Sun
Nov 12 2017 10:00am

Lance Charnes Excerpt: Stealing Ghosts

Lance Charnes

Stealing Ghosts by Lance Charnes is the second book in the DeWitt Agency Files series (available November 17, 2017).

Dorotea DeVillardi is 91 years old, gorgeous, and worth a fortune. Matt Friedrich's going to steal her.

The Nazis seized Dorotea's portrait from her Viennese family, then the Soviets stole it from the Nazis. Now it's in the hands of a Russian oligarch. Dorotea's corporate-CEO grandson played by the legal rules to get her portrait back, but he struck out. So he's hired the DeWitt Agency to get it for him - and he doesn't care how they do it.

Now Matt and Carson, his ex-cop partner, have to steal Dorotea's portrait from a museum so nobody knows it's gone, and somehow launder its history so the client doesn't have to hide it forever. The client's saddled them with a babysitter: Dorotea's granddaughter Julie, who may have designs on Matt as well as the painting. As if this wasn't hard enough, it looks like someone else is gunning for the same museum—and he may know more about Matt and Carson's plans than he should.

Matt went to prison for the bad things he did at his L.A. art gallery. Now he has a chance to right an old wrong by doing a bad thing for the best of reasons. All he has to do is stay out of jail long enough to pull it off.

Chapter 1

The first thing you notice is her eyes.

Big, dark, luminous. She’s no blushing ingénue; those eyes grab you and pin you to the wall. Think you got what it takes? they say. Come find out.

If you don’t fall in, you see the face around those eyes. High cheekbones, a razor-sharp jaw, a long semi-Roman nose, full lips parted just a bit. Maybe you surprised her. The dark chestnut hair’s cut at jaw level and shingled so it hugs the curve of her skull. Her graceful neck’s arched just so, circled by a doubled strand of lapis and gold.

If you make it down that far—and you should, you really should—you’ll see the moss-green silk yoke draped across the points of her shoulders, then plunging below her shoulder blades. That creamy bare back and her sleek, bare arms are a shade darker than your typical society woman’s skin; she’s from somewhere warm, where the cypress and olive trees outnumber the firs. An ibis outlined with silver embroidery and gold seed beading spreads its wings across her back. Beaded lotus flowers and papyrus stalks tangle on the yoke and skirt. The dress is fashionably shapeless, but it can’t hide her curves.

The weathered Ionic column just to her right holds up a portico that casts a warm, brown shadow behind her. She glows against that darkness.

She’s royalty. She’s a young empress and you’re the servant. You don’t mind being the servant because you get to look at her. And sometimes, like right now, she looks back.

Her name’s Dorotea. She’s ninety-one years old. One look stole my heart.

Now I’m stealing her.


Chapter 2

EARLIER THAT DAY

Someone’s pounding on my hotel room’s door. I know what time the clock says, but my body says the clock’s full of shit. Eleven hours on an airplane does that.

That pounding sounds familiar… doesn’t it?

I’d crawled out of this humungous king-size bed at what my brain said was the middle of the night (even though it was light outside) to catch breakfast downstairs. When I got back, I closed my eyes for just a minute, I swear. Two hours vanished.

Where am I?

I let myself off the bed easy—the platform’s high enough that if I jump, I’ll break something—detour past the desk (Sofitel London Heathrow, that’s where I am) and shuffle to the door peephole. Knew it. I yank open the door and catch her in mid-slam. “What?”

Carson folds her arms and glares at me. “Pack your shit. Allyson’s waiting.”

Allyson’s… what? She’s here? “Since when?”

“Since she emailed. It’s almost nine. Haven’t read your email yet?”

I try to grind the grit out of my eyes. “You know what time it is? It’s twelve fifty-five a.m. Matt Daylight Time.” I pull the door open. “You get to watch.”

She swings a black laptop carry case into my chest as she stalks by. It doesn’t knock me over, though it’s a near thing. She scans the room, then flops in the butter-tan, wingback swivel armchair near the little round-topped cocktail table by the window. She doesn’t say anything.

So I do. “Good to see you, Matt.” Yes, I sound grumpy, even to me. “How’re you doing? I’m fine, Carson, thanks for asking. What’ve you been up to?”

“Yeah. That.”

“What’s with you? I thought we’d moved past the I-hate-you stage in Milan.”

“Supposed to get time off,” she grumbles. “Allyson called me back.”

“Sorry,” I say, and I am. She shrugs.

Carson’s in her mid-thirties (like me), about five-nine, and on the okay side of plain. Her ice-blue, long-sleeved tee is snug across her broad shoulders, biceps, and chest, and she fills her black jeans well. She’ll never make the cover of Vogue (though you should see her in a tight dress), but she’s smart and tough and good to have around when things go south.

“Anything in your backgrounder?” Carson asks. She’s swiveling her chair back and forth, watching as I stumble around collecting my things.

“Who are you working for this time?”

“Allyson.”

“Only?” Last time, I found out she had a second boss. Nobody was happy.

“Yeah. Your backgrounder?”

“I didn’t get a backgrounder.” In my two other agency projects, I got a little blue thumb drive with all the details Allyson decided to share about what I’d be doing. Not this time. “The only reason I knew to pack for cool weather was the itinerary had me terminating at Heathrow. What’s in yours?”

“Fuck-all. Three to six weeks in northern Europe.”

I concentrate on re-stuffing my bashed-up black roller bag so Carson doesn’t see my reaction. Six weeks is a problem. I’m still on supervised release for two more years and I’m not supposed to leave the U.S. That’s why I’m traveling on a fake passport. I can scam Len, my Federal probation officer, for a couple weeks, but longer is gonna get complicated. “Still got your Brooklyn number?”

“Yeah.” She snorts. “We still a thing?”

“As far as Len knows.” On my first project with the agency and with Carson, I told my PO I was in New York City when I was really in Milan. To explain why I didn’t come home on time, Carson pretended to be my new Brooklyn-Russian girlfriend. Hey, it worked.

I zip my luggage, stow my work phone (a big quad-band Samsung), and pile the duffel and laptop case on my roller for towing. “What’s it like outside?”

“It’s great. Let’s go.”

A sturdy South Asian in a black suit and peaked cap holds up a sign saying “Mr. Simon” (me for this trip) near the rectilinear marble water feature in the main lobby. I follow him out to the curb; Carson detours to the front desk. It’s a clear and chilly morning, with a sharp breeze spiking down the road. I remind myself to never ask a Canadian (like Carson) about the weather.

The suit sets my bags in the trunk of an idling midnight-blue BMW 440i Gran Coupe and guides me to the left front passenger’s seat.

Allyson’s behind the wheel.

I’ve never seen Allyson drive. I didn’t know she could.

“Mr. Friedrich.” She doesn’t look at me. It’s chillier inside the car than outside.

“Ms. DeWitt.” The agency’s formal name is DeWitt Associates. Yes, she’s the boss.

I sit down and try not to stare. Her black wool pique pencil skirt is hiked halfway up her very shapely thighs. One night around five years ago—long before she hired me—I found out exactly what’s under the several thousand dollars’ worth of clothes she’s wearing. If I close my eyes, I’ll still be able to feel her skin under my fingertips. I keep my eyes open and locked on the Range Rover ahead of us. Getting fired isn’t on my agenda.

“Acceptable work in Mexico,” she says in that smooth, toe-curling alto of hers. It’s the frostiest compliment I’ve ever gotten.

“Thanks. Everything went fine.” As far as she needs to know.

Carson climbs into the back seat. “Why are you driving?”

Allyson flicks a glance in the rear-view mirror. “Please fasten your seat belt.” Then we glide away from the curb like we’re in a vintage Rolls and not an autobahn burner.

I risk a glance at Allyson while she negotiates the parking lot. She’s somewhere in her mid-forties and not conventionally pretty, but her presence makes you look when she comes into the room. Unfortunately, she’s everything I like in a woman—deep brown eyes, thick black hair that splashes off her shoulders when it isn’t up in a bun like it is now, olive skin, great cheekbones. And the legs. And, for that matter, everything else.

Gar Heibrück, my ex-boss at my ex-gallery, schooled me in high-end fashion so I could tell how much money our clients had. Allyson’s wearing a flame-red St. John knit jacket with a shawl collar, one-button closure and belled three-quarter sleeves. It’s a perfect color for her. She’s one of those women who wears clothes and wears nothing equally well.

The little brain still wants a rematch with her. The big brain knows I’d have to sleep with one eye open and my back against a wall.

Allyson says, “I want to brief you both before you go on your way. I’m sure you noticed I provided no background information. I believe you know what that means, Ms. Carson.”

“No documentation. Something illegal.”

“Exactly.”

I say, “You gave us background for Milan. We were doing illegal stuff there.” Especially Carson. As illegal as it gets. “Why is this different?”

“That client wasn’t likely to tell the world about it. This one is.”

We circle a wide left-hand curve onto a two-lane frontage road that parallels a small river. The massive pewter brick of Terminal 5 slides by my window.

Allyson pulls a five-by-seven card from her door’s side pocket and holds it out to me between two fingers. “What can you tell me about this?”

I can’t control the gasp that slips out when I see the picture. “Wow. Sargent. Dorotea DeVillardi. The last portrait in oil he finished before he died.” It’s a gorgeous work, like John Singer Sargent knew this was the end and he wanted to go out with a bang.

Carson’s leaning forward to peek over my shoulder. I hold up the postcard so she can see. She peers at it, grunts “Huh,” then thumps back into her seat.

Allyson says, “Go on.”

“It disappeared in World War Two. Everybody called it lost—the Ormond survey still has a black-and-white photo of it from the ‘30s. Then it resurfaced in the late ‘90s.” I know this because Sargent is one of my favorite artists, and because I have this freak memory where if I read something a few times, I remember it basically forever. “It got a lot of play in the art press. Some Russian dude owns it. It’s on loan to the Moscow Museum of Modern Art.”

“It’s in the Mainwaring Gallery in Portsmouth for the next nine weeks,” Allyson says. We’re poking along behind a box truck like we’re part of a parade. Either she’s stalling or she usually drives like a granny. “You left out the bit that’s most important to this project: the original owners want it back.”

Carson announces, “We’re being followed.” She’s twisted around to look out the back.

“The black Audi? That’s mine. Thank you for your attention.”

While we’ve been talking, I’ve managed to get a data connection on my work phone. Good thing the agency pays the roaming charges. “Here it is. Ron Bowen. He says the Nazis took the portrait from his family and the Soviets took it from the Nazis. He sued the Russian dude—Arkady Tovorovsky—in federal court and lost twice. The Russians turned down his claim.” I look up at Allyson. “Bowen’s the client, isn’t he.”

She hesitates a moment. “Yes.”

Carson lurches forward. “Stop. You’re breaking the rules. You don’t tell us who—”

“You’ll find out almost immediately. I may as well tell you now.”

When she hired me, Allyson said I’d never know who the client is. Carson went to a lot of trouble to keep it from me on my first project—just as well, as I found out. “You know, what I told you is all public information. Why didn’t you send that?”

“’Cause we’re stealing the picture,” Carson says. “Right?”

“The client very much wants his property and doesn’t care how we accomplish that.” Allyson’s voice is unusually guarded. “I’m reliably informed that he isn’t a graceful winner. When he gets his painting, he’ll tell everyone who’ll listen. That may draw more attention to us than I’m interested in deflecting. It’s why I’d appreciate you leaving as few fingerprints on this project as you can manage.” She pauses for a lane change we don’t need. “Which leads me to the next two points.

“This is our first project for Mr. Bowen. He’s very wealthy in his own right, and his company is extremely successful. He can be an important client if he’s pleased with your performance. I expect you to please him.

“Because it’s important that we please the client, we all have to make certain… adjustments to the way we do things. Our client is not a trusting man. His representative will monitor you as—”

“A babysitter?” Carson’s screech rattles the windows.

Another long pause. “Yeeesss.” Allyson packs a lot into that word: I’m sorry. I don’t like it either. Just go with it, okay? “Her name is Julie Arnlund. She’s the client’s cousin. I expect she’ll report to him everything she sees and hears. Please—”

I ask, “How do we work with a spy?”

“Very carefully, I should—”

Carson lunges between the front seats. “Carefully? Really? How much do we tell her? What if she wants to ‘help’? I’m—” 

“Enough.” The spring steel in Allyson’s voice shuts up Carson like pulling a plug. “She’ll supply any background information you need. Show her every courtesy. Protect her. Keep—”

“Does she need protecting?” I ask. This is sounding worse with every step.

“She may. The client referred to her as the ‘family historian.’ I doubt she has Ms. Carson’s skill set.”

Carson makes a rude noise.

“Keep her out of trouble. I understand what an imposition this is, but I have every confidence you’ll meet the challenge.”

I catch Carson rolling her eyes. Then I turn back to Allyson. “Carson’s got a point. What if the cousin wants to do more than watch?”

“Dissuade her politely. If that doesn’t work, find something… innocuous for her to do. Whatever you do, don’t allow her to be arrested. That would be a disaster for us all.”

We lost the box truck some way back and passed all the unloveliness of a major airport’s infrastructure—warehouses, baggage-cart depots, anonymous, square windowless structures, above-ground pipelines. Allyson’s dangerously close to matching the speed limit (40, though I don’t know if it’s MPH or KPH). We thread through a hairpin turn and into a traffic circle.

Carson asks, “Where are we going?”

“In this case, it’s the journey that’s important, not the destination.” Allyson nudges us out of the traffic circle and suddenly we’re off the airport grounds, driving a divided four-lane road lined with scrubby trees and pastures. “This is your car, by the way. Keep in mind that we don’t have vehicle service arranged where you’re going, so it’s a minimum two-hour turnaround for a new one. Please try to not change cars every few hours the way you did in Milan. That was excessive.”

I can hear Carson fuming behind me, but she doesn’t say anything. I guess she’s bitched out the boss enough today.

“One more thing.” Allyson pulls off the highway onto a two-lane road, then stops. “There are two countries I absolutely detest working in. This is one of them. There are cameras everywhere. We know that GCHQ is monitoring the telephone system in a way your NSA could only dream about. The Tories have proposed a law that would let the security services keep records of every person’s internet use for a year. That they’re asking for permission tells me they’re already doing it. Be very, very careful. I don’t know how well I can protect you here.”

I swap a glance with Carson. She blows out a long breath and shakes her head. The black Audi slips up behind us. “What’s the other country?” I ask.

“Yours, of course.” She pulls what looks like a black leather Lanvin Sugar shoulder bag from under her legs. Two months of my pay for pushing coffee, right there. “I suggest the A3 for Portsmouth. It’s dual carriageway all the way, it’s marginally more scenic than the M3 and there are slightly fewer traffic cameras. The M25 is infested with cameras from here to the A3, so behave yourselves. Olivia has your hotel arrangements.”

“Olivia knows about all this?”

“Olivia knows everything, as usual.” She pushes open her door, steps out, then leans into the opening. “Ms. Arnlund will join you tomorrow. I suggest you get as much done as you can today. Good luck.”

 

Copyright © 2017 Lance Charnes.

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Lance Charnes has been an Air Force intelligence officer, information technology manager, computer-game artist, set designer, and Jeopardy! contestant, and is now an emergency management specialist. He’s had training in architectural rendering, terrorist incident response, and maritime archaeology, but not all at the same time. Lance is the author of the international thriller Doha 12, the near-future thriller South, and the DeWitt Agency Files series of international art-crime novels. All are available in trade paperback and digital editions. His Facebook author page features spies, archaeology and art crime.

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