‘Their case is far from watertight. But I have to point out that the political climate is in favour of claimants at the moment. Sotheby’s sold thirty-eight such works last year. It sold none a decade earlier.’
She feels electrified, her nerve endings still jangling from the encounter. ‘He’s – they’re not having her,’ she says.
‘But the money. You implied you were stretched already.’
‘I’ll remortgage,’ she says. ‘Is there anything I can do to keep the costs down?’
Henry leans over his desk. ‘If you choose to fight this, there’s a lot you can do. Most importantly, the more you can find out about the painting’s provenance, the stronger position we’ll be in. Otherwise I have to put someone here on to it, and charge you an hourly rate, and that’s without the cost of expert witnesses once we go to court. I suggest that if you can do that we’ll see where we are and I’ll look into instructing a barrister.’
‘I’ll start the search.’
She keeps hearing the certainty of their voices. Our case is very strong. We have a body of precedent that lends weight to our cause. She sees Paul’s face, his fake concern: It is in everybody’s interests for this to be settled amicably.
She sips the whisky, and deflates a little. She feels suddenly very alone. ‘Henry, what would you do? If it were you, I mean.’
He presses his fingertips together and rests them against his nose. ‘I think this is a terribly unfair situation. But, Liv, I would personally be cautious about proceeding to court. These cases can get … ugly. It might be worth your while just thinking further about whether there is any way you could settle.’
She keeps seeing Paul’s face. ‘No,’ she says baldly. ‘He is not having her.’
‘Even if –’
She feels his eyes on her as she gathers up her things and leaves the room.
Paul dials the number for the fourth time, rests his finger above the dial button, then changes his mind and sticks his telephone in his back pocket. Across the road a man in a suit is arguing with a traffic warden, gesticulating wildly as the warden gazes at him impassively.
‘Are you coming for lunch?’ Janey appears at the door. ‘The table is booked for one thirty.’
She must have just applied perfume. It punctures the air, even on his side of his desk. ‘You really need me there?’ He is not in the mood for small talk. He doesn’t want to be charming, to detail the company’s astonishing track record in recovery. He doesn’t want to find himself seated beside Janey, to feel her leaning against him as she laughs, her knee gravitating towards his. More pertinently, he does not like André Lefèvre, with his suspicious eyes and his downturned mouth. He has rarely taken such an instant dislike to a client.
‘Can I ask when you first realized the painting was missing?’ he had asked.
‘We discover it through an audit.’
‘So you didn’t miss it personally?’
‘Personally?’ He had shrugged at the use of the word. ‘Why should someone else benefit financially from a work that should be in our possession?’
‘You don’t want to come? Why?’ says Janey. ‘What else have you got on?’
‘I thought I’d catch up with some paperwork.’
Janey lets her gaze rest on him. She is wearing lipstick. And heels. She does have good legs, he thinks absently.
‘We need this case, Paul. And we need to give André the confidence that we’re going to win.’
‘In that case I think my time would be better spent doing background than having lunch with him.’ He doesn’t look at her. His jaw seems to have set at a mulish angle. He’s been sour with everyone all week. ‘Take Miriam,’ he says. ‘She deserves a nice lunch.’
‘I don’t think our budget stretches to treating secretaries as and when we feel like it.’
‘I don’t see why not. And Lefèvre might like her. Miriam? Miriam?’ He keeps his gaze steadily on Janey’s, leans back in his chair.
She pokes her head around the door, her mouth half full of tuna sandwich. ‘Yes?’
‘Would you like to take my place at a lunch with Monsieur Lefèvre?’
‘Paul, we –’ Janey’s jaw clenches.
Miriam glances between the two of them. She swallows her mouthful. ‘That’s very kind. But …’
‘But Miriam has a sandwich. And contracts to type up. Thank you, Miriam.’ She waits until the door closes, purses her lips in thought. ‘Is everything all right, Paul?’
‘Well.’ She cannot keep the edge from her voice. ‘I see I can’t persuade you. I’ll look forward to hearing what you’ve turned up on the case. I’m sure it’ll be conclusive.’
She stands there a moment longer and then she leaves. He can hear her talking in French with Lefèvre as they head out of the office.
Paul sits and stares ahead of him. ‘Hey, Miriam?’
She reappears, holding a piece of sandwich.
‘Sorry. That was –’
‘It’s fine.’ She smiles, pops a bit of escaping bread back into her mouth, and adds something he cannot decipher. It is not clear whether she heard anything of the previous conversation.
She swallows noisily. ‘Only the head of the Museums Association, like I said before. Do you want me to call him back for you?’
His smile is small and doesn’t stretch as far as his eyes. ‘No, don’t worry.’ He lets her close the door and his sigh, although soft and low, fills the silence.
Liv takes the painting off the wall. She runs her fingers lightly over the oil surface, feeling the graduated whorls and strokes, wondering at the fact that they were placed there by the artist’s own hand, and gazes at the woman on the canvas. The gilded frame is chipped in places, but she has always found it charming; has enjoyed the contrast between what was old and shabbily ornate, and the crisp, clean lines around her. She has liked the fact that The Girl You Left Behind is the only colourful thing in the room, antique and precious, glowing like a little jewel at the end of her bed.
Except now she is not just The Girl, a shared piece of history, an intimate joke between husband and wife. She is now the wife of a famous artist, missing, possibly murdered. She is the last link to a husband in a concentration camp. She is a missing painting, the subject of a lawsuit, the future focus of investigations. She does not know how to feel about this new version: she only knows that she has lost some part of her already.
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