~~ Chapter 4 ~~

Sunday Afternoon

"I wonder if your detectives find that whole 'killed during a burglary' scenario as suspicious as I do?" asked Jessica, seemingly out of nowhere.

Alfred stopped unloading the picnic basket. "I beg your pardon?"

She blushed slightly. "I'm sorry. I was just going over everything in my head and just blurted that out!"

"No, that's all right; I was just a trifle disconcerted." Alfred finished placing everything on the blanket and began opening containers. He had originally invited Jessica out to lunch with him, but when he saw the beautiful sunny weather, he asked if she would care for a picnic lunch instead. Jessica had laughed delightedly and agreed. Gotham's city park was a fine backdrop, and he had hoped the surroundings might offset the unpleasantness of the previous evening. Obviously, he was mistaken.

"So you don't think Mr. Taylor was killed by a burglar?" Alfred asked. Admittedly, he had his doubts as well based on the little he saw at the crime scene. Jessica had insisted on accompanying her friend, who happened to be the ex-wife of the deceased, and Alfred had felt it best to tag along discreetly. Once Taylor's nephew had arrived, Janice Taylor turned everything over to him, and they left.

Jessica sighed and took a sip of her lemonade. "I suppose it's possible. I just can't get over some little details that stick out. For example: Monty's valet said that Monty always set the burglar alarm before he went to bed, but the police said that the alarm company didn't show that it had been set. Surely, the burglar didn't just happen to pick the one night Monty forgot!"

Alfred nodded; that bothered him as well. "I'll admit, I thought it odd that a man who was as security-conscious as Mr. Taylor would not only forget to set the alarm, but once he suspected an intruder, he did not try to notify the police."

"Particularly when he would have to pass right by where the burglar presumably was in order to get to the study where Monty kept his gun."

He arranged a chicken salad sandwich, several slices of celery, carrots, and a floret of broccoli on a plate and passed it to Jessica and then prepared a similar plate for himself. He smiled at the humming noises of pleasure she made as she bit into the fresh bread.

"Oh, this is delicious!"

"Thank you," he replied. "It's an old recipe of mine, but a favorite." He bit into his own sandwich.

"Now, as I was saying before you attempted to distract me with food," she said with a smile, "another little thing that bothered me was the number of pictures that the thief was apparently going to steal."

Alfred's mouth was full, but he raised his eyebrows enquiringly.

"I counted around twenty pieces that the thief removed from the wall and set aside, some of which were rather massive. The thief supposedly came in through the back door and left the same way. Now remember, the security guard thinks it was a woman he saw running away. So we're supposed to believe she intended to carry all of those pictures down a long flight of stone steps. Even if she planned to make several trips, that just doesn't make sense!"

He nodded. "That does sound rather bizarre. It seemed odd to me that the paintings the thief selected were not the most valuable in the collection, apart from the two pieces he – I mean, she – eventually stole. Also, speaking of the back door, I am quite familiar with that deadbolt, and it is extremely unlikely that it was forced open in the manner in which it was found."

"Really?"

"Yes. It's not so much that the lock cannot be forced, but doing so would create far more damage to the doorjamb than there was. It would have been much simpler for the thief to break the glass."

"Hmm. So what we've got is a dead body and two missing Degas pencil sketches. I think it's safe to say the other art pieces are a smokescreen, as is the jimmied back door. The question I think we have to ask is which was the real objective – Monty's death or the Degas theft?"

"I'm afraid I would have to guess that Mr. Taylor's death was the true objective," Alfred said, after a moment's consideration.

"Why is that?"

"First off, if the Degas were the objective, there was no need to pretend to steal the other pictures – they are certainly valuable enough just by themselves. Secondly, as soon as the thief saw that the alarm was not set, she would know that Taylor was still in the house and awake. There was no way she could have done all of the preparatory work without Taylor's noticing."

"And that brings us back to Monty's not calling the police at the first hint that something was wrong."

"Exactly. A real thief would also have waited until Taylor had retired for the evening." He removed the cover from a nearby plate. "Would you care for some apple pie?"

~~~~~~~~~~

"According to Janice, Monty's nephew Brad will inherit everything," Jessica said. They had finished their picnic, and Alfred suggested they walk around the pond and feed their leftovers to the ducks.

"That is certainly the rumor that I have heard as well. But if you are considering him as a suspect, he is not female, and he apparently has an excellent alibi for last night."

She laughed. "Alfred! I'm in the mystery business, remember? Airtight alibis don't really bother me all that much."

"But why the nephew?"

"As I see it, he has the motive – his inheritance. I think it's obvious that Monty knew his killer, and it was someone who knew how valuable the Degas sketches were. All it takes to make it work is for Brad to have a female accomplice to set his alibi."

"Why isn't this theoretical female accomplice the real murderer?" Alfred asked.

"Because she wouldn't have the access to the house that Brad did," she replied confidently.

"So how do we prove it?"

Jessica started. "We? You'd really help me with this?" She blushed. "I'm just realizing I have monopolized our picnic with these theories of mine, and I'm sure you must think I'm crazy!"

He smiled in what he hoped was a reassuring fashion. "Of course not, Jessica! I certainly understand that you would wish to help your friend, and I will admit it's a fascinating intellectual puzzle. I am certainly willing to offer whatever help I can." He offered her his arm.

She smiled back and hooked her arm through his. "Thank you! You seem to be making a habit of coming to my rescue!"

For the next few minutes, they walked without speaking. Alfred led them to a bench beside the pond where they could feed the ducks. After he sat down, he said, "So what's our next step?"

Jessica thought for a moment and said, "Well, I would really like to check out Brad's alibi, but I don't know exactly what it was."

"Hmm. Let me try something." Alfred took his cell phone and dialed a familiar number. "Miss Barbara? I wonder if you could check something for me?"

~~~~~~~~~~

"Hey, it's me."

"Oh, Brad! I was getting so worried!"

"Everything's okay, baby. The police have checked my alibi, and I'm definitely in the clear."

"But why wouldn't you answer your phone?"

"I told you not to call me! They put a tap on my phone in case anyone tries to ransom the sketches. I'm calling you from a pay phone."

"When can I see you? I miss you so much!"

"Well, all right. You remember that spot we went to last week in Gotham Heights?"

"That overlook way up in the cliffs?"

"That's the one. Meet me there in an hour and bring the sketches; I'll take them off your hands, while I'm at it."

"All right. I love you!"

"Me too, baby."

~~ End Chapter 4 ~~