Since becoming an unlikely millionaire and quitting the St. Paul Police Department, Rushmore McKenzie has been working as an unlicensed private investigator, basically doing favors for friends and people in need. But even for him, this latest job is unusual. He's been asked to find a stolen Stradivarius, known as the Countess Borromeo, that only the violinist seems to want him to find.
Stolen from a locked room in a B&B in the violinist's former hometown of Bayfield, Wisconsin, the violin is valued at $4 million and is virtually irreplaceable. But the foundation that owns it and their insurance company refuses to think about buying it back from the thief (or thieves.) However, Paul Duclos, the violinist who has played it for the past twelve years, is desperate to get it back and will pay out of his own pocket to get it back.
Though it's not his usual sort of case, McKenzie is intrigued and decides to try and help, which means going against the local police, the insurance company, the FBI's Art Crime division, and his own lawyer's advice. And, as he quickly learns, there's a lot more going on than the mere theft of a priceless instrument.
About the Author
DAVID HOUSEWRIGHT has won both the Edgar Award and the Minnesota Book Award (twice) for his crime fiction. His recent books include The Devil May Care, The Last Kind Word, and Curse of the Jady Lily. He lives in St. Paul, Minnesota.
Read an Excerpt
Stealing the Countess
By David Housewright
St. Martin's PressCopyright © 2016 David Housewright
All rights reserved.
The Maestro insisted that it wasn't his fault.
"What was I supposed to do?" he asked. "Handcuff her to my wrist? Hire armed guards to escort us to rehearsals, to concert halls? You can't live like that. It's untenable. The fact is, she was essential to me, to my profession. She was an extension of myself. I took her to every major city in the world. It was either that or quit my job. Of course, I was always aware of my surroundings when she was with me. I never let her out of my sight. But if you worried about someone running off with her, if you gave in to paranoia, you'd never leave the house."
"The fact remains," I said. "Someone stole your four-million-dollar Stradivarius violin."
"It wasn't my fault."
"According to the newspaper, it was taken from the room in the bed-and-breakfast you were staying at while you went for a walk."
"Should I have taken her with me?" he asked again. "Walk the streets with her slung over my shoulder? People say I was careless. And clueless, I heard that, too. A policeman claimed I was 'criminally negligent.' I don't think my behavior was unreasonable at all. I even had a GPS transmitter embedded in the violin case, although ..." His voice became softer. "They found the case in the street. It was supposed to be fun, McKenzie. A concert in the park in my hometown, with all my childhood friends in attendance to see how well I had done since I left for the big city. Fun ..."
"Why are you telling me all this?"
Paul Duclos leaned back in his chair and stared at me as if he were suddenly aware that he was speaking to a dull and listless child. We were sitting at a window table in the Great Waters Brewing Company, about a stone's throw, if you had a good arm, from where the offices and rehearsal space for the St. Paul Chamber Orchestra were located in the Hamm Building. I was drinking a house ale that was a tad too hoppy for my taste, while the Maestro nursed a coffee, black, the way God intended. I liked him partly because of the way he drank his coffee but mostly because he was a world-renowned concert violinist who was now working as an artistic partner with the SPCO, which meant he also conducted. I've always had a soft spot for hometown musicians.
But then he swung his fist down like a judge's gavel and started pounding the tabletop. Conversation ceased. Customers and waitstaff turned to face him. He spoke at a volume loud enough to be heard by anyone within fifty feet.
"I expect you to get her back," he said.
"What's the magic word?"
The Maestro stared at me some more. A smile tugged at the corners of his mouth, and he began to glance around the tavern. Some customers met his gaze; others looked away as if embarrassed. He lowered his voice.
"I'm sorry," he said. "McKenzie. Please. Please bring her back to me."
"A crime like this — the FBI has a special unit, an Art Crime Team, that's probably already on the case, not to mention investigators from the state and county cops. They won't like it if a civilian gets involved. How did you get my name, anyway?"
"Vincent Donatucci called me."
"Midwest Farmers Insurance Group — are they the ones who insured the violin?"
"Mr. Donatucci is their chief investigator. He's very good at his job. I'm surprised he'd give up my name. He wouldn't want me to meddle, either."
"He was their chief investigator. They retired him because of his age."
"I didn't know that. Still ..."
"He told me that the Stradivarius might never be recovered now because of what the insurance company did, what the foundation did. However, he said someone acting independently might be able to ..."
"What did the insurance company do?"
"Donatucci said no one steals a Stradivarius worth four million dollars with the idea that they're going to pawn her. She's famous. She even has a name. Countess Borromeo. No art dealer would dare touch her, she's so recognizable. Instead ... Donatucci said this isn't the first time a Strad has been stolen. After a time, the thieves would usually send in mules — that's the word he used, mules — that would pretend to find the violin and return it to the rightful owners for the reward, no questions asked. Except the insurance company, at the insistence of the foundation, took that option off the table. It's still offering a reward — $250,000 — but it specified that it won't release the money unless there's a conviction. Someone needs to be arrested. Someone needs to go to jail. This greatly reduces the profit incentive while increasing the risk, according to Donatucci. He said the thieves are now just as likely to toss the violin into the nearest Dumpster as hang on to her. Cut their losses, he said."
"They could wait until the investigation dies down," I said. "Try to cut a deal on the quiet, although — why would Midwest do that?"
"The foundation —"
"Georges and Adrienne Peyroux Foundation for the Arts. What you need to appreciate, McKenzie, is that I don't actually own the Countess. The foundation owns her. It's just lending her to me. Not many musicians, even highly successful ones, can afford to own a really fine violin. That's where wealthy music benefactors step in. An investor or a foundation with an interest in the arts will secure an instrument and entrust it to an artist. That's how Countess Borromeo and I became companions. I was starting to build a reputation for myself, especially in Europe, and representatives from the foundation asked if I would be interested in using their Strad. They chose me because I have a relationship with the community. I grew up in Bayfield, Wisconsin. I attended the University of Minnesota before transferring to Juilliard.
"I leapt at the opportunity, of course. It's been a very satisfying relationship on many levels. It was tough at first, McKenzie, making it work, don't be mistaken about that. The Countess has a way of maximizing your strengths and illuminating your weaknesses. The most difficult part was learning how to relax with her in my hands; stop working so hard, to just let her be herself. In the past twelve years, though, she and I have become such good and loyal friends. In many ways she's a part of me now. She knows my moods so well. And she's ungodly beautiful. It's the wood, McKenzie. Gorgeous maple. So smooth, so sensual ..."
Is he talking about a violin or a girl? my inner voice asked.
"You call her Countess Borromeo?"
"A Stradivarius nearly always goes by the name of a previous owner. This one belonged to Count Borromeo of Milan, Italy, who presented it to his wife, Celia Grillo Borromeo, the famous mathematician and scientist, somewhere around 1760."
"What does the Peyroux Foundation get out of the deal?"
"There's the financial investment of owning the Strad, of course — it'll never go down in value, that's for certain. It also benefits from the private parties and fund-raisers I play for them. That's how I met my wife, you know."
I wonder if her wood is smooth and sensual.
"Renée, Renée Marie Peyroux," the Maestro said. "She runs the foundation now. She took control when her father passed. She's adamant, too. Nothing I can say will change her mind. Renée simply will not reward the thieves for stealing from her — that's the way she looks at it. But McKenzie, I will."
"You will what?"
"I'll pay $250,000 for the safe return of the Countess. No questions asked. Donatucci said it's the only way."
"When did you speak to him?" I asked.
"Saturday afternoon. He called right after he heard what Renée and the insurance company were going to do. He was just as upset as I was. It was he who suggested that I offer a reward of my own. He told me to call you. He said you were dependable."
"Mr. Donatucci wants you to pay off the thieves?"
"It happens every day, that's what Donatucci said."
"What would your wife say?"
"I don't care. Actually, I care a great deal, but that's for later. I'll think of something, later. Right now, all I want, all I need, is to have the violin returned to me. Will you help?"
"Help you what? Be specific."
"Take the money to Bayfield, find out who stole the Strad, and buy it back."
Hell no, my inner voice shouted.
"Let me think about it," I said aloud.
What's to think about?
"I'm going to need some legal advice before I decide."
"Please, McKenzie," the Maestro said. "I'll do anything to bring the Countess Borromeo home safely."
"Yeah, well, it's the 'I'll do anything' part that makes me nervous."
* * *
I said good-bye to Duclos outside the Hamm Building, crossed the square to Wabasha Street, and walked north toward the Fitzgerald Theater, where Garrison Keillor holds forth on A Prairie Home Companion — or so I've been told. I've never actually listened to the program myself. As I approached my car, I pulled out a cell phone, tapped CONTACTS, and scrolled down until I found the icon for G. K. Bonalay. Her admin answered on the third ring.
"McKenzie, is that you?" she asked.
"Caller ID never lies."
"Is this an emergency? Are you in custody?"
"Ahh, no and no."
The way she exhaled suggested that she had been holding her breath.
"You haven't been arrested," she said. "That's good."
"Why would you think —"
"Let's face it; the only time you call G. K. is when you're in trouble."
"The only time anyone calls a lawyer is when they're in trouble."
"There's trouble and then there's trouble."
"May I please speak to Genevieve?"
"She's meeting with a client."
"Is the client in trouble?"
"No one's accused him of murder like the last time you called, if that's what you mean."
"That was a simple misunderstanding."
"I'll have G. K. return your call as soon as she's done — wait. I think the meeting's breaking up. Let me put you on hold for a sec."
It was closer to three minutes. I was unlocking my car when G. K. Bonalay came on the line.
"McKenzie, how are you?" she said.
"Very well, thank you. How 'bout yourself?"
"Overworked and underpaid."
"You should complain to the boss."
"That tyrannical bitch? There's no talking to her."
"She seemed so reasonable the first time we met."
"I take it from all this breezy chitchat that you really aren't in trouble for a change."
"No, and I would like to keep it that way."
"That's so responsible of you, I don't know what to say."
"Oh, for God's sake."
"What is it this time?"
I explained in detail, leaving nothing out. It was one of the reasons G. K. and I got along so well. We've trusted each other implicitly ever since I helped prove one of her clients was innocent of murder. She once told me I would be amazed at how often clients lie to their attorneys and how often attorneys lie to their clients. That's why she started her own law firm a few years back, to cut down on the lies.
"Don't do it," G. K. said.
"That's your informed legal advice?"
"What you're planning is against the law. Listen, McKenzie, from what you're telling me, even though Duclos doesn't actually own the violin, he's entitled to possession, so he's cool. You, the middleman, though — it's a felony to knowingly purchase stolen property, to be in possession of stolen property. We're talking about a year and a day in prison. You would lose your license to work as a private investigator, too, if you actually had a license."
"If I was convicted, being an ex-cop and all, wouldn't it be more likely that I would just receive a fine?"
"It's still a felony conviction. Writing a damn check isn't going to make it go away. Another thing — the prosecutor — he's going to ask who sold you the stolen property. Are you going to tell him?"
"Then they'll not only nail you for possession, they might tack on a charge of aiding an offender after the fact; they'll claim in court that you're just as guilty as if you were involved in the actual theft. They'll be right, too."
"You're not listening."
"I am, I am listening."
"But you're going to do it anyway, aren't you?"
"I haven't decided yet. Right now, I'm thinking no."
"Sure you are."
* * *
You're probably wondering what a lifelong St. Paul boy like me is doing living in a high-rise condominium in downtown Minneapolis. My answer is simple and probably not all that original — there's this girl. Woman, actually. Her name is Nina Truhler. She has short black hair, the loveliest pale blue eyes I've ever seen, and a figure that she fights for in gymnasiums and fitness centers at least four times a week. Plus, she owns a jazz joint called Rickie's where I'm allowed to drink expensive alcohol and listen to tunes for free.
I found her sitting on a stool at the island in the kitchen area absentmindedly popping green grapes into her mouth while she read the latest Regency romance novel by Julie Klassen.
"Hey," she said without looking at me.
"Hey," I answered.
"There's mail. Someone sent you an invitation to something."
I found the envelope on the desk in the library area near the door. The way the condo is laid out, we don't have rooms so much as areas — dining area, TV area, a music area where Nina's Steinway stands. The entire north wall is made of tinted floor-to-ceiling glass with a dramatic view of the Mississippi River. If that weren't enough, there is a sliding glass door built into the wall that leads to a balcony. The south wall features floor-to-ceiling bookcases that turn at the east wall and follow it to a large brick fireplace. To the left of the fireplace is a door that leads to a small guest bedroom with its own full bath. Against the west wall and elevated three steps above the living area is the kitchen area. Beyond that is a master bedroom that also features floor-to-ceiling windows, a huge walk-in closet, a bathroom with double sinks, a glass-enclosed shower, and a storage area with enough room to park a car. Be it ever so humble ...
I carried the envelope across the condo and mounted the kitchen-area steps. Nina set down her book, wiped her fingers on her jeans, and kissed me.
"What did the Maestro want?" she asked.
The question came from the entrance to the guest room; or rather, I should say, from the room commandeered by Nina's daughter, who was taking the summer off from Tulane University.
"Paul Duclos," I said.
"Paul Duclos? You know Paul Duclos? The violin master? That is so cool."
By then Erica was standing at the island. She was two inches taller than Nina. Beyond that, they looked remarkably similar. I once compared photographs of Nina and Erica when they were both nineteen. Clothes, hairstyle, and Nina's remarkable eyes were the only way to tell them apart. Scary. Which isn't to say they resembled twins, or even sisters, today. More like a beautiful young lady standing next to her equally beautiful mother.
"How do you know Paul Duclos?" Erica asked.
"A mutual friend wants me to do a favor for him."
"Then you must. You must."
"How do you know this man?" Nina asked.
"Mother," Erica said. She added an eye-roll and a deep sigh. "He's only one of the greatest violinists in the whole world, that's all."
"You listen to classical music?" I asked. "Since when?"
"McKenzie." She gave me an eye-roll and deep sigh, too, but I figured that was just to be polite. "There's more to life than jazz."
"I listen to all kinds of music."
"Like, ahh ... opera."
"Oh, yeah? Name a female opera singer."
"Everyone knows Maria Callas. Name three more."
"Dawn Upshaw, Cecilia Bartoli, Kathleen Battle, Renée Fleming, and Audra McDonald."
"I said three."
Nina snickered around a grape while I opened the envelope. She was correct; it was the size and shape of an invitation to a wedding or a charity event, and it contained a folded white card. Only the cover was blank. I opened it and read what was inside.
"What favor are you going to do for the Maestro?" Erica asked.
"I'm not sure I'm going to do it yet."
"He wants me to retrieve his stolen Stradivarius."
"Someone swiped the Countess Borromeo?"
"How do you know these things?"
"That's horrible. For a musician like Paul Duclos, that's like losing his, his ..."
The heads of both women came up; their eyes snapped on me.
"Just something that popped into my head while I was chatting with him," I said.
"Are you going to do it?" Erica asked. "Help him, I mean?"
"Like I said, I haven't decided. Although ..."
I handed the card to Nina. She read it silently and then aloud. "If you're wise, you will not join the hunt for the stolen Stradivarius. Consider this your only warning."
Excerpted from Stealing the Countess by David Housewright. Copyright © 2016 David Housewright. Excerpted by permission of St. Martin's Press.
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