(c) 1995 byMichael West



Michael West

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Chapter One

Friday, March 12

Capitola, California

It was way too early in the morning when I heard that tap-tap-tapping at my bungalow door. The coffee machine was gurgling, set to an automatic timer, but I hadn't had my first cup of Celebes yet. I pulled on a pair of bike shorts and padded through the shambles, cutting a tight slalom through the ginger ale empties and pizza boxes on the floor. When I cracked open the front door, there stood a guy in a boxy, double-breasted, navy-blue suit, designer tie and cordovan slip-ons polished to a blinding sheen. I blinked.

"William T. Shakespear?"

His greeting was formal, and it sounded like a summons. I knew at once he was a process server or a lawyer. Either way, I was probably in trouble.

"Depends," I said. "You from Prometheum? Okay, you can have the Mister Coffee back."

"I'm not from Prometheum. It's about another matter."

"My dad sent you." I had a sudden flash that my trust fund had been shut off. Dad had been threatening to do it for years, but as far as I knew he didn't have any legal means. He must have found one.

"May I come in? I have a business proposition for you, that is, ah, if you are, ah, Mr. William T. Shakespear."

The suit guy smiled in a kind of sneering way. His mustache looked like the yellowing bristles on a worn-out toothbrush. What could I do? I waved him into the sitting area. He entered tentatively, as if expecting cobwebs. I thought about picking up a few empties and a pizza box or two, but instead I helped myself to a cup of full-city Celebes, tossed in a thin spoon of sugar and stirred.

I said, "People call me Tommy, by the way. Not William T and certainly not Mister. Want some coffee? Just made."

"No, thanks," he said. "I've had mine."

We sat down, and the suit guy flipped open his attaché case. Polished oxblood, matching the shoes. This guy was really premeditated.

"I am Ted Wycliffe. I represent the Butler Museum of Art in Boston. You are, ah, familiar with the Butlers, I believe?"

He handed me his business card. Theodore Wycliffe, Esquire. Heavy stock, embossed letters. I felt the card and looked at it, pausing to consider my reply. The Butlers, one and all, were very very Boston society.

"Yes," I said. "I knew Beatrice pretty well."

Beatrice Butler was a poet, the namesake of her great aunt, Beatrice Longwood Butler, an art collector and consort to one of the world's richest men at the turn of the century. Aunt Beatrice had built herself a Venetian palace in Boston, now the Butler Museum, to house the fabled art collection she'd amassed while traveling through Europe with her beau financier, scattering greenbacks and snatching up masterpieces. Local legend had it that Aunt Beatrice had imported the villa stone by stone from Italy, reassembling it on land she owned across from the Back Bay Fens, where she would walk her pet leopards on sunny days.

Of course, the Beatrice I'd known had little in common with her late, great aunt, except for a love of art and, of course, that name, which had become a kind of curse to her. So Beatrice Butler had made that name into a central part of her act, together with the drugs, the neon body paint and the alto saxophone, figuring if you have an albatross around your neck you might as well call it a necklace. She had become an over-the-top performance artist to put off her proper Boston family and get out from under the shadow of her late, great aunt. And it had worked, finally. Too finally.

I looked at Wycliffe and wondered if he'd bring up her suicide. Was that what this was all about? I sipped at my coffee.

"I believe you're also acquainted with Jack Butler," he said.

I nodded. Jack had been Beatrice's favorite brother, the only family member who'd forgiven her the many indiscretions and, especially, her final one, the suicide.

"Mr. Butler has asked me to explore whether you would be available to, ah, consult on a very private matter."

"Which is?" I wondered.

"The theft from the Butler Museum two years ago of several very nearly priceless art works. Perhaps you read something about it at the time."

Very nearly? The Butler Museum was chock-full of paintings by Titian, Botticelli, Fra Angelico, Rembrandt, Vermeer and others.

"I read something," I said, noncommitally. "Jack and I spoke briefly about it the last time we met. Just a few paintings, wasn't it, and an urn?"

"A Vermeer, three Rembrandts, a Flinck, a Manet, four drawings by Degas, the Chinese Ku or urn, as you term it, and a bronze eagle, French. It was, I believe, the largest art theft in history."

I'd met Jack Butler at Beatrice's memorial service in Boston a little over a year ago. We'd exchanged a few words at the grave site and reminisced about Beatrice later at their big house on Chestnut Hill. When the conversation turned toward me, Id said something about being in private investigations. It was not exactly true. I'd been doing leg work for a lawyer, locating and interviewing witnesses, moonlighting as a security guard at the Coca-Cola plant, but I let him think I was traveling a lot, doing low-profile investigations--no divorce work, no repo -- corporate espionage, art thefts, insurance scams. I knew I was exaggerating to the point of lying, but Jack, like all the Butlers, had a way of making me feel insecure.

"Why didn't Jack just call me?" I asked.

"Mr. Butler is a very busy man. At the moment he's in the Bahamas on business. He asked me to contact you personally. Frankly, we had no idea whether, ah, you were still doing investigations."

"Still doing investigations?" I echoed Wycliffe, my voice trailing off in wonder. Hard to believe Jack would remember the lie I told him about being a PI, and, besides, Santa Cruz was a long way from Boston.

Yet here was this lawyer offering me a job. Amazing Grace, Pennies from Heaven. My head flooded with dumb-luck song titles. It was too good to be true. I set down my coffee cup and took a deep breath.

He continued. "You were strongly recommended by a mutual friend. Mr. Butler can fill you in on that. I tracked you down myself, and I'll admit you weren't so easy to find. Fortunately, Mr. Butler recalled your, ah, association with the Greenberg law offices. They were able to provide me with your present address and with a reference. Apparently, they think highly of you, too."

"Nevertheless," he droned on, "Present circumstances require, ah, some discretion. We already have a Boston agency working on this case, but we seem to have reached a dead end. We'd like to add another investigator who would try a different approach. You are still licensed in Boston?"

"Well, no. I'm not currently licensed in Boston."

Or anywhere else for that matter. The work I had done for Hank Greenberg had been as his employee, not as a licensed PI.

"Besides," I said, "What makes you think I'd come to Boston?"

"We are prepared to pay quite well for your consultation," he said. "Of course, if you're not interested...."

"But the license...?" I said.

"We can work that out. Mr. Butler is quite set on having you, a trusted family friend, working with us. I imagine we can have you temporarily assigned to the museum staff as security consultant."

I felt another twinge of guilt when I thought of how I'd lied to Jack. And I became aware of a little whisper inside my head, telling me something was wrong here, warning me away. When things seem too good to be true, they usually are. But the whisper wasn't loud enough, and it was way too late. Besides, I really needed the money.

"Okay," I found myself saying. "A thousand a day, plus expenses." I'd heard of people getting that much, but I figured we'd bargain some. I was wrong.

Wycliffe reached into his attaché case and took out a blue envelope. He set it down between us on the table.

"Here's an first class ticket to Boston and a certified bank check for ten thousand dollars as a retainer. Your flight leaves at two-thirty this afternoon. I think you'd better pack." He snapped his case shut and stood up to leave.

I'd better pack? Pack what? I thought about my extensive wardrobe. Bike shorts, jeans, assorted t-shirts, leather jacket, hiking boots, running shoes.

"You have a reservation at the Four Seasons Hotel. Jack Butler should be back in town in a day or two. In the meantime, drop by the museum and, ah, meet with the director, Dr. Louvenbragh, and the security chief, Fred Peavy. They will be expecting you. Sunday at the latest."

"Sunday?" I said. "People work on Sunday in Boston?"

"The museum closes on Mondays, and the staff has a planning session all day. Dr. Louvenbragh would like you to be on board as soon as possible. She would prefer Saturday. As I said, Sunday at the latest. Here is her number."

Wycliffe handed me a card with Dr. Amy Louvenbragh's contact info on it. We shook hands, and he was gone. I poured myself another cup of coffee and looked around my two-room stucco shack.

Something of a dump, but it's home. The front part is where I hang out -- lumpy green sofa and armchair, telephone-cable spool for my coffee table, and the black bean bag chair that Shiva, a friend of mine who writes videogames, gave me to dress up the place. At the other end, back toward my bedroom, is the folding table and chairs I bought at a yard sale. And the kitchen stuff. I have a stove top and refrigerator, but no oven, a microwave, a blender, a coffee bean grinder and a Mister Coffee machine I stole from Prometheum the day I got laid off. There is also a bathroom with a toilet and an old tub with feet. In the wayback I have a bedroom just big enough for a double bed and a dresser, barely enough room in there to get dressed. But it's cozy at night and magical when you're lying there in the dark listening to the waves breaking on the beach two hundred yards away. Outside, through a back door off the kitchen corner, I have a shower stall and a little backyard plot about eight by ten. Mostly crabgrass, but the neighborhood cats like it. So do I, and I was going to miss it.

When I was sure Wycliffe, Esquire was well out of sight, I stepped outside my front door and breathed in the morning air. One of the neighborhood cats, a calico named Slinky, slipped around the corner of my house and rubbed up against my bare leg. Across the way a few cars were parked by the beach, but nobody was on the street. The air felt cool and sharp, and there was nothing but blue all the way to heaven. I went back inside to get my mountain bike.

It was the perfect morning for a ride.