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i'm dying, spenser," the man said.
I nodded, not knowing what else to say. An early-summer rain beaded down my office window, dark gray skies hovering over Berkeley and Boylston as afternoon commuters jockeyed for position out of the city. Their taillights cast a red glow on slick streets. Somewhere a prowl car hit a siren, heading off to another crime. The man sitting before me smiled and nodded, his hands withered and liver-spotted. His name was Locke.
"How long have we known each other?" Locke said.
"A long time."
"But oddly never worked together?"
"Our work as investigators seldom crossed paths," I said. "Different peepholes."
"Recovering stolen art isn't really your thing."
"I've done it," I said. "Once. Or twice."
"You're familiar with the theft at the Winthrop?"
"Of course," I said. "It made all the papers. And TV. Biggest theft in Boston history."
"Biggest art theft ever," he said. "Next year will mark twenty years. I've chased those paintings most of that time, traveling from Dorchester to Denmark with not so much as an inkling of where they ended up. It's beyond frustrating. Maddening, really. And now, well, with things the way they are-"
"One was a Picasso?"
"That was the least valuable of the three," he said. "Picasso, Goya. But the prize of the Winthrop was also stolen, the El Greco. The Gentleman in Black. Are you familiar with the painting?"
"Some," I said. "I recall seeing it years ago. When I was young."
"When we were both young," Locke said.
He smiled and reached into his double-breasted suit jacket and pulled out a slick photocopy of a very serious-looking dude with a pointy black beard. The man wore a high-necked lacy shirt and a heavy black cloak. His eyes were very black and humorless.
"He looks like a guy who used to kick field goals for the Detroit Lions," I said. "Benny Ricardo."
"The subject is reputed to be Juan de Silva y Ribera, third marquis of Montemayor and the warden of the Alc‡zar of Toledo."
"Oh," I said. "Him."
"El Greco painted him in 1597," he said. "Well before the Pilgrims set foot in America. Long regarded as unimportant by the romantics, El Greco found new appreciation and fame among the impressionists and surrealists. Picasso in particular was a great admirer of El Greco. You see the distorted length of the man's neck, the off-kilter perspective?"
"Some have noted my own perspective is off-kilter," I said. "Although I admit to having more of an affinity for the Dutch Masters."
"I spotted your Vermeer prints when I walked in," he said. "You also have many fans at the Hammond. You helped recover, what was it? Lady with a Finch."
I nodded and offered him something to drink. It was that time of the day when I could bend to either whiskey or coffee. Locke, being a man of the arts, approved of the whiskey. I pulled out a bottle of Bushmills Black gifted to me by Martin Quirk and found two clean coffee mugs left to dry upside down beside the sink.
"Without being trite, that painting you recovered from the Hammond is nothing but a Rembrandt footnote," he said. "This work is something altogether different. A cornerstone of Spanish and art history."
"One can't always put a price on the priceless," he said. "But somewhere in the neighborhood of sixty or seventy million."
Like any serious art connoisseur, I gave a low whistle.
"I wanted to recover the piece myself," he said. "But now? I have to understand the realities of my situation."
"I'm very sorry."
"And I'm sorry to march into your office with such maudlin conversation," Locke said. "But my doctor told me to get my affairs in order, whatever the hell that means. I figured this was the first order, have someone to pass along my files, endless notes, and potential leads. I grew too old for this case two years ago. The Winthrop continues to push, with the anniversary coming up next week and these letters arriving every other week."
"Yes," Locke said, sipping the whiskey. "Not really ransom notes. But from someone who claims to have knowledge of the theft."
"Do you think they're real?"
"Perhaps," Locke said. "The letters were very specific about details of the theft. The writer was also aware of an arcane detail of the painting. El Greco himself had written on the back of the canvas in his native Greek."
"Have they asked for money?"
"No," Locke said. "No demands have been made. And no means of communication has been offered. The letters have been addressed to the museum's director, Marjorie Ward Phillips. Have you and Susan ever met Marjorie at a fund-raiser?"
I shook my head and picked up the coffee mug. The mug advertised Kane's Donuts in Saugus, a place I considered to have made many fine works of art.
"Marjorie is a determined, if altogether unpleasant, person," Locke said. "Her staff calls her Large Marj."
"A big personality?"
"How do I put this?" he said. "She has an ass the size of a steer and the disposition of a recently castrated bull."
"Lovely," I said. "Can't wait to meet her."
"Oh, she'll charm you," Locke said, chuckling. "At first. There will be martinis and long talks of art's value to the city of Boston. But don't ever disagree with her. Or challenge her in front of the board. Once that's done, you will be visited by the hatred of a thousand suns."
"If you're trying to talk me into this," I said. "You're failing miserably."
"You must take this case, Spenser," Locke said. "You must. If not, they've threatened to offer the contract to this British investigator. A young man from London who, recent successes aside, has all the earmarks of a four-flusher."
"At the moment, I'm working two separate cases," I said.
"Did I mention the five-million-dollar reward, plus covering your daily rate and all expenses?"
I smiled and turned over my hands, offering my palms. "Perhaps I could find time to meet with Large Marj."
"I know you're joking," he said. "But for God's sake, don't let her ever hear you say that."
"Hatred of a thousand suns?"
"And then some."
Locke smiled, straightening in his chair, and buttoned the top button of his jacket. Both eyes stared at me, one slightly off and one roaming my face with deep sadness and intelligence. His face sagged, his blue eyes drained of much color and life.
"It might be months," he said. "But probably weeks. I have a driver. He's waiting for me downstairs now."
"May I help you out?"
"First," he said. "Will you accept an old man's dying wish?"
"Damn, Locke," I said. "You do go for a hard sell."
"I don't have time to mince words," he said. "I really think they're onto something now. And the last thing the museum needs is an amateur, unfamiliar to Boston, skulking about. This other detective is of the worst sort. He's trying to charm the board into letting him take the case. But they need someone who understands thuggery and violence well beyond red-velvet walls."
"I should add that to my business card."
Locke laughed and reached for the Irish whiskey. He drained it quickly and replaced the mug on my desk.
"Why did you stay on this long if you felt like it was hopeless?"
Locke smiled. "There's something almost mystical about this painting," he said. "Believe me, you'll see. Maybe a way of touching the past. We are all just passing through this world. We'll be gone soon enough. But this painting has remained for more than five hundred years. Perhaps recovering it would have been my shot at immortality?"
I nodded. I refilled our glasses.
We sat and drank the rest of the whiskey in silence. After a bit, he stood, shook my hand, and without a word walked out the door.
large marj?" susan said.
"Do you know her?"
"I've met Marjorie Ward Phillips from the Winthrop," she said. "But I've never heard her called that horrible name."
Susan and I stood at my kitchen island in my Navy Yard condo as I stirred a fork in my cast-iron skillet simmering with kale, onions, and hickory-smoked bacon. The sprawling brick building had once been a dockside warehouse with big picture windows looking onto the harbor and across to Boston. Pearl snuggled in a ball on the couch as the rain continued in the night. Every few minutes, she'd lift her head and sniff for the bacon scent.
"I understand the nickname is only whispered by museum staff."
"I don't know her all that well," Susan said. "We've met socially. She gives to both Community Servings and Jumpstart. As far as I know, she is both well-liked and respected in the art scene. She seems like a perfectly lovely woman."
"Tomorrow morning, I meet with her and the head of the museum board," I said. "A man named Topper."
"Yeah," I said. "It's going to be hard not to ask."
"If he's being haunted by the ghosts of Cary Grant and Constance Bennett?"
I saluted her with my Sam Adams.
"What could possibly go wrong?"
"Hard to turn down Locke."
"The worst," I said. "He said it could be weeks. Months at best."
I added a bit of sea salt and cracked pepper to the pan. As I worked, Susan walked over to my record player and slipped on a Sarah Vaughan album. In a Dutch oven, I'd already cooked two organic chicken breasts with heirloom tomatoes to serve over white beans. The beans came from a can. Everything else from the Boston Public Market. Living on the east end of town had widened my choices in the city. Besides a few small markets in Beacon Hill, I didn't have many options on Marlborough Street. Less still after my apartment was destroyed by an arsonist.
I turned off the heat and pulled out two china plates from under the kitchen station. The chicken had cooled a bit, and I placed a breast on each plate along with the cherry tomatoes and white beans. A little sprig of rosemary on top.
"Fancy," Susan said.
"Black-skillet cooking," I said. "Getting back to my Wyoming roots."
"Yee-haw," Susan said.
"Gorgeous Jewish women don't say 'yee-haw.'"
"What do they say?"
Susan tossed a kitchen towel at me. I ducked.
I set both plates on the table, lit a small candle, and dimmed the lights overhead. Sarah sang about a flower crying for the dew. Susan guarded our food from Pearl while I retrieved another beer and popped the top. When I returned, she was staring out the window at the marina and Boston, the Custom House Tower shining gold and proud from across the harbor.
"I like it."
"The view," she said. "The move took some adjustment. But I like the space. Everything seems so wide open and uncluttered. The city almost looks peaceful from here."
"The drive to Cambridge is about the same," I said. "Maybe better in traffic."
"You were welcome to stay," she said. "We could have made it work."
"Why mess with success?" I said. I drank a little beer.
Susan smiled. We ate for a bit, listening to Sarah and the rain. The lamps positioned around the open space of the condo blossomed with soft gold light. Rain sluiced down the windows, pricks of blue and yellow lights from atop moored ships.
"Why do you think Locke came to you?"
"Besides me being tough, resourceful, and smart as a border collie?"
"Yes," Susan said. "Besides that."
"He said he was concerned the museum might bring someone from outside Boston," I said. "He told me he's more sure than ever that whoever stole those paintings has roots here."
Susan nodded. She forked a bit of chicken with some kale. Her face blossomed with a smile as she lifted a glass to her lips. "And what made you accept?"
"I haven't accepted yet."
"Oh, you will."
I shook my head. I tried the chicken, thinking that perhaps the kale would have worked a little better with some lemon. When in doubt, always add a little lemon.
"How could you pass up working on the mystery of all mysteries?" Susan said.
"There's a five-million-dollar reward."
"Probably for those in possession of the paintings," she said. "Not the Winthrop's hired hand."
"A shamus can dream."
Susan nodded. I slipped some bacon pieces under the table for Pearl. They disappeared within seconds. I raised my hand aboveboard to a disapproving look from Susan.
"And for my next miracle," I said.
"Do you think you can restrain yourself?"
"From feeding Pearl?"
"From smarting off to Topper Whosis, a board surely made of crotchety old flakes, and Large Marj long enough to get those paintings back."
"As I know little to nothing about what I'm stepping into," I said, "I'll have to get back to you on that."
"Just who do you know in the art world?"
"I know a guy at South Station who sells prints of dogs playing poker," I said.
"What about Gino Fish?"
"A man of fine taste," I said. "But in case you haven't heard, he's dead."
"I know," she said. "But this painting disappeared twenty years ago. Right? Wasn't Vinnie working with him back then?"
"Indeed he was."
"Vinnie and I haven't been on the best of terms as of late."
"Can't you just hug it out," she said. "Or whatever you mascopaths do."
"It's my own term for serially overly macho psyches. Overly masculine personalities."
"Would you like me to perform one-armed push-ups before dessert?"
Susan tapped at her cheek. "While you perform, may I use your back as an ottoman?"
I thought about it for a moment and then dropped to my knees. "I wouldn't have it any other way."
the winthrop museum looked like a big wedge of Spanish wedding cake, lots of tan stucco with a barrel-tile roof and windows protected with intricate wrought-iron cages. A woman named Constance Winthrop had the place built sometime in the early part of the last century. She had so much money, she proclaimed she wanted the Alhambra brought to the Fens. Nearly a hundred years later, I walked up the marble steps before opening hours. A guard led me through an indoor courtyard with a bubbling fountain and lots of statuary. I felt a bit like Ferdinand the Bull being ushered into the ring.
Marjorie Phillips introduced herself from the head of a long oval table. Even though she didn't stand, I could tell she was a sturdy woman. She had a thick, jowly face and a Buster Brown haircut. A reddish and green silk scarf wrapped what I imagined to be a neck thicker than an NFL linebacker's.