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Art investigator Madison Dupre knew the offer was too good to be true: $20,000 for a quick trip to Dubai, the fantastic Arabian Nights city on the Persian Gulf. The call came from Sir Henri Lipton, a man who was supposed to be dead—and who she sincerely had hoped was burning in hell because he had ruined her career before his violent “demise.” He told her only one tantalizing thing about the piece of art: “Let’s just say it’s a couple thousand years old and was buried with Christ.” ...
Art investigator Madison Dupre knew the offer was too good to be true: $20,000 for a quick trip to Dubai, the fantastic Arabian Nights city on the Persian Gulf. The call came from Sir Henri Lipton, a man who was supposed to be dead—and who she sincerely had hoped was burning in hell because he had ruined her career before his violent “demise.” He told her only one tantalizing thing about the piece of art: “Let’s just say it’s a couple thousand years old and was buried with Christ.” The fact the offer came from a man wanted on three continents for art looting was fair warning that there would be a catch.
But with credit collectors and an avaricious landlord pounding at her door, Madison listened when the devil whispered magic words in her ear: $20,000– cash – upfront. There was a catch, of course. A number of them. Sir Henri was up to his neck in conspiracies and needed someone to deflect the danger onto—not to mention frame for the most audacious art theft in history. Dubai, a city that has been called Las Vegas on steroids, would just be the first stop for Madison on a quest that takes her to an ancient Mesopotamian city, the dark streets of exotic Istanbul, Venice at Carnival time, and a cathedral where the most sacred object of Christendom is stored. Along the way, she finds romance in the arms of a Russian agent who she doesn’t trust—and can’t resist.
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Death by Orgasm
It was one of those days I should have stayed in bed, hidden under the blankets; a day during which I discovered that not all secrets stay buried, nor do the dead always remain in their graves.
Having had only four hours of sleep, I could have slept for several more, but I had an appointment with an important client who lived on the Upper East Side of Manhattan and I had already pressed the snooze button twice on my alarm clock.
I finally dragged myself out of bed when the alarm went off a third time.
I wasn’t in a good mood.
Losing sleep because I had been up until the wee hours partying would have made the loss more bearable, but instead I had gone to bed feeling lonely, and woke up in the middle of the night with flashes of the wrong turns I’d made in life racing through my mind on fast-forward.
Meeting this client was especially important because she was the only customer of my art inquiries business at the moment.
Nearly a year had passed since bad decisions and worse karma had roared through my life like a tsunami and I was still trying to pick up the pieces and stay on my feet. Overnight I went from a high-paying job and the Good Life, Manhattan-style, to wearing down shoe leather and popping antacids as I tried to get an art consulting business going.
Madison Dupre, Art Inquiries, that’s me. I didn’t deal in paintings, which is what most people usually imagine when the word “art” is mentioned. My field is antiquities.
The traditional definition of an antiquity is an artifact dating back to ancient times, from around the fall of the Roman Empire fifteen hundred years ago and back thousands of years. That wouldn’t include medieval times, but I use the word “antiquities” to include pieces made before the late Re nais sance, which means anything made later than about four or five hundred years ago.
The word “art” is also used broadly. The marble statue of the Venus de Milo was created by a Greek artist as a piece of art more than two thousand years ago; the plain clay cup that the artist drank wine from while sculpting the statue is also considered an objet d’art today, something that collectors might well pay a small fortune for.
If it’s ancient and rare, it’s worth a great deal of money. If it’s also something beautiful to behold … well, a price can’t be put on the Venus de Milo, but I’ve seen porcelain vases gofor thirty, forty million dollars and some art pieces fetch more than a hundred million.
As you might imagine, private art collecting on that level is a billionaire’s sport.
Buying, selling, collecting, appraising, and authenticating antiquities is an exciting business, one that I’ve had a love for since an early age. It’s not just exquisite workmanship that stirs my emotions, but also that every piece has a story because it came out of a page of history.
When I look at a shard from broken Egyptian earthenware, I don’t just see a chip from a clay jug; instead, knowing the history of Egypt, I imagine the splendor and pageantry of the pharaohs, the enigmatic Sphinx and Great Pyramids rising from the desert sands, and even the time I sailed on the Nile in a felucca when I was researching a—oh, God, those were the days.
These days the only sailing I did occurred when I occasionally got a cold wind behind me as I wore out shoe leather trudging down long New York blocks trying to drum up business.
I have a master’s in art history, a minor in archeology, and a decade of work as a successful museum curator. As Oscar Wilde probably once said about his own talent, that should have been enough. But a vengeful God, that dark lady called Luck, bad karma, or what ever, hadn’t finished punishing me for my transgressions.
Not that I felt that guilty—I had made a mistake, but when I found out that a three-thousand-year-old antiquity, which had survived the ravages of war, nature, greed, and ignorance, was in danger, I did what was necessary to save it. Unfortunately, instead of getting a medal, my career and reputation took a hit as if they had been embraced by a suicide bomber at the moment the button was pushed.
If I could do it all over again, I would do things a little differently, but my primary concern would still be to make sure the artifact was honored and protected.
The woman I had to see was one relic I wouldn’t have minded if someone had dropped and broken.
A genuine Bitch with a capital B—pushy and annoying—she had already changed her mind twice about buying a piece of art that I appraised and authenticated for her. I had a feeling she was about to change her mind again. The woman was wealthy but had the worst possible traits when it came to buying art—she had bad taste and haggled endlessly over prices.
Someday the woman would be arguing with the dev il about her place in hell.
I hadn’t been paid yet for the work I’d done for her and I had a Bastard with a capital B of a landlord who was hoping to take my overdue rent out in trade—and not the art kind.
I have discovered a quirky thing about life—when you’re really down and don’t need to be kicked again, you put out a scent that tells unhappy, neurotic jerks that you’re available and vulnerable. When I was up, I would have blown past these kinds of people without noticing they were alive. Now I had to tiptoe around them and hope they didn’t know I was alive.
I quickly showered and dressed. I had selected my clothes the night before, a habit that my mother instilled in me when I was a little girl. It saved a few minutes in the morning, especially helpful if you were running late.
I grabbed a cup of coffee and a blueberry muffin at the local deli on my way to the subway station. The coffee was steaming hot the way I liked it, and the muffin was surprisingly good, but I was still in a grumpy mood. When I got to the subway, I missed the train by thirty seconds, which added to my irritableness.
During the night I’d only gotten a few hours of deep sleep before a couple in an apartment below me decided to wake up everybody in the building with their loud arguing. Every once in a while someone yelled for them to shut up and/or die soon and even more vulgar suggestions, but it didn’t do any good, not until the police finally arrived.
I usually woke up in the wee hours anyway—and not just because New York is a city that never sleeps, the middle of the night being the haunt of trash collectors, sirens, construction crews, delivery trucks, traffic, and anything else that makes noise.
I lay awake and miserable because I couldn’t shut down the video in my head that replayed all of my sins and mistakes. It was like being forced to watch an excruciatingly bad movie, over and over, while tied to a chair with my eyelids taped open.
In the good old days—less than a year ago—I had slept peacefully when I lived on the Upper East Side. Not only were things a lot quieter there than in my present breadbox-sized studio apartment on the cusp of Chinatown, Little Italy, and SoHo in lower Manhattan, but my nerves were not on fire. Those champagne days were gone, much too quickly. How does that line from an old poem go? They are not long, the days of wine and roses …
As I waited for the train, I swore an oath to stop feeling sorry for myself and agonizing about the past. I had to get rid of the negative and emphasize the positive—but not this morning. Not until after I got paid by the rich Bitch with a heart of stone and dreadful taste in art.
I got off the subway at Fifty-ninth Street and started walking toward Sixty-fourth, an area of the city noted for its wealthy inhabitants in the old days and where not a few rich people still resided. I knew it was a cliché but as I walked I kept thinking about how the rich were so very different from everyone else. They had different problems than the rest of us, and money, the root of all the current evils plaguing me, wasn’t one of them.
The Upper East Side ran north and south from about Fifty-ninth Street to Ninety-sixth Street and east and west from Fifth Avenue to the East River. My place had been in the upper Eighties, a pent house with a park view not far from where I used to work at the Piedmont Museum on the stretch of Fifth Avenue known as Museum Mile. The area included a dozen or so museums, some world-class, with the Metropolitan topping the list.
When I made big money, I planned to find my way uptown again, maybe this time to the Upper West Side near the park. It was younger and hipper than the old money side and had come into its own with lots of cafés and shops. It wasn’t cheap, either. Nothing was cheap about Manhattan, not even the walk-up studio I had now, a zillion blocks from the haughty uptown districts.
One of the things I missed about living close to Central Park was the beautiful architecture of the residential buildings. The tree-lined streets were also calm and peaceful. It was one of the quietest and cleanest areas in the city. Who wouldn’t want to live here? You only needed about three or four million to buy even a small town house on a side street. Sure, no problem. Even renting one of these places could set you back more money a month than the average person earned in a year.
The most palatial mansions and apartment houses were found along Fifth Avenue and Park Avenue stretching from the mid-Sixties to the Nineties. Some had been mansions of nineteenth-century barons of railroads and industry and were now subdivided into apartments and condos. The really exclusive buildings had multifloor units with a dozen rooms. One of these was where my former employer, Hiram Piedmont, lived. He occupied the top two floors.
Hiram never worked a day in his life and had everything money could buy—including his own museum in an era when possession of a “priceless” piece of art was viewed as a trophy akin to owning a baseball team or a Kentucky Derby winner.
When things got tough, his money sheltered him. He taught me a lesson about rich people that F. Scott Fitzgerald noted a long time ago—the rich can be careless with other people’s lives.
Hiram had wanted a world-class museum and I gave it to him. My expertise in antiquities centered on the region in and around the Mediterranean—mostly Greek, Roman, Egyptian, and Mesopotamian.
I focused Hiram’s museum on the Babylonian era and found him pieces that were displayed in movielike sets that brought out the magnificence not only of the ancient artifacts but brought home to the viewer the cultural context. For instance, rather than having a sword displayed under glass in a case or mounted on the wall, I had the sword put in the hand of a character from the same historical era … and with the character in battle.
I did make a little mistake—okay, about fifty-five million dollars’ worth of mistake, when I bought a looted antiquity at auction. I could have kept my mouth shut and kept my job, but in the end, I had to do the right thing. And I’d do the same thing again if I had to do it all over. But I had a lot of help getting up to my tush in alligators, including a push and a shove from Hiram, to whom that kind of money was chump change.
When things got really tough, his faithful employee—me—was thrown to the wolves, along with all my status symbols: not just my pent house and sports car, but an actual parking space that cost more per month than I pay now for my studio apartment. The wolves also devoured my exclusive, by-invitation-only black American Express Card, which had been my own measurement that I had “made it.”
Gone were the days of going to expensive restaurants and shopping at high-end stores and boutiques on Fifth Avenue. I eventually sold most of my jewelry and expensive clothes for food and shelter. Most of my clothes now came from the sale racks at clothing stores in my neighborhood, and splurging on dinner meant takeout from the local deli and my favorite Thai and Chinese restaurants.
Since I no longer got a steady paycheck, I became more frugal about how I spent my money. I was self-employed now as an art appraiser and investigator and I got paid when clients paid me, which wasn’t always in a timely manner. The wealthy were often worse in paying than the not-so-wealthy, but they were also the ones who bought high-ticket art and antiquities.
Passing a small art gallery, I quickly popped inside to drop off my business card and a pamphlet with my qualifications—minus the fact I had once been innocently involved in one of the great antiquities frauds in history.
Unfortunately, the international art trade was literally a cottage industry with all the major players knowing—and spying on—each other. It wasn’t easy to keep a low profile when you had once been a player.
In the past, I went to auctions at Christie’s and Sotheby’s in New York and London. Bought vases and statues, jewelry and swords, and anything else old and rare and desirable, even a mummy once, spending millions with a flick of my numbered auction house paddle.
Now I wore out my shoes and pride cold-calling galleries and antiques shops whose entire collections often didn’t amount to the tens of millions I once—
Shit! I had to stop my whining and crying over spilled milk and what ever else I was drowning in and keep telling myself to think positive, radiate good vibes, feel grateful for having good health … but all that went to hell when I got hounded by credit collectors.
I have actually made friends with one of the collectors, a “Mrs. Garcia”—which I found out is not her real name. When the message I scribbled on the Saks bills I received, “Deceased—Return to Sender,” didn’t fool anyone, Mrs. Garcia began a relentless phone call campaign.
Now we exchange pleasantries when she calls to remind me that I haven’t gone through on my last promise to send money (a promise made not only with my fingers crossed, but contingent upon getting a fee I never got). When she calls, we talk about how hard things are for working people, how her son is doing poorly in school and can’t stay out of trouble, and I tell her war stories about dealing with rich people and how it’s harder to pry money from them than to extract teeth from snapping alligators …
As I left the gallery, my cell phone rang. I looked at the number and groaned. It was Mrs. Bitch, the collector from hell.
Please don’t change your mind again.
I answered the phone in a professionally pleasant voice. “Hi, Mrs. Winthrop. I’m on my way to your place.”
“Don’t bother,” she said.
“I’m just a few blocks away—”
Excerpted from Harold Robbins’: The Shroud by Junius Podrug.
Copyright © 2009 by Jann Robbins.
Published in October 2010 by Tom Doherty Associates Book.
All rights reserved. This work is protected under copyright laws and reproduction is strictly prohibited. Permission to reproduce the material in any manner or medium must be secured from the Publisher.
Excerpted from The Shroud by Harold Robbins Copyright © 2010 by Harold Robbins. Excerpted by permission.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
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Posted August 15, 2009
In New York City, dishonored antiquities expert Madison Dupre struggles to make a living ever since her reputation was shattered by the duplicitous late Sir Henry Lipton. Whenever she thinks of the man who destroyed her, she prays he is burning in hell.
Thus when her former associate calls her proving his death was an exaggeration, she is disappointed he still lives. However, Sir Henri, wanted on at lest three continents for art theft, offers her a deal she would love to refuse, but the $20,000 is desperately needed so she agrees to join him in Dubai in search of a painting of Jesus allegedly interred with him in his tomb just after the crucifixion. Sir Henri has an impatient client, Boris Alexandrovich Nevsky, eager to add the artifact to his collection. As she soon escapes death in Dubai, Istanbul and elsewhere, Madison knows she should have said no although the Russian is quite a hunk even if she distrusts him outside the boudoir.
The follow up to the LOOTERS is a typical Junius Podrug version of the late Harold Robbins' thrillers: filled with sex, sex, action, and sex in exotic locations that add to the intrigue of a heroine as a stranger in a strange land. The story line is fun to follow as Madison is having a good time dodging assassins though the plot is thin and too much in style like the "franchise" even with a strong religious element throughout the tale. Still fans of Mr. Robbins will have a good time following the lead female's escapisms as Mr. Podrug provides an entertaining thriller.