I was in deep shit. The whole business was collapsing around me. I owed two and a half million dollars to some very nasty people, money that neither I nor my family had. I had only one fleeting hope of survival. I called my father for sage advice.

I flew down to St. Kitts to meet Pops and my Ma; both are getting on in years. After totally freaking out on me, Pops strongly suggested I meet with the family lawyer, Christo, back in Toronto.

I caught the next flight back and managed to catch him. I went straight to his downtown Bay St. office.

After a short wait, I was ushered into his big corner office. He sat at his fancy polished wood desk, with a background of standard lawyerly prop reference books behind him. His jacket was off and his blue silk tie contrasted sharply with the crisp white shirt, his slicked back white hair and his big white fake toothy smile.

He stood to shake my hand, “So nice to see you again, Ben. I think the last time I saw you was at Frankie’s funeral. How long has it been?”

“Seven years, I guess.”

My older brother’s car blew up when he turned the key. The New Yorkers made a graphic statement out of him.

“How can I help you?” Christo asked, “Please have a seat,” he guestured towards one of the two leather chairs facing his desk.

“So, here’s the situation, Christo,” I started as we both settled into our seats. He watched me intently with his lawyerly ‘trust me’ smile. “Our main distribution guy, Mallory, he’s Irish… or more correctly, was Irish, is dead.”


“He was in Turkey trying to set up a viable distribution line or two for Afghani product, now that Damascus is ruined.”

“Rough part of the world these days.”

“No kidding.”

“Who got him?”

“A fucking bee! He went into anaphalactic shock and they couldn’t revive him.”

“Okay, so what does that have to do with why you’re here?”

“He owed me two point seven million dollars!”

“So, you had a business loss.”

“Yeah, I get that, Christo; the problem is I in turn owe basically the same amount to a bunch of Colombian thugs who really, really want to be paid for their coke.”

“And you can’t cover it?”

“No!” I had to take a deep breath. “If you recall, me and my dad took a 4.36 million dollar hit last year when an airline was diverted to Athens. I’m close to being broke at this point. I had to put a mortgage on the house; we’re not made of fucking money.”

“So, what do you want from me?”

“Advice, Christo, I need advice. My father insisted I don’t do anything until I talk to you, first.”

“And how are they? Healthy and happy, I hope.”

“Yeah, they’re fine, but they’re getting on. They’re taking off for Naples next week.”

“That’s great. Okay, how can I help you?”

“Before Mallory died, he handed me an IOU of sorts, he did it before when he was short, and I could cover it. It’s a painting. A Vermeer, worth a lot.”

“So, sell the painting and pay the Colombians.”

“Not so simple. The painting is hot. And I can’t cover it.”

“Hot as in stolen?”


He leaned back in his chair, lifted his hands up almost in prayer and tapped his fingertips together. “And what exactly do you mean by ‘he did it before’?”

“The middle east is fucked up. Mallory was my guy, in and out. Colombian coke into Turkey, Saudi Arabia and other gulf states, Afghani heroin out. We had a great thing happening. He was hit hard a couple of times, himself, because of the Syrian troubles, and was basically getting along by the skin of his teeth. He had to rely on his two sons as couriers.”

“How old was he?”

“Maybe fifty. Nevertheless, to answer your question. Mallory transfered a painting from his Isle of Man safety deposit box to my Isle of Man safety deposit box, at the same bank.”


“He then paid off the debt a couple of weeks later, it was just cash flow shit, and I transfered the painting back to him. It didn’t really matter then, I had the funds to cover him.”

Christo gazed at me. “But not this time?”

“No. And that’s the problem. I’m stuck with a Vermeer. And a debt.”

“What do you think it’s worth?”

“Five mil.”

“What makes you think that?”

“That’s the reward money.”


“The Vermeer was stolen from a gallery in Boston, twenty or thirty years ago. It’s called The Concert. The gallery wants it back. The reward money is five mil. My understanding is that’s it’s not reward money, per se, but money for infomation leading to the recovery…”

“One and the same,” he said while tapping his fingertips.

“I just need to get in touch with the gallery and make a deal.”

Christo’s eyes were wide open. He wasn’t smiling anymore.

“Five mil according to Mallory at least…” Fuuuck!” I really only had his word.

Christo leaned further back as he sighed. That lawyerly look was definately gone. He clasped his hands together and with deliberate precision asked, “And what deal do you propose to do with that painting?”

I looked him straight in the eyes, “Sell it back to the gallery. Collect the money and then save my life… basically by paying back the Colombians, who have this thing for stuffing the body into the victim’s trunk. It can’t help with the resale value of the vehicle.”

Christo was stone faced but nodded slightly as he took it in.

“Here’s my basic problem,” I continued, “I know the cops are going to be involved.”

He kept nodding up and down.

“Christo, as you well know, we’re in the drug running and money laundering business, not in the deal with the cops for a stolen painting business. The two don’t go hand in hand. I need help. Your help.”

“Can I ask a question?”


“And I can assure you of confidentiality…”

“Of course.”

“Where did you get the painting?”

“From Mallory.” What the fuck did he think? That I’m making all this up?

“And where did he get it from?”

“I’ve no idea,” I lied.

Christo simply gazed at me.

“I need you to guide me into exchanging the stolen painting for cash. Pure and simple. And from my perspective, it is really simple. My life and the lives of my daugthers and my wife and my parents are on the line.”

He stared at me.

“Christo, I don’t even know where to start.”

He blinked twice as his fake smile roard back up,

“Can you give me a week?” he asked, “I need to talk to some people and think this through.”

Great, I’d just relay that to the Colombians.


“Hey, Marcie, I’m home.”

“What? Do you expect me to come running into your arms?” She snarled at me from under her newly re-done bleached blonde hair. She did look good except for the permafrost on her face.

“What a pleasant reception, Marcie.” How about, ‘how was your flight,’ or how about, ‘how’s your mum and dad’?”

“Fuck off.”

“Oh boy,” I sighed, “where are the girls?”

“As if you fucking care?”

I shook my head as I climbed up the stairs to my bedroom.

“You need to put money into the account,” she yelled from the bottom of the stair.

“You need to get a job,” I said back, probably too loud.

What used to be a marriage was now a farce. She wouldn’t even cook dinner for me anymore. There was not even a false pretense that we were still a couple. Of course, the girls weren’t there; she knew what time my flight was getting in. She was doing everything she could to alienate me from the girls and to hurt me. School was over for the day; the girls should or could, have been at home.

She had stated to me clearly on many occasions that she wanted the house, with the mortgage paid for by me, ten thousand a month and she was good with the year-old, fully loaded minivan. A hundred and twenty grand a year, oh, and have me out of the house? Permanently? It was pretty well the only conversation we had anymore.

Thankfully, it hadn’t got to lawyers yet. If and when it ever did, she would be in a little bit of a pickle. She wouldn’t be going to Christo, that’s for sure. She’d have to find a lawyer of her own. “And what exactly does your husband do?” There’s an unwritten code that even Marcie wouldn’t be too stupid or too brazen to break.

When we picked up that endless conversation, or negotiation, lately, her new opening line had been, “You promised two years ago that you were going to put in a pool.”

Yeah, that was before Athens.

If it wasn’t for the girls, I really wouldn’t bother coming home. She was such a spiteful fucking cunt. And she’s the one that started cheating on me, while we were engaged to marry, as it turned out.

Bottom line, and it took me years to realize, just like my mother warned me: she was only interested in money and herself and that was it. The girls were a tool for her to achieve that end.

I’d have been happy to take the girls. I’d sell the house and give her a whack of cash for her to just go away. Up until that point, she’s wasn’t buying that, At least not then. Maybe I just hadn’t made her the right cash offer. She saw me as a gravy train. The two girls were simply the tickets to get on board.

Cash offer? What was I thinking? I was two and a half million in dire debt.


A week later I was back in Christo’s office.

“Sit down, Ben,” he said. I did.

“It’s not impossible. But it’s not easy.”

That was good news, I guessed.

“Here’s what you’re going to have to do.”

I shuffled in my seat.

“The Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston holds title to the painting. The FBI and the local District Attorney’s office have been handling all inquiries and following all the leads pertaining to the theft, for the last… ppfft… twenty eight years? Normally, you’d just have to deal with them. The fact that the painting is in the Isle of Man can kind of work in your favour.”

“Oh? How so?”

“The FBI and DA’s office will be off their home turf.”

“How so?”

“The painting is in the Isle of Man, part of the UK. We share the same Queen, remember?”

Smarmy bastard.

“I think that it’s fairly justifiable that you approach the UK authorities on this matter. The last thing you want to do is start moving the painting around, especially after everyone’s been notified that a potential seller has just come forward. You will have to be very careful. As soon as you announce you have the painting, no matter how careful you are, the possibility exists that they will be on to you and that you will be tailed.”

“So, who do we deal with?”

“I don’t know how it will play out, the FBI and the DA will still be involved, no doubt and maybe to a great degree. But if you, or the lead to the Vermeer, turn up in London, it may be the Metropolitan police at New Scotland Yard or the local Manx constabulary that will be in charge of the recovery. I’d stick with Scotland Yard and just keep the Isle of Man people out of it.”

I took a deep breath.

“Either way, a couple things will need to happen. Number one, you will need a local emissary working as a middle man between the Gardner Museum and you. Their elected middlemen so far are the FBI and the DA’s office. No matter what happens, you have to deal with them. But as I said, you should stay off their home turf. You’ve got to understand, cops are only going to want to deal with other cops. Two, you will have to provide proof that the painting is in your possession and that it’s still in reasonable condition. Once they have that, only then will they get serious. Three, they will need to verify that in fact it is the stolen Vermeer, and not a forgery. For that, they will want an expert to examine the painting and then to… number four, formally accept the painting. Only then will payment be released.”

I took another deep breath.

“Naturally, the difficult part is running away with the money. And of course, the FBI, the DA’s office, Scotland Yard’s Fine Art and Antiquities Department, or whatever the hell they call themselves, Interpol and who knows who else will NOT want you to get away with that.”

“What do you recommend?”

“Ben, I’m a lawyer. I don’t have an answer for you. You need to talk to someone in the money laundering business.” He was smiling his big toothy grin.

“But this I can tell you or recommend to you. Get your plan in place and act quickly. They are bureaucratic agencies and will be inherently slow. Also, don’t leave any DNA trace and don’t subject yourself to video surveillance.”

This was not pretty.

“It’s going to come down to trust,” Christo continued. “In the end, the other side will have to have faith in your middle man to deliver, and you will have to have faith in that person, too. But understand everyone will have their own motivations. The Museum wants their painting back plus they want to catch the perps who did it. Your painting is just one of, I think, thirteen or fourteen items that were stolen that day. Do you have access to the other stolen items?”

“No, not at all.”

“Okay. But understand this… they will still want the other items back and once they see the Vermeer turning up, they are naturally going to assume that the other items will start to make their way back home, too.”

I shuffled in my seat, “But that has nothing to do with me.”

He smiled his toothy grin, “They aren’t going to burn their bridges on this one painting if in doing so the possibility of recovering the other items is lost. The carrot is the other twelve or thirteen items; the stick is having to buy this one back cleanly, even if you don’t have access to the other stolen items. You follow?”

“Yeah,” I sighed.

“But don’t try to overplay that. Make them come to fully realize that themselves.”


“Ben, you have your motive and the cops and the DA have theirs, too. But let’s not lose sight of the fact that you will be approaching them.”

I sighed again shifting in the chair across from Christo.

“Find a lawyer in London, or better yet just outside of London, someone young and inexperienced, someone naive.”

“What! You want me to find a lawyer in London that is stupid?” I couldn’t believe what he was saying. Uncomfortably, I shifted in my chair.

“No, not stupid, just naïve, and just outside of London, I would recommend.”


“Fewer cameras.”

“Why naïve?”

“Ben, you don’t want them thinking too much. You want them to do exactly as you tell them, nothing less and certainly nothing more.”

I sighed audibly. This was not a pretty situation.

“Why can’t you be the middle man?”

Christo leaned back in his chair and tapped his fingertips together, “I thought about it and I’ve concluded it’s not a good idea.”

“Why not, I know we can trust you.”

“It’s not that. Number one, we have a history together, and we’re a Canadian firm. No, you got to find someone local. We can’t even navigate the London Underground. Ben; it’s simply not our jurisdiction. They’ll find you through me, for sure.”

I sighed, “Okay.”

He continued, “You will have to approach this lawyer, solicitor they’re called there, anonymously and suggest that you have a Vermeer to sell. Be specific. Now the first thing that lawyer will need to do is contact the authorities in the UK, I suggest Scotland Yard, the Art and Antiquities Department or whatever it’s called, and that lawyer will need to obtain immunity from prosecution for handling stolen goods. That should be fairly straight forward. My understanding is that it’s happened there before. Only then does that person, through whatever intermediaries, including Scotland Yard, approach the Gardner Museum with an offer for ‘information leading to recovery’.” He used air quotes.

I think I was staring blankly.

“Ben. You’ve got to do this yourself. You can’t add layers of protective insulation. You’ve got to get it done just right.”

“How do I find the right middle man?”

“Try Google.”

I must have looked incredulous.

“If it were me, Ben,” he said grinning with big white, fake teeth,” I’d find a woman. A young one.”

“What? Why?”

“Because, aside from the very first meeting, I’d want to see bare skin to verify that that person isn’t wearing a wire. I wouldn’t allow any of their potentially doctored clothing to be on them and certainly no purses or briefcases nearby. You know that the cops will be pressuring them.”

The lech. But he was absolutely right.

“Trust but verify. It’s what Ronald Reagan said, right?”

“As long as any meetings between you and the…female lawyer are on your terms, where you control all of the elements, everything should be okay. Plus, let’s look at her motivation in this regard. One, the money will be great, for which she will have to submit a proposal to the Gardner Museum and they will have to draw up a contract with her. You’re not paying her. They are. You’ll be anonymous the whole time.”

“How much should they pay her?”

“I don’t know,” he smiled his big toothy grin, “let her pick a number she’s comfortable with. If the Museum thinks it’s too much, it’ll be her issue to sort out.”

“Sounds fair enough,” I said.

Christo continued, “The second motivation for her will be the prestige, the fun. When it’s done, she’ll be all over the tabloids as the individual who returned the Vermeer. Her career will be launched.”

I smiled at the beauty of the whole thing.

He leaned forward and pressed his index finger into the air, “Just don’t let her fulfill fantasy number three,” he said, drawing me back to reality. “No matter what the client confidentiality rules are over there, you don’t want her helping the authorities bring the perps in. They will be pressuring her, for sure.”

I was staring straight ahead.

“And please be aware, Ben, that the reward money for the entire stolen collection is five million US, but it appears it’s been fixed at that amount for many years. You get to set the price. I think the five mil, plus middle man expenses, will be reasonable. Really, it’s the premium piece missing. If you ask for more, they’ll probably have to go back to the board of trustees, who knows. It’ll take time. And from what you’ve told me, time is not on your side.

“No, it certainly is not.”

“It may be that the middle man fees have to come out of the five million, if that’s all they’ve got.”

“You may be right, Christo.”

“And just hint the fiction to them that if this transaction is successfully completed, the other stolen pieces may be offered for return.”

“And, Ben, please be aware. The Isle of Man is probably also your Achilles heel. Every time you go to and from that island, you’re on camera in a relatively small sample. Keep that to an absolute minimum. Keep electronic communication on prepaid cell phones. Don’t talk, if you can avoid it. Text.”


“Because people can overhear you or her talking. Don’t share any electronic files, images and stuff.”

“Why not?”

“Images and other files have meta data built in that tells God only knows what about the origins of the file. I’m no expert in any of that, except to warn you to stay clear the fuck away from all of it. Use paper with no fingerprints or any other DNA attached. Don’t be emailing anybody anything.”

“Hmm… okay.”

“And one last thing. You will be asking for five million, your middle man will be asking for the balance of their fee at the same time, that is, when the painting gets returned. Don’t put yourself in a position where your middle man can run off with the painting or the reward money.”

“Hmm… good point. How will I know that the middle man isn’t cooperating with the cops?”