It was a Thursday morning in January—stale and dank as last night’s cigar butts—and my office phone hadn’t rung all week. I was slumped at the desk, waiting out a tequila hangover, when this tall creamy blonde walked in. The way she was dressed whispered of money, and what was inside the dress hinted at my other hobby—but I was feeling too lousy to take much notice.
She set a flat parcel on my desk and said, “Are you Phil Dexter, the private psi?”
I tipped back my hat and gave her a bleak smile. “What does it say on my office door, baby?”
Her smile was equally cool. “It says Glossop’s Surgical Corset Company.”
“I’ll kill that signwriter,” I gritted. “He promised to be here this week for sure. Two months I’ve been in this office, and …”
“Mr Dexter, do you mind if we set your problems on one side and discuss mine?” She began untying the string on the parcel.
“Not at all.” Having lost the initiative, I decided it would be better to improve customer relations. I never saw much sense in private psis trying to talk and act like private eyes, anyway. “How can I help you, Miss …?”
“I’m Carole Colvin.” Her brow wrinkled slightly. “I thought you psi people knew all that sort of thing without being told.”
“It’s a wild talent,” I said in a hollow voice, giving my stock response. “There are forces beyond the control of mere humans.”
It was always necessary at this point to look sort of fey and hag-ridden, so I stared out through the fanlight and thought about the lawsuit my ex-secretary was bringing against me for non-payment of wages. Carole didn’t seem to notice. She finished unwrapping her parcel, took out an unframed oil painting and propped it in front of me.
“What can you tell me about this painting?” she said briskly.
“It’sa good copy of the Mona Lisa,”I replied. “A very clever imitation, but …” My voice faded away of its own accord as the full blast from the canvas hit my extra senses. There was an impression of great age, perhaps five hundred years, and a blurring rush of images—a handsome bearded man in medieval costume, hilly landscapes with dark green vegetation, bronze sculptures, thronged narrow streets of antique cities. Behind this montage, almost obliterated by its brilliance, was the suggestion of a dark place and of a circular wooden frame which might have been part of a large machine.
Carole was regarding me with interest. “It isn’t a copy, is it?”
I dragged my jaw back up to its normal position. “Miss Colvin, I’m just about certain this painting was done by Leonardo da Vinci himself.”
“You mean it’s the Mona Lisa?”
“Well … yes.” I gazed at the canvas, paralysed with awe.
“But that isn’t possible, is it?”
“We’ll soon see.” I pressed the button on my computer terminal and said, “Has the Mona Lisa been stolen from the Louvre in Paris?”
The reply came with electronic swiftness. “I cannot answer that question.”
“Insufficient data?” I said.
“Insufficient funds,” the machine replied. “Until you pay your last three quarterly subscriptions you’re getting no more information out of me.”
I made a rude sign out through the window in the direction I imagined the central computer to lie. “Who needs you?” I sneered. “It would have been in all the papers if the Mona Lisa had been stolen.”
“Then, more fool you for asking,” the machine said. I took my finger off the button and smirked desperately at Carole, wishing I hadn’t tried to put on a display of computerized efficiency.
She looked at me with what seemed to be increasing coldness. “If you are quite finished, I’ll tell you how I got the painting. Or don’t you want to hear?”
“I want to. I want to.” Realizing I was in danger of losing her business, I sat up straight, looking poised and alert.
“My father was an art dealer and he had a small gallery up in Sacramento,” Carole said, folding herself into a chair with an action like honey flowing from a spoon. “He died two months ago and left the business to me. I don’t know much about art, so I decided to sell out the whole thing. It was when the inventory was being made up that I found this painting hidden in a safe.”
“Nice stroke of luck.”
“That remains to be seen. The painting might be worth a few million, or it might be worth a few years in the pen—I want to find out which.”
“And so you came to me! Very wise, Miss Colvin.”
“I’m beginning to wonder about that. For somebody who’s supposed to have a sixth sense you seem a bit deficient in the other five.”
I think that was the moment I fell in love with Carole. The reasoning was that if I could enjoy looking at her while being treated like an idiot child, life should get pretty interesting if I could get her to regard me as an intelligent man. I started on that private project there and then.
“Your father never mentioned the painting to anybody?”
“No—that’s what makes me wonder if something illegal was going on.”
“Have you any idea how he got it?”
“Not really. He was on vacation in Italy last spring, and I remember he seemed rather odd when he got back.”
“In what way?”
“Tense. Withdrawn. Not what you’d expect after a vacation.”
“Interesting. Let’s see if I can pick up something more to go on.” I leaned forward and touched the slightly crazed surface of the painting. Once more there was a strong psychic impulse—images of a balding man I knew to be Carole’s father, bright glimpses of cities. The latter would have been unknown to me had they not been accompanied by the intuitions which elevate the psi talent and make it roughly equal to a course in chiropody as a viable means of earning a crust.
“Rome,” I said. “Your father went to Rome first, but he spent most of his time in and around Milan.”
“That’s correct.” Carole gave me a look of grudging approval. “It appears that you do have some genuine ability.”
“Thanks. Some people think I have nice legs, too.” Her compliment was partly lost on me because I had again half-seen a dark place, like a cavern, and a circular wooden machine. There were distracting undertones of mystery and centuries-old secrets.
“We’re not much further on, though,” Carole said.
“I thought we were doing pretty well.”
“You haven’t answered the big question—did Leonardo paint the Mona Lisa twice?”
“That’s the way it seems to me, Miss Colvin. I don’t know how this will affect the value of the original.”
“I mean, the other one.” I stared at the painting in awe, letting its sheer presence wash over my senses, then I began to get a feeling there was something not quite right about it, something difficult to put a finger on. The Mona Lisa stared back at me, the famous smile playing about her lips just as I remembered it from all the prints I’d seen. Her face was exactly right, the rich medieval background was exactly right, and yet there was some detail of the picture which seemed out of place. Could it, I wondered, be something to do with those plump smooth hands? To impress Carole, I assumed a look of deep, brooding concentration and tried to decide what it was in the painting which was ringing subconscious alarm bells.
“Have you fallen asleep?” Carole said, rapping the desk with an imperious knuckle.
“Of course not,” I replied huffily, and pointed at the Mona Lisa’s hands. “Do these look right to you?”
“You think you could have done better?”
“I mean, in the Louvre painting does she not have one hand sort of cradled in the other one? Instead of separated like that?”
“Could be—I told you I don’t know anything about art.”
“It might explain the existence of two Mona Lisas.” I began to warm to my theory. “Perhaps he did this one and then decided it would have been better with the hands in repose.”
“In that case,” Carole said reasonably, “why didn’t he just paint the hands over again?”
“Ah … well … yes.” I swore at myself for having concocted such a dumb theory. “You’ve got a point there.”
“Let’s go.” Carole got to her feet and began wrapping the painting in its brown paper covering.
“Italy, of course.” A look of impatience flitted across her beautiful features. “I’m employing you to find out if this painting is legally mine, and it’s quite obvious you won’t be able to do it sitting here in Los Angeles.”
I opened my mouth to protest, then realized that the assertive Miss Colvin was right in what she said, that I needed some of the money she so obviously had, and that a spell in the Mediterranean sun would probably do me a lot of good. There was also a powerful element of curiosity about both the painting itself and that part of my psi vision I hadn’t yet mentioned to her—the dark cavern and its enigmatic wheel-like machine …
“Yes?” Carole challenged. “You were going to say something?”
“Not me. I’ll be glad to wave goodbye to this place for a few days. How do you say arrivaderci in Italian?”
We caught the noon sub-orbital to Rome, were lucky with a shuttle connection, and by early evening had checked into the Hotel Marco Polo in Milan.
The travelling had made me hungry and I did justice to the meal which Carole and I had in a discreet corner of the dining room. A glass of brandy and a good cigar helped me to enjoy the cabaret, even though most of the singers had to rely on the new-style tonsil microphones to make their voices carry. I guess it’s a sign of age, but I insist that real singers can get along perfectly well with the old type of mike they used to clip on to their back teeth. Still, considering how badly the day had started off, there was little to complain about. I had a glow of wellbeing, and Carole was looking incredibly feminine in something gauzy and golden. Into the bargain, I was earning money.
“When are you going to start earning your money?” Carole said, eyeing me severely through a small palisade of candle flames.
“I’m already doing it,” I assured her, somewhat hurt by her attitude. “This is the hotel your father stayed in while he was in Milan, and there’s a good chance this is where he made the connection. If it is, I’ll pick up an echo sooner or later.”
“Try to make it sooner, will you?”
“There’s no controlling a wild talent.” Sensing the need for more customer relations work, I introduced a bit of echo chamber into my voice. “Right now, as we sit here, the intangible billowing nets of my mind are spreading outwards, ever out …”
“Hold on a minute,” I said. Quite unexpectedly, the intangible billowing nets of my mind had caught a fish—in the shape of a passing wine waiter. He was a slim dark youth with knowing brown eyes, and my psi faculties told me at once that his recent past was linked in some unusual way with that of Carole’s father. I immediately tried to connect him with the Mona Lisa Mk. II. There was no positive response on the intuitive level, and yet I became more certain the wine waiter would be worth questioning. That’s the way ESP works.
Carole followed my gaze and shook her head. “I think you’ve had enough to drink.”
“Nonsense—I can still crawl a straight line.” I left the table and followed the waiter out through double doors and into a passageway which probably led to the cellars. He glanced back when he heard me, then turned around, his eyes sizing me up like those of a cattle-buyer examining a steer.
“Pardon me,” I said. “Do you mind if I speak to you for a moment?”
“I haven’t got a moment,” he said. “Besides, I don’t speak English.”
“But …' I stared at him for a few seconds, baffled, then the message came through, loud and clear. I took out the expense money Carole had given me, peeled off a ten and tucked it into the pocket of his white jacket. Will that buy you a Lingua-phone course?”
“It all comes back to me now.” He smiled a tight, crafty smile. “You want a woman? What sort of woman do you want?”
“No. I do not want a woman.”
He grew even more shifty-looking. “You mean …?”
“I mean I’ve got a perfectly good woman with me.”
“Ah! Do you want to sell a woman? Let me tell you, signor, you have come to the right man—I have many connections in the white slave market.”
“I don’t want to sell a woman, either.”
“You are sure? As long as she has got white skin I can get you two thousand for her. It doesn’t even matter,” he said generously, jiggling cupped hands in front of his chest, “if she hasn’t got much accoutrements. As long as she has that flawless white skin …”
I began to get impatient. “All I want from you, Mario, is some information.”
The gleam of avarice in the waiter’s eyes was quickly replaced by a look of wariness. “How did you know my name?”
“I have ways of knowing things,” I told him mysteriously. Actually, I wasn’t sure whether I had esped his name or whether it was the only Italian one I could think of on the spur of the moment.
“Pissy,” he said. “That’s what you are—pissy.”
I grabbed him by the lapels and raised him up on his toes. “Listen, Mario, any more lip out of you and I’ll …”
“You’ve got me wrong, signor,” Mario babbled, and I was relieved to discover he was more of a coward than I am. “I mean, you are one of the pissy ones who know things without being told of them.”
“P-S-I is pronounced like sigh,” I said, letting go of his jacket. “Try to remember that, will you?”
“Of course, signor.” He stood back to let another waiter pass between us with a bottle of wine. “Now, tell me what information you want to buy, and I will tell you the cost. My scale of charges is very reasonable.”
“But I’ve already paid you.”
“Non capisco,” Mario said in a stony voice and began to walk away.
“Come back,” I commanded. He kept on walking. I took out the roll of bills and he, displaying a sixth sense which aroused my professional envy, promptly went into reverse until we were facing each other again. It was as if he had been drawn towards me by a powerful magnet, and I began to realize that here was a man who was capable of selling his own grandmother. Indeed, from his earlier conversation, it was possible that he had already disposed of the old lady, venerable accoutrements and all. Making a mental note to be careful in my dealings with Mario, I asked him if he could remember a Trevor J. Colvin staying at the hotel in April.
“I remember him.” Mario nodded, but I could tell he was puzzled and slightly disappointed, which meant he had no idea of the money potentials involved. I decided to keep it that way.
“Why do you remember Mr Colvin in particular? Had you any … ah … business dealings with him?”
“No—he didn’t want a woman, either. All I did was introduce him to Crazy Julio from Paesinoperduto, my home village.”