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Authors: Peggy Blair

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BOOK: Hungry Ghosts
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5

Inspector Ramirez stood inside the lobby
of the museum while Detective Espinoza briefed him. His stomach growled; he hadn't eaten all day. “How long was the vandal inside the museum, Fernando?”

“Less than ten minutes. Just long enough to spray paint all over the Italian masterpieces. Señor Testa says the ones that were damaged were the most valuable in the collection.”

“Who is Señor Testa?”

“Lorenzo Testa. He's the curator of the Italian exhibition. He's here from Rome.” Espinoza checked his notes. “He demanded to speak to the senior officer in charge.” Espinoza lowered his voice. “I'd like to get him out of here, frankly. He's in the way.”

“Are the paintings ruined?”

Espinoza shrugged. “They're up there now, analyzing the damage. The museum director, Romero Garza, says the exhibit will have to be closed down. Señor Testa wants the paintings sent back to Italy for restoration work immediately. This is a huge loss of revenue to
the museum, not to mention a loss of face. Another thing, Inspector. Assuming the vandal wasn't a real policeman, someone had to steal a uniform to pull this off. But no one has reported any missing.”

“What else is on the fifth floor?” Ramirez asked.

“The European rooms. Señor Garza says they contain some extremely valuable art as well. The Dutch masterpieces alone are worth millions. But it doesn't look like anything was taken.”

Ramirez shook his head. “It makes no sense. The building was empty. A thief could have stolen anything in the confusion. Why take such a risk just to damage some art?”

Espinoza shrugged. “He was making a point. It looks like a political protest.”

Ramirez nodded slowly. Espinoza had already told him about the large “75” sprayed on the wall above the paintings. That number had significance: It represented what dissidents called the Black Spring of 2003, when seventy-five political dissidents were rounded up and sent to jail.

“A protest without an audience,” said Ramirez. “The people in the museum never saw it, and the media will never report it.”

Granma
reported only Communist Party propaganda, and the television stations were government-run. They carried Brazilian soap operas, old Hollywood movies, and Chinese game shows—nothing that might frighten tourists.

Ramirez looked up at the balconies overlooking the atrium and the wide staircase that wound to the top level. The vandal was athletic, he thought. Five flights of steep marble stairs, and he'd scaled them in minutes.

“He pulled the fire alarm before he ran out the emergency exit,” said Espinoza. “That triggered the second alarm. He probably mingled with the police on the sidewalk before he melted into the crowd. The technicians are upstairs dusting for prints.”

“Is Apiro here?”

Espinoza shook his head. “No. He's been called to the industrial
section. Some children playing on the beach found a man's body about an hour ago. It's going to be busy, Inspector. It's a full moon this weekend.”

“Yes,” said Ramirez wearily. “I know.”

Inspector Ramirez and Detective Espinoza stood in front of the black-and-white monitor at the museum security desk as Carlos Hernandez played a surveillance tape for them. The head of security's neck was bright red. Ramirez guessed he was angry as well as embarrassed at being duped.

The three men watched the blurred image of the vandal running up the massive marble stairs.

“That's from one of the cameras above the reception desk,” said Hernandez. “I'm afraid it's not very clear.”

Ramirez stood as close to the screen as he could, hoping the grainy resolution would improve, but it didn't. “What about witnesses? Do we have a description?”

“About the only thing they agree on is that it was a man,” said Espinoza. “After that, he was tall, he was short, he had a moustache, he was clean-shaven. A dozen witnesses, a dozen different opinions. No one paid attention to details. As soon as they heard the word
bomb
, they panicked. Even the security guards ran.”

“Of course they did,” said Ramirez. “No one quarrels with a bomb.”

Hernandez rewound the tape. “He pulled the fire alarm just before four. The emergency exit alarm went off three minutes later. I was standing in the street by then. I thought it was another fire alarm.”

Espinoza turned to Ramirez. “I wonder why he didn't take the elevator instead of the stairs. It would have been faster.”

“Elevators aren't supposed to be used during an evacuation,” said Hernandez.

Espinoza nodded. “It also means he didn't have to push any buttons. No fingerprints. That's probably why he left by the fifth floor exit. That door has a push bar. He could open it without using his hands.”

“Are there any security cameras on that floor, Carlos?” asked Ramirez.

“Yes,” said Hernandez, “but he sprayed them with paint. The only one he seems to have missed is an outside surveillance camera. We can look at that tape as soon as you're finished with this one.”

“Are you sure there's nothing missing?”

Hernandez shook his head. “It will take days, maybe months, to inventory everything. We have almost fifty thousand pieces of art here. But so far, it doesn't look like it. There are no obviously empty spaces on the walls. And none of the display cases are broken.”

“Well, let's watch this tape again to see if we missed anything.”

Hernandez pushed Play.

“Hmmm,” said Ramirez, leaning forward as something caught his eye. “Can you rewind that a few frames?”

Hernandez pushed another button. The policeman on the tape ran backwards down the steps and raced up them again. “Stop there, will you?” said Ramirez, pointing.

Hernandez pressed Pause. Ramirez pointed to the holster hanging from the policeman's belt. “Look, Fernando. No gun.”

Espinoza leaned in to look as well. “You're right, Inspector. He wasn't armed. Definitely not a policeman.”

“That flashlight on the other side of his belt? I'm guessing that's an aerosol can. People see what they expect to see. I'll bet if you ask those witnesses, they'll all say he had a gun.”

Espinoza frowned. “I wonder where he got it.”

It was virtually impossible to buy spray paint in Cuba. Or almost any paint for that matter. It was the reason that most buildings in Havana were a mishmash of peeling colours.

“Smuggled in, no doubt,” Ramirez said. “Maybe someone going to the hip-hop festival.”

Once the festival started each year, foreign graffiti artists sprayed slogans like
“¡Cuba sí!”
and pictures of Che Guevara throughout the city. The festival was underway in Alamar. The city was full of
ra-peros
enjoying government support: Fidel Castro had decided that rap music was the authentic voice of the revolution. “You say there's another tape as well, Carlos?”

“Yes.” Hernandez took out the first tape. He replaced it and fast-forwarded the new one to the appropriate time frame.


Coño
,” said Ramirez, impressed despite himself. “It explains how he got away so quickly. Can you replay that in slow motion?”

Hernandez nodded. They watched the policeman push through the exit, then swing by one hand from the iron railing at the top of the landing. He pirouetted gracefully through the air, the camera catching only the blur of his back before he dropped out of sight.

“You know,” said Espinoza hesitantly, “that looks like Parkour.”

“You know this man?” said Ramirez, surprised.

“Oh no,” Espinoza said, and laughed awkwardly. “It's not a person, it's an activity. It started in France. A way for young people to show their skill at getting around the urban landscape. They climb walls with only their fingers and jump over cars, like Bruce Lee or Jackie Chan.”

Ramirez tried not to smile at the reference to “young people.” Espinoza was barely twenty-one.

The young detective continued. “It's part of street culture. They're called
traceurs
in France. Because they don't leave a trace.”

“Then it sounds like they're aptly named.” Ramirez's cell phone rang. He walked out of earshot to take the call.

“Good evening, Ricardo,” said Hector Apiro. “You may have heard about the body that washed up on shore? I'm at the scene now. It looks like a drowning, but there are some things about it
that are troubling. For one thing, the man was in his underwear and all the labels were cut out.” Ramirez looked at the dead man, who had followed them around the museum, admiring the art on the walls. The ghost nodded and pointed to his briefs.

“For another,” Apiro continued, “there is severe bruising to the face and abdomen. It could be from the rocks, but I want to do an autopsy tomorrow morning to be sure. Will you be able to attend, say at nine?”

“I may be a little late.” Ramirez summarized the events at the museum. “I have to brief the minister. I tried to reach him, but he's at a government function tonight. I'm having trouble understanding the motivation for this crime, Hector. Why not steal something while he was in here all alone? Why ruin paintings?”

“It does seem strange,” said Apiro. “But wasn't it Picasso who said the art world is full of criminals?”

6

A man wearing an elegant tailored
suit pounced on the two detectives as soon as the elevator doors creaked open.

“Is this him?” he asked in heavily accented English, gesturing towards Ramirez, his face scored with indignation. “Are you the officer in charge? I demand to see your identification. Why would I trust any of you after what happened here this afternoon?”

Ramirez reached in his pocket and produced his badge. “My name is Inspector Ramirez. I am in charge of the Havana Major Crimes Unit of the Cuban National Revolutionary Police. And you are?”

“This is Señor Testa, Inspector,” said Espinoza. “The man I mentioned. The woman over there is his assistant, Dominique Gatti. Señor Testa wanted her to be present while the technicians check for prints. He wants to make sure no further damage is done to the paintings.”

“That idiot,” Testa said, pointing to one of the white-overalled technicians. “He was going to put black dust on them.
Che coglione
.”

Ramirez assumed it wasn't a compliment. “Fingerprint dust can be removed with a damp cloth, Señor.”


Me ne frego
, are you crazy? Nothing can touch the surface of those paintings. They're centuries old. Extremely fragile. You're not the Havana police chief, then? Why is he not here?”

“Our unit investigates all crimes that could be considered a threat to Cuban security,” said Ramirez.

Technically, Ramirez's unit was supposed to report to the police chief, General de Soto, but since Ramirez's return from Canada a few months earlier, the chain of command had been rerouted. Ramirez now reported directly to the Minister of the Interior.

The minister considered Ramirez to be not fully corrupted and therefore untrustworthy. Falsifying reports, accepting bribes, these were the pathways into the politician's inner circle. Ramirez still hoped to secure the politician's full confidence.

“I can assure you that this incident threatens
your
security,” said Testa angrily. “If even one of these masterpieces can't be fully restored, the Italian government will demand an explanation. As well as full compensation.”

“We trusted this gallery to safeguard our national treasures,” said Testa's assistant as she joined the three men. She had a surprisingly deep voice, Ramirez noted, and muscular legs. “It will take months of painstaking work to restore them. Even then, they may never be the same. That animal sprayed enamel paint on them.”

Testa put his face directly in front of Ramirez's. He waved his arms in the air and pulled back his lips. “It was hard enough to arrange to loan a collection here, given the political situation. Years of work down the drain. Whose fault, I want to know. Yours? Why weren't police guarding the exhibition? Those security guards were useless. They ran away like little girls.”

“This gentleman offered to give money to the firemen to put out the fire. A hundred CUCs to each of them,” Espinoza said quietly. “Shall I charge him, Inspector?”

“Charge me? What for?” Testa sputtered.

“Bribery is a crime in Cuba, Señor Testa,” Ramirez responded calmly. “Regardless of the circumstances, we can't have firemen deciding which fires to put out based on who offers them money. I can appreciate how angry you are, but I'm sure you understand that a bomb threat has to be taken seriously. The good news, I suppose, is that there was no bomb. It could have been much worse.”

“I doubt that our insurers, or my government, will be reassured by that fact,” said Dominique Gatti. She tossed her hair. Ramirez caught a glimpse of thick gold around her neck. The dead man, who stood beside him, peered at the necklace.

“The paintings are insured?”

“Of course,” said Testa. “But insurance won't begin to cover our losses if these paintings can't be restored. The premiums to fully insure such works are astronomical. And they'll be even higher after I file a copy of the police report with our insurers. You will provide us with one, of course?”

“Of course.” Ramirez inclined his head, although he doubted that the Ministry of the Interior would agree to release a copy of an internal police report to a foreigner already threatening legal action. The last time they did, a tourist advisory was issued by Denmark. But even if they agreed to do so, the report would be edited to the point of being nonsensical. As a matter of official policy, red spray paint would probably no longer exist. “What are the paintings worth?”

“Who knows?” said Testa. “They're not on the market. But the Caravaggio alone, millions. Dominique can give you the details. I can't bear to look at what this monster has done.”

The Italian curator stomped down the stairs.

“Nice shoes,” said Espinoza.

The dead man frowned.

Five portraits of varying sizes had been sprayed with drifts of bright red paint, creating what looked like a fish with spiny fins. Although it could be a spider, Ramirez thought, turning his head sideways. Perhaps the vandal was an impressionist. The dead man shook his head sadly.

Above the paintings, as Espinoza had said, the intruder had sprayed the number 75.

In the Black Spring of 2003, on the same day that the United States invaded Iraq, Fidel Castro ordered the arrest of the seventy-­five dissidents. They were accused of receiving money from the head of the U.S. Special Interests Section in Cuba as paid agents. Most were still in jail. Their wives had formed a group called the Ladies in White, and every Sunday they marched in protest. The Americans had displayed a huge billboard with the number 75 in the parking lot of the Swiss embassy, where their Special Interests Section was located. Castro responded with billboards depicting George Bush as a vampire and a Nazi. It could well be political, thought Ramirez.

“This whole thing reminds me of
Guernica
,” said Gatti.

“Guernica?” said Ramirez.

“It's a painting by Picasso. The most famous anti-war painting in the world. It depicts the bombing of a village in the Basque region of Spain by German warplanes during the Spanish Civil War. It was in the Museum of Modern Art in New York in the 1970s when someone sprayed it with red paint. He was protesting President Nixon's decision to pardon a soldier involved in a Vietnam War massacre.”

“Why would someone opposed to war damage an anti-war painting?” asked Ramirez.

“Who knows? It was a controversial work, as Picasso intended. During World War II, a Gestapo officer saw it and asked Picasso if
he was responsible. Picasso answered, ‘No, you are.' I used to think it was ironic that, after the painting was damaged, it was guarded by armed soldiers. Now I understand why they were necessary.” Gatti looked at Ramirez, her brown eyes level with his. “We could have used a few of those today.”

“Did the protestor paint an image like this on Picasso's mural too?” said Espinoza.

“No. But there's something like it in the mural itself. Picasso called it a
bombilla
.”

“A light bulb?” said Espinoza, puzzled.

“One can interpret it in different ways. A light bulb, a bomb, an eye. It may have been Picasso's way of saying the world was watching Germany.”

“Interesting.” Ramirez looked more closely at the spray-painted image, but he had a hard time imagining it as any of those things. “Tell me more about these paintings, Señora. Why target them? They appear to be nothing more than portraits.”

“They are extremely important works. The Tintoretto, Botticelli, and Titian in particular. Then the Caravaggio. The Sirani is not as well-regarded as the others, but that's because she was a woman. Women's art has never been valued as highly as that of men, but Sirani was the first commercial female artist in Italy. Her work is historically and culturally important. Its value is expected to go up significantly over time. This painting is priceless. It is believed to be a portrait of the woman who poisoned her. Her maid.”

The dead man pointed to his throat and clutched his stomach. Ramirez found the performance a bit melodramatic, although being critical of a ghost's acting ability was like arguing with the content of a speech delivered by a dog. He turned his eyes back to Gatti.

“How much are they insured for, Señora Gatti?”

“The Titian alone for ten million U.S. dollars. Don't look so surprised, Inspector. Botticelli's
Madonna and Child
sold for seven and a half million dollars at auction last December. It was a world record.
These paintings are collectively insured for over twenty million dollars.” She pointed to the four large canvases. “The Sirani, for two. But Lorenzo is right; the paintings are priceless.”

Ramirez whistled. “I can understand why Señor Testa is so upset.”

“Paint cures the longer it dries. We need to get these back to Rome, where we have the resources to restore them properly, as soon as possible. As you can imagine, we are now concerned for the safety of the entire collection. Next time it very well could be a bomb.”

“We'll make sure the paintings are guarded until they can be returned to Italy. By soldiers with machine guns, if that makes you more comfortable.” Ramirez smiled. “I promise you, no one will enter this room except my men and our technicians. How long will you be in Havana?”

“Only until we can arrange to have the paintings shipped back to Italy. We'd like to put them on a flight tomorrow.”

“We'll need a little more time than that, Señora. It will take us at least a few days to conduct our investigation. Where are you and Señor Testa staying?”

“At the Hotel Nacional.”

“I suggest you return there and try to relax. The hotel is a pleasant place to pass the time. I understand it has an interesting tour of the rooms where the gangsters Al Capone and Meyer Lansky slept. Although not together, of course. There is also a very nice terrace bar.”

Ramirez had never been to the bar himself, although it was said to have a panoramic view of the ocean. Cubans weren't permitted on the grounds unless they worked there. “It will go more quickly if the technicians are left alone. The sooner we complete our investigation, the sooner we can release the paintings to you.”

“I understand,” she said, relieved. “I apologize for Lorenzo. These oil paintings are as important to him as his own children. Maybe more.”

Ramirez nodded. “No need to apologize. You can assure him that we will move things forward as quickly as we can.”

“We're grateful, Inspector. Caravaggio may have been a murderer, but his oils are extremely popular. There are only a hundred of them left. The international art community will be devastated if even one is lost because of this”—she searched for a word—“. . . terrorist.”

BOOK: Hungry Ghosts
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