Authors: Elizabeth Peters
Tags: #General, #Fiction, #Mystery, #Mystery & Detective, #Suspense, #Crime & Thriller, #Fiction - Mystery, #Detective, #Mystery & Detective - Women Sleuths, #Women Sleuths, #American, #Mystery fiction, #Crime & mystery, #Detective and mystery stories, #Mystery & Detective - Series, #Women art historians, #Bavaria (Germany), #Vicky (Fictitious chara, #Vicky (Fictitious character), #Bliss, #Detective and mystery stories; American, #Bliss; Vicky (Fictitious character)
Vicky Bliss, a brain with a body like a centerfold, often has a tough time getting people to take her seriously. But when it comes to medieval history, this blonde beauty knows her stuff — and she’s a master at solving mysteries that would turn the art world upside down. Vicky gasped at the sight of the exquisite gold pendant her boss at Munich’s National Museum held in his hand. The Charlemagne talisman replica, along with a note in hieroglyphs, was found sewn into the suit pocket of an unidentified man found dead in an alley. Vicky vows to find the master craftsman who created it. It’s a daring chase that takes her all the way to Rome and through the dusty antique centers and moonlit streets of the most romantic city in the world. But soon she’s trapped in a treacherous game of intrigue that could cost her life — or her heart...
STREET OF THE FIVE MOONS
The second book in the Vicky Bliss series
Copyright © 1978 by Elizabeth Peters
To Sara and Dave
and all the other Davidsons
I WAS SITTING AT MY DESK DOING MY NAILS when the door opened and the spy sneaked in. He was wearing one of those trench coats that have pockets and flaps and shoulder straps all over them. The collar was turned up so that it practically met the brim of the hat he had pulled down over his eyebrows. His right hand was in the coat pocket. The pocket bulged.
, Herr Professor,” I said. “
is not elegant German. It has become an Americanism, like chop suey. I speak excellent German, but Herr Professor Doktor Schmidt was amused when I resorted to slang. He has a kooky sense of humor anyhow. Schmidt is my boss at the National Museum, and when he’s in his right mind he is one of the foremost medieval historians in the world. Occasionally he isn’t in what most people would call his right mind. He’s a frustrated romantic. What he really wants to be is a musketeer, wearing boots and a sword as long as he is; or a pirate; or, as in this case, a spy.
He swept his hat off with a flourish and leered at me. It breaks me up to watch Schmidt leer. His face isn’t designed for any expression except a broad Father Christmas grin. He keeps trying to raise one eyebrow, but he can’t control the muscles, so they both go up, and his blue eyes twinkle, and his mouth puckers up like a cherub’s.
“How goes it, babe?” he inquired, in an accent as thick as Goethe’s would have been if he had spoken English — which he may have done, for all I know. That’s not my field. My field is medieval Europe, with a minor in art history. I’m good at it, too. At this point it is safe to admit that I got my job at the museum in Munich through a certain amount of — well, call it polite pressure. Professor Schmidt and I had met while he was under the influence of one of his secondary personalities — a worldly, sophisticated crook, like Arsene Lupin. We had both been looking for a missing art object, and some of the good doctor’s activities toward this end might not have struck his scholarly colleagues as precisely proper. No, it was not blackmail — not exactly — and anyway, now that I had been on the job for almost a year, Schmidt was the first to admit that I earned my keep. He didn’t even mind my working on my novel during office hours, so long as I took care of pressing business first. And let’s face it — there are few life-and-death issues in medieval history.
Professor Schmidt’s eyes fell on the pile of typescript at my right elbow.
“How goes the book?” he inquired. “Did you get the heroine out of the brothel?”
“She isn’t in a brothel,” I explained, for the fifth or sixth time. Schmidt is mildly obsessed by brothels — the literary kind, I mean. “She’s in a harem. A Turkish harem, in the Alhambra.”
Professor Schmidt’s eyes took on the familiar academic gleam.
“The Alhambra was not—”
“I know, I know. But the reader won’t. You are too concerned with accuracy, Herr Professor. That’s why you can’t write a popular dirty book, like me. I’m stuck for the moment, though. There have been too many popular books about Turks and harems. I’m trying to think of an original example of lust. It isn’t easy.”
Professor Schmidt pondered the question. I didn’t really want to hear his idea of what constituted original lust, so I said quickly, “But I distract you, sir. What did you want to see me about?”
“Ah.” Schmidt leered again. He took his hand out of his pocket.
It didn’t hold a gun, of course. I had not expected a gun. I had expected an apple or a fistful of candy; Schmidt’s potbelly is the result of day-long munching. But at the sight of what emerged, clasped tenderly in his pudgy fingers, I gasped.
Don’t be misled by the gasp. This is not going to be one of those books in which the heroine keeps shrieking and fainting and catching her breath. I’m not the fainting type, and not much surprises me. I’m not that old (still on the right side of thirty), but my unfortunate physical characteristics have exposed me to many educational experiences.
Let me make it perfectly clear that I am not kidding when I refer to my figure as unfortunate. I’m too tall, almost six feet; I inherited a healthy, rounded body, from my Scandinavian ancestors, along with dark-blue eyes and lots of blond hair; I don’t gain weight, so the said body is slender in what are supposed to be the right places. As far as I’m concerned, they are the wrong places. All you Ugly Ducklings out there, take heart; you are better off than you realize. When people love you, they love the important things about you, the things that endure after wrinkles and middle-aged spread have set in — your brains and your personality and your sense of humor. When people look at me, all they see is a blown-up centerfold. Nobody takes me seriously. When I was younger, I wanted to be little and cuddly and cute. Now I’d settle for being flat-chested and myopic. It would save a lot of wear and tear on my nerves.
Sorry about the tirade. But it isn’t easy to convince people that you’ve got a brain when all they can see are curves and flowing blond hair. Nor is it easy for a woman like me to get a job. Intellectual women mistrust me on sight. Intellectual men are just like all other men, they hire me — but for the wrong reasons. That was why meeting Professor Schmidt was such a break. Bless his heart, he’s as innocent as he looks. He really thinks I am brilliant. If he were six feet four and thirty years younger, I’d marry him.
He beamed at me as he stood there in his spy costume, with his hand outstretched; and the object on his palm glowed and shimmered, almost as if it were smiling too.
It was a pendant, made of gold richly embellished with filigree volutes and leaf shapes. Two tiny gold figures of kneeling women supported the rigid loop through which a chain had once passed. All around the heavy gold rim were stones set in filigree frames — stones of green and red and pearly white. In the center was an enormous azure-blue stone, translucent as water contained in a crystal dome. There was a flaw in the central stone, a flaw that looked like a small rough-hewn cross.
A casual eye might have taken those stones for irregular, roughly polished chunks of glass. Mine is not a casual eye, however.
“The Charlemagne talisman,” I said. “Schmidt, old buddy — put it back, okay? You can’t get away with it; somebody is sure to notice it’s gone.”
“You think I have stolen it?” Schmidt grinned even more broadly. “But how do you suppose I have removed it from the case without setting off the alarms?”
It was a good question. The museum has a superb collection of antique jewelry, which is kept in a room built especially for it — a room that is one enormous vault. It is locked at night and watched continuously by three guards during the day. The alarm system is so delicate that breathing heavily on one of the cases will set bells ringing. And although Schmidt was one of the directors of the museum, neither he nor anyone else had authority to remove any of the historic gems from their cases unless he was accompanied by two other museum big shots and a whole battalion of security guards.
“I give up,” I said. “I don’t know how you got it out, but for heaven’s sake, put it back. You’ve been in trouble before with your weird sense of humor, and if they find out—”
.” He shook his head regretfully, abandoning his joke in the face of my obvious concern. “It is not stolen from the case. I have not taken it from there. It was found last night in the pocket of a dead man, in an alley near the
My mind fumbled with this information for a few moments.
“This isn’t the real brooch, then,” I said.
. How could it be? I assure you, we would notice if the gem had been taken away. It is a copy. But,
Vicky, what a copy!”
I took it from his hand. Even though I knew it was not the real gem, my touch was tentative and respectful. The more closely I examined it, the more my amazement grew. I had to take Schmidt’s word for it that this wasn’t the real talisman, but it certainly looked good, even to my trained eye.
The goldwork was superb, each tiny filigree wire having been shaped and set with masterful skill. As for the jewels, even an expert gemologist would have had trouble deciding they were fakes without the use of the complex instruments of his trade. The original pendant had been made in the ninth century, long before modern techniques of faceting gem stones were developed. The rubies and emeralds and pearls on the golden frame were roughly polished and rounded — “cabochon” is the technical term. The only precious stones that are cut in that antique style today are star rubies and star sapphires; the rounded shape brings out the buried star refraction. The cabochoncut sapphire in the center of this jewel shimmered softly, but did not glow with the buried fire of a faceted stone. I knew that it was not one sapphire, but two, placed back to back, and that the flaw in the center was not a “star” or a natural blemish, but a sliver of the “True Cross,” which made the jewel into a very expensive reliquary, or talisman.
“You could fool me,” I said, putting the pendant down on my desk blotter. “Come on, Schmidt, elucidate. Who was this character in whose pocket the pendant was found?”
“A boom,” said Schmidt, with a wave of his hand.
“A boom, a vagabond, a drunkard,” Schmidt repeated impatiently.
“Oh. A bum.”
“Did I not say so? He had no money, no passport, no papers of any kind. Only this, sewn with care into a secret pocket in his suit.”
“How did he die?”
“Not violently,” Schmidt said, with obvious regret. “There was no wound. Of poison, perhaps, or drugs — horses, as they say. Or cheap hooch, or—”
“Never mind,” I said. When Schmidt starts speculating, especially in what he fondly believes to be American slang, he can go on and on and on. “Really, Schmidt, this is fantastic. I suppose the police notified you. How did they know this was a copy of one of our pieces?”
“They thought it
our piece,” Schmidt said. “They are men of culture, our
; one of them comes often to the museum and recognized the ornament. I was called in this morning.”
“You must have had a fit when you saw it,” I said sympathetically. “With your weak heart and all.”
Schmidt rolled his eyes dramatically and clutched at his chest.
“It was a terrible moment! I knew of course that our pendant could not have disappeared; but was this the fake, or the one in our treasure room? Until our experts could examine both, I died a million deaths.”
“It could still fool me,” I admitted. “You’re sure?”
“Do not say such things, even in jest! No, this is the imitation. But such an imitation! The gold is genuine. The stones are not glass, they are modern synthetics. You have no doubt heard of these imitation rubies, emeralds, sapphires? Some are such excellent copies that only the most sophisticated equipment can tell they are not real. And the workmanship of this…”
“I don’t see why you’re so upset,” I said; for he was mopping his bald head, and his baby-blue eyes were narrowed in distress. “So some eccentric collector wanted a copy of the Charlemagne pendant. A good copy, not like the molds museums sell these days. The use of real gold is rather peculiar, perhaps, but the frame is hollow; I don’t suppose there is more than a few hundred dollars’ worth of precious metal involved here. What’s the problem?”
“I thought you would understand!” Schmidt’s eyes widened. “You are such a clever woman. But then jewelry is not your specialty. To go to such trouble, such expense, in order to imitate a piece like this…. There are only a few goldsmiths in the world capable of such work. They do not have to earn a living making copies. It is… too cheap and yet too costly, this copy. Do you see?”
When he put it that way, I did see. I nodded thoughtfully and looked more closely at the lovely thing on the desk.
Most women have a weakness for jewels. The only reason why men don’t is because it is out of fashion. In earlier centuries men wore as many ornaments, with as much vanity, as women did. I could understand why someone might want a copy of the Charlemagne talisman for purely decorative reasons. I wouldn’t have minded wearing one myself. But anyone who wanted a copy, just for fun, wouldn’t go to the trouble of using such expensive materials, nor pay a jeweler of such skill the exorbitant sum necessary. There was another point that Schmidt had not mentioned. In order to copy the jewel with such fidelity, a designer would have to study the original in detail. Nobody had applied to the museum authorities for permission to do so, or Schmidt would have known about it. Therefore someone must have spent long hours studying photographs and descriptions, perhaps even visited the museum. Why do all this surreptitiously if his purpose was honest?
“You think some gang of thieves is planning a robbery,” I said. “That there is a plot to substitute imitations for the real jewels.”
“It is a possibility we must consider,” said Schmidt. “You see that we cannot ignore such an idea.”
“Yes, of course. You are quite right. I’ve seen movies about things like this—”
“Not only in fiction,” Schmidt said gloomily, passing his handkerchief over his forehead. “The problem of skillful fakes has been with us since the beginning of time. As soon as man began collecting beautiful objects, for himself or in museums, the swindler and faker began their dastardly work. Vicky, we must find out about this. We must know for sure. If there is a harmless purpose — then, good. But if not, every museum, every collector in the world is vulnerable to a craftsman of such skill. Supposing that the substitution could be made, it might take us years to discover that ours was not the genuine object. A copy so good as this would defy more than a casual glance.”
“Right.” I touched the central sapphire of the pendant with my finger. It felt cool as water and smooth as ice. It was hard for me to believe the darned thing wasn’t genuine. “So what are we going to do about it?”