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COUNTERFEIT CONSPIRACIES Hardcover – February 2, 2016

4.1 out of 5 stars 213 ratings

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Counterfeit Conspiracies

A Bodies of Art Mystery

By Ritter Ames

Henery Press

Copyright © 2015 Ritter Ames
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-943390-48-9


Clouds shrouded the moon. The Dobermans, Zeus and Apollo, snoozed by the rose bushes after devouring the tasty treat I had offered. Waves crashed in the distance and gave the crisp sea air a taste and smell of salt spray. The estate's showplace lawn ended a hundred yards away at a private beach.

Like my previous visit, I wore head-to-toe black. For this jaunt, however, I hadn't donned the ebony-beaded Vera Wang halter gown and Jimmy Choo stilettos I sported the last time. No, for the current foray, my Lycra garb more closely resembled Catwoman with my blonde hair hidden under a dark hood. Night vision goggles finished off the ensemble. The difference between arriving invited versus an incognito — and illegal — entrance. I pulled up my turtleneck to cover the lower part of my face and fitted night vision goggles over my eyes.

As I slipped through the mansion's side door, the left wall security pad flashed. I patted the ring of leather pouches attached to my belt and removed a cute little gizmo I'd picked up in Zurich that resembled a garage door opener. Only this handy gadget decoded electronic security systems, rendering them harmless. The tiny warning whine never had a chance to turn into a scream; my device made friends and invited us to enter.

I slipped down the rear hall and up the staircase my research had uncovered in a back issue of Architectural Digest. At the upper landing, infrared lasers protected the area from unwelcome visitors. I opened another pouch, withdrew a small, specially formulated aerosol can, and sprayed in a sweeping pattern. As the particles fell, laser lines were revealed in vivid detail. Seconds later, I'd picked the lock on the turret gallery door.

The last time I stood in the gallery the master of the house provided a guided tour and made a blatant pass beneath the gaze of a Dutch Master. My ability to deflect the Lothario took grace and diplomacy, plus restraint to curb the strong desire to disable his favorite body part. Still, the event had been worth the effort. A six-month quest was over, and I had found my Holy Grail of paintings.

"My father started this collection," the slimy billionaire had bragged. "He made purchases while stationed in Europe in the mid-1940s. I added to the works and specially constructed this temperature-controlled castle safe room."

On this return visit — my acquisition finale — I slid into the darkened gallery. The circular space, lit only by the minimal luminosity filtering through a half-dozen narrow arched windows, allowed my shadow to mix with those already in residence. Night vision goggles allowed the glorious set of Rembrandts and French Impressionists to glow alongside the beauty I came to liberate.

It was a vibrant seascape, circa 1821, and a breathtaking scene of energy and clear passion. A little known work by a well-respected artist, which had been cherished by the family of its previous owner before eventually falling into the hands of the billionaire's father. Gazing upon the work, I could almost hear the buoy bell ringing in the distance, but the room's current illumination left the scene too dark to see beyond the receding foamy water. I shivered as if the wind picked up; the painting was that powerful.

I heard a noise. A human-moving noise.

I had to hurry. I slipped a blade from my belt and ran it along the frame's edge.

The moment the canvas was free, I heard the master of the house bark, "What are you doing?"

I spun to find him standing behind me. Holding his gaze, I sheathed my knife and dug into another pouch, then threw a capped vial into the darkness between myself and potential capture. The glass broke, and when the chemicals inside hit the air, a dense smoke obscured all vision. But I had already calculated the distance to the nearest window, moved to it, and affixed a suction cup with a braided nylon line to the wall. The painting protected in one hand, my remaining gloved fist, now fitted with brass knuckles, shattered the narrow pane. I slid through the turret's slit window, taking a few shards of glass along for the ride. Then I rappelled down the rough stone wall to the manicured lawn.

"Zeus! Apollo! Robbery! Attack!" my impotent enemy screamed.

Next morning, the painting and I slipped into the back of Greg's shop for the new frame constructed per my specifications. A close facsimile to photos, and infinitely better than the garish gold number that restrained the seascape during its turret imprisonment, the burnished brass frame even evoked a nautical theme that conjured the look of a spyglass.

I changed into blue coveralls and left his shop with the newly framed painting wrapped in brown paper. Magnetic signs attached to my van implied a courier service, as did the faked breast pocket insignia on my uniform. The drive to Mrs. Lebowitz's tiny home was quick.

"Yes?" she said, answering the door. A Holocaust survivor, the only one in her family to make it out of Europe alive, she was a child when the Allies freed her from Auschwitz.

My brown-wrapped package once graced her grandmother's dining room. Before it was stolen by Nazis and purchased with fictionalized provenance by my adversary's father. One of my pro bono projects to not only return the art to its true owner, but to insure masterpieces such as this one did not get locked away from public sight.

"Mrs. Lebowitz, I have a very special delivery."

Eighteen hours and one chartered jet flight to Italy later, I was still running on adrenalin as I played the part of an art world socialite representing the New York based Beacham Foundation. Easy enough, since I'd perfected the role over the last five years, except that nothing was going right tonight.

"A quick and easy pickup," Max, my boss, had told me. "Everything is taken care of. Don't worry."

It was another black-tie affair with nothing more to go on than a name and small photo that Nico, my research wizard, had slipped me earlier with a flute of Dom Pérignon. Not a perfect method but it worked for us. As the foundation's leading art recover expert my life was pretty much a series of different hotel rooms every week. Tonight's event was one of a series of smaller jobs directing me to the person who held an art object I needed to return to the person or institution that had true ownership. Mrs. Lebowitz's job had been a rushed opportunity when I had little choice, since I'd not only learned the painting's location, but also information regarding a potential sale in the works. On the other hand, this evening's pickup at another glittery party was "my day job."

Despite Max's assurances, things began tanking with a flourish before I'd even arrived. First, I'd received a bogus text with driving instructions that sent me in the wrong direction. Once I'd found the correct location, I went in search of my objective in the early meet-and-greet stages of the party. Our contact in the photo was nowhere to be found, despite my best efforts in searching this extensive castillo. Finally, and probably the most disturbing after all that had gone wrong, I'd noticed one of the attendees seemed a bit too interested in me. I'd dodged him once in the entry, again in the ballroom. And here he was again. Churning through the crowd like a heat-seeking missile. A Rhett Butler wannabe in Armani. There was a canniness to the way he looked at me that said I was an assignment instead of a prospective assignation.

I tried to figure which camp he fit into, but got nada. With so many players in the art game, it was hard to keep everyone straight, both above and below ground. But a new American would have stayed in my memory, especially a tall male one with a deep Southern accent. Was it simple egoism, or did he work for someone plotting against me? My money lay on the latter. Especially after the diverting text.

He blocked my way. "How 'bout we take a late night stroll outside? A lil birdie tol' me the air on this Italian bay is soft as warm satin slidin' over your skin."

Disregarding my first impulse, which would have left him with a broken nose, I kept my breathing and temper at even levels. I needed to find out what his game really was — but not now.

"Why don't you ask that lil ol' birdie to join you?" Did the bogus text come from Mr. Wonderful, here? The man who had paid me too much attention to me all evening? My palms were damp as I ran them down my black sheath, ostensibly to smooth the material around my hips, but actually to dry my sweating palms.

"I'm afraid that lil birdie has moved on to bigger and better things." One of his strides halved the distance between us. "You know, honey, while gentlemanly manners forbid I refer to a lady by anything other than beautiful, I must say you're looking very pale at this moment, even for a natural blonde, Miss ..."

Miss None of Your Business! But I wasn't fooled. I saw the intelligence behind those teal eyes. He knew I was Laurel Beacham. Hell, he probably knew my middle name was Iris and I'd streaked through the Cornell library freshman year. I didn't know how he knew — just that he did. I also knew anger had replaced any paleness on my face with a bright blush.

"I'm sorry, I don't feel well," I lied, turning before he could stop me. I strode quickly down a hall, relieved when a discreet lavatory door offered refuge.

I took a couple of deep breaths, regaining my composure. Though, as I looked around the lavatory, that composure quickly died.

A mosaic-tile wall separated the toilet from the lavish dressing salon. A pair of wingtips peeked from behind the wall at an awkward angle. I hurried around the wall and stopped short.

There was no mistaking him. Propped on the john was the man from the photo who I was supposed to meet. Half of his handlebar moustache was jaggedly slashed and discarded on the floor, while blood from a gash at his throat spilled down his round belly and onto the cushioned turquoise seat.

Even as nausea hit, my mind ticked over the possibilities. From the look of things, he had been dead only a few minutes. No blood trail, so he'd been killed where he sat.

I frisked him, careful not to touch skin as I explored bulges that could be the seventeenth-century snuffbox I'd been sent to recover, but the search proved fruitless. Something wasn't right. The snuffbox, though a valuable art object, didn't warrant taking the man's life. I needed to get somewhere safe and call Max, let him handle what had obviously become a complicated job. That's why he made the big bucks. Too many slipups already, and I needed to move quickly before I lost my nerve. The subliminal message all night seemed to intentionally keep me one step behind the objective. Leaving me to wonder what might have happened if I had gotten my hands on the snuffbox.

Straightening, I went to the sink and washed my hands. Twice. This party was definitely over. Time to find Nico and get both of us out of there.

Black ties and dazzling dresses swirled around the ballroom to kaleidoscopic effect. Still touched by shock, I marveled a moment at what crystal chandeliers did for precious gems and designer signatures. The international cast comprising the guest list had once made this job interesting, but now they just hindered my progress. I prayed Nico hadn't slid off with one of the real hired help for an assignation — his modus operandi when his phase of the work was completed. I couldn't face another systematic exploration of the Italianate estate's gold leaf, fine tapestries and Carrera marble.

I took a long cleansing breath, reminded my nerves to stay in check, and spotted Nico's dark curly head. Sans tray, he sported a tuxedo jacket obviously cached for ulterior purposes and stood chatting up an Yves Saint Laurent model known to the rags as a poseur. Nico didn't care. He had other uses in mind for her physical talents.

"The lights are very bright in here," I remarked, joining the couple.

Nico's eyes narrowed at what my words signaled. "Now?"

"Yes, they hurt my eyes."

Miss Poseur giggled. "Essayez de lunettes de soleil."

Sunglasses in a ballroom. She was a bright one. Nico gave a resigned shrug and moved away.

A circulating waiter offered champagne. I grabbed a flute to better blend into the relaxed crowd.

My arm jerked, hit from behind, and I watched, helpless, as the narrow glass arced in mid-air, then shattered on the marble floor. Icy shards narrowly missed the exposed heel of a delicately shod duchess. A waiter dashed toward us to pick up the sharp pieces. I could not believe this evening.

"I'm so sorry ..." I started to tell the duchess. But my words dropped off as whoever had bumped my arm suddenly had a hand at my waist. I froze, the hair on the back of my neck rising as I turned to face him. Mr. Rhett Wannabe. Again.

The duchess gave me a cool smile. Her dismissive gaze skipped over my shoulder and softened, her features donning a flirtatious mask at the man behind me. He leaned in and murmured apologies into her ear, causing her to giggle like a schoolgirl.

I didn't know which made me madder, his inescapable grip or the way this "Southern gentleman" both restrained and ignored me.

"Do you mind?" I spoke to Teal Eyes between clenched teeth. Creating a scene was out of the question. This job demanded a low-key persona.

But he still ignored me, continuing to converse in perfectly accented Parisian French.

With a gay laugh, the duchess raised a sparkling hand to pat his cheek and turned away, never acknowledging I was even in the ballroom. My inner child felt extremely slighted.

Before I could twist free, his other hand vised on my right arm and steered me toward the two-story glass doors that led to an elegant stone balcony.

"Let's go out on the terrace." Teal Eyes lifted a jet eyebrow in a Clark Gable gesture. "The lights against the dark sea should be lovely. Don't you think?"

"Does it really matter what I think?"

"Glad you agree."

Nico was a step behind us. I gave him a slight shake of my head. While my Southern Charmer was clearly not what he seemed, if I ran now, too many questions would remain unanswered. Who was he? Who did he work for? Had he killed my contact? I knew I needed to get out of there before the dead man in the lavatory was found, but I didn't know how worried I should be about Mr. Teal Eyes. And this might be my best chance to get a little background on the man. It was becoming clear he was on someone's payroll. No one in my business made himself this obvious without a reason.

Nico stood back while I obediently followed Southern Charm's lead. Strains of Isham Jones's and Gus Kahn's "It Had to Be You," my late grandfather's favorite song, wafted overhead, continuing a pattern of music for the evening as varied as the guest list. Only minutes before, the crowd had been doing its best Mick Jagger impersonations to a pounding interpretation of "Honky Tonk Woman."

Any other time I would have been enjoying the cosmopolitan crowd gathered to raise money for the latest Italian restoration effort. International wheeler-dealers, like my late grandfather, appreciated the historic value of the old artists. Contributing a portion of the night's "winnings" was a small price to pay for the honor of seeing family names on appropriate plaques.

Of course, the loss of said family fortune by a father who bet on anything that moved meant I had to work for a living. Something that raised eyebrows in "our crowd." Hence, getting my name on the guest list meant more than just wrangling an invitation.

The terrace was void of other patrons as we approached. Better for the inquisition I had in mind, but also easier to end up like my unfortunate contact. Not for the first time that night, I cursed the fact that my Giorgio couture was not designed to conceal a .38.

"Is this dogged persistence the line you usually take? The only way you can get a lady to yourself?" I opened.

"A lady would have been much more diplomatic when she rejected my advances." He took me near the edge of the terrace, and as far as possible from any eavesdropping guests. Nothing like great wealth to bring out the nosiness in people.

"So you recognized the rejections for what they were, but kept advancing," I responded.

"All I did was strike up a conversation."

(Continues...)Excerpted from Counterfeit Conspiracies by Ritter Ames. Copyright © 2015 Ritter Ames. Excerpted by permission of Henery Press.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.

Product details

  • Publisher ‏ : ‎ Henery Press (February 2, 2016)
  • Language ‏ : ‎ English
  • Hardcover ‏ : ‎ 252 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1943390487
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1943390489
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 15 ounces
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 5.51 x 0.63 x 8.5 inches
  • Customer Reviews:
    4.1 out of 5 stars 213 ratings

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Ritter Ames is the USA Today bestselling author who writes the two cozy mystery series, the ORGANIZED MYSTERIES and the FRUGAL LISSA MYSTERIES, as well as the fast-paced BODIES OF ART traditional mystery series.

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