The Monet Murders
Novel, Thriller, Contemporary, FBI
Book #2 in the Art of Murder series, after The Mermaid Murders
“Emerson Harley understood that the threat was not simply to the greatest cultural and artistic achievements of all timethe fascist forces of World War Two threatened civilization itself.”
The speeches were well under way when his cell phone began to vibrate.
Having arrived late, Jason stood at the back of the sizeable audience crowding into the wide entrance hall of the California History Museum of Beverly Hills, but even so, he felt the disapproval radiating from that chunk of prime real estate at the front of the room, the holdings currently occupied by the West familyhis family. How the hell they could possibly know he was even present, let alone failing to live up to famille expectation was a mystery, but after thirty-three years he was used to it.
Surreptitiously, he pulled his cell out for a quick look at the caller and felt a leap of pleasure. Sam.
Behavioral Analysis Unit Chief Sam Kennedy and he were, well, involved. That was maybe the best word for it.
All the same, he nearly shelved the call. Not that he didn’t look forward to talking to SamGod knows, it was a rare enough occurrence these daysbut the dedication of a museum wing to your grandfather did kind of take precedence. Should, anyway.
Some instinct made him click Accept. He smiled in apology, edging his way through the crowd of black ties and evening dresses, stepping into the Ancient Americas room with its exhibition of pre-Columbian art and ceramics.
“Hey.” Jason kept his voice down, but that “hey” seemed to whisper up and down the row of stony Olmec faces. It would be hard, maybe impossible, to put a collection like this together nowadays. Not only were artifacts of enormous cultural significance disappearing into private hands at a breathtaking rate, Native American activists oftenand maybe rightlyblocked the excavation of human remains and artifacts as desecration of sacred space.
“Hey,” Sam said crisply. “You’re about to get called out to a crime scene. Homicide.”
“Okay.” This was a little weird. How would Sam, posted back at Quantico, know that? And why would he bother to inform Jason?
“I can’t talk.” Sam was still brusque, still speaking quietly, as though afraid of being overheard. That in itself was interesting. Not like Sam had ever given a damn about what anyone thought about anything. “I wanted you to have a heads-up. I’m on scene as well.”
Jason’s heart gave another of those disconcerting jumps. Finally. Same corner of the crime fighting universe at the same time. It had been…what? Massachusetts had been June, and it was now February. Eight months. Almost a year. It felt like a year.
“Got it.” Jason was equally curt. Because he did get it. These days Sam was in a different league. When they’d met, Sam had been under a cloud, his career on the line. Now his reputation was restored, and his standing was pretty much unassailable. Jason, by contrast, remained a lowly field agent with the Art Crime Team. And though the Bureau did not have an official non-frat policy, discretion was part of the job description. Right there with Fidelity, Bravery, Integrity.
His phone alerted him to another incoming call.
“See you here.” Sam disconnected.
Jason automatically clicked the incoming call. “West.”
A cool, cultured voice said, “Agent West, this is ADC Ritchie.”
After an astonished beat, he said politely, “Ma’am?” Like a phone call from the Assistant Director in Charge was a usual thing.
“I’m sorry to call you out on what I know is a special evening for you and your family, but we have a situation that could benefit from your particular expertise.”
Jason said blankly, “Of course.”
This kind of callnot that he had so many of this kind of calltypically came from Supervisory Special Agent George Potts, his squad supervisor at the very large and very powerful Los Angeles field office.
“We have a dead foreign national onor, more exactly, underSanta Monica pier. He appears to be a buyer for the Nacht Galerie in Berlin. Gil Hickok at LAPD is requesting our support. Also…” ADC Ritchie’s tone changed indefinably. “BAU Chief Sam Kennedy seems to feel your participation in this investigation would be particularly helpful.”
Translation: the ADC was as bewildered as Jason. Why the hell would the BAU butt into the investigation of the homicide of a German nationallet alone requisition manpower from the local field office Art Crime Team?
Except…Detective Gil Hickok didn’t just head LAPD’s Art Theft Detail. He was basically the art cop for most of Southern California and had been for the last twenty years. Smaller forces like Santa Monica PD didn’t keep their own art experts on the payroll; they relied on LAPD’s resources. LAPD’s two-man Art Theft Detail was the only such full-time municipal law enforcement unit in the United States. If Gil was requesting Jason’s assistance, there was a good reasonbeyond the fact that a murdered buyer from one of Germany’s leading art galleries would naturally be of interest to Jason.
Attention now fully engaged, Jason was eager to get on siteand that had zero to do with the fact that Sam would be there.
He heard out Ritchie, who really had little to add beyond the initial information, and said, “I’m on my way.”
Clicking off, he stepped into the arched doorway, scanning the crowd. All eyes were fastened on the short, stout man behind the lectern positioned at the front of the newly constructed hall, trying to cope with the piercing bursts of mic feedback punctuating his speech.
“In March 1945, Harley was named Deputy Chief of the MFAA Section under British Monuments Man Lt. Col. Geoffrey Webb. Stationed at SHAEF headquarters at Versailles and later in Frankfurt, Harley and Webb coordinated the operations of Monuments Men in the field as well as managing submitted field reports and planning future MFAA operations. Harley traveled extensively and at great personal peril across the American Zone of Occupation in pursuit of looted works of art and cultural objects.”
Correction. Not all eyes were fastened on museum curator Edward Howie. Jason’s sister Sophie was watching for him.
Sophie, tall, dark, and elegant in a jade green Vera Wang halter gown, was married to Republican Congressman Clark Vincent, also in attendance. Clark tried to be in attendance anywhere the press might be. Sophie was the middle kid, but if she suffered from middle-child syndrome, it had manifested itself in rigorous overachievement and a general bossiness of anyone in her realm. She had seventeen years on Jason and considered him her pet project.
Jason held his phone up and shook his head, his expression that blend of apology and resolve all law enforcement officers perfected for such occasions. There were inevitably a lot of them. That was another part of the job description.
Sophie, who moonlighted as the family enforcer, expressed her displeasure through her eyebrows. She paid a lot of money for those brows, and they served her well. Right now they were looking Harley-Quinnish.
Jason tried to work a bit more abject into his silent apologyhe was, in fact, sincerely sorry to miss the dedication, but if anyone would have understood, it was Grandpa Harley, who had missed more than a few family celebrations of his own while trying to save civilization from the Nazis. Sophie shook her head in disapproval and disappointment. But there was also resignation in that gesture, and Jason took that as permission for takeoff.
* * * * *
It took a fucking forever to find a place to park.
That was something they didn’t ever show on TV or the movies: the detective having to park a mile away and hike to his crime scene. But it happened.
Especially when you were last man on the scene.
Santa Monica on a Sunday nighteven in Februarywas a busy place. The one-hundred-year-old landmark pier was bustling with fun seekers, street vendors, and performance artistseven a few die-hard fishermen, poles in hand. As Jason reached the bottom of Colorado Avenue, he could see the glittering multicolored Ferris wheel churning leisurely through the heavy purple and pewter clouds. Little cars whizzed up and down the twinkling yellow loops of the rollercoaster.
The pier deck was filled, as were the lower lots barricaded by black and whites, their blue and red LED lights flashing in the night like sinister amusement-park rides. Jason had to park south of the pier and hike back along the mostly empty beach. As he walked past parked cars and the towering silhouettes of palm trees, he could see uniformed officers and crime-scene technicians in the distance, moving around beneath the crooked black shape of the pier. Flashlight beams darted like fireflies among the pylons. Small clutches of people stood short distances from each other, watching.
He reached the perimeter of the crime scene, flashed his tin, and got a few surprised looks from the unis. That probably had more to do with his formal dresshe hadn’t had a chance to do more than grab his backup piece and replace his tux with his vestthan the Bureau being on the scene.
“The party’s over there,” an officer informed him, holding up the yellow and black CS ribbon.
“Can’t wait for the buffet,” Jason muttered, ducking under the tape. His shoes sunk into the soft, pale sand with a whisper.
The neon lights of the pier and the glittering solar panels of the Ferris wheel lit the way across the beach. From the arcade overhead drifted the sound of shoutshappy shoutsmusic and games. He could hear the jaunty tunes of the vintage carousel and the screams of people riding the rollercoaster.
All the while, beneath the pier, came the steady click, click, click of cameras flashing from different angles.
This time of month the tide would be surging back in around eleven thirty, so the forensics team would have to move fast.
As Jason drew nearer, he became self-consciously aware of a tall blond figure in a blue windbreaker with gold FBI letters across his wide back.
And he somehow knewthough Sam was not looking his way, was turned away from himthat Sam was aware he was on approach.
How did that work? Extrasexual perception?
Anyway, it made a nice distraction from what was coming. Not that Jason was squeamish, but no one liked homicide scenes. It was the part that came afterthe puzzle, the challenge, the race to stop the unsub from striking againthat he liked.
He reached the small circle silently observing the forensic specialists at work. Gil Hickok acknowledged him first.
He said, “Here’s West,” and Sam turned.
Even in the dark, where he was more shadow than flesh and bone, Sam Kennedy made an imposing figure. It was something that went beyond his height or the breadth of his shoulders or that imperious, not-quite-handsome profile. Sheer force of personality. That was probably a lot of it.
Also a lot of aftershave.
“Agent West.” It was strange to hear Sam in person again after all those months of phone calls. His voice was deep and held a suggestion of his Wyoming boyhood. His expression was unreadable in the flickering light, but then Sam’s expression was usually unreadable, day or night.
Jason nodded hello. They might have been meeting for the first time. Well, no, because the first time they’d met, they’d disliked each other at first sight. So compared to that, this was downright cozy.
Hickok took in Jason’s black tie and patent leather kicks, drawling, “You didn’t have to dress up. It’s a casual-wear homicide.”
HickokHick to his friendswas in his late fifties. Portly, genial, and perpetually grizzled. He wore a rumpled raincoat, rain or shine, smelled like pipe tobacco, and collected corny jokes, which he delighted in sharing with bewildered suspects during interrogations. They’d worked together several times over the past year. Jason liked him.
“‘You can never be overdressed or overeducated,’” he quoted.
“Says the overdressed, overeducated guy.” Hick chuckled and shook hands with him.
Sam did not shake hands. Jason met his eyes, but again it was too dark to interpret that gleam. Hopefully there was nothing in his own expression either. He prided himself on his professionalism, and there was no greater test of professionalism than being able to keep your love life out of your work life.
Not that he and Sam were in love. It was hard to define what they wereand getting harder by the minute.
Hickok pointed out the homicide detectives who had caught the case. Diaz and Norquiss were already busy interviewing the clusters of potential witnesses, so Jason really was last to arrive.
“What have we got?” he asked. The real question was what am I doing here? But presumably that would be explained. His gaze went automatically to the victim. The combination of harsh lamplight and deep shade created a chiaroscuro effect around the sprawled figure.
The deceased was about forty. Caucasian. A large man. Not fat, but soft. Doughy. His hair was blond and chin length, his eyes blue and glazing over. His mouth was slack with surprise. The combination of dramatic lighting and that particular expression was reminiscent of some of Goya’s works. People in Goya’s paintings so often wore that same look of shock as horrific events overtook them.
He wore jeans, tennis shoes, and a sweatshirt that read I Heart Santa Monica.
Sadly, the sentiment had not been reciprocated. A dark shadow formed an aureole beneath the victim’s head, but it wasn’t a lot of blood. He bore no obvious signs of having been shot or stabbed or strangled or even bludgeoned.
But if it was a simple case of homicide, Sam wouldn’t be here. Though he traveled more than typical BAU chiefsor agentseven he didn’t turn up at common crime scenes.
“Do you know him?” Sam asked.
“Me?” Jason glanced at him. “No.”
“You’ve never dealt with him in a professional context?”
“I’ve never dealt with him in any context. Who is he?”
Hick said, “Donald Kerk. A German national, according to his passport. He was the art buyer for Nacht Galerie in Berlin.”
The Nacht Galerie was known for its collection of street culture: paintings by hip young artists on the cusp of real fame, and avant-garde photography. They specialized in light installation and graphic design. Not Jason’s area of expertise.
“He still has his passport?”
“And his wallet, containing his hotel room key, so robbery doesn’t appear to have been a motive. Mr. Kerk wound up his visit to our fair city with what looks like an ice pick to the base of his skull.”
“That’s not going to do much for tourism.” Jason was looking at Sam. Waiting for Sam to explain what made this a matter for FBI involvement, let alone for the ACT.
Sam started to speak but paused as they were joined by Detectives Diaz and Norquiss.
Norquiss was a statuesque redhead in a black pantsuit. Her partner was big and burly, with an impressive scar down the left side of his face. He wore jeans and a corduroy blazer that was starting to strain at the shoulders.
“Oh goody. More feebs.” Norquiss looked Jason up and down. “To what do we owe this honor?”
Diaz said, “You could have waited till the wedding was over, Agent.”
Jason sighed, and Hick chuckled. “Now, now, kiddies. I invited the Bureau in.”
“Why?” Norquiss demanded. “This is nothing we’re not fully equipped to handle on our own.”
Sam said, “There are indications Kerk’s homicide is connected to a case already under BAU investigation.”
“Oh, for fu!” Diaz cut the rest of it short. He exchanged looks with Norquiss, who folded her arms in a not-too-subtle display of resistance. In most cases, local law enforcement had to invite the Bureau into an investigation, but there were exceptions to the rule. This appeared to be one of them.
“Connected how?” Jason asked.
It was Hick who answered. “Here, West. I want to get your opinion of something.”
The something turned out to be a 6x8 inch oil painting on canvas board.
“This was propped against the right side of the body,” Hick informed him.
“Like a museum exhibit label?”
“Yeah, maybe.” Hick sounded surprised at this suggestion.
Jason reached for his gloves. Of course, he wasn’t wearing gloves. Hadn’t expected to be called out to a crime scene that night.
“Use mine.” Sam peeled off his own latex gloves and handed them to Jason.
Jason pulled on the still warm plastican act which felt strangely intimateand took the canvas board from Hickok, who flicked on his flashlight to better illume the painted surface.
He recognized the creative intent at once. How could he miss it? Those distinct brushstrokes. The careful and strongly horizontal representation of the sky and sea that were so typical of the artist’s early efforts. The ocean and shoreline were probably supposed to represent Sainte-Adresse, although they might as easily have been Santa Catalina. Wherever it was supposed to beand despite the distinctive signature in the lower right-hand cornerit was a lousy effort and a lousy forgery.
Not even taking into account the macabre and incongruous central figure of the corpse floating in the surf. He felt a prickling at the nape of his neck at the image of that indistinct but clearly bloodied form. Maybe the location was generic. The focus of the worka murder scenewas not.
“It’s sure as hell not Monet,” Jason said.
“It’s his style,” Norquiss said.
“I think Monet would beg to differ.”
“Maybe it’s an early work,” Diaz suggested.
“No. It’s not even a good imitation,” Jason said. “This is not genius in the making. It’s fully formed ineptitude.”
Hick laughed. “What did I tell you?” he asked Sam.
“You can’t know for sure without running tests. I don’t think it’s so terrible.” Norquiss sounded defensive. Maybe she was a regular at garage sales. Had she really thought they’d discovered a genuine Monet at the crime scene?
Jason said, “For the sake of argument, why would Kerk be wandering around the beach carrying a priceless painting? And if this was a robbery gone bad, why would the unsub have then left a priceless painting at the scene?”
“Maybe robbery wasn’t the motive. Maybe the perp had no idea this was a priceless painting.”
“That still doesn’t explain why Kerk would be casually carrying around a valuable piece of art.”
Norquiss retorted, “What makes no sense is that the perp would bother to stage the scene when this whole area is going to be underwater in about an hour.”
She had a point. The oily black tide was already starting to swirl around the pilings. The marine air was redolent with salty decay.
“Maybe your perp isn’t familiar with the tides”
“All right, never mind all that,” Sam cut in impatiently. “You don’t believe that Kerk purchased this work?” The question for Jason was clearly rhetorical. Sam already knew the answer.
“No way.” Jason glanced at Hick.
“Hell no,” Hick said. “That’s not a mistake even a rookie buyer would make. Sorry, guys,” he added to Norquiss and Diaz. “However this piece figures in, there’s no way an experienced art dealer purchased a forgery of this quality.”
A forgery that seemed to suggestpredictthe crime that had only occurred a few hours earlier that evening.
Having been shut up once, Jason kept the thought to himself. It wasn’t like Sam would have overlooked that point.
Norquiss and Diaz exchanged frustrated looks. “Then what do we have here?” Norquiss asked. “What are we looking at?”
Sam’s deep voice was somber as he answered her. “Best guess? The calling card of a serial killer.”
Copyright 2000-17, Josh Lanyon.
All rights reserved.