Impostor’s Lure – Carla Neggers

London, England What’s happening? The room is spinning and I can’t keep my eyes open. Jet lag? But my heart is racing, beating so fast I can hardly breathe. I gulp for air but it’s useless. I stumble… Where am I? “London, Verity. You’re in London.” I narrow my eyes to focus through blurred vision. I’m in a suite at Claridge’s, meeting Wendell Sharpe. He’s flying in from Dublin. He’s a private art detective. Why do I want to meet with a private art detective? Forgeries… “My name is Verity Blackwood, and I’m just back in London from Maine and Boston and I’d like to talk to you about forgeries.” That’s what I told Mr. Sharpe. I don’t know if I repeat my words out loud or silently, but I can’t bring myself to care. I sway, sliding into a pool of warm water that I know, somewhere deep inside me, isn’t there. I fall onto the bed in my well-appointed hotel room—Claridge’s is lovely…an iconic London hotel… Wendell Sharpe’s choice… I sink into the soft duvet.

“Graham?” He’s not here. My husband. He didn’t fly home with me. He gave me the micronutrient tablets, didn’t he? They’re supposed to help with jet lag, but they didn’t agree with me. Maybe if I sleep I’ll be all right. I open my eyes and see Jacob Marley dragging his chains above the bed. “For your sins, Verity,” he says. “For your sins.” He shuf les away, but it’s not the Charles Dickens character. It’s Stefan.

Hot tears stream down my temples and into my duvet. “Dear Stefan, it wasn’t me. I promise you. It wasn’t me.” He’s dripping in blood as he must have been the night he was killed. It’s as if nothing’s changed in the two weeks since then, but Graham and I attended his funeral. We saw his cof in. He can’t be here. He’s a ghost. My imagination.

My guilt. I try to lift my hand to place it on my racing heart, but I can’t move. “Help me.” I speak in the barest whisper. No one will hear me, but it doesn’t matter. All I want is to slide deeper and deeper into the warmth and sleep. 2 Boston, Massachusetts An antique Maine lobster boat was bound to draw attention at a Boston Harbor marina, but Emma Sharpe hadn’t recognized any of the onlookers until now. She pulled off her work gloves and peered out the window of her apartment, located on the ground floor of a former produce warehouse that shared the wharf with the marina. What was Tamara McDermott doing here? Emma tossed her gloves into the sink. She’d been cleaning since midmorning.

It was after lunch now—she’d grabbed a chickpea salad out of the fridge—but she was almost finished. Kitchen, living room, bedroom, bathroom. All in four hundred square feet. Plenty of space when it’d been just her, but now she shared the apartment with her husband. Emma smiled at the thought. She and Colin Donovan, also an FBI agent, had been married ten weeks. She hoped she felt this way in ten years. Twenty. Fifty. He was and always would be the love of her life.

But he hated chickpea salad, and he’d been mystified when she’d opted to stay home and clean instead of join him and his three brothers, down from Maine, at their annual Red Sox game. She took her keys and exited the apartment, ignoring the blast of mid-August heat. Tamara McDermott was in her late forties, a prominent federal prosecutor based in Washington, DC. Emma hadn’t worked directly with her but definitely recognized her. It was Sunday, and Tamara hadn’t called ahead to meet. She wore a casual marine-blue knit dress with diamond stud earrings, a simple gold watch and sturdy sandals. Little or no makeup, sweat dripping down her temples and matting her gray-streaked dark hair at her nape. She must have walked at least a couple of blocks. She wouldn’t be sweating this much if she’d been dropped off by a cab. It was, though, a stiflingly hot day.

Emma had on a shapeless linen sundress that didn’t do her any favors, flip-flops, no makeup. She’d pinned up her hair haphazardly, thinking she wouldn’t be seeing anyone until she’d had a shower and put on fresh clothes. “Hello, Emma.” Tamara squinted in the early-afternoon sun. “This is Colin’s boat, isn’t it?” “It’s his younger brother Andy’s boat. He’s a lobsterman in Maine.” “Who’s Julianne?” Julianne was the name of the classic wooden boat. “Andy’s fiancée. She’s a marine biologist. It was her grandfather’s boat, and he named it after her.

” “But it’s Andy’s boat now?” Emma smiled. As a prosecutor, Tamara was known for her thoroughness, solid preparation and relentless focus. Of course she’d pick up on the nuances of the lobster boat’s history. “Andy bought it from Julianne’s grandfather. She objected. It was a source of tension.” “All worked out now, one can assume. Well, it’s a beautiful boat—not that I know anything about boats.” “I didn’t realize you were in Boston,” Emma said. “My daughter turned twenty-one yesterday.

We’re celebrating tonight. She’s a student here in town. She’s studying archives preservation. I came up for the weekend. I start vacation tomorrow. Unless I get cold feet,” she added with a wry smile. “It’s been a while, has it?” “It’s been several years since I took a proper break, yes. I’m scheduled to be away for three weeks. I get clammy hands thinking about it.” She laughed, glancing again at the Julianne, which bobbed in the quiet harbor water between two recreational powerboats.

Few working boats used the marina. “I wonder what it’d be like to jump on a gorgeous old lobster boat and take off, see where I ended up.” She turned back to Emma and smiled. “Drowned, probably.” Her voice had taken on an edge that belied her laugh and smile. “What brings you here, Ms. McDermott? How can I help you?” “Tamara. Please. My daughter—Adalyn—started a new job with an art conservationist in Cambridge. Jolie Romero.

I understand you know her.” “I’m familiar with her name,” Emma said. “I don’t know her personally.” “Have you had anything to do with her since you joined the FBI, or did you deal with her when you were a nun?” “I’ve never dealt with Jolie Romero. What’s this about?” Tamara waved a hand. “Sorry. I don’t mean to interrogate you. Adalyn moved into the apartment above Jolie’s studio. I got the grand tour this morning. It’s in Porter Square.

It’s nice. I suppose I’m being an overprotective mother. That’s what Adalyn would say. You remember being twenty-one. Or were you in the convent then?” Emma didn’t take offense at the blunt question. “I was a novice with the Sisters of the Joyful Heart in southern Maine for a short time, but I never made my final vows.” “So you were never a real nun?” Fishing for something. Definitely. “Not in the way you mean.” “The convent specializes in art conservation, doesn’t it?” “As well as art education,” Emma said.

“Now you’re an art crimes expert on Matt Yankowski’s elite team here in Boston. Quite a change. Why didn’t you stay with your family’s art recovery business?” “Yank recruited me out of the convent. That’s the short answer. Ms.—Tamara, would you like to go inside? I have iced tea, water—” “No, no, I won’t keep you. Forgive me. I swear I’ve lost the ability to have a normal conversation. Adalyn is just back from three months in London, and all of a sudden she’s interested in art crimes. She’d love to meet you.

We’re having dinner at Stephanie’s on Newbury Street. Why don’t you and Colin join us? Yank will be there. We’re old friends.” “Thank you, I’d love to join you. I don’t know what Colin’s plans are with his brothers. I can let you know.” “No need. Just come.” Tamara touched the thick rope that secured the Julianne—Donovan style— to a post. “I made a reservation for six o’clock, but I’m meeting Adalyn at the bar around five thirty.

She wants Irish whiskey for one of her first legal drinks. Yank says he knows what to recommend thanks to Colin.” “I imagine she’ll have her own ideas, too.” “Ha, she always does. We’ll see you tonight, then.” “I look forward to it,” Emma said. Tamara relaxed visibly. “A belated congratulations on your wedding. Colin’s a keeper.” Emma smiled.

“I think so, too.” “I’ll bet you do.” Tamara headed toward the street, her ankles swollen, no doubt from the heat and humidity, as she crossed the brick-paved wharf, passing more boats and empty slips. She took a water bottle from her tote bag, and when she reached the street, turned left, picking up her pace and quickly disappearing from view. Emma returned to her apartment and pulled on her gloves. She and Colin did certain tasks together and took turns on the rest, but she was quite content not being at Fenway Park on a hot Sunday afternoon. She’d finally convinced him she was sincere when she said cleaning had a meditative effect on her, a product of her years in the convent. To him, cleaning was work. Get in, get it done, then have a beer. He was a keeper.

She glanced out the window as new onlookers stopped to admire the Julianne. Whatever else tonight’s dinner was about, it wasn’t just to celebrate Adalyn McDermott’s twentyfirst birthday. * * * When the four Donovan brothers descended after the game, the Red Sox had won, Emma had finished cleaning except for the oven, and Colin had been in touch with their boss about tonight’s dinner. “Yank says he’ll mop our floors for a month if we both go tonight.” “What about these guys?” Emma asked, referring to Mike, Andy and Kevin Donovan. Mike grinned. “These guys will be just fine. We’re heading back up to Maine. Kevin’s on duty in the morning. Andy’s got lobster traps to check and I have two retirees from Florida to outfit for a weeklong kayak trip on the Bold Coast.

” He winked at Emma. “Things to do, places to go.” Mike was a former Special Forces soldier with a cabin on the Bold Coast of Maine and a fiancée, Naomi MacBride, in Nashville. He was a licensed wilderness guide and outfitter, and he did the occasional contract security job—with Naomi, an intelligence consultant. An odd relationship, but it seemed to be working. Kevin, the youngest, a Maine marine patrol officer, was unattached. All four brothers were strongly built, with blue-gray eyes and a no-nonsense manner Emma found in concert with their upbringing in a rugged Maine fishing village. They’d arrived on the Julianne late yesterday. Andy had slept on the boat. Mike and Kevin had camped out in Emma and Colin’s tiny living room.

It was enough family time for now. They were packed up and out the door in thirty minutes. Colin slipped his arm around Emma as they watched the lobster boat glide across the harbor. “Does part of you wish you were going with them?” she asked. “All of me, provided you were with us.” “Mike would throw me overboard.” “Hey, he likes you now.” “I know he does, but he’d still throw me overboard. He gets restless. It’d be something to do.

You guys used to do stuff like that as kids, didn’t you?” “Always wearing life vests.” Emma laughed, leaning into him. “Tamara says you’re a keeper.” “She’s insightful and smart as well as tough.” “You worked with her?” “Once. My first undercover mission.” Five years ago, when Emma had still been with the Sisters of the Joyful Heart, Matt Yankowski had come up to Maine to meet with Colin as his contact agent. He’d stopped at the convent to talk to Emma about not making her final vows. About joining the FBI instead. She’d taken a detour to work with her grandfather at the Dublin offices of Sharpe Fine Art Recovery, but within a year, she was getting put through her paces at the Academy.

She’d been in Boston for seventeen months, again recruited by Yank, this time for HIT, a small team that specialized in transnational criminals and criminal networks. HIT stood for high-impact target. Yank’s idea. Colin was a relative newcomer to HIT, shoehorned in as much for Yank to keep tabs on him as anything else. He’d had a rough landing after a major deep-cover mission. Of course, that was exactly when he and Emma met, and here they were, not quite a year later, in love, married. “Do you think Tamara is working an investigation and that’s what tonight’s about?” he asked. “Using her daughter’s birthday as cover to talk to us?” “What if it’s about the daughter?” “I don’t know. Something was off about her visit. Why not just have Yank invite us if they’re friends? Spend the day with her daughter.

Sometimes family needs to be your sole focus.” Colin drew her closer. “We should have stayed in Ireland longer.” “An extended honeymoon. I’d have liked that.” He kissed the top of her head. “Save any cleaning for me?” “The oven.” He laughed. “How appropriate.” 3 Heron’s Cove, Maine Tamara stepped out of her rental car and breathed in the Maine air, cooler, fresher here by the sea.

It was hot here, too, though. She nearly froze on the drive up from Boston when she’d turned on the airconditioning and it cooled her sweat. Dumb to have walked up and down the Boston waterfront. She liked to walk and she had a lot on her mind, but she knew better. Boston could get just as hot and humid in August as Washington did. She hadn’t thought this little adventure through. It wasn’t like her, but Adalyn… What had she got herself into? “Maybe nothing,” Tamara said aloud as she looked out at the sea, waves washing over sand and rocks. A good place to kayak, Graham Blackwood had told her. Then he’d promptly admitted he didn’t know anything about kayaking. He wanted to try while he was in Maine.

Kayak, get past a friend’s murder. Why the hell not? Tamara spotted a seagull that on another day, under different circumstances, would have enthralled or at least amused her. Patrick, her ex-husband, considered them rats with wings. Killjoy. Good riddance to him. Twenty-two years of marriage up in smoke. “Blah. Don’t think about it.” Except she’d been thinking about it most of the ninety-minute drive up to Maine. They’d told Adalyn it’d been an amiable split.

Different paths now that they were in their late forties. No mention of the cute young girlfriend. Tamara didn’t like herself for giggling when she’d heard they broke up. “More like cackling with joy.” She didn’t want Patrick to be miserable, but she didn’t want him to find true love or whatever he was looking for with a shallow paralegal who looked good on his arm. Tamara didn’t want to think about what the gold digger was like in bed. Maybe she wasn’t being very evolved, but there it was. Good, maybe, for a prosecutor who’d never had much bad happen to her in her life to experience such raw emotion. She shook off her thoughts. She needed to focus on why she was here.

Where was Graham Blackwood? She’d pulled into a turnaround on a narrow road in front of his rental house—assuming she hadn’t made a wrong turn. It was on an isolated section of the coast near the Sisters of the Joyful Heart convent. Graham’s choice. He’d given her directions and asked her to keep their meeting private. Verity wanted to talk to you before her flight, but she’s already cutting it close. I’m staying in Maine for a few days. I’ll explain everything tomorrow. It concerns Adalyn. Verity and I are both fond of her. Tamara didn’t see another soul, hear any cars—just the breeze and the wash of the sea.

That’s what she wanted on her vacation. She’d return to Boston for dinner and be on her way for three weeks of bliss as soon as possible. She might even get a head start and leave tonight. She’d packed after her unnerving brunch with Adalyn. Who are these Blackwoods, Adalyn? They’re friends. I met them in England. I know Verity better than I do Graham. She worked at the National Gallery in London. Why did they come here? They needed a change of pace. A friend of theirs died.

Actually, he was murdered two weeks ago on his way home from London. Tamara had pounced. Wait. What friend? Murdered how? Have the police made an arrest? Did you know him? Mom…will you stop? Please. I shouldn’t have said anything. Tamara managed to pry the name of the dead man from her daughter. Stefan Petrescu. He was a Romanian linguist who’d lived near the Blackwoods in Oxford. He’d been shot. No leads, witnesses or arrests as far as Adalyn knew.

Adalyn insisted the Blackwoods weren’t involved. It’s just one of those random, awful things that happen. I wish I hadn’t brought it up. Why did you? Because you asked why Graham and Verity are here, and Stefan is why. They have a friend who lives in southern New Hampshire, an hour north of Boston. He’s an artist. A painter. They decided to visit him and then spend a few days in Maine. Well, that was bullshit, only Adalyn didn’t see through it. Once Tamara picked her jaw up off the floor, she was convinced she had to keep her meeting with Graham Blackwood and find out if his concerns about Adalyn had anything to do with this linguist’s murder—how it had affected her emotionally, whether she was being straight about it, whether it was the catalyst for the Blackwoods’ visit to the US.

Who this artist was and how they knew him. Why Heron’s Cove of all the many places to visit in Maine. Sharpe country. Whatever. Tamara needed to know what was going on. Period. After brunch, she drove to the HIT offices on the harbor and walked the few blocks to Emma and Colin’s place. She’d resisted asking too many questions until she could talk to Graham Blackwood, but she hadn’t gotten any sense that Matt Yankowski and his art crimes specialist or the rest of his team were involved in or even aware of the Petrescu murder investigation. She doubted they knew anything about the Blackwoods and their visit to New England. Yank, of course, knew Adalyn.

They hadn’t seen each other in a few years, but he’d been at her party for her very first birthday. The Sharpe connection was more worrisome. Had Adalyn gotten mixed up in some kind of art crime? How on earth would the death of a linguist be related to an art crime? Jolie Romero, art conservation, a meeting near Emma’s former convent—Tamara didn’t know how or if they were connected to Stefan Petrescu’s murder, but they were enough to get her in a rental car and up to Maine. She needed information. She’d hear what Graham Blackwood had to say and then, if warranted, talk to the FBI agents tonight. A reasonable plan of action. She hoped she was just being a burnt-out, paranoid prosecutor who needed a vacation, but no way was she going off to Nova Scotia and leaving Adalyn here on her own. Tamara knew herself. She had to be satisfied her daughter wasn’t in trouble. She wouldn’t relax otherwise.

Twenty-one was a milestone but it was still very young, and Adalyn spent her days fooling with musty documents and digital archives—she didn’t have her mother’s experience with the dark side of the world. Tamara stepped back toward her car. Maybe she was in the wrong parking area. Could Graham be waiting for her at the convent entrance? There was a trail, too, that hugged the rocks and water. It led into the woods onto the small peninsula where the convent was located and in the opposite direction, toward the village of Heron’s Cove. Ordinarily she would appreciate the solitude and the scenery, but right now she wanted to get on with this meeting and return to Boston. Graham hadn’t initiated contact. Verity, his wife, had. Tamara had arrived in Boston around the time the Blackwoods were to check in for their return flight to London. Adalyn had told her Verity wanted to meet her at check-in—only Graham was there, not Verity.

He wasn’t a bad-looking guy. In his early fifties, balding, maybe ten pounds overweight, rumpled clothes, he was a former UK diplomat, a bit self-important. He’d struck Tamara as concerned but not panicked. They’d had a brief conversation. He couldn’t talk long now, needed to sort out his rental car since he’d decided to extend his stay, why not meet tomorrow in Maine? Not that far. Beautiful weather. Tamara had figured there was more to it, but murder hadn’t entered her mind. She’d thought, okay, maybe he and his wife aren’t wild about this Jolie Romero and they’re worried Adalyn jumped in with this woman too soon. I’ll have a nice drive to Maine, get this off my brain and then enjoy our birthday dinner and my vacation. Tamara had debated inviting Yank to join her in Heron’s Cove, but she knew Graham would disappear or clam up with an FBI agent present, and nothing about the Englishman’s demeanor had suggested he was dangerous.

Obviously, he had concerns, or he wouldn’t have suggested this meeting. That didn’t mean they involved the murder of his linguist friend. Tamara’s rental car was a nondescript, four-door gray sedan. She pulled open the back door on the driver’s side. She’d get her tote bag, drink some water, think. Her phone was dead. It’d died while she was at the HIT offices. She’d let herself get so worked up she’d left her charger at the restaurant where she had taken Adalyn for brunch. She couldn’t call Graham and ask him where he was. She heard a sound behind her.

The crunch of gravel, footsteps… A hood—a blanket—dropped over her. She gasped, sucking in hot fabric. Felt a pinprick in her upper arm. “No!” She kicked and flailed, but her attacker shoved her into the back seat, onto the floor. She couldn’t breathe. The key to averting an attack is situational awareness. Her self-defense instructor, a million years ago. She’d trained for just this sort of attack. She never should have come here alone. She’d expected cars, people, houses.

She felt herself sinking, slipping. The drug was already taking effect. Morphine? What? She heard a car door shut. Hers. Then another car door open and shut. The driver’s. My key. She didn’t have it. “I have three FBI agents waiting for me.” Did she speak out loud? She couldn’t tell.

She was sinking deeper, each breath more shallow than the last. She couldn’t keep herself awake. She went limp, drifting. Adalyn. My sweet baby… 4 London, England Oliver York was sipping a rare Islay Scotch at Claridge’s, his favorite London hotel, and arguing opera with Henrietta Balfour, an MI5 officer and sometimes garden designer. Or was it a garden designer and sometimes MI5 officer? He shuddered. He didn’t like thinking about the British Security Service. He’d been in trouble with them for years. Henrietta sat across from him at a cozy table in a quiet corner of the elegant art-deco bar, under dim light that made her skin seem even milkier. He wasn’t winning their argument.

He knew less about opera than she did. Her grandfather Freddy Balfour, an MI5 legend, had been an opera buff, and she’d picked up a few tidbits from him before his death. “Most operas are elaborate confession stories with music,” Oliver said. Henrietta rolled her lovely blue-green eyes. “That is simplistic, Oliver.” Probably so. He and Henrietta had known each other since childhood but had only decided they were in love, or might be in love, earlier that summer. They’d been discussing an old flowerpot she’d unearthed at his farm in the Cotswolds when he’d noticed her reddish-brown curls, her spray of freckles, her long flowered skirt and muddy Wellingtons and had thought…dear Henrietta. What had happened to the lonely, outspoken seven-year-old who’d marched up to him, then only ten himself, and demanded to know who’d killed his parents? What had happened to the gangly teenager who’d liked to see how many sheep droppings she could clear in one leap? She’d followed in her grandfather’s footsteps was what had happened to her. Last winter, she’d told everyone in the village she’d quit her dull London office job—which had never existed—to design gardens in the Cotswolds.

She’d inherited a house from a great-aunt, finally making a career change possible. That was her story, at least. Oliver remained convinced MI5 had taken advantage of her connection to him and sent her to the Cotswolds to keep an eye on him. Unlike his actual MI5 handler, whose name Oliver didn’t like to think never mind utter, Henrietta had never threatened to toss him in prison. A fate he deserved, he supposed. He’d been making amends for his thieving ways. Bit by bit, day by day. It wasn’t just to satisfy the authorities. It was to satisfy himself. He hadn’t hurt or killed anyone, but he had helped himself to a considerable fortune in art—all of it now returned, intact, to its owners.

Well, except for the one unsigned landscape he’d kept for sentimental reasons. Its owner, an Irish artist in love with a priest self-exiled to a parish on the Maine coast, had tacitly gifted it to him. Within days of their flowerpot discussion, he and Henrietta had confronted a vicious killer and finally, after thirty years, learned the truth about his traumatic past—the murder of his parents in front of him when he was eight and his own kidnapping to a Scottish ruin. That incident proved to him she was MI5, no question, although she did know her way around a garden. They’d driven in together from the Cotswolds that morning, but Henrietta had booked a room at Claridge’s, a short walk from Oliver’s London apartment, where he was staying, alone. She’d given up her own London apartment—which he’d never seen—last winter to move full-time to her greataunt’s house, not far from his Cotswolds farm. She’d stayed with him at the farm multiple times since June, but never in London. She wouldn’t discuss the details of her MI5 status with him, but he suspected her superiors were leery of their relationship. He’d coped with his childhood trauma by studying mythology, which MI5 didn’t mind, and by becoming an art thief, which they did mind. That he was of occasional use to British intelligence in thwarting far worse criminals hadn’t yet freed him from their clutches.

“Have you ever listened to or attended an entire opera?” Henrietta asked him, a note of challenge in her voice. “Is that a requirement for an opinion?” “For an informed opinion, certainly.” “I listened to Madama Butterfly while feeling sorry for myself one rainy night at the farm. I was drinking Scotch. I was alone.” He noticed she’d narrowed her eyes on him, and he knew she was picturing him by the fire in the rambling old stone house he’d inherited from his grandparents. “I suppose it’s not a surprise to you that Madama Butterfly has a sad ending.” “No way out for the poor dear Butterfly.” Oliver ordered another Scotch. He and Henrietta often had this sort of rambling, open-ended conversation on a range of subjects in which they had interest but not necessarily a great deal of knowledge or expertise. He recalled a profound discussion about various types of sheep when he was fourteen and she was eleven, a city girl and only child dropped off at her great-aunt’s house while her parents went to Paris. Posey Balfour had been a keen gardener. Hence, Henrietta’s passion for gardening. Oliver tuned back in to the conversation and realized she’d meandered to something about Thor, explaining he was the Norse god of thunder. “I suppose you know that, though,” she added. He did. He was an Oxford and self-taught scholar of mythology, folklore and legends. He specialized in Celtic mythology but, of course, he knew a great deal about Thor. “I’ve seen all the Thor movies,” Henrietta pronounced. “The Thor movies?” “I thought we could watch them together one evening at the farm. Chris Hemsworth is a delight as Thor. Very hunky.” “Henrietta…” “The stories are based on Norse mythology. The Hulk makes an appearance in one of the movies. I know that’s a creative stretch since he isn’t a Norse god or Norse anything, but the movie’s loads of fun.” Hulk. Thor. Only Henrietta could get from opera to comic book heroes. “Shall I get a refill for your Scotch?” She grinned. “You’ll love Tom Hiddleston as Loki.” Mercifully, she glanced past him toward the bar’s entrance. “Here’s our friend now, but he doesn’t look happy. I wonder what’s wrong?” Oliver pivoted in his chair, rising when he recognized Wendell Sharpe making his way to their table. They exchanged a handshake. Wendell took Henrietta by the hand and kissed her on each cheek. He sat between them but refused Oliver’s offer of Scotch. “Just water, please.” “What’s going on, my friend?” Oliver asked, returning to his own seat. “What brings you to London?” “I’m supposed to meet with a woman here at the hotel. My choice. I figured I could get you two here for a drink afterwards, only she didn’t meet me in the lobby as agreed and doesn’t answer her door.” Wendell paused, as if contemplating how much to say. “She left the key for me at the front desk in case I arrived early and she was out. In fact, I was a few minutes late. I flew into Heathrow and took a taxi…hellish traffic for a Sunday…” “Who is this woman you’re to meet?” Henrietta asked, cutting through Wendell’s preoccupied near-rambling. He didn’t seem to hear the question. He stared at Henrietta’s Scotch, but clearly his mind was elsewhere. Henrietta had only recently met him. He was Oliver’s friend and, for a time, his nemesis, a spry, wiry Dublin-based private art detective in his eighties. He wore a bow tie, a terrible jacket, somewhat frayed trousers, and walking shoes. He and Oliver had played cat and mouse for a decade. By unspoken agreement, Oliver didn’t admit to any of his thefts and Wendell didn’t press him to admit to them. Oliver had never profited from his heists, but he had, indisputably, broken the law in various cities and countries. Statutes of limitations, jurisdictional issues, evidence, the will and other considerations—namely, MI5 having him by the short hairs—had prevented his arrest and prosecution for any of his heists. Sympathy for his lonely plight since witnessing his parents’ murders at age eight played no role. Countless people were rotting in prisons having faced even worse childhood traumas. Wendell was semiretired now, and Oliver had lost any urge to slip into private homes, museums and businesses and make off with valuable art. “Oliver and I are here as you asked,” Henrietta said. “Yes, thank you. It’s good to see you. Apologies for being distracted.” Wendell’s water arrived, and he drained a quarter of it before he set the glass on the table and continued. “Who knows how long I’ll be able to make the trip. Dublin to London is a pop-fly, but I’m no spring chicken.” Oliver had no idea what a pop-fly was, but Henrietta seemed to. “It’s barely a pop-fly,” she said. “You’ll be flying to London into your hundreds.” “Ever the optimist,” Wendell said. The old man’s unusual melancholy mood had Oliver wanting to order his friend a Scotch. “Who is this woman? Can you tell us?” “Her name’s Verity Blackwood. She called me this morning and asked to meet with me as soon as possible. She said she’s a former exhibit coordinator with the National Gallery here in London. She left the gallery eighteen months ago when she married a former diplomat—Graham Blackwood—and joined him at his home in Oxford.” “She offered up those details or did you look her up after your call?” Henrietta asked. “Offered them. I didn’t have time to look her up. She wants to talk to me about forgeries. No details. I was up for a trip to London, and we agreed on meeting this evening. I decided to bundle this trip with some other business and meet friends for a pint or two.” Oliver didn’t know if he fell into either category, but Wendell had asked if he’d be at Claridge’s tonight, presumably with Henrietta. “I don’t know Graham Blackwood personally,” he said. “But I’m familiar with his name. He has his own foreign policy think tank these days. It’s small and uncontroversial—more to keep him busy than anything else, I suspect. His father was a keen investor who did well in the tech tool-up in the 1990s, adding to the already healthy Blackwood fortune.” “It’s only Verity who wants to meet with you?” Henrietta asked. “Alone? Why? Why is she staying here instead of meeting you in Oxford? Where’s her husband?” Wendell drank more water, looking tired. He addressed Henrietta. “Verity said she got in from Boston this morning. Graham stayed behind at the last minute. She said she’d stay in London tonight. She thought that would be easier for me. I recommended Claridge’s since I know it’s one of Oliver’s favorites.” “I see,” was all Henrietta said. Oliver made no comment. He noticed she had only a few sips left of her Scotch. He’d approved her choice of Auchentoshan Three Wood. Of course, she didn’t need or seek his approval, another of her appealing qualities. He had a long list of things he liked about Henrietta Balfour. The elegant hotel bar was quiet tonight, atmospheric, perfect for a meeting between an octogenarian art detective, an MI5 agent and an art thief. Oliver shook off any sense of romanticism, a bad habit, he knew, when he was trying to distance himself from unpleasant emotions. Regret, guilt, pride, embarrassment. Wendell’s furrowed brow and Henrietta’s serious mood—no thought of Thor movies now, clearly—confirmed to Oliver that he wasn’t alone in his unease. “Verity mentioned she suffers from terrible jet lag,” Wendell added. “I tried ringing her room but she didn’t answer. She could have fallen asleep. She was eager to meet when we spoke this morning —I’ve been debating using the key, seeing if that rouses her. I didn’t ask a lot of questions. I figured we’d get to details when we met.” Oliver frowned. “Do you think she went out?” “I have no idea. I don’t like the feel of this. It’s not as if I walked a couple of blocks or took a taxi for this meeting. I flew.” Wendell rubbed the back of his neck with one hand, lined, bony, veins bulging. “I’ve never had much trouble with jet lag but a lot of people do.” “Yes,” Henrietta said. “However, I can understand your concern.” “What about you, Wendell—do you have a place to stay tonight?” Oliver asked. “You’re welcome to the guest room at my apartment. Henrietta has a room here herself.” “She does? I thought you two were an item.” “That’s complicated and personal,” she said, answering before Oliver could get in a word, her smile taking any edge off her words. “I see. Hint taken.” Wendell turned to Oliver. “I’d be pleased to bunk in your guest room. Did you leave your puppy at the farm?” “Happily, yes. He’s incorrigible without Martin, I’m afraid. Martin wants me to be the alpha dog with Alfred, but it’s too late. Martin is obsessed with the idea that I need a dog. A companion. But I have Henrietta as a companion and…” Oliver stopped himself and winced. “Oh, that didn’t come out right at all.” Fortunately, Henrietta burst into laughter, her eyes bright and filled with humor as she winked at Wendell. “We’re still working on Oliver’s people skills.” “The point is, Alfred’s not at the apartment,” Oliver said. “A good thing because he’d have peed on all the walls by now.” “My kind of dog,” Wendell said. Henrietta started to rise. “Shall we look in on Mrs. Blackwood?” * * * They took the sweeping main staircase to Verity Blackwood’s second-floor room, Henrietta in the lead. If there was any trouble, Oliver would happily defer to her with any hotel staff, too. She didn’t go at her usual breakneck speed, perhaps because Wendell Sharpe was in his eighties and not his thirties. He’d insisted he’d be fine, of course, and didn’t look winded when they paused at the stop of the stairs. Henrietta stood back, allowing him to pass since he was the one with Verity’s room number and key. Wendell knocked on the appropriate door. “Mrs. Blackwood? It’s Wendell Sharpe. I’m sorry to disturb you, but I want to be sure you’re all right.” They waited in silence but there was no response. “Hand me the key,” Henrietta said. “If any of us gets in trouble, let it be me.” Wendell didn’t argue and handed her the key. If the door was locked from the inside, a standard, extra measure of security, they would ask the hotel to check on her—but it wasn’t, and they went in. A single floor lamp was lit in the living area of the beautifully appointed art-deco suite. A suite was an indulgence for a solo occupant but one the Blackwoods could well afford. Oliver, hardly a pauper, would have happily settled for a more modest room to sleep off jet lag. Then again, he wouldn’t have been meeting with a renowned private art detective, as had been Mrs. Blackwood’s plan. Henrietta stopped abruptly in the open doorway to the bedroom and held up a hand. “Allow me.” Oliver acquiesced without comment. He didn’t want her thinking she could bark orders at him just because she was MI5, but as she tiptoed into the bedroom, he realized her status as an intelligence officer wasn’t what had prompted her decisive order. She was a woman looking in on another woman. He suspected Wendell had the same thought as he, too, came to a halt. Verity Blackwood lay facedown on the bed, her yellow-blond hair tangled and matted from what Oliver guessed was sweat, spit and possibly vomit. She wore black yoga pants and a white tunic, twisted and bunched up, and her feet were bare, her toenails painted a bright coral. Dead to the world. Had she taken a sleeping pill? Henrietta eased toward the prone woman. “Mrs. Blackwood? My name is Henrietta Balfour. I’m here with Wendell Sharpe. We were concerned about you and—” She stopped, gasping. “Bloody hell.” Oliver sprang forward, given her shocked tone. “What is it?” Henrietta turned to him. “We need an ambulance here at once.” “Henrietta—” “Now, Oliver.” He grabbed a house phone and rang the front desk. Wendell followed Henrietta into the bedroom and switched on a bedside lamp. “Oh, dear God. Oliver…” “I see.” Oliver saw now that Verity Blackwood appeared unconscious, and if she was breathing at all, it was dangerously shallow. Henrietta checked Verity’s wrist. “She has a faint pulse but at least there is one.” She pulled up one of the motionless woman’s eyelids and let it close again. “Pinpoint pupils.” She stood straight. “She’s overdosed.” “But she’s alive?” Wendell asked. “Barely. I’m sure it’s an opioid overdose. I don’t know if it’s too late for naloxone, but she won’t make it unless help gets here fast. I’ll do what I can until then.” Oliver frowned, phone in hand. “You’ll do—” “It’s not my first overdose,” she said, climbing onto the bed. “I need to do rescue breathing.” Verity’s lips and fingernails had turned blue. Oliver shuddered, but a front desk clerk answered his call. He provided a clear, concise description of the situation. The clerk promised to phone an ambulance and send up hotel staff who could help. Henrietta got about the job, pinching Verity’s nose and then covering the dying woman’s mouth with her own and breathing into it. No hesitation—Henrietta could waffle about flower borders, but Oliver was impressed with her decisive action now, with a woman’s life at stake. He looked around the bedroom and noticed an herbal medicine bottle on the bedside table. He didn’t touch it. The label stated the contents were micronutrients, vitamins and minerals ideal for stress relief. Wendell nodded to the bottle. “It might be snake oil, but it’s not what caused the overdose.” A near-empty glass of red wine stood next to the bottle. Oliver was no expert, but if Verity Blackwood had ingested some sort of opioid, alcohol would exacerbate the depressant effects of the powerful drug. Had she known what she was doing? Had she hidden opioid tablets in the herb bottle and planned to get high—or had she planned to kill herself? Was this a suicide attempt? Had she wanted Wendell Sharpe to find her body? Wendell walked over to the open bathroom door. “I don’t see a syringe. I’d guess she took pills.” “Did she sound depressed when she spoke with you?” Oliver asked. “Not at all. She wanted to meet with me as soon as possible. She didn’t want to wait. She said she’d come to Dublin if I couldn’t get to London. She sounded impatient more than anything else.” Oliver glanced at the woman, still not responding to Henrietta’s rescue breathing. “How did she get your number?” Wendell hesitated a fraction of a second. “I don’t know. I figured I’d ask when I saw her.” He paused, staring at his would-be client. “I wonder if I should call Lucas before the cops get here.” Lucas Sharpe was Wendell’s grandson and the executive director of Sharpe Fine Art Recovery in Heron’s Cove, Maine. Oliver didn’t know him well. He was better acquainted with Wendell, the company’s founder, who’d run a Dublin office since the death of his wife sixteen years ago. “And Emma?” Oliver asked. “She is the cops.” Oliver hadn’t considered law enforcement would need to get involved, but he supposed they’d have to, given the circumstances. If Verity indeed had arrived that morning from Boston—if she hadn’t lied—could she have secured her drugs there? How? Why? When? Those were reasonable questions, but Oliver would let Wendell and Henrietta deal with the authorities on either side of the Atlantic. Henrietta continued to perform rescue breathing, unflappable as she did what she could to administer basic life support to the dying woman. Oliver was well aware that as little as three to five minutes without oxygen to the brain could cause permanent damage, even death. Verity Blackwood hadn’t moved that he could see. He knew that opioids were a central nervous system depressant that decreased breathing. He turned to Wendell. “Do you know how to reach Verity’s husband?”


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