(This is little ongoing project I am enjoying. I hope you will too. Here is the table of contents page.)
Sean wrapped his arms around Aubrey and they quietly held each other.
Sean wrapped his arms around Aubrey and they quietly held each other.
“Think about it,” he said as she slid into the seat.
“Yes. Yes. I promise. Go home and kiss your girls for me.”
She didn’t like to admit it, even to herself, but Sean had made an accurate assessment of her life. She knew she was still living in her marriage to Conner. It made her sympathetic to what it must be like for his parents, no matter how she felt about them as people. The Hales didn’t generally make concessions without an ulterior motive, but Aubrey though it likely that their longing to hold on to a piece of their son might be behind their offer. Legacies aside, Conservator was a company worth acquiring, but that wasn’t enough to explain why the board at HWS would agree to make the investment. Aubrey thought if anything the people responsible for tending the balance sheets would have had even less interest in the art transportation business now than when Conner had started the company. There were more headaches now.
Monetary regulations aimed at controlling the flow of funds to and from terrorist states had spilled over into the commerce of art. Stolen art was being exchanged as a currency of sorts for illegal trade in everything from children to weapons. As collateral on the black market, the going rate for stolen art was ten percent of the insurance value, when that information was available.
Museum budgets were heavily weighted on the acquisition end rather than the security end, so a thief didn’t have to be extremely clever to drive away with millions of dollars in collateral. In 2004, thieves had only had to be smart enough to lean a ladder against a wall. Two men entered a second story window in the middle of the day to take two Edvard Munch paintings, including “The Scream”. This was the second time poor security rather than criminal genius was responsible for the theft of that particular painting. The first time it had been stolen, in that case, from the National Museum, the thieves had gone so far as to leave a polite note that read:
“Thank you for the poor security”
In both cases, the painting had been recovered, but it’s hard to fence a national treasure like “The Scream”. Had the thieves been smart enough to take a lesser-known work they could have leveraged a twenty five million dollar painting into two point five million dollars. These facts make handling art a numerically high risk to low reward ratio business and HWS was not the sort of company to walk into this fray.
Whatever the motive for the offer, she decided not to waste any more mental energy thinking about it; she was going to need her full compliment of that resource to solve the more immediate problem of the Italian shipment. She set her jaw and dialed Dena Sanders.
If Aubrey had ever seriously thought someone should have a stiletto planted in their person, it would have been someone like Dena.
“Hello?” Aubrey heard the sounds of a party behind the shrill voice on the phone. No doubt it was a magazine perfect affair, but the evening’s primary appeal for Dena would be the nasty bits of gossip she might pick up along her way to her next husband.
“Dena, hon, issat you? It’s Aubrey Hale. I am so sorry for callin’ you this late at night. It’s awful of me, I know, ‘specially ‘cause I’m fixin’ to ask you for such uh huge favor.”
When she had left home to go to college, Aubrey had added back all the dropped consanants and cleaned up the syrupy twang that was the natural accent of Uncertain, Texas, a small town hugging the land around Caddo Lake and the border between Texas and Louisiana. But she still knew how to pull off a drawl when it proved to be useful, and was one of those occasions, though not for the usual reasons.
The sound of it would gall Dena, a woman who’d earned more than a little discomfort, in Aubrey’s view. But the woman had a gallery specializing in Cartoni and scores of contacts with Italian exchanges.
Cartoni, artistic plans dating back to the Italian renaissance, had become a commodity in a niche market. Few of the fresco cartoons had survived, because the paper was pressed into wet plaster with a stylus, then punctured so outlines could be left in charcoal dust. When she wasn’t hunting the next financial portfolio in pants, Dena made a comfortable living trading in the smaller surviving variety of Cartoni. One man’s scratch pad was another woman’s day job.
“Aubrey, dear. How unpleasant. What can I do for you, besides teach you to speak your own language? The name of a good stylist perhaps?” Clearly, Aubrey’s dislike was reciprocated.
“You are a perennial delight, Dena, truly.”
“Shall we get to the point? What ever can I do for you?”
“Exercise some professional courtesy when I bring Neil Abbot to your gallery. You’ll be doing yourself a favor if you can swing it, not that you need any encouragement on that front.”
All the false charm was gone from Aubrey’s tone, but she left insults out of her response, or at least she tried. That level of restraint bordered on an accomplishment.
On the other end, there was only background chatter while Dena decided how badly she wanted to have Neil’s business. Capitalism in interesting times won out over pride and the party noise ended with the closing of a door.
“What do you want?”
“A phone number. I need a good contact in Italy, someone with pull at the Roman terminal. We have a shipment that’s hung in transit.”
“How do you know Neil Abbot? “
“Do you want me to bring him to the gallery or not? If you don’t want the bone, someone else will.” It was tempting to extend the metaphor to the obvious insult, but death by paper cut was more Aubrey’s style.
“What I don’t want is to give you the number and find out you don’t have Neil Abbot. I’ll give you the number when you bring him into my gallery.”
“Which doesn’t work for me. Goodnight, Dena. “
“I need the number now and I doubt even someone with your special sort of tact would think it was a stoke of genius to drag Neil out of bed for a shopping spree. Either give it to me or I’m going to solve this another way.”
“Fine. It’s on my phone so I’ll have to call you back with the number.”
“And then I’ll bring Neil in next week.“
Aubrey didn’t end the conversation with pleasantries and sent the return call directly to voice mail.
The evening left her feeling scraped and abraded in a way the long day at Conservator hadn’t, but the deadline for the Asian Museum project’s completion was a month away and, provided it went well, there would be other projects from other museums. Then what? She thought of Sean’s offer again and let it linger a few minutes before she pushed it out of her mind. The endlessness of it all didn’t escape her but she wasn’t done for the night.
She stopped in at the firehouse so Pam, the housekeeper, dog nanny and all around godsend could go home to her own family. Aubrey’s plan was to pack a bag and grab the dogs before heading to the office.
Despite Sean’s take on it, the apartment at Conservator was not a cot in a closet. She and Conner had lived there while the firehouse was being remodeled, but it wasn’t home any more and she missed the comforts of familiarity. She decided to take a quick shower in her own bathroom. It evolved into a quick nap in her own bed.
When the phone rang hours later, she looked at the clock and groaned.
“Well, here’s Johnie.“
Aubrey took a second longer than usual to understand the greeting. Her brain was dulled by sleep and the ongoing conflict between one scotch and several glasses of wine, but when she realized what she’d heard, she knew who was on the other end of the line. There were a handful of people knew her first name was Johnie, but only one who regularly used it to annoy her.