MORE ABOUT THIS BOOK
With dusk, the setting sun turned the ocean to fire. Crissa stood on the balcony and looked out across the hills, the houses there almost hidden by the trees. Through the haze, she could see all the way out to the beach and the amusement pier, the darkening water beyond. Up here, the traffic noise from Santa Monica Boulevard was just a hum.
A breeze stirred the trees below, the scent of night-blooming jasmine rising up. She looked down over the ornate marble railing. A thirty-foot drop and a flagstone patio there, surrounded by a lush garden, willow trees. A stone fountain in the middle, water tinkling gently.
"Million-dollar view," Hicks said behind her.
She turned as he came out on the balcony. The French doors were open, the curtains moving in the breeze.
"More than that, I'd guess," she said.
He was in his early thirties, lean and fit, dark hair cropped short, a two-days' growth of beard. He'd been waiting for her when she'd walked out of the terminal at LAX and into the afternoon heat. She hadn't been happy when she saw the car, a gleaming black four-door Jaguar. A vehicle like that would stick out, turn heads. But she'd kept her mouth shut as he put her overnight bag in the trunk, held the passenger door for her.
He'd worn a shirt and tie at the airport but now was in stone-washed jeans, a tight black T-shirt. There was a tattoo on the inside of his left forearm, a green-and-red snake curled around a dagger.
"He's ready to see you now," he said. "I mean, if you're ready."
She looked west again. The sun was all but gone, the gardens below and the trees downslope lost in shadow. The boulevard was a long line of red taillights.
She followed him through the doors and into a big room with an oak worktable in its center, paintings on the walls, the domed ceiling lost in shadow.
She stopped in front of a lithograph of a wolf, its head back, howling into darkness.
"You know art?" he said.
She shook her head.
"But you know what you like?"
They went down a flight of stairs to a marble-floored room, a stone fireplace on one side, a grand piano on the other. Art on all the walls, sculptures on pedestals. There was another set of open French doors, the breeze coming through, bringing the smell of the garden.
The man who came in from the balcony was in his late sixties, longish white hair combed straight back, beard neatly trimmed. He wore a white suit, a pale pink silk shirt open at the neck. His cane tapped the floor as he approached. It was gnarled and thick, would be a weapon in the right hands.
"I'm sorry to keep you waiting," he said. "Some last-minute business to attend to before I was free to talk." He gave a small smile, extended his hand. "I'm Emile Cota. Thank you for coming."
She took his hand, saw the liver spots, felt the thin skin, the bones beneath. He waved the cane at a trio of wide, cushioned club chairs around the fireplace. "Shall we sit? Talk? Randall, can you find Katya, have her pour some drinks for us? She's back there in the pantry somewhere. Macallan for me and..." He looked at her.
"Nothing, thanks," she said.
"As you will. But please, sit." He swept a hand toward the chairs, the stone-and-wood coffee table there. Hicks left the room.
She looked around, not liking what she saw. A house like this, with so much art, would have hidden cameras, alarms. Maybe a room somewhere with CCTV screens, someone watching.
"What's wrong?" he said.
"I'm not sure this is a good idea."
"You haven't heard what I have to say yet."
"I meant coming here."
"But you have, haven't you? So, let's build from there."
She took the chair closest to the door. He waited for her to sit, took the center one himself, facing her at an angle. He laid the cane across his lap. "I appreciate your agreeing to meet like this."
There was nothing to say to that. And nothing she could do to speed him up. He'd tell it in his own time.
"You come highly recommended," he said. "At least as far as our friend in Kansas City is concerned."
That was Sladden, the contact man she sometimes used as a go-between. It was Sladden's call that had gotten her out here. The details he'd given had been minimal, but enough to whet her interest. More than a year since she'd last worked, and she was bored, restless.
"So, Ms. Wynn, is it? How do you prefer to be addressed?"
Christine Wynn was the name she was using here, the one Sladden had given him. It was on the driver's license and credit cards she carried.
"Christine's fine," she said.
Hicks came back into the room, holding a short, square glass with brown liquid, a single ice cube inside. He swirled the drink, took the chair to Cota's left. In his wake came a blond woman in a white smock, carrying a silver tray. She was in her forties, attractive in a hard way, hair tied back. On the tray was a drink identical to the one Hicks had, a bottle of scotch with a blue label, an ice bowl with tongs, and a green bottle of Perrier.
She set the tray on the table without a word, unscrewed the Perrier cap.
"I had her bring that anyway," Hicks said. "Thought you might want to hydrate after your trip."
"Thanks," Crissa said. She didn't touch it. Her hands were bare, and she wouldn't chance fingerprints.
Cota said, "Thank you, Katya. I think we'll be fine for the rest of the evening."
She cut a glance at Crissa, then left the room. Crissa watched her go.
"Ms. Wynn was just telling me she wasn't altogether comfortable coming here," Cota said. "I'm hoping to reassure her."
Hicks nodded, sipped his drink.
"Feel free to talk," Cota said to her. "Randall here is my facto factotum, so to speak. He's an employee in the strictest sense. But I trust him like a son. He knows all my business."
"Who lives here?" she said.
"Just myself. I have visitors from time to time, but no one stays very long."
"What about Katya?"
"This monstrosity has more than its share of guest rooms. She stays here three or four days a week. I get along on my own the rest of the time."
"Should have given her the night off," Crissa said.
"Ah," Cota said. "It crossed my mind. But Katya has worked for me for many years. I'm sure she's learned to forget what she sees here. Not that there's ever much to see." He lifted his glass, tilted it at her and drank.
"All this art," she said. "You must have a security system. I'm guessing the house is wired for sound. Video, too."
"Alarmed, yes. Wired, no. I certainly wouldn't want a permanent record of everything that goes on in this house, would I?" He smiled.
"I know I wouldn't," Hicks said.
"There's no need to worry on that front, believe me," Cota said. "And we're just getting acquainted here anyway."
He had a faint accent she couldn't place. European, but sanded down by years in the States.
"How was your flight?" Hicks said, and grinned.
"It was fine." Returning the undercurrent of sarcasm in his question. They hadn't known where she was coming from, only when she would arrive.
"I'd offer you dinner," Cota said. "But I gather you're the type that would rather talk business, and not fuss around with social amenities, am I right?"
"Reason I'm here."
He set the glass down, used the tongs to drop another ice cube into it.
"This is thirty years old," he said. "If you're someone who appreciates a fine single malt, I'd recommend you try it."
"Thanks anyway." She drank little, almost always wine, and never when working. For her, the work had started the moment she'd left the terminal and seen Hicks waiting there.
"I admire the care you take," Cota said. "It speaks well of you. I'm sure you were concerned when I suggested we meet here, at my house. But I'm a public person. I'm occasionally recognized on the street, when I have the rare occasion to be out there. And we couldn't very well meet at a bar or a hotel or wherever these types of discussions are traditionally conducted. Also, I wanted to meet you face-to-face. I didn't want to send just Randall here, for example. I wanted you to see me, know exactly who you were dealing with. I owed you that much."
"I appreciate it."
"So it made more sense to have him meet you at the airport, bring you directly here. And anyway, I expect you did quite a bit of research about me before you boarded that plane in the first place."
"Then you know who I am, and what I am. Some of what you've undoubtedly read is true, and a lot of it-I assure you-isn't, but..." He shrugged. "What can you do?"
"I'm here," she said. "That tells you something."
"It does. It does. Say we take a stroll, out into the garden perhaps? Would that make you feel better? I think it would, wouldn't it?"
"Up to you."
He sipped scotch, put the tip of his cane against the floor, and got slowly to his feet, his face showing the effort. Hicks watched him but made no move to help.
"Randall," Cota said, "we'll be taking the air. Amuse yourself." Still carrying the glass, he tipped the cane toward another doorway. "After you."
They went downstairs into an even larger room, more art on the walls, through French doors and into the garden. There were key lights out there now, lining a path, and she could see small statues every few feet, the greenery cut back around them. Flute-playing Pans, satyrs, cherubs, mourning women. There were lights in the fountain, too, giving the water a soft blue glow. In its center was a statue of a muscular naked man, one arm extended, a leg raised behind him as if he were in flight.
The jasmine smell was strong here. A breeze moved the willows, the tips of their branches sweeping the ground.
"I'm guessing our mutual friend didn't tell you much," Cota said. "As I told him very little in turn. It took me quite a bit of effort to find him. A name here, a name there. People who knew people. I considered it quite an accomplishment when I finally established contact with him. But money will open a lot of doors, especially if you're not afraid to spend it. Sit?" He pointed the cane at a marble bench. She shook her head.
"Mind if I do?"
He sank down on the bench, grimaced, set the glass beside him. He rested one elbow on the head of his cane, looked up at her. There were trickles of sweat on his face.
"I'm a collector," he said. "As I'm sure you know. You've seen some of what I have here. There's more in my other houses as well. In New York, in Grenada and Brussels. And two warehouses, in Nevada and Arizona. It's a sin how much I've acquired. But it's what motivates me. Wanting things. Our passions keep us young, don't you think?"
He drank scotch again, the cubes melted and gone.
"About four years ago, I bought some items that were, let's say, highly collectible. Antiquities. They'd been appropriated from a place that was in a state of chaos at the time. No rule of law there, no one to decide what belonged to whom. But I guess one might say, in the strictest sense of the term, these items were stolen."
"Regardless, I saw them as an investment opportunity. If I didn't acquire them, someone else would. Plus, there was a limited window of time on their availability. So I secured the items where they were and eventually, at great personal expense, had them brought here to the States."
She heard a keening moan from the hills behind the house, turned toward it.
"Coyote," he said. "They come around here sometimes, when there's a drought, or a brush fire. Or they're hungry. On occasion a neighborhood dog will get loose, hear that fellow and follow him up into the hills. He thinks it's his long-lost brother, or possibly a mate. Instead he gets killed, and eaten. There's a lesson there, I'm sure."
She said nothing, waited for him to go on.
"As I was saying, I warehoused these antiquities over here, and started searching for a buyer. Sotto voce, of course, because you can hardly trust anyone in this business. But there was so much fuss about these particular items, and their provenance, that I searched in vain for months.
"Unfortunately, along the way there were people I'd dealt with who weren't as circumspect as I. Perhaps they had an ax to grind, felt I'd bested them in some business deal. They took money, I'm sure, for providing the information to authorities. Either way, the end result was that my ownership of these items-questionable as it was-came to the attention of some organizations that would rather they be repatriated to where they'd come from, where, then at least, things were relatively calmer and more secure."
"Iraq," she said.
"The where doesn't matter. My hand was forced. These authorities and I came to an agreement that involved my returning the items-at my own expense. I agreed to assure their transit to a place where they could be handed over to an agent for the government that now claims to be the original owners-though that claim is as questionable as any other. In my view, I had as much right to those artifacts as anyone, considering what I'd spent on them, the risks I'd taken."
"What do you mean?"
"Look at any great museum in the world. What are they filled with? Plunder. It's how we learn about the past, how we keep it alive. These items belong in the hands of people who understand them, value them, who have the resources and the will to protect them. Not leave them at the mercy of whatever temporary, bloody-minded regime happens to come to power.
"Do you know what the Taliban did in Afghanistan, to some of the oldest statuary in the world, priceless treasures that date back more than two thousand years? You've heard of the Buddhas of Bamiyan?"
She shook her head.
"The tallest Buddha figures in the world, one of them a hundred and eighty feet high, carved out of a sandstone cliff. They were destroyed, dynamited, because those who'd come to power decided they were examples of anti-Muslim idolatry. And there were more barbarous acts of the same nature, throughout the entire region. Now, if someone had spirited some of those items away, saved them, protected them, what would be wrong with that?"
"But the ones you spirited away, you now have to give back."
He nodded, took a handkerchief from his shirt pocket and wiped sweat from his forehead.
"And as I said, at my expense, with the one allowance being that there would be no questions asked, and no ridiculous international investigation or specious charges to waste everyone's time. But my name was known, and the presence of these items in my warehouse was known, so I had no choice."
"They were going to let you just return them and walk away? That doesn't sound right."
"There were some extenuating circumstances. If the full story of how I acquired them were to come out, it would cast a certain ambitious government official over there in a very bad light. No doubt, he'd lose the lofty status he's since obtained. This way, it's much quieter. They get their items back and I take the loss-quietly."
"I still don't understand why I'm here."
"Well, the final joke fate played on me in this matter? To fully prove me fortune's fool? During the middle of all these egregious-and expensive-negotiations, the unforeseen happened."
"You got a buyer."
He nodded, leaned on the cane. "Someone I'd dealt with before. Someone I had in mind when I first acquired these objects, but who, at the time, wouldn't go near them, because of the controversy attached."
"And now he thinks you're a motivated seller, so you'll take his price, which is less than you wanted."
"You see it exactly. As you can imagine, it presents a dilemma."
"Because now you have to give them back, and you can't make the deal."
"I've arranged for their transportation, at my own expense, from my warehouse outside Las Vegas to a port in Southern California. That's where they'll be handed over to begin the first leg of their journey back to their supposed homeland."
"And you'd rather they not get there," she said. "Because you'd rather sell them than give them back."
He folded the handkerchief, put it away. "Until that handover, until they're unloaded from my truck at that port, they're still under my control. You're familiar with the term, I'm sure, that some crimes-some robberies, most particularly-are called 'give-ups'?"
She nodded, knowing where this was going, what he wanted, why she was here.
"I would very much like," he said, "during that long, perilous journey across the desert, for someone to rob me."
Copyright © 2015 by Wallace Stroby