Tess Delaney's to-do list was stacked invisibly over her head like the air traffic over O'Hare. She had clients waiting to hear from her, associates hounding her for reports and a makeor-break meeting with the owner of the firm. She pushed back at the pressing anxiety and focused on the task at hand?restoring a treasure to its rightful owner.
The current mission brought her to an overfurnished apartment in Alamo Square. Miss Annelise Winther, still spry at eighty, ushered her into a cozy place with thready lace curtains, dust-ruffled chairs and a glorious scent of something baking. Tess wasted no time in presenting the treasure.
Miss Winther's hands, freckled by age, the joints knotted with arthritis, shook as she held the antique lavaliere. Beneath a pink knitted shawl, her bony shoulders trembled.
"This necklace belonged to my mother," she said, her voice breaking over the word. "I haven't seen it since the spring of 1941." She lifted her gaze to Tess, who sat across the scrubbed pine kitchen table from her. There were stories in the woman's eyes, winking like the facets of a jewel. "I have no words to thank you for bringing this to me."
"It's my pleasure," said Tess. "Moments like this?they're the best part of my job." The sense of pride and accomplishment helped her ignore the insistent buzz of her phone, signaling yet another incoming message.
Annelise Winther was Tess's favorite kind of client. She was unassuming, a woman of modest means, judging by the decrepit condition of her apartment, in one of the city's rambling Victorians that had seen better days. Two cats, whom the woman had introduced as Golden and Prince, lazed in the late-afternoon autumn sunshine spilling through a bumped-out bay window. A homey-looking needlepoint piece hung on the wall, bearing the slogan Live This Day.
Miss Winther took off her glasses, polished them and put them back on. Glancing again at Tess's business card, she said, "Tess Delaney, Provenance Specialist, Sheffield Auction House. Well, Ms. Delaney. I'm extremely glad you found me, too. You've done well for yourself."
Her voice had a subtle tinge of an accent. "I saw that History Channel special about the Krakow Museum. You won an award last month in Poland."
"You saw that?" Tess asked, startled to know the woman had recognized her.
"Indeed I did. You were given a citation for restoring the rosary of Queen Maria Leszczynska. It had been stolen by Nazi looters and was missing for decades."
"It was?a moment." Tess had felt so proud that night. The only trouble was, she'd been in a room full of strangers. No one was present to witness her triumph. Her mother had promised to come but had to cancel at the last minute, so Tess had accepted the accolades in front of a small camera crew and a cultural minister with sweaty hands.
"The very second I saw your face, I knew you would be the one to find my treasure." Miss Winther's words were slightly startling. "And I'm so pleased that it's you. I specifically requested you."
A pause. Miss Winther's face softened. Perhaps she'd lost her train of thought. Then she said, "Because you're the best. Aren't you?"
"I try my best," Tess assured her. She thought the conversation odd, but in this business, she was accustomed to quirky clients. "This piece was with a group of recovered objects from World War II." Tess fell quiet as she thought of the other pieces?jewelry and art and collectibles. The majority of objects remained in limbo, their original owners long gone. She tried not to imagine the terrible sense of violation so many families had suffered, with Nazis invading their homes, plundering their treasures and probably sending many of the family members off to die. Restoring lost treasures seemed a small thing, but the look on Miss Winther's face was its own reward.
"You've made a miracle happen," she declared. "I was just telling a friend on the phone that we're never too old to appreciate a true miracle."
For a miracle, Tess reflected, the task had entailed a lot of hard work. But the expression on the woman's face made all the research, travel and red tape worthwhile. At her own expense, Tess had paid an expert to meticulously clean every link, baguette and facet of the lavaliere. "This is a copy of the provenance report." She slid the document across the table. "It's basically a history of the piece from its creation to the present, as near as I could trace it to its origins in Russia."
"It's amazing that you were able to find this. When I first contacted your firm, I thought." Her voice trailed off. "How on earth did you do it?"
Working backward through the provenance report, Tess explained the progress of her research. "This piece was found with a collection of treasures seized in Copenhagen. The lavaliere is pink topaz, with gold filigree embellishments. The chain and clasp are original. It was made by a Finnish designer by the name of August Holmstrom. He was the principal jeweler for the house of Faberge."
Miss Winther's eyebrows lifted. "The Faberge?"
"The very one." Taking out her loupe, Tess pointed out a tiny spot on the piece. "This is Holmstrom's hallmark, right here, his initials between a double-headed Imperial eagle. He designed it specifically to foil counterfeiters. This particular piece was first mentioned in his design catalog of 1916 and produced for a fashionable shop in St. Petersburg. It was bought by a member of the Danish diplomatic corps."
"My father. He brought the necklace home from a business trip to Russia, and my mother was seldom without it. Besides her wedding ring, it was her favorite piece ofjewelry. He gave it to her to celebrate my birth. Though she never said so, I suspect she couldn't have more children after me." Her eyes took on a faraway look, and Tess wondered what she was seeing?her handsome father? Her mother, wearing the jewel against her heart?
The stories behind the treasures were always so intriguing, though often bittersweet. The sad ones were particularly hard to bear. There were some cruelties that were simply inconceivable to normal people, some injustices too big to grasp. Miss Winther must have been tiny when her world was ripped apart. How scared she must have been, how confused.
"I wish I could do more than simply restore this object," said Tess. "It wound up with a number of other pieces in a repository in the basement of an abandoned government building. I spent the past year researching the archives. The Gestapo claimed they kept objects for safekeeping. It was a common ploy. The one helpful thing they did was to keep meticulous records of the things they seized."
Here was where things got dicey. How much information did Miss Winther really need? Did she have to know what had likely happened to her parents?
There were facts Tess had no intention of sharing, such as the evidence that Hilde Winther had been seized without authority by a corrupt officer, and probably treated like a sex slave for months before she was put to death. This was the trouble with uncovering the mysteries of the past. Sometimes you ended up discovering things better left buried. Was it preferable to expose the truth at any cost or to protect someone from troubling matters they had no power to change?
"This piece was taken from your mother after she was arrested on suspicion of hiding spies, saboteurs and resistance fighters at Bispebjerg Hospital. According to the arrest report, she was accused of pretending her patients were extremely ill, and she would tend to them until they conveniently disappeared."
Miss Winther caught her breath, then nodded. "That sounds like Mama. She was so very brave. She told me she was a hospital volunteer, but I always knew she was doing something important." Behind her spectacles, the old lady's eyes took on a cold glaze of anger. "My mother was dragged away on a beautiful spring afternoon while I watched."
Tess felt an unbidden shudder of sympathy for the little girl Miss Winther had once been. "I'm so sorry. No child should have to witness that."
Miss Winther held out the necklace, the facets of the large pink topaz catching the light. "Could you?put it on me?" she asked.
"Of course." Tess came around behind her and fastened the clasp of the necklace, feeling the old woman's delicate bone structure. Her hair smelled of lavender, and her dress under the pink shawl was threadbare and faded. Tess felt a surge of emotion. This find was going to change Miss Winther's life. In a single transaction, the old woman could find herself living in the lap of luxury.
Miss Winther reached up, cradling the jewel between her palms. "She was wearing it that day. Even as they were taking her away, she ordered me to run for my life, and that is just what I did. I was very lucky in that moment, or perhaps there had been a tip-off. A boy who was with the Holger Danske?the Danish resistance?spirited me to safety. Such a hero he was, like the Scarlet Pimpernel in the French Revolution, only he was quite real. I wouldn't be here today if not for him. None of us would."
None of us?? Tess wondered who she was referring to. Ghosts from the woman's sad past, probably. She didn't ask, though; she had other appointments on her schedule and couldn't spare the time. And knowing the human cost of the tragedy made Tess feel vulnerable. Still, she was taken by the old lady's sweetness and the air of nostalgia that softened her features when she touched the reclaimed treasure around her neck.
We're both all alone, we two, thought Tess. Had Miss Winther always been alone? Will I always be?
"Well, I'm certainly glad you're here." The old lady's smile was soft and strangely intimate.
"This is the appraisal on the piece. I think you'll be very pleased."
The old lady stared at the document. "It says my mother's la-valiere is worth $800,000."
"It's an estimate. Depending on how the bidding goes, it could vary by about ten percent up or down."
Miss Winther fanned herself. "That's a fortune," she said. "It's more money than I ever dreamed of having."
"And not nearly enough to replace your loss, but it's quite a find. I'm really happy for you." Tess felt a glow of accomplishment and pleasure for Miss Winther. In her frayed shawl, surrounded by old things, she didn't look like a wealthy woman, but soon, she would be.
All the painstaking work of restitution had led to this moment. Tess spread a multipage contract on the table. "Here's the agreement with Sheffield Auction House, my firm. It's standard, but you'll want to go over it with a contracts expert."
A timer dinged, and Miss Winther got up from the table. "The scones are ready. My favorites?I make them with lavender sugar. It's an old Danish recipe for autumn. You sit tight, dear, and I'll fix the tea."
Tess pressed her teeth together and tried not to seem impatient, though she had more appointments and work to do at the office. Honestly, she didn't want a scone, with or without lavender sugar. She didn't want tea. Coffee and a cigarette were more to her taste and definitely more suited to the pace of her life. She'd been running since she'd rocketed out of grad school five years before, and she was in a hurry now. The quicker she brought the signed agreement to her firm, the quicker she earned her bonus and could move on to the next transaction.
However, the nature of her profession often called for forbearance. People became attached to their things, and sometimes letting go took time. Miss Winther had gone to a lot of trouble to make scones. Knowing what she knew about the Winther family, Tess wondered what the woman felt when she reminisced about the old days?fear and privation? Or happier times, when her family had been intact?
As she bustled around her old-fashioned kitchen, Miss Win-ther would pause every so often in front of a little framed mirror by the door, gazing at the necklace with a faraway look in her eyes. Tess wondered what she saw there?her pretty, adored mother? An innocent girl who had no idea her entire world was about to be snatched away?
"Tell me about what you do," Miss Winther urged her, pouring tea into a pair of china cups. "I would love to hear about your life."
"I guess you could say finding treasure is in my blood."
Miss Winther gave a soft gasp, as though Tess's statement surprised her. "Really?"
"My mother is a museum acquisitions expert. My grandmother had an antiques salon in Dublin."
"So you come from a line of independent women."
Nicely put, thought Tess. Her gaze skated away. She wasn't one to chat up a client for the sake of making a deal, but she genuinely liked Miss Winther, perhaps because the woman seemed truly interested in her. "Neither my mother nor my grandmother ever married," she explained. "I'll probably carry on that tradition, as well. My life is too busy for a serious relationship." Gah, Tess, listen to yourself, she thought. Say it often enough and you'll believe it.
"Well. I suspect that's only because the right person hasn't come along?yet. Pretty girl like you, with all that gorgeous red hair. I'm surprised some man hasn't swept you off your feet."
Tess shook her head. "My feet are planted firmly on the ground."
"I never married, either." A wistful expression misted her eyes. "I was in love with a man right after the war, but he married someone else." She paused to admire the stone once again. "It must be so exciting, the work of a treasure hunter."
"It takes a lot of research, which most people would find tedious. So many dead ends and disappointments," said Tess. "Most of my time is spent combing archives and old records and catalogs. It can be frustrating. But so worthwhile when I get to make a restitution like this. And every once in a great while, I might find myself peeling away a worthless canvas to find a Ver-meer beneath. Or unearthing a fortune under a shepherd's hut in a field somewhere. Sometimes it's a bit macabre. The plunder might be stashed in a casket."
Miss Winther shuddered. "That's ghoulish."
"When people have something to hide, they tend to put it where no one would want to look. Your piece wasn't stored in a dramatic hiding place. It was tagged and neatly cataloged, along with dozens of other illegally seized pieces."
Miss Winther arranged the scones just so with a crisp linen napkin in a basket, and brought them to the table.
Tess took a warm scone, just to be polite.
"It sounds as though you like your work," Miss Winther said.
"Very much. It's everything to me." As she said the words aloud, Tess felt a wave of excitement. The business was fast-paced and unpredictable, and each day might bring an adrenaline rush?or crushing disappointment. Tess was having a banner year; her accomplishments were bringing her closer to the things she craved like air and water?recognition and security.
"That sounds just wonderful. I'm certain you'll get exactly what you're looking for."
"In this business, I'm not always sure what that is." Tess sneaked another glance at the clock on the stove.