"Kowalski! Vecchio! Get in here!" Welsh was sitting at his desk, an open file folder spread between his hands. "Shut the door." Stella did, and then she and Vecchio stood at attention, more or less, and waited for the lieu to spill.
Welsh sat back in his chair. "It seems we have a case worthy of your former partner, Detective Vecchio."
Next to her, Vecchio swallowed audibly, suddenly tense all over. "Sir?"
"Constable Fraser had a way of attracting the, ah, strange ones," Welsh told Stella. Then he stood up. "It appears somebody decided to steal a very valuable painting from the Gloria Fontaine Museum last night. They've kept it on the QT so far, but you can bet it'll be all over the news by tonight. Kowalski, you probably know more about art than the rest of these mooks put together--"
"I don't know if I'd go that far," she protested.
"Says the woman with the book on twentieth century Expressionism in her desk." He looked at Vecchio. "Unless I'm mistaken?"
"Uh, no sir." Vecchio shot her a glance that seemed half-apology and half a querying Are you crazy? This is a high profile case! We want this collar! Vecchio straightened his spine and focused on Welsh. "We're just the cops you're looking for, Lieutenant."
Stella didn't laugh at his blatant enthusiasm, but it was a near thing. "Yes," she agreed, because major art heist! This could be the case of a lifetime.
"Good." Welsh resumed pacing the office. "We got a call this morning from the curator reporting the theft. Uniforms are securing the scene." He slid the file folder to the edge of his desk and stabbed a meaty finger at a grainy faxed photograph. "The missing painting, not that you can tell what it looks like from this."
Stella stepped forward to examine the geometric blur. She read the artist's name from the caption: "Lyonel Feininger."
"You know his work?" asked Welsh, surprising her with the question.
"I've seen it, sure. He's German American. Born in New York, taught for years in Berlin until Hitler kicked him out for being too avant garde. His wife's family was Jewish, so it probably saved their lives."
"So how much money are we talking here?" asked Vecchio. "Is this something like they have on the news sometimes, 'Some anonymous buyer pays two hundred million dollars at auction for a piece of old canvas'?"
Stella shook her head. "Not that much. Five or six years ago, a Van Gogh went for eighty-two million. It was so much it made headlines."
"Eighty-two mil is a lot of peanuts." Vecchio peered at the smudged and blurry fax.
"This won't be anywhere near that. Van Gogh's a superstar. Feininger isn't--"
"But the thing's still valuable, right?" Vecchio interrupted.
Welsh folded his arms over his chest. "Detectives, perhaps you want to get over there before the crime scene guys finish?"
There was a large blank rectangle on the wall of the Gloria Fontaine Museum, under which the curator stood wringing his hands. The tag on the wall read The Gruetz-Tower in Treptow at the Rega, 1928. "We've had it on loan, you see, as part of our Cubism exhibition." Felix Mathieson was a slight man with large, bulging eyes; he wore a tailored gray suit and a bright, multi-colored tie. He stepped over to a kiosk and plucked out a pair of pamphlets for them. "Some of Lyonel Feininger's works are valued at nine to twelve million dollars. This particular painting hasn't been sold publicly for decades, so we have no idea of its actual present market value, but before the show began, our appraiser marked it at roughly three million."
"So it's insured," Vecchio prompted.
"Ah." Mathieson swayed a bit on his feet, and Stella wondered if he might faint. "Only by its actual owner, I'm afraid. The board balked at insuring it for a short-run show, as the cost was...prohibitive."
Stella folded her arms. "Despite it being your liability if any harm were to come to it." Mathieson wiped his forehead and nodded. Stella glanced at Vecchio, who seemed as frustrated as she felt, then back at the curator. "Let's see the footage from the security cameras."
The museum's security was, in a word, terrible. The videotape showed a single black-clad, ski-masked thief of medium height and build entering the gallery through an emergency door, taking the painting from the wall, and running out just as the secondary alarm began to sound. Apparently, the thief didn't anticipate a motion detector behind the canvas, but since the guards didn't arrive for ten full minutes, it hadn't mattered.
The broken black frame was found in splinters in the rear parking lot; the alarm on the back door had been shorted out. There were no cameras on the lot, though, so no one could tell whether there were accomplices, a getaway car, witnesses, anything.
Stella and Vecchio made a circuit of the building's grounds to see it all for themselves. "So it's suspicious that there's no insurance on this thing, right?" Vecchio asked.
Stella shook her head. "The opposite, actually. Most art thefts are inside jobs, and those are usually attempts at insurance fraud. A museum can even make a profit by taking the insurance money for the loss and then paying for information leading to the recovery of the piece."
"Seriously?" Vecchio stepped around a CPD photographer. She was taking pictures of the broken pieces of picture frame.
"Yeah. Say insurance pays out five million for the loss. Then, whenever the thieves or subsequent owners of the stolen work can't sell it and decide to ransom it back instead, the museum pays a reward to an 'informant'--"
"Meaning, the crook."
She nodded. "Or an agent working for them. And if the reward is no more than a few hundred thousand dollars, then the museum makes a tidy profit. Plus, when they recover the work, they can then use the press coverage to drum up more patrons."
"That's a nice little scam," Vecchio said.
"Yeah, if you don't get caught." Stella looked up and down the alley along the side of the museum. Anyone could have driven right up.
"Okay, so if the majority are inside jobs, then we need to interview all the employees."'
"And see if anyone's had a sudden windfall hit their bank account."
Fifteen minutes later, they had an employee list. Stella called Frannie with the list of names to request financial records for. Then she and Vecchio spent the next three hours taking statements from everyone who worked there.
No one had any idea who might have taken the Feininger. Everyone was horrified that anyone would rob a small, private museum. "It isn't as if we have the resources of AIC. With their endowment, they could offer a hundred grand in reward money," said the woman in charge of the business office.
Groaning, Vecchio climbed back into his green monster of a Buick after the last interview. "No leads, no clues, and no witnesses."
"No kidding," said Stella. "Let's get lunch and start in on the background checks."
"Good call. Still think it's an inside job? Mathieson looked kind of nervous. Maybe he was hiding something."
"Maybe, but it wouldn't have to be. Last year I saw an article in the paper about a prank theft from a museum in Europe where the thieves returned the painting the next day with a note mocking their horrible security."
"What I want to know is who puts a three million dollar painting in a room where anyone could just walk out with it?"
Stella shrugged. "They can't sell it on the open market, at least."
"Who's going to buy it? Any legitimate buyer will know it's stolen!"
"But you said this guy wasn't that famous?"
Stella shook her head impatiently. "You'd still check the provenance before buying. If you get caught receiving stolen property, you lose the painting and what you paid for it."
The Riv shrieked to a stop in front of their favorite diner. "Sandwiches to go or eat in?"
Stella wanted to say, "Eat in," but they were on a clock here. "To go," was on her lips but Vecchio was already out the door, saying, "Yeah, okay. We got no time, right," as if he were listening to another voice entirely.
He did that a lot, still, even though they'd been partners for going on four months now. Constable Fraser's suspension from liaising with the CPD had hit Vecchio hard, but it was made even worse because he'd shot Fraser in the back and nearly paralyzed him. Taking a bullet in turn had maybe helped even the score a little, but by the time Vecchio was back on his feet, Fraser was out of the picture.
Stella was still at the oh-seven when it all went down, but she'd heard all about it in nightly phone calls from Ray, who had prosecuted a lot of cases out of the two-seven. He'd told her that one evening, he'd offered the Mountie and his wolf a ride home because it was pouring down rain and Vecchio wasn't around. Ray had been pretty taken with them.
Stella realized belatedly that it was her turn to buy lunch. She was out of the car and most of the way to the sidewalk when Vecchio appeared, white deli bag in hand.
"What?" he said, clearly assuming it was an emergency.
"It was my turn to buy, you moron." She ripped the receipt off the bag, pulling the staple with it, and looked at the total.
"Oh my God, like it matters!" Vecchio exclaimed, getting into the car. "Get the next two, if it's so important to you. Just put your freaking wallet away. This is not some date where the girl insists on going Dutch."
She slammed her door. "It matters because it matters, Vecchio."
He sighed dramatically, cranked the engine, and pulled out into traffic. "You know, Fraser used to borrow money from me all the time--all the time--and he had a salary. He gets his checks cashed in Canadian dollars, don't ask me why, he's funny that way. But my point is, it's no big deal."
Stella counted to five. "Okay, one, the first thing people think of when two male cops are partners is not the department sexual harassment policy and just what 'casual favors' between partners might entail."
"And two, I realize you're just being nice, and thanks. I appreciate it. But remember what I said about the whole gallant gentlemen thing when Welsh first assigned us as partners?"
Vecchio snorted. After a moment he said, "Yeah, I remember."
Vecchio muttered something under his breath, but lunch was right there. She opened her bag of chips and crunched over the sound of his grousing.
On their first day as partners, they spent most of it playing get-to-know-you. Vecchio lived with his mother, his ex-wife was Detective Angie Vecchio, whom Stella had met a couple of times when she worked at the oh-seven, and Vecchio was kind of a wreck over the situation with Fraser. Stella told him she used to be married to Assistant State's Attorney Kowalski, and so he should not ever expect her to call him Ray because it was too weird, and if he ever hit on her, she'd be requesting a new partner before the end of the day.
"Yikes," he'd said.
"I just got out of a marriage. I need a break from all that crap. Does that work for you?"
"Well, I was about to say what a pleasure it is to work with such a lovely--"
"Don't even think about finishing that sentence," she said.
"Detective!" Vecchio had thrown his hands up. "A little charm makes life sweeter, my uncle Lorenzo always said."
Stella snorted. "Yeah, save it for whoever you're trying to schmooze. I'm your partner, okay?"
"Yes, ma'am. You got my back, I got yours."
They were both native Chicagoans, only their neighborhoods were worlds apart. "I can't get over this! How's a Gold Coast girl get to be a detective?"
"I really, really hate that term." She sighed. "Aren't most of us cops for more or less the same reasons?" He tilted his head, granting the point. "In college, my best friend was in a relationship that--" She paused, searching for a term that wouldn't make her rehash the horror, and gave up. "--well, it got way out of hand. I was pre-law then, but I did an internship at the Cook County DA's office and saw all the cabinets full of cases that drag out for years before they even go to trial. It was crazy."
She'd also watched first hand how the bigwig male lawyers treated the women in the office and been disgusted. Later on, she'd experienced firsthand how women cops were treated, but at least CPD knew it was an issue.
Vecchio told her about Frankie Zuko in turn, and then about Irene. ("Wait, that was you? I heard a cop was involved, but I had no idea--" "Yeah," he said ruefully, "that was me." "God, I am so sorry." Vecchio nodded, his eyes red with grief. "Yeah, me, too.") Stella was familiar with the Zuko family exploits and didn't envy him.
Later, over bad diner coffee, Vecchio continued briefing her on her new caseload. "Maybe you can help bring up my solve rate. It hasn't been the same since Fraser--" He broke off and cleared his throat. "So, I still don't get why you turned cop instead of some fancy-pants lawyer."
"Because spending my life hosting Junior League parties is pretty much my idea of hell? No, going to law school was mostly Ray's thing. He likes being able to relate as man on the street to a jury. And he likes the money--not so much he'd join a private firm, but--when we were kids, we were in a bank as it was being robbed, and it made a big impact on him. He was so angry at the guy who did it. He probably still is."
"Did you guys get hurt?"
"Held hostage for a few minutes. He grabbed me, I kicked him." She waved a hand. "It was a long time ago. But Ray got obsessed with seeing justice done, all the way to the end. Me, I want to find the perp, get them off the street, testify at the trial if I have to, and go back to catching bad guys." She took a sip of her coffee and went on. "You know, I could stand there and convince a jury somebody's a scumbag. But the endless appeals and motions and creeps getting off on technicalities--"
"It's like bailing out the ocean," Vecchio said. "I'd make a crummy lawyer." He grinned at her wryly. "I don't have the temper for it."
Stella returned his smile. "I didn't think Ray had the temperament, but I guess that's why he took up boxing."
Vecchio laughed, long and low, then he nodded at her and said, "Can I ask what happened with the split?"
"You feel like talking about you and Angie right now?" she asked.
He looked down at his feet, then met her gaze with a wry smile. "Eh. Not so much."
"Me either. Rain check for sometime I'm feeling maudlin and petty?"
"Heh. You're on."
They checked Mathieson's and the Fontaine's phone records and nothing suspicious jumped out at them. There were no fingerprints. When the bank records came through, they showed nothing suspicious. They had no suspects.
"What about fences? How do they even get rid of the thing?" Vecchio drummed his hands on his desk.
She looked up from the book on Feininger Frannie had borrowed from the library for them. "Dealers. We need a crooked art dealer. Do we know anybody who knows any crooked art dealers?" She could name a dozen fences for stolen jewelry, designer clothes, electronics, and so on, but if there was an illegal version of Sotheby's out there, she'd never heard of it.
Stella asked Frannie to search the database for art fraud charges. Then she picked up the phone and started calling informants. After leaving messages, she noticed Vecchio's voice rise to a near shout and then fall to a tense whisper.
"I'll wait," he said. "Turnbull, I said I would wait." A little later: "He might have information that would help solve a major case. All I need is to ask him one question!" Then: "She can't keep you from talking to me, Benny. You don't live in Soviet Russia. We're looking for dirty art dealers...no, I don't mean dealers of pornography, I mean art dealers who sell stolen paintings. Why is this so hard?" Vecchio had a squishy foam basketball in his hand and was banging it against the desk. "You don't...you don't. Okay." Then: "And that's all you've got to say? No, no, I don't think so. I think that's bullshit." And then: "Fraser. Crap." He slung the phone back in its cradle.
After a moment Stella said, "You okay?" He wasn't, clearly. She knew the sound of a breakup, however platonic, when she heard it.
He shook his head. "I gotta--" He stood up and patted his pants pocket for his keys.
"No way, you are not going to the Consulate."
"Kowalski, I can't just--"
"Come on." She got to her feet, tugged his coat sleeve, and led them down to the supply closet. "Talk," she said, pointing to a tower of copy paper that made a convenient stool.
Vecchio sat down, leaned forward, hands on his thighs, and let out a long slow breath. "Yeah, okay. So, the Dragon Lady, his boss? Apparently, she's decided working with American law enforcement has been a 'bad influence' on Fraser. Forget the number of cases we've solved. Forget the assistance we've provided to Canada. Forget him being my partner!" He looked at her. "No offense."
"Don't worry about it. Is this because you shot him or because he ran off with--"
"Don't. Christ, just. Don't go there."
Stella let a few moments pass. "Somebody has to."
He shook his head.
"Metcalf's a killer and a diamond thief."
A thought occurred to her. "Are you sure she's out of the area?"
"What? Hell, I don't know. She got on a train. It was all very <cite>Casablanca</cite>, except the wrong person got shot."
In a harder voice, she asked, "Would she steal a painting to get back at you for messing up her happy ending?"
Vecchio stared. "Ye-es. Yes, she would. But not like this: she'd do it in broad daylight and make everyone think it was legit. That and she'd have a buyer already set up."
"Damn," Stella said. The Cubist exhibit was only a week old, and the Feininger hadn't been confirmed in time to mention in the pre-show publicity.
"Damn is right. If I ever see her again, I'll wring her fucking neck. I mortgaged my house because of that bitch."
"Vecchio." He was still off somewhere in the distance, rage twisting his face. "Vecchio! Don't make me get your sister in here."
He blinked, surprise and mingled horror in his eyes. "Shit. Sorry, I got carried away there."
Stella leaned against the door and tried to figure out what to say. "Okay, let me say this and then I'm done. I don't know Fraser, so maybe I've got more perspective than you right now, okay? Or, you know, it might just piss you off. Who knows." Vecchio nodded, so she went on. "Let's put me in his shoes for a minute: say I'm a few months past betraying everyone I cared about for the sake of an old flame who turned out to be evil. You shot me. And it doesn't matter all that much that you were aiming at her and missed; right now, the point is you shot me. I subsequently got you--my partner of a couple of years--shot in turn."
"Mine was minor, though," he interrupted. "Fraser's got a bullet lodged in his spine."
Stella ignored him and went on. "In the wake of this, I'm extremely lucky to a) be alive, and b) still have a job in law enforcement at all. Meanwhile, my boss has me under close observation and is keeping me away from anyone involved in the incident until I win back her confidence. Given all that, I think I get where Fraser's coming from in keeping his distance."
"But see--" Vecchio scowled and shook his head. "You don't understand. He's my partner. And friend--or was."
"Yeah, I do." She held her ground and didn't move.
Vecchio looked at the floor miserably. "I shot him."
"And he betrayed you."
"And the law. He cares more about justice than anything or anybody. Except for her."
She tipped her head, acknowledging.
She grimaced sympathetically. "Yes."
Vecchio nodded, and for a long while, neither of them said a word. Then he stood up. "Okay, enough whining. Let's get back to work."
The afternoon passed with no leads surfacing. Vecchio begged off going for a post-shift therapeutic beer, so Stella skipped joining the cop bar regulars and headed home as well. She stopped on her way at a bookstore and bought a book on art crime. Maybe it would give her some idea how to proceed; none of her coursework had ever covered stolen paintings and in her years on the force, she'd never seen three million dollars of anything but diamonds in a bank vault, once. That had been unforgettable, but this was a totally different type of case.
After dinner, she curled up on her sofa, armed with a mug of coffee, a notepad and pen, and her stack of self-assigned reading.
At about nine, her phone rang. "How stupid would it be for me to come over right now ?" said a familiar voice, without preamble.
"Ray." She let her head fall back on the sofa cushions and shut her eyes.
"Because I was thinking--"
"Ray, I have work. You do, too."
"But I don't have to be in court tomorrow."
"And how do you know I don't?"
"Oh. Uh, do you?"
"I'm on a big case right now."
"Yeah, I get that. Big, stressful. So, I'm thinking a glass of wine, a nice back rub, a couple of orgasms...what do you think?"
She sighed. "I think this is more of the same thing that split us up.
"Stel, I love you. How is it wrong that I want to be with you?"
"Love was never the problem. You know that. We've been through this."
"Please, just give me a chance."
"Ray, I've given you a hundred." Stella stood up, angry now and needing to pace. "I've given you at least a hundred. It always comes down to you showing up. Not asking if I'm busy. Not even saying, 'Hi, Stella, how are you? How was your day?' As if what I'm doing or the plans I have don't matter."
She found herself in the kitchen, so she poured a glass of water and drank it, listening to the silence on the line.
"Shit," Ray said finally. "Sorry, you're right. I know I shouldn't do this. I just. I miss you is all."
"I miss you too," she said. "But I don't miss giving up all my priorities to suit your schedule."
"That's not fair. I tried my best--"
She bit back the first retort that came to mind and said, "Can we not do this again tonight? I had a long day, I'm tired, and I do actually have to be up early for work."
Ray sighed, and the sound of it in her ear was low and intimate; he was still as much part of her as he had been for the last twenty years.
"You know I love you," she said.
"Yeah, I know. Me, too."
"But it's too soon to try to be friends again."
There was a brief silence and then, "Jesus, I wish I'd never signed the papers."
She bit her tongue, anger rising again. "Yeah, well I'm sorry you feel that way, Ray."
"Damn it, this is what we always do. You assume, I get angry, we make up, you assume again--"
"Look, don't be mad. I just." He made another frustrated noise. "I miss you is all, and I don't know how to say these things. Sorry I pissed you off."
Stella rubbed her eyes in frustration. "Forget it," she said, hoping Ray would just leave it alone.
"Okay, well, I'll let you go, then. Good luck with the case."
The word "Thanks" was barely out of her mouth when the line went dead. It was infuriating; he could be such a baby sometimes, even now. But Ray's disappointment wasn't her problem, no matter how much he wanted it to be. She took a minute to clean up the kitchen because scrubbing countertops helped clear Ray's uninvited presence out of her head. Then she returned the cordless phone to its charger and threw herself back down on the couch with her books.
The next day, the morning paper brandished headlines about the robbery and an offer of a reward for information leading to the recovery of the painting. Stella and Vecchio spent the day traipsing from snitch to snitch with no luck. They also interviewed the director of the Fontaine's Board of Trustees, a tall African American man named Ward Penrose.
"Who's putting up the reward money?" asked Vecchio.
"At our board meeting yesterday afternoon, the consensus was to raise several thousand dollars from among the Fontaine's endowing members and ask our bank to match the funds."
"Out of the goodness of their hearts," Vecchio said.
"From the members, certainly; from the bank, it's a loan," Penrose said simply.
Stella nodded. "Hopefully someone will come forward with information. In the meantime perhaps you'll be investing in a better security system for the building."
Penrose looked uncomfortable. "The issue is on the table, yes. We've hired additional security guards for the time being."
"That's a start," said Vecchio.
"That was a waste of time," he said in the car half an hour later, after they'd gone over the scene again and talked to the staff who happened to be on hand.
"I don't think we're looking at an inside job, after all," Stella mused.
"They all seem genuinely shocked, don't you think?" she asked.
Vecchio nodded. "They do. It's like they all thought that not being super famous was enough to keep their stuff safe." Stella nodded. He said, "We aren't going to solve this one, are we?"
"Maybe not." She shrugged. "Or maybe they'll realize they can't sell the thing on the open market and we'll get a lead."
Vecchio drove them toward the two-seven. "I guess we should get back to work."
"Maybe we can shake something loose in the Houlihan case," Stella said hopefully, mentally shuffling through the eighteen other cases open on their desks.
"Could be," he agreed. "Knock on some doors, knock a few heads together."
Stella laughed. "How about I play good cop first?"
"Nah, it's more fun my way." Vecchio grinned and drove faster.
The next day, Stella picked up Vecchio's phone while he was getting them more coffee. It was Felix Mathieson. "Miss--I mean Detective--Kowalski! The thief called!"
Stella covered the receiver and shouted, "Get Vecchio!" Then, into the phone, she said, "That's great, Mr. Mathieson, tell me everything."
A couple of minutes later, Vecchio appeared, coffee in each hand. "What's up?" he mouthed, sitting in her chair, since she'd appropriated his.
"Curator of the museum," she mouthed back. "Okay, Mr. Mathieson, we're going to see about the feasibility of running a ransom operation. We'll be sending an officer over to put a recording device on the phone line, so we can have a record of the conversation as evidence."
"How much?" Vecchio asked.
"One mil," she mouthed, then into the phone, she said, "No, don't worry about that yet. And no, he would be a fool to destroy the painting. It's the only leverage he has. The most a sane person can threaten to do is sell it to someone else."
A few minutes later, they were in Welsh's office. "If we want to catch the thief, we need to set up a sting," Stella said. "The whole ransom, exchange, nab the bad guy and recover the painting procedure."
"As well as the cash," said Welsh.
"That, too," she agreed.
"We can do this," said Vecchio. "We have the cash. The thief wants to get rid of the thing, right? Don't worry about it."
"I'll talk to the captain," said Welsh. "These operations aren't cheap, but with the amount of publicity this case is generating, the brass should be willing to play ball."
In the end, Stella posed as Madeleine Price, the woman who ran the museum business office, so they could work the exchange without endangering a civilian. Their suspect insisted on dealing with a woman--maybe he thought women were safer--but they decided to go with it.
She showed him the money. He showed her the painting, and then she knocked his legs out from under him, cuffed, Miranda'd, and arrested him before Vecchio or the other backup could break through the suite's inner door.
"You did what? You could have gotten yourself killed!" Ray yelled.
Stella folded her arms over her chest. "They missed their cue."
"Where the hell were you?" Ray pointed at Vecchio.
"The door was locked! It took a few seconds to kick it in," Vecchio yelled, taking three steps toward Ray.
"Why the hell was the door locked?" Ray said, his attention focused on Stella again, as if he thought she'd done it on purpose. She shifted her weight and felt her chin lift, and--
"Be quiet, all of you!" boomed Welsh.
Welsh's office was no place for a knock-down drag-out with Ray over him being an overprotective ass. She grasped together the loose threads of her professional credibility and turned to face the lieutenant. Beside her, she felt Vecchio do the same. She didn't risk a glance at Ray.
Their perp, Meyer Sussman, was keeping a chair warm in Interview Two. A woman named Alaina Larsen was generously taking the afternoon off from her job at the Art Institute of Chicago to help them out with the case. She was seated on Welsh's sofa, patiently watching Ray flip out and Stella try to get him to shut up and back off, and had a large black art portfolio at her side. In the corner, someone had set up the big easel used for union meetings, taken down its usual pad of paper, and propped up the recovered painting. The inner plywood frame that the canvas had been stapled to was gone.
"Ms. Larsen, perhaps you could tell my distinguished colleagues here what you told me earlier."
She stood up. "Of course, Lieutenant. Detectives, Mr. Kowalski, I'm afraid this painting is a forgery."
Stella swore. Ray said, "How do you know?"
Ms. Larsen pointed at the limp canvas. "The most obvious tells are that the unpainted edges of the canvas are too soft; it stiffens with age. Also, oil paints take a long time to dry, even if you put a painting in the oven to hurry the process. Besides that, you can compare this picture of the original painting with our copy here." She opened the portfolio to reveal an actual size photo.
Stella examined it along with Vecchio, Ray, and Welsh. It wasn't that she doubted Ms. Larsen's expertise; she thought this stuff was fascinating. "Look, this angle isn't right," she said, pointing at a building on the lower left, "and the shading here is wrong."
"Exactly," Ms. Larsen said. "It isn't even a very good copy."
"Hoo, boy," Vecchio said, shooting Stella a wicked look, "this is going to be fun."
"You're sure the museum had the original, right?" asked Ray.
"Yes," Stella and Ms. Larsen both said. Ms. Larsen continued, "It was featured at the opening gala. Several of us from AIC were there."
"Let's go find out who this clown thinks he is," Vecchio said. Stella left Welsh's office on Vecchio's heels, and when he jerked his chin at the main door, she scowled and went into the observation room instead.
Vecchio stood across the table from their perp and towered over him. "You know what the penalty is for lying to the cops, Meyer? Huh? You know what the penalty is for wasting our time?" By the last, he was yelling and Meyer had his hands up, shielding his face as if the words were blows. "You weren't dumb enough to think we'd believe it was the real thing, now, were you?" Vecchio waited, and Meyer looked out from between his fingers. "Did you think we were that dumb?"
"Look, look, I'm sorry, okay?" Meyer tripped over his syllables, stuttering out the words. "It wasn't my idea! I just--it was just a little--I needed money, and it was supposed to be easy, and I had, uh, a debt, I mean, bills to pay, you know?"
"How many years do you want to spend in prison, Meyer?"
The guy's face went completely blank. "What?"
"You steal a painting worth, oh, let's call it millions of dollars, and you think we're just going to let you off with a slap on the wrist? Are you stupid?"
"But it wasn't my idea!"
Stella cheered inwardly. There was their confession.
Vecchio paced the room in a broad circle and winked at the observation mirror. "So, if you're lucky, me and my partner can talk to the state's attorney and cut you a deal. But you have to tell us everything. Whose idea wasit? Who all was in on the operation? How it all worked, everything."
A moment passed. Meyer bit his left thumbnail and started chewing. "What if I don't know everything?"
Vecchio shrugged and leaned against the opposite wall, the picture of nonchalance. "The more you tell us, the better your chances."
Meyer thought it over for nearly a whole minute. "Dammit. Okay, well, the plan was kind of like this."
"How d'ya like them apples?" Vecchio slapped a stack of rap sheets down on the desk between them and sat down.
Stella didn't even look up. "Not a bit," she said, yawning into her cup of morning coffee.
"Because the only José Garcia in Meyer's life is an art major at DePaul who had a class with him last term. Meyer got a C; José aced it. And he's not in that stack. This kid's clean as a whistle. Not even a parking ticket."
"That doesn't mean he didn't do it."
"Mm, true," she said, drumming her fingers on the blotter. "Something about it doesn't feel right, though."
"Yeah, well, I trust Meyer's story about as far as I can throw him."
"Exactly. And maybe this guy knows what Meyer's up to. Let's go find out."
They found José at work. He was a barista at the Seattle's Best inside a Borders not far from campus. "What's going on?" he asked, washing his hands and wiping them dry on his apron.
"We're trying to get some information on Meyer Sussman," Stella said. "I understand you had a class together last term."
"Yeah, Intermediate Painting. I don't know what he was doing there, though. He couldn't paint for shit."
"Yeah, I wondered about that," Vecchio said.
"Maybe he's okay in other media, I don't know. You ask me, though? I think he only took it because he was into this girl."
"Which girl would that be?" Vecchio pressed.
"Deanna...something. I don't remember her last name. She was crazy about abstract. It was kind of annoying."
"Not your thing?"
"Not even close."
"What's your thing?" Stella asked.
José grinned slyly. "Photographic realism, like Rockwell, sort of? Only, you know, less innocent."
Next to her, Vecchio shifted, towering over them in his expensive overcoat. "So, have you run into Meyer lately? Been in touch?"
José had to step back to look Vecchio in the eye. "No way, man, he was just in that one class. It's not like I know him or anything."
"What did you think of the girl?" he asked. "Besides her taste in art."
José shrugged. "Nobody I'd take home to meet my mother, if that's what you mean." Stella bristled. That could mean too many different things and they didn't have the privacy here to pin down José's meaning.
Vecchio interrupted her thoughts by saying, "You think she might be into stealing stuff?"
He grinned. "She had a bunch of art books--the really big ones--she stole from the library at Uni Chicago, I think. She bragged about it."
"What do you think of Cubism?" Stella asked.
"Bor-ing. That shit was over, like, seventy-five years ago." José glanced over his shoulder. "Look, my boss is going to kill me if I don't get back on the counter. Are we done?"
"Yeah," Stella said. "Thanks for your time."
Back in the car, Stella watched other vehicles maze through the parking lot. It was an unseasonably hot day, and the air-conditioning inside the store had felt nice.
"What do you think?" Vecchio asked.
"Hmm. You think it's that easy? The boy steals it, the girl copies it, and together they try to make a million dollars?"
"I've seen dumber schemes work."
Stella buckled her seatbelt. "Me too. Now to see if we can prove it."
It was an easy matter to find the girl's name on the school class roster: Deanna Panagakos. Actually tracking her down proved more difficult. Her last known address with the university's registrar was a house shared by six girls. Only half of them had ever met Deanna, and only one had any idea where she had moved. She didn't know the address, either, or the unit number, but she knew how to get there.
"I don't mind going with you!" she offered cheerfully. "She got this awesome sublet."
"Uh, that's okay," Vecchio said. "Maybe you can just write out directions for us?"
Stella said, "Thanks for the offer, but we aren't allowed to take civilians along. It's a police thing."
"Ohhh, got it." The girl, Heather, struggled with street names. "I think it's the fifth one after the KFC on the corner, but, God, this is so hard. I totally know it when I see it."
"Take your time," Stella said. Vecchio was out in the hall wearing a hole through the carpet.
Heather finally finished the directions. It wasn't far, but whether they'd actually find Deanna there was anyone's guess. Fifteen minutes later, Vecchio was idling in the fire lane while Stella skimmed the names on the intercom panel by the front door. The name Panagakos was scrawled in green ink, cramped into the same little box as a neatly printed "Jones".
The elevator was broken, possibly permanently, and it was a long hike up five flights of stairs. When they knocked on her door, Deanna answered wearing a men's button-down shirt and torn jeans, both stained with paint. Her thick mop of curly hair was pulled into a ponytail. The odor of turpentine wafted around her.
"Deanna Panagakos?" Vecchio asked.
"Yeah," she said, suspiciously. "You are?"
"Detective Vecchio, Chicago Police Department, and this is Detective Kowalski. We'd like to ask you a few questions."
"Why? What's this about?"
"We understand your boyfriend is Meyer Sussman?" Stella said.
Deanna hitched a fine black eyebrow. "You're harassing me because I'm dating Meyer? What the hell?"
"No, not at all, Miss Panagakos. Are you aware that Meyer's in jail?"
A noise from inside the apartment drew Deanna's attention. "Crap. Look, I'm in the middle of something and my model's on the clock, okay? We're going to have to do this some other time."
Vecchio put his hand on the wooden door, but she wasn't giving an inch. "All we need is a few minutes. Don't you want to help clear Meyer's name?"
Anger flashed over her face. "Do you think I'm an idiot? You're cops, not his defense attorney." The door slammed in their faces. They stood for a few moments, listening. There were voices, but it might have been the TV. And standing on her doorstep would be harassment, so they made their descent.
"Wow, that wasn't suspicious or anything." Vecchio made a face and glanced up the stairwell. "You think it's enough?" he asked, as they took a couple of minutes to check out the building's layout.
"Yeah," Stella answered, "I do." She glanced at her watch. It was a quarter past three. "And there's no time like the present."
Vecchio nodded. "Okay. You call Welsh and get the warrant. I'm going to make sure she doesn't get away."
"All right." While Vecchio stationed himself by the building's back door, Stella took out her cell phone and dialed.
Almost an hour later, Huey, Dewey, and Welsh screeched up into the fire lane next to Vecchio's Buick. Welsh waved a folded sheet of paper. Stella got out of the car, grinning. "Let's do this," she said, and led them in. Vecchio and the two uniform cops who had helped keep watch on the building met them at the foot of the stairs and they all made the long trek up.
When they burst into Deanna's apartment, they found Deanna standing at her easel and a young woman lying nude on her couch. Both women shrieked. Deanna dropped her palette. The model fled to the kitchen, pausing only long enough to grab a stack of clothes from the table in the dining area. Stella gritted her teeth. As the only woman cop present, it fell to her to stand in the open archway and make sure the girl didn't grab any kitchen knives or anything stupid like that while she was getting dressed. Stella glared at her, and she scrambled into her clothes a little faster.
Vecchio said, "Deanna Panagakos, we have a search warrant for any and all items related to the theft of <cite>The Gruetz-Tower</cite> by Lyonel Feininger and items connected to Meyer Sussman." He handed her the searchee's copy. "You want to save us some time and tell us where the painting is?"
"Go to hell!" She was cornered between the coffee table and the arm chair. She looked frantic.
Vecchio folded his arms. "Or we can rip the place apart, your call."
"You asshole!" she screamed. Stella wondered if she would throw something at him--that would be instant grounds for arrest and would make their job here go much easier. She checked on the model again, but she was mostly dressed and also engrossed in watching Deanna freak out.
Welsh gestured at one of the uniformed cops. "You want to help us out, here?" To Deanna he said, "You're going to stand here nice and quiet, and we do this like civilized people, understand?"
Maybe it was Welsh invoking all the authority of thirty years on the force, or maybe she only then realized that her apartment had seven cops in it, most of whom were between her and the door, and antagonizing them wasn't going to help her chances. Whatever the cause, Deanna nodded, eyes huge, and said, "Fine. Okay."
Welsh said, "Good." Then he pointed Huey and Dewey toward the bedroom. He and Vecchio started opening closets and looking behind furniture.
"So, what the fuck is going on here?" the model said, stunned. She was dressed in jeans and a green t-shirt. She held a pair of orange socks in her hand.
"Deanna Panagakos is wanted for the theft of a multimillion dollar work of art. We're going to need you to--what's your name?"
"Poppy Ambrose." She raked her fingers through short red hair. Her nails were painted blue.
"Okay, Poppy, tell me, how well do you know Deanna?"
She shrugged. "I don't know? This is my fifth session."
"How did you two meet?"
"She called me. I'm on the art school's model list."
"Okay, then. We need you to wait over here." Stella guided her over toward Lieutenant Welsh. He could hand her off to a uniform. They had a painting to find.
At last, they found the Feininger tucked into the open space behind the canvas of a painting on the living room wall. It had been ripped off its inner frame, much like the forgery, but this canvas was stiff with age and its edges held their shape on their own.
"Holy hot damn," Vecchio said. He was holding three million dollars in his gloved hands. He looked up, beaming. Stella grinned back.
"I'll take that," Welsh said. "Arrest Miss Panagakos."
"Yes sir," Vecchio said, and did so. After they read her her rights, they let her put shoes on and hustled her downstairs to one of the waiting patrol cars.
"Can I go now?" Poppy asked.
Stella was pulling books on how to forge paintings to be collected by the evidence guys and loaded into an evidence box. In the corner, Huey was wrestling with the girl's computer. They'd found a post-it note with a username and password for a brand new internet auction site stuck to the edge of the monitor screen. Just the type of place that wouldn't ask enough questions and was too new to be regulated.
Dewey marked several spiral notebooks and sketchpads with yellow tags. "You're going to have to come down to the station to give your statement."
Poppy stared at him dumbfounded. "Are you serious? I didn't do anything!"
Dewey shrugged. "You were here."
"Shit," she said. "I didn't even get paid. She owes me fifty bucks!"
"Them's the breaks, kid," said Huey. He placed the CPU from Deanna's desktop into another file box and labeled it. "Come on, you can ride with us."
Meanwhile, another uniform had just arrived with a large flat box filled with packing peanuts. Welsh carefully wrapped a sheet of plastic around the torn canvas and buried it in the cylinders of puffed rice paste. Four pieces of tape, and he was ready to go. "Take the books down," Welsh told the waiting evidence tech. Welsh wasn't letting anyone else near the painting.
Welsh looked from Stella to Vecchio. "I'll expect you two presently. Don't forget you have a suspect to question."
Vecchio hefted the box containing the computer. "Don't worry, sir. We're right behind you."
Their conversation with Deanna lasted all of thirty seconds--she'd confirmed her name, that she was twenty-two, and that she knew Meyer--before she demanded a phone call and refused to say anything else without a lawyer. The phone call had been to her mother. That proved she had some sense, anyway.
"Oh, you have got to be kidding me," Vecchio said.
"Hmm?" Stella looked up from reconstructing the interview at Borders. To her left, an impossibly handsome man in a bright red uniform coat was cutting through the sea of people in the bullpen. Vecchio looked stricken. Then she noticed movement from the other direction. Ray was approaching with Welsh lagging a little behind because he had stopped to lock his office. Stella cursed under her breath. Her highest profile case of the year--everything needed to be perfect--and her ex-husband and her partner's ex-partner decided to show up in the middle of the most delicate part.
"Ray!" said Fraser.
Vecchio stood up. "Fraser. It's been a while." There was an awkward hug.
"Fraser!" Ray said, smiling brightly. "I didn't know you were back." Vecchio bristled, and Stella stood.
"Ah, I don't believe we've met," Fraser said.
"Constable Benton Fraser, RCMP, this is Detective Stella Kowalski," chorused Vecchio, Ray, and Welsh, who then all cleared their throats awkwardly and looked away.
She smiled and pretended not to notice. "Nice to meet you finally."
"Likewise," he said.
"Your visit comes as a bit of a surprise to us, Constable." Welsh was peering at him curiously. "Have things changed in Canada?"
"We're in the middle of a case," Vecchio said when Fraser didn't respond immediately. "Not a great time for a social call."
"Ah, yes, the stolen Feininger." Fraser thumbed his eyebrow and looked back at Welsh. "As a matter of fact, I'm here on the same business."
"The Ice Queen let you out?" Ray said, and Stella sensed the tension in Vecchio's shoulders ratchet even higher.
"The same business?" Welsh queried.
"My apologies. Please allow me to explain. Young Miss Panagakos is actually a Canadian citizen here on a student visa. Given the magnitude of the crime in question, Inspector Thatcher deemed it appropriate for me to observe proceedings in my capacity as a member of Canadian law enforcement."
"Did she, now?" said Welsh. He turned on his heel and marched back into his office.
"Oh wow," said Ray. Stella didn't say anything, but she wondered if Welsh was going to try to get Fraser's liaison-status reinstated, or if he was upset that Thatcher hadn't bothered to consult him in advance.
Vecchio and Fraser were making small talk about the case while having a whole other conversation with their eyes. To Stella, it didn't seem to be going well for Vecchio.
A pair of men in expensive suits picked that moment to swan into the bullpen. "We're from Banks and St. John. We're here to represent Deanna Panagakos," the younger one said to Frannie.
She went to Welsh's doorway, pointed and whispered something. He waved her off, still on the phone with the Consulate, presumably.
"She's just down here," Frannie told the lawyers, swinging her hips as she led them down the hall.
"I, uh, should probably introduce myself to her counsel--excuse me, please." Fraser turned and headed after them.
Ray followed close on Fraser's heels.
Vecchio gazed after them, then sank into his chair. "Kill me now," he said, head in his hands.
No kidding. Stella didn't want any part of that drama, and she didn't envy Vecchio his place in it at all. "It'll be over, soon. Once we get Meyer back up here and set them against each other, we'll have a confession in no time."
Vecchio looked miserable. "You think she knows he tried to protect her?"
Stella held his gaze. "Do you think she'd care?"
"Fuck." He rubbed his forehead. "What do you say, after all this crap is done tonight, we go cash in that rain check?"
"A few beers, a few sad stories?" she asked.
"I kind of thought there'd be a party."
Vecchio glanced at the clock on the wall. "That'll be tomorrow. If it's anything like the last big one, Welsh and ASA Kowalski will take everyone to Joe's to celebrate. But first, we have to authenticate the painting and decide where to store it. And, you're right, maybe we can crack these two idiots."
She nodded. "Got it.
Later, they watched Fraser and Ray leave the station together. Vecchio stared after them. "This is because I shot him, isn't it? It has to be."
They hadn't been precisely rude in the way they'd left--the Mountie would never be less than polite--but Ray was single-minded at the best of times. "I don't know. I don't know Fraser well enough to guess, " Stella answered finally.
Vecchio gazed after them, although the doors had already swung shut, and back at Stella.
She made a face and he grinned back at her.
"Charmer," she said.
He laughed. He seemed tired, but a little less sad. "How about we go get that beer?"
She measured the pile of paperwork between them and decided it could wait for morning. "Yeah," she said, getting to her feet. "Let's call it a day."