Joshua Hart leaned his head toward Valfierno, his eyes darting back to the painting. "But how will you get it? All of Buenos Aires will be up in arms. They're bound to catch us."
"Señor, every museum worth its salt has copies of its most important works ready to put up at a moment's notice. The public at large will never even know it's missing."
"But it's not the public I'm worried about. What about the police? What about the authorities?"
Valfierno had expected this, the moment when the client has second thoughts and tries to convince himself he has traveled thousands of miles to admire the object of his lust but now fears that the risks involved are too great.
"You overestimate the capabilities of the local authorities, señor. By the time they manage to organize their investigation, you'll be smoking a cigar on the deck of your ship staring out across the water at the Florida coast."
Hart floundered for a moment, searching for objections. Finally he said, "How do I even know that you won't deliver a copy instead of the real thing?"
This was the question Valfierno had been waiting for. He glanced up and down the narrow gallery. They were alone, and not by chance. Valfierno stepped toward the painting, motioning Hart to join him. Hart's face tightened with anxiety, but Valfierno encouraged him with a reassuring smile. Hart looked up and down the gallery before he took a step forward. Valfierno removed an ornate fountain pen from his pocket. Taking his time, he unscrewed the cap, placed it on the rear of the barrel, and offered it to Hart, who reacted as if it were a lethal weapon.
"Go on, take it," Valfierno encouraged.
Hart gingerly accepted the pen. Valfierno took hold of one side of the bottom of the frame and carefully tilted it away from the wall.
"Put a mark on the back of the canvas. Your initials if you like. Something you'll recognize."
"Time is running short, señor." It was said without haste or concern. A simple statement of fact.
Hart's breathing became short and labored as, leaning into the wall, he gripped the lower corner of the frame with his left hand and scribbled something on the back of the heavy canvas. Valfierno let the bottom of the frame fall gently back into position, checking to make sure the painting was level.
"I hope you know what you're doing," Hart said, handing the pen back.
Valfierno replaced the cap over the nib of the pen. "Leave the rest to me."
On their way out of the gallery, Valfierno and Hart passed a lanky young maintenance man in a long white blouse, his cap pulled low over his face as he leisurely pushed a mop across the wet floor. A temporary sign, galería cerrada, had been hung on the side of the archway. Hart gave the man a look of contempt as he was forced to step over a small puddle. He didn't register that Valfierno and the maintenance man exchanged a fleeting glance, Valfierno giving him a slight, knowing nod as he passed.
Valfierno, Joshua Hart, and the two ladies were the last patrons to leave the museum. Hart hurried down the steps first, clearly in an agitated state. Valfierno descended with Mrs. Hart and her mother.
"Tomorrow," he began, "you will have much more time to enjoy the pleasures of the museum."
"Yes," said Mrs. Hart. "I hope so."
Joshua Hart was waiting at the bottom of the steps, his back toward them. As soon as they had stepped onto the plaza behind him, he turned and shot a challenging question at Valfierno. "So, what happens now?"
Valfierno looked around to make sure they were out of earshot of anyone. "I will bring the item in question to your hotel in the morning."
"I have to tell you," Hart said, "I'm starting to feel uncomfortable about this whole thing."
A certain degree of last-minute resistance from a client was not unusual, of course, but Valfierno had not expected this much from Hart.
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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