Masterpiece

Part four of The Last McCulloch

enter-amelia-binghamAmelia’s broadly-built limousine seemed almost to take up the whole of the narrow, winding street as we threaded our way through what seemed like a rabbit warren of roads all much alike. In places, washing was hung out across the road above the reach of traffic. The tenements loomed tall, dark and gaunt against a slate-grey sky.

“Now wouldn’t you think McCulloch had made a bob or two with those masterpieces of his?” pondered Amelia with a twinkle in her eye. “What do you imagine makes him choose to live in a place like this. Did he drink it all? Or is it affectation?”

Jilly Burbidge looked a little shocked. She was sitting opposite us in the rear of the car. “It might be a matter of principwe, Amelia,” she said. She said it in a rather coy and deprecating way, and yet at the same time she had an air about her as if she expected this remark to deliver the coup de grace to the conversation and leave us covered in confusion and embarrassment. I cannot think why except that I suppose it was a rather embarrassing thing to say.

Amelia conceded the point. “Yes, I expect you are right,” she said. “But then principle of that sort is much the same thing as affectation, isn’t it ?”

We had arrived at Mr. McCulloch’s door, and Amelia gave a loud, authoritative knock. We found ourselves ushered into a room which scarcely looked as if it had been lived in for years. Several windows were broken and there was hardly anything in the way of furnishing.

“My studio,” grunted McCulloch with a touch of bitter irony which, for some reason, was clearly intended to impress. It succeeded in Miss Burbidge’s case.

In the centre of the room stood—well, it is hard to say what it was, exactly. It looked like several of the larger internal parts of a decaying motor car welded together at bizarre angles. Parts of it appeared to be tarred and feathered while from some projecting parts hung a noose and various leather thongs. These appeared to be fixed in place with tar. Splashes of red paint, judiciously placed here and there completed the work—if, indeed it was complete. There would be no means of knowing that without the artist’s telling us.

Jilly Burbidge approached the thing as if she were approaching a church altar. Well, I don’t suppose she would have approached a church altar with anything like that sort of reverence, but you know what I mean.

“It’s my last work,” said McCulloch. “I have nothing further to say to the world. It is called The Mortification of the Artist.”

I fully understood this. I should have been pretty mortified myself if I had been responsible for that object.

I shall draw a veil over the events which occurred next. Haggling over money with an embittered Scotsman is not work for the delicately nurtured young lady. As in so many matters, Amelia is the exception. I once knew a very pretty and quite fastidious girl at school who used to gut fish without a qualm when the occasion arose. In much the same way, Amelia rolled up her metaphorical sleeves and screwed down McCulloch from the hundred thousand pounds he had asked to a mere fifty thousand.

The proceedings had just reached the shaking hands stage when another knock came at the door and we were joined by a man who wore a Savile Row jacket over the most atrocious pullover I have ever seen. It matched his vowels perfectly. He introduced himself as Miss Burbidge’s employer Mike. It is not my intention to speak of him as if I were on familiar terms, but I don’t believe he or anyone ever mentioned his surname. Perhaps after years of working in that department he had forgotten it.

Anyway, this Mike came quickly to the point. It appeared that he had been discreetly present at the hotel from long before our prearranged meeting with Miss Burbidge on the previous day. He had wished to keep an eye on everything and had, of course, overheard Amelia’s argument with McCulloch. His summing-up was brief but effective.

“Amelia here was intending to buy this work of yours in order to re-sell it to us. I shall be happy to buy it direct.”

Unpleasant as he was, my chief contempt was reserved for Jilly Burbidge. Not only had she led us here, but she had not the moral courage to do the thing herself, but must wait for this mononymic yahoo to arrive and do the dirty.

“How much are ye offerin’ ?” asked McCulloch slyly.

“Seventy-five thousand,” said Mike with an air of great magnanimity.

Clearly he did not have Amelia’s skill at these things.

“Och nae,” said McCulloch. “ Ye’d nae ha’ gone tae all this trouble tae pay me the same price ye’d have paid Miss Bingham here. Ye’d have paid her a hundred thousand, if ye paid her a baubee. Weel, ye’re nae savin’ money at my expense. A hundred thousand it is or I sell tae Muss Bingham.”

Mike tried, but he was quite out of his depth. A hundred thousand it was—or nearly. Just as the deal was about to be closed Amelia spoke with a vindictive little smile.

“I’d have got a hundred and fifty,” she said.

“Ye’d never,” said the Scotsman in admiration.

“Your last work, McCulloch,”  said Amelia. “Why, I’d never have let them have it for under a hundred and fifty. You undervalue yourself, man.”

McCulloch gave a growl which was half anger and half esteem. “It’s always the way,” he said. “The working artist sells for a pittance and the conniving entrepreneur makes a fortune from his labours.”

“Absolutely,” said Amelia. “Been in the business for years.”

“Well, a hundred and fifty it is,” said McCulloch defiantly. And a hundred and fifty it was.

I had thought Jilly Burbidge would have avoided us on the way out after the way she had behaved. But she was clearly as miffed in her own way as I was.

“Would yeeou reallay have sold McCulloch’s work at three hundred percent profit ?” she asked Amelia reproachfully.

“No,” replied Amelia cheerfully, addressing both her and Mike. “ Your failure to comply with my terms of sale has cost your department approximately fifty thousand pounds.”

Well, it was a victory of sorts, I suppose. Amelia certainly seemed to think so at any rate. She was in high spirits as we drove away from those mean streets and settled down in a quiet pub a little way out in the country for a drink, which was much needed in my case if not in hers.

We sat in silence, watching the September sunlight stream in through the old leaded windows of the inn and sipping our drinks, until suddenly the silence was broken by a gruff Scots voice roaring, “So there ye are, ye disgraceful old entrepreneur!” It was the unmistakable sound of McCulloch. I almost jumped out of my skin, but Amelia was as calm as if she had been expecting it. She smiled as if the thing amused her considerably, and in another moment we were joined by Andrew.

“But where is McCulloch ? ” I whispered.

“Here !” roared Andrew in McCulloch’s voice, pulling a generous handful of red facial hair from his pocket. They both laughed.

“B—but where is the real McCulloch ?” I stammered.

“How should I know ?” asked Amelia reasonably. “He went missing months ago.” She turned to Andrew. “I hope you made sure you weren’t followed, young man.”

“I know my business, ma’am,” he replied in a more human tone. “I trust you weren’t either?”

“Cheeky,” reproached Amelia.

Slowly I was beginning to understand what had happened, especially as I noticed the protective way in which Andrew was fingering the large briefcase that he carried. McCulloch had insisted at the hotel that he be paid in cash.

Amelia saw that I was having a little difficulty in piecing it all together. “Mr. Mike is about as subtle as a herd and a half of elephants,” she said. “Of course I spotted him skulking about the hotel the minute we arrived. Anyway, I was expecting him to be there.”

“But why did you have to arrange everything in such an elaborate way?” I asked.

“Two reasons,” explained Amelia. “First, it set up the psychological conditions for extracting a much higher price than we might otherwise have got. Secondly, security. I daresay they will be quite happy with their purchase for some time to come. After all, one piece of junk is much the same as another. But the real McCulloch is bound to turn up sooner or later. These types never have the decency to stay buried. Of course it’s a moot point whether he will know for certain that he didn’t create this particular piece, but if he does I shall not have sold anybody a fake. I shall claim to have been as much deceived by the false McCulloch as everyone else. Andrew was well disguised, and the “studio” was in fact a condemned building which probably won’t even be there by the time the thing blows up. If it does blow up, which I doubt. But better safe than sorry, Pash. Better safe than sorry.”

The feeling was settling in upon me that our visit to Scotland was drawing to a close. We spent two splendid, breathtaking nights in Edinburgh with Trixie Leigh Parker, whose mere presence infused even the most everyday events with the most extraordinary vigour and passion. And then she was gone. Quite suddenly, some mysterious business called her far away to some foreign place. I have no idea where. She spoke of Baghdad, but then she speaks so lightly of so many things. Her doings are as mysterious as Amelia’s but she is never mysterious about them. On the contrary, she talks freely of all she is doing, has done and is about to do, but most of her tales are so tall and wild that it is impossible to sift the grain of truth from the bushel of fancy. Especially after Amelia confidentially remarked that it is often the more ordinary things that are fancy and the wilder ones that are true, if a little disguised.

[We have omitted the final section of this story as it only makes sense in the light of earlier events in the book]


More from Enter Amelia Bingham:
News Travels Fast in the Jungle
The Sorceress’s Apprentice

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