll check if he’s in?”

Frank clenched his fists, his blood rushing northward to make a ripe tomato of his face as he began to sputter.

“The hell do you mean, if he’s in? We’re here to see Roger Bruce and he’d better be in his goddamn cell.”

This guard really had Frank’s number, sensing right away how to get his goat by moving in slow motion. He made a production of standing up, replacing his chair just so and turning his papers face down so they wouldn’t be read by prying eyes.

“One moment please,” he said and walked from the room at an exquisitely slow pace.

Frank stomped over to the row of chairs where I’d taken a seat. “You believe that guy? Whatever happened to good old-fashioned common courtesy?”

I tried to stifle my smile. “I thought he was very polite.”

Before Frank could wind himself up again, the old guy was back. “Right this way, gents. Mind your step, please.”

Along a dark corridor we passed two empty holding cells; Roger Bruce was in the third, hanging against the bars like a shirt on a doorknob, desperation in his eyes. I noticed the bars were covered with a sturdy wire screen, floor to ceiling, maybe so you couldn’t pass the prisoner anything he might use as a weapon or to barter for contraband.

The guard nodded toward a vacant cell. “I’ll be waiting just over there to take you back upstairs.”

Frank grabbed the old guy by the arm. “Just hang on a minute. We want to go in and talk to this man in private.”

“No can do, Sergeant. Rules are rules. Police officers investigating a case involving the prisoner can use the interview room upstairs. Same thing for lawyers. Everyone else stays outside the cage down here.”

I watched Frank’s jaw clenching and unclenching as he glowered at the old guy.

“I thought we could make an exception today.” He pointed at me. “This man is known to the suspect and can help me with the interview.”

The guard shook his head side to side and crossed his arms. “Bend the rules for one then everyone would demand the same treatment. And what’s the result?” He glared back at Frank, the benign countenance he displayed before now shot all to hell. “It’s anarchy, that’s what.” Then he shuffled a few feet away to take up his vigil.

Frank almost responded but I elbowed him in the ribs.

“C’mon, Bud, he’s just yankin’ your chain. Forget him, we’re here to see Roger.”

Frank relented and we turned our attention to the prisoner, who still hung onto the bars so he wouldn’t collapse. When he looked up his eyes revealed the battle raging in his head – I could see confusion and anger clashing with his common-sense certainty that this was all a colossal mistake. A pang of compassion zinged through me as I watched my usually easygoing friend now sagging beneath the weight of the justice system.

Roger Bruce was a small-boned skinny guy whose shabby appearance and longish hair belied his Gillette-sharp mind and, according to the artsy set in Hamilton who claimed to know about these things, a growing reputation as an accomplished painter.

I tried to keep my voice upbeat. “Not the happiest day in your life, eh, Pal?”
His eyes showed a tiny spark of life and he forced a grim smile onto his mug. “That’s a pretty good guess, Max.”

“This is Sergeant Frank Russo, with the Hamilton coppers,” I told him. “He’s one of my closest friends and he’s going to help us sort this out. Why don’t you tell us what happened?”

Roger heaved one of those sighs which said, Here-we-go-again-and-it-won’t-make-a-goddamn-bit-of-difference. He began to shuffle his feet but his pants fell down.

“Shit,” he said, yanking them up and clutching the waist. “They took my damn belt away so I wouldn’t hang myself. Can you believe that? This entire rigamarole is a comedy of errors. And the joke’s on me.”

Frank observed Roger’s frustration in silence and gave him a moment before he spoke in a solicitous tone. “When did you first meet the victim?”

“Victim?” Roger’s face now red and sweaty. “I’m the victim here. Accused of a crime I didn’t commit. Let’s get our terms straight, Sergeant.”

“C’mon, Roger,” I said. “I think you’re both victims. Now tell us how you met the deceased and what happened.”

His shoulders slumped again. “One more time around the mulberry bush, eh Max? I’ve already repeated my story three times for those other cops and they didn’t believe a word I said.”

Our eyes locked for a long moment until he realized I wasn’t backing off.

“Okay,” he spoke in a whisper, giving me his whipped-dog look.

Frank and I stood there and waited. Then it all came out in a rush.

“I think I already told you this, Max, but anyway: when I’m short of money, which is often, I do minor repairs to paintings – touch-ups, framing, re-stretching canvases, that kind of thing. I do good work and I’m not too expensive so word’s gotten around among the collectors in town. So when my paintings aren’t selling I’ve got something to fall back on.”

“Few weeks ago I get a call from a guy named Charles Sherman, a retired businessman, who says he got my name from an art collector friend and would I come by to look at a painting that’s in need of repair. We set a date and I went to see him soon after he called. Lives in a big house on Park Street near the corner of Charlton there and he gives me a tour of his large gallery room on the first floor, quite a few nice pieces on display. Upstairs there’s a workshop and storage area and that’s where he shows me a painting on canvas of Anne Boleyn.”

I raised my eyebrows and was about to speak when he cut me off.

“Yes, that Anne Boleyn, one of Henry VIII’s wives. He said it was painted by Hans Holbein, a very famous guy, when the artist worked for the king in the 1530s. It was certainly a beautiful piece of work but it had suffered some slight cracking and flaking of the paint, which he wished to have restored. I said I’d examine it and if the repairs weren’t too extensive I could give him a price. Otherwise he’d have to seek professional help.”

“But right off the bat, I began to doubt the painting was an original. My first thought was: this could be a very rare old painting, so what the hell’s it doing here in Hamilton in private hands when any big art museum in the world would pay a fortune for it? So I figured (a) it was stolen or (b) it was a forgery.”

“Then I spent a day of research in the library, where I learned that Holbein was known to paint his portraits on wood, not on canvas like this one. I also noted that Anne Boleyn’s cloak was painted in what looked to me like Prussian blue with zinc white trim. And neither of those colours was used before the eighteenth century. So I concluded this painting was probably just a copy of the original and reported my opinion to Mr. Sherman the next time we met. I recommended that he take it to the Art Gallery of Toronto where professionals could assess its authenticity.”

Frank said, “I guess Mr. Sherman wasn’t too thrilled with your opinion, eh?”

“Jeez, that’s an understatement. He practically went berserk, stormed around the room cursing me and especially that gallery owner in Toronto where he bought it.”

“So what did you do?” I said.

“What could I do? I tried to calm him down. Said I could be wrong, but it wasn’t likely. Told him to get another opinion. Or return the painting to where he bought it and have it out with the gallery owner. But he was very upset and not in a mood to listen to me. That’s when he demanded I leave. So I bundled up my tools in a hurry and got the hell out of there. Said I’d send him a bill for my time and he chased me out the door.”

“In your rush to leave,” Frank said, “is it possible that you left one of your tools behind?”

Roger was shaking his head. “Don’t think so. I didn’t take an inventory or anything but they all seemed to be there. Why?”

Frank shot me a glance which I couldn’t decipher then he leaned in closer to Roger. “Because Mr. Sherman’s jugular was apparently sliced through with a knife, found at the scene. Looks like your initials on the handle. And, when we check, probably your fingerprints too.”

​ *****
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