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Caveat Emptor

Chapter Text

After midnight on March 18, 1990, two thieves disguised as police officers arrived at the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston, claiming that they were responding to a call about a disturbance in the courtyard. They then handcuffed the security guards, shut them in the basement of the building, and spent more than an hour in the museum stealing thirteen works of art including paintings by Rembrandt, Vermeer, Manet and Tortoni, and drawings by Degas. The crime has never been solved.

 

Nearly twenty years later …

 

MONDAY

Bonn

“Faber can be thankful I haven’t dismissed him on the spot. Something like this could bring disgrace down on the Museum and everyone who works here. The Museum’s reputation would be tarnished – the newspapers would have a field day!”

Inspector Gerd Scherer listened patiently to the Museum Director’s indignant tirade. The Director was behaving as if Faber’s actions were a calculated attack on the Museum’s integrity. Scherer supposed that he probably felt let down, since the young man was his protégé, but he thought the Director was taking it rather too personally.

Over in the corner, the young man who was the focus of his investigation sat clutching a thin plastic beaker, staring morosely at the plush carpet on the floor of the Director’s office.

Scherer almost felt sorry for Bruno Faber. He was the Director’s executive assistant, on a fast track to great things – but now he was in disgrace because of a lapse of judgement. Still, thought Scherer, it had been a very big lapse of judgement. Buying a stolen painting for a large amount of money was no minor indiscretion, whatever field you might work in.

Scherer’s junior officer hung up the phone. “Headquarters has contacted Interpol,” he said. “They’re sending Inspector Alain Fournier. He’ll be in Bonn tomorrow afternoon.”

The Museum Director sat down heavily in his chair and mopped his brow with a large white handkerchief. “Whatever happens, Inspector Scherer, I’m trusting you to keep this investigation discreet.”

Scherer smiled reassuringly. “Herr Director, the Museum is not implicated. The only connection is that Herr Faber works here. The Museum should suffer no disgrace.”

He crossed the room to speak to Faber, who looked miserable. With good cause: he could go to jail.

The initial interrogation hadn’t been difficult. Nervous, regretful, and embarrassed, Faber had fallen over himself to admit the facts. Yes, he’d known that the painting was stolen. Yes, he was aware that it was a major work of art that the authorities had been trying to recover for nearly twenty years. No, he couldn’t explain why he did it. He’d won the money at the races on a day out with friends, so he decided to splash out and buy something he wouldn’t be able to afford otherwise. It was a thrill – he’d wanted to do something daring for once in his life. No, he hadn’t considered the long term implications. Yes, of course he regretted doing it – just as he regretted getting drunk at a party and boasting about it to a girl he wanted to impress. He should have realised she might tell someone about it.

None of this was anything out of the ordinary to Scherer. Except – Faber had said that the man who sold the painting to him claimed it had been stolen by the thief Eroica.

Three years before, Scherer had been seconded to a special operations unit working with NATO Intelligence to provide protection for a secret Heads of Government meeting. The secondment had taught him a thing or two about international security, including that when an intelligence agency needs expertise, they’ll hire it without regard for conventional sensibilities. On that assignment, he’d worked closely with Major Klaus von dem Eberbach – and, although he hadn’t met the man himself, he knew that the Major had a specialist contractor working behind the scenes. Eroica.

Scherer held Major von dem Eberbach in high regard. Effective, efficient, objective: the kind of man the police force could learn from, in Scherer’s opinion. If one of his specialist contractors was likely to be in trouble, von dem Eberbach would want to know about it.

.

North Downs

Dorian picked up the phone, to hear Bonham say in worried tones, “It’s the Major, calling from Bonn. M’lord, ‘e don’t sound too pleased.”

“It’s all right, Bonham, put him through.”

A moment later, Klaus came on the line. “I think you have some explaining to do!” he snapped.

“Do I, darling?” Dorian asked mildly, wondering what had stirred Klaus into a temper this time. “What about?”

Volcanic fury simmered behind the voice on the other end of the line. “This morning, I got a phone call from an Inspector on the local police force. It seems that some idiot here in Bonn has purchased a stolen painting, taken from a museum in the United States years ago—“

“Sale of a stolen painting?” Dorian interrupted. “Surely this is a police matter, nothing to do with NATO. Why was your office even notified?”

“The call was unofficial. The fool who bought the painting said he’d been told it was stolen by Eroica. One of the investigating police officers knew about the connection between Eroica and NATO because he worked on a mission with us three years ago – so he called me, off the record.”

Dorian suddenly felt very cautious. “Klaus…” he said carefully. “What painting are we talking about?”

“Vermeer. The Concert.

“What! The Concert was one of the works stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990. Somebody bluffed their way into the museum, and made off with paintings, sketches, other objects—”

“So you do know about this theft!”

“Of course I do – it’s one of the most famous unsolved art thefts in living memory. But Klaus – it wasn’t me. Eroica didn’t do that job.”

“No? The seller asserted that this is why the painting has only reappeared now, after all this time. He said Eroica is well known for holding on to art pieces he has a personal regard for. This sounds like you.”

“Klaus, I’ve already told you—“

“Where were you in March 1990? In the United States?”

“No, I wasn’t!” Incensed at Klaus’s refusal to believe him, Dorian unleashed his own temper. “Even if I was, how dare you suggest I had anything to do with that theft? The thieves butchered those paintings when they stole them – hacked the canvasses out of their frames. I’d never do that – I have more respect for art!”

“An audacious operation, well timed, well targeted, no traces left – sounds like Eroica to me.”

“Uneven selection of artworks, damage to the paintings – not my style. Klaus, for goodness’ sake, why aren’t you listening to me?”

“If you’re lying—! Dorian, if you’re lying to me—!”

“I’m not lying. Damn it, Klaus, what do I have to say to make you believe what I’m telling you?”

“Dorian—! Dorian, if you did this—!” Inarticulate with fury, Klaus drew in a ragged, angry breath.

Silence reigned for a few moments.

“Klaus,” said Dorian, in serious tones. “I didn’t do it.”

“Dorian, Interpol is already involved. Even if you didn’t do this, if their investigations lead them to you they’ll arrest you. I don’t think I’ll be able to shield you. They’ll find something to charge you with, and if you’re convicted— I don’t like to think of what will happen to you in prison.”

Dorian could hear Klaus swallowing hard. He injected a light tone into his words that did not really match his feelings. “Then we’ll have to prove that it wasn’t Eroica – before they come looking for me.”

For the rest of the day, Dorian found himself brooding about Interpol. He’d had very few brushes with them during his long career as Eroica. His closest call had been many years before, when an Inspector Bannai had become obsessed with arresting him. Eroica had outflanked him, and the man retired quietly from Interpol shortly after that, on medical grounds. Word was that a serious nervous breakdown had rendered him unfit for service.

Klaus’s enraged accusations had been annoying, but the thing that unsettled Dorian was the realisation that Klaus’s rage was covering up his fears that this time, Dorian might really be in danger.