THE DEVIL TO PLAY
Blinded by smoke, Scott Draco crouched in darkness as alarm bells wailed. He wiped his burning eyes on his sleeve and strained to hear any sounds the alarms weren't drowning out. His companions were surprisingly silent, save for a few choking coughs from Belinda. Underneath the din, he thought he heard a faint metallic scraping, a noise he couldn't quite identify.
When the smoke bomb went off, Draco's mind was surprisingly clear, and he started counting off the seconds, one by one. The metallic sound came at thirty seconds, and now, at about forty, the first drops from the sprinklers began raining down. The deluge was the last straw for Martin Mabie, who exclaimed, “Oh for the love of Pete!”
Draco could see a vague outline of Mabie now, looking like a ghost crab, as he crawled from under a table where he'd sought refuge and scuttled toward the door. Mabie yelled, “I'm going to turn those cursed things off before they ruin the exhibits. I'll be right back.” As he spoke those words, it had been only fifty seconds.
Just yesterday, Martin Mabie had contacted Draco with a peculiar request. He hadn't wanted the FBI or police involved, because he feared they would just laugh at him. Who in their right mind, after all, would take a threatening note against a violin seriously? But as director of the Asberg Museum of Fine Art, Mabie couldn't take that chance.
“A private investigator would be more discreet,” he'd said, pleading with Draco to help. Besides, Mabie had added, “Your music background makes you the ideal person, under the circumstances.”
Draco knew this was no ordinary violin, the Lady Ambrose Stradivarius. Although Lady Amelia Ambrose was the most recent owner of the Strad, it had a sinister past, including a Russian countess who murdered her lover to get her hands on the instrument, and most horribly, its use at Auschwitz in prisoner orchestras, who played as Nazis marched Jews to the gas chambers. But in the perverse world of collectors, its grisly history only made the instrument more valuable.
Babysitting that valuable instrument was why Draco found himself crouching among Balinese masks and Greek statues of Pan in a side room off the main hall at midnight, with Mabie, curator Jonas Pancoast, and insurance rep Belinda Tewksbury, who'd insisted on coming along to protect her company's investment. Mabie believed if the instrument truly were in jeopardy, tonight was the night—tomorrow it would go on tour with the Lafleur Quartet, before being sent on loan for six months to a museum in the Netherlands.
After Mabie scurried off in search of the sprinkler shut-off valve, the smoke all but gone, Draco checked on Jonas, who was wiping his wet glasses on his damp lapel, and Belinda, her tiny yellow Prada purse still over her head in a vain attempt to stave off the downpour. Seeing they were okay, Draco grabbed his flashlight and headed toward the violin display case.
The case was a stand-alone exhibit on an ebony pedestal in the middle of the hall, the bottom filled with a luxurious red velvet lining. Draco could clearly see indentations in the fabric where the violin had rested, but the violin itself was gone. What had the threatening note said? Occasio facit furem. Opportunity makes a thief.
Belinda joined him and stared glumly at the naked case, with strands of soggy dark hair plastered to her forehead, probably mirroring Draco's own. She sighed. “Maybe Wall Street stock traders are accustomed to losing two million dollars in under a minute, but I'm not. And I certainly don't think my bosses are the understanding sort.”
Jonas was agitation in motion, wringing his hands together, rocking back and forth on his feet. “Oh dear Lord, a centerpiece of the museum, gone. Just—gone. Do you know it brought in thousands of tourists?” He glanced up at Draco, “These exhibits become like our children, as we restore and care for them. I don't know what we'll do without the Lady.”
Belinda scowled. “At least you won't lose your job over it.”
With the sprinklers off now and the overhead fluorescents humming to life, Draco said to the pair, “I'll take that as my cue and check the other rooms. Keep an eye out. And don't touch anything.”
The Victorian room was the first he hurried through, dodging John Singer Sargent paintings and amethyst-colored sandwich glass. The smoke hadn't made it this far, although the sulfur smell followed him through the halls. He'd memorized the building layout and quickly checked all access points and even the bathrooms. The museum designers had fortunately planned for maximum traffic flow—leaving few hiding places, much to the dismay of small children, perhaps, but at least it made his search easier.
He didn't spy any evidence of other life forms, menacing or otherwise, save a spider in a corner of the Folk Art room, and his damp shoe prints were the only ones he saw. Still, Draco was keenly aware of his lack of a gun, something Mabie had insisted on. “Stray bullets in a museum full of expensive artifacts are not a good thing,” he'd said. The knife in Draco's Leatherman tool would have to do, if needed.
Back in the center hall, Jonas and Belinda had been rejoined by Mabie, all three continuing to stare into the empty case, as if their concentrated will might somehow blink the violin back into existence. On Draco's return, Mabie started pacing around the room, hands knitted behind his back.He grumbled, “I had to call the police. The alarm system would have alerted the security agency, anyway.” He stopped pacing long enough to flail his arms in the air. “Oh, I can just see the headlines in the newspapers: ‘Famous violin stolen from under museum director's own nose.' First incident like this we've ever had, and it happened under my watch. Our donors won't be happy.”
Belinda had fished a comb out of the yellow purse, but that wouldn't help the mascara running down her face like oil slicks in the street after a rain. She queried Draco, “Did you find anything?”
He shook his head. “All the doors were still bolted, no sign of anyone entering or exiting the building. I checked potential hiding places, but found no one.”
Belinda frowned. “Do you suppose this was an inside job, then?” She shivered. “They might still be in here somewhere. These musty museums have all kinds of attics and crawlspaces, don't they?” She moved a little closer to Draco.
Jonas placed his hand on the glass case and fingered the lock before Draco could stop him, and Draco quickly pulled Jonas's hand away. Jonas looked like a child who'd been corrected, but then he gave a half-smile and nodded. “I'm sorry. You said not to touch anything.” He put his hands in his pockets, and then turned to Mabie. “If it's an inside job, who would have keys? I thought you limit those?”
“You and I have the only two. I guess someone could have made an impression of the key. Or lock. Has your key ever been out of your possession, Jonas?”
Jonas shook his head. “I keep mine here in the museum safe. I don't even take it home.” He groaned. “This is like a biblical pestilence which stalks in the darkness.”
Belinda snorted. “Pestilence, nothing. This is greed, pure and simple. Although good luck to whoever tries to sell the thing. Rare violins aren't easy to pawn.”
Mabie stopped pacing again. “You don't think it'll end up in a sleazy pawn shop, do you? I can't bear to think of the Lady Ambrose next to cubic zirconia medallions of the Last Supper and sawed-off shotguns.”
Draco tried to reassure him, at least on that point. “This isn't a petty theft—someone went to too much trouble. High-profile cases like this usually involve collectors. The instrument could easily find its way into someone's private oak-paneled study, not turning up for decades.”
Belinda looked up at the skylights. Alarms and sprinklers had been replaced by lightning and a pounding rain which sounded like an orchestra of snare drums. Draco almost imagined he could see small bolts of lightning shooting from the top of Belinda's head as she fumed. “You can't begin to comprehend the paperwork involved. I wish now I'd been assigned to some jewelry account. People always want to steal necklaces or brooches, it comes with the territory. But a violin—how am I going to explain that one? Personally I'd take diamonds over a violin, any day.”
Mabie sniffed. “If you want to see baubles and rocks like the Hope Diamond, go the Natural History Museum. Our exhibits are cultural, not mere frivolities.”
Jonas spoke up. “Yet the Hope Diamond has a shady past, too. Or so legends of the diamond's curse suggest. I guess former owners like beheaded Marie Antoinette would agree, wouldn't they?”
Mabie ignored him. “Draco, do you think this is an inside job, then? You said you didn't see signs of an intruder.”
“Possibly. The note had a local postmark. Whoever took the instrument was very familiar with the building, security, and procedures. And of course, there is the matter of the key.”
Mabie put his hands over his face. “The Board of Trustees will have my
head on a platter.”
Belinda smirked. “Welcome to my world. And Marie Antoinette's.”
Mabie tugged hard on his grizzled beard, gritting his teeth in exasperation. “I guess I should go meet the police and show them the way.” He gave Draco a withering glare. “Since you've been so helpful, stick around down here. See if you can keep anything else from disappearing.”
Belinda said to Mabie, “Can I come with you? I have to make some phone calls to my employer. I'd love to put them off, but I suppose I have to face the music. Pun intended.”
Jonas piped up, “I'll stay put, if you don't mind.” He watched Mabie and Belinda leave, his hands still dutifully contained in the pockets of his white lab coat. “Why did Martin call you in the first place, Draco? Do you specialize in stolen antiquities?”
“No, but I have a music background, and he knew me through the friend of
“Music, as in the violin?”
“Piano, actually.” Draco thumped the violin case pedestal with his fingers. “This sounds solid, and no seams. Are any of the pedestals hollow?”
Jonas thought for a moment. “No, we only use hollow ones for exhibits like Hopi pottery, and never when there's a heavy glass case on it, like these here.”
Draco surveyed the soggy space, from the skylights down the walls, and across the displays to each corner. He walked back to the side room where they'd crouched earlier in the darkness and smoke. The rubber soles of his shoes made little noise on the wool-blend carpet. He clicked the timer on his watch and paced off the steps from the side room to the case, walking first, then running at a moderate clip. Ten seconds might just do it.
Jonas prodded him, “You mean piano, as in performing?”
“Um hmm. In a former life. Do you play an instrument?”
“I've got a tin ear. My first music teacher said the highest compliment she could give was I'd make a great scientist.”
Draco smiled. “I've found that music and science aren't all that far apart.”
Draco headed to the side room and began looking under the furniture pieces until he found what he was looking for. It was hidden rather appropriately under a curio cabinet with clawed feet and a fanged mask scowling at him. The smoke bomb was homemade, but expertly crafted, complete with timer. He brought the item into the main hall and set it next to the violin case.
Jonas stooped down for a closer look. “Kind of puny to cause such a
ruckus, isn't it?”
Draco said, “Doesn't have to be big. It just has to have the right ingredients in the right amounts. At least for a small room like the one in there.”
Jonas tried to chuckle, but his heart didn't seem to be in it. “I wish I'd thought of something like this. Curators don't make a lot of money, and my retirement account is almost nonexistent.” Draco studied the empty case again. There were no drops of water inside, on the cloth or the glass walls. He said, “The violin was taken before the sprinklers started.” Before the forty-second mark. He took out a handkerchief and used it to open and close the unlocked violin case. Five seconds, if you practiced. He was up to fifteen seconds now, leaving thirty-five.
Jonas watched him in silence first, before curiosity apparently got the better of him. “If you don't mind my asking, what exactly are you doing?”
“Time can be friend or foe to a thief—dependent on circumstances, planning, and luck. But in a precision strike like this, timing is crucial.”
“Then you think the thief is long gone and off to sell the violin by now?”
“I'm not at all convinced he's going to sell it.” Draco paced around the room methodically, over to the display case with the exotic flutes, one gold, one glass, one made from buffalo horn. Despite Jonas's assertions, he wanted to check for hollow pedestals. But the flute case wouldn't work anyway—too far. Back to the violin case, then over to the balalaika and lute exhibit. Again, too far. He was looking at about twenty-five seconds, the all-important gap.
There was a wall much closer to the case without any displays, but Draco saw an ordinary air duct near the baseboard, centered in plain sight. It was covered with a painted steel grate—the metallic sound during the chaos had occurred approximately thirty seconds after the smoke started. Draco strode over to the duct. Probably deep enough. And if you didn't care whether you hurt the violin or not, a dirty cramped space like this would suffice.
Jonas joined him, hovering over Draco, who was on hands and knees. “Looks too small for a thief to escape, don't you think? Unless he's an equatorial pygmy.”
Draco took out his Leatherman, and opened the screwdriver. The screws weren't tight and came out readily, leaving the grate to plop onto the floor. He carefully bent his long frame even lower to the ground, maneuvering a hand into the duct, and wrapped his fingers around what felt like a fret. As he pulled the Strad gently out of its hiding place, an air filter mask tumbled at his side.
“Extraordinary!” Jonas drew even closer as Draco held the Strad up to the light. “However did you know?”
“As I said, timing was the key.” Draco cradled the Strad in his arm. He'd never actually held one before. It was surprisingly lightweight, weighing about a pound, or $125,000 an ounce, by Belinda's estimate.
Draco said, “Smoke bomb goes off via timer, mask goes on. The thief arrives at the case, opens it, then removes the violin, about fifteen seconds total, if you practiced. Twenty-five seconds to open the vent, where the screws were barely in place, insert the violin, and push the grate back into place, leaving ten seconds to return to the starting point, before Mabie headed off in search of the sprinkler valve.”
He looked from the Strad, the lights glinting off the warm reddish-amber veneer, to Jonas, whose unblinking eyes were riveted on the instrument, as if hypnotized.
“Why did you do it, Jonas? I don't believe this has anything whatsoever to do with your retirement account.”
Jonas swallowed several times, then sneered, “You think I did this? I'm a curator. I take care of artifacts, I don't steal them. Maybe it was taken by the devil himself, he seems to be in the thick of things these days. As you say, it'll probably end up in the hands of some rich lawyer. Another symbol of the pestilence in our society today. Greed, greed, and more greed—that's what it's all about, isn't it?”
“That's the second time you've used that word.”
“Pestilence. Common in the Bible, of course, but not in everyday usage. Yet, in the threatening note, which Mabie said he'd shown only to me and no one else, it references ‘the pestilence of Lucifer.'”
Draco's skin and hair had dried out after the sprinkler drenching, so he doubted the beads of water forming on Jonas's forehead were sprinkler souvenirs. And a small vein in Jonas's temple was bulging, where it hadn't been before.
Draco continued, “A museum curator, who does restoration work like you, must have some background in chemistry, classes in conservation science—perhaps enough of a background to fashion a crude smoke bomb?”
Jonas had begun to resemble a time bomb himself, muscles tightly wound, jaw clenched. When he finally exploded, it was more like a controlled burn—low, intense, inflamed.
“That damned Nazi violin.” His contorted face resembled the mask on the curio cabinet, as his whole body shook. “Oh so sweetly it plays, the experts say. Ask my grandparents and my uncle marched to the gas chamber at Auschwitz how sweetly that violin played for them, as every swipe of that bow over those strings brought them closer and closer, step by step, to annihilation. The Nazis put more value on a piece of wood than a human life. It's every bit a pestilence. A pestilence in our collective human soul. And that violin is its hateful progeny.”
Jonas thrust a hand into his pocket and hissed, “It's the devil's violin. Don't you understand? It must be destroyed!” He whipped out a multitool like Draco's Leatherman, knife extended, and lunged. The knife sliced painfully through Draco's skin, but was stopped by the side of the violin.
Draco fell over from the impact, instinctively cushioning the Strad as he landed on his back. Jonas held the knife poised in his uplifted hand, eyes like a rabid dog, pupils dilated, his breathing hard and rasped. The sound of approaching voices stopped him, and he paused for a second, knife hand quivering like he was going to strike again, but then he dropped his hand and ran from the room.
Mabie, Belinda, and two police officers strolled in, stopping short as Draco hauled himself up. Mabie ran over to him and grabbed the Strad, overjoyed. As Draco wrapped his handkerchief around his arm, Mabie noticed specks of blood on the violin and carefully wiped them off with his shirt.
Belinda was almost giddy. “I'm glad I waited to call the boss, after all. Looks like my neck is safe from the chopping block.” She looked around. “Where's Jonas?”
Draco replied, “Fleeing, I would imagine.” He nodded his head toward the hall where Jonas had disappeared, and the police officers, taking the hint, ran after him.
“Jonas was behind this? So it was an inside job,” Mabie shook his head. “Well, I'll be. And to think I trusted Jonas with our most prized collections. I hope they throw the book at him.”
Belinda was quick to agree. “I saw in the newspaper the other day where some lowlife got twenty years for grand larceny, an impressionist painting. Jonas needs to be put behind bars where he can't steal again and make problems for people like me.” She added halfheartedly, “And the museum, of course.”
Both Belinda and Mabie were stroking the Strad, unable to take their hands off it. No questions about Jonas, no concern whatsoever for his welfare. How long had Jonas worked here? Fifteen years? Draco looked at the blood beginning to soak through the handkerchief on his arm, then back in the direction Jonas had fled. Maybe Jonas was right. Maybe this was the devil's violin, attracted to blood and human suffering. And tomorrow it would go on tour and be played again. He hoped the Lafleur Quartet had good life insurance.
One of BV Lawson's short stories received a Masters Literary Award from Center Press, and BV was a finalist for the 2007 Deadly Ink contest and was published in that anthology. Other publication credits include "Mysterical-E," "Great Mystery and Suspense," "Cantaraville," "ESC! Magazine," "Mouth Full of Bullets," and "Crime and Suspense." In addition, BV has written articles for "Mystery Readers Journal," "The Washington Times" and special-interest magazines, and penned public radio and commercial television feature scripts. BV is a member of Mystery Writers of America, Sisters in Crime, and Washington Independent Writers. BV's web site is bvlawson.com, and BV also operates the blog In Reference to Murder (inreferencetomurder.typepad.com).