I had "cased the joint," as we criminals are supposed to say, and it had been unoccupied. It was unfortunate that, in the brief time between my reconnaissance and the "heist," the fifth Mrs. Frolichmann had decided to move in.
The house sat in one acre of walled garden, on a private road, out of sight and earshot of the highway. Justin, the interior designer who had been commissioned to redecorate the 1930s mansion for Frolichmann's latest bride, had informed me that the young lady had consigned most of her predecessor's art collection to a box-room, to await collection. The art works were, for one of the "Big F's" former floozies, remarkably tasteful. They included two charcoal and white pastel sketches by M. Edgar Degas, twenty centimeters square, stamped and signed, properly framed by a professional conservator. When last on the open market in the mid-nineteen eighties, the drawings had fetched about a quarter of a million dollars each. They would be worth considerably more today, even on the restricted market I catered for.
I planned to steal the Degas drawings and substitute two copies, which I had made and framed just like the originals. With luck the duplicates would go undetected for some time.
Toby, a young would-be artist who had once been a Golden Gloves contender, was my accomplice. Alas, a blow to the head had put paid to any sporting future Toby may have had, and he now earned a modest living as a caretaker of a group of disused warehouses in the old dock area. He had converted the offices at the seaward end of one of the least ramshackle buildings into an atelier. The situation was quiet, the views over the old decaying shorescape picturesque, and the rent negligible. The only problem was the rats that swarmed throughout the warehouse complex. They were big, brown, and as bold as bombardiers. Toby kept them in check by the periodic setting of poison baits and traps, but he was fighting a losing battle. I'm told that rats and humans are the only mammals to rate fornication above feeding in their list of good things to do. Toby's rats bore out this theory. Their numbers seemed to grow exponentially.
Toby and I had met at my second one-man exhibition. He liked what he called my "nineteenth century references" and asked me to help him with advice regarding his drawing and painting. He was an excellent pupil and a good copyist. He was delighted when we sold one of his little water colors as a, "Turner (?) Study for Harlech Castle-unsigned, undated" for $1000. It would have been a perfectly legal transaction, had we not known that Toby had finished it only a week prior to the sale.
Toby's van, our transport on the unlawful occasion of the Frolichmann Manor robbery, was garaged alongside his studio.
Dressed in black track suits and wearing dark balaclavas, Toby and I looked like a couple of ninjas bent on assassination as we moved between midnight shadows across the lawn of Frolichmann Manor. The security system was antiquated. I disabled it in under thirty seconds. Toby was impressed. Once inside the house, I climbed the staircase to the top landing while Toby fossicked, starting on the ground floor, for marketable knick-knacks. These he stowed in a large sports bag brought for this purpose.
The box room was unlocked but was chock-a-block full of pictures and furnishings, and it was only after a search lasting several minutes that I located the Degas drawings. They had been stuffed in a chest of drawers. I quickly substituted my copies and had turned to leave, when-to my intense surprise-the landing light snapped on and the doorway was blocked by a slim blonde woman holding a large caliber automatic in a two-handed grip.
She was wearing a thin negligee over an equally insubstantial baby-doll night dress. The light behind her revealed a very shapely silhouette and picked out the gleam of light blonde hair and the blued steel of the automatic.
"Ah!" I said, "You must be the fifth Mrs. Frolichmann, or perhaps in her employ? Good evening!"
"Shut the fuck up!" she snarled. "Put those pictures down, then put your hands on your head. Move very slowly. I'm within my rights to blow your fucking head off, and don't think I won't, Mister!"
I thought it inadvisable to expound on the doctrine of reasonable force as it applied to unarmed housebreakers and meekly did as she ordered. We stood for a minute or two. It was clear she was uncertain about what to do next. Before she decided on any radical solution, like squeezing the trigger and claiming I'd jumped her, I helped by suggesting she had better call the police.
"Why are you being so goddamned helpful?" she snarled, a second before Toby, who still moved like the boxer he had once been, very quickly and quietly, leant over and plucked the cannon from her slender fingers.
"What now, Boss?" he grinned, as I grabbed her arms.
"Don't scream or I'll gag you," I said to the struggling woman.
She started to yell abuse, so I gagged her with the only material that came readily to hand. I thought Toby looked shocked as I ripped off the frilly panties of her baby doll nightie and tried to jam the material into her mouth. He was always fumble-tongued and shy when the girls were about. I thought he might be a bit of a puritan, or perhaps gay.
"Don't worry," I told him, "I'm not about to rape her. Just get the belt off her gown. I'll tie her hands behind her." The big fellah just stood there staring at the wriggling blonde bundle I was trying to control, so I did it myself.
"Out of the way!" I said. "Let's get her to a bedroom and tuck her in for the night while we make our getaway."
Toby still didn't move. The three of us were stuck in the doorway. Toby was facing the blonde I was trying to push along.
"She's... beautiful!" he sighed. Then I realized Toby wasn't being shy or embarrassed. He was merely consumed by lust.
Now the overhead landing light was on her fully I could appreciate Toby's reaction. The fifth Mrs. Frolichmann-for it was indeed she-was a collector's item. She was a top-of-the-line Barbie-With-Boobs, from her perfectly groomed ash-blonde hair to her pink, buffed, and lacquered toenails. Unlike Barbie, she had full breasts and a tight little pudenda, which parted slightly to show a hint of her labia minor below a neatly trimmed golden thatch.
"She's got skin like... like porcelain! So clear! And yet so pink!" Toby burbled.
Toby reached between her legs to stroke the pinkness. I stepped back, dragging her with me.
"No!" I said, with as much authority as I could. "Leave her be! We are in enough trouble as it is. Let's not add sexual assault to aggravated burglary!"
Toby paused, grinned, and blushed. "Okay," he said, and stepped back to allow me and my squirming burden through the box-room door and onto the landing.
"Get the paintings," I said. "We'll get this termagant into her bedroom and..."
After that point I remember very little. The blonde was wearing stiletto heeled mules... steel stilettos. She first kicked backwards and crushed my testicles with a savage upward blow, then drove the metal spike down my left shin, gouging out a broad bone-deep channel of skin and flesh from knee to ankle, before driving her heel through the top of my left foot. The metal heel broke bone and sinew before punching a hole in the sole of my shoe. The shock and pain put me out like a light.
I came to briefly on a carpet by a bed on which Toby was struggling with the woman. I think I called out that I needed a doctor, but I couldn't be sure.
"She nailed you, pal, so now I'm gonna nail her," Toby growled to me. "Just listen to the bitch scream!"
This was a surprising response from the gentle Toby I thought I knew. I was still trying to work out what he was talking about when I passed out again.
In the van I recovered my senses for a moment. I was on my back, my left leg was throbbing, the injured foot and groin were twin knots of pain. I was sweating. I looked across the floor of the van to see, about twenty inches away, a pair of lavender blue eyes glaring hatred from a mess of blonde hair, white frilly lace, and duct-tape. Then the van hit a pothole in the highway and waves of pain again swamped my consciousness.
The Doc-he's a disbarred vet, really-asks no questions and accepts payment in small oils "in the manner of Stubbs". He confined me to bed for a week after seeing to my injuries.
It took two before I was able to hobble about with the aid of a walking stick. A few of my friends dropped in, to keep me company. Effie, one of the girls who poses for the monthly life class I hold, decided I needed a live-in cook-housekeeper. Of Toby, the Degas, and the Steel Heeled Barbie, I heard nothing.
I phoned Justin, who was busy redecorating the Frolichmann Manor, and asked casually how things were going. Justin is one of those earnest souls who, if asked politely for the time of day, will give you his full medical history since puberty.
After an hour and ten minutes, I discovered that Saratoga Frolichmann (the name of Frau Frolichmann IV) had apparently called in to the Manor on her way to a health and beauty retreat from which she was due to return in a week or two, but had not had the common courtesy to let Julian know she was in town.
The box room had been emptied and Justin had almost wept to see the two delightful little Degas sketches consigned, along with a parcel of other quite respectable pieces, to storage in a secure and climate-controlled dungeon.
All carpets had been lifted and wall paper steamed off. The tradesmen were already working on the painted surfaces. The interior would be fully cleaned and prepared to give Justin a pristine canvas for his latest creation, destined to be featured in Home Beautiful spring issue.
Next I tried Toby. His studio phone had been disconnected. His caretaker's office answering machine asked me to leave a message and assured me that he would reply shortly. I did. He didn't.
I drive an automatic, so reaching the warehouse complex was no problem despite my wounds. Getting in was, but once I was able to lean against the gates and use both hands, the padlocks were little trouble.
His van was parked where it usually was, beside the warehouse. Both the large door and the smaller one set into it were locked. I broke in through the smaller door and started to limp across the fifty meters or so to Toby's studio. Halfway there, my erratic progress disturbed a pack of eight or so big brown rattus-rattus squabbling over something bloody, wrapped in cloth, on the concrete. I waved my walking stick and they moved, sulkily it seemed, to the protection of the shadows along the warehouse wall. When I reached the studio door they scampered back, chittering, to resume their dispute over the vile mess they had been dining on.
Toby's studio was a tip. Normally he kept the place spotless but now it was filthy. There were unwashed dishes in the sink and on the small dining table. Two garbage bags spilled their contents onto the kitchen-area floor. Dirty underwear decorated the couch and easy chair. The living areas were squalid but it was the work area which shocked me most.
Toby had always been a meticulous and careful worker who knew the value of his tools and cared for them. The work area now looked as though a kamikaze kindergarten had enjoyed an open day. Brushes, some with dried paint in the bristles, were scattered about. Tubes of paint, pallette knives-one of which was razor sharp-pencils, chalks, pens were heaped in no sort of order on every work surface. A couple of books were propped open with boxes of pastels and an bottle of linseed oil. Only a double-bed mattress in the center of the work space was uncluttered. This was covered by a blue chenille bed cover. It was heavily stained. Paint, semen, and red wine-but not blood, I noted with some relief.
A prepared canvas sat on Toby's big easel. Some faint charcoal marks suggested that Toby had made a start on the work. I was trying to decipher these when I found his sketch book. They could have been studies for a Saint Joan, naked and surrounded by a ring of fire, or perhaps a terrified Andromeda still chained to her rock, unaware that Perseus was on his way. The door to Toby's bunk room opened and my young accomplice shuffled out. He was naked, but for a towel wrapped around his waist. He was unshaven and bleary-eyed.
"Boss," he said, evincing mild surprise. "It's real good to see you. How's the... er... injuries?"
"I'll recover," I snapped.
"Er... good," he said "The vet said you'd be out of harness for a week or two with the foot. He wasn't too sure about the other."
"Still a bit sore and twice their usual size," I reassured him. "But I believe nothing vital has been affected. I'm disappointed in you, Toby. You could have enquired about my health at any time during the last fortnight. Perhaps at the same time you could have delivered the paintings and whatever else we hoped to sell. You do still have them, I hope?"
"Yes. No problem. Er..."
"Where are they?"
"In the van, Boss." Toby looked a bit sheepish.
"A bit of a risk, Toby," I said, understating the case.
"Yeah. Look, I meant to..."
"Sara... the woman..."
"What about her?" I suddenly remembered the unpleasant heap of offal I had skirted on my way in. "What have you done with her?"
"She's in there," said Toby, indicating his sleeping quarters.
I limped through the debris on the floor and looked into Toby's bedroom. At the foot of his single metal-framed bed was a large cage, made out of the wire mesh that Toby used to fashion rat-traps. Inside the cage, naked, on a mattress, lay the blonde I had last seen two weeks before. She had changed. Her hair was lank and uncombed. Her nails were chipped and filthy. Her skin had a grey pallor and was streaked with dirt and dried seminal fluid. Her breasts were bruised and marked. Her lips were swollen. But the biggest change was in her eyes. The whites showed all around her lavender pupils. She stared wildly at me, then at Toby. When she spoke, her voice was no longer confident, but pleading.
"You wanna fuck me again, honey? We only just finished, but if you wanna... ?"
"Not yet, Sara," said Toby. "Hey! You recognize this distinguished gentleman?"
She didn't, of course.
Sara looked distressed. "Oh, honey... I... I don't know. Do I? You tell me, Toby."
"The last time you met him, Sara, you kicked him in the balls. You really hurt him, Sara."
Sara started to cry. Silent tears tracked through the dirt on her face.