He had expected the ladies to go first, but Hart immediately started to pound up the steps. Mrs. Hart seemed to hesitate for a moment so he decided to follow her husband without waiting.
Valfierno made a point of keeping one step behind and below Hart in a deliberate attempt to keep their heads at the same level. "You will not be disappointed, señor, I can assure you."
"I'd better not be."
Valfierno glanced back down. Mrs. Hart was gently leading her mother up the steps.
As they reached the top, Valfierno pulled out his pocket watch.
"The museum closes in fifteen minutes," he said. "Perfect timing."
They walked into the lobby, stopping and turning as Mrs. Hart and her mother entered behind them.
"I think it best if you remain here in the lobby," said Hart. "You understand, don't you, dear?" His tone was solicitous but firm.
"I just thought that Mother and I would like to see some of the - "
"We'll come back tomorrow... when you'll have more time to appreciate the art. I did say that I thought it best that you stay in the hotel. Now please, do as I say."
Valfierno sensed that Mrs. Hart was about to protest, but, after a brief pause, she averted her eyes and simply said, "As you wish."
The look Hart gave Valfierno was unmistakable: enough talk. With a brief nod to Mrs. Hart, Valfierno led him off through the museum.
The two men made their way through a large atrium, moving through the hazy dust suspended in the shafts of late afternoon sun. The few patrons who remained were already moving in the opposite direction on their way out.
"If I may say so," Valfierno began, "your wife is quite lovely."
"Yes," Hart said, clearly distracted.
"And her mother - "
Hart cut him off. "Her mother is an imbecile."
Valfierno could think of no response to this.
"She has no mind left," Hart continued. "Useless to bring her along in the first place, but my wife insisted."
A moment later, Valfierno and Hart stood before Edward Manet's La Ninfa Sorprendida mounted on a freestanding wall that ran down the center of the long gallery known as Sala 17. A zaftig nymph is clutching a white silky robe to her bosom to hide her nakedness. She is turned toward an intruder who has caught her sitting alone in a sylvan forest, perhaps preparing to swim in the pool behind her. Her eyes are wide with surprise, but her full lips, parted only slightly, suggest that, although she is startled, she is not ashamed.
Valfierno had stood here many times before and he always wondered, who was the intruder? A complete stranger? Someone she knew whom she expected to follow her? Or was Valfierno himself - or anyone else who stood in awe of her - the intruder?
"Exquisite, is it not?" Valfierno said, less a question than a statement.
Hart ignored him. He stood staring at the painting, sizing it up with the suspicious gaze of a man trying to find fault with a racehorse he's thinking of buying.
"It's darker than I thought it would be," Hart finally said.
"Yet the soft light of her skin draws one's eye out of the darkness, wouldn't you say?" Valfierno prompted.
"Yes, yes," Hart said, the impatience in his voice betraying his growing agitation. "And you tell me that it's one of his most celebrated works?"
"One among many," Valfierno allowed. "But certainly highly regarded."
Never oversell. Let the painting and the client's avarice do all the work.
Valfierno let the ensuing silence hang in the air. Timing was everything in such matters. Let Mr. Joshua Hart of Newport, Rhode Island, drink it all in. Let him absorb it until the thought of leaving Argentina without the object of his obsession was unimaginable.
"Señor Hart," he finally said, glancing at his pocket watch, "only five minutes to closing."
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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