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Authors: Ayelet Waldman

Tags: #Fiction, #Literary, #Contemporary Women, #Sagas

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BOOK: Love and Treasure
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“Well, it meant something to the man you saved.”

“I don’t want to talk about this anymore.”

“Okay.” Her voice trembled, and he was conscious only then that he had shouted.

“I’m sorry,” he said. “This is just because of Tamid. I’m angry that Tamid told you the story, and I’m angry that he’s here in Oradea. He’s making things very difficult for me. He made me upset, but now I’m calm again. Let’s stop talking about this.” His voice began racing, and though he tried, he could not slow down. “We need to consider our next step with Varga. I’ll approach him again tomorrow. Perhaps Tamid’s presence will end up being to our benefit. Tamid will threaten Varga with a lawsuit, and then, when I renew my offer, I’ll seem like a savior.”

But she was not so easily distracted. “Help me understand why this makes you so upset. I want to understand.”

How could he explain what it felt like to be so disconnected, so lost? He grabbed her in his arms and pressed his face into the hollow of her neck, and she held him, softly stroking his back. He thought for a moment that he might cry, but instead he tugged her underwear down her legs and pushed inside her. She did not resist or even seem surprised, and he wondered how badly it would screw up his life if he were to love this girl.


25

ALL AMITAI

S EXPERIENCE TOLD
him that if Varga had the painting and wanted to sell it, the man would have phoned by now. But it was already five o’clock. He and Natalie had spent the day lying on the bed in their tomato-red hotel room in Oradea, the tomato-red bedspread crumpled beneath them, staring at Amitai’s cell phone. It might have been a stone. It was the most inert object in the universe.

“He isn’t going to call, is he?” she said at last.

For as long as Amitai had been in the business of Holocaust reclamation, his priority had been the minimization of risk. He would pursue objects of acknowledged value or of potential value soberly assessed, engage in negotiations in a way that might veer at times toward the uncomfortable but never became rancorous, and disengage at the first hint of disputation or squabbling. Moreover, he was willing, always, to walk away. The broker who had no personal stake in the outcome of the negotiation was the likeliest to be satisfied.

By every rule of his trade as he had always conducted it, therefore, assessing the situation with an eye jaundiced from experience, the wisest course was to pack up and return to Budapest. From every angle, as he considered the job, he saw only the possibility of failure if not disaster. Varga was an unpleasant man, and though Amitai had dealt with his type before, there was always the risk that he would carry out his threats to call the police. Worse, it was possible that the painting would turn out to be something much less than it appeared to be in the photograph or that, regardless of its merit, it would fail to catch the fancy of those collectors willing to pay hundreds of thousands or even millions of dollars for a Max Ernst, even if Komlós had been an unacknowledged influence on him.

But the greatest risk of all was that Amitai was so involved, so enmeshed, so personally committed to this search, that he hated the idea of walking away.

He wanted desperately to succeed. He feared that after all that had happened between them last night, if they left now and went back to
Budapest, Natalie would lose faith in him, and what was between them would be over. He desperately wanted to feed her illusory hope as he fed his own. But he could not.

“No,” he said. “He isn’t going to call.”

“So what should we do?”

“Fold our tent,” he said. “Go back to Budapest.”

“Amitai, no! Not without knowing. We have to at least try to find out if Varga has the painting. We can’t just—”

“Fail? Sure we can. This is the nature of my business. When I fail, nothing is gained or lost. It just stays as it was before. Anyway, it won’t be a total failure. We’ll go back to Budapest and find an Einhorn heir for you to return the necklace to. You can do what your grandfather asked. We can accomplish that at least.”

“No,” Natalie said. “We owe it to Nina Einhorn and to Vidor Komlós to at least try to get the painting back. Otherwise, they died for nothing.”

“They did die for nothing.”

“Yes. Of course you’re right. But we can salvage something. For Komlós, at least. We can restore his reputation, the one Varga’s grandfather stole from him.”

Even though he wanted her to think he was a kind of magician who could find what was lost, restore what had been stolen, right what had been wronged—even though he wanted her to love him—he could not let this pass.

“Komlós’s reputation is worth nothing to Komlós, Natalie. His name, his legacy, they don’t even mean anything to Jill Gillette, his supposed relative. She had never heard of the man before I found her and told her there might be a little money to be made. That’s what this is about, not finding lost paintings or salvaging stolen reputations. Money.”

“I don’t believe that. And I don’t believe you believe it, either. You’re not fooling me, Amitai. You say it’s all about business, but I can see how much you care. You want to find it as much as I do. You want to right this wrong.”

“You know this.”

“Yes. And I know something else. You’ve fallen in love with me.”

It caught him off guard, but he didn’t show it. He was too skilled a negotiator for that.

“Just for the sake of argument,” he said. “Say that all of this is true.”

“All of it?”

“Just for the sake of argument. First of all, if Varga doesn’t call, it’s
over. And he hasn’t called. Second. Well, second, Tamid has probably already gotten to the man, and between his lack of finesse, his ignorance of the art market, and his ham-handed threats of litigation and the wrath of the Israeli government, I am sure that not only did he not acquire the painting for Yad Vashem, he just scared the shit out of Varga, who will now never admit to owning the painting. And third, and this is the likeliest: there is no painting. And that is why Varga hasn’t called.”

“Yeah,” said Natalie. “But don’t you want to know?”

The black Mercedes pulled up in front of the house on Strada Costache Negruzzi and idled. A moment later, the driver, wearing a black chauffeur’s cap, got out and went around to open the door for his passenger. With a flourish, he helped her out of the car. She was a stunning redhead in a flowing black coat, a knit dress with a plunging neckline, and a pair of stiletto-heeled boots.

“This is so wrong,” she said.

“It’s fine,” said the driver.

“I should be wearing a pair of sneakers and, like, an orange down vest.”

“He doesn’t know that.”

“Are you sure?”

“We aren’t selling the reality, we’re selling the dream. The Romanian dream. For that, you look perfect.”

She nodded, looking uncertain. It was her plan in outline and his in detail, and he gave it a 30, 35 percent chance of succeeding. He kept this estimate to himself, but she was no fool, and she was learning to read him, and though she had been gung ho all morning, now all at once she seemed to be experiencing doubt.

“Walk back and forth,” he told her. “Don’t look at me, look at the house.”

She obeyed, clicking back and forth along the sidewalk in front of the house that Varga’s grandfather had stolen from some Jews named Einhorn.

“Say what a nice house,” he suggested.

“What a nice house.”

“It might just do.”

“It has that certain something we’re looking for.”

“Good. Now, remember,” he said, speaking in an undertone, hardly
moving his lips. “It’s probably not just hanging there on the wall. It might be in a cupboard or in a cabinet. Maybe even in the attic. These houses don’t always have basements, but if there is one, make sure he takes you down there, too. You have the flashlight?”

“I do.”

“Your phone?”

“Yes.”

“You checked to make sure the camera works?”

“Yes.”

“Good. Now remember. It might get unpleasant. Varga is not a very nice man.”

“He’s an anti-Semitic pig,” she said, bright and smiling, miming her rapture with the house. “But why should Natalie Kennedy care what he thinks about Jews?”

In her (fake) Chanel purse she carried a stack of business cards, express printed at a copy shop down the road from their hotel, that identified her by this name, the most glamorous American name they could think of.

Amitai got back in the car. He straightened his black tie and settled more snugly on his head the peaked cap he had bought, for fifty dollars, right off the head of a limo driver parked in front of the hotel. Then he watched as she tottered to the door in her high heels.

He rolled down the window. Varga was not likely to trouble an anonymous limo driver with a glance, and even if he did, Amitai was confident that the cap was sufficient disguise. People never bothered to pay attention to those who served them. Waiters and drivers were the most invisible people in the world.

“Hullo!” Natalie gushed as the door opened. “Are you the owner of this wonderful house?”

Though Amitai could see that it was Varga who’d opened the door, he could not hear the man’s mumbled reply.

“Wonderful!” Natalie trilled. “My name is Natalie Kennedy. I work for Warner Brothers Pictures. In Hollywood.”

The idea had been inspired by the movie posters in Varga’s living room, and Amitai hoped now that he’d been right, that the man was indeed a fan of American films.

“I’m a location scout,” Natalie said. “My job is to find places to shoot movies. We’re making a movie here in Oradea, and I’ve been looking for ages for a house just like this one! Turn of the last century, intact, not
broken into apartments. Honestly, I never thought I’d find it. Do you mind if I come in?”

Varga did not let her pass.

“Listen,” Natalie said. She glanced around as if looking for eavesdropping neighbors, then said, “I’m not supposed to tell you this, but it’s a very high-budget film.”

Varga said something, and she laughed, a delightful trill. “Why would you say that? Oradea is just the place! All that European mystique. Seriously, won’t you let me come in? I won’t take more than a few minutes of your time. And I promise it will be worth it.” She rubbed her thumb and index finger together. “Warner Brothers pays top dollar for locations.”

Varga spoke again, but Natalie held up her hand. “You know what? That’s fine. I just noticed that house across the street.” She pointed to a villa opposite. “It’s a similar house. Not as nice, but it might do in a pinch. Sorry to have troubled you.”

She offered Varga a glance at her perfect behind as she headed down the path to make her lucrative offer to his neighbors.

This time Amitai heard him as he called, “Please! Come back. Is wonderful house! Perfect house for movie!”

As Natalie swept by him through the door, Varga spoke again, but Amitai heard only her reply. “Yes, my great-uncle. But of course I never knew him. He was assassinated years before I was born.”

Thirty-eight minutes and nineteen seconds after she gained entry to the house that had been stolen from the Einhorns, the door opened again, and Natalie raced out, the flaps of her black coat fluttering oddly behind her. She looked like a crow with a broken wing. She ticktocked awkwardly down the steps on her high heels, threw open the back door of the car, and tumbled inside.

“Drive!” she shouted.

Varga burst through the front door, moving much more quickly than Amitai would have thought possible for a man of his age and girth.

“Go!”

Amitai slammed the car into gear and took off down the narrow street with a melodramatic squeal of tires. Natalie shrugged out of her coat and climbed into the front passenger seat, buckling herself in with a determined air, as though she were expecting bumps and blind curves.

“Dude,” she said, “I’m going to need you to go way, way faster than this.”


26

IT WAS A FIFTEEN-MINUTE
drive along a well-maintained road to the border. Amitai stuck to the speed limit, glancing again and again in his rearview mirror. It wasn’t until they had flashed their passports at the lackadaisical border guards and crossed back into Hungary that he relaxed enough to ask Natalie what had happened.

“At first it went great,” she said. “You were right. He’s a huge movie buff. His place is covered in
Scarface
posters and, like,
American Gangster
. He was only too happy to let me inside.”

“He didn’t seem suspicious? Did Tamid get to him?”

“He wasn’t suspicious. Not at first. He didn’t mention Tamid. But I don’t know, maybe he was just fucking with me.”

She had told Varga that the movie she was scouting, to be directed by the Coen Brothers, was set in the late 1920s, at the end of the Jazz Age. At this, Varga—as much as, he was obliged to admit, he loved the Coen Brothers—had experienced his first stab of doubt. The Jazz Age, in Romania?

Natalie lowered her voice.

“Okay, Mr. Varga, look, this is just between you and me, all right? Can I trust you?”

Varga looked hurt. Could she trust him? What kind of question was that?

“Obviously, with a production like this … the plot is absolutely under wraps. Total lockdown. But if you promise to keep it to yourself …?”

Varga nodded.

“The lead character … and we have a big star …”

“Is George Clooney?”

She looked astonished. “Oh, my God. Yes! How did you …?”

Varga downplayed his burst of perspicuity.

“I feel like
you’ve
been scouting
me
. Anyway, he’s an American jazz musician, a trombonist, right, who leaves San Francisco and ends up coming to Romania in search of love.”

“Romanian women are very beautiful,” Varga said, nodding.

“Exactly,” she said. “It’s a historical film, so I’m particularly interested in the older parts of your house. We’ll be bringing in furniture, of course, appliances and artwork, things from that period. But I, well, I’d love to see if you have anything, already here in the house, that we might be able to use. We pay very generous rental fees.”

BOOK: Love and Treasure
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