FOR THE MINDS AND WILLS OF MEN

CHAPTER 1 EXCERPT

Will Oxley had questioned his decision at times. Why not sell cars? Work for Chevrolet? Everyone bought cars after the war. That’s where the money was. Chrome, billet grilles, and radios. Mercury. Lincoln. Studebaker. The Ford Crestline Victoria. But instead, he had started his one-man art division at All American Insurance to protect paintings.

He sat back on the vinyl seat as his cab sped toward the Third Avenue elevated, the last iron relic of the steam-powered trains that threaded through Manhattan like a soot-stained ribbon, winding through the Bowery and up Third Avenue to Harlem. He hadn’t expected a stolen painting from the Stable Gallery. Unlike the galleries selling Monets and Picassos on Sixth Avenue, where sales had doubled since the war, the Stable Gallery was new and on the fringe, showing modern, avant-garde artists, nothing like his other clients. The green iron girders of the el loomed over the avenue as he passed under. The jostling of the cab only worsened as it ran along the cobblestone streets of the Village and did not let up until they reached the newly paved Second Avenue with its fourth-floor walkups built after Will had returned from the war, when the paintings began to mean something to him.

Will bounced on the seat as the cab careened up FDR Drive and along the murky-green East River. The stench of truck diesel mixed with fresh fish and sour trash floated in through the cracked window. Dockhands pushed dollies along the pier, the same pier he had waited on to board the battleship convoy to Liverpool. The memories were fresh, as if eight years hadn’t passed. He had packed weeks in advance, eagerly waiting to receive his deployment date. Then there was the farewell dinner with his dad at the Lexington Diner, a year of basic training, the staging in England, and on to Omaha Beach as an infantry replacement—twenty-nine days after Normandy.

Today, on the dock, workers cleaned and restocked a freighter tied down by rope woven thicker than his leg. As FDR curved around the wharf, the newly developed Stuyvesant apartment complex towered before him; a thousand windows textured the buildings with uniformed consistency, punctuated here and there with tattered white curtains. Will’s cab sped past the United Nations, which rose from the bedrock like a green glass curtain, then lurched left and carried him into Midtown, past the Waldorf Astoria, MoMA, and the Stork Club, before tossing him out at the Stable Gallery on Fifty-Seventh Street.

Elaine Carter stood in front of the gray stone building. Her straight, coffee-black hair gave her an arresting appearance, framing a face some men would describe as unattractive, long with sunken eyes.

“Will Oxley!” she said as he stepped from the cab. “Thank God you’ve come. You’re absolutely the best.”

 

Will had learned that Elaine shrewdly overcame her odd looks with profuse flattery. She told everyone they were absolutely the best before turning to the next fabulous person. She dusted her hands on the back of her jeans, wrapped her arms around his chest, and gave him a hug with great animation.

When she released him, Will smiled at her. Slightly crooked, his smile turned the corner of his mouth up on the right side as if he were in the middle of a wink, often giving the impression the conversation was more intimate than he intended, yet he always gave the smile with sincerity. It made his square face, one that might otherwise get lost in the crowd, rather pleasant and memorable. His saddle-brown hair was cut short like most men’s, and he wore a modest suit with a handkerchief in his back pocket.

“Why don’t you show me where they broke in,” he said.

Elaine took hold of his arm, intertwining hers with his. “Can you believe it? My preview for the MoMA exhibit opens in four days, and here I am dealing with this.”

She led him along the large-cut gray stone wall of the gallery, which had served as a livery for horses back when commercial stables extended the length of Manhattan. After horse and carriage transportation waned, the building was converted to a short-lived mannequin warehouse. Then it languished for years, empty until Elaine fashioned the space into an art gallery.

“It’s dreadful what’s happened,” Elaine said. Then, feigning an urgent whisper, she leaned in for emphasis. “I’ve told no one, Will. A gallery must uphold its reputation. Where would I be without my reputation?” She stopped mid-thought, pursed her lips together, and then added, “Well, I did call the police, but they were completely incompetent. Can you imagine?”

Will could. After six years in the business, he knew that art thefts were eccentric cases. And unless the investigator was good, unless he cared, there was little chance for recovery and almost no chance of catching the thief, a fact that provided little motivation for the police. But Elaine had done what he had told her to; she would need the police report for the insurance claim.

“What did they say?” he asked, expecting little.

“Nothing. Absolutely nothing.” Elaine waved dismissively. “They came out and asked questions, took some photographs, and had me fill out ungodly amounts of paperwork. Just look at my hand.” She unrolled her hand in display as evidence of her torture.

“All they did was log it in,” he said, obliging Elaine’s dramatics with a concerned glance. “Now they’ll sit on the report and wait for a lead to fall on their desk. This is an ordinary robbery to them, like a stolen car. They see it as a victimless crime, so they won’t waste much energy trying to solve it.”

Elaine groaned and rolled her eyes, placing two fingers on her temple. “They had no idea what they were doing. They took up half my morning. But I know you can fix this. They say this is what you’re good at.”

And he was, but success hadn’t come easy. For seven months after starting the art insurance division at All American Insurance, he’d stared out of his office window twenty-three floors above Broadway and Wall Street with nothing to show for his time and effort. No clients, no calls. He’d persevered because of what paintings had come to mean to him.

After returning from the war, he would walk along the streets of Manhattan, trying to clear his head of the images that flashed before him without warning, and he often found himself in a museum, away from the noises of the crowded city. He would sit in front of one small Monet and study the tiny, broken brushstrokes that created a soft impression of a sunrise over a misty maritime scene. A blood-orange early morning sun cast its warm glow over a blue-gray harbor as two black fishing boats floated on the tranquil bay, their shadows dotting the water. Will imagined himself standing at the harbor’s edge alone, gazing out over the sea, not a sound in the air but the soft wind rolling over the water. When he lost himself in those moments, the memories of the hedgerows and the sound of bullets and tanks would fade, the darkness of the war would lift, and his mind would clear, if only for an hour.

He had fought his boss, Lou Pritchett, for a year to let him start the art division. He did not mention the war or the nightmares or the need to protect the moments of peace that kept these memories at bay. That pain he kept to himself, burying the hurt deep in the darker corners of his mind. Rather, he discussed rising art prices and the growing market.

The fact that Will had to recover the paintings made Pritchett dislike the idea. Why do you have to play art detective? Pritchett would say with a sarcastic tone. Will’s answer was always the same. Unlike other insured valuables, when a painting was stolen, there was no replacement. There is only one Woman with a Hat by Matisse. There is only one Sunrise by Monet. Therefore, he had to recover the original. There was no one else. The police wouldn’t bother themselves with a stolen painting, and if Will wanted to continue having clients, to insure works of art, to protect them, he had to recover the paintings. A thief’s goal was to sell the painting back into the market for quick cash, and Will needed to find it before the canvas changed hands or the picture could disappear, hidden away in a warehouse or a brownstone, only resurfacing years later when everyone had stopped searching for it.

Eventually, after determining the business made financial sense, Pritchett let him make sales calls. But not until Christie’s Auction House sold a painting for a record three hundred thousand dollars did collectors take notice of their art’s value. A month later, Will recovered a Renoir oil sketch that had been stolen from a wealthy collector’s home. By posing as a buyer, Will helped the police make a dramatic arrest at the maître ‘d stand of Le Coq Rouge. After a splash about the recovery in the newspaper, people began to call, and Will began to insure their art. Since then, he had built a good book of clients—galleries, museums, wives of Wall Street bankers, and collectors with family money.

When he and Elaine reached the far end of the warehouse, she pointed to a service door.

“They came through the storage entrance. It was wide open this morning.”

Will ran his hand along the thin edge of the door, his thin fingers sliding down the smooth, dark wood coated thick with lacquer. At first, nothing struck him as out of place—no signs of a break-in, no splintered wood, no evidence of forced entry. He bent down on one knee and angled his head, peering at the face of the lock.

                                                         * * *

CHAPTER 2 EXCERPT

Ira Fenton paced the alley outside the Artists Equity Union in Hell’s Kitchen, pulling on his third cigarette. The tip glowed in the darkness that persisted despite the two electric lights hanging from the fire escape. The stench of onion and stale beer did not bother him as much as the filth that walked in and out of the strip bars a few blocks away.

He checked his watch again. Twelve past ten, three minutes later than last time he had checked. Shit. He had been on eight raids since he had started with the private investigative firm ALERT, and the damned FBI contact arrived late every time. This was a situation for which he had no patience. There was no reason they should not already be inside. Waiting out in the open made them too easy to notice.

A high-pitched sizzle of a dying light bulb fought through the thick night air. Ira looked up at the streetlight above his men across the alley and watched the bulb flicker then go out with a sharp pop. The two men paced back and forth with their hands shoved deep into their coat pockets. They both had joined ALERT with Ira after he lost the union election at New York Steam. The union newsletter called his loss a humiliating defeat given Ira’s years with the steam service company.

But losing the election made it easy to leave and join ALERT. Ira would never work for a company with a commie-run union. He had spent thirty years with New York Steam, one of two companies that brought steam power to Manhattan—from Battery Park to Ninety-Sixth Street, Grand Central to the Empire State Building. A hundred miles of steam pipe now penetrated the city’s underbelly, making it possible to press clothes, clean restaurant dishes, and sterilize hospital equipment. It was a perfect target for the Russians, a core of the city’s infrastructure as important as the water systems. No one had questioned why the city required loyalty oaths from fishermen at the city’s reservoirs. What if they were Commies trying to poison the drinking water while pretending to fish for brown trout? Ira had no intention of helping the Commies taking control of the city’s steam power. He had worked his way up from a pipefitter and given it everything he had, including late nights away from his family. By the end, Ira supervised the main station at Kips Bay, along the East River, and that bullshit article on his defeat was the thanks he got.

The unions were riddled with Communists, even if no one would admit it. The Russians were infiltrating the unions to cripple the country with riots and strikes and rate increases. They wanted to overthrow the government and ruin the country. They had to be stopped. After they announced the election results, when Ira stood up and yelled, “Damn Commies,” the room went silent. He told his boss the same when he quit the next day, though spilling the coffee cup when he shoved the desk was an accident. His boss had stood there staring at him, not saying a word in response, and in Ira’s mind, his silence sharpened his guilt. Communists were inside New York Steam. They had taken control of the union, and his boss was too scared to act.

Now Ira, standing underneath a fire escape, was a part of the solution, working to eradicate the vermin. He had brought his tools and could go inside the building on his own. But he risked getting pulled off the job, and he could not let that happen again.

At the sharp clack of a man’s heels echoing in the street, Ira looked up to see a slim man dressed in a charcoal suit approaching from Broadway. When he reached them, Ira flicked his cigarette to the curb, almost hitting the man’s shoe.

“You’re late.” Ira’s voice was tight with impatience.

The man shrugged.

“We could handle this ourselves,” Ira continued.

“You know how it goes. The boss says one of us has to be on every black bag job.”

Black bag job. That was what they called it. But they were illegal break-ins, Ira knew that much—gathering information on subversive targets. The team worked at night, which Ira didn’t mind. He had spent most of his early years as a pipefitter down in the manholes, working with his blow torch underneath the city in the dark. Besides, the night work left him his days to listen to the HUAC trials on his Firestone radio, hour by hour. These trials fortified his resolve. He relished listening to the committee members’ speeches and the pathetic mumbling of the guilty on trial, sitting there on the stand trying to hide their secrets.

“Then why does Hoover bother to hire us?” Ira asked.

“Hey!” The man shot up a quick hand. “No one said the name Hoover. And I’m not here. You’re not here. Got it? Private investigation means you don’t exist. Not to us, anyway.”

                                                         * * *

CHAPTER 4 EXCERPT

After a while, Elaine abandoned Will for other guests, so he grabbed another cup of wine and drifted to the back of the gallery where the large Pollock hung on display. If he stared long enough at the painting, maybe he would understand it. He lit a cigarette, took a long pull, and exhaled, the smoke floating around him as he stood before the painting.

He peered deep into the knotted web of black and white paint splattered across the canvas, some strands thick, others thin. In certain areas the black paint lay dull and flat, sunken deep into the canvas, while in others the blackness glimmered on top like it was still wet. Delicate touches of tan and gray and a hint of sea-blue whirled against a dusty pink background. A sense of controlled chaos emanated from the canvas as Will stared. Then as if from out of nowhere, a voice startled him from behind.

“What do you think of it?”

Will turned, surprised to find a slender woman standing behind him. “I could take it or leave it, I guess,” he said. “It looks like a tangled mess of hair, though. I kind of want to comb it all out, you know?” He laughed. “Or we could shave it!”

He glanced at her for a reaction and saw that she was tightening the corners of her mouth, trying to hold back a smile.

 

“Sorry,” he said with amusement and smiled, the right side of his face turning up in a pleasant wink. “I should take it more seriously.”

The woman let a slight smile turn. “I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I found your joke a bit amusing. It was certainly more clever than the patent answers I hear from this crowd. But you don’t like the painting?”

“The jury is still out, I guess. It’s a bit muddled. I’m trying to understand if there is any meaning to it. Do you see it?”

“I hope so. I own one, or did.” She gave him a sportive smile and turned toward the painting. “He lays the canvas on the floor and throws paint on it with a thick brush or a stick. He paints on the floor to get closer to the work. They’re all trying to get closer to their work. It’s what their pictures are about. During and after the war, after the two bombs, they couldn’t make sense of painting flowers and nudes, so they turned inward, focusing on their experience with painting. Just them and their paintings.”

Will turned to the painting and imagined a balding Pollock standing over the canvas, splattering paint in a jean jacket with a cigarette hanging out of his mouth like a garage mechanic. Will stepped forward so his eyes were inches from the canvas, close enough to see the crisscross hash marks of the raw fabric underneath. On the surface of the painting, pressed into the paint and color, was the distinct impression of a work boot. Will could see the ridges of the sole. He could envision Pollock stepping into the painting, reaching to throw a viscous strand of paint.

Will turned back, and the woman offered her hand, looking directly into his eyes.

 

“I’m Liz Bower. Frank’s daughter.”