A partnership of art theives plot to steal the Mona Lisa in the looming days before WWI.
Not that Samuel “Stinky” Handers would have known, striking an obstinate match at a picture frame that was perhaps too slick to provide a spark, but the Boston Museum of Art was missing a painting of a ravine whose only redeeming value was that it had been painted by Vincent Van Gogh, a Dutchman who was barely even dead enough to warrant such mysterious theft of his paintings. Inevitably though, Samuel “Stinky” Handers did find out from his superior (who thought he saw viridian soot everywhere) that, in fact, the painting that he, Stinky, had been tasked with protecting on these cold Novembers may well have disappeared down the same rabbit-hole as his career as the assistant to the security guard of what has been lauded the most second-rate museum of art in the western hemisphere. And that was all he knew. Maybe it was the soot.
Because that is what Mr. Eyewitness Samuel “Stinky” Handers said (in not so many words) at the few months’ subsequent trial of one Vincent Penn, at this moment the most complacent Italian-American in the world currently about to be acquitted of two counts of art thievery, three counts of perjury, three more counts of conspiracy to commit crimes like perjury and art thievery, and one count probably loosely relating to the honorable daughter of the honorable Judge Ben Barkley. Her name is Leila, and when she secretly wishes to rendezvous with you in the deep evening, she deposits a tattered Taft Taft Taft ribbon over the brim of the gas lamp by her window, which itself is visible from the courthouse’s own warped parallax. Also visible is the gently vacillating prow of the schooner Lincoln in the Charles, one of Judge Barkley’s toys leftover from the calamity in the Philippines and his chief means of defending his daughter’s window.
Vincent feels a hole in his stomach where a warm pastry might find a loving reception, and allows a resonant gurgle of tribute before clanking open his pocketwatch, a loud contraption that arrogantly declares the time is not nine-thirty at all, but rather –
“Ten thirty, your Honor! In Baltimore that’s called brunch!”
“Seat yarself, Penn,” sez Barkley, who Vincent prays is equally famished. “Baltimah still has all its warks of ahht. Shaddap.”
From the perspective of Stinky Handers, still slumped in the witness stand and picking at the benevolent tobacco scar on the inside of his cheek, the now-animated rear of the defendant seemed to rebound from its chair with triple the energy with which it had been court-ordered to descend to. “Your Honor, the way I see it, the way I’m sure the state sees it, we can all remain here to relish the spectacle of this imbecile on the stand, and then acquit me, or we can simply acquit me now and perchance be at Caroline’s place for scones by quarter-of.”
Barkley fumes, a sensory profusion of sounds, snorts, and colors. “I can’t jest acquit yah, Penn, thez a thing called a jarry here in Bahston, and I know they have ‘em too in Baltimah! Shaddap.”
“Barkley, your Honor, not you too! Since when did America start letting pathetic little bugs like juries tell its Judges what to do? Are we Republicans or not? Hell–,” now beholding the astonished jury with all the vitriolic handsomeness his figure could muster, “what’s the split right now anyway? Eight – four? Nine – three?” Back to the positively crimson Judge Barkley, whose gavel hand shook in a rhythm concurrent to Stinky Handers’ effort at dental hygiene. “Call it twelve – oh, and I’ll stay a good city block away from Miss Leila at all times, how’s that, your Honor? Not to mention that silly painting could still always turn up somewhere. I found my lost harmonica, silver one, dabbling through the Charles last evening, sir, and all that somehow after five years I dropped it in a lavatory in Napoli. Journey improved it too, it seems –”
“Shaddap, Penn!” The courthouse stills, and even Handers, getting tired now, slows his digging to a bare scratch of dirty fingernails against his inflamed mouth. Barkley leans forward now from his perch, the Judge’s roost above the realm of the plebeians, and in the few grim seconds before his wheezing retort fails to notice the entrance of one figure who, in Vincent’s harried bewilderment, simply did not belong in a middle-class courthouse on the Charles in Boston during springtime. But there was no time. The honorable Judge Barkley had given in.
Vincent Penn, less than thirty years young and clad in his trim black suit, rises from his chair one last time, lets his hands fall to rest, important, so that he may luridly crack his knuckles to pass the time to Barkley’s dismissal, which crashes down with all the force of a wave that would rather explode before it graces sand. “Vincent Cawson Penn!” Barkley caterwauls from the perch. “Yah-ahh dismissed! Thahh’s jess naw evidenze!” he adds with a helpless look to Stinky Handers, still not wholly cognizant of his role in the proceeding.
When the bailiff shuffles up to coach Handers from the witness stand, Vincent strides, his victory away and contained in azure bottles drifting in an elsewhere ocean, and focused on his pursuit, his trough from the hazy courtroom to the clear temperate lunchtime outside. The stream flows, jacketed masses in work-lunch circuit, series here and parallel there, nowhere his mark. Where was the man, the non-belonger with the gray overcoat but no derby, the slim cane but no limp. In Boston’s brickstacked intestines, and where is a man in a sea of hats? Vincent trots delicately, less than inconspicuously into the denser herds of crowds, where is the man, suspecting (but it’s inconceivable!) there may perhaps be one other in Boston who knows just where that painting got off to. Behind the post box, always gilded with angels or muted trumpets this entrenched into downtown, where the newspapers were stacked, the man with the telltale walk of innocence, the duplicity audacious and washed out by the sun.
Something in Vincent cries to turn around, to pursue instead that pasty which seemed such a grand idea back in the courtroom. His nerves pulse on autopilot, the job is compromised, the stranger is the compromiser, the man is stopped now, fussing with gloves, time to act … Vincent, time to act …
“Sir, excuse me,” says the fool Vincent, “my name is Vincent Penn. I saw you at my acquittal, just right now, am I correct?” The man turns, slowly and deliberately (de-libera-tely, Vincent ruminates, or derived from the Latin of liberty) and douses Vincent in cold rain, eyes wise and unassuming, and voice dark and without accent, crisp power under its sly melody.
“Vincent Penn, you are a fine thief.” Heart stops in the instant of reckoning. “And for that you are famous. Not so unlike Jesse James, half a century ago. But I need a true thief, not a lucky legend. I would like a thief to steal for me this day’s most prized work of art, and then shut up indefinitely. Are you my thief, Mr. Penn? Or shall I tell Judge Barkley just where you found that painting?”
“What?” escapes in a whisper. Somewhere, a swallow calls.
Bertillon, still inside the bunker Pátele for as long as it takes, strains his forehead upon the window to the last of the Parisian twilight and flicks open his eyes. Nothing to worry about outside. Just another sleepy evening over le Petite Couronne, the sky purple and charring black in a slow burn towards dusk. A flight of ducks paint the only scar on the canvas above, dotting a quick, smooth arc to the Louvre gardens while there remains enough light to see and land. He whirrs the gears softly in his mind, feeding them with his calm, spinning them faster, tonight when the world outside winds down bereft of the usual insanity. Absent tonight is that fleeting madness which seems to cast a shadow onto darkness itself, inside every house and under every bridge, the pulsing drum beat marching behind the first scene of humanity’s last act. Are we succeeding? Tonight, maybe, the change has occurred, the nodal point bending to … not hope but …
“Justice,” grins Bertillon, the detective turning from the window. “It’s what you’ll be feasting on tonight, Father Grigori, and what is undoubtedly going to eat you up in the end.” Grigori, shackled into the strange chair in the white room, “For all your persistence, justice will outdo you. It will wait patiently, dormant for your guilt to grow into a different monster entirely. You can forget about your crime, Grigori, you impotent preacher, but justice … it will remember you, and its forgiveness will not dampen.”
Bertillon steps forward, enough to reproach the coward in the measuring-chair and to provide room for his men to carry out their sordid tasks upon him. Each appendage lifted, bent to a certain theta, mark that down, and then measured in millimeters in five places, the figures penned down again and again onto the chart, the sail of numbers that spanned the wall but for Bertillon’s window. Calipers onto the arms, legs, torso, head, hands and feet, mark all those down. Proportions defined and verified, myriad calculations of the accused, approaching unique, like a painting or a chorus. Such was anthropometry, the way a crime connects to its criminals, the bright line through the night that stabs down on the runaway thief, a screaming from across the sky, Here is your culprit!
Whoever is apprehended in Paris now, years of Bertillon’s work to amend the system, gets the chair and chart. Order of one ratio for every crime, every conviction totally sure, the scalpel of the law used to shred off that lingering doubt, the disgusting human error, the injustice, entropy, disorder, the chaos, the blacker than black insanity inside all the shadows gets cut away. Gone are the lies. The min/max width ratio of the nose does not lie. The dee theta dee tee response of a knee-jerk reflex does not lie. And if they did, they were two in a million revolting measurements Bertillon’s men would pry away from the accused. The documents, the ultimate in criminal profiles, flowing from the walls in Bertillon’s chamber, the most incriminating similarities between observed and expected values prioritize chi-square funtime data tables in scratchy crimson ink, do we have a match? and then recur.
Alphonse Bertillon stands back to behold his gleaming reinvention of the justice system, Grigori wrestling against the measuring shackles. There is something else behind his grin, though, an inscrutable mysteriousness borrowed from the Cheshire cat, lurking from tooth to tooth. Is there something more, Bertillon? it begs beneath Grigori’s whimpering. What is it you’ve come up with now? At the counter now, crossed the entire measuring room in four steps, back turned to the subject and documenters, exchanges his tan tweed overcoat for a more scientific white smock, clinking of vials against graduated cylinders, not there before, and produces for Grigori a beaker of ink, either black or so deeply red it seems so, and sloshes some of the liquid into a fresh Petri. “This substance, Father, is the perfection, the divine adjudicator in a dish. One to one matchups, Grigori! This is the end! The system cannot possibly be improved any further.”
Cradles the Petri, tiptoes back to the chair, and leans over, actually descends his eyes to meet Grigori’s, swirls the murky liquid under the captive’s nose. “You likely know it as ink.” Yes, the insanity is gone from tonight, the strange just departed from the sublime truth of the law, fashionably absent, omitted as if a long-owed favor to this illustrious science of justice. Bertillon grins again, time to at last be silent, to watch Grigori’s eyes go wide as the measurers seize his hand and thrust it upwards so that Bertillon may accept it and stab it down, scared thumb screaming into the ink in the Petri like a bolt of lightning over the sea, staining itself red, blood dripping away, and then pressed against the chart. The image is Grigori’s echo, the mirror-Father stolen and copied and condensed into formless swirls marked on the measurement paper.
Grigori’s voice coughs and trembles. “What does this mean?”
To the accused, “There is only one thumbprint of this Father Grigori in the world.” Bertillon victorious, turning to the measurers before donning his overcoat again, sliding out the blithe commands, “Get for me all his prints. Then let him free.”
Wars have a cunning way of overriding the days just before them. In the reflection, the thinkers come out from their fox-holes to ponder and philosophize among the rubble, those days and months and years are so volatile and calamitous and filled with noise and gravity which the thinkers condition us to forget. Yes, but that is so that the war may have more importance, you see, yes, yes, yes, but yes, yes but still … was it ever so difficult to see the hidden machinery of the marching dreadnought, drumming away towards the day the conflict breaks? Surely there was a world once laid beneath the massive battle-map that covered it all exactly, one to one, when there were feelings rising up through the tears and events lifting up the edges, briefly, and a certain observant few see things we were not meant to …
A certain French ambassador to Italy, whose job devotion one might rightly describe as ‘corrupt’ or at the very least ‘wholly unenthusiastic’, wonders if he lives as one of these observant few, speculates his grim perceptibility, dreading so, but he does not show it outward. The passerby in this evening’s tide of faces, Parisian and uniform amid the sloughing crowds, eyes glazed with the purpling sky, hear coming the rapt, jocular rhythm of the obnoxiously gilded walking cane attached to one Jean Armitage, gray with his thick notebook clasped under his free arm like an artillery shell stolen from some modest but moderately brutal conflict in northeastern Italy. Armitage hopes the disposition of his notebook is not so forthright, disdained to perfect his demeanor, complete his disguise, obfuscate the last sign of his betrayal of his country. He is not very good at his career, to negotiate virtually all of France’s parasitic relations with Giolitti’s crumbling biscotti of a Prime Ministry, nor does he particularly wish to see the best interests of magnificent France realized any more than he does to see a not-too-hot cappuccino upon his workdesk, perhaps with cinnamon today … but his workdesk is back in le Petite Couronne, and that is not where he must walk at this moment, cane clicking expertly, and deliberately so. Armitage has to be anywhere but there, simply not present at his desk this evening, for an overdue covert meeting with a telephone. But where will he go? The Italians, he recalls, have a word for it, erreri, to wander with no destination in mind save a few forbidden ones. Armitage, wanderer, looks down.
All of the sidewalks in Paris are cobblestones, slick and dark with centuries of use, some of them dug up from the old Roman roads, obstinately, he is sure. For bizarre anachronisms, the black path of stones responds amicably beneath his cane and worn chaussures, the grip augmented perhaps with the grand history that grips to it. In this nighttime, the moonlight bests the purple post-sunset to kiss each stone with a sinister sheen. There is a devilish quality to them all, numerous and jumbled up into anonymity all throughout the city, that dares to go against the day, sprawling over Paris and back into time, before instant communication could be made over a wire, before light could be summoned from a glass and switch, before industry came and scattered the wealth, before the Revolution, before the Christians and their Popes, before befores, when civilization shifted with the softest of whispers instead of the thunderous shouts it trumpets today. Or rather how it has been loudening, all those befores. How it still wants to … even now … screaming vociferous murder into his ears, screaming from across the sky on those peculiar red nights …
He recalls the painting, Munch’s psychotic brushstrokes scorching the atmosphere itself into the twisted sexless figure, clawing at itself for the supreme howl of cormic agony, rage, sadness, the delta point crossed in an instant, der shriek …