A faint, almost inaudible knock sounded on Harold Pierpont’s door causing him to look up from the manuscript he was analyzing. A scowl covered his face. One of the interns stood at the doorway. He was a skinny and freckle faced kid, whose shirt was too large and tie too short. He gripped the doorframe with nervous apprehension. “Sorry to interrupt you so early in the morning but Marcus…”

“That’s Mister Reece,” corrected Harold and then snapped. “What does he want?”

The intern shifted his feet uncomfortably. “Um, Mister Reece asked you to meet him in the Monterey Wing. He said it was really important.”

Harold sighed impatiently. He couldn’t imagine what had wound up Marcus so early in the morning. The museum would be opening soon. This was not the time for dramatics. “Very well. Back to work. Run along, now.”

The intern nodded and disappeared back into the hallway. Harold didn’t know the boy’s name. There was no reason to start now.

Harold sighed and closed his manuscript, taking care to ensure the Mylar covers didn’t cause any damage to the book’s delicate bindings.

Marcus Reece, the museum’s assistant curator, was having an animated conversation with Tom Burke, the head of museum security. Burke flexed his bowling pin biceps, each of which were far denser that the gray matter residing in his head. Harold was still too far away to discern what they were discussing. Their voices echoed off the marble walls and vaulted ceiling creating an annoying din. Harold’s watch read 8:55AM.The museum would be opening in a little over an hour.

Marcus noticed Harold approaching. He broke off his conversation mid-sentence with the guard strode up to him. “The Descat has been stolen.”

Harold stared at him, then the security guard, and then again at Marcus. “That’s impossible.”Then without waiting for any type of reply, he strode past them. Burke tried to get a word in but Harold wasn’t up for listening. He strode through the corridor and turned down the first room on the left to the Hoffman Room.

Harold stopped short in his tracks. His breath was taken away. Like a missing tooth on a set of veneers, the Descat painting had vanished from the wall. He slowly approached where it had been hung, as if not believing what he was seeing.

“What…what do you want me to do?” asked Marcus.

“Have you phoned the police?”A thousand thoughts ran through his head. The Descat was one of the museum’s signature pieces. The insurance company had made the museum take out a three million insurance policy. What was the deductible?

Burke approached. “Yes. We just placed a call. They said they would send someone as soon as they could.”

Harold shot the guard a cold stare. “As soon as they could? What is that supposed to mean?”

The man shrugged. “Sorry. Don’t shoot the messenger.”

“I agree,” said a voice from down the hallway. “There’s already been one crime here today. No need for a second.”

A short, stocky man approached. Dressed in a rumpled suit and five o’clock shadow, he appeared as if he had been up all night. His shaggy brown hair sported a severe case of bed-head. He sported a thick mustache. A fresh bandage covered the bridge of his nose.

“Detective Daniel O’Brien,” he said shaking each of their hands.

“I’m Harold Pierpont, the museum’s curator. He gestured to the others. Marcus Reece, assistant curator. William Burke, our head of security.”Harold cleared his throat. “Thank you for coming so quickly.”

“I was nearby when I got the call.”The detective removed a small notepad and pencil from his jacket.“I understand there’s been a theft. Can you please tell me what you know?”

Burke gestured to the empty spot on the wall. “The robbery took place sometime between 10pm and 8am.”

The detective strode over to the wall and examined the area. He was wearing gloves, but still took care not to touch anything. “Expensive painting?”

“It’s over five hundred years old,” replied Harold rubbing his brow. “Late classical. It’s one of our most cherished works.”

“So we can assume this wasn’t the work of some street junkie looking to score some extra cash.”Dan looked closely at the empty frame. “I see our thief has a sense of humor, with them placing this back onto the wall.”

“The frame isn’t worthless but it pales in comparison to the value of the painting. Removing it would make it more portable and easy to conceal.”

The detective looked around the room for a moment, examining the walls, the ceilings, and then the floor. “Where are your security cameras?”

“There are no internal ones. We have a dozen or so covering the exits.”

O’Brien huffed at this. “CCTV’s are pretty cheap these days, gentlemen. I would suggest that you splurge the extra dollars.”He looked at Burke. “How many night guards do you have?”

“A supervisor monitors the guard station. Two guards patrol the floors.”

“Fixed schedule or random?” asked O’Brien.

“Fixed,” replied Burke.

“Well, that’s issue number two. If you keep to a set schedule you might as well not have any guards. Any robber worth his salt is going to scope out their target in advance and know the intervals between the patrols are.”O’Brien knelt down and studied the floor for a moment. Concern covered his face.

“Have these floors been waxed recently?”

Reece spoke up. “We scrub and polish our floors right after closing each evening.”

“Good. Very good.” The detective glanced at his watch and scratched his chin. “Your robber was here before 2AM.”

Howard looked at him perplexed. “And how did you ascertain that?”

“There was a thunderstorm last night. It started around 3AM.”The detective touched the floor.“The robber would have brought water in from their shoes and that water would have dried and left water marks. This floor doesn’t have any.”

Burke, who looked as if was about to explode, suddenly blurted out.“But we have Red Ink on all of our paintings!”

O’Brien looked at him as if he was growing a third eye. “Excuse me?”

“Red Ink. It’s the named after the company that invented it. A colorless and odorless chemical is sprayed on the back of the canvas. It creates an RFID signature,” clarified Reece. “If the painting passes through the museum’s scanner the alarm sounds. Just like at a retail store when you try to shoplift something.”

O’Brien scratched his bedhead hair. “Sounds a little science-fiction-like.”

“It works,” added Reece. The assistant curator walked over to one of the other paintings. He removed it from the wall and strode towards the exit. As he passed through the doorway a shrill alarm sounded. Reece removed a remote control from his jacket pocket and pressed a code. The alarm was silenced.

“You see?” said Burke folding his arm. “We would have heard that noise last night.”

“If this chemical is odorless and colorless, how do you know it was applied to every painting?”

“Each item was tested.”

“Who supervised this process?” asked O’Brien.

“Why?”Harold crooked an eyebrow. “What are you implying?”

“There is a lot of artwork in this building. It would not be unreasonable to think an item or two might have been missed in this Red Ink process.”

“It’s one thing to assume an item was not tagged. But to imply that the same item was stolen…” said Harold, his voice trailing off in thought.

O’Brien jotted some notes down on his pad. “Is to assume there has been some sort of collusion.”

“Are you saying this was an inside job?” said Reece.

“I can think of no other explanation. Who else would know about the lack of cameras and guards and this chemical spray?”O’Brien cleared his throat. “I would suggest conducting background checks on the museum’s staff.”He turned to Burke. “With particular emphasis on the security guards.”

“Now hold on a minute!”

O’Brien held up his hand. “Don’t take any offence, Mr. Burke. It’s only a precaution. Let’s see if we can learn of more clues that might narrow down the suspect list. For example, while most people might know how valuable the painting was, how many people would have the knowledge on how to sell it, especially without getting arrested in the process?”

Harold stared at the open spot on the wall. “Well, myself and Reece for starters. Then there’s…” He stopped as he noticed O’Brien’s stare. “You’re not implying I had something to do with this?”

“You had the means and the motive, sir,” replied the detective. “I’m sure both you and your assistant know of many collectors. Many rich overseas collectors.”

“The fact that our museum has the Descat is hardly a secret. Someone wealthy could have easily hired their own thief to steal it,” answered Marcus. “And it could be hanging in their personal collection as we speak.”

“My thoughts exactly,” said Howard as he wiped his brow. “And to think one of us was involved in this theft is preposterous!”

O’Brien glanced at his watch. “I’m only speculating. The rest of the detective unit should be arriving at any moment to conduct a more thorough investigation.”

Two guards approached. “We finished our sweep of the museum. We didn’t find anything, sir.”

“Good. Go assist at the front entrance with crowd control,” said Harold

The guards turned to walk away. “Hold on,” said the detective. “You’re going to be opening late today.”

“Excuse me?” said Harold.

“This is an active crime scene. We can’t have herds of people storming through here,” replied the detective. “We’ll lose any hope of collecting more evidence.”

“When can I reopen the museum?” asked Harold.

“Unfortunately that’s not my decision to make.”The detective looked around the room. “We can probably do something about roping off this hall…”He looked at his watch again.

“Are we boring you, detective?” asked Harold.

“I’m wondering where my colleagues are. I left my phone in my car. I’m going to give my chief a call. Maybe they went to the wrong museum.”He held up his hand. “Sorry. Bad joke.”He looked over at Marcus. “Mr. Reece, could you please walk with me? I want to ask you some follow-up questions.”

“Of course,” Reece began walking alongside the detective towards the exit. “What can I help you with?”

The alarm sounded as they passed through the room’s security barriers. Reece quickly silenced it.

Reece became flush. “I guess the system isn’t working so well after all.”

O’Brien looked annoyed. “I think you better contact that installer and tell them to get over here to conduct some additional testing. Are they local?”

“They have an office about a half hour away.”

“Good. Have them stop by this morning. I have some questions to ask them.”

The assistant curator nodded nervously and strode off to his office.

O’Brien went to get his phone.

Harold turned to Burke. “With the exception of this room, I’m hoping to have the museum open by midday. I need you to go and put up some ropes so the patrons don’t come in here. We’re also going to need to set up security checkpoints at the exits to have peoples’ bags examined. Last thing we need is another painting stolen.”

His chief of security went hurrying off. Harold looked around, his hand on his stomach. He could feel the acids churning around in his stomach. Here comes the ulcer. His thoughts went to the insurance policy. He hoped that it enough to cover the loss.

His stomach continued to churn. Harold left and hurried towards the men’s room.

* * * * *

While washing his hands at the bathroom sink, he noticed the janitor’s door had been left ajar. Messy, messy, messy. Harold gave it a kick but something down by the floor prevented it from closing. It was a blanket. He kicked it aside. A pillow and a small tube of toothpaste tumbled out. Harold looked at the items curiously before pushing the items further into the closet.

Burke came jogging up to him as he walked out of the restroom. “Just got word that the police are at the front entrance.”

They began walking briskly down the hallway. “Did you cordon off the Monterey Wing?”

“Yes. Winston is setting them up. Stewart has set up tables at the exits to help with searching the visitors.”

“Good,” Harold replied, his thoughts going back to the bathroom. “Was any of your staff unaccounted for last night?”

Harold eyed Burke suspiciously. “What do you mean, sir?”

“Does anyone take any naps when things are slow? Any slouches on your team that I should know about?”

“Absolutely not!” the guard answered. “I wouldn’t stand for that.”

A group of ten officers were standing at the main entrance. Some were dressed in suits, others in uniform. One of them extended a beefy hand. “Good morning. I’m Lieutenant Paul Olson.”He looked around. “We received a call about a robbery.”

“Yes. One of our most valuable pieces is gone. Detective O’Brien has all the details but I can fill you in if you need more information.”

“I’m sorry, who did you speak with?”

“Detective Dan O’Brien.”

“There isn’t anyone who works in my squad with that name.”

Harold quickly described the man. “He said he was in the area when he got the call.”

Lieutenant Olson shook his head. “It doesn’t work that way. Plus, I’ve been on the force 35 years. There are seven precincts in the city and I know every detective. There’s no Dan O’Brien.”

Harold felt his stomach begin to churn again. But there wasn’t any time for that now. He hurried past the police and through the turnstiles.

It was a cloudless spring morning outside. He looked around. A few pedestrians had stopped to rest on the wide marble staircase that led down to the street. A woman was walking her dog. A man jogged past. A few cars sped by. There was no sign of O’Brien.

Thoughts raced through his head. The blanket in the bathroom. The man’s disheveled appearance. The frame being left on the wall. The security alarm going off when Reece was leaving the room.

The stairs had been recently power washed and they gleamed in the morning sun. An object near the street caught his attention. He walked over and knelt down to give it a closer view. It looked like a dead animal. It took him a few seconds to realize what he was actually staring at.

A toupee with a severe case of bedhead.

Hillsborough resident Michael Penncavage’s fiction has appeared in approximately 80 magazines and anthologies from six different countries. He is part of the Mystery Writers of America, Horror Writers of America, and Garden State Horror Writers.

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