JACQUES PERLY WAS the only private detective Jay Tumbril knew, or was likely to know. A specialist in the recovery of stolen art, frequently the go-between with the thieves on the one side and the owner/museum/insurer on the other, Perly was a cultured and knowledgeable man, far from the grubby trappings associated with the term "private eye."
Tumbril had known Perly slightly for years, since the Feinberg firm had more than once been peripherally involved in the recovery of valuable art stolen from its clients, and now, although Fiona Hemlow could not fairly be described as either «stolen» or "art," Jacques Perly was the man Jay Tumbril thought to turn to when there were Questions to be Asked.
They met at one that Monday afternoon for lunch at the Tre Mafiosi on Park Avenue, a smooth, hushed culinary temple all in white and green and gold, with, this time of year, pink flowers. Perly had arrived first, as he was supposed to, and he rose with a smile and an outstretched hand when Tony the ma^itre d' escorted Jay to the table. A round, stuffed Cornish game hen of a man, Jacques Perly retained a slight hint of his original Parisian accent. A onetime art student, a failed artist, he viewed the world with a benign pessimism, the mournful good humor of a rich unmarried uncle, who expects nothing and accepts everything.
"Nice to see you, Jacques," Jay said, releasing Perly's hand, as Tony seated him and Angelo distributed menus and Kwa Hong Yo brought rolls, butter, and water. "It's been a while."
"Yes, it has. You've been fine?"
Menus were consulted, food and wine were ordered, and then Jay leaned forward over the display plate, made a steeple of his hands over the plate, and leaned back as Kwa Hong Yo removed the plates. He then leaned forward again, made another steeple, rested chin on steeple like golf ball on tee, and said, "In complete confidence."
"Let's see. How do I begin?"
Perly knew better than to offer advice on that score, so after a minute Jay said, "A client of ours, a valued client of some years standing, is a very wealthy woman."
"She was introduced, not by me, to a young woman, a young attorney with the firm." Jay picked up a roll and watched himself turn it over and over, as though searching for a secret door. "The young woman had gone outside the normal channels to force a meeting with this client," he told the roll. "That was against the firm's rules." With a quick glance at Perly, he said, "It would be against most firms' rules."
"I can see the security implications," Perly agreed.
Jay dropped the roll onto its bread plate, a little disappointed in it. "Unfortunately," he said, "I was a bit impetuous. In fact, I fired the young woman in the client's presence."
"Who took the young woman's part," Perly suggested.
"Worse," Jay said. "She hired the young woman as her personal assistant."
Perly considered. "The softer sex," he suggested.
"Possibly," Jay said. "The more willful sex, in any event."
"Speaking of sex," Perly said, now studying his own roll, "is there any chance…?"
"What? No, no! That's not the issue at all!"
Fortunately, the soup arrived at that moment, and when they continued the conversation it was from a slightly different angle. "This young woman," Jay said. "Her manner of forcing herself on the client made me suspicious. What was her motive?"
"To be hired by the client?"
"I don't think so, not at first." Jay shook his head. "I doubt she could have guessed that turn of events in a million years."
"Then what did she have in mind?"
"That's the question," Jay said, fixing Perly with a meaningful stare. "That's the question in a nutshell."
"The question that brings us to this lunch."
"Exactly. What is the young woman's ulterior motive? What, if any, risk is there to my client?"
"Yes, of course. And how long ago did this happen?"
"I fired the young woman in December."
"Ah. In time for Christmas."
"That was not ad rem."
"No, of course not." Perly smiled, man to man. "A pleasantry," he said.
"It happened to be when I learned the facts," Jay said, feeling faintly defensive but firmly strangling the feeling in its crib. "As I say, I acted impetuously."
"And what has happened in the three months since?"
"She — the young woman — is ensconced in my client's apartment — not living there, working there, living somewhere else — and every time I phone my client only to hear that young woman's voice and have to leave a confidential message for my client with her, it gives me a twinge, a sense of foreboding."
"Finally," Jay explained, "it seemed to me I had to act on my instincts, if only to assure myself there was no real… problem here."
Perly nodded. Surreptitiously he looked around for the arrival of the entree while saying, "Just the level of attention and concern I'd expect from you, Jay. But you have no specific fears or doubts in connection with this young woman."
"I know nothing about her," Jay complained. "She filled out the usual applications and took the usual tests. I've brought copies of all that for you."
"She has a decent education, comes so far as I know from a decent family, has no previous link that I can find with my client at all. But it was that client and no other that the young woman went after."
"Wherever there's an action, there is always a motive," Perly said. "What is her motive? That is what you want me to find out."
Perly nodded. "How will I be billing this?"
"To me, at the firm," Jay said. "I'll pass it on to the client's account."
"We are acting on her behalf, after all," Perly agreed. "Even if I don't come up with anything… reprehensible."
"Whatever you come up with," Jay told him, "if it at least answers my question about her reasons, I'll be content. And so will the client."
From within his sleek dark jacket, Perly withdrew a slender black notebook that contained within a strap its own gold pen. Drawing this pen, he said, "I'll need names and addresses and some little details concerning these two ladies."
Seeing Jay hesitate, Perly leaned forward into his arriving main course, smiled, and said, "Confidentiality, Jay. It's considered my greatest virtue."