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Winter Light

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“Six billion dollars, Mr. Day,” her words took eerie flight throughout the empty gallery.

It was a Sunday morning and just before dawn. From the first floor of The Old Harbor Gallery, I stood listening and watching beyond the elegant silhouette of the curator and through the forty foot windows. From the eponymously named Cliff’s Edge Lighthouse, the slow rotation of a light filled the gallery and the inlet shoreline of Lake Superior.

“Mr. Day.”

The gallery went nearly dark again. I turned around. The sinewy Hilda Redge, enfolded in a black turtleneck cape, wanted my full attention.

“Six billion dollars is the annual figure for global art crime, sir.”

“And our missing painting jumps that number, of course.”

I was admonished with a haughty tsk as we looked over to the now empty paneled wall near the museum’s entrance. A dusty, six by nine outline newly supplanted the place of Horace Penderguff’s “Winter Light.”

“Money and beauty form a crass coupling, Mr. Day.” She held a finger to her chin. “Still, you will find the painting.”

I grinned and quoted her double my old fee. St. Killian’s could use the money for their annual Christmas charity drives.

“”Done. My part, that is.” She walked over with a retainer in hand. “Chief Larsson says that you come with the highest of recommendations: the recovery of Don Reynosa’s ‘A Rapt St. Agnes’ for a Boston museum and Hetzger’s ‘Autumn Clear’ for a Pittsburgh gallery. With us, you’ll exceed his recommendation, I’m sure.”

She stepped back into the darkness.

“And the police didn’t take the case, because…”

“Beauty’s underappreciation is part of its legacy.”

I’d had enough.

“I’ll need the gallery surveillance tape from last night—to begin.”

“That, Chief Larsson has.” She stepped even further back, stopping before another high window that walled the gallery. She turned her back to face the lake.  “Now if you don’t mind, I find daybreak to be a sight unrivaled, an exhilarating sensual…”

“—I’ll show myself out.”

The Volvo was in the shop, its second home, and I decided against a taxi. A long walk home from the tony end of the lake front, and in the winter wind, could only quicken analysis.

December’s promise of snow had not been kept. Making my way through lonely streets, I concluded the bare concrete and brown lawns were false accommodation for the Christmas season. Brown grass and LED lights spoke too loudly of the times. The theft of “Winter Light” cinched the hollowness of the secular. The mural-sized canvas, by one of America’s renowned “frontier artists,” translated the story of Joseph and Mary and the first Christmas into rural nineteenth century, Middle West America, with a fur-wearing  trapper playing the part of Joseph and his blanketed, expectant wife atop horseback, Mary. Surrounded by snow at the forest’s edge, the family stood in fixed mutual gaze upon a small church in the starlit horizon. A single, golden light from the solitary church window bid refuge and more.

“Who could steal such a painting?”

I stopped in the middle of Memorial Park, empty but lit, and looked around: “Where, how and to whom do you broker the black market sale of a six foot by nine foot painting?”

 

*  *  *  *

 

“So I can chalk this breakfast invitation down to Christmas feeling?” Larsson left his eggs untouched.

I sang the opening to the Bing Crosby tune of the same name.

As the waitress refilled his coffee, Bridge City’s police chief ordered another plate of sausage and gravy, the infamous specialty of The Scandia House. He was of a bygone era that saw girth as one with achievement.

I looked at his empty plate.

“So I’ll take up Pilates. Still paying?”

“I’m flush: ‘just hired by The Old Harbor Gallery.

“Knew it: retribution—and on a Sunday morning.”

“Why don’t the police handle it?”

“I Love ‘Whistler’s Mother,’ like my own. An Edvard Munch for every man, I say. But the clay and crayons crowd at the gallery’ll demand the painting be recovered yesterday. More than eighty per cent of stolen paintings are never recovered and that’s with full-time art theft people on the job in places like New York and Paris. With budgets for consultants and transnational travel no less. My department doesn’t need the black eye.”  Larsson thanked the waitress as she slid a plate of brown swamp at him. “This time of year, I got biker wars, a rash of burglaries, domestic calls round the clock, and a serial mugger dressed as Kris Kringle on my plate.”

“Lesser evils than what’s on it now.”

He brought a laptop out of a briefcase and put it on the table. He flipped it open, pressed a key and turned it to face me. The grainy surveillance video showed the double glass doors of The Old Harbor Gallery collapsing inward at 3:05 a.m. Two white males in down jackets, baggy jeans and baseball caps, bills lowered, executed a frenzied charge through the entrance, each scanning the darkened gallery every which way before taking the painting closest to them. Holding the painting, it was easy to see that one of the thieves was a foot taller, his chin clearing the frame by a fist.

I zoomed in several times, looking for clues in their nondescript urban uniforms, then on their person. Both had on rubber knee boots. The taller man had his shirt tail out and I committed to memory the initials “K.C.” that the dry cleaners had penned on the material tag. A tattoo of a dragon’s head, rested just below the shorter man’s ear. He sported zirconium studs in each ear.

“Any security guards at the gallery?” I shoved a stack of napkins at him.

“For The Old Harbor?”

“So I take it there was no GPS on the painting.”

He laughed and sat back.

I closed the video. “Two things. You’re a Bridge City native, any heirs to the  Penderguff estate still around?”

“One: a granddaughter, gotta be getting up there by now. She lives alone on the Lakewiew Line, in a small castle.”

I motioned to the waitress for the check.

“What else?” The Chief picked up a soiled menu, his eyes racing up and down.

“Tell me about this felonious St. Nick.”

“Witnesses say he’s circus huge, a steroid Santa; and all smash and grab: purses, wallets, cell phones, rings and watches. They all go in his big red sack. He’s strictly a weekend warrior, Friday and Saturday, early mornings and its always outside of a bar.”

“When patrons are least able to defend themselves.”

“Patrons?” Larsson grunted. “ ‘Also has a high voice and knows only one Christmas song.”

“I’ll jump. ‘In the Bleak Midwinter?’”

“ ‘Jingle Bell Rock.’ ”

I stood and dropped the tip on the table.

“If you are angling for linkage here, as the chief of police in this city, I got a right to know.”

“I’ll be in touch. Don’t even think about following me.”

 

*  *  *  *

 

From The Scandia Inn, I made as straight a line possible from downtown back to The Old Harbor, noticing every place of business along the way; the closer I came to the art gallery, the harder I tried to notice everything.

A half hour later, dodging in and out of Bridge City’s less than high-end lakefront streets, I found it: The Last Call. Wedged in between a law office and an abandoned stationery shop, the hovel of a bar was identifiable by its storefront light, a red cocktail glass. The owners, Knute Knudsen and Fran Mahaffey were sometimers at Taverty’s, so I’d tread lightly, if at all. They’d probably be taking down the chairs at this hour, prepping for the football crowd.

Twenty feet from the entrance, I knew I wouldn’t be going in. The reddish brown stain looked like the outline of some far away continent. It began on the wall of the lawyer’s office and then spilled out onto the sidewalk.

It wasn’t the only one.

I was more than half-sure now; less than two minutes at a quickened pace led me to a local fast food chain, The Ketchup Castle. It was an easy two hundred yards from The Old Harbor Gallery.

The line for lunch was mostly young kids. I used the wait to study every employee in sight. When it was my turn at the counter, I asked for the manager.

A lean brunette, she possessed an air of confidence and efficiency—in movement and speech—that only basic training could produce.

“Under five-eight and with ink under his ear?”

“Also has a down jacket—a bubble jacket, they call them.”

“Sure. Benny. He’s five-four on a stool.”

A gangly, shifty-eyed teenage employee stayed near the conversation, pretending to wipe down the milkshake machine.

“Bet Benny works nights.”

“You’d win.”

“I’ll double down and say Benny has a pal on that shift.”

“Jay Skeeler. He’s on tonight, and has a brother working here now. If there’s something I have to know—”

I assured her that she’d find out soon enough. I asked what time they closed, and then for her confidence on the matter.

“We close at ten.”

I thanked her, loud enough for half the restaurant and every employee behind the counter to hear.

“Good.  I’ll be back at closing.”

Heading back to the gallery, I pulled the collar of my toggle coat over my chin and braved my way through ice laden breeze from the lake.

“How things were off kilter,” I told myself, taking in the lake view: skateboard thugs and artnapping just didn’t square.

The gallery ended at a cul-de-sac facing the lake, to the side of it was a good ninety feet of botanical nightmare before you hit sand and the inlet shore. Ten minutes of searching produced a single, too steep footpath.

I fell only twice.

Near breathless, all the way down, I wondered who would chance this in the dark, less than sober and with a painting of that size?

“Winter Light” wasn’t taken for money or anything that had to do with beauty’s leverage.

On the sand, I walked out to the water and chose the direction with more sand than plant. Soaked by wind spray, I was twenty minutes along and halfway to the lighthouse when I passed a pair of joggers and an empty vodka bottle. I moved in from the shore and walked up to the eight foot hedge of wild purples, greens, and browns.

Beyond it was a fifty foot semi-circle of sand; beyond that was a crudely fashioned bivouac crowned by an awning of wild brush. A small, extinguished campfire stood before it.

I called out twice.

I stopped at the erstwhile fire and studied a neatly folded pile of clothes and a pair of overturned cardboard boxes. Water bottles and cereal boxes were neatly stacked against them. Next to them was a sleeping bag and a thin, multi-colored blanket partially caked in mud.

I stepped back to the campfire and kicked it around until I found what I’d hope I wouldn’t.  I straightened and backed myself slowly into the gray afternoon, the wind strong on my back.

There were still more hunches to play.

 

*  *  *  *

 

The taxi ride from The Old Harbor Gallery to Lutheran Memorial Hospital was less than ten minutes which was hardly enough time to dry off and more than enough time for a phone call.

I was let off in the circular driveway for ambulatory care.

“Your emergency, sir?” The receptionist was readying my forms.

“Just an ache, for Ella Kuhns.”

I got the once over. Twice. “Nurse Kuhns is on duty.”

I gave my name and was directed to a seat along the wall. Fifteen minutes into my time out the nurse disappeared behind swinging double doors. I closed my eyes and opened them to a petite woman in scrubs and a dark red pony tail.

“King of hard-to-get off his throne?”

“Nah. Just curious.”

“Nothin’ for nothin.’”

“A promise is something.”

She cupped an ear.

“Just a need to know, no name, no number: an admit, this morning between two thirty and four, around three hundred pounds, maybe a teenager and hurt—from a fight.”

It was her turn to disappear.

The doors swung open ten minutes later.

“Like you said but minus ten pounds. He received stitches and a long grilling by cops. He’s only seventeen.”

“That’s something.”

“It is.”

Ella got an IOU.

In the semi-darkness of late afternoon, I took a taxi to Taverty’s. The cab passed a line of lit Christmas trees that enclosed Memorial park. The driver had a transistor radio hanging from the glove box. Claude Thornhill’s “Snowfall” was barely audible. I wanted the song to continue after it ended and asked the driver to shut off his transistor until my stop. He let me out in front of Taverty’s and I gave him extra for the season and the silence.

I stopped in front of the weathered wood doors and thought for a moment. I was never good at asking for help. I probably wouldn’t be now.

With Taverty behind the bar, I counted a crowd of five. Only three were drinking. A fourth man, smaller and in his thirties, with very black hair and very pale skin sat quietly not far from the door. He faced it and me but from an angle. Before him was a cup of tea and a newspaper.

“Rory.” I nodded.

The patrons this evening, Collins, O’Gill, and Murtin, made up half of the lay Irish in the county.

“Can you handle the overflow?”

Taverty grunted and turned to make my usual: a shot of everything carbonated with ice.

“It’s this Santa Claus mugging business, Will,” Collins mumbled, his hand to his chin.

“A swinging St. Nick meant something else in my day,” O’Gill shook his head.

“They’re a vicious bunch of elves,” Murtin held up a finger for a refill.

“What I don’t get,” Taverty placed my drink before me, “Is why they don’t just ask for your wallet?”

“Right-o. After all, you’re loaded.” Collins threw up his hands.

“And ready to hand over the world.” O’Gill signaled for another.

“So why does this band of buggers come at you with,” Taverty swung wildly in the air, “metal bats?”

“—Mike Sodergaard’s still in a coma,” Murtin chimed in.

“It’s the all out on drinkers, I swear,” O’Gill lay his forehead on the bar and began to sob wildly.

“Now OG,” Collins lowered his voice, “Distraction’s no good. Let’s get them back by us doing what they hate.”

“Again!” Murtin raised his glass.

I looked to Taverty, his arms folded, and nodded behind me.

“No social call for Rory Fears?”

The bartender leaned in and brought his usual roar to a whisper. “They’re a violent lot Will; five in the hospital from the last two weeks alone.”

“I thought they were stopped cold at Mahaffey’s last night?”

“Not entirely. Fran was saying this afternoon that they may have bitten off more than they could chew at his place. Tell me the next time they’re not bound to use a gun.”

For the next hour, I nursed the liquid tooth decay and was half-in, half-out of a rolling discussion that ranged from guano to mating Reindeer. I became too conscious of Taverty sizing me up and stood to pay for a round of coffee.

“You look wrong, Will.” Taverty shooed the money away.

I could feel his eyes on my back as I left the bar.

 

*  *  *  *

 

At ten minutes after ten, from the roof of The Ketchup Castle, I watched the black Lincoln Navigator pull into the empty lot of the restaurant. Through night vision binoculars, I studied the male occupants as they piled out: one tall, one not; one in a yellow satin boxing robe dancing about, the younger brother from the restaurant, and finally, in exaggerated movements, an obese teenager with a bandaged ear. As he opened the passenger door of the SUV, golden foil balls of Ferrero Rocher chocolates spilled out, rolling in every direction.

I listened to a falsetto refrain of “Come out, come out wherever you are,” and climbed down the back of the restaurant, moving unseen to a dumpster at the back of the parking lot.

The boy leviathan strained his neck to take in the lot’s emptiness. Two of the three assistants were swinging at imagined pitches with aluminum bats. The champ kept dancing.

“Keep warming up, Ruger,” Benny yelled.

I was in jeans and cross trainers. My down jacket, with my cell phone, I threw to the ground before walking quickly towards the ringleader, hands at my sides.

“Lilliputian,” the teenager lifted a hand as if to swat a fly, his mouth full of chocolate. “You are an hors d’oeuvre!”

I inhaled as deeply as I could, then stomped on his lead foot and held it. From my hips, I gave way with the mother of all shoves. I lifted my foot and watched as he backpedaled wildly before going to his back.

Benny came at me first, his arms arching for a life-taking swing.

Counterintuitively, I moved in to get as close as possible. I caught the swinging arm and went with it, my foot kicking at his ankles. He spun to the concrete. I watched as one of the brothers got  back into the SUV and the other just plain ran. I also saw the manager of The Ketchup Castle come out of the restaurant to engage the now robe-less leftover. She kicked high and twice before he tried to come in with an elbow, as a boxer would use a jab. It missed.

We all fixed our eyes on the sirens of the Bridge City Police Department as they closed off the parking lot.

I watched as the champ tried to make his way behind the restaurant when out of the darkness a large figure in a pea coat stood to face him. The champ let fly with a haymaker but it never landed. He crumpled to the ground, one knee at a time, revealing the outline of Taverty’s shape and flight into darkness.

The manager came over first, then Larsson. He came over to us with a Santa Claus suit in his hand.

“These were in the Navigator.”

He pointed to a uniformed officer: “I’ll need statements all the way round.” He thanked the manager and turned to me, “and hours of station chat with you.”

“We’re not done.” I nodded over to Benny, who was sitting up being attended to by an EMT.

“Benny,” I kneeled next to him. “You’re already good for the muggings; get one up on these guys before they trade you for fresh air. Start with the painting.”

He looked over, blinking several times. The EMT confirmed that he was only winded.

“I’ll go, Benny: Santa got the worst of it at the The Last Call, right? Maybe ran into a linebacker from State University or a grappler; you and Skeeler then got scared, after all, you can’t lift that behemoth by yourself—“I pointed to his now standing leader, “—you need something right?”

“A stretcher, like.” Benny added. “We were walking around and Puney was bleeding all over the place and ready to pass out. Me and Skeeler busted into the art place, man, and grabbed whatever we thought could carry him. That painting was huge.”

“But it broke, so you…”

“Just tossed it over the side, right down toward the shore. Man, I didn’t mean to take a bat to you, really…”

I stood and looked at Larsson.

“One hour.” He held up a finger. I went for my jacket and my phone.

 

*  *  *  *

Even in the dark, I could tell that “Thea” Penderguff was a spry seventy something; and elegant. In the mists of midnight, she wore a white rain slicker belted at the waist.

“And this is Police Chief Larsson.” With The Old Harbor Gallery behind us, we shook hands while looking down on the shore.

“Thank you for the phone call.” She looked at me then behind the three of us. “And that’s Jan,” she half-turned to a wide shouldered man in a wool car coat and knit cap. “He’s quiet.”

“We’ll have to trek down to the sand.” I started towards the trail.

“I’ll lead,” the woman offered.

She did. We made it down to the sand in silence, cold and soaked by wind spray. I stepped to the front and we made our way single file, Jan lagging, and Larsson constantly looking back.

“Here.” I spotted the empty vodka bottle.

The three of us studied the crude camp, warmly lit from the bonfire that was mere yards from us. It was no different from this afternoon, except that three people sat staring back at us. A light haired woman clung to a boy in a blanket as a tall bearded man, his hair below his shoulders, stood, throwing off a sleeping bag.

“Go slow, you: hands out and up.” Larsson identified himself and asked for identification.

Thea Penderguff ignored the routine and walked over to the mother and child. An audible gasp was heard even by Jan as she looked to the boy and his muddied, multicolored blanket.

“We only want to help,” I took a step away from Larsson and toward the family.

“That’s right,” Thea managed, her fist to her mouth.

“Long way from home,” the police chief returned the man’s wallet. “Keep your hands where I can see them.”

Thea kept walking towards mother and child.

“We’ve nothing.” The mother stated clearly, searching our faces. As she moved to shield the boy, all noticed the slight roundedness of her stomach.

“So you’ll spend Christmas with us, then?” Thea Penderguff stopped and stared at the church painted on the boy’s blanket.

Larsson came over, “Where’d you get that blanket, son?”

Not more than four, he pointed behind us, off towards the shore. Larsson moved in closer.

“Son, I am afraid we’re going to have to—”

Thea held a hand up in Larsson’s direction. “Does it keep you warm?” She went down on a knee.

He nodded. “It will keep my brother warm too, when he gets here.”

“And he will,” the heiress exclaimed, her smile wide in the firelight. “He will.”


 

 

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