Derek was on his feet and around the table before my head could hit the floor. My stool clattered to the floor as he swooped me up and clutched me securely in his arms.
I stared at him, unable to catch my breath.
He stared back. His mouth was too close to mine and my heart raced in my chest. To say I was embarrassed didn’t begin to describe it. Mortified worked better.
I panted for more breath, thinking this might be a great time for me to find that portal into another dimension. Yes, I was grateful for Derek’s speed and strength, but really, this wasn’t exactly the most professional position I’d ever found myself in.
On the other hand, he seemed to have absolutely no problem hoisting a grown woman into his arms-not that I weighed a ton or anything. He appeared perfectly at ease, as if he were holding a cup of tea and carrying on a lovely conversation with the Queen.
“Must I always be saving you from near disaster?” he murmured.
“No,” I whispered. “That won’t be necessary.” But all things considered-and despite the fact that he continued to stare to the point where I was certain my face was as hot and red as a radish-I’d rather have ended up in his arms than in a coma or a back brace from colliding with the concrete floor.
“Thank you,” I said in as dignified a tone as I could muster, what with my throat gone dry and all. “You can put me down.”
“Are you sure?” He grinned, showing off his straight white teeth and some adorable little crinkles around his cobalt blue eyes, not that I really noticed or anything.
“You fall with alarming regularity.”
“I don’t,” I insisted. “But I’ve had a bad week.”
He scanned the length of me. “You look quite fine now.”
I frowned. “You need to put me down.”
“Of course.” He got me back on my feet and stepped away. “Good as new.”
Ian stepped around my British knight in shining Armani and grasped my shoulders. “Are you okay?”
“Yes, thanks.” I eased away and self-consciously straightened my sweater.
“Are you sure?” Ian persisted. “What happened?”
Derek picked up the stool and placed it on the other side, then pulled one of the more comfortable high chairs into position for me. He met my gaze, patted the seat and said, “Sit.”
“Thank you.” I maneuvered my way back onto the chair and forced myself to focus on the book. The blood was still there.
Struggling to retrieve some authority, I glared from Ian to Derek and said, “There’s blood on this book cover.”
Ian cocked his head. “Beg your pardon?”
Derek’s mouth curved in a frown. “What blood?”
“On the eagle’s wing.” I held up the book and pointed. “Why didn’t the police take this into evidence?”
While Ian’s forehead creased in confusion, Derek went with inscrutability.
I sighed. “The police never saw it, did they? You never told them Abraham gave it to me, did you? Why?”
“Apparently, you didn’t find it necessary to reveal that fact, either,” he countered; then, without another word, he picked up my camera and snapped off several photos of the book cover. Putting the camera down, he pulled a white linen handkerchief from inside his jacket and dabbed at the blood, then scrubbed it. He put the book back on the table and folded the handkerchief. “There. I’ll take this to the police for analysis. In the meantime, you can get to work.”
I stared in disbelief. “Are you insane?”
Ian craned his neck to get a look at the cover. “Is it gone?”
“Pretty much,” Derek said, tucking the handkerchief back in his pocket.
“Good work, Stone,” Ian said, visibly relieved. “Guess that takes care of it, then.”
I whipped around and slugged his arm. “That was evidence!”
“Hey,” he protested, rubbing his arm. “It won’t bring Abraham back, so why should it matter?”
“It matters,” I repeated, slightly more shrill than required.
Derek shook his head firmly. “Not if it means turning the book over to the police.”
“They need to see it!”
“Why?” Ian asked.
I whirled to face him. “What if it’s not Abraham’s blood? What if he attacked his assailant and that’s the killer’s blood on the book? What if-”
“Jeez, Brooklyn,” Ian said. “Chill out.”
Derek held up his hand to stop the argument. “I’m tasked with keeping this book secure. I fully intend to turn over those photos and have them examine the blood on this handkerchief.”
“But what about the book itself? The police-”
“Will destroy it in their zeal to investigate combined with their typical cloddish incompetence,” Derek said with a dismissive wave.
“I thought you were working with them.”
“I am, but that doesn’t mean I’ll allow them to bollix a priceless work of art I’m determined to protect.” He picked up the book again and held it at an angle to check that he’d cleaned it thoroughly.
“Oh, give me the damn book,” I said.
He returned it to its place on the white cloth, then pulled the cloth until the book was directly in front of me.
“I knew you’d see reason,” he said.
“Oh, please.” I jabbed my finger at him. “I want to hear the results of that handkerchief analysis.”
“Yes, ma’am.” He raised an eyebrow, looked at Ian. “Prickly thing.”
Ian nodded. “Always has been.”
“Not funny.” But apparently they didn’t care. “Don’t you both have somewhere else to be?”
Derek thought for a few seconds. “Not really.”
“Me, neither,” Ian said, checking his watch.
I huffed out a breath. They were worse than my brothers now that they had a shared bond, namely, the joy of tormenting me.
Not that I’d ever let these guys know, but I didn’t want to see the Faust covered in slimy black fingerprint dust, either. At the same time, a twinge of guilt rippled through me. I wanted Abraham’s killer caught, but I wanted the book to be protected, too. I tried to convince myself that Abraham would’ve felt the same way.
I ignored my peanut gallery and pulled a pair of reading glasses, a notebook and a pen from my bag to take a closer look at the book and figure out what tools and supplies I would need to bring in from my own studio.
The Winslow Faust was large, probably about fourteen inches tall and ten inches wide. I would need my metal gauge to get an accurate measurement, but that was my educated guess. Gathering the corners of the cloth around the book, I hefted it a few inches off the table. It was heavy, perhaps four, maybe five pounds. I stared at the thickness. Three inches? At least. I added the metal gauge to the list of supplies, along with my table-mounted hands-free magnifying glass.
The two clasps used to keep the book tightly closed were made of brass and shaped to form what looked like stylized eagle claws, each approximately one inch wide and two inches long. They slid through two brass bridges welded to the front cover, then clicked into place, essentially locking the book closed. The brass claws were affixed to one-inch-thick leather straps that were fitted seamlessly into the back cover leather.
My shoulders twitched. I could hear Ian breathing. I turned and found him and Derek inches from my back, watching my every move.
“Want to give me a little room here, guys?”
Ian stepped back immediately but Derek stood his ground.
I sighed and picked up the magnifying glass to examine the red rubies embedded in each leaf point of the fleur-de-lis border. There were thirty rubies total, all clouded and dusty. They would need to be removed for cleaning, then reset.
With the jewels and the elaborate gilding and the strange brass claws all vying for attention, the book should’ve appeared gaudy and crude. Instead, it was a masterpiece. Anyone would feel humbled and privileged to be gazing at such an incredible work of art. Or maybe it was just me, the book nerd.
“Where will you start?” Ian asked.
“Not sure yet,” I muttered, staring at the corded spine.
“When will you start?” Derek asked.
I gave him my best dirty look, then spent a few more minutes studying and admiring the tooling and cording along the spine before I carefully unclasped the brass eagle claws and opened the book.
The pungent smell of warm, musty, aged vellum blended with the scent of rich Morocco leather. I closed my eyes to let the glorious scent of age and elegance cloud my senses and engulf my brain.
I had to blink a few times to clear my vision. Okay, yes, I tended to get a bit emotional about my work, but as I gazed down at the inside cover, all I could think was, wow. Nothing I’d seen before could’ve prepared me for this.
Instead of the usual marbled end papers typical of books from the same period, some divine artist had painted a spectacular battle scene on the scale of Armageddon-and yet, it was all done in miniature. The detail was astounding. Clouds swirled in the heavens as battalions of charging angels descended in full battle regalia, wielding shiny swords in a valiant effort to restore righteousness to a world gone to the dark side.
Rising from the ground to meet them were an equal number of black-clad, malevolent horned creatures, brandishing evil-looking clubs and other instruments of destruction. These were the warriors sent by Mephistopheles to destroy their heavenly rivals.
In the midst of the clashing forces, yet somehow removed from the action, stood a handsome man of wealth, dressed in the elegant attire of nineteenth-century nobility. His face was a mask of revulsion and confusion as he watched the battle wage and the bodies fall around him.
This was Faust, Goethe’s tragically misguided hero.
“This is amazing,” I whispered.
“Beautiful,” Ian concurred. “I’ve never seen anything quite like it.”
Again, the wild colors and dramatic illumination should’ve come across as garish and melodramatic, but instead, this was a stunning work of art all on its own. It wasn’t signed, so I had no idea who the artist was or if it was the same person who’d created the book itself. I intended to find out.
Abruptly I wondered how in the world the Covington might display the book to show so many aspects of it.
“You should display this inside a glass cube at eye level,” I said, my excitement growing. “People need to be able to walk all the way around and see the different parts. You could clip it open to show some of the text, and have another clip here so that this painting is displayed, and you’ve got to be able to see the binding, too. I could fashion some brass clips that would blend with-”
“Sounds great,” Ian said. “Can you finish it in a week?”
I winced. “I hope so.”
He smiled. “So you like the book?”
“Magnificent,” I said with a sigh, then glanced up and met Derek’s dark stare. I shouldn’t have been surprised to see him staring at me, but the look on his face in that moment made me feel somewhat akin to a juicy steak and he was a starving carnivore.
My reaction must’ve been obvious because he instantly schooled his features and appeared only blandly interested in the book.
Okay, maybe I’d imagined that hungry look, but I hadn’t imagined my reaction. My heart was still stuttering and butterflies flitted around my stomach. How many times did I have to remind myself that Derek Stone was a big jerk and still considered me a suspect? Why else would he be here if not to keep an eye on me?
Well, I was over it. I cleared my throat. “Ian, would you mind raising the lights up a level?”
“No problem,” he said, and crossed the room to fiddle with the lighting panel.
I turned to Derek and whispered, “Stop staring at me.”
He leaned in close. “Don’t flatter yourself.”
“What would you call it, then?”
“I’m watching you.”
My hand fisted and I had to fight the urge to pop him one. “You can’t seriously think I would kill-”
“Better?” Ian said as he stared up at the ceiling, gauging the light level, blissfully unaware of the tension occurring under his nose.
“Perfect,” I said, beaming at him. “Thanks.” I flashed one more stern look at Derek, who smirked, causing my fists to twitch. I was itching to break something, preferably his nose. Too bad I was such a loving pacifist.
“I’m off to a meeting,” Ian announced. He took a minute to hash out a work schedule for me; then he handed me keys and a parking card. As he walked to the door, he reminded me to stop by his office to fill out an employment contract before I left for the day. Just like that, I was a Covington employee.
Derek stood and stretched his arms out. “Guess I’ll leave you to your work.”
“Oh, thanks so much.”
He shot me a look of warning. “For now.” Then he winked at me-winked at me!-and walked out.
Blissfully alone, without Derek Stone sucking the oxygen from the room, I ran both hands through my hair and shook my head and shoulders to get rid of all this built-up frustration. It was Derek Stone’s fault I was feeling all this tension. I laid the blame directly at his feet.
And what kind of a name was Derek Stone, anyway? It sounded like some James Bond wannabe. Of course, I was the last person to criticize someone’s given name, having been named after the New York borough where, legend has it, I was conceived in the balcony between acts of a Grateful Dead show at the now defunct Beacon Theatre. And if that weren’t lowering enough, my evil brothers used to call me the Bronx.
But I digress. No matter what his name was, Derek Stone exuded more animal magnetism than all those Bond men combined. The man paid attention, and he was strong. I thought of the way those lean muscles of his arms had bunched and tensed as they caught and held me. Impressive, to say the least.
Was it getting warm in here or what?
“And this is helping me concentrate how?” With a deep inhalation of breath, I grabbed a bag of peppermint patties from my purse and consumed three as fast as I could. Refreshed, I squared my shoulders, grabbed my handheld magnifying glass and continued checking out the Faust.
I’d thought at first that the Armageddon painting inside the cover had been produced on a thin sheet of canvas. Now I could see it was high-quality vellum, which felt more like parchment even though it was actually fine calfskin that had been stretched and treated to allow for printing-or in this case, painting.
If the artist was also the bookbinder, he had to have known the chance he was taking, using this astonishing painting as a pastedown. Given the nineteenth-century style of applying liberal amounts of wheat starch paste to affix paper and leather to the boards, it was remarkable that the paint’s vibrancy and the vellum itself had survived.
“Uh-oh.” I moved the magnifying glass closer and as if to prove the point, I noticed a significant portion of the painting had peeled away from the top of the inside front cover.
I ran my finger along the loose edge. The underside was still tacky.
“Hello,” I said. The painting hadn’t peeled away on its own. Someone had helped it along, creating a pocket between the vellum and the board. By angling the book toward me, I could see something wedged in between.
“What’s this?” I reached in my bag for my thin tweezers and an X-Acto knife and carefully, meticulously pried more of the painting away from the board.
I maneuvered the tweezers into the space and secured the item, then tugged, ever so slightly, since I had no idea what was in there. What if I tore it? What if it crumbled to dust from the pressure?
But the thing slid easily from its hiding place. I was surprised and somewhat disappointed to find a simple piece of contemporary card stock, maybe four inches square. A note card. Expensive. Sturdy, quality stock.
In the center of the card, written in pencil, was a squiggled “AK,” and a notation, “GW1941.”
The “AK” was obviously Abraham’s initials, but the notation was a mystery, easily solved if I could track down his journal for this job. Abraham had always kept copious notes as he worked, so I had no doubt he’d have an explanation for the note card and his scribbled notation.
It would be a leap to assume that Abraham had slipped the note card into the slender pocket to keep the vellum from fusing to the board, but that’s what I would’ve done. So for now, that was my working theory. So the question was, what had Abraham found in the space behind the painted vellum? And another question: What did “GW1941” mean?
My imagination conjured a secret letter written by Kaiser Wilhelm himself on the German emperor’s royal stationery. Maybe it was a denunciation of some government official and its contents were so inflammatory it had to be hidden away from prying eyes. Or maybe it was a scorching love letter to the emperor from his mistress, assuming he had one. Of course he had one. He was an emperor. Maybe he’d tucked the sexy letter away inside the book as a secret keepsake.
And maybe I was being a twit.
Given Abraham’s notation, the missing item was dated 1941, so an artifact from Kaiser Wilhelm was probably out of the question. Whatever it turned out to be, I hoped it would make a noteworthy piece of Winslow family memorabilia for the exhibition as well as add credibility to the provenance of the book itself.
Most likely, what was missing was something more prosaic, perhaps a receipt or maybe the bookbinder’s description of the materials used to make the book. I didn’t care what it was; I just wanted to see it.
“Abraham, what was it?” I asked, glancing around the tidy workroom. “What did you find?”
I heard a cupboard slam in a nearby workroom and smiled. It was comforting to know there were other binders at work today. Another cupboard thumped shut. My curiosity piqued, I walked out into the hall to meet my neighbors. Another drawer banged shut and I followed the noise to Abraham’s door. It was still closed up with yellow crime scene tape draped across it.
Someone was inside.
I pushed the unlocked door open and saw Minka on tiptoe, peering into one of the cupboards above the sideboard.
“Why am I not surprised?” I said.
She gasped and whipped around. That was when I noticed the little pile of supplies she’d amassed on the worktable.
“Pilfering?” I asked cheerily.
“What the hell do you want?”
I slipped under the crime scene tape and came inside to take a closer look at what she’d found.
“Get out of here!” she cried.
“I’m just looking,” I said, and picked up a polished wood box with the initials “AK” engraved on the top.
Abraham’s personalized set of Peachey knives.
“I have dibs on those,” she said. “Get your dirty meat hooks off them.”
I shook my head at her. “You’re a pathetic thief.”
“Those are mine.”
“No, these belong to Abraham.”
She lunged for the box and I whipped my hand away.
“You’re such a bitch!”
“That may be true,” I said. “But these still don’t belong to you.”
“He can’t use them and I found them first.”
My eyes widened. I couldn’t help it. Her lack of a moral compass never failed to shock me. “That doesn’t mean they belong to you.”
“God, I hate you,” she said through clenched teeth. She swept the rest of her booty to her chest and stomped out. Then she turned back and glared at me. “I hope you die.”
“Back atcha,” I yelled after her.
I let go of the breath I’d been holding. The woman was so toxic. I had to wonder, not for the first time, how anyone in their right mind would hire her.
“Hey, you shouldn’t be in here.” Ian stood at the door, frowning at me.
I laughed without humor. “Where were you when I needed you?”
“What do you mean?”
“Minka was in here. I caught her pilfering Abraham’s stuff.”
“Oh.” His frown deepened. “Well, we’ve got tools everywhere. She must’ve been looking for something.”
“No, Ian. She was stealing Abraham’s stuff.” I dipped under the yellow tape and closed the door, then handed him the box of Peachey knives. “She was going to take this.”
He examined it, handed it back, then shrugged. “It’s just a box of knives, Brooklyn. I’m sure it was completely innocent. You’re just a little sensitive. Come on.”
In my moment of stunned disbelief, he was able to wrap his arm around my shoulder and lead me back to my room.
It was d'ej`a vu all over again. My college boyfriend had refused to believe Minka was capable of attacking me. It was why we’d eventually broken up. He’d said I was just being overly emotional because my hand was all bandaged up and hurting. It was an accident, he’d insisted, and I needed to lighten up.
Back in my workroom, as Ian pulled the high chair out and helped me sit, I felt like Ingrid Bergman in Gaslight. And not for the first time. Here I was again, trying to prove that Minka was a pathological liar and dangerous to my health while all anyone else could see was that Minka was an innocent bystander and I was a wrathful bitch.
At that moment I realized Minka could get away with murder.
I tried to work for another twenty minutes, but it was useless. Between Minka throwing me off my game and the missing artifact from the Faust, I couldn’t concentrate.
I circled the room, stared out the high windows at the blue sky and wondered what that missing artifact might be.
“And where in the world did you hide it?” I asked out loud.
Abraham had hounded me from the earliest age to always keep notes of my work. At every stage, it was important to photograph and map everything, not just the physical work, the paper, the boards, the binding, the threads, but also my own impressions and thoughts and problems and theories regarding the project. He likened the job to that of an archaeologist or a crime scene investigator. If Abraham had found something inside that hidden pocket, he would’ve slipped the item into a clear plastic sleeve and clipped it into a binder for protection and reference.
“A book is a piece of living history.” I could hear him say it as clearly as though he were here in the room with me.
“So what the hell did you do with this piece?” I wondered aloud. “And where’d you put your damn journal?”
My eyes narrowed as I scanned the compact space again. It was identical to Abraham’s workroom two doors down. Modular shelving and cabinets in a blond wood veneer lined three walls, and the large worktable and stools filled the remaining middle space. The ceiling was high, the lighting decent. It was a clean and orderly room with everything neatly arranged.
Abraham, however, had always been a whirlwind of creative energy, an artist who left his mark wherever he went. In other words, he was a slob. As I looked around at this assigned space, I realized the man never would’ve kept anything important here. He might’ve been forced to work in this room, but he didn’t live here, didn’t create here, didn’t leave his mark here.
The man I knew had kept every notebook and journal he’d ever written on every project he’d ever worked. He was a pack rat. So where were all the papers and notebooks and journals the Winslow project would’ve generated?
Had someone stolen them? Was that why he was killed?
Taking one more glance around, I realized I wouldn’t find the answers here.
There was only one place I could think of looking and that was at Abraham’s rambling home studio at the commune in Sonoma. I still had a key to the place.
My stomach growled. I checked my watch and realized it was almost noon. As I tidied up, I calculated that if I could make it to my car within ten minutes, I’d have time to go to the drive-through at Speedy Grill and get a junior double cheeseburger, mega fries and an Oreo milk shake, and still make it to Sonoma by two o’clock.