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Entreated by a beautiful new client to steal the Mona Lisa, art forger Eduardo de Valfierno and a sophisticated band of con artists encounter such challenges as a relentless police inspector and a dangerous flood.
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CARSON MORTON was born in London, England and moved with his family to the United States when he was eleven. He worked as a professional musician for many years, making an album for United Artists Records with his group Razmataz, and playing with the likes of John Sebastian, Billy Preston, and many others. He is a screenwriter and published playwright, and has worked in television as a consultant and composer. He lives in Nashville, Tennessee.Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.:
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 o...
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Book Description Thorndike Press, 2012. Condition: New. book. Seller Inventory # M1410445593