The Night Café
The Night Café
PRAISE FOR THE NOVELS OF TAYLOR SMITH
“Smith, who has been both a diplomat and an intelligence agent, convincingly conveys what life is like on the streets and sands of Iraq in her compelling new thriller.”
—Publishers Weekly on Slim to None
“Smith’s experience as an international diplomat and intelligence analyst lends credibility to this first-rate political thriller…exciting and intelligent.”
—Booklist on Deadly Grace
“The publisher compares Smith to John Grisham…Smith’s a better prose stylist.”
—Publishers Weekly on Random Acts
“Smith’s latest is a graceful, compellingly written thriller…[The] gloriously intricate plot is top-notch.”
—Publishers Weekly on The Innocents Club
“Sharp characterization and a tightly focused time frame…give this intrigue a spell-binding tone of immediacy.”
—Publishers Weekly on The Best of Enemies
Taylor Smith The night Café
This one goes out with love and thanks to The Plot Queen, Linda McFadden—ally, muse and coconspirator. Neither time nor distance can squelch a great friendship.
It’s been a decade and a half (hard to believe) that I’ve been working with the wonderful people of MIRA Books, and I feel as lucky today as I did fifteen years ago when they offered to publish my first book. My deepest thanks to Miranda Stecyk, my editor, with whom it’s a joy to work—and to hang out, on those happy occasions where we find ourselves in the same city.
My family, near and far, is unfailingly supportive. Love and thanks especially to my amazing husband, Richard, and our beautiful, brilliant and all-grown-up daughters (how is that possible?), Anna and Kate.
I am thinking of frankly accepting my role as madman.
—Vincent van Gogh, in a letter to his brother,
Theo, March 24, 1889
Just because I am always bowed down under this difficulty of paying my landlord, I made up my mind to take it gaily. I swore at the said landlord, who after all isn’t a bad fellow, and told him that to revenge myself for paying him so much money for nothing, I would paint the whole of his rotten shanty so as to repay myself.
—Vincent van Gogh
Letter to his brother Theo
Arles, 8 September, 1888
“People remember pain. They’ve done studies. You want to make a point with a person and make it stick, hurt ’em. Works every time.”
Afterward, before she stopped talking altogether, volunteer museum guide Dorrie Schaeffer kept repeating over and over what one of the intruders had said. She was in shock, of course, what the shrinks call posttraumatic stress disorder. But there was disbelief in her quavering voice, too—incredulity at the monstrous callousness of the man.
It wasn’t that Dorrie was naive about the potential for human cruelty. You don’t get through seventy-six years without witnessing some real wickedness. But this brutality at the Arlen Hunter Museum came out of nowhere.
The sun had gone down after a showery New Year’s Day, and Santa Monica Boulevard twinkled under holiday lights still strung on buildings and over the roadway. There’d been long, snaking queues outside the museum since opening, patrons anxious for one last chance to see the Madness & the Masterpiece exhibit, the high point of the Arlen Hunter’s fall season.
When the trouble started, Dorrie should have been far away. The crowds had gone home, the doors were locked. For the next twelve hours, a skeleton security staff would have the treasure to themselves, enjoying the collected masterpieces for a few hours more before the group was split up and the borrowed art returned to its owners.
Dorrie was in the underground parking lot, hurrying to get home to Wuthering Heights on Masterpiece Theatre. But as she was unlocking her car door, she remembered the van Gogh print she’d bought for a niece who was coming by the next day. Her brother’s daughter never failed to remember her birthday or to include her in family holiday celebrations. Knowing how much Renata loved van Gogh, Dorrie had bought her a beautiful lithographic reproduction of The Night Café, signature piece of the Madness & the Masterpiece show. Except, like a nitwit, she’d left it in her locker.
Bemoaning her absentmindedness, she reentered the building, backtracking toward the staff room located off the south gallery. She was in the hall just outside that gallery when she heard a shout. She froze at the sight of two men near the end of the gallery, their backs to her. Bert Fernandez, an old night guard, was on his knees facing her, although the intruders had his full attention. A brutal kick from one of them suddenly sent him sprawling, blood spurting from his mouth.
Luck found Dorrie standing next to an unlocked custodian’s cupboard and fear drove her inside. Her entire body shaking, she watched through a crack between the frame and the door as a third man, black-hooded like the others, rounded the corner from the west hall, shoving another security guard ahead of him.
There was no doubt this last man was in charge. He looked young to Dorrie, his body lithe, yet he seemed to harbor a sense of his own intellectual superiority and to feel a mission to instruct his colleagues on the efficacy of torment to ensure compliance. There was no other explanation for the violence. From what Dorrie could see, neither security guard offered any real resistance.
“People remember pain,” the leader said. “A bullet to the brain shuts ’em up, of course, but what if you need a pass code or something later? Bloody corpse on the floor’s not gonna do you much good.”
And so they used fists that flashed with metallic gleam—brass knuckles. Dorrie watched, stunned and terrified by the casual brutality. The younger guard, just a boy, really, tried to protest, but the leader swung a short wooden bat and the lad’s knee shattered like a teacup. Dorrie clamped her hands over her mouth as he crumpled, screaming, to the floor. Bert tried to drag himself over to help him and was rewarded with an equally vicious clout with the stick.
The leader bent down next to Bert, murmuring in a voice too quiet for Dorrie to hear. The old guard raised a shaking hand and pointed around the corner.
“Wait here,” the leader told one of the others. “If they move, shoot them.” He cocked a thumb at the other intruder and the two disappeared into the east wing.
Dorrie’s body shook like a thing possessed. The young security guards lay on the marble-tiled floor, crying and writhing with pain, his arms wrapped around his battered leg, while old Bert, face bloodied and swollen, glared at the thug standing guard over them.
Time seemed to stand still. Later, Dorrie couldn’t say how long it took until the other two thieves returned carrying the one item they had obviously come for—the van Gogh.
As the guidebook for Madness & the Masterpiece reminded visitors, Plato had called creativity “divine madness, a gift from the gods.” Psychobabble in the accompanying text discussed how great angst fed the vision needed to produce great art.
That “gift from the gods” was a mixed blessing, Dorrie had told her “goslings,” the chattering patrons who pattered along behind on her guided tours of the galleries. The celebrated artists represented in the show—Jackson Pollock, William Blake, Edvard Munch, Georgia O’Keeffe and a dozen or so others—had all suffered from severe, debilitating depression or other psychological disabilities. And Vincent van Gogh, of course. No exhibit linking art, anguish and madness could possible ignore the gaunt, ear-slashed Dutchman. Most of these artists, Dorrie told the goslings, had been institutionalized at some point in their lives. Several, like Vincent, had committed suicide.
It was Vincent’s The Night Café that was featured on posters and banners promoting the exhibit. The painting showed a nighttime scene in a harshly lit bar peopled by bereft-looking patrons who seemed to have nowhere else to go. Vincent had lived over the café during his time in the south of France, when his psyche finally began to unravel. Not long after creating this piece, he sliced off a piece of his ear and presented it to a prostitute.
The thieves’ leader wrapped the painting in a sheet now, knotting the corners. Then he turned to his men.
“Okay, we’re done here now. Finish them.”
Dorrie watched, horrified, as one of the men fired into the head of the old security guard. The explosion echoed through the marble halls and Bert crumpled in a pool of blood. The other intruder hesitated long enough for the boy to start scrabbling away, dragging his bloody leg across the floor. The leader snapped a command. Then, eyes flashing contempt, he grabbed the gun, strode over to the boy and took him out with a quick tap of the trigger.
Tears coursing down her cheeks, Dorrie watched the intruders stroll out toward the lobby. A moment later she heard the opening and closing of the stairwell door leading down to the parking lot.
Then there was only silence.
“People remember pain.”
Afterward, the police kept pressing Dorrie to remember more. Some tiny detail, they said, could be the key to bringing the security guards’ killer to justice. Try, they insisted. But Dorrie didn’t want to remember. She wanted to forget it, all of it.
Eventually she stopped answering their questions. Clammed up when the LAPD Robbery/Homicide detective in charge of the investigation pressed her for more details. Refused to speak to the gray-suited agents from the FBI’s art theft division who showed up at her door. Even snapped at the kindhearted elderly neighbor who stopped by her home to ask how she was doing.
God, how Dorrie wanted them all to just go away. She became detached and unapproachable. Her sister in Minneapolis said she stopped returning phone calls. Her L.A.-based niece left reluctantly on a business trip, determined to call in professional help if her aunt didn’t seem any better by the time she got back.
Except by then it was too late.
The manager at the local Vons supermarket down the road from the seniors complex where Dorrie lived said she started phoning in her meager food orders. The delivery boy said she left her payment in an envelope under the doormat and made him leave the bags on the threshold. The only time she scuttled outside was to snatch the mail when it started overflowing her curbside box. A neighbor who saw her out there one day reported that Dorrie’s tidy brown helmet of curls had grown lank, frizzled and gray at the roots. Her normally pin-neat clothes hung rumpled and loose on a frame that seemed to have turned spindly and frail overnight.
One day the postal carrier found bills and junk mail spilling out of her box. When he knocked on her front door, he hoped she’d simply forgotten to arrange a vacation hold, but the dread in his gut told a different story. When no one answered, instinct made him call the police.
It was the cops’ experienced noses that picked up the faint, sweet odor seeping from the cracks around the barred doors and windows. Hearts heavy, dreading what they knew they were going to find, they jimmied the locks, ripped the chain bolt from the wall and broke in.
Dorrie Schaeffer had been dead about a week. Sleeping pills, the medical examiner’s report said. She’d swallowed enough to euthanize a horse.
People remember pain…
Dorrie Schaeffer had remembered. And like Vincent, when the agony became too much to bear, she had put an end to her suffering.
Orange County, California
Sunday, April 16
Hannah Nicks, loser. Black sheep. She whose bizarre line of work is not really suitable dinner-table conversation.
The accusations ran on a loop through Hannah’s brain during these family get-togethers. How could anyone not feel inadequate faced with the perfection that was her sister Nora?
Sliding onto a tall stool, Hannah tucked her unruly dark hair behind her ears and helped herself to a homemade scone from the linen-lined basket on the kitchen island.
The island was a granite oasis in a sea of domestic perfection. Nora’s home in the upscale seafront community of Corona del Mar was right out of Architectural Digest. Her kitchen was a Tuscan-inspired designer’s vision of terra-cotta and honey tones, run through with a grapevine motif. Outside the mullioned French doors that covered the entire west side of the house, the view was of tented gazebo, patio and pool, the blue-gray Pacific Ocean beyond stretching to the horizon.
Selecting a jar from a carousel in front of her, Hannah spread preserves on the scone. She took a bite, then leaned back and sighed over the warm, flaky pastry. “Oh, Lord, these are bliss.”
Nora, standing on the other side of the island, looked over and smiled. “Those are the last of the raspberries the kids and I picked at the cottage last summer.” Her husband’s family had a three-thousand-square-foot post-and-beam house in Ogunquit, Maine, where the California Quinns spent part of each summer. It was a “cottage” like the Hope Diamond was a bauble.
Hannah’s travel destinations tended to be war zones, where accommodations were spartan, at best. Her own home, a condominium in the Silver Lake neighborhood of Los Angeles, was a replacement for the only house she’d ever owned—well, not owned, exactly, given the size of the mortgage, but it had been a real house, an old Craftsman bungalow in Los Feliz. Her ex had signed the property over to her in the divorce but sadly, before she got around to renovating the place, it had been blown up by Russian gangsters intent on her demise.
In addition to a condo and a broken marriage, Hannah was the proud possessor of a son she saw only intermittently and a bank balance that constantly hovered near the red zone. She, needless to say, was not the daughter their mom bragged about to the other white-haired ladies in her Tuesday-Thursday Aquasize classes. Nora, oldest child of immigrant parents, was the American Dream personified. For Hannah, a major achievement would be getting through a week without being shot at, maimed or killed.
She spooned another dollop of raspberry jam onto the scone. “Can I just say for the record that these are going to be the death of me?” She popped it into her mouth. “Want me to slather one for you?” she mumbled.
“No, I’m good. Thanks so much for that view, though.”
Hannah opened wide. “Bwah-ha-ha.”
Nora rolled her eyes. “Very mature.”
Hannah grinned. She couldn’t help it. Put her in a room with Nora and she was ten all over again.
On first encounter, Nora was often mistaken for Hannah’s better-groomed twin. No one ever guessed that dark-eyed, glossy-haired Nora was a dozen years older than the misfit baby of the Demetrious clan. Of course, in affluent Orange County, the trickery of Botox and the surgeon’s knife kept a lot of women looking preternaturally young. In Nora’s case, though, the only magician at work was Mother Nature herself. At forty-two, she was an elegant beauty, grace personified. She knew the names of china patterns, the art of Japanese flower arranging and how to put together a gourmet dinner for twenty on a few hours’ notice.
Hannah knew aliases and suspected hideouts for a dozen of the world’s worst terrorists, the art of covert message drops, and how to dismantle and reassemble an M-16 assault rifle in sixty seconds flat. Nora invariably put others at ease. Hannah, who leapt into high alert at the snick of every opening door and scrutinized every stranger for signs of lethal intent, didn’t even know how to put herself at ease.
As if grace, brains and beauty weren’t enough, there was also Nora’s gorgeous, castlelike home overlooking the Pacific Ocean, her doting, successful husband, Neal, and their two picture-perfect kids, Nolan and Natalie. (Nora, Neal, Nolan, Natalie—they were big on alliteration, the Quinns. Even the dogs, golden retrievers with sleek Lady Clairol coats, were called Nugget and Noodle.) Nora’s entire, flawless life was a page out of frigging Martha Stewart Living.
Hannah, at thirty, was on her own but already on her second career, one she’d taken up after eight years as an L.A. cop. Switching from police work to the world of private security contractors was supposed to have been a lucrative career move, one she’d hoped would put her in a better financial position to regain custody of her son from her wealthy ex and his current squeeze. It hadn’t worked out that way.
She finished her scone, then glanced down and froze. On her wrist, a red drop glistened under the glow of the pendant lights hanging over the island. Hannah could almost feel the pain of the gash, even though her rational mind said it was just a dollop of raspberry. Her memory flashed on gunfire in a dark desert night. On a young man’s bleeding head cradled in her lap. On his life slipping away before her eyes.
“Here, use this.” Nora reached across the island.
Startled by the sudden movement, Hannah shoved back, the legs of her bar stool screeching on the travertine floor.
“Hannah?” Nora’s brow creased with the worried look she often took on when her baby sister was around. She indicated the blue gingham napkin in her hand. “It’s okay. I was just trying to help.”
Hannah gave her best Alfred E. Neuman dopey grin. Bringing her wrist to her lips, she licked away the sweet drop of jam, but when Nora sighed, she relented and took the napkin, dutifully blotting her wrist dry. She might have resented the fact that Nora still treated her like the awkward child she used to be, except she knew her sister couldn’t help feeling the heavy responsibility of serving as maternal figure in Hannah’s life.
They had an actual mother, mind you. Ida Demetrious—“Nana” to her three grandchildren—was snapping green beans over at Nora’s antique pine trestle table this very minute. Nevertheless, Nora had been overheard on more than one occasion to say she’d “raised Hannah.” Not altogether accurate. Not something you’d think she’d want to brag about, either, all things considered.
It was true that at seventeen, Hannah had been sent from Chicago to live with the Quinns in Orange County. It was about the time that their father, Takis Demetrious, began showing signs of the Alzheimer’s that would eventually strip him of his mind, his great physical strength and finally his life. Poor Nana. A sick husband and a rebellious teenage daughter were a tough hand to be dealt, especially when she was also trying to keep their import company afloat in those early days when Takis’s intermittent confusion, intransigence and paranoia were threatening to run the family’s once-thriving company into the ground. Something had to give and, in the end, that something was Hannah.
Nora’s kids had been four and seven at the time. Hannah could give Nora a hand, the thinking went, and maybe if she escaped Takis’s unpredictable rages, she might be less inclined to act out. But she arrived at Newport Beach High School carrying a lumber-sized chip on her shoulder. That, and shyness that came across as aloofness, pretty much guaranteed her the caption of “Most Inscrutable” in her senior yearbook photo. She hadn’t set out to be antisocial, but even the Porsches and BMWs in the student parking lot seemed to be sneering at the hopelessly uncool Midwestern import with the wild hair and the uneasy dark eyes. She stayed with Neal and Nora for two years before moving into a dorm at UCLA. By February of her freshman year, she was pregnant. She dropped out of college and went to work as an L.A. Sheriff’s Department dispatcher so that her hastily married hubby could finish law school.
Pathetic—which only made Hannah wonder why Nora would take the rap for raising her.
Home on spring break from Stanford, Nolan galloped into the sprawling kitchen, his surfboard-scaled flip-flops slapping the floor. Close behind came ten-year-old Gabe, grinning as he aped his big cousin’s galumphing stride.
“Last one in is a horse’s…um—” Nolan paused, glancing at his mom “—patootie!”
Hannah raised a hand, traffic-cop style. “Hold it! Gabriel Nicks, don’t even think of going out there before I get sunscreen on you.”
The boys’ bodies were winter-pale but spring in Southern California meant the beginning of pool season, and this particular Sunday had turned out to be a scorcher. The thermometer on the blue-and-white striped cabana outside hovered in the mid-eighties. Neal was out there in shorts and T-shirt, stretched on one of the plush chaise longues, working the Sunday crossword, while Natalie was at the beach with a friend. With the pool heated to a balmy eighty-eight degrees, even the adults might venture in, if only for a toe-dabble.
Gabe moaned. “Ah, Mom, it’s only April. I’m not gonna burn. Besides, I’m tough like you. I can handle anything.”
Hannah couldn’t miss the exchange of another of those “what are we going to do about Hannah?” looks between Nora and their mother. Hers wasn’t the sort of family where fearlessness in dark alleys was considered a desirable trait.
“Ultraviolet rays don’t read calendars,” she said, restraining her wriggling son with one hand while she snagged the sunscreen off the kitchen counter with her other.
“Yeah, that’s a fact, bro,” Nolan said, turning back.
Gabe immediately stopped squirming. His mother might be a worrywart, but if Nolan, bless his heart, said something was so, then it was gospel.
“You slather up, too,” Nora said over her shoulder.
The two boys exchanged eye-rolling grins, but Nolan took the plastic squeeze bottle from Hannah and went to work on himself.
At the granite island, Nora went back to spreading phyllo dough for the baklava she was preparing for dessert. Sunday dinners were a big deal at the Quinns’. Today, they would be eight—Nora and her gang; Hannah and Gabe; Nana Demetrious, who’d moved out to Orange County after Takis died; plus Nora’s former college roommate. That wasn’t many. Nora often fed what seemed like half the lonely hearts in Southern California, including single guys invited for the express purpose of meeting her unattached sister—and didn’t Hannah just love being set up like that without her knowledge? Would there ever come a day when she would no longer be the official family fix-it project?
Prague, the Czech Republic
The straight razor gleamed in the morning sun as it passed it back and forth, back and forth over the brown leather strop hooked to a towel ring embedded in one of the blue-and-white ceramic wall tiles. Former Detective Superintendent William Teagarden of Scotland Yard always fell into a reverie as he went about his morning toilette. What he liked about the straight razor was that its handling couldn’t be rushed. The slow rhythm of the archaic shaving routine—blade on strop, brush in bowl, steel on whiskers—forced him to slow his pace, order his mind and think.
He was deep in thought now. Setting the razor on the lip of the white porcelain hotel room sink, he took up the soap bowl and swirled his shaving brush round and round, each circuit of the bristles whispering the same refrain: Where, where, where was the bloody van Gogh?
The straight razor and boar bristle brush were old-fashioned things, but they were appropriate accessories for a man with such tall military bearing and a handle-bar mustache straight out of the days of Empire. Teagarden had spent thirty years as an officer of London’s Metropolitan Police, the last six and a half as head of the Yard’s Arts and Antiquities Unit. He’d been raised in Manchester, the only child of a decent but rough-about-the-edges mill worker father and a beautiful, cultured mother whose family had withdrawn after she married down. She had been stoic about her reduced circumstances, living on a drab council estate, never an extra shilling for travel or pretty things, but she had engendered in her son a love of music and art, taking him to every free gallery, concert and museum she could, exposing him to library books that described the wonders of the world. Little surprise, then, that given the opportunity to help recover some of the multimillions of pounds’ worth of art stolen annually, Teagarden had jumped at the chance.
As he soaped his cheeks, chin and neck, his memory skimmed the lists of stolen art documented in the British Art Loss Register and the New York–based IFAR, the International Foundation for Art Research. The number of masters alone sickened him—nearly three hundred Picassos, a couple of hundred Miros and Chagalls. Several Rembrandts. Manet, Munch, Vermeer, da Vinci, Goya—the list went on and on. And of course, there was the van Gogh.
Heading up the Arts Unit had not only capped his career at the Met, it had been his crowning achievement and the job of his dreams. He could happily have labored at it until his dying day, had he not been forced into retirement by bureaucrats. “Medically unfit for duty” after his second heart attack, they said, but that was bunk. The commander to whom he reported had been looking for a pretext to get rid of him. A diminutive micromanager with delusions of brilliance, the commander had transferred in from borough operations with a chip on his shoulder and lofty ambitions, and God help anyone he perceived as a threat to his aspirations. It had been annoying enough that Teagarden was impervious to his bullying management style, but the last straw had been a splashy Daily Mirror spread on the work of the Arts Unit, complete with of full color photos of Teagarden and some of the works he’d recovered—da Vinci’s priceless Virgin of the Rocks, a Brancusi sculpture, one of Degas’s ballerinas. “Unseemly,” the commander had sniffed. Of course, he never objected to any press piece that included a quote from him or a picture of his ugly mug, even in a rag like the Mirror.
Teagarden took up the razor and set to work on his face. He hadn’t given a damn about the press, but every time one of those puff pieces appeared, hits on the unit’s Web site had skyrocketed, as did tips from the public. No matter. Not long after the Mirror piece, the commander had ordered Teagarden to submit to a medical, then seized on the results to quote departmental policy at him and hustle him out the door. Within three months, the unit was downsized and swallowed whole by another section—a “redeployment of resources to higher priority tasks.”
It was a travesty, sidelining a specialist at the peak of his operational effectiveness, but Teagarden’s dismay had been short-lived. There were plenty of deep-pocketed private patrons who would pay extremely well, thank you very much, for the same investigative work that had netted him nothing more than a civil servant’s meager pension and a flipping here’s your hat, what’s your hurry shove out the door from the Met. He’d solved hard-to-crack cases during his tenure there and that reputation had served him in good stead, oiling hinges and opening doors at Interpol, the FBI and other international police agencies. They even referred clients to him when their own investigative resources were constrained. That was how Yale University, owners of The Night Café, had made contact. Teagarden had been on the trail of the painting since forty-eight hours after its New Year’s Day theft from the Arlen Hunter Museum.
These thefts were almost never carried out for the love of art. Faced with the possibility of discovery or arrest, thieves were more likely to destroy a painting than let it survive as evidence. With every day that passed, the risk grew exponentially that the fragile old canvas would be gravely damaged or lost forever.
The police in Los Angeles had been rather less welcoming, focused as they were on the murders that had accompanied the burglary. Teagarden, too, was appalled at the human tragedy, but as he tried to point out to the homicide detectives, the only way to find the killers was to learn who might have sought one masterpiece alone among the dozens that had been on view during the Madness & the Masterpiece exhibit.
Previous cases had taught him that the culprits often turned out to be petty thieves. Occasio facit furem—opportunity makes the thief, like a vagabond stealing laundry off a garden line. That was why so much stolen art was never recovered. As soon as the clothesliners felt the law breathing down their necks, they got rid of it. One thief’s mother, hoping to keep her precious boy out of prison, had actually taken her kitchen shears to dozens of the priceless masterworks her little bastard had nicked, and chucked several others into a nearby canal. It turned his stomach to remember the torn, water-damaged, charred and vermin-gnawed masterworks he’d seen.
The business of art theft had changed, however. In the past, a thief might hope to turn a quick profit through a ransom demand, but that was fraught with risk of capture. Finding a buyer these days was no easy matter, either. Recognizable works were impossible to sell to reputable collectors or dealers, even for pennies on the pound. In the old days, even if a buyer suspected a shaky provenance, he need only claim ignorance and wait out the clock. Once the legal statute of limitations had run out—five, seven, ten years, depending on the jurisdiction—thief and buyer alike were home free, and a lucrative payday might be worth the wait.
But these days, there was no pleading ignorance—not in an Internet age when the alarm was sounded far and wide for art gone walkabout. Many nations had also imposed stark penalties on trafficking in stolen work, and the publicity surrounding colonial plundering of antiquities and theft from Holocaust victims put intense pressure on buyers to err on the side of caution. When a California Getty Museum director went on trial in Italy for purchasing stolen antiquities, her ordeal did more than anything else to put the fear of the gods into buyers around the world.
So, Teagarden mused, if not for resale to some reclusive billionaire aficionado or corrupt broker, who else would be in the market for a sixty-million-dollar van Gogh? There was only one other likely scenario—someone wanted to use it as collateral for another business transaction. The drug trade, gunrunning, human smuggling and fraud were all interrelated, and a painting like The Night Café, more compact than a comparable amount of cash, could serve as useful security until funds could actually change hands on a shipment. The masterpiece as currency.
He scrutinized his face in the mirror, looking for spots he might have missed, but his mind was on the security tapes he’d studied at the Arlen Hunter. There was nothing opportunistic about that burglary. It had taken just under twelve minutes from start to finish. A review of the museum’s security setup had left no doubt in his mind that the theft had been carefully planned, possibly with inside help.
How could a world-class gallery have made so many blunders with hundreds of millions in borrowed art at risk? The curator of the exhibit had assured the paintings’ owners that the security system was top-notch. Closed-circuit cameras. Multiple vibration sensors behind each painting. Saturation motion detection. Environmental sensors to pick up minute temperature changes, such as those that might accompany fire, smoke or the touch of a human hand.
The ugly truth was that some of the systems weren’t yet fully functional on the night of the theft. Everything was supposed to have been in place before Madness & the Masterpiece opened, but what Teagarden learned was that the Arlen Hunter’s budget for security was so bled dry by other demands that equipment orders constantly lagged. Delivery delays had meant that some crucial pieces of the system hadn’t yet arrived. Overhead bubble covers should have concealed brand-new, 360-degree observation lenses, but the digital cameras and recording equipment were still on a dock in the port of Long Beach the night of the theft. There was an older existing closed-circuit camera system in use, connected via the Internet to the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department robbery unit, but that link proved to be a major vulnerability. The thieves had hacked the feed weeks earlier, downloading and recording the video. While the theft was going on, both the internal recording equipment and the external feed were being fed recycled footage. When it was analyzed later, it would be obvious that three of the four security guards seen patrolling on the tape were nowhere near the place on January first. Equally frustrating was that the thieves had managed to erase at least two other sections of the surveillance video, periods that would no doubt have shown them inside the museum, casing the security arrangements.
What a cock-up, Teagarden thought disgustedly, rinsing the razor under hot water and patting his face dry. He took up a small comb and smoothed down his dark mustache, then passed the comb over his thinning steel-gray hair. His eyes, coal-black under heavy eyebrows, flashed annoyance and energy; the former for the botched security that had allowed the painting to be taken, the latter for the thrill of the hunt.
He had little doubt that the theft was a professional operation carried out for strategic purposes that had little to do with art and everything to do with an illegal transaction that required collateral of the magnitude of a stolen van Gogh. There were only so many people involved in deals of this sort, and an even smaller number of subcontractors to whom they could turn to nail down the collateral. Teagarden, in fact, deemed only two or three people capable of the Arlen Hunter job.
Of those, one could be eliminated at once, since he was currently residing in Buckinghamshire, a guest of Her Majesty’s Woodhill Prison, thanks to Teagarden’s own efforts. Another was reported to be in Thailand, but when Teagarden tracked him down there, he learned he’d been knifed in a brothel two weeks before the heist in Los Angeles. Teagarden had visited the man in Phuket, where he was still recuperating. One look at his haggard appearance and the colostomy bag hanging from his belt convinced Teagarden that this fellow’s thieving days were probably over.
It was on his way back to Bangkok airport that Teagarden had decided on a side trip to Prague to look in on another old nemesis.
Teagarden and Shawn Britten eyed each other over a round, zinc-topped café table as they waited for the espressos they’d ordered to be delivered. Britten’s black hair was buzzed short as it had been in his time in the Royal Marines, but the look blended well among the close-cropped heads in the sidewalk cafés of Prague’s Old Town. His three-day stubble was likewise par for the course in a coffee bar frequented by young Western tourists and the edgy shop and gallery crowd.
Britten was in his mid-thirties. He’d seen action in the first Gulf War, and that was where he’d developed his taste for art. Beautiful artifacts often fell into one’s lap in the confusion of war and a smart man learned quickly what was valuable and what was dreck. There was little profit in fencing the latter, but for Britten, the arts became more than a means to earn some ready cash over and above his military stipend. It was, by now, something of a passion.
In addition to his on-the-job training in Middle Eastern artifacts, he soon became a self-taught expert on the Impressionist and Art Nouveau periods. After being demobbed from the Royal Marines, he’d gone independent, working his way up the food chain from estate silver robberies to consignment thefts of high-end art and jewelry. One day, Teagarden suspected, when Britten had built his personal fortune, he might become a collector in his own right—if he lived that long. The kinds of clients who employed contractors with his skills tended to be a difficult lot.
In the meantime, he was one of a very small group of operatives to whom they could turn when rare and valuable objects needed liberating. Jobs like this took finesse. Hire a Philistine and your objet d’art could end up irreparably damaged or destroyed. Then where would you be? Neither history nor the gods smiled on those who despoiled priceless works of art. For that, at least, Teagarden appreciated the man’s professionalism.
The two had crossed paths numerous times, but Britten was both clever and conservative in his style of operation, outwardly maintaining the fiction of working as a freelance appraiser and restorer of minor works. Although suspected of several heists, he had been able to dodge prosecution so far. That said, it was a couple of years since he’d dared set foot back in the United Kingdom. With Teagarden, at least, he no longer bothered with much pretense about the real craft that financed his relatively comfortable lifestyle.
A waiter deposited two demitasses on the table. “Can I get you something else, gentlemen?”
His English was accented but impeccable, Teagarden noted. Like most young Czechs, he would have no memory of his country’s dreary days of membership in the old Soviet bloc. English was the language of commerce in the republic now, and the place was already flooded with young backpackers from western Europe, Australia and America. Group excursions were beginning to show up, too, more timid travelers who preferred to follow backward-walking guides holding neon flags aloft.
“I’d take one of those croissants I spotted in the case, mate, thanks much,” Britten said, adding to Teagarden, “long as you’re picking up the tab.”
“Nothing for me,” Teagarden told the waiter.
“So,” Britten said, leaning back in his chair, “still working freelance, are you, Detective Superintendent?”
Teagarden nodded. He took a tentative sip of the steaming coffee, winced and set the demitasse down to cool.
“What can I do for you?” Britten asked.
“I’m looking for a missing van Gogh,” Teagarden told him. “Naturally, I thought of you.”
“I’m flattered, mate, but I prefer not to mess with the Yanks.”
“So you know which van Gogh I’m talking about?”
“Oh, it sounds like your kind of case, Superintendent. Don’t know what those sods were thinking, mind. They’ve got The Terminator for guv’nor over there in California. Old Arnold’ll stick a needle in your arm soon as look at you.”
“So you know about the murders at the Arlen Hunter, too.”
“I heard something about it, yeah.” Britten glanced up at the waiter, who’d returned with his croissant. “Cheers.”
“What did you hear?” Teagarden pressed.
Britten watched the waiter walk away, then shrugged as he bit into the pastry. “Heard about a security equipment fiasco—some of the equipment not installed, video feeds compromised. Bloody cock-up.”
“That information about the video, that wasn’t reported in the press. So how do you know about it?”
Britten shrugged. “Just because it’s not my work doesn’t mean I don’t take a professional interest. Really makes you think, you know?”
“Well, it’s harder to nick a shirt worth ten quid from Marks & Spencer than a painting worth millions. I mean, even Marks & Sparks have got their merchandise sensors, their plainclothes floorwalkers, their CCTV cameras. When it comes to shoplifting, they mean business—pardon the pun. But your average museum? Pitiful. Minimum wage rent-a-dicks, elderly docents. Scarcely a bit of high-tech equipment to be found.”
Teagarden nodded. “That’s true. But it’s the high-profile exhibits that generate ticket sales, so that’s where most of the money goes.” Even world-class establishments like the Metropolitan Museum of Art or the Louvre were more vulnerable than they liked to admit.
“That’s what I’m saying. Security’s always the poor cousin to your revenue-generating bling.” Britten shook his head ruefully, like he wasn’t one of those very thieves who took advantage of those security weaknesses. “Mind you, doing the job on New Year’s Day, that wasn’t too daft. Always a good chance half the staff will have come down with cheap champagne flu. And them that are left—well, they’re tired, aren’t they? It’s closing time and the last day of the exhibit, too, so everybody’s guard is down. Prime time to act. You put a team together, get in and out fast, and Bob’s yer uncle.”
Teagarden raised a brow. “But you say it wasn’t you.”
“Give me some credit, mate. Just because Her Majesty trained me in the deadly arts doesn’t mean I’m going to use them against civilians.”
“So who do you reckon it was? One professional to another,” Teagarden added.
“Oh, well, I don’t like to rat out a colleague, even if he is the competition.”
“Hardly a colleague, I would think. As you say, it was a very messily executed job—literally, given the body count. Not very flattering professional company to be keeping.”
“That’s very true. Gives everyone a bad name.”
“On the other hand, who knows? Maybe that’s what passes for professionalism these days.”
“More efficient, I suppose. Eliminate all the witnesses.”
“Nothing efficient about pulling down that much heat,” Britten sniffed. “Only a rank amateur or a psycho uses that much brute force when he doesn’t have to. And he didn’t have to, did he, given that the museum practically sent out engraved invitations asking to be taken down, the way they mucked up security.”
“Yeah, but this ringleader, whoever he was, showed some restraint, didn’t he? After all, he only took the one painting.”
“Self-restraint!” Britten snorted. “That wasn’t his idea. That was a direct order from the client—take The Night Café and nothing more. You don’t argue with orders like that, not when they come from that client.”
“So you do know who did the job—and who gave the orders. Did the client come to you?”
Britten shrugged. “Might have.”
“And? You couldn’t handle it?”
“Couldn’t handle it? Not bloody likely. A trained monkey could have done that job.”
“Yet you turned it down.”
Britten drummed his fingers on the table.
“Why?” Teagarden pressed.
“Look, mate, you and I have had our differences in the past, yeah? But we’ve got two things in common.” Britten held up the first two fingers of his left hand, then pulled them down one after the other. “A, we both love beautiful paintings, and B, we’ve both done honorable service for Her Majesty’s Government. Here’s the deal—nicking that painting had precisely nothing to do with the client’s love of art. And I spent the Gulf War dodging bullets from guns this bloke sold to Saddam Hussein. So, thanks all the same, no, I did not care to take the man up on his offer.”
“So who was the client? And who told him ‘yes’ after you said ‘no’?”
Britten exhaled sharply. Then, signaling to the waiter for another espresso, he settled in resignedly for a long chat.
Teagarden, to be sociable, did the same. It would appear, he thought, that there was honor amongst thieves after all.
Orange County, California
“Gabe, no more snacking. You’ll spoil your dinner.”
Hannah snatched the last of the nachos away from the poised hand of her son and carried them from the patio into the house. The western sun, low over the ocean, was making rainbows on the walls of Nora’s kitchen. For the past couple of hours, the boys—one compact, the other tall and rangy—had climbed out of the water every twenty minutes or so, water streaming off their bodies. Splattering over to the patio table, they’d practically inhaled the fruits and crackers, cheeses and nachos that Nora had set out for them to snack on while Sunday’s beef dinner roasted in the oven.
By now everyone was ravenous. The table was set, the salad made, the oven turned off and the veggies ready for steaming, but Rebecca Powell, Nora’s college roommate, was late.
Hannah scraped the nachos into the garbage disposal, then rinsed the platter and slotted it into the dishwasher. Nora was at the long trestle table in the kitchen, folding starched linen napkins into swan shapes. Their mother, just down from napping upstairs, was putzing around the room, looking for something to clean or polish. Hannah watched her mother’s slightly frenzied hunt. It was pathological. The woman would probably end up ironing the sheets on her own deathbed.
“Ma, come and sit down.”
Instead, Nana picked up a dish towel and polished the taps and faucet at the sink until they gleamed.
Hannah sighed and turned back to her sister. “Could Rebecca have forgotten the invitation?”
Nora shook her head. “I was just talking to her last night. She won’t have forgotten. She’s probably stuck in traffic.”
“She still living in Malibu?”
“No. The gallery’s still there, but she moved into an apartment in Westwood.”
“I thought she was getting the house in the divorce.”
“Bill reneged. He got himself some shark of a lawyer and the lines suddenly shifted. I’m not sure exactly how he managed it, but poor Becs is fighting for her life here.”
“You think the shark dug up something on her? Like, maybe she had an affair, too?”
Nora’s shoulders lifted in a sad shrug. “I really don’t know. Becs hasn’t volunteered and I don’t like to ask. She’s pretty wrung out these days.”
“It’s a blessing she and her husband didn’t have children,” Hannah’s mother said. She’d moved on to wiping the brown speckled counter, even though it was already sparkling. If Rebecca didn’t show up soon, she was going to wear a groove in the granite. Hannah could sympathize. She’d inherited her mother’s restlessness, although in her case, it rarely manifested itself in an urge to clean.
“I suppose,” Nora said.
Nana’s head gave a sad shake. “Divorce is so hard on children.”
Hannah’s gaze dropped to her hands and she tried to ignore the stab in her solar plexus. Her mother wasn’t trying to make her feel crummy about her own messy divorce and lost custody struggle, she knew, but the comment stung just the same.
“Anyway,” Nora added, “I know she hasn’t forgotten about today because she asked last night if you were going to be here.”
Hannah glanced at their mother, then back at Nora. “Who, me? Why?”
“Something about a job.”
“What would she need a security contractor for? Guarding overpriced seascapes?”
Hannah had gone with Nora one time to Rebecca Powell’s Malibu art gallery. The place specialized in the kind of idealized, light-dappled images of coastal California, conveniently sofa-sized, that tourists seemed to favor.
“I don’t know why she needs your services, but here she comes.” Sure enough, through the big, multipaned window next to her sister, Hannah saw a bright red BMW convertible roaring up the driveway. Nora set aside the last in her flock of linen swans and got to her feet. “You can ask her yourself.”
It was courier work, it seemed.
Rebecca didn’t broach the subject until well after dinner. Neal and the boys were in the den, watching a football game, and Nora and Nana were loading the dishwasher. When they brushed off all offers of help, Hannah and Rebecca escaped the warm kitchen and took their coffee out onto the softly lit, tented gazebo on the patio.
“It’s for a client,” Rebecca said, after explaining what she needed from Hannah.
She smoothed her cream linen slacks and crossed her dainty, espadrille-clad feet at the ankles before lifting her china cup to her lips. Rebecca was one of those L.A. women whose voluptuous breasts didn’t seem to belong to her stick-thin body, like she’d ordered them from some mammary mail-order house—Boobs ’R Us. At least she’d avoided the clichéd long blond tresses, opting instead for short, ketchup-red spikes that made her look more arty than bimbo-esque.
“My client ordered a painting and he wants it delivered to his vacation home in Mexico.”
“He never heard of FedEx or UPS?”
“It’s a fairly expensive piece so he wants it hand-carried. A painting by August Koon.”
Hannah shrugged. “Never heard of him.”
Rebecca leaned forward to settle her coffee cup in its saucer on the patio table. As she did, her dangly silver earrings tinkled and a silver charm necklace swayed in the cleft of her ample breasts. Hannah’s personal inclinations left her lusting after manly biceps, not bosoms, but it was hard not to be distracted by that much cleavage. At dinner, she’d caught Nolan’s and even ten-year-old Gabe’s eyes wandering repeatedly to the deep V of Rebecca’s turquoise cashmere sweater although, she’d been happy to note, Neal had had eyes for no one but his wife. Bless his plodding, loyal heart.
“Koon’s work is what they call po-mo. Postmodern,” Rebecca said. “Not what I normally carry in my little gallery, but he’s local and fairly trendy at the moment. His work gets pretty good reviews, although to be perfectly honest, I think he’s overrated.”
“And this client? He’s a regular of yours?’
Rebecca hesitated. She might have been frowning, except her skin from the eyebrows up seemed frozen smooth. Damn Botox. It made reading faces really tough. Take now, for example. Instead of looking puzzled at the question, or cagey, or maybe just discreet, Rebecca only succeeded in looking dim. It was all but impossible to know what she was thinking.
“He hasn’t bought from me before this, but he has a home in Malibu—one of several, I gather, scattered all over the world. Anyway, he called a couple of weeks ago and said he’d been in my gallery a couple of times. I don’t know that I can really place him, but when he asked me about purchasing this Koon on his behalf, I jumped at it.”
“I didn’t realize you did that. I guess I just assumed you sell what you’re showing.”
“I haven’t really done much of this before. I mean, once or twice, I’ve acted as agent for a buyer who wanted something different from an artist I was showing, but never an artist in August Koon’s price range. I’d love to do more of this, though. Much better than running a gallery.” Rebecca shook her ketchup-red spikes. “All that financial overhead. Long hours. Trying to guess which way the market’s going.”
“Is being a buyer a full-time gig?”
“It can be. Most wealthy buyers prefer to work anonymously through a broker to keep the price down.”
“So this Koon deal is a biggie?”
Rebecca’s right hand seesawed. “Middling big. The purchase price is just over a quarter mil, plus my commission. Normally, the agent charges ten or fifteen percent, but when he called the other day, my buyer offered twenty percent before I’d even had a chance to name a rate.”
Hannah did the math in her head, then whistled. “Fifty grand for a few hours’ work. Nice little business you’ve got going there, Becs.”
“I wish. Believe me, I don’t usually get to play in this big sandbox. That’s why I’m not about to say no to this. Whatever this buyer needs, I’m happy to try to get it for him, even if I’m not crazy about his choices. Who am I to look a gift horse in the mouth?”
“I don’t know,” Hannah said. “Schlepping artwork…it’s not really what I do.”
Rebecca looked embarrassed—or that’s what Hannah thought she was meant to look. Her face did seem to flush, but it didn’t exactly register emotion. “No, I didn’t think it was, really. Although,” she added, “I guess I don’t know exactly what it is you do do. I mean, I know you used to be a cop, and Nora mentioned that you’re overseas a lot now, and that sometimes you do bodyguard work for celebrities. I saw the news after you rescued that kidnapped doctor, too, of course.”
Hannah nodded. “It’s kind of a mixed bag, what I do. Pays the bills, though.” Most of the time, she thought. At the moment, she had a whopping tax bill that she was paying off in installments, the aftermath of the big reward she got for the doctor’s rescue—a reward she didn’t keep in the end, donating it instead to the widow of her partner in that caper. She’d forgotten about the tax angle. Dumb move, but when the IRS dropped the big bill on her, she chose not to pass it on to her partner’s widow and negotiated a payment plan instead. No good deed goes unpunished.
“Would you be free to take a run down to Mexico this week?” Rebecca asked. “It’s a quick in-and-out thing. And all your expenses would be covered, of course.”
Hannah winced. She didn’t like the idea of taking work from family or friends—or even friends of family. It was too hard to negotiate her usual steep fee, especially with someone whose messy divorce too closely echoed her own.
“You could do it in forty-eight hours,” Rebecca added. “My buyer authorized up to ten thousand dollars for courier fees, plus expenses. That includes first-class airfare for you and the painting. He wants it hand-carried on board.”
Whoa. Ten grand. For two days’ work.
“Where in Mexico?”
“Puerto Vallarta. He’s got a home down there. Like I said, one of several. I gather he’s got places in NewYork and London, and…where else? Tel Aviv, I think. The man is not hurting for money, from the sounds of things.”
“Tel Aviv? Who is this guy?”
“His name is Moises Gladding.”
Double whoa. Moises Gladding. Not the first time Hannah had heard that name.
“Moises Gladding is a pretty shady character, Rebecca.”
“You know him?”
“I know of him. He’s an arms dealer. They say he supplies arms to some of the shadiest regimes and insurgency movements on three continents—and sometimes to both sides of the same conflict.”
Hannah frowned. “And Gladding’s been in your gallery? Recently?” Last she’d heard, some Congressional oversight committee had been trying to subpoena him to testify about a reported illegal arms shipment to a right-wing paramilitary group in Venezuela that was trying to overthrow the regime of Hugo Chavez. One of Hannah’s security buddies had told her that somebody, probably some spook out of Langley, was suspected of having given Gladding a heads-up and helped him slip out of the country ahead of the legal notice to appear—which would explain why Mr. Gladding couldn’t carry his own damn painting to Mexico.
“I’m not sure when he was last in the gallery,” Rebecca said. “Like I say, I can’t really place him, and the request to make this purchase for him came by phone.”
Hannah sat back on the patio chair, watching the light dance on the surface of the swimming pool, reflecting on the trees overhead, turning the yard into a magic fairyland. “You sure you want to be doing business with a guy like that, Becs?”
“It’s just a painting. Somebody’s going to get the business, so I don’t see why it shouldn’t be me. But I really need your help. I don’t know who else to ask. I’d carry it down there myself, except I can’t afford to leave the gallery for two days. Please, would you think about it?”
Hannah sighed. Ten grand was a nice little bite out of her tax bill. She really had no business walking away from easy money, especially since her dance card wasn’t exactly full at the moment. At the same time, experience had taught her to trust her gut about certain people, and instinct told her that anything involving a character like Gladding could come back to bite her in the ass.
Still, as Rebecca said, it was just a stupid painting.
“I’ll need to see this painting before I agree to carry it,” Hannah said. “And to supervise the packing of it. No way am I getting on a plane carrying a sealed package I haven’t thoroughly examined with my own eyes.”
Rebecca actually giggled. “Oh, thank you, thank you! Hannah, this is such a huge help to me, you have no idea. You won’t regret it, I promise.”
Lord, Hannah thought. Moises frigging Gladding. I sure hope not.
It was well after nine when Hannah finally got home from her day at Nora’s. She’d taken Gabe home to his father’s first, enduring the weekly gut-wrench of saying goodbye and then watching him walk inside the house with the very pregnant woman who’d taken Hannah’s place in her son’s life.
Her ex, a high-profile criminal defense attorney, made his living helping celebrities avoid the consequences of their bad behavior. Cal was good at his job—very good. It had rewarded him with a gate-guarded mansion off Mulholland Drive, a gorgeous second wife, and the money to convince the courts that he and Christie offered a safer, more stable home environment for their son than Hannah could. The fact that the judge had probably made the right decision didn’t make it any less painful. Or galling.
Pulling into the short driveway that fronted the row of garages next to her building, she hit the opener switch and watched the door rise. Her condo was on a quiet, tree-lined road that ran steeply uphill from Sunset Boulevard. The low brick building, constructed in the nineteen-twenties, had originally housed offices. Sometime during the real estate boom of the eighties, it had been converted to row town houses, but pleasingly so, retaining period details like deep crown moldings, gargoyled pediments and a few interior walls stripped back to showcase the red brick. It was a rare thing in L.A., real brick. Since the tightening of earthquake codes, nobody built with it anymore. The walls of Hannah’s building had been reinforced with rebar during the conversion. Even so, she suspected it would crumble like a house of cards when The Big One hit, but like everyone else in the city, she lived in a state of perpetual denial.
The lights were on in the open garage bay next to hers. Hannah switched off the nearly silent motor of her Prius, grabbed her purse and wandered over to see what was going on at Travis and Ruben’s. The intensely sweet smell of night-blooming jasmine wafted on the warm night air. Over the sound of traffic from nearby Sunset Boulevard, she heard the faint click of moths batting themselves stupid against the streetlight.
Travis Spielman was inside his garage, crouched next to his ten-speed touring bike. The bike, with a baby seat on the back, was leaning against a worktable that ran down the side wall.
“Hey, Trav. What’s up?”
Her neighbor’s curly blond head bobbed up and he smiled. He was dressed in faded jeans and a Grateful Dead T-shirt, washed so often that the black was now a tissue-thin gray. Jerry Garcia’s hairy mug was barely visible on the faded cotton.
“Hey, girlfriend,” he said. “Not much. Just tightening the bolts on Mellie’s seat. We went for a ride today and it was feeling wobbly.”
Mellie was his two-year-old daughter and she loved going for rides, whether on the back of Travis’s bike or in the jogging stroller that Travis’s partner Ruben pushed ahead of himself when he went for a run. The guys said the wind in her hair made her life. Child was obviously a born speed demon, although the cerebral palsy that threatened to lock up her little body left her unable to travel under her own steam.
There were only three units in the converted building. Travis and Ruben had the biggest space, with two large bedrooms and a massive open kitchen and entertaining space. On the other side of them lived a yuppie couple who seemed to work all the time. The couple had been in the building for over a year and neither Hannah nor the guys had seen either the husband or wife more than a couple of times. Their cars, matching black Mercedes sedans, were rarely in their driveway. Ruben said they were CIA assassins who spent all their time abroad carrying out nefarious plots. Ruben had an overactive imagination.
“Didn’t you have Gabe today?” Travis asked.
Hannah nodded. “We went down to my sister’s. My nephew was home for the weekend, so the boys spent the afternoon in the pool.”
She stood in the open doorway watching Travis tighten the bolts that held the baby seat in position. He was a little guy, a couple of inches shorter than Hannah’s five-seven, but what he lacked in height, he made up for in wiry fitness. The Grateful Dead T-shirt bulged around the sleeves as he worked the wrench.
“Great day for a pool,” Travis said. “Don’t ya just love how spring arrives with a bang in this place?”
Travis had grown up in North Dakota, so like Chicago-bred Hannah, he had a real appreciation for Southern California’s nonexistent winters and early springs, even if they did they miss fall colors and the sparkle of snow at Christmas.
“For sure.” Hannah pushed off the Jeep and sorted the keys on her chain, looking for her front door key. As she did, a thought occurred to her. “Hey, Trav, you ever hear of Moises Gladding?”
“The arms dealer?”
“Yeah. Wasn’t he under indictment for something a while back?”
Travis paused, straightened and leaned against the workbench. Ruben owned a reconditioned 1967 Mustang convertible that was parked to one side of the space. Neither bicycles, tools, nor anything else were allowed to approach with two feet of the Mustang for fear of scratching its lustrous red acrylic finish. Travis, on the other hand, owned an ancient and much-dinged Jeep 4x4 which he generally parked in the driveway or on the street. He had no qualms at all about clutter on his side of the garage.
Case in point: as he pondered Hannah’s question about Moises Gladding, the bike suddenly took a tumble and crashed down against a small mahogany table that stood next to the workbench awaiting refinishing. Hannah winced as the carrier basket on the front of the bike scraped its way down the carved leg of the thrift-shop table, but Travis seemed more concerned about the cry that sounded from his daughter’s open bedroom window.
“Shoot! We just got her to sleep,” he murmured. The misfiring synapses in her brain always seemed to twitch her awake just as she was finally dozing off.
He paused to listen. Then, they heard Ruben in Mellie’s room, crooning softly. After a moment, the toddler’s crying snuffled out.
Travis picked up the bike, satisfied himself that the baby’s seat had taken no damage in the fall, then quietly lifted it onto its hanging pins on the wall. Grabbing an old rag off the workbench, he wiped his hands.
“I don’t know that Gladding’s under indictment,” he said quietly, “but there was that Venezuela business. I also seem to recall that there were questions about him supplying arms to anti-Castro activists in Miami a while back.”
Hannah rolled her eyes. “Like that old fart isn’t going to keel over and croak any day now. Jeez Louise, when are those people going to figure out that we’re better off trading with Cuba and letting Big Macs and MTV corrupt the revolution?”
“No kidding. So why are you interested in Moises Gladding all of a sudden?” Travis gave her a stern look. “Hannah Nicks, tell me you’re not going to work for him, because, girl, that really would be beyond the pale. He is one sleazy customer, from what I hear.”
“No, not work for him. Not exactly, anyway.”
“‘Not exactly’? What does that mean?”
“Somebody wants me to make a delivery.”
“No way. A painting.”
Travis snorted. “Yeah, right.”
“Really. My sister’s old college roommate owns a gallery over in Malibu. She got a commission to buy a painting for Gladding and she asked me tonight if she could hire me to deliver it to his home in Mexico.”
Travis looked skeptical. “I don’t know, kiddo. You sure you want to get mixed up with something like that?”
“It’s just a painting. Trust me, I will examine it very carefully before I agree to carry it, and I’ll supervise the packing myself. Nobody’s slipping contraband into anything that I’m schlepping. Still, it’s a quick in-and-out job and the money’s good.”
“You want me to do some checking up on Gladding, see what he’s been up to lately?” Travis was a data wonk in the Los Angeles office of the federal Homeland Security department. His job was to manage the computer systems intended to help the feds track and identify suspected terrorists.
There had been a time, Hannah mused, when a gay man like Travis, no matter how brilliant, hardworking or honest, would have been barred from any kind of government work requiring a security clearance. In recent years, however, the feds had finally figured out that a person couldn’t be blackmailed into betraying secrets if he were out of the closet before the whole world, including his own blessed grandmother.
“If you get a minute,” Hannah said. “Just see if anything jumps out at you. I only told Nora’s friend that I’d think about taking the job. I can still back out, but if it’s just a matter of carrying canvas down to Puerto Vallarta and coming right back, I’m not about to sneer at easy cash.”
Travis nodded, but he looked unconvinced. “I’ll see what I can find out first thing tomorrow. Don’t leave town till you hear from me, promise?”
“Yeah, yeah.” Hannah turned and headed up the walk to her condo. Just what she needed—one more bossy older sibling.
Puerto Vallarta, Mexico
Moises Gladding stood on the broad, red-tiled terrace of his seaside villa. The last indigo light of day was slipping down to the horizon. Out over the ocean, a gilded moon was hanging over the sea like some splendid god casting shimmering coins across the water. The night was hot and humid, but an onshore breeze had arisen, clacking the stiff fronds of the rows of palms that traced lazy lines in the sand. Gladding’s prize blue peacock, roused from slumber, cried out to the moon, its plaintive, two-tone wail a counterpoint to the low, steady drone of Pacific waves breaking on the shore.
Cell phone snug to his ear, Gladding welcomed the acoustic cover of the night. Indoors, it was far too easy for planted listening devices to overhear a conversation. Years of habits learned in the military, in the secret services of two nations, and then as a private entrepreneur had taught him to sweep his homes and vehicles for surveillance, but technology changed rapidly, and Gladding knew that no countermeasures were foolproof. Low-tech eavesdropping of the human kind was even more problematic. However well he paid his household staff, any one of them might be tempted by an enemy’s bribes—and Moises Gladding had enemies in abundance.
To minimize the risk of bugging, Gladding used a succession of cheap, throwaway cell phones that he ran through a private encryption network. When the stakes were high, the wise international businessman avoided unnecessary risks.
Tonight, the international businessman was not happy. “This is not acceptable. You were meant to deliver on Tuesday. Now you tell me you can’t do it?”
“No, no, not at all,” the voice on the other end said soothingly. “We will deliver as promised. It will just take a little longer. Three days, no more.”
The pitch of Gladding’s voice dropped low. “I don’t like delays.”
It was a simple enough statement, but the uncomfortable silence on the other end told him that, as usual, the soft-spoken threat had had the desired intent. Gladding had not worked with this particular supplier before, but he had vetted him thoroughly. He could only presume that the supplier had vetted him, as well. If so, he would know that Gladding was not a man to cross.
“The device will be delivered on Friday, complete, compact and ready to go, as promised.”
“I expect nothing less,” Gladding said.
A shadow passed across the light spilling onto the terrace. Gladding turned. Gauzy white curtains hung across the open doorway and they moved with the breeze like a sultry dance of veils. His mistress, whom he had left in the shower a short time earlier, had come into the lounge. She stood facing him, holding a stemmed glass and a bottle, her sleek body silhouetted against the glow of the lamps at either end of a rattan sofa. The light of the lamps outlined the shapely figure and long legs under the creamy, diaphanous robe she wore. Her dark hair, still wet from the shower, spilled around her shoulders. Backlit as she was, her face was indistinct, but the way she raised the bottle and glass to him telegraphed the question.
Gladding nodded and she poured him a glass of something bubbly. A celebration, then. She set his glass on the low table by the sofa and reached for another to fill for herself. She wouldn’t come out onto the terrace while he was in the midst of a business conversation. Even mistresses knew better than to run the risk of suspected eavesdropping.
“And the package that you promised me?” the voice on the other end of the line wheedled. “It will also be ready for the exchange on Friday?”
Scowling, Gladding turned back toward the ocean. The moon was high over the water now, a huge orb. “Are you suggesting I would not keep my end of the bargain?”
“No, no, of course not. I would never—”
“Good. So, Friday then.”
“Yes, yes, Friday. You have my word. And I hope—”
Gladding disconnected. The word of a villain, he thought. How reassuring.
Monday, April 17
Hannah threaded her way westward through Monday morning traffic on the snarled Santa Monica Freeway. When it slowed to a dead stop, she used one hand to open the car windows while the other rummaged in her shoulder bag for a covered elastic. Gathering her dark gypsy curls into a knot, she inhaled the bright spring morning. Despite the normal heavy commute, an onshore wind had swept away all visible traces of smog, leaving the sky a pristine, aquatic blue. Not even being stuck in an endless line of cars could get a person down on a morning this pretty, the kind that made her fall in love all over again with her adopted city.
She was on her way to Rebecca Powell’s gallery in Malibu. From there, the two would head over to the Hollywood Hills studio of the painter whose work Rebecca had been commissioned to buy on behalf of Moises Gladding. At the thought of the client, Hannah’s head made a rueful shake.
Moises Gladding. Girl, you need your head examined.
When Rebecca had mentioned last night that she was picking up the painting today, Hannah had insisted on going along. For a job involving a character like Gladding, she intended to be involved in every step of the operation, starting with taking possession of the consignment. Not only would she examine the piece closely, she’d also handle the packing. She was damned if she was going to get on a plane carrying anything she hadn’t perused from stem to stern. Listening to her gut was the only thing that had kept her alive this far and she had no intention of abandoning the policy now. Her gut was adamant that having anything to do with the arms dealer could be a can of worms. Travis Spielman’s reaction only served to underscore her own uncertainty.
Before going to bed last night, Hannah had done an Internet search on both Gladding and August Koon to see what she could learn about them. Both the arms dealer and the artist had mixed press. One investigative piece on Moises Gladding mentioned off-the-record reports that the man sometimes served as go-between when Washington wanted contact with certain people it couldn’t speak to officially—forces opposing the shaky Saudi royals, say, or a Colombian drug lord with useful information about a troublesome trade partner’s bad habits. But if he served as a sometime cutout for the spooks, Gladding was nobody’s creature but his own, capable of ruthless pragmatism when it came to supplying arms to global hot spots regardless of official Washington’s position on a dispute.
In the art world, meantime, August Koon also had his supporters and detractors. After studying some of his paintings online, Hannah decided she was in the naysayers’ camp. Like the man said, she might not know much about art but she knew what she liked. Koon’s work looked like nothing so much as the time Gabe had accidentally kicked over a tray of finger paints. According to the articles she’d read, some of his larger pieces commanded high six figure prices. Go figure.
She would have been just as happy to give both characters wide berth, but there was no need to cut off her cash-strapped nose to spite her cautious face. It wasn’t like she’d never crossed paths with a shady character before. Private security work rarely placed her in the company of saints. For ten grand plus expenses, she could stifle her aesthetics and drop off the painting. It wasn’t like she was running guns for Gladding.
Approaching the end of the Santa Monica Freeway, the vista suddenly changed, the aqua-blue sky downshifting to gray. This early in the season, the ocean was still cold, so no matter how hot the Southern California land mass, when warm air met cool, it turned to dense fog. In the space of less than a mile, the temperature dropped about ten degrees. Hannah shivered in the sudden damp, rolling the car windows back up. By the time she turned onto Pacific Coast Highway, the air was so heavy that she could scarcely make out the crashing surf.
Rush hour always meant stop-and-start progress on the two-lane highway, which traced the line of Southern California’s beach communities. Lighter northbound traffic allowed her to move a hair faster than the poor saps heading south into the heart of the city, but like most road trips in L.A., this one wouldn’t set any land speed records. She’d been in traffic so long by now that the NPR morning broadcast was repeating stories she’d already heard. When her cell phone bleeped, she snapped off the radio, happy for the distraction, grabbed the phone from the center console and glanced at the caller ID on the screen.
“Hey, big sister! What’s up? Gabe leave something at your house last night?”
“No, not that I noticed,” Nora said. “I’m just on my way from the Amtrak station. I put Nolan on the train back to school and now I’m in standstill traffic heading home.”
“Yeah, me too.”
“Maybe I shouldn’t have called.”
“Oh, believe me,” Hannah said, “if a monkey took the wheel, it couldn’t possibly get into an accident going this slowly.”
“It’s not the driving. It’s just that I don’t want to interfere.”
Nora hesitated. “Are you still going with Rebecca to pick up that painting this morning?”
“I’m en route to Malibu as we speak. Why?”
“It’s just that…I don’t know. I should probably mind my own business…”
If it were anyone else, Hannah would heartily agree that yes, she should, but saying so would only upset Nora, who was a sensitive soul and a worrier to boot. Maybe it was a sign of long-delayed maturity that Hannah was finally—mostly—learning to keep her smart-aleck mouth shut instead of bristling every time her big sister slipped into mama bear mode. “Spit it out, kid.”
“Well…I don’t mean to tell you what to do, Hannah, but I’m really hoping you’ll do this favor for her. You will, won’t you?”
Hannah said nothing.
“Oh, I knew it. I’ve made you mad.”
Hannah sighed. “I’m not mad, but I’m feeling a little pressured here, to tell you the truth. I just can’t commit to doing something because it’s your old roommate and you say I should.”
“You shouldn’t not do it for those reasons either,” Nora snapped. Then, she relented. “I know you always think I’m trying to tell you how to live your life—”
“It’s not that.” Although it was, a little. Would there ever come a day, Hannah wondered, when she’d stop feeling like the loser kid sister? “It’s that this is my business—my profession, I mean—and I know what I’m doing. I need to assess the whole picture before I agree to take on a job. It’s what I always do—although in this case, I’m even more inclined to tread carefully. You may not be aware of it, but this client of Rebecca’s is a real piece of work. Aren’t you the one who’s always nagging me to be a little more careful about what I jump into?”
It was Nora’s turn to fall silent. Hannah wondered whether it was the “nagging” line that did it. Old family fault lines always ran deep and Nora knew she had a rep for being cautious to a fault.
“You’re right. But my God, Hannah, did you see her yesterday? She looks like she’s lost about twenty pounds since I last saw her. She stayed on to talk for quite a while after you left last night. You wouldn’t believe what that bastard ex-husband of hers is putting her through. She’ll be lucky to get out of this without a bankruptcy. You know why she’s not getting the house like he promised?”
“Because in addition to maxing out every credit card they had—and some she didn’t know they had—he took out second and third mortgages on the house. With the drop in the real estate market, they went into negative equity, totally unbeknownst to her. Of course, California’s a community property state, so she’s on the hook for half the debt. Even after the house is sold—if it sells—she’ll still be in it up to her eyeballs. And the gallery isn’t exactly a moneymaker. They rarely are, Becs says. Having her own gallery was always her dream, but after what Bill’s done, she may have to pack it in and get a regular job just to pay her bills. And don’t even get me started on what happens if she gets sick, as she’s bound to at this rate, because of course she doesn’t have health insurance.”
“Oh, man, and I thought Cal was a schmuck.”
“At least he gave you the house.”
“Yeah, for all the good it did me. Anyway, you’re right, it sucks, big-time.”
“When you see Becs, don’t let on I told you about all this, okay? She’s mortified by what’s happened.”
“Not a word, I promise.”
“And Hannah? I’m sorry. As far as taking on this job for her, you do what you think is best. I know you know what you’re doing.”
Now there’s a first.
“Just pretend I never called. I’m really sorry.”
Hannah rolled her eyes. “Stop apologizing already. It’s no big deal. And Nora?”
“Don’t worry about Rebecca. This situation she’s in—it’s lousy, for sure. But you know what they say, what doesn’t kill you makes you stronger. She’s going to be okay.”
“I really hope so.” But Nora’s sigh said she didn’t believe it for a minute.
The Sandpiper Gallery was across the road and just north of the Malibu pier. If Rebecca had owned the building or the Malibu waterfront on which it stood, her financial problems would be nonexistent, but Nora had said that the property was a rental and not a cheap one at that. It had been Rebecca’s husband, Bill, a wheeler-dealer Realtor with delusions of grandeur, who’d insisted on this pricey location. Apparently he’d had visions of bringing in wealthy clients to buy art for the multimillion-dollar McMansions he was hoping to peddle—except Bill spent more time playing the ponies at Del Mar and Hollywood Park than in flogging real estate. Now Rebecca was stuck with a long-term lease that even Sotheby’s might have thought twice about taking on. How many commissions would you need to cover prime real estate like this and still pay the grocery bill? If the gallery was just some rich woman’s hobby, it might not have been a concern, but as a breadwinning proposition, it was iffy.
Hannah pulled into the gallery parking lot, empty except for Rebecca’s fire-engine-red BMW. Climbing out of the Prius, she stretched muscles gone tight from the hour spent in traffic. Something moved in the corner of her eye and she swung in time to see three gray pelicans flying in low formation over the choppy waves, hunting for a fish dinner. Or maybe they weren’t hunting at all, just having an exuberant game of follow-the-leader in the morning light.
Hannah smiled, then reached back into the car, grabbed her soft leather messenger bag, slung it over her shoulder and headed up the gallery’s sand-blown front steps. A sign in the front window said the gallery was closed on Mondays, but there were lights on inside, and when she tried the handle, the door opened and a bell tinkled softly. Instinctively, she kicked the sand off her shoes before stepping onto the gleaming hardwood floors.
She’d been to the gallery with Nora once before, and a glance around told her that it looked much the same. Hannah was no expert, but something told her that this much kitschy sweetness wouldn’t fly in the serious art world. Although the paintings hanging on the walls looked similar to what Hannah had seen on her last visit, Rebecca had added tables and pedestals on which were arranged lower-priced vases, lamps and other pieces of wheel-thrown pottery—a way to expand the customer base, perhaps, and boost the bottom line.
The office was nestled into a corner of the gallery behind a long walnut credenza that served as a room divider. Rebecca was at her desk, an antique rolltop number with rows of pigeonholes and a green baize pad. Her head turned as the door closed and Hannah saw that she was on the phone. Rebecca smiled and held up a finger. Hannah waved, then started a slow stroll around, studying the merchandise.
Three or four fabric-covered movable walls were scattered throughout the long room, providing extra hanging space. On one of these near the entrance were three colorful paintings, each seemingly illuminated from within. One was a view of the mission at San Juan Capistrano, red-orange and fuchsia bougainvillea spilling over the adobe arches of the courtyard walls. In the next painting, gulls wheeled and dove across a sparkling seascape while children gamboled along a sandy shoreline. The third picture was of an old California hacienda peeping through thick foliage. The scenes were familiar and nostalgic at the same time, sucking a viewer in as only a Southern California landscape could.
“Stop you right in your tracks, don’t they?”
Hannah turned, surprised. She hadn’t heard Rebecca come up behind her. Nora’s friend was dressed in a gauzy, flowing, peach-colored summer dress, and platform espadrilles whose laces crisscrossed up her legs. Hannah had actually ironed a white cotton blouse that morning and gone so far as to wear a skirt—denim, but a skirt nonetheless. What’s more, the pedicure to which Nora had treated her a couple of weeks earlier still looked good in her brown Joseph Siebel sandals. She’d even put on a pair of dangly earrings, but she still felt woefully underdone next to Rebecca. No matter, she reminded herself, this wasn’t a job interview. She already had the gig, if she wanted it. She just needed to decide if she did.
“I like this one of the kids on the beach,” Hannah said, turning back to the middle painting. “That dark-haired little boy reminds me of Gabe.”
“You might have been to that beach with him. It’s just north of San Diego.” Rebecca smiled. “I would consider adding the painting to the payment if you’ll take the Koon to Mexico for me.”
“Sounds like a bribe.”
“Guilty as charged. Can I get you a coffee? Some sparkling water?”
“No, I’m good, thanks.”
“Okay, well let me just shut everything down and we’ll head over to August Koon’s. That was him I was just talking to. I told him we were on our way.”
Rebecca suggested they take her car to Koon’s studio in the Hollywood Hills, but Hannah hesitated. As a matter of principle, she preferred to be behind the wheel—you never knew when the situation might call for evasive maneuvers—but it made little sense to drive two cars. Since Rebecca knew the way, Hannah resigned herself to riding shotgun.
There were compensations. They dropped the convertible’s rag top once they got inland, away from the thick marine layer, and Hannah leaned back in the BMW’s butter-soft leather seats. There was no easy way to get from Malibu to the Hollywood Hills, but the slow cruise up Sunset Boulevard gave her chance to enjoy the gorgeous spring weather and the view of the rolling estates and breathtaking mansions along the way.
It should have been a relaxing ride, but her ease didn’t last. Maybe it was Rebecca’s platform sandals that made for the herky-jerky ride, gas and brake pedals stomped with equal vigor. Her hands were also in constant motion. If she wasn’t tucking flyaway tendrils into the silk scarf stylishly wrapped around her head or turning the rearview mirror to check her teeth for lipstick, she was dialing through her iPod for appropriate road music. After Rebecca cut off yet another driver, who peeled around them on a shriek of rubber, flipping the bird as he roared past, Hannah regretted not insisting on driving. Her little Prius wasn’t glamorous, but she’d survived assassins in the desert and gangbangers on L.A.’s mean streets, so the prospect of death-by-bimbo seemed undignified.
“Tell me something,” she said to Rebecca.
“Why are we picking up this painting? Why didn’t this artist bring it to your gallery?”
“The great August Koon? He wouldn’t deign to come into a little gallery like mine. He made it abundantly clear when we first spoke that he’d never heard of it. He probably wouldn’t even be dealing with me if I hadn’t been representing a client like Mr. Gladding. Koon is represented by one of the biggest agents in New York.”
“So why didn’t Gladding go to Koon’s agent to procure the piece?”
“He won’t work with the man. He told me the agent burned him on another deal in the past. If Koon wanted to sell, it had to be through Mr. Gladding’s own representative—me. I still can’t believe my luck. I’m just glad he remembered my gallery when he needed someone to handle this for him.”
They were approaching an intersection and the light facing them was yellow, but rather than brake, Rebecca stomped on the gas and they barreled through, narrowly missing a cyclist who’d had the temerity to venture a few inches beyond the bike lane. It earned them yet another middle finger. Rebecca adjusted her sunglasses and pretended not to notice.
“I really don’t understand what Mr. Gladding sees in August Koon’s work,” she confessed. “It makes me sick, the prices his stuff draws when so many more deserving artists are selling their work for pennies to his dollar—if they sell at all.”
“Like the artists whose work you carry?”
Rebecca nodded. “Case in point. Those impressionist pieces you were admiring, for example. That man’s work has been shown in major shows and several local museums, but he lives like a pauper. It just isn’t fair.”
“Life rarely is, in my experience. And to be honest, I’m still a little leery about dealing with Moises Gladding. He’s a pretty shady character, by all accounts.”
“So you said last night. But in my experience, saints are rarely patrons of the arts. Most of the really big sales these days are to Wall Street millionaires or Hollywood sharks. If I limited myself to customers who could pass a decency test, I’d have gone bankrupt long ago. Although I may yet,” Rebecca added grimly.
“I guess you’re right. Anyway, I’ve got nothing to say on the subject, since I’ve had some dubious clients myself. What about this painting? Gladding’s paying a quarter mil for it, you said?”
“Is that a good price for a Koon?”
Rebecca frowned—sort of. The Botox mystery expression again. “I think the price is a little high for such a small piece, to be honest. I’m not complaining, mind you, since my commission is based on the selling price. Still, I think he could have gotten a better deal if I’d been allowed to negotiate a little.”
“Koon’s not in high demand?”
“Well, I’m sure he’s very comfortable.”
“Well, I don’t know anything about art markets,” Hannah said, “but I do know something about characters like Moises Gladding. And the thing about arms dealers is, sometimes they trade in valuables other than cash. It’s an idiosyncrasy of the arms market that sometimes the people who want weapons don’t have much money, so they barter, trading something else for guns and rocket launchers.”
“More often drugs—cocaine or heroin, say—or conflict diamonds mined by slaves in Africa. But sometimes stolen art is used as collateral, too.”
“But the Koon painting Mr. Gladding is buying isn’t stolen. It’s an original.”
“I know. And actually, I’d expect one of Gladding’s customers to be trading a painting, not him. The IRA, for example, was once suspected of stealing a Rembrandt which they gave to a middleman who then financed the purchase of guns the IRA wanted. Terrorists have also been known to buy rocket launchers with stolen Picassos.”
Rebecca nodded. “We get Interpol and FBI lookout notices about stolen art all the time. I always thought it was shady billionaires or Arab sheikhs or something who were buying them.”
“Ah yes, the Doctor No scenario—the recluse with a private vault of old masters that he keeps for his personal enjoyment,” Hannah said. “Apparently that’s not how it works. Art, like drugs and diamonds, is just another form of currency—a Rembrandt traded for AK47s, cocaine for rocket launchers. Your basic commercial marketplace at work.”
“And that’s the business Mr. Gladding is in?”
“That’s exactly the business he’s in.”
Rebecca’s sunglasses had slipped a little way down her nose and she peered over them now at Hannah. “My, my. Nora’s little sister. You look so young, and then you open your mouth and the things that come out of it. No wonder Nora wasn’t sure you’d be interested in my little delivery job. Pretty small potatoes next to your world of rocket launchers and Rembrandts.”
“Oh, yeah, my life is nonstop glamour. Believe me, most of this is just theory to me, too. Just like the Koons of this world mostly deal with big-time New York art agents, the world of Moises Gladding is far removed from anything I usually get hired for. I’m just a girl with a gun who likes to travel and gets paid for it.”
Sunset Boulevard was far behind them now. They were heading uphill into canyon country.
“Anyway, it doesn’t sound like this August Koon’s a big enough name to factor into that world either. Although,” Hannah added, looking around, “these are pretty fancy digs up here. He must be fairly successful.”
Rebecca shrugged. “He does all right. But the man’s in his fifties, I’d guess, and his prices only started to climb in the past five years or so. As far as I know, this has always been his home base. Property around here would have been affordable when he was starting out.”
“So he lucked out in the real estate lottery, too.” Hannah consulted the Mapquest printout that Rebecca had given her. “It should be the next left, I think, and then the first place on the right.”
Rebecca took the left at the intersection and then a quick right at a tree-shaded gateway with an elaborately painted wooden signboard announcing the studio of August Koon. The crunch of the BMW’s tires on the gravel driveway startled a klatch of doves. They followed a winding lane through a grove of scrub oak.
“I should warn you, he’s not exactly Mr. Personality,” Rebecca said.
“I stand warned.”
As they emerged from the tree-bowered driveway, the roadway widened into a circular gravel parking area before a two-story white clapboard house. A rickety-looking garage stood next to the house, its double doors swung wide on loose hinges to reveal an aged yellow VW bus inside. Shades of the sixties, Hannah thought. The bus was only missing a paint job of psychedelic flowers.
Rebecca parked the car and they climbed out. Eucalyptus and pine trees intermingled with the scrub oak around the house, and the air smelled intoxicatingly fresh. The paint on the house was peeling and the perennials in the flower beds were fighting for survival against an onslaught of creeping kudzu vines and milkweed, but there was still something magical about the place, one of the many little woodland glades that existed practically in the heart of Los Angeles. Rebecca was probably right, that Koon had bought it back when properties like this were affordable. Nowadays, if you weren’t a Hollywood studio honcho or a trust fund brat, there was no hope.
The weather-worn screen door at the front of the house opened and a man stepped out. His severely receded hair was lank and mostly gray, curling over his ears. He wore a brown and yellow plaid cotton shirt that strained over a considerable paunch. His chinos were paint stained, the frayed hems puddling over equally paint spattered Birkenstocks. His thick brows nearly met at the deep frown creases over his nose, and matching creases ran down either side of a fleshy, unhappy-looking mouth. A portrait of the artist as a crotchety old man, Hannah thought.
“Good morning, Mr. Koon,” Rebecca chirped as he clumped down the front steps. She held out a hand. “I’m Rebecca Powell. It’s so good to finally meet you.”
Koon ignored her outstretched hand, glanced dismissively at Hannah, then back at Rebecca. “Come for the painting, I suppose?” His voice was a deep, pack-a-day rasp.
“That’s right. This is Hannah Nicks. She’s a security consultant and she’s going to be delivering the piece to the buyer.”
“Humph.” Koon turned his narrow gaze back to Hannah. She couldn’t help feeling that he was finding her sub-par as security for his treasure.
Rebecca went around to the trunk of her car, her platform soles a little precarious on the rock-lined driveway. She withdrew a rectangular, padded black case from the trunk. “I brought a portfolio to carry the painting.”
“You’re not crating it?” Koon asked.
“It’s not really necessary. We’ll wrap it, of course, although not too tightly, since it’s going to have to pass through Security at LAX. Hannah will be hand-carrying it and the painting will be carefully stowed with her in the first-class cabin. It’ll be just fine, I can assure you. Shall we see it now?”
Koon hesitated, then nodded toward a walkway between the house and the garage. “Studio’s this way,” he grunted, heading off the porch.
Rebecca followed his rapid stride, but her platform espadrilles were having so much difficulty negotiating the uneven tile pavers that Hannah jogged ahead and took the bulky portfolio case from her. Rebecca smiled gratefully and then put her full concentration into trying to keep up with Koon. Dropping back behind her once more, Hannah noticed a small unraveling of fabric at the collar of her gauzy peach dress where it had gone tissue thin from much wearing. Like the strain in her face, it was a sign of the stress she was under. Hannah could empathize.
Koon’s studio was a freestanding structure at the back of the property, better maintained than either the house or the garage, with what looked like a brand-new air-conditioning unit humming away in one of the large windows. Koon opened the screen door and propped it with one of his paint-splattered Birkenstocks while he fished a set of keys from the pocket of his chinos. When the inner door was unlocked, he stepped in, then backtracked at the last moment in time to catch the swinging screen door before it slammed shut on Rebecca. He held it until only she reached it, then turned abruptly and headed inside, leaving her to scramble to catch the swinging door. What a gentleman.
The studio was long and narrow, a large open space with windows all along the front and on the western side wall. Overhead were three skylights, although they were on a side of the roof that sloped away from direct sunlight. It was all designed, Hannah realized, to allow maximum natural light into the room without harsh shadow or exposure to harmful UV rays that might damage delicate painted surfaces.
Along one window stood a banquet-sized table laden with rolls of canvas, T-squares, rulers and a yardstick, as well as bins of tiny nails, a staple gun, shears and a variety of sharp blades and knives. Stacked against the opposite wall were frames and mounted canvases of various sizes. It took a moment for Hannah to realize from the splotches of paint on their edges that the multiple canvases propped face to the wall were probably finished paintings. On the wall above them were displayed still more paintings, large expanses covered with wide swaths of color. Maybe they were drying, she thought, or maybe he liked these better than the ones hidden from view. Most of them still reminded her of Gabe’s finger-paint accident.
At the far end of the studio stood three separate easels, two of which held large canvases that may or may not have been works in progress. It raised the question—how did an abstract artist know when a work was done? Koon walked over to a framed canvas that had been propped against the long worktable and placed it on the empty easel. It was about two-foot by three, smallish compared to some of the mega works lining the walls.
“Here it is.”
Rebecca moved forward, smiling. “Yes, I recognize it from the photographs Mr. Gladding sent me. I can see why he liked it. It’s very vibrant.”
Vibrant? Well, maybe, Hannah thought, in a dog’s breakfast kind of way. It was nothing like anything Rebecca herself carried in the gallery and her enthusiasm seemed a little forced. On the other hand, a twenty percent commission on the painting’s quarter-million-dollar price tag might turn anyone into an ardent fan.
Koon seemed to buy it, however, and proceeded to pull out several other canvases to show, his raspy voice rambling on about influences and innovations. Nothing more was required of them than noises of appreciation and these Rebecca offered with a frequency that Koon apparently found gratifying.
As the two of them made the rounds of his studio, Hannah moved aside to examine the tools of his trade arrayed on the table. Anything was better than to risk being asked her opinion of the paintings. Among the brushes and blades were putty knives crusted with paint, suggesting he used these to apply color as often as he used the brushes. There was also a well-used whetstone, its surface worn to a concave groove. Next to the sharpening stone sat a curve-bladed knife, its ebony handle smooth from use.
Hannah picked it up. Now, knives she knew something about, and this one was a beauty—well balanced, lightweight, yet sturdy at the same time. She ran a finger gingerly along the honed inner curve of the blade. It was wickedly sharp. What would he use a blade like this for? She studied the rolls of canvas and the wooden stretchers waiting for mounting and imagined the knife slashing through the tough cloth. It would do the trick. Like butter.
“Put that down,” Koon snapped.
Hannah turned, frowning at the man’s tone. Taking the blade by the point, she flipped it high in the air and watched it complete three perfect end-over-end circles before she caught it neatly by the ebony handle. Rebecca gasped.
“Nice knife,” Hannah said blandly, setting it back down on the table.
Koon glared, clearly unimpressed. Well, all right, she was showboating, but the man was such a pompous pill. Maybe she shouldn’t have been playing with his toys, but was the attitude really necessary?
She went over and retrieved the leather portfolio from the corner where she’d left it and handed it to Rebecca. Time to get this show on the road. Rebecca seemed to agree, because she opened the portfolio, withdrew a length of soft cloth and carefully wrapped the small picture before sliding it into the case.
After she handed over a check for payment and had Koon sign a receipt, they said their hasty goodbyes and the two women were on their way, leaving Koon to his studio, his paintings and precious knives and brushes.
As much as Hannah might worry about taking on a job involving Moises Gladding, nothing about this painting said it was the kind of masterpiece usually associated with illegal arms deals. This was a simple transport for easy cash. If Gladding had more money than taste, who was she to quibble?
It was nearly five by the time Hannah got back to her condo. She and Rebecca had gone for lunch after the trip to Koon’s studio, a meal that had dragged on uncomfortably as Rebecca offered chapter and verse of her husband’s betrayal, their broken marriage and ruinous divorce. Hannah could sympathize, having been there herself—although Cal, to his credit, had not added insult to injury by trying to ruin her financially after stomping on her heart. If taking this courier job could help Rebecca in a small way, Hannah was glad of it, although she could have lived without all the sordid details.
One they’d gotten back to the gallery in Malibu, Hannah had turned around and fought her way through traffic to Silver Lake. By the time she arrived at home, the day was shot and she was beat. She loved Los Angeles. but getting anywhere in the city was a joke. It had turned into another spring scorcher, and she was hot, grimy and thirsty. Time to kick back and relax before her early-morning trip to the airport and the flight to Puerto Vallarta.
She opened the fridge, grabbed the water filter pitcher and took a glass from the cupboard. Her kitchen was tiny, just wide enough to open the doors on the double wall ovens, but it had been well equipped by the yuppie developers who’d converted the old building, making it both functional and attractive—especially given that her only regular visitor was Gabe and that her culinary activities generally revolved around the microwave, the rice cooker and her fridge’s vegetable bin. She was no gourmet cook, but she ate healthy. It was the only way to survive—literally—in a profession where the ability to move fast was the number-one requirement for long-term success.
After downing an entire glass of cold water, Hannah refilled it, then set the pitcher on the granite-topped breakfast bar separating the kitchen from the large, open living area beyond. The living space was on the second floor, over the garage, with bright, airy windows front and back and a small balcony at the front overlooking the street. It was a nice place to live—at least, when she made an effort to control the clutter and dust. Touches of Nora were everywhere.
As much as she sometimes chafed under her sister’s overprotective watch, Nora could always be counted on to come through in a crisis. When Hannah’s marriage and then her home had collapsed in rapid succession, it was Nora who’d found the condo, then served as informal decorator after Hannah bought it. As a result, Hannah lived in a colorful refuge of teals, tans and corals, the wall colors warm and welcoming next to the unit’s exposed brick. Her mother had also passed on a number of textiles and curios from the art and antique shop in Beirut where Hannah had spent many a summer with her Greek-born grandparents. Her sister had artfully hung some of the woven pieces on the walls and made others into pillows and runners, which added yet another shot of bright color. It was thanks to Nora that she had a place that felt good to come home to, even if the daily absence of Gabe remained an open wound.
Moving around the breakfast bar, she paused to pick out a leaf that had fallen from the big ficus tree that anchored one end of the island. Her plants, too, were a contribution from Nora, appearing out of the blue one day when Hannah returned from an overseas security job.
“I was buying new plants for my house and decided you could use some up here,” Nora had said, refusing to take payment for them. “They soften things and help clean the air. You need that, living in this city.”
The care and feeding of the greenery came down to Trevor’s partner, Ruben. At first, he’d just come in to water the plants when Hannah was out of town on a job, but after nursing one too many spindly specimens back to health, only to see it wilt again under Hannah’s negligent ministrations, Ruben had clucked despairingly and taken over the job full-time. Hannah repaid him by babysitting little Mellie from time to time and by taking the guys’ dog along whenever she went running. Chucky—part border collie, part God-knows-what—could never get too much exercise, and Hannah liked the rescue mutt’s goofy, slobbering company.
Spotting Rebecca’s carrying case where she’d left it on her overstuffed sofa, Hannah went to take another look at August Koon’s work. Her condo faced west and the late afternoon sun, filtered through the gauzy sheers over the open patio doors, set the space aglow. Warm as the day had been, nights in L.A. remained cool until late June or early July, when the ocean finally had a chance to warm up. The temperature now was dropping fast. A soft breeze wafted the sheers. The low, steady hum of traffic on Sunset Boulevard was underscored by the distant wail of a police siren.
Setting her glass on the coffee table, she zipped open the leather portfolio and pulled out the painting. She examined it front to back, inside and out. If it weren’t for a wire hanger on the frame and the artist’s signature at the bottom right, there’d be no telling right from left, up from down on this “masterpiece.” The canvas was a thickly painted mass of blues, greens and violets.
Flipping the picture over, Hannah examined the reverse side. Heavy kraft paper was stapled to the wooden frame. She shook her head and went to the kitchen for a sharp knife. No way would she not check under the paper. Lifting out half of the staples, she rolled the paper back, taking care not to crease it. The back of the canvas was grimy, but the paint-splattered pine stretchers and staples holding the canvas in place seemed relatively new. Nothing remotely untoward here.
After stapling the paper back in place, she propped the painting on the sofa. Then, she had another thought. She pulled the portfolio toward her and examined it closely. Rebecca had provided it, so if the case concealed something illegal, then Nora’s friend was implicated. Hard to believe, but who knew? She wouldn’t be the first person driven to crime out of desperation.
The case was padded and reinforced to reduce the risk of crushing. And maybe conceal contraband? Hannah took her Swiss Army knife from her messenger bag and used it to make a small slit in the lining. All she found inside was high-density foam wrapped around sturdy cardboard.
Setting the case aside, she took up her water glass again and settled into her favorite rocker to study the painting. Why would anyone want to own a piece like this? And pay a quarter million dollars for it, plus commission and shipping? It wasn’t so much that it was ugly. Compared to other “high concept” art pieces she’d seen in the past, hideous things that left her head shaking, this one was okay. The longer she looked at it, in fact, the more she found herself picking out images, reading emotions into the dusky, gladelike colors. Maybe that was the idea.
Since this was the first time she’d ever acted as an art courier, Hannah had raised with Rebecca the legal ramifications of importing and exporting paintings.
“It’s not a problem with modern work like this, as long as the paperwork’s in order,” Rebecca had said. “August Koon’s work is hardly a national treasure.”
She’d handed over an envelope. When Hannah had opened it, she’d found the bill of sale and an authentification certificate signed by Koon, as well as an import permit from Mexican Customs and her Los Angeles/Puerto Vallarta return air ticket—AlaskaAir, 10:10 a.m. Tuesday morning, first class as promised. Rebecca said the airline had been given a heads-up that Hannah would be hand-carrying a painting and had affixed an amendment to her file noting that the portfolio was to be safely stowed alongside her in the first-class cabin.
Hannah examined the Mexican import permit that had apparently been arranged by Moises Gladding. It all looked very official. She suspected money may have changed hands under a table somewhere but, although she studied the paperwork closely for irregularities, everything seemed in order. No matter how much she might fret about dealing with Gladding, sometimes a cigar was just a cigar and a courier job was just that. All she had to do was carry the painting to LAX, board the plane, tuck the portfolio into its closet, then sit back with a glass of champagne and enjoy the two-hour flight. She’d be met in Puerto Vallarta, she’d deliver the picture, and then her work would be done. Easy money.
She rewrapped the painting in the soft cloth Rebecca had provided and slipped it back into the leather portfolio. In her bedroom, she propped it behind her bureau, then kicked off her sandals and pulled her T-shirt over her head. She was just heading to the bathroom to turn on the shower when the bleep of her cell phone stopped her in her tracks. It was in her messenger bag in the living room. She ran back into the other room, plucked it up and glanced at the screen. Her stomach did a backflip. The number was familiar enough that she recognized it, but not such a habit that she’d assigned it a permanent place in her phone list. That would be too much like asking for trouble.
She opened the phone. “Hi, there.”
“Hey, stranger.” John Russo’s voice reminded her of bittersweet chocolate—deep, dark, rich but never cloying. It was like everything else about him, a balance of weirdly Zen calm and edgy tension that made him intriguing, unpredictable and just a little bit scary. He was unremarkable in appearance, not overly large or menacing, but the bad guys he encountered in his line of work would underestimate him at their peril. Russo was one of the best homicide detectives in the city. It would be easy enough, she imagined, for a suspect to be lulled by his easygoing demeanor, only to be stung by that laser intelligence and pit bull tenacity.
Hannah counted herself among the good guys, but Russo kept her feeling a little off balance, too. She wasn’t sure what she was going to do about that. The two of them had been tap-dancing around each other for a couple of months now. If the irregular hours they both kept made it tough for them to find time to see one another, Russo had made it clear he wasn’t about to let a few scheduling problems get in his way. The guy was determined, she’d give him that. And a damn good kisser, Hannah had discovered. Her stomach cart-wheeled as she recalled their one and only real date. It was about ten days ago, dinner followed by a walk on the beach. Yes, a cliché right out of the classifieds, maybe, but it had worked. Unfortunately, it had come to a breathless but abrupt end when he’d been called out to a murder scene in West Hollywood. He wasn’t supposed to be on call that night, but as luck would have it, a gang war had erupted in Compton and all of Russo’s colleagues had been out picking up the pieces of carnage there when the dead sheet call came in.
“You’re a tough lady to get hold of,” Russo said now.
“I wouldn’t want to seem easy.” Hannah winced. Damn, was she flirting? She hated flirting. “Anyway, I called your office. You have a new partner.”
“Yeah, she’s a newbie. She’ll be riding with me for the next couple of months. I’m her T.O.” Her training officer. “Name’s Lindsay. She just transferred in from the Twin Towers.”
The Los Angeles Sheriff’s Department, in addition to policing vast swaths of Southern California, also ran the detention facilities that housed men and women arrested anywhere in the county. It was impossible to climb through LASD ranks without sooner or later doing a stint as a corrections officer in one of the jails. Hannah herself had worked in the Twin Towers correctional unit for a year after graduating from police academy, and she’d hated every minute of it. The relationship between jailed and jailer was made up of equal parts suspicion, contempt and gamesmanship, bored inmates having little else to occupy them besides looking for ways to end-run the guards. The day her transfer to a patrol beat had come through, Hannah had danced a jig right there in the control tower.
“I’ll bet she’s glad to be out of there. I assume she’s been on the street already?” Hannah asked. You didn’t make detective in the Sheriff’s Department until you’d put in your time on patrol.
“Yeah, she worked the Valley and Compton. She only just told me you’d called. When exactly was that?”
“Thursday or Friday, I think.” Actually, Hannah knew precisely when she’d called, but there was no mileage in looking too eager. “She said you were out of town.”
“Yeah, I had to go up to San Francisco. I got back on Friday, but I didn’t get your message until a few minutes ago. The kid’s in big trouble.” Russo sounded annoyed. That was gratifying. “She misses another message like that and she’ll be back on a beat before she knows it.”
“Don’t be too hard on her. She doesn’t know me from Adam. Probably thought I was one of your groupies.”
Russo made a dismissive noise, but cops did tend to attract a fan base. It wasn’t just the man-in-uniform phenomenon. Plainclothes detectives held just as much fascination for civilians. It was the illusion of invincibility, maybe, that knight-in-shining-armor thing. As a former cop herself, Hannah knew the badge was no guarantee of valor or integrity, much less infallibility. Russo had certainly suffered his own share of personal and professional problems, but he seemed to deserve his rep for decency.
“Believe me, Lindsay knows now she’d better tell me right away if you call,” he growled. “When I didn’t hear back from you, I was beginning to think you were avoiding me. I was thinking about taking up stalking. Anyway, why did you call the desk instead of my cell?”
Hannah hesitated. Why indeed? Because she’d been hoping to get a recording and put the ball back in his court? Because the thought of seeming desperate, or of putting herself out there and getting hurt again was scarier than anything she could imagine? She’d walked into booby-trapped buildings with less trepidation than she felt at the idea of letting this guy get close. She’d been on her own nearly five years now. There’d been a couple of so-called relationships in that time, but she’d had no problem keeping them compartmentalized, tucked away in a little offside place that came nowhere near threatening her peace of mind. But when John Russo had walked into her life, she’d realized fast that she was in big trouble.
“How come I didn’t call your cell?” she repeated. “I don’t know. Because the office number was the one I called, I guess. How are you doing?”
“Okay. Working too much, as usual. You know that murder I caught in WeHo the night you and I went to the beach?”
“I remember.” Boy, did she. Hannah’s face went warm, thinking about them necking on the beach like a couple of teenagers. “The paper said you arrested some movie writer. The guy who did that NASCAR picture—what was it called?”
“That’s right. He crashed a race car while he was researching that, I read.”
“Yeah, what a bozo. You’ve heard of method acting? Looks like this guy invented method writing. He nearly bought it when he flamed out that car. Told me he wanted to get a sense of what a race driver feels when he’s going around a curve at a hundred and twenty miles an hour. Another time, apparently, he climbed Mount McKinley to learn about life and death at high altitudes and nearly got his guide killed.”
Hannah rolled her eyes. “Not a rocket scientist, it would seem.”
“No kidding. So, this time he’s writing a murder mystery about working girls, and the next thing you know, there’s one dead hooker in his bed and another one running screaming down La Cienega Boulevard wearing nothing but rope burns.”
“He’d gagged and hogtied both girls—ankles and wrists linked to nooses around their necks. Left them that way while he went to the liquor store, if you can believe it. First girl passes out, strangles herself. Second girl manages to get free just as she hears the writer’s car pull up. She slips out the front door as he’s coming in the back. When he realizes there’s a dead girl in his bed and the other one’s gotten away, he hightails it out of town. We finally tracked him down to an old girlfriend’s place in the Bay Area.”
“So that’s what sent you up there.”
“Yeah. San Francisco PD picked him up for us. I flew back with him last night and he was arraigned this afternoon. I was hoping the bastard would be remanded over until the trial, but he made bail.”
“Well, way to go. Guess his next script will be Jailbird City.”
“What are you up to?”
“Getting ready to head out on a job.”
“Again? A real job this time?”
“What do you mean, real? I work.”
“Yeah, sorry. I know that. I meant a permanent job, I guess. With regular hours.”
“Like yours, you mean?”
“Point taken.” He sighed. “We’re a pair, aren’t we?”
A pair? If only. In the three months since they’d met, they’d had exactly two lunches, several dinner dates that ended up canceled either because Hannah got last-minute calls for jobs she couldn’t afford to turn down or he had to work overtime. At this rate, Hannah thought, she’d be on Social Security before they ever got to second base. And by then Russo, a decade older than she was, would be dead or too pathetic to do her frustrated libido much good.
On the other hand, he was still calling. Points to him for persistence.
“I was hoping we could go for dinner or catch a movie or something one night this week,” Russo said. “How’s your schedule looking.”
“I’m going to be out of town for a couple of days.”
“Oh, well…I just thought—”
“But you know what? We should celebrate you closing this crazy writer case.” God forbid he should think she was making excuses.
“For sure. I’m flying out tomorrow but I’ll be back the day after.”
“What’s the job?”
Hannah told him about Nora’s old college roommate and Moises Gladding’s sudden desire to own a painting by August Koon.
“Moises Gladding? I’ve heard of him, I think. Didn’t he get called up on some terrorism beef?”
Hannah nodded. She’d done her research since talking to Rebecca at Nora’s Sunday dinner. “He testified before Congress last year about arms sales to Al Qaeda, but he was on the side of the angels on that one, it seems. He’s not always, mind you.”
“You’re sure it’s a painting you’re taking down there?”
“Yeah, I’ve examined it thoroughly, believe me. I don’t even know why I’m doing it, except it’s good money and a quick turnaround. Safeguarding a few square feet of canvas beats dodging insurgents in Iraq. Can I call you when I get back into town?”
“Absolutely. But call me on this number, okay? It’s my cell. You need to write it down?”
Hannah smiled. “No, it’ll be in my phone now. I’ll store it and use it, I promise.”
“I’m holding you to it.”
Hannah allowed herself a pleasant mental picture. John Russo could hold her anytime he wanted.
After a shower, Hannah ran her fingers through her dark curls, leaving them to air dry, then pulled on the Garfield flannel pajamas Gabe had given her for Christmas. It was early yet, not quite seven o’clock, but it was always nice to nest the night before a job. After rummaging through her kitchen, however, she realized that she might have to change back into street clothes. Either that or change her name to Mother Hubbard, her cupboards were that bare. She had meant to go grocery shopping after picking up the painting but then postponed the trip, not willing to leave the Koon in her car while she ducked into Whole Foods. With a guilty sigh, she pulled a box out of the cupboard and put a pot of water on the stove to boil. Processed mac and cheese. Pathetic. Why did she even have this stuff in the house? Easy. Because Gabe liked it and his stepmother, to her credit, refused to buy it.
When he was little, Hannah had conscientiously made his mac and cheese from scratch. Then, one day when he was around four, he’d come home from a playdate singing ecstatic praises for the orange noodles he’d had at his friend’s house. On their next trip to the grocery store, he’d spotted the Kraft Dinner box on a shelf and nearly had a meltdown when Hannah resisted buying it. It was about the time his father had left to move in with his latest squeeze, soon to be the second Mrs. Calvin Nicks, and Hannah hadn’t had the heart or strength to battle their little boy over a stupid box of noodles. That had been the end of butter roux and hand-shredded cheese, however. Now, although Gabe took infrequent meals at her house, she still found herself buying the boxed quick dinner because he inevitably asked for it.
After her meal was cooked, she ate it standing up at the kitchen sink. This was not the kind of meal that deserved to be eaten sitting down with a nice glass of wine. She watched the dew gather on a web outside her kitchen window, sparkling drops on the precise loops and gossamer lines woven by some sure-footed spider. Must be nice, Hannah thought, to be so certain of what your job in life was and how to go about doing it.
She downed a glass of milk, then cleaned up the kitchen and headed for her bedroom, selecting a backpack for the trip that would allow her to bypass the airline baggage check and get quickly out of the airport after landing in Puerto Vallarta and going through Customs. She packed just enough for an overnight stay, but then, on impulse, tossed a bathing suit into the pack as well. Remembering Rebecca in her gauzy dress that morning, Hannah also went to her closet and slid hangers until she found a flowing skirt. Fancy resort, why not? She could head to the hotel after the painting was delivered, lounge on the beach, and then have a nice dinner on Moises Gladding’s tab.
Unhooking the skirt and a matching tank top, she spotted the safe in the back of her closet where she kept her Beretta locked away. She would feel naked going out on a job without it, but since she wasn’t checking bags, there was no way to carry it through airport security. The nature of the assignment hardly warranted it anyway, no matter how much of a genius August Koon might be in his own mind.
Three hours later, she was curled up on her living room couch, flipping channels, when the doorbell rang. Her eyelids had been getting heavy and she’d been thinking about packing it in for the night, but at the thought that Russo might have decided to drop by, she perked right up. Glancing down, she briefly considered a dash for the bedroom to change, but then the bell rang again. No matter. If Russo was going to pursue her, he might as well know the ugly truth—she was a woman who wore Garfield pajamas.
She flipped on the front porch light and glanced through the peephole, then paused, taken aback. It wasn’t Russo on the other side of the door. Two clean-cut men in almost identical dark gray suits stood on her front porch. It was a little late for Mormon missionaries or Jehovah’s Witnesses, so her money was on cops. And not just any cops. Feds.
“Who is it?” she asked through the door.
“Federal agents, Mrs. Nicks,” one of them said.
Bingo. Through the peephole’s convex lens, Hannah saw both men raise black leather folders with gold-colored shields on the top half and ID badges boldly emblazoned with the letters FBI on the bottom.
She frowned and opened the door a few inches, keeping herself and her Garfield pajamas mostly hidden. “Can I help you?”
They lowered their badges in unison and put them away. One was Asian-American, the other Anglo, but they were otherwise so alike as to be almost indistinguishable, with haircuts that were neither long enough nor short enough to be fashionable.
“I’m Special Agent Bruce Ito, ma’am, and this is Special Agent Joseph Towle,” the Asian-looking man said.
“We’d like to have a word, if that’s all right,” Towle added.
“What’s this about?”
“Can we come in?”
“Depends. Can you tell me what this is about?” Hannah asked again.
Ito and Towle glanced at each other, then back at her. “It’s about your trip to Mexico, Mrs. Nicks,” Towle said.
“How do you know about that?”
“Maybe we should discuss this inside?”
Hannah sighed, then opened the door wide and stood back to let them in. They seemed a little taken aback when they saw what she was wearing, but came in. She closed the door behind them.
“We’re sorry to come by so late,” Ito said, “but we wanted to be sure to catch you before you left.”
“I’ll ask again, how do you know about that?”
“We understand you’re doing some work for Moises Gladding,” Towle said.
Hannah studied them for a minute, then extended her arm toward the sofa. “I guess you’d better sit down and tell me what exactly it is you want.”
The two agents nodded. “After you,” Towle said.
Hannah led the way into the living room, took the rocker and left them the couch. She grabbed the remote and flipped off the television as they settled in. Ito was carrying a briefcase and he set that on the floor beside his feet. The two agents leaned forward, elbows on knees, and looked at her expectantly.
“What?” Hannah asked.
“You were going to tell us about this work you’re doing for Moises Gladding,” Ito said.
“You were going to tell me how you know about that.”
Towle shrugged. “Information came our way. So, about the work…?”
“I don’t know what ‘information’ has come your way, but I’m not working for Gladding.”
“We know you’re transporting some merchandise for him. What’s your relationship to Gladding?”
“Relationship? There is no relationship. I repeat, I am not working for him. What I’m transporting is a painting, if you must know. I was hired by a gallery owner who purchased the painting on Gladding’s behalf. Gladding wants the painting at his vacation home in Mexico. End of story.”
“This is the first we’ve heard of Gladding’s international dealings having anything to do with art,” Ito said. “And from what we know of you, Mrs. Nicks, art’s not your usual line, either.”
Hannah shifted back in her chair. “In the first place, please don’t call me Mrs. Nicks. I’m nobody’s missus. And in the second, if you know about my work, you know that I’m a freelance security specialist. I usually do personal security or private ops—”
Towle grimaced. “You’ve had some interesting press.”
She waved a hand. “A couple of jobs ended up high-profile because of the players involved. Most of what I do is pretty routine. Getting a painting safely to its destination is not that different from getting a politician or movie star to theirs. The point is, if you’ve checked me out, you know I’m one of the good guys, so I’m not sure why I should suddenly be deemed suspicious.”
“But since you do have international experience, Mrs.—excuse me—Ms. Nicks, then you must know the kind of client you’re dealing with here.”
“I do. I don’t take on a job until I have a line on all the parties involved. I’ve never dealt with Gladding before, but I’ve checked him out and I know his rep for playing all sides of the street when it comes to his arms deals—including acting as a cutout for you guys,” Hannah added. When Towle began to demur, she waved away his objection. “Or the CIA or whoever. The point is, our government has made use of him in the past, from what I gather. I also know that high-end art is sometimes used as collateral in Gladding’s business, but the piece I’m transporting is hardly in that league. He’s paying more for it than I would, even if I had his money, but it’s not the kind of high-prestige art your criminal class usually goes for.”
“Do you have the painting here?” Towle asked.
She nodded. “Do you want to see it?”
“If you don’t mind.”
She went into the bedroom, withdrew the portfolio from behind her bureau and took it back into the other room, trying not to think too much about the figure she cut in bare feet and cartoon PJs. So much for her professional reputation. She unzipped the case and pulled out the two-by-three painting. The agents seem taken aback.
“Looks like one of my dad’s old ties—after he spilled chili on it,” Towle said.
Ito nodded. “That is one butt-ugly painting.”
The feds moved up a notch in Hannah’s estimation. Towle made a cursory search of the painting and frame, much as she herself had done, while Ito examined the leather portfolio, not failing to miss the spot where she’d slit the lining to take a closer look at the padding.
“As you can see, just a painting,” she said. “Since you guys are obviously way ahead of me here, want to tell me what this is really about?”
They glanced at each other, then Towle answered. “We’d like you to do a small favor for us while you’re down in Mexico.”
“I didn’t realize we were on such intimate terms.”
“We’re talking about performing a service for your country. A contribution to national security.”
Always the war-on-terror angle, Hannah thought.
“We imagine you’re going to find yourself inside Gladding’s home in Puerto Vallarta,” Ito said. “While you’re there, we’d like you to see if you can leave a couple of calling cards behind.”
“Calling cards?” And then it dawned on her. “Oh, man, you want me to plant bugs in his house?”
“Surveillance devices, yes,” Ito said. He picked up the briefcase by his feet, set it on the coffee table and rolled the tumblers. He snapped the locks but left the lid shut, looking up expectantly.
“Why do you want his house bugged?” Hannah asked.
“No specific reason.” From the way Towle’s blue-gray eyes shifted, Hannah suspected there was a very specific reason. “Let’s just say that whatever services Mr. Gladding may have performed for our side in the past, of late he’s dealing with people to whom Washington would prefer not to be linked.”
“We and some of our sister agencies have been looking for an opportunity to get close for a while,” Ito added. “It’s just serendipity that you happen to have timely access. You can get in without arousing suspicion and slide the devices in with no one the wiser.”
Ito lifted the lid on the briefcase and withdrew a couple of electronic devices about the size of a dime. “Nothing here you haven’t seen before, I’m sure. These two are voice activated with a transmission range of almost half a mile, so our people can park listening posts well outside his property in areas that won’t arouse suspicion. Dormant unless activated, with power packs that last for months. These ones,” he added, lifting out a couple of small tubes, “are motion-activated cameras. Same kind of range and power pack. If you can plant any of them unobtrusively in his office and anywhere else that looks promising, it would be a real boon to our efforts.”
Hannah picked up one of the devices and turned it over in her hand. “This is the best you’ve got? I thought you guys were a little more advanced than this. Are these even shielded?”
“They’ll resist some sensors. Not all, but that’s the point. An operator like Gladding is programmed to assume that he’s susceptible to bugging. We let him find some and he figures he’s outsmarted us.”
“Even assuming I have access or the time to plant anything, what makes you think he won’t find them all?”
“He might,” Towle said.
“So what’s the point?”
Towle looked over at Ito. “Show her the clincher.”
Ito pulled out a small case and opened it. Inside was a matte rectangle, maybe half-by-a-quarter-inch in size, tops. Ito peeled it out of the case. It was paper-thin and virtually transparent. “What we’d really love is for you to try to attach this to Gladding’s laptop. We know he keeps it on his desk, so if you can get a minute alone—”
“What is it?” Hannah asked.
“A keystroke logger. Gladding communicates primarily via e-mail and he sends out all his business info over an encrypted network. This device will record not only the encryption key, but every strike on the keypad. Unlike those other toys, this one’s almost impossible to detect with standard sweeping equipment. It attaches with an adhesive—just peel it like a bandage. In a pinch, you could stick it almost anywhere on the laptop and it probably wouldn’t be noticed, but I’d suggest opening the CD drive and sticking it under the tray.”
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