A Glancing Light

Aaron Elkins

Chapter 1

“It's perfectly safe,' Tony said with his most engaging would-I-lie? grin. 'There's nothing to worry about, believe me.'

Well, of course, that was when the alarm bells began jingling. It wasn't that I didn't trust Tony; it was just that he tended to have his eyes on the end results (or 'systemic organizational objectives,' as he called them)—so much so that he sometimes failed to perceive the trifling little problems that might lie along the way. And even when he did perceive them, he had been known to gloss them conveniently over. To the eventual sorrow of those who, like me, worked for him.

But the day was not conducive to misgivings. We were on Pier 56, in our shirtsleeves, sitting beneath a table umbrella under a rare Seattle sky of glorious blue, watching the ferries glide sedately out of Elliott Bay and into a sparkling Puget Sound. The good smells of salt water and creosote were in our nostrils, the dry, groaning creak of tied-up ships in our ears. On the round, enameled metal table in front of us were big cardboard buckets of steamed clams and glasses of white wine that we'd carried over from Steamer's take-out counter a few yards away. It was no time for presentiments of gloom.

Not that it didn't occur to me that it wasn't beyond Tony to have orchestrated this: to have waited for just such a bright and blameless day, and to have suggested just such a cheerful lunch spot, in order to spring his rash and risky ideas on me.

'And what about the Mafia?' I asked. 'They're bound to be involved in this.'

'The Mafia,' he said contemptuously, 'is a thing of the past. Don't you read the newspapers? Besides, do you think I'd consider it for a moment if there were any danger to you?' When I remained pointedly silent he smiled reprovingly. 'Chris, would I?'

'Only if it was for the greater good of the Seattle Art Museum,' I said.

I think I ought to explain at this point that Tony Whitehead is one of my favorite people. Almost everything useful that I know about the museum world I learned from Tony. For almost five years I had worked for him at the San Francisco County Museum of Art, and when he accepted the directorship of the Seattle Art Museum five months ago, he asked me along as his curator of Renaissance and Baroque art. I jumped at the chance. One reason was that my long and messy divorce had just concluded, requiring me to sell my Victorian house on Divisadero Street whether I wanted to or not, and I wanted to put that entire part of my life—the San Francisco years—behind me.

The other reason was Tony. He was a first-rate administrator, he gave me breathing room, he trusted my judgment, and hardly a day passed when I didn't learn something from him. But he was a born con man (no small attribute in an art museum director), with a style that was somewhat freewheeling, to put it mildly, and it was equally true that not too many days passed when he didn't have me grinding my teeth over something.

I wasn't grinding my teeth now, but I was worried. 'It's not the danger,' I said, more or less honestly. 'I just don't like the feel of the whole thing. It sounds . . . sleazy. You're asking me to be an informer, to spy on the people I'm dealing with.'

'Absolutely not. Far from it. The people you're dealing with aren't crooks. At least let's hope not.' He put down a stubbornly closed clam he had been unable to pry open and used a paper napkin to wipe butter from sleek, round fingers. 'Look, you're going to be in Bologna anyway, right? You're going to see everybody who's anybody. You're bound to hear things. All they want you to do is meet with their people a few times and pass along anything you hear that might be pertinent. That's all. Is that so terrible? This is a natural for you, Chris. Besides, if I know you, you'd tell them anyway, even without being asked.'


'Of course you would,' Tony said comfortably. 'You're the most law-abiding person I know. You're ethical. You stop at stop signs when there's nobody around. I've seen you.'

I knew it was meant as a compliment, and it was true enough, but it annoyed me all the same; coming from Tony it sounded like a character flaw. Besides, who wants to be the most law-abiding person someone knows?

'Maybe, maybe not,' I said more defiantly, and swigged at the cold wine.

The 'they' Tony had mentioned were the Italian carabinieri, who had contacted the FBI for help. The FBI had in turn gotten hold of Tony, who was always ready to do anything that might bring the museum some favorable publicity. Or just about any publicity. And what we were talking about was a trio of sensational art thefts in Italy twenty-two months earlier. In one, thieves had gotten into the prestigious Pinacoteca Museum in Bologna, making off with a carload of precious paintings: two Tintorettos, a famous Perugino Madonna, and fifteen other highly valuable pictures.

The second break-in had been at the neo-Gothic townhouse of Clara Gozzi in nearby Ferrara. Signora Gozzi, a well-known collector, had been robbed of two portraits by Bronzino and a handsome Correggio nude, along with two other paintings. Her best-known picture, a portrait by Rubens, had been undergoing cleaning at a Bologna restorer's studio at the time, and the discriminating thieves had demonstrated that they knew exactly what they were after by their third burglary, the theft of her Rubens from the restorer's workshop. In accomplishing this, they had apparently been surprised by an elderly night watchman who had paid for his interference with his life.

All three burglaries had taken place on the same night, apparently within four hours of each other. This was not unusual in the highly evolved arena of art thievery. A major theft in a particular area is always followed by an explosion of security precautions on the part of shaken museums and collectors, so that stealing anything else becomes a very risky proposition until things become lax again with the passage of many years. Say, two.

But professional thieves are not patient people. They don't like to wait two years, so they get around the problem by robbing two collections—sometimes three—at virtually the same moment. By the time the first is discovered, the last is already a fact. When brought off successfully, this is always a sign of a highly sophisticated gang. (Raffles to the contrary, professional art thieves are never loners. They are always gangs.)

In any event, nothing was heard of the paintings for a year and a half. Then a month ago relatively reliable reports began to trickle in; the Perugino from the Pinacoteca had wound up in Dresden; a Saudi had bought one of signora Gozzi's Bronzinos on the black market for $180,000. And now the art world was boiling with the rumor that the rest of them were about to surface; that is, become available to buyers with ready cash and not too many questions.

The prevailing assumption was that they were still hidden away somewhere in Bologna, and that was how I came into it. For, as it happened, I was scheduled to leave for Bologna the following Sunday anyway, to make the final arrangements for an exhibition that would travel from Italy to museums in Seattle, San Francisco, Dallas, New York, and Washington, D.C. Northerners in Italy, it was to be called; a collection of thirty-two sixteenth- and seventeenth-century pictures that had been painted by Dutch, Flemish, French, and German masters while studying in Italy.

Since it had been my idea in the first place, it had fallen to me to make most of the preparations, and on the following Sunday evening, I would be boarding United 157 to Chicago, there to catch TWA 746 to Rome and then an Alitalia flight to Bologna's Borgo Paniglae Airport. The whole trip would take nineteen hours and I wasn't looking forward to it.

Among the people I would be talking to once I got there would be signora Clara Gozzi herself, who was lending the show a Fragonard, a Van Dyck, and two other paintings from her still-considerable collection; and Amedeo Di Vecchio, director of the Pinacoteca Museum, who was supplying most of the other pictures. And, as Tony said, there was little doubt that I would encounter everybody else who was anybody on the gossipy and rumor-laden Bolognese art scene. (All art scenes are gossipy and rumor-laden.) That, I supposed, was why it was a natural for me. But that didn't make me comfortable with it.

'What about Calvin?' I asked Tony hopefully. Calvin Boyer, the museum's marketing director, would join me

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