Golconda, India, 1653
Jean-Baptiste Tavernier winced as the soldier chopped off the man’s hand. The thief shrieked and dropped to the ground, clutching the bloodied stump to his chest.
Tavernier turned aside with a grimace and ordered the litter bearers beneath him to move faster. Four slaves, dark from the sun, jostled between the crowded stalls of Golconda’s hectic bazaar and away from the public spectacle. The agonized screams faded as they pressed farther into the crowd. Dense heat settled over the marketplace, and Tavernier wiped sweat off his forehead with the back of his hand. Pungent smells assaulted his senses: sweat and urine, spiced curry and sweet chutney, burning incense and rotting vegetables. His litter bumped and rocked through the hustle and bustle of shoppers and merchants haggling over prices. Red and gold bridal wear and precious gold glittered in the stalls. Elephants carried the elite through the narrow streets while dirty children chased each other with sticks.
Tavernier looked across the sea of dark-skinned faces toward an embroidered tent in the midst of the bazaar guarded by two soldiers wearing the white turban and golden sash of the sultan’s army. At his approach the guards stepped aside and pulled back the elaborate flaps.
Tavernier glanced at the heavy wooden chest near his feet and stepped from the litter. “Guard that with your life,” he ordered the soldiers as he entered the tent.
Large, colorful cushions and intricately woven Oriental rugs covered the dirt floor. Mir Jumla, Golconda’s prime minister, lounged on an orange and peacock-blue silk pillow. The heavy brow, black eyes, and prominent nose of the Persian-born general contradicted his Oriental adornment.
Mir stood and greeted Tavernier in the traditional Indian way, with palms together, hands raised in front of his face, and head bowed. “Vanakkam,” he said.
Tavernier lowered his head and returned the greeting.
Mir motioned for him to sit, and they settled onto the cushions.
“Good to see you, Prime Minister,” Tavernier said.
Mir grinned, “Jean-Baptiste Tavernier. Punctual as always.”
“You said it was important?”
Around Mir’s neck hung a buckskin pouch, which he untied and placed in Tavernier’s hand, “I could lose my head for this.”
“Come, come Mir, we both know the sultan would much prefer to chop off your hands and leave you to beg for food like a common slave.”
“My hands it will be then if the sultan ever learns that escaped his grasp.”
Tavernier opened the pouch and emptied the contents into his hand. His eyes widened and the corners of his mouth twitched as he suppressed a grin. In his palm rested the largest blue diamond he had ever seen. He turned it over, running his fingers along the irregular surface.
“This is a great deal more than ten carats. It was my understanding that any diamond over ten carats found in the Kollur mines went directly to the sultan.”
Mir Jumla nodded and pushed back into the cushions. In one hand he fingered a gold coin with his long fingers. “That is the edict. But I never said this stone came from the mines.”
“Since when did you start dealing in stolen gems?”
Mir Jumla thrust out his lower jaw. “You don’t want it then?”
“Of course I do. I am just curious why a man so loyal to the sultan is selling diamonds right out from under his nose.”
“Loyalty, like most things, has a price.” Mir grinned.
Tavernier smiled. “Indeed.” He held up the diamond, letting the light filter through. “Net et d’un beau violet,” he whispered in his native French.
Mir tilted his head to one side.
Tavernier repeated in Indian, “A clear and beautiful violet.”
“Yes. It is flawless.”
Tavernier balanced the stone in his hand for a moment. “One hundred carats, or close to it, I would wager.”
“One hundred twelve.”
“Excellent. And the price?”
“Two-hundred twenty-thousand livres.”
“A little steep.”
“We both know you will not find another such diamond for sale in Golconda. They all sit in the sultan’s treasury.”
“Fair enough.” Tavernier shrugged. “But you still have not told me how you came by this stone.”
Mir hesitated a moment as he studied the coin in his hand. “I would not give that much concern. The last person to own this was made of stone and sat in a Hindu temple on the banks of the Godavari River. A slave named Raj, starving and half-mad, brought it to me three weeks ago, claiming he had chiseled it from the forehead of an idol named Rama Sita.” Mir cast a sideways glance at Tavernier. “Cursed, Raj said. The idol cursed the diamond and all who would come to own it.”
“And where is this Raj now?”
“In the bazaar. I believe my soldiers just relieved him of a hand.”
“That was your doing?”
“I paid him a fair price for the stone three weeks ago, but he came back this morning for more. When I refused, he tried to steal this.” Mir held up the coin.
Tavernier laughed. “A convenient story, my friend.”
“You don’t believe me?”
“Weaving a tale of theft and vengeance is an old jeweler’s trick to induce interest in the buyer. One I have used myself, as a matter of fact.”
Mir gave a curt nod. “May it be on your head. I am glad to sell it and be done.”
“At such a price, I am sure you are. But as far as my head goes, I intend for it to stay in place.”
“The curse does not bother you?”
“I don’t believe in curses, Mir. Besides, we both know they increase the value of trinkets such as this.”
“Then we have only the matter of payment to attend.” Tavernier rose and fetched his treasure chest from the litter. Returning, he set it on the rug before Mir and opened the lock with a small golden key. When he pulled back the lid, hundreds of gold coins spilled onto the carpet before them. Tavernier counted the purchase price before the prime minister, who eyed the gold with hunger. Only a few dozen coins remained in the chest when he was done.
Tavernier slid the great blue diamond back inside the buckskin pouch and tied it around his neck. “Should you stumble across the other eye you will, of course, let me know?”
“Of course,” said Mir with great satisfaction. “And thank you once again for your business.”
The men gave each other a polite nod, and Tavernier stepped from the tent. Within seconds his litter disappeared amidst the writhing mass of vendors, peasants, and hanging goods.
Carnival, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil—Present Day
Abb y Mitchell stared through the window at the feverish display of dancing outside. She placed her palm on the warm plaster wall of the Chacara do Ceu Museum and felt the pounding Samba music pulse against her fingers. She observed the frenzied celebration from within the safety of the museum’s main gallery. An old mansion, turned resting place for some of the world’s most renowned art, the museum was a pleasant combination of low ceilings, cream-colored walls, and quiet elegance.
Her cell phone buzzed, and she took a deep breath before answering. “Good morning , Director Heaton.”
“It’s not all that good, Dr. Mitchell. We have a bit of an issue.” His voice was raspy, the ravages of age and cigarettes.
She cast a nervous glance over her shoulder. “What’s going on?”
“The Collectors. They’ve taken two Van Goghs.”
Abby closed her eyes and pressed her forehead against the window. “Where?”
“We’re not exactly sure. Investigators are baffled. The paintings just disappeared in the middle of the night.”
“Of course not. In ten years they’ve never left a print. Or a clue for that matter.”
“Abby,” his voice prodded on the other line. “You know what this means.”
She nodded, staring at her reflection in the window. “They can’t get their hands on the Dali. And we know they want it.”
“You know what you have to do.”
A weak smile spread across her face. “Let’s just hope I can.”
“Call me when you’re done,” he said, and then hung up the phone.
A handful of tourists wandered the gallery, trying to study the timeless wonders on its plaster walls, but distracted by Carnival just a few feet away.
Lost in her thoughts, Abby paid no attention to the approaching footsteps until she felt a polite tap on her shoulder. She turned to find a woman, in her late fifties, wearing a white linen suit and a gracious smile.
“Dr. Mitchell, I presume?” she said with a distinct Brazilian accent.
Abby held out her hand. “Indeed. And you must be Director Santos?”
“Please, call me Ana.” Though aging quite gracefully, it was obvious Ana Santos had been a sight to behold in her prime.
“Sorry to keep you,” she smiled. “With all the tourists in town, I have been running behind all week. But things should calm down now that Carnival is almost underway.”
“No trouble at all. I’ve been enjoying your remarkable collection.”
Ana stretched out an arm and motioned Abby to follow. They turned their backs to the window and made their way through the gallery toward a series of priceless surrealist paintings. One in particular caught Abby’s attention, and she leaned forward, appreciation evident on her face.
“Now, Dr. Mitchell, you said there was an urgent matter we needed to discuss. I assume more than Carnival brings you to Brazil?”
“I’m afraid so.” She ran a finger over the nameplate which read Two Balconies, Salvador Dali.
Ana beamed. “Fantastic, isn’t it?”
“Two Balconies is the only Salvador Dali painting on display in Latin America. It is one of the Chacara do Ceu’s most prized exhibits.”
Abby tapped her lips in contemplation. “I don’t doubt that.”
“Beautiful ring,” Ana said, glancing at Abby’s finger.
“Thank you. It was a gift.”
She grinned mischievously. “He must love you very much.”
“You would think so.”
Ana smiled sadly and changed the subject. “So what is your concern?”
“I’m worried about this painting.”
“Two Balconies? What do you mean? I thought you felt it would be a spectacular addition to your exhibit next year.”
“I do,” Abby assured her. “My concern is not with the painting itself, but with its safety. I have reason to believe it may be in danger of theft.”
Ana relaxed a little and laughed. “I can assure you, meu caro, we have strict security measures in place. All of our paintings are bolted to the wall and connected to hairtrigger alarms. If a painting is moved even a fraction of an inch, the alarm sets off our security system. In addition we have state-of-the-art video surveillance and round-the clock armed guards.”
“I wasn’t suggesting your security system is sub par, merely that we have gotten word there may be parties interested in this particular Salvador Dali painting.”
Ana flashed a charming smile. “Do you mind me asking your source?”
“I’ve received notice from the art theft division at Interpol. There are rumblings of an illicit interest in Dali and this painting in particular. I thought it prudent to warn you, considering your partnership with the Smithsonian.”
“Why is the International Criminal Police Organization interested in Two Balconies?”
“There has been a rash of thefts recently, and Interpol contacted me with a warning.”
“I appreciate your concern, Dr. Mitchell, but I feel confident we have taken the appropriate measures to protect our facility.”
Abby sighed. “All right. But know you have our full resources at your disposal should you need them.”
“Thank you, Dr. Mitchell. I will certainly take that into consideration.” Ana glanced back at the painting and asked, “I assume the Smithsonian is still planning to include Two Balconies in next year’s exhibit?”
“Absolutely. Preliminary preparations are underway for its transport and security.”
Ana beamed. “We would be delighted to accommodate you in any way. I will, of course, have to accompany the painting to Washington.”
Both women turned back to the window as a loud burst of cheering and music erupted from the throng outside. Viktor Leite, the mayor, was barely audible over the din. Flanked on both sides by voluptuous women dressed in revealing Carnival garb, he screamed into the microphone so he could be heard over the pounding drums.
“Let the festivities begin!”
At his command the massive parade, seventy-thousand people strong, erupted in applause and began to snake through the streets.
“You will be staying for Carnival?” Ana asked.
“I’m afraid not. Duty calls me back to Washington.”
“I thought this was a working vacation?”
“More work than vacation, I’m afraid.”
“Surely the Smithsonian wouldn’t object to you staying an extra day or two?”
Abby sighed. “My flight leaves at noon tomorrow.” Ana opened her mouth to argue her case but was jolted into stunned silence by the thunderous sound of a gunshot. Abby and Ana spun around to find two armed men standing at the museum entrance.