Since childhood, Ben Contini has been enchanted by nudes. The first painting ever to move him was a Modigliani, a portrait of a naked and beautiful reclining woman. Though it scandalized his mother at the time, it inspired him to become an artist; he specializes in portraits but paints nudes whenever he can. Only when his mother dies does Ben realize why Modigliani upset her so much: She had one hidden in her attic. It is the most beautiful painting he has ever seen, but he has no idea how the widow of an Italian refugee could have come upon it. With the help of a mysterious Austrian woman who appears at his mother’s funeral, Ben discovers the painting’s connection to the art thieves of Nazi Germany. The beautiful nude has made a strange journey to the Contini attic, and there are men who would kill to cover her up.
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About the Author
In addition to his espionage fiction, Hone has found success in travel writing. His most recent books include Wicked Little Joe (2009), a memoir, and Goodbye Again (2011).
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By Joseph Hone
OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIACopyright © 2011 Joseph Hone
All rights reserved.
I saw the woman coming towards me at the reception in the big house at Killiney after my mother's funeral.
My heart missed a beat. It was Katie.
But it couldn't be her. Katie was dead. Yet how like her this woman was. The same measured, careful step, light on her feet, narrow shoulders. Same untended, short dark hair, flat-soled shoes, a casually unfashionable air. An impression of reserve: composed, decorous. Like Katie.
I was talking with the rabbi. My mother Sarah had been one of his congregation at the Adelaide Road Synagogue in Dublin. Now the woman hovered nearby.
I glanced at her again, uncertain. Perhaps it was the wine, promoting so strong a memory of Katie that I saw her now in any dark-haired woman, roughly the same looks, height and build. But no, this woman was so much like Katie—the same smallish height and build, the brown-green eyes, and the sharp cut of cheekbones, jawline, chin. Same compact body, where the shapes tended to be flat rather than curved, apart from the breasts, vaguely defined beneath a loose-fitting, navy-blue, silk blouse.
And more than the sum of all the parts— the same elusive ambiguous air: provocative yet guarded. A look that beckoned, but warned. 'My body perhaps, but you will never possess me.' It was as if Katie had been resurrected in a slightly altered physical state, but with a change of spirit and character, transformed into an easier, more available, less contrary person. A new Katie, who would wipe out the despair I felt in my loss of Katie herself—this new Katie, a wonderful gift, ready packaged, waiting for me a few yards away, a recompense.
My talk with the rabbi was interrupted by Sam McCartney offering condolences. McCartney was my mother's solicitor and now sole executor of her estate. Ageing, in his seventies, but still a big, pushy, florid-faced man, an old rugby hearty who had once played prop forward for Ireland. He usually sported a houndstooth tweed jacket, sometimes a scarlet waistcoat. Loudly dressed, loudmouthed. Now he was more soberly garbed. A man I'd never liked. Over-friendly, tricky. And partly to blame for some of the problems in my early life, through his influence over my mother—agreement about my 'cheek' as he'd put it to her, in my declining sensible jobs in Dublin after I'd left school and wanted to be a painter.
So I had no qualms in cutting him and moving towards the woman. Close to her now, the resemblance was more pronounced. This woman and Katie were almost twins. Seeing my surprise, and thinking it due to her having broken up my talk with Sam McCartney, she was apologetic.
'I am sorry to interrupt. Forgive me.'
'No, not at all. I'd had my say there.' I couldn't take my eyes off her, so that I had to apologize in turn. 'Sorry ... for staring.'
She made no acknowledgment of this. She seemed to have something more urgent in mind. 'I don't know quite where to begin,' she said quickly.
She must have been in her mid forties. Katie had been the same age. Had been? It was hard to think of her in the past tense. And I'd tried not to think of her this way for nearly a week.
'I'm sorry, Signor Contini,' the woman went on, 'I wanted to offer my sympathy on your mother's death, but didn't want to intrude at the service or cemetery.'
'No, no, that's quite all right.' With several drinks on board already I found my stride with her in a bright manner. 'Call me Ben. Certainly not "Signor", I'm only half-Italian and barely know the country. And of course I don't mind you coming here. My mother did have some friends of her own in Dublin. Though not many of this lot.' I waved my bandaged hand—I'd burnt it the week before—at the room. 'Half these dreadful businessmen and their pampered wives I don't know at all. And most of the other half I'd prefer not to know. Very few of them knew my mother anyway. She was something of a recluse. But you knew her, obviously,' I smiled. 'You were a friend of hers.'
'Well, no, actually. That's the problem.'
She frowned, at a loss, and I saw a sudden look of fear in her face, as if she was about to be confronted by some danger in the big drawing room. This was unlikely, filled as it was by some sixty respectable, boring and now discreetly convivial mourners, including a government minister, crowding out the dark-panelled, heavily carpeted space with its two great mock-Gothic mullioned windows looking out over Killiney Bay. It was a premonitory alarm, I decided. The rough outlines for a full portrait that would one day tell the whole sad story. I gazed at her now, as if appraising her for that very portrait.
'The problem?' asked.
'Yes. You see, I didn't know your mother at all. Or your father. Never knew anything about your family until my father spoke to me about you this morning.'
'Yes,' she rushed on, a memory of Middle Europe in her voice, firmer tones of America. 'He's very ill at home.'
'He's over eighty, and wanders. But he was quite clear this morning when he spoke to me about you and your family. He'd heard about your mother's death somehow, and he said to me, "You must go to Sarah Contini's funeral today, wife of old Luchino Contini. And speak to her son Ben. He'll be there. He'll explain everything. You must go and talk to him." So, you see, here I am.'
'Yes ... there you are. And here am I.'
There was silence between us in the loud room, each of us gazing at the other uncertainly. The woman was clearly put out by the whole puzzling situation. For, equally clearly, she was a confident woman, keen to control things, to win. Just like Katie.
'I'm sorry. It must all sound rather crazy. You see, I've no idea ...' She left the idea hanging in the air, even more put out by her failure to bring it to earth.
'Well, I wonder if you've made some mistake? If perhaps you misunderstood your father?'
She frowned again, bridling at this. 'No. No, certainly not. I heard him perfectly clearly. And he wasn't wandering at that point.' She looked at me dismissively, with rather the same air of smug detachment that Katie used to assume when she was in the wrong, and wouldn't admit it.
There was a chill impasse between us until, with a small sigh, she relented a fraction, but in a manner that suggested I was a tiresome child and she was only doing so because she was a guest in the house, and still needed to talk to me.
'The point is,' she said pedantically, 'I've no idea why my father said what he did. He didn't explain anymore: went all vague again ... he's on morphine. But it seems clear he knew your parents well. Yet neither of my parents—my mother's dead—ever mentioned your parents to me, or you. So I don't know what he was getting at. Yet it was obviously important to him that I went to your mother's funeral, and met you.'
'Well, I've no idea why, either. Though, of course ...' I saw my advantage here, but didn't press it in my tone. 'I might know your family, might know the connection, if you told me your family name. Your own name?'
The point struck home. She was put out again, and disliked the position even more this time. 'I'm sorry. I should have introduced myself at the start.' She was flustered. There was a scattiness about her that I liked, quite at odds with her previously controlled and schoolmistressy air. She had lost control for a moment.
'I'm ... I'm Elsa Bergen, from further back up the hill, behind the Vico Road. Georgian house. We've lived there for years, since my parents came here from Austria as refugees after the war.'
'There's a connection, then. My father was a refugee as well. Luchino Mario Contini,' I said with something of a flourish. 'Italian-Jewish—he died here last year. And my mother was Dublin Jewish. But Bergen—that's not a Jewish name. Refugees from where?'
'Not Jewish, no. Catholic. My grandfather, then my father, they had an antiques shop in Vienna before the war. Mostly religious stuff—the family was very religious. But the shop was destroyed in the bombing there and most of his family killed. Except his wife, my mother, Anna, who died two years ago. My father was away in the German army during the war, and he survived as well. After the war, since they'd both hated the Nazis, and there was nothing left for them in Austria, they wanted a new life somewhere. They came to Dublin eventually, helped by the Quakers, and my father started another antiques and art shop here and bought the house in Killiney. I suppose you might describe my father as a "Good German".'
'You said he was Austrian.'
'More or less the same thing then, wasn't it?'
'Yes. You could say the same about my father. He was a "Good Jew" from what little I gathered of his life in Italy. But a stupid one. He and his family wouldn't deny their faith or hide during the war and decided to openly tough it out. They were very assimilated Jews. They never thought their Gentile chums, or their friends in the fascist militia, would get around to arresting and sending them off to the death camps. They were wrong. That's just what happened to them. In 1943, after Mussolini's government collapsed and the Germans took over in Italy, the SS and their Italian buddies started to hunt out the Jews seriously. They got my father and all his family, in Pisa where they lived, and north at Carrara, and packed them off to a camp for Italian Jews at Modena, and from there to Auschwitz. My father was the only one of his family to survive.'
'I'm sorry,' she said simply, eyes blinking. She touched her nose, unconsciously, then smoothed the minute crow's feet either side of her eyes. Mottled-green pupils set in wide white ovals, long dark eyebrows. Yes, mid forties, I thought. A little younger than me. Fresh, sober, sensible. No make-up or jewellery. A neat, sharply ridged nose, fine mouth, delicate lips, half-open, showing the pips of bright teeth, her mouth like a moist cut in an autumn fruit. Beautiful, in an open-air, the hell-with-fashion manner.
And then the sort of athletic body I liked, equally unfashionable in these anorexic times. The firm neck set on an unexpectedly short torso, well-set breasts, the narrowing waist running out to wide hips, a compact backside, the sense of sturdy legs below that. I'd like to have undressed her and started to paint her there and then.
'Yes ...' I said, thinking. Then I pulled myself together and shrugged. 'My father, his family—a sad story, among millions of other Jews. Though he soon recovered himself, did very well when he got to Dublin. Married my mother: she was from a rich Dublin Jewish family, bought this great mock baronial pile. All these terrible pictures ...' I gestured round the room. 'That one, of my mother.' I pointed to a large, 1950s chocolate-box portrait over the fireplace of a youngish, somewhat plump woman, in pearls with permed hair, made to look exotic in a billowy eau-de-Nil tea gown.
'My father had that commissioned by some terrible Irish artist. And the rest ...' I swung my arm further round the room. 'Russell Flint reproductions—Persian Slave Market and such like. And Alma-Tadema. There's one over there of his I particularly dislike.' I took her over to it. 'Egyptian Morning at the Baths. But did you ever see a woman's nude body look like Russell Flint and Alma-Tadema has them? Quite sexless. A woman's body is full of awkward shapes and lengths, unexpected crevices and colours, flattish bits and slopes and little hillocks. That's where the beauty is. And the sexiness.' I turned and looked at her, nodding briefly, in open appreciation of the real thing.
She was put out by my gaze. 'Well, I'm very sorry about your father.' Wanting to change the subject even more, she continued, 'Was he a businessman?'
'Yes, but he was a civil engineer as well, before the war. He and his family owned the Contini marble quarries outside Pisa, and a larger quarry at Carrara, one of the famous white-marble quarries there. Mussolini was always wanting tons of stuff for his bloody great imperial buildings, so my father was exempted from military service, and that's what he made his business when he got over here to Dublin after the war: importing marble from Carrara, for fireplaces, floors, pillars, tables and tombstones. The lot. No artistic taste, but he knew about marble. That big fireplace he had made over there for example: hideous design, phoney Gothic with those simpering, half-clad maidens at either side—it's dreadful, but the marble's wonderful. Carrara Cremo. Pure, veinless white. Hard but smooth as soap. Run your hand over one of the girls—go on, try it—the marble is just like the inside of a real woman's thighs. Michelangelo used the same sort. Cut it himself from the same quarry in Carrara for his statue of David.' Now there's a realistic body for you! No coy underplaying of the muscles and genitals—the whole thing about to explode with power and sex.'
'Well, I'm glad your father was so successful when he came here.'
'Oh, he did very well when he met my mother. And you know what?' I drank again. 'She hasn't left me a penny! Just all these awful pictures. The house and the rest of her money all goes to a Dublin charity. A cruel, mean woman.'
'I see.' She was cool, clearly shocked that I should so openly disparage my mother.
'You'd understand my feelings if you knew how she treated me. I'm not trying to drown my sorrows for her, I can tell you. It's someone else who's just died on me. Rather knocked me out.'
'I'm sorry.' She made no further enquiries here. She fidgeted. She would have made her excuses and left, I'm sure, but for the unfinished business she had with me.
'So,' I said, 'it seems our parents knew each other. Both our fathers refugees from the Nazis, and our families living not half a mile apart here in Killiney. Yet you and I never met, know nothing of the other's family. Strange.'
'I'm sure we'll find the connection.' I looked at her now without desire and a sober smile. 'Some simple explanation.'
She didn't return the smile.
'I'm sorry.' I put down my glass. The wine had brought me to the desired stage of forgetting Katie, or rather, it had brought me to the comforting belief that she was still alive and I was with her again. It was time to properly concern myself with this revenant. 'I'm sorry to have been abrupt about my mother. I loved my father, but not her. She disliked me and bullied him, and I hate funerals, except for this part of them, the wake—and I usually come to enjoy that too much. Listen, I'm sorrier still not to have offered you any refreshment: Miss? Mrs? Ms?' I looked towards the table where the drinks were, which I'd ordered from Mitchell's in Kildare Street—on my mother's account. 'Gin, whiskey? Wine?'
'"Miss" I suppose, if you have to put a handle to the name. But call me Elsa. Elsa Bergen, my family name. Though I am married, legally at least. Don't even know where he is now ...' She stopped abruptly, annoyed at herself for disclosing too much personal information. 'I'm sorry. I don't know what I was on about. Yes, a glass of wine would be lovely.'
We pushed our way to the drinks table. I reflected on the rider she had added to her marriage. I turned to her. 'No need to be sorry, is there?' I asked.
'Your still being married. A common situation. Been mine, with my wife, for years.' I didn't add that this had been Katie's situation, too, married for almost as long, to a man who'd behaved badly to her and long separated without her ever bothering to divorce him. I just said, 'Divorce is such a bore, and so bad for the children. Who wants to put even more money in the hands of the bloody lawyers?'
'Unless one wants to marry someone else.'
Her face had brightened, perhaps at this idea of happy second chances. We'd got to the big table. 'There's some good red wine. A Châteauneuf, or even better, a white Châteauneuf.'
'A small glass of white would be lovely,' she said judiciously. I poured her a glass, another for myself. 'Canapés?' I asked. 'Awful word. Titbits is much better. Though you Americans say "tidbits". The old puritan ethic. But you're right, that was the original seventeenth-century spelling of the word in England.' I picked up a dish, then another. 'Some cheesy things, salami and anchovies, and olives. I love olives.' I offered her a bowl of big, purply black Greek olives.
Excerpted from Goodbye Again by Joseph Hone. Copyright © 2011 Joseph Hone. Excerpted by permission of OPEN ROAD INTEGRATED MEDIA.
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