Authors: Melanie Jackson
Version 1.1 – May, 2014
Published by Brian Jackson at KDP
Copyright © 2014 by Melanie Jackson
Discover other titles by Melanie Jackson at
This book is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents either are products of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual events or locals or persons, living or dead, is entirely coincidental.
All rights reserved, including the right of reproduction in whole or in part in any form.
It was not the dry air or the slicing sand tossed by the cruel wind that made it hard to breathe. This was the realm of the god
of the smoking mirror, bringer of death. The special poza of
, the one called
, was haunted by the spirits of all the god’s brides who had died giving birth. It was dangerous place, a forbidden place—especially for men.
But it was also a place of tributes, of gold. It was a desperate man who would steal from a god. But that was what he was. Desperate.
And it was like a drug, the longer desperation was with you, the less you listened to your sensibilities. The unthinkable and impossible had finally become his last resort.
The man, not a pure
Indio, staggered over the crest of a pale gypsum dune crowned with stunted conifers and came across the small pond—a poza—colored the deep brown of coffee because of the runoff and rimmed with dead golden grass that curved away from the water, as if it had died while fleeing something in the poza. A deceptively lovely selection of water-lilies bloomed in the tar-colored water, each one a marker for a lost soul fed off the sacrificed bodies below.
It was a risk coming in the day, but to come at night? He shuddered. No one would be mad enough to go there once it was dark.
Still it was better than going into the temple and searching the well there. It was not just the gods who would be watching there.
The man fell to his knees
at the edge of the water and tried to remember his prayers. But his brain would not help him. Perhaps it was blasphemy to pray to another god when in the presence of Smoking Mirror.
Then so be it. He would dive without prayers.
The man began taking off his clothes.
“But, Juliet, we want to help you with your passport. It is our top priority. But there are limits to what can be done on such short notice,” David Merton’s oily voice insisted. “After all, we are very busy defending the nation from enemies both foreign and domestic.”
Juliet didn’t bother to argue that, in her experience, the NSA didn’t actually have any observable limits
, or that eight weeks was hardly short notice. They wanted something from her. The question was whether she wanted to give up on travel or to negotiate for her hostage passport.
“What can I do to help you help me?” she asked in a pleasant tone that would not have fooled her old boss for a single second.
He had known that her questions about agency ethics had turned to doubt, and doubt to anger, which had smoldered in her gut until her brain caught fire. Her relationship with her old employer had been on life-support when she left. Unfortunately, retirement had come with some strings. One of the strongest was connected to the boat anchor called David Merton.
“Well, I see here that you are going to
. I hear it is a very interesting region. Lots of wildlife. In fact there is a private sanctuary there, one that is never open to the public. It’s run by the von Hayek family.”
the family was headed by the ancient Klaus von Hayek, who was a suspected Nazi collaborator who made off with a lot of art treasures that didn’t belong to him at the end of the Second World War. Art and a lot of gold which had disappeared without a trace or even a rumor of a trace.
That was old news.
However, no piece of information was ever thrown away at the NSA.
Most of the day
-to-day handling of the von Hayek financial affairs was left to Klaus’s son, the reclusive Henrik, who was supposed to have inherited his father’s love of art though he seemed to prefer modern art, especially made in the Americas. No one was certain if the art show was actually his idea but it seemed possible. Only the top artists of the day had been invited. There would be a one-night show with selected press and collectors brought in for that one evening only. It was a chance to impress the bigwigs in the art world. Juliet’s invitation had been thrown in as a bribe to Raphael James, who had explained that because of his physical difficulties, he did not like to travel without Juliet, who was, in her own right, a very good artist. Henrik von Hayek had pretended to agree with Raphael’s assessment of her artistic abilities and she was being allowed to exhibit a single canvas. That was fortunate, because she only had one canvas ready. It was one of her creepy winter paintings of Lake Tahoe.
The invitation, however coerced,
was a feather in her cap and had to be accepted, but Juliet had known that there would be trouble about the trip as soon as she had seen who was hosting the art show.
exhibit is being held at the von Hayek family castle.” The story was that it was an exact copy of their castle in Germany. The only problem with this myth was that the von Hayeks hadn’t owned any castles in Germany or anywhere else.
So we have heard. As it happens, we have some friends who are looking for something and we owe them a favor. It is something that has gone missing from their vaults and they think it might just happen to be in
at this time.”
“In Klaus von Hayek’s castle?”
she asked. “Or out in the park?”
In the castle. Most probably. Or nearby environs.”
That was not helpful.
“And you think that I can find this missing thing by peeking in closets and cupboards when no one is looking?”
Of course not. But it is always possible that you might see or hear something while you are there. You are an excellent observer, Juliet. Your file says so.”
ith God all things are possible,” she muttered.
There was a pause while David Merton tried to decide if she were being funny or if she might in fact be serious.
“Just so,” he said at last.
“You might need to be a tad more specific about this missing item. You know, a general category or perhaps a hint as to size. Are we talking about something bigger than a breadbox
or likely to cause an outbreak of plague?”
What an imagination you have. It’s a plate by someone called Donatello—a Madonna with child and angels. In gold, which I gather makes it unusual.” His voice was bored as he reported this. Obviously the heathen in charge of her old department was not a lover of Italian art.
“Someone is missing a
gold Donatello roundel?” she asked, her voice calm but her hands suddenly shaking. Juliet sat down on the edge of her bed.
iccolò di Betto Bardi—
was a goldsmith and one of the heavy hitters of the Renaissance era mentioned along with Brunelleschi, Fra Angelico, Michelangelo, and da Vinci. He was the pioneer of that hot new art trend called “perspective” that hit the art scene in the early fifteenth century and got popular because people really went for this more naturalistic style. The popes and lords of the era just couldn’t get enough of that realistic art, especially the statues of suffering saints. It kept the goldsmith busy. He did all kinds of metal work—statues, gates and doors, and of course tombs for the mucky-mucks, but he also crafted delicate and equally exquisite pieces like his roundels. His most well-known roundel was one he had given to his doctor out of gratitude for being made well and also because he was short funds and medical care has always been expensive. Not gold-expensive though. Dr. Chellini’s roundel was made of bronze. Most of them were. Stucco and wood were also popular.
But not gold.
pieces were not rare but they were hardly commonplace and were well known to scholars, because his career and commissions were so well documented that most experts believed the ground was completely trodden and there was nothing new to learn about the artist or his works. People were not finding Donatello roundels in granny’s attic every other week. No one would ever expect to either. Not unless they lived in a fifteenth-century palazzo and were related to the Medicis.
Or had access to other
unscrupulous war buddies who might have been in a position to help themselves to the contents of those Renaissance attics during the chaos of war.
Could this thing be real?
And if it was. What did it mean to the art world? It might be pushing things to say that a Donatello roundel was priceless. Nothing was truly priceless and Christie’s and Sotheby’s did sometimes get very rare works of art. But it would be fair to say that an authentic roundel, forged in gold at the hands of Donatello, would be worth a small fortune—maybe even a couple of them. But this was supposing that it was ever allowed to come to auction.
“Yes. It was placed in hiding during the war
—for safety’s sake—and our friends have only just discovered that it is missing. Naturally they would like to have it back.” These words dragged her back to the present and confirmed her theory about where and how such a treasure could have been kept while the legitimate art world remained ignorant of its existence.
“I bet they
would. Is there a photograph of the missing
?” She kept her voice uninterested. It would not be a good idea to let Merton think that she might actually want to have the chance to find this thing—to see it with her own eyes.
Sadly, no. But I am told that the style is recognizable by anyone who knows art, which you supposedly do. So, shall I step in and see to this matter of your passport myself?” Merton asked. “I would be glad to do that.”
“Please do.” Juliet didn’t know how she managed it, but she kept her tone even
, though her breathing was somewhat uneven and her heart was beating hard enough to see it fluttering the fabric of her shirt.
“You’ll have it tomorrow
. Have a productive trip,” he said and disconnected.
her passport had been issued before her call and was already in California, just waiting for her to cave in to his demands.
You lying, conniving bastards.”
up, affronted by her tone.
“Not you, puss,” Juliet said, gentling her voice.
“You couldn’t be that sneaky even if you were after a mouse.”
Feeling miffed but also relieved that her passport was on the way, Juliet decided to pay a visit to Raphael
and share the news. If he was working then she would leave him be, of course, but it would feel good to express her pique to someone who could understand it. Talking with her old employer always left Juliet unnerved. She could all too easily imagine what her life would be like if she were still working for the NSA. And what her life would be like if she were roped into the business again.
Juliet might have been in a hurry
to leave her bungalow, but Marley had other ideas. He was a cat who appreciated regular meals and his internal clock was chiming the luncheon hour. Deciding that it might be nice if she arrived at Raphael’s bearing gifts, she set about making some tuna sandwiches, a certain portion of which went to her four-legged houseguest.
The walk down the hill was a pleasant one. There
were still wildflowers about and the heat of summer had yet to find its way into the mountains. There had been a fire the year before, but it had not reached the compound so everything looked serene and unscarred within its walls.
Raphael was working so Juliet simply got out a plate and laid down his
napkin-wrapped sandwich beside him. He was used to the smell of tuna and turpentine and wouldn’t mind the foreign odor while he was painting.
“Thank you, Juliet,” Raphael said without glancing up. “I was beginning to have pangs
and the larder is bare.”
“I figured. So, my passport will be here tomorrow. The trip is on after all.”
Raphael looked up from his canvas. He was doing a Madonna and child in the style of his namesake. Backlit by the sun he was surrounded in a golden halo and she thought, not for the first time, that with his dark lashes, so much thicker than her own, and with pale flesh that was also golden, he looked like Lucifer Morningstar right before the fall.
“That is good news. What exactly did you have to give them in order to get your passport?” he asked
shrewdly, watching her face.