The Lost Van Gogh

A.J. Zerries

Forge Books

THE LOST VAN GOGH
CHAPTER ONE
Neither of the two men trusted the other, but that, after all, was the nature of the business.
Anxious to get started, uncomfortably close, they faced one another in the semidarkness, each with a shoulder pressed against the exit door to the roof. The tight, airless space at the top of the fire stairs barely concealed them, and they strained to keep apart, to maintain the few inches separating them during the long wait.
When they finally emerged at ten-thirty, the brisk breeze that had whipped up at sundown was gone, smothered by a thick, warm haze. Below them, neighborhood air conditioners coughed into action, many for the first time, even though May was nearly over. Nineteen ninety-nine was one of those years when the only sign of spring had been the steady lengthening of the damp, cool days.
Their black clothes and three-day beards were indistinguishable from the rooftop, a vast tarpaper field interrupted by stray ducts and pipes, mechanical weeds sprouting toward the night sky. The shorter man dropped his gym bag next to a vent and knelt to open it. The bag was packed in exact order: the coiled line that ended in a small, four-pronged grappling hook was right on top.
His partner, a man of average height and build, lifted it out and hoisted himself up onto the flat roof of the shed that topped the stairwell. When he stood, legs slightly apart, he was as close as he would come to the twentieth-floor penthouse across the street, two stories above. Both co-op apartment buildings fronted the west side of Park Avenue, and each was by far the tallest structure on its block. Blurred by the night, the two buildings hunkered like opposing mountain peaks on the northwest and southwest corners, the side street a narrow gorge between them. The man on the shed gathered up the line below the hook until he came to the dull glow of a fluorescent paint stripe, then let the rest slither down the side of the shed.
The trickiest part came next, and the smaller man was convinced his new associate--it was the first time they'd worked together--hadn't practicedenough. After all, this was basically a one-shot deal. The slightest miscalculation, and a window could shatter, a chunk of masonry dislodge--hazards not even all the whirring, croaking air conditioners on Park Avenue could drown out. Besides, the guy's eyes had made him jumpy right from the start: heavy-lidded, they moved slow as two gray garden slugs ... and they never stopped moving. Bracing himself for his partner's screwup, the little guy grabbed his end of the line, just above where it ended in a loop.
Like an easygoing cowboy, the taller man began to swing the line in a lazy circle over his head. Never looking up, he played it out gradually, simultaneously increasing the energy behind its orbit. His hips swung into the rotation, gyrated along for a while, and then he let it fly. The rope soared, arced, and plummeted.
As soon as he heard the faint, metallic clink, the man with the sleepy eyelids began to reel in through his long fingers. The hook had landed on target, and he nodded approvingly at the first hint of a drag on the line. He imagined it skipping from stone to stone along the penthouse terrace. Then, nothing ... no resistance at all. His fingers stopped. The terrace was enclosed by a three-anda-half-foot stone balustrade, with vase-shaped balusters that tapered at the top and bottom. The hook had to be dangling between two of them. Unless one of its barbs caught on the curved stone handrail, it would glide right over the top and nose-dive into his building. If it hit a window and alerted a tenant, they'd be forced to abort the job, with a reduced chance of exiting the building undetected.
His breathing shallow, he resumed. Slow and steady, he spooled in the line. It jerked slightly, then locked. Tentatively, he gave it a light tug, then several more, each progressively harder, hoping every yank was working at least one of the prongs deeper and deeper into the railing. Satisfied, he signaled down to his partner to start walking backward with the loop end; every reverse step would increase the tautness of the line.
After flexing his fingers a few times, the taller man hopped off the shed and went straight to the gym bag. He retrieved the next two items, a circle of chain and a ratchet-lever-hoist. He dropped the chain around a sturdy rooftop pipe and attached it to the hook that was on one side of the hoist. Extending from the other side of the hoist was a five-foot chain with a snap link at the end. His partner stretched the rope to it, and, with a sharp, hungry click, it closed over the loop. Then the man with the droopy eyelids worked the hoist's lever; it creaked as the chain fed through, squeezing the slack out of the line. He cranked until the rope was taut, but not rigid. His part had gone well. Now it was all up to the little spider shit, who was peeling off his sweats and running shoes.
His body, sheathed in a one-piece suit of black stretch fabric, could have belonged to a prepubescent child: a flat, compact tube of a torso, no butt, five feet five, one hundred twenty pounds. His face, however, which had been battered far more frequently than it had been repaired, gave no indication it hadever spent much time looking childlike. He dipped into the gym bag and pulled out lightweight ankle boots. Like the rest of his personal gear, they fastened with Velcro strips. Next were two bands fitted with scabbards: the one holding his knife went around his right leg; the one with the pencil flashlight strapped over the left. A thin nylon belt with a pouch in front circled his waist, and a flat strap looped across his back and chest on a diagonal. Tugging on the balaclava--its eyeholes were no bigger than quarters--loosened his earpiece, and it was difficult forcing it back into place through the snug fabric. Last came the gloves, which he worked over his hands as he strode to the parapet.
The tense line slanted low over the edge. Out of habit, he stood in place, scraping his soles back and forth over the gritty tarpaper. He didn't pray. He turned, leaned back, and slipped under the line. Reaching over his head, he grabbed it with both hands, then hooked his ankles around it. The top of his head was closest to the penthouse, his buttless ass closest to the pavement eighteen--soon to be twenty--stories below. If he was going to fall, better higher than lower. Better to splatter than shatter.
Long ago, he'd learned to put himself above it all, in every sense. Nothing could shake his concentration: not the constant thrum of the city, not thoughts of how he'd spend this job's payoff, not the risk of being sighted, not even fear of falling. Hand over hand, propelling himself up with his feet, he advanced steadily until he sensed the building just above his head. Ankles locked tight, he held on with one hand while the other went exploring. The base of one of the balusters was at his shoulder, and he slid his hand around it, twisted his torso, and scrambled over the railing.
The diagram in the information packet he'd memorized depicted the L-shaped terrace as wide, but it didn't prepare him for the lush country garden that sprawled before him. Even through the balaclava, he could smell the fat pink flowers that spilled over vat-size clay pots, the damp earth, and freshly cut grass. Randall Broyce, the guy he was about to rob, had posed next to an antique mower in the New York Times article--also thoughtfully included by his employer. Clearly, it wasn't just a photo prop.
"My horticultural addiction, my summer hobby," Broyce had described his patch of green up in the blue. With Central Park two blocks away, the thief didn't see the point of hauling three tons of earth twenty stories skyward. The only part of the garden he'd consider keeping was the gurgling fountain: a marble boy exactly his size, with a smile (a little shy or a little sly?) difficult to read behind the flute raised to his lips.
No pictures of the apartment's interior appeared in the newspaper story, but Broyce's winter hobby was well known; he was one of the most active art collectors in New York City.
The boss's report had also noted that the elevator vestibule and the fire stairs were protected by an unbreachable security system. These constituted thepenthouse's only possible entry points ... until tonight. The very same night Mr. and Mrs. Randall Broyce were cosponsoring a charity fundraiser at the botanical garden up in the Bronx.
Multiple sets of French doors led into the penthouse, and he entered the closest pair. They led into the master bedroom, where a single lamp spread a faintly rosy glow over embroidered bed linens. The painting on the bedroom wall wasn't high on his shopping list. Confidently, he strode past it, out into a hallway. Bypassing the living room, where Broyce had installed the cornerstones of his collection--two mural-size allegories, far too unwieldy--he slid through the shadows to the climate-controlled room where the more portable masterpieces were housed. To maintain the proper temperature and humidity, the door was supposed to be kept closed at all times, but the thief, wary of cutting himself off from the rest of the vast apartment, left it slightly ajar.
He slipped off the bandolier-style strap and draped it over the top of a wing chair. The section that had spanned his back consisted of a long fabric pouch resembling an umbrella sheath. A flick of his finger undid its Velcro closure, and it fanned out to several times its original width.
Playing his flashlight over the art on the walls, he made matches with the photos locked in his memory. When he came to the primary piece, the one he absolutely would not leave without, he wasted no time. He plucked the El Greco portrait off the wall and laid it facedown on the wide library table in the center of the room. A nudge with his knife in the right places, and the brittle antique gilt frame split with a hollow pop and broke apart. The knife sliced along the rear edge of the backing. Almost tenderly, he laid the canvas on the deeply cushioned seat of the wing chair, then whisked the frame's splintered remnants off the table. Under the balaclava, he was smiling: anything beyond the El Greco was pure gravy.
Number two was a Frans Hals portrait, a Dutch merchant with an alcoholic's spongy nose, decked out in a black suit and wide lace collar. Evidently, the frame had been replaced recently, secured with triple the nails necessary. All of them were tiny, and frustratingly snug. By the time he pried the last one out, at eleven twenty, the burglar had fallen behind his optimum schedule. Maybe not every painting ... maybe one less.
He was finally coaxing frame from canvas when a series of mechanical reverberations began: The hum of the elevator, ascending. The muffled grind as it docked at the penthouse. By the final click-click-click of the parting doors, his flashlight was off and stuffed in its scabbard. His knife was at the ready.
This wasn't supposed to be happening. A third man was down on the street. Even such an overgrown oaf as he should have been able to handle his single, simple duty: to contact him and Sleepy-Eyes if the Broyces returned early. That, of course, had been considered highly unlikely, since the annual affair never evenstarted to wind down until one A.M. He tapped the earpiece through his balaclava; it had worked when they were huddled in the fire stairs and the Broyce limo had pulled away from the building.
Dim light filtered in from the opposite side of the living room, the general direction of the entrance foyer. The staccato click of high heels played across a marble floor. Whoever was wearing them was moaning, gagging. A door banged open and full-pitched vomiting commenced. Frozen, the thief listened for a man's footsteps, strained to hear a husband's commiseration for a wife so violently ill. But nothing was audible except the woman, retching and gasping, spewing and choking.
Despite the dark, he made the decision to go for the second canvas, and edged his blade around the backing. Just past the halfway point, it snagged, making a short, soft ripping sound. His fingers trembled slightly as he worked the knifepoint free. After a quick intake of breath, he fought the urge to increase the cutting pressure, the desire to race through to the end. A long groan tinged with relief sounded just as he completed the circuit. Bending over the seat of the chair, he lined up the two paintings, one on top of the other. The whites of the Dutchman's eyes, boozy but forthright, stared up directly into his. A toilet flushed. Fingers flying, he rolled both canvases lengthwise, into a single scroll. Because there were only two, he didn't have any trouble fitting them into the unfurled fabric holder on the bandolier. When he fastened it across his back, it had the shape of an archer's quiver. Far away, water ran.
Another light snapped on, this time in the living room. He backed up against the wall, sliding toward the door as his mind shuffled his limited options: Back the same way, skirting the living room and out through the bedroom. Or, if she went straight to bed, an exit through the living room's French doors. Either way, there was the risk that she'd see him out on the terrace. And what about the husband? How soon before he showed up? In the split second that he remembered he hadn't closed the library door, light flooded the room.
From behind, he watched a blonde in a long, form-fitting gown enter, her steps shaky. Long legs and high heels put her near six feet. Except for two flimsy crisscrossed strips of gray silk, her square shoulders and broad, well-toned back were completely bare to the waist. The exposure of so much luminous skin, which might have emphasized a smaller woman's vulnerability, made her seem all the more formidable. Slender and shapely as she was, compared to him, she was an NFL fullback.
Her right hand was up, pressing something against her forehead. When the empty space left by the El Greco registered, it hit the floor with a wet smack. She looked to the left, then to the right, and took a step toward where the Hals had hung. One of her shoes rolled over a fragment of the El Greco's broken frame. Just as she stumbled, he rushed her, grabbed her by the hair, and snapped herhead back, arching her throat up to meet his knife. Through his glove, he felt the hot gush of blood. He kept up the pressure on the blade, driving it deeper and deeper, until the steel finally struck bone. Her body slumped, incredibly heavy. He leaped out of the way, and she fell on her smooth, naked back with a thud that made him thankful he wasn't pinned under it.
Blood was splattered over her face and chest, and it pumped onto the floor in twin rivulets. Even so, it was impossible to ignore the one piece of jewelry she was wearing. Her diamond necklace, with its big square stones, would clean up very nicely. Kneeling down, he used the tip of his knife to lift it away, then tore it off with one hard wrench ... his personal reward for a job that could've been a total disaster. Nearby on the floor was what she'd been holding to her forehead--a moistened, fringed finger towel with a big B for Broyce. He used it to turn off the library's lights and close the door. Back on the terrace, he wiped down his knife and gloves with the damp cloth and wrapped it around the necklace. Next, he removed a large triangular snap link from the pouch at his waist, and dropped the towel-package in its place--the B for Bonus right on top.
After climbing over the balustrade, he clicked the link over the line. Grabbing the triangle's base with both hands, he stretched out his legs and once again crossed his ankles over the rope. The link lurched forward only a foot or so, just far enough to leave him stranded between buildings. The only way to get moving again without jerking the line was to concentrate his weight. Eyes clamped shut, every muscle straining, he lowered his legs as slowly as he could. For a few seconds he dangled, limp as a rag doll, twenty stories in the air. Suddenly, he heard a whirring--the link speeding along so fast he barely pulled his legs up in time to avoid crashing into the opposite roof's ledge.
The man with the hooded eyes reached out to steady him. Using his own knife, he stretched up to cut the line. It recoiled like a shot. Although it was too thin to see in the dark, it was easy to picture it, hanging slack against the wall of Broyce's building. "You're early," he whispered. "Did you get them all?"
"All?" Incredulous, his partner peeled off his balaclava. "I figured something was wrong with my earpiece, but you didn't get a signal either, did you?"
The other man's hand flew to his ear. He jerked his head hard to one side, then began to tap at his earpiece.
The smaller man's bitter smile was stretched wider by an old scar at one corner of his mouth. "Just what I thought! That big, worthless lump of shit downstairs screwed up! What do you bet that idiot's fast asleep?" He picked up his neatly folded sweatshirt and pulled it over his head. "The wife came home early. Score two portraits for us, one still life for Broyce."
Copyright © 2006 by Al and Jean Zerries