Nicole Tang Noonan Mystery #4
By Rick Homan
All rights reserved. No part of this book may be reproduced in any manner whatsoever, including internet usage, without written permission from the author except in the case of brief quotations embodied in critical articles and reviews.
First published 2019
Copyright 2019 by Rick Homan www.RickHoman.com
This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places and incidents are either a product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously. Any resemblance to actual persons living or dead, establishments, events, or locales is purely incidental.
I am grateful to my Sisters in Crime (and brothers); my fellow writers and the librarians at the Mechanics’ Institute Library in San Francisco; and most of all to my wife, Ann.
Out on the trails in the Presidio, a long walk will usually soothe my soul, but it didn’t on that Thursday morning. The winding paths, the smells of the forest, the relief from city noise—all the delights that come with a visit to San Francisco’s national park were not enough to stop my mind from working overtime.
I’d been walking in this section of the park a lot as fire season turned to rainy season in northern California, a few weeks before Thanksgiving. I had enjoyed my research leave up to that point, but each passing day brought me closer to returning to the campus in Ohio where I’d taught for four years. When that time came, I would have some hard decisions to make.
As I rounded a bend, I saw someone lying along a path connected to the trail. He wore a floppy canvas hat, a hiking vest over a denim shirt, loose gray pants, and hiking boots. His backpack and walking stick lay next to him. Since this was an unlikely place to lie down and rest—there was no view in any direction —I wondered if he was injured. “Hello?” I called. “Are you alright?”
I heard footsteps on gravel about forty yards away, down a hill and across an opening in the forest. I ; looked that way just in time to see a man disappear into some trees. He was going in the direction I had come from.
After walking a few steps down the path, I leaned to one side and looked at the man on the ground. His eyes were open, but they weren’t focused on anything. His skin was gray.
I skipped backward a half-dozen steps without taking my eyes off him. I don’t know why I did that. He certainly wasn’t going to do anything to me. Maybe I was trying to rewind to the moment before I had seen him. Maybe I wanted to go back to the trail I had left, continue on my walk, and enjoy a day that did not include finding a dead body.
I slipped off my backpack, took out my phone, and called 9-1-1. “Hello. My name is Nicole Tang Noonan,” I said when the dispatcher answered. “I’m hiking in the Presidio, and I’ve just found someone lying along a path. I think he’s dead.”
The 9-1-1 operator confirmed my phone number and said, “I’m putting this through to the Park Police. They should call you right back.”
The Presidio is 1500 acres of federal land surrounded by the city of San Francisco, San Francisco Bay, and the Pacific Ocean. It is patrolled by the U. S. Park Police. I’d seen their patrol cars, but it had never occurred to me to put their number into my phone.
I knelt on the path a little way from the dead man and took a closer look at him. It was difficult to guess his age since the muscles of his face had gone slack when the life went out of him. I felt a little queasy.
I got a sketchbook and pencil from my backpack and started drawing him. It wasn’t so much that I wanted a picture to remember him by. For that, I could have used my phone. It was more that tracing the counters of his body with my pencil helped me understand him, and that calmed my racing heart.
Drawing has always been my way of thinking about things. Drawing a person lets me know him in ways I can’t just by looking at him. It’s like having a conversation with someone instead of reading her resume.
By the time I had a general outline, I had noticed his right knee was bent at a much sharper angle than his left, and that he’d fallen with his body on top of his left arm, while his right arm was thrown forward across the path.
His backpack was partly unzipped, and a photocopy was partly visible inside it. It was a portrait drawn in pencil on paper that had aged to a tan color. Since I was looking at it edgewise, I couldn’t make out more than that.
Without looking up, I knew we were being watched. I didn’t want to move, so I shifted my eyes to the side, looking downhill along the path. I could barely make out a brown shape, as if someone were crouching low to the ground, several yards away.
As slowly as possible, I rotated my head in that direction until I brought the shape into focus. It was a coyote standing across the middle of the path with its head turned to look at me.
I exhaled and relaxed. Coyotes usually don’t bother people. This one, I guessed, had been drawn by the scent of the corpse and had come to feed on it. That queasy feeling returned.
I stood up, and the coyote disappeared into the brush without a sound. I waited and watched to see if it would appear again anywhere around me. No doubt it was using its superior senses to keep track of me.
I knelt again and looked at the man’s hands and face. There were no scratches or bite marks. The coyote hadn’t gotten to him yet.
I leaned toward him to get a closer look and saw a purple wound near his right temple.
My phone rang.
“U. S. Park Police. Is this Nicole Tang Noonan?”
“Did you call 9-1-1?”
“Are you still at the location where you found a man lying on the ground?”
“Where are you exactly?”
“I’m on the Bay Ridge Trail, just a little west of the Park Trail. The body is lying along a little path that’s not marked.”
“What do you see when you look around?”
“I can’t see much. I’m in the trees.”
“Are you near Rob Hill Campground?”
“I don’t think so. I haven’t seen signs for it.”
“We have an officer on the way. She should be there in a few minutes. We’d like you to stay there. Can you do that?”
“Good. Can you stay on the phone with me in case we need more information?”
“Stay alert. The officers will be trying to get your attention.”
“How long have you been out walking?”
“At least an hour. Probably closer to an hour and a half.” I didn’t explain that the purpose of my walk was to disconnect from things like, “What time is it?” and “When do I have to be there?”
“Are you feeling okay? Do you have plenty of water with you?”
“Yes. I feel fine. I walk in the Southern Wilds two or three times a week. I know how to take care of myself.”
“Good. Let me get some information.”
By the time I’d given my address, phone number and so on, I heard a woman’s voice from further along the trail. “Park Police. Hello. This is the Park Police.”
“Down here,” I yelled.
“Has an officer arrived?” asked the dispatcher.
I assured her one had, and we hung up.
I looked up the trail and saw a woman on horseback. “Did you call for assistance?” she asked.
“Yes,” I replied.
She dismounted, tied the reins to a branch, and walked toward me. Except for the helmet and knee-high boots, she wore the dark-blue uniform typical of the Park Police.
I stood up as she approached. Almost everyone is taller than me, but this woman was that and then some.
“I’m Officer Wanda Ruiz.”
She walked past me and bent to look at the man lying along the path. I waited while she plucked a radio off her hip and spoke into it. I couldn’t understand everything she said because she was facing away, but I’m sure I heard, “confirming,” “EMS,” and “investigative officers.”
Ruiz noticed my sketchbook on the ground next to my backpack and studied my drawing for a second before asking, “Are these yours?” When I nodded, she said, “Pick them up and come with me.”
We walked back toward her horse, still within sight of the body, and Ruiz used her radio to request back-up and give instructions for closing part of the Bay Ridge Trail.
I looked at the horse she’d arrived on, admiring its glossy brown coat and black mane. I don’t know much about horses, though I’d seen people riding in Golden Gate Park since I was a girl. Standing this close to one, I sensed the power in its massive body.
As if aware of my attention, the horse swung its neck in my direction and cocked its head towards me. Apparently satisfied with what it saw, it twitched an ear and went back to surveying the woods around us.
When she was done talking into her radio, Ruiz said, “Okay, Ms. Noonan, it’s going to get busy here. The investigative officers will want to talk with you, but it may be a while. Do you have water with you? Maybe an energy bar?”
“I’m okay,” I said, showing my backpack. “There’s someone else they should talk to. When I found the body, I heard footsteps on the trail over there.” I pointed across the opening in the forest. “There was a man walking back that way. I saw him for just a few seconds.”
Ruiz nodded. “Be sure to mention that to the investigative officer.”
“By the way, when I was sitting here, waiting for you, I saw a coyote a little way down the path.”
“There are two breeding pairs in the park.”
“I think it came out of the bushes over there. Should we watch out for them?”
“We’re a few months past pupping season,” said Ruiz. “The young ones can move around the park, so the parents won’t be protecting their dens anymore. The one you saw is probably long gone, along with any others.”
Her radio squawked. She took it off her belt and held it in front of her. I couldn’t understand the voice on the other end, but after a moment she looked up the trail and said, “Copy.” I looked in the same direction and saw two men in uniform coming toward us. One carried a large shoulder bag that, I assumed, contained medical supplies. The other had a stretcher. The patches on their shoulders indicated they were from Emergency Medical Services of the San Francisco Fire Department.
Ruiz directed them down the path, and they set to work.
“Why did you call an ambulance?” I asked her. “The guy’s dead.”
She shook her head. “That’s not my call.”
“He’s lying there with his eyes open. He has a bullet hole in his head.”
“Are you sure there is no possible brain injury that paralyzes a person and leaves their eyes open?”
She had me there.
Another Park Police officer came walking from the same direction with a toolbox in his hand. Ruiz walked over to talk to him. He nodded and pointed back in the direction he had come from. Ruiz replied, and he walked past me and headed further out on the Bay Ridge Trail.
After a few minutes it was obvious the medics would make no effort to revive the man. Ruiz conferred with them, and spoke into her radio again. The two ambulance men picked up their gear and went back the way they had come.
Almost as soon as they had rounded the bend in the trail, another man appeared. He wore khakis and a windbreaker over a shirt and tie. Ruiz spoke with him and nodded in my direction. As he approached me, he said, “Good morning. I’m Detective Pete Dunham of the U. S. Park Police. Did you call this in?”
I told Detective Dunham I reported finding the body.
He wrote my name and phone number in his notebook, and asked, “Are you visiting San Francisco?”
“In a way I am. I grew up here, but I teach at a university in Ohio now. I’m on research leave this semester, and I’m spending it here.”
“Where are you staying?”
“With my parents in the Inner Sunset.” I gave him the address.
“Why were you on this section of trail this morning?”
“I was getting some exercise. I’ve been walking the trails a couple times a week recently. I hadn’t been this far out on the Bay Ridge Trail before, so I decided to give it a try.”
“How did you happen to find the body?”
“I was walking by, having a look at what all grows out here. I looked over that way, and at first, I thought he might have been injured or passed out. I called out to him, and, when he didn’t answer, I got closer. He looked dead, so I called 9-1-1.”
“Then what did you do?”
“Waited, like the dispatcher told me to.”
“Do you know the deceased?”
Dunham made a note before asking, “Did you do anything while you were waiting?”
He took a moment to read from his notebook. “Officer Ruiz says that, when she arrived, your backpack was on the ground near the body, and with it was a pad of paper with what looked like a drawing of the body. Do you know anything about that?”
“Oh. That’s right. I forgot.” I slipped off my backpack and unzipped it. “While waiting for the officer to arrive, I made this drawing. Here, you can see it.” I flipped the sketchpad open the correct page.
He glanced at it. “Are you an artist?”
“Is there any particular reason you wanted a drawing of the deceased?”
“No. It’s just something I do. I took lessons when I was a girl. When I go to museums and galleries, I sometimes make sketches as a way of taking notes on what I see.”
“You make drawings of works of art?”
“Why did you make a drawing of the deceased?”
“It was a way of occupying my mind. I’m not used to being around dead bodies.”
“Did you take any photographs of the deceased?”
While Dunham jotted in his notebook, I said “Detective, I think I should mention a few things I noticed while I was waiting.”
“While I was sketching, I saw a coyote further down that path.” I pointed. “I wondered if it wanted to feed on the body, or if it already had, so I checked the hands, the neck, and the face but didn’t see any bites or scratches. That’s when I noticed the wound in his head, on the right side, near the temple. It looks like a bullet hole. Anyway, he must not have been dead very long because I got here by before the coyotes found him. Does that make sense?”
“Did you touch the body or move it? Did you handle any of the clothing or the objects near it?”
“No. I just looked at it.”
“Did you pick up anything from the ground or anywhere near the body?”
“Of course not. I know better than that.”
Dunham looked at me with a bored expression. “Do you watch a lot of television?”
“No. I’ve been involved in other murder investigations. The first one was when a student of mine was murdered. I was able to find out some things that helped the sheriff solve the case. The same thing happened when a visitor to the gallery on my campus was killed. And there was another time.”
“So, you have frequently involved yourself in murder investigations?”
“I wouldn’t say that. I happened to know people involved and told law enforcement what I knew. That’s every citizen’s duty.”
“Why have you decided to involve yourself in this investigation?”
“I didn’t decide to. I told you: I was walking by; I thought I should call 9-1-1.”
“How long will you be in San Francisco?”
“Until after Christmas.” I shuddered at the thought of returning to winter in Ohio.
“I’ll probably want to speak with you again. Is this phone number the best way to reach you?”
“Thank you,” he said, and started to walk away.
“Excuse me,” I called after him. “Do you know who he is?”
“We have identification technicians on the way.”
“Couldn’t someone look in his pockets or his backpack to see if there’s a wallet or something that could identify him?”
“That’s not how we do it.”
“I’d like to follow up.”
“I’ll be in touch if I have any more questions.”
“Where will they take him?”
“Medical Examiner. Thank you, Ms. Noonan. We won’t need you here any further.”
His tone made it clear he wanted me to leave. I backtracked on the Bay Area Ridge Trail, skipped the Park Trail I had used to come up the hill, and headed for Inspiration Point.
My conversation with Detective Dunham did not go well. He seemed suspicious about why I made that drawing, and he got even more suspicious when I mentioned the coyote and what that might mean about the time of death. Of course, I didn’t help matters by mentioning I had been involved in other murder investigations.
I supposed I couldn’t blame him. He was a professional and might have thought I was trying to do his job for him, though I wasn’t. I had similar troubles back in Ohio with Sheriff Mason Adams the first few times we spoke, but eventually we came to understand each other.
I stopped at Spire, a monumental sculpture by Andy Goldsworthy, one of four by him in the park. This ninety-foot bundle of tree trunks never failed to amuse me. It seemed to embody our striving for something beyond this earthly life and our folly in seeking it through earthly accomplishment.
As I walked around it, I thought about how my walk this morning and my time for thinking had been disrupted. Instead of listening to what was going on inside me and planning my future, I had witnessed the end of someone’s life. That made me wonder, was it really so important to build a brilliant career for myself? In the long run, what difference would it make? Yet I wasn’t depressed. I felt surprisingly satisfied with my life.
I skipped Inspiration Point and enjoyed a quick walk down the Ecology Trail back to the Main Post. I felt eager to catch the bus home and spend the afternoon pursuing my research.
As I rode home on the 43 bus, I checked my phone and saw a text from my friend, Irene Gonzalo. “Dude, check it out. Coffee old nabe 4?” There was a link to a video. Before playing it, I responded to the second half of her message, agreeing to have coffee with her at four o’clock in the Inner Sunset, the “nabe” (neighborhood) where we grew up together.
Irene’s parents still lived there, as did mine, but ever since she started sharing an apartment with some other girls in the Outer Richmond district, about three miles away, she liked to call the Inner Sunset “the old neighborhood.”
The video was less than three minutes long and could have been shorter. It showed a painting in a frame on an easel, sitting outdoors in what I assumed was a garden. The hedge that formed the background looked well-trimmed. The painting was a portrait of an aristocrat of the 1700s, judging by the clothing.
After about thirty seconds, a hand holding a plastic bottle entered the camera’s frame from the right side and squirted some liquid on the painting and the fancy gilded frame. The hand disappeared, and a few seconds later a burning match flew toward the painting and bounced off it. The picture burst into flame and burned for a minute and a half until it was a blackened mess. The video ended without showing any titles.
I couldn’t imagine why Irene wanted me to “check it out,” but I was sure she would tell me when we met.
I spent the afternoon in the in-law suite of my parents’ house, which was my home whenever I visited. Most of the attached houses on the western side of the city have one of these on the ground floor, in the rear, behind the garage. The main living space, usually a two-bedroom apartment, is upstairs.
It was one big room with a bathroom and a nook for mini kitchen appliances. It had a cafe table with two chairs, and a sofa that folded out for a bed. The best part was the sliding door that opened onto the garden in back. I had a small desk and an easy chair next to it.
Reviewing my work was not encouraging. I had taken plenty of notes on letters and other personal papers of Ursula Kemper, an early-twentieth-century painter. But, though my visits to the Oakland Museum of California had yielded lots of information, I couldn’t come up with an idea for an article.
I had hoped to expand my dissertation on Kemper and her previously unappreciated part in the movement known as California Impressionism. Before returning to teaching in January, I wanted to submit a book proposal to a university press, but I couldn’t come up with a convincing reason the world needed a book on Kemper. After several hours of mulling this over, I was ready for a walk over to Ninth Avenue and a chat with Irene at our favorite cafe.
The retail section of the “old nabe” had changed in recent years. Though supported by a neighborhood of family homes, it could not entirely resist the tide of gentrification that had swept San Francisco. For instance, the variety store, where I bought candies, pinwheels and school supplies when I was a girl, had been replaced by a store that sold “essences” in little bottles for high prices.
On the other hand, the Italian restaurant remained, still giving kids a place to gather after soccer practice and doing a brisk pizza business on Friday evenings. Likewise, we still had a hardware store, produce market, and a few other places that sold practical necessities.
I caught up with Irene as she was ordering a latte, and said, “Make it two.”
Irene held up two fingers, and the barista, asked, “Name for the order?” When Irene gave her name, the woman looked confused. I’d seen this many times. Because she’s from a Mexican family, she pronounces her name, ee-RAY-nay. In some neighborhoods where there are lots of Mexicans or Russians, people know how to write that name. Since this woman didn’t, my friend patiently repeated her name, so it sounded like eye-REEN.
We got our drinks and scored a sidewalk table. Before I could comment on the video she sent me, I heard a buzzing sound and saw what I at first thought was a large bird flying in a crazy pattern. When my eyes caught up with it, I saw it was a drone, zipping back and forth across Ninth Avenue, just high enough to avoid the electric lines for the streetcars. “What the heck is that doing here?” I asked.
Irene looked at me, clueless.
“That drone,” I said.
She turned in her chair and scanned the scene behind her, eventually noticing the drone as it hovered outside a second-floor window. She nodded and said, “Yeah, you see them around more now.”
“Some guy started a company. There’s an app. People who have drones can sign up and check to see if someone wants a job done with a drone. Then they can go take pictures or whatever and get paid for it. It’s like Uber for drones.”
“Is that legal?”
Irene shrugged. “It used to be illegal to charge people for a ride in your car if you didn’t have a taxi medallion. It used to be illegal to turn your apartment or your house into a motel. I guess they just do it and see if anyone stops them.”
“Unbelievable,” I said, as I watched the drone rise high above Ninth Avenue and fly over the buildings across the street.
“Did you check out that video?” Irene asked. “Was that radical or what?”
“Sorry, I thought it was pretty stupid.”
“For real? Some dude torches a painting worth a bazillion dollars, and you’re like, ‘Whatever?’”
“I doubt that was really a painting. It was probably a print you can buy at a craft store for a few dollars.”
“Huh.” Irene sat back and sipped her latte. “Okay. I’ll give you that, but what about the frame? It looked like one of those gold ones you see in museums with all kinds of fancy carving.”
I shook my head. “The camera didn’t do a close up, so I can’t be sure, but you can take a plain frame, glue stuff to it, add curlicues with a hot-glue gun, spray it gold, and get the same effect. From a distance you can’t tell the difference.”
We both sipped our drinks and waited for the streetcar to turn off Irving Street and come up Ninth Avenue to get over to Judah Street. It was too noisy to talk over, but I didn’t mind. I always enjoyed watching them go by.
“So, why bother?” asked Irene when it had passed. “With the video, I mean. It had a couple thousand hits, but it’s not exactly clickbait. Why would somebody get the print, decorate a frame, and make a video of burning it?”
“I don’t know. Why do you care?”
“I’m working up a proposal for a client. It’s an indie film company and they want us to do one of those animated logos that runs before the film starts to let the audience know who produced it. I like the burning-painting image. It’s artsy but kind of edgy. I think they’d like it, but before I ‘borrow’ the idea I’d like to know what it’s supposed to mean.”
I remembered Irene had recently started working for a marketing company. “Is this the kind of thing they have you doing now?”
“I’ve been in branding, but I’m getting more into online presence. So, help me out here. You’re an art historian. What does ‘burning painting’ say to you?”
“My guess is some art student did it to make a statement.”
“Statement of what?”
“Something to talk about in a seminar. For instance, back in the 90s Ai Wei Wei dropped a vase . . .”
“A Chinese artist, who’s world famous for pissing off the government of China. Anyway, he did a piece of performance art in which he dropped a Han Dynasty vase on a stone floor. Smashed it to pieces.”
Irene stared at me. “And then what?”
“Nothing. That was it.”
“He broke a vase. Why does anyone care?”
“A Han Dynasty vase.”
“What does that mean?”
“It’s not exactly priceless, but it’s an irreplaceable piece of history.”
Irene pursed her lips for a moment. “So, he did it to piss off historians?”
“Yep, and it worked. When the government came after him, he quoted Chairman Mao about how we have to destroy what was made in the past to build the future.”
“You said he did this back in the 90s?”
“And people are still talking about it?”
“That’s right. There are pictures. You can see them online.”
She shook her head as if to clear her thoughts. “Okay. I get it. Some art student thinks I’m going to be like Eye Way—”
“Ai Wei Wei.”
“Right, and she makes this video so she can send the link to all her school buds and have the big talk about the past and the future. I gotta say that’s not nearly as interesting as some dude torching a painting that should be in a museum.”
Irene sipped her coffee. “You seem a little down.”
“I spent all afternoon reading back through my notes, and I can’t seem to get a handle on where I’m going with this research.”
“Don’t worry about it. You’ll think of something. You are, after all, a genius.”
“Thanks for the vote of confidence. Of course, it may also have something to do with finding a dead body in the Presidio this morning.”
“Whoa! You did what?”
“I was walking in the Southern Wilds, up there on the Bay Ridge Trail, in the forest, and there was this guy lying there.”
“Did he have a heart attack or something?”
“I think somebody shot him.”
“What did you do?”
“I called the police.”
Irene gave out with a big sigh. “I can see how that would spoil your day.”
“It didn’t, really. It’s hard to explain, but it made me think that since in the long run we’re all dead, we may as well enjoy the ride.”
Irene laughed. “You always were a deep thinker.” She finished her coffee. “How much longer are you around?”
“A month or so.”
“I wish you didn’t have to go. It’s been fun having you here.”
“I’ll be back in the summer.”
“Yeah, but I just get used to you being here and then you’re gone.”
“Okay, stop. You’re going to make me cry.”
“We should have a party before you go. Get together everybody from the old nabe, everybody from State . . .”
“Let’s just keep it low key. That way nobody will even notice I’m gone, and then, before you know it, I’ll be back.”
“Cheer up. Pat’s coming out for Thanksgiving.”
“No way! Really? Cool! I’ll get some peeps together and we’ll go out.”
I had to laugh. Ever since Pat and I had been together, and he started visiting San Francisco with me, it seemed like people got more excited about seeing him than about seeing me.
“I’m serious, Nicole. What do you say?”
“Sure. We’ll go out.”
Irene went one way to catch a bus, and I started walking back to the house. For several blocks, I couldn’t stop thinking about that dumb video. This was surprising because, if I was right, if it was a portrait of someone dressed as an aristocrat of the 1700s, then it was from the Rococo period. I had never taken any interest in Rococo because, although the artists developed brilliant technique, they were mostly painting portraits to flatter the ultra-rich.
But a short video of someone destroying what might be an example of Rococo could be a real conversation starter when I covered this period in my art history survey course. Perhaps my students would like to speculate on why someone would destroy something from the past. I might get them interested in a parallel to what Ai Wei Wei was doing and why he did it. This might set up a discussion of the French Revolution, which destroyed the society which gave birth to Rococo.
Strictly speaking, this wasn’t part of my research, but I saw nothing wrong with spending a little of my research leave looking into this video for the purpose of improving one of my lectures. If I spent a few days on Rococo, maybe I could come back to Ursula Kemper with fresh eyes and come up with some fresh ideas. I decided to skip the next day’s trip across the bay to the Oakland Museum of California.
When I got home, I took a shower, put on my pajamas, and did some yoga poses. In the middle of downward dog, I had to laugh at a coincidence. Both of today’s adventures involved a portrait: the photocopy in the dead man’s backpack and the picture in Irene’s video. What were the chances of that?
Friday morning, I needed to look at the portrait in Irene’s video on my laptop so I could see more detail. That proved surprisingly difficult because she had texted me an abbreviated URL. I had to do a lot of backtracking on my phone to find out where the video was hosted. It turned out to be on an online service I had never used called MeJaVu.
When I went there on my laptop, created my account, and agreed to who knows what, I found it was different from YouTube, Vimeo, and others I was familiar with. They didn’t make it easy to find things. I tried typing in keywords in like “Rococo,” “aristocrat,” “portrait,” “burning.” I even tried “blue portrait” because, as I recalled, the aristocrat in the portrait was wearing a blue coat. The results of these searches sometimes made sense, sometimes not. They must have modeled their website on the layout of Ikea stores.
In desperation, I copied the abbreviated URL from Irene’s text into MeJaVu’s search box, and there the video popped up. I played it and tried to imagine the reactions of my students. I doubted they would sit still for the first thirty seconds showing the portrait and nothing happening. They would probably get interested when the liquid was squirted on the painting, and they might laugh or groan when the match was thrown. After that, I would have to shut it down or start discussion while the burning continued in the background. They wouldn’t watch the painting burn for 90 seconds.
I played it again and jotted down questions I might ask during that first thirty seconds. What do we know about this man from looking at his portrait? White, middle-aged. What do his clothes say about him? Wealthy. What about the room he is standing in? Drapery all over everything.
Then I would give them thirty seconds to watch the fire start. After that, I could ask them if they thought it was a real painting from the 1700s. Real or copy, I could ask them why someone would make a video of burning this guy’s portrait. Were they attacking this kind of art or the man in the picture? Of course, these were the questions Irene was asking, and I didn’t have answers to them.
Though it would be fun to ask my students to use their imaginations, I knew they would expect me to lead them to a conclusion before the end of the class. To do that, I would need to know who this rich guy was.
MeJaVu was no help. It gave no information about who posted the video, who painted the portrait, or whose picture it was. Across the bottom of the page was a row of thumbnail pictures claiming to represent videos I might also like, but they did not seem to have anything in common with each other or with the video I was looking at.
I went back to the beginning of the video, when the portrait just sat there on the easel. After hitting pause, I enlarged the center of the portrait, took a screenshot, saved it, and printed it. This gave me a picture of the man’s face, a little blurry around the edges, but good enough. All I had to do was compare it with pictures of well-known aristocrats of the 1700s, and I would likely be able to identify him. There hadn’t been that many men who were that wealthy.
I felt a cramp in my neck, glanced at the clock and saw why. I’d gotten so absorbed in my task, a couple hours had gone by without my noticing.
A walk around the back yard, with bursts of hopping up and down on one foot, then the other, gave me some physical relief from working at my computer. Back indoors, I did some stretches, sat down, and decided to give myself some mental relief from studying the video by scanning the day’s headlines.
Before long I noticed a news story about the death of the CEO of a tech company in San Francisco. It quoted the U. S. Park Police as saying the body of Michael Horvath was found along a path in the Presidio by a hiker. They said he died of a gunshot wound, but they didn’t know if it was murder or suicide. The story went on to say Horvath had founded Vectartec, a company that allowed drone owners to contract for aerial surveillance by using an app on their phones.
I felt like I was looking at yesterday through the wrong end of a telescope. My walk in the Presidio, the body I found, my interview with the Park Police, seeing the drone over Ninth Avenue when I sat down with Irene to talk about the video I was now studying . . . this news story seemed to squeeze the last twenty-four hours together into a single moment.
I didn’t like seeing myself referred to as “a hiker.” That sounded as if I were a minor character in a movie. If I was merely assisting in someone else’s story, I hated to wonder what else was in store for me.
I googled “Vectartec” and found a website with an animated splash page on which a drone looking like a flying insect swoops and dives over a city and sails out over the countryside, prompting smiles and friendly waves from all it passes.
The “Our Mission” page rhapsodized about a future in which armies of benevolent drone hobbyists canvassed national forests for any wisp of smoke and sent the coordinates to the U. S. Forest service so wildfires could be avoided.
The happy hobbyists likewise monitored traffic so ambulances could take the fastest way to the nearest hospitals. They cruised city parks, looking for children who appeared to be wandering alone and watched over streets prone to petty crime, reporting anything suspicious to law enforcement.
At the end of each mission the drone operator checked his account using the app on his phone and found his balance had received a nice boost. Make the world a better place and make a little money. What’s not to like?
On a hunch, I searched local news sites for Vectartec. I expected to find stories about drone missions gone bad and people suing each other while the company that set it all in motion quoted from their user agreement saying they simply provide a platform and they are not responsible for whatever use people make of it. None of that had yet played out. Apparently Vectartec was still too new.
I glanced at the clock and gasped. Another hour had gone by. That meant one less hour devoted to my lecture on Rococo and one less hour devoted to rescuing Ursula Kemper from the dustbin of history. My brain was operating like a teenager in a mall. “Ooh! Look over there! Let’s go see that!”
To pull myself out of this downward spiral, I reached, as I often had in recent months, for the ukulele my grandfather gave me when I was a girl. He bought it in Hawaii after the Second World War, when he emigrated from Hong Kong to the United States.
I loved it from the moment I saw it. It was so small compared to the guitars my friends played, which meant it was just the right size for me. It was made of a lovely reddish wood called koa. According to grandpa, koa grows only in the Hawaiian Islands. The gold label inside said Kamaka.
After a quick tuning, I strummed the few chords I knew: C, C, G, G, F, F, F, F (repeat). After a couple times through I hummed along, one note for each chord. When I was a girl, I knew more chords and even learned to play a few melodies. I’d forgotten most of it because I rarely played in high school, and I left the uke behind when I went to college.
When I came home for my research leave, the uke was among the things I brought downstairs to have with me in the in-law suite. At first, I just enjoyed looking at it. Then, one day, I brushed my thumb over the strings and heard that sweet, soprano voice that called out to the girl I once was. That day, I got out my old lesson book, tuned the uke, and re-learned C, F, and G.
Strumming and humming became my therapy for times when my brain veered out of control and my emotions followed. After a few minutes of making sounds, I felt quiet inside, my body relaxed, and I could focus.
There was nothing wrong with taking a day off from Ursula Kemper to work on a Rococo lecture. There was nothing wrong with taking an hour off from the lecture to find out whose body I found yesterday.
It would all get done eventually, or it wouldn’t, and in the long run what difference would it make? Best to enjoy the ride. I walked over to Ninth and Irving to get a taco from the Mexican place. When I got back, I would see who called out loudest for my attention, Ursula Kemper, Michael Horvath, or the guy in the burning portrait.
When I returned to San Francisco for the summer after my first year of teaching, my parents treated the in-law unit downstairs as my home. When Mom wanted to talk to me, she usually phoned first and either asked if she could drop in or invited me to come upstairs. Dad did the same. I took the hint and learned to treat the two-bedroom flat upstairs as their home. I wouldn’t walk in unannounced.
At first, I thought they were doing this to respect my privacy. Then I realized that, with me gone most of the time, they had developed their own sense of privacy. We were no longer a family of three. We were a couple and an adult sharing a house.
So, it was no surprise when Mom asked me to join her and Dad for dinner that Friday night, and to come early and help her prepare it. When I walked up the kitchen stairs and through the door, I saw the big skillet on the stovetop and mounds of vegetables on the worktable. Mom was scanning her spice rack and lining up her choices in a row on the counter.
I washed my hands, grabbed a peeler out of the drawer, and got to work on the carrots. “Is this that vegetable stew from the Greens cookbook?” I asked.
“Mm-hm,” said Mom without taking her eyes off the spice rack.
When I had the carrots peeled, I got a chef’s knife and held it poised over one of the carrots, about one-third of the way from the end. “About like this?” I asked.
Mom turned around, studied the carrots for a moment, and said, “No. Just cut them in half and then split them.” She turned back to the counter, dumped the ginger root and garlic into the mortar and started grinding. “How’s everything going with your research?” she asked.
“Just fine,” I said. “The Oakland Museum has so much material. It will take me a while to sift through it all.”
After pouring the ground mixture into a small bowl, Mom measured out some other seasonings and started grinding them. “Your studies really keep you busy,” she said.
“Yep. It’s a full-time job,” I replied.
“Do you miss being on campus?”
“I wouldn’t say I miss the campus. It’s nice to have a break from teaching. I miss my friends there. I miss Abbie. Of course, I miss Pat.”
“I’ll bet you do. Have you talked to him lately?”
I set the carrots aside and got to work on the parsnips. “Not for a week or two, but we send text messages every day.”
“Ever do any sexting?”
I dropped the knife on the cutting board. “Oh, my God! I cannot believe you just asked me that.”
“Don’t act so shocked. I pay attention to what’s going on in the world. Everybody does it these days.”
“Everybody does lots of things. That doesn’t mean they want to talk to their mothers about them.”
She let out a breathy chuckle, shook her head, and went back to her spices.
After finishing the parsnips, I cleaned the mushrooms and set about breaking up the cauliflower and broccoli.
Glancing over her shoulder, Mom asked, “Is Pat coming for Thanksgiving?”
“Yes, he is,” I replied. “I thought I mentioned that last week.”
“Hm . . . I guess you did.”
“Do you want these potatoes peeled?”
She shook her head. “No need. Just cut them into cubes, put them in a bowl of water, and put them in the fridge.” As I did that, she said, “It’ll be nice to see him again.”
“Your Dad asked about him just last week.”
“I’ll bet he did.” I was prepared to keep this up as long as Mom wanted.
“They always have a good time together.”
“I know they do.”
Mom started the burner under the skillet and got a pitcher of clarified butter and a cup of a milky liquid from the refrigerator. After pouring the butter into the skillet, she added one of her cups of ground spices and started stirring. “You know, honey . . .”
I knew what was coming when she called me “honey.”
“. . . I think we should talk about another plan.”
“Let me guess. You want me to give up being a professor, move back here, and go to medical school.”
“I’m not saying you have to give up your art history.”
“Mom, I know you think I can be a part-time art historian by working at a gallery or teaching at the community college, but, believe me, that’s not going to work.”
“Well, you know better than I do, but I just think there has to be another way.” She added the onion and turned up the heat.
“You know, Mom, you talked about this all the time when I first moved to Ohio, but I haven’t heard much about this for a couple years.”
“Once you got together with Pat, I didn’t mind so much about you being in Ohio. It seemed like there was a reason for you to be there.”
I laughed out loud. “I do not believe what I’m hearing. Are you really saying that starting my career was not a good enough reason for me to move to Ohio? Do you really think I had no reason to be there unless I attached myself to some man?”
“Let’s put the vegetables in,” she said, pointing to the skillet. As I picked up a double handful, she said, “You know that’s not what I mean. But let’s face it, you’ve been happier since he entered the picture.”
“Of course! I love Pat. But I don’t get it. Why are you bringing this up now? I have a salary. He has a salary. It’s cheap to live there. We’re happy together.”
“I just think you could do better.”
“Oh, sure! Berkeley might be calling any day to offer me a tenured position. Get real, Mom!”
“Lots of people get themselves into a good-paying career so they can live where they want, and they still have time to enjoy the things they love.”
After I drained the potatoes and spooned them into the skillet, Mom poured that milky liquid over everything, put the lid on the skillet, and turned the heat down.
“Okay, Mom, let’s follow this through. Say I move back here, assuming I can get accepted at UCSF or wherever. Where does that leave me and Pat?”
She turned away to screw the lids back onto spice bottles and put them back in the rack. “I’m sure there are jobs for psychologists in San Francisco.”
“You think Pat is going to give up the tenured position he has worked for so he can move back here with me. Why would he do that?”
“If he loves you . . .”
“No, Mom, we can be together in Ohio, both doing the work we love. Sure, it’s not perfect, but that’s life.”
I could barely hear her, because she was facing the window and speaking softly. “I just want you nearby when my first grandchild comes. Is that so bad?”
I held my breath so long I started to feel dizzy. I opened my mouth to speak, but I couldn’t think. Then I heard words come out of my mouth. “I haven’t even published a book yet.”
She turned to face me, and there were tears on her cheeks. I walked around the island and wrapped my arms around her.
We heard heavy footsteps on the back stairs and knew Dad was coming up from the garage. Mom broke from me, walked to the far end of the counter for a tissue, and wiped her eyes.
Dad said, “Mm! Something smells good,” as he walked through the door. Seeing Mom and me, he said, “And here are the two most beautiful women in the world.”
I hugged him, which felt very different from hugging Mom since he stood head and shoulders above me.
He kissed me on top of my head. “How’s the professor?” he asked. “Make any big discoveries today?”
I stepped back and shrugged. “Read a lot. Wrote a lot.” I took a moment to appreciate his wavy brown hair and ruddy complexion. Overall, I looked like Mom, but I got my freckles from him.
“That’s my girl,” he said as he crossed the kitchen and hugged Mom. “I’m going to get cleaned up.”
When he had left the kitchen, I went to Mom and said, “We’ll talk about this later.” She nodded and went back to tidying up the counter.
The vegetable stew was delicious, as usual. While eating, the three of us entertained ourselves with stories of funny things that had happened in the past week. Dad reported that some guy at work, who had complained about not being able to pay his bills, got a lot of overtime work, and showed up the next week with a fancy new truck. I told them about the burning-portrait video. Mom mentioned a neighbor’s boy who had decided to wear only white clothes.
As we sat back and sipped the last of our wine, I said, “When I was walking in the Presidio yesterday, I found a dead body.”
Mom and Dad froze for a moment, before Dad said, “What do you mean you found it?”
“I was walking along the Bay Ridge Trail, and it was lying along a path, off to the right.”
“What did you do?” asked Mom.
“I called the police.”
“And what did they do?”
“They came and called an ambulance. They asked me a lot of questions and sent me on my way.”
Dad was squinting as he said, “Was this something historical? Were you near the cemetery?”
“No, it was a man wearing regular clothes. At first I thought maybe he had fallen or passed out.”
“Nicole, honey, are you alright?” asked Mom. “Were you able to sleep last night?”
“But it must have been upsetting for you,” said Dad.
“At first it was a shock, but several police officers came, and it was interesting to watch how they handled the situation.”
“I wonder if Frank knows anything about this.” Dad’s brother, Frank, was a sworn officer of the San Francisco Police Department, who had to be nearing retirement age. Although Uncle Frank had been assigned to the Airport Bureau for most of his career, Dad liked to think Uncle Frank knew about everything happening anywhere in the department.
“I don’t think so, Dad,” I said. “The Park Police are handling it.”
“Oh, right,” he said, as if recalling something he had learned when he was a boy and hadn’t thought about in years. “Has there been anything in the news about it?”
“I saw a report this morning. It’s the guy who came up with that app for people with drones to make money. They call it ‘Uber for drones.’”
“Well then,” said Mom, “almost everybody in town had a motive to kill him.”
Dad smiled and turned to me. “I’ve lived with your mother for thirty-five years, and there are still times when she scares me.”
“Tell me I’m wrong,” she said, as she started stacking plates. “Tell me someone disagrees with me.” When I started helping, she said, “No, you sit here and talk to your father.”
When she had left the room, Dad asked, “Is Pat coming for Thanksgiving?”
“Yes,” I said. “I don’t have his flight info yet.”
“While he’s here, if you don’t mind, I’d like to borrow him for a few hours. I’m going over to Frank’s on Saturday to watch the bowl games with some guys from our old neighborhood. I thought Pat might like to join us.”
He knew as well as I did Pat would leap at the opportunity to be one of the guys for a few hours. I knew this was because, while he was growing up, Pat had kept his distance from his abusive father. During Pat’s first visit to my family, I watched him adopt my dad as a substitute father. It was wonderful to see him learning what it was like to be the son of an honest, loving man.
“Sure, Dad,” I said. “He’d like that.”
As we got caught up on the recent doings of various family members, I kept wondering if Dad shared Mom’s dream of having Pat and me living nearby, or if he even knew Mom was thinking about it. A couple times I almost asked him, but I owed it to Mom to talk with her about it as I had said I would, and I didn’t want to complicate that.
After helping with the dishes, I hugged and kissed them both and went downstairs to the in-law suite. I was eager to talk to Pat about his travel plans, but I hoped he wouldn’t call for at least twenty-four hours so I would have time to digest what Mom had said. Otherwise he would surely know by the tone of my voice that I was preoccupied with something.
When I got to my desk, I checked my phone. There was nothing from Pat, but I had a text from Irene. She had found another video of a burning portrait.
Everything about this video was familiar: the neatly trimmed hedge, the gold-framed portrait on an easel, the colorless liquid squirted from a plastic bottle by a hand reaching from the right, the lighted match, the burst of flame, and the charred mess. It was identical to the first video Irene had shown me except for one detail. The person in this portrait was a woman.
At my desk, I did the same as I had done with the first one: found the video on MeJaVu, paused it near the beginning, enlarged the image on the screen of my computer, took a screenshot, cropped it to include only the portrait, and printed it.
When I laid the two portraits side by side, it was clear they were both of the Rococo period. The clothing was typical of the 1700s. The setting was luxurious. The painter included startling optical effects. The facial features of the subject were manipulated to suggest amusement or skepticism.
I googled Rococo portraits and scanned the page of thumbnail images. When I didn’t immediately see a match for either of the printed copies in front of me, I picked up the first portrait and studied the man’s face. He had a rounded jutting chin and a prominent lower lip. After scanning a few rows of thumbnails, I found one comparable to the one in my hand. It was a portrait of Louis XV, king of France in the mid-1700s. Just to make sure, I googled “Louix XV portraits” and studied several of them. The resemblance was clear. This was my guy.
Since I knew the portrait in the first video was the king of France, I took a wild guess and googled “Louis XV queen.” Sure enough, there were plenty of portraits of Marie Leszczynska, but her face did not match the face in the portrait shown burning in the second video.
While walking around the apartment to wake myself up, I thought back to the chapter on Rococo in the textbook I used for my art history course and the corresponding lectures I had given in last year’s fall semester. Madame de Pompadour was probably the most influential woman of that time. Certainly, the king spent more time with her than with the queen.
A search for portraits of her turned up plenty to compare with my printed copy, but this time it was tricky. The facial features in the many historical portraits did not clearly resemble each other. Still I found enough close matches to conclude the video maker had picked someone’s portrait of Madame de Pompadour.
By this time, I was starting to go cross-eyed from studying all those thumbnail images, and the wine with dinner was catching up to me. I thought about calling Irene to tell her what I knew so far, but I didn’t feel up to it. Instead, I texted her, “Have info. Bfast?”
She texted back, “LEL.”
“Do you mean LOL?”
“Lands End Lookout, you dork.”
“Make it 9:30.”
With breakfast plans made, I decided to call it a night. After getting ready for bed, I picked up the thriller I had been reading, but changed my mind. Instead I used my laptop to look up some biographical and historical material on Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour to refresh my memory. It put me to sleep in no time.
Saturday morning, I took the streetcar out to the end of Judah Street and got off at Ocean Beach. The wind coming off the Pacific nearly knocked me down, so I walked up La Playa Street where the houses gave me some protection. When I got to Lincoln Way, I went into Golden Gate Park and took the path lined with trees.
Coming out on the north side of the park, I continued on La Playa, where a row of apartment buildings blocked most of the wind and allowed glimpses of the ocean. At Balboa Street, I thought about shifting over to Point Lobos Avenue and enjoying the ocean view as I walked the long, curving sidewalk past the Cliff House, but again a gust of wind discouraged me. I charged straight ahead, up the wooded hillside to Sutro Gardens.
Arriving on flat ground with lungs burning and quads aching, I staggered along until I came to Point Lobos Way and crossed over to Lands End. Inside the visitor center, Irene looked up from the table of sweatshirts with National Park Service logos, and said, “You don’t look so good, Nicole.”
“You wouldn’t either if you’d just walked up her from Judah Street and climbed that hill.”
“You walked? Why didn’t you just take the 28 and come out here on the 38R?”
“I thought I was going to enjoy looking at the ocean, but I forgot it’s not October anymore.”
Irene pulled me over to the espresso bar. “Let’s get coffee and a croissant, and we can stand at the counter by the window. You can look at the ocean from in here.”
I shook my head. “I’ve got to sit down. Let’s go over to Seal Rock Inn.”
We crossed the street and went to the restaurant attached to the motel. Our table had no view, but it felt good to get off my legs.
After we ordered, Irene asked, “What have you got for me?”
“The subject of the first portrait is Louis XV, king of France in the mid-1700s.”
Irene nodded. “And what about the chick in the second video? Is she the queen?”
“No. She is Madame de Pompadour.”
“Also sounds French. Is she important?”
“For a while she was the king’s chief mistress.”
“Mistress? Meaning . . . ?”
“Same thing it means today.”
Irene laughed. “How did the queen feel about that?”
“She didn’t care. Back then kings and queens got married to form an alliance between two countries. Louis’s queen was Polish.”
“And then, after they were married . . . ?
“They had to sleep together enough to produce an heir to the throne. Otherwise they could do what they wanted.”
“So, this Madam Poopy-doo . . .”
“Madame de Pompadour.”
“Right. She was his side piece?”
“One of them. And for several years she was the chief mistress.”
“That was an official thing?”
“Yes. It meant she got to spend the most time with the king.”
“So, all these chicks were just lining up to make whoopee with the big guy. Why would they do that?”
“For the same reason some women throw themselves at senators, congressmen, and presidents. Get rich. Get powerful.”
“When you put it like that, I can understand. But we don’t go around saying, ‘Missy Muffin is now the president’s main squeeze.’”
“No. We pretend it’s not happening.”
Our breakfasts arrived and I dived into my spinach and mushroom omelette. Irene seemed to enjoy her pancakes, bacon on the side.
After a swallow of coffee, Irene said, “When there was one portrait, I was thinking someone is building a stealth marketing campaign around ideas of art, exclusivity, wealth . . . but then they burn the portrait. So, they’re saying that’s over. It’s history. It’s like ‘Roll Over, Beethoven.’ All that is dead.
“So, then I was thinking maybe this is a set-up for budget travel or maybe the next Air bnb, only for cheapskates. Or affordable housing. ‘You don’t need to be a king to live here.’
“But now we got two portraits, and the second one is a chick. And they burn that one too. So, what are they saying?”
I finished a bite of toast and drank some coffee. “Maybe they’re saying forget the man-versus-woman thing. Maybe they’re reaching out to people who are non-gender-conforming.”
Irene put more syrup on the last of her pancakes. “That makes sense, but the demographic is pretty small. It would have to be a non-profit, maybe a public service announcement.”
Irene finished her pancakes and said. “If this was just about wealthy people, kings and queens, and we burn them, whoever is doing this would just use two random portraits. What are the chances they would end up with Louie and his lady-friend?”
“The chances would be pretty small if they were picking them off the internet,” I said. “If they were looking in an art history book, Madame de Pompadour would be practically on the same page with the king, so the chances would be good.”
Irene finished her coffee and stared out the window for a moment. “I can’t make any sense out of it.”
“Why is this important?” I asked.
“Like I said, I want to pitch the burning portrait to an indie film company. If somebody on my team asks me if it has been used before, I need to know the facts.” She grabbed the check. “This is on me.”
“Yeah. You did the research for me. Plus, you know, I feel sorry for you still living at home.”
I laughed. “Whatever.”
We paid, said our goodbyes, and I walked over to 48th and Geary to get the 38R. On the ride back to 25th Avenue, it occurred to me I didn’t have enough to rework my lecture on Rococo. What would be the point of showing the videos? I could tell my students not everybody likes Rococo, but that would not be a revelation.
If I knew who painted the portraits in the videos, I might be able to connect them to something we cover in class. But unless I got lucky and just happened to see them in a Google search, it would be hard to identify the artist. Maybe a study of the artist’s technique would allow me to go through a book on French Rococo painters and look for the same characteristics. Then, if I found one that looked similar, I could search that artist’s catalog to see if he made portraits of Louis XV and Madame de Pompadour.
Frankly that was a lot more time than I wanted to spend on Rococo. Although the technique of the painters was brilliant, it was all art made to flatter rich people. To me, that meant it had no worthwhile purpose in the world.
By the time I transferred to the 29 bus, got off at Kirkham and 19th Avenue and walked home, I still hadn’t decided whether to go ahead with studying these two portraits or drop it for now. I needed to get back to California Impressionism. I could always find out more about the portraits if I wanted new material for my lecture or if Irene wanted to know something else about them.
As I stopped at the street-level door next to the garage door of my house, I heard a car door slam in front of the house next door. When I looked up a woman was walking toward me. She was Asian, taller than me, and dressed in slacks, a blazer, and a raincoat. “Nicole Noonan?” she asked.
I admitted I was.
“I’m Detective Agnes Otani,” she said, opening a wallet and showing me a badge. “U. S. Park Police. Can we sit down and talk for a few minutes?”
While I made tea, Agnes and I talked about our neighborhoods in San Francisco and how the city was changing. Then we sat by the back window of the in-law suite, looking out to the back yard. She had the easy chair, and I sat at my desk.
She began by saying, “You gave Detective Dunham a full account of what happened Thursday morning, and I’ve read his notes. Our lieutenant wants me to go over it again with you. I know it’s a pain, but it’s standard procedure. We do it with everybody.”
“No problem,” I said. “I’m happy to help.”
She smiled. “So, you were out for a hike on the Bay Ridge Trail. How did you get there?”
“I got to the Presidio on the 43 bus. From the Transit Center, I walked over to the National Cemetery and walked up the Park Trail. When I got to the Bay Ridge Trail, I headed west because I’d never seen what was out there.”
Agnes nodded, reading from some printed pages and writing in her own notebook. “And what made you stop where you did?”
“Seeing the body. Is that what you mean?”
“What were you doing before that?”
“I came to a spot where the trail splits. One branch is marked ‘Pedestrian Only,’ so I went that way so I wouldn’t have to watch out for bikes for a while. The trail winds around. At one point, off to the right, there’s a view of an open space where there’s some maintenance equipment parked. I guess I stopped to look at that. I looked down because there’s a footpath through the vines on the ground, and I saw a person lying on the ground there.”
Without looking up from her notes, Agnes asked, “And what was your first thought?”
“I thought maybe he was injured . . .”
“I could tell it was a man from the clothing and the shape of the body.”
“I think I may have called out to see if he needed help. He didn’t react so I walked a little closer, and I could see he was just lying there with his eyes open. So, I called 9-1-1.”
Agnes compared the printed sheet with her notebook for a moment before asking, “What happened next?”
“I heard some footsteps in the gravel on the trail where I had just come from. I looked across the open space and saw a man walking back that way.”
Agnes scowled at her notes for several seconds before saying, “You didn’t mention this to Detective Dunham.”
She looked up and smiled. “See? This is why we like to go back over things. Sometimes you remember things you left out.”
“I guess I didn’t think of it at the time. There was a lot going on. I saw the man for maybe two seconds before he disappeared behind some trees.”
“Can you describe him?”
“I know he was wearing a hat. Maybe khakis and a windbreaker, dark green. Or it could have been dark blue.”
“Anything else about him?”
I shook my head. “It was so quick.”
“That’s alright,” she said. “You’re doing great. What happened after that?”
“I called 9-1-1. They took my number and said they’d have the Park Police call me. While I was waiting, I made a drawing. Would you like to see it?”
She nodded. I fetched my sketchpad from the bottom of a pile of papers on my desk and showed her the correct page. Showing no reaction, she said, “Could I get a copy of that?”
I went to my printer and copied the page. “I saw a coyote while I was waiting for the Park Police.”
Agnes smiled and nodded.
I gave her the copy. She glanced at it and bundled it with her printed pages. “Then what?”
“The Park Police called me back. While I was talking with the operator, an officer arrived on horseback. She asked me some questions. Some paramedics came, but they didn’t do anything. Another officer walked by. Then Detective Dunham showed up and interviewed me.”
Agnes set her notebook down on the arm of the chair and flipped through the copies in her left hand until she found the one she was looking for and handed it to me. “What can you tell me about that?”
She handed me a color photocopy of a portrait done in pencil on brown paper by a highly accomplished artist. I recognized it as the one I had glimpsed in the dead man’s open backpack. The subject, a man, was shown in profile, which made his long, pointed nose especially prominent. It was probably a study for a painting.
I was intrigued when I noticed he wore a wig tied with a ribbon in back, a high collar, and a jacket with large buttons, all typical of a wealthy man of the 1700s. His costume was not so opulent as those worn by royalty in their formal portraits, but the subject was most likely a man with some aristocratic title. Although this portrait had no apparent connection to those in the videos Irene showed me, the coincidence was striking.
“Nicole?” asked Agnes. “Did you hear me? What can you tell me about this picture?” She held out her hand for the copy I’d been looking at, and I gave it back to her.
“It’s a drawing of a wealthy man wearing clothes typical of the 1700s. It was done by someone very skillful.”
“So, it’s similar to those,” she said, looking toward my desk.
I looked over and saw the printed copies of the portraits from the two videos. “Those are oil paintings of a king and his mistress. The one you have is a pencil sketch of a man who was wealthy, but not a king.”
“But are those from the same time period as this one?”
“Do you take a special interest in this kind of art?”
“No. Just the opposite.”
She frowned. “When I find you have copies of portraits from the 1700s on your desk, it makes me think this is a special interest of yours.”
“No. Those are just something I was looking at for a friend, not an interest of mine at all.”
“But you can see how I would think that. Then, when you tell me this picture from the dead man’s backpack is also a portrait from the 1700s, it makes me wonder if you had something in common with the dead man.”
“No. It’s just a coincidence.”
“That’s a pretty big coincidence. Did you put this picture in the dead man’s backpack?”
“Do you know who the dead man was?”
“I read it in the news yesterday. Michael Horvath. He started that drone company.”
“That’s right. Was he interested in the same kind of art you’re interested in?”
“I have no idea. And, again, this is not the kind of art I’m interested in.”
“I’m just trying to figure out why he would have the same kind of picture in his backpack that you have on your desk.”
“I don’t know.”
“Nicole, I have a problem. We are investigating whether Michael Horvath was murdered. When I talked with Detective Dunham and our lieutenant about this, they thought it was interesting that you’re an artist . . .” She held up the copy of my drawing I had made for her. “. . . and the dead man was carrying this photocopy of a work of art.” She held up the copy of the portrait done in pencil. “When I tell them that I saw the same kind of historical picture on your desk, they will want to know how that could be.”
“As I said, it’s a coincidence.”
“I don’t think they will be very happy with that answer. So, I’m going to ask you again. Did you put this picture in Michael Horvath’s backpack?”
“Do you know how it got there?”
“You were there, alone with the dead man . . .”
“No. I told you there was someone else. The man I saw walking away.”
“You didn’t mention that to Detective Dunham, and you don’t seem to remember him very well. It could be you were alone with Michael Horvath and he showed you this picture,” she held up the portrait done in pencil, “or you gave it to him, and he put it in his backpack.”
“No. Stop saying these things.”
“Do you own a handgun?”
“No. We’re done talking. I want you to leave now.”
She stood up and said. “Of course. That’s your right.”
I walked to the door of the apartment and opened it.
“We will talk again, Nicole. I need answers to these questions before I can prepare a statement for you to sign.”
We walked through the garage and I opened the street door for her.
She handed me her card. “Call me if you remember anything.”
I took the card. “Please, leave.”
I watched her go to her car and noticed it was a black Prius. There were only about 10,000 of those in San Francisco, but still I would be on the lookout for the next few days to see if she was following me anywhere.
I closed the street door, locked it, ran into my apartment, grabbed my phone, and called Irene. When she answered, I said, “I need to talk to you.”
“We just had breakfast. Are you in love with me now?”
“Shut up. I am totally freaked out by something that just happened and I need to talk to you.”
“Where are you?”
“At home, but I don’t want to talk here. Where are you?”
“On my bike, on the Golden Gate Bridge.”
“I’ll catch the 43 bus to the Presidio.”
“I’ll meet you at the Transit Center.”
When I got off the bus at the Transit Center on the Presidio’s Main Post, Irene was kicked back on a bench with a bottle of water and a bag of chips. She wore a helmet, leggings, and a green neon vest over a t-shirt. Her bike was leaning against the building.
“I’ll be right back,” I said. Inside, I bought a small bag of trail mix and a bottle of juice. When I walked back out, the wind hit me. “It’s kind of cold to sit out.”
“Let’s go over to Montgomery,” said Irene.
We turned the corner and walked west, into the wind, past the Main Post Visitor Center.
“What’s got you freaked out?” asked Irene.
“A cop came to see me.”
“Was he cute?”
“She wanted to talk to me about the dead guy I found Thursday morning up on the Bay Ridge Trail,” I said.
“Oh, right. I heard about that. Somebody saw aerial videos of his backyard barbecue online and killed the guy who invented that drone app.”
“Wait a minute! Where did you hear that?”
“A guy at work told me,” said Irene.
“Where did he hear it?”
“I don’t know. He didn’t say.”
“So, you don’t know if that’s true.”
We walked past a couple of the big, red-brick barracks on Montgomery Avenue, and found one where no one was using the front porch. Irene leaned her bike against the railing, took off her helmet, and shook out her hair. We settled on a bench overlooking the parade ground, which was maintained as a lawn of almost billiard-table perfection. Facing east, with the building blocking the wind, we were comfortable.
I picked up where we had left off. “I don’t think your story is true. This police detective was waiting for me when I got home from our breakfast. She’s trying to figure out who killed him, and she seems to think maybe I did it.”
Irene choked on her chips. “I thought you were the one who called it in.”
“So, . . . What? . . . Did she think you killed the guy, then called the police to say he’s dead, and waited around for them to show up?”
“We didn’t get that far into what she thought. At first, she was just going over notes from my interview with the other detective on Thursday morning. Then she showed me this photocopy of a picture that was in the dead guy’s backpack and guess what: it’s a drawing of a guy dressed the way people dressed in the 1700s.”
Irene stared at me for a moment. “You’ve lost me.”
“It’s a portrait from the same period as the ones in your videos.”
“I printed out copies of the portraits from the videos so I could study them. She saw them on my desk and decided I must be really into Rococo. Then she showed me this other one and asked if I put it in the dead guy’s backpack.”
Irene sat back and stared out over the parade ground for a moment. “Okay, I can see how she got there, but that’s a stretch.”
“Freaked me out.”
“I can see why. So, what happens now?”
I shook my head. “I don’t know. I told her I was done talking, and she should leave. On the way out she tells me I’ll have to talk to her again. I don’t know what to expect.”
Irene shifted around on the bench to face me. “You didn’t kill the guy, so they’re not going to find anything that proves you did. You can’t be worried about that.”
“I guess not. But in the meantime, she can keep coming after me. Now that I think about it, what I’m most afraid of is saying something stupid . . . something that sounds wrong but isn’t . . . something that could end up making this go on longer.”
Irene thought about it for a minute. “Get a lawyer. Have him with you when this cop wants to talk to you. Your lawyer will keep you from saying something stupid.”
I felt the beginnings of a stomachache. “On my assistant professor’s salary, I just about break even every month. What am I going to do? Ask my parents to pay for it?”
“They would. You know that.”
“I know, but that would be so embarrassing.”
“That’s what family is for,” said Irene.
“What is what family is for?”
“To keep each other out of jail.”
I laughed so loud, a couple of people throwing a football out on the parade ground glanced over at us. I needed that laugh. “That’s so true, Irene. Forget about nurturing children and caring for the elderly. Forget about love and mutual support. The real reason we have families is to keep us out of jail.”
“Of course. Everybody knows that.”
“Thanks for putting that into perspective for me." I paused to catch my breath. “However, I have another concern. I would feel better if I knew a little more about the dead guy.”
“Somebody killed him for a reason. I’d like to know what some possible reasons are, based on family life, work, fooling around on the side . . . You know, the usual stuff.”
“Why do you care?” she asked.
“That way, when this cop comes at me again, I could throw some other theories at her about people who had better reasons than me to kill him.”
“What do you mean, ‘better reasons?’ You don’t have a reason.”
“Right,” I said. “But I was there, so the cop’s trying to find out if maybe I did have a reason. I’d like to be able to say, ‘Why don’t you ask these other people?’”
Irene gave me a pained look. “I get what you’re saying, but I still think you’d be better off with a lawyer.”
“Here’s a better idea. Why don’t you find out about Horvath for me?”
“Because I have a job and a life.”
“I’ll help you out with your job,” I said. “I can look into these portraits in the videos. Maybe, I can find out who the artist is. Maybe that will give us a clue about why someone burned the paintings. I can talk to a scholar who specializes in this period and show him the portraits. He may come up with something I wouldn’t even think to ask about.”
Irene nodded. “That sounds helpful, and I would really appreciate that, but I’m not sure I can do what you’re asking. I don’t know anybody in tech, at least not the kind of people who invent apps.”
“But you know people who know people. You could just ask around and see what comes up.”
“Yeah. I could do that,” she said. “And I really would like to know what’s up with these burning portrait videos. If it’s not already somebody’s brilliant idea for a marketing campaign, it might turn it into my brilliant idea. Okay, Nicole, you got yourself a deal.”
“I got to go. I’m supposed to help gran do some shopping.”
As I hugged her, my phone rang. I glanced at it and said, “It’s Pat.”
“Tell him I said hi,” she said, as she strapped on her helmet.
I answered my phone and said, “Hi, Babe.”
“Hey! What are you up to?”
It was so good to hear that voice again. “I was just hanging out at the Presidio with Irene.”
“How’s she doing?”
“She’s great.” I watched her ride up Montgomery Avenue. “How are you doing?”
“I’m ready for a break.”
His voice did sound tired. “I hope you’re going to be here for Thanksgiving. About once a day somebody asks if you’re coming. I’d hate to disappoint them.”
“I’ll fly out on Thanksgiving Day and then come back on Monday. I’ll email my flight info.”
“Sounds good. By the way, Dad has already booked Saturday afternoon for you. He’s going over to Uncle Frank’s house to watch football and wants you to come along.”
Pat chuckled. “That’s nice of him to think of me. Of course, really, I’m coming out to spend time with you, so we should make our plans first.”
“Way to go! You said the right thing. But don’t worry. I’ll be happy to let you be one of the guys for a few hours. I’ll think of something to do.”
I heard him take a deep breath before saying, “It will be good to see your face again.”
I replied, using my low sexy phone voice. “Play your cards right, and you’ll see a lot more than that.”
He laughed. “Don’t get me started. I have to run errands. I’ll email you.”
We hung up, and I started walking back to the Transit Center. A couple of times during that call, I thought about telling him that Mom was concerned about where we would be living when we started having babies. That might have been good for a laugh.
But it might also have started a conversation about several other life-changing decisions involving careers and moving across country. That conversation would go better after we’d relieved the stress of being apart and had some fun with family and friends. Perhaps I would bring it up while we were out for a long walk somewhere.
Meanwhile, I had promised Irene I would consult a professor of art history about those videos of burning Rococo portraits. I opened the browser on my phone and went to the website for my alma mater, San Francisco State. On the page for faculty in the School of Art, I did not see Professor Gottlieb, who got me started in art history. Perhaps he had retired . . . or worse. I’d been looking forward to a chat with him about Rococo and his recommendation of an expert in Rococo somewhere in the Bay Area. Now, it seemed I was on my own.
As I rode home on the 43 bus, I continued searching, but found no likely prospects. At home, searching on my laptop, I found a faculty member at UC Berkeley specializing in Baroque and Rococo and sent her an email, identifying myself, and asking for an appointment on Monday.
Since I had no way of knowing what her schedule might be on Mondays, or if she was even teaching this semester, I kept searching. “Rococo” turned up on the websites of most schools as a topic in an art history survey course, but I turned up only two other faculty members whose biographies said they were specialists in this period. One was at UC Santa Cruz, but I couldn’t see myself making a trip down there.
The other was at Wilbur College, which I’d never heard of. A visit to their website told me it was a small, independent, liberal arts college. According to his bio, Martin Durand, adjunct professor of art history, taught a course entitled “Art of the Baroque and Rococo.” He had degrees in art history from Gettysburg College and Pennsylvania State University and belonged to the College Art Association and Northern California Art Historians.
“Degrees” probably meant BA and MA, because a PhD would surely have been mentioned if he’d earned it. Membership in professional associations could mean simply that he paid his dues but could also mean he was active in the profession. There was no mention of journals where he had published, which made me skeptical, but still he was probably aware of who was saying what about Rococo these days, and that was all I needed. He would make a fine backup in case I didn’t hear from the professor at Berkeley.
Monday morning, I received an enthusiastic reply from Professor Durand, saying he would be “delighted” to share his knowledge of Rococo. He hoped I could visit the campus of Wilbur College, and he offered to meet me at the Warm Springs BART station. Since I hadn’t heard from the professor at Berkeley, I accepted Durand’s invitation and we set up a meeting for Tuesday afternoon.
Contrary to its name, Warm Springs was chilly when I stepped off the BART train. While zipping up my canvas jacket, and wishing I’d worn a sweater with my blouse and wool slacks, I looked around and easily recognized the college professor. He wore a wool cap, tweed jacket, corduroy pants, and sturdy shoes. I walked toward him and, as I got closer, saw that his neatly trimmed mustache and goatee did nothing to hide his sunken cheeks. His generally wasted appearance might have come from age, since his hair was gray.
When I asked if he was Professor Durand, he looked at me as if puzzled why I was asking. A moment later, he said, “Ah! Of course. Professor Noonan. Welcome.” No doubt he wasn’t expecting someone who looked Asian, even though I’d signed my email, “Nicole Tang Noonan.” “Right this way,” he cried as if leading tourists toward some spectacle. We walked to the adjacent parking lot where he unlocked his Volvo, which I guessed was as old as I was.
Once we were under way, he said, “I owe you a proper introduction. Martin Durand, adjunct professor of art history, Wilbur College.” He pronounced his last name with a French accent. “I should explain. My family name, Durand, is a very old French name. It is from the word “durant.” meaning “lasting” or “permanent.”
“That’s interesting. I’m Nicole Noonan. I teach at Cardinal University in Ohio. Please, call me, ‘Nicole.’”
“Of course,” he replied, leaving me to wonder if I should address him as Martin. “And what has brought you to the Bay Area?” he asked.
“I’m on research leave, but I’m originally from . . .”
“I’ve been at Wilbur for several years now,” he said, apparently uninterested in my background. “For most of my career, I consulted with galleries and museums, but these days I can’t keep up the kind of schedule that entails so much travel. I thought it was time to settle down and make my contribution to the academic world. It’s less stimulating, but I find great rewards in helping to shape young minds.”
The ride to the Wilbur campus took only a few minutes. Really, I could have walked and probably should have insisted on doing so.
During our walk to the building where the Art Department was housed, he speculated on the changing role of “institutions of higher education,” and I had time to notice the campus probably was built as a suburban office park.
Durand ushered me into a building labeled “Liberal Arts,” though he referred to it as the “School of Arts and Humanities.” As we walked along a corridor, he called out to a man walking by. “Thomas, allow me to introduce you to Professor . . . um . . .”
“Nicole Noonan,” I said.
“Yes,” said Durand. “Professor Noonan is a visiting scholar I’m hosting today.”
The man nodded to me and said, “Pleased to meet you.” Turning to Durand, he said, “Sorry, Martin, I have to run.”
He didn’t actually run, but he took off down the corridor at a good clip.
Durand unlocked a door and announced, “My office.”
It was a room large enough to accommodate four desks without feeling crowded. Each desk had an armchair sitting next to it for the student visiting her professor or teaching assistant. Each desk had a phone and scratch pad on it, and not much else. There was no window.
Durand seated himself at one of the desks and waved me toward the armchair. “I wish I had something more comfortable to offer you. The college’s current round of expansion hasn’t allowed each of us his own office. I understand that. After all, I’m not on campus every semester. From what I hear offices are in the plans for next summer.”
“This is fine,” I said. “I just wanted to ask you about . . .”
“Rococo! Yes. It’s a fascinating period. The vast amount of money spent on works of art, furniture, and interior design allowed artists to take their craft to unparalleled heights.” While he spoke, I pulled my iPad from my bag and brought the first video onto the screen. “Did you know that one member of the van Loo family of painters put recent discoveries about the properties of light into his paintings by including mirrors, lenses and so forth in the picture?”
“Would you mind taking a look at this?” I offered him the iPad.
He looked at me as if I had just suggested he stand on his head and whistle Dixie. When I didn’t react, he looked at the iPad as if it were from outer space.
I set the iPad on his desk, using the cover as an easel, and tapped the play button on the video. “I’d like your opinion on this.”
As the video began to play, Durand leaned in to take a closer look. “Rococo portrait, obviously. I don’t recognize it. What is he doing? . . . Oh, no!”
I looked at the iPad and saw that the portrait had just ignited.
“Oh, no! No!” cried Durand. He had covered his mouth with both hands. “Oh, that’s horrible,” he yelled, but he couldn’t turn his eyes away from it. “Who would do such a thing?”
“That is one of my questions,” I said. “Is there any current controversy surrounding Rococo art in general, or portraits in particular, that might prompt someone to make this video and post it publicly?”
Durand continued to stare at the video, slack jawed. I waited until the spell was broken and he remembered I was in the room. “I must say I’m shocked,” he whispered.
“Professor, do you have any idea what this might mean?” I asked.
“It is a crime,” he said, ignoring my question. “This destruction of a nation’s legacy . . .”
“I don’t think it’s real. I don’t see why someone would destroy a two-hundred-fifty-year-old painting when they could make the same point by using a cheap reproduction.”
“Real or not, it is an attack on the soul of France.”
I had to make him think about the video and stop crafting his own reaction to it. “Professor Durand, who would benefit by arousing hostility toward Rococo?”
He held his mouth open as if on the verge of speaking but could only shake his head.
I took the iPad and found the second video. “There is a similar video that was posted shortly after the one you’ve seen.” Again, I set up the iPad on his desk and pressed play.
As before he leaned in, more in horror now than in curiosity as before. After about twenty seconds, he covered his eyes with one hand. “Make it stop,” he said. “I don’t think I could go through that again.”
I stopped the video and put the iPad back in my purse. “Do you recognize the subjects in the portraits?”
“Yes, the clothing tells us that. I’ve compared both with known portraits and I’m fairly sure the first is Louis XV and the second is Madame de Pompadour. Does that sound right to you?”
He pursed his lips and nodded.
“What about the artist? I don’t know this period well enough to guess whether it might be by Boucher, Nattier, Drouais, or someone else. Which artists come to your mind?”
He gestured toward the iPad. “The image is so small. It’s impossible.”
I reached into my bag and pulled out the printed copies I had made of the portraits. “These are enlargements of the portraits in the videos. They’re a little blurry, but I would appreciate any suggestions. If I have the names a few artists, I can consult their known works and see if these portraits turn up in their catalogs.”
Durand stared at the copies and shook his head. “No. I’m sorry. No one comes to mind.”
“When you looked at the first video, you seemed to think someone was destroying actual works of art. If that’s true, do you think this could be an attack on the legacy of a particular artist?”
He raised his eyes to the ceiling and shuddered.
“Are you aware of any acts of iconoclasm involving Rococo art recently or in the past.”
“No.” he said. “Nothing like that”
“Have Rococo portraits turned up in popular culture recently? Every now and then a pop singer or a fashion designer picks a classical image and distorts it for some purpose. Are you aware of anything like that?”
Durand looked at me as if I were insane. “I am not aware of such things.”
Obviously, Durand had nothing to offer me. I stood up. “Thank you for your time, Professor Durand. I’ll be going now.”
He stood up. “I’ll take you to the station.”
“No, thank you,” I said. “I’d like to walk. It’s really the only exercise I get.”
“But we’ve barely scratched the surface.” By that he meant I hadn’t spent enough time listening to him.
“I must get back to my research. And I know you have important work to do for your students, here at Wilbur College.”
At that he looked pleased, though he tried to stifle it.
“Thank you, Professor,” I said. “Good-bye.”
The twenty-minute walk back to the BART station helped me let go of the frustration I felt from spending an hour traveling to this meeting and getting nothing for my trouble. Along the way, I thought about ways to investigate Durand and expose him for the fraud he was.
For one thing, I wanted to check with Gettysburg College and Penn State and find out if he really did have “degrees” in art history. I also wanted to check with College Art Association and Northern California Art Historians and find out if he really did pay for memberships and if he had ever even attended a conference or appeared on a panel.
Though he hadn’t claimed any publications, I wanted to run his name through the relevant indexes just to make sure he had never in fact published so much as a footnote. And I thought about googling his name and every synonym for “dealer” and “museum” I could think of to see if there was anything remotely true about his claim to have worked as a consultant.
When I had collected all this proof, I wanted to write a letter to the chair of the art department and expose him for the fake he obviously was.
By the time I had played through all this in my head, I was on the train, riding back to San Francisco. I asked myself why I would want to spend all that time thinking about Martin Durand. It wasn’t my job to guard the integrity of Wilbur College. However, I did feel a duty to my profession.
That thought made me feel cold all over. I wasn’t sure how much longer academia would be my profession. Throughout my childhood and teenage years, I followed my bliss by immersing myself in art and stories about artists. In college, I got seriously interested in studying the history of art. In graduate school, I became a scholar and followed the usual path for an art historian which lead to higher education. The reality of that choice became clear when the only job I could get was far away from my home in a place I didn’t understand.
I stuck with it, made friends on campus, and made the most of it when I got the opportunity to open the college’s art gallery. Then, in my third year, I got caught in the crossfire between the Liberal Arts and Business schools. That’s when I learned that colleagues, chairs, and deans were willing to turn a blind eye to cheating rather than offend high-value donors.
Since then, I’d been just going through the motions. My students didn’t seem to notice a difference. I applied for a research leave, as recommended by my friend, Abbie, but scholarship seemed like a dead end when I didn’t believe in my teaching.
That, I realized, was the reason I was frustrated with my research on Ursula Kemper and California Impressionism. I didn’t have a reason to do it. Studying the subject was as interesting as ever, but I no longer believed I was building an academic career.
Feeling wobbly, I got off at the Embarcadero station to transfer to Muni Metro for the ride to my home in the Inner Sunset. While waiting for the N train, I checked my phone and saw a text from Irene. “Got lucky. Info on Horvath. Let’s meet.” Irene’s office was a few blocks away, south of Market on Second street, and it was a little before noon, so I texted back, “Lunch?”
“Greenhouse,” she wrote back.
“C U there,” I replied.
With a sandwich and a bottle of water in my bag, I hurried over to Second and Mission and sat at a small table in the Greenhouse. Walking by, most people thought this was the lobby of the office tower at that corner and assumed its use was restricted to people who work in the building. In fact, it was a public open space as required of all newer skyscrapers. Whenever I was downtown, I made use of these, and the Greenhouse was my favorite with its indoor trees, monumental sculpture and a huge, colorful, abstract painting.
As tables all around started to fill up, Irene walked out of an elevator, crossed the room, and sat opposite me. “Just happened to be downtown?”
“Just got off BART,” I replied. “I was on my way back from talking to a professor. I’ll tell you about it. First tell me what you’ve got on Horvath.”
“Totally got lucky,” she said as she unpacked her bento box. “That guy I mentioned before— the one who said somebody offed Horvath because he saw videos of his backyard barbecue online—I asked where he got that, and he said he ‘heard it somewhere.’ So, I think we can forget that theory.
“But while we were talking, Coleen came by and said, ‘Are you talking about Horvath?’ I said yeah, and she said it was a shame he got killed because his company was about to start running drones with AI and that would have gotten him a ton of venture capital.”
“Hold on,” I said. “What’s this about running drones?”
“Supposedly he was close to a deal to start using AI, artificial intelligence.”
“Which means what exactly?”
“Basically, it’s like those supercomputers that beat those Grand Master chess players. When you program a computer to do something that only people are smart enough to do, that’s called artificial intelligence.”
I thought back to what I had seen on the website for Vectartec. “Okay, so right now, some guy with a drone can open the app on his phone, see a request to fly over a freeway and see what traffic is like . . .”
“Or get pictures of somebody’s backyard barbecue.”
“Whatever. And the guy with the drone can do the fly-over, send the pictures, and get paid. So, what would the AI do?”
Irene munched on some edamame while she thought about that. “I don’t know. We didn’t really get into that.”
“But your friend, Coleen, thinks this is why somebody killed Horvath.”
“No. She didn’t say that. She just said the AI deal was supposed to take Horvath’s business to a whole new level. At least, that’s the buzz around town. So, it seemed ironic for him to get killed just when he was about to make it big.”
I ate some of my sandwich and took a big swallow of water. “I’m trying to imagine myself telling this to that cop who came to see me. I’d be telling her, instead of investigating me, she should find somebody who didn’t want Horvath to get AI. I’m not sure that gets me much leverage.”
“Well, I’ve got a little more for you,” said Irene. “I did some googling about Horvath and his company and AI, and I came up with a blog post by a guy who writes a lot about this stuff.” Irene unloaded most of the contents of her purse onto the tabletop and unzipped every compartment. When she didn’t find what she was looking for, she sighed and said, “I have it written on a sticky note, but I must have left it upstairs. Anyway, the guy’s name is Werner Mittendorf.”
I pulled a notebook and pen out of my bag, and said, “I’d better write that down.”
After spelling the name for me, Irene said, “He writes this blog called ‘Sili Valley,’ and he’s had articles in the Chronicle and some tech magazines. Anyway, this one blog post was about Horvath’s company and how they might use AI. I only glanced at it, and some of it was over my head, but you might want to look it up.”
“I’ll definitely do that. If the article mentions people who were against Horvath’s plan, that would give me some names to throw at this cop.”
“What about my videos?” asked Irene. “Any ideas on why somebody wants to make flaming art the talk of the town?”
I groaned. “I wish. I wasted my entire morning taking BART out to Warm Springs to visit a college and talk to a guy who teaches a course on Baroque and Rococo. All I found out was that he doesn’t know what he’s talking about. The guy is a total poser.”
Irene looked confused. “Warm Springs is pretty far out there, isn’t it?”
“Past Fremont. End of the line.”
“So, why does a guy in a small town want to go around acting like he knows all about art most people haven’t heard of?”
“I don’t know. Maybe he always wanted to grow up to be a professor, and now he can tell the folks back home that he is.”
“Any chance he could be our arsonist?”
I laughed. “If you had seen his face when I showed him the videos . . . I thought he was going to faint. An attack on his art was an attack on him.”
“Or he acted like it was.”
I shook my head. “I don’t think he’s that good of an actor.”
“So, we’re no farther than we were on this.”
“No. I’m sorry, but it was a long shot anyway. I just wanted to ask someone who’s tuned-in to Rococo whether there was any chatter in the art world about it these days. I thought maybe prices for Rococo in the art market might have tanked recently, and somebody was making a joke about it by showing Rococo paintings going up in flames. I’m still waiting for an email back from a professor at Berkeley. I might find out something from her.
“But I have another thought. When you showed me that first video, you asked why someone would burn an expensive painting. I assumed it was a cheap reproduction, and someone was using it to make some kind of point. Now I’m not so sure. What if they’re real?”
Irene shrugged. “I don’t know. What if they are?”
“Then I would have to wonder who would burn a real painting from the 1700s. Certainly not someone who paid a lot of money for it.”
Irene got that crazy look in her eyes. “Maybe somebody who hates Louie and Madam Poopy-doo and wants to erase all traces of them.”
“If that’s true, they’ll have to burn a lot of paintings.”
“Maybe somebody who hates this artist and wants to destroy all his work.”
“Maybe, but that will be expensive.”
“Unless he’s stealing them.”
That rang a bell. “You might be onto something.”
“Seriously? I was just joking around.”
“Yeah, seriously. I hadn’t thought about this having something to do with art theft, but it might. You know how in movies about art heists the thief is always some handsome rich guy who comes up with a clever plan to take a famous masterpiece off the wall of a museum so he can have it all to himself.”
“Right. I’ve seen one or two of those.”
“That never happens in real life. What does happen is this: a gang of thugs, guys who are into drugs, prostitution, and other bad stuff, drive up to the front door of a museum, walk in, pull out guns, take a painting, and walk out.”
“How can they get away with that?”
“You may have noticed museums don’t have armed guards in all the doorways because what’s the point of starting a gunfight in a museum?”
“But they must have other kinds of security. Don’t they have cameras?”
“Sure. That way they know what the anonymous thieves look like.”
“But the museum is full of people. There would be witnesses.”
“Yes. They would all say, ‘It was a big man with a gun. It happened so fast.’”
“Wait a minute. This is crazy. What about insurance companies? They wouldn’t insure the art if the museum didn’t have some way to protect it.”
“Museums don’t insure their collections.”
“Oh, come on! Now I know you’re kidding.”
“No. I’m not. What would be the point? Let’s say you have a Vermeer. You think it will sell for $100 million. It gets stolen. If it’s insured, and your insurance company pays off, what do you do with the money? You can’t buy a replacement. So, why pay for insurance?”
“Okay. You’re saying these guys can rob a museum just like robbing a convenience store. Why do they do it? Did some rich guy pay them to steal it?”
“No. That’s just in the movies.”
“So, do they find a way to sell it?”
“No. Who’s going to buy it? Within an hour it’s all over the internet that Vermeer’s painting of whatever has just been stolen from the what’s-it museum. You’d have to be crazy to buy it from criminals and hang it on your wall.”
“If nobody hired them to steal it, and they can’t sell it, why do they do it?
“To show they can. It gives them bragging rights. It shows the other bad guys that they can pull off a high-profile robbery.”
Irene was staring off into the distance. “So, it is a form of marketing. Or maybe branding.”
I laughed. “Yeah, you could say that.”
“What do they do with the painting?”
“If it’s a famous one and the robbery gets a lot of publicity, they keep it as a trophy. They can show it to other bad guys to prove they did it. Sometimes the painting becomes a form of currency. If they’re dealing drugs and there’s a dispute about how much they owe, they might say, ‘Take the painting, and we’ll call it even.’”
“What if the painting’s not famous?”
“They trash it.”
“So, why would they steal a painting that’s not famous if they’re just going to trash it?”
“We’re not talking about guys who do a lot of research and planning.”
“My mind is totally blown. Getting back to my problem, why would thieves burn the painting and post a video?”
“This is just a guess. Maybe they stole the portraits, then found out they aren’t famous or all that expensive. Instead of throwing them in a dumpster, they decided to make the videos as a way of bragging or to taunt the police.”
Irene watched the busy street for a moment before saying, “If you’re right about all this, we do not want to meet the people who made those videos.”
“No, we don’t. But I’m just guessing. At this point, we don’t even know if those paintings were stolen. I’ll ask around.”
“Maybe you should ask quietly.”
“Don’t worry. I can check some databases on stolen art, maybe talk to a dealer.”
“I’d appreciate that. I’m on a deadline. I’ll have to pitch the burning-portraits idea to that indie film company, but I don’t want to attract the attention of some gangsters. So, ask around, but don’t take any chances.”
“Do you want me to follow up on the AI?”
“No. I’ll read Mittendorf’s blog post and see if I can talk to him. I’ll let you know if I need any more help with that.”
Irene packed up her bento box and got up. “Okay, chica. Be good or be careful.”
We hugged and she headed for the elevators.
I stayed at the table in the Greenhouse and googled Mittendorf. His website and blog showed up along with lots of links to articles he had published. On his website, I used the contact page to send him an email saying I was a freelance journalist writing about the recent death of Michael Horvath and I wanted to ask him some questions about Horvath’s intended use of AI. Most of that was partly true.
Then I searched his blog and found his post on Horvath’s possible use of AI. My brain started to melt when I saw phrases like “deep learning,” “language parsing,” and “inductive logic programming.”
While I was wondering what to do next, I got an email back from Mittendorf suggesting we meet around three o’clock in the cafe downstairs in the Main Library. I’d hoped we could meet later in the week, but I was afraid to ask for a postponement. Maybe if I spent the next ninety minutes upstairs in the library reading about AI, I could at least ask a semi-intelligent question.
I emailed back, “C U then,” and left the Greenhouse bound for Market Street where I could catch a streetcar to the Civic Center.
When I got to the Civic Center, I went first to the Asian Art Museum, next door to the Main Library. I showed my membership card at the front desk, and