Rick Montoya has moved from New Mexico to Rome, embracing the life of a translator. He's settling in to la dolce vita when a school friend who is now senior in the Italian Art Squad recruits Rick for an unofficial undercover role. Armed with a list of galleries, suspects, and an expense account, Rick would arrive in Tuscany posing as a buyer for a Santa Fe gallery and flush out burial urn traffickers.
But before sunset on Rick's first day in Volterra, a gallery employee dies in a brutal fall from a high cliff.
The local Commissario and his team consider Rick an amateur, and worse, a foreigner. And now they suspect him in the dead man's murder. While the Volterra squad pursues its leads, Rick continues to interview his list: a museum director, a top gallery owner, a low-profile import/export businessman and his enterprising color-coordinated assistant, and a sensuous heiress with a private art specialty and clientele.
When Rick's girlfriend Erica arrives from Rome to visit him, she rekindles a friendship with an alluring, maybe dangerous, acquaintance. Has Rick's role made him the target of both cops and criminals?
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Fall's coldest day brought a damp chill that seeped through clothing and skin, but the bearded man was oblivious to the temperature. He crossed his arms over his chest, bent forward slightly, and focused on the figures before him. His breath came in small clouds of vapor, obscuring the scene that held his gaze. He could not tear his eyes away from the drama before him.
The funeral procession he watched followed the ancient traditions of Etruria, but timeless sorrow etched deeply into the faces of the family. Two powerful horses pulled the covered cart, heads bowed as if to honor the dead man inside. Their waving manes and pulsing muscles, so full of life, contrasted with the flat, tomb-shaped stones of the wall behind them. The wife, or perhaps an older daughter, followed on foot behind the cart with two children in tow, their eyes questioning her in silence. Behind their round faces her robe dragged on the ground, covering sandaled feet. She gripped the tiny hands and stared ahead, her face stiff with grief. The observer guessed the two small figures were the grandchildren of the deceased, not quite aware of what was going on, but sensing something dark. A lone, male rider, cloak flowing behind him, sat on a saddled horse at the head of the cortège. The steed strained forward against the reins, but the man's head was turned back toward the cart, his face reflecting the sadness of the woman. Was he her brother, and now the reluctant head of the family?
The watcher would never know. He breathed deeply and pulled at his carefully trimmed beard, hoping the gesture didn't betray his nervousness to the two men with him.
"Spectacular," he said. One arm reached out to touch the cold alabaster, its fingers running across the smooth faces of the two draft horses, down through the curled grooves of the milky manes, and pausing for a moment at the muscles of their shanks. His hand and eyes continued to caress the stone as he spoke. He almost whispered, as if he were standing before an altar in a church. "It looks like it was carved yesterday."
The two other men exchanged glances, and one of them spoke.
"The urn was discovered only recently, and it has been professionally cleaned with great care." The voice was clipped and businesslike. "Had it been exposed to the elements for more than two millennia, instead of buried in a tomb all that time, it would never have survived in this condition."
The three men stood in a half-lit basement room around the only piece of furniture in the space — a table on which the rectangular stone box sat. A heavy black cloth, which had covered the piece when they had entered the room, was now folded neatly on the side of the table. The damp chill of the Milanese streets outside had seeped into the house; only the lack of wind kept the temperature bearable. All three men kept on their heavy coats, not that there was anywhere to hang them. A musty smell, maybe of something stored there in the past, permeated the room, but the man intently inspecting the funerary urn was oblivious to all but the stone box before him.
"Volterra? Fourth century BC?" His eyes stayed on the urn, examining the sides where the carving continued.
"Precisely." The two returned to silence as their visitor circled the box. The collector had made his desires known weeks earlier — put in his order, as it were — and they had delivered. Now it was time to let the Etruscan urn itself make the final sale.
Minutes passed before the man turned from the ancient stone to the two men who had been waiting patiently. "The cover?"
"This is the way it came to us. The lid must have been lost or destroyed at some point."
The first man ran his hand along the top edge and peered inside. "That makes it considerably less desirable."
"The price reflects that."
"Your price does seem reasonable ... but I should like a few days to decide. It is not a small sum. Perhaps I could take a few photographs to help me —?"
When the potential buyer lifted a small camera from his coat pocket, the larger of the other two stepped forward and held up his hand.
"No." He spoke a touch too firmly. Then he added, in a less menacing tone, "I'm sure you will understand that photographing this piece is impossible. Under the circumstances."
"Yes, I understand completely." He slipped the camera back into his pocket. "As to the tomb where it was found ... where was it located?"
The two associates exchanged glances, as if to decide who would reply. The shorter one finally said, "I'm afraid we can only say that it was in Tuscany, in the area around Volterra." He glanced again at his companion. "We are not told the exact location."
The man pretended that the answer satisfied him. "Yes, of course."
After a few more minutes of examination, the urn was covered with the cloth again and the three walked to the door. The buyer opened it and headed up the shadowed stairs toward the street. The larger man turned to his colleague and shook his head quickly. The other nodded agreement before following their visitor up the stairs. At the top, a metal door creaked open. The three stepped outside into a fog that almost obscured the building across the narrow alley. The short man pulled out a key and noisily closed the deadbolt on the door before turning to the client. Thirty meters away, where the alley began, cars crept slowly through the fog, their lights on but dimmed. The Milanese knew fog well and treated it with respect. The three walked in silence out to the street where they stopped.
"I will be in contact by the end of the week. I know you need an answer."
The dealers smiled stiffly and nodded. No handshake was offered, so the buyer hurried off toward the center of town while a tram rumbled past him on its tracks, making the sidewalk vibrate under his feet. They watched him until one tapped the other on the arm and jerked his head back toward the passage. By the time the tram was passing the alley, the key was back in its metal door.CHAPTER 2
It just doesn't seem possible.
Rick Montoya settled back into the soft back of the chair, stretched his long legs so that his tooled leather boots were visible, and faced the official sitting behind the heavy wooden desk. The office had to be one of the choice rooms in the ministry, its windows overlooking the orange-tiled roofs of central Rome. In the distance the large tricolor flag of Italy fluttered slowly over the presidential palace, silhouetted by one of the seven hills. If this were a hotel, the view alone would make the room worth hundreds of Euros a night, with or without breakfast. The man behind the desk spoke into the phone as he smiled at Rick.
"Two coffees please, Marta."
Was this really Beppo Rinaldi? Rick had run into Beppo on the Via del Corso just after moving to Rome six month earlier, but they hadn't had much time to talk. The two exchanged business cards and promised to meet and relive their high school days on the basketball team. When Beppo called a few days ago, Rick had all but forgotten the encounter.
Rick, along with everyone else in their class at the American Overseas School of Rome, always assumed that Beppo Rinaldi would go into the family business. Beppo was a Roman, after all, one of a minority in the school where most students either had one American parent or were the kids of diplomats working at the foreign embassies. With his American foreign service father and a Roman mother, Rick fell into both categories. Beppo, however, was the scion of rich local parents who thought fluent English and an American high school education would serve their son well in international business.
But Beppo had surprised Rick by saying that instead of joining his father's company, he was working at the Ministry of Culture. That career shift was startling enough, but now what fully amazed Rick was the section of the ministry where his friend sat. Beppo, the goofy kid whose claim to fame in school was a lucky winning shot in a basketball game, was now investigating stolen antiquities. Rick shook his head and returned the smile as Beppo put down the phone.
"Beppo, I can't believe you're working here. I —"
"You thought I'd be working for my father? I thought I would too, but when I started my university studies, I got interested in art history. Loved it. One thing led to another, and before I knew it here I was. Not bad, huh?" He glanced up at the painted ceiling of the room. The palazzo had once housed a religious school, and a well-funded one at that. The Jesuits had spared no expense on the decoration of this part of the building, but Rick suspected the classrooms were more spartan. "And your translation business, Rick, I trust it is prospering?"
The question prompted Rick to straighten his tie. Lunch with an Italian meant coat and tie, and in his short time back in the city, Rick had spent much of his earnings, perhaps too much, on an Italian wardrobe. So while not dressed as well as Beppo, he didn't look like an American tourist. Only his cowboy boots gave a hint of his New Mexico roots, but he told his Roman friends that he wore them for their comfort. Which was just what he'd told his drinking buddies in Albuquerque when they'd noticed his Bruno Magli loafers. Today he'd almost put on a pair of light brown wingtips to go with charcoal gray slacks and a blue blazer, all three recent acquisitions, but instead convinced himself that the well-shined boots worked just fine. A dark blue shirt and solid red tie completed the wardrobe. You can never go wrong, his father always told him, with a solid red tie.
"Thankfully, yes, Beppo, the translating business is doing well. It's still just me and my computer, but I may have to hire a secretary soon and even get a real office instead of working out of my apartment." He scanned the room while shaking his head in disbelief. "It won't be as sumptuous as this, of course. So, where do you want to eat?"
Beppo leaned forward, elbows on the desk. He folded his hands under his chin, showing more forehead between eyes and hairline than Rick remembered from school days. They say that nobody changes much from high school, but Rick was starting to notice some differences beyond the tailored suit and the receding hair. Beppo's expression could be serious.
"Rick, before we go to lunch to talk about the good old days at AOSR, there's something I want to discuss with you. Something to do with my work. I think you could be of considerable help, if you accept my proposition."
Just as I suspected, Rick thought, there had to be something more than a reunion afoot. Rick had split his life between Italy and New Mexico, so he'd spent enough time in Rome to think like a local. Cosa cè dietro? 'What's behind it?' the cynical Roman would ask himself in even the most innocuous situation. More often than not, such ingrained skepticism served the Romani well. But Beppo could be a positive contact for his business, and his workload of the moment would not keep him from taking on more business, not by a long shot. Translations for Beppo would be a great way to get his foot in the door at the ministry, and could lead to other government work around the capitol.
"As long as it doesn't take too long. I'm hungry."
Beppo gazed at his friend for a few moments with a weary expression that Rick did not remember seeing in school. "Not that long. Let me show you something." He got up from the desk and walked behind Rick's chair. Having been dazzled by the window views of the city, Rick had not noticed a table near the door which held a large object covered by a black cloth. Beppo carefully pulled off the cloth, revealing a highly decorated stone box. The sides were carved in relief, covered with figures in action. It was a battle scene, soldiers wielding spears and shields, wearing armor and helmets. Centered in the rectangular front panel, in the middle of the fray, a charioteer commanded his two horses. In contrast to the chaos of the war panels, a carved human figure covered the lid of the urn, an aged man reclining on a sofa, his wrinkled head held up by a hand cupped under his chin. He could have been sitting for a portrait while enjoying an ancient banquet.
At Beppo's nod, Rick reached out, running his palms over the carvings, feeling the stone reliefs with his fingertips. "Etruscan? I was a language major in college so it's not a period I have studied. No doubt you have."
Beppo stared as if seeing the stone for the first time. He kept his eyes on the piece as he spoke.
"Often the Etruscan are described as mysterious, but that's mainly because serious study of them started relatively recently and so much is still unknown about their civilization. Historians spent more time on the Romans, who absorbed Etruscan territory into their empire. And only in the last century has the Etruscan language finally been deciphered, which has led to many more discoveries about them. And as you might expect, much of the scholarship has been done in Tuscany, since most of the cities in the Etruscan federation are found there. This urn was found in Western Tuscany."
He glanced at Rick and then returned his gaze to the stone. "It is a fairly typical Etruscan burial urn from the fourth century BC. It held the ashes of a wealthy person, though likely not very prominent politically, given the urn's size. The figures on the front and sides are myths or perhaps an important battle, but they're typical, and likely had nothing to do with the life of the man whose ashes were placed inside." He carefully placed a hand on the stone head and ran his fingers over its features. "However, the image of the man himself is accurate. The Romans raised portraiture, especially in sculpture, to levels never seen before and rarely repeated since. They probably learned their early skills from the Etruscans. This figure of the deceased is an excellent example of how Etruscan artists captured the real person in their work. They don't romanticize the subject, as you can see."
Rick glanced at his friend's face and grinned. "Where is the Beppo I remember, the guy in the back of the class, always quiet? You sound like a professor."
A brief smile flitted across what had been a serious face, contemplating the carving. "Sorry, Rick, I love this stuff. But let me tell you what has happened." He glanced away from the urn to Rick. "And how you might help us save some of these beautiful objects."
This didn't sound like a translation job.
"Several urns from this period, like this one, have suddenly appeared on the market. Their sale is illegal, of course. Anything discovered in a dig is the property of the Italian state, but you know the sale of stolen or looted artifacts is big business. It's what keeps our office busy." He walked back to the desk as he talked while Rick returned to his chair. "We think that a new tomb has been discovered, and not by reputable archaeologists. These pieces have begun turning up in the usual places, and we are doing our best to track down the sources. It hasn't been easy. ... Oh, thank you, Marta."
A woman had arrived with a round tray bearing two plastic cups, four packets of sugar, and a pair of tiny wooden sticks. She put the tray on the edge of the desk and disappeared. Both men reached forward, took a packet, and tore open their sugar.
"Not very elegant, I'm afraid. If you call on the minister, you get real cups and silverware, but not here."
"No problem, Beppo." Rick stirred his espresso. "How do you know about the urns showing up on the market?"
Beppo drank his coffee in one gulp and threw the cup into a wastebasket. "We have our contacts, of course. The office got word that one was on sale in Milano last week, and we sent one of our undercover men there." He was speaking rapidly now, and gesturing with thick-fingered hands with perfectly manicured fingernails. "Unfortunately, the sellers got cold feet at the last minute and disappeared with the urn, but not before our guy had a chance to see it. He swears the piece was genuine."
"It could have been fake?"
"There's a large market in fakes. That isn't our priority. Such things are usually handled by the regular police. We're after the real thing, like that one over there."
Rick was curious about how it had turned up in Beppo's office, but clearly his friend would say no more.
"These latest urns have all been from Volterra, Rick. Without boring you with details, I'll say that the type of material, the carving quality, and the iconography all indicate they must have been found in a tomb near that city. So we'll concentrate our efforts on Volterra. Once pieces leave the country, it is far more difficult to get them back. I received word this morning that one may have surfaced in Bulgaria. That is very disturbing."(Continues…)
Excerpted from "Cold Tuscan Stone"
Copyright © 2018 David P. Wagner.
Excerpted by permission of Poisoned Pen Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.
Most Helpful Customer Reviews
Fine characters in a fine story. Few books would merit 5 stars from me but this one is close. Looking forward to more from these characters.
Interesting mystery with wonderful details about the food, sights and people of Italy. It inspires one to visit!
Excellent detective story and well done!
Interesting sometimes slow in the mystery. Different
Loved this book, didn't want to put it down. Very interesting historical facts and descriptions of Tuscany. Treacle
Good character development. Enjoyable read.
Full of culture, fine arts and history combined with a sense of mystery. A must read!
Enjoyable book with much information about Tuscany.
Page Turner and thrilling with many educational tones. Highly recommended
American Rick Montoya has moved to Italy, his mother's birthplace, to make his way as a translator. But what should be a cut and dried career move, takes on sinister overtones when he is recruited by the Italian Art Squad for an undercover assignment in Volterra to look for Etruscan forgeries and antiquities smugglers. Bodies pile up in the medieval town, and no one is to be trusted. This mystery is fast paced, filled with fascinating detail, and features a setting to send any reader in search of a good travel agent. A fine read and a great introduction to a new series.
Steady but not thrilling, this adventure into the criminal art world takes in Tuscany, one of my favourite places in Italy. Translator Rick Montoya works undercover to lure out the criminals stealing precious artefacts of Tuscan history. Working with the local police chief it starts to get nasty. Who is the mastermind behind the stealing and how will it end? Good questions and you are kept guessing until the end. Worth reading but not high priority.