The Job (Fox and O'Hare #3)(5) by Janet Evanovich, Lee Goldberg

Other times the thief stole the painting intending to immediately ransom it back to the owners or the insurance company. This was perhaps the most common approach, and it often succeeded for the thief. Collectors were often more desperate for the paintings than they were for justice. Once the owners had been contacted, they would make the payoff and keep the FBI in the dark until they got their painting back.

Art was also stolen for collateral. Kate knew that cash-strapped crooks stole enormously valuable paintings to use as collateral in drug and weapons deals. An unframed canvas was like a truck full of gold bars, only much lighter to carry and easier to move across borders. Paintings used like this could bounce around the black market for years without ever ending up on anyone’s wall. When they did turn up, it was as an unexpected find during police raids on gangs, terrorists, or drug and arms dealers.

And there were the made-to-order heists. Some outrageously wealthy and powerful people had shopping lists of famous works of art they wanted for their personal, very private, collections. Once they got their hands on a masterpiece, it would never be seen again. Kate and Nick had recently brought down someone like that in an elaborate sting.

The second motive, and one that was rarely encountered, was ownership. The thief stole the painting for his own collection. Nick was sometimes that kind of thief.

And now that she thought about it, she realized Nick was a unique thief with a third motive. Nick stole because it was fun and exciting, and because he was good at it.

So what was the motive for this heist? The thief had stolen the painting like an amateur acting out of greed, taking something valuable because it was within easy reach. But masquerading as Nick Fox showed a high level of sophistication, and a knowledge of the players in the big leagues of crime. That didn’t fit the greed scenario.

If the painting was stolen for ransom, then the museum had already heard from the thieves, or they would soon. She’d have to keep the key administrators under watch for any suspicious activity.

Someone taking the painting for collateral wouldn’t waste time on creative flourishes like setting up Nick. They cared only about the painting and what it could bring them in a trade. Super-rich people with shopping lists of masterpieces wanted discretion from their thieves and wouldn’t appreciate the glance at the camera, even if it was intended as misdirection. So she ruled out theft-to-order.

If she took money off the table for now, then the only motive left was ownership, which meant the thief was a world-class criminal in the same rarified league as Nick. And that made her wonder if Nick knew more about the crime than he was telling.

“It’s hard for me to feel much sympathy for Big Mike,” FBI Special Agent Maxine Cutler said.

Cutler was driving Kate to the FBI’s Nashville field office, located two miles north of the airport. Cutler had been waiting at the gate when the plane arrived at 8:45 P.M. She was a big-boned woman in her thirties who looked like she could toss a manhole cover as easily as a Frisbee.

“Who’s Big Mike?” Kate asked.

“Michael Gleaberg,” Cutler said. “It’s his museum that got hit. Serves him right. He discovered and managed some of the biggest country music stars of the seventies and eighties and got stinking rich off them. He looked for kids with lots of talent and no education so they’d foolishly sign contracts that gave him everything but their souls. Big Mike made them famous by bribing DJs to play their songs. He was at the center of a huge payola scandal in the late nineties, but the Bureau couldn’t make any charges stick to him.”

They crossed under the I-40 into a neighborhood of warehouses, office buildings, and airport hotels.

“He never greased any palms himself,” Cutler said. “He always had his flunkies do it. So his flunkies got jail time, and his company was fined millions and barred from the record business, but he didn’t care. His clients were already stars, so he was happy to just sit back and rake in his lion’s share of their earnings.”

“Which he spent on art,” Kate said.

“For a reason.” Cutler pulled into the parking lot of a two-story office building. The only things indicating it was a government office were the American and Tennessee flags outside the front door. “The big players on the coasts treated him like a dumb hillbilly. He figured they’d respect a man who had Picassos, Rembrandts, and Matisses hanging in his house.”

“Did it work?”

“Nobody came to see them,” Cutler said. “So he built the museum, put his best stuff in it, and called it the Gleaberg, mimicking the Getty and the Guggenheim.”