Free Fiction Monday: Clay Feet

After a decade of trying to get a statue of Mercury for her museum’s antiquities department, Harper finally succeeds. But then the statue arrives—broken—and a spectacular forgery. Her boss—impressed—calls the statue the ultimate forgery.

Harper wonders if she, too, should appreciate the forgery—until the statue starts talking.

“Clay Feet,” by New York Times bestselling author Kristine Kathryn Rusch is free on this website for one week only. The story’s also available as an ebook through various online retailers here.

Clay Feet

Kristine Kathryn Rusch

 

“IT’S BROKEN,” HARPER SAID. She still held the metal pry bar in her right hand. It took all of her discipline to keep from swinging the thing at the museum staff.

The crate’s top lay on the storage room floor, straw and packing materials scattered everywhere.

But Harper wasn’t looking at the packing materials or the crate itself. She was looking at the statue inside. Mercury’s winged helmet tilted jauntily on his stone curls, looking more like Robin Hood’s cap than the armor for the Messenger of the Gods.

“His helmet isn’t supposed to be like that,” she said, “and his feet! Look at his feet!”

The rest of the antiquities staff looked. Mercury’s feet, which should have been stuffed in winged shoes, had melted onto the crate’s bottom.

Harper dropped the pry bar onto the stone floor. The clatter did not make her feel better.

This ancient statue of Mercury was supposed to be the heart of their new antiquities collection. Harper had negotiated for it for the last decade. She’d even flown to Rome to meet with Italian authorities. Like so many other countries now, Italy wanted its precious antiquities inside its own borders.

Lately cries of theft had reverberated all over the world—whether it was old thefts of Egyptian tombs (which benefitted places like the British Museum) or Nazi thefts of Jewish art, which then got sold (without enough provenance) to newer museums throughout Europe and the United States.

Technically, Harper had gotten the Mercury on loan, but the loan was permanent, so long as the museum made annual lease payments that amounted to more than her entire salary.

The hat Harper could repair, but the feet—how was she going to explain the feet to the Italian government? How was she going to explain the feet to anyone? Marble didn’t melt. Marble lasted centuries—millennia—buried underground, near rivers and streams.

“Have you ever seen anything like this?” she asked, more to herself than anyone else. She hadn’t. Not with something that had such great bona fides. The provenance on the Mercury sculpture was the best she’d ever seen.

“Actually,” said Malcolm Endicott, the senior curator, “I have seen something exactly like it.”

She turned.

Endicott was an old man. He was old when she was hired out of college fifteen years before, and he was older now. His skin had mottled and loosened; his hair had thinned so much that it looked like a ripped shirt covering his skull.

He wore bespoke suits to work every day, and at all times of year, he covered his wattled neck with a cravat instead of a tie.

His wife had died a few years before, and that seemed to give him permission to spend all of his time here.

Harper didn’t mind. The old man had a wealth of knowledge that she hadn’t sufficiently tapped yet, even though they’d worked side by side for most of her tenure.

“You’ve seen melting marble?” she asked him.

He smiled gently. He was sitting on a stool near one of the temporary walls. His back was straight, his expensively shod feet curled around the stool’s rungs. If he fell, he’d break not only bones in his torso, but the bones in his legs as well.

“Darling,” he said in a tone only he could use with her. “Marble doesn’t melt.”

His thoughts echoed hers, but she didn’t say that. Instead, she swept her hand toward the statue and its ruined feet.

“Then what is this?”

His smile grew. “An elaborate forgery.”

“You can tell that from over there?”

He nodded.

“The forgery fooled experts all over the world,” she said.

“Then the forgery itself might be worth some money,” he said.

“Only historical forgeries are worth money,” she said.

Sometimes forgeries had a provenance too. Either they were completed by an artist who later made a reputation for himself, or they belonged to a moment in time, one that could be traced and reproduced just like the original.

For decades, the replications of the Venus de Milo was all that the art world had of that masterpiece. Many art historians believed a lot of the replications were forgeries.

Then the original Venus was discovered, and the others lost value, but not as much as they would have without the provenance.

“I would wager,” Endicott said, “this is a premier historical forgery.”

“Wagering doesn’t help us.” Usually she wasn’t that curt with the old man. But usually she wasn’t faced with a forged treasure she had fought nearly a decade to receive.

“Did I ever tell you how I served after the war?” he asked.

“No,” she said, trying to hide her impatience. She didn’t have time for a story. Besides, she already knew about Endicott’s past.

He had joined up late and served the last two years of World War II in combat. He then resigned for a tour to rebuild Europe. Occasional stories that leaked out from him or his late wife put him in Paris after liberation, Berlin after Hitler’s death, and the Italian Alps after Mussolini’s fall.

“I was on recovery duty.” He put a hand on that false wall to brace himself as he untangled his feet from the stool. One of the younger staff members rushed to his side, but he waved the woman aside. The wall wobbled as he stood, but it didn’t tumble like Harper feared it would.

“Recovery duty,” she repeated. She knew better than to ask a question. She didn’t want to encourage the memory.

Endicott nodded as he walked toward her. His polished shoes slid on the straw and she reached out in case he fell. He ignored her. Instead he crouched and stared at the ruined feet.

“Plaster,” he said softly. “Experts couldn’t have been fooled by plaster.”

She crouched beside him. Cautiously she reached inside the crate. The statue felt like marble on the surface, the way that fake marble countertops felt like marble. But fake marble countertops did not have the weight of marble.

This statue had the correct weight. Their normal deliverymen would have noticed something lighter. She would have too as she helped them struggle the crate into the receiving part of the storage area.

Her finger brushed against the melted feet. The weight of this statue came not from the surface materials but from the materials used on the interior.

Endicott was right; it was plaster mixed with some kind of rock for heft.

“You’ve seen this before?” she asked.

He nodded. “At Carinhall, in a corner of the garden. My heart nearly stopped when we arrived to find Nike of Samothrace melting in the rain.”

He left it there, waiting for her to ask questions.

But she didn’t. She didn’t have time.

Instead, she directed the staff members to take photographs and document the crate’s arrival.

She had to check her own documentation which she kept in her office.

But she couldn’t stop thinking about Nike of Samothrace. It was one of the Louvre’s most famous sculptures. Better known as Winged Victory of Samothrace, the sculpture anchored the wing between the Galerie d’Apollon and the Salon Carré with the new rooms built parallel to the Grande Galerie.

On her very first visit to the Louvre, Harper had run up the flight of stairs leading to Winged Victory, wanting to see both her and the Mona Lisa before her visit ended.

But Harper had spent most of her time gazing at Winged Victory. The huge statue, taller than most men, had been found in pieces on the island of Samothrace in 1863. It was reassembled into an imposing figure of a woman—Nike, the Greek Goddess of Victory—her wings extended behind her, body in motion, as she stood on the prow of a ship. The sculpture probably stood on a promontory overlooking the sea. The archeologists searched but never found the most important piece—her head—and yet the sculpture was impressive without it.

As Harper sat below it, she could almost hear the sea wind blow, and Nike’s garments flapping in the breeze. No sculpture had taken her breath like that before; few had done so since.

Although the sculpture of Mercury, which the scholars believed to be as old as Nike of Samothrace, had taken her breath too when she saw it in a private collection near Rome. That was the day she decided to purchase it.

That was the day that started her on the long journey which brought her here.

Here, to her office, where she stared at the pile of documentation beside her. Provenance, insurance documents, down payments, and guarantees. Now she would face lawyers and legal challenges and headaches beyond imagining.

She needed to be back in the storage room, photographing the Mercury statue and the condition it arrived in. Her entire career rested on this sculpture now. Not dealing with the fraud directly would be disastrous, both to her and to the museum.

Still, she couldn’t bring herself to go back downstairs. She had come up to her office to get all of the materials and to start downloading new copies of the e-mail files from the past two months. She was supposed to print up the e-mails whenever they came in, but she was usually too busy.

Now she might pay for that as well. If any emails pertaining to the Mercury sculpture were lost, the trail might grow cold.

So she had electronically stored the files and now she was printing them, the printer queue backed up some 55 emails strong.

She should have looked through the documentation while she printed. Instead, she went to Google and typed in “Karenhall.” She got some strange responses, most of which seemed to have nothing to do with Endicott or sculpture.

So she typed in “Karenhall” and “World War II” and got this message: Did you mean Carinhall? She hit that link, and discovered what Endicott meant.

Carinhall was Hermann Goering’s country house, located fifty miles outside of Berlin. Goering had been a member of Hitler’s inner circle. He had filled Carinhall with valuable artworks from all over Europe, then taken eleven traincars full of those artworks from the house just ahead of the Russian Army’s arrival in early 1945.

Americans were not allowed on the site until the Russians had left in the fall of 1945, and then the only Americans who went there were part of an international group formed to return priceless artifacts to the countries the Nazis had stolen them from.

Harper found no mention of Endicott’s name in connection to Carinhall, but she did finally understand why he had been in Paris and Berlin and in the Italian Alps. Anywhere the Germans stored priceless art, stolen from conquered nations, Endicott had been there, cataloguing, discovering, saving.

She had no idea she was working with such a man. She wondered if anyone else in the museum did either.

She grabbed the stack of documentation for the Mercury sculpture, checked to make sure she had enough paper in her printer for the remaining e-mails, and then went back to the storage area.

Of course, Endicott was no longer there.

She found him in his office, a cloistered room in the very center of the museum. The room was hidden behind secret panels in the library wing. To get in, one had to know which panel hid the combination lock, and what the combination was.

Staff members had told Endicott for years that the room was no longer safe for him to spend so much time in (if, indeed, it ever had been), but he didn’t care.

If I die in there, he would respond, his faded blue eyes twinkling, then eventually you’ll smell me and you’ll know what happened.

She hadn’t liked that idea at all, and checked on him twice a day—when she first arrived and just before she left.

She did understand why he spent so much time in his office, though. It was homey, in a cluttered Victorian kind of way.

Reproductions of bronzes and small Etruscan vases stood on various surfaces. Larger reproductions of some of the world’s most treasured antiquities covered his floor.

Harper particularly liked the statue of Diana, which was a reproduction of another famous Louvre sculpture. One Christmas, Endicott had placed a wreath of mistletoe around Diana’s head. The mistletoe remained all year. The next Christmas, he’d added a Santa cap to the stag that leapt beside her.

Even now, in June, the Christmas decorations looked appropriately festive.

His whimsy was apparent everywhere—in the lovely jacket he had placed over the reproduction of the Venus de Milo (the jacket had Anne Boleyn sleeves and did not button in the front, leaving Venus’s greatest assets visible to the room), as well as in the placement of the screaming Harpies in front of a worried-looking statue of Zeus.

Most of the small jokes were beyond the newer curators and staff members, but Harper spent a lot of time noticing the details, and the details in Endicott’s cluttered office all had meaning, most of it wry.

He was sitting behind his desk, another reproduction, this one of the desk Jack Kennedy used to use in the Oval Office. The statue of a small boy peered out of the opening near the feet, echoing the famous photograph of Kennedy’s son, John, playing there when he was still a toddler.

“I thought I’d see you sooner,” Endicott said. “Still worried about losing your job?”

“My job or any job,” she said. “This is a drastic mistake. I’m not sure how I could have made it.”

Endicott’s smile was sad. “You didn’t, my dear. Someone else did, either before the statue got crated or along the way. That’s for insurance people and detectives to find out. You’ll be vindicated. Somewhere there is a real statue.”

“Like there was for Nike of Samothrace?” she asked.

“Ah, you looked it up,” he said.

“Yes,” she said. “There’s even a documentary about the effort it took to take Nike from the Louvre shortly after the Germans invaded Poland. France didn’t want its treasures stolen or destroyed.”

“So,” Endicott said, touching his fingertips together, “you think I lied about seeing Winged Victory in the gardens at Carinhall?”

“I’m assuming it was a reproduction,” she said. “But I couldn’t find confirmation in my very short search.”

“It was,” he said. “And not as good as the one you have in the storage area. The entire statue was made of plaster, not coated with some other substance like the one below. I have no idea what Goering was thinking when he placed it in the garden. He had to know it would melt.”

She frowned at Endicott. “I didn’t realize he reproduced a lot of art. I thought he confiscated it. The website I found says he took everything from Jewish homes and museums and placed it in his various homes.”

“He did.” Endicott wasn’t smiling any longer. “And he wasn’t alone. It seemed half the German army was stealing art. And then the Allies stole art as well. It’s a crime that we’ll never recover from.”

“So the reproductions?” she asked.

“Placeholders,” Endicott said. “He commissioned them to fit into his designs until he found where the originals were hiding.”

“Fortunately, he never found Nike,” Harper said.

Endicott tapped his fingertips together. Then he slid his wheeled chair back and grabbed a large, thick book. It was covered in dust. He used a cloth to remove the dust, then he opened the book.

It was filled with yellowed clippings, photographs, and notations. He paged through it until he found some grainy pictures.

“I think he did find her,” Endicott said. “I think he replaced her with the reproduction, leaving the reproduction in Valençay.”

“Tallyrand’s estate?” she asked. “I thought Venus was there too.”

She was an instant expert from her Internet reading.

“And the French crown jewels, which I believe he left, expecting to come back for them.”

“You have proof of this?” she asked.

He tapped the pictures. Harper leaned forward. She was wrong; they weren’t grainy pictures. They were black-and-white pictures of the Carinhall garden in full flower, with sculptures everywhere. The reason the pictures seemed grainy was because whoever had taken them had done so in a downpour.

Nike of Samothrace stood in the center of the garden, water dripping off her majestic shoulders. Around her, water pooled, but the prow of the ship which was the sculpture’s base looked like it was intact. She saw no melting, no blurring of the sculpture’s clean lines, which she should have seen with plaster in that kind of downpour.

“But the Nike in the Louvre is real,” she said. “I’ve seen it.”

“As has all of the art world for the past sixty years,” he said.

“How did the sculptures get switched?”

“Ah, that’s the question,” he said. “It took special movers to get that statue to Valençey in the Loire Valley. Yet the Germans, with all of their very careful documentation, have no record of the work it would have taken to remove Nike from her storage spot at Valençay and take her to Carinhall—close to Berlin, no less.”

“And then take her back,” Harper said.

“Before the Russians arrived,” Endicott said, “since she was majestically melting when I found her.”

He grabbed another notebook. This one wasn’t as dusty. He opened it to the middle, revealing photographs of the same garden, littered with rubble from the destroyed house. At the center of six shots stood the plaster Nike of Samothrace. The prow of the ship looked like a sunken bathtub, the grass covered with a whitish paste. The sculpture itself looked like a nude. The lines of the garment, which were designed to look like a Greek gown blowing backwards in the wind, were gone, leaving only the sculpture’s legs and torso. The magnificent wings dripped giant drops of plaster onto the plants behind them.

“My God,” Harper said. “Who took the original photographs?”

Endicott shrugged. “We found these photographs in the house. I assume one of Goering’s staff took the pictures, or perhaps his second wife, Emmy. It is one of those mysteries. We don’t even know when they were taken, although we know it was before 1945, when the family fled the property.”

Harper took a closer look at the original photographs. Then she grabbed one of the magnifying glasses that Endicott kept on his desk.

Behind a shrub, she saw the edge of a winged hat. Peeking through the leaves, she thought she saw winged shoes.

“Look at that,” she said, pushing the photographs back to Endicott. He took a different magnifying glass.

“I don’t think that’s your Mercury,” he said. “The body’s position is different.”

She stood, so that she could see it better. She wasn’t sure. The body position might be accurate for her Mercury. It was hard to tell, now that the sculpture she had in the storage area was a reproduction. She had to trust her memory for forms.

She’d seen the original (and it had to be the original; she couldn’t have been fooled by a fake) nearly a decade before. Her memory, while good, wasn’t that good.

She scanned the other photographs. Their angle kept the statue hidden. They almost made Mercury seem like he was hiding in the garden.

“I think it’s just brilliant placement,” she said. “Whoever designed this garden probably knew all of Mercury’s identities.”

“Perhaps,” Endicott said, but he didn’t sound convinced.

Harper set the magnifying glass down. “How much do you think a forgery with this kind of provenance would bring?”

“One of Goering’s forgeries?” Endicott shrugged. “Hard to tell now. Maybe not so much in the art market, but in the historical markets, among collectors, quite a bit.”

“Between that and the insurance, then, we might be able to make some of our investment back.”

“Might,” Endicott said, but he sounded dismissive, as if he didn’t care about the insurance.

She did. She cared about the financial bath the museum would take because of her mistake.

“I’m not sure,” Endicott said, “you’re seeing what I see when I look at the original photographs.”

“I’m sure I’m not,” she said. “You were there. You know how they fit in context.”

He shook his head. Obviously, he hadn’t meant that either.

 “What do you see when you look at the photographs?” she asked.

“Miracles,” he said. “A garden full of miracles.”

Usually Harper appreciated Endicott’s whimsy, but on this day, it irritated her. She felt like she had lost precious time talking with him. He could have told her about the Mercury sculpture in the garden, the fakes that Goering collected, and the possibility that one of them had found its way into her museum.

Instead, Endicott had played games, making her stare at old photographs until her eyes hurt, and talking of miracles.

Those photographs had no date on them. For all she knew, the Nike of Samothrace could have been the plaster reproduction, coated with something that held off the rain for a year or two.

She tried not to let her irritation blossom into anger because she knew she wasn’t really angry with Endicott—he had provided her with a bit of salvation, after all—but with the so-called experts she’d hired to guide her Mercury statue on its journey from Rome to her storage room.

Someone had failed, and even if she didn’t lose her job over it, she would lose time and honor and her spotless reputation.

Endicott wouldn’t explain his “miracle” comment. He seemed almost hurt when she asked him to. Instead, he’d shrugged and mumbled something about the ramblings of an old man.

That was when she knew she had lost him. He had meant to explain something to her and she had somehow offended him.

At the moment, she didn’t care. He would get over his fit of pique. But she might not get over this blow to her reputation. She had to act now, with her own photographs and documentation. She needed to write up her own history of the purchase and call a lawyer, so that she was not only prepared when the time came to defend herself, but well represented.

She hurried out of Endicott’s office, and down the stairs. She hated taking the elevators after hours. The sound of the mechanisms in the empty museum always made her think of monster movies—something about to attack in the darkness.

Not that the museum was ever completely dark. Some of the collections had covers, protecting them from the lights, but each room had dim lighting. The museum had a single security guard, but mostly he monitored the security cameras. He only did a room-to-room visit once an hour, and even then, what he did was a walk-through, not a thorough examination.

The main lights were off in the storage room. The staff had clearly finished up while she was talking to Endicott. Prints of digital photographs sat on one of the metal tables. The photos were good, but, as she feared, not good enough.

She looked around for the digital camera, thinking maybe someone had left it on the table. But she didn’t see it. She would have to go back to her office to get her own camera, which made sense, because from now on, everything she did would be on her own.

As she turned, she saw a man sitting on the stool, his features hidden in shadow.

“For god’s sake, Malcolm,” she said to Endicott, “you’re going to break every single bone in your body sitting on that thing.”

He laughed. Only the laugh didn’t sound like Endicott’s. It was rich and warm and deep, almost as if it had its own built-in reverberation chamber.

“I’ve never broken a bone in my life,” he said.

He was quite clearly not Endicott or anyone else she knew. She should have hit the lights when she came in, but she hadn’t, and now they were by the door, which seemed very far away from her.

Because of a blackout years ago in which a security guard walked through a Vermeer canvas on loan from another museum, the directors insisted on flashlights at every corner. Since the storage room didn’t have corners, it had flashlights on every table.

She moved slowly, so that she didn’t seem like a woman panicked.

The flashlight leaned against a receipt book. She grabbed the light, flicked it on, and shone it at the man’s face.

He didn’t raise his hands to block the light. He didn’t even squint. Instead, he looked vaguely amused. He had a stunningly handsome face—high cheekbones accenting a Roman nose. His eyes were so dark they looked black in the light. His hair curled around his forehead and down the side of his face like a small cap.

“Do I pass inspection?” he asked.

She didn’t answer. His face looked oddly familiar, but the familiarity became something else as he moved. It was almost as if she’d seen one of the statues come alive.

And then she realized who he looked like.

She looked over her shoulder at the open crate. The assistants had moved it closer to the lights, which meant she could still see the features in the thin emergency lighting as well.

“Oh, by Zeus’s throne,” the man said. “Go turn on the overhead lights. I’ll go stand by the stupid sculpture so that you can see definitively that I am the subject of the sculptor’s vision. Then we can move on to other, more important things.”

She almost didn’t walk to the light switch, just because she didn’t want to take orders from this strange man. But she did. And she also hit the silent alarm, so that the security guard would know there had been some kind of breach.

When she turned, she saw the man standing next to the sculpture. He was thin, but heavily muscled—like a professional distance runner would be—and he looked exactly like the fake Mercury, except that he wasn’t wearing a winged helmet, at a rakish angle or any other way.

“You made the forgery,” she said.

“My dear,” he said, “if I had made the forgery, it would have been a lot better than this one. I stole the forgery and had it sent to you.”

“Excuse me?” she said. Did he just admit he was behind this whole mess? If so, why?

“You have no right to the statue,” he said.

“I paid for it,” she snapped.

“Ah, yes. American greed and arrogance. You’re like so many other arrogant cultures. They all die, you know.”

He was as irritating as he was pretty.

“The sculpture belongs to the museum,” she said. “What did you do with it?”

“The original sculpture,” he said, “belongs in a temple, where it can be properly worshiped.”

“Worshipped?” She wanted to look at the door, to see if the security guard was anywhere close, but she didn’t want to clue the crazy man that someone was coming.

“Worshipped,” the man said. “All of these statues that you’ve pilfered are religious icons, you know.”

“No one knows what this is,” she said. “It was found in Greece nearly a century ago. There was no temple nearby, no clue as to why Mercury stood alone.”

“Hermes,” the man said.

“Excuse me?” she asked.

“The proper name is Hermes, although you’ve pilfered that name as well. And for a scarf. You have no idea how offended one God can feel.”

The flashlight slipped in her hand. Her palms were sweating. This man was scaring her.

“Yes, yes,” she said. “I know the Greek name for Mercury is Hermes. But—”

“But nothing,” he said. “This is a Greek sculpture from a temple originally built to honor Hermes. It does not belong to you. Nor does it belong to Rome. It belongs on its island, away from avid eyes that do no understand that Gods were meant to be worshipped, not gawked at.”

Hadn’t the guard gotten her message? She was convinced she had sent it. So far this strange man didn’t seem like a physical threat to her, although he might hurt the forgery. And that might be just as bad as losing the original in the first place.

She had to stall. Maybe the security guard, who wasn’t the most courageous man, was waiting for backup.

“No one worships the Greek Gods anymore,” she said. “There are no active temples.”

“And that,” the crazy man said, “is a crime. But it is one we live with. Still, this image was stolen from its homeland. It must return there, to its proper place.”

She swallowed. “Why?”

“Why?” he said. “To rebuild. We’ve let pale imitations of ourselves be studied for too long. We need to restore the temples, and take our places as proper gods.”

“Our places?” she asked, feeling even more confused than she had when the conversation started. “Yours and mine?”

He gave her a condescending smile. “I’m sorry, my dear. You are a minion, not a god.”

She straightened. Of all the things people had called her throughout her life, minion was the absolute worst.

“Just because you look like a damn statue doesn’t make you a god either,” she snapped.

To her surprise, he smiled. “What came first, eh? The statue or the god?”

“The concept,” she said, as if he were asking a really intelligent question instead of a facetious one. “And everyone knows that sculptors from Bernini to Michangelo used real life models to represent made-up characters.”

“Hermes is made up?” he asked.

“All gods are,” she said.

His eyebrows rose. “A cynic.”

“A realist.”

“This sculpture,” he said, “was not made by one of your late-model Italians. It dates from the era you call Before Christ.”

“That statue,” she said, “probably dates from last week.”

“I am talking about the real sculpture,” he said. “This one comes from sixty years ago. Your friend Endicott should have recognized it. His friend Goering had it made.”

“Malcolm Endicott would not call Hermann Goering a friend,” she snapped.

The crazy man held up his hands as if he were trying to calm her. “No, no, you’re right,” he said. “I simply meant—”

“That this is one of Goering’s fakes,” she said. “I already figured that out. Give me the original.”

“I am the original,” the man said.

“You are Hermes, Messenger of the Gods?” She couldn’t keep the sarcasm from her voice.

He nodded slowly. “I have come to tell you and others like you that you may not keep our statues. It is long past time. We have put up with this long enough. We would like our temples rebuilt, our statues returned to their homelands and replaced.”

He spoke as if he had been making a pronouncement.

She glanced at the door.

“Why?” she asked, mostly to keep the crazy man talking.

“Why?” he said. “Because it is the right thing to do.”

“All of you believe that?” she asked.

He nodded.

“That’s the message?”

He nodded again.

She decided to humor his delusion. She wished the damn security guard would get here.

“You,” she said, “the God of Commerce, are telling us to hurt our museum business and send one of our major draws away at no charge. That doesn’t sound good to me. Does it sound good to you?”

His lovely eyes narrowed. “What do you mean?”

“This museum is a business. If you are Mercury or Hermes, as you seem to prefer, then you protect merchants and all commerce. They call you the God of Commerce. Are you going to deny the title?”

“I am also the Divine Herald,” he said. “I lead people on their final journey, death. Are you asking me to respond in that capacity as well?”

She couldn’t hide her shiver. But she straightened nonetheless. She wasn’t going to let him know how much he intimidated her.

“Don’t threaten me,” she said.

“I’m not,” he said. “I’m just amazed you’re pulling out my résumé to make me feel guilty. I am the messenger of the gods, and the message I bring is to let these statues return to their rightful place.”

“Which would ruin my business.”

“In the United States, a museum is not a business. It has protected status. That status is called a non-profit, which makes it a charity.” His eyes twinkled. “I am not the god of charities.”

Whoever he was, he had a point. A museum was not a business. It got grants to supplement its income. It survived even if it didn’t make a dime.

“You’ve done this before,” she said. “You took Nike of Samothrace and returned her to the Louvre.”

She expected him to deny it, or to be surprised by the question, not understanding it at all.

Instead, he smiled again. “You are smarter than you look. But I did not return her to the Louvre. I sent her to a protected place in the Loire Valley, while I searched for the remains of her temple. I have not yet found it.”

“You sent her to Valençay. And now she is in the Louvre, where she started out.”

“She will be returned to her homeland,” he said, “when a place is prepared.”

“Do you have a place prepared for my statue?” Harper waved her hand at the dissolving reproduction.

“No,” the crazy man said softly. “I am just tired of my image being set up on a pedestal to be gawked at by ignorant tourists.”

“You would rather have your image in hiding?” she asked.

“I would rather be worshipped,” he said.

Of course he would. What man wouldn’t?

“Would you rather be worshipped as the God of Commerce and the messenger for the others? Doesn’t that make you an errand boy instead of a god?”

“I am not that,” he snapped.

“That’s how you’re acting,” she said.

“I am not,” he said, straightening.

“Then tell me,” she said, trying to keep the smile off her face, “why the God of Thieves is angry that someone has stolen a statue made from his image.”

The crazy man’s chin rose. His eyes narrowed, and for the first time, he looked formidable.

He might come at her. The only way she could prevent it was to keep talking—and maybe find that metal pry bar.

“You’re right,” she said, her throat suddenly dry. “Museums are not a business. And many museums, many famous museums, have stolen artifacts inside our walls. Some have paid hefty fines to keep precious artifacts. Others have had to return those artifacts to their home country.”

“So?” the crazy man asked. She had his attention now.

“So,” she said. “If you are who you say you are, you claim you want your image in a place of worship. What better place to worship the God of Thieves than in the antiquities section of a well known museum?”

It was her last gambit. She had probably offended him so deeply that he would lunge at her, hurt her, maybe even do damage down here.

She clutched the flashlight like a club, ready to use it if she had to.

But he didn’t look like a man about to lunge. Instead, he was frowning slightly, as if he were thinking.

“Thievery and commerce both,” he said slowly. “For museums make people pay to see the things you’ve stolen.”

“Yes,” she said, her heart pounding.

“And often, these things you’ve stolen have been stolen from the dead, whom I have led to their final resting places.”

She nodded, afraid to interrupt his reverie.

“And yet, people come here. They look in awe at the treasures you’ve assembled. The treasures you’ve stolen.”

“Well, someone has stolen them,” she said. She wasn’t going to admit to theft. So far as she knew, she hadn’t committed any.

So far as she knew.

He nodded. Then he bowed slightly.

“I have misrepresented you,” he said. “You are not a minion. You are a high priestess. The high priestess of the museum.”

Her cheeks flushed. “Thank you,” she said. “I think.”

He touched the crate. “I cannot speak for the others. I am their messenger, not the one who makes decisions for all of Olympus. But I can speak for myself. I am sorry to have misjudged you and your kind. And I am sorry that I disturbed you.”

“You didn’t….” she said, and then she let her voice trail off.

Because he had disappeared.

Literally vanished, right in front of her.

One moment, he had been standing there. The next, he was gone.

She walked toward the crate, and waved a hand where he had been. Nothing. No one stood there.

Then her gaze went to the statue. It looked different.

The winged helmet was on straight—and the winged boots were back on the feet. She touched the legs. Marble. They hadn’t melted at all.

Had she dreamed all of this?

She went back to the table.

No. The pictures were still there, with the missing shoes, the melting plaster, everything.

The doors burst open. The guard and Endicott hurried into the storage room.

“Something wrong?” the guard asked.

“Yeah,” Harper said. “I pressed the alarm at least a half an hour ago. What took you so long?”

“Three minutes, ma’am,” the guard said. “It’s only been three minutes. I have it all in my log.”

“I heard it too,” Endicott said, “and I came running.”

Three minutes? How was that possible? That was the longest three minutes of her life.

“What’s wrong?” the guard asked.

“Someone was here,” she said. “Do you have video in this room?”

“Only of the doors, ma’am,” he said.

“Check it,” she said. “But first, make sure we’re alone.”

“Yes, ma’am.” He put a hand on his gun, and walked around the edges of the storeroom.

Endicott peered at her. “What’s going on?”

She waved her hand toward the crate, without looking at it. “Tell me what you see.”

He put his hands behind his back and walked to the crate. Then he peered at it for the longest time.

She didn’t look at him. She watched the guard shine his own flashlight in the corners, making sure nothing lurked there.

He wouldn’t find anything. She knew that now.

“My God,” Endicott whispered.

“The statue is real now, isn’t it?” she asked.

He did exactly as she had. He went for the photographs.

“It’s been replaced,” he said.

She nodded.

“How?” he asked.

She took the photographs from him. “That,” she said, “is a very long story.”

“I have time,” Endicott said.

He did. So did she. And she had to tell someone.

She looped her arm in his, still clutching the photographs, and walked him toward the door. They would have dinner. Then they would come back and reassess.

“The story,” he urged.

She smiled. “You know the photograph of Mercury in the garden at Carinhall?”

“Yes,” he said.

“You were right. That wasn’t my statue back hiding behind the plants.”

“What was it?” Endicott asked.

“A miracle,” Harper said. “An annoying little miracle.”

 

Copyright © 2017 by Kristine Kathryn Rusch
First published in The Trouble With Heroes, edited by Denise Little, Daw Books, 2009
Published by WMG Publishing
Cover and layout copyright © 2017 by Allyson Longueira/WMG Publishing
Cover art copyright © Andrey Lavrenov/Source

This book is licensed for your personal enjoyment only. All rights reserved. This is a work of fiction. All characters and events portrayed in this book are fictional, and any resemblance to real people or incidents is purely coincidental. This book, or parts thereof, may not be reproduced in any form without permission.

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