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The marquis de Valfierno stood tapping the knob handle of his gentleman’s cane into the palm of his hand at the foot of the steps of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. His Panama hat shaded his face, and his spotless white suit helped to reflect the sharp South American sun, but he was still uncomfortably warm. He could have chosen to stand at the top of the steps in the shadow of the museum portico, but he always preferred greeting his clients at street level and then walking up with them to the entrance. There was something about ascending the steps together that fostered easy and excited conversation, as if he and his client were embarking on a momentous journey, a journey that would enrich both of them.
He checked his pocket watch: 4:28. Joshua Hart would be punctual. He had amassed his fortune by making sure his trains ran on time. He became one of the richest men in the world by filling those trains with passengers reading his newspapers, and loading them with mountains of coal and iron bound for his own factories to forge the steel for a new America.
4:30. Valfierno looked across the plaza. Joshua Hart—titan of industry—came on like the engine of one of his trains, a stout barrel of a man, robust at the age of sixty, clad in a black suit despite the heat. Valfierno could almost see the thick smoke curling upward from the stack of his stovepipe hat.
“Señor Hart,” Valfierno said as the shorter man planted himself in front of him. “As always, it is an honor, a pleasure, and a privilege to see you.”
“Save the horseshit, Valfierno,” Hart said with only a slight hint of ironic camaraderie. “If this godforsaken country were any hotter, I would not be surprised to find out it was Hades itself.”
“I would think,” said Valfierno, “that the devil would find himself at home in any climate.”
Hart allowed a grudging snicker of appreciation for this remark as he mopped his face with a white silk handkerchief. Only then did Valfierno take notice of the two slender women, both dressed in white, lacy dresses and both taller than Hart, collecting behind him like the cars of a loosely linked train. One was in her fifties, the other in her thirties perhaps. Valfierno had dealt with Hart on a number of occasions through the years, knew he was married, but had never met his wife. He could only assume that the younger woman was his daughter.
Valfierno doffed his hat in acknowledgment and looked to Hart for an introduction.
“Ah, yes, of course,” Hart began with a hint of impatience. “May I introduce my wife, Mrs. Hart…”
Hart indicated the younger woman, who smiled demurely and only briefly made eye contact with Valfierno.
“… and this,” Hart said, a hint of disapproval in his voice, “is her mother.”
The older woman did not respond in any way.
Valfierno bowed. “Eduardo de Valfierno,” he said, introducing himself. “It is a pleasure to meet you both.”
Mrs. Hart’s face was partly obscured by the wide brim of her hat, and Valfierno’s first impression was of white, smooth skin and a delicately pointed chin.
Mrs. Hart’s mother was a handsome—if somewhat worn—woman whose placid smile was fixed, as was her gaze, a blank stare concentrated on a point behind Valfierno’s shoulder. He felt the urge to turn to see what she was looking at but thought better of it. Was she blind? No, not blind. Something else.
“I trust that you ladies are enjoying your visit,” he said.
“We haven’t as yet been able to see much,” Mrs. Hart began, “but we’re hoping that we—”
“Dear,” Hart cut her off with forced politeness, “the marquis and I have business to conduct.”
“Of course,” Mrs. Hart said.
Hart turned back to Valfierno. “Let’s get on with this, shall we?”
“By all means, señor,” Valfierno replied with a brief look to Mrs. Hart as she gently brushed a fly away from her mother’s shoulder. “After you,” he added, gesturing with a flourish of his hand.
He had expected the ladies to go first, but Hart immediately started to pound up the steps. Mrs. Hart seemed to hesitate for a moment so he decided to follow her husband without waiting.
Valfierno made a point of keeping one step behind and below Hart in a deliberate attempt to keep their heads at the same level. “You will not be disappointed, señor, I can assure you.”
“I’d better not be.”
Valfierno glanced back down. Mrs. Hart was gently leading her mother up the steps.
As they reached the top, Valfierno pulled out his pocket watch.
“The museum closes in fifteen minutes,” he said. “Perfect timing.”
They walked into the lobby, stopping and turning as Mrs. Hart and her mother entered behind them.
“I think it best if you remain here in the lobby,” said Hart. “You understand, don’t you, dear?” His tone was solicitous but firm.
“I just thought that Mother and I would like to see some of the—”
“We’ll come back tomorrow … when you’ll have more time to appreciate the art. I did say that I thought it best that you stay in the hotel. Now please, do as I say.”
Valfierno sensed that Mrs. Hart was about to protest, but, after a brief pause, she averted her eyes and simply said, “As you wish.”
The look Hart gave Valfierno was unmistakable: enough talk. With a brief nod to Mrs. Hart, Valfierno led him off through the museum.
The two men made their way through a large atrium, moving through the hazy dust suspended in the shafts of late afternoon sun. The few patrons who remained were already moving in the opposite direction on their way out.
“If I may say so,” Valfierno began, “your wife is quite lovely.”
“Yes,” Hart said, clearly distracted.
“And her mother—”
Hart cut him off. “Her mother is an imbecile.”
Valfierno could think of no response to this.
“She has no mind left,” Hart continued. “Useless to bring her along in the first place, but my wife insisted.”
A moment later, Valfierno and Hart stood before Edward Manet’s La Ninfa Sorprendida mounted on a freestanding wall that ran down the center of the long gallery known as Sala 17. A zaftig nymph is clutching a white silky robe to her bosom to hide her nakedness. She is turned toward an intruder who has caught her sitting alone in a sylvan forest, perhaps preparing to swim in the pool behind her. Her eyes are wide with surprise, but her full lips, parted only slightly, suggest that, although she is startled, she is not ashamed.
Valfierno had stood here many times before and he always wondered, who was the intruder? A complete stranger? Someone she knew whom she expected to follow her? Or was Valfierno himself—or anyone else who stood in awe of her—the intruder?
“Exquisite, is it not?” Valfierno said, less a question than a statement.
Hart ignored him. He stood staring at the painting, sizing it up with the suspicious gaze of a man trying to find fault with a racehorse he’s thinking of buying.
“It’s darker than I thought it would be,” Hart finally said.
“Yet the soft light of her skin draws one’s eye out of the darkness, wouldn’t you say?” Valfierno prompted.
“Yes, yes,” Hart said, the impatience in his voice betraying his growing agitation. “And you tell me that it’s one of his most celebrated works?”
“One among many,” Valfierno allowed. “But certainly highly regarded.”
Never oversell. Let the painting and the client’s avarice do all the work.
Valfierno let the ensuing silence hang in the air. Timing was everything in such matters. Let Mr. Joshua Hart of Newport, Rhode Island, drink it all in. Let him absorb it until the thought of leaving Argentina without the object of his obsession was unimaginable.
“Señor Hart,” he finally said, glancing at his pocket watch, “only five minutes to closing.”
Joshua Hart leaned his head toward Valfierno, his eyes darting back to the painting. “But how will you get it? All of Buenos Aires will be up in arms. They’re bound to catch us.”
“Señor, every museum worth its salt has copies of its most important works ready to put up at a moment’s notice. The public at large will never even know it’s missing.”
“But it’s not the public I’m worried about. What about the police? What about the authorities?”
Valfierno had expected this, the moment when the client has second thoughts and tries to convince himself he has traveled thousands of miles to admire the object of his lust but now fears that the risks involved are too great.
“You overestimate the capabilities of the local authorities, señor. By the time they manage to organize their investigation, you’ll be smoking a cigar on the deck of your ship staring out across the water at the Florida coast.”
Hart floundered for a moment, searching for objections. Finally he said, “How do I even know that you won’t deliver a copy instead of the real thing?”
This was the question Valfierno had been waiting for. He glanced up and down the narrow gallery. They were alone, and not by chance. Valfierno stepped toward the painting, motioning Hart to join him. Hart’s face tightened with anxiety, but Valfierno encouraged him with a reassuring smile. Hart looked up and down the gallery before he took a step forward. Valfierno removed an ornate fountain pen from his pocket. Taking his time, he unscrewed the cap, placed it on the rear of the barrel, and offered it to Hart, who reacted as if it were a lethal weapon.
“Go on, take it,” Valfierno encouraged.
Hart gingerly accepted the pen. Valfierno took hold of one side of the bottom of the frame and carefully tilted it away from the wall.
“Put a mark on the back of the canvas. Your initials if you like. Something you’ll recognize.”
“Time is running short, señor.” It was said without haste or concern. A simple statement of fact.
Hart’s breathing became short and labored as, leaning into the wall, he gripped the lower corner of the frame with his left hand and scribbled something on the back of the heavy canvas. Valfierno let the bottom of the frame fall gently back into position, checking to make sure the painting was level.
“I hope you know what you’re doing,” Hart said, handing the pen back.
Valfierno replaced the cap over the nib of the pen. “Leave the rest to me.”
* * *
On their way out of the gallery, Valfierno and Hart passed a lanky young maintenance man in a long white blouse, his cap pulled low over his face as he leisurely pushed a mop across the wet floor. A temporary sign, GALERÍA CERRADA, had been hung on the side of the archway. Hart gave the man a look of contempt as he was forced to step over a small puddle. He didn’t register that Valfierno and the maintenance man exchanged a fleeting glance, Valfierno giving him a slight, knowing nod as he passed.
* * *
Valfierno, Joshua Hart, and the two ladies were the last patrons to leave the museum. Hart hurried down the steps first, clearly in an agitated state. Valfierno descended with Mrs. Hart and her mother.
“Tomorrow,” he began, “you will have much more time to enjoy the pleasures of the museum.”
“Yes,” said Mrs. Hart. “I hope so.”
Joshua Hart was waiting at the bottom of the steps, his back toward them. As soon as they had stepped onto the plaza behind him, he turned and shot a challenging question at Valfierno. “So, what happens now?”
Valfierno looked around to make sure they were out of earshot of anyone. “I will bring the item in question to your hotel in the morning.”
“I have to tell you,” Hart said, “I’m starting to feel uncomfortable about this whole thing.”
A certain degree of last-minute resistance from a client was not unusual, of course, but Valfierno had not expected this much from Hart.
“There is nothing to be concerned about, I can assure you.”
“I will need some time to think. Perhaps this was not such a good idea after all.” Hart was talking more to himself than to anyone else.
Valfierno had to change the subject quickly. The last thing he wanted was for his client to dwell too much on the possible risks involved.
“I think you need to get your mind off it for a while,” he said in his most soothing voice. “Evening is falling. The coolness in the air invites exploration of the city.”
“You call this cool?” Hart said. “I can hardly breathe.”
“Indeed,” began Mrs. Hart in response to Valfierno, “we had spoken of perhaps a visit to the zoo.” Her voice sounded hopeful but tentative.
“A magnificent idea,” Valfierno said, grateful for the young woman’s inadvertent help. “It remains open until at least seven, and the jaguar exhibit is not to be missed.”
“My mother is quite looking forward to it, aren’t you, Mother?”
The older woman gave only the slightest reaction, more to the touch of her daughter’s hand than to her words.
Hart took notice of the women for the first time since exiting the museum. “Don’t be absurd,” he said, masking his irritation in a cloak of concern. “It’s far too hot for that, and the streets are too dangerous at night. It’s best that we go back to the hotel.”
Mrs. Hart’s lips parted slightly as if she was about to respond, but she said nothing.
Valfierno felt the sudden urge to support the young woman’s wish.
“I can assure you,” he said, “the streets are perfectly safe in this area.”
“And who are you now?” Hart asked pointedly. “The mayor?”
Valfierno smiled, cocking his head slightly. “Not officially, no.”
Valfierno was pleased to notice a brief smile flicker across Mrs. Hart’s face.
“It’s time to go,” said Hart curtly, turning to his wife. “Come, dear.” And without waiting for the women, he began striding across the plaza.
“Until the morning, Señor Hart,” Valfierno called after him.
“I must think,” Hart shot back with a dismissive wave of his hand. “I have to think.”
Mrs. Hart acknowledged Valfierno with a slight nod before collecting her mother and following her husband.
Valfierno removed his hat. “Ladies,” he said in farewell.
Hart and the two women were swallowed up by the crowds drawn out by the cooling evening. Taking a deep breath, Valfierno brought a white handkerchief up to his brow and allowed himself to sweat for the first time all afternoon.
* * *
Inside the gallery, the young maintenance man in the white blouse stood before Manet’s La Ninfa Sorprendida. Checking one more time to make sure he was alone, he stepped forward and, with his left hand, tilted the bottom of the frame away from the wall. Reaching behind with his right hand, he applied pressure to the back of the canvas and pushed it up until he had exposed its bottom edge. Gripping it, he slowly pulled downward as if he were drawing a window blind closed. Bit by bit, he revealed a second painting, an identical copy, the one he had secured behind the original the evening before. He tugged steadily until he had removed the second painting without disturbing the masterpiece still occupying its frame.
He let the frame swing back gently to the wall and started to roll up the copy, noting the initials “J.H.” written on the back in stylized letters.
“Who closed this gallery?”
The sound of the authoritative voice startled him. It came from the direction of the gallery entrance hidden from this angle by the freestanding center wall. One of the museum guards, no doubt.
The echo of footsteps told the young man that he had only seconds left before discovery. With rapid wrist motions, he finished rolling up the copy. Slipping the cylinder beneath his long blouse, he walked briskly to the end of the gallery farthest from the entrance. He turned the corner at the end of the center wall at the same time the guard turned the corner at the opposite end, so neither one saw the other. Walking rapidly toward the gallery entrance, he matched his stride to the sound of the guard’s footsteps coming from the opposite side of the wall.
“Is anyone here?” he heard the guard say as the young man slipped through the gallery entrance past the sign he had posted. Crossing the main atrium, he entered a corridor used only by museum staff. He hurried to a side entrance, produced a key, and unlocked the door. Letting himself out, he closed the door behind him and walked off into the gathering evening.
Copyright © 2011 by Carson Morton