Will Oxley had questioned his decision at times. Why not sell cars? Work for Chevrolet? Everyone bought cars after the war. That’s where the money was. Chrome, billet grilles, and radios. Mercury. Lincoln. Studebaker. The Ford Crestline Victoria. But he had started his one-man art division at All American Insurance for the paintings.
He sat back on the vinyl seat as his cab sped toward the Third Avenue elevated, the last iron relic of the steam-powered trains that wrapped through Manhattan like a soot-stained ribbon, winding through the Bowery and up Third Avenue to Harlem. The green iron girders loomed over the Avenue as he passed under. The jostling of the cab only worsened as it ran along the cobblestone streets of the Village and did not let up until they reached the newly paved Second Avenue with its fourth-floor walkups built after Will had returned from the war, when the paintings began to mean something to him.
Will bounced on the seat as the cab careened up FDR Drive and along the murky-green East River. The stench of truck diesel, fresh fish, and sour trash floated in through the cracked window. Dockhands pushed dollies along the pier, the same pier he had waited on to board the battleship convoy to Liverpool. He had been packed eagerly for weeks waiting to receive his deployment date. Then there was the farewell dinner with his dad at the Lexington Diner on 83rd, a year of basic training, the staging in England, and on to Omaha Beach as an infantry replacement—twenty-nine days after Normandy.
Today, on the dock, workers cleaned and restocked a freighter tied down by rope woven thicker than his leg. As FDR curved around the wharf, the new development of the Stuyvesant apartment complex towered before him; a thousand windows textured the buildings with uniformed consistency, punctuated here and there with a tattered white curtain. Will’s cab sped past the United Nations rising from the bedrock like a green glass curtain, then lurched left and carried him into Midtown, past the Waldorf-Astoria, MoMA, the Stork Club, and at last tossed him out at the Stable Gallery on Fifty-Seventh Street.
Elaine Carter stood in front of the gray stone building. Her coffee-black hair hung straight down giving her an arresting appearance, framing a face some men would describe as unattractive, long with sunken eyes.
“Will Oxley!” she said, as he stepped from the cab. “Thank God you’ve come. You’re absolutely the best.”
When he first met her, Will learned Elaine had the shrewd insight to overcome her odd looks with a profuse amount of flattery. She told everyone they were absolutely the best before turning to the next fabulous person. But Will indulged her with a smile anyway. Slightly crooked, his smile turned the corner of his mouth up on the right side as if he were in the middle of a wink, giving the impression the conversation was more intimate than he intended. Subtle creases appeared at the corners of his eyes which women said softened his hard face.
“Why don’t you show me where they broke in,” he said.
Beaming from his smile, Elaine took hold of his arm, intertwining hers with his. “Can you believe it? My preview for the MoMA exhibit opens in four days, and here I am dealing with this.”
She led him along the large-cut gray stone wall of the gallery which had once served as a livery for horses when commercial stables extended the length of Manhattan. After horse and carriage transportation waned, the building was converted to a mannequin warehouse, then languished, empty for years, until Elaine fashioned the space into an art gallery. But unlike the galleries on Sixth Avenue where sales had doubled since the war selling Monets and Picassos, the Stable Gallery was new and on the fringe, showing modern, avant-garde artists; different than any other in Will’s book of clients.
“It’s dreadful what’s happened. Absolutely dreadful,” Elaine said, then feigning an urgent whisper, she leaned her body close for emphasis. “I’ve told no one, Will. Absolutely no one. A gallery must uphold its reputation. Where would I be without my reputation?” She stopped in mid-thought and pursed her lips together, then added, “Well, I did call the police, of course. They were completely incompetent. Can you imagine?”
Will could. After six years in the business, he knew that art thefts were eccentric cases. And unless the investigator was good, unless he cared, there was little chance for recovery and almost no chance of catching the thief, a fact that provided little motivation for the police. But Elaine had done what he had told her to; she would need the police report for the insurance claim.
“What did they say?” he asked, expecting little.
“Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” Elaine waved dismissively. “They came out and asked questions, took some photographs, and had me fill out ungodly amounts of paperwork. Just look at my hand.” She unrolled her hand in display as evidence of her torture.
“All they did was log it in,” he said, obliging Elaine’s dramatics with a concerned glance. “Now they’ll sit on the report and wait for a lead to fall on their desk. This is an ordinary robbery to them, Elaine, like a stolen car, a victimless crime. They won’t tend to the case at all.”
Elaine groaned and bent her knees, almost lowering herself to the floor. “They had no idea what they were doing. They took up half my morning. But I know you can fix this. They say this is what you’re good at.”
And he was, but success hadn’t come easy. For seven months after starting the business, he stared out of his office window twenty-three floors above Broadway and Wall Street with nothing to show for his time and effort—no clients, no calls. He persevered because of the paintings, because of what they had come to mean to him.
After the war, he would walk along the streets of Manhattan, trying to clear his head of the images that flashed before him without warning, and often found himself in a museum, away from the noises of the city which acted like triggers to his memories, lost in a painting. He would sit in front of one small Monet and study the tiny, broken brushstrokes that created a soft impression of a sunrise over a misty maritime scene. An early-morning blood-orange sun cast its warm glow over a blue-gray harbor with two small black fishing boats floating on the tranquil bay, their shadows dotting the water. Will imagined himself standing at the edge of the harbor alone, gazing out over the sea, not a sound in the air but the soft wind rolling over the water. When he lost himself in those moments, the memories of the hedgerows and the sound of bullets and tanks would fade into the back of his mind, the darkness of the war lifted, and his mind would clear if only for an hour.
He had fought his boss Lou Pritchett a year to let him start the division. He did not mention the war or nightmares or the need to protect the moments of peace that kept these memories at bay. That pain he kept to himself, burying the hurt deep into the darker corners of his mind. Rather, he discussed rising art prices and the growing market. Eventually, after determining the business made financial sense, Pritchett let him make sales calls. But not until Christie’s Auction House sold a painting for a record three hundred thousand dollars, did collectors take notice of their art’s value. A month later, Will recovered a Renoir oil sketch that had been stolen from a wealthy collector’s home. After a splash about the recovery in the newspaper, people began to call, and Will began to insure their art.
Since then, he had built a good book of clients—galleries, museums, wives of Wall Street bankers, and those with family money. He insured their paintings and when a painting was stolen, there was no replacement. Will had to recover the original. A thief’s goal was to sell the painting back into the market for quick cash, and Will needed to find it before the canvass changed hands, or the picture could disappear, hidden away in a warehouse or a brownstone, resurfacing years later when everyone had stopped searching for it.
When he and Elaine reached the far end of the warehouse, she pointed to a service door.
“There. They came through the storage entrance. They left it wide open this morning.”
Will ran his hand along the thin edge of the door, his fingers sliding down the smooth dark wood coated thick with lacquer. At first, nothing struck him as out of place—no signs of a break-in, no splintered wood, no evidence of forced entry. Then, he bent down on one knee and angled his head, peering at the face of the lock.
* * *
After a while, Elaine abandoned Will for other guests, so he grabbed another wine and drifted to the back of the gallery where the large Pollock hung on display. He lit a cigarette, took a long pull, and exhaled, smoke floating around him as he stared at the painting.
He peered deep into the knotted web of black and white paint splattered across the canvas, some strands thick, others thin. In certain areas, the black paint lay dull and flat, sunken deep into the canvass, while in others the blackness glimmered on top like wet paint. Delicate touches of tan and gray and a hint of sea-blue whirled against a dusty pink background. A sense of controlled chaos emanated from the canvass as Will stared. Then as if from out of nowhere, a voice startled him from behind.
“What do you think of it?”
Will turned, surprised to find a slender woman standing behind him, and his gaze lingered longer than he intended. Her long brown hair was pinned back into a knot at the nape of her neck. The style was simple with a strand sticking out of the back as if she had quickly dressed for the exhibit, preoccupied with more than looking pretty, which she still accomplished. She wore a black sheath dress cut straight at the sides which sculpted her hip line. But she seemed indifferent to her attire, a thoughtless yet perfect routine, and to Will, the dress appeared to be a kind of uniform, the same black sheath dress for all engagements.
“I could take it or leave it, I guess,” he said.
The woman squinted with curiosity. “That’s a refreshing change from the patent answers I usually hear from this crowd.” She turned toward the painting. “He lays the canvas on the floor and throws paint on it with a thick brush or a stick.”
She had a well-educated demeanor—Will guessed Ivy League—and could be mistaken for someone who belonged in a leather chair at the Knickerbocker Club. Not because she was boyish. In fact, she held her paper cup with feminine elegance, but rather because of the confidence with which she held it.
“He paints on the floor to get closer to the work. They’re all trying to get closer to their work. It’s what their pictures are about.”
Will imagined a balding Pollock standing over the canvass splattering paint in a jean jacket with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth like a garage mechanic. Will stepped forward so that his eyes were inches from the canvas, close enough to see the crisscross hash marks of the raw fabric underneath. On the surface of the painting, pressed into the paint and color, was the distinct impression of a work boot. Will could see the ridges of the sole. He could envision Pollock stepping into the painting, reaching to throw a viscous strand of paint.
Will turned back, and the woman offered her hand, looking directly into his eyes.
“I’m Liz Bower. Frank’s daughter.”
* * *
Ira Fenton paced outside the Artists Equity Union in Hell’s Kitchen, pulling on his third cigarette. The tip glowed in the alley darkness that surrounded the two electric lights hanging from the fire escape. The stench of onion and stale beer did not bother him as much as the filth that walked in and out of the strip bars a few blocks away.
He checked his watch again, twelve past ten, three minutes later than last time he had checked. Shit. He had been on eight raids since he had started with ALERT and every time the damned FBI contact arrived late. A situation for which he had no patience. There was no reason why they should not already be inside. Waiting out in the open made them too easy to notice.
A high pitch sizzle of a dying light bulb fought through the thick night air. Ira looked up at the streetlight above his men across the alley and watched the bulb flicker then go out with a sharp pop. The two men paced back and forth with their hands shoved deep into their coat pockets. They had both joined the private investigative group with Ira after he lost the union election at New York Steam. The union newsletter called his loss a humiliating defeat given the number of years Ira had been with the steam service company.
But losing the election made it easy to join ALERT. Ira would never work for a company with a commie run union. He had spent thirty years bringing steam power to Manhattan—from Battery Park to Ninety-Sixth Street, Grand Central to the Empire State Building—a hundred miles of steam pipe penetrating the underbelly of the city, making it possible to press clothes and clean restaurant dishes and sterilize hospital equipment. He had no intention of letting the commies take control of that American ingenuity to further their plans. He had worked his way up from a pipe-fitter and gave it everything he had, including late nights away from his family. By the end, Ira supervised the main station Kips Bay along the East River and that bullshit article on his defeat was the thanks he got.
Ira knew the unions were riddled with Communist, even if no one would admit it. After they announced the election results, when he stood up and yelled, “Damn Commies”, the room went silent. He told his boss the same when he quit the next day. Spilling over the coffee cup when he shoved the desk was an accident. His boss stood there staring at him, not saying a word in response, and in Ira’s mind, his silence sharpened his guilt. Communists were inside New York Steam. They had taken control of the union and his boss was too scared to act.
Now Ira stood underneath a fire escape—a part of the solution—working to eradicate the vermin. He had brought his tools and could go inside the building on his own. But if he did, he risked getting pulled off the job and he could not let that happen again.
At the sharp clack of a man’s heels echoing in the street, Ira looked up to see a slim man dressed in a charcoal gray suit approaching from Broadway. When he reached them, Ira flicked his cigarette to the curb almost hitting the man’s shoe.
“You’re late.” Ira’s voice was tight with impatience.
The man shrugged.
“We could handle this ourselves,” Ira continued.
“You know how it goes. The boss says one of us has to be on every black bag job.”
Black bag job. That was what they called it. But they were illegal break-ins, Ira knew that much—information gathering on subversive targets. The team worked at night, which Ira didn’t mind. He had spent most of his early years as a pipefitter down in the manholes, underneath the city in the dark with his blow torch. Besides, the night work left him his days to listen to the HUAC trials on his Firestone radio, hour by hour, which fortified his resolve. He relished listening to the committee members’ speeches and the pathetic mumbling of the guilty on trial, sitting there on the stand trying to hide their secrets.
“Then why does Hoover bother to hire us?” Ira asked.
“Hey!” The man shot up a quick hand. “No one said the name Hoover. And I’m not here. You’re not here. Got it? Private investigation means you don’t exist. Not to us, anyway.”