Jacob Stein came to a stop in front of the hilltop Laguna Beach home of Vincent LaBont. He cut the motor and killed the lights. For the past two months, he had charted the LaBonts’ every move to prepare for tonight’s job. In fifteen minutes, he would have the item he’d come for wrapped in furniture pads in the back of his van. Every detail had fallen into place so perfectly it scared him.
Its rightful owner had assured him that the ancient curse had more than likely disappeared. But even if it hadn’t, with all that rode on its return to Savoy, Stein had to swallow his uncertainty and focus on his job. He glanced at his watch. It was only 7:55 p.m. He had plenty of time.
Grabbing his clipboard and flashlight from the seat, he studied the attached Thompson Movers work order. An alarm code was written across its face. Folding the paper, he stuffed it in the top pocket of his crisp, white overalls. He patted his breast pocket for the lump of his small tool kit, retrieved his Tazer from the glove compartment, and clutched two furniture pads and a cloth tie under his arm and opened the door. He knew no one would be home before midnight, but he always worked prepared.
He chose to disguise himself as a mover, because workmen had been transporting paintings in and out of the house all week.
If any of the neighbors questioned him, he would just shrug and say he was moving the chair down to the gallery. But this was California. Neighbors didn’t pay much attention to what was going on around them.
Stein strode briskly through the darkness to the porch. There was no need to rush. Right about now Mrs. LaBont was probably serving caviar and Dom Pérignon to their guests at young Paul LaBont’s inaugural art exhibit. The young man would be explaining his work to prospective clients, while the elder LaBont schmoozed the critics and gallery owners.
During his preparations for tonight, Stein had even dated their maid. She had unwittingly helped him with the layout of their home, the family schedule, and their habits. The challenge had been the prized alarm code. He’d found her weakness: a low tolerance for alcohol. One evening, after a bottle of expensive wine and too much dancing, she fell into a sound sleep on the way home. Before carrying her into her apartment, he rummaged through her purse for the code. Tomorrow she’d awaken with nothing more than fond memories of the sweet taste of a bottle of Grand Cru Chablis and a night of sweaty salsa dancing.
At the front door, he donned a pair of kid leather gloves.
Picking both locks, he entered the marble foyer. A tiny red light blinked, the alarm beeped its forty-five second warning. He punched in the code. The light turned solid green, the beeping fell silent.
He panned the dark rooms with his flashlight. The home looked exactly as he expected—a miniature art gallery of valuable original art. Before he came to work for the Duke of Savoy, he would have cleaned the place out. But his only job tonight was the recovery of the chair stolen during World War II from his boss. It was scheduled to leave Los Angeles International freight terminal at midnight for Milan. He intended to have it on that flight.
Moving cautiously up the stairs, he paused on the third-floor landing. He played the thin beam in an arc. The space facing the street had been turned into an elegant sitting room furnished with French antiques. Two perfectly restored Louis XVI armchairs in yellow silk patterns with a round matching table between them sat under the window. A bookcase with glass doors from the same period stood against the wall. A Renaissance-period cupboard nestled next to the bookshelf. But the chair he came for wasn’t here.
He breathed a sigh of relief. The stories the duke had told him about the premature deaths of the ancient users of the chair had chilled his bones like nothing he had ever heard. At first, he considered such tales as fables until he saw art like da Vinci’s, created by men who merely sat in the chair’s grasp. How could this be?
Ordinary men did not paint like the maestro. But then the fiery deaths of the men who used the chair flashed through his mind. He had assured Stein that simply touching it would not harm him. But could anyone be so certain? He scoffed at his fear—it’s just a chair!
Turning around, he faced the ocean side of the house. The hallway ran from right to left in front of him. Running the beam of light down the hall to the right, he saw a door that he knew led to the studio near the end of the corridor. Directly in front of him was the entrance to the library, where the maid had told him the chair was kept most of the time. Once inside the darkened room, he flipped the light switch.
The oblong room was lined with mahogany floor-to-ceiling bookshelves on both walls, while the far wall was a solid window reaching up to the vaulted ceiling. The room was bare of furnishings except for two pieces at the far end of the expanse of a thick Oriental carpet that covered a polished hardwood floor. The chair sat against the window, directly facing him like a throne waiting for its king. To its left was a French provincial writing desk with a lamp on it.
Stein imagined how many hours the LaBonts had spent sitting in the hand-carved masterpiece of the maestro. He smirked, wishing he could see the LaBont’s shocked faces when they came looking for a ride tonight. Would the curse befall them once the chair disappeared from their home? The duke was certain it wouldn’t.
Stein had no way of knowing the truth of the matter, nor was it a great concern to him. He had no intention of sitting in it. The only reason he had agreed to retrieve it for the duke was his promised share of the sale of a lost da Vinci that would miraculously be found in the ancient castle of Savoy. The reward far outweighed the risk.
Crossing the room, he studied the chair. A few pre-World War II photos and a copy of the only extant drawing of the chair from Leonardo’s own hand found in the University of Madrid Library in the late ’60s had not had not prepared him for its exquisite workmanship.
It was fashioned out of rich walnut and styled in the straightbacked, rectangular style of a Roman throne chair, a popular style in da Vinci’s time. He wanted to run his hand across the high back, covered with the type of intarsia work Italian Renaissance craftsmen were famous for, but he could only stare. The large square surface of the back was inlaid with ivory and tortoise shell, designed into perfect miniaturized renditions of four of his masterpieces.
The Last Supper in the upper right-hand corner, the Mona Lisa in the upper left, the Virgin of the Rocks in the lower right, and the Madonna and Child in the lower left. In the center was a rounded marble Pietra Duma, made of inlaid marble, with a barely distinguishable figure of the maestro himself etched in exquisite low relief. Arabesques were carved along each arm, ending in a lion’s head.
Stein held his hand above the arm, then touched it with his index finger, not feeling anything. He slowly rubbed his palm along the arm. There was not one surface that hadn’t been decorated with intricate designs by the maestro.
What would it be like to enjoy a tranquil moment in the chair?
Painting had been a passion of his when he was young, but he had soon learned he was better at stealing it than creating it. He turned and started to seat himself, then hesitated. Would its power suddenly seize him? Would he become so distracted he wouldn’t be able to finish his job? The chair had to make its way to Savoy tonight. But something called to him, like a father to a long lost son. What harm would a moment sitting on it do? He lowered himself into the deep, velvet seat and lightly rested his hands on the lions’ heads. They were cool to his touch. A clarity and simplicity of thought came over him, then a shot like a burning fire rammed through his chest. He jumped out of the chair, landing on his feet.
He didn’t dare touch its smooth skin again. He took a deep breath and calmed himself. He would bring the chair home to Savoy; he would help sell the painting when it was finished, but he would never sit in it.
He covered it with the furniture pads then wrapped the cloth tie around it like a belt. Grabbing the arms to lift it, he noticed a sparkle of light glinting off a piece of glass. It was from the lamp on the writing desk. It looked familiar. Setting the chair down, he stepped around to the side of the desk. The lamp was about two feet tall with a clear, delicately hand-blown globe seated on a brass base. Stein stooped to scrutinize royal signets painted on two sides of the globe. He didn’t recognize the signets as De Medici or Sforza, but the exquisite lamp could be from the House of Este, which would indeed be a rare find. It appeared to be from the same high-Renaissance period as the chair. If it were authentic, such a piece would bring a handsome sum.
Picking it up to examine it, he supported the heavy brass base with both hands. The large globe had originally been designed to hold oil, but had been converted to electricity. From the looks of the frayed cord by his feet, the alterations had been made some time back. Carefully turning the piece over to see if he could find a craftsman’s signature, he was disappointed that the bottom was worn smooth. Various guilds signed their creations in different places, but Stein only had time for a cursory inspection. He scolded himself for getting distracted.
Cradling the lamp with both hands, he turned it back over and shifted his weight. As he placed the brass base gently on the desk, his right foot came down hard and mashed the brittle electrical cord into the thick carpet, half pulling it out of the socket. Blue sparks arced from the plug, startling him. He gingerly backed off, only to find that he had cracked the cord, nearly severing one of the double strands. He swore under his breath and reached down for the plug; but again a blue spark leapt from the socket, as if trying to bite him. Instinctively he recoiled. He felt terrible about leaving the lamp in this condition, but he had a schedule to keep.
Stein hoisted up the heavy chair and then froze in midstride when he heard a door slam downstairs. It couldn’t be the LaBonts.
Marcella LaBont’s green Ford Explorer jerked to a stop in her garage a little after eight o’clock. She had sped through the back streets of Laguna, making it home in record time. Driving like a crazy woman wasn’t one of her bad habits, but taking her anger out on the accelerator was a poor substitute for taking it out on her husband.
She entered the house and slammed her purse on the granite kitchen counter. She hadn’t wanted to leave Paul’s show early, but during an inpromptu sparring match with Vincent, in front of all of their guests, she started having the blurry vision with the flashing lights that presaged a migraine. Now her head throbbed on the right side and soon it would be pounding mercilessly unless she took her medication and lay down. Marcella found her Fiorinal in the cabinet and chased down two tablets with a full glass of water.
Soon the pain would dissolve into a faint memory, and nothing would wake her until morning.
She frowned at the thought of not being with her son during his hour of triumph. Paul would learn to deal with the art critics on his own, even though it was like throwing him to the wolves.
The sooner he got his share of bites and claw marks in his artistic hide, the better. She feared their argument had embarrassed him on such an important night. It wasn’t like her to blow up in public, but she just couldn’t stomach Vincent’s rude remarks anymore.
Vincent will rue the day he said my watercolors are for Gypsies and street vendors.
She kicked off her heels and then picked them up and trudged up the wide staircase to the master bedroom to ready herself for bed. On the second-floor landing, she dropped one of her shoes.
Bending over to pick it up, she thought she heard a familiar noise from upstairs—one of those squeaky twinges of an oak floor plank when you stepped on it just right. But she knew everyone was still at the show. She cocked her ear. Her head was throbbing; maybe she was just hearing things. Turning toward the stairwell leading to the third floor, she could see a glint of light coming from upstairs.
It wasn’t like Vincent to leave a light on.
The wrapped chair turned into a piece of lead in Stein’s hands, but he didn’t dare move a muscle. He had heard someone tromp up the stairs. Whoever it was, from all the noise being made, apparently didn’t suspect he was in the house. The footfalls weren’t heavy ones like a man would make. It was more like a woman or the young LaBont. No, he thought, it must be LaBont’s wife. Paul wouldn’t come home early from his own show. Stein had lost track of her sound, and if he didn’t soon hear her closing doors then she might suspect something. Fear always froze people.
He’d been in homes too many times when the owners came home. These situations could get out of hand quickly if he wasn’t careful. Whatever happened, he did not intend to leave here without this chair. If she started up the stairs to the third floor, he’d have to act fast. He was glad he brought his Tazer.
On the second-floor landing, Marcella could see light slanting out of the library door. She had left around lunchtime today and movers had been in and out of the house all day. Anyone could have left it on. She stood perfectly still and the house took on its customary quietness. It was probably just a settling noise she periodically heard. Her head continued to pound. She had to get ready for bed before her medication kicked in. Once in the master bedroom on the second floor, she changed and settled under the covers.
With the darkness caressing her like a warm blanket, she could feel the Fiorinal kicking in. She smiled at Paul’s enthusiasm over his successful show. It reminded her of her passion for painting that had dried up to an almost unnoticeable trickle over the years.
She’d made the choice not to paint any longer for the sake of her marriage. She had concluded long ago that Vincent couldn’t stand anyone competing with him in his own house. That was what made her so proud of Paul tonight. He had stood tall and handsome, basking in his artistic accomplishments. He was well on his way to becoming his own person and an accomplished artist.
Tomorrow she would go back to her not-so-secret studio in the Gillespie Gallery and continue her painting. Marcella smiled in the darkness. Vincent wouldn’t like it. She would figure out what to tell him if she had to sit in front of her workbench all day. The pleasing thought of painting again, like a tonic for her troubled soul, helped her drift off into a deep sleep.
Stein thought his arms would explode, sweat dripped down his forehead, stinging his eyes, but he stood like a statue even after he heard a door close. It sounded like she had gone into her bedroom; he waited to see if she came back out. He would stand there until she went to sleep if he had to; but if she came home early, anything could happen. He had to get out quickly. Tiptoeing across the library, he hesitated at the top of the stairs. All was quiet.
He took the stairs one at a time. The second-floor landing was vacant. He hustled noiselessly down the stairs to the first floor. She had set the alarm, so he couldn’t open the door without it going off. He set the chair down, punched in the code, and the light blinked green.
Once outside, the cool breeze chilled his sweat-soaked body. Bundling his load into the van, he secured it with tie-downs so it couldn’t move. In the driver’s seat, he checked his watch: 8:26. He was ten minutes behind schedule. His next stop was LAX.
He fired up the engine and drove away with the casualness of a man heading down the hill for a leisurely evening of dinner and drinks. The tension from his close call drained away, but he wouldn’t be able to completely relax until the chair was crated and on its way home to where it had spent nearly the last four centuries—in the castle of Savoy. With its return, Stein was certain, the genius of Leonardo da Vinci would make him fabulously wealthy.
In the third-floor library, a spark from the damaged lamp cord smoldered in the wool carpet, filling the room with smoke. It crept up the wall of books, making its way toward the smoke detector high up on the vaulted ceiling. Though the detector was new, it was too high in the dead-air space close to the peak of the vault to speak its warning.
The fire below devoured the green wool yarn, then the tan, finally the delicate flower embroidery, all the way to the other end of the library. It gained strength from the wood floor underneath, eating through five coats of varnish. The floor burst into a sheet of flames, leaping up the walls of books, consuming paper and ink.
The thick, noxious smoke slipped under the library door and curled its way down the stairs. The stream sought for openings under doors along the second-floor hallway. It crawled under the master bedroom door, and continued its trek down the long hall.
When it reached the smoke detectors on the hall ceiling, they both went off with a wail.
As Marcella slumbered, a black stream of hot air wrapped itself around her bed in the spacious master bedroom. She tossed fitfully, agitated by a disturbing dream. Paul’s show was a great success, and she drove to the bank to deposit the receipts. Entering the bank, her ears stung with the nerve-wracking metal jangling of an alarm. The bank manager approached her; an addled look contorted his face. Wringing his hands, he asked why she was there.
Marcella’s chest tightened, she labored to breathe. She turned to leave, but he grabbed her arm. Her body dripped with sweat. She struggled for air. The bag of money dropped to the shiny speckled terrazzo. Checks and bills floated around the room. She tried to run. But a paralyzing fit of coughing came over her.
Hacking and choking, she jolted awake from her deep sleep.
Furiously she gasped for air and then screamed. Instead of a fresh draft of air, a dark finger of hot smoke shot down her throat, scalding her as if she had swallowed a cup of boiling coffee. Clutching her throat and clamping her eyes shut, she knew she would die in her own bed unless she remained calm. Groggy from the Fiorinal, she could hear the unmistakable roar of fire above. She rolled off the mattress onto the floor, wrapping the covers over her head, and crawled along the floor toward the door. She fought to ignore the searing pain in her chest.
Keep calm. Breathe slowly. Oh, God, help me get out of here alive.
Paul LaBont didn’t know which was brighter, the gleaming moon that hung full and silvery over the Pacific Ocean or his future as an artist. Promptly at eleven, his first art exhibition had closed. Not too much later, he and his father rode home along Pacific Coast Highway, the spring air cooling Paul’s flushed face.
He knew few artists enjoyed such attention on their first show as a professional.
“Some show, huh, Dad?” Paul asked, smiling. He brushed his hand through his black hair and smoothed it down.
“I’ve never seen a first show sell out like that,” Vincent said.
“Even that Cubist portrait sold.”
Paul propped his elbow on the window frame and let the air ruffle his shirt-sleeve. He glanced over at his father. Vincent’s gray eyes, usually full of energy, looked tired, with deepening lines down his cheeks and creeping crow’s feet around his eyes.
“It surprises you people like different styles, doesn’t it?”
“Nothing really surprises me anymore. It’s just …” Vincent nervously smoothed down his mustache.
“You don’t understand why someone would do a portrait in any style other than classical, huh?”
The road wound through a series of hairpins as it climbed the home-filled hillside.
“Don’t knock me for sticking to what’s worked well,” Vincent said with firmness in his voice.
Paul stared out the window at the glassine ocean, its iridescent waves crashing on the white sandy beach below. The view of the Pacific expanded north and south as scattered blinking lights on the water blended with the star-studded sky. Tonight wasn’t the time to pick a fight. He’d put off talking to his father all week about his plans, and now was as good as time as ever to tell him that he was moving out of the house on Monday. “You’re the best there is at portraits. That’s why all the big people come to you. But doing portraits all the time in the same old way just isn’t for me.”
“Don’t lose your perspective because of the flattery of a few modern art critics.”
“I know all that. I just don’t need any more lectures about art theories.”
“You did enough experimenting in college; it’s time to grow up. Your abilities are superior to sentimental beach scenes or splashing paint on a canvas with a spatula.”
Paul jerked his head toward his father. “So, is that what you said to Mom that made her stomp out of the show?”
Vincent gripped the steering wheel tighter. “You knew about her studio at the gallery, didn’t you?”
“I think she’s a talented painter. She loves watercolors. I don’t understand why she has to do it secretly.”
“I never said she has to do anything secretly. All I’m saying is that with the talent our family is blessed with, why not concentrate on its highest and best use?” Vincent tapped the steering wheel with the palm of his hand as he spoke.
“Why not concentrate on what you enjoy?” Paul said.
“Watercolors are what Mom enjoys. What’s the big deal?” He fought the urge to tell his father that he was tired of classically composed portraits. He was tired of princes and princesses, senators and congressmen. He was tired of shaking their hands and listening to their egotistical stories. He wanted to paint anyone besides the rich and the famous, their bratty kids, and their stuckup wives.
As soon as I get home, I’m packing my bags and leaving. I’m not taking this anymore.
“The big deal is,” Vincent said, turning to Paul with a confident grin, “we can accomplish what lesser talented artists will never achieve.”
Paul had heard this argument so many times. He didn’t think his father would ever see things differently. It was time for him to get out from his father’s prodigious shadow and the sooner the better. Now he just needed to break the news.
“I saw you talking to Richard Kraemer for a long time. What did he want?” Vincent asked.
“He’s hosting some shows at his gallery in San Francisco,” Paul said, wondering how much of the conversation he should share with his father. “He was looking for landscapes.” He rested his arm on the open window and waited.
“So what did you tell him?”
“I told him I’d do it. He wants me to send at least fifteen canvases by the end of April.”
“The Crown Prince of Kuwait is coming into town in April. You promised to help me out. He wants portraits of all his wives.”
“Fine! But they’ll be the last of any classical portraits I’ll paint. And I plan on keeping my commitments to Richard Kraemer.”
Vincent gave a short guttural laugh.
“Don’t start telling me this is just a phase and I’ll grow out of it. I’m not saying I’ll do landscapes the rest of my life, but I want to do this show with Kraemer.”
“So do it,” he shot back, shrugging his shoulders.
The car rounded another curve and the top of the hill came into view. Now’s the time to stand up. I’ll work with him, but not for him. “Dad, I’ve decided I’m going to move … hey, what’s that?”
Paul asked, observing a glow in the sky above the row of houses along the rim of the hill. “Stop the car!”
The Mercedes jerked to a halt in the middle of the deserted road. Paul squinted out the window. Flames dancing against the dark sky illuminated the top of the hill. One of the houses lit up like a giant bonfire silhouetting the row of expensive homes along the moonlit ridge.
“Dad! That’s awfully close to our house.”
He punched the accelerator and the Mercedes responded smoothly through the tight turns. Paul kept the home in view, as the car zigzagged up the hill.
The sight of the burning home looked like an iridescent torch against the starry sky. He shivered thinking about his mother. He knew she was upset when she left. She had done so much for him, and tonight she had outdone even herself. He hoped she wasn’t in one of her deep sleeps because of her migraine medicine.
Paul clutched the dashboard with both hands as the Mercedes roared up the winding road.