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MARKED MASTERS Hardcover – February 2, 2016

4.5 out of 5 stars 128 ratings

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Editorial Reviews

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Marked Masters

A Bodies of Art Mystery


By Ritter Ames

Henery Press

Copyright © 2015 Ritter Ames
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-1-943390-52-6


CHAPTER 1

Two black and whites screamed to the curb, paralleling each other and blocking off any possibility of retreat. Brakes screeched. Sirens blared. My blood pressure ratcheted up a notch. The flashing lights alone set my heart pounding so hard I could swear the beats showed through my black Lycra.

One step and I bled back into the shadows of the house's side wall.

A simple pickup on a limited time frame. That's what the job had been. My objective was a medium-sized nude, which had reclined over the headboard of a blackmailer's bed for decades. A painting and headboard currently residing inside the townhouse that was the focal point of this Orlando PD team.

"He's been extorting money from my mother since before I was born," Kat Gleeson had explained earlier in the afternoon. "The blackmailer picked up the portrait at a sale after the artist died, playing a hunch it would be worth bigger bucks later. Mother received the first demand as soon as my father started in political life. Laurel, you have to help us."

A longtime friend from my Cornell years, and daughter to Senator Gleeson, R-FL, Kat called me earlier in the day, frantic to meet after hearing I was in the city. When I'd said my Miami flight was first thing in the morning, she'd turned from frantic to panicked, and I'd promised to be at her favorite cocktail bar in ten minutes time.

Now, twelve hours later, this new dilemma forced me to contemplate an alternate route inside the house for the nude painted when Kat's mother was an ingénue and the artist undiscovered. In his later years, before his final drug overdose, the once up-and-coming artist became best known for his erotic subjects and a penchant for the rock-and-roll lifestyle of the 1970s. A single moment captured in brushstrokes kept Kat's mother chronically worried and perpetually broke all these years later.

As political buzz hummed about Senator Gleeson's prospective run for the presidency, the hush-money stakes had risen sharply. The next installment hit a price Mrs. Gleeson couldn't deliver without her husband's knowledge and cooperation.

In the past few years I'd gained the reputation as the best person to call when a legitimate piece of art went missing. I'd climbed the ranks of the Beacham Foundation, from internship at the New York office during college, to field work and troubleshooting the last five-plus years since graduation, rising in the eyes of the art world as my skills sharpened and the wins mounted on my record. However, people who knew me well — or like Kat, had known me in my wilder college days — were also aware of my "special" talents, and that I was always ready to jump into a non-work venue when conventional methods fell short or were too complicated for implementation. I dubbed these pro bono efforts my "reclamation projects." Given my more visible status since a promotion a few weeks ago to head of the London office of Beacham Ltd., I knew such forays may have to be reduced in the future, but there was no way I could turn my back when someone like Kat appealed to me for help.

My prep time on this particular reclamation was understandably limited, but the facts that came back were solid — the owner was a Luddite who didn't know a silent alarm from a silent movie. An absolute anachronism today, but the attribute served him well as a blackmailer since the practice left little risk of his digital fingerprint getting lifted anywhere.

What had alerted the cops?

The head-to-toe unrelieved black I wore dovetailed into the shadows and afforded me a bit of invisibility. I contemplated the peripheral shrubbery but waited to see the officers' game plan. A peek at my watch, hidden by the hood of my sleeve, showed less than a half hour to either accomplish what I came to do or cut and run.

Car doors slammed and voices rose as authoritative tones ordered a blue scramble to search for whatever tipped them off to the location.

Another scan of the back wall showed the basement window I'd initially dismissed as too small for a final escape. But it could get me into the house as long as I sucked in my gut and visualized being very, very small. I also had to maneuver without being seen or heard across the white ribbon obligatory to many Sunshine State homes; the oyster-shell path that ringed the grounds around the house walls like fluorescence in the moon glow.

They drew their guns and headed for the porch. I made my move, using long-latent childhood gymnastic muscles to clear the wide, crushed path and stick a quiet landing on the tiny strip of grass along the foundation.

I pulled the penlight stashed in my bra and scoped out the basement in about 2.6 seconds. Any longer carried too much risk, but the quickly lighted view told me I'd be dropping six feet onto bare cement. That was doable.

The extended beam of a Maglite flashed from around the corner as I started feet first down the rabbit hole. When my soles hit concrete, I reached up to softly set the window back into a closed position. Then I crouched into a dark ball and held my breath. Via the locked window, I heard the cop's feet pass by, then stop. He flashed his light through the glass, across the cellar, floor to ceiling. I hugged the wall tighter and hoped he wouldn't look straight down.

"Nah," I heard him say into his radio. "There's a tiny window back here, but it's locked, and I can't imagine anyone getting through it anyway. Over."

Still, it wasn't time to sigh in relief. The mark was due home from a NASA event soon. No need to look at my watch again to know the minutes were flying. I continued to hold my breath until I heard the oyster shells crunch when the cop resumed his recon.

A cursory scan for infrared, trip wires, or motion detectors came up zero. The house was as technology-free as I'd been told. No doubt I was taking a chance going in before the cops left, but if I'd stayed outside I was pretty much guaranteed to get caught. And a ride in the back of a squad car to explain why I was dressed in black in a dark yard after midnight was not on my agenda for the evening.

The open floor plan in the living space made it relatively easy to navigate without lights. Moonlight streamed through huge windows dressed in nothing but sheers. I kept to the beige and taupe walls and the larger pieces of furniture as much as possible, using the moving shadows of the cops outside to know where and when to scoot to the next spot. The boys in blue only appeared to be doing reconnaissance, leaving me to hope for a rapid departure when they found the house secured. At least I hoped it was completely secure. I hadn't had time to do a whole house perimeter before they showed up.

I crept up the stairs. The landing opened to a full-wall window that overlooked the front yard. Staying back as far as possible, I watched the blue crew huddle again at the curb.

Please, please, please leave. I don't have much time left.

Just as my limbs started to cramp from standing so still, I saw one give the "move 'em out" swing of the arm, and both teams returned to their respective cars. I didn't start breathing again until I saw the revolving lights stop and the headlights turn back down the boulevard.


The master suite was where I expected, and I was probably feeling too cocky as I closed the door behind me and pulled from my pocket the sharp little tool used to extract canvasses from frames. I spun around and approached the bed — and got my next shock of the night. A gorgeous baroque frame hung on the wall over the headboard ... but it was empty.

I froze. There was no backup plan for this. Where else could the portrait be?

A check of the closet and under the bed offered no answers. I started running through rooms, scanning each wall, behind the sofa and chairs. Nada.

In the study I found bookcases filled with volumes and vases, but no portraits. I circled the desk, hoping for a clue. The ultraprecise Omega chronometer on my left wrist gave one quiet beep, warning me to pull up stakes and run before it was too late.

My gaze fell on the partially open middle desk drawer, and about an inch-view of a leather-bound journal. I opened the drawer about a foot. Across the front of the journal, embossed in gold, were the words "My Women."

His little black book? Or his blackmail roster? Either way, taking it might give me ammunition to offer Mrs. Gleeson if the worst happened and the blackmailer came after her again. He'd obviously stashed the portrait someplace else. Maybe Kat spoke to someone besides me, and he'd gotten wind of a rescue attempt?

If I couldn't bring back the painting, perhaps this book could be used as an alternate method to stop the blackmail.

I needed to fly. The book went down the front of my leotard, and the drawer was returned to its partially-open position. I slipped out the side door I'd originally planned to use for entry to the house.

Vaulting the back wall wasn't even a challenge. I was so pumped I probably could have vaulted the whole house without too much difficulty.

I was behind the steering wheel of my car and digging the book out of my clothes, trying to figure out what I was going to tell Kat, when a voice behind me said, "Find anything interesting, love?"

If I could have reached him, Jack Hawkes would have been dead.

"Damn it, Jack. Don't do that." I turned in my seat and instinctively swung backhanded to try to slap the grin from his face. He caught my arm without even trying.

"A trifle nervy, aren't you?"

Jack Hawkes remained a mystery no matter how creatively I tried to corner him on personal details. Maybe some level of UK agent, likely MI-6 by the way he operated, but he treated his background as something on a need-to-know basis. I always had the feeling he didn't want to explain rather than he couldn't, and I'd learned early on to not let my guard down around people who didn't act completely trustworthy. Jack tipped the scale soundly on my distrust meter. He and I were currently teamed up to stop what may be the art heist of the century. Our single crumb of information mentioned a safe-deposit box, which was why we came to Orlando. Our legal team moved heaven and earth for Jack and me to peek inside, but we only found a combination of numbers, a pristine map of the European Union, and a reference to Miami.

When Jack and I parted company earlier, he'd said he had plans for the evening. I had no idea our evening agendas were similar, and hadn't expected to see Jack's face until our Miami flight the following morning. The sight of his broad-shouldered frame filling my backseat was unnerving enough to give my voice an edge. "I'm pissed off is what I am." I waved a hand. "It's ... over. And I failed. What are you doing here?"

"Oh, a little shopping. Senator Gleeson asked me to pick up an old canvas for him."

"What?" I stared as Jack pulled an item from behind my seat back.

There it was, a gorgeous nude infamous because of the later-years reputation of the artist. Kat's mother was young and lovely, and the body of art should never have gained its now notorious reputation. "It's beautiful. A true work of genius." I should have been more upset with him, but I was truly relieved to see the painting safely away from the blackmailer's grasp.

"It absolutely is. Sorry I scooped it out already and you had to leave empty handed."

A second scream of sirens erupted from somewhere several blocks away.

"I'm guessing you went out the side door," Jack said.

"Yes."

"The neighbor to that side apparently has a predilection for night vision goggles and very nicely alerted the police to my exit right before you arrived on the scene."

"Explains why they didn't try to get inside. The neighbor saw you leave."

Jack nodded. "Goes to show we work better together than apart."

"You said you had plans. You didn't say you were after the painting, too."

"And you didn't mention it at all," he reminded.

I ignored his dig and reached between the seats to run a gentle finger along the artist's confident brushstrokes. "How did you know I was going to take this?"

"I didn't."

"Then why —"

"The senator's aide was a Rhodes Scholar, and we met when we were at university together."

"So the senator already knows?"

"Has for years. He's been waiting for his wife to bring it up but was afraid of saying anything until she spoke first. Whenever her bank account ran low, he knew she'd had to make another payment, and he would find an excuse to give her more. But he'd recognized the signs lately that things were getting out of hand, and he hired a private detective to learn the man's schedule. Tonight seemed the best opportunity to make a move, especially since we're leaving in a few hours."

I nodded. "That was our thinking too. Kat's and mine. The Gleesons' daughter and I were college friends as well."

I pulled the book from my neckline. "But I didn't leave empty handed. Found this in his study when trying to discover where the missing portrait was. I think it may be more blackmail victims. We were concerned that taking the portrait would point too much toward Mrs. Gleeson, but couldn't find any other means to stop the blackmail. I'm hoping this information defrays the risk of him doing something else to bring light to the situation."

"Like having her arrested for the theft of a painting he legally owns?"

"And used for blackmailing purposes," I replied.

"True, but proving it would bring on the media exposure everyone wants to avoid. Like you, I imagine the blackmailer counts on that." Jack turned on the dome light and snatched the book from my grasp.

"Hey, give it back."

"No, this is evidence —" He whistled.

"What?"

Jack held up a hand to silence me, then turned a couple more pages. I tried to retrieve the book, but he jumped across the seat, and my fingernails scratched the cover.

"You're going to tell me what that is, Hawkes."

"A minute, please."

Finally, he stopped shifting pages and looked up, his face a mask of disbelief. "A detailed report on human trafficking activity coming through Florida, then going out across the U.S. He's documented everything, who his clients are, what they've paid, which countries the women came from. Everything. A bit of coding, but easily worked out. This guy really is an ego manic."

"Wow." This was nothing like I'd expected when I took the journal. "So does it go to the FBI or Interpol?"

"Probably both. You drive. I'll send someone to pick up my car later." Jack pulled out his cell.

I should have called Kat to give her the high sign, but I needed to process a lot of this first. To figure out how to tell her the blackmailer had more to worry about than the loss of his moneymaking portrait, and do so without giving away state secrets. I also had to find a sensitive way to reveal her father knew about the blackmail but had kept the knowledge secret from her mother. There could be many reasons why, both sincere and creepy.

Kat and I were scheduled to meet in the airport short-term parking in a few hours. The plan was to hand over the portrait, letting it go practically unnoticed from my car trunk to hers before we split up — me for my southbound flight and Kat to turn the painting over to her mother.

"I'd like to give the portrait to Kat instead of the senator's aide," I said when Jack hung up from his hushed-voice call to Interpol. "I'll tell her that her dad knows, but I think this needs to be a family conversation instead of one originating with an employee."

"Agreed. Is she meeting you at the airport?"

"Yes."

"We'll have a greeting party for the journal once we get to Miami. The suits are definitely interested."

I smiled into oncoming headlights and merged onto the freeway. "Our low-tech blackmailer has just become an even lower lowlife."

"And you, my love, have gained the prize that will give hundreds of innocent women their lives back."

"One nasty bad guy down, one art criminal mastermind still to go."


(Continues...)

Excerpted from Marked Masters 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 ‏ : ‎ 250 pages
  • ISBN-10 ‏ : ‎ 1943390525
  • ISBN-13 ‏ : ‎ 978-1943390526
  • Item Weight ‏ : ‎ 14.9 ounces
  • Dimensions ‏ : ‎ 5.51 x 0.63 x 8.5 inches
  • Customer Reviews:
    4.5 out of 5 stars 128 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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