This week I’m sharing a chapter from my art crime thriller “Wired” where we meet Stewart Connor for the first time. The cascading events of the novel are well underway at this point, and Connor will soon discover this is not a puzzle to be solved, but rather a chess match to be played. This is the beginning of his story.
Stewart Connor had a list of things to accomplish; it did not include a press conference or a VIP meet and greet which had been hastily added without his knowledge. He checked his cell phone again, then set the ringer to mute and dropped it into his jacket pocket.
“Connor. Ready?” An aged, line-backer body filled the doorway to Connor’s office making the ten by nine room shrink in volume. Hastings, his supervisor with the FBI for the past five years, held a blue file folder with a photo clipped to the front. He pulled it loose and slipped it inside.
“Let’s get this over with,” Connor said. “What’s that?” he indicated the folder.
“A new case, the call just came in and it was routed to our office from the local police.” He handed it over. “This is your expertise, assemble your facts and see where they go.”
Together they walked to the press room where the agency dispersed information to the media regarding arrests and made statements in times of emergency. Today the tone was different. Connor entered the room and found an empty corner near the back. He picked up the media briefing and held it as though he were there to listen with the rest of the reporters. Many of them knew his name, none of them knew what he looked like. Some of them even knew a few details of his cases, but had no link between those stories and his position with the agency.
Hastings dominated a dark wood podium that was set to the left side of the room. The remaining space, occupied by six paintings resting on metal easels, gave the illusion of impressionist windows. He stared out at the gathering with dampening authority.
“Late Wednesday afternoon, agents with the Federal Bureau of Investigation, along with the ATF, engaged in a recovery operation that involved agencies in Delaware and Pennsylvania, as well as local law enforcement. During the operation, three suspects were arrested on charges of alleged money laundering, transportation of stolen property and wire fraud. The paintings to my left were seized at Lion’s Share Antiques owned by James Lionel. Each piece is a remarkable masterpiece,” here Hastings paused and watched the expectant faces. “They are also excellent forgeries.” Many had believed they were looking at the real deal and now were pausing with note books in hand to look at the paintings with a more critical stare.
Connor watched a cameraman from CNN shift his equipment to get a clear shot through the bobbing heads.
“Our experts have removed any doubt that these are indeed forgeries with carefully manufactured papers to trace a legitimate provenance.”
Connor watched a woman standing next to him write in a scribbled shorthand on the back of her media brief. She included a tiny sketch and a question mark. Her hand shot up and Hastings opened the group to questions.
“How were you able to conclude they were fake? Were there markings, serial numbers… what was the tip-off?” She pressed a button on a digital recorder and held it toward Hastings. Connor doubted she’d get anything but garble.
He slid from the edge of the crowd found and empty chair in the hallway. He was tired. He’d spent the past two days holed up in a furnished apartment running negotiations between a paranoid Lionel and his FBI handler who had been reluctant to release the half million in cash they had to reel him in. Hastings had rushed the media blitz to ward off rumors of funding cuts. The sting had pulled the six fakes off the market and shut down a fraud ring that had bilked over three million dollars from unsuspecting buyers in as many countries. Numbers that large garnered attention from the public and fostered good will. Art theft seemed to be the only division that had to constantly prove its worth to survive.
He leaned back in the hard plastic chair and opened the folder. Inside was a Polaroid of a Frederic Remington bronze. The picture was faded and looked as though it had been dug out of an attic box or junk drawer. Scratches obscured the details and a crease, that someone had tried to flatten, left a white line down the middle. He turned his attention to the details.
The statue, usually on display in the Cowboy Hall of Fame and Western Heritage Center was removed for an exhibit on its way to New York. The conservationist charged with cleaning and packing the exhibit first noticed a scratch on the underside of the piece and had pulled the original photos and paperwork provided by Kelcey Devereux, a descendant of the young French Devereux who had received the statue as a gift from Frederic Remington. That’s when they realized they had a reproduction and no idea of when the bronze had been switched. The photo had arrived from a dealer in Oklahoma who claimed he saw it at a flea market in 1986 and had taken the snap shot while considering its re-sell potential. At the time, he’d thought it was just a good show piece, but once the switch had made headlines in Oklahoma City, he’d called the police.
Connor found it odd the man would make such a remote connection.
He closed his eyes and made the mental map of the details that led from the original gift to Devereux, then through his great-great grandson to the museum. The likelihood that the Remington in the photo was the lost bronze was a stretch. Remington was a beloved American artist who’d captured a free, vast and very wild frontier in paint and metal. The Buffalo Signal, because he’d made only one and then destroyed the mold, was a popular reproduction sold in hundreds of shops, museum stores and on the internet. Now, somewhere out there, the real Buffalo Signal, a young native American on horse back waving a buffalo skin over his head, was waiting for a buyer.
Connor knew the average price of a good reproduction ran between $1,500 and $3,000. But what would the price of Remington’s gift be on the black market?
Reporters drifted from the room with glazed expressions; the press conference was beginning to wind down. A few hung inside trying to get a closer look at the paintings: two Chagall, a Picasso, two by Gauguin and a vineyard scene by Van Gogh. Depending on world events and whether or not the President made another unexpected trip to the middle east, it might make the front page, albeit, under the fold.