Sunday, June 16, 2013

The Case of the Kidnapped O'Connors, Chapter One, Part One

Chapter One

The Phantom of the Met

Kevin Traynor yawned.

Jennifer Jordan rolled her blue eyes, then looked up at the ceiling of the Metropolitan Museum of Art's new south wing. Not that she expected any help from anywhere up there. Yes, it was boring — but did her boyfriend always have to put on a show on what he thought about others?

"Serves you right," she hissed. "You kept me waiting for half an hour."

Traynor brushed his hand through his dark-blond hair before he put his arm around her, flashed a roguish grin across his angular face, and looked her disarmingly into the eyes.

His sparkling blue eyes utterly denied the importance of being earnest or late. "Not my fault. As I said, Nick had two tickets for the Foxy Boxing World Championship."

"He had tickets? I thought he ran that circus."

"Anyway, you could have moved the opening to another night. Could easily have been more than half an hour. Was hard enough to bum a ride off of Nick to get here from the Garden. He wanted to go backstage, comfort the losers, and celebrate with the winner."

Nothing good could come out of a serious argument with Kevin Traynor.

"But he did drive you here."

"I told him there would be chicks. By the way, you used to enjoy a good catfight in your day, if I may say so."

"My day? I have not yet begun to fight! Anyway, you better watch out. My sources keep telling me that The Great D'Ancy is in town."

"Rene D'Ancy, the famous French art thief?"

"The same. Rene Honore D'Ancy. He's a genius with disguises. You better watch out. Anybody in here could be D'Ancy. Hell, I could be D'Ancy."

"That, we'll find out tonight."

"I don't think so. After all, you could be D'Ancy."

"Would that make any difference? Anyway, rest assured I don't feel terribly D'Ancy tonight."

"At least try to be a little more vigilant."

"I can't help it. That guy's a walking, talking bromide. It's more interesting to watch paint dry — or for that matter, to watch these columns grow."

The speaker, a portly gray-haired gentleman by the name of Publius B. Vandam IV, droned on and on about how his great-granduncle, the noted progressive, reformer, and philanthropist, had been martyred on a cross of gold by those Gilded-Age robber barons. Vandam was the chief executive officer of the company that had designed the interiors and the lighting of the new galleries. Before Vandam, Leslie Ford, the museum director, had exhorted the audience that art was not a commodity, but a public trust.

Before Ford, one Geraldine "Jeri" Culpepper, an elderly socialite, culture vulture, and philanthropist apparently well-known among the Four Hundred, had lauded donors for contributing to the cultural cause, but urged them to match their donations dollar for dollar with charity for the poor. Traynor figured that she had inherited or married into her money. Now her guilty conscience was as black as her dress and gloves. She could not "give back" her unearned wealth fast enough — to those who had not given it to her. Well, her problem. The trouble was that she wanted to force her betters, those who had made their money, like Jennifer and Traynor, "to give it back" as well. To whom? To those who had not made it. And before her, there had been a long line of similar silver spoon socialist speakers Traynor had forgotten or repressed.

The new north and south wings of the museum had been paid for by a hundred-story apartment tower rising above each wing. First American Corporation had built the towers and the reinforced concrete shells of the museum wings on which they stood. Jennifer was First American's Vice President for Safety, Security, and Special Assignments, while Traynor, who had held that job before her, continued as a consultant.

However, the museum had insisted on awarding the contract for the interior design of the museum wings to Vandam Construction. After all, would it be fair for one multi-billion dollar corporation, and the world's largest at that, to monopolize the whole project? Moreover, Vandam was among the museum's most generous benefactors. Nevertheless, like his construction company was but a small part of the fortune he had inherited, his patronage of the arts was dwarfed by his charitable giving championing the poor, the underprivileged, and the disenfranchised. A philanthropist so public-spirited could not be ignored without a social backlash — in other words, without bad PR.

For Jennifer, her donation to the museum had been a chance to get her collection of Frank O'Connor paintings displayed at the Metropolitan Museum of Art, much to the horror of every curator up to the director. Neither what he had called their "proto-fascist" provenance nor their amateurish technique had helped any. Ultimately, only Jennifer's thinly veiled threat that her position at First American permitted her to maneuver the Met Museum Towers project on a back burner through an uncharitable safety assessment had gotten her what she wanted. This had an even more horrified director gnashing his teeth, grudgingly permitting "those paintings" into his holy halls, half recognizing that she who pays the piper calls the tune, half rationalizing that one of the paintings having been featured on the cover of an enormously popular bestseller permitted a retrospective of the painter in the holy halls his paintings may in part have helped to build.

Consequently, the grand opening of the new wings was nothing short of an utter nightmare: Not only were there the usual inane speeches, but the silver spoon socialist speakers tried to outdo each other in their condemnation of the selfishness the O'Connors represented. The silver spoon socialists resented the fact that the new south wing would be named for First American's chief executive officer, whose name they scrupulously avoided to even mention. Culture vultures were furious that they had to thank what they called "those crass materialists" for the museum expansion, that they even had them materialists perch like eagles in their nests above the culture vulture haunt. But what they hated most was Jennifer's O'Connor paintings displayed on the wall of the sturdy column in the center of the windowless gallery, behind Vandam. They hated those paintings even more than they hated the fact that columns supporting the towers above intruded into the new museum galleries, which they believed they should have gotten for free.

The painting Traynor found most interesting, or frankly, the only one that aroused more than a passing interest in him, was Man Also Rises, Frank O'Connor's painting of a cityscape at dawn, which graced the cover of the twenty-fifth anniversary edition of The Fountainhead. Four white shafts of sunlight broke out of a gray cloud over a city skyline. In the foreground, the red steel frame of a skyscraper under construction rose through the right third of the painting. As Traynor loved the book and loved skyscrapers even more, he found the painting, however crude, appealing. Jennifer had purchased a couple more O'Connors, but to Traynor they constituted diminishing returns, and not only the one that was named thus.

Finally, Vandam having finished, the mayor launched himself into a flight of fancy extolling the nobility of public service. Mayor Mark Messing was as short and stocky as Ford was tall and slim. Together they looked like Mutt and Jeff. Apart from the mayor's head of carefully parted silvery hair, that is.

In contrast, Ford's tousled brown hair reminded Traynor of ruffled feathers. In fact, with a small head and a big nose shaped not unlike a toucan's bill, and a tendency to abruptly look hither and thither for imaginary smudges, scratches, chips, and tears on his treasures, the museum director did look like a bird on his perch. The two of them made for a preposterous picture. Traynor was chuckling inside. He could not look at the two of them for any length of time for fear of having to laugh out loud.

Read on…

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