Desiree Jacobs schooled her breathing as she handed her ID to the museum guard.
Relax…just relax. This guy has no idea what you’re up to.
The man scowled at the card, then at her, then back at the photo of a blond, blue-eyed, thirtyish female—a reasonable facsimile of the live version. With a curt nod to the receptionist seated behind a high mahogany desk, he handed the card back to Desiree. Then he stalked off on the rounds she’d interrupted when she showed up insisting on access to the restricted area.
Desi turned a smile on the perky receptionist. The woman grinned back and offered a broad wink—a much nicer welcome than old Sour-Britches.
The receptionist lifted her telephone handset and punched in a few numbers. “Olivia Layton from the National Antiquities Society is here to see you, Dr. Plate.” She hung up and looked at Desi. “You can go right in.” The woman pressed a button under her desk, and a thick door to Desi’s left swung open with a slight buzz.
Desi felt the impassive eye of the security camera follow her as she turned on the heel of her designer pumps and marched into the private inner sanctum of the Boston Public Museum of Arts and Antiquities. Dingy beige walls begged a fresh coat of paint, but who would notice the improvement in this dim hallway?
Shadows loomed. The place reeked of ancient secrets.
Desi’s skin prickled.
Just call me Indiana Jane…
She stifled a laugh. The “ancient secrets” she smelled were cleaning solutions used to preserve the priceless art the museum displayed, as well as a few extraordinary items not so open to scrutiny.
The palm of her right hand, curved around the handle of her leather briefcase, felt dry, cool. The soft fabric of her pantsuit shushed against her skin. Assurance blanketed her down to her little pinkie toe. Prayer and planning were the linchpins of any successful operation, her father always said.
A great deal rode on the outcome of her first solo run.
Dad might finally have to admit that he could entrust the high pressure end of the business to someone else. He needed to take care of himself now that the doctor said—
A door at the end of the corridor sprang open, and a round man stepped out. “Ms. Layton.” He ran a pudgy hand across the bald dome of his head. “I’m Dr. Sanderson Plate, chief curator. We’ll meet in here.” He shook her hand and ushered her into a stuffy cubicle.
Dog-eared magazines and stacks of treatises littered the desk and floor, even the guest chair. Vintage museum office. Government-funded facilities didn’t often have money or space for decent offices. Boston Public was no exception.
Plate scooped a stack of periodicals off the chair and motioned for Desi to be seated. He took his place behind the desk and folded his hands across his paunch. A smile widened his cheeks but stopped below his nose.
Does he know more than he should? Desi’s chest tightened. She set her briefcase on the floor beside her. Leaning back in her chair, she crossed her legs. Whatever the outcome, she’d play the caper through with style.
A Jacobs can do no less.
“What did my office tell you about the purpose of my visit?”
Plate returned a sober gaze. “You question the authenticity of our most recent acquisition. Evidently, the Society esteems your opinion more than that of our conservators.” Resentment trickled through his voice. “I agreed to your examination of the piece to silence any doubts. I am confident your suspicion will prove unfounded.” He lifted his chin.
Desi lowered her gaze to the desk, where three of his fingers performed a muted tap dance. “May I see the painting?”
“As soon as you sign this affidavit assuming responsibility for any damage caused by your testing.” He shoved a piece of paper and a pen across his desk toward her.
Desiree grinned on the inside. Gotcha!
Plate apparently hoped that the threat of liability might deter her examination, allowing the original authentication to stand unchallenged. The curator would try that bit of fancy footwork on her only if he believed her credentials from the National Antiquities Society. Museum personnel hated having their judgment questioned, especially by a third-party watchdog organization like the NAS.
Desi took the pen and signed Olivia Layton. “May we get started now? I don’t wish to take up any more of your time than necessary.”
The curator rose and led her out of his office. They went up another corridor; then he unlocked a door that let them into a small room containing glass cases with items in storage. Desi admired a collection of Native American black-on-white pottery while Plate scanned his key card through the lock of a large metal door. When the door unlatched, they entered a halogenlit, climate-controlled room. Cupboards and shelves laden with supplies framed the perimeter. A large worktable sat in the center.
On the end of the table nearest them lay the Renoir—a charming pastoral scene recently discovered in a forgotten bomb shelter in Germany, where it had been collecting dust since World War II. The painting lay unframed and ready for her analysis…er, rather, Olivia Layton’s analysis.
Desiree drank in the beauty of the work. Like her father, she could wander for hours in art galleries and museums, but neither of them had a speck of artistic talent. Too left-brained.
No doubt the reason they chose instead to do what they did. Plate fussed with the angle of the goosenecked table lamp. “If you don’t mind my saying so, you seem young for such a level of expertise.”
“I hear that comment often.” Stop mooning and get with the program, girl.
Desi opened her briefcase. Donning her headgear, she slid the magnifying loupe in front of her eye and leaned over the picture to examine brushstrokes and cracks in the paint.
Plate hovered like a hummingbird. He fidgeted and paced, never more than a few steps away. Desi curbed an urge to kick him, though she couldn’t blame him for a display of nerves. Based on Boston Public’s expert opinion, one of the museum’s most generous donors had paid major bucks for the picture. If the NAS cast the smallest doubt…well, Plate’s smooth dome might be handed to him in a basket.
She took a small scalpel from her case and harvested an almost microscopic fleck of paint, then sealed the fleck in a tiny container of epoxy. She lifted her ultraviolet wand to scan the painting’s surface for tampering. So far the Renoir looked genuine—not that she’d had any doubts.
Precious seconds ticked past. Where is Max?
A shrill alarm sounded. Sanderson Plate jumped. A shiver ran through Desiree. Good old Max.
The curator touched her arm. “I need to see what caused the security breach. Once I leave, you will be locked in here until I return or unless the fire alarm sounds and releases the door automatically. Is that acceptable to you?”
“By all means.” Oh, please, do go. “You can never be too careful.”
Plate’s round face colored. “Just following policy. If you can’t trust a representative of the National Antiquities Society, whom can you trust?”
The man bustled out. Desiree watched the door shut behind him. A leap of her heart echoed the lock’s click.
Desi smiled. Whom, indeed?
She turned back to the painting and set about her true business.
Curator Plate returned to the locked room ten minutes later, shaking his head. “Another false alarm.” He took a narrow-eyed look at the painting on the table. “You’re finished?”
Desi nodded. “For now.”
“Very good. Allow me to escort you to the door.”
A few minutes later, Desiree walked into the sunshine of the April afternoon. She paused at the top of the stairs leading down to the street. A breeze ruffled her shoulder-length hair. Ah, the sweet scent of success. Just an ocean tang overlaid by vehicle exhaust and the smells of busy humanity, but it was her Boston. Just like the brownstone buildings and Victorian architecture on this edge of historic downtown.
The people, however, belonged to the twenty-first century.
Wheeler-dealers with cell phones, iPods, and BlackBerries.
Speed walkers and Rollerbladers. No one so much as glanced in her direction. Perfect! She moved toward the sidewalk doing mental backflips and cartwheels.
Midway down, she halted. Her whole body went stiff.
Up the street, a man in a dark gray suit stood, his back to her, beside a car bearing the logo of the city police. He was talking to an officer through the open window.
There was no mistaking the square set of those shoulders and the curly black hair that refused to lie flat. Special Agent Tony Lucano from the Organized Crime Division of the Boston FBI Field Office. The man handling the legwork on an art theft ring operating in his backyard.
Would he know me if he turned his head? Her pulse rate climbed.
She looked away, slipped her sunglasses on, and finished her descent. A white commercial van waited half a block in the opposite direction of Agent Lucano. Her legs wanted to run toward the vehicle, but she held herself to a brisk walk, blending in with sidewalk traffic.
If Lucano caught her, he wouldn’t care that she was within feet of her documentation. He’d enjoy hauling her in for questioning. The man delighted in harassing her. Well, maybe not her so much, but her father for sure.
Desi’s stomach rolled. Great. She’d concluded Phase I of the operation without breaking a sweat but was reduced to acid indigestion by the sight of one bright but grossly mistaken man. Her father would never—
No! She wouldn’t go there.
Desi reached the van and yanked open the passenger door.
“Hey!” The plump, red-haired woman in the driver’s seat lowered a disposable cup from her lips. “You almost made me spill my cappuccino. Where’s the fire? Did you get caught or something?”
Desi slid into the seat. “The operation went smooth as glass. But I can tell you right now that they need a surveillance camera in that workroom of theirs.” She set her briefcase on the floor by the center console. “Great timing on the alarm, by the way. Hope you got a few ideas for security measures while everyone scurried around.”
Max snorted. Apparently that little assignment didn’t rate a mention. “What gives, girl? You don’t often get that look on your face. Like a cross between a mule and a bronco. Last time was when that hot Italian agent came around and…ohhhh…”
She narrowed her cat-green eyes, then laughed. “Tall, dark, and intense musta been hangin’ around again. And he missed you? What a hoot!”
A knot loosened inside Desi. “I’m soooo glad ten years of East Coast haven’t messed with your West Texas sense of humor. I needed your perspective.” She looked at her watch.
“I’d better change for Phase II. The museum director expects me in less than half an hour.”
She climbed into the cargo compartment of the van, the back half of which held racks of electronics. The front half served as a changing room, complete with a dresser and small mirror, an array of cosmetics, and several wig stands.
While Max filled Desi in on observations she’d made about security in the museum, Desi removed the blond wig. She brushed her sable brown hair and then fluffed it into waves that ended in a tapered cut just below her ears. Next she took out the blue contact lenses and put them in their case. She fluttered her lids to moisten her hazel eyes. Cold cream and tissue scrubbed away the heavy makeup the fictitious Olivia Layton favored. Desi reapplied foundation, blush, and eye makeup with a light hand. Then she changed into a navy pinstriped skirt suit.
Max blinked at her when she resumed her seat in front.
“I never get used to the way you do that. Take off this, put on that, and here you are—no trace of the woman who just robbed a museum.”
Desi laughed and patted her briefcase. “Better get this back where it belongs. Do you have the contract?”
“One get-out-of-jail-free pass comin’ up.” Max fished in the glove compartment and pulled out a manila envelope.
Desi took the packet. A lump formed under her breastbone.
This next part of the operation was as delicate as the first. She had to finesse the return of the painting in a way that smoothed raised hackles and enticed museum management to follow HJ Securities’ recommendations. Her dad, Hiram Jacobs, was legendary in the business as diplomacy personified.
How can I measure up? The lump grew. I’m his daughter, that’s how. I’ve been trained by the best. I can’t fail. I can’t! Max bumped her arm. “What brought the frown back?”
She shook her head. “This isn’t my favorite part of the operation, you know.” She stepped out of the van.
“Oops! Almost forgot.” Desi plucked her real ID card out of the pouch on the side of the seat and put it in her blazer pocket. “Best go back in as myself. Do you think that grumpy guard will notice he’s admitted me before?”
Max clucked her tongue and grinned. “That’s the least of your problems, girlfriend. What are you gonna say if Agent Pacino stops you on the way back in?”
“That’s Lucano, Max.”
“Yeah, but doesn’t he just remind you so much of Al in Serpico?”
“Mr. Clean-Cut Gentleman’s Quarterly and a seventies hippie cop? Hardly.”
“Oh, forget the hair and beard from the movie.” Max waved a hand. “That’s window dressing. It’s in the eyes, Des. They could x-ray lead.”
Desi hooted. “The X-ray eyes must have malfunctioned this afternoon. I got clean away, right under his nose.”
She left Max chuckling and headed back toward the museum. The next few minutes meant the world to her future. Her dad’s health was on the line. She had to land this client—prove to her dad that he could back off and let her take a greater share of the responsibility. When he came home tomorrow from his business trip in Europe, she’d have all the ammunition she needed to make him listen to reason about the company he served like a slave.
He’s got to take good advice this time. Please, God, I don’t want to lose him.