The conversation lab was unnaturally quiet. A faint familiar scent – spicy, cloves? – wafted over solvents and varnish. As Lily walked past the Objects Conservator and her assistant, and the cubicles filled with interns and staff, necks craned. Paul had that effect on women.
Clean-shaven, short black hair in “Fed” style to match his impeccable tailored suit with its snowy pocket square and an athletic physique showing no trace of fat, he stood waiting in her office with his back to her. He reached up and slowly rubbed the back of his neck. Did he ever do that before?
“What do you want?” she said.
He turned with a start. Before his mask slipped back in place, she saw something different in his eyes. “Is that any way to greet an old colleague?”
Any was listening in the doorway. Dave had followed her in and was getting an earful too. She had cut this short.
“It’s been a long time, Paul.” Ten years, three months and how many days?
The clove was stronger now, his natural scent. The Armani tie wasn’t one she’d given him, but the lushness of the silk reminded her that he’d given her something far more precious: her introduction to paintings, and through his eyes the gift of seeing them. Now he was looking at her intently.
“You cut it,” he said.
Their last time together flashed through her head. In bed at her condo, her cheek against the heat of his chest, caressing those tight curls just starting to gray, him running his fingers through her hair. His cell phone vibrating, him staring at the number before going into the bathroom to pick up…. She looked at his left hand now. Still no ring.
“You didn’t answer my question,” she said. “Why are you here?”
“I never thought you’d do it.”
“Cut my hair?”
His gesture encompassed her office, with its cramped walls of treatises and binders and a wheeled ladder to reach the top shelf, to the floor-to-ceiling foot-wide window offering a sliver of view to the west. It stopped at her desk, with its lamp, tissue box, computer, pad and pens neatly aligned. “Everything in its place, just like when you were a lawyer.”
“Thanks. There’s a painting I’m about to clean —”
He glanced at Amy and Dave. “Can we speak privately?”
He rubbed his neck again. Tired, or did he need to do something with his hands?
“Okay,” he said. “George Kurtz is dead.”
“You’re kidding!” Dave said.
“He was murdered last night at home.”
“What?” Lily said.
She’d met the museum’s benefactor and chairman of the board just once, at the gala two years earlier when Seven was unveiled. Their encounter was brief. Despite his ate, Kurtz’s attention was flattering. You like champagne? he asked. Without waiting for an answer, he signaled the waiter for another glass. There was something predatory about him. His avian stare — so at odds with his dignified demeanor and tuxedo — said he was attracted. He took her hand. His fingers were cold and clammy, his buffed nails sharp. His stare turned insulting. Or perhaps something more? When she didn’t respond, he’d looked past her for a more interesting conquest. Kurtzy’s death would throw the museum and the art world into turmoil, but why was Paul —
Dave jumped in again. “Did they steal his paintings?”
Paul didn’t answer. But that explained his presence — sort of. He’d started as a federal prosecutor in D.C., then joined the FBI as one of the first agents assigned to its elite Art Theft Team. Stints at Homeland Security and Counterterrorism and Forensic Science Research Unit followed; he was climbing the ladder fast. She’d seen an article about him consulting on the looting of artifacts from Syria and Iraq. But the FBI had other art experts.
“And Denver’s such a hick town they had to call in the Feds,” she said.
“Something like that.”
“And you thought, give old Lily a call.”
His smile was almost as insulting as Kurtz’s. “There’s a press conference this afternoon. For the five o’clock news.”
She turned, pushing past Amy and Dave, and forcing him to follow her out. After her office, the lab was an island of sanity, with its gleaming walls and paneled ceiling and pleated ventilation ducts, the high-intensity lamps on wheelend stands, the rack of neatly hanging lab coats she never wore. The Objects Conservator and her assistant were quietly working on a ceramic statuette in the adjoining room. Her own new project, cleaning a trustee’s Degas of a young ballerina, rested on the quilted tarp on the heat vacuum table in the center of the floor.
“A Degas?” He was playing the crowd. “Not like that Schiele in our Brandt case. Right, Lily?”
Seated Female Nude with Raised Right Arm III, the Egon Schiele watercolor of an emaciated girl with her legs spread, flashed in her head. WIth it came a fury as bright and sharp as the scalpel in her tool drawer. Forgetting her audience, she wheelend on Paul. “You think you can waltz in here and pick up—”
He stepped back. “This has nothing to do with us. Just come with me to the crime scene.”
“Your expertise. What Harry trained you for.”
Dave’s eyes danced. “Who’s Harry?
“The man who made Lily so observant.” His words were playful; the riff wasn’t. “Didn’t you know she has a perfect eye?”
“Leave my dad out of this,” she warned.
“Perfect?” Dave tugged at his forelock. “Shall I bow to you, Lily?”
“I mean it, Paul.” The lab fell silent.
“Fine.” He raised his hands in mock surrender, and she marched him to the door. “You’ve never seen Kurtz’s private collection, have you?” he stage-whispered. “I hear he has two Sisleys and a Van Gogh.”
“Using masterpieces as bait? That’s disgusting!”
He stopped. She saw it in his eyes again — a new uncertainty.
“The crime scene’s,…unusual,” he said. “You see things experts miss. Harry’s game, right?”
Seeing wasn’t just a game.
When she was a third-year lawyer, she’d been assigned to sell a rural bank. With the sale about to close, the senior partner complimented her on her documents, then asked if she’d bothered to visit the bank. What for? She said. To make sure it’s real, he replied. The next day she drove fifty miles to the plains, met the bank’s officers, and toured the facility. She was being hazed, but the lesson stuck: Life was more than data points. Later, when she saved Elena Brandt’s gallery from ruin because she looked — and saw — that Egon Schiele watercolor for the fake it was, she got a glimmer of what her eye could do.
“Just an hour of your time, LIly,” Paul was saying.
“I think I’ll let you and the cops handle it.”
But the museum obsessed over its message. What would the Talking Points on the murder of its chief benefcator be? Kurtz’s fingerprints were everywhere you looked, from the Kurtz Building to the Kurtz Skybridge to his name on the wall next to countless pieces of art. And something more important that Talking Points was at stake: the visitors streaming in every day on the promise of being moved by art. When she entered a gallery, she felt the same hush, the anticipation of an orchestra tuning up. All those excited faces — would Kurtz’s death overshadow the art, distract them from what the museum really had to offer?
She looked at Paul again. Despite his career achievements and bravado, was there a sadness tugging at his eyes? Something wasn’t right. What harm was there in going to the crime scene and taking a look?
Stephanie Kane is a lawyer and award-winning author of four crime novels. Born in Brooklyn, she came to Colorado as a freshman at CU. She owned and ran a karate studio in Boulder and is a second-degree black belt. After graduating from law school, she was a corporate partner at a top Denver law firm before becoming a criminal defense attorney. She has lectured on money laundering and white collar crime in Eastern Europe, and given workshops throughout the country on writing technique. She lives in Denver with her husband and two black cats. Extreme Indifference and Seeds of Doubt won a Colorado Book Award for Mystery and two Colorado Authors League Awards for Genre Fiction. She belongs to Mystery Writers of America, Rocky
Mountain Fiction Writers and the Colorado Authors League.
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