Elizam smiled at the congratulatory email on his screen. It had been his first real job for the Lost Art Register, the first investigative work that had gone beyond a basic due-diligence search to ensure that some painting about to go on auction had not been reported stolen. This had been his first recovery job, and it had been successful. It had been Eli who had recognized the hand of amateurs, who had flown to Kansas City and suspected at first glance two security guards taking a cigarette break outside the art-storage facility from which the small Henry Moores had gone missing. It had been Eli who had followed them for three days, who had got the cops—that old enemy—to the right place at the right time: the moment the thieves met up with their loser local fence, statues stupidly in hand.
Prior to his first real investigative assignment, much of Eli’s work had amounted to little more than telemarketing: phoning people reported to have had—or even just likely to have had—art stolen to convince them to list their works with the Register for a fee. Or occasionally there was the slightly more delicate job of phoning someone whose stolen property the Register had a lead on to see if they were willing to pony up a finder’s fee in an amount to justify the staff hours that might be involved in its recovery. This work managed to be boring and tickle his conscience at the same time, but Eli’s release from prison had not brought with it full autonomy. He needed his job. What helped ease the pangs was this: Everyone he called was either rich or institutional. Millionaires and billionaires, well-endowed museums, insurance companies. What he was doing was just a matter of moving some money around among those who could afford the give-and-take. Back and forth, forth and back. There were lines he wouldn’t cross, and he felt secure in his knowledge of just where those lines lay.
Eli’s desk backed diagonally into the corner of his office farthest from the door, which allowed him to face the door while keeping the office walls as distant as possible.
“You’ve got a knack for this work,” said his boss, stepping through the open door. “Takes one to know one, right?” Ted closed the door behind him and sat on one of the twin chairs facing the desk, his large hands capping his knees. The desk now separated them, as had the visiting-room table the day they had first met face to face.
“You have me all wrong,” said Eli, spreading his hands to give the appearance of humor, though he meant his words. You have me all wrong. He was nothing like those Missouri amateurs, who’d stolen what wasn’t theirs from the place that paid their bills, who’d been too dumb to know the value of what they had, too dumb to find a buyer to make the statues disappear without an incriminating trace. When he’d been on that side of things, he’d been good at what he’d done, and there was earned pride in the difference between criminal and art thief.
But Ted knew that. Eli’s skill was why he’d been offered this job and the early release it had helped secure. The distinction Eli wanted Ted to understand was this: He’d never taken anything from the person it really belonged to, never taken a beautiful thing from someone who deserved to possess it. His mission had never been to steal from but to give back, to turn tables needing turning. Repatriation. One rung up from Robin Hood. The joke of it all was that when he’d finally been caught, it had been for stealing something with his name on it: a painting by his own hand.
But Ted knew all that, too. That first visit, when he’d flown east to recruit Eli, Ted had led with a smart if easy line. “So,” he’d said, “I hear you like to return things to their rightful owners.”
So now Eli kept his mouth shut and the good mood on. “There’s another case I’m sniffing,” he told his boss. “The Mercury paintings. I’m pretty sure the lawyer’s got them. Slimeball after the finder’s fee. Should be easy to smoke him out, use a few dollars as bait.”
Ted had extraordinarily thick hair, going from dark to silver in a way that made it look like he’d been born old and was passing through middle age on his way to young. It lifted from his head like water leaving a fountain and moved in unison when he nodded. “You have good instincts, and I’ll put someone on that. But I’ve got something bigger for you.”
Eli straightened. Something that he couldn’t identify had entered Ted’s voice, some groove in his throat that gave it a more complex texture. Eli had no experience to draw from with men like Ted. Men born into easy citizenship, who belonged to clubs with golf courses, who had wives who were beautiful but so thin they looked frail, looked like someone you could sit across from but not lie on top of.
Ted had done him a good turn, and Eli even liked the man, but he couldn’t trust someone he didn’t know how to measure. Maybe Ted could be trusted and maybe he couldn’t, and Eli saw no reason to put himself in a position where it would matter which way it was. A caution with others that he’d learned the hard way, the cost being more than a decade of life as he would have lived it and the only woman he’d ever met whom he thought he could live with.
The image of dark hair against a smooth shoulder came to him when he blinked, real as taste, and he swallowed it.
“Bigger sounds good,” he said, “but remember I’m a rookie.”
“Well, the painting isn’t very big at all.” Ted tipped his chin toward Eli’s closed briefcase, which sat on the floor next to his desk. “Fit in that, maybe, if you needed it to.”
“So the price tag, that’s where the size comes in?”
Ted nodded. “Pretty big, but it’s more about the need for quiet, which may or may not be easy. There’s a body, too—that’s a problem. It seems that no one may care because this body got caught up in a sea of bodies. With a body, though, you never know whether there’s someone who cares but just doesn’t know yet. Or someone who cares and already knows but is playing it close for some reason or another.”
Eli sustained eye contact with effort and said, “Usually your lines are easy enough to read between, but I don’t know what the hell you’re talking about.”
“The Crescent City, Eli. You’re going to New Orleans. Right before the hurricane, guy turns up dead in a hotel room in possession of two paintings that have been missing from Europe for a dozen years.”
Eli did the simple math. “You don’t think?”
Ted smiled, shook his head. “It may have happened just before you went in, but definitely not your work—or really your part of the world.”
Eli swallowed again. “You said the paintings have already been found, so where do we come in?”
“I said two paintings were found, but, back when, three were stolen together. Your job is to find the third. The police are probably thinking that if they find the painting, they’ll find the killer, but for us it’s the reverse. Vice versa. I’m not saying you should catch a murderer, but if we can find out who might have wanted this guy dead, the third painting just might turn up.”
After Ted left his office, Eli read the file, which included a Times-Picayune story with an artist’s rendering of the unidentified man found dead on a bed in the Hotel Richelieu in a city waiting to hear whether it would take a direct hit from a powerful hurricane. The choice to use a drawing when someone could have photographed the corpse seemed strangely inefficient. Indeed, the artist with the charcoal and pencil had probably worked from such a photograph. A prohibition, probably—some taboo against publishing direct representations of mortality. Protect readers’ delicate sensibilities by rendering the dead in soft graphite, as something that might be fiction.
The suspicious circumstances mentioned in the article might have warranted a focused homicide investigation if that storm had never hit—a tourist dead inside an almost-tourist-district hotel is a problem no matter what crime rate you’re accustomed to—but a lot of bodies had journeyed through the morgue in the weeks that had followed the murder. Eli wondered if the perpetrator was smart that way or just lucky. Not smart, he decided, given that he seemed to have left behind two paintings that were as valuable as the one he’d taken. Or maybe smart but unlucky—interrupted.
Or maybe it was more complicated. Perhaps the missing painting had been sold earlier, and the murder and paintings were unconnected. If that was the case, the identity of the dead man would still be the only trail to the painting, but it might be a very long trail. Eli’s thoughts circled back to the paintings: There would be a reason the dead man had brought them to New Orleans. Or had found them there or bought them there or stolen them there from whoever had stolen them in the first place.
ELISE BLACKWELL is the author of four previous novels: Hunger, The Unnatural History of Cypress Parish, Grub, and An Unfinished Score. Her short stories and essays have been widely published, and her work has been named to various best-of-the-year lists, translated into several languages, and adapted for the stage as well as a song by The Decemberists. She teaches at the University of South Carolina, where she is also organizer and host of The Open Book. Her website is http://eliseblackwell.com/.
Photo credit: Nancy Santos
Adapted from The Lower Quarter, by Elise Blackwell, Copyright © 2015 by Elise Blackwell. With the permission of the publisher, Unbridled Books.