“If you happen to find it within the next couple of hours, please come and meet me by Valens’ Aqueduct,” she said. “There’s a book fair I need to attend, but I’d be so glad to see you there.”
“I will do my best.”
She looked at him again, then away, quickly.
“I know you will,” she said. “Thank you, Ezio.”
The picture dealers’ quarter wasn’t hard to find—a couple of narrow streets running parallel to one another, the little shops glowing in the lamplight that shone on the treasures they held.
Ezio passed slowly from one to another, looking at the people browsing the art more than the art itself, and before too long he saw a shifty-looking character in gaudy clothes coming out of one of the galleries, engrossed in counting out coins from a leather purse. Ezio approached him. The man was immediately on the defensive.
“What do you want?” he asked, nervously.
“Just made a sale, have you?”
The man drew himself up. “If it’s any business of yours . . .”
“Portrait of a lady?”
The man took a swipe at Ezio and prepared to duck and run, but Ezio was a little too quick for him. He tripped him up and sent him sprawling. Coins scattered everywhere on the cobbles.
“Pick them up and give them to me,” said Ezio.
“I have done nothing,” snarled the man, obeying nevertheless. “You can’t prove a damn thing!”
“I don’t need to,” Ezio snarled back. “I’ll just keep hitting you until you talk.”
The man’s tone changed to a whine. “I found that painting. I mean—someone gave it to me.”
Ezio whacked him. “Get your story straight before you lie to my face.”
“God help me!” the man wailed.
“He has much better things to do than answer your prayers.”
The man finished his task and handed the full purse meekly to Ezio, who pulled him upright and pinned him to a nearby wall. “I do not care how you got the painting,” said Ezio. “Just tell me where it is.”
“I sold it to a merchant here. For a lousy two hundred açke.” The man’s voice broke as he indicated the shop. “How else will I feed myself?”
“Next time, find a nicer way to be a canaglia.”
Ezio let the man go, and he scampered off down the lane, cursing. Ezio watched him for a moment, then made his way into the gallery.
He looked carefully among the pictures and sculptures on sale. It wasn’t hard to spot what he was after, as the gallery owner had just finished hanging it. It wasn’t a large painting, but it was beautiful—a head-and-shoulders, three-quarter-profile portrait of Sofia, a few years younger, her hair in ringlets, wearing a necklace of jet and diamond stones, a black ribbon tied to the left front shoulder of her bronze satin dress. Ezio guessed it must have been done for the Sartor family when Meister Dürer was briefly resident in Venice.
The gallery owner, seeing him admiring it, came up to him. “That’s for sale, of course, if you like the look of it.” He stood back a little, sharing the treasure with his prospective client. “A luminous portrait. You see how lifelike she looks. Her beauty shines through!”
“How much do you want for it?”
The gallery owner hemmed and hawed. “Hard to put a price on the priceless, isn’t it?” He paused. “But I can see you are a connoisseur. Shall we say . . . five hundred?”
“You paid two hundred.”
The man held up his hands, aghast. “Efendim! As if I would take such advantage of a man like you! In any case—how do you know?”
“I’ve just had a word with the vendor. Not five minutes ago.”
The gallery owner clearly saw that Ezio was not a man to be trifled with. “Ah! Indeed. But I have my overheads, you know . . .”
“You’ve only just hung it. I watched you.”
The gallery owner looked distressed. “Very well . . . four hundred, then?”
“Three hundred? Two-fifty?”
Ezio placed the purse carefully in the man’s hand. “Two hundred. There it is. Count it if you like.”
“I’ll have to wrap it.”
“I hope you don’t expect extra for that.”
Grumbling sotto voce, the man unhooked the picture and wrapped it carefully in cotton sheeting, which he drew from a bolt by the shop counter. Then he passed it to Ezio. “A pleasure doing business with you,” he said, drily.
“Next time, don’t be so eager to take stolen goods,” said Ezio. “You might have had a customer who wanted the provenance on a painting as good as this one. Luckily for you, I’m prepared to overlook that.”
“And why, might one ask?”
“I’m a friend of the sitter.”
Flabbergasted, the gallery owner bowed him out of the shop, with as much haste as politeness permitted.
“A pleasure doing business with you, too,” said Ezio, aridly, in parting.
Unable to keep a rendezvous with Sofia that evening, Ezio sent her a note arranging to meet the following day at the Bayezid Mosque, where he would give her back the picture.
When he arrived, he found her already there, waiting for him. In the dappled sunlight, he thought her so beautiful that the portrait scarcely did her justice.
“It’s a good likeness, don’t you think?” she said, as he unwrapped it and handed it to her.
“I prefer the original.”
She elbowed him playfully. “Buffone,” she said, as they began walking. “This was a gift from my father when we were in Venice for my twenty-eighth birthday.” She paused in reminiscence. “I had to sit for Meister Albrecht Dürer for a full week. Can you imagine? Me sitting still for seven days? Doing nothing?”
They’d arrived at a nearby bench, on which she sat, as Ezio suppressed a laugh at the thought of her posing, trying not to move a muscle, for all that time. But the result had certainly been worth it—even though he really did prefer the original.
The laughter died on his lips as she produced a slip of paper; his expression immediately became serious, as did hers.
“One good turn . . .” she said. “I’ve found you another book location. And it’s not far from here, actually.”
She handed him the folded slip. He took it and read it.
“Grazie,” he said. The woman was a genius. He nodded gravely to her and made to go, but she stopped him with a question.