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“The makeup didn’t quite cover Lydia’s black eye.”
I paused just outside the study. I knew the voice. Trish Shannon, my friend Mo’s mother, was talking about Mo’s kid sister.
I was on my way to the loft to spend some time with Mo’s just-purchased Japanese woodblock print, but hearing Trish, I peeked through the one-inch gap between the door and the jamb in time to see Trish brush aside tears. Even though she was in her late sixties, Trish’s face was unwrinkled, her complexion creamy. When she retired from her pro golf career, she stopped dyeing her hair, and now, twenty years later, it was mostly silvery white peppered with a few streaks of darker-than-night black.
Frank, Mo’s dad, a well-regarded blues guitarist, slapped his chair arm. “Son of a bitch.”
“We don’t know it was Cal.”
“Who else? You think Lydia has someone else in her life who hits her?”
“To be fair, we’ve never seen her with a black eye before. She says she fell down.”
“He treats her like dirt, and now he’s hitting her? I’ll kill him. That’s what I’ll do, the son of a bitch. Then our baby girl won’t have to worry about falling anymore.”
Trish smoothed her skirt, then met Frank’s eyes. “I’ll help.”
“Josie?” Mo called from somewhere in back of me, maybe the kitchen.
I scooted to the teak-and-iron spiral staircase that led to the loft. “In here!”
Mo hurried around the corner. Mo’s raven-black hair was newly cut into a stylish wedge.
“I know, I know,” I said with more composure than I felt. “The party is outside, but I wanted to see the print again, so I thought I’d sneak up to the loft.”
Mo flushed. She was a new collector, a bit awed at having taken the leap from admirer to buyer, and the fact that I, the owner of Prescott’s Antiques and Auctions, respected her purchase, tickled her.
“I’m thrilled you like it enough to want to see it again. There’s no need to sneak, though!”
“Thanks, Mo. Maybe I’ll grab Ty. I’d like him to see it, too.”
“Mo?” Trish called. “Is that you?”
Mo poked her head into the study.
“Do you have a minute?” Frank asked.
“Sure.” Mo turned to me. “Go on ahead. I’ll catch up with you.”
Mo disappeared into the study, closing the door, and I made my way to the backyard. Garden-party fun swirled around me, the kind of hum and buzz that comes from fifty people clinking glasses, laughing, and walking across the flagstone patio.
I spotted Ty over by the shed chatting with an attractive woman in her late twenties. She had wavy reddish brown hair that fell to below her shoulders, and curves galore. The whitewashed shed was designed to look like a miniature house, complete with dormer and blue shutters. Ty stepped inside, reappearing seconds later carrying an old-style wooden croquet set.
At the woman’s direction, Ty delivered the croquet set to a couple standing on the grass. He smiled at something the redhead said, then left her and walked to the bar. By the time I reached him, he was talking to Lydia, Mo’s sister. Lydia was wearing oversized sunglasses, all the better to hide a black eye. She was taller than Mo by several inches, and thinner by several pounds. Her hair was as black as Mo’s and cut in an easy-to-maintain short bob. As if Ty felt my presence, he turned in my direction, and when our eyes met, he smiled. My heart gave an extra thump. Ty and I had been a couple for ten years, and I still felt the new-love thrill every time I saw his face. I waggled a finger, asking him to join me. Ty said something to Lydia and crossed the patio.
He smiled down at me. “What’s up, cutie?”
“I want you to see Mo’s print.” As we set off for the loft, I added, “Am I interrupting? Were you getting ready to play croquet?”
“No, although I will if you want to.”
I took his hand. “I like croquet. We used to play it when I was a kid.”
“Let’s buy a set.”
“That’s a great idea. Our first game for our new life together.”
He squeezed my hand. “Speaking of which … any more thoughts about the wedding?”
“I’m in favor of it.”
“But I want to disappear on a Friday and reappear on Monday, married, and you want a proper wedding and a big reception. I just hate being the center of attention.”
“You’re supposed to be the center of attention on your wedding day.”
“I don’t want to have to perform.”
“You’re too modest. You give touching toasts. You deliver inspirational speeches.”
“Maybe, but I’m never comfortable. I want to enjoy my own wedding.”
I didn’t know what to do. I didn’t want to disappoint Ty, but I didn’t want to disappoint myself either.
“Now what?” I asked.
“Now we think.” Ty kissed my forehead. “We’ll figure it out.”
I twirled my engagement ring. We might be struggling a bit with wedding plans, but I was super-excited to be engaged.
When we reached the top of the loft stairs, I blinked, momentarily blinded by the dazzling sunlight streaming in through the wall of windows.
“Nice poster,” Ty said.
“It’s a Japanese woodblock print, not a poster.”
“I was joking.”
“Oh.” I took a step closer. “It shouldn’t be hanging here. The inks break down in sunlight.”
“It’s holding up fine so far. What’s the artist’s name again?”
“Utagawa Hiroshige, one of Japan’s most revered nineteenth-century artists. This print is called Meguro Drum Bridge and Sunset Hill. It comes from the series One Hundred Famous Views of Edo, which many experts consider to be his finest work.”
The winter scene was rendered in shades of white, blue, and brown, with a touch of coppery orange in the shadows. Faint sparkles glittered across the sky. A dark orange rectangular signature cartouche was positioned on the right side, halfway up. A second rectangular cartouche, also in dark orange, was positioned at the top right, abutting a square poem-card. All three contained black calligraphy. The poem-card featured a subtly gradated orange-and-blue design of what appeared to be a shimmering orange sunset reflected on undulating blue water. The vibrant and bold colors in the print were also gradated, especially the blues in the sky and river. I stepped back to consider the picture itself, not the technique. Snowflakes spun against a steel-blue sky. Five people crossed a lapis river on a snow-covered bridge, none of their faces visible. Some were turned aside. Others were hidden by umbrellas. All were hunched over as they trudged through a storm.
“If it’s from a series named One Hundred Famous Views of Edo,” Ty asked, “how can this one be number one-eleven?”
“I know … it’s funny. Actually, there are a hundred and eighteen in the series.”
“Tokyo. It was renamed in 1868.”
“Do you know everything?”
I laughed. “Would that it were so. I looked it up when Mo told me she acquired it. Hiroshige designed it in 1857. Original prints from this series are extremely scarce. Only seven complete sets are known to be extant. No one knows how many sheets were printed from each image in the first place, probably no more than a few hundred, so it’s rare to see one, and it’s super-rare to see one in such good condition. More than a hundred and fifty years of framing and reframing, packing and moving, exposure to light, curious hands touching and stroking, coffee spills, and so on take their toll.”
“You think it’s a fake.”
“Let’s just say that I want to know more about it.”
We stood for a while longer, taking in the snow-tipped trees and pristine white hillside, and the people, solitary figures on a snowy bridge.
“I like that,” Ty said, pointing to the square poem-card. “He really captured the feeling of moving water.”
“The technique is called bokashi.” I squinted, and the illusion of undulating water strengthened. “The detail is amazing.”
“Bokashi,” a man said. “The mark of a master.”
I turned quickly. Cal and Lydia were climbing the stairs to join us. Lydia still wore her sunglasses.
Ty and I had seen Lydia several times during the dozen-odd years Mo and I had been friends. At thirty, Lydia was the youngest-ever director of Hitchens University’s Technology Transfer Department. She traveled the world negotiating private industry’s use of university-owned patents and intellectual property. She was articulate and poised, and not the least bit shy about sharing her opinions. To call her direct was like calling the ocean wet—it was true, but missed the point. I didn’t warm to her, but I appreciated that I always knew where I stood with her and that her opinions were always informed and thoughtful. I’d met her boyfriend, Cal Lewis, before, but Ty hadn’t. Since Cal and I shared an interest in art and antiques, and he was smart, educated, classically handsome, and utterly charming, I couldn’t account for the fact that every time I spent any time with him, I felt like I needed a shower.
“Hey, Lydia,” I said, smiling. I allowed my smile to fade some. “Cal.”
“Josie!” he said.
He kissed my cheek, and I fought an urge to rub the cooties away.
“I don’t know if you’ve ever met my fiancé, Ty Alverez. He used to be police chief back when you were in high school.”
Cal extended his hand for a shake. “And now?”
“Homeland Security. How about you?”
“Assistant professor at Hitchens, art history. I’m also the assistant director of the Langdon Art Museum on campus.”
I turned to Ty. “We’ve been there. Do you remember? They specialize in Asian art.”
“Last winter. You liked one of the fishbowls.”
Cal smiled at me, and I had to stop myself from backing up a step, a visceral reaction.
“If you liked it,” Cal said, “it must be special.”
“Everything in the museum is special.”
“Is that your specialization?” Ty asked. “Asian art?”
“My dissertation was on the nature of kami in Japanese artifacts. I study the sacred energy communicated from artist to art.” He laughed. “You can blame it on the navy. I was stationed in Japan, at Yokosuka, and I got interested in the concept that objects like vases and pots have souls.”
Lydia pushed up her glasses. “I love that idea … pots have souls.”
Cal turned to me. “Isn’t that why you were attracted to the fishbowl? Because it spoke to you on a subliminal, emotional level?”
“Not really. I’m awed by objects of great beauty and inspired by the artists and makers who create them, but there’s nothing mystical about it. The craftsmanship of that fishbowl … well, it’s breathtaking.” I turned to the print. “Same with this woodblock print. The way Hiroshige was able to create the sense of quiet and isolation—the stillness of a snowstorm. It’s an astonishing accomplishment. Where did you find it?”
“A Boston gallery. I heard through the grapevine that it was included in an estate sale they acquired. I got there before they even catalogued the collection. They only deal in contemporary art, so I was able to get a great price. I tried to get my museum to buy it.”
“They didn’t want it? I’m surprised.”
“The only Hiroshige they’d consider is an original The Great Wave off Kanagawa. Are you ready for their logic? It’s the only work famous enough to add clout to their fund-raising, which is, evidently, their sole concern. Absurd!”
“Well, at least you know the print found a good home with Mo.”
“That’s bull. All fine art should be in museums, not in the hands of greedy and selfish collectors.”
My jaw tightened. “Mo doesn’t have a greedy or selfish bone in her body.”
“All collectors, by definition, are greedy and selfish.” He held up a hand like a traffic cop. “I’m not overlooking the fact that I’m the one who sold it, which makes me an accessory to the crime. I get it … but Mo’s rapaciousness and my complicity are irrelevant. The fact that Mo is a decent woman and I’m a pragmatist aren’t germane to the broader point.”
“Josie?” Mo called from downstairs.
I leaned over the railing. “Hey, Mo.”
“I can’t come up now, but I need to talk to you at some point. My insurance company needs an appraisal.”
“What about the gallery it came from?”
“Rheingold … they’re not certified whatevers. You are.”
“I’d love to. Thank you, Mo.”
Mo’s gaze shifted to a spot over my left shoulder, and her expression darkened. I glanced back. Her eyes were searing into Cal’s face with such ferocity, I could almost smell the singed flesh.
Cal smiled at me, but his eyes remained cold. “I can make it easy for you, Joz. Type up my statement of authenticity on your letterhead, attach the receipt, and boom—you’re done.”
“Thanks, but the insurance company needs to know the print’s value, not just whether the seller says it’s genuine and the sales price.”
“I negotiated a fair price. That sets the value.”
“Come on, Cal,” Lydia said. “You know better than that.” She turned to me. “I deal with this issue all the time. Just now, for instance, I have to figure out how to price a promising but unproven compound. Do I consider what it might be worth to a pharmaceutical company hot for a new diabetes medication? Do I look to past sales for comparable compounds? Do I try to gauge the likelihood of success and discount the price accordingly? I have to deal with imperfect information, insufficient evidence, conflicting expert opinions, and plenty of uncertainty. In other words, how much is a compound with no known value worth?”
Cal laughed. “More than a Japanese woodblock print.”
“I rely on data,” Lydia said, her eyes fixed on my face, ignoring Cal’s comment. “How about you?”
“The same. I always say I’m in the research and analysis business.”
“Josie?” We all looked down at Mo. “I’ve got to get back to the party. I’ll bring the print to your place Monday after school, if that’s all right.”
I told her that would be fine and thanked her again. After one more scorching look at Cal, she headed out.
I turned to Cal. “By any chance, do you know how many impressions of the print were made?”
“How did you authenticate it?”
“I was able to verify provenance. You’ll read the details in the statement I gave Mo. Here’s the one-minute version: A few years after trade opened with Japan, Abner Barnes went on a fact-finding mission for a Boston merchant, seeking importing or exporting opportunities. That was in 1861. He bought this print for his private collection. It has remained in the Barnes family until now. And, of course, the bokashi in the title cartouche proves it’s a first edition.”
“Why did the Barnes family sell it?”
“Probably the current Barnes is an assistant professor tired of earning a quarter of what his lawyer girlfriend does, so when his dad died, he decided to liquidate the estate.” He snickered. “How about you, Ty? I know Josie’s at the top of her game. What do you think about having less power and earning less money than Josie?”
Ty glanced down at me and smiled, then turned back to Cal. “Josie and I work in different fields. Each has to be judged on its own merit. As Homeland Security’s director of training for the tri-state area, I have plenty of power, and I earn a good living. From what I hear, it’s tough to get an assistant professorship, and even tougher to land an assistant director slot in a museum, so it sounds like you’re doing well, too.”
Cal’s mouth twisted into a sardonic grin. “Good deflection, Ty. Sounds like you’ve had some practice saying it.” He winked at me, and I moved closer to Ty. “Speaking of practice, do you play tennis, Ty? Lydia here can’t even give me a game.”
“No. I never caught the bug.”
“How about rock climbing? That’s my new favorite hobby. I can get up that wall faster than anyone.”
“Which wall?” Ty asked. “I used to climb quarries for fun. I’d love to give it a try.”
“Middleton Gym, on Islington. We should meet there someday. I like a good race.”
“Not me. I like to take it slow, plan each move, and execute according to the plan.”
“You’re not a risk taker.”
“Which makes for a good security analyst,” Lydia said. She play-punched Cal’s arm. “And good husband material.”
“If you don’t mind spending life bored.” Cal placed his arm around Lydia’s shoulders and squeezed, a little too hard for my taste. “What do you think, baby? You look like you’re ready for some champagne.”
“Definitely.” She raised her hand, a miniwave good-bye. “Nice chatting.”
We stood at the railing and watched them return to the party. As soon as they were out of earshot, Ty began laughing.
“I can’t help it,” I said. “I hate him.”
“I know. I think it’s funny.”
“She seems to like him.”
Lowering my voice even further, I repeated what I’d overheard, that Trish and Frank thought Cal hit her, that he had escalated from generalized nastiness to physical abuse. “I don’t understand staying with a man who hits you.”
“Maybe she thinks she deserved it.”
“A technical term for dismay.” I leaned my head against Ty’s shoulder. “I love you.”
Ty raised my chin with his index finger, leaned down, and kissed me.
Copyright © 2018 by Jane K. Cleland