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The multi-award-winning author of The Gladstone Bag and An Owl Too Many presents "another good-humored, entertaining whodunit"(Baltimore Sun), starring an engaging husband-and-wife sleuthing team. Recently restored objets d'art begin to vanish from the homes of Boston's high society, and the trail of their disappearance leads Sarah and Max to a lost treasure, a curse--and murder.
"Max, are you quite sure you don't want me to go with you?"
Sarah Kelling Bittersohn watched anxiously as her husband picked his way down the front steps of the ancestral brownstone. Sarah's ancestors, not Max's. Kellings had been among the first to fork over their six shillings to the Reverend William Blaxton for a building lot on the peninsula of Boston, to cast their votes for John Winthrop as the Massachusetts Bay Colony's first governor, and to side with him against Deputy Governor Thomas Dudley in the dispute over making Boston its capital. Their side had won, of course. Kellings had never had any trouble figuring out which side of the bread would wind up with the butter.
By now there had been Kellings on Beacon Hill for going on four hundred years; Sarah had been born and brought up here. Even after she'd remarried and moved to the North Shore, she hadn't been able to bring herself to sell the Tulip Street house she'd inherited from her first husband, who'd also been her father's fifth cousin. Her Cousin Brooks Kelling and his wife, Theonia, were living here as caretakers, paying the utility bills and doing the endless repairs so old a place demanded.
It had gone without saying that the Bittersohns would continue using the house as a pied-à-terre whenever they pleased. They hadn't planned to spend the summer on Beacon Hill, though, until Max, a private detective specializing in the recovery of art objects, had landed in Massachusetts General Hospital with a badly fractured leg and an assortment of broken ribs, results of an altercation with two unprincipled persons who'd been reluctant to part from the Goya they'd taken such elaborate pains to steal.
By now, the ribs had knitted nicely and the leg was responding to therapy. Max had progressed from a walker to crutches to a handsome silver-headed cane, once the property of Sarah's Great-Uncle Frederick, who was by now deceased and tucked away in the family vault to the unspoken relief of many and the expressed delight of a few. For the past couple of weeks, Max and Sarah had been taking short strolls together, down Charles Street to the hospital for Max's therapy treatments or over to the Public Gardens, where there were benches to sit on and plenty to see.
They'd even penetrated the Back Bay alphabetically from Arlington to Berkeley to Clarendon, then on to Dartmouth and Exeter. Max wasn't yet up to Fairfield, Gloucester, or Hereford, but his hopes were high. Today he'd decided to solo, Sarah couldn't blame him for that. A man used to striding the world as if he were breasting a forty-mile gale all the way must have found it irksome to be trammeled by sudden infirmity and, possibly, by an overanxious wife.
She told herself to go inside and leave him alone, but she didn't go. Tulip Street's brick sidewalks were part of Boston's history, picturesque to look at but hell to walk on for a man with a cane and a steel-pinned femur; narrow, uneven, and worn slippery by many generations of feet, not to mention a number of dauntless backsides. Written large in the annals of Beacon Hill was the story of the time when the city fathers had got the idea of ripping out the old bricks and replacing them with smooth, up-to-date, easily maintained asphalt. Tradition-minded residents had thwarted these evil machinations by the simple expedient of planting their own bean-broadened buttocks on their beloved bricks and refusing to budge till the vandals went away.
It had been Frederick Kelling who'd led the fight on that historic occasion, carrying the selfsame cane Max was using today. Cousin Brooks had fitted a new nonslip rubber tip to the ferrule, Max was neither slipping nor tripping. Sarah saw him to the corner, blew a kiss when he turned to wave, and went inside.
Max's plan was to cross Beacon and walk across Boston Common to his office in the Little Building, which is in fact rather large. Originally he'd used the office only now and then. Since his marriage to Sarah, the one-man firm had become a family affair. Brooks, a trained ornithologist, and Renaissance man, was proving even wilier at snaring crooks than he was at netting birds for banding. Theonia, half grande dame and half gipsy fortune-teller, lent her multiple talents as occasion demanded. Even Sarah went out on a job when she could spare the time, though her primary concerns were the research and the increasingly complicated paperwork.
They'd all been carrying on as best they could while Max was laid up. As soon as he'd been able to hold a phone, he'd started running up astronomical long-distance telephone bills to his many free-lance operatives in various parts of the world. Brooks and Theonia had been doing what traveling was necessary. Sarah had stayed put to care for Max and their young son, Davy, with the help of henchpersons Mariposa and Charles, whom Sarah had hired as maid and butler during her widowhood, when the brownstone had temporarily been turned into a boardinghouse.
Davy was walking and talking well now, and exhibiting the same investigative zeal as his father. Sarah had decided it was time to augment their staff by a nanny, a secretary, or possibly both; but she hadn't yet got around to interviewing anybody. Max was mulling over the pros and cons, making good time across the Common and not feeling the pain in his leg to any unbearable degree, when his attention was arrested by a steam whistle shrieking his name.
"Ah, my God, the magnificent Max! What is happen to you?"
The sun was in his eyes. No, it wasn't. He was merely catching the dazzle that was being reflected from dozens of tiny mirrors sewn into a white gauze scarf roughly the same length as the one that had strangled Isadora Duncan by getting caught in the wheel of her motorcar. Its ends were floating free and easy in the summer breeze for about a yard and a half behind its wearer. This was a tall, gauntly elegant woman wearing a black sateen walking suit, circa 1912, with white lapels all the way down to the knees and a slit in the hobble skirt to make walking possible though not convenient. Black kid gloves, a rolled-up black parasol, and a broad-brimmed black straw hat of the same vintage, laden with the tail feathers of several game cocks and worn very much on one side, made a smashing climax to the tout ensemble.
"Good God!" said Max.
The woman under the hat found his reaction amusing. "Is just me, not even angel of lowest rank, though I strive to improve my image. You see me now as respectable Boston Brahma."
Max had seen Lydia Ouspenska in many bizarre outfits and in the company of many strange companions, few of whom could by any stretch of the imagination have been called respectable. Some were petty thieves, some small-time con artists, some peddlers of inferior or downright counterfeit narcotics. One had been a Grade A, big-time swindler, thief, and murderer. To the best of his knowledge, Lydia had never been a conscious participant in any of their chicaneries; but most of the minnows had used her in one way or another, and the kingfish had very nearly succeeded in killing her.
It had been Sarah and Max who'd rushed the near-corpse to the hospital and sat through a long, ghastly night waiting to know whether the old girl was ever going to wake up again. Now what the hell had she got herself into? Max took a firmer grip on Uncle Fred's cane and groped his way to a bench.
"Sit down, Lydia, and take a load off your parasol. I haven't seen you in ages. Where've you been keeping yourself?"
Max realized too late that he'd made an awkward choice of words. Countess Ouspenska, as Lydia preferred to be known, would never have been keeping herself if she could have found a man to do it for her. During recent years things hadn't been too brisk in the demimondaine department. The last he knew, the aging siren had been scraping a meager living by painting antique Byzantine icons and selling them through one of her so-called friends. Being a true artist, Lydia had pulled off some masterful forgeries, but each took a long time to do and her pal had no doubt swindled her on their prices. When last Max had seen her, she'd been thin as a rail and pale as a ghost.
Now Lydia was more svelte than skinny, the desperate hollows under her cheekbones had filled out enough to make her look less like a Käthe Kollwitz charcoal drawing and more like a fashion sketch by Erté. Whether her color was any better would have been impossible to say without excavating, but her maquillage was a work of art in the Byzantine style. Her dark eyes were aglow, she'd had work done on her teeth; she was no longer the wreck of a beautiful woman, but a beautiful woman growing older with grace and dignity. Lydia furled her scarf and took her seat on the bench with a haughty disregard of pigeon droppings.
"I am keeping myself in Boston but no longer at Fenway Studio. You like my chapeau?"
"The hat's great. The whole outfit's great. You look great, Lydia."
"You sound monotonous, Bittersohn. What has happening to you? And where is your beautiful dragoness?"
"Home taking care of the kid. We've got a son." Max reached for his wallet but Lydia grabbed his wrist.
"You show me baby pictures, I scream for cops and claim molesting. Is too depressing, the handsome Max turning to bon bourgeois papa with child on knee and maybe soon hair falling out. Where is beau boulevardier Champagne Charlie of yesteryear?"
Max Bittersohn had worked his way through high school, college, and graduate school; he'd been working ever since. His hair was not falling out. His excursions into la dolce vita had been few, brief, and strictly in the line of business. He shrugged.
"You sure you haven't got me mixed up with a few other guys?"
"Is possible," Lydia conceded. "Who can keep track? Me, I am still bohemian at heart but less so since having gainful employment in congenial company with perquisites of office."
"What company is this?" Max asked warily.
"The Resurrection Man."
"Burke or Hare?"
"Ha! You make a witty. Do not try to jive me, bozo, I am hep to Burke and Hare. The Resurrection Man is not grave robbers digging up bodies for medical students to cut up in spirit of scientific research, is resurrection of great art from trash bins. Also sometimes of not so great art, only sentimental value like letters tied with blue among my souvenirs, but who cares? So long as clients willing to pay, we happy to resurrect."
Being a highly intelligent man, Max was able to deduce what the self-styled countess was talking about. "What you mean is, you're doing restoration work?"
"Jawohl, mein tovarich. I fix. He fixes. They fix. We all fix. In atelier each has specialization. Mine is Byzantine icons, figurez-vous. Also I gild. In Byzantine icons is much gilding, I don't have to tell you, but also in frames, in bookbinding, in illuminated manuscripts, in etcetera is gilding. Is more etcetera than icons coming through the atelier, also in churches not removable from walls is halos and many etceteras to regild, so I make house calls on saints and martyrs, even. Is very elevating but I like better in atelier with comrades of the fix. This week I gild a cage for an old bird who would like to put me in, I think. But I do not kootchy-mootchy with clients, is not good for corporate image. Also Barto raise hell if he catch me."
"Barto being the Resurrection Man?"
"Runs a taut ship, does he? What's his real name?"
"Barto is Bartolo Arbalest. Is possible you do not know?"
"No, I've never heard of him. I thought I knew all the restorers around Boston. Where's the studio?"
"I cannot tell. Is top secret."
"You don't say? So how does Arbalest get his clients?"
"Through recommendations from galleries, auction rooms, antique dealers. Clients telephone for interview or write to box number. Is for their own protection, Barto explains. Thieves not know where clients' treasures are, not come to steal. Nobody minds if for tight security; Barto don't have to carry so heavy insurance, only that part he don't tell. He goes to client, makes appraisal of value, states fee for resurrection, take or leave. Almost always they take, Barto is very persuadable. Expert work, dependable service with written guarantee, no phone calls after business hours. Barto is first-rate operator."
"He sounds like one." To Max, Bartolo Arbalest also sounded like the answer to a swindler's prayer. "How come no phone calls after business hours?"
"Because from six to eight, Bartolo cooks. At eight we eat, is ritual solemn and uplifting. We are all wearing green velvet smocks and floppy berets with flowing silk tie in Rembrandt style. I am only one without beard, is pleasant contrast."
"Naturally it would be," Max agreed gallantly. "Why the smocks and berets?"
"Is more meaningful than soup and fish with silly little bow like cat's whiskers. We are of the new renaissance, we dress according."
"And after dinner you get to lick the dishes clean?"
"Bah, Bittersohn, you grow stupid with fatherhood. For dishes is serf in peasant costume with sleeves rolled up. Also to clean house and make beds in Hanseatic style with feathers inside. We are classy outfit, I can tell you."
"I can well believe it," Max replied somewhat abstractedly. "Are you saying you and the rest of the crew all live there with Arbalest?"
"Not crew. Is guild. Is time-honored custom for master and assistants to live together, though not much practiced since about maybe fifteenth century, except apprentices not getting paid and needing to be kept alive for purposes of exploitation. Great advantage of living together is everybody get to atelier on time not too hung over to do good day's work. Bartolo covers all bases, is no flies on him."
"No flies?" Max was outraged. "How the hell does Arbalest think he can run a medieval guild without any flies?"
Lydia Ouspenska shrugged and began adjusting her scarf. "Flies more authentic, I grant, but get stuck to paint and gilding size, disturb concentration by buzzing around. Voting by guild members is one hundred percent in favor of no flies, for reasons of not having wings and feet and mangled bodies providing more authenticity than clients care to live with. I must go. I am in quest of truffles for Barto to make pâté."
"Shouldn't you have brought a pig along with you to sniff them out?"
"You are amuse, Bittersohn, but not very. I will come to dine chez vous sometime when Barto take night off and send out for moo-goo-gai-pan with fortune cookies."
"That would be great, Lydia, we'd love to have you. I'll have Sarah give you a ring. What's your phone number?"
"Personal calls to members of guild is not acceptable to Barto, I will appear out of blue like tooth fairy and surprise you. Au revoir, mon bon bourgeois."
"See you later, Mrs. Rembrandt."
Lydia and her scarf floated off, heading for Charles Street and Deluca's grocery store, Max surmised. Lydia probably wouldn't want to walk any great distance in those needle-toed shoes she was wearing; did that mean Bartolo Arbalest's medieval ménage was somewhere fairly close by? Or did it mean that Lydia had treated herself to a subway ride?
The self-styled countess must be old enough by now to qualify for a senior-citizen's pass. It wouldn't be like her to pass up a bargain, but would she have been willing to admit her real age? Maybe one of Bartolo's artisans was doing a sideline in authentic subway tokens. Max took hold of the bench back with one hand, planted his cane tip firmly in the sand under his feet, and hoisted himself upright with only a twinge or two. It wasn't much farther to the office, he hoped Brooks hadn't had to go out on some urgent errand.
No, Brooks was in and delighted to see him. "Well, this is a pleasant surprise. All by yourself, eh? And no problems?"
"I'm not sure," Max said. "I ran into one of your old girl friends on the Common. Remember Lydia Ouspenska?"
"Of course. How could I not? But on the Common? Don't tell me she's down to panhandling?"
"Oh no, she was just passing through on her way to buy truffles. Lydia looks better than I can recall ever having seen her. She's eating regularly and high on the hog, or so she claims, and she's gainfully employed as a gilder in a guild. Ever heard of the Resurrection Man?"
Excerpted from The Resurrection Man by Charlotte MacLeod. Copyright © 1992 Charlotte MacLeod. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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