"There is nothing to be concerned about, I can assure you."
"I will need some time to think. Perhaps this was not such a good idea after all." Hart was talking more to himself than to anyone else.
Valfierno had to change the subject quickly. The last thing he wanted was for his client to dwell too much on the possible risks involved.
"I think you need to get your mind off it for a while," he said in his most soothing voice. "Evening is falling. The coolness in the air invites exploration of the city."
"You call this cool?" Hart said. "I can hardly breathe."
"Indeed," began Mrs. Hart in response to Valfierno, "we had spoken of perhaps a visit to the zoo." Her voice sounded hopeful but tentative.
"A magnificent idea," Valfierno said, grateful for the young woman's inadvertent help. "It remains open until at least seven, and the jaguar exhibit is not to be missed."
"My mother is quite looking forward to it, aren't you, Mother?"
The older woman gave only the slightest reaction, more to the touch of her daughter's hand than to her words.
Hart took notice of the women for the first time since exiting the museum. "Don't be absurd," he said, masking his irritation in a cloak of concern. "It's far too hot for that, and the streets are too dangerous at night. It's best that we go back to the hotel."
Mrs. Hart's lips parted slightly as if she was about to respond, but she said nothing.
Valfierno felt the sudden urge to support the young woman's wish.
"I can assure you," he said, "the streets are perfectly safe in this area."
"And who are you now?" Hart asked pointedly. "The mayor?"
Valfierno smiled, cocking his head slightly. "Not officially, no."
Valfierno was pleased to notice a brief smile flicker across Mrs. Hart's face.
"It's time to go," said Hart curtly, turning to his wife. "Come, dear." And without waiting for the women, he began striding across the plaza.
"Until the morning, Señor Hart," Valfierno called after him.
"I must think," Hart shot back with a dismissive wave of his hand. "I have to think."
Mrs. Hart acknowledged Valfierno with a slight nod before collecting her mother and following her husband.
Valfierno removed his hat. "Ladies," he said in farewell.
Hart and the two women were swallowed up by the crowds drawn out by the cooling evening. Taking a deep breath, Valfierno brought a white handkerchief up to his brow and allowed himself to sweat for the first time all afternoon.
Inside the gallery, the young maintenance man in the white blouse stood before Manet's La Ninfa Sorprendida. Checking one more time to make sure he was alone, he stepped forward and, with his left hand, tilted the bottom of the frame away from the wall. Reaching behind with his right hand, he applied pressure to the back of the canvas and pushed it up until he had exposed its bottom edge. Gripping it, he slowly pulled downward as if he were drawing a window blind closed. Bit by bit, he revealed a second painting, an identical copy, the one he had secured behind the original the evening before. He tugged steadily until he had removed the second painting without disturbing the masterpiece still occupying its frame.
He let the frame swing back gently to the wall and started to roll up the copy, noting the initials "J.H." written on the back in stylized letters.
"Who closed this gallery?"
The sound of the authoritative voice startled him. It came from the direction of the gallery entrance hidden from this angle by the freestanding center wall. One of the museum guards, no doubt.
The echo of footsteps told the young man that he had only seconds left before discovery. With rapid wrist motions, he finished rolling up the copy. Slipping the cylinder beneath his long blouse, he walked briskly to the end of the gallery farthest from the entrance. He turned the corner at the end of the center wall at the same time the guard turned the corner at the opposite end, so neither one saw the other. Walking rapidly toward the gallery entrance, he matched his stride to the sound of the guard's footsteps coming from the opposite side of the wall.
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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