An Artful Dodge
One of the first real things an apprentice to an art restorer was allowed to do, if she could be trusted to mind her manners, was help her employer pick up paintings from wealthier clients. Elaine Carrick had been doing it since her first week apprenticing with Barny, and the shine had long worn off.
While Barny stepped forward to knock on the door, Elaine admired Ferncombe Manor. She wasn't intimidated by big, old houses – she had grown up in one, after all – but she would never stop finding them fascinating to look at. This one was in absolutely pristine condition, with precisely-cut hedges hugging the wall and everything sparklingly clean, down to the fixtures on the door.
A shriveled old specimen of a house elf opened the door in question and stood staring, as if uncertain what to do with them. The rapid blinking of her eyes was beginning to make Elaine uncomfortable when the house-elf finally spoke in a high, querulous voice.
"My mistress is busy at the moment, sir, miss. If you would like to–"
Barny interrupted, his voice kind. "We're the restorers. We're just here to pick up Mrs. Selwyn's portraits."
The house-elf's eyes lit up. "Of course, sir. I is knowing exactly which portraits you mean." She snapped her fingers and a pair of oils depicting a solemn man and a pretty young woman appeared and hovered in the air before them. Barny lifted the woman's portrait down and handed it to Elaine. Elaine held it at a careful distance from her body, as Barny had taught her, making certain to hold it by the side and bottom of the frame to avoid stressing the canvas. Barny smiled approvingly and took the second painting.
"Thank you," Barny said. "Please tell your mistress that we'll do our utmost to restore these paintings to their prop– what in Merlin's name?"
Elaine could hear the commotion too, a slammed door and shouting from somewhere inside the house. She glanced at the house-elf, who was suddenly blinking more furiously than ever, and shrunk back a bit. It felt more than a little intrusive to stand here in the doorway while the shouting grew closer. Before she could suggest to Barny that they leave, a scowling young man stormed through the foyer and thrust past them. A statuesque older woman with unnaturally dark red hair followed at a statelier pace. Her flinty eyes were flashing in anger, but the moment she saw Elaine and Barny, calmness visibly settled over her.
"I apologize for my stepson's behavior," she said. "You are the restorers, yes? Since you have the portraits, I think your business here is finished." With that clear dismissal, she turned and swept from the room.
Barny nodded at the house-elf and the pair of them Disapparated.
Barnaby Cross Art Restoration was housed in a terraced building, sandwiched between a hardware store and a popular fast food restaurant. The front room, where Barny met with customers, was plainly decorated but elegant in its way, with pale blue walls and a seascape hanging over the loveseat. A Muggle who wandered in by mistake would never imagine that the door behind the counter led to a studio full of enchanted paintings.
And disposable cups, Elaine reflected as she placed the Selwyn portraits on separate shelves, where they would stay until Barny could look at them. We really do have an astounding amount of those in here. Disposable cups were something of an inevitability there: Barny was addicted to Muggle fast food and fizzy drinks, and Elaine blamed him for her love of the sugary confection masquerading as coffee that the fast food place next door sold. Neither of them was fussy about throwing their cups away. They lined the edges of Barny's desk, crowded the surfaces of the filing cabinets and waited next to the sink under the supply cabinets to be washed and magically cleansed for reuse as mixing cups. The storage shelves and worktables, however, were clear and clean; Barny was strict about that.
Barny himself burst in just then. "Portraits safely tucked away? Very good." He tugged out the desk chair and sat, resting his elbows on his knees as he leaned forward. "Now, then. They won't need too much in the way of fixing, I shouldn't think. What do you think needs doing?"
Elaine answered confidently, "They're quite grimy and yellowed, so we'll need to remove the varnish and put on a new layer. There isn't any real damage to speak of, though, so really other than getting the varnish sorted we should just check and touch up the animation spells and we'll be done."
"Yes, I agree. In fact, I think I can trust you to do this on your own while I'm gone." Barny's smile wavered a bit and Elaine was immediately concerned.
"Gone?" she asked.
Barny sighed. "I just spoke to my brother through the Floo. They had to take my dad to St. Mungo's; they're not really sure what's wrong with him yet. I'm going to go stay with Mum. It should only be a few days at most, whatever happens." He cleared his throat. Before she could say anything, he went on, "Anyway, I think you should be able to manage the portraits on your own. I'll leave you Mum's direction so you can Floo or send an owl if you run into trouble."
"I'm not going to Floo you about varnish troubles when your dad's in hospital," Elaine said. "Don't worry about me. I can handle it."
"That's the ticket." Barny slapped his knees and stood. "I'll be on my way, then. See you in a few days, Elaine."
"Hope your dad gets better soon," she replied.
As he left, she couldn't help but feel a warm glow of pride. These would be the first paintings she would work on without his constant supervision and advice. This, more than anything, told her that she was progressing well.
Elaine had just finished getting the portrait of the man ready for removing the varnish when one of the bells in the front room rang. Oh no, she thought, I was so eager to get started, I forgot to close up. Help! I'm not qualified to give quotes. She took a deep breath and muttered under her breath, "Don't be silly, Elaine. You'll just tell them Barny's not in and you'll take down their direction and he'll get a hold of them when he can." With that decided, she smoothed down her robes and proceeded into the front room.
She stopped just behind the desk, puzzled. The room was entirely empty. Idiot kids? she wondered. Shaking her head, she crossed to the door and locked it, turning the sign to "closed" as she did so. Having taken care of that, she turned and walked back into the studio. Shock stopped her just inside the doorway. Where was the portrait? She closed her eyes so tight she saw stars, hoping that when she opened them it would be on her worktable, where she'd left it. No such luck. That's impossible, Elaine thought desperately. No one can get through the back door except me and Barny – same with the studio door if it had been closed, but even so, no one could have got through without my seeing them.
That didn't change the fact that the portrait was, in fact, gone.
Elaine shut the studio door tightly behind her. There were plenty of ways to trick an unwary person into thinking they hadn't seen anyone pass – the Confundus Charm, some kind of memory charm. No one would get past the locking spells now that the doors were shut.
What about the other paintings? she wondered suddenly. A check of the storage shelves relaxed her for a moment; none were missing. But still – one of the Selwyn portraits was missing. Her first real responsibility as Barny's apprentice. And Barny was gone. Elaine was not going to bother him when he was visiting his sick father. She'd just report the theft to Magical Law Enforcement.
Her hand was on the knob when she realized that whoever had stolen the portrait might well be waiting to do the same thing again – and he might well have a friend or two watching the back door. Whoever he was, he was clever. "Maybe," she told herself, "maybe I'll just wait a bit. Let them get bored and maybe go away."
She settled in the chair at her worktable, telling herself that she was not being a coward – it was only sensible.
Suddenly she heard a loud clattering and rolling sound nearby. She jumped up from her chair, shrieking, only to realize a moment later that a number of blue beads – the remains of a necklace, broken several days ago – had chosen that moment to finally roll off the corner of her worktable.
She laughed as she sat back down. What a lie. I am definitely being a coward.
Elaine was confused when she woke up. Why was there a hard surface under her face? And why was she sitting? She sat up, spitting a few strands of hair out, and remembered that she'd fallen asleep at her worktable. Her plan had certainly bored someone, she thought wryly. She checked her watch: five o' clock. She had been asleep for about three hours, then. Maybe I'll wait a bit longer before leaving. Get started on the other portrait while I'm here.
As she went to the storage shelves, she considered whether to go to the Magical Law Enforcement offices like normal people did or just talk to her father. He'd certainly know who to talk to about it, but she was pretty sure there was some sort of standard procedure involved. To the offices, then, once she'd worked up the nerve to leave. She retrieved the second Selwyn portrait from its shelf. As she was turning away, something odd caught her eye. Two disposable cups sat on an otherwise empty shelf. Where, as Barny had drilled into her head the first week, they were never supposed to put anything but paintings.
She suddenly remembered the beads, and how they had suddenly rolled off her desk for the first time three days after they'd first been placed there, and the hairs on her neck stood up as a new solution to the mystery of how someone had entered the studio undetected occurred to her. He had crept in invisibly – literally.
And he was still in the studio with her.
The moment the idea occurred to her, she made a dash for the back door, holding the portrait as carefully as she could. She tried to throw the door shut behind her, but it bounced off a large and solid object. There's my suspicion confirmed, she thought as a male voice swore behind her. She braced the painting against her to minimize the jarring it would receive and took off running down the alley behind the studio. Within seconds, she heard footsteps following her. She pulled her wand from her pocket, pointed it over her shoulder and shouted the first spell that occurred to her – "Reducto!" A loud slam told her that it had missed her pursuer but hit the door. Well, at least no one else will get in, she thought frantically, and pelted around the corner, and again around the next. She ran straight past the front of the studio before she could even think.
Panting, she tried to think where she could go. Maybe into a restaurant? Surely he couldn't grab her if she went and sat in one. But then, he might just wait outside; she'd never know. She knew one thing for sure: she wasn't going to be able to keep up this pace for much longer. Only fear was keeping her going.
At least her pursuer couldn't shoot any spells in a public Muggle thoroughfare. Of course that stopped her just Apparating away, as well. It would also make her look like a madwoman if she asked for help; a cheeky Muggles had already asked her where the fire was.
So, no Apparating in public, she reiterated as she dodged around a group of people. But – I could Apparate if I could get alone someplace. A bathroom? One of those single-occupant ones? She looked around frantically for someplace that looked like it might have a bathroom like that. There – tiny ice cream shop, across the street. She dashed across, forgetting to look out for cars. One braked abruptly, honking.
"Sorry!" she called breathlessly, barreling on, not even pausing as she slammed the door to the shop open with her free hand. She spotted the door to the bathroom and made a beeline for it.
"Ma'am, that bathroom is for customers only!" the girl at the cashier yelled. Elaine stopped and dashed over to the counter.
"What's your favorite flavor?" Elaine asked, trying to catch her breath. Her heart pounded in her ears. She thought she could feel the presence of her pursuer at her back.
"Er…" the cashier girl deliberated. "Mint chocolate chip."
"Have a scoop on me," Elaine said, tossing over a five pound note she had been carrying in her pocket. It was far too much for a single scoop of ice cream, but it was all she had on her – and most witches probably wouldn't even have had that. She was suddenly and acutely grateful for that annoying addiction to the fast-food place's coffee. A minute later, she had the bathroom door locked behind her. A thump against the door told her that she had only just managed to beat her pursuer. She took a deep breath and Apparated home.
"You're home early." Elaine's father leaned against the door to the dining room where she had sat down to examine the portrait.
She tried to smile up at him, but she could feel the corners of her mouth trembling. She had her breath back, but not her composure. "There was an, um, incident at work. Actually," she said, changing her mind, "actually I could use your help. There's been a theft."
Her father took a seat at the table, his lanky form blocking some of the light that streamed through the window. His face in shadow, he folded his hands and asked, "What happened, Elaine? Give me details – I know you're good at those."
Elaine told the whole tale, even including what little she'd seen of the Selwyns. When she was finished, her father stood again. "We should go to the Magical Law Enforcement office now to get a statement filed and someone on the case."
The light had burst back across the portrait when he had stood. The painted lady flinched away and opened her mouth, but no sound came out. Elaine smiled sympathetically. "Poor girl, her spell's worn down." Elaine looked closer. "Funny, the movement should be more jerky, with the spell degraded to that point." Statements and law forgotten as a puzzle presented itself, she cast a magic detection spell. Glowing words appeared midair: Animatio senzasuono.
"One minute, Dad," Elaine said, frowning. This was no animation spell she knew. With a few flicks of her wand she Summoned a piece of paper and a stick of charcoal from her desk. She quickly sketched her father's face, a familiar exercise, and cast the strange animation charm on it. The drawing smiled, and opened its mouth to speak its first hello.
"This is really odd," she said. "The spell didn't degrade, it started out like that. It must have been a really strong spell if it's lasted all this time with no degradation. Unless…" She pointed her wand at the portrait again and spoke another handy detection charm, this one to determine age. "Fifteen months!" she cried. "It's a forgery." She looked up at her father, flabbergasted. "You think I should report that, too?"
Her father sat up straighter. "You said the stolen painting came in a pair with this one?" She nodded. "It's possible, then, that the other portrait is a fake. We won't know for sure till it's recovered, though. Here, time for a visit to the office."
He began to walk towards the fireplace, but Elaine stopped him. "Do you want me to take the painting in?" He nodded. "Then we have to Apparate. This painting's already received a jogging today. I am not subjecting it to another."
Her father laughed. "All right. Outside with us, then. Bring the drawing, too."
Elaine was knocking about in the studio, double-checking that all the remaining portraits were still in their places and sketching lackadaisically, when Barny returned. He had sent her an owl the previous night telling her that he would be back to work that morning and to be sure to come in. Barny looked worn-out but happy, his ginger hair even more mussed than usual, and Elaine couldn't help but smile despite her nervousness.
"Is your dad all right then?" she asked.
Barny grinned widely. "Yep, the Healers at St Mungo's fixed him right up." He plopped down in his desk chair and assumed his usual "teaching" stance, elbows on knees, expression serious. "So how did you fare with the portraits? No mishaps, I trust?"
"Well…" Elaine laughed a little. "One portrait got stolen, and the other one turned out to be a forgery, and that's not even the weird bit." Barny leaned farther forward, his eyebrows climbing up his forehead, and Elaine told the story for what felt like the hundredth time, though she tried to downplay the amount of bouncing the fake portrait had endured.
Barny's eyebrows had only risen higher as the story unfolded, and when she had finished, he leaned back and laughed long and hard. Wiping his eyes, he said, "Well, that was certainly unexpected. When the cat's away, indeed! So did they make sense of it?"
"Mrs. Selwyn's stepson – the one she had the argument with when we went to pick up the portraits – confessed to stealing the originals and replacing them with a couple of fakes his artist friend had made. Apparently the friend came up with the idea, after the stepson complained about his stepmother refusing to let him sell them when he needed the money." Elaine rolled her eyes. "He'd sell their family history to cover gambling debts rather than get a job."
"Was he the one who snuck in here, then?" Barny asked.
"Him and his artist friend. They panicked when they found out Mrs. Selwyn had sent the paintings to us. It was the friend's idea, again. The stepson was the one who stayed behind after they found the first painting." Elaine sighed. "I'm sorry. If they had been real paintings, it would've been really bad that I'd let them get into the studio."
Barny's answer was matter-of-fact. "You're clever enough to spot a well-done fake, which tells me you've got the eye for this and you're using the knowledge you've gained." He raised an eyebrow, and Elaine recognized his slyest "teacher" voice in his next question. "Out of curiosity, how do you think the forger faked the old varnish and grime?"
"Brown varnish and normal grime," Elaine answered. She thought for a second, then added, "Or possibly some kind of pigment on top of the varnish. I'm not sure."
Barny smiled and stood up. "That sounds about right. Now." He rubbed his hands together. "We have a few paintings to pick up today, and I think you can handle one or two of them yourself."
"You mean it?" Elaine asked, gleeful at the prospect.
Apprentice and teacher shared a smile, and then Barny said, "Come on. Clients to smile at, paintings to restore. Chop chop!"