The smell of rain rose up from the asphalt when Calder climbed out of a taxi cab in Huntington, New York. Brass digits on a black mailbox confirmed that he was at the right address, but the absence of a car made him curious whether or not anyone was home.
He stared up at the brick Georgian house as he dialed his cell phone and pressed it to his ear. After two rings, a man answered with a crisp "Hello?"
"I believe I passed."
One of the muslin curtains was whisked aside to reveal a man with a smile. In an instant, the line went dead. Calder stared at his cell phone. To be sure, this madman had not lured him to New York only to stand him up at the door! But as the blood burned in his cheeks, the door opened and shut as a man in a black coat came trotting down the steps.
"Put your things inside and come with me," he passed Calder and started down the sidewalk, pulling a flat hat down over his golden head. "Be sure to lock the door behind you!"
Perplexed, Calder strode up the steps and cracked open the door. A corgi yelped as she scrambled down the stairs and across the sunny entryway, nails clattering on the wood. Calder sneaked his luggage around her and locked and closed the door.
"You refused to give me your address and said that I must prove my dedication by deciphering it myself from Ireland and showing up by a certain date. I'm started to suspect you're a lunatic," he announced as he started down the steps again and met the art dealer on the sidewalk. The man smiled and stuck out his hand to shake his.
"Nope, just dedicated," he corrected. "James Bryant Adams; related to John and Samuel Adams, grandson of World War II veteran Arthur Adams, son of Desert Storm veteran Dustin Adams and Soviet escapee Ana Chichua Adams. Even my little sister Sarah serves in the Navy." He started down the street, and Calder caught up beside him. "Sickle cell anemia diverted me in another direction. Because I can't serve in the military, I decided to battle against some of the evil that rose up during war."
"Returning looted art to the rightful owners," Calder concluded.
James nodded. "And serving veterans who returned damaged on the inside and out."
"So you made me come out here without a single explanation, why?"
"I have reasons behind my dedication to this cause. The people whose art I return come to me with scars caused by traumatic events. Their relatives were often robbed or killed for their artifacts, and they come to me in hopes of restitution. I need to know that anyone who partners with me on this mission is also dedicated. You may be amazed how many people have the enthusiasm, and no actions to back it."
"Your health is becoming a hindrance," Calder ventured.
James released a chuckle. "My health has been a hindrance. But the demands for my services grow with my success, and now I need partners to share in the sowing and the reaping."
Calder stopped. "Where are we going?"
James shrugged. "I have no idea, but I imagine you could use a brunch. Come on."
He returned down the streetside toward his house, leaving Calder to again pursue him.
When James opened the door this time, his corgi skittered across the wood with a smile and a black cat arched his back on the steps. "Meet Heidi and Reginald," he announced as he strode toward the kitchen on the right side. "Pull up a chair."
Calder meandered into the kitchen behind him, peering around. The cooking area was surrounded by an incomplete square of black counter, and outside this sat a rectangular wooden table and chairs. Calder perched himself on one of the stools at the outside stretch of counter.
"Would you like help?" he asked.
"Thanks, but I got it," James answered as he preheated the oven and removed a griddle and a skillet out of a cabinet. Then he got a bowl, a whisk, pancake mix, refrigerated biscuits, strips of bacon, and other ingredients from their respective storage places and set to work.
"So what do you do?" Calder asked.
James snorted. "What don't I do? While I attend art auctions and sales to acquire all the coveted works for my clients, I research known looted art from all eras, although particularly art stolen by the Nazis and Soviets, and I attend the auctions where I suspect they may pop up. When I track them down and they're not for sale, a lawyer friend sets negotiations in motion for the government to return them to the right people. I also track down the rightful owners or heirs of art that national museums are ready to surrender. When I get the spare time, I also journal the stories I learn about the people who were stolen from. You have no idea how many crazy stories happen to other people until you ask."
"So who else is part of your justice league?"
"Oh, depends on which aspect of the job you're asking about," James answered as he cracked a pair of eggs above the skillet. "I have contacts in various countries where art was looted who act as liaisons between heirs and myself. My sister promises to start working on this with me when she leaves the Navy. I also have a high school friend who started a successful genealogy site, and I've sent him on plenty of goose chases. And, lastly, I suspect I have you. After all, how can you not be intrigued by now?"
"Reasonable enough. How many paintings have you returned?"
James stared ahead of him in contemplation. "Let me see. I have been doing this since I was twenty, which means twelve years. About fifty."
"Not really," he started to chop the eggs with a spatula. "There are about sixteen thousand. At least. Enough about me. Tell me a little about yourself. What got you interested in all this?"
Calder considered his answer. "I love knowledge and truth and I'm curious to no end. So I suppose the mystery of it all has enticed my interest."
James stopped and peered over his shoulder as an aroma of bacon accompanied a sizzling sound. "You came out from Ireland because you're curious?"
"There are answers that need to be unearthed for the victims and heirs. The world deserves to know what criminals have tried to hide from them."
"Justice. I like it."
He proceeded to ask Calder about his relatives and education, and Calder provided the curt answers of a private man. Soon, there were two plates of pancakes, peppered scrambled eggs, four strips of bacon, and heated biscuits on the table. James snatched an orange out of the fruit bowl and seated himself across Calder, whom he had directed to take a seat.
"So what will you have me do?" Calder asked as he started on the bacon.
"As much as you want. We have more challenges than we should. Russia passed legislation in 1998 that makes possession of stolen art legal and prevents restitution for the victims. Artifacts sold in private are almost impossible to track down unless they are voluntarily surrendered. Even known looters sometimes refuse to cooperate.
"But here is my current mission: to encourage those who own the art to surrender it to the victims, to authenticate any art in question, and to do all I can to return said art to the victims. I call it 'locate, authenticate, negotiate, and relocate.' So what part interests you most?"
Calder shrugged as he swallowed a chunk of bacon. "Might start with locating. Where do you start?"
"Well," James answered in a manner that revealed he was about to embark on a lengthy explanation, "I run a website dedicated to the registration of lost art. Anyone can register their stolen art, and potential purchasers of art can ensure that what they are interested in has not been stolen. There is an email address listed on this site that is used as a tip line. People often send in photos of art that may have been stolen, and they list where they saw it. Sometimes even private owners admit what they have. And I have contacts in various countries known to have stolen art who encourage private owners of looted art to surrender it, even where it is legal to own, such as in Russia."
Calder pondered this as he ate the rest of the meal. He cleared the crumbs from his mouth with a napkin and thanked his host.
"My pleasure," James answered with a wry smile. "You know, you must be exhausted after your travels. Let me show you a room where you can stay."
He rose and moved rather gingerly across the house and to a set of stairs. Calder observed that much of the sunny, oak wood floors were covered with black leather couches and the occasional black-framed glass table. He also perceived the taut manner in which James climbed the stairs.
At the top, he continued down a hall until he reached the end and pointed to the right.
"This room should suit you. Ahead is my little library. You may read anything you wish. I reread The Phantom of the Opera recently, and I would recommend it if you have not read it. Bathroom is to the left. Sometimes I sleep downstairs, and sometimes I sleep in the room at the other end of the hall. Give me a shout at anytime. I am going to get some reading done."
As he disappeared down the hall, Calder suspected more sleeping than reading would be done.
He opened the door to see a simple bed without a headboard in the middle of a square room. There were photos of wildlife and beautiful still life oil paintings over almost every inch of the cream walls. He closed the door again and reached toward the library door.
When he opened it, he saw shelves stacked with boots up to the ceiling on each wall. In the middle of the sunny room was a black leather recliner chair with an ottoman and a sort of desk on wheels that could be rolled so that he who sat in the recliner could set a laptop on the desk.
That was what he would do: see what he could do about finding The Phantom of the Opera and drop down in that cozy recliner.
The book was easily discovered because it stuck out from its shelf a little more than the rest. He slid it out of its place and seated himself on the recliner, propping his legs up on the ottoman. But before he read the second page, he closed his eyes and the book dropped onto his chest.
And both men slept well that afternoon.