PROLOGUE PORT NAVAS, CORNWALL
By coincidence it was Timothy Peel who first learned that the stranger had returned to Cornwall. He made the discovery shortly before midnight on a rain-swept Wednesday in mid- September. And only because he had politely declined the persistent entreaties from the boys at work to attend the midweek bash at the Godolphin Arms up in Marazion.
It was a mystery to Peel why they still bothered to invite him. Truth be told, he had never cared much for the company of drinkers. And these days, whenever he set foot in a pub, there was at least one intoxicated soul who would try to badger him into talking about “little Adam Hathaway.” Six months earlier, in one of the most dramatic rescues in the history of the Royal National Lifeboat Institution, Peel had plucked the six-year-old boy from the treacherous surf off Sennen Cove. The newspapers had crowned Peel a national hero but were then dumbfounded when the broad-shouldered twenty-two-year-old with movie-idol looks refused to grant a single interview. Peel’s silence privately annoyed his colleagues, any one of whom would have leapt at the chance for a few moments of celebrity, even if it meant reciting the old clichés about “the importance of teamwork” and “the proud traditions of a proud service.” Nor did it sit well with the beleaguered residents of West Cornwall, who were always looking for a good reason to boast about a local boy and stick it to the English snobs from “up-country.” From Falmouth Bay to Land’s End, the mere mention of Peel’s name invariably provoked a puzzled shake of the head. A bit odd, they would say. Always was. Must have been the divorce. Never knew his real father. And that mother! Always took up with the wrong sort. Remember Derek, the whiskey-soaked playwright? Heard he used to beat the lad. At least that was the rumor in Port Navas.
It was true about the divorce. And even the beatings. In fact, most of the idle gossip about Peel had a ring of accuracy. But none of it had anything to do with his refusal to accept his role as hero. Peel’s silence was a tribute to a man he had known only briefly, a long time ago. A man who had lived just up Port Navas Quay in the old foreman’s cottage near the oyster farm. A man who had taught him how to sail and how to repair old motorcars; who had taught him about the power of loyalty and the beauty of opera. A man who had taught him there was no reason to boast simply for doing one’s job.
The man had a poetic foreign-sounding name, but Peel had always thought of him only as the stranger. He had been Peel’s accomplice, Peel’s guardian angel. And even though he had been gone from Cornwall for many years now, Peel occasionally still watched for him, just as he had when he was a boy of eleven. Peel still had the dog-eared logbook he had kept of the stranger’s erratic comings and goings, and the photos of the eerie white lights that used to glow in the stranger’s cottage at night. And even now, Peel could picture the stranger at the wheel of his beloved wooden ketch, coming up the Helford Passage after a long night alone on the sea. Peel would always be waiting in his bedroom window, his arm raised in a silent salute. And the stranger, when he spotted him, would always flash his running lights twice in response.
There were few reminders of those days left in Port Navas. Peel’s mother had moved to the Algarve coast of Portugal with her new lover. Derek the drunken playwright was rumored to be living in a beachfront hut in Wales. And the old foreman’s cottage had been completely renovated and was now owned by posh weekenders from London who threw loud parties and were forever yelling at their spoiled children. All that remained of the stranger was his ketch, which he had bequeathed to Peel the night he fled Cornwall for parts unknown.
On that rainy evening in mid-September, the boat was bobbing at its mooring in the tidal creek, waves nudging gently against its hull, when an unfamiliar engine note lifted Peel from his bed and carried him back to his familiar outpost in the window. There, peering into the wet gloom, he spotted a metallic gray Range Rover making its way slowly along the road. It came to a stop outside the old foreman’s cottage and idled a moment, headlamps doused, wipers beating a steady rhythm. Then the driver’s-side door suddenly swung open, and a figure emerged wearing a dark green Barbour raincoat and a waterproof flat cap pulled low over his brow. Even from a distance, Peel knew instantly it was the stranger. It was the walk that betrayed him --- the confident, purposeful stride that seemed to propel him effortlessly toward the edge of the quay. He paused there briefly, carefully avoiding the pool of light from the single lamp, and stared at the ketch. Then he quickly descended the flight of stone steps to the river and disappeared from view.
At first, Peel wondered whether the stranger had come back to lay claim to the boat. But that fear receded when he suddenly reappeared, clutching a small parcel in his left hand. It was about the size of a hardcover book and appeared to be wrapped in plastic. Judging from the coat of slime on the surface, the package had been concealed for a long time. Peel had once imagined the stranger to be a smuggler. Perhaps he had been right after all.
It was then Peel noticed that the stranger was not alone. Someone was waiting for him in the front seat of the Rover. Peel couldn’t quite make out the face, only a silhouette and a halo of riotous hair. He smiled for the first time. It seemed the stranger finally had a woman in his life.
Peel heard the muffled thump of a door closing and saw the Rover lurch instantly forward. If he hurried, there was just enough time to intercept it. Instead, in the grips of a feeling he had not known since childhood, he stood motionless in the window, arm raised in a silent salute. The Rover gathered speed and for an instant Peel feared the stranger had not seen the signal. Then it slowed suddenly and the headlamps flashed twice before passing beneath Peel’s window and vanishing into the night.
Peel remained at his post a moment longer, listening as the sound of the engine faded into silence. Then he climbed back into bed and pulled his blankets beneath his chin. His mother was gone, Derek was in Wales, and the old foreman’s cottage was under foreign occupation. But for now, Peel was not alone. The stranger had returned to Cornwall.
Though the stranger did not know it, two disparate series of events were by that night already conspiring to lure him back onto the field of battle. One was being played out behind the locked doors of the world’s secret intelligence services while the other was the subject of a global media frenzy. The newspapers had dubbed it “the summer of theft,” the worst epidemic of art heists to sweep Europe in a generation. Across the Continent, priceless paintings were disappearing like postcards plucked from the rack of a sidewalk kiosk. The anguished masters of the art universe had professed shock over the rash of robberies, though the true professionals inside law enforcement admitted it was small wonder there were any paintings left to steal. “If you nail a hundred million dollars to a poorly guarded wall,” said one beleaguered official from Interpol, “it’s only a matter of time before a determined thief will try to walk away with it.”
The brazenness of the criminals was matched only by their competence. That they were skilled was beyond question. But what the police admired most about their opponents was their iron discipline. There were no leaks, no signs of internal intrigue, and not a single demand for ransom --- at least not a real one. The thieves stole often but selectively, never taking more than a single painting at a time. These were not amateurs looking for quick scores or organized crime figures looking for a source of underworld cash. These were art thieves in the purest sense. One weary detective predicted that in all likelihood the paintings taken that long, hot summer would be missing for years, if not decades. In fact, he added morosely, chances were extremely good they would find their way into the Museum of the Missing and never be seen by the public again.
Even the police marveled at the variety of the thieves’ game. It was a bit like watching a great tennis player who could win on clay one week and grass the next. In June, the thieves recruited a disgruntled security guard at the Kunsthistorisches Museum in Vienna and carried out an overnight theft of Caravaggio’s David with the Head of Goliath. In July, they opted for a daring commando-style raid in Barcelona and relieved the Museu Picasso of Portrait of Señora Canals. Just one week later, the lovely Maisons à Fenouillet vanished so quietly from the walls of the Matisse Museum in Nice that bewildered French police wondered whether it had grown a pair of legs and walked out on its own. And then, on the last day of August, there was the textbook smash-and-grab job at the Courtauld Gallery in London that netted Self-Portrait with Bandaged Ear by Vincent van Gogh. Total time of the operation was a stunning ninety-seven seconds --- even more impressive given the fact that one of the thieves had paused on the way out a second- floor window to make an obscene gesture toward Modigliani’s luscious Female Nude. By that evening, the surveillance video was required viewing on the Internet. It was, said the Courtauld’s distraught director, a fitting end to a perfectly dreadful summer.
The thefts prompted a predictable round of finger-pointing over lax security at the world’s museums. The Times reported that a recent internal review at the Courtauld had strongly recommended moving the Van Gogh to a more secure location. The findings had been rejected, however, because the gallery’s director liked the painting exactly where it was. Not to be outdone, the Telegraph weighed in with an authoritative series on the financial woes affecting Britain’s great museums. It pointed out that the National Gallery and the Tate didn’t even bother to insure their collections, relying instead on security cameras and poorly paid guards to keep them safe. “We shouldn’t be asking ourselves how it is great works of art disappear from museum walls,” the renowned London art dealer Julian Isherwood told the newspaper. “Instead, we should be asking ourselves why it doesn’t happen more often. Little by little, our cultural heritage is being plundered.”
The handful of museums with the resources to increase security rapidly did so while those living hand to mouth could only bar their doors and pray they were not next on the thieves’ list. But when September passed without another robbery, the art world breathed a collective sigh of relief and blithely reassured itself the worst had passed. As for the world of mere mortals, it had already moved on to weightier matters. With wars still raging in Iraq and Afghanistan, and the global economy still teetering on the edge of the abyss, few could muster a great deal of moral outrage over the loss of four rectangles of canvas covered in paint. The head of one international-aid organization estimated that the combined value of the missing works could feed the hungry in Africa for years to come. Would it not be better, she asked, if the rich did something more useful with their excess millions than line their walls and fill their secret bank vaults with art?
Such words were heresy to Julian Isherwood and his brethren, who depended on the avarice of the rich for their living. But they did find a receptive audience in Glastonbury, the ancient city of pilgrimage located west of London in the Somerset Levels. In the Middle Ages, the Christian faithful had flocked to Glastonbury to see its famous abbey and to stand beneath the Holy Thorn tree, said to have sprouted when Joseph of Arimathea, disciple of Jesus, laid his walking stick upon the ground in the Year of Our Lord 63. Now, two millennia later, the abbey was but a glorious ruin, the remnants of its once-soaring nave standing forlornly in an emerald parkland like gravestones to a dead faith. The new pilgrims to Glastonbury rarely bothered to visit, preferring instead to traipse up the slopes of the mystical hill known as the Tor or to shuffle past the New Age paraphernalia shops lining the High Street. Some came in search of themselves; others, for a hand to guide them. And a few actually still came in search of God. Or at least a reasonable facsimile of God.
Christopher Liddell had come for none of these reasons. He had come for a woman and stayed for a child. He was not a pilgrim. He was a prisoner.
It was Hester who had dragged him here --- Hester, his greatest love, his worst mistake. Five years earlier, she had demanded they leave Notting Hill so she could find herself in Glastonbury. But in finding herself, Hester discovered the key to her happiness lay in shedding Liddell. Another man might have been tempted to leave. But while Liddell could live without Hester, he could not contemplate life without Emily. Better to stay in Glastonbury and suffer the pagans and druids than return to London and become a faded memory in the mind of his only child. And so Liddell buried his sorrow and his anger and soldiered on. That was Liddell’s approach to all things. He was reliable. In his opinion, there was no better thing a man could be.
Glastonbury was not entirely without its charms. One was the Hundred Monkeys café, purveyor of vegan and environmentally friendly cuisine since 2005, and Liddell’s favorite haunt. Liddell sat at his usual table, a copy of the Evening Standard spread protectively before him. At an adjacent table, a woman of late middle age was reading a book entitled Adult Children: The Secret Dysfunction. In the far back corner, a bald prophet in flowing white pajamas was lecturing six rapt pupils about something to do with Zen spiritualism. And at the table nearest the door, hands bunched contemplatively beneath an unshaved chin, was a man in his thirties. His eyes were flickering over the bulletin board. It was filled with the usual rubbish --- an invitation to join the Glastonbury Positive Living Group, a free seminar on owl pellet dissection, an advertisement for Tibetan pulsing healing sessions --- but the man appeared to be scrutinizing it with an unusual devotion. A cup of coffee stood before him, untouched, next to an open notebook, also untouched. A poet searching for the inspiration, thought Liddell. A polemicist waiting for the rage.
Liddell examined him with a practiced eye. He was dressed in tattered denim and flannel, the Glastonbury uniform. His hair was dark and pulled back into a stubby ponytail, his eyes were nearly black and slightly glazed. On the right wrist was a watch with a thick leather band. On the left were several cheap silver bracelets. Liddell searched the hands and forearms for evidence of tattoos but found none. Odd, he thought, for in Glastonbury even grandmothers proudly sported their ink. Pristine skin, like sun in winter, was rarely seen.
The waitress appeared and flirtatiously placed a check in the center of Liddell’s newspaper. She was a tall creature, quite pretty, with pale hair parted in the center and a tag on her snug-fitting sweater that read GRACE. Whether it was her name or the state of her soul, Liddell did not know. Since Hester’s departure, he had lost the capacity to converse with strange women. Besides, there was someone else in his life now. She was a quiet girl, forgiving of his failings, grateful for his affections. And most of all, she needed him as much he needed her. She was the perfect lover. The perfect mistress. And she was Christopher Liddell’s secret.
He paid the bill in cash --- he was at war with Hester over credit cards, along with nearly everything else --- and made for the door. The poet-polemicist was scribbling furiously on his pad. Liddell slipped past and stepped into the street. A prickly mist was falling, and from somewhere in the distance he could hear the beating of drums. Then he remembered it was a Thursday, which meant it was shamanic drum therapy night at the Assembly Rooms.
He crossed to the opposite pavement and made his way along the edge of St. John’s Church, past the parish preschool. Tomorrow afternoon at one o’clock, Liddell would be standing there among the mothers and the nannies to greet Emily as she emerged. By judicial fiat he had been rendered little more than a babysitter. Two hours a day was his allotted time, scarcely enough for more than a spin on the merry-go-round and a bun in the sweets shop. Hester’s revenge.
He turned into Church Lane. It was a narrow alleyway bordered on both sides by high stone walls the color of flint. As usual, the only lamp was out, and the street was black as pitch. Liddell had been meaning to buy a small torch, like the ones his grandparents had carried during the war. He thought he heard footfalls behind him and peered over his shoulder into the gloom. It was nothing, he decided, just his mind playing tricks. Silly you, Christopher, he could hear Hester saying. Silly, silly you.
At the end of the lane was a residential district of terraced cottages and semidetached houses. Henley Close lay at the northernmost edge, overlooking a sporting field. Its four cottages were a bit larger than most in the neighborhood and were fronted by walled gardens. In Hester’s absence, the garden at No. 8 had taken on a melancholy air of neglect that was beginning to earn Liddell nasty looks from the couple next door. He inserted his key and turned the latch. Stepping into the entrance hall, he was greeted by the chirping of the security alarm. He entered the disarm code into the keypad --- an eight-digit numeric version of Emily’s birth date --- and climbed the stairs to the top floor. The girl waited there, cloaked in darkness. Liddell switched on a lamp.
She was seated in a wooden chair, a wrap of jeweled silk draped over her shoulders. Pearl earrings dangled at the sides of her neck; a gold chain lay against the pale skin of her breasts. Liddell reached out and gently stroked her cheek. The years had lined her face with cracks and creases and yellowed her alabaster skin. It was no matter; Liddell possessed the power to heal her. In a glass beaker, he prepared a colorless potion --- two parts acetone, one part methyl proxitol, and ten parts mineral spirits --- and moistened the tip of a cotton-wool swab. As he twirled it over the curve of her breast, he looked directly into her eyes. The girl stared back at him, her gaze seductive, her lips set in a playful half smile.
Liddell dropped the swab to the floor and fashioned a new one. It was then he heard a noise downstairs that sounded like the snap of a lock. He sat motionless for a moment, then tilted his face toward the ceiling and called, “Hester? Is that you?” Receiving no reply, he dipped the fresh swab in the clear potion and once again twirled it carefully over the skin of the girl’s breast. A few seconds later came another sound, closer than the last, and distinct enough for Liddell to realize he was no longer alone.
Rotating his body quickly atop the stool, he glimpsed a shadowed figure on the landing. The figure took two steps forward and calmly entered Liddell’s studio. Flannel and denim, dark hair pulled into a stubby ponytail, dark eyes --- the man from the Hundred Monkeys. It was clear he was neither a poet nor a polemicist. He had a gun in his hand, and it was pointed directly at Liddell’s heart. Liddell reached for the flask of solvent. He was reliable. And for that he would soon be dead.
Excerpted from THE REMBRANDT AFFAIR © Copyright 2011 by Daniel Silva. Reprinted with permission by Putnam Adult. All rights reserved.