Excerpt – Book Four

Chapter One

 

Josephine

 

 

Norman and I were in the final throes of moving into our new home, a three-bedroom-plus-den cottage that’s part of the Brookside Retirement Community. Norman’s dubbed it A Cottage for our Dotage. I was in the living room, unpacking a box of books, when a knock sounded, and I found the mailman peering around our partially open front door.

He held out a priority mail envelope, and my first thought was that my son was making another attempt to serve me with some sort of summons. Ever since he discovered I have ample resources, he’s been trying to separate me from them.

As I hesitated, Norman appeared and accepted the envelope. He turned toward me, looking at the envelope and frowning.

“What is it?” I asked.

“Not sure.”

“Maybe it’s a card, congratulating us.”

Norman and I have only recently married, and I must admit it feels odd to assume the label of newlywed at seventy-one. But as a result, we are still getting the occasional greeting from some far-flung friend who has just heard the news.

“It’s been forwarded from my old address, so I don’t expect you know a Leonardo D. Vincent?”

An intriguing name, given Norman’s connections to the art world. “Why don’t you just open it?”

“When all else fails, including my x-ray vision . . .”

He grinned at me, and after yanking on the easy-open feature, pulled out a piece of paper. He glanced at it, then held it up for me to see. It contained three words written with a black pen that had meandered its way across the page.

Elizabeth Kent Oakes

“Oh.” I felt like someone had punched me . . . lightly, but it still knocked the breath out of me. There were few words that would be as evocative for my new husband as the name of the museum in Boston that had artwork worth over one hundred million dollars stolen some forty years ago.

“Indeed,” he said.

Norman’s biggest professional regret is that he never turned up a viable lead to this particular theft. It caused an inordinate delay in his retirement, and he’d even suspected me, briefly, of being involved.

I wasn’t. But I have to admit, there were circumstances that made it appear I could be one of the people he’d been searching for, for so many years.

“What do you think it means?” I asked.

He flipped the paper over, held it up to the light, then turned his attention to the envelope.

“I’m going to check out this address,” he said, walking over to the computer.

While he did that, I abandoned the books and made myself a ceremonial first cup of tea in our new home. In between sips, I worked on getting the kitchen in order.

Norman came to stand in the doorway. “How do you feel about taking a trip to Indianapolis?”

“You found something?”

“Come see.”

I followed him to the computer, which was open to a Google Maps street view of the address on the envelope. On the screen was a huge stone house, more suited to Bavaria than Indianapolis, peeking from behind a tall hedge and bracketed by large trees.

“Do you know who the owner is?”

“Not Leonardo D. Vincent.”

“Then who?”

Norman shook his head, his arm circling my waist. “Unclear. Our best bet may be just to go there.”

“Is that an investigative technique?” I was teasing, but Norman answered with a serious expression.

“It’s almost always an excellent idea to follow up on a strong lead as quickly as possible.”

I had no idea what made this piece of paper with its three wobbly words a strong lead, but I was happy to take a break from the settling-in process, even if it was to go to Indianapolis. Which, I suspect, like Cincinnati does better as a place to live rather than a place to visit. My first husband, Thomas, always referred to it as India-no-place. But then, Thomas was a consummate snob.

“A quick trip to Indianapolis, hmm? If nothing else, seeing inside that . . . edifice should be interesting. When do you want to go?” I leaned my head on his shoulder, and to my delight, got a kiss for my effort.

“Right now might be good.”

“That’s impulsive.”

A quick squeeze, and he released me. “I have a feeling about this, and I’m glad you’re willing to come along.”

I didn’t say it, but had he tried to go without me, I would have been hurt and disappointed. After all, my recent success unmasking Lottie Watson’s crimes gave me the right, in my opinion, to be part of any investigational opportunities that drifted my way. Or Norman’s. And it would not have boded well for our future as a married couple had he hesitated in this moment to include me.

Of course, unlike my most recent adventure, I wasn’t expecting a trip to Indianapolis to be either as exciting or as dangerous as the Lottie Watson takedown, but one never knows.

“We’d better plan on spending the night,” Norman said.

With a feeling of invigorating anticipation, I went off to pack.

~ ~ ~

It was a two-and-a-half-hour drive from Brookside to the Indianapolis address on the mysterious envelope. As promised by Google, we found ourselves in front of a building that would be an excellent candidate for a Halloween haunted house.

The gate guarding entry to the drive was open, so Norman turned in, and we parked in a graveled area on one side of the house. When we got out of the car, the heat and humidity of the late Midwest summer wrapped around us like a heavy cloak.

The bass tone of the doorbell sounded deep within the house, competing with the high-pitched buzzing of cicadas. I was tempted to peer through the ornate glass sidelight but luckily refrained, because within moments, the door opened and a man in jeans and a polo shirt greeted us.

I felt a stab of disappointment. Given the grand facade and the mysterious arrival of the envelope, I was expecting, at the least, a properly attired butler. This man, with his thinning brown hair and slight paunch, was . . . ordinary.

“Can I help you?”

I blinked. The clothing might not be Savile Row, but the accent was.

Norman held up the envelope.

The man glanced at the address. “Ah, yes, Mr. Neuman. And this is?” He raised his chin toward me.

“Mrs. Neuman,” Norman replied.

The man nodded. “Of course. Very appropriate. Perhaps you’d follow me?”

No perhaps about it. We weren’t going anywhere until we had some answers. Norman ushered me over the threshold ahead of him. Inside, I was met by blessedly cool air. We followed the man past a beautifully carved spiral staircase into a remarkably cheerful and informal room.

Afternoon sun sent slants of light across a glossy floor. The windows lacked drapes, probably for the benefit of the many plants. The room was warmer than the hall, but still cooler than outside. A large painting of a severe man in medieval clothing hanging above a marble fireplace caught my attention.

Norman sucked in an audible breath as he, too, stared at the painting.

The man—I’d decided butler was an appropriate descriptor despite his clothing—also turned. “Ah, perhaps you recognize it?”

Norman nodded. “The Duke of Northumberland. It’s currently listed as missing from the Antwerp Museum.”

But while Norman recognized the painting, I didn’t. I stepped closer, searching for an artist’s signature, but I couldn’t make one out.

“Mrs. Scott’s orders are that if you showed no sign of recognition, I was to serve you tea and fiction before showing you the door.”

“But since I did?”

The butler pulled a phone from his pocket and, watching us both, put it to his ear. “Yes, ma’am. He has the envelope, and he recognized the painting. There’s a Mrs. Neuman with him.” He paused, obviously listening. “Yes, ma’am. Right away.”

The phone was slipped back into his pocket, and he gestured for us to sit in two chairs pulled up to a low table. He disappeared briefly before returning with a large tray containing a tea service that would not have looked out of place in Buckingham Palace.

“Please, help yourselves to tea. Mrs. Scott will be with you shortly.”

As soon as the man left the room, I turned to Norman. “What’s all that about the painting?”

“I’ve been investigating its disappearance almost as long as I have the paintings taken in the Boston robbery.”

“You think we’ve entered the den of a master thief?”

His lips twitched. “Quite possibly. Although he, or she, needs to take better care than to hang a priceless masterpiece in such a bright room.”

“Perhaps it’s a temporary gig for the duke? Or maybe a copy. Cup of tea?”

“Not for me, thank you. But go ahead. I’m sure you’re curious.”

“I am wondering what kind of tea would be worthy of such a grand pot.” I poured myself a cup, took a sip, and with a shudder, set the cup down.

“What’s wrong?”

“An inferior brew. Not at all what I was expecting.”

The door on the opposite side of the room opened, and the butler pushed a woman in a wheelchair into position across the table from Norman and me. The woman’s straight posture and strong profile reminded me of Maggie Smith, a.k.a. the Dowager Countess of Grantham from Downton Abbey. Had she been much younger and had walked in, I have no doubt she could have done so with books or a pitcher of water balanced perfectly on her head.

Her hair was white and held back from her face by two jeweled combs. Her fingers were twisted, and her skin was wrinkled and spotted. But her eyes were alert, and their probing gaze locked in on Norman.

The functionary exited the room, leaving the three of us to examine each other.

After the door closed, Mrs. Scott’s head inclined slightly. “It’s nice to see you again, Norman Neuman. And you’re Mrs. Neuman? What is your name?” Her accent matched that of the polo-shirted butler.

I cleared my throat, surprised at being addressed. “Josephine.”

“I see you’ve tried the tea. Would you pour me a cup, please, Josephine?”

“It’s not very good tea.” Her demeanor and those sharp eyes made my announcement seem perfectly reasonable.

She laughed while Norman gave me a puzzled look. “Don’t pour me any, then. You’re not a tea drinker, Norman?”

“I prefer coffee.”

“Of course you do. But you haven’t come to discuss beverage preferences with me, have you.”

Norman shook his head, then simply sat without speaking, so I curbed my tongue as well. This was his scene, after all. I was just lucky to have been included.

I could already imagine describing it for Philippa. She’s a novelist, and since she found inspiration in my Edward Hopper painting troubles and the Lottie Watson affair, I know she’d find this situation equally fraught with creative possibility.

Mrs. Scott’s hands tightened on the cane lying across her lap, and she pulled in a breath. It was the first sign that she wasn’t completely calm and in control of the situation. But then she seemed to change her mind and turned once again to me. “How old are you, Josephine?”

Since turning seventy, not to mention moving to Brookside where I live among people who are decades older than I am, I no longer have any particular objection to this question. “Nearly seventy-two. And you?”

“How old do you think I am?”

I pursed my lips, then figured, Why not? “One hundred and two.”

She laughed, the sound more musical than I was expecting. Then she nodded at me, her eyes alight with humor, her hands more relaxed. “You’re not off by much.”

“So, you’re only . . . ninety-two?”

“Something close to that.”

“Still impressive.”

Norman shifted, and I took that to mean he was ready to get to the point. And it wasn’t to compare ages any more than it was about beverage preferences.

Mrs. Scott noticed as well and turned her attention to him. “I know. You’re thinking, ‘Get on with it, already.’”

“Yes,” Norman said.

“You’re right. You’ve been summoned, and your prompt appearance has earned you an explanation. We contacted two individuals in an identical manner. Since you’re the first to arrive, you’re the one we’ll work with.”

I was busy doing some math. The Boston robbery mentioned in the note was perpetrated over forty years ago by three physically agile thieves. This woman would have been at least fifty at that time. Too old to have participated in the robbery itself. Probably. But then Norman’s theory, which matched that of the authorities, was that it was a work for hire.

While my mind took this detour, Mrs. Scott said, “I remember that you spent some time in this area about thirty years ago, investigating a stolen painting. We even met, although I doubt you remember.”

Norman nodded. “No, I believe I do. At an art museum affair. The director said you were a major patron? Your name was something unusual . . . not Scott.”

“I was Agatha Peridot then. And I am a great art lover. Which is what first attracted me to Stanley.”

“Stanley?”

“Stanley Scott. My husband. And may I say, I was hoping you’d arrive first. He bet Malcolm Johannsen would.”

“The paintings are here?” Norman rarely lets a conversation wander from the point for long without gently redirecting. It’s one of the things I admire about him.

“Why don’t I give you a tour? If you wouldn’t mind pushing me to the entrance hall, there’s an elevator located behind the staircase.”

I didn’t ask permission to accompany them. For one thing, I had no intention of being left alone in the house of what might turn out to be a criminal. So I walked ahead of Norman to open the door. Once in the hall, Agatha directed us to a spot facing the wood-paneled wall behind the staircase. She reached out with her cane and tapped on part of a carving, and a panel opened to reveal an elevator.

“The two of you will need to wait here until the elevator returns,” she said.

Once she was inside, the panel slid shut and a mechanical whirring followed.

“You don’t think there’s any danger, do you?” I asked Norman. The house was spooky, even if Agatha seemed to be a nice old lady. But old ladies were not always as nice as they appeared to be. Something I knew from experience.

He shook his head. “They invited me here. I very much doubt it was to do me harm.”

To distract myself, I examined the carving and committed to memory the spot that opened the panel. Then I stepped over to the staircase and ran my fingers over the intricate carvings of birds and flowers. I wondered how they’d found an artisan to do this kind of work. Although . . . the staircase could have been brought over from Europe. But adding the carving masking the elevator had to have been more recent.

The elevator returned, the panel opened, and we entered. There was only one button, and when we pressed it, the panel closed. Norman seemed totally relaxed. Nervously, I counted the seconds of our descent and reached ten before the elevator jerked to a halt. We stepped into a dimly lit space where Agatha awaited us. I glanced around to verify there was nobody else present.

“What period of art interests you the most?” Agatha asked Norman.

“The seventeenth century.”

“Ah, straight to the point, I see, although we have other periods that may be of equal interest to you. But the seventeenth century, it is. That will be that area there.” She pointed her cane toward a darkened alcove to the right.

As we approached, recessed lights in the ceiling came on, and as their glow intensified, the paintings, at least ten of them, emerged from the gloom. I glanced back at Agatha to reassure myself she wasn’t heading for the elevator, leaving us in what appeared to be a place with no other exits.

Norman, looking completely at ease, strolled from one painting to the next. I tried to stop worrying and moved close enough to each painting to search out the artist’s signature. I managed to recognize several of the names. Norman gave me a slight nod, which I took to mean at least some of these works were the paintings he’d been searching for most of his professional life. I could imagine his elation, although he was doing a good job of keeping it under wraps.

We returned to Agatha, and Norman said, “Not all of those are from the Boston museum heist.”

“Of course not. Stanley acquired art over many decades and from many sources. Would you like to see more?”

“What about the twentieth century?”

“Over there.” She pointed to the left. Another dim alcove.

The lights came on, and I spotted the Edward Hopper painting immediately. As my gaze moved from painting to painting, I recognized two by Andrew Wyeth and one by Winslow Homer. With the quiet and the indirect lighting, it was like visiting a museum, a feast for both the eyes and the imagination.

Like me, Norman gazed around the area before he moved closer to the paintings. I wanted to ask him if the Hopper was the one taken in the Boston heist, then decided to ask Agatha, who seemed to be in a sharing frame of mind.

“Of course it is,” she said in response to my query. “Stanley gave it to me as a wedding present. I didn’t realize it was stolen until recently.”

“Why are you telling us this?” I asked. It seemed silly to drag out this elaborate dance any further.

“Perhaps that would be easier to explain if I add Stanley to the conversation.”

We followed Agatha back upstairs, and I was very much relieved to step out of the elevator onto the main floor. There, she directed our steps in the opposite direction from the cheerful conservatory into a part of the house that was darker, more foreboding. We arrived at a closed door, and Agatha tapped with her cane.

The door was opened by the butler. He ushered the three of us inside a large room furnished with a hospital bed and medical accoutrements. The occupant of the room, attired in a maroon smoking jacket, sat in a recliner near the windows. His face was gaunt and pale, and his body appeared shrunken, but when he smiled at Agatha, I could imagine him as a younger, healthier man.

At Agatha’s direction, Norman parked her chair near the man. She leaned over to take his hand in hers. His other hand was propped on a cane that I doubted, given his obvious fragility, was ever used for walking. My uneasy feelings about the house and the Scotts dissipated completely.

“It went well?” he asked in a wheezy voice that had clearly been altered by advancing age and illness.

“Very well. Stanley, this is Norman and Josephine Neuman.”

“Ah. You’ve won your bet, then.”

Agatha gestured for us to sit on chairs the butler pushed into place. Once we did, Stanley, with an obvious effort, tipped his head up and examined us. Then his head returned to its former bent position. I wondered if he was in constant pain from holding his head that way.

Agatha waited until the door had closed behind the butler before speaking. “Stanley and I would be interested in knowing what conclusions the two of you have drawn.”

I sat, my hands folded, waiting for Norman to speak.

He nodded at Stanley and Agatha, his lips pursed. “I’ve just been shown most of the paintings stolen from the Elizabeth Kent Oakes Museum forty-three years ago. And since you summoned me here, I’m guessing you want my help in returning them to their rightful place.”

“What’s your thinking about the other works you saw?” Stanley spoke with obvious effort, again lifting his head briefly.

“Three of the paintings in your twentieth-century area have also been reported as stolen. And there’s the portrait of the duke in the conservatory. Perhaps you’re considering the return of those as well?”

“You have an excellent memory, Norman Neuman.” Stanley stopped to catch his breath. “Perhaps you might make a guess about my diagnosis.”

Norman shook his head. “I leave medical issues to the appropriate practitioners.”

“Diplomatically put. Agatha, my dear, would you like to do the honors? After all, this is your idea.”

“You’re correct in thinking Stanley and I wish to return the artwork stolen from the Elizabeth Kent Oakes Museum. But we want it done quietly, without fanfare, and without revealing our role.”

“I doubt that’s possible,” Norman said. “It was a huge sensation when the art was stolen. Its return will be a major story.”

Stanley and Agatha exchanged a glance that I was unable to fully decipher, but was possibly a mix of “I told you so,” overlaid with something that could have been, “Okay, it’s plan B then.” But perhaps I was being fanciful.

“Can you at least assure us that you’ll keep this location a secret?” Stanley said.

“If I’m unable to grant such assurances, what will happen to the art?”

Agatha shrugged. “We have buyers lined up. If you don’t keep us out of it, we’ll ensure that the art disappears again, and this time, it will be for good.”

“I could leave here and call the FBI.”

“If any FBI agents show up, we have contingency plans to destroy the paintings. Could you live with that outcome?”

I didn’t believe her, and I doubted Norman did either. Clearly, the two loved art too much to harm it. But the threat could be an indication of how desperate they were for our help.

“How do you suggest we do this, then?” Norman said, obviously coming to the same conclusion I had.

“Do you give us your word?” Stanley leaned forward, then gasped with apparent pain.

“I promise to do all I can to keep your names and your location confidential,” Norman said.

“We will also need your promise of confidentiality, my dear.” Stanley twisted to give me a quick glance.

I turned to Norman, who nodded slightly.

“I will honor your confidence as far as it is in my power to do so,” I said, meeting Agatha’s gaze. I crossed my fingers and silently added the words “from this day on,” since I’d already told Lill and Devi about the trip, and even given Devi the address.

Lill is my best friend at Brookside. She’s the one who said it should be called Babbling Brook, a tongue-in-cheek reference to the lack of a brook and the presence of garrulous residents. As for Devi, she and I met when she was the Brookside activities director. And I doubt either of us would have bet a nickel we’d be friends after our first meeting. But Devi and I have been through tough times together, and we now treasure our relationship, despite a forty-year difference in our ages.

“Good. Glad to hear it.” Stanley sat back, taking quick, shallow breaths.

Norman might not want to hazard a medical guess, but mine was that Stanley had advanced congestive heart failure. That’s what killed my first husband, whose symptoms had been similar. And Stanley’s symptoms were so severe, I doubted he’d be alive in six months. As for Agatha, despite her upright posture and determined cheerfulness, she also appeared fragile. In the slanted light from the window, her skin had a yellow tinge that might indicate she had a liver condition.

Poor health and advancing years were likely why the two were now making arrangements to return the paintings. I wondered if they had any heirs waiting in the wings to swoop in and take over their collection. That might need looking into.

“How do you plan to handle the return?” Norman asked.

“We’re going to arrange for the transfer of the art to an intermediate location, which we’ll share with you within two months’ time,” Stanley said.

“You’d better give us your phone number to make the final arrangements,” Agatha said.

“Certainly.” Norman accepted the paper and pen Agatha handed him and wrote down both our home and cell phone numbers.

“Excellent,” Stanley said with another quick bob of his head.

Then he exchanged a look with Agatha, and a moment later, the butler reappeared to escort us out.

On a whim, I turned to him when we reached the front door and offered my hand. “It was nice to meet you, Mr. Vincent.”

He shook his head, ignoring my hand. “Sorry, ma’am. That’s not me.” Then he reached around me, opened the door, and ushered us firmly out.

“Nice try,” Norman said after we were in the car. “But he didn’t fall for it.”

“So . . . do you think there really is a Leonardo D. Vincent?”

“I suspect Agatha made him up.”

“Maybe the butler’s her son? I mean, he called her ‘Mum.’”

“He’s a Brit. I think he was saying ‘ma’am.’ Which is also what he called you.”

“O . . . kay. Do you think they’ll return the art?”

“I believe that’s their intention,” Norman said. “But we’ll just have to wait and see.”