The last time I saw Vincent Donatucci, he handed me a check for $3,128,584.50. My first thought when I found him standing outside my front door—I ain’t giving it back!
“Hello, McKenzie,” he said when I opened the door.
“Mr. Donatucci,” I replied. A man makes you an instant millionaire, you call him mister. I opened the door wide enough to give him room to pass. “Come in.”
He crossed the threshold and stamped the cold from his feet. He unbuttoned his gray trench coat but did not take it off. He looked around. All he saw was a painting I had bought at the Lowertown Arts Festival hanging on the near wall and a lot of empty carpet.
“How long have you lived here?” he asked.
“I moved in not long after I collected the reward on Teachwell.”
Donatucci nodded meaningfully.
“Beer?” I asked. “Coffee?”
He glanced at his watch. It was eleven twenty in the A.M.
“Coffee,” he said.
I led him to the kitchen, deliberately taking the route through the dining room so he could see that I had a table, chairs, and matching buffet. It was a large house and expensive. I bought it for my father and me, but he died soon after we moved in, and I hadn’t done much with it since. Five of the rooms were still empty, although the master bedroom and bath were fully and, I like to think, tastefully decorated. So was what Dad called the family room, a large hall filled with a big-screen HDTV, Blu-ray DVD player, computer, CD stereo, plenty of chairs and sofas, including a two-hundred-year-old rocking chair, a large desk, floor lamps, and shelves filled with music, movies, and books. I was particularly fond of the kitchen where I stored all manner of culinary gadgets—mini-doughnut, sno-cone, and popcorn machines, iced tea maker, ice cream churn, pizza oven, pasta maker, a miniature guillotine used to halve bagels, a couple of toasters, and a $1,300 Jura-Capresso coffee and espresso maker that I snapped up for seven-fifty.
I poured Donatucci a mug of coffee, but none for myself. I watched intently while he sipped.
“Mmm, nice,” he said.
I don’t know why it was important that he be impressed. I guess I didn’t want him to think I squandered the money.
Donatucci settled at the kitchen table, grunting and sighing as if every movement were an effort for him. He was old, with a face so deeply wrinkled that I wondered how he shaved; more wrinkles than when I had first met him six years ago. He stared out the kitchen window into my backyard.
“May I take your coat?” I asked. He didn’t answer, and I wondered for a moment if he had heard me. “Mr. Donatucci?”
“No, I’m fine.”
“I have a boatload of Girl Scout Cookies—Thin Mints, Samoas…”
He shook his head no.
“So tell me,” I said. “To what do I owe the pleasure?”
“What brings you here?”
“Are those pet turkeys?”
Donatucci was watching the thirteen wild turkeys that gathered around my frozen pond. They were loitering in a large space where I had packed down the snow with a shovel and my boots. In the center of the area was a wooden box. I had piled dry corn and grain on top of the box, and the turkeys were taking turns picking at it.
“No, not pets,” I said. “They showed up last year just before it started to snow. They must have liked it, because they came back again this year. I have a pal with the DNR who says they come into the city during the winter to forage for easy meals—I’m not the only one who feeds them. He says they’ll return to the wild come spring, although I don’t know what he means by the wild. The suburbs, I guess.”
Donatucci nodded, sipped his coffee, and watched the turkeys some more. He seemed to be drifting off, and I called his name.
“I’m not deaf, McKenzie,” he said.
“I’ve been keeping tabs on you.”
“People we make big payouts to, I like to keep an eye on them, see how the money changes them.”
“Does the money change them?”
“Always. Always it changes them. Sometimes for the better. They become philanthropists, you know? Share the wealth. Most of the others, they become prisoners to their money. Not always their fault, though. Suddenly everyone wants a piece. Friends turn on them, usually out of resentment. Most end up wishing they could go back to the way it was before they were rich. And then there’s you. You became Batman.”
Donatucci snorted. “Everything but the cape and the car,” he said. “Tearing around, working with the cops; sometimes working against the cops; doing good for goodness’ sake. Tell me I’m wrong.”
He snorted again.
“Mr. Donatucci, exactly what is it that you want?”
“I need a favor,” he said. “That’s what you do, isn’t it, now that you’re not with the police anymore? Favors for friends.”
“You’re not my friend.”
Donatucci smiled slightly. “You owe us,” he said.
“Midwest Farmers Insurance Group.”
“How do you figure that?”
“Three million one hundred and twenty-eight thousand—”
“That was a business deal, pure and simple,” I said.
“—five hundred and eighty-four dollars and fifty cents.”
“And if you could have avoided paying it, you would have.”
Donatucci groaned slightly as he adjusted his position in the chair. He was a big man, someone you would have stepped aside from when he was young and limber. Not so much now.
“No insurance company pays off on a claim if it doesn’t have to,” he said.
“Then let’s not talk about owing favors, all right?”
Donatucci took a long swallow of his coffee and then fixed his eyes on me. “Have you ever heard of the Jade Lily?” he asked.
“Are you sure? It’s been advertised pretty heavily.”
“Wait,” I said. “Wait, wait, wait. Okay. There’s a museum in Minneapolis that’s been sending flyers. It even called a couple of times looking for donations. It has an art exhibit—the Jade Lily. Apparently there’s a curse attached to it like King Tut’s tomb. Something terrible is supposed to happen to whoever possesses it.”
“What about it?”
Donatucci handed his empty mug to me. I asked if he would like a refill and he said yes. While I was pouring the coffee he answered my question. He spoke abruptly as if he wanted to see if my hand shook.
“It was stolen last night,” Donatucci said.
I finished filling the mug and gave it to him. “So?”
“We want it back.”
“Midwest Farmers insured it for three-point-eight million.”
“Why come to me? Call the cops. Call the FBI.” I gestured toward Donatucci like a host welcoming a contestant to a game show. “I remember you were a fair investigator once.”
“Where were you last night, McKenzie?”
“Are you asking if I have an alibi, Mr. Donatucci? Why would you ask?”
I had one. I was at the Minnesota Wild hockey game with Bobby Dunston, who coincidentally held the rank of commander in the Major Crimes and Investigations Division of the St. Paul Police Department. Yet I had no intention of telling Donatucci that. Come into my house and demand an alibi—screw that. I crossed my arms over my chest and leaned back against my kitchen counter.
“Any other favors you want?” I asked.
Donatucci waved his mug at me. “This is good coffee,” he said.
“Yes, it is.”
“Not particularly. Just impatient.”
“I didn’t want to come here, McKenzie. I think it’s unethical.”
“Then why are you here?”
“I need a favor.”
“We’re back to that, are we?”
“The Jade Lily was stolen from the City of Lakes Art Museum last night. At eight o’clock this morning, the artnappers placed a call to the museum’s executive director, a woman named Perrin Stewart.”
“Artnappers?” I said.
“What else would you call them?”
“You tell me.”
“The artnappers told Ms. Stewart that they were willing to sell the Lily back to the museum for a third of its insured value. It goes against my better judgment, but we agreed—my company and the museum agreed. We have a couple of days to get the cash together, and then the artnappers will contact us with instructions.”
“I can appreciate why it pisses you off, Mr. Donatucci. Yet this sort of thing happens all the time, am I right?”
“Not all the time, but yeah, it happens. That’s pretty much how you got your money, if memory serves.”
“So why are you here against your better judgment?”
“We want to hire you to act as go-between—deliver the money, retrieve the Lily. We’ll pay you ten percent of the ransom.”
“You must be kidding.”
“No, I’m not.”
I started laughing just the same. “No, no, no,” I said.
“Not a chance.”
“One hundred and twenty-five thousand dollars.”
“I don’t care if it’s a million. A guy could get killed doing that sort of thing, and luckily for me—thanks to the Midwest Farmers Insurance Group—I don’t need the money.”
“That’s what I told them you’d say.”
“The museum board and my boss.”
“Wait a minute. Coming to me, that wasn’t your idea?”
“Of course not.”
“Well, whose idea was it?”
“They asked for you. They said, ‘Send McKenzie with the money or it’s no deal.’”
That threw me. I turned my back on Donatucci and took a long time filling a mug with coffee for myself. I slowly sat at the table across from Donatucci and stared at the turkeys.
They asked for me, my inner voice said. Me? Why would they do that?
Donatucci watched and waited.
“Who are those guys?” I asked.
“Have you ever done this sort of thing before?”
“Act as a go-between?”
I explained that there had been two occasions. The first was when I delivered the ransom after Bobby Dunston’s daughter was kidnapped, but all the people involved in that incident were either dead or in prison. The only other time was when I helped out a woman named Jenny, an acquaintance from the old neighborhood who had married really, really well—at least that’s what I thought at the time. Unfortunately, her husband cared more about making money than he did about her, and Jenny drifted into an affair with a man she had met on the Internet. They arranged to meet at a hotel. When she woke the next morning, he was gone and so were the jewels her husband had given her—matching necklace, earrings, and brooch. The thief offered to sell the jewels back before Jenny’s husband missed them—sell them for more than they were worth—and she agreed. I handled the exchange. I went to a motel and waited in the room the thief had designated. When he called, I left the money in the room and went to a second room that he specified. That’s where I found the jewelry. I packed it up, and after a few minutes I went home. I never saw the thief.
“He was penny ante,” I said. “I doubt he could manage a caper like this. Besides, he didn’t know my name.”
“The thieves know you from somewhere,” Donatucci said.
“Just because they know me doesn’t mean I know them.”
“That’s true. The thieves could have heard your name somewhere. Where would they have heard your name, McKenzie?”
I shook my head slowly even as I wondered the same thing myself.
“You keep saying thieves,” I said.
“There are at least two,” Donatucci said. “Unfortunately, we can only ID the man who walked out of the museum with the Lily tucked under his arm.”
“Who was that?”
Donatucci smiled. There was this girl in high school; because of her I joined the chess club. The president of the chess club was a good guy, backed up the starting point guard on the school basketball team. He would smile just like Donatucci when I fell into one of his traps, which was just about every time we played.
“C’mon,” I said. “Don’t do this to me.”
Donatucci smiled some more. “Do what, Batman?” he said.
“Give me a break.”
“My advice, McKenzie? Forget the whole thing.”
I knew what Donatucci was trying to do, and I wasn’t going for it.
“You know what?” I said. “That’s exactly what I’m going to do—forget the whole thing.”
“What difference does it make if the artnappers asked for you? You don’t know who they are. It has nothing to do with you.”
“Besides, you don’t need me.”
“Don’t need you, don’t want you.”
“If I don’t act as go-between, the thief, the thieves, they’ll find someone else.”
“For one-point-three mill, you know they will.” Donatucci stood up and started buttoning his coat. “Just go about your business, McKenzie. Tend your turkeys. Forget about the Jade Lily. Forget I was even here.”
I stared out the window, watching the turkeys peck at the food on top of the box.
Batman was a vigilante nut job, my inner voice said. That’s not me. It’s not! Still, he was my favorite superhero when I was a kid. Him and Spider-Man, who was a bit of a vigilante, too. I took a deep breath. Damn the Lily. Damn the thieves. Damn Mr. Donatucci, that old man. He should have retired years ago.
Donatucci made his way as noisily as possible to the arch between the kitchen and the dining room. I turned toward him just as he knew I would. He was smiling again.
“Do you play chess, Mr. Donatucci?”
“Yes. Do you?”
“Yeah, but apparently not very well.”
“We should play sometime.”
“I think we already have. One hundred twenty-seven thousand.”
“You said ten percent of the ransom. That’s a hundred and twenty-seven thousand.”
“So it is.”
“In that case, you can buy lunch.”
* * *
Besides Mr. Donatucci and myself, there were six men and one woman gathered around a long table in a windowless conference room. Three of the men looked as if they wished they were somewhere else doing something far more important. From the expressions on the faces of the other three, this was as much fun as they’d had in quite a while. The woman, on the other hand, was visibly agitated. She was one of those ultra-chic plus-size gals that gave you the impression she could have been Heidi Klum if only she dropped a hundred pounds.
“This is an emergency meeting of the executive board of trustees,” she said.
“Hey, Perrin. Who are you talking to?” asked one of the happier board members. “We all know why we’re here, Madam President.”
“Ms. Stewart is not the president,” said the man next to him. “She’s the executive director. We don’t have a president, remember?”
“Whose idea was that?”
“It was yours, Mr. Anderson,” Perrin said. She folded her hands on top of a manila folder that lay on the table directly in front of her. She tried to appear calm but didn’t quite manage it.
“Since when did you start listening to me?” Anderson said.
From the spelling of his name, I knew Anderson was Norwegian, which made him part of a dwindling minority. Used to be you couldn’t swing a dead cat without hitting a Norwegian around here. Not so much anymore. While Minnesota’s population is still essentially white and Northern European, the number of our Asian, Hispanic, and African residents is increasing steadily. That has annoyed some people, mostly politicians, who have demanded that the cops conduct “immigration stops” to make sure they’re all here legally, Minnesota Nice be damned. On the other hand, the food is better.
“Can we get on with it, please?” asked one of the more serious members.
“For the benefit of Mr. McKenzie,” Perrin said, “I will introduce each member of the board.”
She went around the room. Everyone was a mister, everyone was a prominent something or other. When she reached Anderson, he said, “Geezuz, Stewart,” and made a big production out of looking at his watch. “I need to get back to the office.”
Finally Perrin reached the sixth man.
“Mr. Randolph Fiegen,” she said.
Fiegen was in his late fifties and elegantly dressed. He reminded me of Donald Trump in that he sported the most elaborate and artful comb-over that I had ever seen. Certainly he had that look of contempt on his face that some people get when they’ve been ordering people around for a long time. He didn’t give Perrin a chance to add any accolades.
“I think I speak for all of us when I thank you for agreeing to help us, Mr. McKenzie,” he said.
“I didn’t agree to anything yet.”
“Oh?” Fiegen’s sad, cold eyes regarded me carefully. “I was under the impression that you had. You see, the future of this fine museum may very well hang in the balance.”
“How so?” I asked.
Fiegen spread his hands wide. “For a young institution like ours,” he said, “reputation is everything.”
“How does this work?” I asked. “Who owns the museum?”
“City of Lakes is a nonprofit organization,” Perrin said. “By definition, we do not have private owners, and while we are able to earn a profit, or, more accurately, a surplus, none of the moneys are paid out to shareholders. Instead, such earnings are retained by the museum for our self-preservation.”
“Bullshit,” Anderson said. “We own it. When I say we, I mean the board of trustees, because we’re the ones that’ll be picking up the tab should this place fail. Right now there are forty-seven members on the board. You become a trustee when you contribute half of seven figures or better to the museum, except for the mayor of Minneapolis, two state senators, and a couple members of the state house who are honorary members. The trustees elected the six of us to serve three-year terms on the executive board. I should point out that we all ran unopposed. No one else wanted the job. Madam Executive Director here was hired by the executive board to oversee the day-to-day operation of the museum. She serves at our pleasure. How’s that working out, by the way?”
Perrin didn’t reply, although, from the look she gave Anderson, I thought it fortunate that the formidable conference table lay between them.
“Calm yourself, Derek,” Fiegen said. To me he added, “Derek enjoys comporting himself in an insouciant manner. Clearly it is a facade.”
Anderson smirked. I might have, too, if only I had known what “insouciant” meant.
“Tell me how the Lily was stolen,” I said.
“Is that necessary?” Perrin said.
“It’ll give me an idea of who I am dealing with,” I said.
Anderson rubbed his hands together. “This is my favorite part,” he said.
Perrin scrunched up her face, and for a moment she looked less like Heidi Klum and more like Margaret Hamilton, who played the Wicked Witch of the West in The Wizard of Oz. She unscrunched and started speaking slowly and carefully, as if she were afraid I might ask her to repeat something. She started by saying that the City of Lakes Art Museum had the most sophisticated electronic security system available; that it had been thoroughly vetted and updated just six months earlier. Anderson had a nice laugh at that, but Perrin continued.
“A forced-entry theft or a smash and grab, I believe that is what it is called, is virtually impossible now,” she said. “The crime was an inside job.”
“They usually are,” I said.
I glanced at Donatucci for confirmation, but he sat quietly, his hands folded on the table in front of him, his half-closed eyes staring at a painting on the conference room wall. I don’t know why. The painting consisted solely of primary colors that looked like they had been splashed on the canvas by a frustrated third grader.
“We have a rear entrance,” Perrin said. “It consists of a series of small rooms. It is impossible to unlock and open the street door leading to the first room without first closing and locking the interior door. You cannot unlock and open the interior door without first securing the next door. And so on. A door that is left open for more than twenty seconds will activate an alarm. Also, digital cameras cover each room. Guards monitoring the cameras can electronically seal all the doors if they see anything amiss.”
“Bandit traps,” I said.
“Just so,” Fiegen said, to prove that he was listening.
“Here,” Perrin said. She opened the folder in front of her and slipped a half-dozen photographs off the top and pushed them before me. The photos had the muddy feel of stills taken from a videotape. They showed a figure dressed in black with a black ski mask hiding his face working a keypad, opening a door, moving through a room, and then heading outside.
“At two o’clock last night,” Perrin said, “or this morning if you prefer, our deputy director in charge of security, a man named Patrick Tarpley, carrying a package under his arm that we now believe contained the Jade Lily, walked through the bandit traps. Cameras show that he opened the doors using codes that he punched into the keypads and strolled—he wasn’t hurrying at all—to an unidentified red SUV that pulled up just as he was leaving the building. He handed the package to someone sitting in the passenger seat of the SUV. The SUV drove off. Tarpley then went into the parking ramp adjacent to the museum, got into his own car, and drove away.”
Two thoughts piled on top of each other. The first—three thieves, the man dressed in black, the driver of the SUV, and the passenger. Donatucci must have lost a step, my inner voice said. He said earlier that he didn’t know if there were more than two thieves. The second thought I spoke out loud—“How do you know it was Tarpley?”
“He checked in at 4:00 P.M, but there is no evidence of him checking out,” Donatucci said. “Only two other people knew the security codes, and they were both accounted for. No one has seen him since the theft was committed. Also, he knew the schedule of the guards. He made his move at the exact moment of a shift change. That’s why the guards that were supposed to be watching the monitors didn’t override the codes.”
Why bother with a mask, then? my inner voice asked.
“Had he ever conducted security drills similar to this?” I asked.
“No,” Perrin said, “but our director of security had.”
“Where is the director of security?”
“On vacation in Africa.”
“Did you contact him?”
“Why?” Anderson said. “What can he do about it?”
“Have you contacted the police?”
“We are hoping that will be unnecessary,” Perrin said.
“The Lily was stolen last night, but you didn’t get a ransom call until eight this morning. You waited six hours without reporting the theft because you expected a call, didn’t you? Why were you expecting a call? Anybody?”
Fiegen shifted uncomfortably in his chair. “That was my decision,” he said.
“This has happened before, hasn’t it?”
Neither Fiegen nor anyone else said yes. They didn’t say no, either.
I said, “The cops don’t like it when you neglect to report a major crime. They especially frown on it when you arrange to buy back stolen property.”
“Yet it’s done all the time,” Donatucci said softly, as if he didn’t care whether he was heard or not. “You said so yourself.”
“We prefer to deal with this quietly if at all possible,” Fiegen said.
“Trying to protect your reputation,” I said, repeating what he mentioned earlier.
Fiegen gently tugged at his hair just behind his right ear as if he were fingering an heirloom. “Some of the artwork we exhibit is on loan to the museum, like the Jade Lily,” he said. “In addition, there are the numerous traveling exhibits that we compete for. If word should leak that we are unreliable custodians…”
“City of Lakes doesn’t own the Lily?” I asked.
“No,” Perrin said. “The owner of the Lily lives in Chicago. He was good enough to loan the piece to us. He has not yet been informed of the theft.”
“Who is on the hook for the insurance, you or him?”
“We are. The lending agreement clearly states that the borrower—City of Lakes—is responsible for the loss or damage to the artwork while the art is on our premises, in the amount of the stated value of the art.”
“Who decides what the stated value—”
“We agreed to insure the Lily for the same amount that his insurance company had insured it for,” Fiegen said. “Is this important?”
“How valuable is the Lily? I mean compared to the rest of your exhibits.”
“Top twenty,” Donatucci said.
That made me pause for a few beats.
“How long did Tarpley work for you?” I asked.
“He was hired three months before the museum opened,” Perrin said. “We will celebrate our second anniversary a week from Saturday. May I add, his credentials were impeccable and thoroughly vetted. He had worked at several other museums without as much as a whisper of improper behavior. We also investigated his wife, Von. She was the soul of propriety as well.”
“Do you have a photograph?”
Perrin found two colored glossies in the file in front of her and passed them across the table. The first was a head shot of Tarpley, like the kind used for identification badges. He was an older man, at least fifty, with features that suggested he might have been handsome once. His eyes seemed flat, though, as if all the energy had been drained out of them. It could have been a trick of the photographer, but the picture gave him all the vitality of a paper bag. The woman in the second photograph, however, seemed full of life. She was perhaps twenty years younger and had a quizzical smile on her lips and dancing lights in her brown eyes, as if she considered her good looks to be a lucky accident, like finding a 1943 copper penny in the street.
“It doesn’t make sense,” I said. “Forget asking why this seemingly honest man turned thief or why he waited twenty-seven months before making his move. He could have taken many items, yet he didn’t. Instead, he took only one piece, and the piece he took didn’t even rank in the top ten in value. What’s wrong with this picture?”
“If he wished to harm the museum, he couldn’t have done better than taking the Lily,” Perrin said. “It was the cornerstone of our year-two celebration. We are a young museum, as Mr. Fiegen stated. It was hoped that the publicity and attention garnered by the exhibit would help us gain the same respect and prominence currently enjoyed by the Minneapolis Institute of Arts and the Walker Art Center.”
“If Tarpley was looking to hurt the museum, why would he offer to sell the Lily back?” I asked.
“Who gives a shit?” Anderson said.
“Derek, please,” Fiegen said.
“C’mon. We’ve already had this discussion.” Anderson gestured toward Donatucci, who continued to stare at the painting. “McKenzie, we’re not asking you to solve the crime or catch the thieves. As far as we know, you might be in on it.”
“Is that what you think?”
Anderson raised the palms of his hands toward heaven. “The thieves asked for you,” he said. “Why is that?”
I didn’t know, and not knowing was the only reason I didn’t get up and walk out of the room; maybe slap Anderson a time or two before I left.
“Well?” Anderson said.
“Kiss my ass,” I told him.
“Whoa,” he said. He pointed at me even as he turned to the man sitting next to him. “I like this guy.”
Perrin set her large hand on my wrist.
Fiegen leaned toward me. “Mr. McKenzie,” he said, “I hope you will forgive Derek’s outburst.”
“No, I won’t,” I said. “On the other hand, it is a question that needs asking, isn’t it? Look, this go-between business is all a matter of trust. You’re trusting me with one-point-three million bucks because Mr. Donatucci convinced you that I won’t take it to the nearest Indian casino and bet it on red; that I’ll use it to get the Lily back. I’m guessing that for some reason the artnappers trust that I’ll give them the ransom with no tricks; that they won’t end up with a suitcase filled with old telephone books and a face-to-face with a SWAT team. As for me, I have to trust that the artnappers won’t take the money and the Lily and leave me with a bullet in my back.”
“Isn’t that why we’re paying you a hundred and twenty-five grand?” Anderson asked, “To take that risk?”
“It’s a hundred and twenty-seven, and while I expect to be paid, if I do this thing it won’t be for the money.”
“What would trigger your participation?” Fiegen asked.
I shook my head slowly because I didn’t have a satisfactory answer for him. So far, I had been motivated by curiosity—but as the proverb says, curiosity killed the cat.
Satisfaction brought it back, my inner voice said.
Cats have nine lives, I told myself. I have only the one.
“No hard feelings, McKenzie, huh?” Anderson said. “We just need to know—will you help us get the Lily back?”
The timing of the question couldn’t have been better, because a few seconds after Anderson asked it, the cell phone in Donatucci’s pocket rang. He answered it and listened for a moment.
“Ask him yourself,” he said. “He’s sitting right here.”
Donatucci set the cell on top of the conference room table and slid it toward me.
“It’s the thieves,” he said.
Copyright © 2012 by David Housewright