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The Case of the Non-Floral Present

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It was three days since Peter had chalk-marked off one of his nine lives, and he was already frowning into his cereal bowl.

“All right,” Elizabeth said, “what is it?”

Peter groaned. “Oh, it’s Neal. As usual.”

“Is he in trouble again?”

“Probably. But that’s not my problem.” She waited, and he finally brought it out. “I feel like…I owe him some gesture of appreciation for all he’s done. But I can’t think of anything that would be appropriate, or, you know, not embarrassing for both of us.”

She smiled at him. “Is it really that difficult?”

“Well, you know, the florists don’t exactly have an arrangement that says ‘Hey, condolences on your not-so-recent loss and oh by the way thanks for saving my life.’”

“Well, actually, I think Nakazato’s probably has that covered—” Peter shot her a glare— “but I see your point.”

“And anyway, flowers are…not what we do. I don’t know what I could do that wouldn’t seem either cheap or…weird.” Peter stabbed at the last bites of cereal in his bowl.

Elizabeth said dryly, “So I take it you were hoping to find some way of showing your appreciation without letting on that’s what you’re doing?”

“Exactly,” Peter said, brightening; then realized El was tweaking him, and scowled.

“You’ll work it out,” Elizabeth said, getting up with her bowl and heading for the kitchen. “I’m sure you’ll find the perfect thing.”

*

To Peter’s great surprise, the perfect thing crossed his desk that very morning. Neal hadn’t arrived yet, and Peter was making a list of cases that needed attending to when Diana leaned in.

“Got a tip for you,” she said, handing him a message slip. “A digital services archivist at the Bobst Library has a concern about security in the special collections wing.”

“Case file for it yet?”

“No, I’m putting things together.”

Peter sighed. “I’ll see if I can find time to see—him?—her?”

“Her. Today’d be a good day to do it quietly; it’s the opening of the big modern art exhibit, and there’ll be a lot of cover.”

“Hm,” Peter said. “Bring me what you’ve got, and maybe I can rearrange my schedule.”

While Diana was doing that, Peter got online and looked up the Bobst Library. Sure enough, there was a large banner touting an exhibit called New Directions in Visual Art, which was dedicated to pieces and artists famous for rocking the establishment and in the process changing the whole direction of the visual arts for future generations, and a lot of other things in fulsome art language Peter didn’t feel like trying to understand. Today was the opening day, and it was to be celebrated with a lecture by Malcolm Gladwell at 1:30 in the afternoon.

“The perfect thing,” Peter murmured. Among other things, NYU was well outside Neal’s radius.

He placed a discreet call to the ticket office, then told Diana he was clearing his schedule to check out the tip. By the time Neal arrived, Peter was sorting his mail and tucking away the tickets that had been couriered to him.

“Don’t get comfortable,” he told Neal. “We’re going out this morning.”

*

“So where are we going?” Neal said, once they were in the car.

“NYU,” Peter said. “I’ve got an interview to check out a tip. Don’t know if it’ll amount to anything.”

“So there’s not a case file?”

“Diana’s working on it.” Which was true, though not as true as the fact that she’d already shared with him the details that were going into the file.

“What’s the case?”

“Neal, I don’t even know if this is a case. So far it’s just an interview with an employee of the library.”

“Fine, be that way,” Neal said. “Don’t share with me the details of a case that may not be a case.”

“I’m sure you’ll have it figured out before you ever lay eyes on the case file,” Peter said, which was also true.

Neal made a noncommittal noise and returned his gaze out the window. “There’s a big modern art exhibit opening at the Bobst,” he said, wistfully. “Supposed to be really amazing.”

Peter didn’t trust himself to give any more response than a grunt. He hoped his gratification didn’t show.

Neal fiddled with the air vent. “Plus a presentation on the factors of modern art in sociological changes, by Malcolm Gladwell.” He glanced at Peter. “You know who he is, right?”

“Writes for the New Yorker,” Peter said, who had looked Gladwell up before Neal’s arrival in his office. “Has a string of books with dubiously catchy titles. Give me some credit.”

Neal was looking at him narrowly. Suddenly he let his head fall back in a pained gesture. “Peter—”

“Don’t worry, this case is not about Malcolm Gladwell,” Peter said.

“You said it wasn’t a case yet.”

“What do you want from me?” Peter said. “Anyway, we’re here.”

*

When they arrived in the lobby at the Bobst Library, Peter’s assessing gaze took in the large banners for the exhibit, the security personnel, the gathering exhibit-goers waiting for the elevators, and the framed floor-listing, which he read carefully to be certain it was the same as the one shown online. And Neal, who had nobly taken only one glance at the exhibit banner and was now looking upward through the atrium. Presently he lowered his eyes to the floor they were on and looked at Peter.

“You’ll have to flash your tin if you want to get anywhere in this building,” he said.

Peter nodded. “I’ll do that. Meanwhile—” He reached into his jacket pocket and drew out the envelope with the tickets, and offered it. Neal took it slowly and lifted the unsealed flap. “I’ll take care of my business,” Peter said, “and I’ll circle back round to pick you up later. That is, if you promise to behave while you’re here.”

Neal had pulled the tickets out just far enough to read them. “Tickets for the exhibit,” he said, very quietly. He eyed Peter from under his brows. “What’s the occasion?”

“Call it one I owe you,” Peter said, casually.

But he’d said it either too casually or not casually enough, because Neal dropped his hands, and his eyes went wide in outright dismay. “No,” he said, “no, Peter. You do not owe me.”

“Okay, then, I don’t,” Peter said, trying to be light. “Call it something else. But I didn’t mean that kind of debt. This is not to clear any scores, it’s just—” He shrugged and left it. Either Neal would figure it out or he wouldn’t.

“A present,” Neal said, after a long moment.

Peter could only shrug again.

“You shouldn’t have,” Neal said.

“Yeah, I should,” Peter said.

Neal didn’t answer that. He cast his eyes down and opened the envelope again. “I see there are two tickets here.”

“Yeah,” Peter said, “I figured you could call someone up to see it with you if you wanted.”

Neal seemed to have recovered his self-possession: his gaze was once again clear and level. “Fortunately I don’t need to call anyone,” he said. “You’re standing right here.”

“Neal,” Peter grimaced, “you have friends who would appreciate this thing way more than I ever could.”

“Don’t be too sure. This exhibit is small but mighty. It has a little something for everyone. I think you’d have fun. You should come. If you have time….” Neal stopped. “There isn’t even a case, is there?”

“Oh, yes, there’s a case,” Peter said. “And an interview. But—” he looked unnecessarily at his watch— “they can wait. All right. I’ll come.” He’d truly meant to give Neal the opportunity to invite someone else, but he had to admit it, he was pleased clear through to be asked.

Neal slapped his palm with the envelope. “Great.” He started off buoyantly across the floor, and Peter followed, his nerves redounding with relief.

“So,” he said, “it’s been a while since I’ve been to one of these. Don’t you get a bunch of stuff to fill your hands with, like at a baseball game?”

“Well, you can get a program,” Neal said, “and maybe a catalogue; and if you want one you can probably get one of those digital tour players.” He failed to avoid a small face of distaste.

Peter said, “Why would I want a canned tour guide when I’ve got you?”

Neal grinned at him, the full Caffrey treatment. “A very good question. Come on.”

*

 

A lot of people had come to the opening, so it was not an optimum time to wander at a leisurely pace through the exhibit; but Peter figured Neal had his ways of making the most of it, and he was right.

Once they were inside, Neal cocked his head for Peter to follow, and they bypassed the first set of panels altogether. For a moment Peter was surprised, but then he saw that Neal was obviously looking for something in particular. Finally they rounded a corner and Peter heard Neal draw in his breath. “There you are,” he murmured.

They fetched up under a large painting that Peter recognized but didn’t know the name of: a picnic scene with two men in nineteenth-century suits and a nude woman.

Le déjeuner sur l’herbe,” Neal said, for Peter’s benefit, and greeted it: “It’s been a long time. Thought it’d be longer.”

“You’ve seen it before,” Peter said.

“Yeah, she lives at the Musée D’Orsay,” Neal said, not taking his prehensile gaze from the painting. By “she,” Peter thought, Neal meant the painting and not the nude.

“The Musée D’Orsay,” Peter said. “Where, five years ago or so, they hired on a hotshot young curator for a month’s work restoring a pair of Monets. The same Monets, funnily enough, that disappeared several weeks later while en route to Germany for a loan. They were recovered from a fence in Leipzig, fortunately.”

“That’s a fascinating story, Peter,” Neal said.

“I only mention it because I thought maybe in your visits to the Musée D’Orsay, you might have met this fellow. What was his name…?”

“Can’t say that I did.” Peter was looking at Neal in profile, and he saw a humorous twitch at the corner of his mouth.

“You might have had a lot to say to one another,” Peter said.

“Young hotshot curator? Nah,” Neal said.

“Too much like looking in the mirror?” Peter said, innocently, and Neal suddenly laughed out loud.

“That’s an indictment if I ever heard one,” he said, shooting Peter a smile equally blended of mischief and affection.

Peter smiled back. “Well, not literally. So why is this painting here?”

Neal raised his eyebrows.

Peter gestured at the painting. “This is an exhibit for avant-garde art, isn’t it? This painting is fully representational, for one thing; and for another, it doesn’t seem to be ahead of the curve of change in technique.”

“Peter,” Neal said, “you sell yourself short. See if you can guess.”

But Neal’s eyes were so obviously fixed on the naked woman that Peter said, “It can’t be the nude. Art has been full of nudes for hundreds of years.”

“Yeah, but in the nineteenth century, not contemporaneous nudes in a public setting, without a morally-sanitized narrative frame. It’s like—” Neal groped for an analogy— “maybe a little like the first productions of Hair.”

“Ah,” Peter said. “So this is ironic.”

“Yeah, you could say that. Or like the opening of The Rite of Spring. Stravinsky’s a good example of the theme, actually—”

Peter let Neal talk for as long as he wanted, pointing out details of the painting and shifting occasionally to let another visitor have a view. He noticed that every so often Neal drew glances, most of them respectful: nobody likes an amateur lecturer, but he spoke more like a lover than an academician, his eyes always feasting on the painting.

Finally Neal said, “Well, our time’s not unlimited. We’d better look at the rest of the exhibit.”

“Lead on,” Peter said.

Neal did, retracing their steps to the beginning and weaving them both through the crowds, occasionally commenting on pieces, but more often looking silently. Once in a while Peter asked a question, but he was mostly content to enjoy watching Neal enjoy the exhibit. A few times Neal eased closer to a painting, tilting his head for a different vantage of the brushstrokes, taking in the play of light on surfaces before stepping back to assess the piece as a whole. Peter wondered if, when he looked like that, he was viewing the painting as a lover or a thief; or maybe it was all one thing to Neal. In any event, there was a lightness in his expression, a residual smile that Peter suddenly realized had been missing for a while.

When they reached the end of the gallery, Peter changed his creased program from one hand to the other, shot his cuff, and checked his watch. “Lecture’ll be soon. We’d better go down.” He looked up to see Neal looking ruefully at him.

“I’ve figured out the case,” he said, with a faint air of accusation.

“Yeah?”

“It’s about the two forgeries in this exhibit, isn’t it.” Peter stared at him without replying, and Neal repeated, “That’s it, isn’t it?”

“No,” Peter said. “As far as I know it’s a case about a security breach in the special collections department, tipped off by someone on the fifth floor.”

“Oh,” Neal said, “then forget I said any—”

“Neal.”

“Okay, fine.”

“If it wasn’t the case before,” Peter said, “it is now. There are forgeries in this thing?”

“Two of them. Pretty good ones.”

“Show me.”

They sauntered back casually through the exhibit, where Neal paused wordlessly before one piece, and then led him back further to another.

“How do you know?”

“They didn’t have enough time to age them properly,” Neal said. “I can still smell the paint.”

“That’s why you got close to this one,” Peter said.

“Yeah. Like I said, it’s pretty good work.”

Peter scrutinized him. “It’s not, by any chance—”

“—mine? No,” Neal grinned, “I’m not responsible. Though I wouldn’t necessarily be ashamed of—it’s just my professional opinion, Peter, don’t get exercised about it.”

“I’m not. Are they both by the same hand?”

“I couldn’t tell for sure without unframing them, but it looks that way.”

They had been talking in low voices; now, Peter faced him challengingly and asked outright: “Do you know whose work this is?”

“No,” Neal said, which was plain enough. “And I didn’t expect to see it.”

“Is there someone in town who does know?”

Neal shrugged.

“What about Alex?”

“She’s a fence, not a forger.”

“But she knows a lot of forgers. You could—”

“I’m not contacting Alex,” Neal said. “She won’t help me help the feds. You contact her.”

“I just might do that,” Peter said. “She owes me, anyway.”

“For saving her from the Scourge of the Lecture Hall? I don’t think that’ll cut much ice with Alex. She can take care of herself. For the most part.”

“Nah, I was thinking more about the fact that I didn’t follow up on that silver thief case you forged. Something tells me there was something in it. And by the way? Never, ever do that again.”

Neal grinned. “If there was something in it, what makes you think it was forged?”

“Neal.”

“Okay, I’ll bear your advice in mind. But I’ll just say that, if such an idea ever were to cross my mind, it would be a hell of a lot of fun.”

“Fun you’ll have to do without. However, Alex is a consideration for a later date. I’m suddenly much more interested in this interview I’m supposed to be here for.”

“Next stop, fifth floor?”

“Next stop, the lecture,” Peter said, heading that way.

“Really?”

Peter cast a light smile over his shoulder. “Really. Let’s go.”

*

Though he had allowed Neal to be the captain of their movements through the gallery, Peter chose their seating at the lecture to be near the back, and Neal acquiesced without a murmur. Peter opened his program and searched for the information about Gladwell and his talk. “Tell me about Gladwell,” he said softly to Neal.

“Peter, I’ve never ever known you to pass up following a lead. What are you—”

“What makes you think I’m passing it up? I want some cover. Tell me about Gladwell.” Peter allowed himself a glance at the dais, where people were beginning to gather and check the placement of chairs and microphones.

Neal sighed. “His work centers around the idea that things like decisions and changes don’t come about through traceable rational deliberations. They’re often done in split-second instinctual flashes, and large change comes about through a critical mass of these little decisions. I can only imagine he’s going to treat modern art as a similar kind of chaotic system in which individual decisions pile on to overcome mass resistance. So you’re not going to interview the fifth-floor guy?”

“Fifth-floor girl, and later.” Peter glanced up again, idly; two people had taken seats in chairs on the dais. “Based on your split-second instinctual judgment, what kind of a con is this?”

“I think it’s a two-man con,” Neal said. “Someone called in a tip, right? So either the person you’re supposed to interview is in on it, or they’re the fall…girl. Either way, they’re a distraction from either the art or the money. My guess: someone wants to collect on the insurance when Peter Burke and his forger CI discover the crime.”

“But they can only collect if the art stays gone.”

“Yeah. Odds are that the art is out of the building.”

“Maybe. This is a huge library, though, with shelves upon crannies of nooks and vaults. And I bet a digital services archivist knows where to hide something.”

“Digital services?” Neal said. “You didn’t say—oh, no.” He put his head in his hands. “No, no, no.”

“What?”

“That’s why the forgery was so good,” Neal groaned. “It was done from a digital transfer.”

“A what?”

“I’ll spare you the boring details. It’s basically paint-by-number using modern technology. I hope you arrest the hell out of them.”

The big hats were almost all congregated on the dais by now. Peter said: “So now you want me to catch these people. Because they offend your sense of purity?”

“Yes!” Neal said. “Doing it by transfer completely cheapens the work. Makes it all about money.”

“I thought the point of making accurate copies was to steal the original and make money.”

“Well, I admit, stealing money for fun and profit is…fun and profitable, but forgery is an art in itself.”

Peter was enjoying himself. “You don’t think that digital transfer is the wave of the future? I thought you were into the critical mass of cutting-edge artistic endeavors that move the world of art into a new realm. That lead to…a tipping-point, so to speak.”

“Okay. Now,” Neal said, “you’re starting to piss me off.”

“Speaking of starting,” Peter said, “I think we’ve got ourselves a lecture. Keep an eye on the guy on the right; according to the program he’s the executor of the exhibit, or whatever you call it.”

“The owner of the insurance policy.”

“Exactly,” Peter said, as the applause began to rise.

*

Peter listened to Malcolm Gladwell’s lecture with half his mind, and turned over the facts in the room with the other half—a surreal experience, as Gladwell kept saying things that dropped into the chinks of his cogitations and rendered them fractal.

The bottom line was, though, that a woman standing among the remaining audience at the back, visible in his peripheral vision, looked like his target. She was wearing a brown workday pantsuit, and had short, light hair and glasses; most importantly, she was looking only occasionally at Gladwell and spent most of the time frowning at Daniel Arickson, the well-groomed man responsible for the exhibit. Peter gave her several casual glances, trying to see the name on her employee badge where it was clipped to her lapel and half-hidden; in the same instant he managed to verify that she was indeed Adela Michaels, she looked at him and frowned more deeply. Peter smiled back and returned his attention to the dais.

When the lecture ended and everyone rose to applaud, Peter saw her begin to edge forward, slowly toward the dais. It was decision time, and Neal was already on his wavelength.

“So which of them do we go for,” he said into Peter’s ear as they clapped, “him, or her?”

He was obviously the big fish. But by the same token she was likely to be more desperate.

“Let’s stick to the original plan,” Peter said.

“The interview?”

“Yeah.”

They slipped out as the emcee was giving instructions for a reception line for Malcolm Gladwell, and caught the elevator to the fifth floor, where Peter finally flashed his badge.

“We’re investigating a possible breach of security,” he told the person at the desk, “and we’ve received information that Adela Michaels might be able to help us with that investigation.”

“Um, well, I think she’s down attending the Gladwell lecture,” said the girl at the desk, “but she should be back soon.”

“I’ll wait,” Peter said. Predictably, Neal went into action, and in full view of the staff, so Peter couldn’t kick him.

“I’ve been thinking of doing some independent research on the stained glass windows of the churches in the city,” he said to the girl, smiling brilliantly, “and I hear you guys have some really top-notch digital equipment. What kind of credentialing do I need to apply for so I can be a user here?”

Within thirty seconds Neal had talked her into letting him view the equipment; within a minute he had disappeared from view in the direction of what Peter heard the girl say was Michaels’s office. Another forty-five seconds later, he was back, laughing with the girl over some ridiculous mixup with some risqué carte de visite photographs, and came to a rest next to Peter at the desk.

“It may not just be the paintings,” he murmured. “It may also be autograph manuscripts from downstairs.”

“This is not surprising me,” Peter said, just as the woman from downstairs came round the corner from the elevator bank.

She saw Peter: recognition and grim fear crossed her face; she backed up a step and then slipped back round the corner.

“Dammit,” Peter said, “she’s bolting.”

He rushed out to the elevator bank with Neal right behind him. Two elevators on the side she’d taken were engaged, one going up and one down. “She’s got to be on one of them,” Peter said, “the stairs are too visible.”

Neal was already looking. “Yeah, I don’t see her. Up or down?” he asked Peter, who was on the phone to Diana.

“I need backup,” he told her. “Entrance of the library.” He gave her a quick description of Michaels and Arickson and hung up. Then he went to another elevator and punched the Up button. Neal joined him, and he said: “No, you go down and meet Diana. Watch from the atrium and call me if you see Michaels.”

“You know what?” Neal said, “no.”

“What did you say?” Peter said dangerously.

Neal’s eyes were hard as stones. “Wherever you go, I’m going.”

Peter dropped his shoulders impatiently. “Neal, this is not a good time to get protective.”

“Yeah? When is?” The elevator doors opened, and Neal was in the car within a blink.

Peter considered turfing him out on his ear, but decided both that and verbal force would take too much time. “I don’t have time for the argument,” he said. “So bring your unarmed ass along and we’ll discuss it later.”

“And my built-in GPS.”

“Oh, no,” Peter said, with a heaping dump truck of sarcasm, “feel free to leave that behind.”

“Okay, I’ll look into it,” Neal said, but at a black look from Peter he changed the topic. “What floor?”

“Well, since I don’t have anybody to keep a lookout on the stairs, I’m flying blind.” Peter punched the seventh floor.

“Have you noticed this is a large library?” Neal said. “Do you see how many myriad ways she could get the drop on you?”

“I see that she can get the drop on us pretty much no matter what we do,” Peter said, pulling out his gun.

The elevator opened onto the seventh floor. “Bullets in the Book Stacks,” Neal said, “the next thriller from Soderburgh.”

Peter could have done without the color commentary, but he moved out without comment, keeping his gun low. “I want you to keep an eye on the elevators at all times,” he told Neal, and didn’t wait to see if he’d obey.

He moved quickly along the ranges of books on one side, hoping not to disturb an innocent student, but compared to the activity downstairs, the stacks were quiet. He saw no sign of Michaels, and returned to work the other side. As he was approaching an office, he heard Neal clear his throat, a sound that made him bring his gun up instinctively as he cleared the doorway.

Sure enough, Michaels was in the office, standing behind Neal with a pistol pointed at the back of his head.

“What did I tell you?” Peter said to Neal, who rolled his eyes and made a small shrug with his upraised hands.

Michaels said, “You’re going to let me out of here.” There was quiet steel in her voice, which mixed with desperation was not something Peter liked to encounter.

“No, I’m not,” Peter said gently. “Ms. Michaels, I’ve figured it out.”

She was keeping the gun steady, but Peter saw the faintest quiver in the hems of her jacket. He kept talking.

“You’ve been forging autograph manuscripts and selling them on the black market,” he said. “Somehow Arickson found out about it, and blackmailed you into this job. You were to forge the Matisse and the Picasso for him, allow the feds to find out they were forgeries, and Arickson would pocket the insurance. Then after the paintings were sold, he would split the proceeds with you, and you’d be free to disappear. But he double-crossed you, didn’t he?”

“I never trusted him,” she said, keeping her gun steady on the back of Neal’s head.

“No,” Peter agreed. “You made two forgeries, and hid the original paintings somewhere in the library. And that was pretty good insurance, seeing as how Arickson didn’t help you with your cover story when you called the FBI. He left you to twist in the wind, didn’t he? But he knows now that you didn’t give him the real paintings.”

She was visibly shaking now.

“He’s probably not a nice guy to cross. He’s probably made some pretty potent threats. You’re in a difficult position. Let me tell you your best option. You put the gun down now, and show me where the paintings are. Then we take you in, and you can testify against him. And he won’t get away with it.”

“I can avoid going to jail?” She was shaking, and the gun’s aim lowered a fraction in her two-handed grip.

“I’m afraid not,” Peter said. “But you won’t be going for his sake, at least. You’re not going to add murder to this. Put the gun down.”

To his relief, she trembled violently and then lowered the gun. Peter cut his eyes at Neal, who moved aside so he could get to her and retrieve the weapon.

“I told him where they are,” she said, as Peter cuffed her. “I didn’t have any choice. He was threatening my sister. They’re on an oversize shelf in a staff workroom.”

Peter smiled over her head at Neal. “That,” he said, “is going to make our job a lot easier.” He pulled out his phone and called Diana.

*

A few hours later, both Michaels and Arickson were being led away from the library and loaded into cars, and Peter and Neal were standing at the entrance looking with satisfaction at their work.

Arickson had been ambushed attempting to recover the paintings from Michaels's hiding-place, and when Peter observed innocently that Michaels had been arrested only for manuscript forgery, he tripped over his tongue and Peter had his probable cause. "Amateurs," Neal had sniffed as Diana was putting the cuffs on. "All the way around."

“I’ve been thinking about what Ms. Michaels said about her tipster cover story,” Peter said, watching his team prepare to drive away. “You didn’t by any chance con me into bringing you here?”

“I thought about it,” Neal admitted. “But I didn’t. Don’t worry, your agency is safely intact on this one.”

“I never trust to that anymore,” Peter sighed.

“Well, I admit, Peter, I had way more fun doing this your way than if I’d been the engineer on this train. Seeing Le déjeuner, hearing Malcolm Gladwell, having a gun pointed at me—”

“And whose fault was that?”

“—rescuing a forged Matisse…it was a great present. Thank you, Peter.”

Peter grinned. “It was fun, wasn’t it? And you were right,” he added, starting away down the plaza to his car. “It had a little something for everyone.”

*

finis