Excerpt: The Collector by Lane Stone
Monday in Manhattan
Everybody had a story and then another story. Even the police. I stood at the Metropolitan Museum entrance, shifting my weight from one foot to the other, relying on that philosophy to help me figure out how to get what I wanted. Left. I considered my predicament. My meeting with a potential client was to start in five minutes, but the yellow crime scene tape strung along the portico was uninterested. Right. I studied the NYPD officers lined up guarding the doors from people like me. I would plead my case to one of them. It was a matter of choosing the right one. One had a story that would make him or her more likely to let me in so I could be on time for my meeting.
I wasn’t the only person with a mission, standing outside the Met that day. A month ago, in mid-March, a hundred or so protestors had taken over the iconic steps. They came and they stayed. They were angry and united in their desire for the Met to cut all ties with the man I was there to meet. He was the president of the co-op board for a building, less than a quarter mile away, that became a death trap in one of the worst high-rise apartment fires in Manhattan’s history. According to their posters, many were relatives of the hundred plus people who had lost their life that day. Depending on which newspaper you read, the deaths were either due to the board’s misguided choices to keep homeowner fees low to help the senior citizens living at The Henckley Tower, or because for years the building’s managers had intentionally misled city inspectors. I hoped my theory about everyone having a story and then another story would hold fast, but neither view redeemed billionaire philanthropist Boyle York.
The people behind me in the April sun probably thought these famous steps had been there forever. Not so. The stairs were added to the building in 1975. A story and then another story. The steps were usually dotted with New Yorkers, side by side with tourists, eating, drawing, reading, flirting, texting, sunbathing all day long. Non-protesting locals no longer came to hang out here, either in sympathy for the deceased, or because they felt it was too much work to care about what happened to a bunch of rich people. For whatever reason, they no longer came, and this public space had been transformed. According to the New York Times, museum attendance was down significantly from the usual six million plus visitors a year.
One and then two people in the crowd caught me looking back at them. Whose side are you on? their looks demanded. A white van pulled up on Fifth Avenue and when members of a television crew got out, the chance to see someone famous diverted their attention. I turned my face from them and got back to deliberating, comparing, discarding one after another of the police officers. Today’s protest was peaceful, as they had been each day since the start. I had friends and acquaintances in most of the Met’s seventeen curatorial departments, and, according to them, the museum entrance had never been blocked; tourists hadn’t been harangued. I didn’t see anyone so much as littering. The protestors were asked to come no closer than the second landing from street level, and they hadn’t. So, what was the reason for today’s heightened police presence?
In less than a minute, a broad-shouldered African American man wearing a black polo and khakis, with a gold detective’s badge clipped to his belt, next to a real gun, came out the middle set of doors. The uniformed officers straightened to alert attention. He nodded to an one here and there, and spoke to a few, but mostly he scrutinized the demonstrators. Was he the one I should tell the tape didn’t apply to me? Of course, he was. If any of the others told me “Sure, go right ahead, what were we thinking making you wait here,” he could overrule them. I might as well save time and go straight to large and in charge. Here some people might make the mistake of confusing the job with the person, but I wasn’t one of them. I made eye contact and took a step toward him.
Reactively, I turned to the high-pitched voice and instantly regretted it. Valerie, my former sister-in-law, and now part-time employer was climbing the stairs to join me. Her progress was hindered only slightly by a black pencil skirt and four-inch heels.
“What are you doing here?” Her gestures were bird-like jerky.
I had never seen her still or calm. I exhaled to keep from getting jumpy myself.
Had I imagined the emphasis on you? No, I hadn’t. In the two years since the death of my then husband, Valerie’s brother, the woman’s treatment had gone from superficial sympathy all the way down to its current suspicious contempt. Why she hadn’t fired me from my job as title underwriter for fine arts at SIRA Fine Arts Insurance Corporation when I remarried six months ago, I had yet to fathom. My best guess was the adage about keeping your enemies closer. She wanted me to stay. We compromised and, for the last three months, I’d worked with her international clients, working a day or two a week for SIRA and spending the rest of the time getting my new fine art recovery agency off the ground, and being an adjunct professor at NYU. The arrangement worked well for me, but my new husband, Elliott, wanted me to cut all ties with SIRA. He didn’t trust Valerie and he wasn’t wild about my weekly trips to Europe.
She looked me up and down with narrowed, darting eyes. I stood stock-still, allowing myself to be scrutinized because I didn’t care anymore.
“Well?” Valerie prompted.
I hadn’t answered. Was it happening again? The drift. No. I had been sharp and present, even serious, for months.
She pointed at the crime scene tape. “Is this because of the protestors?”
I shrugged. “I don’t think so. It’s new.”
“Then what happened?” She tapped the phone she held. “Hmm, nothing online yet.” Her head jerked back at me. “Did someone try to steal a piece of art? Or, God forbid, did someone really get out with something? Is that why you’re here? You did it!”
I raised my eyebrows and my mouth fell open.
“I didn’t mean you stole a piece of art! I mean, you started your own art recovery agency and…”
I shook my head. “I don’t know what happened in the museum. I’m here for a meeting.”
My contacts worked in museums and insurance companies, where they knew me as a title underwriter. I was having a hard time getting word out about my new agency and hoped a real case would come out of the meeting.
“Just think, if someone stole something, you might have your first case.” She was fishing for me to tell her who I was meeting and why. She had tried that maneuver on me one too many times. I didn’t know the purpose of the meeting, but why give her that satisfaction? Had something finally happened in the art world, especially in Manhattan, that Valerie Patterson didn’t know about?
She patted my arm. “Don’t overdo it. Too much stress might be, well, not good. How are you? Really.” She was letting me know she hadn’t forgotten about my year of crazy.
I had metaphorically skied without snow ploughing and biked without my hand hovering over the brake. In my head, I called it my year of being Banksy.
She barreled on. “As I told you, if you want to work as an art-theft recovery specialist, we could give you all the cases you wanted.” Her voice climbed in volume, startling me, and making me scramble to catch up with the conversation.
“That’s not what SIRA does.” Exactly zero of the promised cases had materialized.
“Let me ask you, when did chain-of-title start to bore you? A few months ago, you seemed to have lost interest in doing what we do. And you no longer seem to care that you are at the top of your field–a highly specialized field!”
“It didn’t,” I said. “I–”
“Your own art recovery agency, was that your new husband’s idea?” Valerie leaned closer.
“Elliott knows this is what I want and has been supportive.” He had been more than that. Every time I doubted myself, he bucked me up. He simply wouldn’t let me give up on my dream of starting my own agency. The sooner, the better. I’d been willing to work for SIRA until they found my replacement and, even then, to train the new analyst, but Elliott thought that would let Valerie keep me there forever. I’d given SIRA one month and then she came up with this compromise of part-time work.
I looked at Valerie. Something was missing. Oh, yeah. She hadn’t mentioned her anxiety. Anx-iiii-ety. I’d always wondered how a rich woman in New York could have such mental strain, or whatever it was.
Now she was stage-whispering something to me. “Abby tried to read your book.”
“But it’s a textbook.” I taught one art history class a year and I wrote the book for the class. Both the class and the book bore the title The Intersection of Art and Religion. Why would her ninth-grade daughter be interested in an academic work like that?
“Mmm, she had to put it down.” Valerie lowered her head and made solemn eye contact, like she was breaking bad news to me. “It raised her anxiety level.”
Well, there you go. Bingo. At the thought of her daughter, her face showed her true feelings.
She hesitated and I picked up that I was supposed to jump into the breach with some expression of apology for the suffering I had caused the kid. I thought about how I might arrange my face for that. For a second. Then I remembered making nice with her was my old life. In Valerie’s household, anxiety was currency. It was good to have a lot of it. Wife, daughter, even my former mother-in-law bestowed attention on one another based on the family member’s latest anx-iiii-ety level.
Was that what killed my husband? Had the universe finally thrown up her hands and said to that family, “Here, I’ll give you something real to be unhappy about.”
Unhappy? When Jason died, I hadn’t been unhappy, I’d been in despair.
“Do you love him?” she asked as she inspected her manicure.
“What?” Get back in the conversation.
“Your new husband.”
“Of course, I do!” I looked over her shoulder at the line of taxis on Fifth Avenue and took a deep breath. “No one will ever replace Jason. You know that.” He certainly had been replaced, but still, what a question. I loved Elliott. I loved what he had done for me. When I was on the lowest rung of hell, he reached his strong arm down and lifted me up. One day I was able to look out past the grief and thought, I want to be someplace else. That was what everyone said about Elliott. “That man’s going places.” In his case, in a few years it would be Director of the FBI. He was the assistant director in charge of the New York City field office. Of the FBI’s fifty-six field offices, only three, Los Angeles, DC and New York City were led by an ADIC, rather than a special agent in charge. He had the biggest staff with more than two thousand employees.
“There were no art recovery cases for me to work on, were there?” I asked.
She shook her head like she was exasperated with some child, and then she fake-laughed off my question. “Who are you meeting with?”
“Boyle York,” I stammered because of Mr. York’s current reputation problems.
“You mean you’re here to look for him?”
“No, our meeting is scheduled for nine o’clock.” I looked at my watch again. I was five minutes late.
“You’re kidding, right? Wait, you’re serious?” Valerie flailed her arms in expansive gestures.
The phone I held in my hand beeped. Elliott was texting. I see you. Want to be rescued?
I scanned Fifth Avenue looking for him. A black SUV was now parked in front of the museum. My husband leaned against its door, as an agent pinned him in conversation. He seemed relaxed, but that could have been the sunglasses. I assumed he was being briefed on whatever was going on inside the museum. I’m fine. And I was. Valerie could no longer reach me.
“You sound surprised,” I said.
“I heard Mr. York planned to donate a couple of pieces to the museum. They’re currently on loan here. Of course, they’ll want to be sure there are no, well, title defects.” She turned up her nose at the thought. “I want to take a look at the paintings to get a head start.”
I gestured at the crowd of protestors on the stairs. “These people want the paintings he’s donated over the years returned to him. Maybe the police expect trouble once the demonstrators find out they’re even considering making those on loan a part of the museum’s permanent collection.”
Valerie seemed to consider that.
I looked back at Elliott. That wouldn’t explain the FBI’s involvement. “Are you meeting with Mr. York, too?”
“No.” Valerie’s laugh seemed forced. “The museum would be SIRA’s client.”
“They’ve already asked for a title search for the paintings?”
“I’m assuming…. Oh, all right. They called and asked for you, but I told them you were working exclusively with our international clients. I thought if I could do the legwork, you might help out.” She used a little girl voice for the last part.
“So, the museum is just going to ignore them?” I pointed at the picketers with their handmade signs standing in the shadow of the Met with its majesty and history of a century and a half.
“Excuse me.” I turned to see Large and In Charge standing there and trying to get my attention. He introduced himself as Detective Ned Browning. “Did I hear you say you were here to meet with Boyle York?”
Valerie’s eyes darted, now wide and alert.
I nodded and he lifted the yellow tape for me to enter. When Valerie tried to follow us, he lowered the tape in front of her.
“Emma, will you do the title search?” she called.
Because I didn’t know what I wanted, I shrugged but kept walking. Honestly, since I had no art recovery clients, I had time for it.
She kept talking. “Wait, I have new information on Raphael’s Portrait of a Young Man.”
That stopped me in my tracks, but when I turned to look at her, my husband was there, lifting the tape and then he was taking my elbow.
I stared back at Valerie for as long as I could. She knew I would fall for her promise of news on the Raphael, but the timing was a little too convenient, coming when she needed me to work more than with our agreed-to international clients.
Elliott and Ned shook hands and exchanged pleasantries to the level allowed by testosterone. It seemed they knew each other, but mostly by reputation. My husband was six-foot, four. Ned was about the same height, so he didn’t do that backing up maneuver shorter men did.
“This is my wife, Emma Kelly,” Elliott said.
“Nice to meet you.” He had a trace of a Boston accent.
We walked through the hushed lobby, past the information desk, situated in the center of the Great Hall. Two women, who were either employees or volunteers, looked up as we passed. The level of pain and confusion on both faces had me reaching for Elliott’s hand. It was right there, and he curled his fingers around mine. I hadn’t considered the strain the museum staff would, of course, have been under with the constant reminder of the fire and of Boyle York’s connection to the museum, in this place which was usually safe and calm.
My husband squeezed my hand and we exchanged a glance, brief beyond measuring. What we had was so much more than love. He was outdoorsy-handsome and might be the only person in New York with a tan.
Wait. There was more in his look. He was trying to reassure me. He wanted me to comfort me, but I didn’t know about what.
While Elliott and I were having our moment, Ned stopped and looked in one direction then the other. “Uh, we’ll go this way.”
It wasn’t the Met’s first experience with so-called Toxic Board Protests, and probably wouldn’t be their last. After a major protest in the Sackler Gallery, with empty prescription bottles tossed into the moat at the Temple of Dendur, the Metropolitan stopped accepting donations from the Sacklers, the founders of the company that made OxyContin. These campaigns against museum boards were spread throughout New York. A Sackler descendant had given up his coveted Guggenheim trusteeship during the opioid epidemic. Then a member of the Whitney Museum Board, whose company manufactured tear-gas grenades used against migrants at the United States-Mexico border, had resigned after protests led several artists to threaten to withdraw their work from the museum’s biennial exhibition.
Most of Mr. York’s pieces on loan to the museum were on the second floor in either the European or American Paintings section. I was to meet him in front of The County, a painting that had been attracting a lot of media attention lately, for another reason. I was surprised when Ned motioned for us to go to the left of the Grand Staircase. We were staying on the first floor and going to some other gallery. I thought about the pain I’d seen on the faces of the two women at the Great Hall desk. Maybe artwork had been stolen. Maybe something had been vandalized. Or maybe Ned didn’t know his way around the twelve-acre museum, with its twenty-one linked buildings.
“How well do you know Mr. York?” He brought me out of my thoughts.
“I’ve never met him. He emailed and asked for the meeting.”
“About?” Short and to the point.
“He didn’t say,” I lied. The most hated man in New York City had said he wanted to talk to me about the greatest art crime in history. Now it sounded ridiculous and would only make me look desperate for business. Hopefully, the billionaire wouldn’t say anything that crazy when we saw him.
Ned glanced at Elliott before addressing me. “Why would you agree to a meeting without knowing what it was for?” Probably because of his respect for who I was married to, this was a question instead of an accusation. “Was this to be work-related or pers–?”
Elliott interrupted, “My wife works in the art world. Previously as a title underwriter and now in art recovery. She’s one of the best.”
I was what I’d call transitioning, but I appreciated his confidence in my abilities and in my future.
“I wanted to meet with him because he’s Boyle York. Even with his current problems, he’s still Boyle York.” As I said it, I knew it was only partly true. The Yorks were losing status in Manhattan daily. Both husband and wife were being dropkicked from nonprofit boards and uninvited as event patrons. Being Boyle York wasn’t what it once was. I had agreed to meet with him because, why not.
We were in Medieval Art and now Ned was steering us toward the European Sculpture galleries.
“Where are we going? We seem to be wandering around,” I said. He scowled and after a quick glance over at Elliott, we were moving again, this time with purpose. It seemed Large and In Charge had made up his mind, but since he hadn’t spoken, all I could do was assume we were headed to the elevator located on that wing and keep up with him. As we got closer, I heard noise and movement ahead. A gurney that had seen better days rattled down the hall toward us, piloted by two EMTs in ill-fitting uniforms. Since each of the six wheels traveled in a different direction, keeping the contraption under control was no small feat. Elliott, Ned, and I pressed our backs against the wall. The passenger sat upright. He wore a Met security guard uniform. One elbow was propped on the side rail, and he covered his right eye and forehead with a slender hand. The other rested on the blanket on his lap, which I looked at because it felt rude to stare at his face. His fingers looked like those of a pianist. When they clattered by us, his hand slid down and his closed eyelids fluttered. Had the sorry state of the stretcher caused that slight movement or was the man conscious? What the hell happened this morning?
Elliott and I stood shoulder to shoulder against the wall. His squinted right eye telegraphed his annoyance at the delay. A moment later, the gurney turned a corner, and we no longer heard it rattling. My husband took my hand, and we were once again walking down the hallway to the northwest section of the building, where the galleries were numbered in low-900s. I still had no idea why we were in that part of the museum. That is, until I remembered Autumn Sky with Rainbow, a donation from York’s collection was in that section, in Gallery 901.
Ned stopped us at the information desk in the Modern and Contemporary Art Section, with works by the likes of Balthus, Georges Braque, Matisse, Miró, Modigliani, and Picasso. Posts with tape blocked anyone from coming from the opposite direction.
Was it vandalism or theft? I closed my eyes and imagined paintings in each room. No, I mentally corrected a mistake I’d made. Demuth’s I Saw the Figure 5 in Gold, gallery 902, wasn’t currently on display. The Met owned about a million and a half works and only a fraction was available to the public at any given time. I continued my mental tour and came to Autumn Sky with Rainbow. The pastoral landscape with the tiny modern house at the end of a rainbow was a symbol of hope or of peace. Some of the paintings in this section praised cities as centers of progress and prosperity, while others condemned them as dehumanizing and unhealthy. That contemporary home in Autumn Sky with Rainbow, said art could be a respite for the nineteenth and twentieth-century soul.
“Okay?” Elliott asked.
I opened my eyes and nodded. “None of the paintings in there is a typical candidate for defacing. So has one been stolen?”
He squeezed my hand and looked away. Why had he dodged my question?
Three people strode toward us from the other end of the hallway. I recognized the woman walking between the two men as Florence Bracewell, President and Chief Executive Officer of the Met. If I hadn’t recognized her face, I would have known her by her uniform. Season after season she wore tailor-made, wide-leg, double-breasted pantsuits. Since she was about five feet tall, the ensemble gave her the shape of a grenade. Her temper was legendary, making this a sartorial warning label. Pace Joyner, on her right, was Curator of Modern and Contemporary Art. I had known him since he came to the Met from the Fine Arts Museum of San Francisco. Could he tell me what was going on?
They were headed to the same gallery we were waiting to enter but had to stop at the stanchion. Florence reached for the tape barrier. A NYPD uniformed officer immediately stepped up. “Please wait here.”
Bracewell glared at him. A beat of time passed. Maybe two seconds. Not more. That was all it took for her reaction to cue the two men on how they were to act. Pace blew a puff of air in indignation. I expected more of an alpha-curator. Of course, he was a subject specialist, but at the Met the position brought a lot of power. How frightened were museum employees of her?
The other man, who I noticed wore that ‘I’m suspicious of everything and everybody’ look that only lawyers can nail, jerked his head back in disbelief at this outrage. When Florence took the President and CEO position the museum board flipped the organizational chart. No longer would the president report to the director, who oversaw programming and the Met’s artistic vision. Now it was the other way around. Capital priorities and fiscal responsibility, her domain, now outranked everything else. It was her job to keep the lights on. I could only imagine the angry board meetings held to discuss adding Boyle York to the list of unacceptable donors. She liked to say she ran a tight shipwreck.
She caught me watching the pantomime and smiled. “Hi, Emma.”
“Good morning, Ms. Bracewell.”
We stood there with Elliott and me on one side of the barrier and the three of them on the other. I would have liked to ask her what was happening inside the gallery but just then a man and a woman, both dressed in white coveralls, came through the doorway, pushing their hoods back as soon as they crossed the threshold. The woman looked at Ned and nodded before joining her partner and using the wall for balance to remove her shoe coverings. A group of four uniformed museum security employees stood to the side, whispering to one another, mostly looking at the floor.
Ned checked the area then turned to me and in a low, somber voice, almost a whisper, said, “I need to tell you Boyle York was found dead this morning. He was murdered here in the museum.”
I looked down so they would not be able to see the relief I felt on my face. The world had not lost a work of art. I raised my head to look at Elliott. My knees were weak, and I needed his grounding influence, but I also had a question for him. “There’s more to this, isn’t there? I mean, for you to be here?” If art had been stolen, then sure, the FBI would be here.
Ned was talking again. “The body hasn’t been removed yet.”
He waited, probably to see if I would, I don’t know, maybe, faint. I stayed vertical.
“You might be able to answer a couple of questions for me. Would you be okay going in there?”
“I don’t know.”
“Fair enough. The floor’s been photographed and dusted but watch where you step.”
Even before I walked into the gallery, I smelled wet paint, which made no sense. Unless it was a chemical the police used at a crime scene? Before I could ask, Elliott motioned to our left. Boyle York’s body was sprawled face down on the floor. I was no doctor, but, yeah, dead. His head was turned to the left. Blood from a massive wound on his temple congealed over his eyes. Both arms were stretched out, at perfect ninety-degree angles. Above the crown of his head, medium blue paint covered the floor. Mediterranean blue? Several uneven lines of the paint ran from under his left hand. The tableau ended at a large painting, the once-powerful masterpiece, now absurdly on the floor and splattered with paint.
“Autumn Sky with Rainbow,” I whispered as I walked closer. There was a wide horizontal gash near the top of the painting, a few inches from the ornate frame of the thirty-eight-inch-tall, sixty-inch-wide work. Since it was an oil painting on canvas, it was not under glass and a rivulet of paint had seeped through the opening. “How did it get on the floor?” I didn’t know why my first question had to do with decontextualization.
Ned shrugged. “Looks like someone was trying to steal it.”
“Why would anyone deface it if they wanted to fence it or keep it?” I whispered.
Both men grunted.
Ned was first to speak. “Maybe the damage was caused by accident?”
“Why even bring the paint?” Elliott asked. “This was no accident.” He nudged my arm. “Then there’s this.”
He looked over his shoulder to the two forensic investigators remaining in the room. He didn’t have to worry about interrupting their notetaking and box-checking as they’d stopped and had been eyeing us since we entered. I loved that he didn’t get in pissing contests. It was their call, and he respected that. They gave my husband an approving nod and he knelt and lifted York’s index finger enough for me to see it was covered in the blue paint. I saw a design where his beefy hand had rested. Elliott stood and moved aside. The taller of the two techs came over and stood by Boyle York’s head, leaned over the corpse, and raised York’s arm high enough for me to get a better view. Well, I didn’t know about better. More like, good enough for me to know what I was looking at. Elliott placed his arm on my back and positioned me so I could see the floor beneath the victim’s left hand. Though the technician had tried to lift only York’s arm, there was a sucking sound when York’s chest pulled away from the floor. His clothes were soaking wet with paint.
“The letters,” Elliott said, gently. “Look at the letters.”
“A-K-I-T-A.” They were written in the blue paint under his hand.
“Is that an art term? You’re some kind of art and religion expert, right?” Ned’s tone implied I might come in useful some time.
“Not one I know, but you’re in a building with world-renowned art experts.”
They each had their own specializations but still, he had the best of the best to answer his questions.
The dead man’s eyes stared at the front wall, where the entrance to that gallery was. The blood smelled like copper. The paint smell had masked it until then. “What was he hit with that made a wound that shape?” I asked.
“We don’t know yet. I was hoping you could tell me.”
It looked like a simple flower. “A four-petaled flower?” Now I made out that his skull had been crushed. The blood. The smell. I felt my weight shift forward.
Elliott casually pulled me up and stood with his arm wrapped around my waist. Tight smile. You’re okay. “Did Mr. York ever mention Akita to you?” Distracting me.
“No, but I never met him in person.” I hesitated. “Akita is a prefecture in Japan, and its capital city.”
“And a dog breed, right? I’ll talk to the family about possible connections.” Ned’s eyes rarely stopped moving. He seemed to take in everything. Please, not everything.
Like him, my brain took every detail seriously. I felt stronger and Elliott loosened his grip around my waist. “You came outside,” I said. It hadn’t seemed like Ned was waiting to bring Elliott in; it hadn’t looked like he was waiting for anything.
“Do you think his killer is one of the protestors?”
“It’s a place to start.”
There was movement behind me, and I looked around to see Ken Wordsworth, the museum’s Chief Security Officer. He looked anxious, but when he saw me, he gave a weak smile and joined us.
“Ken, where was the nearest guard posted? Out there?” I pointed to the hallway.
“The museum wasn’t open, so they had been patrolling, and then they’d probably started making their way to their posts.” He took a breath and ran his hand over his short hair. “By the way, the closest guy is on his way to the hospital. Took a blow to the head. He should be able to tell you what happened here.”
Ping. Jason had been with the FBI and Elliott was his boss. Maybe it was that proximity that had given me the ability to hear what I’d heard. When something wasn’t right, even if you didn’t know why, you heard a ping. My husband’s posture stiffened a fraction. He’d apparently heard it too. Behind me Ned instructed someone to get officers to the hospital to meet the ambulance and stay with the Met employee.
“We saw him being taken out,” I said.
Ken had spent a couple of years in law enforcement before he came to the Met and worked his way up the ranks. For most of the museum’s first century the security department was organized like New York’s fire department to protect against the worst imaginable event. The first four people to fill the top post were retired fire captains. Since 1974, the department had been modeled after the city’s police department. Using technology, Ken had brought a holistic approach to protecting the country’s largest and the world’s fourth most visited museum. Unionized, well-trained security guards used a network of cameras, integrated into an alarm system, and managed out of a command center. The combination of humans and equipment made the Met’s security presence visible, when it needed to be, and invisible the rest of the time.
“Ken, are there conservators standing by to work on this, this…?” I had no idea what to call the painting on the floor. Restoration wasn’t in his domain, but during this crisis he would be in constant contact with Florence Bracewell. Permission would have to be granted by the painting’s owner, then the insurance company would assign a conservator and send an adjuster. At least that’s ordinarily how events would unfold, but nothing about this was routine. First, who was the owner? Though York had donated it in 1998, the Met had started the process of returning it to him.
“Not so fast,” Ned said. “For now, the painting is evidence.”
I blinked to dislodge the image of crime scene techs and police officers all around me. In my mind I superimposed the murder crime scene with what would be happening if the hated and disgraced billionaire philanthropist hadn’t been murdered. If the sole victim was the treasured painting. The gallery would have been immediately secured, and it had been. Executives up the chain of command would be notified. That was done. Then the curatorial response team, or CRT, of curators and conservators would assemble. The Conservator in Charge would treat the area like a crime scene. If a sculpture or decorative arts item had been broken, pieces and shards would be photographed and documented in situ. But that’s not what had happened. Someone had hurled a substantial amount of paint on Autumn Sky with Rainbow. Why?
“Kennnn!” Everyone but Boyle York jumped at the sound of Florence Bracewell’s voice.
“The conservators?” I pleaded.
Ken looked at me, then back to Ned before racing to his boss. “Emma, I’ll tell her. Good seeing you. Let’s get together.” Over his shoulder, he called, “I heard about your new agency. Hope I never have any business to give you.”
“We’ll talk later,” Elliott said to his back. He seemed to be going for offhand, but it had been anything but a casual remark.
Just then his phone rang. “Anything around here that would leave a mark like that and is heavy enough to kill with one blow?” my husband asked while he took his phone out of his coat pocket.
Ned shook his head. “Not that we’ve found yet.”
Elliott looked at the number and chuckled in confusion. “Detective, it says you’re calling me.”
Ned patted his pants pockets and slapped the non-existent one on his shirt. “Son of a bitch! My phone’s missing.”
“Elliott Baldwin,” my husband said into the phone. Whatever the caller said made his head jerk up. “She’s here.” He put the call on speaker, never breaking eye contact with me.
“Emma?” a garbled or maybe computer-generated voice said.
I took a breath. “Who is this?” I tried to sound curious, nonthreatening, and Ned nodded encouragingly. He waved his hands in small circles. Like, keep it going.
There was an odd laugh. “What you’re looking at isn’t even the beginning. It starts tomorrow.”
Ned mouthed, “Serial killer?”
Or was he going to vandalize more works of art? “What do you mean?”
“You, Emma, and only you, can stop it.”
“I don’t know what you mean…”
Elliott touched my arm. “You want to meet,” he mouthed.
I gave him a what the hell look.
“It’s okay,” he whispered.
“Will you meet with me?” I waited for an answer. “Are you there?”
Elliott looked at his phone. “He’s gone.”
Valerie was self-soothing back in her Columbus Circle office twenty minutes after her dismissal by that plainclothes police officer, or whatever he was. The Met was on the east side of the Park and SIRA’s office building was on the south, but traffic was horrendous in the morning rush hour. Four-count breath in. Hold for four. Exhale for a count of eight. Everyone said traffic was heavy all the time in Manhattan, but why did it always seem so horrible when she was trying to get someplace?
Now she turned to the client next to her on the sofa. The handsome, not young and not old, man had flown in from Dubai. That and the cut of the bespoke suit had earned him this extra consideration of closer proximity. She hoped he knew it.
Ali was an art adviser, and he said they’d met before, though she couldn’t recall the context just then. She was more interested in knowing who he worked for, and he hadn’t shared that, either from discretion or not wanting to namedrop, or maybe his contract forbade it. She couldn’t ask; she wouldn’t ask. She had had enough rejection for one morning, thank you very much.
Why hadn’t she been asked to go inside the museum? Had Emma ever met Boyle York?
Perhaps her admin had written the name of the art collector Ali was representing on her calendar. She talked and smiled as she walked to her desk, her back to him. “Any jetlag?”
Instead of listening to his answer, she went back to wondering what the police were doing at the Met. Obviously, it had something to do with Boyle York, from what the man that showed Emma inside said, but what? She smiled in spite of herself. All she knew for sure was that the biceps on that detective were no stranger to a gym. Then Elliott had materialized out of nowhere. Was he the jealous type? Oh, maybe he was possessively jealous, or better–well, not better–maybe Elliott was also violent. Hmm.
Damn. Ali was all the information there was on the calendar entry. She was going to have to ask him. “Who are you representing?”
“Is it necessary that I say?”
“We’ll see.” Valerie walked around the desk then motioned for him to sit across from her. No more side by side sitting for you. “I just wondered if your client was a current policyholder with us.”
A slight readjustment to the angle of his neck said he had registered the change in temperature.
Her phone vibrated and she turned it over to read the news alert, while she waited for him to walk to the visitor’s chair. She spread her thumb and index finger on the screen to enlarge the font and read it again. Boyle York was dead. Cause of death has not been determined. Bullshit. She slid her finger across the screen until she found a news outlet doing its job. Believed to have been murdered. She shoved the phone away and sent it sliding like it was the actual murder weapon, then grasped the gentle edge of her desk with both hands to ground herself. It was a circa 1880, square, dining room table. The legs were four large-winged griffins, with the fifth a column in the center. Its size, and the large chair she had plunged into, served the not-so-subtle purpose of dissuading clients from any idea of trying to negotiate for a smaller fee or argue with a finding they didn’t want to hear. Like this poser in a few weeks? She took a deep breath and let its opulence work its magic on her nerves. Dead.
“Are you alright?” Ali was asking.
“No. I mean, yes. I’m fine. I’m assuming your client is the potential buyer, or is he or she the seller?” Valerie picked up her pen because she needed a prop and an excuse to look at her desk. Then she straightened her notepad and wrote a few meaningless words.
Boyle York was too rich to be dead. She shook her head. Death didn’t work like that. If it did, Jason would be alive.
Ali nodded. “The buyer.” Then he smiled and added, “Hopefully.”
She found herself smiling back at him. She replayed how he had slipped his phone into an inside breast pocket when he came in. All men should do that. It protected the line of their slacks. The image was so appealing she blinked to see it again. “Is it just one piece you need title insurance for?”
He hesitated long enough for her to have no choice but to raise her head and look at him. He was very handsome. Very few men were a perfect size, the way Ali was. He wasn’t too big or too skinny or too tall or too short. Well, maybe he was a little on the short side.
“Probably more. That hasn’t been determined.” Beeen. His British schooling showed and she shivered. “To complicate matters, one of the parties was murdered this morning.”
“Boyle York!” she said.
Ali nodded. “It is his former wife who has offered the painting for sale. And now this… You see the need for the highest degree of, uh, confidentiality? Of sensitivity.” His words hovered then glided to a smooth landing. The length of the pause had been respectful and appropriate. Damn, this guy was good.
She nodded three or four times at her new ally. Ali, her ally. Valerie almost giggled. “But, surely not one of those on loan to the Met?”
“Oh, no! No, no, no,” he repeated. “How did you know of Mr. York’s passing?”
“I was there….” It sounded so much better than admitting she learned it the same way he had – news updates on their phones.
“At the museum.” Her comment had a positive reaction on him. Please don’t ask any problematic questions.
“How was he murdered?”
“They asked me to stay and help, but I had to say no. I had to get back in time for our meeting!” Help? Her? Ha! Careful. What if he asked how she could help?
He leaned forward and shook his head in sympathy. He hadn’t questioned her rather sparse account. Relief flooded through her system. When he raised his head and spoke again, it was in a whisper, “She’s in a hurry because she’s afraid the painting might be tainted because of the tragedy of the high-rise fire associated with Mr. York and that it might lose value. Whereas, my client is worried there may be liens placed on it because of the lawsuits, which will most certainly be brought against Mr. York–or now, rather his estate.”
Valerie blew out a puff of air at the pleasure the news brought. An image of George and Amal Clooney flashed in her brain. That was who everyone would compare them to. Emma wouldn’t get all the excitement. She reeled off the reasons for title insurance. “A colleague of mine likes to say, ‘Ownership is everything.’ And here you have both the divorce, as I recall each of his divorces were acrimonious as hell, and the question of Mr. York’s responsibility for the loss of life of those people–”
“So, you’ll assign Emma Kelly to this matter?” he interrupted her.
“I met her at your lovely apartment. She was making crepes, as I recall.”
Was that when she’d met Ali? Somehow, it didn’t seem right. What did men see in Emma? After their first date, Jason had been giddy with his good luck to meet a woman like her, saying, “When she smiles at you, you know you’ve been smiled at.” To Valerie, she had a slightly androgynous look. She wanted to make sure Emma felt included, so she’d given her the job of making crepes for the New Year’s Day brunch. At family get togethers, she’d always pulled her weight, so why not. Even though she was run off her feet mingling, she made time to check on Emma in the kitchen. A couple of times the stack of crepes on the dining room table had gotten low and she had had to drop a gentle hint. After all, with over twenty people, that was going to happen. After seeing the last guest out, she was surprised to find Emma collapsed on the sofa, looking out the window. Within a week Jason, her brother, the best part of her life, was dead.
Abby, that little traitor, said she was “the coolest woman on the planet.” She had asked Emma to come early to help her with her art history homework.
Valerie explained to Ali, her Ali, that Emma worked exclusively with the firm’s international clients these days. He had such a look of disappointment.
“I’ll see what I can do to make an exception.”
That was enough for him to leave happy. He rose and she walked him to the door.
“Let’s stay in touch,” he said. “I’ll count on you as an insider to let me know when his murder is solved.”
They both tittered, like they were actual conspirators.
He reached for the doorknob and hesitated. “And you’ll let me know if Ms. Kelly is able to work on this?”
He was gone and Valerie practically skipped back to her chair, luxuriating in the soft upholstery. She crossed her legs, twitching her foot in triple time. Thirty seconds later she was reaching for her Chanel handbag and rummaging in the bottom, cursing the large size. She immediately wanted to take the criticism back, even apologize to it. With a luxury like that on your arm, you’d always be somebody. Even when she complained about the way her Wet hairbrush and Quip toothbrush took absolute ages to find or how easy it was to pull out her emergency La Perla panties when she meant to get a tissue to wipe her eyes, the fact she could own it made her feel safe. Hers was a large “Shopping Bag,” and Abby had a small “Shopping Bag.” She gave the handbag a little pat with one hand and scooped a few pills out of the bottom with the other. Her reading glasses were on the desk and were definitely needed to make out the Duloxetine, Bupropion (how the hell old was that?) and one lone Escitalopram. At the sight of the generics, her nose crinkled and she looked away. If she didn’t want to claim these babies on her health insurance, and she couldn’t, she had to settle for generic. Those people taking the name brands didn’t deserve them the way she did. She tossed the Escitalopram in her mouth and chased it with spring water.
What was Emma doing now? When Jason was alive, Emma had been so easy to get along with, but her former sister-in-law had changed. Back then she was a good subordinate at work. Clients called her “brilliant” and “intuitive” and once, okay maybe twice, “a genius.” If the client was male and deviated one inch from discussions of title issues, due diligence, or the opacity of the art market, Emma became unreadable and blanched of emotion and reaction. That usually frightened the flirt back to professionalism.
Had Valerie been right to have only one child? It was fine with Drew. He hadn’t cared one way or the other. Now she was forty-five. And separated. Separated from Drew. He told her he wanted a trial separation. He hadn’t had the balls to ask for a divorce. What if she started dating Ali? She’d rub it in Drew’s face. Or would she? Did she want to be divorced from Drew?
Her eyes drifted to the photo of Abby in her school uniform. Where was she right now? Someone else who had changed beyond recognition. That had to be because of those girls she spent so much time with. They had a language all their own. At first, Valerie could reason out what their words meant. Like, “chillax.” That was an easy one. It was quaint, downright old-world, compared to what she saw in February. The memory had her fishing for another happy pill, downing it with saliva.
She had invited Emma and Elliott to the Valentine’s party she and Drew hosted for a few parents and children from the private school Abby attended. The girls had spent the whole time texting each other, or maybe they were using an app–what was the difference, it was rude–and giggling. Valerie saw one word repeated over and over on Abby’s screen. DILTF. Then the other girls would respond yes or no, and the giggling fits would start up again. She was sure that was what they were typing. Well, once she found her glasses, she was sure. Thinking it was from a foreign language class they shared, she had used Google Translate but that know-it-all hadn’t found the word. Then she googled it! Dad I’d like to fuck! They were evaluating the grown men at the party! Then the girls began stalking Elliott, who had stayed by Emma’s side like he was velcro’d on. Valerie was sure neither of them noticed what was going on, but that week Emma had put in her notice at SIRA.
She decided to rest her eyes. Funny, she didn’t remember any of the pills acting this quickly. It was nice. Then her forehead was on her desk.
What a morning. How could Emma be so cold to her after all she’d done for her? Valerie hoped Emma didn’t know the depth of her relief that she continued to work with SIRA’s international clients and that she was still her vice president. The research a title underwriter does can’t be faked, or at least not easily, and she needed Emma to keep churning out the work, even if it meant traveling to Europe every weekend. Hmm. Did Emma not want to be home in New York? Trouble in paradise, maybe? Hmm, indeed.
Her eyes flew open, and she jerked up. Damn, she forgot she had already taken a pill.
Proud baby boomer and dog mom, Lane Stone, is the author of the Big Picture Trilogy. The Collector is the first book in the series, which explores the intersection of art and religion with an unconventional protagonist. As Cordy Abbott Lane writes the Old Town Antiques Mysteries, with Dead Men Don’t Decorate launching November, 2022. Her other series are the Pet Palace Mysteries and the Tiara Investigation Mystery series. She lives in Alexandria, Virginia during the week and Lewes, Delaware on the weekend.
She has a post-graduate certificate in Antiquities Theft and Art Crime. And is a member of SinC, MWA, and ITW. She loves to hear from readers at www.LaneStoneBooks.com and https://twitter.com/themenopausedog.
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