BUENOS AIRES - 1910
The marquis de Valerno stood tapping the knob handle of his gentleman's cane into the palm of his hand at the foot of the steps of the Museo Nacional de Bellas Artes. His Panama hat shaded his face, and his spotless white suit helped to reflect the sharp South American sun, but he was still uncomfortably warm. He could have chosen to stand at the top of the steps in the shadow of the museum portico, but he always preferred greeting his clients at street level and then walking up with them to the entrance. There was something about ascending the steps together that fostered easy and excited conversation, as if he and his client were embarking on a momentous journey, a journey that would enrich both of them.
He checked his pocket watch: 4:28. Joshua Hart would be punctual. He had amassed his fortune by making sure his trains ran on time. He became one of the richest men in the world by filling those trains with passengers reading his newspapers and loading them with mountains of coal and iron bound for his own factories to forge the steel for a new America.
4:30. Valfierno looked across the plaza. Joshua Hart - titan of industry - came on like the engine of one of his trains, a stout barrel of a man, robust at the age of sixty, clad in a black suit despite the heat. Valfierno could almost see the thick smoke curling upward from the stack of his stovepipe hat.
"Señor Hart," Valfierno said as the shorter man planted himself in front of him. "As always, it is an honor, a pleasure, and a privilege to see you."
"Save the horseshit, Valfierno," Hart said with only a slight hint of ironic camaraderie. "If this godforsaken country were any hotter, I would not be surprised to find out it was Hades itself."
"I would think," said Valfierno, "that the devil would find himself at home in any climate."
Hart allowed a grudging snicker of appreciation for this remark as he mopped his face with a white silk handkerchief. Only then did Valfierno take notice of the two slender women, both dressed in white, lacy dresses and both taller than Hart, collecting behind him like the cars of a loosely linked train. One was in her fifties, the other in her thirties perhaps. Valfierno had dealt with Hart on a number of occasions through the years, knew he was married, but had never met his wife. He could only assume that the younger woman was his daughter.
Valfierno doffed his hat in acknowledgment and looked to Hart for an introduction.
"Ah, yes, of course," Hart began with a hint of impatience. "May I introduce my wife, Mrs. Hart..."
Hart indicated the younger woman, who smiled demurely and only briefly made eye contact with Valfierno.
"...and this," Hart said, a hint of disapproval in his voice, "is her mother."
The older woman did not respond in any way.
Valfierno bowed. "Eduardo de Valfierno," he said, introducing himself. "It is a pleasure to meet you both."
Mrs. Hart's face was partly obscured by the wide brim of her hat, and Valfierno's first impression was of white, smooth skin and a delicately pointed chin.
Mrs. Hart's mother was a handsome - if somewhat worn - woman whose placid smile was fixed, as was her gaze, a blank stare concentrated on a point behind Valfierno's shoulder. He felt the urge to turn to see what she was looking at but thought better of it. Was she blind? No, not blind. Something else.
"I trust that you ladies are enjoying your visit," he said.
"We haven't as yet been able to see much," Mrs. Hart began, "but we're hoping that we - "
"Dear," Hart cut her off with forced politeness, "the marquis and I have business to conduct."
"Of course," Mrs. Hart said.
Hart turned back to Valfierno. "Let's get on with this, shall we?"
"By all means, señor," Valfierno replied with a brief look to Mrs. Hart as she gently brushed a fly away from her mother's shoulder. "After you," he added, gesturing with a flourish of his hand.
From Stealing Mona Lisa by Carson Morton. Copyright © 2011 by the author and reprinted by permission of St. Martins Press, LLC.
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