Read CHAPTER VIII - A Bold Move of Penny Nichols and the Black Imp, free online book, by Joan Clark, on ReadCentral.com.

A few minutes later as she was driving home with her father, Penny repeated to him the conversation which she had overheard between Hanley Cron and Mrs. Dillon. The detective smiled at the slighting reference made by the art critic but looked disturbed when he learned of the luncheon engagement.

“Before she gets through, Mrs. Dillon will have informed everyone that she is taking the necklace to the vault tomorrow,” he said impatiently. “If she ends up by losing the pearls then perhaps she’ll know better next time.”

Mr. Nichols stopped at the police station for a few minutes to leave the revolver and the bullet which he had retrieved from the ballroom wall. When he returned to the car Penny questioned him regarding the holdup men.

“Have they been captured?”

“No,” he replied in disgust, “they got away.”

It was long after midnight when they reached home. Penny would have liked to remain up awhile to discuss the exciting events of the evening but Mr. Nichols was too sleepy to be in a talkative mood. He hurried his daughter off to bed.

“I think I’ll visit Amy Coulter sometime to-day,” Penny remarked the next morning at breakfast. “What I saw last night convinced me that she could have no part in the theft of the painting.”

“The picture in Mrs. Dillon’s possession doesn’t prove anything,” Mr. Nichols replied as he pushed aside his coffee cup. “The painting may be a fake. Or if it’s genuine this girl may have been one of a gang who negotiated the deal with Mrs. Dillon.”

“If you met Amy you’d understand that she isn’t the criminal type, Dad.”

“And just what is the criminal type? Give me a definition.”

Penny threw down her napkin impatiently. “Oh, there’s no use arguing with you! You always win!”

“I’m not suggesting that your friend Amy is a crook,” the detective smiled. “I’m merely trying to teach you to think and not to arrive at conclusions through impulse or emotion.”

After the morning’s work was done, Penny telephoned Susan Altman to tell her about the Dillon party. Susan was not at home so she walked to Amy Coulter’s rooming house where she was admitted by the landlady.

“I’m so glad you came,” Amy cried joyfully as she admitted the girl. “I took your advice and shut myself up here in my castle, but it’s been dreadfully lonesome.”

The young sculptress had been working on a small statue. After Penny had admired it, she covered the figure with a cloth and set it away.

“I’m worried about my Black Imp,” she confessed, offering Penny a chair. “This morning a notice appeared in the paper that all contestants for the Huddleson prize should call within twenty-four hours at the Gage Galleries for their entries. I’m afraid to go for fear I’ll be arrested.”

“It wouldn’t be safe,” Penny agreed, “but if we’re patient for a few days longer I believe the mystery may begin to clear up. In fact, I have an important clue already.”

She then told Amy how she had discovered the Rembrandt in Mrs. Dillon’s library. The girl was overjoyed to learn the news for she felt that the recovery of the painting would exonerate her. However, her face clouded as Penny mentioned that the picture might be a fake.

“If I were certain the picture was stolen from the museum, I’d go directly to the police,” Penny declared, “but until I am sure I must move cautiously.”

“I wish I could see the painting. I feel confident I could tell if it’s a fake.”

“I wish you could examine it,” Penny said, frowning thoughtfully. “Unfortunately, I don’t see how it can be arranged unless ”

“What?” Amy demanded quickly.

“Mrs. Dillon would never permit us to see the painting if she could prevent it. We’d have to get into the house without her knowing it.”

“How could we ever do that?”

“I have an idea, but there would be a certain amount of risk to it. Are you willing to take a chance?”

“If it isn’t too great a one. I couldn’t get into a much worse situation than I am now. The police probably will arrest me upon sight anyway.”

“This is the plan,” Penny explained. “I happen to know that Mrs. Dillon will be away from the house at one o’clock today for she’s lunching with Hanley Cron. While she’s gone we’ll look at the picture.”

“But the servants will be there,” Amy protested.

“I think I can arrange it so they won’t be suspicious. Do you want to try it?”

Amy hesitated only an instant before nodding her head. “I’ve nothing to lose and a great deal to gain,” she said.

Penny glanced at the little ivory clock on the dresser. It was nearly noon. By the time the girls reached Mrs. Dillon’s home the woman should be away.

“It will be wise to go in a taxi, I think,” she remarked. “There should be less danger of anyone recognizing you that way.”

While Amy changed her clothes, Penny went downstairs to call a cab. It came twenty minutes later and the two drove directly to Mrs. Dillon’s residence.

“The coast should be clear,” Penny remarked as they alighted at the door. “It’s a quarter to one but Mrs. Dillon surely is on her way to meet Cron by this time.”

Penny boldly rang the doorbell. Presently a maid answered the summons. Smiling graciously, the girls stepped inside without waiting for an invitation to do so.

“Tell Mrs. Dillon, please, that we have come to see the picture,” Penny directed confidently.

“Mrs. Dillon isn’t in, Miss.”

“Not in?” Penny exclaimed, and turned to Amy in pretended chagrin. “Do you suppose she forgot our appointment?”

“I am afraid so,” Amy murmured.

“Mrs. Dillon went away in a great hurry,” the maid said apologetically. “She didn’t mention that she was expecting guests.”

“She failed to say that she invited us here to view the painting?”

“It was an oversight, of course. Mrs. Dillon will be sorry I know to have missed you. Your names ”

“It will be some time before we can come back I fear,” Penny interrupted quickly. “And we did so want to see the picture. I don’t suppose you could show it to us?”

“I am afraid not. I don’t even know what picture she meant.”

“Oh, the one hanging in the library,” Penny informed. “It would only take us a minute to look at it.”

“Why, I guess I could show you that picture.”

Forgetting that she had neglected to learn the names of the callers, the maid led them to the library. The girls pretended to study the ugly painting which hung over the mantel.

“Is this Mrs. Dillon’s last purchase?” Penny inquired.

“It’s the only picture she’s bought recently.”

The girls shrewdly concluded that the maid was unaware of the hidden panel and were at a loss to know how they could manage to view the Rembrandt.

“I could study a beautiful painting for hours and hours,” Amy remarked, sinking down into a chair opposite the mantel.

“So could I,” Penny agreed, gazing with a rapt expression at the hideous picture. As an apparent afterthought she turned to the maid who stood waiting. “If you don’t mind, we’ll just sit here for a few minutes and admire it.”

“Certainly, Miss. If you’ll excuse me I’ll go on with my dusting.”

The instant the maid had gone from the library, Penny pulled on the silken rope and the hidden panel was revealed. She jerked aside the velvet curtain to disclose the Rembrandt.

“You’ll have to make a quick examination,” she warned. “That maid may come back any minute.”

Amy studied the painting critically. When she did not speak, Penny impatiently asked for her opinion.

“I believe it’s merely a copy of the original, although a rather clever copy. Rembrandt was very skillful in his method of handling light and shade in this picture it is all lost.”

“Then I was right!” Penny cried triumphantly.

“My opinion may not be right, Penny. If I could see the painting in a better light ”

With an anxious glance toward the library door, Penny hastened to the window and pulled aside the heavy draperies. A beam of sunlight fell across the picture.

“Yes, I’m sure it’s a fake,” Amy decided firmly. “If Mrs. Dillon bought this for the original Rembrandt she was cheated.”

“Well, she deserved to be. She shouldn’t have tried to buy stolen property.”

“Let me look on the underside of the canvas,” Amy suggested. “Sometimes that will give a clue as to the age of a painting.”

They pulled the picture out from the wall and peered behind it. Directly in the center of the canvas was a strange, complicated symbol and beneath it the initials, “G. D.” Both had been inscribed in India ink.

“What’s that for?” Penny questioned.

“I wonder myself,” Amy replied.

“Then it isn’t customary to put symbols or initials on the back of a painting?”

“Decidedly not.”

The girls studied the marking for a minute. They could make nothing of it.

“I can’t explain the symbol,” Amy said, “but I’m convinced this painting is a fraud.”

Penny had expected such a verdict as it confirmed her own observations, but for her friend’s sake she was sorry that the painting had not turned out to be the original Rembrandt. Had they actually located the stolen picture it would be a simple matter to lay their evidence before the police and demand that Mrs. Dillon be forced to reveal the dealer from whom she purchased the property.

“Everything is in a queer muddle now,” Penny commented thoughtfully. “Mrs. Dillon really isn’t guilty of any crime at all, for she didn’t buy a stolen picture. We can’t very well cause her arrest.”

“Mrs. Dillon should complain to the police that she was cheated.”

“She doesn’t know it yet,” Penny chuckled. “When she finds out about it, I imagine she’ll never report the dealer. Her own part in the affair would be too humiliating. Even if she didn’t buy stolen property, that was her intention.”

“I suppose the real crooks counted upon just such a reaction,” Amy said. “When they sold her that fake painting they knew they were safe.”

“And in the meantime the genuine Rembrandt is still missing,” Penny replied musingly. “I have a suspicion this dishonest dealer, who sold Mrs. Dillon the fake picture, might be able to throw a little light upon the subject.”

“But how will we ever trace him unless we notify the police?”

“I am afraid that would be a sure way of losing his trail completely,” Penny replied. “Mrs. Dillon’s arrest would be the signal for the dishonest dealer to get out of town.”

“That’s probably true.”

“We must work this thing out cautiously,” Penny declared. “Perhaps if we went to Mrs. Dillon and talked with her ”

She broke off as they heard approaching footsteps in the hall.

“The maid!” Amy whispered.

“Quick!” Penny exclaimed in an undertone. “Help me get this picture back into place before she comes!”