Teo left the engine running. He leaned back in the driver’s seat, keeping his chin tucked into his jacket collar.
Three minutes and twenty seconds.
That was how long Vincenzo said it would take.
Teo glanced at the dashboard clock, but knew he wouldn’t be able to count down each second without going mad. He checked the rearview mirror. A streetlight flickered up ahead, and the far-off drone of traffic buzzed through the humid air. Otherwise, nothing moved.
Teo sighed. He never wanted to come on this job. He’d never wanted to get involved. But he’d also never been able to turn down his brother.
Vincenzo was a charismatic guy, the type who always turned heads in any room he walked into. Teo had long learned how to live in his shadow, tailing him like a Tour de France cyclist, keeping his head down and letting the attention and punches roll off. But this time, when Vincenzo had come to him in the dead of night with fear in his eyes, Teo couldn’t say no.
So here he sat, tapping on the wheel and chewing his lip.
Two minutes. . .
Teo’s fingers twitched for a cigarette, but he’d promised mama he’d quit, and he’d never liked the sickly sweet taste of vapes. He mimed bringing a cig to his lips and taking a drag, then letting it out slow. It didn’t help.
His nerves hadn’t settled since—well, they’d never been settled, but at least since before Vincenzo’s last job. The boss—Vincenzo’s boss, Teo reminded himself—had gotten him out of a tight spot, and now Vincenzo was repaying him, in the only way he knew how.
Sometimes it was watches and jewellery. Once it was books, ancient dusty things from a warehouse outside London, snatched up by rappelling down through the skylights. But tonight, it was a painting. And not just any painting. One that even Teo knew, with his limited memories of his art history class at university. He’d only taken it to spend more time with Lina, but that hadn’t ended well. At least he’d gotten some artsy knowledge out of it.
This painting wasn’t a Van Gogh or a Hals, the ones that had been stolen three times in as many decades from museums up north. No, this was a never-before stolen work, and one that hadn’t ever set the record at auction because it had never been sold.
It had never been moved, never been examined under infrared microscopy or x-rays, nor had it ever been seen outside of its elaborate frame.
And Vincenzo had to steal that too.
Teo hadn’t wanted to believe the rumors Vincenzo told him about the artwork. But he’d dutifully researched it, as he always did for his brother. And the facts, the documents, the provenance, all lined up.
The secret had to be there.
Teo had always fancied himself the more philosophical of the two brothers, more cautious, and much more inclined to overthink than underthink, anyway. He always wondered what his purpose was in life, what his real passion was, the thing that would keep him up at night and drive him out of bed in the morning. It hadn’t been art. It hadn’t been history, or philosophy, or his spreadsheet-pushing analyst job for the municipal government. Nor had it been the family business, which Vincenzo now led, on behalf of his boss.
Teo had always searched for the truth in everything, and had always come up short. Left to chew on dregs and crumbs, always waiting and watching and wanting, but never finding satisfaction.
Perhaps this would be his north star. This masterpiece, and all of its layered secrets.
The painter, and his muse, her name lost to the centuries. The patron, and his lustful greed. Love itself made manifest, in pigments and linseed oil and varnish, darkened by decades of mystery.
Teo’s pulse thumped at the thought of seeing it, of touching it. Of uncovering what lay beneath.
Footsteps jolted him out of his reverie, and he gripped the steering wheel with white knuckles. A man appeared, running as fast as he could with a wrapped bundle in his arms.
Is that it? Shouldn’t it be bigger?
Vincenzo’s sweating face emerged out of the gloom and stopped at the end of the path.
“Here! Quick!” he hissed, and Teo reached out for the bundle.
Its weight fell into his arms, and the cloth covering fell back, revealing a brushstroke, a flesh tone, and a flicker of gold-leaf. The frame was in pieces, nestled next to the painted canvas.
Teo’s eyes widened. “You dismantled it?”
Vincenzo leapt into the passenger seat and slapped the side. “Go!”
Teo set the painting in the backseat as gently as he could, and shifted the gear. He froze. “Where’s Luca?”
Vincenzo’s eyes were bright in the dim light. “Just go.”
Teo’s pulse jumped, but he wasn’t about to argue. That was one of the boss’s rules, of course. No questions.
He pushed the throttle forward and the boat lurched into the canal, cutting through the water like an attacking snake.
The dark city flew past as Teo’s mind raced, calculating their escape route along the canals and into open water. He glanced just once at Vincenzo, but he was facing out, watching the waves churning in their wake. Teo focused ahead, his chest still tight with a held breath.
They’d done it.
Now all he had to do was get them to their hideout, and he could finally see the masterpiece in proper lighting, with the correct tools, and he’d know. At last.
Then once they sold it on, Teo could forge a new path, a new identity for himself, and finally be free from this life that his family had chosen, but he never had. After this one last job, this one last deal. Then it would all be clear, and he’d know once and for all.
The Truth, after so long concealed, would finally be revealed.
Meredith is a writer and art historian who loves to obsess over books, films, TV shows, and music. She mostly writes adult historical fiction with touches of magic and romance. You can read all of her Muses stories here.