An extract from ‘The Painted Messiah’

The Painted MessiahThe contessa’s villa sat on the side of Ax Alp overlooking Lake Brienz.  The building itself was a nineteenth century hotel that had fallen into disrepair by the time the contessa had bought it.  After restoring it and taking up her year-round residence, she rarely left the property.  Her sole extravagance was her annual party.  If she visited friends or attended exclusive parties, Malloy hadn’t heard about it, and the people at her parties were terrible gossips.  She was a writer and a scholar.  What she needed she sent for, everything from books to groceries.  If she had wanted society she would not have bought such an isolated property.  The solitude of the place was impressive, too.  The building sat on a small plot of level ground close to a thundering cascade.  It was surrounded on all sides by a dense forest that went on for miles.  From the contessa’s veranda, it was possible to see Interlaken at one end of the lake and the town of Brienz at the other.  That was as close as she let herself get to civilization.

Her ‘man’, as she call him in English, Rene, stood at one of the doors to the house watching him as Malloy came down the mountain on a rather steep and sometimes treacherous trail next to the cascade.  Another individual might have treated Malloy with a friendly wave of his hand, but Rene simply stared.  Like the contessa, Rene’s age was indeterminate.  He could have been fifty or seventy.  He kept his oddly battered head shaved and even though he was dark-skinned, there were no lines to offer any hint of his generation.  He possessed hulking shoulders and a cinderblock torso.

Despite his age and size, Rene moved with the ease of an athlete still in his prime.  Unlike his employer, Rene possessed no talent for language.  His native tongue Malloy had never been able to determine.  The language he spoke with the contessa was a kind of pidgin Italian, though he freely mixed German, French, and English words into it, the accent inevitably misplaced.  Rene’s grammar, Malloy had decided long ago, was capricious.

One thing Malloy did not doubt was Rene’s loyalty to the woman he served.  In her presence, his eyes stayed on the contessa with the zeal and ferocity of a trained Rottweiler.  When he had approached within fifteen feet, Malloy stopped and said to the man, ‘Is the contessa at home, Rene?’

As this question was no doubt absurd, Rene did not bother answering him.  He simply flexed his enormous fists and walked away.  Malloy went to the veranda, intending to knock at the front door, but Claudia de Medici was already waiting.

‘Thomas!  This is a pleasant surprise!  Have you moved back to Zürich?’

‘I’m here on business for a couple of days.  I found myself with a free afternoon, and I thought I’d drop by.  I hope I’m not interrupting something.’

‘Nothing that can’t wait.  Come in.’  Malloy stepped into the elegantly furnished entryway.  The contessa led him to the drawing room and began fixing them both a glass of Scotch.

‘Are you working on a new book?’

‘I have written my book.  If I write another, it won’t be for some time.’  Her smile was almost bashful, her beauty as stunning as ever.  In fact, it seemed to Malloy that she had not changed in the years since he had first met her.  She was still a woman seemingly not quite forty, making her, he realised with a sudden sense of despair, over a decade younger than he was!  ‘And you,’ she asked with a smiled that suggested she had read his thoughts, ‘are you still a freelance editor?’  There was a bit of playfulness in this, something of an old joke between them, and Malloy smiled.

‘Retired, I’m afraid.’

‘Not entirely, I hope.  You are far too young for something as dreadful as retirement.’

‘I keep busy.’

‘You are living in New York, I hear.’

‘You must have good sources.’

‘One of the advantages of having interesting friends.’  Malloy resisted asking about her sources.  The contessa was quite effective at gaining confidences, obstinate about keeping them.   ‘You are happy.  I can see that much in your eyes.’

‘I’m getting married this spring.’

‘And you decide to step back into the life—in order to save yourself from your happiness?’

Malloy laughed at the jab.  He had not thought about it like that, but he supposed one could see it that way.  He certainly would not have been the first man to sabotage a perfect relationship.  Still, he was reluctant to admit as much, even jokingly.  Besides, he had never really left his profession—only fieldwork.  ‘If I wait any longer to get back into things, it will be too late,’ he confessed.

‘Perhaps it is not your destiny.’

‘I believe we make our own destiny, Contessa.’

‘It’s my opinion that people are not thrust into hell because of their passions, Thomas.  I think they jump in for the sake of them, but I’m not going to change your mind.  I can see that.  Why don’t you tell me what brings you here?  It has something to do with business, I think.’

The contessa worked as successful mind readers do.  She read body language.  She made grand assessments and waited for reactions.  That she was sweet about it and seemed to enjoy him at some level made it less disconcerting, but the truth was her insights into his character had always left him wondering if she might really be clairvoyant.

‘I thought you might be able to explain something for me.’  The contessa tipped her head slightly, her expression curious.  ‘What do you know about twelfth century icons of Christ?’

‘I know I enjoy them very much, though I would imagine I’m in the minority.  What would you like to know?’

‘A twelfth century Byzantine portrait of Christ—what would something like that be worth, say in mint condition?’

The contessa smiled as if dealing with a precocious child.  ‘That is difficult to say.  Assuming it to be in excellent condition, you would have to know if it had been restored.  Then there is the provenance.  That would affect the price significantly.  People interested in paintings of that sort value the history at least as much as, if not more than, the artistic merit.  Many icons come with a portable altar.  There might be a unique box or travelling case.  Many of these are works of art themselves.  Some are encrusted with precious jewels, which would add value beyond the particular artistic merit.  A famous person might have owned it.  A great deal of information about the royal family in Constantinople is available from that era.  The princess Anna Comnena, who met the first Crusaders, for instance, even wrote a book detailing her impressions of the army’s leaders, including the relatively unknown Baldwin of Boulogne—the man the barons would ultimately elect as the first king of Christian Jerusalem.  If it were her personal icon and you could prove it with documents, such a piece would be extremely attractive to some buyers—myself included, though I am not a collector—but without a great deal more information I couldn’t begin to make a guess.’

‘I have a general description of it.  It’s on a panel of wood, maybe a quarter of an inch thick, thirteen or fourteen inches tall and eight or nine inches wide.’

‘Gold?  Inlaid jewels?’

He shook his head. ‘Here’s the thing.  The people involved are paying twenty-five million dollars for it.’  The contessa’s expression did not change, but Malloy was certain something happened—call it a twinkling in the eye or a moment of recognition.  ‘When I started trying to price comparable pieces, rare as they are, the pieces go for forty or fifty thousand up to half a million.  Nothing is close to what my people are paying.’

‘What is your involvement, Thomas?’

‘I’m moving it for them.’

‘Smuggling it?’

‘Just moving it.’

‘If the people are lying to you about the nature of the object you have to deal with or the price they are paying, my advice is to walk away.  Better yet… run.’

Malloy smiled and shook his head.  ‘I can’t do that.  This is my chance to get back to what I do best.’

‘Then I don’t think I can help you, except to say you might be looking at something like what happened to you in Beirut.’

Malloy felt like a man who has just had the ground under his feet taken away from him. ‘How do you know about Beirut?’

‘People talk, Thomas.  Rather, I should say, they whisper.’

‘The people who know about Beirut don’t.’

‘A neophyte intelligence officer inherits half a dozen low-level agents who pass along outdated information.  Some months later he is running a network of twenty-four agents and catches wind of an attack being planned against the US Marine base.  He passes the information to his superiors and tries to discover specific details.  The following day he is in a GI hospital with six bullet wounds.  Eight of his people are dead, and the rest are evacuated.  Two days after that, some two hundred and forty marines perish, and Reagan orders American troops from the Lebanon.’

Malloy tried to smile, but he didn’t make much of it.  ‘They say we learn from our mistakes,’ he said finally.

‘Actually,’ she answered, ‘they say we should learn from them.  The truth is that most people have a regrettable tendency to repeat them.’

‘Do you know something I don’t know, Contessa?’

‘I know a great deal more than you do, Thomas, about a great many things.  In this instance, I know that you never trusted your superiors again after Beirut and, because of it, you were so successful it caused problems that you could not even imagine.  I know, too, that your skills aren’t what they were.  You have lost that scepticism you are so proud of, say what you will to the contrary, and you think you can handle this job without much trouble, because it looks like nothing can go wrong.  You expect that once you do you will be back to your old tricks, not lying in your grave.’

Malloy felt a chill run down his spine when she mentioned his grave.  ‘Tell me what you know.’

‘I know you are standing in a pit of vipers, but you don’t see them because you are half asleep.’

Malloy wanted to argue or explain or at least to defend himself, but he resisted the impulse.  A woman capable of bringing the Swiss banking system to its collective knees was not someone he cared to underestimate.

© Craig Smith 2006