5. ‘Real’ Art Opens Doors

Houston, Texas – June 19th, 2004

As a Kindred diplomat and negotiator of many years’ standing, Etienne de Vaillant had more than a passing familiarity with the biased nature of vampire politics in general and Toreador clan snobbishness in particular. He had made three attempts—two of them before Dr. Hewitt and his fascinating artifact had even arrived—to contact Ms. Laeticia Robicheaux, the childe of his late friend and client Colonel Beauregard Litton. But to her secretary’s deepest and sincerest-sounding chagrin, Miss Robicheaux was always regretfully unavailable for any appointment whatsoever with Mr. Copperfield of Tremere. She was out, or taking another call, or simply ‘not receiving this week.’

One might think that for Dr. Hewitt of Ventrue she’d be terribly busy washing her hair or something, but no—one call and he was on her schedule. Never mind that Stephen Copperfield of Tremere had been one of Colonel Beau Litton’s oldest business associates, and Hewitt was a merely a visiting Kindred professor from the other side of the country she’d likely never even heard of before.

But Hewitt was Ventrue, a member of the clan of bankers, businessmen, aristocrats and princes. And Etienne was Tremere—a clan whose mysterious powers of blood sorcery and secretive ways had never put them at the top of anyone’s social call list. True, he probably could have pulled rank, used his real name and title to force a meeting, but there were equal disadvantages in revealing his true identity and age in a city where he knew nothing of the political dynamics and how his presence, if known, might set them all askew. Especially since he hadn’t even revealed that identity to Hewitt as yet. So as much as it galled him to be treated like an unwelcome salesman at the door, retaining his anonymity and accepting the advantage of Hewitt’s Ventrue heritage was—at least for now—the more prudent course.

When Etienne came out into the main siting room of the suite, Dr. Hewitt was waiting for him, looking considerably less professorial and much more Ventrue in a very nicely-tailored three piece suit.  While Etienne could appreciate the necessity of dressing up—he’d dressed up himself, of course—he’d really found the professorial Hewitt to be much more interesting. Fortunately, the longer sideburns and neatly styled mustache prevented him from being mistaken for any of his banking cousins.

“Good evening, Mr. Copperfield,” Dr. Hewitt said, cheerfully.  “The limousine will be arriving any time now.”

“Limousine?” Etienne echoed, amused.

“Style points,” Dr. Hewitt explained.  “And I’ve also got these—I inquired of a cousin of mine in New Orleans, and she told me that Ms. Laeticia was very fond of classic Americana.”   He waved a hand at a largish, flat portfolio case, leaning against the couch.  “And as it happened, I had some original Rockwell first-edition prints from the Saturday Evening Post just taking up space in the attic, so I had them sent down.”

Saturday Evening Post?  Well, you can’t get much more classic Americana than that,” Etienne agreed. “Especially Rockwell.”  Actually, it was a good idea—when asking another Kindred for a favor, an appropriate gift could tip the scales of prestation in one’s own favor, making it much more likely the favor would be granted.

“Taking up space?” Diane exclaimed.  “Goodness, Charles.  What else  do you have taking up space in there, and does it need to be catalogued?”

“Oh.” Dr. Hewitt looked taken aback.  “Actually, I have quite a thorough inventory list—the insurance company rather insisted on it, in fact—“

“Joking, Charles,” she said, raising her hands.  “But if you have any other Egyptian pieces, I’d love to see them sometime.”

“He’s got a couple of mummies in the basement,” TJ said. “But don’t worry, they haven’t gotten out since… when was it, Charles, last Octo—OW!” he complained when Diane punched his arm.

“You had it coming,” she told him. “Be grateful I’m not in a position to revoke your archaeologist credentials!”

“Indeed,” Dr. Hewitt said, firmly.  “We’ll discuss the Egyptian collection later.  I am sorry I cannot bring you along this evening—but under the circumstances, I do think it’s best that Mr. Copperfield and I make the first contact.  If we can have access to the pieces, I will most assuredly bring you both in for that!”

“S’okay, Charles,” Diane said.  “I’ve got plenty of reading to do, and I’m sure  TJ does too—if he wants to get a dissertation even started this summer.”

TJ rubbed at his arm and tried to look studious. “I did already get started, so there.”

“Very good,” the professor smiled at them both.  “I’m sure we’ll all have a very productive evening.”

*                *                *                 *

Miss Laeticia had her haven in River Oaks, a very affluent neighborhood of large, expensive homes set back from the road, often enclosed behind genteel (but secure) walls and elegant gates. After their driver announced the names of his passengers, the wrought-iron gate swung open for them, allowing them to pass through and up the driveway to the circular round-about at the front doors.

The house was a faux-Georgian mansion that might have looked less cramped had it presided over its own plantation estate instead of squatting on a walled-in half-acre. The grounds featured well-placed old trees draped in Spanish moss and flowering shrubs that did their best to conceal the fact there were other houses very much like it just over the wall. Etienne could easily imagine a Southern belle in hoop skirts and ruffled bonnet sitting on the colonnaded front porch, fanning herself and listening to the cicadas singing in the sultry evening air. The cicadas were certainly doing their part. He idly wondered if Miss Laeticia was even that old.

“Now, you just let me do the talking,” Dr. Hewitt said, as the car pulled up to the front steps. “I’ll introduce you as my consultant…”

“So long as I’m not expected to consult on demand,” Etienne said, dryly. “I charge extra for that.”

“I’ll… uh, bear that in mind,” Hewitt said, and his brow wrinkled up a bit, as if he was already calculating it. “Though I hate to think what a bill I’m racking up already—“

“It’s a joke, Hewitt,” Etienne explained. “Your own expertise will be more than adequate, I’m sure. If we even get to see the artifacts, that is.”

“Oh. Of course.” Hewitt looked quite relieved. “Yes, well, I should hope so.”

The butler met them at the door, in full regalia that was several decades out of date, right down to the white gloves. Dr. Hewitt proffered his card. “Dr. Hewitt and Mr. Copperfield to see Miss Robicheaux,” he said, politely. “We have an appointment, if you’d be so kind as to let her know we’ve arrived?”

The butler accepted the card, perused it briefly, and laid it on the silver tray he was holding. “Miss Robicheaux is expecting you, Dr. Hewitt, and you, Mr. Copperfield…Please follow me.”

Etienne prepared to do his duty as the “consultant” by accepting the portfolio case with the Rockwell prints from the chauffeur, before following in Hewitt’s wake.

As it happened, to say Miss Laeticia’s taste tended to “Americana” didn’t even begin to describe the decor he found himself subjected to within. Pop culture memorabilia was more like it—there was an entire wall area dedicated just to items featuring old Coca-Cola advertising, and no available surface or stretch of wall that wasn’t taken by mass-produced collectible bric-a-brac or heavily-textured landscapes in elegantly carved and gilded frames.

Etienne had, in the course of his years running his antiquities business, become something of a decorator as well. All he could say about this house, as the butler ushered them through towards his employer’s inner sanctum, is that a few pieces from Norman Rockwell would actually be a step up.

Dr. Hewitt pressed onwards, apparently oblivious to their surroundings. Etienne maintained a firm hold of the portfolio case to prevent its being stolen by a sweet-faced bevy of ceramic kittens, and kept his tongue firmly leashed. Though to be perfectly fair, old Beau never had the best artistic sense either. He just preferred to do an entire room in, say, modern Danish, or like a Moroccan coffee shop. Or an ancient Egyptian tomb.

The butler led them up a short flight of stairs to a pair of double doors, which he opened before them. “Miss Robicheaux, your guests have arrived. Dr. Charles Hewitt, the Third, and Mr. Stephen Copperfield.”

“Do show them in, Mansfield.” Her voice had the sort of artistically sleepy Texas drawl designed to sound airy and unconcerned.

They were ushered in to what appeared to double as a private parlor and office. Here, at least, the décor was more classical and dignified, consisting of elegantly framed prints of famous American paintings. One or two might even have been originals.

Dr. Hewitt offered his most winning smile and authentic Cambridge accent. “Good evening, Miss Robicheaux. It’s most gracious of you to see me on such short notice… let me also introduce my consultant, Mr. Copperfield…”

As Miss Laeticia came out from behind her mahogany desk to greet them, it was clear she had been Embraced not just for her love of the arts (if indeed for that at all), but because she could fill out a red Chanel suit in such a way that even the undead could not fail to notice her figure. And naturally, she was blonde.

Well, Etienne conceded, perhaps not entirely naturally.

Dr. Hewitt, either utterly oblivious to their hostess’ physical charms (and Toreador allure), or being as obtuse as only a British Victorian gentleman could be to the sensual, bowed politely and kissed Miss Laeticia’s hand with perfect poise.

Etienne settled for offering a gentleman’s bow dating from the early 20th century and kept his distance. Besides, the view was better from a few paces back.

“Dr. Hewitt, it is my pleasure to meet you,” she said, ignoring Etienne entirely. “I am always delighted to discuss my late sire’s interests with fellow academics.”

Academics, my ass, Etienne thought, but kept silent. This was Dr. Hewitt’s show, and he was curious to see how the Ventrue professor would handle it.

“Of course, your sire was greatly respected in his field, and it was the greatest of tragedies for our studies when he was lost,” Hewitt assured her. “Though I am quite certain that you are carrying on his work in your own way, of course!”

“I do try to honor his memory however I may,” Miss Laeticia said demurely, and took his arm. “Why don’t we sit over here where it’s more comfortable….”

Etienne followed, still carrying the portfolio.

But in the process of turning to sit in one of the ‘more comfortable’ chairs, it seemed that Miss Laeticia noticed his existence for the first time. “Mr. Copperfield, wasn’t it? I do believe we might have met before, but I can’t recall exactly where…?”

Etienne was quite certain she knew exactly who he was, but was willing—at least for now—to play along. So often in Kindred society, appearances mattered more than reality—especially when acknowledging an unpleasant reality might lead to having to then do something about it. “Well, I’m not sure, Miss Robicheaux,” he replied easily. “Plainly you are quite an art collector, so that may well have been the setting…”

“That may very well be it, Mr. Copperfield. I do travel quite a bit. Shall we make ourselves comfortable?” She took her own seat, and crossed her legs, her perfectly manicured hands resting lightly on her knee. “Now, I understand you have some interest in certain objects that reside in my late sire’s collection?”

“Of course,” Charles said, sitting down as well, and leaning his walking stick—of course he had a walking stick—against his chair. “Yes, that’s true. As it happens, he outbid me on those very same pieces some years ago.”

Miss Laeticia smiled. “He always did have a way of getting exactly what he wanted when he wanted it.”

“Indeed,” Dr. Hewitt agreed. “Although now I wonder if it was I who was the lucky one that night. As it happened there were certain similar pieces, I regret to say, from that same source, who used to be so reliable in the past… which have turned out to be complete forgeries—can you imagine?”

“Oh?” Miss Laeticia inclined one eyebrow questioningly. “That is interesting—I’m relatively certain that my sire had all the pieces in his collection authenticated to the best of his ability….”

“I was as shocked as you, of course! They were very good forgeries–even other experts have been fooled! But my colleague here has discovered the trick of determining their authenticity. He’s been able to identify several pieces in my own collection that were very clever deceptions, and spared me quite a bit of embarrassment. And I thought it would be a kindness to the memory of my old friend if I were to offer his services to you as well. At my own expense, of course.”

Forgeries? What the hell is he yammering about? Etienne managed to keep a straight face only due to centuries of practice in the art of diplomatic improvisation. Dr. Hewitt had not mentioned exactly how he was going to explain his interest in Miss Robicheaux’s sire’s collection. It was an audacious ploy, bold as brass—but also rather clever, if Miss Laeticia was as ignorant of real Egyptian antiquities as she appeared to be, but did not wish to admit that fact in front of her guests.

“That’s a most generous offer, Dr. Hewitt,” Miss Laeticia said. “I’d be happy to take you up on it, but as it happens, that part of my sire’s rather extensive collection is currently out on loan, as part of a touring exhibit of Egyptian artifacts.”

“Indeed?” Charles responded, straightening in his chair. He withdrew a folded piece of paper from inside his jacket, opened it and studied it for a second. “Ah. That would include the New Kingdom era canopic jar with a Qebehsenuef head, item numbered 24959W251, the bronze mirror, item number 34523W294, and the others of that lot?”

“It is possible. I would have to check the catalog to be certain.” Laeticia’s eyes narrowed a fraction. “You seem to have fairly detailed knowledge on this issue, Dr. Hewitt.”

“Well, as I said, he outbid me for the lot, so I had already researched the pieces quite extensively,” Dr. Hewitt explained, folding the list up again and returning it to his pocket. “And of course, when those items turned up on the list of possible forgeries from this unscrupulous dealer, I was concerned for you, and your sire’s impeccable reputation…”

“Just a moment, please. I’ll fetch my copies of the release I signed for the exhibit.” She rose and crossed the room to a polished walnut sideboard, whose drawers had apparently been modified to act as a file cabinet.

Audacious and bold as brass—and whether Miss Laeticia recognized it as earnestly told bullshit or not, she was not going to challenge it. No, much easier to just give them what she thought they wanted, since it cost her nothing but a few minutes of pleasantly vague chit-chat. And of course, the promise of the portfolio case could not be overlooked.

Their hostess returned to her seat bearing a slim file folder. Laying it open on the coffee table, she extracted a stapled inventory list, glancing over it before offering it to Dr. Hewitt. “Ah, here we are—this is the list of the pieces out on loan. I offered them the entire collection, of course, but those were the only pieces that they were interested in.“

Dr. Hewitt seemed engrossed in the list, so Etienne took the opportunity to ask what seemed to him to be an obvious question. “Why those particular items, Miss Robicheaux? Did the curator say what the criteria were?”

“Well, as I recall, it had to do with the, shall we say, somewhat shady and less than proper means by which those particular artifacts had been exported from the area in which they were first discovered. I did explain, of course, that my sire had bona fide receipts for each item in his collection, having bought them honestly at legitimate auctions over the past several decades. The curator assured me that current ownership of the artifacts is not at all in dispute, regardless of the exhibit’s somewhat provocative name.”

Etienne could see the brochure in the file folder now. “The Stolen Treasures of Egypt,” he murmured, and extended a hand towards the brochure. “May I?”

“Oh, of course,” Miss Laeticia picked up the brochure and handed it over to him. “I suppose if the artifacts you’re concerned about are part of the tour—perhaps we can arrange for you to see them at one of the museums where they’re being displayed. I believe they’re currently in Atlanta.”

Etienne turned the brochure over to find the itinerary. “Today’s the 19th… no, they’ve left Atlanta, according to this. Which is just as well, Atlanta’s hardly a safe place to visit.”

“It’s not?” Dr. Hewitt said, suddenly looking up from the list of artifacts. “Oh. Right. There are Sabbat in Atlanta, aren’t there.”

“Yes, I’m afraid so,” Etienne said. “But the exhibit will be opening in Baltimore on Friday—less than a week from today.”

“Well, Baltimore is still Camarilla… isn’t it?” Dr. Hewitt asked. “I thought it was, the last I heard.”

“Yes, it is,” Etienne agreed.

“Of course,” Dr. Hewitt continued, handing the list back to his hostess, “It’s entirely possible that the collection is every bit as genuine as it should be. But I’m sure it would ease your heart to know the truth. Since the last thing anyone would want is to have the wrong parties discover any forgeries and publicize it…”

“It certainly would ease my mind, I will admit.” Miss Laeticia said. “I could—as a favor to you, and in memory of my beloved sire—put in a good word or two on your behalf to the Toreador who oversees the museum in Baltimore. I’m sure I could persuade him to let you take a closer look at the items in question. I would personally go to any length of maintain my sire’s good name, God rest his soul.”

“If you could, I would most appreciate it,” Dr. Hewitt assured her. “I will be certain to let you know about the authenticity of the artifacts as soon as a determination can be made. Hoping for the best of course.”

“Of course,” she agreed, smiling.

“I thank you so much for your assistance, Ms. Robicheaux. There was one other thing I hoped you could help me with,” Dr. Hewitt continued smoothly, making a slight hand gesture in Etienne’s direction. Etienne, recognizing his cue, brought the portfolio case out from where it rested against his chair, and laid it carefully on the table in front of them.

“I found these in an attic—quite well preserved, in fact! They’re hardly a match for the rest of my collection, but I am given to understand you might find a good home for them… as a token of my appreciation for your assistance…”

Etienne unzipped the case and brought the works out of their tissue paper wrappings. Each one had been carefully placed in a protective folder, with a sheet of tissue paper to protect the surface of the print. Even after so many years, the color was still quite vibrant.

“Oh, my word,” Miss Laeticia murmured reverently. “First edition, you said? I’m sure you won’t mind my own authentication service examining them?”

“Oh, not at all,” Dr. Hewitt assured her, smiling and rising to his feet. “Do enjoy them, Ms. Robicheaux. And thank you so much for your time and trouble…”

Business having been satisfactorily concluded, polite courtesies were exchanged, goodbyes said, and soon Etienne and Dr. Hewitt were back in their hired limousine, on their way back to their hotel.

Overall, Etienne was quite pleased. “Baltimore it is, then. This works rather well! Well, with one slight hitch.”

“Slight hitch?” Dr. Hewitt echoed. “What do you mean by that?”

“Well, as it happens I’ve met the Toreador who I’m sure has jurisdiction over the Baltimore museums, and he actually promised me a tour he never got a chance to give me.”

“Oh? Excellent. That will be just splendid!” Dr. Hewitt was clearly in a good mood as well.

“The hitch is that the reason he never quite got around to it is that he thinks I’m dead.”

“Oh. Well, that could be a touch awkward,” Dr. Hewitt agreed. “But perhaps you could.. uh, explain?”

“They all think I’m dead,” Etienne continued. “All the Kindred in Baltimore. I went to a great deal of trouble to convince them of it, in fact. So we will have to move rather quietly, or things could become… well, as you said. Awkward.”

He grinned. “Ah, I see… Got on someone’s bad side, did you? And you don’t want them to know the difference? Well, then. Mum’s the word! Who was it tried to kill you, by the way?”

“Oh…the Sabbat.”

“Oh, well, then… We won’t say a word to them either.”

Etienne chuckled. “Good. Sounds like a plan.”

To be Continued….

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