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"Were I called on to define, very briefly, the term Art, I should call it the reproduction of what the Senses perceive in Nature through the veil of the soul."
—Edgar Allan Poe
Twenty Years Ago
Time played tricks on him whenever he stood in front of the easel. Hypnotized by the rhythm of the brush on the canvas, by one color merging into another, the two shades creating a third, the third melting into a fourth, he was lulled into a state of single-minded consciousness focused only on the image emerging. Immersed in the act of painting, he forgot obligations, missed classes, didn't remember to eat or to drink or look at the clock. This was why, at 5:25 that Friday evening, Lucian Glass was rushing down the urine-stinking steps to the gloomy subway platform when he should have already been uptown where Solange Jacobs was waiting for him at her father's framing gallery. Together, they planned to walk over to an exhibit a block away, at the Metropolitan Museum of Art.
When he reached the store, the shade was drawn and the Closed sign faced out, but the front door wasn't locked. Inside, none of the lamps were lit, but there was enough ambient twilight coming through the windows for him to see that Solange wasn't there, only dozens and dozens of empty frames, encasing nothing but pale yellow walls, crowded shoulder-to-shoulder, waiting to be filled like lost souls looking for mates.
As he hurried toward the workroom in the back, the commingled smells of glue and sawdust grew stronger and, except for his own voice calling out, the silence louder.
Stopping on the threshold, he looked around but saw only more empty frames.Where was she? And why was she here alone? Lucian was walking toward the worktable, wondering if there was another room back there, when he saw her. Solange was sprawled on the floor, thrown against a large, ornate frame as if she were its masterpiece, her blood splattered on its broken gold arms, a still life in terror. There were cuts on her face and hands and more blood pooled beneath her.
Kneeling, he touched her shoulder. "Solange?"
Her eyes stayed closed but she offered a ghost of a smile.
While he was thinking of what to do first—help her or call 911—she opened her eyes and lifted her hand to her cheek. Her fingertips came away red with blood.
"Cut?" she asked, as if she had no idea what had happened.
"Promise," she whispered, "you won't paint me like this…" Solange had a crescent-shaped scar on her forehead and was forever making sure her bangs covered it. Then, catching herself, she'd laugh at her vanity. That laugh now came out as a moan.
When her eyes fluttered closed, Lucian put his head on her chest. He couldn't hear a heartbeat. Putting his mouth over hers, he attempted resuscitation, frantically mimicking what he'd seen people do in movies, not sure he was doing it right.
He thought he saw her hand move and had a moment of elation that she was going to be all right before realizing it was only his reflection moving in the frame. His head back on her chest, he listened but heard nothing. As he lay there, Solange's blood seeping out of her wound, soaking his hair and shirt, he felt a short, fierce burst of wind.
Lucian was tall but thin… just a skinny kid studying to be a painter. He didn't know how to defend himself, didn't know how to deflect the knife that came down, ripping through his shirt and flesh and muscle. Again. And then again. So many times that finally he wasn't feeling the pain; he was the pain, had become the agony. Making an effort to stay focused, as if somehow that would matter, he tried to memorize all the colors of the scene around him: his attacker's shirtsleeve was ochre, Solange's skin was titanium white… he was drifting…
There were voices next, very far-off and indistinct. Lucian tried to grasp what they were saying.
"…extensive blood loss…"
"…multiple stab wounds…"
He was traveling away from the words. Or were they traveling away from him? Were the people leaving him alone here? Didn't they realize he was hurt? No, they weren't leaving him… they were lifting him. Moving him. He felt cool air on his face. Heard traffic.
Their voices were becoming more indistinct.
"…can't get a pulse…"
"We're losing him…quick, quick. We're losing him…"
The distance between where he was and where they were increased with every second. The words were just faint whispers now, as soft as a wisp of Solange's hair.
"Too late…he's gone."
The last thing he heard was one paramedic telling the other the time was 6:59 p.m. A silence entered Lucian, filling him up and giving him, at last, respite from the pain.
The building on Fortieth Street and Third Avenue was a series of cantilevered glass boxes. Upstairs on the sixteenth floor, in an opulent office inconsistent with the modern structure, three men were on a conference call with a fourth via a secure phone line. It was an unnecessary precaution. When the mission of Iran to the UN had rented this space, they'd torn down the walls so they could properly insulate against long-range distance microphones. But one could never be too cautious, especially on foreign soil.
A fog of smoke hung over the windowless conference room table and the odor of heavy tobacco overwhelmed Ali Samimi. He hated the stink of the Cuban cigars but he wasn't in charge here and couldn't complain. He coughed. Coughed again. It was so like his boss to blow the smoke in his direction, despite knowing he was sensitive to it. Farid Taghinia was one mean motherfucking son of a bitch. Samimi stifled the smile that just thinking the American curse words brought to his lips.
"We have no trouble working with the British, the French or the Austrians. Only with the Americans do complications and conflict continue to arise. Haven't I been generous in offering to allow the museum to keep the sculpture for the opening of their new wing? Haven't they seen the documents we provided proving the sculpture was stolen? Why are they still hesitating?" Even though his voice was traveling six thousand miles, from Tehran to Manhattan, Hicham Nassir's puzzlement was perceptible.
"Because I haven't shown them the documents," said Vartan Reza, a craggy-faced, Iranian-born American lawyer who specialized in cultural heritage cases. It had been almost two years since the mission had hired Reza to orchestrate the return of a piece of sculpture currently owned by the Metropolitan Museum of Art on the basis that it had been illegally taken out of Iran over a hundred years before. The lawyer had hesitated in accepting the case until Taghinia had made it clear that a generous fee would not be the lawyer's only recompense. The members of Reza's family still living in Tehran would be well provided for, too.
If Samimi had respected Taghinia at all, he would have been impressed by his boss's cunning—offering a generous bonus wrapped around a threat. Instead it made him all the more nervous about watching his own back.
"Didn't show them the papers? Why is that?" demanded Taghinia from the opposite end of the table as he put the Cuban up to his mouth and inhaled again.
"I have some questions about their authenticity," Reza explained. "And I don't want to turn anything over to the museum's attorneys that might prove embarrassing and hurt our case."
Taghinia picked a piece of tobacco off his thick lips, blinked his lizard-brown eyes and started tapping his foot on the carpet. "Questions?" Tap, tap. "Questions at this point are not a good thing, Mr. Reza."Tap, tap. "Our government is losing patience."
"Regardless, it's not in your best interest to have me proceed rashly."
Taghinia glared at Samimi as if this was somehow the underling's fault. The only real civility and cooperation between Iran and America was in the cultural arena, and if this issue dragged on and became an international incident it wouldn't help either country's already strained diplomatic efforts.
"Were you aware of this?" he asked.
"I don't care if Samimi knew about it or not. I want to know what's wrong with the documents." Nassir's voice drew everyone's attention back to the squawk box in the middle of the highly polished ebony table.
"I don't believe they're authentic," Reza said.
"What?" Taghinia's face flushed with an emotion that read as outrage but that Samimi suspected was guilt.
"That's impossible," said Nassir. "Reza, do you understand? That's impossible."
Samimi had never heard the minister of culture so upset. Nassir had studied art history at Oxford and had published two books on Islamic art that had each been translated into more than twenty languages. Nassir had once said that he believed every piece in Iran's museum was a member of his family and it was up to him to safeguard them all.
"The partage agreement that details the fate of the objects found at the Susa excavations is dated 1885," Reza said.
"Yes?" Nassir asked.
"The paper it's written on was manufactured in 1910," Reza explained.
"I'm afraid not. I've had two experts test it."
"But there are corroborating records," the minister argued.
"None that mention this piece by name or description, Mr. Nassir. For the past eighteen months, we've been operating on the assumption that these papers were authentic. We've built our whole case on them. This is a serious setback."
At the heart of Iran's request was an eight-foot-tall chryselephantine statue of the Greek god Hypnos, the god of sleep, which neither Samimi nor anyone else on the phone call had ever seen. According to art historians, some of the best chryselephantine sculpture came from the city of Delphi, which had been looted by the Phokians in the mid-fourth century BC...