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Chris Norgren, museum curator and Renaissance art expert, heads to Berlin to assist in mounting a sensational exhibit: The Plundered Past—twenty priceless Old Masters looted by the Nazis, thought for decades to be lost forever, and only recently rediscovered. But things quickly get out of hand when Chris’s patrician, fastidious boss, after smelling a forgery in the lot, turns up dead the very next day—on the steps of a dismal Frankfurt brothel, of all places. Now Chris faces two daunting tasks: finding a fake ...
Chris Norgren, museum curator and Renaissance art expert, heads to Berlin to assist in mounting a sensational exhibit: The Plundered Past—twenty priceless Old Masters looted by the Nazis, thought for decades to be lost forever, and only recently rediscovered. But things quickly get out of hand when Chris’s patrician, fastidious boss, after smelling a forgery in the lot, turns up dead the very next day—on the steps of a dismal Frankfurt brothel, of all places. Now Chris faces two daunting tasks: finding a fake painting among the masterpieces and a real killer whose sights are now set on him.
First time in paperback--a marvelous mystery by an Edgar Award-winning author, featuring more of art curator/detective Chris Norgren. Chris heads to Berlin to mount a sensational exhibit of Old Masters, but soon he must find a fake among the masterpieces . . . and a real killer as well.
"It's eleven-fifteen," Tony Whitehead announced peremptorily to the assembled curatorial staff of the San Francisco County Museum of Art. "We've been at this for over two hours and we don't seem to be getting anywhere. I don't know about you, but I've had enough talk, and now I want some action. By next Wednesday morning I expect to see each department's preliminary budget on my desk with three scenarios: current-year allocation, five-percent reduction, and ten-percent reduction."
He waved away the rumble of protest. "We don't have any choice. I'll do my best with the board. That's all." He shuffled his papers together and glanced at me. "Chris, you stay, please."
While the rest of the staff glumly packed up their file folders and made for the door of the conference room, the director nodded them cheerfully out, remaining plumply ensconced in his customary Duncan Phyfe lyre-backed chair at the head of the oval, deeply polished Queene Anne table. The conference room, like most of the administrative offices in the building, was filled with handsome furnishings from the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Access to the storerooms for office decoration is one of the pleasantest, least-known perquisites of curatorial rank in an art museum.
"Chris," Tony said, folding sleek, square hands on the table and peering earnestly over them, "I'm worried about you. You didn't say a word in the meeting."
"Sorry," I said. "I don't think budget reallocation arouses me.
"I know, but I can always count on you for something constructive. Besides, you've been down in the dumps for weeks."
Months was more like it. I mumbled something and waited for him to continue. Anthony Whitehead was no casual socializer. Whenever he began a conversation in that vein—in any vein—there was a particular and well-defined end in mind. And that end was almost always to extricate himself from one of the political or administrative squeezes that pretty much constitute a museum director's life. Still, to give him credit, he was a good boss, not just a politician and a fund raiser, and eight out of ten times he had your interests in mind. Well, say six.
"I think you need a change, Chris," he said, as if he'd discovered something I wasn't aware of. Smiling, he leaned back in the chair and studied me. He picked up a pencil that had been left from the meeting and tapped it slowly on the table—first the eraser, then the point, then the eraser again.
"I've got an idea," he said with a sense of dawning wonder, as if he'd just thought of it. He laid the pencil carefully on the gleaming table. "How'd you like to spend a month or two in Europe? Salary and expenses?"
I hesitated, which may seem strange, but overseas travel is nothing extraordinary for a curator (another one of those little perks). Besides, there were some personal problems keeping me in San Francisco.
I shrugged gloomily. "I don't know, Tony. I'm not—"
The ringing of the telephone cut me off. Tony picked it up. "Yes, he is." He held it out to me and made a pious face. "Miss Culletson. For you."
Miss Culletson's telephone manner was as crisp, cool, and businesslike as her person. "I have a call for you, Dr. Norgren. Rita Dooling. I thought you might want to be interrupted.
"Oh, Lord," I muttered. I knew by now that no call from your lawyer ever turns out to be good news. Not when you're in the midst of long, messy divorce negotiations. Norgren's Law, I was thinking of calling it
"Did you want to take it in your office, or shall I have it transferred to the conference room?"
"No, I'll go to my office."
"I thought you might prefer that," Miss Culletson said in a neutral tone. "I'll ask her to hold."
"My lawyer," I said to Tony. "Can I get back to you later?"
"Make it before twelve. I'm tied up all afternoon."
I nodded, trotted to my office, picked up the telephone, and punched the appropriate button.
"Chris, we're almost there," Rita barked with her usual bluff optimism. "Bev's agreed to everything; our entire counteroffer."
I'd heard this before. "But," I said.
"Well, yes; but." She cleared her throat. "She's tossed in a new wrinkle. Nothing we can't live with when you think in terms of the whole picture."
Our counteroffer ... nothing we can't live with.... It was certainly nice to have a lawyer who suffered through these things with you.
"What she wants," Rita continued, "is nine-and-three-quarters percent of the royalties on your book."
"Nine and ... of Jan van der Meer van Delft?" I was surprised and angry in about equal measure. What right did Bev feel she had to any part of the Vermeer book? I'd put together almost all of it in a twelve-week burst of desperate energy during the bleak, miserable period right after she'd left me fourteen months before. "No," I said, "absolutely not," and caved in immediately. "Maybe five percent."
"Well, now, Chris, I don't think we should—"
"Why exactly nine-and-three-quarters percent, for Christ's sake? Why not ten?"
"It's a little complicated," Rita said with a laugh, relieved that I wasn't rejecting the idea outright. "From what she told her attorney, you and your publisher got together on August twenty-sixth last year to lay out the idea of the book. Does that sound right?"
"I don't know. I suppose so." Bev, I had been learning, to my cost, was seldom wrong on dates or figures.
"And the manuscript was submitted on March twenty-seventh? Is that correct?" I agreed that it probably was, although how Bev knew, I had no idea.
"All right," Rita said, "the thing is, exactly forty-two days after that first meeting with your publisher, you and Bev separated; October sixth."
That date I could vouch for. Black Saturday. Rita was being kind when she used the word separated. Bev had simply up and left me. I'd gotten back after a couple of hours at the museum—I'd wanted to look over a fine Mantegna Head of Saint Paul that we'd just gotten from Geneva—and she just wasn't there. No notes, no arguments, no civilized adult discussions, no nothing. At breakfast she'd been the same as usual; we'd laughed over coffee and even talked about going to dinner in Chinatown. It took two wretched days—contacting the police, the highway patrol, every hospital within fifty miles of San Francisco—before I found out where she was: in Marin County, living with a stockbroker I'd never heard of.
I hadn't suspected a thing, hadn't known anything was seriously wrong. We'd had nothing remotely resembling a fight for years. Afterward, one of my friends, a relentlessly well-meaning psychotherapist named Louis, tried to explain things.
"I'm not surprised, Chris," he'd said soberly. "You have a lot of trouble legitimizing authentic confrontation, you know, particularly in dyadic interrelationships." Well, Louis was right. Facing up to interpersonal problems wasn't my long suit. I wasn't sure I'd faced up to this one even yet.
"Anyway," Rita was saying, "August twenty-sixth to March twenty-seventh is two hundred fifteen days, and forty-two is nineteen-and-a-half percent of two-fifteen, and nine and three quarters is fifty percent of nineteen and a half. Community property. Capisce?"
"Sort of, but why is she making a point of it? It's not exactly going to be a best-seller; if it earns two-thousand dollars, it'll be a miracle. Does she really care that much about ... what would it be, two hundred dollars? What happened to her big stockbroker boyfriend?" I bit my lip. Did divorces make everybody childish, or just me?
"It's not the money. She's very strong on the principle of the thing, Chris."
I sighed. I was learning more about Bev in divorce than I had in ten years of marriage. "Rita, tell me something. Is this what divorces are usually like, or is Bev being a little, well, strange?"
Rita's beery chuckle rumbled over the telephone. "Yes and yes. This is what they're usually like, and you better believe people get a little strange. Including you, if you don't mind my saying so. Look, Chris, don't you think we can afford another two hundred bucks and be done with it?"
Yes, I said, I supposed I—we—could afford another two hundred dollars, but I doubted if we were done with it. Rita said I was getting awfully mopey and pessimistic, and why didn't I shape up? And, oh yes, there was one other little glitch.
"Ah," I said.
"She knows you love Murphy, and she wants you to have him."
"Mm," I said. Murphy was the dog.
"She says if you let her keep the car, she'll be happy to let you keep Murphy."
"She ... she ... a new, eight-thousand-dollar car ... and I get the dog?"
"I thought you were fond of him."
"I am, I am, but how could she ... I mean, does she think I'm a, a—"
"I figured you might not go for it."
"Rita, I thought all that was finished, settled. We worked out the car months ago."
"It's not settled until you both sign that piece of paper, my friend."
"Well, I'm not agreeing to it," I said truculently. "Anyway, where does she come off having anything to say about poor Murph? She abandoned him too, you know. No warnings, no good-byes—" I clamped my mouth shut. Rita was right; I was getting pretty strange.
"Well, look, Chris, here's what I think we should do. I think we ought to get us all together again, sit down, and talk through these things like rational adults. I think you need to try to see Bev's side a little. From her point of view, this is all a way of affirming her adulthood, her independence as an integrated human being, not just a—"
"Rita, I've got to go now. I'll be in touch."
I caught Tony as he was slipping into his coat to leave for lunch.
"I'd love to go to Europe for a couple of months," I said. And meant it.
I had known from the start what he'd been referring to. A year earlier, the museum had bid for and won a contract from the Department of Defense to organize and administer Treasures of Four Centuries: The Plundered Past Recovered. This was to be an extraordinary exhibition of twenty paintings lent by Claudio Bolzano, an eminent Italian collector. Bolzano often lent and sometimes gave his paintings to public galleries, but this, as far as I knew, was the first show totally devoted to his pieces. All twenty had been seized by the Nazis in World War II and then, after the war, recovered and returned to him by the U.S. military, in some cases after decades of diligent investigation. The Plundered Past would be shown at six American bases in Europe, and each showing would coincide with a "good neighbor" open house at the base.
The idea of this show was the brainchild of an army colonel named Mark Robey, and the object was to provide some favorable exposure for U.S. forces in the face of an increasingly hostile European press. The San Francisco Museum had contracted to supply an exhibition director who would be responsible for compiling the catalog, providing expert consultation, and "performing other duties as required during the course of the project."
The impetus for this unusual undertaking had been the amazing discovery of a cache of three Nazi-appropriated Old Masters that had disappeared forty years before without a trace. The treasure had been uncovered by the American military, true enough, but not by the celebrated MFA and A—the army's Monuments, Fine Arts and Archives Unit. It had, in fact, been found completely by accident.
A twenty-year-old soldier named Norman Porritch, stationed at McGraw Kaserne in Munich, had spent the weekend in Salzburg, and on Saturday he had taken a guided tour of the famous old salt mine in nearby Hallstatt. Porritch, a gangling spelunker from Kentucky, had had a flashlight with him, ready for whatever opportunity might arise, and, ignoring the guide's instructions to stay with the group, he had wandered off into a beckoning side tunnel. There, he had been drawn by a black hole in the wall seven feet above the mine floor. He had clambered up, and with his first step knocked over an old, lichen-encrusted wooden crate, which tipped over the two crates behind it like so many dominoes.
The resulting clatter had brought the guide scurrying and shouting, and by the time the fuss died down a few days later, Porritch's homely grin was familiar around the world. Signor Bolzano had come forward with tears and gratitude (a new Alfa-Romeo for Porritch) to claim the Vermeer, the Titian, and the Rubens that had been "liberated" by the fleeing Nazis from his palazzo in Florence in August 1944.
Colonel Robey, a high-ranking member of the army's European Community Relations staff, had recommended that the three great paintings be the nucleus for an exhibition of art tracked down since the war by the American military, and that Bolzano, a beneficiary many times over of the MFA and A's work, be asked to lend several other paintings to complete the show.
When the contract had been awarded to the San Francisco Museum six months before, Tony had asked Peter van Cortlandt to take the job. This was as it should have been. Peter was the chief curator of art, my immediate boss. An internationally respected authority on nineteenth-century painting, with thirty years' experience overseeing major exhibitions, he was the man the Defense Department had had in mind from the beginning, and he had gone to Europe on eight months' leave.
And now, Tony explained to me, the Defense Department had funded a deputy-director position to take some of the work load off Peter's shoulders, and I was just the man for it. From Tony's perspective—not that he said so—it meant he would be saving my salary for a couple of months, which would help in the new budget, and he would be getting my temporarily gloomy and unproductive self out from underfoot.
From mine it meant a deeply needed respite. I was suddenly tired to death of budget reallocations, tired of San Francisco, tired of my lonely Victorian off Divisadero, tired of the endless, petty squabbling with Bev. This last was done almost entirely through Rita. Bev and I had spoken only twice since she'd left, and both times I'd wound up shouting at her, practically foaming at the mouth. That had shaken me, if not her. I couldn't recall ever having been truly, quiveringly furious with anyone else in my life, and certainly I'd never been reduced to incoherent raving. The divorce was teaching me a few unwelcome things about myself too.
All in all, a few months in Europe sounded like just what I needed. Moreover, as Tony was quick to point out, Peter had already done the hard work.
"Everything's going smoothly, as far as I know," he told me. "Oh, they've got a few minor problems, of course, but nothing special."
"What will I be doing, exactly?"
"You'll be the deputy director."
"I know, but what am I supposed to do?"
"Well, you know, assist Peter, provide technical advice to Robey, that kind of thing."
"Thanks. That's very instructive."
Tony shrugged a little further into his coat and began to button it "Look, to be perfectly candid, I don't really know what you'll be doing. As far as I can see, there's barely enough to keep one man busy, let alone two. I think you're going to wind up with an all-expenses-paid vacation, but what the hell."
"What the hell," I agreed. "So what do I do first?"
"Just show up in Berlin Wednesday. That's where it opens next."
"You mean next Wednesday?"
"Sure, why not? What else have you got going?"
"Are you kidding? All kinds of things."
"Those budget scenarios, for one thing."
"Forget them. I'll take care of them. You know I'm not going to cut your department. And you know Sawacki can run Renaissance and Baroque for you for a couple of months. What else do you have to do?"
"What else? Well ..." But what else was there, aside from getting someone to take care of Murphy and having the mail held? My life at the time was not exactly overfull. "Maybe I can make it. Where in Berlin do I go?"
'Tempelhof. You know where it is?"
"No, but isn't that where—"
"The planes came in for the Berlin airlift, right. It's an American air base now, and the show's going to be in the officers-club building—Columbia House, I think it's called." Tony looked importantly at his watch, as if a hundred more urgent things pressed him. No doubt they did. He put a few papers into his attache case and zipped it up. "Well."
Excerpted from A Deceptive Clarity by Aaron Elkins. Copyright © 1987 Aaron Elkins. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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Posted June 2, 2013